Sunday, April 28, 2013

As I have loved you

Acts 11:1-18
Psalm 148
Revelation 21:1-6
John 13:31-35

On the table by my bed there is a little tarnished picture frame, maybe 4 inches by 6 inches, and inside the frame, arranged in a pentagon shape on a piece of blue felt are six United States coins—a John F. Kennedy half-dollar, three quarters, and a couple of dimes.  They all bear the date 1965, the year that I was born, and at the bottom of the frame, between the matte and the glass, there is a little slip of paper with a typewritten inscription that says, “Daniel’s Natal Coins.”  The coins, in themselves, are not worth any more than their face value.  And the whole package does not make a very attractive item—my wife is always trying to get me to put it away in a box or a drawer.  But I like to have it out where I can see it, because it reminds me of the man who made it—my Grandpa Ray.  And I like to remember Grandpa Ray because I know that he loved me. 
Of course my parents love me, and my other grandparents loved me, but, maybe because I was his first grandchild, Grandpa Ray loved me unreservedly and I knew it.  He was generous to everyone, and every birthday and Christmas and Easter my brothers and I knew that we could count on something special from Ray and my Grandma Lenore.  But I was the only one who ever got anything quite like Daniel’s Natal Coins, something he made with his own hands.
The upper edge of the white paper matte in Daniel’s Natal Coins is slightly bent and crumpled.  The blue felt lining is curled down away from that edge, revealing a narrow slice of the cardboard backing of the frame. The half dollar has been pushed down toward the quarters in the middle, making further wrinkles in the lining.  These imperfections are visible evidence of a boring afternoon when I was 7 or 8 years old when my desire to hold those coins in my hand, to feel their weight and see the reverse of them got the better of me.  I tried to slide the backing out of the frame at the bottom, but I only succeeded in doing the damage I just described.   When I saw what was happening, I stopped at once, and felt ashamed.
I never told Grandpa Ray about what I’d done with my Natal Coins, and it wasn’t long after that that his habit of smoking a couple of packs a day started to catch up with him.  But I know that he’d forgive me, because he loved me.  And that love is his real legacy to me.  My biological grandfather wasn’t much of a dad.  I never met him, but from what I hear he was a distant, self-hating alcoholic, with a savage wit and a jaundiced view of the world.  He and Grandma Lenore divorced when my dad was still young, and it wasn’t until she met and married Ray that he started to experience what a loving father is.  He himself was not always an ideal dad, but he did pretty well, all things considered.  I don’t have any doubt that he loves me and is proud of me, and I think a lot of the credit for that goes to Grandpa Ray.
In the Gospel of John, Jesus leaves his disciples a parting gift, a token of his love.  It has various names—Peace, the Holy Spirit, a New Commandment—but these are different ways of talking about the same gift.  It is the gift his life, which lives on in the community of those who follow him, and his love, which is the nourishment that sustains them, and the light that guides them, and the power that glorifies them.  Jesus’ disciples, and we who are their heirs, haven’t always done justice to that gift.  Like children trying to pry it open to grasp the treasures it holds, the church is forever trying to take the grace of Jesus Christ apart and turn it into something we control.  We prefer our doctrines about how the gift works to the gift itself, which is just a way of refusing to let it really change the way we live.
But the message of Easter is that betrayal is no obstacle to the giver of the gift.  Today’s gospel lesson begins right at that moment when Judas leaves the supper table to set in motion Jesus’ Crucifixion.  The great world-saving mission of the Word made Flesh that John announced at the beginning of his gospel is now completing its descent into the human realm.  It is coming to meet us at the point where we seem least like God, where we are letting each other down, stabbing each other in the back, breaking faith and selling out.  But Jesus doesn’t get hung up on the fact that his friend has done him wrong.  He doesn’t let the pain of betrayal turn his heart cold and hard.
And in that moment, says the Gospel, he is glorified.  He can’t control what is about to happen to him, but in spite of that, Jesus is still free.  The freedom to choose love, even in the face of betrayal and violation, is the true glory of a human being.  Anyone can love people when they are loving to us, and treat us the way we want to be treated.  But that kind of love is really just imitation.  I look like I love you because I’m doing the same kind, patient, generous and affectionate things to you that you do to me.  But let you do something that hurts me, and just like that, I’ll be looking for a way to hurt you back. 
The love that Jesus has for people is also based on imitation, but it is not the imitation of other people.  It is the imitation of God.  That is why the gospel says that he has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him.  His love for Judas doesn’t depend on being reciprocated, so it can’t be broken by betrayal.  It’s free, like the love of God.  It’s a gift, like life itself.  Like our bodies, and minds, and this big, wide, beautiful world to live in are gifts.  They are gifts that cannot be repaid.  But the giver can be imitated.  The gift can be passed along to others.  And that’s what Jesus commands us to do—to give the love that doesn’t expect to be reciprocated, to love, not in the hope of repayment, but in the hope of living in the glory of God.
The New Testament says that the free gift of God’s love doesn’t oblige us to do anything, but it will live in us, and grow in us, when we pass it on to others.  If others treat us with violence, dishonor, or treachery, we repay them with the love that God has for all her children, the love with which Jesus loved us.  It’s hard to believe that such a simple principle could be the lever to turn the whole sad and disastrous course of human affairs completely around.  So we don’t believe it.  We try to take it apart and grasp it in our hands.  We set up terms and conditions and contingencies on what came to us for free.  We say God’s love is for everyone, provided they meet certain basic requirements.  We say the mercy of God is on all his works, except for such and such categories of people and places; we say that God is slow to anger and quick to forgive, except in the case of certain crimes. 
Now I’m not saying it’s easy to put in to practice.  Love often means speaking the difficult truth, and defying the conventional wisdom. I’m not saying it’s always clear how to love somebody, especially somebody who’s out of control, who’s blowing people up or defrauding the poor or abusing children.  I’m just saying that it’s what Jesus commanded us to do.  It really is that simple: Love one another as I have loved you.  Nobody really knows how it works.  But the Easter gospel says that God rewarded Jesus for it.  He raised him from the dead, and exalted him to heaven, and set him at his right hand to reign in glory for ever and ever.   Not because he had to, or because he owed it to him, but because he loved him.  And he trusted him with the gift of eternal life, because he knew he would pass it on, for free, to anyone who walks in his footsteps.  

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Following the voice

Acts 9:36-43
Psalm 23
Revelation 7:9-17
John 10:22-30

Thursday night, or Friday morning, depending on how you look at it, I was awakened by the telephone.  I had been fast asleep and for a disoriented moment I thought it was the alarm.  I didn’t get to the phone in time to answer it, and when I did I saw that it was 2:18 A.M.  I was hoping someone had misdialed but then I saw that I had a new voice message.  So I called the voicemail number and entered my password, with a sense of dread about what that message was going to say.
Well, it turned out that the news wasn’t that bad.  A young woman named Samantha, taking her ailing mother home to Oregon from Southern California, had spent all her money on car repairs and couldn’t go any further that night.  She said her mother was an Episcopalian and they had called St. John’s and gotten my number from the recorded greeting.  They had looked all over town for a vacant motel room and had finally found one, and they wanted to know if I could pay for it.  Some of you may not know this, but the members of St. John’s provide a Discretionary Fund for me to use to assist people in need, so I called her back, and agreed to meet her at a motel next to the freeway at the north end of town.
I’d been reading the gospel lesson for today before I went to bed that night, and as I drove up the on-ramp I thought of what Jesus says about his sheep, and how they hear his voice, and follow him.  And it struck me that this is what that looks like.  There are a lot of reasons why we have an institution called St. John’s Episcopal Church, with an office and a telephone and an answering machine.  There are a lot of reasons why we have a pastor, and a discretionary fund.  But one of the reasons is surely so that when somebody is out on the road in the middle of the night far from home, they can know the presence of the Good Shepherd in a concrete, tangible way.    
And maybe it was just because it was the middle of the night and my mind wasn’t functioning normally, but I felt joyful in that moment and grateful for the privilege of being the one to represent you like that.   Not because I was standing in for Jesus, but because I was one of his sheep.  When that call came at 2:18 in the morning it was the Good Shepherd on the other end of the line.  And I was the one chosen, in that moment, to hear his voice and to follow him.   
Jesus talks about a relationship in which the Shepherd is just as vulnerable as the sheep.  The sheep hear the voice of the Shepherd and they respond to it with trust and obedience.  But the Shepherd also lives by trust and obedience in relation to the one he calls Father.  And that is what makes the Shepherd trustworthy and good.  That is why the sheep listen to his voice and follow him, even when it means waking up at 2:18 in the morning.  That is why they follow his voice even when it means rushing toward the site of a bombing, when there has been a second bomb, and might be third.  That is why they follow his voice even into a burning fertilizer factory filled with ammonia. 
The Good Shepherd shows the sheep the goodness of the Father, whose mind no one knows, and whose face no one can see.  And sometimes that doesn’t feel like enough.  Sometimes we are like those who surround Jesus in the temple and ask, “How long will you keep us in suspense? Tell us now!”  Sometimes we don’t want to live in vulnerability.  Sometimes we don’t want a relationship of trust and obedience.  Sometimes we get tired of listening and following.  We want the complete picture, to have the last word, so we can be in control from here on out, so we can be our own shepherds.
But that urgent demand to have everything settled, that unwillingness to wait any longer for one’s own truth to be vindicated, is what leads to political violence.  When people start to say things like, “The time for talk is past.  We don’t want to hear the other side of the issue,” and “We can’t wait any longer, and will do whatever it takes to get our point across,” then watch out, because you know what’s coming—the missiles are about to fly; the death squads are putting on their hoods; the torturers are getting out their tools; someone is packing nails and ball-bearings into a pressure-cooker.
 But when people are willing to kill innocents, it’s because the cause they are fighting for is already marked for death.  Even if it is a power that stands astride the world, if you know where to look, you can already see the cracks in the foundation.  If you listen closely you can hear the wailing of the mourners, and catch the faint whiff of decay.  The setting of today’s gospel story is the Jerusalem temple, at the annual feast of the Dedication of the temple itself.  The temple was the cornerstone of political and economic, as well as religious, order in the Palestine of Jesus’ day.  And as near as we can tell, challenging the legitimacy of the temple was Jesus’ capital crime.  His enemies had him killed in order to protect the temple.   But by the time the Gospel of John was written, the temple was a blackened pile of fallen stones.
The truth that is so urgent that people are willing to kill for it is a hollow truth.  It bears the mark of death on its heart.  But the Good Shepherd speaks with a different kind of urgency, the urgent love of life.  It is the urgency of Peter rushing off to Joppa to pray for the life of the widow Tabitha.  It doesn’t need to know the final answer, or to force events to a final crisis.  It only seeks to hear the trusted voice, the one that knows who we are, telling us what to do next.  Even amidst the pressing demands of the moment, the sheep of the Good Shepherd walks in peace.  It is the peace of knowing that it is enough to hear his voice and to follow, because the Good Shepherd is one with the Father, who is the indestructible Lord of Life. 
Sometimes we might wish the voice had led us on a different path.  There are times when our pasture doesn’t feel particularly important, or glamorous or rewarding.  Maybe it’s kind of scrubby, and a little dry.  Maybe we have to walk a long way to get to the place where the cool water flows.  Maybe the howls of the wolves at night sound a little too close for comfort.  But if we learn to listen for the voice of the shepherd, I think we’ll discover that even our sheepish lives have about them a certain kind of urgency. 
We may not be called to help the victims of a terrorist bombing, but the world is not short of victims.  We may not be sent to apprehend a pair of armed and dangerous fugitives, but there are angry people everywhere.  We may not be summoned to raise someone from the dead, but there are people all around us who need a prayer and a touch and an invitation to rise.  And none of the people who did those heroic things thought they would have to do them until the moment came and the voice spoke that said “follow.”
And they did follow, and in some cases in cost them everything.  But if we were to say they were mistaken, we would be drawing the wrong conclusion.  Because in a world marked for death only one thing is certain.  Only one thing is guaranteed.  It is that God knows us and loves us and holds us in the hand of indestructible life.  That is all the Good Shepherd needed to know.  He placed himself completely in the power of that hand, and it led him to lay down his life for his friends.  But it also gave him the power to take it up again, a power that he gives to us moment by moment, day by day.  Do you hear his voice?

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Feed my sheep

I first began to understand what the thing called Christian ministry is really all about one autumn morning as I knelt at the altar rail for communion.  I was just shy of my 29th birthday, and I had been going to Holy Innocents Episcopal Church in San Francisco for a few months after 17 years of no regular church attendance.  So I was still getting used to it all, the confession and the creed, the crossing myself, the standing here and the sitting there, and the weekly communion, which was not part of my childhood church experience.  I was struggling to understand what this ritual was about, and why the dry, papery little cracker and sip of fortified wine should matter as much as they obviously did.
On this particular day our two priests were distributing the bread as usual, dividing the altar rail between them.   I was one of the last to receive, and just before I did, something awkward must have happened.  I was trying to prepare myself inwardly for communion, so I didn’t see it, but there was a small yet noticeable interruption of the flow, a hiccup in the administration of the sacrament, a miscommunication or an accidental collision—I’ll never know.  But I looked up and saw Fr. Armand and Fr. Rob whispering together about it, and sharing a moment of quiet laughter over whatever it was that had happened.  They did not seem embarrassed or flustered, but more like partners in an improvisational dance which had taken an unexpected and humorous turn, and without missing another beat they resumed the distribution of the consecrated bread.
Something stirred in my heart as I witnessed that brief exchange, and it merged into the next moment, when Fr. Armand placed the wafer in my hand and I brought it to my mouth.  In a way I hadn’t really done before, I understood that the power of the gift he was passing on to me is not in the form of the ritual.  The priest does not make it happen by performing it correctly.  In that moment I saw the life that animates the Holy Eucharist, laughing and playing with the people who celebrate it.  It does not hover somewhere out of sight, above the proceedings, but it descends and dances with the people, with the people who do the feeding and the people who do the eating. 
That life is what makes possible the thing called Christian ministry, what we might also call discipleship.  It can look like anything, really.  It can look like a guy in odd-looking old-fashioned costume parading around in a church, or it can look like a woman bathing her granddaughter, or some kids picking up trash on the beach.  It can take any form, because its power doesn’t come from the form.  The power of Christian ministry comes from the reality of human life as it is lived, in all its vulnerability, and wonder, and incompleteness. 
And it comes from obedience to the word of Jesus Christ, or more properly, of Christ crucified and raised from the dead.  The proclamation of Christ’s resurrection is not the happy ending to an old story.  It is the beginning of a new story, a story in which all who love Jesus, all who have faith in him, who want to know him and to be healed and transformed by his grace are the actors.  The Resurrection is the place from which we are sent to meet the reality of human life in all its dimensions.  It is the sign that God is willing and able to work with us, even as we are.  It is the news that from here on out God doesn’t work any other way. 
Today’s gospel is about the beginning of this new story, which is actually the re-telling of an old one in a different key.  The story starts over at the beginning.  After being Jesus’ disciple, and going with him to Jerusalem, after the supper and the foot-washing and the denial, after the crucifixion and the empty tomb, after the locked room and the breathing of the Holy Spirit, Peter goes back to Galilee.  Back to the shores of the Sea of Tiberias.  Back to his fishing boat.
“I’m going fishing,” says Peter, as if to say, “I’m at a loss to know what has happened to me.  I don’t know who I am anymore, or what I’m supposed to be doing.  But I can’t just sit here, so I’m going do what I know how to do best.”  Strange to say, there are a few of the friends he made when he was with Jesus who are still hanging around.  And whether he wants it or not, Peter is their leader.  So they all go fishing together.
But there’s no going back to the way things were.  It’s fruitless to try, and so, though they fish all night, they don’t catch a thing until they hear the voice of the man standing on the shore, saying "Cast the net to the right side of the boat, and you’ll find some."  In the background is the echo of the other gospels, where the Christian community begins with Jesus calling Peter to leave his fishing boat and go with him to fish for people.   That this summons has not been cancelled by Jesus’ crucifixion, but is just beginning to move to fulfillment, is seen in the miraculous catch of fish. 
The beloved disciple is the first to recognize the Lord, but it is Peter who, in characteristically thick-headed style, throws on some clothes and jumps into the lake.  He swims to shore, and when he gets there, Jesus is waiting, and the fire is warm, and so are the fish and the bread.  Just as he ate with the tax collectors and sinners, just as he fed the multitude in the wilderness, just as he dipped bread into the dish, on the night he was betrayed, with the one who betrayed him, now Jesus invites the one who denied him to breakfast. 
The memory of that terrible night looms over this story.  The charcoal fire on the beach is like the fire in the courtyard of the High Priest where Peter stood warming himself with the servants and the police.  And just as they asked him three times, “are you not one of his disciples?” and three times Peter denied it, so now Jesus asks him, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?”  Three times he asks him, and three times Peter says, “Lord, you know that I love you.”  And by the third time Peter also knows, and the pain and the shame and the guilt of what happened that night hangs in the air between them. 
But Jesus is not guilt-tripping Peter.   He does not gloss over the truth of what happened, but he meets the reality of Peter’s all-too human weakness with forgiveness.  He doesn’t condemn him, he gives him a job.  Jesus gives Peter the gift of a do-over, a second chance to show that he does in fact love his master.  And the sign of that love will be that Peter feeds Jesus’ sheep.
 This is the story of the call of a disciple, and like the other call stories it ends with the command to “Follow me.”   But Peter will no longer follow as the blundering, impulsive, and self-important disciple that he was before.  He will be a true leader, one whose memories of failure and unmerited forgiveness will be the source of his power to minister to others.  Yet for all that he will still be Peter.  Likewise Saul, after meeting Jesus on the road to Damascus, will become Paul.  But he will never forget how he persecuted his Lord.
In the same way, our own ministries will only grow from the roots of our real experience.  The people that we are, the histories we have, even our deep wounds and worst mistakes; as well as the context of our lives—our spouses and children and parents, our friends and neighbors, our church and country and century—it all adds up to a calling, to a particular ministry that only we can fulfill.  This is our gift.  It is, by the grace and power of Christ’s resurrection, the way that leads us to a new life, one that retells our own familiar story in new words, the words of unconditional love and forgiveness.   

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

The one who wasn't there

Acts 5:27-32
Psalm 150
Revelation 1:4-8
John 20:19-31

Twenty years ago I was living in a Zen Buddhist monastery in the mountains near Big Sur.  One of my jobs there was to be the ceremonial attendant to the abbot of the monastery.  There were various aspects to this position, and one of them was that when the monks wanted to have a private conversation with the abbot about their religious practice, what we called in Zen jargon “dokusan,” they would come to me.  I would write their name down in a little notebook that I kept tucked away in the sleeve of my kimono, and every morning, he would ask to know who was on the list.  I would pull out my notebook and tell him and then he would tell me which person or persons he wanted to see. 
After we offered incense in the meditation hall, he would return to his cabin, and I would walk quietly along behind the row of monks, sitting very still facing the wall, and when I came to the one I wanted I would lean over and whisper, “Dokusan.”  Then I would lead the way to the waiting room outside the abbot’s cabin, where we would wait for the sound of the bell that meant he was ready.  The monk would ring my little answering bell, and go in. 
After a while I learned which of the monks took a long time in Dokusan, presumably because they had lots of questions, and which ones were finished after only a few minutes, and which ones would no sooner finish and be scratched off the list than they would ask to be added to it again.  I got to see how the abbot would sometimes pass over certain names and ask to see those who were further down on the list.  Then one day, as we were nearing the end of the three-month training period, the abbot asked me if I thought everyone had come to him for Dokusan at least once.  I thought about it for a minute and said I thought maybe Lynnette had not, but he reminded me that in fact she had, way back in January.  I leafed back through old pages of my notebook, and searched my memory a little longer and then I said that I guessed he’d seen everyone.
“No,” he answered, “I never saw Jim.”
“Jim…”  I tried to remember whether Jim had ever asked to be on the list, horrified at the thought that he might have, and that I’d forgotten to write his name down, but now that I thought about it, I had to say that the abbot was right—Jim never did ask for Dokusan.  I felt a little embarrassed that I hadn’t noticed, but to tell you the truth I wasn’t really surprised.  To tell the truth, I never had been able to figure out why Jim was even at the monastery.  He didn’t talk a lot, and when he did say something it wasn’t about any of the customary topics of Zen student conversation.  Usually his comments struck me as kind of sarcastic, the sorts of things that might have been said by a fairly conventional American guy in his early thirties who unaccountably found himself living in a Zen Buddhist monastery in California.  The only thing you could really say with certainty about Jim was that he liked to run.  Every afternoon, in the break time after work and before the evening service, you’d see him heading off by himself, with his trademark limping stride, running up the road that led out of the canyon.
Every religious community develops a kind of common culture, with unspoken rules of behavior and a shared language that holds its members together and helps them feel like they belong.  And every one I’ve been a part of, and there have been quite a few over the years, also seems to have at least one person like Jim. They are the people who don’t seem to fit the mold—who don’t do what everyone else does, or talk about the things everyone else talks about.  The motivations that drew them to the community, and keep them there, are anybody’s guess.  And yet they stick around, sometimes long after other people who seem more natural suited for the place have moved on.  And if the community is a healthy one, it accepts them, and allows them to stay as long as they feel they need to be there.
In John’s Gospel, when the risen Christ appears to his disciples on Easter night, he blesses them with the power of his resurrection.  This power will enable them to overcome their fear and the loss of their leader, and become the nucleus of an enduring and expanding community.  Jesus leaves them the inheritance of his Peace, the Peace that comes from a noble purpose and a shared mission.  He breathes upon them the Holy Spirit, with its freedom to choose forgiveness over the endless replication of hurt.  But one of the disciples is not there to receive the blessing.  Thomas is out and about, on some errand of his own.  And when he returns, and the others try to tell him about what they saw and heard, Thomas is not convinced.
If you think about it, the following days must have been uncomfortable for everyone.  I imagine the disciples who were witnesses to the resurrection must have been unable to contain their excitement, as they told and retold their particular experiences of the shared event.  Perhaps there were conversations that went on long into the night as they remembered the things that Jesus had said and done, all the way up to, and including, his death.  Much that had been puzzling, or even frightening, to them at the time it happened, they could now reinterpret and make clear in the light of his resurrection.  Yet all the while, their enthusiasm would have had to have been dampened at least a little by the presence of Thomas, the left-out one, the one who hadn’t been there, and wasn’t sure that he believed.  And it must have been pretty hard for Thomas, too.
But they stayed together.  Thomas didn’t leave, and the other disciples didn’t cast him out.  And that is a testimony to kind of community that the Holy Spirit creates.  It is a community that is sent in Peace, a community born out of an act of forgiveness, and there is room in it for people like Thomas.  There was a place for Thomas even though nobody knew whether the day he was holding out for would ever come.   When it does come, it is a week later.  It is once again the first day of the week, the day of the renewal of creation, and you could say that the appearance of Jesus to Thomas is an image of the ongoing resurrection of Christ in the life of the church.  The Holy Spirit renews the church again and again, Sunday by Sunday, year by year, century by century, by renewing the relationships between her members, transforming estrangement into belonging with the power of forgiveness.
But, just in case we find ourselves thinking that this transformation is simply the process by which the eccentric and contrary people in the church get over it, and learn to conform to the culture of the majority, this story also tells us that it is Thomas, and people like him, who sometimes have the most intimate and concrete understanding of the human wounds of Christ.  And it is precisely because Thomas knows Jesus in this way that he is the first to recognize him as Lord and God.
All of us are Thomas, at least some of the time, and if we are to keep Christ alive in our midst, we need to keep our relationship with Thomas open and active.  Our own doubt, our own refusal to accept someone else’s word for the truth, our own demand for first-hand personal knowledge of the risen Christ, and desire for a God who comes to meet us in our embodied experience of human suffering—these are essential aspects of a dynamic and living faith.  Likewise, our capacity to respect others who question the received truth, who refuse a neat and tidy confession of faith, our ongoing relationship with people whose religion is different from ours, or who don’t seem to have any religion at all, is what creates a community where Christ himself can visit, not once, but again and again and again.     

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.