Saturday, April 20, 2013

The Challenge Of Being Clergy & Being Christian At The Same Time: 3 Temptations

After Jesus received the Spirit, he went to the wilderness
to figure out what to do with it.
There he faced three temptations.
Abigail, the Holy Spirit will descend on you today.
And you are about to come up against three temptations.

The first temptation is to become a priest of the Temple.
Like a priest of the Jerusalem Temple, you will work
for the religious establishment.
You will keep the institution viable.
Make people happy. Meet their expectations.
Never say anything controversial.
It might cause a conversation.
Do not remind them of anything unpleasant.
They did not come for that.
My first year as a priest, a church member told me
what she wanted from each of my sermons
     “a nice little thought for the week.”

Keep your thoughts nice and little
Do this and you will prosper.

But you will not be a follower of Jesus.
His thoughts were neither nice nor little;
         he said things people did not want to hear.
Jesus was not a priest of the Temple.
He called the temple a den of thieves.

Temptation number two is more popular today.
You can do this one and be cool, hip, and au courant.
You turn your post-modern, anti-institutional nose up at the hypocritical
and all too human Church
         with its silly budgets, buildings, pot lucks,
                  and casseroles.
You can be way too spiritual to dirty your hands
         with unspiritual dolts who just want a Sunday School
for their kids.

The Essenes did that in Jesus’ day.
They were too pure to get involved
         with the Temple because it was mired in the real world.
Half in league with Herod and half in league with revolutionaries,
it was messy, as life is messy.
The Essenes wanted nothing to do with messy.
They were better than that.
And you can be better than that too.

But again, you won’t be a follower of Jesus.
He was not an Essene.
Jesus worshiped in the Temple, taught in the Temple,
         healed in the Temple, worked to reform the Temple,
         and wept over its doom.
Jesus connected to the religious institution of his day,
         as one who loved it and served it,
         not by docile compliance but by recalling it
                  to its true mission and identity.

The third temptation is: You can go self-righteous.
You have been to Berkeley. Your eyes have been opened,
         so that you know good from evil.

You are qualified to judge the Church.
You can see how much we are doing wrong.
You can pronounce judgment just as
the 8th Century prophets pronounced judgment
                  on Israel and Judah.

Clergy love the 8th Century prophets.
When our latent hostility boils over, we model our ministry
         on Amos, First Isaiah, and Jeremiah.
There are, however, two points of Biblical scholarship
         that we clergy overlook.
The first is that in the 8th Century no one repented.
It didn’t work.

Second, Jesus’ prophecy was not
 in the finger-wagging style of the 8th Century moralists.
HIs prophecy was in the later voice of Second Isaiah.
“Comfort, comfort ye my people.”
And more explicitly,
         “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me
         to proclaim good news to the poor, release to the captive,
         recovery of sight to the blind.”

Jesus called the religious, academic, political, and economic institutions
         of his day to repent, but he called them to repent to good news.
He called them to cheer up and embrace the world.
If, instead, you condemn the Church from a lofty moral perch,
         you will be a fine 8th Century prophet,
         but you wont’ be a follower of Jesus.

So what are you to do?
To be a clergy person and a Christian at the same time is tricky.
Your relationship with the Church will be tricky.
First you are to love it.
It is the Body of Christ on earth.
St. Theresa of Avila said to the Church,
         “Christ has no body on earth but yours,
         no hands but yours, no feet but yours,
         Yours are the eyes through which he looks compassion
                  onto the earth.”
You are to love Jesus here where he is present
         when the Church gathers – present not just in the sacraments,
but in the whole life of the church
from fellowship dinners to social justice advocacy.

You are to love the Church because God loves it
         and I can prove it.
We have been doing everything in our power to kill the church
         for 2,000 years – we try again every General Convention --
but it is still here.
It is here because God loves it, even when we don’t.
So you are to love the church.

Love it as it is.
But because you love it, you must not leave it this way.
You are to love the church as Jesus loved the Temple,
         by recalling it to its true identity,
         by reminding the Church of its mission,
which you can find in the Prayer of St. Francis.

You are to converse with people.
You are to form relationships.

Remember the adage,
         “They won’t care how much you know
         until they know how much you care.”
So connect, connect, connect.

And once you are connected, invite the Church to repent.
Do not demand that the Church repent or be damned.
Invite the Church to repent and discover joy.
Because a repentant Church will have a lot more fun
         than the Church is having today.

Invite the Church to repent from triviality, from pettiness,
         from squabbling over power, and above all from being boring.
The Body of Christ has no right to be boring.
The bearer of the soul shaking good news
of transcendent joy in Jesus
         has no right to be boring.
Our triviality and our boredom are blasphemies.

Invite the Church to repent from fixed concepts and mental model.
Invite the Church outside its box.

Introduce the people to each other at a deeper level.
Introduce them at the level where they actually get interesting 
-- not the church chit chat level where the best of us are boring.

Introduce them to their neighbors outside these walls.
Teach them how to imagine what life is like for someone else,
         and thereby make their world larger.
Introduce them to the rest of the planet
         with its wisdom and its folly, its suffering and delight.

And tell them the stories – the story of Ruth and Naomi,
the story of Esther,
         and the all the stories of Jesus.
 Tell them the stories of Aiden, Bridget, William Wilberforce,
Jonathan Myrick Daniels, Martin Luther King, Dorothy Day,
Elizabeth Fry, Christina Rossetti, Evelyn Underhill,
         and Oscar Romero.
They cannot be the Church if they don’t know the Church’s stories.
And Abigail, they don’t.
You must tell them the stories.
Do not heal my people’s wounds too lightly
         by meeting their expectations.
Heal their wounds deeply with nothing less than the gospel
         of Christ Crucified, Christ Risen,
                  and Christ Ever-Present in this pain-wracked lovely world.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Ordination: What Changes?

We used to say that ordination was an “ontological change”
            meaning that there was a basic shift
                        in who someone was.
The ordinary humanity was extracted
            and something extraordinary replaced it.

I don’t know if that ever made much sense.
It certainly doesn’t now.
But there is a change – a real change.
The nature of it though is largely beyond our understanding.

Today, I want to describe a piece of it.
Kim, when you look at yourself in the mirror tomorrow,
            you’ll see the same person you were yesterday.
In your heart, you will feel the same feelings.
In your mind, you will think the same thoughts.
But before long, you will notice that other people
            look at you differently.

They will attribute to you ideas that you do not hold,
            beliefs you do not believe, pieties that you do not feel.
Some will see you as considerably better than you are.
Others will see you as considerably worse.
It is disconcerting.
It makes you keep looking in the mirror
            to see if you are still yourself.
When you see that you are in fact the person you always were,
            you will try to say to others,
            “No, no, you have made a mistake.
                        I am me.”

But they will not believe you.
Your efforts to deny their projections will only irritate them
            and cause them to all the more suspicious of you.
“Why,” they will wonder, “is she trying to pull a hoax on us,
            pretending to be a person when we know full well,
                                    she is a priest.”

Ordination is a division of things.
It separates who you are in your own eyes
            from what you represent to the world.
Kim, we are about to impress upon you a symbolic meaning
            that will often be different from your experience of yourself
                         – as far from your experience of yourself
            as the Christ is from a piece of bread.

But having two perspectives on one reality
            can be quite helpful.
It takes the vision of two eyes to give depth perception.

Seeing things in a simple one-eyed way
            keeps them flat.
Seeing them with two-eyed complexity
            adds depth.
It is the very incongruity of priestly vocation
            that gives it depth.

Like Beethoven called upon to make music
            even when he was deaf,
            you will be called upon to preach the gospel
                        even when you cannot hear it.
If you do, you will feel like a hypocrite.
If you don’t, you will feel like an apostate.
There is no way out but through,
            no way through but to serve faithfully
out of your vows and not the fleeting feelings of the moment.

No priest is ever so good or so bad
            as people think.
But the complexity of a human person
            undertaking a holy role
                        creates depth.
The tension between your call
            to a devout and holy life on the one hand,
and your natural human existence on the other,
            the tension between them is charged and challenging.
That’s where the growth happens.

A parallel tension happens in the principal sacrament
            at which the priest presides.
In the Holy Communion there are two compelling ways
            to see what is going on.

One of them is a family meal.
By coming together, singing together, praying together,
            finally eating and drinking together,
                        we form and celebrate our human bonds.
“Blest be the tie that binds.”
That is the horizontal level of communion.
It is people joining hands in their shared humanity.

That is part of it.
Last week, I heard a seminary professor say that was all of it.
Last month, I heard a neighboring bishop say
            he would not ordain anyone who thought
                        that was all of it
            -- because the horizontal communion alone
                        has no depth.

Something cosmic is afoot.
When we gather as a community,
            we surrender some of our ego to the community.
We surrender enough of our individualism
            to sing the same song, to say the same prayer,
                        to affirm the same Creed.

Then at the offertory, the community gives itself to God.
The alms, the bread, and the wine represent the people.
We place our lives on the altar.
As one of our prayers puts it,
            “And here we offer and present unto thee, O Lord,
             our selves, our souls, and bodies . . . .”

But this is more even than our own group spiritual practice.
In the Eucharist, we act on behalf of the whole creation.
We put the cosmos on the altar.
We give back to God the whole Reality God has given us.
We give it back to be blessed, broken, and shared again.

The Eucharist is the cosmic gift exchange,
            in which God gives everything,
            which we give back in gratitude,
                        that God may give anew in grace.
That is the vertical dimension of communion,
            the bond of earth and heaven, human and divine,
            the temporal realm with eternity.
Yet, the Eucharist is also our family meal,
            our ritual of caring for one another.
The Eucharist is our relationships, however flawed they may be.
W. H. Auden called our fumbling attempts
            at love “all the failed caresses.”
That is communion too.
The great cosmic communion is absolutely bogus
            unless it arises out of the family meal.

So you see there is a parallel between the Eucharist and the priest,
            a fitting parallel.
For each, there is division between the direct experience
            and a vastly more profound meaning
                        – a meaning rooted in faith.

That is the way it is with all sacraments, including ordination.
For years, I tried to live into my vocation as a priest
            by vigorously employing the things I knew.
They taught me things in the course of my formation.
I knew them. I still know them. And I thought that must be
            what I am for – to be the go to guy, the one who knows.

After 20 years, I am gradually coming to accept
            that nobody much cares what I know,
            that my knowledge won’t heal broken relationships,
                        broken bodies, or broken hearts.
Being a priest isn’t about what you know.
It has something to do with who you are.
It has something to do with what you represent.
It has mostly to do with the tension between the two.

The first wrong way is to forget who you are
            and identify with being a priest.
The second wrong way is to deny your priesthood
            and try to persuade people to you are just yourself.
You are not just yourself. You are yourself in holy orders.
The incongruity is intolerable without a mountain of faith,
            a well of hope, and treasure trove of love.

Now just a word for the congregation
            on your part in the care and feeding of priests.
You will sometimes see through their meaning
            to their true humanity.
That is an occasion for connection.
Connection is good.

But mostly we see priests
            as better or worse than they are.
That is fine. It is part of the process.

But whenever your priest seems gilded in glory,
            wise, compassionate, and holy,
            remember what you are seeing
                        is actually a reflection of your own soul.
That’s the good news.

The bad news is that when your priest seems
            monstrous, controlling, oppressive, hypocritical,
                        spiritually lax or fanatical,
            these images too are reflections.

Good priests can serve us well if we remember to own the goodness.
Bad priests can serve us well if we remember to own the badness.
Always the challenge and the opportunity is to see each other
            through the eyes of faith.

When we look at each other through worldly eyes,
            we see two dimensional cartoon heroes and villains.
But through the eyes of faith, we see depth.
We see children of God, beautiful and broken,
            saints and sinners by turns and all at once.
We see mixtures of dust and light, divine in origin and destiny,
            all too human in process.

Thomas Merton said that the saints are not saints
            by virtue of their own sanctity but by their capacity
                        to appreciate the sanctity of others.
May God sanctify us all with the grace of appreciation,     
            the grace to see each other in our depth,
            the grace to live in the tension between
            who we are and what we mean and are meant to be.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Nothing To Brag About: An Ordinary Love For An Ordinary Life

Today’s gospel lesson is hands down my favorite
         resurrection appearance in the Bible.
Partly, it’s the context.
John has the appearance to Mary Magdalene,
         then to all the disciples,
         then to doubting Thomas.
And there it stops with Thomas’ conversion.

We have the thrilling conclusion – a conversion from doubt to belief.
John explains the purpose of the book and says “the end.”
The curtain comes down. The credits are rolling.
Then John runs back on stage and says
         “Wait! Wait! There’s something else!”
Then we have this story added on like an afterthought.

Here’s what’s going on:
In John, we don’t see much of the human side of Jesus.
Someone said, in John’s gospel, Jesus’ feet never quite
         touch the ground.
The religion in John is about believing your way into a mystical union
--believing in something too mysterious to express.
Only near the end, in Jesus’ farewell discourse, does love come up.
And the love Jesus commands is “agape” – a spiritual love
         that is absolutely unconditional 
-- which I would be entirely for
– if only I were capable of it.
My capacity for love is more humanly flawed.
People have to be pretty lovable for me to even put up with them.

In a word, it’s a pretty lofty religion we got going in John.
If you want spiritual, this is spirituality on steroids.
John’s community practiced that mystical brand of Christianity
         in Ephesus for several decades.

But reality kept tripping up their spirituality.
They had problems aplenty – mostly internal strife.
They fought like cats and dogs while preaching agape,
         unconditional love all the while.

So how do we make sense of a faith
         when the people practicing it persist in being
 all too human?
As John’s community  struggled with their failures
in the art of spiritual love,
         they remembered one of the old stories.
They remembered another appearance of the Risen Lord
         that hadn’t seemed important before – because it didn’t fit.
But now, it became so important,
         they added a chapter to their gospel.
They added this story.

In the previous Resurrection Appearances,
         Jesus was even more elevated and spiritual
         than he had been before Good Friday.
He walked through walls.
He invoked the Holy Spirit on the disciples.
He told Thomas his belief might be good enough
but it was still second rate.
He was loftier than ever – and he was always pretty lofty.
But this last appearance is different. Jesus is different.
He shows up unassumingly on the beach.
From his manner of speech and actions,
he seems like a grizzled old fisherman.
I suspect that’s why they don’t’ recognize him.
He offers fishing advice as fisherman do.

The disciples finally recognizes him and rushed to shore
to worship their Lord.
But instead of doing something spiritual,
         Jesus has built a charcoal fire.
Instead of saying something profound
         about “I live in God so if you live in me you will live in God
                  and God will live in you and will all be one as the Father
                  and I are one” or some such thing, he says,
         “Let’s cook up some of those fish and have breakfast.”

This is a very human Jesus – a Christ of the ordinary.
This disconcertingly normal appearance of Jesus cooking breakfast
         over a charcoal fire as poor people do all over this earth
         is where we get our Anglican sense of “the sacred ordinary.”

In his classic essay, The Anglican Way, Dean James Fenhagen
         described our pedestrian spirituality as “holy worldliness”
         and “worldly holiness.”
The father of Humanistic Psychology, Abraham Maslow, said:
         “The sacred is in the ordinary . . . . It is to be found
         in one’s daily life, in one’s neighbors, one’s friends and family,
         in one’s own backyard.”

Much of what goes by the name “spirituality” these days
         is not like that at all.
It is pretentious.
The “spiritual” people are better than the ordinary clods,
         way better than the ordinary religious clods in churches.

Much of what goes by the name of “spirituality” these days
         is escapist.
Do a special technique taught by an exotic person with an accent
         and imagine you are in some pristine place of peace and solace.
It will take your mind off the messiness of reality.
You won’t have to think about unpleasant things
         like hunger in Haiti, gang violence in America,
                  or the loneliness of elderly people in Las Vegas.

But Anglican spirituality is the spirituality of today’s lesson.
It is pedestrian spirituality.
It cooks breakfast.
It even washes the dishes.

One of the great classics in Christian spirituality
         is The Practice of the Presence of God
         by Brother Lawrence, a Carmelite monk
         whose monastery job was cook, waiter, and bus boy.
He practiced the presence of God while keeping house.

This pedestrian spirituality of ours does not make us better
         than anyone else.
It is too ordinary.
It calls for an ordinary way of life – nothing to brag about.
It is a religion lived out in ordinary relationships
         like the relationship between Jesus and Peter.

After breakfast, Jesus took Peter aside.
They needed a little reconciling after Peter had denied Jesus
         three times in Caiaphas’s courtyard.
So Jesus said,
         “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?”
But the word he used for love was agape.
It meant, “Simon do you have the most unconditional,
highly spiritual love for me of any of the disciples?”
But Peter when replied, “Lord you know that I love you.”
He used the word phileo. It was an ordinary word, not so spiritual.
“I love you as a friend.”
Jesus said, “Ok, then feed my lambs.”

Then Jesus gave Peter another chance.
He asked again, “Simon do you agape me?”
But again Peter failed to rise to the spiritual challenge.
He said, “Lord you know that I phileo you.”
So Jesus said, “Alright, tend my sheep.”

The third time, Jesus changed the question.
He met Peter on his own human level.
         “Simon, do you phileo me?”
All he asked now was a human love,
         a human friendship, the kind of thing
         an ordinary bloke like Peter or I
                  might be able to achieve.
And Peter said, “Yes, Lord, you know I phileo you.
I love you as a common man loves his friend.
I am not an enlightened saint but I can do that.”
Jesus said, “Feed my sheep.”

The good news is that an ordinary, fallible human love
         is all we have to do.
The bad news is the sheep and lambs part.
An ordinary human love won’t elevate us to a higher plane
than ordinary people.
Quite the opposite:
it will get us mixed up with all those other ordinary people
         in the world who need us as sheep need shepherds.

Someone said,
“The problem with inviting Jesus into your life
         is that he brings his friends.”
And so it is.
Loving Jesus in our little human way
         doesn’t make us the least bit special
but it will entangle our lives with an odd lot of other folks.
Jesus will get us mixed up with all the wrong kind
         of people.
Worse yet, we may even wind up caring about th