Sunday, June 30, 2013

The ultimate goal

When I was farming, near Muir Beach in Marin County, in my twenties, we had two tractors.  The Big tractor was for primary tillage.  In the spring, as soon as the ground was dry enough to work, I would hitch up the hammer-flail mower, and drive out into the chest-high stand of winter cover crops and mow it down.  I’d wait forty-eight hours for that green manure to dry, and then I’d plow it under with the disc plow.  Then I’d hitch up the chisel plow, to break up the subsoil, and rip the fields first one way and then crossways, like a checkerboard; and then I’d finish off with a lighting disking, with the ring-roller on behind, so that each of the fields, one, two, two-and-a-half acres, would be one smooth surface, like a bed sheet tucked in tight from one windbreak to the next.
Then we’d turn to the small tractor, a lightweight crop-tending machine, and start marking lines, shaping up beds for vegetable crops, or furrows for potatoes.  The goal was to make the first straight and then keep them straight and keep them parallel, because everything that came after, the planting, and laying out irrigation pipe, the cultivating, and fertilizing, and harvesting, all was done between the lines that the small tractor made on the freshly plowed ground.  I think it was in my second year on the farm that I became something of a specialist in bedding-up with the small tractor, because I knew the secret to making straight lines.  The secret was to not look back, and not look to the side. 
I would get the bedder lined up square on the three-point hitch and tighten up the chains on both sides, and I’d adjust the top bar so the spades got just the right amount of bite, and I’d set the front tires where I knew they needed to be and then I would pick a point at the far end of the field, and start driving.  And I would keep my eyes fixed on that point, not looking back, and not looking to the side, but just drive toward my mark until I got there and then I’d lift up the rear hydraulics and swing the tractor around and see my straight line.  I’d put my right front tire in the track I’d just made and sight down the center axis of the tractor and pick a point on far end of the field where I’d come from and start driving, and just keep going like that until the whole field was done.
I think about that experience every time I hear this story from the Gospel of Luke about Jesus setting his face for Jerusalem, not letting himself be distracted by the stubbornness of the Samaritans or the foolishness of his disciples.  I think about the words that Jesus says about how the man who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is not worthy of the Kingdom of God.   Jesus seems to be saying “my goal is the ultimate goal, and I’m going to go all the way there.  If you want to come with me, you need to set your eyes on that goal, and start walking, and to keep going toward it in a straight line.
Now, there’s nothing explicitly religious about the idea that we should have a goal for our lives, and be single-minded and focused in going after it.  On any given weekend in airport hotels and convention centers all around the world motivational speakers and professional coaches are charging people good money to tell them just that.  Where the religion comes in is with the faith that the only goal that is truly ultimate, that is really worthy of giving one’s whole-hearted devotion and single-minded focus to pursuing, is the goal for our lives that is in the heart and mind of God.  
Only the gift of God’s purpose for our lives is precisely suited to bringing forth the nobler powers that are latent in our created natures, and expressing them, transforming us into the persons we most want to be in our heart of hearts.  Only God’s goal for us is entrancing and fascinating enough to hold our attention and keep calling us back through all the wrong turns, and changes of perception, and reversals of fortune and course corrections, and swings of emotion that happen to us along the way, calling us again and again to consent to pursuing that which lies beyond ourselves, transcending our limited conceptions of what it is we truly want and need.
That’s what Paul is talking about in his letter to the Galatians when he speaks of the struggle between “flesh” and “spirit.”  We have to be careful here not to make the mistake of thinking that Paul is denigrating the body, as if religious life were about sacrificing the body, with it its needs and pleasures and limitations on the altar of some escape into a purely mental, spiritual, disembodied realm.  That’s not what Paul means here.  What he is talking about is the inner conflict, the daily struggle that we go through in the painstaking process of learning what it is that we truly desire.   “The desires of the flesh” is Paul’s symbolic shorthand for our maddening efforts to satisfy our ultimate longings by craving and clinging to things that never can.  And Paul knows, as Jesus knows, that the key to untangling the knot of all that frustrated desire is love. 
I just came back from a couple of weeks of vacation.  It was such a refreshing change of pace—I had to do a little work, preaching and celebrating liturgies on Sundays, but the rest of the time I was free to simply enjoy the beauty of the Sierra Nevada, and read, and catch up on my sleep, and most of all to catch up with my family.  When Meg and Risa and I get to spend long stretches of unhurried, un-stressed time together we remember how much we like each other, and love to be in each other’s company. 
And so as we get ready to begin our fourth year here at St. John’s, I’m not just thinking about my professional goals, or my goals for the parish, but also about the goal of making room in my family life for more of that kind of time.  And I’m sure this pertains to the ultimate purpose of my life.  After all, how can I preach about God’s gift of unmerited grace and unconditional love in Christ, and about the Spirit’s gifts of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control, if I’m not taking the time to share those gifts with the people I’m closest to.
Because it’s not like Jesus set his face toward Jerusalem because he wanted to die.  He did it out of love for God and for his disciples, and the desire to dispel forever their misplaced hope that any kind of political or military messiah could ever really set them free.  And Paul didn’t set out on his missionary journeys, in the course of which he met with floggings, and imprisonments, shipwrecks, hunger, sleepless nights, and every kind of humiliation and hardship, because he enjoyed suffering.  He did it out of love for the Lord, who, in spite of Paul’s being his sworn enemy, revealed to him the glory of his resurrection, and gave him the grace of an apostle to preach the coming of the Kingdom of God to the Gentiles.
As we seek for the ultimate goal of our lives, for what alone will make us truly happy and truly set us free, our only guide is love—the love we have for each other, for our families and friends, for our neighbors, for our fellow Petalumans, and Californians, and Americans, for our fellow human beings and fellow creatures on this earth, and our love for the creator of them all.  Love is what will lead us on the straight and narrow way through our tangled forest of misbegotten desires and all the lies and hurt and violence that people do to each other because of them.   And love, one and the same eternal and all-encompassing love, is the goal of the journey, that calls to each and every one of us in a voice that is uniquely our own.   

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Hero and servant

Today’s we read the first of several stories we’ll be hearing over the coming weeks about the prophet Elijah.  Elijah is a kind of folk-hero, and these stories are a lot like fairy tales.  I guess every tribe and nation has stories about larger-than-life heroes of the past, except the difference between Elijah and someone like Paul Bunyan, or Hercules, is that he does his exceptional feats, not by virtue of super-human size or strength, but because he speaks and does the will of God. 
When Elijah engages in spiritual combat with the prophets of  the Canaanite god Baal, Elijah, the last prophet of Israel’s, stands by the altar that he has rebuilt from it ruins and prays, “"O LORD, let it be known this day that you are God in Israel, that I am your servant, and that I have done all these things at your bidding.”  And miraculous fire comes down from the sky and consumes Elijah’s sacrifice, in spite of the fact that it is completely drenched with water.  And so we see that the Elijah’s God really is God, and that Elijah is doing his will.  He isn’t the type of a great warrior or a noble king, or even a wise teacher—he’s not really even the main character in his own story.  That honor goes to the Lord, the God of Israel.  The Bible gives us terrific stories about Elijah, but they are only part of the greater and more important story of God and God’s people.
The centurion in today’s reading from the Gospel of Luke was captivated by that great story.  And here again there is an extraordinary miracle—the healing of a young slave that occurs at a distance, without Jesus ever touching or even seeing him.  But, like in the Elijah story, the miracle is not the main point.  Instead, the main point is the faith of the centurion in the God of Israel.  He has learned about the faithfulness, and goodness, and compassion of this God, and for his sake he has built a house where the Jews of Capernaum can come together and hear the scriptures that tell his story.  And now he has heard of Jesus, who comes like one of the prophets in the story, doing the will of God, bestowing healing and reconciliation and forgiveness, and rekindling the flame of love for God in the hearts of the people.  For the centurion, the news of the coming of Jesus awakens an impossible hope—the faith that the promises of life and blessing and redemption that God gives to Israel through the prophets also apply to him.
The centurion believes in Jesus, because he understands what it means to have authority.  Jesus, like him, is one who receives his power from higher up, and that is what gives authority to his commands.  When the centurion tells his soldiers or his slaves to do something, they do it, because when he speaks it is as if the emperor were speaking.  And he sees that the word that Jesus speaks has an even greater power than that, the power of God.
In this way, the comparison that the centurion makes between his authority and that of Jesus is also a contrast.  According to the imperial ideology of Rome, the emperor was God.  The chain of command of which the centurion is a low-ranking member is supposed to go all the way to the top.  It is supposed to connect him to the ultimate authority that governs the world.  But the centurion knows better.  He knows that there is no one in his chain of command that can give life at the threshold of death.  He can’t order his slave to get better, and it won’t do him any good to appeal to his higher-ups.  He has to go to someone who is under the authority of the real source of healing, and who really has the power to save.  He understands that the God of the Hebrew scriptures is that source, and that Jesus of Nazareth is his servant.
One implication of Jesus’ response to the centurion’s faith is that Gentiles are no longer excluded from the blessings of Israel’s covenant with God.  This was one of the radical messages of the Gospel, and it still has power for us today.   It helps us guard continually against an exclusive notion of our own membership in God’s elect.  But for the most part we have long put behind us the idea that, as Gentiles, we have no part in the covenant.  It’s not something we worry about, so that part of the Gospel message doesn’t really mean good news. 
But this other message that the centurion gives us, this radical contrast between his authority and the authority of Jesus still packs a real punch.  That’s because we live in a time when everyone is worried about whose authority you can trust.  Whatever institution you look at—Government, business, the universities, the military, the churches, the press—you see signs of deep demoralization, corruption, retrenchment, and anxiety about the future.  Even Mother Earth—the original symbol of permanence, and solidity, and inexhaustible abundance—now seems unable to hold up her own. 
Memorial Day morning I was having breakfast with some friends and friends of friends;  people my age, blessed with fine educations, beautiful children, good health, and prosperity.  So it was a little surprising to hear one of them speak matter-of-factly about the imminent extinction of the human race.  It wasn’t surprising because I haven’t thought about it myself—I used to worry about far more than was good for me.  It was surprising because it reminded me of how my feelings about all that have changed.  As the rest of us around the table made the case for hope, sharing ideas about what it will take to save the world, I could see clearly what a difference faith makes.  It’s not that I don’t see the predicament we’re in, or that I think it’s going to be easy to turn things around, but that I can imagine the possibility that we are living but one chapter in a much greater story, and that the author of the story is God.
It’s what Paul wrote about in his letter to the Galatians: “the gospel that was proclaimed by me is not of human origin; for I did not receive it from a human source, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ.”  Now we would be missing the point if we thought that the authority of the servant of God depends on having a revelation like the one Paul had on the road to Damascus.  Or that it depends on witnessing Elijah’s supernatural bonfire, or Jesus’ miraculous healings.  Paul’s point is that when he had his revelation, he woke up to see that God was writing a whole new chapter in the story, and that he was to play a part.  Having a part to play in the story gave him authority, an authority that didn’t depend on any human chain of command.
The example of Paul, like that of Elijah, like that of Jesus reminds us just how much one servant of God can do.  But one can’t do the will of God if one doesn’t know what it is.  And you can’t know what it is if you don’t desire it, and actively seek it.   This is why St. John’s vestry has been studying the art of discernment, learning to ground our decision-making in prayerful listening and conscious intention to seek the mind of Christ.  It is why we are a congregation that reads the Bible, not in order to know how the story ends, but because you can’t write a new chapter if you don’t know how the story begins.  It is why we sing chants and hymns and say public prayers, why we sit together in silence, why we do Godly Play, why we visit the sick and lonely, and feed the hungry, why we break the bread and drink the wine.  We do these things because they nourish our faith, the faith to live our lives with authority, the authority of servants of the real ruler of the world.

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.