Friday, November 30, 2012

Coming Home to Buddha

With the second of our Four Horsemen of the Holiday Apocalypse behind us (Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's) we contemplate the place of home in our lives. 

Throughout this month we will be exploring the meaning of home from its promise through its disappointments. There is so much expectation packed into this time of year that it is little wonder many of us teeter on the edge of a breakdown. Whose home should I go to? Where do I go if I can't or won't go home? What should I bring to this season of giving that feels like home? How can I even afford to give at all?

Normally, I would be contemplating the advent of Jesus' birth this time of year. Rest assured, there will be a place and time for that, But let me first suggest another prophet equally suited to the holiday season: The Buddha. The Buddha taught that the root of suffering in the world was our expectations of how life should be. And aren't expectations the very reason for this season? The holidays should bring me joy but I feel worry. The holidays should bring me gifts but I only feel the guilt of not being able to give. The holidays should make me long for home but I am not even sure where home is. It is so easy to be disappointed with the expectations of this season.

So this holiday season I say RELAX. Less things, more people. Less worry, more joy living in the present.  Be in community, enjoy the company, the music and the food. Make this your homecoming.
With Grace and Grit,  John

Friday, November 16, 2012

Invited to the Feast

Remember the story of the Good Samaritan? 

A young lawyer, a Hebrew Scholar concerned with Torah asks Jesus  “Who is my neighbor?” to which Jesus replies:  "A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell among robbers, who stripped him and beat him and left him half dead by the side of the road.  Now by chance a priest was going down that road and when he saw the beaten man passed by him on the other side.  So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed him by  on the other side of the road.   But a Samaritan, as he journeyed came to where he was and when he saw him, he had compassion and went to him, bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine, then set him on his own beast and brought him to an inn and took care of him…And the next day he took out two denariie and gave them to the innkeeper saying “Take care of this man and whatever more you spend, I will repay you when I return”.  Which of these three, Jesus asked, the priest, the Levite or the Samaritan, proved neighbor to the man who fell among robbers?  And the lawyer replied  “The Samaritan, the one who showed mercy upon him”

Most of us have heard this story before.  But how many of us have thought of the story beyond its moralizing and guilt ridden message.  All of us, myself included, have crossed the street to avoid the panhandler.  And what do we feel?  Guilty.  To get the full impact of what I have to say we have to have a little biblical context.  Jesus’ choice of characters in this parable was intentional and courageous to his first century audience.  The priest, the very image of purity for Jews, was charged with upholding the law.  And part of that law included mercy and compassion.  It was the height of hypocrisy to suggest that a priest would not help the fallen.  But perhaps, said the Jews of his time, the priest was late for the temple.  

Well what about the Levite?  Well, the Levites were one the 12 tribes of Israel who traditionally acted as subordinate priests and functionaries in the temple.  They cleaned up after the slaughter.  So they were a little less holy than the priest but still pretty pious and bound by law, a common man with divine intentions.  But the Levite passes by the fallen man as well.  So along comes the Samaritan.  Now what made this story so very outrageous is that the Jews had utter and absolute contempt for the Samaritans.  Samara was a little country between the northern and southern halves of Israel not too unlike Palestine today. Samara retained the “mixed blood” of Jews and Babylonians who had intermarried. It was, in Jewish eyes, a pigsty of half breeds.  So for a Samaritan, a stranger, to help a fallen Jew, while his fellow Jews passed him by was outrageous.  Not only was it unclean, it was an insult to Judaism.  But then again Jesus wasn’t known for being subtle.

All of us has crossed the street to avoid the panhandler. I would hope that we are mature enough to have a conscience that moves us towards pity.  The meaning I am looking for here is actually a deeper one.  Why was it that Jesus picked an alien, a real stranger in his midst, to help the fallen?  What was he trying to say?  I believe the deeper point is this: helping those we know may not be enough, the true calling to our humanity is to help those who are not like us, the Samaritan helping the Jew, the American helping the African, the Democrat helping the Republican, the Unitarian Univesalist helping the Christian.  Not agreeing with, but helping.  I believe the deeper point to this parable is that we are all invited to the feast of life but it’s up to the rest of us to be sure there is a chair.  And we need to find more chairs. 

 And remember, it may not be about  you.    The hospitality we enjoy is not just a nice meal.  A feast of the spirit. We are called to search for the chairs, to welcome those to this feast, yes, even if we don’t agree with each other.  Isn’t that the real story of Thanksgiving?

Charles Eisenstein wrote a fabulous book entitled  Sacred Economics in which he talks about money not as evil but as a blessing.  Up until the advent of modern capitalism, people used to take care of one another in communities.  Now we hire it done.  Money has come to no longer represent our best intentions but our fears.  We need more and we hold on to more.  I have personally given away several fortunes in my life and each of them has been returned to me.  Eisenstein talks about money as the grave of the commons.  What used to be the commons of our community; cards, friends, taking care of each other’s kids, caring for the elderly, has become something we pay for.  Communities are spiritual commons, a place wherein we can be fed and feed others not just physically but emotionally with greater meaning.  Isn’t this what we are all hungry for?  A place where we are welcomed as we are and affirmed? 

Yesterday, I served at the Habitat for Humanity build site in Lynnwood working with people of other faiths to renovate a home for someone in need.  The reason I think Habitat is so important is because it pulls us out of our comfort zone and helps others to sit at the table of love.  Mildred Fuller and his wife were fabulously wealthy and utterly miserable, their marriage was on the rocks, they had lost their faith until they heard of this idea to build and renovate homes for those who were the working poor, a hand up, not a hand out.  Over 500,000 houses later, HfH is going strong here and in 91 countries around the world.

Would any of us be willing to take the homeless to the nearest hotel and put them up with Breakfast in the morning and put it on your Visa?  I sometimes do this for people in need.  Some of you have gone to extraordinary lengths to help those you don’t even know. It feels right.  You get double green stamps on the Karma scoreboard for helping.

But what if those we are helping to find a seat at this feast of life aren’t like us?  What if you knew that the person you are helping supports my country right or wrong, prayer in school and is against abortion?  Still willing to help?  Put it another way, what if we had to invite the wounded and struggling of our society to live in our home?  Really.  Because that is what Jesus was asking the rich man to do:  sell everything you own and give it all away.  It’s much more than just saying we are open.  We actually have to be open to the other.  It makes true Christianity much harder than we hear it portrayed, what was it that G.K. Chesterton said? “It isn’t that Christianity has been tried and found wanting, it is that it has hardly been tried.”

For me the essential meaning of this parable lies in the idea of the stranger.  Perhaps our greatest human fragility is not greed or fear but strangeness.  The word stranger, means different, at odds with the whole, as in the word, estranged. The antidote to the fear of the stranger is to make their acquaintance.  Those Mexicans, those Christians, those whatever, are not those if they are sitting with us at the table. Its one thing to be invited to the feast, but quite another to come and be searching for a chair.

What would it take for us to accept and honor another’s belief in say their profession in Christ?  How would we respond to someone who is here, perhaps right now, wondering if they are saved from the hell of their own lives?  We carry much more pain and struggle than most of us know.  I know, I am your minister.  But are we really open to hearing from each other and the those new in our midst about what pains them

Beyond that there is much more hospitality to be done. The point is to invite each other to the table of life, this table we call this church, and to be open to what they bring.  We cook the turkey, others bring the fixings.  Finding a seat means being willing to scoot your own fanny over a bit and share the chair.

Invited to the feast .  Its about each of you.  Some of you will have family to gather with this week Some of you will wish you didn’t have to have family over.  Some of you will share thanksgiving with our own Sandy McNeil.  Remember the ideas behind our Guest at Your Table drive.  Everyone needs a seat at the feast.  Live and let live.  Learn to see the familiar even in those  you know perhaps too well.  Listen to what they love, relate to them on that common ground, say a blessing in the name of universal religion; love, the great commandment of Jesus.  Don’t be afraid to talk politics, or religion.  We have much to say about what is right and wrong even if we don’t use the same book. You too can speak that truth.  But listen as well.  That is what it means to find a seat for someone else. And for those who are not with family this Thanksgiving, take heart, we are your family.  There will always be a seat here.  We are not strangers once we have met.

We are surrounded by so much, sometimes we forget why we really are here.  Or as Saint Francis de Salle wrote, “whom do we love least?  That is the degree to which we truly love at all’  (adapted).  We are here to change the world, one stranger at a time, whether it is in this church, in our homes, or in our neighborhoods.  Strangers aren’t strangers once they find that chair at the table of life and you can be the one to pull up a chair.

Happy Thanksgiving, John

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Expanding Faith Against Evil

In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy and the storms of division preceding our presidential election, I offer the following reflection from last Sunday's sermon about the nature of real evil and our response to it.  While I don't believe nature commits evil acts, our human response to natural tragedy depends upon which side of moral divide we place ourselves.  Most of the time we are well meaning, good doing creatures, but we have the power to submit to the dark side of our natures.

There is no evil in who we elect as our president only in the prejudices and the hurtful acts we attached to these men.  Evil is real and it resides in our own hearts.  What we do with that evil is the place of faith expanding.

"Our faith is expanded when we fight against evil. Yes, I said good and evil. Let me start with evil. Regardless of where you think evil comes from; we have to believe evil exits. It is not merely the absence of good. It is a force unto itself. The perpetrators might not call themselves evil but the taking of innocent life is the worst manifestation of wrongful doing. Evil exists in our world. Accept that as a faith statement and face it squarely.  Now the question is what can we do about it? This is the place of good. We believe in good. 

Who hear remembers the story about the Old Italian couple who planted new grape vines in a vineyard they would never see to fruition in the shadow of a coming war? The impetuous young man walks by and asks “Old man, why do you plant what you will never taste the fruit of?” The old man smiles and says, “I plant because the good never dies”. 

As we work towards justice I commend to our faith the belief that while we may never see the fruits of our efforts in this life time or even our children’s children's lifetime, we move the arc of the universe forward but acting and being good. This is why we do teach a moral code here. It’s not the Ten Commandments but its close. (And it’s certainly not the Ten Suggestions as many jest we would have if Moses had been a UU). 

We hold good and right these virtues; honesty, compassion, humility, courage, and the freedom to choose. I can say I would defend those virtues to my death. I hope you would consider that as well. “The line dividing good and evil cuts through the human heart” wrote Alexander Solzenitchen, it is right that we believe and act in the good so as to keep the evil as bay."

Happy All Souls Day,  John