Wednesday, April 27, 2011

He is not here!

It was a year and a week ago that my family and I came up to Petaluma for dinner and an interview with the vestry of St. John’s that would lead to my being called here as Priest and Pastor.  But that wasn’t my first visit to this church.  We had made an earlier trip in February, “under the radar” as they say.  We came on a Saturday morning and John Mills was here doing some work in the yard, and agreed to let us look inside the building.  I liked what I saw, of course, but the thing I liked best was that stained-glass window above the altar.
So I’ve been living with that image for over a year now, but this our first Easter together, so recently I’ve been pondering it more than ever.  I’ve been wondering about who designed it, and the family of Dr. J. S. Shepherd who decided it would be a fitting memorial to him.  It makes me think about all the men and women who have gazed at it prayerfully over the last 120 years, and what it meant to them.  But on this Easter morning what I’m thinking about is how it presents us a dazzling image of the resurrection without showing us Jesus.
This window shows us Easter as the angel first announced it to the women at the tomb just before dawn on the first day of the week.  “I know that you seek Jesus who was crucified.  He is not here.”  “He is not here—he has risen.”  Where there was the great immovable fact of death, suddenly there is an empty space.  “Come and see the place where he lay.” They come to a grave, to mourn for a dead man, but he is not here.  Instead of the desolation of what is known for certain, there is a vibrant emptiness, pregnant with possibility.
It is extraordinary to me that in the 1890s, the people of this church had the guts to leave that space open, to stay close to that first word.  For 70 years there was no figure of Jesus at that end of the church, the focal point of their worship.  Then around 1960, the figure of Christ the King, ruling from the cross, was mounted on the wooden panel below the window.  More recently we’ve put some icons of the glorified Christ on the ledges on either side of the sanctuary.  It is as if the pressure of the world’s skepticism and disbelief threatened to get the better of us.  And so, to defend of the truth of the resurrection, we had to fill the open space of the angel’s proclamation.  But the radical germ of the Easter Gospel is the empty tomb—only this can contain the vastness of who Christ is now.
We keep trying to put Jesus back into his tomb.  We have our ideas worked out about who he was, and what he stood for.   We classify him by comparing him to dead people from long ago, or we put him in a class by himself and leave him there.  We know what we think of the people who believe in him, and the people who don’t.  But all these interpretations are just different ways of locking him away, putting him back into the tomb, so we don’t have to deal with the really alive person that he is.  “He is not here,” says the angel, looking us straight in the eye, and we’re convicted, because we thought he was there, right where we put him.
But even without any pictorial representation of Jesus, this space is an icon of his resurrection.  The word of the Angel in the stained glass window is not just about Jesus.  It is a message for those women.  It changes the sorrow and pining that brought them to his tomb that morning to awe and joy.  That message, and the sight of the empty tomb, is now theirs to take to the world—“the tomb is empty, he has risen.” 
The Marys are our reminder that before there was a New Testament, before there was a gospel, before there was even a church, there was a rumor.  The life of the risen Christ is active in us when we testify to it, telling what we have learned to others.  You may cringe to hear these words—after all, Christians have been trumpeting the “Good News” for so loud, so long, that nobody hardly hears it anymore.  But the power of the resurrection is still effective when it passes like a secret from one person to another in the language of their own experience.
The truth of this secret is also plainly revealed to us in the altar.  It stands in the center of that empty space, beckoning us to come and see for ourselves the invisible Christ, who is our God.   There we touch him with our hands and taste him with our mouths.  There he nourishes us with the living food of the Spirit of God that is also in us. 
We are a community of the Easter dawn, re-created every week, re-constituted every time we gather to give thanks for his death and resurrection.  We are never exactly the same people we were the time before, so his risen life in us is always taking a new shape, a new direction and a new meaning, as the circumstances of our lives change.  We take him into us and away with us, and where we go, he goes. 
When we turn away from the table, and walk down from the empty space where we commune with the divine Christ, behold, we see his human form.   The angel says, “He is not here—he has risen.  Go and tell his disciples that he is raised from the dead.  And behold, he is going before you to Galilee, there you will see him.”  First we see each other.  Then we see the font, where all of us were baptized into his body and ordained for his ministry.
And above that (our ancestors at St. John’s thought of everything) we see three windows, three images of Jesus living in relation to others—receiving the love of his mother, receiving and blessing children, and receiving a person in need.  Finally, we see out through the windows to Galilee--in this case, Petaluma--to the place we came from and are going back to.  He is not here, if you think that this is the only place, or even the best place, to find him.  He is alive and he is out there—that is where you’ll meet him. 
He’s over at the police station, and the Art Center.  He’s standing on the corner at the 7-11, and lining up for a meal at the Petaluma Kitchen.  He’s at the G & G and the Post Office and Corona Creek.  He’s over at St. Vincent’s and at B’nai Israel.  He’s alive and he’s doing stuff.  He’s giving people patience with their children, and devotion to their spouses.  He’s helping that single mom get her GED.  He’s trying to get more businesses in town and more jobs, and he’s working to preserve our small-town character.  Wherever people are alive with hope for a world that works for everyone, wherever they are making sacrifices for the people and the things they love, wherever they are grateful to be alive and want to share the joy of living, there he is.  He won’t stop, doesn’t give up, and he can’t die.  Because he’s not here.  But we are.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Lazarus, Come Out!

When I was a teenager in Vermont there was a family down the road from us with three children roughly my age, and my brothers and I became good friends with all of them.  We shared their taste in books, movies, and music, and our families both had reputations in town for being not quite normal, them on account of being Jewish, and we--Californians.  And so on the weekends and after school one or more of us was usually to be found over at their old white two-story house by the crossroads of the village.  We loved their father, brilliant psychologist with a gray beard and a hearty laugh, but their mother was a mystery to us.  She often seemed overwhelmed by the presence of so many children in her house and would become silent and withdrawn, as if bearing a deep, unspoken grief. 
Over the next several years, her sadness turned into suicidal depression.  She made several unsuccessful attempts, so nobody was surprised when my mother got a phone call one night, the summer before my senior year in high school, telling us she had taken her own life.  She had been missing for several days when news came from a motel in a town 50 miles away.  She had checked in for a week, hung a Do Not Disturb hanger on the door, and swallowed a bottle of pills.  The motel manager found her when the housekeeper noticed the smell.  
The next day I stopped by the house on my way home from school to say hi.  The younger brother was there and we talked a little.  His father had taken him and his brother and sister along when he’d gone down to identify the body.   I must have looked surprised at this because he said, “I’m glad I went.  I needed to see her and say good-bye.  I had to know that she was really dead.”
My friend was describing an experience our society does its best to avoid.  The modern hospital and mortuary industries keep us insulated from a reality our ancestors all knew well—from the instant we exhale our final breath we begin to decay.   We leave it to others to tend to the dead, and this spares us having to see the bodies we love beginning the process of dissolution.  This may be a mercy, but it also may prevent us from reckoning wholeheartedly with the finality of death.  We rush the body off to the crematorium and we hurry our emotions along to positive thoughts about how “he’s in a better place now.”  We have to sneak off to grief counselors and support groups because the people around us do not hold a place for mourning.  We get a few days of “bereavement leave” and then we’re expected to move on and get back to work.
But the bible does not shy away from death.  The vision of Ezekiel begins with a great valley full of countless human bones, old and weathered and dry.  The gospel begins with the news of Lazarus’ death and Jesus’ resolve to go to Judea, in spite of the threat of assassination.  With these readings we are coming to the end of Lent, a season that began on Ash Wednesday with the remembrance of our own mortality, and climaxes on Good Friday, Christ’s own confrontation with the shadow of death that looms over all of us.  In the church we create a visible sign of his entry into this struggle by veiling the figure of Christ the King that hangs above the communion table.
John’s Gospel shows us two sides of Jesus as he approaches the final conflict.  On the one hand he is fully in control, knowing exactly what’s going on and what he’s supposed to do.  If it is God’s will that Lazarus should die so that Jesus can give us an unmistakable sign of his glory, so be it.  He will even play a little cat-and-mouse game with his disciples about it.  On the other hand, on his way to the tomb he meets the dead man’s grieving sisters, and he is stricken with the loss of his friend and Mary and Martha’s innocent faith in his power to save.  Jesus weeps. 
The raising of Lazarus is a sign that we too should believe that Jesus Christ is resurrection and life—the gift through whom the Spirit of God reverses the finality of death.  But Lazarus has been granted only a reprieve—he will die again.  Jesus has done something miraculous for him, bending time backward, if you will, so that the decaying corpse is once again the living, breathing man.  But this mighty work is only a sign, only a gesture in the direction of what God will do for Jesus, and through him for us, beginning in him the recreation of all things for a fullness of life that is eternal.  Through his resurrection Christ will transform death into a gate that leads us into oneness with the creative energies of God, with all that is and ever was and ever will be so that we are an integral part of the unfolding mystery of existence in God. 
But to do this he must pass through that gate himself.  He must come face to face with oblivion, and surrender his body to the powers of disintegration.  He must pour out his blood onto the earth, and give over his Spirit to God; he must go cold and be laid by those who love him in the darkness of the tomb.  He will do this because we must, because he weeps with our grief and suffers in our agony.   The image of Jesus that hangs above our altar is veiled, in preparation for his suffering and death.  It is a figure of the risen Christ who rules forever from the cross, the One who humbled himself in love and went obediently to death, for which God raised and exalted him as King of Kings and Lord of Lords.  But we have obscured him, because we are not ready for that yet.  There is a journey we must make with him, the journey to the tomb, where women take him, weeping. 
And yet there is another image of the risen and glorified Christ over there, one that is never veiled, though we will see it soon stripped bare and desolate.  It is the table itself, the altar of Christ’s sacrifice, which is also the supper table where Jesus sat and broke bread with his disciples, including the one who would betray him.
 The church teaches that the risen Christ is also ascended, and so pervades all creation.  And yet we who have faith in his name, who gather weekly to praise his resurrection and to commune in his body and blood, are, in a privileged sense, his risen body.  We are a body animated by his spirit of love for all persons, even those who are unloved as a matter of general principle.  We are a body alive with hope for the healing and rejuvenation of the world, the breaking through of God’s peace into places of division and violence, the rolling down of God’s justice where there is exploitation and despair.  And we are also a body that has died with him, that is willing to surrender its material form to the processes of disintegration, to be scattered as grain upon the hillsides for the love of God and of our neighbor. 
By his grace we do this in hope, trusting in God’s word to us through him, a word that says “Come out!”  “Come out of the tomb!  Come out of nothingness, come out of futile striving after what is doomed to perish and decay!  Come out and be freed from Death’s bond, for I have recreated you, though you do not yet know it.  Death is not the final word.  Come out and see, for I will show you—I will go myself and lay down my life for you.  I will go into the tomb in your place, and I will set you free forever.”

Everything Visible is Light

The disciples of Jesus in the gospel today start out with a pretty conventional idea about God.  They see the beggar who has been blind since his birth, and they look for some moral logic in his situation.  It could not be that such a thing happened to him for no reason.  It must be because this man committed some terrible sin while he was still in utero, or his parents had. 
There is an idea about God underlying this logic.  There are rules, and if you break the rules, God is there to see to it that you pay.  The mercy of God, in such a religion, is in making it known what the rules are.  And our best hope as human beings is to follow the rules.  Faith is faith in the rules as being the right ones, the God-given rules, and the faith that God, who is invisible and unknowable, will nevertheless hold up His end of the bargain.  If we do what is expected of us, God will bless us with prosperity and long life and good health and so on.
This kind of religion offers a tidy explanation of the man’s blindness—it is divine punishment.  The case, we might say, is open-and-shut.  But Jesus breaks it wide open again—"Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God's works might be revealed in him.”   Instead of looking backward for the cause that made the man blind, he points forward to a new possibility.   Blindness is not God’s punishment, but an opportunity for God’s real work of illumination.  The medium through which God works is not the rules contained in codes of law—it is the person of Jesus, sent into the world by the invisible and unknowable God to make the light of love and freedom active and known.
I recently came across these words in an article by the noted art critic John Berger about the late Haitian-American painter Jean-Michel Basquiat:
“What distinguishes the blind…from those who have sight is that the blind accept that a large part of what exists is indescribable.  Familiar, sustaining, hateful, or lovable, essential, but nevertheless indescribable because, to them, invisible.
As a painter, facing the world he faced, Basquiat was intensely aware, like a blind person, that a large part of the real is indescribable.  For him the hoped-for purpose, the sacred task, of painting was to tune in to the invisible—rather in the same manner an anatomical diagram tunes into the invisible functioning of a living body.  And why did he want to do this?  Because the invisible cannot be lied about.”
I quote this because it reminds us that any religious system that tries to tell us with precision and predictability how God works is a lie.  This explains why the Pharisees and religious leaders in the gospel story are so touchy about the fact that a man blind from birth now sees.  It pokes a big hole in their supposedly airtight story.  And so they do what the powerful always do when an event calls the official version of reality into question—they conduct an investigation.  Only, as is usually the case, the purpose of the investigation is not to bring the truth to light.  Rather it is to try to twist the inconvenient facts back into a shape somewhat resembling, if you don’t look too closely, the official story.  And to do that, of course, they have to lean on the witnesses. 
The other thing this quote about Basquiat shows us is why John the Evangelist uses the kind of language he does.  It is because he is tuning into the invisible.  “I am the light of the world” is a saying that tunes into the indescribable mystery of a living and personal reality, not a set of rules.  Its power is not so much that it describes that reality as that it reveals it to us.  If we accept it faithfully, taking it in in a way that leaves it free and open and full of wonder, it illuminates us.  But the light that comes with it is the real light, not the word about the light, and that depends on the living person whose grace, as it were, breathes through the word.
The man in the gospel story knows only one thing: he was blind and now he can see.  Sometimes I think our situation as Christians in today’s world is like that.   The popular perception is that ours is a religion of rules, and that we believe in God the enforcer, who deals out rewards and punishments.  And maybe that’s really the way some Christians think—it must be, or the stereotype wouldn’t be so widespread.  But some of us are Christians because one day we just woke up. 
It happened for me when I was eight years old, at a little bible-thumping church on the wrong side of the tracks of our town in Indiana.  I’d gone as the guest of a school friend and I found the place odd and a little threatening.  The preacher didn’t say anything especially stirring or profound that day—nothing that I remember, anyway, just a lot about Jesus, but at some point during the sermon I was suddenly overcome by the sense of being loved.  I was aware of being the object of an infinitely wise and compassionate subject who knew everything about me and was not ashamed of me, but in fact intended my life to unfold in exactly that way that it had, for my own well-being and the fulfillment of my true purpose.  
It was a moment out of time, but it was over in about a minute, and the first thought that occurred to me when I returned to myself was “what does Jesus have to do with this?” What came to me was that Jesus was the key I would have to learn to use to make this experience something more than a fleeting emotion.  I saw that I had no idea how to use this key, and that it would take a long time to learn it, maybe the rest of my life.  So when my friend who had brought me to church told me the next day at school that he’d seen the tears on my cheeks and knew I’d been “born again,” I really didn’t know what to say.  The more he told me about the implications of being “saved” the less it felt like something I wanted to be.
And yet I also knew that even though I went right back to sleep I had seen a light.  I now knew I was blind, and yet I also knew what it meant to see.  And I knew the name of a person, “the man called Jesus,” who had something to do with opening my eyes, and could maybe do it again.
That was a long time ago, and yet I am still reluctant to say “Jesus is the light of the world.”  Not because it isn’t true, but because of the way it’s true.  It’s his line, something each of us has to hear from his own lips, as it were, and learn by way of a process of deepening love and trust how it’s true.  I’m not ashamed to bear witness to that light—the hard part is finding a language to do it in that tunes in to the invisible.  But there is a way of witnessing that begins where we all begin—in blindness. “ I was blind, but now I see.” 
And what do I see?  Well not the light itself, not in its essential splendor--not often, anyway.   But, as the letter to the Ephesians says, ”everything that becomes visible is light.”  God’s amazing grace grows in us the eyes of love, eyes to see ourselves, our neighbors, our enemies, all creation in the light of Christ.  These eyes expose the works of darkness, but have no part in them—instead they look for the fruit of the light in all that is good and right and true.  They are eyes that know how to weep.  But they do not dwell on sin, its cause or its punishment, but look ahead, always ahead, beyond, to where the new dawn of resurrection slowly, softly, surely paints the horizon.            

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.