Archive for the ‘Hebrew Bible’ Category

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.”

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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.

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 9:28 – 36

May 3, 2016

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

THE TRANSFIGURATION

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.

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

February 8, 2016

TRANSFIGURATION

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 objectGod 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.

Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

August 31, 2015

Song of Solomon 2:8-13

James 1:17-27

Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

Collect of the Day Lord of all power and might, the author and giver of all good things: Graft in our hearts the love of your Name; increase in us true religion; nourish us with all goodness; and bring forth in us the fruit of good works; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God for ever and ever. Amen.

When I hear the story of Jesus’ hygiene critics, I think back to 1985. I was a new priest in the Diocese of California, serving as assistant rector to a stickler of a priest. The poor altar guild came in for his special attention. God forbid there should be a finger print on the chalice or a wrinkle in the altar cloth! One Sunday during worship he actually chastised a member of the altar guild from the pulpit. Why? He detected a faint lipstick stain on the purificator.

He had another characteristic. He had a few favorites in the congregation and the rest of the people he scarcely spoke to. What did it take to become a favorite? Wealth. He gave occasional dinner parties for those few, but the others would knock on the door of the rectory in vain.

Jesus was not saying in response to his challengers that washing hands, food, and cooking vessels was not important. It was; but those are externals, and God does not measure us by externals; God looks into our hearts. In other words, I could scrub my hands and food and vessels, and as I did so I could be planning a bank robbery; I could be working out the lie I would tell my spouse in order to see my lover. Religion would be very easy if washing is what religion consisted of. Jesus was simply saying that true religion (as the Collect puts it) is about inner scrubbing.

There is more to be said about what is inner. Let’s turn now to Jesus’ difficult words at the end of the reading. He speaks of what defiles us and lists “evil intentions”. It’s a daunting list, and I doubt any of us can say: none of that applies to me.

Here is one of our biggest challenges. On the one hand we know that what the Gospel calls “evil intentions” lie within us. On the other hand, as the reading from the Song of Solomon tells us, God calls us “my love, my fair one.” Hasn’t God noticed those evil intentions? Is it possible that God only sees what is external after all?

Some years ago I was on a one-week silent retreat. Not only was there to be no speaking, we were to keep our eyes lowered at all times — no eye contact, no awareness even of who we were passing. The silence and forced inactivity made it impossible to ignore what was going on in my mind. I heard such thoughts as this. How rude she is! How self-important he acts! How pushy. Look how much food he’s taking! I discovered a zoo full of ugly, judgmental thoughts! Is God calling that “my love, my fair one”?

How do we get past the contradiction? Are we God’s love, God’s fair one? Or are we full of “the rank growth of wickedness” as the letter of James says? It depends on who we mean by “I”. Yes, my mind was full of ugly, judgmental thoughts; but there was also the one who was noticing those thoughts and who was saddened by what she saw. That one who noticed, the witness, that is “I”.

I cannot disavow those ugly thoughts, but I do not need to define myself by them. “I” am not my “evil intentions,” though I do have them. “I” am the one who notices them and notices the pain they cause.

I also notice this: as long as I identify with “the rank growth of wickedness”, I am not free; my “evil intentions” hold me in thrall; I’ll be locked in mortal combat with them as long as I live.

Yet if I define myself as the one who notices, I am free. I can look at those thoughts, I can see what a source of unhappiness they are, and I can choose how to respond. I can choose self-contempt; or I can choose compassion; I can choose love; I can choose to see them as the products of ignorance, fear, self-doubt, and treat them as I would a toddler who is up to no good. In short, I can see myself as God does, as “my love, my fair one.”

Think of it this way. When God says, “Arise my love, my fair one, and come away,” God is calling us to come away from identifying with the rank growth of wickedness. It’s as if God is saying, You are not the “rank growth of wickedness.” It is there, but it is not you. You are the one who notices. You are the one who is free to choose how to respond. You are the one onto whom I have “grafted” my love. You are the one who lives eternally in the kingdom of God.

Is this denial? Like Holocaust denial, all those “evil intentions” never happened? No. It is simply self-clarification. If I act out my evil intentions I will suffer the consequences. No denial there. If I hurt other people I will feel pain and grief. No denial there. Self-clarification puts me into the only possible position from which I can deal with those “evil intentions” and make a change. Let me put it this way: the only effective weed-killer for that “rank growth of wickedness” is compassionate understanding on the part of the one who notices.

This is what true religion is about. I invite you to accept God’s invitation to, “Arise, my love my fair one, and come away.” This is a valid, tender form of prayer, just to spend time being the one who notices. Notice the “evil intentions,” the “rank growth of wickedness.” Surround them with your compassion as you would someone struggling under a needless burden. This is inner scrubbing and Jesus would approve.

John 6:56 – August 23, 2015

August 30, 2015

This sermon is offered in response to the amazing work of our Bible study class in making a scale model of Solomon’s Temple.  Let me begin with a detective story.  Most of us like a good detective story, but you might gape if I told you my favorite.  It’s the Bible.  By this sermon’s end you might agree.

The detective in this case was named Jean-François Champollion, born in 1890 near Grenoble in southeastern France.  He was the youngest of seven children born to a notorious drunk for a father and an absentee mother.  Luckily his older brother, who had educated himself, cared for little Jean-François and taught him to read.  It soon became clear that he had a prodigy on his hands.

Jean-François began by learning Latin and Greek, then added Hebrew, Arabic, Syriac and Chaldean.  Then he added Coptic, followed by Persian.  At the age of 11 the prefect of Grenoble took an interest in him.  This prefect had been with Napoleon’s Egyptian expedition, and showed Jean-François the hieroglyphs he had brought home with him, explaining to the boy that they were unintelligible.  Jean-François replied, “I shall succeed in reading them.”

At the age of 15, Champollion presented a paper before an academic body in Grenoble, arguing that the language of the ancient Egyptians, in which they wrote the hieroglyphic texts was actually related to Coptic.  The members admitted him into the Academy on the spot.

In Paris at the age of 17 he first began working on the Rosetta Stone.  The Rosetta Stone was discovered in 1799 and bore three languages — Hieroglyphs, demotic, and Greek.  It proved to be the key to solving the mystery of the hieroglyphs.

Many had tried to solve the mystery of the hieroglyphs before Champollion, but without success.  Champollion, uniquely, approached the task with a method, and on September 14th, 1822, he finally solved the mystery.  He discovered the key which opened the door into the vast, hidden treasures of ancient Egyptian literature and civilization.

How does Champollion’s detective work relate to the Bible?  Let’s call the Bible a spiritual Rosetta Stone.  Like Champollion, we will approach our Rosetta Stone with a method.  This method, which involves four steps, has been used for over 2,000 years, so we’re on well-tried ground here.

The first step is the literal interpretation; we could call it the simple historical narrative.  I’ll give you all four steps here, then go back and give examples.  The second step is the symbolic interpretation, where details in the narrative can stand for something else.  Third is the comparative interpretation; this calls for pairing up this text with a similar one to seek a broader and possibly deeper meaning.  Fourth comes the mystical interpretation, in which the meaning comes through revelation.

Now let’s be our own detectives, put ourselves in Champollion’s place, and take for our text the reading from First Kings.  We can picture the action, thanks to the model of the Temple that the Bible study class made.  First, the literal approach tells how the priests brought the ark of the covenant to its place, in the inner sanctuary of the house, in the most holy place, underneath the wings of the cherubim.  And when the priests came out of the holy place, a cloud filled the house of the LORD, so that the priests could not stand to minister because of the cloud; for the glory of the LORD filled the house of the LORD.

Using the second, the symbolic, approach to that same text, we might note the presence of the cherubim.  They could signify the divine protection of the ark of the covenant; or they could signify what great importance God attaches to the covenant; or how holy the inner sanctuary is, and how full of awe and wonder.

Applying the third approach, the comparative one, to that same text — offers lots of possibilities.  Let’s pair this up with  another instance when a cloud darkens the daylight.  Exodus chapter 24 springs to mind, that great pivotal day when Moses sealed the covenant between God and the people.  After doing that Moses entered the cloud, and went up on the mountain to receive the tablets of stone. Moses was on the mountain for forty days and forty nights.  For me, this expands my sense of that day when the ark was installed in the inner sanctuary.  It suggests that   God was not only enshrining  the ark, but the stone tablets, the Law.  They could almost be one, God and the Law.

Finally, let’s try the fourth approach.  The fourth approach calls for scarcely any work on our part.  We must simply wait in the presence of the text to discover if God has anything to suggest to us through it.

I can only tell you what I received, and you have to decide if that seems true for you or not.  I reflected on the construction of the house — how detailed the instructions were, involving much hammered gold and beauty of design.  I reflected on how the Bible is not just another book of information, but (to speak poetically) a love letter from God, addressed to me personally — to each of us personally.

Then it came to me that the house is God’s way of holding up a mirror to me.  I am that house, a temple, where God dwells within.  However much the world may tell me I am flawed; God is telling me I glow with beauty and hammered gold.

What about the inner sanctuary, the most holy place?  Don’t I have such a place within myself?  A meditative place where I go, apart from all my thoughts and concerns, just to be in communion with God?  Just to be renewed in God’s spirit?

The presence of the cloud agrees with this interpretation.  Again and again in Scripture the cloud is synonymous with God’s presence.  The cloud is mysterious and paradoxical, sometimes brilliant and filled with fire; sometimes so dense as to create utter darkness.  Remember the story of the Transfiguration in Matthew’s Gospel?  Paradoxically, it speaks of a bright cloud overshadowing the disciples; and from it God spoke.  It seems to be the nature of the cloud to separate us from our heads, from our thinking and perceiving minds, because the only way we can come near to God is with our whole being, where in whole-hearted trust, we simply abandon ourselves into God’s loving presence.

Notice that the four steps never contradict each other.  They only build, one upon the other.  If we just stopped at the literal level, already we have learned a lot.  That is, God is not distant in the heavens; God dwells among us.  Then at the second level we add to that the understanding that God values immensely our mutual covenant.  Add to that the third step, and we learn that God cares mightily about how we treat each other, and gave us Ten Commandments to teach us how to live.  Finally, add to that the fourth step and the whole array flips.  What was external to us, now also becomes internal.

Let’s step back now and ask what is the result of our detective work?  By means of the Rosetta Stone, Champollion discovered the key which opened the door into the vast, hidden treasures of ancient Egyptian literature and civilization.  By means of the Bible we have discovered a far more important key.  Champollion’s key was about there and then and them; our key is about here and now and us.  Our key opens the whole vast realm of the hidden treasures of the kingdom of God to us.  We can apply that key again and again to passages throughout the Old and New Testaments.  Each time we do, a new door opens before us — a door into freedom, peace and love.

Let’s resolve to become detectives on a regular basis.  Let’s find a place in our homes for the Bible — not stuffed into a bookshelf, but laid in a special place.  Let’s remember that it is not an object to be handled, but a cloud to be entered.

MARK 9:2-9

February 16, 2015

LAST SUNDAY AFTER EPIPHANY – TRANSFIGURATION

2 Kings 2:1-12;  II Corinthians 4:3-6;  Mark 9:2-9

Suppose through some accident you got left behind.  You’ve been exploring the Carlsbad Caverns, part of a tour group.  Maybe you strayed off the path.  Maybe the guide didn’t do a head count; just started back up to the surface.  Suddenly you realize you are alone and the light has gone.  You’re afraid to move, afraid of becoming even more lost, afraid of falling or hitting your head.  You pat your pockets: no lighter, no matches, no flashlight, no iPhone or other device.

I’m trying to recreate the situation that challenged the early Jewish sages.  They weren’t thinking of caves, of course, but of the cosmos.  How did the first light arise?  Before suns or stars, and long before there was anything to burn, how did light begin?  With nothing to originate from, how did light originate?  They solved this mystery by embedding it in a larger mystery: “God said, ‘Let there be light.’”

No wonder the church dedicates a whole season of the year to the mystery of light.  Today is the last Sunday of the season of Epiphany, and I propose to grope around with you in that mystery.

Here’s one possibility.  Perhaps the sages wrote Genesis as a metaphor.  The darkness they wondered about was not physical darkness, but the kind of darkness that prevails when we have no moral flashlight, when we really don’t know what steps will lead us to the kind of society where every member can feel safe and secure — where we can feel free to be ourselves, free to express ourselves, free to love.

This would be like being in a cave without a match.  In this moral cavern I’m picturing, any move could make things worse; any move is fraught with fear; because we are lost in the dark.  Where, then, would this moral light come from?  We cannot answer: from the Ten Commandments; from good civil laws; from the teachings of parents and schools.  Because remember, we are picturing a moral cavern where, like the cosmos before God created light, no source of moral guidance exists.  Commandments and precepts would be like matches, oil lamps, or flashlights.

So we are thrown back again on God.  Where, then, could this moral light originate?  Might God have said, “Let there be Wisdom”?  And out of God’s own being, as spontaneous as the light that fills the universe, would come Wisdom.  And, just as light does, wisdom would manifest itself in countless ways, — in laws, in proverbs, in moral precepts, in parables, and most succinctly in the Ten Commandments.

That should be the end of the story; because moral light does fill the universe; but if so, why are we beset by violence, injustice, poverty, and fear?  I often lie awake at night, feeling as if a tidal wave of moral darkness is descending over us — over our nation and the world.  Do the sages have an answer to this?  Something isn’t working, but what?

We need to follow the story further, this time to today’s reading about Elijah and Elisha.  As Elijah’s disciple, Elisha looked to Elijah for his moral light.  He observed how Elijah conducted himself, how he treated people, what he taught — in short, how Elijah lived.  He noted that Elijah had tremendous power.  I don’t mean political power.  Rather, think of that third grade experiment with iron filings, a sheet of paper and a magnet.  Until the magnet is applied to the underside of the paper, the iron filings are scattered around chaotically.  Once the magnet draws near, the filings form into beautiful, orderly patterns.  Elijah’s presence among people acted like the power of that magnet.

Elisha knew he did not have that power, but he wanted it.  Elijah had the moral light we are speaking of within himself.  Elisha did not; he needed Elijah the way we need precepts — what I’m calling a flashlight in a cavern.  Elijah knew he could not hand over that power to Elisha.  If Elisha wanted that power it would have to come from God and would spring up from within Elisha, himself.

Elisha’s chance was coming.  The test was this.  Elijah would be taken away in a burst of light.  Perhaps it was the same light that Moses experienced when he came into God’s presence — a light so searing that any impurities of the soul would be consumed.  So if Elisha had any ulterior motive in seeking Elijah’s power — for instance, personal aggrandizement — he would be forced to look away.  Only purity of heart could follow that searing process through to the end.

This, I suggest, is the sages’s answer to my question, which is:  If moral light does fill the universe, what isn’t working?  Why is our society beset by violence, illness, injustice, and fear?  The answer?   Because it makes a difference where the light is coming from.  Too many of us are dependent on Elijah, so to speak, and not enough of us have taken the step Elisha took.

Picture those ancient tombs of the Pharaohs.  Passageways led deep underground, turning one angle after another, until finally no light penetrated.  How did they get sunlight down to the interior?  Mirrors.  One slave stood at the entrance and reflected sunlight down the stairs.  Another stood at the first corner and reflected that light down to the next corner; and so on many times, until the light of the sun shone, however weakly, in the burial chamber.

In a similar way, we can ask, “How do you know this is right?”  Answer: “My friend told me.”  “How do you know your friend is right?”  “Her mother told her.”  “How do you know her mother is right?”  “Her priest told her.”  “How do we know the priest is right?”  He read it in the Bible.”  How do you know he interpreted the Bible correctly?”  In other words, the light of truth can grow dim if it reaches us at all..  We need more strong sources of light and fewer, weaker reflections.

This is another way of saying what Paul was writing to the people of Corinth in today’s Epistle.  Paul was another who had, so to speak, passed the test as Elisha did.  Paul confessed, “We do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus’ sake.”  In other words, Paul, too, had stood up to the searing light of God’s presence and allowed it to burn away any self-seeking.

He went on to explain, “For it is the God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.”

Among Jesus’ followers, some of us are like Elisha before Elijah was taken away, looking to someone, or some thing, outside of ourselves to provide the moral light we need.  All of us start out that way.  For Christians, that someone is Jesus, as mirrored through Scripture and the Church.  Some of us are like Elijah; we have the light within us.  As Christians we call it the light of Christ.

What can we do, supposing we, too, want that light within?  We, too, want that power of the magnet among iron filings?  One of my favorite hymns holds out the answer.  “Immortal, invisible, God only wise; in light inaccessible hid from our eyes.”  What is that light inaccessible wherein God hides?

Let’s go back to the Carlsbad Caverns.  Supposing you got left behind.  Supposing, instead of panicking, you relaxed.  You recognized that at last you were in a place of absolutely no external distractions.  Supposing, gradually, all the internal distractions — all the busy thinking and planning and worrying — subsided and settled, matching the stillness and peace of the surrounding cave.  Then supposing you opened yourself to God’s presence, opened your eyes to the light behind all light, opened your ears to the silence behind all sound; opened your heart to the love behind all love.

Lent begins this coming Wednesday.  Why not find a Carlsbad Cavern, so to speak, somewhere in your daily routine?  Why not make it a practice to enter once or twice a day.  What might happen?  We might find ourselves, in the words of today’s Collect, “beholding by faith the light of his countenance….”  We might find ourselves transfigured.  AMEN

Exodus 17:1-7, John 4:5-42

April 2, 2014

Exodus 17:1-7, John 4:5-42

It’s hard to put ourselves into the Israelites’ place. Most of us have a few cups of coffee under our belts and perhaps some juice; so it’s a stretch to imagine how it feels to be desperate with thirst — how it feels to slog over sun burned rocks and sand all day, only to find yourself, as twilight falls, at bone-dry Rephidim. And you have long since squeezed the last drop from your water bag.  No wonder the people panicked!  Moses tried to reason with them: “Look, God has never let us down.”  But Moses’s voice could scarcely be heard over the frantic din.  So Moses let God guide him, and God guided him to a large rock.  He struck the rock with his staff, and pure, potable water poured forth in abundance.

I want to return to this story in a moment, because it illustrates a serious problem with Lent.  For many people Lent is like a gift of  seven-league boots, BUT without being told how to use them.  I chose that image — magical boots that let the wearer cover seven leagues in one step — because if life is a journey toward genuine happiness, we want to move ahead, not dawdle.  So how do we use those seven-leagues boots, the season of Lent, effectively?

In Lent we start the service with the Ten Commandments to help us examine our conscience.  Speaking for myself, I generally turn tail and run when I hear, “Examine your conscience.”  Of course, with that attitude it is impossible to acknowledge my sins,  amend my life, and move forward toward genuine happiness.

What makes self-examination so painful?  Isn’t it that it gives us a sense of shame?  Of guilt?  Of failure?  But do we imagine that that is God’s will for us?  Shame, guilt and a sense of failure?  No it is not, and if we think so we have been misinformed.  It’s no wonder we shy away from a careful examination of conscience — from using those seven league boots.

Instead, let’s try not to look at the Ten commandments, as external to us, as measuring sticks, for instance, by which to judge ourselves.  Rather, let’s try to see them as part of ourselves, as divining rods so to speak, pointing to something beautiful and precious within us.  I’m speaking of our basic human needs — which are gifts God implanted in us.  Regardless of who I am, when I lived, or where, or how different my culture is, I have the same basic needs as everyone else.  They are like a subterranean water table, something that all of us human beings have in common, that unites us, one to another.

Seen this way, the Commandments have no part in torturing us with blame and shame and a sense of failure; on the contrary, they exist to renew us, strengthen us and reassure us.  Let me show you how this works, and in the end you’ll see that the Commandments lead just as surely to penitence and repentance, but without guilt and shame.

So, what are my basic needs?  Take the first commandment, about not worshiping other gods or worshiping images of god.  What does this point to?  Truth.  God is truth.  Without truth, what can we trust?  How can we build a life on falsehood?  This is like saying, don’t invest in iron pyrite, fools’ gold, invest only in pure gold.  Truth is one of our basic needs to journey toward genuine happiness.  

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.  When I go too long just doing the right thing, life becomes so stale I can almost feel desperate.  I need time to renew myself in God’s holy mystery, maybe just to gaze up in awe at the night sky.  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 divine 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 autonomy, for understanding, for safety or security.  The list is long, but not endless; and the list of needs is not the same as the list of our wants.

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 usually is no.  But notice!  There is no blame or shame 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 I believe God regards us when we sin.  God sees we are doing our best to meet those precious human needs God gave us, but we are terribly 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 shame or guilt.  It is a cause for grief, to be sure, for sin always does harm, and at times great harm, as we all know.

It helps me to remember this truth about sin when someone annoys me or really makes me angry.  We have a neighbor who can turn my blood to steam if I’m not careful.  But if I think to myself, “He is just trying to meet one of his precious basic needs,” then I can not only cool down, but feel genuine compassion.  You’ll find this can help you with your own problem people; but first, you must practice the compassionate examination of conscience on yourself.

The deepest human need is our need to belong.  All of us need to feel we belong, both to God and to the human family.  Jesus’ ministry was all about meeting this need to belong — reaching out to outcasts of every sort.  Think of the woman at the well.  Jesus should never have spoken to her.  First, she was a woman; second she was a Samaritan; third she was an outcast in her own society.  But Jesus had a way of looking at people and listening to them with his whole heart that said, “You totally belong.”  It changed her life.

This is our ministry here at Trinity Church also.  And this parish is well suited to meeting that need to belong.  Your warm hearts know how to welcome the stranger no less than each other.  We all come with that need to belong, some days worse than others.  Like the parched and travel-worn Israelites at Rephidim, people are desperate for the water of belonging; we cannot truly live without it; and Trinity Church is that rock, struck by God’s rod.

I want to close by asking you to take seriously this profoundly important ministry of ours.  Don’t be diffident.  Invite people to visit Trinity Church.  Reach out to them when they come.  I was deeply moved when I first came to Trinity Church and felt how warmly you welcomed and accepted me.  Today more than ever the world is a spiritual desert.  Who out there is not searching desperately for the water of true belonging?  Invite them to come to the rock and drink.

Matthew 11:2-11, Isaiah 35:1-10

December 16, 2013

Imagine bringing someone who has lived all their life at the equator to our area. In this season. The person looks around, sees dead trees, leafless bushes, grey and brown all around with a scant touch of evergreen. You tell them, “Come spring, this will all be alive and full of color.” Your visitor looks dubious. But in fact, beneath the surface, this dead-seeming landscape of ours is pounding with life.

That is the prophet Isaiah’s message as well. He points to a landscape that appears at least as dead as ours in winter. His dead landscape, of course, is not due to a lack of warmth, but to a lack of water. He tells the people, “The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom; like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly and rejoice with joy and singing.” Isaiah was speaking to a people who felt as dead as the landscape. They were living in exile, uprooted — cut off from what gave their lives meaning and joy. But believe me, says Isaiah, your lifeless-seeming desert, is surging with new life just waiting to burst forth.

This, also, is the story of Advent, the first season of the church year. You could say that the cycle of the seasons mirrors the cycle of our spiritual lives. In the Advent season nature appears to be dead. We’ve all known times like that — times when we are anxious about many things. Times when our lives are not carpeted with crocuses. Advent promises us that like seeds in frozen soil, joy and singing do lie within us, and their time will come to sprout and grow. Call it crocus time.

Advent can also have a deeper meaning. Consider how Jesus challenged the crowd in today’s Gospel. “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at?” Wind-tossed weeds? No. Celebrities? No. They went, he said, because they had heard about a prophet; in other words, someone who might feed their great, inner need. What was that need? It is our need as well. It is the need to belong. When that need is not met life can feel bleak indeed.

According to Matthew’s version of the Gospel, John did not know Jesus personally. Just the same, he did prepare the ground for Jesus. He did this the way prophets do; that is, he reoriented the people’s thinking. The people suffered from a common misperception. Salvation, they believed, would come from without, from outside of themselves — from a religious or political leader or from some special event at which they would be present, a sacrifice, perhaps. John pointed them to look within, to their own souls, the only possible soil for salvation.

As long as we look to something outside of ourselves for our salvation, we’ll look in vain, and life will seem bleak and we’ll hide that bleakness from ourselves with busyness and other distractions. But Jesus came after John and took John’s teaching one step further. John had prepared the ground, so to speak; then Jesus promised that under that ground lay seeds of new life waiting to sprout and grow. That new life, of course, is God’s life, eternal life.

Jesus, himself, had undergone that transformation. He had opened the womb of his soul. He had said yes; quicken, O God, that life that lies dormant within me. His inner landscape gradually turned, as seasons do, as if from winter to spring. And that new life that he felt swelling up within him would not, could not be interrupted by death. This was salvation — discovering the divine life of God within himself. This then became Jesus’ mission, to help us all discover and nourish that Life within ourselves.

This helps interpret what Jesus added about John: “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.” He was contrasting those who have not yet heard of the promise of spring, or who refuse to act on it, with those who have.

Let me give you an example of the difference. When it comes to generosity, giving can take place on three levels. At the first level, we give with hesitation. What if the thing I am giving I will need later? Hesitant as it may be, though, giving at this level does bring a sense of happiness and freedom.

At the second level we give with a sense of sharing, as if to a sibling. We do not hesitate; giving is easy at this level. And as we give a spirit of joy and friendship and openness grows in us.

At the third level we give spontaneously and immediately of the best we have, simply because we take such delight in the well-bring and happiness of others. At the same time we experience great abundance within ourselves and our joy continues to grow.

Those whom Jesus called “born of women” can give at the first two levels of generosity; but the third level can only be reached by those who have discovered and nourished the divine life within them.

Why is this so? It has to do with belonging. When the life of God is flourishing within us we see with new eyes. It’s like when I was a child in the 1940’s. If my mother went to a shoe store, I would dart over to the x-ray machine to wiggle my toes and watch my bones move. That may not have been such a good idea, but the idea I want to lodge with you is that of actually seeing life inside of life.

When we see normally, we look in a mirror and see a face peering back at us, perhaps not as young or beautiful as we would wish. We look into eyes that acknowledge a past, not as honest or generous as it could have been, not as successful. Contrast that with how we look when we see with God’s eyes. We see right through surface realities to the precious person within. We see a person who goes through life blessing others – often all unknowingly. We see a person who is neither dependent on others nor independent of others, but interdependent on all sides. Above all, we see someone who belongs, whom nothing can separate from the web of eternal life.

I’d like to leave you with the image of a vast and intricate jig saw puzzle. This is God’s jig saw puzzle, so vast that it contains all of creation. Each of us is a piece, but we need to see with God’s eyes to really feel that truth. The truth is that each one of us is essential to the overall picture. Remember Jesus story about the shepherd who left the 99 sheep in the wilderness and went searching for the one who was lost? Have you ever neared the completion of a jig saw puzzle and realized a piece was missing? You tear the house apart looking for it. Well, this image of the jig saw puzzle only takes us so far, because God never fails to find a missing piece, and never fails to fit it into the whole, glorious design.

Those who actually see with God’s eyes, the way Jesus did, cannot help but give at the third level of giving – immediately and spontaneously because of the delight they take in the well-being and happiness of others — for who is the Other if not myself?

Remember in Advent: the ground has to warm up before the new life can spring forth; God is the sun of our inner awakening. Let us spend time basking in the presence of God.