Saturday, May 26, 2007

God LIKES a messy world

The readings for Pentecost include the story of the Tower of Babel, and two commentators convinced me that God INTENDS creation to be various, diverse, multi-lingual, cacophonous -- in short, messy. Both (Pastor) Debbie Blue, of the House of Mercy in St. Paul, Minnesota, and (Rabbi) Arthur Waskow, of the Shalom Center in Washington, D.C., pointed out that the story of NOAH and the Ark comes right before the story of the Tower of Babel. Debbie Blue writes this about Noah, in THEOLOG, the blog of the Christian Century (a rather adventurous undertaking, that blog is, for a stodgy old journal):

“Within the intimate but teeming space of the ark, Noah becomes, in the midrashic view, a new person. . . .The knowing of need is the highest measure of (the) curious tender concern” that makes for redemption (The Beginning of Desire). God’s plan for redemption (the cacophony of the ark—weasels, rats, snakes, camels, hissing, snorting, yelling) seems a little messier than what the people on the plain devise.

Arthur Waskow, whom I remember as an exciting theologian and political activist, from my college days in Washington, takes God's marvelous inclination toward wind-swept diversity even further. Yes, God tore down the Tower and scattered (freed?) the people who built it to the four ends of the earth. But look at this from his commentary on the text:

This diversity was not so much a punishment as a consequence of and a cure for their disease: Try to unify all humankind into a single empire, talking the same language so as to storm Heaven -- and the almost inevitable consequence, as well as the cure for this disease of arrogance, is that the top-heavy empire will dissolve into many many peoples, grass-roots communities of many tongues and cultures.

It's not a big leap from the dominance-yearnings of the builders of the Tower of Babel and the current dominance-yearning arrogance of invading the present-day land of Babylon, Iraq. Read Waskow to get his whole, wonderful argument.

So that is behind my sermon for Pentecost, where I am trying to put our "moving on" into starting a new church there in Brockton in a theological context of hope and of the mighty power of the Spirit of God. Tell me what you think about all this.

Sermon from St. Paul's, Brockton, May 27, 2007:

When we read Genesis, we are in the land of winds and waters. We’re only in the 11th chapter of the story of the beginning of the whole world. The Ruach ha’Olam, or the Breath of Life, the Breathing-Spirit of the Universe, the Wind of the World: the word means all those things in Hebrew. The Spirit – the Ruach ha’Olam – moved over the waters of the deep, and the whole creation got going. All the plants, animals, fish, birds, even we human creatures made in the image of God, in the image of this Spirit, this Breath of Life. The Spirit of God is a great, chaotic spirit, for God created a great, chaotic world.

The story right before today’s story of the Tower of Babel, is the story of Noah’s Ark. According to the rabbis, the whole experience of being in the ark changed Noah. All those animals he rescued, his family, too, all cooped up there upon the waters for 40 days: “Within the intimate but teeming space of the ark, Noah becomes a new person.” For 40 days and 40 nights Noah had to care for all those creatures, and the rabbis say that “the knowing of need,” the feeling of care and concern for others, is the beginning of redemption. Indeed, the rabbis say, this story of Noah and the ark reveal that God’s plan for redemption includes all the chaotic mess of the ark, the variety, the cacophony, the uncontrollability and never-ending change of life.

What a contrast then with the next story in Genesis, today’s story of the Tower of Babel. It’s Noah’s descendents who settle on the plain, and who pass down to us this story of imperial desire for unity and domination. It seems that God, Ruach ha’Olam, the Wind of the World, the Breathing-Spirit of the Universe, does not like that one-language aspect of these people. With that one language, they think they can conquer the world, that they can build a tower that is a Bav-el—the “gate of God,” in their own Babylonian language. This arrogance, this domination, this human-directed “new world order” is NOT what God has in mind for creation, so God comes down to mess things up. God comes down to “baffle” the Babylonians. If we could read this in Hebrew we would get the joke. God baffles the Babylonians with their own babble. As one translation says, “Let us go down and there let us baffle their language, so that no one will understand the language of his neighbor.” This let this be a lesson, the rabbis say this text tells us, against the arrogance of individuals or of empires. God orders the world; we do not. God seems to like variety, spice, diversity, even what appears to our ears to be chaotic cacophony.

One reading of the Pentecost story, from the Acts of the Apostles, is that for the followers of Christ, the Pentecost experience “undid” the “curse” of the Tower of Babel. But I think that is the way the world-dominating builders of the tower of Babel would put it. People like that cannot abide all this diversity and chaos and flux. One language, one system, one way of doing things: that will get us to heaven. Let us build some bricks and bake them hard so that ever-blowing and rather nosy Spirit of God can’t knock them over. Let us make this tower impervious to the Breath of Life, the Wind of the World, all those forces we cannot control, even if they do come from God.

I think the Pentecost story is not just for Christians, and especially not for those who long for a world-dominating Christian empire where we all conform to one way of doing things. The Pentecost story does take us back to Genesis, to the wild and multi-variant nature of God’s creation. It is a story of how God redeems the world, how God heals the world, how God pulls us back from the brink of destruction, of self-centered-ness and isolation, and throws us into the midst of a wild and wonderful creation.

Imagine the joy: we can all hear God speaking to us – in our own language, the language our mothers taught us: Parthians, Medes, Elamites, residents of Mesopotamia (that’s those tower-building Babylonians), Judea, Cappadocia, Pontus, Asia, Phrygia, Pamphilia, Egypt, Libya, Cyrene, Crete, Arabia. You don’t have to know Greek, you don’t have to read Latin, you don’t have to speak like Shakespeare or King James. God speaks to you: to sons and daughters, to young men and old men, to slaves, to men and women. Everyone, everyone, everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.

That’s the gift of Pentecost: we now have a choice. This rigid tower of hard-baked bricks won’t get us to God. But this, this community of young and old, of chaos and imperfection and change and dissent and diversity and newcomers and old-timers – in this messy and incomplete group, waiting as we are, waiting as the disciples did, for Jesus to come back – this is where God speaks to us, with the force of a mighty wind, and with words each of us can understand.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

take up your mat and walk!

Three of us from St. Paul's Church in Brockton just came back from the Start Up Start Over conference. We're in an Episcopal parish that is as good as dead -- some fabulous people, a compelling mission to the poor and forgotten. Truly St. Paul's is where the Gospel is. But what a gospel we have for May 13:

Now in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate there is a pool, called in Hebrew Beth-zatha, which has five porticoes. In these lay many invalids-- blind, lame, and paralyzed. One man was there who had been ill for thirty-eight years. When Jesus saw him lying there and knew that he had been there a long time, he said to him, "Do you want to be made well?" The sick man answered him, "Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up; and while I am making my way, someone else steps down ahead of me." Jesus said to him, "Stand up, take your mat and walk." At once the man was made well, and he took up his mat and began to walk. Now that day was a sabbath. (John 5:2-9)

Here's my sermon on it: let me know what you think.

In some versions of this gospel text, an angel stirs the waters, signaling to the sick people that they should hustle over to the edge and jump in the pool. In our popular imagination this Angel of Bethesda is the great, large one in Central Park in New York City, gigantic and majestic, a lily of purity in her hand, standing on a pedestal held up the cherubic figures of peace, health, purity and temperance. This cascading, bubbling, stirred-up fountain of pure water did indeed symbolize healing to the people of New York. It celebrated the clean water flowing from a distant reservoir to a growing city.

This Bethesda angel is the angel who crashes through the ceiling in the play Angels in America. This is the angel that carried John to the vision of the holy Jerusalem, that brought him to the river that flows from the throne of God – an angel with powerful wings and shining sword and flashing eyes and flowing gown. An angel out of our imagination, an angel of our hopes and dreams. But if this angel is so glorious and powerful, why was that man laying by that pool, sick for years and years -- 38 years to be exact?

Jesus got in a lot of trouble for healing that man. Not for healing, exactly – the healing part was ok; just NOT on the Sabbath. If he’d been sick for 38 years, he could wait until sundown. He’d lain by that pool plenty of days; another afternoon wouldn’t kill him.

But an even bigger violation of the Sabbath was this command: “Take up your mat and walk.” Now, it’s not the walking; observant Jews can walk on the Sabbath, but they cannot carry anything. They cannot take up their mat, their bed, their tools, their trade – no work on the Sabbath. No giving orders. And here we have Jesus, giving an order, and the newly healed man, walking off, mat in hand, healed, whole, restored. If an angel stirred the waters for those other sick people, this Jesus was no angel.

We’re in the middle of the Easter season? Why are we reading this lesson?

I think it serves to remind us that Jesus was up to something new – something really new. What he was doing was so new that it had to burst through all the categories of the old. Nothing fit anymore. This is God working, you’re healed, take up your bed and walk now, THIS is the new Sabbath.

This kind of radical change does not go over so well with everyone. To borrow an illustration from another gospel, think of the parable of the wineskins. For some people, that old wine tastes just fine. If you drank it, you would think it was sour, or flat, or had turned to vinegar. Maybe it’s the wineskin, you’d say. Maybe if we just pour some of it out, change things a little bit, it will taste better. Hah! Pour that new wine into the old skins and they will burst. Take up your mat, take up your new wineskin, Jesus said, and walk. THIS is the new Sabbath.

I understand last week’s sermon was sort of harsh. Tim told me he was pretty direct with illustrating what was paralyzed here – what was described as dead. In the words of today’s gospel, you’ve been laying there by the pool, paralyzed, for some time now, and even if any angels came by to disturb the waters, you were too weak to wiggle over and jump in. That can be a pretty disturbing thing to hear.

Meanwhile, Lillet, Joanne and I went off to the “Start Up Start Over” conference, and heard some pretty disturbing things as well. We heard how hard it is to turn around a decline like this, how much new things are going to have to happen first, how much a commitment we will all have to make for the long haul. After the first day, hearing some pretty harsh statistics about the decline of membership across the Episcopal Church, and about how old Episcopalians are, and that half the congregations in the whole Episcopal Church are no bigger than 70 people on a Sunday morning, we were nearly paralyzed ourselves. Then we heard it. A little buzz of hope. An idea here, a suggestion there. Stand up, stand up; take your mat, and walk, Jesus said. It’s a new day.

We don’t know where that man went after he got healed. We don’t know where we’re going. We don’t know what this new Sabbath will look like.

But we do know we can’t stay here, paralyzed, waiting for some angel by the pool, for some other person, almost as sick as we are, to kick us in the water by accident. That’s not what Jesus said. If Jesus walked through that door, would we know what to do? Let’s practice.