Friday, May 31, 2013

Where are the churches?

I was talking with one of our members recently about St. John’s mission to the wider community and she told me about a letter in one of the local papers from an Occupy activist who had been protesting the eviction of low-income tenants from the Petaluma Hotel by its new owner.  The author raised a question that had pricked her conscience—“Where are the churches?”  Why weren’t members of Petaluma congregations acting on the biblical moral imperative of defending the poor?
It’s a good question, one that I take personally to heart, and it reminds me of a man I met seven or eight years ago on vacation with my family.  My brother had let slip to some of the other guests at the resort that I was a priest, and this fellow caught me by myself a little later and took the opportunity to vent his frustration with the churches for not stopping the invasion of Iraq.  I didn’t bother pointing out to him all the fruitless efforts that millions of Christians had made to do just that.  Instead, I asked him when he had last been to church.  He said he left the church in disgust when his Roman Catholic priest had failed to take a stand against the Vietnam War, which would have placed it thirty years in the past.
In a way the question “where are the churches?” is an underhanded compliment.  It implies the recognition that the churches are unique institutions, and ought to be the moral conscience of society.  But how can the church take responsibility for being the conscience of a town, or of a nation, when the people of the town won’t take responsibility for the church?  There seems to be an assumption underlying these complaints that the churches are sitting on large reserves of social and political capital and their members are just too lazy or complacent to put it into play.  But the churches I’m familiar with, at least, are comprised of people who care deeply about the common good and want to make a difference in the world, and who are, indeed, giving generously and working hard to do what they can.  But these churches are also half-empty, and struggling to survive.
Someone might accuse us of devoting too much energy to carrying on our worship services and maintaining our organizations, energy that could otherwise be spent on social action.  And that accusation carries weight with us, not because it comes from Occupy activists, but because it comes from the Hebrew prophets.  What makes people who have not been to church in thirty years still look to us with hope for a more just and peaceful world, are the transcendent demands of God.  We may perceive those demands imperfectly, we may fall far short in our obedience, but we, with the other churches, synagogues, temples and mosques, are the only places in society where they are publicly spoken, where they are given a hearing and meditated on, studied and honored. 
And that alone requires work.   God’s demands and instructions do not come to us as a series of easily-diagrammed steps, or pre-digested principles.  We inherit them in the form of traditions, biblical, cultural, liturgical, that are interwoven with the complex life and history of a great, and not always completely-functional, family.  It is not easy to understand what this inheritance is, let alone sort through it for the precious treasures that meet the urgent need of our own day.  To find those gifts, and hold them up, and pass them around the community, so that they can transform our fragmented, individualistic existence into the life of a single body acting in wisdom and compassion—this is a long, slow, labor of love. 
We have a responsibility for the gifts that we have inherited that prevents us from spending ourselves too impetuously or carelessly.  We have a grave responsibility to pass these gifts on to the next generation, in the midst of social and cultural currents that are antithetical to that process.    We have the responsibility of honoring and caring for our elders, and the sick and differently-abled and poor in our own midst.  We have the responsibility of nourishing our community with beauty and joy, so that life is more than grim struggle.  Most of all, we have the responsibility of worship, of embodied, collective praise of the transcendent mystery that alone can make all our other work good, and enduring, and free.
People who don’t know about these gifts don’t value them, so it is understandable that they look for some other proof of the churches’ social purpose.   They will point to the example of Jesus, and hold us to it, as a universal standard that they have as much right to claim as we do.  And they are right to do so.   But while the gospels narrate many dramatic episodes in the ministry of Jesus, and quotations of things he said, they give us almost no descriptive information about how he lived his life, generally speaking.  There is one notable exception to this, and it is found in the Gospel of Luke, chapter 4, verse 16, where we read, “When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, as was his custom.”
Where are the churches?  In the yellow pages.  On the internet.  Ours has a tower and a steeple, which makes it easy to spot.  It’s been on the same corner for over 150 years, which suggests that it’s doing something right.  Where are the churches?--Where are you?

Sunday, May 19, 2013

The dream of the Spirit

One evening in January, 1988 I was on a dilapidated barge chugging south just off the eastern shore of Lake Nicaragua.  It was a part of the country with no paved roads, where the vast lake served as the main artery of transportation.  Our volunteer construction team had hired the barge, a rusting hulk with a wheezing, reeking diesel motor, to help us gather materials for the houses we had gone there to build.  I’d spent much of the day in a dim, windowless warehouse, picking through piles of cement paper in sacks, pulling out the ones that hadn’t been turned into bricks by rain leaking through the roof, and loading them into wheelbarrows.  Nicaraguans then wheeled the cement down the street and out to the end of a rickety pier, where they lowered it into the canoe that ferried it out to the barge. 
When the cement was shipped, we rode on a flatbed truck to the outskirts of the village where some Swedes had set up a sawmill.  We loaded the truck with lumber and drove back to the pier, where we moved it, board-by-board, out to the barge, in the same laborious manner.  It was late afternoon by the time we had put out from San Miguelito, and we had gone less than half of the ten or twelve miles back to our work site in Morillo when a belt broke on the engine.  The pilot cut the motor and we drifted for a while in anxious silence, as he struggled to tie a length of rope tightly enough around the flywheel to serve as a temporary replacement.  Amazingly, it worked, and as the sun sank behind the twin volcanoes of the Isle of Omotepe, we got under way once again.
It seemed to be a rule of life in Nicaragua that any vehicle on land or water that had space on deck or in the cargo bed was required to take on passengers, and a spontaneous party broke out among them in celebration of the ingenuity of our captain and the beauty of the evening.  In the prow where I was sitting, a man in a floppy wide-brimmed hat of faded army green and matching shirt pulled a half-pint bottle of cheap white rum out of his bag and offered it to me with a smile.  I took a swig and handed it back.  He pointed to a golden pearl of light high above in the darkening sky.  Calling Spanish “basic” would have been doing it too much credit, but I’d had enough Latin that I understood “la diosa del amor”—the goddess of love.  So we drank again to Venus, and from there we made our best effort at carrying on a conversation.  As was often the case in my time in Nicaragua, the topic came around to the question of why my country was attacking his.  I did what I could to explain my understanding of Cold War geopolitics, and he looked me intently in the eye and said, “They say we are Communists, but we are not.  We are Christians.”
I think of that man and our conversation this morning because today is Pentecost.  Today is a celebration of the gift of the Holy Spirit that came to the disciples of Jesus of Nazareth on Pentecost Day.  What makes that gift the enduring life-force of the Church is not the memory of an ecstatic experience, a sound like a rush of wind and a vision of tongues of fire.    Neither is it the miraculous ability to speak to a crowd of people from every land in their native languages.  If you’re like me, these things have never happened to you, but this is still our story.  Because the sound is just the means to gather the crowd, and the flames are just the sign of the authority to speak, and the languages are just a means to deliver a message.  And it’s the message that is the real gift of Pentecost.
The Holy Spirit is what empowers us to speak and to hear a message, and the message is not very different from the one that man gave me on the barge in Nicaragua.  “Language is not a barrier, to us being able to understand each other.  Neither is nationality, or politics.  We live on the same Earth, under the same stars.  We ought to be able to trust each other and live in peace.”  And the second part of the man’s message is also the message of the Holy Spirit—“the means to this peace, the bond of this brotherhood, is Christ.”   
Sometimes when people talk about reuniting the human race, they seem to have a dream of getting everybody to speak the same language, or believe the same doctrine, and line up behind the same centralized plan.   But this is the project of the tower of Babel.  It is the dream of the empire and the totalitarian state.   At its heart is the fear of death and disorder, and a spirit of rivalry, even rivalry with God.  But the Holy Spirit at Pentecost has a different kind of dream.  The tongues of flame are distributed around the circle of the disciples, where each one receives his or her own anointing with the authority to teach.  The Spirit does not teach those Jews from all over the world to speak the same language; but it teaches the apostles to speak the variety of languages that make a multicultural community.  And Peter interprets the event to the crowd in terms of Joel’s dream of the Spirit poured out on all flesh, so that sons and daughters, young men and old, and even slaves, have the power to speak the truth about God. 
The Gospel of John says plainly that God will send us this Spirit of truth.  But it is not a philosophical truth.  It is not something esoteric or abstract or otherworldly, but it is a truth that is available to everyone, because it is revealed to all in the life of Jesus.  The message of the Gospel, the message that is kindled into flame at Pentecost, is that the truth about God is a human truth.  It is manifest in human words and human works.  They are words of forgiveness, and reconciliation, and peace.  They are works of healing, and feeding, and setting free, of seeking, and saving, and serving even unto death. 
To say the same kind of words, and do the same kind of works, requires no special knowledge, and no higher authority than the life and death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ.  No matter who we are or where we come from we can understand this story.  We can grasp what kind of person Jesus is.  And if we love him, says the Gospel, and model our own actions upon his, and pray to become like him in our own peculiar way, we have the Spirit of truth.  The Spirit that was on him, that anointed him to speak good news to the poor, and recovery of sight to the blind, and release to the captive, to let the oppressed go free, and the coming of the year of God’s favor, is also with us and in us.  And as bearers of this message, we are all members of one body, no matter what language we speak, or what country we come from, no matter how the architects of Babel might try to keep us apart.   
Today we begin the story again at the beginning, with the water where Jesus was baptized with the Holy Spirit.  Today we welcome another companion into his way of freedom and truth, in the person of little Mackenzie Anne.  And we pray that the Holy Spirit will give her grace to recognize the power of the gift she has been given, that from this modest beginning, she may be able to go all the way, and lead others to the abode of heavenly peace.  Beginning again where the apostles began, gathering on Sunday to pray and to remember Jesus, may this congregation be empowered to hear and to speak the message of the Holy Spirit in the languages of our own day.  From this modest beginning, may the truth about God’s reconciling love for every human being lead us to become that royal priesthood of every family, language, people and nation that the Spirit intends us to be.   

The true history of the world

Because today is Mother’s Day, I have to begin with a story about my Mother.  When I was a 8th-grader in Charlotte, Vermont, the principal of the Charlotte Central School was a man named Larned Ketcham.  He was a horse breeder in his off hours, and his manner with children reflected that.  A tall, solidly-built, square-jawed man with a proud bearing, he used to appear without warning in the school yard during recess and walk around, watching keenly everything that happened, and when he saw something amiss he would put his fingers in his mouth and let out a whistle that made 300 laughing, yelling children freeze in an instant.  One morning Mr. Ketcham must have decided that there was a general drift toward unruliness going on, and that it was no longer sufficient merely to intervene in individual cases; because when the final bus had arrived, and before the bell rang to mark the beginning of classes, he herded us all into the cafeteria. 
When we were all indoors and seated he whistled, and the din was instantly replaced with a dead silence.  He announced that the talking-to that he was about to give us was so important that the next child who spoke would spend an hour after school with him in his office that evening, which was Monday, and every evening for the rest of the week.  So nobody talked.  Nobody, that is, except me.  In the illusory safety of the far corner of the cafeteria I whispered some wisecrack to my friend Jim Mack, and from across the large and crowded room I heard the voice of Mr. Ketcham like the trumpet of doom—“Mr. Green!”  I stammered out a feeble denial, but my fate was sealed.  I, who had made it through seven-and-a-half years of compulsory public education without ever once being sent to the Principal’s Office, was sentenced to go there for the next five days.
That afternoon, filled with dread, I walked down to the lobby, and as I watched the other children happily bursting out of the doors toward the line of buses waiting to take them home, I took the left turn of the condemned man, and entered the school office.  There I was surprised to find Mr. Ketcham in a relaxed, if not outright friendly, mood.  He let me use his phone to call home and explain to my mother why I wouldn’t be on the bus, and what time she would have to pick me up.  He then made small talk with me for a couple minutes, after which we spent the rest of the hour in silence, him working at his desk and me doing my homework in a chair in the corner. 
The peace was shattered at 5 o’clock by the arrival of my mother.  I don’t know how much of her outrage was due to the harshness of my punishment, and how much was because of her inconvenience at having to fetch me home from school, but she went into battle with all guns blazing, while I sat to one side, feeling a mixture of relief and embarrassment.  Mr. Ketcham offered valiant resistance, but after manfully weathering a couple of salvos of Katie Green’s fury, he gave me a look that betrayed the slightest hint of a smile, and then we all knew he was beaten.  I packed my books into my bag, nodded soberly at the principal’s warning about learning my lesson, and followed my mother out to the car, my debt to society paid in full.
When somebody tells us that right now Jesus is with the Father in heaven, interceding on our behalf, this is often the kind of thing that comes to mind.  But the image of the redeemer pleading with a wrathful God, who must be talked out of inflicting on us the full punishment we deserve, doesn’t really fit the one example we have of Jesus’ intercessory prayer.
In John’s Gospel Jesus speaks and acts as one who is fully conscious of having come from God, and fully confident that he is returning to God.  This is especially true in the so-called “farewell discourse,” the long speech that he gives his disciples after supper on the night before his death.  In these three chapters, Jesus speaks of his impending death as if it is just a part—an important and indispensible part, but just one part—of a whole process of transformation that he calls being “glorified.”   And he speaks of this process that is about to take place as if it were already accomplished.  In the 17th chapter, which is where today’s gospel lesson comes from, Jesus completes his farewell discourse with a prayer, a prayer in which he speaks as one who has already left the world, who even now is standing face to face with God.
I don’t think that this is an accident.  John tells the story this way on purpose.  He wants his community to understand that the way that they  think and talk about Jesus, the relationship they have with him at the end of the 1st century, or whenever it was that the Gospel was written, is a relationship that Jesus himself anticipated and initiated.  The story of Jesus that John tells his church is not an invention after the fact, but flows directly out of Jesus’ own words, his own works, his own purpose.  And these words, these works, this purpose do not exist only in the church’s memorial, but they live in the present, hidden from sight, in God.
To the ones who reject him, the story of Jesus is only lies and broken promises—a man who claimed to be the Messiah but who failed and died.   But to those who believe in him, the rejection and the death are only the beginning of a journey that takes Jesus from life to death, to resurrection, to ascension to the glory of the heavenly throne, from which he sends the gift of the Holy Spirit.   And these events are the key that unlocks the meaning of a much greater story.  They retell the great story of the creation of human beings in the divine image, of our misuse of our freedom, and of God’s undying love for us, of God’s desire to restore us to our place as partners with him in the creation of a sacred universe.  The journey of Jesus into glory is what proves that this is no myth, no mirage, no human fabrication of any kind, but the true history of the world. 
John’s Gospel says that Jesus knew from the beginning that he was the person in whom God’s age-old story would be renewed and fulfilled.  He also knew that his rejection and murder would be the fork in the road.  Those who took his death as proof that Jesus was wrong and his story was over, would go on as before.  The world’s story of itself would continue, repeating its cycles of violence, its conquests and revolutions, its booms and busts, its spectacular achievements and just as spectacular catastrophes.  But on the night before his death Jesus tells his disciples that along with all of that something new would be happening, a new turn in God’s story of the world, that was beginning right at that very moment in that very room.
He told them that from the vantage point of one who had already renewed and fulfilled the story.  He told it to them as one who was already reconciled to the Father, as co-creator of a sacred universe.  He told it to them as one who had already entered paradise and stood face-to-face with God.  And standing there he had already begun his ongoing work, the work that he was doing when John wrote his Gospel, the work he still does now as I stand here preaching and you sit there listening, the work that he does whenever we pronounce his name with faith, hope, and love.  It is the work he does for us and through us when we pray, when we break the bread and drink the cup as he instructed, when in humble service we love each other as he loved us.  It is the work of revealing to the world its own true glory, and he will do it, and we will do it with him, until the world’s story of itself and God’s story of the world are the same story once again.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Letting Jesus be free

This week I heard from one member of our congregation about how he said good-bye to his dying father.  The same day I heard from another one about an unexpected test result and an uncertain diagnosis and the sudden possibility of having to say good-bye.  Not good-bye in the sense of “have a good night, see you tomorrow,” but as in “thank you for being a part of my life, I will never forget you.”  Having these kinds of conversations reminds me just how commonplace and yet complex a business saying good-bye is. 
And the closer the relationship, the more love there is between us, the more complicated goodbye becomes.  The man whose father died this week told about the strangeness of being in his father’s house, the day after, expecting any minute to see him come shuffling out of his bedroom to take a seat in his favorite chair.  And that it wasn’t going to happen, that it couldn’t happen, was a truth less real than the space his father had in the heart of his son, a space that remained alive and full. 
The ancient calendar of the church year allows us forty days to say good-bye to Jesus.  Since Easter Day, readings from the Gospel of John have been guiding us through this process.    Some of them have been stories of encounters with Jesus after his death, when he showed himself to his disciples and ate with them and told them things they couldn’t understand before he died.  He showed them that the space that their love for him had created in their hearts was still alive and full.  There was even a body.  But it wasn’t a body that didn’t die—the marks of his wounds proved that.   And it wasn’t a body they could hold on to.  Jesus’ resurrection doesn’t mean we don’t have to let him go.
We have to let Jesus go just like we have to let each other go.  It is the price of loving him.  It is how we learn who he really is, and what he really means to do for us.  But it’s not easy to let him go, because we haven’t seen his risen body with our own eyes.  We haven’t touched him with our hands, and so we make the same mistake with Jesus that we make with one another.  We imagine that because he is not here anymore, we have lost him.  We fear that his going away is absolute, final separation.  This can make us cling to our image of him.  But this only hinders us from knowing him as really is now.
When I left my previous position at All Saints’, Carmel I said good-bye with great care.  I knew when I was leaving, and where I was going, for three weeks before I announced it to the congregation.  The vestry of St. John’s, Petaluma kept the secret from the people here for the same length of time, and the public announcement in happened simultaneously in both places, on the same Sunday morning.  You see, we wanted people to hear about it first from me.  We also wanted to time the process of leave-taking so it would be not-too-long and not-too-short. 
All of this was based on sound professional advice.  There are whole schools of thought in clergy circles about how leaving a congregation ought best to be done.  There are numerous books and articles on the subject, all of them cautioning the importance of careful planning and preparation.  Now, I don’t intend any disrespect to my profession, or to make the light of the insights of people with far more experience than I.  But I do have to wonder why someone would wait until the very end of a pastorate to start saying good-bye.  What kind of relationships would make departure such a crisis?  What had those people been taught to expect?  Where were they placing their ultimate trust? 
In the Gospel of John, on the night before his death, Jesus gives his disciples a long good-bye speech.  It is consistent with his teaching in the rest of the gospel; whenever people are getting hung up on the details of his personal biography, questioning his credentials as a religious teacher, and whether his words and his works can be trusted, Jesus points them away from himself in the direction of the one he calls “Father.”  “I only say what the Father has given me to say;”  “The Son can do only what he sees the Father doing;” “If you knew me, you would know my Father also;” and so on like that.    
And now Jesus tells his disciples not to let their hearts be troubled or afraid.  He is saying good-bye, but it is a good-bye full of hope.  Because in going away Jesus will not be simply extinguished.  He will not become nothing.  He is returning to the Father, to the creative source of life and love.  And he is not going back simply to melt away into the Father like a drop back back into the ocean.  He is going back as the only Son of the Father, but also as the Son of Man, to dwell as the human Jesus in the heart of the eternal God. 
The relationship that we have with Jesus as a human person, that Jesus-shaped space in our hearts, can become the place where we meet the eternal wellspring of life and love.  But his coming to dwell with us, to be the saving justice that sets the world right, to be the spirit of truth that fills our hearts with peace, and confidence, and love, requires that we first say good-bye.  He has his own ultimate purpose, his own loving relationship to the absolute mystery.  It was that relationship that gave him his will, his words, and his power.   We have to allow him to pass beyond our knowledge into that dazzling darkness if we want him to come back as the source of freedom and grace.

Today’s lesson from Acts gives us a picture of how that works.  First of all, Paul has a dream.  A man from Macedonia appears to him in a dream and says, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.”  And that is all the prompting Paul needs, and he and his assistants set sail across the Aegean Sea, to a place where they know no one.   Following a hunch, they go outside of the city of Philippi one Sabbath day, looking for a place where Jews might gather to pray.   They find a group of women and sit down and speak with them.  And then, the scripture says, the Lord opened the heart of one of them, just one, named Lydia, “to listen eagerly” to what they said, and she got baptized and invited them to be guests in her home. 
This story describes how the word of Jesus Christ makes its way in the world.  It moves here and there in a manner that is hard to account for, that at times seems almost random, and yet suggests a deep and powerful purpose.  And what moves it along is the human heart, the dreams that we follow, the things that we learn to desire, the wisdom that we hears and recognize as the compelling and liberating truth.  It is the same truth that moved in the heart Jesus himself, the truth of who God really is, and what kind of relationship God wants to have with us, and how that can take shape in the lives we lead and the way we relate to each other.
This story shows us human beings who are free.  Though they are moved from within, it is in response to a love and a purpose that comes to them from somewhere else.  They are like actors in a drama whose main character never simply walks out onto the stage, but whose place is continually shifting.  He can show up in whatever manner the moment calls for, and always in a way that invites a free human response.  That invitation extends to you and me.  You and I can live with Jesus in that relationship of trust and purpose and freedom.  We only have to love him and seek to know him, and to keep his word.  That, and to let him be free.

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.