Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Change from the inside out

When I was the Associate Rector down at All Saints’, Carmel, one of my tasks was to be the person responsible for giving monetary assistance to the poor.   The parish was known throughout the Monterey area as a place of last resort when the rent was late or the power  was about to be shut off, or the luck had run out and you needed bus fare back to L.A.  And the people of All Saints’ generously supported this ministry, so if I didn’t give very much to any one person, I could help quite a few of them. 
One of the things that my clients would often do after I’d handed them a check and we were saying good-bye, was to ask when our services were on Sunday morning.   I would give them the information and tell them that they’d be welcome any time but I knew they’d never come.   I think that they knew it, too, so why did they ask?   I guess it was because they wanted me to think well of them.   They wanted me to know that they understood they bore some responsibility for the situation they were in.  Their asking about church services was their way of telling me that they knew that they needed more than money to turn their lives around. 
But, of course, it’s one thing to say this, and another to act on it.    Of course I would have been glad to see them on a Sunday morning, but they didn’t need to prove anything to me.  Maybe they were  good  people  who  were  doing  their  best  and had  just been dealt a  bad  hand, and maybe their  stories were  a little more complicated than that.   But that was not for me to judge.  They needed help and All Saints’ Church could give them some, and I was satisfied with that.  Whether they turned over a new leaf, and how religion figured into it, was really up to them.
Sometimes when people ask us a question they’re really trying to tell us something.   When the Chief Priests and Elders come up to Jesus and ask him by what authority he is teaching and healing in the Temple, they’re really telling him that the authority to do such things belongs to them.  It is their temple, and they’ll decide whether he belongs there.  Now Jesus can hear what they’re really saying, so he asks them a question, “Sure--I’ll tell you about my authority, but first you have to tell me how you decide who’s worthy and who’s not.  For example, what would you say about my friend John the Baptist?”
Their dithering in response reveals that the only authority these leaders understand is a superficial one.  They are in power because people honor and defer to them.   But we shouldn’t mistake this for some kind of rapport with the masses.  They’ll pander to the people when it serves their own interests, but they don’t care about their deep needs.  They aren’t really concerned about their dignity, their freedom, and their hope.  And when a leader comes along  who does  have  that concern, who understands that the  people’s  real,  underlying problems are  spiritual, and that any change  that’s going to do any lasting good has to be a change of heart—when that  kind of authority comes  along, the Chief Priests and  the elders oppose it.  That’s what they did to John the Baptist and that’s what they’re doing to Jesus.  
This story shows us the difference between two kinds of authority.   One kind works from the top down, trying to get people to choose their side in a struggle against other people.  The other kind works from the inside out, encouraging people to take free action, for the sake of what they know in their hearts to be true.  One kind seeks first and foremost to get and keep power.  The other is most concerned to know and to do the will of God.   In his dialogue with the leaders in the temple, Jesus is trying to get the Chief Priests and the Elders to own that the authority that they care about is the first kind, the top down, get and keep power kind.   Until they do, he and they really have nothing to talk about, because they are speaking two different languages.
There is a story, maybe apocryphal, about Lenin, the founder of Soviet Communism, that on his deathbed he said, “I made a mistake. Without doubt, an oppressed multitude had to be liberated. But our method only provoked further oppression and atrocious massacres. My living nightmare is to find myself lost in an ocean of red with the blood of innumerable victims. It is too late now to alter the past, but what was needed to save Russia were ten Francis of Assisis.”  
I love this story, whether it’s true or not, because of the idea that the ruthless, materialist revolutionary might look back at his mistakes and recognize that the world can only truly change from the inside out.   We’ll hear a lot more about Francis of Assisi next week, but let me just say that he and Lenin had a lot in common.  They were both brilliant public speakers and charismatic leaders.  They both cared passionately for the poor.  They both had a vision of universal human solidarity, transcending ethnic and national and cultural boundaries.   But what Francis had that Lenin did not, unless he got it at the last hour, was a heart to do the will of God.   Lenin organized the poor to serve in his army, to join his party, to follow his directives so he could liberate them.  Francis gave away his worldly goods and went to live among the poor, caring for them with his own hands, so that through him, they might experience the liberating compassion of God.
In Matthew 3:14, John the Baptist tries to beg off of baptizing Jesus, saying “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?”   But Jesus is  adamant  and so the one  who is without sin receives the baptism of repentance, just as he will later receive the punishment of a criminal.  When  he  does this he is doing what the chief priests  and elders of the  people  will  not do; he is renouncing any distinction between himself  and  the  harlots and  tax collectors who also came to be baptized.  Jesus begins and ends his public career with acts of humility because his authority does not depend on whether people approve of him, but it is the authority that comes from within, from doing God’s will.    This is the way that he showed his disciples to live, and the great saints are those, like St. Francis, who understood that it is not enough to pay lip-service to this way.   True freedom, true happiness, true purpose and authority come from putting it into practice.
There is a temptation for us to put this way of life up on a pedestal and say that it’s all very well for them, but I’m just an ordinary, sinful, person.   But that would be to reject Christ’s most precious gift, the gift of his own humility.  He became like us in every way so that we could know that God goes to work through ordinary people like us, if we are willing to work with God.   Christ’s revolution of love, the real transformation of the world, happens from the inside out, so it really doesn’t depend on external circumstances.   It is grounded in God’s compassion and gracious favor towards all creation, so it can’t be thwarted by human failings or human judgment.   
But it does depend on our decision, a decision we have to make for ourselves, a decision we have to make every day, which is the decision to give God the authority in our lives.   It means getting up every morning and deciding to be about God’s business that day, to do God’s work, whatever our mood, whatever our circumstances, whether we feel like it or not.  We may not even know what God’s will for us is that day, but if we are ready and willing to do it, we’ll find out.  We may not know if we’re the right ones for the job, or if what we’re doing is really having an effect, but if it is God’s will, and we are willing, God is able to use what we give to get it done.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Laborers and Landowners

We live in a time when the economy is at the top of everyone’s list of concerns.  For some people, anxiety about the economy leads to passionate debates about policy.  There is a war of words in politics and the media about who caused the current crisis, and what should be done to fix  it.  But for many others the concerns are more personal and immediate—will I keep my job?  Will I get a job to replace the one I lost?   Are my wages keeping pace with my bills?  Do I owe more on my house than it’s worth?   Will I be able to afford to educate my children?  Will I be able to retire?   
The bible says consistently that God has a stake in the game of human economies.   So we shouldn’t be surprised that Jesus, the one we look to as God incarnate, has a lot to say about the economic conditions of our lives.  But Jesus does not approach economics as social science or political theory.     Instead, he tells  stories  about people, about  a merchant who found a pearl of great  price, about  the master  of a house  who went away, leaving his  servants  with ten talents of silver, about a slave who begged and won forgiveness of  his enormous debts, only to violently demand repayment from a two-bit debtor.
What’s surprising about these stories is the way that Jesus uses them to open up a deeper conversation with us about God.  “If you really want to understand who God is,” he seems to be saying, “and what God does, you can’t limit your inquiry to your experiences in moments of solitary prayer, in the contemplation of nature, or in happy occasions with family and friends.” Jesus is in favor of these kinds of experiences, and refers them in his teaching.   But he also wants us to look at the way people do business, at their economic relations, and to find out what God is doing there.
And so he says, “the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner hiring laborers for his vineyard.”
This story describes a scene that would have been well-known to Jesus’ listeners—men standing around the marketplace hoping to get hired so they can feed their families that day.  It was an increasingly common sight in 1st Century Galilee.   This was an era of economic upheaval, when agrarian villages were giving way to an urban society based on international trade and integration into the cash economy of the Roman Empire.  The infrastructure of this new order was paid for by increasing the burden of taxation on the peasant producers, sending more and more of them into debt.  For many that debt became an inescapable downward spiral, ending with their property being added to vast, new, aristocratic estates, where the peasants went to work as slaves and landless day-laborers.   
The ancient ideal of Israelite society was to be a nation of free and independent subsistence farmers and herders, living on their ancestral tribal lands.   One common way of describing this ideal is found in Micah 4:4:   “but they shall all sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees, and no one shall make them afraid.”   But in Jesus’ time this dream was vanishing into a mythic past.  The new symbol of basic economic security was the denarius, the silver coin with the palm leaves of the kings of Israel on one side, and the head of the Roman Emperor on the other.    It was the customary daily wage for an unskilled laborer or a common soldier, and was worth about $20—in short, about enough to keep an average-sized household going for another day.

About fifteen years ago I started my own gardening business in San Francisco.    For the most part I worked alone, but as my business got more established there were times when I needed help for a day or two.  Later, I would get to know a couple of guys I liked to work with.  I had their phone numbers and would arrange a place and a time to meet when I needed their services.   But early on there were times when I drove down Cesar Chavez St. and picked up laborers off the corner.  They’d spot my truck, the one with the tools strapped to the rack, a block away, and as I slowed to pull over six or eight men would surround me.   I’d only be looking for one, or at most two, so there was always that tense moment of decision—whom would I choose?  As often as not the choice would be made for me, and I’d end up with the first man to open the door and shove his way into the cab.   And then we’d drive away, leaving the others standing on the corner, waiting for the next truck to come by.
That moment of making the hire is the one that Jesus’ parable plays over and over again.  If the landowner is going to the vineyard to check on the progress of work, to assess the need for more laborers that day, we never hear about it.  What we do hear about is his repeated visits to the marketplace to meet the men who stand there waiting to be hired.   
We also learn nothing about where those latecomers have been.  Why weren’t they in the marketplace at 6?  Or at 9; or at noon?  And the ones who still stood there at 5 o’clock—where had they been?  Perhaps they had sick family members to care for; or maybe they still clung to a remnant of the family property and had chores to do there before they went out looking for paid work.  Maybe they’d already finished a small job that day, but were hoping to earn a little more in the hours of daylight that remained.
In short, the story leaves out everything we would want to know if we were trying to make it a conventional lesson about the virtues of hard work or sound management principles.   What matters to the landowner of the parable are not shrewd judgments about how many men to hire, and how much they should be paid.  What matters is that there is an abundance of work to be done.   The men are unemployed, so he hires them.  Their families need to eat, so he pays enough to feed them. 
You don’t need to have our ingrained Capitalist social ethic to see this as bad economic policy.  I’m sure it would have struck Jesus’ audience the same way.  You can’t do business like that.  People will game the system.  Where’s the incentive to work harder?  Where’s the penalty for being lazy?   And yet I think it must be obvious that Jesus is aiming for just that kind of reaction.  He is deliberately calling our conventional economic wisdom into question.  
Maybe we’ve become like the men of the first hour and are grumbling along with them.  Maybe, like them, we have come to truly believe that the value of a human being is how much work you can get out of him for a denarius a day.  Maybe we’ve also come to think of economic life as a competitive struggle for survival in which your gain can only come at my loss.  Maybe like them we have come to believe that the market economy is a moral law unto itself, and so we are owed special rewards for being the first into the cab of the truck, while the losers deserve to starve.
If so, Jesus is asking us to take another look, and to consider economics from the perspective of God.  The God of Jesus is a God of generous abundance, who miraculously fed his people in a deserted place with five loaves and two fishes, just as he gave them the heavenly manna in ancient times.  But he is also a God of just enough.  “Give us today our daily bread,” says the Lord’s Prayer, and the message  is not just that we  acknowledge our  dependence on God to meet our material  needs, but that we will be content to have  them  satisfied for now.   After all, we have other important things to pray for, such as being forgiven our debts, as we forgive the debts of others.    
Maybe the root causes of the crisis in the global economy are in our spiritual values.  And maybe the solutions will come not from the policy measures of central banks and regulators and corporations, but from laborers and landowners who learn to put their economic relationships back into the right perspective.    And what is that perspective?  Well, it begins; the kingdom of heaven is like this… 

Monday, September 5, 2011

If that one listens to you

If you’ve ever been in a position of authority, say as a parent, or a teacher, a supervisor or even as a priest, you’ve probably had the experience of someone coming to talk to you about somebody else.  And not in an appreciative way, to say “you know I just wanted to tell you that so-and-so is so kind, loving and generous, and has never done anything at all that I can object to, and this is so marvelous  to me that I just had to come and talk to you about it.”   I’m sure that happens, too, although, come to think of it, it’s hard for me to remember a specific instance.  But I’m talking about those occasions when someone comes to talk to you about another person with, what do they call it?—“concern.”  They’ll start out, “you know, I really like so-and-so—he’s always so cheerful, and is such a hard worker, and I really like that terrific thing that he does with…the stuff—so I don’t want you to think that I’m criticizing him—but…
And of course it’s what comes after the “but” that is what they really came to tell you about, and it is almost always because they feel offended in some way and are hoping that you will do something to control or correct or even punish that other person they’re complaining about.  The implied message is clear:  because they are having a problem, it is now supposed to be your problem, too, and your job is to solve it.  
It shouldn’t really surprise us that this happens.  Most of us are not fond of conflict and would rather not face it directly.  We learned as children  that when our big brothers are coming  into our room and playing with our things and then going away and leaving a big  mess for  us to  clean  up, the easiest way to deal with it is  to go tell Mom or Dad.   And often enough, our parents decided that the easiest thing for them to do was to step in, decide who was in the wrong, and force a resolution, complete with a ceremonial apology  (“now tell your little brother you’re sorry”), and a stern warning about  the consequences of doing it again in the future.   
And if that happens, it is enough to satisfy us.  We aren’t particularly concerned that our older brothers now resent us as whiny little tattletales—we got our problem solved.   This approach is reliable enough that we can be all grown up and still be approaching our adult conflicts in the same way.  
But as ordinary and human as this approach to conflict is, it’s not innocent.  It may bring relief to the one who accuses, but the accused often ends up feeling mistreated and resentful.  It doesn’t bring about any deeper understanding of the hurt that took place, nor any true reconciliation.    And so resentments will simmer away beneath the surface, only to break out again with greater force the next time a conflict occurs.   This approach also creates and holds in place a distorted kind of authority, one that is not loved and respected for its wisdom, courage, compassion and justice, but one that is feared and flattered for its power to discipline, punish, and show favor.   
Matthew is the only one of the four gospels where Jesus gives practical instruction about the nuts and bolts of living in the organization that will carry on his mission.  The Jesus of Matthew’s gospel has really high hopes for his church.   It is to be the new Israel, a city on a hill, the light of the world and the salt of the earth.  It is given a Great Commission to go out to all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.    But as for its internal affairs, what Jesus wants to talk about is how to handle hurts and conflicts among its members. 
It is really too bad that so many people think of the church as a place where people are nice to each other all the time, and nobody ever disagrees.   Because the church is like any other community made up of human beings.  It is a place where people are coming with their defects of character and their childhood wounds, as well as their deepest longings and loftiest aspirations.  So it is a place where people make mistakes, where they have misunderstandings, and hurt each other, sometimes quite profoundly.  What makes the church different, according to Matthew, is not that people don’t have fights, but that it is also a place where people do not hide from each other when they conflict, or try to get some authority to intervene on their side.  It is a place where people learn to speak the truth to each other in love, and where they learn to listen, to take responsibility, and to be reconciled.
You may have noticed that Jesus’ instruction about dealing with the church member who has sinned against you has only one goal, and it is a modest one.  His language may be reminiscent of a legal proceeding, but Jesus says nothing about reaching a verdict, or about a punishment to fit the crime.  The aim, at each step of this escalating scale of confrontation is just to get that person to listen to you.  “If the member listens to you”, he says, “you have regained that member.”  Let’s think about that for just a moment: what kind of words would you have to say, that would win over the one who did you wrong, if he or she could only just really take them in?
Well they would have to be true words.  They would have to be the simple truth about what was done, without exaggeration or accusation as to motive.    And they would have to be heartfelt.  When you can show me the hurt you feel, not as emotional drama, but in a way that is direct, and upright, and vulnerable, that has real power.  And they would have to be loving words, spoken with appreciation for the relationship we share, and holding out hope to repair it. 
Now maybe you’ve had the experience of being spoken to in this way by a spouse or a friend, and finding some well-defended place within you opening up to receive what is spoken.   Maybe in that moment you saw your behavior toward that person in a new way, through their eyes, and  recognized with  a  shock  of dismay that something  you had said  or done dishonored the connection  between you.   Many of us can remember being on one side or the other of a conversation like this.  Some of us may have even seen it happen in a group of three or four.  But how many of us have ever belonged to a church where this could happen in the presence of everyone?  What kind of church could place a wrongdoer in the middle of the assembly, say on a morning like this one, and speak to him in a way that is not intended to vilify or threaten, to convict or to punish, but only to open a place in his heart where he could really listen to what was being said?  Can we imagine belonging to a community that had the trust, honesty, and compassion to deal with its problems in that way?
Yet that is the kind of place Jesus calls his church to be.  He promises that in such a congregation we would learn an extraordinary freedom, where we could work things out without making rules for everything or relying on coercive authority.  He says that in a community like this, founded on hard-won forgiveness, the prayers that are offered in harmony will have extraordinary power.   He says that he himself will be among them, the living presence of the forgiving victim.  In such a church, says Jesus, it will become possible to really love each other, and so to act together to do the will of God on earth as it is in heaven.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Nothing but our bodies

In the last week, 381 people have been arrested at a sit-in in front of the White House.  The two-week protest, which has been interrupted by Hurricane Irene, is to urge the President to block the construction of a 2,000 mile pipeline that would bring an oily slurry from the Tar Sands of Alberta to refineries in Texas.  The demonstrators are opposed to the pipeline because its route passes through many ecologically-sensitive areas, and because of the destructive nature of the Tar Sands project itself, the largest industrial project in human history, which has strip-mined hundreds of thousands of acres of virgin forest and poisoned millions of acre-feet of fresh water.   But their most serious concern is the impact of the project on the global climate.  Tar Sands oil is one of the dirtiest of all fossil fuels, producing up to 20% more greenhouse gases than conventional crude oil.  Proceeding with the extraction and consumption of this resource, warns Dr. James Hansen, the nation’s leading atmospheric scientist, means “game over” for any hope of stabilizing the earth’s climate.
And so people have been going to the White House to make a statement and risk arrest.  Sometimes it happens that a need, an injustice, a threat to peace and order will take hold of our conscience and we realize that it is up to us to do something.  Sometimes the proper channels, the approved grievance procedures are not enough.   Sometimes we have to show up right where it’s happening and say, “this has to stop.”  Bill McKibben, an author and professor and Methodist Sunday school teacher from Vermont, is a spokesperson for the organizers of the sit-in.  In an interview after his release from prison on Monday, he described the political power and vast wealth of the interests lobbying for the construction of this pipeline.  “We don’t have the money to compete with those guys,” McKibben said.   “All we have, the only alternative currency we have, is our bodies. And that’s what we’re using.”
When Moses meets God in the burning bush, God tells him “I have heard the cry of the Israelites and seen how the Egyptians’ oppress them.   I have come down to deliver them and to bring them out of that land.”  That sounds pretty good to Moses.  Moses knows all about that oppression, he cares deeply about it.  He’s even killed a man trying to do something about it, which is why he’s on the lam out there in the desert.    But then God tells Moses, “Now you go do it.”  God’s wants to get involved in the Israelites situation, but it is Moses who has to go there, to stand before Pharaoh and do the talking.   No wonder Moses protests.
And no wonder Peter protests when Jesus starts talking about going to Jerusalem.  Peter is probably all for going to Jerusalem, but not yet.   Not until they’ve gathered an army and trained themselves to fight.   Not with nothing but their bodies.  Not in order to die.   Peter also probably wasn’t thinking about going to Jerusalem to confront the chief priests and the elders and the scribes of his people.  He was probably thinking about the foreign occupiers, the real oppressors, the Romans, about how to throw them out, and of course he was thinking  about how to do that and still be around when it was done, to mete out rough justice and settle old scores. 
 But Jesus was thinking about something else.  He was thinking about Israel and Israel’s God.   He was thinking about the Father in heaven whose children are the peace-makers.  He was thinking about the kingdom of heaven, and how it belongs to the poor in spirit. He was thinking about the law and the prophets, and the light to the nations and the city on a hill.  And he was thinking about the temple in Jerusalem, and how the worship of God had been reduced to an endless butchery of animals, and rigid enforcement of the rules of ritual purity.  He was thinking of the elites in charge of the temple system and how they’d twisted a religion of justice and compassion into one of exclusion and control.  He was thinking of how they collaborated with the Romans one moment and plotted violent insurrection against them the next, always seeking their own advantage, only concerned with their own survival.   
Sometimes you have to go there yourself.  Sometimes you have to go right there where it’s happening and do something to show that it’s not okay with you.   Sometimes all you have to use is your body.   We are so used to thinking of Jesus’ willing journey to death as a metaphysical bargain between him and God, that we have a hard time seeing it as a human choice, as an ethical response to a historical problem.  But today’s story from Matthew reminds us that whatever spiritual benefit may come to us through Christ’s passion, it’s not something he did so that we wouldn’t have to do anything.  He went to Jerusalem to carry his cross so that we would know how to carry ours.
But he also knew from the start that on the other side was resurrection.   This is extremely important for us to remember.  Because Jesus didn’t go to his death because he hated life, or found that the world wasn’t worth staying in.  He went out of desire for real life, life in its fullness, which is getting involved in the love, compassion, and justice that are the life of God.  "The place God calls you to is where your deep gladness and the world's deep hunger meet," wrote Frederick Buechner.  The mainspring of faithful action in the world is not duty, or guilt, but our joy in being alive.  This joy that is not taken away from us when we allow ourselves to be summoned into the places of injustice, suffering, and need, because it is the joy of giving from an inexhaustible source.   The teaching of Jesus is that we don’t really know how abundant that source is unless we are freely and joyfully willing to give away that little bit that we think of as ours.  To put it another way, you don’t really know what it means to love life if there’s nothing you’re willing to die for.
The last time there was any kind of consensus in this country about what is worth dying for was in the fight against Fascism.  We are proud to acknowledge the greatness of the generation that rose up to meet that challenge.  But that was 70 years ago, and now there are threats to the survival of our country and our civilization more dangerous than Fascism.  They’re not so easy to see, or so easy to defeat.  Their causes are complex and it doesn’t help that one of the main causes is the way we  all live every day, just going around minding our own business.  It also doesn’t help that the crisis is slow in slow in coming.  James Hansen first warned the U.S. about the danger of global warming in 1988, and yet people of my age or a little older might still be able to live out our days believing that he and 98 out of 100 of the world’s climate scientists are wrong.   We might be able to keep pretending that all the huge wildfires and epic droughts, the killer heat spells and hurricanes and floods and tornados are a run of bad luck, and soon life will return to normal.  But our children and grandchildren won’t have that luxury. 
So we’ll just have to do what needs to be done, because we love our children, and we want to leave them a world that still has more beauty in it than dread.  We want them to have a chance at something more than a grim and relentless struggle for survival.   We want them to be able to choose self-sacrifice from the nobility of their souls, not have it forced on them by iron necessity.  We love life, we have faith in the God of life, and his power to renew life and redeem it from fear, from selfish grasping, from death in all its guises.  So we’ll pick up this cross, and I think we’ll find it’s really no heavier than the ones our ancestors had to bear. 
We’ll go to where the world’s deep need calls us, now that it  is the need of the world herself for our care and concern.  Now we find that we must care for our mother earth as she has cared for us since life began, and there I think we will find a deep gladness, one so deep we scarcely have a language to describe it.   We’ll follow the call of Christ to where our deep gladness meets the world’s deep hunger, and there we’ll begin to gather up the shattered pieces of the kingdom.

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.