Sunday, March 29, 2015

Palm Sunday

In the Christian tradition, Palm Sunday marks the beginning of an eight day period called Holy Week, which includes Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter.

Although we separate it out into individual celebrations on different days, Christians tend to think of this all as one ongoing event - a single event with many parts. It is the most Holy time of the Christian year. It should be noted that Holy Week, like the week-long celebration of Passover, is shaped by reflecting on the Passover and Exodus event of the Hebrew people. So much so that Jesus is often referred to as the Paschal Lamb of the Pesach, the Passover, the blood of which saves the Hebrew people from the Angel of Death in Egypt. Jesus death on a Roman cross is believed to have been salvific for the whole world.

One Sunday Jesus enters Jerusalem through one of its eight gates, The Golden Gate. According to Jewish tradition the Shekhinah or Divine Presence used to appear at this gate, and it was believed that the future messiah who would rescue Jerusalem from occupation by Rome would enter this gate. After 70ce, the gate, the Temple and all of Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans quelling a rebellion of zealots.

It is interesting to note that the present gate may have been built in the 520s CE as part of Justinian’s re-building program, or perhaps in the 7th century by Byzantine artisans employed by the Umayyad khalifs. The Ottoman Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent sealed it in 1541, whether for defensive reasons or to prevent the messiah’s entrance into the city nobody will ever know.

In any event, Jesus chooses just this gate to enter to make a religious and political statement, and to begin his confrontation of the religious and political authorities in Jerusalem. Whether or not he was making a claim to be the messiah no one knows for sure, but it would be in people’s minds at the time that perhaps he was.

What unfolds, I believe, is a bit of political satire poking fun at the kinds of pomp and circumstance of the kind that the emperor and his functionary officials would demand whenever they entered a city in the empire. But instead of riding a mighty white steed, or the four-horse chariot of the emperor, we find Jesus on a donkey - similar to the one that brought his mother Mary, or Miriam, to Bethlehem back when he was born. A humble hard working beast of burden. The crowd, we can imagine, are the am ha’aretz, the People of the Land: farmers, fishermen, poor people, widows, orphans, and all those people who were walled out of cities and towns like Jerusalem as being unclean, but were the very people Jesus spent time with; the people he healed; the people he ate meals with; people who were without political or religious standing.

The am ha’aretz were in many ways like the dalits or untouchables in India. In America we simply call them street people, or homeless.

So this is the crowd shouting Hosanna as Jesus enters Jerusalem on a donkey. They are waving branches from trees and spreading them on the road. Since the most prevalent trees in Israel to this day are date palm trees, most likely these were branches of palm, thus the name Palm Sunday. It is believed by many that the forbidden tree in the Garden of Eden was a date palm tree. We can make of that what we will.

Some call this his triumphal entry, but in reality it begins a slowly unfolding but steady march to the scaffold that ends with crucifixion on a Roman cross - perhaps the cruelest of all punishments handed out by the Empire of Rome.

The people outside the Golden Gate are those people being crushed by the severe occupation of Rome, harsh taxation, and even discrimination by the religious authorities in Jerusalem who were on the payroll of the aristocracy and the Roman Empire. This was a desperate demonstration, one that all onlookers had to view as hopeless. And indeed, by Friday afternoon it would look just that - the mock prince who rode in on a donkey would be hanging dead on the cross. Little did anyone imagine the rest of the story - that one day his followers and their faith would take over the Empire. Jesus and the am ha’aretz literally changed the world with this tiny, non-violent demonstration of theirs.  

So I find Palm Sunday to be a time to meditate on just what sorts of small and hopeless gestures or demonstrations might we participate in to change the world. In June 1982 I took part in the largest demonstration ever to take place in New York City to call for an end to Nuclear Arms. Nearly a million people gathered in and around Central Park from all over the United States and around the world. Although we still live under the specter of Nuclear Holocaust, millions more were moved by this demonstration, and today we have people actively engaged in arms reduction treaties and agreements to begin to stop the manufacture of weapons grade radioactive materials.

As we reflect on this day, think of the people outside the gate to Jerusalem. Think of all those people today without hope and without resources, and no one to advocate on their behalf. And then think of one small gesture or activity or group you might work with to one day change the world. The change the people shouting Hosannah were hoping for did not come in their lifetimes, but the change did come. Each of us can be part of that change. Palm Sunday is a time to take this to heart and begin to think: what can I do to make the world a better place. Like the people outside the city of Jerusalem that Sunday morning long ago, you may set in motion a change that will indeed make the world a better and safer place for all people. Hosanna! Blessed are they who come in the name of the Lord!


Sunday, March 22, 2015

The Poor You Always Have With You

“The poor you always have with you, but you do not always have me.” – John 12:1-8

In a Palm Sunday Sermon (The Nation, April 19, 1980) Kurt Vonnegut once observed that “…being merciful, it seems to me, is the only good idea we have received so far. Perhaps we will get another idea that good by and by - and then we will have two good ideas. What might that second good idea be? I don’t know. How could I know? I will make a wild guess that it will come from music somehow. I have often wondered what music is and why we love it so. I t may be that music is the second good idea being born.”

He is commenting on John’s story about Mary of Bethany anointing Jesus’ feet with oil from the spikenard plant. The story ends with a much quoted line by Jesus - “The poor you always have with you, but you do not always have me.” This often misunderstood response of Jesus to Judas has resulted in much un-Christian behavior. People think that Jesus is commenting on the poor. People say, “See, even Jesus admits the poor are a problem! We will never be rid of them.”  This then devolves into even worse statements like the poor are hopeless, lazy, drink too much, have too many children - the list of complaints is endless. Vonnegut, on the other hand, thinks it is meant to be a joke – a dark one at that – and a way of calling out Judas on his own hypocrisy.

In the text from John, it is the night before Palm Sunday when Jesus will enter Jerusalem in a brilliantly choreographed satire of the sorts of pomp and circumstance accorded to the Emperor and all high officials of the Roman empire. The result is his crucifixion on a Roman Cross.

He is visiting his close friends in Bethany, Mary, Martha and their brother Lazarus. He is having supper with them. His table companions are unusual: Judas who will betray him for 30 pieces of silver and who is already identified in the story as a thief who steals from the common purse, and Lazarus who was recently dead for four days. So dead that when Jesus ordered his tomb to be opened Martha exclaimed, “But there will be a stench!” Vonnegut suspects Lazarus to still be somewhat dazed and confused, not much of a conversationalist, and we never learn if he is grateful for being alive again. It can be a mixed blessing to be brought back from the dead.

Indeed, read a little further in the text and discover that there was a crowd outside wanting to see Lazarus so they could kill him. How dare he allow Jesus to bring him back to life! It ain’t natural. Kill them both! Vonnegut’s take on it: “Trust a crowd to look at the wrong end of a miracle every time.”

Mary and Martha appear to be sympathetic and wanting to be helpful. Mary begins to massage Jesus’ feet and anoint them with perfumed ointment from the spikenard plant - a costly ointment we are told. Jesus is a man, with the blood, flesh and bones of a man, and has walked a long way from Nazareth to Bethany outside of Jerusalem - so we can assume this feels really good. Perhaps we might imagine Jesus closing his eyes and truly enjoying one last moment of peace and comfort before his march to the scaffold begins the next day.

It is obviously too much for the thief, traitor and hypocrite Judas. Evidently trying to be more catholic than the Pope he cries foul. “Hey- this is very un-Christian of you to be wasting this expensive nard on your feet when it could be sold and given to the poor.” Parenthetically, the text observes, “This he said, not that he cared for the poor, but because he was a thief, and, as he had the money box, he used to take what was in it.”

So what Judas is really saying is, “Sell the ointment so the money can go into this box and I can then steal more of it!”

To which Jesus replies in Aramaic, translated into Koine Greek, then into Latin and eventually into ancient English something like, “You always have the poor with you, you do not always have me.”

Vonnegut contends that this is the joke, and that when one translates from Greek to Latin to old English jokes are the first thing to go!  If Jesus in fact said this, it is a kind of black humor that says everything about hypocrisy and nothing about the poor. It is a kind of inside Christian joke which allows Jesus to remain civil to Judas, but to chide him about his hypocrisy. “Judas, don’t worry about it. There will be plenty of poor people left long after I am gone.”

No doubt Jesus’ response is lost on Judas, as it has been on countless Christians ever since. But it is in the spirit of his pronouncements in the Sermon on the Mount which suggests a mercifulness that never wavers or fades. It says that every day in every way we have limitless opportunities to serve and help the poor in our midst, either directly or as advocates on their behalf. Just ask Dorothy Day, Phil and Daniel Berrigan, Elizabeth McCalister, Saint Francis of Assisi and countless other Christians who got the joke and the profound truth that lies within it.

For people like Judas this does not compute. For those of us who meditate on these words and these stories it can mean all the difference in the world for the world. Who knows if we will not turn out to be a part of the second good idea being born?

This is why it is so important to continue, as the Psalmist asserts, to sing to the Lord a new song. Then we will be like those who dream, our mouths full of laughter and our tongues with shouts of Joy as we join ourselves with the Love of God that surrounds us on all sides all the time. At the end of the day we are those people who know that we come from Love, return to Love, and Love is all around. “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.”


Saturday, March 7, 2015

Lent 3B - Exodus 20: 1-17 (The Ten Commandments)

Turn, Turn, Turn
I am not sure if it is the Neo-Platonism that crept into the early church, or the cult of individualism that accompanied the Reformation, but the Church and Christians seem to misconstrue a number of things about what I will call Biblical Religion. Thus we find ourselves conspiring with temptation, the Devil, evil, “the other side,” or whatever else we call it – aided of course by our free will or free choice. All of which may lead to some misunderstandings about Lent – which I will claim is a time of Shabbat/Sabbath and Repentance.

Shabbat, we may have noticed, is the longest of the original 10 Commandments, and together with the command against idolatry they make up approximately two-thirds of the entire passage in Exodus. I think that is meant to get our attention – idolatry is the one sin YHWH the God of Israel and Jesus is most concerned with, and Sabbath time, time off, is of utmost importance in being the people of God – or one might say, living into our being created imago Dei, in the image of God, a God who takes time out.

We might also notice that only one commandment is repeated twice: the tenth – “Thou shalt not covet…and [perhaps you did not hear me the first time] thou shalt not covet.” Such repetition in Biblical Hebrew and ancient rhetoric is another form of emphasis: pay attention, underlined, bolded and in italics!!! Desire, observed the Buddha some six hundred years before Jesus, is the root of all human suffering – call it what you will: desire, greed, consumption, envy – you can take your pick of the seven deadly sins. We want what we ain’t got = covetousness. Or, we refuse to dare to think we may in fact have enough of what we really need.  Covetousness leads to love of self over others, self-reliance, say the Hebrew Prophets also some six hundred years earlier than Jesus, and is why we end up in exile, even when we are at home under the military occupation of Rome. No wonder Jesus is so upset in John 2:13-22!

These three commands combine to keep us focused on the primary lessons gleaned from the 40 years in the wilderness, which were years of spiritual formation, and from Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness, which are cast as a return to where the important lessons are to be learned. We are mistaken if we see the wilderness as a bad place – whether the metaphor is about being literally in the Sinai wilderness, or enslaved in Egypt, or captive in Babylon, or enslaved to sins like idolatry and covetousness does not matter. The lessons learned in the wilderness are summarized in Deuteronomy as a choice: choose life, or choose death.  If we choose life it is to be a life in which we love God with all our heart, all our mind and all our strength (Deut 6), and to love our neighbor as our self (Lev 19).

So covetousness leads to idolatry of gods, things, people, even money and what not. We place some thing or things as more important than God. Note the fact that idols in the Bible are gods cast in silver and gold – that is, religion cast as money, or money cast as religion. (Psalm 115) We are so upfront about this in our culture that we actually name and tune-in weekly to a show called American Idol! God knows we need time, then, to turn away from our many idolatries.

Enter Shabbat – Shabbat is not a religious observance, but rather a political and economic declaration that we are no longer slaves working 24/7, 365 days of the year and 366 days in Leap Year. What Sabbath represents is a gift of God from God of a day – a day to turn away from all that distracts our attention the other six days of the week and to turn our attention, or literally re-turn, to God, family and neighbor. Biblical religion is community oriented – that is, it is not to be construed as just another self-help program to be worked on individually. The religion of the Bible, and therefore the religion of Jesus, is about the overall health of the whole community. And it is YHWH’s contention that once a week (at least!) we need to unplug, un-attach as the Buddha would say, and do something like the Tao Te Ching commands, wei wu wei  - doing -not -doing, which as I emphasize with my students who think that sounds just great, does not mean doing nothing. The phrase begins with “doing.” Lao T’zu, the author of the world’s second most published book next to the Bible, sees value in doing whatever it is one needs to do to re-connect with the Tao – which is as inscrutable as YHWH on top of Mount Sinai. “The Tao that can be named is not the eternal Tao,” proclaims the Tao Te Ching.

What I am suggesting then is that Lent is a kind of 40-day Sabbath time to Repent – which in the Biblical Hebrew is represented by a word pronounced shuve – shuve means to turn, or to re-turn. It is as the Shaker Hymn popularized by Aaron Copeland puts it: we are to turn, turn ‘til we come down right.

We would do well to note that the Gospel of Mark begins with John the baptizer down at the River Jordan calling people to repent – to turn away from Rome, to turn away from covetousness and idolatry of all kinds, and to re-turn to God. We do even better to note that Jesus arrives at this communal act of repentance and joins in. This is how the story begins. It is a time to turn back to love of God and love of neighbor. Love of neighbor does not mean that you even have to like your neighbor. As the Bible defines it love of neighbor means to do something helpful or beneficial for others – all others, even the strangers sojourning in your land, or as the Bible likes to call them, “resident aliens.”

So Lent is a time to shake off all covetousness, all idolatries and all the temptations of the Devil that separate us from the love of God and love of neighbor. Which requires us to shuve – to turn, turn and return, which as the Shakers proclaim will be to our ultimate delight!

We are so addicted to so many temptations – coal, oil, motor cars, agro-business, markets, you name it – that we need to go back to Ash Wednesday’s liturgy and read and pray and re-pray the litany of all our multitude of sins that make life in the greater community so terribly compromised. We also need time out – Sabbath, wei wu wei, time for doing-not-doing, whatever shape that needs to take to un-attach our selves from our desires. For the Tao Te Ching that means things like endless wandering, creative quietude, or simply sitting in silence like the Quakers. The other side of wei wu wei, Sabbath time, is altruism, and altruism is also the other side of egoism, and egoism is the road-block to community and leads us into all those things we confessed on Ash Wednesday (BCP 267).

To begin this work I un-attach from talk-radio in car – 105.7 The Fan, and yes, NPR – and listen to nothing but classical music, beginning with the eleven symphonies of Mahler as I ride to and from work, on errands, etc. And this year I have been reading the poetry and essays of Wendell Berry who has a lot to say about our myriad addictions which damage not only our souls and our communities, but the very earth itself.

And finally, I like to begin with this adaptation of a song by the outstanding gospel singer, Dorothy Norwood, Shake the Devil Off.

Shake, shake, shake, shake the devil off (3x)
In the Name of Jesus, shake the devil off

When he says forget about God, shake the devil off (3X)
In the Name of Jesus, shake the devil off
When you idolize, covet and desire, shake the devil off (3X)

Shuve, shuve, shuve, turn yourself about (3x)
In the Name of Jesus, turn yourself about

Love the Lord with all your heart and turn yourself about (3x)
In the Name of Jesus, turn yourself about
Love your neighbor as yourself and turn yourself about (3x)
In the Name of Jesus, turn yourself about

Sunday, February 1, 2015

The Heron - by Wendell Berry

Words from Wendell Berry which make the day a better place to be and opens the mystery of wonder and life.
The Heron
While the summer's growth kept me
anxious in planted rows, I forgot the river
where it flowed, faithful to its way,
beneath the slope where my household
has taken its laborious stand.
I could not reach it even in dreams.
But one morning at the summer's end
I remember it again, as though its being
lifts into mind in undeniable flood,
and I carry my boat down through the fog,
over the rocks, and set out.
I go easy and silent, and the warblers
appear among the leaves of the willows,
their flight like gold thread
quick in the live tapestry of the leaves.
And I go on until I see, crouched
on a dead branch sticking out of the water,
a heron - so still that I believe
he is a bit of drift hung dead above the water.
And then I see the articulation of feather
and living eye, a brilliance I receive
beyond my power to make, as he
receives in his great patience
the river's providence. And then I see
that I am seen. Still as I keep,
I might be a tree for all the fear he shows.
Suddenly I know I have passed across
to a shore where I do not live.
New Collected Poems, Counterpoint, Berkley - 2012

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Let Your Heart Be Light

John 1:43-51

“You will see greater things than these.”

Like Nathanael, we are all looking for signs. We search high and low, near and far, for some confirmation that God is with us. When really, as Jesus says to Nathanael, we will see greater things, if only we will open the eyes of our hearts.

It can be as easy as listening to a song. Judy Garland, in the 1944 MGM musical “Meet Me in St. Louis,” introduced a song by Hugh Martin and Ralph Blaine called “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas”:

“Have yourself a merry little Christmas,
Let your heart be light.”

As much as some decry the commercialization of Christmas, in the end, letting our hearts be light is really what it’s all about. And Epiphany is a season of light – a time to reflect on just how our hearts and our lives can be light.

On Christmas Day, the reading from the Gospel of John said: “What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”

This Second Sunday of Epiphany, we pray: “Christ is the Light of the World. … Grant that your people, illumined by your Word and Sacraments, may shine with the radiance of Christ’s glory.”

And on the First Sunday After Christmas, we prayed: “Grant that this light, enkindled in our hearts, may shine forth in our lives.”

“Enkindle”: to stir up, fire up, inspire, rouse, awaken, ignite, instill, incite! It is all a way of saying that the Incarnation in which the Word becomes flesh and dwells among us – and does so by taking up residence in our hearts – the Light that is the Life of all people resides within us, at our center. He makes a home in our hearts.

This light of each person is not meant for themselves, but meant for all, that all might see better the other gifts of creation. It is what Jesus talks about when he urges us not to hide this light, not to put it under a bushel, but to put it on a lamp stand so it will give light to the whole household – which in biblical terms always means “the Household of God.”

The word for “household” in Greek is oiko – from which we get words such as “economy,” oiko-nomos, the law of the household, and “ecology,” oiko-logie, study of the household, understood as the environment in which we live.

The idea is that we have all been given the gift of Light, which is the Life of the world, Jesus. And giving it away, letting go of what we already have, is what gives us eternal life in return. It is the Light of Life. This Light is what unites us with God in Christ. And it is meant to give Light and Life to the whole world, everyone, all people.

To hold onto this Light, to hold onto our gifts, results in a world that is upside down from God’s view of things. So God comes to us as Jesus to turn us right-side up again.

We have difficulties with all this. We find it difficult to believe God would give us a gift at all – so we hold onto it for dear life lest God stop giving us his Word, his Sacraments, his Light and his Life.

Little do we suspect what difficulties this holding on causes for others in the household. So much so that others begin to find it difficult to see the Light that shines within them. This causes the entire household to slip into darkness, a return to the darkness that covered the whole of the face of the deep, before God spoke and there was Light.

Yet, we are those people who believe and pray that this Light is already enkindled, instilled, stirred up within all hearts everywhere. We need to believe what we pray and what God’s Word and sacraments mean to instill and enkindle in our own hearts.

The story is told of the preacher who went about town preaching, “Put God into your life. Put God into your life!” But the rabbi of the town said, “Our task is not to put God into our lives. God is already there. Our task is simply to realize that!”

God is the ground of our being. The relationship between God and creature is such that, by sheer grace, separation is not possible. God does not know how to be absent. God is always at home. It was Meister Eckhart, a 13th-century German theologian, who reminded us that we are the ones who are not at home. We are not at home, even within ourselves.

Know that little by little – it takes time – Jesus will reveal to you how much he is at home with you.

He calls you to follow him
So that you may do something beautiful with your life and bear much fruit.
The world needs you, the Church needs you, Jesus needs you.
They need your love and your Light.
There is a hidden place in your heart where Jesus lives.
This is a deep secret you are called to live.
Let Jesus live in you.
Go forward with him!

Have yourself a merry little Christmas, a blessed Epiphany season – and let your heart be light.


Thursday, December 25, 2014

Christmas 2014

What is it about Christmas? It commands an entire retail season without which many small businesses and corporations alike might not make it through the rest of the year. It has become an incubator of sorts to kick start an entire world into consumer-mode, Black Friday Frenzies, and multiple visits a day from UPS, Fedex and your local US Post Office.

Christmas sets millions if not billions of people out to risk life and limb stringing endless miles of lights – white lights, red and green lights, icicle lights, blue lights, large bulb lights, small bulb lights, LED lights, light up figures of Santa and Dickensian Choir Boys, blow-up interior lit two-story tall Nutcrackers, whole villages, towns illuminated  - leaving one wondering just what it all looks like from the International Space Station as we increase our consumption of fossil fuels by some unimaginable percentage of our usual gluttonous kilowatt hours.

Light in the darkness during what is for the Northern Hemisphere the shortest days of the year, the Sun playing its annual game of hide-n-seek, bracing itself for a return visit as we prepare to spin ourselves madly, steadily around our own personal nuclear furnace one more time.

A sudden outburst of generosity as Red-Kettles spring up everywhere with Santas of all shapes and sizes, uniformed Salvation Army volunteers and charities of all kinds offer every possible opportunity for the once a year outpouring of cold, hard cash to help those in need – those poor, those homeless, those outcast and imprisoned ones that the child in the manger would remind us, just days before his own state sponsored execution, will always be with us.

One must at one time or another stop and wonder: what would he make of all of this? This orgy of celebration, consumption and charity that in a few short days and nights will all be boxed up and placed upon the shelf, in the garage, or up in the attic until that sacred moment we finish the last bite of Turkey on Thanksgiving night next year. Would he be at all impressed? Honored? Pleased that we at least, if nothing else, recall that morning that a young woman, a girl really, an unmarried pregnant teenager “betrothed” (do we even recall what that means) to an older gentleman gave birth to a baby boy whose arrival caused such a stir in a backwater village of the once strong and mighty Roman Empire that a civil servant on behalf of Caesar would slaughter millions of innocent children in an attempt to prevent this child who now is seemingly lost in the midst of our annual Dionysian carryings on from ever growing up to become a savior of the world.

 “A Thrill of Hope,” a DVD that offers an in-depth glimpse into the story via the artwork of one John August Swanson who strives to connect our story to his story to God’s story in paintings and prints that seeks to depict the sacredness of the ordinary – a young Mary feeding chickens as part of a community of people baking bread, lighting candles, doing the things we do every day without thinking just how miraculous it all is. How the miracle of photosynthesis in the cells of a single leaf can simultaneously feed a tree and make it grow while creating the very oxygen we need to breath, to sustain life, while in other plants providing food for creatures whose fat becomes tallow that when lit becomes light in the very darkness which although it arrives every evening on a daily basis still causes some often imperceptible fear to creep into our supposedly sophisticated but really quite primitive mind.

As our disgust with the machinery of politics deepens like the night itself at this time of Winter Solstice, we all too easily forget that the story as told by Luke and Matthew is as much a political story as it is religious. Things like religion, politics and money were not so easily compartmentalized back then as we try to pretend they are today. How odd that an historic moment like the enlightenment ends up clouding and darkening our view of just how holistic, interconnected and interdependent all things are and by necessity must be if we are to survive. The child Jesus, who as a boy would delight as well as confound the local scholars in Jerusalem – then an armed camp under severe military occupation. A young Jesus who would echo the likes of the Buddha, Lao T’zu, Socrates, Confucius, the Hebrew prophets and others who also drew our attention to our necessary interdependence as pleas to somehow create a world without warfare, a world without wanton killing, a world in which all people everywhere attend to one another’s needs and develop an awareness that we are also inter-related to the Earth, the environment,  in a precarious balancing act that makes life possible and also makes it possible to shine light in the darkness.

I have been told that James Carroll, scholar and columnist for the Boston Glove, recently called our attention to the militaristic atmosphere into which God inserted God’s self into our lives, that the birth of Jesus took place in the midst of a paranoid and power hungry military empire, a detail that cannot be clouded over with endless strings of lights and an economic orgy of consumption. Jesus, the Thrill of Hope, came as an alternative view of how life can be lived in a world of war and darkness. Consider: not only Christianity, but all the world’s living religions arose in such an atmosphere of military dominance, economic chaos and overall darkness.

So, what is it about Christmas? I believe that like the Hindu deity Agni who is relied upon to light sacred fires in ancient Vedic rituals, Christmas reignites our sense of what it means to truly be human. Whether we can get our heads around the child whose birth we recall is divine, human, or both, the fact is that we are not entirely through with him – nor he with us. Jesus continues to insert himself into our world, a world still beset with serious and dangerous military actions, state sponsored executions and torture (of a kind he himself endured and endures), and a world awash with political refugees, homelessness and those in need of all kinds of charity and compassion. Yes, as he observed so long ago, the poor are still with us. And yet, inspired by his example of what it means to be human, what it means to be created imago Dei, in the image of God, so too do we have the means to relieve suffering once and for all.

Light a candle and consider the miracles that make that possible. Then become a light in the darkness. Each of us can and do make a difference every day. Celebrate the sacred in the ordinary. Feed chickens with Mary. Confound the scholars like the Christ child. Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s, and unto God that which is God’s. And guess what? It does not matter whether or not you believe in God. You can still live a life created in God’s image shining a little more light into the dark places. Our collective interdependent beams of radiant light together can and do make a difference. And that is what Christmas is about. God bless us every one.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Christ The King Sunday?

Christ The King Sunday: Matthew 25:31-46

It is Christ the King Sunday, and I just finished listening to Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, a trilogy of books (The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife, The Amber Spyglass) about a revolt against God (?) and The Church (a sort of conglomeration of the Catholic and Calvin-styled Protestantism) set in some sort of 19th (?) century version of Oxford and other multi-worlds and or parallel universes.  Although its focus is on two twelve-year-olds, Lyra from one world and Will from another, the conclusion (if there is one) seems to be to replace “The Authority” (a rather decrepit angel on his last legs) and the Kingdom of God with a Republic of Heaven  - presumably more of a representative democracy than a kingdom as we would think of it. Given Pullman’s stated atheism and disdain for organized religion, the Republic of Heaven sounds an awful much like the Anglican or Episcopal Churches which already exist! It is all a wonderfully riotous, gripping and engaging adventure which seeks to un-throne (no pun intended) the Chronicles of Narnia, The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter all at once.

Despite the all too expected criticism and warnings from certain quarters of, dare I say, Christendom, Pullman’s books raise a number of important ideas and questions, not the least of which ought to be just what do we mean by the Kingdom of God, and on the last Sunday of the Christian Year, what do we mean by Christ the King?

It’s all too easy to agree with what appears to be Pullman’s assertion that The Church (capital T, capital C) has got it all wrong – and we ought to agree that throughout its history The Church has done and/or allowed many awful, evil and horrendous things. Think The inquisition, pogroms, The Crusades, and the sexual abuse of children to just name a few. Although one ought to be intelligent enough by the 21st century to know that no institution can honestly be judged by the actions of a relative few individuals. And we may as well face it, the malcontent , evil and misguided individuals who do bad things in the name of religion are a minute minority of the billions of other people of faith who have made the world a better place whether they be Christian, Buddhist, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Confucian, Taoist, Jainist, Sikh, Yoruba, Shinto or any other of the many wonderful cultural variations of world religions and what is being called perennial philosophy and wisdom traditions.

Designating this Christ the King Sunday is rather recent. Pope Pius XI instituted the idea in 1925 and placing it on the last Sunday of Ordinary Time is even more recent. It strikes me as curious. Curious in that Jesus makes for a peculiar king – he who appears to have shunned all attempts at making him a king. Jesus, like the Buddha, Confucius, Socrates, and Muhammad (to name just a few) wrote nothing down. No books, not treatises, no doctrines, no philosophy. He was a teacher who seems mostly to have traveled by foot with the lone attested depiction of him riding a donkey into Jerusalem on that fateful Passover week – an act which in itself appears to be some sort of ironic street theatre mockery of kingship, the Imperial Religion of Rome, and flies in the face of all authorities: here is a “king” who is close to the people, riding a humble beast of burden instead of a mighty steed of war, who welcomes prostitute, tax collector and sinners to sit with him at table as he hosts the blind, the lame, the outcast, soldier, foreigners, strangers,  and quite honestly anyone and everyone who wishes to sit on his right and his left.

Jesus commanded no armies and specifically orders his disciples, that is, all those who would follow him in his way, to put down their swords and love their enemies. And he routinely calls people to follow him without any requirement of knowledge of the traditions, scriptures or beliefs of any sort. We are commanded quite simply to “follow” him. It continues to seem strange to me that Pullman, Tolkien, Lewis, Rowling and others all seem to feel that for the world to be put right requires some sort of cosmic warfare when those who call us to such a vision of shalom, peace and justice always employ peaceful,  non-aggressive strategies of non-violent civil disobedience: think Palm Sunday, Ghandhi, Martin King, the Buddha, Thich Nhat Hanh and others.

And despite the indisputable fact that Jesus begins this vision of a great judgment at the end of the age with the Son of Man sitting on a throne, once again like Palm Sunday itself, he reinterprets the shape and meanings of “kingship” and “judgment”  in radical new ways.  For instance, those being judged judge themselves by their actions, and even more so by their non-actions: they welcome strangers, visit prisoners, feed the hungry, clothe the naked, offer relief to the thirsty and so forth, or they don’t. Note also that those who do these things are completely unaware that what they do is extraordinary and worthy of reward. And neither those who act not those who fail to act realize that the poor, sick, homeless strangers they do or do not respond to with compassion are the very embodiment of the “king,” the anointed one, the messiah, or are, quite simply, God in the flesh.

This is the scandal of Christianity – that our God sits not on a throne but walks the streets with the poorest of the poor like a Mother Theresa. That our God is the mother who lives on the streets with no place to lie her head let alone the heads of her starving children. Or, the veteran who after multiple tours of duty sees no way out short of leaving this world behind in hopes of a much better hereafter. Our God is a very strange “king’ after all.

I have no idea what Pius XI had in mind. Although I can hope that he wanted us to reflect on just what sort of “king” Jesus is, one suspects it was to shore up the authority of The Church on Earth. I am content to let the Philip Pullman’s of the world continue to fight that cosmic battle. As to the Kingdom of God, or even the Buddha’s nirvana, Jesus and the Buddha depict this notion of the Earth’s Shalom as a very real presence here and now, not some sort of life beyond the blue.  Judaism, Christianity, and Buddhism are insistent on the very real presence of the “kingdom” in our midst – in and amongst us all, in the very things that we do every day, things that we do not even recognize that we do them because to do them is quite simply the right thing to do. We just lay down our swords, open our hands and our hearts and offer healing, love and compassion to those in need, completely unaware that we serve our God, our Christ, our King in so doing. Amen.