Monday, March 30, 2015

Playing our part

Why, of all the Sundays of the year, is this the one when we do this long dramatic reading of the gospel?  Why is this the one where the congregation enacts the parts?  It’s not for educational purposes.  This is not a historical re-enactment, as there are all kinds of historical problems with the passion gospels.  For one thing, the different versions don’t agree about the details of what happened.  For another, the authors obviously shaped their telling of these events to minimize the fault of the Romans and accentuate the guilt of the Jews; and the problems go on from there.  We also don’t do this for entertainment.  With apologies to everyone who read a part—please, don’t misunderstand me, you were terrific—this wasn’t great theater. 
But there is a reason for doing it, and I’ve been thinking about it again this year, it has struck me that it must be because this story is the climax of each one of the gospels, and in each case it drives home the gospel’s central message—that we are involved.  All of us are responsible.  Now there’s been a tendency over the years for the church to give that responsibility a particular color, the color of guilt.  It has insisted that just as the Jews are guilty, we are too.  This happened to Jesus, the thinking goes, because you pulled your little sister’s hair, and now don’t you feel terrible?   But, while I’m not saying that we should rule out guilt entirely as one response to this story, I’m not sure it is the only or even the best one.  And I don’t think it’s the one that Jesus had in mind.

I imagine Jesus wanted us to be responsible, not out of guilt, but out of faith.  He wanted us to take responsibility the way that he did, by playing the unique part that each of us has to play, that part that only we can play in the great unfolding drama of God’s salvation of the world.  And taking responsibility like that is something you can only teach by example.  So in the final week of Jesus’ life, he didn’t just sit teaching in the temple, taking on all comers and refuting his opponents with his wisdom and his wit.  Because when your mission is to completely deconstruct the way that people understand holiness and power, and give them a radical new vision of God, it’s not enough to make convincing arguments.
 He also performed a number of symbolically-potent acts, to demonstrate what he was talking about in an unforgettable way.  He made gestures that people could re-experience again and again until they began to re-imagine themselves and the world from his vantage point, to understand what he was up to, and be inspired to play their part in carrying on his work.  So the church doesn’t just remember those events—like the parade with the waving palms and the king riding through the gates on a donkey, or the bread and wine and the washing of feet at the supper, or the vigil in the garden, or the way that leads through the streets of the city to the cross—it also participates in them.  It makes these deeds of Jesus central to its teaching and practice, so that the power of his acts, and his imagination, could live in us and set us free.
The drama in the story pivots around the question of who Jesus is—is he the Messiah?  Is he the King of Israel?  Jesus’ knows that the only true answer he can give to those questions is to do the will of God.  Deeds will give the answer, and in the process completely redefine the terms of the question.   I don’t think Jesus ever intended to become king of Israel in the political sense.  He didn’t call himself “Messiah” and rally people around his claim to the throne.  He didn’t mobilize the crowds to storm the temple by force.  And yet I do think he saw himself as having a unique role to play.  He felt called to go to Jerusalem and enter the city in the way that he did, called to go to the temple, and on his own authority to issue a challenge to the rulers of Israel.  He confronted them with a radical alternative vision of what it meant to be the people of God, and he did not pretend that his was just another opinion, compatible with theirs.
In fact, it was a vision that was his and his alone, or only his and God’s.  Even his closest disciples didn’t get it.  The crowd in the streets certainly didn’t—they just wanted to be a part of something big, popular, and unstoppable.  As for Pilate and the Chief Priests and scribes, all they knew, or wanted to know, was that anyone who put forward an idea of how the world ought to be that was different from theirs, let alone taught it to others and inspired them with its truth and power, was an existential threat.  He had to be eliminated—swiftly, efficiently, publicly, and as brutally as possible, as a warning to others.

So Jesus went alone.  One man who, alone of all the people, understood God’s will for the nation.  That knowledge could not be taken from him by betraying him, mocking him, spitting in his face, scourging him, or nailing him to a cross, because it came to him from God.  That is why, after spending the entire Gospel of Mark telling everyone to keep it a secret, it is at the moment when he stands, a prisoner, before the one man who alone may enter the Holy of Holies and represent Israel before God, and the High Priest asks him, “Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed?” Jesus finally says “I am.”  It is here that it is unmistakably clear that only one of these two men has any idea what that really means.
Jesus is king of Israel because he has consented to be Israel: Israel suffering under the humiliation of foriegn idolatry and oppression; Israel sold out by a cynical, self-serving elite; Israel beset by false messiahs preaching violence and hate; Israel abandoned and sentenced to death, yet still crying out for justice to her God.  Jesus takes personal responsibility, in this hopeless situation, for hope: hope the moral strength to bear witness to the truth in love; hope in the ultimate victory of God over evil and injustice; hope that the smallest act of a single person, done with integrity, freedom, and loving obedience to God, has more power to change the world than an entire nation of fearful men who are just following orders.  Jesus is powerful because you don’t have to be powerful to do what he does.  You only need faith, and hope, and love. 
 Not that you have to go riding into Jerusalem at the head of crowd, or hang upon a cross.  But you can’t know ahead of time, one you start on the way of Jesus, exactly where it’s going to take you.  And even in our everyday, comfortable, middle-class American lives, in our relationships with spouses, and parents, and friends, in our roles as workers, as church members, and as citizens, there are times when we don’t say what needs to be said.  There are times we are passive when we know we have to act.  We don’t ask for what we need, or stand up for what is true, because we’re afraid to be rejected or abused, and because we doubt ourselves.  We doubt our worth, and whether we deserve what we’re asking for.  We doubt our own authority to know what we know.  And we doubt we have the power to make a difference. 
But the gospel of the passion of Jesus invites us to speak up, to act out, for his sake.  He is worthy, even if we are not.  His words are true, even if ours are not.  His is the power and authority of the Christ, our true king and great High Priest, and he shares his office with everyone who walks the way of his humanity.  We are citizens of his kingdom, not because of any particular group we belong to, or belief we espouse, or rule of life we follow, but by faith in the grace of God. 
The grace of that faith is the strength, the patience, the willingness to play the part that is ours alone, that no one else can play for us.  Jesus put that faith on public display for us on the cross, and so we dedicate our effort, our suffering, our gifts, and our achievements to the merit of his unsurpassable self-offering.  We honor him as Christ and Lord, because that is the role God chose him for, and his faithfulness in playing it out, all the way to end, is our inspiration and our goal.   

Could you be loved?

By the time I knew who Bob Marley was, it was too late.  Funny thing was, I had my chance to see him.  On November 4, 1979 he played two shows at Memorial Auditorium in Burlington, Vermont.  You can buy an original poster for the concerts for a thousand dollars on the internet.  But at the time the tickets sold for $7.50.  I was a sophomore in High School, not quite fourteen years old, and not yet in the habit of going to rock concerts.  And Bob Marley was not a rock musician, exactly.  He and his band, the Wailers, played reggae, music from the urban slums of Kingston, the capital of Jamaica, that fused American Soul, Gospel, and Rhythm and Blues, with traditional folk music from the countryside with deep roots in African culture. 
I read about that in the free weekly paper, the Vermont Vanguard, which published an interview to promote the concerts.  It was the first I’d heard of him, and I was intrigued.  But I didn’t drive yet, and neither did any of my friends; there was no bus out to where we lived, 15 miles from Burlington, and the 4th of November was a school night.  So I didn’t go, but I might have made more of an effort if I’d known then what I soon came to know.  I didn’t know that Bob Marley was a legendary live performer who was on his way to becoming a global superstar.  I didn’t know that the following year my brother Ben was going to go away to boarding school and come back for Christmas a fan. 
When I found out about that, I bought Ben a cassette tape of the album Survival and put it under the tree, but it turned out he already had it, and he gave it back to me.  I still remember putting it into a little portable tape player one Saturday morning to listen to while I did my weekly chores.  It was unlike any music I’d ever heard before, and I didn’t know what to make of it at first.  But I kept listening, and pretty soon I was playing it over and over again.  It wasn’t long after that I went over to my friend Fred’s house and discovered that his mother had a bunch of Bob Marley and the Wailers records.  So I rode my bike to Burlington the next weekend, and bought a bunch of blank cassettes, and I taped every one of those albums.  Over the following months I spent the money I earned mowing lawns at the record store, filling in the rest my collection. 
I might have made more of an effort to get to the Bob Marley concert that night if I’d known he was about to die.  I was on the staff of the high school newspaper by then, and I wrote a heartfelt obituary and we published it, bordered in black.  The chance I’d missed, to see him in person, would never come again.  But in the long run, his impact on my life wasn’t any less because of it.   Unlike most of the music I was a fan of in those days, I still listen to Bob Marley.  It makes me proud and happy that now my wife and daughter like him, too.  I guess that’s because the messages that made his songs so meaningful to me when I was a teenager still matter to me today—loving and giving thanks to God, brotherhood and sisterhood with all human beings; outrage and sorrow at violence, injustice, and war; faith in the power of truth to overcome greed and delusion; championing the right of the poor to stand up and resist their oppressors; joyful celebration of love, culture, community, and the basic goodness of life.

The Gospel of John doesn’t say whether the Greeks who came to Jerusalem for the Passover ever got to see Jesus in person.  It seems like they didn’t.  And maybe in the short run, it felt to them like a missed opportunity and a grave disappointment.  But events were moving quickly for Jesus at that time, according to a different agenda than the one those Greeks had in mind.  The time when they asked to see him was exactly the moment for Jesus to begin the final movement of his destiny.  The things that those Greeks were hoping to get from him—new insight into the working of God in the world and in their lives, a transforming experience of the power of truth and love to overcome alienation and despair—these things were about to become available to them and to everyone, in a new way that did not depend on being in his physical presence.
But in order for that to happen Jesus had to die.  Why that is, and how that works, and what that means, are questions that never go away.  They are involved with the questions about why there is so much evil and suffering in the world, and what is the purpose of human life, and why things never measure up to the potential we can see they have.  I think the church has sometimes done a disservice with its overly tidy explanations for all of this, and how it is that Jesus’ being “lifted up” on the cross speaks to the heart of the matter.  We have held these questions at a safe distance, for philosophical analysis and theological speculation, or we have smothered them with pious sentimentality. 
What is clear and indisputable is that Greeks did embrace the Gospel of Jesus, by dozens, and then by hundreds, and thousands, and hundreds of thousands.  And so did Romans and Syrians, Egyptians and Mesopotamians, Ethiopians and Arabs, and Irish and Mexicans and Chinese.  Why a religion that centers on the agonizing public execution of its founder could spread across the world like this is another puzzle that people like to try to solve.  They explain it in terms of social psychology and cultural anthropology, comparative religion and politics.   But maybe the most satisfactory explanation is the simplest one—that people simply recognize it as true.
The death of Jesus tells us something true about this world we live in and about ourselves.  It tears away the veil from the ruler of the world, revealing the terror and violence behind the lofty propaganda, idolatrous religion, and mockeries of peace and justice.  It shows us how we acquiesce to these manipulations, how we crave the security of the herd, and love to be told that we are the ones who play by the rules, and so we are the ones who deserve the rewards.   It shows us how the spirit that lays false claim to rule the world holds sway in our own hearts, seeking to be admired and honored, seeing rivals and enemies everywhere, loving to play the game of blame and shame, because the humiliation of another is the best defense against our own.  The cross is this world’s moment of truth, and as much as we might want to shrink from it, there is something in us that recognizes it for what it is.
This attracts us, because deep down we long to be free.  And the world’s captivity to sin and death is only part of the truth that Jesus knew.  The other side of the truth is that the world is worth dying for.  Because all pretensions of the false ruler of the world aside, it is God’s creation.  God, who is the only source of its life and light, loves this world and means to save it.  The Gospels tell us that the Jesus understood this and gave himself completely to the truth of it, letting the Spirit of healing, liberating, and recreating the world be his guide in all things.  It wasn’t like he wanted to be crucified, but he knew what he was up against well enough to realize that that was where he was headed.  And he was willing to go, if that was what it would take to show the world that only love and truth and faith in God can save us.
Jesus tells the crowd that “now is the judgment of this world” but that hour is always now.  He is the seed that fell into the ground and died, so that he would bear fruit in countless men and women like you and me.  He is always lifted up before us, drawing us to himself, calling us to see the true glory of the world, which is his path of love and service. The choice is always ours.
 In the immortal words of the great Robert Nesta Marley,
“Could you be loved?  Then be loved.”


Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Something to do with Jesus

I’ve been leading a class for the past six weeks or so on a book called the Wisdom Jesus.  It puts forward an image of Jesus as a teacher of the way of inner transformation that leads to higher consciousness.   A lot of people have responded very positively to this book, and the attendance at these classes has been the highest of any I’ve done at St. John’s.   We’re now in part 3, which presents contemporary approaches to ancient wisdom practices—some things you can actually do to follow in the way that Jesus taught.   And we’ve been spending a good part of each class doing these practices—not just talking, for instance, about Centering Prayer meditation, but practicing a twenty minute period of silent meditation together, and then having a conversation about our experience.
Last Sunday we did a form of Lectio Divina, a traditional way of slowly and sensitively digesting the scriptures.   And through the week as I was preparing to teach the class, I came back a few times to the problem of which scripture to pick for us to read.  I thought in passing about some personal favorites, but I didn’t have a lot of time to spend on making this decision, so, finally, I decided the best thing would be to just go to the Lectionary Page and write down the chapter and verse numbers of the Gospel lesson for the following Sunday, and read that. 
So that’s what we did.  We sat and meditated for a few minutes and then a volunteer read aloud the same verses from John that I just read to you this morning.  Now keep in mind, this group has been buzzing with enthusiasm for weeks about a portrait of a Jesus who is not exclusive, one who teaches a wisdom that is quite compatible with that of other traditions.  This is a Jesus who does not appeal to an external, dogmatic authority, but to our own inner capacity to recognize the truth.  But here we have one of those Gospel passages that seems, on the surface at least, to defy every attempt to make it universal.  So I have to admit I was a little nervous about how this was going to go. 
As it turned out, I need not have worried.  As we listened to the reading a first and then a second time, we did hit the uncomfortable verses.  And we could have seized up, and forgotten to listen to the rest of the reading because we were stuck, back arguing with verse 18.  But we stayed with it.  We stayed still and kept breathing, and trying to hear what the passage might be trying to tell us.  And when we started sharing what we’d found, it turned out there was a lot.  There was a lot in this passage that spoke to people’s hearts, that stirred their love and their longing for God.  So it is in that spirit of the faith that if we keep working, and look deeper, we will find there is more to these texts than at first meets the eye, I want to circle back now and take another look at the things about this reading that are hard to hear and hard to understand. 
After all, Jesus himself introduces this saying by telling us it will be a tough one to swallow.  He does this when he brings up the serpent in the wilderness.  As we heard in the reading from Numbers, Moses makes a bronze serpent as a kind of medicine that heals by making you look at the thing you are most afraid to see.   And Jesus says things in this passage that we don’t want to look at, things that might turn and bite us with a poisonous sting.  First he gives this incredible that about the grace of God, who loved the world so much, and who sent his Son not to judge the world but to save it.  But then he starts to talk about condemnation.  “Those who believe in him are not condemned,” it says, “but those who do not believe are condemned already.”  I quoted this passage at a talk I gave last fall, at an interfaith panel on peace and nonviolence, in order to illustrate a paradox that has been at the heart of the Christian religion throughout its history, and when I read those words, the Muslim Imam who was also on the panel winced and shook his head.    
Now some might say, “who cares?”  To them this passage is simple to understand: our religion has the right beliefs, and everyone else’s has the wrong ones.  We will be saved, they will be condemned, and its just too bad for them.  But a brief look back at our history tells us all we need to know about the poisonous snakes that lie along that path—wars of conquest and wars of religion, witch trials and inquisitions, pogroms, and genocides.  In a world of religious pluralism, especially in a place like California, where Jews and Christians, Muslims and Hindus, and Buddhists and Sikhs, Neo-pagans and Atheists all live side-by-side, this interpretation has lost its credibility—especially for the young, who have no memory of life in an ethnically and religiously homogenous community, and no desire to go back there. 

Because it’s no longer credible to say that the Christian church is in sole possession of the truth, even about religion.   We know too much about the world’s other faiths to continue to pretend that they are all false and misleading paths that take people to hell.  Even if their practices and doctrines seem alien to us, we can’t ignore the evidence of their saints.  People hear the Dalai Lama say “my religion is kindness” and they compare it with the self-righteous sectarian contempt preached in so many churches every Sunday.  Needless to say, it's not a favorable comparison.  So if we believe that God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, who came into the world not to condemn it, but that the world might be saved through him (and I take my stand on the position that the world needs, more than ever, people who believe this), we have to start see how that might be true exactly because it doesn’t require that everyone convert to Christianity.
That means having a different kind of faith, one that is broader than we’ve had before, but also deeper.  It means having an imagination of what God is doing in the world in Christ that is no longer limited to what happens in churches, or with people who profess the Christian faith.   And it means embracing a new kind of Christian discipleship, one that is less defined by our belonging within the rigid boundaries an exclusive social group, where people think and act and look more or less the same.  It means being less concerned with believing the right things, and more with doing what Christ is asking of us to help him save the world.
I think that’s actually more in line with what the Gospel means by “believing,” anyway.  The Greek word that our Bibles translate as “believing in” Jesus doesn’t just mean “accepting as true certain ideas about him.”  It means to put our trust in him, to trust him enough to let him change the way we live.  Believing in Jesus means following his lead, doing the things he said to do.  And today’s text emphasizes that point very strongly.  “The light has come into the world,” it says—not into the church, you notice, or into the hearts of Christians—“and the people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil.  “But those who do what is true, come to the light (they come out into the world), so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.”   The truth, says the Gospel, the truth that really matters, is not something that you think, or something that you say, it’s something that you do.

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.