What Is Common about Common?

Ancient Testimony - Acts 2:42-47; Psalm 23

May 15, 2011

by Rev. Dr. Donna Schaper
Senior Minister

Preached at First Congregational Church UCC, in Washington, D.C.

One old friend shows another old friend a photo of herself.  The friend asks, intimately, “Do you think this photo does me justice?”  The other friend responds, intimately, “The photograph does not begin to do you justice.”  What you need is mercy.

Here in the season of Pentecost many people are telling me that they are burnt out.  On the right and the left the language is of deficits, and many people imagine they are talking about the federal budget.  They are not.  They are talking about the emptiness and the time-famine that prevents us from enjoying the emptiness.  These kinds of deficits and depressions are not what we imagine them to be.  They are neither budget-cured nor Zantac-ameliorated; they are deeper than that.  They have attacked the heart.  When people tell me that they are burnt out, I often respond with a Pentecostal whimsy, one I learned from an old preacher: “Honey, you ain’t even lit yet.”

Why do I mess around with metaphoric approaches to the language of deficit and depression, both so often contained within the language of budgets and psychiatry?  Why?  Because these matters have burst their bounds in budget and psychiatry.  They have become cultural and political heart disease.  Yes, diseases of the heart.  They are arteriosclerotic, which is to say involving a hardening of the arteries.  The blood of the nation and the person can’t get through.  We are having one “coronary” after another.  One fibrillation after another.  One angina after another.  Mostly what my parishioners say to me is, “Donna, what’s next?”

On the right we have one version of the end time, or what I call all apocalyptic-all-the-time, requiring an enemy—in either the President, who had to produce a birth certificate in an act of new, sneaky racism; or gay people, who can’t get married because getting married is wrong (Hello!—what then shall we burn in sin?); or Muslims, who can’t build cultural centers in downtown Manhattan.  Apocalypse needs enemies.  The right has the left to hate and the left has the right to hate and we are giving each other spiritual heart attacks.  On the left, we have other versions of the end time.  We continue to imagine that we are somehow right about those who are wrong, and we cling to so many zombie ideas that you’d think it was always Halloween.  On the left, we buy our own versions of lottery tickets to make sure we don’t become stupid like “them,” the common people, the uneducated riff-raff who are just too emotional about their religion to make us feel comfortable being lit.

You didn’t ask for social analysis, nor do I want to give any more; I just want to make sure you understand that this is not a sermonette for Christianettes.  I am going to bring you down to bring you up.  I am going to take you outside so you can come inside.  I am going to reiterate my favorite definition of the Gospel (yes, all preachers have one sermon they give over and over), which is from Douglas John Hall: “The gospel is the permission and the commandment to enter difficulty with hope.”  I want to take you back to that picture of yourself and have you all ask, “Does this picture do me justice?”  And I want to assure you that even if it does, you still need mercy.  Mercy softens the heart—and justice sometimes hardens it.

So what is common about the word common?  I think it is that nobody wants to be common.  We all want to be special.  We want to earn our own social insecurity.  We want to make sure God and our boss notice us.  We want to be in charge.  Unfortunately, the Holy Spirit has made it pretty clear that winning the lottery of uncommonness will block the door on being lit.  Today’s text: we have the third version of the aftermath of the lights, or the getting lit, in Acts 2.  We had the experience of the flames of fire, then the opening of language in Babel babbling, and now the economic version, where people so get over it than they get on with it.  They hold everything in common.  They release their need to be especially or specially secured.  In this third consequence of the Holy Spirit’s lighting, we have people who know they were afraid and are afraid no longer.  Fear is acknowledged, then dissolved.  If you think my social analysis was just apocalypticism of the left, you have it right.  I think there is plenty to be afraid of—and it is not just them, those common people who have tea parties and don’t want to pay taxes and allow the government to defund (not unfund, but defund) family planning.  These are the people whom my fancy educated and offended feminism wants to call stupid.  Why?  First of all, because my anger protects my broken heart.  Unintentional parenthood has just won a victory over planned parenthood.  Unintentional parenthood is scary.  It is stupid.  It is hurtful to children and women.  It is hurtful to women and children… and it is deficit producing.  Now I know the road to an elitist flip-out as well as anyone.  But here I am going to say that this is my emptiness and arteriosclerosis talking.  This is my time-famine talking.  For me to understand how such a thing could have happened, I have to start with the first line of the text.  We were afraid.  And now we are afraid no more.  Before people will be released to hold things in common, as fellow commoners, fear will have to be acknowledged.

I don’t know what the fear was for them, then; I do know what it is now.  We fear that we will never have enough time or love or money.  We want to be seen, to be noticed, to be recognized… and to do so we have to see and notice and recognize.  We just don’t have the energy for all that, so weak are our hearts.  Plus, our cultural instructions are to have time and love and money, and lots of each.  So we feel that we have failed.  We have failed to be what we cannot be.  Not everyone can win a lottery ticket or be big and beautiful and rich.  So we live in fear that we are common, ordinary, regular, middle class. 

Being common is a way to reduce fear.  Reducing fear opens the heart to mercy, the mercy we need for having bought into the lies and stupidity for so long, so regularly, with such due diligence.  When mercy touches our broken hearts, it is the Holy Spirit lighting us.  It is the Holy Spirit lightening us.  It is the Holy Spirit, whispering to us, “Lighten up.”  That whisper is very different than the way we usually say it: “LIGHTEN UP FOR GOD”S SAKE.”  Hear the judgment and justice in one; hear the mercy in the other.

Sarah Macdonald has written a wonderful book called Holy Cow.  It is an account of her two-year stay in India.  She says everything you shouldn’t say about India: how you really hate the poverty and just don’t want to see it anymore.  Mercifully, she comes around to appreciate the place.  I loved the book because I myself have almost run out of things I am not supposed to say… and I liked her candor.  I also liked her travel learning:

“And I’ll be telling you a story about why white people are not happy.”  He adjusts his penis.  “We Indian people we look at the people more poor, more low and more hard than us and we be thanking god we are not them.  So we are happy.  But you white peoples, you are looking at the peoples above you all of the times and you are thinking, why aren’t I be them?  Why am I not having that moneys and things?  So you are unhappy all the time.”1

People who are afraid to hold things in common because they might lose their status or their phony security or their money are always looking up.  We who love Jesus look around and aren’t afraid to look down.  We are only afraid of looking down our noses.  We know that the mercy leaves when our noses enter our sight.  We also know that we have become a part of the zombie ideas that are killing us.

When you have to be better than other people, you end up fighting to stay on top.  You end up torturing to stay on top.  You have millions of children left behind, while a few have archery classes.  You end up having oil companies thinking it is right for them to make astounding profits while your neighbor goes to work, angry and scared, every day.  For many people, life is uphill both ways.  We have a war going on between bullets and bombs and a story.  The story we love is our hearts’ best medicine.  It is the Jesus story.  Simply, small is as good as large, common is as good as special, less is as good as more.  Incarnationally, a child is worthy of the purple robes of the king, and Bethlehem has value along with Jerusalem.  Stones roll away when we experience these small truths.  We are filled with the Holy Spirit when we don’t have to fight for our story but can simply embody it.  How?  By walking through difficulty with dignity and hope, the way ordinary people do every day.

I want to be a little more practical now.  If you agree that there is widespread heart disease and that the deficit is not just financial and the famine is not just about oil or potatoes but about time, and you are looking all around and not just anxiously down, then consider what a gift the great fears of the early 21st century are to us.  The fears themselves carry the possibility of being lit, of following the trouble straight through the grave of so much we have loved into its resurrection.  “You can’t raise live chicks under dead chickens,” said Clarence Jordan.  He was right.  We are in a time when the best thing for so-called liberals to do is to clean out the attic and have a giant rummage sale.  It will be good for our hearts.

Zombie idea number one: liberals have answers.  I don’t think so any more.  I think we have questions… and that we might find more spirit if we deep-sixed the word liberal and substituted populist for it.  Why not?  Why?  Because we need to find ways to be genuinely less elitist in our attitudes toward people who work with their hands or live in India and poop on the road.  You might learn to say, without derision, the words “common people.”

Zombie idea number two: we have to work hard to bring in the revolution.  Nope.  We have to play easy to welcome God’s time and place.  There is a difference in welcoming and doing.  My kids and my community ministers are working so hard they are already burnt out, and they are under thirty.  Even waiters ask if you are “still working on that.”  Works righteousness is giving us heart disease and time-famine.  We should play at that.  We should get rid of the word should.  At Judson we say lean and mean, fewer, finer, pitch ‘em down and low.  You may work harder if you want but only once you are filled up and lit; otherwise, please stop following us around with your blame game and your work game.

Zombie idea number three: we can all be as rich as some are.  Of course that is not possible.  Plus, why would we bother?

Zombie idea number four: we are the great hosts of the universe.  Actually, we are the guests.  The second we stop setting the table for others, we will find ourselves at home in a seat—just one seat, not even the most powerful seat… but one seat.

I have been on sabbatical for the last four months, on a journey to “notice what I think I have already seen.”  That comes from a book by Alain de Botton called The Art of Travel.  I have been hiking portions of the Appalachian Trial, walking through the towns where I have lived, and listening to a silence that I didn’t know existed.  I have also seen some great trilliums.  Whenever I tell people what I am doing, they say, “The whole thing??”  I say, “Of course not.”  People universalize in a way that is very dangerous.  Also, if you say you went to yoga on the beach when you were in Miami, they’ll say, “Every day?  Wow.”  Or swim the lake: “Every day?”  No, not every day.  Just some days.  I am an ordinary citizen of the United States of America.  I pay taxes on my time in internet usage, 800 numbers, doing the dishes, finding what I have lost, taking my heart medicine, and paying off my deficits.  But some days, I lay an egg.  I take off my zombie outfit.  I clean a little more out of my closet.  Some days I am so filled with the Holy Spirit that I glimpse the commonwealth of God coming out of the subway or over the hill.  That glimpse lights me up.  It lightens me.  It saves me.  It saves my heart.



1 Sarah Macdonald, Holy Cow: An Indian Adventure (Sydney: Bantam Books, 2004), p. 106.

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