Tuesday, July 5, 2011

The Founding Family - For July 10

After a brief interlude, we turn from the traumatized Isaac, unable to contribute anything to the story except for the next generation, we meet Jacob, ready to tangle, on the make, a trader with a keen eye for the main chance.  We will follow his story now for several weeks – a hinge on which the whole narrative shuts on Esau and opens on Jacob, on Joseph and his descendants, on bondage and then freedom, on Moses, Aaron and Miriam, then Joshua and the Judges, the Kings and the Prophets.

Jacob comes out of the womb ready to rumble.  At birth, he fights to be first, holding Esau by the heel and, presumably trying to pull in front of him.  What fails at birth he eventually wins by exploitation and deception.  Every classroom, every workplace, every soccer team, every extended family has one of these characters, ready to knock anybody off the ladder in order to get ahead.

It will take Jacob years to learn what “ahead” looks like.  On July 31, he will come up against an adversary more than worthy of his skill, his strength, and his determination.  Like many of us, he will win some and lose some along the way, take his lumps, and move on to the next contest.

Later on, he will favour the child of his heart’s desire, with disastrous results for Joseph.  And yet…

There is a character on the loose in this story, a Character as determined as Joseph.  As our ancestors tell us these ancient stories, that Character begins to take shape, to emerge from the shadows, to illuminate our human history.  Future scripture will refer to “the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob”, in what is meant to be, I think, a kind of crescendo, a rising, growing, ever more powerful sense of who God is and of what God intends.  Today, we begin to follow a central note in that crescendo, a note who, at the outset, shows little evidence of what we might think of as “godly”.

The story cries out to be read continuously, from the call of Abram in Genesis 12 to the death of Joseph at the end of the book.  This story of the founding family of faith will surprise you, appall you, delight you.  Love story, political intrigue, and the endless oscillation of human hearts turned to dignity and then lowered into moral squalor.  And always the beat laid down, sometimes lost in the tangle of sounds, sometimes rising to call them back into song, of God’s presence and purpose and practices.

But today, we simply meet Jacob, whose unlikely self will become Israel as he wrestles a crippling blessing from a Stranger.  Jacob, on the make, Jacob pressing a momentary advantage over his carelessly hungry twin, Jacob in the end limping home to the heart of the matter, and along the way introducing us to the ways of God.

Watch this space.  And keep one eye on Jacob.  He doesn’t look all that promising, but in this story it’s God who does the promising, and changes everything, and everyone.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Piggyback God

Abraham’s temporary willingness to participate in the blood sacrifice of his son casts a long shadow – confusion and mayhem for the next three generations. In light of the divine promise, that the descendents of Abraham would be a blessing to all nations, the enterprise is off to a rocky start.

For the next several weeks, we will hear the stories of Isaac and Rebekah, of Jacob and Esau, of Laban, Leah, and Rachel, of Joseph and his brothers. These are not impressive people. They’re either weak or on the make, dreamily enjoying favoured status or busily plotting to sell a brother into slavery. It surely isn’t anything about the character and morality of these descendents of Sarah and Abraham that has us still telling their stories.  

Indeed, these stories are not really about what these three generations accomplish. Much of that is, in fact, sordid. No, what these stories proclaim is what God is able to make of these three generations. There is a story greater than their stories woven through their lives, bringing together the jagged edges of rivalries and violence, and – finally – of reconciliation, into a coherent account of God in mission, of God riding piggyback on the intrigue and hostility to tell a quite different story.

Kind of like in the church, you know, where agendas collide and we tussle for ascendency, sometimes across the whole landscape of a church (think same-sex relationships and property litigation), and sometimes in the very local reality of a parish community, where gossip can pose as fact, and innuendo as evidence.

The late Joe Wright, who loomed larger-than-life at St. Cuthbert’s Church in Leaside, once encountered a parishioner on the street (so the story goes). “Bill,” he said, “haven’t seen you in church lately.” “Place is full of hypocrites,” said Bill by way of excuse.  Joe’s legendary response?  “Don’t worry about that. There’s always room for one more!”

That’s our truth. There’s always room for one more, and how we come together won’t always match our best hopes and ideals for ourselves, one another, and the church. We’re sinners. Gifted and capable sinners, to be sure, with insight and conviction, often generous with time and resources, astonishingly kind and wonderfully compassionate at times. But sinners for all that, afraid because of what happened or might happen, guarded against past hurts in ways that distort our present relationships, trying hard to achieve the “good enough, smart enough, young enough, pretty/handsome enough, important enough” standards that haunt us, and sometimes measuring others down when we sense that we don’t measure up.

The good news is that God is riding piggyback on our stories as well, weaving through them an eternal thread of love’s victory. The piggyback God, who nourishes mission in and for the world out of the ragbag of our imperfect offering has known our predicament in the Incarnation, has lived it and endured its longest and most violent shadows in the life and death of Jesus. So it is that, with our confused and frightened ancestors, from Isaac the Terrified to Joseph the Dreamer in Chains, we discover God at work among and through us, not because of what we have accomplished, but because of God’s determination to make the most beautiful future possible out of the only material at hand.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Unbinding Abraham

The story our ancestors offer us from Hebrew scripture is called the Akeda, the binding and unbinding of Isaac. At the same time, though, it is also the story of the binding and unbinding of Abraham his father.

As he trudges up the slope of Mount Moriah with his son, “your only son, the son whom you love”, he believes with all his heart that what is necessary – what must happen – is that he tie his son up, cut his throat, and burn his body. Repugnant as this clearly must be to him, he cannot avoid it. It is inevitable. God demands it, and saying “No” to what God demands is not possible.

There are in this story two names for God. The first, “God” is a translation of the Hebrew “Elohim”. The second, “the LORD”, is how “Yahweh” is rendered in English translations. The God who binds Abraham to this sacrifice is Elohim; the God who unbinds him from it is Yahweh.

Stick with me here for a minute.  Elohim (God) is also used to speak of the gods of other peoples –  for example Ashtoret the Elohim of the Sidonians, Kemosh the Elohim of Moab, and Milkom the Elohim of the children of Amon in 1 Kings 11. Which makes me wonder – Could the shift from Elohim to Yahweh be the editor’s deliberate choice, creating a text that clearly distinguishes Yahweh from the Gods (Elohim) of other peoples? Especially if this text was brought together during the Babylonian captivity, among a people whose stories of their Elohim are so similar to those of Israel, might the editor be making the distinction between the Elohim who binds and Yahweh who unbinds, between a God of bondage and a Lord of freedom?

We live, I believe, in a world with an overdeveloped sense of inevitability at every social level – from our own inward life to what Herbert O’Driscoll calls “the maelstrom of the nations”. (Intriguingly, in the same hymn he refers to “the Lord of our tomorrows and the God of earth’s todays”.) We yield too easily to the belief that nothing can be done – about our own bad habits of heart and mind and body, about poverty and hunger in our communities, about the plight of the Canada’s First Peoples, about catastrophic climate change.  We rationalize our own continuing complicity as citizens and consumers in arrangements that fail the poor and exploit the weak. We trudge up Moriah, knowing on some level that what we are about is not good, yet convinced that it is unavoidable, that we have no choice, that the Elohim of the market or of our own comfort demand it.

In “You’ve Never Seen Everything”, Bruce Cockburn sings this chorus:

Bad pressure coming down,
Tears - what we really traffic in;
Ride the ribbon of shadow
Never feel the light falling all around.

Somewhere on that mountain the bad pressure yields to "the light falling all around". Elohim gives way to Yahweh, and Abraham discovers a freedom he had never imagined possible, a Lord who unbinds him from what he was unable to refuse, who sets him free to embrace what he could scarcely imagine. I wonder if we can believe that Yahweh is eager to unbind us as well.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

With Isaac and Wilfred Owen in mind

Parable of the Old Man and the Young

So Abram rose, and clave the wood, and went,
And took the fire with him, and a knife.
And as they sojourned both of them together,
Isaac the first-born spake and said, My Father,
Behold the preparations, fire and iron,
But where the lamb for this burnt-offering?
Then Abram bound the youth with belts and straps,
and builded parapets and trenches there,
And stretchèd forth the knife to slay his son.
When lo! an angel called him out of heaven,
Saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad,
Neither do anything to him. Behold,
A ram, caught in a thicket by its horns;
Offer the Ram of Pride instead of him.
But the old man would not so, but slew his son,
And half the seed of Europe, one by one.

Wilfred Owen

Thursday, June 16, 2011

From entitlements to practices - For Trinity Sunday

“Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them…”  (Matthew 28.19)
It’s pretty clear – baptism and discipleship belong together, in the same sentence, in the same breath. Baptism is how the church makes disciples. I wonder what would happen if we decided that the relationship between baptism and discipleship should be as clear and direct in our practice as it is in our scripture.

For the most part, our churches have leaned toward an apparently more Pauline understanding of baptism – as membership. In baptism, we graft new members into the Body of Christ. A hand, a foot, an eye – distinctive working parts of a purposeful body. Unfortunately, “member” has come to mean something quite different than it once did.

Membership has come to mean “belonging”, as in club membership – the Oakville Club, the YMCA. Moreover, as American Express reminds us, “membership has its privileges”.  It’s easy for us all to fall into the trap of imagining ourselves as privileged members of a religion club, of baptism as a ritual initiation not into a purposeful body, but into entitled membership. Clergy and other staff become responsible for providing the religious product – teaching, worship, and social life – that members want, rather than for equipping each member to make her or his unique and vital contribution to the shared purpose of the body.

That shared purpose, says today’s gospel, is found in discipleship, in following the way of Jesus. And the writer of Ephesians reminds us that the work of leaders – apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, teachers – is “to equip the saints for the work of ministry”. (Eph 4.11-12) In Ephesians, unlike at the YMCA, body building is not an end in itself, but the building of a capacity for ministry, for serving the purpose to which God calls us.

Our Baptismal Covenant frames that purpose with five characteristic behaviours:  
  • To sustain a common life of learning, koinonia, prayer and eucharist.
  • To resist evil and turn back to the way of Jesus when we have chosen other ways.
  • To tell the story of Jesus as Good News.
  • To serve God by way of loving service to those among whom we find ourselves.
  • To take up prophets’ witness to God’s passion for a just and peaceable humanity.

In baptism, membership doesn’t come with privileges. Membership comes with a covenant, a purpose, and with practices that sustain that covenant and serve that purpose.

Moreover, this is not a way of life for a particular tribe, for people with shared habits and histories. I wonder if we underestimate how strange and perhaps threatening Jesus’ assertion – that baptism incorporates “all nations” into a community of disciples – would have seemed to his contemporaries, for whom tribes and peoples were distinct and often mutually hostile. To include the Other – Other tribes, Other languages, Other customs, Other food and sounds and smells, the Other-wise oriented, Other histories – is a daring and provocative innovation. To include that Other as a partner in God’s work, not just tolerated, but vitally necessary to God’s mission, is high on the list of the church’s unfinished business. One day, perhaps it will be true that “in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” Perhaps it will become more true one day at a time, as the baptized lay aside the entitlements of privileged membership to take up the practices of purposeful discipleship.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

If nothing had changed - For Pentecost

You could imagine them if nothing changed, getting together once in a while to “remember when”. At first, the absence of Jesus might have occasioned some sense of loss, or sadness, or even grief. At first, they would talk about how he disappeared – like Bilbo Baggins on his eleventy-first birthday – and wonder where he’d gone, what heaven was like, and whether they’d go there when their time came. They would have little bits of this and that to remind them of places they’d been with him, things he’d said to them, events they had gone through together.

Over time, the hard edge would come off the grief and loss, the memories a bit hazy and warmed by hindsight. They would laugh more, cry less, and say they should get together more often, when in fact, the gatherings would be rarer as time passed. They would talk about their children and grandchildren, and the passing of so much time so swiftly would amaze them every time. It wouldn’t have been a bad life, really.

But something did happen, and they were shaken out of their stupour by the very thing Jesus had told them to expect – the Holy Spirit.  They were awakened to a world hungry for hope and dignity, and human beings ready to claim some nobler purpose than fending off fear and scarcity. The minute the Holy Spirit passed through the room, they were out on the street, telling people a new story, one to replace the dismal story of stuff, status and power that raised some to the top, condemned most to the bottom, and stole from all the human birthright that calls us to work for compassion, for justice, for love.

What might have been a little club of people remembering when became a powerful agency serving God’s mission in and for the world. They would live like Jesus, and many of them would die like Jesus. Neither their living nor their dying would be easy, but at least it would matter, for God’s sake.

It wasn’t just that they saw and understood the world’s hunger and God’s desire to respond to that hunger. They saw themselves as part of how God could – how God would address that hunger. Something happened to them – the Spirit blew across the reed of their lives, and a new song emerged, buoyant and confident, bold and brassy. The wind and the fire changed them.

In Postcards from Cambodia, Bruce Cockburn sings these lines about the killing fields:
            And this is too big for anger, it’s too big for blame;
            we stumble through history so humanly lame –
            so I bow down my head, say a prayer for us all,
            that we don’t fear the Spirit when it comes to call.

That’s as close as I’ve seen to a perfect lyric for Pentecost. Until the Spirit comes, fear governs – like so many-most-all of us – the lives of those disciples. This Spirit who comes is the “perfect love” (John 4.18) that “casts out fear”. Casts out fear the way a people might rise up and throw out the government.  That’s one way – a good way – to think about our baptism. Renouncing the government of fear by which Love’s adversary confounds Love’s purposes, and embracing a government of Love, of the Spirit, of the One whose coming ought never to make us afraid – for this is God’s wind and fire, come to make us whole and restore us to our rightful work and service.

Monday, June 6, 2011

The Ministry of the Church in the MIssion of God (2)

The Ministry of the Church in the Mission of God: The kingdom of God, here and now

So, what is God’s mission, God’s action in the world for the sake of the world, and how might the church encourage and prepare its members to participate in that action?  To begin, we turn to Jesus’ proclamation of the Kingdom of God as both a present reality and a future hope.  In both Matthew and Mark, the first act of Jesus public ministry is a call to repent (turn around) and enter the Kingdom of God, which has “come near”.  In both cases, Jesus first hears this call to repent and inhabit the Kingdom of God from his cousin John, before John baptizes him.  For Jesus, baptism was baptism into the service of God’s mission. In his baptism by John, he embraces the purpose to which God calls him, as in our baptism we embrace the purpose to which God calls us, expressed in the Baptismal Covenant.

Immediately after his baptism, Jesus is driven ‘by the Spirit’ into the wilderness.  That is to say, his time in the wilderness is a deliberate divine initiative, initiated by the Spirit.  In the wilderness, Satan (a word meaning “adversary”) comes to test Jesus, to invite him to abandon the purpose he embraced in his baptism and to take on other purposes as the foundation for his life.  Bread for his own hunger, status for his own ego, power for his own purposes – the Adversary offers him a self-centered life of physical, social and political contentment.  In each case, Jesus refuses the Adversary’s invitation and sustains the identity and purpose conferred in his baptism – the beloved child who both proclaims and enacts the Kingdom of God.

The proclamation comes, for the most part, in the form of parables.  Parables are, in Jesus’ teaching, always parables of the Kingdom, and many begin, “The Kingdom of God (or heaven) is like…”  A mustard seed, yeast in the dough, a pearl, a compassionate and generous enemy, a man with two sons.  Again and again, Jesus overturns conventional wisdom about how things must be in order to offer a glimpse of how things can be, and in some sense already are.  Blessed are the poor, the meek, the peacemakers, those who mourn, the pure in heart, the persecuted.  Again and again, Jesus offers what Walter Brueggemann calls ‘testimony to otherwise’, challenges what seems inevitable, and offers what seems outlandish, even impossible.

The enacting comes in three forms – healings, exorcisms, and his own passion and death.  Both disease and demon “occupy” the self, and turn it away from its own health and purpose.  Healing and exorcism cast out the destructive tenant and restore the self to health and purpose. 

In his death, Jesus enacts the deepest truth about the Kingdom of God, that its authority is grounded, not in force or fear, but in undefended, vulnerable, frail love. And in his resurrection, we learn that this frail love has authority over death, over fear, all hate and all harm.  “The Kingdom of God is like a king who, because of his love for others, allows himself to be crucified.”  There, at the heart of mission, is humanity redeemed, restored to our purpose in Jesus’ death and resurrection. There, at the heart of mission, is a broken king who, enduring death, defeats it, and inaugurates a new Kingdom of justice, love and peace. 

Friday, June 3, 2011

The Ministry of the Church in the Mission of God (1)

God’s mission, the church’s ministry

God has a mission.  A church exists to encourage and equip people to participate in that mission.  The work of participating in that mission is called ministry (or “service”).  Ministry is conferred in baptism. 

There was a time when the church had “missions” in distant places – Africa, the Arctic.  The purpose of such missions was, more or less, to bring people up to the cultural and religious mark – to make them civilized (western) and Christian.  The relationship between the local church and these missions was clear – local churches raised the resources to support distant missions.

As a child, I remember Jehovah’s Witnesses (often) and Mormons (once) coming to the door.  I shared the general impression that they were outlandish and intrusive.  Along with the Salvation Army, these were the only instances of local mission that I met in my early formation.

In 1991, South African missiologist David Bosch published Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in Theology of Mission.  He argued that God initiates mission, and introduced the Latin tag “missio Dei” or “mission of God”.  The missio Dei he defined as “God’s turning to the world in love” – God acting in the world for the sake of the world –  and he invited the churches to think of ourselves as instruments in the hand of God for the mission God undertakes in the world.

The church exists to serve the missio Dei.  It is called into being not as a new religion, but as a new humanity, oriented towards the purposes of God, and participating in God’s costly and courageous work of redemption. The object of that redemption (what Jack Biersdorf calls “healing of purpose”) is not simply individual souls, but the whole household of earth.  Jesus’ work is the redemption of the world, and we who by baptism are grafted into his Body are called to participate in that work.  We are partners with Jesus our brother in serving the world.

Between 1984 and 1990, the Anglican Consultative Council (the international Anglican body consisting of bishops, priests, and lay people) commissioned work on what became, in 1990, the “Five Marks of Mission”, the five key activities by which the church serves the missio Dei:
  1. To proclaim the Good News of the Kingdom
  2. To teach, baptize and nurture new believers
  3. To respond to human need by loving service
  4. To seek to transform unjust structures of society
  5. To strive to safeguard the integrity of creation and sustain and renew the life of the earth.

One way of thinking of these marks of mission is in terms of kerygma (proclamation that illuminates the missio Dei) and diakonia (service that enacts the missio Dei).  Our vocation as church is to discern what God is up to in the world, to talk about it, and to join in it.  Mission does not begin with us, with our preferences and habits, but with God, at work in the world for its transformation and healing, who by our baptism has called us into that work.  And while our part of it is local, and will bear the marks of our unique heritage and gifts, it is also catholic, that is, connected with others around the world who share with us the ministry conferred in baptism.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

What Power? Whose Witnesses? For Ascension

“But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” Acts 1

These words, from the only narrative appearance of Jesus outside the gospels, offer the contemporary church two lenses through which we can assess the choices of the past and the crisis of the present. “What power?”  “Whose witnesses?”

In this last week of the Easter season, we might recall that these were the questions that Jesus entertained in his own last week in Jerusalem, the week leading to his execution. What power would he choose? Whose witness would he be?

Throughout that last week, Jesus made his choice clear, and maintained a steadfast witness. While the religious authorities of Jerusalem adapted to Caesar’s power, rooted in the mastery of death, Jesus trusted the power of the one he called “Papa”, whose Spirit animates the life of the world. And while the authorities’ bending before Caesar’s power made them witnesses to fear, Jesus trust in his Papa made him a witness to love.

So now, after forty days of encounters with Jesus alive on the far side of death, the disciples gather with him one last time. And he commissions them. Your power will be the power of the Holy Spirit, and your witness will be to the transforming effect of embodied love.

Soon, though, the religious authorities were back at the imperial table, witnesses to fear, living on borrowed power. But this time it was religious authorities bearing the name “Christian”. We travelled around the globe on the coattails of empires, baptizing genocides, blessing wars and sanctifying slavery.  There were exceptions – Anabaptist sects like the Mennonites and Moravians, and shining individuals like William Wilberforce. But the Anabaptists were persecuted by Christian religious authorities, and William Wilberforce was considered a corrosive nuisance for most of his career. Led by Czar or Kaiser, King or Emperor, empires grow by fear. And churches who borrow power from empires are witnesses not to love, but to fear.

On August 6, 1993, the Primate of the Anglican Church of Canada, Michael Peers, apologized to the Sacred Circle at Minaki Ontario for the role of our church in the residential schools, for our partnership in taking children from their homes, denying them access to their language and their heritage, and exposing them to the fear and shame of abuse in the schools. Since then, the work of reconciliation has continued as a priority of the Anglican Church of Canada. You can read more about that continuing work at a “The Living Apology”, http://archive.anglican.ca/rs/.

Archbishop Peers was addressing one of the many consequences of our own church’s dalliance with empire. Of course our intentions were good – to offer the gospel (as we understood it) to children who had not received it, and along the way to “better” their lives. But as those viewing the world through the lens of the empire so often do, we had a distorted sense of what “good” would be for children, and entertained the self-deception that it could “better” a whole generation of children to be isolated from their parents, their community, their language and their heritage.

And so, today, Jesus tells another generation of disciples – “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you, and you will be my witnesses”.   What power?  Whose witnesses?

Thursday, May 26, 2011

"Real World" - For Easter 6

This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.

If “the world” in this text means the collection of creatures and habitats – critters, rocks, waters, trees and soils – that constitute our earth, then what we have here is in one sense quite familiar – Christian denial of the goodness of the material world.  Its roots are more Greek than Hebrew, more Plato than Jesus of Nazareth, but its grip on Christian imagination over the centuries has been fierce and relentless.

But what if “the world” means something else?  What if it means a collection of habits that condition how we understand the world and ourselves in the world?  Is there a collection of habits so pervasive and convincing that they shape, even determine, what world we see and inhabit?  Like the default settings on computers, which are in play behind the scenes unless and until we choose to change them, is there a default “world” that we call the “real” world?  What shape does that world take?  Is it a faithful rendering of the world, or a distortion?

Our ancestors believed that there is a collection of habits that distort and obscure the truth, and they had a name for that collection – they called it “the sin of the world”.  They believed that it was persistent, resilient, and elusive.  The ‘world’ constructed out of these habits is not the world called into being, blessed and redeemed by God.  It is some other world entirely, a world defined primarily as a highly-contested resource depot, a world of scarcity, of uncertain access to the necessities of life, and, as a consequence, of indifference, hostility and violence among persons and societies, and of negligence towards the wellbeing of the non-human creation.  It is a world defined and driven by fear, a world in which fear does not merely inform human actions, but determines them. 

Just one example:  For many years, the doctrine of “Mutually-Assured Destruction” formed the basis for nuclear policy in United States and the former USSR.  This doctrine asserted that neither side would launch a first strike, because such a strike would lead to retaliation on such a scale as to lay waste to the instigator’s country.  The proposed construction by the American military of a missile defense system (Star Wars) was, in such a delicate balance, accurately understood as a dangerous act of aggression. Because if a system like that actually worked, it would mean that the United States could launch a preemptive strike and deal with the retaliatory strike by blowing the missiles out of the air before they reached the United States.  For decades, we called all of this nonsense “security”.  We turned our most powerful weapons over to our fears; in fact, we built them because we were afraid.  And having such weapons on all sides simply validated our fear, reinforced our conviction that fear was an accurate lens through which to see the world.  It is this ‘world’ that cannot see or know the Spirit of truth.

Some, many, most of those around us will continue to live in that ‘world’.  It is not our task to tell them how wrong they are, but to offer them a living alternative, a community of persons every bit as fragile and, sometimes, afraid, who nevertheless choose to live in the world in ways that embody the truth made known to us in Jesus:

that love is more powerful than death, 

that we are not orphans alone in a heartless universe, but beloved children of a courageous and compassionate God, 

and that our lives are safer in the wounded hands of God than in the clenched fist of the ‘world’.                                                 

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

The Way, the Truth, the Life - For Easter 5

He is the Way.
Follow Him through the Land of Unlikeness,
You will see rare beasts and have unique adventures.

He is he Truth.
Seek Him in the Kingdom of Anxiety,
You will come to a great city that has expected your return for years.

He is the Life.
Love Him in the World of the Flesh,
And at your marriage all its occasions shall dance for joy. 

These three stanzas from W.H. Auden’s For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio have been a prominent landmark in my soulscape for almost exactly thirty years. I read them first in the late spring of 1981. Deborah’s wedding gift to me in 1983 was to cross-stitch these nine lines of poetry and put them in a frame. And over the years, the words have themselves become a frame – a way of reading part of John 14, one of the series of “I am” illuminations that characterize the Fourth Gospel.

The places through and in which we follow, seek and love Jesus are, I think, just the ones that Auden identifies. In the Land of Unlikeness, through which Auden invites us to follow Jesus, we discover Jesus as the One whose love mediates the many unlikenesses that could easily (and so often do) become the basis for suspicion, hostility, fear and violence. Rare beasts indeed, including the rare beast that appears out of our own unlikeness in the eyes of others. I don’t think it is any exaggeration to suggest that unless we can follow the mediating One through this otherwise terrifying land, we cannot offer the world a gospel alternative to its tribal defaults, and we will continue to demonize the unlikeness of others, and remain blind to our own.

The Kingdom of Anxiety, in which Auden invites us to seek Jesus, is a kingdom of real apprehension about the future. It is hard to live in history without being touched and affected by that apprehension, that anxiety. But it is precisely in the midst of that anxious kingdom that Jesus offers an alternative to the kingdom driven by anxiety. In the midst of a world of multiplying fears and self-defeating remedies, Jesus proclaims and embodies the ethic of a Kingdom governed instead by love. The truth of such a kingdom radiates out from the One we seek as an invitation to live unafraid in the world God loves.

And the World of the Flesh – that’s where we are to love Jesus. That’s where Jesus eats and washes feet, and says, “This is my body, for you.”  And it’s where, with our bodies, we “do this in memory”. We offer our bodies in prayer and kindness, in bending to serve and in clamouring for justice, in the close intimacies of life-long friendship and in the passing courtesies of strangers. Maybe sometimes churches have seemed to disdain the body. But bodies are the honest truth about our lives. What we do is what our bodies do – including how we love or fail to love. Our bodies are the bread and wine we offer to God at the table.

The Land of Unlikeness, the Kingdom of Anxiety, the World of the Flesh. That’s where we follow Jesus the Way, seek Jesus the Truth, and love Jesus the Life.

Ignorance Tastes Better - For Easter 4

“The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”  John 10.10

It’s important to know who’s at the gate. Everything depends on it. Abundant life or no life at all. Of course, it also all depends on who gets to define what life is, or as Michael Ignatieff recently put it, on who controls the narrative.

In the 1999 film, The Matrix, Thomas Anderson, a computer programmer with a hacker alter ego named Neo, awakens to discover that the life he thinks he has been living has been generated by a computer program called “the Matrix”. He has spent his entire life so far as one of millions of bodies whose sole purpose is to generate heat to energize the machines who have taken over the world. The machines control the narrative and make people believe they are actually living the life the Matrix projects into their minds. When Neo is rescued from the body farm and awakened to reality, he discovers what many of us discover at one point or another – that the story we have lived by is not the story that will bear our human weight.

That new weight-bearing story is not comfortable. In a powerful Matrix scene, Cypher, (a crew member of the resistance ship Nebuchadnezzar [!]) agrees  to sell out his comrades and return safely to the Matrix. He sits with the Matrix’s agents, eating a steak, and says, “You know, I know this steak doesn't exist. I know that when I put it in my mouth, the Matrix is telling my brain that it is juicy and delicious. After nine years, you know what I realize?”  At this point, he takes a bite of steak and answers, “Ignorance is bliss.”

It’s tempting to choose ignorance, to embrace the thief’s definition of life, to let the machines control the narrative, because the thief can make ignorance taste better than truth.  The machines – political, social, economic forces that seem so dominant as to be irresistible – depend on our choosing values like comfort and pleasure over such things as justice and compassion. They hope that we won’t persevere, that we will abandon our quest for a life that is truly abundant and settle for “as good as it gets.”

And that, I think, is where we find some wisdom in another of today’s readings: 

        They devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers…    All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts….

Here is, I think, a framework for abundant life. First of all, it “controls the narrative”. It tells the story of the apostles and teaches that story as truth. In the face of the same seductions that confront us today – stuff, status and power – it insists that abundance is something that emerges in community and is intended for the common good. And spiritual life is grounded not in pleading for more, but in giving thanks for the abundance already at hand. I am convinced that our church is called to tell and live this story in a world whose taste for ignorance is both grievous and menacing.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

For Easter 3 "Stand up and let it shine"

Why are Cleopas and his companion heading for Emmaus?  Are they beckoned by the promise of home, or driven by the fear of violence and death in Jerusalem? They are clearly disciples of the Galilean rabbi whose teaching and practice led to his execution. It would not be unreasonable for them to imagine that some part of the violence that landed on him might land on them as well.  And if it is fear that drives them, the astounding witness of the women that they repeat to the stranger on the road has not yet sunk in.

Because the resurrection is, among other things, a compelling invitation to repent of the authority of fear in our lives, authority that we have granted.  The resurrection unmasks that of which we have been so afraid – the power of death – as, in the end, empty, an empty tomb, a broken bondage.  The resurrection does not obliterate the cost of our living as soft bodies in a hard world. It does, however, disclose the limit of death’s power.  It invites us to see and know that death lays no claim on us that love cannot overcome.  The death of Jesus is indeed, then, a ransom for many.  It ends our captivity to the power of death, and invites us to live as free persons.

But Cleopas and companion do not know that yet. They are “heading for the hills”, hearts broken by the apparent power of death to end hope (“we had hoped”) by destroying him whose life and witness was the occasion for their hope.  Jesus is dead.  Life is deadly.  We’re safer knowing that and acting accordingly.

And then – then the stranger takes the bread, blesses, breaks and shares it.  In some ways, this is the first eucharist.  The meal on Thursday took place before the death had unleashed its full arsenal of violence on Jesus’ body.  This takes place as a response to that violence, denies it the authority it seeks.  What was alive in our midst as Jesus before his death is alive in our midst as Jesus after his death.  Something more powerful than death is at play when in our midst bread is taken, blessed, broken, and shared.  All the power of death unleashed across all of created time and space is smaller than the thing we do together this morning.  Smaller, because in this eucharist we join our doing to God’s doing, our imperfect offertory to God’s perfect self-offering in Jesus, our bounded love to God’s unbounded love.

And all the power of death unleashed across all created time and space is smaller than any action by which any creature participates in any way in God’s work of love.  We do not measure here by any scale other than the mysterious scale of the Spirit, in which love is love, never more, and never less.

So Cleopas and his companion repent of fear, turning from a trajectory into which death and fear have driven them, to a trajectory into which the Spirit invites them, the trajectory that leads them back into the community in Jerusalem, a community with a story to tell, a community that will proclaim and enact that story, albeit imperfectly, from that day until this.  A community in which we are members by baptism, and into whose witness are woven our kindness, love, and courage, never more, and never less.

So, to quote Bruce Cockburn’s closing line in his haunting “Mystery”,
“Come all you stumblers who believe love rules. Stand up and let it shine.”

Wounds of Love - For Easter 2

We can easily become so focused on Thomas that we miss everything else in the story. I’m thinking in particular about the very early part of this week’s gospel – “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”  The continuing ministry of Jesus will include these apostles (the word means “sent ones”). And they are sent “as the Father sent me”; that is to say, the terms of their engagement with the world on behalf of the Father are the same as they were for Jesus.

Teach and heal, cast out demons, confront the illusion of inevitability that holds hope hostage, unmask the privilege and power that sustain an elite, and attend with compassion to those who are left out and lost.

The cost of this engagement will also follow the trajectory of Jesus’ life. Like him, they will spend their lives. So it makes perfect sense that before Jesus tells them about this engagement in God’s mission, he reminds them that he has the necessary authority to invite them into this hard and holy way. He shows them the wounds on his hands and in his side. “Then,” the story tells us, “Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord.”

The resurrection appearances throughout this Easter season give us two kinds of help. They help us recognize the continuing ministry of Jesus in the lives of his followers, and they help us understand how we, the Body of Christ, can be a recognizable sign of his continuing life and ministry. As we baptize a new member, as we bid the Holy Spirit graft him into the Body of Christ, our Scripture invites us to consider what we are inviting him to take on, and whether we have the authority to make that invitation.

I’m thinking that Keith, like Thomas, would be unwise to accept this invitation without touching the wounds on our hands. Wounded hands are one of the ways one can recognize a disciple of Jesus. A community with unblemished hands is, I’m thinking, deeply suspect.

That said, I wonder if our problem isn’t a matter of seeing and knowing, rather than of being and doing. The world around us does not celebrate the wounds of love, except in occasional made-for-television bursts of sentimentality that offer tears without transformation. So we’re inclined, I think, to overlook our real courage, our tenacious, resilient capacity to engage in the work of love, and to absorb the wounds of love. We’re inclined to forget what we have learned about love’s victory and true power. It’s tempting and ever so easy to let Easter become a festival we visit once a year instead of a lens for seeing the world and ourselves in it.

God has told us – God has shown us – what sort of power bears the weight of our humanity.  Today, we baptize Keith into the show-and-tell Body of Christ. We make promises to him and offer ourselves to him and to those who love him as a community of support and encouragement that will love and honour him as he grows, that will teach and strengthen him in the way of the apostles, that has the authority to invite him to be sent along with us into the world as a friend and disciple of Jesus. And in his turn, after most of us have entered into our rest, he will offer to others what we offer him today – the friendship of a community of wounded hands and lasting joy.

Because as he grows in body, mind and spirit, as he embraces the way of compassion on which we follow Jesus, he will discover what the wise among us already know. This is a journey to be taken in community, with the thoughtful example of those who know the journey and its cost, and with care for those who do not yet have calluses on their feet to protect against the wear of the road.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Which Gate? For Palm Sunday

Palm Sunday lays a question before us, maybe the most important question of all. As John Crossan and Marcus Borg describe it in The Last Week, it’s a question about two parades on the same day, one coming through the east gate of the city, the other through the west.  The important question is, “Which gate?”  Through the west gate, coming from Caesarea Maritima, comes the infantry and the cavalry, with the Governor, Pontius Pilate.  It is a national festival, and the army is arriving to stifle any unrest, any thought of rising up against Rome.

Through the east gate comes an odd and ominous parade.  Jesus of Nazareth enters on a donkey, laying claim to the city as anticipated by the prophet, Zechariah: 
                                    “Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem!
                                    Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant
                                    and victorious is he, humble,     
                                    and riding on a donkey.

It is the first of a series of provocative actions, actions that spell trouble for the religious leaders and for Herod, actions that threaten their tenuous hold on the power they borrow from Rome.  On Monday, he will return to Jerusalem and confront the temple authorities. In Mark’s gospel, Jesus calls the temple a “den of robbers”, quoting Jeremiah 7.11, which excoriates the religious authorities of that prophet’s time for treating the temple as a kind of “safe house” in which they can evade the consequences of their abominable behaviour.

On Tuesday he will chastise a group of Herodians for carrying a coin that bears the image of Caesar and ascribes divine status to him. That same day, he will denounce the Saducees (Mark 12.24-27), the chief priests (Mark 11.27-33) and the scribes (Mark 12.38-40).

On Wednesday, an unnamed woman anoints him for his death. Immediately before the anointing, we hear that the chief priests and scribes are looking for a chance to arrest Jesus “by stealth”, away from the crowds who revere and protect him. On Thursday, Judas gives them that chance.  Finally, in the darkness, no longer surrounded by the crowds, soldiers take Jesus to a new place where he is surrounded by new crowds.  In front of the high priest, at Herod’s home, facing Pilate, he is no longer protected by crowds who would have no access to this drama.  Sleepless, beaten, and reviled by this other crowd, he stumbles to the Place of the Skull, Golgotha.

Which gate? You’d have to choose the west gate, wouldn’t you? That’s where the heavy hitters come in. That’s where the winners gather. That’s where “Who’s Who?” meet to look after “what’s what’.  It’s the savvy, practical thing to do – to join the parade “most likely to succeed”. And by three o’clock on Friday afternoon, “what’s what” is very clear. Jesus, who twisted the nose of every authority in town, is dead. And yet we gather, every year, to remember the donkey parade.

And just in case we’re inclined to make the lines too clear, tempted either to despair (because we so easily choose the wrong gate) or smugness (because we can’t imagine ever making that mistake) the critical moment of recognition will come to a soldier of the Roman occupation, who exclaims “God’s son” as Jesus dies. The first evangelist came in the wrong gate! (And Judas came in the right one.)

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

You Tell the Stones - For Lent 5

There in the valley of dry bones stands our ancestor, carried there by the hand of God. Just as with Jesus in the wilderness, led there by the Spirit immediately after his baptism, we learn that Ezekiel’s journey is the work of the Spirit. This is no tame Spirit, then. And these are no green pastures, no still waters. In fact, this valley’s principle feature is its utter lifelessness. Not so much as a drop of water or a breath. 

God leads our ancestor around the valley, and it’s nothing but bones, nothing but dry. This lifeless valley and its bonescape are what has become of the people of God. God asks Ezekiel if these bones can live. “You tell me.” But he knows they can’t. Dead is dead. Over is over. 

“You tell me,” says Ezekiel, to the Holy One, who replies – “I’ll tell you. YOU tell the bones.” Prophesy to them, tell them that things are about to be quite different for them. Tell them to be alive again. Walking through the bones, our dreaming ancestor does tell them. And his words have the power of God in them, carry that power into the midst of them. Suddenly, dead is not dead and over is not over. Instead they clatter together, clothed by the power that rides on Ezekiel’s words, clothed with sinew and flesh. Then the breath that Ezekiel calls up fills them like a wind-filled sail and stands them on their feet, alive.

I wonder if Jesus has this story in mind as he stands in front of the grave of Lazarus. We know that he weeps like us, feeling the power of death all around him, and within him. Does he remember an ancient story about death’s power and God’s new life, told in home and synagogue?  Does he call up the breath of God, the Spirit of God, the mighty wind of God, to blow away the smell of death from this place and fill the life of Lazarus like a sail? 

When we think of ourselves as worshippers of Jesus, we can keep this all at a safe distance. The wonderworker has done this extraordinary thing, has called up the Spirit of God, the mighty rushing wind of God and Lazarus lives.
And if we can keep Ezekiel safely in the past, a bible man living in a bible world in a long ago bible time, then we can reminisce about the things God used to do in the good old bible days. And be safe from any expectation that such a thing – such a Spirit, such a breath, such a wind – could blow across our lives into some dying part of the life of the world and fill it like a sail.

But when we are followers of Jesus, and when we know Ezekiel as an ancient self not so different from the self each of us knows as “myself” , then there might be some expectation upon us, (as disciples) to do a little Spirit-calling ourselves.

And that might mean that we are in the bonescape, not by some dreadful mischance or mischoice, but because that’s where the Spirit waits upon our calling. What if it is the hand of God that carries us into whatever valley of bones we endure? Would that change how we see our valleys, our wilderness, our losses? 
I wonder if there is, somewhere in each of our lives,  some valley, wilderness or loss that is, in truth, an invitation to us to summon the Spirit of life into a place of death. Do we hear somewhere in these stories, the voice of the Holy One – “I’ll tell you.  YOU tell the bones."

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Regime Change - Lent 4

When Samuel anoints David as king of Israel, he becomes part of a long pattern of contested sovereignty – “regime change”. Saul is still living, and for several more years will act out the role of king. But as of this moment in Jesse’s yard, he is no longer the real king; that authority God has taken from Saul and bestowed on David, because, we are told, Saul has turned his back on the Lord and set up a monument for himself.

Regime change is what Eve and Adam attempted in Eden when they seized the fruit of God’s tree. And it’s what’s going on in Libya right now. Who will be king? Who will have power?

The question of power – where it comes from, its legitimate uses, who has it – provides a constant rumble rising out of history’s cellar – a tectonic force that reshapes life on the surface, sometimes gradually, often violently.  And there is violence here. Saul will seek David's death. Absalom's violent death will break his Father's heart. Not much of scripture has to do with gradual change.

So we might, as we journey towards Jerusalem and the cross in this Lent, remember another king who suspects a rival. When the Magi visit Herod seeking the newly born king, Herod’s response is immediate, pre-emptive and violent. There will be no other king. Herod will use power to sustain power, even if it means using that power to wipe out the infant population of an entire region.

On the road to Jerusalem, the disciples come to Jesus and ask, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?”  Jesus puts a child among them, because any child will know right away who’s the greatest in the kingdom.  “The King, of course!” And then, anticipating his own act of generous and courageous humility, he says, “Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom.” 

Near the beginning of Matthew’s gospel, Jesus takes up the proclamation of John the Baptist that another kingdom is emerging to rival current arrangements. “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”  He’s not talking spirituality here, at least not the gossamer stuff that passes for spirituality.  He’s talking about transformation in how power is understood and used. In two weeks we will mark Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, where he will contest the claim of Herod as king and of Caesar as emperor. Their power is no longer legitimate; they have separated it from its source in the God of Israel, and from its purposes of compassion and justice. They have, like Samuel, built monuments to themselves. There is not an ounce of humility to be found between them.

Herod understands the claim that Jesus makes as he enters Jerusalem, and if he doesn’t, he has the priests to explain it to him. Jesus is claiming sovereignty over the city, claiming to be its true king. And just a few days later, God will indeed anoint him, and the centurion will recognize him, and the world will never be ruled by violence or fear again. And if those who build monuments to themselves, who use power to consolidate their advantage rather than to serve the common good, who sustain their advantage by violence and the threat of violence – if people like that, wherever they are, imagine that there’s none who can oppose them, they would do well to remember this ancient story rumbling up from the cellar of history – Samuel anointing the new king, the true king, the king who will still be standing when the old king falls.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

For Lent 2

None of us remembers our birth. But most of us can imagine what a trauma it was to leave the warm, humid comfort of the dark and quiet womb and be thrust into the dry, cold, noisy brightness of whatever room.  So when Jesus speaks to Nicodemus of a spiritual birth, I’m inclined to believe that what Jesus asks of Nicodemus is not going to be easy.

The gospel account of the exchange between Jesus and Nicodemus is complicated by the writer’s habit of characterizing Jews (in general) and Pharisees (in particular) as obsessed with narrow legalism and driven by judgmental self-righteousness. Evidence suggests that the sect of Pharisees was more complex than the portrait this evangelist paints. Nevertheless, what emerges in Jesus’ encounter with Nicodemus is an exploration of the contested ground between structure (law, judgment) and freedom (Spirit, novelty).

That contested ground is not an exclusively Pharisaical or Jewish reality. It is at the heart of a contemporary tension in the formerly “mainline” churches, including our own Anglican Church. While as a Diocese we may have embraced a vision that includes “life-changing worship”, some of us are not sure we want to say “worship” and “change” in the same breath. Moreover, the contested ground is not just between people. Sometimes it is within us, as we desire both the comfort of familiar structures and patterns and the promise of renewal and transformation.

So as we eavesdrop on Jesus and Nicodemus, we listen to understand not just some long-ago contest between law and spirit, but to understand ourselves and our common life as well. We hear Jesus tell Nicodemus that “getting there”, entering the Kingdom, is a process that demands of us our willingness to endure discomfort – the discomfort of a passage between the dark and quiet womb of familiarity and the noisy bright expansive spirit-birth into new life.

Whatever for? Why would anyone willingly embrace such a transit? Two things come to mind. First, for growth and delight. At birth I weighed around five kilos and I had grown as big as I could or ever would in my mother’s womb. Moreover, in that place there was no Lake Superior, no college basketball, no first kiss or waking up together, no cinnamon toast, crossword puzzles or John Irving novels. (You might make your own list of the wonders of life this side of the womb.) We set out on this journey so that we can inhabit more fully the fullness of our lives.

And we set out for the sake of the world. “For God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” The Hebrew name of Jesus – “Yeshua” – also means “salvation” and (by a delightful linguistic grace) “that which is spacious”. As we make the passage from the dark and quiet womb of “so far” towards the noisy, bright expansive (spacious) “not yet”, our capacity to participate in the spacious work of Jesus grows. In the Letter to the Romans, Paul writes that “the whole creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God.” People so firmly attached to current arrangements as we sometimes are cannot be agents of the transformation that God desires and for which the creation so eagerly longs. The world is waiting with eager longing for us to get over it, to get on with it, to consent to God’s spirit-birth, to the unsettling journey from what is to what will be.

Jesus asks a hard thing of Nicodemus, and of us. He asks us to endure the loss of warm familiarity, an uncertain passage, and unsettling newness for the sake of the world, and for our own fuller and deeper joy.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

For Lent 1

The first crisis of human stewardship came with our first ancestors’ decision to test the sovereignty of God by consuming the only fruit in the garden reserved exclusively to the Creator. Rejecting stewardship and embracing the illusory promise of sovereign possession of the garden, they initiate a continuing pattern of exploitation, entitlement, violence and destruction that plagues human participation in the life of the earth.”               
                           Anglican Church of Canada – Resources for Mission

Several weeks ago, Jesus informed us that we have to choose the master we will serve – God or wealth. On Ash Wednesday, we heard his words, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” Today we read about the “first crisis in human stewardship” in the garden, and then about the resolution of that crisis – indeed, the redeeming of human stewardship – in Jesus’ wilderness encounter with the adversary.

In that encounter, Jesus overturns contemporary (in his time and in ours) wisdom about stuff, status, and power. He makes choices that affirm that his primary relationship is not with any of these, but with God as God’s steward. In fact, he refuses to express ownership or possession of any one of them. The stones are not “his” stones to refashion for his own purposes. Status as God’s son is not “his” status, an entitlement he can claim in support of his own emerging leadership agenda. And the power to govern the world is not power that can become “his” power if he does as the Adversary asks. Power is a gift from God for God’s purposes of compassion, healing, justice and mercy. What the Adversary offers Jesus is the misdirection of that gift into purposes of fear, domination, and threat. Jesus models human stewardship – grateful recognition that endowment and purpose flow from the same source – from the one he calls abba – “Papa”.

Jesus recognizes that human relationships – with the creation, with other persons and communities, and with power – will always be a matter of stewardship. In Bob Dylan’s words, “it may be the devil, or it may be the Lord, but you’re gonna have to serve somebody.” Jesus’ encounter with the Adversary brings into sharp focus what is already apparent in the garden. The Adversary may frame our decision in terms of freedom or slavery, but the real question is not “Whether?” but “For whom?” we will be stewards. Both God and the Adversary govern a kingdom; the elemental stewardship question is which of them we will serve.

The forty days of fasting that lead to this encounter follow immediately on the heels of Jesus’ baptism, his inauguration into a renewal movement led by his cousin, John the Baptist. They are a consequence of his audacious claim to be a steward of the kingdom of heaven. It is God’s own spirit who dispatches him to the wilderness, where that audacious claim will be put to the test.

Where is our stewardship tested? Where are we tempted by the Adversary’s promise of absolute freedom and unrestricted title to whatever stuff, status, or power we can lay our hands on? It’s not, on the surface, a very friendly question, but it’s one we need to ask. Because it is not Jesus’ Papa who intends us harm, who invites us away from practices of stewardship grounded in compassion, justice, love and mercy. It is not Jesus’ Papa who seduces us, with illusions of freedom, into a stewardship grounded in “a continuing pattern of exploitation, entitlement, violence and destruction.”  And if we learn in Lent and Holy Week that the journey a Kingdom-of-God steward makes through this life is not an easy one, at Easter we will discover again what we had perhaps forgotten – that it is the only way home.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

For Transfiguration

My friend Jon Sams says it’s hard to believe in God in a flat place. I don’t know about that – prairie horizons utter powerful and eloquent testimony to the holy. But I do know that biblical mountains (remember Moses at Sinai) are places apart and above – places in which our usual patterns of encounter with the world are suspended. On the mountain we do not take the initiative. We are not in control, or even responsible to see that this or that happens or does not happen. Biblical mountains are a topographical sabbath on which we lay aside the notion that any of us is the author of life’s story. On the mountain, God is the author, the Storyteller who moves the plot forward.

So as Jesus leads Peter, James and John up the mountain, we have at least a sneaking suspicion that something is going to happen, that the Storyteller is about to introduce a new direction. Another new direction. We’re all still recovering from the last new direction – in all three synoptic gospels, what precedes this story is Jesus’ teaching that he will suffer and die at the hands of the authorities in Jerusalem.

Little wonder that when Jesus appears transfigured, when his face shines like the sun, when his clothes become dazzling white, when Moses and Elijah appear with him – little wonder Peter’s soul overheats. Two radically different visions of Jesus emerge within six days; and within a few short verses we encounter Jesus first as crucified victim and then as the shining apex of history, who brings both law and prophets to completion. What’s a simple fisherman (or any of us, for that matter) to make of this?

I think we understand what Peter wants to do with the booth thing – building three booths, for Elijah, for Moses, and for Jesus. He wants to take control, make the new story like the old one, to soften the outlandish novelty now appearing in the plot. He wants to usurp the Storyteller and domesticate the story, because this wild new thing frightens him. It makes no sense to him.  Perhaps the closest we can come to imagining what is happening to Peter is to remember that astonishing part of our lives called “puberty”, a time of confusing changes in our emotions and bodies, of profound and sometimes stormy dislocation in our relationships with others, standing on the threshold of adulthood without knowing it, feeling lost. Puberty isn’t the last time most of us will have to renegotiate our sense of the world, and of ourselves in the world, but it is memorable.

One thing about such thresholds is that they aren’t “well-signed”. They don’t identify things clearly – so we don’t easily know that we’re at a threshold!, grieving the loss of a familiar past!, apprehensive about the shape of an unknown future!. That may be what makes a story like this gospel so valuable. It gives as a window into our own lives, and a way of talking about them that can help us name the threshold, the loss, the apprehension. 

I wonder if it also helps us understand what Jesus means when he asks us to take up our cross and follow him. I wonder if taking up the cross means enduring – in whatever mean-time, at whatever threshold, and as gracefully as possible – the losses that will always attend God’s call to enter more deeply into new life, into the fullness of our humanity, into the promised future. Events on the mountain promise a transformed future on ahead, and ourselves redeemed and made new; the cross tells us the cost of that journey.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

For Epiphany 8

There’s a radical edge to Jesus that familiarity can obscure. We love to hear him say, “Consider the lilies”.  It’s good advice against fretting and worrying – a comforting insight.  We might easily miss what comes before and after it.

What comes before is the kind of stern clarity that Jesus expresses from time to time. You can’t he says, have it both ways. What follows is his insistence the his followers distinguish ourselves from the worried Gentile preoccupation with food and clothing and entrust ourselves to the care of God.  So we can’t just treat this “lilies” passage simply as advice for coping in lives that are otherwise committed to business as usual. What is at stake, Jesus insists, is the fundamental orientation of our lives. Will we live our lives and direct our energy towards God, or towards wealth? That is, will we seek first the kingdom of God, or will we serve the other kingdom – the kingdom governed by greed, governed by fear? It’s not a choice that churches have always made clear. In fact, for long stretches of our history, we have tried to have it both ways – making our living in the kingdom of greed and fear, setting aside some time on Sundays for God, and praying “thy kingdom come” with a secret hope that it won’t, at least not yet.

I wonder centuries of partnership with empires (both political and economic) have caused us to  forget or lay aside the radical decision that precedes the comforting  advice.  “Decision” – de-cidere – means, after all, “to cut away”.  Can’t have it both ways. Have we allowed one part of Jesus’ message, the comfort, to overshadow the more demanding invitation to repentance?

Because repentance has been his message since the beginning of Matthew’s gospel. His first public proclamation (Repent, for the kingdom has come near) might help us to remember that Jesus isn’t here simply to help us find comfort within a broken world, but also to invite us to become part of its healing – its redemption. When we turn from a kingdom governed by stuff, status and power – and by the powerful fear that we might lose them – and take on the ethic of compassion and justice that govern the kingdom of God, we are in the world in a new and transformative way. I think it was pretty hard for our churches to teach this sort of repentance while colluding with empires, and maybe that’s why we reduced the scope of repentance to a few pretty well universal human frailties associated with appetites.

The truly good news is that the empires don’t want or need our collusion any more. So we’re free to tell people what Jesus asks us to tell them, instead of just the part of his truth that passes imperial inspection. We’re released from our own bondage to the kingdoms of this world, and we’re free to proclaim Jesus’ call to repentance and offer of redemption – to enter into the healing of purpose that allows us to participate in God’s mission in and for the world.  The empires once welcomed our carols, but they never welcomed the fullness of our proclamation.

But that proclamation has been kept alive, sometimes in surprising places – in Anabaptist traditions including Moravians and Mennonites, in Christian liberation movements, and on the fringes of the formerly mainline churches. And we know that Gandhi, a Hindu, loved the Sermon on the Mount, and quoted from it extensively and often. Though he thought about becoming a Christian at one point, he encountered, before he could get in the church door, rejection on the basis of his race. And so, later in life, when asked by a Christian missionary why he quoted the words of Christ so much, but refused to become a Christian, he replied, “Oh, I don’t reject your Christ. I love your Christ. It’s just that so many of you Christians are so unlike your Christ.”