Saturday, October 9, 2010

Being countercultural where it matters...

NOTE: After being at my dad's for a few days - without Internet access - I was behind in getting my worship notes finished. So, on a weekend that includes the 10/10/10 eco-justice celebrations on Sunday as well as the marking of John Lennon's 70th birthday today, I post my reflections on this week scripture in Jeremiah 29 and Luke 17.

Over the years I have found myself moving further and further away from John Lennon's almost feverish obsession with the outward appearances of the counterculture towards George Harrison's more balanced approach of inner and outer peace-making. Oh well, I still love many of John's tunes - Imagine included - and give thanks for his gifts. If you happen to be in town, we'll be marking the eco-justice issues and bringing Joni's song, "Big Yellow Taxi" to the time for children. Love it if you could join us...

The German philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche, once wrote about himself in his autobiography that “he possessed the ability to smell the inmost parts of every soul – especially the abundant, hidden dirt at the bottom of many a character.” In a note found scribbled upon the wall of Mother Theresa’s bedroom at the Sisters of Charity home in Calcutta, India an alternative option puts it like this:

People are often unreasonable, irrational and self-centered: Forgive them anyway. If you are kind, people may accuse you of selfish, ulterior motives: be kind anyway. If you are successful, you will win some unfaithful friends and some genuine enemies: succeed anyway. If you are honest and sincere, people may deceive you: be honest and sincere anyway. What you spend years creating, others could destroy overnight: create anyway. If you find serenity and happiness, some may be jealous: be happy anyway. The good you do today, will often be forgotten: do good anyway. Give the best you have, and it will never be enough: give your best anyway. In the final analysis, it is between you and God....It was never between you and them anyway.

Today our lessons from scripture suggest that we have a choice to make in life – a choice that goes to the heart of faith – and it has to do with how we choose to see reality. We can choose to seek the welfare and shalom of the city – even when 9 out of 10 lepers refuse or forget to respond to God’s grace with gratitude – or we can decide to let hurt, judgment or cynicism shape our existence.

• We can be like Nietzsche – and choose to focus upon the base, broken and repugnant realities of life because they are all too real and ever present.

• Or, like Mother Theresa, we can choose to nourish, discern and cultivate a deeper vision – the vision of God – that calls us beyond the obvious to what really matters.

I like how Philip Yancey put it: those who have decided to follow Jesus are challenged to do the opposite of Nietzsche and smell the residue of hidden worth in every person and possibility rather than just the stench of our wounded and stinking humanity. For THIS is what it means to be countercultural where it matters!

Some of you know that I just returned from visiting my dad down at his home in Maryland – it has been a year since my last visit – and his health is not terrific. It was important for me to check in and I’m glad I made the trip. Well, among the many things we did together over a few days, one involved looking through old family pictures – we have thousands of them stuffed into old plastic bags that my mother had hoped to sort through before her death – that now take up a whole closet.

+ And let me tell you it was an exercise in humility to browse through those pictures because I couldn’t help but notice some of the weird and totally ugly clothes I used to wear during my high school years. This was the 60s, you know, and I was a dedicated follower of the so-called counter culture of my generation.

+ Which meant that I slavishly conformed to wearing whatever the Beatles were wearing at the time: one week it was peach colored Nehru shirts with beads and bold stripped bell bottom pants – then it was vintage rummage store overcoats with baggy blue jeans and high top sneakers. Sometimes I had big, yellow-tinted aviator eye glasses only to be discarded for tiny wire-rimmed John Lennon granny specs or those huge, tortoise-shelled Annie Hall framed monstrosities.

You see, as a part of the 60s counter-culture – damn it I needed to fit in—even in the most superficial way. And my hunch is that most of us could talk about some of the goofy clothes we wore or embarrassing things we said and did in high school or college because that’s what you do while growing up: you try on roles – and clothes – and even attitudes and philosophies to discover what rings true, yes?

But the accouterments of pop culture are not a counter culture that matters: they have no depth, no vision and no ethical core to guide living into the truly difficult and often complicated realities we face in the real world. Consider the case of the prophet Jeremiah, who urged his people to seek the welfare and shalom of the city of their captivity – now THAT is really countercultural – an authentic and profound alternative, yes?

Here are a few details about Jeremiah’s ministry that give us some context: Scholars tell us that Jeremiah was an illiterate country preacher who needed to have all his words taken down by a scribe. In this he was much like the prophet Mohammed 800 years later, who could not read nor write either, which marks him as one who lived outside of the elite, ok?

+ He came from the northern town of Anathoth in the tribal lands of Benjamin – the home of the failed King Saul – which was another strike against him. To make matters worse, this town was named after the Canaanite goddess Anat, so the best and brightest of Israel considered this a place of total losers.

+ What’s more, Jeremiah couldn’t seem to cut a break as a traditional prophet: in chapter 26 we find that he was almost put to death for a sermon preached in the temple court. At another time he was slapped in the face, locked into stocks (chapter 20), imprisoned (chapter 37) and eventually thrown down a well (chapter 38).

+ And just so that we grasp the fact that Jeremiah really was a totally rejected outsider, the scriptures tell us that the only reason he was in a position to send a letter to the faithful of Israel in the first place was “because he had been left behind in the deportations; the Babylonians did not think he was worth the effort” of taking into exile with the social elites of his time..

Did you get that? When King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon took Israel into captivity, his military leaders didn’t think Jeremiah was smart enough or valuable enough to carry off to the waters of Babylon. All of which makes today’s prophecy so powerfully countercultural. Writing to the captives in Babylon from back in Jerusalem, Jeremiah is an outsider called by the Lord to tell the insiders – the priests and leaders of his tribe – that it is God’s will for them to seek the welfare of their new home in Babylonian captivity.

The time for mourning and fear is over” he tells them – the time for looking backward into the past and nostalgia is over, too – for now God’s people must seek the welfare of the city and pray for those who are their enemies. Literally he’s telling them to build new houses and live in them – make their communities physically beautiful and socially just – that they seek the welfare of the city. “Live as agents of shalom – building right and just relations between all the people right where you are” – was his message. And this included not only those who were a part of the tribe, but also those who were the enemy – and how counter cultural is that? Now let that sink in:

• Pray for your enemies? Build new houses and fill them with beauty and compassion even in exile? Start a garden and share its bounty with ALL your neighbors?

• This isn’t a vision born of human political wisdom – it comes from God – who invites us to use our imagination that we might see beyond the obvious into new ways of living that go beyond the bottom line. Writer William Bausch celebrates this truth when he writes that for people of faith, “Learning to see is the key, for you see what you are. The Talmud says: "We do not see things as they are. We see things as we are."

Robert Barron puts it this way: “Christianity is, above all, a way of seeing. Everything else in Christian life flows from and circles around the transformation of our vision. Christians see differently, and that is why their prayer, their worship, their action and their whole way of being in the world has a distinctive accent and flavor.”

What unites figures as diverse as James Joyce, Caravaggio, John Milton, the architect of Chartres, Dorothy Day, Dietrich Bonheoffer and the later Bob Dylan is a peculiar and distinctive take on things, a style, a way, which flows finally from Jesus of Nazareth. Origen of Alexandria once remarked that holiness is seeing with the eyes of Christ. Teilhard de Chardin said with great passion that his mission as a Christian thinker was to help people see and Thomas Aquinas said that the ultimate goal of the Christian life is a "beatific vision," an act of seeing.

I think that this is what Jesus is telling us in the story from Luke’s gospel about the 10 lepers who are healed. Most of the time I’ve heard preachers use this as a story of warning or judgment: thou shall not live as those ungrateful 9 lepers but rather as the one Samaritan who returned thanks. But my sense is that Jesus is more likely describing what real life looks like – sharing more a descriptive than prescriptive word – about how real life works: life is always going to be unfair – people are always going to be ungrateful or too busy to notice – injustice is always going to part of the fabric of existence – and suffering on some level is eternal.

In other words, people of faith will regularly find themselves by the waters of Babylon. It might be spiritual captivity or political oppression. It could be economic turmoil or medical tragedy. It may involve your family, you body, your mind or your soul. So, the real challenge is not how can I avoid the waters of Babylon, but rather how do I acquire the eyes to seek the shalom of the city no matter where I find myself? Are you with me here? Do you see the difference? We can either nourish the habits of Nietzsche or Mother Teresa? Cultivate God’s counter cultural vision so the work of shalom grows even in the midst of captivity or give up?

And I think that there are three ways to give up: let your feelings stay hurt – blame others – or cultivate cynicism. None of these deepens the sacred imagination nor challenges or changes the status quo because they are not a part of God’s countercultural vision of healing. So let me be direct, ok?

• Living with hurt feelings forever is for babies: scripture notes that when I was a child I lived and spoke and acted like a child; but when I matured and grew up… what? I put childish things away.

• Jesus was equally clear that blaming others is for self-righteous phonies: After warning his disciples in the Sermon on the Mount not to be phony in prayer, he tells them Matthew 23 that he’s had it with the hopeless, religious frauds: Your lives are roadblocks to God's kingdom… you blame others and keep score of their little failings but refuse to see the big picture.”

• And cynicism? That’s for cranky old fools who refuse to learn from their mistakes: Ephesians 4 says, “Look there are to be no prolonged infancies among us, please. We'll not tolerate babes in the woods, small children who are an easy mark for impostors. God wants us to grow up, to know the whole truth and tell it in love—like Christ in everything.”

Now that is the goal – the ideal – what a mature Christian of faith looks like: someone prepared to dwell by the waters of Babylon in life and seek the shalom of the city. But let’s face it: we are pilgrims on the journey, right? We are still “on the road to find out,” as Cat Stevens sang. So how do we put into practice seeking the shalom of the city – or our neighborhood – or even growing through our hurts and fears of life into consistent ambassadors of peace and compassion?

Well, I think that Jesus offers two clues in this morning’s gospel: the first has to do with a willingness to explore God’s love in a non-linear way; that is, we need to take some time and let God lead us wherever God wants us to go rather than striving for just our own personal goals and deadlines. And second, we need to practice nourishing our hearts and minds with visions of God’s alternative vision. It can’t ALL be garbage in because then… you get garbage out, too and there’s just too much garbage to add to the problem, yes?

Here’s the first clue: scripture gives us some weird information by saying that while on his way to Jerusalem Jesus passed through the midst of Samaria and Galilee. Galilee is north of Samaria – and according to the story Jesus left Galilee weeks ago for Jerusalem – so why is he now heading in the opposite direction? It would be like travelling from Pittsfield to New York City, stopping in Hartford and then heading off to Albany before getting back on the road to Manhattan, ok? What’s more, there is no region between Galilee and Samaria any more than there is a region between Massachusetts and Connecticut.

Some scholars suggest that this simply shows Luke’s poor sense of geography and he got it wrong – which is a possibility – there are mistakes throughout the Bible. But what if the point is theological rather than geographical? What if Luke is telling us that in order to learn how to live by the waters of Babylon – remember Jesus is on the way to Jerusalem to face the cross – we must be willing to learn how to live in those regions between our departure and destination?

+ Those middle places that usually feel a lot like wandering in the wilderness or weeping by the waters of Babylon? What can we learn from those places?

+ Apparently Jesus was willing to go into them freely – to see what might happen if he took his time in a totally non-linear way – to look around and explore – to test and discern. He wasn’t in a hurry and what is true for Jesus is often true for us, too.

Perhaps one way of cultivating the ability to seek the shalom of the city has something to do with slowing down. Resting. Stepping back from all the important deadlines and simply waiting for what God wants to share with us, ok? And I suspect that the second clue is related to the first: one of the best ways to slow down is to take a moment everyday to feed and nourish God’s alternative vision within you.

Listen, if all you’re taking in is Rush or Olberman – or work – or the demands of the family – or the disaster-mongers on 24/7 cable news – or even the mindless schlock entertainment of “Jersey Shore” or the “Real Housewives of Washington, DC” then you aren’t nourishing God’s alternative vision. That is, you aren’t learning to see in new ways – and without a vision the people perish.

I love the way Rabbi Harold Kushner puts it: Religion is not primarily a set of beliefs, a collection of prayers or a series of rituals. Religion is first and foremost a way of seeing. It can't change the facts about the world we live in, but it can change the way we see those facts and that in itself can often make a difference.

Historically Christians have turned to the scriptures to help them get a glimpse of God’s alternative. So tell me, what do you think would happen if every day – or at least most every day – you gave yourself over to spending 3 minutes reading about God’s vision? What do you suppose would happen if for three minutes each morning – and maybe even three minutes each night – you read some of the traditional Morning and Evening prayer psalms?

It wouldn’t change the world all at once, would it? It wouldn’t end global warming or reduce the abuse of small children or bring an end to the ugly wars in either Iraq or Afghanistan. But… it would begin to nourish within you a countercultural vision born of God not garbage. And it would give you a little time to wander with Jesus like his time in Samaria. And in time it would also give you eyes to see in faith, yes?

There are choices to be made: Nietzsche and Mother Teresa make the consequences clear. So Lord help us to choose that we might have eyes to see and ears to hear.

1) Mother Teresa @
5) By the Waters of Babylon @

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