Identity and Transcendence
September 9, 2018
Matt. 28:18-20; Colossians 3:11
If you happen to be visiting this week, I’ve been on sabbatical from the church since May and I just recently returned. Nothing burned down while I was gone for which I am grateful. My thanks to Rev. Caroline and Rev. Julie for developing meaningful worship services and to the congregation for attending during the summer. To Mark, William, and Danny for musical beauty and grace. To Annie Salario and Professor Donovan Sherman for their insightful reflections. To our intern, Kirk Johnson, for pitching in and filling gaps wherever he was needed.
And to all of you for giving me a much needed time away and a sneak peak at retirement. I speak for Kate when I say that I’m not ready to retire yet and she’s not ready to have me around all the time either. A lot of time together… and we were both pleasantly surprised to discover that we are becoming more gracious and understanding towards each other with every decade.
But for us, it was a little like we were back in college backpacking college across Europe- but this time with a car… You may wonder why we traveled on sabbatical? Traveling really makes me change gears, especially a trip of this length. You don’t talk as much when you don’t speak the language. And you pay attention when you can’t understand the signs. You exercise greater understanding and patience when you can’t figure out how to turn on the washing machine or the Coffee maker or the lights or the shower. You would think that we would have the same intuitive approach to technology and machines but we don’t.
More than that you may wonder why the Reverend from the Multi-cultural church spent his time going back to the all-white quadrant of the world. It is a good question. I went back home to the Old country as part of the quest we all have to find out who I am.
Last year, Kate and I did the DNA testing, so exotic and interesting for so many of us, so boring and predictable in mine. My family comes from Northern England, before that Holland and France, before that Scandinavia. Kate’s family comes from southern Scotland, before that France, before that Scandinavia. My family left a long time ago and I don’t actually know that much about my people or their history so I decided to find out for myself.
So, we left for France, the coast of Brittany and Normandy, looking out from where our ancestors invaded England. Then we went to Amsterdam, drove west to northern Germany, took a ferry up to Oslo, drove across the mountains to the fjords, came back to Sweden where we saw Maria and Andreas Schlein-Andersen from Christ Church, went down to Coppenhagen and Denmark.
This was a cultural exchange program done via Air BnB so we got to meet more locals than we might have otherwise, some of them long time Europeans, some of them recent immigrants.
And it is true we were in the whitest part of Europe. My people are the Golden Retrievers of the European people (Slide 1). With our children, you only get a choice of blonde or dirty blonde like these two Swedish girls at a Christmas celebration to St. Lucia. Or for the other 70% of the kids, you get the straight-out bleach white hair (slide 2).
It is strange and then oddly endearing to be surrounded by children that you could easily mistake for your own grandchildren. I must have seen my son Ian a dozen times in Norway and Sweden. (slide 3)
I would go into a bar or the grocery store. Invariably people would speak to me in Norwegian or Swedish. Sometimes they would go on for quite a while until they saw my credit card to pay for my beer or the yogurt, was from an American bank. Even then, they would speak English and occasionally forget that I was American and talk to me again in Norwegian. The World Cup is like that. Everyone has an opinion to share.
The Swedes don’t say, “Bon Jour” or “Buenos Dias” to you in passing. They say, “Hey Hey” kind of like “Hey Dude” like Italians when they say “Paesan”, my country man. I liked that.
And I like the simple ways that you find your people’s humor funny centuries after your family left the motherland. There are certain cultural rhythms that are deeper within us than we generally recognize.
My ancestors are an outdoor people (slide 4). They worshipped nature before the Romans taught them about Christianity. And it was something of a confirmation to realize that we have a collective subconscious that is drawn to the beauty of nature. It is the way so many of us feel alive, this just being the northern most version.
I have a reflecting pond at our farm. I like to sit and look at it, especially in the fall, when the orange and red Maples glimmer off the flat surface of the water. I wonder where that came from? (Slide 5). This is what my ancestors saw all their lives.
We stayed in the fjords for 10 days. This is Gerianger Fjord (Slide 6). You can see the glaciers on top of the mountains. They are about 4,000 feet high. But what you can’t know is that the water you are looking at is over a mile deep. It has a quality of stillness to it. A quality of quiet and flat in the morning and evening that doesn’t exist many places on our planet.
This area is covered in one lane roads with twoway traffic and drops over the edge of 1000 feet. I had a number of opportunities to face my fear of heights head on.
This far North, most of the winter is dark most of the time and they have the Aurora Borealis that we don’t have (slide 7).
You can camp out, literally anywhere, but there is just a lot of open space that makes you feel like you are up on top of the world (slide 8). (Slide 9).
And occasionally on a trip back to your roots you discover something mildly profound. My favorite color is blue. (slide 10) Blue in Scandinavia is a special color because in the middle of the winter, the sun barely comes up, so you get this quality of blue background that we just really don’t have. I wonder how deeply it might be imprinted on my mind that blue is beautiful because of so many generations of my ancestors gazing on it?
But my people are a modest folk, as most of us discover when we go back to the old country. We were very late to build cities. Saint Paul says that there is ‘neither civilized people, nor barbarian’s’ in Christ. My people would have been the barbarians he had in mind when he penned those words.
We didn’t build our first cities until after the end of the Roman empire. Before that, we were nomadic hunter gatherer’s. Stockholm and Oslo were both founded around 700 AD.
In other words, Egypt had come and gone (slide 11). That is the Temple of Karnak as it would have been about 2000 years before our first city. Ancient Greece had come and gone (slide 12). This is a depiction of the Agora at Athens below the Parthenon at 500 BCE.
And of course, Rome had come and gone. This is the Coliseum about the time of Jesus and Saint Paul. (slide 13)
My people lived beyond the edges of civilization, built nothing out of stone, so almost nothing remains. They worked with wood (slide 14). This is a church from the 1300’s, one of the very few left in the country- the rest burned. Very simple. Very modest Dark, and I must admit, largely uninteresting in comparison to the Gothic cathedrals all across southern Europe.
They mostly fished and sold dried cod (slide 15) and herring to Catholic Europe during the Middle Ages, the most popular food during Lent, when people were banned from eating meat.
They were a shy people and went to extraordinary lengths to get away from intruders building small villages on islands that were very difficult to get to (slide 16). This was the norm across Europe after Rome came to an end and the land was lawless to try to get away from people and protect yourself.
My people stumbled on a path to later success this way. They moved so far north and lived so remotely that they escaped the main killer of people in Babylon, Egypt, and Rome. Malaria that they got from the mosquito’s. Only the Romans figured out the connection and it was too late by the time they did.
But they were very slow to settle down and much feared by all the other people in Europe during this period the Viking period. We have documents in every single language in Europe of people adding to the end of their daily prayers, one more line impromptu, “O God save us from the Redheaded men” (slide 17)
I was reminded of how crude we really were standing in the University of Upsalla in Sweden. (slide 18). Swedish, Norwegian, Dutch, Danish, and English have no words for education. All our words, University, Academia, educate, and all of the terms from our academic disiciplines- psychology, biology, science- all these terms are Latin because my people knew nothing of them until we met the Romans.
It is said that when we raided Rome in 410 in support of the Visigoths (Germans), we intended to plunder the main temple of Rome, the Pantheon, which is still standing I might add. But when we got inside and saw all of the marble statues. When we saw the jewels and the inlaid gold and brass, we were so overcome that we left in awe. It is a Roman story, told to make them look good.
But we had no capability to make such things for centuries to come. And when we did, we copied the Romans. (Slide 19). This is the University today.
And the romanticized memory of the Viking era is long, long gone. This is the Norwegian army today, the changing of the guard in Oslo (Slide 20). Cute, but no fighting force. And it bothers them that they are so dependent on the United States. They know it isn’t right.
They kept reminding me of just how much infrastructure they have bought because they don’t have a huge military bill to foot every year. This is the train station in Oslo (slide 21). Kind of like Penn Station only different.
And these are the bike lanes in Oslo near the train station (slide 22). Can you imagine peddling safely to your midtown office on an elevated bike path to and from the train? How manageable..
The tram in Coppenhagen, (slide23) driverless, stops every 8 minutes or so and runs almost all day and all night. Tickets all automated. You swipe your card.
Many things they do better than us, but spiritually I kept being reminded of the importance of transcending the wee village, the monolithic culture, and the Old World way of doing things.
Interestingly, it was sports that gave me the cue about this. This was a summer with World Cup games and the pub was crammed full of people for every game.
What is the most popular sports team in the world as anecdotally observed by the number of team logos you spot people wearing? The most popular sports team in the world and if you guessed Manchester United, you would be wrong?
The most popular by a factor of 5 or 10 over the next place. (Mark, slide 24). The New York Yankees. It is great logo. Over and over I was reminded how important we are in the minds of people in the Old Country.
I was paying for gas in a remote village in Norway. The teenager running my credit card asked me where I was from? I said, “just outside New York City”. He went “Wow, you live in Brooklyn?” I said “No, I live in New Jersey but my daughter lives in Brooklyn”. And then he used the American word that he was hoping to use. He said, “Awesome”.
“Awesome” is now a word in every language as far as I can tell. Boys everywhere sport Brooklyn beards and the world over is addicted to ink as in tat’s. Who would know?
But, it isn’t just our hip city, our big buildings, our theater or great night life though that is part of it. It is the ideal that we stand for. (Slide 25). The Old World, wherever we came from, Europe, Africa, Asia, the Middle East, Russia.
They all know that the world is becoming a multi-cultural melting pot, even the remote parts of Europe that used to be all Swedish. Soon, 20% of the population there will be from outside Sweden (slide 26). Only they aren’t prepared for it like they think we are.
People believe that we in the States, but we in New York in particular, have done more to open the doors of opportunity for more people from around the world than anywhere else. I hate to tell you this, but they admire you. They think you are doing something more spiritually important here than they are.
They need you to lead. They need for us to succeed at this project creating a world, in the words of St. Paul, where ‘there is no male or female, no civilized or barbarian, no favored nation but we all respect each other’. In the past decade or two, multi-culturalism has also become the leading social challenge all across Europe. You see people from Ethiopia and Somalia (slide 27), from Iraq, Syria and North Africa (slide 28)
The challenge of the first day of school in Copenhagen is the challenge the world over (slide 29), how can we develop the potential of each and every child? How can we help them develop a respect towards others? How can we become real neighbors as Mr. Rogers would ask us to be?
This summer I wondered if the Nation-State might not be a fairly short-lived political entity if we could zoom out on history? Most of the European nations were formed in the 1880’s. Back then you heard ‘we need a German nation for the German people, an Italian nation for the Italian people, a French nation for the French people.
But in a short 120 years, after two world wars, we suddenly live in a world that is increasingly one global village through technology. We have major migrations the world over. Europe has so many colonials that have moved back that Paris and London have entire suburbs of people from Algeria, from the Ivory Coast, from Morocco, as we saw taking the train out Paris through the suburbs to Charles DeGaulle airport.
And every country across Europe now has refugees from the Middle East, from Africa. I was struck this summer, with the people that we met that had emigrated to Europe, how families the world over have the same hopes and dreams for their children, the same attitude from their teenagers (even those wearing a veil), the same anxieties that keep them up at night.
This is the future and you are leading the way towards the future. I want you to know that all of those people around the world are wearing those Yankee hats because they want to be you. The United States remains the number one destination people want to emigrate to the world over by a factor of several fold. And New York is the number one destination that people want to emigrate to in the US by a factor again of 10.
And we need a spirituality that comes from the future to address the future that we are headed towards. I was struck visiting Cathedral after Cathedral in Europe by the fact that religion there is so wedded to the past, to a past era, to a past way of thinking. (Slide 30). This is the Cathedral at Amiens. I show you this image because we copied their labyrinth and put it in our atrium.
These Cathedrals are impressive testaments to the convictions of an earlier era. And today, they are more like museums than living worship communities. A lot of people walking around taking pictures, few people actually attending the Mass, and fewer still who seem to actually know what is going on during the service.
If you wed yourself to the past, however majestic or sturdy it was two centuries ago, but you can’t speak to the future challenges that we face with any vision of how we can come together and transcend the villages and parochial nations that we all come from, so that we can create a new vibrant way of celebrating our diverse cultures in a world where we are members of one global village, you get viewed as barnacle on the hull of the boat, a drag on progress that needs to be scraped off.
Sometimes, I think we are just a small corner of a small town in New Jersey, what difference could we make? But then, when I zoom out, and see myself in this bigger chain of connection, I remember that the world is watching us. (slide 31). They need all of us to lead and show them what is possible. They need for us to succeed and solve this transition from “our people” towards “all people”. And it is not just politics. It is not just economics. It is also a spiritual way of looking at our world (slide 32), a spiritual way of being in community (slide 33).
It was wonderful to go back to the source from where I came. My favorite part was hiking back up to the glacier which you can see in the distance (slide 34) and seeing the torrent of fresh water that melts every year, sometimes an incredible aqua color from the phosphorous and other minerals in the water. High, high up, and so remote that no one else lives up there. Our source from Mother Earth
We need you to bring your identity, your unique culture from your remote place of origin as well. We are going to create a new community that respects our diverse traditions, our many cultures, and also transcends it together.
My friends, this is our home, the one planet Earth (slide 35). Many nations coming together as one people. This is our future. This is our hope. Join the movement. Amen.