Saturday, January 25, 2014

Richard of Chichester

Matthew 4:12-23
Orthopraxy – sounds like a word one might hear in the dentist’s office! It is a rather technical sounding word for what turns out to be a rather simple idea – an idea that is capable of changing how we live our lives and even how we understand what the life of faith is really all about.

Thanks be to Thee, my Lord Jesus Christ
For all the benefits Thou hast given me,
For all the pains and insults Thou hast borne for me.
O most merciful Redeemer, friend and brother,
May I know Thee more clearly,
Love Thee more dearly,
Follow Thee more nearly.
    -Richard of Chichester
This poem by Richard of Chichester, a thirteenth century bishop in England, became the basis of a song popularized in the musical Godspell, Day By Day:
Day by day,
Dear Lord, of thee three things I pray:
To see thee more clearly,
Love thee more dearly,
Follow thee more nearly,
Day by Day
  -Vaughn Williams

The Reverend Bill C. Caradine often used this prayer of Richard’s as a teachable moment to provide a corrective to how the post-Easter, post-enlightenment church leans too far in the direction of orthodoxy over and against the kind of orthopraxy of Jesus and the Jewish world in which he lived, died and rose again. Surely most readers will have give up with the usage of such technical words as “orthodoxy” and “orthopraxy,” words Bill never used. Yet, to know the distinction between the two may be crucial to understanding what God in Jesus was all about.

At its simplest, orthodoxy is belief in right doctrine, orthopraxy is right practice. Judaism tends to value doing over believing, right practice over right doctrine, whereas Christianity has tended more in the ways of right belief and right doctrine over right practice. It is not at all clear that this dependence on orthodoxy has served Christianity at all well, and there are signs over the past 50 years or so that a major course correction may be under way. This story in Matthew 4 depicting Jesus calling his first disciples contrasted with Richard’s poem helps us to see the difference.

Bill Cardine would point to Richard’s poem and observe that this is a very western, intellectual, even scientific way of looking at things: We tend to want to know or see things more clearly before deciding whether we like or love them enough to follow or accept them. When it comes to someone like Jesus, we want to know him before we love him and follow him. It seems like such a natural progression of things. In this paradigm one might say Orthodoxy precedes Orthopraxy – belief precedes practice.

Yet, in Matthew 4 there is no hint of this whatsoever! As Bill would observe, Jesus does not stroll down to the Sea of Galilee, approach this group of fishermen, hold up a copy of the Torah, the Hebrew Bible, and say something like, “Here in my had are the teachings of my people over the past two or three thousand years. Read, mark and inwardly digest these teachings, and tomorrow morning I will come back and give you a quiz on this material. If you do well enough on the quiz I will let you follow me. I want to make sure you know and believe all of this before you follow me.”

That would seem reasonable. That is pretty much still how we operate throughout western civilization and the church. Bill would then point out the obvious: Jesus simply says, “Follow me.”  There are no qualifiers, no requirements, nothing to believe, no doctrine to be understood. “Follow me,“ is all he says. And quite remarkably these fishermen drop their nets, leave their boats, and leave their families behind and follow him! Bill would further observe that Jesus does not ask the disciples if they love him until after the resurrection, after he returns from the dead. In John chapter 21, after breakfast on the shore of the same Sea of Galilee where it all begins, Jesus turns to Peter and asks, “Peter, do you love me?” Peter says, “Yes, Lord, you know I love you.” To which Jesus replies, “Feed my lambs.” This happens a second and third time. Both times Peter says, “Yes, Lord.” Jesus replies, “Tend my sheep….Feed my sheep.” That is, love for Jesus, and in the Bible, is about doing something, not loving, someone or something.  This doing-kind-of-love has to do with caring for others and meeting their most basic needs. For Jesus this love means following in the way of Jesus, not believing some set of propositions, doctrines and ideas about life – but rather to live life in the ways in which he lived life.  And finally Bill would state the obvious – we still do not really know Jesus, we do not see him clearly at all. Just witness the number of books and articles competing for our attention year in and year out all claiming to reveal to us the “real” Jesus. As John Shea once put it, Jesus is not through with us yet! For which we should say, “Thank goodness!”

So it is the Jesus Richard of Chichester loves who turns the entire paradigm, and the world with it, on its head – upside down: practice precedes belief. Like Peter, Andrew, James and John we are called to follow Jesus before loving him and see him more clearly. Orthopraxy not only precedes orthodoxy in Matthew chapter 4, but a thorough reading of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John suggests that orthopraxy is what it is all about. Indeed, in the fourteenth chapter of John the Jesus of orthopraxis makes the astonishing claim that those who are his disciples, those who believe in him will “do the things that I do, and greater things than these will you do.” Jesus appears to define belief as doing the things he does, and greater things than these!

Jesus calls others to follow him, not believe in him or believe some set of doctrines.
Jesus says that to love him is to love and care for others.
Jesus says to know him or see him more clearly is to result in doing the things he does, and greater things than these.  That calls for a healthy dose of orthopraxy to be sure, but he trusts that we are up to the task.

Practice precedes belief. Orthopraxy trumps orthodoxy. The Church is seriously re-thinking all of this. Once it abandons re-thinking for doing, imagine all those “greater things than these” we will begin to do. Follow him more nearly and there is nothing we cannot do! Thank you, Bill Caradine, for such a straightforward teaching. Amen.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Ain't That Good News!

Feast of the Baptism-Mark 1:1-11

In these seasons of Christmas and Epiphany, the gospel of Mark stands out: no shepherds, no wisemen, no star, no angel Gabriel – no birth narrative at all. After a description of John leading a revival down by the river Jordan, baptizing people who felt that they had somehow or other become separated from the love of God as a kind of reset – I have been walking away from God, I am going to turn around and begin walking with God once again. The English Bible calls this turn around repentance. And the text is clear – all of Judea and all of Jerusalem has turned out for this ritual bathing led by John – a character who lives in the wilderness, is dressed in camel skin and eats locusts dipped in honey for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Wilderness is a key biblical word recalling the 40 year period of spiritual formation following the Passover and Exodus event. We tend to think of wilderness as, well, a dangerous place. From the biblical perspective, it is where a disparate band of slaves become a people. The 40 year sojourn lays out the normative way to be the Israel of God – a name given to Jacob after wrestling with God, Israel means something like, “he who wrestles with God.” That is, it is normative to wrestle with God, it is normative to travel with God, it is normative to be led by God , it is normative to be fed and sustained by God -  and this “way” of Being with God forms the foundation of eternal life – a life lived with God.

So into this atmosphere wherein thousands have turned out for a reset of life lived with God walks a young adult from Nazareth named Jesus who says, in effect, “I want to be a part of this – I want to be baptized.” Then it happens. The Holy Spirit descends upon him “like a dove,” and a voice from heaven announces, “You are my son, my beloved; with you I am well pleased.”  It is told in just three short sentences. He then goes off on a forty day retreat in the wilderness to sort out just what this means – to be God’s son, to be God’s beloved, to be told that God is well pleased with you. He figures out that this is good news – good news for all of us – so he spends the next few years of his life spreading the Word: you are God’s beloved, God is well pleased with you, turn your life around and walk with God, for this is eternal life.

We may as well admit it, as William Countryman puts it so well in his book, The Good News of Jesus, we and the church have done an excellent job of mangling this message by saying things like, “good news, if you are really really good God will love you,” or, “if you are really really sorry you have not been very very good God will love you,” or perhaps worst of all, “God loves you, now get back in line before God changes God’s mind!” These messages which we have all heard in one way or another simply are not good news. God loves you and is well pleased with you is.

I ‘ve a crown in the Kingdom
Ain’t that good news
I’ve a crown up in the Kingdom
Ain’t that good news
-      J.W. Work III, 1940

So that’s it: you are God’s beloved. It is sad that so many of us find that hard to believe. It can be hard to wrap one’s head around such a liberating and mystical truth. What happens when we do not accept this news gets listed under the heading of “dysfunctional” these days. Alienation is another word that comes to mind – alienated from God, alienated from others, alienated most of all from our selves – our true self.

As my friend in Jesus and mentor N. Gordon Cosby always used to say, “Being [capital B] must always precede doing.” Much of what presents itself to us as religion portends to be about doing, about technique, about belief and doctrine, when at the end of the day, religion and religious experience is meant to be about Being – simply Being. It turns out that is not so simple in a world that is relentlessly encouraging us to keep busy doing things.

My most important moments of insight have occurred not from a lot of doing and working at it, but from allowing myself time to just be. This “just being” is given many names – mindfulness meditation, centering prayer, raja yoga, Sabbath time. The entire Bible begins with God resting on the seventh day. Just prior to that resting God creates humankind in God’s image. Put these two things together and one might easily conclude resting is part of what we are meant to “be.”

So now I begin each day with some quiet time to simply be. I begin each class with a minute or two or three of silent mindfulness meditation. As we do it together as a class every now and then a student will say, “I get it now!” Or, “I wish we would do this at the beginning of every class.” Usually these utterances come after weeks or months of saying, “I just can’t find the time to do this.”

It is in the silence, in the quiet, when we give ourselves what God gave us, time to just “be,” we begin to wrap our head around the good news that we are God’s beloved. God is well pleased with us. With you. With me. It took Jesus forty days to process this news. He then set off to share it with others. He continues to invite us to walk with him, to walk in his way. Eternal life is not something we pray to experience later, after “this” is all over. If eternal life is truly eternal it begins right now for those who take the time to be in the moment and accept the news. The news is here, has been here, and will not go away. We can accept it or not. But even if we don’t we are still God’s beloved, and for now that is enough. Amen.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

We, The Magi

Epiphany 2014 *  Matthew 2:1-12
The Reverend Kirk Alan Kubicek, St. Timothy’s School for Girls
by: W. B. Yeats (1865-1939)
NOW as at all times I can see in the mind's eye,
In their stiff, painted clothes, the pale unsatisfied ones
Appear and disappear in the blue depth of the sky
With all their ancient faces like rain-beaten stones,
And all their helms of silver hovering side by side,
And all their eyes still fixed, hoping to find once more,
Being by Calvary's turbulence unsatisfied,
The uncontrollable mystery on the bestial floor.
-Reprinted from Responsibilities, W. B. Yeats, NY: Macmillan, 1916

Epiphany – manifestation – suggests, even requires, that we are looking for something. Like the magi, wise men from afar, we are looking for something – anything to help us better understand why we are here and where we are going.

William Butler Yeats helps us to imagine this all too familiar story in a new light depicting our magi as “unsatisfied ones.” This un-satisfaction is repeated twice in the space of only eight lines. Recalling their first seeing the Christ of God in that manger in Bethlehem, then disappearing again so as not to give Herod the satisfaction of knowing where to find the child.

Those of us who know the rest of the story know what a fateful decision this was to be – for Herod took it upon himself to have all male Jewish children two or younger killed in hopes of eliminating any one of them displacing him as Rome’s King of the Jews. Herod commits that first holocaust, recalling the ancient Pharaoh’s attempt to eliminate all male Jewish children with only Moses, Jesus’ distant ancestor, surviving. Moses and Jesus both know what it means to be a survivor – and how that calls one to lead a people.

Poor Herod shares the deep misunderstanding of those in power in any time and any place – a belief that a show of violence and force is enough to maintain power.  And the misunderstanding that the one who was born on “the bestial floor” would lead some kind of military or guerilla revolt against the occupational forces of Rome. Herod’s is a miscalculation that continues to be repeated over and over again – just read the day’s headlines and it is there – ongoing attempts to use “helms of silver,” weapons of all descriptions, to bring law and order and peace to a troubled world.

It is the violence of Calvary – history’s most distinctly unsatisfying demonstration of the ineffectiveness of capital punishment – contrasted with the incarnation of God as Jesus in the most humble of settings, a feeding trough for beasts of the field.

Only certain magi, poets, and visionaries have ever managed to fully appreciate that singular moment when God came down to be with us as a naked, vulnerable, newborn child. Ask a Ghandi or a Martin King what they have seen.

At the heart of this Epiphany tale is the necessary moment of decision – a choice needed to be made in the face of power, violence and a show of force: will we give the Herod’s of this world our support, tacit or otherwise? Or, not?

The Magi, we are told, “departed to their own country by another way.” We might overlook what might be the two most important words in this all too familiar story: “another way.”

I believe Matthew in his singular telling of this tale – for it appears only in Matthew’s gospel and no other – is calling those of us who like the Magi are searching for a better understanding of why we are here and where we are meant to be going, that there is the way of the world, and there is “another way.”

Yeats imagines the Magi as having seen “another way.” They do not do the King’s bidding. They do not support an administration of power sustained by fear, violence and killing. They find the “turbulence” of Calvary and its display of capital punishment as unsatisfying for a world that calls us to respect the dignity of every human being. As an act of civil disobedience, they return to their country “by another way.”

There is something about the revealed and “uncontrollable mystery on the bestial floor” of Bethlehem that calls, urges, demands we find another way. Is it just a coincidence that the very first generation of people who followed Jesus became known as “the people of the Way”? And that the “way” was His way, a new way, “another way” as the text before us would have it?

I imagine that Matthew’s telling of this tale still calls us to become a people who are looking for, advocating and bringing into human consciousness “another way” in a world in which all the old ways continue to be utterly unsatisfying.

Our satisfaction lies with the Magi – they demonstrate the importance of making a choice against supporting the old ways and physically striking out on “another way.”

This is who this Feast of the Epiphany calls us to be – people of the way, those who choose another way. We have now only a moment for this – like the Magi our time and our place calls us to such a moment of decision with no time to ponder, dither or “make up our minds.”

But as the Gospel of Jesus Christ shows us time and time again, although we have now only a moment to choose to follow Him in another way, it is enough - even if this moment is seemingly overwhelmed by other forces of history. For when we join our moments of decision with His and that of the Magi, new forces are set in motion that cannot be overcome by the inadequacies of power, violence and death.

We are to see in this moment nothing less than the light of Christ. We are to walk in His light until we are so joined with it and with Him that no earthly powers of darkness will be capable of overcoming it, or us. For this we give thanks to the God of the “uncontrollable mystery of the bestial floor.” Amen.