A Pandemic Pentecost

shutterstock_1715579038Pentecost Sunday 

On Tuesday September 11, 2001, I was on vacation at the New Jersey shore. With my friend Sissy from New York City, I watched the towers fall and then watched as fighter planes and helicopters flew up the coast. On Friday the 14th, we watched Billy Graham preach at the memorial service at the National Cathedral. In between, I was on the phone to my administrative assistant and organist back in Buffalo, because I knew the service we’d planned for Sunday the 16th just wouldn’t be adequate.

And then there was the sermon. I used to have the habit of squeezing out every possible second of shore time, so I wouldn’t leave until Saturday afternoon. I used to joke about the PA Turnpike sermon I’d write in my head on the 8-hour drive back to Buffalo. But 9/11 upset my usual way of planning worship, thinking about scripture readings, and sermon themes. And frankly my own emotions and my own attempts to process what had happened were churning in my head and heart. After driving several hours, I came to the beginning of an outline. I recognized that there were at least three parts to what I believed needed to be said. The first was our need to mourn. I don’t even remember what the order of service ended up being, but I imagine it would have included a psalm of lament.

I also believed there had to be a component of self-reflection and repentance – in no way NathanandDavid excusing the actions of terrorists, but trying to understand how policies and actions by our own country could have negatively affected others. It’s a risky thing to do when emotions are running so high. Patriotism can be defined by a “my country right or wrong” stance. But I knew that as people of faith, we had to go beyond pure emotion into courageous soul-searching.  Again, I don’t remember what I did. But thinking about it now, I might have taken the story of the prophet Nathan who confronted King David about his misdeeds with Bathsheba and her husband, Uriah and called him to repentance.

I’m a little fuzzy on the third theme, but I believe it was about our response and our actions going forward. Anti-Muslim attacks had already begun. Racist slurs were being bandied about unchallenged. The question arose: how would we, the Church, be a witness to Love in the midst of a national crisis? I know that we attended the open house held by our neighborhood mosque.

And, of course, it was not long after that the congregation and I began our odyssey into interfaith dialogue, which ended up leading me to the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley. And now to here, the Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd in Burlingame, where we find ourselves in another national crisis (actually multiple crises) and questions of how the Church can be a faithful witness in the midst of it all.

. . . this week has felt like the week after 9/11

UnknownI’ll be honest, for me this week has felt like the week after 9/11. I’ve run the gamut of discouraged, disheartened, resolved, shocked, resigned, angry, afraid, overwhelmed – as I’m sure as many of you have, too. We’ve been experiencing one crisis piled on top of another. We continue to try to negotiate terms with a deadly coronavirus; there are now over 105,000 deaths in the US alone; mask-wearing has become a politicized hot potato. Leaders struggle to deal with both life-threatening health issues and economy-tanking unemployment. Then another Black man dies in police custody, and cities are burning. We knew the pandemic disproportionately affected people of color, and now the ugly scab of racism has been violently ripped off to further expose what has been called “America’s original sin.”

Protests, riots, looting have broken out in cities across the country. Evidence of white outside agitators is making a bad situation worse. And let’s not even mention climate change. The biggest threat we’ve ever faced as a species has been put on the back burner, so to speak.

And it’s Pentecost. It’s one of my favorite holy days because it’s supposed to be very upbeat, giddy almost, celebrating diversity, envisioning the future. symbolized by tongues of fire coming down on the disciples, as the Holy Spirit empowered them for ministry. Someone described the Acts Pentecost story as the one for extroverts, while the one from John’s gospel, with gentle breath rather than wind and tongues of fire and multiple languages, is Pentecost for introverts.

But this Pentecost day, it’s impossible to hear a story about breath without hearing a man begging for his life: “I can’t breathe.” Or to read of tongues of flame and all the fire language in the liturgy without seeing a police station burned to the ground. Today, these symbols of Divine presence and power collide with horrifying human sin. And what are we to do with that?

I didn’t have a long drive on the PA Turnpike to work it all out, but sheltering in place has brought me to the same conclusions. As people of faith, as followers of Jesus, we are called to lament, repent, and act. But this time around I turned to a tradition I first learned through priest, theologian, writer Matthew Fox. Maybe it will help you, too.

Via Positiva
This spiritual process consists of four paths. The first is called the Via Positiva – the experience of awe, wonder and delight. It might sound strange that I begin here given the dire circumstances we’re in. But Pentecost is the ultimate Via Positiva experience. Listen to Fox’s description: “The experience of divinity is light. Awe is what triggers our intuition and wakes us up; it ignites and surprises us—like falling in love with another person or with music, science, flowers, poetry, and the earth.”

The presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives should be such an awesome, illuminating encounter that we are set on fire with love – for God, for ourselves, for others, and for the world. So even in the midst of tragedy, we can’t neglect to celebrate this amazing Spirit. We need a little awe and wonder right now.

Via Negativa
The second path of our spiritual process is the Via Negativa, the path of darkness, emptiness, silence, and suffering. Via Negativa recognizes that grief is a trigger for waking us up to truths within ourselves. When we don’t deny ourselves the opportunity to feel, and express, and lament our griefs, we can recognize how powerful they are – and also how connected we are to one another, to the earth, to God. It can be painful, yes, but it can also be powerfully cathartic. In a worship service created by Matthew Fox, the Via Negativa is experienced by literally weeping and wailing, expressing through the body the suffering of the world. And not for just a few seconds, either. You do it long enough to get over your self-consciousness and allow yourself to go deep and wrestle with those truths you’re willing to find. This can be where repentance begins.

I was recently very moved by a book called White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism because it helped me see some of the ways that my defensiveness as a person who considers herself ‘woke’ has prevented me from doing the work I needed – and continue to need – to do. The Via Negativa took me into lamentation for my part in a system of oppression that is baked into the DNA of our nation. And even the Church.

Dear Church: A Love Letter from a Black Preacher to the Whitest Denomination in the US was writtenby Lenny Duncan, an ELCA pastor. It’s a really good book. One of the things I like about it is that he calls it a love letter. He’s critical of the church, yet he’s in love with the church. He calls us out, but he also calls us in – into a bold new vision for the ELCA and the broader Christian community. He urges us to follow on the path of Jesus to turn the values of the world upside down and inside out. But it takes willingness on our part to do the work.

In an article today, Michelle Obama lamented, “I’m exhausted by a heartbreak that never seems to stop . . . But if we ever hope to move past it, it can’t just be on people of color to deal with it. It’s up to all of us — Black, white, everyone — no matter how well-meaning we think we might be, to do the honest, uncomfortable work of rooting it out . . .  it starts with self-examination and listening to those whose lives are different from our own and ends with justice, compassion, and empathy that manifests in our lives and on our streets.” 

Via Creativa
Through lamentation and soul-searching, we are able to move on into the Via Creativa, the most elemental, innermost and deeply spiritual aspect of our beings. This is where we begin to imagine a better way.  

Fox says, “Imagination brings about not just intimacy but a big intimacy, a sense of union with the cosmos, a sense of belonging and being at home, of our knowing we have not only a right to be here but a task to do as well while we are here.” Through our creativity – whether that is nurturing children, making art, gardening, writing, teaching, building houses – we connect to the Divine in us and bring the Divine back to the community.  

Our imagination, our ability to tap into our creative spirit, is what moves us to the second part of repentance. We don’t just feel sorry for our actions; we turn and go a different way, the way back to God. And that leads us to the fourth path where we bring all of our grief, love, and creativity.  

Via Transformativa
Via Transformativa provides a way for our creativity to  move into areas of compassion and justice. Creativity by itself isn’t enough. Obviously, we humans can take our creativity to negative places. Creativity can make bombs, for example. So creativity needs direction. That’s where our spiritual teachings come in: to channel our imagination into ways of compassion, healing, justice, and gratitude. That’s the purpose of being Church, to move into these ways together – honestly wrestling and confessing, grieving and letting go, visioning together how to channel our corporate creativity for the sake of the world.

So how does all this relate to the chaos that is all around us on this Pentecost Day?

  1. It gives us permission to celebrate – even with symbols of breath and fire. I call on each of you to take in as much awe and wonder as you possibly can. Stare into your child’s beautiful face. Marvel at a cat’s paw or the perfect symmetry of a flower. Or how about this – look at your own face with delight. Ignore the imperfections; we all have them. See the unique masterpiece that is you. Say “Wow!” out loud.

  2. It gives us permission to grieve. We have so much to lament; it can indeed feel over-whelming. One place we can go is the Psalms. Like Psalm 44:Rouse yourself! Why do you sleep, O God? Awake, do not cast us off forever!
    Why do you hide your face? Why do you forget our affliction and oppression?
     
    For we sink down to the dust; our bodies cling to the ground.
     
    Rise up, come to our help. Redeem us for the sake of your steadfast love.

    And don’t be afraid to express all your feelings in your prayers. Surely God’s heard it all, and knows how you’re feeling anyway. Allow yourself to be immersed in the Via Negativa. Cry and scream for George Floyd, for all the others on a list far too long, for our ‘original sin,’ and for everything else that weighs heavily upon us in this time of crisis. People in biblical times would cover themselves in sackcloth and ashes. We’re too civilized for something like that – or so we think. Maybe a good collective, national cry or scream is what we all need about now.

  3. Here’s where it gets pretty radical. I choose  to believe that by following this path, we’re opening up some space for a new thing to be born. I’m going to trust in the creative power of God to bring it into being. And I’m going to trust that we can do the same thing as a congregation – even in lockdown. Our collective imagination, fueled by the Holy Spirit, knows no limits.

    We might adopt this “Prayer of Good Courage” as our mantra:

    O God, you have called your servants to ventures of which we cannot see the ending, by paths as yet untrodden, through perils unknown. Give us faith to go out with good courage, not knowing where we go, but only that your hand is leading us and your love supporting us, through Christ our Savior.
  4. The Via Transformativa is the promise of Easter and the reality of Pentecost. It is real. It is ours. It is what will channel us into those paths as yet untrodden, into ways of mission and ministry that will contribute to the healing of the world. This is no pie-in-the-sky naiveté. God has done it before and will do it again and again, despite how the powers of this world conspire against us. I’m under no illusion that things will suddenly get better. As they say, it’s a marathon not a sprint. But that’s no reason to give up.
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    Even though I am – and maybe you are, too – still in Via 
    Negativa, I can see the mountaintop. So let’s take our red balloons, flowers, shoes, shirts, whatever we’ve got and march on, defiant in the face of adversity, confident that God – Creator, Christ, and Spirit – goes with us.

Amen!

 

ACTS 2:1-21
When the day of Pentecost arrived, they all met in one room. Suddenly they heard what sounded like a violent, rushing wind from heaven; the noise filled the entire house in which they were sitting. Something appeared to them that seemed like tongues of fire; these separated and came to rest on the head of each one. They were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages as she enabled them.

Now there were devout people living in Jerusalem from every nation under heaven, and at this sound they all assembled. But they were bewildered to hear their native languages being spoken. They were amazed and astonished: “Surely all of these people speaking are Galileans! How does it happen that each of us hears these words in our native tongue? We are Parthians, Medes and Elamites, people from Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya around Cyrene, as well as visitors from Rome – all Jews or converts to Judaism – Cretans and Arabs, too; we hear them preaching, each in our own language, about the marvels of God!”

All were amazed and disturbed. They asked each other, “What does this mean?” But others said mockingly, “They’ve drunk too much new wine.”

Then Peter stood up with the Eleven and addressed the crowd: “People of Judea, and all you who live in Jerusalem! Listen to what I have to say! These people are not drunk as you think—it’s only nine o’clock in the morning! No, it is what the prophet Joel spoke of:

‘In the days to come – it is our God who speaks – I will pour out my spirit on all humankind. Your daughters and sons will prophesy, your young people will see visions, and your elders will dream dreams. Even on the most insignificant of my people, both women and men, I will pour out my Spirit in those days, and they will prophesy. And I will display wonders in the heavens above and signs on the earth below: blood, fire and billowing smoke. The sun will be turned into darkness and the moon will become blood before the coming of the great and sublime day of our God. And all who call upon the name of our God will be saved.’”

JOHN 20:19-22
In the evening of that same day, the first day of the week, the doors were locked in the room where the disciples were, for fear of the Temple authorities. Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” Having said this, he showed them the marks of crucifixion. The disciples were filled with joy when they saw Jesus, who said to them again, “Peace be with you. As Abba God sent me, so I am sending you.” After saying this, Jesus breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”

 

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The Building Is Closed. The Church Is Not.

images-1Sermon for the Seventh Sunday of Easter

I bet you never imagined that going to church would be one of the biggest controversies in today’s news. Protesters and some government leaders, insisting that churches reopen, have claimed the headlines, along with a smattering of responses by others insisting  that we remain closed. Many congregations have members on both sides of the issue, which is causing quite a dilemma for their pastors and lay leaders. I’m grateful the ELCA has taken a firm stand on it. Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton has been unequivocal in her position that we do not open until it’s safe for all our members. On Friday, the bishops of the three synods in California also issued a “Joint Letter Against Re-opening for Public Worship.”

Even Martin Luther is being quoted from his response to the bubonic plague in his time: I shall ask God mercifully to protect us. Then I shall fumigate, help purify the air, administer medicine and take it. I shall avoid places and persons where my presence is not needed in order not to become contaminated and thus perchance inflict and pollute others.

Of course, those in favor of opening would claim that today the presence of Luther’s contemporaries is needed, that the church is an essential service that should not be denied. And as much as I don’t agree with their decision, I certainly get the longing for in-person church gatherings. As much as we rightly claim that the church isn’t a building, we miss being together. As much as I’m grateful we have the technology to be together virtually, it’s not the same as sharing the peace with a handshake or hug or placing the body of Christ into your hand. Although, current information is telling us that these actions, among others like singing, may have to be abandoned, at least for a while. It’s all rather complex. When the time’s right, reopening will take a lot of prayerful, thoughtful deliberation about how to do it responsibly. But in the meantime, we wait.

depositphotos_90132822-stock-photo-airport-waiting-roomThe Waiting’s the Hardest Part
I don’t know about you, but I don’t like waiting. Waiting for something to happen is like being at the airport. You’re not at home anymore, but you’re not where you’re going either. You’re in a middle space between here and there. Even when you’re not looking forward to something, the waiting is still hard. For example, you need surgery. Who wants to go through that? But you can’t go back to not knowing there’s a problem that needs correcting but it’s still two weeks before you go into the hospital. You’re in a middle space and time. Or you might remember from a couple of weeks ago, I talked about a book I’m reading called How to Lead When You Don’t Know Where You’re GoingLeading in a Liminal Season. Liminal is that middle space, the waiting area between one point in time and space and the next.

Like today. This is the seventh and last Sunday of Easter. Next Sunday is Pentecost, one of the Big Three days on the Christian calendar, along with Christmas and Easter, although we don’t hear much about it outside of the church (that’s not true in Germany, where the Monday after Pentecost Sunday is a national holiday).

shutterstock_1190629858Wear Something Red!
I happen to love Pentecost, maybe because it doesn’t have any of the cultural trappings around it. Maybe also because it’s not something you can easily wrap your mind around. It’s a matter of wonder that we can get at only with symbols like fire, wind, descending doves, red balloons, everyone wearing something red to church to imagine the coming of the promised Holy Spirit, which became the birthday of the Church.

But it’s not Pentecost yet. We have to wait one more week for the fifty days of Easter to be complete. Although our tradition does say that something happened on the fortieth day, that after appearing alive over the course of the forty days after the resurrection, Jesus ascended into heaven. The number forty should ring bells with us. It’s one of those biblical numbers that signifies something really important. In this case, forty days represents completeness; Jesus’ work on earth was finished. People back then would have gotten right away that the story of Jesus’ ascension was like the prophet Elijah being taken up into heaven by a whirlwind in a chariot of fire. And as Elijah passed on his mantle to a successor, his protege, Elisha, so does Jesus; he passes his mission on to the disciples – and then through them and the Holy Spirit to the Church.

But before Jesus left, he instructed his followers what to do until the arrival of the Holy Spirit: that dreaded word – wait. By leaving them again, Jesus threw them right back into that middle space again, neither here nor there, waiting for the fulfillment of a promise they didn’t really understand. And here we are, too. Ascension Day was Thursday and we’re now in the midst of the ten-day middle space until Pentecost – waiting.

Not in an upper room, but sheltering in place. For some, stopping work or school; waiting for a vaccine, waiting for an all-clear from medical professionals to go back to work, school, church, etc. Again, I don’t know about you, but I’m getting tired of the social distancing and voluntary quarantine. By the way, did you know that ‘quarantine’ literally means forty days? It’s the waiting time that ships in 14th/15th century Italy had to stay in isolation before passengers could go ashore during the bubonic plague.

There’s a lot of commonality in the isolation, uncertainty, and enforced waiting of the disciples after the ascension, the passengers on 15th and 21st century ships, and us – longing to get back into our daily routines of work, school, family, church, and life. As Tom Petty sang, “The waiting is the hardest part.”

You Take It on Faith, You Take It to the Heartheart_faith
But the line right before that is, “You take it on faith, you take it to the heart.” And faith is where we’ve got to take it. And this passage from Acts just might point us to what might get us through our quarantine.

Jesus told the disciples, “You’re going to have to wait a while longer. Go back to Jerusalem and wait.” So they went back to the room where they were staying.  And here, the details of all these people isolated together in an upstairs room, is kind of humorous. There was Peter, and John, James and Andrew; Philip, Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew; James son of Alphaeus; Simon the Zealot; and Judas son of James. Also some of the women who followed Jesus, his mother Mary, and some of Jesus’ sisters and brothers. That’s a lot of people in one room! But it also conveys the seriousness of this liminal time. And while we’re waiting with them in our own context – we can take a lesson from them: “they devoted themselves to constant prayer.”

No binge-watching for them. Constant prayer. At first that might seem like a no-brainer, especially for those early followers. But when it comes to ourselves, sometimes we might find it difficult to pray or even to know how to pray. Then I suspect that many people feel guilty for not praying enough.

A Quarantine for the Soul
But you know what: sometimes we make things way too complicated. I like what the late Jewish theologian Abraham Heschel had to say about it. He said that to pray is to open a window of the soul to God. Just meditating on that phrase for a while, imagining what that would be like – is a fine prayer in itself.

Heschel is also the one who said,
Our goal should be to live life in radical amazement. . . to get up in the morning and look at the world in a way that takes nothing for granted. Everything is phenomenal; everything is incredible; never treat life casually. To be spiritual is to be amazed.

He also said,
It is gratefulness that makes the great.

Which reminded me of the mystic Meister Eckhart, who said,
If the only prayer you ever say in your entire life is thank you, it will be enough.

And when I read this from Heschel, I think I experienced radical amazement because he wrote this in 1945:
Prayer clarifies our hopes and intentions. It helps us discover our true aspirations, the pangs we ignore, the longings we forget. It is an act of self-purification, a quarantine for the soul.

A quarantine for the soul.  In the midst of a quarantine that can sometimes feel soul-draining, the antidote is to quarantine ourselves in prayer. According to the crowd in the upstairs room, the best thing we can do as we wait for the end of this pandemic and for the spiritual renewal of Pentecost is open up our souls and pour out our hearts to God.

What Does It Mean to Be Church?
Now, make no mistake: as much as isolation takes us out of the world, it does not mean that we neglect our responsibilities to our world. What’s the old saying: you can’t be so heavenly minded that you’re no earthly good? Or as the two messengers in white said to the astonished disciples, “Why are you standing around looking up at the sky?”

Improv on “We are the Church” | Gifts in Open HandsEven in this liminal time, the coming of Pentecost is the perfect time to think about what it means to be church. For some, it obviously means getting back to business as usual with no concern for the risks. For some, it means a way to make a political statement. Church can and often has been co-opted for less than Christ-like reasons.

All the more reason to spend time about it in prayer. I’m imagining when we do get to go back to meeting in person that we will do a lot of praying and reflecting about what it means to be church post-pandemic. All the more reason to anticipate the arrival of the Holy Spirit into the realities we face today. In what ways, both old and new, will we pick up the mantle that Jesus has passed on to us?

I sure would love to be working on these questions now. I sure would love to be at 301 Burlingame Avenue this morning instead of on Zoom. I sure would love to be scheduling visits with all of you. And I am sure that you have your “I sure would love to . . .” list, too.

But Jesus says, “Wait.” And so we will. Dedicating ourselves to care for one another and to constant prayer as the day of Pentecost approaches. Not that I’m expecting the corona-virus to adhere to the church calendar and disappear amid wind and fire. But I am expecting that we will be renewed by the reminder of what has always fueled our lives as followers of Jesus – power from on high, the Holy Spirit of God. Just knowing makes the waiting a little easier.

We take it on faith, we take it to the heart, even when the waiting is the hardest part.

Amen

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ACTS 3:1-14

After the Passion, Jesus appeared alive to the apostles – confirmed through many convincing proofs – over the course of forty days, and spoke to them about the reign of God. On one occasion, Jesus told them not to leave Jerusalem: ”Wait, rather, for what God has promised, of which you have heard me speak. John baptized with water, but within a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.”

While meeting together the disciples asked, “Has the time come, Rabbi? Are you going to restore sovereignty to Israel?”
Jesus replied, “It’s not for you to know times or dates that God has decided. You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you; then you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, throughout Judea and Samaria, and even to the ends of the earth.”

Having said this, Jesus was lifted up in a cloud before their eyes and taken from their sight.  They were still gazing up into the heavens when two messengers dressed in white stood beside them. They said, “You Galileans, why are you standing here looking up at the sky? Jesus, who has been taken from you – this same Jesus will return, in the same way you watched him go into heaven.”

The apostles returned to Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives, a mere Sabbath’s walk away. Entering the city, they went to the upstairs room where they were staying—Peter, John, James and Andrew; Philip, Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew; James son of Alphaeus; Simon the Zealot; and Judas son of James. Also in their company were some of the women who followed Jesus, his mother Mary, and some of Jesus’ sisters and brothers. With one mind, they devoted themselves to constant prayer.

 

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Sermon for Pentecost 2: The String on Which We Hang Our Beads

Pentecost 2       May 29, 2016

Back in the summer of 2001 – before 9/11, before I decided to leave Buffalo – I went on vacation for a week at the Omega Institute. Omega is an educational retreat center in the Hudson Valley, about 100 miles north of New York City (17 miles from Woodstock). Their catalogue describes them as being “at the forefront of human development, nurturing dialogues on the integration of modern medicine and natural healing; designing programs that connect science, spirituality, and creativity; and laying the groundwork for new traditions and lifestyles.” Or as one participant called it: “guru camp.”

The 5-day class that I signed up for was led by Niles Goldstein, a young rabbi who had founded The New Shul (synagogue) in NYC in 1999. As I look back on it, I see that New Shul is kind of a cross between First United and Middle Circle. Their website describes them as “a progressive, independent, creative community in Greenwich Village exploring meaningful ways to experience Jewish life and ritual in the 21st century.” Goldstein, who describes himself as a gonzo rabbi, incorporates teachings not only from all sects of Judaism, but also from other world religions. I didn’t know it then but I’d had my first taste of interspirituality.

I got my second taste that weekend in a 2-day workshop with Huston Smith, the great scholar, writer, and practitioner of world religions. Smith has not only studied and taught, but actually practiced Hindu Vedanta, Zen Buddhism, and Sufi Islam for more than ten years each—all the while remaining a member of the Methodist Church. At that time, I was deeply interested in knowing how that worked: how could I (could I?) remain a Christian while exploring and even accepting aspects of other religious traditions? At the workshop, after we’d been captivated by stories of Smith’s experiences, someone asked the question that was on my mind: “Why are you still a Christian?” His answer, which has stayed with me over the years and has informed my ministry as a preacher, teacher, and worship leader, was “Christianity is the string on which I hang my beads.”

I later learned that Smith is an adherent of perennial philosophy, which holds that while the outward features of the world’s religions are diverse and often contradictory, the in-ward features point to a single transcendent unity. It’s believed that perennial philosophy is very old, experienced in the very earliest faith expressions of humankind, as well as in the great religions of the world. But if in God the religions converge above, below they are different. While the religions may be the same in the spiritual sense, in practicality, unity among them is not possible or even to be desired. As Mahatma Gandhi said: Our innermost prayer should be a Hindu should be a better Hindu, a Muslim a better Muslim, a Christian a better Christian.”

Although references to perennial philosophy go back to the 15th century, it was popular-ized by writer and philosopher Aldous Huxley in his book The Perennial Philosophy, published in 1957. And it lives on today. Rabbi Rami Shapiro, one of our presenters at our InterSpiritual Wisdom conference, has written a book called Perennial Wisdom for the Spiritually Independent, in which he says, “There is only one reality (call it, among other names, God, Mother, Tao, Allah, Dharmakaya, Brahman, or Great Spirit) that is the source and substance of all creation.” But you might say that, for both Rabbi Niles and Rabbi Rami, Judaism is the string on which they hang their beads.

I’ve been thinking about all this as we approach our fourth Summer of Pluralism. As in perennial philosophy, interspirituality recognizes that there are many approaches to the spiritual journey. There is no advocacy for a rejection of the individual traditions or for the creation of a new superspirituality. So, for us, Christianity can still be our string.

But what kind of Christianity? We’ve undertaken an unusually difficult thing: putting our interfaith encounters right smack dab in the middle of our worship service, making it as welcoming and inclusive as possible to those of other or no faiths, while still remaining true to who we are as Christians. And this is not always easy.

Take, for instance, our Bible. There are some passages that are just plain offensive in an interfaith context. Such as the passage from Galatians, our second reading today: “I’m astonished that you have so soon turned away from the One who called you by the grace of Christ, and have turned to a different gospel. If anyone preaches a different gospel, one not in accord with the gospel we delivered to you, let them be cursed!”

This is one of the texts used to warn Christians who accept the validity of other religions. But what is this “different gospel” that was so offensive to Paul? Well, it turns out that it was all about the big intrafaith question of Paul’s day: did Gentile converts have to follow Jewish law, e.g. circumcision, adherence to the purity code, eating with Gentiles? There are several places where we find evidence of Paul butting heads with Peter and James and other leaders of the Jerusalem church over this issue and of Peter’s waffling on it. At one point, Peter’s mind had been changed by his vision in which a voice from heaven told him, “Don’t call anything unclean that God has made clean.” And later, visiting the home of Cornelius, he said, “Even though it’s against our law for a Jew to associate with or visit a Gentile, God has shown me that I shouldn’t call anyone impure or unclean.”

But then later, in Galatians we learn that Peter regressed. Paul says that “certain men came from James” – that is, leaders of the Jerusalem church, teaching that Gentile converts had to obey Jewish law. And Peter gave in to them and drew back away from the Gentiles.

Paul uses the harshest language in response: “When Peter came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face.” He also used harsh language for anyone who would try to narrow the gospel down to a strictly Jewish sect. His gospel was about expanding the message to include Gentiles and all people.

Paul eventually won this argument and Christianity became a global religion. The “different” gospel that Paul anathematizes in Galatians is one that restricts, narrows, or limits the love of God to an exclusive few – in his time and place, those who wanted to force Gentiles to live like Jews.

So, by examining Paul’s words in their context we see that his anger was not directed at other religions – not even Judaism. What he didn’t want was the gospel being hindered by rules that determined who was in and who was out.

I had an experience just this morning of this freedom of this gospel. I’ve just begun attending meditation with a Sufi group. As you might remember, Sufism is the mystic branch of Islam. But it is Islam. They read from the Qur’an, pray in Arabic, and follow the basic tenets of Islam. Islam is the string on which they hang their beads. But when I asked if there were any practices or gatherings that would be inappropriate for me, as a non-Muslim, in which to participate, the answer was no. I was welcome to be part of everything. The purpose of the prayers, the meditations, the teachings was to be close to God. Simply that. If that not gospel, I don’t know what is.

So this is what we want to convey, not only in our Summer of Pluralism, but every time we meet – the transcendent unity of the hearts of all people who long to be near the heart of God. We do so as Christians, but as Christians who have learned from Paul, that the gospel cannot be restricted. Could it be that some of the beliefs and practices that have defined Christianity for so long may not be required for someone who is sincerely seeking closeness with God? Can a Christian community be open to such a wide-open inclusivity? What does our Christian string look like in the midst of this diversity and inclusivity?

That’s what we’ll be looking at this summer – how to be an interspiritual Christian church. How to speak of one reality, called, among other names, God, Mother, Tao, Allah, Brahman, Dharmakaya, Great Spirit – while at the same time praying, as Gandhi recommended, to be better Christians.

It’s going to be an adventure. But the gospel is the same. The love of God that exists in transcendent unity also exists within every person. The Divine Presence is as near to us as our breath. We can feel close to God because we already are. This is the gospel of Christ that we proclaim.

Amen

Galatians 1: 1-12
From Paul, appointed to be an apostle, not through human agency but through Jesus Christ, and through Abba God, who raised Christ from the dead—and from all the sisters and brothers who are here with us,

To the churches of Galatia:

Grace and peace to you from God our Creator and our Savior Jesus Christ, whose self-sacrifice for our sins rescued us from this present wicked world, in accordance with the will of our God and creator, to whom be the glory forever and ever! I am astonished that you have so soon turned away from the One who called you by the grace of Christ, and have turned to a different gospel—one which is really not “good news” at all. Some who wish to alter the Good News of Christ must have confused you. For if we—or even angels from heaven—should preach to you a different gospel, one not in accord with the gospel we delivered to you, let us—or them—be cursed! We’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: if any preach a gospel to you that is contrary to the one you received, let them be cursed!

Who am I trying to please now—people or God? Is it human approval I am seeking? If I still wanted that, I wouldn’t be what I am—a servant of Christ! I assure you, my sisters and brothers: the gospel I proclaim to you is no mere human invention. I didn’t receive it from any person, nor was I schooled in it. It came by revelation from Jesus Christ.

 

 

Beyond Creeds: The Circle Dance of Trinity

Trinity Sunday       May 22, 2016

invitationtodanceWhy in the world would a progressive Christian pastor in a progressive Christian congregation have anything at all to do with Trinity Sunday, the only day of the entire church year dedicated to a doctrine – and one that’s not even found in the Bible? In fact, the eminent 20th century theologian Karl Rahner claimed that if the Trinity were to quietly disappear from Christian theology, never to be mentioned again, most of Christendom would not even notice its absence.

We’ve progressed so far past the days when we would read the Athanasian Creed on this day. I’m going to pass out copies of it now – not to read (unless, as I said in Keeping in Touch, you want your head to explode) – but as a reminder of our history, of what was important to early Christians as they established the Church, and how they made sense of (or at least tried to make sense of) the relationship of Jesus to God and how the Holy Spirit fit into the picture. And the doctrine of God as three-in-one is how they explained it.

Athanasius, bishop of Alexandria in the 4th century, was the strongest defender of the doctrine of the Trinity. The creed attributed to him expands on the Nicene Creed, which had been developed (to put it in a positive way) as a statement that would unify the key beliefs of Christianity, and (to put it in a more critical light) to condemn as heretics all those who disagreed with it. You can see how seriously they took this by the last line of the Athanasian Creed: “One cannot be saved without believing this firmly and faithfully.” And just so you know, the rite of ordination in the Lutheran church still asks
candidates to promise to accept, teach, and confess the Apostles’, Nicene, and Athanasian Creeds.

TrinityKnot-wiki.pngWe don’t use creeds in our worship here. Times have changed. Adherence to creeds and doctrine have become more of a source of division than of unity. Although ours is still a controversial position. I don’t know how many times I’ve been asked why we don’t just become  Unitarians. That is, why don’t we abandon any pretense of believing in the Trinity? And my answer is that, even though I’ve moved beyond the historic creeds and doctrines and dogma, I have not abandoned the Trinity.

Let me tell you a story that was told to Cynthia Bourgeault, author of The Holy Trinity And The Law Of Three by her friend, the Abkhazian dervish elder Murat Yagan:

In the years following World War II, Murat had spent time in a remote corner of eastern Turkey, where he became friends with an elderly couple, with whom he frequently shared a meal. Life had been good to them, but their one sadness was that they missed their only son, who had left some years before to seek work in Istanbul. And although he’d become a successful businessman, they had infrequent contact with him and missed him greatly.

One day when Murat appeared on their doorstep, the old couple were bursting with pride to show him the new tea cupboard that their son had just sent them from Istanbul. It was indeed a handsome piece of furniture, and the woman had proudly arranged her best tea set on its upper shelf. Murat was polite but curious. Why would their son go to such expense to send them a tea cupboard? And why, for a piece of furniture whose ostensible purpose was storage, was there such a noticeable absence of drawers and cabinets?  “Are you sure it’s a tea cupboard?” Murat asked them. They were sure.

But the question continued to nag at Murat. Finally, just as he was taking his leave, he said, “Do you mind if I have a closer look at this tea cupboard?” With their permission, he turned it around and unscrewed a couple of packing boards. A set of cabinet doors swung open to reveal inside a fully operative ham radio set. That “tea cupboard,” of course, was intended to connect them to their son. But unaware of its real contents, they were simply using it to display their china.

Cynthia Bourgeault says: “To my mind, that is an apt analogy for how we Christians have been using the Holy Trinity. It’s our theological tea cupboard, upon which we display our finest doctrinal china, our prized assertion that Jesus, a human being, is fully divine. This is not necessarily a bad thing, just as it was not a bad thing for the woman to set forth her prettiest teacups on the new piece of furniture. But what if, unbeknownst to nearly everyone, inside it is concealed a powerful communications tool that could connect us to the rest of the worlds (visible and invisible), allow us to navigate our way through many of the doctrinal and ethical logjams of our time, and place the teachings of Jesus in a dynamic metaphysical framework that would truly unlock their power? It’s simply a matter of turning the tea cabinet around and learning how to look inside.

So, I believe we are finally beginning to look inside the tea cabinet, where we discover that there have been other ways of understanding Trinity all along. Like so many other Christian concepts and symbols there is something archetypal about it. As Carl Jung discovered: “Triads of gods appear very early, at the primitive level. Arrangement in triads is an archetype in the history of religion, which in all probability formed the basis of the Christian Trinity.”

So, while we’ve traditionally explained the development of the doctrine of the Trinity as the need to give divine status to Jesus and the Holy Spirit while remaining monotheistic, it’s likely that from a psychological perspective it’s the other way round. Our unconscious disposition was already trinitarian, which then required a theological explanation. Three is often considered to be the perfect number, the unifier of dualities. And it appears, not only in Christianity, but across cultures, religions, and time.

Franciscan writer Richard Rohr, author of The Naked Now: Learning To See As the Mystics See: “Trinitarian theology was almost made to order to humiliate the logical mind. If actually encountered and meditated on, God as trinity breaks down the binary system of the mind. For a Christian who lives in a trinitarian spirituality, it makes either-or thinking totally useless. Perhaps, in addition to everything else, the trinity is blessing, to make us patient before Mystery and to humble our dualistic minds.”

einEven in Judaism, there are those who see precursors in the mystical teachings of The Kabbalah, which says that the three original emanations from Ein Sof, the Kabbalistic concept of God as “The Endless One” or “All That Is,” are Nothingness, Wisdom and Understanding. These three emanations are the basis upon which all other existence upon the Tree of Life was formed and the essence of which followers were urged never to try to understand.

Scholar Elaine Pagels wrote in The Gnostic Gospels that early Christian concepts of the Trinity were molded from traditional Judaic terminology. Of course, Judaism – like Islam – rejects the Trinity based on their belief that giving Jesus divinity at all was blasphemous. Nonetheless, “three” is present in both and is perhaps a way through the interfaith roadblocks caused by the Christian doctrine of the Trinity.

Trinities appear in eastern traditions as well. The Tibetan Book of the Dead describes the “Three Bodies of Buddhahood” as three levels of existence: the ordinary body, which becomes the Emanation Body; speech, which is the Beatific Body; and the mind, which is the Truth Body. The three Buddha Bodies correlate with body, mind and spirit.

UnknownThere are also trinities in The Tao Te Ching in the “Three Jewels” or “Three Treasures,” which are the Buddha, the Dharma (teaching) and the Sangha (community). In The Bhagavad-Gita, there is the threefold nature of the Self, as told to Arjuna by the Hindu God Krishna: “Threefold is the faith of the embodied, which is inherent in their nature: Sattvic (pure), Rajasic (passionate) and Tamasic (darkness).”1396975590

The Jains recognize the trinity of samyag-darsana (correct insight), samyag-jnana (correct knowledge), and samyag-caritra (correct conduct).

And Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh had no difficulty seeing the correlation between Western and Eastern concepts of the Trinity. After a meeting with Christian clergy, he said, “all of us have the seed of the Holy Spirit in us, the capacity of healing, transforming, and loving. When we touch that seed, we are able to touch God the Father and God the Son.” He presents Trinity as a process of direct knowing of the Divine that transcends all religious labels and names.

So, if we go back before all the controversies of early Christianity, the hurling of anathemas at theologians who disagreed with the winning side at the Council of Nicea . . . and back before epic battles, such as whether to say “We believe in the Holy Spirit, who proceeds from the Father” or “ We believe in the Holy Spirit, who proceeds from the Father and the Son” – which was a huge deal back in the day and one of the reasons for the split between the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church . . . and back before our modern attempts at explaining the Trinity with shamrocks, triangles, interlocking rings, and science project displays of water, ice, and gas . . .

we find that our ancient ancestors understood the triune nature of existence on the deepest level of the subconscious, which then translated into symbols and archetypes found in our origin stories, myths and fairy tales, like The Three Little Pigs and Goldilocks and the Three Bears and children’s songs like Three Blind Mice. And in religious texts.

And as we move further into the age of inter-spirituality (which I talked about last week), as we become more adept at using our right brains to re-imagine – as best we are even capable of doing – what God is like, we will see Trinity (this number 3), not as a literal, limiting number, but as a process of union with the completeness and perfection of All That Is whether you call that: Father/Son/Holy Spirit, Creator/ Redeemer/ Sanctifier, Creato
r/Creating/Creation, or (as St. Augustine suggested) Lover/Beloved/Love Itself.

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I personally appreciate the imagery of Trinity as the Divine Dance. As Richard Rohr has described it: “Trinity is the very nature of God, and this God is a circle dance, a centrifugal force flowing outward, and then drawing all things into the dance centripetally. If this God names himself/herself in creation and in reality then there must be a ‘family resemblance’ between everything else and the nature ofthe heart of God.”

Process, dance, circle, heart of God. This is not the Trinity of doctrine and dogma and creeds – although some do find meaning there. I would not exclude anyone’s preferred access to Divinity. As long as we don’t mistake a ham radio set for a tea cupboard. May we remove the china cups and knickknacks from our spiritual shelves and discover the treasures that are inside. In the name of Lover, Beloved, and Love Itself.

Amen

 

Athanasian Creed

Whoever wants to be saved
should above all cling to the catholic faith.
Whoever does not guard it whole and inviolable
will doubtless perish eternally.
Now this is the catholic faith:

We worship one God in trinity
and the Trinity in unity,
neither confusing the persons
nor dividing the divine being.

For the Father is one person,
the Son is another,
and the Spirit is still another.
But the deity of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit
is one, equal in glory,
coeternal in majesty.

What the Father is,
the Son is,
and so is the Holy Spirit.

Uncreated is the Father;
uncreated is the Son;
uncreated is the Spirit.
The Father is infinite;
the Son is infinite;
the Holy Spirit is infinite.
Eternal is the Father;
eternal is the Son;
eternal is the Spirit:
And yet there are not three eternal beings,
but one who is eternal;
as there are not three uncreated and unlimited beings,
but one who is uncreated and unlimited.
Almighty is the Father;
almighty is the Son;
almighty is the Spirit:
And yet there are not three almighty beings,
but one who is almighty.

Thus the Father is God;
the Son is God;
the Holy Spirit is God:
And yet there are not three gods,
but one God.
Thus the Father is Lord;
the Son is Lord;
the Holy Spirit is Lord:
And yet there are not three lords,
but one Lord.
As Christian truth compels us to acknowledge
each distinct person as God and Lord,
so catholic religion forbids us
to say that there are three gods or lords.

The Father was neither made
nor created nor begotten;
the Son was neither made nor created,
but was alone begotten of the Father;
the Spirit was neither made nor created,
but is proceeding from the Father and the Son.
Thus there is one Father, not three fathers;
one Son, not three sons;
one Holy Spirit, not three spirits.

And in this Trinity, no one is before or after,
greater or less than the other;
but all three persons are in themselves, coeternal and coequal;
and so we must worship the Trinity in unity
and the one God in three persons.

Whoever wants to be saved should think thus about the Trinity.

It is necessary for eternal salvation that one also faithfully believe
that our Lord Jesus became flesh.

For this is the true faith that we believe and confess:
That our Lord Jesus Christ, God’s Son,
is both God and man.
He is God, begotten before all worlds
from the being of the Father,
and he is man, born in the world
from the being of his mother—
existing fully as God,
and fully as man
with a rational soul and a human body;
equal to the Father in divinity,
subordinate to the Father in humanity.

Although he is God and man,
he is not divided,
but is one Christ.
He is united because God
has taken humanity into himself;
he does not transform deity into humanity.
He is completely one in the unity of his person,
without confusing his natures.
For as the rational soul and body are one person,
so the one Christ is God and man.

He suffered death for our salvation.
He descended into hell
and rose again from the dead.
He ascended into heaven
and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
He will come again to judge the living and the dead.

At his coming all people shall rise bodily
to give an account of their own deeds.
Those who have done good will enter eternal life,
those who have done evil will enter eternal fire.

This is the catholic faith.
One cannot be saved
without believing this firmly and faithfully.