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Are you ready? Do you have everything together? You must. You have time for church today. Most folks are saving their church time for tomorrow. So maybe this crowd is the calm, the cool, the collected. Maybe not. The fourth week of Advent is really short this year. The last candle won’t burn very long, but before the season is over, we will spend some time with Mary. Mary spends three months with her cousin Elizabeth, and we don’t have that kind of time, but I think it is important we spend some time with Mary, in light of all that is going on in our world.
We have some baggage about Mary, so let’s unpack that for a minute. We Protestants tend to get spooked by the Mother of Jesus, because well, isn’t she a Catholic? Incidentally, one of my favorite things to look for when I visit a Roman Catholic church is the statue of Mary, particularly in Latin America. Almost invariably she has her hands folded in prayer, and almost always someone has draped a rosary over her hands. The idea of Mary praying the rosary just makes me giggle. Can you hear her? “Hail me, full of grace, the Lord is with Me. Blessed am I among women…” I always get a chuckle out of that. So for you who are suspicious of Mary on theological grounds, I want to assure you that the Gospel of Luke was written a long time before Mary converted to Catholicism. We can talk about Mary in the Episcopal church.
What I really want to unpack about Mary comes from the Gospel of Luke.. Of the Gospel writers, Luke is really the Walt Disney. Luke is the Gospel we read at Christmas, because Luke gives us the shepherds and the angels, he gives us the manger and the flocks by night. Luke gives us the good story, the Disney version Mary is sort of the Disney princess of the first chapters of Luke’s Gospel. Think about it. She even bursts into song in today’s Gospel. The Mary we get in Luke is probably about as close to the Mary of history as Disney’s Pocahantas was to her real life counterpart.
Disney is great when you’re a little kid in a pageant. But Luke was writing 90-100 years after the story occurred, and Luke cleaned up the story. I think is important to move beyond the Disney princess Mary. We have to read between the lines in Luke’s story if we’re going to get a clearer picture of Mary, Jesus’ mother. The Mary of history is very different from the traditions that have grown up around her.
From what we know, Mary was young: 12 or 14. Mary was poor. This was an inopportune time to find out she was pregnant. We can understand why Mary would run, with haste, to her cousin Elizabeth. After she finds out she’s pregnant, she doesn’t run to Joseph. How can she tell her fiance she is pregnant? He thinks she is a Virgin. So she runs away. Mary is a scared teenage girl who runs away, far off to a town in the hills of Judea, to her favorite cousin’s house. She spends three months getting herself together. Elizabeth reassures her. She has a sense that all will be well. Her own child kicked when Mary showed up, surely that is a sign. God is with them.
For me, the lesson Mary learns over those three months with is really captured in the third line of her song. “God has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.” Mary is feeling low. She is scared and frustrated and so she runs off to the Judean hill country. But there in those three months, Mary learned to see her situation as a blessing. Mary began to believe that God could work in and through this incredibly difficult situation. Mary found faith in a God who could bring blessing out of pain.
Mary learned the hard lesson of the spiritual life. Faith is not about having your life all together. Faith is not about having answers. In fact, if you have all the answers, if you have it all together, you can’t have faith. You don’t need faith if you have everything all together, if you have all the answers. Faith is for the confused and the frustrated. Faith is for the downtrodden and the brokenhearted. Faith is for people who don’t have the answers. Faith is for all of us human beings struggling to make sense of life.
Faith is for those of us struggling to make sense of what is happening in our world. I have to tell you that my experience of the past week, and what has gone on in Newtown Connecticut has a particular slant. I went to a charter school just a few miles from Columbine High, and I was in my sophomore English class on the afternoon of April 20, 1999 when I heard what happened. Kids I had known since kindergarten hid under tables in the cafeteria as their classmates perpetrated that terrible school shooting.
I hate that Columbine did not spell the end of violence in schools. In light of the events of Newtown, I join the Bishop of Washington in calling for better overall gun control with specific bans on assault weapons. I join the Bishop in calling for better access to mental health care. There is a time for prayer, and there is a time for action. This is a time for both. We need new policies about guns and mental health in this country, and we have needed them for a long long time, too long.
These policies need to focus on the health of all of our communities, ALL. The events in Newtown were particularly tragic, but they are also, tragically, not unique. Children die as a result of violence far too often in this city and in this country. I remember people saying about Columbine, “if it could happen here, it could happen anywhere.” Let’s be honest, Columbine was not a racially diverse school, it was not an economically diverse school. Columbine received magnified attention because people were surprised that violence was happening at an upper-middle-class white suburban high school. We don’t always hear as much from the media. We have come to expect violence in certain neighborhoods and communities. This is wrong. God dreams for more for us than EXPECTING VIOLENCE.
I think we need to spend some time with Mary, the real Mary, not the Disney-fied Mary, because she helps us understand what it means to be a person of faith in a dark time. I believe in Mary, a scared teenage girl who ran away when she found out she was pregnant. I believe she felt humiliated and frustrated. I believe she felt like her world was coming to an end.
I believe God met Mary, in those frightening three months, like God meets us. I believe God comes to us in what can seem like the darkest moments of our life. In the midst of terror, in the midst of frustration, when we are at our wit’s end, that is when we need God. Faith is for the frustrated. Faith is for those who don’t have the answers. Faith is for people who need some help. Faith is for people who dream of a better world.
Something happened to Mary between the lines of our Gospel reading this morning. She changed from the scared girl who ran away into the Mother of Jesus, strong enough to bear with God through humiliating circumstances. Mary’s most ancient title is theokotos, the God bearer. It is one of the difficult and beautiful teachings of the Christian faith. Mary, that scared teenage girl, brings God’s presence into the world. God chooses to be born in the midst of suffering. That girl who ran away somehow, through faith, becomes the one who brings God’s presence into the world.
We are, all of us, bearers of God, like Mary. In little, humble, simple, ways we all help God to be born in each others lives. Giving birth to God’s presence isn’t easy. Bearing God means learning to have faith in the midst of pain. Bearing God means facing derision, means facing suffering. But our world needs us to bear God. We can be bearers of God in the way we legislate. We can be bearers of God in the way we do business. We can be bearers in God in the way we forgive one another. We can be bearers of God in the way we shape our communities. We can be bearers of God in the way we laugh, and cry together. All of our souls can magnify the Lord. This Christmas are you ready? Will you bear God to this broken and yet beautiful world?
But the demons don’t stay away. The demons don’t stay away. They are all over our society today, all over. Our world is full of demons. (LONG PAUSE). Have you seen the Vampire Diaries, True Blood, or The Twilight Series? Vampires are everywhere. The Walking Dead, an HBO show about Zombies is breaking all-time cable viewing records. The demons are legion these days. We, as a post-enlightenment society don’t believe in evil spirits, but we want to watch them on TV.
Sociologists are studying this absolute rage in magical fiction, the rise of the walking dead on our televisions. They believe we have arrived at a turning point in our cultural understanding of truth. As we move from Modernism to Postmodernism, serious cultural philosophers are talking about the sensed need for what they call “re-enchantment.” All of these Zombies, Vampires, and witches and wizards (think Harry Potter), all of the desire and money our society seems to be willing to pay out for magical fiction. The experts think we are longing for something magical missing in our radically scientific and rational explanations of reality. If in the Modern era, science won the day and the world of the spirit was dismissed as superstition, in the Post-modern era people are hungry for something Science can’t provide.
So I think we need to look again at this story of exorcism, we need to not gloss over this somewhat uncomfortable narrative. Christians are spiritual people. We believe there are parts of reality our science can never fully grasp. Episcopalians are usually very careful about what we ascribe to those areas, and I am with you. I know Luis will be glad to hear I am not planning to open a ministry center for exorcism as part of the upcoming work of our pastoral care committee.
The harder work, the harder work, is to look at ourselves, to examine our own inner spiritual territory. The moments where I have thought “there is something to this idea of ‘possession,’” have been when I am least proud of my behavior. I’ll think about something I have said in a long argument with my sister or brother and think, “that didn’t even sound like me.” Have you ever had a moment like that, when you were so overcome by an irrational anger or fear that you hear what you are saying and think “Am I even saying these words? Who is this?” There are moments in our lives when we are overcome, where we do not behave as ourselves.
love is stronger than hate;
light is stronger than darkness;
life is stronger than death.I think we need to take the demons seriously, and not just because I don’t want to end up at the bottom of the stairs on 36th Street in Georgetown. I think we need to be on guard against all the evil powers of this world, all those forces that would deny the goodness of God’s creation, but I think our best defense is a good offense. We need to let God re-enchant our world. We need to be open to seeing God’s love breaking through in our everyday lives. Sometimes we have to abandon all our rationality and just let God love us and love others through us.
This is a dangerous thing to ask you to do, I know, so let me explain. The last thing I want you to do is to call our rector Luis on Tuesday morning, the day he gets back from Tennessee to say, “While you were away Mike started re-writing the Bible.” I am asking you to cross out this particular word, because I think this is a BAD translation. In fact of all of the errors in the New Revised Standard Version, our usual translation in the Episcopal Church, this one may irk me the most. So cross it out. And write in the margin a different word: “Grasped.” Then Paul’s words read “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be GRASPED.”
I quibble with words, because words are important. Exploitation is bad to, but in this teaching, Paul wants us to avoid this GRASPING. The word we’ve just re-translated from Greek is harpadzo, it is the root for our word “Harpy,” those mythical creatures with great grasping claws. The imagery the word conjures is strong, and sadly, a significant part of so many lives. Grasping, always grasping.
You can read grasping in both of our other lessons this morning. Jesus is before the elders and the priests in the temple, and they are grasping. Jesus, and John the Baptist before him, have challenged their authority. The priests and elders are heavily invested in representing God. That’s their schtick, and these two country bumpkins, John and Jesus, are unwelcome competition. John, at this point, has already been taken care of: Herod has beheaded him. The temple authorities are now grasping after Jesus, and for now, with his clever stories he eludes their grasp for control.
Moses’ grasping at the waters of Meribah is a bit more subtle. We can understand why wandering in the desert without water could make the Israelites grumpy. What we don’t read in this text is what this incident means for Moses. This is one of those moments in scripture where you know there is more to the story, more to the tradition then ended up on the page. In Deuteronomy chapter 32 we hear of the death of Moses. He is standing on Mount Horeb, he can see the promised land, but he is not permitted to enter because he “broke faith” at Meribah. Moses plea, his grasping for God’s help in response to the people’s grumbling and murmuring, is a bigger deal than it seems on our page. But, according to tradition, Moses grasped too much here, and thus he never enters the promised land.
Grasping proves problematic for the prophets and priests, and it iss problematic today. There is a growing sense that everything that happens on the hill has to do with election cycles, with political games, with maintaining or achieving office, with grasping. At my most cynical, I can think this town, Washington, is full of a bunch of Ron Burgandy’s, the Will Farrell character in Anchorman: folks that run around declaring, “I’m kind of a big deal. People know me.”
We see grasping for power in this town. We see grasping for money on Wall Street. We watch grasping for fame on reality TV. This is a culture infused with grasping. Grasping, it seems, is a way of life: in our postmodern culture seeks to define us by what we can purchase, the items and services that fall within our economic grasp.
I’ll tell you the one that gets me: the next Apple product. I can’t tell you how often I check my cell phone contract so that I know the DAY I will be eligible to upgrade to the latest iPhone. I know there are some other Apple junkies out there.
But there is danger, danger in this cultural obsession with grasping. If we give in to the scripts, if we become defined by our title, position, car, street address, we are in great danger of missing the point of it all. And we all do it. We all have moments where the grasping energy washes over us.
But there is another word for us in Paul’s letter, a better word, a word that is even well translated by the NRSV. That word, in Greek is “Kenosis” or in the translation “emptied himself.” There is a tension in Paul’s letter between “grasping” and “emptying oneself.” Paul sees life basically as a tension between those two options: constant grasping, or constant self emptying.
This is the remedy for all that grasping, it is the incredibly counter-intuitive counter-cultural mind of Christ that Paul hopes will be in us. Kenosis, self emptying, is not easy. Self-emptying is not well rewarded with money, influence, or prestige. All of those things we are taught to grasp after, taught will make us successful and happy, they do not come from self-emptying. Yet Paul wishes self-emptying upon us.
Henri Nouwen captured this sense of kenosis, this sense of the self-emptying Christian way for our times perhaps better than anyone I know. He called the Christian path a journey of “downward mobility.” Those very words are so counter to our culture: “downward mobility.” I am sure many of you are familiar with Nouwen’s work, but for those who are not: Henri Nouwen was a famous Roman Catholic priest and professor of theology at Notre Dame, Harvard, and Yale. He left his high profile position as one of the sought after theologians in the Ivy League because, though he had reached the apex of his field, he did not feel fulfilled.
Nouwen went on a sojourn through Latin America, thinking he would give his life in service to the poor, but he could not force a sense of call in the slums of South America. When he returned to the US, he remembered invitation to come live at the L’Arche community a very strange living situation set up by Roman Catholic priests and lay people. Able-bodied and disabled people share life together, spending time in meals and at prayer, living side by side. The group started in France and has grown into an international organization. We actually have a couple of L’Arche houses here in the DC Metro area.
Henri spoke and wrote often of his first months with the folks at L’Arche. He spoke of his time with Adam, a young man who was so disabled that he could not speak, or get himself out of bed, bathe himself, dress himself. Henri wrote about how terrified he was during his first weeks with Adam, how frightened he was that at any moment while Henri was trying to lift or dress the fully grown man, he might errupt in an epileptic seizure. He talked about the patience required to sit with Adam over the course of the hour it would take him to eat his meals. Nouwen wrote about how it got easier, about how eventually the anxiety faded, the need to get everything right fell away.
I want to read you a couple of quotes from a speech Henri Nouwen gave, where he talks about Adam:
“Adam taught me a lot about God’s love in a very concrete way. First of all, he taught me that being is more important than doing, that God wants me to be with God and not to do all sorts of things to prove that I’m valuable. My whole life had been doing, doing, doing, so people would finally recognize that I was okay. I’m such a driven person who wants to do thousands and thousands of things so that I can somehow finally show that I’m a worthwhile being. People say, “Henri, you’re okay.” Here I was with Adam and Adam said, “I don’t care what you do as long as you will be with me.” It wasn’t easy just to be with Adam. It isn’t easy to simply be with a person without accomplishing much.”
After months with Adam Nouwen wrote of a particular moment when he “suddenly realized that Adam was not just a disabled person, less human than me or other people. He was a fully human being, so fully human that God even chose him to become the instrument of God’s love. He was so vulnerable, so weak, so empty, that he became just heart, the heart where God wanted to dwell, where God wanted to stay and where God wanted to speak to those who came close to God’s vulnerable heart. Adam was a full human being, not half human or less human. I discovered that. Suddenly I understood what I had heard in Latin America about the preferential option for the poor. Indeed, God loves the poor and God loves Adam very specially. God wanted to dwell in his broken person so that God could speak from that vulnerability into the world of strength, and call people to become vulnerable.”
That is Kenosis, that is self-emptying. Henri Nouwen learned it from Adam, and shared it with us.
Now, I am not declaring that to know God, to have the mind of Christ, you have to give up your job and move to L’Arche or Latin America. That may not be your call, but I do not want to exclude the possibility either. God needs self emptying doctors, self emptying lawyer, self emptying janitors and teachers and stay at home moms.
What I can say is that I think some of the best teachers we have for the spiritual life are those who are excluded from the grasping of our world. I hope you have had some teachers. I hope you have caught glimpses, perhaps even practiced this self-emptying way. If you need a teacher, let’s talk. I can introduce you to some children in Anacostia at Ferebee hope, or some folks who sleep out on the streets of Washington. You might even go visit L’Arche up in Adams Morgan. I am with Paul, in my limited experience I think that this self-emptying leads us to the mind, and to the heart of Christ. All our grasping won’t get us there. We have to let go.
people of Haran, not followers of the God of Abraham and Isaac. What, we might ask, is God doing THERE?
Yet God is present. Jacob’s dream becomes one of the most lasting and captivating images of the connection between heaven and earth. Jacob’s ladder has been painted, carved into stone, and set in stained glass. We sing old Spirituals. What guitar student doesn’t learn Led Zepplin’s Stairway to Heaven. Jacob’s pedestrian connection between heaven and earth has regular cameos on TV and film. Jacob’s Ladder is even a popular wooden toy. How many Bible passages have their own toy?
We are fascinated by this image of Jacob’s dream, Jacob’s ladder, this sense of God’s connection to earth, that in some places, at some times, the veil is thin. “Thin places” the Irish call them.
You see, I believed fully that I would find God in my work. I was convinced that I had a great deal to teach, a great deal to offer. I was giving a year, I thought, maybe even more, to serve God in “the least of these.” I was sure to find God.
I arrived to El Hogar de Amor y Esperanza, the Orphanage that would be my home to discover that the job I had come to fill did not exist. I thought I would be teaching English and helping to orient volunteer groups. El Hogar had an excellent English teacher, and no volunteer groups were scheduled to arrive in the next six months. To complicate matters, my Spanish was not nearly fluent enough to manage over 100 boys between ages six and 15. I had been reading Thomas Merton, the famous 20th century monk and mystic who described with such poetry his encounter with God’s presence. I had not found God in my work. I spent most of the first six months in Honduras feeling frustrated, bored: useless.
If you’ve tried meditation with the Buddhist, read some of Rumi’s poetry, been to a yoga class, or experienced a seder dinner with Jewish friends, you may also have a sense of this. Episcopalians, even Christians may not have a monopoly on the divine, which I find a exciting.
I wrote recently about the experience of worshiping this year in temporary space because of the chapel fire.
One of the biggest blessings for me in this time has been directional. Our old Chapel was set up, like most Episcopal Churches, so that the entire assembly faced one direction. Before the changes instituted by the Roman Catholic Church at Vatican II, even the priest faced the altar, which was mounted on the back wall. I will say, I have worshiped this way, and there is something wonderful about it. When everyone faces the same direction, you feel like you are all walking somewhere together. But, there is another blessing when you turn around and face one another. In our current configuration, we see one another’s faces across the Communion table. As the priest lifts up the bread and wine, we don’t just see these symbols, we see each other.
This has profound theological meaning. Vatican II’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, the product and summit of the reform of worship in all of the liturgical churches, stated clearly that Christ is present in the Eucharistic species (read: bread and wine), the word proclaimed, the priest who presides, and in the assembly that “prays and sings.” (Sacrosanctum Concilium I.7) Not only the word proclaimed, not only the bread and wine, not only the priest/minister, but in the assembly. When we pray the epiclesis, the portion of the prayer that asks the Holy Spirit to sanctify the gifts, we don’t just pray for bread and wine. We ask the Spirit to come upon the gathered people. St. Augustine in a sermon on the Eucharist said: “If, therefore, you all are the Body of Christ and His members, your (plural) mystery is presented at the table of the Lord, you all receive your (plural) mystery. To that which you all are, you all answer: `Amen’” The Body of Christ is not something magical that appears for moments under the form of bread and wine when the right words are said. The body of Christ is always present whenever “two or three are gathered together in my name” (Matt 18:20). But I rant.
Some in the Virginia Seminary Community have expressed their distaste for “seeing other people’s faces when I worship.” I think this is a problem. Worship isn’t something we do alone. We can pray alone, but worship isn’t the time for individual prayer. Worship, and especially the Eucharist, are about the mystical body of Christ of which we TOGETHER are members. Seeing each other, we encounter the mystery of Christ.
Our faith comes from a time when the collective, when the village, when the tribe and society were more important than the individual. In this, Christianity is counter-cultural today. Our presiding bishop really set off a firestorm when she made the claim, in her 2009 General Convention opening address, that “the great Western heresy” is individualism, that we can be saved as individuals. The thing is, we’re not. We are not saved alone. We are knit into an active, living, moving body of believers. If we are to worship Christ, we have to look at one another, at least sometimes.
That’s what’s tricky about Christianity, it means we have to work on reconciling one to another. Christianity calls us to deal with the really hard issues and divisions between us. Gathering together, looking at one another while we worship, reminds us that building relationship is hard work. Community is hard work. Love is hard work. But it is the gift of God’s presence among us.
We are not a people easily given to silence. We are an anxious people, full of action physical and mental. Silence, for us, has to be learned. We are called “human beings,” but sometimes “human beings” functions more as an aspirational statement. Jon Kabat Zinn, a professor of medicine and teacher of meditation more accurately describes most of us as “human doings.” Being still. Silence. Just being, for us isn’t easy.
My Father can attest to this. My parents live in Denver Colorado, where my dad practices law, and my mother is a priest. Years ago now, my mom took a group of parishioners to a conference on Christian meditation, and dad came along. They sat for a session of silent meditation, led by the world famous contemplative monk Thomas Keating. After a few minutes a horrified look came across my mother’s face…you see my dad is an epic snorer. He had closed his eyes in contemplation and drifted off. They laugh about it now, and Thomas Keating would not have been upset. He teaches that falling asleep in meditation is perfectly okay. Silence does not come easily to us.
When it does come, it can be such a break from our constant mental processing that our body will simply fall asleep, like my dad did. The truth is, we are an anxious people. And friends, we live in an anxious city. Moving here from California was a major mind shift. So many of my friends in DC work 60 hour work weeks, and still feel like they don’t get enough done. For so many of my peers, the district is where you come to prove yourself. DC is a town of striving. Outside of WallStreet, I can’t think of another area code where so much is at stake for so many people at any given time.
So understandably, Washington is an anxious place. And today we have “don’t worry be happy” Jesus. The Gospel for this morning is our last from the sermon on the mount. Jesus paints several lovely word pictures, which if you are at all like me, are a little irritating. I don’t know about you, but if I am in one of my anxious moods, if I’m in that place of anxiety, the last thing I want is for someone to tell me: “consider the lilies of the field.” I am not liable to respond well. If someone tells me to look at the birds or consider the lilies, silence will not come easily.
Jesus’ examples probably worked the first time, but centuries later they have been used in ways that are trite. Their meaning comes in the final verse. Jesus tells us not to worry. Well, in the translation we have in our bulletins he says not to worry. We’re reading from the New Revised Standard Version, but for this verse I want to read you the Old Revised Standard Version: “Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself.” I prefer this translation to the NRSV, which tells us that “tomorrow will bring worries of its own.” If I’m anxious, hearing that tomorrow will bring more worries isn’t helpful, Jesus. Luckily that’s not what he said. The Old Revised Standard Version is closer to the Greek: Jesus says “tomorrow will be anxious for itself.” This is Zen Jesus, giving us reassurance through poetic language, we have to ponder what tomorrow being anxious for itself looks like, but this takes the anxiety off of our shoulders.
Additionally in the translation the distinction between “being anxious” and “worrying” seems important. Worry is more specific. I worry when I have something to worry about: a grade on a test, a friend who is having an operation, Worry tends to have a specific end point. Being anxious doesn’t. Anxiety has a certain constancy to it. The Buddhists, who spend a lot of time trying to quiet their brains, call this “monkey mind.” I can work something over and over again, like a canker sore that you can’t stop bothering with your tongue. “Being anxious” is a state. Getting my mind to quiet down, to go to a place of silence, does not come naturally.
For some of us anxiety is a medical condition, that requires medical care. The anxiety I’m talking about, and that I think Jesus is talking about, everyday anxiousness, seems one of the most common frustrations of modern life. And, not surprisingly, there is insight from Jesus about the source of this anxiousness. Our Gospel begins this morning: “No one can serve two masters…You cannot serve God and wealth.” For Jesus, the question here is about idolatry. David Foster Wallace, sort of a post-modern literary genius, gave the commencement address at Kenyon College a few years ago, and put the same idea this way:
“here’s something else that’s weird but true: in the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally grieve you.”
Foster Wallace goes on to list several other things that people in our day worship. Power, intellect, the list goes on. He finishes with this sentence: “the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they’re evil or sinful, it’s that they’re unconscious. They are default settings.” Jesus and David Foster Wallace both tell us that, unconsciously, we don’t allow God to be God. Our society shapes us to grasp after wealth, or power, or beauty. We build up a lot of energy, a lot of mental processing, a lot of anxiety, searching after status and things. We end up striving to achieve some image of success, we end up anxious. When we encounter the real living God, the only response is awed silence: to be still, and know that God is God.
Being still may not be what comes to mind first when we’re baptizing squirming infants. But baptizing babies this morning teaches us something about that still silent knowledge. There is beauty in adults making a statement of faith. But we still baptize infants as well. Babies are incapable of saying yes to our questions, but we baptize them anyway. It is a reminder that God does not need our intellectual assent to be God. When we carry children to the waters of baptism, we plunge them into the mystery of a community shaped by death. Paul says so much in his letters to Romans: “all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death.” Paul goes on to say that baptism is about allowing our old sinful selves to die, about rising to new life with Christ.
It strikes me that so much of the work of Christianity involves letting our selves die to our desire for money, power, control, prestige. Living as the Baptized involves dying to all of those wonderfully quantifiable measures of success in our world. Christian exercises in meditation and contemplation are about letting go of all of those thoughts that over-occupy our mind. Beyond all of that worry and anxiety, beyond that desire for us to control, in the silence that comes, we find God. If we are able to let our own grasping stop, we are set free to seek the Kingdom.
We are in the build-up now to Lent, that season where Christians get very serious. If you are looking for a Lenten discipline, I want to commend to you any of the spiritual exercises that help calm and quiet the mind: Christian Meditation, Centering Prayer, even Zen meditation. I do so with the caveat that it is easy to make our spiritual practice into one more thing to be anxious over, so remember those lilies. Any practice that helps us give ourselves to silence, should be freeing rather than another “to-do” item. There is a definite connection between Christian contemplation and the Christian practice of sabbath. If you are going to add meditation to your plate for Lent, be sure it is as a way of letting go rather than adding to your anxiety.
I can report that there is something to silence. Not so much from my own life, I am still a struggling student in the school of silence. I told a story earlier on my Dad, so it is only fair I finish with another. I admit to being an anxious person, and if you were to tell me that anxiety was an inherited trait, I would believe you. My early memories of my dad are of a very preoccupied person. It makes sense, he was building a law practice. He was also improvising the art of parenting (his own mom and dad had died when he was young). And my father was often anxious. Dad may not have been able to sit through meditation with Thomas Keating, but he found another teacher of the contemplative way. The Franciscan priest Richard Rohr runs the Center for Action and Contemplation in Albuquerque, and about a decade ago my dad went on one of his retreats. Since then dad has become a bit of a mystic. A couple of years ago when the economy was at its worst, it became clear that the law practice my father had spent so much anxious energy building was going to shrink drastically, if not close entirely. The man I knew when I was a boy would have been a wreck, angry and frustrated. His anxiety would have passed around to all of the family members, this is anxiety’s wont. When I talked to my dad about how things were at the firm, I was amazed. He could laugh at himself, and he took the whole process lightly. His biggest concern was helping his employees search for other jobs.
Dad kept quoting Julian of Norwich, the 15th century English Saint. “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.” My father had allowed all of the anxious energy that occupied him to die, he had let go. My father had ventured into silence, and the God he encountered in silence left him changed.
A couple of weeks ago I was in this pulpit, preaching about the destruction of the temple. And here we are again. In fact it strikes me that about this time last year I was here preaching about the end of the world again. Our rector openly talks about creative preaching scheduling. Maybe the seminarian gets to deal with the apocalypse? Ah yes, end of the world, well Mike, hope you’ve been paying attention in class…
As much fun as it is to accuse Luis of conspiracies, I think there is something else going on here. Namely: Jesus talked about the end of the world. A lot. And it’s not just him. Again and again in the Bible we visit the end of the world. From the Old Testament Prophets, to St. Paul, to John the Baptist, in the book of Revelation, and especially from Jesus himself. The world ends several dozen times in the book.
You might have walked across Lafayette Square park and seen our own local prophets of doom. They stand in front of the White House regularly, with the signs. Consistently they plea for nuclear disarmament to avoid apocalypse. Sometimes they point to a specific Bible verse, some reference to the end. They have become sort of a stock image, grisly bearded guys holding signs that say: “The end is near.”
There was a move in Christian theology to see Jesus like the guys in Lafayette Square park. Toward the end of the 19th and into the 20th century, it was fashionable to talk about Jesus as an apocalyptic prophet. Johannes Weiss was the most influential of these scholars, but the influence stretched to Albert Schweitzer and more recently to the Jesus seminar. At times this school of thought even wonders whether Jesus and his followers were disappointed when the end time predicted didn’t come about.
While I agree that Jesus talked about the end of the world, that the Bible as a whole can be pretty apocalyptic, I think this argument misses the point. Yes, Jesus talked about the apocalypse. Yes, Jesus imagined the end times. But for Jesus, the apocalypse wasn’t the end. Jesus central message is not “the end is near.”
Jesus is interested in what happens next.
Jesus has more to say. Jesus describes not just the end, in fact his vision of the end if a footnote. The vision of the end is a footnote to the big vision, the central vision, the “Kingdom of God.” Jesus isn’t a prophet of the end of time, he is THE prophet of the Kingdom of God. He’s not the first to announce it’s coming. Our reading from Isaiah today is an early resonance. The Lion lies now with the lamb, there is no more weeping. For Jesus, the kingdom of God was characterized by radical equality, and radical hospitality. There are no outsiders in God’s kingdom.
Jesus lived in a rough time. The radical inclusion, the radical equality of Jesus’ Kingdom was not reflected in Roman-occupied-Palestine. Jesus didn’t just preach the Kingdom, he lived it. In the face of fiercely enforced social division’s and classes, Jesus’ band included women, tax-collectors, prostitutes, Samaritans. Jesus gathered his riffraff followers regularly for meals that scandalized those around him. And Jesus talked about the end of the world as it was. The end of social division. He promised that the Kingdom of God was breaking in.
He promises The Kingdom is coming. He also says The Kingdom is already here. And our rational minds go, huh?
Our timelines weren’t Jesus’ strong suit. For Jesus the kingdom was coming, it was preceded by visions of the end of the world as it is. Yet Jesus says, “The Kingdom of God is among you.” Which is partly why I don’t think it works to dismiss Jesus as an apocalyptic prophet. Jesus isn’t predicting a specific moment of end time. He isn’t prophesying that Thursday the earth will swallow us up. For Jesus, the world as it is. The world of pain, and exclusion, and injustice will end. Indeed it ends regularly.
The world ends regularly.
You all know that the world ends. St. John’s Church has navigated the end of the world together many times. Sometimes the world ends because of the death of a loved one. Sometimes it is because of a diagnosis. Sometimes it is the loss of a job, or a relationship, or a dream. The world as it has been is no more.
Often the world ends in happy ways as well. The new parents here know about that. A baby arrives, and the world as you knew it ENDS. Sometimes it is a new job, a new relationship, a new opportunity. The world as we know it ends regularly.
So yes, Jesus talks like some of his contemporaries about signs and portents. But Jesus doesn’t get fixated on them, and I think we would be mistaken to get stuck there. Where Jesus does stick is on this business of what happens next. How do we live when our world ends?
How do we live when our world ends.
Jesus is interested in what happens next.
Living in what is next, living in the Kingdom of God, takes work. Thich Nhat Hanh, is Buddhist monk who was good friends with Thomas Merton and Martin Luther King, and writes beautiful Christian theology. Thich Nhat Hanh has said, “It is not that the Kingdom of God is not present to us, it is that we are not present to the kingdom.” For the Buddhist monk and the Christian monk and even all of us everyday Christians the answer is the same: practice.
It takes practice to live in what happens next.
The practice is about prayer. It is about spending moments in quiet, being still and knowing God. It is about spending moments prayerfully recognizing God in the world around us. Listening for God’s voice in a friend’s words, or written in one of those stunning autumn sunsets we have seen lately.
The practice is also economic. Practicing for the Kingdom of God demands our attention to what we do with our time, talent, and treasure. God has an economic policy. Now in fairness, we are in our season of Stewardship here at St. John’s. We hope you will consider giving some of what you give back to your Church. But stewardship is about more than keeping the lights on here. It is practice. It is investing in “what’s next” in the Kingdom of God through the work through non-profits, and development agencies, and charities, and churches to try to help our world to live a bit more like the Kingdom.
Practicing for the Kingdom of God happens every week at St. John’s. Every week we gather, like Jesus’ followers gathered, a motley crew. One of the things that I love about St. John’s is how artfully we disagree. There are more differences of opinion in this congregation, more ways of being in the world, more different backgrounds and stories than probably in any other room this size in the city. Yet we come together here, to break bread, to remember our rabble rousing Jesus.
Each week we practice what comes next.
We practice the kingdom of God.
That we might go out from here, not to proclaim doom and destruction, but to proclaim with our lips and our lives the coming of what is next, the Good news that God loves us all.
Sometimes Jesus doesn’t make a lot of sense. In today’s Gospel reading he exhorts his followers to fast, but also tells them not to make a big deal of it. Though the Old Testament reading from Joel tells us to “Blow the Trumpet. Sanctify a fast.” Jesus says specifically, “Do not blow a trumpet.” Confusing.
I grew up thinking of Lent kind of like a Christian version of New Year’s resolutions. It was a time to start a diet, give up caffeine or chocolate, stop smoking or swearing, or doing something else unproductive. This understanding existed alongside the traditional understanding of giving up something we loved as a sacrifice to God. It saw Lent as an invitation to self-improvement. God would be our helper. Both of these images of Lent are important and beautiful. They help me to understand the places in my life that need work and to invite God into those spaces.
Lately though another image of Lent has become compelling. A few years ago Trinity Wallstreet, an Episcopal Church in New York, had a series of Lenten audio/visual meditations on their website. One in particular focused upon a staff member at the Church who had chosen to take a different route to work on his bicycle as his Lenten discipline. He saw Lent as an invitation to change perspective, to shift his daily commute to work initiated a process of examining his usual assumptions. Lent became not simply a time of abstinence, but an opportunity to look at life through a new lens, to start each day with a new route.
This is the original meaning of the word “repent.” The original word (metanoia) translates literally: “a change of mind:” a shift in perspective. Our world can become flooded with ordinariness. We can be so caught up in the ways we usually see, our everyday patterns, that we miss the strangeness, the particularity, the holiness present in our daily lives. In the midst of this, Lent becomes an opportunity to allow God to jar us out of the ruts we run in, the well worn paths we know by heart, so that we might discover newness, fresh perspective, and glimpse the divine in ways we might otherwise miss.
Barbara Brown Taylor talks about it this way. “In order to to discern the hidden figure, it is often necessary to cross your eyes or stand on your head so that all known relationships are called into question and new ones may be imagined. When earth and sky are reversed and it seems entirely plausible that lawns may grow down instead of up, then you are in a good position to glimpse the hidden figure, because you are ready to approach it on its own terms instead of your own.” (from The Preaching Life).
I’ve never been particularly good at standing on my head. I was always clumsy and awkward, and I have what a friend once described as “sturdy legs,” which draw themselves quickly toward the earth when they are raised in the air. But the times I have managed to stand on my head, the world has seemed more alive. Whether due to the blood rushing toward my head, or the disorientation of balance, being upside down is always a thrill.
What Lent asks of us, what I think Jesus is saying through his contradictoriness in the passage for today, is to practice fasting while standing on our heads. Disorientation can become reorientation, inversion can become a practice for discerning truth, for discovering the God surprisingly present to us. Out of the wisdom of thousands of years of spiritual practice, the Church invites us into a holy season that is wholly different from the ordinary. Whatever we decide to do for Lent, whatever we give up or take on, let it be for us an invitation to shift our perspective, to see things upside down. Because standing on our head we might just catch a glimpse of God.
Immigration continues to be present for me. My buddy Casey wrote a song for my other buddy Chris based around the ideas in his graduate thesis exploring immigration. I’ve been in continuing conversations about immigration lately, some of them framing immigration as the new civil rights question for our time. Could San Diego be the next Montgomery?
I don’t know, but I do know that my community continues to spiritually process immigration. As Christians we are called to cross our borders. We are called beyond the boundaries we set up by the Christ who breaks down all walls.
Tuesday night The Venerable Thich Nhat Hanh spoke to 3,500 people at the University of San Diego, my alma mater. Listening as he spoke, my first impression was, “this guy sounds a lot like Desmond Tutu.” Apparently being a powerhouse for the Spirituality of Justice and Peace comes with a tone that is lilting, soft-spoken, full of a quiet cadence, and joy. I’ve been running a great deal lately as I listen to sermons and speeches on my iPod, and have found myself at pace with the rhythm of the speakers voice. The rhythm of “Thay” (as his followers affectionately call him), begs us to slow down, to listen. Through cultivating inner peace Thich Nhat Hanh has become an effective peacemaker.
Nhat Hanh was exiled during the Vietnam war for his attempts to bring the two sides together for talks. He was nominated by Martin Luther King Jr. for the Nobel Peace Prize, and took Communion with members of the Catholic Worker Movement. His words about the Kingdom of God were among some of the most profound I’ve heard. He said: “It is not that the Kingdom of God is not available to US, it is that we are not available to the Kingdom.”
Thay’s way of practice involves mindfulness, the Buddhist practice of awareness of the present moment. One breathes in and remembers that they are present in the Now, in the present moment, then breathes out and smiles knowing that it is a perfect moment. This Buddhist monk reminds us of Jesus’ teaching that the Kingdom of God is already at hand, we simply have to practice living into it. Rooting ourselves in prayer we can open ourselves, seeing the Kingdom of God around us. That sight allows us to see the places where God is working to make the kingdom more present, and to join in that work. Whether in our neighbor who lacks food or housing, or in a system which denies rights to human beings, we can be reminded that we dwell in the reign of God now, we are citizens of the Kingdom, by our practice of prayer.
As I listened to this great teacher, I was mindful of the tiredness I felt. I’ve been helping the Social Issues Committee at USD to prepare for this talk for over a year, and spent 14 hours helping out that day. I had just finished “Welcome Week” at UCSD and had worked several days from waking until just before bed. I had been very busy, but had not spent time to be prayerfully, mindfully, present. I had let my daily practice of reading scripture and spending a quiet moment in meditative prayer slip. More than the amount of activity I think this lack of a daily time of centering had contributed to my exhaustion.
When asked how he found time for a daily hour of prayer during the war in El Salvador, Archbishop Romero replied that on the more difficult and busy days, he needed two hours for prayer. Archbishop Desmond Tutu began his formation with a group of Anglican monks in South Africa and has stayed rooted in a practice of prayer which includes several hours a day. To practice peace, we must find the peace of God, the kingdom of God, available to us NOW, discoverable when our sight is rooted in mindful prayer.