Wednesday, December 31, 2008

In the Beginning was the Word

This sermon responds to the Gospel for the 1st Sunday after Christmas, John 1: 1-14

“In the beginning was the Word…”

When our patron St. John reached for language to open his Gospel, his vision of the good news of God in Jesus Christ, he or his scribes landed on what in Greek is the concept “logos”, Word.

In our time, we have logos—as in Nike’s flying wing, a simple design that goes far to create recognition while also “saying it all”, speed, thrust, success.

In the vocabulary of that day, “logos” meant more than a word that communicates. “Logos” meant reality, the Word that communicates itself. When the inspired John built his Gospel on the “logos” becoming flesh, he spoke to his time. Who Jesus Christ is, says John, is the very ground of reality, the organizing principle of the cosmos, the One who makes sense of all, the One in whom all things hold together.

How highly we cherish the Word. Lives have been spent shielding sacred scrolls from defiling armies. Lifetimes of hours were invested by monastic scribes minutely lettering sacred texts, in famous examples like the Lindisfarne Gospels or the Book of Kells elaborately illuminating those opening uncials, making each experience of opening those monumental volumes a fresh experience of “In the beginning was the Word…” So precious, these hand-lettered books, that even when printing revolutionized technology, the resulting Bible was still chained to the lectern so it would not be lost to the black market.

Candles burn at the spot where the Word of God is read aloud. “Hear what the Spirit is saying to the Church,” the reader urges at the end, and we respond “Thanks be to God,” for the living Word. First and second lessons are like steps in a ladder lifting us to the Gospel, whose reader steps up to the altar to bring the Gospel Book into the midst of the people. They turn and face the making-flesh that happens in the center aisle, as words handed down over centuries and millennia pass over vocal cords and run across the tympani of hearers’ ears and so spark the mind, thaw the heart, and free the lips to join the transmission of the living Word.

“That which is handed on”, the literal meaning of the Latin word from which we get our word “tradition”. Complete with fingerprints from oily hands, DNA from the spit of debating rabbis and church fathers, smudges of candleblack, marginal scribbles and arguments—the Word handed on is always in subtle reshaping. It is a living Word, indwelt with power to become all that is in the mind of God for it to be. The nature of the Word is not to handcuff us to the confinement of small words and short texts, but rather to train us in right and healthy relationship to God, to neighbor, and to self.

Play out those three and see what the Word of God does: The Word shapes our faith in God by summoning us to God’s mission to redeem the whole of creation. The Word trains us to take our place in the community of covenant love both local and global. The Word frees each of us for ongoing conversion of life as stewards not just of the material, but also of the mystical.

And for Christians, the Word does all this not by piling word upon word into a code of law or a manual of behavior or a book of secrets. The Word does all that it does by having been in the beginning with God, by having been the womb of life and the light of all. The Word does all that it does by yielding that power to create and by becoming created, unimaginably becoming flesh to reveal to us the fullness of God, more, to cause that fullness to dwell within us, grace upon grace.

Whew! Words fail us. The Word does not fail us. In sheer wonder, silence is a fitting response. Better yet are faith, and hope, and love.

Monday, December 22, 2008

To Be Virgin

Scripture appointed for the 4th Sunday in Advent:
II Samuel 7:1-11, 16; Romans 16:25-27; Luke 1:26-38

The mating of scripture lessons in liturgy is assigned in the lectionary (table of readings) in the Book of Common Prayer. At its worst, that means assigned by a committee. At its best, that means assigned by a committee… of men and women who know how to listen with the inner ear, how to employ imagination, people who, like Mary, magnify the Lord.

I am grateful that I do not have to mate our scripture lessons, Sunday by Sunday. That they are assigned puts me in the same boat with you, having to consider points of view not my own. As it is, that takes a significant amount of time and effort each week. If also I had to select the readings, my wife would see less of me than she does. And I suspect I would see less of God.

I say that because the way it is, I don’t get to select scripture that illustrates my pet preoccupations from the-week-that-was. I must listen to voices that, through the liturgy, seek me out, sit me down, and roll over me from two, three thousand years ago; and, in each case, I must do what you must do, “Hear what the Spirit is saying to the Church,” and thank God for it, for that timeless foundational message which is at once so general as to be for us all, and so specific that the Spirit will ride the Word right into the mind, the heart, the gut of one person—as the Spirit entered the womb of Mary—one person who so needs God today, or whom God so needs today, that by that person’s obedience the Word will become flesh, uniquely full of grace and truth.

What to make, then, of today’s mating of the Second Book of Samuel from the Hebrew scripture and the Gospel of Luke? The first of these readings opens with King David comfortably settled in his house after the lengthy battles he has fought, and in gratitude for peace the King proposes to build a house for God. David has a house of cedar—why should God not have a proper sanctuary? The prophet Nathan gets wind of David’s project, and knocks the wind out of it by announcing the Word of God: Am I asking for a house? No! Rather, I will make you a house, O David, a royal house for the sake of my people.

Fast forward many hundreds of years to an unsettling experience for a young woman named Mary. No house as yet for Mary and her fiancĂ©, Joseph, though they want one of their own. Joseph is “of the house of David”, not the kind of house that puts a roof over your head, but evidence that what God promised a thousand years earlier has a very long shelf-life indeed: when God establishes a house, it is established.

Christmas Eve, we’ll get Luke’s full story of just how unsettled life is for this young couple. For now, we glimpse only the beginning: a perplexing visit by a messenger. And it isn’t the UPS man.

Listen to how the poet Rupert Brooke presents the scene:

“Young Mary, loitering once her garden way,
Felt a warm splendour grow in the April day,
As wine that blushes water through. And soon,
Out of the gold air of the afternoon,
One knelt before her: hair he had, or fire,
Bound back above his ears with golden wire,
Baring the eager marble of his face.
Not man’s or woman’s was the immortal grace
Rounding the limbs beneath that robe of white,
And lighting the proud eyes with changeless light,
Incurious. Calm as his wings, and fair,
That presence filled the garden.
She stood there,
Saying, ‘What would you, Sir?’
He told his word,
‘Blessed art thou of women!' Half she heard,
Hands folded and face bowed, half long had known,
The message of that clear and holy tone.”

I’ll stop there. This is just one of countless poems and paintings (and, of course, stained glass windows) considering, imagining, the Annunciation.

The angel’s message? The story’s point? God is making another house, more lasting and yet roomier than the house of David. God’s Word is housed uniquely in the womb of a very young unwed mother who has nothing to call her own except her honest sense of self, her fearless love, and her brave trust in God. This is what God needs to establish a house for the sake of his people. Honest sense of self, fearless love, and brave trust in God.

That she is a virgin seems to unsettle many people, especially those who expect this story to be told in a reasonable way. Madeleine L’Engle addresses that wish in her little poem, “After Annunciation”:

“This is the irrational season
When love blooms bright and wild.
Had Mary been filled with reason
There’d have been no room for the child.”

Suggesting that if we want the good new of God in Jesus Christ to bless and redeem our whole condition, irrationality and all, we’ll do well to consider what “virgin” means, not toss it out.

Thomas Merton, in his book “Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander,” described the true identity he sought in contemplative prayer as a "point vierge", a virgin point, at the center of his being—in his own words, “a point untouched by illusion, a point of pure truth… which belongs entirely to God, which is inaccessible to the fanatasies of our own mind or the brutalities of our own will. This little point… of absolute poverty is the pure glory of God in us.”

Let’s welcome one more author, Presbyterian Loretta Ross-Gotta, who says that Gabriel summons Mary from a safe place of conventional wisdom into virgin territory where few of the old rules make much sense, to being on her own, at a place where no one else could judge the validity of her experience. Doesn’t that make the Annunciation sound like the call each of us hears, to dare stand on one’s own and make the journey that faces fear and discovers truth?

“To be virgin,” says Ross-Gotta, “means to be one, whole in oneself, not perforated by the concerns of the conventional norms and authority, or the power and principalities. To be virgin, then, is in a sense to be recollected… The wise men had their gold, frankincense, and myrrh… Mary offered only space, love, belief. What is it that delivers Christ into the world—preaching, art, writing, scholarship, social justice? Those are all gifts well worth sharing. But preachers lose their charisma, scholarship grows pedantic, social justice alone cannot save us. In the end, when all other human gifts have met their inevitable limitation, it is the recollected one, the bold virgin with a heart in love with God, who makes a sanctuary of her life, who delivers Christ who then delivers us… The intensity and strain that many of us bring to Christmas must suggest to some onlookers that, on the whole, Christians do not seem to have gotten the point of it… What if, instead of doing something, we were to be something special? Be a womb. Be a dwelling for God. Be surprised.”

Rupert Brooke’s poem “Mary and Gabriel” can be found in Volume II of “Chapters Into Verse”, edited by Robert Atwan and Laurance Wieder (Oxford University Press, 1993). Madeleine L’Engle’s poem appears in her book “The Irrational Season”. Kathleen Norris’s and Loretta Ross-Gotta’s comments can be found in “Watch for the Light: Readings for Advent and Christmas” (Orbis Books, 2001).

Monday, December 15, 2008

Lighten Up

Scripture mentioned today:
Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11
I Thessalonians 5:16-24
John 1:6-8, 19-28

You will have noticed that we are giving Advent its penitential voice. The poem which gives us our first words in liturgy sets the stage for the same opening penitential rite that we use in Lent. Yes, that’s new this year, a simple recognition that the purple of Advent is the same purple of Lent—while opening with confession is for us a new way to make that point, that point is an ancient one: Advent is a little Lent, a time of honest appraisal of how we need the redemption that we will celebrate soon.

And as Lent has its fourth Sunday, called “Refreshment Sunday”, a kind of “lighten up” day during a season of alleged self-discipline (think of Mountain Day here at Williams College), so Advent has its third Sunday, called Gaudete Sunday in the medieval church, from the first word in the Latin introit, “Rejoice in the Lord always, again I say, rejoice…” That means it’s no accident that our second reading, from another Pauline letter, pushes the same message, “Rejoice always…” It’s on this third Sunday that the pink candle is lit in the wreath, conveying the “lighten up” theme.

It’s worth asking how well that cuts the mustard of our actual Advent. Are you having a penitential season? Do you need lightening-up?

Yes, given the economy, chances are that at least you’re having a more restrained, more reflective, Advent than usual. But is that penitence? What is penitence?

When in doubt, consult the Catechism. Prayer Book, page 857: “What is penitence? In penitence, we confess our sins and make restitution where possible, with the intention to amend our lives.”

I’m not sure how many of the 12 steps of recovery that definition covers, but this question prompted me to get off my duff and go to the parish library to where AA keeps its stack of hardworn “Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions”. Those books are just as loved and dog-eared and loose in the spine as any Prayer Book in your pew. What I read there makes me think that what the church means by penitence embraces most, if not all, of the twelve steps that help restore the health and freedom of addicts.

In penitence, we admit that we are addicted to being in control (or being out of control), addicted to blaming others (or blaming ourselves), addicted to the practice of too much responsibility or too little.

In penitence, we acknowledge our need for God, for God to make right what we cannot make right, for God to show us what we can make right and by grace make us able to do it.

In penitence, we come out of our shells—out of our subway anonymity, our noses buried in our own preoccupations—to have confirmed for us our need of true community, membership in a body of vital organs each needing the others, each open to the mind of Christ.

All this penitential theme sounds counter-cultural to the Advent agenda set by the world, the flesh, and the devil. But it is the Advent agenda of the Christian Church that hears the Good News of God in Jesus Christ and, trained by the Spirit, wants not just to hear the Word, but do it.

Whether or not you’re having a consciously penitential Advent, you may need lightening up. A little yeast to leaven the lump of your grieving. The flame of the Christ-light to pierce your darkness, if you’re depressed. The courage to let go the old compulsions that drive you into the ground and notice newer simpler ways to exchange a friendly Christmas for a frantic one. Permission to sit still and in the silence know God.

Our readings evoke this Advent lightening. Isaiah sings a hymn of joy at his anointing by God to a life of creative responsibility, the very passage Jesus was handed to read that day he visited the synagogue at Capernaum and announced his public ministry.

And what is promised to us, in this Advent of global recession? “A garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.” Promised in this ancient text that Jesus made his and ours is that there shall never fail in God’s creation the emergence of such power as causes the earth to bring forth its shoots, power of redemption and resurrection that “will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations.”

What is promised to us, in this Advent of facing our responsibilities? St. Paul says it clearly: God does not expect anything of us without making it possible for us. “The one who calls you is faithful, and will do this,” he insists.

And what more is promised to us, this Advent when no one knows the first thing about how to set right a world gone wrong? John’s Gospel gives us a case study in not-knowing today, in John the Baptist: his contemporaries couldn’t figure out who he was. Next Sunday, Luke’s Gospel will give us another case study in not-knowing, when young Mary is puzzled by what is told her by the angel Gabriel and asks, “How can this be?”

We are promised, in Advent, that our confusions are not futile. They are part of a giving-birth, prelude to transition, revealing of what for a time is hidden. Albert Schweitzer catches this promise in what he says about the mystical way of Christ:

"He comes to us as One unknown, without a name, as of old, by the lake-side; He came to those men who knew Him not. He speaks to us the same word: ‘Follow thou me!’ and sets us to the tasks which He has to fulfill for our time. He commands. And to those who obey Him, whether they be wise or simple, He will reveal Himself in the toils, the conflicts, the sufferings which they shall pass through in His fellowship, and, as an ineffable mystery, they shall learn in their own experience Who He is."

Monday, December 8, 2008

Peace on Earth

Scripture cited here includes Isaiah 40:1-11, and II Peter 3:8-15a.

This is our annual Peace Sunday, the Sunday nearest the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize. This year’s recipient is Finnish diplomat and former President Martti Ahtisaari, a man who has stood time and again at the epicenter of the world’s most violent conflicts—Namibia, Indonesia, Northern Ireland, Kosovo—keeping his own balance and teaching those around him to find theirs. In his 72nd year, he is being celebrated as a remarkable mediator. The Nobel Committee hopes that he will inspire yet more outstanding mediators, for we are a world in need of them. You’ll find a photograph of Mr. Ahtisaari in the display cabinet at the back of the church today.

The goal of peace seems to transcend our ordinary sphere of influence. But that is not so, and the best reason we have for annually recognizing the Nobel peace laureate is suggested by the apostle Peter in his letter. I’ll paraphrase him: “Since heaven and earth seem to be shaking in their foundations, we must consider what sort of persons we ought to be in leading lives of holiness and godliness. While we’re waiting for new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness is at home, let’s find ways to be found at peace when our Lord Jesus returns.”

Let’s make it our purpose today to so listen to the words, the music, the liturgy that surround us here, that we discover even one way to do the work of peace-making in our world.

Rabbi Harold Kushner, famous for his book Why Bad Things Happen to Good People, writes about peace. Perhaps you will hear something useful in these words.

“A prominent Jewish prayer concludes, ‘May He who made peace in the heavens grant peace to us on earth.’ What does it mean to create peace in the heavens? Ancient man looked up into the sky and he saw the sun and the rainclouds. And he would say to himself, ‘How can fire and water, sun and rain co-exist in the same sky? Either the water would put out the fire, or the fire would dry up the water.’ How do they get along? It must be a miracle. The sun says, ‘If I dry up the rainclouds, as I probably could, the world will not survive without rain.’ The clouds say, ‘If we extinguish the sun, the world will perish in darkness.’ So the fire and the water make peace, realizing that if either one of them achieved a total victory, the world could not endure.

“When we pray for God to grant us the sort of peace He ordained in the heavens, this is the miracle we ask for. How can men and women live together happily? They are opposites; their needs are different, their rhythms are different. It takes a miracle for them to bridge those differences and unite the masculine side of God’s image with the feminine side.

“How can Arabs and Israelis learn to live together? Irish Catholics and Irish Protestants? Black South Africans and white South Africans? It takes a miracle for them to realize that if they won, if they had it all and the other side had nothing, the world could not survive their victory. Only by making room for everyone in the world, even for our enemies, can the world survive.

“May God who showed us the miracle of Shalom, of making room for each other and giving up the illusion of victory in the heavens, grant a similar miracle to all of us who inhabit the earth.”

There are two very reachable disciplines: making room for people, especially whoever appears to be our opposite, and giving up the illusion of victory, the kind our opposites cannot survive.

Each day I live will give me one opportunity after another to practice these disciplines—

--in how I handle interruptions as I do my work

--in how I write an email to any one of you, taking time to listen to myself before hitting Send

--in how I pay attention to my attitude, especially under pressure, in haste, and when dealing with opposition-- whether I’m combating life at that moment or respecting and treasuring life (the choice really is mine)

--and in how I treat the person opposite me when the peace between us is at risk—do I remember that all people are grass, that the grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand for ever? And is standing right there between us, asking to be spoken…

“May God who showed us the miracle of Shalom, of making room for each other and giving up the illusion of victory in the heavens, grant a similar miracle to all of us who inhabit the earth.”

--Rabbi Kushner’s meditation is printed in “Prayers for Healing: 365 Blessings, Poems, and Meditations from Around the World,” edite

Friday, December 5, 2008

What We Need to Know About Advent

(The Gospel for the 1st Sunday in Advent is Mark 13:24-37.)

All the broken hearts
shall rejoice;
All those
who are heavy laden,
whose eyes are tired
and do not see,
shall be lifted up
to meet with the healer.
The battered souls and bodies
shall be healed;
the hungry
shall be fed;
the imprisoned
shall be free;
all earthly children
shall regain joy
in the reign
of the just and loving one
coming for you,
coming for me
in this time
in this world.

South Korean theologian Sun Ai Lee Park is the poet, and she says three things that we need to hear as we step into the season of Advent.

First, the just and loving one is coming, in this time and in this world. The gist of last Sunday’s Gospel was the good news that Jesus Christ is nearer to us than we know. He is in the homeless man here in the North County I first heard about Wednesday, who is looking for a car—not to drive, but to sleep in. He is in each of the children and parents who will receive gifts from the Giving Tree our middle schoolers invite you to support. He is in the young mom in North Adams who has had doors of hope thrown open to her by fulltime enrollment at MCLA, whom our Outreach to Kids Fund was able to help last week as she couldn’t figure out how to provide winter clothes and school needs for her children after her partner walked out on her.

He is in each of these people because, in the Good News of Matthew, he says he is.

Closer than we know. And each of us is called to know, to recognize, him when he comes in this time and in this world. There’s the second thing we need to know at Advent: he is coming to you and to me.

Enlightenment is an inward state of readiness for outreach. That is good news for all people, because in the mutual flow between donors and recipients, it gets mighty hard to distinguish one from the other. People who “have not” will find it good news when they are blessed by the sharing of people who have; but at the same moment they are themselves a gift to bring to awareness and gratitude and perspective the people who have. Good news flows both ways.

By the Good News of Mark that we hear today, the master of the house will come whenever he’s ready, and we’re to be awake. Coming for you, coming for me, says our poet. We are doorkeepers, left in charge of the just and loving one’s resources while he’s away on his missionary journey. On that journey, he keeps coming to more and more people, communities, homes, churches, schools, workplaces making them his and putting in charge as doorkeepers people who have his resources, charging them with the task of opening to him every time he appears in the hungry, the homeless, the runaway. And at every such doorway, every time having meets not having, how does the poet put it? “ The battered souls and bodies
shall be healed;
the hungry
shall be fed;
the imprisoned
shall be free;
all earthly children
shall regain joy
in the reign
of the just and loving one.”

The first news of Advent is that he is coming. The second news of Advent is that he is coming to you and to me, making us his doorkeepers. The third message of the season is about his nature: he is the healer. That nature of his must be front and center in all we make of these 25 short Advent days that prepare us for Christmas, and then Christmas must be about his healing us, his healing all.

Put that into the apocalyptic vision we hear in Mark’s Gospel today, and hear good news for winter 2008: Read the times, don’t hide from the headlines even when they report that heaven and earth appear to be passing away. But even in days of suffering when the sun is darkened and the stars are falling from heaven, riding all this chaos as if he were walking on the clouds above is the just and loving one. Understand that he’s on his missionary journey, and his mission is to turn towards healing all this flow of having and not having. So read the papers—and read your Bible. Watch the news—and look for him to be close at hand. Consult your financial advisor—and cast your care upon God, who, says our Gospel today, is the only one who knows the full truth of what’s happening and what needs to happen. Seek God’s truth and be open to God’s healing.

The Advent news is, first, that he is coming. Second, he comes to you and me and makes us doorkeepers in charge of his resources. And third, his nature is that of healer, and his healing is not limited by what we have or have not. He is able to use the mutual flow of giving and receiving because people who have and people who have not are equally precious, equally useful, equally in need of healing.

That is mighty good news for all people. Enlightenment is an inward state of readiness for outreach. I love it about St. John’s that we are enlightened enough to turn our liturgies to the purposes of the healer. We do not receive communion without also giving opportunity for all who seek healing to take part in prayer, the laying on of hands, and anointing for healing. And that in turn gives to all who are within arm’s reach moments of grace to enter that mutual flow.

Today as we step into Advent, the coming of the healer, we gratefully recognize the roles played by parishioners who make up our healing team, and by clergy who assist in the sacramental act of unction, anointing for healing.

One of those priests is Charles O’Brien, and this first Sunday in Advent is his 50th anniversary of being made a priest. A Roman Catholic priest, for Charles was a Jesuit when he was ordained in the Chapel of Holy Cross College in Rome, Italy, on November 30, 1958. That he was received as a priest in the Episcopal Church 21 years later tells the story of a journey. Perhaps he will tell us that story, one day.

In this season, I love it about St. John’s that we turn our liturgy, our community gathering, to outreach by the Giving Tree early on, and later on by our Christmas Offering, and during Advent by several homegrown ways to purchase gifts through compassionate commerce. Let me say more about each.

First, the Giving Tree. Our middle schoolers are taking over this annual projoect, and this year we’ll be providing gifts for two young families from Healthy Families, two single-parent families from Louison House, and a 23-year-old man. I’m sure we’ll get our marching orders later this morning.

Second, our Christmas Offering. The Outreach to Kids Fund (nicknamed the OK Fund) gives St. John’s the ability to provide relief when any of our local agencies (Northern Berkshire Community Coalition, Healthy Families, Department of Social Services, MA Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, to name a few) calls us with a family in crisis, a situation where a gift of $200-300 will prevent eviction, keep the gas or electricity connected, prevent the breaking up of a family, provide clothing or equipment for a newborn. Two or three times a month we’re asked to do this, and the OK Fund lets it happen.

Third, alternative gifts. Our homegrown compassionate commerce does two things at once: pleases the recipient, and transforms the gift into outreach. Every Sunday is Fair Trade Coffee day at our coffee hour, when you may buy a bag, beans or ground. Every Advent Sunday, we’ll also be marketing at coffee hour lentil soup mix to support schools and schoolchildren in Sudan, through out interchurch Sudan Relief Task Force. And a matchless Christmas ornament auctioni is set for Monday evening, December 16, in our upper room when special ornaments donated by parishioners and friends become even more special as they’re auctioned to raise money to buy who knows what kind and how many animals for poor farmers through Heifer Project International. That’s an event for all ages.

By our liturgies and gatherings, by our solitary daily keeping, and by our family kitchen-table observances this Advent and Christmas, we grow in enlightenment as an inward state of readiness for outreach.

All the broken hearts
shall rejoice;
All those
who are heavy laden,
whose eyes are tired
and do not see,
shall be lifted up
to meet with the healer.
The battered souls and bodies
shall be healed;
the hungry
shall be fed;
the imprisoned
shall be free;
all earthly children
shall regain joy
in the reign
of the just and loving one
coming for you,
coming for me
in this time
in this world.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

On Sheep and Goats and Humankind

Scripture cited today includes Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24; Ephesians 1:15-23; and Matthew 25:31-46.

Come to church and learn more about sheep than you may have ever wanted to know. Clearly, they were a big deal throughout the entire sweep of both Hebrew and Christian scriptures. I don’t know what we have in our society that carries all the meaning that sheep and shepherds do in the Bible: the herdsman fed and dressed his family by the animals he raised, an entire economy depended on sheep and shepherds, and Israel’s religion, built on blood sacrifice, would have had to close up shop without sheep. Look at our altar and see the Messiah, Jesus, represented by… a lamb, the Lamb of God.

What would we show as the sustaining centerpiece of our culture? What would be so globally important and valuable that it could wind up as a symbol of the divine? Would it be a laptop? Nah. At least a lamb is animate, alive. How about a Texas longhorn? Many eat steak, and there certainly is a cattle industry. Maybe mentioning Texas brings to mind oil— but I don’t think a barrel of oil is going to make it onto any altar I’d care to worship at. (Now, promise me not to spend the rest of this sermon coming up with the perfect answer to what was meant to be a rhetorical question…)

The point is: in the Bible, sheep rule. At least among metaphors.

What I didn’t realize—never growing up close to sheep—is that there are bullies in that species, as there are in our own. That fact helps Ezekiel get the most out of his metaphor and insist that a time will come when God the shepherd will gather together the whole of his flock, scattered and injured by war and famine and injustice, and will impose on the flock a reversal of fortune whereby the weak will be strengthened and the strong will be, well, turned into mutton.

That sounds downright merciless in Ezekiel’s oracle today, but this does tend to be the prognosis for sheep, doesn’t it? Bred to be useful, sheep fulfill their destiny in a variety of ways that make us glad we aren’t sheep.
What’s surprising about Ezekiel’s vision of flock and shepherd is this ecology of justice that he describes. Stockyards are not known for mercy or justice, nor are sheepfolds, however bucolic they may sound. Nature is now and was then red in tooth and claw, and that pushing and butting Ezekiel cites is animal nature in the sheep pen and pasture just as it will be next Friday at Best Buy and Target.

But it is not to be so in the Kingdom of God. Justice will shape the flock, even train the behavior of the sheep, and it will be up to the shepherd to see to that. Who is the shepherd? As “sheep” represented the people of Israel in this realm of metaphor, the shepherd is in some verses God, and in others it is the king. To prophets like Ezekiel, to be a good king is to reflect the justice of God.

Methodist Bible commentator Katheryn Pfisterer Darr writes, “In Israel’s ancient Near Eastern world, kings were expected to “tend” their subjects justly, especially those who were most vulnerable to abuse: widows, orphans, the poor, infirm, and displaced. Israel’s past shepherds neglected such responsibilities, Ezekiel charges… But Yahweh, Israel’s divine king, shepherds the entire flock including its weakest members… How a society and its leaders treat those who struggle against disadvantages speaks volumes about that society’s true values—not the ones it professes to hold, but those revealed in policy and action.” By God’s values, she says, the elderly will not be neglected, the homeless will not be disparaged, and the sick will not be stigmatized. Nor, we might add, will foreigners be denied the basic rights we expect for ourselves.

Nor, she points out, will God’s creation be treated as ours to exploit, as Judah’s former kings exploited the flock entrusted to their care. “Neither are we, like the strong, selfish members of the flock… free to take more than our share of its resources, consuming at will and polluting what remains. Ezekiel’s world knew the devastation of flood and earthquake, of famine and drought, of warfare and plunder. We too know of such things; perhaps we have even experienced some of them. But Ezekiel’s world did not know the devastation of nuclear waste and chemical landfills, of cracked-open oil tankers and mountains of non-biodegradable trash. Today, chapter 34 (of the Book of the Prophet Ezekiel) speaks with a piercing relevance the prophet could not have imagined.”

All of which sets us up for another unanticipated lesson about sheep, brought to us by the Gospel of Matthew, where we learn that sheep are preferred over goats. Go figure.

Goats, like sheep, were one of man’s earliest successes in domestication. They were the principal source of milk in Israel. Their flesh was eaten, their waterproof hair used to make tent fabric, their skins tanned for leather, their hides as skin bottles.

They were commonly herded together with sheep in the ancient culture. They were considered acceptable for religious sacrifice—even the Passover lamb could be a kid. But will you see a goat on a Christian altar? “With their beetling brow and thrust-out lower lip they could easily represent power and belligerence,” writes Jack Vancil, contributing to the Anchor Bible Dictionary. “Their overbearing temper and aggressiveness required the shepherd to keep close watch over the flocks so that the sheep would not be harmed.”

Ah, we’re back into the realm of butting and shoving—not just the animals, also the humans. I’ll venture the guess that eventually shepherds and goatherds went their separate ways. Mr. Vancil tells us that goats are destructive to cultivated areas, and I suppose I would know that firsthand if I had one. In a primarily nomadic culture, sheep and goats coexisted side by side. In a settled culture of gardens and pastures, shepherds and goatherds would compete for land and water and prime pasture.

Perhaps Jesus raised goats. He (or Matthew) assumed that most of his hearers wouldn’t have raised an eyebrow at the disparaging destiny that meets the so-called goats in his vision of the last judgment. Somehow, those goats had to represent humanity at its worst: self-involved, chomping away the neighbor’s lawn without even noticing, nose to the ground taking care of Number One, head-butting anyone in the way.

Maybe you could call this story “How to Really Get God’s Goat.”

But let’s lift our own heads out of the details enough to remember that when we hear a Gospel, we’re hearing Good News. Life is full of the other kind. Here, Matthew brings us Good News.

Jesus is closer to us than we know. Jesus is closer to us than we know. And we are called to know him, to recognize him wherever he is, in the stranger longing for the embrace of welcome, in the sick person who opens us to the call to compassion, in the prisoner who requires us to face our own fear of jails.

The good news is that Jesus is with us. The good news is that Jesus pushes the boundaries of that tiny word “us”, stretching it to include all the Bad News Bears we can think of, whom we will want to include even if by nature we don’t want to include them. He is so them that to keep them at a distance is to keep him at a distance. They, with whom we have wanted little to do, are the ones he sends to bring us to our senses, and save us from our own belligerence, our own proclivity to strip the earth bare and to be satisfied only when our tanks are on full. He lifts up those whom he calls “the least members of my family” to reveal to his whole family what matters most.

The apostle, whom I have so far neglected, sings a lovely hymn praising God and in the same verses admires the Christians at Ephesus for really hearing the Good News and acting on it. They are full of Christ. They are the body of Christ in the world, and Christ is the head of that body, filling them with his vision and wisdom, freeing them to know the hope to which he has called them, the riches he has given them in their community of love and service, the immeasurable power of faith he has planted in them. They, his church, are “the fullness of him who fills all in all.”

The good news? Those words spoken to the Ephesians are spoken to us, of us, for us. “They” are “we”. We too are called to take our part in God’s filling all in all. Our fullness becomes treasure only as we put it to God’s use. This season of insecurity and distress will not be empty, but rich in opportunity to turn what fullness we have to God’s purposes. Your responses to this parish’s appeal for the new year show your understanding, your acceptance of the baptismal call to become good shepherds.

Friday, a young Mom came to the parish office to deliver the gift that her little boy had requested for his birthday this week. He asked his family and friends to give food to a food pantry in place of toys and gadgets, of which (he said) he has plenty. It took two of us to haul in the great bin of all his gifts, now ready on our shelves for Jesus when he is hungry.

I had never met this Mom, who is a friend of our Youth Minister, Jacki. I sure would like to meet her son—wouldn’t you? I wrote to him immediately. He’s showing that fullness of him who fills all in all. He’s got the makings of a mighty good shepherd, don’t you think?

(Katheryn Pfisterer Darr’s commentary is found in Volume VI of “The New Interpreter’s Bible”, pp. 1467-1469. Jack W. Vancil’s entry “Goat, Goatherd” is found on pp. 1040-41 of “The Anchor Bible Dictionary”, Volume 2.)

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

On Judging the Wise and the Foolish

Scripture cited here includes Amos 5:18-24, I Thessalonians 4:13-18, and Matthew 25:1-13.

There sure does seem to be a lot to pick at in today’s Gospel. What’s a bridegroom doing arriving at his wedding banquet at midnight? Why should anyone expect oil dealers to be open at that hour? And most of all, how wise is it not to share what you have? We might rather pick an argument than agree that this is an allegory of heaven.

There’s something of the prophet Amos and something of the apostle Paul in this Gospel portion. Amos is heard taking to task the religious leaders of his time, who predicted that the people of God would be rewarded by a glorious day of national fulfillment, God’s favor poured out on his favorite nation. Amos argued, “You’ve got to be kidding! There is a great day coming, and it will be what our nation deserves, but woe to you who want that day to come! Expect God’s judgment, not God’s favor. No one nation is going to be exalted: all will be judged. And don’t let that news send you into solemn assembly and the singing of national anthems. Do you want to be prepared for that day? Then let justice roll down like waters, and responsible living like an ever-flowing stream.

That’s Amos! Invite him to your next cocktail party, and while you’re at it you might want to invite the cops, too. Amos never met a status quo he didn’t shake. What he does for us this morning is help us understand what those bridesmaids in Matthew’s allegory are preparing for, and that is the day of judgment, when God sends the Messiah to sort out the mess mankind has made of life on earth.

St. Paul offers his own vision of that day, but while Amos describes it happening to a nation, Paul is enough of a pastor to know that when people have to face change, they tend to ask, “And what will this mean for me?” When the trumpet sounds and the archangel calls, says Paul, the dead in Christ will rise first, then we rise and wait no longer for the Master’s return for we will be caught up in the clouds where they are, and where he is, for a mighty reunion that will last forever. You can reassure one another with these words, Paul says.

Matthew’s not so ethereal. He locates the return of Christ to judge the living and the dead at an abundant banquet, a wedding banquet, an image used also by some of the great prophets of Israel to describe the culmination of history. And the story Matthew sets around this feast, the one we may want to argue with, is all about getting in.

It’s also about oil, isn’t it? We can relate to that. Even with the price of gasoline down dramatically, oil is just as precious a commodity now as 2000 years ago. Because we’re hearing an allegory, this oil stands for something. In Hebrew tradition, oil represents deeds of love and mercy. You just have to trust me on that; first-century hearers would have known it when they heard it.

This Gospel story was spoken to that first generation of Christians who couldn’t gauge when their Lord would return to complete his redeeming of the world. They kept praying daily, “Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as in heaven,” not knowing if that might happen tonight, tomorrow—but expecting it at any moment. What was the church to do in the between-time? This story answers that question. And it’s where the oil comes in.

The bridesmaids represent the church—all ten of them, the wise and the foolish. From the beginning, the church has been a mixed bag. Given that we’re all human, this is no surprise. There is even a Latin term—“corpus mixtum”—to name this concept that people get baptized and join the church for mixed motives and out of mixed visions of what membership requires.

This was a life and death issue in the early Church, where the emperor’s persecution of Christians kept forcing a separation between believers willing to die for their faith, and believers not prepared to do so. I say a life and death issue— to avoid arrest, some Christians outed others, reporting them to the authorities, so whom could you trust within this “corpus mixtum” of a church? And once the persecutions had abated, the persevering church had to receive back into its fold the lax who had publicly denied their faith to avoid death. Yes, the bridesmaids represent the church—both the five wise ones and the five foolish. This Gospel announces the truth they embraced, or the truth that embraced them, that only God could judge who was worthy to come to the banquet. Until that day of certainty, all belonged. Beyond that day, it would be for God to judge.

But back to the oil. All ten knew they needed it for their lamps. Five took extra oil in flasks. (Should we call them the Energizer Bunnies?) They recognized that they were in for the long haul, and they intended to be ready. Five had only the oil their lamps came with, nothing more in reserve, and the later it got, the less they had. (In this present economy, we may have great sympathy for these five bunnies.)

Here’s Matthew’s message: As we await the coming of God’s rule on earth, what is asked of us—the part we are to play in that coming—is responsible discipleship, deeds of love and active mercy in obedience to the great commandment to love God and to love our neighbors as well as we love ourselves. That’s the oil. And that’s what the faithful showed in that first century, as they show it in every century, choosing to live each day the life of the kingdom that we pray will come. The lesson of the oil, adapted, is that as we wait for better times, God calls us to make these times better by deeds of love and active mercy.

Those five foolish ones were there for the party, and they thought they had timed the market so as to keep partying on. They failed to appreciate how fully God relies on his people to make of life a kingdom where justice flows like a stream. They left their flasks at home, and were unwilling to pour them out. They failed to show the likeness of God in which they had been made.

But did those five wise ones show the generosity of God? Well… no. Their role is to reflect the justice of God, just as harrowing as the prophet Amos said it would be. Remember the oil: these five wise ones, emptying their flasks for God, are full of what can never be lost, the integrity of their actions and the legacy of all they have done in costly obedience. They are prepared to enter that banquet tent, and nothing can prevent them.

The other five are on empty. They’ve expected God to be on their timetable. Their attempts to control their futures have so far blocked God’s efforts to transform them. So while their five sisters move beyond the limiting range of human economy into a heaven of abundance, these five are sent back to the store. They have no hope but the marketplace, so when they try one last time to enter the banquet tent, there is no hope in them that fits the hope of that feast, and they find the flap shut. By the terms of the story, they are not prepared to enter the joy of their maker.

Well, here I’ve tried to consider Matthew’s story the way he may have meant it. But this doesn’t satisfy me. I still want to argue with it. And that helps me realize that the point of this story, and of the larger Gospel of Jesus Christ, is not to satisfy me. It is to unsettle me, much as Amos does, a holy bull in my china shop.

I want to enter the banquet tent, but I don’t see myself in the five wise ones. I’m often on empty. I fail to let my spiritual practice, my prayer, keep my lamp lit. I expect God to be on my time-table—to guide us to our next parish officers before annual meeting, for example, to move us to complete our stewardship appeal in time and in amount to prepare us for the new year. I could go on and on. And to imagine that I can’t turn to wise ones and draw some of their oil, tap some of their encouragement, that would feel like being in a merciless marketplace, not in the kingdom of God.

That would mean living by the bad news of salvation by my own bootstraps alone, not living by the good news of salvation by the free gift of God in Jesus Christ, claimed by faith and practiced in community.

It is by God’s gift and by my choice that I live in the kingdom of God, that I choose to live each day the life of the kingdom that we pray will come. I, like you, cannot live that life alone. So I’m wary of stories that, like this one, divide the “corpus mixtum”, stories built on judgment. Let God judge when all is said and done. But let’s be open to an evolving theology that allows us to let go of a tribal God thought to favor one nation, one people, one culture, or one party over others. Let God judge in that great day, and for now I’ll use a story like Matthew’s to judge myself, but no one else.

We live in an age of toxic division in the Body of Christ, and at a time of deep disunity in our nation, half of whose people see the tent flap to heaven opened this past week, the other half wondering how their hopes fit the future. We need to find each other. We need to end our religious and political pastime of judging who is wise and who is foolish.

Whether in church or in state, none of us now can live alone the life that our future requires of us. We need the “corpus mixtum” to embrace its unity, and each of us is needed to help that happen. We must find each other across all the wisdom and all the foolishness and all the judgment that can divide us. The challenges we face require us to fill our flasks for the long haul of a new order that will be long in the making, and will require us to pour out our flasks to let justice roll down, and responsible living, like an ever-flowing stream.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Truth and Choice

The Gospel portion cited here is Matthew 22:34-46.

Circling one another like fighters in a ring or fencers set to parry and thrust are Jesus and a whole bunch of very religious, very spiritual, very upright pillars of their society, the Pharisees and the Sadducees. Each of these groups is trying to catch Jesus in his own talk, setting him up to make a very public mistake that might cost him the people’s respect. They are circling around him like a street gang, craftily trying to limit his options and squeeze him into saying or doing something that will be picked up by the first-century version of Fox News. These are perfect Gospels for the last days of a presidential campaign.

Last Sunday, we heard the Pharisees hoping to trap Jesus with their tricky question, “Is it right to pay taxes to the emperor or not?” He handled that by calling for a coin and asking “Whose head do you see?”

Try that with a quarter and who’s there but George Washington. “Being a citizen carries its demands,” Jesus might say. “So does belonging to the kingdom of God.”

With that, Jesus demonstrates a skill that he teaches to all who seek truth: Don’t let other people dictate the terms of your choices. They may tell you that you have to choose between this and that. Truth may require you to hold both in balance, as you see through the veil of opposites to the unity that requires imagination.

And in the case of taxes, we can see why. God does not work solely through what we might call the sacred; God works also in the realm of the secular. In a few short moments we will renew our baptismal vows, including God’s call to strive for justice and peace among all people, and to respect the dignity of every human being. The just ordering of human society, says the Bible in countless ways, is a chief priority of God and a chief responsibility of each child of God. Respecting the dignity of every member of society is costly, requires our investing in the common good, including the payment of taxes.

In today’s portion, a lawyer starts another dance of death around Jesus. “Teacher, reveal your bias: there are many commandments in our law—which one is greatest?” Picture the resulting headlines: Would-be messiah preaches against graven images but appears uninterested in stamping out adultery!

Don’t let them dictate your choices, Jesus demonstrates again as he answers this lawyer not by citing any of the thou-shalt-nots, but by using the positive voice of his ancient and brilliant Hebrew tradition: “You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” Or, as we hear it in The Message, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your passion and prayer and intelligence.’ This is the most important, the first on any list. But there is a second to set alongside it: ‘Love others as well as you love yourself.’ These two commands are pegs; everything in God’s law and the Prophets hangs from them.”

And everything Jesus says about God shows him revealing this truth: that God is not a subject to be studied or a tribal power to be claimed. God is One to be known through relationship, through loving, through serving. Pharisees and Sadducees, like very religious and very spiritual people in all ages, may prefer to reduce God to a subject to be studied, a tribal power to be claimed and owned. That is less than God.

We are about to baptize Nina, a child of God. That title recognizes God already at work in her life, always at work in her life. God doesn’t partner up with Nina because of what we do this morning: we are running to catch up with God who bestows gifts of faith, hope, and love. We are gathering around her to watch with awe as these gifts of God grow and blossom in her, and, because it is the Church’s responsibility to do so, to pray that God will keep increasing in her these gifts of faith, hope, and love—and not just to pray that, but to coach her to recognize her gifts, encourage her to practice and exercise them, model for her what those gifts look like when they are put at the service of God, and share with her our own gifts.

What a time she has been born into! Apocalyptic predictions meet us every morning as we hear the news, many an evening as we hear the closing bell on the Exchange. Daily, we learn what we have been taking for granted. On a good day, we recall who and whose we are. Every now and again, we may recognize that what is happening to us is truth, the clearing away of so much that has been so false for so long and the immersing of our world for a time in the cold bath of truth.

Made clear today is the truth about who Nina is, made clear in such a way that we would have to be very stubborn indeed not to realize and welcome the same truth about ourselves: that by the generous and gracious gifting of God, each of us is a citizen of the kingdom of God, a living member of the Body of Christ in the world, an honored member of his family with a place at his table, united with him in his death so as to be joined with him in his resurrection, an instrument of peace, a defender of justice.

Nina’s baptism will help us recall who and whose we are: people called to, and privileged to, know and love and serve God through relationship with the one who teaches us how to seek and embrace truth.

His lessons, from two thousand years of market cycles, economic spirals, and global calamities, are a fresh fit for right now.

Don’t let others dictate the terms of your choices. They may tell you that you have to choose between this and that. Truth may require you to hold both in balance.

As tiring as it gets, consciously choose to pay attention so that you discern the spirit within what you’re hearing about the future, then choose to invest your faith and hope and charity where you sense the positive energy of truth.

Welcome the adventure of life that must be lived on new terms. Embrace the truth you are learning, and be patient with it. In a period of decrease, focus on the increase of God’s gifts to you, gifts of faith, hope, and charity—gifts of trust, courage, and love.

“‘Love the Lord your God with all your passion and prayer and intelligence.’ This is the most important, the first on any list. But there is a second to set alongside it: ‘Love others as well as you love yourself.’ These two commands are pegs; everything in God’s law and the Prophets hangs from them.”

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Wearing Authority

Scripture portions mentioned here are Isaiah 25:1-9, Philippians 4:1-9, and Matthew 22:1-14.

Thank God, we have just 22 more days of campaigning to endure. I even imagine God saying, “For heaven’s sake, get this over with!”

“Many are called, but few are chosen.” Thinking back to the primaries, many felt called. In the end, just one gets elected. One is found to be the best fit to wear the presidency of this nation. His oppponent will be rather like the fellow in our parable: not vested, not wearing the mantle of this authority.

And that one will, at least for a while, be speechless. Maybe it wouldn’t be a bad idea at this juncture if both candidates and their campaigns went speechless. Aren’t they both repeating themselves a lot?

So into the outer darkness will one of our candidates go, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Exactly where his opponent’s campaign has suggested he belongs, and have done their darnedest to send him.

What’s missing in all this distressing, disturbing, predictable campaign behavior is anything more than a passing hint that one’s opponent has been working, and will be working, for the best interests of the very same nation, putting his shoulder to the same wheel of the same general good that will be so very challenging to achieve that the two parties are going to need each other to do it. The purpose of campaigning is to convince people that one’s opponent isn’t bound to the best interests of this country, isn’t a respected member of the same Senate, doesn’t really mean it at the start of the debate when that apparently warm handshake and grip of the arm gets given.

It’s a sharp contrast we hear in St. Paul’s op ed piece today, written for the Phillipian Times Sentinel, back when that community was feeling the tension between two bearers of authority in Philippi, two women named Euodia and Syntyche. We don’t know what they were divided over. The issues have been lost, across the centuries. It’s important to notice that women were in the forefront of the early Church. Commentators say that Paul admires and respects them both, because he names them both. Paul sometimes fails to name Christian authorities whom he does not admire or respect. St. Paul sometimes uses the “that one” approach. But not here.

As he handles their controversy, he first speaks to the unity of the community at Philippi, calling them (regardless of which leader they like or agree with) “my joy and crown”. And he reminds his beloved people of the great power they have to stand firm in the Lord Jesus, their unity and their peace. If they will practice that skill of standing firm, it will help Euodia and Syntyche to find their unity. The people can hold their leaders to a worthy standard in this way, by their own behavior.

Paul keeps to himself any opinion he has about their controversy. He affirms them both as trusted colleagues who have struggled beside him in the work of the gospel, and they are part of a yet larger team of co-workers who all have in common the general good of the community.

Above the tensions and frustrations that they would talk about at the water cooler, Paul summons the people to remember whose they are, that their names have been written by God in the book of life. Feel the privilege in which you stand, he reminds them. Rejoice, and show a generous spirit to everyone. (That’s a better translation than “Let your gentleness be known to everyone.”) Show a generous spirit.

God is nearer to you than breath itself, so for heaven’s sake pray, and pray thankfully, and you’ll find that the peace of God will be your steadying power.

Then he advises them how to pay attention in times of turmoil. These ought to be requirements of every candidate for public office, and their campaign staffs. “Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in the service of the Christ, and the God of peace will be with you.”

That would be putting on the Lord Jesus Christ, in Gospel language. Since we’re not a theocracy, and not franchised as a Christian nation, let’s say it differently: A candidate keeping his campaign positive and respectful will, in the eyes of the people, wear the mantle of highest public service— and so long as we the people value and respect the unity we have as citizens of one nation indivisible, we will hold our candidates to worthy standards, by our own behavior.

Speaking of wearing things, what’s up with that robe in our Gospel parable today? That poor fellow didn’t get up that morning saying, “I think I’ll go to a wedding banquet today.” He was among the rank and file from Main Street who got persuaded to fill that hall. How could any of the guests be expected, under those conditions, to have the right clothes on?

Here’s a story rather like last Sunday’s. That one was about a landowner, his vineyard, and his decision to put it under new management when his tenants broke the terms of their lease and broke into open revolt by murdering the owner’s son when he came to gather his father’s share of the produce.

That story was once a simple parable that became, in Matthew’s hands, a fullblown allegory telling the salvation history of the people of God. The same is true of this one.

Hear today’s story in its simpler earlier form in Luke’s Gospel. There it’s not a wedding feast, not a king throwing it for his son, no punitive military action to punish the invited guests who refused to attend. All that is because Luke wasn’t trying to use the story the way Matthew does, to tell the whole nine yards of how God called Israel to sit at table with him (we heard that summons in the ancient text of Isaiah today), how Israel refused, how Israel’s great capital Jerusalem was destroyed in retribution, and how God opened the banquet hall of his kingdom to all people, Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female, bad and good alike. Whew! What a lot to squeeze into fifteen verses.

In this kind of story, a humble parable having become an ambitious allegory, everything stands for something, each detail symbolizes something bigger than itself.

Matthew’s first hearers knew it when they heard it: that wedding robe is the plain white linen baptismal garment, the very kind each of them had worn when lowered into the river, the lake, the sea, the stream where it happened that they had put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and where their names were written in the book of life.

And they heard Matthew driving home his point: Christians have been unexpectedly included in the salvation history of Israel. It was by grace, by God’s generous spirit that the kingdom of heaven had been thrown open to them too—but they may not presume on that grace. It is not enough to accept the invitation and then do nothing more than just show up for a free meal. To be part of the salvation history of God, one must wear the mantle of faith showing itself in service and a generous spirit.

That’s the meaning of the robe. At many places in the New Testament, conversion of life is pictured as putting on new clothes. Not designer suits, no. More like the undergarment that Jesus stripped down to at the last supper, when he washed the feet of his disciples. Which I am meant to remember every time I put on this simple shift that I wear in worship.

And it’s all about the kingdom of heaven, this story that Jesus tells, with Matthew’s help. The kingdom of heaven starts with the generous gift of a king for his son, a love so unbounded that it wants to embrace all. And the kingdom of heaven comes on earth, God’s will gets done on earth as in heaven, when the rank and file of Main Street, you and I, put on the Lord Jesus Christ as our way of being in the world.

What will this require? What will this empower?

That generous spirit that Paul expects, the spirit that sees the best in all, especially in our opponents and in our adversities. The generous spirit that knows when it’s time to be renewed in prayer and grounded in peace. The commitment to unity and community, the skill of standing firm in the Lord, that will express itself in generous stewardship even in times likes these, especially in times like these. And the freedom to rejoice.

And all the vows of our Baptism, calling for justice to roll down through us like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream. That was Luke’s purpose in telling the banquet story: In his version, when all the proper guests make their excuses and cannot come, it is the poor,the crippled, the blind, and the lame who are gathered into that banquet hall. That’s Luke’s way of preaching the sermon Matthew sets out to preach: To be in Christ is to wear a mantle of faith showing itself in service and a generous spirit.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

What is the Price of Truth?

This sermon refers to Philippians 3:4b-14 and Matthew 21:33-46.

How anxious do you feel?

In some conversations I’ve been in this past week, anxiety was so thick that you couldn’t cut it with a knife. But it cuts, undercuts, shortcuts its way not so much to the mind or the heart as to the bowels—well, I won’t go further with that.

Some of us have family members who work in the financial sector, who worry about the viability of their jobs. No man is an island, and job cuts in one sector will be felt in others.

Quite a few of our members are in or near retirement, and in that circle there’s lots of fretting about investments losing value, cutting into pensions.

Non-profit institutions dependent on endowment income have to take into account not just cut earnings, but slippage of restricted endowments below thresholds at which they can be drawn upon at all. This was already bedeviling us here at St. John’s—it’s bound to trip us up now.

Should I ask again: How anxious are you? Anxiety cuts at us sharply.

The truth also cuts. There is a saying that the truth of a matter cuts both ways. That can mean many things, and suggests at least that life is a puzzling adventure full of surprise and irony, that the reality inside our experience often isn’t what it appears on the outside, and that it takes time for a story to be told whole and full.

Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, commented last week on the market collapse: “This crisis exposes the element of basic unreality in the situation—the truth that almost unimaginable wealth has been generated by equally unimaginable levels of fiction, paper transactions with no concrete outcome beyond profit for traders,” he wrote.

That could be an invitation to dare practice the kind of consistent gratitude that St. Paul recommends when he urges us to thank God in all circumstances. Any takers on that?

Consider it. If there’s a human tendency as pernicious as anxiety, it’s denial. If we are where we are on Wall Street today not just because of the greed and corruption of some, but by the denial of many, then let’s have done with denial. Let’s welcome truth cutting through every layer of deception and distraction and hype and hysteria and lousy values, even as it hurts like hell. Why not dare look for the gift in what we suffer? Can’t we build a better economy on truth than on lies?

As St. Paul tells his story, he was living a life of denial, denying the power of God’s Spirit as it blew and rattled its way through the creaky edifices of first-century religion and society. He denied God’s care for a whole world by believing a theology that monopolized God’s care for just one tribe. He denied the call to change, the right of God to require change, the freedom of God to judge and challenge and transform the daily round of commerce and education, household and government.

Paul nearly perfected a denial of the spirit, choosing (in his own words) to be confident in the flesh. Then, in the flesh, on that perilous road to Damascus, he got whomped by reality, clobbered by the force of all that he was repressing, whaled by a devastating blow that he never quite explains to our analytical minds, but which rendered him an invalid for a season, and landed him right in the hands of his nemesis, the fledgling Christian community, the very group (still within Judaism) that he was intent on putting out of business, and who would nurse him to health and midwife his new birth.

Paul, whose denial of the spirit gave him a career trading on fear, falls calamitously into an unknowable future which he will come to treasure as it opens him to spirit and truth. He is not a bad icon to place on your television set, above the nightly news and the streaming Dow Jones.

He teaches us to sing a new song with these lyrics: “Whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him…”

So comes the freedom that allows a colleague, Stephen Bonsey, Canon Pastor of the Cathedral of St. Paul in Boston, to write to his people:

“The urgent duty of Christians in times like these is to resist the culture of fear, step outside the confusion and controversy, and lay hold of fundamental truths. One such truth is this: God has given us a world of abundance. God provides our daily bread. There is more than enough of all that we require to go around. The marketplace, when it is fulfilling its proper function in service to creation, facilitates this distribution.

“There is only one thing ultimately that can threaten us with the specter of hunger, loss of housing or denial of health care, and that is fear: fear of scarcity; fear that we will suffer deprivation as others will take more than their share. Such fears inspire pre-emptive action in the form of greed, corruption, and deception. These are the forces that distort markets to serve the few and powerful at the expense of the many – thus creating the very scarcity that seemed to threaten us.

“If we act in the present crisis out of fears inspired by the great lie of scarcity, we will inevitably create the very conditions we sought to avoid.

“Is it possible to consider another path? Could we approach the present crisis as an opportunity, not to shore up a failed system, but to build an alternative? What would it look like to devote $700 billion – or whatever the amount – to build economic strength from the ground up rather than the top down? What if we were to shape public policy to encourage markets of shared abundance in local efforts for sustainable agriculture, green energy, universal health care, excellence in education and renewed infrastructure?

“What if we were to act in confidence and strength in service of the truth, rather
than out of fear in service of a lie?”

Our Gospel today gives us a parable from the commodities market. Sweet cultivated grapes are the cash crop, and wine the product. The vineyard’s owner, after establishing his enterprise, trusts an economic system in which he puts certain people in charge of managing his business, and retires to the coast of Maine (or some equally appealing countryside). He expects to continue to receive his share of the produce.

But his managers deny him his due portion, and his rights of ownership. They deny the authority of the agents he sends to communicate with them—they even deny these messengers their lives, and when they murder the owner’s son they deny their very relationship with the owner, and are in full revolt. They’ve exalted themselves, hitching their star to a lie, the delusion that the vineyard is theirs simply because they’re standing on it and the owner is not. This market is not fulfilling its proper function in service to creation, is not facilitating just distribution.

After telling the story, Jesus asks the crowd, “So what does justice require?”

“New management!” they shout—and no golden parachutes for those scoundrels!

And at this moment, the truth cuts both ways. They have heard the surface of his story, but now must experience a very different application from deep within it. Jesus is pressing out of the grapes of this vineyard a bitter wine for them to taste. God is the vintner in the deeper story Jesus tells, and they are the scoundrels who don’t give God his due, who prefer to be confident in the flesh and believe that God cares just for them and not for the whole creation. They are the ones denying God’s call to change, God’s right to require change, God’s freedom to judge and challenge and transform commerce and education, households and governments.

And we might be the scoundrels, too, if we perpetuate a system that gives tax advantages to its billionaires and its most profitable businesses, while at the same time creating each year millions more households that cannot afford food or fuel to heat those homes, as hard-working low-income Americans who presently wash the floors at Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac slip down the ladder that once led up, now just down.

We might be the scoundrels, too, if we refuse to recognize that right now, when the economy is weakest, is when the need is greatest for another large-scale bailout, the one described by Joel Berg, Director of the New York Coalition against Hunger: the federal investment that is needed to prevent social service providers nationwide from buckling under the increasing load on agencies that lose ground each year—ground that God the vintner wants to plant with sweet grapes.

Jesus does not exempt any of his hearers from responsibility to the demands of justice, responsibility for the common good. His parables do not allow us to settle in a land of Them and Us. No demonizing is allowed in the Kingdom of God. Blame is a waste of breath, the ruach, the breath of God moving through us to revive the discouraged, instill wisdom, and inspire brave insistence on the truth—even as it cuts both ways.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Making the Word Flesh for the World

Scripture for this Sunday included Romans 14:1-12 and Matthew 18:21-35

Without St. Matthew and his fellow Gospel-writers, we would not have the teachings of Jesus. The evangelists—Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, or their representatives—took what had been word-of-mouth versions of what Jesus said to his disciples and their contemporaries in the early part of the first century and, in later decades of that century put these teachings on parchment.

That doesn’t happen without some shaping of the message. Christians are not afraid to acknowledge this. Our understanding of inspiration includes the art, the fashioning, the handling of the message.

So when we turn to scripture to understand it, we respect the layers we find. It’s not as if we need training in archeology to really hear the Bible, but that image of a dig is a good one: Break the surface of a text like that Gospel today, and you get into layers of words and thoughts that belong to Jesus, and layers that belong to Matthew.

This was understood, in its own way, by Bible editors who once upon a time printed the words of Jesus in red, recognizing that gems need to be mounted in settings that show off the cut, the shape, the light of the jewel—so all the words they thought Jesus hadn’t uttered they printed in black. Both were seen as inspired, yet with a difference between them.

But the layering is more intricate than that. Matthew was not afraid to paraphrase the word-of-mouth tradition that he had heard over so many years, around so many desert campfires, because this calling the early church placed on him and his like to assemble the teachings and convey the Word was not an exercise in magic, where one must recite the spell exactly as it’s taught at Hogwarts. Gathering the Gospels was an exercise in incarnation. The very subject of the Gospels—the Word become flesh in Jesus Christ—was also the very substance of the Gospels, a living tradition that the Holy Spirit of God moves through, works through, breathes through at all stages of the Gospel, from its happening, through its reporting, to its recording, through its translations, and on through our own efforts to comprehend it and bear it to the world.

What’s my point? That the person who wants to really enter a Gospel discovers it’s a live system full of movement. And it’s not unlike a crossword puzzle. There are always three things going on, the message across and the message up and down, and those points where they meet, where the clues get found for what might be called a fully respectful reading of scripture.

So here today is a lovely example of the evangelist’s work. He knows this powerful parable among the key teachings of Jesus, the one that lies imbedded within our portion today, the story of a king who, after conducting an audit of his holdings, discovers serious mismanagement.

One trusted agent has had a bad year or two managing the first-century counterpart of Freddie Mac or Fannie Mae, and there’s hell to pay. Only, in those days there really was hell to pay: notice how this fellow doesn’t get to retire with a $24 million severance package. Oh, for the good old days of cause and effect.

1st-century kings and emperors didn’t know about polls and pollsters, so approval ratings weren’t their concern. History would rate few as kind or gracious, but there is something of heaven in this one: though he puts in motion his usual hard justice (he owns this agent, now he’ll sell him as damaged goods, together with his wife and children and household possessions, and from this foreclosure sale will recover some small sum)—but an unscripted moment happens. This defenceless fellow falls on his knees before the king and pleads for time, patience, a reprieve. And he gets it. More than that, the king releases him not just from jail but from the entire debt. (That amount, says the commentator, is such a large amount of money that we can barely do the math; it’s meant to represent a gazillion dollars.) From this mountain of mortgage deals turned sour, he is released. And he doesn’t get that. He has asked for a reprieve so he may repay that impossible debt, and it hasn’t sunk in that this old way of thinking fits him no longer. He doesn’t own the freedom he’s given.

You can barely breathe before the tables turn, this pardoned failure of an executive exits the royal chamber, enters a back corridor and there bumps into another apparatchik of the royal household, someone at least a notch or two below him in the pecking order, a poker buddy whose bad luck in their last game left him owing an amount about one six hundred thousandth of that first man’s forgiven debt, says the commentator.

Pay me what you owe! are the searing words that start a wildfire among all the royal staff who witness the unthinkable, that when the hapless poker partner pleads for time, the villainous ex-executive slaps him into jail until the debt should be paid.

See, here’s the thing about the parables of Jesus, I mean the core stories—they’re so rich and full of life that you can’t even finish telling them without preaching them, I mean elaborating, weaving out some colorful fringe along the edges to frame them, and that’s what Matthew does. It’s what I want to do, too.

I want to notice how futile human economy can be, that a debtor should get locked up in order to make sure his debt gets paid—by whom? If the worker is incarcerated, how can the worker work? It’s a desperate measure designed only to punish, or, more darkly, to cleanse society of its irresponsible members. But that’s the only policy we can expect from someone who hasn’t tasted mercy, hasn’t embraced freedom, hasn’t opened himself to forgiveness.

And even though this disgraced agent was showered with grace, he didn’t get it. It all rolled off him like rain off gore-tex. I’d say that makes him an intriguing figure for preaching the Gospel of Christ in the 21st century. He’s the self-made man who has been met by amazing grace but can’t yet sing, “that saved a wretch like me… I once was lost but now am found, was blind but now I see.”

And Matthew found the story powerful for preaching the Gospel in the 1st century. He took the basic parable and made it an allegory, made it tell the story of the relationship between God and the Christian Church, the king representing God and the debt representing sin.

Noticing these layers, some Bible scholars say that Jesus’s parable ends with the king’s question, “Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?” That sounds like Jesus, the teacher who teaches by questions. Others say it ends with the next verse, where the king inflicts on his disgraced agent the same futile punishment that almost befell the second fellow.

But many of them agree that this last verse is Matthew’s addition, turning Jesus’s parable into a vivid lesson of the negative example. So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart. Forgiveness is not an option in the community of Christ; it is an imperative.

That’s Matthew’s message to Christians who stand forgiven and freed by the gift of Jesus’s breaking the grip of death with the power of God stronger than the grip of king or emperor. Forgiveness is not an option in this community: it is an imperative. Forgiveness is the one power that announces the Gospel to the world. And so Matthew hangs our Lord’s parable like a priceless painting on the hook of an encounter between Jesus and Peter, hangs this story on that question mark, Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?

Peter thinks he’s being extravagant at seven, a number representing perfection in the ancient world. Jesus said to him, Whoever has to count has not yet forgiven. If you’re calculating the Kingdom of God, seventy-seven, or seventy times seven, comes closer to measuring the embrace of God. You’ve received freely, give freely.

Jesus’s parable fleshes this out. I’m willing to bet that the Jesus of radical justice did not need his parable spiritualized when he told it: Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave is meant to have social and economic consequences. When his disciples first heard these words, they heard fulfillment of the messiah’s role foretold by the prophet Isaiah: The Spirit of the LORD God is upon me…to proclaim the opening of the prison to those who are bound… Or, as Mary would sing it, He has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.

The angry scolding we hear in our Gospel’s last verse today in Jesus’s voice would be against those who fail to forgive debt that simply cannot be repaid. In Matthew’s voice the church is scolded for its failures to forgive within its own circle. This reminds me of how in Luke’s Gospel we hear, “Blessed are the poor, for theirs is the Kingdom of God,” while Matthew tells us, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of God.” There is a spiritualizing of Jesus going on, and the Church needs it—but not at the expense of the social renewal the world needs.

Matthew is dealing with what St. Paul writes about today: the church of his time is divided into various groups with mutual suspicions about each other, grudges held from arguments over religious practice, or turf issues, or theological views. Gosh. Two thousand years later, don’t we need the Gospel of Matthew and the letters of Paul? Forgiveness is not an option in the community of Christ; it is an imperative. All who believe in the risen Lord should share one table and eat together despite their differences.

But whoever wants to enter the Gospel of Jesus will find a deep layer that speaks not just to the church but to the world. There we can hear the passion, the anger, the scolding of Christ aimed at wealthy nations perpetuating futile economics, imprisoning under-developed debtor nations in schemes that need to be broken open by forgiveness of debt.

And there we will find the summoning voice of Christ asking about the poor and the increasingly poor in this present economy, Should you not have mercy, as I have mercy on you?

I picture him wanting to ask this question of our presidential and vice-presidential candidates, inviting us—needing us—to do the asking, as the Word is made flesh not just for the Church, but for the world.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Who Is Your Church?

Scriptures cited today are Romans 13:8-14 and Matthew 18:15-20.

Here is a Sunday that feels like a homecoming. Our parish picnic will be the icing on that cake. The summer of 2008 is sliding into home plate. Don’t look now, but fall is near.

It’s also a Sunday to rejoice in new relationships. Some who worship with us here this morning are taking their first steps in building a new sense of spiritual home, a process we all hope to support. Many, perhaps most of us, have experienced this week something new, someone new, in our classrooms, workplace, and community. It’s a time of year to notice, celebrate, and commit ourselves to all who are newly among us. They may appreciate our remembering how vulnerable they feel, stepping into an orbit that isn’t quite theirs, yet. Be aware, notice, take your part in easing their entry—and recognize how our life is all the stronger for their presence.

Diana and I are just back from the Pacific Northwest, a week or so in Seattle and the San Juan Islands before driving east to Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, to help celebrate the marriage of Lili Peacock-Villada and Kyle Chambers. What beauty we enjoyed out there, and what a wedding that was, held high on a point overlooking Lake Coeur d’Alene. (And yesterday this season of portable celebrations took some of us to Stockbridge, where Betsy Ware and Andrew Fippinger exchanged vows at Chesterwood, under a tent, in the showers of Hanna—another beautiful moment of liturgy outside our walls, strengthening our people.)

Diana and I visited three churches while we traveled. The first was St. Mark’s Cathedral in Seattle, a plug-ugly square box of cement blocks, unfinished flooring, and window glass the color of lemonade. It’s been that way since being reclaimed from the dustbin of history—built during the Great Depression, the banks foreclosed on it and it became an artillery installation until, after WWII, it was consecrated for worship. I hear that Seattle is the headquarters of grunge art—there is a grunge cathedral, and it works, a simple foil that highlights not itself but the action of the people of God within it, holding them only as long as it takes to renew a readiness for the world. In fact, that Sunday being sunny and dry (not an everyday occurrence in Seattle), the first half of the service was held in the nave, and at the offertory the congregation moved outdoors to raise the Great Thanksgiving at a table in the spacious front yard of their campus. And there people served each other the bread and wine of the Kingdom of God. We were welcomed so warmly—people seemed to have all the time in the world for us.

The second church we stopped in at was Grace Church, on Lopez Island. Dear friends own a cabin there, and invited us to enjoy time on that idyllic island, where eagles soar above you and sea lions bask on the rocks offshore. Grace Church was open and quiet when we stopped by on a Wednesday. It’s a new house of worship, built along modest and traditional lines—but full of color inside, the walls painted a dusty peach, the wainscoting plum, moss-green trim… imagine the color committee they have there! Its windows are clear glass below, but above, in the clerestorey, are stained glass windows with themes of the sea and the islands. Copping a newsletter, I see they’re coffee-hour-challenged also: an article called for volunteers, and explained how they’ve simplified the technology of coffee-serving. Sound familiar?

And the third church we visited was St. Luke’s in Coeur d’Alene. It was a block from our B & B. We attended their 8:00 a.m. service, where we were noticeably among the younger present. There were many signals that this church takes care of its own people. But as visitors, a mystery faced us at the offertory: each usher presented both a brass alms basin and a small basket filled with little green slips of paper. These made me think of the slips inside fortune cookies, and I began laughing at the idea that that’s what they were. We used the alms basin, but passed when it came to the basket. Come to find out, those slips were shopping assignments to replenish their food pantry—a jar of peanut butter, a can of hash, a tin of tuna.

In our Gospel today, Jesus speaks about church. He can’t have meant church as worship space, or church as quiet island of refuge, or church as a formal organization—none of these existed in his years on earth. We may be hearing St. Matthew adding to his report of our Lord’s teaching a word that was coming to have meaning near the end of the first century: church, a wider net than the circle of the twelve disciples, where our Lord’s teaching was likely first heard.

And we’re hearing the clear vision of Jesus, who knew what he came to do: to be the firstborn of many sisters and brothers, to gather a people who would carry in the world a priesthood of belief, a people who, as St. Paul puts it today, will fulfill the mind and will of God by putting on the Lord Jesus Christ and loving all in his name and Spirit.

So the people of God in Christ are coached in how to deal with people who offend and hurt them—people within their own circle of church.

Jesus teaches, first, that what matters most to him is that any two of his people who are having trouble living together work it through together. Our Lord’s words are awfully black and white, the way Matthew reports them, almost as if we aren’t meant to open ourselves to the likelihood that each of us is part of the problem, as well as part of the solution. “If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone.”

Where would you expect that to get you? Blame may be met with more blame, and denial. We’re right to think that there are other ways to open a conversation with someone we’re feeling estranged from. Like, I’m feeling this way about our relationship right now—how are you feeling about it? Maybe it’s a sign of some evolution that today we teach the value of I-statements in addressing conflict, and the avoidance of you-statements.

But see the point we’re meant to catch: However you do it, open the door. Keep talking. Try.

The coaching goes on: If you aren’t listened to, take one or two others of your circle along with you… and if that doesn’t help, tell it to the church, get the wisdom of your community working for you and for the person on the other side of this growing estrangement.

Here’s my question for you: Who is your church? Who’s got your back? Who are the people you’ll call on when you need ambassadors, facilitators, coaching, support, caring?

As you consider that question, let me recount an experience I had here on Friday.

I met that morning with a little cluster of people who were grieving and exhausted. Our task was to plan the funeral celebration of a remarkable woman who died last week at too young an age, after a year’s struggle with cancer. I was meeting with her spouse, her father, and one of her close friends. We’d finished most of our work, and I was taking them along the indoor route from the library to here, where that service will take place tomorrow.

Along the way, we passed a Bible study group where today’s readings were being explored, and where that day’s life issues were being shared.

Along the way, we passed a meeting of members of Alcoholics Anonymous, a community of intense commitment that is powerfully church to its members.

And along the way, we passed and spoke to members of this congregation’s staff, who bring to my life an indelible experience of church at its best and its clearest.

While I don’t know well the three people I was with, I have no reason to expect that they’re involved in, or familiar with, the life and work of a congregation. I remember thinking, as we passed each station of support, “This is quite a tour of what St. John’s is about.” I was feeling all over again the privileges we share and offer here, various ways people may find their church, the companionship that will make a difference in how they navigate their present passage in life.

Who is your church? Who will you ask to come with you into sensitive dialogue, to hear you in your search, to help you express your faith and your questions, to encourage you in listening and in working-through to what matters most?

Finding church. Making church. Being church. These are simple expressions of our mission. In this new season together, let’s notice people who are looking for church beyond formal worship and the work of maintaining a parish. Let’s act on our own need for more than the eight o’clock or ten o’clock hour of worship on Sunday. Let’s learn how to use our being-together to build our capacity for overcoming estrangement. Let’s expect the Christ to be present where two or three gather in his name. Let’s owe no one anything, except to love one another.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Infinite Steps Upon Water

The Gospel for this Sunday was Matthew 14:22-33

Six hundred-plus Anglican bishops have packed their rochets and chimeres and headed home, leaving a quieter cathedral at Canterbury, but neither leaving nor returning to a quieter Church. They began their two weeks with three days of silent retreat together, led by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, a brilliant new way to start the Lambeth Conference, speaking well for his instincts: silence those bishops for three days, and get your word in first!

Much of their time was devoted to sitting together in groups large enough to mix the continents and cultures, small enough to share airtime between extroverts and introverts, between eloquent high-profile prelates and humbler frontier types. The chief goal of this once-in-a-decade conference was for our bishops to know Christ in one another and to make known to one another the Christ who emerges from more than six hundred mission fields, each bishop’s missionary story different from the next, the Christ of his or her journey an equally brilliant ray of the one light.

I wonder if the unplanned, unchoreographed moments didn’t carry their own unique discoveries. One was reported in the press: a very early-morning false fire alarm emptied the dorms where many bishops and spouses were sleeping, and out they poured, in their nighties, to wait for the all-clear. And I’ll guess that a lot is clear at that hour, in that state of unreadiness and undress…

And there were well-rehearsed moments, too. Solange De Santis reports in this month’s Episcopal Life that the opening eucharist in Canterbury Cathedral started with a brass fanfare greeting Archbishop Williams, who was clad in white and gold mitre and vestments bearing the ancient cross of Canterbury… Bongo drummers accompanied the choristers… One Bible reading was in Korean and the Gospel was in French. The intercessions were in English, Hindi, Portuguese, Japanese, and French.

The Gospel Book was borne to the center of the cathedral by a procession from the order of Melanesian Brothers and Sisters, from the South Pacific Solomon Islands. The men were barefoot and bare-chested and dressed in grass skirts, the women in colorful shifts. Several held the book on a little wooden boat and danced with it down the aisle, while others played a sweet silvery melody on wooden flutes.

In a document of reflection issued by the bishops, an observation is made: in an age of globalization, why would anyone ever want to lose this precious gift we have as Anglicans, spanning the earth in a heritage of longstanding mutual respect? That risk is in the air, though the Gospel that deserves to be borne in a little boat teaches us to embrace the opportunity that waits within the risk. No risk/no growth is a law of the spirit, not just a maxim of investment advisors.

Peter seems to know it, as he answers Jesus, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.”

“Why would anyone want to name a child Peter?” I heard a trusted friend ask, as we were unpacking this Gospel together. I thought it best to stay very still at that, and just taste the moment rather than take it as personal affront. My trusting this friend helped me keep silence, even as I saw no smile to soften the blow, even as my impulse was high to react.

“He’s so impulsive,” this person explained. I quietly thanked God that I hadn’t proven the point.

Yes, Peter’s story is full of impulses: he is remembered for having swung hard from enthusiastic pledging of loyalty to pathetically anxious betrayal. Quicksilver as he is, he is the rock on which Jesus builds his church. Christian faith is rich in paradox.

Peter is the first to have seen who Jesus is. So in this encounter today he sees that he has to take risk if he is to step into the kingdom that Jesus has introduced to the disciples on that hillside we sat on last Sunday. There economic necessity became an opportunity. When five thousand-plus hungry people stared at those twelve disciples at supper time, twelve empty-handed men urged their teacher to depend on the power of buying and selling (“Send them into the villages so they can buy something to eat! Now!”) But he depended on the power of sharing, he depended on the calculus of grace, and answered them, “You give them something to eat. Now.” And, as we know, a child produced his lunchpail and the rest is mystery.

However you understand the power demonstrated on that hillside, Peter and his companions were intimately part of it. So he knows that he’s on the right track assuming that he must be part of the power being shown on the sea. He must choose in to be in.

Except, well—and here Peter oscillates—he instinctively knows this, but impulsively resists. So he hedges his bets, patron saint of Anglicanism, and blurts out, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water. If I’m right down deep, call me to do what you do.”

“I do. Come.”

So what is this, if not the early Church employing imagination to teach and evangelize a fearful world. What water are we all called to walk on, to be in Christ? The waters of baptism. That sacrament of full inclusion calls us to grow into the full stature of Christ. Waters don’t get deeper than that. The early Church’s practice of Baptism was to fully immerse the adult believer, three times in the name of the Trinity lowering and raising the person in the living water of river, lake or sea, causing him or her to feel the mystery of being joined to Christ in a death like his so as to be joined to Christ in a resurrection life like his.

More often now, infants and children are candidates for baptism. All the stronger is the message that the first steps are really God’s steps: we walk on the waters of baptism because God makes firm the love that includes us, approaches us before we know how to approach, makes of faith a miracle that leaves behind no footprint, “but only the shimmering place of an infinite step upon water.” And a community wades in with each of us at the font, promising to walk with us as we learn how to be part of the power of Christ.

It was not hard for the early Christians to see themselves in Peter, to let his story make sense of theirs. That still works.

Let Peter be the Olympic gymnast who walks on air, or a swimmer who rides the water, or a pole vaulter becoming herself the catapult. What does Peter’s story teach? Embrace the opportunity within the risk. Get distracted by a strong wind and sink.

Are those examples too unrelated to ordinary life? Let Peter be a first-year student leaving all that is familiar and daring to step across to an unknown future. Or imagine him an aging homeowner realizing it’s time she lives more simply. And Peter teaches? No risk, no growth. Choosing into new life takes a whole heart.

At a time of environmental crisis, let Peter be everyperson, facing urgent evidence that we are called to be one with our fragile world, treasuring life rather than exploiting it. He teaches us to make choices out of deep instinct, not anxious impulse. And to anchor the instinct, and surrender the impulse, to the one who is always within reach of us, who promises, “Take heart, it is I; do not fear.”

(The phrase “but only the shimmering place of an infinite step upon water” is lifted from James Dickey’s poem “Walking on Water”, worth finding in Robert Atwan’s and Laurance Wieder’s anthology “Chapters Into Verse”, Volume II, page 108.)