Proper 20C 2016: Whose Glasses Are You Wearing?

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Who gave you the glasses
through which you see and interpret the world,
your life,
your relationships,
your own value as a human being,
and the value of other people to your life?

Hopefully you do not think
that you chose your own lens or lenses
because in fact, you and I were fitted.
The question of faith,
the question of adult life,
the question of spiritual maturity,
is whose lenses are we wearing
and are those the lenses
through which we want to see the world?

Allow me to back up, almost thirty-five years in fact.

The well known Old Testament scholar, Walter Brueggemann,
more or less asked me the same question I just asked you:
Whose lens are you looking through?

He is one of my heroes by the way,
and I do not have very many heroes.
He said out loud something I had been stuttering over
for a very long time
but was unable to put my finger on
and organize into clear thoughts.
Then, viola, he said it.

It was that low-energy point in the afternoon on a hot day.
We were in the refectory at The College of Preachers
in Washington, DC,
and Brueggemann was holding forth on the topic of “eschatology” – a subject that I had always looked down my nose at. Still do.

Eschatology is the part of any theology
that has to do with the end of history
and perhaps even the final disposition of souls.
Most self-respecting theological liberals and progressives
don’t have too much use for such speculation,
and honestly, we are a little embarrassed to discuss it
in any serious way.

So as Brueggemann talked about the prophet Isaiah’s
vision of history,
and where God was guiding the Creation,
I interrupted with an objection.

I raised my hand of course, and then blurted out:
“Excuse me,
but we know from Carl Sagan and others
that the Earth will one day end up
a dark cold cinder in the vast expanse of space.
In light of that knowledge, and all we know from science,
how in the world can we be talking about God’s plan for history?”

“Well,” Brueggemann responded without missing a beat,
“you can see the Creation through Carl Sagan’s lens…or
…you can look at it through Isaiah’s lens.”

And then he just went on with his lecture
as if I had not asked a difficult or important question!
He said it as if his answer adequately swept away
all doubts and problems with eschatology.

Now here is how my mind works: very slowly.
It wasn’t until days later,
after having gnawed on that response with some degree
of confusion and bitterness,
when I was driving home through the mountains of West Virginia,
that I suddenly understood the depth of what he meant.
I got it!

He was telling me that which lens we view the world through
is entirely our choice;
but even more profoundly,
which lens we view the world through is A choice.

The lens we use
will also lead us to see
very different things about the world.
It is a hellish, circular logic perhaps,
but a supremely practical wisdom that is profoundly true.

If we assume for example,
that God is not actively present in our very own lives,
we are not likely to experience God.
Indeed, we very rarely see
what we are not looking for.
Well-funded and generally accepted
scientific perception studies tell us as much.

The lens we choose
will influence what we see
and also, what blind spots we are likely to have.

What a fundamentalist Muslim
and a fundamentalist Christian
and a fundamentalist Jew
and a fundamentalist Hindu
have in common
is the belief that there is only one lens,
and if we do not see through their lens
then we are both blind and lost.

And the truth is,
we all have a primary lens through which we see the world
and several sets of secondary lenses as well.
Yet what is fundamentally important for us to realize
is that we have a lens;
that we have chosen it;
that what lens or lenses we chose colors what we see
and how we interpret what we see;
AND that our lens is a continuous choice
rather than a single and fixed decision
to which we are condemned.

But most importantly,
we need to acknowledge that most of us walk around,
most of the time,
assuming that what we see
is the way our world and the universe actually is –
and that everyone sees what we see.
Or to put it yet more basically:
we assume that what we think is real
IS the real and only reality.

But everything we see is filtered through our lens, and lenses.
We do not all see or experience the same things in the same ways.
Everything is changed
by the filter through which we receive it – our lens.

So our work,
a basic element of our spiritual work,
is to recognize which lens or lenses we use,
who gave us those lenses,
and if they are the ones we wish to retain.

Here is the thing –
if something isn’t right about our lives,
if we are chronically confused or in doubt,
if we are depressed about how the world is,
if we are cynical,
if we think nothing will ever be right,
if we can’t imagine God’s presence in this world,
or we can’t imagine a future in which justice reigns,
then maybe it is time to get a new lens!
I know that may sound Pollyannaish and naïve.
But all the filters we imagine are fixed and true
are only…well…just filters.

Adam Smith and capitalism is a lens.
John Locke is a lens.
The US Constitution
and our inherited Roman legal system is a lens.
Patriotism is a lens.
American Exceptionalism is a lens.
Whatever version of Education or Psychology
or Human Development we have glommed onto is a lens.

All of them are human constructions
and they will disappear altogether some day
just as Communism has begun to recede into the past.

Those who are both brilliant and wise,
like Albert Einstein,
have long understood this idea about lenses,
and that is what enables them to see
both new possibilities
and the limits of their own vision.
Which, by the way,
is a deeply spiritual quality whether in a scientist,
engineer or theologian.

Okay, that is point number one.
We wear lenses
and there is not one lens that is the only lens.

Point number two
is that we get to choose our lens or lenses.

Point number three
is that the primary Christian lens
is some version of the Gospels,
usually seen through and interpreted by
a post-biblical, theological lens.

Since the middle of the last century
we in the West have come to see the world
primarily through an Economic lens.
Economics is the essential criteria
with which we seem to evaluate everything,
and the basis from which we make our most important choices:
where we live,
who we vote for,
what career we choose,
how many children we have and where we send them to school,
and the car we buy.
All of these are factored by the economic choices we make.

What we believe
about how the world should be organized,
what is fair in love and war,
how we think about our country and its foreign policy,
all are rubbed and tossed and coated
with economic criteria.
The primary lens of our society at this moment in history
is Economics.

In the Modern Era known as the Enlightenment,
the lens was Pure Reason and subsequently Science.
Before then it was religion.

Now don’t get me wrong.
It is possible to live a long and happy life
viewing the world through Economic assumptions.
Millions of people do it
and live their entire lives believing that Economics
makes the world go round.
The only point I want to make is that IF,
if God seems distant to us,
then maybe we might consider a different lens.
You see, an Economic lens only sees
that which can be measured and quantified
and God is not on that list.

So now I want to share with you an explicit lens,
the one recommended by The Episcopal Church.
It is the primary lens of our church at this time
and it is supremely concrete.

But before I share it with you
I want to emphasize that it is de-scriptive
NOT pre-scriptive.
And that
is at the heart of our tradition:
we do not prescribe reality
or God or lenses.
Just that fact alone
is crucial to understanding who and what we are.

So in fact,
as focused and concrete as the lens I am going to share is,
it will take at least two sermons,
and maybe three,
to finish.
So this is just the beginning.

Please look at the cover of your worship guide
(or bulletin if that’s what you call it).
There are five promises of the Baptismal Covenant there,
or found in the Book of Common Prayer – beginning on page 304
if you want to use an original source document.

The Baptismal Covenant
is our description of what it looks like
to practice Christianity.
It is a description of our spiritual practice.
As such, it is also our primary lens.
It doesn’t mean we cannot also wear other lenses
as we walk through life
but this is the one we urge
as a primary lens when it comes to seeing the world
through the eyes of the gospels.

I am going to say a couple things
about the first promise
and offer a meditation for our week ahead,
and then take it up again next week
with the second and third promises.

“Will you continue in the apostles’ teaching
and fellowship,
in the breaking of the bread,
and in the prayers.”

Notice please,
it does not ask us to conform to the doctrines of the church.
It does not insist that we believe
what the pope says
or the Archbishop of Canterbury says
or the creeds and documents of the Prayer Book say.
Nor does it invite us into radical individualism
that imagines the only lens worth wearing
is the one we made and fitted for ourselves,
as if it were even possible to invent our own
without resting upon and borrowing from the past.

Instead, what this Baptismal Promise asks of us
is to stay in relationship
with the gospels;
and stay in relationship
with the traditions like sharing Eucharist;
and stay in relationship
with the community by sharing the prayers of our hearts together.

So the first promise of the baptismal covenant
invites us to SEE spirituality
as a communal enterprise.

It invites us to PRACTICE spirituality
in relationship with a community.

It invites us to understand that the community
is not Trinity Church Geneva only,
but a vast expanse of history
connecting us with people and communities and events
stretching all the way back to the people
in the generation that followed Jesus.

It invites us to practice our spirituality
with other people;
and to see ourselves as inter-dependent with other people –
some of whom we do not even like or agree with.

It asks us to promise
that we will connect ourselves,
invest ourselves,
and root ourselves
in spiritual community.

And it asks that, with those people,
we will try to figure out how to be guided
by the wisdom handed down to us,
and re-enact some of the traditions handed down to us,
and share the prayers of our hearts
with the community we have given ourselves into.

In short,
it invites us to see spirituality as communal not private;
and the practice of Christian spiritual wisdom
as both historic and contemporary
but not fixed and prescriptive.

So that is the first promise.
I invite you to take your bulletin home
and every day this week just read through those promises,
maybe even one a day, and think about them.
Just think about them
open-endedly, open-mindedly,
and see what comes. More next week.