Sunday, May 15, 2016

Sermon: "Believing in Life"—For Pentecost Sunday

For Elm City Oasis – May 15, 2016

I don’t know about you, but for me, there aren’t many movies that can out-do Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.  (It’s the move where five children win a free tour of a chocolate factory… and a lifetime supply of chocolate.  The five kids are Augustus Gloop; he loves chocolate.  Mike Teevee; he loves to watch TV.  Verruca Salt, whose parents give her anything she asks for.  Violet Beauregard, who loves to chew gum.  And Charlie Buckett, who never wins anything.)

I’m not exactly sure why I like the movie.  Perhaps it’s the same reason my tiny, round-faced Filipina mother used to ask me to bring her Illinois Lottery tickets every time I visited my Indiana home—the excitement that she, too, may have a golden ticket. Many people want to get rich, and my tiny, round-faced Filipina mother was not an exception.

Maybe I’m drawn to the movie because of its simple plot of good vs. evil: that is, Charlie Bucket against all odds.  Or maybe it’s the Oompa-Loompas who work in the factory.  Willie Wonka would not be Willie Wonka without the tiny, orange-faced Oompa-Loompas.  So that’s my favorite part.

My least favorite part of Willy Wonka is when Augustus Gloop gets sucked out of the chocolate river, up through the pipe, to the fudge room.  I mean, it’s funny and all, but I don’t like getting dirty.  It’s like when I work at church-camp during the summer.  I love playing with the kids, even though I’m not that big a fan of sports. // Ok, let’s be honest: I’m not very dedicated to sports.  And I’m not very dedicated to getting dirty, either.

(intensify) Three summers in a row, I got serious spider bites on my ankles while working for a camp for abused and neglected children.  The ankles got all swollen, and I had to go to the emergency room. Each year, the kids played a prank on me when I got back. Three years in a row!

Anyway, I think the worst church-camp games are the ones that involve water guns, hoses, and water balloons.  I don’t like getting dirty.  I hate getting wet.  And you know it’s not always going to be water coming out of those squirt guns.  PLUS, when I put on dry clothes, I expect for them to remain dry.  Call me old fashioned!

SO when Augustus tries to doggie-paddle through Willie Wonka’s yucky chocolate river, I feel like I’m back at church-camp: a counselor who just got hit by a water balloon filled with shaving cream and liver oil, sitting in the nurse’s cabin with a swollen ankle, bruises and bites all over my skin, and mud in my hair.  [Sigh]  I miss summer camp.

Don’t get me wrong; I actually do miss camp.  They call it ministry, but I don’t think “ministry” is supposed to be that fun.  Sure… I get scratched and hurt, but I get to embody—for abused and neglected children—the word “safe,” demonstrating what “safe” looks and feels like.  Sometimes I’m their punching bag.  That’s ok, because sometimes I’m the only face of Jesus they will ever see.  Signing up for another year of this particular church-camp is like when Jesus said to his disciples (John 11:7-16) that he wanted to go back to Judea:
The disciples said to him, “Rabbi, the Jews were just now trying to stone you.  Do you really want to go back there?”
Jesus said, “Guys, I’m going… not at night when I know it will be safe.  Those who walk at night—who try to be safe—often stumble anyway. Let’s go now… in clear daylight, even though my enemies can capture me at any moment. Our friends need us now.”
Thomas, who is often called a Doubter or a Heretic… said, “Hey Jesus.  If we go, that means we all risk death, too.  BUT Lazarus is dead, his family needs our help, and it appears you’re going to risk your life to do good, again.  Ok, I’ll go too.  I’ve got your back, Jesus.”
In this act—this self-sacrificial act—Jesus (and his disciples) signed their own death sentences, which would be actualized soon afterwards.  Jesus was hated, yet Jesus deeply loved.  And, with each person Jesus added to his list of disciples, the results of his efforts multiplied.

Why don’t I like that story about Augustus Gloop?  My reasons probably have little to do with getting dirty.  In fact, I imagine nearly drowning in chocolate would be wonderful.  We are affected by the smell and taste and touch of that sweet tang that looks so fine.  When it melts, chemical reactions become more pronounced, and we feel like we are in love.

So Augustus was—at least in a sensual  way—a pretty lucky guy.  But let’s think of it in a new way:  What if Augustus had a mission.  (intense and overly excited)  What if Willy Wonka was a bad guy, and Augustus’ mission was to save the world from Chocolate.  There he was, on the banks of the Chocolate River, contemplating the needs of the world to be freed from the evil, acne-inflaming, bad-breath-causing, love-simulating controlled substance.  (We all know at least one person who suffers from chocoholism.)  It came down to one person, Augustus.  Only he could foil Wonka’s evil plot.

Augustus fell head-over-heels into the Chocolate River, sucked into the clear pipe, where everyone could see his suffering… as the pressure built.  UNTIL he shot through the pipe, carried by a rush of chocolate, passing the marshmallow division, being squirted out into the fudge room of Wonka’s “factory of doom.”  In one act of self-sacrifice, Gloop contaminated all of Wonka’s chocolate, giving hope to all of us who knows someone who has become another statistic.

If we think about the story thus, we hear in it the living tradition of the Christian Church, which “confronts powers and structures of evil with justice, compassion, and the transforming power of love.”  Augustus Gloop (in this admittedly weird version of the story) used his witness to oppose Willy Wonka, the corporate giant whom everyone loved.

(LONG PAUSE – no smile)

Well, why is it so easy for us to demonize Augustus instead of Willy.  Augustus was less affluent.  Augustus was young and na├»ve.  The author depicts the boy as being WAY overweight.  Lit-er-ar-I-ly, that makes him easier for us to ridicule.
Why do we love Willy Wonka?  Well, he’s handing out chocolate.  He’s immeasurably successful and rich.  (pause)  He’s also a slave boss.  He has, working in his factory, workers belonging exclusively one race.  Every single one of them comes from the same continent.  Furthermore, the movie depicts the slaves’ skin as orange; they’re definitely not white.  The book says that Willy Wonka at least gave his slaves employment, which of course is always better than living in the hot climate of some far-away nation.

Fiction now becomes reality.  (Sarcastically) Oh, it’s just a coincidence that the author had Willy Wonka import dozens of workers from a far-away land.  It’s just a coincidence that the workers obey him whenever he gives them new orders.  (Lower your voice.) I don’t mean to be unkind: but it’s not just a coincidence that this story… is about chocolate.

Did you know that Roald Dahl, the author of the book, first released Charlie and the Chocolate Factory with the Oompa-Loompas originally described as Black, Pygmy-like Africans?  More recent editions of his novel, however, have been more sensitive to “black people.”

The movie version from Warner Brothers also attempted to de-politicize slavery in its own way.   Mel Stuart, the director of the movie, commented, “Some prominent black actors came to see me and questioned me about having black Oompa-Loompas working for a white boss.”  So instead, Stuart arranged for midgets to dress up like clowns, doing acrobatics while cooking and being obedient to Wonka.  (Bless his heart.  He thought he was being politically correct.)

It is not a coincidence that Roald Dahl released his children’s book… in the heat of the 1960’s, when it seemed that there was no hope for civil rights in the world.

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[And] It is not a coincidence that Anglos in the United States, so soon after winning their independence from European nations, plundered one continent (North America) and enslaved another (Africa).  Did you know that the first draft of The Declaration of Independence contained a passage opposing European slave trade.   The condemnation of slavery was not ratified.  Too many Americans thought it was a good idea.

Before the fictional Willy Wonka ever imported his Oompa-Loompas from Loompa Land, some Western people—especially those in the United States—imported human beings in the same manner they imported cargo: furniture, spices, boxes of chocolate bars.

(!)  America had struck it rich.  America had a golden ticket!  In this lottery, however, very few people in Africa gained anything.  I say “very few people” because some Africans actually helped along the slave trade, and they were greatly rewarded… for awhile.  Those Africans who helped capture other Africans were usually captured and sold into captivity anyway.  Thus, not very many people in Africa gained anything.

Religion was often used as a powerful weapon against the principles we uphold as inclusive Christians.  Pro-slavery preachers would distribute religious tracts that used the Bible to promote the import of slaves to the U.S.  The writers of these documents cried out to their God.  They cried out (using passages from Habakkuk and Psalm 13) saying, “How long, Oh Lord, will you forget me?  Forever?” (Habakkuk 1:2a, 4b)

The South cried out because they were economically disadvantaged compared to the North.  “How long, O Lord?  My fields need a plowin’, and I just can’t do it on my own.  We need you.  We need workers—cheap!  Ta’ help feed my kids.  Ta’ help feed my livestock.  Make this work, Lord!”

The South saw slavery as their best way out of their economic hardships.  And they saw the North as their adversaries.  How come they don’t want my kids ta’ get fed.  They just don’t “get it.”  They didn’t understand how hunger can make people do desperate things.  I don’t want slaves, but I need them to feed my family.

The “slavery issue” was as hot a topic in churches as “the gay issue” is today.  New denominations formed because of slavery: Free Methodists, and Northern or American Baptists are just two examples.

Not only were “religious tracts in-favor-of-slavery” prevalent, but groups in the South developed new ways for Africans to learn English and study the Bible.  By the middle of the Nineteenth century, several patronizing catechisms emerged, such as “A Catechism for little Children and for Use on the Missions to the Slaves in South Carolina,” written by Bishop Casper.

One catechism written exclusively for slaves inquired: “What is the meaning of ‘Thou shalt not commit adultery’?”  We all know what adultery means, but the catechism taught the slaves that the opposite of adultery is: “To serve our heavenly Father, and our earthly master, obey your overseer, and not to steal anything.”

Most of these catechisms outlined very basic Christian orthodoxy.  This orthodoxy, however, did not reflect the love and grace of historical Christian thought.  Instead, it interpolated religious justification of economic slavery… into Torah.

Why is religion used in this way?  Why can it so powerfully unite groups against human rights?  Why can religion propagate the idolatry of the self?  Why do religious people write books to teach black people that black people are inferior… and children that black people are inferior… and Southerners that black people are inferior?

Some “black people” found themselves chained to the floors of trading ships, often strapped in as cargo, wondering if the cargo next to them (another human being) was still alive.  They call this terrible voyage “the Middle Passage.”

(secretively) But what the Anglo slave traders could not see… (relieved) was that “their cargo” already knew about Christianity.  Africa is the birthplace of Christianity.  The slave ships did not merely carry slaves; they carried religious persons who would bring the Gospel to the whites. The Anglo slave traders didn’t know that they were carrying a religious message that could silence the lies of perverted faith, because—shackled to the floors during the Middle Passage—were Christian preachers, religious healers, medicine men, and clerics of the African Traditional Religions.

Inside the hearts of African women, children and men stirred a song that could not be silenced or whipped into submission.  Africans had a dance that Anglos just couldn’t follow.  These Africans said yes massa during the day… and met silently in hush harbors at night.  Africans knew they were a threat to social order.  Africans knew they held power in the midst of oppression (and if they didn’t know, another African would tell them).  Africans gathered their energy and resources.  They gave their lives so that others could truly live.  They heard the lies, they remembered their continent, and they helped lead each other out of captivity—hand-in-hand, chains unbound.  They sang songs to give each other courage.  They sang songs to lead others to freedom.  Where organized religion brought death to Africans, the Africans found (within themselves) a way to believe in life.

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(long pause) Sometimes, there’s that one inspired person who “saves the day.”  Sometimes one person dives into a chocolate river to shut down an oppressive chocolate Boss.  We need those people.  That’s part of why we celebrate Pentecost.

Sometimes, the problem is too complex for one savior.  Sometimes the people rise up together and free themselves.  We celebrate this all year long: on Labor Day, Election Day, Veterans Day, United Nations Day… and All Souls Day.

Sometimes, when we have our prayer service, we feel that the weight of our joys and concerns are too much for one person to bear.  That’s why we are an oasis.  That’s why we’re here together.  That’s why Jesus and his disciples went out of their way to console their grieving friends.  In the midst of death and oppression, there is life.

We are followers of the risen Jesus Christ.  What does that mean?  Well, since Christianity is a religion, I suppose it could mean that we are in a position to rob people of life—to enslave them to doctrines, positions and truths.  Being a religion, however, could also mean that we strive to be different: to use religion to mend broken people, to remove pain, to advocate reform, to strengthen our own diverse community.  There are many ways we can use our bodies as instruments of worship.

How will you respond to the call you may be hearing today?
Will you listen to this sermon, and go back to life as usual?
Or will you heed the call to a life of greater service?
o Will you go into Judea during the day and risk it all to bring our gospel of love to people, just as Jesus and the disciples did?
o Will we stand up for the rights of the disadvantaged when others wish to take their rights away?
o Will you be like the Augustus Gloop of my creative retelling? The trickster who shuts down an operation built on taking advantage of the goodness of others?
That is the type of response that will bring the Gospel of Love to all people.
That is the type of response that will silence the voices of presidential candidates and bigoted state legislators—and change the dialogue from despair… to hope.
That is the kind of response that will change the world.

How will you respond to the call?
Sometimes I get dirty.  Sometimes I get hit by water balloons filled with shaving cream and liver oil.  They call it ministry, but I don’t think ministry is supposed to be this fun.

May it be so.