Hope Amid Despair

The call to neighborliness is the promise we have made to mystery.

I am not entirely clear on what that means – even though it’s my own sentence. Still I felt when I first wrote it and feel still that it is somehow pointing to something that matters. And it gets clearer as I hold that sentence before me and lean into it, and live into it.

The call to neighborliness is the promise we have made to mystery.

I think that is the call that we – we who constitute Community Unitarian Universalist – answer and aspire to answer. It’s what we do in our being here, in our participation in congregational life: we answer the call to neighborliness and live into the promise we have made to mystery.

Today’s topic, “Hope Amid Despair” – is the culmination of a scattered three-part series that began last December with “Reality Amid Ideology.” I started that sermon with this sentence to which I now return: the call to neighborliness is the promise we have made to mystery. We Unitarians Universalists are a part of a covenantal tradition – a tradition of covenant with something that is more powerful than you or I, something mysterious that calls us to our better selves, something that we all sometimes stray from, but that ever-beckons us back to a truer path -- something that defines us as a people.

We covenant to affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person – every being, I’d say. We covenant to respect the interdependent web of existence of which we are a part. The interdependence of existence, and inherent worth and dignity, are powerful. There is a quality of mystery and awe there. How could this be, this total interdependence, this inalienability from concern and respect? That’s why I say we’ve made a promise to mystery: because our covenant commits us to principles ultimately inexplicable.

We sometimes fall away from our covenantal promise – and we do so in the same way the Ancient Israelites did. We fail to care for the vulnerable.

Love of God and love of neighbor are the same thing. Jesus was explicit on that point, and before him, Jeremiah said it. They are the same thing. Love of God and care for the vulnerable are synonyms. Care, kindness, and compassion are, for us, rooted, after all, in a promise to uphold everyone’s worth and dignity because, mysteriously, it’s inherent – and a promise to respect the web of existence because, mysteriously, we’re an interdependent part of it.

This promise we made to mystery calls us to neighborliness. The call to neighborliness prompts us to make a promise to mystery. I don’t know which came first because it seems to me they emerge together, or, rather, they are the same thing.

A month ago, in part 2, “Grief Amid Denial,” I mentioned four things that we are losing that are good to be losing. US military hegemony is waning – which is a good thing because military dominance inevitably turns the possessor into the global bully.

Second, US economic dominance is waning – which is a good thing because economic dominance was never sustainable, or fair to the rest of the world.

Third, the ethnically northern-European have lost the capacity to maintain “our kind of America” – which is a good thing because that kind of America depended on subjugation, exclusion, and exploitation of other ethnicities.

Fourth, the old-line Protestant churches are waning – which is a good thing because religious institutions that saw no need to distinguish between Bible-thumping and flag-waving were never conducive to real spiritual flourishing.

These four, in various ways, constituted the support structure for the American way of life. Without them, the fabric of American life is coming unraveled – which it needed to do, but that doesn’t make it easy.

We’re in a tough spot. We don’t know how to weave a new fabric. We are, in Matthew Arnold’s phrase, “Wandering between two worlds, one dead, the other powerless to be born.”

Those most benefited by the old order are most likely to be in denial about these changes, most likely to believe that there’s not really any problem that can’t be straightforwardly corrected. There’s clinging to the notion that these things that are waning can be shored up and America can be made
"great again."

Change is always going to be spelled L-O-S-S for some, and to get past being in denial requires the practices and rituals of grieving – preparing us to move on. So as reality is antidote for ideology, grief is the antidote for denial. Yet grief can slide into despair, so today, part 3, we look at hope amid despair. Our reliance, abroad, on military and economic might and, at home, on privileging persons of northern-European descent and faith institutions of old-line Protestantism in turn rested on fossil fuels and Enlightenment rationality.

Fossil fuels are not sustainable – both because they will run out eventually and because burning them overheats the planet. Enlightenment rationality gives us the wonders of science, but emphasizes control and “a vigorous individualism that has trivialized the common good.” Sensing that these have about reached their limit stirs up anxiety, and the anxiety manifests in exacerbation of what was worst. Greed has been a problematic current of America from its beginning. Anxiety heightens it.

We commit ourselves ever more ruthlessly to self-serving wealth, and those who have it are most able to amass more, so “wealth and control flows upward to the few on the basis of the cheap labor of the many.” Spiraling income inequality results.

Privatism is a related problematic current in American history. Anxiety exacerbates it. The notion that there are common goods that we can collectively realize, and that the form of our collective action is called government grows increasingly quaint. When we privatize everything from schools to prisons to health care should be privatized then the wealthy get health care and education but no one gets the benefits we would all receive when more of our neighbors are educated and healthy.

Which means that prisons are run for profit rather than based on a serious attempt to balance the needs of public safety and the public good of rehabilitating convicts into productive workers, and are thus subject to reform as we learn more about how to effect the optimal balance.

Privatism renders neighborhood “an unfortunate inconvenience rather than an indispensable arrangement for viable human life” (Brueggemann 116). The proliferation of “survival shows” on television and film reflects and dramatically performs this “privatism in which everything is raw competition.” The fantasies that become popular at any given time are metaphors for how reality feels, and the US today has come to feel, to many of us, like “The Hunger Games.”

Violence has long been problem in American culture. Anxiety prompts more of it. The dominance of the gun lobby has represented our readiness for violence in protection of privatized greed. Privatism leads finally to “every one for their self” in a competition in which it behooves us to be armed. In our anxiety about loss of the old way of life, we react in ways that make us less connected, more isolated, less secure, and thus more anxious.

How do we break out of this vicious circle? We are not ready yet for a blueprint, a program, an agenda. We cannot properly assess proposals until we have done the work of imagination.

We suffer, as I mentioned in the first installment, from a failure of imagination, and exercising and strengthening our imaginations is the first task. Before we turn to the policy-makers we need first to turn to the poets and prophets – or else the policies will have no coherence.

We must “dream of possibilities for peace and justice with lesser measures of U.S. hegemony” – in place of the military force of empire.

We must “dream of a lowered standard of living among us, but with a genuine neighborliness in which all share” – in place of the economy of empire.

We must “dream of a new cultural pluralism in which the marker is not nation, race, ethnic origin, but the capacity for neighborliness” – in place of privileging European descent.

We must “dream of a religious [pluralism] in which particular faith is deeply held in the presence of other deeply held faiths” – in place of our historic centering of old-line Protestantism.

We are not ready for details, for we have not yet coalesced around a dream. Recall that Martin Luther King’s dream was articulated in several of his addresses leading up its most famous expression in Washington DC in August 1963. Only after that dream exercised the imaginations of a significant number of people could we then follow with policy: the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the fair housing act of 1968.

Hope amid despair was exemplified by Alaxchiia Ahu – also known as Plenty Coups – who lived from 1848 to 1932 in the Montana area. He was the principal chief of the Mountain Crows of the Crow nation. He saw that his people could not win against white encroachment and settlement.
Under his leadership the Crow acquiesced. Unlike the neighboring Cheyenne and Sioux, they did not opt for the noble destruction of going down fighting.

Alaxchiaa Ahu (Plenty Coups), 1908
It was a time of despair. The buffalo went away – slaughtered by whites intent on undermining the livelihood of the indigenous people. “The hearts of my people fell to the ground and they could not lift them up again. There was little singing anywhere,” he reported.
“The Crow experienced this as death of established social roles, of standards of excellence, and of personal identities. It is for good reason that the nation lost its sense of life, meaning, and energy….The Crow entered a time when everything familiar and reliable ceased and they were required [as Plenty Coups said,] ‘to live a life that I do not understand.’”
Plenty Coups had experienced a vision when he was young, and this vision – received, processed, and interpreted by the tribal elders – was the cornerstone of his leadership of his people. Under that vision and leadership, the Crow people came to understand:
“All our traditional way of life is coming to an end. We must do what we can to open our imaginations up to a radically different set of future possibilities. In the face of the discontinuity that is upon us, we must preserve some integrity across that discontinuity."
There is reason to hope for a dignified passage across this abyss because there is still, even in the midst of all loss and grief, a basic goodness to the universe.

And: we shall get the good back, though at the moment we have no more than a glimmer of what that might mean.

Plenty Coups was “committed to the bare idea that something good will emerge.” The old way of life was passing and would pass away entirely, yet somehow “traditional tribal values, customs, and memories” would find a future flourishing in the new context, whatever it would turn out to be.
There are possibilities of hope that transcends our limited capacity to understand them.

Thus the Crow resigned themselves neither to despair nor to the suicide of resistance, but embraced, instead, the only hope available. It was a hope that required adapting – learning what could be learned of the new reality in preparation for an unforeseeable future.

Plenty Coups famously urged his people:
"Education is your greatest weapon. With education you are the white man's equal, without education you are his victim and so shall remain all of your lives."
Through many trips to Washington DC to represent his people, Plenty Coups kept the Crow on their original land while many other tribes were relocated to reservations distant from their homeland.

For us today, says theologian Walter Brueggemann,
“the prophetic task is not blueprint or program or even advocacy. It is the elusiveness of possibility out beyond evidence, an act of imagination that authorizes the listening assembly to imagine even out beyond the ken of the speaker.” (127)
The name for imagining beyond evidence is: faith.
“Walking by sight is likely a return to the old ways that have failed. Walking by faith is to seek a world other than the one from we are being swiftly ejected.” (128)
The crucial step in this walk is turning from the narrative of empire to the narrative of neighborhood. From the standpoint of empire, with its market economy, neighborliness appears as miraculous.

What, people caring about each other when they aren’t paid too? That’s spooky supernatural stuff!

The Bible offers us some stories dealing with empire, for its texts were largely composed under imperial oppression: the Babylonian Empire, the Roman Empire. And so the subversive stories of neighborliness in the Bible do appear as miracles. For instance, the story of the loaves and fishes. As I read that story, there was a miracle there. Nothing supernatural about it, though. It was the miracle of neighborliness.
“Jesus talks a great deal about the kingdom of God -- and what he means by that is a public life reorganized toward neighborliness.” (Brueggemann)
Neighbors gather, community and abundance happen.

That’s the kingdom – the kin-dom -- of god Jesus was talking about: public life reorganized toward neighborliness. A crowd of people in the grip of scarcity thinking had gathered to hear Jesus teach. They had secreted away for their own use food for themselves. Under the influence of this remarkable teacher, they began to open up, began to sense the intrinsic abundance of the life they breathed, and the universe in which they swam.
From that sense of boundless provision welled up a gladness to share of this plenty of which they were suddenly so acutely aware. From the bottoms of bags and folds of clothes came forth food to share.

What happened in the loaves and fishes story? Neighborliness happened. Just as neighborliness happened in the story of Elisha and the widow’s oil. She has one jar of oil, from which she is able to fill many vessels with oil – enough so that the sale of that oil will pay her debts and provide enough for her and her children to live on. Where did all that oil come from?

I imagine it came from Elisha himself organizing the neighbors to help out a widow in need.
“Unlike the economy of empire where all flows to the top, the economy of this narrative features miracles of abundance that are unexpectedly and inscrutably given among the lowly.”
Thus neighbors come forth with life-sustaining gifts for a resourceless widow who was about to be devoured by predatory economic arrangement.

Of course, we need the market economy, but we need that sphere to be A sphere of human interaction, not THE sole or dominant sphere.

Of course, we need Enlightenment rationality and the scientific method. But science is about control: prediction and thereby control. The kind of explanations that are scientific are explanations we can use to predict – and hence to control. And that’s been very helpful for developing ways to care for each other – medicine, food production and distribution. But again, that needs to be A sphere, and not so dominant a one.

Our spirits yearn to not merely control our world, but to befriend it. A world that we control – or that we are trying to, or imagining we could, control – is a world in which we ourselves never quite belong – never love or are loved, but can only covet.

The call to neighborliness – the promise we have made to mystery – that is our hope. Your presence here to be with each other, to make the unmarketable abundance of community, is the embodiment of that hope. With the wider culture around us sliding toward despair and desperation, all we need to see hope right now is to look our congregation's building on a Sunday morning.


Whose Jesus?

Rev. Naomi King
I served our congregation in Gainesville, Florida for seven years before leaving there to put myself at your disposal. One of my neighbor colleague ministers in Florida at that time was the Rev. Naomi King. At state clergy gatherings where I had a chance to talk with and get to know Naomi and attend some worship services that she led for us, I discovered she is at least as creative as her father. Rev. King’s father’s name, you see, is Stephen. For those who like their theology traditional and settled, the daughter is also scarier than the father. She gave a presentation once and just the title would make the blood run cold if you’re the sort of person who believes the faith of our fathers is not to be meddled with. It was titled, “The Queer Pirate Jesus Wheels into Port.”

With that as my introduction, Happy Easter, everyone! It’s the most significant day on the Christian calendar. Early Christians met to celebrate on Sunday, rather than the Jewish sabbath of Saturday, because their savior was resurrected on Sunday. We gather here on Sunday, every Sunday, in continuation of that tradition. And today is THE Sunday – the Sunday that is that reason all the other Sundays are celebrated.

Some of us are Christians, and many of us who don’t call ourselves that now were raised in a Christian tradition. And all of us are shaped by the influences of Christianity throughout culture. The understanding we have of Jesus is important, whether we are Christian, Jewish, atheist, or however we might identify our faith. So on this Sunday of Sundays, let us ask again: Who shall we say Jesus is? Who, and whose, is Jesus?

I didn’t see Naomi’s presentation – I only know her title: "Queer Pirate Jesus Wheels into Port." Provoked by that title, another minister, Rev. Thom Belote, and I have reflected on the idea. I’ll be utilizing some of what I learned from Rev. Belote (HERE), along with my own thoughts.

If the resurrection is about renewal, and if renewal is about getting a different perspective on things, what different perspectives on Jesus might we consider? Consider this – you may have known about this, but you might not. In the deaf Christian community there is fierce debate about whether Jesus knew sign language. Until I learned this, it was not a question that had ever occurred to me. But, then, I’m not deaf – yet. For a deaf Christian, I can see how this would be important. From their point of view, they need to know if this man – this man that their faith tells them is God – was able to communicate with people like them. For a deaf person, it’s the question of whether God is accessible to them. And that matters.

Forensic anthropologists' reconstruction of a
typical 1st-century adult male Palestinian Jew.
Likewise it matters, as feminists have been pointed out, that God is presented as male. And it matters that Europeans have been depicting a Nordic looking Jesus for hundreds of years. Whose Jesus is it?

As for Jesus’ sexuality, official doctrine is that he didn’t have any. Authors such as Nikos Kazantzakis in “The Last Temptation of Christ” and Dan Brown in “The Da Vinci Code” have imagined a sexually active heterosexual Jesus. Others imagine that he might have been gay. There’s not much evidence either way on that question, but there is that curious case of the naked young man in the Gospel of Mark. In Chapter 14, as the Roman soldiers are arresting Jesus, we read:
“All of them deserted him and fled. A certain young man was following him, wearing nothing but a linen cloth. They caught hold of him, but he left the linen cloth and ran off naked.”
So there was a scantily-clad young man hanging out around Jesus and his followers. Speculation about what he was doing there can only be an exercise of our imagination – fan fiction, perhaps -- not history. (Still, imagination is essential in theology. If we aren't pushing the edge, we're not only humorless, but a faith is losing freshness. For "cyborg pirate ninja Jesus" see HERE.)

Still, Carter Heyward, of the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts, speaks of the queerness of Jesus. She says:
"The term 'queer' as I am using it, let me be clear, is not simply a code-word for gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and other ways of being at odds with dominant gender culture. 'Queer' is not simply a reversal of a negative epithet so often hurled against LGBT folks in homophobic culture. 'Queer' is not simply a synonym for being 'odd,' 'unusual,' or 'out-there.' Queerness is public solidarity in the struggle for sexual and gender justice and of irrepressibly making connections to other struggles for justice, compassion, and reconciliation. [Episcopal Divinity School] is, by the grace of God, a Queer seminary."
Such “solidarity in the struggle for sexual and gender justice” is found in the way the Jesus of scripture breaks gender rules and gender roles. He befriends prostitutes, lepers, and other outcasts, challenges traditional family values, and ignores his family of origin in favor of those who became his "siblings" by loving God and neighbor. He makes a new family of allies – an experience all too common among LGBTQ folk who have been rejected from their families of origin.

Jesus’ ministry embodies radical acceptance. African-American Christians connect Jesus’ own scourging and crucifixion with their people who have been the victims of whipping and lynching. And LGBTQ Christians view the Passion as a hate crime. Was not Matthew Shepard crucified?

Queer Christian art has adapted traditional iconography such as the Stations of the Cross and the Passion narrative to address LGBTQ suffering. In so doing, these artists enlarge the way we all see God. A Jesus that is accessible across a greater range of diversity is a prompt to us all to recognize the image of God in ourselves and in others.

Jesus’ ministry and teachings were subversive of the order that privileged some. (Were I here to add “at the expense of others,” then I would be merely redundant, for privilege by its nature is inherently unequal. When a good or a benefit is equally and universally provided or protected, we call it a right.)

Jesus’ continual theme throughout his teaching is this concept usually translated as “Kingdom of God.” I will often use “Kin-dom of God,” as better capturing the realm of concern and respect for all that I think Jesus had in mind. The original Greek – which isn’t really original, since Jesus spoke Aramaic, not Greek, but, as the language in which the gospels were written, is as original as is available to us – is basileia tou theou.

Theologians seeking to avoid the connotations of English translations, speak of the basileia – the siblinghood of radical acceptance that is Jesus’ predominant theme. Theologian Robert Goss, for instance, writes of:
"the basileia, the reign of God which signified the political transformation of his society into a radically egalitarian, new age, where sexual, religious, and political distinctions would be irrelevant. Jesus acted out his basileia message by standing with the oppressed and outcasts of society and by forming a society of equals." (Elizabeth Stuart describing the work of Robert Goss, as quoted by Terence Weldon, HERE)
For Goss, the resurrection represents God’s endorsement and confirmation of Jesus’ basileia message. The resurrection tells us that not only Jesus, but God, is on the side of the oppressed. This is what Goss means when he says that at Easter, Jesus became the “queer Christ.” Goss is making no comment on Jesus’ sexuality. Rather, he’s starting with the standard claim that the resurrection turned Jesus into Christ because the resurrection signaled the special status of Jesus as the messenger of, the bringer of, the embodiment of, salvation. And then he’s adding that, in particular, the resurrection turned Jesus into queer Christ because the salvation that Jesus represented lay in what Jesus taught: namely, a basileia of respect and acceptance for queer people, and for all people. The resurrection reveals God’s orientation toward the excluded.

Thus Goss calls the resurrection God’s “coming out” as queer – queer in Carter Heyward’s sense of queerness as “public solidarity in the struggle for sexual and gender justice and of irrepressibly making connections to other struggles for justice, compassion, and reconciliation.” Jesus’ call for radical equality continues to resonate wherever there is inequality of concern or respect.

So where does the pirate bit come in? Hold on to your chair, mateys. On this point, Rev. Thom Belote, engaged in a very different project, made a discovery. Rev. Belote was trying to get inside the mind of Thomas Jefferson, because Jefferson had some rather Unitarian ideas about Jesus and authored the first laws guaranteeing religious freedom in the U.S. Belote read hundreds of pages of laws that Jefferson wrote for the State of Virginia. One discovery he made was that the punishment for piracy in the State of Virginia was significantly harsher than the punishment for the equivalent of highway robbery. This was baffling. Why would this be?

He explains:
“The basic answer is that highway robbery exists within a closed system; pirates live outside of the system and threaten the entire system. Highway robbery is a form of illegal commerce, but it reinforces the validity of commerce. Piracy is an attack on not only the material goods that are plundered, but it is also an attack on the idea of property. If a mechanic quotes you an exorbitant price to fix your car, you would accuse the mechanic of highway robbery, not of piracy.”
Yes, pirates are thieves and criminals. Specifically, they are thieves and criminals who function outside of the dominant social and economic system.

Kester Brewin, a British Christian blogger offers this analysis:
“What pirates do, as a rule, is emerge from the underbelly of a ‘stuck’ orthodoxy and, by way of actions that are initially perceived as heretical, reinvigorate that practice. And this is what Jesus did. He saw a religion blocked – a temple which had access restricted by merchants and priests. And he set about plundering the booty in the temple, and setting it free for all to enjoy. This was the heresy of Jesus Christ.”
Jesus upends and plunders the social system when he says that in order to follow him you must first sell everything you have and give the money away to the poor, when he overturns the tables and drives the moneychangers out of the temple (which leads directly to his execution), and when he overturns the law by pronouncing that the “Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” (Mark 2:27) In parable after parable, Jesus’ teachings ransack accepted economic principles.

As Christians identify themselves with a symbol of death – the cross – so, too, pirates identify themselves with a symbol of death, the skull and cross-bones. In both cases, the symbol proclaims fearlessness of death. Pirates and Christians both claim a radical power beyond the powers and principalities that pretend to rule the world. By renouncing life, the pirate and the Christian claim life.

In 2 Corinthians, Paul describes the early Christian church. His words might also describe a band of pirates:
“Honor and dishonor, praise and blame, alike are our lot: we are the impostors who speak the truth. We are unknown and yet are well known. Dying we still live on;
disciplined by suffering, we are not done to death; in our sorrows we have always cause for joy; poor ourselves, we bring wealth to many; penniless, we own the world.”
Pirates have a certain attraction that no other criminals have. Children on Halloween don’t dress up as arsonists, aggravated assaulters, or tax evaders – but every year a number of them will dress up as pirates.

I think we romanticize pirates because they represent subversion of the usual order of privilege and inequality. While other thieves and crooks pretend to be normal law-abiding folk, the pirates are out there openly under a flag of their own, the jolly roger. They capture our imaginations with a vision of a life liberated for the sort of inequalities that pervade mass society, and that weigh down the spirits of everyone, whether you’re on the top or the bottom of that inequality.

It’s not that pirate ships were utopian models of egalitarian sharing – but they did represent small face-to-face community, where everyone knew everyone else, and where they were out from under the sort of inequalities and frustrations perpetuated by invisible and faceless bureaucrats.

In recent times, the Somalian pirates were certainly problematic. The international community united to take steps to effectively end that problem – and we absolutely had to do that. But at the same time, let us remember the bigger picture.

Let us remember the 1801 to 1805 war against the Barbary States undertaken by the Jefferson administration to suppress the Barbary Pirates who were interfering with the crucial trade interests of the young nation. It was the first but not the last time the United States would go to war against a part of the Islamic world to protect our financial interests. Let us remember the conditions to which the Somalian pirates were responding. Western powers came to Africa, enslaved the people, established colonies, stole the natural resources, divided Africa into oddly shaped nations without any understanding of or regard for local history, and overthrew politicians that Africans elected when the Western powers didn’t like them. Who should be lecturing whom on respect for property? Or even on respect for life?

Jesus was a subject of an empire militarily and economically oppressing the conquered people of Israel. Jesus’ actions and teaching reverse the economic and political worldview of Rome. When Jesus upsets the moneychangers' tables outside the temple, he's upsetting not just tables, but a religio-economic worldview that protects privilege. So, yeah, it’s not so big a stretch to compare him to a pirate.

On this fine Easter morning, the stone of the tomb is rolled back, and the tomb is empty – because the queer pirate Jesus is wheeling into port somewhere else. I don’t know if Naomi talked about the significance of wheeling into port, and Thom Belote’s reflections don’t go into that. Wheeling into port, to my mind, suggests two things. It has a feeling of bringing it home – coming from “out there” and into our hearts with the message of basileia – of beloved community of radical acceptance.

More darkly, though, I reflect that pirates don’t come into established ports unless they have been captured and are being brought in to be locked up and executed – as, indeed, Jesus was. Yet even from the gallows – or the cross – they inspire imaginations to dream of what liberation might look like.

Other theologians and writers have developed the idea a disabled Jesus, an immigrant Jesus, a woman Jesus, a transgender Jesus. When all of us imagine a Jesus that is accessible to each of us – not narrowly cast as a Nordic-featured straight (or asexual) white able-bodied citizen of the empire – then possibilities of liberation open up to us all. When we all see the image of God in each of us, we see it better in ourselves as well.

Yes, these are imaginative exercises, but the gospels were imaginative exercises from the beginning. Theology IS imagination. Our imaginations empower us, and our imaginations make empathy and compassion possible. The basileia is an imaginative exercise – and one of tremendous power. The basileia is for all of us – everyone needs to see it embodied in someone that looks like them. We all also need to see it embodied in someone different from ourselves.

When Rev. Thom Belote explored Naomi King’s ideas of queer pirate Jesus, he concluded by musing that perhaps his next sermon might be: “The Transgender Cowboy Buddha Skips to the Market.”

Happy Easter and may we all be risen.


Charge to the Minister

On Sun Apr 7, I was at Fourth Universalist Society (160 Central Park West, Manhattan) for the ordination of Leonisa Ardizzone, with whom I had a mentoring relationship during 2016-17, while she was a student at Union Theological Seminary. She is a long-time Buddhist practitioner and led a Buddhist Meditation group at Fourth Universalist for a number of years. I was asked to give the "Charge to the Minister," and here's what I said.

[Holding up copy of Order of Service] It says here I’m supposed to charge the minister. Wait. Is there a minister here? Where? Who is a minister?

Some 15 years ago, the Zen master Ruben Habito and I were sitting face-to-face, cross-legged on the floor, about 3 feet apart – just the two of us in a smallish room. It was a formal zen interview called dokusan, and Ruben was my zen teacher. At the end of this particular interview, I asked him a question I'd been meaning to ask: "Are you enlightened?"

“Who? Who’s enlightened? Where?” he said, looking around the room that only had the two of us in it. Then he rang a little bell, and I bowed and departed.

In that spirit I now ask: Who? Who’s a minister? You? You?

To continue in the vein of Buddhist references: according to legend, Siddhartha Gautama sat down beneath a pippala tree beside a river determined to see his true nature. All through the night he sat. As day was dawning, he glanced up and saw the morning star, which triggered an experience of awakening. That was the moment Siddhartha became the Buddha, and the words that came to him to say (aloud, apparently – to no one and yet to everyone) were these:
“Behold, all beings are enlightened exactly as they are.”
His enlightenment was the clear realization that all beings are enlightened. Similarly, then, I say: your ministry is realized in grasping that everyone is a minister. There’s nothing special about it.

When my spouse LoraKim Joyner was preparing to be ordained in Raleigh, North Carolina in 2002, she selected a musical piece she asked the choir to sing in the service: “Circle of Life” from the musical The Lion King. One of the choir members quipped: “From The Lion King? Are you sure you don’t want, ‘I Just Can’t Wait to be King’?”

But, of course, it’s just the opposite. One actively pursues a vocation as minister – which is to say, pursues clarity of insight that all beings are ministers – because one just can’t wait to NOT be king.

The ego insistently weaves its story of how you are the center of the universe – the sovereign of all you survey. Maintaining that story is wearisome and dreary work, but it’s no easy thing to stop. On the one hand is a yearning to live in a bigger world than the constricted realm of self-interests. On the other hand, there’s no idea how to get there.

Some of us here made a stab in the dark and enrolled in divinity school. Others of us here have taken other paths, made other stabs in the dark at abdicating the tedious throne and de-centering the ego. Leonisa and the rest of us here today in black robes thought maybe divinity school, Clinical Pastoral Education, a ministerial internship, and all the other preparations and trainings for professional ministry would show us how to get past our ego defense mechanisms and live in the truth that all beings are enlightened ministers. Others of us here followed other paths, or, perhaps, are just beginning to grow tired of the kingly illusions of our own significance, or maybe aren’t tired of it.

Still, all of us are ministers, whether we know it or not. Some of us have been trying hard to know it and never forget it.

Today, it so happens that Leonisa is the one whose name is on the order of service, the one upon whom our hands were laid in the "Laying on of Hands." But in ordaining her, we ordained and re-ordained ourselves. The hopes and anxieties of all life poured through our hands and into her – and into each other – into every one of us. They are pouring into us always, and, when we aren’t preoccupied with our self-interests, then we know that they are.

I am here to charge the minister. We have identified who "the minister" is: everyone, all of us -- represented for purposes of this ceremony in the person of Leonisa. Now to the charge.

Let’s see. [Fetching jumper cables] Red to positive, right?

On the positive: Do remember that you are never alone -- that enlightened ministers surround you always, including all sentient beings.

Do remember that you won’t always remember this. Repeating the words – these or any other -- grows empty. In the quiet silence the observing mind discovers the knowledge afresh – and it must be constantly made fresh. Be the good dog, and sit. Every day.

When you sit, the whole world sits with you. And when you don’t sit – well, there are still some of us sitting with you anyway – with you, for you, as you. See your teacher regularly.

For all of you on a path to recognize yourself for the enlightened minister that you are, I charge you to be diligent at your spiritual practice, whatever yours may be.

Thus do I charge Leonisa. Thus do I charge you all.

On the negative – for the charge will not transmit unless the negative terminal is also connected: You have demons. You know the ones – the insecurities and addictions that you went to divinity school to run away from – those. They are with you still, as you’ve probably noticed. No need to run away. They are part of you. Seek not to exile any part of yourself, for that is not the path of wholeness.

Demons are there to tell you important truths. But remember, demons are poets following Emily Dickinson’s dictum to "tell the truth but tell it slant." Take care of your demons and listen to them, but what they say is not to be believed literally. They speak in metaphor. If one of them tells you, for instance, that you’re worthless, don’t believe it literally. But do listen. It’s a metaphor for something that might need attending to. You will need help interpreting your more cryptic demons. See your teacher regularly.

Thus do I charge Leonisa. Thus do I charge us all.

So! Terminals connected? I think we’re ready. Start her up!