Somewhere so High Above This Wall: A Secular Christian Sermon

One of the interesting things about being thirty is that you’re still pretty young – the olds will tell you this in no uncertain terms, if it seems hard to believe yourself – yet you’ve managed to collect enough years that you can start making some larger observations. Not necessarily clearer ones or more definitive ones; I didn’t say that, I just said they were larger. For example, I can think of dozens, maybe hundreds, of things I’ve thought and said years ago – when truly young – that are awful, backwards, and embarrassing. On the other hand, there are a few key things that come back to me frequently, things I said or thought or knew for which I had absolutely no clue how right I was.

1531_Nuestra_Señora_de_Guadalupe_anagoria

I never thought that there was anything wrong with giving money or anything else to homeless people and other panhandlers. It’s not something to which I ever gave much thought, I’ve just always thought it’s okay for other people to ask me for things and, if I have them, for me to give them. Why not? But I’ll say that when I first moved to Boston for college from my further-than-suburban hometown, I probably was a little wary of those I thought might be homeless. You never know, right?

Then, over the years, I spent some time talking and smoking with them in the alleys of the Back Bay. My policy, no matter what, was to freely give my cigarettes. If they asked for two, I’d give three. Don’t judge. Life’s hard enough without telling decent people they can’t have any cigarettes. That’s just the thing. It didn’t take long before I realized – I was the same as them, that they were no different from me. A couple of things go wrong in life, I knew, I make a couple of big wrong turns and, say, I have no family backing me up or keeping me going, and that’s me. It’s that easy.

Don’t think it’s not. Hell, maybe for you, it’s not. I guess I can only speak for me. But I’ll say those couple of things have gone wrong in life, and I have made those couple of wrong turns. My privilege and blessing in life is that, it turns out, I have lots of family backing me up and keeping me going. Lucky for me. Otherwise I’d be in the streets by now. No question.

Angels eating supper, who knew?
Angels eating supper, who knew?

I don’t have to buy into the idea of “Original Sin” to think of myself in many ways as “fallen.” My worst faults are the self-contradictory ones, the borderline hypocritical. I fail to maintain my meditative practices, especially in the moments it counts the most. I fail to be a buoyant and shining spirit with my family.

I tell people to take breaks, to be balanced in their work efforts, and then I bankrupt my own energy constantly trying to do way more than is possible between personal obligations and creative aspirations. More importantly, I speak sincerely on a pretty consistent basis of joy, and of the need to greet all the comings and goings of life with a joyful spirit, singing and dancing as much as possible along the way, knowing that only to be alive in the present moment is blessing in itself – only to turn around and find moments in which I’ve suddenly lost my own joy, or failed to keep it going. I talk about how work isn’t in and of itself important, and then I work myself into exhaustion, I feel overwhelmed, and I lose the joy.

You know, I know the world is ending and civilization might collapse in my lifetime with horrific consequences. But both as a wizard and as me as a person, my expectation is to greet despairing outcome with as much mirth, humor, and song as is humanly possible. That’s kind of my job, as I see it. I can’t let it get me depressed – and it’s really easy to let it get me depressed. Everything is a lot sometimes.

So I don’t have to believe in Original Sin, and you’ll never hear me affirm the Nicene Creed, in order to admit to you that I do think it would be cool to be saved sometimes. Yeah, it’s humbling to admit that, but I’m very weak sometimes, and there’s no practical sense in denying that.

Sabinin._Glory_of_Iveria
Wow, that monolith from 2001 is in this icon.

I mean, we could all use a little saving, right? Far be it from me to even talk about your personal failings, but let’s look at our collective situation approaching doom with little hope or recourse. Even ignoring ecological demise, we continue to grow more and more exploited and oppressed, with what at times seem to be increasingly infrequent victories to offset the injustices. Can’t you see us, at least in your wildest imagination, as the ancient nation of Israel (well, to be precise, Judea, Samaria, Galilee, Idumea, and whatever else), the people who want to live the right way but are a conquered people, a defeated people occupied and colonized by a monolithic and invincible Rome?

I’ll let you ponder that one and we’ll come back to it in a week or so.

Despite all of that, I’m going to try and chill out a little bit. It’s no good trying to tackle the battles of the world if you can’t do so from a disposition of inner peace. Or at least something close to it.

But I’ll close out with another group of people from whom I’ve always felt not-so-different: prisoners. Yeah, yeah, some of them did bad things, but to me that doesn’t change the fact that they’re, like, locked up in jail. That could be me, too. I could do something wrong. I could get framed or set up or targeted. It doesn’t seem particularly far-fetched and never has. Prisoners and homeless people, often considered to occupy the lowest rung of society, and still pretty much the same as me. Maybe you, too.

Even if it does seem a little far-fetched to your sensibilities, I’m going to throw a little Bible at you. This is the big punchline of a rambling secular Christian Lent sermon, and I’m making it because I think the sentiment behind the passage represents a powerful philosophy to apply to the living of one’s life, all of you, from atheist to fundamentalist. These are the words of Jesus, as recorded at the end of Matthew chapter 25: “Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me….Truly I tell you, just as you did it to the least of those who are members of my family, you did it to me.'”

I was reminded of that passage on Twitter recently, and I remarked that it’s probably the best most ignored passage in the entire Bible. I think that’s true. It shouldn’t be an afterthought – what is most important is how we treat the weakest and poorest among us.

When we’re being honest, are we really so different from them?

*

My favorite hymn is not actually a hymn at all, but a simple song written by Bob Dylan and recorded by the Band on its iconic Music From Big Pink – not to mention covered by countless others. “I Shall be Released” is not a religious song, but anyone who’s ever been to a Protestant church service will recognize the structure of the tune, very clearly, as a hymn. It’s sung by a prisoner, feeling completely at the end of his rope, hoping in vain to one day be released. One of the verses goes like this:

They say every man needs protection,
They say that every man must fall,

And yet I swear I see my reflection
Somewhere so high above this wall.

I guarantee you, the more you think about that simple little rhyme, the more moving it will become.

Enjoy – maybe even sing along. Salaam. We’ll talk more about this.

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3 thoughts on “Somewhere so High Above This Wall: A Secular Christian Sermon

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