Sunday, July 21, 2013

Sermon: Spiritual Compost 2013.07.21

It wasn't until doing a late revision of the sermon that I realized I should talk about the Trayvon Martin / George Zimmerman story. The sermon is not about that, but it includes my best attempt at helping a broad audience to develop a Christ-like attitude toward that and similar situations. As is always the case with my sermons, this is written as much for me as it is for anyone else. (Also: I don't usually write a full manuscript, but I did this time to help me keep it very short, because we were doing a special service of healing prayer with extra music and a guided meditation and stuff.)

Spiritual Compost
1 Corinthians 1:18-31

This is the second sermon in the new series on evangelism and today I want to tell you about the Jesus whom the evangelists you see on t.v. don’t know about. Because it only takes a little bit of reading between the lines to realize the Messiah of televangelists must be a man of perfect power and unlimited wealth who NEVER EVER stops smiling.

But that’s not the Jesus of the Bible. And while it might be more effective to evangelize people with promises that all their troubles are going to go away, it’s a lie. Because the real Jesus lived in poverty, was rejected, tortured and, by worldly standards died as a failure. The Jesus we have to tell people about is a crucified Messiah—and as Paul said, no one wants to hear that.

But they really should. Because for that very reason, because of the crucifixion, the gospel is for people who are suffering—and that means everyone. The crazy-sounding good news of Jesus is that we can welcome and rejoice in suffering. All those times when things go wrong in our lives—when people get sick, even when they die—when friends abandon us—when family members betray us—when our savings dry up and the bills are piling high—when there’s nothing in the news but doom and despair—all of this is really so much garbage that can become the compost for our souls.

The most fertile ground for our spirits to grow is in the stinking pail of rot and refuse—that’s where we grow to maturity, by learning to depend on God. That’s where we learn the meaning of surrender; when we have no choice but to hand ourselves over to God’s wisdom and God’s power. Because our own wisdom and our own power are getting us nowhere.

That’s when we realize we are not the ones in control. Are you in control of your life? It might feel that way, because there are some things you can control—but every now and then, the truth starts to jab into your side and you realize: you are not in control of other people, you can’t control the economy, or the politicians in Washington, or the division of cells in your own body. You cannot prevent the rising costs of medical care or the shooting of random civilians in public places. No matter how good you are, no matter how hard you try—you will still be subject to unfairness and suffering, just as Christ was subject to suffering and injustice.

And the good news is, you can stop fighting it! ... And you're now wondering, how is that good news?

Well, let me give you an example of what that might look like: a lot of people have suffered some anguish this week over the Trayvon Martin / George Zimmerman story. It came up in our Bible study, even. And people here have some very different opinions and feelings about it. The story really touches a nerve—on the one hand, for people who feel upset that the media have sensationalized the whole thing and riled people up just because they know what sells—and on the other hand, there is a huge amount of grief and outrage from the black community and those in solidarity with them, for all the ways that black youth get pre-judged as violent criminals and treated with suspicion—which is something that happens all the time, whether or not it happened in the Zimmerman case.

So, regardless of what their opinions are, a lot of people have been really upset—personally, I would say justifiably upset in all cases—so what about this idea, then, that suffering is compost for our souls? What about this as an opportunity for spiritual growth?

This can become a situation where we practice putting our trust in God alone, and not in ourselves. We can let go of our desire to be in control—the megalomaniacal part of ourselves that says “If only I was in charge of the Associated Press” or “If only I had been on that jury”—and instead, we turn the situation over to God, and trust that God is at work here, even if we can’t see it. We acknowledge that God is in control, and things would be much, much worse if we were the ones in charge. And finally—this kind of acceptance does not mean throwing up our hands and saying “there’s nothing I can do”—but it means asking God, “Lord, how can I be obedient to your will and become part of what you’re doing already to take care of this?”

You see the difference? You’re no longer saying “God, help me to impose my will on other people.”  That’s not going to be very fruitful because you don’t have the ability to control other people and you may not really know what’s best for them. It’s not going to do any good just to get all upset about that whole Trayvon-Zimmerman thing, basically wishing that things were different and being angry—but it is another thing, and it’s good for the soul, if you can take a deep breath, and remember the peace that passes understanding—remember that God is in control, even in spite of this terrible tragedy—God is in control, even though the media have become an instrument of divisiveness and social chaos—God is in control, even though black youth in America are facing pervasive, debilitating racism every day—even so, I trust that God is at work here and now, bringing about an end to all corruption and injustice. So I give myself over to God, asking “Lord, how can I be obedient to your will? How can I be part of what you are doing to bring justice and healing?”

And it is only after you have surrendered to God in your suffering and in your anguish, that the Spirit begins to move in you, and it can give you that peace, and it can bring about some real changes—turning sorrow into joy, giving hope instead of despair—and guiding you in obedience to God’s will. And then you no longer want to strangle Mr. Zimmerman’s attorney or burn down the New York Times building—instead you want to—you know—get a bunch of white and black people together to sing songs and hold hands around a bonfire. Or donate to some program for helping inner city youth or volunteer as a mentor or whatever. Who knows how the Spirit may lead.

So, that’s one example. Of course, there are all kinds of ways that each of us has suffered this week—and all kinds of ways that we will likely suffer in the next week—and again, the good news which we have to share with this world is that we need not be afraid of that suffering or try to avoid it—but we can accept it as an opportunity—the way that Christ accepted the crucifixion—as the true path to salvation. So let’s take all our suffering as an excuse to humble ourselves and surrender to the power of God and the work of the Spirit in our lives. Amen.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

finding religious meaning

This morning, after the part of my dream where I bought an old t.v. from a thrift store and they delivered eight because they wanted to get rid of their stock and they all had different hookups and some were bizarrely shaped, there was kind of a nice little story, which I have made slightly more coherent for the blog:

There’s this elderly nun who has some kind of religious relic that’s supposed to have great power—but it’s not really the relic itself, because she offered to put it on display instead of having it with her all the time—so other people could come and revere it—but no one wanted that, because what makes the object so special has to do with the nun’s personal holiness.

One day she doesn’t show up for some chapel worship service, and all the people who normally found it such a profound and holy experience worshipping with the revered sister and her relic are all bored and irritated having to sit through Sister Margaret doing 12 novenas. 

Afterward, the monks are talking amongst themselves and one says, “It couldn’t be clearer; Sister is trying to teach by example that religious works are of no value to God.” Another says, “That’s not it at all; religious works are of value if they lead to greater love for God. Maybe Sister is intentionally acting in an unsaintly manner so that we will not idolize her.” And another said, “Or she’s trying to teach us that the holiness she represents to us is always present, even if she herself is not.”

Sister was getting up in years and had dozed off and slept through the service.

Friday, July 12, 2013

The Evolutionary Basis of Sexism

This week I stumbled across a fascinating website by a scholar named Peter Frost who has researched (among other things) the fact that women’s skin is lighter than men’s. Yes, that’s right: women have lighter skin than men. What the heck?

Not only that, but apparently, skin color signals male or female gender to the unconscious mind. Click on this link and you’ll see two faces. Granted, both faces appear gender-ambiguous, but the one on the right looks more masculine, and the one on the left looks more feminine, right? The only difference between the two photos is the skin color (slightly darker in the photo on the right). Well, I don't know if it will work for you, personally, but it certainly does for me.

ISN’T THIS UTTERLY FASCINATING??? And what are the implications with respect to racial prejudices???

Well, you can read Dr. Frost’s website for some speculation.

I just wanted with this post to point out an intriguing theory of the biological evolution of the differences between the sexes which Frost mentions as a possible explanation of the male-female skin color difference:

“Guthrie (1970) suggests that a fairer skin is one of several infant-like features—smaller nose and chin, smoother skin texture, relative lack of body hair, higher pitch of voice—that women have evolved to deter male aggression: ‘the sexual differences in skin color resulted from female whiteness being selected for because it is opposite the threat coloration, although the selection pressures may have been rather mild. Light skin seems to be more paedomorphic, since individuals of all races tend to darken with age. Even in the gorilla, the most heavily pigmented of the hominoids, the young are born with very little pigment.’”

[The reference is: Guthrie, R.D. (1970). "Evolution of human threat display organs." Evolutionary Biology 4:257-302.]

WOW!! Another thing that was not previously part of my consciousness, but it makes so much sense: part of the evolution of the differences between men and women is that women have a more child-like appearance in order to trigger others’ nurturing and protective instincts rather than competitive and aggressive instincts. Sure, it's "only a theory," but it seems quite reasonable and helpful to me.

It’s a plausible partial explanation for the maddening condescension of men toward women (and the equally infuriating condescension of women toward women).

And the theory makes me feel so much more “okay” with humankind’s terrible history of sexism and misogyny; now that it seems so obvious that it was, for a longer time than I can imagine, evolutionarily advantageous for women to be treated more like children than adults, I see no need to be angry that such a social pattern existed for millennia and has not been completely transcended in the present day. Human instincts are relatively weak, but they do exert some influence and our species can therefore be cut some slack. It may take a while for that one to be gotten over, and that shouldn't be dismaying. Instead, we should be amazed at how much progress has already occurred thus far.