Monday, November 30, 2009

Beginning with the End

Advent 1C November 29, 2009

Jeremiah 33:14-16
Psalm 25:1-9
1 Thessalonians 3:9-13
Luke 21:25-36

The gospel, as it is read in church year-by-year, begins at the end. On the first day of the new church year, we hear of the future coming of the Son of Man. This should not surprise us, unless we underestimate the degree to which the Bible is a book about crisis. Forged in the crucible of suffering, it addresses again and again, in various ways, the question of history. The course of human events—does it have meaning? All the beauty and triumph, the futility and terror of civilization, all the working and striving and hoping of our lives—where is it headed? Is God involved? These kinds of questions are central to the biblical tradition, which is not concerned with” personal problems” so much as the challenges of a small, marginal community trying to find its compass amid the turmoil of world events. And the answer to these questions, the beginning point of our conversation with the scriptures as we turn the page to another year, is “Yes.”

Yes, God is deeply implicated in what happens to our nation and our world. Yes, God has a vested interest in how things turn out. Yes, God will act decisively, when it counts, to vindicate what is truly human. And everything that has distorted human nature, everything that has falsely pretended to command human destiny, everything that has bent humanity in service of a lesser end than that which God purposed for it from the beginning, will pass away.

We Christians return again and again to this starting point, because if we do not know where we are going, how can begin the journey? Without the hope that God is also on the move, coming towards us from the future, we might conclude that the journey is not worth the trouble. We might just stay put, just keep our heads down. We might just go to sleep, and leave it to the usual suspjects to decide how things ought to turn out.

The journey of hope has its pitfalls, too: With eyes always fixed on the horizon of future deliverance, can live in a way that gives short shrift to the obligations and opportunities of the present. In our own time, when human power, augmented by scientific technique, has made it possible for us to alter the destinies of nations and nature by our own will, there is the danger that we will create our own catastrophes and consider them as God’s plan. There is something of an industry nowadays that feeds people’s anxiety about the future, from the fanciful elaborations of Biblical prophecy in the Left Behind novels, to New Age speculations about the year 2012, and the apocalyptic implications of the “end of the Mayan Calendar.”

But though they claim different sources for their authority, all these purveyors of doom are concerned with similar questions —When will God act? How bad do things have to get before we know this is really it? What will be the precise order and timetable of the end-time events? My suspicion is that these attempts to acquire precise foreknowledge of the end are motivated by a need to assert some control over the uncontrollable. If we can decipher the right blueprint, the reasoning goes, we’ll know what to expect, and maybe that will give us a leg up on our neighbors in the struggle to survive. But scriptures like today’s reading from the Gospel of Luke are not really concerned with these kinds of questions. They are ambiguous about what exactly God is going to do, even to the point of vagueness about how to refer to these events—the “end of the world” is not mentioned, neither “the final judgment”, only “these things” which are “coming upon the world” or “about to happen.”

What is crucial, as far as the gospel is concerned, is the posture in which we undergo the inevitable calamities that history throws our way. Will we be, like the gentile nations, distressed and perplexed, fainting with fear and with foreboding? Or will we look up, with our heads high, knowing that our redemption is drawing near? Will we be hung over or drunk, or preoccupied with worrying about creature comforts, or will we be alert, vigilant, with our eyes steadfastly fixed on the end, asking God for strength not to get caught in the trap, but to come at last face-to-face with the Son of Man. From the gospel’s point of view, all these terrifying portents, the signs in the sun and moon, the roaring of the sea, the shaking of the powers in the heavens, all the things which aficionados of apocalypse obsess about, are, as it were, garnish on the plate. They are signs, but only that, and the reality that they point to, the main course, is God’s judgment of the world. And the pivotal event that brings God’s judgment to pass is the coming of the Son of Man.

In Luke’s version of the parable of the fig tree, Jesus says that just as, when you see the leaves coming out on the trees, you know summer is already near, “so also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is already near.” But this announcement of final things, set in Jesus’ final speech in the temple, is the same as the announcement with which he begins his ministry—the kingdom of heaven is near. So we are back again where we started this sermon, with the end that is also the beginning. There is a deep, and I think deliberate, ambiguity about these references to the coming of the Son of Man, so that we cannot limit its meaning to a future event. Yes, we expect to encounter Christ at the end of history, when he will complete God’s healing judgment on the disastrous consequences of human sinfulness, and a new human-divine partnership for the re-creation of the cosmos gets underway in earnest. But that judgment is already underway because the same Son of Man who will be at the end has come and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth. If we want to know who he will be when we stand before him at the end, we need to remember who he was at the beginning.

It is not difficult to look around the world and see signs of its precipitous unraveling. I won’t bother with the particulars, because they really don’t matter. Not in the sense that we shouldn’t do something about them, as if they are all part of God’s plan for the end-times, but in the sense that we should see them calmly and clearly for what they are—the inevitable working out a human project that still doesn’t know what it means to be human. The powers that hold sway in history still have not acknowledged that they are under judgment by the Son of Man; under the judgment of his birth in a lowly stable, of his baptism by John and his defeat of the tempter in the wilderness, of his healing the sick and feeding the hungry and dignifying the despised, of his words of the kingdom that will never pass away. Most of all they are under the judgment of his cross, which they set up for him and continue to set up again and again, and of his resurrection, which they deny.

Today we go back to the beginning and say, “we want to see that judgment come.” We don’t care if the nations tremble and faint, we want to keep our heads up and our eyes peeled for God’s true purpose for the human race. We desire and we hope to see God’s loving judgment face to face, and we will not let our vision grow dim, or close our eyes, or get distracted, because we don’t want to miss the light of his gaze.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

The supreme idol

John B. Cobb, Jr., Ph.D., is Professor of Theology Emeritus at the Claremont School of Theology, the author of many books, and a leading figure in the field of Process Theology. In a recent speech at Cal State Northridge, Professor Cobb analyzes the current global economic crisis, displaying his characteristic broad sense of historical process, appreciation of the interdisciplinary, pluralistic, and global context for Christian thinking, and comprehensive ethical concern. I am publishing a link to this essay because it articulates by own thoughts and questions better than I could have myself.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Eyes on the Prize

I live on a pretty thin diet when it comes to “The News”, so I may be less fed up than some of you are with the entire topic of the 2009 Nobel Prize for Peace. What I have heard, apart from the bare facts, which are simple and easy to relate, is a lot of noisy squabbling concealing a missed opportunity. In the poisonous atmosphere of our country’s current political climate, it has proven impossible for members of either of the dominant parties to take a deep breath of calm reflection on what this prize might mean for us. But for us as Christians, questions of war and peace and the obstacles to human unity have real weight, and do not take a back seat to whether or not one supports a particular President.

So, what if the Nobel judges actually had something important to tell us? The laureate himself seemed to think so—in his brief and self-deprecating comments the day of the announcement he said, “I will accept this award as a call to action, a call for all nations to confront the common challenges of the twenty-first century.” My hunch is that the President read the Nobel judges’ intentions exactly right--he, and by extension, we, are being rewarded for acknowledging that the problems of our day are all interconnected. National security, in particular, is not a problem that can be addressed apart from economic instability, which in turn is related to ecological sustainability, which is not separate from humanitarian law. Furthermore, these common challenges do not just transcend conceptual boundaries; they also cross geographical frontiers, so that any realistic solution will require international cooperation, diplomacy, and multilateral agreements.

I don’t think that is such bad message for us to take home from this whole fracas, and it will be interesting to see what the President has to say to the world when he goes to pick up his trophy. That said, I am skeptical about the whole business. It is not so much that I am concerned about the Nobel committee’s intentions, nor that I am discomfited about Barack Obama’s fitness for the honor. Rather I feel a sense of doubt, tinged with tragedy, about the ability of the President, any President, to make peace. One name that I have not heard mentioned in the last week is that of Thomas Woodrow Wilson, the last sitting President of the United States to win the Nobel Prize for Peace. He received the award in 1919, when, victorious in the “War to End All Wars,” he presided over the Versailles Peace Conference and hammered out the charter to the League of Nations. That charter was rejected by the United States Senate the following year, and Wilson died a broken man less than five years later. And of course, it was only twenty years from the awarding of Wilson’s prize that the world had again descended into the inferno.

I offer this cautionary tale, not to breed cynicism and despair, but only to suggest that we must not misplace our fondest hopes. They say that politics is the “art of the possible”—so let us pray that our President, along with the leaders of all the nations, receive grace to accomplish all that is possible for the cause of peace and security in the world. But as Christians we are not permitted to be satisfied with the merely possible.

It is almost impossible for us to believe that the Jesus’ way of servanthood is the only really effective path to peace. Jesus’ disciples found it just as hard to accept. Three times in Mark’s Gospel Jesus explains to them how he is going to be condemned and killed. And after the third time James and John come and ask him to be awarded special honor and share in his glory. They can’t believe that Jesus could be humiliated and defeated in this way, because they are afraid, and we have the same fear. We are afraid that God does not have an answer to human violence and injustice. We are afraid that the weapons of our enemies—lies, spies, slanders, threats, terror, and death--are more powerful than the gifts of the Spirit. We aim for peace, but when the risk seems too great, we fall back on what we know, what we can control, what we are able to do. “Are you able to drink the cup that I drink,” asks Jesus, “or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?” And James and John say to him, “We are able,” and thus they reveal the depth of their ignorance.

When I heard that Barack Obama had been awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace, the first person I thought of was the last African-American to receive the honor, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and I found myself hoping that the President was thinking of him too. In his book, The Strength to Love, Dr. King has a chapter entitled “Our God is Able” which describes God’s power to create and sustain the universe, to subdue evil, and to sustain hope and courage in those who have faith. He concludes the chapter with a personal experience. After relating describing a happy and untroubled early life, King tells how his sudden emergence as a leader of the Montgomery bus boycott brought him face to face with “the trials of life.” In particular, he began to receive threatening phone calls and letters at home, which increased until, he says, “I began faltering and growing in fear.”

“After a particularly strenuous day, I settled in bed at a late hour. My wife had already fallen asleep and I was about to doze off when the phone rang. An angry voice said, “Listen, nigger, we’ve taken all we want from you. Before next week you’ll be sorry you ever came to Montgomery.” I hung up, but I could not sleep. It seemed that all my fears had come down on me at once.”

“My head in my hands, I bowed over the kitchen table and prayed aloud: ‘I am here taking a stand for what I believe is right. But now I am afraid. The people are looking to me for leadership, and if I stand before them without strength and courage, they too will falter. I am at the end of my powers. I have nothing left. I have come to the point where I can’t face it alone.’”

“At that moment I experienced the presence of the Divine as I had never before experienced him. It seemed as though I could hear the quiet assurance of an inner voice, saying, ‘Stand up for righteousness, stand up for truth. God will be at your side forever.’ Almost at once my fears began to pass from me. The outer situation remained the same, but God had given me inner calm.”

Like his master, Jesus Christ, Dr. King discovered the power that is able to make peace in this world. This peace can work in us and through us, but often it seems that it only comes to us when we meet our fears head on, and surrender any thought we have of being able to vanquish them by our own power. In Dr. King’s case, as in Jesus,’ this inner peace also manifested as a resolute compassion for those imprisoned by fear of enemies and those captivated by the illusion of invulnerability. This, in turn, led them into a deeper and deeper confrontation with the root causes of violence, a confrontation in which they gave their lives. And it is there, in the seeming totality of defeat, that God showed himself most able, raising Christ from death so that all might finally understand that the impossible is not only possible, it is only thing really worth hoping for.

We may never find ourselves asked to bear the responsibility of leadership that Barack Obama has, or Martin Luther King had, and we know we need not do the work that Christ accomplished. Our trials may never be as severe or our destinies as historically fateful. But all of us endure the temptations of power, to assume for ourselves what only God can accomplish, and all of us have fears that we think will overwhelm us, and moments when we know we have to speak up, or take a risk, in order to be true to God’s will. The stands we take can cost us intense suffering as others react with anger or disappointment, but if we endure with firmness and love, relationships can actually be transformed in a way that reveals the power of the Holy Spirit. And believe it or not, it is these little increments of real change that world peace, the true and lasting peace of God’s kingdom, is made of.

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.