Sermon: Being Hard Headed February 7, 2016
St. Paul’s Presbyterian Church, Los Angeles 5th Sunday after Epiphany
Scripture: 2 Corinthians 3:12 – 4:2
12Since, then, we have such a hope, we act with great boldness, 13not like Moses, who put a veil over his face to keep the people of Israel from gazing at the end of the glory that was being set aside. 14But their minds were hardened. Indeed, to this very day, when they hear the reading of the old covenant, that same veil is still there, since only in Christ is it set aside. 15Indeed, to this very day whenever Moses is read, a veil lies over their minds; 16but when one turns to Jesus, the veil is removed. 17Now God is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of God is, there is freedom. 18And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of God as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from God, the Spirit.
4 – 1Therefore, since it is by God’s mercy that we are engaged in this ministry, we do not lose heart. 2We have renounced the shameful things that one hides; we refuse to practice cunning or to falsify God’s word; but by the open statement of the truth we commend ourselves to the conscience of everyone in the sight of God.
Holy God, enthroned above, you are exalted over all creation! We gather now to praise your awesome name, for you alone are holy. Prepare us to hear your message of justice and equity, O God, as we worship at your feet this day. Answer us, as you answered our spiritual ancestors, when we call upon your name. Speak to us, forgiving God, as we lift your holy name. Amen.
One of the symbols in our stained-glass windows that we explored last week is the Dedicated or Kingdom Heart. Some of us recognized it as a Catholic symbol for the Immaculate Heart. Our Wednesday afternoon Bible Study has been doing a study of the hard saying of Jesus. You know – “If your hand offends you cut it off.” The conversations have been remarkable and the difficulty of achieving a “Kingdom Heart” has been recognized on any number of occasions. It is like we are rediscovering our hidden life in God. It is even a bit like the game “hide and seek.” We hide – God finds us. The movie “John Q” depicts the plight of a father (Denzel Washington) willing to lay down his life for his son. As a social commentary, it stabs our conscience about a society with medical services for those who can afford them and death for those who cannot. As redemptive drama, it also shows the metanoia (change of heart) or reversal of thinking in several characters who broker the power of the HMO medical system. In the end they ultimately side with the powerlessness of John Q. and his son. A Kingdom Heart is a heart that knows it is deficient and thus depends totally upon God to guide and direct all actions; so Jesus begins working, not on our actions, but in our thought-lives. Our thoughts are the truth of who we are. A Kingdom Heart always cares first about others. A Kingdom Heart places the highest value on the protection of another, not the protection of the self. It desires first and foremost to feed and nurture another, not to feed one’s own appetite at the expense of another. As could be seen in the movie “John Q” survival of the fittest is humanity’s biggest lie. Truth is the salvation of all, even ‘the least of these’. To be fit for the kingdom is to be the kind of person whose feet, eyes, hands, heart and all the rest simply walk within the good policy that he or she has adopted because of the knowledge that it is good and right. This is what I call wholehearted living. I can’t think of a more appropriate subject for Black History Month.
Our Experience Expanded
What creates in someone a Kingdom Heart? Claudette Colvin was born Sept. 5, 1939. Today she lives in the Bronx, NY. On March 2, 1955, a full nine months before Rosa Parks’ famous arrest, Claudette Colvin was dragged from a Montgomery bus by two police officers, arrested and taken to an adult jail to be booked. She was only 15 years old and was the first person to be arrested for defying bus segregation in Montgomery. Unfortunately, her arrest and her story have long since been forgotten, but it provided the spark for the Black community in Montgomery that ultimately led to Parks’ actions, the bus boycott, and the Supreme Court ruling to end segregation on buses. Claudette may well have been the 1955 version of Black Lives Matter. Imagine, 15 years old and willing to be arrested for what she thought was right. Such authenticity is rare, but is such a critical part of the courage it takes to lead a protest. Maybe she channeled Sojourner Truth. Benjamin Singleton lived from 1809–1900 and I have to wonder if he is related to our own Singleton clan here at St. Paul’s. Benjamin “Pap” Singleton was an African-American activist and businessman best known for his role in establishing African-American settlements in Kansas. Held in slavery in Tennessee, Singleton escaped to freedom in 1846 and became a noted abolitionist, community leader and spokesman for African-American civil rights. He returned to Tennessee during the Union occupation in 1862, but soon concluded that Blacks would never achieve economic equality in the white-dominated South. And yet, his was a resilient spirit and he spent most of his 91 years trying to make the world a better place for his Black brothers and sisters. Matthew Henson was born on Aug. 8, 1866 and died on March 9, 1955. He had been born to sharecroppers on a farm in Nanjemoy, MD, and he became the first African-American Arctic explorer. He is credited by many as the first man to reach the North Pole, in 1909. Henson was an associate of the American explorer Robert Peary on seven voyages over a period of nearly 23 years. Henson served as a navigator and craftsman, traded with Inuit natives even learning their language. He was known as Peary’s “first man” when it came to tackling the arduous expeditions. Henson was seen as a very intuitive person and he no doubt had a tremendous amount of trusting faith to engage in such dangerous adventures.
Today is Transfiguration Sunday. We all know the story or the stories. Moses spent so much time with God up on a mountain and became so infused with light that when he came down off the mountain he had to cover his head with a veil so as not to blind his fellow Israelites. And Jesus in much the same fashion met God on a mountain and began to radiate bright light, so much so that it frightened the disciples. These two men were changed, transformed by their encounters with God. And it is an attention grabber to be sure — to see someone, particularly a community or religious leader all lit up like a Christmas tree would get our attention, would it not? But if we were doubters by nature, it our Kingdom Heart was being dictated to by our hard head, then how might we process something like this? I believe this was one of Paul’s concerns in his second letter to the Corinthians. Although Paul wouldn’t have used this language much of what he wanted from the folks involved in the early Christian Movement was vulnerability, openness to doing things differently, a willingness to embrace new and different things. Remember these folks were under siege. They were being persecuted and imprisoned, not unlike our early Civil Rights activists. They were willing to share an unpopular opinion. A 15-year-old Claudette stood up for herself. Both Singleton and Henson were able to ask for help, Henson from people he had to learn how to talk with. I think the finest example I know of being vulnerable is saying, “I love you” first without knowing if you’re going to be loved back. Paul also acknowledges the presence of shame in our lives. Paul understood that you can’t shame someone into changing, but he also knew that shame was how the world works. It is certainly how advertising works, marketing, it’s how a lot of parents’ work, it’s how a lot of school systems work. So why do we cling to something so time worn? Go figure!
Re-mything Our Traditions
Last week the Black Presbyterian Church and the world lost a truly renaissance man. Rev. Dr. James Anthony Noel, the H. Eugene Farlough, Jr. Chair of African American Christianity, Professor of American Religion at San Francisco Theological Seminary, died Sunday evening, January 31, after a valiant fight with cancer. He was 68 years old. Dr. Noel was also Pastor of New Liberation Presbyterian Church in San Francisco. A gifted painter, his vibrant artwork is on display throughout the SFTS campus and in numerous art galleries throughout the Bay Area. He said of his paintings: “They contemplate, celebrate, and represent the African Diaspora’s social, religious, and cultural experiences in North America, the Caribbean, and South America. I wanted to capture the beauty and dignity of Black folk as a reality as well as an ideal.” He was also a 7th Dan Tae Kwon Do Master, a Korean martial art, which he began studying when he was in his late teens. He developed his own system, which he practiced and taught, neh kong do (way of inner strength), which he felt was “more fluid and gentle.” Blessed with a rich, mellifluous bass voice, Noel would often break into song, especially a Black spiritual, during a lecture or a sermon. His voice commanded attention and his words spoke to the heart of things. He was a person of sharp intellect, deep feeling, and enormous passion. He could be angry and impatient, but also tender and gracious. Few others equaled his knowledge of the African diaspora, African American history, and the Black Church. The breadth of his network of scholars, activists, and pastors was truly impressive. James Anthony Noel was born on January 1, 1948, in Queens, NY. He received his B.A. degree from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1969, a Master of Divinity degree from San Francisco Theological Seminary in 1975, and his Ph.D. from the Graduate Theological Union in 1999. As an undergraduate at Berkeley, he met Raam Somayajulu, a researcher in physical chemistry. Away from class, Somayajulu gathered people together to discuss quantum theory, yoga meditation and consciousness, body energy and the teachings of the Upanishads, Bhagavad Gita and Pantajali’s Yoga Sutras. These conversations led Noel to follow a path that led to practicing tae kwon do. After he entered SFTS with the idea of studying comparative religion, he read the story of Jesus’ transfiguration in Matthew 17. In it, Jesus led his disciples to the top of a mountain where he glowed like the sun. Then Jesus led his disciples back down the mountain where he performed a healing. “I realized all of a sudden that Jesus was my guru,” Noel said. “I thought the spiritual practices I was doing would lead me to enlightenment, only to discover that Jesus had already done it for me.” From 1976 to 1987 he served as pastor of St. Andrew Presbyterian Church in Marin City. One of his parishioners there, author Anne Lamott often referenced Dr. Noel in her writings. He also served as interim pastor of Sojourner Truth Presbyterian Church in Richmond, CA, in the mid 2000s. While at St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church Dr. Noel and others formed the Marin City Community Economic Development Corporation to purchase land in the community on which to build affordable housing, provide essential services, and support the local economy. He served as the first Chairperson of the Community Development Organization of Marin City, which developed 40 acres of land into a shopping center, condominiums with access to housing for low-income families, and a new building to house the St. Andrew’s congregation. Rev. Noel joined the SFTS faculty in 1988, after serving a year as the seminary’s Director of Continuing Education. He became a member of the Core Doctoral Faculty at the Graduate Theological Union, where he was also the convener of the Black Church/Africana Studies Certificate Program. In 2012 his GTU colleagues honored him with the distinguished professor award, given to those “who embody the scholarly standards, teaching excellence, and commitment to ecumenism that define the GTU.” His achievements, contributions, and accomplishments are manifold. He was a towering figure in many different communities, networks, conversations, always bringing the prophetic word and challenging us to address the basic issues of justice related to race and poverty. (SFTS obituary, 2-1-16) I witnessed how effortlessly he was able to touch people’s lives. It was my pleasure to have known James Noel and I can tell you he had a Kingdom Heart. He is going to be deeply missed. He was through-and-through a man of faith and prophetic witness to the God of love and justice, whom he knew through Jesus Christ, who lived among us as a slave, suffered with us even to the point of his death on a cross, and who showed us a still more perfect way. James believed in the resurrection and he lived a life of hope and courage based on it. He has entered into the communion of saints and joined that cloud of witnesses who now encourage us and urge us on. “Blessed are those who die in the Lord, says the Spirit. For they shall rest from their labors and their deeds follow them.” Amen and Amen.
O God, you are beyond words and description, your love is beyond knowledge and explanation. Make our hearts ready to receive you. Change us, we pray, that our lives may reflect the glory of your transfiguration. We rejoice in the power of your Holy Spirit. Amen.