Saturday, November 25, 2017

What A Funny King We Have

Christ The King Sunday 2017
This is the Last Sunday of the Christian Year, Christ the King Sunday - the final word on just who Jesus is. We have four gospels and a collection of letters and an odd piece of Apocalyptic literature all offering a wide variety of answers to the question Jesus himself poses to all who would be a follower, a disciple, of his: Who do you say that I am?

Ezekiel, a prophet of Exile, writes: Thus, says the Lord God – I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out [Ezk 34:11]. Further on, he says, “…I will bring back the strayed, bind up the injured, and strengthen the weak, but the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them with Justice [v.16]. Seems they even had “fat cats” back then! It was bad and bloated leadership of Israel that had resulted in the Exile. Who are these “sheep” the Lord God seeks out? Psalms 23, 95 and 100 all declare, “We are his people, we are the sheep of his pasture.” Then comes the great vision of Matthew chapter 25. Following several parables warning us to be ready for the return of Jesus, the Good Shepherd, verses 31-46 offer a detailed and surprising account of just who Jesus is.

Take note of all the names by which he is identified in this vision: Son of Man, shepherd, one who separates sheep from goats, Lord, king, and finally a long list of who he is and where we can find him and serve him – those who are thirsty, hungry, in prison, strangers (resident aliens), and naked. He is The Lord God, The Shepherd, of whom Ezekiel speaks, and and at the same time, he is the least of those among us; he is shepherd and judge; he is Lord and King!

What an odd king we have, those of us who claim his name as our own. He had no army, but instead orders his followers to put down their weapons. He has no territory, no home, and yet he hosts people, all people, to share meals with him, no questions asked. He wrote no books, left no written record, nothing but a long series of odd stories. He had no money but depended upon the generosity of others. He wielded no political power, but instead spoke truth to power and was eventually the victim of state sponsored capital punishment, left to hang on a cross.

As a brochure notes in the Abbey Church in Bath, “What stood out to those who knew him, who saw him, who experienced what it is like to be in his presence was his teaching that we are all infinitely precious, children of one heavenly Father, and that we should therefore treat one another with love, respect and forgiveness. He lived out what he taught by caring for those he met; by healing the sick - a sign of God's love at work; and by forgiving those who put him to death.  Above all, he pointed to his death as God's appointed means of bringing self-centered people back to God. Jesus also foretold that he would be raised to life again three days after his death. When, three days after he had died on the cross, his followers did indeed meet him alive again; frightened and defeated men became fearless and joyful messengers.

“Their message of the Good News about Jesus is the reason this Abbey Church exists. More importantly, it is the reason why all over the world there are Christians who know what it means to meet the living Jesus, and believe that He alone has the key to human life.” Not kings, not captains of industry, not the wealthy or politically powerful, but Jesus is the key.” As Matthew’s vision declares, this Jesus is served among “the least of these,” the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked and the prisoner.

About six years ago I was invited to play drums in a monthly jam session at the late Chief Ike’s Mambo Room in the Adams Morgan neighborhood of Washington D.C. I was there every month for about two and one-half years. My first time there I discovered that it was just two doors down from Christ House on Columbia Road, a shelter and health-care center for homeless men. My long-time mentor and friend in ministry, The Reverend N. Gordon Cosby of the Church of the Saviour in D.C. inspired the founding of Christ House, and when he retired from active ministry he and his wife Mary Cosby chose to live in Christ House with the homeless men who live there.

I would drag my drums into Chief Ike’s early so I could visit Gordon and Mary for a few minutes every month. Out in front of Christ House, right on the sidewalk, there is a small plaza with a statue of Jesus designed by sculptor Jimilu Mason. It is a life-sized bronze of Jesus on his knees with a wash basin looking up to wash the feet of any who willingly submit to his doing so. In fair weather and even foul, every evening when I was at Chief Ike’s, some of the men of Christ House would sit around this image of Christ – the very people Jesus lived to serve.

Each month I would sit with them for a half-hour or so and just talk. When I would say I was a friend of Gordon and Mary I was instantly made to feel at home, part of the Christ House family. They were always interested to know about my life in music and ministry. Gordon and Mary had dedicated their lives after WWII to serve those in greatest need in our nation’s capital. Here we were, washing one another’s feet, actively living out the vision of Matthew 25. “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these, you did it to me.”

I always got much more out of it than they did. Especially in the late spring of 2012 after the tragic shooting in my church office in Ellicott City that resulted in the death of my two closest colleagues in ministry. These men, along with Gordon and Mary, washed my feet, healed my wounds, held me up, and knew at an elemental dimension just what it was I was going through.

Note that in the vision in Matthew 25 the sorting out of sheep and goats is for all people of all nations, not just Christians and Jews. The criterion is not “belief in Jesus,” whatever that might mean. The criterion is not membership in the Church. The criterion is not discipleship as described in Matthew’s story of Jesus. The criterion is simply the treatment one gives to other human beings. That is who Jesus is, says the story: the people you serve, that is where God is to be found. And as I discovered, they are the people through whom Jesus loves you. Eternal life, it turns out, is in service to others. Especially the least of those whom Jesus loved.

A church, a society, a nation will be judged against this single criterion: the treatment of other human beings. How we care for those most vulnerable is what counts. The difference between the sheep and the goats in this vision is not a matter of seeking the face of Jesus, but rather of visiting people and taking care of them. You don’t even need to believe in or even know who Jesus is. We need to serve the least of these because in the end knowing them will heal us.  

One can imagine those who first heard Jesus share his vision of God’s eternal life were shocked to find out what the criteria will be. It reminds me of a film about Mother Teresa in Mexico setting up a mission to serve the poor. A business man from the U.S. shows up with “his people” to give her a check for thousands of dollars. She is too busy to accept the check. He keeps trying to give it to here. She keeps serving the poor. He is totally perplexed. Finally, she tells him, “We really don’t need your money right now. What we need and what you need is to join us in helping these people here and now.” He wanders away with his people, all of them still perplexed.

“Jesu, Jesu: Kneels at the feet of his friends/silently washes their feet, master who acts as a slave to them.” What a funny king we have. A king like no other. He is ours, and we are his – the sheep of his pasture. if only we seek and serve those he seeks to be his own, our lives will never be the same again.

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Sleeping Bridesmaids

Wake Up!
“The source of humility is the habit of realizing the presence of God.”
- Archbishop William Temple
We may as well face it, none of us likes to wait. Modern culture demands immediacy. Whatever we want, we want it now. If that’s not enough, we want the newest and the best, we want the latest and greatest, and we want it all right now.

Yet, recent research on economic success suggests that delayed gratification may lead to more sustainable innovation and success. The study is based on parking habits: Do you park head-in to a parking space, or do you back in, making it easier to pull out when you leave? Brain research has long concluded that hard work and persistent effort helps to “grow the brain.” That is, we can make ourselves smarter and more successful through hard work. It is called neuroplasticity – the brain’s capacity to always, throughout life, make new connections, new neural pathways, to make us smarter and more aware.

So, someone researched national parking habits in countries around the world, correlated with economic innovation and success, and concluded that since backing in to a parking space tends to take more work and persistence, countries in which that is the predominant parking method tend to be more productive and successful.

What does all this have to do with bridesmaids, Jesus and keeping awake [Matthew 25:1-13]? Anthony De Mello, a Jesuit priest, psychologist and retreat leader made a career out of teaching us that the main task of the spiritual life is to wake up. Despite our over-stimulation with electronic devices, addictions to the Internet and social media, and our endless quest for the newest, the best and the most, we tend to make our way through life sleepwalking. We remain somehow unaware of the spiritual dimension of our lives. Like all of the bridesmaids, we let that part of our life wait. There will be time for that later, we say to ourselves. So we fall asleep.

Or worse still, we see the life of the spirit as something we need to acquire or earn. We buy and consume books, DVDs, we watch TV shows, read blogs and whatever we can get our hands on. But none of these activities quench our desire and need for an awareness of our spiritual self. In the midst of all this working on our spiritual life, we are still distracting ourselves from experiencing it. De Mello and Jesus both knew this and call us to wake up! And once awake to stay awake!

Since we know that we can grow our brains to develop new habits and awareness, what will be the spiritual equivalent of filling our lamps with oil and trimming our wicks?

Let’s first address wick trimming, since lamps and candles burn slower when we regularly trim the wick. It is similar with fruit trees – they produce more fruit when we do the work of pruning. Just as it is easier to get out of our parking spaces head first, Jesus is always extolling the value of doing the upfront work so that we can reap the dividends more easily when the fruit comes in. Trimming and pruning our lives, reducing the amount of distractions, would seem to be the No. 1 lesson for those of us who aspire to be bridesmaids for Christ when he comes. The paradox is that doing less can also help us to awaken to the presence of the Spirit in every breath we take. Doing less can help us to wake up and stay awake for the presence of Christ here and now.

As to filling our lamps with oil, doing less points us in the right direction. For it turns out that another way to encourage and promote neuroplasticity is to do nothing – not just less, but nothing. All religious traditions have some form of mindfulness meditation, centering prayer and contemplation as a religious or spiritual practice. Sadly, it is rarely found in church, where we tend to relentlessly work our way through the liturgy without pause so we can get to the end. And then what? Go to coffee hour, “the 8th sacrament”? Or, race home to watch the ball game?

Contemplative prayer or mindfulness meditation helps us to create an empty space within. This has two immediate benefits.

It gives God and the Spirit a point of entry into our otherwise busy and sleepwalking lives. Once we prepare a place within for God to dwell within us, we become more aware and awake to the fact that God has been and is always with us. We recognize that the work of spiritual growth is, in fact, no work at all.

Also, as it turns out, letting the brain rest promotes neuroplasticity. When we emerge from our prayer or meditation, we are made new, re-wired and more aware of not only who we are but whose we are. The German theologian Meister Eckhart is quoted as saying, “God is at home. It is we who have gone out for a walk.”

What are we waiting for? Are we to spend our time like the bridesmaids, waiting for Christ to come? Or, are we to heed our Lord’s final imperative in the story: Keep awake!

These parables are tricky. We tend to treat them as doctrinal treatises or allegories, assigning parts to each character in the story. But what if Jesus meant to simply shock us with details such as closing the door on the foolish ones only to deliver the real message: Keep awake! One suspects Jesus really did not want us spending hours of Bible study dithering over questions such as “How could Jesus do that? Why would he close the door on anyone?” when we already know the answer is that he closed the door on no one. Not prostitute, not tax collector, not sinner. His door is always open. The disciples to whom this little tale is told know that and have witnessed it every day. And like them, we ought to be those who recognize that what seems like his coming again is simply our awakening to the very real Good News of Jesus, that he is with us always to the end of the age [Matthew 28:20b]. No waiting required. Not only is he here, but that we can never get rid of him! Forever and always. We might even say forever and all ways.

What is Jesus calling us to do? Wake up and keep awake!

The time and effort put into doing less and doing nothing will awaken us to the clever truth buried deep within this tale of lamps and oil and bridesmaids: He is here. His door is open to all at all times of day and night. When we wake up to this truth all things are made new – including most importantly we ourselves.
“The source of humility is the habit of realizing the presence of God.”

- Archbishop William Temple

Saturday, November 4, 2017

All Saints Day 2017

The Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:1-12). Kurt Vonnegut once preached on a Palm Sunday that Being Merciful is the one good idea we have been given so far. On All Saints Sunday we remember some of those in the life of the Church who have exemplified being merciful, being peacemakers, as examples of what it means to follow Jesus. They often embody faithfulness through acts of militant non-violence.

The New Testament frequently refers to all the faithful as “saints.” In our Baptismal Vows we promise to follow and obey Jesus. He often goes places we rarely if ever go, and spends time with people we rarely if ever spend our time.  Jesus encourages us to neither flee the powers that mean to dispossess us, nor to take up armed revenge against them, but rather to resort to the sorts of acts of militant non-violence he employed to challenge the system. Over time, those faithful who did just that, challenge the prevailing political, social, religious and economic systems of their time and place, have come to be called Saints with a capital “S”.

All Saints Day is one way in which the church recalls the history of humanity in a way very different from the way it is usually recalled in secular society. It has been observed that Alexander the Great, for instance, was called “the Great” because he killed more people of more different kinds than any other man of his time. People like Alexander are usually remembered on their birth date. We are those people, however, who believe that “life is changed, not ended; and when our mortal body lies in death, there is prepared for us a dwelling place eternal in heaven.” [BCP 382]

Instead of Alexander, we remember Hugh of Lincoln, whose feast day comes up on November 17. Hugh refused to accept the office of Prior of the Carthusian Foundation until King Henry the Second had housed and fully compensated every peasant who had been evicted in order to build the new monastery. And Hugh, alone among bishops in England during the 12th Century, faced down and quelled anti-Semitic lynch mobs such that among England’s major cities, Lincoln alone was free of Jew-murdering riots. 

On July 20th we remember Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Amelia Bloomer, Sojourner Truth, and Harriet Ross Tubman, American women both black and white, rich and poor, slave and free, who stood against the oppression and injustice and all that works against the glorious liberty to which God calls all God’s children. Four women who stood and acted against the social and religious norms of their time to secure jobs, the vote, property ownership, access to ordination and freedom from slavery for women in America and in the church. It was Sojourner Truth who said the immortal words, “Ain’t I a woman!” Words spoken at the Women’s Conference in Akron, Ohio in 1851. Words that continue to echo through ages right down to our own time.

And finally, one of my favorites, Laurence, Deacon and Martyr at Rome, who was executed in the year 258 by the same Roman Empire that crucified our Lord two centuries earlier. During the persecution under the Emperor Valerian, Laurence was instructed to lead the Romans to the treasures and treasury of the church. Laurence is said to have assembled the sick and the poor to whom, as archdeacon, he had distributed the church’s relief funds. He presented these people to the prefect and said, “These are the treasures of the Church.” For his faithful act of militant non-violence, he was executed and is remembered on August the tenth each year.

The Church Calendar is filled with people like these who followed and obeyed Jesus in their own time and place. In nearly every case these people stood against the powers that be or led the way to reform the governing powers and especially the church itself. They tend to look and act a lot more like Philip Berrigan, Elizabeth McAlister, Jane Fonda, John Lewis, Muhammad Ali, Rose McGowan, Malala Yousafzai, Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger and Joan Baez than most Popes, Cardinals, Bishops, Priests or me. Saints are people in whom God’s Mercy and Peacemaking qualities can be recognized here and now, in our present as in our past. 

Our Book of Common Prayer Calendar lists some of them by the dates of their death, which we recognize as the beginning of their eternal lives with God and with us. We, like them, are called to such a life here and now. When we reaffirm our Baptismal Covenant we promise, with God’s help, to shape our lives out of the traditions these Saints represent. They are the very kinds of people Jesus calls blessed: the poor, the hungry, the meek, the pure in heart, and those who mourn. The beatitudes are statements of fact, not imperatives. They urge us to recognize the presence and blessing of the reign of God here and now in those who faithfully follow and obey Jesus, and most especially among those whom he loved.

Each time we recommit both our lives and our resources to the life Jesus calls us to live, we do well to remember this vision offered in Hebrews chapter 12 verses 1-3: “Therefore let us also, seeing we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, lay aside every weight, and the sin which does so easily beset us, and let us run with patience the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus as the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising shame, and has sat down at the right hand of God. For consider him that has endured such hostility from sinners himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted.”

Walter Rauschenbusch, an ordained minister and saint of the early twentieth century American church writes, “The man who wrote this little treatise from which this is quoted saw the history of humanity summed up in the live spirits who had the power of projection into the future. Faith is the quality of mind which sees things before they are visible, which acts on ideals before they are realities, and which feels the distant city of God to be more dear, substantial, and attractive than the edible and profitable present. (Read Hebrews 11.) So, he calls on Christians to take up the same manner of life, and compares them with men and women running a race in an amphitheater packed with all the generations of the past who are watching them make their record. But he bids them keep their eye on Jesus who starts them at the line and will meet them at the goal, and who has set the pace for the good and fleet men and women for all time.”
       -Walter Rauschenbusch, The Social Principals of Jesus (YWCA, NY:1916) p.188-189

All Saints Day: Jesus calls us to recommit ourselves and our resources to such a life of mercy and peacemaking, here and now; this day and every day. Amen.