Monday, July 28, 2008

How Good Is the Good News?

Scripture for this Sunday includes I Kings 3:5-12, Romans 8:26-39, and Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52. Primary for this sermon is the Gospel portion, and the version in Eugene Peterson’s “The Message” has influenced this message.

So what is this kingdom of heaven we’re hearing about? We’re told what it’s like—a pine nut planted, yeast added, hidden treasure found, a fine pearl bought, a net-full of fish sorted—but these figures of speech make us wonder all the more, what is this kingdom of heaven?

With that many similes, watch for just as many definitions. But I’ll go with St. Paul and what he writes to the Church in Rome. The kingdom of heaven is that inseparable union with God in Jesus Christ our Lord, it is that reigning love of Christ which proves stronger than hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril or sword.

How good is this good news? Good enough to arm that vulnerable band of 1st-century believers as the bloody wrath of Roman emperors fell on them viciously, ruthlessly, because these Christians would not worship those emperors. Good enough to convince them that neither death, nor life, nor rulers, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

So is the good news of the kingdom of God, the reigning love of God, good enough to shape a healthy attitude of peaceable courage in our vulnerable band of 21st-century believers? Good enough to convince us that neither recession, nor presidential campaigns, nor globalizing greed, nor electromagnetic fields, nor global warming, nor fanatic religions, nor terrorism and war, nor private grief will be able to separate us from that love of God in Jesus Christ?

That’s the question, isn’t it? I mean the question that keeps drawing us here, keeps belonging here where we find the common prayer and the apostolic buildup of hope and the kindling of love that make us bold enough to ask the question.

When I first went to tap it out on my keyboard, I thought it was a no-brainer. Look at those first-century Christians, I thought: their lives were on the line, they were so threatened, and yet listen to their sureness. Their faith and hope and love were their only safety. And we, I thought as I wrote, think it’s a crisis when the Dow Jones drops another two hundred points. We complain about having to adjust our lifestyle—what a far cry from being dragged into the Coliseum! If the good news is good enough to arm them, surely it’s good enough to equip us.

But I’ve got to admit, when I went to list all those things we’re up against, this good question of ours no longer felt like a no-brainer. We really need to ask the question honestly: How good is the good news of God in Christ?

At our weekly wardens’ meeting this week, we lived a while with this Gospel. Our Junior Warden pointed out that most important of all is the message that God’s kingdom is, and is here, not off in some transcendent place or future time. It’s here and it’s now. It started long ago in God’s first embrace of the world in creation; it went exponentially deeper in God’s embrace of the world in Jesus, the new creation. And so, to hear Peterson’s version of Paul, “I’m absolutely convinced that nothing—nothing living or dead, angelic or demonic, today or tomorrow, high or low, thinkable or unthinkable—absolutely nothing can get between us and God’s love because of the way that Jesus our Master has embraced us.”

Maybe the likeliest wedge to get in the way between us and God’s love is none of those external forces, but a person’s own self-doubt and self-reproach. Taking honest stock of oneself ought to give a person cause to repent, confess, accept pardon, and make amends. The self-doubt and self-blame I mean have forgotten that rhythm of repentance and try to replace the uncondemning voice of God with another, condemning, voice.

A monastic writer observes that the purpose of prayer is to bring the human voice into harmony with the voice of God. Jean Leclercq writes, “Prayer is not a dialogue with God, but rather a duet. It does not consist in stating problems and receiving answers, in alternating our words with God’s, but in placing our voice in harmony with the voice of God in the Church and in ourselves, harmonizing our voice with his.”

“Who is to condemn?” asks Paul. “If God is for us, who is against us?”

So these five little parables of Jesus today are like voice lessons, music lessons, teaching us how to move in harmony with God, in keeping with the reign of God’s love.

In baptism, that love is planted in us like a pine nut. Over years, it may grow into a pine tree where eagles may nest.

In childhood, the love of God leavens the dough in young Christians when imaginations are sparked and a life of service is inspired.

Adolescents and young adults can’t help but trespass some boundaries, and it’s in pushing boundaries that they may learn what they treasure most.

By middle age, we may have acted on it! An eye for excellence, for what really matters, focuses us to invest ourselves wholeheartedly in what truly completes life.

And by old age our fishnets have certainly caught all kinds of fish. The prayer of Solomon is answered: understanding to discern what is right leads us to the beach where we allow the tide to carry out much that we must shed, leaving intensified in us what is good and valuable, please God.

Each little parable invites us, teaches us, to practice a basic skill of the spirit: to keep planting seeds and nurturing them, to fold in yeast and wait, to pay attention to what may be hidden, to let ourselves be inspired by the true and the brave and the lovely, and to let God cull the net results.

So being well-trained in God’s kingdom is “like the owner of a general store who can put his hands on anything you need, old or new, exactly when you need it.”

Williamstown used to have a general store, Phillips’ on Water Street, where Brown’s is now. It made me want to go there. I went there one day for cup hooks and came home with Nigerian handwoven tablecloths. The kingdom of God is full of surprises, and so was Phillips’.

The Anglican Church is like a general store. As our bishops meet at Canterbury, we need them to teach each other more about the kingdom of God, so they may come home and teach us, in just as simple language as Jesus in these parables.

Some bishops have gone there—and more than a few have refused to go there—believing that they, rightly trained in the kingdom of God, are appointed to pick out the bad fish from the good.

Addressing the 650 bishops at the opening of the Lambeth Conference, Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, said to them, “We need to get beyond the reciprocal impatience that shows itself in the ways in which both liberals and traditionalists are ready—almost eager at times, it appears—to assume that the other is not actually listening to Jesus.”

In that address he also said, “Our own communion and unity are created and nourished by God for the sake of the Good News. If our efforts at finding greater coherence for our Communion don’t result in more transforming love for the needy, in greater awareness and compassion for those whose humanity is abused or denied, then this coherence is a hollow, self-serving thing, a matter of living ‘religiously’ rather than ‘biblically’…”

Holy One, save us from the first. Open us to the second.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Seeding the Space We Inhabit

Scriptures for this Sunday include Isaiah 55:10-13, Romans 8:1-11, and Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

More than 50 years ago, archeologists examined Masada, the fortress palace built by one of the Herods in the century before the birth of Christ, set dramatically on a twenty-acre mesa 800 feet above the surrounding plain, a nearly impregnable stronghold overlooking the Dead Sea. When the Roman army destroyed Jerusalem around the year 70 in the common era, they laid waste to Masada as well.

Among the surprises found in the early 1960s was a little batch of ancient seeds discovered beneath the rubble at the Northern Palace approach. Radiocarbon testing confirmed the age of these seeds. For four decades they were stored at room temperature, and in 2005 they were identified as dates, palm dates. Nicely enough, their Latin name is Phoenix dactylifera, and while I haven’t a clue what that second word means, these seeds certainly did rise from the ashes like the legendary phoenix known to all Harry Potter fans.

After preparation in a quarantined site, three seeds were planted. One germinated. Now, 26 months later, it shows normal development and has reached a height of 121 cm.

And I can’t get grass to grow in that one spot in my back yard…

In the first century of the common era, the Judean Dead Sea region was famous for its high-quality dates. Over the next two thousand years, those cultivars disappeared and had to be replaced by cultivars from Morocco, Egypt, and Iraq. Genetic analysis of Phoenix the fearless date shows similarity with those best dates from Iraq and Egypt.

How did Phoenix survive? Scientists say that high summer temperatures and low rainfall at Masada minimized the generating of free radicals, an important cause of aging in seeds—and in humans.

What little I understand about radicals, though, tells me that without them Jesus would have had no parable to tell. It’s the power of reactivity that radicals play their part in, and every seed planter knows that what we want out of seeds, what we admire in them, is that they do react. Jesus’s story of the sower is built on his having observed how seeds (and seedlings) react in different settings.

But at the heart of his story—I guess you could call it the kernel—is the message of the kingdom of God. When he explains the parable, he says that the seed is the word of the kingdom. God is planting this kingdom in every person who is ready to welcome it.

If you had been among those hearing this story in the first century, back when Phoenix the seed was still sealed in the pit of a date, you’d understand “the kingdom” to mean God’s reordering of all that was wrong and broken in the oppressive violent unjust world controlled by vain emperors and occupying armies, God’s kingdom of justice and peace foreseen by great prophets like Isaiah who saw in the future a servant who would accomplish the purpose of God and usher in that age of God’s rule. Sometimes, Isaiah and other prophets spoke of this kingdom as a restored garden, as it was in the beginning in Eden before man and woman stopped listening to their Maker. Jesus’s sower scatters seed so it will bear fruit in a great garden that yields to God such abundance that no one could go hungry ever again.

But now the seed falls in four kinds of places: on the path, on rocky ground, among thorns, and on good soil. In three of those settings, it germinates. Quickly. People react to this news that God is at work so near to them, closer than breath itself, yet hidden within their own experience so they have to discover how to work with God and not against God.

Can you hear how this story was a best seller in the early Church? It summed up the actual experience of apostles and evangelists who spread the news that in the life and death and resurrection of Jesus, who had walked their streets and touched their lives, God had released into this sad old world a whole new order of being, a realm of right relationship with God and with neighbor and with self, had set loose like a dove from the ark the Holy Spirit to nest in each person, hatching gifts of the Spirit and stirring-up powers of the Spirit.

Apostles and evangelists knew the fulfillment of Isaiah’s promise: they went out into the world in joy and were led back into their fellowship in peace. They were agents of God renewing the earth and God kept renewing them around the Lord’s table in the community of faith—but they couldn’t persuade everyone, couldn’t introduce everyone to the sacred space of their fellowship, and couldn’t help all their hearers recognize themselves as children of the Most High. For every one who learned to walk by the Spirit and not by the flesh, how many were there who listened and seemed interested, even eager, but never came through—never passed over from flesh-walking, to walk by the Spirit?

In this story today, it isn’t just Jesus telling a story: he’s telling their story, the apostles’ story, and, if we have ears to hear, we’ll catch him telling our story. And it’s all about how we receive God.

Sometimes we receive a word from God on the path, on the hoof. We hear it, we even feel it make an appeal to the heart, but we don’t stop long enough to invest the time it takes to understand, to connect that appeal to our own longing. We move fast, we’re distracted easily, and soon enough, poof, it’s gone and we’re on to the next thing.

Sometimes we’re on rocky ground when God chooses to come by. It may not dawn on us that that’s why God’s choosing to appear, let’s say in the honest interest of a friend who really wants to know how we are. We’ll gladly, joyfully, take that love and feel it a while, but we won’t let it get at the root of our restlessness because there are all those rocks to move around, aren’t there?

Sometimes our space is weedy with brambles and other invasive species that fill every square inch and occupy every moment. We’ll hear a word of grace in a space like this and give it an inch or two, a moment or two, but then what Eugene Peterson calls “weeds of worry and illusions about getting more and wanting everything under the sun strangle what was heard, and nothing comes of it.”

Do you think this story needs much adjustment or translation, from first century to twenty-first century? I don’t think so. Jesus speaks about human nature, what the Word of God is up against that is within our realm, within our reach to work on. What’s wrong and broken in the world is certainly on God’s agenda. What’s wrong and broken in us is every bit as much God’s gracious concern, and aren’t we fortunate that this is God’s nature? And that it is God’s strategy: to build a peaceable world by setting-free peacemakers, to reconcile the ways of heaven and earth by releasing mercy within the reconcilers, to do all that the kingdom requires by means of incarnation, entrusting the mission to the likes of us who know that we bear the likeness of him.

Hear how important to God is the space that you inhabit. Given the nature and strategy of God, we cannot accept an explanation of this parable that takes away from us the power to change, the responsibility to be transformed. So no one today gets excused because they’re hard by nature, rocky by nature, weedy by nature.

And we don’t get to look longingly at the few really good souls we know who bear fruit and yield a hundredfold, or sixtyfold, or thirtyfold, and say about them, “They’re just good soil. Some have it, and some don’t.”

That could be how this parable gets heard. Let’s not go there. Instead, let’s recover in our own space what we need: the detachment from anxiety that comes from cultivating a relationship with God, the understanding that comes from service and community, the rootedness and enrichment that come through sacrament and scripture.

How important to God is the space that you inhabit. How you tend it relates to how you will hear God, and how you will serve God. For whatever it is that makes us hard, or shallow, or rocky, or thorny in our welcome of God and our growth in Christ may make us that way in our welcome and love of one another.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Word from The Dominican Republic

Scripture for this day includes Zechariah 9:9-12, Romans 7:15-25a, and Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

Our medical missioners in The Dominican Republic have called home. Laurie Glover phoned Madeline on Thursday. “We have no electricity where we’re staying, but there’s a cell signal,” she reported, using it.

The dorm they’re staying in has “a rustic pool”, make of that what you will. It’s hot, so even a rustic pool probably invites use. Adrienne, Bart, Laurie, and Peter are working directly in the surgical clinic. The kids (Andrea, Keith, John, Chris, Nate, and Cleo) are doing great. Maureen is holding down the pharmacy. The van is running well. And all those supplies we provided, and that our missioners lugged with them, all six hundred pounds or more, have been a real blessing, piece by piece, Laurie says.

So they have begun week two, and we keep them in our prayers and look forward to their return next weekend.

They represent so much that’s good and right about this nation, whose 232nd birthday we’ve celebrated this weekend. Our missioners, and vicariously our modest part in supporting them, is one of myriad ways that Americans share resources and use personal freedom to build bridges of caring and relationship and service with people of other cultures around the globe.

In our first summer forum last Sunday, Sue O’Riley and Molly Mackin spoke about the visit they and their colleagues will make this summer to Guatemala, one of many mission trips made under the banner of the Rural Literacy Project that Sue founded, bringing books and libraries to smaller towns in several Latin American countries. They’ve been doing this long enough to have encountered a certain failure: not all the small satellite libraries set up in past visits have survived. It sounds as if local support that was promised to maintain the books in good working order has fallen through, in some places.

In the forum, we heard how Sue and her volunteers are learning to understand this. They’ve consulted experts in the field, and are learning to travel lighter. They’re putting aside their old agenda of creating libraries, and investing themselves in building relationships that will in time help the Literacy Project fine-tune its efforts by teaching them what the people in these small towns want and need. Sue and Molly spoke of this as if it meant a shedding of their American insistence on achieving measurable results, and a letting-go of their American assumption that books and libraries are so valuable that they ought to be everywhere, the more the better.

So these volunteers do something like, but also unlike, what our missioners do. Sue and Molly and their team will live with families and find a variety of ways to spend time getting acquainted with villagers, especially children and teenagers, including finding ways to read with them, supporting them in basic kinds of reading that may help them stay in school, not leave prematurely.

By contrast, our volunteers have to hit the ground running. The organization that runs the clinics, Medical Ministry International, has the structure in place for teams of volunteers to move in and get right to work, each person taking a specific task, a cog in the system that moves lots of underserved people through medical and dental clinics that may be the only form of health care that these people have. The clinics aren’t equipped to handle all needs, but in the dental clinics many fillings, extractions, and fluoride treatments are performed, and in the surgical clinics hernias are repaired and tubal ligations performed, alongside countless other operations. Onsite pharmacies dispense needed prescriptions.

If you visit the MMI website,, you’ll find a quick overview with lots of streaming photos.

You’ll see that their mission is to serve Jesus Christ by providing spiritual and physical health care in this world of need. Their vision is to care annually for one hundred million of the world’s needy by the year 2050. Their strategy is a commitment to meet the need for medical care among the world’s poor with lasting solutions through excellence in medicine, patient care, and health education, by mobilizing volunteers on one and two-week medical projects and by establishing and equipping permanent medical centers.

You may recall that last summer MMI asked St. John’s to send a team to Bolivia to help open a new clinic there. We’ve got a reputation for sending hard workers.

They too experience the people and the culture, though at a different pace. Both kinds of mission trips bless all the participants involved. Both kinds give a positive introduction of Americans to the world, and of the world to Americans. Both kinds are examples of what’s good about this nation whose people are willing to serve and to learn, to leave their comfort zones and dare attempt what it takes to help the Creator God call forth a new heaven and a new earth, to help God the Holy Spirit restore prisoners of hope, and to help Jesus Christ receive the weary and give them rest.

Word from The Dominican

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

The Timeless Story of Abraham and Isaac

Readings cited here are Genesis 22:1-14 and Romans 6:12-23

So what do we do with that startling story of Abraham’s abuse of his son Isaac?

Scripture calls Abraham “the father of us all”. When you consider this story, do you want to call him that?

And if we’re prepared to call Abraham abusive for his response to God’s call, how about God’s role in apparently condoning this test of faith?

Some may not agree that Abraham’s behavior is abusive. Anyone caught trying that kind of thing today ought to face criminal charges, sure, but can our values be applied to this ancient culture?

That’s a good question. But here’s another one: Aren’t we responsible for what we do with these powerful stories that are part of our legacy as 21st-century people of faith? To be good stewards of biblical power, don’t we have to apply an evolutionary principle to our use of the Good Book so that it’s used to help human beings become instruments of reconciling love in this world, not hinder the human race by justifying violence against the innocent?

So I’ll wonder aloud again, what do we do with this story?

Let’s consider what two poets have done with it. If you’d like to follow with your eyes as well as your ears, turn to the back panel of your announcements and find first Emily Dickinson’s poem “Abraham to Kill Him”:

Abraham to kill him
Was distinctly told –
Isaac was an urchin –
Abraham was old –

Not a hesitation –
Abraham complied –
Flattered by obeisance –
Tyranny demurred—

Isaac – to his children
Lived to tell the tale –
Moral – with a mastiff
Manners may prevail.

Now, there is some shocking interpretation. To fearless Emily of Amherst, Abraham’s excessive obedience (“obeisance”) is not to God but to Tyranny. Abraham is not showing faith – he’s suffering from extreme obsessive compulsive disorder. He can’t shake free from a besetting dark destiny to betray his own happiness by putting to death the very child he brought to life. This is as if Abraham could be heard finally admitting, “I knew I should never have thought I could be this happy, love this boy so much, imagine that at my age I could have such satisfaction,” and so slides down the rabbit hole so far that he’s willing by one act of violence to take down everyone in his family in order to punish himself.

That is how tyranny works – mental tyranny – yet the poet says, “Tyranny demurred…” leaving us wondering what altar Abraham will worship at next – will he more truly find God after this harrowing brush with mental tyranny? Is it at this very point that St. Paul’s words would make sense, could Abraham have heard them?

“Do not let sin exercise dominion in your mortal bodies, to make you obey their passions. No longer present your members to sin as instruments of wickedness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and present your members to God as instruments of righteousness. For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under tyranny but under grace.”

While we’re wondering that, Emily is not finished with Abraham. She sees a moral in this tale: “with a mastiff manners may prevail.” Emily’s good at leaving us wondering. Is Abraham the vicious dog that young Isaac’s passive behavior has prevailed over? Or is it over God the mastiff that Abraham’s compliance has prevailed?

If so, that’s not to say that Emily’s theology is showing—just that she’s saying that from where she sits, in that lovely old house in Amherst, Abraham’s God appears to be bloodthirsty. Good reason, still, to hope that after dodging the bullet that flies from that altar, Abraham will find a truer way to worship God.

The second poet I’ve brought with me today is Wilfred Owen, leading poet of the First World War, whose shocking realistic war poetry on the horrors of trench and gas warfare stood in start contrast to the confidently patriotic verse of other poets. Killed at the very end of the war, news of his death reached his Shropshire hometown just as the church bells were pealing in celebration of peace.

This is his “Parable of the Old Man and the Young”:

So Abram rose, and clave the wood, and went,
And took the fire with him, and a knife.
And as they sojourned both of them together,
Isaac the first-born spake and said, ‘My Father,
Behold the preparations, fire and iron,
But where the lamb for this burnt offering?
Then Abram bound the youth with belts and straps,
And builded parapets and trenches there,
And stretchèd forth the knife to slay his son.
When lo! an angel called him out of heaven,
Saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad,
Neither do anything to him. Behold,
A ram, caught in a thicket by its horns;
Offer the Ram of Pride instead of him.
But the old man would not so, but slew his son,
And half the seed of Europe, one by one.

Thousands of years dissolve as the land of Moriah becomes the Western Front. Owen says that this story is timeless. The terrible temptation it posed in ancient time is posed today, whenever the leaders of this world consider violence as a way to resolve conflict.

For this poet, the ram caught in the thicket is Pride. What an image! Rams have very strong desire to get what they want—there’s a trait bound to get horns caught in all sorts of dilemmas.

Owen says what he knows from the battlefield, that when the princes of this earth refuse to sacrifice their pride, they sacrifice instead their young. In vast numbers they are killed, one by one, as we see at the end of the PBS News Hour, when each of our sons and daughters killed in Iraq is named and shown in sheer silence.

That this happens, says the poet, is the result of our Abrahams refusing to imagine making the very sacrifice that God calls for, the offering, the slaying of their pride.

So Owen doesn’t let us get away with thinking that if we were in Abraham’s sandals we would never have terrified our Isaac by binding him to our own ways, laying on him all the responsibilities we believe duty requires of us. Pride does get in the way of many things: parenting, leadership, and many other choices we have to make.

It is what God provides for sacrifice. In one of the psalms we hear, “The sacrifice acceptable to God is a troubled spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.”

As St. Paul develops his argument that the wages of sin is death but the free gift of God is eternal life, he speaks of being “freed from sin and enslaved to God.” Surely that requires each Abraham—the old man in each of us—to offer the Ram of Pride. It is what God provides for sacrifice.