14 Pentecost: We see your inscape

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As you may know,
I just spent a week back in the Midwest –
Michigan specifically, and like here,
it is green and luscious from all the rain.

Traveling through corn and soybean fields
flattens the horizon.
Then you get “Up North,”
as they call it in lower Michigan,
where glacial hills and lakes thread through
the Boreal forests.

Passing through the land
and being near where I walked
and fished and played as a child and youth,
seeing the darker, richer soil of Ohio
beneath the longer, flatter, endlessness fields of crops,
and crossing the greater distances — all of it —
opened me up inside
like eucalyptus awakens the brains
with a rush of air.

I had not been to that part of Michigan
for fifteen years.
We saw a young man
running up the hill I used to run up
and Katy said, “Hey look! That was you thirty years ago.”

So returning to the Song of Solomon
and Mark’s story that “It’s not about soap,”
was a bit of a jolt.

Every image in the first two readings
derives from the passion of living large
with one another
in the Garden of Earth.
There is no hint of control.

There is no sense of safety.
There is no modulation of tactile sensation.
There is no neat square frame around love
and hurt and pain
to allow us to pretend that loving
is a safe sport
in which injury is rare
or wounds unheard of.

Then there is the the gospel story.
It reveals a deep fissure in our religion.
It is a conflict that extends at least 3000 years
into the past.

It is a bitter argument
that has hardened
into a kind of Hatfields-and-McCoys divide
witnessed in Judaism and Christianity.

There are such terrible fractures in Buddhism,
Islam, and Hinduism too,
but I’m too much of an outsider there
to speak about them.
In every religion I know anything about
there is a deep division between
purity and prophecy
regardless of what they are called.

It is a snarling, bitter, rarely polite argument
between priests and prophets.
In ancient Israel
it was the struggle between religionists
that emphasized personal moral purity
practiced through ritual, worship,
and the rules of morality,
verses those who were fierce champions
of prophetic demands
for more equitable distribution
of wealth, power, and resources.

To over simplify it, do we “get right with God”
by going to the Temple and sacrificing a pigeon or lamb,
and never eating shellfish or pork?

Or do we “get right with God”
by sharing your resources with those in need,
and agitating those with power
to use their power
to create a human community
that more nearly reflects the love of God?

I have heard Evangelical preachers say,
and I quote,
“Our God washes filthy hearts to be perfectly clean.”
And I have heard sermons elsewhere
about how the Church needs to do right
by the LBGTQ community.
The conflict between purity and justice
is alive and well 3000 years later.

The hand and pot washing referred to in Mark’s story
is not about pandemic hand-sanitizer,
or whether we use Dawn or Seventh Generation,
or wash by hand or in a dishwasher,
or use antibacterial or lavender oil soap.
It is about ritual hand washing
and separating pots and pans
that cook dairy products
from those that cook meat products.
They didn’t know about bacteria and microbes back then,
it had to do with maintaining ancient purity laws —
as in, ritual moral purity.

Clearly Jesus isn’t big on regulating his disciples,
perhaps he didn’t keep those rituals himself –
although it is impossible to say from the story.
But ritual purity was not a priority for Jesus.
Rather, social purity was much more important.
“Fornication” in his day,
among Judeans of the first century
referred to engaging in prostitution.
I am guessing that the social effects of prostitution
upon women
would likely have concerned him far more
than individual sexual behavior.

But what he is saying is this:
What we do with our body,
how we engage other people in relationship,
the ways in which we conduct business,
the means by which we make our money,
how we treat other people…
all of our external behavior
flows from the condition of our internal life.

In other words, and this is what he wanted us to hear:
the landscape of our lives, what others see about us,
is shaped by the inscape of our mind or soul.
Deep space, where we live alone with God,
is the generator of external action.

It is true that WHAT we do
begins to shape who we ARE, inside over time.
But WHAT we do
begins with who we are — inside.

But here is a paradoxical little twist for Jesus,
one that Jesus could not have articulated
since the world in which he lived
was dramatically different from ours:
The environment AROUND US
has the power to shape
who and what we are as well.

The environment around us
has the power to shape who and what we are inside.
If we live our lives
in completely protected environments —
whether it is a human climate zone
like a Mall
or an air conditioned house,
or it is a gated community
that protects us from social diversity,
or it is a lifestyle
in which we simply do not encounter
those who are forced to live
extremely unprotected —
then we will begin to fall asleep, inside.

I am not saying it is impossible to stay morally awake
in a protected environment,
but it is much more difficult.
The more protected we are
from the storms around us,
and I mean that literally as well as metaphorically,
the sleepier our inner-mind becomes.

The sleepier our inner-mind becomes
the more diminished our senses become.
I am speaking here
of our spiritual senses.

You didn’t know we have spiritual senses
in addition to our physical senses?
I am talking about
and reverence.

They are senses — tentacles
that reach beyond us and feel the world around us.
Just as our perception is diminished
when we lose the acuity of
taste, smell, hearing, sight or speech,
when we lose the acuity of
compassion, imagination, intuition, or reverence
then our experience the holy in life
is diminished.

I am not suggesting we all go live in a shack
or pitch a tent tonight in a vineyard,
but I am echoing Jesus’ warning
that when we fall asleep inside
because of extreme comfort and security,
then we not only endanger others by our sleepiness,
but we also diminish our own senses
and ability to experience what is truly valuable
and makes life worth living.

You do not need me
to tell you how to awaken inside,
nor am I an expert on how to do it.
All we need do
is take a few steps out of our comfort zones
wherever we have encircled ourselves in them.
That will make us uncomfortable.
Heck, the pandemic has made us all ill at ease.

All we need do
is practice shutting off the grid
of humanly regulated environments
from time to time.
That will make us uncomfortable.

All we need do
is engage in relationship
with people who are not like us,
or who we imagine are not like us,
and that will make us uncomfortable.

Actually, and I will end with this,
we do not really have to go looking for weapons
to poke through our comfort zones,
all we need to do is acknowledge and focus
on the discomforts
we already have within and around us.
Health problems,
emotional turmoil,
identity issues,
work or vocational concerns,
relationship struggles,
neighborhood problems or squabbles,
and just about any issue or dimension
of public life in and around us.
All of that, when we focus on it,
will awaken us inside.

We get seduced by so many offers
to ignore or deaden
what lives within and around us,
but if we simply allow ourselves
to see
and hear
and feel
then we will awaken
and be led to something new.

Being solidly in the prophetic mold,
Jesus poked and prodded and pushed
his contemporaries
outside their comfort zones
in order to help them see
with new eyes,
and envision with new imaginations,
and feel with others
who they had long felt distant from
or repulsed by.

I hope that coming here
and being with one another,
does a bit of that: poking,
and prodding,
and pushing us
outside our comfort zones.

Here is a little mantra for your week,
from an unlikely source for me to be quoting,
the Chinese Evangelical preacher, Wang Weifan.
But he nailed it when he said:
“The boundaries of the Spirit
depend on the narrowness or breadth
of the heart.”

“The boundaries of the Spirit
depend on the narrowness or breadth
of the heart.”

Leave the protected environments
that keep us comfortably asleep,
and get UNcomfortable
in order to grow the breadth of our hearts.