10 Pentecost: Our shared congenital disease

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Here is a self-composed American Psalm for the 21st century
taken from Psalm 78 that we read this morning:

“He sent the east wind from heaven
and led the south wind by his power.

He rained vaccines on them like dust.
The masks were as many
as the sand of the sea.

He made the vaccines fall inside the camp,
all around the houses.
So the people received shots
as God gave them what they wanted.”

And then this commentary
adapted from John’s gospel story we heard:

“Jesus said, ‘The vaccines are the way to life. The person who is vaccinated and practices CDC advice, need fear no more, ever. I have told you this explicity because even though you have seen your unvaccinated and unmasked neighbors get sick, you don’t really believe it…I came down from heaven not to follow my own agenda but to spread the word: mask up when necessary, get vaccinated.’”

Okay, my editorial effort is goofy
but I was struck by the Psalm and Gospel.
Those two stories about people
doing or resisting
the very things
that might protect and save them,
parallels how unvaccinated people
resist the clear and obvious benefits
of being vaccinated
even when it does not compromise their health.

This present catastrophe of ours is all so biblically familiar.

God called the people of Israel, “stiff necked”
which is a great description
of human beings
when we put our foot down with resistance,
no matter what the evidence
and no matter what the consequence.

I made that creative parallel
just to say it has been going on
for a very long time.

We shake our heads today
in complete and utter disbelief
at what people are denying and saying “no” to,
and yet it has been going on
since the beginning.
Noah didn’t get a 75% postive response either.

Whether it is climate change
or the political situation or vaccines
stubborn resistance is par for the course
when comes to humans.
And what’s more, every single one of us here
has been a stiffed necked human
more than once in our lives.
Can I get an “Amen?”

I think most of you know
I have been contending with back issues
for quite a few months now.
I do not know what the solution will be
but I do know what the cause was:
years and years of stiff-necked Cam
doing things I should not have been doing
just because I refused to accept
I wasn’t big enough
and strong enough
to do them by myself.
When anyone warned me not to,
my neck stiffened
and I went on doing whatever I was doing
just to show I could: Evidence and science be damned.

That is what we do.
Jesus may be the Bread of Life
but we will bake our own,
thank you very much.

We will do what we want
when we want
and how we want
because —
well, because we are a stiff-necked species.
It is part of our disease.

If you didn’t know
we all have a congential disease
then I’m afraid
that is just one more denial
to add to your bar tab.

Traditional religious folks like to call it sin.
People like Paul and Augustine
developed awkward mythologies
to describe why we do
what we know we should not do —
even when it is against
our best interest.

I think the word sin has too much
religious baggage on it to be very useful.
But that does not mean
I am in denial about our universally shared
congenital disease.
I don’t know what to call it.
“Stupidity” might work,
but that has baggage too.

All I know, is that the Bible
is masterful at telling stories
about how stiff-necked we have always been —
whether kings and queens,
priests and prophets, or ordinary folk like us.

Over and over and over again
we have just refused
to see things as they are
because we didn’t like the evidence.

Over and over and over again
we have just refused
to accept or believe warnings
about the consequences of our choices.

Over and over and over again
we have just refused
to do what we could do
in order to change or modify
or even save ourselves
from the bad things likely to happen
from our bad choices.

We have done this repeatedly throughout history,
and we have each done this repeatedly
in our own lives.

Today we witness entire segments of our society
doing it right now.
We are a stiff necked species.
Instead of compensating for our disease,
by ensuring that feedback
from the prophets in each generation
can and will be heard,
we marginalize them
or worse.

Whether in science,
the media,
schools, or the economy
we marginalize the people
who speak up
and who offer feedback
and let us know the rudder needs a hard turn.

Most of us do not have the power
to make sure our political leaders
or cultural influencers
have people around them
to offer feedback from different perspectives,
but WE can do that.

You and I can make sure we have people in our lives
who will offer feedback
from a perspective that is not
naturally our own.
Whether it is about race,
gender or trans-gender,
ethnicity, immigration,
religion, poltics or economics…
we can work to build relationships
with people who will share
a different perspective
than the ones we keep
in the comfort of our own nest.

Then, of course,
there is the challenge of listening to them.
Taking in what they see
and trying to see it from their perspective.

When we do that,
chances are we will be changed.
Chances are something we have assumed
or wanted to believe,
will be challenged.

We may not change our minds
about the particular issue
but maybe we will grow in compassion
or understanding,
and that will change our behavior.

Here is a small, ordinary example.

I have been taking part in a clergy dialogue
with clergy from all over the country
gathered in small groups via zoom,
discussing a variety of topics —
particularly about how the pandemic
has changed our perspectives
and ministries
and personal spirituality.

One of the questions
we were asked to ponder, was:
”How has your experience and understanding
of God been sustained or reinforced?”
I objected and called it an “unfortunate question.”
I was proud of myself for using such a refined phrase.

But why would I want my understanding of God
to be sustained and not challenged,
or to be reinforced and not changed?

It was framed as if spirituality
and religion are about preservation, which is crazy.
So I offered the organizers feedback.
The challenge for me will be if they respond,
and whether I will listen,
then hear the perspective from which they see it,
and learn something from them.

That is a feedback loop,
and it can go on and on and on
for as long as the participants
want to listen to one another.

But when we are stiff-necked
we simply do not want to listen
and we push away
whatever else anyone has to say.
That is a black hole
and a dead end for relationships.

So this is another element of prophecy
and being prophetic.
It is a small, humble, ordinary
kind of thing we may do every day
but that we do not label as religious or spiritual.

Offering feedback,
receiving feedback,
putting ourselves in a place
to make certain we are exposed to feedback…
this is all a part of being prophetic.
It is an element of spiritual practice.
And conversely, isolating ourselves
and walling ourselves in
so we only hear what we want to hear,
is the opposite of spiritual —
whatever we call it,
it is stiff-necked
and a disaster for us
and those we live with.

Often spirituality
and good spiritual practice
is very ordinary and relatively simple.
In this case, as ordinary as giving
and receiving feedback.