June 7, 2015

Proper 5

Genesis 3:8-15; Psalm 130; 2 Corinthians 4:13-5:1; Mark 3:20-35


A political journalist with the NYT named John Burns recently retired a 40-year career having covered politics and war the world over. His coverage included soviet Russia, Mao’s China, Taliban-led Afghanistan, and apartheid-era South Africa. In his recent editorial in the Sunday New York Times, Burns offered reflections on his career and experience. The piece focused on the question “What did I bring back?” Having chronicled wars, assassinations and natural disasters on multiple continents, he asks himself what might be the core conclusion to be drawn from his experience. Burns’ response is the following. “What those years bred in me, more than anything else, was an abiding revulsion for ideology, in all its guises.”

In a secular or political context ideology has to do with building social or political systems on a singular core idea. In a religious context ideology takes many forms. Chief among them is fundamentalism. The ‘fundament’ part of fundamentalism has to do with foundations. Fundamentalism in faith is the practice of ascribing the full complexity of faith to one key idea or ideal. This results in an approach to faith that views complex issues in black-and-white terms; asks us to receive our thinking from someone else; and expects us to follow rules rather than follow intuition or judgement. Ultimately, fundamentalism offers a faith foundation that is rigid and therefore easily broken. If you know anything about architecture or engineering, you know that a chief property of a functional foundation is its flexibility. Certainly an effective foundation must be strong, but it must also give and move as the earth beneath it and the building upon it shift over time.

Concern with ideology is a consideration on a Sunday when we read about a man and a woman in a garden being tricked by a snake, because this clever and ironic first story of God’s call to humanity has become a foundational text for fundamentalism. The biblical narrative of the garden temptation, however, is not a story about the fall of humanity.  It is a story about the call of humanity into relationship with God. The story has humor and follows a literary pattern. God invites the couple to take a load off in the garden but says, “Don’t eat from the tree in the middle.” God disappears for a while and the snake says, “Eat! It’s no big deal!” So the couple eats and upon God’s return in dismay the couple explains away their actions in a childlike fashion saying, “The snake made us do it.”

This pattern can be found in many biblical call narratives, including the call of the prophet Elijah who after being sent on a murderous mission by YHWY to kill 150 prophets of Baal is hiding out under a tree. God says, “Elijah!  Get up. Your work is not done.”  Elijah basically replies that he is an ineffective prophet, that the nation he attacked want his head, and he is hanging up his hat.  God is charitable and provides food and shelter. But Elijah never leaves the cave God provides for his rest and recovery. “Elijah!  What are you doing?! You’ve got work to do?  Why are you delaying in the cave?” To this, Elijah replies saying in today’s parlance “Lord, I have just been so moved in my heart.  I have been pious and in endless prayer and praises to you.” This is another childlike, ironic attempt to avoid holy accountability.  It is humor!

The story of the temptation in the garden is not about original sin but rather the universal temptation to avoid God’s call to courage in face of the unknown. As soon as we make this story to be about sexual morality or the superiority of men over women we have signed on to a campaign not only of religious ideology but idolatry. It is akin to cramming God - like some Genie - into a bottle, which would only have the effect of leaving us access to no God at all.

As convicted as John Burns is about idealism, I am about fundamentalism. Specifically, it is my conviction that God is neither an ideologue nor a fundamentalist. There is nothing in my pastoral encounters as a priest, my personal prayer life as a follower of Jesus, my own walk to freedom, or the fights for social justice in which I have taken part, that would suggest to me that God is either an ideologue or a fundamentalist. What I have found is that - rather than call us from complexity into simplicity (as fundamentalism would have it) - God most often calls us from complexity to complexity.

Any of us who choose to walk in the the Judeo-Christian or Muslim prophetic tradition undertake the practice of call and response. We practice it in church in the responsive reading of the psalms or in conversation with the presider. “The Lord be with you,” says the priest. “And also with you,” replies the congregation.  We make these calls and responses in worship in order to have a bodily experience and reminder of the relationship we maintain with the one who creates and guides us.

Fundamentalism can be attractive, and it can provide us some of the answers we seek. But often it will only get us so far. For example, if I were a gang-affected youth incarcerated for crime, fundamentalism might successfully invite me into a future of non-violence.  But what if I am a young, gay man of color?  After leaving a life of crime, how is fundamentalism going to help me make a way for myself and my life?

When we parch the foundation of faith by limiting it to singular ideas or rules, we risk doing harm to ourselves and others. The harm is akin to a young boy pursuing the virtue hand-washing before meals. So, he eyes a water fountain near the school cafeteria and rinses his fingers on the way to lunch. He does so only to be whisked around by a scowling teacher who admonishes him in hateful tones for the inappropriate use of the drinking fountain. “You do NOT wash your hands in the water fountain!” Taking up a habit he had just learned was good for both himself and his community, the child was smacked down by a rule he never knew existed.

John Burns … “In all of these places, my experience has been that when it suits the ends of power, ideology can be invoked to prove that 2+2 = 5, or 3, or any other number that suits….” those in control.  Ideology can literally drive us to believe that lies are truth.  But the prophetic tradition has never and can never be about control, coercion or untruth. Rather it is about creativity, irony, play, courage, complexity, call and response.

People want a community with a flexible foundation. People want experiences of inclusion and kinship. People want support for the times when they step out in courage into the unknown. May this community be one that provides these things more and more and forevermore.