Could Be Beautiful

Jesus watched Satan fall like lightning. What do you do when Satan stands up and dusts himself off? It is my tradition to preach a political sermon on the Sunday around July 4. Remember, political means how we live together, whereas partisan means one party over another. It is the tradition to poke and afflict the comfortable on this day, so you’ve been warned.

What do you do when you see evil on the rise? Do you take to social media and post a fiery meme? Do you tell the opposition what you really think of them? It might feel good, but it doesn’t solve anything. It’s just noise. It’s all feedback and reaction, there’s no melody or hope in doing those things, of which I’m guilty. I like to shoot off my mouth, but I’m finding that it isn’t helpful nor does it do anything.

For me, I look to Jesus when evil is on the rise. In today’s reading, he appoints seventy people, pairs them up, and sends them off like lambs into the midst of wolves. He tells them to carry no purse, no bag, no sandals. Be a good guest, eating and drinking whatever the host provides. And do what good you can while you stay there. What is Jesus doing to his poor, hapless disciples? He’s getting his disciples to travel and see the world. And they come home in joy! “Lord, in your name even the evil spirits submit to us!” They are totally surprised. And there it is…. In the surprise, we can learn.

My whole childhood, I saw a war on poverty, a war on drugs, a war on terrorism, and war on whatever… it’s the only metaphor we have. We’re such a warring culture, but Jesus is not on the wolf side, he sends us out like lambs. In each of these wars, are we better off now? We have overdoses and alcoholism on the rise, lock down drills in our schools, and mass shootings have only increased. The wage gap has increased. We can’t house people, can’t pay a living wage, and God forbid you get sick or old because we can’t afford that either.

But that’s just how it is. What can we do about it? It’s all hopeless, we can’t change anything, it’s just how things are. Theologian Rob Bell diagnoses this way of thinking as, “the real crisis at the heart of humanity is a lack of imagination.”[1] I think Jesus gets right to the heart of things with what he does today.

Jesus sends people out in pairs. Once again, Jesus does nothing alone. He is always with a crowd, always working in community. Christianity is a team sport. His disciples may have never been beyond a five-mile radius of where they grew up. There are these ruts, these ways we’ve been doing things for thousands of years and they provide some comfort and security, but they also keep us in the same old cycles of prejudice, violence, and revenge. What is needed is imagination to break us out. New ideas, new visions, new movements of the Spirit to break us out of the same ol’ same ol’.

It seems as though if we can’t shoot or bomb a problem, we don’t know how to solve it. This is the myth of redemptive violence. Theologian Rene Girard details this myth in his book I See Satan Fall Like Lightning.[2] This myth that’s been around forever is the belief that when someone wrongs you, you wrong them. They hit us, we hit them. They bomb us, we bomb them. But surprisingly, this almost never, ever makes things better.  What the myth of redemptive violence does is keep violence in circulation. Violence is never redemptive. It’s just a back and forth like a tennis match from hell, and no one learns anything. That’s the heart of things, a lack of learning. A lack of new thinking. A lack of imagination.

The revolutionary truth at the heart of the Jesus story is that God would rather die than keep violence in circulation. Jesus is executed for insisting that there are other ways to change the world than violence. Love. Solidarity. Peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Welcoming the outcast. Praying for your enemies. And we humiliate him and kill him for it, mocking him the whole time. And he says, “Forgive them for they know not what they do.”

And we don’t. We don’t know what we’re doing, often we’re just repeating what we’ve been told. Yet travel breaks us out of our comfort zones. I was told growing up that only Catholics are going to heaven, the rest are going to hell. I believed that… until I met some folks from different faiths and different branches of Christianity. I was told that all divorced women are going to hell, but as a child of one… Well, I started to see how when the church condemns people to hell, it’s just the myth of redemptive violence in theological drag. It’s the same lack of imagination that Jesus came to counter. God’s Good News is that the kingdom is near! Evil spirits will flee at the sound of his name. Your names are written in heaven! Yet here many pulpits are condemning whole swaths of humanity to hell and torment and judgment.

Jesus sends folks out into the world in pairs. They are completely dependent on their hosts. He doesn’t provide a lot of training here either, his instructions are few and the impetus is on the pair to figure things out in their context. The disciples have to be adaptable in their situations. He sends them to cure the sick and tell that God’s kingdom has come near. No rebuke. No condemnation to hell. If they don’t receive you, walk on.

I take this to mean that we cannot treat adaptive challenges like technical fixes. A technical fix is something like changing a light bulb or patching drywall. If you can find it on YouTube, odds are it’s a technical fix. An adaptive challenge requires learning. There is no silver bullet. There’s no Five Point Plan or instruction manual that will fix the condition we’re in. We cannot shoot or bomb our way out of it. Even if we could, that technical fix only brings violence back to us, and does it really fix anything? No. Jesus instructs them in the basics, and they… we… have to figure out the rest. Cure the sick. Tell of God’s good news. Take no baggage. Walk on.

The disciples got a little instruction and then they had to listen, learn, and adapt. We’re in that stage again. The old ways of church are ending. We have to take the values we have and adapt programs to meet the needs of the present day. We must listen, learn, and adapt.

Especially when it comes to divisive issues. We’re in a divided time. We think we might know the narrative, but we don’t. I used to think all Christians believed and behaved a certain way. Then I found the UCC. I was taught all my life that Christians were anti-science. Yet the former moderator at my last church wrote an equation that is in the standard model of physics. He wrote the math of how the universe went from liquid hot plasma to transparent. It’s good to listen to such a guy, especially when he wants to put solar panels on the church roof. It was a great move! It worked out well for that church.

The more hot button the issue, the more listening is needed. The church has long overstepped and participated in redemptive violence, stating whole swaths of people are going to hell without ever listening to their stories, their heartbreak, or their perspectives. In the wake of last week’s news… I’ve listened to teachers and gun owners. I’ve listened to women. To LGBTQ+ folk who fear for their marriage. I’ve learned a lot of how others are going through life. What they hope for and what they fear. I’ve listened to young people who think the church is irrelevant to their lives, and they’re not entirely wrong. Yet the need for community and formation and mentoring is needed, and they’re not finding it easily at churches.

For here’s the vision I have: We are a place that has those conversations together. We use simple ways and simple words to point out that the kingdom of God has come near. We speak less of hell and condemning others to that half-acre, and more time talking about heaven and the fruits of the spirit. We listen. We learn. We try new things. We do this because this place can be beautiful. Our Whole Lives are beautiful and blessed by God and they are so, so short. A moment spent on violence and revenge are moments lost and gone forever. Wasted. A day where we haven’t learned something new is a day wasted. But nothing done in love is wasted, not a second, not a nanosecond. More love. Less hate. For the world is like this poem I am paraphrasing entitled Lovely Bones by Maggie Smith

Life is short, though I keep this from my children.
Life is short, and I’ve shortened mine in a thousand delicious, ill-advised ways,
a thousand deliciously ill-advised ways I’ll keep from my children.
The world is at least fifty percent terrible, and that’s a conservative estimate, though I keep this from my children.
For every bird there is a stone thrown at a bird.
For every loved child, a child broken…
Life is short and the world is at least half terrible,
and for every kind stranger, there is one who would break you,
though I keep this from my children.
I am trying to sell them the world.
Any decent Realtor, walking you through a real [dump],
chirps on about good bones:
This place could be beautiful, right?
You could make this place beautiful.

Through listening, in community, and leaning into learning, we could make this place beautiful. Right?

Works Cited

[1] Everything is Spiritual, page 142.

[2] Orbis Books, 2001

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