Monday, August 28, 2006

Homily: "The Deep End" (Delivered 8-27-06)

The new meditation manual by Jeffrey Lockwood features a wonderful mediation about traveling. He begins by mentioning all these exotic and wonderful places he has visited, and all of the stomach-churning food products he’s been offered, including horse steaks and vodka made from fermented mare’s milk. Lockwood concludes that from these extensive travels he has learned the art of being a good guest. It is what he has learned that is the important part. The place itself is incidental. He could have learned the exact same lesson from visiting his aunt in Peoria, as long as we assume that his aunt is a disaster in the kitchen.

This same point was made in a slightly different way a while back by Sports Illustrated columnist Rick Reilly. Writing about mountain climbers on Mount Everest, Reilly chronicles that it is now common for hundreds, even thousands, of climbers to attempt Everest each climbing season. It is normal for dozens to die attempting to reach the top.

Reilly explains that to put together a climbing team, you are looking at an expense of, at the very least, $100,000. Half of this amount goes to the Nepalese government in exchange for a permit to climb. What this means is that you get the real life scenario, played out dozens of times each year, in which someone attempting to reach the summit, who has already shelled out a small fortune, has to decide between going for the summit, or stopping to offer assistance to a person certain to die without help. If you stop to give that person oxygen and help them down, you will forfeit your chance to reach the top. It is now routine for dying men to be passed by those seeking the summit.

What you learn is more important than where you’ve been.

Today we hold our "gathering of the waters" ceremony. Traditionally, we've said simply the place from whence the water we contribute comes. But place names are seldom descriptive. Imagine water from the Gulf of Mexico. Did it come from a service trip to New Orleans? Did it come from a cultural exchange trip to Mexico? Did you make a final visit to a dying relative in Florida? Or, maybe, it was celebrating a honeymoon in Belize, as I know two members of this congregation did? But, the mind wonders, couldn’t the water be from some ill-begotten trip? After all, you could be bringing the water as a souvenir from your drug smuggling adventure, or from your trip you took to set up an offshore banking account into which you siphon the funds you're embezzling from work. Its all the same water, but it is different water.

To say it is from the a place, like, say, the Gulf of Mexico, doesn't say much. Always, always there is context that has to be taken into account. There is also the change, or growth that happens in your heart and in your soul. Did you learn something about what it means to be a gracious guest? Something about privilege? Something about solidarity, or compassion? Something about love? Something about your family? Do you come back committed? Do you come back inspired, determined? Do you come back renewed? Reacquainted? Bonded in deeper intimacy? A good tan?

Not to put too fine a point on it, but not all trips are equal. If you don’t believe me, go watch "Snakes on a Plane" or “Little Miss Sunshine.”

The title of my homily is "The Deep End." The title is taken from an image that was shared by a colleague of mine. [And truthfully, I forget the source of this image.] The image is of two ways of getting into a swimming pool. One way is to gradually ease into the shallow end. The other way is to jump into the Deep End, over your head. As my colleague explains this image, it is a parable about community. That is to say, there are two ways to enter into community. One way, you ease in, getting deeper as it feels comfortable, pulling back when you feel a little discomfort, getting out when you feel like it. This way doesn't lead to close-knit community. There is no reason for people to stick together. If you are holding onto another person, and you let go – it doesn't matter. Traveling together is more or less optional, because the stakes just aren’t very high. Of course, I am describing the shallow end.

But in the Deep End, everything is different. In over your head, you hang onto others for dear life. Sticking together is a matter of survival, your own and others'. Your participation is not a matter of personal preference, convenience, or whim. It is a matter of necessity. The stakes are high.

In the Deep End, intimacy is a function of the importance of the moment, of all being in the same important and urgent situation together. In the shallow end, intimacy is a matter of personal preference, even choice. Think back to climbing Everest.

Now, I’m going to bring up a subject that can be a touchy one in church company. The subject I am going to bring up is privilege. So, I am going to ask us to be in the Deep End together while we talk about privilege a little bit.

Now when I bring up privilege, I’m going to guess that you thought one of two things. One thing you may have thought is of the types of privileges you have that lots of other people don’t. Or, maybe you thought about the types of privileges that lots other people have that you don’t. I want to make an observation. Everyone here is less privileged than somebody else, that is, unless Bill Gates has become a new member of our congregation. If you are Bill Gates, please speak to me after the service. There’s enough peanut butter and jelly for you at the picnic. And, everyone here is more privileged than somebody else in the world unless we happen to have any political prisoners from North Korea visiting us this morning.

Which is to say that awareness of privilege generally leads to feelings of on one hand: shame, guilt, or embarrassment, or, on the other hand, resentment, self-pity, jealousy, or indignation. Going down this whole route is often a destructive exercise, because these types of shallow-end emotions aren’t helpful. They lead us away from the whole point, which is to lift up the deep end truth of the amazing possibility and potential that exists right here, in this room, our real power to make a real difference in the world, our ability to have such an amazing impact in the lives of each other, our children, our elders, our families, our community, our city, our schools, our government. That’s the deep end way of being together.

Today is the ingathering of our church community. In just a few moments we will hold our Gathering of the Waters ceremony. I imagine Jeffrey Lockwood pouring out his water and saying, “This water is for the art of being a good guest.” I imagine water poured for renewal, for beauty, for family connection, for justice and solidarity, for taking care of somebody, for remembering where you come from, for the love of nature, for remembering what’s important.

I imagine an Everest hiker who chose to forego the summit in order to help a fellow human being pouring out water and saying, “I bring what it feels like to be a good Samaritan.” We are so deeply in need of all of the gifts we bring that make this church a community.