Sunday, November 11, 2012

The political is personal

On Wednesday morning I watched a few video clips of election-night victory speeches, and speeches conceding defeat.  And the one that really moved me was given by Tammy Baldwin, the congressional representative from Madison, Wisconsin who became the first openly-gay person elected to the United States Senate.  I have two brothers who live in Madison, and I called one of them, my younger brother Gareth, to congratulate him on the historic moment.  And he thanked me and said, “Yeah, it’s really great.  But I have a hard time seeing it from the whole historic-achievement angle.  To me Tammy is that lady whose partner used to be on my softball team.” 
I’m reminded of that conversation this morning because the readings today tell us that while it may be true, as was popularly said in the 1960s and their aftermath, that the personal is political, the reverse is also true.   The political is personal.  Take the story of the extraordinary loyalty and friendship between Naomi, and Ruth, the wife of her deceased son.  Naomi and her husband seek refuge in Moab during a famine in Judah and her sons marry Moabite women.  Naomi’s husband dies, and then her sons die, and Naomi decides to return home, where the famine is ended.  She tries to leave her daughters-in-law behind, but Ruth refuses to stay or to look for another husband among the Moabites, and so the two of them go together, back to Naomi’s home town of Bethlehem.  The faithfulness of Ruth and the wiliness of Naomi enable them together to overcome loss and migration and economic insecurity, and at the end of the story we learn, almost as an afterthought, that this foreigner Ruth is the grandmother of the greatest of Israel’s kings.
In the story of Naomi and Ruth we see something of the vulnerability of widows in a patriarchal society like ancient Israel.  If Ruth had not had Naomi to guide her to the bed of her kinsman Boaz, and if Naomi had not had the youth and beauty of Ruth as an asset, things might have turned out much worse for them.  Indeed, in the Books of Moses “widows and orphans” appear again and again as a kind of shorthand for the most economically and socially precarious members of the community.  The very heart of the Torah, the very essence of the righteousness that is the Hebrews special vocation among the nations of the earth, and the true measure of their holiness that is like the holiness of their God, is that they care for widows and orphans.
Jesus has this tradition in mind when he walks into Herod the Great’s vast gold-plated shopping mall of a temple and starts turning over tables and knocking down chairs, calling it a “den of robbers.”  He is not interested in the religious rituals that are going on in the temple.  Its grandiose architecture doesn’t tell him anything he doesn’t already know about God.  This wonder of the ancient world doesn’t fill him with nationalistic pride in the power of Israel and its place among the nations.  He’s there to meet the people, to see for himself what is happening to them. 
When we catch up with him today he has been three days in the temple, teaching the crowd, refuting the priests and the scribes, parrying their verbal attacks, evading their rhetorical traps, exposing their hypocrisies, and now he is done.  He has shut up all his critics, and now he is making ready to leave the temple for the last time.  And his last stop is at the treasury.  A lot of words have been said but they really all come down to this--“All of these splendid buildings and ceremonial pageantry, all of the mountains of donated money and heaps of sacrificed animals, all of these priests and scribes living large on the name of the God of Israel, but the only person who really sacrificed, the only person who really gave everything for that God, was this little old lady.  Oh, and by the way, look at how little she had left to give.”
The Episcopal Church, and the church in general, has been the site of a bitter struggle in the last few decades, a struggle that has affected this congregation in a personal way.  Whatever other kind of struggle it has been, theological, moral, or spiritual, it is also political.  The main flash points have been the personal politics set in motion by the social movements of the 1960s—questions about women’s rights, and reproductive choice, and human sexuality.  For over a generation, the church has been consumed with battles over these issues.  And it has carried the fight into the public square, to the point that these battles have come to define the church, and the Christian faith, in the minds of our people.  
 But the general election last week gave a pretty good indication that the United States is moving on.  It’s not that the battles are over.  And it’s not that there aren’t still real moral dilemmas to hash out, or that electoral might makes right.  But it seems clear that for most Americans, and especially for the younger generations that are our nation’s future, sexual politics are no longer a compelling issue.  And I think this is also true for the Episcopal Church.  It took a generation.  There is still work to be done, especially the hard work of healing the battle-wounds.  Our church still encompasses a diversity of viewpoints on all kinds of political and moral issues, and that’s a good thing.  But we’re also ready to move on. 
We’re starting to pick ourselves up and dust ourselves off and look around at what’s happened to our churches during the generation we spent fighting about sex.  And while we’re at it, we’re asking what’s been happening to our neighborhoods?  And what’s happening to our schools, and our jobs?  What’s happening to the earth? What’s happening to the widows and the orphans? 
When Father Norm Cram and Betty and Joe Petrillo and some other folks decided in 2007 to continue the life of St. John’s Episcopal Church, and to fight to regain the property of this parish, it was a personal decision, but it was also a political one.  It was a campaign in the church’s long war over sexual politics.  But it was more than that.  We know and are proud of that story.  We always will be.  But we also need to move on. 
We need to start to put the renewal of St. John’s in the context of another political decision, one that was also deeply personal.  It’s a story that began at the Washington Hotel in 1856, when a group of people who were engaged in founding a new community on the banks of the Petaluma River, came together with the Book of Common Prayer in their hands.  They decided that the public life of this new town should be formed by the public worship of the Episcopal Church.  It’s a story that continued with the decision, a couple of years later, to purchase some land on this corner of 5th and C, and to give that public worship a permanent address, a home in the neighborhood.  It’s a story that includes the 1890 decision to build this building, and the 1940s decision to tear down the old guild hall over there and the rectory over there and build the building that stands there now.    
Those decisions were political.  Underlying each of them was a vision not just for St. John’s Episcopal Church, but for Petaluma.  They were made with a sense for the way our particular take on the gospel of Jesus Christ forms people for life in community, and that it is something that needs to be shared.  So what is our vision for Petaluma now?  What might we contribute to the public life around us?  Well, we might remember the politics of Jesus, a politics that is personal.  That is to say, it is about human relationships and human needs.  It will be about breaking through ideological divisions and fostering new networks of common interest and mutual belonging.  It begins with simple questions—“What is going on in our neighborhood?  Who lives here?  Where do they work?  What do they need?  Where is new life stirring?  What is passing away?”  And maybe most important questions are, “How will we find out?” and “How do I talk to a stranger?” 

Friday, November 9, 2012

Not a spectator sport

It has been said of Christianity that it is better “caught” than “taught” and the same is true of sports fandom.  I “caught” the San Francisco Giants from the kids at the Green Gulch Farm Zen Center.  It was during the years when “Humm-baby” was the rallying cry and Barry Bonds had just joined the team, and there was a pack of middle-schoolers living there at the same time I was, and they were all Giants fans.  The contagion spread, and I must have had a genetic susceptibility.  One day a bunch of us went to a day game against the Cubs at Candlestick and I’ll never forget jumping out of my seat when the last out was made, and running down the escalator after 12-year old Jesse Rudnick to beat the gridlock out of the parking lot.
You could describe me as a “casual” fan.  In the thirteen seasons since the new downtown ballpark opened, I’ve attended probably half a dozen games.  Half of those have been in the last three years.  Shortly after we moved to Petaluma I took my daughter to see the Giants for her sixth birthday, and that’s become an annual tradition.  But mainly I have followed the team over the years by listening to games on the radio.  It’s something I do while I’m doing something else, driving the car, working in the yard, or, most often, washing the dishes after dinner.  Or I’ll tune in to the post-game wrap for a few minutes before bed, listening to the highlights, and the broadcasters’ picks for their players of the game.
Nevertheless, saddened as I am by the devastation in Haiti, and New Jersey and New York, as troubling as the reports are out of Syria, as tense as the political scene is with the election two days away, it is hard for me not to go around smiling at the latest triumph by the Orange and Black.   I am happy not just because the Giants are “my team” and my team won, but because the story of this team is one I feel I can be proud of.  Call me superficial and shallow.  Tell me I’m distracted from the sober matters of life be a meaningless spectacle.  And you’d probably be right.  And yet, I, like the other victims of this mass delusion, can’t help but believe that the 2012 San Francisco Giants stood for something beautiful.
I could go on at great length about the obstacles that this year’s Giants overcame to win the National League West division, but if you follow the team you know the story, and if you don’t I won’t bore you.  Suffice it to say, there were all kinds of reasons why they weren’t supposed to even make it to the playoffs.  And this story of overcoming the odds through courage and determination rose to the level of a fairytale in the post-season tournament.  They battled back from the brink in historic fashion in the division series in Cincinnati and again against St. Louis in the National League championship, winning six elimination games in row to make it to the World Series.  They won the pennant on Monday night and on Wednesday they welcomed a rested Detroit Tigers team that featured the major leagues’ outstanding batter and its most dominant pitcher.  Four games later they were world champs.
But if this story of the triumph of the underdog is like a fan’s dream come true, it is the tales of the individual members of the team that make it almost too good to be believed.  Professional athletes are heroes because, like the heroes of the great legends and myths of the past, they are human.  They are vulnerable and flawed, sometimes tragically so, and their margin between glory and failure is so immediate and so thin.  In this we identify with them, and their dramas in the arena are like a projection of our own long struggles to improve ourselves, our own devastating setbacks and rare, almost-miraculous moments of mastery.  
There is Buster Posey, the baby-faced catcher with the beautiful swing whose left ankle was practically destroyed in a collision at the plate in 2011, who crowned an MVP-type year with a crucial home run in Game 4 of the World Series; there is Marco Scutaro, the 37 year-old journeyman infielder, who drove in the winning run in the same game; and Ryan Vogelsong, who resurrected his disappointing career after three years of exile in the Japan League, and allowed a total of three runs in three post-season starts; there is Barry Zito, written off as a failure through the first six years of a huge contract, who saved the season, pitching 7 2/3 shutout innings in St. Louis down three games to one and with all the momentum of the series against him; when these men rode down Market Street as world champions, the million people in the streets and the millions more following on TV and the radio rejoiced with them.  And we feel like the triumph is also ours.  It is our dreams, our struggles, our desires for a good life and a better world that are, in some small way, vindicated.
And that is one way to look at the saints.  We don’t always identify with them, but that’s because we don’t really know their stories.   If we did we would see that they are human like us, and struggle like us, experiencing doubt, encountering opposition and failure, enduring physical illness and emotional pain.  The only thing that sets them apart is their commitment to following Jesus Christ, and it is his grace working in them that overcomes their obstacles and fulfills God’s unique purpose for their lives.  Their stories of hard-won transformation can uplift, and inspire, and challenge us.   And I say, “challenge” because there is a crucial difference between the communion of saints and the relationship that a sports team has with its fans.  We may take great pleasure in watching or listening to the San Francisco Giants play baseball, and cheer them on fervently and feel joy and pride at their success.  But while none of us will ever play Major League baseball, all of us are called to holiness.
Holiness is not a spectator sport.  The saints may offer examples for us to follow but in their own lives they do see not themselves as “role models.”  Even Jesus did not ask people to identify with him in his greatness, but only in his servitude.   Because it is he who identifies with us.  In John’s Gospel, the invitation “come and see” is a recurring motif, and usually it is “come and see Jesus.”  But in the story of the crowning miracle of Jesus’ ministry, it is an invitation to him—“Come and see the tomb of your friend. Come and see Lazarus.”  And he goes, not as an exemplar of prowess and power, but as one stricken with grief and full of compassion. 
Jesus identifies with us, with our struggles, our need, our tenuous hold on the preciousness of life.  He identifies with our death.  And saints are people who follow Jesus in precisely that way, not by setting out to give the world an example of heroic achievement, but by heroically loving the world as it is.  To be a member of their communion is not just to be a fan of Jesus, to rejoice vicariously in his victory, but also to carry that victory through our own lives to the places where it is still denied.  
And it is denied every day.  It is denied in violence and hatred, and carelessness, and greed.  It is denied in loneliness,cynicism, and despair.  It is denied in random little acts, and in vast, organized crimes.  But the message of All Saints’ Day is that the underdogs may be down but they’re not out.  They may have their backs against the wall, but that is when they are at their best.  They may not have the best players, but they play best as a team, and their victory will be the victory of the whole world.  That is the secret of their success.  The saints are those who know that the victory of Jesus Christ is the victory of the whole world, and when it is won at last it will finally be apparent to everyone that there is no losing team.  Impossible come-from-behind victory.  The whole world.  No losing team.  Imagine that tickertape parade.   

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.