Finder’s Keepers?

On August 5, the saints at Crafton Heights commissioned a group of young people for service and partnership with our friends and colleagues at the Wright Memorial Presbyterian Church, located in the territory of the Seneca Nation of Indians in Western New York.  That prompted me to want to explore the notion of “discovery”, and that of “privilege”, and how in the world these things were connected to our experience.  Our texts for the day included Luke 16:19-31 and Micah 2:1-10.

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OK, let’s see who paid attention in school. Does the name Isaac Newton mean anything to anyone?  Sure! He is credited with the discovery of the Law of Gravity in 1666.

How about Joseph Priestly? This one may be a little tougher, but Priestly is one of the men acknowledged as the discoverer of oxygen. His findings were made public in 1774.

In the interest of gender equity, let me ask you about Marie Curie. Does anyone remember why she rose to prominence?  She is credited with the discovery of radiation and radioactivity in 1898.

Each of these people is listed as a “discoverer”.  In this context, the word “discover” means “to be the first to find or observe”.  And in these cases, it is arguably true.  Somehow, Newton, Priestly, and Curie quantified or pointed to some phenomenon that was not known or understood by the people of their times.  Of course, they didn’t “invent” gravity, or oxygen, or radiation – they simply pointed to them and described them.

Let’s try another: do you recognize this man? Christopher Columbus. And what is he famous for? Well, we were all taught that in 1492 Columbus sailed the ocean blue… and he “discovered” America, right?

But wait – how could he claim to be the discoverer of a place that had between 50 and 100 million people here already?  How can anyone say that he “found” this place, and thereby “claimed” it for a king in Europe when there were already hundreds of people groups and communities thriving here upon his arrival?

Let’s try that notion of “discovery” in other contexts.  How would it be if you left worship today and went outside and found that your car was missing?  Would your first reaction be, “Hey, golly! I guess someone ‘discovered’ my Chevy this morning!  Good for them…”  Have your purse, or wallet, or keys ever been “discovered” by someone else?  Doesn’t feel too good, does it?

A few years ago I saw a greeting card that read, “This year, I’m going to celebrate Columbus Day the old-fashioned way.  I’m going to take the bus across town, find a house that I like, kick the current owners out, move in, and take all their stuff.”

Common sense will tell you, “Hey, you can’t do that! People have rights!”

Of course they do. All people have rights.  So the only time when you can do things like is when you do them to those who are not really people.

That’s the justification that much of Western Civilization has used for the past five hundred years.  In 1452, as much of Europe was getting pretty excited about the idea of vast quantities of land and resources of which it had previously been unaware, Pope Nicholas V wrote that it was the sacred duty and obligation for Christians to

“…invade, search out, capture, vanquish, and subdue all Saracens and pagans whatsoever, and other enemies of Christ wheresoever placed, and the kingdoms, dukedoms, principalities, dominions, possessions, and all movable and immovable goods whatsoever held and possessed by them and to reduce their persons to perpetual slavery, and to apply and appropriate to himself and his successors the kingdoms, dukedoms, counties, principalities, dominions, possessions, and goods, and to convert them to his and their use and profit.”[1]

The leader of the Christian church said that anyone who wasn’t a European Christian wasn’t really a person at all, and so it was important for Christian people to find ways to use their stuff that would make God happy.  That line of thinking became a part of our American story in many ways, not the least of which was a decision by the US Supreme Court in 1823, which read, in part,

[T]he character and religion of [the New World’s] inhabitants afforded an apology for considering them as a people over whom the superior genius of Europe might claim an ascendancy. To leave them in possession of their country was to leave the country a wilderness …

[A]griculturalists, merchants, and manufacturers, have a right, on abstract principles, to expel hunters from [their] territory …

The potentates of the Old World … made ample compensation to the inhabitants of the new, by bestowing upon them civilization and Christianity.[2]

Perhaps you are familiar with the portions of the US Constitution that spell this out – pun intended – in black and white, indicating that slaves and other persons of color were to be counted as 60% of a real person for the government’s purposes.

To put it plainly, the recognized policy of the church and law of the land for half a millennia, at least, was to say that anyone who didn’t look like me was in some way or another sub-human, and therefore did not really deserve the same treatment as a person such as me might expect.

I hope that when I state it so plainly that you say, “No way, Dave! That stands in complete opposition to the Bible!  Didn’t you hear what Micah said about taking the things that belonged to others, or expelling women and children from their homes?  We’re not supposed to do that!”

That’s the line of thinking taken up in St. Louis earlier this summer when the Presbyterian Church (USA) officially repudiated and condemned what has been called “The Doctrine of Discovery”.  In an overwhelming vote, the Presbyterian Church denounced these and other statements that laid the groundwork for the suppression, oppression, and removal of Native American people and other persons of color.  We said that it was wrong to say that just because a place didn’t have anyone like me in it it was “empty” or “unknown” and therefore it was ours for the taking.

And some of my friends said, “Great.  It’s about time.  Now what are you going to do with those horrible parts of the Bible that claim the same thing?  Have you read Exodus, or Numbers, or Deuteronomy?  Isn’t that what the Jews did to the Canaanites?  They walked into someone else’s home and said, “God told me that this all belongs to me now, so, see you later…”

I can only say that I’m stumped by that.  I just don’t know.  I can say that those who were trying to follow God 4000 years ago did not have the whole story.  They had a few visions and a couple of great leaders, but they didn’t have access to the prophecy or the preaching of Jeremiah or Isaiah.  The person and work of Jesus and the witness of the early church was, of course, unknown to them.   It seems to me that the Doctrine of Discovery was based on an application of certain aspects of the Old Testament that categorically ignored the pleas of the prophets and the Passion of the Savior.

And as a 58 year old male with British heritage, there is something about all of this “Discovery” conversation that makes me feel uncomfortable.  I have a difficult time knowing what to do with decisions that were made hundreds of years before I was born.  Yes, what Columbus did was wrong.  And slavery was bad.  And so was the internment of American Citizens during World War II and on and on and on.  That was all horrible.

But really – it’s not my fault.  If I could undo it, I would.  But I can’t. So what am I supposed to do?

Can I learn from it?

Pittsburgh, March 18, 1936

Listen: in a couple of hours, we’re going to be taking a few carloads of kids from Western Pennsylvania up to the Seneca Nation reservation in New York.  Every single one of these young people has grown up in an area that was stabilized and enriched by the flood protections on the Allegheny River.  A hundred years ago, that river was cause for uncertainty. Lives and commerce were at risk as seasonal floods made development difficult and uncertain.  On St. Patrick’s Day, 1936, a flood hit Pittsburgh and destroyed 100,000 buildings, closed the steel mills, and forced the layoffs of an estimated 60,000 mill workers.

That prompted the US Congress to pass the Flood Control Acts of 1936 and 1938, which directed the US Army Corps of Engineers to install a series of locks and dams on the Allegheny river.  The crowning achievement of this act was the creation of the Kinzua Dam on the northernmost part of the river.  As a result of that dam, Pittsburgh grew to achieve unparalleled success in industry and stability.

Demolition of Seneca property to make way for the Kinzua Dam

But there was a cost.  The Seneca Nation of Indians lost one-third of the land that had been granted to them by the treaty of 1794, signed by President Washington. The Seneca lost some of their best farmland, burial grounds, and hundreds of people lost their homes.

Nobody in this room voted for that.  But everyone here has benefitted from it.  And our young people need to be aware of some of this history as we go to listen to the stories of the Seneca this week.  It’s not our fault that those lands were taken seventy years ago.  But something of what is good in our lives is here because they were.  We can’t forget that.

Lazarus and Dives, illustration from the Codex Aureus of Echternach (1030 – 1050)

The Gospel lesson for today brings us the story of a man who was fantastically wealthy.  We’re told of his extravagance in that he wore purple every day, not just on holidays; he feasted every day, not just on special occasions.  This man was fantastically wealthy.

But his wealth was not his problem.  His sin was not that he was rich – his sin was rooted in something that he did not do.

At the gate of his home was a poor man whose name, Lazarus, means “God is my help”.  And, I suppose, it’s a good thing that God helped him because the rich man paid him no mind whatsoever. The rich man was simply unable to see Lazarus.

In fact, even after he died, the rich man could not bring himself to see Lazarus as a human being.  In his misery, the rich man cried out to Abraham, saying “send Lazarus on these errands to help me out…”  He didn’t get it!  Lazarus was fully human, but the rich man could only see him as a resource, an agent given to serve the whim of the rich man.  In reality, though, Abraham affirms Lazarus’ humanity and celebrates the fact that Lazarus’ life has purpose and meaning.

I hear the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus, and I remember the connections between the Seneca Nation and the people of Pittsburgh, and I wonder… have we gotten any better at recognizing the humanity of those around us?  Are there parts of our stories that continue to dehumanize others?

For the Youth Group kids who were a part of last year’s mission trip to Cherokee, North Carolina and who will leave today for another, does it mean anything at all that the National Football League’s fifth-most valuable franchise – the one based in Washington DC – is named after a racist slur?

All of us live in an era of increasing polarization and a diminishment of our shared humanity.  In many of our lifetimes, we’ve watched as Nazis called Jews, Gypsies, and homosexuals “rats” and called for their “extermination”.  Prior to the genocide in 1994, Rwandan Hutus called rival Tutsis “cockroaches.”  A few months ago comedian Roseann Barr lost her job for calling another woman the child of an ape, and that was only a few weeks after the President of the United States called immigrant gang members “animals”.  Just prior to that, the cover of the New YorkMagazine had a photo which depicted the President as a pig.

Are we so in love with our ideas and so afraid of the encounters we might have with others that we lose our ability to love those whose ideas and identities are different from our own?

The charge for this week – for the youth group team and for all of us – is to seek to learn from what has come before so that we can be better people in the days to come.  Can we dedicate ourselves to hearing the stories of the “other”, and to promise to look for the spark of the Divine Image in all people?  Can we refuse to demonize and dehumanize, and instead seek to honor and call forth our best selves?

Are we always going to agree? Of course not.  And there are some despicable actions done by those with horrific intent.  But nobody wins if we denigrate those with whom we disagree by calling them sub-human.

And, by the way, I didn’t discover this idea.  I didn’t invent it.  I found it when I started following a carpenter from Nazareth who invited those around him to love their neighbors, to break down walls, and to seek to bless those who are on the margins.  The thing is, he told me I couldn’t keep it.  He told me I had to give it away.  So…I just did.

Thanks be to God.  Amen.

[1]As quoted in “The Doctrine of Discovery”,  The Christian Century 4/20/15 (https://www.christiancentury.org/blogs/archive/2015-04/doctrine-discovery)

[2]From Johnson v. McIntosh, (1823), quoted in https://newsmaven.io/indiancountrytoday/archive/because-the-bible-tells-me-so-manifest-destiny-and-american-indians-762x1fEsrky5-1Gq0pDj7w/

Previews of Coming Attractions

The people at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are spending much of 2017-2018 in an exploration of the Gospel of Mark. On the first Sunday of May in 2018, we considered the story of John the Baptist’s gruesome death at the hands of Herod Antipas, the reasons that Mark may have had for including it, and how that matters to the church in the 21st century.  Our texts were Mark 6:30-44 and Hebrews 13:1-3.

To hear this sermon as preached in worship, please visit the player below, or paste https://castyournet.files.wordpress.com/2018/05/sermon05-06-2018.mp3 into your browser window.

As we continue our study of Mark’s gospel, you will be forgiven if you find this reading hard to accept.  After all, it seems so far-fetched, doesn’t it?  Who could think the powerful leader of an entire nation – a nation that saw itself as an example of moral purity, and whose leader enjoyed the complete support of the nation’s religious conservatives – who could even imagine that a leader such as that might be involved in multiple marriages, messy divorces, and tawdry cover-ups?  I know, it seems far-fetched, but please use your imaginations to at least consider whether such a thing could ever actually happen… Because, as the late, great Casey Stengel once said, “You could look it up.”

Before you think you know what I’m saying with this scripture text and a sermon titled “Previews of Coming Attractions”, let’s take a look at what is happening here.

Our text introduces us to “King Herod”.  This is not the same Herod of whom we spoke a few months ago at Christmas.  ThatHerod, also known as “Herod the Great”, was the man that the Romans installed to serve as their client king over most of Palestine.  Herod the Great was the ruler who met the wise men and who ordered the slaughter of the innocents in Bethlehem.  When he died several years after the birth of Jesus, his territory was divided among three of his sons and a daughter. Today’s Herod, also called “Herod Antipas”, was in charge of Galilee and some territory to the East of the Jordan river.

Herod Antipas divorced his first wife so that he could marry a woman named Herodias.  That might have been messy enough, but Herodias was also married to Antipas’ brother, whom Mark calls Philip but who apparently was actually, if not creatively, named Herod II.  Furthermore, not only was she Antipas’ sister-in-law, she was also his niece.

St. John the Baptist Rebuking Herod, Giovanni Fattori (19th c.)

Mark tells us that the most powerful religious prophet of the day, John the Baptist, had pointed out to anyone who would listen how immoral and unsavory this arrangement was, thus earning the hatred of Herodias in particular.  As you’ve heard, Herodias finally got her wish to have John silenced when her husband/uncle was running his mouth at a birthday party he’d given for himself.

By itself, it is a disturbing story for lots of reasons.  However, as we are looking at the Gospel of Mark, I think it’s fair to ask why Mark tells us this story.  What reason would he have for thinking that, out of all the important things to say about Jesus, the Kingdom, and the community that formed as a result of the life and death and resurrection of Jesus, it was important to spend fifteen verses talking about the death of Jesus’ cousin?

Well, for starters, this story reveals the growing power of the movement that the Kingdom of which Jesus spoke had begun.  When the Gospel of Mark begins, Jesus is an itinerant Rabbi wandering the backcountry of the Galilee.  He’s got some impressive credentials and can preach up a storm, but by worldly standards he is nobody.  Yet as the Gospel progresses, people start to pay attention.  The crowds get larger, and soon enough Herod Antipas takes notice. The author of the second Gospel wants us to know that the person and work of Jesus was garnering some significant acclaim – so much so that the local government begins to get concerned about who Jesus is and what he is saying.

From a literary perspective, I think that the author of Mark is truly giving us a “preview of coming attractions” in this section.  There are some real and important parallels with what happens in this encounter between Herod Antipas and John and the trial and crucifixion of Jesus as ordered by Pilate. Look at this:

  • In both instances, the civil authority is more than a little fascinated by a religious teacher, and appears to be willing to keep him around for a while.
  • Both Herod Antipas and Pilate fall prey to their own egos and make the mistake of trying to impress a crowd with some sort of lavish gesture.
  • Each ruler allows himself to be manipulated by the hostility of another party – in Antipas’ case, it was Herodias, while in Pilate’s it was the Jewish leaders.
  • At the end of the day, both Antipas and Pilate are reduced to being mostly spectators at an execution for which they in fact bear prime responsibility – they become impotent actors in dramas that grow beyond themselves.

Okay, those things may give us an insight as to why Mark feels it’s important for us to know about the death of John, but why does he tell us this story now?  Jesus is clearly on a roll as his movement is taking off in Galilee; we’ve just seen an instance where Jesus is transferring some of his power and authority to his disciples as he sends them out into the countryside… why does Mark interrupt himself at this point with what is essentially a “flashback” episode – he breaks his train of thought to tell us something that had evidently occurred some time previous. Why would he do that?

The Beheading of St. John the Baptist, Puvis de Cheyennes (1869)

Do you remember what I said a couple of weeks ago about the “Markan sandwich”?  We looked at chapter 5, and discovered how Mark started to talk about a man named Jairus and his sick daughter, and then interrupted himself to talk about the healing of a woman who had been sick for a long time, and then went back to the story of Jairus and his daughter.  As we talked about that passage, we noted that there are times when Mark chooses to insert some apparently unrelated material in the middle of a narrative in such a way that allows us to see both the original narrative and the interruption in a different light.  Here, he’s doing that again.

The first part of the “sandwich” is the passage we had last week: Jesus sent out the disciples to proclaim the nearness of the Kingdom of God.

The interruption is our text for this week: the death of John at the hands of Herod.  And the conclusion of the sandwich will be our text for next week: the return of the disciples which leads to the feeding of the 5,000.  Let’s think for a moment about how these seemingly unrelated stories can help to interpret each other.

One of the themes in the Gospel of Mark is that the movement of the Holy Spirit is a threat to those who yearn for or worship the power or illusion of success that this world has to offer.  Do you remember that in chapter 1, we saw that just after Jesus began preaching about the nearness of the Kingdom, John was arrested by Herod Antipas?  Here in chapter 6, the disciples give evidence of the nearness of God’s Kingdom, and we’re told of John’s death.  In chapter 11, we’ll read about how the masses are responding to the presence of the Kingdom on the day we know as Palm Sunday, and that leads to the arrest and death of Jesus.  In chapter 13, Jesus gives his “farewell speech” to his disciples and he warns them that when they preach the Gospel, it will mean trouble for them and for those whom they love. 

The Christian Martyrs’ Last Prayer, by Jean-Leon Gérome (1883)

So one could argue that inserting a story about the death of John the Baptist into an account of disciples who are trying to point faithfully to the coming of the Kingdom of God is, for all intents and purposes, a “preview of coming attractions” for the ones who are Mark’s first audience – the Christians who are struggling to have faith while living under Nero’s persecutions in first-century Rome. Perhaps those believers have begun to wonder what they had done to deserve this kind of treatment and whether Jesus himself could be trusted, and Mark uses this story to say, “Hold on!  Hang in there! Be of good courage.  I see that you are facing imprisonment and suffering and death, and trust me – the story isn’t over yet! Nothing of eternal consequence has been lost!”

Can you see how that interpretation might fit for the first readers of this Gospel nearly 2000 years ago?

Unfortunately, there are too many 21stcentury American Christians who will read this passage and say, “Oh, thank you so much, Mark, for including this story. We, too, are suffering horrible persecution for our faith and this is a great encouragement to us.”

A recent survey[1]indicated that a majority of white Evangelical Christians see themselves as the most oppressed group in the USA.  It’s people who look like me, by and large, who believe that they face more persecution than anyone else: more than Muslims, more than atheists, more than sexual minorities.  When pressed for evidence of this claim, we hear about

  • The county clerk who works in a state where same-sex marriage is legal and who must therefore act against her conscience in issuing marriage licenses to homosexual couples
  • A Hollywood celebrity who is passionately outspoken about her views concerning gender and sexuality is disinvited from an appearance on a television program hosted by someone with differing views.
  • The Christian church that is threatened with the loss of its tax-free status after its pastor campaigned for a particular candidate in a recent election.

When I hear this, I’m sorry to say, I am tempted to respond with something less than compassion. Don’t get me wrong – there are important issues here, and they deserve to be discussed.  But to say that I am being persecuted because someone disagrees with me is, at best, a stretch and at worst, an outright lie.  The white church in America is experiencing some grief at the loss of extensive privilege that it has enjoyed for hundreds of years. I get that.  But let’s not call loss of privilege “persecution” or “oppression”. These are differences of opinion or inconveniences or cultural change, not victimization.

A writer for Foreign Policy magazine recently put it this way:

How will we know when American Christians are genuinely under threat? When they start changing their names from the obviously biblical “Andrew” and “Mary” to the more secular “William” or “Jennifer” in order to avoid hiring discrimination. When Christians in Congress hide their faith and instead loudly claim to be atheists. When Christians are regularly blocked from buying homes or renting apartments in the good parts of town. When the president of the United States calls for Christians to be banned from the country. Then we can start taking claims of religious discrimination at face value.[2]

A few moments ago I read to you a passage of Scripture that contains a direct commandment that is, unfortunately, impossible for many of my Christian sisters and brothers to keep. Hebrews 13:3 tells us to “remember those who are in prison…and those who are suffering…”

Most of us are literally incapable of doing this.  We cannot “remember” those who are imprisoned or who are suffering torture because we have never known them.  The word “remember” implies some sort of previous knowledge.  “Do you remember the last time that the Pirates won the World Series?” is an appropriate question, because that has happened in at least some of our lifetimes.  Yet if I were to ask, “Do you remember that time you had your photo taken with President Lincoln?”, that would be nonsense – because you cannot remember that which you never knew.

In the same way, too many of us have no awareness of or connection with those who are truly struggling or facing persecution for their faith.

Mark chapter 6 cries out to the church in Pittsburgh in 2018 to do at least four things.

First, can we all get down on our knees at some point today and cry out with thanksgiving to God for the fact that you and I have never known the kinds of anguish and suffering inflicted on John the Baptist, Jesus, the first disciples, or the earliest followers of Jesus?

Second, before we stand up from that prayer, we need to repent of and give up the notions of privilege that equate our loss of privilege with someone else’s suffering.

Thirdly, will you invest an hour of your time in the week to come learning about and looking for ways to somehow be connected with someone who truly is marginalized or persecuted?  Go home and do a quick Google search on the kinds of oppression faced by women and sexual and religious minorities in the nation of Pakistan.  Learn about the fact that there are only 300,000 Christians in the entire nation of North Korea, and as many as 75,000 of them are currently in forced-labor camps.  Ask me about the South Sudanese pastors I know who have not seen their families for months because they’ve had to choose between serving the Lord and living in a safe neighborhood.

Here’s the deal, beloved: this chapter is not included in the Book of Mark as an “attaboy” to me, encouraging me to bear up under the intense persecution that I, as a 57 year old white man in the richest country the world has ever known, must be experiencing. Instead, I think that it is here as a reminder for me to ask, each and every day, “How does the Gospel with which I’ve been entrusted affect any of the folks in the scenarios above?  What can I do to create a world that is more in line with the reign and rule of God that Jesus called ‘the Kingdom’, and how can I point to its nearness in the lives of those who truly are suffering?”

The author of Mark makes it pretty plain that Jesus was directly and viscerally impacted by the persecution and death of John.  In what ways am I bothered by the injustices of our age, and what am I willing to do about it?  May God have mercy on me as I seek to respond as did Jesus.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

[1]https://www.prri.org/research/lgbt-transgender-bathroom-discrimination-religious-liberty/

[2]https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/democracy-post/wp/2017/12/12/no-christians-do-not-face-looming-persecution-in-america/?utm_term=.1c61c5fc9ff9