John 11:1-45; Ezekiel 37:1-14

April 3, 2017


If you wanted to put across a sense of utter hopelessness, which image would you choose?  A desert valley full of skeletons where the bones had turned chalky and had been scattered across the sand?  Or a corpse, still intact, but well along in the process of decomposing?  Either image is meant to reflect a desperate inner state of being.  In today’s world it could be a sense of the sheer hopelessness of our political situation.  More personally, it could be a sense of the hopelessness of a marriage gone dry and dead, or an addiction.  God is saying through images: you think your situation is hopeless?  Look at these dry bones; look at this rotting corpse.  I brought new life to them and I can do the same for you.  Take heart!

I’ll return to that thought, but first I want to look more closely at the story as John tells it.  The story is long, and rich with loving details.  For instance, initially, Jesus held off responding to the sisters’ call for help, because he wanted to use the opportunity to increase their faith, to show them the extraordinary extent of God’s power to heal.  Also, the sisters’ compassionate friends and neighbors gathered around them to ease their grief.  Add to that Jesus’ astonishing statement of faith: “Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.”  This story percolates love and beauty.

In fact, the whole story is so full of love and beauty that we scarcely notice that John has a second story slithering through the first.  Cruel references to the Jews coil in and out through the first story.  It starts when John has the disciples say, “…the Jews were just now trying to stone you….”    Then he has Jesus say that the Jews walk at night and stumble,”because the light is not in them.”  John goes further, suggesting that Jesus and his people were not Jews.  For instance, he wrote that Jesus saw Mary weeping, “and the Jews who came with her also weeping.”  And again he refers to “the Jews who were with her in the house.”  Were Jesus and Mary not Jews?

We know that these cruel references to the Jews have born poisonous fruit down through the ages in every form of persecution.  During the first crusade in 1096 crusaders killed thousands of Jews.  Why?  One of the leaders of the crusade put it this way: he said he swore “to go on this [crusade] only after avenging the blood of the crucified one by shedding Jewish blood and completely eradicating any trace of those bearing the name ‘Jew’….”  Who can calculate the extent of the suffering borne by the Jews through the centuries as a result of what some modern writers have called these “toxic texts”?

My purpose here is not to heap blame on John.  His people, Jesus-following Jews, constituted a tiny minority within a tiny minority.  In other words, Jews made up a tiny fraction of the Roman empire; and within that tiny fraction Jesus’ followers made up a small percent.  At the time John wrote, there were no Christians; the word had not been invented; the separation between Jews and Christians had not yet occurred.  John’s Jews were trying to gain followers; but most of the Jewish people chose to follow the rabbis.  You can hear John’s frustration over this throughout his Gospel.  He’s trying to persuade his readers to take sides, and he was up against many people who thought they could follow Jesus and still worship in the synagogue.

The question is not: how could John have written such toxic things.  The larger question is: how could God have allowed this invective into the Bible?  I see an answer to that in the story of Adam and Eve.  In that story, too, details of beauty and love abound.  And yet…  there’s a snake.  How could God have allowed that snake into the garden?  It’s like asking how God could allow that invective against the Jews into the Gospel.

In the case of the Garden of Eden it seems clear that the snake is there to test Eve and Adam.  But what is the test?  Was it to test if they would obey?  Or was it to see if they were able to trust God’s goodness and love?  Think about it.  Eve wasn’t limited to two choices: eat or don’t eat the apple.  She could just as well have said to the snake, “Let me consult with God.  I’m not sure of God’s reasoning on this.”  Perhaps she didn’t do that, because she didn’t trust God not to be angry with her for asking.  Perhaps she didn’t trust God’s goodness and love, and that was the test she failed, not a test of obedience.

Let’s go back to the question: how could God have allowed that snake into the garden?  Perhaps God meant Eve and Adam to learn something about their relationship with God.  Perhaps God is not so much interested in obedience as dialogue.  After all, it’s impossible to have a mature relationship of intimacy when one party must obey the other.  A relationship of obedience puts us in an infantile relationship, a parent-child relationship.  There can be love, but there will always be a gap.  In contrast, a relationship of dialogue grows out of a deep desire for understanding, for probing into the depths of the other’s heart and mind, knowing we can always go deeper.  This is true intimacy; I believe this is what God wants with his people; and this is impossible when the relationship is one of obey-or-incur-my-wrath.

If this is so, what is the parallel to today’s episode in John’s Gospel?  What learning or insight might the the invective against the Jews give rise to?  What about this: Beware of surface readings?  Beware of literal readings.   Suppose John’s readers, starting with his own congregation, and following on from his era to ours, had not read his Gospel as the literal word of God.  Suppose they had looked at his polemics and asked, “How can this square with ‘Love thy neighbor as thyself’”?  Jesus said that was the second commandment.  Or what about this from the sermon on the mount?  “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.”  Reading on the surface level makes the intimacy of dialogue impossible.

Let’s go further and put together the Adam and Eve story on the one hand, with today’s Gospel on the other hand.  Isn’t this the lesson: Beware of reading the Bible like a rule book, a book that puts you in an obey-or-be-punished relationship with God.  Beware of falling into a relationship with God that cuts you off from your own responsibility and your own wisdom.  Rather, read it as one half of a dialogue, which may go on for a long time; in fact, a lifetime.  For surely God is not so much interested in how many mistakes we make, but how much we listen and love.

Now let’s finish where we began, with the dry bones and the decaying body, and how they may stand for a truly hopeless situation.  Whether you’re a Republican or a Democrat, you surely feel hopeless about our country’s political stagnation, even paralysis.  If we take John’s Gospel and its treatment of the Jews literally, God’s clear commandment would be: Drive out your enemies; show them for the blackguards they are; bear false witness against them; defame them.  It’s a recipe for disaster and endless suffering.

Instead, let us take John’s Gospel as pointing us toward dialogue — not only with God, but starting with God and gradually spilling over to our family, our friends, and even our enemies.  The invitation is to make the reading of Scripture into a regular practice of dialogue, what Robert Bellah called a “habit of the heart.”  That practice has the power to transform us.  It will allow God to put new flesh on dry bones, and that will be a true response to Jesus, who says, not only about Lazarus, not only about us, but about our nation, “Unbind him, and let him go.”


Exodus 17:1-7; John 4:5-42

March 19, 2017


Lent could be the most looked-forward-to season of the church year.  That may sound odd, since we typically begin the service with the Ten Commandments and the confession of our sins.  Examination of conscience and confession of sins may be necessary, but hardly enjoyable, so what’s to look forward to about that?  Answer?  Freedom.

Really to appreciate Lent it helps to distinguish between guilt and shame.  According to the author Brené Brown, who has studied the subject, shame and guilt are two different experiences.  Guilt focuses on behavior, while shame focuses on the self.  Guilt says, “I did something bad,” while shame says, “I am bad.”

Shame usually arises when we make a mistake, and yet the mistake may not break any of the Commandments.  I remember the first time I had to address a room full of clergy, and I hadn’t yet been ordained — I was so nervous I couldn’t stop my knees from shaking — in fact, they kept wanting to buckle.  I finally locked them tight, but still my voice squeaked and my hands shook.  When the ordeal was over an inner voice said, “What ever gave you the idea to seek ordination?  Now a whole room full of your would-be colleagues know you’re completely unfit.  Just walk away from here gracefully, go home, and don’t ever come out.  Learn to darn socks.”  Many of you know what I’m talking about; most of us have an inner voice that can hiss such things as, “You’re a weakling; or you’re a failure; or you’re incompetent, a fake, ugly, unloveable, a social misfit.”

Guilt is more easily dealt with.  In fact, we need never feel guilt.  Guilt arises from something we do, and always breaks one of the Commandments.  It’s important to know that, because the Ten Commandments exist, like ten shepherds, to edge us toward living in a healthy society where all members thrive, including ourselves.  So, to break a Commandment invariably hurts others and ourselves.  Of course, if I refuse to admit to my sin, then I will feel guilt.  Never to feel guilt requires that, as soon as I recognize my fault, I confess it, fully.  Done.  No more guilt.  I’ll tell you why in a moment, but let me say that if that sounds too simple, it’s because sin does entail an aftermath of grief; people have been hurt, and we cannot say: no more grief.

How can I say we need never feel guilt?  The psychologist Marshall Rosenberg talks about basic human needs.  They include food and shelter, but more importantly they include intangibles.  The list is long but not endless.  He includes the need for connection and autonomy, for honesty and meaning, for peace, play, and I would add, a sense of the sacred.  These are universal.  They are like a subterranean water table, something that all human beings have in common, that unites us, one to another.

Think of the Ten Commandments as divining rods pointing to something beautiful and precious within us, our basic human needs — gifts implanted in us by God.  Seen this way, the Commandments have no part in torturing us with guilt.  On the contrary, they exist to renew us.

For instance, take the first commandment, about not worshiping other gods.  What does this point to?  Truth.  Without truth, what can we trust?  How can we build a joyful life on falsehood?  Truth is one of our basic needs to journey toward genuine happiness.  Or what about the Commandment, “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain”?  That points to our need for the holy or the sacred; in other words, for what gives life meaning.  If I trample the name of God, or what is holy to me, under the foot of heedless language, one of my basic needs will go unmet.

I won’t go on about all the Commandments, but briefly let me suggest this.  The Command to honor our parents points to our own need for honor and respect.  You could tease out on your own the beautiful, God-given needs the Commandments are meant to protect and promote — the need to matter; the need to nurture or be nurtured; the need for understanding, for safety or security — and very importantly, for freedom, especially inner freedom.

Now, to return to the business of Lent, when it comes to an examination of conscience, try this four-step process.  It works, not by self-condemnation, but by self-compassion.  First, name what troubles your conscience.  Let’s say I lied.  Second, ask yourself, “What beautiful human need was I trying to meet with that lie?”  It could be one or several — security?  support?  respect?  self-respect?   Third, consider: “Did the lie meet that need?”  The answer is going to be no.  But notice!  There is no guilt involved.  The need is legitimate, precious, and God-given — a need God wants to be fulfilled; but my strategy for meeting that need did not work.  Sin is another name for a bad strategy.  Fourth, in a spirit of tender compassion for myself, I look for a better strategy.

This is the way God regards us when we sin.  God sees we are fumbling to meet those precious, God-given human needs, but we become confused when it comes to devising strategies that actually fulfill those needs.  Sometimes our strategies are not just ignorant, they are tragic, or even evil.  But however misguided the strategy, the intent is, at bottom, always good.  However misguided the strategy, this is not a cause for guilt.  It is a cause for grief, to be sure, for sin always does harm, and at times great harm, as we all know.

I’ve been speaking as if guilt were one thing and shame another; and they are.  But often they go together.  What can we do with shame?  We can reframe guilt as inappropriate — or at least unnecessary.  Is there any way to reframe shame?  There is.

This strategy comes from Thomas Merton; and I found it both shocking and potentially helpful.  First he says that to love others we must first love ourselves.  But how do we find something in ourselves really to love?  It is impossible unless we find the likeness of Christ in ourselves.

Next he says that we have a limited idea of Christ; and that keeps us from finding Christ in ourselves.  The limitation is that we look for Christ in our own idealized image of ourselves — us at our best.

Finally he says, and I quote, because here’s the shocker: “The Christ we find in ourselves is not identified with what we vainly seek to admire and idolize in ourselves — on the contrary, He has identified Himself with what we resent in ourselves, for He has taken upon Himself our wretchedness and our misery, our poverty and our sins.  We cannot find peace in ourselves if, in rejecting our misery and thrusting it away from us, we thrust away Christ Who loves in us not our human glory but our ignobility.”

This answers the question: how can I reframe the sense of shame I feel?  Merton says: first disabuse yourself of the idea that Christ is found in the good people, the good qualities.  No!  He took upon himself just the opposite.  That is the great insight of the crucifixion.  He identified with all we deplore in ourselves.  Do you want to draw close to God?  To Jesus?  Then start to love all those aspects of yourself that embarrass you or shame you — your hidden (or not so hidden) weaknesses, addictions and mistakes.  Then seek that same Christ in others.  Christ will be most powerfully present in those you despise!  Seen in this light, shame can be an immense gift — the gift of humility, of putting on our true humanity, of being one with Christ.

Let me close with this.  Suppose Moses had refused to strike the rock — he said to himself: I’ll look like a complete idiot if no water appears.  I’m not going to risk the shame.  Or suppose Jesus had refused to speak to the Samaritan woman — he said to himself: I’ll lose my disciples’ respect if they find me speaking to a woman, and worse, a social outcast.  I won’t risk the shame.  Friends, let us commit ourselves to daring to do the right thing, despite the risk of shame.  It will call for an inner freedom, and thanks to Lent, we are developing that freedom.

MATTHEW 5:38-48

February 19, 2017

“Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile.”  Are we wrong, then, to resist an evildoer?  In truth, many of us resist one evildoer or another relentlessly.  How can that be okay, given today’s clear instruction from Jesus: “do not resist an evildoer”?

If we look at this reading in isolation it’s hard to see how we can go on actively resisting and not feel we are turning our backs on God’s word.  But today’s reading is only part of the Sermon on the Mount.  We would expect the whole Sermon to hang together to make a point and show us what Jesus is driving at.  In fact, it does; and that helps us make sense of Jesus’ words about not resisting an evil-doer.

The Sermon started with the nine beatitudes: “Blessed are the poor in spirit..  Blessed are those who mourn….  and so on.  Blessed translates a Greek word that means not just happy, but extraordinarily happy, or extremely fortunate.  Perhaps you remember reading in Greek mythology of the Isles of the Blessed, which was an earthly paradise.  The word we translate as blessed points to a state of being that is beyond the ordinary — you might say supernaturally happy.

The Sermon goes on to speak about fulfillment.  Jesus said, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.”  Jesus uses the word fulfill a lot.  For example, in John’s gospel he said, “I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be fulfilled.”  In other words, we find joy from the law and the prophets, and yet we can go beyond the law and the prophets to an even greater joy.   Whether Jesus is talking about being blessed or being fulfilled, he is talking about going beyond normal experience.  An extra measure of joy seems to be available to us, and that is what Jesus is pointing us toward.

In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus is talking about a two-step process.  First comes formation; second comes transformation.  First comes the law and the prophets; that is, guidance for living our normal, daily life.  They exist to shape our actions, intentions, attitudes, values, and beliefs.  But what are they shaping us to become?  What are they guiding us toward?

Transformation.  Transformation is hard to talk about, because it has to be experienced.  Formation has to be taught; transformation can only be caught.

Let me insert an image that might be helpful.  In the study of dreams a house can often symbolize the self.  I’d like you to imagine a house — not the one you live in, but one you create in your imagination.  Now imagine yourself in it.  All of a sudden you notice a door that you hadn’t known was there.  When you open it you discover a vast room, warm and inviting, beautifully furnished.  You are overjoyed and you realize that that hidden room had always been there, but you hadn’t been aware of it.

This image is meant to make sense of Jesus’ words in today’s reading.  He said, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”  That same word can equally well be translated “complete.”  Be complete he is saying, don’t stop with just ordinary happiness; press on toward the Isles of the Blessed.  Be complete he is saying; don’t stop with formation, with the law and the prophets; press on to fulfillment, to transformation.  Be complete; don’t live only in the house you are familiar with; open the door and live also in that vast and glorious hidden room.  There is so much more to you than you realize.

I know that many of us, have discovered that “beyond” that Jesus is pointing us to.  You suddenly, and for no reason, find yourself deeply at peace, happy beyond measure, content with things just as they are, tranquil in a vast spaciousness.  It may last only a few minutes, or much longer, but when we return to normal life we remember that we did have that experience.  We would probably have it more often if we did as Jesus did: simply spending time in stillness, just soaking in God’s presence.

Sadly, certain things we do can make it hard for us to receive that “beyond” element into our lives.  In order to describe these things, I want to make a distinction between reacting and responding.  Jesus spoke about not resisting.  Resisting can take two forms.  Reactions are fundamentally negative; responding is fundamentally positive.

Because reactions move against something, they create counter-reactions; they polarize.  Reactions open a gap between me and the person I am reacting to; they lead to violence.

Responding feels entirely different.  Responding unifies, while reacting divides.  Responding accepts while reacting tries to control.  Responding forgives, while reacting condemns.  Reacting says, “My way or the highway;” responding doesn’t give ultimatums.

In today’s reading I believe Jesus is trying to steer his disciples — us — away from reacting.  He knows it engenders anger and shuts us down inside.  I cannot believe he would steer us away from responding though.  He himself responded vehemently to the injustices and hypocrisy of his day.  When he said not to resist the evildoer, he must have meant do not react-to.  Do not react to the evil doer, but do resist by means of responding, as he himself did.  Responding is a shorthand way of saying love your enemy.

Remember Jesus said, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”  He didn’t say this to make us pious; he said it so that we could experience that blessedness, fulfillment, completeness — the inner spaciousness that is ours.

I want to close by bringing all this theory into the real world.  I want to suggests how we can — not react — but respond to an enemy.  This strategy comes from Thomas Merton; and I found it both shocking and potentially helpful.

First he says that to love others we must first love ourselves.  But how do we find something in ourselves really to love?  It is impossible unless we find the likeness of Christ in ourselves.

Next he says that we have a limited idea of Christ; and that keeps up from finding Christ in ourselves.  The limitation is that we look for Christ in our own idealized image of ourselves — us at our best.

Finally he says, and I quote: “The Christ we find in ourselves is not identified with what we vainly seek to admire and idolize in ourselves — on the contrary, He has identified Himself with what we resent in ourselves, for He has taken upon Himself our wretchedness and our misery, our poverty and our sins.  We cannot find peace in ourselves if, in rejecting our misery and thrusting it away from us, we thrust away Christ Who loves in us not our human glory but our ignobility.”

This answers the question: how can I resist and not react to someone I fear and loath?  Merton says: first disabuse yourself of the idea that Christ is found in the good people, the good qualities.  No!  He took upon himself just the opposite.  That is the great insight of the crucifixion.  He identified with all we find abhorrent in ourselves.  Do you want to draw close to God?  To Jesus?  Then start to love all those aspects of yourself that embarrass you or shame you — your hidden (or not so hidden) weaknesses and addictions.  Then seek that same Christ in others.  Christ will be most powerfully present in your enemies!  From that place of tender, loving acceptance you can respond, not react.  You can speak to your enemy with power and passion about what you see happening and what its tragic consequences will be.  Like Jesus, you’ll be “perfect”!

Matthew 5:13-20

February 10, 2017

On the surface this Gospel seems to mirror the very situation we find ourselves in today.  Surely most of us are troubled by the divisiveness that wracks our country.  Nowadays, us-against-them crops up everywhere you look.  The Gospel today also shows us a division — a familiar one: Jesus against the scribes and Pharisees.  Let’s take a look below the surface of this reading, and discover some surprising guidance.

Jesus grew up in the Jewish faith; it formed him through and through.  He railed against the scribes and Pharisees, not because he rejected his faith, not even because he rejected them, but because, for them, religion went no further than the law and the prophets — you could say it stopped with the externals of religion, head stuff.

Obviously some people took Jesus’ polemics against the scribes and Pharisees as a repudiation of the law and the prophets; hence Jesus’ outspoken defense of the law and the prophets, as we just heard.  The law and the prophets, he was saying, make a starting place, an essential starting place, but not the goal.

So Jesus chastises the scribes and the Pharisees time and again.  He is fierce, even scathing, but out of what we might call today tough love.  Jesus could see that they were in as much need of spiritual salvage as any of the people — maybe more — and his heart went out to them; but privilege blinded them to their need.  You’ve heard it said that the church’s job is to afflict the comfortable, and comfort the afflicted.  Jesus could best express his love for the scribes and Pharisees by afflicting them.

What is the real issue, then, between Jesus and the Jewish leadership?  Jesus said in today’s episode, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.”  That one word, fulfill, holds the key to understanding the real issue.  Jesus uses the word fulfill a lot.  For example, in John’s gospel he said, “I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be fulfilled.”  Imagine if you built a sail boat.  You have it all right and tight, strong keel, sturdy rudder, but it still needs a sail.  The law and the prophets are that beautiful sea-worthy boat.  The joy is the wind in the sail.

Getting this right is so important!  In this passage Jesus is talking about a two-step process.  First comes formation; second comes transformation.  First comes the law and the prophets; that is, what can be taught.  They shape our actions, intentions, attitudes, values, and beliefs.  Even more basic: they make us aware that right and wrong exist, and that there are consequences to our choices.  We cannot ignore the law and the prophets or we’ll be non-starters on the journey of life.

Second, transformation.  It cannot be taught.  Transformation is hard to talk about, because it has to be experienced.  To return to the analogy of the boat, transformation is the wind in the sail — it has to be caught.  Transformation leads to a sense of flying free in a wide open sea.  It deals with the internals, with the heart and soul.  Formation, we could say, deals with the realm of duality — I see the differences between you and me.  Transformation deals with the realm of unity — I sense how, at bottom, you and I are one.  Formation allows you to see what is wrong about what I am doing or saying.  Transformation  allows you to call me out, without giving me the sense that I am being judged, rejected, or am in some sense inferior.  You do it with compassion.

What was that life-changing attraction that drew disciples, and even crowds, to Jesus?  Wasn’t it the way he appeared to fly free in the wind?  His unfettered joy?  The sense they had that he was unreservedly alive in the present moment?  For myself, when I’m in the presence of someone I have judged and found wanting, I feel squeezed inside, anything but free.  I even feel knots when I think of those people.  In short, I’ve run aground in a moral swamp.  Jesus didn’t let himself go there.

Some of you may be thinking of Hilary Clinton or Donald Trump.  Not hold her or him in aversion?  Not judge them?  Not put a chasm between her or him and me?  How is that possible?  Look at Jesus.  He knew that we can only speak out in protest effectively if we are speaking from a place of compassion — from a place where we feel no division between us and them.  If, in Jesus, we see God in human form, then he could not reject the one who does wrong — not put up a barrier, not hold that person in aversion.  He could only feel his oneness with them.  So he is showing us that most difficult of all achievements: how to be critical of others without rejecting them, without judging them; without allowing a gap to open up between us and them.  Only from that position could he speak truth to power… with power.

At this point some of you are saying, “Where is the good news in that?  Where is the promised comfort?  If I’m supposed to have compassion for Donald Trump or Hilary Clinton — and harder still, not separate myself from them — I simply can’t do it!”  Fair enough; we’re all students in the school of love, not graduates.

But think of this.  Suppose Jesus spoke to the scribes and Pharisees in such a way that they heard loathing and contempt.  In other words he went beyond chastising their willful ignorance and their failed leadership.  He actually deplored them.  If Jesus, God in human form, can separate himself from other human beings on the basis of their bad behavior, what about us?  How perfect are we?  Not only that, but he would be giving us permission, by his example, to do the same.  He’d be an enabler — enabling us to tie ourselves up in knots, give away our freedom — the very thing he accused the scribes and Pharisees of doing to their people.

So for us who are comfortable, this Gospel reading afflicts us.  It afflicts us by condemning our behavior, to the extent that we judge others and find them wanting.  And for us who are afflicted, this Gospel reading comforts us.  It comforts us with the assurance that no matter how aground we may be in a moral swamp, Jesus will be right there beside us, never drawing away.  And for us who are desperate to bring about change, this Gospel reading says we can never be more effective than when our words — critical though they be — come from a place of full-hearted compassion.

I’ll sum this up by closing with a story.  In Woodstock the Episcopal priest teamed up with the rabbi of the synagogue to team teach a class they designed called “Common Origin, Separate Paths.”  They billed it as not seeking what we have in common, but exploring our differences.  In the first few classes discussion felt formal, even stiff; for both sides knew how prejudice against Jews, rooted the New Testament, had given rise to nearly 2,000 years of bitter persecution.  But the teachers modeled respect for each other, and openness to whatever was said.  Gradually trust built up; we began to trust that we could express our true opinions and beliefs; that we could differ point blank, and still be members of the same community of spiritual seekers.  In the end, the experience transformed most, if not all, of us.  Our own faiths were vastly enriched, and equally, we saw for the first time how infinitely rich was the others’ tradition.  In terms of today’s Gospel, we had become the salt of the earth and lamps on a lamp stand.  We differed, yes, irrevocably; but we overcame our separation.  In fact, we discovered our basic oneness, and we added greatly to the flavor and savor of our separate religions.

John 1:29-42; Isaiah 49:1-7

January 25, 2017

Every year this Sunday gives us a chance to strike the flint of the Bible against the steel of a specific historical person, Martin Luther King, Jr.  This year it sparks a fire of exceptionally good news for us.  It also throws more light onto our faith and onto our understanding of history.

Many of us remember the civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery, and we may even have seen the police attack the marchers as they tried to cross the Edmond Pettus Bridge.  Seventeen marchers were hospitalized, many more were bloodied and severely injured.  It became known as Bloody Sunday.  Martin Luther King, Jr. was not on that march.

When a new march was planned, Martin made sure to be part of it… but with a different approach.  This time 2500 marchers, both black and white, again set off and came to the Edmond Pettus Bridge.  Again they came face to face with barricades and armed troopers.  But instead of a confrontation, King just knelt and bowed his head in prayer.  The other marchers did as he did.  Then he stood and he turned back.  This seeming timidity caused some of the young African American leaders to turn against him; but that act of submission aroused support across the nation for the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.  A huge victory.

I want to link the contrast between those two marches to a book I read recently, Power vs. Force.  Let me take a moment and describe how power and force differ.  Sometimes it can be tricky to tell which is which from observation; but in fact they are polar opposites.  Here are some examples of where the difference is obvious.

Power unifies, while force divides.  Power accepts while force tries to control.  Power forgives, while force condemns.  Power is open, force is secretive.  Force says, “My way of the highway;” power doesn’t give ultimatums.  You can add to this list from your own life experience.

Other examples show that it’s not always obvious which is which.  For instance, am I being confident or arrogant?  Am I requesting or am I demanding?  Am I being spontaneous or impulsive?  Thoughtful or pedantic?  Reliant or dependent?  Helpful or meddling?  Courageous or reckless?  Authoritative or dogmatic?  Sometimes we have to search our hearts to know.

Power has the greater strength; for in the long run force succumbs to power.  But where does power get its strength?  It arises within our hearts — I don’t mean hearts as in Valentines, but hearts as Jesus meant when he said, “what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart” — from the core of our being.  If our hearts are centered in Jesus and sharing in his mission we will be people of power.  That is, if our mission  is to reveal what divine love looks like in created form we will be people of power.

Now let’s link the Martin Luther King story and the concepts of force vs. power to the Bible.  For an example, we might turn to today’s reading from the prophet Isaiah.  Isaiah was writing from Babylon in the 6th century BCE, where the Israelites lived in misery as captive people.  Speaking through Isaiah to the people of Israel, God said — and I’m paraphrasing — right now you are deeply despised, abhorred by the nations, the slave of rulers; but the time is coming when those who now have force will prostrate themselves before you, because of the power of God working through you.  Call this the Divine Paradox — the very thing Jesus meant when he said, “…many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.” (Matthew 19:30)  In other words, those who use power may appear to fail; while those who use force may appear to succeed.  Those who lacked force — the marchers, the nation held in captivity, and supremely, Jesus on the cross —  become victorious through the power of God’s love acting in them.

Turning now to the Gospel, we see yet another example of power vs. force.  It accounts for the difference between Jesus and John the Baptist.  I think this difference explains a saying of Jesus’ that always puzzled me.  Referring to John, Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he (Matthew 11:11).”

Calling John the Baptist a man of force warns us not to presume that power is good and force is bad.  John the Baptist had nothing but good intentions, but he tended to use force to bring them about.  Force is not so much bad as ineffective.  Because force always moves against something, it creates counter-forces, and it polarizes.  Force simply fizzles out.

And it isn’t as though some people use force and others use power.  Most of us use a mixture of both.  The more closely we follow Jesus, the more we will move with power.  The key to knowing when we are choosing force and when we are choosing power lies in this question.  Am I trying to control the outcome of this situation?  Or am I letting God shape the outcome?  Letting go and letting God does not, of course, get us off the hook.  We still have to play our role.

Here’s an example of playing their role and using power.   In Whitefish, Montana.  The “Daily Stormer” website posted the names and pictures of targeted Jews on its website, plus pictures of their children, their phone numbers, addresses, email and social media information — for the purpose of encouraging white supremacists to “take action” and “Hit ‘Em Up.”  They are threatening to hold a march through the center of town, carrying high-powered rifles and to bus in skinheads from the Bay Area to swell the march.  Citizens are responding with power, not force.  They are enlisting people across the country to pledge money to a special fund, tied to how many minutes the white supremacists march — so many dollars per minute. The money raised would be used for such things as community and police training on how best to handle a hate incident.  I’ve pledged.

I suspect many of us would speak up when something happens that we know to be wrong.  But two things keep us from doing that.  First, our impulse is to act with force; and something in us draws back from that.  We don’t want to make enemies, to add to the polarization, to create another ‘Bloody Sunday,’ and so we keep still.  Second, we don’t take seriously the consequences of not acting.  By not acting we say in effect: this behavior falls within the bounds of normal, of acceptable.  Once that happens, our community, our society,  takes on a toxic identity.  Who would want to move to a town where children aren’t safe in their homes?   Who wouldn’t want to move to a town where citizens look after each other?  It is absolutely vital that we act and that we act with power, not force, if we hope to preserve what we value.

I said at the beginning that these readings would spark a fire of really good news for us.  Here it is.  If like me, you’ve tried something and it didn’t work out, do we then carry a burden of failure?  It may be that it didn’t work out because we were using force.  In that case we did not fail; we created an opportunity to learn.  Or it may be that we acted with power and invoked the Divine Paradox.  That is, our efforts only appear to have failed.  In fact, through our efforts we have enabled God to work out a far grander plan that we ever imagined.

Today’s readings invite us to make constant use of a well-known mantra.  “Let go and let God.”  It’s the secret to living in joy.  It says: let go of outcomes.  If we invest in the outcome of our efforts, we cannot help but turn to force.  The mantra does not say: make no effort.  Make your very best effort to show the world what divine love looks like in created form.  Make your best effort and trust in the Divine Paradox for the outcome.

Luke 13:10-17

August 26, 2016

Trinity Church Saugerties

Sunday, 21 August 2016

Luke 13:10 – 17

“Grant, O merciful God, that your Church, being gathered together in unity by your holy Spirit, may show forth your power among all peoples, to the glory of your name….”  The key words in today’s Collect are: church, unity, holy Spirit and power.

If we look around us, we have to admit this prayer is not being answered.  Far from being gathered together in unity, the churches are splitting apart; and if unity is a prerequisite for power, the Church is not showing God’s power forth among all peoples.  What is wrong?  Jesus gathered people to himself in unity and showed forth God’s power; why can the Church not do the same?

We can look for the answer in today’s Gospel reading.  But let me lead into it with this story.  The popular author, Anne Rice, posted this on her Facebook page.  “I remain committed to Christ, as always, but not to being ‘Christian’ or to being part of Christianity….   I refuse to be anti-gay. I refuse to be anti-feminist. I refuse to be anti-artificial birth control. I refuse to be anti-Democrat. I refuse to be anti-secular humanism. I refuse to be anti-science. I refuse to be anti-life. In the name of Christ, I quit Christianity and being Christian. Amen.”

Anne is listing beliefs in her manifesto, not the faith of Christ.  She is speaking for a whole generation of what the church calls “nones.”  N-O-N-E-S.  That is, in filling out a form that asks for religious preference they check the box marked, “None.”  They have been led to think that the Christian faith is defined by beliefs; and that the church imposes those beliefs on us and that unless we subscribe to them our salvation is at risk.  Also, they think that the Church sees itself as gatekeeper at the doors of heaven.  In other words, the nones reject the Church, because they think it is all about beliefs — beliefs which they do not share.

The nones, I think, are looking for faith, not beliefs.  What is the difference?  Belief and faith cannot be separated, but let me try to distinguish between them this way.  Beliefs, whether true or false, tend to be about this world — things that can be proven, at least in theory.  Faith tends to be about things spiritual, linked more to hope than proof.  Basically, we hope that this life is not all there is.  We hope that another reality, an eternal reality — what Jesus called the kingdom of God — surrounds us and fills us as if we were sponges immersed in water.  We hope that at the heart of that kingdom dwells the God we came to know through Jesus.

Suppose we look at the controversy in today’s Gospel, between Jesus and the religious leader, with this contrast in mind — the contrast between belief and faith.  Both men share a faith that God is real, and that God gave the ten commandments, which are sacred.  I call this faith, because it cannot be proven, yet faith commits itself to living as if it were true.

Then doctrine enters the picture when religious leaders start to interpret what that faith means.  In this case, the fourth commandment says to keep holy the Lord’s day and do no work on that day.  It was up to scholars to decide what would qualify as work; and what they taught became beliefs.  I call these beliefs, not faith, because they are about this world (that is, specific behaviors) and they can be proven by reference to the original human teaching.

So here we have Jesus and the religious leader in a stand off.  The leader leans more toward beliefs; Jesus toward faith.  This implies quite a difference between them.  Obedience will be a prime value for the leader; while for Jesus we might call responsiveness a prime value.  Belief implies an external authority (the teaching), while responsiveness implies an inner authority (conscience, for instance, or an intimate sense of God’s real presence in the situation).  Belief lends itself to a need to control others; faith lends itself to allowing self-determination.

If we transpose those two stances — belief in contrast to faith — to today’s churches, we see a similar divide, even hostility.  And the divisions have come about over such things as Anne Rice mentioned.  Times and issues change, but those two basic stances, belief and faith, seem perennial.  Very likely they account for the Church’s failure to live out the prayer in today’s Collect.

It’s very tempting to argue for one side over the other, especially Jesus’ side.  But that approach has been tried for two thousand years, and the result has not varied.  Is there another approach?

There is, and it depends on seeing value in both sides.  I recently read a study by the Public Religion Research Institute where they surveyed voters to discover how many of us lean toward authoritarian leaders and how many toward self-determining leaders.  The proportion varied according to how much we feel under threat.  If our sense of threat rises, we are more likely to want an authoritarian leader.

In Jesus’ day, his people lived in an environment of threat.  The Roman overlords ruled by terror.  They crucified “enemies of the state” by the thousands, both before and after Jesus’ time.  And the Romans’ tax collectors could be extortionate; so the threat of becoming destitute was also real.  In an environment like that, wouldn’t we all opt for stability of any kind, including the stability offered by set and inflexible beliefs?

So let us have compassion for the religious leader.  No doubt he was an anxious man, and Jesus would have seen that.  Would Jesus have wanted to put him to shame, as the Gospel claims?  Much more likely, Jesus would have wanted to heal the leader, who was crippled by anxiety, just as he had healed the crippled woman.

If this Gospel account of Jesus’ healing on the sabbath is distorted, why might that be?  Perhaps Luke was also anxious; for he was fighting his own battle.  After the Temple was destroyed in 70 AD, it was up for grabs who would get to define Judaism.  Luke wanted it to be Jesus’ community; the Pharisees wanted it to be theirs.  In other words, Luke might have relocated his own controversy back into Jesus’ day.

However it was, I want to call on the fourth key term in today’s Collect, the holy Spirit.  As long as we have beliefs — and we cannot live without them — differences will abound.  But maybe the Church’s power — including the power to attract the nones — does not depend on unity of belief and does not depend on agreeing to one polity.  Maybe the unity which is brought about by the holy Spirit is a unity of love.

You’ve heard the saying, “Listening is love.”  Suppose that we, moved by the holy Spirit, simply listened to those who believe differently than we do.  Listened with respect and appreciation.  Listened not to argue, but to understand, and at a deep level.  Listened not just to understand the belief, but also the environment that gave rise to that belief.

Sister and brothers, let us live not only by our beliefs, but also by our faith.  And we have faith, as the Gospel of John reminds us, that perfect love casts out fear.  So we need not fear to listen with open hearts to those who disagree with us.  This is the kind of faith that will show forth God’s power among all peoples.  Amen.

Luke 12:32-40 and Hebrews 11:1-3,8-16

August 7, 2016

“Faith,” said Mark Twain, “is believin’ what you know ain’t so.”  He’s mixing up belief and faith to make us laugh; but I wonder if he realized how important it is not to confuse the two.  The writer to the Hebrews does not make that mistake: “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”  Faith is conviction, not belief.

This morning I’d like us to think about the difference between faith and belief.  Sometimes they mean the same thing, but often they don’t.

Let me give you a sad example of what can happen when faith and belief are taken to be the same.  The popular author, Anne Rice, posted this on her Facebook page.  “I remain committed to Christ, as always, but not to being ‘Christian’ or to being part of Christianity….   I refuse to be anti-gay. I refuse to be anti-feminist. I refuse to be anti-artificial birth control. I refuse to be anti-Democrat. I refuse to be anti-secular humanism. I refuse to be anti-science. I refuse to be anti-life. In the name of Christ, I quit Christianity and being Christian. Amen.”

Anne is listing beliefs in her manifesto, not the faith of Christ.  She is speaking for a whole generation of what the church calls “nones.”  N-O-N-E-S.  That is, in filling out a form that asks for religious preference they check the box marked, “None.”  They have been led to think that the Christian faith is defined by teachings and creeds; and that the church imposes those beliefs on us and unless we subscribe to them our salvation is at risk.  Also that the church stands as gatekeeper at the doors of heaven.  In other words, the nones reject the church, because they think it is all about beliefs, which they, “know ain’t so.”

This is an example of how wrong beliefs can keep many bright young people away, which harms the church.  Now I’ll give you an example of how wrong beliefs can harm all of us.  Often these wrong beliefs were instilled in childhood.  For instance, in my family, my parents came of age when the great depression hit.  By the time I was born, in 1938, they had taken on the belief that poverty was always just around the corner.  We never lacked for anything; nevertheless I grew up believing that we were about to become poor and as a consequence, my family never spent money easily or joyfully.

Others may grow up believing that the natural human state is to be ill.  No matter how healthy they are, they fear that, unless they are taking some medication, a sickness will overcome them.  You can add to the list.  It may be that a person believes themself to be unlikeable, and goes through life fearing rejection.  Or I might believe that I am unlucky, and go through my days fearing loss or failure.  It’s common to believe the world is basically dangerous.  Wrong beliefs are legion.

These examples show how wrong beliefs can keep us from engaging with life.  They engender mistrust or fear.  So we shrink back from exploring what the world has to offer in all of its fullness and beauty.

The antidote to wrong belief is faith.  Belief and faith cannot be separated, but we can distinguish between them.  You noticed the letter to the Hebrews did not link faith to belief, but to “things hoped for.”  Faith is not hope about things in this world, but about things spiritual.  Basically, we hope that this life is not all there is.  We hope that another reality, an eternal reality — what Jesus called the kingdom of God — surrounds us and fills us like a sponge in water.  That at the heart of that kingdom dwells the God we came to know through Jesus.

How does all of this relate to Jesus’ teaching in today’s Gospel?  It relates directly.  Speaking of that eternal reality — the “kingdom” — he says, “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”  “Do not be afraid.”  Our take-away from this reading is that faith will free us from fear.

Jesus drives this point home with his next words.  “Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”  Clearly he is not speaking literally.  If we sold our possessions it would not free us from fear; just the opposite.

Metaphors speak with more force than explanations.  Jesus is pressing us to ask, “Am I clinging to my possessions for my security?  Do I fear losing them?  Does my identity depend on them?”  Jesus says, “sell.”  He means: make a mental shift — from belief that my life depends on what I possess, to faith that, as the letter to the Colossians says, “your life is hidden with Christ in God.”  Sell means shift from fear and distrust to assurance and conviction, from threats to hope.

Faith is not like a room: either you are in it or you are not.  Faith is a journey.  We progress toward faith, toward when we can ‘sell’ our possessions and give alms.  Gradually and increasingly we inhabit Jesus’ kingdom, even as we continue to walk in this world.  Progressively we live — less and less by beliefs, and more and more by faith.  Bit by bit our treasure builds up in heaven, side by side with our hearts.  And the farther we progress the more we leave fear behind.  Let’s close with this from today’s reading, it’s both a true belief and a true faith: “God is not ashamed to be called [our] God; indeed he has prepared a city for [us].”

Luke 10:38-42

July 19, 2016

17 July 2016


Someone once said, “The great man makes every man feel his equal.”  How can that be?  What makes a person great is that others are not equal.  The great person stands out!  But if we think about it, the essence of a great person’s greatness lies in the way that person makes others feel as if they are on the same level.  Jesus’ followers must have experienced him that way — not just great, but truly great in that way.

In today’s Gospel reading we see Jesus being, not just a good teacher, but a great teacher.  He was giving instruction concerning one of life’s defining challenges.  That is: finding a proper balance between freedom and responsibility.  It’s one all of us have struggled with.

Let me go back.  This wasn’t the only time Jesus had taught on the antithesis between freedom and responsibility, for it’s the central issue between a life well-lived and a life half-wasted.  Remember the parable that starts out, “There was a man who had two sons. The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me…’”?  Jesus went on to tell the story we call the “Prodigal Son.”  Jesus did not try to spell out how we should live — where responsibility should end and freedom begin or vice versa.  He just gave two examples, both extremes.  The younger son overindulged in freedom; the older son in responsibility.

As a great teacher, by telling this story Jesus called our attention to a matter of vital importance for us, but he did not try to instruct us.  He did not put himself on a level above us, in a teacher-student relationship.  He trusted us to be able to find our way between those two extremes, no doubt learning by trial and error.  Also, as a great teacher, he knew that if he tried to instruct us, we would only memorize his words.  That is, when we had to negotiate our way between freedom or responsibility, we would look outside of ourselves for the answer — look for some policy or law.  He knew that true learning has to arise from within, from our own inner struggle and the wisdom we acquire from that struggle.

The story in today’s Gospel reading speaks to that same matter: freedom vs. responsibility.  The difference is this.  The story about the two brothers dealt with living our external lives — our lives in the world.  The story of the two sisters deals with living our spiritual lives — we might say choices of the soul.  Martha feels her responsibility as Jesus’ hostess, and there’s a lot to do to serve a party of friends.  Mary feels her freedom to enjoy Jesus’ presence, and does not worry about how the work will get done.  If we read this parable as symbolizing two spiritual choices, the contrast is between being busy with religious duties or being silent and still, simply contemplating Jesus’ presence.

It has probably become clear by now that Jesus was not describing two sets of people — two brothers and two sisters — but he meant them to stand for desires we all experience within ourselves — the desire to be responsible and the desire to be free.  We can identify with each of the brothers and each of the sisters.  We have those tendencies within ourselves.

Both sisters are necessary.  It is a question of balance.  On the one hand, as followers of Jesus, like Martha, we have responsibilities that accrue to our faith.  For us these would include: keeping our worshiping community vital, which means church attendance at the very least.  Also, we need to maintain some form of spiritual study; it could be reading the Bible or a spiritual classic.  Lately I’ve gotten a lot of good out of reading Henri Nouwen’s books.  Also, we have the sick, the friendless, and the needy to care for.

On the other hand, as followers of Jesus, like Mary, we also have freedom.  I can choose to let my responsibilities go for a while and just indulge myself.  It’s as if my dear friend, Jesus, calls and says let’s go out for a cup of tea.  I think to myself: well, I’ve got a lot to do, but why not?  He’s such good company!  I’ll have such a good time!”  So I exercise my freedom to choose, and off I go.  Jesus knows how prone we are to busy ourselves with the responsibility-side of being his disciple; so in the parable he emphasizes the importance of quiet contemplation — the choice Mary made.

Why might he do that?  What makes the quiet, contemplative side of our spiritual life the better choice?  We live in a time when violence is on the rise exponentially — mass killings, racism, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, hate speech.  Shouldn’t we be like Martha and be doing something about it?  It may not be obvious what I as an individual could do, but shouldn’t I be doing something?  If I follow Mary’s example am I not burying my head in the sand?  If Jesus were here today, would he still say, “Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”

I think Jesus would have stuck to what he said, and here’s the reason.  All of us must be agonizing over the attack in Nice.  It’s the most recent evidence that the world, as we have known it, is changing even as we watch, and in more ways than we can number.  We are asking ourselves, “What can I do to make this world a more just and safer place to live?”  The answer is not “nothing.”  None of us is helpless.  Let me suggest a four step process.

First, we might recall Jesus’ words, “…you always have the poor with you.”  In other words, he is asking us to distinguish between what is urgent and what is important.  To set to work to restore the world is highly important, but not urgent.  Sometimes we make the mistake of seeing something as urgent which is not, but we deal with that — the urgent — and short-change what is really important.  So we do not, for instance, run out blindly and join the Salvation Army.

Second, we want to act in a way that is effective.  Not a week goes by, at least recently, when we haven’t woken up to another mass killing.  Whatever we do to restore some safety and justice to the world, we want it to count.  So when am I at my most effective?  Isn’t it when I am acting from the whole of myself?  I’m less effective if I’m copying some role model, even Jesus himself.  What is my unique combination of aptitudes, strengths, resources, experiences, desires and concerns?  If I can center myself — not in a how-to book, not in someone else’s example — but in myself, then I have the best chance of making a difference.  The difference I make, plus the difference you make, plus the difference others like us make can add up.

Third, we do what Mary did.  We sit down face to face, so to speak, with Jesus.  Gradually we realize that what that paradoxical quotation said is true.  We are sitting with a great man and he is making us feel his equal.  Not his lieutenant, not his copycat, not his passive follower, but a fully empowered person in our own right.

Fourth, we make a plan and we act.  Do not be misled.  To “act” may mean finding a way to pray about it; or it may — if I’m prone to judgmental, punitive thoughts — mean changing the way I think.  I’ll close with something Mother Theresa said.  Mother Theresa is one of those rare persons in whom there is no distinction between the spiritual and the worldly — an inner stillness and an outer busyness.  She said, “We ourselves feel that what we are doing is just a drop in the ocean. But the ocean would be less because of that missing drop.  It is not how much we do… but how much love we put in that action.”

Let me sum up that process.  First we remind ourselves not to panic — the problem won’t go away.  Second we do a self-assessment so we can take effective action.  Third we turn away from our busy Martha side and do as Mary did to feel empowered.  Fourth, we turn back to our Martha side and we get busy.  Amen.

Luke 4:1-13

May 3, 2016


Jesus’ Temptations

Luke 4:1-13

This reading about Jesus’ temptations and how he responded to them makes it sound easy.  Are you facing a tough decision?  Just turn to the Bible and let it tell you what to do or what to say.   That sounds good, until we consider that certain Islamic clerics turn to Scripture, too, and it guides them to raise up suicide bombers.  Closer to home, Christian clergy turn to Scripture and it guides them to condemn homosexuality or ordaining women.  For centuries Christians turned to Scripture and it guided them to oppress Jews.  Is there a proper way to use the Bible for guidance?

Let me frame that question with a story.  This happened to Rachel Naomi Remen, a pediatric oncologist at Stanford Hospital in Palo Alto, California.  A 12-year-old girl came to Dr. Remen with Hodgkin’s disease, a cancer of the lymph nodes.  The girl, her mother, and her father, who was an Orthodox rabbi, had come all the way from New York for radiation treatment at the linear accelerator.

The treatment’s effectiveness depended on a series of treatments, timed a precise number of days apart.  According to the girl’s treatment schedule, the eighth treatment would fall on Yom Kippur.  The father came to Dr. Remen to explain that Yom Kippur is the holiest day of the year.  His faith strictly forbids handling money on this day, riding in cars, or using electricity.  In short, his daughter could not come to her treatment on that day.

Told that the timing of the treatments was critical to his daughter’s recovery, the father replied angrily that God’s laws superseded any human law.  He reminded Dr. Remen of the story of Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac.  She insisted, and the father said he would consult his own rabbi in New York, the man who headed his sect of Orthodox Judaism.

On the morning of Yom Kippur, Dr. Remen found the girl in her waiting room.  Looking questioningly at the father, the doctor learned that the Great Teacher, himself, had telephoned the father immediately upon receiving his letter.  The Great Teacher told the father to order a taxi for the girl on Yom Kippur, and not only that, but he, the father, was to ride with her.  The father protested:  No, I cannot break the Law!  The Great Teacher was adamant.  The father needed to show his daughter that even a truly holy man could ride in a car on the holiest of days in order to preserve life.  The Great Teacher said something else.  He told the father how important it was that his daughter not feel separated from God by breaking the Law; because that feeling could undermine her healing.

This story makes clear: it is not a straightforward  matter to use Scripture for guidance.  How did Jesus succeed so well?  A partial answer to that question came to me recently when I read a book by Richard Rohr, called Falling Upward.  Rohr is a Roman Catholic monk in his early 70’s with at least 50 years of spiritual exploration and teaching behind him.

Rohr distinguishes two stages in human life: first, building a container, and second, providing it with contents.  We build the container through such things as learning to control our impulses, obeying parents and other authorities, respecting the laws of church and state.  At this first stage we need our religion to make absolute truth claims; we need certitude, order, constancy, control, safety, insurance policies.

If we are successful at building the “container” we will go into the second stage, the content stage, with a strong identity and a principled ethical sense — a solid foundation.  We could call the first stage law and the second stage freedom.  Both are necessary for spiritual growth.  The test of true spiritual maturity is this: can we transcend the container stage and at the same time include it?  Jesus understood this, for he said,  “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill [the law].  For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished.”

I have sympathy for those who are still focused on building the container.  They need to take the Bible literally and live under its authority.  They want to be able to stand on God’s promises, as given in Scripture.  And they wonder:  if not everything written in Scripture is to be taken at face value, then what can we take?  What can we trust?  They are living under a false sense of all or nothing.  How do we get beyond that — learn to trust without clinging to the false security of literalism?

I think of Brother Roger, the founder of the Taizé Community.  He was one of the spiritual giants of the Christian church in the last century.  Stuart and I spent a week at Taizé in 2003 and I remember vividly how he said with the utmost certainty and authority, “God can only love.”  Where did he get that bedrock conviction?  Given all the contradictory pictures of God in the Bible, how did he boil it down to that one conclusion?

He must have started out, as any of us must, building a container — that is, letting the words of Scripture form him and inform him.  Then World War II came along with all the ambiguities that entails.  He found he had to shift — shift from experiencing the presence of God solely in the words of the Bible to experiencing the presence of God also behind the words.

Let me give you an illustration.  My brother has a ranch high in the Rocky Mountains where a pure spring bubbles up in the midst of a boggy meadow.  We had to search for a long time through thickets of willow bushes, through a maze of muddy trickles, through the hoof prints of cows and their droppings to find it.  Then there it was: the source, the clearest, sweetest tasting water you can imagine.  To follow Brother Roger, it’s as if we have to search through the words of the Bible, which have been colored  and distorted by human handling, to find the source — the Presence behind it all.

My original question was this.  Is there a proper way to use the Bible for guidance?  To sum up what I’ve said, we never outgrow the need to read the Bible, but as we read we listen for the silence behind the words; for silence has been called God’s lap.  Think of a deep, interior silence as God’s lap.

Perhaps the Gospel account of Jesus’ temptations indulges in some shorthand.  It reads as if he snapped back his answers to Satan.  I think he waited in silence for who knows how long?  Then the verses that offered true guidance came to him.  But still, being spiritually mature, transcending and including the words of Scripture, he had to give up certainty and control.  He had to be willing to dwell in the mystery of God with all of the ambiguity that entails.  He had to embrace an unknown future.  The thing is, Jesus had been to the source, and this he learned and could count on: God can only love.

Luke 9:28 – 36

May 3, 2016

Exodus 34:29-35, II Corinthians 3:12 – 4:2, Luke 9:28 – 36


Three different accounts of Transfiguration.  Let’s look at the Transfiguration of Moses.  What is really going on?  Shall we take the veil as an historical fact, or did those who composed the account mean to speak in symbols?

Almost certainly the veil is a symbol, and not a factual account of actual events.  An account of actual events would mean little to us.  But God intends the Bible to be like a treasure map for spiritual prospectors.  So what is the pot of gold here, and why does the Bible speak in terms of a veil?

We call Moses’s experience a Transfiguration… but what exactly is a Transfiguration?  I figure it this way.  The Jewish theologian and philosopher, Martin Buber, wrote about two, contrasting forms of relationship: I-Thou and I-It.  In an I-Thou relationship, I see you as a whole, unified person.  I do not analyze you or evaluate you, I am just with you.  In fact, it’s as if you and I shared one “I”.  No thoughts or ideas of mine come between us.  You’ve had this experience.  Think of a time you were in a deep, intimate conversation.  If the other’s thoughts wandered, you felt it.  You knew the other had slipped out of the I-Thou relation and into the I-It relation.

The I-It relation sees the other as an object, and even sees itself as an object.  In the I-It relation I may analyze you and judge you.  Separateness and detachment characterize the I-It relation, like a good doctor with a patient.  In contrast, mutuality and reciprocity characterize an I-Thou relation, like intimate friends or lovers.  But note: there is nothing wrong with I-It.  We need I-It with its analytical powers to live in the world and conduct our lives.

When it comes to God, the I-Thou relationship shifts into a whole different register, as if we shifted from gazing at the moon to gazing at the sun.  Unlike the things of this world, God can never be investigated or examined… never be known as an object.  God can only be known as an absolute presence.  Think of the way a person who is totally blind knows when the sun comes out — a warm, embracing presence.

The Bible tells us repeatedly that Moses went up on the mountain to be with God.  It’s a way of saying that in order to be with God in an I-Thou way Moses had to rise above all the daily business that normally occupied his mind — all his duties, deliberations, decisions.  He had to set them aside and let God be his all-in-all.  To be in an I-Thou relation with God is not necessarily a Transfiguration, but when it reaches an essential degree of clarity or of openness, it is.

Think how it must have been for Moses when it was time to go back down, to tear himself away from the divine presence — away from knowing, as Julian of Norwich said, that “…[A]ll shall be well.  And all shall be well.  And all manner of things shall be exceedingly well.”  He was moving from one world to another.  He had to put his thinking mind back in gear, his analytical mind that he used to solve the problems of the community.  He had to go from I-Thou to I-It.

The veil stands for that transition, for once again putting on his thinking, problem-solving mind.  To be face-to-face with God he had to set aside that mind and simply, like a sunbather, bask in God’s presence.  Also, when he came back among the people, he needed to share with them the spiritual insights that God had given him.  These were I-Thou moments, and his face still shone.  But after that it was back to business as the CEO, and for this he needed the veil — his rational mind.

Jesus’ Transfiguration story is similar.  He was joined in his Transfiguration by Moses and Elijah, representing the Law and the Prophets — the foundation stones of Judaism.  Perhaps this detail is meant to suggest that, for his followers, Jesus would be the third foundation stone of faith.


Paul, too, had an I-Thou experience.  He was on the road to Damascus, very much in the grip of his I-It mind.  He was using it to eradicate the Jesus movement from within his religion.  As he neared Damascus, a blinding light knocked him to the ground.  Jesus spoke to him out of that light, and Paul realized that he was face-to-face with the divine.  It took him three days before he was able to return to his I-It mind, to put on the veil, to direct affairs again.  Only now he was directing affairs in exactly the opposite direction.  He became one of Jesus’ disciples.

With this in mind, perhaps you are as puzzled as I am.  In the passage from Paul’s letters that we heard just now, why did Paul twist the story of Moses’s Transfiguration?  Why use it to belittle Judaism?  There was nothing in the Exodus account about the veil serving to hide the light of Moses’s face from the people.  Nothing about the glory of the Transfiguration being set aside in Moses.  Nothing about the veil serving as a symbol for a hardened, unreceptive mind.

Here is how I make sense of that passage.  Paul was a brilliant man, well schooled in his religion and a passionate advocate for Judaism as he understood it.  He had lived his whole life in the I-It mode, and done so very effectively.  He had no idea there was any other mode.  Then he had an I-Thou experience on his way to Damascus.  The difference astounded him.  Judaism, as he knew it, had not prepared him for Transfiguration and he thought there was something lacking in Judaism.

I’m not sure he was wrong.  The Christian religion is open to the same charge.  Doesn’t the Church make religion chiefly a matter of obedience to its teachings?  Is not sin a principal, if not paramount interest of Christianity as commonly understood?  Aren’t we taught to pray to a God “out there” or “up above” and to make our prayers into I-It prayers — that is, prayers to meet our needs and solve our problems?  If that is what our religion does for us, it is no wonder that people, especially young people, are leaving the Church.

And yet Paul was wrong. Think of Jesus.  Like Paul, Jesus grew up and lived within the Jewish religion.  Its teachings formed his thinking and his doing.  Judaism enabled his Transfiguration.  Afterwards, he felt no need to fault his religion, but like Moses, he shared with his followers what he had learned in those intense I-Thou encounters he had with God.  Judaism served Jesus well, and it can serve people today well, too.

Paul was also right when he continued by saying, “And all of us with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another….”  That is, we too can be in I-Thou relations with God and with each other.   We, too, can be candidates for Transfiguration: that is the pot for gold.

Paul is also right that I-It and I-Thou are not like two sides of a door — either you are in one place or in the other.  In other words, I-Thou has degrees.  Most of us have had an I-Thou experience.  One of the monks at Holy Cross Monastery gave me an example of I-Thou.  He said, it’s like sometimes you hang up from a phone call and you just sit there for a moment or two in a deep, deep peace.  He didn’t put it this way, but I would say that for a few moments and to some degree you are simply aware of dwelling in the divine presence.

Quoting Julian of Norwich again: after a prolonged and deep immersion in her own Transfiguration, she wrote, “For as the body is clad in the cloth, and the flesh in the skin, and the bones in the flesh, and the heart in the whole,  so are we, soul and body, clad in the Goodness of God, and enclosed.”  To be sure, Jesus experienced the Transfiguration to a supreme degree, but any of us can have at least a taste of the peace and joy of the I-Thou relation with God.  Communion is just such a taste.