Monday, May 25, 2009

All You Need is Love: A Sermon on the Sunday After Ascension

Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.

We have come to the seventh Sunday after Easter, the Sunday after the Ascension. Jesus has been raised into heaven. Even though we’re still shouting alleluias, even though we’re still saying “Christ is risen!” it all takes on a different quality on the Sunday after the Ascension. For now it’s really over. He is risen indeed. He came back to us and then, as he said he would, he returned to his father. Jesus in the body is gone, like the landlord who departs from the vineyard and goes on a long journey, leaving us to be his voice in the world, calling us to use the talents he left with us.

Today’s Gospel is a haunting piece. It’s a text of departure, Jesus’ last words to his disciples. The hour is very near. Jesus has done the work God called him to do, and now it’s time to see whether we understood what he was about, whether we heard and saw truly what Jesus came to teach. We’re left in this world to do the work of God. Salvation is not a done deal. The evil one is real. He’s going to make an appearance very soon down in the Kidron Valley: scary evil, the kind that makes people betray their best friends: Jesus will be arrested, Peter will draw his sword, the disciples will scatter. It is haunting, knowing that this is going to happen, as Jesus says, “I guarded them.…I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one.”

As long as we are in the world, Jesus says, we must deal with evil. We cannot make it go away. Even Jesus’ death and resurrection did not make it go away. No matter how hard we try, we cannot make it go away any more than we can make the morning fog go away. I can’t fight the morning fog, or design vast programs to rid the world of fog. On foggy mornings, I put on a coat and go forth.

Jesus did not come to change the world, he came to show us how to live in it. Over time, if we practiced life as Jesus taught it, the world would change, but not all at once. Also, as the world changed, so would our understanding of what Jesus came to teach. Such is the nature of spiritual practice. It is change, but slow change. Jesus left before it was apparent he had done much of anything. He didn’t form a political party or write a set of doctrines – all that would come later, as the people left behind tried to figure out what it all meant – Jesus came simply to show us the way through human illusion so that we might see the truth and be strengthened by it. Jesus only showed us how to live in the world as it really is. Jesus came to offer a coat to a people unable to find their way in the world’s foggy morning. In this image of fog is the blindness, the deafness of people in the world, the deafness and blindness of what passes for human genius. I cannot see what I cannot see. I cannot see what I need most to see. I need help. I need a community and a practice. I need a guide to help me take the steps that need to be taken. I need Jesus. And now Jesus is ascended to the father and it is up to us to continue his work of love and healing.

Today, many Christians equate salvation with getting into heaven after you die, which can sound a lot like getting into a good college as a reward for getting good grades in high school. Because we don’t know what to do with the reality of evil in the world, with the fact that sin and death haven’t gone away, over the years, this version of salvation has been promoted: be good and you’ll get to heaven, with not much thought about what Jesus means to life on earth. Which is to say that the “world” that Jesus is saving us from is not the same as the earth. Earth is God’s. World is man’s. But since individuals are easier to manage than communities, over the past five hundred years, this image of personal salvation has replaced others. Salvation is now the supreme achievement of a life measured by individual achievement. The Reformation theologian John Calvin viewed earthly success as the outward and visible sign of my being chosen by God. The Reformation itself didn’t like the compromises of community and so replaced impure people with what they thought was pure Scripture, which soon became a private act of reading and a provoker of arguments. Slowly, over the passage of centuries, community life gave way to individual life, because the locus of the divine wasn’t in community, it was in a book, and upon me and my salvation. The mega churches understand this: they can, from the outside, resemble one stop personal salvation service stations, complete with rock bands, couples counseling, espresso bar, gym and summer cruise vacations with the Pastor. “That they may be one as we are one” can be transformed into building up the Christian team, getting people on the right side, so that they can then go out and whomp the Muslim team, or even their own opponents in the Church, on the great playing field of life. Sometimes, of course, the mega churches find God, too, and are transformed.

It serves to remind us that any successful organization stands a long way from that night in Jerusalem when Jesus was dragged away to be killed, shattering his own organization, shattering every answer that his disciples thought they had.

All this came home to me when I again watched the film “Jesus Camp” with my 8th grade religion class. If you haven’t seen the film, it revolves around youth pastor Becky Fisher who runs a really slick Evangelical meeting: children speak in tongues, weep, wash away their sins with bottled water, preach and cover their mouths with red tape as a protest against abortion. I could say a lot about it – my students certainly did – but for today, I’ll share just this one moment, because it was pivotal to my own articulation of the faith I proclaim. Near the end of the film, a liberal Christian talk show host named Mike asks Becky, “Doesn’t it bother you that you are indoctrinating those children?”

“No, Mike,” she says. “It doesn’t bother me. The Muslims are indoctrinating their children, so why shouldn’t we?”

That, of course, represents every liberal’s worst fear: a Children’s Crusade on behalf of the Republican Party.

But that was not what hit me. What hit me was the Becky Fisher herself considered building the church as an act of indoctrination. Nowhere in the whole film does she touch on Jesus’ most important word, a word which we hear in today’s Gospel, “As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. And for their sakes I sanctify myself, so that they also may be sanctified in truth.”

Jesus is not a doctrine. I cannot indoctrinate you with him. He is the truth. I can only tell my truth and wait to hear yours.

That Jesus goes to the cross suggests that we don’t find God in our moments of radiant success, but when everything that we are is shattered by apparent failure. I say apparent, because the older I get, the less sure I am that there’s really any such thing as failure. I think failure is the world’s word, used to scare me into submission to it. What the world call failure may just be God’s way of helping me let go of what the world tells me I should want and listening to what God wants.

Which brings me to my final observation. Today’s teaching is all about letting go. Spoken at the threshold of the cross, it says that letting go is never easy – it may be the hardest thing I will ever do. It may very well look like failure. But what looks to me like failure may only be the breaking open of my heart. It may only be my illusions shattering. At the beginning of his ministry, Jesus was tempted by illusions. So also, was he tempted at the end. Judas is necessary, not because Jesus had to be betrayed, but because Judas succumbed to the temptations that Jesus refused. Judas’ story shows us the terrible unhappiness that comes when I place my own ideas of what is right above all else. Jesus’ story shows us what happens when you let your heart be broken.

Being about love, Jesus is not a “he.” Jesus is “we.” Jesus and God are one. Jesus is “we.” Jesus ascends so that instead of holding on to him, I might become him, one with God, one with you. God loves each and every one of us. The path to God is not to assert myself over and above others; it is to realize that those I call others are really inseparable from myself. If I am in conflict with them, I am also, at some level, in conflict with God. All the fights and divisions in the church today are God’s way of telling us that it is time to grow up.

How do we know how we’re doing? There’s really only one test. We know that we’re doing God’s work the more we love other people, the more we love creation, the more we love the animals, the trees, the birds, the insects, even that person across the hall who’s driving me crazy. God’s work is the work of love. Love God. Love your neighbor. Evil remains real, and love, only love is strong enough to stand up to it.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

The Etiquette of Invective

"I do not judge anyone who hears my words and does not keep them, for I came not to judge the world, but to save the world." Jesus, John 12:47

I recently received an interesting, albeit far too long, note from an anonymous reader. It detailed some of the ways in which we ordinary folk have been fooled by the economic shenanigans of the outrageously wealthy. It raised some important questions about so-called philanthropy and warned of possible hard times to come. I was pleased to read it and would certainly have posted some of it were it not for one thing. The author indulged in name calling.

We're way beyond that, folks. The issues are far too important. Even the most difficult problems can be presented in a constructive manner -- indeed, constructive is just what we need at a time when so much we have taken for granted, both for good and for ill, just isn't there anymore. People may sound sure of themselves, but I'm not sure anyone knows what is happening.

My own spiritual practice has taught me that there is no sin that cannot be transformed into goodness if we can but open our hearts to the holy. Many of the folks that got us into this mess are brilliant and remembering Paul on the road to Damascus, or Milarepa, seeing the ruins of the village he had destroyed with his power, I pray not for their downfall, but for their transformation.

When I watched the film Jesus Camp with our 8th grade, we saw what a polarized nation we have become. The need to be right all the time is intellect run amok. No system has all the answers. It is time to forgive, not name call. Beneath all that rhetoric, we are more alike than we think.

The path toward truth is never paved with taunts.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Saturday Quotes

From Bill Moyers and Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth

MOYERS: Why is a myth different than a dream?

CAMPBELL: Oh because a dream is a personal experience of that deep, dark ground that is the support of our conscious lives, and a myth is the society’s dream. The myth is the public dream and the dream is the private myth. If your private myth, your dream, happens to coincide with that of the society, you are in good accord with your group. If it isn’t, you’ve got an adventure in the dark forest ahead of you.

MOYERS: So if my private dreams are in accord with the public mythology, I’m more likely to live healthily in that society. But if my private dreams are out of step with the public –

CAMPBELL: you’ll be in trouble. If you’re forced to live in that system, you’ll be a neurotic.

The question that was not asked then: What if the public myth is neurotic?

Thomas Merton weighed in on this very thing in an article on the trial of Adolph Eichmann, a man diagnosed as sane, originally published in Ramparts (October 1966) and reprinted in the Essential Writings anthology:

"We can no longer assume that because a man is 'sane' he is therefore in his 'right mind.' The whole concept of sanity in a society where spiritual values have lost their meaning is itself meaningless."...God knows, perhaps such people can be perfectly adjusted, even in hell itself."

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Eagle Floods: God's Sled Dogs Rescued by Boat

Ice jammed the Yukon River near Eagle yesterday, creating the biggest flood in Eagle's history. If you have read John McPhee's Coming into the Country or follow the Yukon Quest sled dog race, you will remember Eagle. Thanks to musher Andy Bassich for a magnificent rescue.

With love from the Dog.

The Green Brain, Part IV: The Structures of Faith

In his book A New Kind of Christian, emergent church guru Brian McLaren speaks of the structures of faith, or, how the Church has built and expressed herself through the ages. When Rome fell, that structure was monasticism. At the height of the Middle Ages, it was the Cathedral. As the Reformation exposed and lamented the abuses of the Church, systematic theology became the architecture of God’s kingdom. All three: monasticism, building, theology have survived into our time. But none seem anymore to adequately encompass our relationship with the Divine. The question before us today then, is what might our own structure of faith look like?

Monastic communities preserved the cities of the Ancient World when its urban society collapsed. The word community comes from a Latin root which means “common wall.” Doing the work of civilization, keeping learning and literacy alive, the monastic world provided a haven for those whose lives had little place in the feudal economy. But as the Medieval world grew beyond the fiefs of warring lords, and cities returned, cathedrals with their walled closes arose. Cathedrals made possible a new kind of community, bringing together work teams such as had not been seen for a thousand years. Growing out of Roman collapse, the High Middle Ages knew both the fear of flame and the solace of heaven. The result was a society that was both structured and visionary. A cathedral represents the architectural expression of this tension. To walk into a medieval cathedral is to taste the meeting place of time and eternity. The ceilings soar almost too high for the eye to follow. The space is cold, a little inhuman, both echoing and muffling at one and the same time. Light casts beams through narrow, lancet windows, in patterns of color where stained glass remains. In some way, a medieval cathedral is the ultimate material monument to the spirituality of the Kingdom of God. It had material consequences, too. The Gothic cathedral sowed the seeds of the Industrial Revolution, Western man’s struggle to harness the power of the earth.

Just at the moment the medieval building boom reached its peak, however, it went bad. Selling indulgences to raise funds to build St. Peter’s led to the great mixup of values that made the Reformation possible, that turned the Church away from statues and incense to a stern, stripped down austerity: Sola Scriptura, Eucharist as memorial not miracle. The cathedral of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation era became Systematic Theology, a series of interlocking doctrines, whose wheels within wheels work with the dazzling consistency of a really good intellectual puzzle. To study, say, the doctrine of Creation is to see also in its prism the doctrines of sin, soteriology, Christology, ecclesiology and the rest. In the excitement of discovering this mental map, people forgot Thomas Aquinas’ final vision, when God both congratulated him for his system and then showed him that he hadn’t gotten it, hadn’t gotten it at all.

Theology has now grown so complex and so detached from other modes of knowing, like science and psychology, that to most of us it is just one more thing to cope with, like all ideologies, like all the competing systems dreamed up by men to occupy our minds.

The Church is both spiritual and material. To err on the side of cathedrals is to lose theology. To err on the side of theology is to lose the body. The point in our faith is the balance that makes a third thing possible. This third thing, said Jesus as he prepared to leave his fleshly life, is the Spirit of Truth. Truth is fusion. It happens, says Jesus, when the Divine finds itself in the flesh and knows it.

Friday, May 1, 2009

The Green Brain, Part III: Thoughts as I Prepare to Leave the City

At the same time I was reading Jon Gertner’s article in the New York Times Magazine, I came across a video on the Times’ website. It previewed what the new green economy might look like. It featured freeways, cities, and a construction site, but nothing I would call green: no trees, fields or mountains. It leads me to conclude that when New Yorkers think green, they do not think nature. This is not surprising in one of the world’s great constructed environments. In that world, the ecology, that is to say, the interrelationships that give life, is commerce. By moving from dirty to clean energy, everybody wins and the money, which is as essential to life in New York as air, stays in circulation. The people who are already rich from oil and coal can stay rich. New fortunes can be made on clean energy. The economy is not significantly disturbed. When new money is added to old, gain rather than sacrifice becomes the order of the day.

That a great deal of the so-called “green” thinking that arises in New York City revolves around money and technology should surprise no one: wind power, fuel cells, solar arrays, alternate ways to meet the developed world’s perceived energy requirements.

Is that the energy we need, or do we need another kind of energy, one that has not been noticed yet?

To focus on fuel and finance, the energy humanity takes and burns, is very anthropocentric thinking. It privileges the human species above all others on earth, construing humanity’s Biblical dominion over the earth as management of resources, not love of Creation. But what if there is more to the current economic crisis than the shenanigans of bankers, medical insurance companies and oil executives? What if the economic crisis is Earth’s doing? I know it sounds weird to imagine that the planet might have an opinion of us, but it is the prerogative of a blogger to ponder all kinds of things.

As one who spends most of her life in cities, I am aware that it is hard to hear the voice of the earth over the noise of traffic and through the deep cover of pavement. I am doubly aware of this since I have spent time in Alaska where the earth is positively and wondrously conversational. Both here and there some still believe that a bulging bank account is a sign of divine favor, that control of the earth is God’s will. I know a great many people who have made fortunes. I grew up with them and a number of them gravitate toward my two fields of education and the church. Teaching and priesting attract people with independent incomes. It costs to get the necessary degrees. To serve others feels good and an independent income closes the gap between a rather low salary and what it costs to live, especially in a place like California or New York.

Returning to the assumptions underpinning the Columbia University survey with which I began these musings, most of the rich people I know are not particularly motivated by a fear of loss. They may capitalize on others' fear of loss, but they're rather fearless. They are explorers, and like explorers everywhere, they are risk takers. My friends’ hobbies include mountain climbing, skiing, aviation, triathlons, wilderness travel, all of which invite injury and sometimes death. I’ve lost some of them to spectacular accidents. Success in this world is not about avoiding loss, it is about going for the gold.

The rich do not fear present sacrifice; indeed, they engage in it. They give all their time and energy to work and play. They sacrifice the slow progress toward hard won wisdom in favor of the quicker, glitzier and more shallow manipulation of systems. In their dedication to making it to the top of the mountain, they sacrifice many of the delights and exasperations of the community that gathers at Base Camp. They have sacrificed habitat, clean air, species, the large middle class, the checks and balances that helped keep our society open. Information technology, which is how many of my friends made their fortunes, made possible a virtual culture and a virtual economy that was so well crafted that it came to feel very real.

For me, the outward and visible sign of California’s fall from innovation to manipulation came with the transmogrification of the Santa Clara Valley into Silicon Valley.

The so-called poor have a very different ethic. When people have less, generosity is more important than acquisition. Waste is a crime. Community is the source of life, not a collection of competitors.

The last people to measure present sacrifice against future gain were the Soviets. If you ever read much Soviet Literature and I read a good deal of it in the heyday of the CCCP, the parodies penned by dissidents usually showed people in a miserable present singing odes to a glorious future that all of us knew would never arrive. And yet it did arrive. And it was a surprise.

The real question is why are we so paralyzed by the very real evidence that we are poisoning our planet? The degradation of Earth is not some future cost/benefit event. It is happening now. The birds are disappearing. The mammals are disappearing. There used to be Steller jays in my backyard. Now we have crows. The deer used to be everywhere. The egrets and black crowned night herons no longer nest across the street from school. The spring may not be as silent as Rachel Carson predicted, but it is getting quieter. Do we not hear this over the roar of our internal combustion engines? Have we paved our world so thoroughly that we cannot feel our earth’s pain?

“Choose life,” said Moses to his people as they stood on the brink of the Promised Land. “That you and your children might live.”

Listen to the wind. Listen to your heart. Ask yourself what you really love.