Living on Borrowed Molecules

Daniel Wolpert September 30, 2018

Texts: A poem from Kabir; Jonah 3:10–4:11

I don’t know what sort of a God we have been talking about.
The caller calls in a loud voice to the Holy One at dusk.
Why? Surely the Holy One is not deaf.
She hears the delicate anklets that ring on the feet of an insect as it walks.

Go over and over your beads, paint weird designs on your forehead,
wear your hair matted, long, and ostentatious,
but when deep inside you there is a loaded gun, how can you have God?

All right, so you can tell I am wearing the wrong clothes. For this last week of this theme of hospitality, I have been tasked with reflecting on radical hospitality to “they,” “the other,” so I thought I would embody that. I’m wearing the wrong stuff if you’re going to preach at Plymouth. I don’t have my robe on or my stole or my hood. I am wearing a T-shirt. This is a special T-shirt to me. I think it’s a special T-shirt in general, but I will also say it’s special to me. This was made by a dear friend of mine, a woman who is a pastor in one of the mainline Protestant African-American denominations, the AME, the African Methodist Episcopal Church.

She’s a brilliant woman. She has to make these T-shirts on the side because, as a woman pastor in a very patriarchal denomination, she is given these very difficult and very small appointments where she barely gets paid anything. So she makes these T-shirts; there’s a series. It’s kind of like the iPhone: I-this, I-that. So, this is “I preach,” and this one is “I preach like Black lives matter.” As I said, she’s a really dear friend to me and she’s gone through a difficult tragedy. One of her sons got a very bizarre, unusual form of cancer and had to go to through 52 weeks of chemotherapy. The good news is he’s fine. That’s a great blessing but it was a very difficult chapter in her life.

So now that you know why I’m dressed wrong, let’s listen to Jonah. This is from the end of the story, after Nineveh has not been destroyed by God.

When God saw what the Ninevites did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed God’s mind about the calamity that God had said would be brought upon them; and God did not do it.

But this was very displeasing to Jonah, and he became angry. [Jonah also had a loaded gun inside of him.] He prayed to the Lord and said, “O Lord! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing. And now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.” And the Lord said, “Is it right for you to be angry?”

Then Jonah, not answering, went out of the city and sat down east of the city, and made a booth for himself there. He sat under it in the shade, waiting to see what would become of the city. The Lord God appointed a bush, and made it come up over Jonah, to give shade over his head, to save him from his discomfort; so Jonah was very happy about the bush. But when dawn came up the next day, God appointed a worm that attacked the bush, so that it withered. When the sun rose, God prepared a sultry east wind, and the sun beat down on the head of Jonah so that he was faint and asked that he might die. He said, “It is better for me to die than to live.” But God said to Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry about the bush?” Jonah said, “Yes, angry enough to die.” Then the Lord said, “You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labor and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night. And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?”

Let us pray.

[silent prayer]


*             *             *

There is a lot of conversation in the Plymouth community about the value of a variety of faith and religious perspectives. This is indeed a valuable thing in many ways. But I have not heard much conversation at all about whether there is any potential downside to this gathering of teachings or sayings or poems from other faith traditions.

There actually does happen to be a downside, which was very well articulated by a Tibetan Buddhist named Chögyam Trungpa, who wrote a book entitled Cutting through Spiritual Materialism. He wrote this book in the late ’70s. One of the things he talked about is that when he came to America, he observed Americans who gathered around him being interested in Buddhism and being interested in Zen and being interested in Taoism and that kind of thing. He talked about the supermarket shopping kind of quality of such a pluralistic approach. He called this spiritual materialism—that is, the idea that I as a separate self can pick and choose and decide which kinds of teachings I like and want to have. If I engage in a particular tradition and that tradition presents me with a challenge, I can just discard that as problematic and move on to a saying that I like better. He talks about the fact that this is a real danger of the spiritual life and a potential downside. It is something that we need to pay attention to because the purpose, really, of any given spiritual life and tradition is that it requires us to go deeper and deeper, challenging our particular egocentric view of the world and reality.

That’s hard. Frankly, we would rather just not do it. It’s nicer, safer, calmer, and we avoid each other’s loaded guns.

I think that is a very important thing to be aware of not just in general in the life of Plymouth but particularly as an issue with this topic today, this last step in radical hospitality. What does that mean when we are reaching outside of ourselves? This is why I think the book of Jonah is so wonderful and so instructive.

The book of Jonah is not just a cute story about a guy swallowed by a big fish. It is supposed to be and was written as a very intentional parody in the conversation between particularism and universalism. Now this is a very strong thread throughout our scripture, throughout our faith tradition. The truth of the matter is that most of the people most of the time—and it really doesn’t matter which religion you pick, which point in history you pick, which faith tradition you pick—most people most of the time like being particularists.

We like being particularists because we like being part of our tribe, we like being part of our in-group, we like figuring out what we think is right and wrong and, therefore, what God thinks is right and wrong. We enjoy holding onto that. We have a sense that God dislikes the same people that we dislike. And God likes the same people that we like. That’s the essence of particularism. In the Hebrew Scriptures, of course, the 12 tribes of Israel were viewed as the Chosen People. They were the people that their God liked the best. Everybody else did not matter.

This is really why Jonah is unhappy about going to Nineveh. The Ninevites are the out-group. They are the Assyrians, the Gentiles—they’re not really important. They’re not important. So, Jonah can’t understand why he should waste his time going to talk to them and getting them to change their ways because, supposedly, it doesn’t matter what their ways are. They are unclean. They are outside the tribe. They are no good. Let’s not worry about them.

But Jonah doesn’t like being marinated in whale juices and so he decides, all right, fine, I’ll go tell them. Then he gets all grumpy about it. One of the most distressing things for me about the way the Bible has been dealt with is that we don’t understand how funny the Bible really is. The Bible is really supposed to be actually quite funny. This comment where he says: “I know, God, you’re wonderful and merciful and terrific, and that really irritates me.” That’s kind of funny. That’s a non sequitur. I don’t really quite get that. That’s a joke, though, about this kind of particularism.

If we know that God is this great, wonderful God, why does that bother us? But it does, and it bothered Jonah, and so he goes off to sulk in the sun. Jonah is kind of batting a thousand on good decisions here in the story, by the way. So, he goes off to his sulks in the sun. He’s all grumpy. So, God grows this shade tree for him, this sort of shade bush, which makes Jonah very happy. Jonah becomes attached to his little shade bush. He’s very happy about that. Then God kills the bush.

It’s important to see that this shade tree has now become a part of Jonah’s tribe. It’s now my shade tree. I like it. I want it. I care about it. I project my lovingness onto this shade tree. So, when it dies, now I am upset. God has done something bad to me. God then leaves Jonah with this wonderful final question. Really, you care more about this bush that wasn’t yours to begin with, than you care about this entire city of people?

This is really the lingering question about universalism versus particularism. The thing about these scriptures and all of these scripture stories is that they honestly are supposed to reflect back to us. We may think: Oh yeah, Jonah is a goofball. We make fun of him. What an idiot. Of course, we care about the people of Nineveh. But we might consider the fact that the animals in Chicago—the pets in Chicago—are given more protein than all the people in India have access to.

We like our bushes more than we like the other people.

I want to say a few things about what happened here last Sunday. For those if you weren’t here, we heard a sermon by a woman named Lynice Pinkard, a tiny little Black woman. Her style and approach was very intense. She raised her voice a lot; she used her arms; she said a lot of very challenging things.

For those of you who have preached, you know that preaching is a really bizarre activity—but that’s not the majority of you. Preaching is basically this giant Rorschach test. I know what I’m saying, but I have no idea what any of you are hearing.

One Sunday in Crookston after I gave the sermon, people were coming out of church and were talking to me. One woman says to me: “Oh, this was a great sermon.” Then she described to me what I said, and it was exactly the opposite of what I thought I was saying. Literally, the exact opposite! And I had this look on my face like okay . . .

So, I understand that any time someone gets up here and speaks, whatever people are hearing is a very wide range of things. Whatever people are experiencing is a very wide range of things. We usually are trying to fit it into our idea about our tribe. Now is this something that fits in my tribe or is this something that is opposite? Is it a “we,” or is it a “they”?

I know that a number of people experienced that sermon as negative, angry, being yelled at, that it was not a style or a message that was appreciated.

One of the things I think is important to keep in mind is why I am here. Why am I here? Other than the fact that I have a contract, I am here because this is an in-between time when Plymouth has an opportunity to get a sense of some of the issues and challenges that are before it. How is it going to position and present itself to the world but also to whomever comes next? When someone says to you “Who are you?” what is it that you are going to say?

So, I want to say a little about my experience of Lynice and what I think is the challenge for this particular congregation at this particular time in regard to this particular issue of “they”: race, racism and all the theys that are out there.

I did not experience Lynice as yelling at me. I did not experience her as being mean to me or criticizing me, because as a white man of privilege who has to reflect deeply on a lot of these issues, I take it as a given that I am a racist. I take it as a given that I have been brought up into, cemented into, brainwashed by white privilege. That’s not an insult to me because, quite honestly, it’s not my fault. I didn’t choose my skin color. I didn’t choose my society. I didn’t choose any of this. I just appeared in this. Now, I can choose how I deal with it.

So I don’t experience a discussion like hers as something that is attacking me. The way that I experienced what she was trying to do was she was giving us a demonstration of the amount of pain that people of color in this society are in on a daily basis. That’s how I experienced what she was saying. She was giving us a very vivid, admittedly uncomfortable, admittedly kind of mind-boggling lived experience of the pain that she and her siblings of color are in.

I think the reason that she did that was, again, not to insult us or guilt-trip us or anything like that. Guilt is a waste of time. The reason that she did that was an attempt to help us understand the nature of the problem, because oftentimes, until you understand the nature of the problem, you cannot fix it.

The issue that Jonah is faced with—particularism versus universalism—is one we are all faced with and presented with. We don’t see the book of Jonah as being radical. It just seems obvious to us. Of course, don’t destroy the city. Yet we pay to destroy cities all over the world: We’re not tax avoiders.

The point of the story is that in order to become radically hospitable to the “they,” we need to take down who we are. The people of Israel had to take down the structure of this particularism in order to become hospitable to everyone. This ultimately is what Jesus’ life is about.

He came and said, look, I want to give you a lived demonstration of what it means to completely deconstruct the self, at the service of the other. So I am going to literally, physically, die, spiritually give up all of the potential power or whatever I may have to protect myself, in order that everyone can know that God loves everyone.

My encouragement to this particular community, which is a dominant White community—we all know this, this isn’t new information—as we engage this progressive theology, this social action, in all of this, that as Plymouth positions itself for whatever comes next, all the discussions, the problems, the challenge is that we recognize that race and White supremacy is still present to us and to our society. One of the questions that I would encourage us to consider is what is it that we are willing to do differently ourselves? Not for other people but for ourselves? Because ultimately radical hospitality for the “they” is not about standing on the castle wall and throwing some food over to the peasants on the other side. Radical hospitality for the “they” is about tearing down the castle wall and saying let’s all live together.

That’s what God was hoping that Jonah would understand. That’s what Jesus was hoping that we will understand. That’s what every great mystic spiritual teacher and radical thinker throughout our faith history has been trying to get people to understand. It is a crazy idea. But God really does love everybody equally and wants all of us to act as if we love everybody equally. And God will be with us in that task, supporting us, holding us, carrying us, shouting for us enthusiastically all along the way.