Sunday, February 23, 2014

Love Your Enemies, It Will Drive Them Crazy

Leviticus 19: 1-2, 9-18: You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.”
Matthew 5:38-48:  Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect."

On my way to an out-of-the way island, I was landing in the Eleuthera airport. One could not help but be impressed as our small plane was setting down that the runway was littered on either side with the rusted out planes that evidently had not made it, making one thankful that this one had. Upon passing through the custom house onto the street beyond, looking for a taxi to take me to my next connection, I spied a liquor store across the street with their advertising mantra painted on the side of the building: Love your enemies, it will drive them crazy, and Cold Beer!

Which is at the heart of what both Jesus is saying in this little portion of his sermon on the mount, and what the priestly document Leviticus proclaimed at least 500 or so years before Jesus arrived on the scene. Leviticus appears to be based on two premises: that the world is created  “very good,” and can retain its goodness despite our mistreatment of it and each other, and the notion that our ritual actions and behaviors make God’s presence available, while ignoring said prescribed behaviors damages the harmony between God and God’s creation and creatures. This disharmony is often described as sin – anything that separates us from the Love of God.

This tiny portion of Leviticus lays out some basic ritual behaviors/habits that should keep the God/Creation harmony in balance: when harvesting your fields, do not cut the corners so as to leave food available for the poor and the alien passing through who have no resources;  do not lie or steal or swear by God’s name; you shall not defraud your neighbor and shall pay fair wages to the laborer in your field; with justice you shall judge your neighbor, you shall not go around as a slanderer among your people, and you shall not profit by the blood of your neighbor; you shall love your neighbor as yourself.

To which Jesus affirms in our tiny portion of Matthew:  do not resist the evil doer, turn the other cheek, go the extra mile, give to everyone who begs from you, lend to those in need; love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you; be perfect as God is perfect.

Evidently this is what it means to be holy, and to be perfect. Any attempt to apply this to our personal and public lives takes an enormous amount of energy and maturity. No wonder our Bahamian friends recognize the need for a cold beer at the end of a day of loving our enemies, praying for those who persecute us, and leaving what may be a profitable share of our crops on the ground for just anyone to gather and eat. It is hard work – physically, mentally and emotionally.

Googling the internet for just what Jesus means by “being perfect” turns up any number comforting comments like, “he knows we cannot be perfect but just wants us to head in the right direction,” usually followed by smug comments like, “he did not qualify it at all – he means be perfect or get shut out of heaven.” Ouch! So much for not judging our neighbor!

My late long time mentor and friend, the Reverend Robert Bonner, used to tell a story about his son, Bruce. Bruce played football. In Texas. Football is taken very seriously in Texas. The coach required that in the spring the football players were to also be on the school’s track team. As they were handing out assignments on the track team they still needed a high jumper, and Bruce volunteered. Then he asked, “What’s the high jump?” Seems Bruce was not designed long and lean like a high jumper, but more stout and low to the ground like an offensive lineman.

But Bruce took his assignment seriously, and after practice at school he set up a broom stick between two standards in the back yard and jumped before and after dinner. He was going to perfect the high jump. When Bob would ask, “How high can you jump?” Bruce would reply, holding his hand just below his chin, “This high, dad!” The big day came for the first track meet. Bob said, “Son, just do your best. That will always be good enough.” When Bruce came home Bob asked how it had gone. Bruce said, “Well, you remember I told you I could jump this high? At the meet they started with the bar this high,” pointing to between his mouth and his nose!

At this point Bob would pause the story and recall how Jesus wants us to love God, love our neighbors, love our enemies, and oh, in our spare time, be perfect. God sets the bar, we strive to jump as high as we can. Bob’s understanding of the Good News of Jesus Christ is that as long as we strive to love God, love our neighbors, AND love our enemies, God will forgive us the difference. And if we continue to strive for justice and peace among all people and respect the dignity of every human being – including our enemies – we will make good headway in repairing the breaches we make between God, Creation and all its creatures therein.

It is a tall task. The damage we have done to the earth and one another is enormous. Why keep at what seems like such an impossible task as to be perfect as God is perfect, and holy as God is holy?

The answer came to me one afternoon. I was cleaning up after a wedding at church. I was ready to go home when the phone rang in my office. The temptation is to walk out the door and not hear the phone. But I stop and answer the phone. “Hi, Chief, this is Bob Bonner.” I was stunned, for I had known that Bob was in the end stages of his brain cancer and most days could not carry on a conversation.

“I have some good days when I can talk to people, so I call folks around the country to say ‘Hi!’ And I wanted to tell you the rest of the story about Bruce. You see Bruce has some learning issues and stayed in high school past the age of eligibility for football. But he kept going to football practice anyway. I asked him one day why that was. He said, ‘Dad, I do it for myself because I know if I didn’t have something like practice to do I would just be fooling around and getting in trouble. And I do it for the team.  I am bigger and more experienced than most of them, so I can play hard against them and hopefully make them better players. So it’s simple – I do it for me and for the team.’

“That’s it,” said Bob. “I just though you would like to know that.  Thanks for listening. Good bye.” What a gift. I just sat there in awe of what had just happened, and thought about what a loss it would have been not to have answered that phone.

So that’s why we do it – seek to be holy, seek to be perfect – because it is good for us and good for the team – the community, the country, the world, and the earth itself.  The past few months we have reflected on what the love of enemies really looks like – Ghandhi, Martin King, Desmond Tutu, Nelson Mandala. And for me it includes people like Wendell Berry, Pete Seeger, David Mallett and others  who seriously examine the ways in which we treat and mistreat the earth itself. Oh, and by the way, Bruce is now married with two adult daughters, the lead pastor at Christ Church, Cedar Park, TX, and a Life Coach Counselor. He continues to do it for himself and for the team!

It all ll te Seeger, David Mallet try. Oh yeah, and cold beer! Amen.or yourself and do it for the team. ch we treat and mistreat the ebegins with recognizing that I am made in the image of God, that I can reflect God’s awesome creative Spirit of Love and Compassion for others and for the world which he creates. But it must continue by recognizing that others too are made in God’s image – and that I am called to seek and serve God’s Spirit in others – all others. No doubt the survival of civilization depends on this. The survival of the earth depends on this.  Be Holy as God is Holy. Be perfect as God is perfect. Do it for yourself and do it for the team. God forgives us the difference, if only we would give it a try. Oh yeah, and cold beer! Amen.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Shabbat Shalom

 I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him. –Deuteronomy 30:19-20

I don’t know when it was, but one day in Lent years ago I noticed something about Jesus’ replies to the temptations on his 40 day sojourn in the wilderness: three temptations, three replies from Jesus, and each reply was a quotation from Deuteronomy!

One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God. -Deut 8:3
Do not put the Lord your God to the test - Deut 6:16
Worship the Lord your God,  and serve only him. -Deut 6:13
Deuteronomy is the last book of Torah, the first five books of our Bible. It is a series of three sermons by Moses to the people gathered on the plains of Moab. The first reviews the 40 year sojourn in the wilderness where God makes a disparate group of slaves into a people, Israel. It ends by revisiting the Ten Commandments, or the Ten Words as they were known to Jesus and his followers. The second reminds everyone of their necessary allegiance to the One God of the Exodus and the observance of his commands as a condition of entering the land across the River Jordan. And the third offers comfort should the people stray from God’s way and be rendered homeless in exile or diaspora, with repentance they shall be returned home.
Our portion comes directly after a chapter stating of blessings and curses for those who follow or those who stray from the Way. In the opening lines of the Bible’s longest poem, Psalm 119, we learn that our happiness depends on our choosing to “walk in the way of the Lord…observe his decrees, and seek him with all our heart". Which I imagine begins with carefully observing what way the Lord walks so we might walk in that same way.
And we find Jesus in his extension of his sermon on the mount beginning to outline the way of observance. Even Paul gets into the act this week, announcing what ought to be good news for those of us who find ourselves straying from the Way when he writes to the recalcitrant congregation in Corinth, “So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth.” That is, although we need to choose between life and death, blessing and curse, it is God who gives us growth – in fact the 40 year sojourn is one long metaphor meant to convey to us that it is God who gives us everything. As Jesus would later say when queried by Nicodemus in the dark of night, “God so loved the world that God gave….”
We are created imago Dei, in the image of God. One of the girls in my religion class shrewdly asked, If there is a prohibition on images of God, what does that make us? Idols? Smart girl. I suggested that we are meant to represent the basic attributes of God in our daily life. Most basic of those attributes is that God loves and God gives.
Oh yes, Jesus says more about what he gave – and it turns out it is much more than the ten-percent of the biblical Tithe. God gives all, his life, his death and his resurrection so that we might choose blessing over curse, life over death.
This all flies in the face of modern sensibilities that want to believe, are taught to believe, and through the propaganda that is advertising we are tempted to believe: that we are each made to be self-sufficient and can have it all. It is truly amazing to contemplate our complicity with a culture of Covetousness. Again in class, we observed that of the Ten Commandments only one is repeated twice: thou shalt not covet, thou shalt not covet. Why is that, we wondered? To covet is to want or desire. Six hundred years before Christ, and some six hundred years after the wilderness sojourn, the Buddha observed that all human suffering arises from desire, from covetousness. We learned that in Hebrew rhetoric, when a word or phrase is doubled (such as Comfort, Comfort, O my people; or Song of Songs) it is for emphasis. It is as if after issuing nine words God raises his voice to thunderous volume to shout, THOU SHALT NOT COVET!!!!We further came to the awareness that coveting can often lead to adultery, lying, stealing, murder and dishonoring one’s parents. Coveting can undo all the ways we are called to relate to one another, to widows, orphans and to the resident aliens in our land, a primary concern of the Lord God of the Exodus. We are to be those people who take care of others without resources – all others!
Then we noticed that of the Ten Commandments, the commandment to observe the Sabbath comprises fully one-third of the text of the Commandments. Sabbath is God’s first gift to us, and the first thing in the Bible that God declares is holy. The day after creating us imago Dei, God gives us a gift of time – time to stop doing and simply Be – be with God, be with others, be with ourselves. So I asked the girls if there may be some relationship between the Sabbath command and the doubling of the Tenth Commandment.
Could it be that this gift of holiness in time is meant to give us a break from our daily work in trying to secure things of space – desiring, acquiring and consuming more and more things. Things which we are told define who we are by the car we drive, the clothes we wear, the food we eat. We have evolved so splendidly in our covetousness that we have created a whole new industry: Self Storage – where we store all our excess self that cannot fit into our homes! Yet, unless there is the promise of even an inch or two of snow in Maryland, we cannot find the time to set aside one day a week to luxuriate in the holiness of time – Shabbat, the Sabbath. Yet, Sabbath appears to be a possible antidote to covetousness and the human suffering it causes.
Jesus often went off alone to be quiet and pray. He affirms in the sermon on the mount that he has come to reinforce the Mosaic law given in the wilderness. How far into our own wilderness of coveting do we need to be not only to hear what God is saying, but to make it our own? At the heart of our Lord’s favorite book, Deuteronomy lies God’s first gift to us, the first holiness in all of creation, the gift of time, Shabbat – a cathedral made of the architecture of Time. And yet, here we are, most of us unable to take one day off, feeling that our security and our very being depends on endless coveting doing, doing, doing. What might it take for us to embrace and embody this longest of all the commandments, to keep the Sabbath day holy?
A wise mentor of mine used to say over and over again, “Being must precede doing.” N.Gordon Cosby. One of the gifts of Judaism is the idea that God exists not in a place as a person, being or thing, but in history – as a Spirit or Force in history, in time. Perhaps we need to reexamine our use of time to find or be found by God. The God who puts before us blessing and curse, life and death, cries out, “Choose life that you and your descendants may live!” May we reflect on God’s Word this day and choose wisely.
Shabbat Shalom! Shabbat shalom!

Sunday, February 9, 2014

You Are Stardust!

Epiphany 5A/2014 Matthew 5: 13-14
Jesus says, “You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot.You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. 15 No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. 16 In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”

Salt and Light. We are salt and light. Basic elements of earth and creation itself. Basic elements which somehow make us who we are: a body that is made of stardust and is something like 60% salt water. The first element God calls into being is Light – what some now call the Big Bang was, we are told, an incredibly hot flash of light that within 3 seconds began to cool and form what are called light elements such as hydrogen, helium and lithium. These elements eventuated into stars, stars which go supernova and send elements throughout the universe and eventually coalesce into atoms that make up things like you and me.

As I sought to learn how much of our body is made of stardust I discovered this:
“…the amount of stardust atoms in our body is 40%. Since stardust atoms are the heavier elements, the percentage of star mass in our body is much more impressive. Most of the hydrogen in our body floats around in the form of water. The human body is about 60% water and hydrogen only accounts for 11% of that water mass. Even though water consists of two hydrogen atoms for every oxygen, hydrogen has much less mass. We can conclude that 93% of the mass in our body is stardust. Just think, long ago someone may have wished upon a star that you are made of.”

I am not saying that Jesus knew any of this, though in some theological extrapolations of the fourth gospel’s opening hymn it could be construed that he did, since John credits Jesus with having been the Word, the logos, that was with God in the beginning and is God. But setting that all aside, we are made of light wrought of the first moments of creation.

It makes for a great metaphor of what forms the essence of our Being. For Jesus it is somehow connected with the specific gifts and purpose in life with which each one of us is endowed. In the language of our catechism in The Episcopal Church (TEC) we say, “…and according to the gifts given to us we are to carry on Christ’s work of reconciliation in the world.” (BCP 851).

Although we are all made of a similar proportion of saltwater and stardust, we are each as unique as snowflakes of fingerprints in terms of what gifts and purpose with which we have been endowed.  Like the yin-yang of Taoism, our gifts are complimentary: the gifts you have been given compliment the gifts I have been given. All together we make up a great mosaic of gifts, talents and purpose which, if combined, contribute to maintaining planet earth and everything and everyone therein.

Jesus is saying that this entire enterprise called earth needs all of our gifts to be on display. My light needs to shine so that your gifts and purpose may be seen. Your light needs to shine so that my gifts and purpose may be seen. Together we can bring life and light to the world.

No one is asked to do any more than what each has been uniquely gifted and purposed to be. Conversely, for all of this to work and be illuminated with light and life, we are expected to do no less than what each of us has been uniquely gifted and purposed to be.

Salt gives zest to food and preserves food. We can be those people who bring zest to life and work to preserve and enrich life. Light makes the incredible diversity and beauty of creation and others visible, and sustains us with further basic elements such as vitamin D.

It is funny how things are turning out. After centuries of turf battles between science and religion it is beginning to become more and more apparent that both disciplines of human endeavor are at long last coming to the realization that both are seeking basic elemental answers to the same questions, and from uniquely different perspectives coming to similar conclusions – conclusions that continue, nevertheless, to raise even more fascinating questions!

Jesus was about reconciliation – which in some sense means putting things together, resolving differences. We are called to become reconcilers – those people who bring people together not tear them apart. We are made of salt and light – elements that metaphorically call us to bring zest and life to the world, to each other and to ourselves. May our light shine forth and illuminate the glory of this world, this fragile earth our island home in a vast universe teaming with light and life the likes of which we have only begun to understand – and at the same time use our diverse and complimentary gifts in such a way as to bring things together, resolve differences, and so become co-creators with the Word, the logos, that was, is, and ever shall be the seedforce of life, abundant life, for all persons everywhere in all of time. Amen. 

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Three Chords and The Truth

Three Chords And The Truth
Luke 2: 22-40
Today, February 2, is the Feast of the Presentation of Jesus at the Temple, the Feast of the Purification of Mary, and Candlemas.  I call it The Feast of the Old People! In addition to Mary, Joseph and the baby, Luke puts the spotlight on two old people who have spent a lifetime hanging around the Jerusalem Temple waiting for a sign. They have been waiting, we are told, a long long time. Simeon is the old man, Anna is the old widow. Widows are a particular interest of God’s throughout the Bible. They represent people without resources. God tends to judge how well humankind is doing by how well we treat people without resources. The judgment is generally not very good.
Simeon grabs the baby from Mary and becomes a poet! I can even imagine him singing what is now routinely called, The Song of Simeon: “Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.” It is a song of hope – a great and deep hope for all the peoples of the earth. Anna, whom we are told is 84, sees the child and begins prophesying to any and all who will listen, praising God and also proclaiming a deep and mighty hope for all people.

The courtyards of the temple were a kind of shopping mall – a place to purchase birds and animals for the appointed sacrifices – a marketplace. I try to imagine how strange it would be for a young mother, with a child just 40 days old, in the marketplace, and first an old man grabs your child, and then he and an old lady begin singing and praising and carrying on to everyone else in the square. What is even stranger is that neither the parents, anyone else who may be on hand, nor the text itself, find this to be strange at all. It is treated as normative – the kind of thing that happens every day.

Confucius spent a lifetime, among other things, insisting that civilized society and culture depends upon our listening to our elders – he called it Filial Piety and Respect for Age – both characteristics lacking throughout much of society today, at least here in these United States. The exception appears to be when they finally die. Pete Seeger died last Monday at age 94. Suddenly everyone took notice of what he has been up to. Like Anna and Simeon, he spent a lifetime singing songs of a deep hope – a deep hope that we might put down our arms, put an end to war, and in our spare time clean up the environment which we have wantonly defiled with chemical waste of all kinds. Almost daily he would hike down from his mountaintop home along the Hudson River, stand by the side of the Palisades River Parkway and simply hold up a hand lettered sign that said, “End The War.”

He also spent a lifetime doing just what the Hebrew Prophets did back in the day: Speaking Truth to Power. There is no more God-called vocation than that. Pete Seeger did it with three chords and the truth and a banjo in his hand. He could make people sing. He could empower people to work for change. He used music to inspire us all to take on one project at a time, and most notably clean the Hudson River which he could see from his front yard. On this February 2, 2014 I woke up to go to work at St. Timothy’s School for Girls and put on my Clearwater Festival tee shirt to remember this remarkable musician-prophet on this Feast of Old People day! His Clearwater Festival has made the Hudson River a cleaner flowing river and a symbol of what the vision of one old man can make happen. Once upon a time the U.S. Government House on UnAmerican Activities Committee sentenced Seeger to jail time for singing songs that inspired people to join unions, oppose wars, and speak truth to power, and, of course, for not ratting out other suspected “fellow travelers.” There is a long and storied musical tradition called “protest music” in America of with which Peter Seeger has long been associated. I decided this morning that I am not sure I like that designation. Instead of “protest music” I have always heard it as Hope-Filled Music – inspiring hope in others who often feel there is no hope in speaking truth to power.

So on this February Second Feast of Old People I invite us to take several minutes to listen to this inspired song by Ry Cooder which in part memorializes Peter Seeger in a way I think would put a smile on his face and a warmth in his heart – a heart as big as this land of ours, a heart overflowing with optimism and hope for a better today and tomorrow. Like Simeon and Anna before him, Pete Seeger inspires us all to sing our way into a better world for all people everywhere. The Power of Music, poetry set to a tune, is undeniable and lives forever in the telling and retelling of the stories we learn from the likes of Pete Seeger.