Sunday, September 11, 2016

Homeland security

With the end of the Soviet Union, on Christmas Day, 1991, many in the world heaved a sigh of relief.   Here in the United States, it felt as though a great threat had been lifted, and there was hope that a new, peaceful, world might emerge.  The internet and the globalization of finance and commerce would tie everyone together, and we were going to lead the way.  Other nations would look to our expertise in business and technology; they would adopt our democratic institutions and norms.   Our military would intervene here and there as needed, to reign in the occasional dictator who got too big for his britches, or restore order where civil conflict raged out of control.  But we would have no rivals.  Here in North America, surrounded as always by our oceans, and friendly neighbors newly integrated with us into a single market, we would prosper and live without fear, at least where foreign enemies were concerned. 
This was the dream that came to an end on September 11th, 2001.  On that day a new word rose the top of the lexicon of American political speech, the word “homeland.” Though the word itself wasn’t new, national leaders started saying it frequently, and using it in a different kind of way.  And every time we heard it, it was a reminder of the fear of that terrifying day.  Because even if we did not lose friends or family members on September 11, many of us lost something else.  We lost the belief that massive political violence against innocent civilians was something that could only happen far away.  Even those of us who lived relatively secure lives, and generally felt protected in our homes, and workplaces, and the streets of our towns, lost our sense of invulnerability.  
I was one of those people.  I was eating breakfast in the kitchen of the apartment I had just moved into with Meg in Emeryville, when the radio said that hijacked planes had hit the Towers and the Pentagon.  And I felt an great sense of dread.  I didn’t know what it would mean for the future, but I knew that it wouldn’t be good.  Like someone in a dream, I put my tools in the truck and drove off to a gardening job, but at lunch I had to quit and go home with flu-like symptoms.  The news had literally made me sick. 
The human body and spirit are resilient, and I got better in a couple of days.  But it’s hard to say that collectively we’ve made a full recovery.  After fifteen years of “War on Terror”, we still feel vulnerable than ever, and it’s clear that Muslim extremism is not the only threat: economic anemia, simmering racial tension, and egregious inequality, rampant gun violence, and the unmistakable onset of climate change call us to profound soul-searching about what it really takes to make a homeland, let alone a world, that is truly secure.

It’s a spiritual crisis, not unlike the one that Jeremiah talked about in the 7th century BCE.  The mighty Assyrian Empire had long ago dismembered the northern kingdom of Israel, but the southern kingdom of Judah remained defiant.  Although the Assyrian army invaded Judah twice, it failed both times to capture Jerusalem.   And then, quite unexpectedly, over a few short years in the 620s and 610s, the power of Assyria melted away.  Suddenly Judah enjoyed a degree of national independence it had not known for over a hundred years.  Her kings took back some territory, the priests and scribes made some religious reforms, and the court prophets began to say that the tide of history had turned, that Israel’s God was pleased with her again, and the peace and security of the days of David and Solomon would return.
But Jeremiah saw something different.  He saw that the modest religious reforms had not brought the nation back to its covenant with God.  They did not cease practices, like human sacrifice, derived from foreign cults.  He saw that the people did not carry out the social justice commanded in the law.  Jeremiah cried out in pain and anger at the apostasy of Judah, and said it was the pain and the anger of God.  Far from thinking that God was about to restore Israel’s greatness, he saw a wave of destruction coming from the north.   
Jeremiah lamented for his poor people, because God had already made a judgment against them that could not be revoked.  And in Jeremiah’s vision, the consequence of Judah’s evil doings would be worse than military defeat.  It will be worse than the loss of the homeland.  “I looked on the earth,” he says, “and lo, it was waste and void; and to the heavens, and they had no light.”  This is a vision of the undoing of the creation of the world.
History proved Jeremiah right about destruction from the north.  A new empire rose out of the ruins of Assyria, and in a few short years that empire would take Jerusalem, destroy the temple of Solomon, and carry the last king of David’s line away in chains to Babylon.  And in the loss and trauma of exile the prophets and sages of Israel began to re-think what it would mean to come home.  Some Jews would indeed eventually go back and repair the walls of the holy city, and build a second temple, bigger than the first.  But the hope of restoring Israel as a national entity would from then on always be in tension with hope of a different kind. 
This new hope sprang from a vision of renewal, not merely of Jerusalem, but of the whole of creation.  Israel began to receive a new vocation for herself, that of leading all humanity home.  Cut off from their land, they found that in repentance and prayer, in justice, compassion, and love they could still take life from the spirit of God.   And in that spirit they found the grace not just to maintain their faith, and survive as a community—they found the source of true security, abundance, and peace.  
Every Sunday in church we have an altar call.  It is not an invitation to individuals to come forward and confess their personal sinfulness and need to be saved.   It’s not a celebration of individual repentance and return to the community of God’s elect.  At least, that’s not the main focus.  What we do is invite everyone to come to the altar together.  After we all confess our sinfulness together, we gather at the altar in thanksgiving for what God has done for all of us to bring us home. 
This celebration continues the feasting that Jesus did, when he came to seek the lost sheep of Israel, and sat at table with tax collectors and sinners.  Nowhere in the gospels does it say how many of those sinners changed their ways.  From scattered hints we know that many of them did, but as Jesus himself says, even one is enough to make the angels in heaven rejoice.  And that is what our celebration is about: that God cares enough about that one lost sheep to send Jesus to go and find it.  That one lost coin matters enough to God to light the lamp, and sweep the house, and look under the sofa cushions until she finds it.
Jesus calls us sinners all together for a feast to celebrate the love of that God, and this inclusivity leaves it open for each of us to ask ourselves “am I that one?” “Am I the one for whom Jesus left the other ninety-nine behind to come and find?  Am I the one he is carrying home on his shoulders?”  But it also means we can look at the sinner beside us at the altar rail and wonder, “or is it him?”  “Is she the one?”  That open possibility is what makes this feast a sign of the Kingdom of God. 
Jesus says that the Kingdom of God is like a great net thrown into the sea, that catches every kind of fish, the good and the bad.  It is like a field of wheat, in which someone came and sowed some noxious weeds, and the weeds grew up with the wheat so there was no way to pull them out.  And this makes God’s Kingdom a mixed-up kind of homeland, a place where we have to be vulnerable.  It’s not a place we can hunker down behind the walls of our judgements of others, or an exclusive club, where only the people who think and act and look like us belong.  It’s a place where security and health are gifts of the spirit of repentance and forgiveness, the spirit of always being able to begin again.    

Actions that hurt--and heal

I spent most of last Monday digging up an old, leaky irrigation system in the front yard, and I brought a portable radio outside with me, to listen to while I worked.  After a couple of hours of informative programming on a listener-sponsored community station, I decided I’d had enough of that for the day and turned to one of my guilty pleasures—sports talk radio.  And in that world the news was all about a quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers named Colin Kaepernick, who has been remaining seated during the national anthem before the team’s pre-season football games.  The first time he did it, no one noticed, but at last Sunday’s game in Green Bay, Wisconsin, a reporter saw him, and asked him about it in a locker-room interview after the game, at which point Kaepernick declared that he was sitting in protest of the oppression of African-Americans and other people of color in the United States. 
The hosts of my radio talk show felt compelled to weigh in with their opinions about what Kaepernick had done, and then they opened the phone lines and took calls from listeners who expressed their wide-ranging and contradictory views.  As the week went on, this controversy spread across the media landscape, with everyone from Kaepernick’s former coach, Jim Harbaugh, and 49ers legend Jerry Rice, to the Republican Party’s nominee for President publicly expressing their disapproval.  Meanwhile, some current and former members of the armed services, not wanting to let others took offense on their behalf, “tweeted” messages of support at #VeteransForKaepernick.  At the 49ers final exhibition game on Thursday, at “Salute to the Military Night” in San Diego, Kaepernick and teammate Eric Reid knelt on one knee during the anthem, in what they intended as a gesture of mingled defiance and respect, and tens of thousands of fans in the stadium got to contribute their voices to the conversation by booing Kaepernick lustily every time he was on the field. 
Clearly, Colin Kaepernick has touched a nerve by taking this stand, or rather, this seat or this knee.  He has aroused countless people to want to have their views be heard on what they think of his actions, and whether his taking them is justified, whether he is personally qualified to be making this protest, and whether the way he has gone about it is appropriate or offensive.  And I personally am not immune to this reaction.  But I’m going to spare you my opinions, because I think today’s scripture readings point us in a different direction.  They are asking us to think, not about what Colin Kaepernick’s protest means to us or to others, but about what it is actually like for Colin Kaepernick.  When all his teammates and coaches, and the owner of the team, and every one of the fifty-thousand other people in the stadium who were physically able to do so rise to their feet in a ritual of unity and love for our country, a ritual you yourself have proudly participated in hundreds of times before in your high school, college, and professional careers, what is it like to sit, alone, on the bench? 
Jesus says that this kind of loneliness, this alienation from other people, is what we can expect when we join his movement.   We can expect to have moments when we are estranged from the groups we thought we wanted to belong to, and even from the person we thought we would be to be loved and accepted by them.  It is an estrangement that can turn us into enemies in the eyes of our nation, our church, even our family: "Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.” This is a hard saying, and it’s natural to think, “Jesus can’t really mean that—he must be overstating the case.” And in a sense he is, but the purpose of the exaggeration is to underscore his essential point: that following him means sharing his commitment to doing the will of God whatever the cost.  We have to be ready for those moments when we know what we must do to be faithful to the truth of our lives, when even though it is certain we will be misunderstood and hurt people we care about, and in those moments we have to be willing to act. 
If we’re lucky we are never called to do this at the cost of our health, our freedom, or our lives.  But the point is that we are never truly free unless we give God the freedom to tell us what to do and how far to go.  We are never fully alive if we are not willing to lay our lives on the line in response to the Spirit’s stirring of our conscience.  And if we are fortunate enough to live in a society where Christians are the majority, where social deviance and political dissent are widely tolerated, it shouldn’t serve as an excuse to take fewer risks with our freedom, or stands on our conscience, but as a license to take more.   This doesn’t necessarily mean that we have to go out looking for courageous stands to take; the naturally-unfolding circumstances of our lives give us ample opportunities to take difficult and unpopular actions.  Even those actions we recognize as especially heroic often turn on a fairly straightforward personal choice.  Rosa Parks had no idea, when she refused to give up her seat in 1955, that she would catalyze the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the Civil Rights movement.  She was simply, she would later say, “tired of giving in.”  Yet as this example shows us, it is actions, even modest personal ones, that really count.  They have far-reaching effects that words do not. 
Actions create stories, and symbols, with the power to move other people.  In July LeBron James and three other professional basketball superstars stood together and made speeches, at a nationally-televised awards ceremony, about racial division, systemic failure, and violence both by and against the police.  It received a polite murmur in response, whose tone was generally appreciative.  But those speeches were a blip on the meter compared to the volume and intensity of the reaction that Colin Kaepernick got, by sitting alone, saying nothing.  His action transformed an obligatory ritual that rarely gets a second thought, into a highly charged symbol of our country’s congenital wound of racist oppression and violence, a wound that has never healed, and continues to tear us apart.  And in the days since, as people have passionately argued with each other about their interpretations of what he did, that disunity has been visible for everyone to see.  Whatever you make of Kaepernick’s action, it is hard to dispute its effectiveness.   
Of course, there is no greater example of the power of an act to transform a symbol than the one given us in the gospel.  Jesus’ teachings about the forgiveness of sins and the blessedness of the poor, about loving one’s enemies, and the subversive, hidden nearness of the Kingdom of God, would surely have been forgotten centuries ago if he had not been willing to die on a cross.   In doing so, Jesus changed that cross from a sign of terror and despair at the ruthless power of the Roman state, into a symbol of unconquerable freedom of conscience, and faithfulness to the will of God.  And God’s act of raising Christ from the dead completed the transformation, so that now the cross is a symbol of the truth of all that Jesus taught, of justice, forgiveness and reconciliation, of abundant life’s victory over death, a sign of promise even to those without a hope in the world, that their suffering itself is eloquent, and God is listening. 
And for those of us who have something left to give the world, and come to Jesus to take up his cross, it is the sign of our freedom and our mandate, in gestures of protest and works of mercy, to act like him.  The importance of these actions is not measured in how much they shift the balance of political power, or even lessen the suffering in the world.  In those respects, they often seem to be so much spitting in the wind.  But they are also important as signs of resistance and hope.  They create symbols and stories that inspire and provoke, encourage and infuriate, chasten and embolden, others to act.

Letting freedom flow

Sometime last year I decided to do more to conserve water at my house.  I’d already stopped irrigating my lawn a year or two before, but with the severity of the ongoing drought here in California I considered what further measures I might take.  I’ve never been a big one for washing my car, or taking long showers, or letting the tap run while I brush my teeth or shave my whiskers, so I didn’t see much room for improvement in those areas.  But there are the toilets.  We have two of them, and as far as I know they might very well date from when our house was built in 1972, because they have those big old tanks that probably use five gallons every time they are flushed.   So, when I was at the hardware store one day getting something else and spotted a product on the shelves that seemed to offer at least a partial solution, I took a closer look. 
It was a fancy replacement for the old flapper valve, and instead of a handle like a little lever it has a couple of push-buttons, one of which will measure out a smaller flush when less water is required.   And, though I was skeptical that the thing would really work, it was inexpensive and I figured “what have I got to lose?”  I only bought one, to begin with, and installed it in the bathroom off the hall, which gets the most use, and for a while it worked as advertised.   But after a while the valve started getting stuck the majority of the times you use it.  You can release it, if you wait a second or two after flushing, and then do this thing where you push the bottom button in and then release it rapidly a couple of times until you hear the little “click” of the valve snapping shut. 
Which would only be a minor inconvenience if we remembered to do that every time.  But human nature being what it is, we don’t.  And of course the times we forget are, often enough, when we’re rushing out of the house to go somewhere, and there has been more than one occasion when I’ve returned home to find the toilet running and I know that no one has been in the house for hours.  So it’s hard to say at this point whether the contraption has saved more water than it’s wasted, and I’m grudgingly coming to accept that it’s time to bite the bullet and buy a couple of new, high-efficiency toilets. 
It hurts to know that my plumbing wastes water, but I have been able to live with the pain of it longer than I otherwise might, because there is a layer of abstraction that distances me from the problem and softens the blow.  It costs me money, of course, but lots of things cost money, and many of them cost more.  And there’s the emotional cost of feeling guilt about it, and ashamed of myself for procrastinating, because I know that we are in a drought and I am wasting a precious resource, but my actual lived experience is that there is plenty of water and however much I use, I can always get more.  That is because my toilets are hooked up to the pipelines and pumping stations of a modern municipal water system.  And that system has access to the reservoirs and the aquifers of the Russian River watershed, which not shown any signs, even in this historically-bad drought, of running dry. 
It would be far different if I lived in Judea in the 6th century BCE, which also had a summer-dry Mediterranean climate like ours, and if my household water system was a cistern containing what I’d been able to catch of last winter’s rain.  If that cistern leaked, it would soon be empty of water, and there would be no way to get more.  It is to people in a dry land, who were acutely aware of the precious and tenuous supply of water on which their lives depended, that the prophet Jeremiah spoke. He was not addressing them as individual householders, but rather, as he makes clear at the beginning of today’s first reading from scripture, he speaks to the whole “house of Jacob, and all the families of the house of Israel.”   And he did this during a time, when the nation faced an ongoing existential threat, with the shadow of expansionist Mesopotamian empires constantly looming over the land.   But there is a greater crisis, says Jeremiah, a religious crisis of which this political precariousness is just a symptom.  Speaking on behalf of Israel’s God, he says: “my people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living water, and dug out cisterns for themselves, cracked cisterns that can hold no water.” 
In the eyes of our secular and pluralistic age, prophets like Jeremiah can seem kind of ridiculous.  The conventional wisdom about religion, if people are willing to accord it any value at all, is that all faiths worship the same god.  Their essential truths are the same, they just have different outward forms, different rituals, and languages, and names for the divine.  But when Jeremiah accuses Israel of having gone after worthlessness, and so become worthless, and of what changing their glory for that which does not profit, he is not talking about making the wrong choice from a menu of equivalent and interchangeable options, all of which are good.  He is talking about a critical difference in the way we think about and relate to God, a difference that we are prone to lose sight of no matter what “religion” we say we “belong to”.
As human beings we can, through various ingenious means, build an artificial fountain; but even our most advanced technology cannot create a spring.  If a spring goes dry, we can dig a well, and if the well goes dry, we can dig it deeper, but we can’t replace an aquifer.  The domain of things we can produce, predict, and control may be vast.  But it has its limits, and the Word of the Hebrew prophets comes from the other side of those limits, from the realm of the infinite and free.  From that strange and awesome remove it speaks, and strenuously, even violently, resists our attempts to give the things that we have made the honor that rightfully belongs to that which made us.   Any image of the divine in a created form, any sorcery that tries to steal power or knowledge from heaven or hell, any cultic sacrifice that claims to be able to pacify or animate the deity, is an insult to the freedom of God.
And this freedom matters to us, not least because it is the source of our own.   Jeremiah says to the families of Israel that they are in danger of losing their freedom, and this is because they stopped asking “Where is the Lord who brought us up from the land of Egypt?”  They stopped seeking the God who broke them out of the house of Pharaoh, and saved them from his army.  They stopped looking for the God who brought them through the drought, and darkness of the desert, to a land whose abundance was their gift of freedom and equality.  They contented themselves instead with a god who was a kind of domestic pet.  Forsaking the fountain of living water, and dug cracked cisterns for themselves.
In a Presidential election year in the United States, you can count on a lot of talk about greatness and freedom—our greatness, and our freedom—though very little is said about what these words might really mean.  You also hear a lot of passing references to “God”, whose job, it seems, is to bless us, in a manner of our choosing.  And none of these glib invocations shed any light on God’s greatness, let alone God’s freedom.  For that, you have to come to a place like this, where people still listen for the Word that speaks from beyond the sphere of our illusions and contrivances.   That word reminds us that freedom is a gift that grows out of the land, when we dwell there in equality and justice; that it is still an arduous journey to get there, one that leaves the false peace and illusory stability of domination and subservience behind; and that our only sure guide on that journey is a true and living God—a God who is free. 

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.