Family of Christ PC(USA)
August 12, 2018
A few months ago, when you were starting on this liminal journey between pastors and interim I preached a sermon on Star Trek. Now that you're nearing the end and this will probably be the last time I preach here for a while I thought I'd balance it out with a Doctor Who sermon. If things had gone on much longer, you'd have gotten comic books, and that "All New Wolverine" sermon was going to be something special.
I've been binging on a lot of Doctor Who for the last few weeks. There isn't much on TV during the summer, I've seen all the episodes of the new series multiple times, so they make great background noise while I'm doing something else, and I just love the character.
For those of you unfamiliar with the Doctor, they're the central character on a BBC television series that premiered more than 50 years ago. The weekly adventures of the Doctor ran originally from 1963 to 1989. There was a made for TV movie in 1996, and then in 2005 the regular series was started again and continues through today. In that time 13 actors have portrayed the Doctor and a 14th, Jodie Whittaker, the first woman to play the Doctor, is set to premier in October.
I think he introduces himself best when he says this: "I'm the Doctor. I'm a Time Lord. I'm from the planet Gallifrey in the constellation of Kasterborous. I'm nine hundred and three years old and I'm the man who's going to save your lives and all six billion people on the planet below. You got a problem with that?"
Another character gets a little carried away, saying of him "Because I've seen him. He's like fire and ice and rage. He's like the night and the storm in the heart of the sun. He is ancient and forever. He burns at the center of time and he can see the turn of the universe. And he's wonderful."
Now I have to say, that I very rarely do much binging of Paul. So often he comes off as a curmudgeonly misogynist. And so many of his texts have been used against women and queer people. And he was such an uninteresting preacher that he literally bored someone to death during one of his sermons.
But there are times when I really love Paul. Galatians for example, and, now, today's text.
Often this is one of those texts that can and has been badly misused as a prescriptive list of rules by those in the history of the church who have wanted to control others. "Don't be angry," "Don't swear," "Be more God-like".
But I think if you read it as a whole, you can get away from the prescriptive list and see it as Paul talking about being in the church, about being human, and about how those two things interact.
It would be easy to read this as some kind of smarmy, sappy appeal to always be nice, and to always be good little children, but I feel like there's more than that here. Paul doesn't tell them to not get angry, he tells them to not be bitter and to be kind as God has been kind to them. But because he doesn't tell them not to get angry, there's an edge to it and a freedom. There are things that are going to make you angry, there are times you're going to need to stand up for yourselves. Christ got angry, Christ stood up for himself and for his friends when he needed to, but even in those moments he was never cruel, and he did not sin.
When the Doctor took that name (no one knows their real name) they swore an oath to themself "Without hope, without witness, without reward. Never cruel, never cowardly, and never give up"
The Doctor, although thoroughly alien, throughout all the incarnations has always had a great love for Earth and the human race.
At one point a character is introduced as "No one important" And the Doctor reponds, "Blimey, that's amazing, You know, in 900 years of time and space, I've never met anyone who wasn't important"
In Ephesians, Paul exhorts the members of the church to "Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not make room for the devil." And, "Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you. Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God." Paul in his exhortation to the church at Ephesus is acknowledging that just because you've come to church, that doesn't mean that you stop being a part of the human race.
Humans get angry, humans can be malicious, and bitter and angry, and people in the church are still susceptible to those things, but that doesn't mean they have to be governed by them, Paul is giving them another way to live. A way to live that's, maybe, attainable.
Paul is telling them that they don't need to be perfect, that they can continue to be who they are, as long as they try to be kind. It's there,
in that moment when Paul doesn't say be perfect, or be nice, but rather be kind to one another. It's the word kind there and the way it's different from nice or from being perfect. It's a lot harder.
In American culture We tend to confuse niceness with kindness and think that as long as we can take care of the first one, we don't have to worry about the second.
There're different versions in different parts of the country.
There's the famous "Minnesota Nice," a surface sheen of niceness and pleasantness, that some have observed is less about being "nice" but is more about keeping up appearances, maintaining the social order, and keeping people in their place. I saw t-shirt Saturday that referred to it as "Minnesota Passive-Aggressive"
In the south, it's "Bless your heart." Which is kind of a universal get out of jail free card for saying nasty things but still appearing to be nice.
But even without the regional stereotypes, I think we often find it easier to be nice than to be kind. It's nice to say "I'm sorry for your loss", it's kind to say "How can I help? Can I watch the kids? Make some meals?"
Nice tries to spare emotions, ease pain. Kind tries to help, even if, at times it causes more pain.
Nice turns a blind eye to excessive drinking, kind says "I know you're going to hate me, but you need to get some help."
Kind is hard, kind calls for effort, and even for sacrifice. In his next to last episode the 12th Doctor, played by Peter Capaldi is facing a no-win situation, one that will surely kill him, but he won't run and he gives this speech trying to convince two of his fellow Time Lords to stand with him rather than run away:
No! No! When I say no, you turn back around! (catches up with them) Hey! I'm going to be dead in a few hours, so before I go, let's have this out, you and me, once and for all. Winning? Is that what you think it's about? I'm not trying to win. I'm not doing this because I want to beat someone, or because I hate someone, or because, because I want to blame someone. It's not because it's fun and God knows it's not because it's easy. It's not even because it works, because it hardly ever does. I do what I do, because it's right! Because it's decent! And above all, it's kind. It's just that. Just kind. If I run away today, good people will die. If I stand and fight, some of them might live. Maybe not many, maybe not for long. Hey, you know, maybe there's no point in any of this at all, but it's the best I can do, so I'm going to do it. And I will stand here doing it till it kills me. You're going to die too, some day. How will that be? Have you thought about it? What would you die for? Who I am is where I stand. Where I stand, is where I fall. Stand with me. These people are terrified. Maybe we can help, a little. Why not, just at the end, just be kind?
There's another story where the Doctor is running from a group called "The Family of Blood" who want to catch him so they can use his essence as a Time Lord as a way to make themselves immortal. The Doctor runs and hides from them, even changing himself into a human being so that they won't be able to detect him, giving up all his 900 years of knowledge and power. Throughout the two-part story it was assumed he ran because he was afraid. At the end one of the family shares the real reason:
He never raised his voice. That was the worst thing. The fury of the Time Lord. And then we discovered why. Why this doctor, who had fought with gods and demons, why he'd run away from us and hidden. He was being kind.
The character then goes on to describe the way the Doctor punishes the Family of Blood for their arrogance, what he had been trying so hard to avoid.
The thing about the prescriptive-list-of-rules reading of this text that I talked about earlier is that it's easy. Or at least it's a lot easier to say, "Don't get angry" than it is to say "You're going to get angry, don't use that as an excuse to treat other people like crap."
Don't get angry is a great way to try to control people by convincing them that this thing they can't avoid is sin and therefore they need to repent and come back to your church.
Saying "It's okay that you got angry, what matters is how you treat other people while you were angry" is giving up control and saying, you need to use your own mind and decide how you're going to behave.
It's a lot easier to say, "just be nice to everyone." Nice is easy, nice is saying the right things and trying to protect everyone's feelings. You don't even really need to think about the other person, you just say and do the same things you would for anyone else, bless their heart.
But Paul wants us to be kind. Kind is hard, kind is really thinking about the other person and putting yourself out to do what they really need, even if that is painful and difficult for you, or painful for them.
In both cases, "get angry but don't sin" and "be kind rather than nice" what causes us difficulty is that in order to do the second thing is that we actually need to think about people other than ourselves. We actually need to lay our needs and wants aside and consider those things in other people.
At the end of the last new episode of Doctor Who that we've had, the 12th Doctor finally accepts that he has reached the end of his run and must regenerate into someone new. Before he goes, he lays out the rules for the next one, so that they will be right there at the front of number thirteen's mind:
You wait a moment, Doctor. Let's get it right. I've got a few things to say to you. Basic stuff first. Never be cruel, never be cowardly, and never, ever eat pears! Remember, hate is always foolish. and love is always wise. Always try to be nice, but never fail to be kind. Laugh hard, run fast, be kind. Doctor, I let you go.
Except maybe for the part about the pears, I don't think Paul could say it any better.