Crescent Hill Presbyterian Church
September 2, 2018
The Sacred Between II
Last week we continued our conversation, rooted in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians and Eugene Peterson’s commentary on it, on what it means to become mature in Christ, to grow up into the One who is the head of this church, and all others calling themselves Christian. If we have learned nothing else this summer, I want this much to be perfectly clear. Maturity is not something we do alone. To practice Christian maturity is to embrace relationship, letting not just God, but also interactions with other people who are made in God’s image polish and refine us. “Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ”, the way our passage begins this morning, is a radically countercultural statement..
So this morning we are focused on how to actively invite Christ’s participation into our relationships. And specifically how to invite Christ into our relationships at Church. The first thing to keep in mind when operating in the church, where the Holy Trinity has promised to be present to us as we work together in ministry, is that here, of all places, we cannot sacrifice our attention to process just to get to a desired product. In other words, here, and everywhere else for that matter, but especially at church, the end does NOT justify the means. If we get our way in a council meeting by bullying folk aside then even if the decision arrived upon was a desired one, the work has been done without sufficient care. Similarly, if we see someone being bullied in a church meeting and do not point out that is not the way things are done here, we are not exercising sufficient care of process. Tom Are, the senior pastor at Village Presbyterian puts it this way – process and product, both are ministry. That is, attention to the divine in the others we are working with to get things done is not icing on the church cake. It is the cake itself. When we forget that divinity in our rush to make sure we arrive at a certain outcome, we’ve failed to be Christ to the first set of converts we must convince of Christ’s power to transform individuals and the organizations they inhabit. Ourselves. So we must attend not only to the product of our ministry, the decisions we make together. We must also attend very carefully to the WAY in which we make decisions and then communicate them. That is why many churches choose to adopt a covenant of behavior that will govern the relationships among the members. Because coming in swinging your opinion about what has happened or needs to happen like a 2×4 is not the way to make people feel safe, or appreciated.
What happens between people in our church then is of upmost important. Our ability to nurture, or make space to allow God to nurture the sacred between where the Holy Spirit waits shyly in the shadows to reveal herself is an essential for being the Church as Peterson describes it – the Church the Holy Spirit is pleased to inhabit. But Peterson did not learn to focus on “the sacred between” on his own. Martin Buber gave the concept to him. So I want to spend some time this morning talking about his ideas. Buber was a German Jew who spent his life writing and teaching on how to live life whole and holy in the specific conditions posed by the times we live in. He wrote a book in 1923 called I and thou, a book about the invisible, something that can’t be seen, a relationship, a between. It became for many a definitive way of recovering a biblical grounding in understanding the nature and significance of God’s unseen presence in the middle of everything that goes on around us. An “everything” that at that time in Europe included at is very center the attempted extermination of the Jewish people and their God, followed by an unprecedented acceleration of a depersonalizing technology and communications industry.
Buber’s book grew from a 3 word sentence in Hebrew, ehyeh asher ehyeh. When God spoke to Moses at a burning bush in Midian and Moses asked him for his name, the answer he got was not a name. A name is a noun. It identifies and locates, objectifies. What Moses heard from the bush was a verb: “I am…I am just who I am I am here……I am present.” I am Presence. The non-name “name” of God is vocalized in English as Yahweh. Buber translates, “I am there as whoever I am there.” He then elaborates, “ I am that which reveals….I am that which has being here, nothing more. The eternal source of strength flows, the eternal touch is waiting, the eternal voice sounds, nothing more.” We cannot make an object of God in other words; God is not a thing to be named. God is a verb to be experienced. We cannot turn God into an idea; God is not a concept to be discussed. We cannot use God for making or doing; God is not a power to be harnessed. This sounds simple enough, and it is. But none of us finds it much to our liking. But God not as thing or idea or power. God is the Presence to whom we can only be present. So, said Buber are other people.
Buber developed a hyphenated vocabulary of 3 pairs of words to describe types of relationships: I-it, Them-Us, and I-You. But only one word pair leaves room for creativity (read God) to enter the relationship, and that word pair is I-thou. Buber explains how this is true. I-It: is an understanding of relationship that denies and then destroys relationship. I-It turns the other into an object, a thing. An It is a person depersonalized. This framework for understanding relationships makes the other something there for me to do with as I like. I do not listen to an It. There is no mutuality between an I and an It – none. The person understanding relationship by the I-It paradigm does not know reciprocity. When he says You he means: It or my ability to use you for my own ends.
Us-them: This way of understanding relationships divides the world into 2, the children of light and the children of darkness. This is a very convenient way to think about the world because whatever is wrong, it is obviously because of “them”. Complexities vanish. Everything is suddenly tidy. There are goats and sheep, and the sheep by the very nature of things will triumph – didn’t Jesus say so? Us-Them has always attracted demagogues, and the demagogues have attracted great crowds. This understanding of the other in effect demonizes everyone who doesn’t think or feel along the lines of Us. Them can be a nation, religion, race, family, political party or team or single person. They get in the way of our ability to shape the world, or our workplace, in our own image. But the point is that both get shaped in God’s image, right? Which is where an understanding of relationship according to the I-thou paradigm comes in.
I-You: this is the basic word pair in a faithfully lived life, a life lived in personal relationship. “I-You can only be spoken with one’s whole being. The concentration and fusion into a whole being can never be accomplished by me, can never be accomplished without me. I require a you to become; becoming I I say You with reverence. In other words, all actual, holy life is this type of true encounter. Jesus never addressed anyone as an It or a them, as in, ahh, Zaccheus, there you are, one of them, the evil tax-collectors?! No! he was always addressing people as you. The hypens in I-It and Us-them are marks of separation, isolation and finally desolation. The hypen in I-You marks a “sacred between” a dynamic relation of spirit between persons.
I-You is the way to live authentically because life exists only relationally. Everything is connected. God is God only relationally, Creator, Christ and Spirit. God gives only relationally. Church is a gathering of Christians under the conditions of God’s relationality. Ephesians is an immersion in relationality. We are conceived in an act of relationship followed by a nine month apprenticeship of total intimacy in the womb. After coming out of the womb, those who are lucky find it easy going for a couple of years. We have all our needs cared for, food and warmth and affection. We are one with our mother at the breast. One with our father riding on his shoulders. Our siblings entertain us, play and laugh with us. But it isn’t long before we begin to explore the illusion of making it on our own, of getting our own way, of imposing our will on another. The weeds of I-It grow over us. Unchecked, this disintegration leaves us without the possibility of being nourished by the “sacred between.” Paul calls that state “dead through trespasses and sin.” Buber calls it “overcome by THE IT” the depersonalization of everyone and everything, even ourselves. A Wrinkle In Time anyone?
In contrast, Christ centered relationship requires that we stop itizing each other, so that the true other can be received for the gift of God he or she is free of the burden of our expectations or needs. That revelation of another’s authentic you takes place in that full empty full space that reverent receptivity acknowledges. The Hebrew word for such space is ruach, the Greek pneuma, the Latin spiritus, the German Geist. In English we call it breath or wind, but whatever we call it, at its essence it is the invisibility that makes life possible. In English, unfortunately, we’ve lost touch with the root of the our word “spirit” as referring to the very air we breathe and the wind that blows, meaning it is all around us all the time. We have lost touch with the resulting implication that to breathe is to practice respiration, to breathe is to be filled with the primordial breath, to have the Holy Spirit enter us, and so to be inspired. God, the possibility of the sacred between, is present even in our presence to others. If we still need verification of the reality of the invisible spirit permeating the very air we breathe, all we have to do is hold our breath and stop breathing. Soon enough we will turn blue in the face and know with our entire bodies that there is no living without breathing, no living separate from the Holy Spirit who inspires us to remember how connected with are. Without wind in our lungs, without the vitality of the sacred between that is full emptiness, we are dead.
The empty space in which that relation takes place, marked by the hyphen is not empty at all, but full of Presence. Presence is not an object to be measured, an idea to be discussed, not a resource to be used. It is relation, embrace, encounter between I and you. Without an I there cannot be a you. Without a you of divine origin, there cannot be an I who comes from the same place. Spirit is the unseen, sacred between where authentic relationship is born and matures. We are called to attend to that space. At the very least, this means we are to take no one for granted, especially in those places we frequent day by day and week by week, household, workplace, and church. We are always to say “you”, not “hey you!” This is because each you we encounter belongs to God, can mediate God to us, just as we may by grace, mediate eternal beauty to them.
May it be so for you and for me.
Eugene Peterson, as told by Elisa Owen
Crescent Hill Presbyterian Church
September 3, 2018