Saturday, June 22, 2013

Simplicity In The Barren Lands

‘Tis A Gift To Be Free: A Sermon on Simplicity by Tai Amri Spann-Wilson given at Pendle Hill June 16 2013
(Not really being an expert on blogging, and realizing that I can't figure out how to denote paragraph breaks, I have used the Biblical term (SELAH) to symbolize where the paragraph breaks are supposed to be, for the mystics in the bunch they may also serve as reminders to breathe.) I cannot tell you how excited I am to be with you this morning. Excited to look out at the benches and to see family and F/friends, F/friends with the capital F and the little f. Excited to be a part of a worship with so much silence. I’ve been a pastor in Oakland for two years now, which means that my Sunday mornings are filled with sounds and void of silence. And finally, excited to be speaking on this land so rich with history. (SELAH) I spend a lot of time trying to explain to myself and my loved ones why I read the bible. While I question many of its suppositions and while I see so much potential for exploitation and oppression within its pages, I still try to believe that there is some way that the bible can be a book of love. It reminds me of a sermon I heard recently of one of my greatest spiritual teachers, Rev. Dr. Howard Thurman. This constantly praying and meditating, kind hearted and amazingly compassionate holy man, who grew up in segregated Florida, spoke about the struggle he had in seeing that of G-d in each person, he spoke on the troubles he had in sometimes just trying to want to want to like White people. I don’t really have that problem with white people, but I could say, sometimes I have trouble loving republicans or NRA members or homophobes or bank CEOs. I want to believe that somewhere in the Bible I can learn to love the unloveable. I want to believe that somewhere in EVERY individual is a light that loves me as much as G-d does. It is this power of belief that moved the mountain of slavery. If our ancestors did not believe that slavery was an evil that must end, we would not be here today. That’s why I want to take a minute to honor our ancestors with the pouring out of libations, because even Quaker ancestors get thirsty. To all our relations, of this land, and of all lands, we honor you. We young people have gathered to understand simplicity, this simple act of honoring our ancestors helps to connect us all, and so I want to give you all a moment to honor any of your ancestors. Speak out their names as I pour out the libations. Ashe. (SELAH) So I want to apologize for my attire today. Who I am apologizing to is mostly my grandmother, because I know she likes when I get dressed up on Sunday. But you see right now I’m wearing my victory outfit. I work in an elementary school in East Oakland and every year we have a soccer tournament with three other elementary schools. And every year I tell them that if they win the soccer I’ll get a mohawk. So this is the second year in a row that I had to get a mohawk and this is the outfit that I was wearing. It’s kind of become my lucky outfit, sorry grandmommy.(SELAH) I want to bring the children that I’ve worked with to this sermon today, and I want to bring you to my children, because some of the greatest lessons that I have learned have come from the wisdom of young people. Children have a way of laying bear, and of simplifying and synthesizing the problems of the world in a way that us complicated adults just often forget how to do.(SELAH) Last night, Brother Shane Claiborne said something that caught my attention, he said that even though he lives in one of the poorest communities in Philly, it is amazingly community rich. He also said that the richest neighborhoods are often community poor because what happens is that there is rarely any reason to have to rely on your neighbor. I knew what he was talking about because the school I work in in East Oakland is one of the poorest neighborhoods in the city, what some people call the ghetto or the hood, but I call it the Barren Lands. This term Barren Lands is similar to the term Food Desert, a term that speaks to the lack of healthy nutrition options, where if you want to buy “groceries” your choices are to go shopping at a corner store filled with processed foods and rotting gmo filled fruits and veggies, or to eat out at McDonald’s. But the Barren Lands are barren of more than just grocery stores, they are barren of trees and grass and public gardens, they are barren of playgrounds devoid of drugs and safe streets to walk day or night, they are barren of hospitals and museums, libraries and toy stores. And oh Lord are they barren of justice.(SELAH) Having worked with children for over 15 years now, I’ve seen them educated in multiple settings. In some settings it seems there is a swing for every child. Not so in the barren lands. There we have a small blue foam island with some monkey bars, surround by an ocean of concrete, not a swing to be seen.(SELAH) I’ve worked in some settings where each incoming class gets a new set of books. And I’ve worked in the barren lands where students have to march the streets for days just to get even a used book, just to make sure their teachers get paid and even to make sure their publicly funded schools don’t get closed or taken over. I’ve worked in some schools, where children get as many chances as they need just as long as they are willing to work with through their problems but in the barren lands, students, mostly black and brown, are thrown out the door at the first sign of trouble, as if they were plagues.(SELAH) I’m thinking now about one of the black boys that was in my program in East Oakand. I’m remembering how he had been in one of my poetry classes and in the class we working on an assignment to write, “I Wish” poems. In the class I shared a poem that I had written as an example, and one of the lines I had written said, “I wish the butterflies would come back to East Oakland.” This boy promptly interrupted me and said, “There aren’t any butterflies in Oakland, butterflies hate Oakland.” It was of the many times that the words of a child stunned me to silence.(SELAH) When I tell people this story they think it’s crazy. I live in beautiful, sunny California, how could there be no butterflies? Even people who live in Oakland are shocked, Oakland is gorgeous, filled with eternally blossoming flowers. How could he believe that there are no butterflies in Oakland? Because his life is centered in the Barren Lands, a concrete jungle, where he is labeled predator, but in reality he’s the prey. He was recently kicked out of my program by our coordinator because she said he was too violent, but the violence down to young people of color by school expulsions is nauseating.(SELAH) This past year I’ve seen a growing concern with police brutality and misconduct in Oakland. These issues are not new of course, but I believe that much of the leftover energy from the Occupy movement has shifted in this direction. I’ve been trying to lend my hand to struggles to bring about alternative solutions to punitive justice in schools and in law enforcement, because the demonization of black and brown children in our schools is but a microcosm of what occurs in our prisons and on our street corners. In 2010 the city of Oakland erupted after 23 year old African American son, brother, lover and father Oscar Grant III was shot on a public transit platform on New Years Eve, in 2009, in front of hundreds of spectators while he was handcuffed and laying on his stomach surrounded by police officers. In a little while the whole world will know about the tragedy of Oscar Grant when the film Fruitvale Station hits the big screen. Imagine that, your busiest night of the year, an unarmed man gets shot in front of everyone and nothing happens. People of Oakland wouldn’t stand for it and they marched for over a year just to get a two year manslaughter charge on the officer who shot him.(SELAH) But today I carry in my heart the story of Alan Blueford. He was 18 and a well loved senior at Oakland’s Skyline High School. Standing on the corner with his friends one night officers pulled up to him with their guns already drawn. Not knowing what to do he ran for two block until he fell on his back, with his hands raised he screamed, “I didn’t do anything!” before he was shot dead. The world does not know this story because unlike Oscar Grant Alan Blueford was executed where there were few witnesses, in the dead of night, in the Barren Lands. But I know this story, this is the story of my nightmares, Alan’s face replaced by the many Black and Brown children that I work so hard to educate. As simple of an act as it is, I MUST TELL HIS STORY.(SELAH) When I was preparing for this message I kept singing the song ‘Tis a gift to be simple ‘tis a gift to be free. It’s a song I remember singing growing up in Quaker schools, it always helped me settle into the silence. Writing this message I began to wonder what the words really mean. What is true simplicity and how is simplicity and freedom a gift? Something in me has begun to bristle now when I hear the words to that song. I’m reminded of my own enslaved ancestors for whom freedom was but a hope and I think of the children that I work with in the Barren Lands of Oakland. For too many in this world simplicity, like freedom, seems less a gift and more of a privilege.(SELAH) We’ve commodified everything, we’ve given it all a wrapping and a bow. But true simplicity is only that which cannot be purchased, it’s that which cannot be individualized, it must be the big S simplicity. Just as we know that none of us are free unless all of us are free, nothing is simple unless everyone can partake in its simplicity.(SELAH) When as Brother Shane said last night, some people have so much and some people have so little, we have to start questioning the distribution not just of that which costs money, but that which cost nothing. I began by talking about all of the children I have worked with and all of the possessions that they and their schools have. In a world where some kids have multiple game systems, hand held and on their t.v.s, computers and more toys than most children can ever dream of, I think on the Barren Lands, and my little school that doesn’t even have a soccer ball, where you feel lucky if you can find a free jump rope or a hula hoop. We may not have a screen to look at or a remote control helicopter, but we have something far better, we have one another, and the Bible says where two or more are gathered so is G-d. This simplicity of the Barren Lands is this, all we have is one another, all we can own is love. When all else falls away, you are the one who will march for my justice, I am the one who will play tag with you, you are the voice who will lead me out of slavery, I am the one who will pray for you. All we have is each other, and because we have each other, we have G-d, we have everything. Peace.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Sermon Title: The Devil Made Me Do It

Today is the second in the series of questions that were submitted about the Bible and Christianity. Today’s questions deals with the devil, or Satan. Also, we’re gonna sing some songs today, and you’re gonna think some of them are corny, that’s alright, some of them are, but the thing is, when you talk about the devil you gotta have a light heart about you, because the fear of the devil, has caused some people to do some awful things in the name of G-d, like witch burnings. When I talk about the devil, I don’t want to promote a spirit of fear, but a spirit of love. This may or may not be somewhat of a surprise to you all, but because of my religious past I take the task of talking about the devil with some fear and trepidation. You see that red leathery, horned, pointy tailed devil that seems so ridiculous to me now was seen as a significant threat to me when I was in high school. To me people talked about watching out for the devil so much I thought the Devil was going to pop up around the corner or something. It’s like in that kids book Harry Potter, people are really afraid to say the name of the villain Voldermort like he could appear, sometimes it kind of felt like that with the devil or satan. “He’s lurking to and fro, seeking whom he may devour,” my bible teacher would say. And let me tell you, people have stories that would turn your hair white, just like the real good fairy tales and ghost stories. I’m not saying that the devil isn’t real, I’m just saying that it feels strange that sometimes in the church we skip over the scripture passage, “G-d has not given us, a spirit of fear, but he has given unto us, a spirit of power, a spirit of love and a sound mind.” And we tend to focus just on the fear. I myself am guilty of this, it’s how I was raised, you wake the people up and move them to action through fear, it’s a hard pattern to break from, but this life is a journey, amen? So I need to warn you in advance, I’m going to have to get kind of nerdy on you, but honestly, there’s no real avoiding it, I mean look at my question, “Was Satan/Devil beheaded by Muhammad the Conqueror? (Byzantine era)" Uh, say what professor? That topic was not covered in seminary, so I had to do some research. And by the way, I would love to know who wrote that question and what was going through their minds when they wrote it. The short answer is of course not, what the question asks is physically and cosmically impossible, I mean even if you cut off the head of the devil, so what, the devil is immortal, it would just re-attach itself. I’ve seen enough horror movies to know that. But, I get paid the big bucks to give you the long answer. To avoid getting too nerdy I’m going to have to say that I can find no instance where it was suggested that Muhammad II, or Muhammad the Conqueror, cut off the head of Satan or the devil. What he did do was lead a surge to bring about the fall of the empire of Constantinople, and if you see empire as a metaphor for Satan then yes I guess he did cut off the head of the devil. But since this isn’t a two hour lecture I’m not going to be able to deal with that in enough time to make this relevant to our lives. I’m sorry if I am disappointing someone right now, but I am a pastor, not a historian, what I do is place historical events into an ethical frame, and for the life of me I can’t figure out how to do that with an individual who has only half a page on Wikipedia. But the devil, or Satan, has a way bigger Wikipedia page so I can have a ball with that one. Now you will notice that I keep switching between the names the devil and satan. Obviously these are two different words with two different origins, though their meanings are pretty much the same. Satan is the more biblical, it comes from the Hebrew word ha-satan which means “the adversary” or the “the obstacle” or “the prosecutor.” The devil comes from the Greek word diablos which means “adversary” or “accuser.” Some other famous names for the devil are, “Lucifer” and “Beelzebub”, I’ll get to those later, but mostly the devil and Satan are the names that I’ll be using today. The names we use for satan have changed just as the stories we tell about satan have changed. How many of us have ever heard the phrase, “the third degree” as in, “I forgot my homework and my English teacher, in front of the whole class, starts giving me the third degree and reading me my rights.” Well, you forgot your homework and thus your teacher became your prosecutor, kind of like satan. The difference is that that definition of the word Satan came from stories written thousands of years ago, sacred stories though they may be, you know how stories can be, they tend to grow with time. So that story about that English teacher I had back in my freshmen year of college becomes, “That time long ago when students had to face a 100 foot tall, 10 headed, leathery fire breathing beast!” We tend to think today of the first story of satan occurring in that first book of the bible Genesis, where the serpent tricks Eve into eating an apple. In fact it’s not until the last book of the bible, the book of revelation, that a direct link is made to that serpent and satan. Satan doesn’t first turn up until the book of Job, where in the classic battle of wits between good and evil, satan challenges G-d to make Job suffer and see if he will still remain faithful. Most biblical scholars understand the story of Job to be a metaphor for the collective suffering of the Jewish people in exile, as did many of its original readers, poetic license rather than literal reading. But even if you were to take this story, Satan in fact has no real power other than to act as the one who tries to convince G-d of humanity’s unworthiness. Other than that one act, satan is essentially powerless. In later books, like the Book of Wisdom, Satan is viewed as the one who brought death into the world. Again, it’s only through trickery, that Satan is able to do so. In the book of Enoch Satan was seen as an evil spirit who knew the difference between what was “righteous” and “sinful” and the one who convinced G-d to test Abraham by telling Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac.” It is in the book of Enoch that we get our stories of the fall of the devil. If you are like me and you love to read a good story, check out 1 and 2 Enoch, and there you will find one of my favorite Satan stories of all time: In Enoch Satan is named Lucifer, the Angel of Light, who, as a messenger of G-d refused to bow down to humanity when commanded because he believed that G-d was the only one he should bow down to. In so doing he went against the will of G-d and thus was cast out of heaven with all of the other angels who refused to do so. I love this story because it shows Satan not as an evil character but as a character acting out of a sense of honor. Of course later in the story we get to the part where the devil is thrown into the Lake of Fire with all of the rebel angels and instead of indifference to humans Satan has hatred and blood lust towards them. But Satan’s origin as a servant of G-d ads complexity to the story. It’s in the Gospels of the life of Christ where Satan begins to be seen as an evil spirit that inhabits the bodies of humans causing sicknesses, disabilities, insanity and temptation to do evil. Jesus, when meditating and fasting in the desert for forty days, comes across Satan who tempts him with power, food and riches to end his pursuit for a just life for all of humanity. I’ve never fasted and meditated for that long, but having once sat in silence for 8 straight hours I did notice I was starting to see some strange things. Later in the Gospels we see Jesus exorcising demons from people who are exhibiting different forms of epilepsy and insanity. And in the book of Luke Satan is considered to be the one who possessed Judas Iscariot to betray Jesus. We also have the story from our scripture reading this morning, where Jesus calls Peter Satan because he sees Peter as acting as a stumbling block. Throughout the rest of the Bible we have numerous examples of Satanic activities, Beelzebub (the Philistine “Lord of Flies”) dragons, Princes of Darkness, Princes of the Power of the Air, more serpents, but for most people these depictions of Satan are either perceived as being mythological or they tend to simply seem to increase that Spirit of Fear that G-d actually doesn’t want us to have. So I want to deal with the aspect of Satan that modern science and technology can’t answer with simplicity, Satan as a stumbling block. Do you believe that Satan or the devil is real? You don’t have to answer that question, if you’re like me, the answer to that question might have to be discerned somewhere in a five page sermon. I do know this, some people believe that more dangerous than the blatant violence and hatred in the room is the invisible Elephant standing between us and standing on us. The devil has been used to explain both the evil acts of nature and the evil acts humans, all the way from the attempts to explain why Eve at from the apple in the first place, to why witches should be burned at the stake, to why Jimmy Swaggart slept with so many women. But all of this blaming has done nothing but shift human responsibility. Instead of dealing with the fact that most humans are curious and want to know the nature of things which sometimes gets us into trouble, or instead of the male doctors of the 17th century owning up to the fact that they were jealous of the folkways of female midwives, or instead of recognizing that the subjuctification of women causes sex addictions, we have leaned towards blaming the devil. The devil didn’t cause the stock market to crash, human greed did. Instead of looking to the horrific descriptions of a gigantic flesh eating beast found in the book Dante’s Inferno, we need instead to look towards the Babylonian religion Zoroastrianism that highly influenced Judaism and early Christianity and perceived satan as “the deceiver” or “the Lie”. Nothing destroys our relationship with the Spirit or one another more than the lie that we are unworthy of love. Unworthy because we aren’t good looking enough, unworthy because we aren’t wealthy enough, unworthy because we have made mistakes. There is actually nothing wrong with having human flesh, the only thing wrong is that we believe there is something wrong with having human flesh. To be possessed by the devil means believing the lie that another world isn’t possible unless we bomb those people over there, unless we remove those people over here, unless I stop listening to my heart, and on and on it goes. The good news is this, real or not, the only power that the devil has is lie and to condemn. In the Age of the Enlightenment it was believed that the only thing needed to dispel the devil was to laugh in his face. Then WWI happened and that idea kind of flew out the window. Now we know lies and condemnation need more than just laughter to dispel them. Like the stories of evil beings that only cease to exist when we face them head on, lies and condemnation thrive only when we ignore them. But when we look at them, really examine them, we see them for what they truly are. After the crowds that were waiting to stone the woman caught in adultery left, Jesus said to her, “Woman, does no one condemn you?” and she shook her head, and he said, “Neither do I.” Any condemnation on us as individuals or us as a people comes only from satan. In his own words Jesus said, “I didn’t come, to condemn the world, but to give you life more abundant.” Amen.