Joy: Rumors from an Insurrection



Sermon preached by David Hottinger

Mayflower Congregational Community United Church of Christ

Minneapolis, MN, 13 December 2009

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 4:4-7)

Hmmm. On first hearing, I resent those words. “Rejoice always…Don’t worry about anything…just pray?” What kind of Hallmark greeting card spirituality is that?

Has St. Paul not been reading the headlines? 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan. Health care reform watered down. Charities in Texas requiring proof of citizenship of children before the children are given presents.

What about the sorrows and tragedies many of us are experiencing? The illness or death of loved ones? Job losses? Broken relationships? Addictions? Depression? In my work as a hospice chaplain during the last two weeks, I have encountered the suicide of one patient, the death of five others, and the intense emotional and physical suffering of a dozen more. Where is the rejoicing to be done in all of THAT?


Come to find out, when Paul wrote these words in a letter to the Jesus-followers in Philippi, he was in a mess of trouble himself. Granted, he WAS in a gated community but it wasn’t the Club Med-kind. It was the prison-kind, where Paul was likely awaiting execution for the charge of sedition against the Roman Empire.

Paul and his ragtag band of Jesus hooligans had been crisscrossing the Empire doing their darnedest to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. They did this by proclaiming the story of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection and Jesus’ reckless, liberating love for every human being – regardless of social status, religious affiliation, race, or nationality.

This story-telling was causing problems. People in far-flung parts of Caesar’s realm were becoming enthused by the proclamation of an Upside-down kingdom. A kingdom where the lost are found, the sick healed, the dead raised, and the prisoners set free. The leaders of the empire were getting nervous; this Jesus business was beginning to look like the stuff of insurrection.

It’s not that these Christ fanatics were killing soldiers or kidnapping imperial officials. Perhaps what they were doing was even more subversive. Christians were calling people to a higher allegiance than to Caesar.

In imperial Rome, as long as you declared that Caesar was Lord and gave your primary loyalty to him, no problem. You could practice your religion and pray to whatever god you liked – just as long you remembered who was first in line.

These people on the Jesus Way, however, were bucking the system with their ridiculous claim that some crucified Jewish peasant from the backwater of Palestine was more powerful than Caesar. One of their propaganda slogans, “Jesus is Lord,” directly mocked the reigning ideology of the empire. With songs about Jesus on their lips, the Christians were running around healing sick people, rescuing abandoned babies from the city walls, feeding orphans and widows, forming communities of radical hospitality, and getting people to think about their lives and destinies in new ways.

Perhaps most infuriatingly, the Jesus people did NOT appear to be taking their own persecution very seriously! Locked up in hellish prisons and torture chambers, they had been known to break out singing, dancing, laughing, and praising their Jewish God as if they were not afraid of the empire’s ability to shut them up for good.

The national security types in Rome crunched the numbers and sent a memo upstairs to the Palace elite: These Christ- people were posing a clear and present danger to the state. And in Nero’s imperial Rome, insurrections of any kind – could not, would not be tolerated. _

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So here we have Paul, one of the leaders of the Jesus Way, first placed under house arrest and then confined to prison. Aware that death by beheading could come to him at any moment, he writes letters to other Jesus followers around the empire as a kind of last will-and-testament to them.

What is advice does Paul give in his letter to the Philippians? To scheme? To run? To hide? To give up? To fight? Against all conventional wisdom, here is what Paul tells his peeps on the Jesus Way: Laugh! Play! Dance! Sing! Don’t worry! Be gentle! Be merciful! Give thanks! Be at peace! REJOICE!!!

Let’s admit it. – from a so-called “realist” point of view, Paul appears to be out of his mind. Nero is getting ready to smash these nettlesome Jesus people. The hammer would come down. The Jesus movement would be exterminated. And the Thousand-year Reich of Caesar would leave all of that sentimental silliness about gentleness, joy, mercy, peace, and love in the dustbin of history. Right? Right?

Wrong. Wrong. Wrong because Paul knew what Mahatma Gandhi, Mother Teresa, John Woolman, Nelson Mandela, St. Teresa of Avila, and Desmond Tutu knew. What Thich Nhat Hanh, Oscar Romero, John Paul II, Martin Luther King, Jr. Victor Frankl, and Fannie Lou Hammer knew. What St. Francis of Assisi, Dorothy Day, Caesar Chavez, St. Catherine of Siena, Rosa Parks, and Daniel Berrigan knew. What Clarence Jordan, Maximillian Kolbe, and Anne Frank all knew. NAMELY that while the empires of this world (and there are many such empires) might be able to kill the body, they can NEVER annihilate a soul fueled by the fires of joy.


When the young theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer came from Germany in 1930 to teach at Union Theological Seminary in New York, he frequently worshipped at the Abyssinian Baptist Church, the historic African-American church in Harlem. Deeply worried about the evils of Nazism beginning to dominate his homeland, Bonhoeffer became transfixed by the spirit of freedom and joy, which characterized the soulful Jesus followers at Abyssinian Baptist

Bonhoeffer soon learned that the joy of those black Christians budded forth from the depths of great suffering: slavery, injustice, racism, oppression. What Bonhoeffer discovered is that for the Spirit-filled congregants of Abyssinian Baptist, joy was not dependent on the ups and downs of external circumstances. Joy is a quality of being, rooted in the conviction that we are chosen, accepted, and loved by God – no matter what the conditions imposed from the outside.

In the worship, prayers, singing, and stories of the men and women he encountered at Abyssinian Baptist, Dietrich Bonhoeffer experienced a way of following Jesus that had a joyful, even mystical sensitivity to God’s presence in all things without falling into the trap of ignoring the suffering of the world.

Paul says that we can rejoice, be free from our worries, and experience peace because “God is near.” Elsewhere Scripture refers to God as one in whom we “live and move and have our being.” St. Augustine poetically referred to God as being “closer to us than we are to ourselves.” Bonhoeffer realized that while he believed these things in his head, at Abyssinian he was with a community of Christians who LIVED this God-presence as their very means of survival. After Harlem, Christianity became a “full-body” experience for Bonhoeffer; his theology and ministry were profoundly changed

Those Christians in Harlem knew from lived experience that the Jesus Way didn’t mean denying the power of evil or allowing themselves to become victims. They knew, however, what Paul in his prison cell knew: achieving freedom and joy on the Jesus Way is an “inside job.” Freedom is knowing who we are – beloved sons and daughters of God – and Whose we are – a loving, liberating, Presence in whom we live and move and have our being. Joy is living in a posture of trust that the One who made us in love is always working in the world to bring the peace that passes all understanding.


This peace, by the way, looks very different from the peace that the empires of the world proclaim.

We have our own versions of empire and “peace” today, don’t we? For many years, I lived in the empire of active addiction where my primary allegiance was to doing whatever I had to do to drug myself into self-centered oblivion. My “peace,” my “pax David,” was about looking good, pretending that I had everything under control, manipulating people into liking me, and presenting a “good boy” façade to the rest of the world. When my empire finally fell under the weight of its own delusion, I was forced to face vast wreckage of ruined relationships, shattered trust, emotional devastation, moral bankruptcy, and broken hearts.

We all have empires that hold us prisoner, even as we all have our own distorted ideas about “peace.” The peace about which Paul writes is the peace, which shatters the so-called peace of empire. The peace that our tiny Christmas baby Jesus comes to proclaim is the peace that brings down the mighty from their thrones. It is the peace that scatters the proud in the imagination of their hearts, fills the hungry with good things, and sends the rich away empty.

This peace, the peace of Christ, brings light from darkness; hope from despair; healing from brokenness; reconciliation from division; and life from the pit of death. It is the peace not just of Good Friday but of Easter Sunday, not only a bloody cross but an empty tomb, not merely an absence of strife but a community of radical hospitality, scandalous mercy, and liberating justice.


A few years after his voluntary return to Germany, Dietrich Bonhoeffer became actively involved in resisting the Nazis. In his most famous work of theology, he wrote,

Where will the call to discipleship lead those who follow it? What decisions and painful separations will it entail? We must take this question to him who alone knows the answer. Only Jesus Christ, who bids us follow him, knows where the path will lead. But we know that it will be a part full of mercy beyond measure. Discipleship is joy” (Discipleship).

On April 9, 1945 in Flossenburg concentration camp, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was stripped naked and brutally executed by being hung with thin wire for his role in resisting the Nazi government.

His last reported words are these: “This is the end. For me, the beginning of life.”

The camp doctor who witnessed the execution wrote this,

I saw Pastor Bonhoeffer … kneeling on the floor praying fervently to God. I was most deeply moved by the way this lovable man prayed, so devout and so certain that God heard his prayer. At the place of execution, he again said a short prayer and then climbed the few steps to the gallows, brave and composed. His death ensued after a few seconds. In the almost fifty years that I worked as a doctor, I have hardly ever seen a man die so entirely submissive to the will of God.”

That language about being “submissive to the will of God” might seem antiquated to us today. Perhaps we could say that both in his living and dying, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was fully surrendered to the God he saw most beautifully revealed in the joy of those gathered Christians back in Harlem 15 years earlier.

To use words from our reading this morning, even while climbing his way to the gallows, this Jesus follower, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, knew what it meant to rejoice at the nearness of God. Bonhoeffer experienced in the soul of his being a peace that passes all human understanding.

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Ok, St. Paul. I take it back. I don’t resent your recommendations. They don’t disgust me anymore; they just terrify me. Terrify me in a good way. The empires around us and within us continue their efforts to lure us into slavery with their siren calls of success, power, efficiency, escape, pleasure, and control.

But this Way of Jesus, this Jesus Insurrection, is showing us a way to freedom beyond slavery, recovery beyond addiction, life beyond death. The empire can rattle its saber all it wants. Ours is a freedom and a joy rooted in who we are and WHOSE we are.

The heart of Jesus’ message is this: We are loved. In life and unto death and beyond death, we belong to God who made us, forgives us, and desires us to share in God’s light and joy forever. As our Lover, God takes our deepest woes, our most anguished cries, our most shameful failures and uses them to bring us into God’s heart, which is Love Itself.

And finally, this path to true joy is one that we never, ever have to walk alone. Perhaps echoing convictions he had heard sung so long ago in those mournful but joy-filled spirituals in Harlem, Dietrich Bonhoeffer penned this prayer from his cell while awaiting execution:

O God, early in the morning I cry to you.

Help me to pray

And to concentrate my thoughts on you:

I cannot do this alone.

In me there is darkness,

But with you there is light;

I am lonely, but you do not leave me;

I am feeble in heart, but with you there is help;

I am restless, but with you there is peace.

In me there is bitterness, but with you there is patience;

I do not understand your ways,

But you know the way for me…

Restore me to liberty,

And enable me to live now

That I may answer before you and before me.

Lord, whatever this day may bring,

Your name be praised.


May it be so for the rest of us, this day, and in the days to come. Rejoice in God, always, my friends on the Jesus Way. And again I say rejoice.

 

NOTHING is lost to God

This past Sunday evening, one of my patients ended his own life. A WWII combat vet, a devoted father and grandfather, a gifted craftsman and avid outdoorsman, “Tim” spent his last months struggling under the burden of congestive heart failure. He gave no indication to anyone that he was planning to take his life. When he did, Tim’s loved ones were horribly shocked and heartbroken.

I was called to the scene of Tim’s death and spent over seven hours with his immediate family as they attempted to face their grief, answer police questions, and try to make some semblance of sense of the tragedy that had just unfolded. For me it was one of those nights during which I found words to be utterly useless as a means of consolation or support. All I could do was to make myself available and pray that somehow I could be an instrument of God’s merciful and abiding Presence.

What follows is my meditation at Tim’s funeral yesterday. Truly, it was one of the most beautiful funerals I have attended because of the tributes paid to him by his sons, daughters-in-laws, and grandchildren. One of Tim’s sons left not a dry eye in the chapel when he concluded, “If love could have saved dad, he would still be with us.”

Humanly speaking this is might be true. Why Tim took his life when he was surrounded by such a loving family will always be a mystery.

At the same time, however, in my heart of hearts, I believe that Love DOES “save” Tim – and the rest of us – from the fate of being separated from God. The words of theologian Jurgen Moltmann have served as a kind of mantra for me this week:

“With God, nothing is at all lost. Everything remains in God. We experience our life as temporal and mortal. But as God experiences it, our life is eternally immortal. Nothing is lost to God, not the moments of happiness, not the times of pain. ‘All live to him (Luke 20.38).’”

Amen and amen.

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Funeral meditation for Tim
David Hottinger, December 2009

We just heard read one of the most classic passages in Christian spirituality, the 23rd Psalm. I would like to share with you a contemporary rendering of the Psalm – one that captures, I think, the intimate Love that God has for us, God’s sons and daughters.

O my Beloved, You are my shepherd,
I shall not want;
You bring me to green pastures for rest
and lead me beside still waters renewing my spirit;
You restore my soul.
You lead in the path of goodness to follow Love’s way.

Even though I walk through
The valley of the shadow of death,
I am not afraid;
For You are ever with me;
Your rod and your staff they guide me,
They give me strength and comfort.

You prepare a table before me
in the presence of all my fears;
you bless me with oil, my cup overflows.
Surely goodness and mercy will
follow me all the days of my life;
and I shall dwell in the heart
of the Beloved forever.
Amen     –
(Psalms for Praying, Nan Merrill)

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At its essence, the Christian story is one big love story. It is the story of God creating the world, taking flesh as a human being in Jesus, laying down God’s life freely in love, and then conquering death so that we might have love and life and joy in God forever.

God is a lover. In fact God is THE Lover – perfect and ravishing and complete and passionate in love for us – no matter how far we stray or badly we screw up or run away from that love.

There is a passage in the New Testament that captures this truth with great beauty. In the 8th chapter of the Book of Romans it is written,

The One who died for us—who was raised to life for us!—is in the presence of God at this very moment sticking up for us. Do you think anyone is going to be able to drive a wedge between us and Christ’s love for us? There is no way! Not trouble, not hard times, not hatred, not hunger, not homelessness, not bullying threats, not backstabbing, not even the worst sins listed in Scripture…
None of this fazes us because Jesus loves us. I’m absolutely convinced that nothing—nothing living or dead, angelic or demonic, today or tomorrow, high or low, thinkable or unthinkable—absolutely nothing can get between us and God’s love because of the way that Jesus has embraced us. (The Message translation)

In other words, we are born in God’s love, we live in God’s love, we die in God’s love, and we are raised to new life in God’s love.
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Just like the rest of us, Tim was part of God’s love story. Tim may not have been a “religious” man in the way religion is often defined. But he was a deeply spiritual man with a real connection to the God who is Love – the Love in which we live, and move, and have our being. As one of his sons told me, Tim took particular joy in communing with God in God’s gift of creation, especially during long trips into the Boundary Waters with family.

Jesus said that by their fruit we will know his followers – not by their words but by their fruit. After spending only a few hours the other evening with you, Tim’s family, under very traumatic circumstances, it is clear to me that Tim’s life bore much fruit, which, if passed on, will continue bearing fruit for generations to come.

These are truths of which we must be mindful today as we remember Tim, a man who brought great love, wisdom, passion, and joy to many, especially his beloved family. It is apparent that he was a man full of passion, creativity, humor, integrity, fidelity, and zest for life.

You will share some of the stories of Tim’s love – and the ways in which that love shaped you – in a few moments. All one needs to do is look around this room today, see the pictures on display or view the video made for his 50th wedding anniversary to see the great fruit born by Tim’s life of 85 years.

In all respects, his was a life well lived – not perfect by any stretch of the imagination, not without its share of flaws and brokenness – but a life lived well. A life that has made the world more whole by having him in it. The task of celebrating and giving thanks for Tim is one that will – and should – continue far into the future.
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There is no escaping the fact, however, that gratitude and celebration co-mingle this day with sadness in the wake of Tim’s death on Sunday evening and shock at the way in which he died.

The path that was Tim’s to trod recently was not a smooth one. There were the years of providing painstaking care to his beloved wife of 60 years she walked into her own valley of the shadow that is Alzheimer’s disease.

His last year was one of bad news, major transition, doctor visits, medical treatments, physical decline, and more bad news. And yet Tim tried to make the best with what he had and continued to share of himself with his family. It sounds to me like he gave you and you gave him precious gifts during these recent months, gifts that might never had been shared otherwise.

One thing that I am certain Tim had was an outpouring of love from all of you. You cared for Tim in these last months with great compassion, competence, and courage. When those of us from the hospice team came to visit, we were struck by the fact that you were a family who would be loyal and steadfast to the end. And you were.

One of Tim’s most dreaded fears was dying in a nursing home. You prevented that from happening by bringing him into your home and providing him such outstanding nurture.

Your whole family fought the good fight alongside Tim. You journeyed with him as far as you could go. Then on Sunday evening – sooner and not in the way anyone expected – you were forced to bid farewell to your father, grandfather, great-grandfather, and friend – as he made his final journey from this life unto the next.

Yes, Sunday night there was a tragic end. But in the grand scheme of Tim’s rich and fruitful life, the end is far from being the defining moment. And most certainly, in God’s great love story, in God’s tender mercy, death – no matter how sad, tragic, or disruptive – is NEVER the end.

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Having God as our Lover doesn’t mean our path will be without trials or tears. In the same chapter in Romans from which I just read, St. Paul says that the whole creation is going through a process of redemption that looks and feels a lot like childbirth.

There is moaning and pain and blood and the yelling out of questions like, “when will this ever end?” Above all, there is waiting…and waiting…and waiting. Paul writes that this waiting becomes viscerally real through our bodies as they wear out, get sick, and die. He says, “These sterile and barren bodies of ours are yearning for full deliverance.”

Life can be tough, particularly at moments like these in which we are forced to say goodbye to someone we love: someone, who, it seems, died tragically. Life hurts, especially when we endure pain, loss, sickness, despair, and injustice. Our natural instinct is to cry out, “Why?” and then we feel lonelier than ever when we don’t seem to hear an answer.

Here is where the Love story gets interesting. Even from the mire and muck of these things, God’s love and beauty can spring forth and transform everything.

It is at times like these – when we face the reality of death and admit the failure of all of our efforts to avoid pain – that God is made known most powerfully. That’s what the cosmic Love story of Christ is about – God’s overflowing love for us in the middle of this funny, broken, tragic, painful, and beautiful thing we call life.

The heart of Jesus’ message is this: We are loved. In life and unto death and beyond death, we belong to God who made us, forgives us, and desires us to share in God’s light and joy forever.

And there is NOTHING in all of creation – death, disease, depression, despair, broken relationships, loneliness, – NOTHING – smashed dreams, unfulfilled expectations, regrets, rejection, shame, trauma – NOTHING – can separate us from the love made known through Jesus the Christ.

As our Lover, God takes our deepest woes, our most anguished cries, our most shameful failures and uses them to bring us into God’s heart, which is Love Itself.
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Ours is a God who brings light from the bleakest darkness; hope from the deepest depression; joy from the bitterest pain; healing from the worst brokenness; peace from the most violent struggle; and life and resurrection from the very pit of death.

As we give thanks for Tim’s life and mourn his death today, let us remember all of the ways in which God became present in our lives and world through him. And may we be mindful as well that God is present here and now, even in the face of such grief.

Jesus is, indeed, our good shepherd. and there is nothing that can separate us from God’s Love.

Even though we walk through
The valley of the shadow of death,
We are not afraid;
For You are ever with us;
Your rod and your staff they guide us,
They give us strength and comfort.

You prepare a table before us
in the presence of all our fears;
You bless us with oil, our cups overflow.
Surely goodness and mercy will
follow us all the days of our lives;
and we shall dwell in the heart
of the Beloved forever.
Amen

May the heart of the Beloved Christ heal, comfort, and strengthen you on this day and in the days to come. Amen.