Happy Thanksgiving Everyone!
I am working on a book this year with Bob Mattingly and Steven James about Spirituality: Secular and Religious. It may sound a little controversial, but if you will let me sum it up in six sentences, I think you will get the idea. I wanted to mention it now because I think it has some relevance to us this holiday season.
We define spirituality as identification and/or relationship with realities greater than oneself. These greater realities can be secular or sacred, or both. They might include God, Nature, the Earth, or the communities of family, friends, and other beings with whom we share our lives.
In this sense, we are all spiritual beings who undergo spiritual development. This is a human need, necessary for human flourishing. If it weren’t a need, then we would all be happy in a cave somewhere with a stockpile of food.
This holiday season, as we gather with our diverse community of family and friends, let us be thankful for the blessings of these greater realities. Whether secular or religious, they are all sacred.
(This reflection references 1 Samuel 17:32-49 and Matthew 5:1-11, reprinted below)
Rarely have I ever felt more inadequate to a task, to a time, or to an event than I do right now. The chaplains at my school had asked for volunteers to offer reflections, so that we could have a morning prayer service every day. I saw others responding to this call, others who have more authority to speak, but who also carry more of a burden at this time. Their courage inspired me, and since there were still several open slots, I took one of them.
Then I thought, “What in God’s name (literally) can I, a white person, say at a moment like this?” My cousin told me a story recently, of when we were about 12 years old and questioning whether Malcolm X was as worthy a leader as MLK, because his message wasn’t always a peaceful one. My uncle simply responded, “Malcolm X didn’t exist for you to like him or dislike him.” My uncle was woke before there was a word for that. Malcolm didn’t exist for white people to like him or dislike him. This has come to summarize my feelings about all the white people on social media who are debating the merits and demerits of the uprisings going on our country right now. The thing is, these uprisings don’t exist for white people to like them or dislike them.
Similarly, over the past few days, I have heard some wise voices speaking to white folks like me, saying “This moment is not about you. This moment is about centering the voices of those who have not been heard.” So I thought to myself, “Whose voice has not been adequately heard?” Names of heroes to quote raced through my mind: Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, jr. Dr. Angela Y. Davis, Malcolm X, Mahatma Gandhi. I couldn’t settle on any of them, and that’s when I realized the voice I could center was God’s. The God of the poor. The God of the poor-in-spirit. The God of the mournful, the meek. The God of those hungry and thirsty for righteousness. The God of the persecuted.
Isn’t that what Jesus was doing with his all-powerful voice that day on the mountain? He used it to echo the voices of the Jewish prophets, who were in turn echoing God’s voice, which is the voice of the underprivileged and the disenfranchised.
But again, short of picking out these readings and giving them voice, what else should I do? I asked myself, “Which message, of all God’s wondrous messages, will I voice this day?” The answer came to me in the form of story after story of God’s miracles. The one that first came to me was David and Goliath. That one was easy. How can anyone not see David and Goliath being played out before us on the very streets of Washington DC, or any of our cities? The second story that came to me was when Jesus fed the multitudes with only a few fish and some bread. The third was not from the Christian or Jewish traditions. It is the Indian story called the Tale of Two pebbles. It goes something like this:
A long time ago, there was a farmer who owed a large sum of money to the richest man in the village. The ugly, wretched rich man came to the farmer’s home to collect what was his. The farmer came out with his twenty-year old daughter by his side. There the three stood outside the door to the house, on a walkway covered with white and black stones. The farmer asked for more time to pay. The rich man refused, but, seeing the farmer’s beautiful daughter, he proposed an alternative. “Let me marry your daughter, and I will forgive your debt.” Both the farmer and daughter were appalled at this perverse proposal. So, the rich man made a second deal. He picked up two pebbles from the walkway and put them in a leather pouch. Then he said, “let us let fate decide. I have two pebbles here – a black one and a white one. Your daughter will reach in and pick out one of the two pebbles. If she picks the white pebble, your debts will be forgiven and I get to marry your daughter. But if she picks the black pebble, she won’t have to marry me and your debts will still be forgiven.”
“And if she refuses to pick?” asked the farmer?
“If she refuses to pick, then you will go to jail.”
The rich man had made a terrible, yet tantalizing offer. What the farmer didn’t know was that the rich man had actually picked up two white stones and put them in the bag. The farmer, of course, would never have agreed to any scenario that would have jeopardized his daughter’s happiness. But the daughter? Well, she agreed to the deal without a moment’s hesitation. The farmer immediately protested, while the rich man grinned eagerly. What neither the farmer nor the rich man knew was that the young woman had seen the rich man take the two white stones. She knew the game was rigged, but she played anyway. So what happened next?
The young woman reached into the leather bag and swiftly pulled out a stone, the rock flying out of her hand as it emerged from the bag. The small stone landed amongst all of the other white and black stones of the walkway, making it impossible to distinguish which color stone she had picked. The rich man became angry at her, “You stupid girl!”
Realizing what had happened, the woman calmly responded, “But sir, there is nothing to be angry about. You can determine which color stone I picked by looking at the stone that remains in your bag.” And with that she grabbed the bag, reached her hand in, and produced from it the second white stone. “See? I must have originally picked the black stone, and my father’s debts are now forgiven by your generosity.”
Why were these three stories pinging around in my head this week? Because they all bear witness to God’s wondrous ways. God always has a way to prevail, to transcend every obstacle, even the most impassable ones. Especially the most impassable ones. At first glance, there is no way the small boy David could defeat the professional warrior Goliath. But God does not see a small boy. God the Wonder-Maker sees a shepherd who has fought off lions and tigers and bears. And David shares God’s vision. David doesn’t cry “Goliath is so huge, how could I ever hit him!” Rather, he says, “Goliath is so big, how can I possibly miss?”
The same goes for the farmer’s daughter, for whom we don’t even have a name. It is a powerful story because she is an even more underprivileged person than David was. She faces an insurmountable situation, like David, with nothing but a bag of stones. Yet she doesn’t give up, and her faith, yoked to her awareness and intelligence and courage, produces not only a solution, but an outcome beyond anyone else’s wildest dreams. This is why my favorite name for God is Wonder-Maker. If we just make room for God, if we refuse to give up, if we stalwartly, even stubbornly, uphold the belief that “all things are possible with God,” we will prevail.
My dream these past several days has been for everyone to be able to live a life as joyful, happy, and free of fear as my own. I don’t know how that is possible in the larger world, but I know it should be possible here, in the richest and most resource-ful country in the world. There is no excuse, and yet there seem to be insurmountable obstacles in the way of that dream. The Good News is that “insurmountable obstacles” should only signal to us that this is the precise time to keep our dreams alive. For it is only in the midst of insurmountable obstacles that wonders can be done. Amen.
First Reading: 1 Samuel 17:32-49 – David and Goliath
David said to Saul, ‘Let no one’s heart fail because of him; your servant will go and fight with this Philistine.’ Saul said to David, ‘You are not able to go against this Philistine to fight with him; for you are just a boy, and he has been a warrior from his youth.’ But David said to Saul, ‘Your servant used to keep sheep for his father; and whenever a lion or a bear came, and took a lamb from the flock, I went after it and struck it down, rescuing the lamb from its mouth; and if it turned against me, I would catch it by the jaw, strike it down, and kill it. Your servant has killed both lions and bears; and this uncircumcised Philistine shall be like one of them, since he has defied the armies of the living God.’ David said, ‘The Lord, who saved me from the paw of the lion and from the paw of the bear, will save me from the hand of this Philistine.’ So Saul said to David, ‘Go, and may the Lord be with you!’
Saul clothed David with his armour; he put a bronze helmet on his head and clothed him with a coat of mail. David strapped Saul’s sword over the armour, and he tried in vain to walk, for he was not used to them. Then David said to Saul, ‘I cannot walk with these; for I am not used to them.’ So David removed them. Then he took his staff in his hand, and chose five smooth stones from the wadi, and put them in his shepherd’s bag, in the pouch; his sling was in his hand, and he drew near to the Philistine.
The Philistine came on and drew near to David, with his shield-bearer in front of him. When the Philistine looked and saw David, he disdained him, for he was only a youth, ruddy and handsome in appearance. The Philistine said to David, ‘Am I a dog, that you come to me with sticks?’ And the Philistine cursed David by his gods. The Philistine said to David, ‘Come to me, and I will give your flesh to the birds of the air and to the wild animals of the field.’ But David said to the Philistine, ‘You come to me with sword and spear and javelin; but I come to you in the name of the Lord of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have defied. This very day the Lord will deliver you into my hand, and I will strike you down and cut off your head; and I will give the dead bodies of the Philistine army this very day to the birds of the air and to the wild animals of the earth, so that all the earth may know that there is a God in Israel, and that all this assembly may know that the Lord does not save by sword and spear; for the battle is the Lord’s and he will give you into our hand.’
When the Philistine drew nearer to meet David, David ran quickly towards the battle line to meet the Philistine. David put his hand in his bag, took out a stone, slung it, and struck the Philistine on his forehead; the stone sank into his forehead, and he fell face down on the ground.
Matthew 5:1-11 – The Beatitudes
When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:
‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
‘Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
‘Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
‘Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
‘Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
‘Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
‘Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
‘Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
‘Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.
This reflection is based on the a reading from the First Letter of Paul to the Corinthians (1 Corinthians 11:17-34) and an excerpt from St. Augustine’s Confessions (trans. Sister Maria Boulding, pp. 272-273), both reprinted below.
I am often confronted by the divisions within Christianity, not to mention among religions. I do not know if these issues ever keep any of you up at night, like they do me. But it’s really hard to find a solution to them in the Bible. In my universalism, my belief that all paths lead up the same mountain, I am drawn to verses like the one where Jesus says there are many rooms in his house, or where he says, “If you are not against me then you are with me,” or “Just love God and love you neighbor as yourself.” But there is a little voice in my head, the voice of a Rabbi named Aaron Cohen, who once told me, “If the Bible says one thing, you can be assured that somewhere else in the Bible it also says the exact opposite thing.” So I am reminded that Jesus also said, “No one comes to the Father except through me,” and “If you are not with me then you are against me.”
We see the same ambiguity here in Paul, where on the one hand he chastises the community at Corinth for their making divisions and judgments among themselves, but on the other hand he says, “Anyone who does it wrong will be punished.” And this brings me to the divisions within Christianity. A lot of my Catholic friends won’t take communion in the Episcopal Church. My Protestant friends are not allowed to take communion in the Catholic Church. And this small example of division doesn’t even begin to touch on the proliferation of differing versions of the Lord’s Supper I have observed in all of the other Christian denominations. Is the bread and wine really Christ’s body? Is it a symbol? Do we have to drink wine? Can we use grape juice? Water? Is it okay to use gluten-free bread? These are the types of questions Christians are grappling with.
Last night I came across this passage in St. Augustine’s Confessions. As I read it, I felt like Jesus would have really “approved this message” as we hear so often in this election year. The humility, charity, and illumination of his words seem to be the embodiment of That Which We Call “God.” If there is more than one interpretation of God’s word, and it is valid, then why not accept it? Why couldn’t God be speaking to each of us, meeting each of us right where we are, perfectly congruent with our capability at this very moment, welcoming all of us into his presence? Augustine is leading us to transcend our normal level of human consciousness. Human beings always want to know which way is right; We cannot conceive how it is with God, that many conflicting truths can be true at once.
This idea didn’t actually come to me for the first time upon reading Augustine last night before bed. It came to me in a conversation with my brother earlier in the day. My brother Carlton, a pianist and composer, was talking to me about an 1982 interview David Lettermen conducted with the late great Little Richard, who passed away on May 9.
Letterman started to ask Richard about his influence on rock music: “It is impossible to imagine what rock and roll would sound like if you hadn’t been born. If you hadn’t come along maybe rock and roll would have started different or later. I am sure it would have started sooner or later…”
And then Little Richard interrupted Letterman with a lack of humility that could only be matched by St. Paul: “I don’t believe it would have started at all,” Richard said. “Jimi Hendrix started out with me, my guitarist. James Brown was my back up vocalist. The Beatles started with me. Mick Jagger started with me. I was the architect of Rock.”
Like a true artist, Little Richard created something and then let it go, let it take on a life of its own. He didn’t judge which interpretation of his music was the best one or the right one. He simply basked in the glow of all of the many strands of creativity that took their cue from his. He was proud of them all – of the Beatles multi-faceted pop-rock, the Stones’ bluesy, gritty hard rock, Jimi Hendrix’s far-out psychedelic rock, James Brown’s funk, which was in itself a whole new genre. As my brother said, there is something important about Richard’s phrase “They started with me.” For all his seeming boastfulness, Richard didn’t desire replication. He was proud of what people did with the work he started.
If Little Richard could view the interpretations of his work in this way, with such love, pride, humility, and charity, it makes me wonder how God must view the countless interpretations of his Word. I imagine Jesus saying, “Do this in remembrance of me,” and then seeing Roman Catholics, Orthodox, Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Methodists, Baptists, Latter Day Saints, Christian Scientists, and more, all gathering to remember in their own way, each one thinking their way is the right way, and then Jesus thinking, like Augustine, “Why should you not think that I was aware of all of them, since the one God carefully tempered his sacred writings to meet the minds of many people, who would see different things in them, and all true?” In the Catholic and Episcopal churches we often prayer “Father, we pray for your holy Catholic Church; That we all may be one.” And I wonder if perhaps that prayer has always already been answered.
May we all live with outstretched arms, like those in this glimmering picture of Little Richard.
May we all welcome the truths that transcend us, open us, expand us.
May we all live to see the Truth that unites us.
A Reading from the First Letter of Paul to the Corinthians (1 Corinthians 11: 17-34)
In the following directives I have no praise for you, for your meetings do more harm than good. In the first place, I hear that when you come together as a church, there are divisions among you, and to some extent I believe it. No doubt there have to be differences among you to show which of you have God’s approval. So then, when you come together, it is not the Lord’s Supper you eat, for when you are eating, some of you go ahead with your own private suppers. As a result, one person remains hungry and another gets drunk. Don’t you have homes to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God by humiliating those who have nothing? What shall I say to you? Shall I praise you? Certainly not in this matter!
For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you: The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.
So then, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord. Everyone ought to examine themselves before they eat of the bread and drink from the cup. For those who eat and drink without discerning the body of Christ eat and drink judgment on themselves. That is why many among you are weak and sick, and a number of you have fallen asleep. But if we were more discerning with regard to ourselves, we would not come under such judgment. Nevertheless, when we are judged in this way by the Lord, we are being disciplined so that we will not be finally condemned with the world.
So then, my brothers and sisters, when you gather to eat, you should all eat together. Anyone who is hungry should eat something at home, so that when you meet together it may not result in judgment.
An Excerpt from St. Augustine’s Confessions (trans. Sister Maria Boulding, pp. 272-273)
[N.B. At the time Augustine wrote, people considered the Torah to have been written by Moses. Some Christians and Jews still believe this.]
Amid this profusion of true opinions let Truth itself engender concord; may our God have mercy on us and grant us to make lawful use of the law for the purpose envisaged by his commandment, pure charity. In that perspective, if anyone asks me which of [our interpretations] is what Moses, your servant, intended, these writings are no true confession of mine unless I confess to you, “I do not know.” Yet I do know that these opinions are valid…But let all of us who, as I acknowledge, discern rightly and speak truly on these texts, love one another and likewise love you, our God, the fount of truth, if truth is really what we thirst for, and not illusions…
Accordingly when anyone claims, “He meant what I say,” and another retorts, “No, rather what I find there,” I think that I will be answering in a more religious spirit if I say, “Why not both, if both are true? And if there is a third possibility, and a fourth, and if someone else sees an entirely different meaning in these words, why should we not think that he was aware of all of them, since it was through him that the one God carefully tempered his sacred writings to meet the minds of many people, who would see different things in them, and all true?
Of this I am certain, and I am not afraid to declare it from my heart, that if I had to write something to which the highest authority would be attributed, I would rather write it in such a way that my words would reinforce for each reader whatever truth he was able to grasp about these matters, than express a single idea so unambiguously as to exclude others, provided these did not offend me by their falsehood. It would therefore be over-hasty to conclude that Moses did not enjoy the same favor from you, O my God, that I am unwilling to think so. I am convinced that when he wrote those words what he meant and what he thought was all the truth we have been able to discover there, and whatever truth we have not been able to find, or have not found yet, but which is nonetheless there to be found.
This reflection is based on two short readings:
Reading #1: Excerpts from “Bloodstream Sermon”, attributed to Bodhidharma
(Adapted from The Zen Teaching of Bodhidharma, translated by Red Pine)
This reading is part of a sermon from a famous Buddhist master. The Buddhists he is speaking to are looking to Buddha to save them. They believe if they read their sacred texts and practice meditation and make offerings to the Buddha, Buddha will help them reach nirvana in the next life.
This mind is the Buddha. Beyond this mind you’ll never find another Buddha. To search for enlightenment or nirvana beyond this mind is impossible…You might think you can find a Buddha or enlightenment somewhere beyond the mind, but such a place doesn’t exist.
Trying to find a Buddha or enlightenment is like trying to grab space. Space has a name but no form. It’s not something you can pick up or put down. And you certainly can’t grab it. Beyond this mind you’ll never see a Buddha. The Buddha is a product of your mind. Why look for a Buddha beyond this mind?
To find a Buddha, you have to see your nature. If you don’t see your nature, invoking buddhas, reciting sutras, making offerings, and keeping precepts are all useless. …If you don’t see your nature and run around all day looking somewhere else, you’ll never find a Buddha. The truth is, there’s nothing to find. But to reach such an understanding you need a teacher and you need to struggle to make yourself understand. Life and death are important. Don’t suffer them in vain.
Reading #2: The Calling of Matthew
(From the Book of Matthew, chapter 9, verses 9-13, from the Christian Bible, New International Version (NIV) translation)
As Jesus went on from there, he saw a man named Matthew sitting at the tax collector’s booth. “Follow me,” he told him, and Matthew got up and followed him.
While Jesus was having dinner at Matthew’s house, many tax collectors and sinners came and ate with him and his disciples. 11 When the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?”
On hearing this, Jesus said, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. 13 But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’[a] For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”
These readings and this reflection sync up with a poem a friend of mine shared with me a week or so ago. In “Peace is this moment without judgement,” Dorothy Hunt asks us, “Do you think peace will come some other place than here, some other time than now, some other heart than yours??”
I have been reading the words of an important Buddhist master named Bodhidharma. He made me realize the important role that we play in our own salvation. He makes this great point, that if we don’t awaken our minds, nothing else matters. The Buddha himself could be right in front of us, but it wouldn’t matter. If our minds are not awake, then they will be an obstacle to our encountering the Buddha. Without our own awakening, we can’t have access to the Buddha’s awakening, even if he is right there in front of us.
The same goes for Jesus. Upon reading Bodhidharma, I thought of this scene, the calling of Matthew. Jesus is present right there, in flesh and blood. And he calls Matthew, and Matthew comes. But the Pharisees, who are standing right there, right in front of the same Jesus, they do not understand. Their minds get in the way of seeing Jesus. Matthew was a sinner, but his sin didn’t get in the way because his mind was ripe for Jesus. In Christianity we don’t often talk about a change of mind. We talk about a change of heart, a metanoia, a repentance. But I think it is the same thing. Jesus could be right in front of us, but if we aren’t open to seeing him or hearing him, it doesn’t matter whether he is here or he is a million miles away.
I remember a painting from my catholic elementary school. It showed Jesus on one side of a door, knocking to come in. On the other side of the door was the person reaching for the door handle. On Jesus’ side of the door, there was no handle.
Unless we soften our hearts, awaken our minds, we will forever be on the other side of that door. You may have heard that old paradox, “Can God make a stone so heavy he can’t lift it?” The idea being that if God is all-powerful, then of course he can make such a stone. But if he is all-powerful, then shouldn’t he also be able to lift it? This paradox is often used to critique the idea of omnipotence. But the Russian philosopher Nikolai Berdyaev answered this paradox so matter of factly: “Can God create a stone so heavy he can’t lift it? Of course he can, and he has: the human heart.”
This anecdote reinforces the idea that we play a crucial role in our own salvation. We must soften our hearts and awaken our minds. We must let God in. God can’t do that for us. But the good news in all of this is that God will never stop trying to be let in. In every moment of our lives, God is standing on the other side of that door. EVERY MOMENT. We only have to let God in.
I will share with you a prayer I have been using for a year or two now. It is this: “Dear God, is there anything you want to show me today, and is there anything you want me to do?” Ask God that, and I promise you that you will see God. It may not always be what you expected, but it works. It’s works. All you have to do is ask. It is like opening that door. In the words of Bodhidharma, it is awakening, becoming a Buddha, so that you can see a Buddha. If you ask God to show you what God wants to show you, then you are, in a way, becoming like God. You are letting your own self get out of the way so that you can see what God is seeing. You are not hiding anymore.
I will just give two recent examples, and hope that your own examples come to mind. The first one happened in December. A song popped into my head from somewhere in my past. “Warm and Beautiful,” by Paul McCartney. It wasn’t a hit or anything like that; it was one of the last songs on one of his Wings albums from the 70’s. Anyway, that song popped into my head and I searched for it and listened to it again for maybe the first time in ten years. Later that evening, I was on the phone with my brother in Massachusetts.
I said, “Hey, you know what song I thought of today? Warm and Beautiful. I had forgotten how good it was.”
My brother replied, “Are you kidding me?”
“What do you mean?” I said.
“I just sat down at the piano this morning and played and sang that song for my wife. She had never heard it before.”
“Whoa. That’s crazy.”
The second example happened around the same time. A relative of mine who is recovering from substance abuse was at an AA meeting where they were doing an activity. They were given paper and they had to draw concentric circles and fill in the names of people who were in their different circles. In the center they were asked to write the name of a person who they could count on unconditionally, no matter what, any time of the day or night. Only one name came to mind for my relative. It was a woman he had been best friends with in college, but who he had lost touch with over the years. They had spoken on and off, but hadn’t really talked in a long time. After the meeting that night, when my he got home, his phone rang. You know who it was, right? That woman, his long-lost friend, calling him out seemingly out of the blue that very night that he inscribed her name in his innermost circle.
I cannot tell you what the mechanism of these connections is. I can only attest to their reality. I am interested to hear if you have similar stories.
As we have been following social distancing guidelines in an effort to keep ourselves and others safe, what has been shown to me is the ways in which we are all connected. Not just physically, not just through Zoom, not just through our relationships that have shaped us in the past and in generations past. Not just by our futures, which we are tethered to together. I am talking about the ways in which we are connected right now, and always, in the eternal now, no matter what seeming distance we keep between ourselves.
I was reminded this week of the Washington National Cathedral’s “Have We No Decency?” call to our nation’s leaders to stop hateful and incendiary rhetoric. It just struck me how pathetic that was, that we need to call our leaders to decency. Not goodness. Not truth. Not Beauty. Just decency. The bar is so low…
National Cathedral School
Justin C. Maaia
My name is Justin Maaia and I teach religious studies in the upper school here. Rev. Cavaleri asked if I might give a homily or a meditation on gratitude today. I am going to try and do a little of both. I’m going to say a few words about gratitude, and then hopefully have time for some meditation at the end.
One of the classes I teach is called Good and Evil. In that class I have asked my students two questions so far: “What is Happiness?” And “Why do we suffer?”
In the wake of those questions, my students proceeded to unleash a barrage of thinking and questioning that overwhelmed me with thoughts. First of all, how wise you all are. Second, that these are questions that don’t have any one single answer. Third, how important it is to ask these questions, even if they don’t have an answer.
What is happiness? Why do we suffer?
Speaking of suffering: I am forty years old now. That’s middle age. I hope it’s not quite the middle, but it’s close. As I look back over my life so far, one thing I see is that my life has been an experiment in happiness and suffering. I know I can only speak from the I-perspective, but I think this must be true for most of us, given the fervor with which my students grappled with these questions.
So, what have I learned from my life so far, from my experiments with happiness and suffering? In the interest of time, I will just share with you the three things that loom largest in my mind at this point in my journey.
Number One: I am happy in proportion to the amount of time I get to spend in nature. Yes, being outside can be annoying sometimes. There are bugs. There are UV rays. There is precipitation. But despite all these annoyances, I have noticed that my sense of wellbeing increases the more time I spend outside. Some of you will immediately identify with this and others will not. I know I should only speak from the I perspective, but I do think there is a universal truth at work here. Whether you believe human beings have been on the earth for 5000 years or for 5 million years, the fact is that we have spent nearly all of our time here in close contact with nature. We are nature! And we have evolved in relationship to sun and water and wind and rain and rocks and trees and dirt and sand. Because we have evolved with these elements, with their shapes and rhythms, our bodies and minds feel at home with them. Try and spend a little more time in this relationship, and see what happens. It has been transformative for me.
Number Two: Gratitude increases happiness. A couple of years ago in my classes, we kept a gratitude journal for three weeks. Each day we would write down three different things we were grateful for. I do not exaggerate when I say: This transformed my life. You see, our minds work in patterns. We recognize patterns in the outside world. We think in patterns of thought. And so keeping a gratitude journal is really just a way of creating a new pattern of thought. You create a new habit, a new skill, of scanning the world for things for which you are grateful. I realize now in hindsight that I created a fast-track to this new habit, because not only did I write down three new thank-you’s per day like my students did, but I was teaching four classes per day, which means I was writing twelve gratitudes a day. You don’t realize how much you have to be thankful for until you start down this path. Even during the worst of times. I remember writing with tremendous gratitude toward my friends and colleagues here who covered my classes so that I could visit my dad when he almost passed away last year. And my gratitude for the fact that he did not die. Luckily my gratitude is usually for things less dire, as it is for the ten minutes I get to spend with my daughters when I walk them to school. Sometimes my gratitude is for the simplest and yet most welcoming game-changer in a stressful day: a cup of tea warming my hands and unfurling its aroma in front of me. And almost every day I have gratitude for my students who bring their whole selves to class and sit with each other to grapple with life’s big questions. Several recent psychological experiments have shown that this practice of gratitude changes one’s perception of reality. I disagree. Gratitude doesn’t just change one’s perception of reality. It changes reality itself. (There is a quantum physics connection to be made there for anyone interested.)
Number Three: Lastly, I have learned that happiness lies on the other side of boredom. Yes, we are happy when we are doing something that makes us happy, or when we are spending time with people who make us happy. But there is also a happiness to be experienced in ourselves. The challenge is that the only way to get there is through boredom. If I ask us to lie down outside and just look at the sky for twenty minutes—as I did with my Living Religions of the World class this week—most of us, me included, will say that that is boring and that we would rather be playing a sport or an instrument, watching Netflix or Tic Tok, or checking our snapchat or our Instagram feed. And this will be true for a few minutes. But if we can be still for long enough – usually about 20 minutes – we will settle down into the vibrations of what is around us, we will begin to resonate at a different frequency, and we will find something there. Happiness, or at least peace, is just on the other side of boredom. At least, this is what most of my students found there, and which I find there each day.
This being bored becomes a looking, and listening, and accepting the reality of the present moment, the reality of our body, our earth, our existence at this very moment. Our body-mind, as I like to call it, is very good at this by nature, but it takes time for us to remember how to do it. We have conditioned ourselves to never be bored and so it takes time to acclimate ourselves to it, to see what is on the other side of that boredom.
We are so lucky to have these jazz musicians with us today. For one thing, they are fantastic. For another, they help illustrate this point about listening, because listening and being present is so integral to Jazz. For those of you who don’t know, Jazz is not a music that is defined by a certain sound, or a certain type of instrumentation or rhythm or anything like that. Jazz is defined primarily by the fact that it is created by musicians who are all composing at the same time. You may not know this, but these musicians are not playing the same notes today that they played last Sunday or that they played in rehearsal. They are making it up, brand new, every time. How is this possible? How can all these musicians be making up music on the spot at the same time and still have it sound amazing? A big part of the answer is through listening to each other and being present.
I would like to end this homily today with a moment of listening, and the band is going to take it from there. I invite you to stand up. Now close your eyes for a moment—just a bit, maybe half-closed, your eyelids gently resting. Now just listen. Hear the human-made music that is itself a part of nature. Hear the insects vibrating in the trees. Hear the rustle of the leaves. Hear the breeze as it fills the hollows of your ears. Feel the gentle sunlight on your eyelids. Sense the green glow from the lush foliage that surrounds us. Feel your body gently sway in concert with the sturdy and flexible trees that mark this sacred space. See if you can be aware of your in-breath as it touches the inside of your nose. See if you can be completely and totally aware of your out-breath as it tickles the edges of your nostrils. Can you feel the drum beat? Can you feel your heart beating? Can you sense your life force pulsing throughout every cell? Listen to your nature. It is terribly, wonderfully boring. Let us be grateful for it.
you for allowing me to address you all in this way. Amen.
 The organist and composer Tom Frost made this observation to me once while we were discussing Jazz. “In Jazz, all the musicians are composing simultaneously.”
“Terror attacks by Muslims in response to Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel”??? Those attacks are not by Muslims. They are by terror groups. They are not Muslim, any more than the Israeli solider who shot a Palestinian kid for throwing a rock is a representative of Judaism. Any more than a KKK member lynching a POC is a Christian. Any more than an Indian or Myanmari Nationalist killing a Muslim is a true Hindu or Buddhist. These religions all gave us moral codes, gave us techniques for reaching higher states of consciousness, gave stories of mythic proportions to guide us on our way. Not one of them advocates terror. These recent incidents are just the latest examples of the same old hijacking of religion by terrorists, and we in our ignorance are playing right into their hands. They want to divide and conquer people. They can only succeed if we fail to see these things for what they are.
I write this not to equate my experience with those of who suffer the at-times-frustrating, at-times-horrific, but always-absurd effects of racism and colorism. After all, I am an American of primarily European descent who enjoys many of the privileges of such a background. However, my particular appearance in the particular context of where I grew up strategically positioned me to experience a small amount of racism/colorism, and this experience served to ally me with people of color from an early age. I write not to say “I have experienced racism,” but rather to show the ubiquity and absurdity of racism/colorism to those who haven’t experienced it, don’t see it, and therefore don’t understand why the civil rights movement is still ongoing.
I am fifty percent Portuguese, twenty-five percent Lithuanian, twelve-and-a-half percent Syrian, six-and-a-half percent Irish, and six-and-a-half percent English. I know this is not how things work at the genetic level, but it’s nonetheless the breakdown as far as the sources of origin of the cultures I inherited and with which I identify. Also, my mother’s first husband was Jewish, and so even though I am Roman Catholic, my older brother and sister were Jewish and so we celebrated Bar- and Bat Mitzvahs and Hanukkah and the like. It was an accepting and multicultural household from the beginning, even if most of those cultures were of European descent.
But there was a twist. My Portuguese and Syrian ancestry bequeathed to me olive colored skin, skin that ripened to a chestnut color in just one day of summer sun. And I felt an identity with these pieces of my background, especially the Portuguese half of my family. We would spend lots of time in East Providence, Rhode Island, an enclave of Portuguese immigrants who came here looking for the American Dream and worked furiously as stevedores, day-laborers, maids, au-pairs, and the like, in order to achieve an approximation of that dream. My Dad and most of his siblings went to college. (The fact that they struggled to afford the homes and second cars that my grandfather could buy on his dock-worker’s wages is beyond the scope of this essay.) When I was in East Providence, I was surrounded by the sounds, the food, and the religion of this culture. On the Festas do Espírito Santo, people carried baskets of bread on their heads, crowned queens of the festival and marched through the streets singing songs. It was all very “ethnic.”
Contrast this with the place my parents moved to for work: Pittsfield Massachusetts. One of the WASP capitals of the world, the center of town, Park Square, was encircled by an Episcopal church, a Congregational church, a Baptist church and a Methodist church. The Second Congregational Church – the Black Church—was located in my neighborhood, a mile west up Columbus Avenue. The central Catholic church? A mile north. Its website boasts of it being “…the only known street-level church in the United States without steps.” Tradition says they had to lay the foundation without steps, quickly enough to avoid the anti-Catholic powers-that-be could putting a stop to its construction.
I presume every American has at least a cursory knowledge of the nativism against Catholics in the United States. Surely everyone who knows anything about the election of President John F. Kennedy is familiar with the questions he faced regarding his Roman Catholicism. In September of 1960, 150 Protestant ministers met in Washington and proclaimed that Kennedy could not remain independent of the Roman Catholic Church unless he denounced its teachings. K. O. White, pastor of Houston’s Downtown First Baptist Church and former pastor of Metropolitan Baptist Church in Washington, D.C., put it this way to the presidential hopeful: “The reason we are concerned is the fact that your church has stated that it has the right, the privilege, and responsibility to direct its members in various areas of life, including the political realm. We raise the question because we would like to know if you are elected President and your church elects to use that privilege and obligation, what your response will be under those circumstances?”
But what reason could I, a millennial Catholic of European descent, have to fear in Pittsfield, Massachusetts half a century later? Was not Kennedy elected president after all? Was not Berkshire County now fifty percent Catholic? And, just to make things even less complicated, my parents enrolled me in the Roman Catholic schools of Pittsfield. How could I possibly experience any kind of discrimination?
Indeed, I did not experience any nativism in Pittsfield. But I did experience colorism in these Catholic schools. I was surrounded by a lot of Kelly’s, Murphy’s, and O’Sullivan’s, and when they saw a tan kid with a weird name with three “a’s” in it, they asked me, “What kind of a name is that?” “Portuguese,” I replied. “Puerto Rican?” “No, PORTUGUESE.” “Same difference.” And from then on I was known as Puerto Rican. One of my close friends, also of darker skin tone compared to the rest, was known as “The Spic.” This was even more odd, considering he had an Irish first and last name. The other thing we had in common besides skin tone was the fact that we were out-of-towners. Everyone else’s parents were hometown boys. My friend and I never bonded over any of this in an expressed way. But I remember my little elementary school-self trying to stay out of the sun so that my skin would be lighter, and I remember my friend pining for blue contact lenses.
Was any of this malicious in intent? Do I hold any of my classmates responsible for this? No. They were just kids, after all, and so victim to the situational forces surrounding them. Did their and their parents’ view of me keep me off of certain sports teams and out of certain birthday parties? I do not know. If I were a better athlete, I would have a better case to make against them.
Everything I experienced pales in comparison to the racism experienced by blacks in our community. I remember one day catching a couple of my classmates in the ally outside the middle school telling jokes about black people using the N-word. In a rare moment of courage, I spoke up: “How can you tell those jokes? What about Gerard? He’s our friend, and he’s black.” Their reply? “Gerard’s not like other black kids.” (“How would they know?” I think to myself now. “He was the only black kid in our school.”) Even this overt racism pales in comparison to the violent racism that exists in other places in our country. So no, I am not equivocating my experience in any way to what that of my friends who are People of Color. But I want to show the ubiquity of racism and colorism, the propensity of it to rear its ugly head even in the most monochrome of settings. Nativist and birtherist—what should just be called “racist”—worldviews still abound. As does their offspring, colorism, which infects the minds of all of us unconsciously, even its victims, as we look down on ourselves and those with hues different from our own. So, even though Kennedy was shot and Obama was not, we may have to attribute this more to the evolution of presidential security than to the evolution of our consciousness.
There is one thing for which I am grateful, and that is the way the colorism I experienced made me gravitate toward being an ally of people of color. First, at Suffolk University in Boston, where the black Director of Multicultural Affairs had the courage to hire me even though, as she explained to me, she usually reserved that position for students of color or GLBTQ students. In another rare moment of courage, I pointed out to her “You’re a black woman. Your assistant director is a Puerto Rican woman. Your administrative assistant is a black woman. What better person to run around making all of your copies and your coffee than a white man?” She made me her diversity hire. I didn’t realize at the time just how much she was going out on a limb for me. Nor did I understand why my black manager at a later job had a directory of black businesses from which he hired people. I didn’t have the courage to ask him then, but I understand now. Much more recently, I slipped into unconsciousness again, wondering why a black visitor felt singled-out by security at a local venue. It took a very kind colleague to remind me that she probably overlooks dozens of these “singled-out” experiences each week. I am thankful for these friends and colleagues who have exercised so much patience with me as I stumble toward some idea of what their experience is really like.
A couple of these friends took me under their wing at my first job out of college. They were Puerto Rican, and it is with great pride that I now look back on the name they bestowed upon me, even with all of its colorist history. While “Puerto Rican” felt racist to me all those years ago in grade school, today, among these true Puerto Rican friends, I relish the fact that they feel comfortable enough to affectionately call me “El Gringo.”
“TWO creation stories? What do you mean the Bible has TWO creation stories?” Well, in the first one, God creates the earth, populates it with animals, and then creates men and women to have stewardship over it. “And the second one?” In the second one, God creates the earth, then creates a man, then tries I vain to find a suitable companion for the man by creating all of the animals, and then, finally, God puts the man to sleep, extracts his rib, and creates a woman. “I never realized the two stories were so different. They even contradict each other. How could people include both of these stories if they don’t even coincide scientifically and historically with one another?” Because the creators and the caretakers of these stories were not doing history, or science. They were doing myth.
On the eve of the opening of the Museum of the Bible here in Washington, DC, I find myself reflecting on the two most ubiquitous views of scripture I hear voiced by people in my role as a teacher of religious studies. The first is what we might call the “reductionist” view, which claims that all of these myths are merely humanity’s early attempts to explain the world. This is where we get our modern connotation of the word “myth” as something false, made-up. The second view we might call “literalist,” as it holds these stories to be literally true, even when their truth seems to go against widely accepted scientific and historical truths about the world. Both the reductionist and the literalist views of myth are based on misconceptions of the origins and the purposes of these sacred stories. A brief look at some of the foremost thinkers-on-myth will not only elucidate these origins and purposes, but may even show us how we might discover the true value of these stories, the reasons why we have been telling them to each other for thousands of years.
“Myth” comes from the Greek word “mythos,” which means “story.” In religious studies, ‘myth’ does not have the connotation of “false” or “made-up” that our popular usage carries. Stories may be fiction or nonfiction, but neither of these designations takes away their status as stories, or myths.
Myths have often been dismissed as early attempts by human beings to explain natural phenomena. This dismissal of myth is part of the demythicization process that has been underway since the Renaissance, as we tried to replace mythological explanations with scientific ones. For example, the story of Noah’s Ark seems like a story about why we have rainbows, and, now that we know what physical processes cause rainbows, we no longer need that story. But Noah’s Ark is no more a story about rainbows than the film The Matrix is a story to explain the phenomenon of déjà vu. Both stories do attempt explanations of those phenomena, but those explanations are merely to lend credibility to the rest of the story. Neither story was created merely to explain these things.
The word “myth” is almost always reserved for a particular class of stories, stories which point to a sacred reality. “Sacred reality” does not necessarily refer to God or gods or heaven. It may also refer to the natural order of things, an ethical order, or some other concept or value that is placed “on high” by a particular people. It may not be clear to the story teller herself what exactly this sacred reality is—again, the elements in the myth are only pointing to the sacred reality, even when that reality is named. It is also important to note that the ontological status of that sacred reality (whether or how it exists) is not what is really important. “Sacred reality” is real enough just by virtue of its being designated as “sacred,” over and against the “profane”—the normal, everyday, worldly concerns of a people. The question is not “What is true?” but “What have peoples found necessary to point to and preserve as centrally important for their entire existence?” If a people have a myth saying, “God created man,” we do not know whether that deity exists, but we do know that “man” must be important to these people. So myth, or “truth embodied in a tale,” contains a kind of truth that is different from scientific or historical truth.
How do we know when we are in the realm of myth? How do we know when a story is speaking about meaning—existential, psychological, spiritual meaning—rather than about scientific, objective fact? Mircea Eliade points out that myth always take place in illo tempore, literally “at that time.” Eliade uses in illo tempore to refer to the unique phrases that begin all myths, phrases that bring the reader into “mythic time,” announcing that eternal, mythic, spiritual truths are about to be disclosed (as opposed to scientific or historical truths.) Famous examples of in illo tempore include “In the Beginning,” “In the Dreamtime,” “When on High,” and “In a Galaxy Far Far Away.” Myth is something that never happened and always happens. “On April 10, 1979” is history; “Once upon a time” refers to eternity.
Paul Ricouer defined myth as “a pattern of symbols.” This symbolic nature of myth may account for the connotation that myth is something different from fact: Whether a story is historically true or not, it always has a meaning beyond the literal meaning of what is being related. In fact, a myth always has a plethora of meanings. A story about a tree may have an ostensive reference to the particular tree to which the original story teller points while telling the story. It also refers to the central tree in any village in which the story is later told. Finally, “tree” may also symbolize the interconnectedness of nature or the human family, or some other meaning that is contained within the story.
The word “symbol” comes from two words, ballein, “to throw” and sym, “together. So a symbol is a place where two apparently unrelated things are “thrown together.” “Tree” does not literally have anything to do with “human family,” although it may be used to symbolize that in a myth. Of course, “tree” does have characteristics that make it a useful symbol for “human family.” Other symbols are less obvious: The “Golden Arches” may mean “hamburger” or “food” or “stomach ache” to a particular person, even though a gold letter “m” has nothing to do necessarily with any of those things.
Because of their symbolic nature, myths contain an infinite amount of meaning. Ricouer referred to this as the “surplus of meaning,” stating that the discursive interpretations of a symbol or pattern of symbols can never exhaust the possible meanings of that symbol. Something of this idea is contained in the adage “a picture is worth a thousand words.” A myth is worth an infinite number of words. As Hans-Georg Gadamer points out, a text has many meanings: the literal and symbolic meanings intended by the author, the meanings constructed by the author’s original audience in their own place and time, and the meanings constructed by the current reader. This last case—the current reader—is what truly opens up the idea of a surplus of meaning. The current reader’s life and world are constantly new and changing, meaning there is an infinite number of things to which the text can refer. In other words, you can never read the same book twice. We can re-read Shakespeare hundreds of years later, and every angst-y young lover can have his/her own Romeo or Juliet. This is also why myths are repositories of wisdom, containers for truth that is at once ancient and timeless and yet ever-new and relevant.
With all of the infinite number of ways we can interpret a text, how do we know which one is correct? Hermeneutics (from the Greek god Hermes, the “messenger”) is the science or art of interpretation. It was originally concerned with issues surrounding the interpretation of texts, specifically the Bible. Hermeneutics has an even wider application today, referring not only to the interpretation of texts, but also to visual art and music. It even asks questions about the interpretation involved in the very acts of seeing, hearing, and being in the world.
Gadamer points out that there are two basic facts about human understanding. These facts are present in every act of understanding, whether it is reading a book, watching a film, or engaging in a conversation:
1. You can’t understand the whole if you don’t understand the parts, and
2. You can’t understand the parts if you don’t understand the whole.
The first fact is obvious. You can’t understand a sentence if you don’t understand the words, and you can’t understand a book if you don’t understand the chapters. The second fact is less obvious, but here is an example that might help: If I say “He cut the blades of grass,” you know that I am talking about mowing a lawn. But you cannot know this by merely looking at the parts: Is “he” an animal or a man? Does “blades” refer to knives or swords, or to grass? Does “grass” refer to a lawn or to marijuana? And yet we get the meaning. How can this be so? The problem also comes to light when you think about any book or film that has a twist at the end. For example, the viewer of The Sixth Sense thinks that she understands the movie throughout the whole film, until the very end. Then, in the last scene, some information is given that requires the viewer to go back and review every scene of the film with new eyes. The viewer needs to understand the whole in order to more fully understand the parts, at the same time as he/she needs to understand the parts in order to understand the whole. But how can this be so? These two truths are contradictory—a paradox. So how do we accomplish understanding?
Gadamer’s answer comes in the form of a shocking word: “prejudice.” Human beings pre-judge all the time. This skill has earned a bad name because of its unbridled use in discriminating against various groups of people throughout history. However, prejudice or pre-judgement is a necessary step in understanding. A pre-judgement provides us with an immediate understanding of the whole—a grossly incomplete understanding, but an understanding nonetheless. This prejudiced understanding is then confirmed, unconfirmed, modified, or deepened as the reader comes to understand each of the parts. Then, once all the parts have been taken into account, the reader has an informed understanding of the whole. It is no longer a pre-judgement.
This happens all the time with books. We begin by literally “judging the book by its cover.” The cover and title give us an immediate idea of the whole. Other factors may contribute, too—such as who gave us the book, or in what section of the bookstore it was it found. Then we read the table of contents, a part of the book which helps us to confirm or deny our initial judgment. Finally, we read the book and can make a true judgment as to its contents.
What about the case of our confusing sentence, “He cut the blades of grass”? Where do we get our prejudged whole so that we are not caught up in the ambiguity of each and every word? Scientists have witnessed Gadamer’s paradoxical truths at work even in the very act of reading. Observing the human eye’s behavior reveals that the eye does not read linearly, deciphering each word in order from beginning to end. Rather, the eye darts all over the place: from the beginning of the sentence to the end, then to another word toward the beginning, then to a word further on—all in an attempt to understand the whole and the parts simultaneously, knowing that one cannot be done without the other.
This process of understanding takes the shape of a spiral. As Ray Hart says, the hermeneutic spiral recognizes that our first reading of a work gives us an understanding of it, but that repeated readings are necessary to deepen this understanding. Our understanding of the whole is never complete. When we read a book once, we overcome our pre-judged understanding. But when we read it a second time, we are able to understand all of the parts better, now seeing them in the context of the whole. This process goes on indefinitely.
Does the hermeneutic spiral mean that we can never have a correct interpretation of a work? Most hermeneutics speak of the validity or invalidity of an interpretation, rather than whether it is “correct” or not. The idea here is that if one can show that the pattern of symbols (myth) roughly fits the pattern of the interpretation, then the interpretation is valid. Making sure these “patterns” fit is another way of talking about the internal context of the work. In our example, “He cut the blades of grass,” interpreting “blade” as “sword” is invalid, because while we can think of a time when a sword would cut something, we cannot think of a time when we would use it to cut grass. It doesn’t fit the context. Validity has a wide range, though, especially if the reader-interpreter indicates how they are using the myth. If the reader is claiming that their interpretation is what the author originally meant, the criteria for validity is different from that which would be required for an interpretation that claims to apply the myth to one’s own life.
We said earlier that looking at myths can answer the question “What have peoples found necessary to point to and preserve as centrally important for their entire existence?” Thanks to the work of Ricouer, Gadamer, Carl Jung, and Joseph Campbell, we have discovered that we can also ask another set of questions of myth: “What can this story tell me about myself?” How can its symbols be translated into a meaning that is personally relevant to me? In what ways can this story’s symbols get me to think about myself existentially, psychologically, developmentally, spiritually?
This particular type of interpretation is called demythologization, a term coined by the theologian Rudolf Bultmann . Where demythicization (de+myth = “remove the story”) sought to remove myth and replace it with science, demythologization (de+myth+logos = “remove the symbols of the story”) seeks to remove the symbols from the myth, exposing deeper philosophical meanings that are relevant to our own lives. For the demythologizer, myths are not just stories to explain the world, or ways of learning about the guiding principles of a culture. They are not stories about something that happened thousands of years ago. They are stories about you and me, right here, right now.
Demythologization asks us to see ourselves in the story. One or more of the symbols represent us. The story of David and Goliath may tell us about a historical event or a legendary event. It may tell us something about the place the underdog held in the value system of the ancient Hebrews, or in the hearts of modern day Jewish people. But it can also teach us something about how to think about a bully when we are in third grade. And then again, when we get to be an adult, the story may give us insight into how we can deal some other seemingly insurmountable challenge we are facing. At another time, it may clue us in to our own bullying tendencies. All of these meanings and more are possible, as we grow and develop and read and re-read. It is auspicious that these ideas about interpretation can be found in all of the great wisdom traditions of the world. We find them in the PaRDes, the four-level hermeneutic of the Torah in Rabbinic Judaism. We find them in Islam, in the historical, spiritual, and mystical levels of meaning in the Qur’an. We find them in the Christian Lection Divina. We find them most consciously in the psychology of C. G. Jung, and in the theory of myth given to us by Joseph Campbell. We find them from the very mouths of babes who, when they are read the story of Little Red Riding Hood, exclaim with wide eyes, “What did I do next, Daddy? What did I do next?”
Indeed, myths can reveal eternal truths about a people, all humanity, the world, and about you and me. But to treat myths as history or as science, whether for the purpose of discrediting them or of exalting them beyond all reason is to grossly misunderstand their origins, their purpose, and their true value.
Togetherness and Difference
A Homily for the Class of 2017
Justin C. Maaia
John 4:5-15, 19-26, 40-42:
So he came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon.
A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, ‘Give me a drink’. (His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.) The Samaritan woman said to him, ‘How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?’ (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.) Jesus answered her, ‘If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, “Give me a drink”, you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.’ The woman said to him, ‘Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?’ Jesus said to her, ‘Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.’ The woman said to him, ‘Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.’ The woman said to him, ‘Sir, I see that you are a prophet. Our ancestors worshipped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.’ The woman said to him, ‘I know that Messiah is coming’ (who is called Christ). ‘When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.’ Jesus said to her, ‘I am he, the one who is speaking to you.’ So when the Samaritans came to him, they asked him to stay with them; and he stayed there for two days. And many more believed because of his word. They said to the woman, ‘It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Saviour of the world.’
Good evening everyone! Please sit as you are able.
It is an honor and a pleasure to have this opportunity today. I get to take this ancient, sacred text and relate it to this wonderful, and also sacred, trailblazing Class of 2017. I promise you I am going to do that. But first, I think there is some translating to do. If you would bear with me, I want to walk you through my first few attempts to re-translate the opening lines of this story, to bring it up to date to our time and place:
1. First attempt: “A Yankees fan came into the local juice bar for a drink, and Jesus, donning his well-worn Red Sox cap, said to her, ‘Buy me a Smoothie, will ya?’”
2. Or: “Jesus, fresh from the NRA annual meeting, happened upon a delegate from the Democratic National Convention. He asked her for a sip from her Nalgene bottle…”
3. Or how about this one: “Jesus, an Israeli Jew, met a Palestinian woman at a grocery store near the Green Line in the West Bank. “Hey, could I trouble you for a drink?” he asked.
4. And one more: “A member of the rebel alliance came to Alderaan to refuel her ship. While there she was accosted by an ex-Storm Trooper named Jesus, who asked her to help him rescue his friend Po Dameron…”
Jesus is always surprising us with new ways to be in relationship, relationship with God and relationship with each other. We see that here with this interaction between Jesus, a Jewish man from Nazareth, and this person who is supposed to be radically other, a nameless Samaritan woman from Sychar.
Back in the First Century, the Jewish and Samaritan people were closely related, but diametrically opposed, groups. The Samaritans were descended from a group of Israelites in the northern part of the Kingdom of Israel who were left there while the Israelites in the south were conquered and exiled by the Babylonians. A hundred or so years later, the Persians defeated Babylon and allowed the exiles to return.
However, by that time, the two groups had diverged. The Israelites who had been exiled now called themselves “Jews” because they were mostly made up of people from the tribe of Judah. They claimed to be the true Israelites. They had endured the exile, and they had preserved the Torah, and they were the heirs of King David, who came from the southern city of Jerusalem. A group of northern Israelites, now called Samaritans, claimed that they were the more authentic Israelites, that they had remained on the land and had preserved a more original scripture, and that the Jewish people had been tainted by the influences of Babylon and Persia during their exile.
So, back in the First Century, a reference to a Jewish person and a Samaritan person would have evoked the kind of image we have of any two groups who are closely related but fight like cats and dogs. Brothers and sisters, Red Sox and Yankees, Pepsi drinkers and Coke drinkers, Vampires and Werewolves, Star Trek fans and Star Wars fans, DC comics vs. Marvel, the Washington and Dallas football teams, your high school teams and your rival high school’s teams, Democrats and Republicans, Israeli’s and Palestinian’s – have I succeeded in ruffling all of our feathers yet?
To most of us, it seems abhorrent to lump these supposedly binary opposites together. Similarly, Jewish persons and Samaritan persons would have seen each other as radically other, while to any outsider they would have appeared as close as can be. So why the division? Doesn’t this seem a bit silly? And yet, isn’t this what we ALL do, ALL THE TIME?
Think about the Protestants and Catholics in Britain and Ireland who have killed each other over the centuries. Not only are Protestants and Catholics both Christians of course, but in England and Ireland of all places, not only are these two groups both Christian, but they are both so similarly Christian. The Anglican church and the Catholic Church are barely distinguishable to an outsider. Even to an insider! How many Catholics have I met making a pilgrimage to this very Washington National (Protestant) Cathedral! My own catholic middle school was one of them.
And what about our political divisions. Liberals and Conservatives here fight like cats and dogs. And yet they both believe in first generation rights, in rights to life, liberty, and property, in democracy, in capitalism as the best economic system, in the individual as the basic political unit of humanity. They will have you believe they are as different as night and day. But if you plot American conservatives and liberals on the world spectrum of political philosophy, they are about as different as night and later that night.
And finally, since I have already opened a Pandora’s box, let’s look at men and women: Biologists, geneticists, neuroscientists will tell you we are over 99% the same. In fact, we share 50% of our DNA with bananas, 70% with slugs, and 98% with chimps! So male and female human beings are pretty darn close to one another, far less than 1% different. And yet, how much do we accentuate that 1%? We have created an entire set of social structures to accentuate this difference – clothing, hair styles, films, books, toys. Even schools, like this lauded all-girls institution.
In our story, Jesus cuts through all of these artificial differences. Jesus wants to show us what is really real. He doesn’t want to eliminate differences, mind you. He doesn’t try and get the Jews to be Samaritans or the Samaritans to be Jews. All of these superficial differences can remain, as long as we worship “in spirit and truth.” As long as we can keep ourselves centered in spirit and truth, the differences don’t matter anymore. Differences can and should still exist, but they don’t have to divide us. We can be in a relationship. Indeed, a relationship requires both of these things. Relationship requires difference and it requires togetherness. That is one of the messages this passage is revealing to us.
But I want to go against this message for a moment, so that we can think about another way this story might be relevant to us here today, as we celebrate the class of 2017. I want to accentuate the difference between men and women for a moment. And please know that I am using these terms fluidly, and in the sense in which we all have both manly and womanly aspects to us.
Let’s look at this story in the context of some of the other stories about Jesus that you may have heard here over the years. I am thankful to a friend of mine, Reverend James Lumsden, for pointing this out to me. Some of you may remember when Jesus met John the Baptist. John told one person, Andrew. And Andrew, he met Jesus and he went home and told his brother Peter—one person. And then there was Philip. Philip went home and also told one person. He brought Nathaniel into the mix. In all of these stories, the men who become the apostles, Jesus’ closest students, they all go off and tell one friend. Pretty good, right? But something special happened in the story we heard today. Jesus met a woman – a Samaritan woman no less—and what does she do? Does she go and tell some one about Jesus? NO! She goes and tells the whole village about him. And she brings Jesus to her village and, after a couple of days, her fellow Samaritans say to her “It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Saviour of the world.”
This story of a woman spreading the Good News to a whole village, this image is what gives me hope as you graduate in a couple of short days. I have seen the class of 2017 change NCS in immeasurable and invaluable ways. Particularly, you have instigated a change in the discourse we have about important issues here, both within the school and with our brother school. And there are countless ways you have influenced NCS, both big and small, individually and communally. I think you have found a lot of good news during these last four, six, or nine years here at NCS, and I know that you will all go out into the world and spread that good news to the whole village. Because like both Jesus and that nameless Samaritan woman at the well that day, you are trailblazers. Amen.