Tuesday, August 23, 2016

God's work--our play

I think it had something to do with long hours behind the wheel on winding coastal roads, maybe in combination with sleeping on the ground, but about three days into our recent family camping trip I got a pain in the back.  The muscles along the left side of my rib cage and up under my shoulder blade just kind of tightened up into a knot, and the stiffness went all the way up into my neck so that I could hardly turn my head.  Fortunately, part of my wife’s vacation planning included back-to-back appointments for her and me with a massage therapist.  Meg’s mother and stepfather retired to Ashland, Oregon almost 20 years ago, which was where our trip ended up, and on our visits over the years we have been back a number of times to see this particular practitioner, who offers a very subtle but powerful kind of healing touch that unwinds muscular tension in the body from within.
When I got to my feet after an hour on her table, I had not received a miraculous cure.  The pain wasn’t entirely gone, but there was less of it, and I had regained much greater range of motion.   I could breathe more deeply, and my body felt lighter, more open and balanced than it had, not just since before the acute back pain began, but more than it had for quite a long time before that.  And as I was standing there, experiencing my relief, the massage therapist pointed out something, something I already knew.  She led into it by asking me if I spend a lot of time on the computer.  And I said that I did, and she said she thought so, because long hours at the computer can exacerbate a posture which is stooped, with the shoulders slumped forward, and the chin and neck kind of thrust out. 
She recommended that I do what I can to prevent this from getting worse, because over time that curvature in the cervical spine might start to impinge on the nerves and lead to numbness and tingling in my arms and hands.   She suggested taking frequent breaks from the computer, and getting up out of my chair to stand for a time in what she called the “Superman postures.”  [Demonstrates].   Anyway, over the last couple of weeks I have added doing my Superman to yoga practice, and sitting meditation, and surfing, and the other things I have already been doing to counteract my tendency to slump.  Because, as I said, it not like that massage therapist was telling me something I didn’t already know.
You see, I had this tendency long before I ever started working at a computer.  My father has it, too.  Maybe I inherited it in my DNA.  Then again, maybe it is not so much a matter of biology, but of mental and emotional posture and way of being in the world.  After all, these things that get passed down in families, too.  It is common nowadays to speak about our bodies in the language of mechanics and engineering.  But anyone who has ever lain down to sleep and had a dream knows that, left to itself, the natural language of the body is image and story.  So it has occurred to me over the years to think of my posture not simply in physical or medical terms, but also as a symbol.  Maybe I, like my father, have a tendency to take on too many burdens, to be overly conscientious and responsible, to carry, as it were, the weight of the world on my shoulders.
In any case, I’m not so much interested in talking to you about my own physical and mental problems, as in making a more general point, which is that the state of our souls affects, at least to some extent, the shape of our bodies.  And recent research in fields from neurobiology to cross-cultural anthropology to clinical psychology have shown the profound connection between mental and physical patterns.  But this is one of those things we don’t really need scientists to tell us is true.  I think for most of us it just makes intuitive sense, and our ancestors understood it perfectly.  So when the Gospel of Luke describes a woman in the synagogue who is bent over and cannot stand up to her full height, Jesus has no trouble seeing a spiritual cause for her condition.  He lays his hands on her and tells her she has been set free.  Which would be a strange choice of words if her stooped posture were a sign of a structural problem with her spine, or lack of core strength.  But for Jesus it is bondage inflicted on her by Satan, the Spirit who accuses and oppresses human beings and denies them the full, free flourishing of their lives.  After eighteen years of carrying that monkey on her back, Jesus drives it away in a moment, and this is what enables that women to stand up straight and tall.  
And I think this connection between body and spirit is the key to understanding the larger context of today’s Gospel story, and why acts of healing have such a central place in the ministry of Jesus.  Because this is not just a story about the miraculous healing of a woman who could not stand up straight.  It is also part of the larger arc of story in the Gospel of Luke about the intensifying controversy between Jesus and the Pharisees.  It is one of no fewer than three incidents in that larger story where Jesus gets into trouble for healing someone in the synagogue on the Sabbath day.  And it would be easy, and even traditional, to interpret these incidents as conflicts over the Jewish law, and how rigidly scrupulous to be in observing it.  But in my reading of today’s story, it is really not about that.  What it is about is what Jesus is really doing when he heals people, and what that has to do with the loving and redeeming purpose of God. 
When the Pharisees look at Jesus laying hands on someone and curing them, they see a person doing work.  He is like a masseur or a chiropractor providing therapeutic services to a client.  He may not be getting paid, but he’s receiving other benefits, such as gaining another follower and enhancing his reputation.  And he is doing this work in the synagogue, on the very day when it is forbidden to practice one’s trade or do anything to advance one’s personal interest in the world.    It’s a prohibition that is rooted, as you know, in the Jewish story of creation.  It is a way of honoring the creator God, who, after finishing the work of making the world, rested.  God gave us every seventh day to cease all striving to improve things, a day simply to be thankful for the life we already have, and to worship the one who gave it to us. 
But what the Pharisees fail to understand is that when Jesus helps that woman cast off her spiritual burden and stand up straight and tall, so she can breathe freely and be fully alive, he is not merely doing a job on behalf of a particular individual.  He is making a proclamation to the entire community gathered in that place, of what their Sabbath rest is really meant to be about.  It is a continuation of the same proclamation he made at the very beginning of his public ministry, when he stood up in the synagogue on the Sabbath day and read from the scroll of the prophet, “the Spirit has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor, freedom to the captive, liberation to the oppressed, to announce the year of the Lord’s favor.”  Jesus heals in the synagogue on the Sabbath to remind us, that the Sabbath God wants to share with us is perfect rest, perfect joy, perfect peace—and as long as there is even one person in our midst still burdened by oppression, want, loneliness, fear, or grief, God’s work is not done.   
Which is not to say that we should never stop to rest, to celebrate a Sabbath.  But it does give that rest a significantly different meaning.  The Sabbath that Jesus proclaims is not simply the enjoyment of work completed; it is also, and maybe more importantly, anticipation of work fulfilled.  The followers of Jesus gathers for worship on the first day of the week, not the last.  Here we rest and give thanks for the blessings we’ve received, but we also take in nourishment, in word and sacrament, to refresh us and renew our strength for another week of carrying on Jesus’ work.   Now, I say “work,” but if it’s really the work of Jesus, it’s more like play.  Because it’s not our personal responsibility to fix the world—that is a burden none of us can bear.  No, our work, like Jesus’, is neither more nor less than this—to tell stories, and create images, and act out symbols that proclaim what God is doing to complete the new creation of the world.        

Long time abiding

It is hard to say what meaning, if any, we should take from the fact that when people gathered 160 years ago today in the parlors Washington Hotel in Petaluma to organize an Episcopal church they chose the name “St. John’s.”  Maybe some of them brought with them fond memories of another St. John’s Church in another town they’d left behind.  Maybe they just liked the name, because it had a robust, churchly ring to it.  But maybe there was more to it than that.  Maybe our founding fathers and mothers had a particular love for the books of the New Testament named for John.  Maybe they found in those writings a spirit and a truth that they hoped would inhabit the new community they were forming.
We can’t say for sure.  We do know that by the 20th Century, people here came to think enough of St. John to commission the four windows, two on each side of the nave, that illustrate different traditions associated with his name.  I love those windows, each of which is an extraordinary little image in its own right, but I have a particularly close relationship with that one over there—“St. John writing his Epistle.”  Every Sunday and Wednesday, and sometimes on other days at weddings and funerals, I sit right here listening to the reading of the scriptures, preparing myself to preach, and I look at St. John, gazing at the cross in the window, just as I am gazing at him, trying to capture with pen and paper something of the mystery of Christ’s love.
Now, from a historical point of view those windows are a bit of an embarrassment.  Modern critical scholars have long questioned whether the John who lies over there on the Isle of Patmos dreaming of the New Jerusalem could possibly be the same person who wrote the fourth Gospel, or the three New Testament letters of John.  And while the Gospel claims to be the testimony of the “Disciple whom Jesus loved,” it leaves his or her identity notably obscure, and there is nothing in the text itself to definitively link it, as later tradition did, to John, the brother of James, one of the twelve apostles.    The most that academics are willing to concede today is that there might have been a “school” of Christian teaching, if you will, and a community committed to handing it down, that traced its origins back to that John.  
But even this is subject to debate.  Alternate candidates for the Beloved Disciple abound nowadays, including Lazarus of Bethany and Mary Magdalene.  And I have to admit, it’s not a question I’ve given much thought or study.  Because for me, knowing the “real source” of the tradition of the Gospel of John, is less important than the general point that today’s reading from that Gospel makes.  Which is that the church has never been a monolith.  There have always different communities with different ways of bearing witness to Christ, and these differences go all the way back to the differences between Jesus’ disciples.  Because they had different personalities and experiences, and qualitatively different relationships with their master.  
The community that produced the Gospel of John was well aware that they possessed stories and sayings of Jesus that were markedly different from those of other Christian groups.  But they preserved them, tenaciously, as a precious inheritance from the mind and heart of the disciple whom Jesus loved.  The Gospel today cites a tradition that Jesus himself had said that this disciple would remain until he came.  But it also points out very clearly that it would be a misinterpretation to take that saying literally, as if it meant that the community’s founder did not and will not die.  Because it is the community that ensures that the witness of the beloved disciple will not pass away.  That testimony, that revelation of eternal life, gives the community its unique vocation to the church and to the world, and they will remain steadfast in declaring it, until it is finally fulfilled. 
This word “remain” or sometimes “abide,” is a particular favorite of the author of the Gospel and the letters of John.  And it’s a word with particular resonance for a congregation celebrating its 160th year.  Somehow St. John’s, Petaluma has managed to remain through a Civil War and two World Wars, through earthquakes, floods, and fires, and numerous economic depressions, through social struggles over abolition, and temperance, and women’s suffrage, and the rights of labor and civil rights, and even internal theological divisions that have resulted, at least twice, in schism.  And those historic events surely had an impact on the people of St. John’s.  But I have to tell you, as I’ve spent quite a lot of time in the past couple of months, poring over our parish archives, I have noted that these events scarcely earn a mention in the records of this church.  It’s as if there’s been some other history going on here all this time, some other life being lived, that pays little mind to the headlines in the newspaper—no matter what happens in the wider world, it simply abides.
Which brings me back to our gospel lesson this morning and its story of two disciples, walking with the risen Jesus after breakfast on the beach.  The first one, Peter, has a dramatic, emotional conversation with the Lord, in which he professes his love for him three times, and three times is told “feed my sheep.”  And Jesus calls Peter all over again to follow him, as a pastoral and missionary leader of the church, and in the end to take the way of the cross and die a martyr’s death in Rome.   But before he sets out, Peter turns and sees the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and he asks, “Lord, what about him?”  And Jesus tells Peter, not that it’s any of his business, that he has something else in mind for that one, something less exciting or seemingly important, which is that he should simply remain.
In a world that is all about making an impact, and achieving results, it’s not that easy to explain to outsiders what exactly we’ve been doing here at St. John’s, Petaluma for the last hundred and sixty years.  No doubt our members have made significant contributions to the general welfare and quality of life in the town over that time.  Many of them surely played at least a small part in the great events that have shaped the world.  But there’s not really anything we can point to, outside of our little church on the corner, and say with pride “that was us—we did that.”  There aren’t any great saints or famous people whose names we can drop in casual conversation and say “by the way, she was one of ours.”  But this doesn’t necessarily mean we have not been faithful to our calling as a parish.  Maybe we were never called on a heroic missionary quest; maybe we were never called to be in the vanguard of the revolution.  Maybe, like the beloved disciple, we were called simply to remain, to abide.
“To abide” doesn’t only mean to persist or endure—it can also mean “to dwell,” “to rest” or “to inhabit.”  And while it may be that Christ is a truth to grasp, or a cause to embrace, or a victory to win, in the Gospel and the Letters of John, Christ is also a love to abide in.  He is a vine in whom we abide, and if we do abide in him we bear much fruit, but if we don’t we can do nothing.  He is a word of life that abides in us when he eat his flesh and drink his blood.  And so for 160 years, the people of St. John’s, Petaluma have made this our main purpose, and the focus of our common life—in good times and bad, in season and out of season, abiding in Christ, and praying him to abide in us.  And if from time to time we have lost our way, and gotten caught up in things of secondary importance, we have so far always managed somehow to find our way back to the center, to the word of life, to the place we are called to remain. 

Choose one thing

Last week, Meg, Risa, and I went on vacation with Meg’s family, as we do almost every summer, to Hatteras Island on the Outer Banks of North Carolina.  It’s a long journey there and back, but while we’re there, life is pretty simple.  We’ve rented the same two houses by the beach for ten years or more, and we all settle quickly into a familiar rhythm: get up, do what you do first thing in the morning--run, do yoga, whatever—have some breakfast, and then carry the umbrellas and folding chairs and body boards and surfboards and whatever is required for a day of fun at the beach, over the dunes.  We set up our spot, spend a couple of hours playing in the water or on the sand, beachcombing, or just hanging out talking or reading, until it is time to go in for lunch.  Rinse off in the outdoor shower, eat lunch, take a nap.  Go back out to the beach for a couple more hours, and then haul everything back in for the night.  Take another shower and gather at the big house for dinner and games and conversation until bed.  Repeat.
As I say, it’s wonderfully simple, and while there is always sunburn to contend with, and insect bites, jellyfish stings, or swimmer’s ear, and the odd strained muscles, scrapes, and bruises from playing long and hard, it is for all of us, a happy time in a happy place.  So that’s why I’m always a little surprised, and a little chagrined, when I find that I’ve been there for two or three days and I’m still worrying.  I worry a little bit about the weather, about how windy it will be tomorrow, and whether it will rain, or if a fork of lightning will suddenly appear in that cloud on the southern horizon.  But mostly I worry about the logistics of getting everybody what they need: about whose turn it is to make dinner, and who will do the dishes, and whether it’s time to go get Grandpa Peter and push him out to the beach in his special wheelchair with the balloon tires.  And I worry about what’s fair, about whether I’m doing my share or doing more than my share.
Of course, there are fewer people to worry about, when I’m at the Outer Banks, than when I’m at my post here in Petaluma.    And the relief that comes from pulling back from my usual obligations and responsibilities is welcome and needed.  So I think I understand why people who can afford it go on luxury vacations where there’s someone paid even to haul the umbrellas to and from the beach, and to cook the meals, and clean up afterward, so one can focus entirely on rest and relaxation.  But, personally, I think I would miss the kind of companionship that comes from pitching in together to get things done, if it were entirely absent.  This is especially true now that the younger generation is mature enough to make a significant contribution to the team.  My nephews Nick and Chris helping me push Grandpa’s chair to the top of the dune was as meaningful to me as helping them get out on the Stand-up Paddleboard.  Not only that, but I imagine that even on a luxury vacation I would still find something to worry about, like whether I’d paid too much, or was tipping enough, or whether the staff secretly resentment me.      
Luke, more than the Gospel writers, recognizes that there was a logistical aspect to the ministry of Jesus of Nazareth.  It didn’t just spontaneously and miraculously unfold, but it required planning, organization, and management.  There was a message to share, and healings to perform, and unclean spirits to vanquish, but there were also beds to make, and dinner to cook and dishes to wash. So I think it would be a misreading of today’s story of Mary and Martha to say that following Jesus should be a kind of luxury vacation, where we don’t concern ourselves with anyone else’s needs.  And I don’t think that Jesus is saying here that there is one kind of discipleship, one oriented toward study and contemplation, which is better than another kind that is more about active service and social solidarity.  But Jesus is saying to Martha that scattering her attention on a multitude of tasks, and constantly worrying about how they are all going to get done, and resenting her sister for not helping out, isn’t bringing her any closer to what really matters. 
There is an element of the whole complex business of our lives that is not just one part among many.  It is not just one more of the things that we have to try to “fit in” along with all the others on our to-do list.   Jesus, you will notice, is reticent about even naming it, as if to do so would play into our eagerness to grasp on to one more thing to worry about and to try to accomplish.   He just cagily calls it the “better part” of life.  But he says it’s the only thing that we really need.  He also says that it is a choice, the choice that Mary has made. 
Martha also has made a choice, the choice to welcome Jesus into her home, but she seems to feel that having taken that step, she also took on a whole set of attendant duties, obligations and demands, that are no longer really optional.  And I imagine many of us can recognize something like this in our own experience.  At one point or another we made a choice that defined our lives--the choice of a spouse, of a profession, the choice to have children, the choice of a place to live, of a particular standard of living—and the consequences of those choices are so profound in terms of the responsibilities they entail that we have a hard time remembering that they were ever choices at all.  It seems like a funny paradox that more decisively we embrace the possibilities of our particular destiny--in other words, the more choices we make, the less “free” we are, if by “freedom” we mean having all options open. 
And this might be a clue to understanding the second thing that Jesus says about Mary’s choice of the “better part,” which is that it will not be taken away from her.  Because the only thing we fear more than losing the freedom to do whatever we want, is that we might make a whole-hearted commitment, and then lose what we’ve chosen.  Just because we’ve chosen a particular spouse, or career, or home to live in, doesn’t mean that now we get to keep it forever.  The choice to have children feels at times like such a gut-wrenching risk because there is no guarantee that they will outlive us, or even want to associate with us when their grown.  And that is where the anxiety comes in, the kind of anxiety that drives Martha to keep trying to juggle all the balls and not to drop any of them, even at the cost of her peace of mind; because to do so would be to fail.  She’s afraid to disappoint Jesus, maybe because she's afraid to lose the privilege of serving him.
But if Martha had chosen to welcome Jesus, not only into her home, but also into her heart, and had stopped, and sat, and listened to what he said, she might have heard something that put all of her anxieties into perspective.  She might have seen that the freedom that makes all the difference for our lives does not depend on finishing the chores, or taking a vacation, or retiring from our jobs.  It’s not a freedom we get for ourselves, and so there are no required steps for hanging on to it.   
It’s the freedom that enables us to rejoice when we are suffering, and to hope when we are grieving, to turn homeward when we are lost, and to stand up when we’re oppressed.   I’m talking about the freedom of God, who chose to dwell fully in the human person of Jesus Christ.  I’m talking about the freedom of Christ, who chose to offer his life and death to the mission of reconciling all things to God.  I’m talking about the freedom of the Holy Spirit in the saints, who broke through every barrier of ignorance, hostility, indifference, and incomprehension, to proclaim the riches of Christ’s glory to the whole creation.  All this, so that you and I might have the freedom to choose Christ.  

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.