Monday, 02 March 2015 00:00

"Paradox", March 1, 2015

“Paradox”
The Thunder: Perfect Mind
A sermon preached by the Rev. Douglas M. Donley
March 1, 2015
University Baptist Church
Minneapolis, MN

George Orwell would have had a blast with “The Thunder: Perfect Mind.’ All of that delicious double-speak:  

I am the one who has been hated everywhere
and who has been loved everywhere.
I am the one whom they call Life,
and you have called Death.
I am the one whom they call Law,
and you have called Lawlessness.
I am the one whom you have pursued,
and I am the one whom you have seized.
I am the one whom you have scattered,
and you have gathered me together.
I am the one before whom you have been ashamed,
and you have been shameless to me.
I am she who does not keep festival,
and I am she whose festivals are many.
I, I am godless,
and I am the one whose God is great.

Paradox. Thesis.  Antithesis. Oxymoron.

Think of the contradictions and paradoxes we have in today’s world:
We create jobs by cutting wages.
We create jobs by giving tax breaks to people who don’t need them.
We have peacekeeper missiles.
We save the earth by drilling, baby drilling.
Birds of a feather flock together/opposites attract.

A generation ago, our president called Terrorists in Central America, Freedom Fighters.    
Did Jesus come to bring peace or a sword?  Both are in scripture.
Do we worship and earthly Jesus or a cosmic Christ?
Is God male or female? Why does it matter?
Paul confronted believers in Corinth saying that Human wisdom is foolishness from God’s perspective.
Thunder is a universal poem about paradox, antithesis and oxymoron. The book reads like a riddle—a philosopher’s challenge. How many angels can fit on the end of a pin?

Thunder’s voice is Sophia, a female representation of the Deity. She speaks with a powerful confessional candor.  She is not an aloof prophet. Every time you think you know what she is saying, she contradicts herself, to keep you guessing. “I am speech undecipherable. I am below and they come up to me. What you see outdoors you see within you.”

    I am the first and the last.
    I am the honored one and the scorned one.
    I am the whore and the holy one.
    I am the wife and the virgin.
    I am the mother and the daughter…
    I am the barren one, and many are my sons…
    I am knowledge and ignorance…
    I am shameless; I am ashamed.
    I am strength, and I am fear…
    I am foolish and I am wise…
    I am the silence that is incomprehensible…
    I am the utterance of my name.

Toni Morrison so loved the poem that she wove it into her novels, Paradise and Jazz.  In Paradise, she used the poem to celebrate diversity and the challenge the stifling determinism of white patriarchy.

1700 years ago, the Church ordered texts that it considered heretical to be destroyed lest it infect another generation.  And they were destroyed, except when they weren’t. Uncovering the controversies of the early church reveals things like doubt and wonder.  We who seek the truth, do well to recognize that Christianity emerged from a context that had very different viewpoints.  There was a gnosis, a knowledge, a wisdom that people, like Thunder emulated and others found threatening.

Elaine Pagels wrote: “Like circles of artists today, Gnostics considered original creative invention to be the mark of anyone who becomes spiritually alive.  Each one, like students of a painter or writer, expected to express his own perceptions by revising and transforming what he was taught.” (The Gnostic Gospels p.19)

The Nag Hammadi Library preserved what leaders of the early church thought was too damaging. There were several Gospels, a Gospel of Mary Magdalene, a Gospel of Philip, of James, of Bartholomew. There were a half dozen apocalypses. In a time when heterodoxy was dangerous, the second and third century church rallied around an orthodox viewpoint of the world and quashed dissent. It decided there were only four Gospels and one apocalypse (Revelation). They left out Thunder’s riddles.  Her paradoxes were especially challenging to orthodoxy.  

The Gospel of John juxtaposes opposites: Light and darkness, body and spirit, believers and unbelievers. But one is always better than the other. And the two can’t even live on the same plane. Holding things in tension like Thunder does is heresy to John.  The writer of Revelation shares this view.  He tells the church of Laodicea, “how I wish that you were hot or cold.  But since you are lukewarm, I will spit you out of my mouth.”

Elijah criticized the people for sitting on the fence about whether or not to follow Baal. The 18th chapter of I Kings reads: “Elijah then came near to all the people, and said, “How long will you go limping with two different opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal, then follow him.” (I Kings 18:21)

But Thunder says maddeningly “I am light and I am darkness.  I am god and I am godless.  I am war and I am peace.”

This past Friday, Leonard Nimoy, the actor who portrayed Mr. Spock in the Star Trek Series died.  His iconic character deified logic and science.  Spock was a living paradox, a riddle in a blue shirt, or was it gold?  He was a logical Vulcan and a passionate human.  The two forces worked together and against each other. The more he tried to rid himself of his human side, he found that he could not. Or if he did, he was less than whole.  He needed to embrace the fact that he was Vulcan and Human.  Logic and emotion.  The clash of the two seemed like thunder.  

Like the paradox that is at the core of quantum physics, everything doesn’t move in a straight cause and effect line.  There are other effects that we cannot predict or control or handle.  We try to rid ourselves of what effects our worldview and we think it is all done with.  But instead it is simply buried in a clay jar for another generation to find and to ponder.

Life is a paradox.  We live, we die.  We come, we go.  We survive, we thrive.  Like the judge holding a scale, we seek equilibrium amidst the juxtaposing opposites.  The equilibrium is seldom in the center because each side is not weighted equally.  But balance is what we seek.  It is what we need.

It’s harder to judge someone or something when we recognize that there is a part of them that is both bad and good.  There is a part of people and their actions that delight and madden us.  Holding that all in balance is what it’s about.  A church community is like that.  We are not all warm fuzzy types.  Some of us seem quite cold, while not intending to be. Some of us draw others to them, others not so much. We are all complex enigmas that none of us really understands. Older people, younger people.  Educated undereducated. Rich and not so rich. Disabled and temporarily able-bodied.  People who can hear and see and people who are limited there.  

There is a triumphant trio of friends in the book and film The Fault in our Stars.  They are all teenage cancer survivors and they rejoice in the fact that between them they have five legs, two pairs of eyes and four functioning lungs.  Lots of gallows humor. Between us, what do we have?  A lot. We are Intellect and ignorance. Light and darkness, joy and sorrow, shame and boldness. Courage and grace.

Maybe the whole point of Thunder’s paradoxical riddle is that defining God’s mind is folly and limited by our own human wisdom.  We will always fail at fathoming the unfathomable.  Does this mean that we can say nothing definitive?  No.  But it does mean that what we say must be humble.  We must make our proclamations about God knowing that they are incomplete.  As Paul wrote in the 13th chapter of his first letter to the church in Corinth:

9For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; 10but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. 11When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. 12For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.

There was a moment at last Week’s Oscars that stood out for me and speaks to our predicament.  This was the year of films about smart people solving riddles.  Graham Moore won the Oscar for the best film adaptation for the movie, “the Imitation Game”—a story about Alan Turing, an awkward misunderstood genius who helped win World War II by cracking the Nazi code.  He built a machine to do so, whose descendants are the computers we now carry around in our pockets. He solved the riddle just to be scorned for not fitting in, a shame that he turned inward and resulted in his suicide at the tender age of 41.

Graham Moore stood with his little bronze statue in his hand, thinking about Turing, thinking about all of the other misunderstood and forgotten and dismissed geniuses and he offered this word of hope:

“When I was 16-years-old I tried to kill myself, because I felt weird and I felt different and I felt like I did not belong. And now I’m standing here and so I would like for this moment to be for that kid out there who feels like she’s weird or she’s different or she doesn’t fit in anywhere. Yes you do. I promise you do. You do. Stay weird, stay different. And then when it's your turn and you are standing on this stage please pass the same message to the next person who comes along."
    

In this Women’s History Month, dare to consider that which is out of the ordinary. Consider that which is a challenge to what you think you know.  Consider the voices that have been marginalized, placed in a jar, ignored.  They may hold more wisdom than we can handle.  And isn’t that a good thing?
    

The Perfect Mind thunders:

I am knowledge and ignorance.
I am shame and boldness.
I am shameless; I am ashamed.
I am strength and I am fear.
I am war and peace.
Give heed to me.

 

The Thunder, Perfect Mind

Narrator: 

In 1945 two Egyptian farmers inadvertently dug up a large clay jar. An innocent and inconsequential act.
But within it were twelve dangerous writings. That was why they had been buried in the first place.
They were texts from the same era as the Christian New Testament, some even referring to the same characters of the stories surrounding Jesus. But they contained different stories... and fewer stories. In fact, they contained annoyingly few stories. Instead, they were full of secret sayings, riddles, mysterious metaphor, and encouragement to search within one's own self for the presence of the Christ.

These were the gnostics. They were a threat to the early church because they encouraged people to seek salvation from within--through the development of their own souls and intuition.

One of these books, as cryptic as any, was entitled The Thunder, Perfect Mind and was written from a female perspective. Was she the Egyptian wisdom goddess Isis? Was she the wise and philosophical pan-cultural Sophia? Her voice came with the name of Thunder, as powerful voices had been coming for as long as people had been experiencing thunder.

 
The Thunder:

I was sent forth from the power,
and I have come to those who reflect upon me,
and I have been found among those who seek after me.
Look upon me, you who reflect upon me,
and you hearers, hear me.
You who are waiting for me, take me to yourselves.
And do not banish me from your sight.
And do not make your voice hate me, nor your hearing.
Do not be ignorant of me anywhere or any time. Be on your guard!
Do not be ignorant of me.

For I am the first and the last.
I am the honored one and the scorned one.
I am the whore and the holy one.
I am the wife and the virgin.
I am knowledge and ignorance.
I am shame and boldness.
I am shameless; I am ashamed.
I am strength and I am fear.
I am war and peace.
Give heed to me.

In my weakness, do not forsake me,
and do not be afraid of my power.

I am she who exists in all fears
and strength in trembling.
I am she who is weak,
and I am well in a pleasant place.
I am senseless and I am wise.

I am the one who has been hated everywhere
and who has been loved everywhere.
I am the one whom they call Life,
and you have called Death.
I am the one whom they call Law,
and you have called Lawlessness.
I am the one whom you have pursued,
and I am the one whom you have seized.
I am the one whom you have scattered,
and you have gathered me together.
I am the one before whom you have been ashamed,
and you have been shameless to me.
I am she who does not keep festival,
and I am she whose festivals are many.

I, I am godless,
and I am the one whose God is great.

Come forward to childhood,
and do not despise it because it is small and it is little.
And do not turn away greatnesses in some parts from the smallnesses,
for the smallnesses are known from the greatnesses.

What is inside of you is what is outside of you,
and the one who fashions you on the outside
is the one who shaped the inside of you.
And what you see outside of you, you see inside of you;
it is visible and it is your garment.

I am peace,
and war has come because of me.
And I am an alien and a citizen.
I am the name of the sound
and the sound of the name.

The great power...the one who created me...I will speak his name.

Look then at his words
and all the writings which have been completed.
Give heed then, you hearers
and you also, the angels and those who have been sent,
and you spirits who have arisen from the dead.
For I am the one who alone exists,
and I have no one who will judge me.
For many are the pleasant forms which exist in numerous sins,
and incontinencies,
and disgraceful passions,
and fleeting pleasures,
which people embrace until they become sober
and go up to their resting place.
And they will find me there,
and they will live,
and they will not die again.