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SUCCESS (A Sermon)

"Smile" (By Jackson)

“Smile” (By Jackson)

SUCCESS (A Sermon)

Once upon a time two monkeys were splashing in the mud, flinging their feces at each other, laughing like idiots, whatever. One of them said, “let’s go get some grubs” and the other one said “No, I’m tired of grubs, I’m tired of this whole grubby scene.” So he killed his friend and carved him into a pair of boots with straps. And he pulled on his bootstraps up up up until he was out of the primeval muck and now his great-great-great-grandnephew is a barista at Starbucks, slowly paying back his bachelor’s degree in subversive literature. The degree is not worthless, he tells himself – he has a popular blog in which he castigates the primates in Washington. The grand primates are unconcerned about his belabored writings – to them he is only a monkey flinging digital feces. Unscented.

 

…And once upon a time, a semi-intelligent primate was too lazy to search the internet, so I typed “success story” into my own brain and that’s what popped up. What is “success”? What does it mean to be “successful”? My two brothers, both born in New Jersey, are lawyers now – they’re successful by New Jersey standards because they both got out of New Jersey. I was born in the Bronx and married a Bronx-girl. I earn a tenth of what lawyers do, but I’m successful by Bronx standards because my wife is half Jamaican and my floor is covered with children. My Mother was born in Soviet-occupied Hungary, she’s a success because she does not currently reside in a mass grave. When I asked her opinion about monetary versus genetic success she was wisely silent, but I could see that her mind was engaged in calculating dividends of great-grandchildren.
I’m not going to go on and on about my family (I do hope to still receive Birthday gifts from someone this year), but even these few examples suggest a vast diversity of definitions for “success,” even among a small group of relatives.

MALE AND FEMALE “SUCCESS”

As a male of the human species my mind and body were built for hunting. And even though I don’t use these tools to kill animals, I can feel the hunter-gears turning inside when I zoom in on a concrete, short-term goal, clear everything else in my mind to make a straight path, launch myself forward, accomplish the mission, and then immediately forget it and identify another short-term concrete goal. “I will find the remote control.” “I will fill in the blank.” “Twelve other monkeys and I will change this light-bulb.” For the hunter, success is a sporadic series of quickie-victories.
Women are something else. I don’t claim to understand them at all, but being a Snodgrass gives me the right to patiently explain something I know nothing about. Elizabeth has been conditioned by our culture to approach objectives in a male/hunter way, and yet when she’s given a choice she’ll enact a different strategy: she’ll survey the landscape, identify some edible or pleasant or colorful objects that might trigger interesting thoughts or seed an enjoyable conversation, gather these objects in a bag and ideas in her head. Later, while shiny objects enliven the atmosphere and edible objects add color and texture to dinner, she’ll open the jar of conversation pieces in her mind, and a colorful mix of old and new thoughts will tumble from her mouth. Though she’s been trained as a hunter, her body and mind seem to operate more naturally as a gatherer, and so her ideas of success seem to be something like “I want to feel more fulfilled, to be surrounded by objects, foods and people that will make life more stimulating.” Maybe I’m way off here, I confess that my field-study of Elizabeth is clouded by the nature of my hunter mind and body, which is always stalking her in the hope of achieving a short-term concrete goal, a moment of victory followed by a heavy forgetful sleep.
Will I ever achieve a short-term concrete goal again now that I’ve said this in public? In my defense I’ll point out that I avoided words like “clutter” and “chatter.” A gatherer wants to be surrounded by interesting things, so she can nestle in them. A hunter wants one interesting thing at a time, straight ahead, so he can throw himself at it. And I believe that it was a combination of these approaches that made the human species so successful in the wild. But then you put these two jungle animals in the modern industrial consumer world and it starts to look crazy – our nest is a jumbled mess, she’s neurotic and I’m obsessive.

CHANGING MEANING

Our transition from jungle animals to urban intellectuals has been accompanied by a constant renegotiation of what it means to be human and what it means to be successful. Three million years ago, intelligent primates would pick a few berries, pee on a bush and say “There, now we’re both happy.” Success for them was to briefly carry a torch in the great relay-race of life. To eat, shoot and leave, sprouting a few healthy babies and bowel movements along the way. Then ten thousand years ago came the farmer who chops down the bush because it only sprouts berries once a year, and he plants some corn. For him, “success” means being a man, he fights the earth to give him what he wants, returning only the bare minimum to keep the earth producing. Of course the Earth is always winning, so he and his first cousin spawn fourteen young farmhands to fill the Earth and subdue it.
Then there’s me – I read interesting things and say interesting things, I process information. Then I log in to the bank website and the number is bigger, then I go to the grocery store and the number gets smaller, and I cook something and eat it. I live on a high-wire, a tight-rope. I’ve been taught to fear looking down – you don’t want to be a farmer, that’s why you went to college, to learn how to get paid for processing information. And you don’t want to be a forager, that’s why your forefathers took over the world, and it wasn’t easy! But that means “success” is something more abstract, because my hands are neither trading with the earth nor fighting with it.
I suppose “success” is becoming synonymous with celebrity. The world, it turns out, can only feed a limited number of celebrity egos, but cyberspace can accommodate an infinite number of celebrities – the catch is, you’ve got to be your own publicist and your own paparazzi. When I was young there was an expression people used when you accomplished something – “don’t get a big head about it.” But in the selfie-generation your head needs to be the biggest thing in the world – “look at how big my head is compared to Mount Rushmore in the background! The obscene pride of Manifest Destiny is nothing compared to my vacation bender!” “So, um…I joined your fan-club, I get hourly updates on your newsfeed…but what is it you produce? What is it you do?” “’Produce’? Go back to the industrial age, old man.”

GETTING AWAY WITH IT

When I think about “Generation Why Me?” or whatever it’s called, my first impulse is to assume that for young people, “success” is an abbreviation of “sexual excess.” Like one of those Newspeak texting things, “IMHO, Success tonight, LOL.” But as a college teacher, I find that “success” has come to mean something far more alarming – for most of my students, the definition of success is “getting away with it.” These kids, no matter how many times they heard about a “good clean game” in Little League and Sunday school, a quick glance at the TV news revealed something else: the most successful people in this country got there by “getting away with it,” and stay successful by constantly testing the limits of what they can get away with. How many lies can you tell before you get caught? How many interns can you grope? How much money can you steal? (And, PS – if you become successful enough, you can attain the status of plutocratic immunity, “too big to fail,” where you get caught with your hand in the cookie-jar and still get the cookies).
We’re concerned when teenagers bully each other to suicide. I’m horrified when I hear about the date-rape epidemic on college campuses. Meanwhile as a college teacher I’ve had to become a detective to investigate an epidemic of plagiarism. But aren’t these just symptoms of the same disease? Tomorrow’s bankers and senators aren’t in college to learn how to ask deep questions – they’re in college to refine their skills of getting away with it. Because as children watching the Wall-Street bailout, they learned that “getting away with it” is the secret of success. “Do unto others as long as they can’t sue unto you.” Children hear what we say, but what forms them the most is watching what we do. “Bullying is bad, Joey. Now shut up and get me a beer, Donald Trump is on TV.”
It’s the bullies and superstars who become models for success – not the janitors, bus-drivers and teachers. Certainly not the adjunct professor, which I suspect must be Latin for “Scab,” since it basically means the expendable grunt you bring in for a quarter of what you’d have to pay a tenure-track PhD. I make less in a year than the lady who empties the trash can in my office – and I bet she gets dental insurance. Twenty years from now, professors will be huddled outside campus gates at 6am, the dean will come out with security officers in riot gear: “You – speak English? Teach metaphysico-theologo-cosmolonigology? Fifty bucks, you teach it today. Fifty bucks.” “Yes, I…teach that.” And some poor sap who’s been hired to teach ancient history will be lecturing “In the old days when men wore frock coats and top hats, there was a word they used – write this down, it will be on the test – ‘Re-tire-ment,’ which meant that someone got tired,” the day-laborer with a doctorate will get a tear in his eye “and then they played checkers for twenty-five years.” Retirement as we know it is a twentieth century concept, and in the twenty-first century it’ll be replaced by “Re-try-ment,” in which senior citizens will get to retry the service jobs they did as teenagers.
Someday our retirement homes will be like the Mayan pyramids, the Ziggurat of Ur, the great stone heads of Easter Island – incomprehensible ruins, cryptic reminders of a forgotten era. Children playing frisbee with a bedpan washed in acid rain will ask, “what failure caused the fall of this civilization?” And one of our primitive stone-age descendants will think a moment and say, “success. It was success that caused the fall of this civilization.” The children will be confused. But it was not failure that turned the fertile crescent into the Iraqi desert, not failure that turned Easter Island into a barren rock, not failure that turned the Mayan cities into jungle ruins. It was success. Because every year they strove to put more land under cultivation, more backs under the whip, more voices into the pledge of allegiance, and every year they succeeded, until the land was exhausted and the people were too many and it all came tumbling down. Success was their failure. Meanwhile off in the woods, small groups of migratory scavengers enacted a different story, no magnificent metropolis, no crops, no shirts, no money, no stuff but the basic stone tools of survival. Jungle savages. We’ve been taught to think of them as failure, and in monetary and material terms they are, but their failure is success. How do we measure that success? Everyone in this room is descended from primitive savages.

PRIMATES

We may have been told that we come from failure. God’s failure to create a perfect world or humanity’s failure to be a perfect citizen. When I was young, I heard that the human story begins with failure and shame in the Garden of Eden, and that the penalty was death. And, looking around, I’ve noticed that our stone-age, bronze-age and iron-age ancestors do seem to all be dead. Except that they live on in us. Oddly we’ve been taught to think of that as a failure – if our ancestors had behaved better, God would have destroyed the world by now. We don’t have time this morning to delve into religions and various doctrines of “salvation,” we could sort of cobble together the notion that an immortal angel has been chained to an incorrigible monkey, the goal of the game is “don’t let the monkey act like a monkey,” and success is attained when the monkey dies and the angel returns to the sky (wait, that’s not in the Bible…I think that’s in “Escape from the Planet of the Apes”). From the immaculate angelic standard we’re all failures. But from primate standards we’re super-stars – to monkeys we all look like Kevin Costner and Madonna.

We are success – we are the pure and patient eggs that were in the right place at the right time, like a sweatshop seamstress who took a moment to gaze out the window and got discovered by a Hollywood big-shot. Each of us here comes from a sperm that won a dangerous race against a thousand million others, the losers all died. We’re the X-Wing Chromosome that hit the Death-Star, or some of us are the Y-Wing, I’m no biologist. We’re Top Gun, the best of the best. Not to get all queen-ey about it, but we are the champions, my friend. And when the Ben Hur of sperm kissed the Cinderella of ovum, we magically transformed our mothers into pumpkin coaches. And I would like to think many of our mothers, mine included, celebrated the success of biology, and not the failure of birth-control.

Of course the danger didn’t stop there, we are also the success of those people who kept us alive, who furrowed permanent creases in their brows and worried white streaks into their hair. And as babies we thanked them by drifting into a peaceful sleep, letting them gaze at our soft serene baby forms, and then they looked at each other and tried to sneak off into the nursery because we always slept in the middle of their bed and we said “THANK YOU!” But it came out as “Waaaaaaaaah! Were you two in the middle of something? I just wanted to let you know how much I appreciate being alive! Hey – I know a great family game – you change my diaper while you feed me!”

Ten years ago I had the curious experience of doing childcare in the Milwaukee ghetto, and then working in a downtown Manhattan preschool, where parent paid 35 thousand a year to have their kids there for three hours a day. I would ask the ghetto kids, “what do you want to do when you grow up?” And they’d say “Oh, I’ll be the president of a major company with a lot of secretaries and my own airplane.” And when I asked the privileged Manhattan preschoolers they’d say “I want to drive a dump-truck!” “Sorry, Anastacio, you can grow up to be anything you want…except that.” Ten years later I wonder if there’s a trucker in Wisconsin thinking “well if I was running this company,” and a corporate president in Manhattan sighing, “Man I wish I was driving a truck.” But in all my childcare experience, there’s one thing I’ve never heard a child say (including my inner-child, who’s right now shouting at me to shut up and let you people go home). I’ve never heard a kid say “When I grow up, I’m going to be a semi-intelligent primate.”

“When I grow up, I’m going to be a semi-intelligent primate.” Wow, saying it feels good. That puts a whole different perspective on how I would tell the story of how I got from my Mommy’s tummy to here. Because when I say that, I feel like a success, like maybe I’ve accomplished that and more. No pressure, I’m not here to push you into any monkey-business, but if you say I with me, it might feel good. “When I grow up, I’m going to be a semi-intelligent primate.”

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God’s Kingdom and its Byproducts (A Sermon)

I was honored to be invited back to the Wild Goose Festival this year, to participate in a panel discussion entitled “Food, Faith and Justice.”  Here is the talk that I gave:

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GOD’S KINGDOM AND ITS BYPRODUCTS

As a kid I was in a children’s choir that sang “Seek ye first the kingdom of God and its righteousness, and all these things shall be added unto you, Hallelujah.” And I wondered… What “things” will be added? Because “things” like feathery wings, a white dress and a harp didn’t really fire my pre-adolescent imagination. If I was gonna seek the Kingdom of God, I wanted righteous things added like a robot arm…actually, just ‘add unto me’ the whole inspector gadget package and a James Bond Swiss-army sports-car. Oh, and definitely add unto me Lana Wood from Diamonds Are Forever.

Of course this Gospel quote about accessorizing in God’s Kingdom is open to all sorts of interpretation. Also in Christianity we’ve got this translation problem – in Judaism you learn the Torah in Hebrew, Muslims read the Qur’an in Arabic, but Christians read the Bible in every language, which would be fantastic except… Well, take for example, where Jesus says “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal.” (Matthew 6:19) Because of some bizarre translation issue (because “Americana” is becoming its own language), you’ve got all these people stockpiling canned food in case Jesus suddenly returns! To make it even more bizarre, they’re stockpiling canned food and guns – here in the South, most people think the Second Amendment is one of the Ten Commandments. And by ‘south’ I mean ‘south of Canada.’

Fear of Jesus returning and sparking a religious apocalypse is the number one factor driving sales of canned “Vienna Sausage” (by the way, Vienna called, they said they don’t want their name on our nasty canned hotdogs anymore. The Viennese recommend we start calling them “Freedom Franks” instead. Freedom Franks? Then some lawyers from Frankfurt called and said “don’t call them that either”). Somewhere there must be a “Rapture Survival Bible” in which Jesus says “Seek the Kingdom of God – but first, seek ye some pickled sausage and shotgun shells.” And if that book doesn’t exist, I’m gonna write it, spend the royalties on a shelter to protect me from apocalyptic zombie Christians.

But when Jesus said “Seek first the kingdom of God…and all these things shall be added unto you,” he clearly didn’t mean bionic propellers and sports-cars, and if he looked into the future and saw fallout shelters full of canned pork byproducts, he’d have resurrected old boot-camp sergeant Moses. So what “things” did he mean? Keeping in mind he wasn’t a blogger alone in his mom’s basement, he was a street-preacher talking to indebted depressed and destitute peasants – if he offered them wings, white dresses and harps they would have said “Yeah, we’ll wear whatever kind of freaky thing you want, but we need some loaves and fishes and freedom now, and Bank of Romerica just foreclosed on all our homes! What is the Kingdom of God gonna do about that?”

Jesus lived in what we today would call a “developing nation,” meaning a community being forced to develop totalitarian agricultural techniques under economic pressure and military threats from an Empire. The ruler of Galilee owed Rome nine tons of gold per year – but gold didn’t grow in Judea, so taxes were paid in grain, wine and olive oil. Subsistence farmers accustomed to barter trade and community assistance were crushed by these new economic pressures. Taxation, inflation, and the diminishing yield of single-crop farming forced many peasants to take out disastrous mortgages on their ancestral lands, often ending in foreclosure. Family farms were consolidated by investors into massive cash-crop plantations, often hiring the evicted heirs to work as sharecroppers or day-laborers. Quaint fishing villages like Capernaum and Magdala were becoming industrial centers for the production of a fish-paste called Garum (excellent work, marketing department – kids come running for the great taste of Garum), a relative of our modern Worcestershire sauce, with a high salt and vinegar content that made it ideal for export.

When Jesus said “Seek first the Kingdom of God,” he was on a mountainside, speaking with dispossessed day-laborers, the kind of workers you saw standing outside Rome Depot at 6am, hoping to get hired for twelve hours of farm work. Of course the workers who got hired that day were not sitting on a hillside listening to this teacher – Jesus was speaking to the rejected peasants who did not get hired that afternoon. And he promised them dignity. And he promised them laughter. And he promised them food. And he promised that they, the migrants, the outcasts, the powerless, he promised that they would inherit the land.

And he knew exactly what three questions they had, because he’d heard them before at every place he spoke – it wasn’t three questions about the Consubstantiality of the Trinity. Jesus said, “Do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ …indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” (Matthew 6:31-33) “These things” – food, water, clothing, the bare necessities of life. This wasn’t cream pie in the fluffy sky, a floating church picnic with angels singing non-stop top-ten hymns for all eternity. And it wasn’t a bountiful bank account and a grocery store stacked with canned meat byproducts either. He was talking about daily bread. No additives, no preservatives.

 

QUITTERS

 

And the Gospels tell us some of these peasants dropped everything to follow him – we get the image of thirteen dudes with beards and sandals bumming around from town to town (in modern times they’d have had a van with the words ‘Love Child’ written on the side). But there’s a twist, like the ending of Fight Club when we read in Mark 15:41 that there were also women who “used to follow him and provided for him when he was in Galilee; and there were many other women who had come up with him to Jerusalem.” Wait a minute – you mean this traveling frat-party had women on the road with them all along? Paying their bills? Trudging through the blazing sun from one dusty town to another? “Aw, gimme a break, Mary. Peter gets cranky, he chops off somebody’s ear, I fix it. But this thing, ‘low blood sugar’ – what the heck is that? I know it’s girl-stuff, but you definitely mention it more than once a month.”

And if the Jesus movement included women – Paul attests that Jesus’ disciples traveled with their wives – what about that byproduct of men and women: children? “Are we there yet? Are we there yet?” “No – for the last time, when the mourners laugh and the meek have inherited the earth, then we’ll know we’re there. Anyone with two ears had better listen up! Don’t make me turn these sandals around.” The image of Jesus and his twelve drinking buddies on a road trip is a lot of fun, but when we mix in women and children, then we might start to see something else – a tribe, a small nomadic tribe. And when your cooperative village culture is being torn apart by commercialization, competition and consolidation, when daily bread and dignity are becoming limited commodities, when Empires and investors leave no room inside society for cooperation and compassion…then a voice from the wilderness will call people outside of society.

A thousand years before Jesus, God had rescued the Hebrews from Pharaoh and his food pyramid of locked-up crops – a pyramid where the poor majority got cheap wheat while an elite minority got the certified fresh organic grapes. Remember that it was not Pharaoh’s soldiers and chariots that entrapped the Hebrews into slavery, it was the bread he locked away. And before the Hebrews could be rescued from Pharaoh’s chariots, God had to break their addiction to Egyptian grain by sabotaging Pharaoh’s agricultural apparatus – the water supply was fouled, the livestock decimated by plague, the wheat-fields pummeled by hailstones and the fruit-trees stripped by locusts. All this so that God could rehabilitate the Hebrews in the desert, in the wilderness, to become a nomadic tribe living one day at a time. And when I hear about our modern agricultural apparatus under attack from these same forces, I sometimes wonder if God’s at it again, looking to break our addiction to industrial agriculture and rehabilitate us in the wilderness.

The Moses movement and the Jesus movement were a protest, a walk-out, a boycott. An alternative to extortion and Empire, competition and consolidation, but this alternative was then enshrouded in mystical mysteries and sealed in a grand stone tomb. Growing up I was taught that Jesus proposed a boycott of human bodies, an escape to a purely spiritual realm – because it’s so smelly in this one, especially on the third day of a camp-out. But in the Gospels he says so many times that the Kingdom of God will provide food and shelter, daily bread, debt release, the freedom of the birds. And if God’s Kingdom will provide for our bodies then it must be here, on the land that the meek shall inherit. But it won’t be found in stock markets and supermarkets, it will not be a by-product of competition and dehumanizing mass production – it won’t be a mystery-surprise floating in your can of Vienna Sausage (don’t ever eat the mystery-surprise in those cans, or you really will sprout a wing). It will come from courage, cooperation and compassion, men and women choosing a different future, and when the children ask “are we there yet?”  “Hold my hand and don’t be afraid, we’ll get there together.”

 

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