NEED NOT WAIT TO SEE WHAT OTHERS DO

RAMI ELHANAN

Rami Elhanan is an Israeli who grew up in Jerusalem.  While serving in the army, during one battle in the Arab-Israeli War of 1973, his unit set out with 11 tanks and returned with only 3.  He lost friends and, even worse, lost his innocence.  He was broken, angry, bitter – and filled with hatred.  In time, he got married, started a career and a family.  On the evening of Yom Kippur 1983, he held in his hands his beautiful baby daughter, Smadar.  But on the afternoon of September 4, 1997, Smadar was killed by two Palestinian suicide bombers who took the lives of five innocent people in browing the shelves in a Jerusalem bookstore — one of them Rami’s beautiful 14 year old daughter.

Bassam Aramin grew up in the West Bank city of Hebron.  At the age of 12, Bassam saw one of his friends fatally shot by an Israeli soldier.  For him, revenge was a palpable, dark force.  He joined a group who called themselves freedom fighters, but those in power called them terrorists.  They threw stones, at first, and empty bottles but one day in 1985 he found several discarded hand-grenades in a cave.  With his friends, they threw them at Israeli jeeps.  Two went off; no one was injured.  Bassam was sentenced to seven years in prison.

BASSAM ARAMIN

After his release, Bassam began to build a life for himself, which included a family.  Sadly, however, on January 16, 2007, Bassam’s 10-year-old daughter, Abir, was shot in the head with a rubber bullet by an Israel soldier.  She was standing outside her school.  She died two days later.

Following such unspeakable tragedy, both men chose to do remarkable things.  Both men chose to stop the strife and warfare and anger and bitterness.  Both chose peace.

For Rami, Smadar’s death brought back his old, unprocessed anger.  But he couldn’t stir up enough even to reignite revenge.  A group called the ‘Parent’s Circle’ invited him to a session.  ‘Parent’s Circle’ brings together families who’ve lost children and loved ones in the conflict and yet still want peace.  From that session on, Rami’s world, he says, was turned upside down.  Those whom he once hated embraced him and loved him.  Former enemies were the source of his greatest consolation.

In 2005, Bassam founded ‘Combatants for Peace’ – an organization which brings together those who fought on opposite sides.  ‘Combatants for Peace’ evolved into a movement of individuals who yearned to simply talk with those whom their states told them were enemies.  As Bassam once remarked, “Abir’s murder could have led me down the easy path of hatred and vengeance, but for me there was no return from dialogue and non-violence. After all, it was one Israeli soldier who shot my daughter, but one hundred former Israeli soldiers who built a garden in her name at the school where she was murdered.”

We don’t do so very well in resolving conflict and finding peace with our enemies.  Even our best attempts fall flat.  Oscar Wilde famously instructed: “Always forgive your enemies – nothing annoys them so much.”  Godfather Michael Corleone gave what is, to many, sound advice:  “Keep your friends close, and your enemies even closer.”  Abraham Lincoln once offered a poignant line about making friends out of enemies but it, still, carries notes and scars of battle: “I destroy my enemies when I make them my friends,” Lincoln remarked.  Even when we try to make nice, we are often our own worst enemy.

That’s why Rami’s and Bassam’s stories are so unique.  It didn’t take decades and increasing maturity. It didn’t require the passing of years to realize that what once tore apart their souls with bitterness and revenge is now just water under the bridge.  Within moments – moments not years – of unspeakable tragedy, they responded with peace, dialogue, empathy and understanding.  Immediately: peace.

That’s what’s truly remarkable about the earliest Christian movement, as well.  In Acts chapter 10, there’s a famous story about Peter and a Gentile named Cornelius.  God tells Cornelius his prayers have been heard and that he should send for Peter, who’s staying in Joppa, a nearby village.  In Joppa, meanwhile, God presents a rather strange vision to Peter – a large sheet comes down from the sky with all kinds of animals.  In the vision, a voice says “Get up, Peter. Kill and eat.”  But Peter’s a good law-abiding Jew.  Understandably, he says, “By no means, Lord!  I’ve never eaten anything profane in all my life.”  “What God has made clean,” the voice says, “you must not call profane.”  Peter comes to just as a knock comes on the door.  It’s the men whom Cornelius sent.  Peter goes with them to Cornelius, they have a wonderful heart-to-heart and the Holy Spirit immediately descends upon the room.  Peter feels it and baptizes the whole household, right then and there.

What happened in that moment for Peter and Cornelius, like that which followed Rami’s and Bassam’s tragic losses, was immediate.  No study period, no checking with the elders, no consulting scripture or thinking about what’s been done before.  God swept in and peace happened.  And it happened immediately.

But that’s not exactly our situation.  Flip to Acts chapter 11 and you see the after-effects, the angry backlash.  The leaders of the Christian movement – a still Jewish movement – heard that a Gentile was baptized without first having to become circumcised.  They’re angry.  They call Peter to headquarters.  There, he tells the whole story: the sheet, the animals, the voice, the trip to Caesarea, the presence of the Holy Spirit.  What else could I do? Peter says.  It was so very clear, so very immediate, and I responded.

Like Peter, we don’t live in communities which quickly and altogether respond to immediacy of any kind, let alone an immediate turn from revenge to love, from being enemies to friends, from separation to unity.  In fact, I learned of the story of Rami Elhanan and Bassam Aramin from a 2012 documentary entitled, Within the Eye of the Storm.  It tells the story I told you, about their lives and the processes they both undertook to find peace.  They became friends.  But the film is also about the experience of introducing one another to their communities – communities which were not prepared and did not necessarily, automatically, immediately respond with the same kind of love and forgiveness and peace.  Imagine it.  An Israeli sitting with Arabs who quite literally – and, you might say, for good reason – hated him simply because of who he was.  An Arab sitting with Israelis who literally and, again, you might say, for good reason, saw him as a terrorist.  Forgiveness doesn’t come easily in this world.  Peace is not won swiftly.  None of this is ever immediate.

REINHOLD NEIBUHR
“Men must strive to realize their individual ideals in their common life but they will learn in the end that society remains man’s great fulfillment and his great frustration.”

The world in which we live is not geared towards wholeness and healing; it’s not designed for love and forgiveness.  American theologian Reinhold Neibuhr outlined in his now-classic 1932 book, Moral Man and Immoral Society, what’s called “Christian realism.”  Power and positioning and pride lurks everywhere in this world, at least this side of heaven, Neibuhr argued: sin is at the bedrock of the foundation of this world.  That’s why even our attempts to play nice sometimes turn out so rotten.

Being a person of faith, in general, and a Chrisian, specifically, involves the hard work of scrutinizing that which comes from within.  It may be of God; Jesus said the kingdom is near you.  It may not be of God.  Israelis and Palestinians are trained to hate.  That’s their base reaction.  A good law-abiding Jew like Peter was formed to avoid, at least, and by no means accept a Gentile like Cornelius.  That’s Peter’s gut reaction, in spite of the fact that he lived with Jesus all those years.  Even the apostles and elders of the Christian movement had a resistant gut reaction, a frankly reactive, bitter resistance.  What kind of person do you dislike, and for what reason?  What do you abhor and on what scriptural or political reasons do you base your opinion?  In it may be God, and it may very well be not of God.

It’s a certain truth that when God shows up he keeps shattering the boxes we make, blurring the lines we draw.  But when we take the risk to love and live as God so clearly does, the world says you’re unrealistic, naïve, and at the very least that you’ve gone about it all too immediately.

And yet ours is a faith that makes us try, still. No doubt you’ve seen a bumper sticker with a quote from Gandhi: “Be the change you wish to see in the world.”  Problem is, he didn’t say that.  Not exactly.  It sounds like a self-help magazine, and awfully, well, like a bumper sticker.  What Gandhi actually wrote was this:  “If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in this world would also change.  As a man changes his own nature so does the attitude of the world change towards him.  We need not wait to see what others do.”

We need not see what others do.  Rami and Bassam, early in their lives, did what others did and they paid for it.  In time, they chose to live differently.  When tragedy struck, again, they did not wait to see what others did.  Peter didn’t wait to see what others did, either.  And that community, the church, which called him to task – they, too, were a little bit odd, a little bit strange, a whole lot spontaneous. The moment in that room was hardly silent after Peter recounted his story, for the Holy Spirit was moving and sweeping in her delightfully spunky and, you might say, radically upsetting way.  Immediately, they praised the God who shattered their prejudices and destroyed their small-mindedness.  Immediately, they rejoiced that theirs was a kingdom not of this world.  Immediately, they did a bold thing and were given the grace of God to do it with courage.  They may have looked back, they may have been afraid, but immediately they were also transformed.

……….

From a sermon preached at St. George’s Church on Sunday, 28 April 2013.

BENEDICTO!

Anyone who’s ever served on a church search committee knows what I’m talking about.  There’s such a gulf between our hopes, our expectations and the real qualities of real people who put their names forward.  As Americans, we deal with the swell of expectation and inevitable dissapointment regularly — every four years, in fact.  But we know in another four years we get to make a choice again.  Churches are harder places for leadership shifts.   In the church, we know we’ll be living with the consequence of our choice and, to be honest, living with what we didn’t know or expect at the time for a long, long time.

We don’t like to feel powerless.  That’s why search committees worry about things which are so far beyond anyone’s capacity or comprehension, unless they actually have a crystal ball.  It’s impossible to know how in the particular person of the Rev’d Mrs. Right or the Rev’d Mr. Wonderful (or, in the conclave, Cardinal So-and-so) our future hopes, past experience, and projected expectations will merge and find meaning.  And which I should quickly add “…find meaning, for me.”

That’s just it.  We like to be in control.  We are in control of a whole lot of things: what words we use, whether we tell our children we love them, what groceries we buy, whether we go the gym, how we spend our money, and who we associate with.

And yet we are decidedly not in control of a number of other things: why bad things happen or, for that matter, why good things happen, why other people act the way they do, whatever happens in the stock market, and why we are unable to resist impulse buys in a checkout line.

The question is how we deal.  Some among us, the Type A’s, exert such profound control over the things they can manage they never have to deal with the things they can’t.  Others write poetry or songs.  Some drink, others buy things.  Still others, most notably youngest children such as myself, don’t really give a hoot because we actually suspect someone else is in charge.  And still others are brilliant conspiracy theorists, and here I’m thinking not only of Oliver Stone but the folks who produce FoxNews and MSNBC.

We want to be in control and yet we know we’re not.  We want to manage the big things and, to add insult to injury, we’re afraid we don’t know who’s in the back office and, even if we knew, we still couldn’t trust them.  We are walking, talking contradictions.  Our Lutheran friends have a great phrase for this: paradox, defined by Merriam-Webster as “a statement that is seemingly contradictory or opposed to common sense and yet is perhaps true.”  That concept doesn’t solve anything (not for the Type A’s, at least) but it makes the conflict feel a bit more palatably holy.  To me, it’s always seemed the healthiest, least dysfunctional, most honest stance to do what 12-steppers call Step One: admit it.  Admit your human-ness, your frailty, powerlessness, lack of imagination, inability to control the future, and general anxiety about what’s coming next.

There’s good news and bad news.

The good news is that most of those who work in the institutional church, by and large, get this.  Over the past several decades, we’ve started becoming honest.  We’ve started to be unafraid of claiming our numerical decline, brokenness and powerlessness and laying that mess before God.  A seminary professor once pointed out the irony that most churches house AA groups but treat them like tenants or, in some cases, nuisances.  Too many churches, he remarked, fail to connect the transformative potential of 12-step spirituality to their actual functioning.  Too many fail to see AA as a mission partner, maybe mission builder, not just a renter.  (To be honest, the second “A” does have something to do with this.)  Fortunately, over time, the institutional Christian church has become increasingly comfortable with admitting our powerlessness.  Maybe being honest about, say, numerical decline is the first step towards actually seeking wisdom from a Higher Power.

Bad news: this still comes as a shock to lots of people.  It vexes search committees and stymies personnel decisions in too many churches.  Too often, we call institutional managers instead of pastors or, at least, expect those we call to be patient managers even though we might actually need what William Willimon called in a recent Christian Century article “impatient instigators”.  The 2005 papal transition highlighted this gulf, as well.  When the veritable definition of “institutional-manager”, Cardinal Ratzinger, became Benedict XVI, taking over after John Paul II, he not only followed a genuinely gregarious leader but — and this is no small point — took the reigns after his predecessor’s 27-year reign, over which time most of the world either became so comfortable with the ways J.P.2 filled the red shoes or, rather, never knew another Supreme Pontiff.

That’s why Benedict is, today, Benedicto!, a true blessing not only to the church but to the world.  He’s handing off leadership in a public way without the, um, advantage of dying in office — a quick trip to sainthood for anyone in the church.  It is a blessing — benedicto! — to finally be honest, and not only that but publicly so.

So let’s keep the spirit alive. Here’s the honest truth made public, church: most of those whom you call to lead these institutions have, through a long process of discernment, had to undergo fairly intense spiritual, emotional, psychological and, add to that, physical inspection and introspection, and we’re really serious about working on the inner life.  We think there’s real value to doing that, and we also think it’s a blessing that people aren’t joining churches to get a job connection or “see and be seen”.  Rather, we actually expect people who come to church to also want or at least want to want some intense spiritual and emotional introspection and hear a message about changing the way we live our lives.

Now that we’re being honest, we also want to admit we’ve been afraid of a lot of you who want us to act as managers and fit your prototypes and expectations.  We’re afraid of rocking the boat too much because (a) we don’t want to come across as meanies — though we have spiritual directors who help us deal with that — and (b) we’re all too painfully aware that no small number of folks think of church as nothing more than a voluntary organization, no different than the Elks Lodge, so if things change too much too quickly a number of you might just revoke your pledge.  We’ve been unsteadily trying to re-frame the conversation and talk more about God’s mission.  We’ve been afraid and sheepish.

We haven’t been as clear as we need to be, but I think it’s time.  I sense that it’s time.

In my experience, I’m touched by the ways in which the yearning for honesty spills across generational lines.  I’ve been pleased that most people genuinely come to church for spiritual, life-changing reasons.  I also think we’ve sold ourselves short.  For me, it’s been argued too often that Baby Boomers have an inability to talk about the stuff of real life — stuff which may involve brokenness or powerlessness — because they remember with fondness the stable institutions of their youth, and they’re trying to recreate their childhood.  That’s just not true.  Most members of the Baby Boom generation I know have watched their children and, now, grandchildren grow up in an changed world and they’ve come to terms with uncertainty, disorder, and suffering.   It’s also the case that the Boomers who wish for the 1950s all over again have already left churches because they sense we’re serious about steering into the wind, and those who’ve remained in our congregations are already doing that profound inner work.   It’s also been said too much that young people, today, don’t have a moral bone in their body or they’ve just put their faith in Apple products — not Jesus like previous generations did.  Youth and young adults have quite penetrating faith in God, and they also have a great ability to see what’s really there.  Many young adults are looking for congregations to take that Lord who turned over tables in the Temple quite seriously, and act in their lives and in our society as a voice of change — a voice which gets its power because it comes from the margins, not the center.  They just don’t find as much meaning in potlucks and old-fashioned dinners as did previous generations.  This gulf is being bridged day after day in most parish churches across our nation.  It’s refreshing to see someone in her 80s sit down over coffee with someone in his 20s and talk openly, truthfully, and meaningfully about life’s ups and downs, a conversation in which neither party is offering advice or trying to fix anything, both there as companions on the way.

This is good news, church.  And it’s time to be honest, publicly honest, and celebrate the work we’ve been doing and which previous leaders have envisioned.  It’s time to be a lot more bold about it, in fact, for if the Christian church can’t be the place in society in which people come from all walks of life and form community grounded in honesty and truth-telling, who will be?

Benedicto!, Benedict XVI or Pope Emeritus or Cardinal Ratzinger or whatever we’re supposed to call you these days.  Maybe, in the spirit of all this refreshing honesty, we’ll just get back to basics, and remember the only name God knows you by – Joseph.  Well done.

WHOEVER IS NOT AGAINST US IS FOR US & THE GOSPEL OF JESUS’ WIFE

What’s now being called ‘The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife’ is a piece of papyrus with eight statements, written in Coptic and dated to sometime in the fourth century.  One of those sayings has gotten the most attention in recent days: “Jesus said to them, ‘My wife…”  The other lines are also intriguing.  One reads “…she will be able to be my disciple.”  Another refers to a Mary; unclear whether it’s Jesus’ mother or Mary Magdalene or another Mary.  Jesus does mention his mother in one phrase. And in another he seems to say something about cohabitation: “As for me, I dwell with her in order to…”  All in all, it’s an interesting find and it’s got people talking.

Here’s what it’s not: it’s not a definitive answer as to whether or not Jesus had a wife.  That will go unknown, now and always.  (As for me, if there were a Mrs. Jesus, it wouldn’t change the story.)  The interesting take-away from this papyrus, for me, is that it shines a light onto early Christianity, and says a lot about how they lived – and we still try to live – with different people, divergent opinions and theological diversity and, yet, at our best stay true the union of which Christ spoke.

The community from which this tiny shred of an ancient papyrus emerged had something to say about affirming the place and role of women in the church, at least this one Christian community.  Obviously, there was a relatively dominant strand in the early church, most likely a byproduct of its Graeco-Roman environment, that sublimated the place and role of women and exalted that of men’s leadership.  The household codes in several New Testament writings (Col. 3:18-4:1; Eph. 5:21-6:9; Titus 2:1-10; 1 Pet. 2:18-3:7) mimic similar codes that would be easily identifiable in the Roman Empire of the first century, placing women subservient to men – just as slaves are to masters, and children to fathers.  The New Testament codes, unlike those of secular Roman society, do not give men absolute power, however; but insist on some level of mutuality and responsibility.  We know that that dominant strand exercised, in time, almost unilateral prominence as Christianity turned from a movement to the Empire’s organized, institutionalized and, eventually, official religion.  One needs only to look at the norm of an all-male priesthood, for instance.

But that was not the only strand of Christian thought and practice, certainly not in Christianities earliest days.  One doesn’t need a newly uncovered papyrus to know that.  That alternative strand is in the pages of the New Testament.  Luke’s Acts of the Apostles, for one, is filled with women who are named and lifted up as leaders in the early church – Lydia, a wealthy patron of early Christians, is named (and her husband isn’t!) in Acts 16:14-15; a woman named Priscilla and her husband, Aquilla, were leaders in the early movement and have been traditionally listed among the 70 Disciples (Acts 18:26).  In John’s gospel, for instance, the first person Jesus tells of his Messiahship is a Samaritan woman (Jn. 4).  And even Paul, whom many think of as the ultimate mysoginistic, patriarchal pig, turns out to be quite egalitarian: affirming that “…there is neither male nor female” (Gal. 3:28); addressing Phoebe as a deacon (Rom. 16:1); writing glowingly to Timothy about his grandmother’s (Lois) and mother’s (Eunice) faith, notably saying nothing about Timothy’s grandfather or father (2 Tim. 1:5).  The New Testament is fascinating, to me, because it seems to preserve arguments, encapsulate disagreements, and lift up a varied story of the earliest followers of Jesus.  In spite of the attempts of some Christian communities to normalize and regularize this new faith, there was, looking at the whole, a divergent and diverse collection of Jesus-followers, many of whom, if they were ever together, would disagree passionately about a lot of things, including the role of women.  To me, this newly uncovered Egyptian papyrus suggests that that conversation or, rather, argument continued.  Even centuries after the dominant, male-leadership strand of Christianity became relatively normative, there were still followers of Jesus who said, “We disagree…”  And this papyrus, if it’s authentic, is a wonderful witness to that diversity.

We make a mistake when we talk about “the early Christian church” or “early Christianity”, as if it was a singular, monolithic entitity.  We’d be better to talk about the early Christian churches, or early Christianities.  Likewise, we make a mistake when we back up our arguments by claiming, “The Bible says…”  The Bible says a lot of different things, and that doesn’t make it less holy or less credible.  In fact, it makes it more credible and, indeed, more holy because I can see through its human words and broken understandings and philosophical attempts at comprehension (“…through a mirror dimly,” as Paul said) and see the hand of God, gently and profoundly keeping our focus on the main thing and away from the nagging, divisive details.  Christianity, then and now, is a very big tent, for we’ve never done a great job at getting everybody on board doctrinally.

Turns out Jesus had something to do with this.  Mark’s gospel preserves an interesting snippet in which John approaches Jesus and proudly affirms that they stopped a local healer from using Jesus’ name since “he was not following us.” (Mk. 9:38)  Interesting that even in Jesus’ day his very disciples were drawing lines and making determinations about out who was ‘in’ and who was ‘out’, and whether the name of the Galilean wonder-worker was copyright-protected!  Jesus’ response, in fact, is what led the early churches – and us – to this wild-eyed diversity.  Not only does Jesus tell John to back off, but he goes on to say that that “whoever is not against us is for us.”  Organizational theory experts and business consultants would say that that’s a downright terrible organizing principle – assuming, of course, that one’s goal is to make determinations about membership and privilege; assuming, of course, human standards.  But Jesus does not assume these things, and Jesus does not create borders and rules.  In fact, Jesus reserves his real judgment for those who do put up rules and restrictions and human interpretations.  According to Jesus, if my interpretation gets in the way of someone’s faith development, it’d be better if a great millstone was hung around my neck and I was tossed into the sea.  Yikes!

Jesus was not instituting a new religion.  Jesus was not a bishop who sought to organize the people around core beliefs and a Creed.  Jesus was not a systematic theologian who took biblical themes and developed doctrine and dogma.  Jesus was not a catechist who explained mortal and venial sins, and gave you a list of what you could or couldn’t do.   No, Jesus came to renew God’s Body in the world, to renew God’s kingdom within the ordinary, everyday hearts of women and men who had, over time, forgotten that they are special and created in God’s image, and that that is an indelible mark.  Emmanuel, God-with-us, became one of us to show us how to live and love and forgive and share, in the hopes that once we learned to do this we, too, would become one with Him, united in those things that matter.

And this is a message that matters, as much today as it did in the earliest years of the Jesus Movement.  What unites us, one to another, is certainly more profound and more lasting than what divides us, but you’ve probably heard that before.  You’ve probably heard it, and suspected that someone had a philosophy or governing principle or organizational theory that they were going to sell you – once they had convinced you of the shallowness of your particularities, once they had convinced you that you really wanted unity … their unity.

But what they didn’t convince you of was the depth of your particularities – the ways in which you and I, as wonderfully constituted human creatures with ego and pride and vainglory, hold on deeply to our standing and beliefs and man-made ways.  This is what’s called in the church ‘sin’, and it doesn’t go away by a simple sell or desire to wish it to disappear.  The divisions we erect are precisely that – our divisons, our made-up stuff – but they are not easily taken apart, not easily removed, not easily broken down and set free.  Sin is real and it is really within us, convincing us, day after day, that we are the lords of this world – that our politics is right (and others is wrong and, not only that, but evil); that our economic policy is the best; that our government is the only true one; that our demands are, of necessity, to be met; that our thoughts are brilliant; that our opinions are, by definition, wisdom; that what doesn’t satisfy me is bad, that what does is good, to be sought after and cherished.

This is not the way of God, obviously not the way God modeled when he became one of us and walked among us and lived and, yes, died as one of us, dying the horrible death of a common criminal, left hanging on a cross.  The way of God is to pour out himself, to pour forth in generous abundance for the salvation and redemption of the world.  This is not an easy way – note the cross – nor is this a self-learned way, nor is this inherent to us, we who are indeed pretty darn fallen.  Look at the myriad Christian groups, today, all the various denominations and groups, some of whom claim that they, still, are the one, true church and none others are like unto them – and they, alone, are like unto the Kingdom of God.  We are still as divided and fractured as the earliest followers of The Way, still as torn apart and diverse and divergent as they were thousands or years ago.

And isn’t that, then, a wonderful thing?  Look past the ideologues and the sinfulness and pride, of course, and look at the whole picture.  Look at the ways in which God is glorified in the fullness and completeness of human experience – liturgical churches, here, and praise and worship, there, and charismatic snake-handlers there, and bible-based preaching, there.  Store-front churches and grand cathedrals, hospital bedsides and underground bible studies in lands where Christians are persecuted, still.  People who may disagree about particular theologies or doctrines but who are, all together, members of Christ’s Body, serving the Risen One and seeking to give God glory, first and foremost.  No, we are not perfect, nor will we ever find the one, perfect church.  And in spite of ourselves and zeal for perfection, God is glorified, for whomever is not against us is, we remember, for us.  And that’s as true today as it was when a fourth-century scribe scribbled some strange notes about women and Jesus and begged to disagree boldly in faith.

____________________

A Sermon preached at St. George’s Church on the Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost; 30 September 2012.