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.


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.