Sunday, January 27, 2013

Fear Of The Other

"Where diversity of doctrine is found, there must we suspect corruption both of the Scripture and of the exposition." –Tertullian

Ran across this on the internet this morning. Synchronicity. For today the Gospel from Luke (Luke 4: 14-21) features Jesus offering a new take on scripture and doctrine in his hometown synagogue. Upon reading what very well may have been the lectionary reading for his day from Isaiah 61 he sits down. People are expecting a comment. He does not disappoint. “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” Next Sunday comes part II of this episode – the part where his radical view of Isaiah’s proclamation leads to people seeking to hurl Jesus off a cliff! The hometown crowd was not really prepared for what the local boy had to say.

For when he amplifies the somewhat cryptic commentary, he extends all this talk of “good news to the poor,” “release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” to all people everywhere, giving as his sole examples famous gentiles of the Bible. Talk about diversity! Imagine that! Jesus suggesting, no even asserting, that God’s Love, Grace and Mercy extends beyond the boundaries of our tiny sectarian societies.

So it will turn out that those who suspect “corruption both of the Scripture and of the exposition” are those who turn against and away from Jesus. We might well ask, “Who is this Tertullian anyway?”

Tertullian (c. 160 – c. 225 CE) was a prolific Christian writer and apologist credited with virtually inventing Christian theology, wrote extensively and persuasively on the Trinity, and yet was one of the few early Christian “fathers” who has never been canonized by the Church on account of some rather odd and even heretical views he held.

He was, as one can readily see, more than somewhat conservative – and why not. Writing Christian apologetics in a hostile Roman province in Africa was dangerous business. Many are those who lost their lives simply being Christian, let alone becoming a public defender of the rapidly growing cult.

He was a Montanist, itself a cult within the early church that offered diverse doctrine, much of it well outside the mainstream church – never a bad thing in and of itself! According to Wikipedia (save you the time) although it came to be labeled a heresy, the movement held similar views about the basic tenets of Christian doctrine to those of the wider Christian Church. It was a prophetic movement that called for a reliance on the spontaneity of the Holy Spirit and a more conservative personal ethic. Parallels have been drawn between Montanism and modern day movements such as Pentecostalism, the charismatic movement, and the New Apostolic Reformation.

His views on women, for instance, do not hold up terribly well. Again from Wikipedia: Tertullian is sometimes criticized for being misogynistic, on the basis of the contents of his 'De Cultu Feminarum,' section I.I, part 2 (trans. C.W. Marx): "Do you not know that you are Eve? The judgment of God upon this sex lives on in this age; therefore, necessarily the guilt should live on also. You are the gateway of the devil; you are the one who unseals the curse of that tree, and you are the first one to turn your back on the divine law; you are the one who persuaded him whom the devil was not capable of corrupting; you easily destroyed the image of God, Adam. Because of what you deserve, that is, death, even the Son of God had to die.”

So, despite his many positive traits, and much thoughtful theological reflection, Tertullian held some truly suspect views, explaining why even the Catholic Church would hold off from proclaiming him a saint and doctor of the church.

I found myself “remembering” all this because to pull out his one quote suspicious of any kind of theological diversity or exploration beyond what he found to be acceptable as a way of mocking or condemning diversity of opinion with a “credible” ( and I  use the term loosely) voice from the early church is at the least troubling, and at worst dangerous.

Jesus, the one many of us look to as Lord and Savior, died for not only holding radical new theological ways of thinking, but for actually living them out. Arguably, Tertullian is considered heretical by some for his similar penchant to “think outside the box” as we say today.

So why the fear? For that is what it is when we shy away from theological innovation and condemn it as “corruption of both of Scripture and of the exposition.” Especially when the subtext seems to suggest we need to be suspicious of “others” unlike ourselves, whatever shape that takes: gays, lesbians, transgendered and bisexual individuals; those for or against abortion; those of other race, religious, ethnic and social backgrounds; ordaining women, marrying same-sex couples, “allowing” women to become bishops; those who favor gun control, those who reserve the right to arm themselves to the teeth; the list can go on and on. We can always find one more group or class of persons utterly unlike ourselves of whom we allow ourselves to be afraid.

I keep re-reading and re-reading Luke chapter 4. Jesus is rejected for having a radical interpretation of Isaiah, and for accepting “the other,” all others – not some others, not a lot of others, but even those who condemn him to death upon a Roman Cross, those who taunt him as he is gasping for his last breath, and those who to this day are afraid of him.

At his river baptism in the Jordan, he heard a voice, “You are my Beloved son; I am well pleased with you.” He spent a long time in the wilderness sorting out just what that meant. He came out of his wilderness time-out and temptations , and set about helping others, all others, to know and accept that they too are Beloved in God’s eyes – that God is well pleased with them as well. He seemed convinced if people would accept that basic theological truth about themselves that they would not only come to love themselves, but would reach out in love and compassion to others as well – all others, including those with diverse views different from their own. He literally went to the stake on that belief and that assertion.

Then he returned to demonstrate that the radical understanding of God and God’s Word that he was living has an eternal, ongoing significance for us all. He returned to affirm that we have nothing to fear among varied and divergent views of the Holy – the Holy which in all truth is unknowable in its entirety. I have to believe that even Tertullian, now living in the very heart of God’s radical love for all things, seen and unseen, has begun to see the light and may very well have already retracted his pronouncements uttered out of fear so long long ago. Wouldn’t that be Good News! Amen.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

How Can This Be?

 What Jesus did here in Cana of Galilee was the first of the signs through which he revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him. – John 2:11
Jesus turns water into wine. Not just wine, but “good wine” – no Boone’s Farm or Cold Duck here in Cana of Galilee. Nothing but the best. The wine steward, the host of the reception, no doubt even the bride and groom must have wondered, “What in the world is going on here?”

We read these stories and say, “The Word of the Lord,” “Thanks be to God.” And then we too wonder, “How can this be? There must be a rational explanation.” Yet, it was good enough for a group of people to “believe in him.” What does it take for us to believe in him?

Just the other day  we were reading Exodus chapter 3 in class,  you know, where a bush begins to burn, and begins to talk, and instructs Moses to take off his shoes and come closer – and lo and behold, Moses does what the bush commands! One of the girls timidly raises her hand. “Chaplain K, if a bush started talking to me I think I would be somewhat skeptical…this just seems too strange.”

And it is strange, isn’t it? And yet….

Epiphanies come in a variety of experiences. Some are extremely flamboyant, like the burning bush, or Elijah’s contest with the prophets of Baal. And some are more subtle, like a man with a charcoal fire on the shore of Galilee calling out to some tired and confused fishermen, “Come, and have breakfast.”

How the divine, how the holy, chooses to find us, touch us, make contact with us is as varied as there are stars in the sky and grains of sand on the seashore. Some of us recognize it right away. Others of us ignore it, brush it off, write it off as simply impossible, or, another annoyance in a life seemingly filled with annoyances. It is a curious thing to ponder why in a particular time in a particular place in a particular frame of mind suddenly, without warning, we recognize the presence of the holy – a message from the divine realm, however we might know or define that to be – even if we only acknowledge that it has without a doubt come from someone or somewhere beyond our self.

I heard the student’s concern. With earnestness she wanted to know, “How can this be?” Let’s face it, all through the Bible people say just that, “How can this be?” So here was an opportunity – a moment of question and wonder that could too easily pass us by – too easily be overlooked by a need to “get through the material” that needed to be covered in that day’s class.

I stopped, looked out at the thirteen girls all seeking some sort of answer to what was not exactly a question, but that they all were thinking along with her.

“Once while shopping for Christmas presents long ago,” I began. I was in a book store in Oak Park, Illinois – Kroch’s and Brentano’s. I had picked up a volume off the shelf by Thomas Merton: Love and Living. It was a slim volume of essays, and I opened to one titled “Love and Solitude.” I stood in the aisle amidst dozens of other holiday shoppers and began to read the first paragraph: “No writing on the solitary, meditative dimensions of life can say anything that has not already been said better by the wind in the pine trees. These pages seek nothing more than to echo the silence and the peace that is “heard” when the rain wanders freely among the hills and forests. But what can the wind say where there is no hearer? There is then a deeper silence: the silence in which the Hearer is No-Hearer. That deeper silence must be heard before one can speak truly of solitude.”

All of a sudden I found myself on a beach. A wave washed over me, awakening me to a voice that seemed to be saying, “It is time for you to go to seminary and become an Episcopal priest.” I was surprised, and somewhat skeptical myself, but could not manage to utter anything much more than, “What?” Another wave crashed over me, and the voice said again, “It is time for you to go to seminary and become an Episcopal priest…” How long I stood there on the beach I will never know. It seemed like a very long time, until the cash register rang up another sale at Kroch’s and Brentano’s. I looked around, and there were the shoppers crowding the aisles, the volume of Thomas Merton still in my hands, and today, here I am, Chaplain in an Episcopal Girls Boarding School teaching World Religions and English. So, is it really so strange that a bush burns and is not consumed, and that the bush talks to Moses and convinces him to challenge Pharaoh to let God’s people go? Or, that Jesus somehow manages to turn water into wine?

We all may need to ponder that for a while. I know I did. It would be another two years before I was actually cleared by Bishop George N. Hunt to attend The General Theological Seminary in NYC. But I was in good company. After all, Jesus took time out in the wilderness to try to take-in just what the words he heard at his baptism in the River Jordan might mean, “You are my Beloved, with you I am well pleased.” This and things like burning bushes are what in theological terms we call epiphanies – something of the holy appears to us, from we know not where and we know not how.

We are in the season of Epiphany – a season of epiphanies in what can be a lifetime of epiphanies. My dear friend Katerina Whitley writes, “This is not magic. This is the true connection to the Creator. Every Epiphany is a moment of creation, even for us. Let us allow the Light to shine for us and through us to lead us to reveal God’s power to the weak, God’s love for the neglected, God’s mercy for all us, sinners.” [Sermons That Work]

Jesus changed water into wine, people believed in him, and lives were and continue to be changed. Moses listened to a burning bush, people believed in him, and thousands of people were delivered from slavery into freedom. It is important for us to believe not only in Jesus and Moses, but to believe that like them we too can experience the holy in deep and liberating ways.

In another book, Thoughts In Solitude, Merton asserts that society depends on people who are attentive to their inherent interior solitude. “To be a person implies responsibility and freedom, and both these imply a certain interior solitude, a sense of personal integrity, a sense of one’s own reality and one’s ability to give him or herself to society – or to refuse that gift….No amount of technological progress will cure the hatred that eats away the vitals of materialistic society like a spiritual cancer. The only cure is, and must always be, spiritual. There is not much use talking to people about God and love if they are not able to listen. The ears with which one hears the message of the Gospel are hidden in one’s heart, and these ears do not hear anything unless they are favored with a certain interior solitude and silence.”

Solitude can be accessed in Centering Prayer, in a quiet moment on a mountain top, at a wedding reception, or standing in the aisle of a bustling and busy bookstore. Epiphany is a bracketed season between Christmas and Lent given to us as a time to ponder such things as solitude, listening for God’s voice, attending to our interior “hearing,” love, and living. For those who accept this gift of time to reflect, the rewards are unlimited – and are necessary for us to make our individual and collective contributions to the common good, the community, and world in which we live. At the end of the day I am convinced that The Bible, that much maligned and misunderstood collection of books and eternal wisdom, means for us all to know that each of us has the capacity to make a difference in the world just as did Jesus and Moses and so many before us. In the fourteenth chapter of John Jesus even promises that those who follow in his way will do the things that he did, “and greater things than these will you do.” Amen.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

We Are The Magi

On Civil Disobedience
The Feast of the Epiphany, January 6-Matthew 2:1-12

It is the twelfth day after Christmas, depending of course on when one begins counting. In the Greek, epiphaneia means appearance or manifestation – referring, within Christendom of course, to the appearance or manifestation of Christ to the world. In classical Greek it meant being able to see your enemy at dawn, or to witness an appearance of a deity up close and personal.

This appearance in Matthew is associated with three of the biblical stories: the arrival of the Magi from the east at the child’s crib; the Baptism of Jesus in the River Jordan; the Wedding Feast at Cana, where Jesus turns water into wine, and not just wine, but “good wine.” It has become the custom in liturgical churches to recall all three events during the season of Epiphany, beginning with the Magi on January 6 – except of course in the Eastern Traditions for which January 6 is the Feast of the Baptism.

Let’s go with the Magi. Note carefully that the text does not identify them as “kings” but as Magi – a caste of Zorastarian Astrologer Priests perhaps? We do not really know, but it is closer to that than kings. Nor does the text tell us that there are three, only that they offer three gifts. Try to imagine a caravan from the east with many many wise men and wise women. There would be attendants – camel boys, cooks, caravan managers (like the later to come young Muhammad), and no doubt curiosity seekers who signed on for the pure adventure and excitement of it all.

All of these people arrive in Jerusalem seeking wisdom and truth. We would do well to aspire to such a life as these magi – for this story is meant to awaken us to our true selves – seekers of wisdom and truth willing to travel great distances, whether by land or in the imagination of our hearts, to find what we are looking for. We are meant to be these magi.

This caravan also appears to be, at first anyway, a bit politically na├»ve. For we ask to be directed to the birthplace of he who is to become “king of the Jews.” We are in Jerusalem, the capitol of a backwater Roman province, Israel, where one of the Herod family, gentile converts to Judaism, is the appointed King of the Jews – appointed of course by Caesar. “We have followed his star and come to pay him homage,” we say.

Herod consults with his own set of wise men. They confirm that Bethlehem, “the city of David,” has long been thought to be the town from which a messiah, an anointed messenger of God, would one day appear. Perhaps these people are right.

One can almost hear the gear grinding away inside Herod’s head – a pretender to the throne? My throne? A genuine Jew unlike myself? This cannot end well. ‘Go to Bethlehem 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.’ Off we go.

The star leads us again. It stops. We stop. There is the mother, Mary, and the child. Imagine our excitement! Imagine the joy! The joy of actually finding that for which we have been traveling, seeking and searching for a lifetime! We fall to our knees, open our treasure-chests and offer him gifts: gold, frankincense and myrrh.

What is in our treasure-chests? What are we willing to offer? To give away? What will we give away of our treasure when we find ourselves face to face with that for which we have spent a lifetime searching? For that is what this story is about. It is about magi like us and what we are willing to give away at the moment of our greatest joy – when we see with the eyes of our hearts the One for whom we have been searching all these years – all these decades – all these centuries – all these millennia.

That, and suddenly becoming politically savvy. Having gazed into the crib at the child, having seen the appearance of divinity up close and personal, having been changed by the experience of simply bowing before God and offering the very best that we have to offer – how much we’ll never know – we suddenly gain a new wisdom that says, “Don’t go back the same way.”

“Having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they went back to their own country by another road – by another way.” That is, not by Herod’s “way.” There was something in the way he spoke to us that did not sound quite right. Is he really going to pay homage to this new king?

Like Paul Harvey, we know the rest of the story. Having been warned in a dream, Joseph takes the mother and child to Egypt. Herod has every child under the age of two killed – The Slaughter of the Innocents. We know all too well what this looks like. It continues to this day.

Note: it is an act of civil disobedience on the part of these foreign, undocumented Magi that saves the child’s life, and their own as well. The child is saved. So are we. Just what this story means is up to us. Are we willing to live into the truth and wisdom that comes from kneeling at the foot of the crib? Are we willing to open our treasure-chests and give away precious gifts we have kept in there for so long? Are we willing to open our treasure-chests at all? Are we willing to disobey civil authority when necessary? Are we willing to return by another way?

Laurence Hausman, a British illustrator, playwright, pacifist and bookstore owner, a modern day Magi, was asked by The Reverend HLR Sheppard, vicar of St. Martin’s-in-the-Field, London, to pen a hymn for peace in 1919 for the Life and Liberty movement after WWI. It became a hymn of the League of Nations. It rings as true today as it must have in 1919. It may well be worth remembering as we travel that road home together, as we go back by another way:
Father eternal, Ruler of creation,
Spirit of life, which moved ere form was made;
Through the thick darkness covering every nation,
Light to man’s blindness, O be Thou our aid:
Thy kingdom come, O Lord, Thy will be done.

Races and peoples, lo! we stand divided,
And sharing not our griefs, no joy can share;
By wars and tumults love is mocked, derided,
His conquering cross no kingdom wills to bear:
Thy kingdom come, O Lord, Thy will be done.

Envious of heart, blind eyed, with tongues confounded,
Nation by nation still goes unforgiven;
In wrath and fear, by jealousies surrounded,
Building proud towers which shall not reach to heaven:
Thy kingdom come, O Lord, Thy will be done.

How shall we love Thee, holy, hidden Being,
If we love not the world which Thou hast made?
O give us brother love for better seeing
Thy world made flesh, and in a manger laid:
Thy kingdom come, O Lord, Thy will be done.