Monday, August 24, 2009

Let's Know What We're Doing

Scripture readings for the 12th Sunday after Pentecost include I King 8:1, 6, 10-11, 22-30, 41-43; Psalm 84; Ephesians 6:10-20; John 6:56-69

Julien is about to be baptized.

He’s hoping that we know what we’re doing.

It’s too soon for him to be noticing the evidence pointing to him as being at the center of this first sacrament in his life; but at that moment when I approach him with the water of baptism and the oil of chrism, I believe then he’ll be hoping that we know what we’re doing.

That will be a moment when he may entrust himself into what’s happening. Or he may not. The sacrament will be no more or less effective, either way. He may look to the familiar faces of his Mom and his Dad to see what they’re expressing (are they pleased by what this fellow in a white robe is doing to him, or are they dismayed?), or he may depend on his own instincts, how it feels to be where he is at that moment, centering in on the turning wheel of this event whose hub is the font of new life in Jesus Christ.

And for sure it is Jesus who is the center of this first sacrament in Julien’s life. Not that the two of them have never met before (who knows what spiritual encounters purity of heart allows an infant to have, what play dates are possible with a redeemer whose promise is to be with us always?), but this is the sacrament whose inward and spiritual grace is the making of Julien a member of the Body of Christ, uniting him to Jesus’s life and death and resurrection, birthing him a second time into God’s family in Christ.

So it may be truer to say that God hopes we know what we’re doing today, as we baptize Julien.

I invite you to listen again as each of our readings guides and sharpens our purpose today.

Starting with the Collect we said together. There we learned the purpose of the universal Church into which Julien will be baptized. Here is what we prayed: “that your Church, being gathered together in unity by your Holy Spirit, may show forth your power among all peoples, to the glory of your Name…”

To know what we do today is to recognize our own calling to be Christians who manifest the power of God out and about in the world. By our example, we will show Julien what that power is, introduce him to the source of that power, encourage him to trust that power, and so help it become natural that he shows it in his life.

A gentle power. A thoughtful power. The power of grace which is God’s love for us, undeserved and unearned, freely moving, freely given. A power that results in respect, an open mind, a trusting heart, a reflective spirit, a bold and generous will. Listen closely, and you will hear all this language in the baptismal rite that we offer to God today.

How pure and personal and Godly this language is, by contrast to much that can be said about churchgoing, church meetings, church services, church personalities, church rules and obligations and controversies and hierarchies and church business as usual.

If that’s all we propose to introduce Julien to, then he has reason to worry. Instead, we want to approach him with the awareness of Solomon: that even heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain God, much less any house or doctrine or denominational traditions of our own making. All the containers of our religious life, all that deserves to be called Church, must show forth the power and presence and purpose and passion of God, and must move us to constantly welcome, says wise King Solomon, “the foreigner” who stretches our horizons, the unfamiliar that will keep our boundaries flexible.

And, the writer of our psalm today adds, our religion must also free us to rejoice in God, must open our hearts to find the waters of baptism in the driest and most desolate valleys, must train us to recognize how our belonging to one another in community for one day is a more dynamic gift than a thousand days in the isolation of our own thoughts and habits.

We hear what the apostle says today to the Christians at Ephesus. The power of God is the power of Spirit:

Truth, to wear like a belt that keeps your pants up...

Righteousness (or right relationships) like a kevlar vest around all that is vital...

Zeal for peace, giving you traction in a slippery world, like new running shoes...

Faith, to shield your thin skin like sunblock, screening out the UV rays of cynicism and despair...

Salvation, like a helmet protecting your identity with the knowledge of who and whose you are...

The Spirit of God, closer to you than breath itself, forming your words by the Word of God...

These make up what the apostle calls “the whole armor of God,” and to know what we do today is to take up these supplies of God for ourselves, and for Julien.

And when all is said and done, to know what we do today is to understand and keep practicing the calling Christians hear daily from the One who is at the very center: Abide in me, as I abide in you.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Flesh and Blood

Bible readings for the 11th Sunday after Pentecost include I Kings 2:10-12; 3:3-14; Ephesians 5:15-20; John 6:51-58

The life and times of King David have been a real page-turner, this summer. Today we hear how the kingship passed to Solomon, his second son by Bathsheba. But that is a much more intriguing story than we get in these few verses.

Many wives, many children. Last Sunday, one of Solomon’s half-brothers, Absalom, a man of war, ended his aspiration to the throne when he, riding his mule, passed beneath the branches of a great oak and Absalom got stuck in its branches, allowing his adversaries to strike him dead. A man of war who knows only how to fight is indeed stuck, with few good options.

With Absalom gone, his brother Adonijah prepared to replace their old and ailing father on the throne. But while the elders of Judah and Israel, the old guard, were preparing Adonijah’s victory party, Solomon’s mother Bathsheba and her ally, the prophet Nathan, persuaded David to swear an oath, on his deathbed, that Solomon would become king.

So while Adonijah’s victory celebration got underway, sounds traveled from another ceremony, where the priest Zadok was anointing Solomon king. Listen to this commentary:

“This was a new way of kingmaking. There was no charismatic experience on the part of Solomon, no popular approval, and no demonstration of the ability of the anointed one (on the battlefield). There was no specific divine act or precept, except possibly the oath sworn by David or the participation of the priest and the prophet of God. It was only the word of David which brought the final solution to the problem of succession. Solomon owed his position to the fact that he was the son of the favorite wife of David, not to any marked gifts or military prowess. He was a victim of palace diplomacy and had not the slightest conception of the tremendous price paid by his father for the kingdoms over which he bore rule, and this fact is apparent in almost every act recorded of his administration… He had other qualities, however, which he doubtless developed in… his youth and which he would not have acquired had he not had the advantages of a favorite boy in the royal court.”

One of these other qualities was a cast-iron stomach. He arranged for the elimination, one by one, of his opponents whom he could not trust. There was blood on the hands of even this wisest of kings, as there has been blood on the hands of most kings and queens across the long cavalcade of history.

A tribute to his wisdom is his famous prayer. In it he speaks of himself as only a child in such matters as running a kingdom. “Give your servant therefore an understanding mind to govern your people, able to discern between good and evil; for who can govern this your great people?” God’s reply indicates that Solomon’s attitude is one that God can work with. Asking for understanding to discern what is right is a request God will honor.

We meet this theme of understanding in the Letter to the Ephesians. “Be careful how you live, not as unwise people but as wise, making the most of the time, because the days are evil… understand what the will of the Lord is.”

Understanding is also demanded by our Gospel portion today, if we aren’t to blow it off as crude and disgusting.

There is a high “eee-yew!” factor in these lines about how, “unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.” To help us understand the message here, I’m going to draw on a classic, William Temple’s “Readings in St. John’s Gospel.” Temple was Archbishop of Canterbury during World War II, a unique time to reckon with flesh and blood.

We may like what the Prologue to John’s Gospel teaches, “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth.” Archbishop Temple says, “The term flesh was chosen there to stand for fullness of humanity down to its lowest element. It is by his humanity that He offers us life: if we receive that humanity and it becomes our own, it is found to bring with it eternal life. ‘The bread which I will give is my flesh for the Life of the world.’”

We may like the image of Jesus as the living bread. That, too, brings the message down to a basic element of common life, bread. For his Jewish hearers, that image would call to mind their ancestors’ experience of God’s grace in the wilderness, when some sort of sweet sticky substance they called manna fed them. Jesus alludes to that in our portion today, and when he likens it to bread he captures the fact that some of their ancestors despised that manna because it was just too much of a good thing (like eating Wonder Bread three times a day): it was all there was to eat, and they got good and tired of it. And to others of the ancestors, it was an indelible sign of the lovingkindness of God, and their dependence on the manna taught them dependence on God, for man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.

But soon we run out of images that we like, and have to deal with what could sound like cannibalism. We know that doesn’t fit the Jesus we know… though doesn’t it fit the Jesus who tells parables? The Jesus whose metaphors and similes are so vivid, even strange, that they leave us in some doubt about the message and what we are to do about it, teasing us to think and understand?

One thing we learned about King Solomon is that in addition to the blood he had on his hands from dispatching his enemies, he also used to offer a thousand burnt offerings on the altar at Gibeon. That’s a lot of bloody livestock. And such was the prevailing religion of old: the blood of calves and lambs and doves sacrificed to God was thought to be pleasing to God, required by God.

Our biblical ancestors didn’t have blood transfusions in their health care system, but they knew that the blood is the life. “Be sure thou shalt not eat the blood; for the blood is the life; and thou shalt not eat the life with the flesh,” command the books of Deuteronomy and Leviticus. (So much steak tartare!) But these same books commanded blood sacrifice, for the blood is the life released by death so that it may be offered to God, offered as the most priceless substance known to man.

In this context, Jesus’s words shock his Jewish hearers. It sounds like horrifying news, that this eternal life Jesus offers must be received as a drinking of his blood. But what he is offering is unimaginably good news: that a wholly new understanding must prevail, declaring unnecessary the flow of sacrificial blood of other creatures in the name of God. No more killing to the glory of God. Rather, a call to understand what the will of the Lord is.

The Archbishop explains: To eat the flesh of the Son of Man is to receive the uttermost power of self-giving, Jesus’s kind. To drink the blood of the Son of Man is to receive, in and through self-giving, the life that triumphs over death and unites us to God. Both elements are needed for communion with God. Says Temple: The life that gives itself even to death; the life that rises from death into union with God: these are the divine gifts without which ‘you have no life in you.’ But you who receive and make those gifts your own ‘have eternal life.’ For those gifts are true food and true drink for humanity; whoever receives them ‘abide in me, and I in them.’

Archbishop Temple sees Jesus’s words today expressing the substance and the goal of the Christian life. They are not about momentary eating, but about permanent abiding. They are not about transubstantiating bread into flesh, but about changing lives. The one thing that matters is that we should feed upon Christ in our hearts, and there understand what is right, what care our living requires, what care the living of our loved ones requires, how to make the most of the gift of time, how to give thanks at all times in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.

But why the need to shock his hearers? Because we’re told, just verses earlier than the ones we hear today, that the people were about to take Jesus by force and make him king. That was not his calling. If his public ministry was degenerating into kingmaking, then it was time to take the material-minded and the wishful thinkers and shake their firmament. Just a few verses later, John tells us that even some of Jesus’s own disciples were sifted-out by all this language of flesh and blood, and they left him.

Archbishop Temple wonders if perhaps it was worthwhile that a bunch of people should be momentarily puzzled or even alienated, in order to secure for all generations an understanding of spiritual dependence on Christ that makes clear the good news that we have in him not one more king with blood on his hands, but our one redeemer who gives us power to do what he does and be as he is.

And all that qualifies us for this is that we receive what is freely offered.

(Commentary on Solomon’s accession is from J. M. Myers’ article on Solomon in “The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible,” Abingdon Press, 1962. William Temple’s “Readings in St. John’s Gospel” was published by MacMillan & Co. Ltd., 1950.)

Monday, August 10, 2009

Dazzling Light: Transfiguration and Nuclear Obliteration

Scripture appointed for the 10th Sunday after Pentecost includes II Samuel 18:5-9, 15, 31-33; Ephesians 4:25-5:2; John 6:35, 41-51

The sixth day of August is marked in the Christian calendar as the Feast of the Transfiguration, that mountaintop moment when a tiny chosen band of disciples watched as their Lord appeared, in dazzling radiance, in conversation with Moses the law-giver on one side of him, and with Elijah the prophet on the other. Flummoxed, totally out of their depth, the disciples could only wonder aloud, “What can we build to enshrine this moment?” And from heaven came a voice, “This is my Son, my Chosen, listen to him!”

White is, appropriately enough, the liturgical color the church uses when celebrating the Transfiguration. When a tiny band of us gathered for the regular weekly eucharist last week, I wore a white stole that belongs to the parish and is displayed today in the cabinet at the back.

A photograph of this stole appears in your colored announcement sheet today (you might want to find it). The stole was given to us 58 years ago by Fr. Dick Merritt, who served as Curate here from 1944 to 1947, and was ordained a priest right here in 1945. For the rest of his long distinguished career he served the people of Japan as a priest and Christian educator in the Holy Catholic Church of Japan, what they call the Episcopal Church in that country, and lived in that country until his death in 2006.

The stole is made of white silk with red and gold embroidery. You’ll notice the dove with seven radiating beams, the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit: wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety, fear of the Lord.

The shield reminds me of the apostle’s words to the Ephesians today, how each Christian is marked by the Spirit of God like a seal bearing a sign of allegiance. Here it is a sign within a sign: within the shield is what looks like a capital P with a bar across it midway, but is in fact the Greek letters Chi and Rho, the monogram of Christ which tradition reads as if it were the Latin “pax”, peace. And superimposed is an orb topped by a cross, so all told this message is “Christ, the world’s hope for peace.”

I chose to wear this stole, and to bring it into my sermon today, because August 6, the Feast of the Transfiguration, is also, as you know, the date on which the United States deployed the first nuclear weapon in the history of warfare, obliterating everything and every form of life within a radius of one mile from the point of detonation, sending flashfires across 4.4 square miles, instantly killing between 70,000 and 80,000 people, more slowly killing another 70,000, in the Japanese city of Hiroshima.

And today, August 9, we dropped a second atomic bomb on the city of Nagasaki, achieving again total destruction within a mile of the strike, fires across two miles, in an explosion that generated heat estimated at 7,000 degrees Fahrenheit and winds reaching an estimated 624 miles per hour, instantly killing between 40,000 and 75,000 and ultimately claiming yet more.

Our stole was woven in Kyoto. That center of intellectual and cultural life was on the short list of possible targets instead of Hiroshima, but was saved, it is said, by American Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson, who had admired Kyoto ever since his honeymoon there several decades earlier. Tokyo, with the Emperor’s palace, was also on the short list. But Hiroshima was an important army depot and port of embarkation in an urban industrial area. It fitted what our government sought: a target obtaining both great psychological effect against Japan and a target that would make the initial use so spectacular that the importance of this new weapon would be recognized internationally and instantly.

These two bombings followed a six-month campaign of intense fire-bombing of 67 other Japanese cities, followed by an ultimatum which Japan ignored.

The United States had previously dropped leaflets warning civilians of air raids on twelve other Japanese cities. The residents of Hiroshima were given no notice of the atomic bomb.

Originally set for August 11, and with the city of Kokura targeted, the second nuclear raid was moved forward to avoid bad weather. Set as a secondary target was Nagasaki, a large seaport of great wartime importance. Unlike Hiroshima, Nagasaki had been hit by large-scale bombing at the very start of August, resulting in the evacuation of many residents, principally school children.

On this day, August 9th, the U.S. B-29 Superfortress “Bockscar” took to the air, carrying the nuclear bomb code-named “Fat Man”. Two other B-29s had flown ahead by an hour as weather scouts. Two additional B-29s were to join the mission for instrumentation and photographic support. One of them failed to make the rendezvous, leaving the Bockscar circling for forty minutes using up precious fuel and time. In that short period, a dense cloud cover had obscured the city of Kokura. Nagasaki now became the target.

On this morning, Japanese spotters sighted two B-29 Superfortresses and assumed they were on reconnaissance, so no final alarm was given. A few minutes later, at 11:00 a.m., one of the planes dropped instruments attached to three parachutes. Packed in with these instruments were copies of an unsigned letter to Professor Ryokichi Sagane, a nuclear physicist at the University of Tokyo who had studied with some of the scientists responsible for the atomic bomb, at the University of California, Berkeley, urging him to tell the public about the danger involved with these weapons of mass destruction. Found by Japanese military authorities, these messages were not turned over to Professor Sagane until a month later.

At 11:01, a last-minute break in the clouds allowed the bombardier to drop the bomb, and 43 seconds later it exploded, 1540 feet above the ground halfway between the Mitsubishi Steel and Arms Works in the south and the Mitsubishi-Urakami Ordnance Works (torpedo builders) in the north.

In time, many unintended victims were found to have been among the casualties, including Allied prisoners of war, many thousands of Korean forced laborers, students from Malaya, and some 3,200 Japanese American citizens. An unknown number of survivors from the Hiroshima bombing had made their way to Nagasaki, only to be bombed again.

The United States expected to have another atomic bomb ready for use in the third week of August, with three more in September and further three in October. Just two minutes after midnight, 64 years ago today, Soviet infantry, armor, and air forces launched its first offensive announcing its declaration of war on Japan. Senior leaders in the Japanese Army responded by imposing martial law on their country in order to stop their people from trying to make peace. Five days later Emperor Hirohito capitulated.

Scholars remain divided whether the atomic bomb was necessary to achieve victory in the Pacific. Some estimate that in the planned invasion of Japan, Allied forces would have suffered a million casualties, and Japanese losses would have been in the millions. Others argue that the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were unnecessary, inherently immoral, a form of state terrorism.

Our first reading today gave us the vivid image of Absalom, a man of war, riding his mule and, as they passed beneath a great oak, he got stuck in its branches, trapped and held for his adversaries. The end of a man of violence is to become the target of someone else’s violence. The man who knows only how to fight is truly stuck with no good options.

Here in this sanctuary on April 1, 1945, Dick Merritt was ordained a priest. It wasn’t long before he accepted a call to serve in the Nippon Sei Ko Kai, the small but resilient Episcopal Church in Japan, where he would spend the rest of his life.

I wonder if what drew him was that deep Gospel insight we heard expressed by the apostle today: “We are members of one another.”

I admit it’s speculation on my part, but in the wake of this country’s terrifying escalation of the terms of war and the human costs of war, what more important place in the world was there to go to pursue the Church’s mission to help God reconcile all people to one another and to God?

In the years following World War II, Japan’s suffering at Hiroshima and Nagasaki caused the nation to firmly oppose any future location of nuclear weapons on Japanese soil. I do not know what contribution the Nippon Sei Ko Kai made to this anti-nuclear insistence. But I do see at the center of the symbols on Dick Merritt’s stole the emblem of the Prince of Peace.

May this Christ be at the center of our allegiance. May his Spirit’s gifts free and guide us:

Wisdom, to find good options to war and its escalation
Understanding to appreciate people and cultures who appear to differ from us
Counsel to discern what is in the best interest of all
Fortitude to keep peacemakers from discouragement
Knowledge to lead us to the truth that sets us free
Piety to prompt prayer and trust in God, active in this world
Fear of the Lord to harness science to the purposes of peace.

(Information on the two nuclear attacks comes from the Wikipedia article “Atomic Bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.”)

Monday, August 3, 2009

Mercy and Pity for the Church

Readings for the 9th Sunday after Pentecost include II Samuel 11:26-12:13a; Psalm 51; Ephesians 4:1-16; John 6:24-35

I notice that our Collect of the Day calls upon God to cleanse and defend the people of God, the Church, and, to do this, invokes the continual mercy of God. Of all the divine powers and attributes that could cleanse and defend us, it’s God’s mercy that we need most.

That rings true to what I know of the Church, an assembly of me’s and you’s whom God keeps twirling on the potter’s wheel to fashion into an us and a we, a usable vessel to serve God’s purposes in the world. To hold water to be poured, food to be served, treasure to be found, needs to be gathered, the alchemy of grace to be ignited.

But the Church’s me’s and you’s don’t always mix well, sometimes don’t play well together. We may not take the shape God needs to fashion, or hold the glaze, or survive the heat.

In the terms of today’s Gospel, we look for Jesus not so much because we’re ready and willing to be embraced and reshaped by his truth, but more because we’d like more, please, of something good he can give us. We’d like him to fill our little pots, not so much cause us to question what we want, or why.

We come prepared with many objects for prayer, many ways God may be useful to the me’s and you’s. But that we should be the objects of God’s will, useful to God in reconciling the world to God? We me’s and you’s have many projects in mind for God to do. But that we should be a project of God? Or just a vessel to serve the project of God?

Next to my Bible is my dictionary. Mercy: “Forbearance and compassion shown to a powerless person, especially an offender, or to one with no claim to receive kindness; kind and compassionate treatment in a case where severity is merited or expected.”

“Let your continual mercy, O Lord, cleanse and defend your Church…”

That’s Rite II. In Rite I, a different word appears at that point in the collect. At our 8:00 eucharist this morning, we prayed, “O LORD, we beseech thee, let thy continual pity cleanse and defend thy Church…” So the ten o’clockers get mercy, the eight o’clockers receive pity.

Pity: “Tenderness and concern aroused by the suffering and misfortune of another; compassion, sympathy.”

“O Lord, we beseech thee, let thy continual pity cleanse and defend thy Church…”

Mercy and pity are the powers of God we hear at work in our scriptures today. With the psalmist, we prayed, “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your lovingkindness; in your great compassion blot out my offenses.”

And the apostle writes from prison a letter to the Ephesians, counting on their pity to open themselves all the more to his exhortation and use their freedom to practice mercy within their fellowship: “Bear with one another in love, make every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”

An infamous failure of pity gets its comeuppance through the judicious use of a parable, the prophet Nathan craftily putting the pieces in place for David to convict himself of pitilessness. Even the hardest heart caves in, reaching for a tissue when Nathan talks about that precious baby ewe lamb that meant so much to a poor man that she ate from his own half-empty plate, drank from his cup, and slept in his bosom.

The second main human character in the parable isn’t fully human. Rich, he was unprincipled, unyielding, unfeeling. A guest comes to his home and this rich fellow doesn’t hesitate to serve him up a dinner of roast lamb—not his own lamb, the poor man’s one little ewe lamb.

“As the Lord lives, the man who has done this deserves to die; he shall restore the lamb fourfold, because he did this thing, and because he had no pity.”

“You are the man!” exclaims Nathan, upbraiding David for arranging the death of valiant Uriah, a distinguished infantry officer loyal to David, subservient to David, perplexing to David because (as we heard in last Sunday’s installment of “As David’s World Turns”) he couldn’t get Uriah to break wartime discipline and return to the bosom of his beautiful wife Bathsheba and so cover the inconvenience of her having in her womb David’s lust-child.

Who said that going to church in the summer isn’t exciting?

Speaking for God, Nathan lets David have it. “I anointed you king.. I rescued you from that paranoid Saul… I established you, and if all this had been too little, I would have done as much more—but my mercies have not been enough for you, have they? You chose not to imitate my mercy; now your choice will cause you trouble from within your own house.”

To which David replied, “I have sinned against the Lord.”

Do you think?

But do we think? Do we recognize our own pitiless choices? And do we understand them as failures to imitate the mercy of God?

I can make a pitiless choice when I pre-judge a person’s motives instead of carefully listening, suspending judgment until I have learned what I cannot know any other way than by merciful listening.

I may make a pitiless choice when I have lived unmercifully within myself for a few hours or a few days and now, while I’m weary or anxious or snarly someone needs from me a patience or a wisdom that I will later realize that I truly owed them, but I am not open to giving it.

This is intimate stuff. Intensely personal are these powers of God, mercy and pity. In case you don’t like either of these words, their definitions have in common a word we may prefer: compassion.

God, by mercy, by pity, wills to shape and reshape the me’s and you’s of God’s people, forming of us a vessel that will hold the powerful love we are given, the love that creates an us, a we, a vessel of integrity that God may use to pour upon the world what is needed to sustain or transform it, help God’s kingdom come, God’s will be done on one more small turf on earth as it is in heaven.

And while it’s fine (and accurate) to speak of God doing these things, the scriptures make clear, and our own experience makes clear, that God counts on us to deliver compassion in God’s name and in God’s Spirit.

So on the heels of the feeding of five thousand people, some of Jesus’s hearers understandably ask him, “What must we do to perform the works of God?” To this he answers, “This is the work of God, that you believe in the one whom God has sent.” This is intimate stuff, intensely personal. Unless we have this source of mercy, we will not learn to imitate this mercy or practice this compassion.

Or, as the apostle says, “grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together…as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love.”

Okay, Lord. It’s a new week, starting today. Open us, we pray, to every encounter in which mercy or pity may be asked of us. And in each, open us, we pray, to you.