Sunday, March 24, 2013

Asking the hard questions

The Liturgy of the Palms
Luke 19:28-40
Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29
The Liturgy of the Word
Isaiah 50:4-9a
Psalm 31:9-16
Philippians 2:5-11
Luke 22:14-23:56

I don’t know about you, but I have questions about the stories we just heard.  I have questions about Jesus riding into Jerusalem and the crowd that waved their branches and laid their cloaks down in the road ahead of him, shouting “Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord!”  And I have questions about the other story, the one about the crowd that dragged him before Pontius Pilate shouting “Crucify him!  Crucify him!”  I don’t know what Jesus was expecting to happen after coming into Jerusalem like that.  If we can believe the gospel accounts, he knew things were going to play out just the way they did.  But, if he knew he was going to be killed, why did he go?
The centuries have produced a variety of answers to that question.  Mostly they are theological interpretations of his death.   Jesus went to Jerusalem, the theologians say, in order to die.  And they offer explanations of what it was that his death accomplished, and why it was only in dying that he could finish the work God sent him to do.    These theories of The Atonement—about how Jesus paid the penalty for our sin, or how in dying he overthrew the powers of death, or how he gave for all time a perfect example of self-sacrificing love—these theories are meant as answers, but they only raise more questions— important questions, worthy of careful study and reflection, but that can also seem kind of remote from you and me and the decisions that we have to make every day about how to live our lives.
But there is something about the way we tell the stories this morning, how we act them out, or put them on, if you will, that suggests that they are meant to relate to us.  They ask questions that we are supposed to answer.  And some of these questions are hard.  But I think that on the human and historical level that’s what Jesus rode into Jerusalem to do—to ask hard questions.  The first thing he does when he gets there is to go into the temple and make a scene, driving out those who are selling there, and calling the place a “den of robbers.”  It is a confrontation, the action of someone who means to be reckoned with.  But it is not the first strike in a battle to take control; it is the opening statement in a conversation.  Jesus isn’t there to fight, he’s there to talk, and it seems like what he most wants to talk about is the temple, and the people who are in charge of it. 
The temple in Jerusalem was like the Vatican, Washington, D.C., and the New York Stock Exchange all rolled into one.   It was the institution that dominated Jesus’ world, the center around which the political, economic, social, and religious map of the life of every Jew was drawn.  And as Jesus went around in Galilee, driving out evil spirits, healing the sick, preaching good news to the poor, ministering with compassion to people who were like sheep without a shepherd, he ran into the local representatives of the temple.  They challenged his authority to do the things he did and they questioned the way that he did them.  And he confronted them about their hypocrisy, and their failure to practice what they preached, and challenged them to renew the essential spirit of their religion.  But this conflict was a stalemate, and it only intensified, until it was inevitable that Jesus would carry the argument to its source.
Jesus didn’t go to the temple to seize power—he went there to talk.  But he wanted to talk about the things that the elite at the temple didn’t want to talk about.  It’s true that they came to him with questions, which he answered with questions of his own, and after one or two of Jesus’ questions they shut their mouths and went away.  And that was because they weren’t really interested in dialogue.  When the chief priests and the scribes sent their spies, as he is teaching in the temple, to ask him “Is it lawful for us to give tribute to Caesar, or not?” they weren’t actually interested in having a conversation about the economic arrangements in an imperialistic world system.  They weren’t asking to talk about the relation between the sovereignty of the Emperor and the sovereignty of God, and which is more deserving of our allegiance.  They were simply bandying words, trying to get him to incriminate himself, and when he tried to lead them into a real exploration of the truth, they had nothing to say.
By the time that Jesus was standing before the high priest himself, he had nothing more to say, either, because it was clear by then that there was no hope of having a real conversation.  Maybe the gospel writers are right, and he knew all along that this was how things were going to go.  Maybe he had no expectation that the temple elite were going to listen to what he had to say.  Maybe he knew perfectly well that they would never open their lives, to an honest examination, let alone consider going in a different direction.  But that’s the thing about knowing the truth—about being committed to the God whose Spirit is truth.  You can’t just sit idly by while the nation you love is poisoned with a never-ending diet of lies.  You have to speak up; you have to ask questions about what is really going on.
On this Passion Sunday, Jesus challenges us again to make our churches places where the hard questions are asked, and where real conversations can happen.   It’s interesting how many of the gospel stories about Jesus’ arguments with his enemies take place while he is worshipping with them in the synagogue, or in their houses having dinner.  If Christian churches can’t hold open a space where people can talk about the hard questions without the stridency of entrenched ideological positions, where else will we find that space?  Can this church be a place where we talk to each other about the things that matter without asking ourselves “is this person a Liberal or a Conservative?” but rather, “What are her values and concerns?  What beliefs and experiences have shaped her understanding of the world?  What can she teach me?”
Jesus rode to certain death because he trusted that love is the truth, and truth only becomes truth when it is communicated.  The truth is something that lives between us, in the space where we touch each other.  Jesus learned about this from God, and so he trusted that God would use him for the truth, even if the only way he could tell it was to die.  So one of the benefits of his death and passion is that we, too, can risk the truth.  We can venture into the space between us where no one is completely guilty, because no one is entirely innocent.  We can sustain a conversation about the hard questions, because Jesus showed us that if we can’t talk honestly about power, our justice is a lie, and if we can’t talk openly about war, our peace is a lie, and if we are afraid to talk about evil, our goodness is a lie. 
And to live a lie is to die every day, a slow, painful, meaningless death.  But as he is dying, Jesus turns to the repentant thief, the one who in the agony of crucifixion finally admits the truth about himself, and he says “today you will be with me in Paradise.”

Tuesday, March 19, 2013


In the season of Lent 1987, I joined a group of pilgrims walking across Massachusetts, from Pittsfield in the West, to Boston in the East.  The purpose of our two-week journey was to make visible the human cost of our government’s involvement in the civil wars in Central America.   We were hosted along the way by churches, temples, and monasteries of many different traditions, who fed us, or let us stop in to use the bathroom and have a drink, or invited us for worship, or gave us a place to sleep.  The name that had been given to the pilgrimage was Via Crucis, the Way of the Cross, and as we walked we carried white wooden crosses, painted with the names of victims of the violence.
The entire experience was a momentous one for me, and I’ve been mining it for sermons as long as I’ve been preaching.  This morning I’m thinking about the first warm day of spring, when we had come down into the Connecticut River Valley after close to a week of cold, wet walking through the highlands of Western Massachusetts.  We arrived that evening at the Episcopal Church in Amherst, where we entered a spacious fellowship hall full of friendly people.  There were red and white checked tablecloths laid with real salad (the kind that doesn’t contain jello, or pasta, or Miracle Whip™), and spaghetti marinara and red wine.  After supper we went across the square to the Congregational Church, which was full to overflowing, for one of the most powerful, spirit-filled worship services I can remember, and then, finally, we made our way to the Presbyterian Church where we would spend the night.
And when we got there, it was announced that a team of massage therapists had arrived, who had volunteered to rub our feet.  They were people I knew, friends and neighbors of the intentional spiritual community east of Amherst where I was living at the time.  I got my foot-massage from a French woman named Brigitte, who lived with some other folks in a house across the road from our commune.  She was several years older than me, sophisticated, vivacious, and attractive, and while I’d met her several times, I’m not sure that we had exchanged more than a dozen words.  But as Brigitte was rubbing my feet we got to talking, and I was surprised by the sudden warmth and interest I felt coming from a person I’d thought existed on a different plane.   It seemed that my participation in the Via Crucis pilgrimage had caused her see me in a different light.  Or maybe it had made me see myself differently, and Brigitte recognized the change.
An event like the Via Crucis creates a field of energy that is positively charged.  When people undertake something out of love and concern for others, something that requires some risk and effort and privation from the participants and that makes them rely on the generosity and hospitality of others who share their love and concern, it has a multiplying effect.  In walking across Massachusetts, I could do something for the people of Central America that Brigitte could not, but she could do something for them, too, by doing something for me.  And our relationship of mutual indifference changed in a moment, to one infused with something more like love. 
The gospel lesson today teaches us about the transcendent power of this kind of positive energy field.  It is John’s version of a story that appears in different forms in all four gospels.  But while the others never tell us the name of the woman who anoints Jesus on the eve of his final journey to Jerusalem, John identifies her as Mary, sister of Martha and Lazarus.  She is part of a family with whom Jesus has an especially close and loving relationship, and she has more reason than most to be devoted to him, even to the point of lavishing a gift on him worth a whole year’s pay—in the chapter before this one, he brought her brother Lazarus back to life, after four days in his tomb. 
So you could say that Mary’s extravagance is her attempt to make a gesture that in some small measure, proportionate to the immensity of Jesus’ gift to her.  But perhaps because she is a woman, and he is a man, her action is charged with something more than just gratitude and humble service.  In that part of the world, then as now, a woman’s hair was a potent symbol of her erotic power.  For her to uncover her head before a man not her husband, and let it down and wipe his feet with it, was an act of unseemly intimacy.  Yet the love that she quite literally pours out is not for him alone.  The fragrance of the oil, the gospel says, filled the whole house.  And the ministry of Jesus, which began at a wedding feast, in an embarrassing superfluity of wine, approaches its climax a house transformed into a bridal chamber, and the pleasure of love is shared by all.   
This shows how well Mary understands Jesus’ ministry.  For it was, and is, a project driven by love—not love in the abstract, but real physical pleasure in the presence of other people.  To befriend Jesus is to open one’s heart to the desire to connect.  It is to enter a positive feedback loop where my generosity inspires yours, where your compassion evokes mine, where we draw strength from one another’s touch, and give solace to each other’s pain.  To follow Jesus is to act on the faith that love is a power that really can, and really will, transform the world.  And it will do this by continually widening the circle of our mutual belonging.  Mary loves Jesus, body and soul, but she does not seek to possess him.  Maybe that’s why she anoints his feet and not his head.  She takes her precious bottle of pure nard and pours it on the feet that have carried the good news of God’s all-embracing love along the roads of Galilee, and through the villages of Samaria and Judea, and are about to make one last trip to Jerusalem.
Judas doesn’t understand, because for him love is an abstraction.  He is like all of us who talk about “the poor” as if we know that they need better than they do, we who are always ready to make public policy proposals and set up programs, and are always anxious about the efficient delivery of services, and the avoidance of moral hazards, and it is all ultimately self-serving and humorless and cold.  Because there is something the poor need even more than money and the rich need it, too.  It is to be in a field of energy charged with love that seeks the flourishing of all.  All of us, poor and rich, need a story that connects us, and gives us a context for coming together.  We all need permission and encouragement to touch the lives of others in a way that brings pleasure and lessens pain.  We all need to know that the service we give and receive flows through us and through others in a positive feedback loop of faith, hope, and love.  And we need these things because the powers of cynicism, and selfishness, and discord are so strong.  
Love demands more than clever ideas and the dutiful allocation of funds.  It demands daily acts of courage and faithfulness.  If I ever spoke to Brigitte again after the night of my foot-rub, I don’t remember it.  A moment of warmth ends, and the cold returns.  We do what we can for each other, but the lasting gifts—peace, justice, eternal life—are the ones that only God can give.  Yet what other assurance do we have of God’s promises than the gifts we give, and the risks we take, and the pain we suffer, and the sorrows we bear for each other?  I imagine that when Jesus set off for Jerusalem in the morning, the fragrance of nard still rose from his feet with the dust, and the memory of Mary was a comfort to him.  So, in a way, was the knowledge that she had kept back some of the oil to anoint his body for burial.   His tomb would be filled with the fragrance of the bridal chamber through the long darkness, when there was not yet even the faintest scent of the garden in the morning on the first day of the week.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Coming home to a new place

Joshua 5:9-12
Psalm 32
2 Corinthians 5:16-21
Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

In the summer of 1994 I left the Green Gulch Farm Zen Center in Marin County and moved into The City.  I found a job with a landscaper in the Bernal Heights neighborhood, just south of the Mission District, and a room in a house with a couple of other bachelors just up the street from the company yard.  Having checked those two items, job and house, off my list, I moved on to a third.  I got out the yellow pages and looked up “Churches—Episcopal” for one in my zip code.  That Sunday morning I left my new house and walked down Bernal Hill, across Cesar Chavez St. and up 26th to Fair Oaks, where I arrived at Holy Innocents Episcopal Church just before the 10 o’clock service.  I went in and sat down and looked around at the interior of that lovely building, designed by Ernest Coxhead, the architect of this structure.  And the organist came in and began playing his prelude, something by Johann Sebastian Bach, and I burst into tears.  I felt I had come home. 
Today’s story from Luke is one of a number of parables in the gospels that have to do with the celebration that happens when something that was lost is found again.  In the other stories in this genre, like the one about the woman who loses a silver coin, or the one about the shepherd whose sheep goes astray, it is pretty easy to say what it was that got lost.  But today’s parable is a little more complex than those. 
To be sure, the father lost his younger son when he took his share of his inheritance and went away to a far-off country and squandered it on loose living.  But the son also lost something.  He lost sight of who he was, and what was important in his life.  He went off after a kind of freedom that inflates the value of a false self and its restless desires.  And in the process he lost connection with the one person in the world who really loved him.  Until that finally that moment arrived when, as the story says, he came to himself.  And then he had to lose that false self.  He had to give up his illusion of independence, and swallow his pride, and go back to his father and say, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you.”
Still, I imagine that, even then, he felt just a little trace of pride in his confession of how far he’d fallen.  He planned his speech carefully and when he saw his father he delivered it exactly as he’d prepared, and he probably figured that when his father heard how terrible he felt, and how low he was willing to stoop in order to have a place in the household again, his father would give him what he asked.   But the son had to lose even that satisfaction.  He had to accept a homecoming that wasn’t on his terms, that had nothing to do with the depth of his remorse, or how convincing his performance of guilt was.  He had to surrender even that to his father, who loved him completely, and was simply overjoyed to have him back.
This story describes coming home as a surprise, the surprise of rediscovering something that you used to take for granted and didn’t really value.  When I sat down in Holy Innocents Church and heard Bach on the organ I was remembering something about my own childhood and ancestral roots and the sources of my religious imagination and how I had first discovered beauty and meaning and transcendence.  It was something about who I was, deep down, and how I was related to the world, something I didn’t value and appreciate before. 
Coming home is one of the great metaphors for the life of faith.  But today’s readings remind us that when we come home, the place we are coming to is not the place we left.  When the generations that the Israelites spent enslaved in Egypt are finally over, and the 40 years they spent wandering in the wilderness are also over at last, they come home to the land of Canaan.  The people celebrate their homecoming by completing the circle, and eating the Passover meal that they first ate the night that Pharaoh let them go.  But they make their unleavened bread with the grain of the land of Canaan.  It is the land of their ancestors, and the land of their own future—their promised home. And not one of them has ever been there before. 
When the congregation of St. John’s Episcopal Church came back into this building after two-and-a-half years of exile, many if not most of the people who were here to celebrate that joyful homecoming had never worshipped here before.  This congregation has grown since then, and perhaps many of us who have come in the last few years have experienced being here as a kind of homecoming.  But each one of us comes with a different memory of home.  Each one of us has a different story of losing and getting lost, finding and being found.  We are drawn together to seek a common vision and a shared experience of home, but the home that we are building is a place we’ve never been before.  It’s continually changing, as people come and go, as relationships change and grow, and love enlarges and transforms our understanding of what coming home really means. 
You’ll remember that in the Gospel story the father lost something, and the younger son lost something too.  But so did the older son.  He lost the capacity to love and to value his brother, and we never learn whether he got that back.  The story ends with the words and actions of his father hanging there like a question mark.  To understand why that is, we need to remember that Jesus tells this parable to some Pharisees and scribes who were grumbling because he welcomed sinners and ate with them.   Jesus is asking the grumblers if they have lost have lost the ability to see those sinners as brothers and sisters, who are worthy of love, and who just want to come home.   
In his 2nd Letter to the Corinthians, St. Paul says that to be “in Christ,” means that “we no longer regard anyone from a human point of view.”  To be “in Christ” is to come to ourselves as God knows us, in the embrace of an overflowing, reconciling love.  It is to be the guest of honor at a feast that you cannot disqualify yourself from, no matter how willfully and thoughtlessly and eagerly you have strayed.  It is to receive a welcome that cannot earned, by any amount of feeling sorry or humble yourself or promising to start over again at the bottom rung of the ladder.   It is to be given a new life, for no other reason than because Jesus Christ gives his life for us, and God accepts the gift as if it came from us.
To come home to Jesus is to come to oneself in a place where the love of God embraces everyone as equally lost and equally found.  It is to find oneself in a world where self-serving judgments about who deserves a rightful share of the world’s goods and who doesn’t, who has earned a place of respect in the human family, and who hasn’t, whose life is worth saving, and whose isn’t, no longer apply.  The world we used to find so alluring, the world of the false self, and the false freedom, and the inflated sense of independence, the world of exile and alienation and meaninglessness, becomes a place of transformation, a world on the way home.  And our lives find a new focus and new purpose, as we become partners in that transformation. 
Coming home to Jesus is creating something new, a place where forgiveness and reconciliation and belonging are a gift that belongs to everyone.  It is to be a guest but also a host, at the homecoming feast of the whole world.   

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Toward Tomorrow

Exodus 3:1-15
Psalm 63:1-8
1 Corinthians 10:1-13
Luke 13:1-9

In the summer of 1978 my mother went off to a summer camp to play Renaissance music, so my dad and my three brothers and I left our home in Vermont and went on a road trip to Boston.  One of our stops along the way was the University of Massachusetts campus in Amherst, where they were having an event called the Toward Tomorrow Fair.  It was a kind of trade show, featuring alternative energy and other forms of what was being called at the time “appropriate technology.”  I remember walking onto the grounds and being amazed at the sight of a large oval wind turbine, kind of like an egg-beater, spinning around and around on a vertical axis next to the duck pond.  There were displays about composting toilets and solar food dryers, backyard fish farming and geodesic domes, and the basic premise seemed to be that this was the near future.  The folks at the fair were confident that the recent Arab Oil embargo, and the population bomb, and all the problems associated with big, hard, industrial technology meant that the future would need to be local, versatile, efficient, soft and small. 
And they weren’t alone.  A month after the Toward Tomorrow Fair, the Bishops of the world-wide Anglican Communion came together for The Lambeth Conference.   Every ten years the Archbishop of Canterbury invites them over for three weeks of prayer and worship and conversation.  Each conference passes resolutions on matters of common interest and concern, and in 1978 they approved a total of 37 resolutions on topics ranging from Women in the Priesthood to An Association of French-speaking Dioceses.  But the only one I’ve read is Resolution One, entitled Today’s World.  In it the bishops say that they have found “a new dimension of unity in our intense concern for the future wellbeing of all [human]kind.”  They write of the choices that we face, of the promise of advance in human well-being, on the one hand, and on the other of the “real possibilities of catastrophic disaster if present attitudes and the expectations of individuals do not swiftly change.”
The resolution goes on to list 11 areas where change is needed.  Number 5 includes this statement:
We must direct our efforts to the achievement of a kind of society where the economy is not based on waste, but on stewardship, not on consumerism but on conservation, one concerned not only with work but with the right use of leisure. We may need to contemplate a paradox: an increasing use of appropriate technology, while returning, where possible, to many of the values of pre-industrial society. In some places this can include home industries, the local market, the fishing village, and the small farm.
That was 35 years ago, half a human lifetime.  That’s long enough ago that we can’t think of that summer as contemporary—it is part of the past.  And if the Toward Tomorrow Fair and the Lambeth Conference of 1978 are part of our history, we have to decide how to remember them, and whether they should be remembered at all.   What will we make of that historical moment?  Was it an opportunity that we missed, and is lost forever?  Was it an early warning of lessons that it’s still not too late to learn?  Or was it an irrelevant sidetrack of history, a case of drawing the wrong conclusions from events, that it is better to forget?
The Apostle Paul raises similar questions about the uses of history.  In his 2nd Letter to the church in Corinth he recounts the familiar story of the Exodus, which was the great defining event of history for the Jewish people.  But, for Paul, there is more than one kind of lesson to learn from this story.  On the one hand are God’s awesome deeds of deliverance on behalf of our ancestors.  There is the cloud that sheltered them and led them through the sea.  There is the miracle of the food that God gave them in the wilderness, and the water that sprang from the rock to supply their thirst.  These wonders, says Paul, should remind you of your own redemption from sin and death by the grace of Christ in Holy Baptism.  On the other hand, he goes on to say, the Exodus was also a trial of our ancestors’ faithfulness, and most of them were found guilty.  The question Paul presses on the Corinthians is, how will you use this history?  Will you let it instruct you on how to live in the freedom that your own baptism has given you?  Will you learn its lessons and apply them to the trials of your own present circumstances?
When people tell Jesus about a big, newsworthy current event, an atrocity of the kind that would dominate the airwaves for days, if not weeks, in our own world, it’s not clear what kind of response they’re looking for.  Whatever the case, Jesus cautions them not to draw the wrong conclusions.  He counters with another example of sensational headline-grabbing news, a disaster of what is often called today “crumbling infrastructure.”  It seems that, like today, people in ancient times tried to draw moral lessons from these kinds of events.  And Jesus isn’t arguing against moral lessons.  But, as still happens, the moral lessons that people drew were for other people. 
If you think about a recent atrocity like the Newtown massacre, or a disaster like the breaching of the levees in New Orleans, the public policy proposals and legal remedies and preventative measures that we put forward generally are directed toward somebody else.  But Jesus points us in a different direction.  When you hear about those kinds of calamities, he says, think about yourself.  Any one of us could fall victim to something like that, anytime.  Every one of us is implicated in the sufferings of the world, whether we feel like we deserve it or not.  We are all in the same boat, and that boat is as unsinkable as the Titanic.  So when you hear about some crime or disaster happening somewhere else, to some other people, the only really important question, the only morally responsible question, is “How must I change my life?”         
Which can feel pretty bleak, even for the 3rd Sunday in Lent.  So I like what Luke does with the parable of the fig tree.  Elsewhere in gospels when we hear about a tree that doesn’t bear fruit, the jig is already up for that tree.  But in this version there’s that nice gardener, with his wheelbarrow of manure.  The overall lesson seems to be that if the world really operated according to a consistent moral law, we’d have been done for already.  But, thanks to that gardener, and God’s grace, there’s still hope.  
Now, a stay of execution is not the same thing as a pardon.  It’s been 35 years since the Toward Tomorrow Fair and the world is using more oil than ever.  Big, hard industrial technology has found fossil fuels we didn’t know we had, or could ever use.  So now we face a kind of challenge they weren’t thinking about in 1978.  Now we have to choose to leave oil in the ground, because now we know that if we burn it all up, the earth that we know and love will burn up with it.   It’s a huge test of our capacity to change, not just our technology, but our values.  But St. Paul reminds us that being tested is nothing new:  “No testing has overtaken you that is not common to everyone,” he writes.  But he adds, “God is faithful and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it.”
When our ancestors faced the test of ending racial segregation, or defeating Fascism, or gaining women’s suffrage, when they were being tested by slavery, or persecution, they must have wished that someone else would take that test for them.  Their challenges must have seemed every bit as daunting and unprecedented as the problems we face today.  Their solutions won’t work for our problems, but we can learn from their courage, and from their mistakes.  And there’s still hope.  God is still faithful.  But we have to take the test.  It’s our turn to look the world square in the face and to let it press us to the question, “How must I change my life?”   

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.