Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Living sacrifice

The character of Job in the Bible is a good man.  He does what is right and reveres God.  But in spite of this, or rather because of it, he is crushed; afflicted with terrible suffering.  His livestock and his servants are killed or carried off by marauders, his children perish, and he contracts an agonizing skin disease.  And all this God allows Satan to do to him, to see whether Job will reject God.  Job’s three friends come to comfort him, or at least that’s how they see it, although what they mostly try to do is to convince him that he must have done something to deserve his terrible fate. 
But Job insists that he will not confess his wrongdoing, because he has none.  He will not plead for forgiveness, because he’s done nothing that requires it.  The more his friends tell him that he is a stubborn fool, that he must have done something to anger God, the more Job insists on his innocence.  And he demands his day in court, to stand face to face with God, and to plead his case to the almighty Judge.  In the end he gets what he wants—sort of.  In the passage that we read this morning, God breaks his silence, and speaks to Job out of the heart of a storm.
But God doesn’t talk to Job about his innocence or guilt.  He doesn’t address the question of whether Job deserves what he got, or why he should suffer so much if he doesn’t.   Instead, God cross-examines him.  “What do you know,” God asks Job, “of the creation of the world, of the mysteries of its intricate order, or the sources of its power?  Who do you suppose is the master of its elements, who sustains the lives of its creatures?”  And God isn’t really expecting an answer because he knows that Job has nothing to say.  In contemplating the creation, Job can only stand in awe and admit how puny his knowledge is.  In the face of the immensity of the world, who is he to question its creator and source?  What does he know of the ways of God, or of God’s justice, that he accuses God?
In the modern period, many people came to think that the argument in the Book of Job had lost its power.  We are no longer in awe of the forces of nature, they said, because science has discovered how they work.  We may not have been there at the foundation of the world, but we might as well have been, because now we know what happened.  With each piece we add to our knowledge, the thinking went, a little more of the “mystery of existence” is shown to be no mystery at all, and the less room there is in the world for God.  We don’t need an answer from God, like Job did, about suffering, because we can remove the causes of suffering with our technological prowess.  We don’t need justice from God, like Job did, because our political parties and nation states with their laws and ideologies, their education and welfare systems, will eliminate injustice.
But, though many still refuse to admit it, that project has long been unraveling.  100 years ago last month, on one battlefield in France, the wondrous new techniques of poison gas and aerial bombing made their first appearance on the world stage.   A young poet named Robert Graves was in that battle, and the memoir he wrote about it is as good an epitaph as one could want for the supreme self-satisfaction of the Victorian age—Goodbye to All That.   
By now, in 2015, we have to ask whether the quintessential modern achievement is lasting peace or never-ending war, shared prosperity or extreme inequality, universal enlightenment or total surveillance.  Is it a cornucopia of abundance, or a world made barren, so exhausted and polluted that the survival of civilization is in doubt?  The expansion of human knowledge of the material workings of the universe has only brought into sharper relief our ignorance about what holds it all together, and how to be in it as servants and celebrants of life, rather than captives of death.   
Some people still try to make the case that our modern scientific knowledge puts us on a different plane from people of the past, such as the ones who wrote the Book of Job.  They do this by making a distinction between the knowledge itself and the uses to which it is put.  But the Bible would answer that the human being is one.  We are one creature, and our knowledge is one.  A mind splintered into fragments is mentally ill, and what we know is not separate from what we feel, or what we suffer, what we love or what we hope, what we will or what we do.  So if we use our science to create a world of illusion, or to despoil, pollute, and kill, it is proof that our science is incomplete.  For all its impressive achievements, we still don’t really know who, or where, or how we are.
Thankfully, we have another source of knowledge, the revelation of the glory of God.  That revelation says that God’s glory fills heaven and earth, so it must be possible to investigate the world, as science does, and to use that knowledge to alter it, but to do so with humility, in a spirit of reverence and prayer.  It is very common nowadays to hear people say that the beauty and grandeur of nature is where they have their most powerful experience of God.   As far as I’m concerned, those people are not wrong.   But here again we have to ask if we are looking with a splintered mind, because to contemplate the whole of nature in today’s world is to witness a vast and deepening tragedy.  It is to worship in a temple that we are destroying.  If we are going to do more than just think that nature is holy—if we are going to act like it—we have to find our way back to encounters with God like the ones recorded in the Bible.  We need experiences of God that change the way we live.    
And for that, we need a revelation of the glory of God in human life; not only in the transcendent power of the thunderstorm and the singing of the morning stars, but in human persons, in human community.  We need an experience of God that unites what our knowledge has splintered: to seek the true glory of woman and man, not only in the rulers and great men, but in the powerless and poor.  We need to find glory not only in achieving our goals and satisfying our desires, but also in grief, in failure and disappointment.  We need to know glory not only in the people we love, but also in the people we hate, and the people who hate us.  And to have this kind of experience we need to learn to see the God’s glory not only on the outside, but also on the inside, even in the ignorance and waywardness of our own hearts.        
The New Testament says that God has revealed this glory in Jesus Christ.  His is the fullness of the Glory of God, because in him God’s glory fills even what we consider empty—of meaning and beauty and grace.  There is a word that means to take what is profane and make it sacred by offering it to God.  That word is “sacrifice.”  And what Jesus sacrifices is his life.  Every aspect of his human life, from humble birth to ignominious death, is sacred, because he offers it to God, in thanksgiving to the giver of the gift. 
Sacrifice is the work of priests, and God raised Jesus’ human life from death and gave it to us, so that we might share in his priesthood, and reveal the glory of God in our lives of sacrifice.  We are priests of the new covenant in Jesus when we take what is profane, what is ordinary and earthly and human—bread and wine, flesh and blood, time and money, and offer it to God in thankfulness, in unity with Christ.  And God makes it holy— we don’t know how. 
We call our offering “stewardship,” because the things we are offer are gifts we have received.  But we are stewards, the Bible says, of mysteries.  We come to church to sacrifice our lives, to offer them to God so God can make them holy, and use them for the new creation of the world.  But how this happens is a mystery.  In church we see Christ, but only in part, in symbols of word and sacrament that hint at the all-encompassing glory that fills even the darkest corners of our lives.  Here the Holy Spirit gives us just a little taste of what we will know and who we will be when we see him face to face.     

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Sharing the Wealth

A few months ago my wife was balancing the checkbook and asked me if I’d remembered to deliver a payment on our pledge to the church, because it hadn’t been cashed yet.  And I had to confess to her that it had gotten lost in my wallet for a couple of weeks, but only a day or two before I’d spotted it there among the receipts and scraps of notepaper, and had turned it in to the Treasurer.  My daughter happened to overhear our conversation and she piped up at that point with a question: “Why do you give money to the church,” she asked—“Aren’t they just going to give it back to you?”  I wish I could tell you that we sat down then and there and had a long conversation about it, because it was a golden opportunity to explore with her what money is about, and what we are doing when we give it away.  But there was something going on that morning that we had to get on to, so I tossed off a quick answer, and to tell you the truth I can’t even remember what I said.
That’s the way it often is with the conversations we have in the church about money.   We know we have to do it, so we set aside a brief period, usually in the fall, to talk about our money and how we use what God has entrusted to us.  But it is not like we take the time to sit down and have a deep conversation about it.  It’s a topic that makes us uncomfortable.  So when we do bring it up, we find it safer not to talk about ourselves.  We don’t really want to talk about our own relationship with money, and how it impacts our other relationships, especially our relationship with God.

So instead, we often talk about the institutional needs of the church instead.  We can talk about the budget, and personnel expenses, about upkeep for the physical plant and the cost of administrative operations.   And what we often end up with is something like a fundraising campaign, not unlike what your favorite public radio station does.  We interrupt our regular religious programming with messages about how important this church is, and all the benefits that come along with membership, and how we can’t keep doing what we’re doing without your financial support.   And all of that is true, as far as it goes, but it can leave out the most important thing, which is to talk not about what the church needs, but about what we need.   If we did that, we’d be continuing a conversation that Jesus started. 
Jesus liked to talk to about money.  He brought it up all the time, when other people thought they were talking about religion.  In today’s reading from the Gospel of Mark we hear about a man who came to Jesus to ask him a religious question.  He was a devout man, sincere and respectful, and had been meticulous all his life in keeping the commandments of the law, and yet he saw that all this was not enough.  He perceived the limits of his human life, and imagined that beyond those limits there was fullness of life, without which all he had done was empty.  And hoping there might be just one more thing he needs can still to bring that life within his grasp, he comes and kneels before Jesus.
Jesus’ answer to the man is that he doesn’t need one more thing—he needs fewer.  The life that he seeks is not a thing we can take hold of and add to our store of possessions.  It is not the final rung, on a ladder of individual achievements.  Life in the kingdom of God is something one enters by leaving everything else behind.  Jesus doesn’t judge the man because he is unable to find the way in—he loves him.  But he is also sad for him, because he sees that he depends on his wealth in a way that prevents him from depending on God.  His many possession lead him to believe he possesses himself, and so he cannot let go and trust that he belongs to God.  And just in case we might be thinking that he is speaking only to this man, and his particular case, Jesus turns to his disciples and says, “Children, how hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!”

This is one of those sayings of Jesus that cuts deep, that seem to sever the path of following him from the normal pursuit of human happiness.   And so this section of the gospel ends with Peter, once again, speaking up and saying what is on everyone’s mind.  We have left everything and followed you,” he says, and we can complete his sentence for him, “so aren’t we, at least, assured of salvation?”  The words of promise and encouragement that Jesus says next seem to me to be the early churches’ answer to that question.    Here is testimony that the call to give up everything for the sake of the gospel is not just a disruptive demand, to break family ties and renounce worldly gain.  It is also an invitation to join a movement.
The decision to follow Jesus is not a retreat into an otherworldly spiritual path, away from the life of everyday community, where people have to work to get by and get along.  It is a choice to enter new relationships, with Jesus and with the others who have put their trust in him.  And in the experience of the disciple of Peter who wrote the Gospel of Mark, shedding their worldly goods did not leave them as beggars wandering the streets, abandoned and alone.  It led them into a painstakingly difficult, but immeasurably rewarding new life, the life of the church. 
The New Testament ideal of the church is a community that suffers persecution with Christ, and joins in his renunciation of privilege, including the privilege of private wealth.  But that suffering and that renunciation make possible an extraordinary solidarity, an abundance of trust in the providence of God and just and intimate belonging to each other.  In the book of Acts and the letters of Paul we see again and again how fragile that solidarity is, how ready the early Christians were to turn back to the familiar security of their own separate property and their conventional gradations of privilege.  But though they acknowledge the instability of the situation, the apostles’ continually insist on the grace of Jesus Christ, and the power of the Holy Spirit, to keep the church together. 
It is that grace and that power that enables them to keep Jesus’ own radical ethic of sacrificial generosity and mutual forgiveness.  And it is the experience of unity and love that flows from this shared discipleship, more than any public ministry of good works, more than any sacred ritual or confessional statement, which puts the stamp of the Messiah on their community.  In the same way today, our faith in Christ, expressed as belonging to each other, brings us into the church, not as members of an organization, but as priests of a sacrament.  We share our lives with each other, and so we share in the priesthood of Christ, who shared his life with us.  And this makes our community a sacrament of the Kingdom of abundance and peace, and as with all sacraments this one requires a material substance, which is our money and other tangible gifts we agree to share in common.  
Our giving to the church is essential to the priesthood that we share.  As the parish priest, I have a particular role to play in this, as in other areas in which I stand in for the community.  When I anoint the sick, or give alms to the poor, or commit someone’s body to the earth, I do so in the name of the whole church.  I stand in for the church when I pronounce God’s forgiveness at the general confession, and when I stand at the altar, offering the great prayer of thanksgiving, and breaking the bread on behalf of us all. 
And I like to think that it’s the same when I cash my paycheck.  I don’t excuse myself from our shared priesthood of giving money to the church, but I do have a special relationship to it, because my family and I are the only ones here who depend on it for the food on our table and the clothes on our backs.  But perhaps in this, too, I stand in for the rest of you, for the dependence we all share on the generosity of others, for the need we all have to belong to each other, and supply one another’s needs in the name of Christ, for the desire in all of us to give away everything that holds us back from the life without limit that only comes by the grace 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.