Sunday, January 23, 2000


Asbury First United Methodist Church

Text: Matthew 12:29


This week you may, suddenly, find that a choice is required of you, through no fault, intention, planning or device of your own. Further,the choice you want to make perhaps could involve refusal and resistance:refusal of a request from an archetypal authority, resistance to a popular mood,resistance to an ingrained habit, refusal of the pleas of a friend. RussellLowell predicts that at least once to every person and group comes such a momentto decide.

With all your heart you may want to refuse, to refuse. Aninvitation, a suggestion, a promotion, a direction, an order. Refusal alwayscosts. Refusal means sacrifice. Refusal hurts. The slings and arrow of fortune'sdiscontent draw blood. Resistance, refusal. Does such principled denial have aplace in Christian living? Dare ask: Does God evoke and use refusal? DoesChrist, God's everlasting Yes--in whom Paul says there is no longer Yea and Nay,but only Yes--Does Christ desire resistance and refusal?

1. Daniel

For Daniel, refusal to give up his family name, his religion,his faith landed him, with the others, in the heart of a furnace. You enjoy thestory, I know. Daniel resists the order to blaspheme, and accepts punishment,even death. Bound in the heart of fire, the prophet of God is protected,strangely, by God who answers prayer.

2. Naboth

For Naboth, refusal came more dear. Old King Ahab had everyvineyard he wanted but one. He asked for the land. Naboth refused. He askedagain, this time presumably in a more kingly voice. Naboth refused. Ahab askedagain, with a hint of threat on his tongue. Naboth refused. And Ahab wentwhimpering to bed. Not so, Jezebel, who simply took Naboth aside, and cut offhis head. Refusal can either cost you a king's friendship, or your head, orboth.

3. John of Patmos

John of Patmos did something to put himself out on the rockyprison isle, a first century Papillon, as he wrote his Revelation, our lastBible book.Refusing to worship Caesar? Names jeeringly attached to Rome--beast,satan, whore? Resistance to the more established synagogue?

*Bonheoeffer—and Hymn (see end)

4. A Tradition of Principled Refusal

What if I were to shout to you this morning that this churchhad received a magnificent bequest, a precious gift left us by an ancestor?Further, were I to announce that this one gift was worth more than all ourbuildings and all our current endowment and all our church program put together?Would you not dance, sing, soar?

You inherit a tradition of principled refusal, a pearl ofgreat price, a treasure hidden in a field, a precious gift. A tradition ofprincipled refusal.

5. Rosa Parks

Several summers ago an older woman was robbed at gunpoint inher own home. The newspaper, perhaps accurately, has quoted her in full asregards to her view of this crime: "We are raising a generation ofhooligans."

Pummelled still, even in old age, even in closetedretirement, the violent spirit of the age pounds at her, lacing her with blowsleft and right. Yet she resists! You may recognize her, now.

This is Rosa Parks. A younger Mrs. Parks found herself,seated midway back in a Montgomery bus, on December 1, 1955, pummeled again bythe hand of aggression, the Strong Man of this world. For some reason, sherefused to move. Bus stopped. Police came. Crowd gathered. Anger, shouting. TheMontgomery bus boycott began. A tradition of principled refusal--this is yournative land, your mother tongue, your home territory.

6. The Prophets

The prophets of old knew this. They spoke about God'sunbending holiness. They spoke about God's own refusal to set his seal on anypresent moment, any present setup, any present arrangement of power. They spokeabout human suffering, about how God sees, hears, knows, remembers, andintervenes for the suffering. They spoke about God's justice, critical of everyestablished power. They refused. Here it is: "Prophetic speech is an act ofrelentless hope that refuses to despair, that refuses to believe that the worldis closed off in patterns of exploitation and oppression." (Brueggeman).

*Amos 5 in sun and snow: Let Justice roll down like watersand righteousness as an ever flowing stream. Or, let Justice roll down like anavalanche, and righteousness as a never ending blizzard.

7. Rope-a-Dope

*My son Ben had only one request for a Christmas Gift. Heshowed me a catalogue that pictured a little grill, for cooking meat, " Alean, mean fat reducing machine, guaranteed to reduce each average hamburger by3 oz of fat--$59.95" Then I noticed the sponsor of this culinary instrument—GeorgeForeman. And I inflicted a story on Ben.

In 1974, one of the greatest boxing matches of the centurypitted Mohammed Ali against the world champion, George Foreman. Kinshasha,Zaire. November 2. Ali predicted: "The most spectacular wonder human eyeshave ever witnessed." 60,000 cheering fans, shouting, "Ali Bu MalYe", which antiseptically translated means, "Go get him".

Scenes: Foreman charging, rounds 1-6. Forman 25, young,strong, powerful. Recently defeated both Frazier and Norton. Ali: 32, guilefitness and will. After 5 rounds, Foreman arm weary and bewildered. 3rd Round,Ali leans to crowd: "He don't hurt me much". 5th round, Foremantantalized by the stationary target, angry, frustrated. Angelo Dundee hadloosened the ropes! Ali, later: "The bull is stronger but the matador issmarter". Then, 8th round: "Ali is leaning back against the ropes,inviting the champion's hardest blows…suddenly in the next instant he springsforward smashing Foreman's face with 2 straight rights and a left hook. Down thechampion went, the first time ever he had been knocked out.

Ali: "I'm the champion but I don't feel any differentfrom that fan over there. I still walk in the ghetto, answer questions, kissbabies. I didn't marry no blond or go nude in the movies. I'll never forget mypeople."

The historic Christian church in this country has been on theropes for a generation, 25 years of blows to the midsection. God's spirit is notin a mode of lightening triumph, for those who would still maintain a realconnection between deep personal faith and active social involvement. Jesus'apocalyptic word: first the strong man must be wearied, bound. First the God ofthis world must be arm weary, frustrated, raging, tired. First the strong manmust be bound, then the kingdom of God may enter.

Those who may need to resist and refuse today are part of thespiritual rope strategy, the wearying of the Strong Man, the binding of evil.It's not pleasant. Hurt, setbacks, delay, confusion. But there is an eighthround coming! There is an eighth round coming! Don't be surprised when theguileful, fit, willing spirit lunges out from the rope a dope crouch to fell theAdversary.

Tired, aging, fat, Ali was taunted by the press and othersfor entering the ring at all. For several rounds of brutal semi-sport, Foremanlanded crushing blows to the head and midsection of the Louisville champ. Itappeared as if Ali was simply beaten. Yet, he refused. He refused to fall. Infact, it was his strategy to lean back against the ring rope, and bind theStrong Man Foreman by tiring him, resisting, refusing to drop, enduring theblows of great force, which permanently crippled him.

Today he is an invalid. (My sister-in law's firm does hislegal work, so I hear of him directly and regularly). My seminary roommate,Morin Bishop, left theological school to write for Sports Illustratedsaying: "Sport opens the world to the observant eye". In this onecase, I believe, he was right. Here is an image of the binding of a Strong Man,Jesus' apocalyptic preachment: God himself subverts the strength of theAdversary, the Devil if you will, by binding, tiring, outlasting the Strong ManSatan. One instrument in God's providence, one way he binds his Adversary, isthrough moments of human refusal, human resistance to the pummeling blows ofthis world's God.

How hungry the church is today to perceive this truth. God isat work! In part, to encourage and give stamina to those on the ropes, usingAli's rope a dope strategy, binding the Strong Man. A tradition of principledrefusal.

8. Two Objections From the Balcony

Well taken, is your perhaps silent objection thus far: somerefusal is Godly, but some is not. Too often those who resist or refuse aresimply petulant, immature, arrogant, slothful, idiotic, selfish. Agreed. Wespeak here not of forms of hypocrisy, so many they are. Rather, we speak ofprincipled resistance, which shows its character by suffering the body blows, byleaning against the rope and aching.

Or, maybe you doubt that refusal takes a part of small stageplay. Perhaps only the civil disobedience of Ghandi or the peaceful resistanceof Martin Luther King or the risky French Resistance of Albert Camus stand out,great historic refusals, great moments of common endurance. But you would bewrong, I suggest, to think so. Most refusal is hidden, unheralded, unknown,unrewarded. Most principled refusal is known only to the one sagging against theropes, the one catching the body blows. Most real principled refusal is veryordinary.

* We have listened recently to presidential candidatesdebating The Ten Commandments—where they be hung, who they do not offend, andso on. Wouldn’t you love it if one of the questioners asked them to recite theten? Do you think they could? Could any one of them? Who is your money on? Bush?McCain? Keyes? Now: How many of us can do so? These are bedrock resistancetools. The first three call us to resist idolatry. The second two call us toresist pride. The last five call us to resist selfishness.

9. Three Examples of Ordinary Refusal

Three examples. Tithing is primarily a form ofspiritual refusal, refusal to accept the world's understanding of success andrefusal to accept the implication that all that we have is ours alone. Worshipis primarily a form of spiritual refusal, refusal to accept the world's timeclock, where all time is meant for work or play. Marriage and loyalfriendship are primarily forms of spiritual refusal, refusal to accept theworld's low estimate of intimacy, refusal to accept the unholy as good. .

10. Conclusion

You are a part of a tradition of principled refusal. ForMatthew, writing us these lines, the view is clear--Jesus who endured the crossboth received and forever illumined a tradition of refusal, in the face ofpummeling authority.

In 350, Philip of Macedon wanted to unite Greece, which hedid except for Sparta. He did everything he could. Finally he sent them a note:If you do not submit at once I will invade your country. If I invade I willpillage and burn everything in sight. If I march into Laconia, I will level yourgreat city to the ground. The Spartans sent back this one word reply;"if". (laconic).

Thomas Moore tells us: "We live in a society thatprimarily starves our soul...we have to really resist the culture to care forthe soul...but...if we choose with care our professions and ways we spend ourtime and our homes in which we live, if we take care of our families and don'tsee them as problems, and if we nurture our relationships and friendships andmarriages then the soul probably will not show its complaints so badly."

On the other hand, you may not need this word today. You maywant to remember it, though, especially if you are young. For one day, one day,you may want to use some of your spiritual bequest, your prophetic endowment.You may need to draw on the tradition of principled refusal.

Good news has it that along the ropes, and upon the cross,Jesus has bound up the Strong Evil, subverting by being subject to, and soempowered us to refuse.

A year before he was executed by the Nazis, languishing in asmall prison cell, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote this hymn:

"By gracious powers so wonderfully sheltered

and confidently waiting, come what may,

We know that God is with us night and morning

And never fails to greet us each new day.

And when this cup You give is filled to brimming

With bitter suffering, hard to understand

We take it thankfully and without trembling

Out of so good and so beloved a hand."

These Biblical promises can seem so improbable. They promisean eighth round coming, for which all godly resistance, all principled refusalprepares, by tiring out, binding the strong man of this world. Against theropes, hum the verses

The earth shall be full of the glory of God as the waterscover the sea

Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes with themorning

They shall not hurt or destroy any more in all my holymountain

The lion shall lay down with the lamb

And all flesh shall see it together

Or, as RBY Scott put it:

O Day of God Draw Nigh

In beauty and in power

Come with thy timeless judgment now

To match our present hour

Bring to our troubled minds

Uncertain and afraid

The quiet of a steadfast faith

Calm of a call obeyed.

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