Sunday, December 31, 2006

12/31/06, Sermon

Orthodox Jews have their way of looking at things. Evangelical Christians have their way of looking at things. Islam fundamentalists have their way of looking at things. Tibetan Buddhists have their way of looking at things. Pakistani Hindus have their way of looking at things. You have your way of looking at things. I have my way of looking at things. And, so it goes, around the world and throughout the universe.

We have our way of “structuring reality,” of “securing the future, of saying how things are, and how they got to be that way, and how we need to live in relation to them to give ourselves the best chance at a life worth living. How can we protect ourselves, guard our interests, break even, or, perhaps, come out ahead? How can we turn the odds of winning at life in our favor?

We all have our angle, our rituals, our system. Everyone knows what to do to get God, or the gods, on his, on her, side. Everyone expects a pay-off, either in this life, or, at least, in the life to come. Who are we kidding? What are we thinking? That our fortunes are going to turn on whether we bring our votive offerings to the altar, or wear the prescribed costumes, or pray at the prescribed times in the prescribed ways, or believe the beliefs of our ancestors?

Here’s the deal. It comes down to your life and you. What do you need to give yourself the best chance of living a life that is worth the trouble? And, it is trouble. It is not easy living out a lifetime in this world. Living takes the life right out of us. Where do we get the energy for the undertaking? It takes more than eight hours of sleep and three squares a day (and just achieving that is hard enough). I don’t care who you are, or what kind of life you have, you have to make your peace with it. How do we make our peace with our life? How do we restore our souls?

That is the religious problem. How do we take life as it comes to us in one hand, and ourselves in the other, and merge the two, blend the two, reconcile the two in ways that take the requirements and realities of each into account? How do we feel good, happy, content, and at peace about the lives we are living? It is easier, of course, for some of us than others (To be gay, or black, or poor, or Native American, or to have special needs, for example, is to have your work cut out for you), but the suicide rate and the amount of prescription “mood-altering” drugs taken by the well-to-do suggests that none of us have an easy route to nirvana. How do we get there? We all have our mo-jo. The Mormons have a particularly compelling approach. “If you just do it like we tell you to do it,” they say. “Your kids will not be on drugs, you will not be divorced, or destitute and homeless, and the societal family ideal will be yours forever.” A large number of people feel that letting someone else tell them how to live their lives is a small price to pay for security, stability, predictability, and peace of mind. That has been the way religion has tended to “solve” the problem of reconciling ourselves with our lives over time. “Just let us tell you how to do it, and you will live happily ever after.” The spiritual approach is quite different.

Joseph Campbell says, “We know when we are ‘on the beam,’ and when we are off.” The spiritual task is to be “on the beam,” and stay there. The spiritual presumption is that we are happiest when we are “on the beam,” and unhappiest when we are “off the beam.” There are two problems with being “on the beam.” Finding it and figuring ways to stay on it and “pay the bills.”

“The beam” has a spiritual dimension and a physical dimension. You might say it is “sacramental,” in that it is an outward, physical, tangible, concrete expression of an inward, spiritual, orientation, intention, perspective, or way of being. “The beam” is how we incarnate our “essential self,” our “essence,” our “spirit,” who we are really in the world of normal, apparent, reality. It is not easily done. It is what we do to bring our spirit to life in the world.
The world is not interested in our “essence,” or, in our spirit. The world is interested in goods and services, “food, clothing, and shelter,” hot and cold running water, garbage pickup and mail delivery, money in the bank. and internet access. What you do with your soul is not the world’s problem. The world is not a soul-friendly place. Neither is the church.

The church talks about saving souls, but the church has no process, or method, for helping you connect with your soul, or restore it, or express it in the way you live your life. The church is quick to tell you what you should think, believe, and do—how you should live—what you should be interested in. But, the church does not spend any time helping you discover what your interests actually or and how you might serve them with your life AND pay the bills. The church, like the world, operates out of a practical, left-brained, rational, logical approach to the problem of adjusting you to the world. “Just do what we tell you,” it says. “Think what we tell you to think, believe what we tell you to believe, act like we tell you to act, and you will be happy.” The soul has to re-invent the church in order to survive in the world.

And, of course, that is what we are about here. The re-invention of the church. The creation of an atmosphere that focuses us, not on the solution, not on the resolution, but on the recognition and experience of the spiritual problem. This place is not an escape or a hide-out. It is more on the order of a torture chamber, a dungeon of nightmares and horrors. Here we face realities square on that the church of our experience dismissed, discounted, or denied. Here, we look into the heart of things, understand how things are, and bear what must be borne.

For instance, you have heard me say before, and you will hear me say again, that we live on the boundary between yin and yang. We bear the pain of the tension of opposition within and without. The cross in our midst reminds us of the agony that must be borne when transcendence and imminence coincide, as they do in us. The thematic dichotomies in the Bible, and really, in all great literature, come alive in us: Bondage and freedom, guilt and redemption, death and resurrection, being lost and being found, sin and forgiveness, fear and peace, resistance and surrender… All these themes play themselves out in our lives, and tear us apart, or would, if we didn’t deny them, or face them squarely in the company of one another.

The church as it ought to be enables us to live on the boundary between yin and yang, and do the work of integration, which is the work of recognition, and realization, and awareness, and acceptance, and peace. We live at odds with ourselves, our lives, one another, and God. And, it is the work of the church—it is our work—to make our peace with all that pulls us apart. It is the work of the church—it is our work—to face squarely what must be faced, and to bear consciously what must be borne. “If you want to be my disciple,” says the Christ, calling us to the task of being the Christ ourselves, “you must pick up your cross daily, and follow me.” The cross is the agony of The Beam and The Bills.

We live strung out between two mutually exclusive realities. We cannot stay on The Beam and pay The Bills, but, paying The Bills only enables us to live without being alive. We live on the boundary between yin and yang, and work to integrate the opposites of Beam and Bills. That is the spiritual task, and we will work hard at it every day for the rest of our lives.

You have heard me say before, and did not like it when I did, that we live on the boundary between despair and denial. That sounded too raw to you, too negative, nihilistic, dark and ugly. You come to church to hear something light, and inspirational, and sentimental. You come to church to hear an encouraging word. There is discouragement aplenty where you come from, and you need something to counter the daily doses of despondency and desolation. I call that denial. But that doesn’t mean the alternative is despair.

On the boundary between despair and denial there is something else. Call it hope. Call it faith. Call it love. Call it a new reality, a new world. Call it the relentless refusal to be done in by the futility and desperation of lives that have given up on, or forgotten the importance of, doing the work of integrating The Beam with The Bills.

On the boundary between despair and denial, we come alive to the work of being spiritual beings in a material world. On the boundary between despair and denial, we look both in the eye without giving into, without being consumed by, either. We say something on the order of, “Yes. That’s how it is, all right. And, THIS is how it also is!” And, we align ourselves with, and live out of, our heart’s true love in the direct, exact, midst of the world’s denial and despair.

We do not buy the world’s requirement that things have to have an impact and make a difference in order to be valuable and worth doing. We take photographs that stir our souls, even though we would make a lot more money from photography if we quit taking pictures. We talk to people about the church as it ought to be, even though the church as it is has all the power and momentum it needs to stay as it is forever. We write songs and sing them, even though no one pays us for them, or applauds. We share ourselves with those who need an experience with caring presence, even though the cold winds of the Void seem to prove it’s a waste of time to love anyone, or anything. We live between The Beam and the Bills and laugh at the wild absurdity of needing to be true to ourselves in a world that pays us handsomely to turn our backs on ourselves and pretend we are someone else.

The work of the church as it ought to be is the work of waking up, being fully aware, and becoming completely, wholly, joyfully alive in the world of the walking dead. It is the work of living on the Beam and paying the Bills. We cannot begin soon enough!

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

12/24/06, Sermon

The problem is that we don’t like our lives as they are for very long ever. Adam and Eve tried to improve Paradise. There you are. Dissatisfaction is the background noise of existence. No matter how well it is with us, we can always imagine how it could be better, or are always nagged by an unspecific disappointment in something, we don’t quite know what, about the way things are. At their best, things aren’t quite right somehow. The problem is not with “the things.” The problem is with us. WE are not quite right, somehow.

Spiritual discipline is the art of restricting the distracting possibilities, limiting our options and our choices, and seeking what is truly important. The Dali Lama cannot go anywhere and do anything. The Dali Lama is confined. His life is a prison cell. His daily routine consists of “the same old same old.” We could not be the Dali Lama. We would go mad in a month. Or less. But the Dali Lama can be the Dali Lama—without wishing he were someone else, somewhere else, instead. Pick someone, or any ten people, out of the stands on Super Bowl Sunday, and live with them for a while, long enough to be able to sense the differences between them and the Dali Lama. You will have an idea of what we are up against. We have to have something to take our minds off how it is with us. The Dali Lama sees into the heart of the nature of things.

The entertainment industry is the backbone of the economy (Well, maybe not, but overstatement is what I do best). We all suffer from a variety of attention deficit disorder because there is too much to take in. We live as nuclear powered ping-pong balls in a culture that is on a constant high, or after one. The lights never go out in Vegas. How long do you think the Dali Lama would last in our world? How long do you think our world would last in the Dali Lama’s? Whose world do you think is the hope of the world?

How much external stimulation do we need to be fully alive? At what point does external stimulation become deadening? What are we chasing after? Running from? Seeking to shake, or to find? What do we want? We don’t have an inkling. That’s the problem, don’t you see? We don’t have an inkling about the nature of the problem. We think there must be something that we are seeking, to shake or to find, else why the wild scramble to leave here and go there? We think there must be some reason for our dissatisfaction, some fix, or cure. And, we don’t see that we are just hooked into a search without the possibility of a find.

The culture requires us to buy, spend, amass, and consume. The culture requires us to go, and do, and look, and taste, and listen, and feel, and smell—to experience everything but the experience of our experience. The culture does not allow us to be conscious of the emptiness of the life it sells. The culture does not permit us to be aware that we are grabbing for moonbeams, reaching for apparitions. We are convinced that we are on the trail of something significant, closing in on something big. Something that will finally make us happy. We are only making the culture happy. There is nothing in it for us. There is nothing there. We are on the fast track to nowhere.

People go to Super Bowls who don’t like football because they think the Super Bowl is the place to be. The culture has conned us all. The spiritual task is to be awake, aware, and alive in a culture that gets along very nicely with us asleep at the wheel. It will not be easy. It starts with us thinking about what we are doing. With us thinking about who we are and what we are about. With us thinking about what is important. With us thinking about what we need to do what is ours to do. With us knowing the difference between a prop and a tool.

It is hard to think about these things in this culture. This culture discourages thinking, reflection, realization, awareness. This culture encourages experiential living. Go! Do! Look! Listen! Taste! Smell! Feel! Then, do it again! It is hard to sit still in a culture that tells us doing nothing is the worst imaginable sin. The Dali Lama sits still for long stretches of time. Who do you think knows more about being alive? A Super Bowl cheerleader or the Dali Lama? It is hard to be awake, aware, and alive in this culture. And, so, we have to do what is hard.

Look at where you spend your money. What have you bought lately that you need? What have you bought lately that you spend time with? What have you bought lately that you enjoy? What are you doing spending money on things you do not use? Look at where you spend your time. What do you do that brings you pleasure? That brings you to life? That you enjoy doing? How much time do you spend with things that give you energy and life and how much time do you spend with things that drain you of energy and rob you of life? What can you do to shift the balance in the equation more toward what you love to do?

What does it take for you to be happy? To what extent does your happiness depend upon the happiness of someone else? If you can’t be happy until someone else is happy, where does that leave you? Spending all your money and time trying to make who happy? Wake up, here. Snap to, here. What are you thinking? Oh, I see, nothing. You aren’t thinking at all. What are you going to do about that?

The spiritual task is reclaiming yourself. Restoring yourself. Reorienting yourself. Living, brace yourself, I’m going to say it, for you. Now, I know we are supposed to live for others, and die for others, and serve others, and let our lives revolve around the needs and desires of all the others in our lives. Yes, I am well-schooled in the age old formula for JOY: Jesus first, Others second, and You last. Dead last. DEAD last. The people who sold us that recipe were dead, even though they smiled a lot and bounced wherever they went.

Jesus said it best, “Love your neighbor as you love yourself.” Love your neighbor as though your neighbor is yourself. Love your neighbor as though you and your neighbor are one. That’s putting you right up there with your neighbor. Don’t honor your neighbor one bit more than you honor you. The spiritual task is to be the you who can love your neighbor. Once you live in right relationship with yourself, the rest falls neatly into place So, what are the discarded, rejected, neglected, abandoned, exiled parts of yourself? Who is the “you” you won’t allow yourself to be—the “you” you won’t permit at the table? How do you expect to be reconciled to your neighbor if you cannot look all that is you in the eye and say, “Welcome!”? The spiritual task is welcoming your prodigal side home.

This gets us back to where we came in. The spiritual problem is that we cannot be at peace with our lives as they are—with our world as it is—with ourselves as we are. We cannot bear the idea of being locked up forever in this life as it is right now with ourselves. Won’t somebody deliver us please!!?

In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid, for see, I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: To you is born this day in the City of David a savior who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” And, suddenly, there was with the angel a multitude o f the heavenly host, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth, peace and good will among all people.” (Luke 2:8-14)

The source of our alienation and discord is not so much that we are cut-off from God as it is that we are cut-off from everything, ourselves included. WE are essentially dissatisfied, disenchanted, disappointed with all of it, God included. We don’t like God any more than we like our world, any more than we like our lives, any more than we like ourselves. We don’t like any of it as it is. Adam and Eve tried to improve Paradise! That’s how it is in all of our souls! We can imagine a world that is infinitely better than the world we live in. THAT’s the spiritual problem. How do we reconcile ourselves to this world, this life, this self, this God? How do we make our peace with this “here,” this “now”?

Last week I talked to you about the NO!-Problem as having to square ourselves with a world, with a life, that is saying “NO!” to us at every turn. The other side of that problem is that we are forever saying, “NO!” to the world, to our lives, to ourselves, and to God. This is the other NO!-Problem. This world, this life, this self, this God will not do! We have to have a different world, a different life, a different self, a different God if we are to be happy, tranquil, serene, and at peace. You would have to be insane or quite stupid to live with this “here,” this “now” and be essentially okay and at ease with it. “We have met the enemy and it is us!”

What are we going to do about it, is the question. The spiritual question. The question at the heart of what stands between us and the realization of “peace on earth, good will to all.” How do we live with this “here,” this “now”? How do we live with this world, this life, this self, this God? How do we open our eyes to the truth of how it is with us, see into the heart of how things are, and let it be, because it is? Some of the 10,000 Spiritual Laws come into play here. One of those Laws states: “We cannot see what we will not allow.” We cannot see how it is until we can “let be what is.” The corollary states: “We cannot allow what we will not see.” The seeing and the permitting are one thing. One implies the other. We get there with time, intention, and one another.

We open ourselves to the truth of how it is with us, and wait, within a community that helps us bear what must be borne. None of us can face the truth of how it is with us alone. We cannot forgive ourselves, love ourselves, stand ourselves alone. Wholeness and integration are communal endeavors. But it takes a community that knows what it is doing. It takes time in a room full of the right kind of people to become the right kind of person ourselves. Together, we move toward the peace that comes with recognition, realization, and reconciliation. Together, we stretch and yawn, like a baby in a manger, and open our eyes to a lifetime of becoming awake, aware, and alive.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

12/17/06, Sermon

It is the place of bad religion to serve as a mechanism adapting us to the world, and the world to us. We no sooner plop out of the womb than someone is telling us, “NO!”. And, we have a problem. Because they are bigger than we are. You might call it “the religious problem.” “NO!” is the problem bad religion is invented to resolve. This puts the phrase “no problem” in an entirely different light. We call on someone bigger than those who are bigger than we are to take care of the No!-Problem for us. We will do anything to have the No!-Problem resolved to our liking.

We will toe the line to have a more important line erased. We will give up simple pleasures in order to be accorded the rapture of eternal life. We will restrain our impulses, discipline our inclinations, withhold our urges, walk the straight and narrow, and keep our noses clean and to the grindstone in light of the abundant joys and glories of the world to come. We will give up “this” to get “that.” “We will give to the God so that the God will give to us.” Bad religion in a nut shell.

Don’t think too hard about it, or it will fall apart before your eyes. What kind of God would be dependent upon what we give to the God? I told you not to think about it! What kind of God would hang around us hoping we will sacrifice our chickens (or our children), and blessing us with rain for our crops and plagues on our enemies if we do? What kind of God doesn’t have anything better to do than play the part of a genie with an arm load of wishes for those who learn the secret of rubbing the bottle, or tickling the fancy of the God? What kind of God can’t just go get for himself, for herself, the kinds of things he, she, waits with such fervent hope for from us? Don’t spend too much time with the questions. Bad religion isn’t built to deliver us a God that makes sense. It is built to deliver us a God who can be bent to our wishes and cajoled into catering to our desires—who will do for us what we cannot do for ourselves--who will remove the chaffing “NO’s” from our lives, and give us a life made to order, if not in this life, then certainly in the life to come.

The Religious Problem is the same problem around the world, across the ages. How do we get what we want and avoid what we don’t want? How do we have our way? What do we do about “NO!”? How do we adjust ourselves to the world and the world to us? The world is a world about which something must be done. And religion, bad religion, is our way of doing it.

We are born into this world, and notice right off that we die. Not only do we die, but those who are life itself for us die! And, in the words of a New England tombstone, “It is a terrible thing to love what death can touch.” How do we get ourselves wrapped around that one? But, it is not only that one. We are offended and appalled at every turn. “Live eats life”! How’s that for a fundamental shock to our system? How do we make our peace with a world wherein “Life eats life”? The world is too much for us. It’s too real, too raw. We need a buffer, a filter, something to put between us and it. We need bad religion.

“Life is not fair,” and that weights heavily upon us. There is nothing about this experience called life that makes sense, that stands to reason, that follows, reasonably and logically, consistently and dependably along a wonderfully predictable “if then, therefore” path. We never know what’s going to happen. We can’t count on anything. And, no matter how bad it gets, we are always inviting one another to be glad it isn’t worse yet. This world is a hell of a place. And, our work is the work of adjusting ourselves to it, accommodating ourselves to the realities which govern our lives. Bad religion is the tool we use to do the work.

Bad religion puts us in accord with the inevitable and unavoidable realities of life in the world, by telling us that those realities are God’s will, or by telling us it is our fault (Sin, you know), or by telling us that God is on our side against those realities, and will transform them, or disappear them, in time, if we are faithful and believe. Good religion, on the other hand, looks the world as it is squarely in the eye and creates a space within the world in which the laws—in which the ways—of normal, apparent reality do not apply. “My kingdom,” says Jesus, “is not of this world.” Getting that is the pivot point which turns bad religion into good.

Bad religion revolves around the question, stated or implied, “What am I getting out of all this?” Or, “What’s in this for me?” This is the question at the heart of the story of the Garden of Eden. Adam and Eve, and each of us, and all human beings, live with an eye out for what they/we stand to gain—with an eye out for their/our own advantage. There is not a culture in the world, nor has there ever been one, nor, will there ever be one, that does not (will not) understand and practice the concept of living so as to have the advantage. It is the fundamental human orientation. It is, if you will, a neat summation of all that is wrong with “the world.” The minute we strive to have the advantage it all goes to hell. Eden disappears, and we are left in the middle of the biggest mess imaginable. Yet, what could be more human? What could be less divine? Exactly.

Enter Jesus. With the temptations in the wilderness, and with the final temptation in Gethsemane, and all the temptations in between, Jesus refused to live with his own advantage in mind. His food, he said, was to do the will of the one who sent him—to bring God to life in the world through the way he lived in the world. The boon, for Jesus, was not personal and private, but universal and very public. It was nothing more than the experience of bringing God to life in the world—of being in the world as God would be in the world.

Religion at its best understands what Jesus understood, and lives so as to be God, to exhibit God, to disclose and reveal God, to incarnate God, in all of its relationships. Religion at its worst says, “If we give to God, God will give to us,” and sets up systems and schemes whereby rewards and blessings accrue to the adherents of religion at its worst if they are carefully faithful, believe the right things and make the proper sacrifices in the proper ways. There is a better way. A religion worthy of the title enables us to transcend the world without denying the world—enables us to live in this world in light of another world, enables us to bring to life within the systems and structures of this world the transforming reality of different way of doing things.

In the Bible this different way of doing things is called “the promised land” in the Old Testament, and “the kingdom of God” in the New. The promised land and the kingdom of God are characterized by the experience of right relationship in all relationships. People there are as concerned for the interest of one another as they are for their own. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” “Love your neighbor as you love yourself.” What becomes of our concern for personal advantage in that kind of atmosphere? It is replaced by an abiding interest in, and commitment to, the welfare of all people, even at the expense of our own.

The way of the world is not the only way. That is the foundational realization of good religion. Religion at its best brings the best to life in the world no matter what. Religion at its best does what is good whether that does any good or not. Religion at its best is not a way of getting what it wants from the world, but a way of giving what it has to offer to the world. Religion at its best stands at the threshold between worlds. It lives on the boundary between yin and yang. Its validity and vitality, its foundation and its life do not depend upon anything happening, or not happening, in this world of normal, apparent, reality. It is not interested in its own good. It doesn’t care about the odds or the advantages. Religion at its best brings God to life in the world for the sake of bringing God to life in the world.

In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, ‘Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.’ But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, ‘Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob for ever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.’ Mary said to the angel, ‘How can this be, since I am a virgin?’ The angel said to her, ‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.’ Then Mary said, ‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.’ Then the angel departed from her.(Luke 1:26-38)

We are all Mary the Virgin, carrying God in our womb. We are all Mary, the Virgin, bringing God to life in the world. There is more to life, and living, and being alive—there is more to us—than the on-going, never-ending work to accommodate ourselves to the world and the world to us. There is more to it than getting what we want, and keeping the world from taking it away. There is more to it than living to have the advantage, and gain the high ground, and have it made. We are the Mother of God! We suckle God! We tend and care for God! We watch over God, and nurture God to life in the world! And, we do that by the quality of our interaction with the world.

“You have heard it said,” says Jesus, “but I say unto you!” “You have heard it said, ‘An eye for an eye…’ You have heard it said, ‘Keep the commandments and make God happy so that you may be blessed and happy yourselves.’ You have heard it said, ‘Cover your bases, mind your manners and your P’s and Q’s, and straighten up and fly right…’ You have heard it said, ‘Watch your step so that God will take care of you.’ But, I say unto you: Live out of your heart and let compassion be your guide. Bring the qualities of God to life in your lives. Practice the art of loving presence in all situations and every circumstance. Be a reliable source of goodness in the world, so that all people find refuge in your company and are blessed by their relationship with you. And, if you are going to understand anything, understand this: It isn’t about being rewarded for your efforts. It isn’t about what you get in life, how much you have, or how easily things come to you. It is about bringing love to bear on the world around you. It is about generating goodness, and kindness, and peace. It is about bringing God to life in your lives so that when people are with you it is as though they are with God, and are with God, so that you and God are one.”

Monday, December 11, 2006

12/10/06, Sermon

“Somebody’s got to do something about these Romans!” That’s the underlying sentiment that lays the groundwork for “Unto us a child is born. Unto us a son is given.” We long for a deliverer only when deliverance is out of our hands. The child to be born becomes the hope of those who have no hope. Where is David the King when you need him most? Who will be Little David for us? Son of David? David without the excesses and deficiencies? When will the Deliverer come?

Whenever the Deliverer comes, he won’t be the Deliverer we have in mind. When he comes, he won’t come talking about the Romans. He will come talking about us. “Love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, and mind, and soul and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself!” How’s that for deliverance? How’s that for the solution to the Roman Problem? “Do unto others as you would do unto you!” How’s that for deliverance? How’s that for the solution to the Roman Problem? Deliverance is never our idea of deliverance. The Promised Land is not what we have in mind.

The Deliverer has us pegged. “You don’t need a child to be born,” he says. “A child wouldn’t do you any good. You wouldn’t listen to a child! You wouldn’t listen if someone should rise from the dead! You need ears to hear, eyes to see, a heart that understands. No child can give you that! You need to wake up, be aware, be alive! No child can do that for you! Your only hope is to be born yourselves, from above!” Which is exactly Jesus’ advice to Nicodemus, and to all of us (John 3:1ff).

We are at the point of deepening/broadening/expanding/enlarging the idea of the birth of the Christ into a metaphor encompassing all people, as the story of our own spiritual becoming—our own birthing, our own awakening. We trek to the manger, to the place of nondescript beginnings to behold the child who is beholding us. Who IS us, each one of us. We cannot mistake Jesus for the only Christ. You are the one! I am the one! The birth we celebrate at Christmas is our own birthing, our own becoming, our own awakening. As we come to the manger, we recognize our responsibility for our own spiritual growth, and for that of those about us. Those at the manger are responsible for the one in the manger. The baby in the manger cannot be separated from those gathered at the manger. Christmas Eve is about our birthing, our awakening and our responsibility for waking up, for being awake. We are advocates, guardians, for the babe we are, for the babe each other is.

There are two metaphors for visualizing what we are about that I would like for you to carry with you for the rest of your life. One is the scene from the movie The Miracle Worker, where Anne Sullivan is holding Helen Keller’s hand under the water pump, with water flowing over her hand while Anne makes the sign for “water” in Helen’s palm. Something happens. Helen “sees.” Helen gets it. Helen is born from above. Everything is transformed.

Hold that image in tension with the story of the blind men and the elephant. The blind men argue, debate, condemn each other to hell, and wage war (well, not really, but the logical implication of the story takes us there) because all don’t “see” the elephant in the same way. Nothing happens. No one is born from above. Nothing is changed.

The spiritual journey is exactly the distance from the elephant to the water pump. The blind girl “sees” water. The blind men do not “see” the elephant. There you are. Your work is cut out for you. It is the work of moving from not seeing to seeing. See?

“The message of the Messiah,” says Fred Craddock, “is that there is no Messiah.” No Messiah can do for us what must be done. The problem is not with the Romans. The problem is with ourselves. The problem is how we see the problem. What is The Problem? What is The Problem from which we need to be delivered? What would deliverance do for us? What exactly do we need? What does Jesus find lacking in the people? “They have eyes and don’t see,” he says. “They have ears and don’t hear.” They do not know the time of their visitation. They do not understand the central place of compassion in their lives. They are asleep at the wheel.
What we need is waking up. What we need are eyes that see, ears that hear, and hearts that understand. What we need is a perspective that takes itself into account, so that we see that what we see is limited by how we see. So that we see that our view of the good is restricted by, and to, what we think is good. Who can show us what we don’t want to see?

One of the things we don’t want to see is that the Messiah is not who we say he is. Jesus didn’t have it all figured out. Jesus was not the all-knowing adult among the two-year-olds on the playground. Jesus was one of us. More awake than average, and more vocal, but growing in awareness, and coming to see what he did not see just like the rest of us. The gospels present us with a beautiful opportunity to witness Jesus’ growth toward realization and enlightenment, and awareness. But, we generally miss it.

We take all the words in red, in those red-letter-editions of the Bible, at face value, and treat them as though they are equally valid across time and space. Over the course of his life in the gospels, and certainly among the differing views of his life offered by the gospel writers, Jesus is reported to have said and done things which are startlingly contradictory, yet, we gloss over the conflicts and string the accounts together in one smooth, un-rippled, reading. If we highlight the oppositional nature of what we find, we can spot the shifts, the transitions, the growth points in Jesus’ spiritual development over the course of the three, or so, years of his life the gospels discuss.

For instance, how do you square the Parable of the Prodigal, or the Parable of the Good Samaritan, with the Parable of the Foolish Bridesmaids or the Parable of the Net of Fishes? At what point in Jesus’ career did he tell each of the parables, and would he tell them all, in the same way, at the end of his life? How did Jesus’ idea of God change over the course of his life? Is God like the Prodigal’s father or like the King who kills the people who killed his son, or like the harsh task-master in the Parable of the Talents who harvests where he does not plant and reaps what he does not sow? Jesus’ view of God is hardly the same across the board. Do the differences suggest a shift in Jesus’ understanding of God? How comfortable can we be with the idea that Jesus’ understanding of God changed over time?

To suggest that Jesus changed his idea of the nature of God is to shock and appall those who think Jesus came fully developed from the Virgin Mary’s womb, and was The Teacher from birth, with nothing to learn about anything. ever. How do we come to think something about Jesus we don’t already think? How do we come to think something about Jesus that stands in stark contrast to what we already think? How do we get to the point of laying aside what we have been told to think in order to be able to think something else? How can we think about what we think about Jesus without running the risk of jeopardizing our eternal salvation and damning ourselves to the lava lakes of ever-lasting hell?

How does the church change its mind? How does the church say, “Boy, we were wrong about that! We’ve always been wrong about that! We can’t believe we were so wrong for so long about that, but we can’t deny it either! We were dead wrong about that!”? Once something is believed for a generation or two, it’s believed forever. You can’t un-believe something your ancestors believed. It’s to desecrate their memory to un-believe something they believed with all their hearts, and minds, and souls, and strength. If it was good enough for them, it’s good enough for us. If they believed it, it must be true. We’ll believe it, too.

The people who have told us what to think about Jesus have done an amazing job. They have told us what to think and told us not to think about our thinking or we’ll be damned forever with no hope of redemption. That’s powerful stuff. Voodoo can’t touch it for its power to bind us with its hypnotic spell of tunnel vision—of seeing, and hearing, and thinking, and believing only what we have been told to see, and hear, and think, and believe. We have been charmed by the best in the business, and think that if we think, it’s all over for us.

How do we break the spell? How do we cast off the charm? Who is going to kiss the frog, or the sleeping beauty, and bring us back to life? Who is going to wake us up? How do we get from here to there? Particularly, if we don’t see the need for making the trip? Who will deliver us? Good questions, don’t you think? How do we wake up when we have been hypnotized into being “very sleepy”?
In all the old stories, it takes a shock to the system to do it. Maybe it comes in the form of a vision, like the burning bush, or the call to Abraham. Or, maybe it takes the visit of a handsome young stranger, or a gnarled old wizard. Or, maybe it takes just getting fed up. Somebody gets a hankering for something different, something else, something more, saddles up and rides over the hill, and comes back to say, “Hey, you should see what’s over the hill!” And, some go with her, or with him, and some stay behind. And, what’s the difference between those who go and those who stay? We could speculate for days, and never get to the bottom of it. Some go, some stay. Some think about their thinking, some never do. Are we going, or staying, is the question.

Joseph Campbell says, “Either you can take it, or you can’t.” Take what? Waking up. Take waking up. Take being awake. Take seeing life as it is. Take seen it for what it is as it comes right out of the box. How do we do that? How do we see, and hear, and understand? How do we come by eyes that see, and ears that hear, and hearts that understand? How do we see that we don’t see? Hear that we don’t hear? Know that we don’t quite get it yet? Who can tell us what we don’t want to be told?

We are not in charge of our own awakening. We look, but we do not see. We listen, but we do not hear. We say, “Lo, here! Lo, there!,” but what we seek is neither here nor there. And, we cannot deliver ourselves from “this body of death,” from the world of the walking dead. But, we can be delivered. We hear some things no matter what our frame of mind is. Some things shock us awake regardless of the deadness of our spirit. Sometimes, we look without seeing; sometimes we see without looking. Sometimes, we are like the man on the ox looking for the ox; like the woman with her glasses on a chain around her neck, looking for her glasses. Then, “Boom!”, as John Madden would say, there it is. A gift of grace. We look, and nothing. We look again, and there it is. We are not in charge of the kingdom’s coming to us, or through us into the world any more than we are in charge of the seasons, or in charge of the hen’s laying, or the tomato’s ripening. But, we can buy a hen. We can plant tomato seeds, and water them. And wait, like babes in a manger to grow up and begin to see.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

12/03/06, Sermon

Let’s get some things out of the way. Here’s the first thing: What are the safe-guards? The standards? What keeps us from going over the edge? From stepping over the line? Where’s the child who can see that the emperor is wearing no clothes? Fooling ourselves is what we do best, you know. Shooting ourselves in the foot is what we do best. Talking ourselves into what we have no business doing, or having, is what we do best. What’s to keep us honest with ourselves and one another? What’s to keep us awake, aware? What’s to keep us from going to sleep at the wheel, or going to sleep with complete trust and confidence in whoever is at the wheel?

The history of religion is the history of people fooling themselves and being fooled. There is a sense in which the religion of our experience is the result of smooth talking and easy listening. Or, fast talking and slow listening. We have been sold things we had no business buying. Enough is enough. If we are going to create the church as it ought to be, there has to be a clear understanding among us regarding what’s what—regarding your role and mine.

As I stand before you and bluntly state what I see and how I see it, you have to take the position of Vance Arnold and say, “Wait a minute! Not so fast! Everybody can’t wear red shoes!” I can get by with defining myself as a radical Christian liberal who throws out the doctrines, and the dogmas, and the rituals, and the liturgy, and the Bible as long as you aren’t buying it. As long as you are saying, “Wait a minute! Not so fast!” The right kind of community has to be a place where any perspective can be spoken, but no perspective is revered as the last word in perspectives. The distance between where I am and where you are is the safe space that allows people to develop their own views and positions without thinking they have to see things as I do to be a part of things here. As long as you don’t buy what I’m selling, other people who walk into the gathering don’t have to buy it either, and can use the freedom of thought here to find their own way.

The way, you might say, is the way of right relationship between each one of us and the rest of us. We have to listen to ourselves and we have to listen to one another. And, we have to decide for ourselves what we are going to do, think, and believe. I am a part of the material you use to construct your own path. And, you cannot give me more of a place in the construction of that path than is warranted. And, who decides what is warranted? You do, and you had better be right about it.

In the recent past we have seen the power of guileless enthusiasm in the service of wacky ideas of God in the so-called “ministry” of Jim Jones, and Jim Bakker, and Jimmy Swaggart (Do you see a theme developing here?). David Koresh had his mis-guided followers, and the poor folks waiting to be taken to glory in the space ships following the comet had their mis-guided leader. And, it is the easiest thing in the world to take yourself, or someone else, too seriously. As the paid Declarer of Truth As I See It, it is my place to be outlandish. I have the responsibility of stretching your perspective, of challenging your assumptions, of broadening your horizons, of blowing your mind. But, you can’t take my word for anything, and you can’t let me get by with talking you into anything. Your responsibility is to say, “Wait a minute! Not so fast!”

If all you ever heard from me was nothing more than “the same old, same old.” If all you got from me were the clich├ęs, and the platitudes, and the maxims, and the tired old formulas, then one of you would have to play the part of the radical, mind-stretching voice. But, none of you is paid to do that kind of thing, and, if any of you began to do it, the rest of these good people would likely turn on you in a “who do you think you are” snarly kind of way to keep you in your place as member and not leader of the community.

The leader has to be the person who is paid to lead or things get ugly. The leader has to be the one who shakes things up. The leader has to challenge and confront and confound and call forth. The leader has to lead, and the followers have to follow, but the followers cannot follow too closely. The followers have to buck, and snort, and resist and ask questions for clarification and elucidation. Otherwise, things go too far in one direction or another and the wrong kind of community develops.

The right kind of community lives on the boundary between yin and yang. It fosters perspectives which take themselves into account. It does not require its members to sign a pledge of allegiance or a loyalty oath. It creates an atmosphere like that of a college dining hall, with groups of people scattered throughout the room, eating together, without thinking that their table is the only table and that all the others are unwelcome intruders, but also without thinking that everyone should be eating at the same table. The leader of the right kind of community is responsible for setting a clearly defined course, for stating bluntly what he, what she, thinks about a wide number of issues that are pertinent to the life of the community, and to the lives of individuals making up the community. And, the leader is respected and honored, but not taken too seriously. And, the leader doesn’t take himself, doesn’t take herself, too seriously, and does not take personally not being taken too seriously, but goes about the business of leading with the understanding that the community cannot follow too closely if it is to be the right kind of community, because the more narrowly the community allows itself to be identified and defined, the fewer people it will be capable of serving, and the less likely will be its chances of having any positive impact on the way life is lived in the world.

In order to have a chance at being the right kind of community, you have to know that you are here to find your own way and not to take up mine—or anyone else’s. If you take someone else’s word for it you lose the magic of your own voice, of your own thinking, and you get off the path with your name on it, and lose the way, and become lost among the bright lights everyone else is shining in your eyes, trying to show you the way, which is their way, as they shout directions telling you what to do and how to think to be as they are. But, you aren’t to become as they are. You are to become as you are. Yet, you aren’t to take your own way so seriously that you can’t receive instruction or insight from others. It’s a balancing act, a dance. And no one can tell us exactly how to do it. When to listen to whom? How to do what? All things come to those who wait, and watch. But, it is a special kind of waiting, and watching. It is a special kind of waiting and watching that involves nothing special. It comes down to “just sitting” with our ears, and eyes, open.

The spiritual discipline of “just sitting” will take you to the heart of things. When we “just sit,” things come up. Let them go, they continue to come up. The “10,000 things” pass before our eyes, pass in review. The vast majority of these things are static, the background noise of our lives. Some of them are the pertinent issues of the day, of the moment, which need to be attended and addressed. How to tell one from the other is a matter of listening to, of observing, our physical reaction to the thought. How does our body respond?

The body knows, you know. The body is our fail-safe guide to the issues that must be resolved. What is the physical sensation that is connected to the thought? What is the word that best describes the sensation? Tightness? Soreness? Choking? Nausea? Say the word until you find the right one, the one that fits exactly the sensation. Then, say hello to the word.

“Hello, Tightness.” And, invite it to speak. “What do you have to say?” And, listen. Wait, listening. Accept whatever comes without defending, justifying, excusing, or explaining. If what you hear is accusatory, say, “Something is fed up with the way I’ve been doing things.” And, wait, listening. Your role is to listen, accept, identify the emotional tone of what you hear, and create a loving, gracious, hospitable, receiving, space for what has to be said. Your role is to get to the bottom of things. Your body’s role is to serve as the doorway which carries you there.

You can “just sit” with a physical symptom. Treat the symptom as that which something is using to get your attention. Find the right word to describe what it feels like to have the symptom—what the physical sensation of the symptom is. Say the word, greet it, welcome it, ask it what it has to say. Wait, listening, accepting, welcoming, hearing it out.

And, don’t think you already know what it’s going to say. Don’t think you already know all about “the problem.” Listen, accept, welcome all the way to the core of what it has to say. Who is “it”? Not you. You are not “it.” It is not you. And language is important to keep you and it separate, not enmeshed. Do not say, “I am afraid.” Say, “Something is afraid.” Something is trying to get your attention, so address it as “Something.” Our place is to listen to what something has to say. We “just sit,” and listen, and clear the way to the heart of things by so doing. “Just sitting,” we know the truth and are free to do what must be done. If you are going to do anything, “just sit” in the right frame of mind. That is the power, the force, that transforms the world.