“The Dream of God”
I recently returned from a three day conference in Seattle with Marcus Borg, John Dominic Crossan and Joan Chittister - (who they are) 12 lectures and three Q & A sessions. I’ve ordered the DVD’s of the conference to share with you all.
It began with the question: “What is the Bible about?”
The premise of the conference was their answer to that question. The bible is about the Dream of God, and that dream is a world of Justice and Non-Violence. It’s not a dream about the afterlife, as some would like to think. As one of the speakers said: “Heaven is in great shape, earth is where the problem is.” The heart of the gospel is about the coming of the kin-dom - God’s dream according to Jesus.”
So over those three days we heard bible study, historical and cultural background, and then they brought it all home to our world and Christianity today. So this morning I will share just a wee bit of what they had to say, in hopes that you will want to hear more once the DVD’s arrive.
Amos 5:21-24 “I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals I will not look upon. Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever flowing stream.”
Romans 12: 2 “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds so that you may discern what is the will of God - What is good and acceptable and perfect.”
The world that much of the bible was written about, from the time of Israel’s kings onward, is in many respects, not so different from our world today. It was a world of ancient domination systems, ruled by a few: the monarchy and aristocracy, the elites of power and wealth.
It was economically oppressive. The ruling class typically acquired up to 2/3’s of the annual production of wealth. You can only imagine the consequences for the peasant class. Even their life expectancy was about half of that of the ruling class.
Their world was chronically violent. Those in power used violence, or it’s threat, to control their population, and war to expand their power and wealth.
All of this was religiously legitimated. According to the elite theology, rulers ruled by divine right and the social order reflected the will of God. Caesar was thought of as the son of God.
This is the world that the prophets like Amos, who we heard from briefly today, protested against in the name of God. Bringing an animal as a burnt offering to the temple to be sacrificed for your transgressions was not going to placate God. God had another dream for this world.
From biblical times, down through the centuries to today, what much of the world is living in is not God’s Dream, but God’s nightmare. All you have to do is open the newspaper or turn on the news: The middle east is imploding; children from Guatemala and Honduras flooding our borders; teenage girls kidnapped in Nigeria, and months later - no word; women and girls raped and killed in India; innocent teens in Israel and Palestine kidnapped and murdered, their countries exchanging bombs and rockets in retaliation, killing more innocent people - God’s nightmare alright.
Christianity, after it became the religion of the Roman Empire, has commonly accommodated itself to the dominant culture, to systems that were unjust and violent.
Christians here in the U.S. are not exempt. Over the years - think about this - we have accepted slavery, racial segregation, patriarchy, heterosexism, radical inequality, the death penalty, and going to war.
Statistically we are the most Christian nation in the world, and yet: we are committed to overwhelming military superiority; we have the greatest income inequality of any developed nation. Our median household income is $50,000 a year. We still can’t find a way to provide health care for all of our citizens, and a large % of our population still denies climate change.
The demographic group in 2003 most supporting initiating the war in Iraq were white evangelicals (84%). They are also the most likely to attend church more than once a week. They are also the most likely to have a gun in their home (57%) and the most likely to oppose gun regulation (59%, even after Sandy Hook). They stand in opposition to civic equality for GLBT’s, to the Affordable Care Act: and to increasing the minimum wage and addressing income inequality.
Some of the largest Christian churches today buy into a culture of individualism: the “afterlife gospel” and “prosperity gospel” are preached, with an emphasis on individual behavior and charity rather than systemic change.
This is just a little bit of the bad news we heard during those three days. Most of you can rightfully say “But I’m not that kind of Christian. I don’t buy into that dominant culture.” Alright, then what are you doing about the state of the world? - or your immediate community? What are we going to do about it other than feel overwhelmed and helpless - or send in a check to a worthy cause once in a while?
This is where Joan Chittister, a really amazing woman, told us a story from her tradition as a Benedictine nun. It’s a story of another time, and person, that we can learn from today.
In the 5th and 6th centuries Rome was declining. All empires eventually do. The church had become more temporal than religious. No one was safe on the roads. People had given up believing that life as they knew it would ever change.
One single person decided to change the world by changing himself first. His name was Benedict, the patron saint of Europe. He believed “What does not live in us will never thrive in our society around us.” Our world, like that of Benedict’s, lacks wisdom and spirituality.
What values represent our world today? (invite response) profit, personal comfort, individualism, materialism, win at any cost, be in control of everything. It’s a recipe for the extinction of our planet.
What values are needed today?
Here are some that helped save Benedict’s world and could help save ours:
Creative work: (meaningful work) Adam, in Genesis 2, was put there to complete what God had begun. Work is not punishment, it’s our gift to the world. This doesn’t mean we are to become a workaholic. Both workaholics and pseudo comtemplatives have missed the point completely. Benedict put work and meditation on the same level.
Holy leisure: sabbath - the purpose of the sabbath was to free the poor and the animals from work, to give people time to evaluate their work, and spiritual space to give meaning to their own lives. Creative work and sabbath restore the balance in our lives.
Wise stewardship: We have failed to steward the land and sea and air. We need wisdom of stewardship now, before it’s too late.
Loving Community: community is a basic spiritual value. Joan called narcisism a mental health issue. It goes hand in hand with American exceptionalism. We need humility.
And lastly: Peacemaking: violence, war, killing, are not going to solve any of our problems. Haven’t we learned that by now? - apparently not.
It was pointed out that all the major religions in the world have two things in common: the golden rule and compassion, the ability to feel pain that is not our own.
In her lecture on compassion, Joan said “We must learn to be silent long enough to listen to the cry of others, and willing to face our own pain. It prepares us to deal with that of others. We must expand our own experience, step out of our comfort zones. That is where we will learn compassion and translate that compassion into action.
I was recently moved by reading the commencement address Bill and Melinda Gates recently gave at Stanford University. In it they described how moving out of their comfort zones to face some of the real pain in the world moved them to compassion, and then, to action. Let me share briefly an experience Melinda had traveling 10 years ago with friends to India.
On her last day she met with a group of prostitutes, most of whom had been abandoned by their husbands. This was their only means of making money to feed their children. They talked about stigma, but what she remembered most was “how much they wanted to touch me and be touched. It was as if physical contact somehow proved their worth.”
“Later that day, I spent some time in a home for the dying… Every cot was attended except for one far off in the corner that no one was going near, so I walked over there. The patient was a woman who seemed to be in her thirties… She was emaciated, on the verge of death.
I could tell she had AIDS, both from the way she looked, and the fact that she was off in the corner alone. The stigma of AIDS is vicious – especially for women – and the punishment is abandonment.
When I arrived at her cot, I suddenly felt totally helpless. I had absolutely nothing I could offer her. I knew I couldn't save her, but I didn't want her to be alone. So I knelt down next to her and reached out to touch her – and as soon as she felt my hand, she grabbed it and wouldn't let go. We sat there holding hands, and even though I knew she couldn't understand me, I just started saying: "It's okay. It's okay. It's not your fault. It's not your fault."
The woman indicated that she wanted to go up on the roof where she could sit in the sunlight. Melinda couldn’t get anyone to take her there, “So finally I just scooped her up – she was just skin over a skeleton, … and I carried her up the stairs… And she sat there with her face to the west, watching the sunset. I made sure the workers knew that she was up there so they would come get her after the sun went down. Then I had to leave her.
But she never left me.
I felt completely and totally inadequate in the face of this woman's death.
But sometimes it's the people you can't help who inspire you the most.
I knew that the sex workers I linked arms with in the morning could become the woman I carried upstairs in the evening – unless they found a way to defy the stigma that hung over their lives.
Over the past 10 years, our foundation has helped sex workers build support groups so they could empower each other to speak out for safe sex and demand that their clients use condoms. Their brave efforts helped keep HIV prevalence low among sex workers, and a lot of studies show that is a big reason why the AIDS epidemic in India hasn't exploded.”
She goes on to tell of the incredible work these women, considered the lowest of the low in their society, have done to help themselves and others.
She ends with this thought: “Optimism for me isn't a passive expectation that things will get better; it's a conviction that we can make things better – that whatever suffering we see, no matter how bad it is, we can help people if we don't lose hope and we don't look away.
Crossan challenged us the last day of the conference: “Our generation has made a mess of Christianity. It is our responsibility to clean it up… Christianity’s public face is not very attractive. The church is drowning in its own institutionalism. People are more comfortable keeping the rules.” than creating the kin-dom.
Chittister added: “Too many churches are empty vessels - too insular. They’ve forgotten the gospels. The majority of churches in the US are doing nothing about spirituality or social justice. Spirituality and social justice should go hand in hand. Contemplation, meditation, empowers you to act. You get close enough to God and you’re moved to action. If we don’t live in a just world, it will not survive.”
I think it was Borg who told of a rabbi, in interpreting the parting of the Red Sea, who pointed out that only when the first Jew walked into the waters did they part, and others followed. We have to take the first step.
The Dream of God is in our hands. (or possibly our feet)
Crossan summed it up: “What can I do? Do one act of compassion a day and the world will change”.
What will you do?