I used to be a Plastic Bottle

April 20, 2014

by Rev. Dr. Donna Schaper
Senior Minister

How many of you came last Sunday for Palm Sunday? You heard Micah distinguish between the Jesus of passion and the Jesus of Easter. Because Micah’s sermon and service was so very meaningful, we have removed him from the preaching schedule. Forever. The competition is just too serious. That is one way to deal with the subject of mentoring: eliminate the competition. Act as though your speck of time and space is all there is. Totalize and terrorize yourself with your own presence in time and space. You won’t have fun but you will prevail.

Today I am going to offer some alternatives. And please note that the theme of mentoring was chosen a month or so ago, when Aubrey was invited to dance. THANK YOU AUBREY. There is no direct relationship to Micah’s homerun and my being timidly at bat today. But there is a very direct relationship between Easter and mentoring, between what happened to Mary and Jesus at the tomb. You heard it: he called her by name, the way all of us who want a mentor hope someone will do for us. “Mary,” he said. She responded by calling him “Rabboni,” or “Teacher.” She mentored him as much as he mentored her. She also called him by name. Many of us, older and younger, know that we are in a profound period of mutual mentoring, where the young have as much to teach the old as vice versa. Or if you get nothing else from this Easter, understand that mentoring is always mutual. The energy releases when it is more mutual and depletes when it is less mutual. The energy increases when the student betters the teacher and the teacher therefore rises from the grave of uselessness or disposability. It releases and increases and then it explodes in something like salvation: where the teacher and the student respect each other so much that they learn to matter and by that mattering remake the world and restore the oceans and laugh a lot and love a lot.

So if someone calls you a fossil or a dinosaur this week, tell him or her thank you very much. Or if someone calls you a child or a naïf this week, tell him or her thank you very much.

Enter the plastic bottle. You may or may not know that plastic bottles have an after life. They congregate at the bottom of oceans, after they live a life that could have been lived as a glass or a cup, or more poetically a vessel or a jar. There at the bottom of the ocean, they reek havoc on fish and water, while suffering that hell that is reserved for those who prevail and are useless or empty or both. The truth of the matter is that nobody really needs a plastic bottle. They are an invention of late stage capitalism and join the Styrofoam coffee cup and its plastic lid in being useful for the smallest speck of time. A vessel goes to chards and ends up in museums. A ceramic cup joins the user for so many mornings and afternoons that it has love rubbed into it. Oceans activist and Chief Curation Officer of an applied neuroscience organization, Sarah Kornfeld, a daughter of this congregation, tells us is a post World War 2 invention. Quoting her, “it's really important for us to accept that plastic was created with the hope to remove the edges from the world after WW2 -- we wanted a world where nothing could break again and where nothing would shatter. The paradox is right in front of us - we created something in the face of war and horror that we thought could protect us from pain, glass shards, and brokenness. To avoid a war with glass we have created a Shoah of ocean toxins.” Tasha Adkins, from the University of Vermont, tells me that we can’t really study the plastic conglomerations below the ocean floor. We can only measure what comes to the surface. We imagine that eight times what we can see on the surface is below in the ocean floor as plastic tentacle ribbon. That would be twice the size of Texas. The oceans are becoming a chemical soup. What both of these scientists said to me is that the problem of plastic is not just because it hurts the ocean but also its encouragement to a disposable culture in general. It changes us to be surrounded by disposability. It is also easier to call someone white trash if plastic is the petty and putrid poetry of our existence. Ironically, things that don’t die, like plastic, teach us to think we are disposable. They break the cycle of mentoring – which releases energy, increases energy and explodes life into more life. Mentoring, like parenting, also involves a lot of suffering along the way, as anyone who has been mentored or is mentoring knows. Mentoring is a cup filled with joy and sorrow. I used to be a plastic bottle and am hoping to become a vessel.

When I say that Easter is a great mentor, I mean that Easter is better as a mentor than Aubrey or Paul or John or even Mary. Easter tells you that you are teachable, that someone can call you by name. You are not disposable. You are recyclable. You are resurrect able. There is a big difference between being disposable and unbreakable and being disposed and able to break, even to shatter.

To show you these things I have to teach you about Midrash, a form of reading ancient texts that lets you hear them, as though they knew your name. In Midrash you particularize the story. You imagine the competition between Peter and John as they run to the tomb, one getting their first, the other getting their second, one going into the tomb and then being followed by the other. You are talking about that day, the day of their race, as though it was your day today. And your race. So think about where you are right now. You are at Judson Memorial Church. It is 2014, a few years before climate catastrophes become unbearable in human terms, a few years after terror took out a large building a mile or so from here. That terror was possible because we had lost our bearings as mortals in immortality, as mentors in a mutual mentoring. Note how the totalitarian and the terror work: they work as now something must be done, because there is no past and no future, only the war between us in the now, only the plastic bottle that is convenient to carry in our purse. Some people make astronomical short-term profits out of your disposability while the fish suffer. The long term is abandoned by the disposable.

What amuses me about Judson is how conservative it is about how Avant it is. We have been pretty much the same place for other 100 years but we can’t stop bragging about how new and bold we are. Judson is profoundly conservative as an Avant, almost disappointed when the Easter dancers wear clothes. We blended the ancient testimony and modern testimony on purpose today, as a way to say that they are linked and not distinct, as a way to say that time has a story and we are in it and it is calling our name. We are not disposable so much as learning to be disposed. We are learning to be good mentors by holding our past and our future together in an extraordinary tension, one that refuses to just be Avant or just be old fashioned but to be both, at the same time. We like to call ourselves Judsonia’s but we could also call ourselves Midrashians, those who honor their elders and release their young.

Midrash is when you take the story into yourself and put yourself into the story. It is, like Judson, an ancient way of moving into the contemporary. It really is the only way you can be Avant and contemporary, which is to find an ancient tradition to feed your inner fish. Midrash is the mentoring of sacred texts. You disciple them. You apprentice them. You reinterpret them – and if you are like any good mentee, you act as though your interpretation is much better than your mentor’s interpretation. That is your job, to improve on the past.

Midrash knows that this year Passover and Easter are in the same week – and it remembers that the Easter characters are people who were observing Passover themselves. They had been at table on Thursday, saying the Passover blessings. They were there as disciples, apprentices, mentees. They were following a leader. But, as Aviva Zornberg points out, in her method of Midrash, they didn’t really have a leader. (Very few people get to quote a Kornfeld and a Zornberg in the same Easter sermon.)

Zornberg tells the story of the Exodus as the complete transformation of God, Pharaoh and Moses and us. A text is resurrected when it turns you into a living vessel of it. What happens in the Passover story, again as Zornberg reads it is here. The people don’t really have a leader. Moses has basically declared God’s call to him absurd. He does not want to lead. He does not feel worthy. His entire answer to God is thanks but no thanks. Still Pharaoh is chasing the people. They don’t know when the next plague will come. But still they find their feet, get them wet and cross the river. It is in the MIDDLE of the river that they begin to sing their songs. Not on the other side. But as they are crossing. They sing not in the end when they are free but they sing in the middle before they know that there will be another side. Their singing evokes the leader in themselves. You could actually argue that Moses’ refusal to mentor became his capacity to mentor. The seas part, finally, in a reluctant or nearly leaderless leadership.

Parenthetical Peeve: I really wonder about people who like to say they are seeking spirituality. I’ll bet they are not.

Now that you know a little more about Midrash, let’s return to our stories for today, in all their jumbles.

We should surely Moses our leaders. Don’t trust them too much. Or, better put, trust yourself more than you trust your leader. The really good ones don’t want to be leaders at all and are fully aware of their unworthiness. Also Peter your leaders: know that they are braggers and really afraid of the cops. They will deny you before the cock crows the third time. And John your leaders: they will go into the tomb with you. In fact, they are the only ones who care enough about you to go into your tomb with you. Your tomb is their tomb. The hip joins you. Your name is their name and their name is your name. And finally Mary Magdalene your teachers: recognize them. Call them by their real name. If you do that, they will also call you out by your real name.

And don’t worry too much about how you used to be a plastic bottle and are now becoming a vessel. Even Thoreau says he was “partly leaves and vegetable mold himself.” Even Michael Pollan says that “weeds are us.” The question for today’s mutual mentors is this: What do we do when we outgrow our religion? Yes, we outgrow our religion every generation. God is still speaking and wants us to outgrow the last interpretation. We Midrash. We make the art of Midrash our mentor and don’t put down the past so much as find it and haul it into the present for the future.


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