Sunday, December 30, 2012

In the beginning

Isaiah 61:10-62:3
Galatians 3:23-25;4:4-7
John 1:1-18
Psalm 147:13-21 

The Christmas stories we know best sound like history.  Maybe not history as we understand the term, as something academic, or scientific, but history nonetheless.  Luke tells how Jesus was born in this place, to these parents, at the time of that imperial decree, when so-and-so was governor of Syria.  Or if you prefer Matthew’s version, sages from Persia, observing unusual astronomical phenomena, came to Jerusalem looking for the newborn king of the Jews.  This aroused the malice of the usurper Herod, and so Jesus’ family fled to Egypt for safety.   
The mythical or supernatural elements in these stories, the angels and prophecies and dreams, tell us that they are sacred history.  These are events in which God is afoot.  But the backdrop against which they take place is the natural lives of people and the history of nations.  The principal actors are human persons.  When God intervenes, it is by sending messengers to those persons, or by filling them with the Holy Spirit, so they become bearers of the message.  But God remains offstage, invisible, unknowable, on the other side of the curtain that separates earth from heaven.
The Gospel of John, on the other hand, begins the story of Jesus on God’s side of the curtain.  The principal actor in John’s Christmas story is not a character in history.  The backdrop is not the places and events of the human world.  Instead it is a story that begins with the beginnings of the universe.  The principal actor is God, and the backdrop is God.  For John the story of Jesus Christ begins with the no-beginning that makes all beginnings possible, in the no-time that precedes every moment of time.  The miraculous birth that John begins with is the primordial mystery of existence itself, the mere fact that there is anything at all.
One of the first experiences of my childhood that could be called “religious” concerned just this mystery.  I was eight or nine years old, and my Grandma Lenore, was undergoing her first round with cancer.  I was lying in my bed at night and for the first time that I can recall it really hit me that I was going to die.  And my parents and my brothers, and everybody I knew—all of them were also going to die.  If felt as if a great abyss of dread and meaninglessness was opening up beneath me and was going to swallow me up.   And then, suddenly, a light went on.  Another thought came to me, that brought me comfort and hope and filled me with gratitude.  It was the thought of how completely gratuitous, how unnecessary, even arbitrary, and utterly not-to-be-taken-for-granted it is, that there should be anything at all.
That anything and everything comes into existence at all is a gift.  It is grace.  That the world exists, in spite of the improbabilities, in defiance of entropy, notwithstanding its tendency to instability and metamorphosis, is the one undeniable and irreducible truth.  The created universe, and everything in it, is not simply there, at random, out of nowhere and to no purpose.  It exists because there was in God, from the beginningless beginning, the impulse to create.  And if that, then also the desire to be created.  To be light, shining in the darkness.  To be word, spoken in the silence.  There is nothing in the universe that does not owe its existence to that love by which God becomes an other to herself, pure potentiality moving into act, absolute freedom taking form and pattern, perfect being becoming becoming.
John’s gospel begins with this beginning to tell us how radical is the grace that comes through Jesus Christ.  John wants us to understand that Christ’s coming transforms everything we thought we knew about our relationship to God and our place in creation.  He wants us to perceive that the very stuff of our consciousness is the word of God.  We reflect, like an image in a mirror, that intrinsic act of standing apart from oneself by which the one becomes two, and the uncreated creates.  We participate, not just instinctively, but consciously, freely, and artfully, in the bodying-forth of God that unfolds of the universe as.  
But the irony is that this god-likeness also gives us the capacity to imagine a godless universe.  The intrinsic stepping apart from ourselves by which know ourselves as knowers, also makes us prone to believe the lie that we are separate.   We can fall into the delusion that the light of our minds is the only light.  We can think that the words we use to name, to classify, to make distinctions and count quantities and rationalize the world are the only truth there is.  We can use our freedom to act upon the other creatures in the universe as if we and they were disconnected things.  And we can grasp that freedom as power, power without relatedness.  We can fight and kill for power.  We can worship it, and in worshipping it become its slave. 
This is the precarious freedom into which Christ is born. To talk about it as I have done can seem abstract, disconnected from our every day human life.  It is no surprise that we’d prefer a history.  We can make sense of a baby in a manger, and shepherds, wise men bearing gifts, and a star.  For all of their legendary quality, we can connect these stories to our own stories, and infuse them with our feelings and our memories.  We can feel like we know what the story means for us.  And it can also leave us out of it. 
The Gospel of John asks us to find Christmas at a deeper level of experience, in the very heart of reality.  John asks us to see the Christ child in the manger and know that there we are.  Paul says something similar in the letter to the Galatians.  To really understand what the birth of Christ means, to really receive the gift of his grace, we need to be like children in relation to God.  We need to experience the word of God as a child might, in utter simplicity, as light, as life, as bread, as the cry in our hearts for love and protection, as consciousness itself.  This is the experience of Christmas that is sometimes called contemplation, or mystical illumination, or even gnosis, and even the church has not taken it very seriously.  Or we have treated it something dangerous and exotic, reserved for a select few, rather than the universal birth-right of every human being. 
And it is dangerous.   It is dangerous to the powers-that-be who worship their own alienation.  It is dangerous to theological systems and ideological orthodoxies, to false piety and self-serving cynicism.  It is dangerous because it finds a God who comes from completely outside our existing frame of reference.  We want to know where he comes from, because we feel the irresistible draw of our true home.   But if we are going to come alive in the way that he is alive, we have to be willing to become other than ourselves.  We need to let God take away from us everything we thought we knew we were—our tribal and religious identities, our ideas of morality and virtue, our understandings of human nature and the historical situation, our fantasies about how to improve our lives or make the world a better place.  We have to let it all go and let God speak.  We have to allow God to begin again with us at the beginning, where nothing is taken for granted, and to tell us again who we really are.                                                                                

Sunday, December 23, 2012

The visitation

One night last week, after our daughter had fallen asleep, my wife Meg and I went out into our hot tub.  The previous owners threw it in at the last minute when we bought the house a couple of years ago, and the hot tub has become a frequent part of our relaxation ritual at the end of the day.  It was a cold, starry night and I was submerged up to my neck, gazing up at the sky, when I saw something streaking across it in our direction.  For half a moment I thought it was a shooting star, but then I saw it was a bird, and no sooner had I taken that thought than it came swooping down upon us.  It stalled in the air above us, not five feet from our faces, for a couple of beats of its wings, and then shot noiselessly over us into the night.  An owl, I’m pretty sure, out hunting.   
In the moments that followed I found myself wondering what a Native American or one of my ancestors in ancient Britain, or indeed a member of any traditional society might have made of this nocturnal visitation.  Not just as a random phenomenon of animal behavior but as a message from the world of spirit.   This is a way of wondering about the world that is lost to us, that sounds kind of silly and new-agey to our skeptical and materialistic ears.  But maybe the approach of Christmas gives us permission to open our hearts and minds a little to perceive the miraculous in the ordinary.  And what could be more ordinary, and the same time more miraculous, than pregnancy, and the anticipated birth of a child? 
The Hebrew scriptures are full of stories of women who conceive unexpectedly and against the odds.  These pregnancies are not random biological phenomena, but messages from the world of spirit, signs that God still lives, that God still acts to save his people.    The movement of a fetus in its mother’s womb is an ordinary miracle, a moment of joy and wonder at the presence of the unknown that is a universal human experience.  But in the Gospel of Luke, when Elizabeth feels the fetus leap in her womb at the sound of Mary’s voice, she is filled by the Holy Spirit, the Spirit that brings good news of God and God’s workings in the world. 
Elizabeth understands that she has received a message from her unborn child, who knows what no one could know except by the Spirit—that her young cousin Mary, also improbably pregnant, bears the promised Lord of his people.  And in the Spirit Elizabeth blesses Mary, knowing by a leap of faith what she otherwise could not have known.  For Mary’s greeting is the echo of another voice, the greeting of the angel Gabriel who brought the Spirit’s news to her, saying “Hail, O favored one, the Lord is with you.”  Mary is blessed not just because she has conceived a child, but because of her faith, because she has believed that what was spoken to her by the messenger of God would be fulfilled.
And then it Mary’s turn to speak, or rather, to prophesy.  For Mary now sings talks about who God is and what God is doing.  She speaks of these things in the past tense, because for the person who believes, what God wills is already done.  Mary’s song is about the love, and the faithfulness, and the generosity of God who is only doing what was promised.  And the promise is not only for her alone.  Her song is a message from the Spirit What Mary knows, in the power of the Holy Spirit, is that that through her, through the child she will bear, God is fulfilling his promise to Israel, and through Israel to all humankind.  Her child is the one whom God has always promised to be.  Her child will do what God has always promised to do, and that what God does is to set us free. 
The Magnificat of Mary evokes other inspired songs of victory by other women—women of the Hebrew scriptures, women like Hannah, the mother of the prophet Samuel, and the warrior Deborah from the book of Judges, and Miriam, the sister of Moses, who sings and dances with the women of Israel on the other side of the Red Sea.  Their songs are songs of survival.  Not just the biological survival of the family, the tribe, or the race, but the survival of God’s mission in the world.   
Israel is a people with a particular responsibility to live the justice of God, to make it manifest in the world so all the nations can see.  She is a poor people, a marginal people, scratching out a living on some marginal land in the borderlands between the great empires of Egypt and Mesopotamia.   Israel is a people that knows what it is to be poor, to be enslaved, to be invaded and occupied and dispersed among the nations.  But she is a people that wills to survive, that must survive, for the sake of her special responsibility for God’s mission in the world.   
Mary and Elizabeth enter into a conspiracy on behalf of God’s justice—“Con-spiracy”—from “spire” meaning “breath” and “con” meaning “together”—and the breath they breathe together is the Spirit of God.  Theirs is the story of two ordinary women, actually two marginal women, one older and thought to be infertile, the other, young and scandalously unwed.  But these two women experience a visitation that makes their meeting a conspiracy of the Holy Spirit.  They will pass this conspiracy on to their sons— John, called the Baptist, and Jesus, called the Christ, and so they will ensure the survival of God’s mission of liberating justice in the world.  In fact, they will bring it to fulfillment, in the sense that what God wills is already done.  And that conspiracy of John and Jesus has indeed survived, extraordinarily and improbably survived.  It has spread like a great wind over the whole world.  It has even come to Petaluma, California.  It has survived even the end of a long cycle of the Mayan Calendar, and now stands on the threshold of the year 2013 since it began.
It is this contagious conspiracy of freedom and justice that we hope to catch anew this Christmas.  On the fourth Sunday of Advent, in the wake of the slaughter of the innocents at Newtown, we are asked to remember that, among many other things, the gospel conspiracy means this—that every child is, so to speak, an owl in the night.  Every child is a visitor from the spiritual world, bearing the seed of a holy purpose and a divine identity.  That this is especially true for the sons of Mary and Elizabeth should not blind us to the truth that each one of us is a child of God. 
Every one of our children comes into the world bearing gifts, gifts that are for all of us, and for those who come after us, who will carry on the work of God when we are no longer in the world.  This is the true of measure of justice, and the very heart of our responsibility as adult human beings, to ensure that every child gets to give those gifts, and to have them received.  This is as true for the children who are fair to middling, as the world accounts talent and promise, as for the exceptionally gifted.  It is as true for the disabled, and those born in poverty, and those whose lives will be spent in obscurity, as for those marked with a great destiny.  For it is not our place to judge the worth of any human being, but only to open our hearts and wonder, “What is the message?—what gift does this child of God bring?”

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Speaking to the unspeakable

Zephaniah 3:14-20
Canticle 9
Philippians 4:4-7
Luke 3:7-18

These are the words that people have been using to talk about the mass shooting on Friday at an elementary school in Connecticut.  And as I worked on this sermon yesterday in our kitchen while my third-grader painted with watercolors and sang Christmas songs next to me at the table, I knew what they mean.  I think we all do.  But we human beings are meaning-makers, and so it is only natural that we would immediately start trying to make sense of the senseless.     We start making psychological profiles and sociological analyses and calls to political action.  We observe moments of silence at sporting events.   We give sermons like this one.  We cannot hear about something like this and just go on with our lives as if nothing happened. 
And because we are in church we have to ask what, in particular, we should do?  Is there some way of speaking to the unspeakable that we, as a community of faith, are especially called to?  Well, certainly we can pray.  We can pray for the victims of this violence, and for their families.  We can pray for those affected by similar incidents in the past, whose memories of horror and grief have been reawakened.  As Christians we are commanded to remember that the perpetrator of this crime is also a victim of his actions, and to pray that it is not too late for him to be released from his torment. 
Yesterday morning I spoke with a young woman named Sally who recently moved to the Bay Area and who called our church because she is from Newtown, Connecticut and attended the Sandy Hook Elementary School.  She spoke of her home town the way I have sometimes heard Petalumans talk about the abduction and murder of Polly Klaas, of the pain of knowing that from now on it will be the place where that school shooting happened.  So we can pray for that whole community, and Sally asked in particular that we pray for Kathie Adams-Shepherd, the Rector of Trinity Episcopal Church, and all the religious and political leaders in Newtown who now must bear their people’s anger and horror and grief, and stand for God’s healing and hope.

But there is another thing that Christians are supposed to do in times like this.  It is work that the gospel calls us to in no uncertain terms.  When we are faced with evil, with the meaningless and incomprehensible, it is our responsibility to repent.  This is an assignment that comes down to us from the Hebrew prophets, who saw the corruption of Israel’s rulers, and the barbarity of her enemies, who saw cities fall and the bodies of children lying in the streets, who saw the land laid waste by locusts and by invading armies, and who said that these are not random, meaningless, disconnected events. 
There is a whole pattern here, say the prophets.  There is a judgment to be made about all of this.  We have a choice to make.  We could just give thanks that these calamities have not fallen upon us personally, and say a few sympathetic prayers and then keep going on the way we have been.  Or we can wake up and see that unless we do something collectively to turn our way of life around and bring it back into harmony with God, this kind of thing, and worse, is going to keep happening and we will end up destroying everything.

If we take the prophets seriously we have to consider the possibility that we really are all connected, and so we are all responsible.  The violence that erupts now and then, here and there in America, at places like Newtown, and Aurora, and Virgina Tech, and Columbine, is only meaningless if we believe that the young men who carry it out have nothing to do with us.  But if we see them as a prophet would, we know they are symptoms of a disease that afflicts us all.  They are the eruption on the surface of the virus of violence that is so embedded in the everyday operation of the world in which we live that we don’t see it anymore.    When we have the courage and the honesty to look at it that way, to say that we are implicated, we call that repentance.  Which is another way of saying that is that we keep alive the hope of transformation.

Repentance, as the prophets talk about it, is a positive act.  It affirms the existence of God, and God’s covenant with us.  It is a way of looking at the crimes and catastrophes of history and insisting that they do have meaning.  For if we acknowledge that we all bear at least some responsibility for the way things have gone wrong, then we can never completely cast aside the hope that God is just.  We can’t merely say to everything bad that happens that it’s somebody else’s fault.  We affirm that things don’t just happen the way they do without any cause, but that there are lessons for us to learn even from the unspeakable. 
And there’s hope in that.  There is the promise that if we really open our hearts to see others’ suffering as our own suffering, and if we can open them even more, and see other’s evil as our own evil, we will understand something of the true goodness, and mercy, and faithfulness of God.  We will no longer be simply victims of bad people, or helpless pawns of cruel fate.  We will be responsible, and if we are responsible we are also free.  We are free to choose a different kind of future.

This season of Advent is about hoping that God will come and open the eyes of our compassion.  It is about longing for God to come and teach us that we are free.  It is about waiting for God to come and help us choose a different kind of future, one where school shootings don’t happen anymore.  John the Baptist shows up in the Gospel readings every year at this time to wake us up, to get us ready for God to come to us in just this way.  And the first thing he tells us we have to do to get ready is to repent.  John says that the one who is coming after him is only interested in one thing—that our lives bear fruit, the fruit of repentance.
The one who is coming is less like a king, says John, or a warrior, than he is like a farmer.  He doesn’t wear boots, he wears sandals.  He’s coming to work, and his work is us.  There are trees in us that don’t bear—and he’ll clear them out, letting in air and light.  He’ll make a big bonfire, and the eggs of the boring beetles and the larvae of the codling moths, and the spores of the blight and the rust will be destroyed, and the ashes will fertilize a bumper crop of sweet and healthy fruit.  Or you could say that there is wheat in us, according to John, but it’s just kind of strewn around on the threshing floor, mixed in with the straw and the husks, and so the one who’s coming has his winnowing fork in his hand and he’ll toss us gently and let us fall, and the wind will blow away the chaff leaving only the grain which he will gather into his storehouse.  And the chaff he will burn in the unquenchable fire of God’s truth and love. 

Every year at this time John the Baptist stands by the banks of the Jordan and asks us what we really want.  Do we really want God’s justice to prevail in the world?  Do we really want to live in peace as brothers and sisters in a single human family?  Do we really want our lives to bear spiritual fruit?  Do we really want to be free?  Have we waited long enough?  Then we have to stop acting like the suffering in the world is somebody else’s problem.  We have to repent.  We have to be ready to be thinned, to be winnowed.  We have to understand that it may sometimes feel like part of us is being taken away and burned. 
But if we do want it, and we are ready, the farmer is on the way.  And we can trust him, because his whole life is repentance.  Because he identifies so completely with the suffering of humanity that he will take personal responsibility for it all.  His whole life will be turned back toward God, as our priest, his whole life a burnt offering of repentance so that we can choose a different kind of future.  So that we can at last be free.     

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Beginning at the end

Last week I told a story about my sophomore year in college, a time in my life when I was haunted by the dread of nuclear apocalypse, and about a confrontation I had at the time with a man whose job it was to plan nuclear war.  This week I’m remembering something that happened about six months after that.  It was the summer, and I was on a three-week expedition at the Hurricane Island Outward Bound School in Maine.  I was on a thirty-foot sailboat with about ten other teenagers and a couple of adults, and we were cruising from island to island in the coastal wilderness of Penobscot Bay.  
One afternoon we were out of the sight of land, sailing by dead reckoning in a light rain and fog.  There were some rocks on the chart with a bell buoy that we found right where we thought they’d be, and as we left them astern I looked back.  Rays of light were breaking through the low clouds, shining on the sea in the distance, and three or four black cormorants, what the Mainers call “shags,” were standing on the rocks holding their wings outstretched for the feathers to dry.  Something about the sight of those birds spoke to me, as they stood out there in the middle of that cold ocean, just doing what naturally needed to be done.  They spoke to me of the great life that moves through all things, of its indestructibility and its powers of rebirth.  I felt a sense of trust and peace, and I knew that no nuclear war or any other human evil could destroy that life, or thwart its sheer desire to become.  We could do it great harm, and ourselves along with it, but we could not kill it forever.
Last week we also heard another story, the end of another retelling of the tale of Jesus Christ.  He stood before the man who would shortly condemn him to death and bore witness to the truth, as he had come into the world to do.  And we bore witness to him, saying prayers and singing hymns that acknowledged Jesus as the abiding truth about what really matters in the world.  We acclaimed him as the world’s true ruler.  And with that we came to the end.   We turned the page on another year, as the church reckons years. 
So it is strange to say, here we are again.  Two weeks ago, we were in Mark’s gospel with Jesus looking out from the Mount of Olives at the great Temple of Israel’s God, and he prophesied its destruction, and his disciples asked about the end of the world.  Today we begin the new year, and open Luke’s gospel, and Jesus is in Jerusalem, in the Temple, speaking about the end of the world.  So why are we still here?  Why pick up again where we just left off?  Why begin at the end?
Well, maybe because we are still waiting.  We may know that Christ is the king, the true ruler of the world.  We may know that love is the almighty power that orders all things, that was before the beginning and will be at the end.  We may know it, I should say, by faith.  But that faith can seem pretty tenuous when we look around at the state of things.  It’s hard to see the cycles of violence and retribution in the Congo and the Middle-East, and say that love is the supreme law.  It’s hard to look at the greed and exploitation by which the rich get richer, and the poor get poorer, and the earth gets thrown further and further out of whack, and see how Jesus Christ is the ruler of this world.   And so, even though we have heard the good news, the question still hangs in the air, “How long?  How long will this go on?”
That question is at the heart of the Hebrew Bible.  And the message of the Hebrew prophets about the evil in the world and the unmerited sufferings of the innocent is that it will not continue indefinitely.   God will act.  A day will come, a great and awesome day, when God will re-assert sovereignty over creation and the whole world will see what now only the prophet can.  Because the judgment that takes place on that day will not just apply to this or that person’s immortal soul.  It will be a great cosmic upheaval, God’s housecleaning, in which the whole world will be transformed. 
Over centuries of exile and oppression, the Jews developed the promise of a coming cosmic judgment into a literary form we call “apocalyptic,” from a Greek word that means “the lifting of the veil.”   Today’s gospel text from Luke begins with language drawn from that apocalyptic tradition.  Speaking of the coming judgment, Jesus says “there will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars.”  On earth, people will faint from fear, “for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.”  He goes on to quote one of the most famous passages of apocalyptic in the Bible, the Seventh Chapter of the Book of Daniel, when he says “they will see 'the Son of Man coming in a cloud' with power and great glory.”
But from there Jesus’ speech takes an unexpected turn.  From the oracle of apocalypse, he suddenly becomes again the teacher who sat by the Sea in Galilee, speaking simple parables of the kingdom of God.  The imagery that he uses now also resonates deeply with the scriptures, but with a far older stratum of the tradition.  He says, “Look at the fig tree, and all the trees,” and suddenly we are not at the end of the world, but at its beginning.  We are in the garden that God planted with every kind of tree that was good for food, and gave to our first parents for a dwelling.  “As soon as they sprout leaves,” says Jesus, “you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near.  When you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near.”
“The kingdom of God is near”—this is the essential proclamation of the Gospel, the place where all the teaching of Jesus and the teaching about Jesus begins.  This is not just the threat of imminent destruction but also the promise of justice and liberation that are intimately present, intimately real.  And the signs of the kingdom are the miraculous life of ordinary things: of a sower who goes out to sow; of a woman mixing yeast into the dough, and a net full of every kind of fish.  While the nations fall into terror and confusion at the unraveling of the world, Jesus says “look—it’s almost summer.”
I’m going to say that it’s not a mistake that these two sayings are together--the apocalyptic vision and the parable of the fig tree.   The conjunction suggests that this is where we are meant to live—in this balance point where the end and the beginning meet, this precarious place of freedom called “now.”  That is why Jesus so strongly recommends watchfulness—staying awake and alert.  Because in the presence of Jesus people experience the justice, and the truth, and the repentance and forgiveness that are supposed to be unveiled at the end, only it is happening now.  They know the freedom, and the innocence, and the intimacy with God that were there at the beginning, only now.  And yet there are so many times we meet Jesus and we don’t see what is happening.  Our hearts and our minds are closed and we miss it.
And I suppose that’s why we no sooner finish telling the Gospel story than we start all over again.  Because missed something the last time around.  We are still waiting for God to do something.  We are still asleep, as if Jesus never came, as if the troubles in the world still have no solution, as if we still don’t know what to do.  So we start the story over again from the beginning.  And we do it with a sense of hope and expectation.  We hope that this time we really will hear it, that this time it will wake us up, and Jesus Christ will not be someone who died a long time ago, or someone who will come someday, who knows when, but that the Son of Man will come and stand before us, and live with us, and work through us.  Now. 

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.