Monday, March 02, 2009

A third way

Genesis 9: 8-17; Psalm 25: 1-10
********* Congregational Church
March 1, 2009

When I was a little girl, I would look at my reflection in the bathroom mirror, and think to myself that I was the only person who had to use a mirror to see my face and my body, as I looked out on the world from within my small frame, from behind my eyes, and that no one else was like this.

As I grew older, especially into adolescence, it was always my view of reality, of events, my emotions, my perspective that was the most important, the only framework on which I based my values, my decisions and my ideas of “The Way Things Are”. In a nutshell, I was the center of my universe.

That is, until I had begun my habit as a serious reader, until I had formed friendships in earnest. Through my relationships with books and with peers and adults, I discovered this whole new world of other people’s opinions, thoughts, feelings, points of view, which were entirely different from my own! Now I had to find another path of negotiating the world in such a way that would honor not only my own selfhood but that of others as well.

Perhaps you’ve heard of the Third Way philosophy of politics. It is a term used by centrists as a synthesis of capitalism and democratic socialism, using elements of both of these divergent methods of economic governance. It has also been known as the Radical Center. FDR’s New Deal is an example of this Third Way politics. The Third Way rejects both pure socialism and laissez-faire capitalism. Instead it focuses on social justice as well as the development of wealth and technology. Both laissez-faire capitalists and social democrats feel betrayed by this Third Way, because of an all-or-nothing adherence to their own positions.

To help move beyond this culture and political war we’ve been engaging for the past half century or so, a non-profit, non-partisan think tank by the name of was launched in January 2005. They take their motto from the eighteenth verse of the first chapter of Isaiah: “Come, let us reason together.” Working on security, political and cultural issues, this team of leaders is working with elected officials, candidates and advocates to create progressive policies, to change the climate of debate from one of fear and anger to that of reason and respect.

Anytime there is more than one person in the room, there is going to be a difference of opinion of some sort, therefore, a need for a third way: not my way, not your way, but another. That is why when two or three are gathered, Jesus is in the midst of them: not as a benediction for small gatherings but because in the Church, Jesus is our third way of being in community with one another.

Lord, dear Lord above: God of mercy, God of love,
Please look down and see my people through.

Every relationship must have a third way if it is to be an enduring one: not a compromise but an altogether different way of living, creating a new being, a third entity. Marriage is a perfect example. Each person in the marriage has an independent life, with their own work, interests, desires and hopes, yet together there is also an interdependence which helps to create shared hopes and interests, giving a kind of synergy to each partner, shaping this third entity, a marriage, a covenant.

Of course these are the best intentions in a relationship. Often it is difficult for us to find this third way. We can be hopelessly wed to our own opinions and attitudes, believing that it has to be my way or the highway. We perceive a threat, we think a conflict is at hand, the fear is rising in our throats, and instantly our bodies and minds react in the ancient way: fight or flight. We come out with our weapons ready or we run away to a safe place to hide.

I believe that one of the next stages in human evolution will be to evolve beyond this “fight or flight” reflex and to find a third way of being in community with each other. When we were hunting saber-tooth tigers and mastodons, perhaps even up to when we were pioneers in a new world, we needed that ready flood of adrenaline that would literally save our lives and the life of whatever community we lived in. It was absolutely necessary that our weapons were ready or that we had a safe place to hide.

But throughout much of our modern history most of that which we perceive as a threat will not lead to loss of life. To be sure, many people, groups, communities, and nations are convinced that this is “The Way Things Are”: that we cannot live side by side with those of another skin color, religion—including those of the same faith but different interpretation of scripture and tradition, sexual orientation, or political viewpoint, therefore we must fight until one of us has conquered the other. And flight doesn’t seem to be an honorable option anymore.

Lord, dear Lord above: God of mercy, God of love,
Please look down and see my people through.

A third way beyond “fight or flight” would be compassion. When we perceive a threat to our beliefs, to our viewpoint, it is a signal that this is the time for listening compassionately to another’s beliefs, another’s viewpoint, another’s pain of feeling as alone and lost as we are. It is easier for us to be flooded by our fear and anger; after all, compassion requires real work of the soul. But this is why we have the forty day journey of Lent: that real work would be required of our souls, because our souls need to be hearty when we come to Holy Week and for the living of our days.

In the Hebrew scripture lesson we read that even the Almighty, the Creator of heaven and earth and of every creature and every living thing has found a third way to be in relationship with the creation. Before the flood God was the Creator, whose spirit moved over the face of the waters, set lights in the heavens, separated the waters and made the dry land, put plants and creeping things and animals upon it and birds in the sky, finally crowning creation with those made in God’s image, male and female, and gave them dominion over the created order. And a voice proclaimed everything good.

But the creation had become corrupt. Blood had been spilled in a jealous rage between Cain and Abel, opening a Pandora’s Box of violence. The inclination and the thoughts of the hearts of humankind were continually evil. And God was sorry that he made humankind on the earth; it grieved him in his heart. And so with the decision to flood the earth, to blot out human beings from the earth along with every living creature, God was not only Creator but also now the Destroyer. Yet because of God’s decision to save Noah and his family, along with pairs of every living thing, there was hope for God yet.

The third way of God was covenant, and the one with Noah was the very first one of many. Through this covenant with Noah, his family, his descendants, with all creatures and every living thing, for future generations, God became the Redeemer of creation. Rather than an endless cycle of creation and destruction, God chose to redeem the creation through relationship, through covenant, and invited humankind and all life on this earth to be a partner in that relationship.

This was over and against the gods of the time that Genesis was written and edited. God’s people were in exile in Babylonia, around 500 BCE, with a remnant left behind in Israel. It was essential to write the ancient stories during this time of turmoil and fear so that the people would not lose faith, that they would remember that God remembered them. The Babylonian creation story was one of creation through destruction: the god Marduk kills his sea goddess mother Tiamat and with her body he establishes the earth and the sky, with bars to keep the waters from escaping.

There is debate over which creation story was written first, but it is the differences rather than the similarities which are important. The Hebrew God hung up his weapon of destruction, his bow, in the sky as a reminder to God that never again would God destroy all life with a flood. Never again would God enter into battle with creation. Never again would God give up on us. Only through relationship, through covenant, through compassion and community, only through this third way could God’s creation be redeemed and saved.

This is no easy path to take and so God takes the first step. God takes many steps to be closer to creation and to humankind, as many that will lead to a cross and to death, in the covenant established in Jesus Christ.

But it seems God can only come so far; we must be willingly to turn and come close to God ourselves. But as Psalm 25 illustrates for us, coming close to God is not easily undertaken; it is not for the faint of heart to come closer to the heart of the Holy One of heaven and earth. Our fear, our pride and our inability to trust constantly get in our way. Yet we do not need to be afraid of this God. We are assured that “grace is never lacking/And that strength and courage will be bestowed.” This God is in covenant with us and desires only that we move closer in relationship; not only as individuals but also as a community, as a whole creation that includes every living thing on this earth.

God has chosen the third way of covenant and peace and thus, is ever striving to redeem this creation. By establishing this covenant with us, we are invited to join God in striving for this third way of peace, compassion and mercy.

How is it difficult for you to trust God, both as individuals and as a covenant community? Which areas of your life and your life together become easily flooded with fear and anger? When have you experienced the redemption and grace of God and what changes did you live through as a result? Is prayer for you a time to be brutally honest with God or to be good and find the right words? What real work is required within your soul and within the soul of this church? How do the ministries of this church connect with God’s third way of compassion and redemption?

At times this human life can seem overwhelming, full of storms, struggle and suffering. Yet God has made a promise to us, never again to blot us out from the earth but instead to enter into relationship with us, that we would never again be alone. We covenant with one another to journey toward this God of peace and justice together, that we might participate in the healing of the earth and all living things, that we might be people of the Third Way, of the Radical Center. Sounds like Jesus to me.

I believe God is now, was then, and will always be.
With God’s blessing we can make it through eternity.

Lord, dear Love above: God of mercy, God of love,
Please look down and see my people through.
Please look down and see my people through.




1. “Come Sunday”, words and music by Duke Ellington.


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