Sunday, June 29, 2014

The name of a disciple

The last couple of Sundays I conducted church services at a rustic little summer chapel in the mountains near Lake Tahoe.   The attendance at the services was small, about 25 or 30 at the 10 o’clock, and the congregations were made up of summer visitors many of whom were there for just that week.  Part of the informal spirit of the place is that a few minutes before each service I would stand up in front and ask if anyone would like to volunteer to read a scripture lesson or serve the chalice for communion.  The readings I could handle by myself, in a pinch, but I really did need to have a helper with the chalice.  So if nobody stepped forward the first time, I’d have to ask again, and emphasize that “on-the-job training” was available.
So both Sundays it happened that I had a chalice bearer who had never done it before, and, because there was no time before the service to provide even the most rudimentary instruction, I would just tell them to come up after the Lord’s Prayer and the breaking of the bread, and I would show them what to do.  Which I did, in plain sight of the congregation, and they caught on right away, and did a perfectly fine job.  One Sunday it was a rugged but kindly white-haired gentleman in a windbreaker who looked like he was going to set out on a fishing trip right after the service, and the next week it was a slender, refined lady with close-cropped blond hair and modest but elegant jewelry in a flower-print summer dress.  In both cases they seemed genuinely moved by the experience, and afterward thanked me for the opportunity to serve.
I wasn’t around here then, but I gather that there was a time in the not-so-distant past of this congregation when worship services had a little bit of the ad hoc quality of that chapel in the mountains.  It wasn’t always clear who would be showing up, so a newcomer, especially if he or she arrived a few minutes early, might be recruited to read a lesson, or help pass out bulletins, or something.  And a similar kind of thing took place recently, when we put on our Big Night Out fundraising gala.  We turned to friends and friends of friends, and even strangers, and we asked them to get involved with us, to make donations and purchase tickets, to help raise funds to renovate and restore our historic church building.
And I wonder if this asking for and accepting help from strangers isn’t fundamental to the mission of the gospel, and the character of the church.  Certainly the early Christian communities of the Gospels felt it was important to hand down the traditions about Jesus’  commission to his disciples, when he sent them out on the back roads of Galilee, carrying no purse, no bag, no staff, and no change of clothes.  And as we read in Matthew today, he instructed them that when they met a stranger, it was an opportunity for that stranger to receive a priceless reward.  Every encounter they had along the way was an invitation to the ones they met to become a part of something uniquely important, and meaningful, and life-changing.   And the way to extend that extraordinary offer, said Jesus, was to invite the stranger to supply an ordinary need.    
This is a reversal of the way the church likes to think about its mission.  We would prefer to be God’s chosen vessels of grace, the ones who go out and do good for the world.  Out of our great store of virtue and wisdom we supply others with the healing, the knowledge, the forgiveness and redemption that they lack.  How odd, then, is this remembrance that Jesus sent his disciples out to make the Kingdom of God immanently available by being hot and thirsty, and accepting a cup of cool water from a stranger on the road.  Could it be that God communicates the good news of salvation to the world, not through the power, and patronage, and mastery of Christians, but through their vulnerability, and humility, and need?
This certainly puts the mission of the church into a different light.  Most of you may not think of yourselves as missionaries, or of St. John’s as being engaged in missionary activity.  But throughout and around the church in recent years, the realization has been growing that without an active impulse to reach out and connect to strangers, with a story and an invitation, the church is in danger of losing itself.  Not only because of institutional shrinkage and decline, although that’s been happening, but more importantly because of the loss of something that is at the very heart of what it means to follow Jesus Christ. 

Now, I want to say that if you are resistant to the idea that you are meant to be a missionary, and if you think that you want no part of a congregation that is self-consciously engaged in a missionary enterprise, you probably have every good reason for feeling that way.   Because when we imagine the scenarios that these words suggest, we start thinking about the kind of Christian mission that has not undergone the reversal that Jesus asks his disciples to make.  We hear talk about “mission” and we think it means adding more work to our “to-do” list.   We think it means going out and promoting ourselves, selling people on our brand of religion, persuading them that we have something to offer them that is superior to what they might get from the Unitarians, the Buddhists, or the Calvary Bible Fellowship, something that’s even better than sleeping in and reading the Sunday paper at the kitchen table in your bathrobe.  And if that’s what it means to be engaged in mission, I’m with you—no thank you very much.
But what if our Christian mission today were the continuation of the journey that Jesus sent his disciples out to make, before there was a church institution to worry about, or rival denominational bodies, or even a book called the Bible?  What if its essence were to be humanly, physically present to others, as a stranger seeking friendship with strangers?  And what if the point of connection, the field of communication and invitation, were nothing other than our own authentic needs, both our deepest spiritual hunger and our ordinary physical thirst?   What if our mission to our neighbors was not to supply them with what we have that they lack, but to call out of them gifts that they didn’t know they had because no one ever asked for them before?
 It is an intriguing possibility to consider, because it makes mission an encounter at the level of equality, and places at the center of it the common human questions about what we really need.  And yet we also have to recognize that this honesty about our needs is not a license to puff up for ourselves an over-blown sense of unworthiness, or to wear a lovingly-polished humility as a badge of pride.  Because Jesus does not send his missionaries out to beg.  They are almost empty-handed, but they do carry one thing with them, one thing that gives them the confidence and the authority to engage the world in a conversation it scarcely knew it needed to have.  They carry, says the Gospel of Matthew, a name, the name of “disciple.”
It is a name that means “one who follows a teacher.”  And this is the testimony that I think even we reticent and reserved Episcopalians are called upon to give, if we are to be the missionaries that all Christians are meant, in some sense, to be.   Not testimony that we are “saved.”   Not that Jesus helped us kick the habit, or got us out of debt.  Not that we have some special spiritual gift, or esoteric knowledge, or infallible doctrine.  Not that we are holier, or wiser, or kinder, or more wretched and penitent, than anybody else.  
But just the testimony that we are disciples, people who want to be a part of the community that throughout the ages and all over the world seeks to understand Jesus’ teachings, and apply them, to follow his example, and celebrate his sacraments, and have faith in his promises.  And also testimony that this is the way we have found that seems to speak to our souls’ most pressing needs.  Oh—and one more thing!...We could sure use your help.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Playing with fire

On the day of Pentecost, says the book of Acts, the disciples of Jesus “were all together in one place.”  And that “together” is a prelude to what happens next.  Because the sudden sound of a howling wind from heaven brings people running to them from every direction.  They come rushing together into that same place, and when they get there we see that a kind of United Nations has spontaneously broken out.  And just like at the United Nations, where the delegates put on their headphones and listen to the simultaneous interpreters in the back room, these people all hear the same speech, but each of them hears it in his or her own native tongue.  

But you notice that as soon as the extraordinary experience is over, they all turn to each other and start conversing normally about what has happened.  And then Peter stands up, and addresses all of them together at once, and quotes at length from the Bible.  He can do this because they all know the Bible in the same translation, and they share a single language that all of them can understand.  It is the common language of business and government, of science, philosophy, and literature, of magic and religion.  It is called Greek.   

Greek was the language of a unity enforced from above, imposed on the peoples of the Eastern Mediterranean by a conquering empire.  But in the flaming tongues of the Holy Spirit, these pilgrims and residents of Jerusalem experience a new possibility—a unity of the heart.  The “all together in one place” of the Jesus community opens up and invites them to enter a new world.  And this invitation comes to each of them, individually, in a way that reminds them of home.

I once had a girlfriend from Germany.  More precisely, she was from East Germany, and she had come to Berkeley to study theology a couple of years after the wall came down.   We met during the final year of her graduate fellowship, and when it was over she decided to return home.  She had already determined that she would not go on to get her doctorate.  And she was an only child, estranged from her parents, so I asked her why on earth she would want to go back to the grimy, depressed, post-Stalinist world she had grown up in when she could remain in California with me.  And she told me how homesick she was for the German language.  As a theologian and lover of poetry, her true home was not a place, but the sounds and the meanings of her mother tongue.  

This first part of the Pentecost story appeals to us today.  “Diversity” is a positive watchword of our culture, and the “spirituality” that is not “religious” believes that languages as diverse as psychology, physics, and the world’s varied sacred traditions all say essentially the same thing.  But while it is the new orthodoxy that we must tolerate each other’s differences, and there are no differences that really matter, real unity seems far beyond our grasp. 

Even on Pentecost Day, there were those in the crowd who were cynical and scornful of what they had seen and heard.  That’s when Peter stands and refers the crowd back to their common story.  He quotes to them from memory their sacred scriptures, in the Greek translation they all know.  And he says that the ancient promise of God is coming true, the promise of the pouring out of God’s Spirit, making prophets of everyone, young and old, men and women, even slaves.  And again we hear this and it makes us feel good, because it seems very egalitarian and progressive, just the kind of collective spiritual experience we would want to have. 
But Peter keeps going with his quotation from scripture.  Because in this prophecy the Spirit that is promised to all people is not an isolated thing; it is but one part of a greater fulfillment—the coming of the great and glorious day of the Lord.   “What you have just experienced,” says Peter to the crowd, “is a sign of the times, a harbinger of the climax of God’s saving acts in history, and the promised judgment of the world.”  If only Peter had stopped a verse or too sooner, because this is a promise that sounds to us like more of a threat, the kind of thing that makes “spiritual but not religious” people shudder, and religious people, well, embarrassed.  

But that is because we imagine that God’s judgment is like ours.  We like to think we are tolerant, but we have judged the world and found it guilty, so we assume that God will do the same.   We judge the world and find it guilty, when we see the needless suffering of the innocent and the folly of the mighty and shrug our shoulders and say, “what can you do?”  We judge it guilty when we accept our own simplistic explanations for the actions of our enemies, and refuse to consider that they might have reasons for the things they do and say.  We judge the world and condemn it when we have no hope for its future, and pray to escape to some other, better, one in the great beyond.  

But I think that deep down in many of us, maybe all of us, is the longing for resolution, the hope for real unity.  We live in a world of conflicts—over power and money, and market-share, over water, and land, and minerals; conflicts over the interpretation of law and memory and sacred text; over borders, and who belongs on which side of them; over who is the bigger victim, and who got more love from Mom, and who’s to blame when something goes wrong.  But in this welter of conflicted nations, and sexes, and religions, of conflicted persons, with conflicted thoughts and conflicted feelings, there are some who still hope for authoritative judgment to decide what is right for everyone, and what needs to be done.

The Holy Spirit is the power of that judgment, already at work in the world.  For Peter and the disciples, it is the Spirit that was in Jesus, and according to the Gospel of John, he gave it to them on Easter night.   They are in their little upper room, hiding from the world in fear, and he comes to them, and to their conflicted hearts his word is “peace.”  In that peace sends them, as he was sent, not to condemn the world, but that it might be saved.  And so they can carry on his messianic work, Jesus breathes the Holy Spirit on them, giving them the power of judgment.  "Receive the Holy Spirit,” he says, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained."

We Christians have tended to treat forgiveness as if it were a law to be obeyed.  But to forgive without making a judgment is to refuse the gift of the Holy Spirit.  It is to scorn the mighty act of God that Pentecost reveals in tongues of many lands—that in Christ God entrusts the loving judgment of the world to human hands.   The kind of forgiveness that flows from the wounds of Christ is not a magic wand that we wave over situations of injustice, of cruelty and pain, and say “all is forgotten.”  It is forgiveness founded on the power of the Spirit to move hearts of stone to repentance.  It is about the restoration of broken relationships and the healing of the soul.

The judgment of the world is worship in Spirit and in Truth, and this requires that some sins be retained.  Not so that they can be punished—that is exactly the kind of self-righteous hypocrisy Jesus condemned so fiercely—but so that they can be forgiven.  Because without the acknowledgment that sin has been committed, and harm has been done, forgiveness never comes.  We remember the things that were done and we remember that they are sins, because this is the judgment that saves the world. 

This judgment is a grave responsibility, that falls on us as we bring it to bear on others, and if you don’t feel a sense of awe in the face of this power, I fear for you.  To accept it is to play with fire.  It can get you killed, and it can turn you into a monster.  To use it wisely requires tremendous humility, and patience, and total surrender to the wisdom of God.  But it is in this judgment that that we will come at last to the unity that all people, from every land, have sought for a thousand generations, the unity of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.    

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Bound for Glory

The glory of God, as the bible talks about it, is not a fact “about” God that we can use or not as we see fit.  It is not an “attribute of God” as a philosopher of religion might say, trying to describe what God is like.  Strange to say, the bible is not interested in describing God.  Rather, the bible is about the glory of God, and that is something that transforms the ones to whom it is revealed.  It awakens a response of the whole person, the whole community—a response of praise, of thanksgiving, of awe and joy and worship, of obedience and love. The glory of God shows us how much glory of our own we have to give. 
That’s why we sing in church, “Glory to God in the highest.”  Glory is not just something we can receive, it is something we can give.    So the essential question that the bible puts to us as human beings is, “to whom will you give your glory?”  Will you return it to the giver, to the one who is truly glorious?  Or will you give it to something lesser?  Will you follow the fallen angels and the ruler of this world, who try to keep the glory of God for themselves?  

When we talk about Jesus, about what makes him the Messiah, the Son of the Father, Christ the Lord, we very often say that he, unique among human beings, was without sin.   But the Gospel of John offers us a different vocabulary for thinking about Jesus, and it is all about glory.  John announces this in the prologue at the very beginning of his story, when he says, “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father.”  And after the wedding in Cana of Galilee, where Jesus changes water into wine, John adds that this was “the first of his signs,” that “manifested his glory; and his disciples believed in him.”

And if we also believe in him, it is not because we believe this or that thing about him.  We believe in him because of his glory, that brings the presence of God to us.  When we say, before the reading of the gospel at every celebration of the Eucharist, “Glory to you, Lord Christ,” we are not praising a book, or even the words in the book, but the presence we sense in the words.  We are saying that, listening to these words of Jesus, we are beholding life and truth.  We are on the way that leads to the fullness of presence, that we have a foretaste of in our sacramental celebration, where together we ascend into heaven, and unite with the chorus of angels singing “Holy, holy, holy Lord, God of Power and Might.  Heaven and Earth are full of your Glory.” 

Today we come to that part of the gospel of John where Jesus is ready to complete his work, by giving over everything that a human being can receive of the glory of God.  This he will do on the cross.  But before he does, he prays that the Father will receive his gift, and give him an even greater one, the glory of the Father himself.  And this God will do, by raising him from the dead, and exalting him to heaven.  We are now 43rd days from Easter.  It has taken us six weeks to get to this point, where we can understand just how far Christ’s resurrection takes us.  Because when Jesus prays to share the glory of God the Father, it is not for his sake, but for ours.   From now on, those who know the name of Jesus Christ, who keep his word, and believe that the Father sent him, will be the glory of God in the world.  And they will do this, says Jesus, when they are one, as the Son and the Father are one.

I spent last Wednesday and Thursday in the company of our Bishop, and the priests and deacons of our Episcopal Diocese of Northern California.  And I am happy to be able to report to you that the desire to be one, as the Son and the Father are One, is alive and well in this diocese.  It was manifest in the friendship and collegiality among the clergy, and between the clergy and the bishop.  The perspective I got was of a church that has ridden out the storms of conflict over biblical authority and human sexuality, and now desires something more than an end to hostilities—more unity, greater interrelatedness, a deeper sense of purpose, to glorify Christ for the sake of the world the Father sent him to save. 

In his informal report on Wednesday evening about what he’s been up to and thinking about, the Bishop told us about a church-wide conference that he attended in April in Memphis, called Reclaiming the Gospel of Peace.  It is part of a growing sense in the church that we need to speak out in response to our nation’s epidemic of self-inflicted violence.  And Bishop Beisner brought back from Memphis an invitation to send youth from every part of our diocese to join a pilgrimage taking place next summer in North Carolina, along the route of the Freedom Rides of the Civil Rights movement.  And if we decide we want to, and this first pilgrimage is a success, there will be an opportunity to join another, in the summer of 2016, which is going to Auschwitz.  The purpose of these pilgrimages will be to engage our whole diocese in supporting and learning from these young people as they become formed as ministers of reconciliation.

In a meeting of the clergy of the Russian River Deanery, the geographical subsection of our diocese that stretches from Sonoma and Petaluma in the south, to Fort Bragg and Willits in the north, we rediscovered our strong mutual interest in working together to support initiatives we cannot carry out on our own.  Among other potential arenas of collaboration we talked about supporting the Latino ministry currently centered at St. Paul’s, Healdsburg, and expanding it to other parts of the deanery.  I came away from that meeting with an invitation to preside at a girl’s traditional QuinceaƱera service in Healdsburg on August 9, where I will lead the Eucharist in Spanish for the first time in my life.

These are only two of the exciting possibilities that I heard about at the clergy conference, but they are enough to give you the gist of whole event.  And all this came along at a moment when I, personally, am quite tired.  It has been a long run from Ash Wednesday, and I’m ready for some summer vacation.  But when I think about these opportunities, even along with all the good work that we are already doing here at St. John’s, I get energized.  I think that is because this week showed me something about the church I’ve never quite understood before.  In the church we love the world, and our impulse to seek unity across barriers of race, religion, language, class, and even species, is how we give our glory to what God has made.  But it’s hard to know if we are going about it the right way.  Some of the projects that we talked about at the clergy conference may never get out of the starting gate.  They may never fulfill the potential we can imagine for them now.

But the real work of the church is not to improve society.  It is to bring the world our witness to its glory, as we have seen it in Christ.  We can only do this united, in an attitude of worship.  Our unity in prayer is our basis of hope for reconciliation, and healing, and peace, which is what we have to offer to the world.  When we are together in this way, we can dare to try almost anything, and it may succeed beyond our wildest dreams, or it may fail miserably.  We may even, as First Peter says, be reviled and suffer, but still we are blessed, because we know that our brothers and sisters in all the world are undergoing the same kinds of suffering.  Besides, being a smash hit and admired by everyone wasn’t what we set out to do anyway.  So there’s no reason to be anxious about any of it, because our only real purpose was to be united in giving Glory to God.   


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.