Growth Plans

Notes from
Second Sunday in Lent, February 25, 2018  
Texts:  Genesis 17, Mark 8

Jesus’ strategic plan seems weak in Mark, with a strong start but disaster finish. Mark starts without Christmas, and ends without Easter.  John the Baptizer bursts on the scene, then Jesus, each wildly effective, drawing big crowds.  The Baptizer is arrested in chapter 1, beheaded soon after, but Jesus thrives longer.

Just as Peter confesses Jesus is the Messiah, and just after Transfiguration, still successful in Galilee, Jesus predicts his own passion and death openly, clearly, three times, in c8:31, c9:31, c10:33.  When Peter protests, Jesus gets mad!  Poor Peter – just when he thought he ‘got it’, the whole thing goes sideways!

What does it mean to grow? As a child of God, or as a people of God, as individuals maturing or a community in its own life cycle, what is ‘growth’?  My mother kept thinking I would grow up, but I graduated high school at 5’1” with all my clothes too big for my short arms and legs.

The Olympics end today, with their motto Citius, Altius, Fortius, ‘Faster, Higher, Stronger’.  A cross-track skier arrested for drunken joyriding in a stolen Hummer shows that human weaknesses persist.  Our culture reminds us you can never be too rich, too thin, or too blonde, and the smartest guy in the room rules.  The one who dies with the most toys wins?  Is Monopoly good life training?

To be all God made us to be, and to do all God made us to do, may not require competing this way, at least not in a zero-sum win/lose gaming model.  This season, the biblical or at least my preaching themes are of covenant:

I’ll be your God, you be my people
Love God, love people
Do not do to others, what not want done you

That last one is Hillel, not a misquote of Jesus.  Any religion worth its salt is going to have some version of a Golden Rule.  But that does not mean that we can all be reduced to ‘the same thing’.  How can we understand covenants that are not excluding, demeaning, or purporting to replace and improve on others?

The Adamic covenant in Genesis is part of our common creation myth.  All humans are included in one kind, told to be fruitful and multiply, and to care for the earth.  Kayin and Hevel, the first siblings, turn difference into a motive for murder.  Seth, afterthought child of H’adam and Heva, is Noah’s ancestor.

The human condition, ‘east of Eden’, is mortality, and labour.  We labour to give birth, from conception to childbirth to nurture, and to get food from earth by the sweat of our brow. We tell stories of building cities, using tools – Nimrod, mighty hunter, or giants walking the earth.  But we are mortal, and we labour.
Competing myths claimed that different Gods, using different soils, created ‘our’ human race and other ‘non-human’ ones to be fought.  Sapolsky  points to evolutionary traces in how talk of Hutu cockroaches in Rwanda or Jewish vermin in Germany triggered physical revulsion and genocidal rage.  Our Adamic myth counters those deeply ingrained tendencies, affirming one human covenant. 

The Noahic covenant we heard last week is our version of the flood myth, imagining that any human is descended from one or more of Shem, Ham, and Japeth, ancestors of tribes and peoples northeast, southwest, or north of Canaan, or our Asia, Africa, and ‘Middle East’.  

Be fruitful and multiply, under a rainbow sign of mercy, a disarmed bow pointing away from us, rather than a threatening arrow aimed at us.  Eat meat, since God concedes the violence in human hearts, and ferment wine, to make Noah drunk.  Using Ham’s curse to justify slavery of Africans is a big stretch!
The Abrahamic covenant we reach today is the first non-universal one, but still shared with Judaism and Islam.  Abram fears he will die without sons, and his steward Eliezer of Damascus will inherit.  God promises different: first Ishmael, born of Hagar, the first Arab, and Yitzak, born of Sarah, father of Jacob Israel.

Av Hamon Goyyim – Abraham – is exceedingly fruitful, father of nations.  Ishmael, though exiled by Sarah, prospers at Mecca, building the Kaabah with Abraham, and his 12 sons are princes, the Arabs.  Isaac’s son Esav fathers Edom, and Jacob through 4 women fathers 12 tribes of Israel, the Jews.  

To cut this covenant in c.15, Abram cuts 3 beasts and 2 birds, but in c.17, he is circumcised at age 99, along with 13 year old Ishmael , and in turn at 8 days, so is Yitzak.  Ishmael and Yitzak together bury Abraham – a covenant for one does not mean rejection of the other.  God loves all of Adam’s, Noah’s human descendants, and all Arabs and all Jews, and in turn extends covenant to us. 

Christian tradition struggles with our place in relation Abraham’s children, and our anti-Semitic interpretations are as wrong as the exclusive, supremacist, or supersessionist versions of Judaism or Islam.  One covenant does not displace the other, or love for one child of God mean rejection of another. That would be like the more primal dehumanizing of non-Abrhamic peoples.

I can read Romans , Galatians, Ephesians, and Hebrews texts about Abrahamic covenant in Christian scriptures to complement the concurrent validity of the covenants of Judaism and Islam.  Different need not mean better.  One covenant need not trump another. If I’m in, you need not be out.  Whatever ‘saved’ means, it need not require that you be damned!

Surah Al Baqarah, ‘The Cow’, is the second, and the longest, surah in my Quran.  Particularly from 2-124, it deals with the concurrence of Abraham, Ishmael, and Isaac, of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.  It provides the basis for centuries of Arabic empires tolerating Christians or Jews better than we did, or do, Muslims.

Malcolm X found Quran convincing in welcoming him into its identity, compared to his experience of white Christian America.  He converted Cassius Clay with the same welcome to his Nation of Islam, as Muhammad Ali, and black Muslims in America survived.  Malcolm X died February 21, 1965, assassinated at age 39.

If I’m a black nationalist, marginalized and dismissed as a political fringe, said Malcolm X, then Billy Graham is a white nationalist.  Graham died just last week, February 21, 2018, of natural causes, age 99.  I claim that each, and both, offer light for the world, and glory to their people, re-presenting God and humanity.

What if we in our turn, individually and in community, are called by God to a specific covenant, within the universal Adamic and Noahic human ones, to such personal choices and public witness, to re-present God and humanity? What if we can be light for the world, glory for our people, with pride and a legacy?

My persistent talk of re-presenting, or Christ Representative, comes from the title of Dorothee Soëlle’s text on the doctrine of atonement. It convinced me 40 years ago of the possibility of an alternative to the blood sacrifice theory of Anselm, and the anti-Semitic Christianity complicit in the Holocaust.  Listen to it, this idea of “at-one-ment” of specific identifications within common humanity.
The goal may not be for us to grow numbers again in our denomination, or congregation, or Protestant movement within global Christianity.  God forbid we become univocal or uniform.  We need a new sense of ‘ut omnes unum sint’, the motto of the United Church of Canada, and we are sincerely seeking it. 

Eisenhower used to say “In preparing for battle, I have found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensible”.  I can’t give you an organizational chart or a set of propositions to our new covenant.  We repented our role in ‘None is Too Many’ rejection of Jewish refugees in the 1930’s.  ‘Mending the World’ in this century began our dialogue with Islam, and with Muslim neighbours.

Ours has been a “white settler creed”.  We taught a version of the story of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, of Moses, Joshua and Judges, that justified our colonial emigration from Europe, and our militant violent immigration and displacement of first nations in America. We repent by rewriting our story.

My naming and taming of the risks of my privilege, my confessing of our abuse of power in abuse of vulnerable women and children, and in residential schools, is not simply a litany of shame.  I am proud of the peculiar covenant of our early Methodist settler roots, of our liberalism through the last century, and more recent efforts to find intercultural intersectional identities.

I confess that we talk the talk better than we walk the walk.  We need to hear Jesus challenge to lose our lives, rather than trying to save them.  We need to ask again and again, what would it mean for us to grow, as individuals, as a congregation of ‘Trinity on Church’, and as  part of a much wider church.  We closed today, once again, with the words of our 1986 Apology to First Nations:

1986 Apology to First Nations
General Council  United Church of Canada

Long before my people journeyed to this land
your people were here,
and you received from your Elders
an understanding of creation
and of the Mystery that surrounds us all
that was deep, and rich, and to be treasured.

We did not hear you when you shared your vision.
In our zeal to tell you of the good news of Jesus Christ
we were closed to the value of your spirituality.

We confused Western ways and culture
with the depth and breadth and length and height
of the gospel of Christ.

We imposed our civilization
as a condition of accepting the gospel.

We tried to make you be like us
and in so doing we helped to destroy the vision
that made you what you were.

As a result, you, and we, are poorer
and the image of the Creator in us is twisted, blurred,
and we are not what we are meant by God to be.

We ask you to forgive us and to walk together with us
in the Spirit of Christ
so that our peoples may be blessed
and God's creation healed.