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Archive for February, 2016

Star Wars: The Meditation, Part 2The First Sunday in Lent

February 14, 2016

For Beloved Community

Vernon K. Rempel, 2016
Lectionary Reading

Deuteronomy 26:5-7
You shall make this response before the Holy One, your God: ‘A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous. When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard labor on us, we cried to the Holy One, the God of our ancestors; the Holy One heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression.

Introduction

Star Wars: The Meditation: Part 2
(Play music: Main Title 0:00 – 0:25)
Even now, as people gather in a small congregation on the edge of the Littleton system, a new hope awakens. Meanwhile, the empire, addicted to violence, flies around in really big ships.
(Reprise the music: Main Title 0:00 – 0:09)

Okay, very good.
Last week, I offered a reflection on dichotomy, a reflection occasioned by the Super Bowl, but informed by Star Wars and how that story intersects with the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Today, the reflection continues, this time focusing more on it means to walk a path of integration instead of dichotomy.
Here is some dialogue from the new Star Wars movie, The Force Awakens:

Han: This map’s not complete. It’s just a piece. Ever since Luke disappeared, people have been looking for him.

Rey: Why’d he leave?

Han: He was training a new generation of Jedi. There was no one else left to do it, so he took the burden on himself. Everything was going good, until one boy, an apprentice, turned against him and destroyed it all. Luke felt responsible. He walked away from everything.

Finn: What happened to him?

Han: There were a lot of rumors. Stories. People who knew him best, think he went looking for the first Jedi temple.
Now, we don’t learn this from the movie, but in the greater Star Wars universe, which one can learn about from Wookieepedia, the original Jedi temple is a place where both the dark side and the light side are brought together. It is located on the legendary Deep Core world of Tython. In the deep core of the galaxy, and perhaps in the deep core of his heart, Luke is looking beyond dichotomy and looking toward integration. Is he looking beyond the teaching of his wise master Obi-Wan Kenobi, or is this something that perhaps Obi-Wan knew as well, and Luke is now beginning to understand.
You may know this old joke: What did the Buddhist monk say to the hotdog vendor? “Make me one with everything.”
Or, as Jesus is remembered praying in the gospel of John: Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one, John 17:11.
We don’t know for sure from the new movie, but Luke may be seeking to become one with everything, to seek a finer, deeper integration than the ancient battle between the light side and the dark side. I think it would be the very best of story-plots if this was in fact the case. We’ll see.

Dichotomy

What does it mean to go to the deep core world of Love in our hearts and in our communities? What if we observe some of the great Biblical teachings?:
If you “remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, as we read in our Ash Wednesday service from Isaiah 58; 

If you love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, Matthew 5;

If you only strike in a way that heals as you strike, as God does in the prophetic vision of Isaiah for the future of Egypt, Isaiah 19:22
If you do all these things, these ways of non-violence that the Bible stumbles toward in the midst of all its record of violence, then you will be living into a different world. Then you will be letting the beauty of God’s future infuse into the present day.
In so doing, you will of course in some way become a wandering Aramean. You will become in some way a liberated Aramean, so to speak, freed in some measure from the bitter cycle of violence. 
When we choose non-violence, which means in a profound way rejecting dichotomy, this will mean we will be walking into a different land, like the ancient Arameans, another name for the ancient Hebrews. We will be wandering Arameans, liberated Arameans.
When we choose the path of integration, rather than dichotomy, we become strangers in a strange land, Exodus 2:22, I Peter 2:11. In a world full of us and them, the good and the evil, light and dark, to choose to see reality as one in the presence of love, is to walk, to some degree at least, as a stranger.
Even as Luke must get lost to the galaxy, to walk alone in the distant, strange land of the original Jedi temple, so we may find ourselves at least in some measure distant from the everyday process of dichotomy, of good and evil, winning and losing, that crowd and fill our days.
(play music – Yoda and the Force 2:36 – 3:14)
Last week, I read this soliloquy from the radio DJ Chris Stevens in Northern Exposure: “There’s a dark side to each and every human soul. We wish we were Obi-Wan Kenobi, and for the most part we are, but there’s a little Darth Vader in all of us. Thing is, this ain’t no either-or proposition. We’re talking about dialectics, the good and the bad merging into us. You can run but you can’t hide. My experience? Face the darkness. Stare it down. Own it. As brother Nietzsche said, being human is a complicated gig. So give that ol’ dark night of the soul a hug. Howl the eternal yes!”

From season 3, episode 5 “Jules et Joel” October 28, 1991

(The Nietzsche quote: “Every activity of man is amazingly complicated….” From Human, all too human: A book for free spirits. 1878)

The path toward our third testament

Last week, I noted that the Bible remains very much a book that reflects dichotomy, right through to the end, with Revelation and all of its heaven and hell imagery. 
And so the question is, do we need to move beyond the teachings of the Bible, into something like a 3rd testament, the testament of our hearts and lives, that moves beyond the Old and New Testaments. Or perhaps it is more accurate to say that there is something greater embedded in the Biblical text, if we learn how to read it with wiser eyes, to hear it with more discerning ears.
How do we learn this greater and finer way of moving beyond dichotomy?
I think we must first consider what great life looks like, what the fabric of greatness is. Then we need to address our obstacles, as the boys did on O Brother, Where Art Thou – their “ob-stackles.” And finally, we need to howl the eternal “yes.”

The fabric of great life

First, the fabric of what great life looks like. To this end, I would invite us to read together the poem-story from Naomi Shihab Nye, which is printed with the worship outline.

(Invite people to read a paragraph)
Wandering Around an Albuquerque Airport Terminal

Naomi Shihab Nye
After learning my flight was detained 4 hours,

I heard the announcement: 

If anyone in the vicinity of gate 4-A understands any Arabic, 

Please come to the gate immediately.
Well—one pauses these days. Gate 4-A was my own gate. I went there.

An older woman in full traditional Palestinian dress,

Just like my grandma wore, was crumpled to the floor, wailing loudly.

Help, said the flight service person. Talk to her. What is her

Problem? we told her the flight was going to be four hours late and she

Did this.
I put my arm around her and spoke to her haltingly.

Shu dow-a, shu- biduck habibti, stani stani schway, min fadlick,

Sho bit se-wee?
The minute she heard any words she knew—however poorly used—

She stopped crying.
She thought our flight had been canceled entirely.

She needed to be in El Paso for some major medical treatment the

Following day. I said no, no, we’re fine, you’ll get there, just late,
Who is picking you up? Let’s call him and tell him.

We called her son and I spoke with him in English.

I told him I would stay with his mother till we got on the plane and

Would ride next to her—Southwest.
She talked to him. Then we called her other sons just for the fun of it.
Then we called my dad and he and she spoke for a while in Arabic and

Found out of course they had ten shared friends.
Then I thought just for the heck of it why not call some Palestinian

Poets I know and let them chat with her. This all took up about 2 hours.
She was laughing a lot by then. Telling about her life. Answering

Questions.
She had pulled a sack of homemade mamool cookies—little powdered

Sugar crumbly mounds stuffed with dates and nuts—out of her bag—

And was offering them to all the women at the gate.
To my amazement, not a single woman declined one. It was like a

Sacrament. The traveler from Argentina, the traveler from California,

The lovely woman from Laredo—we were all covered with the same

Powdered sugar. And smiling. There are no better cookies.
And then the airline broke out the free beverages from huge coolers—

Non-alcoholic—and the two little girls for our flight, one African

American, one Mexican American—ran around serving us all apple juice

And lemonade and they were covered with powdered sugar too.

And I noticed my new best friend—by now we were holding hands—

Had a potted plant poking out of her bag, some medicinal thing,
With green furry leaves. Such an old country traveling tradition. Always

Carry a plant. Always stay rooted to somewhere.
And I looked around that gate of late and weary ones and thought,

This is the world I want to live in. The shared world.
Not a single person in this gate—once the crying of confusion stopped

—has seemed apprehensive about any other person.
They took the cookies. I wanted to hug all those other women too.

This can still happen anywhere.
Not everything is lost.

********
Now, this is not a perfect story. It reflects a separation between men and women embedded in a culture – cookies for all the woman at the gate – which is not where good integration is headed. But it is a deeply lovely story. It shows an immense amount of grace, how goodwill wants to spring up among us.
That is one small window into what great life looks like, what life beyond dichotomy looks like. It could have gone so many other ways, ways that tend to involve guards, maybe even tasers, maybe even guns, God-forbid. Instead, it was words, and poetry, juice and cookies.

Danger, harm, cruelty

That’s the fabric. What about the obstacles? What about danger, harm, cruelty? How does moving beyond dichotomy address those?
Whenever people ask me what this congregation is about, I talk about the suffering and joy of blues music, about the community-making practice of Courage and Renewal, and about deep Mennonite peace-making. 
What is deep Mennonite peace-making. The Mennonite movement has had an historic commitment to preserve the life and dignity of all people by refusing to kill. 
The old Schleitheim confession, article 6:

“The worldlings are armed with steel and iron, but the Christians are armed with the armor of God, with truth, righteousness, peace, faith, salvation and the Word of God.”
And Menno Simons:

“Christ is our fortress; patience our weapon of defense; the Word of God our sword. …Iron and metal spears and swords we leave to those who, alas, regard human blood and swine’s blood of well-nigh equal value.”
These are strong teachings. What are the results?

Uninvolved or engaged

Unfortunately, sometimes Mennonites have advocated for non-involvement. Often, we have said that the fights of the world are “not our department.” The government bears the sword but we don’t. So we’re going to stay quiet, in our farming communities. But now we’re very much in society. What does it mean for deep peacemaking in society, if the fights of the world somehow are our department.
In the early moments of the very first old Star Wars movies – A New Hope – there is a very Mennonite conflict. It’s between Luke’s farmer uncle, who wants Luke to stay out of the galactic battles, and Luke, who wants to get off the farm and into the game.
And to jump into the fray is not easy or simple. Luke learns all the dilemmas of loss, compromise, destruction, and love. But the movie is clearly on the side of jumping in. Staying isolated will merely mean that evil forces can work their way.
I think this is also a lesson Mennonites are learning in this century. Are separated ways are going away. We now struggle to consider what it means to respond actively to harm and violence in this world.
So we began to actively help our refugees, and then eventually all refugees. Mennonite Central Committee was founded.
Out of the experience of non-combatant service during war-time, we got into health-care and mental-health care, creating facilities all across the United States. Mennonites started at least 5 hospitals in Colorado alone.
Then came the civil rights movement, and a sense of greater social involvement. Howard Zehr and others began to address our system of incarceration with the Victim-Offender reconciliation program. International mediation efforts were begun, led most strikingly by John Paul Lederach. Famously, Nobel Peace Laureate Leymah Gbowee started formal training in peacebuilding by attending a session of the Summer Peacebuilding Institute at Eastern Mennonite University. The STAR program – Strategies for Trauma Awareness and Resilience – at Eastern Mennonite University was started to address trauma and therefore reduce repetitive violence. 
The Amish made their legendary response to the family of the shooter at the Nickel Mines school, showing the power of deep forgiveness.
But big questions lie before us: what do we do about crime? How might we incarcerate only for public safety and not for punishment? How do we respond to personal attack? When does it make sense to resist, even while working to preserve the dignity of the other person? Even the famously violent LAPD is leading research into non-lethal weapons, because killing even dangerous people can have devastating consequences for police and police departments, let alone all the other killings that Black Lives Matter is so effectively protesting now.
And what do we do about a deeply violent, distorted movement like ISIS? What are strong but restrained ways of responding that don’t leave us looking like the Empire to large segments of the world? How might we respond with such wisdom and restraint that people’s hearts are moved to change? What are war-fighting strategies that ultimately refuse to kill? That’s a powerful question for the future of the Mennonite movement and allies.
And there are many allies. Everywhere I go in interfaith work, people find out I’m a Mennonite and say that they are seeking non-violence as well. Not everybody. But more people than I might have expected.

Conclusion

These commitments to preserve life and dignity put us into situations where we must learn how to move beyond dichotomy and into the strange new land of integration through love. It has nothing to do with cowardice or fear. It has everything to do with “howling the eternal ‘yes'”, as Chris Stevens said on Northern Exposure. It has everything to do with learning about our own hearts and the hearts of others, and moving far beyond simplistic explanations and prejudices.
This may make us into wandering Arameans, like Luke Skywalker, traveling far out to the deep core world, seeking greater truth. I believe that when we do, however, and my experience is that when I have done even a bit of this, deep in our hearts lies a greatness that the world needs ever so much, if only we can live into it.
(Play music: Main Title 0:00 – 0:25)

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Star Wars the Meditation5th Sunday after the Epiphany

February 7, 2016

For Beloved Community

Vernon K. Rempel, 2016

Lectionary Reading

Luke 9:28-36, [37-43a]

Read this:

About eight days after Peter had acknowledged Jesus as the Christ of God, Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. 
(Don’t read in service)

Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him. Just as they were leaving him, Peter said to Jesus, “Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah”–not knowing what he said. While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud. Then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen.
(Don’t read in service)

[On the next day, when they had come down from the mountain, a great crowd met him. Just then a man from the crowd shouted, “Teacher, I beg you to look at my son; he is my only child. Suddenly a spirit seizes him, and all at once he shrieks. It convulses him until he foams at the mouth; it mauls him and will scarcely leave him. I begged your disciples to cast it out, but they could not.” Jesus answered, “You faithless and perverse generation, how much longer must I be with you and bear with you? Bring your son here.” While he was coming, the demon dashed him to the ground in convulsions. But Jesus rebuked the unclean spirit, healed the boy, and gave him back to his father. And all were astounded at the greatness of God.]

Introduction

Today is Super Bowl Sunday, one of the high holy days of dominant culture, a game of brutality and finesse in which men slam into each other while the small leather icon is carried like a baby or tossed into the sky like a prayer. “Hail Mary.” It is the juxtaposition of harm and protection, crashing strength and fleetness of foot. It is chronic traumatic encephalopathy and it is the precision thirty-five yard pass threaded through moving obstacles. It is a game of obscene wealth but anyone can try to play, although being gay is still greatly marginalized in the sport.
Above all, it is a contest, a grand play with two sides, the dichotomy of the field. “Us and them,” as Pink Floyd sang, “And who knows which is which and who is who.”
Dichotomy. Two sides. Us and them. Good and evil. Heaven and hell. It’s wired into our human psyches at a foundational level, I suppose. “What do we believe?” is a question that young children will ask. The familial “we.” The tribal “we.” 
Big culture has made sex binary, but more and more we learn how the bell curve has big shoulders. As the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote: “Praise God for dappled things…. All things counter, original, spare, strange.”
Nevertheless, it’s usually “Us and them.” The good and the bad. God and Satan, heaven and hell, America and the rest of the world. The baptized and the unwashed. 
In a way, a game like football celebrates dichotomy. And in a way it’s big culture struggling with dichotomy. Can we govern our dichotomies with rules? Is that deep impulse in the human soul to split things up governable by rules or will it be all-out war? Can the beast be tamed if we just play around its edges?
But we tend to want to be right more than true. We tend to want to win more than learn. We tend to want to survive more than love.
So dichotomy. I thought I would explore dichotomy by way of Star Wars. And the gospel. So Star Wars: the Meditation Part 1
(music – Main Title 0:00 – fade at 0:48)

Jesus our Jedi

In our passage, commonly called “The Transfiguration” in church parlance, Jesus appears much like a Jedi knight on the mountain. High above the plain, suddenly a figure in shining robes appears. Ordinary mortals have fallen asleep. But not our hero, who quietly receives the glory bestowed upon him, as if a medal were being hung around his neck after a great battle.
(Luke and Jesus pic)
Then he comes down, and vanquishes the demons that others cannot conquer. All are amazed. He is swashbuckling and bright. He buckles a lot of swashes. He is the Lord Jedi who will save us.
Or is he? Soon the tale becomes more complicated, strange indeed. This is no ascent to power. Now he will become the friend of sinners, lepers, the woman at the well whose story makes her the pariah of her village. Now he will be hunted by the religious and the powerful, and will cry out in despair. He has in some way joined the rebellion. But to complete his mission he has to struggle in the wilderness outside east of the Jordan, or in the Dagobah system, working to overcome his own demons of power and pride.
For him, there will be no victory, no survival. He comes to Jerusalem to confront the empire. He is ignominiously killed and hung out as a sign and warning to others never to mess with the empire. 
But, wait, what is the light, who is that glowing figure on the road, dressed in shining robes. He is smiling? It couldn’t be. Is it?
(Soft theme music – “Yoda and the Force” excerpt 0:55 – 1:40)
(take down Luke and Jesus pic)

Something there is that doesn’t love a dichotomy

Star Wars: The Meditation. Between the gospel and the movie saga, the parallels are immense. Light and dark. The gospel: “Worship me and I will give you all nations.” “You shall worship God alone.” “Star Wars: “Give yourself to the dark side….” “Noooooooo!” In the gospel, hell yawns with its gaping fiery maw for those who fail to love, for those who are prideful, neglectful, or cruel. Heaven is the blessed reward. In Star Wars there is oblivion for those who would pilot a Death Star. And there is glowing presence in the force after death even for Darth Vader when he lets the good in him finally prevail. 
It feels so right. It’s so cool to watch the Death Star explode. And to see Leia’s glowing smile for the victors. And for the neglectful, cruel rich man to burn in hell. And for the empire and all its works to be thrown into the lake of fire in Revelation.
And yet…

Something in both stories does not quite like a dichotomy.
Glowing transfiguration robes become dusty road-into-Jerusalem robes and the demon banisher is executed. But not because he has been fighting the empire. Rather, it seems that the love he has for all people becomes a threat to the religious establishment that then manages to get the Roman powers to carry out its fearful desires.
Jesus’ love takes killing out of human hands and leaves it in God’s hands. But can it stop there? Why would God who is love continue in the killing arts? And so even the Biblical gospel carries within itself a mighty but unresolved tension. Will it be dichotomy, the struggle of good and evil? Or is there an even greater mystery? Will the great love of Jesus, this one who greets Mary by name in the death garden, be satisfied with a universe in which God kills enemies?
And in Star Wars we see Luke as a rogue Jedi, not following all the Jedi rules because for him relationships are more important than rules: 

Yoda: Luke! You must complete the training.

Luke Skywalker: I can’t keep the vision out of my head. They’re my friends. I’ve gotta help them.

And in the most recent movie, The Force Awakens, we learn that in the original Jedi temple both the dark and light side came together. And it appears that Luke is now there, and what has he learned? Young Rey finds him, quiet as a Trappist monk full of things left unsaid. What will happen next?
(music – Leia’s news 0:55 – 1:12)

A third testament

There are the two Biblical testaments, the old and the new. Within them there is great complexity. There is righteous violence that gradually resolves toward love, from the servant songs of Isaiah into the life of Jesus. Jesus teaches “love your enemies” and asks Peter “Do you love me?” not just “Do you want to work with me?” And Paul then falls in love with his congregations: “we longed with great eagerness to see you face to face” (I Thessalonians 2:17)
And there is still the great dichotomy, the fate of humanity divided into eternal life and death. It is not for humans to seek revenge but it is still for God: “Vengeance is mine” Romans 12. But what is love teaching our hearts?
And so, something about love may teach us what might be called the 3rd testament. The 3rd testament is the witness of our souls and what we will say and do with our turn in the presence of the Holy Spirit. It is the testament that is inspired by the love embedded within the complexity of the old and new testaments, and also by our experience of great, wholehearted love.
3rd testament is a term used in a lot of ways. I’m using it here specifically to talk about moving beyond dichotomy.
The gospel of John has Jesus saying to his friends “You will do greater things than these.” 

–Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father. John 14:12
Are we not free to live beyond dichotomy in our lives, if we can? Are we not invited to live into a finer truth, walk a better path, envision a more beautiful mystery than the old hell and heaven, good and evil dichotomies? Not in order to be superior to anyone. Not to do the Bible one better. But rather in order to remain lively and responsive to what we are learning about great love in our lives.
The Biblical text teaches us this. It just does not complete the teaching. That must be completed only as we live wholeheartedly the lives we feel called to live in love.
Like Luke Skywalker, our teaching is not complete. Not even in the Dagobah system with Yoda. We must ultimately find our path with our friends and as we confront evil and as we learn what we may do and how we may live.
And what we may find is that love questions the dichotomy of dark and light.
The radio DJ Chris Stevens in Northern Exposure reflects: “There’s a dark side to each and every human soul. We wish we were Obi-Wan Kenobi, and for the most part we are, but there’s a little Darth Vader in all of us. Thing is, this ain’t no either-or proposition. We’re talking about dialectics, the good and the bad merging into us. You can run but you can’t hide. My experience? Face the darkness. Stare it down. Own it. As brother Nietzsche said, being human is a complicated gig. So give that ol’ dark night of the soul a hug. Howl the eternal yes!”

From season 3, episode 5 “Jules et Joel” October 28, 1991

(The Nietzsche quote: “Every activity of man is amazingly complicated….” From Human, all too human: A book for free spirits. 1878)
Or as the bumpersticker says: Come to the dark side; we have cookies!
Next week I’ll try to outline more of why it matters and how it works to embrace our dark sides. Why it matters and how it works to live beyond dichotomy. But for now, it’s love. What is deep and true and powerful love teaching our hearts about the cosmos and about our closest relationships. What third testaments are we discovering and learning?
And specifically, how do we address and engage harm and danger in ways that move beyond dichotomy? And how do we “howl the eternal ‘yes’?”
Jesus said “You will do greater things than these.” What is the great love in your life that brings together even light and dark?
(music – Main Title 0:00 – fade at 0:48)

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