Friday, February 15, 2019

Listening: A Meditation on Acts16:9-10


     I was recently invited to be the visiting preacher in a congregation in my community. The text  for the day was Acts 16: 9 - 10, which reads: “A vision appeared to Paul in the night: a man from Macedonia was standing beseeching him and saying: ‘Come over to Macedonia and help us.’ And when he had seen this vision, sought to go into Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them.” The text goes on to say that “Immediately we sought to go into Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them.”
I do not know why this particular passage was selected, or why the theme “Listening,” was given, but I told the congregation that I thought they had picked one of the most important, timely and controversial passages possible. I commended them for their boldness.
     When I was a child in Sunday school and later in seminary, I learned that the Christian movement began as a Jewish sect centered in Jerusalem. At the Council of Jerusalem, the Apostle Paul, the champion of the liberals, successfully argued against Jewish Christians that Gentiles could become Christians without converting at Judaism first. From that moment on the Christian movement spread throughout the Mediterranean and far beyond. There was no central plan. Followers of the Way of Jesus went to Africa, India, Asia, but in the New Testament account we have the impression that Paul was a central figure in spreading the message of the gospel. According to our tradition, Paul, more than anyone else, was responsible for spreading the message of the gospel beyond the enclave of Jerusalem.
     In these verses from the Book of Acts, Paul is in modern day Turkey when he receives a vision of a man, an angel some would say, standing on the shores of Macedonia calling to him and saying: “Come over and help us.” Paul and his colleagues immediately pack their bags and go to Macedonia. According to the tradition, this visit is the first time the Christian message is brought to Europe. Rome eventually replaces Jerusalem as the center of the Christian movement, and Europe becomes the center of the Christian faith.
     Fast forward to 1492 when Columbus sailed the oceans blue. Christian kings and popes believed that they heard the Angel of Macedonia calling again. This time they wedded Paul’s vision and the summons to “come over and help us” with the Great Commission found at the end of the gospel according to Matthew, where the resurrected Jesus tells his disciples: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit . . . Lo, I am with you always to the close of the age” (Mt. 28: 19 -20). In other words, the church claims for itself the mission of spreading Christianity around the world to the end of time.
     Fortified with these texts from Matthew and Acts, for the last 400 or 500 years Euro-American Christians have claimed that the mission of the church is follow the example of Paul, heed the call of the Angel of Macedonia and the words of Jesus, and go forth to civilize and Christianize primitive people, pagans and heathens, who are locked in darkness. When Christian missionaries went to the Hawaiian Islands and when they went to India they went to civilize and Christianize people whom they decided needed their help. When missionaries came to North America they said that the indigenous people were “wild animals” and “beasts.”
     For all these long centuries the mission focus of the Christian movement has been to civilize and Christianize non-Christians. It has been a history of conquest justified in large measure by these two texts: the Great Commission to go into all the world and baptize everyone until the end of the ages, and by the vision of the angel of Macedonia standing on the shores of the New World calling to Christians to “come over and help us.”
      It is important for us to know this history. Even as it makes us uncomfortable, we need to know it. When we see white politicians wearing black face and Ku Klux Klan hoods, when we witness white supremacy, we need to know that there is a religious subtext to all of this.
A significant number of people, learning of this history, have said: “If this is what Christianity is, and if this is what the church is about, count me out. I’m done with it.” They are leaving the church because of its hypocrisy. But it isn’t that simple. We cannot just close the book, blow out the candle, ring the bell and walk away. Missionaries who came to civilize and Christianize non-Christians were acting in good faith. They believed that they were doing the right thing. There are Christians today who still believe that this is the right thing to do.
     Those of us who want to change the story have to come to terms with this history--which is our history. Scott Momaday, a Native American author and scholar, says in one of his essays that “white Americans are willing to take on the burdens of oppressed people everywhere, but we are decidedly unwilling to divest ourselves of the false assumptions that impede our good intentions.” We need to divest ourselves of these false assumptions. In order to do this, we need to go back to texts like this passage in the Book of Acts and reinterpret it and give it fresh meaning. Let me share with you what I mean.
     The Christian movement in Paul’s time was not Rome’s favorite religion. In the first and second centuries there were serious religious persecutions of Christians, so much so that a second century church leader named Tertullian was able to say that “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.” Paul himself was in and out of jail many times. When he writes in Second Corinthians: “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed” (4: 8-9), it’s not hyperbole. Christians in Corinth and Christians in Macedonia knew first-hand what Paul was saying.  
      The Macedonians were not asking Paul to help them become more like the Romans. They were part of a resistance movement and they wanted Paul to help to organize a resistance movement to the Roman Empire. The early church was a genuinely counter-cultural movement. That’s why it was persecuted.
The Book of Acts tells the story of Pentecost--people heard the gospel in their own languages. No one was forced to learn Hebrew, or Latin, or Greek. No one was forced to attend a Christian boarding school or abandon their native language and learn English as the language of the civilized. They spoke in their native languages. They kept their own names. Their cultures were honored.
In Acts, Chapter 4, verse 32, we read: “The company of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said any of the things he possessed were his own, but they had everything in common.” The measure of the economy was the elimination of poverty and want. That’s what this text means. The early church did not want any of their members to be homeless or to go hungry. They wanted to create an economy as if people mattered. And they organized themselves and their communities accordingly.
In the letter to Galatians, Paul writes: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free; neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (3:28). The classic strategy of divide and conquer  does not work if people refuse to recognize the divisions. Over and over again in his letters Paul reminds us, “In Christ you are a new creation.” The mission of the church, the reason Paul went to Macedonia, was not to civilize and Christianize heathens and wild beasts. He went there to organize a resistance movement, to show the world that there is a better way to live.
     In the complexity of our times, I submit, that the angel of Macedonia is calling us to be part of such a movement. Politicians may wear black face or revert to racist language and images, but the reality is that interracial families and communities are here to stay. Anti-immigrant rhetoric is hot, and some of our leaders seem intent on stoking fires of fear of Muslims, or Jews, or Gays, or whomever is the next target, but the reality is that people are coming together in communities all across the land to meet each other and talk with each other so that we can find ways to work together to make our communities better places for everyone to live.
     This past week I’ve met with union organizers who are working in our largest grocery chain to expand union membership and combat wage theft, job mis-classification, and other forms of unfair labor practices.  Only a few years ago we hardly heard any public discussion about poverty, or debt, or health care. Today these topics are being talked about at kitchen tables in lunch counters everywhere.
      So today I am asking you to think of the text in a new way. The angel of Macedonia is calling you.          
Find your passion. Get engaged in the struggle for justice and equality. Find out what you can do to make this community a better place for everyone. This is the word of our tradition for today.

Rev. David Hansen, contributor
Biblical references are from the RSV.
     
 

Friday, February 8, 2019

Continuing Saga


The second cataract has been attended to.  The month long discipline of eye drops morning and evening has ended.  My  vision has been pronounced 20/20 and except for some magnification for reading and working on the computer I am free of wearing glasses for the first time in 35 years. 

   The clarity of vision, the depth and brightness of color and the amount of light I enjoy has not come without a period of adjustment.  Even though pronounced “healed” by the eye doctor, my eyes have been “aching”. I  feel as though they are working over-time.  I need to rest my eyes periodically.  It occurs to me that all the miniscule muscles and nerves that work to allow and control the  light that enters my eyes have to adjust to their new work load.  (I am not at all sure that this is scientifically so, however, but it seems reasonable.)

So, of course I am set to wondering how it is for people who have seriously impaired vision or who have not had vision at all and then are able to have their vision restored or given to them through medical and surgical miracles.   The miracle of clear vision is not without its downsides.  Clear seeing can be challenging and sometimes painful.

The Gospel of John (9:1-41) tells a story of Jesus healing a man who was blind from birth - - using the technology of the age - a bit of spit and a bit of dust from the earth mixed to form a salve for the man’s eyes.  The man’s sight is given to him.  He only gets to celebrate for a very short time before he becomes the center of heavy theological discourse about the nature of his healing and, of course, the nature of the one who healed him.  He doesn’t get to enjoy unmitigated pleasure with his new found sight for long.

As the story comes to its conclusion, Jesus utters some challenging words to his listeners: “If you were blind, you would not have sin.  But now that you say, ‘We see,’  your sin remains.”

More and more, I am understanding this story as telling me something about the responsibility that comes with increasing consciousness of life around me.  As I become more and more aware of the state of the world, I also become more accountable for my role in it.

    So I am again in a state of pondering the meaning of the latest revelations of racism and sexual misconduct coming out of the state of Virginia - and the “zero tolerance” response coming from the Democratic Party. As Jesus demonstrated elsewhere in the sacred texts at the near stoning of a woman caught in adultery,  it is all too easy and reasonable to point the finger at the “other” until we find the same behaviors in ourselves.

As a people, we are at a different level of  awareness than we were a few of years ago.  In some sense, the spit and dust have been applied to our eyes - - a terribly messy business at best.  We can’t go back to turning a “blind eye” toward behavior that was once easily hidden or tolerated or denied. 

The line from the Ray Stevens song “Everything is Beautiful” keeps slipping into consciousness: There is none so blind as he who will not see.  It harks back to a quote from John Heywood, 16th century philosopher: The most deluded people are those who choose to ignore what they already know.  Heywood’s articulation has even deeper roots in the prophet Jeremiah’s warnings to Judah: Hear this, O foolish and senseless people , who have eyes, but do not see, who have ears but do not hear. (Jeremiah 5:21)

        There is a story in the sacred texts of Christianity of a fellow named Saul whose job it was to search out new Christians and persecute them.  As the story goes, he was on his way to the city of Damascus to carry out his mission when he had an encounter with the Risen Jesus that literally knocked him off his horse.  He came out of the encounter blinded and needed to be led from place to place by someone else.  As a result of prayer by Ananias, a member of the Christian community, Saul was flooded by what the early Christians referred to as The Holy Spirit, and “something like scales fell from his eyes, and his sight was restored.” (Acts 9:18).  The "sight" he had post encounter was not the same as he had prior to falling off his horse.  It resulted in a change of direction and a new identity.

I wonder if that is the grand and overarching process that we are in - a process of being knocked off our horses - - of having the scales removed from our eyes -- of having our eyes opened, our cataracts removed.  The question that remains is “How will we be responsible with our growing clarity of vision?  Could we handle a new direction? A new identity?"
It all remains to be seen.    

Vicky Hanjian

Friday, February 1, 2019

The Healing Imperative of Moral Anxiety


I was taken aback by the framing of the question, puzzled at its puzzlement to the point of being incredulous. The answer seemed obvious, held in the very web of factors presented to us. It was at a recent gathering of rabbis, whose programmatic title was: “The Age of Anxiety: What Rabbis Need to Know.” Clearly, anxiety is a serious mental health challenge, one that will always need caring and skilled intervention toward addressing the internal and personal dynamics of one’s own experience and chemistry. While this was part of the program’s focus, there was another dimension, and it was in the approach to that other dimension that I felt so troubled.

       Referring first to the high incidence of anxiety among Americans today, the introductory material we received then went on to say: “Yet, ironically, we have fewer reasons to be anxious today than ever: Advances in technology, economics, medicine, and other fields make us more productive, connected, affluent, and privileged than any period in history. Why is the modern world such a ripe context for the development of emotional disorders, and more importantly what can we do about it?

      I sat at the edge of my seat for much of the talk, feeling distress, and, indeed, anxiety, as the presenter offered the same framing as I had read in the written materials. In the positing of a question that utterly ignored what is right in front of us, I nearly screamed, “the world is falling apart, how shall we not be anxious?!” It seemed so clear, that for so many people there is a painful awareness of the jagged edges of external reality as felt within themselves, that cuts to the quick of every tender, caring heart, of every heart that holds the world’s pain as its own. How not to feel anxious, for people and for the world, and for the fate of future generations that hangs in the balance?

The presenter asked, “how many of you know someone who lives without plumbing, or who has never been on an airplane?” Struggling to contain my feelings, I wondered, does it really matter if I don’t know anyone personally without plumbing or without the worldly experience that was somehow assumed to mitigate anxiety? I thought about all of those who live in wretched poverty in this country and in so many places in the world, all part of the human family. I thought of all the migrants suffering at our southern border, their pain inflicted in my name. I thought about the intrinsic lines of connection that join us to each other, of the teaching that emerges from the very beginning of Torah, that all people are created in the image of God. How can I not feel anxiety in knowing how many in my extended human family live lives that are so filled with pain and struggle?

When the time for questions finally came, I couldn’t believe that what seemed so obvious was not addressed. As time went by and my hand seemed unnoticed, I felt like I would burst. Near to the end, as someone else pointed to my raised hand, I finally shared my distress, telling of the anxiety, as it were, that I felt in the disconnection between inner and outer worlds. I challenged the speaker’s suggestion of privilege as a bulwark against anxiety, pointing to it, rather, as the very cause for such collective anxiety. With privilege in regard to wealth and justice, to health and opportunity, to happiness and fulfillment, we come to be divided from each other as human beings. 
Privilege separates, even from those who are near and dear to us, each one caught up in their own pursuits. In the grand scheme, the environmental disasters that threaten the earth’s future are a consequence of privilege, of living without constraints, of living as though we can do whatever we want and take from the earth and others whatever will satisfy our own presumed needs. I thought of all those who feel so deeply the pain of the world, who struggle with such anxiety of conscience to respond with awareness of our own privilege to the profound disparities in relation to others. It is privilege itself that becomes the source of our existential anxiety.

Feeling the pain of others as a source of anxiety runs deep in Jewish tradition. In a very different context, not as a matter of privilege, but in regard to an intrinsic human bond that is frayed by privilege, we are challenged in at least two settings in the Torah portion read during the week of the gathering, the portion called B’shallach (Ex. 13:17-17:16), in regard to how we respond to the suffering of others. When the Israelites have crossed the sea and are standing on the far shore watching the Egyptian soldiers drowning in the returning waters, they couldn’t sing at first, the verses suggesting that they stood in dumbfound silence. A powerful Musar teaching notes the silence before song could arise:

          ‘And God saved Israel on that day from the hand of Egypt, and Israel saw Egypt dead upon the seashore.’ They had not yet uttered song, they had not sung their redemption song nor sung concerning the downfall of the Egyptians, for they were greatly distressed; for all this, how is it possible to sing and to rejoice with complete joy when seeing a great camp of human beings strewn upon the seashore, writhing in terrible agonies, the dead and the dying?

From much longer ago than nineteenth century ethical teaching, in the Haftorah of that week from the Book of Judges (4:4-5:31), the Philisitine general Sisera is killed, one who plundered, raped, and destroyed. Near the end of the Haftorah his mother waits for her son’s return, looking through the window, coming to realize that he will not return. The rabbis likened the sound of her weeping to the weeping sound of the shofar’s broken notes. From the weeping of Sisera’s mother, vat’yabev em sis’ra/and the mother of Sisera wept (Judges 5:28), Rosh Hashannah came to be called by its least familiar name, Yom Yabavah/Day of Weeping, honoring the universal cry of one mother whose son will not return.

Each of these cases offers an extreme instance of identification with the pain of others, even of those who would harm us. So sensitized to the breadth of human life, we are meant to feel anxiety at all harm done to others. In doing all that we can to repair the world in which we live is a path to our own wholeness. Activism is therapeutic, not only in its successes on behalf of others, but for ourselves. We are strengthened and given meaning in the empowering realization that we can do something about all that weighs upon our hearts. Holding in our hearts those without plumbing and benefits of privilege, remembering those who are knocking at America’s doors, those who suffer war and famine, holding with love the earth herself, so may our own souls and psyches be made whole, as we learn to breath through and act upon the healing imperative of moral anxiety.

Rabbi Victor H. Reinstein