Monday, February 21, 2011

Find your perfection in God

The only time I can remember taking a blow delivered in anger came when I was in college.  I was with my roommates at Colonial Pizza, our favorite late-night hang-out, when an argument broke out between a couple of young men in the restaurant.  They were “townies,” a little older than us.  I didn’t take it all that seriously, even when their voices rose and they jumped to their feet.  One of them shoved the other backward into the wall and started toward the door, a path that would take him right past where I was sitting.  I must still have been more amused than alarmed, because he growled “what are you laughing at?” and belted me in the mouth, knocking me and my chair over backwards, before storming out of the restaurant.
I was scarcely upright again before the police arrived.  The pizza lady had called them in a state of high excitement, and she described the incident in dramatic terms to a cop from Central Casting.  “Look at him!” she cried, gesturing at where I sat dabbing the blood from my swollen lip with a paper napkin.  The second townie, who it turned out was my assailant’s cousin, sat sullenly with his arms crossed, refusing to cooperate. The policeman said “Don’t go anywhere!” to everyone in general and he and his partner disappeared.  A few minutes later, he was back.  His partner stood on the sidewalk outside with a man in handcuffs, where I could see them through the window.  “Is this the guy?” the policeman asked me.
“I guess so,” I said hesitantly.  I wasn’t at all certain—as with a lot of things that happened during my college days, I hadn’t really been focusing.  I looked around for help.  The manager and a couple of the other students seemed sure that it was.  The cousin remained stony-faced in his chair, his eyes downcast.  “Do you wanna press charges?” asked the cop.  I looked up and saw him staring at me.  Suddenly it became clear that even though I hadn’t called the police, or asked them to go hunt the man down, this true crime drama had been for my benefit.  The eyes of everyone in the restaurant were on me.  I looked at the miserable fellow standing in the pallid light of the Colonial Pizza sign outside.  “No, not really,” I mumbled. 
The policeman stiffened.  “You know I’m going to have to let him go unless you file a criminal complaint?”  I thought about taking the bus to the courthouse in North Adams to testify.  I thought about undergoing cross-examination about events that were hazy in my recollection.  I thought about the townie and his limited prospects and what he probably felt when he saw us college boys.  “No thanks”, I shrugged.  The cop snorted in disgust and left and I walked back to the dorm with my friends.
As I recall this incident I am aware of how privileged my life has been.  Countless millions of my brothers, and especially my sisters, live with systematic violence, oppression, and abuse as a daily reality.  My story is amusing because I was never in serious danger.  My basic human dignity, and even my privilege, was respected, and so I could afford to be magnanimous.  But how might the story have been different if I’d had no recourse to the lawful authorities, or if it had been the cops who attacked me? 
The gospel teaching of Jesus was given in such a context.  When he talks about being struck on the face, or sued for one’s cloak, or forced to carry a Roman soldier’s 70 pound pack for a mile, he is describing things that his audience would have known from personal experience.  For us these sayings about loving our enemies are good for parlor debates about just wars and capital punishment.  But for the first Christians they would have gone to the heart of the rawest personal emotions.  Maybe that is why we find them at the climax of Jesus’ restatement of the Jewish law.
It is a popular theory among New Testament scholars that the Gospel of Matthew came out of a Jewish-Christian community that had suffered persecution and forcible expulsion from the synagogue.  This community would have identified with Jesus’ own experience that even people who are morally upright and religiously scrupulous can embrace violence.  They can use the will and conviction that enables them to keep God’s commandments as weapons against those who don’t share their beliefs.  Wrestling with the aftermath of trauma, Matthew’s community would have found in the life and death of Jesus the key to understanding what further is needed to perfect the law.  They would have treasured his sayings about principled nonviolence and the love of enemies, for helping them discern a truth higher than the unmistakable reality of their hurt and betrayal.
That higher truth was the one with which Jesus began his teaching—“Blessed are the poor in spirit, blessed are the ones who mourn, blessed are the meek and the peacemakers, and blessed are you when they insult you and persecute you and utter all manner of evil against you falsely for my sake.” It is not that the suffering produces the blessedness, but that in Christ God’s blessing is revealed as unconditional.  It is poured out for everyone—like the sun it rises on the evil and the good, like the rain it falls on the just and the unjust.  When we think that our blessedness depends on how well we meet some minimum standard--of getting it right, not missing the mark, being in control--our righteousness will always be missing something. 
In fact our moral discipline and good deeds will become a trap for us, sucking us deeper into the swamp of unease and futility. Our driving force will be that anxious, guilty, fragmented self which can never be healed by its own works and contrivances.  As long as our self-worth depends on having a spotless record we walk on a knife-edge, and will never be at peace. And as long our knowing ourselves as worthy of love is fragile, as long as we need to prove that we are deserving of respect--as long as we believe that someone else can rob us of our own dignity—we will always be susceptible to fighting evil with evil.  The knife-edge of self-righteousness cuts us in pieces, severing those actions, thoughts, and feelings that we find unworthy of us.  And cutting into others just naturally follows.
Jesus urges us instead to find our perfection in God.  It is only when we acknowledge our common lot with others, when we accept our share of the pain that is the consequence of human sin and folly, that we also open to receive the gift of our wholeness.  “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect”, for God has no fragile honor to defend, no deficiency that needs to be made up by being right or wielding power.  God’s love does not come with strings attached and does not ask for anything in return, so it cannot be defeated by hate or opposition. 
The experience of non-violent struggles like the U.S. Civil Rights movement, or the recent revolution in Egypt, is that there is a critical point of no return.  It is the point when it becomes clear that a people’s capacity to suffer for the sake of love is greater than their fear of violence.  Once that point is reached, all further violence is self-defeating.  It manifests the moral failure of the powers-that-be—their weakness, rather than their strength.    
So when Jesus counsels the people to turn the other cheek he is not recommending passive submission to the one who strikes. But to retaliate in kind, or to flee in fear, is to let the broken self at the root of violence continue to dictate the terms of power.  There is still a choice we can make in such moments, still a free action to take, even if it is only the choice of suffering over fear.  But this is suffering that is transfigured by love: love for the person perpetrating the self-inflicted wound of injustice, love for the future and the irresistible hope of the Kingdom that surges in every awakened heart, and love for God whose power, and judgment, and truth, and perfection are love.     

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Cure the disease, don't treat the symptom

 “Sin”--what causes it and what is to be done about it—is not a popular topic nowadays.  It’s not a word that people even use anymore outside of church, at least not without sarcasm.  I think the church bears some responsibility for this; we have a long history of trivializing the subject.  Although it is basic to the human condition, and colors our whole lives, we have tended to speak not of sin, but of “sins”.  The church has often acted as if the fears that haunt us, the obsessions that drive us, the failures to love that rob us of peace and fulfillment, can be reduced to a question of  “being nice” and avoiding bad behavior.
But it isn’t fair to single the church out for promoting this trivial approach to sin—today’s gospel is Jesus’ critique of a way of applying the Jewish law that was pretty much the same.  If you were here last week, you may remember that Jesus said that he had not come to abolish the law, but to fulfill it, and that “not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished.”  I think there is a little wry joke here, which might come through more clearly in the King James translation, which says not “one jot,” not “one tittle shall…pass...”  It may sound like Jesus is arguing for a nitpicking application of the letter of the law, but in fact he is poking fun at that approach.  
And so he goes on to point out the inadequacy of using the law simply as a limit on bad behavior.  It is not enough to say “you can be angry and disrespectful to people—just don’t kill them,” or “you can ogle women and objectify their bodies for your pleasure—just don’t sleep with them,” or “go ahead and divorce your wife—just be sure to fill out the proper paperwork.”  
But we shouldn’t mistake the ironic tone of these sayings as meaning that Jesus is making light of sin.  Rather he is saying that this moralistic approach doesn’t go nearly far enough.  What is at stake in the struggle with sin is not whether people can behave “well enough.”  Sin is more than misbehavior, more than a problem to be managed—it is a disease to be cured, and it is not enough to treat the symptoms.
Jesus’ forceful language in this passage says that he wants his disciples to take sin more, not less, seriously than other people.  But to take these words literally, as a series of addenda to the law, is to miss the whole point that he is trying to make.  Jesus points beyond the law as a checklist of bad things not to do, to the corrosive effect that these kinds of actions have on our souls and on the community.  
Remember that this text is part of a sermon that began with Jesus announcing God’s blessing.  He went up on the mountain and looked out on the crowd that had gathered from every place with their sick, the paralyzed, the demon-possessed, and he said “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.  Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.”
What’s wrong with sin is not that it breaks God’s rules, but that it rejects God’s blessing.   God has placed in our hearts a pure reflection of his own glory.  Sin obscures that image of God.  When we insult one another and take each other to court, make each other into objects, and reject one another, we violate the blessing of God’s peace.  We take the world in which each person is a beloved child of one and the same wise, merciful, and just creator, and turn it into a burning garbage dump (that, by the way, is what “Gehenna”, the word translated in most English bibles as “hell” was—a garbage dump outside the walls of Jerusalem.  It was perpetually on fire.)
So Jesus is saying that consequences of sin are dire, and it is worth any cost to prevent it.  That is the obvious meaning of “if your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into the burning garbage dump.”  But the ironic meaning is also clear—the real cause of sin is in the whole person, not in one part.  It is absurd to think that treating the symptoms—tearing out the eye—will cure the disease.  Once we start down that road, it won’t be long before we’ll be completely dismembered.  And yet that is the piecemeal approach to “sins” that a legalistic religion promotes.
I was in college when I discovered that I was intellectually arrogant.  I had grown up a big fish in a small academic pond and after hearing everyone tell me how smart I was all those years I had come to believe it.  I could be falsely humble about it when the competition was weak.  But when I got to an exclusive college with lots of other smart kids the truth came out.  It didn’t happen often, but when I was disagreed with or felt threatened, I would find myself using my intelligence and verbal ability to put people down and make them out to be stupid.   When I realized that this was going on, I was ashamed, but my solution was to reject academic learning altogether.  For the next thirteen years of my life I avoided my intellectual vocation and made my living doing manual labor.
Those thirteen years weren’t wasted, and one of the most valuable things I learned from them is that I can be arrogant in other ways as well.  Arrogance was the problem, not the expression of it as intellectual superiority.  I wonder if any of you have had the experience of thinking that there was some part of yourself, one bad habit or difficult behavior that was the problem, and tried to eliminate it, only to find the same kind of pain popping up somewhere else.  This outrageous statement of Jesus about plucking out eyes and cutting off hands is a poke in the ribs, asking us how long we are going to waste our effort.
It’s not that we shouldn’t strive to do what is right, it’s that we have to begin with the knowledge that the causes of sin lie deep in the heart, so close to  the “I” that “I” think that “I” am as to be indistinguishable from it.  If we don’t address the problem there, any program of self-correction we undertake will only be a kind of self-mutilation. 
That’s the bad news, sort of.  That’s the Christian doctrine of our sinfulness.  It is not a personal guilt trip, but the simple truth about the condition we share in common with everyone.  Accepting this is the surrender that leads to poverty of spirit and tears of compassion for the great weight of needless suffering that lies upon the world.  This is the coming to ourselves that gives rise to a longing for healing and justice as sharp as hunger and insatiable as thirst.
The good news is that here we find the Word of our blessedness.  St. Isaac the Syrian wrote, “As a handful of sand thrown into the ocean, are the sins of all flesh as compared with the mind of their creator.”  We do not have the power to sever the root of sin in our hearts, but the promise of Our Savior is that the Holy Spirit does, and it is to that end that he came and showed us the way of self-giving love through which she does it.  We can try to make ourselves perfect, cutting off pieces until we become narrow and brittle and hard as bone.  Or we can offer our whole selves to God in faith and hope and love, and become full and warm and radiant as the sun we reflect. 

Monday, February 7, 2011

Salt and Light

On Monday I was moved to tears by the reports I heard out of Tahrir Square in Cairo.  I was listening to Sharif Abdel Kouddous, an American radio producer who comes from a culturally- and politically-prominent Egyptian family, who had returned to Cairo at the beginning of the week.  He described landing at the airport to find that he was in a different country from the one he had visited so many times before.  A people who had been mute under 30 years of dictatorial rule had suddenly found its voice.  Kouddous found a way to work around the information blackout imposed by the regime and was sending out live video, audio, and Twitter reports from the streets.  In the background was the sound of a million people intoxicated with joy to discover that they were the power in Egypt, that they were Egypt. 
With this knowledge, that had been systematically stolen and concealed from them by the state, came the hope that the awakening was irreversible.  The people, Muslims and Christians, young and old, women and men, rich, poor, and middle class, had turned to each other and said “we have nothing left to lose,” and had gone out into streets together, and in that moment  a spell had been broken.  The legitimacy of the regime crumbled in an instant, and the Egyptians gasped in a full breath of freedom, a taste that will never leave them.
The public career of Jesus had the potential to be such a revolutionary moment.   When I think of the crowds surging into Tahrir square, I think of Matthew’s gospel, and the passage that comes right before the chapter we heard from this morning:  
Jesus* went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the good news* of the kingdom and curing every disease among the people. 24So his fame spread throughout all Syria, and they brought to him all the sick, those who were afflicted, and he cured them. 25And great crowds followed him from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea, and from beyond the Jordan.
When Jesus goes up onto the mountain to give instruction to his new disciples he does so with the crowd in view.  But the teaching he gives is not political advice about how to lead and direct this mass movement.  The so-called “Sermon on the Mount” begins, as we heard last week, with Jesus proclaiming God’s blessing.  Blessed are the ones who have a spirit of radical dependence on God, and a willingness to suffer for God’s cause.  They are blessed because God will vindicate that cause, even though it looks like a fool’s errand to the conventional wisdom of the day. 
In the Gospels, Jesus has a decidedly ambivalent relationship with the crowd.  He leads them on a merry chase around Galilee, sometimes teaching them, or feeding them, and other times fleeing away from them into foreign territory or into the wilderness.  And the crowd is not sure what to make of Jesus, whether to acclaim him as king, or lynch him as an impostor.  As we know, they follow him into Jerusalem shouting “Hosanna in the highest!”  But when the revolutionary moment doesn’t come, they turn against him, shouting “Crucify him!”  And his disciples, the ones he called to be his inner circle and sent out to be his messengers, find themselves caught in the middle of that ambiguity, not sure what to hope for.  In the teaching we hear today, Jesus is telling his disciples that God’s blessedness is not for them only.  
“You are the light of the world,” says Jesus.  “A city built on a hill cannot be hidden.”   The crowd that has gathered has not come only for the healing of their private ills—they have been drawn by the public proclamation of a kingdom.  Jesus will manifest that kingdom, and in the process he will challenge the regime, confront its corruption and hypocrisy, and expose its violence and indifference to human needs.   But bringing down the powers-that-be is not the essential purpose of Jesus mission.  What matters to him most is waking people up to the reality of the alternative.  What matters is the deep breath of freedom, the breakthrough to a new identity, a new belonging to the real sustaining and governing power of the world, which is the Kingdom of God.
And the disciples are to be the continuing manifestation of that alternative.  “You are the salt of the earth,” says Jesus, implying that without people alive with the hope of God’s blessing, the world is a bland place.  But salt is more than just a flavoring, it is a preservative.  In a time before refrigeration, food without salt will simply decay.  The mission of Jesus is completed, not by bringing about regime change, but by creating a community to carry on his work of preserving and illuminating the world.   All that he does is in some sense directed to that purpose, and yet the disciples won’t really get it until they abandon him to the crowd, to his shameful public death.  It is only after that, when the revolutionary moment has been utterly lost and they are hiding away in fear and despair, that he comes to them again, and they taste, more clearly and distinctively than ever before, the unique and indescribable savor of his person, that they begin to really understand.  
The people of Egypt are at a critical moment.  The jubilation of Monday and Tuesday has now settled into the grim determination as the inevitable violent backlash has come.   From the dizzying height of imagining a new Egyptian people, reborn in the spirit of unity, democracy and human rights, they must now come down and reckon with the force of the past, including revolutions in 1919 and 1956 that never lived up to their promise.   Should they somehow succeed not only in getting their President to resign, but in truly dismantling the regime of corruption, torture, and repression that he oversees, how will they maintain the vision and discipline to make a lasting change in their political culture?
The sayings of Jesus that Matthew assembled into the Sermon on the Mount have been the church’s answer to a similar question.   As Christians we are sent down the mountain, into the crowd, to be salt for the earth and light for the world.  But this doesn’t mean that we have some special entitlement.  Our mission must be grounded in the law and the prophets, that is, in the ethical commitment and moral discipline that is the noble legacy of our Jewish ancestors in faith.  It is clearly spelled out in passages like the one we heard from Isaiah this morning:
Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them?
 “Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”  So says Jesus, and the point he’s making is not that we should curry favor with others, or try to get a good reputation.  His point is to use the gifts God has given us and in so doing point beyond ourselves to the One who gave them.  Take bold action for the sake of the world.  Go to Tahrir Square if that is how the Spirit directs you, and stand with your fellow citizens and chant to break the spell of the dictator. 
But understand that the ultimate goal cannot be found in any national identity.  It is not summed up in any political ideal or religious dogma.  It is not to found in any human concept, however noble or elegant or liberating, and it will not be possessed in a revolutionary moment, no matter how powerful.  It is hidden in the depths of God, in that mysterious wisdom that only God’s own gift of the Spirit can plumb.  Our faith is that this wisdom came to us in Jesus, was revealed to us in his words and deeds.  But it became effective for us in his cross.  That’s a strange way to start a revolution.  But maybe that’s why this revolution is still going after all these years.      

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Foolish Wisdom

On Thursday morning at about 11 o’clock my father and I got in my car and took off to drive to Crescent City, in the extreme north west corner of California, where my Dad’s brother, my Uncle J.D. , lives.  It’s a journey of six or so hours of driving, and it was almost dark when we got there.  After we checked into our motel, I called my uncle and then we headed out to his place on the outskirts of town.  We turned off on the last road before the highway disappears into the redwoods on its way to Grant’s Pass, Oregon.  As we approached the trailer park where he lives we spotted a figure standing in the darkness by the side of the road waiting for us--Uncle JD.  He was wearing a broad-brimmed straw hat on top of a knit watch cap.  He greeted us nonchalantly in his funny singsong voice, as if we were seeing each other for the third time that day, and not the first time in a year-and-a-half.   As soon as we were all back in the car and driving to a restaurant he launched into long story about a rare snowstorm in Los Angeles and the friends he made a snowman with over sixty years ago.
It was pretty much like that throughout dinner and afterwards when we returned to his musty trailer and stood in his nearly-empty, grease-spattered kitchen looking at old pictures, and some new pictures of my family that I’d brought along, until it was time to say ‘goodnight’.  And it was pretty much the same again at breakfast on Friday morning, after which we dropped him off at home and began the six hour drive back south again.  It’s always a little sad, going to see my strange old uncle, witnessing his loneliness and poverty, listening to him tell his tragicomic stories about people and places that are long-gone, and probably weren’t all that interesting to begin with.  It is a many-layered sadness, infused with all the loss and tragedy and “dysfunction” of my father’s family.  For a long time I held that sadness at a distance and treated it as if weren’t mine.  But in recent years that’s changed.   Maybe it’s because I’m aware that my time with my father is short, maybe because I’m a father myself now; maybe it’s because I’m more accepting of myself and who I really am, as opposed to the false person I pretend to be, but I have come to value Uncle JD, and his place in my life.
The verses of today’s gospel accompanied me on my journey to Crescent City and back this week and with them the mysterious grace and mercy of God.  When Our Lord saw the great crowd that had come to him from all over the region, a crowd that had brought with them the sick and those in pain, the demon-haunted and paralyzed, he climbed the mountain and sat down to teach his disciples.  He opened his mouth and the words that came forth were words of blessing, God’s blessing.  His teaching was of the kingdom of heaven, of where God is taking the world and how we ought to go along.  What he said is heartbreaking and at the same time it is the best news we could ever hope to receive:  there is really nothing we can “do”.  The things that Jesus says are blessed are not actions we can take.  They are not practical steps or even positive attitudes.  They are qualities of the soul, and they are the kinds that ripen in suffering. 
In marked contrast to the strenuous effort and individual achievement that we usually think of as the keys to happiness, Jesus says that the blessed are those who accept that they have very little to bargain with when it comes to God.  They are the ones who are willing to embrace the heartbreak of the world as it is.  They see injustice and misery but they don’t try to force people to be better, but meet them with gentleness and mercy.  To be truly happy, says Jesus, is to trust less in your own power to make things work out the way you want them to, and more in God’s power to open your heart.  His wisdom is that there is a deeper and richer joy to be found than the satisfaction of our desires.  It comes from what God does, loving and caring for the world in its brokenness. 
This is the kind of wisdom that strikes many people as foolishness.  There aren’t many places, maybe not even many churches, where this radical wisdom is followed.   When I told an old friend about the challenge that I had accepted in coming here to St. John’s, and the need we have to add new members, she said my concern with numerical growth made me sound like every hedge fund manager and corporate CEO in America.  I said some words in my defense that I thought made sense at the time, but she was pointing out a real danger.  It is easy for us to get into thinking about our work as the church, or even our life as Christians, in ways that use Jesus to achieve our idea of success, rather than using ourselves to enter into Jesus’ mercy. 
Today is our annual parish meeting, and at this meeting we will celebrate many genuine accomplishments of the past year and recognize some of the people who worked the hardest to bring them about.  And this is as it should be.  I don’t believe in putting on false humility, or robbing ourselves of the satisfaction of knowing a job has been well done.  But we do need to remember that it is God who gave us the wit and the strength, the patience and the endurance to do these things. 
And we may also talk a little today about our future, and our mission as a parish.  You may have noticed that I like to talk about these things.  I think it is important for all of us to recognize that we have been blessed with new life as a church community not for our own enjoyment, but because God wants to use us to do something for the people who are not here this morning.  But as we ask ourselves what it is that God is sending us to do, we need to remain close to the foolish wisdom of Jesus. 
Many of us would like to get more involved in helping the poor and underserved members of our community.  But action for social justice and community service can become something we do because it makes us feel better about ourselves, after which we go back to the same lives we were leading before, self-satisfied and spiritually unchanged.   Or we can throw ourselves passionately into some social cause only to give up in despair after a little while because we can’t see that we’re getting any results from our efforts. 
But my dad and I didn’t go to visit my Uncle J.D. because we felt sorry for him and wanted to cheer him up.  We didn’t go because we felt obliged to as his closest living relatives, and wanted to acquit ourselves of our guilt.  We didn’t go for him at all.  We went because we needed a blessing.  We went because not to have gone would have been to cut off something in our own souls, leaving us less human.   
Maybe the mission of St. John’s is something like that.   Maybe all the pain St. John’s has been through, and the difficulties we still face in becoming a viable congregation, are actually a blessing.  Maybe we are being trained to see how God really works in the world, and to hope for what really matters.  If so, then surely we know that this blessing is not just for us.  It awaits its fulfillment out there, where our brothers and sisters (and uncles) are also struggling, also suffering, also wondering where God is to be found.  Maybe St. John’s is a place people learn to be present to that pain not with the false hope of a quick fix but with hearts broken open and flowing with the foolish wisdom of Christ.  It’s not really something we do, more something we are, that arises out of our own need for mercy, for meaning, and wisdom and hope.  That, and God’s blessing.

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.