Sunday, November 28, 2010

The Great Still Are Born Among the Humble


Joan of Arc was born a peasant. Her place of birth was a small town in France, Domrémy. Looking back on her growing up years, she said, “As long as I lived at home, I worked at common tasks around the house, going but seldom afield with our sheep and cattle. I learned to sew and spin and was as good as any woman in our town.” This was a way of saying that she grew up as any peasant girl of her time and place would have grown up--nothing unusual, nothing to predict greatness.

In the year 1425, she began to have visions. Later in her life she described these unusual visions.

When I was thirteen, I had a voice from God to help me govern myself. It was St. Michael’s voice, who, along with St. Catherine and St. Margaret, told me of the pitiful state of my country, France, and told me that I must go to assist the King of France in saving our nation.

Twice, Joan tried to acquire a suit of armor and a horse as well as an audience with King Charles VII. Both attempts were denied. The visions, however, had been powerful, and, in terms of her personality, she was persistent. Her third effort to be suited up in armor, borrow a horse, and get an audience with her King was the charm; all three requests were honored by authorities. In 1429, she found herself standing before the King of France; she thought of herself at that time as possessing both stereotypically feminine as well as masculine personal traits. On the feminine side, in her mind--so don’t get mad at me for being a chauvinist, she had a pretty feminine voice, ate and drank little, had a cheerful face, and cried a lot. On the masculine side of her personal traits as she saw them were: a “virile bearing”--whatever that is exactly, an enjoyment of weapons, and a love for riding horses. Again, if you have a beef with what she saw as masculine or feminine, I can tell you how to get in touch with her.

Charles was in trouble at home, in that not all of France accepted him as its King, and in terms of national security as English forces were beating the pulp out of every group of French soldiers they encountered. Charles was desperate, and he took Joan to be a kind of sign from God to him that he must fight on for the sake of his country. Joan impressed him in many ways--most notably with her profound connection to God; this was so pronounced that Charles VII regarded her a saint, and that was the assessment of her that spread through his troops.

In April of 1429, Charles appointed Joan of Arc captain over a troop of men; I assume all the soldiers fighting for Charles were men. They, with Joan as their commander, won a decisive battle for Charles, for France. This boosted the public view of him, and he was able to celebrate his coronation as King of France, a ceremony after which he had the full allegiance of all the French people--well, at least as much as Barack Obama has the full allegiance of all the American people. Joan had become a trusted military advisor to Charles, and she stood in a prominent place as he was crowned King.

In 1430, the English captured her and charged her with heresy. Charles could do nothing to help her or protect her from an ecclesiastical tif, a run-in with papal authority as it were, and while there were certainly heretical issues at hand, this was an underhanded way of, for the most part, of keeping politics and, thus, French troops out of picture.

Joan never had much of a chance at a fair trial. She was declared a heretic for several reasons, but the climax of this tense exchange came when Joan renounced her Roman Catholic faith because of some personal religious experiences she had had that caused her to believe differently than the Pope believed. Formally, she was charged with being a witch and violating the Church’s standards for Christian women by wearing men’s clothing. The relatively small civil issue that came into play got her charged with

fraud; they said she was a woman pretending to be a man, but that wasn’t the case. Charles knew she was female, and so did the troops she led, troops who followed her with enthusiasm because they, like Charles, believed she was a saint. As her punishment for tthese “grievous” offenses, Joan of Arc was burned at the stake by the English in the marketplace of Rouen on May 30, 1431. Ironically, and I mean sick irony here, the same Church that found her heretical later named her a saint. That would be like having the KKK, still hating all people of color only because of their color, suddenly finding some honor to bestow on Clarence Thomas.

His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama is the head of state as well as the spiritual leader of Tibet; his government has been in exile since 1959 when his Holiness escaped into India after a harrowing fifteen-day secretive journey on foot after which the Chinese government took charge of Tibet and remain its captor to this day. His given name as the Dalai Lama is Tenzin Gyatso, He is one of the great religious leaders in our world today--regardless of what anyone may believe about each of his points of philosophy and theology.

His birth name was Lhamo Dhondup, and he was born on July 6, 1935, to farming family in a small village in Taktser, Amdo, which is in northeast Tibet. Very humble surroundings, wouldn’t you say?

A small group of men was charged with the responsibility of locating the successor to the Thirteenth Dalai Lama who had died. Tibetan Buddhists believe that each successive Dalai Lama is the reincarnation of the First Dalai Lama. In addition, all Dalai Lamas are believed to be manifestations of Chenrezig, the Bodhisattva of Compassion and patron saint of Tibet. Bodhisattvas are enlightened beings who have postponed their own nirvanas and chosen rebirth, which--having reached Nirvana--they are no longer required to do; but they do so willingly in order to serve humanity.

The search party found its way to Lhamo Dhondup by a number of signs. One of these concerned the embalmed body of his predecessor, Thupten Gyatso, the Thirteenth Dalai Lama, who had died aged fifty-seven in 1933. During its period of lying in state, the head was discovered to have turned from facing south to northeast. Shortly after that a highly respect Tibetan leader had a vision. Looking into the waters of the sacred lake, Lhamo Lhatso, in southern Tibet, he clearly saw three letters of the Tibetan alphabet float into view. These were followed by the image of a three-storied monastery with a turquoise and gold roof and a path running from the monastery to a hill. Finally, he saw a small house with strangely shaped guttering. He was sure that one of the three letters referred them to Amdo, the northeastern province, so it was there that the search party began its search.

Another letter, the believed, pointed to the monastery at Kumbum, which was indeed three-storied and turquoise-roofed. They now only needed to locate a hill and a house with peculiar guttering, which the third letter should guide them to. So they began to search the neighboring villages. When they saw the gnarled branches of juniper wood framing the roof of a small farm house, they were certain that the new Dalai Lama would not be far away. Nevertheless, when they knocked on the door of this house, they did not tell the family there who they were; they pretended to be travelers in search of a place to sleep for the night. The family welcomed them.

The leader of the party, pretended to be a servant to his fellow travelers so that he would not be expected to sleep in the room or rooms of those whom he supposedly served. This gave him a greater opportunity that night to observe the youngest child in the family and to play with the little boy.

Amazingly, the little boy recognized him and called out, “Sera lama, Sera lama.” Sera was the location of the monastery at which he had studied. The next day the search party, but returned several days later and told the family who they really were. On this second visit to the home, they brought several items that had belonged to the Thirteenth Dalai Lama, and they spread these out, mixed in with several items that had not been owned by the late Lama. In every case, the boy correctly identified those items that once had belonged to the Thirteenth Dalai Lama saying, “It's mine. It's mine.” This confirmed for the search party that they had found the one who was to become the Fourteenth Dalai Lama.


“Greatness” is a relative term. What is seen as great in one person’s eye is not greatness at all in someone else’s eye. In modern American cultures, we tend to associate greatness with power, prestige, and financial holdings. Not everyone in our country, and certainly not many people around the world, agree with that. Historically, there has often been a whole smattering of ways of determining what “greatness” is all about.

One of the examples I used earlier in the sermon was a young woman who was martyred for her faith--at least, in part for her faith. Typically, we do not accord greatness to someone who dies unless she or he is already prominent before death comes. Death, as a rule, is not a part of what makes someone great as many people see it; an exception would be someone who loses her or his life in warfare, serving her or his country. President Obama recently presented a serviceman with the Medal of Honor--the first living servicepersons to have received our nation’s highest honor for valor since the Vietnam War. All others since Vietnam, sadly, received their Medals posthumously.

Joan of Arc, as I said, was an exception, and so were many in the early Jesus movement who lost their lives because of their faith in God as Jesus portrayed God through his teachings. At one point, there was no higher honor, no mark of greatness more pronounced than being a martyr for the faith; in the extreme, some of the faithful were forcing their enemy to kill them so that they could be martyrs and, thus, achieve greatness in this world as well as the next--according to their beliefs of what the next world or realm held. Ironically, it was not terribly unlike what radical Muslims promise those who are willing to be suicide bombers becoming, according to what their religious leaders teach them, martyrs for the faith by killing off enemies of the faith, which most or all of those radical leaders identify as non-Muslim Westerners.

The evident difference between the early Christian martyrs and the modern Muslim martyrs is that the Christians didn’t hurt anyone; they simply put themselves in positions in which they were highly likely to lose their lives. Some would later question whether the term “martyr” applied to those who brought death upon themselves--those who didn’t have to die, but who forced an enemy to do them in.

By the time the Apostle Paul wrote his letter to the Church at Philippi, this martyrdom-as-ultimate-greatness idea was at its peak. As far as I know, German Christian Scripture scholar, Ernest Lohmeyer, was the first to notice this theme in Paul’s brief letter to the Philippians and run with it.

Philippians 2:5-11:

Let the same mind be in you that was in Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus is Lord, to the glory of God (NRSV, adapted).

Instead, then, of being preoccupied with the suggestion in this hymn that Paul quoted in his letter to the Philippians that Jesus existed in God’s realm before being born into the human realm, the real message of this hymn, which Paul borrowed and did not write himself, is that Jesus’ greatness resided in his willingness to let go of all the prominence he had as someone preaching divine love, all the accolades bestowed upon him as someone more closely connected to God than the average human and die at the hands of enemies of a God of love about whom Jesus would not stop preaching. Jesus’ tragic and unnecessary death was not the last word about this man. Instead, God Godself exalted him and named him great. God Godself said, in those subtle ways God communicates, that everyone should honor this man who had come from virtual anonymity, without power and possessing none of the positions or possessions typically used to measure greatness.

Another example is in the third chapter of Philippians, verses 18-19:

For many live as enemies of the cross of Jesus; I have often told you of them, and now I tell you even with tears. Their end is destruction; their god is the belly; and their glory is in their shame; their minds are set on earthly things (NRSV).

Using martyrdom as the interpretive key to the book of Philippians, when we read this passage we are pressed to interpret “the cross of Jesus” both as Jesus’ own martyrdom AND the goal of all true followers of his--to be martyred like their Master. Those who are “enemies of the cross” of Jesus are those who are unwilling to be faithful to Jesus’ teachings if the price for such loyalty is death. Making one’s belly one’s god means that my own self-preservation matters more than the principles for which I have said I would stand; when push comes to shove, however, “Who is Jesus? Jesus who? Never heard of him. You have me mixed up with someone else.” The greatness or glory these traitors can look forward to rises no higher than shame for their pretense and their cowardice; in other words, there is no greatness at all in what they have done.

Martyrdom is excessive, and there’s no reason to push for it. If one dies for a great cause--on a battlefield or on a motel balcony in Memphis, Tennessee--her or his death is no less tragic than any death, but we see greatness in a life snuffed out because the person was living for a cause greater than herself or himself. Have you heard Palin’s latest repulsive criticism of President Kennedy’s failure to hold strong to his faith?

So, anyway, martyrdom isn’t the only basis of greatness, thank goodness! But getting rich and selfish, regardless of who is willing to kiss your backside, has nothing at all to do with greatness. People of means who share their wealth for the betterment or the wellbeing of others--they may become great, even if no one ever knows whose benefactors they have become.

Jesus had a really odd take on greatness. Jesus said, in his way, that the circumstances of someone’s birth has nothing at all to do with the potential for greatness. Jesus said that the truly great people in the world are those who aren’t required by economy or circumstance to serve others, but, instead, are those who can afford to be served--by position or pocketbook--but who refuse the service of others in order to be servants themselves. Jesus was Rabbi--teacher and master--to those who followed him; few people in any Jewish society were more highly regarded than one’s teacher, especially one’s religious teacher, one’s Rabbi. Still, it was Jesus who at his last earthly supper with the women and men closest to him, bowed down with towel and basin before each of them and washed their feet--clearly the job of a slave or servant in any household or at any social gathering.

In the oldest of the four scriptural Gospels available to us so far, the Gospel of Mark, we find two very important excerpts on greatness from Jesus’ point of view. Here’s the first one:

James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to him and said to him, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” And he said to them, “What is it you want me to do for you?” And they said to him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” But Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” They replied, “We are able.” Then Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized; but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared” (Mark 10:35-40 NRSV, adapted).

These guys had gall. Probably thinking that Jesus would rule over an earthly and ultimately a heavenly empire, they wanted to make sure they got top slots in his cabinet, and Jesus says to them, in essence, “Those who serve others the way I try to serve others will be up for those positions, and the ones who get them will be obvious choices because of how well their philosophies of service match mine. No one will hold any position of importance because of appointment or political payback.”

Here’s the second of the two especially important passages on greatness from Jesus’ point of view.

So Jesus called [some of his followers] and said to them, “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; instead, whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Child of Humanity [one of the ways Jesus referred to himself] came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many” (Mark 10 42-45 NRSV, adapted).


Nearly everything about the Gospel of Luke’s retelling of the the events surrounding the birth of Jesus, one of only two birth narratives that made it down to us, stresses the humble circumstances of Jesus’ birth. The angels in heaven take note of the birth and break out in joyous musical rejoicing, but on earth no one takes note of the birth of Jesus except a handful of shepherds who get a tip from an angel that someone born to be great had just been birthed not far from where they were tending to the sheep of their employer.

The shepherds were shocked for a number of reasons--most significantly that anybody born who’d be destined for greatness wouldn’t be born anywhere near their pastures. Further, if news needed to be spread that a baby destined for greatness had just been born, the shepherds would have been near the bottom of the notification list. All the social higher-ups and uppity-ups would be notified first, and then, eventually, the news would circulate, and people at the periphery of society like shepherds and tanners and fishermen would hear third and fourth hand--perhaps from an employer or a customer.

Of course, the writer of this Gospel, presumably Luke, is putting the oral versions of the story he’d heard for years on parchment or papyrus about eighty years after the birth of Jesus. That’s a long time away from the event itself. If you stop to think about how differently each of us recalls the Christmas Eve celebration at Silverside two years ago, some not remembering it at all in particular because in their memory banks that service blended in with the ten or twenty or thirty other Christmas Eve services they attended at this suburban location of the church. Many of the details presumably remembered would be vivid in someone’s mind, and she or he could tell about that service with great precision and reliable detail. Others, with good memories, couldn’t tell you a thing about that particular service, but could give a gist of what most Silverside Christmas Eve services have been like across the years.

Things that stand out in people’s minds across the years are tied to an event with particular emotional attachment to it or a service with something in it that the person trying to remember especially loved such as a magnificent musical piece or a service that the person sorting through memories especially disliked. Several years ago, in place of scripture readings on that Christmas Eve, I asked several readers to read news clips about places in the world where, at Christmas time, life was especially bleak--war zones, poverty, bereavement, and so on. My effort was to make the point that Christmas is far more than the warm, fuzzy feelings many us privileged people in the world associate with the holiday. Baby Jesus, after all, would grow up to take a special interest in the sad and the struggling. Even so, I think that was the most hated of all the Christmas Eve services I planned here--a decade’s worth. At the following Deacons’ meeting, I got the message from the Deacons themselves as well as other members who’d complained to them that Silverside people didn’t want to hear about sad stuff at Christmas time, and so we let that experimental approach go by the wayside even though I think it has merit.

I like the idea that if Jesus were around today he’d be telling military personnel on the front lines that God loves them. He’d be trying to gather up food for the hungry, and he’d be trying to find shelter for the homeless. Jesus would find a seat next to someone who lost a loved one to this world and who misses that person all the time, but especially at holidays, and he’d whisper, “You know, that the grief-pain that won’t go away is proof you loved your dear one with intensity; it by no means suggests that God is absent or that God is ignoring you in your ongoing loss.” Jesus would be trying to knock some sense into the heads of those who spend and over-extend to buy fancy gifts for those who already have more than they need by saying, “If you have money to spend, to spare, remember first those who have nothing.” Even so, to prove that I can be flexible and compromise--now a widely known and accepted fact--I let it go of that approach to Christmas Eve.

Mary, very pregnant Mary, is required by law to travel with her betrothed, Joseph, to be registered in a national census. She shouldn’t have had to do that, and Joseph shouldn’t have had to leave her to register right at that time. They were subject to Roman law, however; and the Emperor had ordered the census so everyone had to comply--the ill and the elderly included.

Poor Mary, nine months plus, on a mule--every step causing her pain of some sort. Her water broke while she was atop the mule who thought someone had poured a bucket of water on him instead of giving him something to drink.

All of the inns were full because of the others who also had to travel to the city most closely associated with the Hebrew tribe of their ancestors. Joseph, was where his ancestors, descended from the tribe of Judah, had to report: their key city, Bethlehem--a not-so-great place whose only claim to fame was that King David had been born there.

A kindly innkeeper did make his stable available to them since he recognized the duress they were in so Jesus was born in a stable. His first bed was a food trough for barnyard animals. Mary must have considered the possibility that the birth could take place on this trip so she had brought along the strips of cloth that would be wound around the baby soon after birth to keep her or him warm, to keep bones straight from the get go, and to hold a little salt near the baby’s body to protect the baby from disease; these strips of cloth were known as “swaddling clothes.”

Not grand birth circumstances, huh? Nothing about how he was born or how he lived signaled greatness--although his preaching, teaching, and healing did attract crowds from time to time. He was a bivocational carpenter/preacher whose life was cut short when he was unjustly sentenced to death by a lazy, good-for-nothing Roman governor named Pontius Pilate, and he died a high-level criminal’s death.

He was a faithful, committed Jew who had no intention of starting a new religion, and he never knew that that is what eventuated. There was no such thing as Christianity until long after his execution; yet, today more people in the world today who associate themselves with any organized religion name themselves Christians more than any other religion. A full one-third of the world’s population today say they are Christians; plus, there are a few of us who aren’t so pleased with what many Christians are doing with Jesus’ name who still consider ourselves devotees of the God about whom Jesus taught.

Many acts of justice are done in his name and according to his example. A large percentage of hospitals and nursing homes in this country are built largely on the contributions of people seeking to honor the concerns of Jesus for the sick and the suffering and those can’t take care of themselves. Peace is waged in his name despite the tragic fact that war and terror are also waged in his name. His place of birth and his place of death have become holy ground for those who would want to put their feet anywhere he had been.

When he was dead
He was laid in a borrowed grave
Through the pity of a friend

[Twenty] centuries have come and gone
And today Jesus is the central figure of the human race
And the leader of [hu]mankind's progress
All the armies that have ever marched
All the navies that have ever sailed
All the parliaments that have ever sat
All the kings that ever reigned put together
Have not affected the life of [hu]mankind on earth
As powerfully as that one solitary life (Dr. James Allan).


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