Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Come and See

When I was a child I had two kinds of friends.  There were what you might call my “lunchroom buddies,” whom I would horse around with at recess or in the school cafeteria.  And then there were that small number with whom I enjoyed something more intimate.  The thing that seemed to make the biggest difference, that set these friends apart from the lunchroom crowd, was that they had come over to my house, and I had been over to theirs. 
We lived out in the country growing up, on rural roads where the homes were few, and we took the bus to school.  So going over to someone else’s house, or having someone over to mine, was not a casual matter.  It involved forethought, and planning and effort.  And once it had happened, and you’d seen what your friend’s bedroom looked like, and met his parents and his pets, and knew how his house smelled, and what he ate for dinner, you could never look at him quite the same way again.  You’d run into him at school the next day, along with the rest of the lunchroom buddies, but the air of casual indifference that there used to be between you would feel strained all of a sudden, because you knew who that person really was. 
That could be exciting, especially where girls were concerned.  In eighth grade I had a girlfriend named Trish, and in the spring I would leave home an hour early and ride my bike across the highway and over the mountain, and go past the school, another half mile to Trish’s house, so I could help her feed her horse, and then ride back to school with her.  It could also be too much.  I remember a time when I was about fourteen and my mom had a dinner party at our house for the members of a volunteer board she served on.  One of them had a daughter named Cheryl who was in my High School class, and who came along to the party.  I spent the entire evening upstairs in my room, and never came down even to say hello.  I liked Cheryl okay, I guess, but I wasn’t ready to be more than lunchroom buddies.
Jesus is not so shy.  In the Synoptic Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, he moves in swift decisive strokes from place to place, and incident to incident, carrying out his mission like one who has a lot to do and not a lot of time.   But John builds his story around a relatively small handful of episodes and the conversations that Jesus has with the people he meets along the way.  John’s Jesus has time to go to weddings, and to hang around at wells.  He seems to want to get to know people, so that they get to know him and begin to understand who he is. 
Take the story of his baptism.   In the Synoptic Gospels Jesus is no sooner baptized than he heads out alone, across the Jordan, for forty days of fasting and testing in the desert.  But in John’s version Jesus doesn’t hurry off anywhere.  He hangs around at the Jordan for a while, where John the Baptist keeps seeing him walk by.  In the Synoptic Gospels Jesus comes upon his disciples out of the blue work and calls them to drop everything and follow him.  In John, the first disciples follow Jesus on their own initiative, because John the Baptist has referred them to him.  Jesus turns and asks them what they are looking for, and they ask if they can come over to the place where he is staying.  
This verb, “to stay,” which elsewhere is translated as “rest,” “remain,” “dwell,” or “abide,” appears again and again in the Gospel of John.   It conveys not just the physical residence of Jesus, but the inner abode of his spirit, the continual, intimate, loving availability to God in which he is centered.  Jesus abides in God and God abides in him, and this is what gives him his grace and glory and power.  This is what the two disciples of John the Baptist are looking for.  This is what Jesus invites them to come and see.  They do come and they do see, and they remain (that word again) with him for the rest of the day.  And their first impulse when they go away again is to invite others to come to get to know Jesus for themselves. 
In John’s Gospel, Jesus invites the disciples to his own dwelling, to the place where he remains in intimate, loving relationship with God.  And from that place he sends them out as he himself has been sent, with an open invitation to anyone who wants to come and see.  This depiction of discipleship has implications for you and me.  We, who gather on Sunday in the name of St. John, have to consider the real possibility that each one of us has been called here to see the place where Jesus dwells, to have our own direct personal experience of communion with Christ.  And it is just as likely that we are not only called, we are also sent, to invite others to do the same.
Of course, sometimes the best we can do in that regard is to invite them to church; which is not necessarily the same thing.  We might believe with all our hearts that Christ is in our midst when we gather, and that he is truly present in the Word of scripture, and in the sacramental Bread and Wine.  But these are statements about God’s faithfulness in answering our prayer for Christ’s presence, not about our power to reliably produce it.  So what about our friends and neighbors who are not so sure?  If they respond to our invitation to come and see, will they find Jesus abiding here? 
The answer to that question is beyond our control, which makes the whole business of inviting risky.  And as much we might like to think that we can tip the scales in our favor by the warmth of our welcome, or the quality of our printed materials, or the catchiness of our music, or the charisma of our clergy, we know that none of this really makes a difference.  These things might induce our guests to like us, or appreciate our taste, or admire our talents.  But they won’t help them see Jesus abiding with us.  According to the Collect of the Day, the prayer I said for us at the very beginning of this service, the only thing that can really do that, is for us to light up in response to the things we do here.
“Grant that your people,” says the prayer, “illumined (lit up) by your Word and Sacraments, may shine with the radiance of Christ's glory, that he may be known, worshipped, and obeyed to the ends of the earth.”  But this lighting up is not something that can be forced.  We can’t make ourselves shine, no matter how broadly we smile or how cheerfully we sing.  It can only come as a spontaneous response of our whole being in recognition of the presence of Christ.  It can only begin with our own need, our own desire to see for ourselves where Jesus is staying. 
So it’s risky to invite other to come and see, because we can’t guarantee that we’ll have anything to show them but ourselves.   And being illumined by God’s Word and Sacraments doesn’t make us better-looking than we were before.  Our teeth don’t get straighter or whiter, the wrinkles in our faces aren’t miraculously smoothed away; our blemishes don’t fade.  If anything, we appear more clearly visible than ever in that light, more openly and transparently human.  The light of the world, the glory of God, does not dazzle or embellish or entrance.  It lights people up from within, with the light that is their own truth, their own way to the place where Christ dwells, unseen. 
And we cannot see ourselves in this light, except in the mirror that is our neighbor.  But when we do see it, when we look at the person next to us in the pew, or on the bus, or in the line at the grocery store and see the light that is them as they truly are, as God’s beloved, we can be pretty sure that we are also shining.  When we see them that way, then we too are revealed as those in whom Christ abides, ministering love, and life, and light, and the forgiveness of sins to the world.    

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Opening scene

My daughter was born late in the morning in our student apartment at the Episcopal seminary in Berkeley.  That night, my wife and I swaddled our new baby in a cotton blanket and lay down to sleep in the same room where she’d been born.  Meg was exhausted from 20+ hours of labor and significant loss of blood, so I lay on my back and put the baby on my chest to sleep.  And as she lay there, pulsing with her new life, the warmth of her body spread downward into mine and filled my heart.  From there it moved outward, a sensation of deep healing and peace that flowed to my extremities and relaxed my whole body.   It felt as if the presence of this tiny stranger was opening a treasure within me I didn’t even know I had.  The energy of bonding that circulated between us was like a key opening a locked chest called “fatherhood”, full of emotional and physical and spiritual treasures—joy and laughter, generosity, courage, sacrifice, patience, and love.
The story of the baptism of Jesus is also about an opening.  The water opens to receive him, and opens again as he rises up, and then the heavens open.  And from that opening something comes down and touches Jesus, the presence of the Spirit of God.  Along with the Spirit comes a voice, the voice of a Father who loves and is well-pleased.  And so opens a channel of communication between Jesus and the One he calls “Father.”   So Jesus discovers their deep personal bond.  And whatever the Gospel writers tell us about this moment, it has an intimate aspect that is hidden from us.  We can’t know what this opening felt like for Jesus, except perhaps, by analogy, to our own experiences of opening in love. 
But that doesn’t matter, because this is also an opening of the curtain on the first act of a play.  So far in Matthew’s prologue we have learned about Jesus, about his ancestors and his parents and the dangerous circumstances of his birth, and the stage has been set for him with the introduction of John the Baptist, but here at last he himself appears on center stage.  And this opening scene, brief as it is, reveals something very important about him.  It gives us the key to understanding everything that follows.  We can’t know what it was like to be Jesus, but we can know why he does what he does.  He does what he does because he is anointed by the Spirit of God, to be an open channel of God’s communication, because his heart is uniquely open to the Father’s love.   As Jesus goes on from the River Jordan, to preach and to heal, to cast out demons and challenge the authorities, all these words and deeds will dramatize a single message—that this is how God speaks.  This is how God acts.
But the purpose of this message is not simply to impress us with the power and the uniqueness of Jesus’ spiritual genius.  It is to open a way for our faith.  It is to invite us to share, through him, in the communication of the Spirit, and the bond of the Father’s love.  The Spirit of God is not the Spirit of domination, but the Spirit of Love, and Love means freedom.  So Jesus is, not just God’s only beloved Son, but also God’s servant, sent to share the freedom of life in the Spirit with all who choose to receive.  He is not only our Lord and master, he is our brother, the truly human person Jesus of Nazareth, who humbly and obediently subscribed to the mission God gave him.  It is God’s mission, but it was and is realized through human beings, for the sake of human beings and the created world in which we live.
All of this is implicit in this opening scene.  After all, Jesus does not come to the Jordan to have a private mystical experience, but to take part in a mass movement.  The baptism that John proclaims is a dramatic act of communal repentance and renewal, and Matthew says that “Jerusalem and all Judea and all the region about the Jordan” went out to him to be baptized, confessing their sins.  And Jesus joins them, caught up in the anguish of his people, and the urgency of their desire to change.   When he gets there, as Matthew tells it, John recognizes him as his master, the one for whom his own work is just the preparation, and he tries to insist that Jesus should baptize him, rather than the other way around.  But it is here that Jesus speaks his very first line in the Gospels, saying to John, "Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness."
“To fulfill all righteousness”—in order to understand what that means, I found it helpful to refer to a book about the Hebrew prophets by the 20th-Century Jewish philosopher Abraham Joshua Heschel.   Heschel explains that for the prophets the concept of “righteousness” is closely linked with the idea of “justice.”  The two are inseparable but also slightly different.  Heschel writes, “Justice is a mode of action, righteousness a quality of the person…Righteousness goes beyond justice.  Justice is strict and exact, giving each person his due.  Righteousness implies benevolence, kindness, generosity. .. Justice may be legal; righteousness is associated with a burning compassion for the oppressed.”
The ministry of Jesus that begins with his baptism, is the superlative expression of this benevolence and compassion that goes beyond justice.  Demonstrating and dramatizing this kind of righteousness in the things that he says and does, he will open the way for others to see that this is what God is also like.  But to fulfill that purpose he must be not just be a Son, but also a servant.  With a heart open to those who are oppressed, whose lives are not their own, but are in thrall to the desires and ambitions of others, who struggle under the collective burden of sin, he must surrender himself.  In an act of submission that foreshadows the cross that lies ahead, he allows John the Baptist to push him down into the dark water.
What does all this say to us about our own baptism?  And what, in particular, does it say about the baptism of three-and-a-half-month-old Isabelle Magdolin Fraser, which we celebrate here this morning?  The first thing I would say is that it pushes us beyond a merely protective notion of what baptism is.  A friend of mine once told me that the birth of his twin sons opened him up to the possibility of both the greatest joy and the greatest pain that he’d ever known.  And that is what love does, whether it is the love we have for our parents, or our friends, or our spouses.  But it is perhaps especially true of the love we have for our children.  We know that our capacity to protect them is limited.  We cannot always even protect them from ourselves, let alone a world full of dangers and disappointments, false promises and outright lies.  So it is only natural that we would commit them to the protection of Christ, that through him God’s righteousness might supply them with whatever is lacking in what we ourselves can provide.
This is natural and reasonable and yet it does not go far enough.  Because baptism is not just a private gift that the Church bestows upon her children from her storehouse of sacramental grace.  It is the incorporation of one more unique and irreplaceable member into a body that is always open, the body of Christ.  Baptism opens a channel of communion, and forges a deep and irrevocable bond, but it is a bond of loving communion that includes innumerable children of God from every time and every tribe and nation.   We surrender Isabelle to the waters of baptism, as Christ surrendered himself, not to be hidden away from the world in the depths of God, but so that she finds in the world a way that is open.  Open, to the freedom and life of the Spirit; open, to the sufferings of the oppressed and the active compassion of righteousness; open, to the power of love and connection that is innately present in her as in every human being; open, to the teachings and example of Jesus Christ, who blazed this trail, and walks ahead of her, conquering every demon, vanquishing every foe, removing every obstacle that stands in the way of her playing her part in his great mission of salvation for 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.