Sermon preached December 15, 2013
Texts: Matthew 11:2-11; Luke 1:46-55
During my college years, there was a time when I was very interested in Buddhism. I know, it is the Christmas season, so starting with Buddhism is a little strange, but hang in there with me.
The form of Buddhism that was especially interesting to me was Zen Buddhism, and I recall, in particular one phrase from a Zen text (Zenrin) that was part of a book entitled The Gospel According to Zen: Entering the water he makes no splash. There is something attractive in that image. For a time there were probably some who thought I might shave my head and spend some time in a Zen monastery. It never happened, though I guess my head kind of shaved itself.
Anyway, hold on to that image for a moment – entering the water he makes no splash.
Our theme for Advent, or for the two Sundays I am preaching in Advent, is walking as a child of the light, living in the light of God’s love as we see it in Jesus. Words are my sandbox, my paint pallet, and so I love to play with them. I took the image of walking in the light and shifted it to walking lightly. Two weeks ago I preached about walking lightly in our personal lives. Today I want to preach about walking lightly in a more social way. What might it mean to follow Jesus as social beings, as citizens?
And when I hear the phrase “walking lightly,” it brings back that image from the Zen text – “entering the water he makes no splash.” To follow Jesus in our social lives has a lot to do with walking lightly, with entering the water and making no splash.
First a quick word about the social world in which we live, and for that I turn to the Irish poet, Seamus Heaney. Not long ago I quoted a well-known line from one of Heaney’s poems. The line was: “But then, once in a lifetime/the longed-for tidal wave/of justice can rise up,/and hope and history rhyme.” It is a beautiful line, but that poem begins in a very different place:
Human beings suffer,
They torture one another,
They get hurt and get hard.
That is part of the reality of the world in which we live. In North Korea, the nation’s leader had his own uncle executed for sedition. Yesterday was the one-year anniversary of the school shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut and almost surreally, as that story was being told, the news stations cut away to report on a school shooting in Colorado. Human beings suffer – they suffer hunger, injustice, grief. We torture one another – sometimes physically, sometimes emotionally. We get hurt. Our hearts harden. This is not the whole of our world, but we cannot ignore it either.
How do we follow Jesus in this world? Walking lightly. Entering the water, making no splash.
One of the commitments we can make in following Jesus, in trying to live out God’s dream for the world – a dream of peace, justice, caring, reconciliation and love, one of the commitments we can make is to do no harm and to try and heal the harm we encounter.
As we read the passage from Matthew, we cannot help but be struck by all the images of healing. Go tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. When the light of the love of Jesus is present, healing happens. Harm is not done, and it is undone in a manner of speaking.
A few years ago, retired United Methodist Bishop Rueben Job wrote a slim volume entitled Three Simple Rules: a Wesleyan Way of Living. John Wesley is one of the primary persons to whom the United Methodist trace our stream in the Christian tradition. The first simple rule, according to Bishop Job was “do no harm.”
Entering the water, we make no splash, following Jesus we walk lightly, we seek to do no harm. This is not a simple matter. Is it possible to live in this complex and violent world without doing harm? Are we supposed to turn the other cheek to those who distort the truth by selective use of the facts of any given situation? Is it wise to do no harm to those who seek to harm us, our future, our reputation? Are we able to limit our response to a way that is not destructive to those who us false and violent words that seek to harm and destroy us? Is it possible to speak the truth in love and gentleness when others seem to speak partial truth in anger and hatred? (27) Bishop Job poses these questions for us to wrestle with. They do not have easy answers, but we cannot avoid these questions. Bishop Job: It is a challenging path to walk. Yet, even a casual reading of the gospel suggests that Jesus taught and practices a way of living that did no harm. (27) Go tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.
Walking lightly, following Jesus in the wider world means grappling with how we do no harm, and how we work to heal harm done. It truly is walking lightly, making no splash.
Human beings suffer – and here is a real kicker, we cannot prevent nor undo all the suffering that human beings undergo, or at least undo it all quickly. There is the suffering of our bodies, some of which is inherent in the human condition. There are structural injustices that take a long time to change, and while we work to change them we cannot ignore that suffering continues.
Go tell John what you hear and see:… the poor have good news brought to them. Part of the good news that the suffering have shared with them is that they are not alone. To follow Jesus, to walk lightly, is to stand with those who are hurting and suffering in their pain. Listen again to the words we read together as Advent candles were lighted: The joy of the Risen Christ is not going to make us insensitive to the suffering of other people. On the contrary, it can make us even more sensitive, and we will be able both to carry this great joy within us and to enter profoundly into the distress and suffering of our neighbor at the same time. There is no contradiction: joy is not opposed to compassion…. Joy nourishes compassion. (Brother Roger of Taize)
Walking lightly in the Spirit of Jesus means being willing and able to do the hard work of being with those who are hurting in their pain and suffering. Entering the water, we make no splash.
Thus far I have been able to carry forward with the images of walking lightly, and entering the water without making a splash, as ways to talk about following Jesus in our social lives, as citizens. But here is where I need to stretch a little more, because following Jesus in the wider world cannot always be so placid. Human beings suffer. They torture one another. They get hurt and they get hard. We seek to do no harm, or as little harm as possible. We seek to heal hurts. We will stand with the hurting and suffering. We are also called to prevent harm, to work against harm, to right wrongs when we can, to challenge social arrangements which perpetuate injustice and cause suffering.
Walking lightly we may not need to make a splash, but we sometimes need to make waves. There are few more wave-making texts in the New Testament than the Song of Mary from Luke 1. [God] has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. [God] has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; [God] has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. Yes, that makes some waves all right.
Among the areas where I think we, as followers of Jesus, need to be making some waves in our day and time are on issues related to the environment and to the economy. Are our primary means of creating good paying jobs as a global economy ways that are destructive of our environment, ways that produce short-term gain but contribute to long-term planetary degradation? Can’t we be more creative?
In the United States, our economic gains seem to be accruing to those who are doing the best. There is solid documentation of the continuing growth of economic inequality in our country. In the most recent issue of The Atlantic (December 2013, 26-29) there was a report on business leaders concerned for how global capitalism is functioning. Fear that the market economy has become dysfunctional… is being publically expressed, with increasing frequency, by some of the people who occupy the commanding heights of the global economy. The article quoted a former head of Goldman Sachs Asset Management: “Some people say income inequality doesn’t matter. I disagree. We are creating a situation in which only the elite of the elite can be successful – and that is not sustainable.” Add to this an argument put forward recently in The New Yorker (December 2, 2013, Jill Lepore, p. 79): One well-established fact is that polarization in Congress maps onto one measure better than any other: economic inequality. The smaller the gap between rich and poor, the more moderate our politicians; the greater the gap, the greater disagreement between liberals and conservatives.
[God] has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; [God] has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. Following Jesus, walking lightly may mean making some waves.
I cannot finish this morning’s reflection on following Jesus in the wider world, on walking lightly, without a word about Nelson Mandela. The world recently lost a remarkable person and leader when Nelson Mandela died December 5. Among the iconic images in my lifetime is the image of Mandela being released from prison in 1990. At the time I was working on my doctorate, and I wrote my dissertation on Christian faith and political democracy. Mandela’s release and subsequent election were powerful symbols of democracy. What made Mandela so remarkable was his ability to move forward. Here was a man who had been imprisoned for twenty-seven years. When he became president of South Africa, he did not turn around and seek retribution against those who had imprisoned him. He walked lightly, walked in the way of forgiveness and reconciliation. He made waves, but maybe not splashes. Another iconic image from Mandela’s life was when South Africa won the world cup in rugby, a white man’s sport in South Africa, and Mandela donned the green shirt supporting the team.
In his book reflecting on South Africa and on social dimensions of Christian faith, Archbishop Desmond Tutu wrote words that speak of Mandela, but that also speak powerfully to us all about walking lightly in Jesus in the world.
Harmony, friendliness, community are great goods. Social harmony is for us the… greatest good. Anything that subverts, that undermines this sought-after good, is to be avoided like the plague. Anger, resentment, lust for revenge, even success through aggressive competitiveness, are corrosive of this good.… What dehumanizes you inexorably dehumanizes me. [Forgiveness] gives people resilience, enabling them to survive and emerge still human despite all efforts to dehumanize them. (No Future Without Forgiveness, 31)
May God grant us grace that we may walk in the power of the Spirit of Jesus, walk as people of the light, walk lightly – minimizing harm and healing, walking with the suffering, making waves of love, justice, peace and reconciliation. Amen.