Saturday, February 17, 2018

Some Idle Thoughts On the First Sunday in Lent

Fact: It is Lent. Four days of Lent have passed. Sundays are not in Lent: Lent consists of forty weekdays. We are one-tenth of the way through Lent.

Question: Are we one-tenth of the way into Lent?

Opinion: Mark 1:9-15 gets the story of Christ in the wilderness just right: Two sentences. No indication of how many temptations there were. Jesus was in the wilderness forty days with Satan, wild beasts and angels. No recorded conversations. Just the bare facts.

Fact: The Spirit “drove” Jesus into the wilderness. He did not choose to go there.

Question: If this is how God’s Spirit treats God’s Beloved with whom God is well pleased, what is in store for those with whom God is displeased?

Opinion: Some people have suggested that Lent is a time for us to “go to” the wilderness ourselves, or that through fasting we might “create our own wilderness.” I think not on both counts.

Fact: The Bible calls those who follow Jesus “people of the way.” (Acts 9:2)

Opinion: I understand this to mean we are to follow him in his way to God the Father.

Fact: Jesus says, “I am the way …” (John 14:6)

Opinion: We limit this claim of his by thinking of one way among a thousand. Whoever follows the longing of the human heart, whoever is seeking to be with God, is on the way; are people of The Way. It matters little what label we give to that way.

Fact: Holding on to a sign post does not mean “being on the way” to anywhere, even if that sign has the right name on it. What matters is walking in the way.

Opinion: All those who move forward are walking on and in the way. This means finding one’s way by leaving the way behind with every step forward. The raft is not the shore.

Fact: Jesus does not choose to go into the wilderness. He does not create the wilderness through fasting or anything else.  He is driven there by the Spirit.

Opinion: So being on the way means letting ourselves be driven by or led by the Spirit. That is, letting go of control, i.e. not taking control.

Fact: Jesus says the Spirit blows where it wills. No one knows from whence it comes or where it goes. You cannot fit the Spirit into a flow chart!

Opinion: “No One” means no one: not even Jesus. This is why Lent is not a time to go to or create a wilderness. Rather, it is a time to let the Spirit blow us where it wills us to go; where it wills us to be.

Fact: We need to create a little space in our lives to let the Spirit move us to a new place.

Opinion: The wilderness can be said to be nowhere.

Fact: Put a little space in the word “nowhere” and you get the words “now here.”

Opinion: So, the Wilderness, or Nowhere, is closer than we think! It is now here!

Fact: We have already created our own wilderness now here: Any place a child, a teenager, or even adult, can purchase or access a semi-automatic weapon and commit the murder of seventeen other people is already the wilderness.

Opinion: Exile is another word for wilderness.

Question: How much mass murder, guns, drugs, opioid overdoses, domestic violence, sexual harassment, millionaire sports-felons, starving masses of people, murderous dictatorships, racism, sexism, homophobia, neo-Nazi and white supremacist movements do there have to be before a society admits that it is already in exile?

Opinion: So, to get ourselves to the wilderness or exile we do not have to go very far. Now here is already a wilderness and exile of sin and alienation.

Question: So, Lent is not about how to get ourselves into the wilderness, but rather, How do we get out? How do we withdraw from the wilderness? How do we come home from exile? How do we turn away from sin and alienation?

Fact: Jesus withdraws from the organized religion of his day and even John’s revival meeting by going as far away from Jerusalem, the center of political and religious life, as you can get: Galilee.

Opinion: Jesus is returning to the forty-year wilderness and exile sojourns of his ancestors: that place where they learned radical dependence upon the God of the Exodus, and God alone.

Question: If he is in the tradition of withdrawal, from what do we need to withdraw?

Opinion: We need to withdraw from the wilderness of Sin and Alienation.

Fact: Sin is related to the word “asunder.” Sin tears asunder the wholeness in which all belongs together.

Fact: Alienation suggests uprootedness from one’s true self, from others, and from God. And all of this with just one word!

Opinion: Sin alienates. Without alienation there is no sin. An action is sinful to the degree to which it causes alienation. Drawing the consequences from this understanding leads us away from a preoccupation with private perfection toward social responsibility.

Fact: “Working out our salvation” means overcoming alienation in all forms. Not some, not many, but all forms.

Opinion: We cannot work this out ourselves. We need God AND we need each other.

Fact: Belonging is the basic fact of life. All other facts rest on belonging.

Opinion: The path from Sin to Salvation is the way from alienation to belonging.

Fact: Belonging is the basic gift of life and being human.

Opinion: This highlights our need to withdraw from nowhere and now here where we feel alienated and allow the Spirit to move us back to belonging.

Fact: On Ash Wednesday Jesus commends three spiritual disciplines in this order: Almsgiving, Prayer and Fasting. [Matthew 6:1-6,16-21]

Question: Why do modern day Christians tend to only focus on the third, fasting, in Lent? And not the other two? How might our journey out of the wilderness be facilitated by focusing on Almsgiving and Prayer?

Fact: We talk a lot about giving up certain foods, deserts, alcohol, TV, smoking, Facebook, Twitter, our addiction to “screens,” etc etc etc in Lent.

Question: Are we doing this to free ourselves for the Spirit to drive us somewhere new? Or, for reasons of personal perfection?

Fact: Almsgiving and Prayer can lead us out of our alienation from God and others, and therefore toward belonging and social responsibility.

Opinion: The way out of nowhere and now here is not through taking control of our lives, but by giving up all control and allowing ourselves to be led by the Spirit. By letting go of all those things that keep us bound up in sin and alienation.

Fact: Such letting go is what it means to repent, to return, to come home to God. For God is at home, it is we who have gone out for a walk! It is we who have lost our way.

Question: Lent is already one-tenth gone. When are we going to let go and let the Spirit begin our journey out of exile, wilderness and alienation with Jesus? Amen.     

Saturday, February 10, 2018

The Nearness of the Holy

I used to sit on a hillside at the Music Inn in Lenox, MA, overlooking the Stockbridge Bowl at sunset as the colors in the sky reflect off the ripples in the water, a silent breeze whispers through the pine boughs above me, a stillness gives way into a vision that transfigures all that this world is created to be, to become as the God of Elijah, Moses, Elisha, Jesus and Paul speaks into existence, shimmering, peaceful, at rest. The nearness of the Holy. Surely, if the world can look like the lake below now looks we can do better and somehow be transfigured ourselves.

Or, we used to pack-up our instruments for the night, a light drizzle of rain suggesting it will be yet another night not to sleep under the stars in Acadia, but rather another night to drive to the top of Cadillac Mountain on Mount Desert Island so we can wait and watch, for it won’t be long, around 3:00AM, as the first sunrise in America begins to unfold first with purples, blues and greens far off at the edge of the ocean’s horizon, over hours and hours until some golds and reds soften into pinks and shades of brilliant white as the Sun begins to show itself, when all of a sudden a parade of cars circles its way up the mountain disgorging the day’s tourists, cameras whirring and clicking, for perhaps a few minutes, “Oooing and Ahhhhing,” then back in the cars, down the mountain to town for blueberry pancakes having missed nearly the entire show, the transfiguration of the entire eastern seaboard that had once again lasted three or four hours of silent waiting, watching and mysterious wonder at the unfolding nearness of the Holy.

There is a film, Excuse Me America, documenting a visit from the Brazilian Archbishop Dom Helder Camara as he meets with figures like Dorothy Day, Mother Theresa, examining and comparing poverty in America with that in Brazil, and finally with Caesar Chavez as the United Farm Workers are just organizing, and there is this room, a barn, filled with those who pick the fruits and vegetables we rely on for sustenance and good health, and Dom Helder addresses them, my future Bishop who ordained me a deacon George Nelson Hunt off on stage-left, and musicians come out on the stage leading the assembly in singing Amazing Grace, and the music is playing, the people are singing, the room is swaying, and the camera comes in close on Dom Helder’s face under the bright stage lights, eyes looking up, the brightness of the smile on his face, the tears running down his cheeks, tears of joy and hope and peace and justice, his face transfigured into the face of Jesus, the Christ, the Son of God, Bishop Dom Helder Camara who one said, “In the Father’s house we shall meet Buddhists and Jews, Muslims and Protestants—even a few Catholics too, I dare say … We should be more humble about people who, even if they have never heard of the name of Jesus Christ, may well be more Christian than we are.” The moment passes, we are back in the barn with the people, people now energized with hope and power to become the beloved people God has created them to be, and it’s time to return to the fields to seek a living wage having been touched, transfigured, by the nearness of the Holy.

Transfiguration, noun: A complete change of form or appearance into a more beautiful or spiritual state, often accompanied by light, by brightness, by radiance. Like Jesus atop snow-capped Mount Hermon, like Moses on Sinai with the cloud of the presence of the God of the Exodus, God the freedom fighter, God the giver of Torah lessons for living together in peace and justice for all people, Jesus whose clothes Peter, James and John see suddenly turn dazzling white – his inner being as Son of God shines outwardly [Mark 9:2-9], shines as a light in the darkness, the darkness of oppression, the darkness of military occupation, the darkness of being debt-ridden, over-taxed and brutalized by Caesar’s Empire of Endless Exhaustion, talking with Elijah AND Moses! The Law and the Prophets. Peter, forgetting Jesus’ announcement of his suffering and death to come wants to establish a cult of admiration, a shrine. But the cloud of God’s presence overshadows the whole scene and the voice from his baptism in the River Jordan returns once again: “This is my Son, the Beloved. Listen to him!” As the vision glorious vanishes, listen, to him. Do we listen? Do we now sense the nearness of the Holy?

Paul saw him and listened to him. “For it is God who said, ‘Let light shine out of the darkness,’ who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the Glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” Paul, who says the gods of this world blind us to keep us from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Jesus, “who is the image of God.” The gods of this world, says Paul,  conspire to blind us from seeing the light, from experiencing the nearness of the Holy.

Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust Memorial, a place for remembering those who perished in the time of deep darkness, of genocide, there is a memorial for the 1.5 million Jewish children who perished from this world, each one of whom represents a poem never written, a painting never painted, a symphony never composed, a child who never grew up, we enter this memorial as if entering into the depths of the earth itself, and it is dark, and there is only one candle shining light in the darkness, but there are mirrors that reflect that one flame into 1.5 million living flames, while overhead a voice recites the name of each child, 1.5 million names, it takes over a year to recite these names, and when we emerge back into the daylight outside there is not a face in our Jewish-Christian group that is not streaming down the very same tears as Dom Helder in California, as Jesus at the tomb of his friend Lazarus, as 3 million parents in heaven above, or those who survived without their children, must be weeping to this day.

Just one candle, a flicker of a flame, light shining out of the darkness, like those righteous gentiles who helped some escape the deep darkness of those days, the Light of Christ, the Light of the God of the Exodus, sometimes the revolving beacon of a lighthouse searching the darkness, other times the gradual strengthening of rays at sunrise, sometimes a flickering candle, and still other times an overwhelming, brilliant, dazzling Light such as on that mountain top where Peter, James and John saw Moses and Elijah, Elijah who flew up in a chariot of fire with horses on fire as his devoted apprentice Elisha looked on in wonder and fear until “he could no longer see him,” and was then empowered with the spirit, the ruach, twice the spirit of Elijah, which is the wind, the breath, the ruach of God blowing across the darkness of the chaotic waters as God declares, “Let light shine out of the darkness,” to reveal the  closeness of the Holy.

This is the essence of Transfiguration. This is what we are called to be – light in the darkness. Gazing upon the transfigured image of Jesus on the mountain top reveals the nearness of the Holy, empowers us with the spirit, the breath, the ruach, of our creator, and to be light wherever darkness prevails, to glow with the very ruach of Christ like Dom Helder, Dorothy Day, Mother Theresa, Caesar Chavez, like the sunrise and sunset, like a candle in the whirlwind, like so many others who have become light in the darkness, beacons of God’s Hope and God’s Love, proclaiming that yes, there is and always will be light, that yes, you are God’s Beloved, that yes, you can see the nearness of the Holy, you can be the light that shines in the darkness, if only we will stop to see all the moments of transfiguration before us every day, the nearness of the Holy, and reflect the light for all to see, to give hope, and life, and the knowledge of the Belovedness of all people, all of us. Surely, we can do better and somehow be transfigured ourselves. Amen.

Saturday, February 3, 2018

Simon's Mother-in-Law-Deacon?

Simon’s Mother-in-Law
In 258, Lawrence, Deacon of Rome, was brought before the court of the Emperor Valerian and ordered to present the treasures of the Church to the magistrate. Lawrence, was responsible for the care of those in need, most especially those who needed food, clothing, shelter – pretty much anything at all. As Deacon he was charged to connect them with the resources of the church so that none would be hungry, thirsty or naked. “Set in the context of Jewish understandings of the abundance that God created when making the world, the deacon was in charge of enacting God’s created intentions.” [Richard Swanson, Provoking the Gospel of Mark, p108] So it was that Lawrence went throughout the city gathering all those to whom he had ministered throughout the years and presented them to the court. When asked who all these indigent-looking people were, Lawrence is said to have replied, “These people are the treasures of the Church.” For this act of faith, Lawrence was martyred.

I bring this up in connection with a story often called, The Healing Of Simon’s Mother-in-Law, Mark 1:29-39, for reasons that shall become clear. Things move quickly in Mark’s first chapter. After returning from his 40 days in the wilderness pondering just what it means to be God’s Beloved Son, Jesus began to announce that the Kingdom of God was at hand. He goes down to the sea and calls four fishermen to “follow him.” Simon and his brother Andrew, and James and John Zebedee leave their nets and boats, workers and family, and follow him. Next stop, on the Sabbath he goes to teach in the synagogue in Capernaum – where today there is a sign at the gates to the excavated remains of that town that says, “Capernaum – the City of Jesus.” While teaching a man with an unclean spirit appears, Jesus carries on a conversation with the spirit, silences it and sends it away. Word of this began to spread throughout the region.

Later that same Sabbath day, he, along with James and John, enter Simon and Andrew’s house. Simon’s mother-in-law is in bed with a fever. Jesus takes her by the hand and lifts her up. Immediately the fever left her and, the text concludes, “she began to serve them.” At evening, after sundown, “the whole city was gathered around the door. And he cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons; and he would not permit the demons to speak because they knew him.” After this frenzy of activity, he goes off alone to a deserted place to pray. Simon and his companions search and proclaim, “Everyone is searching for you!” To which he replies, “Let’s go to other towns so I may preach the message there also, for that is what I came out to do.” They leave Capernaum and he proclaims his message in synagogues and casts out demons wherever they go.

It’s easy to miss what is going on here because of at least two assumptions: 1) the name given to this episode focuses on the healing, and 2) the translators purposely show bias in translating a key Greek word, diakoneo. Diakoneo can mean to serve, but throughout the New Testament it primarily is used of the disciples and other men to mean “deacon,” an office in the early church and to this day; people like Lawrence, Deacon of Rome. When dikoneo is used for women, however, New Testament translators use the word “serve,” as in serving tables. Elisabeth Moltmann-Wendel, in her book The Women Around Jesus, suggests that some rethinking is in order here. Perhaps Simon’s mother-in-law did rise up and feed the people in and around her house, which would be acting in the tradition of Sarah and Abraham who entertained angels unaware!

But what if, asks Moltman-Wendel, if Simon’s mother-in-law “deaconed” to them and others. Perhaps, we might imagine, she got up and went around town and joined in gathering the “whole city” that ends up on her door-step at sun-down – sun-down because that is when Sabbath is over and the “work” of healing and casting out demons can really begin full bore. That is, in the Jewish tradition of sharing God’s abundance, she becomes the first “deacon” in the Jesus Movement, soon to be joined by the large group of women who have followed him from Galilee and have “deaconed” to him and were in fact the link who connected need after need after need with Jesus’ abilities! And these first deacons were those women who in the end were at the cross watching him be tortured to death.

A close reading of Mark reveals that the disciples were no good at this. They are depicted trying to keep people away from Jesus, and urging Jesus to send people away to fend for themselves! Later in chapter 10 they are still so clueless that we find the Zebedee brothers asking to sit at Jesus’ right hand and left in the kingdom. To which Jesus’ replies, “it is not for me to grant, but is for those for whom it has been prepared.” Now this is often thought to mean “only God knows”, or, God forbid, that such “honors” are a matter of “pre-destination.” Jesus, however, goes on to insist that “whoever desires to become great among you will be your diakonos (servant), … because the Son of Man came not to be served (to be deaconed to) , but to serve (deacon).” To be like Jesus is to be like a deacon among us.  Simon’s mother-in-law knows what it means to serve others – all others no matter who, what, or where. Jesus may as well be telling the Zebedees and the other 10, just look back at Simon’s mother-in-law and the sisters who have been with us all this way and figure it out yourselves.

Meanwhile, he wants to put his emphasis on Torah – which rather than law means “teaching” or “practice.” Torah derives from a word associated with a bow and arrow, which needs “practice” to be used well. An associated word, “sin,” means the arrow has missed its mark. More practice is necessary. After praying in a deserted place following the Healing and Exorcism Festival back in town, Jesus resets his sights on teaching – teaching the practices of the Kingdom of God, which are exemplified in acts of “deaconing,” beginning with Simon’s mother-in-law, and the women around Jesus, and eventually Lawrence of Rome.

We are here to continue to proclaim the message of God’s belovedness for all people, and to join Simon’s mother-in-law, the women around Jesus, and brave and courageous women all over the world in connecting people in need with Jesus and the resources that God intends for us to share with the world at-large. We are all called to acts of “deaconing,” not just those who hold that specific office in the Church, but all of us who claim to follow Jesus.

Note, Jesus subordinates his powers of healing and exorcism to the greater need of getting the Word out, proclaiming the Kingdom of God. He does so because his and our proclamation is the only context in which the power of healing gains its true meaning. Alongside our acts of deaconing, our voices joining his to proclaim God’s intentions is a necessary part of following him, and leads to the healing of the world, tikkun olam as Jesus and his associates would call it. As Saint Paul once wrote, the whole world stands on tip toes to see if we will in fact follow him and bring healing and God’s Shalom to all people – all people.  We are to gather all those in need, present them to the powers of empires and declare, “These are the treasures of the church and of the world.” Amen.

Saturday, January 27, 2018

Listening for the Echoes

Listening for the Echoes
When I was in seminary, one question on a New Testament final exam read: The Gospel of Mark – Masterpiece or a Mess? Support your argument with examples from the text. I find that one needs to listen for the echoes in the texts, while at the same time not trusting the standard translations, to find the overarching message in each gospel. For starters, we note that in Mark 1:21-28, Jesus leaves the wilderness where he has been for 40 days and nights and enters a synagogue in the town of Capernaum on the Sea of Galilee. He keeps Sabbath and goes to synagogue. That is, he is an observant Jew and follows the rhythm of God in creation.

Mark sometimes uses what some have called a “sandwich” technique: in this case those attending the synagogue on the Sabbath are at first “astounded” at his teaching, and after the silencing and dismissal of the “unclean spirit” we are told they are “amazed” at his teaching. Astonishment is the sandwich. In between is this man, about whom we know nothing, and about whom we never hear again after the unclean spirit is silenced and sent packing. The sandwiching of his story returns us to the astonishment the people experienced when Jesus taught.

It is odd, however, that Mark’s gospel offers little if anything that Jesus is teaching. We only hear about what he does and that he does teach, all of which is astonishing.

A greater sandwich in this tiny little story has to do with “authority,” which is also the concern of Deuteronomy 18:15-20 where the God of the Exodus promises to raise up in future generations prophets to speak on his behalf “like Moses.” At the outset Mark tells us the people recognize that Jesus speaks with “authority,” not like the scribes; at the end they cry, “What is this? A new teaching with authority!” We are tempted to think this suggests that the teaching of the scribes is some how old and without authority.

Do not be fooled. The echoes in the text suggest otherwise. The scribes make scrolls, copies of the authoritative texts. Therefore, they are those in the community most familiar with every jot and tittle of Torah, the writings and the terms of Israel’s covenant relationship with YHWH, the unspoken name of God. Their task is to preserve the sacred texts and prepare the people to recognize, among other things, when one of God’s appointed prophets appears, which is cause for much hope under the present circumstances of occupation and Roman oppression.

The scribes have evidently done their job well! The people have run out to hear John, himself dressed like the early prophet Elijah, and to be baptized by him. Now they recognize that Jesus is another one of those whom the scribes have taught would come and bring new hope to the community. Jesus is not opposing the scribes, rather he is unlike the scribes the way that Martin Luther King Jr is unlike the Declaration of Independence – both Jesus and King are the human embodiment of God’s Word and the Declaration that “all men are created equal”. This is why the people are astonished. Jesus is the Word of God come to life!

What is even more astonishing, however, is the declaration the unclean spirit itself. Some scholars think Mark’s use of Koine Greek is deficient, for the Greek text has the spirit address Jesus as “Jesus Netzer.” This gets translated as “Jesus of Nazereth,” even though “netzer” is not the Greek for Nazareth. The translators assume Mark is sloppy. Yet, back in verse 9 Mark uses Nazareth correctly. The unclean spirit means to say “netzer,” which is Hebrew for sprout or shoot, as in: “A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.” [Isaiah 11:1-2] The unclean spirit is wiser than we at first might think. The spirit hears this echo of Isaiah in the authoritative teaching of Jesus and relates it to the poet’s description of a coming anointed one upon whom God’s spirit rests. This links Jesus’ baptism, at which God’s spirit comes to rest upon him, to Isaiah’s text with just one word: “netzer.” Mark is not sloppy, but very familiar with the texts, perhaps a scribe himself.

Note carefully, in Mark only the unclean spirits and demons know who Jesus is. This one names him, Jesus Netzer and the Holy One of God. Holy One of God is how the texts refer to Elijah’s apprentice, Elisha, another echo. Naming represents power and authority in the Bible. As Bob Dylan sings in one of his Gospel songs, “Man gave names to all the animals, in the beginning, a long time ago.” God “names” creation into existence. You have some degree of power and control over things you can name. Only God’s name, YHWH, is so sacred that it is not spoken.

This unclean spirit speaks with authority just like Jesus. Odd. We often misconstrue “uncleanness” altogether. It has nothing to do with sin, and little to do with illness, mental or otherwise. It has to do with ritual uncleanness, and ritual itself can render one unclean. Richard Swanson in his book, Provoking the Gospel of Mark, observes that “matters that are marked as unclean are in many instances matters that touch on the mysterious.” [Swanson, p 102] Nothing is more mysterious than God and God’s Word. In the synagogue one cannot “touch” the Torah Scroll. One wears gloves, or puts one’s prayer shawl between oneself and the scroll. And one does not read it pointing with one’s finger but with a pointer, because the mysteriousness of the Torah, if touched, makes one unclean. Torah is not sinful, but it is mysterious and powerful!

The man’s unclean spirit is mysterious and powerful, and because it is unclean it can name Jesus while proclaiming the question for us all, “What have you to do with us?”  The unclean spirit wants to know “What does all this have to do with you and with me?” That is the question for all of us when it comes to Jesus. Mark has the unclean spirit get the fundamental question of his gospel on the table. Jesus will ask the disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” which is Mark’s question for us all. Mark knows what he is doing, and challenges us, the readers, at every turn with echoes from the teaching of the scribes and their texts, so we can answer the unclean spirit’s question, “What does all this have to do with Jesus and with us?”

One last thought. The people cry out, “What is this?” Another echo perhaps? Are we meant to remember that when YHWH provides daily bread the people call it “manna”? Manna, which translates roughly as “what-is-it?” Are the people astonished, as they were in the wilderness for 40 years, that new manna, new daily bread, is being provided? Is Mark suggesting that Jesus is the Bread of Life, the new manna? Is this why he says to us to this day, “This is my body”?

Who is Jesus? What does all this have to do with us? By whose authority? These are Mark’s central concerns. With all these echoes of the ancient texts, Mark urges us to share in the astonishment and mystery and come to know who Jesus is, what Jesus has to do with us, and by whose authority he comes to dwell among us. When reading Mark’s Masterpiece we need to carefully listen for the echoes to find out and be astonished once again ourselves!

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.