Some thoughts for this American season of Independence
Humble Remnant in Soul Land
Texts: Zech 9:8-10; Heb 11:8-16; Jn 8:31-36
In our reading from Zechariah we meet the remnant of God’s people who have come out of exile in Babylon to make a home for themselves back in the land they believe God gave them. They are lost in transition and the prophet calls them to build a soul city with humility and nonviolence as its foundation. Yahweh is powerfully present, standing guard against prowlers who would lure them back. This new home is ruled by a humble man on a donkey who banishes the trappings of war. It is a soul land, not a homeland.
Many Christians in America have been in spiritual exile for 239 years, asleep while a national lifestyle of violence and greed has come to so define us that we throw up our arms and cry, “What could I possibly do?” We celebrated Independence Day yesterday. As Christians we seek to re-appropriate that goal by living in interdependence. It is time to emerge from spiritual exile in the homeland of violence, hate and greed and enter the Soul Land we have inherited as God’s people. The words of an old hymn recently moved me deeply, “The Word of God Is Solid Ground.” It asks, “What powers can our faith constrain? What iron-clad restrictions? No self-deceiving rule can chain our conscience and convictions. Our God alone is on the throne,” it goes on to say. “For freedom’s sake we bend, we break, a sign to ev’ry nation that we have found a solid ground; God’s word our sure foundation.” Let us not forget that our God’s throne is on the back of a donkey.
When we give countercultural witness from an ego place we are stuck in exile; however, if the authority to witness comes from the God we meet in prayer and self-reflection, we are a humble remnant ruled by the donkey-king. Sooner or later each of us is called to speak and to name injustice clearly and unequivocally. Take a moment to recall such a time. Where did your strength come from? It is a soul-strength that breaks out in goose bumps and evokes a resounding, “Yes.” People listen when we are able to say, “For I have been to the Mountain top!”
Let’s step out of lofty metaphors now and examine how we can practically address our society’s exile. John’s Jesus tells his disciples that if they live according to his teaching they will know the truth, and the truth will set them free. More lofty words, but notice the call to practical hard work implied between the lines. Living according to Jesus’ teaching means that we take gospel values seriously. We find the truth by paying attention and changing behaviors and attitudes in variance with gospel values. Getting into Soul Land is much harder work than staying in homeland. It’s no easy thing to prophesy from the back of a donkey.
Meister Eckhart provides rich material for meditation on this theme. As a brilliant theologian and gifted preacher he chose to preach with a mind like a razor but from his perch on the metaphorical donkey. He chose to preach in the market place and in German rather than Latin so that all the peasants under the thumb of the corrupted guild system and bishops of the church could understand his message that all people are aristocrats, divine by grace and noble by nature. He condemned what he called the “Merchant Mentality.” His message was considered seditious to church officials and rulers who profited by the guild system, so they silenced him. But that silence resounded clearly and boldly because his countercultural lifestyle was an invitation to emerge from exile. His choice to preach an empowering message to humble peasants is a powerful example to us in our own century. Out of his mysticism came a word which expresses exile poignantly: ICHGEBUNDENHEIT, bound up in the I, the ego. When we have loosed those bonds, says Eckhart, we give birth to the Son of God and that love spills out to the marketplace in acts of justice.
Finally, a personal example of my being stuck in exile and being given the grace to emerge. As a member of the Ground Zero Community in Poulsbo, WA I passed out leaflets to workers entering Subase Bangor every Monday morning at 6:00 A.M. As you can imagine my mind often wandered to that cup of hot coffee waiting at the end of my shift. I struggled to remain nonviolent amidst weekly encounters with angry sailors and marines, and it was often difficult to fend off despair. For a year a man came in every week in a pick-up truck with a rifle rack on the back; sometimes he had two passengers along. I stood there in my self-righteous indignation relating to him as a “red neck war monger.” One Monday I was able to be more centered as I prayed that I and the workers would be open to hearing one another. This man came in alone, looking depressed. I felt moved to say, “How are you today?” He blurted out, “How am I? I’m terrible. How else could I be, having to go in there and do what I do every day?” I began to learn that we must prophesy truth with intelligence and clarity, but we must do it from the back of a donkey.
This poem, inspired by Psalm 137, came out of my meditation and I close with it:
On the shores of the Potomac
We sit and weep-
Outlanders in Homeland
Looking for our godvoice.
From deep in Soul Land
We feel its vibrations
Erupting into a Hope Song
Sung true and strong
In a foreign land.