Via Transformativa: From One to All

Read the rest of the Via Transformativa: From Glory to Glory series

Jubilee! Circle, Columbia, S.C.
Readings for Pentecost Sunday:

When you send forth your spirit, they are created. (Psalm 104:24-35)
You also are to testify. (John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15)

Our first song comes from the greatest rock band in the entire world… in my opinion, anyway. The Who got their start in 1964 and since then have sold about 100 million records and had 27 top forty singles in the U.K. and the U.S. This song comes from their 1973 rock opera album Quadrophenia. It’s called “I’m One.”

Every year is the same,
and I feel it again I’m a loser,
no chance to win
Leaves start falling,
come down is calling
Loneliness starts sinking in

But I’m one, I’m one
And I can see that this is me
And I will be you’ll all see I’m the one

I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but we live in a very individualistic culture. Just look at some of the language we use when talking about how much we value the individual. Phrases like: Go it alone. Do it yourself. If you want it done right, do it yourself. Look out for number one. Take matters into your own hands. Going stag. Mind your own business.

Just how serious are we about taking care of ourselves — and just ourselves? Consider this: “number one” means “me.” But “number two” doesn’t mean another person. It means… poop. So anything below number one — anything below me — is just crap.

As a culture, we’re serious about this meme of me, me, me. We celebrate it in songs and literature. But we especially love to reinforce that message in movies. Usually it’s the kind of movie where it’s one guy against a bunch of bad guys. Or one good guy against a whole government or nation of bad guys. These movies don’t celebrate the glory of lots of people coming together in community to defeat or transform a common enemy. No, it’s one guy, in a battle of wits, usually outgunned and outmanned — but always, in the end, triumphant over the bad guy.

It’s such a seductive message. It’s so easy to want to look out for number one, and there’s nothing wrong with wanting to put yourself first. As Jesus reminded his followers, “Love others as you love yourself,” because to love anyone else, you’ve got to love yourself first. If you don’t love yourself, then you have nothing to give to others. As the flight attendant tells us every time we get on a plane, if we’re traveling with children and the oxygen mask comes down, put yours on first then put the mask on the child — because if you pass out before you do that, you’re both dead.

So, there’s nothing wrong with looking out for number one, as long as that self-concern is borne of a strong desire to also be about the job of helping others after you’ve helped yourself. That development of a strong self-love requires you to think of yourself as the one — that one who is loved by God, and loved by others. There is nothing wrong with loving ourselves, and there’s nothing wrong with setting healthy boundaries in relationship to others. We can’t simply give and give without taking time to replenish ourselves. So there has to be a balance — giving and taking — so we can be useful to ourselves and to others.

Being too bent on taking care of ourselves — of being that ultimate “one” — can result in loneliness. It can result in feeling like a loser. It can result in depression. It can cause us to put on blinders and turn a blind eye to the world. When we do that, we stop viewing the world with wonder and awe. Instead, the world becomes a hostile place — a place bent on destroying our individuality — a place that wants to assimilate us. A place where “resistance is futile” as Star Trek’s “Borg” tells us.

We seem to think that the world is divided into two groups — the resilient individual, or the collective Borg, where we lose our individuality. This kind of thinking is what the psalmist calls “sin.”

Where’d you get those blue blue jeans
Faded patched secret so tight
Where’d you get that walk oh so lean
Your shoes and your shirt all just right

But I’m one, I’m one
And I can see that this is me
And I will be, you’ll all see I’m the one

Ah, sin. As more liberal, or progressive, Christians we don’t like that word. In fact, we don’t like that word so much that this verse in today’s psalm: “Let sinners be consumed from the earth, and let the wicked be not more,” is actually deleted from this week’s lectionary scripture reading. The lectionary is a list of scriptures for each week that churches use around the world. So any church following the lectionary is using this psalm today — and skipping that verse. Why? Because we simply don’t want to have to talk about sin — especially at the end of a very beautiful passage that celebrates creation. Those lines are just a buzzkill. Beauty, beauty, beauty, sin. It’s just an ugly end to a gorgeous passage. So to make it easier, we just skip the sin part.

For many of us, sin is a touchy subject because it harkens back to our more fundamentalist days, when the preachers we listened to talked about sin a lot. It seemed like everything was a sin — long hair on men, short hair on women, cussing, drinking, vanity, envy, sex outside of marriage, gossiping… or at least gossiping without including me in whatever it is you’re telling other people.

But if we look at that list of sins, we might begin to see a pattern. They are all very individualistic sins — things we do by ourselves, or with, or about, some other individual. We want to know where you got your blue blue jeans, where you got your swagger, so we can imitate it and become another “one” that the world adores.

So “sin” becomes a very individualistic endeavor, just like every other endeavor we undertake here in America. We are either heroes or sinners — as individuals.

This is not what the scriptures talk about as sin. Oh sure, there are individual types of sin, but in the both the Hebrew and Christian scriptures, sin is more often corporate sin — the sins we commit together — as humanity. Sins like greed — which can be individual, but when practiced collectively hurts more than just the greedy person. It hurts us all. Sins like murder, that may involve individuals, but impact the whole community — and often the whole society — like the death of Martin Luther King Jr., or the more recent death of Trayvon Martin.

Sin, to God, is not just when you or I go wrong, but it is rightly observed by the novelist Alice Walker whose character Shug tells Celie in The Color Purple, “I think it pisses God off if you walk by the color purple in a field and don’t notice it.”

Sin, in its simplest idea, is a loss of wonder… a loss of awe… a loss of a sense of that creative spirit of the Holy that constantly weaves itself in, through and around us. We sin when we lose that sense that God weaves us together as one humanity, responsible not just to ourselves, but to everyone — and every part of creation — around us.

O Lord, how manifold are your works! In wisdom you have made them all; the earth is full of your creatures. Yonder is the sea, great and wide, creeping things innumerable are there, living things both small and great. There go the ships, and Leviathan that you formed to sport in it.

All earth is full of your creatures — and not just the creepy, crawly creatures, or the furry, four-legged creatures, or the winged, flying creatures, but the human creatures. The laughing, crying, joyful, despairing, pooping and sweating creatures.

Sin, Jubilants, is forgetting that we are all creatures of the Holy, all equally loved, all equally creative and destructive. Sin is insisting on the oneness of creation, when the Holy insists on the “all-ness” of creation.

Spiritual growth is about moving from the glory of the one to glory of the all.

Breathe deeply.

I got a Gibson without a case
But I can’t get that even tanned look on my face
Ill-fitting clothes and I blend in the crowd
Fingers so clumsy, voice too loud

I’m one
And I can see that this is me
And I will be, you’ll all see I’m the one
I’m the one … I’m the One!

The Sufi poet Hafiz writes:

In many parts of the world water is scarce and precious.
People sometimes have to walk a great distance,
then carry heavy jugs upon their heads.
Because of our wisdom, we will travel far for love.
All movement is a sign of thirst.
Most speaking really says, “I am hungry to know you.”
Every desire of your body is holy;
every desire of your body is holy.
Dear one, why wait until you are dying
to discover the divine truth?

Love is as precious as water, Jubliants, and if we are to move from the glory of one to the glory of all, we will soon realize just how far we will travel for love. Every time we meet someone, we should be hungry for that connection, that movement from one to all, that movement from the hunger of being alone to the satisfaction of being full — full of the joy and challenges of our lives, joined with the lives of all of those around us.

Don’t wait until you are dying to realize how thirsty you are for community, how hungry you are for love. The Holy invites you to the table right now — to join the Holy community where love — like water — flows with abundance.

Breathe deeply.

Our second song comes from singer-songwriter Susan Werner. She was born in Iowa and originally wanted to be an opera singer. She decided to become a folk singer after seeing Nanci Griffith perform and has since released 8 albums. Today’s song comes from her 2007 release The Gospel Truth. The song is called “Together.”

there must be a time,
there must be a place
when everyone will finally come together
if there is a God, with a human face
I’m sure He’d want us all to come together
and get beyond these bolted doors
get beyond these awful bloody wars
get beyond this way of settling scores
’cause the score is never even

In our Jesus story, we find our guy continuing his private talk with his disciples before he is arrested and crucified. In this portion of the so-called “Farewell Discourses,” Jesus is predicting the day we celebrate today — Pentecost.

Pentecost literally means “the fiftieth day,” and it marks the coming of the Holy Spirit to the disciples 50 days after Easter Sunday. Some call this day the birthday of the church, because this is the day that we celebrate the coming of that “advocate,” or paraklete, that Jesus tells his disciples about in this passage.

Just that one word, paraklete, is an indication that Jesus knew that to make it in this world, we need each other, we cannot go it alone, no matter how many movies, songs and books celebrate the single self-sufficient hero. That word, paraklete, guarantees that we are never alone, because that word means “helper,” or “assistant.”

In a very narrow sense, a paraklete is like a lawyer — someone who helps you plead your case or defend you in court. In that more general sense, though, the paraklete is our advocate, sent to us by God in the form of the Holy Spirit. It is that Spirit — that creative, life-giving Spirit — that is always with us, never leaving us alone.

It is that Spirit that reminds us that it is not good for us to be alone — that our do-it-yourself, pull-yourself-up-by-your- own-bootstraps kind of world can lead to only one thing — the sin of isolation, the sin of going it alone, the sin of no longer being in awe at the creative joy of God going on all around you.

The world is wrong about sin, wrong about righteousness and wrong about judgment, Jesus tells us. It’s wrong because it thinks sin is just something you or I do on our own, without any thought about how our wrong actions will affect others. No, Jesus tells us — sin is missing out on the awe around us, sin is thinking that our behavior and our beliefs don’t affect anyone else, sin is exalting the one over the all. We sin when we disregard Jesus when he tells us to love our neighbor — and everyone is our neighbor. We don’t get to pick and choose.

The world is wrong about righteousness. We think if we’re good enough as individual people then we’ll be saved, or go to heaven, or have some other wonderful reward. But again, righteousness is not about your individual goodness — it’s about how we live together on this planet. We either build together or we tear down together. We either create together or we destroy together. Individual efforts count — but unless we act as individuals together, we will all sink or swim. It’s our corporate righteousness that saves us — not our individual righteousness.

The world is wrong about judgment, Jesus tells us. The world says we’re bound for hell if we sin individually — but Jesus is tell us no, it’s not about your individual ticket to heaven or hell — it’s about the heaven or hell we create, together, right here and right now. It’s about the judgments we make about each other right here and right now, not on some distant judgment day.

The world judges us by our individual sins or good deeds — but the Holy judges us on how we respond as a whole to the problems and despair in this world. That’s a harsher judgment, a higher standard, because it means we must rely on each other to create a world that is pleasing to the Holy.

That means we have to get past our bloody wars, we have to get past the bolted doors that keep us separated. We have to get past our violent ways of settling scores — because ultimately, this kind of corporate sin only leads to the destruction of us all.

Breathe deeply.

and if I had the words,
then I’d make the case
that everyone has got to come together
if I had the hounds,
I’d call off the chase
and everyone could finally come together
and we’d get beyond who’s right and wrong
get beyond the need to look so strong
and just get on with simply getting along
’cause that’s a thing we can all believe in

Years ago, a woman who I considered a friend hurt me very deeply. The painful event that passed between us made me not ever want to see her again, let alone talk to her or be in her presence, even for a moment. It just so happened that there was a very real possibility that this woman would start coming to the last church that I served, and I was kind of nervous about this.

While out with another friend for lunch, my friend looked at me and asked, “So, what are you going to do if she comes to your church?”

I didn’t skip a beat before I said, “I’d welcome her. I would be a pretty big hypocrite if I say that I have a welcoming church and then picked out someone who wasn’t welcome and denied a church home to them.”

“Wow,” my friend said. “You’re a better person than I am.”

Before you get all impressed with me, though, let me say this — the woman never came to my church, so I didn’t get to try out my new-found generosity. To this day, I still wonder if I could have done it — if I really could have welcomed her, if I really could have co-existed with someone who had deeply hurt me. Perhaps there would have been reconciliation, but perhaps the strain would have been too much for me, or for her, and we would find that we just couldn’t be in community together. I don’t know.

What I do know is this — community requires vulnerability. Community requires discomfort. Community requires that we put aside our own egos, our grudges and judgments, and find a way to live together as a community of love, a community of faith, and a community of hope for others.

It’s easy to see why we’re a go-it-alone kind of society. Being by ourselves is infinitely easier than doing the messy work of community. But alas, this is what we are called to do if we say we want to be followers of this man called Jesus. He didn’t deliver his farewell discourses to a mirror. He was talking to his disciples, his community — his terribly messy community of people who misunderstood him, questioned his actions and his motives, and in the end denied and betrayed him. Still, Jesus opened his heart to them, dedicated himself to being in community with them — even when it hurt, even when it felt terrible.

But it is because of this community of misfits, this community of backbiters and betrayers, that we know anything about Jesus and his mission. Despite the pitfalls, despite all the fighting and trouble of being in a community, this little band of crummy friends succeeded in spreading some very good news — that together, we can make each other better people, and when we become better people, we ultimately make this world a better place — not just for ourselves, but for everyone.

It’s easy to fall back into our individualistic thinking. We want to be the ones hailed as the individual hero who saved the world. As Werner sings, “If I had the words” or “If I had the hounds” then we could, as individuals, save the world. But, that’s not how it works, Jubilants. This isn’t a Bruce Willis movie.

We don’t triumph over the evil in this world by ourselves — we only do it together. We only do it when we get beyond individual ideas of right and wrong, and when we stop trying to look like the strongest kid on the block so people will leave us alone.

Our Quaker brothers and sisters can give us some insight into how community can work because they try to achieve a perfect blend of individuality and community. They recognize that each of us, far from knowing the whole truth about anything, carries only a piece of the ultimate truth about this life.

By coming together in community, the Quakers hope that when we each share that piece of truth we each carry in our hearts that we’ll see the bigger picture, that we’ll get a sense, together, of how to heal ourselves and this world. When we bring our individual truths together, we hope that we can better discern how the Holy would have us live in this world. When we come together in this way, we’re called to be vulnerable, to share that truth — but we’re also empowered, because our truth is not judged and discarded, it’s blended and woven with the truths held by those around us into a tapestry of life, a tapestry of how to live together as a community of love and grace. This, Jubilants, is the magic of the Holy Spirit. It blends and weaves us together as a common humanity.

I invite you, Jubilants, to embrace the truth that the Holy has planted in your spirit. Get to know that deep, individual truth, and learn how to love it. Then, share it — testify to your truth. But then, come into a community of people and open your heart, open your mind, and share your truth with the truths of those around you. As we move together, Jubilants, to discern the truth of the Holy for our world, I can guarantee it will make us all say: “Oh, Yeah!”

’cause that’s enough of the bitter tears
that’s enough of talking to our mirrors
that’s enough of separate hemispheres
that’s enough, that’s enough, we really gotta come together

Oh, Yeah!