Friday, December 31, 2010

Sermon: "God's Kingdom & Caesar's Empire" (Delivered 12-19-10)

In August, 2010, writer Glenn Greenwald published a story in which he collected stories from major newspapers on cuts that cities and states have made because of budget woes:

An August 6, 2010 story in the New York Times detailed how various cities and states were dealing with shrinking budgets. It mentioned that while many government agencies and businesses have furloughed employees to save money, the State of Hawaii took it one step further, furloughing its school children for 17 school days during the 2009-2010 school year, thereby giving Hawaii the shortest school year in the country.

That New York Times piece also mentioned Clayton County, Georgia, which on March 31, 2010, suspended its public transportation services entirely, stranding 8,400 bus riders. Meanwhile, Colorado Springs, Colorado trimmed its police force, auctioned off police helicopters, and switched off a third of its more than 24,000 streetlights as a cost-saving measure.

A July 17, 2010 article in the Wall Street Journal took us to Jamestown, North Dakota, where town governments have discovered that they can save more than $72,000 per mile by turning paved roads back to gravel roads. According to the story, North Dakota is not alone, “In Michigan, at least 38 of the 83 counties have converted some asphalt roads to gravel in recent years. Last year, South Dakota turned at least 100 miles of asphalt road surfaces to gravel. Counties in Alabama and Pennsylvania have begun downgrading asphalt roads to cheaper chip-and-seal road, also known as ‘poor man's pavement.’ Some counties in Ohio are simply letting roads erode to gravel.” The Wall Street Journal article goes on to quote a professor at Purdue University who has convened a seminar on this trend entitled “Back to the Stone Age.” Experts caution that this approach is pennywise and pound-foolish. The smoothing and grading of gravel roads can be costlier than paving; the surface damages automobiles and raises fuel costs; and it hurts local businesses that depend on traffic from those who enjoy driving America’s blue highways. Despite these arguments, cities and states have been unable to raise taxes to pay for the needed road maintenance.

Back in February of this year, the Los Angeles Times reported on a State Senator from Utah named Chris Buttars who authored a bill to eliminate the twelfth grade in the State of Utah, in order to help solve Utah’s budget deficit.

Finally, Greenwald cites a story in the August 6, 2010 Philadelphia Inquirer where it was reported that the city of Camden, New Jersey would close its public libraries as a cost-saving measure. “All materials in the libraries would be donated, auctioned, stored, or destroyed. That includes 187,000 books, historical documents, artifacts, and electronic equipment. Keeping materials in the shuttered buildings is a fire hazard, officials said, and would make them vulnerable to vandalism and vermin.”

Greewald concludes, “Does anyone doubt that once a society ceases to be able to afford schools, public transit, paved roads, libraries, and streetlights – or once it chooses not to be able to afford these things in pursuit of imperial priorities and the maintenance of a vast surveillance and National Security State – that a very serious problem has arisen, that things have gone seriously awry, that imperial collapse, by definition, is an imminent inevitability?”

A lot of my thinking as of late, as well as my reading as of late, has centered on the broad theme of empire and, more specifically, on:
What it means to live as a part of the American Empire – because I think the term fits;

What it means for the American Empire to be in decline – because I think it can be argued that it is; and,

What our role as individuals and as a community should be as the citizens of a declining empire.
My reading and study has helped me to examine empire in terms of international relations and military strategy, in terms of economics, in terms of culture, in terms of politics, and in terms of ethics, morality, and theology.

I’ve been reading books such as Empire of Illusion by Chris Hedges, which talks about how spectacle replaces learning when empires teeter and how culture becomes dominated by bread and circus illusions. And, I’ve read Andrew Bacevich’s Washington Rules, a book about our self-defeating military policy of global power projection, global policing, and pre-emptive war. I’ve read Michael Lewis’ treatments of the economic crisis and seen Inside Job, a documentary film on the same subject.

This morning, my words are going to be about empire, the meaning of empire, and the meaning of the decline of the American Empire. Just as it has been my tradition to preach on a negative emotion or a spiritual affliction on the first Sunday of December, it has been my tradition to preach on a heavy, intense topic on the Sunday before Christmas. I do this not because I figure that it is a Sunday when we are likely to get good attendance, but because I don’t think our Holidays should be superficial, and I think it is too easy to sentimentalize and make superficial the meaning of Christmas. The secular celebration of Christmas has been co-opted by cultural imperialism. The plot of the Biblical Christmas story begins with empire, and cannot be correctly understood apart from a critique of empire.

But, before we get to the Christmas story, let me say some words about empire. To say that the American Empire is in decline is a provocative and troubling statement. If, in saying that it is, I am speaking the truth, we might as well put everything else on the back burner because this understanding is going to raise all sorts of important and crucial questions. Namely, it demands that we ask what we should be doing right now and that we speculate about what we might be in store for.

As Unitarian Universalists we don’t really talk at all about the end of the world. Well, at least we don’t talk about the end of the world in purely religious terms. Religiously, we don’t talk about the apocalypse or the end times. You’ll never hear any mention of the rapture, or the four horsemen of the Apocalypse, and I’ll never give a sermon about revealing the secret prophecies in the Book of Revelation. These ideas don’t appear within our register. Theologically, this is not what we do. It is not who we are.

But, we do have a strong strand of the apocalyptic in our thinking. It manifests itself not in our theology but in our social concern. The apocalyptic is very much alive in our concern about global climate change and the threat of extinction, famine, storm, and disaster that is so much a part of the threat posed by global climate change.

From the 1960s to the 1990s liberal religion led the call for nuclear disarmament and Unitarian Universalists were well represented in their leadership of local chapters of SANE/FREEZE. This call for a nuclear freeze and for nuclear non-proliferation was based very much on the concern that the end of the world need not come any sooner than it naturally would.

I think when we talk about something like the end of the American Empire there is a sense of, if not the apocalyptic, then, certainly, the fearful.

I want to use Friday’s newspaper to demonstrate what I mean. On Friday the Kansas City Star carried an op-ed piece by New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman. The headline of the piece was decidedly nationalist: “There’s only America A, No Plan B.”

Declaring that “a failing U.S. is not an option,” Friedman writes, “If America goes weak… and cannot project power the way it has, your kids won’t just grow up in a different America. They will grow up in a different world. You will not like who picks up the pieces.” [Emphasis mine.] His op-ed is full of apocalyptic fear. Friedman then brings up what he considers the greatest threats to America A. On one hand he contrasts the United States with China and mentions Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo, who was represented in Oslo by an empty chair because Xiaobo is being held as a political prisoner in China for the crime of promoting democracy.

Friedman then mentions a second threat to American dominance. The second threat is not a growing superpower with a shameful record when it comes to human rights. No, the second threat Friedman names consists of rogue individuals such as WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. These “superempowered individuals,” as Friedman calls them, threaten to plunge the world into anarchy. Friedman concludes, “The alternative today to a world ordered by American power is not some cuddly… system… It is half China and half-superempowered individuals. Managing that will never be easy. But it will be a lot easier with a healthy America, committed to its core values, powerful enough to project them and successful enough that others want to follow our lead.”

There is so much that is deeply troubling in Friedman’s analysis. There is also the deeply bizarre. There is plenty to dislike about Julian Assange, but his rising to world superpower status seems to me to be a laughable proposition. But, beneath his delusional statements, there are dangerous statements. Friedman longs for a world in which the United States is able to, quote, “project power the way it has.” That is the essence of empire.

There was a funny story my father told me as a kid that was more than a funny story. It also functions as a meaningful parable. The story involves a group of boys out camping on a cold night and deciding that they need to keep their fire going all night long to stay warm. Having made camp after dark, the boys start a campfire and gather up all of the wood in the area that is illuminated by the fire. But soon they have gathered all of the wood inside of the visible area around the fire. With their fuel supply dwindling, the survival of the fire is endangered. So, the boys decide to start a second bonfire so that they can see more wood to fuel their fire. But, the problem is that they now have to gather wood for two fires. And, next thing you know, they have nine bonfires going and all of the campers are running frantically to keep the original bonfire and all eight of the outlying bonfires going. The system collapses on itself. Hold this image in your mind while you consider that:

According to Andrew Bacevich, “The United States currently has approximately 300,000 troops stationed abroad,… more than the rest of world combined (a total that does not even include another 90,000 sailors and maries who are at sea); as of 2008, according to the Department of Defense, these troops occupied or used some 761 ‘sites’ in 39 foreign countries, although this tally neglected to include many dozens of U.S. bases in Iraq or Afghanistan.”

In the same vein, Chris Hedges writes, “We embrace the dangerous delusion that we are on a providential mission to save the rest of the world from itself, to impose our virtues — which we see as superior to all other virtues — on others, and that we have the right to do this by force… [Our international escapades] are doomed to failure. We cannot afford them… The costly forms of death we dispense on one side of the globe are hollowing us out from the inside at home.”

Hedges, never one to pull his punches, continues, “Imperialism and democracy are incompatible. The massive resources and allocations devoted to imperialism mean that democracy inevitably withers and dies. Democratic states and republics, including ancient Athens and Rome, that refuse to curb imperial expansion eviscerate their political systems.”

Mindful of everything that I’ve just said about empire, listen to these familiar words from the second chapter of Luke’s Gospel,
In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered… All went to their own towns to be registered and taxed. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem… He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them at the inn.
This story is set inside of a narrative about empire. Outside of empire this story loses its meaning. Empire forces Joseph and Mary to take their journey, to travel to Bethlehem so that they can be taxed to fund the Roman army, the excesses of Caesar’s court, and a tax-payer funded coliseum in Rome. One thing is for sure: the taxes that Joseph and Mary pay won’t come back to them in terms of social services.

At the other end of the story of the life of Jesus, we find what I consider to be one of the most powerful passages in the Gospels. It is the scene in John’s Gospel in which Pontius Pilate questions Jesus. Pontius Pilate is the voice of empire. He can only see the world through the lens of empire. His interrogation of Jesus is awkward, because their understandings of the world is not on the same register. Pilate asks, “Are you King of the Jews? So you are a King?” And, Jesus answers, “My kingdom is not of this world.” They are speaking to each other on different levels. One empire trades in power projection, military dominance, class stratification, and cultural arrogance. The other kingdom trades in love, compassion, and radical equality.

[Take a moment to watch this scene as interpreted by director Martin Scorcese in his adaptation of Nikos Kazantzakis’ Last Temptation of Christ. The film stars Willem Dafoe as Jesus and David Bowie - !!! - as Pontius Pilate.]

When I shared with a member of our congregation that I had been on a kick reading and writing about the decline of the American empire, she responded, sarcastically, “I just don’t know how people in Sweden, Denmark, or France can live with themselves. They wake up every morning, look in the mirror, and have to face the fact that they aren’t #1. They must suffer from low self-esteem.” I responded to her and suggested that they probably take consolation in their government-run health care programs, excellent social services, and beaucoup vacation-time.

Remember the words of Thomas Friedman. “If America goes weak… and cannot project power the way it has, your kids won’t just grow up in a different America. They will grow up in a different world.” However, if America continues to follow the course of empire, if it continues to project power the way it has, the cost will be even more dilapidated schools, roadways turned back to gravel, and social services, from health clinics to libraries, shuttering their doors. We will live in the abandoned places of empire. The cost of occupation means that our stables will have to double as maternity wards. Friedman, in his op-ed, sees the world through the lens of empire, where power projection and military might matter most.

There is a different world, a world that Jesus could see and that Pilate could not, a world that Jesus called “The Kingdom of God” as opposed to the Roman Empire. It is a world in which the poor are clothed and fed, the prisoners are cared for, the children and the widow are provided for. Even when, especially when, our politicians and our tycoons can only see the world through the lens of empire, we must continue to lift up this vision of a different world.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Buried by Books

This blog post is about an existential crisis. OK, it is not really an existential crisis but it is about something I recently discovered that shocked me, or at least made me stop and think. If you know me, you know that I make and keep a lot of lists. One of those lists is a list of books that either I heard about and think that I might like to read or that someone recommends very strongly that I read.

Well, this list had gotten a bit sloppy so decided to clean it up and, when I did, I discovered that my list of books to read is 479 books long! At the rate that I read books, that is the equivalent of nine years of reading. Or, in other words, even if no books were published in the next decade and even if nobody shares a book title with me that they think I should read, it would take me over nine years to read all the books on my list.

Yes, there are bigger problems than this in the world. Yes, I have bigger problems than this. But, it makes me the teensiest bit melancholy and disappointed to know that this list will never be completed. If anything, I expect it to grow even larger and even more unmanageable and daunting.

All of this overly-existential hand-wringing has been to share with you the top 25 titles on my “Books to Read” list for 2011.

1) The Death of Josseline: Immigration Stories from the Arizona-Mexico Borderlands – by Martha Regan
This book is the UUA Common Read book of the year. At the Shawnee Mission Unitarian Universalist Church we’ve asked for our members to read it and come to one of several discussion groups we will be hosting on the book in January.

2) Underground America: Narratives of Undocumented Lives – edited by Peter Orner and Luis Alberto Urrea
If I am going to read The Death of Josseline, I might as well also crack into the Voices of Witness series published by McSweeney’s press. They have already published five titles in this series.

3) The New Personality Self-Portrait: Why You Think, Work, Love and Act the Way You Do – by John M. Oldham and Lois B. Morris
In early 2011 I am going to be attending a church auction event called “An Evening with Two Psychologists.” The evening, as I understand it, will include discussion and games based on the different personality types described in this book. Luckily, I’ve been told that it is impossible to fail this personality test.

4) The Squeaky Wheel: Complaining the Right Way to Get Results, Improve Your Relationships, and Enhance Self-Esteem – by Guy Winch [TO BE RELEASED IN JANUARY]
While researching voter turnout during the 2010 midterm election, I ran into this piece Guy Winch wrote for Psychology Today online. I mentioned his upcoming book in my sermon on Disillusionment on December 5 and Guy Winch wrote me a Facebook message to say “hello.” I’ll be reading his book when it comes out in January.

5) The Instructions – by Adam Levin
Who else but McSweeney’s would publish a 1,030 page first novel? Supposedly the novel takes place over four days in the life of a ten year old Jewish boy. James Joyce is very impressed.

6) McSweeney’s 33
One of the many, many great things about McSweeney’s literary quarterly is the fantastic packaging. I’m not sure how I am going to read this issue which was printed on large-format newsprint and resembles an extra-bulky Sunday paper.

7) McSweeney’s 36
McSweeney’s 36 just arrived in the mail. This issue consists of stories in the form of booklets and pamphlets tucked inside a cubic box/human head.

8) Zeitoun – by Dave Eggers
After reading Eggers’ What is the What, perhaps the best book I’ve ever read, I can’t believe I’ve waited so long to read his narrative non-fiction account of the experiences of a Syrian-American survivor of Hurricane Katrina.

9) The Pale King – by David Foster Wallace [TO BE RELEASED IN APRIL]
There is no book I am more looking forward to reading in 2010 than the long-awaited Pale King. After David Foster Wallace committed suicide in 2008 the literary world has been holding its breath to learn what would become of his unfinished final novel. Now, it looks like it will be released in only 115 days.

10) A Better Angel: Stories – by Chris Adrian
Adrian is a not just a brilliant writer. He is also a specialist in pediatric medicine and a graduate of Harvard Divinity School. Last summer the New Yorker named him as one of the 20 best writers under 40 years of age. After reading his amazing short story in McSweeney’s 32 and his story in the September 27, 2010, New Yorker I am eager to take this short story collection off of my bookshelf.

11) The Great Night: A Novel – by Chris Adrian [TO BE RELEASED IN APRIL]
Although I wasn’t impressed by Adrian’s first novel, Gob’s Grief, I was blown away by his second novel, The Children’s Hospital. His third novel is due out in late April.

12) Paul Was Not a Christian: The Original Message of a Misunderstood Apostle – by Pamela Eisenbaum
This book was a gift to me from Jennifer Forker who read it as a student at Iliff Seminary. In April I will begin teaching an adult religious education course on “Reading Saint Paul as Unitarian Universalists.” This is going to be research for that class.

13) Death of the Liberal Class – by Chris Hedges
I’ve read and enjoyed four of Hedges’ seven books. I can’t wait to get my hand on this, his latest and perhaps his most controversial.

14) Losing Moses on the Freeway: The 10 Commandments in America – by Chris Hedges
Besides reading Hedges’ latest book, I am also looking forward to reading his first.

15) Mutants and Mystics: Science Fiction, Superhero Comics, and the Paranormal – by Jeffrey Kripal [TO BE RELEASED IN OCTOBER]
I am currently reading Jeffrey Kripal’s fantastic (and academically rigorous) Authors of the Impossible: The Paranormal and the Sacred. I can’t wait for the follow up, due out this October from the University of Chicago Press.

16) The Serpent’s Gift: Gnostic Reflections on the Study of Religion – by Jeffrey Kripal
I read only parts and pieces of Kripal’s first two books Kali’s Child and Roads of Excess, Palaces of Wisdom. I do mean to go back and read them both in their entirety. But, I am also very interested in cracking into Kripal’s third book, The Serpent’s Gift.

17) Pilgrim at Tinker Creek – by Annie Dillard
I have absolutely no good excuse for not having read Dillard’s classic spiritual memoir. Put it on the reading list for 2011.

18) Four Spirits – by Sena Jeter Naslund
This novel was highly recommended to me a couple of years ago by a colleague of mine. Naslund is the author of Ahab’s Wife, which I have not read, a novel written from the perspective of the wife of the captain in Moby Dick. Four Spirits is a historical novel written from the perspective of four girls who died in a Civil Rights Era church bombing.

19) Five Skies – by Ron Carlson
This novel was highly recommended to me by a member of the SMUUCh fiction book club.

20) Home – by Marilynne Robinson
I had the good fortune of meeting Marilynne Robinson in 2006. I’ve enjoyed all of her books, but none more than Gilead. Home, as I understand it, is kind of a follow-up or alternative take on Gilead and, to tell you the truth, I am afraid of reading it because Gilead was just that good. But, there is really no excuse not to have read this one.

21) Half a Life – by Darin Strauss
This book, published by McSweeney’s press, has been getting rave reviews. Let me copy what is written on its dust jacket:
“Half my life ago, I killed a girl.” So begins Darin Strauss’s Half a Life, the true story of how one outing in his father’s Oldsmobile resulted in the death of a classmate and the beginning of a different, darker life for the author. We follow Strauss as he explores his startling past—collision, funeral, the queasy drama of a high-stakes court case—and what starts as a personal tale of a tragic event opens into the story of how to live with a very hard fact: we can try our human best in the crucial moment, and it might not be good enough. Half a Life is a nakedly honest, ultimately hopeful examination of guilt, responsibility, and living with the past.

21) Local Wonders – by Ted Kooser
Five years ago, when I provided sabbatical coverage for my colleague in Lincoln, Nebraska, I was given a copy of Pulitzer Prize Winner and former U.S. Poet Laureate Ted Kooser’s book of prose poems. I need to take it off my shelf.

22) Here If You Need Me – by Kate Braestrup
Somehow I managed to pick this book up but never read it. It is the true story of a UU who goes to seminary after the death of her husband and becomes a chaplain working with search and rescue teams in Maine.

23) No Silent Witness: The Eliot Parsonage Women and Their Unitarian World – by Cynthia Grant Tucker
I read Tucker’s earlier group biography, Prophetic Sisterhood, about a group of female frontier Unitarian ministers. The Eliot family was the leading Unitarian family from the late 1800s until after WWII. This group biography delves into the lives of the women of the Eliot dynasty.

24) Blood Done Sign My Name – by Tim Tyson
Last week I was elected to serve as Vice-President of the Board of the MAINstream Coalition for 2011. The author of this book is the brother of MAINstream’s wonderful Executive Director, Boo Tyson. The book tells the story of racially motivated murder in North Carolina in the 1960s.

25) The Girl Who Kicked a Hornet's Nest – by Stieg Larsson
I completely devoured the first two book in Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy. Must finish the series.

Click here to find more lists.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Sermon: "The Queer Pirate Jesus Wheels into Port" (Delivered 12-12-10)

Back in October I traveled to Dallas to attend a church conference. I was a presenter there as was my colleague The Reverend Naomi King. We went out for dinner at The Happy Eggroll, a little non-descript Chinese restaurant in a strip mall. And, we each talked about the presentations we would be leading. Naomi’s was entitled, “The Queer Pirate Jesus Wheels into Port.” She told me that she wondered whether her topic might unsettle some people, to which I replied, “Oh, I don’t see why it would.”

Unfortunately, I didn’t get to hear Naomi’s presentation although I did seriously consider cancelling my presentation so that I could go and attend hers. However, Naomi kindly shared with me her amazing bibliography and helpfully pointed me in the direction of some on-line resources. Though I have taken the title of her presentation as my own, I don’t claim to be one tenth of the authority that she is.

So, what is this all about? This morning I am going to talk about Christology, a branch of theology that asks who Jesus was and what the figure of Jesus means. And, this morning I am going to introduce some of the radical new Christologies that theologians are thinking and writing about these days. And, as much as Christmas still has anything to do with Jesus, as much as we encounter accounts of Jesus’ birth in story and song, in crèches and pageants, it is worth our while to spend some time asking who Jesus was, how we should interpret Jesus’ life, and why any of this matters.

According to the Gospels, when Jesus was asked who he was, his response was coy. Jesus answered, “Who do you say that I am?” (Mark 8:29) Pontius Pilate’s answer was anything but coy. To the Roman authorities, Jesus was a troublemaker, an enemy of the state, and a threat to Rome’s security and hegemony. The price for his resistance to the absolute rule of the Roman Empire was death.

Two hundred years ago, in Germany, Biblical scholars made all sorts of amazing new advances in the field of New Testament scholarship. They used new forms of textual analysis, linguistic understandings, and new archeological evidence to begin to write about what they called the Historical Jesus. Then, 100 years later, along came Albert Schweitzer and turned this scholarship on its head. In his book, The Quest of the Historical Jesus (Geschichte der Leben-Jesu-Forschung), Schweitzer argued that these scholars lacked objectivity and that they managed to fashion Jesus in their own image. Schweitzer used the image of peering down a dark well. He said that looking for who Jesus was entailed something like looking down to the bottom of a dark well and seeing a glimmering visage looking back up at you, a visage that turns out to be your own reflection.

Allow me to say just a few words about why Christology is important. We are used to thinking in terms of dualities. Often, we think in terms of either the classic Trinitarian understanding of Jesus or the classic Unitarian understanding of Jesus. In the Trinitarian understanding, Jesus is God’s manifestation in human form. In the Unitarian understanding, Jesus is not God and should be understood fully as a human being and not as divine. Now, our options are not limited to just A or B. There are all sorts of other understandings that are possible, but for now let’s just stick with these two.

If you are a Trinitarian, which is to say if you believe that Jesus was God taking a human form on the earth, Christology is clearly important. But, if you accept that Jesus is God, you might be troubled by the fact that God chooses to manifest in a male body. You might be troubled by Western representations of God-turned-man when those representations imagine Jesus as blonde-haired, blue-eyed, and white-skinned, a Jesus with Anglo or Aryan facial features. Feminist theologians have long pointed out that male dominance and power is reinforced by imagining God as male. Theologians who consider issues of race and power have pointed out just how convenient it is to force oppressed people living under colonial rule to worship a white deity.

We’ve heard this before. But, Naomi expanded my thinking when she shared with me, for example, that in the deaf Christian community there is fierce debate about whether Jesus knew sign language. This may seem like an odd thing to think about, but from the perspective of a deaf person it makes sense. “Ok, so you’re going to tell me that Jesus is God, that God appears on Earth in human form, but that God appears on Earth in human form unable to communicate to me directly, that my only contact with God has to be mediated. As a deaf person I need to know: Is God accessible?”

I hope your compassion and empathy can extend to Trinitarian Christians who struggle with what it means for God to be imagined in human form in a way that reinforces their experiences of having their own humanity marginalized. But, why should any of this matter to us as Unitarians? It should matter for a couple of reasons. First, I think no matter what our theological identity is, it is important for us to take Jesus seriously. And, I think it is important for us to take seriously those who take Jesus seriously. In fact, I would say that it is when we take religion seriously that we are best able to critique and condemn religious expressions and actions that are evil and ignorant and ill.

As Unitarians, what is the answer we give when we are asked who Jesus was? Thomas Jefferson answered that question this way, writing,
To the corruptions of Christianity, I am indeed opposed; but not to the genuine precepts of Jesus himself. I am a Christian, in the only sense in which he wished any one to be; sincerely attached to his doctrines, in preference to all others; ascribing to himself every human excellence, and believing he never claimed any other.
In this church, in this faith tradition, when we are asked who Jesus is for us, we are likely to respond with an answer that is somewhat like the answer that Jefferson gave. We answer that we consider Jesus to be a great moral teacher, a great wisdom figure. But, re-invoking Schweitzer, I would say that it is telling that we as Unitarian Universalists, we who belong to the most educated religious group in the United States, counting all the diplomas in this room, would look at Jesus and see a professor.

Indeed, like a lesser-known Christmas hymn (#238) goes, “Within the shining of a star we catch a glimpse of who we are; in every infant born we see the hope of our nativity.”

So, just maybe, we ought to take a risk and dare to see with new eyes, as those from lands and from circumstances that may be different from yours or mine have tried to see Jesus. Inspired by Naomi’s title, allow me to share with you the insights of those who have “queered” Christ and those who imagine a pirate Jesus.

When I talk about “queering Christ” I am not making a claim about Jesus’ sexual orientation. Authors such as Nikos Kazantzakis (The Last Temptation of Christ) and Dan Brown (The Da Vinci Code) have imagined a heterosexual Jesus with a healthy libido. Scholars write about the homoerotic structure of the early Christian Church and point to things like the early church’s practice of nude baptism. There is also speculation about what we should make of that Mark’s Gospel includes mention of a nude youth fleeing the Garden of Gethsemane after Jesus’ arrest. “All of them deserted him and fled. A certain young man was following him, wearing nothing but a linen cloth. They caught hold of him, but he left the linen cloth and ran off naked. (Mark 14:50-52) Mel Gibson left this out of his movie.

But, that is not where I want to go this morning. I want to talk about “queer” in the sense that theologian and professor Carter Heyward, of the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts, uses the term. Heyward writes,
The term “queer” as I am using it, let me be clear, is not simply a code-word for gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and other ways of being at odds with dominant gender culture. “Queer” is not simply a reversal of a negative epithet so often hurled against GLBT folks in homophobic culture. “Queer” is not simply a synonym for being “odd,” “unusual,” or “out-there.” […]

Queerness is public solidarity in the struggle for sexual and gender justice and of irrepressibly making connections to other struggles for justice, compassion, and reconciliation. [Episcopal Divinity School] is, by the grace of God, a Queer seminary.
Minister and art historian Kittredge Cherry puts it this way:
The Jesus of scripture broke gender rules and gender roles. He befriended prostitutes, lepers, and other outcasts. He challenged traditional family values at almost every turn, ignoring his blood relatives in favor of those who became his "brothers and sisters" by loving God and neighbor. Traditional iconography such as the Stations of the Cross and the Passion narrative are increasingly being adapted to address gay suffering, sometimes with references to AIDS. Queer Christian art enlarges the way people see God and makes it easier to recognize the image of God in oneself and in others, particularly LGBT people.
Such a queer reading of the life of Jesus can be done on a level that is sympathetic and pastoral and on a level that is political and activist. A sympathetic, pastoral reading might point to Jesus leaving his family of origin and creating a family of allies. The experience of having to create a new family is all too common among gays and lesbians who face homophobic rejection from their families of origin. Jesus’ ministry to the outcasts is read, properly, as the radical acceptance that it is. And, just as African-American Christians have made the connection between their people who have been the victims of whipping and lynching and Jesus’ own scourging and crucifixion, so to have GLBT Christians viewed the Passion as a hate crime. Matthew Shepard was crucified, was he not?

At the same time, “queering Christ” has a political dimension as well. Consider, for example, Robert Goss’ book Jesus Acted Up: A Gay and Lesbian Manifesto. Goss, like other theologians, finds a parallel between the subversive ministry and teachings of Jesus and activists today calling for radical equality in our society. In Jesus Acted Up, Goss even refers to Jesus’ resurrection as a coming out.

Naomi King’s bibliography that she shared with me included Christological scholarship concerning Jesus and disability, Jesus and body image, Jesus and gender, and more. These new Christologies keep coming. In October of this year, Xola Skosana, a South African evangelical pastor attracted attention by delivering a sermon series entitled, “Jesus had HIV.”

If this discussion of “queering Christ” is new to you, then hold onto your chair because we haven’t even begun to get radical. I am referring here to ministers and Christian thinkers who have re-imagined Jesus as a pirate.

Let me begin with a little digression. During my final year in college I did a lot of original research about understandings of religious freedom during the American Revolution. As a part of this research I wanted to get inside the mind of Thomas Jefferson, the author of the first laws guaranteeing religious freedom in the United States, so I read hundreds of pages of laws that Jefferson wrote for the State of Virginia. As I read the legal code Jefferson had written, I discovered that the punishment for piracy in the State of Virginia was significantly harsher than the punishment for the equivalent of highway robbery. This baffled me. Why would this be?

The basic answer is that highway robbery exists within a closed system; pirates live outside of the system and threaten the entire system. Highway robbery is a form of illegal commerce, but it reinforces the validity of commerce. Piracy is an attack on not only the material goods that are plundered, but it is also an attack on the idea of property. If a mechanic quotes you an exorbitant price to fix your car, you would accuse the mechanic of highway robbery, not of piracy.

In contemporary parlance, piracy has a new meaning. It refers to the duplication and distribution of music, movies, and software for free. We might contrast piracy, in this sense, with bootlegging, an old-fashioned crime that has new meaning today. Today, bootlegging refers to making an unauthorized recording of a performance and selling that recording for profit. The practice of bootlegging confirms that musical recordings have monetary value. Piracy denies that music is worth money. (It is not surprising that perhaps the world’s largest website providing illegal downloads is called Pirate Bay.) [See the appendix for an interesting example of this concept in popular culture.]

Thus, the T-shirt that you can buy on the internet: It features an image of Jesus holding a fish and a loaf of bread in his hands. The tag-line reads, “Jesus was a pirate. He made copies.”

Yes, pirates are thieves and criminals, but they also function outside of the dominant social and economic system. For this analysis I am indebted to British Christian blogger Kester Brewin and anarchist philosopher Hakim Bey. Brewin writes,
What pirates do, as a rule, is emerge from the underbelly of a ‘stuck’ orthodoxy and, by way of actions that are initially perceived as heretical, reinvigorate that practice… And this is what Jesus did. He saw a religion blocked – a temple which had access restricted by merchants and priests. And he set about plundering the booty in the temple, and setting it free for all to enjoy. This was the heresy of Jesus Christ.
We might say that Jesus is a pirate when he multiplies the fishes and the loaves, when he says that in order to follow him you must first sell everything you have and give the money away to the poor, when he overturns the tables and drives the moneychangers out of the temple, and when he overturns the law by pronouncing that the “Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” (Mark 2:27) Parable after parable, Jesus’ teachings violate economic principles that we hold to be fair.

Brewin points out that Christians and pirates are the only two groups that have claimed a symbol of death, the cross and the crossbones, as their preferred symbol. They do this to demonstrate the absence of a fear of death. Michel Foucault said that “death is power’s limit.” Thus pirates and Christians each claim a radical power beyond the powers and principalities that pretend to rule the world. By renouncing life, the pirate and the Christian claims life. Hear the words of Paul. (2 Corinthians 6:8-10) He might just as well be describing a band of pirates as the early Christian church:
Honor and dishonor, praise and blame, alike are our lot: we are the impostors who speak the truth, the unknown men whom all men know; dying we still live on; disciplined by suffering, we are not done to death; in our sorrows we have always cause for joy; poor ourselves, we bring wealth to many; penniless, we own the world.
Brewin points out that the pirate is essentially the only criminal that we encourage our children to go as for Halloween. Children don’t dress up as arsonists, aggravated assaulters, or tax evaders. That pirates have such a mythology about them is perhaps due to their ability to occupy a space that is at once subversive and deeply imaginative. Of course, you might argue that it is wrong to confuse the pirates of fantasy with the pirates of Somalia. Indeed, there is nothing about the Somali pirates that we should aspire to. But, but, in the long view of history it helps to admit which side you are on.

“From the halls of Montezuma to the shores of Tripoli,” begins the Marine’s Hymn. Montezuma refers to a battle during the Mexican-American War, a war of territorial expansion that netted our nation Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California. The shores of Tripoli refer to the war against the Barbary States from 1801 to 1805. The war was undertaken by the Jefferson administration to suppress the Barbary Pirates who were interfering with the crucial trade interests of the young nation. The war was urged with the rallying cry, “Millions for defense; not a cent for tribute.” This was the first but not the last time the United States would go to war against a part of the Islamic world for financial gain.

From an African perspective, this legacy probably is read differently. It is not hard to imagine a Somalian or a North African Muslim looking to Western Europe and North America and saying, “You come to Africa and enslave our people. You established colonies and stole our natural resources. You divided us up into oddly shaped nations without any understanding of or regard for our history. You overthrew the politicians we elected when you don’t like them. Who should be lecturing whom on respect for property?”

Jesus as pirate makes sense when you consider Jesus’ status as a subject of an empire that had its way militarily and economically with the conquered people of Israel. Jesus’ actions and teaching reverse the economic and political worldview of Rome.

All around us this season we are presented with saccharine, manufactured, culturally-safe images of a pasty white Jesus in a crèche. Too often, Jesus is made a slave to culture. I hope these images of a queer Jesus, a pirate Jesus, a disabled Jesus, an immigrant Jesus can do more than inspire us. They might allow us to rescue Jesus from his captors. They might allow us to save ourselves.

And, if this was not your cup of tea, come back next week when my sermon title will be: “The Transgendered Cowboy Buddha Skips to the Market.”

Social Network Addendum
In the movie The Social Network that came out a few months ago, there is an amazing scene that helps us to think about contemporary notions of piracy. In this scene the founders of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg and Eduardo Saverin (played by Jesse Eisenberg and Andrew Garfield, respectively) are having dinner at a trendy New York restaurant with Sean Parker, played by Justin Timberlake. Sean Parker was the co-founder of the illegal music downloading site Napster.

In a brilliantly written exchange, Eduardo Saverin tells Parker that he lost, that Napster got sued for everything it was worth and then some and then had to declare bankruptcy. Parker counters by saying that he won; how would you like to buy a Tower Records franchise?

Parker’s reply disrupts Saverin’s notion that success means making money. To Parker, success meant changing the very landscape of the music business. Many parallel destabilizing reversals can be found in a radical reading of the Gospels.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Sermon: "Disillusionment" (Delivered 12-5-10)

I was planning to preach a sermon about disillusionment, but then I thought, “Why bother?”

When I first became the minister of this church and my first autumn with you turned into the first winter, I began to ask around about whether we as a congregation had any expectations as to how the Holiday season was supposed to be celebrated. Were there any traditions I should know about? Were there things we always did? Were there traditions that if we did not follow would cause people to feel deprived of the fullness of the season? Were there things we always did that people loath? Were there traditions that nobody understood how we started or why we still bothered with them? And, the answer that I got back was essentially, “No, we don’t have anything we are attached to, good or bad, in terms of celebrating the Holiday season. Thom, you should just do whatever you want to do.”

This answer was at once both liberating and intimidating. You see, I grew up in a Unitarian Universalist church in which, every single Christmas Eve, the minister delivered the same sermon ─ a sermon that had been originally delivered by the congregation’s minister in perhaps the 1870s. Now that’s tradition. But, thank goodness it was a good sermon. And, what’s more, I grew up in the Unitarian Universalist church in which, in the mid-1800s, that congregation’s minister had penned the words to the Christmas hymn “It Came upon a Midnight Clear.” So, we sang it. A lot. Prompting the minister to comment one December that he thanks his lucky stars that he serves a church in which a good carol had been written. There could be some church out there that is stuck singing “Jingle Bell Rock.”

This is a long and roundabout way of letting you know about a tradition you may not know about. At the October worship committee meeting, one of the committee members asked me, “So, have you chosen a negative emotion to preach about during advent?” There it was: Tradition.

Six years ago I decided that each year I would preach a sermon on the first Sunday of December about a negative emotion or a spiritual affliction. The first sermon was about loneliness. The second year I preached on anger and the year after that I preached on depression. The fourth year I preached about envy, but it was a very indirect sermon, and I felt like the tradition had run its course. And, then, last year the first Sunday in Advent was also the Sunday that I returned from my sabbatical. And, I decided to break from tradition. “Join us on December 6, 2009 for our minister’s first Sunday back in the pulpit after his sabbatical. His sermon topic will be ‘despair.’”

So, the worship committee had asked me to bring back this tradition, as new as it is. I originally had the idea about preaching annually about a negative emotion or a spiritual affliction because I realized that while for some people the Holiday season is a cinnamon-scented manic rush of joy and good cheer, for other people this season is a time that just plain sucks. It is painful and they don’t particularly want to ho-ho-ho or fa-la-la.

This morning I want to talk about disillusionment. I want to talk about various ways that disillusionment can manifest itself and about what it means and about whether we should try to overcome it and how we might overcome it. And, I’ve chosen to talk about disillusionment today because, just like loneliness and anger, and just like depression and envy, there is a greater risk of becoming disillusioned amidst all of the trimmings and trappings of our December secular religious cultural zeitgeist.

Disillusionment is something we can experience any time: by looking at the course of our lives, at our work, at our culture at our politics, at the religious or philosophical beliefs that we hold, or at our churches as a primary locus, as a sacred vessel, embodying those religious and philosophical and social aspirations.

Disillusionment is not the same thing as other words that are often used as a synonym for it, but disillusionment is a frequent dancing partner of despair, despondency, and disappointment. Disillusionment hangs out on the same street corner as cynicism, pessimism, and resignation.

A colleague of mine shared with me this story about disillusionment. The story comes from his time as a divinity s student at the University of Chicago. And the story involves a classmate of his who had come to seminary steeped in a deep love for the traditional Christian environment in which he was raised. At any decent divinity school, and I saw this with many of my Christian classmates at Harvard, the process of becoming theologically educated involves disillusionment. In school you learn that Moses didn’t write the Pentateuch, that Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John didn’t write the Gospels, and that Paul didn’t write all of Paul’s letters. You learn that the book of Isaiah is not about Jesus. You learn that certain core theological ideas you possess are based on faulty translations or messy socio-political maneuverings.

Well, anyways, my colleague told me this story in which one of his classmates one day exclaimed with exasperation to his professor, “All this stuff you are teach us… You’re making us disillusioned!” To which the professor responded, “And would you prefer that I illusion you?”

Disillusionment, I want to argue, is simply this. Disillusionment is the experience of having something that we thought was dependable, solid, and trustworthy turn out to be an illusion.

Athletes are always role models. Politicians are always principled and worthy of our trust. My employer will be loyal to me. The Bible is the infallible word of God. The minister will always have profound insights into my struggles. At my church, everyone’s actions will exemplify the religious values we claim.

Disillusionment comes when something that we had expected from the universe does not come to pass. Moreover, disillusionment comes when something we had expected to be fair, or right, or just does not come to pass.

That exchange between the divinity school student and the professor captures something that we might realize about disillusionment. “Are you trying to disillusion us?” “Would you rather that I illusion you?” Disillusionment involves the denial of something that we had believed was certain and dependable and trustworthy. What could be counted on is now an illusion.

In the realm of religious understanding and theology there is a term known as “idolatry.” The commandment against making idols is the second of the Ten Commandments. We don’t find much talk of idolatry in Unitarian Universalist circles. We rarely use this word. Perhaps we avoid the word because we find it dripping in judgment, and we assume that the word has to do with correcting someone else’s religious beliefs, which we properly regard as distasteful. But, the word idolatry has a different meaning, a meaning that speaks to the concept of disillusionment.

What idolatry actually means is worshipping the partial instead of the whole. Idolatry mistakes the partial for the whole. The religion stuff may be tripping us up. Let me explain what I am getting at here by using a few examples.

The first example is one that is easy to think about because it is one that I don’t think is a hang up for that many of us. Consider the issue of athletes as role models. Every single day we encounter stories of athletes using performance enhancing drugs, getting into legal trouble, displaying poor sportsmanship, or demonstrating behavior that is immature, obnoxious, or downright antisocial. But, if we look back to the days of yore, we find that we were illusioned by athletes. Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, Ted Williams, and Babe Ruth all had feet of clay. We understand that worship of athletes was a form of idolatry. However, the disillusioned view can also be a form of idolatry. That also entails focusing on a partial understanding of something larger.

Politics is another area when we see widespread disillusionment. Do you agree or disagree with me on this point? To simplify matters greatly, in politics, in voting, there is an illusion that we tend to hold that if we elect the right person, as opposed to the wrong person, the right person is going to make all these right and courageous and correct decisions. And then, when the person we’ve elected makes decisions that we do not consider correct or courageous, we grow disillusioned. And the disillusioned view of politics says things like, “It doesn’t matter who we vote for. They are all the same. Why bother?”

Illusion: If she wins, the politician for whom I voted will always make decisions that I agree with.

Disillusion: It doesn’t matter for whom we vote, or even that we vote. They are all the same.

Clearly, the illusion is just that, an illusion. But, the disillusion is also an illusion. It also speaks to a partial instead of to the whole. Consider this: the midterm elections of one month ago had one of the highest voter turnouts of any midterm election in recent years with a full 41.5% of eligible voters choosing to cast a vote. Or, in other words, a candidate could claim a landslide victory with the support of less than 25% of eligible voters. Turnout in the most recent mid-term elections was especially low for those between the ages of 18 and 29 with just one in five of those eligible to vote actually casting a ballot.

Disillusionment can entail buying into a different illusion: the illusion that the divinity school professor was trying to destroy the faith of the orthodox student; the illusion that sixty percent of Americans eligible to vote are politically captive.

Next month Psychotherapist Guy Winch will release a new book entitled, The Squeaky Wheel. Winch’s field of interest is the psychology of complaining. Winch has coined an awkward term which he refers to as “complaining learned helplessness.” “Complaining learned helplessness,” he claims, “refers to our tendency to complain ineffectively in situations in which we experience ourselves as having no control over the outcome.” He adds,

Complaining learned helplessness is by no means limited to our voting behavior. Rather it reflects a shift in our general perception of complaining, its functions and purposes. Our complaints used to be expressions of dissatisfaction we used to attain resolutions to our problems. Today, complaining and venting are perceived by many to be interchangeable activities. In other words, the distinction between passively whining about something and actively doing something about it has become confused in our national psyches.

If I can extrapolate just a little bit, I would add that disillusionment need not mean the same thing as apathy, as resignation. In our Unitarian Universalist congregation in Des Moines, Iowa, their minister Mark Stringer says something very profound whenever they have a new member ceremony. He tells those members who sign the book this: You don’t become a member when you sign the book. You don’t become a member when you make a pledge. You don’t become a member when you join a committee or take on a significant leadership role. You become a member the first time the church disappoints you… and you decide to stay anyway. [This understanding is amplified by a passage from a UUA publication about membership that I have appended to this sermon.] What Mark Stringer is talking about, I believe, is moving beyond illusions. Before you are disappointed you only understand your community at the level of illusion, of projection. You love a thing for how you see it, not for how it is. I would add that Mark’s words are not only about church membership. The same formulation can be applied to any type of relationship. And, this is just me pondering, but is one really married until one is disappointed by one’s spouse? Is one a citizen before one is disappointed by one’s country? Are you a true fan before you are heartbroken by your team? That is not to say that you need to stick with what is deeply hurtful, no matter what. It is to say that illusions are unsustainable and deceptive.

I don’t think I could write a book about complaining. I don’t think I’d want to. But, here are my suggestions for moving beyond disillusionment.

First, if you are feeling disillusioned, the first thing you should do is to reflect and ask yourself, “OK, I’m feeling disillusioned. What illusions did I have?”

Next, ask yourself if you have not, in fact, replaced your previous illusions with a new set of illusions. The feelings of disillusionment may be real, but are they only partially true?

Finally, taking our cue from Guy Winch, we might ask, “Now what? Have we arrived at a place where there are some actions we might take? Or, have we arrived at a place that calls us to practice passivity?” If your answer is “passivity,” there is, perhaps, something you might wish to rethink.

From “Belonging: The Meaning of Membership”
[Disillusionment] is almost inevitable in the course of one’s relationship to a congregation. […] The church is a human institution and it can become all-too human. When such difficulties arise some walk away, others step back. But fortunately there are also those whose remain steadfast through these times of disillusionment, whose loyalty grows beyond it. They are not better or worse than the others, just different. Out of their disillusionment grows a loyalty less to the institution and more to the values and ideals that the institution seeks to serve and embody. It recognizes that the institutional as well as personal failure is virtually inevitable. This is loyalty of a high order. It requires extraordinary patience, tolerance, and the capacity to forgive. These are spiritual gifts, learned in real community.

Those who have gained theses capacities, these gifts, are in the deepest sense members: people who are committed for the long haul, those who have loyalty not just to what the church is but what it could be, what it can become through their persistence and with their assistance. They are committed in other words, not so much to the institution as to the values and ideals it exists to promote and uphold — even in its periods of failure to do so. They are patient with brash young ministers and tolerant of plodding older ones. They are cheerleaders in the good times and steady supporters through the bad. They keep perspective, they take a longer view.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Sermon: "Welcoming Our Tensions" (Delivered 11-28-10)

From the Tao Te Ching, Chapter 2 by Lao-Tzu, as translated by Stephen Mitchell
When people see some things as beautiful,
other things become ugly.
When people see some things as good,
other things become bad.

Being and non-being create each other.
Difficult and easy support each other.
Long and short define each other.
High and low depend on each other.
Before and after follow each other.

Therefore the Master
acts without doing anything
and teaches without saying anything.
Things arise and she lets them come;
things disappear and she lets them go.
She has but doesn't possess,
acts but doesn't expect.
When her work is done, she forgets it.
That is why it lasts forever.

In one of the stories that he tells frequently, John Buehrens, one of my mentors in ministry, talks about traveling to Japan and attending a fancy dinner with a number of that country’s significant religious leaders. As the evening grew late and the sake flowed, one of the guests became irritated and began to mourn the way many of the old traditions were fading. John interrupted his table mate and suggested a koan. The guests eagerly waited for what John to speak. John spoke a Zen koan: Why does the stork stand on one leg? The monk paused for a few beats and answered. “So the stork doesn’t fall on his butt.” As John explains the significance of this koan, it is important to keep one foot rooted in tradition even as you step beyond tradition with the other foot.

Allow me to name this tension. It is a tension that tends to pop up at this time of the year, the Thanksgiving and December Holiday season. It is the tension between tradition and innovation, tradition and change. It is the challenge of trying to balance the creative non-conformity that we like so much with a sense of nostalgia for doing things the old fashioned way.

All this month in our worship services we’ve been exploring the theme of welcoming. We’ve looked at what welcome would look like as a spiritual practice. We had a guest speaker deliver a presentation on multiculturalism and racial diversity. Last week we looked a bit more broadly and considered our moral obligation to provide a place for those who are looking for an alternative to a larger culture and society that is inhospitable to the human spirit. This morning we take this idea of welcoming in a bit of a different direction. Rather than looking at welcoming as something that we do to others, we are going to face inwardly, and look at what it would mean to welcome the way we are in the world.

The title I’ve given to the sermon this morning is “Welcoming Our Tensions.” The title is in some ways unfortunate. “Oh, great. The minister is going to talk about tensions in the church. Too bad I couldn’t schedule a root canal.” Most of us don’t like tension. It reminds us of stress. Too much tension and we think about scheduling a massage. Hypertension is a serious health problem. It’s in our nature to want to avoid conflict.

The good news is that in preaching this sermon, I have no ulterior motive and no secret agenda whatsoever. I am not talking about any conflict, battle, or feistiness that endangers us as a church. For that I count my lucky stars. That is not to say that there isn’t any conflict in our church. To paraphrase Jesus’ teaching, conflict exists wherever two or three are gathered. Those who work with groups of people ─ marriage and family therapists, church consultants, workplace managers ─ know that the key to health is not to avoid conflict, but to engage with it in a healthy way. I think this church manages conflict with a great deal of health. So, even though I don’t think this is an issue for us, I do think that it is a part of us. I think tension is a part of the human condition and a part of the Unitarian Universalist religious experience.

The perfect, indirect metaphor for explaining what this sermon is about dropped into my lap yesterday. In yesterday’s Kansas City Star there was an article about the brand new bridge connecting Kansas City with the northland. The article was about people who suffer from “gephryophobia,” which is a fear of bridges. This was a topic I knew nothing about. But, one of the lines in this story caught my attention. According to the director of the bridge project, Brian Kidwell, the bridge was “designed so that drivers could easily see the anchors of the bridge cables… [and] seeing what’s holding the bridge up will give anxious motorists a sense of security.” To be architecturally precise, this new bridge is not technically a suspension bridge. But, like a suspension bridge, those who cross the bridge get to see the cables that are holding the bridge up.

In any event, I thought that this idea was fascinating. When the tension in the bridge is exposed, anxious motorists are less likely to panic. In that same spirit, I thought I might offer these few words in an attempt to name and expose the tensions we may live with as a part of being Unitarian Universalists. When tension is seen, named, and understood, it is much healthier.

Those of you who have heard me offer interpretive words about the significance of the seven principles and purposes have probably heard me comment on how the seven principles capture at least three key tensions In the principles and purposes, we find tensions in the third, fourth, and fifth principles.

“Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth.” Is accepting another person ever at odds with encouraging that person to grow? Take a moment to think of someone in your life who encouraged you or challenged you, perhaps a teacher, coach, mentor, counselor, or even a minister. In that encouragement did you ever feel like something more of you was expected?

“A free and responsible search for truth and meaning.” Does responsibility ever require that we curtail freedoms? When you hand a teenager the keys to the car, you don’t say, “Drive freely!” You say, “Drive responsibly.” To drive responsibly means not driving in certain ways.

“The rights of conscience and the use of the democratic process.” Does following our conscience ever mean that we have to reject decisions that were made in a democratic spirit? In our democratic congregations we celebrate someone like Henry David Thoreau who willingly went to jail for refusing to pay taxes to support a war that his conscience could not support.

Each of these is probably worthy of a sermon in and of itself. It would only take a short brainstorm to come up with more tensions:

In our congregations, how do we strike a proper balance between individualism and community?

In our worship life, what is the proper balance between tradition and innovation?

When we deal with a major social issue, should we approach that issue with a posture of separatism or engagement. Two recent decisions of our national body demonstrate this tension. At our most recent General Assembly, we forcefully debated what to do with our 2012 meeting which had been scheduled to be held in Phoenix, Arizona, ground zero in the battle for immigrant justice in our nation. One side argued for boycotting Phoenix. The other side voted for going to Phoenix and standing on the side of love while witnessing for our values. The General Assembly made the decision to practice engagement rather than boycott. However, within the last year the Unitarian Universalist Association voted to move the retirement holdings of all church employees from Fidelity to TIAA-CREF because Fidelity allows investors to invest in companies that fund the genocide in Sudan. TIAA-CREF’s funds are apparently more socially responsible. The UUA decided to go in the direction of divestment, a form of boycott, rather than shareholder activism, a form of engaged witness.

There are yet more areas of tension:

In our focus on diversity, do we emphasize the universal or the particular?

When engaging in theology, should we approach these questions as poets or as scientists?

Ought we to emphasize the metaphor of the spiritual journey or the metaphor of the spiritual home? Is church a place you come to journey or a place you come to be at home?

Last Sunday, one of our board members talked to us about the Connecting Conversation process that we participated in during the month of September. I think that some of the comments we received speak to a tension that is alive here. A whole bunch of cards talked about outward-focused risk taking. Many commented that we need to be reaching out into the community, broadcasting our presence, getting involved, and making ourselves known. Other people commented that this was the place where people came to experience safety, security, and shelter. Ought we to be more like a beacon or a bunker, more like a harbor or a launching pad?

I’ve just scratched the surface. This could be one long sermon.

In our Coming of Age and Youth Group experiences, one of the things we often do with our teens is something called a “Power Shuffle.” You clear the room of all of the chairs and furniture and draw a line down the center of the room. You read a statement and those who agree go to one side and those who disagree go to the other side. When done well, the results can be powerful. Even in a roomful of people who affirm your inherent worth and dignity, it can take a lot of courage to be the only one who stands on one side. On those statements where there is disagreement, it is humbling to realize that that, yes, there is a difference of opinion. While the logistics in this space prevent us from having a “Power Shuffle” today, I invite you imagine where you would stand along the spectrum with regard to those tensions I just named.

Several years ago I taught a course on Unitarian Universalist history and for that class I put together a handout called the creeds of creedless faith. The handout begins with a Universalist document from 1803 called the Winchester Profession of Faith and ends with the Principles and Purposes as adopted in 1984. When I discuss this handout, the document that always attracts the most attention is a funky little document from 1933 entitled, “Unitarians agree / Unitarians disagree.” The document lists six things the authors felt Unitarians basically agreed upon in 1933 and five things about which Unitarians disagreed.

In case you are interested, some of the things that Unitarians disagreed about in 1933 included the use of traditional religious vocabulary, whether the church should keep one of its feet planted firmly in the Christian tradition or whether it should attempt to step completely outside of Christianity, and, how engaged the church should be in political matters. What is striking, if not surprising, is that nearly eighty years later Unitarian Universalists continue in some measure to have these disagreements.

Now, you may find this little piece of information frustrating. You may shake your head and mutter, “Can’t we answer these questions? Can’t we come to some agreement?” However, I would say that it is foolhardy to believe that we will come to an agreement on all religious matters. There are lots of big questions where we’ve not reached agreement. There is wisdom in being okay with not finding agreement on some matters. And, I would hasten to add that throughout history one way has worked better than all others to create agreement: kick out anybody who disagrees. Every time a Christian creed has been created, it has worked to push out and to exclude certain people that up until that point had been a part of the group.

We find a different attitude toward tension in some schools of religious thought. Not every tension needs to create winners and losers. The Tao Te Ching teaches that differences depend on one another.
Being and non-being create each other.
Difficult and easy support each other.
Long and short define each other.
High and low depend on each other.
Before and after follow each other.
And, in his famous essay “Compensation,” Ralph Waldo Emerson describes a vision of the universe where differences complement one another instead of combating one another:
Polarity, or action and reaction, we meet in every part of nature; in darkness and light; in heat and cold; in the ebb and flow of waters; in male and female; in the inspiration and expiration of plants and animals; in the equation of quantity and quality in the fluids of the animal body; in the systole and diastole of the heart; in the undulations of fluids, and of sound; in the centrifugal and centripetal gravity; in electricity, galvanism, and chemical affinity. Super-induce magnetism at one end of a needle; the opposite magnetism takes place at the other end. If the south attracts, the north repels. To empty here, you must condense there. An inevitable dualism bisects nature, so that each thing is a half, and suggests another thing to make it whole; as, spirit, matter; woman, man; odd, even; subjective, objective; in, out; upper, under; motion, rest; yea, nay.

It has been said that there are three types of people in the world: people who know how to count and people who don’t. The humor is a bit obvious. It pokes fun at people who always want to divide people into warring camps. There is an alternative to dualism.

E.B. White once wrote, “If the world were merely seductive, that would be easy. If it were merely challenging, that would be no problem. But I arise in the morning torn between a desire to save the world and a desire to savor the world. This makes it hard to plan the day.”

Welcoming our tensions requires that we recognize and embrace these competing claims on our lives. It requires that we accept and value and welcome others who find themselves pulled between competing claims on their spirits. It is by welcoming our tensions that we find another way, and in doing so, become whole.

“A Song for Jacob, Descartes and Kierkegaard” by Ted Tollefson
Sometimes either/or is not enough.
Light is not battling with shadows.
In-breath and out-breath are not at odds.
Does a sun-flower contend with Sun, Earth or Wind?
Meanwhile, in the Holy Land
the 3 sons of Abraham are duking it out.
Meanwhile, Old Buddha, Master Kung and Lao Tzu
savor a taste of vinegar
and share a cup of green tea.

[Sermon Notes: In October the Prairie Star Chapter of the Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association had its fall retreat in Windom, Minnesota. The retreat was focused on the new UUMA theological deepening initiative called "Whose Are We?" Part of the process including naming tensions which resulted in the list below. Following the retreat, Ted Tollefson shared with us three resources for thinking differently about dualisms: the passage from the Tao Te Ching, the quote from Emerson, and his own poem. Thanks to Ted and to my other colleagues for helping to inspire the thinking in this sermon.]

Appendix: Some Tensions Within Liberal Religion
Acceptance of one another … Encouragement to spiritual growth (3rd Principle)

Freedom … Responsibility (4th Principle)

Rights of conscience … Use of the democratic process (5th Principle)

Individual freedom … Responsibility to the community

Journeying … At-home-ness

Tradition … Change and innovation

Boycott … Engaged witness

Presumption of struggle … Presumption of harmony

Comfort the afflicted … Afflict the comfortable

Engagement with culture ... Separation from culture

Save the world ... Savor the world

Particular ... Universal

Pretense ... Risk

Process ... Closure

Poetry ... Fact

Thursday, December 02, 2010

Ten Best Albums of 2010

For the sake of blogging about something a bit different, I decided to make a list of my ten favorite albums of 2010. As I compiled this list, I decided to compare my review of each album to the review found on the fantastic AV Club website. To my astonishment, my reviews turned out to be eerily similar to the AV Club reviews. Please note: I wrote each review before I looked at the corresponding on-line review. But, I am not sure how I can explain the similarities. It is uncanny and perplexing. So, without further ado, here are my:

Top Ten Albums of 2010

10) Broken Bells – Broken Bells
Broken Bells is a collaboration between James Mercer, singer and guitarist of The Shins, and Danger Mouse, a famous record producer and one half of Gnarls Barkley. I’m actually not a huge fan of either The Shins or Gnarls Barkley and I didn’t expect to enjoy this album nearly as much as I did. But, their collaboration is a thing of beauty. In addition the immensely catchy single “The High Road,” other standout songs include the acoustic-driven “Vaporize” and the addictive rhythms of “October.”
The AV Club rating: B-
Listen to a track: “Vaporize”

9) Broken Social Scene – Forgiveness Rock Record
Seeing BSS perform live in 2006 was an amazing experience as they paraded more than a dozen musicians on and off stage and created sounds as full, as textured, and as delicate as any band I’ve ever heard. Broken Social Scene is a Canadian musical collective; in this iteration they feature 9 core members, 13 “additional members” including Emily Haines of Cat Power and Leslie Feist, and 9 guest musicians including the fantastic Sam Prekop and Poi Dog Pondering’s Susan Voelz and Paul Von Mertens. On previous albums the band has managed to make their wide, sprawling sound come together in a way that is cohesive even in its chaos. However, that cohesion mostly eludes this effort. On Forgiveness Rock Record somehow more becomes less. Too many of these songs come across as stale. However, there are a couple of real gems here. “Meet Me in the Basement” and “Sentimental Xs” are great tunes and “Water in Hell” ranks up there with many of Broken Social Scene’s best songs.
The AV Club rating: B+
Listen to a track: “Water in Hell”

8) Band of Horses – Infinite Arms
While this album lacks the standout songs, such as “The Funeral” or “Great Salt Lake,” that are found on their earlier releases, Infinite Arms contains a number of subdued, tender tunes that evoke a road trip across wide spaces. Songs like “Infinite Arms” and “For Annabelle” are great, spacious tunes while “NW Apt.” and “Laredo” find the band using a harder rock approach. This album is immensely listenable and a great musical companion.
The AV Club rating: B-
Listen to a track: “Laredo”

7) Ted Leo and The Pharmacists – The Brutalist Bricks
Ted Leo kicked off The AV Club’s wildly entertaining “Undercover” series with a technically perfect and ridiculously cool version of Tears for Fear’s “Everybody Wants to Rule the World.” With The Brutalist Bricks, Leo’s band gives us 13 wonderfully crafted pop-rock songs with punk and 80s New Wave influences. The album’s first track, “The Mighty Sparrow” begins with a bang and the lyrics, “When the café doors exploded…” And we are off on a fantastic tour de rock. This consistent album takes us through a number of great songs including “Ativan Eyes,” “Bottled in Cork,” “Bartolomeo and the Buzzing of Bees,” and the final track, “Last Days,” which sounds like a mash-up of “Pump it Up” by Elvis Costello and “Stop the Show” by Built to Spill.
The AV Club rating: B+
Listen to a track: “The Mighty Sparrow”

6) The Gaslight Anthem – American Slang
The Gaslight Anthem may think of themselves as the next Bruce Springsteen. They are probably closer to being the next Gin Blossoms, but that doesn’t stop them from turning out semi-gritty slices of rock & roll Americana. This short album has more than its share of infectious hooks, especially on “Stay Lucky,” “Boxer,” and the title track, “American Slang.” The band explores different styles on the Van Morrison-inspired “The Diamond Church Street Choir” and does a plausible impersonation of The Killers on “We Did It When We Were Young.” American Slang isn’t exactly profound, but it is catchy and if you give it a listen its melodies will haunt you for days.
The AV Club rating: A-
Listen to a track: “American Slang”
Listen to another track: “Boxer”

5) Vampire Weekend – Contra
Vampire Weekend's 2008 self-titled debut album contained a track called “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa.” The song title is an apt descriptor of Vampire Weekend’s sound. Imagine Ivy League preppies playing world music. Who else would rhyme “Oxford comma” with “Dharamsala”? On their sophomore release, VW keeps the blue-blooded world beats coming. Contra begins with the upbeat songs “Horchata” and “White Sky.” Two of the better songs on this great album – “California English” and “Cousins” – are played at a frantic pace with chaotic rhythm changes. In “California English” they add a new sound to their repertoire using an auto-tuner on the vocals. Two songs at the end of the album – “Giving Up the Gun” and “Diplomat’s Son” – are the most exciting tracks with their liberal use of electronic beats and samples. Unfortunately, this album clocks in at less than 40 minutes. But, Contra is solid from top to bottom. Vampire Weekend makes every minute count.
The AV Club rating: A-
Listen to a track: “Giving Up the Gun” (awesome video!)
Listen to another track: “California English”

4) Minus the Bear – Omni
This is the fourth studio album by Seattle-based indie rockers Minus the Bear, one of my favorite groups. At first, I was struck by the pop hooks and heavy electronic sound of this album, somewhat of a departure from their alt rock roots, but after seeing them perform a short set at a local radio station promotion last summer, I realized they had crafted a gem of an album. Omni kicks off with the brash, angular tune “My Time” before it settles into sweet songs like “Summer Angel,” and “Hold Me Down.” The latter half of the album contains the seductive track “Into the Mirror” and the revelatory “Dayglow Vista Rd.” Though short, this is probably MtB’s most consistent album, top to bottom. It was practically my soundtrack to the summer.
The AV Club rating: C
Listen to a track: “My Time”

3) Frightened Rabbit – The Winter of Mixed Drinks
The Winter of Mixed Drinks is an album of mixed messages. Frontman Scott Hutchison’s lyrics are full of pathos yet they’re set to music that soars with a triumphant spirit. Song after song features bright and hopeful music and uplifting chords with lyrics that are dark and brooding. On “Not Miserable” Hutchison sings, “The dark can return with the flick of a switch. It hasn’t turned on me yet. I’m not miserable now.” While each of the album’s songs is good, the album clearly revolves around the song “Swim Until You Can’t See Land.” This lyric is in some ways the ultimate mixed signal. The idea of swimming until you can’t see land conjures up an image of cleansing and escape, but also danger and annihilation. Even as the music evokes victory, the words summon a definite ambivalence. “Let’s call me a Baptist, call this a drowning of my past.” The video of this song maintains this sense of ambivalence as fans carrying flashlights surround the band. Is it joyful night swimming? Is it searching? Is it a candlelight vigil?
The AV Club rating: A
Listen to a track: “Swim Until You Can’t See Land”

2) The National – High Violet
My initial reaction to this album proves just how spoiled this band has made me. The National’s two previous releases, Alligator and Boxer, were each perfect. I felt tempted to grade High Violet on a ridiculously steep curve. This is a great album. The first single, “Bloodbuzz Ohio,” ranks up there among their best songs. “Terrible Love” is a dramatic anthem. “Lemonworld” and “England” are subtle songs that grow on the listener in the way so many of this band’s songs do. The dark lullaby “Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks” similarly grows on you. Unfortunately, the one blemish on this album is the bizarre chorus on “Conversation 16” where they took a beautifully-structured song and decided to wreck it by singing about zombies. There is really no need for silly lyrics like, “I was afraid I’d eat your brains.” In spite of this embarrassing miscalculation, High Violet is a stunning album.
The AV Club rating: A
Listen to a track: “Bloodbuzz Ohio”
Listen to another track: "Terrible Love”
Listen to a third: “England”

1) The Arcade Fire – The Suburbs
As we established earlier (see #9 above) large bands from Canada are extremely cool. Montreal’s critically acclaimed rock darlings, The Arcade Fire released what I consider to be the best album of the year with their hour-plus tour de force, The Suburbs. The album begins with a title track that sounds like it could be the theme song of a sitcom. The album then veers, almost like the best Magnetic Fields album ever, only better, into several different musical styles as the band shows the true breadth of their talents. Each song is a gem unto itself, but together they form a complex yet united whole. A few songs of particular note include the hard-rocking “Ready to Start,” the brooding “Suburban War,” and the disco-influenced “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains.)” Even if you decide not to go searching for the social or political implications of their music, The Arcade Fire’s The Suburbs is musically the best album of the year. It is expansive, the size of suburban sprawl. And, I don’t even feel like I have begun to plumb this album’s depth.
The AV Club rating: A-
Listen to a track: “Ready to Start”
Listen to a second track: “The Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)”
Listen to a third track: "The Suburbs"

Honorable Mention
Ben Folds & Nick Hornby – Lonely Avenue
Owen Pallett – Heartland
Sufjan Stevens – The Age of Adz

Albums I Somehow Missed in 2010
Belle and Sebastian - Write About Love
Kings of Leon - Come Around Sundown
M.I.A. - /\/\/\Y/\
Midlake - The Courage of Others
Spoon - Transference

Click here to see other lists

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Sermon: "Escaping the Mall: An American Exodus" (Delivered 11-21-10)

Last month I was in Dallas, Texas, and I spent a little bit of time with John Buehrens, former President of the Unitarian Universalist Association. John’s been a minister for forty years and he spoke about a change that he has observed. John talked about how for most of his ministry, come-inners to Unitarian Universalism have, by and large, found their way here after fleeing the Methodist church. They have found something in Unitarian Universalism that they were not finding in Methodism. John commented that over the last decade he has seen a shift. Increasingly, he has observed that those who come to us are not doing so out of a rejection of the Methodist church. More and more of our families, especially our younger ones, are less likely to have grown up steeped in religion. If anything, their experience has been that of nominal church involvement, mostly to humor their grandparents. As John Buehrens put it, those who come here aren’t escaping the Methodist church or Mainline Protestantism or Catholicism.

I’ve titled my remarks this morning “Escaping the Mall: An American Exodus.” This morning, when I talk about escaping the mall, I am not going to focus on consumerism or materialism. I want to be clear about this because later this week, on the day after Thanksgiving, we are going to be throwing a church event that will provide a counter-cultural alternative to the values and practices of reckless consumerism that go hand in hand with the so-called secular holiday of “Black Friday,” what has been called our nation’s Feast Day of Consumption.

This morning, when I talk about escaping the mall, when I repeat John Buehrens’ claim that those coming to us are escaping the mall not the Methodist church, I am talking about something larger than materialism and consumerism. I am talking about a culture that is all too often hollow and disappointing. And, I am talking about an unsustainable way of living that does not support the fullness of human life or the health of our planet.

So often, when someone starts on down this road, there is a tendency to sound like one of those fuddy-duddies who didn’t like the way Elvis Presley moved his hips. When I criticize culture I am not getting in touch with my inner Tipper Gore; I’m not talking about putting warning labels on rap albums. And, I am not parroting the conservative Christian rallying cry about the moral depravity of Hollywood; those charges are so often replete with thinly veiled anti-Semitism, homophobia, and racism. Yes, I will be the first person to admit that popular entertainment often fails to be edifying. I do believe that bread and circus are in no short supply these days, and that these amusements do breed complacency. But, this is only a small part of what I am talking about.

So often, when someone starts down this road, there is a tendency to sound like a Luddite. Kids these days play too many video games and spend too much time texting. I do think that our relationship with technology deserves critical attention, but it is only a small piece of the whole.

I want to talk about something larger than rampant consumerism, larger than banal entertainments, and larger than technological distractions. I want to offer a critique not only of our culture but also of the reality to which and for which our culture speaks.

In the history of our country, my generation and the generation younger than mine will be the first generations to have, on average, a lower standard of living than our parents had. And yes, that does mean that we will have, on average, less money and/or less stuff. But it also means, in some sense, a foreclosure of certain options and opportunities.

The standard of living that my generation and the generation right behind mine will experience is not the only part of the American experience that is on the decline. Although his book is already a decade old, the Bowling Alone phenomenon continues to have an impact on our culture. In Bowling Alone, Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam studied the decline in participation in American civic life. One of the fascinating parts of his book was that he showed that Americans were disengaging from all facets of civic life. You might observe, as Putnam did, that political participation has been on the decline for fifty years. Less people vote. Less people take an active role in their political party. And so on. You may look at this data and think: Look at Watergate. Look at the Clinton sex scandal. Look at the Florida recount. Look at the attack ads and unrestricted corporate spending. Politics is cynical and unsavory. But Putnam shows that people are not taking their lack of enthusiasm for politics and putting it to use elsewhere.

Similarly, a lot has been made out of the statistics that show a decrease in religious affiliation in the United States, and the growing ranks of the unchurched. For example, there are 3 million fewer Methodists today than in 1968 and just about every Mainline denomination has shown comparable rates of decrease. When presented with these facts, people who don’t particularly care for Christianity will cheer and say, “That just shows Americans are becoming more rational.” Except that Putnam shoots that theory out of the water. It is not that people are disengaging from political participation because politics is slimy or that people are disengaging from religious participation because of a higher consciousness. Putnam shows that people are less engaged across the board: they also participate less in secular service organizations and are less likely to belong to community groups.

There is an old myth that says that liberals don’t support their churches financially because they give to so many other organizations. That logic is just not true. There are no facts to support such a statement. People who study charitable giving show that people who give at a high level to religious organizations give at a higher level to other organizations than people who don’t give financially to religious organizations.

The same is true about participation in a religious community. Those who don’t belong to a church have a tendency not to belong to much else either. Those who do participate in a religious community tend also to have high levels of participation elsewhere. This point is crucial. As with fiscal generosity, civic participation is not a zero-sum game. People who are active in politics tend to also be active in religious organizations and community groups. Those active in community groups tend also to be active in political and religious organizations. Those who are active at their local church or synagogue are also active in political, community, and service organizations.

Sixties countercultural guru and LSD enthusiast Timothy Leary famously advised his followers to “Tune in, turn on, and drop out.” In Bowling Alone, Robert Putnam describes an American society in which people have not only dropped out, but have also tuned out and turned away.

There is an image from the contemporary world of pop-culture that I think of when I think of Bowling Alone. From 2002-2008, HBO ran five series of the drama The Wire. Critically acclaimed, The Wire was a cop drama set on the mean streets of Baltimore, but it was more than a cop drama. It was a biting look at the corruption and decline of various social institutions. The first season focused on the corrupt bureaucracy of the police department; the second focused on the decline of unions; the third dealt with political corruption; the fourth dealt with the city’s broken school system; and, the fifth season chronicled the decline of the newspaper. At the start of the second season we find that Stringer Bell has risen to the top of Baltimore’s illegal drug trade. Stringer, more businessman than gangster, begins to organize rival drug gangs into a cooperative enterprise. In a stroke of comedic brilliance, he runs the meetings of these hardened criminals with a copy of Roberts Rules of Order in hand. It is a running gag and it is hilarious to hear Stringer Bell say things like, “The chair recognizes…”

The humor here is dark. The humor is about the decline of social capital. And, there is a painful truth to it as well. A few years ago I organized a small group of generational cohorts. They were all successful young professionals with advanced degrees. In the group I was the only person to have ever served on the board of a non-profit organization. Roberts Rules of Order meant about as much to them as it did to the Baltimore drug dealers on The Wire.

It is one thing to be a cultural critic and to slam the talking heads of Fox News, the banal mix of voyeurism and cruelty that is evident in so much reality television, misogynist messages in music, or the number of hours many teenage boys spend playing video games. It is another matter to understand that we are living in an age in which standards of living will diminish for young people and civic engagement is in decline. Commentators such as Chris Hedges have drawn a comparison to the Roman Empire. It is foolish to critique the Roman gladiator games without a wider understanding that the Roman Empire was in decline.

It is that larger reality that I am speaking to this morning. There is something that I’ve observed in my interactions with those of in the congregation who are not Gen-Xers, or Gen-Yers, or Millennials. Those who have children or grandchildren in their teens, twenties, or thirties often express a deep sense of concern and worry for their children and grandchildren. That concern comes out many ways:
Sometimes the concern is expressed over what is perceived as a lack of ambition.

Sometimes the concern has to do with the crippling debt, personal or educational, with which that person is burdened.

Sometimes the concern has to do with the difficulty that this young person has finding work that offers a decent health care plan. Or maybe the work that can be found is absent of meaning and fails to be challenging or rewarding.

Or the concern is that this person seems to have so little in her life that she is passionate about. Or that person seems existentially lonely or stuck.
It’s not only young people who face these challenges, for sure, but I would argue that it is an epidemic for this generation. These realities bring deeper meaning to John Buehrens observation that those who come to us aren’t fleeing the Methodist church. They are escaping the mall and the hollow disappointment of contemporary culture and society.

In considering this, it may be helpful to consider another great escape. The Biblical Exodus has something to teach us about the dangers, toils, and snares of living passively under the heavy hand of an empire. Of the Exodus, Desmond Tutu famously wrote,
Liberation is costly. Even after the Lord had delivered the Israelites from Egypt, they had to travel through the desert. They had to bear the responsibilities and difficulties of freedom… They complained that their diet was monotonous. Many of them preferred the days of bondage and the fleshpots of Egypt. We must remember that liberation is costly. It needs unity.
Indeed, as one reads the story of the Exodus one discovers that as the Hebrews crossed the desert there was complaining, infighting, a discomfort with the demands of community, a difficulty living into their newly won freedom, and even nostalgia for the certainties of enslaved life. Egypt had been an empire. But, it had at least provided a bit of daily bread, a powerful army for protection, and some cheap amusements to keep the Hebrews passive.

The mall and the American Empire do the same. It is time for an American Exodus. Our role will be to serve and assist the fugitives. To educate in the ways of community. To help people to fully claim their freedom. To offer creative alternatives for living life. To come together and create opportunities to live meaningfully and joyfully.

How to bring about such an American Exodus is beyond the scope of my comments this morning. Over the coming months I will preach several more times on the subject of empire and arguing that it is correct to understand ourselves as the subjects of empire. The implications are significant.