Everything belongs... again

NOTE: This week's message takes me deeper into the Learning the Unforced Rhythms of Grace series with a two part look at what it means to embrace a spirituality where everything belongs. (Richard Rohr's title but an idea I've been wrestling with for 10 years.) It is a logical - if minority report - for those who affirm a radical sense of the incarnation. Next week I will use a variety of contemporary songs to show why they are crucial for a healthy and balanced spirituality. Not that tradition is abandoned; but tradition alone tends towards the transcendent not the earthy dimensions of grace. So... if you are around, stop in at 10:30 am.

At this moment in time, filled as it is with both promise and pain simultaneously, churches all over creation are once again experiencing the agonizing but amazing birth pangs of creativity and compassion made flesh. For some, this cyclical movement of the Spirit is terrifying and sad while for others it has become a season for celebration and rejoicing.

As the author Phyllis Tickle has noted in her latest book, The Great Emergence, there seems to be “a pattern of upheaval every 500 years in which the church cleans out what is old and ill-fitting so it can be relevant to the culture at large. These upheavals—the last was the Protestant Reformation—can be thought of as “rummage sales,” where the very structures and institutions of the church are shaken out and re-examined. The result is a “Great Emergence” – a shattering of the old structures of institutionalized Christianity – and the birth of new and vital forms” of faith that are concurrently a time to mourn and a time to dance, a time of love and a time of hate, a time to lament and a time to rejoice. (www.faithforum.ca/GE/greatemergence.html)

• You see this in the recent schism our Episcopalian cousins have endured as the conservatives storm out of communion while the progressives affirm equal rights for all of God’s children: gay and straight, rich and poor, male and female.

• It has taken place throughout our tradition in New England – the very birthplace of the Congregational Way – where now mega-churches and evangelical gatherings make-up the super majority of Christians rather than the once dominant First Churches throughout the land.

• And let’s not forget that this same dynamic has been alive within the Roman Catholic realm to say nothng of the once mighty Southern Baptists and Mormons.

To paraphrase the secular prophet, Bob Dylan, “something is going on all around you and you don’t know what it is, do you, Mr. Jones?” I sense that Tickle and others are right: it is the Great Emergence, the sacred rummage sale, where structures are being shaken out and re-examined.

And one of the essential insights of this new era is that everything belongs: No longer is there a false dichotomy between the sacred and the secular – insiders and outsiders – matters germane to in the church and concerns best left for the captains of industry, education and science. In this era, everything belongs.

• Christ’s table is about hospitality and gratitude rather than judgment and church membership.

• Our check books – and the stories they tell – are just as important to our growth as disciples as the stories we learn from the scriptures.

• Even our humor and laughter can advance or inhibit our intimacy with God as I have been discussing with you over the last few weeks.

So this morning I want to outline for you the two key biblical insights that undergird this perspective; because next week – in a very different and highly musical liturgy – I want to explore with you some of the ways that the music and art of popular culture can enrich our commitment to Christ. Ok? Are you with me? Now, let’s be clear from the outset that this notion that everything now belongs to our experience as people of faith is not necessarily a new insight. I would argue that a spirituality that is boldly inclusive and embraces the totality of creation has been embedded within Judeo-Christian wisdom for millennia. How does the ancient psalm put it?

• With the Lord as my shepherd I can wander from the ecstasy of the mountain top through the angst of the valley of the shadow of death for… thou art with me in both locales!

• Thou revive me and bring me rest, thou nourish and encourage me so that even in the presence of my enemies… my cup runneth over. Surely goodness and mercy shall be with me while I am alive and when I die I shall experience you even more intimately.

This isn’t a new idea, friends, but it is a new emphasis. Like that colleague of Emerson and Thoreau, James Russell Lowell, said back in 1845: New occasions teach new duties, time makes ancient good uncouth, they must upward still and onward, who would keep abreast of truth. And this is the first insight for our great emergence:

• In sorting out the will of God during the sacred rummage sale, wisdom is most often found on the periphery of our traditions.

• The wise old Walter Breuggemann said that when the center starts to give way, God’s still speaking voice is most often to be heard on the borders of life – among the forgotten and discarded – amidst those who have traditionally been locked out of our understanding of the holy – and within those sacred texts that we have not explored carefully in our recent history.

Look at today’s gospel: as a sacred teacher, Jesus first did what everyone expected him to do with his disciples; he led them away from the hustle and bustle for a time of quiet reflection and retreat. That is the norm – this is what we tend to expect when we consider spiritual or religious matters – solitude, silence and serenity. “Come with me by yourself,” Jesus tells them so that we might find a place for quiet and rest.

And that is a piece of the puzzle – quiet, rest and careful spiritual reflection have their place – but it is not the whole challenge, right? Because as the story unfolds we are told that out of nowhere a crowd emerges in the middle of the disciples’ prayer retreat. And rather than send the folk away – and listen carefully – the text says: When Jesus landed and saw this large crowd, he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. So he began teaching them many things.

• Conventional wisdom and practice likes to separate the sacred from the secular – the spiritual from the physical – but the new emphasis of Jesus embraces both: he teaches the weary people with compassion – that is, he includes those who aren’t among the select chosen of his band of disciples – and then what?

• He makes sure that the people are fed: do you see the unity between the holy and the human in this story?

This is Breuggemann’s point in spades. His disciples, representing the status quo, argue with him: “For the love of God, master, there are too many people here for us to worry about – after all they are interlopers who crashed our party – besides it would take almost eight months of wages to feed this rabble. So come on, give us a break and send them away!” But Jesus is resolute – you might even call him stubborn – insisting that there be no division between insiders and outsiders – members and guests – those with privilege and those with need.

• Again this wasn’t new – how does psalm 85 put it? Mercy and truth shall embrace, compassion and justice have kissed; integrity is breaking out of the soil and right relations on earth are flowing from heaven?

• This is an ancient psalm – not a 21st century New Age concoction – that clearly tells us that acts of compassion express the essence of God in the world; that tenderness and right relations - the holy and the human – are always intertwined in authentic religion. For this is how God gives shape and form to the divine amidst the ordinary realities of our working and struggling lives.

This wasn’t new – but it was a new emphasis – born by paying attention to what had been forgotten, overlooked and misplaced. In these periodic seasons of the sacred rummage sales, you see, first we are asked to pay attention to what people and words have been pushed to the periphery. It is one way to get our bearings.

The other is to recall that when Jesus was crucified the veil in the Temple was torn. That doesn’t sound all that interesting, does it? I can’t tell you how many times I have read those words over the past 50 years and not given them another thought. But Richard Rohr, one of this era’s most interesting spiritual teachers, notes that:

When the crucifixion of Jesus is dramatized in the Gospels, we have this very interesting image of the tearing of the temple veil from top to bottom. Now the word for temple is fanum. Everything outside the temple was pro fanum. (Hence we get our word “profane.”) There was “the holy” and it was distinguished from “the unholy.” The tearing of the temple veil from top to bottom is saying that the divisions of life are over. Everything is now potentially the fanum, the holy, the temple. There is nothing now that is not spiritual. Richard Rohr from the Cosmic Christ

Which means, “there is nothing now to which God is not available and given.” There is no longer a sacred and secular – one set of perspectives for church and another for business – that’s part of how Madoff and Wall Street got us into this economic mess in the first place with their phony and destructive separation of private and public ethics.

• Since the veil was torn: everything belongs. Religion isn’t about getting away for rest and solitude – as valuable as they are – it also includes feeding the hungry and noticing who has been locked out and embracing what is wounded within and around us.

• Rohr concludes: this integration of God’s word becoming flesh is the core of the Incarnation where matter and spirit are forever united. As Thomas Merton said, “now the gate of heaven is everywhere!”

And that is what the sacred rummage sale of our current great emergence is trying to come to terms with: now the gate of heaven is everywhere. For nearly 2,000 years most of Christianity hasn’t paid attention to the torn veil… for we still want to live with purity codes, debt codes, worthiness systems and exclusionary policies to protect ourselves from the “profane.” To divide the world into them and us – insiders and outsiders – those worthy of God’s grace and those who aren’t.

The conflict and confusion we see all around us – and let’s not forget the very real pain and loss – are not, however, signs of death. They may look harsh but in truth they are more like the birth pangs of our still speaking God taking new shape and form amidst the compassion and radical hospitality of those willing to move beyond the veil.

What new shapes will finally take root are still to be revealed. All we can say for certain today is that during the rummage sale only compassion and justice are certainties. Everything else requires a light touch, a keen sense of humor and creativity. I think our cousins in Judaism got it right when they told the story about Rabbi Yitzhak of Berdichev. Once there was a very, very wealthy man who had great resources that could be used for good. So the rabbi invited him once for tea.

When he arrived, the rabbi implored him, "There is a poor family who needs our assistance. I have asked all the others to give to a fund but a substantial sum is still needed. I have no one else to ask but you." "Rabbi, it pains me to refuse you. I obey every commandment, every mitzvah. You know that. But I will not give to any of these special causes. In fact, I wish you wouldn't even ask me in the future. That way, I won't be forced to dishonor you by turning you down."

Well, time passed and Rabbi Yitzhak was visited by the brother of that wealthy man. The brother was very poor, had many children and now needed money for the marriage of one of his daughters. Naturally, he had asked his wealthy brother for assistance – and had been turned down. The Rabbi looked at the man for a long while and then said, "Do not worry. I believe I know what to do." And the next day, Yitzhak appeared at the wealthy brother's door.
When the surprised man escorted the rabbi inside, Yitzhak walked to a chair and sat down saying nothing. Respectfully, the wealthy man stood in front of him, waiting for the rabbi to speak. But the rabbi just smiled and said nothing. After a long time, the wealthy man sat down. Even so, Yitzhak remained silent. An hour later, still smiling, he got up and left. The next day, Rabbi Yitzhak appeared again at the wealthy man's door. Again, the wealthy man sat in silence for an entire hour, waiting for the smiling rabbi to speak. And a third day, he appeared once more sitting silently for another hour, then got up to leave.

As he rose, the wealthy man said, "I can't bear this, rabbi. Why do you come here and say nothing? And why do you smile the whole time?" Settling back into his chair, the rabbi said: "Our sages say it is a mitzvah, a commandment, to give a rebuke when it will be heeded. And they also say we are commanded not to chastise when it will not have a positive effect.

“All these years, my friend, I have fulfilled the first of those commandments many times. But the second one? The people in this town have been eager to hear what I want and to do what I ask. And as a result, I have never had the opportunity to fulfill the commandment not to offer a rebuke. So I smile in pleasure at fulfilling a commandment for the first time!" With that the wealthy man turned red with embarrassment… and finally asked: "What is it you wish me to do?"

When Rabbi Yitzhak told him, he gave a large sum of money for his brother – and the Rabbi left with an even bigger smile on his face
. The Rabbi’s Smile,www.hasidicstories.com/index.html

Beloved, let us go and do likewise...


Luke said…
i LOVE this sermon/post! Tickle is right on, and i like the idea of the 500 year rummage sale.

many of my fellow seminarians still don't get it. they want there religion, forms, customs, and answers... even though they have to skew reality and science to get their results. i mourn this.. but as much i don't want to, i feel i must leave them behind. tell them what you know, if they do not listen, knock the dust from your shoes and move on...
RJ said…
that is so right, luke. sometimes even those we love we have to shake off the dust, yes? keep on, my man, keep on: you are one of the signs of hope for me.

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