Sunday, November 20, 2011

The pastures of compassion

Where is all this going?  All this organized activity, all this material and cultural production, all these institutions of education, government agencies, commercial enterprises, courts of law, military, medical, and religious organizations, in short everything that we call “the modern world” or “civilized society”—what is it all for?  Suppose we say that its purpose is to establish a just, peaceful, and prosperous world order.   Who gets to decide what is justice, what is peace, and prosperity?  How can we tell whether we are getting closer to them or further away?  And if it happens, as U.S. public opinion polls show, that a majority of our citizens believe that we are “on the wrong track”, what are the standards to guide us, how do we find the bearings for charting a better course?
It  is  a measure of  the superficiality  of  most  of what passes for  politics in the world  today  that these  questions are  at the margins of the  debate,  if they enter it at all.  But as Christians we have no choice but to ask them.  When we acclaim, as in the collect prayer that began this liturgy, that Jesus Christ is King of kings and Lord of lords, we are giving him a political   title.  We are saying that there are answers to these questions about the ultimate end of human society, and the means to get there.   We are saying that those answers are found in him.  
The story that Matthew’s gospel gives us today tells us that entrance into Christ’s kingdom requires answers so radically different from the conventional wisdom, so unlike any that had ever been given before, that it represents a parting of the ways.    Those for whom these answers are true, who make them central to their  identity  and action and  sense of purpose, are going to  be as different from everyone else  as sheep are from goats.
We tend to think of standing before the throne of judgment as an individual act.   But the Gospel is quite clear—The Son of Man will come to judge the nations.    All of this is consistent with the idea of election found in the Hebrew scriptures—God chooses a holy nation.  His covenant of salvation is with the entire people and he gives them the law to set them apart from the nations around them.   Their greatness is not to be measured by the conventional standards of military conquests, or the pomp and splendor of their rulers, by magnificence of their palaces, fortresses, and cathedrals, or the cultural refinements of their elites.  Their nation will be judged by its faithfulness to the God of creation and their scrupulous observance of the law.  
But the Son of Man in the gospel goes further—he judges with no partiality at all.   Israel is not mentioned in this passage, either with prejudice or approval.   His standard of judgment has no more to do with religious purity or pious belief than with valor in battle or ethnic superiority.    The Kingdom of which he is the Lord is not the successor of any existing political entity or cultural system, but is the inheritance of what was already present and active at the creation of the world.   It is rooted in the wisdom through which God made all things and pronounced them good, and fashioned men and women in the image of God. 
The Son of Man comes to judge the nations and his standard of judgment will be his own incarnation.   He is that same man of flesh and blood, who was poor, who was without honor in his own home town, who ministered to the sick and the sinful and the demon-possessed, and who identified himself with them to the point of being condemned as a criminal dying on a cross.  

On Wednesday a dozen or so of us from St. John’s went to breakfast at the Veteran’s Memorial Hall.  We came at the invitation of the Committee on the Shelterless, or COTS, a local agency that provides food, shelter, and supportive services for homeless children and adults.   The understood purpose of the gathering was to raise money, but my experience was that there was a spiritual purpose t0 it as well.    John Records,  COTS’  Executive Director, began the  morning’s program by  describing the daunting  challenges of these time—a   40% increase in homelessness  in  Sonoma  County in the last three years, Federal and State funding that is disappearing, possibly  never to return,  a  waiting list  for beds at the COTS shelter  that stretches into  the months.
But he also spoke of something that I think we all felt as we looked around us at the 600 other people crowded into that room, and that was hope.   He spoke of a dark time in his own life, a time when he was close to giving up, and of the people whose love and caring helped him to find purpose in his life again.   He spoke of the joy and the meaning he has found in becoming one of those people for others, one who offers hope.  A few minutes later one of the COTS members came out, a man who became homeless after an auto accident that put him in a wheelchair for the rest of his life, and he told similar kind of story.   He spoke of his achievements of the last year, how he is now renting his own apartment and attending community college, and how he now serves as a mentor for newer members of the COTS program.   
But the most extraordinary thing he said was that if he could go back and live his life over, and never have the accident that cost him the use of his legs and put him out on the street, he would not do it.   He said that he wouldn’t change anything.  His testimony was to a greater hope than “rehabilitation”, a hope that goes beyond becoming once again a “fully-functioning member of society.”    It is a hope that I think all of us share, even if don’t think about it much, even if we are well and securely housed, gainfully employed, and meet the standard definition of “able-bodied.”
It is the hope that in the wisdom of God suffering is not a curse to be lifted but can be a strange kind of gift.  Our wounds are also the openings through which compassion comes to us from others, and through which our compassion goes out to them.  The places where we are broken are also the places where the barriers break that separate us from other people.  The whole blessing of our humanity, which includes sorrow and anguish and death, is to hold out the hope of living in a world where we actually trust each other.  It is to look for the triumph of a new kind of power that does not victimize the vulnerable, or ostracize the sick, or punish the erring.   It is the hope for a new and redeemed humanity and for life in a just and holy nation. 
God’s promise is to establish that kingdom, where He himself will be our shepherd.  She has prepared it from the foundation of the world.    It is present among us now, as the gift of Christ’s own flesh and blood.   Not for us who are pious.   Not for us who say “I thank thee, Lord, that I am not like other men” and “there but for the grace of God go I” but for us who say, “I thirst” and “my God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”   Not for us proud who confide in our own strength, but for us who are poor, who are meek, who mourn, who are merciful, who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake. 
Jesus’ last words from the cross echo his first teachings from the Sermon on the Mount.   And they remain the words on which the world’s salvation turns.   Are we to go with the goats down into the maelstrom of never ending violence, cruelty, competition, exploitation of the earth and the poor?  Or are we to go with the sheep, to feed on the pasture of God’s compassion, on God’s coming to be among us as one who suffers, as one who serves, the King of kings, and the Lord of lords?

Don't bury your precious gifts

We are coming close to the end.  Two more Sundays and the church year is over.     This ending coincides (at least in Northern Hemisphere) with the end of the solar year, and the descent of the earth into the darkness of winter.    The lectionary, the cycle of scripture readings which for the last year has guided us in its meandering but logical course through the story of Jesus as it is told in the Gospel according to St. Matthew, now asks us to think about the end.  The end--or is it the beginning? 
 In the Godly Play Sunday school room we teach a lesson called the Circle of the Church Year, and the material for the lesson is a circular calendar made of wood that looks kind of like a clock.  And lying on top of the calendar around the face of the clock is a gold-colored cord.   When we are about to tell the story we take that cord and ball it up inside of one fist.  Then we begin by holding up the fist and pulling one end of the cord out very slowly.   And we say that people sometimes speak of time as if it was a line.  Time in a line.    But then we point out that as the cord gets longer the part that was the first to come out of the fist is now the oldest part and there is a new newest part coming out all the time.    Eventually we come to the end, which is the newest part of all.  Then we ask the children, “do you know what the church did?” and then we tie the ends of the cord together to make a circle, so the end is the beginning and the beginning is the end.
The Christian hope is that every end is also a beginning,   In Paul’s First Letter to the Thessalonians, he reminds the church that what we wait and watch for is not nightfall, but day.   It will come suddenly, like the onset of labor that says “ready or not, here comes the baby.”   In Matthew’s  Gospel, when Jesus’ is walking out of the Jerusalem temple for the last time,  and  his ministry is at an end but for his anointing for burial, and a last Passover meal with his friends, and his suffering, and his death, his disciples choose that moment to ask him about the end of the world.    He gives them a long answer, the last of the five great discourses in Matthew that began with the Sermon on the Mount.  He foretells a time of trial, upheaval, of persecution for the church and suffering for all the earth, which he also likens to “birth pangs.”  For the end will also be an advent, an arrival, a coming, a coming back, a coming to be with forever.   
The other thing that Jesus says about this end that is also a beginning is also echoed by Paul —don’t bother trying to predict the time.   It will come upon us suddenly like birth pangs, or like lightning that strikes in the east and lights up the sky as far as the west.    You will know it when it happens, so those who announce it ahead of time are to be distrusted.  That is what false prophets do.   The anticipation of the end is not about getting there first.   It is not about timing our sprint to the finish line.   It is about living every day, every lifetime, in a state of readiness.  It is about being fully alive, fully awake at all times to the possibility of God’s coming in the very next moment.   And it’s about holding nothing back, because we know that tomorrow may never come.
Most of all it means living with only one fear.  I think that’s a point that many people misunderstand.   They think that the God who comes will be vengeful and violent and really, really, pissed off.  And I would say that we can’t discount that image entirely.   We are talking about coming face to face with a power of love and truth that is completely beyond our imagining.  It will lay bare our illusions and pretensions and excuses and false idols utterly and forever.  It will break once and for all the systems of thought and orders of power that oppress and destroy and make life not worth living.  But there is a Christian twist on this idea of the end, which is, after all, found in many religions, and now even has its secular, materialistic version.  And it is this—not only is the end also a beginning, but it will come to us with a shock of recognition.   It will be a reunion, because the one who is coming at the end is one we’ve met before.  
And in that sense, we do know what to expect and we do know how to prepare.  We can be ready because Jesus of Nazareth showed us what it is like to live face to face with that power of truth and love.   He’s already been through the birth pangs, already entered the new creation that waits to be born.  And so if we really want to be ready, we have his words to live by, we have his pattern to follow.       
In Matthew’s gospel Jesus’ career as a teacher ends with a set of three stories about how to live while we’re waiting for his return.  The first one, the “Parable of the Wise and Foolish Maidens” is about staying awake and alert, keeping our wicks trimmed, and a supply of lamp oil ready to hand so that when the bridegroom comes we are ready to light his way into the feast.  Today we heard the second of these stories, the so-called “Parable of the Talents.” The first thing to notice about this story is that before the master leaves he entrusts what he has to his slaves.   And these are not insignificant amounts of money.   Remember the slave who only received one talent? Well, he was getting the equivalent of 130 pounds of precious metal—gold or silver.  It is not that surprising, then, that he was afraid of what might happen if he lost it.   What if it was stolen?    What if he was taken advantage of by confidence men?   Rather than run that risk, he figures, let me bury the master’s treasure in a secret place that only I know about.   
And if we fear the Lord who is coming, not in the sense of speechless awe at his glory, but by freezing up in dread of judgment and punishment, we are liable to make the same mistake.    We can make “not screwing up” the focus of our relationship with God.  You and I have been  entrusted with invaluable and precious gifts us so that we might go into the public  marketplace and invest them, put them at the disposal of others, trade with  them, circulate  them,  put them to  work, so that they are  multiplied, and bring more honor, inspire more love, evoke more gratitude for the Lord  who gave them to  us  and is  coming  back to gather all the world’s riches into the house of joy.     Our one fear at his coming will be that we took the precious treasure we received, and because we were afraid to screw up, we hid it from the world.
To look truth and love in the face and know we did that--that, my beloved friends, is judgment.   That is punishment.  That is the outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.  
We need to value our talents.  Not for what they are worth in the eyes of other human beings; certainly not for what we can get for them in the way of power, and possessions, and prestige; but for how God will increase them if we trust him enough to put them to work, to put them in play, even to put them at risk, in God’s service.
What are the talents you have been given?  Are you investing them in the world?  The end is coming.  What are you bringing to the celebration?  

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.