Sunday, July 10, 2011

The United States of Heaven

A couple of months ago I decided to put a new welcome message on the home page of St. John’s website.  I wanted to try to communicate something to curious visitors, right off the bat, about what makes our congregation special.  So I decided to mention the recent schism that tried and tested, and at the same time renewed, this community.  I wanted to do this for two reasons; first, because it highlights our commitment to being an inclusive church, where people of all different kinds are welcome and affirmed.  This commitment, and the high cost that St. John’s paid for it, is nothing to be ashamed of, and indeed is attractive to some people. 
The second reason was that a lot of people in our surrounding community know that something happened here, something painful or scandalous or at least controversial, and I thought we should set the record straight at the outset, so visitors aren’t left wondering what we’re hiding.  So I wrote my new little welcome blurb that contained this sentence: We are proud of our commitment to inclusion, having recently reclaimed our parish from a breakaway sect opposed to equality for women and LGBT Christians within the church. 
Then, in early June, I got an email from a woman who described herself as a frequent visitor at St. John’s over the years, who keeps up with us via our website.  She copied that sentence in her email, with the words “breakaway sect” highlighted in red.  And then she wrote the following:
It is revealing that you find it necessary to attract new members by denigrating your fellow Christians. Were I to consider joining your congregation for one Sunday, or forever, I could not set foot in the place based on that statement alone.”
I wrote her a reply in which I thanked her for staying in touch with us, and assured her that I didn’t mean to give offence or to denigrate anyone.  I told her everything I just told you about the reasons why I’d put those words up there, and that I’d merely been trying to describe, as accurately as I could, what happened.  I explained that the American Heritage Dictionary defines “sect” as, "a religious body, especially one that has separated from a larger denomination", and that I’d used that word because it was the most precise one I could find.  But I also told her that I had a grave concern that she had interpreted that language as insulting, and, because others might read it the same way, I’d have to seriously re-consider using it.
I meant to communicate one thing, but what that woman heard was something very different.  Saying what we want to say, in a way that others can understand it, is one of the great challenges of being human.  This is true even with the people we trust the most and love the best.  But it is especially true with strangers, and when the subject matter is something people have passionate feelings and firm convictions about, such as politics or religion, it’s that much more difficult.  We might think that if we were more eloquent, or charismatic or persuasive, we’d be more successful in getting others to understand us, and that might be true up to a point.  But the fact is, people are going to hear what they want to hear, or are ready to hear, no matter what we say or how we say it.
Maybe we can take some comfort in knowing that Jesus had the same problem.   When Jesus spoke to groups of people, he had a very specific purpose.  He wasn’t trying to impress them, so that they would go away saying, “Wow—that was awesome.  I can’t wait to tell my friends what I heard.  Maybe they’ll want to come with me next time I go hear him speak.”  He also wasn’t trying to persuade them to agree with his opinions, so they’d say “You know, I’ve always been skeptical about ‘eternal life’, but Jesus really made a convincing argument.  I think I’m going to believe in that from now on.” 
No, I think what Jesus was trying to do with his teachings was to bring his listeners into a completely different perception of reality.  He was trying to use words that would break through into their hearts and awaken a profound response of recognition.  He was betting on the possibility that if they could see themselves the way he saw them, and know God’s loving, and empowering presence the way he did, that they would be changed forever. 
Just in case we might think that he was talking about something vague and subjective, some kind of private experience that only certain people can have but that isn’t actually relevant to your average person or everyday life, Jesus called this reality the “kingdom of heaven” or “the kingdom of God.”  No “Kingdom” is one translation of the Greek word basilea.  Basilea is a word that the people gathered on the beach at the Sea of Galilee would have known very well.   They would have already heard an earful about a certain Basilea that some people said was divinely ordained to bring peace, order, and prosperity to the world.  They would have heard that anyone who opposed this Basilea was a public enemy, a criminal who should be killed as an example to others.  Another translation of Basilea is “empire.”  The Basilea that Jesus’ listeners would have known best was the one centered in Rome.   
I think we have to assume that Jesus knew what he was doing when he used that word.  He knew what associations it would have in the minds of his audience.   He had to know that when he talked about the Empire of Heaven there would be some people who wouldn’t understand. Some who would think that he was setting himself up as a rival Caesar, that he was calling them to join him in a war of liberation.  Which he certainly he was not.  But he also understood that as long as they lived in fear of that other Basilea, so long as they believed in its claims to be the hope of humanity, and the supreme and eternal reality in an uncertain world, they would never know what he knew, or see what he saw.
So when he spoke to them about the Empire of Heaven, he used parables.  He used figures of speech drawn from the everyday experience of farmers and fishermen, so his audience might understand that this Empire was not governed from some great city far away, but was fully present in and around them.  He knew that some people would not understand, and that the spirit of violence and rivalry would snatch this vision away from them before it could sprout in their hearts.  There would be others who would embrace it for a time, but lose it when faced with the blazing hatred of the uncomprehending.   Others might be drawn to the message but find it only good for Sunday morning sermons, and not for the gritty realities of trying to feed your family and get ahead in the world. 
But there would be some people who did understand.  Not very many.  At the end of Jesus’ life it would be clear how very few there were.  Some of his closest disciples wouldn’t get it until he was raised from the dead.   But when that happened they remembered what he’d said.  They remembered the parables of the Empire of Heaven, and the seed that fell on the good earth and bore fruit.  And the new life in the spirit, the indwelling power of the God who raised Jesus from the dead, was suddenly not just some nice words, not just  a “religious idea”—it was a reality.  It was the reality, in comparison with which all their former lives were a living death.
They in their turn became sowers of the word, and we are their harvest.  And because a share of the harvest is the seed of the next year’s crop, we, also are sowers.  St. Francis of Assisi told his followers, “preach the Gospel at all times—even, when necessary, using words.”  We don’t have to be knowledgeable and articulate.  We just have to share, to the best of our understanding, what is in our own hearts about The United States of Heaven.  The birds will get some of it, some will land among the rocks, and the thorns.  But some of what you communicate will land in the good soil, and bear fruit, one hundred-, sixty-, thirty-fold.  

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Freedom isn't free--it's love

I think it’s a remarkable thing that we date the birth of our nation not by the final victory in the War of Independence, but from the signing of a document that was written when that war was still young, and the outcome was seriously in doubt.  We don’t set off fireworks on the anniversary of the ratification of the Constitution or take a long weekend to celebrate the inauguration of the first President, but we do for the signing of a piece of paper that establishes no permanent institutions, or any laws.  The Declaration of Independence is a complaint, a cry for justice, and at its heart is a deeply personal sense of betrayal.
Contrary to what you might think, the Declaration doesn’t have anything bad to say about the institution of monarchy per se.  It doesn’t lay out a plan for republican government.   It doesn’t even really say a whole lot about what used to be called “the rights of man.”  What is does do is describe a King of England who has broken faith with his American subjects.  It lists in great detail the things which a just sovereign would have done that this King has refused to do.  It enumerates all the things he has done that show callous indifference to the well-being of the American colonies.  It is a description of a relationship that has failed.
It is hard for us to estimate the personal anguish that those men would have had to work through to sign that paper.  They were English, after all.  As it had been for generations of their forebears, the supreme symbol  of that Englishness, the language and laws, the culture and customs, was the sacred person of the king.  Loyalty to the king was a keystone of their sense of piety and personal honor.   It was only out of the most profound sense of injury that they would have given that up.   
And it is easy to forget that when they said “all men are created equal” they were not putting forward an abstract principle.   They were saying that in the eyes of God, commoners are the equal of kings— and not just any commoners but they themselves.   Those 56 men in that hot room in Philadelphia were addressing the King of England as another man, one who had done them wrong.   And by the simple act of signing a paper, they took that king’s divine right, the sacred power of the sovereign state, into their own hands, the hands of tobacco planters and printers, merchants, preachers, and lawyers. No wonder they ended the Declaration with these words: “with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.”  They’d just kicked the props out from under the only world they knew; divine Providence and one another were all they had left.
 The Bible is full of such moments, turning points in history that are, also crises of personal decision, fraught with personal risk.  The epic story of Abraham and his descendants begins a new chapter in God’s dealings with humankind through the ups and downs of a single family.  When we pick up the story this week, that family is at yet another crossroads.  Sarah has died, and Abraham is very old.  It is time for the covenant with the one God to pass on to the next generation.  But the next generation is their son, Isaac.  The promise of the covenant is of descendants as numerous as the stars in the desert sky, and all they’ve got is Isaac.   If the story is going to continue, it’s going to have to become a love story.
Abraham sends his servant back to Mesopotamia to look for a wife for his son.  The servant is faithful, and God guides him to just the right place at just the right time.  Still, it is up to Rebekah to say the right words, to show herself generous and forthright and kind.   And when she has given the servant a drink, and drawn water for his camels, and he has come to her fathers’ house and explained his errand, it is still up to her whether she will go along with the plan.  Not for the last time in the Bible, the fate of the salvation story waits on the consent of a young woman.
In the biblical worldview, to be human is to be faced with real choices, but they don’t happen in a vacuum.  Rebekah’s entrance into this story is scripted by divine Providence even down to the words she will say to Abraham’s servant at the spring.  It is a part that is written perfectly for her character.  Nevertheless, everything depends on her willingness to play it.  She has a real choice to make.
The bible tells us that our freedom and responsibility are real, but our lives are an ensemble performance.   Rebekah has to make her choice, but it is shaped by the choices Abraham has made, and the servant, and her brother, and her father.  And she is saying yes to a husband she has never met.  She is taking a risk, and this story will not be complete until Isaac plays his part, says yes to her, and takes her into his mother’s tent and loves her.  In choosing love, Isaac and Rebekah are saying yes to their lives’ fulfillment, and at the same time they are keeping faith with God.   Their marriage serves God’s providential purpose for the covenant family who will be their offspring.
Loving relationships, whether family relationships or friendships, have this quality of divine providence about them.  They are not necessarily what we would have chosen for ourselves if we had sat down and written out a prescription for our ideal.  But they have a mysterious way of enticing us towards those critical decisions that make a real difference for ourselves and for the world.  Which is not always easy.  Most of would rather do almost anything than change.  But the divine grace we call Love is the one thing that can overcome the hardest resistance.   When I think of the really fateful choices that I’ve had to make in my life, it’s love for others and the love of others that has gotten me off the dime. 
When I was eighteen years old I faced the decision of whether or not to register for the draft.  If I did, I felt, I would be acquiescing to a resurgent militarism that I felt was a threat to the moral, economic, and physical survival of my country.   If I did not, I would forfeit the federally-funded grants and loans that kept me in the elite private East-coast college I was attending.  I agonized over this decision, but in the end I refused to register, and dropped out of college, a choice that, for good or ill, made me the person I am today. 
The turning point in my being able to do this came one night when I started to think of all my friends and schoolmates from high school and college, all the other young men I knew, and I understood deeply that none of them could make the choice I was about to make.   Not because they might not have wanted to, not because they were less noble or virtuous than me in any way, but simply because the circumstances of their lives were different.  This was a decision that I could make, alone of all the people I knew, and so I had to make it.
The way of Jesus offers us a burden, but it’s a burden we can bear.  It is the burden of knowing ourselves so deeply connected to others, that we can live out our own unique individual story.  It is the burden of making the difficult choices that only we can make, but the rest of knowing that our responsibility is not total, and the wisdom of God orders all things.  It is the burden of helping put on a party where every imaginable kind of weirdo and disreputable character is invited, and the relief of finding your name on the guest list.   It is the burden of love, which carries with it every kind of risk and disappointment and loss, but it is also the lightness of being loved with a tender ferocity that will not let us say no.  

Friday, July 1, 2011

The mission of the little ones

In the spring of 1987 I walked across the state of Massachusetts from west to east as a participant in a Lenten pilgrimage for peace in Central America.  And as our little band went from village to village and town to town we received the hospitality of people of faith—mostly Christians-- Methodist, Baptist, Unitarian, Catholic, Congregational or Episcopal, but also Jewish and Buddhist communities where we were invited to share worship, prayer, and conversation, or given a meal, a place to sleep, or just a dry place to rest our feet and a clean bathroom and a drink of water or a cup of tea.    
I could tell many stories about that journey, but the one I’m remembering today took place on a late afternoon as we were walking along Route 9 between Ware and Worcester.  We came to a country crossroads and sat down for a rest, and we hadn’t been there more than about 5 minutes before a convoy of  cars and pickup trucks pulled up,  driven by Trappist monks.  We piled in and were driven up a long road to the top of a high hill looking out over forests and fields, to St. Joseph’s Abbey.  We were taken by twos and threes to rooms in the guest house, where we found snacks, and clean towels and hot showers.  And after we cleaned up we went to the abbey church for vespers.   Now, if you’ve been to a Trappist monastery you know that there is usually an area for visitors and guests off to one side of the church, at some distance from, or even out of sight of, the monks’.  But that wasn’t where we were.  Instead we  were invited  into the  choir,  to sit with the monks and stumble our way through the ancient chants, the psalms, canticles, and responses, with the evening light  streaming  through the  great  rose  window above the altar.
And I’ll never forget the looks of puzzlement on the faces of  the other guests, mostly Irish and Italian families from Boston in their Sunday best, at seeing us  in our parkas and hiking boots coming out of the church after the service with the white-robed monks.   We stood in a big circle out in front of the church as the abbot presented us with the gift of a branch from olive tree in the monastery cloister.  It was a scion of a tree from their sister monastery in the Holy Land, and we promised to carry it with us to our journey’s end at the Statehouse in Boston. 
I tell you this story because, as we leave behind the great experiences of the resurrection and ascension of Jesus and the coming of the Holy Spirit, and move into the Season after Pentecost, our Sunday scripture readings turn set us down right in the middle of the practical problems of carrying on.  You see the disciples of Jesus understood that they had been given these experiences to empower them for a mission, to continue Jesus’ work in the world.  To make sense of that mission, they looked back, to the mission of Jesus.  Looking back at the things he did and the things he said from the new vantage point of his death and resurrection, they could see with a new clarity how he’d been preparing them to carry on his work.    And this process of telling and re-telling the stories about Jesus, as a way of understanding  what we’re supposed to do now,  how we’re to live now, that the apostles began, continues to this day.   It is what we mean when we say the word “Gospel.” 
And today’s Gospel lesson is from the 10th Chapter of Matthew, which is all about mission.  Jesus calls together his Twelve Disciples and gives them spiritual authority and then sends them out on a mission to the villages of Galilee.  They are to announce that the kingdom of heaven is coming near, to cast out unclean spirits, and to heal the sick.  And the key to the success of the mission is the hospitality of the people who receive them.   Because a lot of people don’t.    A lot of people just aren’t interested, and in fact a lot of them are hostile.   So Jesus prepares them for rejection, and there are sayings in this chapter about being thrown out of the synagogues, and dragged before governors to testify to their own defense, about being betrayed by your own brother, and about taking up one’s cross. 
But when we get down to the final verses of the chapter, the part we heard this morning, Jesus also tells his disciples that there will be those who do welcome them, who will want a share in the mission.  But it won’t be because of their charisma, or their fantastic preaching or their healing miracles, or anything else that they do.  The secret X-factor that unlocks people’s hospitality to their mission is God.  "Whoever welcomes you”, Jesus said, “welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.”   It is God who opened your minds to the Gospel.  It is God who awakened your hearts, God who gave you hope for peace, confidence in the future, and love for the poor and the oppressed.    It is God’s love working in you that looks at a stranger and sees a brother or a sister.  And the same will be true for those to whom you are sent.
Now you may be thinking to yourself “that is all well and good for them.  They are the twelve Apostles, Jesus’ own hand-picked helpers.   Of course God worked through them.  But I think we sometimes forget that the disciples weren’t really “all that.” Notice the little twist Jesus throws in at the end: “Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet's reward;”—“Yep.  Prophet. Sure, anybody would welcome a prophet.”  “And whoever welcomes a righteous person in the name of a righteous person will receive the reward of the righteous;”—“Mm-hmm.  Righteous person.  Check.”   “And whoever gives even a drink of water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple--truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward." —one of these little ones.  Of course there are great spiritual rewards in recognizing a prophet, or a righteous person, and welcoming one of them.   But the same goes for people like you and me, the little disciples of Jesus.  What does the name”disciple” mean except one who is still learning, a student, someone still just struggling down the path.
None of us are too insignificant, too unimpressive or unimportant, too ignorant or spiritually un-enlightened to make a contribution to the mission of God in the world.  We all have something to contribute just by being ourselves, and by making a little effort in the way that seems to us to be pleasing to God.   And we have an impact on the lives of others that we don’t control and we can’t measure, because God works through us in ways we don’t even know about. 
By the same token, none of us are in a position to look at another person and say, “that one doesn’t matter.  I don’t care what that brother over there has to say about things, or what that sister over there thinks is important.  They don’t impress me at all.  They don’t seem well-informed or well-educated.   They don’t have any clout in the community.”  No, we need to welcome everyone, to honor everyone, for God’s sake, because everyone has something to contribute to God’s great reconciling mission in the world.  They may not be doing it very successfully because of poor self-esteem or emotional trauma or errors of judgment of one kind or another, but just because they can’t see their own gifts, and we can’t see them either, doesn’t mean that they’re not there. 
And we will never be able to help anyone do any better, including ourselves, if we don’t begin from a place of welcome, of looking for the common ground and listening for the shared story.  The mission of the Gospel begins with simple gestures of mutual hospitality, of welcoming and being welcomed.  The work of Jesus is founded on the little ones, and the little things, even if it’s only the gift of a cup of cold water on a hot, dusty day.                                                        

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.