Getting Our Rites Right
Sermon delivered Sunday, March 25, 2012
by Rev. Robert McClellan
Today is the first of a couple of Sundays in which Tab.edu will be reserved as a time to have a conversation that grows out of the sermon. It's not as much a sermon "talk-back", as a time for open dialogue. I'm grateful for our two Tab.edu organizers for organizing this and so many other sessions throughout the year. I hope you can join. Our second reading builds off of the Psalm. It comes from Hebrews 10:4-10. Let us open ourselves to what the Spirit is saying to the church.
For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins. Consequently, when Christ came into the world, he said, "Sacrifices and offerings you have not desired, but a body you have prepared for me; in burnt offerings and sin offerings you have taken no pleasure. Then I said, 'See, God, I have come to do your will, O God' (in the scroll of the book it is written of me)." When he said above, "You have neither desired nor taken pleasure in sacrifices and offerings and burnt offerings and sin offerings" (these are offered according to the law), then he added, "See, I have come to do your will." He abolishes the first in order to establish the second. And it is by God's will that we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.
HOLY WISDOM, HOLY WORD. THANKS BE TO GOD.
I was driving last summer when I saw a number of people protesting on the lawn of a bank near my home. One of the signs read, "Honk, if you're against mountaintop removal." I laid on my pretty hard. My father is from West Virginia. I spent my childhood traveling there a few times a year. As a young adult, I participated in mission trips there, to repair homes and help in impoverished areas.
Appalachia has, for some time, been rather economically depressed. There is little flat land for factories or farms. Jobs have been few and far between especially since the railroad rolled out of town. The need for government earmarks are notorious.
The coal mines have been the lifeblood for communities for generations. It has also been their cancer. Black lung, mine collapses, and yes, mountaintop removal. Blasting the tops of the mountains releases mud and silt into the streams, contaminating water supplies for wildlife, but not just wildlife. A year ago, I met a pastor from rural Appalachia who told me he couldn't drink the water from his kitchen faucet, (spoiled because of what those seeking the spoils beneath the soil have done to remove them). Mountaintop removal has destroyed communities, in order benefit those who live far away enough to make them rich, and those who live among the mountains just enough to keep them poor and in line.
Last year, my wife was on a trip to Appalachia with the church, to visit some mission partners. There, she visited the Appal Shop (Appal), which describes itself as a "non-profit multi-disciplinary arts and education center in the heart of Appalachia producing original films, video, theater, music and spoken-word recordings, radio, photography, multimedia, and books." It teaches mountain kids about mountain music. The Appal Shop (APPAL) cultivates in Appalachian people a love of Appalachian culture, and their rich history of the arts. This is not to be confused with the Apple Store, which cultivates a love of Apple products.
While there, she met a man who worked with young people at the Appal Shop who told a story about a time he was confronted by a miner in a bar. The miner began to chastise him as some hippy environmentalist because he knew the Appal shop had been critical of what mining had done to the community. He said, "You must hate me because I'm a miner."
The Appal Shop worker paused and said politely, "No, sir, my pappy was a miner. My grandfather was a miner. They always taught me to respect miners. I love miners. I just hate the company."
The miner sized him up and said, "Hell, I hate the company too. Let me buy you a drink."
They hate the company because the company does not care about them, and if companies are people, as the Supreme Court tells us they are, somebody has got to teach them to care. That's exactly what those people standing on the lawn of their suburban bank were trying to do. Those people, I've learned were likely Quakers. Friends groups, such as the Earth Quaker Action Team, have taken it upon themselves to try and get the Quakers and other organizations and individuals to withdraw their money from the bank if it doesn't changes its practices. You see their bank was originally their bank, founded as a Quaker institution. They want it to live up to its ideals.
It's our bank, by the way, PNC, (the one with which this church does business), and it's one of the largest financers of mountaintop removal. I read an article about it a couple of weeks ago, and at the last Council meeting someone brought forward a proposal to write a letter as customers expressing our concerns about PNC-financed projects. For the their part, as a NPR story reports, PNC has stated publicly, that "the bank cannot make political statements with its lending." One might say every time they lend, that's exactly what they do. Now, we won't be rash in responding, or jump to conclusions without doing our homework. We certainly want to hear what you have to say about if and how to respond. We should remember that a bank cannot be the moral police of everyone to whom they lend, but we cannot forget that companies who destroy communities and ecosystems don't deserve a blank check.
In response to pressure, millions of dollars have been withdrawn from the bank, which we have not done, and the bank has responded. "[O]fficials said last year PNC would stop lending to companies that do more than 50 percent of their business in the controversial mining technique." That's a start, not bad for the Quakers, a group known for their silence.
What led me to the Quakers this morning was the Scripture passage from Hebrews, this passage that reminds us that our religious practices are hollow if they are not paired with life in the world. Hebrews quotes Christ saying to God, "Sacrifices and offerings you have not desired, but a body you have prepared for me; in burnt offerings and sin offerings you have taken no pleasure" (4:5). Jesus merely echoes what was in the Psalm, and what's all over the prophets of old.
While in graduate school, I attended a Quaker meeting from time to time. At first I was a little confused. "But, they don't do anything." After the meeting, then, people would stand up one at a time and talk about making birthing kits for Iraqi mothers, different opportunities to care for the poor, the chance to get out in nature and make cider at one of the members' orchards. And they begin it all by listening, listening for the Spirit, or the light, or the voice within to speak. As the Psalmist puts it, "Sacrifice and offering you do not desire, but you have given me an open ear" (Psalm 40:6).
What the Quakers do not do a lot of is religious ritual, and it's enough to make you examine your own religion's rituals, and whether they facilitate a transformative encounter with God and the world around, or they excuse us from being truly affected by either. What the biblical writers understood was that you cannot perform a couple of ritual acts and assume everything is okay. As they put it, "It is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins."
That is a rallying call for activism if I've ever heard one. Mountaintop removal is a relatively easy matter for us, but are we willing to turn an appropriately critical eye to the hydrofracking that is taking place in our own state, largely unregulated, untaxed, and yet somehow untouchable in our legislative halls. Even closer to home, at the start of worship, you all raise concerns about our city's new approach to the homeless and hungry, which seems to me to be to push them out and away, rather than considering how to lift them up. Philadelphia city is lucky to go a day without putting a bullet in one of its young people, and now we hear of how Florida teenager, Trayvon Martin was shot because he looked black, I mean suspicious, all supposedly legal because of the "Stand Your Ground" law. I'm not sure how chasing someone makes it standing your ground, but maybe it's time we leave our pew behind and go stand our ground until someone recognizes the insanity of our gun laws in this country.
We probably should, but I've got to tell you if I didn't have a spiritual community, I would be done with that work by lunch. I'd become frustrated, jaded and self-righteous, certainly self-centered, and downright tired. But, how can we sit in this church, singing hymns, lighting a lamp, ringing a prayer bowl, baptizing and communing, when all this stuff is happening out there? Because we have to. If we don't, we waste away, and too many good people have succumbed to chronic wasting disease. Real rituals restore us, change us, ready us for the reality we are called to face in the world.
Through that prayer bowl God centers me, so I can hear the word that I need to get through my week. Through those songs, the Creator makes sure that that I know I am not alone. Through baptism, the Great Name-giver reminds me to whom I belong and by whom I am first loved. Through communion, Jesus presents me with a way of being in a broken world. Through the prayer circle, the Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.
The rituals are not the enemy or the problem, it is our ability to exempt ourselves from what they encourage of us to do and who they teach us to be in our daily lives that can be troublesome. There's that wonderful line in the Psalm when after the writer has critiqued rituals and rites. She or he says simply, "Here I am" (Psalm 40:6-7) In the end, that is what is required, the presentation of the self for a higher purpose. That is what good ritual does; it invites us into that space, the space in which we connect our being with something beyond us. When we talk about Jesus being the sacrifice for us all, why can't we mean that, that he shows what it looks like to live this connected, this in touch with God's will, this willing to present himself?
We should be mindful of how our ritual life is a meaningful source of insight into who to be. I wasn't kidding when I said to the children this morning that the moment what we do in here is about anything other than practicing love, we should close up and go home. So, we should ask, how can our personal and collective spiritual practices energize and enable us to live more fully and fearlessly into all of the circumstances in which we find ourselves? How can what the church does connect your calling to your daily life? That is the question. Its answer will bring more riches than we can imagine…let's just be sure we choose wisely the bank in which we store them. Amen.
© Copyright 2012 by Robert McLellan