Get out of the way of the Golden Rule

September 08, 2013

by Rev. Dr. Donna Schaper
Senior Minister

You probably wonder how we choose scriptures for Sunday services here at Judson. Basically the Michaels and I meet for about seven years in 42-hour segments (some shorter) and argue what we think the congregation wants and needs in the next cycle, then we assign the dates and then we publish our results on the web site. Most weeks Michael E and I alternate preaching and Michael C develops music around the theme. Every now and then our sermon titles, prepared long in advance, correspond to the sermon that we are preaching. Lately Micah (thank God his name is not Michael) has been figuring powerfully and prominently in what is affectionately called the preaching schedule.

For the fall of 2013 we are doing what we are calling our top ten series. We have chosen what we think are the top ten of the scripture hit parade, the most fundamental and least ancillary of the scriptures. You will recall that we did a series on the parables of Jesus last year. There are many reasons we are doing the hit parade this fall – and the main one is that our Sunday School parents asked for it. We are developing a second generation in the Sunday School, of kids who grew up with us and who are now Bar Mitzvah age. Yup. The age of transition into adolescence and then into adulthood. We are hard at work on developing a Christian Bar Mitzvah and have been doing a listening tour with the parents of these 9, 10, 11, and 12 year olds who are newly and richly among us. The parents have really aggravated me and annoyed me. I know they didn’t mean to but they have laid down a gauntlet, which has resulted in this sermon series, the one that got Socrates murdered (corrupting the hearts of the youth) and Jonathan Edwards fired. Edwards lost his job in Northampton for corrupting the youth. There is nothing people love more than to blame preachers for the latest way the next generation is no good. And there is nothing parents love to do more than to find partnership in their utter terror about their children turning into teens. So our parents have agreed on very little going forward except for this. They want us to educate their children about what Judson believes. Not what it doesn’t believe. But what it does believe. They don’t want us to do what liberal Protestantism usually does, which is to haul its pre teens around to a lot of mosques and synagogues so as to show that we are appreciative of ecumenism. They don’t want us to be anti-war so much as pro-peace. They don’t want us to be anti-fundamentalism so much as to be fundamental. You get the gist.

So today, for our first in this series – which I hope you understand is challenging the Michaels and me – we have the golden rule. Fundamentally, what we are for at Judson is the golden rule. The golden rule shows up in almost all the wisdom literature in all religious traditions, as you can see from the bulletin. Most importantly, for us, Jesus says that it is the sum of his entire teaching. We are to love others as we love ourselves and love God even more than we love ourselves and others. Love, which we often understand as connection in community, is our primary point of view here. We exist to love. Moreover, we believe love is more powerful than anything else. More powerful than violence, surely more powerful than hate, surely powerful as a way of living. Love gives us the power to fail and to try again. It is an imperfectionist ethic.

My goal today is to make peace, to restore New York City to the people, and to improve my capacity to love. I intend to fail at the first two objectives and advance the third. Failure is not impossible when love is your anchor. I am going to talk about the golden rule, one of the most basic spiritual principles of all. Never impose on others what you would not choose yourself. Confucius Regard your neighbor’s gain as your s and your neighbors loss as yours. Lao Z And good old Seneca, Expect from others what you did to them.

Many people join Seneca in instrumentalizing the golden rule. It becomes the petty folk wisdom of “you reap what you sow.” You will find this kind of simplistic theology all over the Reader’s Digest or the gossip and advice columns. Listen carefully to the instrumentalism. If you sow love, you will reap love. If you are nice to other people they will be nice to you. If you live by the golden rule, your life will be golden. My primary objective with our youth – and with you – will be to disabuse you of this nonsense. There is little instrumental about the golden rule. You can love and love and love some more and still get the wind kicked out of you. No need to use fancier words. If the wind is gone, the S H I T is right behind it. You can love and love and love some more and still get the shit kicked out of you.

Instead of turning the gospel into an advice column, we need to understand what Jesus meant by love. He surely meant that love is an instrument and a good one. He would never argue against reaping and sowing and their connection. But he will take you in to the deeper end of the pool if you want to go there. And here at Judson, we like to swim.

When we go into the deep about love, here is what we find. Love is not a solution to a problem nor even a fix of a problem. Love itself is a problem. There is the problem of getting it and how we feel about not getting it and the problem of what happens when we get it but it comes in on the wrong channel. And there is the problem of what love requires of us.

Let me take three issues, in turn, and show you what I mean. Many of you said you wanted me to say something about Syria, first issue, and so I will. Commenting on war is above my pay grade, outside of my field of expertise, and something about which I feel totally stupid. I surely don’t see the difference between one country sending drones and another country using chemical weapons. Both are hands off, boots off the ground, impersonal, sterile, cheap ways of killing people. You don’t even know who you killed or why you killed them. I like my war – and my peace – up front and personal. At least I’d like to know why I’d choose to kill people I don’t even know or whose country I would be hard pressed to find on a map. Syrians probably don’t know where Kansas is either. When it comes to war, I feel stupid and powerless. When it comes to love or obeying the golden rule, I often feel the same way. When I imagine the golden rule as the fundament of my life, which I do, I get confused before I even open the NY Times in the morning. I stay that way all day. I do think that what I do matters and what I think matters but I think it matters in such a small way that I am hard pressed to work up a lather about Syria. If I think about living by the golden rule regarding Syria, I think about dwelling in ambivalence about violence. In “Why violence works” by Benjamin Ginsberg, I read this startling sentence. The tactics that leaders like Gandhi used were far from nonviolent. They were designed to provoke violent responses. Was the Bonus Army or Occupy designed to provoke Violence?

I wonder sometimes. I know King knew what was coming. And I know Gandhi knew what was coming. And you’d have to be stupid not to know what was coming – look at these pens – if you dare to question the systems of hate. Is it love to lead people into getting their heads bashed? I believe it is but only because of the first part of the golden rule. That we are to love God and God’s intention above all. Not because it is our life mission to establish God’s reign. Instead we love God’s reign into the pens and out of them. Ginsberg also says, “Even Pacifists accept violence by paying our taxes to support the systemic violence that preserves their comfortable lives. And in the international realm, by opposing violence, we are effectively condemning many others to live under tyranny.” The Bonus Army has a very sad ending. Jimmy gets killed, after singing the song that people are good, honey. And the Bonus Army doesn’t get its bonus. But because of their heroic action on the flats in D.C. when the next round of veterans come home after the Second World War, there Is not just a bonus but a GI Bill. Many of us don’t live to see the fruits of our labors. That is one of the things those of us who love without recompense understand.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer said that not to act is to act. Not to speak is to speak. When it comes to the great marches of our time, against war or for bonuses, or for the 99% or the low wage workers, we can do lots of wrong as well as lots of right. When we get over ourselves, we find ourselves befuddled and small. From there, we love. Rarely as the rush of a might river but always as the steady poke of a quiet stream that streams into the other streams.

Second issue about the mayoral election. Many of you wanted me to at least open up a discussion about this matter. No, I am not going to endorse anyone, nor will you ever find out for whom I finally voted. I do think people whose fundamental is connecting in community, what I define as love, need to create safe and open spaces (note the pens again, their opposite) for conversation about differences. About Syria. And about this important mayoral election, which really will matter over time.

Even democracy, as polluted as it has become, can be a setting for love. Here at Judson we believe in the primacy of a kind of powerless and therefore powerful love – and therefore we open and secure spaces. We believe in peace and we fight for it, not because we are foreign policy experts but because we follow Jesus first law. Humble needs to be our middle name. We also believe in democracy not because we are government experts but because we believe it has the chance to be the most loving system. Regarding the mayor. I can’t imagine myself not voting for a qualified woman, especially a woman whom some call too strident and others bash as having gotten power by compromising. How else was she supposed to get power as the first woman and first lesbian candidate? On the other hand, I think the largest long-term threat to you and to the future of our congregation is the gentrification of Manhattan, our home’s land. There is little question that Chris Quinn will develop more than de Blasio will and force more of our precious congregants out of their rent-controlled apartments. That matters to me and to us. On the other hand de Blasio may be so ineffective in Albany as to render his efforts moot. We have to be careful not to let incompetence run things, especially in the land of snakes and eels which politics is. So yes I am undecided. I still love myself and love God and love you – and hope you don’t condemn how deeply indecisive grace allows me to be. Finally on the matter of love, what happens here between you and me. In this congregation right now we are going through a mighty wave of sickness and trouble. Sue Harwig and Margaret Wright. Karl Garlid and Clover Vail. Mei Mei Hammer, and I could name more, and will just leave it there. We have had a wave of trouble, and since I am making my imperfectionist speech again, please forgive me if I forgot to mention your trouble. I didn’t forget it, at least not for long. What impresses me about how our people suffer is this. We take care of each other. When people say the platitude, God will never give you more than you can handle, I differ. I believe that God will never give us more than we can handle in our communities. Thus the urgency at Judson to build communities, to open spaces to know that we love each other, even though we disappoint each other. We take the sterility out of hospital rooms by showing up wearing our sneakers. The best witnesses to love we have are the people wearing tubes and bandaids and who can’t really remember your name. If you don’t believe me, visit them. You will find them asking about you, while you are asking about them. You won’t see Judsonistas giving up hope for wellness even though they can’t be cured. That matters. Or imagine having to love that preacher who is so paradoxical that she can’t even take a strong stand on Syria! Or the Mayoral election! What are we going to do with her? I say you love her, not because you agree with her, just that she is yours and you are hers. Say there is nothing you cannot withstand. Build this community so it can build you. Attend to its connections, its links. Don’t let it be penned in by the perfect but allow it to open to the imperfect. That is grace in action, which is love’s result. It opens space for grace.

In the earlier years of my ministry, I tried to repeat as often as possible that we may differ here. We will disappoint each other. We will thrill each other, as Emme and Ira did yesterday. We will stay in love. We are contractually and covenantly bound. Not just instrumentally and contractually because if we join this community our life will be better. Not because we are brilliant or worthy but because Ruby offers music and Nick offers leadership and Holly offers bureaucracy and Reathel and Russ and Conley and Micah and John and Sara and more offer Bonus Army. We are not what we can give. We are what we can love.

I know community best from the pastor’s side of the table. Many pastors are confused about what we are supposed to do. Grow the congregation, raise the money, unruffled the feathers is the usual job description. As Barbara Brown Taylor said it so well, there was a deep role confusion between her soul and her role. Stanley Hauerwas says most clergy have become a quivering mass of availability. I say we are all to live without veneer, with our shine all rubbed off, without power, save our capacity to love each other. Cardinal Leo Joseph Suenens. Remember God has called you to the priesthood because God does not trust you to be a layperson.

You know community best from the way you show up for each other and offer your gifts and sign up for coffee hour and trust us with a long announcement or complicated concern. Love, I want to tell our children, is what happens after you don’t get into your first choice college, not just when you do. Love is for the bunglers and the befuddled, the second string as well as the first string. So let us be for love first and getting Syria and the Mayor right second. One will flow into the other, if we but stay out of the way of the Golden Rule.

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