Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Redeeming Sabbath

Sermon delivered at Church of Our Saviour,

Mill Valley, California
on the Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost

August 26th, 2007

Readings for Proper 16

It used to be said that if one sat in a café in Paris long enough, the entire world would walk by. Having never been in Paris, myself, I couldn’t say. But sitting yesterday for a bit over an hour at Peet’s even here in Mill Valley, I could almost translate the saying to our town. The incredible parade of people in and out – shoppers, walkers, the studious, the workers, the conversers, the readers. Meanwhile, a steady stream of vehicles rolled past, busy as any street in San Francisco.

Conversation around me ranged from, “So what wireless service do you use? (None of your business. . .)” to hedge funds, shopping lists, work, the vagaries of the stock market. Every other passerby had a cell phone stuck to his or her ear. Even a walk on a beautiful late summer afternoon might be wasted time if there was a friend, loved one, or coworker to speak with.

It was, quite frankly, astonishing even for me, who is a frenetic and sometimes obsessive worker, to sit still in the middle of all the activity. And on a Saturday, no less. During the normal work week, much of this business is exported to the city nearby or wherever many of us work. . . while our children and grandchildren are kept on the move at school, preschool, or by beleaguered parents who stay and keep the household up and running.

We are the always on culture. Except when we’re off. And we practically never are. We are all together, busier than a hive of bees, convinced of our own need to be more productive and more efficient with the short time we have been given. We are possessed by a sea of choices, goods, services, the clamor of news, music, television, internet. Between a river of resources we consume as a matter of course and a tenuous Creation straining under the load, we are made blind to the simplicity that so many of our ancestors took for granted.

Just speaking this tempts me to stand up and shout, “Stop!” for a moment. Have we forgotten the healing effects of a sound of the wind in the trees, the smell of a fresh air, the passing warmth of a fleeting summer, or the moisture of the fog on our faces? Have we lost as a collective community the ability to be utterly silent, wordless both in lips and minds, before our God?

So at a time when well over forty members of all ages of this community are preparing to gather together on a retreat entitled, “Keeping Sabbath,” and in a place and an age where Sabbath is more considered a luxury than a requirement . . . well, we get this Gospel reading!

It is vintage Luke, beautifully and vividly written. At the center is a crippled woman, bent over with the weight of years, and – perhaps Luke intended us to note her symbolic posture – heavily burdened with what Luke depicts as a draconian application of religious tradition. The leader of the synagogue who challenges Jesus for healing on the Sabbath seems to be completely out of touch with the needs right in front of him. As he does elsewhere in the gospels, Jesus reminds all who will hear him that the Sabbath is not an end unto itself. It is meant for us and our relationship with God and one another. It is a classic tale of legalism versus grace, easily inviting us to embrace the temptation to demonize Jesus’ opponents; even worse a religious tradition that cannot be divorced from our heritage as Christians.

But to do so, quite frankly, is to condemn ourselves. For we are as good as any society throughout history in trying to enforce rectitude through legislation, be it a bill moving through government, a careful compromise on canonical provisions for our church, or a policy in our own community that will make everything crystal clear. Don’t get me wrong, we probably need rules in many places, and good ones at that. But the word “good” begs the question. How do we know what serves us best and what doesn’t, what is “good” and what isn’t?

The question of today’s Gospel is about Sabbath: Our desperate need today as a community to recover it from the seemingly endless parade of sports, practibces, gadgets, the ever-increasing demands of work, and a sea of noise – that need will not be served by bringing back the strictures of the now abandoned and somewhat romantically remembered blue laws. Nor by deliberately depressing a frenetic economic engine upon which so much of our livelihood depends.

In all honesty, healthy spirituality cannot be legislated or economically engineered! It must be cultivated, beginning within our own hearts and in our own unique lives. Perhaps most of all through a determined and joint effort with our friends and families to say “no” at regular intervals to all the distractions from the gift of simple Being – life itself, given to us moment to moment by a God who wants almost desperately to love us out of all that robs us of well being.

Betsy, with her sermon last week, left us with the image of a tired runner finding remarkable pleasure in the cool, clear, refreshing water of a mountain stream. This is the image of Sabbath as it should be, a flowing current of refreshment, and not once or twice a year for the well-planned vacation, but the careful, deliberate, regular weekly rhythms that our spiritual ancestors cherished for their livelihood and the earth itself. Of tilling deep into the resources that cannot be purchased, marketed, or packaged: the resources of our own hearts and breath. Of engaging our faith as do Jesus and his disciples and the community gathered and then responding with humble silence and quietude for a time. The pleasurable resource of rest that lifts us out of the anesthetic effect of overwork and the madness of being overwrought with performance and productivity. The well-spring of simply being present in a moment that intersects with God’s eternal moment. Where we simply are without being defined by a million tugs and pulls at our tender existence.

And in fact, the restoring a sense of Sabbath is about restoring justice for ourselves and all who walk with us. Indeed, Sister Joan Chittister puts it this way:

The rabbis taught that the purpose of Sabbath was threefold. The first purpose of Sabbath, the rabbis said, was to free the poor as well as the rich for at least one day a week, and that included the animals, too. Nobody had to take an order from anybody on the Sabbath. The second purpose of Sabbath, the rabbis teach, is to give people time to evaluate their work as God evaluated the work of creation, to see if their work, too, is really life-giving. And finally, the purpose of Sabbath leisure was to give people space, to contemplate the real meaning of life. If anything has brought the modern world to the brink of destruction, it must surely be the loss of Sabbath.

Jesus, in a way that would affirm the best of the Jewish tradition, refuses to let Sabbath be anything less than attentive and renewing. For the burdened and harassed people, Jesus stands up to the powers that will co-opt and collapse Sabbath into a hollow shell of tradition – a habit rather than a true practice; an enforceable dictum rather than a life-giving discipline. The woman, bent over and crippled, epitomizes the tired lives of her people overwrought with enforced traditions that seem devoid of meaning. A great irony is that Sabbath, Jesus tells all who hear him – and to their great shame – has lost its purpose and meaning if it is only to be harshly inflicted.

It is a further irony for us that we, too, can be this woman – not crippled by an overzealous enforcement of Sabbath, but out of a lack of true Sabbath altogether! The call of Christ is to move beyond the hollow shells of our consumer-driven culture, our insatiable appetite for things rather than life, our obsession with performance and productivity rather than simple being. We are called back to the substance of who we are as human beings, to be restored like this woman; made whole and upright as created reflections of the Divine – lovingly connected as we were made to be, with Creation and each other just as God’s greatest joy is connected at the most intimate level with all that is.

Phyllis Tickle has said:

From the beginning of Judeo-Christian religion, there have been a number of ways of creating those little interruptions in normal life, those places where we can engage the mystery, those places of harmony and integration. A good Jew two thousand years ago would have known that one of the ways of interrupting life and meeting with the spiritual was the Sabbath. We used to keep the Sabbath. We used to set it aside and say, "Here is a time. Here is an interruption in one of the dimensions that informs life in which we will stop, and we will honor the Spirit of God. . .” We would honor the time before that consumption and the hours after that consumption by an interruption of all other habits. We would hallow the time around that event--the Eucharist or the Mass or the Communion. That's what the Sabbath was, and it had built around it time and place.

Our challenge as a community is to hold this time and place, this sacred now, despite all the forces that seek to encroach on it, eroding our time together to celebrate what we have received, what we have given, and even to find a bit of rest for the sake of all the human family and the Good News of God in Christ.

Sabbath, after all, is not ultimately about law, but about compassion: compassion for the needs of our bodies and minds to rest. Compassion for our loved ones and neighbors and their needs. Compassion for all the creatures of God and their renewal. Compassion for the sea, land, and air, that they may also rest refresh. And radical identification with and for the God of compassion, who revels in all that has been made and calls it good.

Withdrawing Comment

A fray in recent hours over at Mark Harris' blog has stirred up some deeply emotional and caustic responses. I posted two, and then deleted them with a bit of shame, especially following Mark's admonition.

The whole episode was provoked by the posting of a graphic video assembled by the Church of England priest Peter Ould -- I'll let you find it yourself, if you must, as I simply have not the stomach to link it here -- drawing on a BBC dramatization of the burning at the stake of Bishops Ridley and Latimer on October 16th, 1555. The message was that their sacrifice should inspire similar witness from our all "true" bishops in the upcoming and widely-publicized meeting with the Archbishop of Canterbury and the September 30th Primates-declared deadline that now looms large.

I managed to sit through Mel Gibson's painfully gory The Passion of the Christ a few years ago, yet I could not watch this video in its entirety. But that's just me. Then, I don't live in a part of the world where violence is an everyday occurrence, and I have the luxury of choosing to keep it at a safe distance. I honestly question if Peter Ould has had to witness violent physical death for the sake of the Gospel (or for any reason) up close and personal -- and if he had, would he be playing so loose with a Hollywood-style voyeuristic medium to make a point? Like many in the media-saturated West, most of us can decide to keep that stuff on the television or the movie screen while sitting comfortably in an armchair, the remote nestled warmly in our hand. Or we can decide to use such depictions for our own causes without reference to any consequences.

Too many of our Anglican sisters and brothers have no such choice.

All that said, the implications of the video and its accompanying commentary (some I found equally as disturbing) were clear. Like Ridley and Latimer we have Christ and you do not. If you want to be "real men" (alluding to Latimer's last words) then you must agree with us.

We all should steel ourselves: It's this type of caustic rhetoric that is likely to reach a deafening climax as the House of Bishops prepare for their meeting and September 30th draws rapt attention around the Anglican Communion and blogosphere.

In this way, the video appears to me a cheap shot intended only to provoke a primitive emotional response and rally the ecclesiastical troops for a showdown. It lends nothing to reasoned, prayerful discussions of the matters at hand, let alone any efforts at reconciliation. It does nothing to promote the God-given dignity of anyone, even its proponents. Nor does it seem to me likely to convert bishops to any cause. In fact, it may have precisely the opposite effect.

Finally, the very real threat of spiritual and physical violence resulting from schism seems insufficient for some reason. Apparently the specter of broken communities, severed friendships, empty stomachs and disease-riddled lives where aid can no longer reach -- all of this is no longer sufficient to forestall division, brook the true courage of charity, or even the simple, precious gift of humble civility. The dramatization of a particularly nasty 16th-century burning at the stake now seems more compelling and trumps what is yet real and painful in the present hour.

I sadly wonder why?

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

A Wasteland of Anglican Rhetoric

Bishop Rucahana of the Anglican Diocese of Shyira of Rwanda has now joined the fray with a terrible accusation of satanism riddled with racism:
Bishop Rucahana said the Anglican Church in Rwanda will not be pushed into adopting the satanic behaviour of the "whites because they are whites".
It is, perhaps, among the most pained and angry rhetoric yet to date in the grand and now terrible affair of an Anglican Schism, even blasting beyond Archbishop Akinola's remarks of a few weeks ago, where we were accused of spiritual imperialism.

Fr. Jake has sounded a response that asks questions with which I have deep and growing solidarity. However, with no offense intended towards Fr. Jake, this is precisely an example of how so many on each side of the Anglican rift are now talking past each other, rather than to the real concerns on the table, let alone the God-endowed humanity of each other.

Archbishops and bishops in the self-proclaimed Global South, along with a number of their American allies, are now resorting to rhetorical knife-work to cut whatever strands of affection were left holding the Communion together. Rather than speaking directly to the question of human sexuality -- which is really only a manifesting issue, after all -- it is easier to demonize their perceived enemies and thereby justify a break. So, like all good politicians, they reach for the easiest rhetoric at hand: that which plays well to their constituents, by appealing to the painful history of European and North American colonialism and then scapegoating lesbian, gay, transgendered, and bisexual Christians with the terrible burden.

I risk dismissing the pain of this tragic episode through such analysis. That is not my intention, either. Behind Bishop Rucahana's remarks are the unspeakable communal pains of genocide: pains which are deeply entangled with the longstanding evils of colonialism that were (and to some degree still are), yes indeed, inflicted by the West and too often sanctioned by the historic Church.

Our quibble with the bishop remains not over this point, but one of proportion. Why, I wonder, must our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters, and -- to a lesser extent, the Episcopal Church as a whole -- be saddled with the entire burden of an institutional evil that was, for all intents and purposes, inflicted and maintained largely by Northern European men, mostly straight, and now mostly deceased?

But that is too complex a question, for it does not yield to a sound byte, and it does not accomplish the clear purpose that is now at work amongst at least some of the Anglican Global South leadership: that is, put simply, to justify schism, and in the most direct and harsh terms possible.

The only way back to the table will be addressing issues directly, not in this roundabout and distorted fashion, and certainly not -- to paraphrase the Apostle Paul, and indeed most presciently, Ephraim Radner in his recent break with the Network -- with words that rend the Body of Christ rather than build it up. Continuing any pretended conversation in this mode fails to address the real principalities and powers against which we as Christians are called to stand together.

It strikes me, too, that any talk now of "strained bonds of affection" will miss the mark. The bonds are now being deliberately and consciously cut in some places -- out of fear, perhaps, and certainly out of pain and anger. I pray that this is clear, most of all, to the Archbishop of Canterbury. Anything less than crystal clarity on this point will only make the conflict worse, it seems to me.

This Sunday, in the midst of a series of apocalyptic teachings, Jesus takes the gloves off in telling us in no uncertain terms that the Gospel may well at times cost us our most deeply cherished family ties. I reckon we are at one of those junctures as a Communion.

So how can we best respond? The examples are already out there to behold: in our Presiding Bishop, amongst a number of the Primates, amongst many in our House of Bishops and many of their sisters and brothers elsewhere in the Communion, and amongst ordained and lay members of the church engaging with our Rwandan and other Anglican sisters and brothers around the world directly, in person, on the ground:
  • To such rhetoric, silence can often be the most charitable response.
  • When necessary, we need to allow people to find the door. We should never be in the business of shutting people in or taking hostages for any cause, even the most noble we can imagine, and that includes preserving unity.
  • Simple charity for those in deepest need: those scapegoated by the present rhetoric as well as the uncountable hungry and suffering around the world who are forgotten in the midst of a caustic in-house fight over red herrings.
Poisonous rhetoric screams for nothing short of a Divine response -- the true judgment and justice of compassion, the strength of the cross, the forbearance of Joseph, Job, and Jesus -- and a continuing patient calling forth of the struggling and pained humanity that is masked and hidden by vehemence and the truly demonic.

We are challenged to call forth and witness the face of God even in our enemies -- for healing, hope, and reconciliation.

No one said this business of sustaining Communion would be easy. But for all talk of narrow paths, this one, to me, seems the brightest in what is increasingly becoming a foreboding wasteland of schismatic Anglican rhetoric.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

Some Harry Potter Theology

Sermon delivered at Church of Our Saviour,

Mill Valley, California
on the Ninth Sunday after Pentecost

July 29th, 2007

Readings for Proper 12

Last Saturday, along with millions of other households across the country, a long-anticipated box showed up outside out door. It might have been delivered by owl post for all intents and purposes, the way it mysteriously appeared.

Yes, it was from, yes it was the last installment in the Harry Potter series, and yes, I am going to talk some about Harry this morning – but I promise a no spoiler sermon!

The mystique was so catching that before I even knew the box had arrived, Daniel had gotten a hold of it and transported it up to his room. Being, along with his family, a good “muggle” – that is non-magical person – he tried opening the box with a pair of scissors, and when I finally found the box in his room, it was already half-opened for his efforts, and the pristine volume’s pages were slightly gouged. So even before I opened The Deathly Hallows, which was to occupy much of my time for the next couple of days, Daniel had made it our very own.

Next day was Sunday, and after the 10 o’clock service, I noted some of our youth emerging with the same book tucked under one arm as they left. I wondered quietly if my sermons were really that boring, and I couldn’t resist asking, “Brought your Bible?”

How we all love a good story. The fifth book of the series had just been released as a movie and was a box-office smash. J. K. Rowling, who began the adventure for us over 10 years ago started writing about Harry Potter while sitting in coffee shops in England and struggling to make ends meet while raising a family. Today, she’s worth more than the Royal Family!

And Christians are wrestling with each other on what to make of this phenomenon. The Christian Post this past week devoted at least five articles to the subject of Harry Potter. James Dobson on one side, along with Focus on the Family, clarified that Harry Potter was not healthy for Christians – too much magic, too many wizards and witches, apparently, which made it somehow anti-biblical. Ted Baehr went on to state that the world of Harry Potter had to do with the “elite” and “occult” where “secret knowledge is the way to power and success.” In short, Mr. Baehr seemed to be arguing that Gnosticism, an almost primordial heresy for Christians, was making a comeback.

Yet at the same time, numerous other Christians both at home and abroad were applauding Harry Potter as Christian themed and even Christian allegory, very much of the same sort that C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien penned in the last century. I confess that I’m in this latter group. Condemning Harry Potter for being too full of magical people and creatures seems to me to miss the forest for the trees; the substance for the context. It was fascinating to note that while condemning Harry Potter on these grounds in one breath, the same leaders would embrace The Chronicles of Narnia or the The Lord of the Rings as avowedly Christian – both containing much magic and magical creatures!

The other criticism leveled against Harry Potter from Linda Harvey of Mission America was about Harry himself, who “nurses and feeds grudges,” and for that, he could not be a suitable role model for children. Perhaps not, but I wondered, what child growing up hasn’t nursed grudges at one time or another and learned how to cope with hardship, struggles, and harsh realities? The substance of Harry Potter is not found in Harry’s dark sides, either, it seems to me.

For there is real grace in the series – grace that I would call definitively Christian. From the very beginning, Harry Potter, while still only a child, is reminded that he has been given something that far and beyond all magical prowess and knowledge protects and preserves his life from the machinations of Lord Voldemort: love, friendship, a sense of good, and an inner moral compass about what is right – even if he doesn’t always do it. Being part of a community, being surrounded by people who love and watch out for him, Harry has an advantage that Voldemort cannot even fathom.

Harry’s is a human journey, and, dare I say, a Christian one. Whether or not we want to see him as a Christ-like figure, there are many throughout the series who put their lives on the line – and lose them – for the sake of what is good and just. That is indeed Christ-like. And Harry himself picks up odd friends who are ostracized by others. He is different, even in the magical world – he has lost both parents, carries the heavy burden of popular titles such as: “The Boy who Lived” and “The Chosen One” (and that is a Christ-like name if ever there was one!) and must survive the emotional pressures of summers living in a less-than-welcoming household. He must also deal with the weight of prophecy and how that relates to his choices as a unique individual. It is hard not to see the echoes of Christ’s life in Harry’s. In my view, this makes him all the more real. For Christ, we believe, lives on in the hearts of the human family, and his life is mysteriously found in ours. That’s what incarnation means.

So despite barely a mention of God, I think J. K. Rowling has succeeded in capturing many imaginations by creating a world very much like our own: where good and evil are real, but where most people, magical or muggle, aren’t completely one or the other. A major part of Harry’s epic adventure is learning that about himself and others, of coming face-to-face with the parallels between himself and the dark wizard Voldemort. Of wrestling with inner as well as outer darkness, and struggling for the light, for truth and all that is good and hopeful, and for those who are marginalized.

With respect to our Christian brothers and sisters who condemn the Harry Potter series, I feel it important to point back to the underlying themes in today’s familiar reading from Genesis. God has condemned Sodom and Gomorrah – and I should stress not so much for whatever sexual practices have been happening there (the text is really not so clear, and the popular notions we have about that are more about us than the biblical story) – but rather Sodom and Gomorrah incur God’s wrath for their brazen lack of hospitality and, indeed, their violence towards strangers: even God’s own messengers.

Yet a divine condemnation is grounds enough to push Abraham to question God. If there is only a small number of righteous in Sodom, will the wrath come? The priority for the biblical authors and the agenda pushed forward is simple: generally-speaking, our world – and, for that matter, the world of Harry Potter – is one where good and evil are inexorably mixed up. This is true for the community as well as for us as individuals.

God’s response, and indeed promise to Abraham is the same made to all of us:

Even where there is only a little bit of goodness left, it is worth preserving, worth cultivating all the darkness around notwithstanding, worth celebrating, worth lifting up. If God destroy the good with the evil, there would be little if anything left. It’s a cautionary tale to all of us who are quick to condemn the broader culture, and forgetting that the Spirit is at work there, too, even in stories about a boy with a strange scar and his friends learning to love and hope in a complex and dangerous world.

Grace and goodness are like seeds planted, growing inside and out to a world that is crazy and mixed up, where pure evil and pure goodness are rare, but the epic struggle between darkness and light must somehow continue. This is a teaching that J. K. Rowling imparts to children worldwide with the story of Harry Potter.

I promised no spoilers for those of you who have not yet read the final installment of the Harry Potter series. I will only say this morning to those of you who have yet to read it that there are surprises left – particularly surprises about where goodness is to be found in the characters we have come to love and loathe in the series. Its popularity and success is a testament to the perennial themes of hope still very much alive in the human family. . .

Hope in the Good News: that what is just and true will prevail. Goodness will ultimately win the day. Life has more power than death. And even more so where we remain close to that rootstock of all grace: a Love beyond all loves, a Love that breathes new life into the world, even where we least expect it.