Monday, November 24, 2008

What'd I Say

Beginning with this entry, I plan to post the texts of my Sunday sermons on this web site. I will use my other blog for an eclectic collection of thoughts, musings, and the like. Thanks for reading.

This sermon was preached November 23. The Scripture text for the morning was Matthew 25:31-46

Someone sent me this bit of humor recently. A minister decided that his Sunday sermon could use a little something so he devised a visual demonstration. Four worms were placed in four jars at the beginning of the sermon: one in a jar of whiskey, one in a jar containing cigarette smoke, one in a jar of chocolate syrup, and one in a jar of good clean soil. At the conclusion of the sermon, the minister opened each jar and reported the following results. The worm in the whiskey jar – dead. The worm in the jar with cigarette smoke – dead. The worm in the chocolate syrup – dead (kind of a waste of good chocolate syrup, and I suppose you could say the same about the whiskey!). The worm in the good clean soil was alive and well.
So the minister asked the congregation what they learned from the demonstration. A parishoner, sitting near the back quickly raised a hand. “As long as you drink, smoke and eat chocolate, you won’t have any worms!”
Keep those cards and letters coming.
All kinds of interesting things have happened to the stories Jesus told. Each Gospel writer told the story for his own reasons, told it in a way that he thought would help the Jesus community he was preparing the gospel for. We need to pay attention to that context. Since the gospels were put in print, the stories have been interpreted countless ways, and sometimes the wrong lessons have been drawn. I want to say a few words this morning about what the story Jesus tells, as it is recorded in Matthew 25, isn’t about.
It’s not about worms and whiskey, but you knew that already.
I don’t think this story is about hell, either, though some use it that way. I have mentioned recently my visit to the Vineyard Church national web site, where it says that after the final judgment the wicked will experience “eternal conscious punishment.” The Scripture reference they site is this story in Matthew 25. Without being too harsh, I think they have it wrong.
In Matthew’s gospel, this story comes as a part of a series of stories told by Jesus, all of which have to do with remaining faithful to the end, of not giving up on the way of Jesus, even in difficult and confusing times. You need to know that the times were difficult and confusing for Matthew’s audience. Matthew was probably writing for people who had come into the Jesus way from out of Judaism. Maybe a better way to say this is to say that they saw in the way of Jesus a needed and authentic reforming of their Jewish faith. There is often a lot of excitement at the beginning of a reform movement, but that excitement ebbs and flows. The Jesus movement was separated from the larger Jewish tradition. That was painful for Matthew’s community. The Temple, which has been such a powerful religious and national symbol for the Jewish people had been destroyed by Rome. Matthew’s Jesus community had every reason to lose heart, and so he retold stories told by Jesus to help his community keep the faith. More importantly with this story, he was reminding people that keeping the faith was more than just hanging on to the bitter end, more than isolating oneself to try and keep pure. To live the Jesus way was just the opposite of isolation from the world, it was engagement with the world – with the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, those lacking clothing, the sick, the imprisoned. The final judgment metaphor is best understood as a way to emphasize in the strongest terms that when you pass by opportunitites to touch a sufering life, those opportunities are lost forever. It is a powerful metaphor, but its power is not the power of fear threatening us with eternal conscious punishment.
If this story is not about hell it is also not about ridding ourselves of religious and spiritual language and practice. Notice that both groups that come before the Son of Man as king address him as “lord.” Sometimes we are tempted to read this story and say that what it means to be a Christian is to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, care for the sick, visit the imprisoned. We are right in saying that this is what it means to be a Christian, but we would be wrong to say that it is all that it means to be a Christian. We would be helped to recall other words in Matthew, Matthew 7:21: Not everyone who says to me, “Lord, Lord,” will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven. Matthew is writing to a practicing faith community reminding them that the Jesus way, while not less than spiritual practices like prayer, like gathering in community, like worship, is always more than that – that it is justice, that it is compassion, that it is kindness. Absent these, you are missing the boat, but we don’t throw the other spiritual practices out of the boat either.
In sharing what this text isn’t about, I have begun to say what I think it is about, and I want to explore this further beginning with some helpful words from the theologian Robert Neville. Christianity first and foremost is about being kind…. Sometimes it is hard to tell in what kindness consists. Whether a social welfare system is ultimately kind if it creates a long-term dependent class of people is a debateable point at this stage, and how to amend it to make if more kind is also debatable. But some obvious and up-front meanings should be affirmed before stumbling on hard cases. These include being generous, sympathetic, willing to help those in immediate need, and ready to play roles for people on occasions of suffering, trouble, joy, celebration that might more naturally be played by family or close friends who are absent. (Neville, Symbols of Jesus, xviii).
The illuminating thing for me when I read Neville’s words and the words of Matthew 25 is that Christian faith, the Jesus way, is about doing good and about being different. We miss some of the power of Matthew 25 if we make it only a to do list. Christian faith, the Jesus way, is about what we do and about who we are. Generous people do certain things, and they also have a certain kind of heart, a certain inner orientation that is open to helping in a hurting world. Sympathetic people do certain things and they also have a certain kind of heart, a certain inner orientation which opens them to the suffering and pain of the world. The Jesus way in the world is about willingness and readiness and openness, as well as about doing. That is deeply embedded in the story Jesus told itself. None of those who are commended or condemned in the story realize what it is they have been doing – they just did it, it flowed out of their heart and soul. Christian faith, the Jesus way, is a way of being in the world that both transforms the world in the direction of kindness and transforms the self into a kinder heart. That is where traditional spiritual practices are especially significant. Our hearts, our souls, are transformed by prayer, by worship, by gathering in community. They are also transformed by doing good itself. All is needed.
A couple of weeks ago, I was running a late afternoon errand before returning to the church to help the Staff-Parish Relations Committee prepare for the Wednesday night meal. I went to a store to buy a couple of things, and I paid cash. When the cashier told me how much I owed, it seemed less than I had expected, but I had used a discount coupon, so I paid and walked out my car. I couldn’t help but think that somehow the store had been short-changed and so I looked at the receipt, and sure enough, the woman had not charged me for one item. Well it is nearly five o’clock, the time when I was supposed to be at the church, and it wasn’t my fault that the cashier had messed up, and I spend enough money at this store… I opened the car door, and put my package inside. But I couldn’t leave. Something inside of me told me that I needed to take the time to go and pay what I truly owed. I couldn’t help but smile at the potential irony of telling myself that I couldn’t go back into the store to correct the error because I was running late for church.
This is not a big deal. I am not bucking for sainthood here, but I know that at one time in my life I think I would have been capable of driving away, and now I am not. I continue to be formed on the inside and it continues to be expressed in doing good.
I think the most challenging part of the story Jesus told and Matthew retold is that the kind of heart, mind and soul that is encouraged is a heart, mind and soul open to the suffering of the world. We are invited on the Jesus way to cultivate a heart, a mind, a soul, that sees hunger and thirst, that sees lonliness and alienation, that sees deprivation and poverty, that sees sickness, that sees injustice and imprisonment, including some of the self-created prisons in our lives. We see, and we respond.
The kind of hearts and souls we are invited to develop pay attention to thoughts about poverty like those offered by Noble-prize winning economist Paul Krugman. Living in or near poverty has always been a form of exile, of being cut off from the larger society. But the distance between the poor and the rest of us is much greater than it was 40 years ago, because most American incomes have risen in real terms while the official poverty line has not. To be poor in America today, even more than in the past, is to be an outcast in your own country. And that, the neuroscientists tell us, is what poisons a child’s brain. Neuroscientists have found that “many children growing up in very poor families with low social status experience unhealthy levels of stress hormones, which impair their neural development.” The effect is to impair language development and memory — and hence the ability to escape poverty — for the rest of the child’s life. We cannot ignore that. We are called to care and to act. Neither can we ignore the kind of suffering that is less amenable to social remedy – the suffering of grief, the pain of loss and disappointment, the hurt of failed relationships. Sometimes the best we can do, and it is a lot, is to stand with people in their pain.
To have our hearts and minds transformed in this way is difficult. It means opening ourselves to a measure of sadness. Psychologist Bruno Bettelheim writes, “an inescapable sadness is part of the life of any reflective person” (Freud and Man’s Soul, 111). I have for awhile appreciated this analysis of the heart and sadness offered by Elizabeth Lesser. Sadness is not the opposite of happiness. The opposite of happiness is a closed heart. Happiness is a heart so soft and so expansive that it can hold all of the emotions in a cradle of openness. A happy heart is one that is larger at all times than any one emotion. An open heart feels everything – including anger, grief and pain – and absorbs it into a bigger and wiser experience of reality…. We may think that by closing the heart we’ll protect ourselves from feeling the pain of the world, but instead we isolate ourselves even more from joy…. The opposite of happiness is a fearful, closed heart. Happiness is ours when we go through our anger, fear and pain, all the way to our sadness, and then slowly let sadness develop into tenderness. (The New American Spirituality, 180). That’s the Christian journey, too, though I would add that we necessarily need to let our tenderness flower into action to alleviate suffering in the world.
A heart and soul open to the suffering of the world invites a certain sadness inside, a sadness at all the suffering there is, a sadness that the human community has not done more to alleviate preventable suffering, a sadness knowing that as a person, I cannot do something about every suffering I encounter. This is a difficult way, but the joy of this way is a tenacious and tough joy. It is a joy that can look at the worst the world has, and not give up in despair. It can look at the worst that the world has, and act hopefully. It can look at the worst that the world has, and not neglect the best and most beautiful.
The Christian faith, the Jesus way in Matthew 25 is a way of transforming the world and transforming the heart and soul. During the Nazi period in Germany, many Jews had to flee the country and leave their houses behind. If they were able to sell them at all, they received ridiculously low prices for them. Many Germans were happy to purchase a cheap Jewish villa. German theologian Dorothee Soelle tells the story of how in the town she grew up in a young teacher was offered one such empty house for a very cheap price. His response was, “I cannot move into such a house. Legally and morally it still belongs to the former owner.” The young teacher was disliked by the Nazis for this response. Shortly afterward he was sent to a concentration camp. (Not Just yes and amen, 12-13).
The invitation is there – to develop your heart and soul, to do good and to develop your heart and soul through doing good. How are you going to respond. What suffering will you open yourself up to this holiday season? What will you do about it? As a part of your journey of faith, I invite you to take advantage of some of the opportunities our church is offering you to respond to suffering and hurt in the world. Our Thanksgiving offering will be shared between the ministry of the church and with midwest flood relief. Our Christmas offering will be shared between the ministry of the church, Second Harvest Northern Lakes Food Bank, and Harbor House Crisis Shelters. On Christmas Eve, CHUM will again organized a vigil in the civic center, collecting warm gloves, hats, boots, mittens, blankets – and if you can’t give any of these, just come to support that effort. I will be doing all these things, and will also be helping the March of Dimes, through their jail and bail event – if you would like to help with that, I would welcome your donations. I invite you who have heard this story and this sermon today to challenge yourselves to do something in the remaining month of this year to alleviate a little suffering in the world.
Christian faith is never just about what we say, whether we say it in prayer or song or in church. Christian faith, the Jesus way, is about what we do and about how our hearts and minds and souls are being changed. The way can be difficult, that’s one reason we are on the way together. The way can be difficult and it is the way of life. For this way and for the grace which opens this way to us, we are grateful. Amen.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

melancholy leaves me breathless.

 Mary Oliver, “Sometimes” in Red Bird

As she so often does, Mary Oliver speaks truth, but why would anyone want to read such truth? I read it because it is good to know that one’s feelings of sadness are shared by others, that the melancholy which leaves me breathless also leaves others breathless – and yet we can create art out of it which then helps us move through the sadness. It is why I listen to the blues. In the blues we hear the sadness and the art made from sadness, an art which helps us negotiate it. It is why I love the Psalms, too.

Here is one of my attempts to create something out of sadness.

There are days
when the truest
statement in the
creed is:
He descended into hell,
and when the
first truth of
Buddhism appears
its most profound:
Life is suffering.
Both also promise
a way forward.
The eightfold path.
Neither promises
that the way
is easy.
And the stay
in hell was
three days.

Trying to Create Beauty,


Sunday, November 9, 2008

Thich, Tillich and Dorothee, too

“Submission, obedience and other such terms have never been my favorite theological or spiritual concepts. Perhaps there is something of the spirit of Euripides in me. “The wisest men follow their own direction and listen to no prophet guiding them” (quoted by Anthony Storr in Feet of Clay). One of my favorite scenes from Monty Python and the Holy Grail (a film I enjoy a lot) is the one where God tells King Arthur and the knights to “stop their groveling.”

Yet the notions of yielding, submitting, surrendering, obeying run throughout spiritual literature, especially theistic spiritual literature, including that of the Christian faith which is my tradition. Sometimes I ask myself if my resistance is little more than the spiritual recalcitrance of a rebellious soul who because of his stubbornness is missing out on some of the depths of relationship with God.

I struggle with the notions of obedience, submission, surrending, and yielding because of the abuse I have seen accompanying those concepts. Obedience to God seems to easily slide into obedience to God’s chosen leaders and history is rife with the horror stories of blind obedience. Think of the obedience given Adolph Hitler, Jim Jones, Charles Manson, David Koresh and others, and of the awful consequences of such blind following.

Surrender to God or to some abstract guiding principle is not only seductive but understandable and, in some instances, valuable. Surrender to a human guru is fraught with risk. Anthony Storr, Feet of Clay, 221-222.

Okay, so one can and should distinguish between obedience to God and obedience and submission to any human person. Christian faith even provides a solid foundation for resistance to blind obedience to any person as fully embodying the will of God. Even though this distinction is important and necessary, I confess that an uneasiness remains. Obedience, submission, yielding, surrender connote a complete self-abrogation to God. A God who demands utter, complete, blind obedience seems created in the image of emperors and dictators and I am uncomfortable with this.

This issue was recently raised for me again as I was listening to an audio CD of Thich Nhat Hahn – “Touching the Earth: meditations for compassion.” The CD was a free gift for subscribing to Ode magazine. The title sounds inviting enough, but Brother Thay discusses “the five prostrations,” “bowing down and surrendering to the earth.” That kind of language again brought to the fore these issues of obedience, submission, yielding, surrender. The five prostrations are: bowing in gratitude to ancestors in one’s family, to the ancestors in one’s spiritual family (and here Brother Thay included Buddha and Jesus), bowing in gratitude to the land and to all who helped make it available (including Chief Seattle, Thomas Jefferson, and Martin Luther King. Jr.), in gratitude and compassion bowing and pledging to transmit energy to those one loves, and, finally, in understanding and compassion bowing down to reconcile oneself with all those who have made one suffer. That is a lot of bowing and submitting and it sounds rather masochistic. Listening to Thich Nhat Hahn, though, a very different feeling came over me – not a closing off of self in order to submit to a power that was other but instead an awe, a reverence and an opening of the self. I had the feeling of openness to something that was part of me, though also other than me.

Listening, I also thought again of Paul Tillich, a theologian I encountered early in my seminary days and one with whose thought I have continued to engage fruitfully. Years ago, Tillich’s categories of theonomy, autonomy and heteronomy helped me deal with the language of obedience, submission, surrender and yielding - - - helped me incorporate that language into my own spiritual life in productive ways, though not without continuing unease. I often have to translate these ideas into other concepts.

Without getting into all the subtleties of Tillich’s theology, heteronomy implies a power from outside one, or outside of a cultural creation, that seeks to denigrate or even destroy the autonomy of that self or creation. Autonomy represents freedom from tradition and can again be applied to persons and to cultural creations. Theonomy “is the directedness of the self-creation of life under the dimension of the Spirit toward the ultimate in being and meaning” (Systematic Theology, III, p. 249). Tillich applies these concepts most consistently to culture. The original theonomous union is left behind by the rise of autonomous trends which necessarily lead to a reaction of the heteronomous element. Without the liberation of autonomy from the bondage to an “archaic,” mythologically founded theonomy, the culture could not develop its potentialities. Only after their liberation from the uniting myth and the theonomous state of consciousness can philosophy and the sciences, poetry and the other arts, appear. But if they achieve independence, they lose their transcendent foundation which gave them depth, unity, and ultimate meaning; and therefore, the reaction of heteronomy starts: the experience of the ultimate, as expressed in the religious tradition, reacts against the creations of an empty autonomy. (Systematic Theology, III, 251-252). I guess I am getting into the complexities of Tillich more than initially intended. The basic idea is that the Spirit can be experienced as a setting free (autonomy), and sometimes as a check against an empty autonomy (heteronomy), but is most fully present in a theonomy that encourages freedom and connection to the ultimate in being and meaning at the same time. That ultimate in being and meaning is not separate from one’s own being, though it is more than oneself. In simpler terms, I take all this to mean that God is not completely other and God desires and wills the human good in community, which includes my good. Not all my thoughts, desires, whims are the movement of God’s Spirit within me, but the movement of God’s Spirit within me is not completely different from my deepest hopes and dreams. This helps me understand why the language of obedience, submission, surrender and yielding does not come easy, and yet may still have a place, especially if I understand yielding to mean something more like openness to life and to reality.

Cracking open Tillich’s Systematic Theology, reminded me, too, of another influential theologian from my seminary days, Dorothee Soelle, and of her book, Beyond Mere Obedience. Soelle describes her book as “an attempt to work through the oppressive aspects of traditions of obedience I inherited in my national, religious, and sexual identity. Being a German, a Christian, and a woman I was brought up with three kinds of traditions that demanded obedience” (ix). Soelle makes good use of Erich Fromm’s helpful distinction between authoritarian religion and humanitarian religion. In authoritarian religion “God’s love and righteousness are less important than God’s power” (xiii). Humanitarian religion “operates with a force which springs from the inner life of the spirit. There is one creative power in God as well as in people.” (xii-xiii). Soelle poses a critical question. “Why do people worship a God whose supreme quality is power, not justice; whose interest lies in subjection, not in mutuality; who fears equality?” (xiv-xv). Soelle’s work is rich and thought-provoking. Here are some other helpful passages.

Selflessness is possible only where a particular level of self-awareness has been achieved. A person whose own capacity to love has been awakened, who has experienced so much happiness that it radiates from her, who has discovered her own identity; such a person is actually capable of acting sacrificially in particular situations. (38)

The conventional picture of Jesus has always placed his obedience and his self-denial in the foreground. But that phantasy which is born of fulfillment is a far better description of his life…. Should one consider the death of Jesus from the point of view of obedience alone, one would overlook the fact that selflessness and a readiness to live sacrificially are possible only when a person has come to himself and has reached the fullest level of personal freedom. (56, 57)

For Jesus “God” meant liberation, the unchaining of all powers which lie imprisoned in each of us, powers with which we too can perform miracles which are no less significant than those we are told Jesus himself performed. (64)

At the end of all this reflection I can again affirm that the language of spiritual teachers about obedience, submission, surrender and yielding has value, but only if critically appropriated. For me, that critical appropriation leads me away from these words themselves and toward the language of radical openness, an openness to God as Spirit at work in the world. When I am more open to that Spiritual Presence, I also find God’s Spirit at work in me, in my soul and spirit. This language of radical openness, coming through a critical process is also self-critical, for I know there are other voices contending inside of me, not just the voice of the Spirit and it is to those better angels of my nature that I need to pay attention and to yield.

Trying To Create Beauty,