Friday, June 9, 2006

Arenas of Oikos: interconnectedness and human relationships

Have you ever heard of the game Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon? The idea is that you can connect any actor or actress in film to Kevin Bacon with a series of six short steps, or six series of connection. For example, you might connect Kevin Costner to Kevin Bacon in one step, because they were in the movie J. F. K. together. On the other hand, you might take all six steps to try and connect Julia Louis-Dreyfus to Kevin Bacon. Do you know who she is—Elaine, from Seinfeld, right? You might connect Julia Louis-Dreyfus to Kevin Bacon by first connecting her to Tom Berenger in the movie Major League. You might connect Tom Berenger to Greta Scacchi in the movie Shattered, then to Harrison Ford in the movie Presumed Innocent. You might connect Harrison Ford to Karen Allen in Raiders of the Lost Ark. Then you might connect Karen Allen to Kevin Bacon in Animal House for the six full degrees.

You get this idea that everybody in film and television is connected through these six little steps if you play the game. Actually, if you have all kinds of free time and aren’t embarrassed to admit it, there’s a study Forbes Magazine did not too long ago showing that you can connect everybody to Kevin Bacon in an average of only 2.8 steps.

What’s funny is it’s not just Kevin Bacon that’s this interconnected. Actually, you can connect everybody on the entire planet within five steps or less. Each person knows, on average, somewhere about fifteen hundred acquaintances. In your lifetime you’ll meet about fifteen hundred people, who you remember, whose name you recall, whose association you’ve made. In the 6.3 billion people on our planet, when we begin to map those fifteen hundred acquaintances over top of one another, you realize that you know somebody, who knows somebody else, who knows somebody else, who knows Usama Ben Laden…and the C.I.A. is coming for you.

When you look at something like this you get this feeling that on our planet we’re all connected to each other; we’re really not that far away. Maybe a couple hundred years ago we were really only connected to the people in our own town or village or city or maybe we had far away relatives in another place, but today everybody is connected. You’ve seen the business book recently, The World is Flat, talking about how connections allow us to branch out and really be connected to everybody.

As I’m thinking about this idea of connection, I realize this is, of course, a very biblical idea—the idea that what happens to somebody matters to all of us. What happens to the people on the other side of the planet should matter to us here in North America. We are connected to other people of faith or people of other faiths or people of no faith. We are all connected; we are all intertwined in our own life story. I thought we’d look a little bit about that today and study a little bit about this idea of connection and interconnectedness as it’s represented in the Bible. If you’ve got a Bible, we’re going to look in the Book of Acts, Chapter 10 and Verse 22.

At this point in the story the Apostle Peter is sitting at home doing what all apostles typically do on a Saturday afternoon. I think he’s just sitting doing nothing, maybe talking to his wife, maybe looking at the sports page and a couple of strangers show up at his door and they say to him:

“Peter, Captain Cornelius, a God-fearing man well-known for his fair
play— ask any Jew in this part of the country—was commanded by a
holy angel to get you and bring you to his house so he could hear what
you had to say.” Peter invited them in and made them feel at home.

The next morning he got up and went with them. Some of his friends
from Joppa went along. A day later they entered Caesarea. Cornelius
was expecting them and had his relatives and close friends waiting with
him. The minute Peter came through the door, Cornelius was up on his
feet greeting him—and then down on his face worshiping him! Peter
pulled him up and said, “None of that—I’m a man and only a man, no
different from you.”

Talking things over, they went on into the house, where Cornelius introduced
Peter to everyone who had come. Peter addressed them, “You know, I’m
sure that this is highly irregular. Jews just don’t do this—visit and relax with
people of another race. But God has just shown me that no race is better
than any other. So the minute I was sent for, I came, no questions asked.
But now I’d like to know why you sent for me.”

I’m less concerned with why they sent for Peter than I am concerned today with who sent for Peter. We know Cornelius sent for Peter. We know that Cornelius invited Peter to his house. We know that Cornelius sent friends to get Peter, but look at the web of connections that are set up here in just this little story. Look at how Cornelius sends some of his friends to get Peter, who then takes some of his friends and come back to Cornelius’ house where he’s gathered all his close friends and family.

This word house in the New Testament is actually one of several words that are part of a veral set [i.e. house, household, home, etc…]. The Greek word is oikos. Cornelius invites Peter to his oikos. Every time you see that word in the New Testament—house or home—I just want you to circle it. Just think every time you see that word house, it actually has a much larger connotation than just family, home or the place where you sleep. That word oikos actually connotes something a bit more far-reaching.

Somebody’s oikos is considered their web of relationships. People who are in your oikos might be, of course, your blood relatives, but would also be your extended family. People who are in your oikos would also be people who have similar hobbies. They would be people involved in similar pastimes. They would be people with whom you worked. It would really be your entire household, your entire set of social connections. That was your oikos; that’s what the word is used to describe. It’s not just the place where you sleep. It’s everybody with whom you’re connected.

As I begin to think about this and particularly in light of who we’re connected to today, not only those fifteen hundred people you’re going to meet or know or have some relationship with in your life, but really the whole rest of our planet. It begins to pull apart for me what this means to see ourselves and to try on this idea of oikos and to actually begin to care a little bit about our neighbor and identify who our neighbor is.
I thought today we could look at three arenas of oikos where we can understand our web of connections and relationships.

I was on Orcas Island this week, which is in the Pacific Northwest. Some friends and I were at the northern part of the island and on a clear day you can stand on the coast of Orcas Island and the clouds part and a light shines up and you look real close and you realize, “I’m looking at the celestial city of Vancouver.” It’s the most amazing thing. It gives me this surreal experience of feeling connected to my friend from Egypt, who is standing there with me and my friend from Mississippi, who is standing there with me and my friend from East Texas, who’s standing there with me, while talking on my cell phone to John Voelz in Michigan and talking to my wife Carmel on MSN, while looking at Vancouver and reading emails from my friends in that city. You get this peculiar picture of how close you are at anytime to anyone. It makes me totally reevaluate the way I live life, the way I think about life, the way I think about how we’re connected.

In light of this, I’d like to draw our attention today to these arenas of your oikos, your social relationships, the people to whom you’re connected:

The first one has to do with creation—not just with clusters of people, but the relationship of people to the earth. I don’t know how much you get that we are connected to our planet, but the more you study world trends, the more you read Time Magazine - certainly if you’re a National Geographic subscriber, if you’re ever watch Nova or PBS - you get the sense that our environment is intricately connected to who we are societally and culturally.

Our environment is falling apart.

Have you heard of the phenomenon known as Yellow Rain? Leonard Sweet wrote about the this springtime phenomenon in Korea where the clouds that form over other parts of Asia, particularly over industrial part of China, pick up the toxins in the air, soak them up into the clouds—whether those are coal fumes or PCBs—pollute the clouds and dump acid rain onto Korea. In Korea they cancel the schools for a couple of weeks so the children can stay indoors and not be poisoned by the rain. Adults, when they go to work, wear masks to protect themselves from the fumes.

This is today in the 21st Century. This isn’t some dystopian future a science fiction writer is writing about that poison will fall from the sky.

Right now in our world—somebody has ruined rain.

As you begin to look at all of the potentially bad things that could happen with our environment — even something as simple as our water - we ought to be concerned. In the Creation accounts in Genesis, we get a very strong sense from the Bible we are responsible for the earth, and it is not some kind of ecological currency that God has given us to spend. Rather, in a sense we are planetary gardeners; this place is our home and our responsibility.

So, when I hear that there are twenty-five thousand people a day dying because of waterborne illnesses, or that fifteen thousand children every day are dying because they don’t have clean water, that bothers me. 1.2 Billion people don’t have clean drinking water right now. They can’t drink water, and that messes up my whole paradigm of safety, my whole sense of feeling connected on a happy level to the rest of the earth. I am deeply and intimately concerned about the people to whom I am connected and the planet with which I am connected that is so very polluted.

The United Nations predicts by the year 2050 seven billion people in sixty different countries will become ill from the lack of access to clean water. Isn’t that crazy? Crazy because we know how to make clean water, we know how to purify water. We know how to dig wells. We know how to fix waterborne illness. They’re dying from diseases for which we have a cure. I’m left asking those first huge set of questions like: What are we going to about it? What does it look like for the church to actually care?

The war of our world, I’m increasingly convinced, is not oil, but water. For, there are no alternative technologies to clean water. You either get water or you don’t.

I think this raises a host of questions for us: What are we going to do about it? What would it look like for us to actually take seriously the call to supply a people or a village with clean water? What would it look like for us to dig wells, to set up water purification places?

The time has come for us to be fully indicted by our indifference, and do what we can to ensure that every person on earth can have something safe to drink.

Another arena of our oikos is our human relationships.

Have you heard of the Golden Rule? Jesus gives us the Golden Rule: Do under to others as you’d have them do unto you. Len Sweet in his book, Post Modern Pilgrims, works along the idea that there are rules pertaining to precious metals. You have the Golden Rule, then maybe the Iron Rule, etc. He kind of works backwards, he says,
”Yes, we have the Golden Rule that Jesus gives us and what is the Golden Rule better than?” It’s better than the Silver Rule, of course, a less precious metal. The Silver Rule being: Do unto others as they have done to you already. That’s from Exodus: “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” You’ve heard this before, right, but there’s a worse rule than the Silver Rule. There’s the Iron Rule, which is: Do unto others before they do unto you.

I think there’s also represented in the New Testament a better rule than the Golden Rule, in fact, a couple of better rules. One, we might call the Platinum Rule. When we think about our oikos, about our web of relationships, our sense of connectedness, to other people, I think it might be an interesting experiment for us each to try and discern where we are on this precious metals index. Are we living by the Iron Rule? Are we living by the Silver Rule? How do you really treat people? The people to whom you’re connected—how do you honestly treat them?

What about the Platinum Rule? What about treating others as they would have you treat them? That’s different, right? When I treat you the way I want to be treated, who is it all about? It’s all about me. It’s all about how cool I am and if you don’t like to be treated the way I like to be treated, you’re pretty much out of luck.

It’s like those those people who like terribly painful massages? They enjoy the pain, embrace it, and somehow think that other people will enjoy that leve of intensity as well; but, aren’t they the last people on the planet you want to touch you? I feel like saying “Please don’t give me a massage. I’ll give you any thing. You can have my car. Just don’t touch me.” Well, those people are living by the golden rule – they’re giving you their masochistic massage and have no clue that you don’t enjoy it like they do…even when you run away screaming.

Jesus also gives us maybe one more. We see in the example of Christ and the writings of the New Testament there is maybe a Titanium Rule: Do unto others as Jesus Christ has already done for you—1 John 3:16. “This is how we know what love is. Jesus Christ laid down his life for us, so we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers.”

There is in true love and relationship not the idea of self-servitude, but the idea of selflessness. It’s more than reciprocity, it’s the life of Jesus played out in our lives. It’s absolute self-sacrifice and emptiness. I say, “Even if you hate me, I will love you.” That’s powerful. That’s what parents so often do with their kids. Good parents are on the spot so frequently with their children, whether their children rebel, whether they’re adults or teens or whatever. Kids say, “Mom, Dad, I hate you. Get lost.” They say, “Even if you hate me, son, I love you.”

I have a good friend who happened to read what his son was posting on his MySpace page. It broke his heart to see this running Blog of how his kid hates he and his mother. Just think about how painful that is and yet the heart of a father, the heart of a mother, the heart of God, is that even if you slay me, still, I will love you.

So I think it’s important that we ask ourselves where we are in this spectrum of relationship? How are we living? How are we treating the people around us? How are we staying connected, managing those connections, entering into those connections? How do we ethically live out our lives in context to the people around us?

Can I tell you a silly story? When I was in college, I played rugby; rugby is a pretty rough sport. There’s one referee for thirty big, hairy, ugly Neanderthals. So, all the contact is when the refs looking the other way and because nobody watches rugby, you can get away with anything. You get all this punching, dirty play and guys who rake their cleats over somebody else’s leg—it’s really a rough game.

I went to a Christian university playing this terribly violent game. As we tried to live out what this meant, you really have two options. You have the Old Testament option of slaughtering the Philistines [this is typically the governing metaphor for Christian rugby, “We will kill the pagans and vanquish them and take their plunder”], or maybe you have a different ethic, a New Testament ethic, which is to turn the other cheek. If somebody’s going to punch you or somebody’s going to rake their cleats over the side of your face or down your leg, you’re going to turn the other cheek. P.S.: That’s a little tricky. I’d like to tell you I always did that. In fact, I could tell you I always did that, but I’d be lying.

The problem is if you don’t defend yourself in this really violet game, if you never ever defend yourself, you don’t survive. You get punched in the face and their big guys are picking on your little guys. The referee is looking the other way and their seven-foot-tall-nine-million-pound gronk is actually eating your little guys like a piece of fried chicken. You feel like you’re at a loss. The ethic quickly developed in order to be a Christian and play rugby you had to turn the other cheek, but you also had to defend the people who couldn’t be defended. If somebody clobbered you on the side of the head, you had to walk away, but if you saw that person hit somebody else, you could take him out like a freight train—it was amazing.

I always think about those experiences playing rugby. I think about my sense of gratitude when I was the one being eaten like chicken and a friend of mine would come and clear out the Philistine. I think about what that does to a web of relationships when you trust, when you have the sense someone else cares about you and they’re willing to do anything to protect you; they will literally bleed for you. I wonder, and this is a crude example, why that’s not true in church. Sometimes I wonder, “Where are my friends?” Sometimes I wonder, “When am I being the friend that’s coming to help you?” And, for us, this is really the defining test of community: is there anyone ready to lay down their life for you, and are you willing to do the same?

The last arena of oikos I’d look at today is our spiritual relationship with Jesus. How do we understand our connection to Jesus Christ? What does that mean?

You’ve heard the term servant leadership in the business world or you’ve see in it any Christian magazine. It’s an apparent oxymoron—no one understands a leader as a servant if you think about it. A servant is something different than the leader. Just think about how tricky it would if take those terms literally for us to think of someone who’s saying, “Follow me, I know the way, I’m the leader,” then turning around to clean up the mess that everybody leaves behind. It just doesn’t work, but we’ve become comfortable with this oxymoron, because it’s been so popularized. We lose the inherent rub in the fact that the two terms don’t really go together.

Instead, we think of the term servant leader as somebody who is in charge, but who isn’t a jerk. That’s how we’ve dumbed it down, right? Not a jerk for a boss. Yet, the idea of servant leadership, as it has been popularly conceived, still leaves something to be desired. The idea of our simply being servants to Jesus Christ also leaves something lacking.

Jesus, in John, Chapter 15, says, “I have no longer called you servants, because a servant doesn’t know his master’s business.” Other translations say, “A servant doesn’t know his master. A servant doesn’t know his master’s thoughts. A servant doesn’t know his master’s thoughts and plans, what his master is thinking about, what is his master is going to do. A servant doesn’t know who his master is. Instead, I have called you friends for everything I learned from my Father I have made known to you.”

“Instead, I have called you friends.” Doesn’t it do something to us when we think about the relationship with which we enter into with Jesus Christ as friends? Doesn’t it change what the dynamics are there, the playing field? Jesus invites us into his oikos. We are called members of the House of God. This is the language used in the New Testament. We become part of the House of God and we are welcomed into his web and sphere of relationship.

We’re not there just to pick up after Jesus.

I’ve got to tell you there is a funny, funny thread in some people’s thinking when they think of themselves simply as servants of Jesus Christ. I don’t want to deconstruct all of that idea, because there are some really healthy things to understanding he is up here and we’re not, but sometimes when people think of themselves purely as servants of Jesus Christ, they tend to think Jesus needs their help. I mean what does a servant do? A servant cleans up after his master. If you’re a butler, the master makes a mess and you clean it up, so the master “needs you” in order to look nice. A servant knows all the master’s secrets, but doesn’t know the master’s dreams and so there’s a thread among people, whether they’re clergymen or priests or just regular folk, that somehow Jesus needs us to do his dirty work. Without us, the all-important me, without what I magically bring to the table, nothing’s going to get done. That’s the sin of servitude.

In Galatians, Chapter 5, Verse 1, Paul says:

It’s for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do
not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of servitude, but
instead be called the friends of God.

In the film, Tombstone, Val Kilmer does a brilliant job of playing Doc Holliday. In the performance, there’s a moment in which Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday are in this terrible gunfight. Kurt Russell, as Wyatt Earp, gets fed up with people shooting at him and in a classic Hollywood moment goes and jumps out and shoots everybody in a ballistic ballet. The first person after Wyatt Earp to follow him is Doc Holliday. They take this suicide run in the middle of a creek bed together and their courage bolsters up the other cowardly, lousy friends they have. At the end of the firefight somebody says to Doc Holliday, “Why on earth did you follow him?” “He’s my friend.” “Yeah, I’ve got lots of friends.” And Doc Holliday replies “I don’t.” It’s a powerful, powerful truth about friendship.

Jesus has called us friends and it changes everything. He’s invited us into his oikos, into his sphere of relationship, into his web of social connections, into who he is in his house and in his family—and it changes everything. What we’ve tried to do in looking at this word oikos, is give you a bit of a toehold in your Bible. When you go back to the Bible and you read the word house or the word household throughout the New Testament, hopefully you’ll get that it’s more than just a street address. It’s everybody whom they knew and loved and with whom they worked and played. Then when you read that, you are forced to think, like I am forced to think, about your oikos, about your web of connections and relationships, about what it means for me to have the planet as part of that connection, what it means for me to have you, my friends, as part of that connection and what it means for me to be in Jesus’ oikos.

In closing, I’d like us to do a little exercise. I’d like us to think about the people to whom we’re connected. I think it will amaze us, just on a very local scale, how many people we know and how many people are actually in our oikos. We’re going to think about our neighborhood, so go ahead and close your eyes for a second. In some traditional Islamic texts the idea of a neighbor, which for our purposes today I think is a great illustration, is conceived as anybody within forty houses to the north of you. A neighbor is also anybody within forty houses to the south of you, forty houses to the east and forty houses to the west—that’s your neighbor. For us that is only the beginning of our oikos. As we sit here, I just invite you to say the names of the people in your oikos, to walk, in your mind, through forty houses to the north and forty to the south, the east and the west. Just name the people you know.

I’d like you to branch out a little bit. Who else do you know? To whom else are you connected? What is your ethic? What is your life? Who are you in those connections? Are you living those connections out through the Golden Rule? Are you living those connections out through the Iron Rule or the Titanium Rule? Who are you in your oikos?

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