Wednesday, May 30, 2012

You didn't have to be there

Of the 50 to 60 million inhabitants of the Roman Empire, a tiny elite, perhaps one-half of one percent, owned some 80 percent of the wealth.  Nearly every scrap of writing that remains to us from those days, the novels, the poetry, the plays, the works of history and philosophy and rhetoric, was written by members of that elite.  It was written for members of that elite.  It speaks from their worldview.  It addresses their concerns.  We have a pretty good idea from the surviving literature about how the one-half of one percent lived, what they ate, how they spent their time.   We know many of their names. 
Contrast this with the peasants, the small shopkeepers, the artisans and laborers, the miners and sailors and soldiers and slaves who made up the remaining ninety-nine and one-half percent of the Empire’s population.  They didn’t write books, and the people who did write them were not really interested in their lives.  Their names aren’t carved on stones in the ruins of ancient cities.  We know next to nothing about them, so that when a distinguished historian recently published a book describing what we can say about them from the available evidence, he gave it the title Invisible Romans.
But there is one work of ancient literature  that is by members of the ninety-nine and one-half percent.  This book, really a collection of books, is about ordinary people.  Thanks to these writings we know some of their names, some details about how they lived, and what they cared about.  We know about them because certain experiences that they had were so significant that they decided everyone should know about them.  They organized themselves into resilient and mobile little groups, dedicated to giving testimony to what they had witnessed.  Eventually these testimonies were written down, so that they could be carried from place to place and passed down through the years in something like their original form.  Stories by ordinary people, about ordinary people, intended, by and large, for ordinary people, that by one of history’s great miracles have come down to us.
I am talking, of course, about the New Testament.  And today, on this day of Pentecost, we whose very existence as a people called “Christians” is owed to those ordinary people, celebrate the miracle that gave us birth.  This miracle has two parts.  The first part is the way in which Jesus’ disciples discovered that they were now responsible for his mission.  Not only responsible, but willing and able and empowered by God to carry it out.  That is the transformation that we celebrate in the fifty days after Easter—that this little  group of ordinary, invisible people made the journey from running away in fear on the night of Jesus’ arrest to bravely carrying on the work that he started. 
The second part of the miracle is that when these people stood up to talk about God’s mighty acts of liberation, redeeming the whole world through the life and death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, people actually listened.  Some of them actually got it—as improbable as this message was, as unlikely as the messengers were, it got through to them in a completely surprising way. 
You’ve probably had the experience where you are trying to tell your spouse or a friend about something that happened to you earlier in the day that was particularly affecting, or hilariously funny, something that for whatever reason you really want to share with another person.  So you try to describe it with all the significant details, and then you get to the climax, the moment that had the real emotional impact, and the person you’re talking to just kind of looks at you with a blank expression.  Maybe they force a little laugh just to be nice, and say something like “wow—sounds pretty funny,” or “that must have been really cool,” but you know that they just didn’t “get it” in the way that you hoped you would.  So you say “I guess you had to be there.”   
Well the miraculous thing about Pentecost is that these ordinary people, Simon Peter, for instance, Son of Jonah, started talking about extraordinary things, amazing, mysterious, mystical experiences of what they had learned from Jesus and how he came to them after he died, and breathed his peace into them and sent them out on a mission of healing and forgiveness to the whole world; and you know, it turned out that you didn’t have to be there.  You didn’t have to be there to believe that what these people were saying about Jesus was true.  You didn’t have to be there to feel like this was the best news you’d heard in a long time, maybe ever, and that it was meant for you. 
You didn’t have to be there to feel like someone was speaking to what you’d always secretly suspected about God and about yourself, but never dared to let yourself believe— that God loves you and everyone else in this world like a Father or a Mother, and that you aren’t an invisible person at all, but are heaven’s messenger, gifted with a high and noble purpose.  And just because you hadn’t been there didn’t mean you were left out of that purpose—it was not too late to join, and everyone was welcome, no matter if you were an important person or not, no matter what background you came from, there was a place for you in the brother- and sister-hood of the Messiah Jesus.
The apostles looked at these miracles, the way they had come to accept the mission of Jesus for their own, and the way all different kinds of people were actually taken with their message, and they knew that only God could do this.   That’s what God the Holy Spirit does, she communicates.  She connects.  She enters into the space between people and removes the barriers to love and trust and truth.  That’s why we invoke the Holy Spirit whenever we perform a sacramental act.   We know that only God can make the bread and wine really communicate the living body of the Lord to us.  Only God can really make the baptismal water go all the way in, and cleanse us inside and out for new life in Christ.  Only God can really make two people married, one flesh as Christ and the church are one.  So we ask God the Holy Spirit to come, and the message of Pentecost that she is not ashamed to be here, no matter how ordinary the company.  The church was created and is most alive today when it includes all kinds of people, and embraces all kinds of differences among them.

Take Brandon and Briana, and their baby Dallas, who are being baptized here today.  They are ordinary people.  Briana’s nineteen, and Brandon just graduated from High School last week.  They are not married.  It is not certain whether they ever will be.  And yet they come here today, as they have been coming for the last year or so, seeking God’s blessing for their family and their lives.  They could go a lot of places to hear people tell them where they’ve gone wrong or what they should be doing differently, but in the grace of the Holy Spirit we say to them here, “What an adorable baby!”  They could go a lot of places to hear that they’d be welcome just as soon as they got married.   In the grace of the H0ly Spirit we say, “You have to make your own decisions, but remember—with God nothing is impossible. What can we do to help?” 
Mainly we’re just grateful that they’ve decided to throw their lot in with Jesus.  They are exactly the kind of people he chose carry on his mission in the world.  Just look at us!  You didn’t have to be there.  You don’t have to have it all together.  You don’t have to be one of the one-half of one percent.  You just need faith in the Holy Spirit within you, who called you into this work and is giving you the gifts to carry it out.  And you need faith in the Holy Spirit outside you who is hidden in the world, ready, waiting, eager to respond to what you have to say.  

Friday, May 18, 2012

Fruit that will last

Last Sunday a man entered our 8 o’clock service about half-way through and walked without any hesitation right up the center aisle and took a seat in the front pew, right over here.  Needless to say, that’s unusual behavior for a Sunday visitor.  But he seemed comfortable here, coming forward to receive communion as if it were his long-standing habit.  And at the end of the service, when I invited anyone who wished to come forward for a special prayer of blessing, he stood up.  Without looking for further encouragement, or making any preliminaries, he said his name was Richard and he asked us to pray for him.  He said he was out of work and had been for a long time, and had been looking and looking everywhere for a job without success.  He said that he wasn’t going to give up, but that he’d sold everything he had of any value and that it was beginning to look like he and his family were going to have to give up their home and start living in their car.  And he asked if we would please pray for him because he really needed our prayers.

So, of course, we did.  It was the least we could do.  Someone brought him over to the Parish Hall and gave him a cup of good coffee and something to eat.  I could have offered him a little money, but he didn’t ask for that, and in fact he told me in the line at the back after church that he was tired of asking for hand outs.  What he really needs is a job.  He wants to work and support his family and preserve what remains of his dignity.  And he came here, because he wanted us to know that, and to pray for him.  

I’ve been thinking about that as I’ve been praying for Richard and his family this week.  Of course, I’ve been wishing we could have done more for him.  Praying for Richard has made me ask familiar questions of myself.  It’s made me ask what can be done for all the people who need jobs.  What kinds of assumptions lead a society to discard people like Richard without remorse or concern for the consequences?  I’ve been asking whether I’ve done enough to challenge those assumptions, whether I’ve allowed myself to be a little too comfortable, whether I’ve played it a little too safe. 

This week I read an interview with the retired Episcopal Bishop George Packard.  A highly-decorated Vietnam combat veteran, Bishop Packard was arrested along with 15 other members of Veterans for Peace, during an Occupy protest on May 1st in New York City.  The comments he made in the interview spoke to the questions I’ve been asking myself: “The spirit is calling us now into the streets, calling us to reject the old institutional orders. There is no going back. You can’t sit anymore in churches listening to stodgy liturgies. They put you to sleep. Most of these churches are museums with floorshows…Those in the church may be good-hearted and even well-meaning, but they are ignoring the urgent, beckoning call to engage with the world. It is only outside the church that you will find the spirit of God and Christ.”  

There was a time in my life when I would have rejoiced to read these words.  “Yes!” I would have said; “Bishop George Packard tells it like it is!”  I can still hear the truth in what he is saying, and I can’t ignore the example of his courageous actions.  But the example that spoke to me even more powerfully this week was that of Richard.  I think of the courage that he had, to walk in to a strange church, full of people he didn’t know, to walk right up the aisle during the service to take a seat in the front row.  I think of how, when the opportunity arose, he took his stand.  He didn’t condemn us for being too comfortable.  He didn’t try to guilt-trip us into giving him money.  He just told us his story, simply and humbly, without milking it for sentiment, or using it to make some larger point.  He trusted us to give him a hearing, and he asked us for our prayers.
In his own way, Richard took a stand.  He took a stand for himself, and for the hard truth of his situation.  He laid down the stigma of failure and desperation, and he rose up in the Spirit of truth, and by his actions he said, “I am worthy of love and concern.  I also belong to God’s family.  Your prayers matter, and they matter to me.”  And that was a gift to us.  It was a testimony to us of the love that Christ has for us, in our failures, in our desperation.  It was a reminder of how Christ came to us as a poor man, asking only that we receive each other as his friends.  We may be too comfortable with that friendship.  We may be afraid to follow him, to go out and do something about the besetting evils of the world.  Maybe we just don’t know where to begin.  But that world seeks us out, like Richard did, to invite us deeper into friendship with Christ.  And it is not a random coincidence, not something to be taken for granted, that Richard felt safe here to take his stand.

We may be comfortable here, but comfort is at the heart of the Gospel.  Jesus knew the risks involved in telling the truth to a world entranced with false hopes and empty values.  On the night before he died for that truth, he spoke words of comfort to his disciples.  He assured them that his love for them would not die with him, because it was God’s love for the world.  He promised them that if they kept faith with him, and loved each other as he had, they would find him in themselves.  And more than that, the world— the same world that threatened to destroy them, the world that filled them with fear and confusion—would reveal itself to them as his dwelling place, the abode of God’s love.  He sent them into that hostile world in the power of his love to bring forth fruit, fruit that will last. 
And so while I agree with Bishop Packard that “outside the church you will find the spirit of God and Christ,” I don’t think that is the only place to find it.  It would, indeed, be a cold kind of comfort if we prayed for Richard and took no interest in the conditions that put him in that fix.  But although what Richard really needs is a job, he also needs an open door, where they will listen to his story and give him a place in the communion of prayer.  He knew where to look for that door, and when he came, it was open.  More than ever, the world needs places where people can lay down their daily struggle for survival or success, and appear to each other to ask for the friendship of Christ, to listen to the voice of the spirit, and to abide in the love of God.

The First Letter of John says that “everyone who loves the parent loves the child.”  On this Mother’s Day, the scriptures remind us of the love that God has for every one of her children, and that if we love God our Mother, we need to love each other for her sake.  That love means continual, defiant resistance to the powers that enslave and destroy the children of God.  It also means dwelling together in the peace and joy of her beloved Son, holding open a space in the world where love and truth can abide.  We don’t have to choose between the church and the world—in fact, we don’t get to choose between them.  We were chosen to hold the world responsible for the commandment of our friend Jesus, to love one another as he loves.  And we were chosen together, to make our life together a real and visible sign of that love, an open door through which people come in to find God, through which people go out to find God. 

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Branches of the vine

Today you can get in your car or on your bicycle and travel in almost any direction from this place and before long you will see a sight that would have been very familiar to Jesus.  Wherever in Israel the land was even half-way arable, wherever people were settled, it would have been one of the tell-tale signs of spring to see the buds breaking through the bark of the grape vines, the first, glossy leaves and vigorous new shoots bursting out of the old wood.
In the time-line of John’s Gospel Jesus speaks the words we read today in the spring, on the night before the Passover.   It is the night of his betrayal, the night before his passion and death.   And Jesus is preparing his disciples for what is about to happen, but also for what is going to come after.  Facing darkness, fear, the pain of death, Jesus speaks words about life.  He invites them to imagine a vine, green and vibrant, sending out shoots and tendrils and leaves in all directions.  It draws water and minerals from the deep darkness of the earth; it breathes in carbon dioxide and nitrogen from the air; it receives light and warmth from the sun; and it takes them all— the earth, the water, the air, and the fire, and it transforms them into its own life. 
But the vine that Jesus speaks of is not alive only in a biological sense.   “I am the true vine,” he says, and that word “true” is there to tell us that he is talking about life par excellence.  Don’t be fooled by the commonplace nature of the symbol, the vine that grows in the hundreds and thousands and millions in the valleys and on the hillsides—the life that is in this vine is the creative power of God.  It is life ordered by wisdom, it is life in harmony with the heart/mind of God, it is bliss, and truth, and knowledge, and purpose and meaning.  Most of all it is love.
For this life is a life that is shared.  The life of the true vine is the life that Jesus shared with his disciples when he was with them as teacher, as master, as servant, and as friend.  It is the new life that he will take up again after he has laid his life down for them.  And the whole purpose of the life of the vine is to bear fruit.  But it cannot bear fruit on its roots.  It cannot bear fruit on its stem.  It can only bear fruit on its branches.   “I am the vine,” says Jesus, “and you are the branches.”  What he is telling his disciples in this moment is not merely that his life cannot be overcome by death, but that his new life will be in them.  It will be their life, and the fruit that they bear, the way their lives are brought to fulfillment, that will reveal the full glory of who he is.
 That is what it really means to be Jesus’ disciple.  Not just that love him.  Not just have faith in him.  Not just that we study and remember and apply his teachings.  But that through loving him, through faith in him, through keeping his commands, we should abide in him, and allow him to abide in us, so that we are his branches.  We are his disciples when the love that he bears towards us, brings forth fruit in our lives.
Now you may have noticed something missing from this teaching.  There is no code of conduct described here. There are no prescribed steps of transformation.  There are no liturgical instructions, or principles of church governance.  There is not even any mention of church attendance.  And this should tell us something.  Could our life in Christ really be so simple?  Could it be as simple as it says in the 1st letter of John?— “We love because he first loved us,” and “if we love one another, God lives in us.”
Why isn’t that good news for us?  Why don’t we want a path that clear, that simple, that direct?  Well, I think the parable of the vine has some clues for us about that. 
I was a row-crop farmer for a few years in my twenties, which was a wonderful thing to be, but there was a kind of satisfaction that I never even knew was missing from that experience until I started working with trees.  There are some fruit trees in San Francisco that I pruned and tended for almost ten years and over that time I developed a close relationship with those plants.  It’s a special kind of work because you make your cuts, taking out a limb here, thinning out some branches there, with an idea of how you want to the plant to grow, but then it’s up to the tree.  You come back in the spring and you see what it does with the work that you did, and sometimes it turns out just like you imagined it, and sometimes it’s a surprise.   Then you have to adjust your vision, and work with what the tree gives you, and slowly, over years, something beautiful and fruitful emerges.  Something that the two of you, gardener and plant, have done together.      
But we want a God who is in charge of everything, or of nothing of all.  We want either a God who is in control of every aspect of our lives, and who we can blame when things go wrong, or a God who blesses us from a safe distance and maybe catches us when we fall really, really far, but who basically leaves us alone.  But Jesus says, “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower,” and that means that the God who Jesus calls “Father” is one who works with us—removing a branch here, tying up a shoot there, thinning out some leaves now and again --but also giving us our freedom, letting us do the good, hard work of becoming ourselves.  I think that for most of us the thought that God could, on the one hand, be so interested in our lives, and on the other hand, have that much respect for us and trust in our ability to grow into something beautiful, is just hard to accept.   
And there’s another reason why the simplicity of life in the true vine is daunting for us.  Because the primary work of the vinedresser is to cut things away.  She restricts the young plant’s growth, so that it develops a strong, open structure.  She removes suckers and excess vegetation, letting in air and sunlight and pollinating insects, channeling all the energy of the plant into the ripening fruit.  But we don’t like to be pruned.  We don’t want to let go of all the many possibilities that could have been or might yet be.  We don’t want to accept the shape that God has given to our flourishing.  We don’t want to have to keep asking ourselves, “What are we hanging on to that no longer serves us, that is just taking up energy that could be better used to make fruit?” 
And yet if we turn that around, I think there is also a great promise here.  Jesus seems to be saying that if we put all our focus on the fruiting, if we keep looking for the places in our lives and the lives of our communities where there are flowers blooming, where the immature grapes are already forming, God will take care of removing the fruitless branches for us.  There may be a “little pinch” as the dentist likes to say, but it will be over quickly, and the wound will heal.  And the momentary pain of the lost branch will be forgotten in the joy of harvest, in the abundance of rich, sweet wine.  Such is the life of the resurrection—not life without pain, or loss, or sacrifice—but life that no longer fears these things as punishment.  Life trusting in the love that gave it life, abiding in that love, as one fruitful branch of an indestructible vine.

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.