Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Sharing God in abundance

Our vestry, the Board of Directors of our church, has been studying a book about the changes in religious attitudes and cultural patterns that have fewer and fewer people interested in what they think the churches have to offer.  At our meeting the other night, we were sharing stories and observations around the table about these changes as we experience them in our own neighborhoods and families, and one member of the vestry talked about a conversation with her daughter who said to her “why would I go to church?  I don’t need to go to some building to find God—to me God is everywhere.”  And she’s right, of course—God is everywhere, available to everyone, all of the time.   
During our long centuries of cultural dominance the message of the church to the world has been an accusation: “we have God and you don’t.”  The reply of the church to that daughter of the vestry member would have been, “no—the God you experience for yourself and relate to any time you want is not the real God.  It’s probably the Devil.  Our panels of experts decide what is, and is not, allowable religious experience.”  People who said publicly that you don’t need the church to find God, but that God is everywhere, all the time, for any one were considered dangerous.  They were excommunicated and persecuted and even burned for saying it.
But, thankfully, fewer and fewer people are willing to accept that anymore.  Today people recognize that nothing could be more preposterous than the notion that God is a scarce commodity.  Nowadays, anyone can rent an auditorium in an office park and call themselves the Divine Light Worship Center, and set up a light show and a pop band and an espresso cart in the lobby.  Today, you can browse at your leisure in an overstocked spiritual emporium, filling your cart with this Buddhist meditation and that Native American symbol, and it’s all good.  You can choose what seems to suit your sensibility and lifestyle and leave the rest behind.
This approach to religion mirrors the individualism of our culture, and our growing social fragmentation.  Because the unspoken corollary to “I find God on my own—however, wherever and whenever I want to,” is “you go have your God and leave me alone to have mine.”  I’m not going to tell you that this is wrong.  But I can say with conviction that it is not biblical.  The Bible is full of descriptions of sublime personal encounters with God.  One thinks of Abraham hearing the call to leave the land of his fathers and set out on a great journey, of Moses turning aside from the path to see a bush that burns without being consumed, or Saul of Tarsus struck blind by a great light on the road to Damascus.  But in every case, the import of these experiences is not individual but collective. 
Outside of a few of the Psalms, the Bible has very little interest in private religious experiences of personal illumination and consolation.  But it is very interested in experiences of conversion that turn a person into a leader, who summons others to share God’s vision of a transformed community.  The great and fundamental confession of the biblical faith is not “I have my God, now you get yours”, but “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God is One.” 
This is the God of Jesus.  God sent Jesus to be a leader, to connect people across barriers of isolation and bring them into a new communion with God and with each other.  His mission was not to accuse the world—“I have God and you don’t”—but to ask it a question: “What could happen if we shared God together?”   [Repeat].  He put that question to those who had been pushed out to the margins and excluded from the sphere of blessing and holiness, and he put it to the elites who guarded the places of access to sacred power.  Jesus didn’t demand that people submit to his authority.  But he did ask them to imagine how they would be different if they could see the authority of God already here, present among us now, inviting all of us together to create in God a community of justice and love, of sharing and forgiveness. 
Jesus didn’t just talk about these things.  He showed people what it looks like by sharing with them at the most basic level.  Anyone who has carried a lunch tray through a crowded high school cafeteria, anxiously looking for a place to sit, knows the role that sharing a table plays in defining social rank and belonging.   But Jesus subverted the conventional norms about all that by eating with anyone.  It was one of the things that drove his critics crazy about him—“This man welcomes tax collectors and sinners,” they said, “and he eats with them.”
 I see this aspect of Jesus’ ministry in the background of the Gospel stories about the feeding of a great crowd.  I think the real miracle in these stories is not the multiplication of bread and fish.  It is that 5,000 individuals, each one of whom had come looking for Jesus out of his or her own need, jostling against each other, vying to be the first to get his attention—this crowd sat down together on the grass and shared a common meal; at least for a moment, they became a community.
They shared the miracle of the abundance of God, that not only is available to everyone, everywhere, all the time, but is also what makes it possible for us to get over our fear and suspicion and rivalry with one another and live together in unity and peace.  It was a powerful shared experience for those 5,000 people, and I think that when the church is at its best it gives people that kind of experience.  It’s something you can’t have by yourself: an experience of belonging, of being part of something, part of a people that are on a journey together toward a common homeland where they won’t exploit and oppress and deceive and slander, and commit violence against each other anymore.  It’s an experience that changes the way people see themselves in relation to the existing power structures in world.  Which is something the Gospel clearly understands—why else would it say that after the banquet the crowd tried to seize Jesus and make him their king?
He wouldn’t let them do it, but not because his leadership was “spiritual” and not political, but because they’d misunderstood what he had just showed them about the way power works in the Kingdom of God.   Because you can’t point to any one place in the story and say, “here is where the five loaves and two fish became enough to feed a multitude.” Was it when the little boy came forward with his little bit of food?  Was it when Jesus took it and said the prayer of thanksgiving?  Was it when he broke the bread and passed it out to the crowd?  Was it when they received it, and handed it around? 
This isn’t a story of Jesus showing off his power, so people will become dependent on and submissive to him.  It’s an illustration of what can happen when we trust enough to share the blessings of God together; God, the Letter to the Ephesians says, “whose power working in us can do abundantly far more than we can ask or imagine.”  This is the divine power that we worship, and put at the center of our common life as Christians.  It is the power that makes the bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Christ.   But where is the transformation—in the bread and wine or in the people who eat and drink them?  And when does it happen?  When the priest says the Eucharistic Prayer?  When the little bell rings?  When the bread is broken to be shared?  When it’s given out, or when we receive in our hands, or in our mouths?
It’s a mystery.  Difficult to comprehend, even harder to communicate, especially to someone who hasn’t been there, and has no idea what it’s about.  And yet this is the power that can disarm the forces of human self-destruction and save the world.  So I don’t think we really have a choice except to try to share it.  At least we know now what’s not going work—“We have God and you don’t.”  So let’s get up, and dust ourselves off and try again, this time with a question, Jesus’ question: “What could happen if we shared God together?”  I say we make more of an effort to ask that question, explicitly and implicitly, with words and with actions.  Let’s ask it of ourselves, and of our neighbors and our old enemies.  Let’s ask it with as much courage and creativity as we can muster, and let’s see.

Rest and Relaxation

I’ve just come back from a week with my wife’s family at Cape Hatteras, on the Outer Banks of North Carolina.  My father-in-law first drove down there with Meg and her sister Cathy forty-three years ago this summer, and it has been his summer vacation destination ever since.  I myself have gone twelve or thirteen times, including every summer but one since our daughter was born, so the place has become deeply familiar, and infused with happy memories.  The rhythm of our days there is a simple one.  By family custom, television and radio are not allowed, and our days revolve around eating, sleeping, reading, games, and conversation, and being on the beach or in the waves.  It is a place where I let go of responsibilities, where the deadlines and demands of being a parish priest and householder and citizen drift away and I can rest.
I am grateful to have had this opportunity once again, and I thank everyone who helped hold down the fort here at St. John’s while I was away.  I know that not everyone is as fortunate as I am, and there may be some of you here today whose financial strictures or work or family responsibilities make it impossible for you to take a real vacation.  So I don’t want to sound like I’m complaining when I say that for everything that is idyllic about our annual trip to the Outer Banks, it is not all rest and recreation.  There is also a fair amount of stress and strain involved, most of which has to do with getting there and back again.  There are two days of travel on either end, one day each way at crowded airports, and one on crowded highways, days of long lines at the security checkpoint, at the boarding gate and the car rental counter, days of waiting for a turn in the bathroom on airplanes and in gas stations and convenience stores; days of traffic jams on I-95 and the Capitol Beltway, and at the Hampton Roads Bridge and Tunnel.
And in the midst of so many thousands of complete strangers, when you, like every one of them, is thinking only of getting where you want to go as quickly as possible, it’s easy to stop thinking of them as persons just like yourself.  It’s easy to relate to them only as obstacles, as particles of interference that are causing friction and slowing you down and standing in the way of the few precious days of rest and solitude that you so need and deserve.  It’s easy to forget that each of them only wants the same thing you do—to get to a place where they can stop moving and lay down their burdens and rest.
When the book of Second Samuel says that the Lord gave David rest it doesn’t just mean he got a break from work and travel.  It means that he won a lasting victory that brought an end to violence, danger, and insecurity.  That is how a people weary of constant war and oppression think about rest.  We hear how when David had defeated all his enemies, and was settled in his palace and on his throne, he thought of the God who had won all this for him and decided to build him a place of his own.  It’s something any pious person might have done, not unlike those who, 159 years ago a week from Friday, finding themselves safely and prosperously settled here in Petaluma, decided to found St. John’s Episcopal Church.
But then God comes into the story and tells David that his thinking is too small.  David wants to put a punctuation mark on his success with this grand gesture of piety, to say to the world “here is David’s temple, where we worship David’s God.”  But God wants it understood that the rest that he is working for is not for David, but for the whole nation of Israel.  God knows that the politics of nations and the fortunes of kings are built on shifting sands.  So God will keep working, keep building, making a house where his holy name will be established forever.  It will not be an edifice of cedar and stone, but of flesh and blood, the royal house of David, and the sons of David will also be the Sons of God.  Their glory will not be in their personal power and accomplishments, but in their embodiment of God’s covenant promise to the whole people of Israel, the promise of rest.
This is one of the great guiding ideas of the Hebrew Scriptures, and in its essence it is not about David or his offspring.  We don’t even get out of Second Samuel before it becomes clear that they are not going to come close to living up to the ideal.  What it is is an idea about God, about God’s determination not to sit on the shelf in some little sideshow tent called “religion” but rather to stay involved in Israel’s politics.  God promises to keep showing up in the nitty gritty places where human beings work out their differences, and address their shared problems, and shape their institutions, gently, firmly, unwaveringly coaxing, and cajoling, and enticing, all of us together toward rest. 
As time went on, it became harder, not easier, to see how God is working to establish his kingdom in human affairs.   But the idea didn’t fade out, it just got more nuanced.  The prophets revealed that the keynote of God’s politics was not power, but justice and compassion for the poor and suffering.  The Hebrew sages developed the notion of wisdom, the art of bringing one’s own actions and thoughts into accord with God’s ongoing work of creating the world.  And it is this nuanced picture of God’s steadfast love, working through a chosen person to move the whole society, even the whole world, toward its long-awaited rest, that comes suddenly and startlingly to life when people encounter Jesus.       
The stories of the Gospel of Mark show Jesus confronting things about being human we would rather avoid.  And today we have another case of this, illustrated by the fact that when you try to go away on vacation, there’s a whole crowd of other people who go with you.  There is ultimately no peace, no rest for us, apart from the rest of everyone.  Jesus manifests this deep truth when he looks on the crowd and sees that they are like sheep without a shepherd.  His is not a detached observation, much less a calculation of opportunity—it is a realization of divine compassion, compassion that moves Jesus to the very core.
It is compassion that stirs him to act, to do something for these souls who are forgotten by their rulers and have lost their faith in God.   But he doesn’t organize them into an army, or a party, or a cult.  He doesn’t stir them up to violence or promise them power.  What he does do is to teach and to heal.  His teaching, according to Mark, is about the Kingdom of God, and he teaches it in parables.  He shows what the work of God in the world is like by comparing it to daily actions and ordinary things—a sower goes out to sow, a woman mixes leaven into the dough.  And in his healings Jesus doesn’t so much reach out to the sick as welcome them to him.  He goes among them, and they recognize the healing presence of God; they reach out in faith to touch it, even if it is only the fringe of his cloak, and by that faith and that touch they are healed.

As a community that carries on the work of Jesus, we are called to be more than a sanctuary, more than a quiet place apart from the world.  Which is not to say that we should not cultivate an atmosphere of prayerfulness and peace.  But the purpose of this sacred space is to be an arena for the practice of a deeper kind of politics than what usually passes for the word.  It is where we learn from the nitty-gritty of our relationships and the work we do together, to see the traces of God’s wisdom, justice, and compassion, so that we can teach others to see God’s work wherever it may appear.   We come in search of healing from the sickness of our souls, especially the illusions that we are separate from others, or in control of our salvation.  And when we touch the healing we seek, we sense in it a compelling invitation to the rest of the world, a call to live with all people as those with whom God dwells—a call to lead the world to its rest.    

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.