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Don't Be Cool. Abide.

It was in 1998, a little over twenty-five years ago, that I traveled to France for the first time. I was in my late 20s, I was alone, and had minored in French in college, and like many people who study a foreign language in high school or college, I found out quickly that the French that’s actually spoken by people in France, is quite a bit different than the textbook French I had learned. My accent was pretty good, so I would try to start conversations with shopkeepers, and they’d fire back at me with completely unintelligible answers before we had to switch to English, which, of course, everyone there knew. I was trying my best not to be an obnoxious American, but I think I came off as one anyway.


It was actually a stressful trip. I felt very alone, very much a stranger. I tried my best to blend in, visit places locals would visit. In Paris, I even tried to attend a French stand-up comedy show, which I might have understood ten words of. After a few days, conversations with locals started to get a little better, but I also succumbed to the temptation to go to English-language bookstores and strike up conversations with other obnoxious Americans. Now, the turning point happened about halfway through that trip. I was walking though the late night, dark streets in Paris, just a little bit lost, and saw that a movie theater was playing a movie that had just come out, The Big Lebowski. It was playing in English with French subtitles, so I walked up and bought a ticket.


If you haven’t seen it, The Big Lebowski is a comedy-crime caper featuring a character named “The Dude” who gets involved with a fake kidnapping, a million-dollar ransom, and all kinds of comic villains. As the plot gets more complicated, and the tone shifts from funny to serious, The Dude maintains a calm, cool, laid-back attitude. The Dude finds that the more he detaches from worrying about all of the mayhem that goes on around him, the better off he is. The Dude maintains a cool, ironic distance from everyone he interacts with. He decides that he’s not going to get too invested in the outcome of what happens as a result of his actions. And at the end of the film, which I won’t spoil for you, The Dude is asked by another character named the Cowboy what his secret is for success. And the Dude says, “The Dude Abides.”


It’s the perfect summary of his whole Zen-like existence. He exists, he stays still. He doesn’t ask anything of anyone else, and no one asks anything of him. When bad things happen, he lets them roll of his back. Which, as it turned out, was kind of the perfect thing for me to hear on that lonely trip. For those next few days, “The Dude abides” became a mantra for me—when weird interactions occurred with French people who didn’t like that I was American, I acted like The Dude, like it didn’t matter, and it actually caused more people to want to talk to me, to help me. I found that the good translators I was looking for were there, after all—they came up to me and helped me find my way.


There was another funny thing about watching The Big Lebowski in other language with English subtitles. It’s a movie with a lot of very colorful and even profane insults, insults between characters I could not say in church. And they were so creative and colorful that they didn’t have translations in French. So, every time one of these insults came up, which had four or five expletives strung together, the French subtitle would have a single, generic word like jerk or stupid. They completely lost the meaning of the original, expletive-laden insult. They didn’t have the language to convey what it was that the characters were trying to communicate. We’ll come back to that in a little bit.


If you’ve been listening to the last few Sundays’ readings, you may have noticed that the word “abides” comes up a lot. From today: “If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love.” In last week’s Gospel, abide is mentioned eight times, including: “If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.” From I John, two weeks ago: “All who obey his commandments abide in him, and he abides in them. And by this we know that he abides in us, by the Spirit that he has given us.” At Dan’s brother’s funeral, we sang “Abide with Me”:


Abide with me, fast falls the eventideThe darkness deepens Lord, with me abideWhen other helpers fail and comforts fleeHelp of the helpless, oh, abide with me.


Abide is a word we don’t hear a lot outside of church, and if we think we know what it means only from watching The Big Lebowski, we might be in for a big surprise. What Jesus means by abiding is not what The Dude means by abiding. Abiding with Jesus is not a detachment from the problems that plague us; in fact, it’s the opposite of staying laid back and keeping cool. It is engaging deeply, and sometimes messily. with the people and commitments and communities that make up all of our lives.


Many of us remember the first time we lived away from home, whether that was at college, or with roommates, or even marriage. I myself was married for the first time at 19, and the night before I was married, I spent the night at my parent’s house, my childhood house. That’s the first time that many of us learn what it is to really live with someone else, to dwell with them. Your rhythms get interrupted, you learn new ways of being, of compromising. And the way you abide, incorporate these new ways of being, is not by detaching. Those of us who have been partnered or married a long time know that being cool and detached will not keep you partnered or married a long time.


Abiding is not a cool detachment, but a warm and invested love. Abiding with Jesus is the place of deep knowing, and deep friendship, of real love that only comes when you stick around for a long while. It’s the place where you do the long, hard, and attentive work of getting to know each other, of compromising and learning new ways of being. Abiding is the place where Jesus gets to know us deeply, where Jesus longs to care for our soul.


Because of the way we read our Lectionary, we may lose the fact that this is actually part of Jesus’s Maundy Thursday discourse, the night before he knows he’s going to be murdered by the Roman state. In this moment, when Jesus has every right to become cool and detached like The Dude, he doesn’t. He stops and abides with all of this disciples, including Judas who will betray him, and Peter who will deny him. Jesus enters their presence, abides with them fully, the way he wants to enter our presence and abide with us fully. It’s one of Jesus’s greatest gifts to us, this abiding.


True abiding. Dwelling. Slowing down to fully engage with us in our lives. Abiding also is the place where you and I can deeply pray, and study scripture, and cook long meals and write, and make art. Our culture actively conspires against abiding. I’ve mentioned many times from this floor that I know from my experience working in the high-tech world that our attention, our ability to slow down, think to critically, to abide, are actively undermined by algorithms in the apps that we spend hours with every day.   


These algorithms keep us addicted to outrage, over-simplified politics, and mediocre art. They keep us swiping, and scrolling, and pressing next episode. Sometimes I can’t even wait the five seconds for that next episode to start. And you know what? It’s working. According to recent research, most of us, including me, including you, can hold our attention on one thing for an average of eight minutes before we’re distracted by something else. When it comes to our screens, psychologist Gloria Mark writes, people can pay attention to one screen for an average of only forty-seven seconds.


Grace, the algorithms don’t abide with you. They don’t care about you, they do not care for your soul, they don’t want you to stick around for a long while. Netflix doesn’t care if you don’t write that book you want to write. Hulu doesn’t care that you’re not picking up that phone and talking to that person who knows you the most, who has known you the longest, with whom you can abide. When we are cool and detached, that’s when we’re the most susceptible to these manipulations of our attention.


But when we abide as Jesus abides, slowing down and dwelling in his love, and in the company of each other, the family of Jesus, we can reject these manipulations of our attention. We can really listen to one another—not only the people we know and love, but the strangers we don’t yet know or yet love. When we slow down and abide, we can listen to those strangers, the ones who visit us in this church, or who we meet in the streets of this town. They might be strangers who are walking down their inner dark streets at night, maybe a little lost like I was all those years ago, looking for their own good translators. Maybe don’t understand our church language; maybe they learned a textbook version of Christianity, and they try to connect with us as Episcopalians, as Christians, and they try to speak to us. And instead of shutting them down, we can be like those few shopkeepers in my long ago trip to France. We can meet them, teach them, abide with them. We can be the ones who stop and help them learn our language, the language of Jesus, of the Beloved Community, of not just welcome but belonging. We can be the good translators.


But it isn’t just us translating for them. Abiding in Jesus is where we can invite others so they can show us who they are, translate their language for us, show us new ways of describing things, including what they need from us as a church. Abiding is where we reject what the algorithms have told us about people who have different political views from us. Abiding is where we reject what the algorithms have told us about people who love differently from us. Abiding is where we stop, ask each other questions, get curious about each other, tell each other our stories. Yesterday at the Gather conference, my favorite workshop was one where we just told each other our stories, including stories in which we found joy in our differences.


Abiding is where we see, and accept, and even learn to love the people who are really different from us.  And not always in that order. Sometimes we choose to love first, then we see, then we accept. Sometimes we accept people before seeing them, before really loving. All of this is in the space of abiding with each other, not detaching. We find that deeply engaging with each other translates what we believe into how we love.


And there are translations we can start making amongst ourselves, as a church—ways of speaking and using language in new ways so we can better abide together. One thing you’ll see us do here at Grace over the next several months is start to use alternative language in our liturgies, expanded language during our communion prayers, language that talks about God in less patriarchal and sexist language. If you’ve attended our Wednesday night services, you’ve had a taste of what some of that might look like.


It's in that language, and in that sharing with each other, we will abide. We will dwell with one another. Which is the only way we can resist everything that conspires against our abiding. One thing that’s scary for some of us about abiding, with dwelling, with holding our attention for long periods of time is that we don’t know what to do. We are so convinced, I’m so convinced, that we need to be doing something. I’m not the first one to say this, but we’ve largely become human doings instead of human beings. Maybe, once we learn to abide, we will learn to be; not in a detached, Dude-like way, but in the way that makes us available to each other, and the prompting of God’s call for our lives. Maybe in the space where we abide with Jesus, we will become something, rather than just do something. Maybe we will become more like Jesus. That would be good news.


Grace, in this election year, it will be a revolutionary, counter-cultural act to abide as Jesus abides. Not in a cool and detached way, but a way that dwells, and sits still, offer deep friendship, even to our enemies. An abiding that, as Jesus says, may even leads us to lay down our lives for each other. Brothers and sisters in Christ, Jesus calls us to abide with him. He doesn’t ask us to swipe, or scroll, or hit next episode. Jesus lingers with us, he dwells with us, and invites us to ask others to do the same. Let us individually, and as a church, obey God’s commandments so that Jesus’s joy may be in us, and that our joy may be complete. Let us love one another. Let us abide. Amen.

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