Let Death Go: Grace to Act, Live Fully & with a Mission

Kent Beduhn
6/21/2020

Good morning. These are amazing scriptures with common themes.  In all of them we are confronted with direct images and experiences of bullying intimidation and death, but also grace-filled release and new life, in all of them there are choices and a dilemma presented, and in all of them Grace intervenes to offer a way through and out of the dilemma—where God may be revealed. Whenever God is revealed, the breakthrough feels like grace; Grace, defined as “the free and unmerited, undeserved favor of God, as in salvation and blessings.” We follow Jesus because his life reveals God’s depth of Grace, Jesus is worthy of following because he shows us the example of a “fully lived life,” a life that “risked its significance” for something much “larger than self.” With such grace-filled values, God says, you can “forget about yourself and look to me,” and “you’ll find both yourself and me.” Can we forget about ourselves for a few minutes and look to the larger relationship with us expressed in these scriptures?

Thanks to Luisely’s sharing after Gail’s Sermon last week, I’ve been looking again at Walter Bruegemann’s most relevant text for our times, The Prophetic Imagination.  He offers a few perspectives on how to energize and awaken our relationship with God, as fellow prophets, in our stand against injustice and oppression to establish God’s Justice and Freedom: 

1.     Grace to act.  Through a prophet’s passion, expressive of God’s passion, the God-possessed, radical criticism of our culture opens us to breakthroughs of Grace. We directly experience how God is suffering with us, is present in the anguish & anger –as well as the unity and solidarity—as we feel that motivate us to action.

2.     Grace to live fully in the face of death.  This prophetic critique offers an alternative view of Present reality—embracing a past history and future hope infused with God’s Freedom and Justice.  God’s Freedom and Justice break in and through, releasing us in our passion to remember and dream an authentic life in the face of death.  

3.     Grace to act and live mission, with meaning and purpose.  Jesus and his Cross, expressed in the Jesus’ Passion, dispel the numbness & death of the domination consciousness.   The State’s domination of religion, and “domination awareness or consciousness” happens when 3 things exist: 1. an economics of affluence, 2. a politics of oppression, and a religion that’s complacent to the abuses and death represented by both of these.  The prophet’s awareness, and emotional sync with God, expresses God’s passionate connection with us in the midst of death, and inspires us to act in mission.  Both the loss of life, signs of grace and resurrection of life, in prophetic awareness, make possible the ultimate breakthrough of God’s Freedom and Justice in the world.  

 

Dawna Markova touches the personal aliveness of this breakthrough of God’s freedom and justice in her poem: “I will not die an unlived life,” which she introduces, saying: “The poem is a candle that my soul holds out to me, requesting I find a way to remember what it is to live a life with passion, on purpose. There is only enough light to take the journey step by step, but that is all any of us really needs.  …When you have the courage to shape your life from the essence of who you are, you ignite, becoming truly alive. This requires letting go of everything that is inauthentic.”

            I will not die an unlived life

            I will not live in fear of falling or catching fire.

            I choose to inhabit my days,

            to allow my living to open me,

            to make me less afraid,

            more accessible,

            to loosen my heart 

            until it becomes a wing, 

            a torch, a promise.

            I choose to risk my significance; 

            to live so that which came to me as seed 

            goes to the next as blossom

            and that which came to me as blossom, 

            goes on as fruit.

What kind of fruits do we want our actions to grow in this world? Under the weight of the moment, it may be hard to Act in Grace, to show up as a Child of God.  In the midst of all the changes we’re living through—COVID, racial crimes, demonstrations and more murders at the hands of police, inept and unresponsive leadership, we ask, “What actions are best now? How to we need to show up in the moment?”   We have cultural and political leadership that has coached a singular, defensive response: “WE are AT WAR. We MUST DOMINATE.”  When I heard the President’s phone call to the Governors, encouraging them to accept military and National Guard reinforcements to enforce “total domination,” it was a familiar repetition of the same message that the slave-owners had shown to Blacks in America.  What is fundamental to the domination attitude and awareness everywhere in the President’s re-election politics now is both the economy of affluence and the oppression of an enemy: the poor, the “other,” the outsider.   In order to hold these postures, the government has to be at ease in the lack of accountability (through religion) to share—either resources or compassionate caring presence—a society. It’s the prophetic voice, the critic, that awakens alternative awareness, the truth, freedom and justice of God, in the face of the dominating wealthy and unresponsive voices.  One example among many is the police attitudes towards Blacks.   It’s the “total domination” that the police have shown to many victims of brutal treatment, uncontrolled violence, murder, cruel and inhumane treatment, both unconscionable and despicable; say their names: Rayshard Brooks, George Floyd, Freddie Gray, Michael Scott, Michael Brown, Eric Garner... and countless others.   

     

Walter Bruegemann addresses the need for Imagination to inspire outrageous hope in his book, Prophetic Imagination.   We are engaged in a time when outrageous hope & rooted connection in God’s relationship with us will inspire new energy and wakefulness.  Three energies in a mutually reinforcing triangle of power attempt to subvert and undermine God’s power, where the State or Royal Consciousness uses it to dominate the Alternative consciousness.  These are pervasive systemic in our society now:

1.     Economy of Affluence: where the goal is satisfaction, satiation, and a management mentality that only deals with what it can control and date it can manipulate, and only deals with problems it can solve with “bold initiatives.”  It’s legitimized by a “religion of optimism, where it’s “God who maintains” our privilege or standard of living.  In other words, the Economy of Affluence frames wealth and privilege in the terms of ruling minority’s special access to God’s favor and blessing. 

2.     Politics of Oppression:  where the goal is annulment of our relationship with our neighbor, the other, the stranger.  The cries and pain of the marginalized are unheard and made to seem insignificant by the power structures.  In other words, Domination and privilege are deemed necessary for the sake of control, order, human law or rules which are used to justify even more power and force in its maintenance against the poor, disenfranchised and non-privileged.

3.     Religion of Immanence:  This is the manipulation of the experience of God “right here and right now” by the State, where in powerful are made to feel as though they understand God fully, have “God on our side” or “in our pocket,” explaining God’s motives and psychology as if it’s self-evident.  

But how can God’s energy break through the numbness and heavy cloud of denial and systemic racism still clouding our minds, hearts, actions?  How does God break through the violence with Grace?

There is an Alternative consciousness, a prophetic awareness where God’s felt relationship with creation and passion is attentive to those who are on the margins, those suffering or poor.  God’s representative or prophet shows the power and passion to care, to act, to grieve and to weep, but also rejoice and stand with, in favor of the poor.   The alternative consciousness is devoted to expressing the pathos and passion of covenant between God and the people.  This is to honor the mystery and unknowability of God, to remember the history of God in our midst, and to envision God’s future for us in the Beloved Community.

 

All of today’s lectionary scriptures are related to ultimate value and worth, about God breaking through the violence with Grace.   In the midst of depth upset, distress and even anguish, we ask the hardest human questions of existence: How are the true value or worth of life or death measured?  What’s an awareness so powerful that the value of life, in the midst of death, grief, suffering, can be received as Grace?  What can break through seeming worthlessness of life abandoned in suffering to reveal God’s freedom and justice? Review the scriptures with me with a brief commentary on how that happens:

From Psalm. 116, we hear the cry for mercy and depth gratitude of one who’s faced death directly: 3 The cords of death entangled me,

    the anguish of the grave came over me;

    I was overcome by distress and sorrow.

4 Then I called on the name of the Lord:

    “Lord, save me!”

Death stared me in the face,

    hell was hard on my heels.

Up against it, I didn’t know which way to turn;

    then I called out to God for help:

“Please, God!” I cried out.

    “Save my life!”

These could have been the last words of George Floyd as he struggled to breathe his last breaths.   Surely, we too have been confronted with anguish (sadness or loss) or become overcome by stress or grief in these days of turmoil and trouble.  Threats that once seemed distant seem close and normalized; if this is the “new normal,” please, give me the old days or the unseen future.   And yet, despite the looming sense of death, there is a breaking in of remembrance of the life given by God: a passion to return a thank offering for God’s goodness, a celebration of servanthood and fulfilling of vows, a lifting up of the cup of salvation and calling on the name of the Lord in Praise. Brueggemann says both remembrance of the past and the act of praise can dispel the illusion of domination.

 

From Genesis 21, the story of Hagar and Ishmael, the one-day nation of Islam, being sent away is wrenching and horrifying. Abraham has been promised to be the Father of a Nation, and so God reassures Abraham, speaking to him after Hagar’s insistence he be rejected and sent away.  God again promises he need not worry about the boy, who will become a Nation.   Abraham, Israel’s model for hospitality and faithful generosity, sends away his own son and slave woman in to the desert wilderness, seemingly to die. After drinking all the water, assured she and her son would die, Hagar (in one translation) “casts off” her son under a bush, and withdraws a “bowshot” distance away, for she could not bear to watch her son die.  Her son and she are wailing, abandoned and anguished beyond knowing, until: 

17-18 Meanwhile, God heard the boy crying. The angel of God called from Heaven to Hagar, “What’s wrong, Hagar? Don’t be afraid. God has heard the boy and knows the fix he’s in. Up now; go get the boy. Hold him tight. I’m going to make of him a great nation.”

 

As Hagar rises to go and get the child, hope renewed by promise, “God opened her eyes” and she sees a well of water nearby and goes and fills her skin and gives her son a drink.  Further, the text says, “God was with him as he grew,” stating how he becomes a great archer and obtains an Egyptian wife with his mother’s help.   Despite the looming of death, a way to life and freedom with the justice of “becoming a nation” is restored.  There’s also the “prior grace” of this story, where God says to Abraham, “Don’t worry about the boy, for I will make of him a great nation.”  There are 2 places Grace breaks in here—in the prior assurance of God that “I will develop a nation from him.  He’s your boy, too,” to Abraham. The second grace response to the child’s crying in the wilderness of the desert, dying of thirst, again comes with the angel’s assurance that “the child will become a Nation,” and then “God opened her eyes” to the presence of water nearby.  How many times has God opened our eyes to things we were desperately longing for—even dying for—that were within our reach but that we could not see?   This is Grace.  Bruegemann speaks of how necessary it is to stay open to new opportunities for prophetic imagination to “lay bare an alternative perception of history in light of God’s freedom and will for justice.” Brueggemann goes on to say, “The issues of  God’s freedom and [God’s] will for justice are not always and need not be expressed primarily in the big issues of the day.  They can be discerned wherever people try to live together and worry about their future and their identity.”  God’s grace broke in dispelling the trance of death over Hagar and Ishmael, fulfilling God’s promise, creating the great Nation of Islam.  

 

God’s desire for freedom and justice is taking lots of forms, even in our community.  Our discernment and contemplation of our own structures and leadership turnover in these recent months—though not a central issue in society, are evidence of God’s work in our midst. 

 

Turning to the gospel, Jesus in this part of Matthew has been preparing his disciples for hands-on ministry, on their own.   To give some context, in the prior passage Jesus warns disciples of going out “like sheep into the midst of wolves;” admonishing them, “so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.” In the passage just following this gospel reading, Jesus encourages them with a sense of his abiding presence, and God’s presence: “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.”  His presence is what they will need to remember as they enter the intense confrontation Jesus presents to the standards of meritocracy, loyalty and allegiance to the culture: In so many words—

·      “It’s enough for you to be like me (not to be me).”

·      “Be fearless, because all this will be revealed to you. What I’ve said in private you can tell everywhere to everyone. Don’t worry about your body, because it’s your soul that makes you so valuable to God.” 

·      “Valuing, seeing and hearing God’s freedom and justice, right now, are the keys revealing the true value of our lives.” 

·      “The peace you thought I’d bring is actually a way to separate you out according to how much you value me and God’s message.   Like me, you will need to follow by what you DO in order to find your value and worthiness in God’s freedom and justice. Go ahead and lose your worthless lives, in order to find lives of infinite value and authenticity in me.”  

 

Just when the disciples know they are over their heads with responsibility and Jesus’ expectations for ministry, Jesus offers Grace in the “courage to be.” The courage to be valued uniquely in their souls, based on inner commitment.  The “courage to be” that is worthy in the radical divorce from the culture in their choices, even the culture of family, to be infinitely, internally valued as they choose to give their life in order to receive authentic life.  Grace breaks through internal value in your grief as you exchange false external peace and societal belonging.   Grace breaks through internal worthiness and authentic life in exchange for external loyalty, numbness and complacency.  Brueggemann suggests the most brief summary of prophetic ministry is captured in the scriptures: “Blessed are you that weep now, for you shall laugh” (Luke 6:21) and “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” (Matthew 5:4)

 

Walter Brueggemann offers several ways to “wake up” to how God is breaking in with presence through the prophets in our midst:  Listen to the passion, and open to the metaphors, the stories.  The sermon of  Rev. Al Sharpton at George Floyd’s funeral is an example of this to me: it said REMEMBER! and HAVE A VISION! “For 400 years, we would have done better, but you had your knees on our necks.” Depth remembering and the vision of our salvation history is evidence of God breaking in through the ongoing demonstrations and rallies to honor George Floyd, Rayshard Brooks and many others.   It’s one of the reasons our personal spiritual autobiographies are so critical and important.   Brueggemann says “Prophetic ministry seeks to penetrate the numbness to face the body of death in which we are caught.  Clearly the numbness sometimes evokes from us rage and anger, but the numbness is more likely to be penetrated by grief and lament.  Death, and that is our state, does not require indignation as much as it requires anguish and the sharing in the pain. The public sharing in the pain is one way to let reality sink in and let the death go.”

 

“Let the death go.”  This could be a mantra for the protests I’ve attended recently.  I close to reflect with one last, personal story, a month ago, when I went to the Friday night demonstration honoring George Floyd’s death on 16th St.  It was the only time I had left my home for anything but groceries in 12+ weeks.  I took my guitar, which is my medicine, and walked toward the Ethical Society, where Marcia said she & Mike might be.  I walked the 6 blocks from North Portal Dr., where Ann Barnet used to live, south on 16th street.  At first, I was stunned, but then it hit me that ALL the people there were there with this common purpose, ALL along 16th St., and there were hundreds within sight.  Praise God!  I was walking with my scarf over my face, but something welled up inside, something very strong.  I felt myself starting to sob as I walked, looking ahead, grateful for the showing & solidarity for Floyd, grieving for the loss, standing and walking for the protest and trying to make a meaningless death meaningful—through the shared anguish, shared honoring.  In this memorial, over the coming half hour, I stopped a couple times, and stood, and then continued to look for friends, but then I realized it didn’t matter if I found folks from 8th Day, because we were all community.  I found another place to stand, shared with some folks standing, and at about 5:45, when people began to take a knee to honor the 8’46” that Derek Gauvin knelt on George Floyd’s neck while he begged for his breath & life, first a light rain and then a heavier rain began to fall.  I was on one knee, again sobbing, in grief, but also witnessing with others doing the same and allowing myself to be soaked by the heavens themselves weeping and nourishing us with grace-filled rains, as if God was also weeping…

 

Let me summarize: “Grief and praise are ways of prophetic criticism and energy.”  (Brueggemann) Jesus’ cross and losing our life for finding Jesus’s authentic life in us awakens the energy of the alternative awareness to be less afraid, more accessible, to loosen our hearts, to risk our significance.  Again, we turn to Dawna Markova:  

I will not die an unlived life

I will not live in fear

of falling or catching fire.

I choose to inhabit my days,

to allow my living to open me,

to make me less afraid,

more accessible,

to loosen my heart

until it becomes a wing,

a torch, a promise.

I choose to risk my significance;

to live so that which came to me as seed

goes to the next as blossom

and that which came to me as blossom,

goes on as fruit.

 

Lectionary Scriptures:

Genesis 21:8-21 

Psalm 86:1-10, 16-17

Matt 10:24-39

Romans 6:1b-11