Sunday, February 26, 2017

Visions of the Real World

Most biblical scholars agree that the New Testament book of Second Peter was not written by Peter.  Near the end of it there is a reference to “all the letters of Paul” that implies not only that those writings have been gathered into a collection, but that they also have achieved the status of Holy Scripture.  Which are things that did not take place until long after the Apostle Peter was dead.  For this and for other reasons, the general consensus is that this was the last book of the Bible to be written, and dates from well into the 2nd Century. 
Taking that into account, it seems strange that this morning’s reading from Second Peter stakes such a strong claim to being eyewitness testimony.   “We were not just passing on clever myths that someone made up,” it says, “when we told you about the power of Jesus and his coming.  We saw his glory with our own eyes.  We heard the voice of God with our own ears when it said, ‘This is my Son, my Beloved, with whom I am well-pleased.’  We were there with Jesus on the mountaintop.”  
So was the person who wrote these words lying?  Was he putting forward what some today might call “alternative facts?”  Well, the simple answer is “yes.”  But as with most things pertaining to the Bible, the simple answer isn’t really satisfactory.  It only opens the door to a lot more questions.  And there is ongoing, robust academic debate about all sorts of historical problems related to the authorship of Second Peter and other New Testament books that seem to have been written under the names of people who did not in fact write them. 
But for me as a preacher those historical-critical problems, though worth thinking about, are less important than the questions about what the texts themselves are trying to say.  And the way I see it, even if this author knew that his audience understood perfectly well that he was not the Apostle Peter, he wrote it as if it’s what Peter would say in the present circumstances if he were here.
If you read Second Peter as a whole, you’ll see that its context is an argument with other religious teachers.  And the beef it has with those teachers is that they seem to have relaxed any tension between being a Christian and just kind of going with the flow of business as usual in the world as we know it.  They are teaching that the conventional world is not going to change much, for the better or the worse, so the point of religion is to accommodate you successfully to the world: to looking out for number one, and getting rich, and doing whatever it is that seems like it will make you feel good at the moment. 
But if Peter were here, he wouldn’t stand for this.  He would say that God has called us to expect more from life than that.  He would tell us that, in fact, God has promised to radically transform the world as we know it, and to transform us along with it, so that we become sharers in the very nature of Godself.
And Peter would remind us that our faith in these promises is grounded in concrete historical experience.   Certain people got to see and hear for themselves, in a real time and a real place, what we will be like when God transforms us.  They were able to do this because they were disciples of Jesus.  In his presence, they caught a vision of what the world really is and what God really means for it to be, and how a person speaks and acts who really understands the difference and wants the world and God’s purpose to be reconciled. 
The author of Second Peter could have chosen any of the well-known Gospel stories to make a case for the unique authority that comes from having been there as an eyewitness.  But he chose the one we read from Matthew today, the story of the Transfiguration.  And I think this is because it’s the one episode in the gospels that focuses entirely on a few disciples and a transient revelatory moment in their experience of Jesus.  Jesus himself doesn’t do anything remarkable in the story.  It is Peter, James, and John who see him talking to Moses and Elijah.  It is they who see the vision of his face transfigured and shining like the sun.  It is they who are enveloped in the cloud of light and who hear the heavenly voice.  It is they who fall down on their faces like dead men, and then lift up their eyes to see no one but Jesus alone.
And as they are going down the mountain to rejoin the rest of his disciples, Jesus tells them not to speak of it until after he has risen from the dead.   So the whole thing kind of feels like a dream, like a shamanic journey to another world, and we have only the word of Peter, James, and John to tell us that it really happened.  And that might be the whole point.  Because it is of such rare material that we often must construct our faith. 
In a lifetime we may have only a few fleeting glimpses of the glory that God intends for us, a precious handful of moments on the mountaintop.   Or we may feel as if we’ve never been there, and depend on the testimony of hardier souls to tell us what it’s like.  And yet such moments, even second-hand, impress on us such a radically-different vision of reality, that they haunt us.  The longing they awaken for a greater significance to our lives, the discontent with a shallow materialistic existence they leave behind, often have to be enough—enough to sustain us through long periods of just going through the religious motions, wondering if it’s all a sham. 
Second Peter tells us that this is actually providential.  It helps us avoid mistaking the lamp we have been given to guide us on the path for the glorious dawn toward which we are going.  And it teaches us to measure the worth of our mountaintop experiences by the lives we live every day down here in the suburbs.  Which is also goes for our efforts at religious discipline.  
At the Zen temple we used to have seven- or ten day meditation intensives called sesshin, which is Japanese for “gathering the mind.”  During sesshin we would sit upwards of twelve or thirteen periods a day of silent meditation, interspersed with walking meditation and services of chanting and prostrations.  We would eat in silence at our seats in the meditation hall.  Except for a daily sermon and an optional brief, private conversation with one of the teachers, there was no talking.  There was no reading or writing during the breaks after meals. 
I can still vividly remember certain moments that occurred twenty-five years ago during sesshin, moments in which exactly nothing happened.  You could say they were moments on the mountaintop.  But our teachers used to tell us that the point of sesshin is to realize that your whole life is sesshin.   And we could say something like that about the Christian season of Lent.  The point of Lent is to realize that your whole life is Lent. 
During these forty days every spring we intensify our effort to pay attention, to let go of what is not essential, to purify our bodies and minds, to take less and pray more, and remember those whose needs are more pressing than our own.  But our purpose is not simply to “get through Lent” and move on, but to remember some basic spiritual truths to carry with us throughout the remainder of the year.  We do not approach Lent like convicted criminals being marched into prison to serve our time.   We come as those returning to the valley from the mountaintop, as those who have seen the glory of God’s beloved Son, who have felt his healing touch, and heard him say to us, “Get up; do not be afraid.”
If we come to Lent seeking silence, it is because we know there are some things for which words are inadequate.  If we come for instruction, it is because we’ve heard the voice that tells us to listen to God’s beloved.  If we come to repent, it is because we have seen the glory for which we are created, and which we have stubbornly refused.  If we come praying and fasting for justice, it is because we know that another world is possible.              

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Where murder comes from

A couple of weeks ago, I was walking to the local supermarket to get something for my lunch.  And I’d just left the sidewalk and was crossing in front of the vehicle entrance to the parking lot, when a large white diesel pickup pulled in from the street behind me and to my left, and came to a stop.  I was already halfway across its path, so I just kept walking.  But a moment or two later, I heard a voice, now over my right shoulder, calling out “Hey, buddy!--“  Now you tell me—has anyone, anywhere, ever really benefited from a conversation that began “Hey, buddy--”?  Anyway, I stopped and turned to face the stocky man with a mustache and short gray hair peering at me through the window of the white truck.  I guess I was supposed to have altered my course or pace of walking in some way, because he proceeded to give a lecture in the most condescended tone, on the importance of “situational awareness” and of working together and using our common sense to insure that everyone gets where they’re going in the swiftest and safest possible way. 
And I stood there and listened, feeling the fury that began to boil in my chest and the steam-pressure building in my head.  But somehow, by the skin of my teeth, I managed not to explode.  When he had finished, I simply said, “Indeed.”  And we looked at each other for a second or two, and when it was clear that nothing more was forthcoming, he drove on to look for a parking spot and I walked into the store. 
But I was angry and humiliated, and still unsure what exactly I’d done to provoke him.  I told myself he was probably just having a bad day, or maybe was someone who goes through life with the experience that others are holding him back and getting in his way.  And I wish I could say that I softened toward him, and let the whole thing go.  But just last Thursday I was walking again through the same parking lot and it all flooded back again.  And I had a moment of vivid fantasy in which I told that man, “My ‘situational awareness’ tells me I’m minding my own business, and I’m being hassled by an arrogant [insert your own church-inappropriate epithet here].”
Of course I’m still glad that didn’t happen.  It would not have accomplished anything, and Jesus, in the Gospel of Matthew tells us that saying to someone, “you fool!” is comparable to murder.  Because anger, when it comes out as personal insult, and verbal aggression, only breeds more anger, and the escalating spiral of reaction can easily end in violence.    Now, I don’t think that Jesus is saying here that we shouldn’t have feelings, such as anger, or lust, or that we must feel guilty because we do.  But he is asking us to be responsible for those feelings, and to handle them with care, because they are powerful forces that can lead to disastrous consequences.
Jesus isn’t thinking here mainly in legal terms.  He is not adding a draconian new section to the religious penal code.   His main point is not that losing your temper or ogling somebody will land you in hell, but that mental, and verbal, and physical violence are all on the same continuum.  Murder is not radically different from calling the guy in the parking lot a jerk; but just a further step along the same road.  So it is not enough simply not to kill people, and then to imagine that we have satisfied God’s minimum requirements, and therefore everything is all is right with our souls.  We need to attend to the seemingly insignificant “lapses” and minor misdemeanors in our thoughts and conduct toward others, because they partake of the same attitudes that produce adultery and murder.
And while I recognize that the exaggerated rhetorical style of first-century moral exhortation can sound harsh to our tender modern ears, I want to emphasize that the point is not so much to make us fear punishment after we die, as to confront us with the real practical consequences of the things we think and say and do here and now.  To illustrate what I mean, I’d like to focus in on one little of piece of today’s long Gospel lesson, for closer study, the verse that says: “if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire.”   Not there are words in the Greek text of this passage that are there for a reason, and have been lost in this translation, so let me tell what it literally says: “whoever calls his brother, ‘Raká’, (which is a Semitic word, meaning ‘dummy, fool,’ will be answerable to the Sanhedrin.  And whoever says to his brother ‘you Moré’ which is a Greek word that means ‘dummy, fool,” will be liable to the Gehenna of fire.”
So the first obvious question is, why the redundancy?  Why use two different insults in different languages that mean the same thing?  And why talk about two different punishments for the same, relatively minor, insult?  Here I think it helps us to know that most scholars agree that the Gospel of Matthew was written in a congregation of Jewish Christians which had also begun to incorporate Gentiles.  It was, in other words, a bilingual and bicultural community of faith.  And you could say that for someone who was culturally Jewish, who might be inclined to shout “Raká” when he got angry, the worst imaginable consequence of bad behavior would be to be called before the Sanhedrin, the supreme council and court of the Jewish nation.  Which is, incidentally, what the Gospels say happened to Jesus at the end of his life.
But in the Greek cultural and religious world, where you would call someone you thought was stupid “Moré,” there was a well-established belief in the afterlife, and in places of reward and punishment awaiting the human soul.   By the way, there is a Greek word for such a place, “Hades,” that shows up elsewhere in the New Testament.  But Matthew’s outlook is still predominantly Jewish, and the image he comes up for such a place of torment is on earth, a spot called Gehenna, which was a ravine outside Jerusalem where they took the city’s garbage to be burned.  So, if you put these two parallel statements together, they seem to being saying, “Whatever background you come from doesn’t matter—just think of the worst place you could end up: that’s the direction you’re heading in when you start to call your brother or your sister a dummy, or a fool.”
And I think there’s another reason for this redundancy in the Gospel.  Because trying to live in a bilingual, bicultural community is not easy.  It is not hard to imagine that there were frequent occasions when the attitudes and behaviors of the Gentiles in Matthew’s congregation seemed idiotic to the Jews.  And vice versa.  The words “Raká” and “Moré” might have been on the tips of people’s tongues fairly often.  Which is why Jesus does not stop at instructing us to be careful what we say, lest we all end up together in a hot, smoky place that smells like garbage.  He continues to urge on us the paramount importance of reconciliation. 
This is the true meaning of the righteousness that exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees—that we do not merely stop short of killing each other, or even of insulting one another, but that we learn how to make peace.  Because we are going to have anger and lust and all kinds of other perfectly natural human impulses, but our task in community is to learn how to deal with those impulses without them erupting into road rage, or ethnic slurs, or sexual harassment.  And it is to learn how to repair the damage, as far as we are able, when our impulses get out of hand.  Which requires God’s help, the kind of help that Jesus came to bring us, when he took a stand for the inherent worth, in the eyes of God, of every human being, no matter how despised and marginal in the eyes of disdainful human beings.  Because when we can prevent our aggressive, instinctual passions from blinding us to each other’s essential dignity, there is still hope for our own. 

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.