Life in the Spirit
During the calling process that ultimately brought me to St Barts, myself and the other candidates were asked a number of tough questions in a series of interviews. None were more tough for me than this one: What is your favorite hymn?
Having not grown up going to church, I really didn’t have any, in fact, I would have been hard pressed to name more than one or two! Since becoming a Christian my life has changed completely, I gave up my law practice to come to work for the church, eventually became a priest, have had my eyes opened in so many ways, but somehow, I’ve never got into tracking the names of the hymns!
Uh oh I thought - I’m now panicking! I better come up with something quick! “I don’t have a hymn in mind, but I know a poem!” I stammered.
In school, we had been reading the writings of the Anglican priest and poet, George Herbert, so I took a chance that one I had read was still fresh enough in my mind to do a reading right there over Skype. Was it any good? Well, I’m here!
A couple of weeks ago, Nathan, our music director, who had heard that story, and alerted me that today the choir would actually sing that poem during communion. So, have no fear, I am not going to SING it – but I will read it – as its theme is very appropriate for lent and for today’s gospel lesson. The poem is called Love (III) and it’s a dialogue, between divine Love, that is God, and us -- us in the guise a unexpecting dinner guest who appears to have wandered into what I imagine to be nothing less than the heavenly banquet itself.
Love bade me welcome. Yet my soul drew back.
Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning,
If I lacked any thing.
A guest! I replied, worthy to be HERE!:
Love said, You shall be he.
I the unkind, ungrateful? Ah my dear
I cannot look on thee.
Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,
Who made the eyes but I?
Truth Lord, but I have marred them: let my shame
Go where it doth deserve.
And know you not, says Love, who bore the blame?
My dear, then I will serve
You must sit down, says Love, and taste my meat:
So I did sit and eat.
Nearly 400 years old, that poem continues to speak to our great longings – the desire to be accepted and loved for who we are. Like many of you I never felt adequate growing up. I was always a skinny kid and would get picked on, we didn’t have a lot of money, and so I never had the right brands, my parents were divorced so my little brother and I attended an afterschool day care – and the school bus just had to drop us off right in front, giving certain kids the chance to ridicule us, because unlike them, our parents weren’t waiting for us at home …and of course we like to think that all of that is kids being kids, but that culture of shame, of having our shortcoming a gleefully pointed at every turn, continues right up through adulthood does it not? Our consumer culture certainly does its part, bombarding us with a lifetime of messages telling us that without their product, we’re not thin enough, our bodies are not perfect enough, our clothes not fashionable enough, not successful or popular enough, healthy enough, we’ll never be young enough or beautiful enough? …and that’s without even mentioning the racism, mysogany, and the countless other isms, that stubbornly persist.
How do we cope with that?
Well, some of us respond by returning the favor: putting down to the next person in line in order build ourselves up.
Another response is right out of Mark’s sermon last week…the mythical story of the garden of Eden tells us a deep truth of the human condition: upon seeing their nakedness, upon developing a self-consciousness, what did Adam and Eve do? They covered up – they covered their nakedness literally, but figurately, they were covering up their insecurities, their vulnerability, their fears and doubts, and in the process…their true self -- and we have been covering up ever since. Today we done the protective armor of prestigious careers, and brand name clothes, the latest gadgets, fancy cars, we live in the ‘right neighborhoods’ where we keep up with the Jones’s… and keep far away from those whose names we’d rather not know …
According to famed psychologist Abraham Maslov, its really all about the need to control, the need to control our lives and our surroundings lies at the core of how we manage our fears and anxieties.
Do any of us have controlling tendencies?
According to Psychology Today YES you do, and if you if you don’t think so, then they say you’re probably worst than most!
This desire for control works its way into ever nook and cranny of our lives, even our religious practices and traditions. After all, in a world of uncertainty and fear, isn’t it nice to be able to control God’s blessings? To have certainty. To be able to put God into a perfect little box to be brought out when needed (and put away when its inconvenient). As Gertrude Muller Nelson our Lenten University speaker, puts it, our traditions and rituals help us to mark time and bring order out of chaos -- so they have a very important purpose, but they have a shadow side as well. We got into that in our baptism class last Sunday when we had a big discussion what’s the ‘right’ way do be baptized? Do you need to be fully immersed? Do you need to be an adult? Should we be out in a river like Jesus? What if we stopped going to church, does it wear off – do we need an occasional booster shot?
In short we are all having something of a Nicodemus moment!
Like the dinner guest in the poem who is blinded by his unworthiness, Nicodemus in our Gospel lesson today, is blind to power of grace. Like many of us he admires Jesus and enjoys his teachings, but as a Pharisee he is caught up in the literalistic rules of religion and ritualism; the concrete, the exact, the measurable. So much so that he misses the point of what it means to be born of the spirit. Bound as he is to the exterior, he cannot conceive an interior transformation that a somewhat exasperated Jesus is trying to describe.
So why is this all so hard to grasp? Do we not all know that Jesus loves us? We teach that song to children so that they might never forget. Do we forget?
Well, I don’t think we forget, I think we know it in our head, but do we know it in our hearts? Have we internalized that truth? I wonder if deep down, we still fear that God’s love is conditional—that is, if we don’t follow his rules, we’re get punished. As pastors, we hear it all too often, when things go bad, when life’s push becomes a shove and our life spins out of our control, the same questions keep coming back: is God teaching me a lesson? Is God trying to punish me? Or did he never love me to start with – OR maybe he doesn’t even exist?
So, what have we internalized then? The late Marcus Borg argued that the greatest suffering of the poor is not about stuff, it’s not about money, or medicine, or even food, but rather, shame and disgrace. You see this in the chronically homeless, so resigned to life on the streets, they come to believe it’s simply who they are – and that is the point they have been robbed of a part of their humanity. And I would extend that basic truth to the rest of us as well. When the culture of not-good-enough is done with us, when we’ve heard the judgements about us long enough and felt them deeply enough, they can become part of who we are. I can easily remember a time when the very idea that I would someday be married and have kids – and to do it all with the loving support of a faith community -- was SO far off the radar of possibility, that it was not something I could even conceive. Are there parts of you that have been left off the table? Might you have dreams for your life that you never dared to even dream? The oppression we internalize has always been the most insidious because like Nicodemus and the dinner guest in our poem, it blinds us to God’s grace.
So, what is the hope?
It’s exactly what Jesus says: we must be reborn in the spirit. We must be transformed from the inside OUT through a reorientation of self, our minds and our hearts, if we are to see what’s possible. Only then we can begin to enter a new dimension of life, which is no less than the inbreaking Kingdom of God.
And I think at the core of this work, is undoing that which got us here in the first place: we must let go of control. As Jesus says, God’s spirit is like the wind, unpredictable and uncontainable. It’s not something to be pinned down or codified. To catch it, we must stop looking for God’s grace to be visited upon us through the exterior practices of religion performed in comfortable settings, and instead venture out to the margins and to the marginalized, wandering out from the known to the unknown.
And do THAT, we must reclaim the notion that God goes with us. For God is at the heart of all life. As fish are in water, we are in God, and God is in us. We must do away once and for all the Sunday school image of God as a kind of distant but omnipotent Santa Claus, who looks down on us, keeping a list, blessing the good and punishing the bad, and instead come to see God not as a noun NOT to be defined, NOT as a pronoun to be feared, but as a verb to be LIVED.
In the words of Bishop Jack Spong’s great mantra, “if God is the source of life, then the only way to worship God is by living, and living fully, without regard to what’s safe, or what acceptable, and if God is the source of love, then the only way to worship god is by loving, and loving wastefully, without regard to who deserves it, or whether it will be returned, and if God is the source of all being, then the only way to worship God is to have the courage to BE all that we can be, in INFINITE variety of our humanity, and not be bound by the fears of yesterday.”
And so, it does come back to the message we give the children: Jesus loves us, more than we can ever know. And as his followers, we are called to give away that love, and in so doing, find it for ourselves.
So, keep coming to Gods table, SIT DOWN at the banquet, humbly but with confidence, and taste the meat of the heavenly meal, not as a magic pill that takes away your sins, but as the spiritual nourishment of love itself – given so it may be given AWAY by the one who gave his life so that we might be born anew, to live more fully, and to love more freely.