Saturday, January 13, 2018

Shabbat Shalom and The Beloved Community

MLK Jr: Shabbat Shalom and Becoming The Beloved Community
A few things about how I ended up like this, and invited here to remember The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.  I’m an Episcopal priest. It didn’t have to turn out like this. In my college years I approached Rabbi Stanley Kessler in West Hartford, CT, about converting to Judaism. I had studied with him for a year we during which we read books like Night, As a Driven Leaf and The Last of the Just. I studied Biblical Hebrew. I was inspired by God-Ha Shem who came across in the texts as a God of Shalom and Justice for all people. I was motivated by the fact that my Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, was, is and always will be a Jew. I did my undergraduate work on Elie Wiesel and the Holocaust. Since in 1971 no one on the Religion Department faculty knew anything about Wiesel, they assigned a grad student, a Jewish woman from West Hartford, Bernice Saltzman, to be my thesis advisor. She remained a mentor for years and years afterwards. It is Elie Wiesel who reminds us that the opposite of Love and Shalom is not Hate, but Indifference. I was ashamed that “The Church” had made terrible mistakes throughout the ages, even encouraging anti-Semitism, Racisim & violence. Rabbi Kessler, however, talked me out of converting. He said, among other things, “Kirk, there are enough Jews in the world. What we need are more Christians like you who like us! We are worshipping the same God, a God of Love and Justice, and you already come from a fine religious tradition. Embrace it.”

I grew up in the United Church of Christ (UCC) where I knew that the distinguished African-American gentleman in the back of the church most Sundays as an usher and a deacon, Dr. Percy Julian, was the first black person to buy a house in my hometown of Oak Park, IL. What I did not know was that Dr. Julian grew up in Alabama. I did not know that Dr. Julian, as a scientist, was a pioneer. While working for Glidden Paint Co., he was the first person to synthesize the human hormones progesterone and testosterone, and his work laid the foundation for the production of cortisone, other corticosteroids, and birth control pills. I also didn’t know that his house in Oak Park had been fire-bombed before his family had moved in. Or, that he and his son would often have to sit up in a tree on their property to protect the house with a shotgun.

I was aware that when I took the El from the west-suburbs into the Chicago Loop that the train passed massive housing projects. I was clear that that was no way to live and that it was unjust.  I was aware that my father played a role in establishing local banking and real estate practices to prevent block-busting and red-lining in the villages which helped integrate our community. I led an effort in my high school to have a weekend-long meeting with East Side Disciples and Blackstone Rangers, Chicago gangs, to learn why the gang culture exists. We had an opportunity to bring a musical arranged by Oscar Brown Jr with a cast of these same gang members to perform at the high school that weekend. I was told by our assistant principal no, we had a school bond issue coming up for vote soon and that we could not have “those people” seen being bussed into Oak Park. On TV I saw the white neighborhoods in Cicero throw bricks and insults at Dr. King as he marched down the streets. We all saw the west side of Chicago and a number of cities nationwide erupt in riots and flames when Dr. King was assassinated.

I remember seeing photographs of Abraham Joshua Heschel side-by-side with Dr. King, and was keenly aware of the important role that American Jewish community played in the Civil Rights Movement. A highpoint of my college years was seeing Heschel speak on our campus one evening a few days after the Kent State shootings. He started us with a period of silence to reflect on the horror of that event. The silence was long, powerful and necessary. Just seeing Heschel was like seeing one of the Hebrew prophets walk in and stand before us. He held us in a theological spell for an hour or so. It was broadcast and recorded by the campus radio station, but alas, the tape has been lost. Which is OK, for it was the experience of Heschel himself that made the deepest impression that has never left me or any of us who were there.

In his tiny little book, The Sabbath (Shambhala, Boston:1951,1979), Heschel writes: “There is a Realm of Time where the goal is not to have, but to be; not to own, but to give; not to control, but to share; not to subdue but to be in accord.” I believe this is at the heart of the problem, and pretty much all our problems – we allow ourselves to be distracted by the need to have, to own, to control, and to subdue others and the planet itself. He observes that Covetousness is the only commandment made twice, and his belief that Shabbat, Sabbath, is the antidote to our covetousness by breaking our cycles of wanting, having, owning, controlling, and subduing long enough to remember who we are and whose we are. I believe Heschel and King could only do what they did by taking Sabbath time, Shabbat time, to keep their focus on what it means to be human in a world in which materialism, consumerism, violence and political chaos do their best to distract us from Being, capital “B.”

I taught American History for two years to 10th grade girls. Very difficult, very disappointing to look at the underbelly of our several hundred-year experiment on this continent. No one asked us to come here. Yet, those of us who came not only represented a great variety of Christians, but there were Jews and Muslims among us from the very beginning. Many of us, especially the Muslims, did not come by choice. For many the Sin of Slavery brought them here and they too are original settlers. The great problem that King lived to resolve grew out of this American system of Slavery and the Civil War. The Thirteenth, Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments ought to have rendered it unnecessary for Dr. King to have to sort out the “race issue.” Yet, the result of granting personhood and political personhood to people of color was the Ku Klux Klan, the horrors of Reconstruction, violent voter suppression, and the establishment of the Jim Crow south. Historically, it is ridiculous that the Civil Rights movement resulting in the landmark legislation of the 1960s was even needed one hundred years later!

Nevertheless, look where we find ourselves today: legislated and judiciary erosion of voting rights, a resurgence of White Nationalism, voter suppression, and divisions the likes of which could not have been imagined the day Barak Obama was first elected President of the United States – a day of great Hope and fulfillment for many. Now we have a president who makes denigrating remarks about people of color from Haiti and Africa.

Enter the importance of Shabbat and an evening like this one. I bring up Shabbat because I believe that is where the inspiration for King, Heschel, Wiesel and others is derived. Shabbat is a break with the culture of unfettered covetousness – which some lamely refer to as Ayan Rand’s Objectivism - we not only have people in congress promoting her philosophy, but one US Senator is actually named after her! We have an entire stream of Evangelical Christianity that proclaims a Prosperity Gospel – God wants you to have two Teselas in every garage, and a SubZero Refrigerator well stocked in every mansion. Our culture of Covetousness is endlessly exhausting. Shabbat is a time, among other things, to be renewed and  to reflect upon the foundational texts of our two sister faiths. Believe it or not, in college our New Testament course began with Isaiah, so potent and relevant to the life of Jesus and what would become the emerging Christian community was the prophet’s majestic poetry!

What do we find? Texts like Isaiah 60 which emanates from the darkness of Exile: Arise! Shine for your light has come! The prophet goes on to imagine people from all corners of the Earth, Jews and Gentiles, streaming into Jerusalem, submitting to YWHW/Ha Shem, the God of the Exodus, the God of Abraham Isaac and Ishmael, the One God who spoke creation into being, who breathed his Ruah, his Spirit, into a handful of dust and created us, male and female he created us! This God calls us to care for one another, especially the world’s most vulnerable people represented in the texts as “widows, orphans and resident aliens.” I was recently chastised for being “too political” in the pulpit for mentioning God’s care for resident aliens! Imagine! Shabbat gives us time to remember who we are and whose we are. As the Song of Songs so elegantly reminds us, we are God’s Beloved Community!

God calls us to Be – to be God’s own Beloved Community. These are the words Martin King used to define the goal of the movement – becoming The Beloved Community as God/HaShem, Isaiah, Jesus and the entire Biblical narrative imagines we ought to be. Shabbat gives us time to reflect on how we can be God’s Beloved Community, a Community of Shalom – Shalom which more than peace and prosperity means seeking the well being of every single person in our society. Shalom means Justice and Peace for all people – not some people, not most people, not a lot of people, but all people! The prophets remind us that this is God’s Hope for all of humanity!

Last Sunday in our tradition we remembered Jesus’ Baptism by John in the River Jordan – the river central to all Judeo-Christian traditions. After which the heavens were torn open, God’s Spirit, God’s Ruah, like a dove descends and lands on Jesus, and a voice declares, “You are my Beloved. With you I am well pleased.” Henri Nouwen, a priest and theologian, helped many of us to see that this is what God says to all of us: I have called you by name from the very beginning. You are mine and I am yours. I have molded you in the depths of the earth and knitted you together in your mother’s womb. I have carved you in the palms of my hands, and hidden you in the shadow of my embrace. Wherever you go, I go with you, and wherever you rest, I keep watch. I will not hide my face from you. Wherever you are, I will be. Nothing will ever separate us. We are one. You are my Beloved. With you I am well pleased. Shabbat is a time to remember this, and that it is this Belovedness of every person that is the foundation of all Justice and Justice for all.

Noted author and full-time curmudgeon Kurt Vonnegut once made the following observations on Jesus’ most famous sermon, the Sermon on the Mount, or The Beatitudes:
“I am enchanted by the Sermon on the Mount. 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. It may be that music is that second good idea’s being born.”
-               Kurt Vonnegut. Palm Sunday. Random House. New York, New York. 1981. p. 296

Music, I believe, also emanates from Shabbat time. The great Hasidic songs, the great Shaker songs, the great music and dance of the Sufi Muslims, the great works of Bach, Beethoven, Mahler, all mean to take us out of ourselves and connect us with others – with God and others – all others. Lest we forget, our common story begins with Miriam and the sisters grabbing their tambourines as they danced and sang their people to freedom from slavery in the Empire. As did King and the movement we recall today.  I believe he wants us to keep singing, until our singing gives birth to the next good idea!   Beloved Not Fade Away

Saturday, January 6, 2018

Epiphany 2017

THE MAGI by: W. B. Yeats (1865-1939)
Now as at all times I can see in the mind's eye,
In their stiff, painted clothes, the pale unsatisfied ones
Appear and disappear in the blue depth of the sky
With all their ancient faces like rain-beaten stones,
And all their helms of silver hovering side by side,
And all their eyes still fixed, hoping to find once more,
Being by Calvary's turbulence unsatisfied,
The uncontrollable mystery on the bestial floor.

King Herod. The Magi. The Star. The Prophetic Text. The Child. His mother. The Gifts. The Choice. Where to begin. We think we know this story, but do we?

Herod. “In the time of King Herod…” Herod is appointed by Caesar as “King of the Jews.” He is in charge and rules with power, violence and death. The roads of the Empire are littered with those Herod and others like him deem “enemies” of the Empire hanging on Roman crosses as a reminder: stay in line, don’t challenge us!

The Magi. Along come, says the text, Magi. These are Wise Men, not kings. William Butler Yeats calls them “unsatisfied ones.” Their thirst for the truth remains “unsatisfied” and takes them half-way across the known world following a star to seek the truth. We are not told how many Magi there are. No names. And there are others in their caravan. Camel herders, servants. They come bearing gifts for a child who “has been born king of the Jews.” He already is the new king! Herod and all Jerusalem are frightened at this news. “Jerusalem” represents the power brokers working with Rome. Time to find the chief priests and scribes to find out if this is true. The texts are consulted. Bethlehem, the home of King David, is the place to look.

Herod already devises a scheme to eliminate the competition. “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage,” he sneers. You can hear the rings rattling on his boney fingers. He already knows what must happen – all male Jewish children around the City of David will be killed. It does not work as it did not for Pharaoh. Moses and this child survive those early holocausts.

Who are these Magi anyway? Outsiders. Gentiles. Which only means non-Jews. Outsiders drawn to The Light. The Light that was coming into the world – a world of thick darkness, the darkness of the Empire of violence, oppression and death. The Magi are those who have seen The Light. There is an entire procession of them, perhaps a dozen or more, making the journey, the quest, to honor the one who even as an infant is already the new king. A new kind of king. One who does not resort to violence, oppression and death. A king who challenges all who would rule by force.

The Star. “When they saw that The Star had stopped they were overwhelmed with joy!” They are led by Starlight. In Matthew’s nativity story this is the one moment of Joy. There are no angels joyfully singing, no shepherds falling all over themselves with joy, no manger, no animals. The gloom of Herod pervades over the text with fear. Now the star stops. The journey ended. The Truth lies inside the house.

The Child and his Mother. “On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother.” A house, not a stable. No mention of Joseph, although this City of David is his hometown. No doubt this is a relative’s house. Like Joseph who is a tradesman, they appear to be middle-class. Matthew just mentions the mother. Mary. A child herself by our reckoning. Mary. Theotokos, Mother of God. Resting with the child after being chosen by God to bear a son. God’s only Son. Mary wonders about this large caravan outside the door of the house. Who are these outsiders, these Gentiles from far far away? Seekers. Scholars. Scientists. Consultants of texts and stars! Those who seek satisfaction from Truth.

The Gifts. A nearly endless procession of servants bring huge quantities of gold, frankincense and myrhh into the house. As the prophet Isaiah proclaimed long ago, “They shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord.” (Is 60:6) A text that announces the arrival of God into the world he created as the coming of brilliant light. The prophet imagines outsiders coming from afar, with “dust clouds of camels,” bearing Gifts – Gifts that declare that even the outsiders, the Gentiles, submit to the arrival of a new kind of king. Another poem, Psalm 72, declares that all kings are tasked to bring Shalom to the people. More than peace and prosperity, this Shalom of God attends to the well-being of all persons – freeing them from oppression, poverty and violence. “ For he shall deliver the poor…he shall have pity on the lowly and poor…there shall be an abundance of Shalom till the moon shall be no more.” Shalom deserving of gifts!

The Mystery. “The uncontrollable mystery” is this new Oneness of Jew and Gentile. The Unification of All People. No longer are there to be insiders and outsiders, but All People, writes Paul to the Ephesians, have access to the God of promise and Shalom. This is the wisdom of God in its rich variety, the mystery hidden for the ages. The mystery of this Christ child.

The Choice. “Being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another way.” Yeats imagines the Magi as having seen “another way.” They do not do the King’s bidding. They do not support an administration of power sustained by fear, violence and killing. They find the “turbulence” of Calvary and its display of capital punishment as unsatisfying for a world that calls us to respect the dignity of every human being. A world of Shalom. As an act of civil disobedience, they choose to return to their country “by another way.”

There is something about the revealed and “uncontrollable mystery on the bestial floor” of Bethlehem that calls, urges, demands we find another way. Is it just a coincidence that the very first generation of people who followed Jesus became known as “the people of the Way”? And that the “way” was His way, a new way, “another way” as the texts before us would have it?

I imagine that Matthew’s telling of this tale still calls us to become a people who are looking for, advocating and bringing into human consciousness “another way” in a world in which all the old ways continue to be utterly unsatisfying. Our satisfaction lies with the Magi – they demonstrate the importance of making a choice against supporting the old ways and physically striking out on “another way.” The Truth demands this. This is who these texts call us to be – people of the way, those who choose another way – The Way of Truth. We have now only a moment for this – like the Magi, our time and our place call us to such a moment of decision with no time to ponder, dither or “make up our minds.” It’s time to choose.

Friday, December 29, 2017

When Is It Time For Love To Be Born?

“When is the time for love to be born?”
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. 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… The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.” John 1

The presents are all open, the wrapping paper bagged up and put in the trash. The pageants have come and gone, the crowds on Christmas Eve are come and gone. The days of gift returns and post-holiday bargains underway.  

Now we get John’s version of what we nostalgically refer to as “The Christmas Story.” John’s take is very different from Luke and Matthew.  No angels, no shepherds, no star, no manger, no Bethlehem, no Joseph, not even a mention of Mary!

With three words John links Christmas with the time before time itself, the time before creation begins: In the beginning… The very first words of Holy Scripture. The foundation of the world, of the universe itself. Words about a Word. The Word. This Word we are told “was God.” Christmas for John is the birth of the universe!

Which is fitting since it is this Word who spoke the word, “Light!” And things came to be. All things. As John tells us, not one thing came into being that did not come through the Word.

All speculation about big-bangs and the like aside, John’s Christmas Story is a much quieter affair. No crowds of people flooding the streets of Bethlehem for the census. No Choirs of Angels, crowds of shepherds, animals in the manger and so on. All we have is this poetry of John’s, God and God’s Word. But of course, that is all we really need.

Like the First Sunday after Christmas itself, things are quieter. As it should be it seems. To contemplate the Word through which all things came to be and continue to come to be ought to leave us breathless. Awe struck. Like that old priest Zechariah, father of John who was not the light; Zechariah who could not speak until John who would be Baptist was born.  

Let all the earth keep silence before him. Before the Word which is also the true light which enlightens all people. This Word who is coming into the world enlightens not some people, not a lot of people, but all people. Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, Jew, Daoist, Agnostic, Atheist. All people.

This is why we seek and serve Christ in all persons as we promise in our baptism. Because the Word who enlightens us enlightens everyone, everywhere, for all time and forever. Ever since the beginning. Christ the Word is in all things. All things. This is big news, even if it is less adorable than children running up and down the aisles in their parent’s old bathrobes!

The even bigger news, of course, is that the Word becomes flesh and dwells among us. The word “dwell” in the Greek means something like to pitch one’s tent. Like the tent in which the Ark of God’s Covenant travelled with Israel from Egypt to the land of Promise. The Word prefers a tent to live among us, rather than a house or temple. Tents are rather portable and temporary structures. I have always imagined that this means whenever we pick up and move, the Word picks up his tent stakes and moves with us. Our God is a nimble and mobile God. He promises to be with us always. This means he is always nearby in his tent.

In many respects we are still a nomadic people, transient, racing from pillar to post in fossil-fueled vehicles. Fossils that go almost back to the time of “in the beginning” keep us on the move. Fascinating this stuff that God speaks into being by saying, “Let there be…”

As John seeks to tell this tale of Love come down to dwell amongst us all he can do is write poetry.  A Hymn to the Word. The Word which is life, light and love. It is John’s attempt to get it just right. John’s attempt to give us a glimpse of the Word’s very essence.

A poet of our own time also struggled to get it just right. Madeliene L’Engle in her book Winter Song offers another vision of Christmas. She wonders just how this Word would choose to pitch his tent among us in a world in which words like evil, hate, enmity, fear, aggression, war, nuclear weapons, cloning, murder, and darkness seem to be the daily coin of the realm.

This is no time for a child to be born
With the earth betrayed by war and hate
And nova lighting the sky to warn
That time runs out and sun burns late.

That was no time for a child to be born,
In a land in the crushing grip of Rome;
Honor and truth were trampled by scorn –
Yet here did the Saviour make his home.

When is the time for love to be born?
The inn is full on the planet earth,
And by greed and pride the sky is torn –
Yet, love still takes the risk at birth.

If we close our eyes and listen to the poets, John and L’Engle, we can catch a glimpse of the light that shines in the darkness and which the darkness has not overcome. We can catch a glimpse of the Word pitching his tent to dwell among us as risky and unlikely as that seems.

Just a glimpse is all that we need. That is all that we are given. Glimpses. No one has ever seen God. Only the Word, God’s only Son. Like Father, like Son – the Son who is close to the Father’s heart. The Son who we pray will shine in our hearts and in our lives, in all we do and say. Just a glimpse is all we get. But it is enough. More than enough to dispel a little of our present darkness and draw us ever closer to the light, the true light, which even now is coming into the world.

It is the light of all people. Everyone, everywhere. And for this may we sit quietly in the stillness of John’s cosmic nativity and give thanks. Amen. 

Sunday, December 24, 2017

The Ghosts of Christmas!

The Ghosts of Christmas
“One Christmas was so much like another, in those years around the sea-town corner now
and out of all sound except the distant speaking of the voices I sometimes hear a moment before sleep, that I can never remember whether it snowed for six days and six nights when I was twelve, or whether it snowed for twelve days and twelve nights when I was six….”

I return to these words of Dylan Thomas’ A Child’s Christmas in Wales every year at this time. Or, at least I mean too. I at least take the book out. It’s because my mother sent me the little blue New Directions paper edition for Christmas 1975 since I was half a continent away from home, as I was most years back then. I wasn’t yet a priest in the church in 1975, but rather was off playing music. Usually in Maine where it really does begin to look a lot like Christmas. My bandmates and I would sometimes stay at a farm near Winslow and China, Maine, with no electricity, no running water, no telephone. Just the honking goose and ramming sheep in the barnyard, goats in the barn, and the good company of the woman who lived there with her daughters after taking off in an old school bus from Virginia and just kept driving until they found that place. A hand painted sign out front read, “Da Farm,” and the woman, who sometimes made the news in Waterville, was oft times simply referred to as the Winslow Woman!

One year she arranged for us to play at the Augusta County Jail on Christmas Eve. My bandmates played guitars, banjo and mandolin while I made do with washboard and spoons. The inmates sang along and were among the most appreciative audience we ever played for these past 50 years we have been playing. When I think back on it now after years of preaching and teaching, it must have been something like this for Saint Paul and his jail-mates who refused to give in to their imprisonment, would pray and sing songs, so moving that the jailers would join in! One time an earthquake sprung the jail doors open, but Paul did not leave. He didn’t want the Roman jailers to get in trouble. Nothing quite like that happened in Augusta that night, but it sure did feel like Christmas with the men who were being held there.

John Shea tells the story of an old priest who had one Christmas Eve sermon. Every year, people flocked to hear it again. He would seem to be talking to himself about the birth of Christ. He began softly, a low rumble like that of the distant trains I hear outside my bedroom window late at night. But this train was in the church. People had to lean forward just to hear him at first until soon he would bellow, “The wood of the crib is the wood of the cross!” A seemingly odd thing to say on the night of the child’s birth, which took place in a place not unlike Da Farm in Winslow, Maine. His mother and father certainly would not have been thinking of the seemingly tragic end of his life on a Roman cross. No doubt they were just happy to be together. And now – most of all – they were a threesome. At least for the next 30 years or so. And all these strange visitors. Shepherds of all things! Not just shepherds, but shepherds with tales of angels singing and a message about the child. And just like that they were gone and Mary and Joseph and the child were a threesome again.

Strange of the old priest to imply that this child of whom angels sing was born to die. But that would be the point of the story we come to rehearse year in and year out. God in this child comes to live among us as one of us to shed a little light into the darkness of this world. At the Council of Nicea, so the story goes, when Arius declared that Jesus was not divine, St. Nicholas, they say, swept across the room and slapped him. For that outburst Nicholas was put in jail until Mary appeared in his cell and freed him, for Mary knows the nature of the son she bore, and she was not going to let his defender languish in jail! In the less-fun world of theology, Mary was given the title “Theotokos,” or “God Bearer”! Thus, theology and legend combine to hold together the Christian rhetoric of Incarnation.

That same council gave us the words that “he suffered, died and was buried.” We repeat them every Sunday. That is, Christ’s human nature was not a sham. Unlike the Gnostics who would say that at the first moment of pain and suffering he magically left his body, climbed up to heaven to watch and laugh at his tormentors, we believe in his full humanity. Like each and every one of us, he was born, he lived and he died. He cried out in pain on the cross as any of us would. His full humanity is demonstrated by the very fact that he freely faced what we steadfastly try to avoid – suffering and death. The wood of the crib is the wood of the cross.

The old priest was on to something, for as in Dickens’ tale, Christmas time is when the dead seem to return – though usually friendlier than those who take after Old Scrooge. I have found myself thinking of Christmas nights at my Grandma and Grandpa Cooper’s house in Maywood. Roy Cooper had been something of a giant in his day, working in Mr. Wrigley’s downtown Chicago bank. One of his jobs was to oversee the cash take at Wrigley field. He would take my mother to the games. He would just sidle up to a side door, knock and say “Tell them it’s Roy,” and they would go right in. But on Christmas nights that I recall he was greatly reduced by the effects of his Parkinson’s, sitting in his armchair overseeing the family opening presents around the living room. His sister, my Great Aunt Grace, would always give us “men” in the family a stick of Old Spice deodorant and after-shave! I still have to keep some in my medicine chest if only to remember her and her 50 years at Marshall Field’s flagship store. What I remember most about Roy is that he always insisted on getting the parson’s-nose off the turkey, and that no matter how advanced his disease was, he always smiled. Something we could all do well to do – smile that is!

The wood of the crib is the wood of the cross. He was born to die. Those of us who know the rest of the story know that neither the crib nor the cross could contain him. Herod sent his troops to kill all the infants around Bethlehem two years-old and younger, his entire cohort! Yet, ironically, he survives, hiding in Egypt of all places. And he says, “I am with you always to the end of the age!” This not only means he is always with us, but that we cannot get rid of him. As John Donne once preached on Christmas day: ‘His birth and his death were but one continuall act, and his Christmas day and his Good Friday are but the evening and morning of one and the same day.” The miracle of the Incarnation means to shout out: I am there. I am with you. I am your life. You are my beloved. I was born to die and rise again. Just like all those who return to be with us on Christmas Eve. It turns out that “born to die” translates into “accompanied by love.” Born to die proclaims the non-abandoning presence of God. God does not let go of the human person – not ours and not his own!

“Looking through my bedroom window, out into the moonlight and the unending smoke-colored snow, I could see the lights in the windows of all the other houses on our hill and hear the music rising from them up the long, steadily falling night,” concludes Dylan Thomas. “I turned the gas down. I got into bed. I said some words to the close and holy darkness, and then I slept.”

God bless us, every one!

Saturday, December 23, 2017

Let it be....

Let it be, let it be
In Second Samuel chapter 7 there is a marvelous little tale. A morality play, if you will, for those who ascend to places of power. It begins with David, once a shepherd, now a king, talking to his prophet Nathan: I live in a house of cedar, says David. Yet, the ark of God stays in a tent. To which Nathan simply replies, one imagines with a sigh, “Sure thing, do all that you have in mind.”

But, says the text, that same night the Lord YHWH Ha Shem comes to Nathan and says: Go tell my servant David, “Are you the one to build me a house to live in? I have not lived in a house since the day I brought you and your people up out of Egypt to this day! I have been moving about in a tent and a tabernacle. And wherever we moved about together did I ever once say, Why have you not built me a house?

Now also say to David, Enough about me! I took you from the pasture to be king. I have been with you all the way. I have cut off all your enemies. I will appoint a place for my people to live and be disturbed no more. I appoint leaders for your people. And moreover, I will make you a house! Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me. Your throne shall be established forever. By me!

It is one of the greatest humbling speeches of all time. David wants to perform a self-serving act of piety and political propaganda: Look at me. I built God a house. YHWH HaShem will have nothing to do with it and reminds David just who appointed and anointed him king in the first place. God says I will make you a house! The house David gets is a dynasty that will continue through to Jesus “of the house of David.” That is, this is where the story of the good news of Jesus Christ begins. Which goes far to explaining Jesus’ own humility as God made man. God makes himself small so as to enter into our world to shed some light on our ever-present darkness.

Jump forward some 800 or 900 years and we read in Luke 1: 26-38 that an angel, Gabriel appears to a young maid in Nazareth to proclaim some astounding news. We are told the young woman is betrothed to a man name Joseph who is “of the house of David.”

“Greetings, favored one! God’s grace is upon you!” The young woman, Mary, after Miriam, the sister of Moses who led the sisters in dancing and singing their way out of Egypt, is perplexed. She ponders these words. Mary, it seems, is a contemplative at a young age.

Then comes the most oft repeated angelic announcement, “Do not be afraid.” Which of course means that any right-thinking person ought to be afraid of what’s coming next! “You will conceive a child, a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great and the Lord God will give him the throne of his ancestor David! His kingdom will have no end!”

How can this be, she exclaims! And rightfully so, for she has yet to know a man, any man. Look, says Gabe, nothing is impossible with God. Your relative Elizabeth has been barren all these years and yet she is already six months with child! In her old age no less! The Holy Spirit will go to work along with the Most High, and voila! Jesus shall be born!

Then Mary becomes a poet, a contemplative, and an active participant in God’s will when she says, “Let it be.” Make no mistake, these words, Let It Be, are anything but passive acceptance of her future. The ancient Chinese have a notion called wu wei (woo-way). It means something like, “doing not doing.” Which to our Western ears sounds like doing nothing. Which is to miss the careful construction, “DOING not doing.” Which means we are still doing something. But like water wanders where it will, working its way around or over anything in its way, wu wei signifies doing, as Mary says, whatever accords with God’s Word! Not according to our design as David wanted to do in building God a house. Mary knows God never asked for a house. And her son will never have a house.

As the Winter Olympics are coming up, we will hear of athletes who will ski a perfect slalom downhill as being “in the zone.” Wu Wei means being in the zone of the Dao, which biblically speaking means “in the God zone.” Were David in the zone, were David to “let it be,” he would not propose doing what God has not asked him to do. Wu Wei, Doing not doing, let it be. These are all ways of helping us to let go of what we think we know and allow God to keep us in the zone.

Anyone who has had an experience like Mary’s know what it is like. Years ago I was a musician. I once stood in Kroch’s and Brentano’s bookstore in Oak Park, IL. I was reading a few words in a book by Thomas Merton, On Solitude. Merton writes that solitude is like the wind whispering through the tree tops, or a light rain upon the hills. Suddenly I found myself standing on a beach with wave after wave rolling in and over me. Between each wave a voice said, “It is time for you to go to seminary.” Over and over, the waves and the voice for I don’t know how long. The cash register rang! Suddenly I was back in Kroch’s and Brentano’s. How can this be, I thought? I told my friend Bill whose father was a priest. He said, “You better talk to my father!” I did. I let it be. Four years later the Right Reverend James Winchester Montgomery was placing his hands on my head in the Cathedral Church of Saint James, in Chicago, and I was made a priest forever after the order of Melchizedek – Melchizedek who is the very epitome of “let it be” and wu wei as he rides in to serve Abraham bread and wine and then rides off never to be seen again.

Let it be. After some hemming and hawing I let it be, and here I am. It took a lot of hard work, it wasn’t easy, but my life was changed. It’s no coincidence that near the end of The Beatles phenomenal ride in the world of popular music that Lennon and McCartney would write:

When I find myself in times of trouble
Mother Mary comes to me
Speaking words of wisdom
Let it be, let it be

Mary and her child would know plenty about times of trouble. And yet, they consistently let it be. Let it be with me according to your word. It is a wisdom as old as the Dao itself, which is to say the Logos, the Word that was with God and that is God in the beginning. The wisdom is in the words, whether they be “doing not doing,” or “let it be.” We need to listen to the ancient wisdom and know, all shall be well, all shall be well, all manner of thing shall be well. With God, nothing is impossible!

Saturday, December 16, 2017

How Do We Walk?

How Do We Walk?
“In poetry we can do things not permitted by logic or reason,” writes Walter Brueggemann. “Poetry will open the world beyond reason. Poetry will give access to contradictions and tensions that logic must deny. Poetry will not only remember but also propose and conjure and wonder and imagine and foretell.” [Devotions for Advent, Celebrating Abundance, p 14]

When times are tough, Jews write poetry. Isaiah is a Jewish poet. A voice, says Isaiah, declares: In the wilderness imagine a highway, straight, level, the hills made low, the valleys lifted up so as to make the journey home direct, safe, and swift [Is 40: 1-11]. Wilderness is another word, a metaphor, for exile or captivity. The people are displaced in Babylon, a long way from Jerusalem. The world is suddenly and frighteningly unfamiliar. Life has been disrupted. Yet, the poet imagines that there is a way out, if only we can imagine it and prepare for it!

A herald of good tidings, good news, proclaims the word that the God of the Exodus “comes with great might…He will feed his flock, He will gather his lambs and gently but swiftly lead them home again. The Hebrew word for this herald is mabasar, in Greek evangelion.

We are meant to notice that the word for this herald, this voice, is used by the Gospel of Mark at the very outset, in the very first sentence: The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. The beginning of the ev-angel-ion. Isaiah used it in the wilderness of Babylon for his imagined herald. Thank goodness for my high school homeroom teacher Mr. Baker and his Etymology course!  The Greek prefix ev, or eu, means good, angel means message or messenger, all of which we translate as “good news;” which in turn in old English becomes “god-spell,” or “gospel.”

Mark chooses this word carefully, for in the Roman Empire evangelion referred to a messenger from the Emperor announcing the “good news” that new territory and peoples had been captured by the Empire. Evangelion was, in essence, Roman Propaganda! Courageously Mark now turns the word in its current first century usage on its head to proclaim the coming arrival of the one who will strike blows against the empire – one Jesus Christ, who incidentally is the Son of God; the God of the Exodus, the God who motivated Cyrus of Persia [modern day Iran] to lead the people on the superhighway back to Jerusalem. Evangelion is now to be Godly propaganda!

Notice what a bold move Mark makes. Co-opting the Emperor’s chosen method of communicating news of his recent conquests to announce that there is coming a new authority – an authority that will energize us to defy the machinations of the Empire and return to “the way of the Lord.”

John picks up where Isaiah leaves off, and even borrows, with some changes, Isaiah’s poem. As John has it, Isaiah’s voice itself is now “in the wilderness.” And all the people of Judea and Jerusalem head out into the wilderness to hear the voice. And John is that voice. “Prepare the way of the Lord!”

“The Way.” The word means “good path,” a way of expressing the Hebrew halakha, which in turn means “how one walks.” Gustav Mahler, the composer, was a rock star in Vienna! He was the Mick Jagger of his day and age. Stories are told that people would follow behind him on the streets of Vienna and try to walk the way Mahler walks.

How do we walk? What is the way of our walking? That’s what John is talking about. This is what Advent is all about – walking in the way of the Lord. Mark declares that this is the beginning – a word meant to recall the very first words of the Bible, “In the beginning God creates…” Attending to our way of walking is a new beginning to things. The old ways of walking are not working. John says the command words are “repent” and “forgive.” To turn our lives around by walking and talking forgiveness. Do we walk in the way of the Empire? Or, in the Way of the Lord.

The first Christians were not called Christians at all. They were called the People of the Way. The way of walking like Jesus. Which was utterly unlike the ways in which the Romans walked. To repent means to recognize that we are already “in the wilderness” with John. We need to go down to the river and be washed. To let go of the ways of the Empire and to return to the ways of The Lord. This is as true today as it was back then.

It calls for an enormous public works project say Isaiah and John! Look at the highway projects, the reduced lanes, the reduced speed limits, the earth movers, the enormous effort necessary to make a highway straight and level. Don’t curse the highway projects. When you are stopped in a long line of cars waiting for the sign-holder to turn the sign from STOP to SLOW, remember what Isaiah and John proclaim – Prepare the way of the Lord. In this case, prepare a place within ourselves and within our community, our nation, the world, a landing strip if you will, for the Lord to come and once again dwell among us. For debts to be relieved, prisoners released, bind up the brokenhearted, comfort those who mourn, rebuild the ruins and devastations, and repair our ruined cities. It’s a big project Isaiah sees necessary to repair the world.

Isaiah and John, timeless poets of God’s Word, remind us that Advent is a time of hoping, receiving energy and resolve for the mission ahead. The mission is tough, but our God is not hidden, not indifferent and not powerless. And we are God’s people, God’s beloved community. We will once again escape the clutches of the Empire and walk in the way of the Lord! 

Saturday, December 9, 2017

The Mountain and the Cathedral

A Parable For Johnny B
Our story begins, once upon a time, in an ancient and far away country, when there were no towns, no cities, but only small tribes and caravans of people living on the land, wandering from place to place looking for vegetation to feed their sheep and goats, there was a sacred mountain.

When people climbed to the top of the sacred mountain they would feel the presence of God who would say,  “Love the One God who loves and cares for you always, and always care for one another, especially the others, those who are poor and have no families, widows, orphans and strangers in the land.”

And the people would leave the sacred mountain and remember to care for others the way the One God who loved them cared for them. Throughout the years turning into ages people would come and go to the top of the sacred mountain and return with the message – to love the One God who loves them, and to care for one another, especially the others, those beyond the tribe.

As they would leave the sacred mountain many would place a stone there as a reminder that this is where they heard the message from God. Many also came who had not heard from God themselves, but had heard the stories of those who had. They too would leave a stone to commemorate that sacred place and the remarkable stories they had heard about those who had heard the voice of God. One stone was placed on top of another until over time a magnificent Cathedral was built upon the top of the sacred mountain where God’s presence could be found and God’s voice could be heard.

People came from all over to the Cathedral, knowing that something important and wonderful and true was there. They would pay their respects, listen to the stories, praise the name of God and experience God’s love and care for them, and for all people, especially the others, those who are poor and have no families, widows, orphans and strangers in the land. Each one would leave a stone and carry the message to all to whom they were sent.

Over the years more and more people came and left stones one atop the other, until a great city was built around the Cathedral and all over the mountain, with long, winding, narrow streets, lined with homes, shops, fountains and plazas. People who came to the mountain would need to stop and ask the way to the Cathedral so as not to get lost in the back streets of the city. Each one left a stone.

The years continued to roll by, people coming and going, each leaving a stone until a great wall was built around the city with majestic gates on four sides. People now would have to find a gate they would be allowed to enter. The gates were sometimes open and sometimes closed. For many, even those who lived in the city, the top of the sacred mountain became difficult to find now that the whole mountain was covered with so many many stones to remember the message heard at the top of the mountain for so many years.

The streets were crowded and narrow and winding. There was so much noise and activity throughout the city, that soon no one could hear the directions to find their way to the top of the sacred mountain where God’s presence would remind them to love the God who loves and cares for you, and to care for one another, all others, especially those beyond the walls of the city.

Far away, beyond the gates of the city, far beyond its walls, was a man, lonely in the wilderness. A voice crying in the wilderness. Above the crowded streets, above the noise of the city, above the very top of the Cathedral towers his voice could be heard soaring on the wind. So loud and lovely and lonely came the cry from the wilderness, calling people to come to the banks of the river.

First one, then another went beyond the gates of the city and followed the sound of that voice, the voice so loud and lonely floating on the winds, like music in the sky. As they came upon the man lonely in the wilderness they could hear his cry: “Prepare ye the way of the Lord, Prepare ye the way of the Lord; make straight the roadways, make the way smooth, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, Prepare ye the way of the Lord.”

Soon more and more people came out of the city into the wilderness, following the voice carried on the wind, until everyone, all those inside and outside the gates of the city were there with the man lonely in the wilderness. And the people all joined in his cry: “Prepare ye the way of the Lord, Prepare ye the way of the Lord; make straight the roadways, make the way smooth, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, Prepare ye the way of the Lord.” All their voices together were carried on the winds to the four corners of the earth.

Then the man lonely in the wilderness led them to the banks of a river and invited them all to bathe in the waters – the waters their ancestors had crossed so many many ages ago. As they bathed in the river, cleansing themselves, renewing themselves, he said to them, “Remember, remember, our God also speaks to us in these sacred waters. Remember, remember what he has said, ‘Love the One God who loves you and cares for you, and always care for one another, especially the others those who are poor, have no families, widows, orphans and strangers in the land.’ This is how we prepare The Way of the Lord. This is The Way of the Lord!

"And, oh yes!  Another one is coming who will lead us all the way back to the top of the mountain. Yes, you will remember, remember, remember today, but The One who is coming will show us The Way. We have nowhere to look and nowhere to go. He will tell us that the Cathedral and the top of the mountain is here, in the midst of us, wherever we are as a community of his people.  Together.  All of us.  Including the others beyond the community. Especially the others.  Here in our midst, wherever we are, God's presence, God's voice, God's message does dwell.  Remember, remember, remember today, the one who shall come will show us the Way."

So it was, the beginning of our story. And so it is today. When you listen far above the crowds and noise, a voice can still be heard floating on the winds, beyond the gates of the city, above the tops of the highest cathedral, calling to us, “Prepare ye the way of the Lord, Prepare ye the way of the Lord; make straight the roadways, make the way smooth, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, Prepare ye the way of the Lord.” Remember, remember, remember today, the one who shall come will show us The Way.