Sermon: The Authority of Compassion

 Matthew 28:16-20, Matthew 9:35-10:4

I don’t like this text (Matthew 28:16-20), and I almost didn’t preach on it because I dislike it so much.  Called “the Great Commission,” it’s one of the three main Biblical “texts of terror” used to justify colonization, not to mention really bad missionary theology. It appears to be — or has been used as — a mandate to conquer the world for Christ. Judge Ted Strong of the Yakama Nation speaks powerfully to the evil of this interpretation in the documentary on the Doctrine of Discovery that the Coalition I helped found made several years ago.  The Doctrine of Discovery is a series of church doctrines issued in the 15th century that laid the legal and theology foundations for colonization.  And yes, this is our church signing at the very beginning of this clip (play 14:28-15:45).

“The church taught that.”  Three hundred years after Jesus, a Jewish prophet from a colony brutally occupied by the Roman Empire, 300 years later the community founded around his teachings became the state religion of the Roman Empire.  After that, it was the “state religion” of the Holy Roman Empire, of Christendom – which refers to Christian empires or countries in which Christianity dominates. And that Christendom lasted for centuries. Some people say Christendom ended with the first world war, but Christian dominance, Christian hegemony, Christian alignment with dominating power is still very much alive.  That means that, for 1700 years, the Bible has predominantly been interpreted through the lens of the religion of empire.  Biblical scholar Wes Howard-Brook introduces this concept of the religion of empire in contrast to the religion of creation, which is what Jesus or Yeshua taught, in this clip (play 17:57-19:36).

So, let’s turn to the passage for today and try to read it through the lens of the religion of creation, rather than through the lens of the religion of empire.   

The passage is called the Great Commission, which can sound — and has been interpreted — as quite triumphalist.  But let’s see what’ really happening.  As one Biblical scholar said, “Jesus says, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me,’ but nothing in the surroundings seems to support such a claim” — if you are looking at it through the lens of the religion of empire.  “If Jesus had been speaking to vast multitudes, rank upon rank stretching to the horizon on as far as the eye could see, with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir humming the hallelujah chorus in the background, perhaps such a claim might seem plausible.” (From Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 3).  From the perspective of the religion of empire, Jesus is “on an unnamed mountain in backwater Galilee, with a congregation of 11 — down from 12 the week before. “ But from the perspective of the religion of creation, Jesus and the disciples are on a sacred mountain, a place where many others of their people before them have had experienced of the Holy, of God.  It’s a place of encounter. 

This doesn’t mean that there isn’t room for the presence of doubt.  The religion of empire brooks no doubt, no suspicion of  its ironclad truth.  In the religion of empire, there is space for human emotions.  In fact, some scholars say that a more accurate translation of the Greek here should have this verse read as: “When they saw him, they worshiped, but they doubted.” Not like some of the disciples were all in, and others weren’t. It’s like they all had some doubt — about what, we’re not told.  And yet, they worshipped. Doubt and worship, doubt and reverence, doubt and great respect, weren’t mutually exclusive.   

And then we have this word: authority.  I think it’s so easy to understand that word though the lens of the religion of empire. In the religion of empire, authority is very much about power over. A power that dominates, subjugates. 

I want to go to Matthew 9:35-10:4 for a different understanding of power. There’s a mini-commission that happens in Matthew before the Great Commission. We used this passage in lectio divina, or sacred reading of Scripture, this past Tuesday because I did not want to use the Great Commission passage.

Matthew 9:35-36: Here, Jesus is still very much alive, and he’s teaching the Good News of the kindom of God and he’s healing people.  And he’s attracting a crowd.  When we think of a crowd, we think of a kind of faceless horde of people.  So many, they become a mass, which you then have to be worried about controlling or managing.  But that’s not how Jesus is taking them in.  The verse says simply:  “And Jesus saw the crowds.”  I don’t think this was a simple glance.  Contemplation — “long, loving look at the real.” Really gazing upon them. Seeing the worry lines etched in their faces.  Seeing the slump of their shoulders.  Seeing the gnarled hands gnarled or the bent backs formed from decades of heavy labor.  Seeing their exhaustion.  Seeing the cautious hope in their eyes as they wait for him to speak.  He sees they are harassed and helpless, or, perhaps even a better translation is that they are “harassed and tossed aside.”  They are like sheep without a shepherd. There isn’t anyone in a position of authority who truly cares for them, cares about them.  At least some of their key leaders are in cahoots with the Roman Empire to exploit them. And even more than that, it’s that  there is this domination system called the Roman Empire that is actively harassing them, using them. 

Jesus not only sees their plight, he feels it in his body, he is moved by it. The Greek word for compassion here means “to be moved in the inward parts.” Remember when you felt this kind of compassion? (pause)  It’s in your bowels, it’s a gut response. Remember also when you’ve had the experience of someone who has compassion for you when you’ve been in pain (pause).  You know that they are actually experiencing some of the pain you’re experiencing. They are moved in their inward parts by your pain. That’s how Jesus sees people, how he is moved by people. 

Matthew 9:37-10:1: Jesus then acts from this compassion. He sees there’s not enough of him to go around to meet the needs of these people, so he commissions his disciples to go out and do what he’s doing — heal people. He gives them the authority to do this. So, there’s that word again.  But what is the nature of this authority?

When we read this in lectio earlier this week, there’s a time when we imagine ourselves into the story, and experience it through our senses and our emotions.  When I imagined myself as one of the disciples, receiving the authority, I had this block.  I couldn’t feel it.  I was still thinking of authority from a religion of empire perspective.  Sort of like, now I was supposed to be one of those disciples who could go up to people and say: “I command thee demon to leave this person,” or “Sickness be gone.” I used to watch faith healers on TV in my my youth — and saw some of them in person —  and they always healed in very showy kind of way that just seemed so not like something I was capable of or even wanted to be capable of.  It felt dominating, like the religion of empire.

But then, as so often happens in lectio, someone sees something I don’t. And Karen said something like: “This its how I imagine Jesus healing.  He goes up to a person, and he gets down to their level, face to face and he really sees them.” He sees them as part of a common human family, as Wes Howard Brooks said in that clip.  He gazes upon them with the eyes of love, compassion.  That seeing them is already liberating, because maybe they were used to feeling rejected, or outcast, or unwanted, or invisible.  And so his gaze alone has the power to make them feel included again in the human family.  And he really listens to them, hears their pain, hears their strength, hears their story.  And that experience of being so seen, so heard, is healing for them.  

That’s a healing power that is about power with, not power over.  That’s the authority of compassion.  And it is more powerful than the power of domination.  I think sometimes we don’t think that’s true, but it is.  Because this kind of authority can heal, not harm; it can create community, not destroy it; it can heal divisions, not incite them; it can repair the world, not wreck it. It’s the power of creation, not the power of death or de-creation.  It’s the power of life. And it is powerfully in every one of us.

Matthew 10:2-4. These are the names of the apostles given the authority of compassion. And these are the names of the apostles given the authority of compassion… at the count of three, I want each of you to say your name out loud! Now go, teaching everything that Yeshua has commanded you. And that commandment is: Compassion. Amen.

Jesus as Green Man

This is the first in an Eastertide mini-series called “Rewilding Jesus” that unearths fun and feral images/ideas about Jesus, the Jewish prophet deeply rooted in his place and his community and undomesticated by Empire.

A Green Man carving from a church in Lincolnshire, England.

Almost a year ago, I was in Milan to officiate the wedding of one of our former MVSers, Alyssa Schrag, and Gio Bianchi. I confess I didn’t visit one art museum the entire time I was there. The truth is, I get tired of art museums pretty quickly, but I can spend all day staring at the weird stuff carved into European cathedrals.  In a time when most people weren’t literate, the walls of these cathedrals, along with their statues and stained glass windows, were common people’s Sunday School; it was their religious education, the way their faith was formed.  So it’s fascinating to decipher what faith is being communicated through all this art.

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Easter Sermon: The Life That Never, Ever Dies

The sermon by Sheri Hostetler is interspersed wth Helen Stoltzfus’ “An Easter Poem.” A video an audio recording of the sermon can be found in this folder.

Matthew 28:1-10

There are worlds within this story.  We have tried for so long to put this story into a little box. It contains multitudes. We have said that if you don’t believe in this story in a certain way, if you can’t fit into the little box with it, then this story isn’t for you.  That isn’t true.  This is our story.  It contains multitudes.

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Sermon: The Archetype of the Mystic

This is the fourth sermon in our Lenten series, “Fully Alive: Living as Warrior, Monk and Mystic.” It is followed by a reflection by Kelli Pearson, a member of our congregation, on identifying with the mystic archetype.

John 17:20-26

Have you ever had the experience of being enlarged?  In that moment, you felt yourself a part of something far bigger than your small self. And maybe that bigness felt so big it seemed to have a capital letter — capital-l Life, capital-l Love, capital-g God. Maybe you experienced it when you saw your child’s face for the first time and knew yourself to be part of the great river of Life. May you felt it in a moment of intimacy, and you knew yourself to be in Love. Maybe you were out hiking and felt the boundaries between yourself and the manzanita tree and and the sky become permeable, softer – and you saw yourself not as separate, but a part of All that is.

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Sermon: The Archetype of the Monk

This sermon is the third in our Lenten series called “Fully Alive: Living as Warrior, Mystic, Monk.” It is followed by a reflection by David Wieand, a member of our congregation, on identifying with the monk archetype.

Luke 10:38-42

Are you, like Martha, distracted by many things? Do you feel fragmented, pulled in many directions? Does it seem as though you too often spend your days tending to the trivial, while those things you really care about, those things your heart beats loudly for languish for another day? Do you wish for more balance in your life, more simplicity? Do you long, like Mary, to choose the “one – or two or three things – necessary” and consistently order your life around those things? 

Do you long to be more present to your life? Would you like to slow down and savor your life more? Do you wish you could experience the feeling you have while on retreat, or vacation or over the weekend in the week-dailiness of your life — – as you’re spreading butter on the toast for our kids, as you’re tackling your morning email inbox, as you head into your 4th meeting or class of the day?  It’s in the here and now, in the ordinariness of our lives — not in some special, set-aside times like weekends or vacations —  that we long for wholeness. It’s in the here and now that we long for an undivided heart: to be wholly present to this moment.  

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Sermon: Introduction to Warrior, Mystic, Monk

This sermon is the first in our Lenten series called Fully Living: Living as Warrior, Mystic, Monk.

Matthew 4:1-11

Let’s do a Zoom poll but without actually being on Zoom.How many of you have had a practice of observing Lent at some point in your life — either you grew up with or it or it was something you did as an adult? For those of you who have done that, for how many of you was it about giving something up?  I’m not down on that practice. There’s something to be said for having a season during which we exercise self-control. That can be good training. 

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Sermon: State of our Union

Matthew 4:17-23

Since I’m about to give our version of the “State of the Union” address typically given by U.S. presidents, I thought I’d check out last year’s State of the Union address to get a sense of the similarities and differences between that ritual and ours. Similarities? People come in late for that event, too. And, it’s hard to get people to stop talking to each other and get started. Nancy Pelosi has to bang that gavel, hard, several times. Maybe our worship leaders should do that? As for differences:  Joanna or I don’t normally get introduced — “Ladies and gentleman, the pastors of FMCSF!” — and then we don’t walk into the sanctuary as you all stand and clap. Why doesn’t that happen? And you don’t keep standing and applauding once we step up to the podium, such that we have to say, “Thank you, thank you. Thank you very much” as a way of quieting you down and then when we say that you clap even louder and start cheering, and we stand there, humbly. And this clapping and cheering keeps happening again and again throughout the speech. Again, why not?

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Mothers: Lamentation, Resistance, and Change (MLK Day Sermon)

2 Samuel 21: 1-14

By Benjamin Bolaños

To tell you the truth I’m tired of these one day holidays that we, as a country,  adore year after year, from President’s day, Caesar Chavez day, Indigenous People’s or Columbus Day and of course MLK day.  It’s not because I do not value what they represent or that I don’t believe in justice or equality or progress.  I’m tired of them because I find them to be frankly trite.  Every January we celebrate MLK day.  Every February we celebrate President’s day.  Every October we celebrate Indigenous People’s day.   AndI hear the same thing about that person or event each year. Particularly, the symbol of MLK has been lost for me since I know the story and I also know I get a day off. I get a day for each of these holidays.   I also know if I need a new car, there will be MLK deals for a ford or a toyota.  Or MLK deals at the shopping center.  In his book Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology, Neil Postman calls this symbol draining (see chapter 10).  The more you hear and see the symbol, the more it loses its efficacy and since we live in a consumer-oriented society, the more that symbol is usurped by consumerist values.  MLK holiday has been taken over by the system.  

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Sermon: Fractals and Murmurations

This sermon is the first in our Advent Series, “Embracing Our Chaotic, Fertile Reality,” which is based in prophecies from Isaiah as well as the wisdom of a modern-day prophet, adrienne maree brown, author of Emergent Strategy. We used this wonderful children’s book, which describes fractals so both children and adults can understand them.

Isaiah 2:1-5

I was walking my dog about two weeks ago at night, and I noticed that someone already had a fully decorated fake Christmas tree in their picture window, and a couple of houses were already lit up with multi-colored strings of lights. I live on Christmas Tree Lane in Alameda, where we take Christmas seriously, but even I was “too much, too soon.” Promotions for stocking stuffers have been appearing on Amazon since Halloween. And the catalogs — even the ones I thought I had opted out of via the Catalog Choice website — have been arriving for weeks, the ones showing families wearing matching flannel PJs sipping hot cocoa in front of their Christmas tree.

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Meditation: All Saints Day

You can find an audio and video recording of this meditation here.

Luke 6:17-26

Blessed are you who are poor, hungry, sad and rejected. Woe to you who are rich, satiated, happy and popular. You’ll get yours. Boom. That’s the Gospel for today in a nutshell, right?

Is this text really telling us that we’re bad if we are financially and emotionally doing okay, even that God is going to get us back for all our ill-gotten wealth and health? And, furthermore, just what does this passage have to do with day in which we remember our loved ones who have died, other than the brief mention of those who mourn?

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Reflections on Mennonite Heritage Sunday

This year on Mennonite Heritage Sunday, we asked three people from our community to reflect on what was going on in the story of the church and the story of their own lives when they first arrived in our community. Jennifer Graber reflected from 30 years ago, Ann Speyer from 20 years ago, and Jonathan Hershberger from 10 years ago. Video and audio of the reflections can be found here.

Jennifer Graber’s reflection:

In June 1993, my husband Kevin and I moved to the Bay Area for him to begin his neurology residency at Stanford and for me to complete my pediatric residency there. We came to visit in March that year and on Sunday attended FMCSF. We recall being warmly welcomed by a small group of earnest young Mennos, some of whom invited us out for dim sum after church. John Flickinger, Doug Basinger and Dan Flickinger took us to Yank Sing in downtown SF. It was delicious, exciting and, when the bill came, horrifying to us poor residents. The divided bill would have come to $16 per person. As we were contemplating this, our new friends quickly paid, ever generous as they always are. When we moved out in June we returned to church in San Francisco, which was then meeting at the Dolores Street Baptist church on the corner of Dolores and 15th St (where a lovely newish condo building now stands). The next Sunday, that building had burned down and the church had to find a new place to meet. 

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Reflections from Discipleship Group members

This year’s Discipleship Group has been reading and discussing Sarah Augustine’s book The Land is not Empty: Following Jesus in Dismantling the Doctrine of Discovery. This Discipleship Group planned on Indigenous Peoples’ Day Service on October 9, and what follows are two reflections offered by members of our Discipleship Group during that service.

From Kylie McCarthy:

The Land is Not Empty has challenged my worldview and cosmology. It has helped me see from a different perspective and paradigm. I find myself asking many questions, sitting with intense sadness and feeling despair at the atrocities that have been inflicted upon a beautiful people and sacred land. I feel the burning fire for restorative justice. Questions arise: What is the collective path forward? What individual steps can be taken?

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