Exploring God:
Apples and Oranges???

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Tenth Sunday After Pentecost • August 13, 2017
Guest Preacher: Katie Reimer


SCRIPTURES

Judaism and Christianity, Bible, Genesis 12:1-4 (NRSV)

Now God said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”

So Abram went, as the Lord had told him; and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he departed from Haran.


Islam, American Qur’an 2:112-115

Any who surrender to God and do what is right - their reward is with their Lord. No fear shall come on them, nor shall they grieve. The Jews say “The Christians follow nothing,” and the Christians say “The Jews follow nothing,” yet both recite the Scripture. Thus speak those who know not. On resurrection day, God shall judge between them. Who is more unjust than one who hinders God’s name from being remembered in places of worship, and who strives to ruin them?

To God belongs the east and the west - whichever way you turn is the face of God.  
God is immense and knows all.


Hinduism, Hindu Prayer

‘Om bhur bhuvah swaha tat sa vitur varen yam bargo
devasya dhimahi dhiyo yo nah pracho daya’

Let us honor the unity of Divine Spirit that pervades all realms of existence: the earth, the atmosphere and the heavens. May that most brilliant Divine Light protect us, sustain us and illuminate our consciousness that we might realize our inherent goodness, our inborn divinity and our unity with all that is.


My friend, Meisaan Chan, wrote this poem -

“What can I call you, God?” I ask
“Call me whatever you like,” she says

“Can I call you Eye of the Universe?” I ask
She smiles.  “Sure.”

“Can I call you Great Spirit?” I ask.
She grins.  “Why not?”

“Can I call you Higher Power?”
She spreads her arms open.  “Go ahead.”

“What about George?” I ask.
She laughs.  “My dear, my name will not change who I am.”

Wow! The name we call God will not change who God is! A rose by any other name would smell as sweet!

When Abram stepped onto the biblical stage in chapter 12 of Genesis, he had caught a glimpse of the God who cannot be contained, the God who does not change when the name changes.

Abram was coming from the land of the Chaldeans. I was really excited to learn that the Chaldeans were famous for their mastery of astronomy and astrology.  

Biblical scholar James Kugel writes “So exact were their calculations concerning the sun, the moon, and the stars that the word ‘Chaldean’ itself came to be a synonym for ‘astronomer’ in Greek and Aramaic.”  

So Abram, the founder of our faith, the first monotheist, was a Trekkie! He came from a Trekkie people, obsessed with the stars, gazing beyond themselves, exploring the vast universe! A people going boldly where no-one had gone before!  

And Abram went a little beyond that. He was a Trekkie’s Trekkie!  It must have been exhilarating and terrifying all at the same time to stumble upon the God beyond all gods - a God who could not be contained - a God who could not be limited by any one person or any one community.  

The call of Abram is one of the most ancient stories of our faith. And this story offers us a blueprint for interreligious dialogue. Abram would later become Abraham, the ancestor of not one but THREE major world religions. Judaism, Christianity and Islam. One religion could not contain all of those blessings God had promised to Abram!  

Interfaith relationships are embedded into the DNA of our Christian identity!

So as we venture out from the places where God is being charted and mapped out, let us be reassured that whether we call God Jehovah or George, the name will not change who God is.

To God belongs the east and the west, and whichever way we turn is the face of God.

One way of venturing out is to build and cultivate relationships with people from other faith backgrounds.  

Last year during Thanksgiving week, I went to join the water protectors at Standing Rock.  I witnessed, and for a period of time participated in one of the most powerful ceremonies I have ever experienced. The spiritual energy in the camp was like nothing I had ever felt before in my life.

One of the first things the elders of the tribe told newcomers was that this was a prayer camp. At the center of the camp was the sacred fire, tended to 24 hours a day by elders of the tribe. They kept telling us that prayer was the central purpose and reason for the camp. They encouraged us to pray without ceasing. I can’t tell you how much I wanted to ‘do’ something - to cut vegetables in the kitchen, or to help sort the clothing donations coming in, or go the front lines and face the National Guard.  

But the elders had asked me to pray. So I did. I walked around the camp for almost 3 hours, praying. Praying as I walked, praying as I learned the pulse of the camp, praying as I started to feel the sun melt away some of the cold that I felt in that crisp, dawn of winter air.   

Signs around camp proclaimed in bold capital letters “NO SPIRITUAL SURRENDER.” The elders explained that we can give our bodies to the resistance, but if we have surrendered our spirits, all is lost.  

They even had lists next to the “No Spiritual Surrender” posters, explaining the ‘symptoms’ of spiritual surrender - irritability, anxiousness, lack of appetite, trouble sleeping, despair. They said if you were feeling any of those things, it was important that you take care of your spirit.  

There was a mental health tent with people to talk with who understood trauma. There were even dance classes! Yes, dance classes! I watched a dance class, and saw the joy in people’s faces as they learned new moves, laughed, and took pleasure in the movements. And these were the same people who were going to the front lines to face the National Guard.  

They even had acupuncture at the camp!

“No Spiritual Surrender.” If you give your bodies to the resistance, but you have surrendered your spirit, all is lost. If you go to the front lines and face the National Guard, but you lack a posture of prayer, all is lost.  

Somehow I could feel that no matter what happened with the pipeline, the tribe had already won. They won because they didn’t surrender their spirits.  

Isn’t that helpful for understanding Jesus? Jesus won even before he went to the cross, because he did not surrender his spirit. His posture as he walked through his days was prayer.  

And if Hal Taussig is right in his New York Times article on prayer, and the main point of prayer is human aliveness, human feeling, human expression, and the resistance of numbness, then the Standing Rock Sioux in their posture of prayer show us what it means to guard against emotional numbness - against spiritual surrender.

The posture of the tribe, the posture of Jesus, is what we need when calling the powers of this world to repent. It is a posture of human vibrancy and deep feeling - the opposite of numbness.

The latest manifestation of white supremacy in Charlottesville offers us a chance to practice what Jesus and the Standing Rock Sioux have seen so clearly - that if we put our bodies, our words, our Facebook status updates on the line, but surrender our spirits, all is lost.  

God is deeply concerned about the vibrancy of our spirits - about our ability to laugh and dance and sing and feel and love. And so as we speak out against the original sin of white supremacy in this country, let us constantly evaluate our spirits. Let us never go to the front lines with our bodies if we have surrendered our spirits.

Flying to North Dakota for a week is not the only way of venturing out from the places where God is being charted and mapped out. Another vehicle is reading books.  

Along with some of you, I read Thich Nhat Hanh’s book, Living Buddha, Living Christ, a few years ago. He helped us to understand that to go deeply into dialogue with another person depends upon our ability to dialogue with ourselves - with our own traditions. We can only go as deeply into relationship with each other as we have gone within ourselves.  

The practice of mindfulness is a central for Buddhists - one of the first practices for a novice monk is to breathe in and out consciously, bringing the mind and body into alignment. When a Buddhist enters deeply into the moment, looking at the conflicting feelings and ideas within, they can learn what is really going on and be liberated from suffering.  

If we are at war within ourselves, it’s only a matter of time until we will be at war with others. Thich Nhat Hanh writes “with the energy of mindfulness, we can calm things down, understand them, and bring harmony back to the conflicting elements inside us. If we can learn ways to touch the peace, joy and happiness that are already there, we will become healthy and strong, and a resource for others.”

This deep practice of mindfulness made me start to hear Psalm 8 differently -

“When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars that you have established;
what are human beings that you are mindful of them,
mortals that you care for them?”

God is mindful of us! What a beautiful and startling way this opens us to understand God more clearly! God meditates deeply on us. God gives us a lot of time. God lavishes upon us the close attention that we need. I am not sure I could have ever grasped this psalm so deeply without an understanding of the Buddhist practice of mindfulness.

The last way of venturing beyond a contained God that I will explore today is dialoguing with other Christians. Yes, inter-Christian dialogue is a type of interfaith dialogue! 

The white church is not the black church. The white church in Wisconsin is not the same as the white church on the Upper East Side. The black church in Birmingham is not the same as the black church in Harlem. The church in the United States is not the same as the church in Latin America.  

I went to El Salvador in January and spent time with Christian base communities. During the 1970’s and 80’s many Catholic priests were being killed for standing with the people. It left a lot of communities without an official leader, and so their understanding of themselves as the church developed in a unique way.  

One man stated that in his Christian base community, “we don’t teach, we learn. We don’t solve people’s problems - we share life.”  

Their insights have transformed my understanding of what it means to be the church. What if leaders and teachers in the church started asking what they have to learn from those with less authority? What if people coming to church who usually expect to be taught started asked themselves what they had to teach others?  

What if we stopped doing band-aid mission work, and started sharing life instead? What if we started putting down deep roots with each other, allowing ourselves to be in vulnerable, powerful relationship with each other? What would that church look like then?

I believe it would lead us closer to the vision that God has for us. To be a forest, a place where we are mutually nourishing each other. Where we would be hungry to know more about each others’ stories. Where we would change our behavior in the world because of those stories.  

One woman in that Christian base community said: “as we walk together, we understand better what sin is. Sin is not about condemnation, but it is retraining ourselves about what we should do.”

The deeper our roots are tied together, the more we realize that our well being is dependent on the well being of others. The more we walk together, the more we can understand what leads to abundant life for us all.

That's exciting! And scary!

A whole bunch of Christians in El Salvador had to develop communities without priests, but it has led to fresh new insights about how God works most powerfully through mutuality.

The last story of inter-Christian dialogue I want to share with you today is the most challenging. It’s the story of the time I became very close friends with a Jehovah’s Witness. She was from Jamaica. We were working together, cleaning hotel rooms, and she was my supervisor.  

She had a way of reading me in a way that no-one had been able to read me before. She could sense my mood swings even before I could, and she took steps to make sure I did not swing into despair.  

I remember a few times when I would be cleaning, and she would come in with a cup of coffee and tell me to sit down for a minute and drink with her. I was frustrated, telling her I had to finish cleaning a lot more rooms before the deadline of check in that afternoon. Or I was frustrated with myself for missing a hair in the bathtub that she had pointed out that morning. She persisted kindly, but also strongly, telling me to sit down and drink a cup of coffee with her. I would sit down and try to drink fast, but the coffee was usually too hot to drink quickly. 
 
She would smile, and ask me how I was doing. I would say I was fine, quickly trying to get back to my work. She would look out the window and ask if I had seen the bird sitting on a branch out there.  I would look quickly, nod, and then just as quickly go back to concentrating on getting through my cup of coffee.  

After a few minutes, my frustration about how much I had to get done before the deadline had usually subsided. She would smile and tell me how much better I had gotten at cleaning - how she had seen the bathroom I cleaned earlier that morning, and how well I had cleaned around all the edges of the sink. And finally, a smile would betray me.  

And then she would say something like, “I know you’re frustrated and feeling stressed, but I want you to know how well you’re doing.  I want you to enjoy what you’re doing. You’ve been working hard, girl!”

A Jehovah’s Witness helped me to give up my Protestant German work ethic that has driven me to both perfection and deep unhappiness. Wow! I had never as noticed and cared for as I did by that Jehovah’s Witness supervisor.  

We eventually became friends outside of work as well, going out for coffee on the main street, people watching. She observed things about people around us that I had never even come close to seeing - how far apart couples walked from each other - how families interacted, their facial expressions, their tone of voice as they spoke to each other. I loved how much insight she helped me develop by being mindful of people around me. She told me it was part of the training she had received as a Jehovah’s Witness - to read people’s body language.  

She was curious about me - she asked me questions about my faith, my understanding of Christianity, and she thought deeply about my answers. She told me one time that if her church ever knew how close we had become, they would tell her to break off her ties to me.  

She said they taught that there was only one way to God, and that was through the Jehovah’s Witness faith. But she said I had made her think, because it seemed to her that I was a practicing Christianity more deeply than some of the others in her church. She said she could never say that out loud in church, or she would be reprimanded and potentially excommunicated.  

Through our friendship, I learned that the Jehovah’s Witness art of noticing things about people - their emotions, their relationships, their state of being - is a gift, and a tool for caring about people. It’s not always used that way, but I did feel it taught me something new about a God who notices even the slightest change in our being as we walk in the world. A church that I had always viewed with suspicion had something to teach me about God.

So you may have been wondering why my sermon is called Exploring God: Apples and Oranges?  

In another book by Thich Nhat Hanh that I was reading to prepare for this sermon, Jesus and Buddha as Brothers, he talks about mangos and oranges. When I came up with the sermon title, I had mixed up the fruits, and remembered it as apples and oranges!  

But the same metaphor applies whether we’re talking about apples or oranges or mangos or kiwi or bananas. Hahn writes: “when you look deeply into the mango and into the orange, you see that although they are different, they are both fruits. If you analyze the mango and the orange deeply enough, you will see the same elements are in both, like the sunshine, the clouds, the sugar, and the acid.  If you spend time looking deeply enough, you will discover that the only difference between them lies in the degree, in the emphasis.”

Friends, there IS a difference between Christianity and Judaism and Islam and the Standing Rock Sioux spirituality and Buddhism. The Christian base communities in El Salvador are not the same as the institutional Catholic church in El Salvador. A Japanese American church in San Francisco is not the same as a black church in Detroit.  

Apples and oranges and mangoes ARE different. We should not gloss over those differences. We should embrace them, celebrate them, realize that within them we can understand our own relationship to God better.  

I close with a poem by the Lebanese poet, Khalil Gibran. He wrote this for married couples, but I have always felt that it applies equally to friendships. And today, I realize it also applies to our dialogue with people from other faith backgrounds.

“You were born together, and together you shall be forevermore.
You shall be together when the white wings of death scatter your days.
Ay, you shall be together even in the silent memory of God.
But let there be spaces in your togetherness,
And let the winds of the heavens dance between you. 
Love one another, but make not a bond of love:
Let it rather be a moving sea between the shores of your souls.
Fill each other's cup but drink not from one cup.
Give one another of your bread but eat not from the same loaf
Sing and dance together and be joyous, but let each one of you be alone,
Even as the strings of a lute are alone though they quiver with the same music. 
Give your hearts, but not into each other's keeping.
For only the hand of Life can contain your hearts.
And stand together yet not too near together:
For the pillars of the temple stand apart,
And the oak tree and the cypress grow not in each other's shadow.”

As we learn this dance between intimacy and independence, as we celebrate mangoes for being mangoes, apples for being apples, and oranges for being oranges, let us realize that without our differences, we may never come to realize that deep within our core, we are all made of sunshine.  

To God belongs the east and the west, the mango and the apple and the orange.  Whichever way we turn is the face of God.

Amen.