Wednesday, June 14, 2006

06/11/06, Sermon

If you think Christianity means anything other than “Justice Now!”, you have to re-read the Bible. Slowly, this time. Paying particular attention to the Sermon on the Mount; and to the inconsistencies, contradictions, and incompatibilities which disappear when understood as evidence of the move away from “Justice Now!” to a more practical approach to life in the world.
For instance, there is the proclamation that Jesus has broken down the dividing walls and made us all one, so that there are no longer slaves and free, male and female, Jews and Gentiles (and, by extension, gay and straight), but “Christ is all, and in all.” That is as bold a declaration of equality as you’ll ever read. But then, the retractions. “Slaves, obey your masters!” “Wives, obey your husbands!” “Submit to the governing authorities!” And, the usual way of living closes off the radical cry for “Justice Now!”, and we begin to think of Christianity as being about “heaven when we die.”

We have been told that Christianity is about “Heaven when you die!” Jesus came, we are told, to save us from our sins, by dying in our behalf, and appeasing an angry, vengeful God, whose righteousness requires justice, which means that we will have to be punished for our evil, disobedient ways, if we don’t confess our sinful nature, “prone to evil and wont to do good,” you know, repent, and believe that Jesus was God who died on the cross and was raised from the dead so that we might be convinced of the whole story, forgiven, and saved from everlasting torment at the hands of Satan and the demons in hell, and be delivered to the heavenly regions and eternal life in glory beyond imagining. The whole thing is about getting us to heaven. There is nothing in any of this about Jesus dying because he dared to break down dividing walls and live out the declaration: “Justice Now!”.

John Dominic Crossan says heaven and the bodily resurrection of the dead were invented 167 years before Jesus was born by Macabean martyrs who were being tortured and massacred by Greeks for being Jews. It was the first religious pogrom in history, or anywhere else, for that matter. People were being killed because of their faith. Up until then, it was thought that bad things happened to people who deserved it and that they were being punished by God for having abandoned their faith. Now, unquestionably good and worthy people were suffering and dying because of their faith. The facts could not be squared with the belief in a good, loving, God of justice. So, a shift in faith happened. Something new came onto the scene. In the 4th Book of Macabees, you have a martyr saying, “God will give me this body back!” God will make this up to us! Because God is just, there will be recompense. There will be compensation. There will be an afterlife and a resurrection of the martyrs, and of course, punishment for all those who caused the righteous misery.

The resurrection of Jesus, who died an undeserving death at the hands of the enemies of the Jews, was hailed by the apostles as the first sign of the general resurrection of the deserving dead. The graves at Jerusalem were emptied, remember, and Jesus was to return “soon” to herald the general resurrection and the full inauguration of the Kingdom of God for both the living and the dead. And, because that was going to happen “soon,” it was incumbent upon believers to begin living now in ways that modeled the justice and love of God—so as to “speed up the time” and be seen as “going to meet” the one who was coming by “preparing the way of the Lord,” and being ready when he arrived. “Justice Now!” was the hallmark of those who believed Jesus had been raised from the dead and was going to return soon to institute the Kingdom of God on the earth in this present world, in this present life.

Because living justly is the hardest thing to do over time, the emphasis shifted from “Justice Now!” to “Heaven When We Die!” as the first generation of believers was replaced by their successors. The impetus for believing shifted from participating now in the divine justice of God in preparation for that which was about to burst forth, to a theology of believing in the ultimate victory of God over the long haul. “God will save us eventually if we believe now,” is quite different from saying, “God is coming tomorrow, so make ready today.” The shift was a practical way of dealing with the unending delay of the return of Jesus. It saved us from the work of maintaining the momentum of justice over time, and allowed us to concentrate on seeking the advantage for ourselves and those we loved, while making gestures of compassion—food baskets at Thanksgiving, for instance—to the poor and underprivileged.

We are not going to take a vow of poverty and follow Mother Theresa into the slums of Calcutta. How just can we be and still enjoy our lives? What are the implications justice has for the way we live our lives? How can we do justice without threatening our life style? How just can we be and still pay the bills? We answer the questions for ourselves. We have to set our own limits, draw our own lines, and decide where we want to begin, and what we want to do, and how to go about doing it. There are no particular procedures or structures for “doing justice.” No established process for achieving “Justice Now.” There is only picking a place to begin working and plugging away.

What will it be? Affordable health care and a livable wage? Gay couples having the same rights and benefits and privileges as straight couples? Child care for the working poor? An end to war? Greening the environment? Issues and needs are everywhere. We only have to decide what we are going to do, and how much we are going to do, and where we are going to draw the line, and take a break and go take photographs, or read a book, or take a stroll through a meadow to the crest of a hill.

The decision between inner and outer, between personal and social, between how much for me and how much for you and how much for everyone else, is the fundamental decision. Where do we draw the line? When do we re-draw it? The question takes us to the essence of what makes us human. It is the spiritual struggle. And, reminds us of the duality at the heart of oneness: Yin/Yang; Darkness/Light; Good/Not-Good, at the core of being. We are not so much one way or the other as we are all ways at once. It takes some getting used to. But, it is not about achieving personal purity so much as it is about integrating the opposites within, and establishing appropriate boundaries, and maintaining appropriate relationships among all of the voices vying for our attention.

To come at it another way: We exercise considerable influence, but very little control. Yet, we should not let that stop us from controlling what can be controlled. We could live a healthier life-style. We could stop smoking; start walking regularly; eat less sugar and less processed flour. We could slow down. I do not know of a spiritual discipline that recommends speeding up, doing more, trying harder, working longer. Spiritual practice has to do with less, not more. It’s about emptying the tea cup, about not-knowing, not-doing.

If we controlled what we can control, we could “do justice” in various times and ways and places. We could be good company. We could become the right kind of people. We could see what is to be seen; hear what is to be heard; and do what needs to be done, or find someone with the skill and expertise to do what needs to be done.

We do not control everything, but there is much that we do control. There is no point in not doing what we can to make life better than it is. Of course, I have a theory as to why we don’t. I call it “The Weight of the Past and Future.” We are always remembering what has happened to us, or “looking down the road” and imagining what will happen to us, and eating another gallon of ice cream. The weight of the past and the future is too much for us to bear without ice cream. Or beer. Or whiskey. Or prescription pain killers. We cannot carry The Weight of the Past and Future. We shrivel, begin to shake, and curl into a fetal position. It’s what we get for looking.

We have no business giving up because of the past or peering into the future, and thinking we know how hopeless, pointless, useless, unpleasant and burdensome it is going to be. Anyone with our past; anyone looking into that future would have to wonder, “Why try?”, and go for the ice cream (etc.). So, don’t look. Do not think beyond what’s for dinner. The long view will give you the grim perturbations. And, you will be no fun to be around. Keep it local, within reach, today. Don’t look beyond today.

That’s what “One day at a time,” means. Control what you can control today. Live healthily today. Be a genuinely decent human being today. Be good company today. Treat yourself to some simple pleasure today. How slowly can you live today—being attentive, mindful, aware; looking, seeing, listening, hearing? Do not wonder what good is it doing, or ask what it is achieving, or what difference it is making. Live today with today only in mind. Do not carry The Weight of the Past and Future, today. And, don’t do it again tomorrow. Do what can be done with today and tomorrow, every day, and let the future unfold as it will.

This is called “doing your work and letting things take their course.” Our work is to control what we do control, to influence for the good what we can influence for the good, and then stand back, and let things take their course. That’s it. That is all that is asked of us. No one can do more. In order to do it, we have to free ourselves of The Weight of the Past and Future, and step into each day with today only in mind—doing justice where we can and being good company as we are able. And doing it again tomorrow.

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