Sunday, November 25, 2007

11/25/07, Sermon

We have our intentions for our lives, our purposes, our goals, wishes, wants, desires. And then, we have our possibilities. There are the conditions within which we live, under which our intentions and desires, etc. are worked out. It is exactly here, in this clash between what we want and what we can have, that all of the important questions are answered: How contentious and combative will we be? How gracious and receptive? How hard and demanding? How soft and accommodating? How manipulative and controlling? How open and accepting? How war-like? How pliable? How masculine? How feminine?

The more adversarial and oppositional we are in relation to the things that meet us in life, the more hard and sour, bitter and brittle, we are apt to be. How do we deal with not having what we want? How do we know what to want? Every religion that I know of, every spiritual system for living in relation to the world in which we live, recognizes, in one way or another, that we can want what we cannot have, and we can want what we have no business having, and that “There is a time to be born, and a time to die…” And advises it’s adherents something to this effect: “If it don’t fit, don’t force it, just relax and let it go—just ‘cause you want it, doesn’t mean it will be so.”

Softness overcomes hardness, and force creates resistance. Jesus recommends the way of being a seed in the earth, yeast in the dough, light in the darkness, and tells his followers to “turn and become like children,” not warriors, or combatants, or even “Christian solders.” We live in relation to our lives much like a river lives in relation to its channel. The river takes the way that is open to it. The river cuts the channel and the channel shapes the river. Which is in charge, in control, in command, at the helm? It is the wrong question. And it is wrong to think that our lives are ours to do with as we will, or that we can make anything happen, or keep anything from happening, if we just try hard enough.

We belong to our lives as much as our lives belong to us. We are limited by the time and place of our living, bound to the possibilities and opportunities of the way things are. Our choices are our choices, and the consequences are the consequences. Our degree of “success” with life is as much about who we become through the process of living our lives as about what we make happen. How well we live is as much about who we show ourselves to be as about what we achieve, accomplish, do. The work of the Spirit is evident in things like “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, generosity, goodness, faithfulness and self-discipline”—which are possible for all of us within every circumstance and any condition of life.

What we do is colored by how we do it. The how is more important than the what. The who is our work which impacts the world. Our work is the work of being “at one” with the heart of creation. “Thou will be done!” It is the work of godliness, the work of being true human beings, the work of artful living—and allowing our lives to take shape around that. “Do your work, and step back,” says Lao Tzu, “the true path to peace.” How we say “No!” is as important as that we say “No!” How we say “Yes!” is as crucial as what we say “Yes! to.

We are stuck on the what, and think our lives are about arranging things “out there,” in the environment, to suit ourselves. We think we are here to fix things up, coordinate colors, eradicate poverty, and homelessness, and war, and institute something on the order of a grand society, where everyone can have happy little lives in the suburbs, or in the wilderness, or wherever their little hearts desire. And, of course, as we work hard at wishing the grand life in the suburbs and wilderness into being, we treat one another in the worst kind of way.

We are cold, and sniping, and harsh, and snarly. We talk about one another unmercifully, and insist that everyone do it our way or else. The How is the one thing we can do something about, but we throw it aside, and focus on the What. But, the What is not the glorious wonder we give it credit for being. The question is who will we show ourselves to be through the process of living our lives?

We can live as decent human beings no matter what our circumstances are. We can treat one another with acceptance, and respect, and goodwill, and loving-kindness regardless of our place in life or our living conditions. This doesn’t mean we will be best friends with everyone, or even like everyone. It means we can draw our lines with compassion and separate ourselves from those who are not good places to be with generosity and consideration. We can take up the practice of being decent human beings. We can be loving without being victimized and used.

Too often, love is just another weapon, or a carrot, we use to get people to do what we want. “If you want me to love you,” we say in a thousand ways, “you have to do it the way I want it done.” And, we say it sweetly, so we think it isn’t the same as saying, “If you are going to eat here with your feet under this table, you are going to cut your hair and get that ring out of your nose.”

Of course, we justify our actions by saying there must be rules, and standards of behavior, and limits, and boundaries. We have to establish what goes and what doesn’t go. And, that is true. We will not tolerate certain language, for instance, certain jokes, racial slurs, lying, stealing, physical or emotional abuse, etc. There are lines within which relationship can exist and beyond which it cannot exist. And, here we engage the What and the How in a different way.

Everything rides on What we take seriously and How we express that in our lives. What are the appropriate lines? How will we establish and enforce them? We can set limits in ways that are decently humane, and we can set limits in ways that are dehumanizing and brutal. To live well, we have to be aware of both the What and the How, and step with mindfulness into the service of each. That is, I think, the way of Jesus.

A case can be made for the life of Jesus being simply about What to take seriously and How to express that in our lives—about the limits and the way they were set in his world. Jesus lived to call into question both the What and the How. And, died in the service of his idea of what and how things ought to be.

Jesus’ words were directed to the Jews, not to the Romans. Jesus’ work was to reform the way the Jewish leaders were governing life among the Jewish people. He honed in on the central problem affecting the lives of the people—the temple tax. If you wanted to secure the blessings of God for yourself and your family you had to make the proper sacrifices and worship in the proper way in the temple. In order to be admitted to the temple, you had to be current with your temple tax. That’s a good deal for the temple and those who administer the affairs of the temple. That’s a bad deal if you are destitute, or living on the edge of destitution, or just have a hard time making ends meet.

If you couldn’t pay the temple tax, you were considered to be a sinner and cursed by God. It was a nice, tight little circle of reasoning. God blessed those who found favor with God, and cursed those who were sinful. If you could pay the temple tax, it was obvious that God looked favorably upon you. If you could not, it was obvious that God knew you were a sinner, which made you fair game for the righteous people of God.

We get a beautiful snapshot of this with the parable of the Pharisee and the publican, where the Pharisee thanks God that he is not like that publican over there. And, Jesus said it was the publican that God favored and not the Pharisee. You can imagine the impact that had on the Jewish social order. That was the thrust of everything Jesus did.

Jesus ate with sinners and tax collectors and prostitutes and the radically poor “people of the land.” Jesus forgave sins, and said that, in so doing, he was acting in the spirit and name of God. And, to top it off, Jesus healed people as if to give weight to his words, as if to validate his claim to be speaking and living in behalf of God. How could God heal sinners if they were out of favor with God? Not only that, but Jesus healed people on the Sabbath! How could God favor someone who deliberately broke the laws of God?

It was too much for the Jewish authorities to assimilate. They had to kill Jesus in order to restore their own equilibrium, and that of Jewish society. Jesus was executed for calling into question the What and the How. Radical stuff. Revolutionary stuff. It doesn’t get more subversive and iconoclastic than this. When we examine what we are doing and how we are doing it—when we question What is to be taken seriously and How it is to be expressed in our lives—when we scrutinize what we think ought to be done and how we think it ought to be done—we open ourselves to the possibilities. And, when we become aware of the possibilities, anything can happen, everything is on the table, and nothing is off limits. Which makes that the scariest place of them all to be, and the most fertile and alive. And that, of course, is exactly the place we need to be, for our sake and the sake of the world.

Monday, November 19, 2007

11/18/07, Sermon

It can be very difficult for the church to be the church. The church, you might say by definition, stands over against society and culture and the political structures of existence, by doing it the way it ought to be done. In the Bible, you have a clear view of how the church sees itself. There, you have “church” and you have “world,” with “world” being the catch-phrase for the way it ought NOT to be done.

The church has the inside track to the way things ought to be, and is to live in the midst of the way things ought NOT be in ways that call that way into question and exhibit the “ought to be” in all its relationships and transactions. Nothing is more solidly Biblical than the idea of a people called to a way of life that demonstrates explicitly the way life ought to be lived within the swirl of the way life ought not be lived. This is the calling and the mission of the church.

If you are going to send out missionaries, don’t send them out talking, talking, talking. Send them out living, living, living. The Mission is the same for us all: To demonstrate the way life ought to be lived by living that way, from the heart, in all of our relationships and transactions. Just go live among the people in ways that are right. That’s all there is to it. And the church has never done it very often, very long, very well.

The church has made a mockery of its mission. The church has lost the way, left the path, said “to the seers, ‘Do not see’; and to the prophets, ‘Do not prophesy to us what is right; speak to us smooth things, prophesy illusions, leave the way, turn aside from the path, let us hear no more about the Holy One of Israel.’” (Isaiah 30:10-11)

The people called to be the church have always wanted to do it the way it was being done in the culture and society within which the church is called to be the church. The people called to be the church wanted a king because the other nations had kings. The people called to be the church worshiped the Baal’s and the idols of their neighbors. The people called to be the church did it the way their neighbors were doing it. And, even when they did not, they didn’t do what ought to be done the way it ought to be done. Their hearts and souls weren’t in it. So, Isaiah could say, “These people draw near with their mouths and honor me with their lips, while their hearts are far from me, and their worship of me is a human commandment learned by rote” (Isaiah 29:13).

Jeremiah continues the theme with this pronouncement: “From the least to the greatest everyone is greedy for unjust gain; from prophet to priest everyone deals falsely. They have treated the wound of my people lightly, saying, ‘Peace, peace,’ when there is no peace” (Jeremiah 8:10c-11). Amos chimes in with these familiar words, “I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me your burnt-offerings and grain-offerings, I will not accept them; and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals I will not look upon. Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5:21-24).

Jesus makes exactly the same condemnation of the people called to be the church in his day. Jesus’ mission was the same as the mission of the prophets before him, the same as our mission, the same as the mission of the people called to be the church since people have been called to be the church, namely TO BE THE CHURCH! To do it the way it ought to be done in the midst of those doing it the way it ought not be done.

Jesus ate with prostitutes and tax collectors. He associated with those thought to be “sinners.” He forgave sins and told those burdened by the idea of their sinfulness that they were accepted and loved by God and by him. He healed on the Sabbath and broke the Law in ways that kept the spirit of the Law intact (Not a not an iota, not a dot, of that spirit did Jesus alter or ignore [cf. Matt. 5:18]). And, he called those charged with the oversight and administration of the church to repent and begin doing it the way it ought to be done. He said they were “white-washed tombs,” going through the motions of purity and obedience without their heart being in what they were doing.

And, they killed him for it, as they had killed all those before him who came doing what he did. So, he could say, at the end of his career, of his work, of his mission to BE the church: “Jerusalem, Jerusalem—the city that kills prophets and stones those sent to it…” (Matthew 23:37). And, it wasn’t long after that that the church failed, again, to be the church, failed, again, to do it the way it ought to be done, for the sake of what the church perceived to be its own self-interest, its own future in the world.

Here’s the thing: To have a future, the church must give up its future, just as Jesus did. The church has to live its life being the church, not so that it will have a future, but so that it will be the church. The future of the church depends upon the church living as though it has no future, as though it only has this moment right now in which to do what needs to be done, in which to live the way life ought to be lived.

The church has sold its soul for the sake of its future. Once its future is solid and secure, THEN it will be the church. Until then, it must be careful, guard its interests, cover its bases, watch its step, and hold its cards close to its vest. Does that sound like Jesus to you? Is that the way Jesus did it? Jesus never allowed the future to rob him of his present. He lived in the moment the way the moment ought to be lived, and let the future be the future. He took care of the present, and let the future take care of itself. "Do not worry about tomorrow," he counseled. "But let the day's own trouble be sufficient for the day."

That's much too radical and risky for us. And, once we shy away from radical and risky, we shy away from being the church. To be the church is to be radical and risky, and controversial. It is to be who Jesus was. It is to call a fox a fox and a white-washed tomb a white-washed tomb. It is to acknowledge what is real, and say what needs to be said, and do what needs to be done. It is to step into the political and social arenas. It is to address injustice, and unconsciousness, and abject wrong-headed-ness. It is to do more than tut-tut about racism. It is to sponsor dismantling racism worships. It is to see who is being left out of the process and invite them in. It is to say, "No! No! No!" to death in all its glorious guises, and "Yes! Yes! Yes!" to life in all its harshness and pain.

Just try that and pay the bills! The church cannot be the church and pay the bills. Jesus never got ahead, and probably couldn't make ends meet. The inheritance he left was the cloak on his back.

No Mega-Church is politically and socially corrective. Every Mega-Church knows which side its bread is buttered on, and plays to the preferences of its constituency. Every Mega-Church focuses on personal piety, individual salvation, and how to be a better person, which comes down to how to keep things as they are only make them better. Keeping things as they are, only with more prosperity, for instance, is very important. No Mega-Church upsets apple carts, rocks boats, makes waves, or calls the status quo into question. That kind of behavior wakes people up, forces them to confront their comforting illusions, disturbs and disorients them, and they will not have it. People will not pay you to tell them what they do not want to hear.

People do not want to wake up. They do not want to think about their thinking, believing, and doing. They do not want to question their assumptions. Change their minds. They want to settle into comfortable routines. They want to be lulled to sleep with gentle reassurance and constant repetition. They want to be told the same old, same old, with the same old hypnotic rhythm and cadence and inflection, so they can disengage, shift into neutral, and drift off into dreamland.
The church can't be the church without waking people up, challenging the status quo, calling attention to the gap between how things are and how things ought to be, saying what needs to be said and doing what needs to be done. But, who is going to pay you to do that? You see the problem.

If the church is going to be the church, it has to reduce its bills and swing for the fences. It can't be expanding its programs, and launching building campaigns, and buying busses. It has to be refining its vision, engaging reality, waking itself up. Which, of course, it cannot do. No one wants to wake up. Dreamland is the place to be.

So. The work of the church begins with working to be the church ourselves, working to wake ourselves up, working to bring the church to life in our own personal lives. And that means facing the truth of how it is with us, the truth of how things are in our own lives, the truth of how things really ought to be and the truth of how we feel about that, and what we wish were true instead, and confronting the difference between how we wish things were and how things truly need to be.

We do not often or easily go from the way we wish things were, the way we want things to be, to the way things truly need to be. The easy thing is to assume that things need to be the way we want them to be. But, that’s dreamland. That’s the place from which we are having to wake up. And this is exactly the work to be the church, confronting the difference between the way we wish things were and the way things truly need to be. It is the work of maturation. The work of being a true human being. The work of doing what ought to be done the way it ought to be done whether we want to or not, for the sake of how things ought to be.

Monday, November 12, 2007

11/11/07, Sermon

How should things be? Who is to say? There you have it: The Religious Problem. We all have different ideas about how things should be. We all have different ideas about who is to say. Who will referee the debate? We have different ideas about that, as well.

We can’t agree about what constitutes a successful life. Ideas abound. We go to war over differences of opinion about the way life should be lived. It comes down to being alive. What are the conditions required to be alive? What does it take to be alive? What keeps us from being alive? What limits our living?How do we think life should be lived? Our answers to these questions puts us in a certain position relative to the answers of everyone else to these questions. The happy truth is that we will not agree. How do we find common ground with those who disagree with us, and each other, about how life should be lived? How do we create a space that is big enough for everybody?

I don’t know how we find common ground. There has to be common ground. You can't put George Bush in a room with Osama ben Laden and expect anything but war. How do we reach accord with those who are diametrically opposed to all we think, believe, and stand for? Irreconcilable differences. We can be too far apart to have anything to say to each other. We could talk, for instance, about gay rights and privileges until we are dead with those who disagree with us and nothing will change. We have to recognize our incompatibilities and let them stand. How different can we be and still get along? We have to figure ways around the stand-offs. Blowing each other, or shunning each other, up is stupid.

Here is what it comes down to: There is the way things are, and there is the way we feel about the way things are, and there is the way we think things should be. Now, we create a lot of trouble for ourselves between the way things are and the way we feel about the way things are and the way we think things should be. Life happens in that space. We should be aware of it. As it is, we are not aware of it.

Life consists of the struggle in the space between the way things are and the way we feel about the way things are and the way we think things should be. We struggle with the way things are, trying to make them into what we want them to be, so that we can feel better about them. This struggle is the whole scope of life as we know it. It constitutes the essence of bad religion, the heart of which is feeling better about the way things are and arranging things to suit ourselves. We have made a religion out of feeling better and getting what we want, but it is nothing more than happy advice giving about how to feel better and get what we want.

All the happy advice-givers hand out suggestions for feeling better about our lives. We can manifest our destiny or let be what is. Either way, the outcome is that we feel better about our lives. We can’t manifest our destiny or let be what is and still be miserable. The whole point is to feel good about whatever is going on.

If we feel good, we don’t have a problem. If we don’t have a problem, we have no reason to seek out and listen to the advice-givers. Why would we care what they think if things are going well, we feel good, and have no problems? What could they give us that we don’t already have? Who needs advisors, then? In order to have a place in our lives, advisors have to find a problem with our lives, point it out to us in ways that make us feel bad, and then tell us what to do about it in order to live better lives and feel better about the lives we are living, so they can feel better about their own lives.

What would become of all of the advisors with no one to advise? All those who would save us have to have someone to save. We are too stupid to figure it out for ourselves. They have to tell us what to do. Where would we be without them? They need us to buy their books, listen to their lectures, ask them questions so they can write their advice columns in the papers. Where would they be without us?

It has become quite the industry, advice-giving. The self-help section of bookstores is twice the size of the religious section, unless, of course, it is a religious bookstore. But, even in religious sections and bookstores, most of the books, including the Bible studies, have a get-fixed-up-and-feel-better-about-your-life theme. It’s big business, fixing people up and helping them feel better about their lives.

It’s always been that way. It is the religious problem. We have given people religion to help them feel better about their lives. And, if we came upon a people who were feeling pretty good about their lives, we gave them religion to help them feel bad about their lives (Hell and Satan and Eternal Damnation, you know) so that we could give them more religion to help them feel good about their lives (Forgiveness and Deliverance and Redemption and Salvation and Everlasting Joy and Happiness, you know).

It would appear that we are witnessing the demise of religion, but it is really the proliferation of religion, bad religion. You can’t say religion has demised. Religion has mushroomed. Religion has morphed and mutated and multiplied. Religion is everywhere, it’s all over the place, you can’t get away from it. It’s taken over. Bad religion, that is. Official, Orthodox, Doctrinal Christianity has demised, but the heart of bad religion, the core, is as vibrant and healthy and present as ever. That heart is this: “Something is wrong with you. You need to be fixed. Just do what I say and you will feel better about your life. And, to keep the sound advice coming, be sure to buy my books, and my tapes, and make regular, hefty, donations to Feel Good Ministries. Amen. Can I have an Amen? Amen!”

We cannot feel good about our lives and be awake. Bad religion puts us to sleep. It’s a mess out there. You cannot possibly live with awareness and compassion in the midst of absurdity and feel good about it. If you do, you are sick, and should feel really bad about feeling good. How good you feel about your life is a marker indicating just how deeply into denial you are. If you are going to feel good about anything, feel good about how bad you feel.” We have to realize that how things are is the result of our trying to feel better about how things are by making them more like we think they should be. To make things better, we have to stop trying to improve them. We don’t feel better by making things different. We feel better by, well, feeling what we are feeling.

It’s like this: One of the great truths of our existence is that feelings change. We can make them linger, sometimes for the entire length of our lives, by nursing them, and nurturing them, and getting stuck in them, but, if we don’t do that, they change. We get stuck in what we feel when we become so enamored with it that we can’t let it go. Feeling miserable, for example, becomes a way of life. And we rehash without end the Awful Event that marked us forever and made us this way. Feeling cheery also can become a way of life, and we all have known the Polly Annals with their rose colored glasses and their propensity to look on the bright side of things and find the silver lining and encase themselves in denial behind their happy face. So, feelings don’t have to change, but they will if we let them.

We let them change by treating them like kindergarten kids. Nothing changes with the speed of the moods of a room full of kindergarteners. You can’t manage any of it. You just keep them from hurting each other and watch how fast their feelings change. That’s the trick in dealing with your own moods. Don’t do anything stupid in the grip of a mood, and watch it change. When you are in the grip of a mood, go sit down with it and a cup of coffee and let it rant—TO you, not THROUGH you. Big difference. You are just sitting with the mood, being with the mood, listening to the mood. You are there to get to know it in depth, and hear it out. Just like you might with a kindergartener who can’t go swimming because it’s raining.

You have to be with the mood for as long as it takes for the mood to begin to shift. This will probably be longer than you want it to be, but it will never be as long as you are afraid it might be. You cannot hurry a mood along just because it’s inconvenient or uncomfortable and you are ready for it to go. If you are miserable, for example, you have to be miserable for as long as it takes for your misery to subside, and to shift over into the next mood in line. When you are miserable, be miserable. When you are sad, be sad. When you are afraid, be afraid. When you are lonely, be lonely. When you are happy, be happy. When you are exuberant, be exuberant. When you are peaceful, serene, at ease, be peaceful, serene, at ease. Do you see the pattern here?

This is absolutely all there is to it. When you understand this, there is nothing left to understand. When you are hungry, be hungry. When you are tired, be tired. See? And, you thought it was hard. We make it hard by trying to NOT BE what we are, or by trying to ALWAYS BE what we are. We are always trying to push away or clutch something tightly to us. The key is to JUST BE with whatever is with us, to JUST BE what we are. And, to allow it to change as it changes. To let come what’s coming and to let go what’s going.

Where would the world be without the pathos of time’s passing? I think that is our primary gift to the world, certainly to the experience of life, noticing the coming and the going, opening ourselves to it, allowing it to come and go with awareness and understanding, patience and grace.

This is basic to the experience of life, essential to life. It is the essence of being alive as human beings. Noticing. Noting. Knowing. The going-ness of things. Even the coming is a going. Can we bear it? Can we bear the realization, the knowing, and the sadness, the pathos it engenders? Can we receive the moment in full recognition of what it is, gently, lovingly, as one might receive a new-born child, honoring the wonder of this that will not last? Can we be alive like that? Being alive like that is the common ground that makes life possible for us all.