Sermons

Spiritual Enlightenment, Grimly Pursued

Ancient Testimony ~ Jeremiah 29:10-14

October 25, 2009

by Rev. Dr. Donna Schaper
Senior Minister

Spiritual enlightenment is the joy of not being afraid. It is the far side of fear. Enlightenment is about light in both senses of that great word. We are light, not heavy. The weights of the world are in one of our closets; we know they are there but we don’t carry them around. We are lit, not dark. We glow, we don’t glaze over into an attitude that has lost its gloss and gone grey.

Spiritual enlightenment is also a return from exile. As today’s first testimony passage puts it, God will bring us back from the place of exile. Enlightenment is also a return, a coming back to what we are promised. In this text, God is actually a little insulted. “Don’t you think I know what I am doing?” says God. “I brought you out here; I’ll bring you back.” I love the line, “For surely I know the plans I have for you. . . .” What do you think I am, stupid? Don’t I know the plans I have for you? These are plans for your welfare and not your harm.

If enlightenment is a great lightness of being and a relief from exile, why do so many people pursue it so grimly? If enlightenment is a great joy in a land beyond fear, why are so many people so grumpy? I have watched many women marching down the street with a yoga mat strapped on their arm and a scowl on their face. And I do mean marching. I hear people talk about yoga, a great example of new consumer-based enlightenment, in the terms of should. “I so should go to yoga today. I just skipped it, I was too tired.” People almost seem to lament the invitation into joy. “I know I should feel grateful, but…” “I know I should be lighter, but…” I Know I Shouldframes an awful lot of today’s experience. Beneath that frame: I know I should remember God’s promises but there is a terrible amount of anguish. Most of that anguish is from fear. It is the I Know I Should frame greeting everyday experience and allowing the end of the day to come with both a bang and a whimper instead of a great exhalation of breath into joy.

Before you start throwing the Pollyanna epithet at me, let me clarify a few terms. I want to talk about the fear that limits our joy today. It has a large and lethal advertising budget. There is nothing wimpy about the Scare and Hate people. They give every appearance of being in charge. And the more power we grant them, the more power they have. In fact, the power of the Scare and Hate people grows every time we forget to go to yoga or breathe deeply into joy, with or without a yoga mat. There is no need to grimly pursue joy, to be caught in the knowledge that we should but that we don’t. There is no need to be as afraid as we are. We can be lighter. We can live more at home on the planet, in this time and on this day. We may not be able to change the difficulties that surround us, but no one else is in charge of our attitudes toward them but us. The road out of exile is ours, not theirs, unless we give it away and allow the wrong drivers to drive us to places we don’t really want to go to.

Three paths out of exile into enlightenment will structure these small words I will give you today. One is our attitude toward swine flu, another is our attitude toward hate speech, and a third is the permission we give to personal confusion. I’ll start with the third, personal confusion, because it is my favorite form of consent to exile. For some reason I have internalized a nearly impossible set of life expectations. I know I am not alone. I want lots of excitement and lots of peace at the same time. I want lots of impact on society and its lethal economies and I also want a lot of nights off and to be free of meetings. For decades now I have known two contradictory forms of personal happiness. One is that I’d like to live on a farm and grow things. The other is I want to do urban ministry. I appear to think my own vocational home is simultaneously rural and urban, simultaneously diverse and homogeneous, simultaneously quiet and loud. At the end of a good day in the country, I wish I were in the city. At the end of a good day in the city, I long for the country. This personal confusion is most aptly described by the kind of car I want to drive. It is a convertible pickup truck with a hybrid engine. It is probably red. You are right if you think that kind of vehicle does not exist. Did I also tell you that I want to live my life surrounded by family and friends and that I really like solitude? Did I mention that I long for deep and sustained attachments with real human beings, half of whom drive me crazy? Lewis Carroll named personal confusion well when he said that if you don’t know where you are going, just about any road will take you there. When we live in the exile of personal confusion, when we do what many women of my demographic do and want it all, we find ourselves getting just what we have. Many of us suffer from attention surplus disorder, not attention deficit disorder. Input personal confusion, output personal confusion. Input indecision, output indecision. Input wanting contradictory things, output contradictory things. I know I am not alone in these extravagant grips I put on life. I watch many of us desire to write a beautiful play but spend our days directing not-for-profit institutions. I watch musicians go through whole months without writing a new song, simply due to the I Know I Should But I Don’t frame being the victor of our spirits. If I thought will power could get any of us out of these confusions, I would stop here and cajole each of us into a more forceful, personal direction. While more serious personal direction and even a good dose of will power helps some of us some of the time become joyous and enlightened, usually it does not. Usually it is the failure of the will and its power that puts us on the path to enlightenment. We become lighter and more joyous not because we succeed at taming ourselves but because—and as—we fail. We come to terms. We live happily, in either the country or the city, writing songs or not, achieving Broadway or not, when we disattach from our personal confusion and learn to love its chaos.

Yes, disattach. I know Michael Ellick says he is no longer a Buddhist but he is. I love Paul Knitter’s line about how he came to be a Christian because he became a Buddhist first. When we line up with the promises of God, we realize that these promises are not just for inner peace. They are also for inner turmoil, which, exiled properly, becomes inner peace. I have long said that the gospel is the permission and the invitation to enter difficulty with hope. One of the ways we get light is to enter our own difficulties and confusion with hope. We stop the I Know I Shoulda’s and begin the I Know That the Shoulds Are Not the Whole Story’s. We give ourselves permission not to have all the life we want, right in the middle of not having it, and there receive the lightness of disattachment from absurd expectations. We grock grace. We get grace. We receive the return from exile as a gift and stop trying to get it. Enlightenment results. Enlightenment is not something we give ourselves so much as something we are gifted. You might call spiritually enlightened people the Gifted and Talented Program in the great primary school of life. We are not gifted and talented in the normal way, as in good test scores or astonishing abilities to manage life’s curve balls. We are gifted and talented because we get over good test scores and curve balls and disattach from their nearly constant oppression. We stop trying to earn our stripes and enjoy our stripes.

If personal confusion is not your issue but instead you enjoy larger and more dramatic fears, let me go to the H1N1 virus, which is shaping up to be a real doozy bird of a fear feast. What do you get out of worrying about swine flu? Or the scarcity of vaccines? Or the possibility that the virus will get smart and outwit the vaccine? Or that the vaccine itself is problematic? Not that any of us knows any of these things, by the way, but we get to talk and act as though we do, or think our experts are better than other people’s experts, or that experts are truly expert. Because we already have a conversation going on about the virus here, at Judson, I want full disclosure. I know almost nothing about swine flu, H1N1, where or whether to get the vaccine, etc. What I do know is that a fear response is worse than the flu itself, no matter how bad the flu does or doesn’t get. What do spiritually enlightened people, those who are already personally confused and lean in the direction of watching too much news, do with the nearly constant barrage of stories about the flu, of people wearing masks, of schools closing, etc.? The main thing we do is to refuse alarmism and panic. Why? Because alarmism gets you nowhere, absolutely nowhere at all. The main thing I learned from my brief bout with cancer is here: it is very important not to give cancer anything more than it has already taken away from you. If cancer is going to limit the number of years you enjoy alive, why let fear take any more minutes? It is a no brainer, this management of fear and anxiety. Spiritually enlightened people are actually very practical. We know about the things about which we can do very little. We do that very little and let the rest go by.

Often joy overtakes fear when we relinquish our self-aggrandizing anxiety. How is anxiety self-aggrandizing? We imagine that we are so important that our pain is larger than anybody else’s pain and we garnish our plate of pain with self-importance, which makes us more, not less, nervous. Spiritually light people are not tempted by self-importance and thus find the key out of the cage of self-consciouness. No wonder God was mad at the exiled Israelites; they were adding anxiety to their exile. They were larding their lament with lament about the lament. They were refusing the promises of God that they would find peace, home, adventure, and joy in the midst of and despite it all.

Finally, if flu and confusion aren’t demonic enough for you, consider a few facts. I never said I didn’t think there were things to be afraid of. There are plenty of things to be afraid of. There is just no reason to give that fear any more than it has already taken from you.

There may be a lot of hate speech out there, Obama may in fact receive 30 death threats a day, and Lou Dobbs may get paid a lot of money to scorn and sneer; but we can still trust in God, trust each other, trust the people, and not get moved off our own confused path by the fear of what hate speech can do.

I want to reinterpret the tremendously significant Martin Niemöller text ("First they came..." c. 1946) that we used as our Meditation Quote this morning, and which is one of the great UR moments in hate speech. Note that we often turn it into I Know I Shoulda spoken up. Actually its destination is our personal peace. Why do we bother to speak up for others when hate and scorn is thrown at them? Because we want to make sure somebody speaks up for us. We don’t protect the President by calling out the exterminationists so much as we protect ourselves. Protection is a net and a web. Whenever one string breaks in it, the web breaks. When we speak up against hate speech, we activate our enlightened muscles. We don’t activate our fear muscles. One response to the hate being directed at Obama is OMG. The other is to protect him with our prayers and our inner peace, our strong refusal to let anybody get hate thrown at them.

Fact: swine flu has already killed 5000 people around the world and there is already enough respiratory illness all around us to sink a ship. Even with all the hand washing. (I so wish I had invested in Purell.) Fact: President Obama averages 30 death threats per day, preachers pray publicly for his death, and right-wing pundits speak openly of military coups. David Neiwert, author of The Eliminationists, gives some insight into the relationship between extreme rhetoric and acts of violence: Dr. George Tiller’s death came after people prayed, on the radio and elsewhere, that doctors be killed if they did abortions. Facts. All facts. They don’t need fear attached to them. What they need is a powerful withdrawal of consent to both hate and fear. Not just hate. Not anxious responses to hate but powerful responses to hate that come from deep within our exile, and return us to our proper homeland, where peace is the promise.

One more strategy. I don’t know if you all have heard but Bishop John Shelby Spong has made a decision. He will no longer debate the issue of homosexuality in the church with anyone. He just won’t do it. I will attach his manifesto to the printed version of this sermon. Spong is tired of living a reactive life to the right-wing arguments. I daresay some of us in this very room are tired of living a reactive life to the right-wing. When we speak of spiritual enlightenment, we move out of the land of reactivity, which is a form of exquisite exile, to which we consent. We don’t fight hate speech so much as use love speech. We don’t know we shoulda so much as know and do. Does flu go away? Maybe, maybe not. Does violence not claim horrible victories? Maybe, maybe not. Do I get the convertible pickup truck with the hybrid engine? Maybe, maybe not. Instead of living in fear, we live in peace. Instead of living in fear, we live in joy. Instead of living in the exile of Knowishoulda, we live in the land of the free and the home of the brave.

There we live lightly, joyfully pursuing the very enlightenment that is always and already pursuing us.


A Manifesto! The Time Has Come!
by Bishop John Shelby Spong

I have made a decision. I will no longer debate the issue of homosexuality in the church with anyone. I will no longer engage the biblical ignorance that emanates from so many right-wing Christians about how the Bible condemns homosexuality, as if that point of view still has any credibility. I will no longer discuss with them or listen to them tell me how homosexuality is "an abomination to God," about how homosexuality is a "chosen lifestyle," or about how through prayer and "spiritual counseling" homosexual persons can be "cured." Those arguments are no longer worthy of my time or energy. I will no longer dignify by listening to the thoughts of those who advocate "reparative therapy," as if homosexual persons are somehow broken and need to be repaired. I will no longer talk to those who believe that the unity of the church can or should be achieved by rejecting the presence of, or at least at the expense of, gay and lesbian people. I will no longer take the time to refute the unlearned and undocumentable claims of certain world religious leaders who call homosexuality "deviant." I will no longer listen to that pious sentimentality that certain Christian leaders continue to employ, which suggests some version of that strange and overtly dishonest phrase that "we love the sinner but hate the sin." That statement is, I have concluded, nothing more than a self-serving lie designed to cover the fact that these people hate homosexual persons and fear homosexuality itself, but somehow know that hatred is incompatible with the Christ they claim to profess, so they adopt this face-saving and absolutely false statement.

In my personal life, I will no longer listen to televised debates conducted by "fair-minded" channels that seek to give "both sides" of this issue "equal time." I am aware that these stations no longer give equal time to the advocates of treating women as if they are the property of men or to the advocates of reinstating either segregation or slavery, despite the fact that when these evil institutions were coming to an end the Bible was still being quoted frequently on each of these subjects. It is time for the media to announce that there are no longer two sides to the issue of full humanity for gay and lesbian people. There is no way that justice for homosexual people can be compromised any longer.

I will no longer act as if the Papal office is to be respected if the present occupant of that office is either not willing or not able to inform and educate himself on public issues on which he dares to speak with embarrassing ineptitude. I will no longer be respectful of the leadership of the Archbishop of Canterbury, who seems to believe that rude behavior, intolerance and even killing prejudice is somehow acceptable, so long as it comes from third-world religious leaders, who more than anything else reveal in themselves the price that colonial oppression has required of the minds and hearts of so many of our world's population. I see no way that ignorance and truth can be placed side by side, nor do I believe that evil is somehow less evil if the Bible is quoted to justify it. I will dismiss as unworthy of any more of my attention the wild, false and uninformed opinions of such would-be religious leaders as Pat Robertson, James Dobson, Jerry Falwell, Jimmy Swaggart, Albert Mohler, and Robert Duncan. My country and my church have both already spent too much time, energy and money trying to accommodate these backward points of view when they are no longer even tolerable.

I make these statements because it is time to move on. The battle is over. The victory has been won. There is no reasonable doubt as to what the final outcome of this struggle will be. Homosexual people will be accepted as equal, full human beings, who have a legitimate claim on every right that both church and society have to offer any of us. Homosexual marriages will become legal, recognized by the state and pronounced holy by the church. "Don't ask, don't tell" will be dismantled as the policy of our armed forces. We will and we must learn that equality of citizenship is not something that should ever be submitted to a referendum. Equality under and before the law is a solemn promise conveyed to all our citizens in the Constitution itself. Can any of us imagine having a public referendum on whether slavery should continue, whether segregation should be dismantled, whether voting privileges should be offered to women? The time has come for politicians to stop hiding behind unjust laws that they themselves helped to enact, and to abandon that convenient shield of demanding a vote on the rights of full citizenship because they do not understand the difference between a constitutional democracy, which this nation has, and a "mobocracy," which this nation rejected when it adopted its constitution. We do not put the civil rights of a minority to the vote of a plebiscite.

I will also no longer act as if I need a majority vote of some ecclesiastical body in order to bless, ordain, recognize and celebrate the lives and gifts of gay and lesbian people in the life of the church. No one should ever again be forced to submit the privilege of citizenship in this nation or membership in the Christian Church to the will of a majority vote.

The battle in both our culture and our church to rid our souls of this dying prejudice is finished. A new consciousness has arisen. A decision has quite clearly been made. Inequality for gay and lesbian people is no longer a debatable issue in either church or state. Therefore, I will from this moment on refuse to dignify the continued public expression of ignorant prejudice by engaging it. I do not tolerate racism or sexism any longer. From this moment on, I will no longer tolerate our culture's various forms of homophobia. I do not care who it is who articulates these attitudes or who tries to make them sound holy with religious jargon.

I have been part of this debate for years, but things do get settled and this issue is now settled for me. I do not debate any longer with members of the "Flat Earth Society" either. I do not debate with people who think we should treat epilepsy by casting demons out of the epileptic person; I do not waste time engaging those medical opinions that suggest that bleeding the patient might release the infection. I do not converse with people who think that Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans as punishment for the sin of being the birthplace of Ellen DeGeneres or that the terrorists hit the United Sates on 9/11 because we tolerated homosexual people, abortions, feminism or the American Civil Liberties Union. I am tired of being embarrassed by so much of my church's participation in causes that are quite unworthy of the Christ I serve or the God whose mystery and wonder I appreciate more each day. Indeed I feel the Christian Church should not only apologize, but do public penance for the way we have treated people of color, women, adherents of other religions and those we designated heretics, as well as gay and lesbian people.

Life moves on. As the poet James Russell Lowell once put it more than a century ago: "New occasions teach new duties, Time makes ancient good uncouth." I am ready now to claim the victory. I will from now on assume it and live into it. I am unwilling to argue about it or to discuss it as if there are two equally valid, competing positions any longer. The day for that mentality has simply gone forever.

This is my manifesto and my creed. I proclaim it today. I invite others to join me in this public declaration. I believe that such a public outpouring will help cleanse both the church and this nation of its own distorting past. It will restore integrity and honor to both church and state. It will signal that a new day has dawned and we are ready not just to embrace it, but also to rejoice in it and to celebrate it.

 
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