Saturday, August 22, 2015

Spirit and Life

"This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?" - John 6:60
For five weeks now we have dwelt within the sixth chapter of the fourth gospel, an extended meditation on bread, manna, spirit and life. Those of us in the preaching trade wonder why it is the lectionary insists on our taking in the entire chapter week after week, ever challenged to find something new, something fresh, something relevant to proclaim. Yet, here in the waning verses of the chapter we hear even the disciples admit that the teaching on bread is difficult; who can accept it? Jesus replies to their frustration, our frustration, “Does this offend you? Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before? It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life.” John 6:61-63

One has to admire this about Jesus, even if you don’t choose to follow him: whenever he senses we are beginning to “get it” he turns it up one more notch – he finds some new way to challenge our already challenged hearts and minds with the next “what if.” After nearly 60 verses on the essential efficacy of eating his flesh and drinking his blood, he goes on to say that “the flesh is useless. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life.” It turns out there is more to eternal life than Eucharist.

Archbishop William Temple in his seminal look at the fourth gospel, Readings In John’s Gospel, teases out the essence of what is being said here. Why not, after all, talk about receiving the Sprit in the first place? Why all this extended metaphor on bread – on body and blood –  if after all is said and done, the flesh “is useless”?  Temple’s argument suggests it is as if the compilers of John could foresee our own time when the bookshelves of Barnes and Noble and are crammed with facile books on the “spiritual life,” and urgings to simply contemplate the beauties of nature, as fine as that may be, instead of accepting the ascended Spirit and Life of the crucified one through eating his flesh and drinking his blood.

But, says Temple, we are not only to receive him in some general way, and recollect the scenes from his life which we already prefer to remember, but we must “receive him in the fullness of his self-sacrifice, that we may be united with him in the self-emptying of his obedience unto death, even the death of the cross (Philippians 2:8).” That is, we can easily fall into the delusion that mere taking by mouth the consecrated bread and wine is in itself to receive eternal life. The flesh and blood, even of the Son of Man, is not all of it. The flesh and blood of the Ascended One, though, are plainly not just matter, for the Ascended One is not seated somewhere far-off, but rather is here in the midst of all human suffering, for He has suffered Himself.

To give in to mere materialism, then, is not our calling, but rather to become Spirit and Life, his Spirit and his life, a life of self-sacrifice and self-emptying. The temptation, however, is always there to depend solely on our selves rather than out of the radical dependence of manna season as exemplified in the wilderness and the early church. Manna season, typified by everyone getting enough, no one gets too much, and, as in the Book of Acts, all resources are allocated for the good of the whole community. This is the Biblical world view.

The Bible goes to great pains to make clear what happens when one holds back resources that are meant for the good of the whole community. In the book of Joshua when a battle is lost the special prosecutor determines it is because one man, Achan, has held back in his tent some of the booty of a previous battle for himself; material that was meant to sustain the whole community. In chapter 2 of Acts, Ananias and Sapphira withhold the profits of selling their property from the early Christian community and, as they are found out they drop dead when they admit to the Sin of Achan. No wonder the disciples regard this teaching on bread as so difficult!

Today we call this Sin of Achan and Ananias and Sapphira the Objectivism of Ayn Rand, a sad little woman who imagined a lonely life of isolation, one individual pitted against all others, competing for the stuff of the world, stuffing one’s tent for one’s own self-interest. It is a kind of radical materialism. You can read all about it in her 1957 book Atlas Shrugged. Rand magically transforms the western canon when she turns the Sin of Achan, Ananias and Sapphira into a Virtue with a capital “V”.  Some believe this to be “the American Dream.”  Oddly, she seemed to have believed this kind of radical materialism would somehow combat the materialism of Totalitarian Communism.

The Objectivism of Self-Sufficiency is in direct conflict with a Biblical World view of collective dependency on what the Lord seeks to provide on a daily basis. Even Jesus, when asked how to pray, suggested that we pray for “daily bread.” Jesus imagined a return to Manna Season and radical dependence on God’s daily bread. Jesus lived among us as an example of self-giving and self-sacrifice.

Contrast Ayn Rand’s vision, one which is proclaimed loudly by some members of congress to this day, with the life of Jonathan Myrick Daniels. Daniels, a graduate of Virginia Military Institute, valedictorian of his class, entered Episcopal Theological Seminary to study to become a priest and disciple of Jesus. As a seminarian he went south to join in the Civil Rights movement. He and members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) went to Fort Deposit, Alabama to protest some stores that only allowed white customers, were arrested and placed in a jail in nearby Haynesville. A few days later they were freed without bail, but left in the streets of Haynesville without transport back to Fort Deposit. As Daniels and some others, including a 17 year-old African American girl, Ruby Sales, went to buy a Coke at a nearby store. A man with a shotgun took aim at Ruby, Daniels pushed her aside and took the blast himself which left him dead and saved her life. She has gone on to live a long live as a civil rights activist. Spirit and Life, self-sacrifice and self-giving.  Johnathan Myrick Daniels gave his life on August 20th, 1965, fifty years ago this week, and just eight years after Atlas Shrugged.

Two worldviews: Objectivism vs The Gospel of Spirit and Life. The relevance of all of this needs no explanation. Just ponder the news every day. We live in the sixth chapter of John for more than one month every third year because it would be too easy to forget just what it is Jesus is talking about. This teaching is difficult. It takes time for us to take it in. We live in a world that is driven by the Objectivism of Ayn Rand, a world driven mad by markets and visions of self-sufficiency.

Maybe a world that has lost touch with the kind of collective spirit imagined in the Bible drives people to extreme acts of violence. Maybe self-sufficiency is not all it is cracked up to be. Maybe a world that has walked away from Manna Season has crushed our spirit. Has it ever occurred to us that in our drive for self-sufficiency we actually create evildoers? It is worth thinking about as we ponder what we need as a vision moving forward from what looks more like Mass-Murder and Violence Season than Manna Season.

Temple concludes that the purpose of this long and sometimes strange discourse on bread is meant to remind us of our total spiritual dependence on Christ, to guard against any sense of materialism or magic in the Eucharist which is our main means of effecting our spiritual dependence on Christ, and to secure that our dependence on Christ is inseparable from his redeeming sacrifice and life of self-giving and self-emptying. No wonder it is so bewildering. It is patently counter-cultural. And yet, it is the life of the Biblical worldview of some 3,000 years, oft maligned, but infrequently adopted and lived. God is at home, it is we who have gone out for a walk. When will we be moved to return home? Amen.  

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Eternal Life Is Now

John 6:54 – “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life…”

Eternal life. The one who says, “I am the living bread that came down from heaven,” promises that those who eat his flesh and drink his blood “have eternal life.” Not “will have,” but “have.” Yet, we tend to think that eternal life is something far off, something conferred after life, after death.

In the words of William Sloan Coffin, chaplain at Yale and then pastor at Riverside Church, New York City, “We are on the road to heaven now if today we walk with God. Eternal life is not a possession conferred at death; it is a present endowment. We live it now and continue it through death.” William Sloan Coffin, Credo, p170

Or, as another theologian puts it, eternal life has nothing to do with “timelessness and death, but is full-filled life here on earth that makes us yearn it will never end. Living life to the fullest as disciples brings great joy in the present and a hope for the future.” Jurgen Moltmann, The Coming of God, p 291

Eternal life is life lived with, in and through God in Christ here and now – this is eternal life. I suspect it comes about only as we savor the meal. I suspect it only comes about if we savor the Word of God. I suspect it only comes about if we take the time to sit down at the table with Him and linger awhile. We need to savor His flesh and savor His blood if He is to live in us and we in Him.

Christian faith would be so much easier if it were a matter of mere belief or intellectual assent. Our rather scandalous, carnal and incarnational gospel reminds us that Jesus intends to have all of us, body and soul. He intends to course through our veins, be digested fully, and nourish every nook and cranny of our hearts, bodies and souls! He wishes to consume us as we consume him. We Christians are a bloody bunch!

He wants all of us. He wants us to have all of him.

Like the manna in the wilderness, those who sit at table with Him, those who linger and savor each moment, there will be enough. For every one there is enough to go around. Everyone gets enough, no one gets too much, if you try to store it up it sours. There is sufficient bread and wine to give eternal life for all of us, with baskets and baskets left over.

We moderns are not usually inclined, says John Booty, to give thanks for that which is sufficient. But this is exactly what Jesus has in mind.This is why we call this Eucharist – literally Greek for Thanksgiving.

The real question for all of us is whether or not we are willing to take time out of our daily lives, even on our Sundays, to linger with the Word of God? To savor the fullness of life He means to give us? Are we ready to accept this eternal life right now? Are we ready to begin here and now to commit to “living life to the fullest as disciples?” Eternal life is a present endowment.

What does this present endowment of eternal life look like? Our Baptismal Covenant gives us a sort of job description as to how we as a community of disciples are to live life to the fullest as we answer five questions.

Will you continue in the apostles' teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers? More simply put, will we read the Bible, get together with others, take communion and pray. Discipleship is not a life for loners – we are companions in the Way – literally “those who share bread.” Jesus does not send his disciples out to do the work he gives us to do on our own – he sends us out in pairs.

Will you persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord? The Chinese Book of Wisdom, the I Ching, frequently counsels, “Perseverance furthers.” We are to be those people who persevere in resisting evil – which means first we must recognize evil. And, we are to acknowledge our “manifold sins and wickedness” as we used to say, say we are sorry, and move on with our eternal life lived with God in Christ. Not a lot of public role models on this one. We as a people repeatedly are forced to spend millions of dollars to investigate and coerce people to say, “I am sorry, I did it, I won’t do it again.”

Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ? That is, does everything we say and do proclaim the Good News of God in Christ? What is that Good News anyway? As I read the gospels it is that we are God’s Beloved – each and every one of us. That’s it. God could have said something else: If you’re very very good I will love you. Or, if you are very very sorry for not being very very good I will love you. Or perhaps worst of all, I love you, now get back in line before I change my mind! God says quite plainly, “You are my beloved with whom I am well pleased.” Once we accept and embrace and embody this news eternal life really begins!

Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself? This is, believe it or not, the most controversial of our promises we make. Underlying this question is the assumption, the belief, that there is in fact something of Christ in all persons. This should not shock us since the whole story begins by saying male and female we are all made imago Dei – in the image of God. So we are to recognize this and serve this in all persons, not some persons, not most persons, but all persons. All. We truly need to spend time contemplating just what “all persons” really means.

And then comes the real kicker: Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being? There it is again: all people and every human being. Note the verb, to strive: to devote serious effort or energy, to work, to labor, to go all out for justice and peace for all people. If there was ever a time in the world, in our country, in our major cities, in our neighborhoods in need of people who strive for justice and peace the time is now. Now is the time for eternal life lived with God and out of this job description we call our Baptismal Covenant. To this we all say, “I will with God’s help.”

Jesus teaches us to pray, “Give us this day our daily bread” – our manna – His flesh and his blood. The daily bread he offers us is the opportunity to strive for justice and peace for all people; to respect the dignity of every human being; to seek and serve Christ in all persons; to make sure that everything we say and do will proclaim the Good News of God in Christ.

It is a tall order, this eternal life we are given. It is a gift for which we give thanks. We need only accept eternal life to have it right here and now. After our prayers will we give God in Christ – the Word of God – the necessary time to give us the daily bread we need to satisfy our deepest hunger and deepest thirst? Will we linger at the table and savor His presence? Will we seek God’s help to fulfill the promises of our discipleship? Not even God knows the answer to this question – only we do.

Saturday, August 8, 2015

Last Night I Had The Strangest Dream

Christ Church, West River - I am the bread of life part 2
And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with which you were marked with a seal …Ephesians 4:30
John 6: I am the living bread that came down from heaven

This week I find myself thinking about and singing this song by Ed McCurdy, a folk singer, who wrote it in 1950 in the early days of the Cold War and the aftermath of WWII which concluded once and for all with the dropping of nuclear weapons over two cities in Japan.  McCurdy’s song has been recorded by countless musicians from Pete Seeger and the Kingston Trio to Simon and Garfunkel, Johnny Cash, Mason Proffit, John Denver, and artists all around the world.  It is probably one of the least known most recorded songs in music history.

I never dreamed before
I dreamed the world had all agreed
To put an end to war
I dreamed I saw a mighty room
The room was filled with men
And the paper they were signing said
They'd never fight again

And when the papers all were signed
And a million copies made
They all joined hands and bowed their heads
And grateful prayers were prayed
And the people in the streets below
Were dancing round and round
And guns and swords and uniforms
Were scattered on the ground

Last night I had the strangest dream
I never dreamed before
I dreamed the world had all agreed
To put an end to war
Music and words: ED MCCURDY
Performed by Johnny Cash

An historical note: as the Berlin Wall was finally being dismantled in November 1989, Tom Brokaw directed the NBC cameras to focus on a group of school children on the East Berlin side of the wall singing, Last Night I Had the Strangest Dream.

We come from love, we return to love and love is all around. All of life is a homecoming, a coming home to God. We are God’s Beloved – signed and sealed by water and the Holy Spirit as Christ’s own forever.

This of course is directly related to the immutable fact of our creation: imago Dei – in the image of God.

So if we are imago Dei, and we are God’s Beloved, perhaps some time spent contemplating just what this means about who we are, whose we are, and what, if anything, we ought to be doing.

Our Baptismal Covenant asks us to make two key promises: Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself? Will you strive for justice and peace for all people, respecting the dignity of every human being?

To which we respond, I will with God’s help.

To serve Christ in all persons we need to truly accept that all people, not some people, not most people, but all people have something of Christ in them already. This is a bold assertion, and one not without controversy. But if, as John’s gospel has it, the Word, the logos, was with God and is God “in the beginning,” and all things came to be through this Word, and the Word is Jesus, God who became flesh and blood and moved into the neighborhood, there is no one and no thing in all of creation that does not have some of the Word, the logos, the Christ, within them. All people are imago Dei.

We are those people called to recognize that, accept that and serve that in all persons. We do that by striving, not simply being in favor of, but working, striving and bringing about justice and peace for all people, respecting the dignity of every human being.

This week we stop to reflect on three very important anniversaries. August 6 commemorated the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Voting Rights Act into law – thus fulfilling the promises of the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments to the Constitution which were enacted as a result of the Civil War. I watched a film clip of President Lyndon B. Johnson urging congress to pass the Voting Rights Act in the wake of Bloody Sunday in Selma, Alabama. As part of his speech he concludes, “We shall overcome….we shall overcome.” A song Pete Seeger adapted from the labor movement, who in turn had adapted it from a Negro Spiritual. Pete Seeger and Martin King had a dream, fueled by the Word of God, that one day all the people of the United States would be free, participating citizens.

August 6th was also the 70th anniversary of the US dropping a nuclear weapon on the city of Hiroshima. Today, August 9th commemorates the dropping of a second nuclear weapon over Nagasaki. Under orders by President Harry S. Truman, the US became the first and only country in history to use a nuclear weapon, and to use it to kill over 120,000 men, women and children, non-combatants, and to level two entire cities, leaving thousands more to live with the consequences of radiation sickness and what today we would call PTSD.  
In a blinding flash of white light, two cities and the people therein were incinerated. Most, if not all, were non-combatants.

It is perhaps an irony of history that August 6th is also the Feast of the Transfiguration – commemorating that event on a mountain top in which Jesus was seen by Peter, James and John to be blindingly white, dazzling in the sunlight, talking to Moses and Elijah. These events are forever linked.

The further irony, pointed out by Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon in their book, Resident Aliens [Abingdon Press, 2014 25th Anniversary Edition], is that President Truman was considered by many to be a faithful Christian, a faithful Baptist – the man who on the Feast of the Transfiguration inaugurated the threat and actuality of Nuclear Holocaust.

Jesus says, “I am the bread of life.” We have been incorporated into the Body of Christ. We are to become the bread of life for the world. Jesus urges us to love our enemies. Jesus urges us to respect the dignity of every human being – not some, not most, but all human beings. Jesus says we cannot live on bread alone, but on every Word that comes from God. The bread of life that comes down from heaven that we need to hear this 9th day of August come from Isaiah, a fellow prophet in the tradition of Elijah:

He shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.

How are we to be people of the Word of God as we reflect on these words of Isaiah and the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth?Paul in his letter to the Ephesians urges us, “And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with which you were marked with a seal.” It is very difficult to imagine that what happened in Japan in 1945 does not grieve the Holy Spirit.

Digging around the internet I discovered that Ed McCurdy’s original lyrics concluded this way:

Last night I had the strangest dream, I’d ever dreamed before
I dreamed the world had all agreed to put an end to war
When I awoke, ‘twas but a dream and peace a dirty word
I tried to tell them of my dream, but not a word they heard

And then I got me fighting mad, and I knew just what I’d do
I’d fight non-violently for peace, until my dream came true

Ed’s dream is the dream of God for all people – a world of justice and peace and dignity for all people.  This is the essence of the living bread that comes down from heaven. This is the daily bread God wants us to have, to accept as gift from the one who calls us to be his beloved. This is the daily bread we are to become – living bread for the whole world. It’s a complex world, we all get that. But the bread we are given to shape all that we do and all that we say promises that we can live up to our belovedness, we can act as if we truly believe we are imago Dei, created in the image of God. There is much that can be done non-violently to make the dream come true. Together we can make a world in which everyone is closer to God, closer to one another and closer to themselves.

Where have all the flowers gone…..
When will we ever learn,
When will we ever learn


Friday, July 17, 2015

You Are God's Beloved

You Are My Beloved
Proper 11B- Mark 6:30-34, 53-56

When I got a listing of the lessons and hymns for today the Gospel was listed as Mark 6:30-34, 53-56 (The Feeding of the Five Thousand). Then I went and read the selected verses and lo and behold, no feeding, no five thousand. What we are left with is the prologue and epilogue to the Feeding of the Five Thousand, which story, by the way, is told and retold six times across the four gospels. Twice in Mark alone if you don’t mind it being a mere four thousand the second time.

This means, I am guessing, to focus us on the fact that the people need good shepherds. Had the feeding story been included we could contrast feasting with the good shepherd with the previous story of what it is like to feast with a notoriously bad shepherd, Herod. With Jesus everyone gets enough, no one gets too much, and there are leftovers for tomorrow, like the story of manna in the wilderness with Moses and his crowd of escapees. With Herod, a notoriously bad shepherd, if you are person of extraordinary faith, you lose your head – literally, as in John the Baptizer meeting a nasty end. I think we are meant to consider, the way Mark lays it out, just who would be the good and bad shepherds today.

Also left out is the moment when Jesus asks the disciples to feed this “great crowd” for whom he has compassion, we see the disciples pleading the gospel of scarcity and urging Jesus to instruct the crowd to go shopping and let the market forces do their magic. Jesus of course has none of this and says sit them down in green pastures like we read in the 23rd psalm, and feed them yourselves. That’s what my father’s kingdom is all about – compassionate interdependence, not rugged independence. My banquets, and the heavenly banquet, are not going to be at all like those with Herod and all the other bad shepherds. We are to be all about hospitality, not hostility, generosity, not the exercise of power and manipulation. We are to welcome people, all people, not tell them to go away and take care of themselves. We are here to care for one another.

Then he sends them ahead, because remember, he is looking to get some rest from it all. They’re in the boat, a storm comes up, while he is doing his centering prayer he sees they are afraid and walks by the boat. The text says, “He intended to pass them by.” That sounds strange to us until we recall that God instructs Moses to stand in a certain spot while “I pass you by,” and God tells Elijah to stand in a certain spot and “I will pass you by.” So “passing by” is God’s way of saying, “Hey fellas, it’s Me!” As usual the disciples don’t get it. They think he’s a ghost. Worse still, we are told, they do not understand about the loaves. You can just about see Jesus shaking his head, holding his head in his hands. When will they ever learn, when will they ever learn. The text says they are hard-hearted. (hard-heaerted in Biblical terms means hard-headed since the Bible understands the heart as the home of knowledge while the head is the home of feelings)

This is where the epilogue picks up. Just as the crowds got to where he was going to rest before he did in the prologue, so they do it again in the epilogue. If you have ever seen the Sea of Galilee you understand. You can see all around the lake and no matter where Jesus tries to go, people can see where he is going even if the disciples have no clue. Note also they are bringing the sick, the halt and the lame from all over and “laid them in the marketplace,” exactly where he refused to send them at dinner time. Seems he intends to transform the marketplace into a kind of health-care exchange.

It’s astonishing really. He does nothing. He says nothing. There are no requirements, no talk about “faith.” Note the absence of any mention of the disciples who are still befuddled about the bread. The people are pictured as merely touching the “hem of his cloak.” “And all who touched it were healed.” The Gospel of the Lord! Praise to you, Lord Christ! What are we to make of all of this?

For one thing, perhaps, we are meant to be those who understand about the bread. After all, he teaches us to pray for bread that is given daily, not storehouses filled to overflowing. But then, just what is this daily bread?

If I had to hazard a guess I would say it is love – not just love, but the love of God. For me one of the keys to Mark’s gospel is in the very beginning. There is no birth story. Rather, a full grown Jesus steps onto the scene and joins in the Baptism of John. When he comes up out of the water, a voice says, “You are my beloved with whom I am well pleased.” Now as we all know, on page 298 in the Book of Common Prayer it says by water and the Holy Spirit those who are baptized are incorporated into the Body of Christ. Which I take to mean, when we are baptized there are tiny cherubim and seraphim flying around us whispering in our ears, “You are God’s Beloved! God is well pleased with you!” As we “grow up” we forget we ever heard that good news. Things happen. We lose faith in ourselves. We lose faith in others. We simply lose faith.

That’s when we need to be more like the people in the prologue and the epilogue to this story: we need to hurry and rush to those places to which Jesus goes to get rest before he even gets there, wait for him to arrive, and then touch the hem of his garment. The bread and the healing we need are to remember who we are and whose we are: We are God’s Beloved. God is well pleased with us! To internalize this good news I turn to Buddy Holly and the Grateful Dead and begin to play and sing:

I am well pleased with you

I am God’s Beloved
God is well pleased with me

I’m gonna tell you how it’s gonna be
God’s gonna give God’s love to me
I’m gonna love God night and day
You know our love not fade away

Our Love’s bigger than a Cadillac
God ain’t never gonna take it back
God’s love’s bigger than an SUV
No one can take it away from me
You know our Love not fade away

If you don’t believe I’ve been redeemed
Then come on down to Jordan’s stream
Up in the Sky what do you see
The Holy Spirit comin’ down on me
The Holy Spirit comin’ down on me

I'm gonna tell you how it's gonna be
God’s gonna give God’s love to me
A love to last more than one day
A love that's love - not fade away
A love that's love - not fade away
            -Buddy Holly, Norman Petty, adapted by Kirk Kubicek
              Copyright Sounds Divine

Saturday, July 4, 2015

Interdependence Day

Familiarity and The Common Good
Mark 6:1-13

Jesus, as we recall from last Sunday, had just performed two astonishing healings: the woman with the flow of blood for 12 years, and the 12 year old daughter of Jairus, a synagogue leader. Astonishing in that the woman who was an outsider, unlike Jairus, literally with sheer grit, hope and faith in Jesus just touched the hem of his garment – and in the “great crowd,” Jesus noticed that power had gone out of him, and recognized the woman for her persistence and her faith despite all odds. Perhaps this nameless woman of faith was an inspiration to Bree Newsome who took matters in her own hands to take down the Confederate Battle flag outside the South Carolina State House. It is undeniable that these two women have a lot in common. It would not be going too far to suggest that Jesus would recognize Bree Newsome for her persistence and faith to do the right thing despite all odds.

So then Jesus goes to his hometown and the reception he receives is incredibly underwhelming! Who does this son of a carpenter think he is? He is just an ordinary man like us, grew up among us, lives among us – he is no different than any of us! As Kurt Vonnegut once preached on a Palm Sunday years ago, leave it to a crowd to look at the wrong end of a miracle every time. It has been suggested that it is because of their familiarity with Jesus that they fail to recognize the holy, the presence of God, in the very ordinary young man who grew up in their midst.

I have known such familiarity to make it difficult to see the extraordinary in the ordinary, yet the great saints and mystics of all religious traditions are those always seeking to open our eyes to the holiness in our midst. I was mindlessly flipping tv channels when I hit upon Amy Goodman and Democracy Now. I was about to flip back to Seinfeld re-runs when the story of Bree Newsome was truly inspiring. The voices of women who were in Charleston to support her were compelling. The fact that she had a partner, a spotter – she did not run off and do this act of civil disobedience in the tradtion of Thoreau, Pete Seeger and so many others, on her own,  but had partners and supporters on hand – just as Jesus does not send the disciples out on their own, but in pairs.

Note carefully that the disciples are to travel light – really really light. No two tunics, no money, but rather they are to live off the generosity of those they are sent to proclaim the message of God’s kingdom, those they are sent to heal, those they are sent to bring back to life. They are not to be independent by interdependent on one another and others – others they don’t even know and have never met!

Then Amy Goodman switched to a retrospective look at Pete Seeger and his career as a prophet and social critic with the power of song. I didn’t move until I heard Pete singing, at age 94, We Shall Overcome.

It got me to thinking about how the power of such songs often wanes with our familiarity with them. Just as these stories in the Bible become so familiar we lose sight of all that is in there – like the touch of humor Mark lends to the story of Jesus’ rejection in his hometown: “And he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them.” Really? That’s all?

So on this Independence Day weekend, I got to thinking: I grew up in a small elementary school where our music teacher, Miss Gulbranson, taught us This Land Is Your Land. It was in the song book we had in school. It would be a number of years later, after my Uncle Lee gave me a copy of Bob Dylan’s first album that I had even heard of Woody Guthrie, an inspiration for Dylan, a singing partner of Pete Seeger’s. And probably a few years later I learned that Woody had written This Land Is Your Land. By now we are all familiar with it – perhaps too familiar to know he wrote it as a protest song – he was bothered, in 1940, by the popularity of God Bless America against the backdrop of the depression, the Dust Bowl, the impending war with Germany and Japan, the struggling labor movement, and the sight he could see outside the window of his hotel room in New York City: people, poor people, hungry people, unemployed people standing in line outside the Relief Office hoping, like the woman in last week’s story, to get some relief themselves. The original song as Woody wrote it went something like this:

    This land is your land, this land is my land
    From the California to the Staten New York Island,
    From the Redwood Forest, to the Gulf stream waters,
    God blessed America for me.
    [This land was made for you and me.]

    One bright sunny morning in the shadow of the steeple
    By the Relief Office I saw my people —
    As they stood hungry, I stood there wondering if
    God blessed America for me.
    [This land was made for you and me.]

I recall reading an interview with Arlo Guthrie some years later in which he describes Woody, dying of Huntington’s Chorea, a devastating disease, taking him out into the back yard and teaching him one song he was sure people would forget. That song, ironically, was This Land Is Your Land, now a staple of American education, and somewhat domesticated from our familiarity with it. Arlo also recalls his mother coming home from a trip to China to tell Woody that a group of school children sang the song to her!

After listening to replays of Amy Goodman interviews with Pete Seeger, who passed away last year, I sat down with my guitar to sing the following songs.

If I Had A Hammer

Where Have All the Flowers Gone?

Our founding fathers and mothers declared independence, that is true. But it was a collective independence, not individual independence. The Declaration was inspired in part by the Roman hero, Cincinatus who embodied the essence of Civic Virtue, putting the good of the community before his own good, AND resigning the office to which he was called once the job was done – very much as George Washington did after serving as commander in the War for Independence, and after two terms as president. Both men went back home to be ordinary farmers.

The extraordinary in the ordinary: it is sometimes hard to recognize because of our familiarity. Yet, songs like Where Have All The Flowers Gone and We Shall Overcome once had the power to end a war and finally to bring the civil rights wrought out of the civil war in the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments to the constitution into reality.

Woody and Pete were dismissed as outside agitators, along with Paul Robeson, Martin Luther King, Jr, and this week Bree Newsome. But the recognition of their influence by ordinary people all over the country resulted in many people doing small ordinary things that eventually bear fruit for us all.

Jesus was about the common good. The framers of the Declaration of Independence were about the common good. We can and ought to celebrate these truths, self-evident as they are, side by side on this holiday weekend, and sixth Sunday after Pentecost. This land was made for you and me, not just me, not just you, but for us all. Some events of these past weeks have recognized this, and for this we say, Amen! Alleluia!

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Home Once Again

Insiders, Outsiders and Life’s Interruptions
Psalm 139/Mark 5:21-43

A few remarks, a poem and a song.
This episode in Mark chapter 5 is about life changes in more ways than one. Two people are healed, a woman and a young girl. Social protocol is changed: one would expect Jairus, a leader in the synagogue, a quintessential insider, to get special attention, but one is surprised that the woman who has bled month after month for 12 years also gets Jesus’ power and attention and blessing AHEAD of the very important man he was going to help. Personal change: the woman (who has no name) and the daughter (who also has no name) are both restored to normative life in the community – the community that laughed at Jesus for even trying to help them. The church changed:  it should not go without mention that the lectionary selection itself has changed. In our 1979 Book of Common Prayer lectionary the story of the woman was cut out so that our Proper 8 Gospel was JUST the story of Jairus’ daughter. Once we adopted the Revised Common Lectionary (2006) her story was restored. That says as much about us as a church as it does about the Gospel of Mark. For so many years her story was not heard in our churches. And yet, I would argue, her story is the central to the whole story. That is, there is just one story of which she is a central and most important part. It is a credit to our church that we restored this story to its wholeness, for the woman’s story is one we all share and one we all need to hear. We are left to imagine why her story was not included in our Sunday lectionary until 2006.

It is no accident as Mark tells her story. The woman has been bleeding as long as the little girl has been alive: twelve years. They share a sort of kinship, even though the woman, because of her condition, would have been ostracized from society and from town as being “unclean.” That is, she in all likelihood could not live at home. She was homeless and alone.

Being unclean and homeless are things few of us understand, yet there are times when we don’t feel at home in this world any more, and we may even feel yucky and unclean about ourselves. And when we are seriously ill we are usually separated out from society – often times even in isolation. Were we to be aware of life in the world of Jesus we would be utterly astonished that this unclean and homeless woman gets Jesus’ power, attention and blessing BEFORE the daughter of the very important official, Jairus.

We may as well face it, outsiders have been commanding our attention recently: Rachel Dolezal, Dylann Roof, Caitlyn Jenner, Freddie Gray, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev , James Holmes to name just a few. It ought to break our hearts to think of how life for each of them, and all of us, may have been different if someone like Jesus had allowed them to interrupt their lives. What if someone had given them attention and blessing and healing of some sort? If only they had had a stronger sense of belonging, a stronger sense of being accepted and at home in this world. What if?

We are meant to place ourselves in these stories. What is it like to be the leader of the synagogue whose daughter is "at the point of death?" What is it like to be in the "great crowd" following Jesus? Are we among those who truly follow him? Are we among those who laugh at him for trying against all odds to help these two women? What is it like to be the little girl, home, waiting, fearful of what comes next? What is it like to be the disciples, trying to protect Jesus from the crowd? What must it have been like to be the woman, cut-off from society for 12 years? What is it like to have her kind of hope and faith? What is it like to touch the hem of Jesus' garment? Can we grasp that the important things in this life are those things that interrupt whatever it is we think we are doing or think is important?

Now the poem, then a song to help us imagine what life could be like.

The Lightening   by Madeleine L'Engle
When I pushed through the crowd,
jostled, bumped, elbowed by the curious
who wanted to see what everyone else
was so excited about,
all I could think of was my pain
and that perhaps if I could touch him,
this man who worked miracles,
cured diseases,
even those as foul as mine,
I might find relief.
I was tired from hurting,
exhausted, revolted by my body,
unfit for any man, and yet not let loose
from desire and need. I wanted to rest,
to sleep without pain or filthiness or torment.
I don’t really know why
I thought he could help me
when all the doctors
with all their knowledge
had left me still drained
and bereft of all that makes
a woman’s life worth living.
Well: I’d seen him with some children
and his laughter was quick and merry
and reminded me of when I was young and well,
though he looked tired; and he was as old as I am.
Then there was that leper,
but lepers have been cured before –
No, it wasn’t the leper,
or the man cured of palsy,
or any of the other stories of miracles,
or at any rate that was the least of it;
I had been promised miracles too often.
I saw him ahead of me in the crowd
and there was something in his glance
and in the way his hand rested briefly
on the matted head of a small boy
who was getting in everybody’s way,
and I knew that if only I could get to him,
not to bother him, you understand,
not to interrupt, or to ask him for anything,
not even his attention,
just to get to him and touch him…
I didn’t think he’d mind, and he needn’t even know.
I pushed through the crowd
and it seemed that they were deliberately
trying to keep me from him.
I stumbled and fell and someone stepped
on my hand and I cried out
and nobody heard. I crawled to my feet
and pushed on and at last I was close,
so close I could reach out
and touch with my fingers
the hem of his garment.
Have you ever been near
when lightning struck?
I was, once, when I was very small
and a summer storm came without warning
and lightning split the tree
under which I had been playing
and I was flung right across the courtyard.
That’s how it was.
Only this time I was not the child
but the tree
and the lightning filled me.
He asked, “Who touched me?”
and people dragged me away, roughly,
and the men around him were angry at me.
“Who touched me?” he asked.
I said, “I did, Lord.”
So that he might have the lightning back
which I had taken from him when I touched
his garment’s hem.
He looked at me and I knew then
that only he and I knew about the lightning.
He was tired and emptied
but he was not angry.
He looked at me
and the lightning returned to him again,
though not from me, and he smiled at me
and I knew that I was healed.
Then the crowd came between us
and he moved on, taking the lightning with him,
perhaps to strike again.
-           Madeliene L’Engle

The Blessed Augustine, the African Bishop of Hippo wrote, “Our hearts are restless until we find our home in thee.” We are all looking to be healed of something. God in Jesus allows us to interrupt whatever is happening and accept our belovedness in God’s eyes. We all have a home in the heart of God’s love. If you don’t believe in miracles consider this: even the Supreme Court of the United States of America is coming around to affirm that all people have a home in the heart of God’s love and deserve the opportunity for the kind of healing witnessed in the story of two women, one young, one more mature, representing the extremes of the social spectrum.  We all want to be made clean and whole. We all want to come home – home with others, at home with God, and at home with ourselves.

Be made clean
Go back to your home

You are clean
You are whole
You are loved
You are home once again
You are home

Be made whole
You are no longer alone

You are clean
You are whole
You are loved
You are home once again
You are home
                        -Kirk Kubicek, Sounds Divine


Saturday, June 13, 2015

The Power of Song

Poetry, Parable and Song……
Ezekiel 17: 22 -24/2 Corinthians 5:6-17/Mark 4:26-34

The power of poetry, parable and song is meant to fire our imagination beyond what is to what is possible. Years ago a colleague and priest, Pierre Wolff, a former French Jesuit, summarized Ignatian Spirituality this way: We come from Love, we return to love, and love is all around. God is love. A few years later Diane Connelly, a teacher and practitioner of acupuncture, wrote a book called, All Sickness Is Homesickness, inspired in part by the Blessed Augustine, Bishop of Hippo, who wrote in his Confessions, “Our hearts are restless until we find our home in thee.”  This suggests  to me that all of life is a homecoming: a coming home to God, who is the heart of universal Love, and that source from whence we come and to which we return. It all came together as a song, a psalm if you will:
We return to Love
And Love is all around, and Love is all around
All of life is a homecoming
Homecoming, homecoming
All of life is a homecoming
A coming home to God

It is often overlooked that much of the Bible consists of poetry, parables and songs. The prophets, like Ezekiel, most often use poetry and psalms to convey God’s truths. And Jesus taught with “many such parables” like the mustard seed parable.

What ought to interest us in all of this is that poetry, parables and songs are open to interpretation.  That is, they do not represent a single meaning or a single truth. In fact, the Bible itself constantly recycles these poems, parables and songs to address specific situations in different Biblical eras.

This is how the Bible chooses to teach us about how it is we might “walk by faith, not by sight,” as St. Paul instructs the community in Corinth. We tend to approach the texts looking for “the answer.” Yet, the same Augustine in his Confessions writes (in book twelve) that any particular verse in the Bible is capable of conveying more than one truth. He goes so far as to say each verse can have two, three, four, five or more truths.

So when we hear Ezekiel writing about God taking a sprig off the top of a high cedar and transplanting it, Ezekiel may be writing about God taking a small remnant of Israel after a long exile in Babylon, bringing them back to fertile territory and replanting, tending, and growing a new Israel that will provide shelter and nurture for all kind of “birds” and “winged creatures” of all kinds. This may be a fulfillment of the covenant God made with Abraham that God’s people would become a blessing to all the peoples and creatures of the earth.

It is easy to imagine how those Jews, including followers of Christ, might hear in this a word of hopefulness after the Roman Empire destroyed the Jerusalem Temple and all of Israel in the year 70. This was to be a watershed moment that led to the creation of early Christian communities and a whole new way of being Jewish as the rabbinic Judaism of today was born out of the ashes of the Temple. This hopefulness was true for both groups of faithful servants of YHWH, the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Jesus.

Jesus himself recycled the imagery of Ezekiel’s poem to deliver his teaching in the Mustard Seed Parable in which once again we hear that “this smallest of all seeds” grows up to provide shelter for all the birds of the air among its branches.

As Christianity and Judaism branched out into various new forms throughout the centuries, this poem by Ezekiel no doubt gave new strength, vision and hopefulness for diverging beliefs of how it is we are “to walk by faith, not by sight.” Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant Christians all have very different views on how we are to do this – all of which are “true” for these very different communities. Orthodox, Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist Jews also embody various truths about how to walk in faith. Similar claims can be made about Shia, Sunni and Sufi Muslims; Tibetan, Mahayanist, Theravada, and Zen Buddhists, and so on.

It strikes me as ironic that Augustine was comfortable with there being multiple meanings and multiple truths all the way back in the fourth century church, and yet today we are insistent on their being only one “correct” truth – which of course is almost always “my truth.”

Both Ezekiel and Jesus point us to the hidden nature of Biblical faith – that is, that it is not something we ourselves create or achieve. It grows while we are sleeping. It grows by the hand of God. Faith is an act and gift of grace – amazing grace. John Newton, the one-time slave trader who wrote the now famous hymn Amazing Grace had just a mustard seed’s amount of faith which grew with each Atlantic crossing, until he realized just how sinful the “peculiar institution” of slavery really is. He left the slave trade, became an Anglican priest, served the poor, and became a driving force in the Abolitionist movement in England. No doubt like the farmer in Jesus’ parable, he had no real hand in growing his faith which led to the power of a song that changed the world – it was God at work in him, silently, hidden in the groans and sufferings of the African peoples he was transporting.

The Jesus of the gospels routinely chides his disciples – that would be us – for having so little faith. Yet, when they finally come to him asking for, demanding really, more faith, as if it were some commodity that could be bought or sold or dispensed, he comes back to the Mustard Seed parable and says, “If you only had faith as small as a mustard seed, you could say to this tree be uprooted and planted in the sea!”

Buried beneath the surface of this parable, and in the poetry of the prophet, and the urgings of St. Paul, is the fact that we need to allow ourselves periods of what the Daoists call “doing not-doing,” or, wei wu wei – down time, sabbatical time. God’s creation and gift of the Sabbath day is the one gift of God we routinely do not accept. In a commodity driven society, we just don’t get it – that down time, time to do nothing more than commune with God, family and our neighbors, is what makes it possible for God to grow our faith. We are just too too busy to take a day off every week. Imagine what we could really do if we were to honor the Sabbath day? What if? What if we gave God one day a week to grow our faith from the mustard seed he places within each and every one of us? Think of the poems we might write! The parables we might tell! The songs we might sing! All of which, like simple tunes such as Amazing grace and We Shall Overcome, have the power to change us and change the world in which we live and move and have our being. If we only had faith as small as a mustard seed.

If you have faith as small as a mustard seed

You can take trees and hurl them in the sea/
You can take trees and hurl them in the sea

The lame will walk and the blind will see/
The lame will walk and the blind will see

Wars will cease with the end of greed/
Wars will cease with the end of greed

Loaves multiply so there’s enough to feed/
Loaves multiply so there’s enough to feed

As you sow you shall receive/
As you sow you shall receive

As you pray you will believe/
As you pray you will believe

Trust in the Lord, He’ll supply every need/
Trust in the Lord, He’ll supply every need

As you follow Christ you’ll begin to lead/
As you follow Christ you’ll begin to lead
If you only have faith as small as a mustard seed.