Monday, July 30, 2012

I can work with that

Leftover night
The week before last I was on vacation with my wife’s family.  We have rented the same two houses at the North Carolina shore for the past eight or nine years and every night we all get together at the bigger of the two for dinner.  Meg and I cook dinner one night, and her sister and her husband cook dinner another night, and so on, and it is a very satisfactory arrangement.  Nobody has to do too much cooking, but we can each focus on the one meal we are responsible for, and we all eat very well indeed.  There is just one problem-- we have enough conjugal units, if you pardon the expression, for five nights’ dinners.  But what to do about that sixth night, Friday night? 
The obvious thing to do would be to eat the leftovers and the unused food, of which there is always a lot, and which otherwise has to be transported all the way back home (arriving much the worse for wear) or thrown into the garbage.   Every year we run into this problem and every year someone suggests the obvious solution and every year someone loses their nerve in the end and runs out for pizza or barbeque or something and we end up with even more food than we had before.  Every year, that is, until this one.  This year we finally just emptied the refrigerators and put all the food out on the counters in the big house and rubbed elbows in the kitchen for an hour or so, taking turns at the microwave until everyone was fed.  At the end of which, we congratulated ourselves and asked “why didn’t we do this before?”

Not the right question
Sometimes "Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?" is not the right question.  Jesus knows that it’s not the right question when he asks it of Philip in the sixth chapter of the Gospel of John, but Philip doesn’t know that, and that’s why Jesus asks it.  And when Philip protests that "Six months' wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little," it’s not clear whether he’s contesting the implied premise in the question, that “these people are hungry and it’s up to us to see they get fed,”  or whether he’s pointing out the practical difficulties in carrying it out.  Either way, he’s taken the bait, and he’s stuck.  
Just then up pops Andrew and the boy with the five barley loaves and two fish.  But where did they come from?  Surely Andrew wasn’t going through the crowd, demanding to see people’s food.  He can only have known that the boy has them because he come forward and offered them.  The boy doesn’t look at his five loaves and two fish and ask, as Andrew does, “What are they among so many people?"  He just knows that the people are hungry.  He has a little more food than he needs, and he trusts that Jesus will know how to put his surplus to the best use.

Celebrating what there is
And he’s right.  That kind of trust, that generosity, that simple willingness to respond to a situation of need is something that Jesus can work with.  And what is his work?  It is the work of celebrating what there is, of giving thanks to God for the five loaves and the two fish, and for the generosity of the child who brought them forward.  Jesus gives thanks--eucharistei, as the Greek has it, which is of course where our word “eucharist” comes from, and he breaks the bread and he passes it around to the hungry crowd.
When we gather for the Eucharist, we continue Jesus’ work of celebrating what there is.  We aren’t worrying for the moment about our personal finances.  We aren’t wondering if there will be enough cookies at coffee hour—not yet.  We aren’t thinking about what it’s going to cost to put a new roof on the church.  We are just thankful to God for what is here.  We aren’t anxious because there aren’t 100 people in church this morning, we are thankful for the thirty or forty who are.  We are thankful to be among them, thankful for the gifts that each of them brought to share, thankful for their faith, for their friendship, for the gift of their stories and their prayers and their presence in our lives.  And, of course, we are thankful for Jesus.

New and different bread
When I first came to St. John’s somebody asked me if we could use home-made bread for communion in place of the mass-produced wafers, and I said “sure—why not?”  So we’ve been using it more or less every Sunday since.  There were some people who didn’t like the bread at first, and some who still don’t, which is fine—I understand and respect that.   
And some of those who didn’t like the new bread at first were children— some of them even refused to take it.  But then it began to dawn on these children that actually the new bread tastes pretty good.  And gradually their attitude changed, so that now sometimes when I’m distributing the bread at the altar rail I’ll see them looking at each other’s hands to see who got the bigger piece.  Some of them will even (and I have to confess that my own daughter is one of the worst offenders in this regard), hold out their hands and look up at me imploringly as I’m coming toward them with the bread, and whisper “big piece, big piece.”  And who can really blame them?  Who doesn’t want a big piece of God?  Don’t we all want a big piece of health, a big piece of life, a big piece of peace, and joy, and love?

Only a little piece
But I think spiritual maturity comes when we no longer need to look over at our neighbor’s hand to see how big her piece is.  The Eucharist has a lot to teach us about this.  We don’t complain because we’re only getting a little piece of bread and a little sip of wine, because it is still the body and blood of Christ.  The whole person of Christ, the whole life of the Trinity, the whole incarnation and teaching and death and resurrection and ascension, his whole gift of the Holy Spirit and promise to come again to fulfill God’s loving purpose for creation; it is all present in that little crumb, that tiny sip.  The fact that we go away from the table hungry only tells us that we are now part of the Christ story and it is up to us to go out and help to tell the rest of it.   
In Jesus’ own time it wasn’t always clear that his life was worth much.  Certainly there were some people who didn’t think it was worth anything at all, and in the end it was sold cheap.  But the very heart of Jesus’ teaching to his disciples was that when we start counting the relative value of a life, even of our own, we are lost.  Because life is not something to be priced.  It is not to be hoarded, and it cannot be sold at a profit.  Every life belongs to God, and so each one is of the same ultimate value.  But we can only comprehend life’s true magnificence, the true breadth and length and height and depth of it, when it is given away.  Spent.  Down to the last penny.  Jesus understood this and he spent his life lavishly for the love of this world and we who live in it, and when it was gone it didn’t seem like it had really amounted to much.  Not at first.  Just one young man’s life; one body; some words, a few deeds; a bitter and pointless death.

God can work with that
But history shows that God doesn’t need much.  God says “five loaves and two fish?—I can work with that.  The life and death of Jesus of Nazareth?—I can work with that.  A little piece of bread, a tiny sip of wine, Mary Magdalene and Simon Peter and Philip and Andrew, and Julian of Norwich and Francis of Assisi, and you and me?—I can work with that.  St. John’s Episcopal Church in Petaluma?—sure, why not?  God doesn’t say “why isn’t there more?” or “what am I supposed to do with that?” God says, “thank you.  Thank you for being here.  Thank you for coming forward with what you have.  What tasty looking loaves!  What fresh, tender fish!  Thank you—that will do nicely for all my hungry guests.  

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

The whole truth

2 Samuel 1:1, 17-27
Psalm 130
2 Corinthians 8:7-15
Mark 5:21-43

My body conforms pretty closely to the ideal norm of our society: fair-skinned and blue-eyed, male; above average height, on the lean side of average as far as weight is concerned; equipped with all the usual parts, and all of them is reasonably good working order; on the younger side of middle-age; heterosexual.  Much as I might wish to deny it, the fact that I, as a body, conform to this ideal type, makes my life easy.  In ways that I’m not even conscious of, and usually take for granted, my body grants me the social status of a complete person, someone who is entitled to participate, to have a voice, to be taken account of and respected. 
So it sounds almost ludicrous for me to say that even I have moments when I feel that my body has let me down.  An untimely and overly productive sneeze, a cut from my razor that won’t stop bleeding, the effects of illness, injury, or exhaustion, an uncontrolled outburst of anger or grief—there are so many ways that my body can suddenly turn vulnerable, so many ways that the untidiness and unpredictability of being a body can trip me up.  More than anything else in my life it is my body that puts me at risk of feeling like less than a complete person, like an “other”, like someone who doesn’t count and who doesn’t belong.
What I have no experience of at all is being in a body that makes me vulnerable in this way all the time.  I don’t know what it’s like to have “otherness” stamped on my physical body so that I am continually on the outside, always at risk of being ostracized and ashamed, never fully belonging.  But this is a common human experience.  How many of us struggle every day with the body that we have been given, or the body we have become, because it feels like an obstacle to living as the person we know ourselves truly to be?  

The gospel lesson today talks about just such a person, a woman whose body bleeds endlessly.  For twelve years she has endured this hemorrhage, which according to the law code of Leviticus, makes her ritually and socially impure.  For twelve years her body has been an object of disgust and a source of contamination for others.  She has squandered everything she has on doctors, on painful and humiliating treatments, in the hope that someone will be able to bring an end to this nightmare, and yet it has only gotten worse.  Still she hasn’t given up.  One hope remains—she has heard of a traveling man of God, one Jesus of Nazareth, who has the power of healing, and she goes looking for him.
Never mind that when she does find him, he is surrounded by a great crowd of other afflicted persons, each one clamoring for his attention.  Never mind that he is on an urgent errand of mercy on behalf of a rich and important man.  “If I could only touch just his clothes,” she says to herself, “I will be made well.”  She presses forward in the crowd, promiscuously touching other people with her unclean body, not asking permission, not waiting to be noticed, but taking matters quite literally into her own hands. 
What happens next illustrates the other side of the paradox of being in a body.  It is true that our bodies are what mark us off as different from others.  They are what leave us vulnerable to illness and old age, to stigma and violation, and to death.  And at the same time, it is only through our bodies that we can touch and be touched by others.  Our most profound experiences of belonging and connection—holding a newborn child, kissing a lover, eating, drinking, and laughing in the company of friends, stroking the hand of a dying parent, even those moments of solitary contemplation in which we connect with the depth of our own being—all are experiences of the body. 
In the gospel story Jesus doesn’t lay his hands upon the woman to heal her.  He doesn’t say a special prayer to his heavenly Father.  He doesn’t say or do anything.  Nothing happens that anyone else in the large, noisy, fast-moving crowd can see.  But she knows, by a feeling in her body, that the blood has stopped leaking out of her.  And he knows, by a feeling in his body, that healing power has gone out of him into an unknown stranger.  It is his body that heals her, of itself, body speaking to body, through the power of her faith and his wholeness. 
It is an experience that stops him in his tracks and he demands to know her.  He calls her out of the anonymity of the crowd that was her means of approach and her hiding place, and there is no question of not responding.  She prostrates herself before him and she tells him the whole truth.  She tells him the truth of her affliction and her isolation, of the long years of suffering and shame.  She tells him of her body’s desire to be healed, and the hope and determination that led her to him.  She tells him of her journey of salvation from being the object of other people’s loathing to becoming the free subject of her own healing.  And Jesus confirms the truth that she has spoken and sends her on her way in the peace of God.

The whole truth of the body is hard for people to accept.  Those who need things precise and correct don’t know what to do with it.  Many religious people, both in 1st-century Palestine and in 21st-century America, approach the mysteries of the body—and the female body in particular—with a mixture of desire and fear and contempt.  That is why they are so obsessed with sexual morality, with maintaining clear and defined separation between the sexes, with keeping women’s bodies under the control of the patriarchal family, religious authority, and the state.   
And yet the Gospels tell again and again these stories of Jesus enjoying social and even bodily intimacy with women, and not just any women, but exactly those women whose bodies are most threatening--foreigners, adulterers, prostitutes, the woman with the hemorrhage, the dead daughter of Jaïrus.  It is as if in Jesus God were fiercely and playful embracing the paradox of embodiment, the whole truth of it, that what opens us to wounding is also what heals us, that what sets us apart from others is also what makes it possible for us to connect. 
This chapter of Mark, with its two intertwined stories of female bodies, echoes the story of Jesus’ own body.  In the bleeding woman, we can see the bleeding Christ, his abandonment, his humiliation, his scourging, but also his invincible desire for healing and peace.  In the events at the house of Jaïrus, we can hear the voice of the angel at the tomb on Easter morning, “Do not be amazed; you seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified.  He has risen, he is not here.”   
These echoes of passion and resurrection remind us that the salvation that comes through Christ is the salvation of our bodies.  It is the freedom to be our true selves, fully expressing the unique individual subjectivity that God has given to every one of us, which includes the characteristics of our bodies.  It is the courage to choose a life connected with others, willing to touch and be touched, with respect and compassion for all beings that share this embodied life with us.  It is the discipline of giving ourselves to acts of concrete solidarity with those whose bodies’ just demands are denied.   It is life in the promise that even death does not negate the hope of the body, but is like the planting of a seed that bears the abundant fruit of new and fuller life , glorified life, life that is, in some fashion that we cannot conceive of with our human limitations, life in a body.

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.