“Faith Passages – The Longing and Fear to Belong”
Sunday, October 5, 2008
Philippians 3: 17-21
The Apostle Paul suggests in Philippians that during our lifetimes one of two things happens to us. We either become more earthly or more heavenly.
When he says we become either more earthly or more heavenly, by earthly, Paul doesn’t mean earthy. Paul himself was pretty earthy and real.
No, what Paul means by earthly is that our vision becomes narrower and more limited. We look to narrow rules and affiliations to find meaning and a sense of security in life.
To try to explain this Paul uses the metaphor of citizenship. (Phil. 3: 20) Where does our citizenship reside, he asks? To whom are we loyal? To whom are we obligated? To whom do we belong?
A stray comment from a man-in-the-street interview I heard on the radio recently stuck in my mind. NPR was interviewing “ordinary” people about the bailout being debated by Congress. One man being interviewed said something like this: “I really hadn’t been paying attention because I couldn’t see how it would matter to me and my family, but then I realized it could affect my pension and I became concerned.”
The temptation is to care only about me and my family, isn’t it? Cosa nostra – do you know the term? It used to be a name for the Mafia…the Sopranos. It literally means “my family.” My belonging and loyalty and sense of obligation applies only to my family…my clan…my blood…my town…my ethnicity…my country…my religion.
What and whom we care about gets either smaller or larger over the course of our lifetimes. Either our sense of belonging gets smaller or larger. Either we identify with and care about smaller sectors or larger ones. Either we are invested only in what we are earthly and physically connected with or else we discern heavenly connections that transcend the physical and the biological and the geographical and the political. Either our worlds get smaller or larger.
What makes this difficult is that we are wired to care about the familial, the intimate, the nearest and dearest. I remember what it was like to become a father. For the first time you know what it means to love so much that you would lay down for life for the beloved. I am a new grandfather which in some ways is worse. I know what it feels like to be an uncle. Familial love is a deep human and healthy passion.
It is natural to love those who are part of our congregation. When we baptize Nick this morning we as a congregation fall in love with him in a special way. We come to love those we sing with in the choir or those we make sandwiches for the homeless with or those we sit with in our pew neighborhoods Sunday after Sunday. Christian fellowship is natural and good and healthy.
Love of country is a natural and human emotion…to feel a bond with those who share our national history, culture, and fate is a human and healthy allegiance.
But all these earthly loves also have the capacity to become demonic. Blood ties can become racist. Religious bonds can become anti-Semitic or anti-Catholic or anti-any-other-religious group. Our patriotism can become jingoistic and xenophobic.
And here is what I believe makes the difference in whether we become bigger or smaller as we age. It is whether we come to know and understand all of our human earthly commitments and affections and loves and passions as sacramental rather than literal. It is whether our earthly affections are outward and visible signs for us of an inward and spiritual grace that includes but transcends the specific or whether what we love is only the literal thing.
A good example of this is the great patriotic hymn by Lloyd Stone “This is My Song.” The lyrics articulate our love of country – “This is my home, the country where my heart is; here are my hopes, my dreams, my holy shrine.”
But then the hymn goes on to say: “But other hearts in other lands are beating with hopes and dreams as true and high as mine.”
Love of country, the hymn says: “My country’s skies are bluer than the ocean and sunlight beams on cloverleaf and pine.”
But the hymn goes on to say: “But other lands have sunlight too and clover, and skies are everywhere as blue as mine.”
The issue is whether we can think sacramentally. Does our experience of familial love connect us with other families or insolate us from them? Does our love for our child or grandchild or niece or nephew deepen our passion for a world where all children are nurtured and protected? Does our religious sentiment connect us with other people’s spirituality and cause us to appreciate other faiths or alienate us from them? Does our love of our national heritage help us honor peoples of other nations or does it cause us to diminish others and set us against them?
And the key is whether we think and feel sacramentally or literally…in Paul’s terms heavenly or earthly.
I think this is why prayer, worship, literature, music, poetry, drama, dance and art are so critical in our lives. They train us to think sacramentally and heavenly. They feed our imaginations. They rescue us from literalness, the literalness that destroys our souls.
On World Communion Sunday we literally eat this bread and drink this cup with those who happen to be in this building with us this morning but sacramentally and really we eat and drink with peoples of every age, nation, race, climate, and circumstance.
The literal is not real. The sacramental is real. And we are saved from the death of literalism by living in the world of prayer and poetry and music and dance.
I’ve been reading the poetry of the 14th century Sufi master Hafiz this week. He knows that the literal is not true and that the heavenly and sacramental are real. Here are two of his short poems:
THE SAME SUNTAN
Every address for
Who has just one color of hair,
One gender, one race,
The same suntan all the time,
One rule book,
Trust me when I say,
That [person] is not even
Half a god
And will only
The second poem:
Fascinating the idea of death
Too bad, though.
It just isn’t