Sermons

Three Testaments in One Binding

September 09, 2012

by Rev. Dr. Donna Schaper
Senior Minister

It was Aunt Bea’s 92nd birthday, and my friend said Aunt Bea wanted a doubles tennis game for her birthday. I said sure -- and quickly compartmentalized Aunt Bea, put her in one binding, that of a 92 year old who would probably be much too easy to beat. Suffice it to say I was wrong. Aunt Bea’s team whooped my team. 6- 3, 6- 2 and 6-3. When you are getting beat, you often try to develop a strategy about how to stop the beating. You study your opponent. I figured out that Aunt Bea had both a gorgeous offense and a gorgeous defense, held together by an elegant detachment, and that was why she was so successful on the court. She was unbeatable.


What I love about Three Testaments, the book we are enjoying today, is that it has a marvelous offense. Instead of defending a kind of religion that is open minded, it does open minded religion. It puts three sacred texts in one binding, the Koran, the Talmud and the Christian gospels. It becomes immediately a new kind of Christian plus book, one done a different way, giving new meaning to not just what it means to be “OLD” or “ANCIENT” but also what it means to be a sacred book. Sacred texts remain a highly contested subject, even today. Whether it is telling women they can’t be priests because Peter was a man or burning a Koran, people love to defend their rigidified religion. In that defense they harm sacred texts more than any burning could ever do.


News also came today that the Episcopalians may rebuild the damaged cathedral in Christ Church, New Zealand, and invite the Roman Catholics to move in with them. One cathedral housing two versions of faith is a similarly beautiful non-violent offensive strategy. Don’t sit around talking about how religions ought to get along. Move them in with each other. Don’t say it, do it. And don’t do it defensively, in your face or somebody’s face, do it quietly and boldly with detachment and dignity. That offense will be your best defense.
No less a sage than Dwight Eisenhower understood the problem with overdoing defense or defensiveness. “The problem in defense is how far you can go without destroying from within what you are trying to defend from without.” Those who burn the Koran are destroying the Christian Bible by defending it. Those who do violence in the name of defending the Koran are destroying the Koran by defending it. The violation of Jerusalem as a city of three religions that can’t get along is another heartbreaking example of religions over defending and overdoing it. All religions are hurt when any religion overdoes it. All religions are helped when someone “does it,” in a beautiful new binding way.


You have surely seen this pattern in your own game of life. Whenever we find ourselves defensively defending ourselves, we have probably already lost the battle we were trying to fight. You may need defense as part of your strategy but you don’t need to be defensive. There is a difference. Your best defense may also be your best offense, especially if it is done quietly. When something causes a threat signal for you, the best thing you can do is refuse to be defensive. You can start by doing nothing. Instead, listen. Learn. Hear. Go quiet, with vigor. People don’t want to hear about how it is not your fault or that it is their fault or that they are stupid or bigoted or barbarian.


Few of us in this great cosmopolitan city defend sacred texts any more. If anything, we don’t defend them well enough. Instead we follow another absolute. We imagine these things don’t matter and end up in a New York state of mind, one that doesn’t notice what makes most people tick. Here in this congregation, we have become marked as the people of capital D diversity. That value can be used as a stick too. I may find it delightful that I just got some food from the Lesbian Lebanese food truck but not everybody thinks that is as charming as I do. I can be downright offensive in my defense of enjoying the food from the Lesbian Lebanese truck. Defensiveness, aggressive defense, can be an equal opportunity destroyer of what it defends.

 

Consider another strategy, that of quiet sure-footed offense and quiet sure-footed defense. Think of it as Aunt Bea’s Sure and Steady Way to win at tennis, with a good offense, a good defense and lots of detachment about both.


More than one person has said to me this summer, “I think my story has gone stale. It doesn’t make sense to be living in the way I have been living.” How do you tell if your story or affiliations have gone stale? When you find yourself defending it as though it was being attacked, rather than relishing its shift. When you find yourself beating up the religious right or the religious left, much too often. That’s how. Staleness comes when our defensive strategy gets out of pace with our offensive strategy, when we spend more time feeling attacked than we do creating a culture and a community. We do need to be safe! Some of us even like to win a little. But defensive approaches alone won’t work. We also have to make something, like put three testaments in one Bible and sport it about or like creating Protestant alternatives to Bible belting. We need spiritual communities that helps people keep their stories fertile, alive, interesting, undefended and without need of defense. We need a new vigorous Protestantism that is not just against something but also for something. Spiritual but not religious types, the fastest growing group today, sometimes called the “nones” when they answer questions on religious forms, may be fluid and free but they are also not going to anytime soon be determining the parameters of any conversation. Free agency, when we refuse to join and build a team, may be fun and flirty and fluid – everything that most religion is not – but it is also TOO free to build communities that live beyond defense into good and strategic offenses. We need to be something as well as be against something, to have a good offense and a good defense.

 

Hear Eisenhower again. “We can often destroy what we are defending by defending it too much.” The principle is more Buddhist than not. I have always wondered why the Abrahamic religions are so much more violent than the Buddhists. I think it comes from the core of the faith and the fact that the Buddhists didn’t write things down so much so that they could be solidified. I mean why take one moment in time, long, long ago and act as though God quit speaking then? Why take a concrete mixer and pour it over the foment of faith throughout a life cycle? I’m not saying that the Buddhists haven’t seen their rivers of blood. They have. But the fundamental Buddhist principle of living a life that is detached while engaged—detached while engaged – this gets us through a lot of tennis games, a lot of culture wars, a lot of Koran burnings. Aunt Bea won at 92 because of her engaged detachment and her detached engagement. What we mean by detached while engaged is very Jesus like as well: he did not have high regard for temples made of stone, as you may recall. Being detached while engaged involved a good offense, a good defense and a sense that the game is actually fun, instead of being one where winning matters more than we Jesus people ever thought it needed to do.


As you can see, Aunt Bea is my idea of a sacred text: Ancient and alive, detached and engaged.

Amen.

 

 
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