Sunday notes redux...
Yesterday I had to be in meetings in the early part of the day and that always throws off my rhythm for writing. So today after midday Eucharist, I headed back to my study to revise my worship notes. No artworks today, just text: here's round two...
“Each of us should have two pockets,” the ancient rabbis teach. “In one should be the message: From dust I came and to dust I shall return; ashes to ashes, dust to dust. In the other we should have written: For me was the whole universe made – for I was created just a little lower than the angels says the Lord.” (Chittister, Rule of Benedict, p. 81)
· Humility and chutzpah as Parker Palmer puts it: a balance between forgiveness and festivity – grace and good works – the blessings of the Lord and the brokenness of the human condition.
· I’m talking about a polarity between “God’s greatness and our dependence, a sense of God’s grandeur and the fragility of humankind. “
For that is what is at the heart of today’s biblical stories about Creation: a tension between the lofty and the mundane - the sorrows and the celebrations of life – the sacred experience of being of the world but not in the world. Apparently, creation is tricky business and that is why our Jewish forbearers included two creation stories in the Bible:
· The first, which is not the oldest, speaks to us of God creating order out of the chaos: we spent time with that story last week. And you may recall that I asked you to carve out some Sabbath rest for yourselves – take a break from your physical and emotional burdens for a bit – so that you might be refreshed.
· Did anybody actually do that last week: trust God long enough to leave the worries and cares of the world to the Lord and get some rest?
In our incredibly over-extended, multi-tasking and hyper-stressed era, Sabbath rest is needed by God’s people more than ever. If we’re ever going to be able to “bear bad things well” – and evil things with humility and patience never mind peace – we need the rest the Sabbath promises. “Come unto me all who are weary and heavy-laden and I will give you rest.”
But Sabbath rest and order from above the chaos is only part one of the Creation narrative included in the Bible: part two tells a vastly different story filled with tension and conflict and uncertainty and sin. It speaks of being shaped and fashioned by the Holy from the hummus – the fertile mud of the earth - in to human beings who are a mixed-up combination of both dirt and spirit.
Then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground – adham ha adhamah - by breathing into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living soul –nephesh chayah.
This story, which is much older than the first, is primal: it comes from the desert, is filled with earthy yearnings and riddled with complex questions born of the time when Israel wandered in the wilderness. This is nomadic story-telling that has roots in a pre-Palestinian Judaism before God’s people ever conquered and settled in Canaan.
And it is my hunch that it was included by the wise souls who redacted our texts to both keep us grounded in our roots in the desert, and, to remind us of the tension that always exists in being faithful. We are both mud and spirit – humility and chutzpah – living souls born of God’s grandeur but burdened by human fragility – and it seems that the Bible wants us to hold both in tandem because both are true.
So let me tease out a few insights and observations about what this might mean for those who follow Jesus and hold these two creation stories in faithful tension.
You see, I have come to trust that our earliest religious shepherds in Judaism were offering us a spirituality for living in the real world with these two stories.
· By spirituality I mean a way of living that nourishes a robust sensitivity to the things of the spirit – not just the hard, objective facts but those truths that cannot be directly perceived by our senses but whose effects are real – things like love, peace, compassion and justice.
· You might also speak of spirituality as a spiritual discipline or faith formation – practices that enrich our capacity to be in communion with God’s Holy Spirit – or as Fred and Mary Ann Brussat like to say: spirituality is cultivating an awareness of the sacred in everyday life so that we develop new qualities of mind and heart, qualities that open us to the presence of the extraordinary within the ordinary.
· I’m talking about things like beauty and enthusiasm, hospitality and gratitude, faith, hope and love: are you with me? Spirituality can be a slippery and even sloppy word, but I want to be clear, ok?
What’s more, this creation-driven spirituality is intended for adults who live real lives in the real world: this is not monastic spirituality for those in convents or the cloister nor is it intended for just the top of the mountain or the tranquility of a gated community. No, this is for the real world. It is a spirituality for people who have wandered in the desert and been exiled and enslaved. This spirituality is for a community who has been filled with fear and is sometimes uncertain of God’s love. This spirituality is for people who understand that emptiness is just as real as the fullness of God’s grace in most of our lives. This is I’ve been to the mountain top but spend most of my time down in the valley of the shadow of death spirituality, ok?
I have come to believe that this spirituality, born of both creation stories, seeks to help us grow closer to God’s will by simultaneously feeding humility and chutzpah in our individual lives as well as our houses of worship, too. Each story is telling us something essential about ourselves and God. And each story is giving us clues about how to nourish our connection with the Lord and one another.
· Genesis 1 says that as the crown of creation – after God had finished bringing order out of the chaos and separating life into categories that assist us in knowing what can help or hinder God’s will – the Lord God created male and female at the same time in God’s image. Here is a story about equality – about the unique role women and men both play in assisting the Lord in keeping chaos in check – and it is a story about big and bold concerns that have to do with being co-creators with God. In my mind this is clearly a story about nourishing… chutzpah. We have been ordained by the Lord to do some wildly creative things, so let’s get out there and do them!
· Now Genesis 2 doesn’t negate the chutzpah of the first account, but it does ask us to be a whole lot more circumspect with our creativity because it tells us that we were born into humility: by nature, we are creatures fashioned out of the dust – the hummus –the fertile soul formed by dirt and dung. Of course the Spirit of the Lord was breathed into us to make us special, but we must never forget that we started out in the muck. So this isn’t a story of equality in any way: a mysterious God is in charge, picking up desert soil and filling it with Spirit, creating woman from man’s rib and man from the dirt. And there’s not a lot of chutzpah here: this is all about humility and mystery.
So the first ingredient I want to call your attention to in an authentically faithful spirituality that embraces both stories has to do with balance: in the beginning there was order AND there was chaos – there was dirt AND there was spirit – there was a terrifying void AND there was the grace-filled will of God. Are you with me? There was chutzpah AND there was humility.
So, could living into God’s will have something to do with finding a balance within the holy, the human and hummus? Let me ask you:
· What gets you out of balance? What makes you wiggy or snarky? What makes you feel ashamed or dirty? What inspires you to say stupid or even cruel things to those you love?
· Conversely what makes you feel good about yourself – confident – like you matter and are beloved of the Lord? What gives you a boost or brings you a sense of inner peace and grace?
Do you see what I’m getting after: nourishing a healthy sense of both humility and chutzpah seems to be part of what God’s creativities will is for our lives, yes?
The second ingredient of an authentic spirituality born of these two creation stories has something to do community. Our charge in both stories is to go forth and multiply – not seek isolation and retreat – but to advance God’s creativity in such a way that we recognize that we share one flesh.
· Sometimes this happens with joy and celebration – the chutzpah side of the covenant – like being at a U2 or Brad Paisley concert and singing and dancing together with thousands of others with such abandon that you feel lifted up into the presence of the Lord.
· And sometimes an awareness of our common flesh just breaks our hearts apart like when in humility we pray for our sisters and brothers in Syria or the Sudan knowing all the while that there is nothing we can do to help their agony. Or when a beloved child or friend is trapped in addiction. Or when death knocks at any of our doors.
We might speak different languages, we might like different foods, we may prefer different types of music and worship in vastly different styles, but our scripture reminds us that we share one common flesh. And, oh my my, wouldn’t THAT interesting?
· Could it be that regardless of what the super PACS are saying, those who are living into God’s will with chutzpah and humility understand that we have MUCH more in common with one another than we do differences?
· Not that the differences aren’t real – they are – but whether we’re male or female, young or old, Republican or Democrat or Green because we share one common flesh we have much more in common than often admit?
The other night, at our Monday evening book study and discussion, a story was told about an inner city congregation in the Midwest that in spite of the poverty, crime, fear and lack of money stood out in its neighborhood as a beacon of community and hospitality. And when the pastor was asked his secret, he smiled and said two words: POTLUCK SUPPERS. The secret to reclaiming our shared common flesh in community is breaking bread with one another – and the more you break bread – the more you want the feast to expand.
· And that got us thinking: maybe what God is calling us to do next year as part of our compassion and justice ministry has something to do with a whole lot more potluck suppers?
· Let’s face it: everybody likes to eat – and everybody is an equal at a potluck because everyone shares the work.
So what would it be like to have a whole year without a lot of programming but a whole lot of good food shared? Would that change how the wider community thought of us? Would it help us reclaim and honor our shared flesh? How would you like to be known as part of that church of the open table where they joyfully welcome everyone?
A spirituality of chutzpah and humility finds a way to build community and share the joys and sorrows of our common flesh.
And that leads me to the third ingredient of this spirituality: the importance of a truly generous imagination. Rabbi Burton Visotzky, the Professor of Midrash at Jewish Theological Seminary in NYC, teased out one implication of this generous imagination when he wrote:
These stories suggest something about how we read God – that is, how God can’t simply be seen as a “He” because… if humanity reflects God, then we have to understand that God has both male and female aspects in some miraculous way.
God, it would seem, is deeper than our traditional words: deeper than our well rehearsed habits – deeper than our fears and prejudice – deeper than our anxieties and even our imaginations. And if we want to be allied with God’s will in the fullness of the Lord’s chutzpah and humility, then we, too, must keep going deeper in trust, acceptance and grace.
Think about it: if God is male and female – together – and that’s what part of the story says – then whatever else this ultimately means, some of it has to do with nourishing and exercising our imaginations with such generosity that we, too are able to discover the sacred in the most unlikely places: in culture, in our families, in our fears and sins as well as our vocations and jobs.
· For example, some have said there is NO place for religion in politics or business – you’ve heard that and maybe even said it, too – but a generous imagination nourished by chutzpah and humility understands that whatever heals or harms the common good is of the Lord – and we’d better share our perspective lest greed and fear carry the day.
· Last week I was scolded by someone outside of our congregation who told me that preachers have no authority to speak in public about school budgets – just give your energy to saving souls – was his unsolicited advice. But because the truest definition of the word salvation means healing, I had to reply with a quote from Jesus who is just all over such narrow thinking with his chutzpah and humility when he said: whosoever causes even one of these little ones to stumble, it would be better to have a millstone tied around your neck and be thrown into the sea.
Nourishing a generous imagination looks for God’s grace in everything – it builds people up – it challenges what is wrong clearly and creatively – and always searches for the common good of our shared flesh. Archbishop Desmond Tutu said it best for me: “Out of the cacophony of random suffering and chaos that can mark human life, the life artist sees or creates a symphony of meaning and order. A life of wholeness does not depend on what we experience. Rather wholeness depends on how we experience our lives.” Do we gaze with both humility and chutzpah? Are we willing to see the Lord in the most unlikely places – even our own broken hearts?
In our tradition, Jesus is the one who shows us how to best live into this spirituality, right? In one pocket he carries chutzpah – bringing healing and humor and hope to humanity without counting the costs. In the other pocket is humility – for he came and comes to us as a servant – saying: Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it:
Rewards‘Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward; and whoever welcomes a righteous person in the name of a righteous person will receive the reward of the righteous; and whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple—truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.’