Thursday, December 2, 2010

What We Can Learn From The Servant-King

This high holy day evokes the paradox of Christ the King
who is also Christ the Servant.
There’s a lot we can learn in this paradox of the Servant-King,
a lot we can learn about our own leadership
and our own way of being in the world.

Let’s start with today’s lesson from Jeremiah.
God had entrusted the care of his people to leaders,
the kings of Israel.
In this lesson, he calls them shepherds of the people.

God entrusted Israel to shepherds because he is a God
of order, not chaos; of harmony, not anarchy.
The leader’s job is to preserve the pattern of the common life.
Civilized people have leaders.

Take an example from our own history.
Nevada did not secede from the Utah Territory
to reject governance – quite the opposite.

We had a serious fracas breaking out
over disputed mining claim in the Comstock.
It was getting completely out of hand,
and the Territorial government in Salt Lake
wouldn’t do anything about it.
They had their own problems in Utah about then.
So we seceded from Utah and petitioned Washington
to send us some government.

It took awhile, but President Lincoln sent us Governor Nye
and his trusty Secretary Orion Clemens
to restore order.
Just as President Lincoln entrusted Nevada to James Nye,
God entrusted Israel to the kings.
But they did a poor job of it and God was decided displeased.

“Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter
the sheep of my pasture,” God says.
“It is you who have scattered my flock
. . . and you have not attended to them.”

What went wrong?
Our lesson says there were two kinds of failed leadership
– there was the aggressive leadership that scattered the flock
– and there was the passive leadership that failed to attend to the flock.
It all fits what we know about the psychology of leaders.

Psychologists Robert Moore and Douglas Gillette
describe leadership in Jungian terms.
They call our inner leader the King archetype.
It’s the part that orders and blesses the whole.
It orders and blesses our own personal life.
It orders and blesses our family, our workplace,
our church or the larger society.

This capacity to lead in this godly way, to order and bless,
is universal.
It isn’t that some people have it and some don’t.
We all have the capacity to order and bless.
It is part of being made in the image of God.

But Moore and Gillette also explain
how leadership can go wrong.
It can slip into the shadow side,
“the dark side of the Force,” Darth Vader would call it.
Moore and Gillette say there are two forms of that shadow
– the tyrant and the weakling.
The tyrant does not lead. He rules, commands, pushes people.
The weakling does not lead. He goes passive.
But these are two sides of one coin.
The tyrant is just a weakling overcompensating.

We see this in government, church, and family life.
We lead badly when our ego gets engaged
and we need to get our own way at the expense of others.
Or we are afraid we won’t get our way so we disengage.
We convince ourselves we are leading for the common good.
But our egos have silently slipped like the snake into the Garden.
That’s when we do more harm than good.

This is a crucial lesson for all of us in two ways.
First, we all exercise leadership somewhere
– perhaps in our home, in a civic club, or at work.
We are all in charge of something or have influence with somebody
from time to time.
How we lead can be a spiritual blessing or a curse
to those around us and to ourselves.

Second, the way we lead others expresses how we
order and bless our own thoughts, feelings, ways of being.
Even if we were hermits on an island,
we can bless or curse, shepherd or scatter,
parts of our own personalities.
That’s called self-leadership.

When things had gone awry in Israel,
God promised to raise up new shepherds
who would be real shepherds, good shepherds,
not tyrants or weaklings.
In Baptism, we have all been raised up to be shepherds to one another,
each of us in our life situation.
Being a good Christian doesn’t just mean being a good sheep.
It means being a good shepherd.
Jesus is our model.
He showed us how to live and how to lead his whole life.
He made it most clear at the Last Supper
when he washed the disciples’ feet.
We usually read that story as being about Christ the Servant.
But as he washed their feet, he taught them.
He said, “You call me master and that is who I am.”
Jesus claimed his authority, but he showed us how to exercise it.
The master’s right to lead is based on his willingness to serve.

The point is about ego.
Jesus chased the serpent of ego right out of the garden.
“I am among you as one who serves,” he said.
Jesus was not passive and he was not a tyrant.
So just how did he lead?

Moore and Gillette say,
“It is the . . . king’s duty not only to . . . take to his people
the right order of the universe . . . . but, even more fundamentally,
to embody it in his own person, to live it in his own life.”
The good king in antiquity, they say, “lived the order in his own life;
only secondarily did he enforce it.”

Plato said it long ago.
Before one can lead a government,
one must first establish order in one’s own personality.
That means we must cultivate the practice of sitting still
and watching the racing thoughts and surging feelings
inside our heads and our hearts.
We don’t watch them with harsh judgment,
but we also don’t get carried away by them.
We cultivate a serene curiosity and gentleness toward ourselves.

Then we can regard others with a serene curiosity and gentleness.
We become more interested in understanding others than we are in trying
to get them to do what we want.

We lead by listening rather than shouting,
by seeing deeply into people’s hearts
rather than projecting our ego visions on screens
for them to salute.

Then the goal of our leadership is not to get our way.
It is to build up the other person, to empower them to lead too.
Look at the first verse in our Epistle lesson.
This is the lesson that calls Christ the head of all creation,
but it does not say, “Therefore cringe and cow tow before him.”
It says, “May you become strong
with all the strength that comes from his glorious power.”

Jesus is not trying to subjugate us but to liberate and empower us.
His hope is that we will then liberate and empower each other.
This isn’t easy.
It takes tremendous discipline when things are going wrong,
in our opinion, not to react, but to watch, to wonder,
to ask questions.

There is an option to squaring off in opposing camps.
That option is there in government, business, and home.
It is always there – the option of awareness and compassion.
The ego-reflex is fight flight, but we have the spiritual option.
Jesus gave it to us and showed us how to use it.

So my prayer for each of you is the prayer from Colossians,
“May you grow strong” – but not with the aggressive, dominating strength
that scatters the flock, tears us apart, and oppresses the weak.
No “may you grow strong with . . . (Christ’s) power,”
relational power, serene power, power devoid of ego,
the power to order and bless.”

Monday, November 15, 2010

Writing The St. Stephen's Story

Speaking on this occasion is beyond me.
Thankfully, this is just one of three sermons for your closing
– Fr. Joe last week; me today; Fr. Rick next week.
Out of our three perspectives, you may glean some material
to use in crafting your own perspective
– which, after all, is the only one that matters.

Most of you probably remember Joni Mitchell’s song, “The Circle Game.”
It’s about an innocent child catching dragon flies.
He becomes a pre-teen when “promises of someday make his dreams,”
then a teenager, then a young adult
– and that’s as far a Joni was able to tell the story
because she was only 25 at the time she wrote it.

There’s a poignant sadness in those lyrics
as the passing of each stage is a loss.
The chorus insists four times,
“We can’t return. We can only look behind
From where we came.”//

There’s regret in that.
I want to return, to go back.
Surely you must want to go back too.
We miss our past, our youth, the good times
– even when they were not entirely good
– but good or bad, they were our times.
The children of Israel even wanted to go back to Egypt.
Knowing “we can’t return; we can only look behind
from where we came” – that’s a grief.

There’s also hope in the lyrics.
After acknowledging that the boy’s
“dreams have lost some grandeur coming true,”
she adds this promise,
“there’ll be new dreams, maybe better dreams and plenty.”

That is also true.
As Christians we live by that hope.
We have heard God’s promise in the words of Jeremiah,
“I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord,
plans for your good and not evil.”
We know that God brings life out of death,
and hope out of despair.
We know that.
But we also want to go back.
We love the place we have been.
It does no good to deny it.
We are losing something precious.

I have known St. Stephen’s for only three years.
But I mourn this passing.
People all over this diocese from Ely to Tahoe
and down in Las Vegas are saddened.
I can only imagine what it must be like for you
who have lived in this family, who have loved this family,
and who have devoted so much of yourselves
to sustaining it all these years.

So I acknowledge your grief.
It is not only right; it is inevitable, that you should grieve.
I cannot and would not try to deny your grief or to foreshorten it.
Grief has its own integrity which must be honored.

Brothers and sisters, I won’t tell you how to feel.
Don’t let anyone tell you how to feel.
You must feel what you feel.
This is your church and your life.

But there must be more than feeling.
Great change calls for reflection.
It calls for finding the meaning in things.
In this case, it is necessary to find two thing kinds of meaning:
First, you must discern the value of St. Stephen’s life.
Second, you must discern the St. Stephen’s legacy.

First let’s reflect upon St. Stephen’s life.
What has transpired here matters. It counts.
You must tell this story in a way that has a point.

I have sometimes heard your story told
in a way that focused on your traumas.
Every life has traumas and they are part of your story.
How you dealt with them then and deal with them now
is part of the meaning.

I have sometimes heard your story told
with a focus on mistakes that were made.
Every life has mistakes.
What we learn from our mistakes
is part of the meaning.

But, wiht my own eyes, I have seen you rejoice.
I have seen you worship.
I have seen you pray.
I have seen you serve the outcast in Jesus’ name.
You have borne the Christ light for each other
and for people outside these walls.
God has been here.
I feel in your presence, I feel at this altar,
that God has been here
in your light and in your darkness.

This story is yours to write – not mine.
But I implore you not to write too readily
the story of a victim
or the story of a mistake.
When the gospel has been proclaimed
and the sacraments of life shared,
that is a story deserving of respect.

I implore you to be faithful to who you have been.
I implore you, as a gospel people,
to write your story as gospel,
as a chapter in God’s epic of good news.

A voice in your heart may whisper,
“If it was so great, then why isn’t it continuing?
We must have done something wrong.”

We like to think that way.
We like to think there is some magic formula
that will make things last forever.
It’s our way of denying mortality.
But the 2nd Noble Truth of the Buddha
and the entire Gospel of Luke insist that it isn’t so.

We arise out of the universe without cause
other than God’s mysterious will.
Then we dissolve and reconfigure in new forms,
all in the mystical providence of God.

St. Stephen’s has lived for a purpose, God’s purpose.
If St. Stephen’s passes away,
does that mean you have failed in your purpose?
Has God failed?
Or has the mission perhaps been accomplished
to the extent that it can be accomplished in this form
– and is it now time to regroup
in order to continue God’s mission in a new way?

These are questions for you to answer – not me.
But I have not noticed that the good live longer than the evil.
Billy Joel tells us “only the good die young.”
I don’t know about that, but the good do die, sometimes young.
The difference is that the good are also resurrected.

I hope when you write the St. Stephen’s story in your memories,
it will be a story to cherish, to hold fondly,
and to tell to others with love -- and not regret.

The second way to find meaning in the midst of this pain
takes both reflection on the past
and imagination about the future.
This part is determining the St. Stephen’s legacy.
Did your prayers, your study of wisdom, your works of mercy
have any lasting value?
Is it all up in smoke? Was it all for nothing?

Or did you create something that will endure
– perhaps something not of bricks and mortar
– but of the spirit?
Is something being buried here?
Or is something being set loose?
Has something been longing to transcend
its old structure to become beautiful in a new way?

As Joni Mitchell said in Both Sides Now,
“something’s lost and something’s gained
in living every day.”
We know what is being lost.
It takes spiritual imagination to see
what is being gained.
I urge you to engage your spiritual imagination.
You may not be ready yet. That’s ok.
But when you are ready, engage your spiritual imagination,
and follow as best you can the adage of Gordon Lightfoot,
“If you’re going to face tomorrow, do it soon.”

It isn’t a betrayal of the past to embrace a future
to which the past has given birth.
The future is the child of the past,
and it gives the past its lasting value.
Look within your hearts and ask
“How am I better today because I was part of St. Stephen’s?
What will I do tomorrow to honor what I learned at St. Stephen’s?”

There is a close tie between these two reflections.
The meaning you find in St. Stephen’s life
is the key to the legacy you will make for St. Stephen’s.
If you tell a story of traumas and mistakes,
that’s the kind of legacy you will carry forward.
But if you find joy and grace in St. Stephen’s life,
that’s the kind of legacy you will share with the Church
and the world.

Brothers and sisters, I thank you and I honor you
for all you have done here so faithfully and for so long.
I have more than confidence,
I have a “sure and certain hope in the resurrection”
of St. Stephen’s spirit in many places and many ways,
for generations yet to come.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Sanctity And Underwear Reform In The Middle Ages

Today we celebrate all the saints.
But who and what are saints?
St. Jerome, a 5th Century theologian,
translated the Bible from Greek into Latin.
He was a bad theologian and a questionable translator.
He surrounded himself with women whom he constantly maligned,
both personally and theologically.
But it is said he once removed a thorn form the paw of lion,
to the lion and he became good friends.
That probably gives him a better claim
to being the patron saint of animals
than St. Francis who merely preached to birds.

Sts. Sergius and Bacchus were officers in the Roman army.
They were favorites of Emperor Maximian,
until they admitted they were Christians.
Then Maximian forced them to parade through the streets in drag,
and eventually had them executed.
Speaking of being in drag, there’s the 4th Century St. Pelagia.
Before her conversion, Pelagia was an exotic dancer
with the stage name of Pearl.
After her conversion, she changed her name to its male form, Pelagius,
dressed as a man, and lived in Jerusalem as a monk.

3rd Century St. Calistus began life as a slave,
then after his emancipation became a professional thief.
Later he became the Pope, and ordered that penitent sinners,
Including murderers, were welcome in the Church.

St. Odo of Cluny was a 10th Century monk.
He suffered from severe headaches,
but was nonetheless able to institute
many important church reforms – not the least of which was
requiring monks to wash their underwear every Saturday.

So what makes a saint?
Some were notably kind, good, and generous.
Others, not so much.
Some were smart – like Augustine and Thomas Aquinas.
Others not so smart.
Some, like Joan of Arc, did great things that shaped history.
Othrs, like St. Jean-Baptiste Vianney lived simple lives
far removed from the world’s great affairs.

Saints are not necessarily moral heroes who got it right.
Many of them were deeply flawed.
Some were downright nuts.
So why do we canonize them, celebrate them,
devote special days to their commemoration?

The saints are a communion of sanctified humanity.
Let’s look at each of those three terms
– communion, sanctified, and humanity
– starting with humanity.
Being human gives us the ability to imagine and create,
to love and appreciate beauty,
to remember and to dream.
But those good gifts come along with vulnerability
to all sorts of flaws and foibles.
Humanity is, to use Bishop Tutu’s word, “untidy.”
It’s complicated. It’s fraught with ambiguities and contradictions.
People are not consistent. Frankly, we are pretty squirrely.

Most people are sometimes happy.
All people sometimes suffer.
We know all about loneliness and anxiety.
We all have death looking over our shoulder.
We all want to be special,
and most of us are afraid we are not.
This is the stuff of being human.

Now what might make this humanity sanctified
and still be human?
Something is sanctified if it’s dedicated to God.
A cup is just a cup, until we set it aside to use
as the chalice for Holy Communion.
No matter how ordinary it is – be it chipped, bent, or misshapen –
once dedicated to this sacred purpose, it is a sanctified chalice.
Another cup may be exquisitely crafted silver,
but if it’s used for any old purpose, it isn’t sanctified.

The saints are just people as holy chalices are just cups,
but saints are dedicated to God.
The saints of history just lived the best they could, as we all do.
When they did well, it was for God.
When they did poorly, that was for God too.

The old saying goes, “God carves the rotten wood.
He rides the lame horse.”
We do our best – then God uses our faults as well as our virtues
as channels of grace.
The quirkiness and even sinfulness of the saints
is proof of God’s readiness to work
with whatever we have to offer.

Finally, what makes all these sanctified sinners into a communion?
Being a communion means belonging to God’s family.
It means acknowledging that we already belong to the human family,
and are willing to associate with an especially mixed up batch
of humanity called the church.

St. Jerome, the woman hating celibate scholar,
and St. Pelagia, the exotic dancer,
were, no doubt, surprised to find themselves
in the same family.

The Church isn’t a club of nice people who all think alike.
It isn’t a bunch of people who agree about everything.
It’s a family.
Sometimes we are proud of our family.
Sometimes people in our family embarrass us.
Being family doesn’t mean approving of people.
It means belonging to them.

We join this family through baptism.
We renew our commitment to it every Sunday
by gathering at the family table
to eat from one loaf and drink from one cup.

The communion of saints is a picture
of God’s quirky family.
We are human – together – with all the loneliness, vulnerability,
crankiness, and squirreliness that goes with being human.
We are sanctified together because we are all dedicated
to “one Lord, one Faith, one baptism, one God and Father over all.”
God has provided no way for anyone to be sanctified alone.
When we dedicate our lives to the one God,
those lives are joined at the deepest level
- the level of their reason to live.

Our purpose is to be a communion.
Our sanctification, our dedication to God,
consists precisely in our struggle to live together,
to share each other’s joys and sorrows,
to accept and even appreciate each other’s humanity.
As St. John of the Cross said,
“God has so ordained that we are sanctified
only through the frail instrumentality of each other.”

Lazarus & Mimetic Desire: Or Why Claude Raines And Humphrey Bogart Should Be Cast In This Gospel

Rene Girard is one of the most influential philosophers of our time;
but he started out as a teacher of literature.
He wrote about what was going on in Don Quixote.
Then he noticed the same thing going on in Tolstoy.
The he saw the same pattern in Shakespeare.
Girard eventually realized the reason the same thing
kept happening in all these novels and plays
is that it is what happens in real life.

It works like this: People don’t trust their own hearts
so we don’t know what we truly want.
Instead of feeling our own feelings, we copy the feelings of others.
We don’t know what we genuinely want
-- so we assume that what other people want is valuable
and try to get it.

We all act as if we want the same thing,
and that puts us in fierce competition with each other.
We hurt each other trying to get whatever it is that we think is valuable,
but then when we get it, it doesn’t make us happy.

Rene Girard started out as an atheist,
after he came to understand the cause of human unhappiness,
he saw that Christianity was the best answer.
Let’s see how Girard’s ideas play out in today’s Gospel lesson.

Zacchaeus was a tax collector – the chief tax collector.
In those days, tax collectors got paid on a commission basis,
so they were pretty oppressive.
As the chief tax collector, Zacchaeus was the most oppressive of all;
so the Bible says, “he was rich.”

Now what motivated Zacchaeus to become the chief tax collector?
Is it really obvious?
Did his commissions make him happy?
His wealth had not made him popular.
Tax collectors were universally hated
and it’s clear that the Jericho crowd despised our boy Zacchaeus.
So what did this quest for wealth do for him?

As the story unfolds, we begin to see how his mind worked.
Zacchaeus was desperate to see Jesus,
just to catch a glimpse of Jesus.
But why was that?
Does Zacchaeus strike you as a theologically curious guy?
Do you think he is a spiritual seeker?
Not very likely. The man is an avaricious tax collector.
He’s been doing it long enough to work his way to the top.
That’s not the sort of fellow who just goes spiritually curious.
What was his interest in Jesus?

Blind Bartimaeus sitting beside the road – him we understand.
He wanted his vision back.
The 10 lepers we read about a few weeks ago
calling out to Jesus – them we understand.
But why was Zacchaeus so desperate to see Jesus?

Zacchaeus wanted to see Jesus
because the crowd wanted to see Jesus.
If a crowd has gathered, there must be something to see.
If they want to see it, then we want to see it, right?
But this crowd could see Jesus and Zacchaeus couldn’t.
That’s what made him crazy.

This was a competition.
He wanted it because they had it and he didn’t.
That’s what his whole life felt like
– always competing with the crowd
whether it was for money
or a glimpse of the celebrity.
That’s what made him run ahead of the others
and climb the sycamore tree.
It was his way to outsmart them, to win.

Jesus saw all this.
He knew what was going on.
Somehow he knew Zacchaeus’ name,
and apparently his heart.
Jesus knew Zacchaeus was a desperate man
who didn’t know what he wanted.
He was just competing with the crowd.

Most of us rarely recognize that we are such copycats.
But isn’t it true?
Don’t the movies and the magazines tell us
what constitutes a good looking person?
Don’t we want to drive what the cool people on tv
look so happy driving?

Don’t the advertising people tell us what to want
by persuading us that other people want it.
The other day I bought a tie.
I don’t wear ties much but I got one for the odd occasion.
The salesman was not a good salesman.
After I chose it, he said, “A lot of people wouldn’t go for that tie,”
and immediately I felt that I had made a mistake.
Whether I liked it didn’t matter.
It was the judgment of the crowd I cared about.

So there was Zacchaeus scrambling about like a fool
to see a celebrity he didn’t know
just because the crowd was cheering.
When Jesus saw the poor guy up a tree,
he did one of those absolutely Jesus things.
He did the odd thing that somehow flipped the situation around.

He said, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down,
for I must stay at your house today.”
And look what happened.
The crowd had thought Jesus was totally cool
until he befriended Zacchaeus.
After that, they weren’t so impressed with him anymore.
Jesus wanted the wrong thing
– friendship with someone who was unpopular,
even despised.

But Jesus didn’t care what they thought.
Jesus wouldn’t have cared whether a lot of people liked his tie or not.
He saw Zacchaeus and he valued him, called him a son of Abraham,
appreciated him for who he was.
Even though Zacchaeus didn’t know himself, Jesus knew him,
and claimed him as a friend.

Then look what happened.
Zacchaeus immediately gave away half his wealth
plus promised to repay everyone he had cheated 4-fold.
It looks like the money hadn’t made him all that happy
if he was so ready to part with it.
He didn’t need it anymore.

Jesus had given him something worth more
than all the money in Jericho.
By seeing him, by acknowledging him, by calling him by name,
Jesus gave Zacchaeus a sense of himself.
Jesus held up a mirror to Zacchaeus
and said, “Look, you exist. You matter. You are a son of Abraham.”
Now Zacchaeus wanted to be Jesus’ friend
Even though Jesus was no longer the hero of the crowd.
They went off to lunch alone because neither one of them was popular anymore.

The crowd called Zacchaeus a sinner.
Jesus just said Zacchaeus was lost and he was.
He had lost himself in trying to get what other people wanted.

This is the gift Jesus has for each of us.
He sees us as we are and values us for what we are.
We get lost in the copy cat wanting culture.
But Jesus finds us and gives us back our own hearts,
gives us back out own lives.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

The Tao, The Truth, And The Life

From the early days of the Christianity,
there was a great division.
On one hand, there was a sacrifice religion.
Those folks got Good Friday right off.
Jesus was the sacrifice for us.
That’s all you really needed to know.

Yes, that kind of Christianity got Good Friday,
but they didn’t have a clue what to do
with Jesus’ teachings and the story of his life.
They didn’t know what Jesus’ teachings meant
so they just put them out of mind
and got back to what they understood,
brutal bloody sacrifice.
Tertullian was the big name for Christianity
that took pride in not thinking over much.

But there was another brand of Christianity also from the start.
Justin Martyr, St. Cyprian of Carthage,
Origen of Alexandria and St. Ireneaus of Lyons
saw the whole life, death, and resurrection of Jesus
as meaning something.
To them, Jesus wasn’t just the sacrificial lamb.
He was also the spiritual master who knew
the Father and the way to the Father.
They followed Jesus, who said,
“To you it has been given to know the secrets of the Kingdom
. . . . Blessed are your eyes for they see and your ears for they hear.”

Jesus for them was the way shower, the guide to God.
That kind of Christianity flourished in the British Isles.
It was the religion of St. Columba of Iona,
St. Cuthbert of Lindisfarne, and St. Bridgette of Kildare.
They knew that before our religion was called “Christianity,”
it was called “The Way.”

Of course they called it the Way in Greek and Aramaic.
If they had been Chinese, they would have called it the Tao,
since that is how you say “the Way” in Chinese.
That may be why in the 8th Century and earlier,
Chinese Christians had such an easy time
sharing their faith with Taoists and Buddhists.
They were all looking for the way of life.

Those ancient Chinese Christians believed
that Jesus taught the way
and he showed the way by his own life.
Taoists and Buddhists respected that belief,
and they listened.

I grew up with Tertullian’s religion.
I didn’t get brutalized by it.
I didn’t mind the guilt.
Being a neurotic, I rather enjoyed it in a sick masochistic way.
But I did get bored.
More than boring me,
Tertullian’s religion left me hungry for something.
I needed some wisdom to live by.

Knowing Jesus died for me was true but it wasn’t enough.
It didn’t tell me how to cope with life’s ups and downs,
didn’t tell me what to do in the face of aggression,
didn’t help me manage the pride and shame,
the craving and aversion, the fear and loathing
that tugged me to and fro each day.

Christianity seemed to offer no guidance for life
except rules against
a few culturally unacceptable vices
and a vague admonition to behave respectably.
Theologian, Stanley Hauerwas,
speaking of his own Methodist Church,
said that he once thought Methodists had no theology.
But, Stanley said, after years of teaching at Duke Divinity School,
he had learned they believe that “God is nice
and we should be nice too.”
It isn’t just Methodists. That was what I saw as Christianity too.

So I went shopping in the psycho-spiritual marketplace.
At Big Sur, I primal screamed.
In Denver, I strained my sacroiliac
while liberating my kundalini.
In Boston, I watched my breath
until I saw pretty cool light shows, drug-free.

But there was still something missing.
There is a truth in Jesus that I needed.
No one had said it, but I sensed it.
The truth is there in his life and between the lines of his words.
He told stories that surprised us
and broke open our assumptions and fixed concepts.
His stories still open the heart and the mind.

So I came back.
At one point when Jesus’ followers had had enough
and were abandoning him,
he said to Peter, “Are you leaving too?”
Peter said, “Master, where can I go? You have the words of life?”
So Peter stayed with Jesus and I came back.

When I came back, I discovered the Jesus who said,
“To you it has been given to know the secrets of the Kingdom
. . . . Blessed are your eyes for they see and your ears for they hear.”
I discovered the Jesus who was steeped in Jewish Wisdom teachings
which were already old in his day.

At the same time Socrates was holding forth in Greece,
Jewish sages were writing Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Sirach,
and the Wisdom of Solomon.
According to these ancient masters,
there is a knowledge that enables us to live well
– just as there are beliefs that make us live badly.
There are practices of living that open our hearts and minds
to better understanding just as there are habits of living
that make us callous and spiritually obtuse.

Biblical Scholars like Deirdre Good and Elizabeth Schussler-Fiorenza
have shown us that Jesus’ teachings and his counterintuitive life
are rooted in those wisdom teachings
that were already 500 years old when he was born.

Many of these writings are open ended.
They are jumping off places for thought and imagination.
Take our lesson from Proverbs.
“Wisdom has built her house.
She has hewn her seven pillars.”

What are the seven pillars of wisdom?
One scholar draws on the Epistle of James to say
the pillars of wisdom are seven virtues:
purity, serenity, gentleness, discretion,
reasonableness, humility and sincerity.
Others might equate the 7 pillars with the cardinal virtues
of faith, hope, love, prudence, temperance, justice, and fortitude.
Others say they are insight into seven categories of reality:
the source of the universe, the nature of God, the way of salvation,
the planes of existence, the destiny of human beings,
and the destiny of the universe.

I don’t know what the seven pillars of wisdom are.
But any of these interpretations could make our lives deeper
and more holy.

The Christianity in which I have lived these 30 years,
is as rich, deep, and complex as any world religion
or philosophy.
It is not so much a set of neat answers
as challenging questions to ponder
and practices to master.
It takes connecting the head with the heart,
prayer with action, and worship with daily life.
It takes study, prayer, action, and believing.

But what’s the point of it all?
It’s higher ground.
I love that line in our song,
“My heart has no desire to stay
Where doubts arise and fears dismay.”
Christ bids us to come up higher by knowing his truth,
to rise above the petty squabbles of worldly life
and know his peace.

Paul prayed in Colossians
“that you may be filled with the knowledge of God’s will
in all spiritual wisdom and understanding.”
– and in Ephesians, “that you may . . . comprehend . . .
the breadth and length and height and depth,
and know the love of Christ . . . . “

There is much to know in this faith of ours.
There is no test. There is no competition.
There is no pride in knowing or shame in not knowing.
But there is joy in learning. There is peace and consolation.
There is wonder and delight.

As Paul wanted the Ephesians and Colossians
to be consoled, strengthened, and empowered
by deep wisdom, spiritual knowledge,
I want that for all of us.
Moses assured us,
“this is not too hard for us.”
Wisdom is God’s gift for all who will receive it.

On Such A Winter's Day

Our Gospel lesson ends with a haunting question,
“When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”//

First, who is this Son of Man?
That’s a profoundly ambiguous title.
Jesus used it to describe himself,
but what does it mean?
If Jesus is using these odd words the way the prophet Daniel did,
the Son of Man is a divine being coming in judgment
at the end of history.
But if Jesus is using the words “Son of Man”
the way most people meant them in his day,
they mean an ordinary person, the man on the street.

That’s how I think of them in this lesson.
I imagine the ordinary person on the street
and wonder if he will find faith on earth.

Here’s what I mean.
Some of you may be old enough to remember
the 1965 John Philips song, California Dreamin’
– or if you’re younger, you may have heard it
in last year’s movie, Fish Tank.
It’s about a guy feeling cold and lonely in New York on a winter day.
He stops into a church to get warm.

In how many movies have you seen someone feeling cold and lost
go into a church, perhaps to pray or just get warm – perhaps spiritually?
I’ve done it myself in real life.
When my daughter was backpacking through Europe,
she was homesick one day so far from home.
But she found an Episcopal Church
where a priest prayed with her
and it was like a shawl wrapped around her soul.

A church building embodies faith in an architectural way.
The priest embodies faith in a human way.
The paintings of Caravaggio and Fra Angelico embody faith in painting.
The sculpture of Michelangelo and Rodin embody faith in stone.

So here’s what the question in our Gospel lesson means to me:
When the cold and lonely John Philips of California Dreamin,
or my daughter in Europe, or any Son of Man
is wandering lost and lonely on life’s mean streets,
will there be a Church with a glowing hearth
where he can warm his soul?
I don’t just mean will there be church buildings around.
I mean: will there be faith in the world when we need it?
Will we find faith on earth?

By faith, I mean something that doesn’t fit a nifty definition.
I mean a deep trust that there is meaning and value to life.
Ultimate meaning and value is at least part of what I mean by God.

Faith is trust in the core of reality,
trust that the mystery will one day be revealed
for what is has always been:
good and true, beautiful and kind.
Faith is trust that there is redemption, forgiveness, and reconciliation.
Without faith, the streets get pretty cold on a winter’s day.

We need faith in order to live a truly human life.
One person clothes his faith in one religion.
Another person clothes his faith in another religion.
But faith cannot live naked in this world.
It’s too cold out there.

Faith needs a medium just like a medicine has to be mixed in a base.
Faith is the spirit inside religion.
Faith needs stories, rituals, art and architecture.
It needs songs and dances, holy days, saints, traditions.
These things are not faith themselves, but faith needs them to survive.

“When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”
When we need faith, when our children and grandchildren need faith,
will they find it?

Brothers and sisters, faith is not an accomplishment.
It is a gift from God.
But it is a fragile gift, a precious gift that must be nurtured.
St. Paul called it a treasure held in a fragile clay jar.
It is like a seedling entrusted to us to water, protect, and cherish.
Faith is a gift that lives or dies, flourishes or perishes,
in our hearts and in our culture
depending on how we treat it.

That brings us to our Epistle lesson.
Faith is clothed in religion, mediated to us by religion
-- but the religion only works if we know it.
Notice all the words of learning and knowledge in this text.
“Continue in what you have learned and firmly believed,
knowing from whom you learned it
and how from childhood you have known the sacred writings
that are able to instruct you for salvation through faith. . . .
All Scripture is useful for teaching … (and) training . . . .
Proclaim the message, be persistent whether the time
is favorable or unfavorable . . . .with the utmost patience in teaching.”

To nourish our faith, we have to know our religion.
In my younger days, I was not a believer.
But I at least knew what it was I didn’t believe.
I knew it. I missed it. And when the time was right,
I knew where to look for it.
On a cold winter day, “I stopped in to a church
I passed along the way.”
Thanks be to God and the saints who have gone before us,
the church was there. The faith was there.
Now here’s what worries me.
A recent Pew Forum survey of religious knowledge
showed that most of us don’t know much about religion
– either our own or anyone else’s.
Atheists and agnostics knew almost twice as much
as mainline Protestants.

There’s a lot of Christianity to know.
I don’t know the half of it.
But in my worst times of fear and despair,
the words of Isaiah have carried me.
When I have been falling apart,
the Jesus prayer has held me together.

I was over 50 years old before the Doctrine of the Trinity
opened my eyes to life being more beautiful
than I had ever imagined;
and the Mystery of the Incarnation blew wide open
all my assumptions about who God is
and what it means to be human.

Faith is a precious gift.
We pass it down from generation to generation.
We tend it, shield it, feed and water it.
We tend our faith with prayer and practice,
worship and study.

“Continue in what you have learned and firmly believed,”
the Bible says, “knowing from whom you learned it
and how from childhood you have known the sacred writings
that are able to instruct you for salvation through faith. . . .”

Faith lives between the lines
of the wild story of salvation in our Bible.
It lives in the prayers of the saints
and the imaginations of the artists.
But only if we know these things,
only if we know our religion.

“When the Son of Man comes,
will he find faith on the earth?”
It’s up to us.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Dukkha Du Jour

What do 10 lepers on the side of the road
have to do with us in Carson City today?
If we take the story an inch deeper and a foot wider,
this story is precisely about you and me.

10 lepers cried out “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us”
for a simple, obvious reason.
They had leprosy.
Their flesh fell off and they exuded an offensive odor.
The lepers found that condition unsatisfactory.

We may not have leprosy,
but we know what it is to find our lives unsatisfactory.
Gautama Buddha said, “The first noble truth is this: There is suffering.”
Only he didn’t say “suffering,” because he didn’t speak English.
Speaking Sanskrit, he actually said, “There is dukkha.”
Suffering isn’t a good translation of “dukkha.”
Actually, it means dissatisfaction, discontent.
Robert Penn Warren said, “The earth grinds on its axis.”
Samuel Taylor Coleridge called it, “the tears in the nature of things.”
W. H. Auden spoke of “all the failed caresses.”
St. Augustine, George Herbert, and modern theologian John Dunne
called it “restlessness.”
Dunne set out to follow his heart’s desire and discovered, in his words,
“how unfulfilled longing can be (like) an unrequited love.”

Leprosy was the specific form of dissatisfaction our lepers had that day.
It was the dukkha du jour on their life’s menu.

Like the lepers, we sometimes find our circumstances unsatisfactory.
I have been in circumstances so unsatisfactory, that in my eyes,
they made leprosy look like a hangnail.
I have cried “Jesus, have mercy on me” and he has done it.
Thanks be to God, the old hymn is true.
There is “power in the blood, wonder working power.”
He has brought me though the deep waters and the fiery trials.
Sometimes we bring our fear and our sorrow to Jesus and are redeemed.
But after we have been redeemed, are we then satisfied?
That is the question Jesus raised when one leper returned to give thanks,
and Jesus wondered,
“Were not 10 made clean? Where are the other 9?”

Indeed where were they?
It takes only a little imagination to answer his question.
They were made clean.
The priests restored them as members of society.
They saw, as they expected, it is better not to be a leper,
and they were happy -- for a week, maybe two.

Then they noticed that they were poor.
Unless you were a high roller like the leper King Uzziah
or dermatologically challenged General Naaman,
if you had leprosy, you were out of work.
Our 9 lepers were certainly destitute.
Being destitute was unsatisfactory. It still is.

Being hungry, having no roof or walls,
no bed to sleep in, nowhere to bathe,
these things are unsatisfactory.

I like to think that one or more of them
had a trade before they fell ill,
resumed their trade after they were healed,
and eventually got back on their financial feet.
Once restored to the blue collar middle class,
they saw that it is better to be solvent than impoverished.
So they were again happy – for a week, maybe two.

Then they noticed that they had no family and were lonely.
Or they noticed that they did have a family,
and their spouse was insufficiently attentive to them,
or their children were rebellious or indolent or slovenly.

Everyone’s children are too something.
If nothing else, they are too perfect. That is the worst.
There are two great forms of social unhappiness.
One is to have no family. The other is to have a family.
So again, their situation was unsatisfactory.

Perhaps, having been delivered from the distraction of leprosy,
they noticed, in that pre-dentistry era,
that they had chronic bad breath
and intermittent toothache.
Eventually mortality manifested as a specific terminal illness.
And terminal illnesses are decidedly unsatisfactory.

Can we see our lives in this?
Perhaps we have evolved from some discontent in the 80’s,
to a new tribulation in the 90’s,
to whatever burr is under our saddle today.
If so, that is not too bad.

Grading our lives on the existential curve,
that would be at least an A-.
It is better to move from one unhappiness to another,
than to remain forever mired in the same old misery.
It is at least more interesting.
Freud said the goal of psychotherapy is to liberate us from neurosis
so we can live lives of ordinary misery.

But one leper did something different.
One leper returned to give thanks.
Instead of rushing onward into the impossible quest for satisfaction
he returned to the source of the blessing he had already received.
He returned -- he turned around -- the Greek word is metanoia.
He repented – not of his sins but of self-seeking.
He turned from the common direction of human life
and gave thanks.
In Greek, the word for give thanks is “eucharist.”
It’s what we do today and every Lord’s Day.

It’s a spiritual practice in awakening something inside us .
Yesterday, in a KUNR radio interview, our own Rev. Stefani Schatz
called it “the heart of gratitude.”//

In reflecting on his earlier life of spiritual disquietude,
John Dunne said,
“I had not yet been able to say ‘thanks’ for the past
or ‘yes’ to the future, and so I was not yet able
to live in the present.”

The thankful leper in our story made that leap.
He said “thanks” for his past.
Then Jesus set him free to say “yes” to the future
and live in the present.
“Get up and go on your way,” Jesus said.
His grateful faith had set him free.

It is a good thing to enjoy our passing moments of happiness.
But it is a better thing to root that happiness in its source,
to turn our minds from checking our own emotional temperature,
from measuring our lives against some unachievable standard,
from dwelling on the half-emptiness of our glass
toward the eternal source of our blessing.
It is better to take delight in the existence of the Blessed One
who blesses us with reality itself.

When we awaken the heart of gratitude,
we discover a wealth of spiritual solace and strength.
Of course, troubles still come, we are still frustrated, disappointed.
Life is still what it is.

But life floats in a sea of grace.
Gratitude feels the buoyancy of that grace.
We see that in the one leper who turned around,
who turned his heart from seeking its own content
to praising God for his very life.
We cannot repay God for our blessings.
But we can acknowledge the source of our good.
That’s why we give our money as a Eucharistic offering,
to acknowledge that our livelihood is a gift.
That’s why we perform acts of mercy,
to acknowledge we have received mercy.
That’s why we pray for others,
to acknowledge that someone’s prayers have carried us.

There is another poor translation in today’s Gospel lesson.
At the end, our text says Jesus told the man,
“Get up and go on your way. Your faith has made you well.”
But Greek word is not “made you well.”
It is “Your faith has made you whole.”

Jesus cured the man’s leprosy at the beginning of the story.
At the end of the story,
gratitude completed the job
of setting him free from chronic disquietude.
To give thanks, to celebrate Eucharist is, as it says in Rite I,
“meet, right, and our bounden duty.”
But it is more than that, much more.
It is, as it says in Rite II, “a right, good, and a joyful thing.”

Monday, September 27, 2010

Something There Is That Doesn't Love A Wall

Faith does not happen in a vacuum.
It happens in the mix and muddle of human life.
As Robert Frost said,
“Earth is the right place for love.
I don’t know where it’s likely to go better.”
So faith happens in our actual lives,
our private lives and our public affairs alike.
But both our private lives and public affairs
are driven by forces other than faith.

This past week the bishops of the Episcopal Church
have been struggling to sort out the place of faith
in the national debate over immigration.
That debate is driven by quite different forces.
The non-faith principles, which are not necessarily bad -- just secular --
are in head to head conflict.

On the one hand, we have free market capitalism
which most Americans believe in.
Since the rise of capitalism in the 17th, 18th, and 19th Centuries,
it has depended on a freely mobile labor force
– people able to go where the jobs are.
Serfs had to be able to leave the rural manors
to go to urban factories to make the economy work.

On the other side, we also believe in nationalism.
Nations define themselves with borders
and protect the wealth inside the borders
from those on the outside.
The Dominican Republic where there are jobs
guards its borders against Haitians
who come there for work.
The same thing happens in France, Ecuador,
and numerous nations.

One could interject facts and statistics to argue
for one side or the other
on the immigration debate.
But facts are the business of economists and sociologists.
Certainly, people ought to learn the facts.
But the Church is here to teach faith,
to uphold spiritual and moral values
which are the framework for what we do with the facts.

The voice of faith in the immigration debate is bigger than one issue.
It speaks to our whole way of being in the world.
So faith cannot say anything about immigration
that does not also say something about
how we live our lives as congregations and as individuals
in our families, our friendships, and our daily work.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus tells the story of the rich man and Lazarus.
It does not say how the rich man got rich. It doesn’t matter.
It does not say how Lazarus became poor. It doesn’t matter.
What matters is the wall the rich man built to keep Lazarus out.
Lazarus longed “to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table.”
But the wall kept him out.

In the next life, Lazarus was comforted in heaven.
The rich man was tormented in Hades.
We don’t know why the rich man was tormented in Hades.
It doesn’t say it was for his callous disregard of Lazarus.
That might be -- it but we don’t know.

What we do know is that the rich man wanted Lazarus
to come give him some relief, to show him some mercy.
But Lazarus could not do it.
He could not come to the rich man’s aid
because “a great chasm had been fixed between them.”

The unspoken point is that it was the rich man
who had fixed the great chasm, built the wall,
locked the gate.
Now he found himself on the wrong side of it.

This Gospel lesson could say something about immigration.
Or it could tell us about the gated communities
in which so many of us live. I do.
Or it could say something about the walls of righteous rules
we use to hoard our own moral superiority
from the folks on the outside.

There is a spiritual problem that keeps building walls.
It built the Berlin Wall.
It built the Great Walls of China and Peru.
It built Hadrian’s Wall to keep barbarians out of the Roman Empire.
You can look at them now and see it isn’t a successful track record
that keeps us erecting walls.

It’s something inside us.
It’s the same spiritual problem that builds walls around human hearts
to protect us from the vulnerability
of caring too much about too many.
Jesus keeps saying all through Luke
that we can build our walls,
but there is no guarantee which side of the wall
we will wake up on tomorrow.

Life is a terribly uncertain proposition with lots of ups and downs.
Shakespeare said that in most of his plays.
Frank Sinatra said it in one of his classics:
“That’s life. That’s what all the people say.
You’re riding high in April, shot down in May.
But I know I’m gonna change that tune
When I’m back on top in June.
I said, ‘That’s life.’”

The spiritual problem that builds walls
is our notion that we can stop all that upping and downing.
We think we can build a wall to keep the workers out or the jobs in.
We think we can build a wall around our families
to make them little islands of wholesome tranquility
in cities beset by crime, poverty, and addiction.
But the walls don’t work.
Life is life and life moves no matter how hard
we try to wall it in or wall it out.

The moral of the story in Luke
is that walls imprison us.
They cut us off from each other
and we need each other.
The stranger is the unknown part of ourselves.
We cannot wall out risk without walling out blessing.

To open the gates of our hearts is to risk
caring too much for too many.
I don’t know what we ought to do about any public policy.
Others know more about economics and such.

But I do know that as long as we have walls around our hearts
we will keep building them around our nation
and our neighborhoods.
We will wall ourselves in and wall life out.

We began by quoting Robert Frost,
“Earth’s the right place for love . . . .”
He also said,
“Something there is that doesn’t love a wall . . . .
Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offense.
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall . . . .” Amen.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Frank Sinatra Sings St. Luke

Frank Sinatra Sings St. Luke

Jesus’ advice on where to sit at a banquet
is one of the most misunderstood sayings in the New Testament
and that misinterpretation has caused no end of trouble,
especially in the Church.

It sounds like Jesus is advising us to use false modesty
as a backdoor way to gain prestige.
Don’t put yourself forward if you would risk being put down.
How much better to deliberately sit below your station
so you will be invited up higher;
and thereby win public acclaim not only for your prestige
but also for your modesty.
The first thing to know is that this is a Jewish joke
– but we take it seriously.

Maybe a British joke will make the point better.
I am not a fan of Prince Charles
but sometimes he gets it right.
He was once given an award of some sort.
He said how grateful and honored he was by this award
as well as all the other awards he had received.
But he regretted that he had never gotten an award for modesty.
Actually, he said, he had once been given a medal for modesty,
but when he put on, they took it away from him.

Our Gospel lesson is usually read as a sneaky way
to get a medal for modesty.
They wouldn’t do this in the business world
where serious money is at stake.
They wouldn’t do it in sports where kids on the bench
jump up and down saying “put me in coach.”
But in places like the Church where status is more subtle
and is achieved in far more duplicitous ways,
we have to slip our pride in the back door.

People are readier to have root canals than they are
to put themselves forward to lead in ministry and mission.
No one wants to admit to considering himself “worthy” to lead.
We are all too humble to do the job Christ has given us.
Back when Agnes Sanford was the great teacher of healing ministries
in the Episcopal Church, after one of her workshops,
a man told her he felt called to a ministry of healing,
but he knew he was not worthy.
Agnes replied, “Then get worthy.”

But what about our Gospel lesson?
Is Jesus actually advising us to adopt a posture of false humility,
slinking into our unworthiness, wringing our hands like Uriah Heep?
Is Our Lord prescribing manipulative self-abasement
as a devious way to climb the social ladder?

I don’t think so.
Yes, he says “whoever humbles himself will be exalted;
and whoever exalts himself will be humbled.”
But it doesn’t really matter
whether we humble ourselves or exalt ourselves.
In Luke’s Gospel the lowly are always getting exalted;
and the exalted are always being brought low.

But then the formerly exalted become the lowly,
who are due to get exalted again.
Meanwhile the formerly lowly have gotten exalted
so they are the ones heading for a fall.
The picture of life we get from Luke’s Gospel is a see-saw.
In the words of the Frank Sinatra classic,
“That’s life. That’s what all the people say.
You’re riding high in April, shot down in May.
But I know I’m gonna change that tune
When I’m back on top in June.
I said, ‘That’s life.’”

It’s true isn’t it.? That is what happens.
But Jesus does not agree with Frank Sinatra on one point.
All that riding high and getting shot down are not life.
They are not what life’s actually about.
Life is about how we treat each other on the way up
and how we treat each other on the way down.

The gospel happens as truth and justice, as healing and mercy,
as relationships sparking between such unlikely friends
as Jews and Samaritans
– of such things, the Kingdom of God is constituted.
Those who climb any ladder, whether it is the ladder
of government, military, business, or church
achieve a perilous perch.
The higher we get, the farther we have to fall.
But refusing to step up a rung to do the job
is an act of either spiritual cowardice or moral sloth.
We have to be ready to rise and ready to fall for sake of the gospel.

Status is not the thing to focus on.
Rank is irrelevant. Authority is irrelevant. Prestige is irrelevant.
What matters is the mission – a mission that happens
not just in the church but also in the home, in the community,
in the workplace.
Our lesson from Hebrews describes the mission
as hospitality to strangers, mercy to prisoners and the suffering.
The mission is sharing God’s love with a broken world
in tangible ways.
What matters is the mission and the mission needs leaders.
But this kind of mission calls for a different kind of leader.

Jesus said, “The one who would be first among you
must be the one who serves.”
Throughout Luke’s Gospel, Jesus teaches
a different kind of leadership —servant leadership.
It isn’t about being a boss, a ruler saying “Do this. Don’t do that.”
Rulers are the ones who take the head of the table
in an attempt to gain rank.

But it isn’t about being a doer either.
It isn’t about the lone ranger servant who acts alone.
Doers are the sneaky ones who try to gain rank
by sitting at the foot of the table.
Of course it is easier to do something ourselves
than to get someone else to do it.
And there are advantages to doing it ourselves.
When we do ministry on our own,
people come to depend on us
and there is a kind of power in that.
What’s more, if I do it myself, it gets done my way.
But if I recruit someone else to do it,
they are apt to do it their way
– which may be right or wrong –
but it isn’t my way.
Pride wants its own way.

But the gospel leader, the Christian leader, the servant leader
is not a ruler or a solo doer.
The servant leader get his hands dirty serving the mission
then invites, encourages, and inspires
others to take the mission on.

Do you see the sacrifice, the humility it takes to be a servant leader?
It takes empowering someone else so that they don’t depend on us
– which is a loss to our status right there --
and it takes trusting them to do the job their way.

Can you imagine what it was like for Jesus at the Ascension
to hand over the gospel mission to a bunch of goof balls
like the apostles?
After the apostles planted churches all over the civilized world
they had to pass the job on to the first generation of bishops
– none of whom had even met the historical Jesus.

Jesus rose above pride when he handed the mission over
to the Apostles.
The apostles rose above pride when they handed the mission
over to the bishops.
The bishops rose above pride when they ordained the priests
and entrusted congregations to their leadership.
And so it goes.

We rise above pride when dare not just to do the job,
but to invite, encourage, and inspire
someone else to share it with us
– even take it over from us.
That’s how we build up the kingdom of God
from the ashes of our own pride.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Three Feasts At One Altar

The Eucharist is the ritual shape of our worship,
and we hope that as the years go by,
our worship will more and more shape our lives.
How we understand the Eucharist makes a difference
for how we understand everything.
A deeper, richer understanding of the Eucharist
will deepen and enrich our experience of all our days.
So let’s look at 2 ways to think about our worship.
Let’s consider the meaning of the word, “Eucharist;”
and then let’s look a the meals in the Bible
that the Eucharist calls to mind.

First, the meaning of the word.
Eucharist is a Greek word. Its root is charis
which means gift or grace -- something freely given.
Whatever God has given us is charis.
And what has God given us? Everything.
In the Eucharist, we remember
where everything we have came from.
We remember that our lives, our loves, this whole wonderful world
is God’s free and unconditional gift to us.
We have not earned it. We cannot earn it. It’s all gift.

If charis means gift, then what is Eucharist?
Eucharist in Greek means our response to the Giver.
It is an act of giving thanks.
That’s why the Eucharistic Prayers are called “The Great Thanksgiving.”

We are thanking God for the great gift of “our creation, our redemption,
all the blessings of this life.”
But this Greek word, eucharist, is a specific kind of thanksgiving.
It isn’t just a polite thank you note.
It is a giving back to God – not a repayment, but a gift back
to acknowledge what we have received.
In the Eucharist we give something back to God.
We give our very selves. That is the sacrifice on this altar.

In Rite I, we say,
“Here we offer and present unto thee, O Lord,
our selves, our souls and bodies, to be
a reasonable, holy, and living sacrifice unto thee.”
St. Ignatius of Loyola put it this way:
“Accept O God my memory, my will, my understanding, my imagination.
All that I am and all that I have you have given me.
I give it all back to be disposed of according to your good pleasure.”

The bread, the wine, and the alms are brought to the table
as symbols of our lives, given back to God,
to be blessed, broken, and shared with the world.
A young student once said to Socrates,
“Master, I have nothing to give you.”
Socrates replied, “Then give me yourself
and I will give it back to you much improved.”
Each Sunday, we give our frail, broken lives to God,
and God gives us our lives back, healed and made holy.

Now what meals in Holy Scripture does this ritual enact?
The first and most obvious answer is the Last Supper.
We remember the solemn meal which began the Passion.
It is a meal to remember that the Lord’s gift to us was costly.
We remember the death of Jesus which purchases our lives,
redeems us from the wages of sin.

But that is only the first of the three meals.
For in the Eucharistic Prayer make three acclamations of faith:
Christ has died.
Christ is raised.
Christ will come again.”
The Last Supper is the meal of his death.
The meal of his resurrection was on the road to Emmaus.
You remember the story.
It was the first Easter.
Two disciples were leaving Jerusalem downhearted
when they met a stranger who told them
the meaning of Jesus’ death.

Then at supper, Luke tells us,
“He took bread, gave thanks -- that’s eucharist in the Greek –
and began to give it to them.
Then their eyes were opened and they recognized him.”
This meal, this Eucharist, is an encounter with the Risen Lord.

We believe in the Real Presence of Christ in this sacrament.
We don’t just remember a dead hero. We encounter a living savior.
This is profoundly important.
I have known so many people
whose religion was stuck in Good Friday,
whose lives were a perpetual grief and a constant remorse.

But that is not our faith.
We meet a Lord of Love, and Power, and Might,
a God of Grace subtly put absolutely present
in the simple act of sharing bread.

And now the third meal:
There is as sense in which this meal has not happened yet,
and another sense in which it has been happening
for all eternity.
It’s called the messianic banquet.
Again and again, Jesus said the kingdom of God is like a dinner party.

Jesus was referring to a meal first described by Isaiah:
“On this mountain, the Lord Almighty will prepare
a feast of rich food for all peoples,
a banquet of aged wine – the best meat and the finest wines.
On this mountain, he will destroy the shroud
that enfolds all peoples . . . ,
he will swallow up death forever.
The Sovereign Lord will wipe away the tears
from all their faces . . . .”

The Eucharist is a foretaste of that banquet.
We take this morsel of bread and this sip of wine today
to express our faith that one day
we will sit at the Lord’s table for a rich feast
to celebrate the end of death
and erase of all suffering
with transcendent joy.

We remember is death.
We proclaim his resurrection.
We await his coming in glory.
All our hope is in this simple physical act
with spiritual consequence beyond our imagining.
That’s why Jesus commanded us to do it.
The liturgical scholar, Dom Gregory Dix, said,
“Was ever a command so obeyed?
For century after century, spreading slowly
to every continent and country and among every race on earth.

This action has been done, in every conceivable human circumstance,
for every conceivable human need from infancy and before it
to extreme old age and after it,
from the pinnacle of earthly greatness
to the refuge of fugitives in the caves and dens of the earth. . . .

And best of all, week by week . . .
on a hundred thousand successive Sundays,
faithfully, unfailingly, across all the parishes of Christendom,
the pastors have done just this to make the plebs sancta Dei
– the holy common people of God.”

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Driving Over Hills

Today’s lessons are about faith and fear.
Old Abraham was facing death, still childless,
in a world where there was no immortality, no resurrection.
The only hope of survival was to live on through one’s progeny
—and he didn’t have any.
But God told him not to be afraid. Just trust.

In Luke, Jesus gave one of his most famous teachings.
“Have no fear, little flock.
It is the Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”
This passage falls in the middle of a longer speech
about not worrying over worldly needs
but setting our hearts on the kingdom of God.
Jesus is saying, it’s alright, friends.
The only thing that finally matters is yours
already guaranteed.

Such promises would have been hard to believe,
such assurances would have been hard to trust in Galilee
– poor and powerless under Roman rule
– as hard as it was for old Abraham
to believe he would father a nation.
Such promises are hard for us as a society to trust
when our economy is fragile,
terrorists plot atrocities,
and secularists gleefully write the obituary of the Church
with daunting statistics to prove their point.

Such assurances are hard for us individually to trust
when the threats to our personal happiness
are so clear and present.
Illnesses, the fragility of personal relationships,
the jeopardy of those we love keep us awake.

My soldier son-in-law is waiting to find out
whether he will be deployed overseas.
It’s hard to rest easy without knowing that.
All of our lives have question marks.
We all live with so many unknowns.
But Jesus says, “Let not your hearts be troubled.
Neither let them be afraid.”
He’s talking about a way of being in the world.
It’s called faith.

We sometimes get faith mixed up a set of theological opinions.
We think faith is having the right doctrines
clear and tidily arranged in our heads.
But our Epistle lesson says faith is something
entirely different from that.
It says, “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for,
the conviction of things not seen.”

Faith isn’t dogma. It isn’t knowing the answers.
It’s trusting the unknown.
Then the Bible describes faith as a kind of bold action.
“By faith Abraham . . . set out,
not knowing where he was going.’

Isn’t that what we do every single day of our lives?
The future is unknown. We can’t see over the hill.
Every time we literally drive over a hill we can’t see past,
we have to trust there is a road on the other side.
I suppose we could stop, get out, and walk slowly up to the top
of each rise in the road and take a look.
But that would make for a pretty tedious drive.

Some folks live just that fearfully
and their lives are just that tedious.
But that isn’t the Christian life.
We live more boldly.
We live boldly because we trust God.

Faith is the courage to take a risk.
It is what theologian Paul Tillich called “the courage to be”
It may be the only way we can live.

Helen Keller said,
“Security is mostly a superstition.
It does not exist in nature,
nor do the children of men as a whole experience it.
Avoiding danger is in the long run no safer than exposure.
Life is a daring adventure or nothing.”

Faith is not a dogmatic assertion of things we know.
It’s an attitude toward what we do not know.
That is our most important attitude
because there is so much we don’t know.

Most 18th Century Enlightenment philosophy
has gone the way of Nehru jackets, bell bottoms,
and the DeLorean.
But the wisdom of Immanuel Kant is still with us.
Kant divided reality into those things that could be known,
and those things that in principle could not be known
– not just that we haven’t figured them out yet,
but things that truly cannot be known.
The 20th Century philosopher Martin Heidegger showed how language
is essntial to thinking but language
limits our capacity for thought and perception
and the physicist Werner Heisenberg proved
that aspects of the physical world simply cannot be known.

Reality is mostly unknown and unknowable.
The part we can know floats in a sea of mystery.
As our Epistle lesson says, “what is seen was made
from things that are not visible.”
Or as Antoine de Saint-Exupery put it,
“It is only with the heart that one sees rightly.
The things which are essential are invisible to the eye.”

Faith is our attitude toward what we do not know.
Faith is driving over a hill top trusting there is a road
on the other side.
But if faith is trusting what we cannot know,
and acting on that trust.
where does the faith come from?
And how can we tell authentic faith from craziness?

There are 3 basic ideas about the foundation for faith:
First, there’s William James who says faith is an act of will.
We just choose to put our existential eggs in this basket.
It’s like the folk hymn “I have decided to follow Jesus.”

Second, there is Karl Barth who disagrees with James.
He says we don’t have the will power for faith.
God has to inject us with it.
That’s like Francis Thompson’s “The Hound of Heaven”
where God’s love is just inescapable.

Third, there is Thomas Aquinas for whom faith
is a reasonable extension of what we know.
It’s taking the trajectory of our knowledge out into the mystery.
For example, Anthony Flew, the greatest atheist philosopher of our time
was finally persuaded of God by the Big Bang Theory.
His lifelong commitment was to follow the evidence and the evidence
led him to a reasonable belief in God.
It did not prove God as a fact,
but God was a reasonable explanation
for the facts we know.

I honestly don’t know how faith happens.
It may not work the same way for everyone.
It may take a mix of God planting the seed in us,
our free will choice to water that seed or not,
and some good honest thinking to test
whether the beliefs we use to structure our faith
are reasonable or not
and whether they makes us better people or not.
Thinking may not create faith. But thinking will refine it.

I have more faith some days than others.
That’s why I need the Church to have faith.
I need the Church to have more faith than I do.
I need my family to have faith for me.
This community of hope carries me through my moods of despair
and my spasms of fear.

The Christian life is driving over one hill after another
trusting God to have a road waiting for us on the other side.
It isn’t a guarantee that we won’t have mishaps, even catastrophes.
Those are the hills. Faith trusts God to give us life on the other side.

Such a life leads, as all lives do, to the last hill – death
– “the undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveler returns.”
But if we have been flying over hills for decades,
we can fly over the last one too.
A life of faith consists of practicing trust in the unknown.
When faith has been exercised, developed, strengthened enough
to carry us over that final hill,
then all the hills along the way become
much more manageable.

Just as God invited Abraham to a life of adventure,
Jesus invites us, saying,
“Have no fear little flock.
It is the Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”
With those words he invites us to live.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Strange People, Strange Passions

Strange People, Strange Passions.

Our lessons are about hospitality
– Abraham and Sarah entertaining God in the guise of 3 men
in their tent under the oaks of Mamre
– Mary and Martha entertaining Jesus at their home in Bethany.

Hospitality wasn’t something we talked about
in the Baptist Church of my childhood.
Hospitality was associated with Southern Living Magazine,
not the Bible.
It was something they taught in home economics.
So as a chauvinistic young Texan, I didn’t respect it.

I still remember the first Episcopal sermon I ever heard
on hospitality.
It was about the mustard seed that grew into a tree,
extending its branches to welcome the birds.
I thought the priest was reducing the gospel to something trivial.

But it wasn’t trivial to him. He was Japanese,
and the Japanese make an art of hospitality.
It is a spirituality expressed in the tea ceremony ritual.
In Japan, hospitality isn’t just a nice thing social custom.
It’s a spiritual thing,
Later I learned that hospitality was the core
of Benedictine spiritual practice.
Benedictine monasteries were open to anyone.
The monks’ job was to welcome and serve
those who came their way.
They housed and cared for travelers, the sick, and the dying.
Hostels, hospitals, and hospices are all centers of hospitality
born of the Benedictine tradition.
For them too, it was a spiritual thing.

Last of all, I learned that hospitality was the highest moral duty
in Ancient Civilizations like the Greeks
in Homer’s time and before.
It was the highest moral duty of desert dwellers in the Middle East
during the days of Abraham and Jesus.
Hospitality was the path to wholeness and holiness.
So it is important to get it right, both in church and at home.
It is important to get it right,
so let’s see what we can learn from our two stories.

Abraham was sitting at the entrance to his tent
when he saw three strangers,
and immediately asked for the privilege of being their host.
He was not just willing – he was eager
– to serve the stranger at his gate.
So Abraham and Sarah bustled about baking cakes,
butchering beef, pouring milk, setting the table.
It was a busy, scurrying kind of welcome.

There is something good in that.
It is active caring, practical caring, comfort-giving work.
But it can go wrong.

Maybe Martha had read Genesis
because she welcomed Jesus the same way.
She was scurrying about too, fretting over getting it all right.
She was so intent on her practice of hospitality
that she wasn’t paying any attention to her guest.
She was, the Bible says, “distracted by many things.”
Blessed Martha is the patron saint of multi-tasking.

But do you see the problem?
How would you feel if your arrival set your host in a dither?
Her dither says you are a nuisance, a burden.

Now Mary practiced a different kind of hospitality.
The Bible says, “She sat at Jesus’ feet and listened to him.”//

Martha, was in a state, all frustrated and ruffled.
She saw Mary just taking it all in and it made her angry
– so angry that she reprimanded someone.
Notice she didn’t even reprimand her lazy sister.
She reprimanded Jesus. “Lord do you not care . . . .?” she demanded.
She was working so hard at being a host, she went from ignoring her guest
to yelling at him.

We might see it as a problem yelling at the Savior.
But that isn’t the problem Luke wants us to see.
It’s that she’s yelling at her guest.
Hospitality can turn itself inside out.

Jesus said, “Settle down now Martha.
You are worried and distracted by many things.
But only one thing is needed.
Mary has chosen the better part.”

You see Mary paid attention to Jesus.
She sat down and listened to him.
Abraham, after his initial scurrying around, got to that point too.
Once he served the meal, the Bible says,
he stood beside them under the oak tree while they ate.

So what can we learn from these stories?
The heart of hospitality – the part that makes it feel real,
the part that makes it a spiritual discipline,
the path to wholeness and holiness –
the heart of hospitality is an open, kind attention.
It is just being still, looking and listening.
It is acknowledging the other person is present and they matter.

Hospitality is dropping our agenda
to simply see and hear another person.
It is setting aside our agenda so we can see and hear someone
for their own sake, appreciating them as they are,
valuing them for being who they are.
Hospitality isn’t just for guests.
It’s a way of being in the world.
When we were raising our children,
I was like Martha, always fretting,
working too hard at it, parenting too intensely.
It made my kids wonder what was wrong with them
that I was so anxious.
I regret that.

When I was a parish priest,
I was like Martha, always fretting,
working too hard at it,
trying to make the church better, improve it
– which was a sure fire way to tell the people
they weren’t quite good enough.
I regret that too.

I should have known better.
I used to go to an annual workshop in
New York for mental health workers.
The workshop title was “the caring power of unconditional presence.”
The teacher, Dr. John Wellwood, believed that wounded people
heal when other people just sit with them
– just listen to them unconditionally, without an agenda
to change them, fix them, or improve them.
That’s hospitality.

It isn’t easy. It ‘s hard to set aside our judgments,
our projects, our grid of good and bad.
It is hard to just be still and listen.
But that’s hospitality.

When it sinks in we find a spiritual treasure.
If we practice hospitality with other people,
over time we begin to practice it with ourselves.

As all the different feelings ebb and flow in our hearts,
as all the random thoughts scamper through our minds,
we learn to welcome them in a calm, neutral way.
That is very hard. It isn’t what we usually do.
Usually, we latch onto some thoughts and feelings.
We hold onto them until they get a hold on us.
Other thoughts and feelings we try to banish, repress, exile
because we don’t want to think that, don’t want to feel that.

But hospitality just sits with them like Mary sitting with Jesus,
like Abraham standing under the oak tree beside his guests.
Hospitality is not afraid of our thoughts and feelings,
does not pat some on the head and slap others in the face.
When we become serene in the presence of our own inner dramas,
we can become serene with other people.

Hospitality moves from the outside in, then out again.
We start with welcoming others,
then it sinks into our hearts as deep serenity,
then it comes back out as an even more authentic hospitality.

So, brothers and sisters, whether the stranger that come to us
are strange people or strange passions,
“Never neglect to show hospitality to strangers,
for by doing so, many have welcomed angels unawares.”

Sunday, June 20, 2010

The Action Figure Meets The Great Silence

Elijah was the original action hero – dispensing justice
with lots of violence, explosions, and drama.
His God was a lot like himself.
Nothing surprising in that in those days.

In Elijah’s day, the human race was still quite primitive.
Their idea of God was primitive.
So Elijah’s God was an action hero too.

In today’s lesson, things had been really tough for Elijah.
So, like most of us, that’s when he ratcheted up his religion
and went looking for God.
Elijah looked for God at the place where God lived
– Mt. Horeb, sometimes called Mt. Sinai.
We may not think of God as living in a particular place.
But in Elijah’s time, God had an address.
It was Mt. Horeb.

Moses had met God there, received the law there.
It’s easy to see how they thought God lived on a mountain.
The Greek gods lived on Olympus.
El Capitan overwhelms me with awe,
and I hear from friends who have visited Horeb
it’s an impressive place – holy and mysterious.

Biblical scholars think the earliest Jewish experiences of God
were shaped by the even more primitive religion of their ancestors.
The ancestors probably worshiped a mountain,
before they worshiped El Shaddai, the God of the Mountain.
They also worshiped powerful forces of nature like the desert storm,
the earthquake, and the forest fire.

The Psalms are full of that imagery. Psalm 97:
“Clouds and thick darkness surround him . . . .
Fire goes before him . . . .
His lightning lights up the world.
The earth sees and trembles.”
That’s what a religious experience was – God doing dramatic stuff.
When nothing spectacular was happening, they felt cut off.
So they prayed in Psalm 83:
“O God, do not keep silent,
be not quiet O God, be not still.”
A silent God was an absent God – a God who did not care.

That was Elijah’s religion when he went looking for God
on Mt. Horeb.
And the dramatic stuff happened.
There was a windstorm, then an earthquake, and a fire.
Bryon described a storm like that in the Alps.
“O storm and wind and night, thou art wondrous strong!”
Elijah had always met God in those spectacles.
But this time he did not discern God’s presence.
The wind was just wind; the earthquake, just an earthquake;
the fire, just a fire.
And he thought, “Is that all there is?”

Then after the powerful forces of nature passed,
there was a silence, a profound palpable silence
-- like the silence of Ubehebe Crater in Death Valley.
It was precisely the kind of moment that meant God was absent.

But instead of praying,
“O God, do not keep silent,
be not quiet O God,”
Elijah wrapped his face in his mantle as a sign of reverence,
because God was there.
Precisely in the absence of religious experience,
Elijah believed in God’s presence.

Different cultures, different faith traditions,
and different people define religious experience differently.
So which one is right?
Is God really in the wind, in the earthquake, or in the fire?

Do we meet God in the born again experience of forgiveness,
the ecstatic experience of baptism in the Holy Spirit,
or the mystical experience of unity?
And where is God when we are not having whatever kind of feeling
we think of as spiritual?

God is infinitely greater than our capacity for religious experience.
He is in our religious experience. We do meet God there.
But God is vastly bigger than our feelings.
Theologians from Dionysius in the 6th Century
to Karl Barth in the 20th Century to John Hick today
caution us not to limit God to what we think of
as religion or spirituality.
At those times when God seems utterly silent, totally absent
– at those times we do not feel the least bit spiritual
and have no sense of God whatsoever --
God is there.

Carl Jung had these words inscribed over his door
and on his tombstone,
“Bidden or unbidden God is present.”
And so God is – seen or unseen, felt or unfelt, God is here.

Carlyle Marney, a great Baptist preacher, told the story
of a little boy was trapped by a fire
in his second story bedroom.
In the yard below, his father called to him,
“Jump son, jump. I’ll catch you.”
The child cried, “Daddy, I’m afraid to jump. I can’t see you.”
“That’s alright,” the father answered.
“Go ahead and jump. I can see you.”

Just so, the silent God is present – watching, caring.
The very silence of God is an invitation to faith,
the very absence of spiritual experience,
invites us to a deeper encounter with God
– just as Elijah met God more profoundly
in the silence than in the storm.

Most of us want religious experience. I do.
But if we cultivate trust in God
without the aid of religious experience
the God we trust will be vastly bigger.

One of my theology professors, Francis Fiorenza,
asked us a question that changed my religion forever.
He asked, “Do you want to have a religious experience,
or do you want to experience everything religiously?”//
I have been pondering that question for 8 years,
and it has finally begun to form into an insight.

We start by trusting in God’s presence all the time.
It’s like that saying, “I believe the sun is shining even on a cloudy day.”
Faith removes the fear that blocks our contact with God.

Then we can look inside ourselves and find God there.
We don’t see God or feel God.
Instead we look at everything through God’s eyes.

We just watch without judging.
We observe the world around us with a serene compassion.
We do the same with the world inside us.
We watch the thoughts rushing through our minds,
the emotions passing through our hearts,
the very physical sensations of our bodies.
We meet God not be seeing God
but by seeing as God sees.

God is light, pure and perfect light.
We don’t really see perfect full spectrum light.
We see things illumined by the light.
Just so, we don’t see God.
We see the world differently because God illumines it.
We see ourselves differently in the light of God’s grace.

We still have religious experiences.
They are the divine light refracted into various colors.
That’s why we have different experiences – all valid.

But the rest of the time, God is still with us
– not as storm, quake, or fire, but silently watching –
and we can know God then by joining him in the watch
– by doing nothing – dropping our efforts to be action heroes
-- just watching with the infinite patience of God.