Thursday, February 16, 2017

THE ART OF PARADOX IN THE PUBLIC & THE PRIVATE LIFE


In the Ancient World everything was a whole.
God was the ruler of it all.
Religion’s business was to seek God’s will
            in all things.
The modern world put God in smaller box.             
Most of life is entrusted to secular ideologies
            of politics, economics, and sociology.
Religion is relegated to the realm of
            our inmost personal feelings.

But occasionally someone notices that
the Bible is about the whole human project,
and Jesus did not restrict his  mission
to the private and the personal.
If you asked Jesus whether his teachings
            were about personal or political life,
            he would not have understood the question.
It was all one life.
Occasionally  someone tries to figure out Jesus public mission.

Reza Aslan’s book  Zealot portrays Jesus
            as a revolutionary concerned about the social,
            economic, and political condition of his people.
So, the argument runs, that he must have been
            part of the Zealot party,
            advocating a violent nationalist insurrection.

That runs against the modern God in a small box notion
of Jesus  as a heavenly minded spiritual teacher
            who either hadn’t noticed or didn’t care that his people
                        were an occupied, oppressed, and exploited nation
                        with the boot heel of Rome on their neck.

Responsible Biblical scholarship says both versions
            of Jesus are wrong.
Jesus was concerned about real social, economic, and political issues –
            but in a personal way, not with an ideology like modern politics
He was a revolutionary.
But he was not a Zealot working for a nationalist insurrection.
He was after a much more radical revolution than that.

Jesus knew that you can’t change the power structure of the world
            using the same violent methods that created
that power structure to begin with.
Revolutions, invasions, wars of liberation and so forth
            do not have a good track record in history.

Consider the story of Robert Mugabe.
He led the violent insurrection that ousted Rhodesian President Ian Smith
            and made Mugabe President of the new nation, Zimbabwe.
For 35 years he has ruled with an iron hand
            using military force and militias to protect his power.

Mugabe’s approach is the opposite of the way
            Jesus taught his followers to act in the world.
Turn the other cheek, go the second mile, if someone sues you
            for your coat give him your cloak too.
It sounds like giving up, being a doormat.
But actually Jesus was teaching a more human way
            of changing the structures of human life,
            a more personal approach than mere politics

New Testament scholar Walter Wink today’s explains today’s lesson
            as a clever form of mischief.
Our text, reasonably translated from it's context, says
if anyone strikes you on your right cheek,
            turn to him your left.
To strike someone backhand on the right cheek
            is how the master strikes the slave.
To strike someone forehand on the left cheek
            is how one strikes an equal to challenge him to combat.

If someone sues you for your coat he just gets your coat.
But if you give him your cloak too,
            you are standing naked in front of him,
            and in that culture the person who sees the nakedness
                        of another is the one who is disgraced.

The one who could make you carry his load for a mile
            was a Roman centurion.
He could press any civilian into duty carrying his pack for a mile.
But if the civilian carried the load one step further,
            the centurion got court martialed.
So carry the load an extra mile.
Jesus was teaching non-violent ways of resisting oppression.

Let’s compare Robert Mugabe’s violence
            that led to war and finally dictatorship
            with the story of Nelson Mandela.
In his book, Playing the Enemy, John Carlin says
            the peaceful transformation from apartheid
            to a free South Africa happened because of rugby.

It happened  this way:
While Nelson Mandela was in prison,
he learned some things that grew
            into his strategy for changing South Africa.
Mandela had a simple problem.
The food was all served at once in the morning.
So his evening meal was cold.
He wanted a hot plate.

But the Afrikaner guards wouldn’t talk to him.
Mandela had no way of getting his hot plate.
So he listened to the guards  to find out what they talked about.
It was rugby. Afrikaners are just obsessed with rugby –
            which is why Black South Africans hated rugby,        
            had nothing to do with it, and knew nothing about it.
But Mandela had library privileges.
So he devoted himself to learning everything
there was to know about rugby.

Using that knowledge, he enticed the guards
            into talking with him – not about his concern –
                        but about what interested them – rugby.
Before long he had his hot plate.

That was the beginning of Nelson Mandela’s new way
            of dealing with people.
He made it his principle to treat every human being,
            friend or foe, with basic dignity and respect.
When people were opposed to him,
            Mandela’s response was curiosity.
He wanted to understand their viewpoint.
What did they know that he didn’t?
He assumed they were children of God
            and people of intelligence,
            so there must be something in what they say.
He wanted to understand it.

His old revolutionary friends were confused.
They were as hell-bent on a bloody civil war
            as the Afrikaner militias.
He had to engage them in conversations
            which were sometimes harder than his conversations
                        with the Afrikaners.
But he kept at it.
And he won them over.

Over a course of years,
he built personal relationships, something akin to friendships,
            with the Afrikaner power structure
            starting with the prison guards and working his way up
                        to the President, F. W. de Klerk.
That’s how Mandela changed South Africa.

If case a story from Africa is too far away,
            let me tell you one from our own history.
After the Republican Convention of 1860 nominated
            Abraham Lincoln for President,
            his political rival Edwin Stanton stomped out, saying,
            “I will have nothing to do with that gawking ape.”
Lincoln’s friends said, “Don’t worry. When you’re President,
            you can destroy him.”

But when Lincoln took office,
            he appointed Stanton as Secretary of War,
            the most important and powerful post in the government.
When people said to Lincoln, “What are you thinking?”
he said, “If I make my enemy into a friend,
                        have I not destroyed my enemy?”
When Lincoln died, it was Stanton who placed the coins
            on his eyes, and said,
            “Now he belongs to the ages.”

Now is this about how we practice our politics
            or how we live our personal lives.
Moses, Jesus, Mandela, and Lincoln saw it all as one life,
            a life guided by God’s ways.

Jesus’ mission was to overthrow the ways of the world,      
            the violence, coercion, one-up-man-ship, and greed.
He wanted to overthrow it all and replace it with God’s ways.
God’s ways belong in our homes and in the public square alike.

The problem isn’t religious people engaged in public life.
The problem is people carrying a religious banner
            but abandoning God’s ways for the world’s ways
                        when they enter the public square.
Frankly, we are all too ready to practice the world’s ways
            in our private lives too.

But it’s all one life.
It’s all God’s life.
Jesus taught us how to live it.
He showed us the way.
And thanks be to God
            people like Lincoln, Mandela, Martin Luther King,
                        and so many of the saints
                        have shown us it isn’t just a dream.
It is a good way to live, a winning way to befriend each other,

            and a powerful way to change the world.

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

THE PERILS OF NECROPHILIA


“I have been half in love with easeful death,”
            the poet John Keats wrote.
“I have been half in love with easeful death.”

It is an honor and a pleasure to speak to seminarians
            to whom we will entrust the future of the Church
            if we choose to have a future.
I am especially pleased the Gospel lesson speaks to
            a subject that is of great importance to us – necrophilia.

“I have been half in love with easeful Death,
 Called him soft names in many a mused rhyme
 To take into the air my quiet breath.
 Now (2017) more than ever seems it rich to die.”

My concern isn’t the sexual kink of intercourse with corpses.
The great psychoanalyst Erich Fromm said that the sexual perversion
            is rooted in a deeper, more widespread, and dangerous
            character disorder that is all too fond of death.
Fromm called it characterological necrophilia.
It corresponds to Freud’s teaching that we are torn
            between the life force of Eros and Thanatos,
the impulse toward death.
My old Buddhist teacher, Chogyam Trungpa,
called it “Setting Sun Mentality.”
He meant when you look at a painting of a sun hanging
            half-way over the horizon,
            you assume it is setting instead of rising.
We see this attitude in our Gospel lesson.

Jairus asked Jesus to heal his daughter,
            but the people at Jairus’s house sent Jesus a message,
            “She’s already dead. We don’t need you here.”
Despite them, Jesus insisted on going.
At the house the mourners were weeping and wailing,
Jesus said, “She is not dead. She is only sleeping.”

There are linguistic clues to when Jesus is using a figure of speech
            rather than speaking literally.
The best reading of this text is that when Jesus says,
            “She is not dead. She is sleeping,”
what he actually means is:
            “She is not dead. She is sleeping.”

We might think this would be good news.
But that was not how they took it.
The old translation is stronger and more accurate. It says:
            “They laughed him to scorn.”
These mourners did not want Jesus
            raining any sunshine on their parade of grief.

You may not believe this now.
But after you’ve made a dozen death watches
            and called on enough grieving families,
            you’ll see it’s true.
The friends and neighbors gather to offer consolation.
It is a good and holy thing.

But if you look a 16h of an inch behind their sorrowing features
            you’ll see something in them
that is enjoying this a little too much.

There is a seductive quality to grief.
Remember the scene in Monty Python and the Holy Grail
            when Lancelot’s squire has been shot.
Lancelot launches into a soliloquy about avenging his death,
            but the squire interrupts, “I’m not quite dead yet.”
Lancelot vows to avenge his squire who lies mortally wounded.
But the squire says, “Actually, I’m feeling much better.”

This cultural love of death, according to Freud and Fromm,
            is the psychological breeding ground of racism,
            genocide, war, totalitarianism and a plethora of social ills.
It is a short step from laughing Jesus to scorn
            to nailing him to a cross.
A cultural bias toward death
            leads us into deeply troubled political waters.
  
Christians -- as followers of the Lord of Life,
            the one who breathed life into Adam,
            who set before Israel the choice of life or death
                        and commanded them to choose life,
            who sent his son that believers should not perish but live –
Christians are on the side of life.
We are against death.

That is what makes our current ecclesiastical necrophilia
            so out of character.
Academics, clergy, and church journalists
            are posting obituaries of the Church on every doorpost.
They persist despite Robert Putnam’s book American Grace
            showing that that their grim statistic are misconstrued.

They write about life cycles of congregations
as if churches are all fated to die in a matter of decades,
            though we know full well the world has churches
            that have been around for centuries,
            having their ups and downs.
but not doomed by any deterministic timeline.
There is a new clergy specialty in euthanizing congregations.
I assure you, any fool can kill a church.
The art, the wisdom, and grace are in stirring up
the energies of life and mission.

More and more parish clergy
            are getting certified as hospice chaplains.
Dispatching dying individuals is simpler
than a nurturing relationship with a living community.
Ministry to the dying is a holy and worthy calling.
But, this is my one appeal to you seminarians,
            if your basic clergy identity is Charon ferrying people
                        across the River Styx,
            then be a hospice chaplain and keep away from the Church.

In Nevada, our urban parishes are growing.
Our rural parishes are holding steady,
            but demographically, they are getting younger.
We are serving those in need and aggressively engaged
            in broad-based community organizing
            for social justice advocacy – important causes we are winning.
I don’t say this to brag – just to show you that Deuteronomy is right.
We have some choice between life and death.
Perhaps we are “half in love with easeful death.”
But Jesus calls us to life – abundant life.

If the Church were just a social club and not the Body of Christ,
            the continuing Incarnation in a broken bleeding world,
            then choosing to die needlessly might be our own business.
But, as it stands, we are feeding the characterological necrophilia,
            the Thanatos Syndrome, the Setting Sun Mentality
                        of our wider culture.
We are doing it at a time when racism, homophobia, xenophobia,
            warmongering, totalitarianism, and all the manifestations
            of the death wish are running amok --
a time when the environment that sustains life
is under radical attack.
We are not choosing death for our Church alone
            but for all those people God loves so much
            he gave his only son that they might live.

So, if you will indulge me, I’ll close with a gospel story
            especially for you.
An old man who loved his Church stopped Jesus on the road and said,
            “My Church is dying. Come lay hands on her and she will live.”
Jesus joined the old man and headed toward the Church.
But those keeping the death watch outside the church door
            sent a journalist who stopped Jesus on the road.
He handed Jesus the obituary – it was a print out from a blog post –
 and said, “Do not come here, Jesus.
The Church is already dead. We don’t need you.”
But Jesus kept on going.

Outside the church door,
            he found some bishops, priests, and a few seminary professors
            all weeping and wailing that the Church was dead.
Jesus said, “Friends, don’t cry. The Church is not dead.
                        She is only sleeping.”
But the bishops, priests, and seminary professors
            laughed Jesus to scorn.

That’s when Jesus looked a 16th of an inch behind
            their sorrowing faces and saw that
            something in them was enjoying the Church’s death
                        a little too much.
So, Jesus turned his back their self-indulgence.

He marched into the church house
            bold as brass, as if he owned the place, and said,
            “Talitha cum! Talitha cum! Talitha cum!”