Saturday, March 17, 2018

Self-Sacrifice vs Self-Love

This Voice Has Come For Your Sake, Not For Mine

Some foreigners, Greeks, gentiles, outsiders, show up for the festival. They say, “We wish to see Jesus.”. Philip runs to Andrew and presumably says something along the lines of, “Hey, there are all these foreigners who want to see Jesus! What should we do?”

Andrew obviously has no answers. Who wants foreigners around at a time like this! So, they run off to Jesus to tell him the foreigners are at the gates looking for him. Jesus says, in effect, if you want to see me, really really see me, then stick around. You’ll have to deal with my death at the hands of Rome to really really see me. Are they ready for that? Are you ready for that? Are we ready for that?

Then he speaks of a grain of wheat dying in the ground and then bearing much fruit. A metaphor of dying to life in this world to gain eternal life in the presence of God. Which hinges on self-sacrifice vs self-love. “Those who love their life will lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.”[John 12:25] William Temple, in his commentary Readings in John’s Gospel, observes that Greek philosophy does not appreciate self-sacrifice, and further observes, “Self-love is self-destruction; self-centeredness is sin, and self-love is hell. It is a condition that is bound to be miserable. The soul feeds on itself and devours itself.” [Temple, p 196] Glorification of God’s name and eternal life come out of self-sacrifice and love for others, even the outsiders.

Then, quoting Psalm 6 Jesus says, “Now my soul is struck with terror!” Then comes a big noise! Some thought it was thunder, so it must have been loud. Some thought it looked as if Jesus was talking to someone, but there was no one there. Must be angels, some surmise. It was the voice from heaven. The same voice he heard at his baptism that said, “You are my beloved. I am well pleased with you.” The same voice from the cloud on the mountain top with Peter, James and John and Jesus that said, “This is my beloved, listen to him.” Are we listening yet?

Now when Jesus says, “Father, glorify thy name,” the voice returns and says, “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.” Or, was it thunder? Is he talking to angels? Has he simply lost it and started talking to himself? Should we even think of letting the foreigners see him like this? While everyone is trying to figure out what is happening, Jesus announces, “This voice has come for your sake, not mine.” Which means for our sake, not His. This voice that keeps coming around is for us, not for Jesus. Which makes perfect sense. He knows the voice. The voice knows him. He has always heard the voice. He comes to get us to listen to the voice.

Surely, we must wonder why we do not hear the voice like Jesus does more often? OR, at all! Would it surprise us to learn that to this very day, 90% of the peoples of the world regularly hear such voices? That modern Westerners are the minority, the anomaly, as those people who do not regularly access this kind of communication with God and Spirits. The question is quite naturally, why not us? And most people say we are too busy to be listening, or think we are too sophisticated to hear voices, or think you have to be crazy or mentally ill to hear such voices. Someone has suggested that maybe it is because we are too grown up. Someone else has pointed out that most other cultures do not make such a big thing out of growing up. And isn’t it Jesus after all who says we are to come to the kingdom like children?

And couldn’t it be that we don’t want to hear anything about having to watch him die, watch him be executed, the victim of state sanctioned capital punishment? Dress it up as being like a grain of wheat, call it what you may, but that is what it is: state sanctioned public execution. In all the debate on capital punishment, how often are we asked to reflect upon what it means that the one who calls us to “follow him” is himself the victim of state sanctioned capital punishment?

All we know is that he says, “This voice has come for your sake, not for mine.”
This voice that says, “You are my beloved. I am well pleased with you. I have glorified my name and I will glorify it again.” We are left feeling that for God’s name to be glorified, we need to be listening to God’s voice and learn how to become part of the glorifying process. Holy week and all it portends may be dark and scary. But not nearly as frightening as a life of self-love. Or, as the prospect that for others to see Jesus we need to be part of the glorifying process. In Sunday School we rarely hear anything about this voice and its being for us. We typically do not spend much time on how to listen for this voice Jesus says is for us, let alone on our role in the glorifying process.

The creeds do not appear to discuss it. The catechism does not seem to discuss it. Yet, there it is. “This voice has come for your sake, not for mine.” Seems as if we best get listening to hear what this voice says. Nothing less than the future of the whole world is at stake, he goes on to say.

The problem is that those of us, who like the foreigners want to see Jesus, are the very people to whom others come expecting to see Jesus. In us. In what we say and what we do. In his book, By Grace Transformed, [Crossroad, 1999] the late Gordon Cosby of the Church of the Saviour in Washington, D.C., discusses just how it is others “hear the voice” and come to see Jesus. Gordon puts it this way:
Every single one of us is significant to somebody else. The people to whom we are significant will catch this thing from us if they know that we are, beyond a shadow of a doubt, absolutely devoted and loyal to the Lord Jesus Christ. But the trouble is that, in those moments we think of as off moments, others decide whether or not we are truly committed. The times a person says, “I must talk to you,” or, when we are weeding the garden. Or, working in an office. Grading a road. Nailing on a molding or painting a room. Cooking a meal. Speaking to a child. These are the times and places where the other person decides who we really are. There can be no “off moments” for Christians if our faith and its vitality are to be contagious. (p.10)
That is, glorification of God’s name comes in our most mundane moments. It is up to us to glorify God’s name. To do that we need to listen for The Voice. The Voice that is for our sake, not for his. The Voice speaks to us so that we might know how Beloved we are. So that we might know how well pleased God is with us. Once we hear this voice and believe it, others will see Jesus in all that we say and all that we do. Amen.

Saturday, March 10, 2018

Stop, Look Up and Live

Impatience. Impatience quickly devolves into anxiety, which in turn devolves into anger and a kind of lashing out at everything and everyone around us. Think of traffic slow-downs when you need to be somewhere at a particular time. Or, some of us may recall when it took several minutes for a computer to boot-up. As processors became faster, the boot-up times became shorter, until now if starting up takes a little longer than usual due to updates being loaded, or a processor trying to make sense of an improper shut down, we become impatient, restless, anxious. And who knows what we will say or do as we allow our impatience to get the best of us.

Impatience seems to be related to a kind of amnesia – we forget how things used to be. It used to take longer to get from point A to point B; it used to take longer to get a computer up and running. Or, like the people of God in the wilderness [Numbers 21:4-9] who forget what it was like to be slaves in Egypt, who forget that God is providing daily bread, become impatient and complain. God seemingly becomes impatient with their impatience and sends poisonous or firey snakes to nip them on the heel, killing some. Talk about impatience! Yet, as with the flood incident, God repents and directs Moses to erect a pole and place a bronze serpent on the pole so that when the people are snake-bitten they can look up to the bronze serpent and live. That is, God provides a solution to the problems that had resulted from so much impatience.

This strikes us as odd, primitive and even somewhat perverse. Yet, the prescribed action – stop, look up and live – is meant as a sort of intervention for our impatience. The intervention helps us to become patient – able or willing to bear some momentary or even extended discomfort, opposition, difficulty or adversity – to control oneself when provoked. Note, that this intervention depends upon our trusting the instructions to look up and live. Such trust is what the Bible means when it speaks of belief – belief in anything ultimately depends upon trust. And such trust comes from our experience that such trust is justified.

All this, impatience, intervention, trust, belief, is in play as Jesus meets with a respected leader of the community, Nicodemus, who visits Jesus at night to find out more about this person who has been baptized by John, turned water into wine, and created quite a stir outside the Temple claiming to be the New Temple, as the place where God’s name and God’s presence now dwells. Nick is knowledgeable in many things, and he knows that one who does these things must be of God [John 3]. Jesus replies in language and metaphors that demand Nick’s and our careful attention.

At the heart of it all, Jesus asserts that to fully grasp what is going on one needs to be born anothen – which can mean “again,” but in the overall context of chapter 3 more likely means “from above.” There are many words in English that have more than one meaning: a plant can be vegetation, or it can be a factory; meal might be a time to eat, or, can be grain that has been milled or ground. Nick begins to question how he might climb back into his mother’s womb to be born again, while Jesus is speaking of being born from above, born of God’s Spirit, which comes from we know not where and carries us we know not where. Jesus seems to offer an invitation to re-boot or re-start one’s life to be lived in and by the Spirit Wind or Breath of God. It is an invitation to always begin again; to abandon the settled arrangements and understanding of things and venture into a whole new way of doing things.

Understandably, Nick blurts out, “How can these things be?” still not catching on to the aboveness of anothen. Here Jesus demonstrates utmost patience in the face of Nick’s impatience and says, “No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” At this point John the Storyteller leaves Nick behind. And Jesus uses another word that has two meanings: hypso-o – which can mean ‘lifted up’, but also means ‘exalted.’ Here it literally means both things – like the serpent in the wilderness, Jesus will be lifted up on the Cross, which will be the moment of his becoming exalted. He who has come down from above will be lifted up and can be, like the serpent, the One you can look up to, the One who can be trusted, and you can be healed of all your impatience and misunderstandings.  

Then, no longer speaking to Nicodemus but to all of us, the whole world, the entire kosmos, comes the line that has been made famous in so many stadium end-zones and behind home-plate, the one and only “John 3:16”: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” This tells us several important things about God: God loves and God gives. Created in the image of God, then, we are meant to be those creatures who Love and Give. What God gives is God’s whole self – nothing less. Further, the object of God’s love and generosity is not just me or you, it is “the world.” We are to Love the World and Give so that we and the world might have “eternal life.” Eternal Life.  Which is not only life after death. It is meant to be life lived in the presence of the  God of Love and Giving here and now. Or, as Gail R. O’Day puts it so well in her commentary [John, Westminster Bible Companion:2006, p. 45]:  “ ‘Eternal Life’ does not speak of immortality or a future life in heaven, but is a metaphor for living now in the unending presence of God. ‘Eternal Life’ is John’s way of talking about the ‘Kingdom of God’: life lived according to God’s categories. Jesus’ offer of his own life through being lifted up on the cross makes eternal life possible for those who believe [trust]. This is the new life Jesus promised Nicodemus…because it is only when the crucifixion is fully in view that one can begin to understand what Jesus means by new life [from above].”

Like those in the wilderness some 2,300 years ago, we are an impatient lot. The paradox of technological advances only makes us more impatient with the world about us until we are tempted, encouraged really, to retreat from the world about us and all that makes us impatient into some form of electronic screens – which in the end only serve to make us more impatient, more anxious and often more angry.

To what or to whom do we look up? That’s really what is at stake in this story John tells in chapter 3. The Buddha, some 600 years or so before all this, had a teaching called Finger Pointing Toward the Moon. The Buddha knew that his followers might spend all their time looking at the finger rather than to that to which it points. Jesus, like the Buddha before him, knows that we often get so caught up in the teachings and traditions that we lose sight of what and where all of this means to point us. All that is asked in this teaching is that the world embrace the Love and Generosity God offers in the gift of his Son. O’Day concludes, “If one enters into that Love, one enters into Eternal Life. [ibid, 46]” Life lived here and now in the presence of God. As always, we are free to choose to look elsewhere. We can spend all of life just staring at the ‘finger’ and never see past our impatience. Or, we can stop, look up, and live.  

Saturday, March 3, 2018

Jesus Our Temple?

Jesus and The Temple
When listening to the story in John 2:13-22, commonly referred to as The Cleansing of The Temple in Jerusalem, readers need to take context into account. After the majestic first chapter and its Hymn to Jesus, The Word of God through whom all things were created, Jesus the Word who pre-existed the entire universe steps onto the scene where John the Baptizer is holding his River Baptism and Revival Meeting. Twice, on successive days, John proclaims to his camp followers, “Behold, the Lamb of God!” when Jesus comes into view. The Lamb of God, the Paschal Lamb of the Passover. The people who would become Israel are saved by the blood of the Paschal Lamb when the Angel of Death passes over Egypt. Jesus is the new Paschal lamb.

Next scene, Jesus and some followers attend a wedding reception where he solves a crisis of hospitality. They have run out of wine, so he turns three large jars of water into wine. Not just wine, but good wine, thus allowing the celebration to continue. Jesus, if anything, practices radical hospitality. Then comes the episode at the Temple – which, of course, by the time of John’s telling the story has been burned to the ground, the result of the “zeal” of a northern Galilean attempted revolt against the Roman occupation. Jerusalem, The Temple and all of Israel lies smoldering in ashes in the days of John the evangelist.

Jesus causes excitement as he disrupts the bazaar outside the Temple proper. This is odd since the sale of animals and currency exchange is necessary for all Israelites to perform the appointed sacrifices with animals and money suitable for the appointed sacrifices. Of course, again, by the time of the fourth gospel there is no Temple, no place to offer sacrifices, the central act of worship in Israel at the time, a crisis of major proportions. He then claims the Temple as his “Father’s house.”  He is immediately questioned by some local Judeans, Southerners: who do you think you are to be doing these things? A typically enigmatic response claims that if the Temple were destroyed, he could build it up again in three days. They say it has been under construction for forty-six years! You have got to be kidding! But, says the narrator, he was speaking of the Temple of his Body. Jesus himself is the answer to the crisis.

As the fourth gospel places this at the beginning of the story, alongside his being proclaimed “the Lamb of God,” the Wedding incident and now the Temple incident – the issue is not so much the commodification or corruption of religious practices, nor “cleansing the Temple,’ which is a place he often frequents, but rather it’s about the identity of Jesus. Who is he? He is the Lamb of God who secures our freedom from sin; he is God’s Son; his Body is replaces the Temple, which in fact had been under construction for over 600 years, not forty-six. His questioners, perhaps collaborators with the Jerusalem Herodian establishment, who in turn collaborated with Rome, seem to have lost track of this history. All they remember are the renovations of the pretend King of the Jews, the Herodian crowd. They have lost all connection to who they are and whose they are. Yet, in all fairness, his claims are as difficult to grasp as have been his actions so far. His actions announce that he is restoring the terms of the covenant between God and his people, Temple or no Temple, which rather, hinges on Love of God and Love of Neighbor, rather than sacrifices. Feasting on Jesus’ Body and Blood, like the manna in the wilderness, will sustain us through good times and bad. He comes to restore communal life governed by the commandments received at Sinai.

As outlined in Exodus chapter 20. The first four commandments outline our relationship with the God of the Exodus, while the remaining six establish a base-line for how to “love one another.” Due to our own cultural context, we often misconstrue many of these. We rarely note that this is not at all a monotheistic statement. “Other gods” are acknowledged. Therefore, there are to be no images, no idols, since the God of the Exodus is astonishingly inscrutable, and cannot be packaged so as to become any sort of utilitarian tool to obtain whatever we want. Similarly, the command against false use of God’s name has no basis in vulgar language, but rather that we have no standing to harness or exploit God’s name for anything outside God’s own distinctive purpose. This is a peculiar Church temptation, suggests Walter Brueggemann: to claim God’s “endorsement” for all sorts of moral, charitable and institutional purposes. God cannot be claimed as the patron of our pet projects. [Brueggmann, et. al. Texts For Preaching, WJK]

And we totally misconstrue the very center of this command structure, the insistence on a day of rest, Shabbat, Sabbath – which command constitutes at least one-third of the entire text in Exodus 20. Sabbath is no religious or pious concern, it doesn’t mean “going to church,” but rather a concrete act by which slaves distance themselves from “the abusive production schedules of the Empire. In a consumer economy like ours, covenant with YHWH of the Exodus requires rest, breaking the vicious cycles of production and consumption. Such rest is woven into the very fabric of creation and helps us recover our sense of creatureliness and to resist all pressures to be frantic consumers who find our joy and destiny in commodities.” Building and filling more and more barns will never satisfy our hunger or thirst for happiness. Yet, when was the last time any one of us took a whole day off?

Jesus, in his crusade to restore a true sense of covenant life could foresee the kind of production and consumption frenzy we take for granted in the established bazar outside his “Father’s house.” Which leads to the only command stated twice: the Tenth. “Thou shalt not covet….and if you did not hear me the first time, Thou shalt not covet!” In Hebrew when something is repeated it indicates superlative emphasis!!!! This command makes me tremble. The algorithms in Facebook connive with the algorithms at Amazon and Music stores I peruse and tempt me to covet over and over again. Covetousness is at the heart of what we euphemistically call “the economy.” Surely, many will recall that after the tragedy and terror of 9/11 we were directed, commanded, “to keep shopping.” We are awash with so much designed and targeted covetousness that we don’t even recognize that covetousness surrounds us on all sides, on every screen, 24/7, 365 days of the year, 366 in Leap Year.

Abraham Joshua Heschel observes that the gift of the Sabbath may be the antidote to all this covetousness that ultimately will never make us happy! Heschel also asserts that Sabbath is not a religious practice, but rather represents a break, a time-out, from all forms and cultures of endless productivity and consumption! All of which only serves to make us frantic and exhausted, instead of joyful and free. [AJ Heschel, The Sabbath, Shambala Press]

In his letter to the church in Corinth, Paul writes, “For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.” [1 Cor 1:25] Paul speaks of the cross – our Passover. The Jerusalem crowd was threatened by the man from Galilee’s crusade to return to covenant principles founded on Love of God and Love of Neighbor. Caesar’s Empire was threatened by any and all who followed his lead in a return to basics; a remembering of our basic identity. Yet, who Jesus was, is and continues to be has outlived the Temple and the Empire. He is the Lamb of God. He is God’s Son. His Body represents the center of God’s presence where the Temple left off in the year 70 CE. Jesus Christ, the Son of God, yesterday, today and tomorrow. Perhaps we can find something to do in what remains of the forty days of Lent that can help us to hear his call to follow him in restoring a covenant relationship with God, with neighbor, with all other people, with the Earth, and with the entire universe as well.

Saturday, February 24, 2018

Pauli Murray - One Who Followed Jesus

One Who Followed Jesus: The Reverend Dr. Anna Pauline (Pauli) Murray
Freedom is a dream
Haunting as amber wine
Or worlds remembered out of time.
Not Eden's gate, but freedom
Lures us down a trail of skulls
Where men forever crush the dreamers--
Never the dream.

I was an Israelite walking a sea bottom
I was a Negro slave following the North Star,
I was an immigrant huddled in a ship's belly,
I was a Mormon searching for a temple,
I was a refugee clogging roads to nowhere--
Always the dream was the same--
Always the dream was freedom.
            -The Reverend Dr. Anna Pauline (Pauli) Murray
As we ponder this episode in Mark 8:31-38 as Jesus announces that when he reaches Jerusalem, the seat of all religious, political and economic power in Ancient Israel, a militarized colony of the Roman Empire, we ought to wonder. He speaks of the “cross.” This word was, at the time, a vile obscenity representing the most brutal tactic the Empire used to keep people in line – an early tool of “law and order” tactics to squash all dreams of freedom. Jesus says he will suffer, be rejected by the authorities, be killed, and “after three days rise again.” Peter speaks for all the disciples, the crowd, and I suspect some of us, in expressing disbelief and horror that any of this could be true, giving Jesus a strong rebuke.

Jesus then details the essence of what it means to follow “in the Way”: deny your “self,” pick up your cross and follow him. Really? Who would follow someone carrying a Roman Cross to his death? A paid professional torturer like a Roman Centurion? Those caught up in the crowd on their way to work who can’t help getting swept up in it all? Those citizens of all eras who relish seeing someone else suffer brutality? Or, finally, those who also dare to challenge the status quo of systems of domination and are also in line to possibly meet the same fate as Jesus. True discipleship carries steep costs. Simply ask the likes of Dietrich Bonhoffer, Martin Luther King Jr., Archbishop Oscar Romero, the slain Maryknoll sisters, Dorothy Day, James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwirner, Helen Prejean, and others who threw themselves into the dirty messes of this world at great risk to themselves. Ask Jonathan Daniels, an Episcopal Seminarian and civil rights worker who was murdered by a shotgun-wielding Deputy Sheriff in Hayneville, AL, while shielding and saving the life of fellow activist, Ruby Sales.

Or, ask The Reverend Dr. Anna Pauline (Pauli) Murray. Pauli Murray was born in Baltimore in 1910, and baptized at St. James Episcopal Church, Lafayette Square (the First African-American Episcopal Church south of the Mason-Dixon Line) by the Rev. George Bragg. She attended Hunter College in New York, working many menial jobs to pay for her education, having many adventures along the way, including being arrested and jailed in Virginia for moving up 2 seats in a segregated bus, and hitchhiking across the country on freight trains. Pauli graduated from Hunter College, and in 1938 was denied admission into the University of North Carolina law school because of her race. She later entered Howard University Law School and graduated as Valedictorian in 1944. During her years there she joined with George Houser, James Farmer and Bayard Rustin to form the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). She also participated in sit-ins at local restaurants, and honed her skills in the non-violent tactics of Gandhi. Murray sought admission to Harvard University for an advanced law degree but was denied admission because she was a woman. She then studied at the University of California, Berkeley, where she received her Masters of Law degree. Murray was a contemporary and friend of Eleanor Roosevelt, and with Betty Friedan she was a co-founder of NOW, the National Organization for Women. She was the author of the 1950 book "States' Laws on Race and Color," which catalogued state statutes discriminating against African Americans, Native Americans, Asians and other groups. Thurgood Marshall said this book was “the bible” for the modern civil rights movement. Pauli Murray contributed to the NAACP's litigation strategy in Brown v. Board of Education and in 1961 she was appointed to the President's Commission on the Status of Women. While serving on the commission and studying at Yale Law School (where she was the first African American to earn a J.S.D.) Murray authored a series of papers outlining a legal strategy for challenging sex discrimination by states. These arguments were first published in an article co-authored with Mary Eastwood after the passage of Title VII entitled "Jane Crow and the Law." She testified on discrimination against women before the 91st Congress of the United States. In 1977, 3 days after the Episcopal Church accepted women into the priesthood, she was ordained by Bishop Creighton in Washington, DC—the first African-Amerian woman priest. She served as pastor to two churches: the Church of Atonement in Washington D.C. and the Church of the Holy Nativity in Baltimore, Maryland, before retiring at the age of 72. Through much of her life she struggled with her sexual and gender identity. It is possible had she lived in more recent times she would have been active in LGBTQ rights as well.

Pauli Murray celebrated the Eucharist in the Chapel of the Holy Cross, Chapel Hill, NC, on February 13, 1977. It was in this chapel that her grandmother had been baptized as “one of five slave children belonging to Miss Mary Ruffin Smith.’ She read the gospel from an ornate lectern engraved with the name of that slave-owning woman who had left part of her wealth to the Diocese of North Carolina. Pauli Murray now stood as a symbol of healing and reconciliation at the altar of the very church in which her grandmother would be sent to the balcony which was reserved for slaves. Here is, in part, what she preached that day:

“As followers of Christ, we are called upon to take risks, to work for the liberation of the body, mind and spirit, to exorcise the unclean spirits that vex us and prevent us from being our true selves, created in the image of God and inheritors of the kingdom of heaven...Each of us therefore, is called upon to proclaim the Good news of God in Christ's redeeming love....My entire life's quest has been for spiritual integration, and this quest has led me ultimately to Christ, the Spirit of Love and reconciliation, the healer of deep psychic wounds, drawing us all closer to that goal of perfection that links us to God and to eternity....We enter into community with others based upon our new self-understanding and we struggle to transform ourselves, our church, and our society in order to actualize a vision...true community is a struggle...we may not live to see its 'victories...but struggle on we must.”

About that day she wrote: “All the strands of my life had come together. Descendant of slave and slave owner, I had already been called poet, lawyer, teacher and friend. Now I was empowered to minister the sacrament of One in whom there is no north or south, no black or white, no male or female – only the spirit of love and reconciliation drawing us all toward the goal of human wholeness.”  (from Mystics, Visionaries and Prophets, Fortress Press, p.398)

Pauli Murray, a woman who understood with every fiber of her being what it means to pick up her cross and follow Jesus. Note carefully that Jesus does not insist that we pick up his cross. Pauli Murray and others throughout the Christian era have set off on their own unique path and understanding of what it means to follow Jesus. We are invited to join them in finding our won way. The world will be better for it if we do.

Here are some final thoughts from Murray dated “Cambridge 1969”:
I sing of a new American
Separate from all others,
Yet enlarged and diminished by all others.
I am the child of kings and serfs, freemen and slaves,
Having neither superiors nor inferiors,
Progeny of all colors, all cultures, all systems, all beliefs.
I have been enslaved, yet my spirit is unbound.
I have been cast aside, but I sparkle in the darkness.
I have been slain but live on in the river of history.
I seek no conquest, no wealth, no power, no revenge:
I seek only discovery
Of the illimitable heights and depths of my own being.

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.