Sermon by Rev. Todd Weir
May 21, 2017
I don’t like notification noises on my phone. I don’t need a train whistle with every email, or a “ka-ching” sound when someone messages me on Facebook. I just set my phone of vibrate, and have ringtones for close family. But this week was different. Somehow, my “news” notifications were turned on, and my phone blew up every day. Which raises an important question; What is the appropriate notification ring tone for news that the President has fired the FBI Director who was investigating him? I have a tone called “update,” I think that works. If I really were more techie I would download a song for news alerts. When the NY Times sends out an alert, my phone could play something from the 70s like, “Stop, Hey, what’s that sound? Everybody look what’s going down!”
There was a great deal of big news this week, but there is so much happening I get swamped. And it doesn’t help that everything is “Breaking News.” “Everything happens fast, but nothing actually happens. Each story on televised news is “breaking” until it is displaced by the next one. We are hit by wave upon wave but never see the ocean.”
You know what I need? Rather than a better smartphone app to aggregate my content to understand the world, I need an advocate-A comforter, a counselor, a coach-a voice of the spirit of truth who will abide with me. I need a continuing voice of the work and wisdom of Jesus, so I would not feel alone or orphaned in the changing moral landscape. I want a voice to keep me on the way, the truth and the life. In John’s Gospel, Jesus tells his disciples that an Advocate will continue to be a presence even after he is gone. The context of these words is powerful. Jesus is not speaking to his disciples on a week-long spiritual retreat on the Cape, complete with time for the beach and culinary trained chef. This is his farewell discourse, and he is not leaving because he got a promotion, but because tyranny is about to have its way with him. Tyranny is making an example for all who still live and speak the truth, conform or be destroyed. But the voice of the spirit of God will not be silenced by killing Jesus, for the Advocate will come.
Later in John’s Gospel, after the death and resurrection of Christ, he appears to his disciples, and he delivers this Advocate, this Spirit in an interesting and very personal way. He breaths on them. At first this sounds a little weird, I would be uncomfortable with anyone breathing on me. But there is a lot of symbolism in the gesture, like God breathing into the nostrils of Adam to give life. Life is in the breath, and so many religious cultures incorporate breathing into spiritual practices. When life gets crazy take a breath. Lets pause and do that right now. Get in a good posture and lets take three deep breaths together. On breath one let it fill your belly, and breath deep here we go…One and out…Two and out…Three and out. Do you notice a different in your being? It is so important to breath.
While you are finding this comforting, you might be thinking, “Pastor, I appreciate mindfulness and spiritual practices, but that is not going to stop the tyranny of the world and the destruction of the environment and, well I could go on. We need to breath as a community as well. Jesus did not deliver this message as a revelation to an individual, he did not just breath on Peter as leader, he meant this for the whole community, the whole church.
Lets talk for a moment about sustaining community behaviors. I have found good advice for church life in an unlikely place this week, while reading a hot bestseller entitled “On Tyranny” by Timothy Snyder. What could a scholar who researches fascism and authoritarianism tell us about how to be church? You might think it is all about a call to political action and moral courage, pick a cause and educate yourself. About half of Snyder’s 20 chapters refer to those type of actions. It’s the other half that got my attention, because he suggests community-building behavior that create a free, open and sustainable culture.
Make eye contact and small talk.
Tyrannical regimes arose at different times and places in the Europe of the twentieth century, but memoirs of their victims all share a single tender moment. Whether the recollection is of fascist Italy, of Nazi Germany, or the Soviet Union during the Great Terror …people who were living in fear of repression remembered how their neighbors treated them. A smile, a handshake, or a word of greeting—banal gestures in a normal situation—took on great significance. When friends, colleagues, and acquaintances looked away or crossed the street to avoid contact, fear grew. Snyder, Timothy. On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century (p. 82). Crown/Archetype. Kindle Edition.
Maybe coffee hour is a part of resisting evil and oppression in the world. Greet everyone who comes in the door warmly. Say thank you to people. Its why we pay attention to the welcome in church, to let everyone know they are valued and they matter, and this is why we are here. Hospitality is not simply a church growth strategy, it is a quality of life issue.
Establish a Private Life
What Snyder means by this is to have the space for your own thoughts, where you think and feel on your own. Don’t put everything on Facebook and Instagram, and balance your screen usage with real contact with life. If the screen mediates everything, then we are more vulnerable to groupthink and normalizing things that we should not. Hannah Arendt, the political philosopher, said that totalitarian regimes try to erase private life, where you do not feel free to express your own thoughts safely for fear of retaliation. When we say this is a church for believers, questioners and questioning believers; we are sending a message that you can ask questions which are the key to thinking for yourself.
Defend institutions. “It is institutions that help us to preserve decency. They need our help as well….Institutions do not protect themselves. They fall one after the other unless each is defended from the beginning. So, choose an institution you care about—a court, a newspaper, a law, a labor union—and take its side.” Church is an institution too. Events – PRIDE prom dance, Standing Rock Dance Fundraiser, First Readings at First Churches (a new partnership with the New Century Theatre, who will do readings from two local play writes. As forces shut down immigrants space to thrive and build community, we are creating more space for Iglasia Bautista Qechua to grow. This is why I urge you to choose the First Churches as one of the primary institutions you defend.
Be Kind to Our Language. Books that describe authoritarianism like Fahrenheit 451 by Kurt Vonnegut, and 1984 by George Orwell, warn us tyrants degrade language. Words become meaningless when their standard meanings become ignored and they are overused without context. If we shout treason about everything we disagree with, or patriotism about everything we like, then the words shrivel.
If the range of our emotional language is reduced to “sad, bad, mad or great” there is no nuance and depth to what we might feel and think about the world. I like Dr. Seuss, but this is a time to read great books. Snyder recommends we read real books and not stay glued to our screens.
Read “The Brothers Karamazov,” “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” or the Power of the powerless by Vaclav Havel, and even Harry Potter and the Death Hallows makes Snyder’s list. Snyder also recommends that Christians read the Bible. What a shocker! The entire New Testament was written for a minority community living under the threat of persecution and dominant culture values. “You shall know the truth and the truth will set you free.” The Kingdom of heaven is among you. This is my commandment, love one another, love your neighbor as yourself, love God with all your heart soul and mind.
I read a lot of liturgy as I search every week for the next Sunday’s Liturgy in church is important. Sarah and I search for rich language that play with the metaphors of the text and connect them to how we think, feel and pray.
Read Synder’s book On Tyranny, it will only take you about 40 minutes. It mirrors many things that Jesus taught. Moral behavior and strong community not just a matter of the right beliefs, the right ideology, jor the right strategy. Moral community is only possible when we do the things that make for right relationship to one another. This is Jesus commandment, that we love one another.