Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Touching the wounds

God brought Jesus back to life—this is the pivotal event of history.  But it is not a historical event in the same way the Battle of Waterloo is, or the signing of the Magna Carta.  Because the resurrection of Jesus is ongoing.  Easter morning was the continuation of the work of Jesus’ life, of bringing others back from physical, or moral, or spiritual death.   And it was also the beginning of a process of renewing the life of the whole creation, a process that is ongoing in our present and is our hope for the future.  God is bringing Christ to eternal life in us, and this is ongoing, and gradual, and happens in different ways and at different times for different people. 
Which is what today’s text from the Gospel of John is about.  The story of Thomas shows us ourselves, and how it is that we come to know and to live Jesus’ resurrection.  The process can’t occur without our participation, but just for that reason it is something of a problem.  Because we aren’t always sure it’s what we want, or how to do it?  In part it is a question of evidence—how can I affirm what I do not believe, and how can I believe what I have not seen or touched or experienced for myself? 
It is also a problem of recognition.  We may feel like we can see evidence in our lives, or in the world around us, for the living presence of the Spirit, or of God, but it is not always clear what these have to do with a man who lived 2,000 years ago.  In what sense are they signs of Jesus?
Finally, there is the question of action, or practice.  When I am asked whether I believe in the Resurrection, isn’t this a question about the way I live and act, about what I do?
Today’s gospel story addresses all these aspects of the problem, and it does so in the way it describes the risen body of Jesus.  It is a remarkable body, one that passes instantaneously through locked doors, one whose physical breath is the Holy Spirit of God, the kind of body that speaks of a transformation in which it has become something more than human. 
And yet this body bears the marks of crucifixion, and this is precisely what makes it recognizable as Jesus.  It is in his demand to see the marks of Jesus’ wounds, and to put his own fingers in the places where the nails pierced his hands, and in the opportunity that Jesus graciously provides to do just that, that Thomas knows the truth.  But Thomas is not alone.  John says explicitly that this story is written for us, so that we also may believe.  So I don’t think it is stretching the point to say that this story’s message is that it is in touching the wounds of Christ that we come to know and to believe that he is our Lord and our God. 
Now, when I say “the wounds of Christ,” there is probably at least one person here in this room who thinks about guilt.  Centuries of Christians have thought this way, meditating on the crucified body of Jesus and feeling responsible for his wounds, because of our own sins.   And that isn’t such a bad practice—for Lent. But the body in this story is the resurrection body, and these wounds are not bleeding accusations of guilt and judgment, but openings—to insight, to reconciliation and peace, to awe and gratitude, joy and faith.
Maybe the wounds of the risen Lord are the places where the work of Jesus is still open, still unfinished.  They invite our exploration and participation, because we also are unfinished.  Christ’s resurrection is still not a reality in our lives and in the world because we have been afraid, or unwilling, to see and to touch his wounds. 
We struggle to affirm that Jesus is Lord, because we don’t see the evidence.  But what if that longing for direct, personal knowledge of God, that sense of missing the most important thing, that nagging dissatisfaction with a superficial, conventional, and materialistic approach to life, that hunger for something more vivid, more meaningful, more enduring and true—what if that wound was the evidence?
We may wonder what this longing has to do with Jesus, or with the church that claims to do what it does in his name.  But maybe this itself is an opening, an invitation to feel our way into Jesus’ own pain over religion.  He experienced the immediate presence of the Kingdom of God, and then he looked at the indifference and hypocrisy of the religious leaders of his day: their sterile rehashing of old arguments, and quibbling over minor differences of interpretation; their pursuit of worldly power and prestige, and easy accommodation to corrupt and violent elites; their contempt for the outcast, the poor and the mentally and physically disabled, and inordinate focus on petty offenses and sexual sins.  Jesus saw this and was wounded with anger, and with a burning compassion for the sufferings of God’s people.  We could turn away from the corresponding problems of religion today, as so many people do, and say “that’s someone else’s problem,” but then there would be no opening for us in the risen body of Christ, only a old and fading scar.
And when we think about how we are to practice, how to live in a way that is consistent with Jesus’ compassion, and his urgency for the Kingdom of God, we often assume that this a question of knowing what to do.  But here also we might find greater freedom and power if we understood that here, too, there is an open wound.   We think of Jesus as supremely sure of himself and his plan, so we forget how often he had to go off by himself to pray for guidance and for strength.   We forget his prayer in the garden that the cup of betrayal and suffering should pass from his lips, but that, in the end, “your will, O Lord, not mine, be done.” 
Last night, I attended, along with some members of our congregation, and several hundred others, a celebration of the ministry of the Reverend Tim Kellgren, who is retiring today, at the end of this morning’s services, after 37 years as pastor at Elim Lutheran Church.  There was a lengthy after-dinner program of songs and remembrances and tributes, and many people made mention of the ministries that Pastor Tim and the Elim congregation helped to found that have had a transforming impact on this community and the world.  These include PEP, providing subsidized senior housing, COTS and the Petaluma Kitchen, sheltering homeless persons and helping them get back on their feet, Petaluma Bounty and the Interfaith Food pantries, that feed the hungry.  But for me it was also inspiring, and encouraging, to hear passing mention of the many false starts, the big ideas that never got off the ground, or were attempted, but later given up as impractical, or just too difficult to sustain.
Maybe we bring Christ to life not when know what to do, but when we know that we are sent, as Jesus was sent, and go in his peace and try something, anything, to touch the wounds of the world.  And in this we could ask for no better patron saint than Thomas.  In the popular imagination, Thomas is most associated with his doubts about the resurrection.  But the Gospel of John also depicts him as the apostle of courageous action.  When Jesus announces he is going back to Judea, to the grave of his friend Lazarus, the other disciples say, “Rabbi, they were just seeking to stone you, and are you going there again?”  But Thomas is the one who says “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”   And when the rest of them were hiding out after Jesus’ crucifixion, with the doors locked, and the lights out, and the shades drawn, Thomas wasn’t there.  So where was he?  Out and about, abroad in the city?  I can imagine him saying, “This is crazy.  We can’t just cower here in fear forever.  Life has to go on—the Sabbath is over, I’m going to the market to get us some bread.”  In church tradition, Thomas is the apostle who went the furthest to spread the Gospel.  Others went to Syria, or to Asia Minor, or even to Rome, but Thomas, it is said, went to India, and died a martyr’s death there. 
Maybe for some people discipleship begins with believing in the resurrection, and moves from there to recognizing the wounds of Christ, and then to doing something about them.  But for Thomas it works in reverse.  His story suggests that we first should overcome our fears, and just try something, anything to touch the wounds of Jesus.  Then, maybe, our doubts will begin to fall away and we will be able to cry, with the joy of firsthand experience, “My Lord and my God!”

Do you accept that Jesus is Lord?

The question about what happened to the body of Jesus in the early dawn of that Sunday morning is not the essential Easter question.  The most important thing about the resurrection isn’t that something happened to Jesus.  It is that something happened to us.  Strictly speaking, we can’t really know what that something is, because the resurrection is a process that is still ongoing.  The Letter to the Colossians is very clear on that point, when it says, “your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory.” 
This is what Mary Magdalene and the other Mary found out when they went to the tomb that morning.  They went there full of grief, still reeling from the shock, trying to make sense of what had happened to Jesus.  They went to mourn and to cherish the memory of what had been lost, and they found something, something new, that now belonged to them.   They went to the tomb to say goodbye to the past and they came away as bearers of a message about the present and the future--a present and a future with Jesus.
Still, there is no getting around the fact that this message came to them at the tomb.  Resurrection gives new life and meaning to the story of Jesus, but it is still the same story that came to a head at the cross.  Easter does not reverse Good Friday.  But Good Friday and Easter together confirm what the story of Jesus is all about.  You could boil it down to a couple of points, and they were exactly the points that Jesus kept trying to make, and they were what got him into all that trouble.  The first one got him into trouble with his disciples, and I suppose it still does, and that was the point that his mission really wasn’t about him.  It wasn’t about his charisma, or his remarkable abilities, or his chances for success.  Jesus lived and died for us, for our repentance, our instruction and empowerment, our forgiveness, and healing, and liberation. 
The second point got Jesus into trouble with the religious leaders and political authorities, and it also still gives a lot of people problems.  And it was that the author of his life, the power behind his deeds, the source of his wisdom, and the driver of his mission was God.  It was God who sent Jesus on the road that led him to the cross, though it was not God who killed him.  And it was God who raised him from the dead—so there could be no doubt who was responsible for the sending, and who did the killing.
The church, then and now, is the community that gathers to experience the death and resurrection of Jesus as a present spiritual reality.  This Spirit tells us that Jesus did what he did by the anointing of God, and he did it to show us how to live together in peace and forgiveness and love.  And the very first Christian communities came up with a shorthand, a phrase that encapsulates all of this, which is simply, “Jesus is Lord.”  The essential question about the resurrection is not, what happened to the body in the tomb?  It is, “do you accept that Jesus is Lord?” 
Now before you go rushing to answer that question one way or another, let me state very clearly, just so nobody gets the wrong idea about me, or about this church, that any answer to that question is permitted here.  Seriously—I mean that.  And let me also say that I think that the acceptance that this question asks about is like the resurrection itself.  It’s not a box you check, and then move on to the line about your address and credit card number.  It’s a process.  We’ve only  begun to glimpse what it would mean to fully accept the Lordship of Jesus, which is to say, the total transformation of the world into the paradise of God.

But back to the story: the resurrection proves that Jesus was telling the truth about himself, even though nobody believed him.  Well, almost nobody.  Mary Magdalene and the other Mary believed, at least enough to risk sticking around to watch his crucifixion.  They believed enough to want to go to his tomb and pay their final respects.  I guess that is what made it possible for them to witness his resurrection, and to receive the message that the work that God is doing through Jesus is just getting started. 
But the male disciples, according to Mark and Matthew, aren’t ready yet.  Their hearts are still too clouded with guilt and fear; their heads are still too full of the splintered wreckage of the grandiose dreams that they brought with them to Jerusalem.  They will see Jesus.  They will experience his resurrection.  But not until they follow him back to Galilee.  They have to go back, back to the beginning, back to the place where he first came upon them, casting their nets into the lake.  Not to try to recapture the past.  Not to go on some kind of nostalgia trip, but to hear again in the present the voice of Jesus saying “follow me.”  They have to go back, carrying with them the memory of his death, and their part in it, and begin again to learn how to be his disciples.      
26 years ago I spent a couple of months in Nicaragua, building houses and seeing for myself what the counterrevolutionary war was doing to that country.  A lot of wonderful things happened to me there, and most of all I fell in love with the people.  And while I was there I met a young American, a mechanical engineer, who was machining parts and fixing up old 1930s windmills around the country to help the farmers pump water.  And maybe it was he who gave me this mild case of the romance of revolution, and I started to imagine learning about organic agriculture and going back to Nicaragua or some other down-trodden tropical country to help the people. 
But on my way back to the States I came through customs in the Houston airport.  And as I stood in line in the cavernous, dreary, understaffed, customs station, and I looked around at my own people—stressed-out, short-tempered, homesick Americans--it struck me as clear as a bell that the only difference between this place and Nicaragua was a few dollars, and they wouldn’t last forever.  In fact, that wave had already crested.  And I realized that if I wanted to help people, and develop and strengthen communities, and build the foundations of a just and sustainable society, the most important place in the world for me to do that work was right here in the good, old US of A.
In the 10th Chapter of Acts, Peter tells Cornelius, the Roman Centurion, that Jesus is Lord of All, by which he means Lord of all peoples.  But he might as well have meant Lord of all times, all circumstances and situations.  As the exalted Son of God, Jesus is Lord of the Universe; and as the man who died on the cross, he is the servant of every particular thing in it.  He is Lord of Nicaragua and Lord of Petaluma.  He is Lord of your house, and your office, and your spouse and children.  He is Lord of your bank account, of your car, and the highway you drive on.  He is Lord of your bedroom, and bathroom, and the dishes in your kitchen sink.  He is Lord of your dreams and of your fears, of your proudest achievements, and your devastating losses.  And as many times as you forget him, or discount him, or betray him, he calls you back to begin again, a little humbler, maybe, a little wiser, to find his place in your life, and yours in his.
 When you leave here today, maybe humming one of those catchy Easter hymn tunes, and the flowers are blooming, and the hills are still green, and the color and the fragrance of spring are everywhere, everything you see will be a sign of his resurrection.  Everyone you meet will be his glorious image.  Nothing that happens to you, now or in the future, will be able to put him back in his grave, or remove his name from your lips or his word from your heart.  Or so I’ve been told.  And today I could almost believe it.            

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Child's Play

The Liturgy of the Palms
The Liturgy of the Word

My daughter Risa is nearing the end of fourth grade, and this year she’s been getting homework assigned every week at school.   She’s also started taking a bigger share of caring for herself, making her own snacks, cleaning her own room.  A couple of weeks ago we adopted a kitten, at her urging, and the deal that my wife and I made with her was that it would be, officially, her pet, and she could pick out the one she wanted, and give it the name she chose, but in return, she would have to get the kitty food and water, and clean her litter box. 
And with these changes in Risa’s life our relationship with her is changing.  It used to mostly be about doing things together, but now it’s more and more about helping her do things by herself.  There’s a way in which this is a healthy, age-appropriate development, but there are also times when I feel like I’m the unwitting agent of a soulless world.  And as I function more and more as Risa’s taskmaster, helping her get there on schedule, and complete it on time, and get it done right, I am subtly reinforcing the message that these are the things that matter, and we seem to have few and fewer opportunities to play.  
Risa still regularly invites me to play.  Sometimes I accept, and we’ll wrestle, or make up a song or a story, or a silly game with rules we invent as we go along.  But as often as not I’ll say there’s still some work to do, or it’s too close to bedtime, or I’m just too tired.  There are certainly times when one or more of these things are true.  But there are also times when I’m just stuck.  I’m so used to being the grown-up who is always in charge of the situation, so identified with being the responsible parent, so focused keeping us on track toward the goal, that I get stuck in that role.  And to get unstuck, to come down from there into the intimate give-and-take, the open-ended, timeless place of play is a step I’m unwilling or even afraid to take.
When I think of the scene of Jesus riding into Jerusalem, I imagine that the crowd that was shouting and running along, waving palm branches, included a lot of children.  Actually, I know there were children there, because if you read on, the very next section of Matthew’s Gospel tells how Jesus went into the temple, and started driving out the money-changers and overturning the seats of those who sold doves for the sacrifices, and people came to him and he healed them.  And it says that the children were crying out in the temple, “Hosanna to the Son of David!”  The Chief Priests and the scribes came up to Jesus and said, “Do you not hear what these children are saying?” 
To these guys, shouting “Hosanna to the Son of David” in the temple is not child’s play.  It is like joking about having a bomb in your bag at the airport.  Because right next to the temple, looming over its courtyard like a hammer poised to fall, is the fortress of the Roman Governor.  Don’t say you’re the new David, the Messiah, the true King of Israel, unless you mean it, because if you’re serious, it means war.
But they were wrong about what Jesus had come there to do.  You’ll remember that at one point, when his disciples asked him who was top dog, he took a little child and put it in the middle of them and said, “Unless you change and become like this little child, you will never enter the Kingdom of Heaven.”  The children of Jerusalem may not have understood exactly what Jesus was doing that day, but they were much closer to the mark than the leaders in the temple.  Those men assumed that he was trying to outplay them at their own game, and so they secretly set their traps for him.  But the children saw that Jesus was inviting them to his game, which was entirely different, a game that was creative, and joyful, and fun, that welcomed everyone who wanted to participate, and had no winner and no losers.  It was open-ended, a game that could potentially go on forever, and there was a place in it for them, so they came out to play.
The elders, and Chief priests, and scribes of Jerusalem got it wrong about what Jesus had come there to do.  And ever since the church has been saying we’ve got it right.  Over the centuries, our great preachers and theologians have come up with all kinds of explanations for what Jesus went there to do.  Most of them sound very serious and businesslike.  They talk about the atoning work of Christ, and what he accomplished on the cross, and his death as a transaction by which he substituted his own sinless life for the lives of us sinners, and took on himself the punishment that by all rights should have fallen on us.  Mostly they seem to agree that Jesus went to Jerusalem in order to die.
But while the theologians give their explanations there is a kind of childlike wisdom in the liturgical tradition of the church, that is faithful to the outlook of the first Christian generations who gave us the gospels, who understood that an explanation isn’t half as good as a story.  And this popular liturgical tradition knows that even a story isn’t as good as a play.  There is an intuitive understanding, that you see expressed in different ways all over the world, in German Passion Plays, and Guatemalan Holy Week processions, and even here in St. John’s, Petaluma, that the passion of Jesus is a drama.  I think this is no accident, but conveys a deep insight into the mind of Christ, and even the purposes of God.
Because Jesus didn’t go into Jerusalem to take over and become king, and maybe he didn’t even go there to die on the cross for our sins.  Maybe he didn’t have a particular goal in mind at all, except to be faithful to the role that God had given him.  Maybe he was simply continuing a game he’d been playing all along, acting as if God really loves us, and really rules the world, and really just wants us all to come out and play, in the open air, in the light, of truth, of forgiveness, and compassion, and thanksgiving, and peace, and Jesus was willing even at the risk of his own life, to bring God’s invitation to the priests, and the elders, and the scribes.  Of course he was no fool, so he guessed how they would react.  We watch them play out their own roles, and every scene that follows has its grim theatricality—Judas’ kiss in the garden, the kangaroo court in the High Priest’s house, Pilate’s washing his hands in front of the crowd, the soldier’s brutal parody of coronation, and the naked tortured body on the gibbet by the city gate, with the placard reading “King of the Jews.”
These actors think they know what they’re doing.  They think they are making a grand show of power, and innocence, and possession of the sacred public trust.  Little do they know that down through the ages they will be synonymous with treachery, impiety, and murder.  How could they know that they are tearing away forever the false pretensions of dominating power, exposing the death’s head behind the mask?  They think that they are making an example of Jesus, a sign of terror and humiliation to his followers and all the people.  How could they know that they are exalting him forever as savior and redeemer and Lord?  Who is the overlooked, forgotten actor in the drama who could bring this about?  What shocking, unexpected twist could make such a dramatic reversal?  Tune in next week to find out.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Torture and Truth

There is a kind of fantasy at loose in our popular culture right now that the purpose of torture is to get at the truth.  Torture not might be nice, the fantasy goes, but sometimes it becomes necessary because the authorities have to get at the truth, and the risk to public safety is so great, and the need for the truth so urgent, that there isn’t time to get at it by more courteous means.  I say this is a fantasy because it shows complete ignorance of history.  Using torture is a temptation to every ruler, and in the broad view of the history of states, it is the norm, and not the aberration.  And even the slightest familiarity with the way that torture has functioned in societies from ancient empires to early modern monarchies, from the regimes of Hitler and Stalin to the dictatorships of today, shows us that its purpose is not to expose the truth, but to spread terror.  It is not to bring new information to light, but to force everything and everyone into the darkness that does not conform to those in power and their Big Lie.
If you have any doubt that this is the way torture really operates, I urge you to consider that it is always carried out in secret.  The people who do the torturing, the locations where it is practiced, even the techniques that are employed, are always kept shrouded in darkness.  This secrecy adds to the mystique of terror that surrounds the whole enterprise, which is the key to its power.  This is the issue at the heart of the current controversy over the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on the CIA’s use of torture in the first decade of this century.  At stake is the question of which is more important: the right of a free people to know their own history, and make their own judgments about whether their government exceeded the rightful limits of its power; or the need of the state to enhance its power by keeping some of its weapons concealed in darkness.
The founders of American democracy understood these dilemmas, but I think it’s pretty clear which side they came down on.  Our Constitutional prohibitions against unreasonable searches and seizures, indefinite detention, and cruel and unusual punishment, do not stem from squeamishness about “taking the gloves off” when dealing with terrorists and criminals.  They are rooted in a clear-eyed understanding of history, and a personal familiarity with the habits of power.  The founders considered themselves men of Enlightenment, bringing about a new historical moment, where the human spirit, breaking out of the darkness of the old absolutist regimes of Europe, could breathe the free air of a new world of liberty.   And they understood that this new world of freedom, of free speech, and a free press, and the free exercise of religion, would never survive without restraints on the power of the state to operate in the shadows.

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.