Friday, April 24, 2015

Good Shepherd

Where Are We?
John 10:11-18 (NRSV)
“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away—and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father.”

I am the good shepherd. There is a lot to be unpacked in just that one assertion by Jesus. Shepherds play crucial roles in the life of God’s people Israel. Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were all shepherds, as were, no doubt, Jacob’s twelve sons who were the heads of the twelve tribes of Israel. King David is the ideal king, warts and all, and began his life as a shepherd. He shepherded his people through repeated times of trouble.Perhaps the most important of all shepherds was Moses who was on the run from the law for having slain an Egyptian taskmaster.

As Moses was tending the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian, he encountered a bush that burned but was not consumed. A voice from that bush gave Moses instructions that would lead to the liberation of the Hebrew slaves from Pharaoh’s Egypt. When Moses asked the voice for its name it replied, “I am who I am.”

It is widely understood that whenever Jesus begins a sentence with the words, “I am,” that his is the voice from the bush – which the Fourth Gospel makes clear from the get-go – Jesus, the logos, the Word, was in the beginning with God and was God. And therefore is God.

Of course the words, “I am the good shepherd,” recall the familiar words of the 23rd psalm which once upon a time we used to have to memorize not just in Sunday School but in public school as well.  As comforting and pastoral as the 23rd psalm is, it often goes overlooked that it is written from the perspective of being under siege. “You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies.” At one time or another we all know what it feels like to be surrounded by enemies.

Enemies and hired hands abound.  Not much text analysis or cultural analysis is needed to know that that is true. Like the poor, Jesus may as well have said the false and bad shepherds you will always have with you. Often times they are so seductive, luring us into their snares – or running off when we are in most need of shepherding.

Not so our Good Shepherd who was, is and always will be the great “I AM.” His love is so wide, so deep and so broad. He is to be recognized by this love with which he is willing to lay down his life for his sheep.

At the end of the Fourth Gospel (chapter 21) is a scene that reflects back on this passage in chapter 10. The disciples are fishing but having no luck whatsoever. They are like sheep without a shepherd. A “stranger” on the shore shouts out that they need to throw their nets over on the other side of the boat. No doubt they ask themselves, ‘What does he know? Who is he anyway?” Since nothing else is working, they give it a go, and lo and behold – the net was filled with very many fishes! Peter declares, “It is the Lord!” Whereupon he puts on his clothes, jumps in the water and swims ashore. There is Jesus with a charcoal fire, cooking up fish and bread. “Come and have breakfast,“he says. It recalls the times when they fed the five thousand, and again when they fed the four thousand and had baskets and baskets left over. Life in God’s kingdom is to look like this.

Then comes the scene that is meant to define who we are and whose we are. He asks Peter, “Do you love me?” “Why of course I love you.” “Then,” says Jesus, “feed my lambs.” A second time he asks, “Peter, do you love me?” “Yes, Lord, I love you.” “Then tend my sheep.” A third time (remember Peter had denied him three times) he asks, “Peter, do you love me?” Peter says yes a third time. “Feed my sheep.”

When the great “I AM” outlines our job description one is left to wonder just what have we been doing? As a church that is. What was meant to be a sharp and tart put-down of Judas is still the case – the poor we still have with us. Hungry sheep abound.

There is a Hasidic tale about a Russian rabbi in jail. The jailer asks him some questions about Holy Scripture. “Why does God ask Adam, ‘Where are you?’ Isn’t God all knowing?” “Do you believe the scriptures are true for all persons at all times and in all places?” “I do,” says the jailer. “Then God is asking all of us, including you, ‘Where are you? What have you done with your life so far? You are forty-six, where are you in your life right now?”

How did the rabbi know his age? The jailer was shaken to his core. So should we be, for we are Peter. What sort of feeding and tending do we do as a church? As a nation that makes such bold claims to being a “Christian nation?”

Three years ago this Sunday I led St. Peter’s in singing this old gospel folk song made popular by Jefferson Airplane. It was to be sadly prophetic. Yet, this early 19th century hymn means to wake us up to what it means if we are going to become the good shepherds God is calling us to be. This version was originally recorded in 1936 by Alan Lomax in a Virginia State Prison Farm where Jimmie Strothers, a blind, itinerant street singer was doing time for having murdered his wife. It is a song that explores the boundaries between the sacred and the profane, just as Jesus does in this tenth chapter of John.

If you want to get to heaven
Over on the other shore
Stay out of the way of the blood-stained bandit
Oh good shepherd
Feed my sheep

One for Paul
One for Silas
One for to make my heart rejoice
Can't you hear my lambs acallin
Oh good shepherd
Feed my sheep

If you want to get to heaven
Over on the other shore
Stay out of the way of the long-tongue liar
Oh good shepherd
Feed my sheep

If you want to get to heaven
Over on the other shore
Stay out of the way of the gun shot devil
Oh good shepherd
Feed my sheep

The shepherd Moses says to his flock of assorted former slaves, “Today the Lord puts before you life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life.” We are all called, with our many and diverse gifts, to choose life, a life as God’s shepherds.  Jesus I Am asks us, “Where are you? Do you love me?” Our answer to these questions holds the power to change the world. Amen.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Fiercely Loyal Thomas

John 20:19-31
“…so that you may come to believe…”

It is a particular tragedy of the modern church that the Sunday after the Resurrection (Easter) has come to be known as “Doubting Thomas Sunday,” or even worse “Low Sunday” due to the fact that just a week ago churches around the world were filled to overflowing with people, and just a week later comes what is recorded in most church registers as the lowest attended Sunday of the year. It is as if the Easter proclamation was either so astoundingly fantastic that people are now fully engaged in the word and life of Jesus that there is no time to be wasted by “going to church,” or that the proclamation was so incredibly dreadful that there simply seems to be no reason to return let alone engage in the word and life of the Risen Jesus. Of course it could simply be that after the activities of Lent, Holy Week, and the big-scale production of Easter liturgies, has just exhausted the faithful who need a week off to catch their breath and begin again.

The misunderstandings of this passage which is read every Sunday after Easter, and often again some part of it on Pentecost some fifty days later, abound. Poor Thomas takes the worst of it. In the Fourth Gospel  there may be no disciple more loyal than Thomas.  For it is he and he alone who, when Jesus finally says they are to go visit Lazarus and raise him from his four days in the tomb, and the others begin to whine saying, “But Lord, there are those in and around Bethany who want to kill you, please do not make us go!” It is Thomas and Thomas alone who says, “Let us also go that we may die with Him.” (John 11:6)

And as no less a scholar and priest who understood clearly what the implications of belief really are than William Temple observes, Thomas’ demand to have the same experience of the Risen Jesus as the disciples had experienced the day of Resurrection is evidence of ‘a stong urge to believe, held down by commonsense and its habitual dread of disillusionment.’ (Readings In St. John’s Gospel, p. 390)

Demanding to “see in his hands the print of the nails, and put my finger into the print of the nails, and put my hand into his side, I shall in nowise believe,” is what Temple calls Thomas’ “strong negative,” a sign of just how deep is his grief over the events of the previous week is, and a profound desire to continue his relationship with the Jesus for whom he personally was willing to give up his own life. Are we really ready to dispense with him so easily by mockingly calling him Doubting Thomas? The life of the church has sadly produced relatively few persons of such character as Thomas from the St. Stephens, St. Pauls and St. Peters, Perpetua and Felicity, all the way forward to the Sojourner Truths, Harriet Tubmans, Dietrich Bonhoffers, Martin Luther King Jr, Desmond Tutus, and Dorothy Days. He who is believed to have travelled to India and to have baptized the first Christians in that part of the ancient world, we dare to think of him as Doubting Thomas, a name which has entered the vernacular as a description for anyone anywhere who expresses doubts about anything whatsoever? It confirms what Kurt Vonnegut said once in a Palm Sunday sermon, “Leave it to a crowd to look at the wrong end of a miracle every time!”

Much of our confusion about Thomas comes from our confusion about the way in which the narrator of the Fourth Gospel uses the word pisteu which in modern day English gets translated as believe. First, it is crucial to understanding John’s unique use of this word over 100 times in his Gospel, a word that is not found in the other three gospels, is a verb. He never uses the noun form of the word. That is “belief” in John’s gospel is not some thing or some idea that one possesses. It is rather something we are and do. In what is arguably the most incarnational of the four gospels, John urges the reader and hearer of the Word to embody the Risen Jesus. That is, pisteu, believing, is something we are to become, it is what we are to Be. And as Gordon Cosby, late of the Church of the Saviour in Washington D.C. used to say often, “Being must precede doing.”

Indeed, it is in the Fourth Gospel that the Risen Jesus cooking breakfast on the beach of the Sea of Galilee queries Peter about his Love and insists that the kind of Love and Believing  Jesus is looking for revolve around feeding and tending the lambs and sheep of His flock, that is the people Jesus cares about and loves the most: widows, orphans, resident aliens, the blind, the lame, the hungry, the thirsty, those in prison, strangers, and all those people everywhere who  exist as outcasts on the margins of “civilized society.” (Matthew 25, etc)

Believing is an action that we are to do, not something we possess. It involves a relationship of trusting or entrusting oneself to Jesus, or God, or quite simply to doing those things God and Jesus call us to do (see above). It means something more like the Jesus in John calls us to do which is to abide in him and with him. Abide in the sense of to remain or stay with someone, to continue with, or even to live with or dwell with someone, which is how John’s gospel begins: we are told that the Word (Logos) is God, and that the Word becomes “flesh” and “dwells among us.”  In the Koine Greek of the New Testament, and throughout the Hebrew and Greek Bible, “to dwell” means to pitch one’s tent among us.

So that when Thomas, without touching the wounds at all, makes the first proclamation in John, “My Lord and my God,” he is the first to affirm exactly the claim John makes at the very outset of this gospel, that Jesus is God who becomes one of us, who sets up residence in our midst, and who calls us to a life of believing as a verb, abiding in the Word and the very work God in Christ comes to do – which as even the girls in my World Religions class can see is to show us what it means and how to be human – imago Dei, created in the image of God.

This Sunday after the Resurrection ought to be called Fiercely Loyal Thomas Sunday, and no doubt (no pun intended) ought to cause some degree of fear and trembling to enter our hearts and souls asking ourselves: Am I even in some tiny place in the heart of my very Being able to embody some small aspect of who Jesus is in my life the way in which Thomas is so very loyal and trusting of his Lord and his God?

We can abide with Jesus. We can dwell with Jesus. Our belief can be an active part of who we are and whose we are, and lead us to do those things God in Christ calls us to do. As John concludes, this story, and all the stories in John, are written so that we might entrust ourselves unto the God who offers his Peace, his Shalom, his unfolding reign of justice, peace and dignity for all persons – not some, not a few, not lots and lots of people, but all persons.

“Jesus came among them and said, ‘Peace, Shalom, be with you.” We are to become Peace so, we are to become Shalom, so that like Thomas we may live lives of Peace and Shalom for all people. This is what “to believe”  as a verb is all about.


Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Happy Easter!

Easter - John 20: 1-18
Alleluia, Christ is risen!
The Lord is risen indeed, Alleluia!

Of the four gospel accounts of the empty tomb, this story in John is my favorite. And it is the traditional gospel to be read on Easter morning around the world and throughout the ages.

Early in the morning, so early we are told it is still dark, Mary Magdalene goes to the tomb and sees that the stone is set aside. In those days a round stone like a mill-stone and actually called a rolling stone was rolled across the entrance to the tomb. Although the text does not say so, she must have looked in because she runs back to tell the other disciples that the tomb is empty. “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb!”

Peter and “the other disciple,” quote, “the one whom Jesus loved,” race to the tomb, with the “other disciple” out-running Peter. He looks in and sees nothing but the linen cloths, the burial cloths, lying there – a reminder of the linen cloths that wrapped him in swaddling as a baby in a manger? Then Peter goes in and surveys the scene, followed by the “other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved,” and at that moment we are told that he believed.

Alleluia, Christ is risen!
The Lord is risen indeed, Alleluia!

Then they went home. Not Mary. She stands outside the tomb, and bends over to look in. The tombs were rather small. It would be hard to stand up inside.  Lo and behold, what does she see?

That’s right, two angels, one where his head had been lain, and one by where his feet had been.  She stands outside the tomb weeping. Jesus had been the one person who understood her and had made her feel healthy and whole again. All her life she had been restless, agitated, uncomfortable with herself. But Jesus had changed all that. Jesus had accepted her for who she was and made her feel like a real person again. Now he was not only dead he was gone.

The angels speak to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She says, “They have taken my Lord and I do not know where they have laid him.” Which surely would make more sense – that is that someone broke in and stole the body.  It makes much more sense than a dead man three days dead coming back to life again. As she thinks of all of this she bumps into a man and supposes it is the gardener. The tomb is in a garden after all. There must be a gardener.

He asks the same thing as the angels, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She says, “If you have taken him away tell me where he is!” Then he replies with only one word. He says her name. “Mary.”

Alleluia, Christ is risen!
The Lord is risen indeed, Alleluia!

There is only one person who ever said her name just like that. But it does not look at all like he used to look. But it is his voice saying her name.  “Rabouni!” she cries out, which means rabbi or teacher.
Evidently she is holding on to him for dear life for the risen Jesus needs to say, “Do not hold onto me because I have to return to Love,  I must return to my Father. But go tell my disciples that I am ascending to my father and your father, my God and your God.  I am going home to Love!” And she told them he had said these things to her.

Alleluia, Christ is risen!
The Lord is risen indeed, Alleluia!

Several things in all of this. Please note it is a woman who first discovers and announces to others that he is gone from the tomb. And that rather than simply take her word Peter and the “other disciple whom Jesus loved” go to see for themselves, as if Mary Magdalene may not be that reliable. But reliable she is.

And we are told that the disciple whom Jesus loves sees for himself and believes.

It has long been a mystery as to just who that disciple is. The long standing assumption is that it is the disciple John who perhaps is the narrator of the Gospel of John. From there the list goes on including the possibility that it is another woman, a Samaritan woman, whom Jesus met one day at the well of Jacob, son of Isaac, son of Abraham.

There is, however, another possibility, one which I believe makes the most sense. The other disciple whom Jesus loves is the reader or listener to this story and who, like the person in the story, believes. That is the beloved disciple is you, or me, or anyone who hears this story and believes.

Gospel means “good angel” or “good news.” If I am right, this is really good news because any one of us and in fact all of us can be the beloved disciple, the one whom Jesus loves. This is really good news! This is why the world over beginning Easter Sunday and all week long, and for the next 50 days, people everywhere shout out:

Alleluia, Christ is risen!
The Lord is risen indeed, Alleluia!

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Palm Sunday

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Sunday, March 22, 2015

The Poor You Always Have With You

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Saturday, March 7, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, February 1, 2015

The Heron - by Wendell Berry

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