Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Where Do You Live?: A Sermon for 5 Easter

“Where do you live?”  It is a common question.  I usually respond, “I live just off Grand Avenue near Lake Merritt in Oakland.”  To be specific, I would provide my Belmont Street address.

But what is really being asked is something more than that.  The question is not simply about the location where I reside most of the time. If that were the case, in any given week I would have to respond with St. James’ California Street address.  In that sense, many of you probably “live” at work too. 

But what is implied in the question, “Where do you live?” is the sense of where you make your home.  Where are you most at home in the world?  Now, I might still say, “Belmont Street” or “California Street” or maybe even both.  Many of you probably think of St. James, or your workplace, or any number of places as your “home away from home.”

Push this a little further, however, and what we are trying to express is not so much a geographic location, as a nexus of relationships.  “Home is where the heart is.”  Where I really live, where I am most alive, where I am most at home in the world is in the relationships that sustain me, that define me, that literally give me a life worth living.

I live in and with and through Mom and Dad; Andrew and Nehemiah; Rosa Lee Harden and Erazm Pochron; Br. Thomas Shultz and Br. Thomas Merton; Caroline Doyle and Jack Drda; Larry Kirkley and Jesus of Nazareth.  This nexus of relationships includes people who are living and people who are dead:  people I have known my whole life and people I’ve met only recently; some of whom I’ve only read about or admired from a distance. 

It includes my relationship to the Pacific Ocean, the San Francisco Bay, Lake Merritt, the Sun, the Moon, the redwoods and the wisteria.  All this and more is my dwelling place, my home.  I live in them and they live in me.  And so it is with us all. 

Where we live is not a question of geography per se; though it includes that, it is deeper than that.  It is a matter of relationships; rooted in time and space, yes; but encompassing so much more than we can touch or see or contain within the scope of our conscious awareness.

The Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hahn, has coined the term, “interbeing,” to describe the relational web in which we live. He writes, If you are a poet, you will see clearly that there is a cloud floating in this sheet of paper.  Without a cloud, there will be no rain; without rain, the trees cannot grow; and without trees, we cannot make paper.  The cloud is essential for the paper to exist. If the cloud is not here, the sheet of paper cannot be here either.  So we can say that the cloud and the paper inter-are . . .

If we look into this sheet of paper even more deeply, we can see the sunshine in it.  If the sunshine is not there, the forest cannot grow.  In fact, nothing can grow.  Even we cannot grow without sunshine. And so, we know that the sunshine is also in this sheet of paper.  The paper and the sunshine “inter-are.”   And if we continue to look, we can see the logger who cut the tree and brought it to the mill to be transformed into paper.  And we see the wheat.  We know the logger cannot exist without his daily bread, and therefore the wheat that became his bread is also in this sheet of paper.  And the logger’s father and mother are in it too. When we look in this way, we see that without all of these things, this sheet of paper cannot exist.

Looking even more deeply, we can see we are in it too. This is not difficult to see, because when we look at a sheet of paper, the sheet of paper is part of our perception. Your mind is in here and mine is also. So we can say that everything is in here with this sheet of paper. You cannot point out one thing that is not here - time, space, the earth, the rain, the minerals in the soil, the sunshine, the cloud, the river, the heat. Everything co-exists with this sheet of paper. That is why I think the word inter-be should be in the dictionary. “To be” is to inter-be. You cannot just be by yourself alone. You have to inter-be with every other thing. This sheet of paper is, because everything else is . . . As thin as this sheet of paper is, it contains everything in the universe in it.[1]

It is with this sense of where we live – not just in a place, but in a nexus of relationships – that we must approach the teaching from St. John’s Gospel.  What Thich Nhat Hanh describes as “interbeing,” the Gospel of John describes as mutual indwelling, and later Christian tradition theologizes in the doctrine of the Trinity.

The mutual indwelling or coinherence of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in the Trinitarian symbol expresses the truth that reality is fundamen-tally relational.  The interpenetration of the persons of the Trinity, the mystery of the one and the many, is constitutive of being itself.  God as Trinity expresses the reality that all being is interbeing.  We live in a nexus of relationship. 

But the Trinitarian dogma begins in the poetic perception of the meaning of Jesus in John’s Gospel.  Jesus is completely transparent to God, united in word and deed.  “Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me?  The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works.”[2]

When we look at Jesus, we see God.  Jesus’ profound teaching and dynamic action in the service of truth, reconciliation, and healing is the manifestation of this mutual indwelling.  Jesus lives in God.  God lives in Jesus. 

In John’s Gospel, Jesus’ life, death, resurrection and ascension issues in the gift of the Holy Spirit.  It is for this that Jesus came, so that we, too, might realize this mutual indwelling in word and deed.  “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.  And I will ask my Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever.  This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him or knows him.  You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.”[3]

“On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you . . . Those who love me,” says Jesus, “will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.”[4]

Here we see the building blocks of the later Trinitarian dogma.  But what is astonishing, and too often overlooked, is that this mutual indwelling overflows the Godhead into the life of the world; into you and me. When we grasp the truth of interbeing, of coinherence, seeing Jesus in a loaf of bread or a cup of wine becomes the most ordinary thing in the world.  God makes her home in us.

So we do not need to be afraid.  We participate in the very life of God.  When Jesus speaks of the many dwelling places in his Father’s house, he is not speaking of rooms in a mansion.  He is not speaking of a place where we go when we die.

The place where God lives, “heaven,” if you will, is not a geographic location “up there” – despite the predictions of “the Rapture” that didn’t happen yesterday! 

The Father’s “house” is better translated as “household,” a nexus of relationships here and now.  As Mary Coloe notes, the subject of the verb “dwell” in John chapter 14 is God.  “The action therefore is not the believers coming to dwell in God’s heavenly abode, but the Father, the Paraclete [or Holy Spirit] and Jesus coming to dwell with the believers.  It is a ‘descending’ movement from the divine realm to the human, not an ‘ascending’ movement from the human to the divine.”

“. . . the phrase in my father’s house are many dwellings, is best understood, with the context of this gospel, to mean a series of interpersonal relationships made possible because of the indwellings of the Father, Jesus and the Paraclete with the believer.  The divine indwellings in the midst of the believing community makes it appropriate to speak of the community as a living temple, the sacred place where God can now be found.”[5]

Where do you live?  Your home is in God, and God’s home is in you.  Heaven is here and now for those who have eyes to see it.  God’s dwelling places are many.  It is not limited to Jesus.  “The unity of the Son with the Father is by no means a static and self-enclosed identity.  It does not ascribe to Jesus a metaphysical identity which is somehow only to be admired, wondered at, or blindly accepted.  For this unity of the Father and the Son reaches out to include us as well.”[6]

And so to affirm that no one comes to the Father except through the Son, is to realize that we become truly at home only as we become trans-parent to the divine indwelling as Jesus became transparent to it.  Jesus is the way, the truth and the life for us as we also become united with the Father in word and deed.  We become at home in the world only as we relax into the reality of God’s being at home in us. 

Where do you live?  It is a good question.  But I have an even better one.  Do you realize who lives in you? 

[1] http://efipaz.wordpress.com/2008/09/04/interbeing/
[2] John 14:10
[3] John 14:15-17.
[4] John 14:20, 23.
[6] Theodore Jennings, Loyalty to God: The Apostles’ Creed in Life & Liturgy, p. 75.

Monday, May 9, 2011

On Monsters and Mirrors

Celebrant: Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?
People: I will, with God’s help.[1]

Osama bin Laden was a human being.  In the aftermath of his death, the media has identified him in many ways:  as a terrorist, as an Islamic fundamentalist or fanatic, as public enemy number one, as a monster.   What seems to have been overlooked is the fact that he was, first and foremost, a human being. 

As such, all that he did and all that he came to represent falls within the range of human possibility.  He was not, sadly, an outlier in terms of the way in which he gave expression to his humanity.  Instead, he actualized a potential that lies within us all.  It is this that makes it so difficult to see him clearly: the way in which he mirrors our own capacity for evil.  We’d rather avoid looking into that mirror.

It is far easier to treat bin Laden as a screen upon which we can project our own propensities for violence, vengeance and scapegoating.  The glare from this projection obscures the dark shadows of our own civilizational disease.  The life and death of Osama bin Laden reveals as much about us, as it does about him.

President Obama, among others, would have us believe that in killing bin Laden, we have secured justice.   When a bullet to the head delivered by trained assassins constitutes justice, when even the pretense of respect for the rule of law and due process is blithely dismissed, then we have travelled far indeed from the very ideals we supposedly are defending.  We have become what we purport to hate.

That, of course, is how hate works.  It serves to justify anything.  The principle of proportionality, so basic to any form of authentic justice, can be disregarded when we are dealing with “monsters,” rather than human beings like us.  We lost all sense of proportion in response to bin Laden’s terrorist campaign long ago. 

As the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, Chris Hedges, reminds us,

Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and thousands of Afghani and Pakistani civilians have been killed.  Millions have been driven into squalid displacement and refugee camps.  Thousands of our own soldiers and Marines have died or been crippled physically and psychologically.  We sustain these wars, which have no real popular support, by borrowing trillions of dollars that can never be repaid, even as we close schools, states go into bankruptcy, social services are cut, our infrastructure crumbles, tens of millions of Americans are reduced to poverty, and real unemployment (which considers the out-of-work, the underemployed, and those who have stopped looking for work) approaches seventeen percent.  Collective, suicidal inertia rolls us forward toward national insolvency and the collapse of empire.[2]

According to what scale of justice can bin Laden’s death balance such losses?  Does it justify torture, extra-judicial killing, and the invasion and occupation of sovereign states?  Why is the life of an innocent civilian killed by a predator drone strike any less valuable than the life of a person killed by a suicide bomber?  If the scope of human suffering he has caused makes bin Laden a “monster,” what does that make George Bush and Barack Obama? 

It makes them human.  That is the tragic truth.  As human beings, we are equally accountable to the demands of justice – all of us. 

The causes and conditions that made bin Laden’s terrorism possible are complex, and the United States shares responsibility for them.  That does not absolve bin Laden from responsibility for either the evil he has done, or the evil done in his name.  But in judging him rightly, justly, we cannot avoid a painful look in the mirror.  Justice begins at home by holding our own leaders accountable.

And if we truly desired justice for the sake of peace, we would have begun by acknowledging bin Laden’s humanity, and the dignity of authentic justice due even to him.  In the aftermath of WWII, we managed the Nuremburg trials.  If Hitler’s henchmen merited an attempt at real justice, surely the same is true for bin Laden.

The German philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein said, “Tell me how you seek and I will tell you what you are seeking.”[3]  What we sought by assassinating bin Laden was not justice.  What we sought was the illusion of invulnerability through imperial domination.  Let us pray that the bullet in his head does not represent the death-knell of the American democratic project as well. 

Seeking justice is not easy.  It eschews political expediency in favor of moral exertion, even sacrifice; however messy and imperfect.  That is why Christians implore God’s help – and God’s forgiveness – in the process. 

In the wake of bin Laden’s assassination, we need to pray for both; now, more than ever.

[1] From “The Baptismal Covenant,” The Book of Common Prayer, p. 305.
[2] Chris Hedges, The World As It Is: Dispatches on the Myth of Human Progress, p. 311.
[3] Quoted in Hedges, p. 13.