Imagination as Resistance: Capitalism & The Commons
Hi everyone, my name is Sarah Ngu and I’m a deacon here at Forefront. I help lead a small group in BK Heights, I co-lead our LGBTQ ministry, Queer Communion, and work on other projects here at our church.
I want to give people a bit of a head’s up; the first half of this will be a lot of history, and the second half will be a lot of bible. If you’re wondering, “When is Sarah going to talk about the bible?” just wait until the second half.
Ok, so I want to start with a bit of personal history.
Here is a photo of my great-aunt, Gan Ang Kiat. Aunty Gan was born sometime in the 1940’s. She was the smartest of all 13 siblings. She was the youngest and the only one to graduate with a university degree. She was my grandpa’s younger sister on my mom’s side, and he really looked after her.
At university, she became politicized, radicalized, and became a communist; communism was a growing ideology at the time within Southeast Asia especially among the Chinese. Unlike China, the communists in Malaysia were a small minority; they were guerillas hiding in the jungles and fighting first the British, and then after the independence, the Malaysian government, along with foreign military support from the UK and Australia. In the 1970’s she was so involved she quit her job as a school-teacher and went into the jungle to fight with the guerillas, surviving on durian and wild animals. At the time she was in her late twenties, early thirties.
And in May, 1972, while fighting in the jungle, she was shot. I don’t know who shot the bullet, but she died. My family found out through reading the front page of a newspaper. The very next year, the Sarawak communist forces made a peace truce with the government which brought most of the fighting to an end.
The way my mom has always told her story was the following: What a waste of life. She was brainwashed by the communists, who used young idealistic people like her for their cause. She had such great potential. Thank God we avoided a communist takeover like what happened in China.
But as I’ve grown older, I’ve become more curious about this great-aunt. After all, she wasn’t exactly an idiot; she was in fact the most educated of her siblings. Why did she decide to do that? To put her life on the line? She had a perfectly great stable career and immense educational advantages. What gripped her imagination?
What I’ve begun to piece together is that she was quite simply motivated by a vision of equality. Of a society in which no one had any economic need, in which property was common and shared instead of private. It was also a vision of racial equality. The Malaysian government at the time did and still does favor the Malay race over others—which is a direct result of how the British chose to govern and divide the races in Malaysia. My great-aunt and her comrades were fighting for a different society which did not exist in real form anywhere but in their faith. In their beliefs. In their collective imagination. Their imagination was an act of resistance.
I’m sure there are people here who might disagree with how my aunt chose to translate those principles into her specific political ideology, but what I want to focus on was these principles and moral convictions which enabled her to imagine an alternative to the current status quo at the time.
I find her act of resistance personally inspiring because I often think that the biggest idols we have in our lives are the ones we notice the least. The ones that we take for granted, that we just assume is always the way it is. You know, for many millennia up until 250 years ago, that might’ve been the fact of slavery. 200 years ago, it might’ve been the idea that women aren’t just property or inferior versions of men, as John Calvin once said. The question is: What is our blindspot today? The thing that we have lost our ability to criticize or imagine a different alternative, a thing has become synonymous with Reality.
I would posit to you that that “thing” today is capitalism.
There is a famous quote in leftist circles that says: It is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.
Now, I recognize that what I just said sounds scary. After all, this is church, and it sounds like here I am trying to push an economic agenda. I get it. But we’re finishing our Imagine series and we’re imagining what life could look like, what justice could look like, what church could look like, especially in light of our tradition and scriptures. And I think once we do dig into all of that, we might be surprised by what the bible and our tradition has to say.
As Christians is that we belong to a faith and tradition that has pre-modern origins, meaning pre-capitalist origins. Thus sometimes we encounter some stuff in our tradition that really challenges our current capitalist order, and that forces us to imagine new alternatives.
There are many examples I can choose from, but a simple one found can be found ins the book of Leviticus and in the book of Deuteronomy, where God instructs the Israelites:
“When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap all the way to the edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest. You shall not pick your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen fruit of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the stranger: I the LORD am your God.”
In one interpretation, this verse is about sharing what you have. But if we dig a little deeper into the implications, it seems like God is saying, “I know it’s your land and your harvest, you planted the seed, you plowed the soil, but actually,
you don’t have complete right over it. That land is actually God’s. And God is telling you that the community has rights to it; the poor and vulnerable among us has a right to it.” Your land, in other words, is not really private.
The early church fathers, around 200 to 400CE, had some pretty harsh words to say about property and poverty:
”You are not making a gift of your possession to the poor person. You are handing over to him what is his.”
Bishop Ambrose of Milan, 337-397 CE
“Not to enable the poor to share in our goods is to steal from them and deprive them of life. The goods we possess are not ours but theirs.”
Archbishop of Constantinople, John Chrysostom, 347-407 CE
I’m just going to let these quotes sit for a bit. The ideas here may seem a bit crazy, but I’d like to point out that private property rights did not come into existence until the 1700’s in Europe. Before that, in Europe, there would be some land that was owned, but there would also be a vast area of land that was called the “commons” where you could bring your livestock to graze. This common land did not belong to anyone but was managed and regulated by the community, who would make sure people didn’t take advantage of the situation. But after awhile, wealthy landowners started to kick out peasants and build enclosures of their private property, sending landless peasants into the urban cities where they started working in industrial factories. Private property rights became codified in law.
Fast forward a century, and Europeans start coming to North America and, in addition to some other things, some of them want to buy land from Native Americans. And Native Americans were mystified by this idea of buying or selling land.
Here is an excerpt from a letter, sent by Chief Seattle of the Dwamish Tribe in Washington to President Franklin Pierce in 1855.
“How can you buy or sell the sky – the warmth of the land? The idea is strange to us. Yet we do not own the freshness of the air or the sparkle of the water. How can you buy them from us?”
These ideas may seem a bit shocking to us, and I’d argue that this is because capitalism has deadened our imagination towards accepting our current status quo as Reality, as Just The Way It is.
Take our attitude towards gentrification. “Of course, poor people – namely people of color – are naturally going to get priced out over time, that’s just how the laws of supply and demand work; and landlords have the right to raise rents on their property.” We say or believe these things as if they are laws of nature, as if we are stating, “Oh if you drop a pen it will fall to the ground, that’s just how things are.” We can’t imagine any other alternative.
When in fact, that doesn’t have to be the case at all. In East Harlem, a homeless advocacy group has gotten government funding to start a Community Land Trust. They plan to buy a few properties in East Harlem and, with government subsidies, offer affordable housing for people who would otherwise be homeless. The properties would be owned by a nonprofit, which would be governed by a board that would consist of residents and stakeholders in the community.
In Chinatown, there is a group of 75 tenants who live in a rent-stabilized building called 85 Bowery. Their landlord had refused to make some serious repairs needed to fix the building – we’re talking water leaking between floors, unstable staircases, that kind of stuff – as he wanted the tenants to leave so he could renovate the building and charge a much higher price. This, by the way, happens to tons of people every day in NYC and even to people here in our congregation. This past January, the landlord managed to get the Department of Buildings to issue a vacate order due to the building’s instability, and the tenants have been displaced for their homes for over 5 months.
Now these tenants, are not wealthy or educated; none of them really speak English, mostly Mandarin or Fujianese; some of them are elderly grandparents, some middle-aged parents, and some are young children. But they are not going quietly into the night—they are working with a broad alliance of people and organizations to hold public demonstrations, protests outside of city housing agencies, boycotts of their landlord’s commercial stores.
They even held a five-day hunger strike last January and they’re planning on holding another one this Wednesday at 11am in front of City Hall. This is one of the women who was on the hunger strike in January; she is over 70-years-old.
The tenants are fighting not just to return back to their apartments, but also for Mayor DeBlasio to pass laws to rezone Chinatown and the Lower East Side and strictly regulate real estate development in their communities. They are imagining a different way, a different society in which who has the most money doesn’t just always get their way, and in which property and land is accountable to the public. They are disrupting the status quo and are refusing to accept that this is just “the way things are.” Their resistance inspires my imagination.
One of the most disruptive acts in the Bible occurred on Pentecost Day, which is a day we celebrated last Sunday. It was the day in which, according to the book of Acts, the Spirit of God descends upon the disciples of Jesus and they start speaking in multiple languages.
This day coincides with the holiday of Shavuot in the Jewish tradition, where Jews celebrate God’s giving of the Torah to them through the mediator of Moses. The celebration is particularly meaningful because these laws provide a new way for how Israel, as a community, is going to govern and define itself.
And on the day of Pentecost, God did not give Torah 2.0, instead gave Her Spirit, mediated through Jesus, and poured her out onto the disciples and all new believers.
So the question is: How did the Spirit impact this community? How were they shaped and defined by it? Right after the event of the Pentecost, Luke takes a moment to describe this emerging community.
“And all who believed were together and had all things in common; and they sold their possessions and goods and distributed them to all, as any had need.”
Whenever I read this, I’m in disbelief. I can’t quite imagine it even. People had all things in common? People were selling their possessions and belongings and giving the proceeds to anyone who had need? Did this actually happen? People were willingly and voluntarily doing this? I’m not even getting into the symbolic meaning of the text, there’s no fancy sophisticated exegesis stuff here, I’m talking about how literally what’s going on here in this text, very basic reading comprehension.
And Luke repeats this description again two chapters later, when the apostles are praying and he describes how the whole room was shaken because they were filled with the Holy Spirit and continued to speak the word of God with boldness. And how does the Spirit manifest itself now in this community?
“Now the company of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things which he possessed was his own, but they had everything in common. 33 And with great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. 34 There was not a needy person among them, for as many as were possessors of lands or houses sold them, and brought the proceeds of what was sold 35 and laid it at the apostles’ feet; and distribution was made to each as any had need.”
I want to highlight two points.
1. No one had any need. Because people were selling land and houses and giving them to the apostles to distribute to people who had need. Property was shared. There wasn’t a merit-based criteria of “well we’re only giving to people who are in need and who are trying to find a job”; it was just literally who has need, and how do we fill their need.
2. No one said anything belonged to them, but they had everything in common. Property was public.
The miracle here is not that there is a sharing of possessions and meeting of needs. Because that happens a lot in certain settings, like within our families.
When my dad got his first job, at the time, his mother was basically raising five children more or less by herself, he gave 30%, after taxes, of his income to her. My grandma, my dad’s mom, did the same for her younger sister; she could’ve gone on to college and had a bachelor’s degree and gone up the professional ranks, but she chose after high school to enter a vocational trade and learn to be a teacher so she could start earning money and pay for her younger sister to go to university, which she did. And when my sister and brother and I lived at home while working, we gave our parents a monthly amount to pay for our younger siblings’ college education. And although my sister and I have moved out, we still contribute every year.
We do that because we’re family. I would do the same for my partner, Abby, if she was ever in need. And I can think of a few close friends whom I would do the same for. That’s what it means to be joined together with another in love.
The miracle in the book of Acts is that this care and concern and love is being expanded outside of one’s family, outside of one’s circle of loved ones, and is including whoever chooses to join this community, regardless of your family, tribe, clan, language, etc.
This not just a revolution of money, of possessions, although it is that. It’s a revolution of our consciousness.
Willie James Jennings, a black theologian, in his commentary on Acts points out that the Israelites are used to giving sacrifices every year of their possessions and lands, but to a temple, to make sacrifices to God. And in this case, this new community is making a different kind of sacrifice, a new kind of giving, not towards a temple or altar but towards one another.
“So like an ancient altar but now made of human bodies, the apostles’ feet became the place of sacrifice and giving.”
Jennings argues that in some way the giving of possessions is really an afterthought. What’s really happening is that people are giving themselves to one another—people are using money, something that is traditionally used to create distance between people, to actually draw people closer together. Note the sequence in this sentence:
“Now the full number of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things that belonged to him was his own, but they had everything in common.”
There was an internal change that was happening thanks to the Spirit. People were becoming united in one heart and one soul—they had given themselves over to one another together. And as a result, an external, collective change started to happen; a new economy was created, one based on grace and not merit.
There is a quote by a queer black Buddhist teacher, Reverend Angel Kyodo Williams, that I love which applies perfectly here:
“Without inner change there can be no outer change; without collective change, no change matters.”
Let’s imagine what this kind of internal and collective change might look like for our church. Maybe it would be like people in this church saying, “All right I’m going to sell some furniture on Ebay and I’m going to give the cash to the church” so we can have a church fund for people who maybe just lost their job and they need to pay for health insurance or they had a big accident and they can’t pay their bills, for freelancers who are in a dry spell and haven’t cashed a check in a month or two, for students who are working over 20 hours a week to put themselves through college and still have a mountain of debt. Our church actually already helps meet the needs of families, new parents and those who are financially struggling. One of my dreams for this church would to be to raise enough funds in our fundraising campaign and in general to expand that and formalize that. Or perhaps instead of selling property, as the church in Acts did, we as a church thought about *sharing* property.
We had a baby dedication in this service. I’m sure many parents are thinking about how should they raise their children, what environments or contexts or communities should they immerses their children in?
What would it be like to raise children in a community that dares to imagine collective answers to problems that many have lost the ability to even question? A community that calls upon us to expand our circle of love beyond the people we like, we agree with, or we are related to? A community that calls us to expand our consciousness?
This is the call of the Gospel.
Last week Jonathan spoke about how we create our identities based on what we do, what we have and what others perceive of us. He also talked about the Enneagram test and hopefully most of you have taken time to take the test and have an idea of which type you are. Don’t worry if you haven’t because you might find as I speak this morning that something might resonate with you and pique your interest.
Today I’m going to talk about how our Intelligence Centers speak into how we perceive the world. The nine Enneagram types are divided into three intelligence centres: The heart, head and body. Depending on which Enneagram type you are, you might experience the world and your relationships through your thoughts, your emotions or through instinctive reactions. It’s how you live in the world.
What does that look like? You might be someone who is reactive, so you operate through the Body or Gut Intelligence triad. When you need to make a decision, you are quick to react in the moment relying on your instincts. That is the person you want around when you’re trying to work out where to get brunch after church. You don’t want me who will say “well whatever you feel like, or I don’t know what do you think?” No, you want a type 8, who will say – this is where we are going, and they will lead the way.
For someone who operates through the Head Intelligence triad, you might put a lot of thought into something before making a decision. So this person will probably jump on Yelp before deciding where to go to brunch, they’ll work out which place has high reviews, which is closer, which offers several options to cater for everyone’s dietary needs and give you a couple of options.
I operate out of the Heart triad. And we experience the world through our emotions. We like to engage with the emotions and the needs of those around us. So if you feel like Pizza for brunch, we’d probably go along, even if we are gluten intolerant because they are thinking of your needs.
And the reason we are talking about this is because, we can also engage with and relate to God through our Intelligence Centers, through our heart, mind or body and we are called to do so.
The greatest commandment, which we read earlier, is Jesus calling us to love the Lord our God with all our heart, with all our soul and with all our mind. But what does that really mean? Why is THIS the greatest commandment? And how can the Enneagram Intelligence Centers help us live out the greatest commandment?
When Jesus spoke of the greatest commandment, he quoted what Moses had said in Deuteronomy 6:5. He wasn’t just making stuff up. He was pointing out that this was the law of God as outlined in the Torah.
Jesus didn’t come to abolish the law but came to fulfill it and that’s why he quotes the Torah. Throughout the gospel of Matthew we read about how Jesus fulfills the laws as God intended and challenges his followers and fellow Jews to do the same.
Jesus challenges the Pharisees and the Sadducees who have obsessively followed the Mosaic Laws and the Oral traditions. So much so, that they’d forgotten the heart of God.
In Matthew, we read of instances where Jesus challenges how faith has been practiced. Jesus talks about the act of giving, prayer and fasting, saying it’s an activity that should be done in secret: Matthew 6:3 “When you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing.” Mathew 6:5 “When you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others.” Matthew 6:17 “Then you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will be not obvious to others that you are fasting.” Basically, calling them out for using these practices to show off to others.
Jesus challenges the Pharisees for being overly focused on the law that they’ve lost sense of righteousness: when accused of cutting grain to feed themselves on the Sabbath, Jesus retorts back in Matthew 12:12 “It is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.” When putting too much focus on ritualistic cleansing, Jesus retorts back in Matthew 15:19-20 “murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander. These are what defile a person; but eating with unwashed hands does not defile them.
Jesus calls them out of living stuck within their mind’s understanding of honoring God through the observance of law and ritual and invites them into a relationship with God that involves loving, honoring and worshiping God with their entire being. Not just with their mind and what they understand to be right.
Their interior alignment with God was lost. Instead of aligning themselves with the desires and the heart of God, the Ancient Israelites were focused on doing what was lawfully right.
But loving God isn’t just in what we do in our actions. It involves our entire being.
So what does it look like to love God with your entirety? It’s when we align ourselves with the desires of God. It’s when our entire being, becomes a REFLECTION of the love and the grace of God. It is when we strive towards being who were created to be, which is the image of God as it says in Genesis 1:27, the Imago Dei. We were made in God’s likeness and when we reflect that, we live out whom God created us to be. When we do this – we are our TRUE SELVES. We become the best versions of ourselves. The healthiest versions of ourselves.
The opposite of that is when we operate out of our false self. An unhealthy self that gets trapped in the mind, in the body or the soul or trapped in the heart. An ego – driven self.
Depending on our Enneagram type and what Intelligence Center we operate from, our false self can manifest in different ways. Having an awareness of that can help us move away from our false self and start moving towards our true self, and thus closer to God.
But before I move forward and explain each triad, I just want to add that with the Enneagram, you have a dominant type but you may find that you resonate with qualities of other types because you can manifest aspects of those types in times of growth or stress or if that type is your wing. So you may find that you can relate to a lot of what I talk about today but that does not mean that you are more than one type. I encourage you, to take the time to research and read about your type to find out what characteristics of other types you might exhibit depending on what you are experiencing.
Explanation of Intelligence Centers
So here’s a chart:
Head Triad: Types 5,6 and 7 are driven by reason and logic. Because they operate from the mind, their energy is focused on the internal. They spend a lot of time in their thoughts analyzing and problem solving and take security in knowing and understanding. They are able to imagine so many different possibilities to a situation or problem.
When I initially read this type, I really wished that I operated out of the Head triad. Because they THINK! And they are so good at it! I feel like we as society, we place so much value in making thoughtful decisions, and being head driven rather than heart driven.
But I don’t, my type falls under the heart triad. Types 2,3 and 4 have strong relational energy. Now, unlike the head triad types, whose energy is internal in their minds and their thought processes, the focus on heart triad types is external. It’s on the people around them and how they relate to others. Because their energy is focused on the external, they have great concern over how others perceive them and their self-image. They seek attention and affirmation from others and that’s how they create their identity.
In the middle, we have the Gut or Body Intelligence centre. The Enneagram types that fall into this type are numbers 8,9 and 1. These types sit comfortably and are energized by both the inner and the outer world. They are instinctive and decisive. There’s no over thinking for Body Intelligence types. They make a decision and are ready to take action, which is why they are labeled as the Instinctive Intelligence centre. They instinctively know and then they do.
The False self
Now I’ll talk about how the false self manifests within each of these triads.
I am a type 2, a helper. Which all sounds nice and dandy, especially because I’m a Christian and work for a church so in many ways it makes sense that I would be drawn to this vocation because of my Enneagram type, right?
But finding out I am a two and reading about what that meant, was like looking at one of those vanity mirrors you see in hotels, the ones where one side is normal and the other is magnified so you see every single detail of your face, every pore, every blemish, every wrinkle. Like you know those details were there but you’ve never seen them all at once! Have all my pores always looked THAT BIG?!
That’s what the Enneagram does, it magnifies every detail of who you are and when I read my type, I became very aware of what the driving force was behind my personality. It was something that I knew but was in denial about. The Enneagram brings these details to light.
When I found out I was a 2, I thought Yay I’m a helper but ewww… (pause) now I know why….well I knew…but now that it’s on paper- it’s official, it’s real – a bunch of people wrote a bunch of books about it.
(slow) I find out what drives me to help people is that I feel worthy when I am needed by them… and I want to please them by helping them. I, as a result, quantify my worthiness on whether or not I can help them.
The dominant emotion that manifests as a result is SHAME…. Shame becomes the driving force behind the behavior of heart intelligence types. Heart types can control shame by trying to get others to like them and see their goodness. Shame can drive heart types to expend energy on seeking the approval of others, as a way to repress their feelings of inadequacy. If they don’t meet their approval or gain their praise, they feel more shameful and then they go find someone else whom they can seek the approval of, and it becomes a vicious cycle where they get trapped in their heart.
It’s interesting to see how this manifests in Type 4s. Type 4s, The Individualist, are unique and creative and desire to be understood as so. They use this to connect with others and that is where they quantify their worth. Feelings of inadequacy and shame surface when they think others see them as ordinary. They control their shame by focusing on their individuality and creativity. This is where they get trapped. They can’t see that they are loved for who they are. They get caught up in comparing themselves to others and trapped in the statement “I am not enough,” because they think they are not exceptional enough.
When a Head intelligence type looks into the mirror they may see that they have a tendency to over-think. A tendency to withdraw from others and retreat into their mental strategies and planning. If they are unsure, they hesitate to take action. They can become paralyzed by their focus on strategies, beliefs and plans.
When their false-self takes over, what manifests as a result, their dominant emotional response, is FEAR.
Type 6s, the Loyalist, can get trapped by fear in thinking about worse case scenarios and then are overcome by anxiety of it. They pour their energy into formulating the What ifs of every situation and get caught up analyzing every single scenario. But are unable to make a decision. They don’t trust themselves to make the right choice. Because they haven’t found security in their own understanding, they become fearful and get trapped in their mind.
When a Gut or Body Intelligence type looks in the mirror, they might find that because they act instinctively that they have a tendency to ignore their own feelings or that of others for the sake of doing what’s right. They are focused on their opinions and judgments that they lose sense of the reality of a situation or relationship.
When Body types get stuck in their false self, the emotional response to that is ANGER. They can dominate a situation by using anger to assert their power and control. While anger as an emotion is generally seen in a negative light, burying or repressing that anger can have it’s consequences too:
Type 1s, The Perfectionist, repress their anger by controlling the environment around them and using their inner critic to control themselves, they fixate on the judgment of others, themselves and their circumstances. When they get trapped in that, they become trapped in a world they see needs constant improvement and control their anger by constantly improving their environment.
In each Intelligence triad, the dominant emotion is not acknowledged leading to behavior that hurts self and people around them. When shame, fear or anger, dominates or is denied or is controlled instead of confronted, then we start operating closer to a false, ego-driven self.
BUT, God created us with those types in mind and although we are dominant in one Intelligence Center, we CAN and we ARE created for wholeness within that type, and that means moving towards and operating out of our true selves, the self we were created to be.
Jesus, the human manifestation of God, believed, trusted and followed the Divine image inside him and has called us to do the same.
Richard Rohr says: “Each of these Intelligence Centers offers us a different way of experiencing the loving presence and voice of God.”
So how can we move towards wholeness? How can we be set free from our false selves? How can we begin to transform and move towards our true selves?
Transformation for the Head Intelligence types means understanding that loving God with all your mind means giving in to the need for understanding and knowing.
That means you let go of the desire to understand life before you can live it. It means you give yourself permission to take action without the security of knowing what’s going to happen next. When you take the risk and allow yourself to engage with others and engage in the moment, without the need of knowing the outcome, you might find you have the capacity to give and receive the love of God freely.
To love with all your mind, is to allow yourself to deeply experience the present moment, even if that moment involves grief and sadness. I’m speaking to Type 7s, the Enthusiasts, when I say this. Resist the temptation to escape those moments of perceived emptiness or emotional pain with fun experiences. Allow yourself to sit in those moments and have the courage to confront them – without the need to understand them.
To love with all your mind is to rest in the knowledge that God is all knowing. Rest in truths beyond understanding. Rest in knowing that you are complete without the need to know, to understand and the need to fill your mind with distractions.
Transformation for the Body Intelligence types means understanding that loving God with all your soul or all your body means giving in to God’s will.
That means, you let go of control, judgment and perfection. You let go of the need for control or perfection all the time. You approach life with less judgment. You receive life without reacting to it or needing to fix it. Be open to and receptive to what unfolds and trust it without needing to react.
For 9s, the Peacemaker, that means letting go of trying to fix it all for the sake of perfect peace. Understand that serenity can come from relinquishing control just as Jesus relinquished control on the cross. Give yourself permission to show up for yourself, without the fear of conflict. You’ve always resisted your desires for the sake of peace because you think this is the right thing to do to improve the situation, but this creates more conflict in the future. Honor who YOU are, show up for YOURSELF too.
Body types can rest in the knowledge that perfection, control and judgment is ultimately in the hands of God. You can love God with all your soul or body when you can surrender to the instinctual desire to react and respond and instead allow your soul, your instincts and your body to be bathed in the WILL of God. In loving God with all your soul accept that you do not need to DO anything to receive the love of God fully.
Transformation for the Heart Intelligence types means understanding that loving God with all your heart means accepting the love of God WITH all your heart.
That means, you let go of trying to impress others. You let go of others’ opinion of you. You let go of trying to fix the world’s problems because that does not dictate your self worth. Accept that you don’t need to perform to feel loved.
Instead of looking externally for affirmation, look internally and reconnect with your self, your needs and your emotions. Get to know and appreciate your gifts and your goodness. Accept that all of you is outstanding and is enough.
Heart types can rest in the knowledge that you are fully loved by God. You do not need to earn God’s approval. You can love God with all your heart when you can receive God’s love with all your heart – without a need to perform, understanding that you are worthy and understanding that you are enough.
I am preaching to myself right now as I say this.
You might remember that I have shared with you before how my self-worth and self-image was largely shaped by my Asian upbringing in a Post-Colonial country. As an Asian girl growing up, I was raised on very collectivist values. I was raised to help my family members. I was encouraged to join our family business to help it grow. Any desire to do differently and to pursue my own passions was seen as being selfish and a waste of time. This upbringing might have influenced my forming of a type 2 personality.
Now layer on top of that the self-denial and sacrifice that are a huge part of church culture. Church culture, perpetuates this idea that one must constantly die to their own desires. They must prioritize the needs of others. Am I right?
So I joined mission trip after mission trip, volunteered every extra hour I had to ministry. Because I thought that was what I was meant to do. That was my purpose.
Then I became a mother. As a mother I spent the first 6 months of each child’s life attached to them. I was their only source nutrition. Their very existence depended on me. Feeding them, changing their diapers, rocking them had precedence over my need for sleep or clean hair. And this is widely accepted by our culture. Our culture does not expect any less of our mothers – we laugh off the fact they may not have showered in days.
So for me at least, I felt as though if I didn’t sacrifice my own needs before my family’s then I was not living up to being a good mother and that I would be failing my family – I buried this shame by answering to their every need, meal planning and attempting to keep a pristine home.
But I think often with 2s, we come to expect their self sacrificial ways as normal and we encourage their behaviour with little regard to finding out what their real desires and passions are or valuing who they are beneath their helpful nature.
We did the Enneagram test with our deacons and found that most of them tested as 2s. Most of our volunteers at church are women and because an overwhelming 83% of 2s are women, I’m willing to bet that most of our volunteers are 2s as well.
So what do we do with this information? What do we do when we know someone who is a 2 is always there for us when we need help? What is our response to our volunteers who continue to serve because it is just in their nature to keep serving?
What we need to do is ensure that we don’t affirm their perception that we only see their value when they help. That even if they couldn’t or didn’t volunteer for whatever reason, that they are not failing us, that they are still loved and valued. We need to remind them that their worth goes beyond what they do. That who they are matters beneath what they do.
This Lenten season, take time to look internally to identify where you’ve been trapped by your false self. Do you struggle with insecurities, need for approval and affirmation, need for control and logic, need to take on everything or fix everything? Use the Enneagram to help you identify what drives you. Dig in to find out what your story is.
So that moving forward, when you practice the greatest commandment: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your mind, understand that in loving God with all your heart, you are receiving love without the need to please God, prove yourself to God or perfect yourself before God. Rest in knowing you ARE loved in your entirety. In loving God with all your mind, rest in loving without the need to understand. In loving God with all your body or your soul, rest in relinquishing power and control and surrendering to God.
It is a battle. It is a battle to abandon the ways of our false selves. But Ben and our prayer team are going to be talking about the specific prayer practices our Intelligence types need to engage in to be set free from being stuck in our heart, head or body. In the meantime, I encourage you to take time to reflect on what drives you and why. How that impacts you and the world around you and how that impacts your relationship with God. My prayer for you is that in becoming more aware of who you are and what drives you, you can adopt practices that can hekp you move towards reflecting the image of God within you and resting in and embracing the love of God.
The author Christopher Huertz tells an important story. It’s a story about his mentor, a priest at Creighton University who also happens to be blind. One day this priest, Father Gillick, was visiting some children at a local school when a student, maybe 3rd or 4th grade came up to talk with him. She came up, started chatting, and eventually realized that Father Gillick was blind. She was a bit startled by this revelation and so she said to Father Gillick, “Oh my goodness, you’re blind! Do you know you’re blind?” And Father Gillick responded humbly, telling the little girl that he did indeed know he was blind. He contracted a sickness and lost his sight at an early age. But the little girl was still quite startled. With an urgent tone she said to Father Gillick, “You don’t know what you look like.” Father Gillick hadn’t heard that before. He thought about what to say but before he had the chance the little girl said one more thing. She looked at Father Gillick and said, “You look beautiful.”
I read this story and I immediately choked up. It was innate. I didn’t have to think about choking up it just happened. Something in that story resonated deeply within me. As I continued to read past the story I recognized that the story did the same thing to the author who had this to say about the story.
When it comes to recognizing the truth of our own identities most of us experience a symbolic version of blindness that keeps us from seeing ourselves as we truly are.
And so my question for you today is this one, “Do you know what you look like? Do you know who you are? Who are you?” So who are you? What do you look like?
I think that for many of us we identify with our outer markers. These are important, especially after we just finished a series on how our outer selves often dictate our lot in life, the way that our country creates systems, and the way we are racist or experience racism. So who are we?
Are we a black man? A white cis gendered woman? Are we an American woman or a tall and somewhat awkward man? Are you an Asian Indian woman? Do we identify as LatinX or Irish? Are we a transgender man or woman? We have identities that come about simply by our outward appearance. And like we said, these are important identifiers as they do dictate the way that we operate in the world.
Perhaps we identify ourselves by our orientation. Do we identify as gay or queer or asexual or intersectional? Do we identify by the fact that we’re straight? That’s an important identifier and one that has important implications.
Perhaps we identify ourselves by where we come from. I’m a proud New Yorker. Once the Eagles won the Super Bowl a couple of weeks ago my wife decide to remind everyone who asked (and didn’t ask) that she is from Philly. Ashley Putnam said in our panel a couple of weeks ago that she still identifies as a Texan. I know that there are some proud Southerners in the room and some prouder Floridians although I can’t really understand why. Do we identify based on where we’re from and what’s shaped us?
And then we identify ourselves as everything in between. I’m a student. I’m a supporter of this sports team. I’m a twenty something, thirty something, or a really great looking 40 something. I’m a cook, a singer, and an artist. I’m a Christian. We can go on all day.
But let me ask you how many of us in this room today would say that we identify as being beautiful?
And furthermore how many of us would say that we identify as someone who is loved?
And further, furthermore how many of us would say that our identity is that of someone made so beautifully that they are absolutely loved by God?
I can stand up here as the pastor of this church for the past five years and tell you with the utmost conviction that I rarely if ever wake up in the morning and say, “Jonathan, you’re beautiful and if nothing else you are God’s beloved.” I rarely if ever do that because I don’t believe it.
I don’t know what I look like because at the end of the day the way I identify myself has a bearing on this world. I am a straight, white, and cis gendered male from New York who loves sports, especially the Mets. Every way I identify myself matters but in no way gets to the heart of who I truly am.
“Who are you?” We are asked the question almost daily and yet like me, I think that most of us in this room struggle to get to the heart of who we are. And so like the 9 year old, we hear with great urgency and some bafflement the voice that says, “You have no idea what you look like.” And we don’t. And when that voice tells us that we’re beautiful, we certainly don’t believe it.
Welcome to our Lent series. We follow the Christian calendar at this church and believe that its rhythms bring about a true sense of what it means to live out the Christ following life. During Christmas season we walked through advent. It’s a time where we wait patiently for Jesus. We find hope in the promises of God and while we wait for Jesus incarnate we recognize that we are the hands and feet of Christ.
We just finished up Epiphany season. In this season we celebrate and reflect the life of Christ. So this past Epiphany we decided that the best way we could reflect the light of Christ was to talk about equity. We said plenty of times that Christ didn’t treat people equally he treated people equitably. In order to reflect the light of Christ that comes in Epiphany we began the hard work of talking about racism, privilege, and equity.
And now we’re in the season of Lent. Lent is generally a time of darkness. It corresponds with the darkness of winter. It aligns with the feeling of cold. It aligns with the seasonal affective disorder that many of us struggle through. It becomes a time to tackle some of the more difficult and dark parts of our selves. This year for Lent we’re going to do just that. We’re going to pursue the question we talked about above, ‘who are we and do we believe that our identity is rooted in the love of God?”
One more thing before we continue. Our church believes that the Gospel message is both personal and communal. We’ve spent most of our Advent and Epiphany time focused on the communal aspects of the Gospel. We want to challenge you to spend the season of Lent focused on the personal. How does your belief in God shape your identity? How do you see God? Is God someone that loves you? Let’s take time to explore the hard parts of our selves and I pray that as Lent gives way to light that we find peace in our selves and an identity rooted in love.
So how do we answer the question about who we are? How do we take away our blindness? How do we find security in our identity?
When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is mankind that you are mindful of them, human beings that you care for them? You have made them a little lower than the angels and crowned them with glory and honor. You made them rulers over the works of your hands; you put everything under their feet: all flocks and herds, and the animals of the wild, the birds in the sky, and the fish in the sea, all that swim the paths of the seas. Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth! – Psalms 8:3-8
This is beautiful scripture most likely from King David. If I were going to do a bit of modern translating David might say something like this.
“God you are so great that I look up and what I see is unfathomable. There are universes upon universes. There are multiverses and we could spend a lifetime in space travel and not even get out of the far corner of our own universe. I look around and I see that which I can’t even imagine. And then I look at humanity. Humanity is an absolute miracle. The babies that babble are basically praising the fact that they are miracles. We are walking living breathing miracles. In order for us to wake up this morning there were billions upon billions of atoms moving around in our body that had to act in one accord always just a fraction of a second from spontaneously combusting and you made us God! You made us in such a way that roughly every 7 years we’re a new body made up of new cells, parts, particles, we’re miracles! You made us just a little lower than you. You made us to have dominion. God, You’ve made us your beloved! How majestic is your name. That’s pretty cool.
And here’s the thing about David. David could identify himself in any number of ways based on what we know in scripture.
David was an underdog.
David was a hero.
David was hunted and lonely.
David was a king.
David was a murderer and rapist.
David was a father, a husband, a dancer, a wealthy man, and I can go on just by reading scripture. But David writes this Psalm and says, yeah I’ve been those things and they shape my life, but first and foremost I’m an absolute miracle that is made in your image and loved by you to the point that you give me authority over creation.
I think this is why they call David a man after God’s own heart. We look at all of the ways that David can be identified and David continues to call himself God’s beloved. David sees himself first and foremost as an absolute miracle.
So back to us and how we identify. Why is it so hard for us to do the same? Why is it hard for me to wake up in the morning and say, “Jonathan, you’re an absolute miracle so loved by God that you are given dominion over how you choose the day.” I’ll tell you why.
I think when it comes to identity we believe three lies. And I’d say here in New York these three lies hold greater weight.
We believe that our identity rests in these three lies.
I am what I have.
I am what I do.
I am what other people say or think about me.
Let’s think about this for a minute.
I am what I have – This one is easy. It’s the belief that dignity is created based on what we have. I go to therapy. It’s a good thing. If you can go then I recommend giving it a shot. Anyway the therapist asked me what are the best parts of me. I told him it was the fact that I had a wife, kids, and I could pay my bills. I told him that I was able to do normal things like take trips and have experiences.
My therapy told me to tell him about the best parts of me. I listed the things that I had and was able to afford…. Conversely just about everyday my wife and I lament the fact that we have a small kitchen. Daily! We judge ourselves by our small kitchen and lament the fact that we weren’t smart enough to buy an apartment with a big kitchen 7 years ago when we could probably afford it. Something so small affects us so greatly. Our identity is wrapped up in what we have.
I am what I do – What’s the first thing we get asked when we meet anyone here in this city. “Where do you live? What do you do?” What we do defines us greatly. For those of us who are doing exactly what we want to be doing, amazing. You’re probably pretty secure. More often than not the people of our church community tell me that they aren’t happy with what they’re doing. They want to do more. They want to do something greater. They want to do something more meaningful.
I talked with a friend the other day who said, what I do and who I am are indistinguishable. What do I do?
This one makes or breaks us. For those of us who are parents we look at our kids and spend so much time raising them. When our kids get sick, get into fights, become difficult, whatever it may be, it reflects on our identity because raising kids is what we do. When we struggle to get out of the house because one kid is melting down and another just spilled cereal we believe our selves to be failures because raising kids is what we do.
What about those of us who are new to this city? We just got a new job. We moved here to pursue a passion and we work at a coffee shop trying to pursue that passion. We started a new business but it’s going slowly. We’re simply stuck in the malaise of a job we’ve had for a few years. It feels like failure because we’re not doing the thing that brings us meaning. We’re barking up the wrong tree if we want the thing that we do to be the whole of our identity.
If you’re like me then you struggle with all of the things that you’ve failed to do. What I have failed to do? I have no idea? I guess I wanted to paly Major League Baseball. But seriously, I can’t even tell you what I failed to do but I do know that the specter of failure follows me around constantly. I define myself by what I’ve failed to do. Can anyone resonate?
We are what others think and say about us – One of my favorite authors and theologians is the late Henri Nouwen. His insight into Christianity is second to none. He taught at Ivy League schools, wrote books, and was well respected. Eventually he felt lost. He quit what he did. He no longer taught. He quit what he had. He got rid of everything and he moved into a home for people with severe mental disabilities. He started taking care of people who would never in a million years attend one of the schools where he taught. They’d never be able to buy let alone read one of his books. In his reflection on giving up parts of himself, Nouwen reflected that the most difficult part wasn’t giving up what he had or what he did; it was that the people he cared for couldn’t validate him. They couldn’t tell him he was great. They couldn’t compliment his mind or insight. That was the biggest struggle for Nouwen.
Whether we want to admit it or not, we’re deeply affected by what others think. Popular statistics will tell you that we need to hear 9 affirmations just to rid ourselves of the one critique or ridicule. That’s exhausting! With social media it gets even more exhausting as we can’t post something without quantifying what people think of us!
And so these lies, what we have, what we do, and what other people think, they contribute to both our personality and feed our addictions.
Both are interesting words.
Personality -Comes from the Latin word for mask. Super interesting right? Our personalities are simply masks that we put on in order to maintain, handle, and deal with, the three lies that we constantly tell ourselves.
That second word, addiction. That comes from the Latin word for “given to devotion.” That’s not a bad thing until we realize that to give devotion to something ultimately makes it something to which we’re in debt. No longer is it devotion but instead it becomes a form of enslavement.
I believe that we’ve come to such a place that we’re enslaved by the lies. We’ve come to a place that we can’t see our true selves. We continue to wear our masks. And so again, I ask the question, “Who are you?” And again we come to a place where we can’t even imagine writing anything close to what David wrote because we’re addicted to the lies. We’re addicted to false self.
In this Lenten season my prayer is that we pull off the masks. My prayer is that we begin to understand that we are indeed made in the image of a God who sees us as being an absolute miracle and absolutely beloved. Practically speaking how do we make that happen?
I want to introduce to you today the Enneagram. Has anyone heard of this before? I think when we hear about the enneagram we believe it to be another personality test. It’s like the Meyers Briggs or the DISC test. It shows us all of our little quirks. The reason we want to talk about the enneagram is because we believe that it does so much more.
The first thing we should know about enneagram is that its roots aren’t in western psychology and western Christianity. The Enneagram has been used in some capacity by a variety of cultures all over the world. In the 1990’s the enneagram was given some psychological and western language through which we now work. Regardless, as we work with the enneagram we know that it’s helped a large swath of people and is rooted in the unifying of cultures, traditions, and ethnicities. This makes it completely different from other personality tests rooted in western psychology. It also is profoundly powerful in the sense that there is a common thread among humanity to be blind to which we truly are. Take heart in knowing that this isn’t just your problem or my problem. This is a problem that affects all of humanity!
There are 9 parts to the Enneagram. The Enneagram is adept at showing us the 9 ways we lose our true selves. It shows us 9 different ways we lose grasp of who we really are. It gives language to our blindness. The good news of the Enneagram is it gives us a pathway back to finding our rest in God.
Here’s the thing about the Enneagram. It’s going to speak to why we believe the lies we believe. It’s going to give us hope that we can truly rest in God, and lastly, much of it will feel monotonous. Much of it comes from discipline, centering prayer, contemplative practices. That’s right. During this Lenten season we’re going to spend a lot of time being quiet, exploring our truest selves and creating disciplines for contemplative practices.
We’re going to take time to work with the enneagram and I hope we understand why this is something we want to do as a church. We believe that in order for us to live out restorative justice and for us to be a generous expression of Christ, we must accept the fact that we are deeply loved and rooted in God. We believe that the Christ following life is rooted in prayer, in centering, and in listening to the still small voice of the Holy Spirit. Ultimately, as a church we’ve spent so much of the past couple of years opening our eyes to new ways of seeing the Bible, new ways of seeing our siblings in Christ, finding new and radical ways to show the inclusive love of Christ, and now it’s time that we open our eyes to truly finding ourselves and no longer living the lies.
Here’s what’s going to happen practically.
-This week we’re going to send out a mass email that will give you the option to take a free enneagram test or a paid one. The paid one costs as much as the vodka tonic you bought last night but it is way better for you. If you’re trying to save money then it’s find taking the free one. It doesn’t have as much insight. We encourage you to start the process of finding your true selves. You can sign up to be on our mailing list at the back computer.
-This week we’re going to give our small groups guides that will help us start to make sense of our selves in relation to the enneagram. You can join a small group by talking to someone on staff or by signing up in the back. If you can’t join a small group we’ll send out resources to you and let you start making sense of yourself in your own time
-Lastly for this week we’re going to end this service with a bit of quiet. We’re going to end with some contemplative prayer; a practice so to speak for what we hope will become a regular discipline.
As we fumble through this my prayer is that we open our eyes to the fact that we’re loved. My prayer is that we read David’s Psalm and identify and praise our God because of the sheer miracle that we’re wonderfully loved and made. Amen.
Prayer from the Sacred Enneagram book.
"1. Sit in an upright, attentive posture that allows for an erect spine and open heart. Place your hands on your lap.
2. Gently close your eyes and bring to mind a word, image, or breath as your symbol to consent to the presence and action of God within you. Your sacred symbol is intended to be the same every time you pray. It helps to ground you in the present moment, allowing you to give your undivided, loving, yielded attention to God. You may want to choose a name for God or a characteristic of God, such as Love, Peace, etc.
3. Silently, with eyes closed, notice your thoughts. Who are you? Your identity is that of beloved. You are loved by God. Say that. Do this however many times you notice your thoughts. Don’t forget, this is not about “getting" it. There is no judgment.
4. Slowly open your eyes and come back to the room.
I have many an intentional conversation. My job as a pastor requires a few intentional conversations. Furthermore, my job as a pastor often means that my intentional conversations will center around God, Jesus, the Bible, spirituality, and the like. I have conversations with quite a few people, my friends inside our church, friends outside of our church. Friends of friends, family members and their friends, social media friends, who are really just friends of cousins of friends who we met for 30 minutes when we were passing through Pittsburgh, and everyone in between.
Here’s what I can tell you about all of these conversations that I have with all people, some of us included. It’s astounding and amazing how everyone has a different opinion on God, Jesus, the bible, and the way to live out a Christian faith. I mean there are some absolute differences of opinion. And yet, everyone cites the scriptures as evidence for their opinion. It’s really incredible. What’s absolutely amazing to me is that each person I encounter, and I’ll throw myself into this mix, creates God in their own image and then uses the bible to back up this God we created in our own image.
I like the way the author Anne Lamott says it,
You can safely assume you've created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.
This is true and exceptional. We create our God in our own image and then go searching through scripture to make sure that there is evidence to back up our God. How do we do this? By taking our scriptures out of context and fitting them into our narratives that confirm all that we think or feel.
I use this example all of the time so my apologies if you’ve heard it before but I think it gets the point across. When I was 31 years old someone reached back and punched me square in the face. It was pretty crazy.
That’s right. When I was 31 years old I was in the hospital. My oldest daughter was just born. I held her in my arms and in the midst of her crying, she held balled up her tiny fist and hit me in the chin. It was crazy. There I was holding a brand new life and this was my daughter. Do you see how we can use context (or lack there of) to create a narrative that meets our own ends, ambitions, desires, and biases? And so we do this with the Bible quite a bit. We cite scriptures to create alternative narratives that help us meet our own end.
An acquaintance and fellow pastor, Rich Villodas says this, and I think it’s poignant for today’s talk,
“We can read the Bible every day and still have our hearts firmly against the ways of the kingdom of God. Until we read scripture through the lens of the crucified Christ, our exegesis (interpretation) becomes subject to political preference and a tool to protect a status quo that benefits us.”
I think this is especially poignant as we end our series on racism and privilege. A couple of weeks ago I preached a message on institutional racism and briefly discussed the historical views of the Christian church. Brief reminder, the historical views of the Christian church were largely racist, bigoted, and inhumane. But how did the church get to that place and how does some of the church maintain the same racist, bigoted, and hateful views? That’s right, scripture. Scripture without context creates for us a narrative that works to benefit our views and beliefs.
And what’s tragic is that scripture without context, while discounted now, created a Christian culture of racism that still persists to this day. I’m going to point to some Bible stories taken out of context used to perpetuate racism. Let me tell you, some of the stories I’ll use today are downright wacky. Don’t let anyone tell you the bible is boring.
For instance there’s a story in Genesis that’s now dubbed, “The Curse of Ham.”
Noah, a man of the soil, proceeded to plant a vineyard. When he drank some of its wine, he became drunk and lay uncovered inside his tent. Ham, the father of Canaan, saw his father naked and told his two brothers outside. But Shem and Japheth took a garment and laid it across their shoulders; then they walked in backward and covered their father’s naked body. Their faces were turned the other way so that they would not see their father naked. When Noah awoke from his wine and found out what his youngest son had done to him, he said, “Cursed be Canaan! The lowest of slaves will he be to his brothers.” He also said“ Praise be to the Lord, the God of Shem! May Canaan be the slave of Shem. – Genesis 9:20-26
What we have is Noah, of Noah’s ark fame, getting wildly drunk and passing out. We can save that commentary for later. Noah’s son, Ham comes in and sees his father naked, a big no no in ancient near east culture. When Noah finds out he curses Ham and tells the world the Ham’s son Canaan will become slaves. Are we all following along?
For the sake of time I can tell you three things about this passage in context. It was written by the people of Israel during their enslavement by the Babylonians. It was written to instill pride in Israel. Israel finally found their own land by taking over the Canaanites. If you’re trying to tell a story about a nation looking for freedom and revival, you tell a story about the enemy you once defeated named, Canaan. And in context that’s all that this story is.
It is a rousing patriotic tale that begs the people of Israel who are now enslaved to remember the possibility of freedom.
The advent of slavery brought about the need for justification. Like I said, we need to create our own god and scriptural narratives in order to meet our needs. Christian slave holders needed just that. In some poor Hebrew translations, the name, Ham translates to, “Dark” or “Black.” And so without the context of Israel’s own slavery and occupation, without the context of Israel harkening back to a time when they defeated Canaanites to make themselves free, we get a story of Noah cursing his son, “Black” or “Dark,” which means that God must ordain slavery of those with a dark or black skin color. Later on this same story was used to justify slavery of just about any person deemed “rebellious” in nature.
Without context we’ve turned a story that begs the people of Israel who are now enslaved to remember the possibility of freedom into a story about telling the enslaved that there is no possibility of freedom! The irony.
Citing this passage, the Reverend, Henry Van Dyke, a Brooklynite by the way, expressed bewilderment at the fact that abolitionists could ever be Christians. He says these words,
“When an abolitionist tells me that slaveholding is a sin, in the simplicity of my faith in the Holy Scriptures, I point to him this sacred record and say in all candor (just as the bible does) that the abolitionist’s teaching blasphemes the name of God and his doctrine.”
Let’s do another story used without context to create ideologies beneficial to racist ideology. In fact, this story was brought up and discussed in our small group. Rightly so. This story is used to oppress people and create segregation. It’s so ingrained in our Christian imagination that It had to be brought up in small group.
Now the whole world had one language and a common speech. As people moved eastward, they found a plain in Shinar and settled there.
They said to each other, “Come, let’s make bricks and bake them thoroughly.” They used brick instead of stone, and tar for mortar. Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves; otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth.” But the Lord came down to see the city and the tower the people were building. The Lord said, “If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.”
So the Lord scattered them from there over all the earth, and they stopped building the city. That is why it was called Babel—because there the Lord confused the language of the whole world. From there the Lord scattered them over the face of the whole earth. – Genesis 11:1-9
If we were to take scripture as words on page and out of context then we might get the idea that diversity of language, culture, and people is inherently sinful. It was created because people thought that they could build a huge tower as an affront to God. Sadly, many biblical literalists throughout history have used this story to justify racism, slavery, and segregation, just to name a few.
So let’s start looking around scripture for context and when we do that we see some lineages back in Genesis chapter 10. Lineages may look boring but they’re always good for figuring out context. Just start googling some of these names and in a hundredth of a second you’ll find out some interesting info on these lineages. For instance,
Cush was the father of Nimrod, who became a mighty warrior on the earth. He was a mighty hunter before the Lord; that is why it is said, “Like Nimrod, a mighty hunter before the Lord.” The first centers of his kingdom were Babylon…….Genesis 10
Okay, there is a guy who is the lead builder of Babylon. What’s his name? It’s Nimrod. There are better names. There are worse. It says that Nimrod is a mighty warrior and hunter. That’s another way of saying that Nimrod is a military power of the day. He is a metaphor for an empire. Now here’s another fun fact. Nimrod in the Hebrew means, “to rebel.” Here’s where it gets interesting. Where does Nimrod come from? He’s from Canaan. We just talked about Canaan didn’t we? Canaan was defeated. So what we’re doing is telling another story about a descendant of Canaan, the enemy, who by building this tower is rebelling against the good guys, the Israelites. And this enemy was ruthless and powerful. This enemy wanted to crush the little guy.
The story reflects a growing awareness and concern that there is a higher good for humanity than the strong dominating the weak, the powerful crushing the powerless, and the proud raising themselves up to godlike status. It’s a story about what can happen in humanity when power, accumulation, and ego become greater than recognizing one’s humanity.
In short, it’s a story about the dangers of the powerful exposing the powerless.
And what have we done with this story? We’ve focused on the language aspect, which by the way, it’s widely agreed to be a way to explain the fact that Babylon taking over the Israelites did some serious damage to the Hebrew language, and decided that this must be a story about keeping races separate.
We’ve taken a story about God getting angry about the injustice of the powerful exposing the powerless and we used it to justify the powerful exposing the powerless!! Oh sweet irony!
Now you may think about this as being utterly preposterous. I certainly do. And the truth is that this scripture cited and taken out of context was used to justify not only slavery, but the forbidding of mixed race marriage, which is some cases was upheld by some Christian institutions right up until the year 2000! (Bob Jones University) 18 years ago! Most of us were alive! Scripture outside of context is dangerous and has kept Christianity complicit in racist ideology.
I said a couple of weeks ago that we take the Bible far too seriously to take it literally. This is what I mean. Without context we can use the Bible to perpetuate racism, privilege and oppression.
We can take a passage like this one.
Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, - Romans 13:1
And without context, have no clue that Paul is talking about practicing civil disobedience rather than starting an all out war with the Roman Empire. And so this gets quoted without context by Christian leaders who want us to be obedient when we see egregious acts of oppression and injustice to immigrants, to women, to the LGBTQIA community, and to those of different religions. That’s never what scripture intended!
I can take the Bible out of context all day to justify racism, privilege, power, and anything else! We can do this all day! And it scares me.
If our church cares deeply about ending racism and bringing equity then we cannot take the bible literally. We must take it very seriously giving this living, breathing, covenant the attention it deserves and the context it deserves!
And here is the way we give it context.
One more story. This story is about the transfiguration. After all it’s transfiguration Sunday and I know that so many of you were wondering, “When will he talk about the transfiguration? Don’t think I would leave something so important out. I also think the transfiguration teaches us how to take our scripture seriously but not literally. It teaches us what it looks like to be progressive. It teaches us what it looks like to partner in a movement that ends racism and brings equity to people of color, women, LGBTQIA, immigrants, dreamers, and everyone else who’s ever had to live in fear because of their otherness.
About eight days after Jesus said this, he took Peter, John and James with him and went up onto a mountain to pray. As he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became as bright as a flash of lightning. Two men, Moses and Elijah, appeared in glorious splendor, talking with Jesus. They spoke about his departure, which he was about to bring to fulfillment at Jerusalem. Peter and his companions were very sleepy, but when they became fully awake, they saw his glory and the two men standing with him. As the men were leaving Jesus, Peter said to him, “Master, it is good for us to be here. Let us put up three shelters—one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.” (He did not know what he was saying.) While he was speaking, a cloud appeared and covered them, and they were afraid as they entered the cloud. A voice came from the cloud, saying, “This is my Son, whom I have chosen; listen to him.” When the voice had spoken, they found that Jesus was alone. The disciples kept this to themselves and did not tell anyone at that time what they had seen. – Luke 9:28-36
This is indeed the mystery of Christ right here. The flat reading of scripture without context brings up a whole lot.
But if we’re to put this passage into context it becomes a story about the flat reading of scripture and what happens when we don’t put scripture into context. The irony continues!
This is the story where Jesus becomes greater than the Old Testament. It’s where one testament (an old testament) gives way to another testament (the new testament) and that testament is all about Jesus. If we want to take the bible seriously but not literally then we must see scripture through the lens of Jesus Christ. Let’s dig deeper.
Peter and his companions were very sleepy, but when they became fully awake, they saw his glory and the two men standing with him. As the men were leaving Jesus, Peter said to him, “Master, it is good for us to be here. Let us put up three shelters—one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.” (He did not know what he was saying.)
Oh Peter. His impulse is to build three shelters. Why? Because in his reading of scripture and the entirety of Judaism’s reading of scripture at that point, the three men were equals. At that point Moses and Elijah represented holy justice and holy law. Moses represents the law and Elijah represents the prophets. Jesus is just another one of them. Stay with me because this is gonna get good.
Those who practice Judaism will say that they are guided through darkness by the constellations who are considered prophets and the law, which is considered Moses and the prophets. So up until this point anything that is said or done by Moses or Elijah is equal to anything Jesus does. Peter does as much by giving each of them a tent. This is a flat reading of scripture that doesn’t take into account Jesus and what his incarnation means. So what happens when Peter tries to do this?
While he was speaking, a cloud appeared and covered them, and they were afraid as they entered the cloud. A voice came from the cloud, saying, “This is my Son, whom I have chosen; listen to him.” When the voice had spoken, they found that Jesus was alone.
What happens? Jesus is alone. He’s there upstaging the law and the prophets. I think Brian Zahnd says it best in talking about what this means.
“(The transfiguration) shows us that the bible is not a flat text where every passage carries the same weight. There is a new word of God. The law and prophets no longer have final say. It’s Jesus that has final say!
Everything must be looked at through the lens and context of Christ.”
So we know when Jesus preaches his most famous sermon, the one on the Mount, he ends up saying, “I didn’t come to abolish the law and the prophets, I’ve come to fulfill them.” This is what the transfiguration shows us! And when Jesus famously says,
“Love the Lord your God with all of your heart mind and soul for all of the law and the prophets rest on this command….” Once again it points to the fact that law and prophets (Moses and Elijah) not equals. Jesus is the word made flesh. Jesus is the ultimate context of scripture.
So today we can look in the Bible and point out any number of places where we see scripture that seeks to oppress, thwart, become violent, or marginalize. Like I said before, they’re everywhere. But the transfiguration tells us that we can’t look at any of them without putting them in the context of Jesus Christ. If the values don’t match up with the values of Jesus then it probably means we need to dig a little deeper.
When we have one of the aforementioned conversations and someone says that God condoned violence and oppression of people because it’s all over the Old Testament, we can point to the transfiguration and say that the law given by Moses isn’t on the same level as the law of Christ!
We can’t cite Moses in order to silence Jesus. We can’t cite segregation and racism in the book of Genesis without looking at what Jesus does first. We can’t look at the book of Romans and the obedience to the rulers without looking to see what Jesus says about this. Jesus is the ultimate context. And here’s the best part. This is radical, it’s powerful, and it’s absolutely central to anyone’s Christianity. It’s this idea that makes us Christian!
During this series we’ve asked you to do a few things. We’ve asked you to listen. We’ve asked you to develop a righteous anger and grief. We’ve challenged you to develop real and lasting friendships with people that are different than you. We’ve told you to read authors who are not your own ethnicity. We’ve asked you dispel racist myths. We’ve asked you to show up. We’ll continue to ask you to do those things. We hope that you’ll go to the racism and faith workshop. Just because this series is over doesn’t mean that the conversation and action ends.
But here’s the last thing I’m going to ask you to do. When you read the bible, don’t read it flatly. Don’t read it literally. Take it seriously. And by taking it seriously I want us to always put in in the context of Jesus. This Sunday tells us that Jesus is the word made flesh, the fulfillment of the law and prophets. If it contradicts Jesus then we’re not reading it in context. So let’s end today by reading the teachings of Jesus. I want to read his most important passage by which we can see the rest of scripture and the lens through which we work to eradicate racism and bring equity. Let’s read it with all of those who are hurt from racism in heart and mind.
You’re blessed when you’re at the end of your rope. With less of you there is more of God and his rule.
4 “You’re blessed when you feel you’ve lost what is most dear to you. Only then can you be embraced by the One most dear to you.
5 “You’re blessed when you’re content with just who you are—no more, no less. That’s the moment you find yourselves proud owners of everything that can’t be bought.
6 “You’re blessed when you’ve worked up a good appetite for God. He’s food and drink in the best meal you’ll ever eat.
7 “You’re blessed when you care. At the moment of being ‘care-full,’ you find yourselves cared for.
8 “You’re blessed when you get your inside world—your mind and heart—put right. Then you can see God in the outside world.
9 “You’re blessed when you can show people how to cooperate instead of compete or fight. That’s when you discover who you really are, and your place in God’s family.
10 “You’re blessed when your commitment to God provokes persecution. The persecution drives you even deeper into God’s kingdom.
Not only that—count yourselves blessed every time people put you down or throw you out or speak lies about you to discredit me. What it means is that the truth is too close for comfort and they are uncomfortable. You can be glad when that happens—give a cheer, even!—for though they don’t like it, I do! And all heaven applauds. And know that you are in good company. My prophets and witnesses have always gotten into this kind of trouble.
Let’s get into some trouble. Amen.