Sunday, December 2, 2012

First Sunday of Advent: The End of the World as We Know It

Almighty God, give us grace to cast away the works of darkness, and put on the armor of light.

Thirty one years ago last summer, at exactly half the age I am now, I visited the Soviet Union. Ronald Reagan had just been elected president and Biblical fundamentalism was rising as a political force. It was in such a climate of fear and loathing that I took myself to the land of the enemy.

I was not religious then, except in an existential, artistic and literary way. And what country had better art and literature than Russia, the land of Pushkin and Tolstoy, Dostoevsky and Akhmatova, Russia whose language I loved and whose people I longed to meet. 

Like the beginning of Advent, my three weeks in Russia were a hinge time. It was there that I left behind the hopes and passions of my youth, my desire to become an artist, a keeper of the rarified world of culture, because there I saw that rarified culture supported oppressive elites. It was there that I first heard the natural world cry out against industrial patriarchy. It was there I encountered the protest of freedom against others’ attempts to manage us, whether through political ideology or religious certainty. Visiting Russia began my quest to try and see the world as it really is. And of course, it was also in Russia that I had my first glimmers of God, not as the father figure of my childhood, but as the beating heart of the universe.

We spent most of our time in St. Petersburg, then Leningrad, as guests of the University. At one of our roundtables, a professor explained how the Soviet economy worked, an interlocking grid of five year business plans. As I sat there listening with an open mind, I began to feel very uncomfortable, for there was no room in anything this man was saying, for the unexpected: the surprise discovery, story, innovation, joy. So I raised my hand, and after an eloquent preamble about the brilliance of philosophy and its architecture of thought, I asked, “What do you do when something totally unlooked-for happens?”

The professor laughed. “We don’t have to worry about that," he said, "because that’s in the plan, too.”

And so we come to Advent. Advent is not unlike my professor’s five year plan. On the surface, it is a time when we are called to open ourselves to waiting and to mystery, but it is no mystery what we are waiting for. We are waiting for Jesus to come and save us. As one of my priest friends wrote so well on his weekly blog: Advent invites us to get back in touch with our primal hunger for God. It asks us to feel and know that we are all waiting for something from God that has yet to be fulfilled, that we have yet to experience in its fullness.

Notice the trajectory of this reflection: primal hunger, waiting for something, fulfillment.  Hopefully, that desire is for God, but if you’ve ever been caught in a fit of desire, you will know primal hungers are often unclear, and if you hang around children at this time of year, you know that those primal hungers are more often for presents than they are for God.

And if Advent is about primal hunger and fulfillment, why do we begin the season with readings about the end of the world? Is it because a new world cannot be born until an old world dies? Is it to gently remind us that we’re always going on about the end of the world, but it hasn’t ended yet and probably isn’t going to, so get a life? Is it to highlight a tradition of Biblical prophecy that called Israel to wait for the arrival of a savior? Is it because the moment we say that a story has a beginning, it must also have an end? Or does it come to teach us something about ends themselves?

There’s a very wise teaching in the Jewish Talmud. “We do not see things the way they are; we see things the way we are.” 

In his brilliant book The Great Partnership, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writes about what happens when cultures fall prey to the grip of Messianic hope: “Abrahamic monotheism lives in the cognitive dissonance between the world that is and the world that ought to be. Normally, this gap is bridged by daily acts of altruism, the ‘redemption of small steps.’ This is…the long, slow journey across the wilderness…a day at a time. But sometimes the gap seems so large that it leads believers to hope for and expect a sudden denouement, a miraculous transformation of history, the ‘world turned upside down.’1

This is the hope that comes up at this time of year, isn’t it? All my pain will be swept away by the magic of Christmas morning and my dreams will at last come true. 

Which brings me back to the world of five year plans. What shocked me in Russia was not their crude attempts at social manipulation and control; it was how much better at it we were. Russia made me aware of my own world, our culture of advertising that arouses primal hungers we didn’t even know we had; our sense that education is less about entering the mystery of learning than it is about turning out standardized test taker workers who will service the economy, a corporate culture that seeks to maximize certainty with computers and surveys, with niche marketing and statistical inventories. When humans live so deeply in a culture of control, it becomes very hard to see God, because it is in the very nature of  God to surprise. Indeed, one of the most reliable indicators that an empire is in decline is when it thinks it has discovered all the answers.

Jesus plays on all these hopes and fears in today’s Gospel. Our reading this morning is part of a larger teaching that pits statistical probability and apocalyptic drama against the daily step by step journey through an imperfect world. The first part that we did not read, describes the destruction of Jerusalem and its temple, which in fact did happen in 70 AD, but it did not take a genius to see that Rome and Judea were on a collision course. But then (and here’s where we begin today), Jesus moves from probabilistic  depictions of war to cosmic hyperbole: "There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see 'the Son of Man coming in a cloud' with power and great glory. Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near."

What, exactly, does all that mean? We know that Jews were not supposed to take stock in divination or astrology, but instead to understand times and seasons as given by God. So what might be these signs in the sun, moon and stars? Signs that we have lost it? What is distress caused by the roaring of the sea and its waves? Isn’t the sea supposed to roar? Are we so caught up in our own obsessive distress that we aren’t even a part of nature anymore and so a normal ocean becomes a source of confusion and fear? Have we become like King Saul at the end of his life rushing off to the witch of Endor because the fear and contradictions in his life had driven him mad? Is utter craziness a prequel to sober insight? 

For Jesus goes on: 

Then he told them a parable: "Look at the fig tree and all the trees; as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.

It would seem to make more sense, if Jesus were really teaching us about endings, that he would say, ‘when the fig tree has lost its leaves, then you know that winter is near.’ Instead, he uses an image of growth and renewal, as if to say it is this, and not destruction that should concern us, pay attention, not to the vanities of history, but to the seasons in their measured course, a redemption of ‘small steps.’

A close reading of the text reveals another important detail. Jesus does not say that this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place, but simply until all things have taken place. We won’t get to where we are going until we get there. And, we are all members of this generation, for again as Sacks writes, “sustained reflection on the Earth’s ecology  has made us aware that life in all its almost unimaginable diversity is interlinked.”2 We all come from the same genetic and spiritual source, endlessly recycled.

Jesus was not born to lead us into a perfect world; we don’t need God to show us perfection. All empires are about order and perfection. Five year plans and corporate branding, these are perfection. No surprises. That is perfection. Death is perfection. God does not call us to be perfect; God calls upon us to live. God calls us to live in this  world, a world that is always in process, always open to transformations, to let go of our own need to be in control and to join with God in a daily, step by step journey, one small deed at a time.

Hence the Collect. The works of darkness are not evil, they are ignorance. The works of darkness are what we do when we try to move around in the night and bump into walls and trip over the dog. The armor of light is the flashlight that helps us and others see in the dark. If we shine it back at ourselves, it will blind us. 

Advent reminds us that we are always beginning. That we still don’t know, even as we move toward an event that we do know. Light and dark together. That the babe to be born in Bethlehem will not be as all the carols so confidently proclaim, “the newborn king,” but one who, like the fig tree, will live in the midst of animals and humans, and show us how to have the courage, in the face of overwhelming temptations to the contrary, not so much to save the world and each other, which involves control, but to love it, which means letting go. AMEN.

1 Jonathan Sacks, The Great Partnership, p. 257
2 Ibid. p. 272

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Sermon for Episcopal Schools Sunday

Free Spirits

‘Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit on them!’

“Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.…and I speak these things in the world so that they may have my joy made complete in themselves.”
“Test everything.”
The readings appointed for Episcopal Schools Sunday take an approach to education that one rarely encounters in our industrialized age: education, not as the transmission of information or the creation of skilled laborers for the workplace, but education as the transmission of spirit. In both our Old Testament and Gospel readings, we witness the spirit moving from teacher to disciples, a power so profound and so visceral that it spills over into the camp and even those who are not part of the formal assembly feel its effects.

The enormous power of God is something quite simple. The power of God is the power of Gift. It is handed on, from parent to child, teacher to student. It passes from generation to generation. All that we are and all that we have and all that we know are gifts from God. Always, like the Israelites in the desert, we walk toward the unknown, and it is not our own strategic planning, but the voice of God that will tell us what to look for.

Few things in our world are as misunderstood as gift. Most of the time, when our culture talks about gifts or giving, we’re really talking about a transfer of assets. Assets are not gifts. Typically, we have earned our assets, while gifts, by their very nature are as free as the spirit that landed upon Eldad and Medad in the camp of the Israelites. Gifts are Free, in that I have not paid for them, free in that they may come and go as they wish. Many years ago, when I was speaking of the difference between a gift and an asset in this church I distinguished between them, saying that if an asset was an enhancement, a gift was “something I did not ask for.” Assets are an achievement of economics. Gifts are the work of a community. Suffering is never an asset. But sometimes, when it leads to growth or heals a relationship or gives us courage to risk ourselves, it can be a gift.

Education at its very best is a gift. Good education does not require fancy buildings or expensive equipment. It happens when people want to learn. It happens in fields and forests, when walking down the street, or sharing a story. Education is an act of love. It is a gift to our children to help them understand the gift of their lives. It is the gift of helping them to grow into the people God wants them to be. Every day our children bring their gifts to school. Sometimes that gift is a brilliant mind or brilliant athletic skill or musical genius. Sometimes that gift is anger, or resistance or inattention. All of them speak deeply about the human condition, not as we would have it, or engineer it, but as it is. A good educator listens.

In his brilliant book The Gift, Lewis Hyde warns us that nothing is more dangerous to the sharing of our gifts than the market economy that seeks to quantify gifts into assets and control them by setting monetary value upon them. Money does not set us free. As Jesus says in the reading that is appointed in the regular lectionary for today, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.” Money turns us into instruments, into units of production, indentured to something called the “economy.” By giving us the illusions of success and achievement if we have it, or the illusion of worthlessness if we don’t, money blinds us to reality. Money edits the complexity of life into “haves” and “have nots.” As one of my seventh graders said last week, “We think it is going to make life easier, but it really makes life harder.” The economics of education, like the economics of medicine, make it easy, as we strive for better buildings, more consistent program, to forget that the real work of education as gift, is to surprise us: to lead us out of our confusions, not to institutionalize them. Education is a human right, not a market product. The whole fuss about test scores in the academic world is a total consequence of the money economy, because that is what currencies do: they standardize. Industrial economies don’t need human beings, they need interchangeable, skilled workers. In schools across the country, as we seek to be competitive, the sacred conversation between teacher and student is being called “product.” And once you start talking about product, everything changes.  

As today’s readings remind us, the best education gets us out of Egypt, not deeper into it. The very word education derives from Latin word “educare,” which means to “lead out.” When education becomes about compliance, it becomes not education, but indoctrination. That, says our tradition, is not what God wants. “And you shall know the truth,” said Jesus, “and the truth shall set you free.” He did not say “And you shall know the truth, and the truth will make you a skilled laborer.” In the classrooms of great teachers, children are set free to be the surprising beings they really are. 

Today’s readings ask us to consider what spirit we are passing on to our children. How are we gifting them? What gifts do we hope they will pass on -- for a gift, you know, never stays in one place very long. Will our children be ready to do the great work of adulthood? Are they going to be ready to take on the risks and adventures of social leadership, of bringing life to a war torn world, and restoring health to our our fields and forests? Are we going to help our children grow up to be gifted or are we only going to burden them with more possessions?

In Episcopal schools, we are called every day to take on every hard question of mind, life and spirit, because it is the genius of the Episcopal tradition to be the people of God at the heart of this brilliant and flawed world. Episcopal schools call us to be a people of spirit in a world defined by stuff. Episcopal schools call us to appreciate the unique gifts that each child brings to school, to receive both the genius and the difficulties with love. Episcopal schools call those of us who teach to speak the truth as best we can. As you know from this election season, truth has never been more important or more endangered than it is right now. We know that we live in a very controlling culture. We know that Jesus came to help us let go of all our illusions of control. We should not be afraid to live and to love into the tension. We know where we need to go. The question before us is the same question that lay before Moses. How do we get there?

On Episcopal Schools Sunday, we celebrate the journey, the ancient and ever mysterious journey that each child makes toward adulthood. We celebrate its triumphs and its dangers. We celebrate fourteen year old Malala Yousafzai who was willing to risk her life to learn. Shot by the Taliban in Pakistan, today she lies on a ventilator in Rawalpindi, condition satisfactory, an icon of inspiration for girls the world over who seek to rise above the strictures imposed upon them for no other reason than that they were born female. Malala Yousafzai refused to be standardized. Malala Yousafzai gave herself for us.

On Episcopal Schools Sunday, we also celebrate the tiny island of Haiti, home of our sister school École St. Pierre. Haiti’s history is a tragic version of our own, plundered by the French for its wealth, its people stripped of their humanity and valued only for their enslaved labor, forced to turn its lush gardens into factory farms generating product, in this case sugar. People were enslaved to that product, but the Haitians rose up for freedom. They chose education. They chose to be led into a world of danger and risk rather than be tools of someone else’s economy. This one small island has seen it all: colonialists, hurricanes and earthquakes. But even so, the children at École St. Pierre begin each day with a song. Haiti has struggled, but Haiti has not given in. Both Malala and Haiti remind us that great education is about the gift of courage.

On Episcopal Schools Sunday, let us consider courage. Let us pause and honor the journey that education makes possible. Let us pause and give thanks for the gift. AMEN.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

A Holy Tragedy

Warning: God's sled dog bares her teeth in this one.

On Monday of this week, Americans will observe one of the greatest tragedies of human history, a moment of such profound misunderstanding that over 500 years later we are still reeling from its legacy of racism, slavery and the conviction that the natural world exists to be depleted by force, forced to return an escalating profit under the cool rubric of "economic growth."

On Monday of this week, Americans will remember the initial meeting of two great human projects: on the one hand, a culture of sin and striving, a culture of invention and exploration, a restless culture of chivalry and crusade, where men dominated women, kings dominated peasants and religion sought to dominate all, a culture in which women were kept away from nature and burned as witches if we tried to get back; on the other hand, a culture based in nature, a culture that practiced equality between men and women, and could see difference without inferiority, a culture whose religion was a quest for truth rather than a quest for power. The meeting that we remember Monday was between a culture of insatiable desperation and a culture of incredible abundance.

When Columbus and his men met the Taino people on the Caribbean Island that they dubbed Hispaniola, they did not see the care that the Taino had lavished upon their land, only the prospect of harvesting its abundance. Seeing their nakedness through the lens of sin, they called them savage. Seeing their culture through the lens of their own desperation, they called them stupid because they had not turned their trees and flowers into weapons and wealth. The European economy of exploitation required a serf class to do its work, so they enslaved the Taino as befitted an "inferior" race. Had not Aristotle himself said that some men were by nature free and some by nature slave? Having not read Aristotle, the Taino chose to die rather than be enslaved. The "labor shortage" precipitated by the death of the Taino led to the importation of Africans to work the teeming plantations of the New World, and to the institution of race based enslavement. Enslaving humans became a very profitable industry. Read Barry Unsworth's novel Sacred Hunger and weep.

Part of Hispaniola later became Haiti, the only land in the New World where enslaved people rose up against their "masters" and won. The European nations, driven by economic need and fear, all ganged up on this one small part of an island and crushed it, lest other enslaved people get "ideas." Meanwhile, a continent was looted, and genocide became a norm.

One of Columbus' most archetypal acts in the New World was his rape of a young girl. Because she wore few clothes and lived close to nature, he assumed she was a sexual savage, a practitioner of the kind of witchcraft and depravity that would drive a man wild with delight. He could not wait to taste her. Unfortunately, she was, in fact, a modest girl, terrified of this crazy man and his view of her as sinful and dirty. When I read the story of this encounter in Catherine Keller's Apocalypse: Now and Then, I heard the pain of the entire universe crying out in my dreams that night. I was never the same again.

But Republicans believe there is such a thing as "legitimate rape."

A "leisure class" whose privilege depends upon depriving other human beings of their autonomy and their access to grace earns only the privilege of delusion. We are stressed in this world that slavery built, not because of our work schedules, but because we know that others have suffered for us and we know that this is wrong. But because we believe that this is "just the way things are," we soldier on and try to make the best of it.

The Native People of our continent remind us that how we live is not "the way things are." It is a conscious choice. All the world's religions teach that insatiable desire leads only to disaster. Only the capitalist systems of the world are built upon a "norm" of insatiable desire. The Native People have a great deal to teach us. They know how to live well within their means, to balance work and leisure. They taught me what meaningful work looks like. They also fight with one another, have bad moods and make bad decisions. They are only human.

To change Columbus Day to Indigenous People's Day is not "political correctness." It is an affirmation of hope that we, too, can change for the better. The entire planet eagerly awaits our "yes."

Sunday, September 23, 2012

The Spiral Dance

Dear Friends,

Last week I did not post, because I was away having an extraordinary experience. I have woven that experience into today's sermon, preached at Good Shepherd, Berkeley. Here it is.

Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom. But if you have bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not be boastful and false to the truth.

I rarely begin a sermon with a disclaimer. This week I begin with two:

1) Welcome to the week that rocked my world. I’ve had a vision of God and a terrible case of the flu. We’ll just have to see where this goes.

  1. I’m going to say some things very critical of service learning in schools. Please, do not for a minute think that my critique extends to the beautiful mutual ministries of service that happen here at Good Shepherd.

You see, in the world of education, a world based upon achievement and success, few things are as misunderstood as service learning. As as priest, school chaplain and service learning coordinator, I should know. Others expect me to be an expert in goodness. It’s a terrible job. Even Jesus says, “Why do you call me good?  No one is good but God alone.” (Mark 10:18) 

Educational theory, however, doesn’t like that kind of pause. It likes measurable results. It is far less interested in process than in outcome, and to be a teacher today is to be meddled with in ways you cannot imagine. We’re always having to live up to someone else’s theory.

The theory with which I must deal is that service learning makes us good people. As a Christian, I should rejoice. Does not Jesus in today’s Gospel tell us to serve? That whoever wants to be first must be last and be servant of all?

I wish it could be so simple. In today’s schools, service, like everything else, has become a benchmark of individual achievement. If it takes being last to be first, then, very well, I’ll be last. But the emphasis remains upon being first. In today’s busy schedules, service must be scheduled according to the school day, not offered as needed. And finally, Studies show that students who do regular community service get into better colleges. Indeed, several years ago, a representative from the California State Legislature called me to see whether the state should make Service a graduation requirement for high school. As if we could institutionalize goodness.

In the course of an academic year, I spend a great deal of time reading manuals on how to make children more caring. The amount of ideology I contend with is enough to make anyone’s head spin. The sad part about it is that studies have shown that children are born caring. It is our system that educates it out of them as they are formed for a culture of busyness, competition and achievement, the very things that James and Jesus both warn us against in today’s readings. And this, my friends, is betrayal of all that is best in us.

The life well led, says James in his epistle, is not a matter of achievement, but of “gentleness born of wisdom.” Like a Buddhist, he warns us that craving, that wanting what is outside of us,  will do nothing but get us into trouble. But pick up and recent edition of the New York Times and you will see that if we are not in a state of constant craving, our economy will completely tank, because capitalism depends for its life upon the constant need to have. Again listen to James. “You want something and do not have it; so you commit murder.” This would seem just a bit hyperbolic, until I reflect that my country with its economy based on craving, its educational system based, not on awakening children’s innate gifts, but reminding them of their inadequacies, has been at war all over the world for most of my life. 

I remember a children’s moment many years ago in church, when a newly minted priest gathered the children and put them in a line. Everyone wanted to be line leader, so he decided to line them up according to height, with the tallest being first. This engendered all sorts of grumbles and snide remarks. But the moment the line was done, he said, “Turn around.” They did. Then he said, “Jesus says, ‘The first shall be last.’” And, with the littlest child leading the line with a great sense of having been vindicated, he asked the Sunday school teacher to take them away. I was the Sunday School teacher that day, and let me tell you, I had an hour’s worth of resentful and cynical children who felt they had been manipulated by a simple reversal of the status quo. It led to a rather fruitless conversation about feelings, about being “appropriate,” until finally, we could just have snack. Jesus wasn’t seen by these children as in any way a reflection of reality; there was no chance here amid whining kids to do the hard work of compassion; the line was a clever trick to get them out of the sanctuary and make a point to their parents. These were the children of very rich parents. They knew that real success happened not when you are last, but when you misbehave and break all the rules.  

This incident caused me to question a great many things.

Which brings me to what rocked my world. Last weekend I actually met “gentleness born of wisdom.” 

Julia Parker is a California Miwok elder. I believe she is a world changer of the order of Dr. King and Nelson Mandela. She has certainly experienced things at the hands of the so called dominant culture. Orphaned at a young age, she and her brothers and sisters were raised by a white family. They went to church. Julia loved church, for, as she said, it was a place of very good stories. Later, she was sent to an Indian boarding school where she was trained to be a domestic servant and told that she could have no aspirations beyond servanthood. No one was ever cruel to her, but neither did anyone know exactly where she fit in. Her stories about learning how to arrange wash on the line so that it would look impressive, the knives and forks that white people seemed to need to simply get through a meal, were very, very funny. But they also filled me with a sense of beauty and awe, of taking the time to make my laundry beautiful, of setting a table for a meal with friends. Where had daily life gone in these oh so anxious times? 

I don’t know what happened to Julia’s career as a servant, for while in boarding school, she met her husband, and the two went off to live in Yosemite. You may have even met her at Yosemite’s Miwok village, where she has made acorn mush and woven beautiful baskets for many, many years.

I found her at Pt. Reyes. I had signed up for the basket making class she taught with her daughter Lucy as part of a program in California Native studies. Although I am not a crafter and indeed, am quite klutzy, I knew that I would never understand anything of California Native Spirituality without baskets, for baskets lie at the heart of California Native Culture. So I went.

“You’ll learn more about yourselves this weekend than you will learn about making baskets,” Julia said at the very beginning. “Be patient. Listen. Wait for us to show you.”

It is not an easy thing to weave a tule basket. No matter how carefully I watched, I just couldn’t get it. I must have started my base ten times. Finally, with at least some kind of start, with the corners put in for me by Lucy, I took myself off to a corner and said, “I’m going to figure this out on my own.” As my little attempt got worse and worse, as I was told, “You don’t have the stitch,” I wandered dejectedly about. I could neither do it right nor take the time to wait to be taught. I wasn’t feeling very good. It turned out I was not the only one.

“This is just not up to my standard,” said one of the other participants, looking at her mess.

“This is not at all the kind of work I usually do,” said another, holding up hers.

“I wonder if that’s the point,” said I, in my usual theoretical way, knowing nothing at all except that we were twenty high achievers out there, and that few of us were achieving much at all.

“You’ll learn more about yourselves this weekend than you will learn about making baskets.”

I returned home exhausted with a clumsy cluster of tules that was supposed to be the base of a basket.

“Good try,” said my mother when I talked to her that evening. “You’ve never been a crafter like your sister. You don’t have to go back if you don’t want to. Think about it.”

I wasn’t sure that not going back was really an option. Could I just throw away all those tules that had been cut just for me? Could I treat the natural world and myself like so much trash? So I went back Sunday morning. The one who did not return was missed. We began our day with prayers and stories in the round house. At one point, looking around at the space which was mostly underground, Julia said, “This place is built real good. It has twelve posts for the twelve storytellers.”

“And who might they be?” someone asked.

“Peter, Andrew, James, John, Philip, Thomas, Matthew, Matthias, Bartholomew, James, Thaddeus, Simon,” she smiled, rattling off the names of the twelve apostles better than most of us. “Good storytellers each and every one.”

Some, I could tell, were a little taken aback by this evocation of Christian tradition in a Miwok round house, just as they were perplexed that one of the reasons baskets were so important was that it was a tule basket that carried the baby Moses down the river, but my heart was full. Julia was weaving. She was weaving not only tule baskets, but the stories of many different people. She was showing us that our little tasks were not just separate tasks, but part of a sacred circle that holds all life, that all that is sacred is one.

When I went back to my basket, my hands knew what to do. I finished. I’ll need to weave many, many more if I am ever to get one that is beautiful, but I have given my little basket to be the holder of my meditation chimes and candle when I sit with the children at school. But that was not the most important thing that happened that weekend. The most important thing that happened was that on the second day, all of us who were there turned away from accomplishing a task, and began to discover one another. What a wonderful, fascinating, heart felt group of people we were! What wonderful stories, loves and works we brought to our shared circle. We began, without thinking, to serve. We were all servants. Wanting to serve the world was what brought us here to learn from wise elders. 

And then I realized something just as important. In a healthy world, work is what brings people together. Work is not just something we do to get money so that we can do what we want. Work is the very fabric of life. We come to give our best. Giving ones best is very hard to do when one is forced to always look over ones shoulder and perform to another’s standard. Giving ones best is hard to do when we are pitted one against the other and live in fear of evaluation. Success, say the basket weavers, will eventually come with practice. But success is not what makes you meaningful.

To engage in conflict, as both Jesus and James teach us this morning, is to reveal that we are out of harmony with the universe. It’s not a bad thing to be angry or envious. Both these things are important teachers. Both tell us we have much to learn, and for me they are a good check in with reality. For the universe is not clashing opposites. The universe is a spiral. Physicists have found that it is only in a spiral galaxy that new stars may be born, that things may evolve. In a spiral there is no place that is the greatest. In a spiral, there is no boss and no slave, no rogue entrepreneur or rule breaking hero. In a spiral is only the dance. 

So dance, my friends. Even as things crumble, dance. And in so doing, make all who are with you your partners. AMEN.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Going to God Across a Muddy Floor, preached at Our Saviour, Mill Valley

"Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children's crumbs."

During the years I was in seminary, we spent a lot of time sitting around tables. Sometimes the fare was food; sometimes it was ideas, but for hours, we sat, staring into one another’s faces, trying to figure out who we were, what nourished us, and what we were all doing there. 

As much as I loved seminary, it was also very hard. It took me a very long time to convince anyone that God was really calling me to the priesthood, leaving me to work toward a degree in a field I had no assurance I would ever be able to practice. It’s a deep story of learning humility, but it is not the story I am going to tell you today. Today, I am going to tell you the story of someone that I met along the way.

I’ll call her Helen. Helen arrived at CDSP during my second year. She was a very large and imposing woman with a face set into what appeared to be a permanent scowl. She favored sitting in corners. It began to be whispered around that Helen came with an interesting history. She had been a nun. Now she wanted to be a priest. And, some said, she was really, really angry.

Anger was kind of cool in those days of liberation theology, and because of my troubles with my vocations committee and my own nature, I had a bit too much fondness for holy rage. I wanted to know Helen’s story. So one day I approached her, and after some preliminary greetings, said, with not a little admiration, “I hear you were a nun.” 

“I was,” she retorted in a strong voice. “But I left. It was a totally abusive experience.”

In the language of that time, abusive was the worst thing you could call anyone. We thought a lot about how we used things and people, and to be used badly, which is what abuse means, was the ultimate violation of our contract with the universe. “I’ve been abused!” was the cry of all of us who felt hurt by members of our family, by circumstance, by the dominant culture. Abuse was the 1990’s answer to Original Sin. The idea that we might be here to do something other than use people and things had yet to occur to most of us. 

This was the spirit in which Helen told her story.

It was the week she was stuck with kitchen duty. She had spent two hours scrubbing the kitchen floor on hands and knees until it gleamed, and was just knocking off, when another sister, wearing muddy boots, turned up at the back door. Helen was about to ask her to take off her boots, when the other sister walked right in, tromped across the sparkling floor, and left a trail of muddy prints behind her. “Just look at what you have done.” To which the other shrugged and said, “That’s your problem.”

“She did it on purpose,” Helen said. “It was at that moment that I realized that this whole place was dysfunctional and abusive, and that I could not take it any longer.”

“That’s terrible,” I agreed. I could certainly feel her hurt and her rage, and knew I would be quite furious in her place, but for some reasons, her story left me very unsettled.

“It’s all a matter of intention,” said my husband when I shared the story with him yesterday morning. “If the other sister was just being thoughtless and uncaring, then it was wrong. But if she was making a point about patience and humility, then, that would be a different matter.”

I thought about it for a moment, and knowing what I know, said, “I suspect that it was a little of both.”

Since then, I have read a lot of monastic literature from both Christian and Buddhist traditions, and I can tell you that Helen’s was not the first floor to have been wrecked. You may know the teaching about the Zen monk who rakes the garden path perfectly and the moment it is done, in walks the teacher, messes everything up and orders the monk to start all over again. Or the Tibetan saint Milarepa who had to build an entire tower three times because his master Marpa kept knocking it down. The point of these stories is that we don’t do these things in order to be finished with them, but to keep doing a difficult and menial task until the act becomes more important than the accomplishment, and emptied of ego, the mind may at last see clearly. To take pride in doing what is expected is false pride. True humility, which is the ability of see and hear without self-interest, is gained by overcoming attachments to the ego and living in the simplicity and fulness of the moment. This is what monastics practice. The wise teacher often instructs by driving his pupil to the very brink.

All this sounds very romantic when set in the contemplative world of the mysterious East, but none of our professors in seminary appeared to be that kind of teacher. Quite the contrary, most of them came across as little more than versions of ourselves with advanced degrees, and thus upsets and disappointments typically felt more like abuse than parables. 

From which I derived two pearls of wisdom:

The first is not so pleasant. I think that, whatever the circumstance, it may be impossible to learn humility without feeling humiliated.

The second is more fun. I think that wise teachers in real life are more invisible than wise teachers in books. 

Was there a wise mother at the monastery who sat down with Helen and helped her sort out her conflicting emotions? Was the wise mother disguised as the thoughtless sister? Did Helen even ask? Or like most of us, was she protecting herself in a winner take all world?

And what of today’s Gospel? Are we meant to catch Jesus making a mistake when he refuses the Syro-Phonecian woman’s request? Is it important that Jesus be shown up by a woman? Is this even a story about mistakes and comeuppances? I’m always tempted to read it that way, but then, inevitably, I remember Helen jumping to conclusions about her kitchen floor.  Maybe Jesus is appearing to make a mistake in order to show me my own.

Maybe Jesus is being a wise teacher and refusing a good request in the hopes of hearing a better one. Maybe the teaching is less about Jesus and the Syro-Phonecian woman and more about the dogs under the table. Maybe what I take for my own vast spiritual depth is nothing more than the crumbs and leavings of a far greater banquet. Or maybe this story is a counterpoint to last week’s story, when Jesus teaches that it is not outer things that define us, but what lies within. The Syro-Phonecian shows great purity of heart. She also proves herself a wise teacher. In a world that denigrated women’s minds, this is significant. The mother’s wisdom, not Jesus’ hand, cures the daughter. After that, Jesus heals a deaf person who is cut off in another way. Outwardly he is fine, but his inner life is truncated because he cannot hear any Word of God. 

There’s more. In both stories, Jesus insists on a level of secrecy. After healing the deaf man, “Jesus ordered them to tell no one; but the more he ordered them, the more zealously they proclaimed it. They were astounded beyond measure.”

In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus is always telling the people he heals not to say anything about what happened. Is this, too, like the kitchen floor that we have just mopped, a provisional moment? Are we to keep quiet about our spiritual transformations until others have had the chance to cross over them with the muddy boots of life? That’s what my vocations committee was doing for me when they held me back. They were thwarting my best laid plans, and they were right. 

To jump to conclusions, says the author of the Epistle of James, is to show partiality, and “if you show partiality, you commit sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors.” We are not to make distinctions between rich and poor, between ourselves and the Syro-Phonecians, between our hard work and the sister in the muddy boots, between the city and the natural world. This sounds great in theory, but is nearly impossible in practice. I’ve never been able to walk into a room without making distinctions. It’s very human. 

The mystics tell us to proceed with caution. They have cleaned enough floors, raked enough gardens and built enough towers to know that even the things we believe with the most intensity might not be true at all. Religion exists to help me to turn my mind away from appearances and toward a deeper, more generous truth. Away from judgment and more toward simple observation, away from talking about things off the top of my head and more the hard work of understanding.

After decades of wrestling with this, I think nature is the ultimate monastic kitchen. Nature makes no distinctions. You can’t bargain with a thunderstorm any more than you can bargain with God. That is nature’s beauty and her terror. Like God, Nature gives, and nature takes away. One of the gifts of living in Marin County is that we still have large swaths of the natural world from which to learn, but even here, we are human, and temptations of wealth and prestige turn us away from nature, and its limits, to pride in our own ability to surpass limits, to invent and tweek endless possibilities. We run for the cure, forgetting that all must eventually die. We are so busy that it gives us all an excuse not to think.

Until the late 19th century, all of California was so rich in life that it took people’s breath away. To come here in the spring was to encounter carpets of wild flowers as far as the horizon, what John Muir called “bee pastures.” One could see the snowy Sierra from the Berkeley hills. One old timer, Bill Barnes, who died in 1954, remembered when 2000 antelope came to drink at a water hole, when millions of birds congregated on Pelican Island to raise their young, when inland otters were plentiful and playful. Others remember a living water table so rich and so high that even with our dry season, the trees were huge, their branches raised toward flocks of migrating birds so thick that their passage darkened the sky. Today, I feel blessed if I see twenty geese flying overhead on my way to work. Being human, we made a distinction between those gifts and the wealth that could be leeched from them, and today, the great valley at the heart of our state is slowly dying, the living waters turning saline from evaporation, the soils laced with pesticides. Our ancestors encountered divine mystery, but their eyes were blinded by gold, as if seeing their faces through a glass, darkly.

Mirrors are universal symbols of illusion. Of confusing my image with myself. Paul writes of mirrors. James writes of mirrors. Teresa of Avila writes of mirrors. And so does Mohawk shaman Okhi Siminé Forest. Like the psalmist, she believes that God has delivered us to a place of reckoning, a wall of mirrors at the edge of existence.

“To go beyond the wall of mirrors,” she writes, “the final challenge is to pass through a tiny door. To do this, we must make ourselves very, very small. To be very humble. On the other side is a clear pond. There, for the first time, we’ll be able to see our true reflection.”

This is amazingly Biblical. Jesus tells us to follow the Narrow Way. He transformed himself into bread and wine. We end up beside the still waters. Earth becomes floor beneath our feet, upon which our sacred table rests. The Syro-Phonecian woman reminds us that can have no salvation without the otters, the pelicans and the dogs at our feet. We can have no salvation without the Other. We can have no salvation unless we are willing to get dirty. AMEN.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Thoughts Inspired by the Epistle of James

If a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, "Have a seat here, please," while to the one who is poor you say, "Stand there," or, "Sit at my feet," have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts?

Few subjects come up with as much regularity in our Sunday readings and all the commentaries that issue forth from those readings than the subject of rich and poor. You probably know most of the famous stories and sayings: it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than it is for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven; give up everything you have, sell, give to the poor and follow me; the widow’s mite, Jesus the poor baby in the manger, Jesus the champion of the poor, St. Francis and Lady Poverty, the list in both scripture and tradition goes ever on and on.

Without devising program or remedy, Jesus consistently teaches that something is out of balance in our civilization’s relationship toward wealth, but the nature of those teachings is often hard to figure. He goes after the money changers in the temple, but gleefully sends Peter to get a gold piece out of a fish to pay the temple tax. He teaches that “For to those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.” On balance, it seems safer to be rich. Without money to buy the things we need we cannot thrive; not only physically does poverty cast people to the margins, cutting off decent nutrition, decent housing, and decent health care, but the spiritual and psychological blows are terrible: poverty brands us failures. To be poor in our culture is to feel expendable. The same was true in Jesus’ day. People too poor to make it on their own were sold into slavery. To be poor is to be completely at the mercy of others.

I have always been uncomfortable with the church’s teachings on poverty. While I can relate to those wonderful saints like Basil, Francis and the Desert Fathers and Mothers who went joyously off the grid like early day homesteaders in Alaska, choosing to forgo the distractions of this earth, that’s not the same thing as the poverty I see in Haiti or the streets of Oakland. In one case, the people embraced a discipline of simplicity and an acceptance of hardship, in the other, hardship is just hardship. And this is without mentioning the wealth and power controlled by the Church for so much of its history, preaching an ethic of doing without, from a palace. 

Remember that last Sunday, Jesus warned us against hypocrisy!

One of the things that bothers me about where I always tend to go is that it is dualistic. It is just too easy to turn rich and poor into opposing categories, into the very distinctions we make among ourselves that the author of today’s Epistle is warning us against. How many of us could walk into a room at a homeless shelter or a soup kitchen and not instinctively make a kind of distinction between us and them? It’s like that old mind bender, “You can think about anything you want as long as you don’t think about tigers.”

Monday, September 3, 2012

Mysticism and Reality: St. Paul's Oakland

Mysticism is the art of union with reality.
Evelyn Underhill, Mysticism

Before I venture into the mysteries offered us by today’s readings, I’d like to spend a moment with this little quote from Evelyn Underhill’s book Mysticism. In my view, this little sentence is one of the most important things ever written in Western literature. 

Mysticism is the art of union with reality.

Think about that. What do you think of when you say the word reality? Is reality the thing to which you wish to be joined or do you secretly seek escape from it? How do you integrate your experiences as churchgoers with your experiences of reality? What, on this Labor Day weekend, does it mean to do the work of God?

I have to say that the first time I read that sentence, my mind stopped dead in its racing tracks. I encountered the work of Evelyn Underhill when I returned to the Church as a young adult, hoping that religion could make some sense of the disordered state in which I was living and offer comfort during the Reagan years that broke my heart. The religious right was on the rise and I didn’t want the traditions of my ancestors taken away. Being me, I was certain I could find my answers in books. I plunged into a long, Christian reading list. I was eager to embrace a lifestyle based in ethics rather than Reaganomics. I wanted to protest the so-called “real” world of consume until there’s nothing left, with an “ideal” world of loving your neighbor, caring for the poor, and above all, preserving this beautiful earth. 

And then Evelyn Underhill came into my life and offered me, not an alternative to reality, but reality itself.  As she writes in the preface to the twelfth edition of Mysticism: From being regarded, whether critically or favourably, as a byway of religion, [mysticism] is now more and more generally accepted by theologians, philosophers and psychologists, as representing in its intensive form the essential religious experience of [humanity].

Although it has produced some great mystics, the Christian Church, as it has existed throughout most of history has not been particularly mystic. Shaped by the organizational traditions of the Roman Empire and the legal traditions of Judaism, the Church has been an institution as much about governance as about spiritual teaching. Even at the height of its worldly influence, the Church viewed itself, not as the arbiter of culture but as an alternative social system, living in creative tension with “culture.” 

There is an essential difficulty with this image of the Church. All religions are intensely cultural. Religions are the glue that hold cultures together and lend meaning to what it means to be human in the context of culture. A minority religion, such as Judaism, might see itself as an alternative, but once you become the dominant culture, to oppose that which you dominate is to risk becoming “a house divided” where conflict and opposition are simply the norms of daily life.

In this light, it becomes very easy to read today’s Gospel, not as an interesting example of a Jewish learning debate of the sort that continues even to this day in yeshivas, but as a clash between religions, between the new good guys and the old bad guys, the Pharisees representing hidebound conservatism and Jesus as the new progressive. When the Pharisees question why some of Jesus’ disciples (we have no idea who -- they are probably not the twelve) are not following ritual practice and washing before meals. Jesus takes the opportunity to answer that ritual actions not accompanied by proper motivation are empty. This is very straightforward prophetic teaching. 

What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices?
   says the Lord in Isaiah, Chapter One.
“Inscribe the law upon your hearts,” teaches Jeremiah in Chapter 33. It is the inner life, not the outer one that brings understanding of God. “Return to me with all your heart,” writes the prophet Joel. “Then afterwards I will pour out my spirit on all flesh; your old men shall dream dreams and your young men shall have visions. Even on the male and female slaves, I will pour out my spirit.” Jesus does not argue against ritual as much as he argues against performing rituals in vain. 

But, in a typical liberal church commentary we hear, “What makes Israel acceptable to God is not correct performance of ritual acts but ethical behavior. Similarly, Jesus declares that it is not scrupulous observance of the food laws that makes Israel holy, but morality.” (Douglas R.A. Hare, Feasting on the Word, Proper 17)

 This would be very well and good except that ethical behavior and morality are just as external as handwashing. I know. I have spent many days behaving with perfect respectability while my heart has been dark with anger or resentment. Jesus is not pointing the finger at my behavior, he is pointing the finger at my heart. James agrees. “Anger does not produce God's righteousness.” No excuses. No justifications that my anger might helps me recognize injustice. It might, I cannot heal injustice as long as I am angry.

In this way, James reminds us that outer actions matter. Continuing with today’s teaching, Science has definitively proved that hand washing is very important for health reasons, but for about 1000 years after the Roman culture of bathing ended, Christians did not take baths. Using this passage as one of their proof texts, they decided that washing itself was hypocritical and that the true believer went about with filthy flesh, for as we all knew, flesh was the locus of sin. Indeed, one of the reasons Christians persecuted Muslims in Moorish Spain was because Muslims took baths and this was clear proof of their immorality.  

Only when science discovered germs did we change our doctrinal tune, and such phrases crept into the lexicon as “Next to Godliness comes cleanliness.” The Pharisees would smile. 

By recognizing the mysterious nature of reality itself, mysticism reminds us that knowing what to do and be is never easy. Reality suggests that when we neglect our inner lives and concentrate only upon outward appearance, test scores, success, bank balances, that our inner lives will erupt in conflict. We need to be open at both levels. Life is not about getting the right answer. Life is about asking the right question.

Last week, the New York Times ran an article called “From Bible-belt Pastor to Atheist Leader.” It told the story of Louisiana preacher Jerry DeWitt who had been a fundamentalist for 25 years until one night a parishioner called asking prayers for her brother who had been seriously injured in a motorcycle accident and might die. All of a sudden he realized he could no longer provide prayers on demand. It was ridiculous to think you could, or should, influence things like that. “He walked into the bathroom and stared at himself in the mirror. “I remember thinking, Who on this planet has any idea what I’m going through?”

He’s being a little self-referential, because anyone whose ever had a big crisis of faith will know what he was going through. Deciding that God is an impossibility is a natural part of the spiritual journey, particularly in a culture that is as rational as our own, a culture that relegates what it cannot explain to the psychiatrist’s couch. If the universe is an elegant machine, and my brain is already “hardwired,” who needs God? 

As a fundamentalist, Jerry DeWitt was expected to have answers about God as clear as a mathematical equation. After all, fundamental religion, steeped in a model of cultural conflict, stands against science, brandishing the Bible as a book of answers. And when those answers fail, as they must, because the Bible is not that kind of book, the religion based on answers will fail too. As he concluded, “In the end, I couldn’t help feeling that all religion, even the most loving kind, is just a speed bump in the progress of the human race.” 

A mystic will tell you: sit in the absence of God long enough and you will see God. Two of the world’s greatest religions: Buddhism and Confucianism, have no God. But they do have reality. 

Reality is a far more complex landscape than that which can be mapped by facts alone, which is why no rational system will ever be adequate to explain life. Reality, from protons and electrons on, is grounded in relationship. Reality recognizes and teaches inner experience as well as outer skill. But most importantly, reality leaves nothing out. No single brain will ever contain it. It is our job as human beings to be participants in the whole, not controllers of it.

If you let the Bible be mysterious and contradictory, it will reveal much that is surprising. Let the scientific world give us the facts. Facts are the looms upon which we weave mystery, and science has changed how we read the Bible. From the very beginning, the Bible has never been consistent, it regularly contradicts itself, is often outrageous, and even has conflicting versions of the same story, sometimes on the same page! This is reality, friends. There is no one version of that. Because the same thing can be both helpful and harmful.

And thus we come to the matter of love. If you’ve been coming to church this summer, you will have heard an earful about the dangers of erotic love: David, Bathsheba, the unraveling of family.

Then today, the same Bible that critiques David and Bathsheba, extols the passions of their son Solomon. 

The voice of my beloved!
Look, he comes,
leaping upon the mountains,
bounding over the hills.
My beloved is like a gazelle
or a young stag.

Arise, my love, my fair one,
and come away;

Can erotic love be at once a huge social disorder, and God’s very gift of life? Can I run through the hills with my beloved and still be a woman of great faith? Is a healthy relationship with God also a healthy relationship with nature?

The answer, my friends, is yes. 

Is passion dangerous? Does social authority seek to control that which is dangerous?

The answer, my friends, is yes.

In the mystical world, spiritual gifts are neither inherently good nor inherently evil, but become what we do with them. To live religiously, say the wise ones, is to be able to live with paradox. Our passions are valuable teachers, but that does not mean we should give into every passion. Our intelligence is an amazing gift, but our intelligence is just as good at deluding us as it is at showing us truth. Social justice is the light toward which we are always growing, but it is not a way of beefing up my resume or telling the rest of the world that their backwardness stems from not being just like me.  

The world is not a simple struggle between good and evil. God is not who I want God to be. God is God. True religion is not either or, but both and. Nature is diverse and so are the paths to God. Understanding one another may be our greatest task. Understanding one another may be our greatest risk. On this Labor Day weekend, may all that you do be an act of Love. AMEN.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Living in Harmony with Each Other and the Laws of the Universe

"Living in harmony with each other and the laws of the universe" is my current working definition of what spiritual practice is all about. It is like music, each one of us a single note, testing our resonances and reverberations with all that exists around us. It is like science, for science seeks to name the laws of the universe. 

"Beauty," said author Barry Lopez, "is the presence of something that holds what is unlike together: line and color, light and darkness. Beauty is perfect coherence, and coherence may be another word for God."

Sunday, August 19, 2012

This Week's Sermon: Our Saviour, Mill Valley

Be careful then how you live, not as unwise people but as wise.

Last Sunday, we explored the twists and turns of storytelling. This Sunday, we’re going to twist and turn to a whole new level, as we boldly approach the heart of story’s magic, its ability to use conversation as a way of setting the world on edge, and confounding everything we thought we knew. 

In our Gospel reading, Jesus says, "I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me.”

Is it any wonder that many ancient Romans believed that the early Christians were cannibals?

The sixth chapter of John’s Gospel is known as “The Bread of Life Discourse.” It begins with the feeding of 5,000 with five loaves and two fish, and continues with Jesus walking across the lake in a strong wind. (By the way, this image is well known in certain Buddhist circles as a description of an Enlightened One surmounting the storms and terrors not of a disturbed sea, but of a disturbed mind. And to cross over water is one of the great archetypal images of the journey from this world to the next.) The Gospel lulls us by reporting all this as ordinary events. The storyteller knows they are anything but. When they get to the other side of the lake, Jesus begins to teach that he is the bread of life.

We get to the end of the chapter next Sunday when we hear, “Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him.” 

During the summer of Year B, we spend five weeks on this one chapter of John’s Gospel. And to make us really think about it, the most difficult lines are repeated from one week to the next. These are: 
35 Jesus said to them, ‘I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty. (We’ve been prepped for this by the Samaritan woman story with Jesus evoking living waters and I have food to eat that you do not know about.)
51I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live for ever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.’

As Presbyterian minister Walter W. Bubar writes in The Christian Century: “What was Jesus thinking? He had such a great following before he spoke. He’d just fed 5,000 people, and they were ready to sign up to become disciples. This would’ve been the time to use his best preaching material—toss out a few Beatitudes, or tell a couple of stories about farmers or sheep. Jesus could have had the biggest church in town.

“But instead he launched into a ridiculously long, convoluted discourse about eating his flesh and drinking his blood, which—let’s face it—sounds creepy. And when he was confronted by raised eyebrows and expressions of bewilderment and a barrage of questions, Jesus didn’t let up but just kept getting more and more obscure.

“No wonder his followers started grumbling: “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” Many turned away and went home, never to be seen again.

“And Jesus let them go!”1

Western civilization has little patience with mystery and even less patience with leaders losing their followers. Rather than unravel the puzzle, Alexander the Great just cut through the Gordian knot with his sword. Likewise, so do most Christian commentators like to cut right through difficult texts and take us straight to the answer. So, moving from Bubar to The Harper Bible Commentary, we are told that this whole teaching is a reference to Christ’s saving death on the cross and the sacrament of the Eucharist, “Otherwise, the eating of his flesh and the drinking of his blood is unthinkable.”2

I am not going to disagree with the commentary, but I must say that this answer doesn’t help me much. If eating flesh is creepy, so is crucifying God. I live in a culture that glorifies violence, and if I can say anything with certainty about Jesus, it was that he did not glorify violence. He often subverted the language of violence in his teachings to make us think. In this spirit, I think it may be significant that Jesus is not saying “kill me.” He is saying “eat me.” I am reminded of a story about the Jungian psychologist Robert Johnson telling someone in despair, “Sure, go ahead. Kill yourself. Just don’t harm your body.” In God’s kingdom, anything is possible. So, faced with my own discomfort before the teaching that I must eat the flesh and drink the blood of the Son of Man, I want to begin, not with an answer, but by letting my discomfort be the teacher. Non western cultures do this all the time. When faced by the unthinkable, they do not solve, but meditate. 

In Zen Buddhism, the unthinkable sayings that trouble one are known as koans. A koan, often translated as parable, is an unanswerable riddle, such as “what is the sound of one hand clapping?” or “if you meet the Buddha in the road, kill him.” The koan is given by the Master to the Student both as a focus for meditation and a question to take into daily life. These things are not figured out in an hour or a day or a year. They are the work of a lifetime, and very often, what they end up revealing is as unspeakable as the original question, for koans are very personal messages from the universal realm just for you. (That, too, is a kind of koan. How can the same thing be both universal and uniquely personal?)

The Lectionary in Year B with its five Sundays of bread gives us a taste of what it feels like to work with a koan, but only a taste. Most of us very western, creative and answer driven preachers tear our hair and say, “What can I possibly say about the same thing for five weeks in a row?” And typically we do what I’ve done, which is to preach on the Old Testament or the Epistle and make only a passing reference to this building confusion in the Gospel, or as was the case with a particularly creative preacher, pass out a recipe for bread and talk about how prayerful it is to knead dough. But none of this makes the problem go away.

Jesus said, "I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me.

Storytelling, writes creative writing professor Greg Sarris, “is an art generating respect for the unknown while illuminating the borders of the known.3

I would like to suggest that this is how Jesus taught. He generated respect for the unknown while illuminating the borders of the known. An ordinary boat crossing becomes a passage between the empire of Rome and the kingdom of heaven. The story of loaves and fishes leads us to “I am the bread of life.” Jesus is helping us to see, as he does, again and again in his sayings, God’s mind at the edges of our human mind. My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor my ways your ways, said God through the prophet Isaiah. (55:8) We may be created in the image of God, but we must try not to return the favor by assuming that God is in the image of us.

How a person interprets a story says as much about the interpreter as it does about the story.  I gave myself away as a feminist last week when I used the cry of Tamar as the hinge upon which the whole David story hung. Our pastor, Walter W. Bubar, assumed, or played upon his listeners’ assumption that Jesus’ point was to win converts. We were expected to be amazed that Jesus let all these potential converts go. But maybe letting go is just as important. Only when I can let go can I be free. Later on in John, Chapter 8, comes my very favorite teaching in Scripture, “And you shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free.” Freedom is all about letting go. Slaves can never be free because they are forced to be attached to their masters. When Jesus teaches the outrageous, he is reminding me that I am a slave to my notions of propriety. Maybe Jesus’ “saving death,” saves us by confounding our images of the omnipotent God. You never know, says an old Jewish folktale.
Has any of this brought us any closer to what Jesus is talking about?
As a preacher, I’m supposed to know what Jesus is talking about. But really, outside my love of sacraments and my sense that a profound tension exists between contemporary culture and what God wants us to be, I’m not sure what Jesus means when he asks me to eat his flesh. Fortunately, one of the best things about being an Episcopalian that I don’t have to know. 
But since God has asked me to be a teacher, I’m going to leave you with two clues. 
  1. The first is that a lot of primal myths are all about food. Eating is a sacred act, the table a locus of life. Native hunters remind us that for a caribou to give its life to me is an act of love and I love that caribou in return. Jesus may be asking me to question where I derive nourishment. This may be the greatest contribution of French structuralist Claude Levi-Strauss. His first book on the science of mythology was called The Raw and the Cooked, and he showed quite definitively that many, many myth cycles were all about what it safe to eat and what is not, and how cooking, and the transformation that cooking entails, can make food that is not safe to eat safe to eat. Think about the transformation of the Eucharist, or Genesis Chapter 2, when we ate a fruit before we were ready. Maybe we’re being warned that we’re less ready than we think. 
  2. In much ancient literature, sacred words were literally seen as food. “Eat this scroll,” God tells the prophet Ezekiel.  In Revelation, Chapter 10, the narrator “took the little scroll from the hand of the angel and ate it; it was sweet as honey in my mouth, but when I had eaten it, my stomach was made bitter.” Read, mark, learn and inwardly digest, says our scripture collect for Proper 28.When Isaiah was called as a prophet, a seraph touched his tongue with a burning coal.
In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God.
So here’s what I say. Cherish your stories. Don’t be afraid when they become difficult, contradictory, sad or outrageous. God seems to be most expert at what confounds us the most, for he sent us his only son to confound us with love. AMEN.

1 Wallace W. Bubar “Reflections on the Lectionary” Christian Century, 8/21/2012
2 Harper’s Bible Commentary, 1988 ed., p. 1058
3 Greg Sarris, Keeping Slug Woman Alive, p. 33

Sunday, August 12, 2012


A parishioner this morning asked me to say more about love and truth. When I was young, I was very struck by M. Scott Peck's statement in The Road Less Traveled: "Love is the will to extend one's self for the purpose of nurturing one's own or another's spiritual growth." In the Christian context, love is force behind all life, because God is love. In the context of the culture of the school at which I work, love is grounded in respect for all living beings. There are many more ways to approach defining love. I welcome any and all ideas.

Common wisdom in Northern California asserts that science is a "truth system" and religion is a "meaning system." I disagree. I say that both are truth systems. Since in my view, truth is not a single thing, but a relationship between many things, one way I can relate to truth is by practicing my religion and believing in science, or vice versa. Science is one of a number of things that have radically changed the world in which we live. Another is the substitution of change as the guiding principle of perfection rather than the old Greek idea that perfection can only be unchanging. 

In a wonderful old magazine I used to read before it went out of print was the following article: 

Infinity Applied Glimpses of God in the Numbers
John Noonan
"Mathematics is the alphabet with which God has written the universe," according to Galileo. Here, John Noonan explains that as we discover new mathematical truth, we gain a greater understanding of the character and mind of God.

I wish I still had the article so that I could pass it on. But the strange properties of infinity: you can add to it, but it will not get bigger, you may take away from it, but it will not shrink, made me realize that our infinite God will be ultimately unknowable to a finite creature. I can only know God by learning to recognize God when God chooses to reveal Godself to me. God has revealed a great deal to me during my studies of ecology, evolution and natural history, all of which hinge on the interconnected nature of life. So, also, does Paul's Body of Christ theology.

This stuff works in other religions as well, although the means of expressing it would be different. Learning the languages of other religious traditions has been another sign to me that there is truth out there.

All comments welcome.

THE GOD OF STORIES: Part II, Preached at Our Saviour, August 12

Last week, Richard talked to you about the power of stories. A story, he said, can help us to remember, to put the pieces together. We tell stories when someone is born and when someone dies. Those mysterious little story teachings that go by the name of parables tell us things about the nature of life and the universe that we might completely miss otherwise. As Richard reminded us, David would never have listened to Nathan if Nathan had simply accused him of breaking faith with his general Uriah and with God. But David did listen to the story of a poor man and a little lamb, a story that never literally happened, but which was nonetheless deeply true. Do not take what has not been given to you, said that story. Today’s story shows us what happens when taking becomes more important than giving, and reminds me that the parts of me that are broken may be just as important, if not more important, than the parts of me that are whole. As we come to the final installment in our reading of the story of David, we meet a truly mixed man. We’re all mixed. Perhaps one of the attributes of saints is to know this. 

Stories help us to live because the best stories are true. Even the worst stories are revealing,but the best stories have been told and retold and added to and tweeked for generations. They have been tested by numerous lives and numerous communities. They have multiple characters and multiple perspectives, which allow very different people to enter a common space. Like the stone rejected by builders that becomes the head of the corner, stories’ overlooked details yield up secret messages that change the way we understand ourselves and our actions, often in surprising ways. Look at what Uncle Tom’s Cabin did to our country’s attitudes toward slavery. Stories stir us up and make us think.

The Bible is the story, told over thousands of years, of our relationship with God and God’s relationship with us. It did not spring, full blown, out of an author's mind, like a novel. It was not even written by a single author. The first part of it, The Old Testament, is a compilation of narratives and teachings shaped and told for thousands of years before they were ever written down. Sometimes different versions of the same story can be found side by side, as if to warn us not to get too rigid in our views. The second part, the New Testament, is a commentary on the first part, written from the perspective of the life and teachings of Jesus. The Bible is not history in the way Thucydides is history, because, for the most part, it cares less about factual accuracy than it cares about truth and meaning.Truth and fact are almost never the same the same, and indeed usually are not, because fact is about one thing and truth is usually about the relationship between many things. 

Which brings me to Richard’s second point, which is that we can’t intellectualize religion. No one loves ideas more than I, but even I who love ideas know that Ideas are tools, not truth. How many of you have shared the very best idea you ever had only to hear yourself misquoted? My ideas live inside my brain, and life is a great deal more than a brain. The doctrines of the Church: salvation, redemption, providence, sin, creation, are not there to close down the story into some kind of unchangeable structure; doctrines are maps that help us navigate story’s ambiguity and complexity, its many different points of view, twists and turns. Doctrines, like maps and guide books, help us know what to look for. That said, no one would ever choose a map of Paris over the real place, but in the religious world we do that all the time, settling for ideas about God when we could be encountering God's amazing, living presence in the stories of our lives.

And so to King David. We saw him anointed as a child, tending sheep, defeating Goliath, loving Jonathan, fighting Saul, becoming king, dancing before the ark and estranging his first wife, helping himself to Bathsheba, and finally, in today’s last installment, seeing his rebellious son Absalom killed in battle. 

“I will raise up trouble against you from within your own house; and I will take your wives before your eyes,” said the prophet Nathan at the end of last week’s reading. 

David had eight wives, but only one, Bathsheba, became his wife after he was king. Michal, the first, was the daughter of Saul. The other six were married during the years that Saul and David were at war, and represented various tribal alliances. Ahinoam was the first of these wives. She gave birth to Amnon, David’s firstborn. David’s fourth wife Maacah was the mother of Absalom and Absalom’s sister Tamar. Now, just as David lusted after Bathsheba, so did his son Amnon lust after his half sister Tamar. It became so all consuming that Amnon took to his bed, weak with disordered desire.

Do not take what has not been given to you, warned the prophet Nathan. This is a habit that is hard to break. In a culture of conquest, to reach out and take may even be seen as an expression of strength. But remember what Paul said about power in a recent reading: Power is made perfect in weakness. Paul knows that people with little to lose often have a much clearer picture of what’s really going on than people with interests to protect. Part of me will always wonder if David’s getting away with Bathsheba helped him to turn a blind eye to his son’s crazy lust, boys will be boys and all. But one of the rules in God’s kingdom, if not David’s is that nothing is lost and no cry goes unheard. The stone rejected by builders will become the head of the corner. We’re always going to be surprised by the one detail we’ve overlooked.

So: “Amnon had a friend whose name was Jonadab, the son of David’s brother Shimeah; and Jonadab was a very crafty man. 4He said to him, ‘O son of the king, why are you so haggard morning after morning? Will you not tell me?’ Amnon said to him, ‘I love Tamar, my brother Absalom’s sister.’ 5Jonadab said to him, ‘Lie down on your bed, and pretend to be ill; and when your father comes to see you, say to him, “Let my sister Tamar come and give me something to eat, and prepare the food in my sight, so that I may see it and eat it from her hand.” ’ 6So Amnon lay down, and pretended to be ill; and when the king came to see him, Amnon said to the king, ‘Please let my sister Tamar come and make a couple of cakes in my sight, so that I may eat from her hand.’ Then David sent home to Tamar, saying, ‘Go to your brother Amnon’s house, and prepare food for him.’ …But when she brought them near him to eat, he took hold of her, and said to her, ‘Come, lie with me, my sister.’ 12She answered him, ‘No, my brother, do not force me; for such a thing is not done in Israel; do not do anything so vile! 13As for me, where could I carry my shame? And as for you, you would be as one of the scoundrels in Israel.” (2Samuel 13:3-13)

Such a thing is not done in Israel. In my mind, these are some of the most poignant words in scripture. Tamar is dishonored, and immediately, Amnon despises her. The story continues, “When King David heard of all these things, he became very angry, but he would not punish his son Amnon, because he loved him, for he was his firstborn.” The king lets him get away with it it, in other words. His own house now divided, the king really can’t love impartially any longer. He must choose whose side he will be on. He chooses the son over the daughter.  

And so it all falls upon Absalom to avenge his sister, and with that, comes rupture with his father, and the factions that always form when sides are taken. After many years, the two men find themselves at war with one another, for David would not punish Absalom either, because he loved him. 

“Such a thing is not done in Israel!” When the unspeakable happens it is very hard to recover. Life goes on, yes, but it’s not the same. When things divide a community or a family down the center, everything turns impossible. A house divided against itself cannot stand. Love can only do its work when love is not betrayed, which is why the promises we make to the people we love matter so much. When I do premarital counseling, I have this little fidelity speech: fidelity may be the most important gift you give to one another. Trust in marriage gives a couple the freedom to live full lives; the freedom to have all kinds of friends, the freedom to come and go. Once trust is broken, however, even when things are patched up, suspicion will always linger. Nothing can be as it was. Even when I have been forgiven, I still need to deal with the things I have set in motion. The David story is a human story about a man who could not deal with all the things he had set in motion. All of us have made mistakes, many, if not most of us, big mistakes. Mistakes can make me more compassionate, more understanding. But unless I keep my eye out, they can also blindside me.

Love is all about the great mystery of achieving right relationship with others. Love asks me to wait, step back, and listen. Love’s dark cousin desire tells me to go ahead and take what is mine. Disordered desire tells me to have it all, now. Disordered emotions thrive on haste and deception. 

David and his family experienced what happens when love turns into power.  When he betrayed Uriah, David was compelled to live the rest of his life in the shadow of betrayal. He came out looking OK, but that does not mean that things were OK. Indeed, things were not. Jesus would later give his very life in the shadow of betrayal, his death on a tree suspended between heaven and earth hauntingly like the death of Absalom, for Jesus was both the Father and the Son and a house divided against itself cannot stand. The gap between heaven and earth cries out to be bridged. Do not take what has not been given to you. Let all of us speak the truth in love. Be kind to one another. 

Stories, good stories, the best stories, do not yield easy answers. Stories invite us to linger, to go over them again and again for new insights. They are the endless and changing conversations we have with others as we try to discover our own deepest truths. Church is the ongoing practice of our story. 

"I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” We are now ready to confront the riddle of Jesus. But that will have to wait until next week. AMEN.