2020-04-14

Traditions of Liberation



OPENING WORDS

It seems appropriate during this time when we are worshipping via internet to begin with a poem that came to my attention by being widely circulated around the internet. In this time of virus, here’s a poem that went viral. Some of those circulating it claimed it was written a hundred years ago as a response to the 1918 flu pandemic, but it turns out it was written in the last month. This is by Kitty O’Meara.

And people stayed home
and read books and listened
and rested and exercised
and made art and played
and learned new ways of being
and stopped
and listened deeper
someone meditated
someone prayed
someone danced
someone met their shadow
and people began to think differently
and people healed
and in the absence of people who lived in ignorant ways,
dangerous, meaningless and heartless,
even the earth began to heal
and when the danger ended
and people found each other
grieved for the dead people
and they made new choices
and dreamed of new visions
and created new ways of life
and healed the earth completely
just as they were healed themselves.

HOMILY ONE

We are celebrating today both Passover and Easter. The Jewish holiday of Passover began last Wednesday sun down, and continues until sundown on Thu Apr 16. Some of you joined me for an online virtual Seder that night, and I thank you. It was moving to be together and to tell again the familiar story, and say again the familiar words.

A traditional saying at the end of Seder and also at the end of Yom Kippur services is “next year in Jerusalem” – evoking the hope for, and commitment to, a more full spiritual redemption, a more complete liberation that comes from a more widely realized justice. But as our online virtual Seder concluded, my thoughts were also on, “Next year, back in our building, together in person.”

The Passover story is a story of political liberation – the story of a people escaping from enslavement in Egypt. Two ideas in the Passover festival have remained unchanging and central. One, it is a celebration of freedom. Passover is known as “The Season of our Liberation.” Two, it is a call to hospitality.

In Exodus, Yahweh alternates between telling Moses what to do, and telling Moses how, in future years, he is to celebrate what he’s now in the middle of doing. As soon as the Israelites get out of Egypt – before Pharaoh’s army comes chasing after them – Exodus 13 relates:
“Today, in the month of Abib, you are going out. You shall keep this observance in this month. Seven days you shall eat unleavened bread, and on the seventh day there shall be a festival to the Lord. You shall tell your child on that day, ‘It is because of what the Lord did for me when I came out of Egypt.’”
“You shall tell your child,” it commands. So the Haggadah text to be followed at Seder dinners emerged in order to obey this commandment, this mitzvah, to tell each generation about the liberation.

The two phrases that echo most loudly through the Haggadah are
"In every generation let each one feel as if he or she came forth out of Egypt"
and
“Let any who are hungry come and eat.”
These are interrelated and intertwined.

The human psyche has three basic categories: ME, US, and THEM. US is, roughly, the people who share a culture with me. “Culture” is a fuzzy notion – its borders are vague and constantly shifting – but it is important and powerful nonetheless. Exodus tells about the liberation of an US. As a story initially and primarily told by Jewish people to Jewish people, it’s the story of how WE were enslaved. Physical needs for food, clothing, shelter, or sleep were often inadequately met. Worse, human needs for respect, autonomy, trust, dignity, worth, and self-expression were systematically and extremely denied – through regular use and constant threat of inflicting great pain and humiliation, typically the lash, applied in a way sometimes punitive and sometimes simply random, though always ostensibly punitive. Another way to say that: sometimes the slave is publicly tortured or executed for something they did, and sometimes just for who they are – and it’s never clear which one a given instance might be. It’s a combination cruelly effective at maintaining tremendous oppression.

It was an utterly miserable existence. That’s the miserable existence WE were stuck in. But WE got out of it. WE, as a people, as an US, achieved political liberation – a system of some modicum, at least, of rights and liberties. It was not at all a democracy, and a read through the books of the prophets illustrates how the Israelites struggled constantly for centuries with issues of oppressing each other. But the oppressors were US now – we shared a bond of culture and of worship -- and their cruelties were less systematic, less extensive, and usually less extreme. So we were free.

(And, I’d like to add: What’s remarkable isn’t that Israelites oppressed each other – for every people of that time did. What’s remarkable is that they actually struggled with it – they had a tradition of prophets, a tradition of calling each other out for abuses of power. The Jewish people invented social justice. They hardly perfected it, and may not have been much better at it than other cultures of the times, but they invented the idea of it -- the idea that there was a standard of social justice to which even the powerful were held. That idea was their tremendous gift to the world.)

When political liberation happens – when a people enjoy some rights and liberties, when physical needs can be met and those human needs -- respect, autonomy, trust, dignity, worth, and self-expression – are not systematically denied, people become susceptible to different kind of bondage. We are likely to want to guard what we have. We can become, essentially, enslaved to self-protective habits and desires of the moment. Life can come to feel bereft of meaning. The tradition of liberation that begins with political liberation from external oppressors must then turn to personal liberation from our own internal oppressors. When US is no longer oppressed by THEM, ME may still be oppressed by ME-self.

The internal voices of self-protection and of satisfying desires of the moment drown out the voices that want our life to mean something more than its own security and gratification. Thus the Passover Seder tradition, the Haggadah text, addresses this liberation, too. “Let any who are hungry come and eat” is as central a message as “we escaped our enslavement in Egypt.”

To liberate US, we get away from the THEM that oppresses. But then, to liberate ME – that is, liberation from internal voices of self-protection and desire – we must turn toward THEM, turn toward those who are other, turn with an open heart toward those, whatever their culture, who we can help. We make our lives meaningful – liberated from the abyss of meaninglessness – by reaching out to help, to share with, any THEM that is need.

I just used a whole bunch of words to say what I think Rabbi Hillel so beautifully said in 25 words or less:
“If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am not for others, what am I? And if not now, when?”
Hillel’s plaintive question, "What am I? If I am not for others, what am I?" points to the void of meaninglessness of a life solely consumed with self-protection and gratifying the moment’s desires.

Yet another way to say it is that gratitude and generosity are intrinsically linked. The Seder exercise of imagining yourself as personally coming forth out of Egypt is an exercise in gratitude. It fills us with thanksgiving for the freedoms we enjoy. And the concomitant of gratitude – the action that confirms and solidifies and sustains gratitude – is generosity. So the gratitude of escaping slavery very naturally segues into the generosity of “let any who are hungry come and eat.”

I invite you to inspect your own experience here. What does being ungenerous – being stingy – feel like? Whether you notice the stinginess in yourself or in someone else, what is it like? Does it not feel like a kind of ungratefulness? Isn’t the miser necessarily also an ingrate (whether in the form of your own inner miser, or someone else)?

In the story that Tracy’s going to share with us in a few minutes, you’ll notice a movement toward generosity, toward radical hospitality, toward open-heartedness toward THEM who are not US. As you do, notice the feeling of increased liberation, of increased meaning that comes with that turning.

Political liberation without radical hospitality becomes personal enslavement.

[Tracy's story, from UUA's "Tapestry of Faith" set of curricula, is HERE.]

PRAYER

In the midst of this Passover season, sacred in the Jewish tradition, today is Easter, sacred in the Christian tradition. So let us pray:

Dear Light of the World that can pierce the darkness of our world and understanding – piercer of darkness that Christians name Jesus:

We come to this Easter morning in the midst of a pandemic. These are times of uncertainty, fear; lack of food, money; lack of access to basic necessities, healthcare, clean water and sanitation.

Let us remember that for those on the margins, this is their “normal.” Facing conditions of uncertainty and lack has been the daily reality for those with severe disabilities or illness, the migrant, the refugee, the homeless, the poor, the jobless, the voiceless, the powerless, victims of violence, those with mental illness. For many there is the added trauma of grieving the loss of loved ones while separated by ‘social distancing’, quarantine, or lockdown.

Light of the World, illuminate us with loving compassion. Pierce the darkness of our world and understanding.

Many are rediscovering the joy of sharing and the joy of loving those who are our neighbors. We celebrate and give thanks for the kindness of so many. In Italy, the Rainbow in Every Street movement leaves food for those in need. “If you don’t have food, please take. If you have, please give.”

Two Nigerian software engineers fix faulty ventilators for free at the University of Jos teaching hospital.

In Capetown, South Africa, the gangland truce helps provide food instead instead of lethal turf wars.

We rejoice in the inventiveness of so many across the globe trying to solve the critical shortage of medical equipment and personal protective supplies.

Light of the World, heal our selfishness and help us reset our values where every one of us truly looks out for each other. May we come out to the reality of new life for us all. Help us to travel the road to freedom to live in your Light. May we be open to the promptings of compassion.

Amen

HOMILY TWO

The Easter story is also a story of liberation – the story of freedom from the bondage of sin. I know that language, for many of us, evokes a way of thinking that feels alien. Yet we would agree, I think, that we aren’t always our best selves – that heedless pursuit of passing desires can feel like a kind of bondage – and that habits of self-protection can sometimes constrain us from a more fulfilling joy.

Even so, we may well wonder how this is supposed to work: how does a story of a person cruelly executed yet rising from the dead free us from any kind of bondage. One account, prevalent in much of traditional Christianity, is called the doctrine of substitutionary atonement. This is the account of Easter that, somewhere along the line, you probably learned. It goes roughly like this:
The Easter story tells us that Jesus' suffering on the cross is redemptive. He suffered and died that we might have life (i.e., he substituted for us in order to atone for us). In that way, we are freed from bondage to sin.
I don’t think substitutionary atonement is the best way to read the Easter story. The implication of substitionary atonement is that real love manifests as complete submission and self-sacrifice. God required of Jesus -- and may sometimes require of us -- passive acceptance of violence. I think that’s actually a dangerous and harmful interpretation of the Easter story. As I read it, the death from which we may rise, from which we can help others rise, is specifically an entombment in fear and shame.

Crucifixion was designed to inflict optimal physical pain, dragged out over many hours. More than that, crucifixion was designed to humiliate. The person was stripped naked – lifted up to public view, gasping, fully exposed, utterly powerless. At the moment of death, his bowels would loosen, for all to see. Crucifixion was designed to instill fear, and to make anyone associated with the victim feel ashamed of themselves. As Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Ann Parker, write in their book, Saving Paradise: How Christianity Traded Love of This World for Crucifixion and Empire:
“Crucifixion was used against the underclasses and slaves and was regarded as so shameful that even victims’ families would not speak of it. It functioned to fragment communities, tearing the fabric of even the strongest bonds of connection and commitment.”
And, as Ron Rolheiser adds, for some of Jesus’ followers, it worked.
“Many of them abandoned Jesus and scattered after the crucifixion. They simply couldn’t connect this kind of humiliation with glory, divinity, and triumph.”
In their fear and their shame, they fell silent about the promise of a new social order, a Kindom of God. Others, though – women, at first – broke silence. Brock and Parker write:
"The Passion narratives broke silence about the shame and fear that crucifixion instilled. To lament was to claim powers that crucifixion was designed to destroy: dignity, courage, love, creativity, and truth-telling. In telling his story, his community remembered his name and claimed the death-defying power of saying his name aloud....The Passion stories brought testimony before a higher court of appeals than the bogus trial of Jesus they indict. The purpose of such writing is assuredly not to valorize victims, to praise their suffering as redemptive, to reveal ‘true love’ as submission and self-sacrifice, or to say that God requires the passive acceptance of violence. Such interpretations mistakenly answer the abusive use of power with an abnegation of power. The story of Jesus’ crucifixion, in marked contrast, asserted that the answer to abusive power is the courageous and decisive employment of the powers of life – to do deeds in Jesus’ name.... To break silence whenever violence is used to shame, instill fear, fragment human community, or suppress those who advocate for justice is life-giving. Just as Jesus, in John’s Gospel, stood before Pilate and said, ‘you have no power over me,’ the Passion narratives defied the power of crucifixion to silence Jesus’ movement. In doing so, they placed before his movement the choice to tell the truth and live by ethical grace. They said life is found in surviving the worst a community can imagine, in lamenting the consequences of imperialism, and in holding fast to the core goodness of this world, blessed by divine justice and abundant life."
Against all violence to body or to spirit, against all fear and shame endured by us and by others, against all the protective strategies we ourselves devise to be safe, there is rising to accept and affirm and speak who we are. There is yet the possibility of transformation into who we are, unobscured by fear or shame. There is yet the possibility of justice, an end to violence, a new social order, a Kindom of God. That’s how I read the Easter story.

But why would that story need to include the part of the story about the empty tomb – the resurrection? One answer is what I've indicated: the resurrection of Jesus is symbolic of resurrection from the psychic death of fear and shame. Another answer is: because it’s important to remember that the dead are not gone. On Easter we remember that the dead do continue to guide us. They do so through conscious memories of them, what they said, and what we may imagine they would say. They also do so in unconscious ways – they continue to influence our individual and collective way of being.

Let me share with you a personal story by way of inviting you to reflect this Easter on your experience of ways the dead rise -- continue to comfort, to guide – ways their love and their wisdom continues somehow to be felt.

I have had three lucid dreams in my life. The first was 40 years ago, and the last was just couple months ago, and is still very vivid for me.“Lucid dream” is a name for the extraordinary experience of being conscious that you are dreaming while you’re in the dream. As you are conscious that you are dreaming, more of your waking brain is functioning. So if something completely crazy happens, your normal dreaming brain casually accepts it as if it were perfectly ordinary, but in a lucid dream you would recognize that things that make no sense, and you can bring more of waking cognitive capacity to the unfolding narrative. In what’s called lucid dreaming, the awake consciousness gets to interact with subconscious stuff in a way that it normally can’t.

In the first two lucid dreams of my life, as soon as I realized I was dreaming, my concern was to wake up. I was like: “This place isn’t real. I don’t want to be in an unreal place. Get me out of here.” I was straining to wake up, but couldn’t – so I felt trapped. In this third one, though, I met my father, and was delighted to have the chance to be with him again.

I was on an academic campus. Nothing unusual there. I grew up on college campuses, as both my parents were professors, and then spent my young adulthood as a grad student and then professor myself. I had left something behind in one of the buildings, and went back in to look for it. In the lobby, there was my Dad.

He said, “I’ll show to your new office.” Now that was a twist, because the narrative up to that point was that I was just visiting this campus, for some conference, say. I didn’t have an office there – or the responsibilities that would go along with that.

It was at that moment that the dream became lucid – that I became aware that this was a dream while I was still having it. My brain went from casually accepting that it was perfectly natural for my father to be standing there to: “Oh, my god! Dad!”

It’s been five years since my father died of Alzheimer’s in January 2015 at the age of 82. Because of the nature of Alzheimer’s, the Dad I knew has actually been gone for a lot longer than that. The man who was standing before me – who was offering to show me to my ‘new office,’ wearing a tie and a tan sport coat with elbow patches – was the version of my father when he was in his early 50s and at the height of his powers. He was smart, he was funny – could be sarcastic sometimes – had a finely tuned sense of irony. God, I've missed him.

So I held out my arms and I said, “Dad! Hold me.” And he did.

Then we were walking down the hall toward this new office, and I said to him, “You’re dead, you know.”

And he answered in that one-eyebrow-raised, ironical way of his, “here and there.”

And then, sadly, I did wake up in my bunk at the monastery. But what a perfect answer that was. Just like my Dad. Yet my conscious brain by itself would never have thought of that.

Death, like life, is always a "here and there" affair – parts of us go and other parts stay.

Some would characterize such a visitation as a projection of the subconscious. Others would say that a spirit from the afterlife broke the veil to communicate with the living. As for me, I don’t see what the difference is. Aren't they the same thing? After all, my subconscious knew the man very well.

The dead are with us. They continue, in ways we often but dimly apprehend, to comfort, to guide, to orient us toward our next “new office” whatever that may be. In such ways the presence of those who are absent calls us to our better self – offers us a nudge toward liberation from pettiness.

He is risen. She is risen. They are risen.

Happy Easter, everyone.

Amen.

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