Wednesday, May 21, 2014

How can we know the way?

I have preached many times on today’s reading from the Gospel of John.  It is one of the passages that the Book of Common Prayer recommends for funerals.  For those who are grieving, it is reassuring to hear the words of Jesus that there are many dwelling places in his Father’s house, and that he is going there to prepare a place for us.  It is good news, under those circumstances, and my job is to proclaim it, for strength and consolation. 
But it is a little different to read this passage today, on a Sunday morning in Easter season.  Granted, the spring it not as fresh as it was five weeks ago, when the green on the hills had not begun to fade, and the roses that are losing their petals now were just breaking their first bloom.   Maybe the light that burst forth from the empty tomb has dimmed just a bit, and the shadows are stealing back in around the edges of the world.  But when Thomas says to Jesus, "Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?" he is not yet thinking of the martyr’s death that he will someday die.  That is still far away. 
Thomas asks this question because he has learned that Jesus, whom he followed along the roads of Galilee, Samaria, and Judea, out across the Jordan and back again, who has led him and his friends here to Jerusalem, whom Thomas was ready to follow even to death, is going away, and leaving him behind.  Thomas’ question is not about the fate of Jesus’ soul, or about how to cope with his own grief and loss.  It is a question about how to continue the journey they have begun.  It is about carrying on in Jesus’ absence.  It’s a question about discipleship. 
It is a question we might ask, knowing that Christ is risen, but our lives are still in the midst of death.  Where we live, the Father’s house seems far away.  Jesus says he is going there to prepare a place for us, but there’s no getting around the fact that he is going and we are staying here.  He says he’s coming back for us, but he doesn’t say when.  And then he tells us that we know the way to the place where he is going, as if to say it will not be enough for us to simply wait around for him to get back, but we need to keep moving forward and he’ll meet us on the way. 
"Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?"
It is a good question for a group of people, like this one, that is in a year of discernment about its future.  God seems to have some purpose for us at St. John’s because, in spite of innumerable obstacles, we are alive, after decades of debilitating conflict and the death of schism.  But the time is upon us when the miracle of our existence is no longer enough to give us a sense of direction.  We are asking to know the purpose for which God called us back to life.
For the church, the answer to that question will always have something to do with remembering.  We know where we are going, at least in part, because we know the way that we have come.  But there is a danger in this, the danger that we will be satisfied with the answer that has already been given.  We might believe we have already arrived, when the answer that Jesus gives is about being on the way.  “I am the way,” says Jesus, inviting us to keep moving, trusting his guidance;  “and the truth,” he adds, not a truth cast in bronze, or set in stone, but the truth that lives and grows as we journey further with Christ.  And finally “the life”— life that is, by definition, dynamic, and changing, and ever renewing itself, or it is not life at all. 
We are justly proud of the long history of our congregation.  Our parish archives contain handwritten minutes of vestry meetings and ledgers of accounts that go back to the pioneer days of Petaluma.  We also have a collection of old parish newsletters that is not quite that old, but covers the first four years of the 20th century, not long after this structure was built.  And what strikes me, reading those papers, is how entirely focused they are on churchly concerns.  There are little notes about parish life and reports of the rector’s travels, and appeals for the support of missionaries in Yreka, and Alaska and China.  There are long articles about ancient church history, and summaries of doctrine and biblical texts, but not a word about the social changes that are radically transforming everyone’s lives.
In those years this valley, like all of America, was rapidly urbanizing and industrializing, integrating into an expanding national and global system.  Her people were embracing the habits and values of the modern consumer society, but the only clues in the parish newsletter that all this was going on are the paid advertisements in the margins of the page.   It is as if the church lives in a different world, one that looks backward to simpler times, and forward only to heaven.  The unspoken message is that the modern world knows where it is going, and the church is just along for the ride.  And even if the world is not following Jesus, it is not for us to resist or critique.   Our role is to stand on the sidelines, keeping open a place apart for rest and inspiration, where religious culture and family tradition, and beauty, decency, charity and reverence are not completely lost.
The world still needs this from religion, but by itself it is no longer enough.  On Monday, scientists from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory released a report on the melting of glaciers in the Amundsen Sea region of West Antarctica.  Their observations show an ongoing collapse of the ice in the region that has passed the point of no return.  Just this one source is causing a rise in global sea levels of about four feet.  The thing that alarms the scientists the most is that these are changes that used to happen in geological time, in hundreds of millennia, and now they take one or two or three human generations. 
In the face of runaway change, the church can no longer sit on the sidelines.  We must get out on the way.  We have to bear witness, like Stephen in the Book of Acts, that our leaders they do not know what they are doing.   Our civilization does not know where it is going.  It has no map, but is too proud to stop to ask for directions.   Of course, some Christians have been saying this for a long time.  They say, we know a different way, the way to the exits.  We believe the truth—the unchanging, fixed, literal truth of the Bible, and its iron jaws are closing on the world.  We hope for the life, the life that is death.  We know where we are going—to heaven, and you and your world can go to hell.
But there’s another way of being Christian, one that doesn’t hope for the destruction of the world.  It’s a way that reveres what God has created out of reverence for a wisdom and design that we do not understand.  It’s a way of loving what is passing, because it is not passing away to eternal death, but passing over into the house of God.  And wherever that is, we say, with the author of 1st Peter, that it is a house that God is also building here, from living stones.  This place is not forsaken, not if we are to believe what Jesus says about his own future.  Because he doesn’t say that he is going to the Father to chill out, in a state of endless bliss and eternal rest.  He’s says he’s going to get busy. 
“Because I am going to the Father,” Jesus says, “I will do whatever you ask in my name.”  His priestly work, reconciling the world to God, making the love and wisdom, the compassion and justice of God come true and come alive in the world—the work that he used to do, so to speak, from our side, Jesus promises to continue from the other side, the side of God.  So what about us, we who are still here—what do we ask him for?  It’s a good question, since we don’t know where we are going.  I guess we ask him to show us the way.

God is ready

This sermon was given at the wedding of Mack Olson and Jeremy Karagan at St. John's, Petaluma on May 17th, 2014.  Mack was raised up for ordination to the priesthood at St. John's, as is presently serving as Rector of the Episcopal Church of the Epiphany in Vacaville, California.  Jeremy is an ornamental horticulturist.  
You can read the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat's coverage of Mack's ordination service here.   

Ruth 1:16-17
1 John 4:7-16, 21
Psalm 111  
John 2:1-11

Mack and Jeremy met with me several times over the last few months for the counseling that the church requires of a couple that’s going to be married.  And one of the things that came up in the course of our conversations was the question of readiness.  This, I have to say, is not so unusual.  People often have doubts about whether they are ready to be married, before and after their wedding day.  I’m going to guess that many of us here have felt like that at one time or another.

But I had good news for Jeremy and Mack, which was that no one is ever ready.   You can’t get ready to be married, because being married is one of those things you can only learn to do by doing it.   In one sense all we are doing here today is witnessing and celebrating what everyone already knows, that Jeremy and Mack are married.  But you could also just as truthfully say that we have come to offer our support and to bless them, because here they take the first step of a long journey, the journey of becoming truly married, which only begins today.

So, Mack, Jeremy, no, you’re not ready, but that doesn’t matter.  Because marriage is ready for you, and all you have to do now is take each other by the hand and walk through the door.  It’s not any different from what Jesus found out at the wedding in Cana of Galilee.  He wasn’t ready—“My hour is not come,” he said.  But his mother knew better (way to go, Mom!).  He wasn’t ready to come out and reveal himself to his disciples and to the world, but everything was ready for him.  The world was ready for its bridegroom, and Jesus didn’t know it, and the world didn’t know it, but God did.  And so that is where it started—the water of purification and preparation was transformed into the wine of fulfillment.. 

And here we are 1,980-odd years later and the transformation is still ongoing.  But the world still insists it’s not ready—“we’re still not pure enough,” we say, “we’re still not good enough to be united in a covenant of love with God.”  “We can tolerate gay people, but we’re not ready for gay priests.  We can accept that they form lifelong committed relationships, but we’re not ready for same-sex marriage.  We’re not ready—we need more study, more dialogue, more preparation.”  But the mother of Jesus just shrugs, and turns to the servants, to the General Convention of The Episcopal Church, and the Supreme Court of the United States, and the Attorney General of the State of California, and says, “do whatever He tells you.”  And next thing you know, Mack and Jeremy are walking into Camp Noel Porter and there’s Bishop Beisner and he looks at them and they look at him, and they know—not a word even needs to be said.

It must still a little hard for you to believe, Jeremy and Mack, just how quickly something that had been ruled off-limits for you forever became a matter of obedience.  But that’s what a miracle looks like.  That’s the way things happen when God is ready.  And that’s why I had to smile a little bit inside when we met the other day and you were talking about how much has happened over the last couple of years, with Mack’s ordination, and the call to Vacaville, and Jeremy being out of work, and now this, and how you’re looking forward to just kind of letting things be settled and stable for a while.  It could happen, don’t get me wrong, and maybe it will—if God is ready for that, but I wouldn’t count on it.

I suppose there are marriages that are entirely human affairs, which are made solely for the satisfaction of the couple, for their contentment, and comfort, and ease.  But now you’ve gone and come to the church, and asked for yours to be blessed as a Christian marriage, which means that it doesn’t completely belong to the two of you.  It is for you, but as part of something much greater, the ministry of Christ, reconciling all creation to itself and to God.  This is true for you, in a particular way, because one of you is a priest, but it is equally true, in a different way, because one of you is a layman.
Even the simplest civil marriage has public aspect.  You have to go in person to a county building to obtain a license issued by the state, entitling you to rights that will be recognized by public institutions like banks, and hospitals, and courts of law.  And even a private ceremony requires an officiant and a witness.  But now you are having this big ceremony where lots of people, representing various aspects of your lives, who don’t know each other very well, have come together and here, with all of us watching, you will make a public declaration of your most tender, intimate hopes and intentions.  In just a moment, all eyes will be on you, as you make your vows.  And before those eyes something hidden will be made manifest. Something invisible will become visible.  Your invisible love for each other will be made visible for all to see. 

But, as we have heard, love is not just love—love is from God and God is love.   And we have a special name in the church for something that makes God visible, not as a private inner mystical experience, but right out there where everyone can see, and hear, and touch, and taste it, and that word is “sacrament.”  Today your love for each other becomes a sacrament, communicating to the world the presence of God.    It is a real presence, and because you have generously invited us to be here, and have mustered up the courage to stand before us, to take each other’s hands and speak your vows, we have the privilege of sharing that presence with you.  You give us a taste of the good wine, the wine of fulfillment and celebration and communion, the vintage of Christ that God pours out in extravagant abundance when the inferior wine is gone.

In this marriage rite we all see a sign of the God of love who gives life to the whole world.  But this sign is embodied in your particular, mutual choosing of just this one person.  It is your covenant with each other, and each other alone, Mack choosing Jeremy, Jeremy choosing Mack, that fills this moment with sacramental power.  And that choice must be made, that covenant renewed, again and again for a lifetime, if the sacrament is to fulfill its promise.   We can support you, and pray for you-- we have just made our vow to do that--but the real holy work, and the grace to do it, is for you, together, alone.  Marriage is priestly work, whether you’re ordained or not, accomplished in daily acts of sacrifice, of listening and noticing and telling the truth, of service and nurture, play and affection, of offering forgiveness and making amends, of standing firm and breaking down, of needing and responding, and coming close, and leaving alone.  

Marriage is a human life, a lifetime, offered to God in that most human of hopes, the hope of loving and being loved.  And when it is done faithfully and well, it fulfills God’s fondest hope for us—that we know love, love that is stronger than fear, stronger than anger, stronger than greed, and impatience, ambition, boredom, fatigue, distraction, self-pity, confusion, sorrow, and resentment.  God’s hope for the whole world is that in steadfastly loving each other, even in the face of death, God’s own love will be perfected in you.

Monday, May 12, 2014

The Gate

On Monday, I was going out the back door of my house for a morning’s work in the yard when I stepped wrongly in a hole and sprained my ankle—not the worst sprain I’ve ever suffered, but bad enough that I couldn’t walk on it without excruciating pain.  Since then I’ve hobbling around on crutches, and I’m still not really able to walk unaided.  Now, many of you have had this experience, some recently, and some of you have it every day, so I don’t need to tell you what it’s like not to be able to get around on two legs with your hands free—how it makes the simplest chores difficult, and vigorous physical activities, of the kind that are so important for physical and emotional well-being, nearly impossible.
And having my mobility restricted in this way has forced me to accept help from other people, when they’ve offered it, and even to ask for it when they have not.  My wife, Meg, has been my first and chief helper, coming to my aid when I was writhing and groaning in the back yard, setting me up on the couch with icepacks and pillows, and adding my share of the household chores to her own responsibilities.  But my daughter Risa has pitched in also, carrying my things out to the car when we leave the house in the morning, and cheerfully fetching me this or that.  And normally, I wouldn’t presume to ask the volunteer receptionists here in the church office to make me a cup of tea, but this week I have, and they’ve happily obliged.
As I said, I’ve sprained my ankle before, and when I was younger the emotional trial of depending so much on other people was almost worse than the physical pain.  As someone who thinks of himself as independent and self-reliant, who works hard and doesn’t complain, and does for others, I have not always been good at allowing others to do for me.  But maybe it’s a mark of maturity that this time it is a little easier.  I’ve been working this week at accepting my injury as a blessing in disguise, an opportunity to slow down and rest that I never would have taken otherwise.  And it’s also reminded me, in a way that is quite lovely and reassuring, of a truth that we can miss seeing when we are healthy and able-bodied—that all our lives are a joint venture.  More than a little of their richness and meaning comes from the consideration, help, and care we receive from others, in countless ways, every day.
The book of Acts says that at its beginning the church exemplified this kind of mutual aid, caring, and concern to a startling degree.  “All who believed were together,” it says, “and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.”  Now this may be an idealized picture, but as such its intent is as much prescriptive as descriptive.  “This is how we were,” it implies, “when the experience of the Lord’s resurrection was still fresh in our minds, when the unifying gift of the Spirit was palpably present among us, and potent, and new.  The way we shared everything was all the proof we needed that God’s promises were true, and it drew others to join us.  This is how we grew.  We were at our best when we were one—sharing equally, breaking bread together with glad and generous hearts.  And this is how we could be again.”
The Bible has an image for this kind of life-in-community, of the people of God as united and equal and organized for their mutual benefit.  It is the flock of sheep.  We’ve all heard of the lone wolf, but who ever heard of the lone sheep?  A lone sheep is a lost sheep, who must be found and returned to the fold, or it will not survive.    Sheep are meant to live together.
Now, as modern persons, this image makes us uneasy.  We idealize individual freedom, individual responsibility, and individual achievement.  When we say people are like sheep, we imply mediocrity, stupidity, and conformity—it is not a compliment.  And a flock of sheep requires a shepherd.  In the literature of the ancient Near East, shepherd was a standard image for the king.   Well, we have an instinctive distrust of kings.  We know from historical experience that we can’t be too sheep-like, too docile and obedient and trusting, or our shepherds will take advantage and abuse their power.
The Bible recognizes this.  The books of the prophets contain numerous passages that call out the rulers of Israel as false shepherds, who scatter and destroy God’s sheep, who take for themselves what they should be feeding to the flock.  And in the Hebrew Scriptures, scattering the flock is always a catastrophe.  The disintegration of society into isolated and competing individuals is anathema to the biblical mind.  Instead, the prophets give promises like the one God makes to Jeremiah, “I will give you shepherds after my own heart, who will feed you with knowledge and understanding.”  This kind of leader will tend the people the way God would, and will, as Isaiah says, “gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep.” 
This kind of leadership—wise, compassionate and nurturing, not domineering and self-aggrandizing—is what people saw in Jesus.  They recognized his authority, but it was not the authority of aristocratic birth, or official position or state power.  It was the authority of the person who speaks the truth and backs it up with deeds.  It was nothing he sought for its own sake, but flowed naturally from his compassion for his people, from his desire that they should enjoy the fullness of life, and his courage to act for their liberation.  He instructed his disciples to lead others in the same spirit of humility and service, and he exemplified this teaching in his passion and death on the cross. 
These two traditions, the prophetic tradition about the shepherds of Israel, and the gospel tradition about the ministry of Jesus, are in the background of the Good Shepherd in the Gospel of John.  Jesus says, “ I am the Good Shepherd”, and we are meant to think of his compassion and wisdom and self-sacrifice, which make him so unlike the thieves and robbers who so often pass for leaders in this world. 
But Jesus’ relationship with us is about more than political liberation.  And that society envisioned in the book of Acts, of unity, equality, and mutual sharing, requires something more than a new kind of shepherd.  It demands a new kind of flock, one that moves together by the free choice of each sheep, in response to the inner shepherding of God.  The ordering of this new community begins with a new heart in each of its members.  Their unity comes from loving hearts, fundamentally re-oriented toward the well-being of others.  Their deep generosity doesn’t spring from a sense of obligation, but from hearts overflowing with gratitude for the abundance that comes when we share our gifts. There is no trade-off for these sheep between freedom and security, because they choose to have no enemies.     
This is a picture of the renovation of human nature, or, if you like, our resurrection.  I think that these texts about the Good Shepherd are traditionally read during Easter season, because Jesus is more than our righteous ruler.  He is the power of God’s love within to bring us from death to life.  He is, in the words of Julian of Norwich, and many other mystics and theologians of the High Middle Ages in the West, our mother, giving us new birth into a new world.  Or, as John the Evangelist has him say in today’s gospel, “I am the gate of the sheepfold.”
“I am the gate”—the birth passage from the cramped space where we huddle within our walls, where the ground is hard, and the grass is thin, out into a wide open space.  Jesus is the gate, opening out to the fresh, green pastures of a new world; opening in to the depths of the self, to safety and peace that surpass understanding.   Through him we may come and go, in and out, in freedom and joy.  Through him, the narrow straits of this world, even the dread gate of death, are entrances to wider spaces, to more perfect sharing, and more abundant life.  And the wall that divides the flock, that separates the future from the past, the living from the dead, this world from the next, has an opening—a gate—so all may come and go and may again be one.  

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.