Monday, April 16, 2007

A Time to Pray

From Bishop Marc:

The devastating news coming out of Virginia Tech, Blacksburg, Virginia, in the Diocese of Southwestern Virginia, affects us all, and the whole body of our Church is suffering as this academic community suffers. I must speak personally, as both Sheila and I are graduates of Virginia Tech. I came into the Episcopal Church through the Episcopal College ministry there. As I think about the interconnected community of students, faculty, and staff in that rural, beautiful part of Virginia, such a senseless act is all the more poignant and indeed confusing.

I ask the people of this Diocese, people of such deep prayer, who keep in their hearts the concerns of communities and peoples throughout the world, to hold with those ongoing prayers particular concerns for this suffering community in Blacksburg. The parish serving the town and university is
Christ Church, Blacksburg.

Everliving God, the foundation of peace and the comfort of all who mourn and encounter suffering and pain beyond understanding, grant your people grace, that, among the swift and varied changes of the world, our hearts may surely there be fixed where true joys are to be found; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Update: Bishop Marc has posted a further reflection at his blog.

He's Coming

The Archbishop of Canterbury, in a news conference in Canada, has just announced he intends to accept the invitation of the House of Bishops to visit with them in September -- and bring members of the Primates' Steering Committee with him.

The Archbishop of Canterbury has been roundly criticized by all sides, but part of me continues to wonder if he isn't working out a much longer-term strategy that hopes to outlast some of the more belligerent voices that have proven so painfully divisive. That's as far as dare to go with speculation, expect only to say that Rowan Williams is -- for sure -- much smarter than I am. (Which is why he's the Archbishop of Canterbury and I am not!) :)

It seems good news to me that he has agreed to engage in an opportunity for deepening relationship, avoiding the pitfalls that have dominated Anglican discourse recently: of blatant objectification of our sisters and brothers in Christ and lobbing thinly veiled theological and ecclesiological threats at each other over oceans.

Good for Rowan Williams, I say, and I say again good for our House of Bishops, but with one major caveat -- one I add to this post much too late. That is, Rowan Williams will apparently be meeting with our bishops, but not our Executive Council, nor any of our LGBT advocates, except perhaps +Gene Robinson. In this way, more subtle objectification continues -- not only of those in our church most directly affected by the Primates' recommendations, but of our laity as well. It's another sign that Rowan Williams (and many of the Primates for that matter), at best, comes out of a very different ecclesiastical culture than ours. At worst, it only perpetuates the darkest side of this whole mess: the continued disenfranchisement of devoted members of this church.

And perhaps, as Fr. Jake suggests, the Archbishop of Canterbury is only coming under duress. That indeed shifts the "glass-half-full" view of his visit to "glass-half-empty." Jake tends to be more generally suspicious than I, but then he's got much more experience, too.

Meanwhile, Mark Harris alludes to Ezekiel with the question "Can these Bones Live?" in a thoughtful and insightful (no surprise there!) analysis of where things stand with the Instruments of Unity and the Anglican Communion.

I can only reiterate that I agree wholeheartedly with his central point: real Communion is found in mutual, on-the-ground, incarnational relationship, not in Primates' Communiques, ultimatums, or (arch)bishops rattling their respective ecclesiastical swords.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

What Kind of Faith will We Have?

Sermon delivered at Church of Our Saviour,

Mill Valley, California
on the Second Sunday of Easter

April 15th, 2007

Readings for The Second Sunday of Easter

audio available

Every Second Sunday of Easter, we hear once again this passage from the Gospel According to John: a passage known for the second and third appearances of the Risen Christ to the Jesus’ followers – the first, in case you've been counting, was to Mary Magdalene in the garden outside the tomb. A passage known for a strange manner of Christ’s appearing – of Jesus somehow and mysteriously being no longer blocked by shut and locked doors. Of a risen body as strange as inspiring – of marks in the flesh that hold evidence of the crucifixion, and yet somehow different from the flesh and blood we know.

For us living in the West in the twenty-first century, this story about the Risen Christ is as strange as it is tantalizing. Our understanding of the human person, of biology, anthropology and even cosmology are so radically different from that of the apostles and the author of John that the Resurrection narratives of Scripture can risk getting lost to us in a sea of cultural translation.

One of the great counterpoints for me this past Holy Week and Easter is in the midst of the great Christian mystery of salvation, the heart of our faith, I’ve been reading Brian Greene’s The Fabric of the Cosmos, a pre-eminent and popularizing physicist’s follow-up to The Elegant Universe, which was a Pulitzer Prize Finalist. Through Brian Greene's words, I have been reading about the great scientific minds of the Enlightenment up to and through the twentieth century – from Isaac Newton to Albert Einstein to the foundation of quantum mechanics, the discovery of a runaway expansion in the universe, to the likes of Heisenberg and particle accelerators, quarks, strings, and inflationary Big Bang theories. Greene’s enthusiasm leaps off page after page as he makes some of the most arcane and highly technical aspects of his vocation accessible, yet intellectually stimulating, to the average reader. But, of course, he makes little or absolutely no reference to God or Christ – probably for a number of very sensible reasons.

And so while reading this I was, of course, turning regularly to the familiar (to us Christians) central stories written and experienced at a time when God was believed to dwell beyond the dome of the sky, the earth was thought by many flat and bounded by the sea, and spirits good and evil dwelt if not in every corner then at least in the wilderness, near at hand.

And then, as part of my vocation as priest and my faith as Christian I was called to proclaim Christ both publicly and privately as “Savior,” “Risen” and “Son of God.” Like a love sonnet that seems to be playing a different tune dissonant with that of our scientific world – a language and a worldview that attempts to define all things with clarity of formula or probability more than with placing faith in mystery.

It’s a conundrum I’ve held off until Easter, quite frankly. Maybe, to be honest, because I was holding out hope that Easter this year – unlike previous years – would reveal something startling and utterly profound that would solve the tension we all hold to a greater or lesser degree inside: a tension between the “seeing is believing. . .and even then. . .” of our contemporary society, and a faith rooted in a thoroughgoing notion of God’s omnipresence and transcendence – where nothing matters outside of God’s gracious will – the faith of so many of our ancestors. In all honesty I stand before you on the second Sunday of Easter a bit disappointed. No great insights. I haven’t been struck by lightning.

Well. . .at least not yet.

Faith in our time can be a confusing matrix of conflicting opinion and world views. It is tempting on one side to engage in blind belief – to shut off our contemporary mindsets at the entrance to the Church or before we crack open the Bible or before we pray – something we often catch ourselves frowning on when we hear it articulated in various ways by some of our sisters and brothers. It is tempting on the other side to engage in a thoroughgoing skepticism that can range into agnosticism, where we risk believing next to nothing and potentially leading a life of confused, individualistic indifference. Some have accused the West of such an impoverished spirituality – if it can be called that – and it is hard to counter them. Surely don’t want a faith devoid of intellectual rigor nor so lukewarm that it has no meaning or power in our lives.

But thankfully, we have today’s Gospel. I say thankfully because it does not necessarily demand belief or certitude about any particular kind of cosmology or adopting any particular cultural viewpoint in any thoroughgoing way. It does not demand Christ having a particular kind of resurrected biological body that we could discover by parsing the language of the text itself, let alone imagining scientists taking measurements or Jesus recounting what precisely happened at 12:01 a.m. on Easter Morning. The appearance in John's Gospel narrative only hints at something unusual, transcendent, and divine, and leaves it there. With hints. With mystery. The nature, in the precise language of today's science, of Christ’s body is not the heart of the passage.

The Risen Christ comes to his followers not with some kind of description of Resurrection or expectations around a mathematically justifiable principle to define himself. He doesn’t even demand belief in particulars about his body but instead simply utters, “Peace be with you.” Shalom.

The disciples like us had their own internal conflicts between worldviews and what would happen next for them regarding their faith. More pressing was what to do about the religious authorities who might be out to get them, too. For the community in which John’s Gospel was written, the conflict was about how to move forward with being faithful when the Christian community had become anti-societal in a broader Jewish context – when their Jewish roots were being cut off from both within and without. Where their identity was in crisis.

In some ways, so is ours. We are like them.

And Jesus says, “Peace be with you.” He breathes on his followers and commends them to the ministry of reconciliation.

It is Thomas who is most recognizable to us living in the skeptical age that we do. . .an age that demands evidence. But he is not offered the evidence of the Risen Christ until he is with the others in community again. And Thomas, when he proclaims, “My Lord and my God!” upon seeing the Risen flesh of Christ, is only gently chided by Jesus, who reminds him that the greatest blessing falls upon us who believe but have not seen with our own eyes – at least not in the narrow way Thomas had.

Which, quite frankly, is most frustrating for us in a post-Christian culture, where proof is often demanded and cynicism abounds. Our faith is too much like Thomas’ at times. We want God, Christ, and Resurrection on our own terms – perhaps even mathematically and scientifically bounded so we can be certain.

But God knows us better than that. Thomas might have been convinced for a while at seeing and touching the wounds of Christ, but would that have put an end to the questions later on? And what kind of witness could he offer when presented with a simple assertion that perhaps he was delusional, as we, even as Christians, would probably regard most people who talk about meeting the dead, or touching resurrected bodies? Thomas demanded evidence, but the Risen Christ was not so interested in evidence as Thomas or we might be.

My brothers and sisters in Christ, we are not free to live into the joy of the Resurrection until we begin to see beyond our narrow intellectual constructs of what is true and what isn’t. We will not grasp the full joy of Resurrection, until we begin to understand faith not as offering blind assent, but living deeply into relationship. Until we begin to understand belief as more than provable hypotheses or defended theory. Until we begin to understand belief instead as following in a Way where conquering death and fear involves entering the conflicted parts of our lives and communities and reclaiming the Risen Christ’s simple words to his followers: “Peace be with you.” Shalom.

I have yet to have the pleasure of meeting or hearing Brian Greene in person – I hope some day that I might – but based on what I've read of him, I would venture that even he would argue that he works on truth of a particular kind – rooted in mathematics, empirical evidence, hypothesis, and the generation and testing of evolving theory. We Christians wrestle with truth of a different kind.

The Risen Christ leaves Thomas’ concerns somehow honored and intact. The Risen Christ of Easter leaves us to wrestle with the intellectual, mathematical, and physical mysteries of the universe and God’s relationship with, through, and beyond it. Christ endows good minds and particle accelerators to plumb the questions of Einstein, Newton, Galileo and great contemporary minds like Brian Greene. He leaves the exacting questions of deep-thinking theologians to the theologians.

The Risen Christ, it seems to me, does not expect intellectual comprehension to precede relationship.

Which makes sense, actually. How many of us understand our best friends, our children, our spouses, or even ourselves in any thorough-going intellectual sense?

Why then do we expect ourselves to somehow understand God in the Risen Christ any better?

The message and mystery of Resurrection is much more simple, and much more profound than intellectually rigorous. Which is probably as it should be. Resurrection was not meant for only the intellectually adept and curious (although it belongs to them, too, of course), but was meant too for little children, the aged, the infirm, the uneducated, the powerless, the poor, and people of all walks of life both far and near. It was meant for the scientist as well as the banker. For the librarian as well as the farmer. It was intended for those who say “seeing is believing” like Thomas, for the inspired women first at the tomb like Mary Magdalene, and the bold and sometimes foolish folk who sometimes barely recognize the difference between faith and doubt, let alone stop to ponder it – like Peter.

It was intended for the likes of you and me who spend much of our lives like much of our culture: skeptical, uncertain, bathed in information and opinion, and sometimes living on the borders of existential despair. And yet at other times, of course, joyous, filled with Spirit, hungry to give and receive love, and brimming with hope.

The Risen Christ comes among us in all of our complex humanity, breathing on us the blessing of Spirit and gently uttering peace – shalom – to fear-weary souls. We are, put most simply, freed by the Resurrection. Freed from the power of fear. And freed from the power of death in all its forms. Free to forgive. Free to heal – ourselves and others. Free to embrace relationships that bring transformation. Relationships with mysterious people and a mysterious God who defies our intellectual constructs and world views and demands only that we embrace and offer to others the grace and love of life we have received in whatever way we are best gifted. And to do so no longer in isolation, but in the rough and tumble of community.

And free to love with a clarity and a sense of renewed purpose: the fruits of Resurrection that motivated first apostles broke out into the streets and towns proclaiming the Good News of the Risen Christ to everyone who would listen.

Friday, April 13, 2007

Fr. John: Threats Real and Imagined

My friend and colleage, John Kirkley of meditatio, has just posted a pithy summation of the real spiritual challenges presently in front of our Church -- and the forces presently arrayed to distract us all from them. Here's an excerpt:
Seriously though, I think there are any number of real threats to Christianity and creation that cry out for our attention. Global warming and climate change is probably number one on the list. While some on the right wing of the Church decry our commitment to the U.N. Millennium Development Goals, what they fail to realize is that this commitment comes from a recognition of the real threats to Christianity, Christian institutions, and, more importantly, the human project on this planet: the poverty, disease, and oppression that destroy the people of God and the earth that sustains us.

If Christ is the Savior of the world, then his Body, the Church, should be committed to Christ's project of saving (healing) that world, no?

Sebastian Moore has identified what I take to be the real threat we face, that which undergirds the maintenance of all the other death-dealing forces arrayed before us: the loss of hope and of community. "The world to which the Christian story no longer speaks," writes Moore, "is a world in which individualism has deadened the nerve of a common hope that has been unforgettably quickened, traumatized, and re-enlivened with the joy of God." (Jesus the Liberator of Desire, p. x)

The is surely true in the West, where our growing consumerism, social mobility and consequent isolation, our very "success" has reduced our world to what we can make, sell, buy, and control. It is a small world indeed, without connection, without mystery, and without hope. Community, and particularly the memory it carries, is the source of hope. The Church, if it is to be about the work of saving, healing, must create communities capable of memory and therefore of hope: the memory of the Forgiving Victim who sets us free from our isolation and fear and obsession to be for others in healing community.
Well worth reading the whole thing. Perspective at this stage is terribly important.

Sunday, April 08, 2007

God Out of the Box

Sermon delivered on Easter Sunday
April 8th, 2007
at Church of Our Saviour, Mill Valley, California

Hiroko, Daniel, and I decided to go to Stinson Beach a few weeks ago to get away from it all. It was Hiroko suggested that we try flying our kites – something we hadn’t done literally in years, and certainly not since Daniel had been born. So I grumped around the apartment trying to find them. Hiroko, of course, knew where they were and pointed me in the right direction, and we headed to the beach on a partly cloudy day. There was no wind. But we had fun, anyway, impersonating Charlie Brown running with his kite, and Daniel dug in deep to the sand near the ocean’s edge while the sandpipers ran back and forth in the surf. It was a great scene, rollicking at the water’s edge with kites that would not fly, laughing out loud while our three-and-a-half year old began to cover himself in the wet sand.

Kites are the first image I’d like to use today for the Resurrection. Because we began with a problem and ended with a mystery. If you’ve ever had a kite, you’ve had to deal with tangled kite string. And unwrapping an old box kite I’ve had since before my high school days was a proof in point. Kites never quite pack properly, you see. They seem destined somehow to fly – to leave the box, even an inanimate as they are. A spar pokes out here. The kite string leaves the spool and turns into a knotted mess over there. After having searched so hard for the kites, I’d thought I’d be irritated untangling kite string. But on the beach with the smell of sea salt and the sand beneath our feet – well, many things become possible!

Here’s another image for Resurrection – yes it’s the butterfly on the cover of our Easter Worship bulletins today. Take a look. Frankly, up until now, I found the butterfly not so helpful as an image to describe the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. We can biologically study the development of the butterfly from egg to caterpillar to pupa to its colorful stage with gossamer wings. We can explain the processes that govern a creature that really never dies but, of course, changes radically. But what captured Resurrection for me as I reflected on the butterfly this Easter was the newly-winged insect emerging from the pupa. If you’ve ever seen it happen on video, you know what I mean. The butterfly just doesn’t fit into the chrysalis anymore. It must break free. And as its wings first fill with the fluids of life, it is clear it can’t fit anymore into the old way of being. Somehow, that says something about Resurrection – the Risen Christ cannot fit anymore into the old way of being.

Back at home, Resurrection is about Daniel trying, in his three-year-old way trying to dress himself. With arms sticking out in all directions – elbows, fingers, fore-arms, knotted wrists – trying to poke his head through the right part of the shirt. Funny, the shirt should fit him, but he can find many ways not to fit into it. That’s life in the Resurrection.

What is God up to?

Each year, we gather on Easter Sunday to celebrate something that doesn’t quite fit, and yet it does. Something has happened that we can’t quite explain, and yet we celebrate it anyway. Something we can’t quite explain but we see signs of everywhere we look. It’s in the spring air, the flowers, the new leaves. It’s in the ocean side and on the beach and the mountaintop. It’s in the farthest flung heavens where stars are being born. It’s in our lives and the lives of those we love even when we thought we knew them and they surprised us. Even when we thought we knew our own limitations and something happens and we discover something new about ourselves.

It’s in this community. This strange community called the Church. A community that fits, but not quite, into the surrounding culture. Every Church that has fully become a product of its culture has always disappeared. But the Church across the ages that knows Resurrection is like the kite that won’t quite fold, the three-year-old who won’t fit into the fashionable shirt, or the butterfly that no longer fits in its chrysalis.

We are an Easter people. Would it not have been more real to come on Good Friday than today? Crucifixion, after all, makes more sense if you think about it, than Resurrection. Executions have happened throughout history. We know death, suffering and their powerful hold on humanity. We don’t need to gather as a community and break bread and share the common cup to “get” death.

No, we gather, because we are an Easter people. Which means we are a people reborn of hope. Which means we recognize what the world calls normal and then add something too strange and wonderful for words to adequately describe. We are the people who shout “life” when the world declares, “death.” We are the people who say “arise” when the world says, “lay down.” We are the people who recognize something now deeply woven into the fabric of life that is connected profoundly with a God. . . a God who does not quite fit into boxes, whether they are intellectual constructs, ancient human traditions, or tombs hewn out of stone.

Our God in Jesus Christ is a God of surprises, even when it comes to death. Today we remember that death has been re-forged and snatched out of the hands of evil. It is no longer an end for humanity, but a new beginning. Today we celebrate all who have come before us – those who have died but yet are alive somehow, in ways we cannot explain, in all who count themselves in God’s children, beyond time, greater than our moment-to-moment existence can even imagine.

Today, we see the empty tomb, revealed to Jesus’ followers and at first perplexing them. They have fallen into an unexpected mystery that again fits their Teacher’s Way. Remember this Jesus? The one who was always turning the world order upside down? Who said the first are last and the last are first? Who had the power to heal and lead, and might have spawned a violent revolution, and yet instead heals and proclaims God’s love for the forgotten and dons a towel and washes his followers' feet?

So why not take on death, too, and turn it upside down? Death becomes not the end but a new beginning. It is a gateway into life that is so incredibly new, it is almost unrecognizable. The women who had followed Jesus find an empty tomb and are perplexed. Even when the angels describe to them what has happened, they can scarcely understand. There is no resuscitated corpse or reanimated body. There is no parlor or magician’s trick whereby Jesus somehow managed to survive crucifixion. This is the mystery of New Life. New Hope. And it will not fit into the tomb. It won’t even fit into our greatest and best hopes. It is God’s New Word for a people hungry for something they cannot describe. It is the transformation that the world searches for. It sets the captives free and brings Good News to the poor and the destitute. It turns hearts of stone into living hearts again. It breathes new life into what was utterly dead. And, in some way, it is the light behind the sunlight, the power that rests at the foundation of the cosmos, the renewal that marks rebirth. It makes common things like bread and wine holy. It silences the powerful and gives voice to the voiceless. It demands everything that we are and then makes it new again.

Look again this Eastertide – all fifty days of it – for the miracles, both great and small, that smell, taste, and feel like the fragrant new Body of Christ. You may not recognize them at first. They might appear in your garden, in your neighbor, in a loved one, or in your own heart. They will appear in this community in unexpected ways. They will surprise us, just as the Resurrection surprised Mary Magdalene, Peter, and the first apostles. They will startle us, just when we thought we understood how everything worked. And they will make us anew.

Our God does not live in boxes, whether made by humanity or death itself. Our God is out of the box. So watch out. Be ready for anything. And find your joy, life, and love renewed.

Alleluia! Christ is Risen!

Friday, April 06, 2007

Why the Cross?

Sermon delivered on Good Friday
April 6th, 2007
at Church of Our Saviour, Mill Valley, California

Readings for Good Friday

There was a big flap in the Anglican blogosphere this week. Of course, lately, we’ve gotten good at those. The Sunday Telegraph in England had a good go at stirring the pot just in time for Holy Week with a headline that read Easter Message: Christ did not die for sin. In the article, Jeffrey John, Dean of St. Alban’s Cathedral, was referred to as a “controversial cleric,” as he was the center of a debate a few years ago when he was almost made bishop in the Church of England, but was turned aside by the Archbishop of Canterbury in the midst of a media frenzy and a dreadful row. . . because Jeffrey John is gay.

So now he’s a media favorite, and was paraphrased by the Telegraph as saying that “Clergy who preach this Easter that Christ was sent to earth to die in atonement for the sins of mankind are ‘making God sound like a psychopath. . .In other words, Jesus took the rap and we got forgiven as long as we said we believed in him. . .This is repulsive as well as nonsensical.’”

Not leaving any stone unturned, the Telegraph then interviewed N. T. Wright, Bishop of Durham, world-renowned evangelical and New Testament scholar, who was quoted as saying, "He is denying the way in which we understand Christ's sacrifice. It is right to stress that he is a God of love but he is ignoring that this means he must also be angry at everything that distorts human life.” And unnamed “Church figures” we’re quoted as saying that Jeffrey John’s words were a “deliberate perversion of the Bible.”

What a great way to sell a newspaper. Clerics shouting at each other. Accusations of perversion. Positing the counterpoint of a God of Love and a God of Anger. Stepping into the rifts of contemporary Christianity and tickling both sides to make a scene.

Turns out Jeffrey John was being quoted out of context in a very profound way. His full address didn’t appear publicly until after the Telegraph’s article. N. T. Wright might have been quoted out of context, too. But, hey, this is the stuff that gets the dander up of Christian theologians. And it’s the stuff that gets the reading public to take a second look. Because we all love a good controversy. We all love great spectacle. Even if it's an itinerate healer, preacher, teacher, and prophet strung up on a cross.

Even after 2,000 years, Christians are still duking it out over the cross, trying to make sense of the violent sequence of events that led to Jesus’ execution at the hands of Empire and religious authorities. . .and why this had to happen. Why Jesus had to suffer a gruesome and excruciating death when he was, tradition holds, otherwise innocent. The question goes much deeper than this, of course. There are questions of sacrifice and satisfaction, deeply tangled up in the cultures of ancient Judaism, first century Palestine, the late Roman Empire, the feudal society of Northern Europe, and the mystics of the Middle Ages. And more recently in our own society, nineteenth- and twentieth-century church phenomenon like the rise of contemporary evangelicals, fundamentalism, Anglo-Catholicism, and so forth.

Look, the cross and theories about atonement are favorite subjects for church historians and theologians. Worthy of spilling a great deal of ink over and vast resource expenditures researching and compiling and ruminating.

But there is one thing we are apt to forget as we argue over the why’s and wherefore’s of Jesus’ crucifixion. As much as we Episcopalians and Anglicans pride ourselves in pursuing faith without sacrificing our minds, we mustn’t forget that when God in Christ dies on the cross, all intellect dies, too. On the cross, all of humanity – heart, soul, body, and mind – are lost to Jesus. Just as they are lost to all of us in death.

At the end of the day, the apostles were so frightened that most were scattered. The crowds were stirred to shout, almost blindly, “Crucify him!” rather than to sit and carefully weigh – in good Anglican fashion – the merits of Jesus’ teaching. Pilate was only interested in preserving the peace of Jerusalem as best he could, a consummate politician and brutal Roman Governor who would take lives if he had to in order to keep the tributes to Rome flowing. The Sanhedrin, made up of wealthy family interests and classes beholden to the Roman authorities, had their own affairs to look after. Jesus had pushed the plight of the ordinary people in their faces and was fomenting what looked alarmingly like a revolution with his entry into Jerusalem and his pushing the money-changers and merchants out of the Temple a few days before. One man’s life was weighed in the scales of social order. Guess which side won.

No one on the day of the crucifixion sat down to wonder long if God would be satisfied by Jesus’ death, or if Satan would be, for that matter. Or if the sins of the whole world for all time could be supported by iron nails and wooden beams. Nor did anyone sit down that day to write a book about why indeed bad things happen to good people. Our intellects ask these questions, of course, but our intellects are ephemeral – gone like the wind as Jesus’ mind was when he breathed his last and darkness covered the land.

The cross simply is. Like our suffering much of the time. Like the suffering of the world. It is in the moment. Hard as the cross, sharp as nails. Propped up in a sky with a harshness that wrecks all our best thought and deepest hopes.

I am reminded of a few years ago when two wonderful parents in the church I was serving lost their four-year-old son to an unknown illness. Little Issey (ee-say) was struck down in a matter of days by fever, and then coma. All the best 21st-century medicine and technology could not save him. He had been a joyous child, innocent in so many ways, effused with the energy of new life. He did not deserve death. Nor did his family.

Children in the West in this day and age aren’t supposed to die so suddenly and tragically. Many of us would argue that children anywhere aren't supposed to die so suddenly and tragically in this day and age. Nor are first-century healers and teachers who bring hope to the poor and love to the loveless.

I can only reflect this Good Friday on the plaintive word of Issey’s mother as she sobbed next to his body.

“Dooshite?” she asked through the tears. . . Japanese for “Why?”

There was, of course, no good answer, except to grieve with her and her family, and the community that rallied around them.

The cross remains a hideous thing. Hideous even though we’ve tried turning it golden, by wearing it as jewelry and painting it onto Bibles and Prayer Books and raising it up as statue and sculpture. We have painted it, drawn it, reflected on it, named holy orders after it, raised it up as a sign of hope. Some have gone to war using it as a talisman. Others have waged peace holding the cross up high. We have made it a symbol of mercy, of redemption, of liberation. It has been the tool, weapon, and wonder for us and our spiritual ancestors across a hundred generations. Strange we are as a Christian people.

But the cross remains a hideous thing. And holy. Because it reminds us of the death in our own lives and stands on Golgotha like a beacon of terror. It is the doorway we must all pass sooner or later. It is the weight we must all carry with our own sufferings, each unique, but each common with the sufferings of all humanity. We hunger and thirst for answers to our own special crosses – those unique weights we haul around even if we pretend not to. We want to know why. Of course we do. What could be more human? And there are some who claim to have answers.

But answers to senseless things are never fully satisfactory, even if we give them titles like “Penal Substitutionary Atonement,” “Christus Victor,” or even the aptly named “Satisfaction Theory.”

The reason the crucifixion speaks to us has little to do with theory, but everything to do with reality. It is C. S. Lewis who remarked in one of his books that pain and suffering are probably among the most real elements of our lives. All of us who at one time or another have experienced pain, death, and suffering know this to be true. Even when our minds are in denial, our hearts, our guts, and even our very bones and flesh know the truths of pain, death, and suffering.

It was real that Jesus died for the simple reason that good people who challenge the evils of their day often die. It was real that love is often crucified by our anxieties, lust for power, and hunger to be in control. It remains real that God in Christ Jesus speaks to us most often when we are out of intellectual answers, facing death of one kind or another, and bereft of the Spirit.

That is the Good News of Good Friday, no matter what we theorize about Jesus and the sins of the world. And who’s right, be it the Bishop of Durham, the Dean of St. Alban’s, or a young upstart like me? Perhaps those of us who wear the fancy clothes and write with fancy prose should listen more to the mothers of lost children. Perhaps we should dispense with the sometimes arrogant desire to explain everything and embrace the crosses of our lives and the lives of others as Jesus did: with humility, grace, and love. Perhaps it is time to stop pursuing our desire to be God, and let God pursue us, even into our darkest hours, where hope seems dead and love is crucified.

And only then, do we have a shot at true understanding. Understanding that will not require explanation. But understanding that will emerge from the very heart of life and death itself, from the foundations of being, from that which stands as alpha and omega, from the One who is our beginning and end and who holds our lives so lovingly, so tenderly, so absolutely, that our cross may not mark an end, but a new beginning.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

When Grace Dons a Towel

Originally offered at Christ Church -- Sei Ko Kai , San Francisco, on Maundy Thursday, 2006.

“Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself.” John 13:3-4

Tonight we gather as the early church gathered to pray and to eat around a common table – a central experience for the earliest of Christians. In John’s Gospel, the very essence of Christ is revealed in this way: around the table, around the broken bread and shared wine; in a place where food is offered to each other and fellowship remains unbroken even in the face of impending betrayal, crucifixion, and death.

Jesus, perhaps even more so than in the other Gospels, knows so much in John. The Gospel this evening reminds us of our earliest traditions around Jesus’ divinity, of ultimate destiny and the ultimate command of Christ. . .what we used to call in seminary a “high Christology,” or a powerful revelation of the heart of God in Jesus. Jesus, as the living manifestation of God’s grace, is all but a super being, perhaps almost super human.

Yet he takes divine power and sets it aside, and dons a towel. Getting on his hands and knees, he embraces humility, shocking even his disciples.

This Holy Week, as I have reflected on all the ramifications of power in the recent news, from the dueling agendas in our government as our sisters and brothers suffer in Iraq, to talk of nuclear proliferation and war with Iran, to our own debates and controversies over bishops, power, and human sexuality in the Anglican Communion, I have wondered at this image: when grace dons a towel.

When Jesus has power, he dons a towel. Grace dons a towel.

When Jesus is confronted with betrayal by one of his closest friends, we should expect him to act like any honorable teacher or any good doctrinal jurisdiction: throw Judas out of the group and make an example of him. Cut him off and publicly humiliate him to remind him of his place and his abject sinfulness.

Yet, grace dons a towel.

In our own lives we are, each day, confronted with moments to wield power and moments of betrayal. At work, with our children, with our friends, spouse, and significant others, and even with the family dog. Our example to follow in all these cases?

Grace dons a towel.

The early church, including the community in which John’s Gospel was written, struggled with identity in a world filled with power and betrayal. Converts to Christianity could be hostile spies sent to infiltrate the tiny religious tradition to inform suspicious officials. The Emperor of the Roman Empire could be a pillar of ambivalent tolerance or a hideous persecutor of the faith. Wielding power was everywhere. Betrayal was a constant threat.

Yet their response was to gather as we do tonight around a table. They would set aside office and rank, privilege and lordship over each other, and look for a few moments – slave or free, Gentile or Jew, male or female – into each other’s faces and share a meal.

This is the grace Jesus points to when he dons a towel and kneels down to wash the feet of his disciples. When he calls them to wash each other’s feet: to humble themselves before each other and set aside all the trappings of the power the world so often wields. . .and abuses. . .to love with almost unfettered equanimity and to serve each other and those in need with a fervor overcoming the set social orders of their daily lives.

This is at the heart of our Eucharistic tradition. It is the dissolution of all the terrible betrayals and abuses of power that blight our lives. And as the illusions of our worldly ways disappear, we are left with one thing commanding our hearts: Christ. . .

Christ who eats with us, dons a towel, bends down, and washes our feet.

Sunday, April 01, 2007

Palm Sunday - A Reflection

Readings for The Sunday of the Passion: Palm Sunday

audio available

There is always a struggle in how best to describe Palm/Passion Sunday, both in writing and in conversation. Which is it? Palm or Passion? Or is it neither – something else, entirely perhaps?

To say that it is both -- more than the usual tongue-in-cheek tendency for Anglicans/ Episcopalians and our “both-and” heritage – to say that it is both is to fold our arms around the painful truths of life itself. Truths that we all know when we are most honest about who we are as people on pilgrimage in a broken world. Truths that steal the thunder out of any homily, sermon, or even this written reflection for Palm/Passion Sunday:

Our lives are a constant collision between joyous victory with all of its giddy hope and the crushing terror of the cross – the great disappointments, if not the death and destruction that often haunt us.

Christianity turns on this axis of the opposing worlds of Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem and the brutality of shameful execution. As Christians, we are a peculiar lot because of this: prone to probe the very depths of despair and talk about hope at the same time. Daring to look directly into the face of suffering with an unflinching gaze as we behold our God nailed to a tree, the One most intimately a part of us and all Creation slain by all that hungers for power over our lives and the life of the greater world. And yet daring to hope for a purpose in that which seems senseless.

The cross has forever been, in the Christian life at least, a point of terrible intersection between what is human, broken, and fragile and what is divine, perfect, and stronger than the fabric of space and time itself. It is also a point of intersection between the awful powers of domination and the freedom of God’s promises. It is the point where our deepest hatreds and fears are met by the gaze of One who forgives even in the hour of deepest suffering. It is the point where all our hopes and dreams are shattered by rough splinters and hideous nails. Where the deepest pains of our lives, individual and corporate, intersect with a love that reaches beyond time.

We are almost a Palm/Passion Sunday people in the end. Almost, because, of course, this day – nor Good Friday – marks the end of our story. Or rather, they mark the end of a particular story: the story of darkness where the rulers of all that is evil and all that clutches meanly at us – all that is spiteful, petty, and without compassion have their way. Where we are broken with God in Christ by all that is hideous and inhuman. All those dark places in our own hearts enthrall us for a moment, just as they did the crowds in Jerusalem and the leaders, too, from Pilate’s complacent arrogance to religious authorities clinging ruthlessly to domination: that one idol that spans the millennia and has too many other awful names to mention here.

Your cross, my cross, and our shared cross, come to Golgotha with Jesus’ cross. And as we say in our baptism, we are somehow hoisted with him, too, left out to hang in cold and callous ways by evil.

My failings and selfishness, just like yours and all that we share together is in the crowds demanding the blood of the innocent, thirsty for a spectacle that might assuage us of that gnawing sense that something is wrong. . . or, heaven forbid, that we might be wrong.

My coldness, your coldness, and ours together is Pilate washing his hands of the matter, callously handing over an innocent to be brutally murdered in the name of order, our peace of mind, and our sense of control.

And I weep, and you weep, as did Mary and all Jesus’ beloved who remained to the end – hearts broken by a God who fails in the worst way. A God who suddenly appears no longer omnipotent, but frail – perhaps even fickle – while the powers of darkness rage, the sun is covered, the earth shakes, and death visits.

And we are in awe, like the centurion, looking into a story that is marked by tragedy and faith, terror and majesty, pathos and compassion.

We are today the people of Palm/Passion Sunday, and it is with this great collision that we begin Holy Week. We are meant to be broken open by this day. We are meant to gaze into the darkest places of our being and open the doors of our lives so all that is wicked is met. And, like Jesus, to throw ourselves entirely into the hands of a God who seems strangely absent and almost negligent – One who has forsaken us.

Stay there for as long as you can. Let this week re-make you. Let it remind you of all that you have suffered and all that you have borne with tears in this ephemeral thing we call life. And be naked – spiritually at least – as Jesus was before the world and before God.

There will be no conquering fear until we know it as intimately as we know our hopes. There will be no conquering evil until we understand its cold, cruel, and calculating madness. There will be no overcoming hatred until we have seen its power in our lives and communities with open eyes and rendered hearts.

And there will be no end to death until at last we have followed Jesus into it, with our own cross and all that struggles within us. To find rest in the void and let go of every last shred of ego, and let go completely of being itself until at last all that is left is God.

And what comes next is God’s, and God’s alone.