Tuesday, August 7, 2012

ON JESUS AND THE FOUR NOBLE TRUTHS: Preached at Our Saviour, Mill Valley, July 8, 2012


“Power is made perfect in weakness.”
St. Paul, 2 Corinthians 12:9b

In my mind, one of the great “improvements” in the Revised Common Lectionary is that we now have the opportunity to spend some time with the story of King David. Whatever our feelings about this story, and mine, at least, are ambivalent, David is central to our understanding of Jesus. David was the first Messiah, the one anointed in Bethlehem, the shoot of Jesse, the one who abided with his sheep, and whose memory is invoked for certain poor shepherds on Christmas night. David forged a kingdom of God on earth and has done much to shape our assumptions of what such a kingdom should look like. But until we got the RCL, we have not told much of David’s story in church and so have not had the opportunity to study it prayerfully and in the liturgical embrace of the sacred. It may be that, tucked into this story, lies a great deal more than we think.

If Jesus springs from the house and lineage of David, this does not make them alike, any more than coming from the same family makes you and your relatives alike. But they do share a tradition. Both come from relatively humble beginnings, and, interestingly, David begins to rule at the same age as Jesus begins his ministry and the length of his reign is 33 years, the same as Jesus’ whole life. As a political monarch, David rules in a very literal way, while Jesus rules by showing us new rules. He critiques the worldly assumptions by which we live, and teaches a spiritual path, but make no mistake: both of them come to teach us about power. 

The worlds in which each lived had different conceptions of power. For David, it was victory over omnipresent tribal enemies. Jesus dealt with an entrenched empire. David contended against a host of local deities; Jesus came into the world of the very brilliant, contentious and philosophical ancient Greeks. Greek thought, which remains pervasive even in this scientific age, articulates an ethic of conflict, a divide between appearance and reality, flesh and spirit. Greek philosophy privileges the abstract. It was a Greek who said that “all is number.” It also equates change with decay and posits a good that is unchanging. At the very least, Jesus, who was not a Greek, but a Jew of the house and lineage of David, reminds us that the way in which others carve up and number the world may not be the way we do, and indeed, it may be unwise to carve up and number the world at all. Maybe change is not bad. Both Jesus and David were warriors who could love their enemies. David hung out with the Philistines, Jesus with the Romans. Both Jesus and David loved women, David as wives, and Jesus in a far more complex way that still bothers certain men of the church. But again, just as it may be unwise to carve up the world, it may be just as unwise to see humanity as male and female, flesh and spirit, or power and weakness. 

All of which brings us to something that lies at the heart of the story of David and the story of Jesus, the story of the ancient Greeks and the Pax Romana. All lived in a world whose essential, unspoken foundation was that conflict is inevitable because life by its very nature is expressed as a clash of opposites. 
I want to pause here. If conflict is certainly always present in life, not all cultures see conflict as foundationally as we do. Conflict foundational, you ask? Let me give you a simple example. If you watch nature movies, you will hear predators referred to as “enemies.” That is the conflict view at its most naive. Except for warring dogs, animals do not have enemies. Not even all people see nature as a conflict between cute helpless bunnies and those who would eat them. A selfless hare in a Buddhist tale gives her life so that a mother tiger might feed her cubs. Indigenous people and really skilled ecologists understand the relationship between predators and prey as one of mutual nourishment, health and love, not enmity. Again, the Buddhists teach that the first noble truth of all life is not “life is conflict” but that “life is suffering.” Now, I can certainly suffer as a result of conflict, but I can also suffer because I am sick or because I am grieving the loss of a loved one or just because I am old and sore or got out of the wrong side of bed. To simplify just a bit, the phrase “life is suffering” puts the emphasis upon my personal experience and mastery of the conditions of life, while a world view founded upon “life is conflict” allows me to project my struggles upon others. In the Buddhist view, I slowly learn to rise above the power of suffering by working upon myself; in the conflict view, I rise above the power of conflict by working upon others, altering the structures of society, winning others over to my point of view. Once everyone agrees with me there is no more conflict, right? The winner in the conflict view is the one who gets the power, and to be powerful means that while I influence others, no one else has the power to influence me unless I give them permission.

The view that life is founded in conflict, and there is a technical term for this, an “agonistic” culture, from the Greek agōn, meaning assembly, contest, battle, root of our word “agony” -- the agonistic is nowhere explicitly stated in the documents of the church, not in the way that suffering is the first noble truth in Buddhism. Christianity does not give us Noble Truths, it gives us creeds, which are consensus statements, not reality statements. For all its beauty, and I’m really quite fond of it, the Nicene Creed is a compromise document, cobbled together because a group of fallible mortals had irreconcilable (or so they thought) philosophical differences. Underneath its surface, it suggests that reality may be something we negotiate rather than something that simply is. 

But if the Church gives us disputatious creeds, Jesus himself was not one. Jesus, and we see it so clearly in today’s Gospel reading, came to show us just how conflicted we really are. And, true to form, the culture of conflict rejected him. It wasn’t just the Romans who rejected him, or the Temple establishment who rejected him, but, as today’s Gospel reminds us, his own people who rejected him. I reject him, too, the moment I see life as a contest, and seek to prevail over others. 

In my view, this summer’s hottest book, recommended by no one less intellectually august than Drew Gilpin Faust, president of Harvard University, is an extended and cheery essay on belief systems by journalist Kathryn Schultz. It’s called Being Wrong: Adventures on the Margin of Error. In the book, Schultz makes the totally accurate point that Western Civilization is creative rather than didactic, that we construct belief systems  with a view toward workability, rather than a view toward truth. My truth may be different than your truth, but that’s OK, because everything that passes for truth is really invention. In a world of clashing belief systems, people will cling tenaciously to their favorites, even in the face of proof to the contrary. Look at those who say that the earth can be no more than 10,000 years old because that is the way they read the Bible. Or, even as we are learning that the Greeks were wrong and that the only unchanging reality is change, a group in Texas promulgates the following doctrine:

We oppose the teaching of Higher Order Thinking Skills (HOTS) (values clarification), critical thinking skills and similar programs … which focus on behavior modification and have the purpose of challenging the student’s fixed beliefs and undermining parental authority.

What do we mean by fixed beliefs? Should our vision of God never change? Is the God I believed in at age five the one I pray to today? Should we cling to the Victorian god of progress, the eighteenth century god of reason, the colonialist god of conquest in the name of Christ?

The Church has had a near impossible time learning to grow. As my sister the atheist recently reminded me, “I’ve never seen a bunch of people who disagree with one another as much as you Christians. Instead of getting together, you just go off and start one more church.”

And so, like a California Christian Buddhist, I’m looking, not for invention, but for truth. I think it’s time we owned our own Four (or maybe Three or maybe more) Noble Truths, not about the nature of God -- we’ll never know that, but about what it means to be human. This is a huge task. It invites scientists and theologians, liberals and conservatives, environmentalists and oil companies, women and men, all of us to work together on a common quest. 

Jesus came into a culture of conflict and said “I am the way, the truth and the life.” 

Pondering that, St. Paul, in his beautiful second letter to the Corinthians, offered a second Truth, or perhaps simply a practice to understand the first.

Power is made perfect in weakness. 

For years and years I have held that statement in my heart. I have done so because it doesn’t seem to agree with anything I’ve seen. It goes against everything that I as an educated American of good family was taught about achievement, about success, about effective education, about being human.

Power is made perfect in weakness. 

It suggests to me that what God calls power of God is an order of magnitude different than what I call power. 

I’m going to stop right here. I invite you simply to think about it. What does it mean to find power in weakness?

When I return in a month, and we’re still in the braided stories of David and Jesus, I’ll add more thoughts to what I think it means for us, and our gifts, and our wonder, and what it means to live really, really, and very happily, well, to heal the earth rather than destroy it, and to be rich beyond our wildest dreams. AMEN.

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