Saturday, October 26, 2013

There By The Grace of God Am I

The Pharisee and the Tax Collector, or, There but by the Grace of God go I !

We have all heard it. We have all said it. But like, “God helps those who help themselves,” is it Biblical?

I don’t think so. As the Chicago Daily News’ Mike Royko famously used to say, “I may be wrong, but I doubt it!”

The Pharisee is a best understood as a Doctor of the Law, the “Law” being Torah, the first five books of the Bible: Genesis-Deuteronomy. Today he might be a professor of Hebrew Scriptures/Old Testament, or a church Canon Lawyer, or a Divinity School Theologian of some kind. At the time of Jesus in this little parable, if you had questions regarding the living of Torah, or what the Hindus might call living your dharma, you would go to your local Pharisee for a consultation. Despite the negative and adversarial ways in which New Testament scripture tends to portray them, these were good, respected citizens dedicated to the study and practice of Israelite religion.

Tax Collectors, on the other hand, were considered, and indeed were, collaborators with the much hated functionaries of the ironically termed Pax Romana – a “pax” or peace enforced by repeated acts of brutality on behalf of the Roman military against the citizens of any and all regions Rome had conquered in the name of Caesar – whichever one that may be – aka “Caesar is God.” Tax collectors in the Pax Romana were local citizens tasked with getting money out of their fellow local citizens by any means – a certain amount for Rome to feed its endless appetites for commodities and to sustain the shock troops that kept the local populace under control, and any amount the tax collector wanted to keep for oneself. The basic problem is that tax collectors were the man next door whose money collecting system fed the troops who meted out brutality daily against your other neighbors – crucifixion being the primary means of “teaching the locals as lesson.” In modern day terms, he is the equivalent of a Nazi collaborator, a Pol Pot collaborator, or any other collaborator you might want to put in as a placeholder, keeping in mind this is not a “chosen profession,” but one placed on his shoulders which, should he refuse to do it, probably meant instant crucifixion on the side of the road as a reminder to one and all that this is what happens to those who do not please Caesar.

So, you have the tax collector, painted by Jesus with heart-wrenching pathos, truly sorry that he has to be the means by which Rome makes his fellow citizens suffer on a day-to-day basis, begging God for mercy – mercy, which Kurt Vonnegut once said in a Palm Sunday Sermon, is the one good idea we have been given so far; and the Pharisee, who is proclaiming the first century ce equivalent of, “There but by the grace of God go I.”

Which one best exemplifies what Biblical religion has in mind?

Never missing the teachable moment, Jesus shocks his first century listeners by holding up as an example to one and all the man whom everyone despised – the tax collector. He is the kind of person Torah sets out to make each and every one of us – a humble servant of the Lord who recognizes his own failures and asks to be forgiven. Note, he does not justify what he is doing, he does not defend it, he acknowledges and bewails (great word!) his shortcomings and begs for the one good idea we have been given so far, mercy.

The rest we can figure out. Except perhaps the heart of the lesson: to come away thinking ill of the Pharisee is to participate in just the kind of thinking he represents in the parable – there but by the grace of God go I. It’s a trap. Neatly set, and we willingly and eagerly spring it on ourselves nearly every time. For you see, God wants us to be merciful just as God promises to be merciful. We are to be merciful to the tax collector AND the Pharisee. Hard work, to be sure, but it is necessary work if we are ever to experience personally and collectively the emerging Kingdom of God that Jesus is sent to promote. No one ever said loving our enemies would be easy.

I remember one day serving in a soup kitchen in Baltimore many years ago. About a hundred or so homeless and nearly homeless people passing through the serving line one at a time, each stopping to say thank you, each looking tired but glad to have one hot meal on that day. A colleague of mine, The Reverend William Rich, turned to me and said, “There by the grace of God am I.” I hope and pray that I will never forget that moment.

So there you have it. God helps those who help others. There by the grace of God am I.

Be merciful. It’s the one good idea we have been given so far!

Saturday, October 12, 2013

One In Ten

13 October 2013

Chapter 17 of Luke reflects on two major Biblical themes: faith and going home. It is left up to us to reflect on what faith and homecoming have to do with one another.

Last week the disciples ask Jesus for more faith. It helps to remember that up to this point he is always telling them that their problem is that the do not have enough faith. So they ask for more. What does he say? Are you kidding me? All you really need is a teeny, tiny bit of faith – as small as a mustard seed – and you can say to this tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea.’

We may as well face it – even without any prodding from Jesus, we live in a culture that virtually worships having more of everything: more money, more food, more clothes, more shoes – whatever there is, we are meant to want more. It is our patriotic duty! It is how we keep “the economy” moving! I venture to say we put more time and energy into getting more of everything than we do into our prayer lives or following Jesus. Which is a shame since in our baptism we promise to “follow and obey him wherever he goes.” BCP 303

So look where he goes: the region between Israel and the Samaritans – a kind of no man’s land, a kind of wilderness that is meant to remind us of the 40 years experience after the Exodus, the Passover. It is also meant to remind us of exiles such as Jeremiah writes about. Exile is a new kind of wilderness. Both exile and wilderness connote a place with no power, no resources, and, perhaps most importantly, a place where we are not at home.

Huston Smith in his book, The World’s Religions, suggests that all religious traditions reflect on the most basic question, “Where are we?”  That is, in fact how the Bible begins. The man and the woman disobey the Lord, they hear him approaching them in the garden. They attempt to hide from the Lord. We may as well face it, most of us try to do that too. It makes no sense, but as we can see, God plays along with us and calls out in the garden, “Where are you?”

Isn’t God supposed to know where we are? Isn’t he busy counting the hairs on our heads? So this must be some sort of rhetorical question. Philosophical really. Where are we? We often end up feeling as if we are in exile, or wandering in a wilderness of our own making, or tossed about by the winds of fate or providence depending upon our world view of such things.

The ten fellows Jesus runs across are in exile from their communities for having something like eczema, or psoriasis, or vitiligo. Their skin is scaly, irregular, not quite right. The only thing we are fairly certain is that they did not have Hansen’s Disease, or leprosy, since it did not exist in the Biblical era. Which makes their exile even more poignant really. We think this kind of ostracizing of fellow humans is incredibly inhuman and ancient, then we turn around and talk about “the heartbreak of psoriasis.” And if TV advertising doesn’t do it to us, we, like the first man and woman, try to hide it ourselves.

Then as only modern liberals will do, we try to figure out of this story is “real.” Were these 10 chaps really healed?  This is based on our overlooking the simple fact that getting to go home after being ostracized to the no-man’s-land  is a really really big deal. They get to go home after getting re-certified by the local priest. They get to go home. Off they go, all except one. One in ten. That has a ring to it, does it not? Tis the season of Stewardship, and just one in ten stops to say, “Thank you!”  That would be a tithe of ten men with flakey skin. Beginning with Jacob back in Genesis 28 the Bible is not so subtle in working in these little episodes where 10 percent is part of the story! There’s the stewardship message for the day.

Yet, there is more. When we are honest with ourselves, we are all these ten men. That only one in ten stops to say  thank you to God. That after all is what stewardship is all about: giving thanks to God. Providing God and God’s church with the resources necessary to help and heal others. We are all the first man and woman hiding behind a tree lest God “find” us! We are all wandering in exile.  We are all wandering in the wilderness. We are all trying to find our way home.

Good News! We are all going home. My friend Pierre Wolfe, a former French, Jesuit priest, summed up all theology in one simple phrase: we come from love, we return to love, and love is all around. God is love. We are all on our way home. God in Christ promises in the 14th chapter of John to come and get us. He promises that even now he is preparing a place for us! All of life is a homecoming – a coming home to God. We are all going to get out of exile. We will all get out of the wilderness. If only we have a tiny, teeny bit of faith – as small as a mustard seed.

Another New Testament writer says, “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”

A woman came to visit us at St Tim’s a few weeks ago. Among other things she said that there are certain practices that can help us to overcome stress. Mindfulness Meditation, Compassion and Hope.

Exile and Wilderness are stressful places to be – just ask the children of Israel, the sons and daughters of Jacob.
Mindfulness Meditation, or Centering Prayer, really is simply taking time to stop – stop doing, stop saying, stop thinking, and just Be – Be Here Now. Just a minute or two can make a huge difference every day. As a practice, a regular practice, it can be life changing.
Compassion is taking just a moment to focus on someone else’s problems. A smile will do. A look into another’s eyes that says, “I know” will do. A hug, a moment of silence together.  You do not need much. You just need a little bit.
And Hope. Hope is what keeps us going. It is the conviction that God will take us home again. Because we come from the heart and home of God’s eternal  love. That is our assurance. After all we are those who every week say we believe in all things God creates, “seen and unseen.” It is the unseen that holds the promise of our future! You need just enough hope to take one step forward after another until you find yourself out of exile and on the way home.

Perhaps you will be the one in ten who stops for a moment to say thank you.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

On Faith

On Faith

In the study of the world’s religions one of the first things they all grapple with is some version of the most basic question: Where are we? This is a way of getting at what we rather casually call “the human condition.” It is one of the first questions God asks the first man and first woman in the garden as they attempt to hide from God, ashamed of having disobeyed his command not to eat of the tree: “Where are you?”

That seems rather odd. Is it possible that God did not know where they were? Or, is God calling us to acknowledge where we are? I rather imagine it is both/and. Looking over the events of the past several weeks in our nation’s capital I can imagine even God trying to understand where we are, how we have gotten here, what has pushed us to be right here right now. And, I can imagine God calling us out to acknowledge where we are and how we have gotten to this point – a place where people who are hurting so badly inside see no way out other than acting out violently – a place where elected officials of all stripes have lost sight of what we once called “the common good” and can think only of their own narcissistic political strategies for some future election, or some commitment to one dogma or another with seemingly little regard for any of the rest of us.

We sometimes think of these ancient stories as hopelessly old-fashioned and archaic, and yet, at some dimension within ourselves we are all asking the question, “Where are we?” Perhaps even more, we wish someone beyond ourselves would stop us and pleadingly ask us, “Where are you?”

So one day the apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!”  The Lord replied, “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.” - Luke 17:5-6 (NRSV)

Not exactly the response they or we are hoping for. What is the matter with him, they no doubt asked themselves. We want practical faith. There is no way we can get trees to obey our commands. Well, he might reply, now you know how God might feel about us. But here is the surprise: Despite what a mess of things you have made, God loves you. Even despite your doubts. As one of my messengers Frederick Beuchner will put it one of these days, “Doubts are the ants in the pants of faith. They keep it awake and moving.” Just keep moving on this journey together we call Faith.

When I first undertook acupuncture treatments for a neck injury years and years ago, I discovered a book by Diane Connelly titled, All Sickness Is Home Sickness. The idea behind it was in fact inspired by the Blessed Augustine who writes in his Confessions that our hearts are restless “until we find our home in Thee.” We are on a journey that has taken us far from our true  home. We find ourselves somehow separated from our true home. This makes us restless, uneasy – and when this restlessness is no longer grounded in some kind of faith, we find ourselves doing things, as Saint Paul so eloquently puts it, that “I would rather not do, and not doing the things I should want to do.”

So whether your faith is that there is a god or there is not a god, the good news is you do have faith! Therein lies a mustard seed of hope. The mysterious and unknown author of the epistle with the name Hebrews has this to say about faith: “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” -Hebrews 11:1 (RSV) So as we continue to journey through this world, a world that so many of us want to escape, faith has the capacity to enable us to have some assurance that things we cannot see at present may very well hold the key to bringing us home. Again, Beuchner has said, “Faith is a journey, trusting that it will lead us home.” That is, as Hebrews reminds us, faith leads to a kind of hope that we are in fact on a journey that leads us home – which for many of us means a return to that place from whence we come – the heart of God’s eternal love.

It is when things get desperate, when things get stressed to the breaking point that the kind of hope that faith engenders begins to bend and even break. The old patterns and rituals seem ineffective in holding faith and hope together. A kind of chaotic depression begins to settle in and take over the way we see, hear and experience this journey called life. We call this stress.

Last week a woman came to speak to the girls at St. Tim’s. She observed that research has shown that when things reach some level of stress, there are three things, three strategies, three ways of “being,” that can relieve the stress and put us back on track: Mindfulness Meditation, Compassion, and Hope.

Mindfulness Meditation goes by many names: Centering Prayer, Transcendental Meditation, Sitting Zazen, and so on. It is really a practice that requires us to stop: stop doing, stop thinking, stop worrying, simply stop – sit, breathe, close your eyes, and let go. Such stopping has the capacity to break the cycles of stress, reset our faith and our hope, and put us back on a journey that we trust is leading us home again.

Compassion is that practice that takes us beyond ourselves and places our attention on the needs of others. It is the awareness that I am not the only one who is stressed here. And it is very possible that my experience of stress gives me the capacity to understand what troubles others, even just one other, and that I might hold the key to relieving their stress. Often we discover that in helping others, or simply being present to their distress, just being with them holds the key to relieving our own stress.

Finally, Hope is that dimension of faith that urges us to press on, trusting that, as Julian of Norwich assures us, “All shall be well, all shall be well, all manner of thing shall be well.” For those of us who have journeyed along the Judeo-Christian path, our sense of Hope is buoyed by our accepting that we are loved by Love.

The question for all of us is, “Where are you?” Are we in a place where we allow ourselves to stop doing, stop thinking, stop worrying and just accept the news that we are loved by Love? Are we in a place where we can stop and take the time to place our attention on the stress and suffering of others? Are we in a place where we allow ourselves to maintain a sense of Hope, a sense of direction, and a sense of trusting that faith, whatever our faith may be, will lead us home?

Years ago, reflecting on all of this I wrote the following song. I sometimes forget to sing it. I often forget that I even wrote it! Yet, here it is, a living reminder to myself that we do not need big, huge gobs of faith. It is as our Lord says, OK if you only have a teeny, tiny bit of faith as small as a mustard seed, the smallest of all the seeds that when planted and tended can grow into a great shrub capable of adding new and fresh flavors to this journey we call life which is really a life of homecoming – a coming home to the household of Love, the heart of God’s eternal love.

If you have faith as small as a mustard seed/
You can take trees and hurl them in the sea

If you have faith as small as a mustard seed/
The lame will walk and the blind will see

If you have faith as small as a mustard seed/
Wars will cease with the end of greed

If you have faith as small as a mustard seed/
Loaves multiply so there’s enough to feed

If you have faith as small as a mustard seed/
As you sow you shall receive

If you have faith as small as a mustard seed/
As you pray you will believe

If you have faith as small as a mustard seed/
Trust in the Lord, He’ll supply every need

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

If you have faith as small as a mustard seed
If you only have faith, as small as a mustard seed