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.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

THE POWER OF STORIES: Preached at Good Shepherd, Berkeley, August 5, 2012

Last spring, at the request of a group of St. Paul’s parents, I gave a talk entitled “Spirituality, Science and Sustainability.” It was not one more harangue to reduce, reuse, recycle. We all know we should do that. 

Right now, we have all the information we need to heal ourselves and the planet.

What we don’t have is the story. We have no one to show us the way.

Most of us would agree that stories are important, that we like them, that from time to time they inspire and teach us, but when it comes to stories as pathways to truth, when it comes to stories as authority, most of us balk. We are accustomed to think of stories as “fiction,” as opposed to “fact,” which is hard, linear data. We like results and outcomes: bank balances, test scores, performance evaluations, funds raised, cases won.

Stories like process far more than they like conclusions. The best ones have no conclusions at all.

Data purports to give us facts.

Stories take us on a journey.

Data proclaims the outcome. And if you’re in education, like I am, you know that outcome trumps everything.

But as I discovered much to my surprise last spring, there is one thing that, it seems, every American, liberal and conservative, left and right, agrees upon, and that is that what we call “reality” is in fact an invention, and since we can’t know what is really true, we choose the most convincing narrative. 

Here’s the nuanced progressive version offered by TED talker and education guru Sir Ken Robinson:

We live in a world that’s shaped by the ideas, beliefs and values of human imagination and culture. The human world is created out of our minds as from the natural environment. Thinking and feeling are not simply about seeing the world as it is, but having ideas about it, and interpreting experience to give it meaning.

Here’s the more down-home conservative version, offered by a Bush White House aide:

“We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality.”

This is extremely important for us who call ourselves Christians, for our authority does, in fact, lie in the stories we tell: the stories of Israel, the stories of Jesus, the stories of the Church, the stories of how our lives interact and intersect with these other stories. Teachings like those about salvation, creation, sin, providence, history and many others are not there to indoctrinate us; they are keys to help us unlock the mystery of the stories.

As one who has spent her entire life loving, studying and telling stories, I can tell you this. Because we’re into outcomes, most of us, when working with a story, will jump to conclusions about it far too soon. The conclusion that almost all of us come to first is the most literal one. That’s OK. It’s an important step along the way. But to stop at the level of literalism is to miss so much depth, complexity and nuance. Stories come most alive when they leap out of simple, linear literalism into complex and diverse truth. Yes, you heard me right. Truth is diverse. 

To work a story invites me to live with it, to look for examples that prove and disprove what I have just heard. Stories, even when I read them in books, are conversations. Stories have multiple characters, multiple actions and multiple points of view. In wondrous contrast to a math problem, there is no one right answer to a story. Also, I’ll get much more out of a story if I work on it with others. Others can be really surprising.

Paul is saying much the same thing in this morning’s reading from Ephesians:

Jesus was a gift-giver, Paul says. “The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ…We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people's trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming.” (Eph. 4:11-15)

At its most obvious, Paul is saying that we’ll never get where we want to go if we go alone. He is also saying that unity is not uniformity. Unity is diversity working in harmony, not being divided by conflict conflict. People don’t just need to work together to provide the necessities of life; people need to work together to find truth. Because truth is not a single thing. Truth is right relationship between many things.

The part about children being tossed to and fro is only to be expected. To be a child is to get caught up in “winds of doctrine.” Trends, fashions, ideas about the perfect self are all part of their discernment. If a little boy thinks a destructive Transformer® is his sweet child, don’t worry. If a man does, maybe you should. When a culture gets obsessed with youth, it will encourage us to remain childlike. But adulthood is about wisdom. To embrace truth is to embrace aging; it is to not be afraid to grow up.

I personally find this passage incredibly reassuring. It tells me I don’t have to do it all and be it all, that my perfection lies in simply knowing what part I contribute to the whole. The only thing that God asks of me is that once I find myself that I share my talents liberally and wonderfully with others. 

Thus you can imagine my surprise when I encountered a very different read of this same passage:

“The exhortation of the passage is to encourage the listeners to accept their calling willingly, aware of the sacrifice that such a calling entails. They are called to “lead a life worthy” They are to do love by serving one another.”

Is serving one another a sacrifice? Is it a sacrifice to see another fed, healed, happy? Is my calling something imposed upon me in place of something else more fun and fulfilling? What does it mean to sacrifice?

Before I go on, I have to say that the word “sacrifice” scares me. I’ve seen it used too often as an excuse by the strong to make the weak pay for their mistakes.

Fortunately, however, this is exactly what is taken up in today’s Old Testament lesson. 

“Now there came a traveler to the rich man, and he was loath to take one of his own flock or herd to prepare for the wayfarer who had come to him, but he took the poor man's lamb, and prepared that for the guest who had come to him.” (2 Sam 12:4-5)

Nothing could have put my fears into words better. In my world, a sacrifice is something that the powerful exact from the powerless. Jesus himself was such a sacrifice. So that Rome could hold on to everything, they sacrificed Jesus, the piece that did not fit into their puzzle. 

Paul is telling us, I think, to be courageous in putting the puzzle together. Don’t be afraid to be a part of the whole. But because Rome sacrificed Jesus, we continue, no matter what the Church teaches, to worry about sacrifice and how the world has the power to hurt us. 

Which brings me back to David. I’m so glad that the RCL has us reading King David’s story for weeks during the summer of Year B. The first Christians considered the David story essential to their understanding of who Jesus was and what he taught, but until we had the RCL there was very little opportunity to explore how the David story and the Jesus story connected. 
We’ve looked at how today’s story explores the theme of sacrifice. Together with last week’s reading, it shows how a human being trying to make good of a big mistake can find himself in the midst of an even bigger one. A love affair leads to murder. And with the lamb, a sweet sacrifice, taking care of a little lamb who will one day take care of you, turns into a rapacious sacrifice of the rich plundering the poor who look to them for protection. David’s sacrifice of Uriah, the rich man’s sacrifice of the lamb, both of these foreshadow Rome’s sacrifice of Jesus.

Nathan tells a parable to test the conscience of the king. And David, whose self image is that he is a man of justice, not a grasping king, makes the literal first response. “As the Lord lives, the man who has done this deserves to die.”

Just like our own first response to this story might be: how dare the one percent make the rest of us pay? 

Both David and we are completely right, but, as the story unfolds, we discover that the problem is more complex than a mere us and them.

The voice of God says to David: “I anointed you king over Israel, and I rescued you from the hand of Saul; I gave you your master's house, and your master's wives into your bosom, and gave you the house of Israel and of Judah; and if that had been too little, I would have added as much more.” (2 Sam 12:7-8)

We return to the theme of gifts, the ancient theme reiterated in St. Paul’s letter: life is not measured by what I take, what I possess, what I get. It is measured by what God gives.

Do not take what has not been given to you. This is a commandment you will find in all great spiritual traditions.  

And though that single teaching would be enough, stories, at least the best ones, never contain a single teaching, a single interpretation, a single point of view. So the story goes on with what I think may be its most important observation:

“I will raise up trouble against you from within your own house…For you did it secretly; but I will do this thing before all Israel, and before the sun." David said to Nathan, “I have sinned against the LORD.’” (2 Sam 12:11-13)

In next week’s reading, we will see the trouble unfold, even though David has repented. Things don’t just stop because I’ve said I’m sorry. We live our entire lives dealing with what we have done and what has been done to us.

But this is not a statement of hopelessness, it is a narrative of hope. If I can be aware of my own growing edges, I can ask God to help me turn those edges into insights, into compassion for others, into the broad and generous view that it isn’t just about me. If I can be brave about my own growing edges, I can ask others to walk with me and watch with me.

For a growing edge is every bit as much a gift as a talent. Stories do not begin with us, nor do they end with us. To practice a story is to know that one is a part of a much greater whole. 

ON JESUS AND THE FOUR NOBLE TRUTHS: Preached at Our Saviour, Mill Valley, July 8, 2012

“Power is made perfect in weakness.”
St. Paul, 2 Corinthians 12:9b

In my mind, one of the great “improvements” in the Revised Common Lectionary is that we now have the opportunity to spend some time with the story of King David. Whatever our feelings about this story, and mine, at least, are ambivalent, David is central to our understanding of Jesus. David was the first Messiah, the one anointed in Bethlehem, the shoot of Jesse, the one who abided with his sheep, and whose memory is invoked for certain poor shepherds on Christmas night. David forged a kingdom of God on earth and has done much to shape our assumptions of what such a kingdom should look like. But until we got the RCL, we have not told much of David’s story in church and so have not had the opportunity to study it prayerfully and in the liturgical embrace of the sacred. It may be that, tucked into this story, lies a great deal more than we think.

If Jesus springs from the house and lineage of David, this does not make them alike, any more than coming from the same family makes you and your relatives alike. But they do share a tradition. Both come from relatively humble beginnings, and, interestingly, David begins to rule at the same age as Jesus begins his ministry and the length of his reign is 33 years, the same as Jesus’ whole life. As a political monarch, David rules in a very literal way, while Jesus rules by showing us new rules. He critiques the worldly assumptions by which we live, and teaches a spiritual path, but make no mistake: both of them come to teach us about power. 

The worlds in which each lived had different conceptions of power. For David, it was victory over omnipresent tribal enemies. Jesus dealt with an entrenched empire. David contended against a host of local deities; Jesus came into the world of the very brilliant, contentious and philosophical ancient Greeks. Greek thought, which remains pervasive even in this scientific age, articulates an ethic of conflict, a divide between appearance and reality, flesh and spirit. Greek philosophy privileges the abstract. It was a Greek who said that “all is number.” It also equates change with decay and posits a good that is unchanging. At the very least, Jesus, who was not a Greek, but a Jew of the house and lineage of David, reminds us that the way in which others carve up and number the world may not be the way we do, and indeed, it may be unwise to carve up and number the world at all. Maybe change is not bad. Both Jesus and David were warriors who could love their enemies. David hung out with the Philistines, Jesus with the Romans. Both Jesus and David loved women, David as wives, and Jesus in a far more complex way that still bothers certain men of the church. But again, just as it may be unwise to carve up the world, it may be just as unwise to see humanity as male and female, flesh and spirit, or power and weakness. 

All of which brings us to something that lies at the heart of the story of David and the story of Jesus, the story of the ancient Greeks and the Pax Romana. All lived in a world whose essential, unspoken foundation was that conflict is inevitable because life by its very nature is expressed as a clash of opposites. 
I want to pause here. If conflict is certainly always present in life, not all cultures see conflict as foundationally as we do. Conflict foundational, you ask? Let me give you a simple example. If you watch nature movies, you will hear predators referred to as “enemies.” That is the conflict view at its most naive. Except for warring dogs, animals do not have enemies. Not even all people see nature as a conflict between cute helpless bunnies and those who would eat them. A selfless hare in a Buddhist tale gives her life so that a mother tiger might feed her cubs. Indigenous people and really skilled ecologists understand the relationship between predators and prey as one of mutual nourishment, health and love, not enmity. Again, the Buddhists teach that the first noble truth of all life is not “life is conflict” but that “life is suffering.” Now, I can certainly suffer as a result of conflict, but I can also suffer because I am sick or because I am grieving the loss of a loved one or just because I am old and sore or got out of the wrong side of bed. To simplify just a bit, the phrase “life is suffering” puts the emphasis upon my personal experience and mastery of the conditions of life, while a world view founded upon “life is conflict” allows me to project my struggles upon others. In the Buddhist view, I slowly learn to rise above the power of suffering by working upon myself; in the conflict view, I rise above the power of conflict by working upon others, altering the structures of society, winning others over to my point of view. Once everyone agrees with me there is no more conflict, right? The winner in the conflict view is the one who gets the power, and to be powerful means that while I influence others, no one else has the power to influence me unless I give them permission.

The view that life is founded in conflict, and there is a technical term for this, an “agonistic” culture, from the Greek ag┼Źn, meaning assembly, contest, battle, root of our word “agony” -- the agonistic is nowhere explicitly stated in the documents of the church, not in the way that suffering is the first noble truth in Buddhism. Christianity does not give us Noble Truths, it gives us creeds, which are consensus statements, not reality statements. For all its beauty, and I’m really quite fond of it, the Nicene Creed is a compromise document, cobbled together because a group of fallible mortals had irreconcilable (or so they thought) philosophical differences. Underneath its surface, it suggests that reality may be something we negotiate rather than something that simply is. 

But if the Church gives us disputatious creeds, Jesus himself was not one. Jesus, and we see it so clearly in today’s Gospel reading, came to show us just how conflicted we really are. And, true to form, the culture of conflict rejected him. It wasn’t just the Romans who rejected him, or the Temple establishment who rejected him, but, as today’s Gospel reminds us, his own people who rejected him. I reject him, too, the moment I see life as a contest, and seek to prevail over others. 

In my view, this summer’s hottest book, recommended by no one less intellectually august than Drew Gilpin Faust, president of Harvard University, is an extended and cheery essay on belief systems by journalist Kathryn Schultz. It’s called Being Wrong: Adventures on the Margin of Error. In the book, Schultz makes the totally accurate point that Western Civilization is creative rather than didactic, that we construct belief systems  with a view toward workability, rather than a view toward truth. My truth may be different than your truth, but that’s OK, because everything that passes for truth is really invention. In a world of clashing belief systems, people will cling tenaciously to their favorites, even in the face of proof to the contrary. Look at those who say that the earth can be no more than 10,000 years old because that is the way they read the Bible. Or, even as we are learning that the Greeks were wrong and that the only unchanging reality is change, a group in Texas promulgates the following doctrine:

We oppose the teaching of Higher Order Thinking Skills (HOTS) (values clarification), critical thinking skills and similar programs … which focus on behavior modification and have the purpose of challenging the student’s fixed beliefs and undermining parental authority.

What do we mean by fixed beliefs? Should our vision of God never change? Is the God I believed in at age five the one I pray to today? Should we cling to the Victorian god of progress, the eighteenth century god of reason, the colonialist god of conquest in the name of Christ?

The Church has had a near impossible time learning to grow. As my sister the atheist recently reminded me, “I’ve never seen a bunch of people who disagree with one another as much as you Christians. Instead of getting together, you just go off and start one more church.”

And so, like a California Christian Buddhist, I’m looking, not for invention, but for truth. I think it’s time we owned our own Four (or maybe Three or maybe more) Noble Truths, not about the nature of God -- we’ll never know that, but about what it means to be human. This is a huge task. It invites scientists and theologians, liberals and conservatives, environmentalists and oil companies, women and men, all of us to work together on a common quest. 

Jesus came into a culture of conflict and said “I am the way, the truth and the life.” 

Pondering that, St. Paul, in his beautiful second letter to the Corinthians, offered a second Truth, or perhaps simply a practice to understand the first.

Power is made perfect in weakness. 

For years and years I have held that statement in my heart. I have done so because it doesn’t seem to agree with anything I’ve seen. It goes against everything that I as an educated American of good family was taught about achievement, about success, about effective education, about being human.

Power is made perfect in weakness. 

It suggests to me that what God calls power of God is an order of magnitude different than what I call power. 

I’m going to stop right here. I invite you simply to think about it. What does it mean to find power in weakness?

When I return in a month, and we’re still in the braided stories of David and Jesus, I’ll add more thoughts to what I think it means for us, and our gifts, and our wonder, and what it means to live really, really, and very happily, well, to heal the earth rather than destroy it, and to be rich beyond our wildest dreams. AMEN.


My friends at the various churches at which I serve have asked me to post sermons. I am happy so to do. When you have a moment, do look over the list and enjoy. I welcome your comments and feedback, and will answer when appropriate.

May we find our truth in the stories we tell.