My final sermon at Southminster.
The audio includes a wonderful tribute by my colleague and friend, Rev. Don Ludwig.
And a beautiful blessing from the children.
The choir sang “A New Day” perfect for “Christ the King” or “Reign of Divine Values” Sunday.
November 24, 2019
The divine purpose, thus revealed, is to overcome evil by bringing about a Reign of Divine Values (traditionally called the Kingdom of God) on Earth, in which the present subjugation of life to demonic values—lies, ugliness, greed, destructiveness, injustice, hate, and indifference—will be replaced by a mode of life based on divine values—truth, love, beauty, goodness, justice, and compassion….
The Christian Community should base itself, all of its activities, on the Christian Community’s mission. Its basic mission is to lead the way in God’s battle against demonic power on Earth. The church is meant to serve as a counterforce to the demonic dimension of the symbolic structure in which human beings live. God’s incarnational activity in Jesus should be understood as a divine offensive against the power of the demonic.
The Christian Community should, of course, engage in ethical and political activity as usually understood. But this activity should be carried out in the context of a spiritual offensive, in which the power of prayer is used to reinforce the divine influence upon the individuals and institutions involved. Praying for those who are especially enslaved to demonic power, and who are incarnating it in especially destructive ways, will not only serve to remind us that they are essentially good creatures who are loved by God, but also that our battle is not with them but with the demonic power to which they are enslaved….
Central to worship is Communion (the Lord’s Supper, the Eucharist), in which we remember that Jesus remained faithful in his opposition to the empire, which led to his death on a Roman cross.
Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture! says the Lord. Therefore, thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, concerning the shepherds who shepherd my people: It is you who have scattered my flock, and have driven them away, and you have not attended to them. So I will attend to you for your evil doings, says the Lord. Then I myself will gather the remnant of my flock out of all the lands where I have driven them, and I will bring them back to their fold, and they shall be fruitful and multiply. I will raise up shepherds over them who will shepherd them, and they shall not fear any longer, or be dismayed, nor shall any be missing, says the Lord.
The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In his days Judah will be saved and Israel will live in safety. And this is the name by which he will be called: ‘The Lord is our righteousness.’
When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. Then Jesus said, ‘Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.’ And they cast lots to divide his clothing. And the people stood by, watching; but the leaders scoffed at him, saying, ‘He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!’ The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine, and saying, ‘If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!’ There was also an inscription over him, ‘This is the King of the Jews.’
One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, ‘Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!’ But the other rebuked him, saying, ‘Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.’ Then he said, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’ He replied, ‘Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.’
The Reign of Divine Values
On Friday I prayed at the Islamic Center of Portland
as I do on occasion. It is where I go to “church” so to speak. Where do ministers who lead worship go to worship for themselves? That is where I go. I appreciate the sermons of Imam Muhsen Al-Dhalimy. I always learn new things. I am learning slowly how to pray. They are patient with me and welcoming. Happy that I am with them.
This past Friday, a boy, a middle schooler, I would guess, led the call to prayer. Afterward, when prayer was finished, in the hallway he told me how much he liked the film Josh Townsley and I made about our walk to Karbala. He spontaneously gave me a hug and asked me if I was a Muslim.
I have been asked that before as I have been invited to speak at Islamic Centers around the country this past year. I never know exactly how to answer that. On Friday, I said,
“I am a Muslim in my heart.”
I don’t think we can really engage in interfaith work and not have our hearts transformed and expanded. In interfaith encounters, at least as I see it, we must risk transformation. It isn’t just about telling others what we think or what we believe. Then it is nothing more than a sales pitch. For me, I want to know what God is saying to me through you. That approach, by its very nature, risks transformation. You can’t control what will become of you.
In this my last sermon with you, I do want to leave you with a few things including my appreciation for you, my gratitude to you and for you, and my blessing to you. It has been a good five years. We have done good things together. I am glad I came here and served among you. Despite the discomfort of how things are ending, it is time for that ending as well. I fully support what you will be voting on today in terms of dissolving the call. Your session and I have worked together and all of us have come up with an agreement that meets all of our needs.
As John O’Donohue writes in his book, To Bless the Space Between Us, one of his blessings is entitled “For the Time of Necessary Decision.” It says in part:
“Often we only know it is time to change
When a force has built inside the heart
That leaves us uneasy as we are.”
Southminster’s phrase is “companions on a spiritual journey” and you have been my companion. I cannot say what I have given you. I hope I have been a companion to you on your spiritual journey as well. But do know, that you have been a companion on mine. All of you, even those who have been uncomfortable with me. You all have been my teachers, my companions. You have shown me the Divine presence and have lived the Divine values in many different ways. I have laughed a lot with you. We have shared tears. We have shared a great deal and none of that is lost and I thank you.
I also feel it is fitting that today is Christ the King Sunday, the last Sunday of the church year. The phrase “Christ the King” sounds archaic. After all, kings rule by force. That is not how Christ empowers. Christ leads through love. So we might call this Sunday “Reign of Christ” Sunday or “Reign of Divine Values” Sunday.
That is really what it is about. It is about the hope of a renewed creation in which we relate to one another and to Earth with the values Jesus taught and lived: Beauty, Truth, Justice, Love, Peace, Courage, and Compassion.
As the text from Luke’s Gospel illustrates, Jesus demonstrated the Reign of Divine Values as he went to the cross. His sacrifice showed the world the true realm of God. It is this concept of sacrifice that is really at the core of this transformation that happened to me and I think is happening in the world. I feel the need to share this journey with you as I close my time with you.
In February 2018, I moderated a panel discussion regarding the war against Yemen at Portland State University. It was entitled “The US – Saudi Coalition: Bringing Peace or War?”
It was in the follow-up of that conference during an email exchange that I first heard of Hussain. He was referenced in regards to the panelists, all of whom had taken risks and had sacrificed in varying ways for their work in bringing truth to light. All of the panelists, including Kevin Barrett and Mohammad Al-Nimr, were and are truth-tellers. They told inconvenient truths about the powers that be.
That is how I was introduced to Imam Hussain (Peace Be Upon Him). He was a truth-teller and was martyred for embodying the truth. I knew nothing else about him except that. I wanted to learn more.
When I went to Karbala, Iraq for Arba’een I did learn more about Hussain, the grandson of the Prophet Mohammad, not only intellectually but also spiritually. I learned that Hussain, through his sacrifice, saved Islam. He defined Islam by his sacrifice as a religion of Beauty, Truth, Justice, Love, Peace, Courage, and Compassion.
Hussain was and is, as I saw him, a mirror-image of Jesus. They are siblings. They are brothers. They are one. As I said in a sermon a few months ago.
It is Jesus I follow to Karbala.
Jesus showed me Hussain.
If I want to follow Jesus,
I must follow Hussain.
Hussain shows me how to follow Jesus.
Hussain and Jesus both sacrificed in the same way. They sacrificed all they had, their very lives for the Reign of God, for the Reign of Divine Values, and they both summoned the world to follow in their steps if we wish to participate in this transformation of the world.
This Arba’een walk of 15 to 20 million or more is a modern miracle of this transformation. It is a sacrament through which the world is being summoned to walk as one against all forms of tyranny.
My heart for Jesus expanded because of Hussain. I am a better Christian because of my encounter with Islam.
This is not about religion in the narrow sense of that word (whether one is Christian, Muslim, Jew or whatever), but it is about religion in the broadest sense, the power of love that connects us all at the deepest levels.
When I went and touched the box above the grave of Imam Hussain (alayhi-salaam) I wasn’t sure if I should. Hussain wasn’t a figure in my religion. But I was told again and again that Hussain is for everyone, regardless of religion or creed. Just like Jesus.
So I am in the Shrine of Imam Hussain (peace be upon him). It is beautiful. The air conditioning is on. It is filled with the sound of prayer. People are crying. Some are standing. Some are sitting. Some are in various positions of prayer. Poetry is being recited from many places. I don’t understand a word of it, except now and then I hear a name I recognize, Ali, Zainab, Abbas, Hossein.
This is about a week before Arba’een. I am with the tour group. I decide I want to go and touch the big box in the center of the shrine, the lattice work above the grave of Hussain. I don’t know what it is like on the women’s side, but on the men’s side, even a week before the day of Arba’een the place is packed. it is a push and pull like ocean waves of bodies. Your feet almost leave the ground. There are so many people. You know where you are headed. It is like swimming in the ocean. You don’t need to be aggressive but you need to hold your own. You swim through the bodies, pushed left and right. Finally, I got close enough, almost there.
I should stop here. I was conscious of being different. Different religion. I only speak English. From America. My reddish hair, now reddish-gray, pale skin. Of the thousands of people inside the shrine that day, I was probably the whitest guy in the room. I reach up and put my hand up to touch the lattice work and I can’t reach it.
What happened with me is that as I reached up, I couldn’t touch it, and a hand took mine and pushed it up against the grate. It was a brown hand, taking my white hand up against the final resting place of Imam Hussain (peace be upon him). It was a visual imprint in my mind that beyond all color, all race, all religion, all language, the language of love and truth and courage is one. The love of Hussain. Our eyes met. We just looked at each other.
As I swam away, just a few yards away, I saw this man. He stared at me. Tears were streaming down his face. He asked me as many did on my trip, “Where are you from?” I told him, America. He just started bawling. He hugged me and kissed me. I have joked that I never have been kissed by so many men with scratchy beards.
But what is this?
Iraq. A country that felt post-apocalyptic to me. I like many of us Americans, watched from a distance as our leaders lied us into war, destroyed Iraq, and then ignored its suffering. No one goes there. No one that I know, except my brother-in-law. He is a professor at NYU and he goes often to the northern part of Iraq because of his work of peacebuilding with the University of Kirkuk. Besides my brother-in-law and soldiers, I know of no one who had been to Iraq. A country that Americans like me need to visit. A country devastated by the demonic, by lies and wars, by bombs and depleted uranium. By hatred from outside powers, mercenary terrorists and puppet tyrants, the people left to fend for themselves.
The US state department tells Americans not to go to Iraq. Too dangerous. Bad. Whatever. What did I find? I found love. I found tears. I found joy. I found hope. I found my heart had expanded. A Christian American was embraced and shown the love of Hussain (alayhi s-salam).
My heart was expanded. Courage is the result of an expanded heart. With courage is insight to tell the truth as best you know it when you need to tell it. That doesn’t mean I know truth more than others. That doesn’t mean I am not ever wrong. I am wrong often. Courage is admitting it and learning from it.
Courage does not mean me selling you my truth. It doesn’t mean that. Hearts do not expand that way. You tell what is true and live what is true and God does the rest.
But it does mean that I cannot be afraid of what I know or of what I learn because of the discomfort of truth to me or others or to the powers that deceive.
I included in today’s order of worship, three different quotes from Dr. David Ray Griffin
. Dr. Griffin, in my opinion, is the most important Christian theologian in the 21st century. The reason I make that very bold statement is because of sacrifice.
He held on to what he believed to be true, not only true, but important for justice, despite misunderstanding, ridicule, name-calling, and marginalization.
He communicated what he believed to be true at the very point when and where it matters most.
I am going to add Dr. Kevin Barrett
to my list of the most important Muslim scholars of our time as well for the very same reason. Sacrifice.
He communicated what he believed to be true at the very point when and where it matters most. He did so at great risk to himself and at great loss.
That is the type of sacrifice that is in the spirit of Jesus and Hussain (peace be upon them both).
That is what I want to leave with you my dear beloveds at Southminster.
Hold to your truth.
Hold fast to your truth.
Whatever that truth is, don’t let it go for the sake of acceptance by others.
No relationship that requires you to deny your truth is worth keeping.
But if it is true and good, it will last.
It will resurrect beyond death.
It will live and save.
In the Gospel of Thomas, Jesus said:
If you bring forth what is within you,
What you bring forth will save you.
If you do not bring forth what is within you,
What you do not bring forth will kill you.
In other words if you bring forth your truth,
that truth will save you.
If you do not bring forth your truth,
that truth will destroy you.
So in answer to the question of the boy who asked me on Friday if I am a Muslim.
I will leave that for God to judge whether or not I am worthy to be called a Muslim.
For my part, I will trust the brotherhood of Jesus and Hussain as bringers of Divine Values.
May we all embrace these values regardless of our religion.
In terms of a blessing, this is for you, Southminster.
It is from John O’Donohue’s book, To Bless the Space Between Us.
It is called A Blessing of Angels.
May the Angels in their beauty bless you.
May they turn toward you streams of blessing.
May the Angel of Awakening stir your heart
to come alive to the eternal within you,
to all the invitations that quietly surround you.
May the Angel of Healing turn your wounds into
sources of refreshment.
May the Angel of the Imagination enable you to stand on the true thresholds,
at ease with your ambivalence and drawn in new directions
through the glow of your contradictions.
May the Angel of Compassion open your eyes
to the unseen suffering around you.
May the Angel of Wildness disturb the places
where your life is domesticated and safe,
take you to the territories of true otherness
where all that is awkward in you can fall into its own rhythm.
May the Angel of Eros introduce you to the beauty of your senses
to celebrate your inheritance as a temple of the holy spirit.
May the Angel of Justice disturb you to take
the side of the poor and the wronged.
May the Angel of Encouragement confirm you in worth and self-respect,
that you may live with the dignity that presides in your soul.
May the Angel of Death arrive only when your life is complete
and you have brought every given gift to the threshold where its infinity can shine.
May all the Angels be your sheltering and joyful guardians.