Giving Up Respectability for Lent (Mk. 10.42-44)

Jeremy Rutledge, Circular Congregational Church

February 11, 2018

 

In the photo

he walks

and hollers

one hand

raised

the other

holding

a drum.

 

He is not

alone

we walk

with him

but he is

one

of a kind.

 

For years

he spoke

drummed

sang

and prayed

on the streets

of our city

in the field

where

our brother fell

outside

the church

of our Charleston

martyrs.

 

Now he joins

his music

to the song

of the ancestors

whose voices

were always

at his back.

 

He was more

in tune

with these

vibrations

than the

measured beats

of convention

and he did not

answer

the status quo

but something

more sacred.

 

The old poet wrote,

“If a man does not

keep pace

with his companions,

perhaps it is because

he hears a different

drummer.

Let him step

to the music

which he hears,

however measured

or far away.”[1]

 

Our brother

not only heard

a different drummer

he was

a different drummer

and the memory

of his life

still beats

for freedom.

 

Rest in power,

Muhiyyidn.

You walked

unafraid.

 

This morning we gather for Mardi Gras Sunday, which is a time we are meant to celebrate and sing and join a frivolous parade before we begin the contemplative season of Lent. It’s a Sunday we look forward to every year because it is more fun than other Sundays. We dance. We wear paper crowns. We throw beads. And we’ve done those things today. But we also begin by naming that for some of us the service feels a little like a second line, a New Orleans-style funeral for our brother, Muhiyyidin. We learned just this week of his death in New Orleans. And we have been grieving deeply for this man, who was the voice of the Black Lives Matter movement in greater Charleston. Muhiyiddin was a friend to many of us, and he was no stranger to this place.

We remember him at the back of the sanctuary talking to James Cone. We remember him upstairs in the Wingard Room leading a drum circle. We remember him talking with us in the churchyard, telling truths in the presence of the ancestors. And, of course, we remember walking with him in parades. Standing with him at protests. Hearing him speak, voice full of anguish, anger, compassion, and clarity. He had a message. And let’s be clear that not everyone wanted to hear it.

The Black Lives Matter message has never been respectable to the status quo. And it makes little difference whether it was Colin Kaepernick taking a knee or Muhiyyidn d’Baha picking up a bullhorn, the pushback to the Movement for Black Lives has been fierce. But someone once said that prophets are never honored in their own homes. And to take the side of the suffering has never been respectable. So as we remember our brother, let’s remember and celebrate that he was not interested in being respectable. He was interested in more than that.

This fits well within the context of our jazz service because the music we are listening to this morning is not respectable music. In her novel Jazz, Toni Morrison calls it lowdown music. Jazz played songs “that used to start in the head and filled the heart [and] dropped on down. . .Lower and lower, until the music was so lowdown you had to shut your windows and just suffer the summer sweat. . .”[2] Jazz got people moving, it was the music of all their lived experiences improvised into a song so visceral and true that you felt it in your limbs. It was an embodied song. It contained within it all the spirituals and the blues, but also the present moment, for jazz always responds to where it is, and so no jazz performance is like the last one because no day is like the last one. It’s the same with us this Mardi Gras Sunday. Today’s music has some blues in it for our brother. And something cathartic and inspired.

Muhiyyidin was a rabble-rouser. He was a troublemaker. He was an agitator. But those aren’t my words about him. Those are Martin Luther King’s words about Jesus. For every prophet that comes home gets called those things. King certainly knew it. And he spoke of it in one of his last sermons, “The Drum Major Instinct,” delivered just two months before he died. You may be familiar with that sermon, but if you are not, I commend to you a collection of King’s writings entitled The Radical King, edited by Cornel West. The book is a beautiful volume of the least respectable things King ever said. If you read it, you will hear a brother marching to the beat of his own drum, which is what he was talking about in the sermon.

Dr. King took as his text Mark Chapter 10, and we’ve read from that today. In it, Jesus’ students James and John are competing for who might sit at his side in a place of honor. King referred to this as the drum major instinct. On some level, he said, “We all want to be important, to surpass others, to achieve distinction, to lead the parade.”[3] This is a feature of ego that we each possess, and we should look within ourselves to examine it before we rush to judge James and John. King then expanded on the drum major instinct and how it affects our lives, our relationships, our nation states, and even our religious institutions. Too often we want to get ahead at the expense of others. The drive of ego becomes twisted and misshapen. Yet our faith teaches something else.

Jesus had a different valuation of greatness, something far less conventionally respectable. According to King:

He said in substance, “Oh, I see, you want to be first. You want to be great. You want to be important. You want to be significant. Well, you ought to be. If you’re going to be my disciple, you must be.” But he reordered priorities. And he said, “Yes, don’t give up this instinct. It’s a good instinct if you use it right. It’s a good instinct if you don’t distort it and pervert it. Don’t give it up. Keep feeling the need for being important. Keep feeling the need for being first. But I want you to be first in love. I want you to be first in moral excellence. I want you to be first in generosity. That is what I want you to do.”[4]

Jesus transformed the situation by giving a new definition of greatness. As the old author of Mark adds, “whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant.”[5] Which is a powerful word for us as we look toward the season of Lent.

At the heart of the gospel lies a song that is not respectable. Jesus came at the wrong time in the wrong way to the wrong people. His religion embraced those at the margins and defied social and cultural boundaries. Just think of his kin-dom: fishers, women, children, tax collectors, lepers, prostitutes, enemies, outcasts. . . And who gave him the hardest time but religious people? Even so, he sang a song of liberation, and he invited everyone to lay down their need for respectability, to transform the drum major instinct so that it served not the one, but the many. In King’s own powerful conclusion:

If you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice. Say that I was a drum major for peace. I was a drum major for righteousness. And all of the other shallow things will not matter.[6]

But the shallow things are so respectable. And conventional music always pleases the crowd.

It’s an invitation to ask, this Mardi Gras Sunday, as we move into the season of Lent: What will we give of our own lives that contributes to justice, peace, and righteousness? What respectability will we risk to stand with black lives, immigrant families, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer people, and the peacemakers of the earth? What will we learn when we move beyond our small egos to embrace a greater whole? What music will we hear if we really attune ourselves to this moment?

The questions, of course, are not rhetorical. They ask a sacrifice. But, oh, what they offer in return. Let us follow their drumbeat together.

Amen.

 

[1] Henry David Thoreau, Walden (Boston: Beacon Press, 2004), 305.

[2] Toni Morrison, Jazz (New York: Vintage International, 2004), 56.

[3] Martin Luther King, Jr., “The Drum Major Instinct,” in The Radical King, edited and introduced by Cornel West (Boston: Beacon Press, 2015), 254.

[4] Ibid., 261.

[5] Mark 10.43b, New Revised Standard Version.

[6] King, “The Drum Major Instinct,” 264.

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Living Like There are 4-Year-Olds Watching (Lk. 2.41-47)

Jeremy Rutledge, Circular Congregational Church

January 28, 2018

 

Last weekend I read an Op-Ed that was better than any sermon. It appeared in the Saturday edition of The New York Times, and it was written by a favorite author, Pulitzer Prize-winner, Viet Thanh Nguyen. It was entitled, “What I’ve Learned from My 4-Year-Old.” I’d like to begin with a short excerpt of Nguyen’s essay. He writes of the way his consciousness has changed under the gaze of a young boy:

. . .I took a walk after dinner. . .with my wife and son, and a man pushing a shopping cart loaded with his belongings asked me for the box of leftovers I had in my hand. I hesitated. It had half a pizza that my son would surely demand as soon as it was bedtime, but I gave it to the man, along with $2. My wife observed that I would not normally do such a thing.

But I had been doing such things whenever my son was with me, rolling down the window of my car when he was in his Batman car seat behind me, so I could give an old man on the median a dollar. I wanted to teach my son a lesson about generosity, and I wanted to be, in his eyes, a kind person.

He is cognizant and curious about morality and ethics, at the level of preschool behaviors, parent-child negotiations, apocalyptic superhero conflicts and science fiction wars. As most parents would, I have tried to teach him about giving, sharing, listening and empathy. And yet in my own life, away from his gaze, I have sometimes failed in all those respects.[1]

Nguyen’s essay is beautifully confessional in that he simultaneously shows his best and worst sides, naming the struggle to become the kind of person his son thinks he is, even when his son is not there. It got me thinking, both as a parent and a person of faith, about who I am when my own son is not watching, about who any of us are when we think the children can’t see. In my case, as in Nguyen’s, there is nothing particularly damning about the question. We’re both relatively good people, probably not that terrible when we’re alone. Only perhaps a bit more selfish and a bit less charitable, more likely to think or speak angrily, not as inclined to examine our behaviors and ask ourselves, as we constantly do when our children are around, how something might look or sound and what example it might set.

I smiled all week as I held Nguyen’s essay in mind. I realized how pleasant it was to pretend that my son was always sitting next to me while I wrote, or was a member of the committee I was attending, or was listening as I called my representative, or was reading the newspaper over my shoulder and hearing what I muttered in response. And I smiled because some years ago there was a fad in Christian circles involving the letters WWJD, which were meant to represent the question: What would Jesus do? I never much cared for that question because people seemed to simply project their own desires onto it and then justify whatever it was they were already doing or not doing. This week I wondered how nice it would have been if the letters were WWYDIAFYOKWW: What would you do if a 4-year-old kid were watching? It’s a better question, honestly, and one we’re far less likely to use to justify anything we feel like. For when kids are watching, we are aware of their gaze. We know they are taking everything in. If we cuss the bullies, why wouldn’t they? If we can’t put down our screens, why should they? If we eat and drink in unhealthy ways, why won’t they? If we don’t mediate or pray, why will they? If we don’t work for justice and peace, why should they? And so very quickly they become our teachers. Under their gaze, we look at ourselves differently. Just ask Viet Thanh Nguyen. “While our religions instruct us to behave ourselves,” he writes:

I find that my son teaches me, too, even as I teach him. What have I learned from our relationship this year? That we must believe in what is good and right, without demonizing those that we oppose; that we must fight for what we believe in, without recourse to hate or insults; that we must give, in ways great and small, to distant organizations and the people we meet face to face; that we must connect to others who believe as we do, and grow our values and our organizations; that we must write and read what is meaningful, and ignore the morass of public opinion and media-induced emotions.[2]

All of these are lessons the Pulitzer Prize-winner took from the 4-year-old in the Batman car seat. Yet they are all so true. And it makes me wonder what the world would be like, or at least what our own world in church or at home would be like, if we simply lived every moment as if a 4-year-old were watching.

We have few stories of Jesus as a boy. Most of the gospel narratives move quickly from his birth to the beginning of his public ministry. The church year does, too. The space between the Christmas season and the Easter season always seems so short to me. One minute Jesus is born and the next he’s meeting John the Baptist, being tempted in the wilderness, and walking off toward the end of the story. Wait, I always wonder. Where is his childhood? Where are those, “happy, unrecoverable days” to use Tolstoy’s language?[3] But we only have them as a whisper. Funny thing is, the spare portrait we get of the boy Jesus is that of teacher. He’s not quite a 4-year-old in a Batman car seat, but he’s the next best thing. Listen to this.

In the second chapter of Luke’s gospel, we are told of a time Jesus’ parents took him to Jerusalem for the Passover festival. In the story, he is twelve, still a child but only just. Even so, he’s too young to do what he does, which is get lost, causing his parents to panic when they start back home and realize he isn’t with them. They return to Jerusalem, look everywhere for him until they find him in the temple instructing the old ones in the ways of faith. He is, the text says, surrounded by teachers, listening to them and putting questions to them. And they are amazed at his intelligence and insight, smiling at the prescience and wisdom of his answers.

Here we might just pause and give a shout out to every child who has ever put questions to his or her Sunday School teachers. In a recent conversation with Tyler Ung, our new Director of Children’s Education, I asked him about his own spiritual formation as a boy. He offered some beautiful impressions of growing up, but one, in particular, stuck with me. He remembered, all these years later, a time when he asked a question in church and felt that his question wasn’t taken seriously. I don’t know if he was 4-years-old, twelve, or somewhere in between at the time, but he was watching his teachers. And he picked up right away when they treated him like a kid. It underscored what philosopher Gareth Matthews once wrote, that all too often when it comes to children, we devalue “their thought, their sensibility, their experience, and the works of their creation.”[4] To the extent that we devalue these things in children, we devalue them in ourselves as well. So it is refreshing to hear the opposite in our sacred stories. Jesus as a boy was taken very seriously by the adults in the room. He went into the temple presumably to sit at their feet, after which they sat at his. If only the rest of us could learn to do the same.

We can only imagine that the boy Jesus taught things that were childlike versions of what he would teach later in life, a vision that never lost its imagination. It was always the kind of thing that was safe to teach to children. Well, sort of. In her memoir of childhood, Annie Dillard once asked if grown-ups had ever realized how “wildly opposed” the Christian vision really was to their world.[5] Because the Christian vision always operated as if 4-year-olds were in the room. It was Montessori religion at its best. Use your words. Share what you have. Cooperate with others. Be creative. Sit in circles of inclusion. Listen to everyone’s stories. And judge choices but never people. Some choices are healthy, some choices are harmful, but every boy and girl is good at heart and can learn to make more healthy choices than harmful ones. Isn’t that the gospel in a nutshell? And doesn’t it run counter, sometimes, to our violent culture that demeans and devalues people and the earth day after day?

The beauty, of course, in language both Montessori and Christian, is that we can always try again. And it matters not if we have a 4-year-old or if we just remember being a 4-year-old. In either case, we can tune in to our original impulses of kindness, fairness, compassion, and generosity. We can remember the power of words to soothe and heal. We can rejoice in the stories we tell and retell, preferably at bedtime. We can commit ourselves to living in peace together, managing our strong emotions through art, play, exercise, through laughter and tears, but never violence. We can eat snacks, take naps, and be good to our bodies. And God knows we can switch off our screens. We can go for a walk in the woods or on the beach and get a sense of our smallness against the world’s wonder. Living like 4-year-olds are watching, or like we are watching ourselves, is very good living indeed. And it may be the key to our moment. “If we all do this,” Viet Thanh Nguyen reminds:

. . .perhaps we can change our country, even in the face of entrenched power, the oligarchy of billionaires, the fear and hatred of those who feel powerless. It will take years to stop the tax cuts and the environmental assault, and it make take forever to stop our forever wars and to dismantle racism and patriarchy. But we can stop the moral and political degradation. We can say: Me, too, or I support you. We can say: Enough. We can say: What can I do?[6]

And these things will be easy to remember. If we ever forget, we can just reread Luke Chapter 2. Or write WWYDIAFYOKWW on our hand. Or find a kid in a Batman car seat and ask. For we are their teachers, and they are ours. Today friends, let us embrace this truth and live within it.

Amen.

 

[1] Viet Thanh Nguyen, “What I’ve Learned from My 4-Year-Old,” The New York Times, January, 20, 2018, accessed online at https://www.nytimes.com/2018/01/20/opinion/sunday/what-ive-learned-from-my-4-year-old.html.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Leo Tolstoy, Childhood, Boyhood, Youth (New York: Penguin Classics, 2012), 54.

[4] Gareth Matthews, The Philosophy of Childhood (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1995), 123-124.

[5] Annie Dillard, An American Childhood (New York: HarperPerennial, 1988), 134.

[6] Nguyen, “What I’ve Learned from My 4-Year-Old.”

bumper sticker, Kailua, Hawaiʻi

 

In the Belly of the Beast (Jonah 3.1-5, 10)

Jeremy Rutledge, Circular Congregational Church

January 21, 2018

 

Last week friends in Hawaiʻi received an emergency text message on their phones. It warned of an incoming ballistic missile strike. This is not a drill, it read. As we now know, the message had been sent in error, but a follow-up message was not sent for 38 minutes, during which time Hawaiʻi residents waited for the end of the world.

I read the news and was badly shaken by it. I reached for the phone and called my old friend Charles, just to hear his voice. He told me what it had been like to receive the message. His husband had gone to an early meeting in Honolulu and called home. They said goodbye. Aloha. And they waited. Other friends, Charles said, simply went outside. They knew there was nowhere to hide.

When the news came that it had all been a false alarm, Hawaiʻi began to breathe again. But hundreds of thousands of people had all had a near death experience. And they lived to tell about it. Certain destruction was at hand and then it passed. I hung up the phone with Charles, his voice still ringing in my ears. I have cried off and on all week since.

In part this is because Hawaiʻi is so dear to me. The place that was under threat is my original home place, and to me one of the most beautiful places on earth. And the people there were my earliest friends and teachers. So what was at risk was something deeply personal to me. Yet I was also so shaken because it brought something to the surface that I have been increasingly worried about. What scared us all, I think, was the idea that a nuclear war had become plausible once again. When people in Hawaiʻi received the emergency text message, it confirmed something they had already imagined. In a moment of heightened tension between the U. S. and North Korea, when both of our nations are governed by vain and impulsive men, many of us have lost sleep over the renewed likelihood of a nuclear conflict.

This is not something we talk about much in my experience, though we have lived with it my entire life. It is something that our church has taken a stand on, in the 1980s, in particular, when we joined the call for a nuclear freeze.[1] During the height of the Cold War, when our town was home to a ballistic missile submarine base, Circular joined the call for an end to the arms race. Not many churches have, then or now. But the threat never went away, and we have been reminded of it once again. Just last week, after the false alarm in Hawaiʻi, The New York Times reported on the newly proposed Nuclear Posture Review, which would expand the list of scenarios in which we would launch nuclear weapons to include things like cyberattacks on the U. S. and also create new classes of smaller nuclear weapons deemed more usable by military planners. Andrew Weber, a former assistant defense secretary in the previous administration, said if the new policy is adopted, it will “make nuclear war a lot more likely.”[2] So these are scary times, friends. And it’s not always easy to know how to live during days like these. We want to be honest about where we are. We want to tell the truth and raise the alarm. And we also want to live meaningfully and well, to experience the joy of each day and not have all of it stolen by worry.

We were trying to do just that on one of our family movie nights last year. I had been worrying about the U. S. and North Korea, and, rather than trying to run from my worry, I selected something to help us laugh in the face of it. In a masterstroke of either really good or really bad parenting, I dug out an old copy of Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 classic, “Dr. Strangelove, or: How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love the Bomb.” The film was Kubrick’s attempt to get us all to start thinking about the risks of nuclear war, but he knew that if he made something as serious as the subject no one would watch it; it would be too much to take. So he made a comedy. It works thanks to the brilliance and improvisation of Peter Sellers, who plays an everyman British captain, a deadpan American president, and a warped German scientist, the mania of George C. Scott, who is militarism personified, and the rodeo clown drawl of Slim Pickens, who by all accounts never really knew that the film was a comedy. And it also works because, as critic David Bromwich writes, “A constant strength of the movie is the way that incidents, characters, or particular lines of dialogue straddle the boundary between the fantastic and the all too real.”[3] It is this quality, I think, that proves cathartic. We laugh at the absurdity of the film and, while we are laughing, realize that this is the world we live in. Or as Bromwich says, “it prompts a kind of laughter that may lead us back to thought.”[4]

I hadn’t really considered watching “Dr. Strangelove” as a spiritual practice until the past week, when its humor helped me with my own anxiety. My son does a really good impression of Peter Sellers as the U. S. president on the phone with the Russian premier warning him of an accidental nuclear attack. “Well, let me finish, Dmitri. Well, listen, how do you think I feel about it?” His impression makes me laugh every time. And it conjures an image of the scene in which it was shot, which took place in a cavernous underground war room. The set that Kubrick had built was “100 feet by 130 feet, with a ceiling 35 feet high,” near to pitch black with a circle of fluorescent light above the hapless president and his generals.[5] It looked like the belly of the beast. So when I glanced at the lectionary texts this week, with Hawaiʻi and “Dr. Strangelove” in mind, I was almost comforted to see the Book of Jonah there.

Jonah is considered one of the 12 so-called minor prophets in the Hebrew Bible. These aren’t the big ones that everyone’s heard of like Isaiah and Jeremiah; they are the smaller books like Nahum, Habakkuk, and Malachi. Yet Jonah is significantly different from the other minor prophets in that it is almost entirely narrative. Rather than the usual series of oracles, Jonah tells a story. And, according to Hebrew scholar Ehud Ben Zvi, it is a story that “uses humor and elements of satire and parody” as its didactic forms.[6] It teaches us through a story that is, in many ways, ridiculous. Surely Stanley Kubrick would have understood. Because when we laugh at Jonah we are laughing at ourselves.

Our reading is drawn from Chapter 3 of the book, but it might help to remember the entire story. It’s a short story, only four pages in my Hebrew Study Bible, and it goes like this: Jonah is called to prophesy and runs from the call. He tries to escape by sea, but the God character is angered and stirs a storm on the waters. The crew become worried and Jonah explains what is happening, at which point they all decide that throwing him overboard is the only way to calm the storm. They do, he sinks and is then swallowed by a great fish. Yet in the belly of the beast Jonah does the strangest thing. He sings. And his song is a song of praise to the God that saved him. Afterwards, the fish spits him out, the people hear his prophetic message, and they all change. This happens in Chapter 3. “The people of Nineveh believed. . .They proclaimed a fast, and great and small alike put on sackcloth.”[7] God saw what they did, we are told, and had a change of heart. “God renounced the punishment [that had been planned]. . .and did not carry it out.”[8]

This is one of the most powerful changes of heart in our sacred stories. God, who had threatened to destroy a people who were living in wicked ways, saw them change and so God changed, too. The text implies that God hadn’t wanted to do it, anyway, and was quick to call it off. The story should have ended there, but its satire continues. Jonah, for his part, is angry at God for not carrying out the punishment. He seems to have been rooting for destruction. What is wrong with him, we may wonder. At which point we realize we are asking what is wrong with all of us?

For we live in a world with a great appetite for destruction. According to Eric Schlosser in his book Command and Control, the U. S. now holds approximately 4600 nuclear weapons.[9] Russia has nearly as many at perhaps 3700. Which is to say nothing of France, the United Kingdom, China, India, Pakistan, Israel, and North Korea. A new arms race is underway and there can only be so many false alarms. Schlosser’s book is a documentary history of half a century’s worth of accidents and near misses. To read it is to spend 500 pages in the belly of the beast. Which might not be a bad thing. Just ask anyone in Hawaiʻi if we should be taking this more seriously. Ask Stanley Kubrick, whose classic film raised the question. Ask your own heart, when you climb into bed at night, lying in the dark like Jonah. How might we respond to this moment? How might we challenge our most destructive impulses? What new song might we sing?

I think the only thing we can do is sing a different song. Jonah, in the belly of the beast, did not sing a song of despair or cynicism. Yes, later he turned out to be a bit of a pill because the old Hebrew author wanted to have some fun and leave us with a few questions. But in his darkest moment, Jonah sang a song of love and praise. He gave thanks for his life and for its many gifts. He sang of the mystery that held and saved him. He grounded himself in the life that he had, even though the water was deep and his future uncertain.

I wonder if we might learn to do the same. For we have been living in the belly of the beast for a while now. Our country is wicked in all the ways the prophets spoke against. We neglect the poor, we fatten the rich, we make war and worship money and power, turning our backs on what is truly sacred. And we are called, like Jonah, to speak a different word. We can run from it, as he did, but ultimately we’ve all got to decide which song we’re going to sing. Will we hum along with culture and convention? Or will we sing something subversive and satirical? Will we make fun of ourselves as the author of Jonah did, asking what is wrong with us that we would live this way? Maybe we could even learn to sing the God character’s song, saying we don’t want to destroy it all, anyway. We want to save it. We want to savor it.

It’s not an easy thing to do, I know. But sometimes when we sing in the belly of the beast, the song is so heartfelt that it spreads. Today, in our time, may it be so with us.

Amen.

 

[1] Joanne Calhoun, The Circular Church: Three Centuries of Charleston History (Charleston: The History Press, 2008), 121-122.

[2] David Sanger and William Broad, “Pentagon Suggests Countering Devastating Cyberattacks with Nuclear Arms,” The New York Times, January 16, 2018, accessed online at https://www.nytimes.com/2018/01/16/us/politics/pentagon-nuclear-review-cyberattack-trump.html.

[3] David Bromwich, “Dr. Strangelove: The Darkest Room,” June 28, 2016, posted at The Criterion Collection website, accessed online at https://www.criterion.com/current/posts/4119-dr-strangelove-the-darkest-room.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ehud Ben Zvi, “Introduction to Jonah,” The Jewish Study Bible, ed. Adele Berlin and Marc Zvi Brettler (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), 1198.

[7] Jonah 3.5, The Jewish Study Bible.

[8] Jonah 3.10b.

[9] Eric Schlosser, Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Incident, and the Illusion of Safety (New York: Penguin Books, 2014), 476-477.

 

Whose Side Are We On? (Matt. 2.1-12)

Jeremy Rutledge, Circular Congregational Church

January 7, 2018

 

Last June I stepped onto a Berlin sidestreet and passed through an archway into a quiet courtyard. No one was there, but a sign announced the Gedenkstätte Deutscher Widerstand, the German Resistance Memorial Center.[1] I had gone by myself, leaving my family picnicking in the park. I suppose it was a pilgrimage. I opened the door to the Resistance Center and ascended two flights of stairs. A woman met me there, and we had an awkward conversation in halting German as I learned that the center’s exhibition rooms were self-guided. She showed me how to access the English version of the tour and I was off.

The center was as quiet as the courtyard. I walked through rooms alone, hearing the boards creak beneath me. The rooms detailed the rise of fascism in Germany, the consolidation of power, the subversion of democratic norms, and the complicity of political and religious leaders. I visited every room, but there was one, in particular, I had come to see. Room 5 was entitled “Resistance Out of Christian Faith.” It contained images of the pastors, women religious, and laypeople, who resisted the Nazis out of conviction as followers of Jesus. When I entered the room, I took a deep breath. I was sorry to see how small it was.

A few figures were familiar. The German theologian Karl Barth, for example. And the pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer, whose quote was prominently displayed. “Step out from fearful hestitation,” it said, “into the tempest of events. . .”[2] But the rest of the photos showed people I had not known. I read their names. Gertrud Luckner. Rupert Mayer. Elisabeth Schmitz. Hermann Stöhr. Katharina Staritz. And their stories. They hid Jews, they forged documents, they spoke out against what their government was doing. Many were sent to camps for what they did in conscience.

I was deeply inspired by these examples, and I walked out of the center in a pensive mood. It wasn’t that long ago, I thought, that people in the city where I stood had to make a choice. Whose side were they on?

It has long been said in political and philosophical circles that anytime one brings up the Nazis an argument is automatically lost. They are evil straw men, we are told, and to fall back on that time reflects a certain laziness of thought. Yet after spending time in Berlin, I wasn’t so sure. The few Berliners with whom I spoke suggested there was much to be learned from recent history. And they meant there is much for Americans to learn in the context of our moment. No one suggested that the U. S. had become a fascist state, but everyone warned that it didn’t take much for democracies to slip away. It had happened many times, Germans said. It could happen anywhere.

Yet I was also thinking of the role of faith. How was it that the vast majority of German Christians went along with things? So many were silent. So many did nothing. Why was there only a single room of Christians in the Resistance Center? You could learn all their names in an hour. And what might that mean for us, we who live in a tumultuous time? I don’t have to tell you that no sooner did I get home than Nazi flags were waving in Charlottesville and our president was again trying to ban Muslims from the country. The majority of our churches, I think, have been as quiet as German parishes all those years ago. Well, except for a few.

Sadly, the most public statement made by American Christians last year may have been what was called the Nashville Statement.[3] The Nashville Statement was put together by a coalition of conservative Christians calling themselves the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood. They released the statement in August to a flurry of media attention. In its Preamble it stated, “Evangelical Christians. . .find themselves living in a period of historic transition. . .Western culture. . .has embarked on a massive revision of what it means to be a human being.”[4] The statement goes on to say that human identity, including gender and sexuality, are fixed according to a divine plan, and that no variation is permissible. What follows are 14 articles of belief, almost all of which have to do with sexuality, affirming heteronormativity and denying any place for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or queer people. It may be the most deeply homophobic and transphobic document I’ve ever read. And it was released to the media as a “Christian” document.

What struck me when I read it was how little it had to do with Christianity. There was hardly a word about Jesus, who never mentioned sexuality, or his way, which was deeply concerned with the oppressed and the marginalized of his and every time. There was no hint of love or compassion, no word of welcome in the spirit of faith, no good news in a document that claimed to be evangelical. Rather, it was a kind of rulebook, laying out a single right way to be a person. If there was a fascist form of faith, then the Nashville Statement was it.

This is a kind of American Christianity that I’ve known my entire life. I have grown weary, at times, of defending myself against it. When people learn I’m a pastor, they still often assume the worst. I have conversational strategies to quickly defuse their assumptions and let them know that I’m safe and friendly, which is a sad thing for a Christian to need to do. It is, as my old professor Jerry Stone said, “If the first rule of nature is eat or be eaten, then the first rule of culture is define or be defined.” As Christians in this moment, we have got to define ourselves. We can’t let the Nashville folks do it for us. Yet there is another town that could help.

At November’s gathering of the American Academy of Religion, another statement was developed. It was called the Boston Declaration and its Preamble was quite different. “As followers of Jesus,” it began, “the Jewish prophet for justice, whose life reminds us to, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’. . .we declare that following Jesus today means fighting poverty, economic exploitation, racism, sexism, and all forms of oppression from the deepest wells of our faith.”[5] The Boston Declaration went on to articulate a clear and bold vision of Christianity for this moment. And far from being homophobic and transphobic, its embrace of all was part of the point. Listen to the declaration’s answer to the question, “Who is our God and what is the Jesus way?”:

We believe in a God who holds all difference within God’s own life and in whom there is no one or no people who are distant from God’s justice, merciful love, and presence. . .We affirm the beauty and humanity of all people in their manifold difference—race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, and religion—as reflecting God’s image through lives of love and hope.

We believe the Jesus Way calls us to the possibility of living in a world where all can love and be loved, and live into joy.

The Jesus Way continues through our best, prayerful, honest, and empirical attempts to understand why and how the world has come to be in the shape it is today. This pathway calls us to act in ways that are Spirit-led and strategic in confronting evil wherever evil exists, to combat ignorance wherever ignorance has led people astray and to place our lives and our bodies on the line with whoever is being threatened, beat down, or oppressed in any way, anywhere.

As followers of Jesus. . .who preached and lived Shalom, and who offers the gift of jubilee to the world, we mourn the coarseness of our politics, the loss of compassion for those in need, the disrespect we routinely show each other, and the thoughtlessness with which we use and abuse our planet. We especially mourn the way in which the name of Jesus has been used to support and encourage actions and attitudes that demean others and threaten the community of creation.[6]

The Boston Declaration moves beautifully from saying who we are to who we are for, spelling out whose side we are on, and asking others to join us. I say us because I was proud to add my name, and I invite you to go online and add yours. But I also say us because the scholars who wrote Boston Declaration wrote it with another declaration in mind, one that is a part of our UCC heritage. In 1934, a few German Christians, including some of our Evangelical and Reformed forbears, wrote what was called the Barmen Declaration. It didn’t have a formal Preamble, but was written quickly and to the point. “In view of the errors of the ‘German Christians’ and of the present Reich Church Administration,” it said, certain things had to be confessed.[7] Then it broke with the Nazis completely.

Above all, the Barmen Declaration was a call to conscience. It said that Jesus was the sole authority for the church, not culture, convention, and certainly not political leaders and ideologies. And it asked, in essence, for Germans to follow the Jesus Way in their time and place. The authors of the declaration knew exactly what they were asking and at what cost. Yet as Dietrich Bonhoeffer and others would later say, what was gained far outweighed what was lost. “Freedom,” he said.[8] That was the Jesus Way.

It was an epiphany of sorts. Which is why I brought it forward today. Because an epiphany is the raising of something to consciousness, in our case the question of what kinds of Christians we are to be and whose side we are on. Yet the story is as old as our faith itself. On Epiphany Sunday we remember that when Jesus was born, when his way was just begun, the ruler of the age sought to destroy him. He hadn’t uttered a teaching, hadn’t told a single story, before Herod sensed the threat. Magi came from far away, Zoroastrians following the stars, and they gave him gifts to honor him. In so doing, they put themselves at risk and had to go home by another way. It’s a metaphor for our moment. And a question for our faith.

Whose side are we on this year? The king’s or the baby’s? Which statement will we make, Nashville’s or Boston’s? What faith will we claim, the quiet retreat into comfort or the bold public signing of our names? And who will hear what we say? Will the powers that be hear it and come for us? Will those on the margins hear it and feel loved and cherished? Will our own hearts hear it and feel proud and free as Bonhoeffer said?

Each of us must answer for ourselves. But there is an answer. And we don’t need to go all the way to a quiet courtyard in Berlin to make it. The cobbled streets of Charleston will do. Whose side are we on? they ask. Here and now.

Amen.

 

[1] See the Gedenkstätte Deutscher Widerstand English language website. Accessed online at http://www.gdw-berlin.de/en/home/.

[2] German Resistance Memorial Center Foundation, Resistance Out of Christian Faith, ed. Ute Stiepani, Julia Albert, and Johannes Tuchel, (Berlin: Gedenkstätte Deutscher Widerstand, 2015), 10.

[3] Holly Meyer, “Evangelical Leaders Issue Nashville Statement, a ‘Christian Manifesto’ on Human Sexuality,” The Tennesseean, August 29, 2017. Accessed online at: http://www.tennessean.com/story/news/2017/08/29/evangelical-leaders-issue-nashville-statement-christian-manifesto-human-sexuality-lgbt-gay-marriage/611756001/.

[4] See the Nashville Statement. Accessed online at: https://cbmw.org/nashville-statement.

[5] See the Boston Declaration. Accessed online at: https://thebostondeclaration.com.

[6] Ibid.

[7] See the Barmen Declaration at the United Church of Christ website. Accessed online at: http://www.ucc.org/beliefs_barmen-declaration.

[8] Resistance Out of Christian Faith, ed. Stiepani, Albert, and Tuchel, 10.

 

A Revolution of Values (Luke 1.46-55)

Jeremy Rutledge, Circular Congregational Church

December 17, 2017

 

In the Black Theology Unit at the American Academy of Religion, Michelle Alexander addressed a room that was filled to capacity. People sat in the aisle and leaned against the wall to hear her. Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow and Visiting Professor of Social Justice at Union Theological Seminary in New York, has become one of the leading prophetic voices of our times. For years, she has told the truth with a passion and clarity like few others. The crowd leaned in when she spoke.

Alexander offered some prescient thoughts on the state of the country and the role of people of faith in the freedom struggle. She responded to panelists and took a few questions. But there was one thing she said rather off the cuff that got the room going. Responding to a question about church, she said, “But if church is anything, ought it not be rehearsal for revolution?”[1] The room erupted into a chorus of Amens and Mmm-hmms. Because every person there understood how revolutionary the Jesus story really was.

To be clear, the revolution to which Alexander referred was nonviolent. She did not mean a call to arms. Rather, it was a revolution of values that the church ought to be a rehearsal for. In church, we gather to stage the world the way we’d make it if we could. We would treat each other equally and arrange ourselves in egalitarian ways. We would welcome all without judgment or condition. We would share what we have, giving to each as they had need. We would forgive each other as we would hope to be forgiven for our many shortcomings. We would lay down our swords and our violent words and thoughts and commit ourselves to living peaceably together. We would put the children first and say that the kin-dom belongs to them. We would put ego in its proper place, at the margins, not the center of the story. The revolution would begin inside of us. That is where it would be born. Shouldn’t church, Alexander asked, be the place where that happens?

Michelle Alexander was not offering a Christmas mediation, but it began to sound like one. Because every Christmas we rehearse the most revolutionary story of all. That an impoverished, refugee family gave birth to a baby who would challenge an empire—well, who would challenge all our empires—with his egalitarian vision. He would grow up to break all the rules, offending religious leaders and disturbing political officials. His people would not be the powerful, but those who had no particular power. He saw them as his sisters and brothers, called them the very children of God, spent his time walking with them, talking at tables and wells, telling stories and saying that inasmuch as we have shown kindness to the least, then we have shown it to him; inasmuch as we have loved our neighbor, we have loved the very mystery we call God. Talk about a revolution of values.

We come to Christmas every year sometimes barely aware of what we are saying or doing. We dress our children as shepherds and sheep. The choir sings “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear,” “For Unto Us a Child is Born,” and “O Come All Ye Faithful.” We tear up at the candles and the memories, but do we pause to hear what is really being said and sung? Do we hear what Jesus’ mother herself said, sang to him before he was born? He heard the words. How about us?

. . .Mary said,

“My soul magnifies the Lord,

     and my spirit rejoices in God my

             Savior,

for [God] has looked with favor on the

     lowliness of [this one] servant.”[2]

She recognized that her place in society did not determine her value. And she sang of it to her son:

“[God] has shown strength. . .

has scattered the proud in the

             thoughts of their hearts. . .

brought down the powerful from

     their thrones,

and lifted up the lowly. . .

has filled the hungry with good

     things,

and sent the rich away empty.[3]

Every year we read this as if it is a gentle song. We read it as if it might soothe our minds. As if it might go down smoothly in a country where child hunger is an epidemic, millions live without the basics, and a tax bill now stands to redistribute wealth to the very richest in our society. Indeed, America today reads like an inversion of Mary’s song. We lift up the powerful and push down the lowly. We put more food on the table of the well-to-do while taking it from those who haven’t had a meal in days. We send the rich away richer and tell the poor and the hungry and the homeless to pull themselves up. You may have read that just this week a United Nations report revealed that 41 million Americans meet the definition of living in extreme poverty.[4] We are now a nation of the people Mary was singing about.

God favors the vulnerable, she sang, but empires never do. Thank God, we sing, that our lord was not a lord at all, not a king of any kind, but a commoner. When he was born, he sang his mother’s song, too.

As will we if we choose to follow his way. Which is what Christmas is all about.

There is a reason we listen for Mary’s song during the darkest time of year. There is a reason we join our voices in singing it. And there is a reason so many of us come to church these days, filling the room to capacity. . .

We want a revolution of values.

This season let us make a place for that revolution in our hearts.

Amen.

 

[1] Author’s notes from “Michelle Alexander and Walter Fluker: The Mystical Prophetic in Black—A Special Look at Mass Incarceration and the Black Lives Matter Movement” at the American Academy of Religion, Boston, Massachusetts, November 18, 2017.

[2] Luke 1.46-48, New Revised Standard Version.

[3] Luke 1. 51-53, NRSV.

[4] Ed Pilkington, “A Journey Through a Land of Extreme Poverty: Welcome to America,” The Guardian, December 15, 2017, accessed online at https://www.theguardian.com/society/2017/dec/15/america-extreme-poverty-un-special-rapporteur

 

 

 

 

The Song in Our Hearts (Ps. 100)

Jeremy Rutledge, Circular Congregational Church

November 26, 2017

 

In April 1845, the great philosopher William James delivered a lecture to undergraduates in Harvard University’s Holden Chapel.[1] His lecture title was a question that caught the students’ attention before he even began to speak: “Is Life Worth Living?” To ask the question was more than a little blasphemous. Harvard was a religious college, its students convinced not only that life was worth living but that there were prescribed ways in which it must be lived. They were, no doubt, full of the certainty of youth and optimistic about their futures. But James was in a different place. He had lived through a number of difficult experiences, including a long struggle with depression, and so the question for him was more than academic. He wanted an answer to the question of whether life was worth living, knowing that it was oftentimes challenging. And he wanted others to search for an answer alongside him.

What was striking about the lecture was the answer he arrived at. Through thoughtful exposition, James did not answer that yes, life was worth living. His philosophy was imbued with ambiguity and he had too many examples of suffering to settle in to the conventional wisdom that life was worth living simply because others said so and it was impolite to press them any furher. Yet he also did not answer that no, life was not worth living. For his own life had been filled with adventure and passion, he found it deeply meaningful, and he couldn’t reduce it to a simple series of events or cold cosmic chance. But if James couldn’t offer an absolute yes or an absolute no to the question, then what could he offer to the undergraduates as he spoke to them in the chapel? He answered with a beautifully conditional maybe. Maybe, James suggested, life was worth living if we were to live it in a certain way. For James, that meant waking to life, ambiguity and all, and throwing ourselves into the deep risks and adventures of living. As philosopher John Kaag explains, it was “the ardent, yearning attempt to make good on life’s tenuous possibilities.”[2]

John Kaag would know something about James’ answer. In his book, American Philosophy: A Love Story, he weaves the philosophy of William James and other American thinkers like Emerson, Peirce, and Dewey into his own personal narrative. At an earlier point in his career, Kaag found himself at a particularly painful place. Unsure how to answer the question of his life’s meaning and worth, Kaag stumbled into an old library in the New Hampshire woods. The library had belonged to William Ernest Hocking, the former chair in philosophy at Harvard, and it contained thousands of extremely rare books. They had belonged to all the thinkers Kaag had spent his life studying, and many of the books had been written in by the likes of James and his contemporaries. As he read the books and their margins, Kaag found himself in a kind of conversation with his philosophical heroes. And I won’t spoil the book for you, except to say that the summons he received was to embrace his lived experience, to take it for the chance it was. Every time Kaag went to the library, he came out again to look at the world and his place in it with fresh eyes.

I heard John Kaag talk about his experience at last week’s gathering of the American Academy of Religion in Boston. A small group of us in the pragmatism seminar stayed late one evening for his lecture — 30 or 40 out of the 10,000 students and scholars in attendance, we squeezed into a small room and peeled off our overcoats and scarves. As Kaag spoke on life’s meaning, a surprisingly neglected question in both philosophy and the liberal arts these days, he grew animated and alive. Citing James’ ideas on making good on life’s possibilities, Kaag said that our experiences should be life affirming for us, not in the abstract, but in the emotional tenor of our individual lives. We should take from our experiences a learning — we should embrace this learning, examine it, and put it to use in the cultivation of our lives. There was a kind of joy in Kaag’s voice as he spoke. He was answering the question of whether life was worth living as James had, with a maybe, but that maybe was shot through with a faith in what our lives and the lives of others might still become. Of course life may be worth living. If we live it to the fullest.

In his essay “What Makes a Life Significant,” William James described the challenge to living fully and admonished his hearers to take action. What was wrong with the world, according to James, was that an “irremediable flatness” had taken it over. “Bourgeoisie and mediocrity,” he said, “are taking the place of the old heights and depths” of experience.[3] The world was lacking in zest. People were sleepwalking through the days, unawake and unalive. And his call was that of the old prophets. “Divinity lies all around us,” wrote James, “and culture is too hidebound to even suspect the fact.”[4] He then called his hearers to more thoroughly examine their own lives, to see and listen to other people, to marry their ideals with their actions, and to listen deeply to their consciences calling them to wake up and live with intention. He put it poetically, saying that life can be significant, it can be well worth living, if we listen to the nightingale of its meaning singing in our hearts.

John Kaag heard James’ call. And his lecture was a heart song if ever there was one. At the end of his time, the song resonated and carried over into the question and answer session. (I might just add that if you haven’t been to a Q & A with 40 philosophers, they’re really fun.) Many philosophers put their hands up, but the question that caught the room’s imagination involved Kaag’s understanding of transcendence in life. How did he define that term and understand it? Kaag thought about the question for a moment and said that the problem with transcendence was that people were tempted to think of it as other, as far away, as fundamentally different from. But “it’s always already right there,” he said.[5] It’s so close that you can’t see it. Like this, and then he rushed to the front row, took both hands of the closest professor listening, and looked deeply into his eyes. It’s this. Right here the whole time. Always already here. We just don’t stop to notice.

For a moment the room fell silent and everyone smiled. One or two old professors wiped their eyes. And all I can say is that there was a great joy in the room. Maybe life really was worth living, we thought, and maybe its meaning was so close and so accessible that the discovery of it came as a great surprise. This is the scene I thought of when I opened the lectionary reading to Psalm 100 this week. Because Psalm 100 is a song of jubilation; it is the nightingale’s song of its own author’s heart. The old Hebrew poet believes very deeply that life is worth living and he sings as much, but taken as part of the psalms as a whole, we know that there is a depth to what he is saying. Throughout the Book of Psalms, we find psalms of lament, psalms of disorientation, and psalms of searching and confusion, not unlike James’s struggle with the highs and lows of his own lived experience. Yet in the midst of it all, the old psalmist sings with such strength that his song is infectious.

“Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth,” he begins. “Worship the Lord with gladness, come into [God’s] presence with singing.”[6] And the song continues by grounding our lives in relationship, gratitude, and steadfast love. It’s a song of such zest that I’m sure even William James could have sung it. There’s nothing bourgeois or mediocre in its lines. Rather, the psalm sings the highs of life, its great adventure, leaving the lows to other psalms in the collection. But it’s the boldness that stands out. It’s the risk of singing loudly enough that everyone else can hear. Which is an act of faith.

The psalmist sang that we should come into God’s presence. James wrote that divinity lies all about us. Kaag said that it’s close enough that we can take it by the hand. And we say that maybe they are right. Maybe life is worth living, is worth more than we can say, if we were live as if in the presence of divinity in every moment. But this ideal requires action. Its song is both praise and sometimes protest.

Before we left Boston, an unusual thing happened. Hundreds of scholars took a public stand. In what is now called the Boston Declaration, they called our country to affirm that life is worth living by making choices that support and sustain life, promote human joy and flourishing, and protect and care for the earth and our children. The declaration is too long to read to you in its entirety, but I’ll include it in this week’s newsletter. For now, listen to how it begins:

As followers of Jesus, the Jewish prophet for justice whose life reminds us to “Love your neighbor as yourself”. . .we hear the cries of women and men speaking out. . .we commit ourselves to following Jesus on the road of costly discipleship to seek shalom justice for the least, the lost, and the left out. We declare that following Jesus today means fighting poverty, economic exploitation, racism, sexism, and all forms of oppression from the deepest wells of our faith. . .God asks us to make a decision: “Today I offer you the choice of life and good, or death and evil. . .Choose life.” Following Jesus today means choosing life, joining the Spirit-led struggle. . .[7]

It’s surprising how much the statement sounds like a song. Because page after page, you can hear philosophers and theologians answering with James’ maybe. Maybe life is worth living if we answer with the song in our hearts. A song that sings of more than our own lives, but of all lives, which we believe are inherently valuable.

What strikes me about the Boston Declaration is how countercultural its song is. Choosing life in this moment of death, choosing hope in this moment of despair, and choosing depth in this moment of the superficial, is to sing something truly subversive. And what inspires me is how many people hear the song. The nightingales in our hearts sing of life’s meaning in this moment. Our work is not only to listen for the song, but to join it.

Somehow I think that William James would approve. Or the psalmist. Or anyone who believes that maybe life really is worth living if we live it boldly, to the fullest.

Amen.

 

[1] John Kaag, American Philosophy: A Love Story (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016), 3-9.

[2] Ibid., 9.

[3] William James, “What Makes a Life Significant,” in The Heart of William James, ed. Robert Richardson (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2010), 168.

[4] Ibid., 170.

[5] Author’s notes from John Kaag’s lecture at the meeting of the American Journal of Theology and Philosophy and the Institute for American Religious and Philosophical Thought at the American Academy of Religion, Boston, Massachusetts, November 19, 2017.

[6] Psalm 100.1-2, New Revised Standard Version.

[7] The Boston Declaration, accessed online at https://thebostondeclaration.com

 

 

Finding Wisdom in Hard Times (Wisdom of Solomon 6.12-16)

Jeremy Rutledge, Circular Congregational Church

November 12, 2017

 

I am struck by a scene from an old Preston Sturges film called “Sullivan’s Travels.” The premise is nearly perfect: a Hollywood director, wanting to make a movie about hard times, and realizing he has never suffered, dresses in ragged clothes and rides the boxcars with the down and out. He is seeking to learn through experience, which is one of the definitions of wisdom. But he isn’t very good at it.

Finding himself out of luck and out of money, the director, played by Joel McCrea, walks into a diner near the railroad tracks and orders a cup of coffee. A woman’s voice from the other side of the room interrupts and tells the cook to make it a full breakfast of ham and eggs. The woman, played by Veronica Lake, sits down next to Joel McCrea and becomes his guide for the rest of the film. In many movies of the period, the starlet was something of a sidekick to the lead male character, but not in “Sullivan’s Travels.” Rather, Veronica Lake is the only character who is unflappable. She is wry and wily, but also curious and adventuresome. She won’t let Joel McCrea go it alone, and ends up leading him, though he seems unaware of it most of the time. It’s a comedy with a social conscience, but it’s more that that: the film is an extended meditation on wisdom.

Wisdom in our sacred stories is commonly understood in two ways. First, as a characteristic developed over time through hard experience. And second, as a character who appears in biblical literature in feminine form. Lady Wisdom or Divine Wisdom speaks in different places in the Bible, but never as forcefully as the masculine-themed deity she complements. Instead, like Veronica Lake, Divine Wisdom seems to speak from the other side of the room, interrupting what the men are talking about to change the plotline altogether. That is, if the men will listen.

I say this because our scriptures are so full of men. They were written by men featuring mostly male characters, they were chosen by groups of men who determined what would be included in the corpus of biblical literature, they were preserved by men with an eye toward holding on to their own power, and they have been interpreted mostly by men without much concern for women’s lives or experiences. To underscore this point, I might just ask you to consider how many men you know from the Bible, from the heroes called patriarchs to the man Jesus, who is understandably central to our faith. Then consider how many women you know; fewer, no doubt. Then add all the times women are referred to as this kind of woman or that kind of woman with no proper name given. Then wonder about the character of Lady Wisdom herself. She is one of the most powerful voices in the Bible, yet I dare say many Christians have never heard of her.

I was introduced to Wisdom by one of the wisest women I’ve ever met. Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza is arguably the most important feminist biblical scholar of the past 50 years. And I say she is wise, rather than smart, because her wisdom was not won from all of her advanced degrees or her lauded academic work at Harvard Divinity School. Rather, Elisabeth’s wisdom comes from the stories of women all around the world. When she is not in class teaching future ministers and professors, she is often in small reading groups in different countries, sitting with the sacred stories in the bible and in the world. She may be the least pretentious brilliant person I’ve ever met. Because she’s wise. And she insists on being called only Elisabeth, which is part of her commitment to radical egalitarianism.

In her essay “Towards a Feminist Wisdom Spirituality of Justice and Well-Being,” Elisabeth offers a short introduction to Divine Wisdom. “In the bible,” she writes:

“Spirit (Ruach)” – “Presence (Shekhinah)” – “Wisdom (Chokmah)” are all three grammatically feminine terms. They refer to very similar female figurations in the Hebrew Bible who express G*d’s saving presence in the world. . .Traditional the*logy has focused on the Spirit, who is in Latin grammatically masculine, whereas feminist the*logy has rediscovered the Divine in female Gestalt or form. Jewish feminists have rediscovered a spirituality of Shekinah. . .[and] Christian, especially Catholic feminists have elaborated the female figure of divine Wisdom. . .Several books of the bible speak about Her, some of which, however, are not found at all or only in an appendix in Protestant versions of the bible.[1]

As Elisabeth explains the rediscovery of the hidden Divine Feminine, there is both a joy at finding Her and a bitterness that she has been withheld for so long. Or perhaps just not heard, speaking from the side of the room to those who would not listen. That was my experience, anyway; that she was not heard. I was raised by feminists who had never read the additional books of the Apocrypha. My parents were Protestants from Texas. They knew the books of the Hebrew Bible and Christian Testament backwards and forwards, but if you had asked them to find this morning’s reading they wouldn’t have been able to do it. The Wisdom of Solomon wasn’t in any Bible in our home. I didn’t have a Bible with the Apocrypha in it until I went to seminary and bought an Oxford annotated version with all of the books in it; everything Christians around the world read, not just well-meaning Texans who didn’t know what they were missing. And now I’ve given my son the whole Bible with a little encouragement to listen for the Wisdom in it.

So when the lectionary offered a text from the Apocrypha with the voice of Divine Wisdom, I couldn’t resist. She was calling from the other side of the room, with an offer better than ham and eggs. It was an invitation to go a different way.

“Wisdom is radiant and unfading,” says the text. “She is easily discerned by those who love her, and is found by those who seek her.”[2] The words are as lovely as a poem, but there’s a bite beneath them. Wisdom is easily discerned, but only if loved. . .not hard to find, but only if you look. It wasn’t hard for Joel McCrea to see that he ought to go along with Veronica Lake because his eyes were open. He was trying to look and listen differently, to escape his own conventional habits and patterns and learn what else there was.

According to the Wisdom of Solomon, the way to find Wisdom is to rise early and seek Her. She will be found at the gate; other texts say she lives at the crossroads. She whispers in the places where people meet, where stories meet, where questions meet and are asked and answered and deepened. “She goes about seeking those worthy of her,” says the text. “She graciously appears to them in their paths, and meets them in every thought.”[3] So the promise is that if we authentically search for Wisdom, she will be there. Again, only if our minds and hearts are open. But when we find Her, the reward is sweet. It is, as Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza says, “a state of the human mind and spirit characterized by deep understanding and profound insight.” She continues:

Wisdom is the power of discernment, deeper understanding, and creativity; it is the ability to move and dance, to make the connections, to savor life and to learn from experience. Its root meaning comes to the fore in its Latin form sapientia, which is derived from the verb sapere = to taste and to savor something. Wisdom is intelligence shaped by experience and sharpened by critical analysis. It is the ability to make sound choices and incisive decisions.[4]

With this understanding in mind, it seems that we could use a little more wisdom for these hard times. And by that I mean both the characteristic — intelligence shaped by experience and sharpened by critical analysis — and the character — the Divine Feminine given to provide balance to a church and a culture that have been too masculine for too long. If the old movie is any guide or the old sacred stories are, then perhaps the most important thing we can do is set out on a path away from the familiar. We can pull on our traveling clothes and go in search of wisdom. If Joel McCrea could pull on Depression-era rags, then surely we can pull on our pink-eared protest hats and hit the streets to look for, listen to, and learn from women’s stories.

I won’t tell you what Joel McCrea finally learns in the film because I don’t want to spoil the ending. But I will tell you that he couldn’t have learned it by himself. The only way he found Wisdom was by leaving the comforts and constrictions of home. . .so that She could find him.

Amen.

 

[1] Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, “Towards a Feminist Wisdom Spirituality of Justice and Well-Being,” (São Bernardo do Campo: Nhanduti Editora, 2009), 2-3, accessed online at http://www.nhanduti.com/Mangostao.English%20texts/Fiorenza.Eng.pdf

[2] Wisdom of Solomon 6.12, New Revised Standard Version.

[3] Wisdom of Solomon 6.16, NRSV.

[4] Schussler Fiorenza, “Towards a Feminist Wisdom Spirituality of Justice and Well-Being,” 4.

 

Finding Our Way (Matt. 5.1-13)

Jeremy Rutledge, Circular Congregational Church

October 15, 2017

 

My father the anthropologist used to say that we’re all interested in two related questions: Where have we come from and where are we going? I wasn’t thinking of those questions when I got out of the car on Sand Island, a small industrial spit in the middle of Honolulu Harbor, but I was thinking of them an hour later. They’re questions of stewardship, broadly speaking. They ask how we are spending our lives.

What we had gone to see on Sand Island was a living monument to the questions of where we have come from and where we are going. It was a 62-foot double-hulled Hawaiʻian sailing canoe called Hōkūleʻa. Hōkūleʻa was built by members of the Polynesian Voyaging Society in the ancient way and she was sailed using the tools available to the old Polynesians; namely, the sky and the sea. Hōkūleʻa was part of the Hawaiʻian cultural resurgence, tying people to their ancestors and a deep sense of what it meant to be Hawaiʻian in time when the culture was being lost and the stories eclipsed. Nainoa Thompson, Hōkūleʻa’s captain wanted to, in his own words, “look to the past to strengthen our future; to bring the technology, wisdom, and values of our ancestors into the present; and to call upon them to help us navigate to a brighter destination. . .”[1]

It’s a beautiful story of indigenous pride, but it is also a story of a people finding their way. In order to know where they were going, Hawaiʻians asked where they had come from and what their resources were. To begin, Thompson and others combed Pacific islands for the old ones who still knew the methods of traditional navigation. These involved reading the sky and the sea. The stars, always fixed in their relation to each other, provided reference points. The sea, changing in temperature and current, offered real-time data. Even the behavior of birds offered clues to the Polynesians who spread across the world’s largest ocean using only their double-hulled canoes. Many will tell you to this day that they view the Pacific Islands as one vast nation made of many peoples who were not divided by the sea, but connected by it.

With this in mind, we were excited to see Hōkūleʻa. She had just returned from a voyage around the world and was in dry dock for an inspection. We arrived just before they closed the gate and a friendly man let us in and showed us around. It turned out he had been part of the crew that had sailed the last leg from Tahiti. We walked up to the canoe and looked at her admiringly while the man told us stories. I was struck by Hōkūleʻa’s smallness. 62-feet long, as I mentioned, but only 20-feet wide. Two hulls banded together with a cabin atop them, which would later remind me of the twin questions of the past and future banded together by the present. And just across the parking lot the beginning of the vast blue Pacific. The man we were talking to traveled thousands of miles across the ocean on this tiny vessel. He spoke of how high the waves were, how bright the stars. As if to underscore the point, he smiled as he said, “We sailed from Tahiti to Hawaiʻi using only two things: observation and dead reckoning.” Meaning the combination of where it looked like they were and where they thought they were. Reconciling the two, the crew found their way across the deepest ocean.

I’ve returned to that image again and again of late because it seems to me that we’re trying to find our way through this moment. A part of this has to do with the convulsions in our country and our politics, a part of this has to do with our spiritual search and the loneliness I believe is growing, and a part of it has to do with our relationship to the natural world and the need to set down our screens and watch the stars, but, in every case, I feel that we may be a bit lost. We may be at sea, feeling the depth of the waters around us, not knowing quite how to make it back home.

I have shared a Hawaiʻian story, but with respect we must name that we are not Hawaiʻian. We can learn from that culture and then look at our own. But if Hawaiʻian people are any guide, and who better to guide us than a wayfinding people, then we might look to our own resources. We might take Nainoa Thompson’s advice and look to the past to strengthen our future, call upon it to help us navigate to someplace brighter.

This is something we try to do in church. We ask where we have come from and where we are going in conversation with our ancestor Jesus and the early communities that formed around his teachings. These are our cultural resources and if we claim them they can also be our reference points and guiding stars. They may also run counter the dominant culture in which we live, which prizes things that the early Christians did not. For example, the earliest Christian communities valued simplicity, sharing, egalitarianism, and peaceable living. Contrast this with our current American culture, which values money, possessions, status, and force of arms. The difference is so great that in order to find our way as people of faith we must go back to the stories of who we are and where we came from. Only then will we be able to read the signs of the present moment and chart a course ahead.

I’d like to suggest this morning’s scripture reading as one that might ground us in the wisdom of Jesus. It is the Beatitudes, one of Jesus most beloved teachings, known for the beauty of its poetry and the longing of its vision. The Beatitudes are the first of five major teaching discourses in the Book of Matthew, each of them designed to help us understand who we are and who we might become going forward. Yet Matthew himself is drawing from the past, as is Jesus. Matthew’s gospel, more than any other, references Hebrew literature and tradition, highlighting the Jewishness of Jesus and the long line of ancestors from which he derives. Jesus is setting out on his own way, but he knows where he has come from. His guiding stars are the law, the prophets, and the wisdom writings, which he uses even as he observes where he is and what is happening around him. Part of what is happening around him is the marginalization of different people during a time of empire. He sees those for whom the status quo does not work, for whom religion is a harm and economics a tool of exploitation. And he joins himself with these, calls them his sisters and brothers. The canoe he is sailing has room enough for the ones who have never been invited before. It is a boatload of enemies and outcasts, searchers and skeptics, the bruised and the brokenhearted all looking for a place to belong. Jesus’ message is good news to them; good news that runs counter to the culture.

Theologian Walter Brueggemann writes:

Jesus is remembered and presented by the early church as the faithful embodiment of an alternative consciousness. . .[and] the one thing the dominant culture cannot tolerate or co-opt is compassion, the ability to stand in solidarity with the victims of the present order.[2]

What Bruggemann is getting at, I think, is that Jesus imagines things differently because he has a sense not only of who he is, but who his sisters and brothers are. He knows where he has come from—the deep teachings of Judaism; he knows where he is—surrounded by sisters and brothers on the margins; and this enables him to know where he is going—into a new vision of a beloved community of equals. This is nowhere more plain than in that first discourse in Matthew, the Beatitudes.

When the crowds came to hear him, he sat down, taking the traditional teaching position of a rabbi, and shared with them what his movement was about, who his kin-dom was for:

Blessed are the poor in spirit, he said, for theirs is the kin-dom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, he said, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek, he said, for they will inherit the earth. And then he kept going, turning the status quo on its head. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, those who are merciful, those with pure hearts, those who make peace, and those who are persecuted for these dreams and visions of the way the world could be. These are the ones, he says right after, who are the salt of the earth and the light of the world. And while he didn’t exactly mean the salt of the sea or the light of the stars, his words are a guide for us. If we look to the meek and the mournful, if we look to the poor in spirit and the pure of heart, and if we see who is on the margins and pull them into our boat, this is the beginning of the way.

It brings us back to stewardship, insofar as it brings us back to the questions of where we have come from and where we are going. We have come from way back, from the times and the teachings recorded in our sacred stories. We have come from the law, the prophets, and the wisdom writings. Yet we have also come from Jesus’ creative interpretation of those things and his translation of them through his own life and teachings. And we have come from the earliest Christian communities, which tried to put the Beatitudes into practice with their commitments to simplicity, sharing, egalitarianism, and peaceable living. We go into the future with this past to strengthen us. And it is a future that will need us.

It’s no secret that we live in turbulent times. We are sailing the deep waters, hoping to make our way through. Many in the past year have shared how much this community means to them. We have found safety here and sanity. It’s as much a lifeboat as a sailing canoe. Yet we have also found vision and voice. It’s a place where we dream together of a Beatitudes-based world, where all have what they need and everyone is welcomed in. Soon you will receive a letter that includes a vision of where we are going with regard to programs, staffing, justice work, and education in the year to come. I hope that you will join us in pledging your time, energy, and money to the mission of Circular Church. These pledges help us know what resources we have to make the vision real, to bring it to life in the months ahead. But what I hope most is that our giving will be joyful and even proud because what our time, energy, and money make possible is something that really is different than the status quo. Every week we come here, and for at least an hour or two, the world is almost as it should be. All of us on the canoe, sailing the deep waters together on love’s way home.

After we had spoken with the man for a while, it was time for the crew to go home. We thanked him and took one last look at Hōkūleʻa. We asked how long she would be in for repairs. Not long, he said. And then he explained there were many more places to go.

Amen.

 

[1] Nainoa Thompson, “Mālama Honua: Hōkūleʻa’s Voyage of Hope – Part 4, Right Direction,” accessed online at http://www.patagonia.com/blog/2017/03/malama-honua-hokuleas-voyage-of-hope-part-4-right-direction/

[2] Walter Brueggemann, The Prophetic Imagination (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1983), 88.

Lower East Side, New York

 

Who would you be if you could try again? (Luke 22.14-20)

Jeremy Rutledge, Circular Congregational Church

October 1, 2017

 

Early in the week we watched the movie “Groundhog Day.” I hadn’t seen it since I first saw it in the theater in 1993. I remembered the movie being funny, I remembered it being clever, and I remembered it being rated PG. I also remembered the premise. Bill Murray, playing a television weatherman, finds himself stuck in the same day, February 2nd, in the small town of Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. No matter what he does that day, he wakes up the next morning to live the same day all over again. His alarm clock plays the same song, he looks out the window at the same scene, he greets the same people at breakfast, and so on. These are the things I remembered about the movie, and I thought it might be a help during these times. Because it has begun to feel like every day we’re getting up to the same bad news. Another hurricane or earthquake. Another protest for black lives. Another piece of mean legislation proposed. Another hateful or insensitive tweet from the president. It feels like the long winter in the movie “Groundhog Day,” and I wondered how the movie might speak to this moment.

What I hadn’t remembered about the movie, however, was its heart. Sure it was funny and clever and rated PG, but it also struck at something so deep that I don’t think I really understood it 24 years ago. Bill Murray’s weatherman begins as a kind of self-absorbed jerk and makes a narrative movement toward becoming a better person. This in itself is standard Hollywood fare. But the existential seasons he goes through are not. When faced with the same day over and over again, he first panics, then embraces the opportunity, then falls into a deep depression, then tries to seduce his love interest, Andie Macdowell, then really falls in love with her, then lets go and begins to love everyone and simply live as if his one day mattered. . .in a way that he had never lived before. It’s a breathtaking movement, made all the more powerful by the fact that it is not preachy at all. It’s deadpan. For example, in one scene Murray sits with two local sad sacks at a bar and asks them straight out. “What would you do,” he asks, “if you were stuck in one place and every day was exactly the same and nothing that you did mattered?” One of them takes a drink and stares into space while the other one answers, “That about sums it up for me.” In a sense, that’s the movie’s question: Is it possible not to be stuck in one place, to live each day differently, and to do things with our lives that matter?

While I didn’t appreciate the movie’s depth when I first saw it, many did. Screenwriters Danny Rubin and Harold Ramis began getting mail right away. Christian ministers wrote that they had captured something about the heart of the gospel’s idea that we are all redeemable. But rabbis also wrote that it was a perfect depiction of mitzvah, good deeds done to repair and restore the world. Buddhist monks wrote of the cycle of samsara that we are all stuck in until we begin to break through with spiritual practice and insight. Pagans wrote of the way new life in spring pushes through winter’s dark. And psychologists wrote that the movie reminded them, more or less, of every one of their patients. Writing of the movie on its 20th anniversary, James Parker observed, “The makers of ‘Groundhog Day’ appeared to have struck, almost by accident, a water main of meaning. The Message, as I heard it, was this: There is a way back, a way through the imprisoning mystery of yourself, a way back into life.[1]
That is the first part of the message I heard. That it is possible to try again. It is possible to rise to each new day and choose to be the person I wish to be. Nothing binds me to the past. Nothing determines the new day. I am confined only by my inability to imagine things otherwise. Every viewer puts himself or herself in the place of Murray’s weatherman. When he begins to change, we all realize that we might, too.

Yet there is a second part of the message. The weatherman changes because he moves beyond his love of self and begins to love the whole. By the end of the movie he knows, and genuinely loves, everyone in the small town because he has spent so much time with them that he has begun to see how beautiful they are. It is a conversion not unlike the one Thomas Merton had while standing on the sidewalk. “In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut,” Merton wrote, “in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all these people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness. . .”[2] Merton continues by describing what he felt was seeing every person as God saw them and the wonder and beauty of it nearly hurt his eyes.

It’s hard to think of a more Christian message than that. Or, in the spirit of the movie, a more Jewish or Buddhist message. But in the context of our own tradition, I was struck by the emphasis on trying again. Behold, I am doing a new thing. I was lost but now I am found. Like being born again into a different way of life. Our faith suggests, if not complete certainty, then ways of living and being that are grounded in love and that believe in the possibility of change, transformation, and redemption. We don’t have to be stuck in the same day, doing the same things, as the same people. We can get out of bed and make different choices. Which is not to discount the difficultly of change. The movie suggests it takes Murray’s character an untold number of days to slowly become a better person. But the movie’s heart hangs on the idea of possibility. It is possible to try again.

It brings us to communion in a strange way. Because if there is one thing we do over and over again, it is communion. Here at Circular we do it in the same way every month, which I believe is actually a comforting and grounding practice. We make the same circle, we share the same elements, we say more or less the same things, but we ourselves are never exactly the same. From month to month we change. Jobs change, lives change, kids grow, parents age, dear ones die, anniversaries pass. The circle is a kind of marker for us. Every time we come to it we remember where we were the last time. We remember who we were. And we are offered the chance to ask again who we would like to be.

Jesus would have understood this when he began the ritual. Because he was engaging in the same kind of practice. He and his students were sharing the Passover meal. We heard it this morning in Luke’s telling. Luke, incidentally, is the only gospel to point out that this is the Passover. He seems keen to let us know that this is something Jesus and his students would have done time and time again. Yet Jesus reinterprets the meal and brings it into the present moment in a way that suggests its transformative possibilities. He took the unleavened bread and the cup of wine and said that they themselves were new. This is myself, broken and offered. This is the cup of our covenant together. Keep doing these things even after I am gone. In order to remember me. But also in order to remember my teachings and let them live in you. He mentions that the kin-dom is coming, still waiting to be realized. But it also seems, as so often with Jesus, that it is fulfilled in the moment, in the performance of it. Perhaps both are true. We are waiting to be changed. And we are becoming changed. So long as we join in the circle of participation. Which is all the weatherman did in the movie.

I’ll leave it to you to determine exactly what happened that created the change at the end of “Groundhog Day.” To their credit, Danny Rubin and Harold Ramis wrote a couple of ideas that they decided to leave out so that viewers could interpret things for themselves. But I believe what made the change was Bill Murray’s participation. Something happened inside himself that allowed him to let go of the things he couldn’t control and take hold of the things he could. Only then did he begin to see the possibilities all around him. Only then did he fall in love with it all.

It’s an invitation, I think. To watch the movie. To break the bread. To pass the wine. To try again. And to fall in love with it all.

Today may it be so with us.

Amen.

 

[1] James Parker, “Reliving Groundhog Day,” The Atlantic, March 2013, accessed online at https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2013/03/reliving-groundhog-day/309223/

[2] Thomas Merton, quoted in Albert Raboteau, American Prophets: Seven Religious Radicals and Their Struggle for Social and Political Justice (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2016), 122.

Shrines at the Lawa‘I International Center in Kalaheo, Kauaʻi.

 

A Personal Peace Treaty (James 3.13-18, Matt. 5.9)

Jeremy Rutledge, Circular Congregational Church

September 17, 2017

 

You’ve heard this story before, but as writer Sherman Alexie says, when you tell a story enough times it becomes a kind of song. So here’s the story. May it become one of our songs.

We gathered to hear the great Zen master teach. Several hundred of us, maybe a thousand, sat cross-legged in a gymnasium converted into a makeshift zendo. We began our days with silent meals, we sat for hours in meditation, then we listened to the dharma talks of Thich Nhat Hanh. He was teaching us the cultivation of peace.

Outside the world was on fire. We had just invaded Iraq, a country that had not threatened or attacked us, and we were responsible for the deaths of thousands and the displacement of untold numbers of others. The peaceniks gathered to hear Thich Nhat Hanh had heavy hearts. Some of us had bruised hearts. Hard hearts.

And Thich Nhat Hanh put us to work. He was angry, too, he said. He was grieved. But none of us could allow those feelings to plunge us into despair or powerlessness. No, the world needed peacemakers more than ever. And each one of us was a peacemaker waiting to be realized. We just needed the tools.

He put us through a kind of compassionate boot camp. We worked on our breathing. We paid attention to our strong emotions. We bowed to each other as we came and went. We smiled to our neighbors. And we just acted peacefully. The practice began to take effect during the week. By the end of it, Thich Nhat Hanh had us writing love letters to the president and the generals, sharing tea with each other along with our most vulnerable stories, building stone cairns by the river as monuments to our gentle resolve. Then he gave us all a book.

It had just been published and the boxes came straight to our retreat. He signed each copy and passed them out. The book was titled Creating True Peace: Ending Violence in Yourself, Your Family, Your Community, and the World. It began with the simple instruction that he’d been offering all week:

True peace is always possible. Yet it requires strength and practice, particularly in times of great difficulty. To some, peace and nonviolence are synonymous with passivity and weakness. In truth, practicing peace and nonviolence is far from passive. To practice peace, to make peace alive in us, is to actively cultivate understanding, love, and compassion, even in the face of misperception and conflict. Practicing peace, especially in times of war, requires courage.[1]

I have read and reread the book for its practical wisdom and its reminders of things we can do, like the creation of a personal peace treaty, which I’ll mention in a moment. But I have also returned to the book because it is so deeply Christian. Not Christian in the sense that Thich Nhat Hanh holds some creedal view of Jesus; he does not. But Christian in the sense that it so clearly resonates with the life and teachings of Jesus, for whom Thich Nhat Hanh has long expressed a deep admiration. Christian in the sense that it seeks to put down swords, turn the other cheek, forgive seventy times seven, and have the courage to live and work from a place of love instead of fear. Christian like the passage we’ve heard from the old letter of James.

James caused a stir by not caring about doctrine too much but focusing instead on spirituality and ethics. He was the one who famously said we should be doers of the word not merely hearers of it. And in Chapter 3 of his short letter to the early church, he offers a thought on how to live wisely. Who is wise and understanding, he says, will show it by their lives. If we’re bitter, selfish, and boastful, then we’re not religious in any meaningful way. But if we’re peaceable, gentle, full of mercy, then we might be practicing the true religion after all. It is, in many ways, a good strong word about how we act and speak, how we treat others, and how we live and move in the world. James ends his thought with a beautiful verse, which is why we chose this passage for Peace Sunday. A harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace. Put another way, if we plant the seeds of peace, we will reap its sweet fruit in our lives and the life of the larger community.

It sounds like something Jesus would have said. He spoke in agrarian metaphors. Parables of fields, farmers, and sowers. And he said that those who made peace would be blessed. They would be called the very children of God. The only thing he didn’t do was provide us the exact tools. Which brings us back to our Buddhist brother, Thich Nhat Hanh. In his book, Living Buddha, Living Christ, Thich Nhat Hanh quotes Jesus from the Sermon on the Mount. “Jesus said, ‘Blessed are the peacemakers’. . .[But] to work for peace, you must have a peaceful heart.”[2] So the Zen master has spent his life trying to teach us how to develop an inner peace and calm that we may then carry into our larger work for peace, justice, and equality.

On that first retreat I attended, he did this by encouraging us all to develop what he called a personal peace treaty. This is something that we wrote down and could say to ourselves or even hang on our wall. In Creating True Peace, he offers an example.

To make a personal peace treaty we can write: “Dear Self, I promise to practice and live my daily life in a way that will not touch or water the seed of violence within me.” We are determined in every moment. . .to nourish loving-kindness within us. We can also share this commitment with our beloved ones. We can go to our partner, our son or daughter [or friend], and say, “My dear, beloved one, if you really love me, please do not water the seed of violence in me. Please water the seed of compassion in me. I promise to do the same for you.”[3]

It’s a simple sounding practice, but all the more transformative for it. A small step that leads to others. If we name the intention to live peaceably together, then we must try to make that happen. And Thich Nhat Hanh offers examples of mindful practices of meditation and gratitude. He offers individual and family peace treaties. He counsels the creation of a breathing room or space where anyone can go when they are angry and there sit to breathe and cool down when needed. He shares the example of a family crisis averted when parents and a child agreed to sit in their quiet room together until their hearts were in a more peaceful place. What a precious gift to give to each other, he says. And it is as close to us as our willingness to participate in it.

But who is wise and understanding? The ones who are peaceable, gentle, and full of mercy with each other. The seeds they plant and nourish will bloom.

So if this story were to become a song, here’s how we would sing it. We would remember that in a time of war, hundreds of people, maybe a thousand, gathered for a week and lived in quiet peace together. We would recall the smile of the old Zen master who said that the heart of both Buddha and Christ’s teachings was the practice of nonviolence in our hearts and our world. We would draft personal and family peace treaties. We would ground ourselves in prayer and meditation. We would retreat to a breathing room or space when needed. And we would make this all into a kind of song. A hymn of peace made out of every ordinary voice saying, beloved, let us water the best seeds in each other. Let us have the courage to make peace in this time of war.

All these years later I am still trying to develop a peaceful heart. The times we are living in make that work both more challenging and more necessary. The peace of Buddha and Christ is not passive or weak. But it brings a stillness to our work for justice and our labor for a better world. And it brings a smile to those who put it into practice.

So let us go home and make a treaty today. Dear Self, I promise to practice and live my daily life in a way that will not touch or water the seed of violence within me. I promise to do what I can do to make my story part of the song of peace.

Amen.

 

[1] Thich Nhat Hanh, Creating True Peace: Ending Violence in Yourself, Your Family, Your Community, and the World (New York: Free Press, 2003), 1.

[2] Thich Nhat Hanh, Living Buddha, Living Christ (New York: Riverhead Books, 1997), 74.

[3] Nhat Hanh, Creating True Peace, 7.

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