Monday, August 10, 2009

Everyday People

Sermon preached August 9, 2009

Texts: John 6:35, 41-51; Ephesians 4:25-5:2

Sly and the Family Stone, "Everyday People

Play Everyday People Sly and the Family Stone, about half the song (to second chorus – “I love everyday people”).
I love everyday people, and we got to live together.
We are everyday people – younger and older, shorter or taller, working and retired, partnered and single, parents and grandparents and childless, with different backgrounds, different affectional orientations, different countries of ancestry. I love everyday people.
We are also followers of Jesus Christ. To use the image given in John’s Gospel, we are those for whom Jesus is the bread of life. Our deepest hungers are fed through this bread. That image is a little mysterious. John’s Gospel is often that way. How can a person be bread? And some of the language used is just hard to grab hold of. It reminds me of some of the theology I have read. In all its concrete details the biblical picture of Jesus as the Christ confirms his character as the bearer of New Being or as the one in whom the conflict between the essential unity of God and persons and human existential estrangement is overcome…. Christology is a function of soteriology. The problem of soteriology creates the christological question and gives direction to the christological answer. For it is the Christ who brings the New Being, who saves persons from the old being, that is, from existential estrangement and its self-destructive consequences. (Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology, II (125, 150). That’s really just a long way of saying that Jesus is the bread of life!!
So the bread of life imagery is a little mysterious, but it is also striking in it ordinariness. In John’s Gospel there is no discussion of existential estrangement and New Being, but of bread, something common, ordinary. In fact, one of the complaints lodged against Jesus in the text is this – how can he be any kind of bread for humankind when he is so ordinary, one of the everyday people, the son of Joseph whose mother is known. How can this ordinary person be bread come from heaven, be the New Being in his everyday life? That’s the remarkable paradox of incarnation, of God making Godself know in everyday life.
And God is concerned about everyday life. We are everyday people who are also followers of Jesus Christ. We are everyday people who proclaim that Jesus is the bread of our lives. We are to live as followers of Jesus in our everyday lives. To be a Christian is to live just a little differently because Jesus “feeds” our lives. To be a follower of Jesus is to be an everyday person who lives his or her everyday life differently.
Being a follower of Jesus affects how we spend our time. We are here. We make time in our week to remember that we are followers of Jesus. We gather to support each other, to pray for each other, to sing together, to hear God’s Spirit speak to us in the midst of our everyday lives. Being a follower of Jesus affects how we use our money. We support the work of the church with our regular gifts. We give to special outreach efforts to heal a hurting humanity. We give to causes outside the church. We try to shop more wisely and support businesses that value human labor, human social bonds, and the earth. Being a follower of Jesus affects our relationships. We are willing to struggle with the hard work of forgiveness and reconciliation when bonds are broken, knowing that this is always a process. We value life-long partnerships and work together to strengthen families of all kinds. We value children and youth, wanting to see them grow and develop the gifts God has given each of them. They are not just a marketing segment to us.
Being everyday people and followers of Jesus means we seek to live a little differently in our everyday lives. The passage from Ephesians is a wonderful companion to John’s Gospel because it makes real what it means to say that Jesus is the bread of life. Speak the truth. Be angry but do not sin. Let your words give peace to those who hear. Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another. Powerful stuff intended for our everyday lives. To say Jesus is the bread of life is to seek to live differently in these ways.
One of the struggles we all have in living this new way of life is that we all carry in us old tapes about how the world is and how we should react to it, and these old tapes often lead more toward bitterness, wrangling, anger that gets away from us, than toward tenderhearted love. To be a follower of Jesus, to proclaim that Jesus is the bread of life, is to struggle against these old tapes inside of us – and they are there.
The news over the past couple of weeks has been filled with the story of the arrest of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates – so filled, in fact, that some of you may be groaning inwardly knowing that I am going to say something about this. It is a complex story, and one old tape we all need to struggle against is that tape in us which crams everything into simple categories, not letting the complexity of human life emerge so we can respond more fully to it, rather than react to our simple story lines.
The basic outline of the story is that Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, returning from a trip, was having trouble getting into his home. He ended up “breaking into it” and this was witnessed by a neighbor who called the police thinking that a break-in might be occurring. The police arrived, a Sgt. James Crowley. He asked Gates for some identification. Professor Gates apparently took offense at this and became angry. Crowley became angry as well, handcuffed Gates and took him in. Gates is 5’8”, 150 pounds, walks with a cane, and is African-American. Crowley is white.
Race had a role in this incident. Many of us, probably all of us, carry around tapes inside that tell us things about people different from us. Recent research done by neuroscientists and cognitive scientists suggests that some attitudes about people who are different get wired into our nervous system. The amygdala area of the brain, which gets more active when we feel threatened or afraid, has been shown to be more active in Americans of all races when they view black male faces (Greater Good). Our culture, it seems, has conditioned us to see black male faces as a threat – an old tape that I am guessing had an impact on Sgt. Crowley. I would also guess that Henry Louis Gates had some tapes playing – tapes that reflected the mistreatment of African-Americans over the years and which may have led him to respond petulantly to the request for identification. There was probably a class tape playing too, a Harvard professor telling a police officer, “Don’t you know who I am, I teach at Harvard.” All these old tapes playing, and the old tapes play more loudly when we are under stress – like doing police work, like having a police officer asking us questions in our own home.
But if that story from Harvard seems just too distant, the news in Duluth this week contained its own old tapes. Thursday’s newspaper carried a story about t-shirts being sold in town at the “I Love Duluth” store. The t-shirts read: “My Indian Name is Crawling Drunk” and “My Indian Name is Drinks Like a Fish.” Old tapes playing, and one of the saddest parts of the story to me was that somewhere a t-shirt manufacturer thought this would be harmless humor, not considering the horrendous dehumanization involved.
To be a follower of Jesus in our everyday lives is to struggle against these old tapes that produce bitterness and malice and speech that tears at the social fabric rather than producing peace. It is to struggle against them so we can be kind and tenderhearted.
As long as I am on a roll with social issues, one more old tape I hope we struggle against as everyday followers of Jesus is an old tape that many of us carry that says that any attempt to look at health care as something other than a commodity subject to market forces is a direct road to socialism or communism. 47 to 50 million Americans are without health insurance. I know some percentage of this group of people are healthy people who could afford health insurance, but no one argues it is an enormous percentage. We find ourselves once again in the midst of a great debate about how to provide more care to more people. It is a difficult and complex issue and I offer no simple solutions. But some of the terms of the debate need to change, and I think we everyday followers of Jesus have a role to play. Can we begin to talk together about what it means to care for each other as Americans and how health care plays a role in that? Can we talk about how basic health care might be a social good and not simply a market good? I was particularly spurred on to think about this in reading commentary from the British press on our current debate. I found commentary from the London Daily Telegraph, London Observer, London Sunday Telegraph and London Independent summarized in The Week (August 7, 2009). The United States spends more on health care than any other country yet we are unhealthier on many measures – infant mortality is higher and life expectancy is lower than in Europe. “Why does the richest country on earth have an immunization rate worse than Botswana’s?” To Britons, it is baffling that Americans refuse to consider a system that would require a few people to wait for the most expensive operations, yet they tolerate their current system, which is “fiendishly complex and full of loopholes, so even those with coverage can have it withdrawn.” By the way, the practice of denying coverage for a previously approved claim is called “recission” and on June 16, testifying before Congress, executives from WellPoint, UnitedHealth Group and Assurant refused to end the practice. (New York Review, August 13, 2009, 70). The strongest language about our health care debate coming from Britain argued that Americans really don’t care about the poor, that we view have-nots as “failed Americans.” “Sure, America’s got talent, but it’s also got some of the most unpleasant, uncompassionate, unerringly ruthless people on the face of this planet.”
Of course one old tape we all have is one that says “We are Americans and we don’t need to listen to anyone else.” So we can ignore how the rest of the world looks at our health care debate, but what if some of what they say makes sense. What if we don’t care for each other as well as we might? What if there are more compassionate ways to be Americans? Who might raise such questions in the midst of debates about health care? Might it be followers of Jesus Christ who, in their everyday lives are citizens of the United States? Might it be those who feed on Jesus as the bread of life?
The Ephesians passage ends simply. Be imitators of God… and live in love, as Christ loved us. That’s what it means to be everyday followers of Jesus Christ. Imitate God. Love as Christ loved. Struggle against any old tapes you carry that lead away from love and kindness. God’s gracious love empowers us in this effort. God’s gracious love forgives us when we fall short, when the old tapes get played out again.
As everyday people be imitators of God and live in love as Christ loved. Amen.

No comments: