Thursday, March 16, 2017

Questions without answers

Last Sunday, I had a member of our congregation confront me by the back door after church because we’d read the story of Adam and Eve, the serpent, and the fruit of the tree of knowledge, and she was damned if she was going to let women be blamed for all the evil in the world anymore.  Later that morning, we had our Lenten book study, and afterward, another of our members sent me an email questioning an overly simplistic statement I’d made about evil, as it confronts us in events like the Nazi genocide of the Jews.  And then, there was another incident this week in our ongoing internal struggle over whether and how to appropriately respond to the political crisis in our country; a certain mass email had gone out sounding the alarm about various laws being introduced in congress, and someone got in touch with me to raise concern, because she erroneously thought it had been sent using the church’s email list. 
Now, I’m not complaining about any of this.  I would rather be in a community where people feel free to say what’s bothering them than one where they do not.  And I’d rather be wrestling with difficult questions about misogyny in the Bible, and the power of evil in human affairs, and how to handle politics in the parish, than doing some of the other stuff I do every day.  So if there is more ferment going on right now at St. John’s, and folks are more inclined than usual to speak out, as also seems to be the case around town, and all over the country, I experience that, on the whole, as a good thing.  When that person went off last Sunday about the Book of Genesis I started laughing, not because I thought she was being ridiculous, but because it made me happy that someone trusted me enough to say what she really thinks and didn’t tone down her opinion or apologize for what she said.
No, the hard part, for me, is that I feel like I’m supposed to have the answer.  I take these objections seriously, because I know that they are coming from a genuine desire to understand.  People are speaking out because they want help to make sense of intractable issues that demand to be confronted, in church, and society, and the depths of the human soul.  These are exactly the kind of questions our religion ought to be able to help us address but it’s not always clear how it does.  In fact, there are times when the Bible and the history of Christian tradition seem to give ambiguous answers, to say the least, or even to come down on what feels like the wrong side.   So people turn to their pastor to help them understand.  And that would be me.     
My role in this community is to be more than the chief administrator of the parish organization.  It is also more than to be a sacramental priest, administering the rites of the church.  I am also supposed to be a religious teacher.  So when someone raises an impassioned question about a weighty matter of life and death, good and evil, spirituality and ethics, I really should be able to give something more than just another half-baked personal opinion.  I don’t know if it is just me, or if other people really expect this (probably, a little of both), but I feel like I should be able say something authoritative, something wise, something that has the deep ring of truth about it, something that, if it doesn’t settle the question, at least clarifies it to some degree so that people can find their own way forward. 
Now I don’t want to sell myself short.  I suppose I am able to do that from time to time.  But there are plenty of other times when I feel like my abilities as a religious teacher are pretty inadequate.  And one way I can explain that to myself is in terms of the gaps in my scriptural and theological education.  Sometimes I look back on my college days, or all the years I spent farming and gardening, or studying Mahayana Buddhism, and I wish I’d known then what I know now, and had used my time differently.  But, then again, I’m not really so sure that having mastery of biblical Hebrew, or a thorough first-hand knowledge of the Church Fathers, would necessarily make that much of a difference.  Because, as Jesus reminds us this morning in the Gospel of John, truly becoming his disciple is not about being persuaded by an argument, or about putting together a coherent system of religious ideas. It is about being born from above. 
At least that is what Jesus says to Nicodemus, whom the Gospel describes as a leader of the Jews.  That is to say, he is a scholar of the scriptures, and an authoritative religious teacher.   But Nicodemus is in the dark.  We don’t know why he comes to Jesus in the night.  Maybe he wants to avoid being seen, because he’s ashamed about going to consult the young upstart teacher from Nazareth.  Maybe he knows there is something about this Jesus that he can’t put his finger on, and this not-knowing won’t let him sleep, so he goes to try to learn something that will set his mind at ease.  Whatever the case, Nicodemus begins his conversation with Jesus, not by asking a question, but by making a statement.  “This much,” says Nicodemus, “we know: we know that you are a teacher sent from God, with whom God is present, for we have seen the signs that you are doing.” 
Which is saying a lot, really, especially since we are used to thinking of the leaders of the Jews as Jesus’ sworn enemies.  But there’s an implied question here, even if Nicodemus himself isn’t sure what it is.  Somehow he understands that this is not the whole story, and he leaves it to Jesus to tell him something more.  So Jesus begins by running Nicodemus aground on the rocks of his own literal way of thinking.  And then he shows him what he has to gain by knowing him, not from a distance, nor by the outward signs.  Because Nicodemus is right—there is more.  And the author of John, who likely wrote these words to read aloud to the catechumens in the night before their baptism at Easter dawn, is also giving us the chance to be more—more than people who have joined a religion.  He is giving us the mind of the beloved, the one who lies close to the heart of the one who abides in the heart of God.
First of all, says John’s Gospel, this is not about acquiring new religious knowledge; it is about being transformed, about seeing the world with the eyes of God and, finally, being in God.  And this way of new birth that begins at baptism is essentially a path of not-knowing.  To follow it is to dance on the breath of the Spirit, and who knows where that comes from or where it is going?  Still, there is one thing we can we rely on—the testimony of the Son of Man, the one person we know whose whole life flows out from and back into God.  His teaching is confirmed by the signs that he gives, especially the supreme sign of giving himself to be lifted up on the cross.  But again, this self-giving is not simply an atoning sacrifice that happened once, long ago, out there somewhere—it is also the enduring object of transforming contemplation.  If we keep our inner eye fixed on the crucified and ascended Son of Man, he will heal the wound of knowledge bound to death, that knows nothing beyond it.
Finally, this is the path of trust in God’s love above all.  Faith in Jesus leads to the heart of God, because it is from God’s overflowing heart of love for the world that he came.  This is the key to receiving the testimony of John’s gospel as something other than an argument.  These are not words written to demand conversion to a new religion, or to prop up a theological system, but are the gift of a heart that has known God’s grace and truth.  They are words given to people who have already made the decision to follow Jesus, to help us realize the fullness of this path we’ve undertaken; to show us its glory in the depths and the densities of earth, and to carry us all the way to heaven.   They were written to bring us to our one true religious teacher—who is God.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Visions of the Real World

Most biblical scholars agree that the New Testament book of Second Peter was not written by Peter.  Near the end of it there is a reference to “all the letters of Paul” that implies not only that those writings have been gathered into a collection, but that they also have achieved the status of Holy Scripture.  Which are things that did not take place until long after the Apostle Peter was dead.  For this and for other reasons, the general consensus is that this was the last book of the Bible to be written, and dates from well into the 2nd Century. 
Taking that into account, it seems strange that this morning’s reading from Second Peter stakes such a strong claim to being eyewitness testimony.   “We were not just passing on clever myths that someone made up,” it says, “when we told you about the power of Jesus and his coming.  We saw his glory with our own eyes.  We heard the voice of God with our own ears when it said, ‘This is my Son, my Beloved, with whom I am well-pleased.’  We were there with Jesus on the mountaintop.”  
So was the person who wrote these words lying?  Was he putting forward what some today might call “alternative facts?”  Well, the simple answer is “yes.”  But as with most things pertaining to the Bible, the simple answer isn’t really satisfactory.  It only opens the door to a lot more questions.  And there is ongoing, robust academic debate about all sorts of historical problems related to the authorship of Second Peter and other New Testament books that seem to have been written under the names of people who did not in fact write them. 
But for me as a preacher those historical-critical problems, though worth thinking about, are less important than the questions about what the texts themselves are trying to say.  And the way I see it, even if this author knew that his audience understood perfectly well that he was not the Apostle Peter, he wrote it as if it’s what Peter would say in the present circumstances if he were here.
If you read Second Peter as a whole, you’ll see that its context is an argument with other religious teachers.  And the beef it has with those teachers is that they seem to have relaxed any tension between being a Christian and just kind of going with the flow of business as usual in the world as we know it.  They are teaching that the conventional world is not going to change much, for the better or the worse, so the point of religion is to accommodate you successfully to the world: to looking out for number one, and getting rich, and doing whatever it is that seems like it will make you feel good at the moment. 
But if Peter were here, he wouldn’t stand for this.  He would say that God has called us to expect more from life than that.  He would tell us that, in fact, God has promised to radically transform the world as we know it, and to transform us along with it, so that we become sharers in the very nature of Godself.
And Peter would remind us that our faith in these promises is grounded in concrete historical experience.   Certain people got to see and hear for themselves, in a real time and a real place, what we will be like when God transforms us.  They were able to do this because they were disciples of Jesus.  In his presence, they caught a vision of what the world really is and what God really means for it to be, and how a person speaks and acts who really understands the difference and wants the world and God’s purpose to be reconciled. 
The author of Second Peter could have chosen any of the well-known Gospel stories to make a case for the unique authority that comes from having been there as an eyewitness.  But he chose the one we read from Matthew today, the story of the Transfiguration.  And I think this is because it’s the one episode in the gospels that focuses entirely on a few disciples and a transient revelatory moment in their experience of Jesus.  Jesus himself doesn’t do anything remarkable in the story.  It is Peter, James, and John who see him talking to Moses and Elijah.  It is they who see the vision of his face transfigured and shining like the sun.  It is they who are enveloped in the cloud of light and who hear the heavenly voice.  It is they who fall down on their faces like dead men, and then lift up their eyes to see no one but Jesus alone.
And as they are going down the mountain to rejoin the rest of his disciples, Jesus tells them not to speak of it until after he has risen from the dead.   So the whole thing kind of feels like a dream, like a shamanic journey to another world, and we have only the word of Peter, James, and John to tell us that it really happened.  And that might be the whole point.  Because it is of such rare material that we often must construct our faith. 
In a lifetime we may have only a few fleeting glimpses of the glory that God intends for us, a precious handful of moments on the mountaintop.   Or we may feel as if we’ve never been there, and depend on the testimony of hardier souls to tell us what it’s like.  And yet such moments, even second-hand, impress on us such a radically-different vision of reality, that they haunt us.  The longing they awaken for a greater significance to our lives, the discontent with a shallow materialistic existence they leave behind, often have to be enough—enough to sustain us through long periods of just going through the religious motions, wondering if it’s all a sham. 
Second Peter tells us that this is actually providential.  It helps us avoid mistaking the lamp we have been given to guide us on the path for the glorious dawn toward which we are going.  And it teaches us to measure the worth of our mountaintop experiences by the lives we live every day down here in the suburbs.  Which is also goes for our efforts at religious discipline.  
At the Zen temple we used to have seven- or ten day meditation intensives called sesshin, which is Japanese for “gathering the mind.”  During sesshin we would sit upwards of twelve or thirteen periods a day of silent meditation, interspersed with walking meditation and services of chanting and prostrations.  We would eat in silence at our seats in the meditation hall.  Except for a daily sermon and an optional brief, private conversation with one of the teachers, there was no talking.  There was no reading or writing during the breaks after meals. 
I can still vividly remember certain moments that occurred twenty-five years ago during sesshin, moments in which exactly nothing happened.  You could say they were moments on the mountaintop.  But our teachers used to tell us that the point of sesshin is to realize that your whole life is sesshin.   And we could say something like that about the Christian season of Lent.  The point of Lent is to realize that your whole life is Lent. 
During these forty days every spring we intensify our effort to pay attention, to let go of what is not essential, to purify our bodies and minds, to take less and pray more, and remember those whose needs are more pressing than our own.  But our purpose is not simply to “get through Lent” and move on, but to remember some basic spiritual truths to carry with us throughout the remainder of the year.  We do not approach Lent like convicted criminals being marched into prison to serve our time.   We come as those returning to the valley from the mountaintop, as those who have seen the glory of God’s beloved Son, who have felt his healing touch, and heard him say to us, “Get up; do not be afraid.”
If we come to Lent seeking silence, it is because we know there are some things for which words are inadequate.  If we come for instruction, it is because we’ve heard the voice that tells us to listen to God’s beloved.  If we come to repent, it is because we have seen the glory for which we are created, and which we have stubbornly refused.  If we come praying and fasting for justice, it is because we know that another world is possible.              

About Me

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Petaluma, California, United States
I am a priest in the Episcopal Church, and have been (among other things) an organic farmer and gardener, and a Zen monk. I have a lifelong interest in social and spiritual renewal on the basis of contemplative discipline, creative nonviolence, and ecological practice. In recent years my work has focused intensely on the responsibility of pastoral ministry in the humanistic, evangelical, and catholic branch of Christianity known as Anglicanism. I'm married with a daughter, and have three brothers and two parents.