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!

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