Saturday, November 28, 2015

Apocalypse Now!

Apocalypse Now
“There will be signs in the sun, moon , and the stars, and on earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves…people fainting from fear…look at the fig tree…heaven and earth will pass away but my words will not pass away….Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.” Luke 21: 25-36

It’s the First Sunday of Advent. We tend to misconstrue what the season is about, and we also misconstrue what passages like this one from Luke mean to convey. We need a key – or in this case keys –to unlock the purposely hidden contours and meanings of such images that confront us this week.

First, as to Advent: it is not primarily about preparing for Christmas or the birth of Jesus. Shocking, to be sure, but from its inception it is meant to prepare us for that longed-for day when Jesus, as he promises, will return to judge the living and the dead. Adventus Rex literally translates as the Coming of the King. What is often called, and is referenced in the Nicene Creed, The Second Coming.  Charles Dickens and the advent of Department Stores are responsible for the commercial economic engine Advent has become.

When confronted with this kind of scripture I recall what my first mentor and teacher Dr. John Gettier taught us: The Bible is at once history, literature and theology. Every passage needs to be assessed from each of these three perspectives. This has served me well!

First and foremost the literary dimensions of these kinds of sayings in the Bible. It helps to know two words: eschatology and apocalyptic. Eschatology, according to Brendan Byrne(The Hospitality of God- A Reading of Luke’s Gospel), eschatology is teaching or speculation about the future, and specifically a final “end of days” when the entire  universe will be transformed by the hands of God. Apocalyptic literally means “revelation” meaning its content is revealed by an angel or a vision. Apocalyptic is typified by vivid imagery depicting cosmic upheavals and often a battle between good and evil. In all cases apocalyptic means to encourage a sense of hope and faithfulness among God’s people that the current difficult and dangerous times will ultimately be overthrown with the triumph of God. Meantime, we are to keep the faith, or, in the words of the transcendent Chinese Book of Wisdom, the I Ching, the message of eschatological apocalyptic might be summed up in two words: Perseverance furthers!

The historical context of this passage in Luke is hinted at way back in chapter 17: writing somewhere in the decade of 80-90ce, Jerusalem and The Temple lie in ruins having been burnt to the ground by the Roman Empire in the year 70. Although the gospel places this discourse before the time of Jesus’ death, Luke means for his listeners to hear it in the time of the Church which extends to our present day. It is a kind of double message: 1) Yes, Jesus is coming –adventus- soon, but 2) do not be alarmed that it is not just yet, more calamities and sufferings must take place before the ultimate end. This “Yes, but not just yet” space is where we currently find ourselves. These views are not conflicting but complementary.

The theological construction of Luke moves from Temple to Jerusalem to the Coming of the Son of Man: baby Jesus is taken to the Temple to offer the appointed sacrifices, Jesus returns as an adult to Jerusalem to confront the principalities and powers, and the time of the Church anticipates his return to gather all things together into the reign of God’s kingdom, a kingdom that is “not of this world.”

In the meantime what are we to do? We are to “Be on Guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day catch you unexpectedly, like a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth. Be alert at all times, praying that you may have strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.” That is, in this “Yes, but not just yet” time believers are to continue our mission to others to the ends of the earth, which will mean enduring the hostilities and sufferings of the present time.

That this “generation will not pass away until all these things take place,” the word “generation” can mean the twenty or thirty so years of a human generation, but it can also describe an entire era marked by a certain quality which could encompass all of human history. (Luke by Sharon H. Ringe) We can never know just which Luke meant to convey, but the overall historical and literary context suggests that we put an end to such speculation as to the “when” and focus instead on our appointed mission and the assurance by our Lord and Savior himself that we can remain confident in God’s faithfulness to all generations, “according to the promises he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.” (Luke 1:55)

For us there is the macro context of what is happening in the world about us: wars, indiscriminate terrorism, climate change with its attendant intensifying of earthquakes, tsunamis, tornadoes, hurricanes and the like, not to mention age-old problems of hunger, poverty and the increasing gap between the haves and the have-nots.

On the micro level, here at Christ church we have undergone calamities of bursting pipes, a departing beloved rector, priest and friend in Jesus, difficulties understanding the machinations of the church and diocese, and the always occurring loss of loved ones, loss of jobs, and overall seeming loss of control over our personal affairs and lives. To this Luke preaches a gospel of encouragement in the midst of what seems like hopeless chaos.

The uniqueness of the Christian story is that at its center is a God who chooses to be with us in the midst of all that life throws at us, and an invitation to be a community of love and hospitality amongst ourselves and at the same time intentionally shared with others – all others, with the emphasis on all.

The very last words of the Bible, at the very end of the very eschatological and apocalyptic Revelation to Saint John the Divine, are, “Amen. Come, Lord Jesus.”  This is our Advent – not that of the marketplace, but that of confidence and assurance that our God is with us and will one day, we know not when, transform all of us and the entire universe of creation anew. Remember, perseverance furthers! Until that day we are to be faithful and alert during these “Yes, but not just yet” times we live in. We are those people who know he is here, even now, in our prayers, in our communion, in our hearing the Good News and in our singing.

See the Son Rising, See the Son Rising, See the Son Rising
He is here
He is here in the city, he is here in the streets
He is here in our singing, he is here in the people that we meet
Alleluia he is here


Saturday, November 21, 2015

“My kingdom is not from this world.”

The Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe

Or, more simply, the Feast of Christ the King. I have always found this to be the most curious and at the same time mysterious of all Christian observances. I remember standing in Bath Abbey and reading the following words: “Who is Jesus? Jesus was born in an obscure Middle Eastern town called Bethlehem, over 2,000 years ago. During his first 30 years he shared the daily life and work of an ordinary home…He had no money. He wrote no books. He commanded no army. He wielded no political power. During his life he never travelled more than 200 miles in any direction. He was executed by being nailed to a cross at the age of 33.”

He is a funny kind of king, Our King of the Universe, isn’t he? It’s even more curious when you consider what Verna Dozier calls the three falls of human kind. First, of course, is the business in the garden and eating the forbidden fruit. Next, she writes, comes that moment in time when the people of God demand of Samuel, last of the Hebrew Judges and first of the Hebrew prophets, that he petition the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob to give them a king. Up to that moment the loose confederation of twelve tribes depended on Judges, un-elected and non-hereditary leaders appointed by God, to lead them in times of crisis and great peril. These were ad hoc judges, twelve of them, one from each of the 12 tribes, and one of them was a woman, Deborah. Samuel asks God for a king, and God replies that kings are really not a great model of leadership. Samuel tells the people God’s response, but they whine all the more, “Everyone else has a king, why not us? We want to be like everyone else!”

God finally relents, and Saul is anointed King over all of Israel. It does not end well. God eventually has to resort to sending more and more prophets in an attempt to bring the kings and the people back to the basics of being God’s people.  As we know, God finally comes himself in Jesus only to discover for himself just how recalcitrant the creatures created in his own image had become.

The Third Fall, of course, is when the Church becomes the Empire as Constantine adapts the Church to become the enforcer of the Emperor’s will. The Church, which had existed for well over 200 years as an alternative to life in the Empire, as the Israel of God, if you will, over against the Land of Pharaoh, suddenly becomes that which it had opposed.

We all know the results, many of which are not good: crusades, expulsions, Inquisition, anti-Semitism and complicity in The Holocaust, which The Second Vatican Council acknowledged, apologized, and urged us to move on in a more inclusive manner including the importance of inter-faith dialogue and cooperation. Yet, it remains difficult to give up the goodies and privileges of being The Empire.

Christ The King is the newest of all church liturgical observances, having been instituted by Pope Pius XI in 1925 in response to growing nationalism and secularism. Pius XI wanted this feast to inspire the laity, writing, “The faithful, moreover, by meditating upon these truths, will gain much strength and courage, enabling them to form their lives after the true Christian ideal….He must reign in our minds…in our wills…in our hearts…in our bodies and in our members, which should serve as instruments for the sanctification of our souls, or to use the words of the Apostle Paul, as instruments of justice unto God.”

In our Baptismal Covenant we are asked, “Will you strive for justice and peace for all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?” We answer, “I will with God’s help.”

So here we are on the Feast of Christ The King, in a country that indeed embraced the Biblical ideal of non-hereditary kingship for governance, a country populated nearly entirely by immigrants, many of whom came to these shores fleeing warfare and persecution, pondering, debating really, just how wide and how broad our definitions of justice and peace for all people really is. We find ourselves reacting without much reflection on just how we might wreak military vengeance on those who threaten the lives of innocent civilians with acts of horrendous and indiscriminate violence, while at the same time we threaten to close our boarders to those who are suffering the same violence first-hand.

Christ the King  Sunday means to ask us, in the context of our present lives, how ought we to serve as “instruments of justice unto God”?

Our Presiding Bishop, Michael Curry, has addressed this place in which we find ourselves: “In times like this fear is real.  And I share that fear with you. Our instinct tells us to be afraid. The fight-or-flight mentality takes hold…  And yet, especially when we feel legitimate fear, our faith reminds us “Be not afraid.” The larger truth is that our ultimate security comes from God in Christ.”

Bishop Curry goes on to remind us that “In the Book of Leviticus, God says to the people of Israel that, ‘the foreigner who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the foreigner as yourself, for you were foreigners in the land of Egypt.’  Accordingly, we welcome the stranger.  We love our neighbor.  The Episcopal Church has long been committed to resettling refugees in our own communities fleeing violence and persecution.” For over 75 years this has been the work of The Episcopal Church in partnership with dioceses, congregations and government agencies.

He concludes, “But Jesus calls us to go even further: not just to love our neighbors and our kin, but to love our enemies.  This is particularly difficult when we are afraid. But even in the midst of our fear we stand on the solid ground of our faith and proclaim the faith of Christ crucified and risen from the dead.  In practical terms, this may mean finding strength in prayer, or in our neighbors, or in our churches, or in acts of solidarity with others who live in fear.   This is the hope that casts out fear.”

When faced with events like those of this past week in Europe and in Africa, I turn to scripture, I turn to prayer, and I also turn to poetry. Friday was the birthday of Pauli Murray, born in Baltimore, a civil rights activist, a founder of the National Organization of Women, a founder of CORE, the first woman awarded a Juris Doctor degree from Yale, and the first ordained African American woman in The Episcopal Church. Also a poet, I find these words of hers address where we find ourselves on this Feast of Christ the King.  They seem to hint at the kind of kingship our Lord embraces.
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.
      -Pauli Murray, Cambridge, 1969


Saturday, November 14, 2015

Be Here Now

Be Here Now
I get up each morning with our puppy Bella, take her out, and then the two of us crash on the living room sofa: she sleeps on top of my legs while I scan my phone for overnight emails and my newsfeed on Facebook. The other morning I discovered that as a faithful Christian I need to be up in arms over this red Starbuck cup as it is the opening salvo in this year’s alleged, “War on Christmas.” Even at 5:30 in the morning I am awake enough to look at that and say, “Really? Christ died on the cross and rose from the dead so I could get angry, protest and boycott a coffee shop over a paper cup? As the morning unfolded the story was on all 12 flat-screens at the gym.  As I read here in church a few weeks ago, I needed a trip to the Bunny Planet!

Fortunately I think our lessons for today offer some perspective on this kind of thing. The reading from the Book of Daniel 12: 1-3 dates from the time of the Greek occupation of Israel about two centuries before Christ,  and reflects on the time of the 6th century Babylonian Captivity. It is an example of Hebrew Apocalyptic literature with the main theme being:  just as YHWH, the God of Israel, had saved Daniel and Israel from captivity in Babylon, so God will deliver Israel from the Greek Empire. The Greeks had desecrated the Jerusalem Temple. Sacrifices could no longer be made there. The religious and cultic life of Israel had been halted. So in the final chapter of Daniel, the promise is made, You shall be delivered.

Fast forward to Jesus and his disciples in Jerusalem exiting the Temple – which Temple by the time this Gospel of Mark was written already lay in ruins at the hands of the Roman Empire. The disciples are pictured in chapter 13 as awed by the grand scale of the Second Temple:  “…what large stones and what large buildings,” they say.  The likes of which they had never seen in the region around Galilee! The buildings and stones effectively conveyed the very real sense that Jerusalem was the center of power:  political and religious authority dwelt among these great buildings.

Jesus warns them not to be fooled, not to be so impressed, for soon, he says, not one stone “will be left her upon another,” as it is to this day. Then, of course, they want to know when it will happen and what will be the sign or signs.  Essentially his usual kind of enigmatic answer boils down to this if we were to read the all of chapter 13: don’t worry about it; it’s in my Abba’s, my father’s, hands; just do the work I have given you to do – feed people, heal people, and proclaim the good news that God’s Kingdom, God’s Shalom is even now breaking in. Things are already changing. Be part of the change you want to see here and now. New Testament texts radically change the nature of apocalyptic promise: instead of You shall be delivered, the message in Christ is, Your deliverance is already under way!

I believe this is one way of saying what most religious traditions have said throughout the last four thousand years: do not worry about tomorrow; do not worry about yesterday; be here now; dwell in the eternal Now,in the present moment, for this is where we are meant to be. This is where we are meant to love God, love neighbor, and accept that we are God’s Beloved. It is significant that ancient Israel was literally the crossroad of the Silk Road which meant that people from all over the world travelled through there. The Buddha, Lao Tso, Zoroaster, not to mention the Hebrew prophets, Socrates and others had already begun the revolution in human thinking and world view – all of which was passing through the world of Jesus every day.

What I take out of this today is that these Red Cups are simply a metaphor for all kinds of unimportant so-called issues trying to monopolize our time and attention. What I believe is our best practice for not getting hooked into worrying about when the Day of Lord is coming is to be about the things God in Christ calls us to do. And what Jesus does more than just about anything else is to take time every day off by himself to be still and be with Abba, his Father. One such practice found in every religious tradition is what some call Mindfulness Meditation, Centering Prayer, or Contemplative Prayer. Some Buddhists call it sitting Zazen. A practice which by any other name usually means sitting still and simply being attentive to one’s breathing.

Breath in the ancient world was understood as the source of life. We breathe in, we breathe out, and this sustains us; when we stop breathing, life stops. It has always fascinated me that Hebrew, Greek and Sanskrit all have a single word that means breath, spirit and wind: ruach, pneuma, and prana. In the Bible ruach became associated with YHWH, the God of Israel. We now know that everything in creation did come from one source – all that exists throughout the universe is made up of particles from either the Big Bang, or exploding stars, which may be the same thing.

Further, current scholarship suggests that the name of the God of Israel, Yahweh, was in part an attempt to imitate human respiration: the sound of breath coming in and going out. If this is true, the first word we say when we are born, and the last word we say when we expire for the last time is the name God.  Richard Rohr in his book, The Naked Now: Learning to see as the mystics see, points out that there is no Jewish, Islamic, Christian, Taoist or Buddhist way of breathing. There is no American, Russian, Chinese or Afghani way of breathing. There is no rich, poor or middle class way of breathing. We are all breathing the same air, the same particles, that have been in existence since the beginning of the universe. We are breathing, and in fact we are made up of, star dust. The playing field is leveled with this single realization, this single practice of attention to our breathing in Contemplative Prayer. It is the gateway to living in the present moment. It is

 a practice that frees us from worry about the future or the past, but rather centers us in the here and now. Or, as Richard Alpert, or Baba Ram Dass as he is known today, has put it: Be Here Now.

As simple as that sounds, it can be hard work. So much in the world about us intentionally tries to take us out of the eternal Now so as to sell us some product, some idea, some ideology that will save us from Red Cups destroying our Christmas.

I used to begin each class at St. Tim’s with a minute or two of Mindfulness Meditation or Contemplative Prayer. Sit still, feet on the floor, hands in your lap. Close your eyes. Repeat a word or phrase (mantra) a few times, and then simply be attentive to each breath in and each breath out. Sit for two, three, five, ten or even twenty minutes. Then slowly return, perhaps repeating the same word or phrase you said at the beginning. If you are uncomfortable closing your eyes, and that’s OK, just try what my yoga teachers call soft focus a few feet on the ground or floor in front of you.

Back when I was younger this sort of prayer or meditation was considered far out! Now there is science to back up the claims that this truly improves our well-being, improves overall health, sharpens the mind, and helps to detach or unhook us from all the distractions that try to monopolize our attention. Like our myriad electronic devices. I was waiting for a plane in Kansas City, and as I looked at the queue every single person in the dual lines at Southwest were eyes glued to their phones, scrolling with their thumbs! For this, I thought, we evolved to have opposable thumbs? Seriously?

Be here now. Do not worry about the future or that coming Day of the Lord. We shall be delivered just as Daniel and Jesus were delivered! Focus on the present moment and the work God in Christ gives us to do. That will be enough for today. Tomorrow we can always begin again. Amen.