Monday, June 11, 2012

Both/And

My husband Jonathan's sermon from yesterday: 
Pentecost 3, Mark 3:20-35, June 10, 2012, Epiphany, Jonathan Linman:
When it comes to making social commentary, I love to paint with broad strokes, and to see the big picture, to take steps back to see the forest for the trees.

Somebody’s got to do this in this age of ever greater complexity and detail and specialization. Perhaps this is a role for clergy who tend to be some of society’s last generalists, and jacks of all trades.

So here I go, if you’ll indulge me: in our divided, fractious age, I believe that one of the greatest causes of mischief in human affairs is what I call either/or thinking. Either it’s this or it’s that with no other options.


This comes from the gift and curse of the Western philosophical, analytical mindset and its scientific orientation that gets corrupted in popular use. The gift? Objective truth seeking, and scientific and technological advancements. The curse? This approach is easily corrupted when not in the hands of experts or of those who are modest, humble, careful and prudent.

We see this misuse all the time in popular media portrayals, often in teaser ads for what’s coming next in the news: is something true or false? Is it right or wrong? It’s gotta be black or white, thumbs up or down, good or bad. Did she or didn’t she? Did he win or lose? Do you like it or not? Are you in favor or against? You decide…And so you can text, tweet, or phone in your response to simplistic survey questions or enter your opinion onto Facebook. You get the picture.

This either/or thinking offers up the world and human experience in the simplest of terms, robbing us of mature, sophisticated engagements that see shades of gray, hiding, in short, rich and textured perspectives that help us see the greater fullness of reality.

In some sense, I am, admittedly in a perhaps simplistic way, advocating for nuance. Now there’s literally a bad word in political campaigning. To say someone has a nuanced view of the world is to condemn that person to wishy washiness, putting him or her at risk of being seen as a flip flopper. To see the many sides of human problems is to show yourself as weak and indecisive.

Here’s the thing, though: human phenomena are too complex to be reduced to either/or thinking. Few of us are expert enough in scientific terms to make absolute claims of truth or falsehood. So there’s a call for modesty and humility -- traits also in short supply in our age.

And the insidious thing is that there are various interests on the full range of political and religious spectrums that want to keep things at an either/or level to keep other agendas hidden.

Among the effects of either/or thinking are division, fractiousness, fighting, undue competition, immobilization, an inability to compromise and tackle tough problems toward coming up with solutions.

When we’re pitted against each other, then those seeking power by stealth can come in to further divide and conquer.

This is not a human problem unique to our age. This kind of thing has gone on throughout history.

Thus enter Jesus and today’s reading from Mark’s Gospel.

Jesus is beset by the crowds and was stressed to the point of not even having the leisure to eat. Sound familiar?

Stressed out times like our own invite trouble, for we are then vulnerable to sinister forces, driven by the desire for simplistic solutions. People were saying to Jesus that he had gone out of his mind and that he was possessed by the ruler of demons. A simplistic accusation: is he good or evil? Such false accusations are what demons do; it’s their job description.

In response to all of this, Jesus tackles head on the issue of division, of fractiousness common in his day, epidemic right now in ours: “If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand.”

Now there’s a prophetic word to address the macro things we see happening at the state and national and in fact international levels.

But Jesus goes on to the micro level realities: “And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand.” That is to say, Jesus addresses our own domestic households and perhaps even what’s going on deep down inside each one of us individuals, we who are temples/houses of the Holy Spirit.

Jesus acknowledges the destructive nature of division, dare I conclude, the ill fruit of the either/or fractiousness.

And Jesus advocates for, I believe, a mindset that sees both/and. Not either/or.

Look at his response to those who tell him that his mother and brothers and sisters are outside looking for him: “’Who are my mother and brothers?’ And looking at those who sat around him, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.’” Here’s both/and thinking.

That is to say, Jesus’ mindset doesn’t see the distinction between family and not-family. Jesus’ perspective is a both/and view that includes, and thus unites, and does not divide. It’s about relationship and not distinction and difference.

At least that’s part of what I distill from this passage. In short, we’re all in this together. We’re all family, brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers to each other. Or to quote the old adage: “United we stand; divided we fall” -- an old saying perhaps inspired by this very story from the Bible.

That’s in essence what Jesus is concluding when he observes: “But no one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his property without first tying up the strong man; then indeed the house can be plundered.”

In other words: when we’re all tied up in division, then we’re weak and vulnerable to plundering. Or again, in terms of the diabolical wisdom of those seeking to plunder: “let’s further divide so that then we can conquer.”

Well, we are in so many ways divided today, and this does put us at risk of being conquered and plundered -- and this is true arguably, at least from my perspective, internationally, nationally, societally, culturally, and perhaps in our own homes and in our own selves.

So what’s the solution? You can be sure that the Gospel offers a way forward. 

God’s Word in Jesus in the power of the Holy Spirit breaks through the noise and the trap of either/or thinking and catches us, startles us into affirming with Jesus that there’s a different way, a way that unites. 

Look again at how he provocatively confronts those in today’s passage who wish to bring false accusations to him: Yes, here are my mother and my brothers. We are not divided. We are united and strong. By extension, Jesus invites us to likewise say: Here is my family, in the church, in our homes, in ourselves, and in our world.

Moreover, to be forgiven by God is to be united and reconciled and unified -- with God, each other and with ourselves. And such forgiveness is central to Jesus’ self understanding and mission.

This is why the voice of the church, when it’s true to the Gospel that points to Christ, is so very important in our time, as it has always been. At its best (and admittedly we’re not always at our best), the church has been an oasis in the world that speaks a Word, God’s Word, that cuts through the crap and noise and deception and divide and conquer machinations that helps us see that we’re in it all together, both/and and not either/or. We together, and not us vs. them. 

This parish, in my experience, offers such a voice in its preaching and teaching, liturgy and music and its service to neighborhood and world.

I’ve grown to appreciate over the years the bonds of affection in this congregation, its humility, the ability you all have to work together with a good spirit in Christ. And I am very glad, let me publicly state, that Jennifer, Nathan and I will continue to call this place a church home in coming years.

For what you offer in word and deed is a proclamation of Jesus Christ and his way of being, his way of thinking that sees unity and not division, inclusion and not exclusion, both/and and not either/or.

And this witness is a great, healing and reconciling gift during these rancorous, fractious, divisive times.

Thank you for this, and thanks be to God for you!

Monday, June 4, 2012

Words about God

Sermon for Trinity Sunday, 2012

It was hard not to be amused by the following 2003 headline from The Onion, the satirical newspaper, that was making the rounds online this week in honor of Trinity Sunday: “God Quietly Phasing Holy Ghost Out Of Trinity”. The rest of the article continued:

HEAVEN—Calling the Holy Trinity "overstaffed and over budget," God announced plans Monday to downsize the group by slowly phasing out the Holy Ghost. "Given the poor economic climate and the unclear nature of the Holy Ghost's duties, I felt this was a sensible and necessary decision," God said. "The Holy Ghost will be given fewer and fewer responsibilities until His formal resignation from Trinity duty following Easter services on April 20. Thereafter, the Father and the Son shall be referred to as the Holy Duo
What’s really funny about this—to me—is the projection of worldly assumptions onto the Trinity. The Trinity as a business; God as a boss; the Holy Spirit as an employee (so much for the three persons of the Trinity being co-equal and co-eternal). If we experience scarcity and downsizing, then so must God.

Now the Onion is funny because it’s extreme… but don’t we do this all the time? Don’t we project our earthly, worldly, 21st Century American New Yorker assumptions upon God all the time? It’s certainly very present politically in our culture—just as one example, the situation with American nuns and their struggles with the Vatican is quite clear. The nuns, from their perspective, are focused on the poor, healthcare, and education, because they believe those are God’s priorities for mission. The Vatican and their emissaries want them to focus on abortion and gay marriage, because they believe those are God’s priorities for mission. Both positions are reinforced and informed by the location of the people who hold it—the women in ministries surrounded by the poor, the sick, and the young, focused on getting things done and making lives better; the bishops in theological conclaves, focused on concepts and overarching rules and directing an international institution. 

But we have always projected our experiences in this world onto God, from people’s first experience of God—and it’s not always a bad thing, because it gives us the language of metaphor to give voice to concepts and ideas that do not otherwise translate easily into words. We call God Father not because God is literally male or literally our parent but because as Jesus and Christians experienced God, that relationship was similar to the best of human experience of fatherhood: God was loving, God was wise, God had a set of rules we needed to follow. So we call God “Father, ” and it’s a good metaphor. But it’s still only a metaphor—and one that breaks down for many people. If you had a bad relationship with your earthly father, this is not an image of God that’s going to work for you.

Jesus speaks in the Gospel today in metaphor and it confuses Nicodemus to no end: "How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother's womb and be born?" Nicodemus is picturing trying to climb back into his mother’s womb so that he can be born again, instead of realizing that Jesus must be talking about something else: about how passing through the waters of Baptsim is like being born again. And Jesus’ response to the confusion, when he speaks about how if Nicodemus cannot understand the earthly things, how can he possibly understand the heavenly things, sounds to me like a way of saying that we need these earthly metaphors, and we need to understand them, and work with them, and live them so that we can begin to approach the heavenly things, which are beyond words and language. But to remember that those words are not, ultimately, definitive about God. In other words, don’t confuse our words about God with God.  

Today is Trinity Sunday, the epitome of days where we consider how we describe God, how we talk about God—the God who is one in three and three in one and mysterious and accessible all at the same time. We use the words, “Father,” “Son,” and “Holy Spirit” to describe our God. We use the words “only-begotten Son” and “of one substance with the Father” and “proceeding from the Father and Son” and other phrases to describe the idea that there are three persons in the Trinity (even as there is still only one God) and how they relate to one another. These words have been hammered out through the centuries by Christians to articulate our faith in the best way we know, and so they have great honor and power. They are our theology—literally our words about God. But they are not God. 

One of my pet peeves is when clergy introduce the Nicene Creed by saying something along the lines of “Let us now proclaim our faith in the Nicene Creed.” Our faith is not in the creed. Our faith is in God, and the words we use to articulate and profess that faith are the words of the Nicene Creed. 

What are your words about God? One of the points I made in our confirmation class last month was that every one of us is a theologian—we all have words about God. Some of our words about God we learned as children, others we learned as adults; some we learned in church others we learned out in the world. How do you describe God to yourself… to your children… in your prayers? Is God loving, distant, paternal, ambiguous, or clear? What name do you call God when you pray? Those are your words about God, and they come from myriad sources and they are vital—and so worth taking the time to really think through and evaluate and challenge and pray with. And they are influenced by our culture and our education and our worldview, which are not bad things—the people who wrote the Bible were influenced by all those things too—but we should be aware of those influences, not to try to eliminate them and strip down our faith to something pure and unadulterated, because we can never do that. But to have that humility that says that our words about God are not God, so they will always be imperfect, and they will always be up for change as we learn more and as God is more fully revealed to us.  

One of my most frequent typos is that when I type “theologian”, I often accidentally type “theologician”, which I envision as a cross between a theologian and a magician—someone who does theology by magic. Theology is not magic—our words about God do not suddenly—poof!—conjure up a God who fits that description. Nor is it a refined art reserved for those who have some seemingly magical gift for knowing more about God than the rest of us.

The creeds are a good starting place for us to define our words about God, because they are—in the case of the Nicene Creed—the result of the bringing together of the first 300 years of Christianity and the scriptures, stories, lives, and theologians who were so fruitful in expressing their faith. But what is your experience of saying the Creed? Does it resonate for you? Or is it just another part of the service?

There’s a clever video on Youtube (see below) that I shared with the confirmation class that is about saying the—in this case—Apostles Creed. It opens with the question, when you say the creed, are you being real or a robot? Is this something you really believe—with all the attendant texts and beliefs that have informed it and come out of it—or is it something you’re doing on autopilot? It ends with these words, good to take to our hearts on Trinity Sunday:

“It’s not a proclamation,  it’s a prayer… that saints have made in faith.  It’s a prayer where sinners find their hope.  It’s a prayer where God shows his love.  Don’t just say it.  Pray it. Love it. Live it.”           







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