Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Bloodline of the Prophets

Last week I spoke about this season of Advent, this time of preparation that begins the Christian year, as the memory of a collective waking up.  The community of those who experienced the bursting out of the light of God in the person of Jesus Christ keep the impact of that experience fresh by remembering the time that preceded it.  They were days of an almost unbearable tension, when everyone recognized that things couldn’t just keep on going the way they had been.  Suffering under foreign military occupation, squeezed by corrupt rulers who lived in luxury and raised extravagant monuments to their own egos, caught between the savage uprisings of false messiahs and the equally savage reprisals of the Empire, the people looked for God to act, to send them someone to give them reason for hope and a way to go forward.
Who were they looking for?  Some said they were looking for a king, a king like David.  David, who had come from tending his father’s sheep to lead the armies of Israel to victory over their oppressors; David to whom God had promised a line of descendants to rule on a throne established forever; David of whom it was said that after he had subdued his enemies in war and unified the tribes of Israel under his rule, he “administered justice and equity to all his people.”
The histories of the Hebrews recorded in the scriptures tell how that the successors of David broke faith with God and with the people, and how, as a result, God stopped protecting the nation and allowed it to fall again under the sway of foreign rulers.  They speak of things going from bad to worse and tell how David’s descendant Zedekiah was made to watch while his sons were slaughtered, and then taken into exile in Babylon.   But the hope never died that God would one day restore his people to their land and that, as the prophecy of Isaiah that we hear this morning says, “a shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse”
We never read it in Sunday worship, but the Gospel of Matthew begins with a genealogy of Jesus, tracing his descent beginning with the prophet Abraham, through Jesse the father of David the King, and David’s son Solomon.  There are many interesting things to say about this genealogy, but its most obvious purpose is to prove that Jesus is in the bloodline of the patriarchs and kings of Israel, and especially of David.  Matthew goes on to tell of the birth of Jesus, in the form of a political thriller, with the cruel usurper Herod plotting intrigue against the newborn King but failing to catch him in his net.
But all that is prologue—the curtain opens on the main action of the gospel with the passage we heard today, with the fever pitch of excitement and expectation because one has come to rouse the people, telling them to make ready, to prepare the way of the Lord.  But who is it who has come, this forerunner of the promised king?  A wild man, whose clothing and diet mark him like one of the ancient prophets.  And the kingdom he says is coming is not the kingdom of David or even the kingdom of Israel, it is the kingdom of Heaven.  “Get ready” he says, “not by sharpening your weapons or storing up provisions for war.  Get ready by washing yourself clean, by changing your mind and your heart, and by acting as if you’re giving life a fresh start.” 
John pointedly repudiates the genetic bloodline—“do not assume that being descended from Abraham will matter when the Lord comes.  God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.”  “The one we have been waiting for is coming behind me,” says John.  “His bloodline is the spiritual bloodline of the prophets—the fire of truth that burns in the heart, and in the bones.  And he will baptize you with that fire, giving you the Spirit of God.”
This fire that John sees coming is judgment and even wrath, in as much as we have been clinging to a false image of ourselves, or have invested ourselves in belief systems that take what is partial and transitory and make it absolute.  But fire does not only consume and destroy.  It also purifies and transforms.  Many grains are gathered and milled, mixed with water and yeast and salt, and kneaded into a single dough, but it is the fire that transforms it into bread.
When I was still a teenager I came across this quote: “What is to give light must first endure burning.” It is from the Austrian psychiatrist Viktor Frankl, who survived the Nazi extermination camps and in 1945 wrote a best-selling little book called Man’s Search for Meaning.  I’d like to share with you a story from that book that says more about the burning and about the light:
... We stumbled on in the darkness…along the one road leading from the camp. The … guards kept shouting at us and driving us with the butts of their rifles. Anyone with very sore feet supported himself on his neighbor's arm. Hardly a word was spoken; the icy wind did not encourage talk. Hiding his mouth behind his upturned collar, the man marching next to me whispered suddenly: "If our wives could see us now! I do hope they are better off in their camps and don't know what is happening to us."
That brought thoughts of my own wife to mind. And as we stumbled on for miles, slipping on icy spots, supporting each other time and again, dragging one another up and onward, nothing was said, but we both knew: each of us was thinking of his wife. Occasionally I looked at the sky, where the stars were fading and the pink light of the morning was beginning to spread behind a dark bank of clouds. But my mind clung to my wife's image, imagining it with an uncanny acuteness. I heard her answering me, saw her smile, her frank and encouraging look. Real or not, her look was then more luminous than the sun which was beginning to rise.
A thought transfixed me: for the first time in my life I saw the truth as it is set into song by so many poets, proclaimed as the final wisdom by so many thinkers… Then …I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: The salvation of man is through love and in love. I understood how a man who has nothing left in this world still may know bliss, be it only for a brief moment, in the contemplation of his beloved.”
John the Baptist came to a people despairing of their ability to change their situation.  Instead of promising a strong man who would change things for them, he issued them the challenge to change themselves.  He told them that if they rose to that challenge they would indeed receive help, that the Kingdom of Heaven was drawing close to them.  That is the choice we still have, the preparation we can still make.  For one who came after John is the very embodiment of the salvation that is love.  We need to make ready, because every idea, every belief, every law that denies this truth will be purified and transformed in the fire of his coming.  His whole purpose is to wake us up, showing us that we are never without hope, never without freedom, and never without responsibility, because we are never without the power to love.  Prepare to meet the one who beholds you in love, who is love, whose face is radiant with the contemplation of the eternally and perfectly beloved.  He came as John said.  He is still coming.  He is coming for you.

Memory of the light-burst

The Christian religion has at its heart the memory of an event.  It was an event so surprising, so unexpected in the way it unfolded that, even though it happened a long time ago, people are still straining to understand what happened.  It was an event that showed the people who witnessed it something so clear and unmistakable and at the same time so dazzling and profound that, in attempting to describe it, one of the best ways they could come up with was to liken it to a light suddenly blazing up in the darkness.  It was as if they had been asleep and then suddenly there was a light that woke them up and revealed to them a whole landscape that they had only been dimly aware of before, if at all.

Like people do who have shared an extraordinary experience they formed a community to support each other in staying awake to the vivid reality that they had perceived.  And one of the things they did as a community was to remember and retell the story of what the light had been like, so that others could see it, and so they would keep it shining in their faces and in their hearts.  At times it seemed as if the light were growing dim, as if the darkness of sleep and the dullness of forgetting were irresistibly growing around them.  And then they would remember one of the most powerful things that the light had shown them.  This was the vision of how it would be when the same light that had awakened them from sleep blazed up again and woke up everyone in the whole world, all at once.

They had been given a glimpse of that vision and it troubled them.  It would not let them go back to sleep, but burned in them with an awful dread and an unquenchable longing.  They looked about themselves at a world thronged with people sleepwalking, as it were, unaware of the glory that was hiding its splendor among them, waiting to burst forth and suffuse the entire creation with love and beauty.  They knew that for some of those people waking up would be a joyful surprise and release from a prison of misery, but that for others it would be a sudden shock that would reveal how greatly mistaken they had been.  They looked at those people and they saw themselves.

And so they made it their practice to begin every year with the memory of what it is like to wait in darkness, to not know and not see, but to watch and hope for the first sign of the dawn.  They would tell the stories of what it was like before the light broke in, before the event called Jesus Christ.  And they would remember what Jesus himself had said about waiting, and staying awake, about not getting ahead of ourselves, and not taking anything for granted, but living always as if this moment were the moment, after which only God would be real.

Today’s scriptures offer us another set of images to place in our hearts alongside those ones.  In the reading from Isaiah and in the Psalm we read about pilgrimage, about the tribes of Israel and indeed all the nations setting out on a journey to Jerusalem, to the house of the Lord.  This reminds me that as we wait in the darkness, people are on the move.  They are looking for spiritual illumination but also for justice, and for a safe place to dwell.  The Christian religion has at its heart the memory of an event, and that event begins not just with the daybreak of the spirit, but with a man and his pregnant wife going down the road.    

This couple are members of a nation with its own memories of fire and darkness.  They are not a great people—in fact, they are insignificant among the powers of the world, but they know themselves to be children of a magnificent promise. The promise is that their pilgrimage, with all its twists and turns, and triumphs and disasters, is supremely meaningful.   Their family history is the story of how God trains a community for teaching peace to the whole world.  The life that Mary carries in her womb as she sets out on her journey is not only light in the darkness; it is also blood, the precious bloodline of the covenant community.  So our hope includes an appreciation of the human vessels through whom the Christ event becomes a living reality for us, the parents and grandparents, the teachers and friends, the real historic communities, through which the bloodline of faith has come down to us.

I became a Christian at an Episcopal church in San Francisco called St. Gregory’s.  I think what made St. Gregory’s work for me as a spiritual home was that it embodied more than any other church I’ve belonged to, the idea that everyone in the congregation forms the body of Christ by acting together in worship.  So the music is a capella singing of the whole congregation, led by a choir that is distributed throughout the church.  During the service of the word, the people sit facing each other, close to enough to make eye contact with each other and the preacher, and members of the congregation complete the sermon with stories from their own experience.  The whole congregation processes in step to the communion table where the eucharist is offered in the midst of the people, and concludes with everyone dancing a hymn around it. 

Worshipping in this way over time creates in the community an openness to surprise, the expectation that God will reveal herself in new and unexpected ways.  And the medium of that revelation is the lives of Christ’s people.  That atmosphere helped me to see myself with new eyes, and gave me opportunity to and step forward gradually, cautiously, into my vocation as a preacher, pastor and priest.

I believe St. John’s has been given a similar kind of gift, albeit in a different form and to a different purpose.  The pilgrimage of this community, as painful as it has been, has allowed for a kind of Advent experience, a going back to the beginning, a willingness to watch and wait and hope for the light to break forth.  This experience has also showed us how fragile and precious is the bloodline of our people, how easily it can be broken, and the consequences of forsaking it.  This journey has placed in us a kind of watchfulness and expectancy for how God will act, so much so that our Diocese has committed significant support from its Emergent Ministries fund, to help you pay my salary so together we can bring Christ’s mission to Petaluma to light in new and surprising ways.

Unlike St. Gregory’s, we are not a new congregation.  We do not have the luxury of building a new building to suit our preferred style of liturgy.  We are a 154-year-old church start-up in a 120-year-old building, and we are a mix of people who walked in the door for the first time today, or a year ago, and people who have been coming here regularly for fifty years.  We have the challenge of watching like hawks for signs of the dawn.  This may include finding common ground with spiritual seekers who may be ambivalent and even suspicious where traditional Christianity is concerned.  It may require being open and curious about movements in contemporary spirituality that may not seem Christian enough, to welcome sacred circle dancers and pseudo-Buddhists, to tree-huggers and devotees of the divine feminine, who also happen to be open and curious about Jesus.  It may require finding common ground with those in whom we recognize Christ’s ministry of reconciliation but who have no interest in Christ at all.

And our great challenge and gift is to do this and at the same time to honor our bloodline, to find in the memory of our real, historic community, directions to the goal of our pilgrimage.  We need to return to our story and appreciate our ancestors with a renewed interest and a new respect, not expecting them to be perfect, or like us, but because God was working on them just as we are worked on, disturbing their sleep, breaking in where they weren’t watching, fashioning them into a people able to bear the light.


Sunday, November 21, 2010

Who is the true ruler of the world?

It’s a familiar trope in TV and the movies.  The hero appears defeated: the boxer has taken a brutal beating and is on the ropes; the plucky underdogs put up a good fight, but the heavy favorites went on a roll (probably some cheating was involved) and our guys are down by two touchdowns and the clock is running out; the spy has been caught and lashed to the mad scientist’s super-weapon, which is about to go off.  All seems lost.  And then suddenly, with a sudden swelling of the soundtrack the hero springs to action, his face set in a steely look of determination.  All the pent-up force of his righteous anger suddenly breaks like a dam and in a stirring and decisive burst of violence, he thrashes his adversaries, avenging their crimes and breaking their power forever.
The criminal hanging on the cross next to Jesus may not have seen any of these movies, but he seems familiar enough with the script.  “Are you not the Messiah?” he cries, “Save yourself and us.”  This Jesus had done wonders that were the talk of the nation, giving the blind their sight and the dead their life.  The authorities had been pursuing him for months and he had eluded them every time, even coming to Jerusalem to flaunt his defiance openly.  But why now, after all that, this helpless passivity?  Isn’t he going to   finish what he started?
This criminal is not the only one sneering at Jesus.  The leaders of the people, who conspired against him and handed him over to the Roman enforcers, taunt him.  So do the soldiers who are carrying out the execution, and in the same way.  “If you really were the Anointed chosen one of God or the King of the Jews, you would save yourself.”  These men, who would see themselves on either side of a deep cultural and religious divide, are actually thinking with the same mind.  They believe in the same kind of power, the kind that is first and foremost concerned for itself.   This Jesus had spoken with such authority and done such deeds of power that many had been led astray, thinking that he was a new David, anointed by God to liberate Israel from bondage.   Seeing him now, unable even to save his life from their hands, they feel the strange fear that he had awakened in them subsiding.  Seeing him submitting to the death they chose for him, they imagine that his story is over, and the future belongs to them.
And yet even then, there is something about this man.  The criminal, the religious leaders and soldiers could not see it before, and they cannot see it now.  But there is one who can, one who hangs on the other side of Jesus.  This criminal is another in a long line of characters in the gospel who encounter Jesus and in that meeting find their lives suddenly opening out into a new possibility they had scarcely known they hoped for.  Even here, hanging on the stake, he finds the freedom to accept the truth about himself, and to know that love is still possible.  This is perhaps the greatest of Jesus’ miracles, that one man being tortured to death awakens repentance, devotion and hope in another.  He does nothing, and says nothing but to assure his new friend that he will not abandon him, that even in that moment they have a future in God.

Like the repentant criminal, we acknowledge this Jesus as the Christ, the Anointed Savior and Lord not in spite of his refusal to save himself, but because of it. He was, as we are, in a body, under the condemnation of death and at the mercies of the world’s rulers.  But who is the true ruler of this world—the person who is Godlike in bending others to his will, in defending his winnings and taking life; or the one who is Godlike in loving others, in forgiving them and blessing their every impulse toward healing, wisdom, and service?  We have to answer this question for ourselves, and if we do not someone will answer it for us, for the general drift of human affairs is what is has always been—the worship of force and the service of self.

This past Monday, on my way out to coast to go surfing, I listened to an interview with a journalist named Charles Bowden who has recently written a book called Murder City, about Ciudad Juarez, the sister city of El Paso, Texas.   Juarez is descending into an inferno of senseless violence fueled by corruption, poverty, and the insatiable desire of North Americans for illegal drugs.  Bowden told a story about an incident that took place last January 31st when a group of working-class parents organized a fiesta for their high school age children to celebrate their victory in a soccer tournament.  They held it in a private house rather than a public place because the city is too dangerous, but gunmen showed up at the party anyway and machine-gunned fifteen children. 

The President of Mexico, on a visit to Japan at the time, announced from Tokyo that the victims were all gang kids involved in the drug trade, clearly implying that they deserved what they got and that, like the 5,000 other murders that have taken place in Juarez in the last two years, there would be no investigation of the crime and no prosecution of the perpetrators.  This caused a huge uproar in Juarez that would not die down, so a week or so later the President flew to the city to address the population.   He secreted himself in an auditorium in a hotel, surrounded by Mexican army troops, to speak to a hand-picked audience and the TV cameras.  But a poor woman named Luz Dábilo, the mother of two of the murdered boys somehow got into the room and suddenly, in the middle of his remarks she stood up. “Mr. President,” she said, “you’re not welcome in this city.  What you said about my sons is a lie.  If your son were murdered you’d turn over every stone in Mexico to get justice.”  And then she turned around and stood, with her back to the President of Mexico, for the rest of the press conference without saying another word.

Where did Señora Dábilo get the strength and courage to take this action that almost certainly will lead to her death?  According to the letter to the Colossians, from the glorious power of God the Father, the true sovereign of the world.  It is he who “has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his Son.” As a citizen of that kingdom, Señora Dábilo knew that that she had the authority over the false power whose only concern is to save itself.  In the face of its army of lies and fear, she raised the banner of her king, which is truth and the loving memory of the victims.  In a nation in the grip of total despair, she raised the possibility of repentance, and the hope of the king’s justice.

At  its worst the church has been just another institution bent in obedience to lesser powers, claiming for human rulers an omnipotence and infallibility that they do not have.  But at its best, it has been what it was at the beginning, a community of resistance.  This little building on the corner of 5th and C is meant to be an outpost where it is spoken and remembered, celebrated and enacted with joy and thanksgiving that the true ruler of the world has visited us.  He has shown us the things that make for peace, and has washed us clean from lies and the denial of death.  He nourishes us with his blood, that we might know that he remembers us and has given us the Spirit of the Father with its glorious power.  We do not lose hope, even as our people fall before the power of addiction, unemployment, violence, and greed, but we endure with patience, because he has promised to visit us again with perfect compassion and liberating justice.  We joyfully give thanks and we raise his flag, because he has the first place in everything, and we are his glorified body.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Holding the world in balance.

This morning’s gospel lesson is one of those passages that people who say that every word in the scriptures is to be understood and applied in its plain and literal sense never seem to quote.  Maybe it’s because, like us, they know that, in relative terms they are rich, well-fed, and highly thought-of.  Taken as practical advice for living, these words seem assured to leave us broken, bruised, and naked.  Indeed, by themselves, out of context, they have been shown to be deadly—applied as rules, they have instructed women to stay married and subservient to abusive and controlling drunks; they have told enslaved peoples to submit without revolt to their exploitation.  So while they express the highest moral truth, and absolutely mean what they say, I think I am not off base in saying that these are words of poetry.   And the work of poetry is making connections, making things whole that our ordinary, limited mind has broken apart. 
These words affirm that the imagination of God holds the world in balance.  They tell us that there is always another side to the story we tell ourselves about the lives we are leading and the worlds we inhabit.  These are words that speak to us when times are hard, reminding us that life itself is a gift worth celebrating.   They trouble us when everything seems flush and rosy, reminding us that nothing in this world lasts.  They urge us to see through our anxieties about other people, about how they might mistreat or humiliate us, abuse us or rip us off, and see that they can never deprive us of our freedom to meet them on terms of respect.  When we choose to believe that other people are like us, sharing our weakness and our dignity, we find new possibilities in the experience of what unites us, even with those who are mired in denial. 
This freedom to act on the truth is the nonviolent power that Jesus wielded.  His teachings are not abstract rules from on high, but they have real meaning because they were lived.  He refuses to let his enemies, trapped in inhumanity by their fear and blindness, to define his own course of action and spur him to retaliation in kind.   Grounded in the imagination of God, he keeps offering them the whole truth about himself and them, which is also known by the name of “love.”  
Jesus speaks from the imagination of God and people can hear and see the power of God because they can see and hear him.  Again, it’s like poetry, which is able to sing of the invisible because it breathes with what is sensed and thought and felt.  We do not want to be poor, or grieving, or hungry, we do not want to be struck, or robbed, or defamed.  We are afraid of these things, and of what we imagine what they would be like for us.  But because Jesus spoke these words, and because he lived them, our fear is balanced by a totally new possibility—a joy that is not diminished by other peoples’ injustice.  Because he himself was naked, broke, and bruised, and showed that no one really has the power to destroy us or separate us from God, we have come to trust Him more than our terror of loss or dreams of happiness.  And instead of a dreaming of a place on the right side of a world permanently divided into poor and rich, weeping and laughing, hungry and satisfied, we learn to hope and work and sacrifice for a world of one united people—God’s people. 
I got a call this week from a friend of mine who is the Associate Rector at a large Episcopal Church in a wealthy suburb in the Diocese of California.  His parish had applied for a zoning variance so they could regularly host a vanload of homeless men as part of a rotating shelter program shared with some 15 other congregations in their area.  He was calling me for moral support because these plans had touched off a violent storm of protest in the community.  Neighbors of the church have been sending alarmist emails around town about plunging property values and the imminent prospect of unsupervised mentally-ill drug-addicted sex-offenders wandering their tree-lined streets.  Legal action has been threatened, and the Rector and vestry are weighing whether or not to pull their application.  Incidentally, the same thing happened last year, and they were hoping that emotions might have cooled off enough that they could get it done on the second try, but no such luck. 
It is tempting to see this situation in terms of good guys and villains, loving compassionate Christians vs. hard-hearted elitist haters, and to want to marshal the forces of good for a decisive victory.  But I think the approach that my friend and his church are taking is closer to the New Testament vision of holiness, which is to stay in the painful heart of the conflict.  Members of their congregation have been converted to their need to do this ministry by their experience of serving the clients of this program at other churches and synagogues.  Their imagination has expanded beyond their fears and stereotypes by meeting real homeless people.  Similarly, they have not sought to meet the resistance to their plans with superior force, but to keep opening the door to actual face-to-face encounter with the aggrieved neighbors, looking for the opportunities for actual communication.  This kind of patient, vulnerable, when necessary even suffering, witness has always characterized the truly great saints of the church.  It speaks of hope that is grounded in the imagination of God, that sees beyond the tragedy of human divisions, conflicts, and contradictions to the divine comedy of Christ, the sacrificial victim enthroned above every rule and dominion.
This truth that is love, that sees and speaks the world whole, is the enduring power that orders and sustains the universe.  It is the power that Jesus refers to as “The Kingdom of God.” When the prophet Daniel sees a terrifying vision of monstrous beasts, each more terrible than the last, arising from the sea to dominate the world, he turns to an attendant in the court of heaven who explains: these are the empires of the earth that rise and then fall prey to another, “but the holy ones of the Most High shall receive the kingdom and possess the kingdom for ever—for ever and ever.”   This is the kingdom that already is, already ruling in the lives of those who live not for the praise and worship of empires, but for the glory of God.  But it is also the kingdom that is coming, the kingdom of the Son of Man.  This Son of Man is Everyman, the common representative of what it really means to be human.  But he is also what comes next, the one who shows us what we will be when the imagination of God is enfleshed in us completely, with love, and will, and power.  To follow him is to journey deeply into the fear and longing that are at the heart of the space between ourselves and others.   To trust him is to find there, in those very particular spaces, the wisdom to bring everyone together at last, the revelation of an end to misery and violence and injustice, and the power to do something about it.

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.