Thunder: Perfect Mind 5-22-16

Friends, I need to give a longer than usual introduction to our second reading this morning. The Thunder: Perfect Mind is a kind of spiritual poem. The excerpts we read this morning are from this fascinating text written originally in Coptic, maybe in Greek. It is one of 51 manuscripts found in a cave in Nag Hamadi in the 1945. Some of those manuscripts have helped us understand the history of the Bible better. Several of them, like this one, have given us examples of readings that show that there was some really interesting thinking going on that did not make it into the canon of our Bible.

We don’t know what the title means: The Thunder: Perfect Mind, though it is certainly a poetic and interesting title. A number of contemporary writers and film makers have become excited enough about this poem as to use it in their work. Toni Morrison has quoted it in two books. Umberto Eco discussed it in his book, Foucault’s Pendulum. Julie Dash opened her film Daughters of the Dust with a long quotation, and Ridley Scott used it in a film as well.

So, it has excited more attention in the art world than in the church, but it is clearly a spiritual text. We see in our time a decline in religious institutions and at the same time heightened interest in spirituality and spiritual sources. This reading, which is a bit strange and unorthodox to our ears, may be useful for those who want to be challenged spiritually. Though it makes no mention of Jesus, it is most similar to the Gospel of John in its use of “I am” statements and its more mature inclusion of female imagery.

Listen for the Word of God for you today in this reading from The Thunder: Perfect Mind.

The Thunder:  Perfect Mind (meditation exercise excerpt)

I was sent out from power…

I am the first and the last

I am she who is honored and she who is mocked….

I am the wife and the virgin

I am he the mother…..

I am a sterile woman and she has many children….

I am the comfort of my labor pains…. And it is my husband who gave birth to me….

I am the silence never found And the idea infinitely recalled….
I am both awareness and obliviousness I am humiliation and pride….
I am she who is disgraced and she who is important….

Do not be arrogant to me when I am thrown to the ground

You will find me among the expected…. In my weakness do not strip me bare

Do not be afraid of my power I am she who exists in all fears and in trembling boldness…

I am he from whom you hid… I am the mind..and the rest..

I am a foreigner and a citizen of the city

I am being I am she who is nothing…

I am the enduring and the disintegration…

I am a mute that does not speak and my words are endless…

I am she who shouts out and I am thrown down on the ground

I am the one who prepared the bread and my mind within…

This is God’s good news.

May 22, 2016

I Am: Thunder: Perfect Mind

“You gotta get out of that tomb.” Bishop Elaine Stanovsky was preaching on the last morning of General Conference on Friday and, though I was working on finances while I listened with just one ear, all of a sudden I found myself in tears.

She said, “The good news is that God is better than the church. God is not finished with us yet. God’s love and grace, God’s judgment and forgiveness, God’s welcome and blessing are not controlled by General Conference.” She said “the church will do anything to keep order, even killing Jesus if he threatens that order.” She said, “Let us leave the tomb quickly to cross over to life…lay aside the weight and the sin that clings closely.”

She invited people to bow to each other and ask forgiveness of any one they had treated less than human during the conference. She mentioned in particular anyone who made assumptions about LGBT folks without listening to how they understand the Bible or anyone who assumed the voting of African delegates was being controlled by somebody besides themselves – without listening to their cultural context.

After a conference where some people began to discuss schism and break up of the United Methodist Church, she insisted that people leave that day as a United Church – united not because of their own efforts, but because of God’s love. She spoke truth to me. She embraced the contradictions of the week and the moment and allowed that God was bigger than our human divisions.

 

That’s what this passage from Thunder: Perfect Mind is also about for me. When my friend Hal Taussig retired from his teaching job at Union Seminary this spring, his students, some of whom helped him translate this text from the original Coptic language, had us read it together during the ritual of retirement. They invited us all to come up with our own “I am” statements – our own imaginings of God’s voice saying “I am.”

“I am the Lesbian pastor yearning for acknowledgement that I am loved and accepted by the church as well as by God and I am the African delegate insisting that the traditional values I learned in that same church be respected and upheld.” God can bring those two together! This amazing spiritual text from the very early years of the church recognizes this truth in a way that we could hardly express more beautifully.

I invite you to reflect on what your “I am” statement would reconcile. What messes in your life can be reconciled when you know the power of the Living God to transcend our human limitations? An “I am” statement of course is a powerful Christian and Jewish representation of God. When Moses asks God what name to use when he told the people who sent him, God says, “I am who I am.” Yahweh.

Jesus in the Gospel of John echoes the great “I am” in the discourses that begin, “I am the true vine.” “I am the truth, the way, and the life.” “I am the good shepherd.” “I am the Light of the World, the bread of life, the first and the last.” None of these sound as radical to our ears as the “I am” statements of Thunder: Perfect Mind, “I am she who is disgraced and she who is important.” “I am a sterile woman and she has many children.”

These surprising claims of the truth about God may be a help to us as we meet the unique challenges of a time when our spiritual paradigms are shifting underneath us. These understandings from over 1500 years ago may help us today to realize that we can have unity even when we are divided, that women’s voices are essential even though they are shamed, that our denomination has a future, which draws on tradition and the past, but becomes something new.

This Thursday, we have a meeting to talk specifically about the General Conference in relation to the way it handled the issues of human sexuality, which are the most controversial issues in our denomination of our time. I believe we will greet some discouraged church folk, who feel like they are coming back from the front lines, who did not feel the Spirit moving so clearly amidst the gathering in Portland. Today, I just want to say that I felt the Spirit moving in the parts of the sessions that I watched. Anyone could come away from the conference discouraged. I want to hang on to a little bit of hope – that our church will follow bishops like Bishop Elaine Stanovsky or Bishop Peggy Johnson, that our church will welcome women in leadership at all levels and support women in every part of their lives, that our church will listen to ancient voices like the ones that wrote Thunder: Perfect Mind and new voices of humility like the one that wrote Mary’s Lament.

The denomination may yet divide and that might be a good thing. The denomination may yet stay united and that could be a good thing as well. I am just thrilled that The Spirit will lead us – of that I am confident. If we listen to each other, if we listen to the Spirit, she will guide us. God will be with us and show us the way.

This is God’s good news.

Responsive Hymn: 2186  Song of Hope