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.