Sunday, October 14, 2012

Sermon for Episcopal Schools Sunday

Free Spirits

‘Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit on them!’

“Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.…and I speak these things in the world so that they may have my joy made complete in themselves.”
“Test everything.”
The readings appointed for Episcopal Schools Sunday take an approach to education that one rarely encounters in our industrialized age: education, not as the transmission of information or the creation of skilled laborers for the workplace, but education as the transmission of spirit. In both our Old Testament and Gospel readings, we witness the spirit moving from teacher to disciples, a power so profound and so visceral that it spills over into the camp and even those who are not part of the formal assembly feel its effects.

The enormous power of God is something quite simple. The power of God is the power of Gift. It is handed on, from parent to child, teacher to student. It passes from generation to generation. All that we are and all that we have and all that we know are gifts from God. Always, like the Israelites in the desert, we walk toward the unknown, and it is not our own strategic planning, but the voice of God that will tell us what to look for.

Few things in our world are as misunderstood as gift. Most of the time, when our culture talks about gifts or giving, we’re really talking about a transfer of assets. Assets are not gifts. Typically, we have earned our assets, while gifts, by their very nature are as free as the spirit that landed upon Eldad and Medad in the camp of the Israelites. Gifts are Free, in that I have not paid for them, free in that they may come and go as they wish. Many years ago, when I was speaking of the difference between a gift and an asset in this church I distinguished between them, saying that if an asset was an enhancement, a gift was “something I did not ask for.” Assets are an achievement of economics. Gifts are the work of a community. Suffering is never an asset. But sometimes, when it leads to growth or heals a relationship or gives us courage to risk ourselves, it can be a gift.

Education at its very best is a gift. Good education does not require fancy buildings or expensive equipment. It happens when people want to learn. It happens in fields and forests, when walking down the street, or sharing a story. Education is an act of love. It is a gift to our children to help them understand the gift of their lives. It is the gift of helping them to grow into the people God wants them to be. Every day our children bring their gifts to school. Sometimes that gift is a brilliant mind or brilliant athletic skill or musical genius. Sometimes that gift is anger, or resistance or inattention. All of them speak deeply about the human condition, not as we would have it, or engineer it, but as it is. A good educator listens.

In his brilliant book The Gift, Lewis Hyde warns us that nothing is more dangerous to the sharing of our gifts than the market economy that seeks to quantify gifts into assets and control them by setting monetary value upon them. Money does not set us free. As Jesus says in the reading that is appointed in the regular lectionary for today, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.” Money turns us into instruments, into units of production, indentured to something called the “economy.” By giving us the illusions of success and achievement if we have it, or the illusion of worthlessness if we don’t, money blinds us to reality. Money edits the complexity of life into “haves” and “have nots.” As one of my seventh graders said last week, “We think it is going to make life easier, but it really makes life harder.” The economics of education, like the economics of medicine, make it easy, as we strive for better buildings, more consistent program, to forget that the real work of education as gift, is to surprise us: to lead us out of our confusions, not to institutionalize them. Education is a human right, not a market product. The whole fuss about test scores in the academic world is a total consequence of the money economy, because that is what currencies do: they standardize. Industrial economies don’t need human beings, they need interchangeable, skilled workers. In schools across the country, as we seek to be competitive, the sacred conversation between teacher and student is being called “product.” And once you start talking about product, everything changes.  

As today’s readings remind us, the best education gets us out of Egypt, not deeper into it. The very word education derives from Latin word “educare,” which means to “lead out.” When education becomes about compliance, it becomes not education, but indoctrination. That, says our tradition, is not what God wants. “And you shall know the truth,” said Jesus, “and the truth shall set you free.” He did not say “And you shall know the truth, and the truth will make you a skilled laborer.” In the classrooms of great teachers, children are set free to be the surprising beings they really are. 

Today’s readings ask us to consider what spirit we are passing on to our children. How are we gifting them? What gifts do we hope they will pass on -- for a gift, you know, never stays in one place very long. Will our children be ready to do the great work of adulthood? Are they going to be ready to take on the risks and adventures of social leadership, of bringing life to a war torn world, and restoring health to our our fields and forests? Are we going to help our children grow up to be gifted or are we only going to burden them with more possessions?

In Episcopal schools, we are called every day to take on every hard question of mind, life and spirit, because it is the genius of the Episcopal tradition to be the people of God at the heart of this brilliant and flawed world. Episcopal schools call us to be a people of spirit in a world defined by stuff. Episcopal schools call us to appreciate the unique gifts that each child brings to school, to receive both the genius and the difficulties with love. Episcopal schools call those of us who teach to speak the truth as best we can. As you know from this election season, truth has never been more important or more endangered than it is right now. We know that we live in a very controlling culture. We know that Jesus came to help us let go of all our illusions of control. We should not be afraid to live and to love into the tension. We know where we need to go. The question before us is the same question that lay before Moses. How do we get there?

On Episcopal Schools Sunday, we celebrate the journey, the ancient and ever mysterious journey that each child makes toward adulthood. We celebrate its triumphs and its dangers. We celebrate fourteen year old Malala Yousafzai who was willing to risk her life to learn. Shot by the Taliban in Pakistan, today she lies on a ventilator in Rawalpindi, condition satisfactory, an icon of inspiration for girls the world over who seek to rise above the strictures imposed upon them for no other reason than that they were born female. Malala Yousafzai refused to be standardized. Malala Yousafzai gave herself for us.

On Episcopal Schools Sunday, we also celebrate the tiny island of Haiti, home of our sister school École St. Pierre. Haiti’s history is a tragic version of our own, plundered by the French for its wealth, its people stripped of their humanity and valued only for their enslaved labor, forced to turn its lush gardens into factory farms generating product, in this case sugar. People were enslaved to that product, but the Haitians rose up for freedom. They chose education. They chose to be led into a world of danger and risk rather than be tools of someone else’s economy. This one small island has seen it all: colonialists, hurricanes and earthquakes. But even so, the children at École St. Pierre begin each day with a song. Haiti has struggled, but Haiti has not given in. Both Malala and Haiti remind us that great education is about the gift of courage.

On Episcopal Schools Sunday, let us consider courage. Let us pause and honor the journey that education makes possible. Let us pause and give thanks for the gift. AMEN.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

A Holy Tragedy

Warning: God's sled dog bares her teeth in this one.

On Monday of this week, Americans will observe one of the greatest tragedies of human history, a moment of such profound misunderstanding that over 500 years later we are still reeling from its legacy of racism, slavery and the conviction that the natural world exists to be depleted by force, forced to return an escalating profit under the cool rubric of "economic growth."

On Monday of this week, Americans will remember the initial meeting of two great human projects: on the one hand, a culture of sin and striving, a culture of invention and exploration, a restless culture of chivalry and crusade, where men dominated women, kings dominated peasants and religion sought to dominate all, a culture in which women were kept away from nature and burned as witches if we tried to get back; on the other hand, a culture based in nature, a culture that practiced equality between men and women, and could see difference without inferiority, a culture whose religion was a quest for truth rather than a quest for power. The meeting that we remember Monday was between a culture of insatiable desperation and a culture of incredible abundance.

When Columbus and his men met the Taino people on the Caribbean Island that they dubbed Hispaniola, they did not see the care that the Taino had lavished upon their land, only the prospect of harvesting its abundance. Seeing their nakedness through the lens of sin, they called them savage. Seeing their culture through the lens of their own desperation, they called them stupid because they had not turned their trees and flowers into weapons and wealth. The European economy of exploitation required a serf class to do its work, so they enslaved the Taino as befitted an "inferior" race. Had not Aristotle himself said that some men were by nature free and some by nature slave? Having not read Aristotle, the Taino chose to die rather than be enslaved. The "labor shortage" precipitated by the death of the Taino led to the importation of Africans to work the teeming plantations of the New World, and to the institution of race based enslavement. Enslaving humans became a very profitable industry. Read Barry Unsworth's novel Sacred Hunger and weep.

Part of Hispaniola later became Haiti, the only land in the New World where enslaved people rose up against their "masters" and won. The European nations, driven by economic need and fear, all ganged up on this one small part of an island and crushed it, lest other enslaved people get "ideas." Meanwhile, a continent was looted, and genocide became a norm.

One of Columbus' most archetypal acts in the New World was his rape of a young girl. Because she wore few clothes and lived close to nature, he assumed she was a sexual savage, a practitioner of the kind of witchcraft and depravity that would drive a man wild with delight. He could not wait to taste her. Unfortunately, she was, in fact, a modest girl, terrified of this crazy man and his view of her as sinful and dirty. When I read the story of this encounter in Catherine Keller's Apocalypse: Now and Then, I heard the pain of the entire universe crying out in my dreams that night. I was never the same again.

But Republicans believe there is such a thing as "legitimate rape."

A "leisure class" whose privilege depends upon depriving other human beings of their autonomy and their access to grace earns only the privilege of delusion. We are stressed in this world that slavery built, not because of our work schedules, but because we know that others have suffered for us and we know that this is wrong. But because we believe that this is "just the way things are," we soldier on and try to make the best of it.

The Native People of our continent remind us that how we live is not "the way things are." It is a conscious choice. All the world's religions teach that insatiable desire leads only to disaster. Only the capitalist systems of the world are built upon a "norm" of insatiable desire. The Native People have a great deal to teach us. They know how to live well within their means, to balance work and leisure. They taught me what meaningful work looks like. They also fight with one another, have bad moods and make bad decisions. They are only human.

To change Columbus Day to Indigenous People's Day is not "political correctness." It is an affirmation of hope that we, too, can change for the better. The entire planet eagerly awaits our "yes."