In the days leading up to Pentecost, 2021, the saints at The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are exploring our connection with the ideas about and process involved with reconciliation. How do we know who we are? How do we hear each other? How will we act in this world? Our texts for May 16 included the famous “Great Commission” of Jesus as found in Matthew 28:16-20 as well as a portion of Paul’s note to Philemon.
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I’d like to begin this morning with one of the most iconic scenes in the history of American film, although I recognize that most folks younger than I will have no recollection of this movie. Spartacus is an epic retelling of the story of a slave who became a Gladiator and eventually led a rebellion that became known as the Third Servile War of the Roman Empire. Spartacus empowers a legion of escaped slaves to fight as a unit and they win many battles against the imperial army. Ultimately, however, the power of the Empire prevails and a small band of survivors faces the Romans, who are trying to locate the instigator of the slave revolt. Here is the scene of which I speak:
Even sixty years after its filming there is something overwhelming about watching this group of people who are literally standing up for each other in an attempt to deflect injustice and persecution.
Spartacus was the highest-grossing film of the 1960’s, and it won four Academy Awards as well as the Golden Globe for Best Picture. It featured a stunning array of Hollywood elite, including Director Stanley Kubrick and actors Kirk Douglas, Lawrence Olivier, Tony Curtis, Peter Ustinov, Charles Laughton, John Gavin, and others. To call it a “blockbuster” or an “epic” is no exaggeration.
And yet behind the camera is a story that is equally compelling. The screenwriting credit goes to a man named Dalton Trumbo. That may not be a household name now, but he was one of the most well-known writers in Hollywood a generation or two ago. He wrote a novel entitled Johnny, Get Your Gun, and worked on a number of very successful films in the 1930’s and 1940’s. During World War II, he began receiving unsolicited letters from the Nazi party, which he turned over to the FBI. Instead of looking into the senders of those letters, however, the Federal Government began to keep tabs on Mr. Trumbo.
In 1947, Trumbo and nine other prominent Hollywood personalities were summoned before the House UnAmerican Activities Committee, where they refused to testify against each other or anyone else in the film industry. Trumbo served a year in a Federal Penitentiary and upon his release, like hundreds of others, was blacklisted and unable to work in Hollywood.
He continued to write, though, and two films that he wrote won the Academy Award for best story – yet he was forced to publish them under an assumed name and was barred from receiving the Oscars. When Kirk Douglas and the rest of the star power behind Spartacus decided to make their movie, they insisted that Trumbo write under his own name, and thereby they provided him with an opportunity to regain his name, his vocation, his identity, and his personhood. Another prominent American, President John F. Kennedy, lent his support to those voices when on February 4, 1961 he walked into a theater through a crowd of American Legion members who were protesting the movie, thereby endorsing the anti-slavery film that spelled the end of Hollywood’s black-listing.
And you might think that this is mildly interesting, but wonder why I’m taking your time with it since, after all, it is literally ancient history. That’s a great question. This month, we are considering what it means to be a follower of Jesus in times of conflict, pain, and upheaval. We wonder how it’s possible to relate to each other and the larger world when there appears to be so much that divides us.
Two weeks ago, we observed Jesus squatting in the dirt with a woman who’d been brought before him. He refused to shame or objectify either her or her accusers, and in so doing helped us to see the importance of beginning sensitive conversations in a spirit of confession and humility.
Last week we learned from an illiterate peasant who has become known as Saint Isidore the importance of listening more, talking less, and realizing that each of us is a unique child, carefully crafted in the Divine image.
This morning’s Gospel is one of the most familiar passages in all of scripture, sometimes called “the Great Commission”. Historically, the folks who play for our team have heard the words, “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations…”, and we’ve interpreted that as a call to subjugate or conquer those who are different; we’ve seen this as a commandment to try to make other people more like us.
And yet the command of Jesus is both extensive (meaning that the invitation is for all creation) and intensive (meaning that it is for each of us). I intentionally selected this passage so that we might see the sequence of the past three weeks clearly, and recognize that we have no right to say anything about what we intend to preach, teach, or impose on someone else unless we move through a process that is rooted in humility, begins to speak in confession, relies more on listening than it does on speaking, and honors the Divine image in other people.
These verses from Matthew are often used in an evangelistic context. By that I mean that we have seen them as a means by which we invite or encourage or force other people to accept a set of truths or a philosophy that we deem to be true. We say, “Accept Jesus as Lord and Savior, and you will become a Christian like I am a Christian. I know what is true, and I will tell you that truth.”
I’d suggest that for Jesus and the early church, though, “evangelism” was not the proclamation of a series of ideas, but rather a demonstration of God’s intent for the world. The “Good News” was not a set of intellectual propositions, but an invitation to join in the pursuit of that intent by engaging in a community that is based on humility, an awareness of the dangers of the ego, and the importance of listening to and honoring others. This community, as lived by Jesus, was known for its attentiveness to those who were on the margins.
An example of how that looked comes from the shortest letter of Paul that we have on record – a 435 word note that he wrote to his friend Philemon. Paul has been imprisoned and comes across Onesimus, a slave who has run away from Philemon’s household. Under Roman law, one who encountered a runaway slave had a legal obligation to “produce him in public”, and then to return that slave to his master after punishing him severely. In addition, the one who harbored an escaped slave was financially responsible for each day’s labor that was lost.
Paul, in returning Onesimus with this note, is acknowledging that he has therefore violated the laws of Rome. More than that, he asks his friend to not only forgive the slave, but to set aside the debt that Paul himself had incurred. In doing so, he reminds Philemon of his own status – that Philemon “owes” Paul a great deal. I hope you can see, even in this short reading, that Paul uses his position, his credibility, his influence to advocate for Onesimus – someone who, legally speaking, was a non-entity.
According to the ancient historians, Philemon evidently paid attention to his old friend, because Onesimus was freed and began to participate so fully in the life of faith that he rose to the position of Bishop in the city of Ephesus, where in AD 95 he was imprisoned and martyred by Emperor Domitian for the crime of following Jesus.
So now we have Spartacus, Jesus’ last words, and a first-century letter that flouts the laws of ancient Rome. What are we saying for today?
In recent years we’ve seen the rise of a term and a concept that fits into these parameters. Perhaps you’ve heard about the idea of acting as an “ally”.
An ally is someone who becomes aware of oppression or difficulty experienced by a marginalized group and who then enters into the struggle in a way that recognizes the dignity and humanity of the members of that group and who acts to support that group in meaningful ways.
Paul recognized that as an apostle, a citizen of Rome, and a public figure in the early church that he had received a number of advantages, resources, and opportunities to which Onesimus would have no access. And so Paul spent time with Onesimus. He heard him. He believed him. And then Paul used whatever advantages he enjoyed on behalf of Onesimus. Paul was, quite literally, an ally for Onesimus.
What does that look like in the 21st century USA? We sit at an intersection of time and space that affords us an incredible awareness of the fact that we are so different. We cannot help but acknowledge that our experiences and our resources have been neither parallel nor equal. This knowledge invites us to take a number of concrete steps that can not only make us into more faithful followers of Jesus and better human beings, but can help to re-shape the world in which the next generations will grow.
Can we commit to learning more about how things got to be the way that they are? This will mean each of us spending our own time and energy reflecting on the ways that we have both inherited and participated in systems that may be oppressive and unequal.
We who enjoy some level of advantage and power can learn how to amplify the voices of those whose cries have been suppressed. I do this not by presuming to speak for other people or groups, but by using whatever privilege or authority I have to encourage those who are vulnerable to tell their own stories.
Each of us, but particularly those who have traditionally benefitted from the status quo, have the obligation to look for ways to modify our own behavior. For me, that has been a combination of things. For instance, I have a new respect for the importance of personal pronouns. I’m trying to listen to the people around me in an effort to learn how they’d like to be known. I’m learning new words – not with the intention of shaming myself or anyone else, but with the goal of seeking to know others as they’d like to be known.
I’m trying to shop in ways that maximize the ability of creators and producers to determine their own futures. That means participating in fair trade where I can, and in trying to be intentional about supporting businesses that are more directly beneficial to populations who have been excluded in the past.
You’ve seen in an airport or a train station a sign that reminds us “if you see something, say something.” In those contexts, the warning is to be on the lookout for suspicious activity that can lead to mass casualties. “If you see something, say something” is also great advice for those who wish to live as allies. When I’m in a room where someone makes a comment that is harmful, I have the ability to call them out on it. An ally does not depend on the marginalized to do all the work in recognizing insensitivity or systemic oppression.
And I’ve been learning that it’s not my job to announce to the world that I, the great and wonderful Pastor Dave, am an ally. That’s not my job, and “ally” is not a label one can give to oneself. The call of scripture is that we are to act in these ways. We’ll know it’s working when people feel safe enough to share their pain and frustration with you. The ancient prophet Isaiah worded it like this:
I’ll tell you what it really means to worship the Lord.
Remove the chains of prisoners who are chained unjustly.
Free those who are abused! Share your food with everyone who is hungry;share your home with the poor and homeless.
Give clothes to those in need; don’t turn away your relatives.
Then your light will shine like the dawning sun, and you will quickly be healed.
Your honesty will protect you as you advance, and the glory of the Lord will defend you from behind.
Here’s the deal: any understanding of a theology of incarnation, or any reading of the Gospel of Jesus Christ will show that in all the wisdom of eternity, the second person of the Trinity recognized a number of significant advantages that he enjoyed. Jesus the Christ, according to scripture, set aside some of those advantages and used others for the benefit of a creation that was crying out.
Among the last words Jesus speaks in the Gospel of Matthew are “Go, therefore…” That word, “therefore”, in Greek is a small one. We might pronounce it as “OUN” , and I’ll suggest that it begins this great commission with an idea that could be understood as saying, “Go – like this”, or “Go – because this is the way in which I was sent”, or “Go – because now it is your turn to act as you have been trained to act”.
Our world is so divided! Look at the lines we’ve drawn – around our race, our gender, our sexual identities, our politics, our economics, our ages… If we look at those lines long enough, we might be tempted to forget that the eternal presence of Jesus Christ is not, nor has it ever been divided. God forbid that the Church – the body of Christ present on earth – would become divided or remain in a state of division.
None of us are perfect. And nobody’s going to get it right all the time. But as we think about the people we will be in a post-pandemic world, and as we consider the call of Jesus to demonstrate the intentions of God wherever we are, we might perhaps summarize our goal of becoming allies by living in such a way that gives credence to these words that are often attributed to John Wesley, an English Pastor who led a revival movement that became the Methodist Church:
Do all the good you can,
By all the means you can,
In all the ways you can,
In all the places you can,
At all the times you can,
To all the people you can,
As long as ever you can.
Thanks be to God, who gives us to and for each other and the world. Amen.