Saturday, January 28, 2017

Pride Of Man

Micah and Jesus – two small-town country boys. They lived approximately 800 years apart, yet they and their people, the people of God, faced many of the same challenges: the greed of commerce trampling the needs of the poor, threats from beyond the borders, threats from within, and in the midst of social and economic chaos, people had largely forgotten the essence of how the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob call us to live.

So, in the poetry of Micah, the prophetic imagination envisions a courtroom in which God himself will plead his case against his people who have lost their way and placed their trust in idols, in money, in the acquisition, consumption and accumulation of more and more things, and perhaps worst of all believing they can buy their way out of what is becoming an increasingly bad situation by simply offering more and more sacrifices at the high altars in Jerusalem, and in Micah’s time Samaria.

Note carefully who is in the jury box, who is going to pass judgment on humanity: the mountains and the hills and everything and every creature therein – that is, Creation will hear the case against us.

And the Lord God’s opening statement ought to catch our attention as well: “Oh, my people, what have I done to you? In what have I wearied you? Answer me!” Which leads into a rehearsal of just what he has done beginning with the Exodus/Passover, Forty Years of formation and entry into a land of Promise.

Earlier the country poet Micah gradually makes a case that being God’s people demands a particular way of walking: “…you shall not walk haughtily (2:3b)…Do not my words do good to one who walks uprightly (2:7b)…For all the peoples walk, each in the name of its god, but we will walk in the name of the Lord our God forever and ever (4:5).”

The courtroom drama concludes with what is probably the only verse of Micah with which people are familiar: “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (6:8)

Humility. A virtue that seems in short supply in our culture. When I think of humility I recall a Holy Week meditation led by The Reverend William W. Rich. He drew the etymological connection between the words humility, humble and humus. Humus, that rich, dark earth that enriches, strengthens and improves soil for growth and sustenance.

We sometimes think of humility or humbleness as self-deprecating weakness. That is what is called false humility, often feigned to elicit admiration and praise from others. True humility in the Biblical tradition consists of an appreciation of oneself, one’s talents, skills and virtues while accepting that this self, this remarkable self, has been given, endowed to us really, by something or someone higher. The gift of humility is marked by wisdom, honor, the protection of the Lord and peace – shalom, the kind of peace that passes all understanding and includes all people. Humility’s opposites include pride, narcissism, and hubris – that human characteristic of extreme pride or dangerous over-confidence and self-reliance.

A Hindu spiritual leader of the last century, Meher Baba, urges his followers to offer our prayers to God on the altar of humility. He goes on to say, “True humility is strength, not weakness. It disarms antagonism and ultimately conquers it…One of the most difficult things to learn is to render service [to others] without bossing, without making a fuss about it and without any consciousness of high and low. In the world of spirituality, humility counts at least as much as utility."

Some eight centuries later Jesus expands and broadens what it means to do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with our God in what we call The Sermon on the Mount – the first of five such teachings in the Gospel of Matthew. He goes up a mountain just as Moses once ascended Mt. Sinai to receive the Word and Commandments of God – 10 suggestions on humble living followed by 603 others. Like many ancient teachers and authorities, Jesus sits down, his disciples before him and crowds from all over the ancient world beyond them – he literally speaks through his disciples to all of us about how to walk upon this earth.

Earth bound humility consists of peacemaking, a pure heart, an ability to mourn the current sufferings of this world, and mercy. Being merciful, wrote Kurt Vonnegut, is the one good idea we have been given so far. Mercy, compassion for others, lies at the very heart of justice and kindness and humility that Micah writes about. Jesus admits to live this way with our God invites all kinds of trouble, but brings the kingdom of heaven into our midst, into the here and now.

I find myself wondering just what the jury will say. Put creation in the jury box today, let God plead his case, and what would the mountains, hills, and creatures of this world have to say about us and our stewardship of the planet? Just how are we walking? And with whom?

I imagine the verdict to sound a lot like these words of Wendell Berry, another country boy, a farmer and poet of the earth, who in one of his Sabbath Poems of 2007 writes,
Found your hope, then, on the ground under your feet.
Your hope of Heaven, let it rest on the ground
underfoot. Be lighted by the light that falls
freely upon it after the darkness of the nights
and the darkness of our ignorance and madness.

Let it be lighted also by the light that is within you,
which is the light of imagination. By it you see
the likeness of people in other places to yourself
in your place. It lights invariably the need for care
toward other people, other creatures, in other places
as you would ask them for care toward your place and you.

No place is better than the world. The world
is no better than its places. Its places at last
are no better than their people while their people
continue in them. When people make
dark the light within them, the world darkens.
                        [2007 Sabbath Poem VI, in Leavings (Counterpoint, Berkley: 2010) p.92ff]

As in the times of Micah and Jesus, we need still listen to our poets. Amen. 

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Sing A New Song Part II

Sing A New Song Part II

The Fourth Chapter of Matthew (4:12-25) introduces a new chapter in the life of Jesus, and the beginning of a new age. John, we are told, has been arrested. The Greek word for this is used again in Matthew later on when Jesus is betrayed in the garden. Matthew paints this as a dark time in the life of God’s people, quoting Isaiah, who speaks a word of hope: “…the people living in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned.”

That light is Jesus, the new dawn is Jesus, and he begins to sing a new song. He takes up John’s song: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand – it has come near.” From John, this news, this very good news, was like he and the people saw a cloud on the horizon coming near. Matthew now makes the case that coming from Jesus these same words say that this kingdom of light has dawned upon the land of the shadow of death, the land of the Empire. This kingdom is not coming, it is now. It is so near that we can step into it by taking a single step with Jesus. Before John was the time of the Law and the Prophets. After John is the time of gospel of Jesus Christ, a time for renewal, transformation and the singing of a new song, a new way of doing things.

What is the first thing Jesus does as the kingdom of heaven dawns? He inaugurates his mission by drawing together a coalition of people who have felt the iron rod of the Empire, people who have been left on the margins of society – he calls some disciples: Peter and Andrew, and James and John, the sons of Zebedee. I am reminded of a popular prayer from a thirteenth century bishop, Richard of Chichester, was turned into a popular song in the musical Godspell:
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
-Vaughan Williams.Songs of Praise, Enlarged Edition . Hymn 399. Tune: Stonethwaite by Arthur Somervell, after The Prayer of Richard of Chichester

A colleague of mine, Bill Caradine, was fond of pointing out that this is a very western, logical way of looking at things. We tend to take time to see things or people clearly, examine them, explore them, consider the pluses and minuses, before deciding that perhaps we like something or someone enough to like them or even love them, and then commit ourselves to them.

But, says Bill, that’s just not how it happens with Jesus. Note carefully in this story that Jesus does not walk down to the banks of the Sea of Galilee, approach these fishermen who are tending to the tools of their trade, their means of production – mending nets, cleaning the boats, doing the things their father Zebedee tells them to do – and say to them, “Here, lads, in my hand are the teachings of our people, The Law and The Prophets. I need you to read, mark and inwardly digest all of this. Then tomorrow I shall return and give you a test on all of it. If you do well enough on the test you can come follow me and be one of my disciples.”

But it does not happen that way. He turns Richard’s prayer on its head, just as he came to turn a world of darkness, a world turned upside down by the empire, right-side-up again. He comes to bring all people into the light of the new dawn. He simply says, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of people!” And they drop everything. They leave their boats, nets and even their families to follow Jesus. As one reads all four gospels we find that it is sometime later, after the resurrection really, before Jesus ever asks, “Peter, do you love me?” Peter says, “Yes, Lord, I do.” “Then feed my sheep…tend my for my flock,” replies Jesus. And arguably, given the number of TV shows, special issues of Time and other magazines, and an entire industry of books about “Who Jesus Is”, we are still trying to see him more clearly!

The point Bill was making, and the point of the story, is that if you wait until you see Jesus more clearly, the kingdom that is near, the kingdom of light that shines in the darkness, the dawn of a kingdom that includes all people will have passed you by. Indeed, the very next few sentences in the story tell us what the new song Jesus sings is all about: he goes everywhere teaching, preaching the good news for all people and healing everyone who comes to him. Jews and Gentiles alike we are told. Fellow religionists and citizens as well as foreigners and resident aliens, women and men are all given access to his teaching, his love and forgiveness and his universal health care.

Once again, this is a story for our time. Once again, the relevance of the story of Jesus intersects with our world today. Once again, we are meant to say, “I’ll have me some of that too! I will not only follow Jesus, I will join him in doing the things he says and does for others – all others – from now until the end of the age!” I will, with God’s help!

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Sing a New Song

Two days in a row, as Jesus comes walking down to the River Jordan, John turns to us and says,
“Look, here is the lamb of God.”

Day one, John testifies: I saw the Spirit descend upon him like a dove and rest upon him. I was told that when I saw the Lamb of God and the Spirit rests upon him that it is the Son of God.

Day two, two disciples upon hearing John declare that Jesus is the Lamb of God, two of his disciples, John’s disciples, begin to follow Jesus. After a while Jesus turns and asks, “What are you looking for?” They reply, “Where are you staying?” Jesus says, “Come and see.” They came and saw where he was staying and remained there for the day. It was four o’clock.

John the Evangelist does this. He is always paying attention to the time. Later when Pilate takes Jesus outside before the judgment seat, John tells us it is noon the day of preparation for the Passover. The busiest day of the year. The day when everyone is out gathering all the necessities for the Passover meal – principally, a Lamb. A lamb to be sacrificed. A Lamb of God. At noon, the day of Preparation, Pilate sets The Lamb of God before the judgment seat. In Greek it is Amnos tou Theou; Latin it is Agnus Dei.

For Passover it is the paschal lamb, slaughtered, so the blood may be spread above the door of the household in Egypt so that God will “pass over” that house to allow the Hebrew children to escape the Empire of Pharaoh, the Empire of brutality, the Empire of the consolidation of goods, food and power.

Two of John’s disciples want to stay with The Lamb of God – and one of them, Andrew, goes to tell his brother, Simon. They are sons of Jonah who is a fisherman. I believe that’s meant to make us laugh. Jonah a fisherman. The jokes just keep on coming. Simon will now be re-named by Jesus Cephas, Aramaic for Rock – which in Greek is Petros from which we get Peter. Peter, the most doubting and difficult of The Twelve becomes Rock – the Rock upon which I will build my church. That’s meant to make us laugh too. Peter who loses focus and begins to sink beneath the surging sea. But that becomes his baptism, for indeed he goes on to be a leader in the early church in Jerusalem.

So when we are through laughing, it is meant to dawn on us: If Peter can be the Rock of Christ’s Church, so can we! As we pray this day, if we allow ourselves to be illumined by Word and Sacrament we too shall shine with the radiance of God’s glory. As Isaiah proclaims, we shall become a light to the nations! That God’s salvation shall reach to the end of the earth!

Which seems as impossible to believe as it must have been to Peter when he is chosen and named to be the Rock of the Church, the Rock of the Lamb of God.

The Lamb of God who comes to teach anyone who will follow him and stay with him a new song. This Lamb of God knows well the vision laid out in Psalm 40: I waited patiently upon the Lord, he stooped down and heard my cry; he lifted me up out of the mire and clay. He set my feet upon a high cliff, and made my footing sure. He put a new song in my mouth.

We are to sing, sing this new song. For singing is our original form of communication. It is what we did long before speaking. The Lamb of God wants us to sing a new song for a world that is mired down with feet of clay to proclaim that he comes to lift us up and make our footing sure. He will set us upon a rock: the Rock, Petros, Cephas shall be our example.

If we begin to doubt our qualifications, we need only listen to Paul as he addresses the church in Corinth – a church in turmoil, a church divided, a church lacking in discipline. He begins his correspondence to this unruly band of early Christians by reminding them, “…you are not lacking in any spiritual gift…” We have what we need. More importantly, we have the Lamb of God on our side, setting us on a sure footing, giving us as light to the world, the whole world God holds in God’s hands. Most importantly, Jesus the Lamb of God call us not to become him, or Peter, or John, or Paul, but to just be ourselves.

Rabbi Zusya, an eighteenth century Hasidic rabbi, summed it up for his disciples just a short while before his death: "In the world to come I shall not be asked, 'Why were you not Moses?' Instead I shall be asked, 'Why were you not Zusya?'" [Martin Buber, The Way of Man, (Citadel Press, NY:1966) p.17] Reflecting on this story, Martin Buber says, “Every person born into this world represents something new, something that never before existed, something original and unique. It is the duty of every person ... to know and consider that he or she is unique in the world in his or her particular character, and that there has never been anyone like him in the world. Every single person is a new thing in the world, and is called upon to fulfill his or her particularity in the world. ... Everyone has in him or her something precious that is in no one else."

Know, my sisters and brothers, little by little – it takes time – Jesus will reveal to you how unique you are - that you are the way and the light. He calls you to follow him so that you may do something beautiful with your life and bear much fruit. The world needs you, the Church needs you, Jesus needs you. They need your Love and your Light. There is a hidden place in your heart where Jesus lives. This is a deep secret you are called to live. Let Jesus live in you. Let your light shine! Sing a new song! You are not lacking in any spiritual gift! You are the way others will come to know the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!

Friday, January 6, 2017

I'll Have Me Some Of That

The Baptism of Jesus

Some years ago, as I was sitting in the front pew at Trinity Episcopal Church, Wall Street, just as the priest and chalicist came forward to distribute communion, a man from off the street came skipping down the aisle, stopped in front of the communion station and asked, “Is that there the Body of Christ?” And the priest said, “Yes.” Then the man asked, “And is that the Blood of Christ?” And the chalicist said, “Why, yes it is.” After a moment’s thought the man said, “Then I think I’ll have me some of that!” And with that he took the bread and the wine, turned, and skipped out of the building. He had a smile on his face because he now was a part of who we are and what we were doing.

For some reason every year when the Feast of the Baptism of Jesus comes around I remember that man. One thing all four gospels agree upon is that one day Jesus appeared at the River Jordan as John was baptizing people from all over to repent of their sins. John felt it was time for a full reset – time to recommit to the covenant with the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Jesus says in effect, “I’ll have me some of that!”

After some hesitation on John’s part, Jesus is baptized by John. After which the heavens open, the spirit descends upon him like a dove, and a voice from off-stage proclaims, “You are my Beloved; I am well pleased with you.”

Often it is asked why Jesus, who is presumed to be without sin, submits to John’s baptism? There are long discussions, theories and theological explanations. Yet, it has always seemed to me that the simplest explanation is that God in Christ wants the full experience of being one of us. It is a sign of his full humanity. It is a fulfillment of identifying himself with the words of the prophet Isaiah who wrote that one day will be born of a young woman someone known as Emmanuel – God with us. Bathing in the waters of the River Jordan, God in Christ says, “I am with you in the fullness of human reality and experience. I am with you. I really am God-made-man so as to accompany you on your journey – so as to know what it is like to be a living, breathing part of my creation.”

Like all of us, he was born to die. And die he did on a Roman Cross for persisting to challenge the status quo of the Empire and the religious authorities. Later, after his return, he promises, “I will be with you to the end of the age.” As priest and storyteller John Shea has pointed out, this not only means that we cannot get rid of him, but that he will not ever leave us alone!

So what can we make of all of this? God’s arrival in Jesus, whether in the manger, in a house or on the banks of the River Jordan reset the calculation of time or existence itself. Everything B.C. includes not only the Caesars, the Herods, the Greeks, the cave peoples, the dinosaurs, but all the geological ages, all the way back to the Big Bang and to whatever was before that first moment in time some 14 billion years ago. After that moment by the river comes everything else – and although it is some 2,000 years, it pales against the time before.

We are of the after moment, and in some sense it is till just that – a moment. I find it overwhelming to contemplate! At the same time it is simple. He wants to be with us and so God chooses to limit God’s self as a way of showing us just what it means to be created imago Dei, in the image of God. It flies in the face of the bigger-is-better, more-is-best approaches to life. In Jesus God becomes less and in so doing empties himself even more from that moment on the banks of the river to the moment he hands over his spirit on the cross.

It is all one moment. It is all one action. It is all one demonstration, one example from start to finish. It’s all a part of God’s wanting to be with us so much, so deeply, so that we can know what it is like to be God’s Beloved. The God who stood before the first moment in time 14 billion years ago even now is well pleased with us and hold us as his beloved despite little evidence that such love and forgiveness and desire to share in our deepest experiences can in any way be justified or deserved. Thus, his need to be with us to the end of the age.

I try to wrap my head around it all and still, the best I can come up with as to why he showed up on the banks of the River Jordan was because God saw how hard and how intentionally we were trying to reset the whole thing and he said to himself, “I think I’ll have me some of that! I want to be a part of the reset too.”