Monday, March 25, 2013

Passion Sunday

Forgive them, Father, for they do not know what they are doing, says Jesus. Forgive them. They do not know. Paul echoed Jesus later on when he said, “we speak God’s wisdom, secret and hidden, which God decreed before the ages for our glory. None of the rulers of this age understood this; for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.” (1 Cor. 2:7-8)
But the crowd who had welcomed him with palms cried “Crucify!” 

“Pray,” said Jesus to his disciples, “that you may not come into the time of trial.”

The Passion is the story of the time of trial. It is a dense story. It is impossible to get all of it, no matter how often we hear it. It is impossible not to be touched by it. Overtly, it is a story in which Jesus is put on trial, but it is the world, not Jesus, that is in fact tried. We are tried. It is a story of betrayal, haste, grief and exhaustion. It is a story about facing our deepest fears. It is about a Savior that dies for our sins, not by erasing them, but by showing us what our sins really are.

None of the rulers of this age understood this; for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.

A teacher writes: “Bad things happen when the pace of change exceeds our ability to change, and events move faster than our understanding. It is then that we feel the loss of control over our lives. Anxiety creates fear, fear leads to anger, anger breeds violence, and violence … becomes a deadly reality.” ( Jonathan Sacks, The Dignity of Difference, 2)

“Lord, should we strike with the sword?” cry Jesus’ followers when the crowd storms their garden. One of them struck the slave of the high priest and cut off his right ear. 51But Jesus said, ‘No more of this!’ And he touched his ear and healed him. 

No more of this. Violence, coercion, even in the best of causes, even to save, it will not get us where we wish to go. Violence only sets Barabbas free.

Peace is a paradox. Those who show courage in the heat of battle are celebrated. Those who take risks for peace are all too often assassinated.The pursuit of peace can come to seem to be a kind of betrayal. It has none of the clarity of war, in which the issues -- self defense, national honor, patriotism, pride -- are unambiguous and compelling. Peace involves a profound crisis of identity. (Sacks, p. 8) 

When our world falls apart, we forget who we are. When we forget, we grow afraid. When we are afraid, we will betray all that is best in us just to make it go away. It doesn’t go away. Most of us, at one time or another, have been afraid.

Man, I do not know what you are talking about!’ At that moment, while he was still speaking, the cock crowed. 61The Lord turned and looked at Peter.

Do we know what Jesus is talking about? Pause, and in the stillness of your heart, let Jesus look at you.

Why was Jesus arrested? What social equilibrium did he threaten? What was the matter?

We found this man perverting our nation, forbidding us to pay taxes to the emperor.

The crowd has no idea what it is saying. Jesus did not forbid taxes to the emperor. Indeed, he told us to give the emperor his due, to not hold on to all that stuff. How many show trials have accused people of things they never did or said? Jesus asked us to serve God, to empty ourselves to God, to let God transform us. If we become people of God, the emperor will no longer have the power to harm.

Father forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.

During the week ahead, let us, who together know so much, enter into the mystery of unknowing, the mystery of one, who even on the cross prayed for us, the one who emptied himself and became the truth that sets us free. 

Monday, March 11, 2013

On the Prodigal Son, Lent 4, Year C

Our works do not exist in opposition to God’s grace; God’s grace is what blesses our works. 

Last Sunday, Corrie raised a question that has probably haunted everyone in this church at least once in your lives: if God is so good, then why do bad things happen? 

Today’s Gospel is full of bad things: a father loses his property to a wayward son, a wayward son crashes and burns, and the righteous son is left, thankless, out in the cold, as a party is given for a wastrel, who, after losing one fortune is now gifted with the family’s best ring, robe and the fatted calf. What gives? If wastrels get parties, what’s the point? Or, to put it as the Pharisees asked, if Jesus is a teacher from God, why does he hang out with those kind of people? What would you think if you saw Jesus at dinner with a bunch of really creepy repo men? 

We usually don’t ask ourselves who we would not be caught dead with, but I think we should, since Jesus is asking us to think in a whole new way about good guys and bad guys and about the God who made the world in which we all live. It’s both liberating and scary. I mean, how would you feel if the Koch brothers lost everything, fell on their knees and said they were sorry, or if Wal-Mart went bankrupt? Might we just not think they got what they deserved?

The Prodigal Son is the story of someone who does a great wrong, comes to his senses, and finds forgiveness.  All of us need that kind of love sometimes. I’ve heard so many people tell how they have encountered God’s love at the lowest moment in their lives. In spite of everything, says this story, God loves me. Even though I’ve been a complete fool and done irrevocable harm, God still oves me. God will make things right. God wants things right. There is hope, even now, says this parable. We can come to our senses.

But then, here’s the other side, should God forgive the bad guys too? 

A great deal has been said and written about the Parable of the Prodigal Son. In fact, just about everything that can be said about this parable has been said. But that does not make the story any less troubling or compelling. The younger son does great harm. The older, righteous son, is unforgiving. The father appears to play favorites.

But this is also Rose Sunday, the fourth Sunday in Lent, the Sunday in which we are asked to relax our penitential breast beating and give thanks for the Grace of God. Our first reading begins: Today I have rolled away from you the disgrace of Egypt. We have sung “Amazing Grace.” And we read from the letters of Paul, a reprise of that moving sentence that began our journey on Ash Wednesday:

He made him, who knew no sin, to be sin on our behalf, that we might become the righteousness of God, in him. (New American Standard Bible)

I’m using a slightly different translation than the NRSV we heard this morning, because it was this translation that one Lent I listened to in a musical setting every day. The singer phrased it like this:  He made him, (pause) who knew no sin, (pause) to be sin (pause) on our behalf, (pause) that we might become (pause) the righteousness of God, (pause) in him. Sing it enough times and it becomes a prayer, and as a prayer, it asks us, how could God have ever become sin? And how does this lead to righteousness?

When Paul wrote his second letter to the Corinthians, he had been seriously beat up. At the beginning, he confesses: “We do not want you to be unaware, brothers and sisters, of the affliction we experienced in Asia; for we were so utterly, unbearably crushed that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death so that we would rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead.” He doesn’t tell us which of his adventures crushed him; only that he despaired of life itself. (A little like the Prodigal, feeding pigs?) And that God picked him up and gave him the grace to go on. 

The Parable of the Prodigal Son is a story about works and grace. What we do matters. 

The parable of the Prodigal son is about facing the things that hurt; it’s about what we do to one another. All three characters ache in this story: the father who loses his son, the son who loses his dreams, the son who loses his sense of his own goodness.  The older son cannot forgive. We have no assurance that the younger will mend his ways. What will happen to these people? And where is God?

Among the many essays written about this week’s Gospel, perhaps the most striking comes from a GTU graduate, David Henson: 

God seems to appear in this story in the role of the doddering old fool, manipulated by the half-cooked apology of the prodigal son to forget all that has passed. Not only this, but the father ignores the harm done to the other son, the one who stayed home, followed the rules, loved him without vacation.

And the father does harm the other son. The father’s indiscriminate love to the prodigal wounds the brother, as it rightly would us all.

But what if God isn’t the father in this story?

What if God instead is the prodigal who seems so irresponsible?

What if God is the God who comes to us in the disguise of those we despise, those who have hated and killed us, rejected us and abandoned us, those who annoy and frustrate us most, those who are excluded?

Picking up that theme, what if God came to me, the Eco Queen in the person of the president of Exxon Mobil? This is the whole theme of the soul’s shadow, the parts of ourselves we cannot own, so we turn them into monsters. But in fact, we need the creativity and daring of our darker sides; if I want to help the relationship of ecology, I need the relational genius of an entrepreneur.  When I sit around hating the oil companies, I miss their genius. As older son, I become crabbed and limited. All of us have a dark side. We don’t usually encounter it when life is going well. It is when we suffer that we discover the stuff of which we are made. In the depths of his suffering, the Prodigal Son learned the most important thing of all and that was to love.

Parables are a lot like dreams. Like dreams, parables are non-literal stories that ask us to engage  an event from a variety of points of view. Anyone who does dream work knows that since every dream I dream takes place inside of me, every part of the dream must also be an aspect of myself; thus, if the Prodigal Son were my dream, I would be all the characters, the father, the elder brother, the younger brother, the younger brother’s drinking companions, even the pigs he was feeding! God, too, is in all these things, for God is known in relationship. The younger son realized this, while the older one did not.

Most of us Americans are like the older son. New York Columnist David Brooks began his Friday op-ed piece: “Those of us in secular America live in a culture that takes the supremacy of individual autonomy as a given. Life is a journey. You choose your own path. You can live in the city or the suburbs, be a Wiccan or a biker.”

To live in a culture where the individual reigns supreme, however, is also to live in a culture that will eventually become divided into factions: my choice against your choice, my interests against your interests, a culture based neither in the laws of nature nor the grace of God. 

Law, whether the laws of nature or the Jewish Mitzvot, are descriptions of right relationship and societies based upon competition, whether in ancient Rome or modern America, make relationship into winning and losing, not interdependence. Under conditions of oppression or depression, relationships are damaged and living law itself becomes oppressive or depressive. But that is the problem of sin, not of law. 

We need rules to live well in community, rules that help us get along rather than pit us against one another like the brothers in our tale. One of the reason kids love soccer: it builds a tight community around clearly understood rules. They tell me they’ll let their team down if they don’t play. Sportsmanship codes help kids deal with their feelings. They cannot do well if they don’t understand their fellow players’ strengths and weaknesses. It’s why I don’t always mind that my young friends miss church for a soccer game, because many of the lessons are the same. In playing by living rules, kids on the field can find grace, unless the sin of competition, like the righteousness of the older brother, takes them over.

On the Fourth Sunday of Lent, we’re being asked to love one another, with all our weaknesses and growing edges. So I’ll leave you with two quotes. The first is from MLK. The second is from a very old TV show that remains my all time favorite: 

Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.

There's a dark side to each and every human soul. We wish we were Obi-Wan Kenobi, and for the most part we are, but there's a little Darth Vader in all of us. Thing is, this ain't no either-or proposition. We're talking about dialectics, the good and the bad merging into us. You can run but you can't hide. My experience? Face the darkness. Stare it down. Own it. As brother Nietzsche said, being human is a complicated gig. So give that ol' dark night of the soul a hug. Howl the eternal yes!

The Fire in the Barnyard: Lent 2, Year C

Some of you may remember a science project from way back in the early ‘90‘s called Biosphere 2. It was a geodesic structure, the size of two football fields, set in the desert of Arizona. Biosphere 2 was to be a perfectly closed ecosystem in miniature, a series of self sustaining biomes that could support human life, as a starship might support human life in some distant future. Biosphere had a rainforest, plains and even a small ocean. In 1991, after several trials, and amid some fanfare, a crew of eight people were sealed inside, there to live and work. If you followed the story then you will know that the experiment didn’t work. The crew developed interpersonal problems; invasive marigolds and invasive cockroaches proliferated, one ecosystem got too wet, another too dry, oxygen levels dropped and carbon dioxide levels rose. The food grown did not have sufficient calories to maintain crew weights. A crew member became sick and had to be removed, which, in the eyes of some, compromised the integrity of the closed system. As it turned out, even with the best science in the world, we could not replicate in a closed system the web of relationships that sustains life on the planet. Maybe that is because the earth is not a closed system.

Most of the time, we live as if it was. We are encouraged to live that way. We get up, we go to work, we drive cars. We pick up our necessities at the market. We pass gated communities, go through airport security, sigh as our children are subjected to standardized tests. We turn on computers, go to meetings, and so on, encouraged to seek our own private pleasures and heal our private woes because that’s the best we can do.

But each year, during the six weeks of Lent, we are asked to step back and look at our lives, at our relationship with God. Last week we followed Jesus into the desert where he was tempted. This week, the temptations fall closer to home. Where, asks Paul to the Philippians, are our minds set? 

The story of Abram is one of the greatest tellings of God’s open system and God’s open heart, but it is also honest about the problems we face when we try to live with God. When God called Abram “Get up, go, leave the land of your ancestors for the land which I will show you and I will make you a great nation, so that you will be a blessing,” Abram said yes. Full of hope, he set out with his family and his flocks. Trouble is that years passed and nothing at all happened. Sarai remained persistently barren and the heir of the household was not a son, but a slave, Eliezer of Damascus. Abram’s temptation was not to answer God’s call, but to stick with it.

A great deal of the life of faith is precisely like this. For every peak experience, years of plodding around follows. It takes time for God’s promises to sink in, to be deeply understood, to be fulfilled. In contrast to the instant gratification of modern technology, the life of the spirit is a slow process. It is very easy, in a world of instant gratification to say, “Yes, God, I know you promised, but I still have no children and a slave born in my house is to be my heir!” 

God answers, but God does not do so directly. He takes Abram outside. Outside the closed world of his tent and his expectations. God shows Abram the stars. God shows Abram the open system. God asks Abram to offer up things of the earth. Abram does so, only to have a deep and terrifying darkness fall upon him. God enters his closed self in the form of a dream, reminding us that even in the fastness of sleep we are open to the universe. This story says that to be in relationship with God is to be open to surprise, for often, as both Abram and later Moses attest, we find God, not in the brilliance of our success, but in the vulnerable darkness of our unknowing.

Darkness reminds us that the journey toward God is not always clear. And thirteen more years will have to pass before Sarai is finally pregnant with Isaac. 

The Pharisees think that they are doing Jesus a very good turn when they warn him that Herod wants to kill him. Right before today’s Gospel opens, Jesus has made one of his prophetic, and potentially incendiary remarks, “Some who are last will be first and some who are first will be last.” This is just the kind of thing that tyrants mistake for a call for rebellion, and the Pharisees are telling Jesus to get out of Dodge.

Jesus does not give them a direct answer. Instead he says, “Listen. Go and tell that fox that I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow and on the third day I finish my work. I must be on my way, for it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside Jerusalem.” 

Jesus does not answer the question. He says “Listen.” 

And then he speaks of curing and healing, of life and death, of the tensions between the word of God and the world of earthly powers. He calls Herod a fox. 

In the Greco-Roman world, Fox was the trickster, the one who could move effortlessly between the worlds, in Herod’s case, the worlds of Judaism and Rome. Foxes are adaptable. They land on their feet. Even if Luke is not especially fond of Herod Antipas, he holds a kind of grudging respect for tricksters, as we will learn later on, in the parable of the unjust steward. Tricksters almost always fall prey to their own tricks in the end, and this will happen to Herod. But if that is all suggested, the image does not stop with there. It continues to a mother hen and her chicks.

And this changes everything. We move from power and knowledge to a whole bunch of little baby birds, a not entirely comfortable image. Yes, God loves us. But Foxes also invade hen houses. They devour the little ones who have no place to run. The political message is clear. To live in an empire is to be trapped inside someone else’s world. Empires are closed systems. God and the universe are open. Where to turn?

As Biblical scholar and former Bishop of Durham NT Wright writes: 

“Though the word ‘fire’ does not occur in this passage, the powerful image Jesus uses here has it in mind. 

“Fire is as terrifying to trapped animals as to people, if not more so. When a farmyard catches fire, the animals try to escape; but, if they cannot, some species have developed ways of protecting their young. The picture here is of a hen, gathering her chicks under her wings to protect them. There are stories of exactly this: after a farmyard fire, those cleaning up have found a dead hen, scorched and blackened – with live chicks sheltering under her wings. She has quite literally given her life to save them. It is a vivid and violent image of what Jesus declared he longed to do for Jerusalem and, by implication, for all Israel.”

If this is a premonition of the cross, it is a powerful and compassionate image. The mother hen does not engage in atonement for a sinful humanity unable to pay its debts to God. This is raw rescue. God sheltering God’s frightened children in the midst of an absolutely impossible situation about which they can do nothing.” 

God asks that we do not run. God asks us to Listen. To Receive. To have the courage to be open. That is what we do in Lent. Don’t be afraid to be surprised. How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! This is a poignant foreshadowing of what will in fact happen during Holy Week: the disciples will flee, they will deny having known Jesus, they will be scattered by fear. Today’s readings ask us to consider: From what do we run? Where, like Abram, do we feel stuck? What promises in our lives have yet to be fulfilled? Do we boldly stand before God with our deepest questions? Do we live in a biosphere that is closed and fearful, or open to the wind of the spirit? Can we trust God to take us under her mothering wings? Do we realize when we go out with Abram to number the stars that we are made of the very same stuff as they? Are we ready to meet God?