We just heard from the Gospel of Mark – Jesus’ family thought he was crazy. Religious leaders thought the devil ruled him. Jesus during his lifetime was counter-cultural, doing things a well-bred young man should not do.
Does culture define our identity? In part! We are social beings, and thrive better with a group identity! As we grow, we learn right and wrong and expected rituals and patterns of behavior from those around us. It is comforting when others meet our expectations and disconcerting when they do not. This is true in churches, families, workplaces, and clubs - not just in ethnic, racial, political, national or regional groups. Very often group identity includes expectation of loyalty. It isn’t just street gangs who punish disloyalty. We call an individual who requires loyalty a despot. But in groups expecting loyalty, it is easy go along despite seeing bad choices or people being hurt. Loyalty is sometimes just “following orders.” For many of us, being counter-cultural is very hard!
Yet, in his time and culture, Jesus, the man who is our model for how God wills us to live as humans, was counter-cultural. Why???? Apparently, with God as his guide, Jesus kept seeing cultural realities, including religious requirements, that were wrong and needed change. Sometimes he used cultural disobedience to teach alternative ways to show what is good in God’s eyes.
Remember Jesus and his disciples walking past a field ready for harvest on the Sabbath. The rules of the time said the outer edges of fields were available for whoever was hungry. Jesus’ disciples were hungry. They ate and he did not stop them. The problem was not eating from somebody else’s fields. The problem was doing it on the Sabbath. Breaking that Sabbath rest rule was scandalous. But Jesus chose feeding the hungry over efforts to control “when” that could happen.
He did the same with healing on the Sabbath. For Jesus, to meet a need of a man or woman with health issues was more important than who they were or religious rules. He often healed people others would have ignored. There were Simon’s mother-in-law, the woman with an “issue of blood” that would not stop, the man by the healing waters of a pool, the bent-over woman, the daughter of a Greek woman, lepers and more. For Jesus, people’s needs came first, no matter the cultural customs.
Likewise, Jesus’ dealings with women and foreigners broke cultural rules – remember the Samaritan woman at the well. He scandalized by even speaking to her, even worse he sent her as messenger of the good news to her village. I call her the first woman pastor! Remember Martha and Mary – Jesus valued Mary’s interest in learning. The men around him would have discouraged it.
Jesus wandered with young men and women (yes women, too) from place to place preaching and teaching and helping people. Mark 15: 40-41 names 4 women followers and says. “these women had followed and supported him, along with many other women…” Luke 8:3 says “Joanna (the wife of Herod’s servant Chuza), Suzanna, and many other women provided for them [Jesus and disciples] out of their resources.”
No, Jesus was not a model for following the rules, either of the local culture or of local religious leaders. He modeled instead a pattern of “response as needed” to those who were hurting – a response that might lead his followers to a transformation in how they saw, listened to, understood and treated those who hurt. Jesus not only met their need, he treated them with respect and compassion and invited them to claim renewed life. Remember the woman about to be stoned by a crowd? They claimed she was caught in adultery. Today we notice that only the woman, not the man, was guilty under rules of the day. Yet Jesus spoke to both the woman and the men with stones in their hands. “Who among you has never done something wrong. Let that person throw the first stone.” When they all dropped their stones, he charged the woman to claim a better future saying, “Go now, and sin no more.” For men and women alike he offered second chances and a call to responsible living.
What do we make of Jesus seeing his call to include correcting his culture? Could it be that as people of faith following Jesus, we are called both to envision a more just world, and to create it. Are we not called to seek and follow God’s will for all of creation. We must be mindful of more than just ourselves and our identity groups, our culture.
All of us, even if we stayed near family and in our childhood community, have experienced the challenges of different cultures trying to understand each other. We readily understand the simplest cultural clash: the change of culture from generation to generation. My grandfather was a tremendous influence on me. He taught me good grammar and to be kind and I still claim both. But he drank neither alcohol nor caffeine and thought dancing was a sin. All of that became rare in my generation. He also taught me to honor and respect people of color, including teaching me what is sometimes called the Black National Anthem, “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” I have that as a base as I continue to grow toward being anti-racist. But I also have a booklet he authored - with fine calligraphy and illustrations. It proclaims why men are superior to women. He would likely have opposed my becoming a pastor if he had lived to see it.
Generational change – growth in understanding – evolution of understandings of right and wrong – all this is normal life. But it means every generation must discern the forces influencing our lives - cultural, economic, familial, religious, and more – and we must assess what they teach. We should NOT just do as we are told. As followers of Jesus, it is our job to discern even inside our most intimate cultures and peer groups. What is good for all God’s people and the world, and what is failing them. Who is hurt and who is helped by what is considered “normal”? It matters.
This week our Global Ministries Area Executive for Latin America and the Caribbean (Rev. Angel Luis Rivera Agosto) reflected on Romans 12:2 which advises: “Don’t be conformed to the patterns of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds so that you can figure out what God’s will is – what is good and pleasing and mature.” He then described “…a Puerto Rican social leader …arrested for defending the right to food during the COVID19 pandemic…. the love and dedication of …farmers in Paraguay who brought their products to market for distribution and for community meals… the work of an ecumenical religious leader who risked his own life and health to move dozens of families from the crowded and dangerous immigrant and refugee camps in Tijuana, Mexico… the cry of thousands of young people around the U.S. bringing a powerful message to those in authority – to overcome racism and systematic injustice because “Black lives matter.””
Pastor Rivera reminds us that if we act from love, as Jesus and Paul teach, we are “called to know the system, gather information, and reveal those hidden real agendas that …[lead] away from the common good…” He says a parallel call is to support: “… social projects that raise the ethical character of our societies.” He closes saying: “I keep checking on the right time to travel again…When it happens, I want to be ready to face new times beyond COVID19 – times inspired by fullness of life, beyond nostalgic dreams back into a sad “normality… It is time to move forward and to seek transformation and renewal.”
How shall we also prepare for the coming time of transformation? In South Africa, during a time of agony and turmoil before the fall of apartheid, churches promoted a model of discernment both for religious understanding and for choices in living that they called, “See – Judge – Act.” They understood that if you were not listening, looking and thinking, you would not see and if you did not see wrong, you would continue to participate in it. They also recognized that once you could see, you had the difficult but necessary opportunity to judge and name the wrongness. Finally, once you were able to judge that change was needed, you were called to act to help it happen. See – judge – act.
In the United States, in 2018, I quite accidentally was in D.C. for a large ecumenical interracial rally on the National Mall. The religious leaders there had a variant on that South African method of helping people move from inertia to action. They called it “Awaken – Confront – Transform.” The initials of the words spell “act.” They recognized that people cannot act, confront or transform if they have not awakened to a need. They recognized that making noise in a confrontation, to get the attention of those with power was not enough. Rather the goal – the religious goal – was transformation of structures and underlying causes – a rebuilding, where necessary, of society so that it would turn from what was hurtful and build on what was good for all in God’s creation.
As I read about Jesus’ life and teachings, I agree that this is our call. And that it means that we may indeed, like Jesus, need to be counter-cultural.
Let us look now at the brief reading I lifted up this morning from the book of Romans. Romans 8:3 says “the law was weak because of selfishness” 8:5-6 says “people whose lives are based on selfishness think about selfish things, but people whose lives are based on the Spirit think about things that are related to the Spirit. The attitude that comes from selfishness leads to death, but the attitude that comes from Spirit leads to life and peace.”
Oops! In OUR culture we are very deep into self-actualization, self-centered choices, and doing what is good for me, my family, my business, my culture or my whatever. Jesus DID tell us to “love ourselves,” for without that we cannot love others but Jesus was not saying to be selfish. Of course, Jesus wants us to be actualized whole people – but Jesus walked with and modeled being workers with God !!! - to make the world a better place for those for whom it is especially bad. I truly believe that most of us are happier when we live in connection with community and with the needs of the whole. In our country this is complex. We have a very diverse country with constant changes inspired by people whose family origins are all over the world. We have to listen to, understand and work with people whose life experience and expectations do not match our own in order to help God’s kin-dom come, where all are treated as kin, part of the family. Each brings their own God-given gifts, enriching who we are as a whole and transforming social constructs that disrespect and harm any part of us or the world. Whether we follow See, Judge, Act or Awaken, Confront, Transform or some other model, we are in a family of God that must be part of the change. When Call and Culture clash, like Jesus, we must follow God’s Call.
We will not be alone. God is still leading us to places of hope, and transformation of this part of God’s creation to bring it more in line with God’s hopes, dreams and plans. And many other people walk with us. Together we are stronger than when we are alone.
I am delighted with the current leadership of younger generations. But all of us have a role. Our task depends on who we are, our life experience, and who we relate to, but God needs people engaged in many ways – some listening, studying, discerning, encouraging, praying – some calling attention to what is learned and modeling or calling for ways to make life better – and some promoting ideas that could transform the life experience, save the earth, bring equity and opportunity that benefits all and not just some. We are in a time of turmoil that can lead to transformation. Thanks be to God for letting us serve on this journey. Amen.