Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Love like God's

When Jesus proclaimed the Kingdom of Heaven, he was saying that, all appearances to the contrary notwithstanding, God is alive.  He was saying that God’s revealed vision of a community shaped by the laws of God to be like God, a community of justice, generosity, compassion, integrity, and love, was his vision, and that he was acting to realize it decisively.  He called anyone who would listen to embark on the journey to a new life of God-likeness.  And he gave them a way to follow that would lead them to that life, when he summed up the whole of the Jewish law and the prophets in a simple statement: “Love the Lord your God will all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and all your strength; and love your neighbor as yourself.”  But the way of Jesus went further.  In his teaching, and in all he did up to and, especially, his death, he urged us to the greatest love of all, the love that is ardent as the sun and indiscriminate as the rain, the love that is perfect like the love of God.  Jesus said, “love your enemies.”
In this teaching, Jesus confirms the message of the great Hebrew prophets who said that God is patient, merciful, and kind not just to Israel but to every nation, that every human being is a child of God, with the promise of a place at the table in God’s Kingdom.  And Jesus insists that this commandment is not for some future day.  It is not a utopian ideal, waiting for the world to change so it can go into effect.  The world begins to change now, says Jesus, because we, in our present circumstances, begin to love as God loves.
And what were the present circumstances of Jesus’ audience when he said to them, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you”?  They were the daily realities of foreign occupation and colonization, of economic globalization, of mounting inequality and social control enforced by military rule.  It was a world where your superiors would strike you across the cheek with the back of the hand to humiliate and put you in their place; where crushing taxation and exorbitant rates of interest were pushing you into destitution, and a creditor could bring a poor man to court and demand his coat as security for repayment of a loan.  It was a world where a Roman soldier had the right to impress anyone on the road into service, to carry his 85 pounds of gear the distance of one mile.
And what did Jesus advise them to do under these circumstances?  Well, he told them not to have any illusions, but to recognize evil when they saw it.  But he also told them not to oppose this evil with violence.  When Jesus says “do not resist an evildoer” the word translated “resist” is a military term, meaning to form ranks for battle opposite the enemies’ line.  Jesus wanted his listeners to remember that the persons who carried out the daily rituals of their oppression were also beloved children of God, and not to repay one evil with another. 
So if he strikes you with the backhand, offer the other cheek; if he wants to strike you again, he’ll have to use his forehand, like he would with an equal.  Or if he stands in court demanding your coat, give him your undergarment as well; he’ll see you naked, a source of shame for him and a vivid demonstration of where your debt is leading you.  Or if he makes you carry his pack one mile, carry it for two, an act of voluntary friendliness that might just make him wonder if you really are a beast of burden.*   Jesus does not teach the crowd to passively accept abuse, but to disrupt the smooth operation of the machinery of evil with creative non-violent action.  Acting to reclaim the image of God in oneself, even while suffering evil, offers the doer of evil the chance to rediscover that image in himself.
When Jesus said to love your enemies, he wasn’t being sentimental.  He was speaking to people on the verge of erupting into revolutionary violence, of slipping over the edge into suicidal despair.  And he said there is a way back from the brink.  It won’t be easy.  It will involve risk, and require great courage, and patience, and willingness to suffer.  It will demand unshakeable faith in God’s love,  and its power to break down the most stoutly defended walls between people.   It calls for invincible hope in the coming of God’s Kingdom, hope even when it seems that the rule of violence will never end, even when it is clear that the struggle to break it will cost you your life.
On the night that Barack Obama was re-elected I listened to his victory speech.  And as he addressed a large and enthusiastic crowd of supporters in Chicago, he returned to the theme of “hope” that got him elected the first time.  He began to lay out his vision of hope for America’s future, and even though I hadn’t voted for him this time, I felt just a little moved.  There even came a point when he appeared to suggest that he might do something about the real problems facing the nation: “We want our children to live in an America that isn't burdened by debt,” he said, “that isn't weakened by inequality, that isn't threatened by the destructive power of a warming planet.”  And then he went on, in the very next sentence, to say: “We want to pass on a nation that is defended by the strongest military on Earth—but also a country that moves with confidence beyond this time of war to shape a peace that is built on the promise of freedom and dignity for every human being.”
And I remember thinking, “there it was.  That was the moment where the hope died.”   Because global military domination, even by America, will never move us to the time of peace, let alone the promise of freedom and dignity.  It’s a practical impossibility, for a whole host of reasons, economic, historical, social and political.   But the reason it concerns me, as a preacher of the Gospel, is that it’s hopeless.  Jesus knew this.  He knew the Roman imperial propaganda, with its claim to be the divine instrument of world peace, and he saw what the new world order looked like where the boots met the ground.  And he perceived that the entire project masked a deep despair.  Because the premise at the heart of all such endeavors is that there is no hope—no hope that we will ever learn to love our enemies, or that loving them will do any good; it’s hopeless, so it isn’t worth the risk or the effort.
It’s uncomfortable for me to say this.  It may be uncomfortable for you to hear it.  I may even seem to be your enemy, or worse, to be rallying you for battle.  But I’m willing to take that risk, because this year you are supposed to whether to call me as your rector, so it’s important that you know what I really think.  What’s more, if you do call me, it will be for the purpose of renewing the church.   And that is going to require love, and I don’t mean the love that is the tacit agreement not to talk about certain subjects.  I don’t mean love for our friends, or our families, or our neighbors.  I don’t mean love for our country, or even love for undocumented immigrants or the homeless people in our streets.  People can find those without this [gesture around at the church building]. 
What will renew the church is that people find a kind of love here they can’t find anywhere else, love that is perfect, like God’s--the love of our enemies.  They are going to come here because here they find the way that leads the whole world back from the brink, towards health and salvation.  If I’m elected Rector I’m going to do what I can to find that way.  Just in case you’re worried, that doesn’t mean that every Sunday sermon will be like this one.  This is only one plank of my platform.  But we will work on loving each other enough to say what we think and feel about the things that really matter, and where we have real disagreements, like foreign policy and what hymns we like to sing on Sunday morning.  We will work on loving each other enough to listen.  Not all the time—that would be exhausting.  But steadily, patiently, with faith, and hope, and love—most of all, with love.

*This exegesis of Matthew 5:38-41 is dependent on the groundbreaking work of Walter Wink.  Cf. The Powers that Be (New York: Doubleday/Galilee, 1998), pp. 101-111.

Pluck and throw

Every weekday morning I drive my daughter to school before coming to my office.  We’re supposed to leave the house at 8 o’clock, but it’s usually closer to 8:10 before we finally get breakfast eaten and shoes on, and the backpack and the lunches, the laptop (mine, not hers), the clarinet and the music stand, and whatever else we need for the day ahead into the car, and pull out of the driveway.  Then we have to make our way through the streets of Petaluma, crowded with other people in their cars, buses, motorcycles, trucks, and even trains, all of them in just as much of a hurry as we are to get where they are going.  Finally, we have to find a place in the crowded drop-off zone in front of Risa’s school, to pull over and safely let her out onto the sidewalk.
The thing that makes it possible for us and everyone else to make that journey every morning is that there are rules.  There are the ones that are codified into state and local ordinance, the traffic laws and the rules of the road.  And then there are the unwritten rules that each person makes for him or herself about how far above or below the posted speed limit it is okay to travel, or how long one should wait at a four-way stop when the driver you thought had the right-of-way isn’t going ahead.
 I wish I could stand here and tell you that I make that drive every day in a state of perfect composure, and that I have nothing but patience and respect for those people who don’t interpret the rules exactly the same way I do.  I’d like to say I have a generous tolerance for drivers who are more cautious and conservative, or more bold and aggressive, than I would be.  But the truth is that Risa gets to see a side of me on our morning drive to school that she might never see otherwise.  She gets to hear words come out of my mouth that she might otherwise not have known were in my vocabulary.
I’m not proud of this, and Risa likes to point out, when I lose my temper with another driver, that it is for doing something I might have done myself, and probably have.  As a person who is supposed to stand for peace, love, and understanding, I’m well aware that my own morning commute is a daily betrayal those ideals.  I can’t really claim that if everyone drove to work the way I do, we would all find ourselves in the Kingdom of God.
And this is true even though, on the face of it, I’m not breaking the law.  Which brings us to the point I’ve been getting to, which is that the rules by themselves are not enough.  Not if we want more out of life than the bare minimum standard of getting to school in one piece, and close enough to on-time.  Not breaking the law is not going to be enough if we want a world where we live together in real harmony and contentment.  That will require something more, something that goes beyond what we do on the outside to how we are on the inside.
In the reading from Deuteronomy this morning, we can see the emergence of this kind of understanding of the law.  It is not something arbitrary set up by God to test his people’s obedience.  The law’s real purpose is to change them.  It is to convert them into a people who live together in a way that really is worth living.  The law is the constitution of a different kind of nation, where human existence is more than a miserable brutish struggle that leads directly to the grave.  Keeping the commandments of God, Israel will achieve a kind of greatness not measured by the extent of her territory, or the wealth of her rulers.  Their own little slice of land will be enough for them, because of the greatness of the life they will live there, in unity, prosperity, justice, longevity and peace.
Jesus’ proclamation of the Kingdom of heaven is radically new, but is built squarely on Israel’s vision of the best way to live.  It is a call to conversion, to receive the abundant life envisioned in Deuteronomy, only present and active now in the person and teaching of Jesus.  Today’s passage from Matthew is really a commentary on last week’s gospel where Jesus says that he has not come to abolish the commandments, but to fulfill them. 
Now it might seem from what he says next that this fulfillment means adding new and even more demanding and restrictive rules to the ones already in force.  But I think this reading misses the point.  I think what Jesus is really saying is that the kinds of behavior that cause so much needless suffering in the world, and tear apart the fabric of community, do not come about because people decide to break the rules.  They are really more pervasive and insidious than that, and the difference between truly egregious sins and the seemingly harmless little foibles that we secretly indulge in the privacy of our hearts, our homes, or our automobiles, is a difference of degree, but not of kind.
Because both involve a denial of our real interrelatedness, for all of us are equally, utterly dependent on God.   And God has made each one of us equally worthy of honor, equally deserving of love.  This denial is not something we choose to do—but it is planted very close to the center of our very sense of self, and the whole structure of our personality has grown up around it.  And as Jesus tells us in the gospel today, the more power it has over our lives, the closer we get to hell.
But we can choose to admit this, to stop pretending that we’re better than we are.  We can start to pay more attention to how it works in our own lives.  We can stop blaming other people for our habitual self-inflicted wounds.  And we can stop blaming our bodies.  All my life I’ve struggled with this passage about how if your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and throw it away.  Clearly it’s rhetorical, but for a long time I misunderstood what kind of rhetoric it is.  I used to think it was hyperbole—that Jesus was exaggerating to impress on us the severity of sin, and our responsibility for it.  But now I think it’s also irony.  It’s a joke, pointing out the absurdity of self-mortification.  Because who in the world ever really stumbled because of his eye, or her hand? 
No, what we really need to pluck out and throw away are our thoughts, all that endless cascade of mean little thoughts we have about ourselves and other people.  The ones that tell us what a raw deal we’re getting, and how much better off the neighbors are.  The ones that are always ready to fasten on what is less than perfect, and so slow to give thanks for the miracle of sharing this existence.  What we need to tear off and throw away are our self-pity, and envy, our prejudices and power trips, and fantasies of domination and revenge.  These are the members that get us thrown into hell.
So we throw them away, knowing they’ll be back.  But we throw them away again, because repentance is not a one-and-done catharsis, but a life-long conversion.  And the more we pluck them out and throw them away, the less power they have to define us.  At the same time, we start to find ourselves strangely attracted to thoughts of an entirely different kind, thoughts like “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.  Blessed are the merciful, for they will obtain mercy.  Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” 
And we start to wonder what it would be like to go through the world with that kind of trust, that combination of confidence and tenderness.  And maybe in time we start to see that at the very beginning another seed was planted in our hearts, one that’s not off center at all.  The shoot that sprouted from that seed has been growing in secret all the time, and is completely intertwined with that anxious, grasping, craven self we thought we really were.  Its roots go down deep into the goodness of life together on the earth.  Its leaves spread high and wide above, to receive the grace that streams from heaven.  And the Christ-life sways and dances in all of us together, not because we follow the same rules, but because we move to the breath of the same Spirit of love.

Monday, February 10, 2014

You can't eat salt

My science teacher in middle school used to take Wednesday off.  He would sit at his desk with his feet up and let us students use the class period to read, any book we wished, and one of us would bring in popcorn for the rest to snack on.  When my turn came to provide the snack, I spent some time on Tuesday night popping corn on the top of the stove, and as each batch was finished, I’d empty it into a large paper grocery bag.  Then I would add a little melted butter and some salt.  And I would close the bag and shake it a few times, to mix everything thoroughly, and add a little more butter, and a little more salt.
I’d never made such a large quantity of popcorn before, and I guess I misjudged how much salt it would take to properly season it.  Because the next day, after I’d passed my big bag around the science room and everyone had scooped out a pile onto a paper towel, I served some out for myself.  And when I put that first handful into my mouth, it was so salty I could hardly keep myself from spitting it out again.  I thought maybe it was just because mine came from the bottom of the bag, but a quick glance around the room showed that no one was eating it, and there were still a lot of popcorn on the paper towels.    My pride wouldn’t let me admit that I’d brought inedible popcorn to science class, so I kept munching away until I couldn’t force myself to take another kernel, and I still carry in my body the memory of the strange, headache-y, queasy feeling of eating far too much salt.
Salt is not food.  It enhances the flavors of food.  It keeps it from spoiling.  It is absolutely necessary for life, but by itself it is useless.  You can’t eat salt.   We ought to bear this in mind when we hear Jesus say to his disciples, “you are the salt of the earth.”  It is the same message in that other saying, “No one after lighting a lamp puts it under a basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house.”  It is the message that William Temple, the Archbishop of Canterbury during the Second World War, summarized when he said, “The Church is the only society that exists for the benefit of those who are not its members.”
Sometimes the church has acted as if the world existed for its benefit, and has bent worldly wealth and power to service of church leaders and institutions.  At other times we have tried to sever the connection entirely, and create a self-enclosed society, only concerned with its own other-worldly purposes, disinterested and unperturbed by the tensions and upheavals outside her sanctuaries.   But these sayings of Jesus make it plain that if we are going to be the renewed people of God that he sought to give birth to, then the rest of the world has to be at the very heart of who we are.  We are to dissolve into it, to transform it into something truly nourishing and delicious.  We are to light it up, so that its own true beauty and color and full dimensions can be seen. 
The paradox that we have to live with is that the world doesn’t necessarily want the salt or the light of the Gospel.  Remember that these sayings in Matthew come right after the part where Jesus says “Blessed are you when they revile you and persecute you and utter all manner of evil against you on my account.”  And living for the sake of people who don’t see any benefit in what you have to offer is an uncomfortable position to be in.  So sometimes we make a case for ourselves in human terms.  We’ll justify our existence by claiming that we “transform lives,” and point to our members who have kicked the bottle, or worked out their marital problems, or gotten good jobs since they started coming to church.   Or we’ll talk about how we inspire social action that improves our communities, and point out our involvement in distributing food to the poor, or housing the homeless. 
But as important as these things are, trying to justify ourselves in these terms can obscure the heart of what we are about.  It conceals the truth that we have been given a vision of personal transformation that goes far beyond helping people get back to “normal” as social convention defines it.  It is to be silent about the deeper kind of social action, a new solidarity that heals the root structures of rivalry, indifference, and suspicion in human relations.       
We’re running up against this problem now as we organize for an event that we’re calling the Big Night Out.  This effort involves reaching out in a way that we haven’t before to people around Petaluma--friends, and friends of friends, and even complete strangers.  And we are inviting them to a charity event to raise funds for a good cause called St. John’s Episcopal Church.  As we do this, we are appealing to them by describing the benefits we provide, in terms we think they can understand.  We are talking to them about the restoration of this beautiful building, with its architectural distinction that lends so much character and value to the historic downtown area.  We are talking about our long relationship with COTS, which provides services to those who have lost their homes, or are in danger of losing them, and how we are sharing a quarter of the funds that we raise to support that work. 
And I think that this is a sensible approach to take.  But it is also important for us to be conscious of what it is we’re not saying.  It’s not that we’re inviting people to this event under false pretenses.  Its just that we don’t really expect them to understand.  We don’t know how to talk to them about what really makes St. John’s tick, or what value it really has to the community, because there is no way to do it without using the language of the gospel of Jesus Christ.  And that very thing that we are reticent about is the taste of the salt, without which it is not good for anything but to be thrown out and trampled underfoot.  But we’re afraid that if we try to explain ourselves to people on those terms they will immediately stop listening, because they’ll think that we are “religious,” that outmoded and incomprehensible thing, and some hidden agenda to brainwash them and entice them into joining our cult.
It’s a quandary, and I have no better response to it than one I found last week in a little pamphlet put out by the TaizĂ© community in France, which is the inspiration for our monthly service of chant and silence here at St. John’s: 
“But if the salt were to lose its saltiness…
It must be recognized that we Christians often obscure [the] message of Christ…
We are at a point in history when we need to revitalize this message of love and peace.  Will we do all we can so that, freed of misunderstandings, it can shine out in its original simplicity?  Can we, without imposing anything, journey alongside those who do not share our faith but who are searching for the truth with all their heart?
In our attempt to create new forms of solidarity and open up new ways of trust, there are, and there always will be trials.  At times they may seem to be overwhelming.  So what then should we do?  Is not our response to personal trials, and to those which other people endure, to love still more?”
We are reaching the point in the renewal of this congregation where we are starting to understand that we have been called together to do something for our neighbors.  But to find what that is, we have no choice but to meet them where they are.  And we are looking not so much for people we can help, as for conversation partners.  We are seeking not so much an effective rhetoric of persuasion, as a common language in which to begin to understand each other, and share our wonder and anguish about the things that matter most.  And we are waiting on the power of the Spirit to do what we can never accomplish by ourselves, to open minds, to soften hearts, to take down walls, to heal, and salt, and light our world.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Building a Legacy, Part II

This is part two of an article that appeared in the newsletter of St. John's, Petaluma in August and September of 2013.
In 2007 the continuing St. John’s Episcopal congregation made the fateful decision to pursue the recovery of the historic parish property.  This decision was more than a claim to the right of inheritance of a legacy from the past.  It was also a claim on the future.  It was a declaration that this group of people aspired to a prominent and lasting presence in the social landscape of Petaluma, a presence symbolized by these buildings at the corner of Fifth and C. 
Ernest Coxhead, Architect (1863-1933).
In the years since retaking possession of this property, we have been learning anew what that prominent and lasting presence implies.    Even when we are embroiled in the immediate challenges of meeting our present needs, the intention to be here for a long time shapes the way we go about doing what we do.  When the vestry approves an enabling resolution, an investment policy, and other policies for a parish endowment, as it did in July, it says that we have a long-term investment in this place, and we encourage our members to see St. John’s as part of the legacy of their lives to the generations to come.  When we put resources into redecorating our nursery, or developing our Godly Play Sunday school, or sponsoring the Petaluma Children’s Chorus, we are saying that St. John’s is a place not just for today, but for tomorrow.
But this commitment to the future is not just a matter of how we attend to our own affairs.  If our mission were simply to win as many individual souls for Christ as possible before God’s imminent destruction of the world, we wouldn’t care much what our neighbors were up to.  But I believe that Christian eschatology (a fancy academic word that means “words about the last things”)  is better understood as radical hope for what Christ’s love can do in and with this good old world.   And this kind of hope requires us to act as thoughtful citizens of a larger community.  If we really intend to be here for a long time, we are going to need an economically vibrant, socially-just, and ecologically sustainable town to sustain us, and that is not something we can achieve by ourselves.
But neither can we be assured that it will happen without us.  And God has given us a particular gift, a charism, to give to the shared enterprise of making a durable future for Petaluma.  Coming to understand what that gift is, valuing it, claiming it, and learning to give it, is the real work of our process of congregational renewal.  Our beautiful Episcopal tradition gives us deep springs to drink from, and the rootedness of timeless forms.  This gives us a firm place to stand when engaging in conversation about what values, practices, images, and stories ought to shape the future of our town.  At the same time, our stable forms are the vessel for a dynamic, fearless, boundary-crossing Spirit that urges us into these conversations, not just as people with testimony to give, but as those who seek to be converted.  Against every urge to grasp onto the past, or retreat from the unknown and unfamiliar, the irresistible imperative of the Gospel keeps sending us forward to meet the future.  The mission of Jesus keeps impelling us outward to seek and find and know all the places where God’s dream is coming true.
Our unique and beautiful church building is a symbol, in wood and glass and stone, of aspiring to be grounded in tradition, and at the same time creatively attuned to the emerging possibility.  Ernest Coxhead, the architect of St. John’s, received the finest schooling, in France and England, in the classical disciplines of his trade.  But a restless search for something new sent him to America.  He spent a few years on the East Coast, where the Gothic revival in church architecture was in full swing, but finally found his way to California, where Bishop Kip put him to work designing Episcopal Churches.  What Coxhead gradually developed was a style that suited this strange new land on the far edge of the world.  In buildings like St. John’s he playfully combined elements of Gothic, Romanesque, Classical, and Queen Anne styles in a way that evoked the past but did not attempt to imitate it.  He put in a curved apse wall like in a Roman basilica, but he put it at the wrong end of the church. 
It’s weird, but somehow it works.  It feels timeless, but it’s actually daringly new.  When we reclaimed this property in 2009 we didn’t just get an old building.  We inherited the spirit that inhabits it, a spirit of appreciation for the past and enthusiasm for the future, of commitment to the whole and inventiveness with respect to the parts, of determination to make something beautiful, and the willingness to risk being absurd.  This spirit, not always an easy one to discern or to follow, has from time to time led this congregation down some strange paths, and into blind alleys.  But the lessons of those mistakes are part of our inheritance.  In any case, it is our gift, and it is a legacy we can build on.    

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.