Tuesday, January 29, 2013

We say God speaks

Twenty-one years ago I was living in a Zen Buddhist monastery in the mountains near Big Sur.  My job at the time was called Jisha, which means I was the abbot’s attendant.  Actually he had two attendants.  There was Jim, who was his personal attendant, who made his bed and his tea and did his mending, and that sort of thing.  And there was me--his ceremonial attendant.  I was the guy who lit sticks of incense and handed them to him to offer at the altar during the daily services of chanting and prostrations.   I was the person the other students talked to when they wanted to meet with him for guidance in their religious practice.  When he gave a dharma talk, a sermon, I was the guy who waited until he had taken his seat on the platform in the meditation hall and then placed the little stand for his notes in front of him. 
So I was kind of like the character in today’s story from the Gospel of Luke, the attendant in the synagogue, who hands Jesus the scroll of the prophet Isaiah and takes it back from him when he is finished reading.  And one of the privileges of having that position was that I got more one-on-one time with the teacher than the other students did.  And one time, when we were back in his cabin after a morning sermon on Buddhist teaching I remarked that the things that he had talked about reminded me of the Book of Ecclesiastes in the Hebrew Bible.  He said he wasn’t familiar with it, but that he’d like to see it.  I didn’t have many personal possessions at the monastery, but one of them was my bible, a Revised Standard Version bound in brown fake leather and inscribed by the pastor of my childhood church in Indiana, who presented it to me upon completing the fourth grade.  (My daughter Risa has it now.)
So I bookmarked Ecclesiastes and lent my bible to the abbot, and he liked it enough that he recommended it to some of the other students, and my bible changed hands several times over the next few days.  And then the abbot asked me to read it in the meditation hall.  So about midway through his next sermon he said a few words of introduction and then nodded to me and I pulled out my bible and started reading the Book of Ecclesiastes:
 The words of the Teacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem.
Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher,
   vanity of vanities! All is vanity.
What do people gain from all the toil
   at which they toil under the sun?
A generation goes, and a generation comes,
   but the earth remains for ever.  
To this day, I’m not sure why the Zen master asked me to do that.   Maybe he wanted to show us that he was teaching a wisdom that is universal.  Maybe he hoped that the strange and yet familiar words of the Bible would get through to us in a way that his own words did not.  Maybe he was playing the trickster, and wanted to unsettle his students, many of whom were ex-Catholics or ex-Jews. Zen masters do like to do that sort of thing.  Maybe he identified with the figure of the Preacher in Ecclesiastes, the one who goes by the name of Solomon the King.  Maybe it was all of the above.
But it is one thing to read a passage of scripture, or have it read, in order to enhance the authority of your preaching.  That’s something that teachers of many religious traditions do, as a matter of course.  And it is a different thing to read a passage of scripture, as Jesus does in this morning’s scene in the synagogue at Nazareth, and to say, “this scripture is me.”  But that’s what he does.  When Jesus finishes reading and sits down, every eye in the synagogue is fixed on him.  It is such a powerful moment.  We can almost feel the intensity of their concentration.  We can almost hear the silence, the people holding their breath to hear what he will say.   And that is because he has not merely quoted scripture.  He has brought it to life in their hearing, and it has been for them a religious experience. 
Not a compelling religious argument, backed up with solid scriptural proofs.  Not a fresh new interpretation of a familiar text, but a direct experience of the Holy One speaking those ancient words as if for the first time:
"The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.

When Jesus speaks those words from the prophet Isaiah, they are more true than they have ever been before, and for that moment everybody in the synagogue knows it.
That must be one of the ways that the community of the Gospel of Luke experienced the Holy Spirit.  When they gathered for prayer, and someone read the scriptures, sometimes the Spirit made those words come alive in their ears.  The voice of the reader became the voice of Jesus, and words were no longer just words, they were the Truth of all truth, the Wisdom of all wisdom, pouring into their hearts, into their community, through his grace.  And in those moments the promises of God in the scriptures, promises of forgiveness and healing, of restoration and consolation and liberation, came true.  
There are a lot of churches around that identify themselves as Bible-centered, or Bible-based.  I’m not sure what that means to them, but I know what it means to me.  To me, being a biblical church means that when we come together as a community we read the Bible, not to prove something by it, but to hear what it has to say.  And we make a ritual of it.  We read and hear it together as an act of corporate worship, to make a public demonstration of our faith that God speaks.  In our liturgy we act out our belief that the living God gives us the gift of a living Word.  
The Bible is not the only way that this happens for us.  “The heavens declare the glory of God,” says the psalm, “One day tells its tale to another, and one night imparts knowledge to another.” God is always speaking, day and night.  The words of God, like the sun, light up the ends of the world.   And we can go for a quiet walk outside under the stars, or at sunset, and have our own intuitive experience of hearing the words of God.  Everyone has received a word like this at some time or other, even if they didn’t recognize it for what it was. 
But the hard part, the sad part, is that it is so difficult to translate our private religious experiences into the common language of human relationships.  It is even harder to make them the basis for a diverse community.  In solitude we hear God speak to us of beauty, of unity, and justice, and peace.  And then we have to make breakfast for our families, and go to work, or to school.  We get out on the freeway, or go to a City Council meeting, or turn on the nightly news, and the voice of God is drowned out by a clamor of noise and a Babel of voices competing for our attention, and none of them in harmony with the others.
The Holy Scriptures also speak with diverse voices, voices as diverse as the law of Moses and the love poetry of the Song of Songs, the story of David and the prophecy of Amos and the philosophical meditations of Ecclesiastes.  And yet they have this in common—that for going on three thousand years a community has gathered to hear them and listen for God, speaking.  These voices have formed people of different tribes and diverse gifts into a single family with a common history, with a shared starting point for conversations about values, and meaning, and hope.  When Jesus sought words to describe his mission, the work for which he was anointed with the Holy Spirit as the Christ, he turned to the scroll of the prophet Isaiah.  Or was that Luke the Evangelist, looking for words to describe Jesus?  Or is it us, here in Petaluma in 2013, looking for words to describe the purpose that calls us together, the Spirit that anoints our common life?  In the end it does not matter—all are true, because it is God who is speaking those words.

Drinking the deep water

Sermon for the Renewal of Ministry and Welcoming of a New Rector
Epiphany Episcopal Church, Vacaville,  January 26, 2013

Jeremiah 17:7-8
Psalm 16:5-11
Romans 6:3-11
Mark 10:35-45

When I came back from vacation last summer, Mack and I met to check in about how things were going in his job search.  We discussed various openings that sounded promising, assisting clergy positions or combined parish-and-university positions in places as far-flung as Arizona, Pennsylvania, and Canada.  And then, somewhat shyly, he let me know that he was thinking of putting his name in for Epiphany Church in Vacaville.  He’d been there a couple of times recently as a Sunday supply priest and he said he felt a strong connection with the people there.  He liked their priorities, their commitment to hospitality and service.  He had a feeling that they liked him, too.   He’d learned that ever since his last visit the children of the parish had been asking “when is Father Mack coming back?” 
But he was also hesitant to apply and he wanted to know what I thought.  Would he, a newly-ordained priest with no professional parish ministry experience, even be considered to be rector of a congregation?  Or would people think he was being too big for his britches, ridiculous, out-of-touch?  As someone who came to ordained ministry by my own somewhat unorthodox route, I understood very well how he felt.  But I also felt he had people around him he could trust.  I suggested he contact Canon Britt at the Diocese, and tell her what he’d told me, because I trusted her to tell him honestly and directly whether he was over-reaching, and not to judge him harshly just for asking.
And I told him that I thought there was a time, maybe not all that long ago, when his application would not have been seriously considered.  But the church is in the midst of rapid and tumultuous change, and nothing is changing as fundamentally as our understanding of leadership.  For a long time the culture of leadership in the church was focused on the clergy, and it was a status-conscious culture.  I’ll never forget the first diocesan clergy conference I attended after I was ordained (not in this diocese, by the way), and the atmosphere of competitiveness, the subtle jockeying for position and prestige, was so thick you could cut it with a knife.  But as aware as the clergy in our church have been of their status relative to each other, that was nothing compared to the sensitivity that pervaded the whole church of the clergy’s prerogatives where the lay people were concerned.
But as I said to Mack last summer, and I say it again to all of us this evening, that is changing—it is changing fast.  The spiritual crisis of our times requires a different kind of leadership.  We need leaders who are decisive and courageous, resolute and inspired, but who are also vulnerable.  We need leaders who are not afraid to have emotions, and not just in the pulpit.  We need leaders who can listen, who can say that they don’t know the answer, who are willing to admit they’ve been wrong.  We need leaders who are willing to use all their gifts in the service of the gospel of Jesus Christ, including the gifts of their limitations.
And you, the people of Epiphany Church, have chosen that kind of leader.  In doing so, you are being true to the mission of your parish, a mission that begins with your name.  An epiphany is an experience of seeing the light, and the light that we celebrate tonight is not the reflected glory of your new rector.  It is the light of Christ, the light that each one of us receives through our baptism.   It is a light that shines in the face of an infant whose parents are bringing her to the font, to receive the Holy Spirit and be marked as Christ’s own forever, and the same light is in the eyes of an elder whose has spent the journey of a lifetime learning what it means to walk in newness of life.   It is a light that reveals the beauty of every person, a beauty that is not superficial attractiveness or charisma, but the deep beauty that flows from the precious and irreplaceable individuality that God gives to us all.
James and John come to Jesus on the road to Jerusalem and they ask to be given a special favor, to be exalted with Jesus to a place of glory and power.  But what they don’t understand is that the glory that they seek is not in some high and lofty place where only special people get to go.  If they really want to share in Christ’s glory, they will have to find it where Jesus did, in the world God made, with the people God loves.  Jesus came to reveal God’s glory and power, and the people who thought they had special access to it, the religious and political leaders, could not see it.  It was the fishermen, the tax collectors and the prostitutes, the sick and the blind, the ones who suffered and the ones who sinned, who saw the light.
They say that the river you can see is only a small part of the whole river, and that, in the gravels and rock formations underneath and beside the surface river there flows an even larger body of water.  Jeremiah says that the one who trusts in the Lord is like a tree planted by the river, and it is that deep underground water of God’s faithfulness that such a person drinks.  Jesus came to baptize us in that river, and a church that is true to the mission of Jesus is a church that drinks from the deep river of God’s faithfulness that flows through the whole world.
I know that Mack understands this.  He will be good leader for you because he will encourage and support you to trust in that river, and to be in service to that world.  He will help you to share the light of Christ with others.  But you will not share it because it is a precious commodity that you own, that you are willing, because you are such holy and virtuous people, to dole out to a world sunk in darkness.  You will share it the way a tree shares the abundance of the sunlight that sparkles on the surface of the river, dancing in it, passing it through your leaves, turning it into flowers, and fragrance, and fruit.   
You can be that kind of church, or I should say “we,” because all our churches face the same challenges, and we all face them together, but the key, as Jeremiah said, is trust.  Mack trusted you enough to ask to be your rector.  You trusted him enough to call him, and that is a very good beginning.  But it is only the beginning of your new, shared ministry, a ministry that can be fruitful if there is trust. 
We need to trust our own gifts and our own authority.  Here again, Mack can help you, because he has had to struggle over many years to trust his.  He had to overcome the internal and external voice of prejudice that said he was not qualified for Christ’s ministry because of his sexual orientation, so he can help you to learn that the gifts that God has entrusted to you are meant to be shared, no matter what obstacles stand in your way. 
We also must trust each other.  We have to trust each other enough to speak the truth of what is in our hearts, even when it makes us vulnerable.  We need to trust enough to listen to what the other has to say, even when it makes us uncomfortable.  We have to trust enough to allow each other to take risks, and make mistakes, and to ask for and offer forgiveness.
And above all we must trust God.  We need to trust that God speaks, and to be disciplined about learning to listen; to trust in our shared mission, and know that God has not called the church into being for no purpose.  We have to trust that God has a plan and a direction for us to follow, even when we feel lost, and uncertain which way we should go.  We have to trust that the deep river of God’s faithfulness will be there to sustain us even when the surface has dried to a trickle.  We are baptized into a ministry of trust, and this trust is itself the fruit the world hungers for more than ever.  It is the light we see, it is the light we are, it is the light we are meant to share.    

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Getting married together

At the reception when Meg and I got married, the beer gave out.  Actually, there was plenty of it—we ordered a quarter-keg of Liberty Ale and I had my best man pick it up that afternoon, after which my brothers took charge of it.  But somewhere along the line the tap got broken, and they spent the whole reception, and several hours back at their motel room after it was over, coaxing a slow dribble of beer from a tantalizingly full container.  The irony was that St. Gregory’s Church, where the wedding and reception took place, is directly across the street from the Anchor Brewery, where that keg had been filled.  So if Jesus had been there, he wouldn’t have needed to perform a miracle.  He could have just sent some volunteers across the street to commandeer a delivery truck, backed it up to the church and started rolling off more beer. 
Now, that would have been gratuitous—the beer wasn’t flowing, but we had wine, and it wasn’t a hard-drinking crowd, anyway.  The altar table at St. Gregory’s is in the middle of a large octagonal hardwood floor, which is sprung for dancing.  And the altar’s also portable, so when you move it to one side, you’re ready to go.  We had a good DJ, and our friends like to dance, so the party was on, no matter what.  But what Jesus did in Cana was gratuitous, too.  Maybe it was a little sad that they were out of wine, but surely they didn’t need one-hundred twenty to one-hundred eighty gallons of it.  And that stupendous quantity is the first clue we have that the point of this story goes beyond the mere fact that Jesus could change water into wine.
The Gospel of John says that this is the first of Jesus’ miraculous signs.  This wedding is where the public ministry of Jesus begins.  No one is sure exactly where Cana would be if it were still standing, but it seems to have been a village in Galilee, not far from Nazareth.  The three “synoptic” gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, also say that Jesus’ ministry began in Galilee.  But in those versions Jesus does a lot of his work there, in all kinds of settings, in the houses of the people, and by the road and beside the lake.  But this is the only place in John where we see Jesus in the company of the Galilean people, in the course of their ordinary lives.
So you could say that this scene at the wedding in Cana stands for a whole phase of Jesus’ ministry, as he carried it out in the everyday social milieu of the people he knew best.  And it suggests that what he gave them was an extravagant experience of celebration, of participation in an overflowing spirit of gladness and community.  And we can see this by entering into the imaginative world of this story and playing there for a minute.  We just have to ask, “What happens to all that good wine?”
Well the wedding party has already drunk a lot of the cheap stuff, so I suppose the next in line would be the lower-ranking among the invited guests, and then I guess it would be the turn of the servants, who’d be ready to unwind after filling all those water jars.  The news would travel fast, and pretty soon the wedding crashers would arrive, and the servants’ friends would be coming by, and by the next day or the next, folks would be wandering the streets of Cana, giving the stuff away.  That wedding would be remembered as the biggest party in the history of the town, when everyone got to join in a celebration that went on for days.
Now Jesus’ disciples were at the wedding—John mentions that at the beginning of the story and again at the end—and the result of what happened was that they believed in him.  But here again, I think it’s not just the fact that he turned water into wine that made the impression.  It was the way hr transformed an ordinary village wedding into a celebration that overflowed to embrace everyone in the community, where everyone got to share in the joy of the bride and groom.  In this miracle Jesus gave his disciples a vision of a greater and even more inclusive wedding feast, of which his whole ministry was the sign. and at which he is the host.  And if the host, then also the bridegroom.  
The ministry of Jesus of Nazareth, the things that he said and did in the towns and villages of ancient Palestine, was a public demonstration that God really does love us.  Jesus spoke and acted for the God of scriptures like the 62nd chapter of Isaiah, a God who desires his people, who finds them beautiful and chooses them for his very own and pledges faithfulness to them that will last forever.   And in the company of Jesus, those people saw a vision of what a faithful response to the love of God looks like as they united with one another in an inclusive community of abundance and celebration and love.   
Meg and I didn’t worry too much when the beer ran out at our wedding, because it wasn’t really our party, at least not entirely.  It was a church wedding, and I don’t mean merely that it took place in a church.  We threw in a few wrinkles, like a neo-pagan invocation of the ancestors and the four directions, but basically the ceremony was a celebration of the Holy Eucharist like it happens every Sunday at St. Gregory’s.  We invited our friends and family, but also the whole church congregation, and we trusted that the people of Saint Gregory’s would know how to embrace a company of strangers and help them become a worshipping community. 
The husband of the parish administrator turned out to be a pastry chef and gave us an incredible three-tiered cake.  While Meg’s mom and stepdad went to Costco for the food and drinks, some folks from the congregation went to San Francisco’s wholesale flower market, and brought back materials from which they made arrangements and a bridal bouquet.  We recruited volunteers to set up the tables after the ceremony and to bring out the food and to serve the champagne. Various people were photographs, and somebody even brought a video camera.  The church choir sang an anthem.  One of our priests gave the sermon, another performed the wedding, and the third did a beautiful job chanting the neo-pagan invocation to an improvised tone.
In this way we got to have a bigger and more beautiful wedding than a psychotherapist intern and a seminarian could ever have afforded otherwise.  Not that it was perfect.  The tap on the beer keg broke.  Our wedding album, such as it is, is full of blurry underexposed snapshots of people having a wonderful time.  The best portrait of the two of us was taken from behind us as we greeted a line of people after the ceremony.  Meg and I are looking at each other, smiling radiantly, and right between us, looking directly at the camera, is a mentally ill woman from the neighborhood named Audrey who ate practically a whole platter of Costco sushi and drank too much champagne.  A minute after that picture was taken, she was hanging onto us and gushing about how she loved us and this was the best party she could ever remember.
It was a celebration of love, and it was a profound experience for Meg and me to be at the heart of it.  But it was also about a kind of love that modern individualistic ideas about romance don’t do justice to.  It was an occasion for an outpouring of the gifts of a whole community, a community that expanded to embrace a whole company of strangers, where we all danced together around Jesus’ table to a single song of joy.  And in that sense it was the continuation of a wedding feast that started a long time ago.  It was about Meg and me, but it also shone with a glory that was manifested in a place called Cana, the glory of the love that God bears toward everyone, and what it will look like when we’re all married together.   

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.