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Beastly Economics & King's Vision for the Poor People's Campaign

“…we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin the shift from a “thing‐oriented” society to a “person‐oriented” society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered…True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it is not haphazard and superficial. It comes to see that an edifice, which produces beggars needs restructuring. A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth…A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.”

—Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. “Beyond Vietnam” (April 1967)

This is a sermon I gave at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Greensboro on 2020-01-19.

Today, I want to talk to you about two things that may at first seem unrelated – Martin Luther King and the Mark of the Beast from the book of Revelation.

I know the concept of the Mark of the Beast has been greatly misused, misinterpreted, and misaligned by Christians over the years, but before you crawl out of your skin or run out give me a few seconds to try and show you why it has been misinterpret it so badly.

As you’ve already heard this morning, I’ve been researching and writing on the book of Revelation for sometime and have just published a book on the subject called, “Resisting Empire: The Book of Revelation.”

My argument is that we need to reject the “evacuation theology,” (ht Rob Bell) version of Revelation. You know the one where people in the church says, “Who cares, it’s all going to burn anyway, and we – the people who are on the right side of this theology – are going to escape.”

Revelation interpreted this way is a text used to predict not only some future trauma, violence, and scapegoating of those the elect deem wicked.

If you follow the path of an “evacuation theology” interpretation then you can displace the Mark of the Beast into some future person or technology, a chip, a credit card, a country’s leader (usually some other country’s leader), etc. All we need to do is identify whoever has the mark and then we’ll know they’re a bad guy or are doing bad things. But this makes it way to easy to dismiss what it is actually saying.

I see Revelation being about how a marginalized group of faithful people were being guided to resist the Roman Empire at the end of the first century. It had nothing to do with evacuation theology and everything to do with resisting, surviving, and not assimilating into empire. Here you the early church made up predominately of Jewish and Gentile Christians living under Roman occupation. As Jews, as Christians, as the poor, they were themselves the marginalized. And Revelation tells them that God is with them, God is on their side, and that their work was to resist empire and follow God no matter the cost.

This is a very different reading of Revelation that what we’re used to isn’t it?

If we look back at it then, the Mark of the Beast is not about a little birthmark or an implanted chip, it is a critique of an entire economic system that is set to exploit the many for the benefit of a few. Revelation is unveiling and critiquing the economics of empire, arguing that it is out of alignment with what God intends for the world. In fact, Revelation 13 mostly uses the language of “image of the beast,” rather than “mark” to say that these kinds of imperial systems try to make people into its own image. To be make in the image of the beast is something extremely different than to be made in the image of God.

As it says in Chapter 13:

15 those who would not worship the image of the beast [would] be slain. 16 Also it causes all, both small and great, both rich and poor, both free and slave, to be marked on the right hand or the forehead, 17 so that no one can buy or sell unless he has the mark…

Rev. 13 is an ancient critique of an economic system that is based on exploitation, one that is far-reaching and impacts everyone, and one that is opposed to how God intended the world to work.

Unless you go along with the “beastly economics of empire” you will not have the right to buy and sell, and are liable to be killed.

Credit http://kairoscenter.org/

Beastly Economics in our Day and Age

Let’s turn now to Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. If you’ll go back with me to March 18, 1968. On that day, King visited Marks, Mississippi. There he witnessed devastating poverty. Marks was at that time located in the poorest county in the country and what King witnessed there moved him to tears. While touring Marks, he witnessed school children who had nothing more than one slice of an apple and a couple crackers to eat all day and other children without basic needs like shoes. It is well-chronicled that King wept as he walked through the streets of Marks.

You know it is beastly economics when Children living in the richest country in the world go without basic necessities.

A couple days later he announced what he called the Poor People’s Campaign saying:

“We’re coming to Washington in a poor people’s campaign. I was in Marks, Miss., the other day, which is in Quitman County, the poorest county in the United States. And I tell you I saw hundreds of black boys and black girls walking the streets with no shoes to wear.”

How A Mule Train From Marks, Miss., Kicked Off MLK’s Poor People Campaign

The Poor People’s Campaign was to be a fusion of the poor in this country across race lines; people caravanning across the country to setup camp on the Mall in DC and create a city they called “Resurrection City.” There they would form a committee of 100 people to lobby for an economic Bill of Rights with five planks, including:

  • “A meaningful job at a living wage”
  • “A secure and adequate income” for all those unable to find or do a job
  • “Access to land” for economic uses
  • “Access to capital” for poor people and minorities to promote their own businesses
  • Ability for ordinary people to “play a truly significant role” in the government

King knew that beastly economics needed to be challenged, resisted, and corrected. He understood that underlying the creation America’s economic system was slave labor that has persisted and disadvantaged those without previous access to wealth and power (Via Wikipedia).

Signified in that visit to Marks, Mississippi, King realized that Civil Rights could not be fully secured until they were able to take on a Human Rights lens.

In one place he said:

“What good does it do to be able to eat at a lunch counter if you can’t buy a hamburger.”

And In another he remarked:

“We must recognize that we can’t solve our problem now until there is a radical redistribution of economic and political power.”

King understood something very deep about our own country: we can pay lip-service to “rights” for some while blocking equality in other spheres of our society.

In other words, one of the ways our underlying philosophy and commitment to beastly economics as a country shows up in who and how we prioritize our spending.

In his sermon at Riverside Church, “Beyond Vietnam” he critiques war just not on grounds of non-violence, he critiques war based on the underlying racism and economics that fund wars.

“A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth…A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.”

It was this turn towards a critique of beastly economics, and the threat of uplifting the voices of the poor that ultimately got King assassinated.

To resist empire out of faithfulness to something bigger, something more generous and loving, something more universal will always be dangerous.

My Friend, and bible scholar from the Kairos Center at Union Theological Center, Colleen Wessell-McCoy once pointed out that there are many ways to think about poverty (see an interview I did with Colleen on this subject here):

Poverty comes by way of an accident (it is no one’s fault, the system is basically fair); it comes through bad behaviors and bad choices (remember those unjustly labelled “welfare queens”); it is destiny, spiritual, even to be desired (Why take away someone’s destiny?).

But Rev. Dr. King, a pastor in the black church stood in the biblical prophetic tradition alongside the book of Revelation, understanding that there is another way to understand the origins of poverty and that is that poverty is systemic.

Poverty is the result not of a broken system, but of a system that is working. Poverty is the result of beastly economics (see Taking the Widow’s Mite: Economics from A Christian Perspective).

Building the Multitude

King knew that one had to resist this reality of beastly economics as though it were the only one possible, and instead bring people together across racial and class lines, empowering the poor to bring about the changes necessary.

King stood in a long line of actors and agents challenging “the religion of empire” and worked towards building what he called the beloved community and what Revelation calls “The Multitude,” one rooted in a vision of abundance for all people and all creation.

For our part today – what does it mean to be of this multitude, to be a people of love, goodness, goodwill and faith, willing to follow God in the face of empire no matter the cost?

King, in the Poor People’s campaign, reignited this prophetic thread and that work is not done yet.

How might we honor King’s challenge to us to have a revolution of values that touches all aspects of our lives?

How might we honor King, in this long thread of prophetic witness against systems that creates economic conditions that are so harmful to human flourishing, and instead work to build the multitude.

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Featured Sermons

Sermon: The Birth of a New, Contrast Community

This is a message I gave at First Friends Meeting in Greensboro on December 22, 2019 following Revelation 12 and Matthew 1:18ff. Here is the recorded version of the message.

Rev. 12:1   And a great sign appeared in heaven: a woman eclothed with fthe sun, with fthe moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars. 2 She was pregnant and gwas crying out in birth pains and the agony of giving birth. 3 And another sign appeared in heaven: behold, a great hred dragon, iwith seven heads and jten horns, and on his heads kseven diadems. 4 His tail swept down la third of the stars of heaven and mcast them to the earth. And the dragon stood before the woman who was about to give birth, so that when she bore her child nhe might devour it. 5 She gave birth to a male child, oone who is to rule1 all the nations with a rod of iron, but her child was pcaught up to God and to his throne, 6 and the woman fled into the wilderness, where she has a place prepared by God, in which she is to be nourished for q1,260 days.

Rev. 12:7   Now war arose in heaven, rMichael and shis angels fighting against the dragon. And the dragon and his angels fought back, 8 but he was defeated, and there was no longer any place for them in heaven. 9 And tthe great dragon was thrown down, uthat ancient serpent, who is called the devil and Satan, vthe deceiver of the whole world—whe was thrown down to the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him.

Matt. 1:18   Now the birth of uJesus Christ5 took place in this way. vWhen his mother Mary had been betrothed6 to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child wfrom the Holy Spirit. 19 And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling xto put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly. 20 But as he considered these things, behold, yan angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will bear a son, and zyou shall call his name Jesus, afor he will save his people from their sins.” 22 bAll this took place cto fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet:

Matt. 1:23    d“Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,

and they shall call his name eImmanuel” 

 (which means, God fwith us). 24 When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him: he took his wife, 25 but knew her not until she had given birth to a son. And ghe called his name Jesus.


Birthday Stories

In our family, the advent season is extra special. M, our middle daughter, was born on Nov 27, 2009. Just a few days before the start of advent on the liturgical calendar.

L, our oldest daughter, was born on December 19, 2007. She was due on Christmas, but thankfully Emily’s prayers were heard and she was born 6 days before. Now she doesn’t have to comete for spotlight with the Son of Man.

As you can see advent is special in our house the baby Jesus notwithstanding.

Advent is a time of waiting that anticipates arrival. It is very much like the Quaker concept of “expectant waiting.”

There is so much build up to the moment of birth.

One of the practices that we do each year with the kids is we have a special birthday dinner where the kids pick what they want to eat. Sometimes we make a meal, sometimes we go out to eat, but in either case, over dinner Emily and I pitch in to tell our celebrant their birth story.

  • L’s is focused around the anticipation of our first child. Her birth made us parents and changed our lives as a family.
  • M’s birth involves being born in water.
  • C’s involves time and patience.

Each one is special. Each year the details remain more or less consistent – thanks in large part to Emily’s high functioning memory – but they also sway and adapt as we get to know our children more and more.

These stories would change dramatically if there was a traumatic loss, a separation, hopes or promises broken.

Can you think back to your own birth story, and how your family talked about these earlier parts of your life? How has that story shaped you over your life?

Beginnings matter because because they tell us where the rest of the story is going. For better or worse, they orient us to the future.

Both pain and promise are often found within origin stories.
Birth stories have the power of building up or tearing down.

Christmas is the origin story of the church and it matters whether to us it is a sweet and quaint little story, domesticated and pretty, with Mary and Jospeh smiling happily as she gives birth in a stable; or if there is a build up to Revolution and change. If Mary and Joseph are refugees who are on the run and homeless, if there is both hope and fear in Mary’s eyes not just for what is now, but for what she knows is to come, then the story is very different.

If you have a crèche in your home, which we do, which origin story does it symbolize? One in which Jesus is a cute baby or one in which those living on the margins of society, living under occupation of the Roman Empire find hope and revolution?

Origin stories shape who we are and who we are becoming.


This is why I like Revelation 12 as an advent text, as strange as it first appears.

Why on earth would anyone read Revelation for advent? Besides the fact that most of you know I love the book of Revelation as a text that teaches the early Christian community how to resist and not assimilate into Empire, besides that, It was Jaimie, she told me to do it.

Actually – when she asked me to preach she wondered whether there was a way to look at Revelation 12 in the context of advent. Admittedly, this was not something I’d ever considered doing.

But lay Revelation 12 alongside Matthew 1, read them together as dialogue partners, perhaps two parents telling different versions of their child’s birth story.

Revelation 12 is the like the revolutionary’s crèche.

It is known to scholars (Blount) as a “cosmic combat myth,” while others talk about it as an example of myth and a counter-myth.

Here in Revelation 12 we see two competing birth stories, one portent from heaven signified by a pregnant women giving birth and a second portent signified by a great red dragon waiting over her, ready to “devour her child as soon as it was born.”

“Portent” – comes from the greek Semion as in semiotics – meaning signs. Similarly a portent, which I know is a word you all use in normal, everyday conversation, but I had to look it up – means:

“A sign or warning that a momentous or calamitous event is likely to happen.”

Sounds very similar to how we use the word “advent.”

In other words, Revelation 12, is an apocalyptic commentary on the original birth story reminding us that this birth initiated a cosmic conflict between the powers and principalities, between what Biblical scholar WHB calls the “religion of creation” and “the religion of empire.”

Even though we know there has been a conflict between these two religions at least since the time of the tower of Babel, Revelation is telling us that there is something about this birth that brings it to a head.

This is because the birth of Jesus surfaces the possibility of something new. A New, Contrast Community of people who not only do not assimilate into empire and resist its tactics and practices, but one that will actually become a counter-community, revealing instead what God intends for the world. A community seeking to live out Gospel Order.

Then I heard a loud voice in heaven, proclaiming, “Now have come the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God and the authority of his Messiah, for the accuser of our comrades has been thrown down, who accuses them day and night before our God.”

– Rev 12:10

The rest of this chapter describes a battle and victory of those who follow the lamb in nonviolent resistance. The marginalized ones, the ones oppressed and crushed by empire, are the ones who are a part of what the text calls the “kingdom of God.”

And when we go back to Matt 1 and our traditional Christmas stories we see that it is Jesus who is representative of these people, he is one of them, he is born to them. Jesus’ birth story tells of a God who shows up to and sides with the poor and victims of empire. Those who the dragon accuses and wishes to devour.

This is the power of the Christmas story.

It is not for gentle babes, born to a happy and stable nuclear family, it is – as Mary the mother of Jesus sings in the Gospel of Luke – for the:

51 scattering of the proud in the thoughts of their hearts;
52 he has brought down the mighty from their thrones
and exalted those of humble estate;
53 he has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich he has sent away empty.

So long as we read the Christmas story alongside Revelation’s critique of empire, we won’t loose site of the fact that this is an alternative origin story to what it means to be the people of God. What it means to be the church.


A New/Old Christmas Story

Revelation 12 reminds us there is far more to the story and urges us to keep its revolutionary character in front of us. If this is the birth story we are working from, than it cannot, will not become a story that builds up some of us up over and against some wicked others,

If this is the birth story we are working from we will refuse to scapegoat others, because we know that Jesus and his family are themselves on the run as scapegoats of empire.

If this is the birth story we are working from we will find ways to resist economics that oppress others because we know that Jesus was born to Palestinian Jews living under Roman occupation who extorted, enslaved, and were poor because of a system that was working to benefit some at the expense of everyone else.

If this is the birth story we are working from than we will join Jesus in the work of building towards an alternative reality, a contrast community, one that Revelation calls the Multitude, and Rev. Dr Martin Luther King, Jr. called the Beloved Community.

This multitude is a re-igniting of what God intended for humanity, a new community rooted in the goodness of creation, the love of God; rooted in the call to love neighbor and enemy alike. This multitude is a community that welcomes and centers the wounded, the betrayed, and others who have been victimized by empire.

It lives in active resistance to empire and empire’s origin stories and myths.

We get to choose which version of the Christmas story we participate in and perpetuate.

We get to choose what the creche symbolizes to us.

Our origin stories matter. And sometimes they need to change.

Let us live into the wake of this revolutionary story by narrating and building alternative communities of resistance, revitalization, and love in the face of empire.

Thank you, Friends.

Queries:

  • What role does origin/creation stories play in the formation of community?
  • What is your origin story?
  • What role does those on the margins and “all of creation” play in the our conceptions of community?
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Sermons

The Birth of an Alternative Community

I’m preaching this Sunday at First Friends Meeting here in Greensboro, the meeting my family and I attend. I don’t get to preach all that much any more, so I find it exciting to get the opportunity from time to time.

This week is advent but I’ve opted to do something a little different at the suggestion of our pastor, Jaimie Mudd, who wondered if I’d consider reflecting on Revelation 12 along side the Matthew birth narrative.

That work is in process so I won’t share too much on that yet, but I invite you to reflect on Revelation 12 and Matthew 1:18-25 and see what you find. Currently, I’m focuing on origin/creation/birth stories and how these stories shape who we are, our limits and our possibilities, and often the trajectory of our lives.

Here are three Queries around origin stories I’m working with this week:

  • What is your origin story?
  • What role does origin/creation stories play in the formation of community?
  • What role does those on the margins and “all of creation” play in the our conceptions of community?
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Sermons

Advent 2: Entering Mystery: From Wilderness to Forgiveness

This is the Message I gave to New Garden Friends Meeting on December 10, 2017.

The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,

“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way;
the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight,’”

John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” (Mark 1:1-8)

The Sterile and “Certainty” Modern Life

Here is a track from Radiohead’s “OK Computer,” not typcially a song played during advent, but as we go on through this message my hope is you will begin to see how it is related.

Fitter happier
More productive
Comfortable
Not drinking too much
Regular exercise at the gym (3 days a week)
Getting on better with your associate employee contemporaries
At ease
Eating well (no more microwave dinners and saturated fats)
A patient, better driver
A safer car (baby smiling in back seat)
Sleeping well (no bad dreams)
No paranoia
Careful to all animals (never washing spiders down the plughole)
Keep in contact with old friends (enjoy a drink now and then)
Will frequently check credit at (moral) bank (hole in the wall)
Favours for favours
Fond but not in love
Charity standing orders
On Sundays ring road supermarket
(No killing moths or putting boiling water on the ants)
Car wash (also on Sundays)
No longer afraid of the dark or midday shadows
Nothing so ridiculously teenage and desperate
Nothing so childish
At a better pace
Slower and more calculated
No chance of escape
Now self-employed
Concerned (but powerless)
An empowered and informed member of society (pragmatism not idealism)
Will not cry in public
Less chance of illness…

Categories
Sermons

On Passive and Active Silence and Liberation (Exodus 3)


This is a message I shared last week at First Friends Meeting in Greensboro, NC.

Is Anyone Listening?

Today I wanted to talk with you about the tension between silence and liberation, and how we might envision a Quaker community where this tension gets resolved.

When you think about all of the terrible things that are happening in this world and in our country as of late, I am thinking specifically of Harvey and Charlottesville, but there are so much more we could name, what comes to mind for you? And where does God factor into your thoughts on these tragedies we face?

If you’re anything like me, these come with their own fears, anxieties and a lot of questions; not just about why these things happen, but are there ways that I can help or be of use?

I wonder if things will ever come to a resolution.

I wonder why things seem so tilted against those who are already hurting, disenfranchised and vulnerable.

I wonder if God really is listening.

I want stability and certainty. And if I can’t get it, I am tempted to shut down, bury my head. I confess that this temptation is very strong, especially right now.

Categories
Quaker Sermons

The Parable of the Grain of Wheat: On Being Publishers of Truth Today



A number of folks have asked me to post this, so here is the message I gave tonight at the FUM Triennial gathering @ Friends University Wichita, KA.

“Listen carefully: Unless a grain of wheat is buried in the ground, dead to the world, it is never any more than a grain of wheat. But if it is buried, it sprouts and reproduces itself many times over. In the same way, anyone who holds on to life just as it is destroys that life. But if you let it go, reckless in your love, you’ll have it forever, real and eternal.” (John 12:24–25)

A Meditation on the Seed

I was Invited to come and speak to you a little bit about the idea of the “publishers of truth,” that many Friends, including Thomas Kelly, have written about.

As I was preparing this talk, this passage from John 12 and the grain of wheat kept coming to me as a basis for the message. So this is where I want to begin.

I’d like for you to start with an image of a seed in your mind’s eye – you can close your eyes if that is helpful. It can be any kind of a seed that is organic and from the earth as it was intended. What kind of seed is it? Where did it come from? And if it were allowed to sprout, what would it look like now?

Now imagine that you are this seed – clinging to the plant of which you are a now part. You hold onto life as you know it. You hold on to the first things you’ve learned; the stories, dispositions and ways of thinking about the world that were given to you by this plant. This plant is all you know and it has been your main source of nutrients from the beginning.

But there is something deep within you that tells you that if you do not eventually let go, you will not only die, but it is very possible that you could take down the whole plant to which you cling.

But now I want you to imagine a different outcome. The process by which you become self-differentiated from the plant, where there is a sustained connection to it (you are of course part of the same family), but you are no longer dependent on this plant for your own needs and sense of self.

Imagine that you muster up your courage to take this great risk and let go of the plant, you let go of what you know, you let go of security, you even for just a moment, suspend your instincts and you jump.

What happens next?

Well, if we are keeping in line with Jesus’ parable, the next thing that happens is that you hit the earth and you die, or at least that’s what it must feel like at first.

At first you are confused by all of this. Not only did you let go of all that you knew, where you have ended up appears to be encased in darkness. It is hard to breathe. It feels as though you have lost everything. Everything you once knew is of little help now.

The rain comes and causes you to sink further into the earth. The weight of footsteps overhead push you further still. The sun rises and sets, making the cells within your seed-body move and do things you did not know you were capable of. Roots sprout from within you and move outward, and slowly, over time, new life emerges from within you.

In a word, you experience: resurrection.

The Seed as Dyanmic Truth

This metaphor of the grain of wheat is a powerful image that not only speaks to our struggle to find our true selves in the face of the powerful narratives about who we are, the beliefs we hold, the people and stories that have brought us to where we are; it also speaks to the institutions that are so terrified of dying or being radically changed by a process of death and resurrection.

Which brings me to a burning question: are there certain practices, disciplines or theological teachings that help make a person (or institution) more or less capable of letting go? Why is it that so many of us seeds, myself included, assume that to hang on at all costs is the way to life; that truth is static, rather than this dynamic life of death and resurrection that Jesus calls us to?

Why is it that I once believed, and was once taught that the truth, the nutrients, the comforts I received for my Spiritual Life when I was 15 or 25 will forever remain exactly the same? This is something I think the church is often guilty of teaching.

To keep life and truth static like this suggests that the seed should never let go of the plant. Jesus’ teaching suggests something far more dynamic and radical: truth emerges through a dynamic interplay of community, our changing contexts and deep listening to the Holy Spirit.

Publishers of Truth

I have another story that I think will shed further light on all of this:

There was once an old wise master who was at the end of his life. He had one apprentice he was deeply fond of but was worried that this apprentice was still far from enlightenment. The apprentice was deeply devoted to the master, carefully following all of his teachings and never deviating from the path laid out. This was what troubled the master most of all. Calling his apprentice to eat with him privately, he began,

“You have been a thoughtful and dedicated follower of my teachings for many years, and you may well one day become a great teacher. However, I sense that you are in danger of betraying me in your thoughts and actions.”

This apprentice was crushed at the suggestion and responded, “… I never tire of engaging in the rituals and prayers that you have taught. I swear to you that I would never betray you, my great teacher.” The master responded, “The fact that you have never betrayed my teachings, and the fact that you swear never to betray them: this is to betray them already.”

This parable shares a similar contour of the story of the seed I shared earlier: to really enter into new life in the Spirit, one must be able to fully enter into a radical participation. A process we might call “a faithful betrayal.”

The seed letting go so that it can come into new life.

Both of these stories help us get at what it might mean to be publishers of truth today.

The apprentice in the story first applies himself to all of the teachings, all of the foundations and practices of the master. They learn all that can be encompassed within the master’s teachings. They have, in the words of Jesus, mastered the first part of the saying, “You have heard it said.”

And this is necessary and good. To be a publisher of truth, one must first become an apprentice to the truth as it has been handed down. One must learn the taste, the smell, the sight, the feel and the contours of their community of truth.

But this is not enough on its own to make a true apprentice is it? How happy do you think George Fox or Margaret Fell would be with us if one of them were to show up at the FUM Triennial only to learn that we continued to repeat word for word every line from their journals or papers? That we, in every way, had copied their work so thoroughly that you could not tell us apart from them? Do you think it was their mission to make mini Fox’s and Fell’s? Of course not. No one here believes this.
And this is not what we have done.

By the way, in some venues, this is quite an appropriate thing today – every good cover band or Elvis Presley impersonator masters this mode of mimicry.

But being a cover artist or an Elvis impersonator is not the way of an apprentice who wishes to become a publisher or truth.

No. It is not good enough to simply learn how to read and then repeat back what you have read. Yes, we want apprentices to read first, consume the tradition, eat the scroll, and ingest it until it so becomes you that you are able to think as though from inside the story.

You must master, “You have heard it said,” first, but if we stop there our growth is stunted. We must move on to the living and present Jesus who says, “You have heard it said, But I say to you…” No one chooses to stay in first grade for their whole lives, and yet, I am afraid that we often do this with our articulation of the Quaker tradition and understanding of Christian faith.

We are still too often just regurgitating what has been passed down to us.

To be publishers of truth this will not do. We need to move on to being able to articulate in our own words, experiences, and authentic encounter with Jesus in our context.

If we want to become publishers of truth, we must learn to move on from reading to writing. We must learn how to take the teachings and make them our own. We must become masters not just of our tradition, but masters of interpreting our tradition within new contexts, changing community needs, and engaging wherever the Spirit is moving in the world today.

We will grow to know when the articulation of faith is nothing more than a “silly poor Gospel.”

We cannot settle on being a cover band of the publishers of truth, “thieves” of the truth, as Margaret Fell might say. We need to a whole new generation who really are themselves publishers, bloggers, tweeters, ministers, missionaries and lovers of the truth.

Otherwise, We fall into the trap Thomas Kelly describes as:

“Their real fear is concerning the fixation of a few verbal statements as vessels of truth.”

Query: So my first query then is this: how are we as Friends, in our meetings and yearly meetings, apprenticing people to the Quaker tradition in such a way that gives them the freedom to move from reading to writing, from belief to faith, from a seed nurtured by the plant, to a seed spilled out on the ground, someday reproducing many times over?

Receivers of Truth

A second thought I wanted to bring to you this evening, which works in a different direction from the this first idea, is this: it is one thing to work at becoming publishers of truth, it is quite another to be on the receiving end of that truth.

Let’s go back to the original Publishers of truth for a minute and think about how well those around them received the truth they were spreading.

They challenged Christendom with the refrain, “Jesus Christ is come to lead the people himself,” suggesting that the powers and principalities that sat at the top of the Christendom hierarchy and benefited from it were in effect false shepherds.

They challenged patriarchy and sexism which to this day keeps women as second-class citizens, and makes gender a fixed and hierarchical construct used against some, while privileging others.

Friend Fox, Woolman, Benezet and a few minority of voices among Quakers challenged racism and the enslaving of human beings based on the color of their skin.

They challenged social mores and other generally accepted codes of conduct inside and outside the church.

At every point, there was a prophetic challenge that these publishers of truth announced as heralds of a new time; this was a new era of liberation for God’s people.

This, I do not believe was because they were just cranky folks or activists tired of politics as usual, or because they believed they were somehow superior and were out for a good fight to win.

I believe underneath all of this they were calling their hearers to enter into new truth:

As though to say from the parable: “if you allow yourselves to fall and be buried, you will rise again, sprouting and reproducing many times over.”

They were calling their hearers to let go of the kind of theology, practices and structures that continue to benefit a select few while exploiting the many, so that they could together find overflowing life here and now.

And this is all great, and probably how most of us understand the Quaker story, but have you ever thought about how well this message went over? What it was like to be on the receiving end of this? People just loved this little Quaker message right?

I can imagine folks who heard Quakers speak say things like:

“Those Quakers, I sure do love to be in dialogue with them! What lovely perspectives!”

“My favorite line they use on us is when they call us “professors and not possessors.”

No. No one ever said this about Fox, Fell and others.

No one loves being told they are wrong or that their ideas are outdated, harmful, or worse heretical. Don’t we all suffer from the addiction of being right?

Obviously there were many people who didn’t love this message. In fact, by all accounts there was very little love by the majority of their Christian counterparts. As you are well aware, many Quakers were locked up, many lost most or all of their property, some become very ill and died.

But this was all because they were publishing the truth, weren’t they?

Let’s empathize for a minute with the folks on the receiving end of these messages. What makes it so hard for us to hear the message? Why is there such a visceral reaction to the words of Fox and Fell? Why are we, if we are the crowd, ready to literally beat Fox with a bible and stone him because of what he is saying?

It is because what they were saying feels much closer to publishers of untruth than it is publishers of truth. The reactions say that what we think we’re hearing feels a lot more like heresy, than it does like truth.

And this is what puzzles me:

Why is it that truth, when we first encounter it – even as, and maybe especially as, Christians, hits us first as untruth?

I wonder if you have ever noticed this?

Think about some of the things you believe, viewpoints you have, commitments you held at one point in your life that are very different from today.

I assume we can all identify some of these things. Maybe even the simple fact that you’re a Quaker now.

As someone who grew up Catholic and then spent time in a non-denominational churches that believed all traditions and denominations were evil, it’s a bit shocking to be the one standing in front of a world gathering of Quakers speaking to you about how important the Quaker tradition is! If I were able to go back in time to visit my 18 year self, I would shock myself in many ways, not least of which is the fact that I’m a Quaker.

Or another personal example: My wife and I are from Ohio and lived in California and Washington State for 12 years. Back in 2009, I had a friend tell me that we needed to move to Greensboro, NC. That I would love working at Guilford College, and that as far as she was concerned this was what God wanted us to do.

My Wife and I both said thanks but absolutely no thanks, we will never, never move to the South. Too Hot. Too Humid, and I’m sorry we’re Yankees anyways. And I am here to tell you we really meant this from the bottom of our hearts. So guess what? 2 summers ago this week, we piled our three kids into our minivan and took a 10 day road trip across the country as we moved to Greensboro, NC where I began my work at Guilford College. Right smack dab in the south. And yes it’s hot, but it’s also a move we’re very happy we made.

I look back on these conversations now and see how silly I was, if not also a little addicted to being right. I think we have the expectation that at any given point we are static, finished beings, rather than that we will absorb new ideas, new truths, new leadings of the Spirit.

Why don’t we just start out expecting this kind of dynamic awareness in our spiritual lives? Instead, we really struggle with being receivers of truth, especially when we are confronted with something new, different, or out of the ordinary.

Anthony De Mello says:

The truth that sets us free is almost always the Truth we would rather not hear. So when we say something isn’t true, what we all too frequently mean is, “I don’t like it.”

Query: My second query for us tonight then is this: what must we do in our meetings and churches and yearly meetings to become receivers of truth? What practices can we participate in that will shape us to have the kind of spiritual imagination and generosity to receive what might first appear as an untruth, but may in fact turn out to be God’s message to us?

And who might be those within our meetings and yearly meetings today who are themselves bringing a truth to us, and yet we receive them more as publishers of untruth?

Gardeners of Truth in the Nursery of Truth

I want to leave you with one final image. Imagine now that you have a nursery full of seeds that have been planted and are sprouting up. You are the Gardener and your work is to tend to each seed. To nurture each one, just as it is and was intended to be. You do not get to tell each seed who it is or what it ought to be doing, that is up to the Creator. Your job is to create a space where that seed can grow into a healthy and beautiful plant that reveals once again the body of God in new ways. In this image, you are a Gardener of truth in a nursery of truth.

And in this nursery, as its gardener, you will water the seeds, till the earth, prune, and prepare the surrounding environment so that these seeds of truth can sprout and reproduce all over.

I believe that each one of you is the result of this kind of nursery of truth. Each one of you in this room has benefited in some way from the care and tending by Quaker elders and other spiritual leaders in your life; people who have been publishers, receivers and gardeners of truth.

And now, I want to ask you that as you return to your home meetings, churches and yearly meetings that you consider how you can create your own “nurseries of truth” for the emerging leaders in your community. In the early integration of the Quaker movement, there was originally a real place called “The Nursery of Truth” on the island of Barbados. It was the place where many Friends went first before they moved out into the American Colonies as missionaries publishing truth with their words and with their lives.

If we are to be publishers, receivers and gardeners of truth we need new nurseries of truth where we can grow. We need places where we can be shaped and formed in each of these practices of the Spirit.

We cannot learn how to move from reading to writing, from believing to faith, from receiving to care-taking, without apprenticeship within a nursery of truth: one focused on what Kelly called “the flaming center of God.”

The Nursery of Truth at Barbados became a kind of gateway into the colonies for Quaker missionaries wanting to embody truth. The nursery of truth today can be a gateway which we pass through that teaches us how to be publishers and receivers of truth today.

That if it is buried, it sprouts and reproduces many times over….letting go, reckless in love, embracing the real and eternal among us.

Amen.

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Sermons

Empire & The Multitude (Rev 7)

Lamb-slain

Here is the message I shared at College Park Baptist Church in Greensboro, NC on July 31, 2016. Cross posted from my medium blog.

The Rally

Thank you for inviting me here this morning [my name is Wess Daniels and I’m a Quaker minister and teacher at Guilford College] and I am glad to see that, after the last few weeks we’ve had, you haven’t all moved to Canada.

Many of us have running in the back of our minds the past two weeks with the RNC and DNC. If you’re like me, I’ve been caught up in all the news, the speeches and taking notes on how not to prepare speeches, and have been interested in the protests and the scandals.

I’ve been closely following twitter hashtags like:

#DemsinPhilly

#RNCinCLE

#BernieOrBust

#ImnotsayingImoutoftouchbut which had less to do with politics but was still funny. Like my friend Greg who tweeted:

#ImNotSayingImOutOfTouchBut when people talk about Minecraft, I always think they are talking about Minesweeper – Link

If you watched any of the two conventions you’ll know that there were a lot of words spoken, and those words, depending on the speakers perspective, tried to explain away or explain causes of things such as: continued gun violence in this country, ongoing terrorist attacks, poverty, issues around women’s rights, immigration, and marriage equality.

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Sermons Uncategorized

Brother’s K, Liturgy and Broken People

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Old Truck and Shed via Flickr

 

“But they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they did not cling to life even in the face of death.” (Revelation 12:11)

The work of the People

One of the signs of a true artist is a willingness to work patiently and lovingly with even the most inferior materials. -David James Duncan

David James Duncan’s novel “The Brother’s K,” is about a family that lives in Camas, WA. The place where I pastored for 6 years before moving to Greensboro. Papa, one of the main characters in the book, is a paper mill worker who has gone semi-professional in Baseball. He does fairly well as a pitcher for his team until he has his thumb crushed in an accident at the mill.

Consequently, he falls into depression and begins to abuse substances. So in an attempt to regain ground and find some life he builds a shed in the backyard where he begins practicing his pitching again.

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Sermons

The Lamb That Was Slain and the Politics of Scapegoating (Rev. 5:11-15)

Lamb-slain

This is the message I brought to Deep River Friends Church on April 11, 2016.

A Revelation about Revelation

I wanted to speak to you this morning from the book of Revelation, but as with anytime I talk on this subject, I want to give you a little disclaimer.

A few years back I was spending time in discernment about what next to preach on and I was inspired by something I heard the Quaker author Parker Palmer say once during a retreat I was on with him. He said that

“he never writes books about things he knows, he only writes on things that baffle him.”

What fun is it to write about things that you know well enough that you could do in your sleep? Where is the life in doing something that is so easy that it requires no risk, no chance?

So as I thought about what to preach I thought “What is the thing I’d like to preach least about?”

And before I could even finish asking the question, I already had the answer and wished I’d never asked that darn question: Revelation.

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Sermons

Advent, John the Baptist and Preparing for a Break

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John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” (Luke 3:7–9 NRSV)

This is the message I gave at Spring Friends Meeting Dec. 13, 2015

The Force of Togetherness

Usually, when we think and talk about Christmas, we think of it as a time to be together with loved ones. Christmas is the time when school shut down and students return home. It’s a time when the airports are full of hustle and bustle as sons and daughters try to make their way back home with the grandchildren in tow. It’s a time of the equally loved and hated office Christmas parties. There’s carol singing with friends. And at least for me, I can count on gaining at least a few pounds, because of all the baked goods that enter circulation. It’s also a time of great family tradition and religious traditions. I really do love this time of year, I love the opportunity to reflect on the biblical texts that surround this particular narrative. I love considering the Spirit of Christmas.

I love Christmas eve services and yes, I love all the Trader Joe’s Christmas cookies.

If we are fortunate, if things have gone more or less okay in our lives than most of us don’t have to do any of these things alone.

Christmas really is a time of togetherness.

But togetherness is not all it’s cracked up to be.