Sunday, December 20, 2015

Declaring victory

First of all, I just want to thank all of you who came to my party, and those who helped put it on, and who contributed to getting such a generous birthday gift for me and my family.  But now it’s time to move on, so I’d like to talk about someone else…my daughter.  Every month, McKinley Elementary School, picks a positive “character trait,” and gives awards to children who exemplify that quality.  Early last week, Risa’s mother and I got an email from her teacher, inviting us to a school assembly at 8:30 on Friday morning to see Risa receive a student-of-the-month award for December’s virtue of “compassion.” It was going to be a surprise, so I didn’t say anything when I dropped Risa off at school, but sat in the car for ten minutes finishing up my breakfast.  Then Meg, who had driven separately so as not to arouse suspicion, arrived, and we slipped quietly into the back of the multi-purpose room, where the students were already assembled. 
After the conclusion of a brief recital by the Advanced Band, Mr. Taylor, the principal, went up to the podium and began the presentation of student-of-the-month awards.  It quickly became apparent that this was not as exclusive an honor as I had thought.  Mr. Taylor started with one of the fourth-grade classes and called out a girl’s name.  She walked up on the stage and he read the paragraph of endorsement written by her teacher and handed her a certificate.  Then she went and collected a prize from a couple of sixth-grade girls standing there, and took her place on the steps of the stage, facing the audience.  Then a second student from the same teacher’s class was called up to receive her student-of-the-month award. 
By the time Mr. Taylor called Risa’s name, there were at least a dozen students-of-the-month already standing on the steps, holding their certificates.  Clearly compassion is not in short supply at McKinley Elementary.   Still, I couldn’t help cracking a big smile as she walked up to receive her reward, and listened to the glowing words her teacher had written.  My heart swelled with a feeling I suppose you might call “pride,” if our tradition didn’t single pride out as a sin.  It was not a feeling of superiority over other parents because of the accomplishments of my child.  But when we see our children, or grandchildren, or just children in our community whom we know and love, beginning to unfold their own destinies and make their own impact in the world, I think it’s natural to feel gratitude for who this person is, and to wonder who she will become.  And in that wonder there is also hope for the future of the world.

The Gospel of Luke this morning describes a meeting of two women for whom that wonder and hope begins before their sons are even born.  Because neither of them has any business conceiving a child at all.  Elizabeth has been infertile, and is now advanced in age past normal childbearing years.  While Mary, is an even more unlikely candidate for motherhood, for reasons I’m sure most of you know about.   Their pregnancies are miraculous, the handiwork of God, and in both cases a messenger of God has come to visit, to announce the holy purpose, and the name, of the child who is to come.  But it is one thing to hear a promise, and another to see it fulfilled.  And it is one thing to listen to a messenger of God, and it is another to become one.
When the angel first appeared and hailed Mary as the one favored by the Lord, she was perplexed and asked herself, “What can this greeting mean?”  And when he told her that she would conceive and bear the Son of God, the heir of David, to rule over Israel forever, she asked him, as anyone would in her situation, “How can this be?”  And after she does, in fact, become pregnant, it’s not hard to imagine her wonder and amazement turning into doubt.  Elizabeth’s pregnancy might have made her neighbors shake their heads in disbelief, but still they would have met her with smiles and laughter, and warm congratulations.  But Mary can look forward to neighbors who cluck their tongues in scorn, to cold stares and scandalized whispers that follow her wherever she goes.  
We can imagine her sense of loneliness, as the implications of what she has agreed to sink in.  She needs someone she can talk to, someone she can trust, an older, wiser friend, whose support she can count on.  So she goes to the hill country of Judea to visit her cousin Elizabeth.  And as soon as she gets there, in the very moment when she sees her cousin and says hello, something happens that confirms the truth of what the angel said, something that tells Mary that she is not crazy, and she is not alone.  The child in Elizabeth’s womb leaps for joy, and Elizabeth is filled with the Holy Spirit.
Elizabeth is filled with the Holy Spirit, and the Gospel has already told us, through the mouth of the angel Gabriel, that it is the Holy Spirit who overshadows Mary with the power of God as she conceives her child.  This section of Luke is dense with allusions to the Hebrew Scriptures, and maybe we see echoes in this description of the Creator spirit, who brooded over the deep at the beginning of time.  And now here is the Holy Spirit who speaks through the prophets.   Elizabeth is inspired with insight and clarity, to see with her own eyes things only God can see, to know things only God knows, and to cry these things aloud.
The work of the Spirit is not only to create the world, not only to give the words of prophecy; it also passes from heart to heart with the fire of communion in love.  Elizabeth blesses Mary, and the Spirit passes to her, and Mary responds with her own inspired prophetic song.  The great rabbi Heschel said that the Hebrew prophet shares in the pathos, the pain, of God at the injustice and oppression and affliction of his people.  So, more often than not, the prophet’s speech takes the form of accusation, judgment, and lament.  But there is also in our tradition a thin but unmistakable thread of prophetesses, who sing songs of exultation in the victory of God.  It begins with another Miriam, the sister of Moses, whose triumphant song on the shores of the Red Sea is thought to be the oldest scrap of text in the Bible.  This song is carried on by heroines like Deborah and Hannah, Judith and Susannah, and so passes on to the lips of this Miriam, the mother of the Lord.
And while the male prophets often answer their call with reluctance, and terror at being chosen to bear bad news to the powerful, the Song of Mary rings with confidence and strength.  It is an ecstatic expression of joy that goes far beyond that of a woman hoping great things for her first-born child.  Hers is the song of every soul has been lifted up from despair and degradation by the power and mercy of God.   It resounds with the hope that animates all the prophecy of Israel, that God will remember his promise of justice and restore the rightful balance of the world.  And instead of lamenting the sorrows of her people, or calling them angrily to repentance, Mary sings triumphantly of a promise of deliverance that is already fulfilled.
The Magnificat of Mary is one of a very small handful of the core liturgical texts of the church.  In our Prayer Book it is the canticle of daily Evening Prayer, but it is also beloved in Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and many other traditions.  So one can safely say that someone, somewhere in the world, is chanting it in every moment of every day, an unceasing recitation that has gone on for centuries.  If our minds were quiet enough, maybe we could hear it—a strong and steady pulse of hope, nourishing the infant heartbeat of a new and different world.  After all, the church, says the tradition, is a “she.”  She is mother church, and daughter Zion, and the bride of Christ.  So maybe the church is most truly herself when she is singing to her little ones, in the prisons and brothels and refugee camps, in the factories and fields, in the slums and shantytowns, the homeless shelters and hospitals, and on the battlegrounds—singing to her little ones of the favor and mercy, and the victory of their God.

Feel the sun

Zephaniah 3:14-20
Canticle 9
Philippians 4:4-7
Luke 3:7-18

Today, after the 10 o’clock service, the people of this church are throwing me a party to celebrate my fiftieth birthday, which was also the tenth anniversary of my ordination to the priesthood.  I say “was” because the actual date was December 3rd, ten days ago.  So, I already received birthday wishes from many of you, and had my birthday blessing prayer.  Which makes it’s a little awkward, for someone who grew up in a family where drawing too much attention to oneself was considered a cardinal sin, that we are still celebrating my birthday.  But my wife has issued me several stern warnings over the past couple of weeks that I must be gracious and appreciative about it.  And really, the warnings aren’t necessary, I am appreciative and grateful.  I really am touched. 
Because all of us want to be remembered, and noticed, and cared for, and I’m no different from anyone else in that regard.  Turning fifty is a big deal, and if I had a friend who was doing it, I’d want to throw a party, too, and I wouldn’t care if the most convenient date was ten days after.  So my friends are doing for me what they would do for any other friend.  That is the way I’m looking at it, and I should be content to leave it that.   But, of course, it’s not quite that simple, because I am not simply your friend, I am also your priest.  And because I am, I feel obliged to say that, even as I enjoy the love and attention, and can say that I deserve it as much as anyone else does, I also know I don’t deserve it more.  Every one of you is as essentially important, as worthy of honor and respect, as deserving of a special birthday celebration as I am.  Maybe even a little more.
Because if I am your friend, and I think of you all that way, it is also in part my job.  It’s my job to pray for you, and listen compassionately to your troubles, and visit you when you are lonely or sick.  It’s my job to be kind and encouraging and supportive, and to give alms to the poor.  I have this whole working environment here that is set up for me to do these things.  So I get a lot of credit from folks for just doing my job.  But all of you have to do these things in your spare time, on top of working at your day jobs, and tending to your families, and all your other responsibilities.  You have to figure out how to be Christians in all different kinds of circumstances, some of which are a lot less conducive to it than being here at the church all the time, surrounded by stained-glass windows and people who know that, here, at least, they are supposed to be nice to each other.
And there’s something else I feel duty bound to say, as your priest and as your friend, because part of my job is also to be, in my own small way, like John the Baptizer.  It is my job to point away from myself, and tell you to look for another.  Because as honored and grateful as I am to be your priest, I am not your priest—not really.  I am not your pastor, your teacher, or the head of this community.  I can tell you to get ready, to throw off the things that hold you back, and put on your traveling shoes, but I cannot take you where God wants you to go.  That role belongs to someone else, whose coming is our great hope, our deep longing, and our hearts desire. I need him as much as you do.

Luke’s gospel says that all kinds of people came out to see John at the Jordan, hoping to be forgiven and make a fresh start.  And it mentions two kinds of people in particular—tax collectors and soldiers.  Why tax collectors and soldiers?  Well it can’t be a coincidence that both are what one might call “collaborators.”  They are tools of the Roman regime of domination of the Jewish homeland—lower level cogs in the unjust, unrighteous, ungodly machinery of oppression.  So, maybe it’s a little bit surprising that when they ask John what they should do, he doesn’t tell them to quit their jobs.  He doesn’t tell them to rebel and overthrow the rotten system.  John seems to understand that they may not be able to change the necessary evils that lead them to do the kind of work they have to do.  Not everyone is cut out to be a prophet and live in the desert on locusts and wild honey.  But even in these less-than-perfect circumstances, they can still conduct themselves with integrity.  The tax collectors don’t have to overcharge, and skim some off the top; the soldiers don’t have to run a protection racket.
The opportunity for repentance that John is offering is for everyone.  It is not the prerogative of some exclusive group, and it doesn’t depend on having just the right set of circumstances.  Yesterday afternoon I came back from a few days at a Benedictine monastery at the far south end of Big Sur.  But even though it is in an almost unbelievably beautiful and isolated place, a thousand feet up on the knees of the Santa Lucia Mountains, looking out over the endless sea, the world, with its compromises and imperfections, followed me there.   The thunder of the waves breaking on the rocks is mingled with the sounds of the highway that is the lifeline of the monastery, maintained by a small army of laborers and engineers and a fortune in taxpayer’s money.  The monastery driveway winds for two miles steeply up through a beautiful wild garden of native coastal scrub, but here and there large sections are completely overrrun with invasive, exotic pampas grass.
The imperfect world met me there, and it came there with me.  On arrival, I checked in at the gift shop, which is full of beautiful art, recordings of ethereal music, and books—shelf upon shelf of wise and illuminating books.  One such book caught my eye within five minutes of my being in the place, and the desire to possess it, and the turning back forth in my mind the question of whether I would buy it, lingered with me the whole time I was there.  It disturbed my meditations, like so many other covetous and envious and impatient thoughts, as three times a day I sat in the chapel, while the monks, who have renounced all worldly gain to commit their lives to prayer and charity, asked God for the forgiveness of their sins, and mercy on their souls.
John the Baptist says there is one coming who is mightier than he.  But he also admits that he is not worthy to untie the thong of that one’s sandals, so maybe John doesn’t understand what his might is really like.   John came with the baptism of water to wash away the stink and stain of gross corruption.  But if you’ve ever plunged deep into a cold river pool, you know that when you come up again out of the water, you don’t want to be under a cloud.  You want to feel the sun.  Maybe the one who is coming won’t carry out John’s threats of wrathful judgment.  Maybe he comes to baptize with the fire of the sun; the one and only sun who brightens every eye, and warms every heart, who continually bathes the whole earth in its light, giving life to all things.
That is why his coming does not fill us with fear, but with joy.  “Rejoice,” says the Letter to the Philippians, “again I say, rejoice.  The Lord is near.”  “Sing aloud, O daughter Zion,” says the prophet Zephaniah, “Rejoice and exult with all your heart, the LORD is in your midst; you shall fear disaster no more.”  The justice that John teaches is incomplete and provisional, and so it needs the threat of punishment.  But the Messiah’s justice is perfect, because it heals and reconciles.  He will not destroy unfruitful people, but burn away unfruitful thoughts, twisted inclinations, the mistaken understandings that squander the true giftedness of human life.  He will purify the desires of his people, so they turn of their free will toward the warmth and brightness of God that dawns within.  And then they will be done with waiting, done with making do, and good enough for now; alive with the Messiah’s Spirit, they will bear fruit for the life of the world.  

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Clear the road

Zephaniah 3:14-20
Canticle 9
Philippians 4:4-7
Luke 3:7-18

A week ago Friday we had the cable company in to the parish office to upgrade our internet service with some new hardware that is supposed to make everything move faster.  And, as always seems to be the case with these technical improvements, there were unexpected complications.  We came in on Tuesday to find that the Treasurer’s computer, which is plugged directly into the new router, was working just fine, but the computers that connect wirelessly from the other offices were unable to get internet access.  Fortunately, we had Scott the Information Technology guy coming in that day to work on another problem, so while he was at it he managed to straighten out the bugs in the wireless networking. 
At least, that is what we thought he done.  But it turns out one problem still remains, which only became apparent after Scott had gone.  You see, my laptop doesn’t only connect wirelessly with the internet router in the Treasurer’s office, it also connects to a wireless printer on the filing cabinet next to my desk, and while my computer can now communicate quite nicely to the internet, it is somehow no longer on speaking terms with my printer.   Now, I’m no geek, or at least not that kind, but I can sometimes figure these things out on my own, so I gave it a shot.  But after a couple of hours the best I could come up with was the printer’s network configuration utility telling me over and over that my computer and my printer were connected to different networks.  And as many times as I re-tried the process, entering the names of all the different wireless networks that were available, I kept getting the same result.  So I guess we’ll have to get Scott back out here again to see what he can do.

In the meantime, this image of two different, incompatible networks has stuck with me, because that is kind of like what the Gospel of Luke describes at the outset of chapter three.  First, it tells us about the network of political and religious power that dominates the world of the story it is about to tell—the Roman Emperor Tiberius, his governor of Judea, Pontius Pilate, the sons of Herod the Great, who are the proxy rulers of the Judean hinterlands, and the High Priests at the top of the temple hierarchy in Jerusalem.  It is an uneasy set of alliances that binds these men together, one that rivalry, ambition, and mistrust continually threaten to break apart, but all of them are, in a sense, on the same wavelength.  They have a common interest in maintaining the network that keeps them in power.
But these political figures are not the main players in the drama that is about to unfold.  Some of them will play minor parts in the story later, but just at the moment they are only here to set the historical stage for John, the son of Zechariah, who has no throne, no territory over which he rules, no place in the structure of empire.  John is out in the wilderness.  But it is out there in the desert that something comes to John that connects him to a network of power and information entirely different from the one we just heard about.   The word of God comes to John, just as it came to Isaiah and the other prophets who were before him, with its revolutionary message to the world.
I don’t know about you, but there are few things that frustrate me more than a computer problem.  It throws off the pace of my working routine, and puts a drain on my productivity.  I want to get it worked out as quickly as possible, and have a hard time concentrating on my other tasks until I do.  But there is no simple fix for the disruption caused by the word of God, no quick resumption of business-as-usual.  Because the message of prophets like John is that we have to repent.  We can’t just get the printer and the laptop talking to each other again, and get back to work.  There’s a stream of data we’ve been ignoring, and people we’ve never heard of, hacking into the system we thought was secure.  They say it’s time to connect to a whole different network, time to make a complete change of plan, because God is on the move. 
God is on the move, and if there’s anything more frustrating than a computer glitch it’s a traffic jam.  We will go miles out of our way, even if takes just as long to get where we’re going, if it means that at least we can keep moving.  And what John the son of Zechariah says is that God doesn’t like traffic congestion either.  God’s not going to put up with lanes closed for road construction, or blocked off for an accident, with cars slowing down to rubberneck at the scene. 
God isn’t planning to take any detours, either.  God is coming, so it’s time to clear the road.  It’s time to fill in the potholes, and shave down the speed bumps, and open the carpool lanes.   Not so that we can go where we want to more quickly and conveniently, but so that God can come speedily to save us.  And when God does come, the prophets say, we’re going to want to be ready, and waiting, to have our heads up and our eyes open and our ears pricked, ready to see the signs and hear the words of our salvation. 
I used to argue for waiting as long as possible to decorate our house for Christmas.  It isn’t a matter of procrastination, but of principle, part of my quixotic quest to preserve the religious calendar, and minimize the intrusion of Christmas into Advent.  I’m also concerned for Christmas itself, that if we bring it on too soon it would go stale before the traditional twelve days of Christmas are done.  But I am outnumbered in this opinion, as in many things at my house nowadays, and either my resistance is wearing down, or I’m just learning to pick my battles.  So yesterday afternoon I went with my family to pick out a Christmas tree. 
I did console myself with a practical rationale, which was this: the trees we usually pick up the weekend before Christmas are all dried out from sitting around the lot so long, so my thinking is that if we get one now, cut a little off the bottom of the stem and kept it watered, it may actually last longer into the Christmas season before it starts turning gray and dropping needles all over the floor.  I guess we’ll see.  And I can report that, in a small victory for my side, we agreed not to decorate the tree immediately.  So for the time being it is standing in its pot of water in the corner of our living room, dark and fragrant, waiting.  Which, as it is, now strikes me as a beautiful symbol of Advent.   So I’m secretly hoping I can stall for a little more time before we pull out the lights and the box of cat toys, otherwise known as ornaments.
But I also have to admit to experiencing something yesterday that took me by surprise, which was that as were out and about getting the tree we saw many other families in the tree lots, doing the same, or driving home with trees in the backs of their trucks or on the roofs of their cars.  And here and there in our neighborhood they were out in their yards, stringing lights on the eaves, and hanging shiny objects on shrubs and doors and fences.  And I had the happy sense of taking part in a collective ritual, two weeks too early though it may have been, a ritual of getting ready.   Which is, after all, what Advent is supposed to be about—getting ready—so I’m not going to say that it’s wrong.

But the prophet in me still does have to ask—what is it we are getting ready for?  Are we simply hanging the scenery, gathering the props, and assembling the costumes, for an annual performance called Christmas, in which we will be the actors and the audience?   If that were the case, would not Tiberius Caesar and Pontius Pilate, Herod, and Caiaphas, feel right at home?  Or are we preparing for something far more beautiful and dangerous, something announced by a strange voice crying out in the wings of the stage—the entrance of 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.