Thanksgiving for the Top Ten Series Over

November 24, 2013

by Rev. Dr. Donna Schaper
Senior Minister

Many of you have been here most of the time the last ten Sundays. You have heard Michael and I do our best to explore what progressive Christians like us think is the Core Christian Narrative. Even more of you are glad that the series is over. I would say that the series has been what it intended to be: a complete failure to comprehend. You just can’t get your arms all the way around Christianity. And we did not. Ten 20 minute forays into a 2000 year story is like only getting the Miso Soup at a Chinese restaurant – and then they take that away before you are even done with it.

We began with the golden rule as fountain and fundament. We are to love God and each other as much as we love ourselves. We spoke next of Jesus, then of the Holy Spirit and its fruiting pattern. We spoke of nature, reinterpreted evangelism, made a brush at mortality and immortality, asserting that within every death of everything and everybody there is also life. We spoke of Grace as the mechanism of justice. That we don’t make justice but instead receive it as the time and place of God among us We danced a little, sang a lot. We mostly used what Flannery O Connor calls the “King Jimmy”, the Revised Standard Version.

In a few minutes the top ten series will be over. Some of you will be glad because you never liked the idea of Judson or progressive Christians having a core narrative in the first place. The whole project made you nervous: aren’t we hear for soul freedom? Who needs a minister trying to tell you what anything as pompous as “we” think? For many of you there is no “we” when it comes to Christianity. You join Groucho Marx in wanting to be thrown out of every club that would accept you. You are the ones with a spiritually anarchistic stream. You want your order from below, not above, even if the above is parallel to you in a holy space. If they are behind a podium, they represent a potentially illegitimate authority.

Others of you – and you are the reasons we did the series – asked for some clarity. What in the world do we believe or try to believe or imagine we might believe about the Christian narrative? Most of you are parents and wanted to know what you might teach your children. Whether you are part of the love the questions people or probe the answers people, I want to thank you for sitting through this series.

We end it today with a few good words about mysticism, like that expressed in the Revelations passage. Mystics are friendly with those deeply comfortable with questions and those who want a few answers. Mystics sing life in a different key. Mystics are loners who proudly protect their inner space – and usually when they have one of their profound experiences, they find themselves thrust into a sense of oneness. Mystics are anarchists and communitarians but in a different way than realists are. Mystics are not the best community members – and neither are realists, although they claim more fame in this arena. Realists often say with pugnacity, “That’s just the way things are.” A typhoon flattens the Philippines and the realist sends a check and is satisfied. They have at least done something. The mystic may wander the streets for days – and still not send a check.

Mystics are often strange. They join Robert Bellah in an umbrella definition of religion, that it is nothing more than the imagination of another reality. While both mystics and their opposites live in what Sadie Smith calls “Narrative Claustrophobia,” one lives there alert, and the other lives there confused. Mystics let a story claim them every now and then. Realists refuse to let a narrative claim them because they are much too aware of every narrative’s competition with every other one.

If you are more realist than mystic – and believe me all of us in the narrative claustrophobia just have tendencies to one direction or another – there is no pure type – you deserve appreciation. You have made your peace with the world as it is. With the wild and crazy theorist Lacan, you understand that trauma is a missed encounter with the real. For you an encounter with what’s really real is crucial. Just give me the facts, please. What were the consequences of that? What really happened? You want to see more clearly, assess with greater metric and management. You not only want to know what is going on. You think you do know and you calibrate your activities and your emotional response to reality. You don’t think you are right so much as you think you are real. You sleep better than the mystics do too. You probably have an exercise program and a budget. You manage and you manage well. Your feet are on the ground. No one ever calls you a “loose cannon.”

Mystics are more likely to be bumpy in their approach to life. They see new heavens and new earths everywhere and jump on their bandwagon ineffectively. In fact, ineffective is their middle name. Let’s go straight to Judson as an example. We do sort of believe that God created us, that Jesus sustains us and that the fruits of the Spirit are everywhere. We live by grace and not by works and we believe that within every death there is new life. We also resist spiritual correctness with every bone in our body. We resist it the same way we resist political correctness. We insist on the right to believe or not believe in our own way with the same vigor that a compulsive runs the half marathon or does the dishes. We are almost predictably reactive in our capacity to question each other.

Rather than try to argue the realists in us into the mystics in us or to try to get the mystics more alert to reality, I prefer just to introduce you to some people I know. You can then decide whether they intrigue you. Full disclosure: I am a mystic major who minors in realism. You may be a realist with a minor in mysticism. We live in narrative claustrophobia. No hay problema. The worse thing about a false dichotomy is the way people turn either side into a hammer and bop each other over the head’s with it.

Many of you know Father Paul Mayer, the former Jew become Catholic Priest who invigorated us regularly during and after Occupy. Paul died on Wednesday of this week. He will have his service here some time in the near future. The last phone call I had from him insisted that we go block the Lincoln Tunnel over some grave sin in the Middle East. He even said, “When Peter was here, he would have said yes.” You probably also remember the day two years ago when Father Paul jumped over the Trinity fence, in his clerics, landing on top of Bishop Packer. It was one of the most humorous and ineffective things I have ever seen any one do. Bishop Packer is very large. He was wearing his robes. Father Paul is very diminutive – but strong enough to climb and jump, as a master Yoga teacher and practitioner would be. He landed square on Bishop Packer’s crimson Bishop’s robe. The entire episode with Trinity was ineffective. Why were we picking a fight with another church when Wall Street was breathing down our necks? I don’t think we ever knew. Our strength is often composed of the very weakness we’re damned if we are ever going to show. Father Paul died a deeply peaceful, deeply ineffective death. He was a religious man, if by that we mean someone who knows there is another reality.

You probably haven’t met Rev. Eileen Gebbe who is Senior Pastor of the Claremont Church where I preached last weekend. She is a proud lesbian and has a beautiful tattoo on her left arm. She just turned 40. It is very rare for such a person to pastor such a large church at such a young age. We save the big salaries for elders like me. The young tend toward the mystic, older people have usually had it knocked out of us by the time we are eligible for one of the least mystical things in the universe, so called Medicare. Eilleen’s desk is a walking machine, one that has arms and makes you move like you were having a stress test. Their church just came in second place in the California Power and Light contest for the church making the most contributions to California sustainability. They had only put 300 solar panels on their enormous roof. The winner, Temple Sinai, had put up 320.
One of her members during their version of interminable announcements introduced herself as the Chair of the Compost Committee. She gave a long disquisition on the way to separate the food after next week’s Thanksgiving meal and how not to put bones in the blue can or paper in the red one. When Eilleen finally interrupted her, she said, sorry I have to continue. This is important. The chair of the compost committee was abusing 500 people’s time and she probably also understood what Erica Jong said about risk. “The trouble is, a refusal to risk is to risk even more. If you don’t risk anything, you risk even more.” Plus somebody might put tin foil in with the leftover salad. It’s really hard to fight an enemy who has outposts in your head. Realists are committed to being right about reality. Mystics have often lost too much touch with reality to be right about it.

While out there I stayed with one of my oldest and dearest friends. At age 77, she is no longer herself. She has a beautiful house with a beautiful patio in a sunny world, facing a banana and a pomegranate tree. Geraniums were in bloom as were amaryllis. She moved out a year and a half ago but has refused to move in. Her boxes of stale energy were still on the patio, that patio where no one could sit, because it was holding the past. When her husband and I finally unpacked the boxes, with her permission, late on Saturday night, we discovered that in them were her mother’s possessions. An old ermine coat, rumpled and moth eaten. A child’s tea set. Forty doilies, the kind that would never work in California.

Mystics don’t just imagine new heavens and new earths, or tattoo themselves, or jump over fences. Mystics also have a way of hanging on, often way too long, to deep-boxed meanings from the past.

In the same way that Flannery O’Connor said she thought her prayers were phony, many mystics have a finely tuned ear for what is off key. What doesn’t ping. Some people some times just don’t want to go on without their mother with them. SO they stop.

Gabriel Garcia Marquez warns us that “What matters in life is not what happens to you but what you remember and how you remember it.” I don’t know how you will remember this series. I don’t much care either. I do care about which story you let claim you. Whether it is a flat one, a stale on, or one that gives you bounce and wings and ferocity. Adventures in life may be good teachers. Surely both mystics and realists learn to learn. But Experience is the truth that finally overtakes you. That truth may be that you don’t want to go on or that you want the compost sorted properly, damn it, right now. Because otherwise you just can’t bear typhoons any longer. I recommend that you tell your realist, no matter how anarchistic he or she may be, to pick a story and stick with it. I recommend that you let your mystic jump over one fence after another, just to see what is on the other side. In these ways you will surely lean into a new heaven and a new earth.


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