Sunday, January 26, 2014

The Wild Ride of Repentance

Sermon notes for the Third Sunday after the Epiphany.
Audio of the sermon delivered at Church of Our Saviour, Mill Valley, California

Someone remarked to me this week that I had chosen – in this particular vocation of serving the Church – what he called the “wild ride.” I hesitated for just a moment, tempted as clergy are all too often to see our calling as elevated or separate from most other Christians. On the one hand, it’s true: being subject to the uncertain future of a relatively modest not-for-profit budget that relies almost wholly on others’ generosity; social forces well beyond my control that might make churchy business popular, unpopular, or indifferent tomorrow; being on call when people are facing life-altering events that few witness with any regularity. . .well, it is a “wild ride” at times, indeed!

But then I recognized that few, if any of us, can say with any validity that we are not subject to the uncertainties of the present state of the world, or that we are secure enough to weather social forces no matter which way they trend, or that our particular line of work will sustain us in two or five years, let alone ten. Truth is, all of us are confronted with a “wild ride” of one sort or another. And so I say again, paraphrasing Wesley in The Princess Bride: Anyone who tells you otherwise is selling something!

On Facebook this week, I came across the perennial article remarking on how the institutional church is faltering: How it has failed and hurt many over the centuries, and whether or not it deserves to survive. The curious thing was that I read one article like this and then another popped up on my Facebook news feed, and then another, and then another! I wondered for a moment if everybody was starting to write again about the demise of institutional Christianity (a familiar and depressing thought for a guy like me). Maybe we really were going to at last go under. But then I realized Facebook was only doing what it was supposed to do – posting articles on my news feed similar to ones I’d already read. It’s the same kind of consumer-driven content selection that all our media and social outlets now employ at every turn, every mouse click.

What struck me about that is the rapidly distorting effect this has on our perception of reality. We can quickly find ourselves in an echo chamber hearing only voices that think about the same things we do, and think that therefore the whole world is discussing what we are; or worse, that a majority of the world thinks the same way we do! What makes this doubly troubling is the modern myth that with all our access to information these days, we are getting a more “unbiased” view of reality than did our ancestors.

The first piece of good news, then, in today’s gospel, is that we are in this way, at least, similar to Peter, Andrew, James, and John living on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. They didn’t have mass media or access to mobile devices to distort their view of reality with consumer-driven content. But it was still probably hard for them to imagine much reality beyond that which they already knew and talked about all day. Fishing was and remains another all-consuming “wild ride” subject to forces well beyond human control: weather and the almost complete mystery of the biology beneath the waves. Whether their catch would be big or small must have been a combination of seasonal guess-work, intuition, and fate into which a faithful fisherman might have injected a good dose of prayer. But no matter the size of the catch, there would always be the endless work of disentangling and mending the nets, countless hours of dropping them here or there in the waters and hauling nothing, and the gnawing uncertainty of whether even a good catch would sustain their livelihoods for another cycle of moons.

These first disciples, doubtless, talked, breathed, and dreamed fishing. It was what they knew best to their very bones. And so, when this itinerant teacher, filled with the Spirit of God from his venture in the wilderness, shows up and commands them to follow, I can only imagine their perplexity when he told them they would now “fish for people.” They will spend the next few years on this “wild ride” with Jesus, learning better what he means by that from the greatest teacher of them all: experience. They might even come to learn that this is no ordinary mystic, prophet, or teacher they are following. This might just be Someone who reveals God’s presence with us in the flesh.

For Jesus, his time has come, and none of the signs are good. John has been imprisoned, and no sensible person would believe anything other than Jesus was next on the hit list. It will take time for Peter, Andrew, James, and John – even a lifetime – to learn what Jesus has just learned in the wilderness through his confrontation with temptation: by rejecting the offer of the powers this world recognizes – the power to satisfy ourselves and lord it over others – Jesus has planted the flag of a new kind of community that will involve radical self-offering, radical non-violence, and, therefore, radical vulnerability.

This will not be a wild-ride in a chariot or alongside a marching legion or the grit of a violent insurgency. It will be a wild ride of profound vulnerability to people’s love or painful rejection; it will be a wild ride in the midst of a confrontation between the ways of a God who lovingly made all that is with a world that is too often hell-bent on distortion, dissension, division, domination, and destruction.

No doubt, Jesus saw this likely ending with a cross. Had Peter and Andrew really understood the reality they were stepping into, would they have dropped their familiar nets and followed? Would you? Would I?

Repentance for them was not simply getting it right with God so things could go back to the old and familiar. Paul must confront this very human temptation bearing bad fruit in the little clutch of Corinthian Christians today, and while his message is at times amusing (just how many people did you baptize there, Paul?) it is steel-edged with worry that the faith he gave them is being quickly sandblasted by the dry winds of familiar factionalism and quests for domination and control. They haven’t gotten repentance yet, and so they are at the same risk every formalized Christian community and every half-converted heart has been since: just going the way of thousands of other spiritualities and religious institutions across the millennia. And that is nowhere at all really, except back into the familiar teeth of a power-hungry and hell-bent world.

So when Christ calls us to repent, he is not merely telling us to be good Christians working on our own righteousness, finding the right cause and standing up for it, and then hoping to end our short lives having done good things. If that were the case, we could see Sundays as only a time to gather, utter faithful words, mend our nets, collect our rations at the altar, organize a bit, and then go out and simply do “it” better.

No, repentance is more like Jesus coming to the shore of our familiar lives and calling us out of our familiar but distorted, insular view of reality, and us daring to follow him into a wild ride that is truly unfathomable — a ride with God that, inevitably, will overturn everything we thought we knew about ourselves, the world, and even our most cherished values and beliefs.

Didn’t you learn that somewhere along the way? Maybe in Sunday School? No? Then the institutional Church, you see, is still trying to get its job right, and two thousand years later is still falling far short. Paul is addressing us as much as he is that quarreling little sect in Corinth all those centuries ago!

But not to worry. Our little community is rooted in grace, not institutional righteousness. And the school of repentance for Jesus was not confined to the synagogue. It was ever engaging its students at the side of the sea, at the booth of a tax collector, in the kitchen, seated at table with friends and enemies, under a tree, or even up a tree! For us, the school of repentance is found, too, out there in the world at least six other days of the week, when we each must grapple with our own “wild ride” and perhaps find ourselves called yet again out of the familiar, the predictable, and the ever budding arrogance of our own narrow judgments about reality. Here we gather in the hopes of being reminded of this humility and re-fueled for our journey by the life-blood and strength of our Savior, exhorted by word and sacrament not merely to do better, but be affirmed again that we are on this wild ride together with one another and our God.

And so we can truly repent by pursuing that journey that Jesus’ first disciples were on: where the flag of a new kind of community, a new kind of people, a new kind of world is carried...

A world built not on the foundations of power, but of radical self-offering and self-emptying...

So that we each may be filled with the love that God made us to have, a love that even promises to bring life beyond all death.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Brother Rock, of his own Violation

Sermon for the Confession of St. Peter
January 18th, 2014
delivered at the Winter Convocation of The Brotherhood of Saint Gregory
The Chapel of the Stigmata
Mt. Alvernia Retreat Center, Wappingers Falls, New York

Among the great blessings of my childhood and youth were trips to rural Gloucestershire to visit my English grandparents. Even now, simply reflecting on it brings back the scent of freshly cut sweet pea blossoms on the kitchen table, the yeasty smell of the pantry where my grandfather fermented homemade wine, and his aftershave scenting the little office beyond, cluttered as it was with papers, books, and the typewriter where he tried his hand at writing for many years.

Above his desk was a little wooden plaque that read:

“Engage brain before opening mouth.”

You might think for a moment I will be relating St. Peter today to my grandfather — a self-made and largely self-educated man, a man of simple trade, and yet amongst the wisest people I knew growing up.

But, no, I would better relate my grandmother to Peter. For our beloved Rona, to say it was to think it. She was the positive antithesis of that delightful little sign in my grandfather’s office, which is probably why it remained in his office and nowhere else in the house, and you can only imagine the fascinating relationship they cultivated for over fifty years of marriage!

My grandmother had married well below her station. To employ a bit of British understatement, her family that included a captain in the Royal Navy was not at all amused when their daughter found herself backed by love to marry into trade — namely, the floristry trade. But that she did, and so without the roadmap of family sanction, she and Stanley built a life and started a family together around his floristry business in London. They in turn found themselves backed by geopolitical forces far beyond their control into lessons of survival and perseverance through the war years.

They narrowly escaped death on at least one occasion when a German shell leveled their little shop. Gathering stubborn resolve for survival from that experience, Rona learned how to deal effectively with annoyed customers, difficult characters, and guide anxious brides and grieving families to the right floral design. All the while, she and her husband worked grueling hours, rising in the dark to gather fresh flowers for the day from the market, working late into the night to prepare for weddings, funerals, holidays, and every need for a bit of beauty that came in the door, and raising two children. Years later, as Stanley watched his professional colleagues drop dead of exhaustion in their early fifties, he and Rona decided to sell their business and purchase an old hunting lodge in the West Midlands. There, Stanley was determined to slow their pace of life, pick up gardening, and become a published writer.

But Rona, with no roadmap yet again, found herself backed onto a new, unexpected path, and so she began to teach. And she started writing about flower arranging, too, and was quickly published. By the time her first American grandson was born, she had become the primary breadwinner of the household, having built her little floristry school into an internationally recognized training ground for aspiring and experienced florists alike, all based in the studio she had designed and built.

In the seasons I would visit, we would sit together for tea and fine cheese, and Rona would still always speak her mind. Didn’t matter if it was politics, the beautiful garden she and Stanley cultivated, religion, church gossip, music, neighbors, or the weather. She articulated a strongly held thought about almost everything. And so Stanley would sometimes say in exasperation, if for no other reason than to end the volley of unsolicited opinion:

“Yes, dear, you could be right.”

Following his death, she told me on at least one occasion with a laugh that she learned early on not to be bashful about having the last word. And hers was a one-liner worthy of the Dowager Countess of Grantham:

“Not only could I be right,” she would sometimes respond to her husband, “I bloody well am!”

Rona lasted into her nineties, impetuous and opinionated as ever, and in many respects more successful business-wise than her more careful and studied husband had been. She was never the charmer that the self-made gentleman Stanley was, but at least you always knew where you stood with her. Her mottos included an honest wage for an honest day’s work and making a commitment to “keep the tide coming in.” A cousin even noticed that one of Rona’s books made a cameo appearance in the opening credits of the BBC comedy, Keeping Up Appearances. Her floristry school was taken over by a colleague and continued to flourish after she moved to the States to live with my parents.

Rona’s other favorite expression, which to this day I find myself using on occasion, was always about so-and-so undertaking something “of his own violation.”

Now that’s Peter in a nutshell, isn’t it? Always impetuous, always undertaking actions “of his own violation.”

Peter finds himself backed into dropping his nets at the seashore, abandons the familiar life of fishing for an uncertain future following this strange yet alluring, itinerant teacher. Peter jumps out of the boat to walk on the water. Peter is ready to enshrine Jesus, Moses, and Elijah on the mountaintop and is answered by more than awkward silence. And Peter, today we remember, boldly calls Jesus Messiah and Son of the living God, and suddenly in a truly inspired moment for once, finds himself in the right. Then, before the sound of his confession fades in his own ears, he is handed the keys to the kingdom and is named in an instant of affectionate word play, “Brother Rock” if you will, a first stone for the foundation of the Church.

Yet we have good reason to doubt Peter knew precisely what he had really said or what any of this really meant. A scant few verses later, he will attempt to block Jesus from turning towards Jerusalem, and his Lord and Master will be vexed enough to call his first disciple Satan. Clearly, divine inspiration or no, “Brother Rock” had yet again opened his mouth without engaging his brain.

And it will go on. After promising not to, he will betray Jesus three times during the Passion. He will be skeptical when reports of the Resurrection are brought to him. Even after witnessing the Resurrection himself, he will clothe himself with embarrassment and jump impetuously into the water yet again, and yet still be befuddled when the arisen Christ commands him to feed his sheep. On the way to fulfilling this charge, he will argue vociferously with Paul, struggle with intractable disputes of his little community, and learn through mis-steps and unexpected visions that God still has yet even more to reveal. Nevertheless, he will still successfully lead the first Christian community in spreading the Gospel in word and deed: healing the sick, sharing the Spirit, organizing and exhorting, testifying boldly before powers and principalities, and even bursting the shackles of prison.

This week, in our own way, we Gregorians have recounted the uncertain footsteps and impetuosity of Peter as he discovered his walk with Christ. We have spent time with minds and hearts buried together in our Rule and governing documents, recounting how our Founder began this community “of his own violation” as Rona would say, and how he and subsequent companions on the way jumped impetuously and dangerously into the water, went off on tangents, said and started things they didn’t quite understand at the time. . . or simply didn’t understand at all, and yet found God inspiring, leading, and revealing things they had never imagined.

But then, that’s true of all of us, isn’t it? It’s one reason why we gathered here again to talk about humility, being broken open again and again for Jesus to plant seeds in us, and about the virtues of traveling light and allowing Christ to open our eyes. It’s why we spent time this week endeavoring to understand ourselves better, both as a community and as individual brothers.

Yet we are like many ancient tribes and like Peter himself, in that we are really walking backwards – not forwards – into the future. The ancients understood that hindsight is truly the only way we see, and so it is the future, not the past, that is behind us. Now, we might be tempted to see our evolving governing documents in particular as some kind of roadmap, some pathway forward, but they are really only lessons from experiences of the past, helping us —at best — to keep our footing while we walk backwards – or, perhaps a bit more accurately – to gather a bit of confidence and hope that we will more than survive when we, like Rona and like Peter, find ourselves backed by love and life into a future that we can only best describe as unexpected and unplanned.

The philosopher and prophet of our modern media age, Marshall McLuhan, coined the familiar phrase  “the medium is the message” and the term “global village.” He also said, gathering up this ancient wisdom, “We look at the present through a rear view mirror; we walk backwards into the future.”

And, yes, it is always dangerous to walk backwards: no constitution or customary or amount of self-awareness will make religious life safe. My brothers, we are called to remain unsafe and impetuous at times, just as Peter was; to proclaim Jesus Messiah and Son of God, and not know what the hell we are talking about some of the time or even much of the time; to undertake ministries and tasks “of our own violation”; and, indeed, to open our mouth sometimes or often without engaging our brains; to risk offering the gift of the Spirit working in us despite ourselves.

And it is this risk that continues to allow the kingdom to unfold among us and through us for the sake of those we serve, so that perhaps in the final analysis, we can with Peter learn finally to become the media and the message for Christ in this global village of ours. We might in the process show in word and deed that not only could Peter be right, he (bloody well!) is right that Jesus is indeed Messiah, the Son of of the living God:

Christ at work for the redemption of a whole fragile, tender, beloved world.

Saturday, January 04, 2014

Wisdom of the Magi

A reflection for the Second Sunday after Christmas
Readings include Matthew 2:1-12

The visitation of the Magi has always been one of the more fascinating – and memorable – stories of the Christmas season. From my wondering as a child at the seemingly exotic nature of these travelers from the East, to the fabulous annual productions of Amahl and the Night Visitors I had the privilege of seeing while studying music as an undergraduate, there is something about them that captures our imagination. Part of their mystery is their origins: were they Persian priests of Zoroaster, Babylonians, Arabians, or Jewish leaders of the diaspora from contemporary Yemen, or some combination of all of these? Were there three or more? A plethora of traditions arose around and about them. In the Eastern Church, they number at least a dozen in some depictions. Tales of their later martyrdom for Christ spawned relics into the Middle Ages. But Matthew, the only canonical gospel who records their visitation, gives us precious little to go on. The author himself may have had his Jewish audience in mind as the story in some ways parallels the tale of the King Balak and the prophet Balaam in the Torah, complete with a messianic star (cf. Numbers 22-24). That Matthew also intends to show the revelation of Jesus to the Gentiles may also, of course, be on the agenda.

But our fascination amounts to much more than that:

Who are these mystical figures really? And why does their story speak to us?

Part of our fascination with them is their deft handling of Herod, the crafty Judean politician, son of an appointee of Julius Caesar. Herod clawed his way to kingship by aligning himself with the Roman occupation, re-conquering his own homeland with Roman aid, and then lending legitimacy to his rule by marrying into the legendary Hasmonean dynasty, whose fame was rooted in the celebrated Jewish Maccabean revolts of centuries past. Herod the Great’s success (his building projects in Judea were more than impressive) was matched only by his ruthlessness (it is during Christmastide that we also remember accounts of his slaughter of innocent children in Bethlehem in an effort to protect his throne from the prophesied Messiah.)

But Herod’s carefully crafted and paid-for rule is trembling with fear when word of a new king’s birth is whispered in his ear and these strangers from the East come looking for him. Yet the wise men catch the scent of Herod’s fearful scheming through their wise observation and dreams – they are whole, it seems, in their engagement with the universe and the sacred; holy mystics – rulers perhaps – of a different order than the unholy, violent, divisive and soul-rending political machinations that make up Herod and his ilk. The Magi are sacred watchers of signs in nature and the solitude of sleep; faithful stewards of ancient wisdom buried in the very foundations of history and the human experience – wisdom that speaks of our need for a savior, of God to come among us to restore our wholeness.

Recently, I had the privilege of one of those all-too-rare pastoral conversations with a stranger: a seeker from the wider community. For years she has struggled mightily with memories of a profoundly traumatic childhood: trauma that led almost inevitably to struggles with addiction and the law. She had done so many things right more recently: residential programs, therapy, psychiatric care, engaging recovery groups to address her compensating addiction, grappling with various diagnoses...some wrong, some right...struggling with how medication made things better...and made things worse...She had taken every step you can imagine to find and fight for her healing. But still not a day would go by that she didn’t re-engage with the awful memories of her youth, sometimes triggered unexpectedly by things that would seem to most of us innocuous.

She visited me and wondered aloud through tears simply why she couldn’t get over the traumas of the past. Her prayer life is vibrant, she continually offers thanks to God for every daily blessing, she knows scripture well, she places high expectations on herself to let go of anger and forgive those who harmed her, she struggles faithfully to keep her family together. Why doesn’t God just fix things inside her and punish the guilty as a reward for her fidelity? Why can’t she just be healed so she can be a better help to her family and friends?

It was these questions that were worthy, I realized, of the Christ-child, and the long, uncertain journey of the Magi. That the Magi and Jesus would experience a world that was as brutal in some ways as hers is a given. The Magi had to face Herod. So did the Holy Family. Neither of them fixed the situation politically or saw Herod brought to justice. The Magi simply evade Herod on the way home. The innocents of Bethlehem will be killed. John the Baptist will be beheaded and Jesus will die on the cross in part because of the machinations of one of Herod the Great’s sons and heir. Imagine the very different and somehow more familiar story we would have had the Magi remained with Jesus and conspired with him against Herod. The political messiah everyone, even Herod himself, expected, would be just another dynasty battling for power – perhaps with an Eastern alliance opposed to Herod’s Roman one – the Nazorean political family possibly rising and falling in history, like the Hasmoneans, the Herodians, or the Caesars.

One of our alternate gospels today talk of Joseph and Mary fleeing to Egypt to protect the infant Jesus from Herod’s murderous designs for a time. Exile is an inevitable and un-fixable part of the human condition: one that Jeremiah speaks to again on the Second Sunday after Christmas. And that exile has many forms: political, social, relational, familial, and even that awful internal divorce between our heads and hearts, between our inner private and outer public lives. And then there’s the cross that holds it all up for redemption, which is hinted at to Mary even while her first-born destined to be baptized the Son of God still grows in her womb.

“What if,” I asked this stranger who became no-longer-a-stranger in my office, “your struggle is a struggle we all share? One that Christ shares with you?”  Sure, her memories and journey seemed harsher than most, but our our most holy journey in common is the struggle with our woundedness.

“What if Jesus isn’t on the outside waiting to fix things, but in the very midst of your struggle with those traumatic memories, standing with you in those awful moments, sharing those wounds with you?”

I found myself offering advice I was once given by a wise counselor in a broken moment: to remember and suffer is as human as it gets. To struggle with woundedness is not so much a “fixable” reality or one to be gotten over, but one to be lived into faithfully as a journey every bit as important as following the star in the East – our wounds are a reality into which we invite Jesus for redemption, not one we try to fix before we meet him. To struggle with forgiveness itself is a process: not simply a switch we throw in our heads. To weep over difficult memories is simply to weep, a most human and Christian vocation. And then to give thanks is to offer this precious gift of Christ in our midst the very best we have to offer.

And then when we remembered her children, some of whom are now successfully engaging adulthood, she brightened considerably. Despite her own struggles, she had already been a help to them and a loving support in ways she might not even be able to imagine. And then there were those to whom she witnessed every day walking alongside her in recovery. Her ministry in grace had already begun, and had been unfolding for a long time. She didn’t need to wait until she was completely healed or perfect, or even just until tomorrow. The life of Christ had already been unfolding in her. Like the exiles’ return in Jeremiah, her journey home was palpable, ongoing, and will be ultimately joyous even if, like the returning lame and blind, she – like all of us, and even like our beloved Christ – still bears the wounds of this life.

It is this wisdom, perhaps, that the Magi knew as they journeyed great distances, asking questions, following uncertain paths, knowing their own brokenness and limitations and learning and re-learning the brokenness of the world, and yet at long last kneeling and worshiping the Christ-child and offering their greatest gifts in homage. . .

This divinity born vulnerable and human as a child among us, who is birthed into all our wounded places, shares our scars and sorrows and even our death, and yet knits a broken cosmos back together; who is driven into exile himself, and yet invites us on the long journey home from all of our wounding exiles from self, community, and God; who is worshiped by strangers sometimes more faithfully, it seems, than the recognized faithful among us; and who is revealed as the Savior of All as the darkness turns to light and the star ascends in our hearts.