Sunday, December 22, 2013

Scandal and Salvation

To begin with, there was that puzzling telegram—there, in the scrapbook with the snapshots of me as a baby, along with my tiny footprints, and the lock of my first hair—a telegram from my mother’s parents that read “Congratulations on the birth of another fine grandson.”  Only, looking through the book as I often did when I was a child, I couldn’t help but noticed that it was addressed to my mother as Dusty Griffiths, which was the last name of my mother’s first husband.  I knew, of course, that she had been married before, and that my two older brothers had a different name and a different father, the man they called “Daddy John.”  He wrote them letters and sent them presents, and they would go off sometimes to visit him in exotic places like Seattle, and New York City, and Ghana, West Africa. 
So I pondered that telegram, and wondered about how I came to be born eighteen months after my brother Ben, to a different father, on the opposite coast of the United States.  But no one explained it, and I didn’t ask.  Until I was sixteen years old, and home for the summer before going off to college, and one morning when my mom and I were alone in the house she sat me down and told me the story.  A story about how she was in New Haven, Connecticut where she knew no one, and her husband would leave her alone with the baby almost every evening and every weekend and go off to Greenwich Village with his old boarding-school girlfriend or his law-school classmates; about how, as his professional star began to rise, he treated her more and more as a domestic servant, speaking to her as if she were stupid.  She wrote desperate letters to her parents, begging to come home to California, and was told that her first duty was to her husband and that she had to tough it out.
Somewhere along the line, she began corresponding with a man with whom she’d had known years before, when she had just graduated high school.  He was a seminary student named Alan Green, her older brother’s youth group leader at their church in Berkeley.  And she and Alan had a brief love affair, which he broke off, because he was nine years her senior.  But apparently the torch never entirely went out, because when my mother announced to her parents on a visit home, that she was filing for divorce and would not be returning to New Haven, and they told her to get out of their house, it was Alan Green who drove up from Southern California and brought her and her two babies home to live with him.
That’s some of the story about why that name is on the telegram, and how it was that, at one year of age, I attended my parents’ wedding.  It’s not an entirely happy story, and I’m not going to pretend that everything was wine and roses from that point on.  But it worked out okay for me, and for better or worse my parents will celebrate their 47th anniversary later this week.  We all have to get into this world somehow, and none of us gets to choose how that will be.   And if the circumstances are a little scandalous, or are the consequence of questionable choices, that doesn’t really matter to God.  God wants us here for her own reasons, and doesn’t let human scruples about morals stand in the way.

The Gospel of Matthew begins with a genealogy of Jesus Christ.  Like other genealogies in the bible, this is a long recitation of the names of fathers and sons.  But along with the male ancestors of Jesus, Matthew also mentions five women.   The first of these women is Tamar, who was the daughter-in-law of Judah, one of the twelve sons of Jacob.  Tamar was the childless widow of first one, and then another of Judah’s sons, and she disguised herself as a prostitute to trick her father-in-law into getting her pregnant, so the family line would continue.  The next woman in the genealogy is Rahab, who really was a prostitute, and who harbored Joshua’s spies in Jericho and paved the way for Israel’s conquest of Canaan by betraying her own people. 
Rahab was also the mother of Boaz, who married the next woman to appear on the list, Ruth.  Ruth was married to an Israelite living in Moab, and when her husband died she went with her mother-in-law back to the land of Judah, to Bethlehem, where she deliberately, and somewhat deviously, won the affections of a leading man of the town.  Boaz and Ruth were grandparents of David, who had an adulterous affair with the wife of Uriah the Hittite, otherwise known as Bathsheba.  David had her husband killed, and took her as one of his wives, and it was she who, through palace intrigue at the time of David’s dying, ensured that her son Solomon would succeed him on the throne.  And yes, she’s also on the list.
Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheba—four women who show the lengths you have to go to at times, the courage and ingenuity it takes, the willingness to endure scandal and shame that are sometimes required, to advance the mission of God in the world.  And the fifth woman in the genealogy of Jesus is Mary, his mother.  But Matthew tells her story with the spotlight on her husband Joseph.  Joseph found that Mary was bearing a child not his own.  Being unwilling to expose her public disgrace, he resolved to break off the engagement quietly.  Matthew says this was because he was a “righteous man.”  So the righteousness of Joseph must have more to do with going with your gut than following the rules, more to do with forgiveness than with judgment, more to do with compassion than with being morally correct. 
God ups the ante on Joseph, and sends an angel who instructs him to take Mary as his wife.  And so he takes the disgrace of Mary upon himself.  As readers of the Gospel, we are in on the secret, but to Joseph’s family and the neighbors next door, and all the gossips in town he is a righteous man disgraced, marrying a woman who is already carrying a child.  And here we have, in a nutshell, the paradox that stands before us at the threshold of Christmas—that the birth of the Messiah, the long-awaited Emmanuel, “God-with-us,” is a scandal, an event as disruptive to the “right way” things are supposed to be done as an unplanned, unmarried pregnancy.
Throughout the New Testament the gospel of Jesus Christ is salvation and scandal at the same time.  You can see this when Jesus touches the ritually unclean, the lepers, the demon-possessed, and says that their faith has saved them.  You can see it when he eats with tax-collectors and prostitutes as a sign of the kingdom, and the solid citizens call him a glutton and a drunkard.  You can see it when he sits down on the mountain and preaches that righteousness is not a stamp of approval, but a hunger and a thirst, and those who know how desperately they need it are already blessed, because they will be satisfied.  You can see the salvation that is also a scandal in starkest relief on the cross.  But in Matthew you can also see it at the very beginning of the story, in the manner of Jesus’ birth, and even before that, in the stories of the women in his family tree.
As we prepare again for Christmas, we may feel some pressure to have things look the “right way.”  But our holiday gatherings may bring painful reminders of how our own family trees are bent  or broken, and we may wonder anew how we managed to grow from such strange stock.  Maybe we ourselves are a scandal to people who ought to love us, and Christmas sharpens our hunger and thirst for the righteousness that is forgiveness and compassion and love.  Or maybe we are all that remains of our families, one last living branch on a withered tree.  Maybe as we come together as a congregation this Christmas we remember that it was seven years ago today that our parish was torn by schism.
Maybe we compare our lives to what we think Christmas is supposed to be like, and the comparison isn’t a favorable one.  But the message of the gospel is that we don’t have to choose between scandal and salvation.  In fact, we don’t get to.  In Christ God has made them one and the same.  And after all, “Emmanuel” doesn’t mean “God with the right people,” or “God with the deserving people,” or even “God with the good people.”  It means “God with us.” 

Monday, December 9, 2013

Imagination and decision

The word “Advent” comes from the Latin Adventus which was the name of a regular administrative event in the ancient world, when the governor would come to visit.  He would dine with the leading citizens, and hold court to hear appeals.  He would audit the tax collectors, and reward meritorious officials and punish corrupt ones, and generally put the public’s house in good order.  Depending on the governor, it might bring with it a lightening of unjust taxation, or a fair ruling in a legal dispute.  But whatever justice, whatever setting-things right one could expect from the Adventus would be limited.  Even in the best case, it would go only as far as the established order allowed.

But Advent in the church is different.  It begins with the announcement of John in the wilderness that someone is coming who will change everything.  He will come with a new government, a new kingdom.  This kingdom could not be more different from the kingdoms of the self-styled rulers of Galilee and Judea.  It is not even like the kingdom of their master the Emperor in Rome.  It is the kingdom of heaven— its coming near is the coming-near of God.  This Advent is not a scheduled appointment on the administrative calendar of the powers that be.  It is unlooked-for and uninvited, the breaking-in of the God of Israel into the history of the world. 

So even though we keep Advent every year, it is not simply the repetition of the same old thing.  It is about God entering into history and transforming it into something else, starting something new.  And that transformation is ongoing.  That is why in every Advent in every generation the church has said that the cry of the Baptist that “the Kingdom of Heaven has come near” is about this moment, and demands a response from us.  
This Kingdom of Heaven is not something we can reduce to an intellectual proposition.  If you’re talking about how God breaks into the world, you have to speak symbolically and mythically.  You have to appeal to the imagination.  And that is what prophets like John do—they awaken our imaginations with new visions of what God is doing in history, and new possibilities for us to respond.
Today’s lesson from Isaiah gives us a picture of such awakening in one of the best-loved symbols of Advent—the tree of Jesse.   Isaiah spoke to the people of Jerusalem in a time of national defeat, with foreign empires about to swallow them up.  And he said that God showed him an old, dead, dried out, fire-blackened stump.  It was the stump of Jesse, the father of David, whose name symbolizes Israel’s ideal king.  Isaiah sees something no one in his historical circumstances would expect, a fresh young branch sprouting from the roots of Jesse’s stump. 
But this new king will be more than another David.  He will not win his victory by violence, but by the spirit of God’s wisdom and the word of God’s justice.  And the prophet sees a vision of Jerusalem transformed by this branch, not into a well-ordered, well-administered, well-defended political entity, but into a paradise that does not seem to be this world at all.  It is like the peace and harmony of the Garden before Fall, where humans dwelt in childlike innocence side by side with fierce predators and poisonous snakes; in the peace and justice of that world the animals themselves will forget the “law of the jungle” and the wolf shall live with the lamb and the leopard lie down with the kid. 

When I was a child my mother put a picture of this vision of Isaiah on the wall of my bedroom.  It was a reproduction of a painting by Edward Hicks, who was a self-taught artist and itinerant Quaker preacher in the early years of the American republic.  Over the course of his life, Hicks painted at least 64 different versions of this scene, The Peaceable Kingdom of Isaiah.  They all depict small children playing in the midst of a mixed herd of lions and cows, sheep and leopards, bears and goats.  Interestingly, in many of the paintings you can see in the background a scene from Hick’s own history, of William Penn and other English colonists signing a peace treaty with the Native Americans.  And the landscape of Hicks’ vision is always recognizably Eastern North America.  That’s how it is when God breaks into the human imagination—it is an event not confined in time, one that is liable to break out with new meaning, in unlooked-for ways and undreamed-of places, like a branch shooting from a withered stump.
John the Baptist in the Gospel of Matthew is also like a fresh branch from an old stump.  His arrival, it is said, was foretold by the prophets, and his appearance is like a description of Elijah of old.   But when he preaches that the Kingdom of Heaven has come near, he is not referring to the wisdom of the past, or dreaming of the future.  He is announcing that the time is now for a decision.  Now is the time to repent—to turn our lives around and start acting as if the Kingdom is really here.  Now is the time for the visions that the prophets sowed in our imaginations to bear fruit--because the one who is coming after John, who is more powerful than he, is all about making us fruitful. 
Edward Hicks wasn’t the only white American to look at the landscape of this continent and see a vision of a peaceable kingdom.  Generations of us have imagined this as a virgin land onto which we could project our hopes, and out of which we could give birth to our dreams.  When ranchers and farmers and gold prospectors came to California they thought they saw a land unaltered by human hands.  That was part of their rationale for taking it from the native inhabitants.  “After all”, they said, “they weren’t doing anything with it.”  What they didn’t know was that the land they found had been carefully, deliberately husbanded by human beings for centuries. 
And one of the main tools those human beings used was fire: fire, that destroyed the pests and pathogens; fire, that germinated the wildflowers whose seeds they harvested; fire, that killed the smaller, brushier species, like poison oak, but did not harm the oak groves that bore the acorns that were their staple food.   
And because the indigenous inhabitants of California set regular fires, and allowed lightning-fires to burn, there never built up the volume of dead wood and grass, and small, flammable brush, that causes catastrophic infernos.  But after 150 years of management that immediately suppresses any and all fires, the forests of California and the rest of the western United States are a vast tinderbox.  Full of dead and dying trees, choked with brush, our wildlands need nothing more than to burn, but every fire that does occur become a conflagration, like the Rim Fire that consumed tens of thousands of acres last summer in Yosemite National Park.   

I can think of no more fitting image than those forests for a Christianity without repentance, one that is all comfort and no crisis, one that speaks only of God’s love and never of God’s judgment, one that fits us to be nice hard-working servants of a well-administered church, but never announces the presence of the Kingdom, that never urges us to the moment of decision.  John at the Jordan calls us to be baptized into that moment, to say “yes” to the wildness of the Spirit that thins out the blighted trees from our orchards, and winnows the chaff from our grain, that burns away that which does not bear fruit, and fertilizes our souls with the ashes. 

What comes to us at Advent is not a yearly task to be properly administered, nor is it simply the retelling of a beautiful imaginative story.  It is a new moment to welcome Christ, to invite him to transform our history.  This means letting his light shine not just on what we choose to show him, but also and especially what we fear most--loss, suffering, violence, disorder and death, the darker corners of who we are, and what the world is under the powers-that-be, and our helplessness to change it.  If this seems too hard, it is because we do not see that he comes with the Kingdom, with the power and the judgment of God.   And if seems too risky, it is because we do not understand that his judgment is nothing but perfect love, and that the only power he seeks is the power to make us bear fruit.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Simple desire

Welcoming remarks to Advent Taizé service of contemplative chant and silence at St. John's, Petaluma on Friday, December 6, 2013.

This is a season during which people are doing everything they can to say that they have faith— faith that the world is a holy place, a place of beauty, and love, and joy, and generosity, and peace.  Sadly, it often seems that the only way we think we can say this is with things.  And I wonder if this is not because we are afraid, and if we do not say it with things because to say it in a more personal way would expose us to the fear in our hearts that is not true.

The practice that we are doing tonight, comes from Taizé, an ecumenical monastic community in France founded in the belief that Faith is something very simple.  It’s not that there are not profound and manifold treasures of wisdom and knowledge in traditions like the one we call The Church.  And it’s not that there is no value in the many cultural expressions of faith that we see in different popular customs, and religious celebrations.  But there is also the need for a very simple style of prayer, a way of being together in worship that expresses the simple desire to know the presence of God in our lives.  Tonight’s service is a way of worship that says that this desire is the essence of faith, and that it is in all of us, and that on this common ground we find that the world is a holy place.

There is a kind of paradox in this—that the simpler the practice, the more universal it is.  This is the paradox of contemplation—that the more receptive we become,  the deeper we go into the silence and solitude of our selves, the closer we come to the active compassion that connects us with others.   Now is a time of year when the natural world speaks to us of this paradox —the further we sink into the darkness of winter, the closer we come to the renewal of the light.  In the Christian tradition the great symbol of this paradox, of simplicity and universal love, of contemplation and revolutionary compassion is Mary, the Mother.  In the story of Mary we see one young woman who carries inside her, in the small dark space of her womb, the entire drama of God’s being with us in the world.  

Holy One,
Teach us to trust the simple light of our longing 
for You,
to let it guide us into the depths of your dazzling
that we may become pregnant
with your presence in the world.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

No one knows

On the afternoon of Thanksgiving Day, after a large meal of the traditional foods, some of the guys and I walked down the country road where my uncle lives to visit the neighbor’s house.  We met the neighbor, a short guy named Lou with about ten teeth and a big beer gut, and stood around outside with him and his son for a while, admiring his new solar-electric array, and then we got invited in.  Before we’d gone over there, my cousin Kirk, whose idea it was for the visit, had said “in case of the zombie apocalypse, Lou’s is the place to meet up”, and now I got to see what he meant.   First we went into the back room to inspect a couple of family heirlooms, a Civil War-issue Springfield rifle and a buffalo-hunting gun that Kirk’s great-grandfather brought West, and that he’d given to Lou for safe-keeping.  After that our host reached into his desk and started pulling out sidearms.  From there we went to the bedroom where Lou produced one weapon after another from the drawer in the nightstand and the back of the clothes closet.
I did my best to stay cool and as each gun was passed into my hands I obligingly nodded and looked it up and down and sighted along the barrel at the pine tree outside the window, but I was way out of my depth.  I’ve never discharged a firearm in my life, and don’t have any desire to do so.  And I’d met gun nuts before, but never in their natural habitat.  Still there was something innocent about my uncle’s neighbor, something childlike about the way he showed us his special toys, rolling around on his bed among the cartridges and magazines he’d pop out for safety’s sake, and laughing and pushing away a pug dog that kept trying to lick his face.  “My only problem,” he said, “is I have so many guns that if anyone ever did try to break into my house, I wouldn’t know which one to use.”  And we all laughed, imagining a guy in a ski-mask coming through the window, and him saying “hold on a sec, buddy… now let’s see—the Baretta or the Colt 45?  The semi-automatic shotgun, or the AK-47?”
It’s black humor but in a funny way Lou’s joke makes the same point that Jesus does in the Gospel of Matthew when he talks about the owner of the house who would have stayed awake and not let his house be broken into, if he had only known in what part of the night the thief was coming.  My uncle’s neighbor has enough guns for a small army.  I heard on the radio the other day that now you can get a home-security system that lets you watch live video surveillance of your front door on your smart phone while you’re at the restaurant pretending to have a conversation with your wife.  But in spite of all the preoccupations and precautions that you take, the thief comes at an hour that you don’t expect. 
The New Testament is strangely ambiguous about the whole question of the end of the age.   For instance, in today’s Gospel, why does he describe an interruption in normal, everyday activities, that affects some people and not others, when elsewhere in Matthew he talks about great tribulations and awesome portents in the heavens.  And what about the two men in the field and the two women at the mill—which are we supposed to want to be, the one who is taken or the one who is left?  And in what sense would Jesus be “coming back” when he has already said that when two or three are gathered together in his name he will be in the midst of them, and the last words of Matthew’s Gospel are “lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”  

Modern critical scholars like to explain that these are different layers of tradition, and that the early Christian communities kept changing their opinions as the so-called “Second Coming” didn’t come.  But they didn’t feel right about just discarding older predictions of Jesus’ imminent return, so they made up new ones to reflect a different understanding and just kind of shuffled them into the story.  But I think there’s something more to these ambiguities, and that they have been part of the tradition from the beginning.  Because when you are talking about the end of the age, the goal of history, the fulfillment toward which all the parables and practices and precepts of religion are urging us—the final victory of justice and love over evil and death—the only language that really pertains is mythic and symbolic language.  Only a surplus of imagery can begin to address this subject, which, of all the themes in Judeo-Christian scripture, is the one which our ordinary conceptual consciousness is least able to explain or describe. 
I think Jesus knew this, and he probably said different things on the subject at different times to suit different audiences; and Matthew knew this, and so he felt free to put those different sayings together in creative ways for the sake of the story he wanted to tell.  And if these sayings contradict each other and sow a certain amount of confusion in our minds about just what it is exactly we’re supposed to believe, that’s really all to the good, because it leads us back to a point about which the Gospels and the epistles of Paul and the other documents in the New Testament are in unanimous agreement, with no ambiguity at all.  And that is this—from the standpoint of what difference does it all make anyhow, and how are you and I to live today, the only approach to Christ’s coming, and the end of the age, that makes any practical sense at all is to live as if it were going to happen any minute, as if, in fact, it is happening now.
This isn’t a position that the apostolic communities came to later, out of disappointment that the other shoe still hadn’t dropped.  This is the essential content of Jesus teaching, the whole story of his ministry, the cause of his death and the meaning of his resurrection—that the New Age, the Kingdom of God, the Eternal Life of the World to Come, starts now, starts here, today, with you and with me.   Every year at this time we get ready to tell this story of Jesus again from the beginning, and every year we start by giving away the ending.   So if the point of the story were simply to know how it ends so that we can plan ahead, so that we can fill our closets with guns, and our minds with certainties, so that we won’t be taken unawares, we might as well stop right there.  Because no one knows the day or the hour.   
But we do tell the story, and it never gets old because it is not meant simply to be interpreted, it is meant to be contemplated, to be taken deep into our hearts and into the life of our communities, to shape our thoughts and our speech and our actions.  It is meant to be lived.  And that is something we are completely free not to do.  Jesus’ own disciples were free not to do that, and, in fact, they didn’t.  They missed the point even though Jesus was right there in front of them, telling them, showing them the Kingdom of God.  But the disciples kept waiting for something else, just like the Pharisees, asking for their sign, wondering when something amazing would happen that would tell them that the big moment had finally arrived.  And like the song says, “Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone.”
But God would not let the disciples of Jesus rest in their failure to understand.  Missing the point is no excuse, because the end of the world isn’t over until it’s over.  And that’s where the church comes in.  That’s where you and I come in, almost 2,000 years later, when we’re still waiting.  We’re still waiting, which means there’s still a chance for us to wake up and stop waiting.  The Son of Man is still coming, which means we still have the chance to wake up and see that he’s already here.  No one knows when the thief is going to break in, but we believe that he’s still out there somewhere, so we still get up on Sunday mornings and come over to this funny old building to listen and to pray and to watch and to hope that today is the day.

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.