Monday, February 25, 2008

Discovering the New World: Sermon for the Third Sunday in Lent (Still More on Failure of Nerve)

The people quarreled with Moses, and said, "Give us water to drink." Moses said to them, "Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the Lord?" But the people thirsted there for water; and the people complained against Moses and said, "Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?" So Moses cried out to the Lord, "What shall I do with this people?”

What shall I do, indeed? Since last summer, one of my best friends and I have been wrestling with a book. It has a memorable title: Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix. It was written by Edwin Friedman, a Rabbi and advisor to presidents and generals, counselor to troubled families, a systems theory genius whose landmark book Generation to Generation not only helped change the way in which children understand their parents and pastors understand their congregations, but also gave to people trapped in such systems a map with which to see their way out. His secret was not about changing the system, but about changing myself in such a way that the system’s rules could no longer entrap me. In Failure of Nerve, the system is neither family nor church but western civilization and here Friedman wonders what qualities are needed to become a leader. Today’s civilization, Friedman argues, like that of late Medieval Europe is not creative, but regressive. It clings to an unsatisfactory past because it has raised barriers to imagining the future. As Americans, we lose our individual integrity in the feel-good soup of a herd mentality which substitutes mindless conformity for the more difficult work of discovery. People like me stuff ourselves full of information in the hopes that the next book read will at last reveal the answer. Grades and standardized test scores take the place of the wisdom that is hard won out of failure. Reading Failure of Nerve was life changing. Seeing my own failure of nerve in its pages, I found the courage to finally stand up and begin to live my own life.

That said, reading this book was also deeply disturbing. As the author began to explore what great leadership and courage actually looked like, he offered a surprising example. Friedman’s differentiated leader was not a good liberal reformer like Mohandas Gandhi or Dr. Martin Luther King or Nelson Mandela. No, the person Friedman chose to raise up as the paragon of differentiation was a man who left people and home: the late Medieval explorer Christopher Columbus. Columbus, according to Friedman, had the ability to stand up to the regressive forces around him and forge ahead to open up a new world. His voyage changed Europe and ushered in the Renaissance. This is true. But as I read all this, I found that even in the face of persuasive argument, I could not unconditionally admire Columbus. His was a very costly voyage. Nor was it limited to the advancement of Europe. To the Taino and other indigenous peoples, the European “discovery” of the “New” World, did not mean creative renewal. It meant rape, disease, slavery and death. Columbus, while able to rise above his own culture, was not able to arrive at a new one. Although capable of changing other, he could not be changed himself. Meanwhile, people who had been obedient to the laws of God and nature for thousands of years were swept away by an ethic of restless innovation.

I think the paradox of Columbus’ greatness and his failure may be one of the most essential questions we of the New World can ever address. What, really, does it mean to move ahead? If we call our spiritual life a journey, what is its true destination?

This is a question our civilization has been asking for a very long time. Thousands of years before Columbus, Moses and the Israelites left Egypt and set out into the desert. Moses was a great leader. He understood that life in Egypt was slavery. He had the perseverance to stand up to Pharaoh. He had the kind of vision that could see the way through the insurmountable barrier of the Red Sea. However, no sooner had this freedom been achieved than things began to fall apart. The people became reactive. They complained and whined at Moses like babies. “Did you bring me out here to kill me?” A friend called this one of the most self-critical texts in all sacred literature. It says, straight out, that the journey from slavery to freedom, from error to truth, from my way to God’s way, is far harder than I ever imagined. It is as hard as being an adolescent and having to grow up. It is as hard as leaving the lushness of youth for the more austere world of old age. It is as hard as going to the New World and greeting the Other, not as something to be conquered, but as a fellow child of God.

Today, on this third Sunday of Lent, we meet Jesus, not as great leader, but as a thirsty man all by himself in a lonely place. He is tired from his journey. A woman appears to draw water. She is a Samaritan. Jesus does not assert his superiority. He does not ignore her. Instead, he simply asks her for a drink.

Spiritual life, or so the scriptures tell us again and again, happens at the boundary. Boundaries have many different meanings, personal, political, spiritual. Boundaries are the places we cross at birth, as adolescence gives way to adulthood, adulthood to old age, old age to bodily death. Healthy boundaries are what allow me to function fully as myself and not violate the integrity of others. Politically, boundaries separate countries. Governments build walls at those boundaries and warriors and adventurers cross them. Knowing when a boundary is healthy and when it is not is the work of a lifetime. Spiritual boundaries help me to discern God and to know what spiritual practices give life and which bring merely control and death. In the ancient Roman culture in which Jesus lived, boundaries and crossroads were dangerous places. Thieves, prostitutes, drunkards and demons all hung out at there. And so did Jesus. In today’s story, he comes to the crossroads of Judea and Samaria, and he asks a woman for a drink. It is humbling to see him thus, as a suppliant. Usually, when I pray, it is I, not God, who is doing the asking. But in this story God is the one who asks. In this story, my differentiation does not depend upon innovation, creativity or moving forward, but simply being there, present to the voice of God.

The stories we read during the weeks of Lent are all pieces of a much larger story. Each one of the stories involves the loss of some personal illusion: illusions of power, of wisdom, of separation, the stigma of physical disability, and, finally, death. To lose these illusions is not to make me an effective leader as much as it is to make me a faithful follower.

In a sermon entitled “You are Accepted,” theologian Paul Tillich defined grace as precisely this: right now, just as I am, I understand that I belong not to myself, but to God. Sin is about separating myself, about setting myself above or below. Grace, on the other hand, Tillich writes, “is able to overcome the tragic separation of the sexes, of the generations, of the nations, of the races, and even the utter strangeness between man and nature. Sometimes grace appears in all these separations to reunite us with those to whom we belong. For life belongs to life.”

“God is spirit,” says Jesus, “and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth." It is not very often that we are given such a clear picture of God. Most definitions of God are symbolic, a quality that reveals the divine: God is father, God is love, God is creator. In those three cases, we must ask what it means to be Father, what it means to love, what it means when I talk of creation. But Spirit is something we can know in its pure, inarticulate form. Spirit is breath. Spirit is the boundary that connects all life. Spirit is that delicate envelope of air that embraces our earth in the depths of space. Like this air we breathe, each of us receives the Spirit in our own way. Like the air, we share the spirit in common. The spirit lives both within and without. Within its boundaries, spirit holds both good and evil. Spirit holds it all. Thus it cannot be found exclusively on the mountain of the Samaritans. It cannot be found exclusively in the city of the Jews. The hour is coming and is now here when neither will do. Truth is not about what I know or what I don’t know. If the Jews worship what they know and the Samaritans worship what they don’t know, Spirit contains both these things. To live in such a paradox requires not a leader, but a guide, a teacher who can help me through the wilderness of Sin, the wilderness of Self and the wilderness of Other. That one is Messiah. "I know that Messiah is coming," says the woman. "When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us." And Jesus says, "I am he, the one who is speaking to you."

At the end of the story, everything has changed and yet nothing has changed. Jesus is still thirsty. The woman never did give him his drink of water. Later, on the cross, some of Jesus’ last words would be “I thirst.” It isn’t finished. Thousands of years later, we are still pondering what happened at that High Noon in Samaria. We still seek those living waters. Thousands of years later, we still ponder the nature of spirit and truth. Lent after Lent, we return to Jacob’s well and meet that extraordinary woman who spoke so frankly with God.

When a society, be it the Egypt of Moses’ time or the Rome of Jesus’ time, the Europe of Columbus’ time or the world of our own time, when a society grows regressive and frightening, the temptation is to draw back, to impose our solutions upon others. But Moses and Jesus both say otherwise. At a time like this, we are called to trust in God. We are called to trust the question. To trust in the waters hidden in the rock. To trust in the traveler who arrives at high noon. To trust the wisdom of outsiders. No matter what it may seem, nothing is really finished. Nothing has changed and yet everything has changed. God knows that we thirst. Amen.

St. Paul's, Oakland
24 February 2008

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