May 13, 2012
Part of the wonder of going away is the different perception you have of the place you left when you return. Nothing can be quite the same after a trip to Uganda. There is much to share, but the more important sharing for today’s lectionary seems wrapped in the questions of how we “Love one another,” how we transcend differences and move to acceptance of ourselves and one another, how we become the “Beloved Community” Jesus among us, through one another. First, my hope in sharing today is to hold up the “compelling story” of the early Acts communities in their struggle to transcend differences and learn to love one another as a struggle we still engage in our community today—with most of the same very human limits and short-comings. Second, I also want to expose some of the ways our discomfort and even anger in community unfolds to us as our greatest opportunities to love. Third, I want to point us to our journey toward being a fully loving community. These resources are found in scripture, in exploring different cultures to reveal the connections which suggest the necessity of loving, and even laying down our life for, our brothers and sisters across the earth and in our community.
“God does not play favorites”
This was a very hard point for the early church as revealed in the Acts of the Apostles: hard to understand, hard to practice. We like having our “in group” and “out group,” we like to have people we’re comfortable with being around, often much like us, with similar interests and views, perhaps the same educational or level of hygiene as we have, but surely the people that hold the same understanding of God. Our forming and staying in community might be dependent on it. But… our social needs can interfere with Love’s (& therefore God’s) needs for us.
The Good News of Jesus crucified and resurrected has a way of breaking down barriers and breaking through social groups we set up. This was certainly evident in the Cornelius story, where Peter is confronted with breaking many taboo behaviors for his Jewish constituency back in Jerusalem. It’s the story of a “double conversion, where both Cornelius and Paul are brought to new understanding and power in Christ. Paul is converted to perceive God’s ministry to the “Gentiles.” What distances and categories do we still need to break down and open ourselves to in order for our welcome in the Spirit to outweigh our “in-group/out-group” membership categories. Said differently, at what point do we surrender to the Spirit enough to be more open to our newcomers than the “insiders” during our worship, coffee hour? How do “outsiders” feel fully engaged in our community and included in whatever level of interest the Spirit leads them to?
How much difference can we tolerate before we decide this group is NOT for ME or US?! And, when we decide that, are we in God’s Spirit. My friends & family who used to visit me from Milwaukee would come to the Potter’s House many years ago or an 8th Day Worship and wonder why I went to such a small, strange little storefront church. It was clearly NOT a place Mom would feel comfortable going to church. “What is this about?” Dad asked me once, “Some kind of cult?” I told him it was a cult of kindness and an outbreak of Spirit I had never before witnessed, and then I told him some of the things the small group missions of the church had embraced the Spirit to take on and had accomplished. He still thought it odd, but he also liked it.
There are those who feel outright rejection. We witnessed some of this kind of rejection and its consequences in Uganda recently, when we visited with a small group of the indigenous Batwa tribe. 20 years ago, the Ugandan government told these Indigenous, Forest Pygmie Indians they could not stay in their tropical rainforest. This was more than dis-orienting for them, it was utterly devastating: all their culture, meaning, medicine, food and entire livelihood derived from this richly abundant forest dwelling. These were people organically and totally connected to their external environment. These people had ingeniously derived every aspect of their very full existence from their surroundings, and even 20 years after removal from these lands and separation into 6 different groups, had pursued teaching and leading their children in continuation of this forest lifestyle. They meet with foreigners whenever they have the chance, one of whom—a Chinese businessman—bought them virgin forest lands from the government to occasionally live in and train their future generations in their livelihood. When we met them they did traditional dancing and singing, sold handmade woven bracelets from local dyed papyrus reeds, and shared a bit of their story. The look in these people’s eyes was haunting. It was the same look I’d seen in the eyes of people in the refugee camps of Palestine, and in American Indians from reservations I met when in college in MN: It was the look of the rejected, the homeless, the outcast, peoples desperately seeking dignity and humanity, but without roots. I wondered: How would Jesus respond to these people?
Despite the indignity of having to “sing and dance for their supper,” Carol and I took efforts to honor their elders, to hear their story from a ‘native’ young man who lived locally who knew their language and could interpret directly from the people’s stories themselves. We got a very different story about who they were from him than we did from the “guide” we had hired locally to take us to meet them across the length of Lake Bunyonyi. The guide’s story was: These were a people who had no knowledge, prior to 1992 when they were removed from their lands, of how to work for money or for food. There was not “work,” but simply the cycles of drawing from the forest all their needs from hunting, gathering and observing. After our brief visit and a few songs, probably an hour of engagement, we said our goodbyes and proceeded back down the hill from our meeting spot, and they surprisingly followed us and sang and clapped the whole way down the mountainside together. It was a joyous and lovely song, & I was singing & clapping along with them. The local natives on the mountainside looked up from their farming and walking along the road to observe the strange sight of these “White People” mazungu acting like pygmies.
Our Growing Edge of Love
How do we see and hear the growing edge of our love? Yes, we see it in our passions and our emotional connections with one another, with call, with events and even with potlucks once in a while! But there is more here than “good feelings” between us, and if we were just a “good feelings” church we might have many more members, a great social life and better potlucks, but still lack the vital Spirit of truth and power in love. It’s really hard to connect with one another, as Gordon reminded us in yesterday’s “Inward/Outward”:
By nature, by essence, we co-inhere with others. God is in them. If God's love and my love cannot touch the depths in the other, then I choose to take and absorb whatever may be directed toward me out of the evil of the other. That is far better than isolating myself, cutting myself off from God in people. The isolation technique is sure death. If I stay open, any hurt I sustain serves to drive me more deeply into God, who is love....
Jesus, the world's greatest realist, believed the universe was friendly. So, even with what I know about the power of darkness and the demonic as it expresses itself through people, I am going to connect as Jesus did and let people--all people, my kind and not 'my kind'--be the instruments of God's love and presence flowing into me. And I'm going to flow into them.
To connect is to relax. It is to rest. It is to trust. It is to let down. It is to be cared for. It is to be nourished. For the most part, we are terribly isolated from people and we remain in a defensive stance toward those with whom we come in contact. To be alienated from people is to be alienated from God.
Most profoundly, our “growing edge of love” arises at times when we’re really bothered by something in the community or another person, when we can stay open to express the need to assert and define our differences. This is not comfortable or easy, but neither does it need to be antagonistic and personal. It can develop true friendship and love. It has been helpful to witness the dialogues between differences in our community, exemplified by theological conversations between Fred Taylor and David Hilfiker, the healing by talking through differences exposed in mission group, controversies on the leadership team, our recent Palm Sunday intern & covenant members meeting (which I wrote about for the upcoming “Callings” newsletter), deliberations among covenant members to decide on a direction for worship or meeting the needs of an individual or family.
What shows up frequently in our living out our call with one another, in small groups and in worship (hopefully in this sermon!) is the trust that our lives are molded and grown in the image of Jesus, “in whom we live, and move, and have our being.” The pervasive nature of this presence of Jesus points to the nature of the change process we witness in one another and through one another. That we change, through the influence of Spirit in community, is born out in how you’ve seen others in this community take risks to use their gifts and exercise them in mission, and evolve over time in our midst with this new and entirely different people God has given them. We are all engaging in a kind of depth cultural exchange, in a profound engagement of our lives and stories with one another, though this does not come without sacrifice.
This sacrificial tone was reinforced this week when another Inward/Outward quote appeared:
The Christian life is presented by Christ, not as the sentimental belief in natural goodness, but as a hard and dangerous road, which involves both severe temptations and continual dangers. It may be necessary to endure sacrifices in order to avoid fatal temptations. Though the love of God is always available... life, especially for the Christian, is not one of easy choices, but often a school of struggle, in which some things have to be given up if others are to be obtained. --Elton Trueblood Source: Confronting Christ
The “school of struggle” Elton Trueblood describes here include temptations and dangers of staying separate, using our words and actions to set “in-group” apart from “out-group” clans, to operate out of structures that separate without a vision to unite and celebrate the resurrected Jesus as One People. When Dottie asked Mo if he’d like to be a member, this was the kind of outreach seeking to unite us. Do we create bridges through our classes, community events and retreats? Are there ample spiritual directors and sponsors for visitors and community members, for all to become full members? The day-to-day sacrifice of engaging each and every stranger in our community out of that sacred covenant of Jesus’ presence after Resurrection that Peter described is what we may do well to aim for. As Peter preached to the people in Cornelius’ house, the Spirit fell on all who listened, so that “the circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles, for they heard them speaking in tongues and extolling God.” Rather than the fear of what we might lose from our “in-group,” I invite us to be radically opened by what the Love of the Spirit is doing among us and being open to what God is actively doing in our present encounters. These are the loving cues to open our arms to newcomers and invite them to the center of our lives.
Lay Your Life Down
Our own experience of doing this as a couple has mostly been through Carol’s initiative and instruction, I must confess. I have been slow to let down the boundaries of my household, my “set ways,” and open my home and hearth to utter strangers. I have had to surrender fears and delusions along the way, which have been amply supplied with abundant love, new relationships, and exciting new connections with life and healing in all its dimensions. I now understand this is part of the way Jesus’ Resurrection presence continues to work on us and through us. It is our own lives and livelihoods, which must become the bridge to Jesus’ hope of unity among us. Out of love, “lay down your life” for your friends. This is the essential Spirit of today’s Gospel. To love as God has loved us, to reflect and live out of that love.
To “lay down your life” though, you must first lay your burden down. What are the burdens we bear that keep us from one another, or that hold us in our own solitudes, groups and divisions? Whatever they are, hospitality can create more possibility for love and unity.
“Hospitality is the virtue which allows us to break through the narrowness of our own fears and to open our houses to the stranger, with the intuition that salvation comes to us in the form of a tired traveler. Hospitality makes anxious disciples into powerful witnesses, makes suspicious owners into generous givers, and makes close-minded sectarians into interested recipients of new ideas and insights.” - Henri J.M. Nouwen (1932 - 1996),
"Ministry and Spirituality"
There are many ways to transcend the burdens we lay down. Simply exposing yourself to different people, places and things, NOVELTY, can help to transcend differences and soften hardened attitudes about differences. There are other expressions of community that we did on our trip that might open bridges between you and others in our community you do not know well or at all. When was the last time you tried some new food, or took an 8 or 10-hour ride on a bus with strangers? SURPRISE overcomes differences, the spontaneous opening of possibilities where it seemed none existed, as was seen in the faces of Florence’s children, the extraordinary rush of a great waterfall, the joy of being together witnessing it all. Perhaps even participating in the upcoming Dayspring cleanup days, as I intend to, will open new possibilities of friendship and cooperation with and among communities. I hope you will join me. And so INVITATION, simply asking people to join you in the fullness of our life together, is another bridge we build in Jesus.
The late Joseph Campbell talked about this feeling of connection in an interview. He said,
There is a magnificent essay by (Arthur) Schopenhauer (“The Basis of Morality”) in which he asks, how is it that a human being can so participate in the peril or pain of another that without thought, spontaneously, he sacrifices his own life to the other? How can it happen that what we normally think of as the first law of nature and self-preservation is suddenly dissolved?
In Hawaii some four or five years ago there was an extraordinary event that represents this problem. There is a place there called the Pali, where the trade winds from the north come rushing through a great ridge of mountains. People like to go up there to get their hair blown about or sometimes to commit suicide—you know, something like jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge.
One day, two policemen were driving up the Pali road when they saw, just beyond the railing that keeps the cars from rolling over, a young man preparing to jump. The police car stopped, and the policeman on the right jumped out to grab the man but caught him just as he jumped, and he was being pulled over when the second cop arrived in time and pulled the two of them back.
Do you realize what had suddenly happened to that policeman who had given himself to death with that unknown youth? Everything else in his life had dropped off—his duty to his family, his duty to his job, his duty to his own life—all of his wishes and hope for his lifetime had just disappeared. He was about to die.
Later, a newspaper reporter asked him, “Why didn’t you let go? You would have been killed.” And his reported answer was, “I couldn’t let go. If I had let that young man go, I couldn’t have lived another day of my life.” How come?
Schopenhauer’s answer is that such a psychological crisis represents the breakthrough of a metaphysical realization, which is that you and that other are one… Our true reality is in our identity and unity with all life. (The Power of Myth, p,110)
Explore and envision with 8th Day Faith Community the new ways we can enrich our community with our diversity and differences, in order to develop a larger and more Christ-like whole, a unity with all life. Perhaps the most powerful way to encounter and overcome the problems involved with diversity is to follow Jesus’ largest command to “Love one another as I have loved you.” In the universal and generous sharing of Jesus, we all become One in the Spirit, and when we are “commanded to love one another” we can bear the good order and discipline demanded through the command lightly, since it both allows and encourages us to abide in Jesus’ love, the Largest Whole.
How can we better love one another as we’ve been loved by Jesus? Jesus points to the laying down of one’s life for friends as the single greatest mark of this, not an insignificant price. When we work together, as friends of Jesus, we can bear “fruit that will last” as we ask for changing more into the likeness of Jesus, and as we learn to better love one another.