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.

Monday, October 5, 2009

How long is the leash?

Genesis 2:18-24
Mark 10:2-16

How we imagine God’s relationship to us has a lot to do with how we relate to one another. We have a puppy at our house, a nine-month old mongrel rescue dog named Shakti. And when I take Shakti for a walk, particularly if she has been inside all day, she pulls at the leash constantly, straining against it in her excitement and desire to run. Sometimes it seems that people imagine God is like someone walking a dog, and the dog is us. We run around, straining at the leash, and God is that firm hand at the other end that keeps us in check.

That’s the way that the Gospel depicts the Pharisees, and they relate to other people like dogs who need to be trained to walk on the leash. They are always asking themselves “How much slack does God give us?” which leads naturally to the question “How much should we give others?” and that is why they have such a problem with Jesus. They can’t figure him out because sometimes it seems like he wants a leash so short that the dog can’t even walk, and sometimes it seems like he’s letting everybody off leash, to run around and play. What they don’t understand is that for Jesus the whole leash thing is beside the point entirely.

For instance, in the story we hear this morning; they come to Jesus to test his legal opinion, to find out how long his leash is on the question of divorce. Characteristically, he answers with another question—“What did Moses command you?” So they proceed to describe the leash. What Jesus says next shows that as far as he is concerned, the question of “How much slack does God give us?” misreads who God actually is, and what human life is about.

The church has tended until recent times to take Jesus’ sayings on divorce as simply tightening the leash of the Pharisees. My mother tells of how, when she was a child, her father would, every once in a long while, take her with him on a Sunday morning (For some reason it was always her and never one of her brothers). Instead of going to the Methodist Church where they usually went to as a family, my mom and my grandpa would slip quietly into the back row of the Roman Catholic church in the little town in the Sierras where she grew up. She would sit there with her father in a state of bewilderment as he watched and listened to the priest say the Latin mass. And then they would get up and furtively depart when it was time for the people to come forward to a communion from which Grandpa, an Irish boy from St. Louis, was barred for having divorced his first wife.

While I think we have to be careful not to explain away the vehemence of Jesus’ statements in this passage, I don’t think that what my grandfather went through is what he had in mind. It is significant that he never directly contradicts the authority of Moses’ commandment; he does not propose a new law forbidding divorce. That is because the length of the leash is not what is stake when we are talking about the breaking up of a marriage. What is at stake is the basic wholeness for which we human beings were created by God—a wholeness that is realized in relationship.

Jesus’ reply to the Pharisees invokes the blessing that crowns all the gifts that God gave us at the very beginning. Having given us life, and a garden to dwell in full of trees bearing food, having bestowed on us the company of all the living creatures, bringing them to us to be named with the names we choose, God gave us an other—one so like us as to be like fashioned from the same substance, and at the same time not us. It is this gift from the God of blessing and creating that Jesus wants us to remember when we tire of one another or despair of loving each other. For if this is our God, and the whole life of Jesus is the demonstration that it is, then we have some hope of relating to one another in the same way.

The gift of the other is offered to us most intimately in our family lives, and we are to cherish it there, but the scope of God’s work of creating and blessing relationship does not end at the second chapter of Genesis. Neither are we to draw a line around our marriages or our immediate families and say, “Here and no further will my hope for belonging extend.” We should read today’s Gospel story in relation to that other one where Jesus’ mother and brothers come asking for him and he looks around at the motley crew of hangers on sitting with him and says, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother, and sister, and mother.”

Today we begin our Fall Pledge Campaign at All Saints, and our theme for the campaign is “Joyful, joyful we adore thee,” after hymn 376, which we will be singing from time to time over the next few months. The text of the hymn describes the love that binds all created beings to their source, and the words and music together express the joy that inspires them to return that gift with adoration and praise. The hymn concludes with a prayer that we might share in what systematic Christian theology calls the divine economy, that circulation of giving and receiving love between God, Christ, and the Holy Spirit that makes them one, and which we participate in by loving one another.

I invite you to consider making a pledge to support Christ’s church, wherever you find yourself in relation to its ministry, whether here or somewhere else, whether you are a long and faithful member or just finding your way back with a full load of doubts and questions. How much or how little you commit--ours is not a community with membership dues or a price of admission. Rather, what we extend to one another in this way is joyous participation in the faithfulness of a God who blesses relatedness, an investment in that economy of gifts that is God’s intended purpose for us in our original Creation.

Implied in our freedom to choose, to give what and where our hearts incline us, is that we also have the capacity to withhold our gifts, to be hard-hearted, closed-minded, and closed-fisted. Elsewhere in the bible this choosing is given a moral character—we have the power to bless or to curse, the responsibility for choosing life or choosing death. In any event, something we can never side-step is the element of risk that comes with the other. We do not make our worlds alone, we do not choose in a vacuum. There is always the possibility that we will give love that is not reciprocated, that our faithfulness will be met with others’ betrayal, that our blessing will run afoul of another’s curse.

But will I be the one to withhold? Am going to gauge the length of the leash before I start walking? Or will I wager what gifts I have with the trusting heart of a child? Maybe this is a good place as any for God to find me, if I take the risk of serving him here. Maybe this brother to my left and this sister to my right and that mother behind me hold the key to God’s will for me to do. Maybe my open heart for them is his joy in me, creating and blessing a world of unity and peace.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Salted with fire

A few weeks ago I was rushing around gathering the food and supplies I needed to go down to Big Sur for our annual parish campout, and I went to the grocery store in a big hurry and I bought some bread. The next day at the campground I made some sandwiches for lunch, but when I bit into the bread it just tasted wrong. I thought I knew what the problem was right away and a closer look at the label on the bread bag confirmed what I feared—it was salt-free bread. Without salt, bread just doesn’t taste right.

Now I hate to waste food, so I gritted my teeth and kept working my way through that loaf of bread, but within a couple of days it started to have this awful, chemical taste to it, and I had to compost the last few slices. What I was tasting was alcohol-- without salt in it to slow down the fermentation the bread quickly started to spoil.

This little misadventure of mine illustrates two important qualities of salt: first, it makes things taste good, and second, it is a preservative, it keeps food from spoiling. This would have been even better known to people of Jesus time than it is to us. In ancient times, of course, they didn’t have freezers or refrigerators or canning factories to preserve their food—so salt was something precious that you couldn’t live without.

There is a lot about today’s Gospel reading that is difficult to interpret, but I suggest that this story might help us understand what Jesus is saying about salt and salting, and blandness and flavor. That’s all well and good, you may say, but there are a lot of different metaphors mixed together in this passage—so what could Jesus mean when says that “everyone will be salted with fire?” That’s a good question, and nobody knows for sure what it means, but if salt is what seasons and preserves, then fire is what transforms and purifies.

It is important to remember that in this section of Mark’s gospel Jesus is trying to get his disciples to understand what kind of Messiah he is. No one doubts that the running conflict that Jesus has been having with the powers-that-be is going to intensify as he moves toward Jerusalem. In fact, it is becoming clear that this conflict is central to God’s purpose in anointing and sending him. But what is most radical and creative and saving about Jesus’ mission is not the conflict itself, but the means that he will use to win it— prophetic demonstration, self-denial, patient suffering, and death.

But every time Jesus tries to explain all this, his disciples come back with something that shows that they just don’t understand. In this week’s reading John reports that they had to stop someone from driving out demons in the name of Jesus because, as he says, “he wasn’t following us.” Like their argument from last week about which one of them is the greatest, this shows that the disciples still think that the mission of the Messiah is going to be another chapter in the tired old human story of ranking winners and losers, insiders and outsiders, instead of God’s definitive judgment on all of that.

“God’s judgment” is not a term that most people feel very comfortable with, but that’s because they imagine that it is like the kind of judgment that we human beings are inflicting on ourselves and one another all the time. And if God were the kind of judge that the disciples would like to be, deciding which one of us is the greatest, or who gets to do exorcisms in Jesus’ name and who doesn’t, there would be little to hope for in God’s justice. But what if God’s judgment has nothing to do with punishment, or establishing the pecking order, or settling scores? What if God’s judgment is the purifying fire of grace, the passionate love that does not ask whether we are worth saving, or whether we are qualified, but seeks only to remove the stumbling blocks we place in our way? What if God’s judgment is to give us life, reconcile us to one another, and bring us to the peace of knowing our complete dependence on a mercy that is infinite?.

If you are like me you wouldn’t mind having some justice like that for yourself, but God forbid that it should be handed out to everyone. There are a lot of people in the world that I like to tell myself are greedy, stupid, selfish, phony, or just not trying hard enough. It shouldn’t shock you to hear me say this—this is how we human beings think, and it doesn’t really matter if we call it “Original Sin” or “Sociobiology” or “Cultural Conditioning”—it is deep-seated, so much so that rooting it out is exceptionally difficult and painful for our egos to bear. Perhaps that is why Jesus likens it cutting off a foot, or tearing out an eye. To encounter a justice so impartial that it could allow itself to be falsely accused before it would accuse its accusers, to be spat on and abused rather than abuse its abusers, to be horribly murdered rather than murder its murderers, is to see all our impatient, self-righteous, petty judgments of others turned around on ourselves, a smoldering fire that is not quenched, a worm that never stops gnawing at our hearts.

To follow Jesus on the way of peace means to systematically acknowledge and continually repent of the false judgments that set us apart from and against the world. As I said, this can be painful—for years I clung to the idea that I was more intelligent and more virtuous than all those middle-class Americans with their wasteful petroleum-powered lifestyles and conspicuous consumption, but as I have grown in my desire to experience common ground with others in society, and especially to repair my relationships with my family of origin, and to get married and have a baby, I have had to compromise that sense of superiority slowly but surely out of existence. Along the way, of course, I got to see how thoroughly it was imbued with envy and resentment.

As we surrender bit by bit our claim to some special and singular favor from God, we become more able to feel wonder and gratitude at the things that we share with other people, and indeed with all the creations of God. We develop a deeper appreciation for the way that universal qualities come together in the unique combination that makes us the essential people that we are—not better, not worse, not more or less deserving of love and happiness—just different. That combination includes some elements we like and are proud of, and some we find it is always difficult to accept. And so we never stop hoping for the purifying fire of God’s loving judgment to work on us, to keep us soft and malleable, to help us be compassionate with others whose secret hurts and struggles we can never fully understand. This is what gives us our saltness. This is the “something essential” that pulls all the rest of the flavors of our existence together and makes us savory rather than bland. Throwing ourselves completely on the mercy of God’s perfect justice preserves us for greater and greater freedom from the consequences of our errors in judgment--and other people’s--even beyond the seeming indignity of death. Having this salt in ourselves is what enables us to forgo all the unquiet and unjust stalemates that are what so often pass for peace in this world, and to move toward the actual reality that Jesus died to bring about.

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.