Sunday, May 30, 2010

My Body's Now a Begging Bowl (5.30.10)

A Meditation on Romans 5 ~ "We have peace with God...because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us."


I think it was Malcolm X who called 11 o’clock Sunday morning the most segregated hour in American culture. It was a provocative line then. And forty years later, across the expanse of American culture, it’s still disturbingly true. There are all kinds of reasons – and healthy debate around the “hows” and the “whys.” But I think we can all agree that the impact is devastating. In a country becoming more and more diverse – more languages, more races, more color – the segregation of the Christian church along racial and ethnic lines is sad at best.

On the very edges where the culture’s teetering most precariously – race, ethnicity, immigration – the church is still split on Sunday morning. We’ve got black churches and white churches; our Catholic friends have Spanish-speaking masses and English-speaking masses. And, all the while, Sunday after Sunday, we’ve got Rabbi Jesus begging us to dismantle walls, overcome prejudice, and practice brotherhood, sisterhood. And the best we can do is a segregated church? It’s the kind of thing that makes a lot of folks – well-meaning folks, skeptical folks – pull up the covers on Sunday morning and stay in bed.

So how sweet was it to celebrate Pentecost last Sunday with our friends from the New Beginning Church! How sweet was it to watch and listen as our two choirs blended styles, songs, spirits to form a single sound, a sound rippling with grace and energy and hope and love! If you were here – watching or singing – you’ve got to know what I’m talking about. It was just one Sunday. It was just one afternoon. But wasn’t it obvious? Could the Holy Spirit have made it any plainer? God’s passion is this dismantling of walls and barriers, this crossing of boundaries and categories. God’s passion is just this kind of Pentecost.

There have been times in my 20 years of ministry that I’ve despaired for the segregated spirit in the Christian church. But not last week. Last week, I heard Dayan Kai singing Kate Alm’s anthem, “God Will Make a Way,” and I heard it fresh. I heard it this way. I heard: God will make a way for black folks and white folks to sing together, and worship together. I heard: God will make a way for black Pentecostal evangelicals and white Progressive liberals to bear one another’s burdens. I heard: God will make a way – if we’re faithful – God will make a way for America to become a rainbow-land of color and culture. And the church, too. It’s what Jesus does. It’s what God does. God will make a way. That’s what I heard last week.

And I don’t know about the rest of you: but I felt something like healing, something like peace, in my heart, worshipping like that, worshipping with that crowd. And I think it’s the kind of peace Paul’s talking about in his Letter to the Romans. It’s the kind of peace that fills your heart with a sense of wholeness and wellness. It’s the kind of peace that feels suddenly and gratefully at home in the world, at home in your skin, at home in your city. And it’s interesting: because all that peace, all that peace last week made me appreciate how much pain I’ve been carrying through the years. All that pain about the segregated church. All that pain about racism in the lifeblood of my culture. All that pain about my country’s history, my family’s privilege, my prejudice. It wasn’t wiped clean last week; but something touched that pain, in me: something like God’s peace, something like Christ’s kingdom, something like the Gospel.


I had a flashback during the service, and I remembered an experience I had when I was maybe 14, 15 years old. It might have been the first time my parents let me ride the bus into Boston unaccompanied by adults. A friend and I planned the whole day around a trip to Fenway Park – to buy tickets for a ballgame later that spring. It was a big deal. Independence. Self-reliance. Baseball. But two or three stops after we boarded that first bus, the whole thing went south when a big, belligerent kid dropped himself into the seat across from ours. And he was black.

At the time, it was all I noticed. I’d lived a sheltered suburban life, and his blackness was all I could see. It scared me. It intrigued me. But it turned out that he was also kind of cruel and boorish. He must have sensed some vulnerability on our part, or maybe great vulnerability on our part. And he launched into a nasty tirade – which ended with his spitting across the aisle and into my lap.

And that was about the end of it; he jumped off at the next stop, and I never saw him again. But that encounter had a kind of searing effect on me, on my view of the world. It didn’t take long for me to become a good liberal, to want to change the world, even to rid the world of racism and the like. But that bus ride, that bully and his spitting at me stayed with me – as a kind of unconscious icon, a kind of cautionary memory of what race in my country was really all about. Violence. Meanness. Difference. Danger. I flashed back on that memory last week. Can you believe that? It was still lodged in here somewhere; and God touched it, touched me with the kind of peace that heals wounds like that. The kind of peace that makes us unexpectedly, unimaginably whole.  God will make a way.  Isn't that how Kate's song goes?  God will make a way.

So I guess I want to start there: with this peace, this peace that Jesus makes possible, this peace that stirs in the wounds we carry around and makes a way for something else. Going back to Paul for a moment: Paul’s painfully aware that we human beings tend to use one another, tend to project inner pain onto unknown or misunderstood others. It’s all around us. Look at what’s happening in Arizona, with this Tea Party Movement: all the misery projected as resentment onto immigrants and illegals. Or look at what’s happening right here on the Central Coast with gang violence on the rise: again, so much human misery projected violently onto the other side, projected onto the guys wearing the other color, projected, projected, projected.

The cost of all this projection, all this resentment is huge. It’s obviously huge for communities and high schools, for states and nations. But it’s also painfully huge for you and me, for individuals, for the spiritual lives of our friends and neighbors. Resentment breeds fear; and fear cripples the human heart. It stifles creativity and imagination. It makes rest – deep rest, wellness, peace – impossible. For years, every time I got on a bus, or a subway train, with people of color, I replayed that horrific day on the bus into Boston. That big kid spitting in my lap. Couldn’t shake it. Couldn’t get comfortable. Couldn’t find the peace. Resentment does that.


But last week. It must have been the Holy Spirit last week. It must have been the Holy Spirit pouring this love into my heart, into our hearts. Because something sweet found the resentment inside me; something sweet soothed the pain I’d been carrying around. Something sweet released these waves of hope and possibility and grace. It must have been, it had to have been the Holy Spirit. Pouring this love, this powerful, healing love, into our hearts.

Now I want to talk for a moment about the conditions needed for the pouring out of love, for the generous flow of the Holy Spirit. Because Paul has a lot to say about the conditions needed for the pouring out of love. Look at this passage, at Romans 5. Paul’s not sentimental where love’s concerned. He’s not much of a romantic. And he’s not saying we come to this kind of love easily. Watch what he does.

“Suffering,” he says, talking about the conditions needed, “suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us…” You see, the Holy Spirit is looking for vulnerability in our lives, looking for weakness, looking for the broken heart. It’s not the way we usually think about social change, spiritual transformation, personal growth. Paul’s going against the grain. Kind of like Jesus. Suffering sets the stage for endurance – if you’re open to it. And endurance sets the stage for character – if you commit to it. And character sets the stage for hope – if you let it.

Suffering. Endurance. Character. Hope. It’s everyone of you who grieve the divisions around race, ethnicity, class; it’s everyone of you whose heart breaks around the cost kids pay for all this bigotry and prejudice; it’s everyone of you who ache for a different kind of church. It’s you who make your lives available to the Holy Spirit. It’s you who open your minds and hearts to something truly Pentecostal, something new, something Christ-like in our midst. These are the conditions needed for the pouring out of love. And God’s love is poured into your hearts through the Holy Spirit. It finds the foggy fear and burns it off. It sings a song that brings black Pentecostal evangelicals and white Progressive liberals to pray for one another. And isn’t that peace? Isn’t that wholeness? Isn’t that Christ’s kingdom? You bet it is.


I don’t know if we’ve got any U2 fans in the room. But there’s a new tune on their new album that just moves me. It's called "Moment of Surrender."  And it has something to do with the pain inside every one of us, the resentment we can settle into, and the path, the path into something else. The path into peace. Check it out. "Moment of Surrender."  Because there’s a verse in there that gets so close, I think, to Paul’s insight in Romans:

I’ve been in every black hole
At the altar of the dark star
My body’s now a begging bowl
That’s begging to get back, begging to get back
To my heart
To the rhythm of my soul
To the rhythm of my unconsciousness
To the rhythm that yearns
To be released from control.
I don’t know about you, but I feel that metaphor so keenly in my own life. “My body’s now a begging bowl / That’s begging to get back, begging to get back / To my heart / To the rhythm of my soul.” Peace has everything to do with our bodies – with my body, with your body – with our bodies and the path we take back to the heart, to the heart, to the rhythm of the soul. Peace is a way that joins body and soul, a way that weaves flesh and spirit, a way that honors self and neighbor. “My body’s now a begging bowl / That’s begging to get back, begging to get back / To my heart / To the rhythm of my soul.”

So I guess what I’ve got this morning is more personal testimony than biblical exegesis. Last week I stood here with many of you – one begging bowl among dozens of others – and I got some piece of my heart back, some of the rhythm I’d been missing. And the Holy Spirit – the Holy Spirit that has to be the Breath of Jesus in the world – poured so much love into my bowl and so much love into yours and ours – that peace came close. It was just one Sunday. It was just one afternoon. But peace came close. And that’s enough for me.