Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Celebrating Earth Day's 40th

Scripture appointed for the 4th Sunday of Easter includes Acts 9:36-43; Revelation 7:9-17; John 10:22-30

Forty years ago last Thursday, the first Earth Day was observed. I was 23 and completing my first year in seminary in Manhattan, and I’m pretty sure Earth Day happened without me. It’s sobering to admit that 40 years later, Earth Day has happened without me, again. First, I was busy as a student; 40 years later, I was busy as a priest.

At Compline Thursday night, I chanted in place of the usual collect a thanksgiving for the created order, complete with the richness of mountains, the songs of birds, and the loveliness of flowers. At least the twenty of us gathered that night nodded liturgically to Earth Day, and some of them very likely kept the day more intentionally than I did.

It’s not for lack of persuasion or passion, my yearly tendency to catch Earth Day out of my rear view mirror. I applaud all that has happened on campuses and in schools, in board rooms and legislative chambers, and in churches and at kitchen tables to raise conscious care for this fragile earth, our island home.

I admire in particular our neighboring congregation, the First Congregational Church, for their systemic commitment to ecological education and action, and other area initiatives such as Williamstown’s COOL project.

It’s not as if we’re dormant here. The gas furnace we installed, several years ago, is a model of clean-burning high technology. Charles Bonenti has championed the replacement of incandescent and old-fashioned fluorescent lighting, not everywhere in these old buildings, but we’re more that way than not. Stuart Crampton single-handedly trucks our recycling results to the landfill. Since installing the galley kitchen, we’ve moved from paper to china. Motion sensors, light sensors, and timers govern our outdoor lighting. Automatic light controls in our church school rooms drive us nuts as they operate with a mind of their own, telling us we’re not there when we know darn well we are… but we’ll figure that out, in time, and we’re glad to be making progress. Soon, we’ll make more when we actually reduce our footprint, removing the old curate’s apartment, cutting the waste of heating and lighting space we’re confident we don’t need (and creating parking we know we do need).

Would we have taken these steps in a life without Earth Day, without minds and hearts and imaginations wakened to responsibility? I don’t believe so. And that tells me that Earth Day deserves a 40th that celebrates achievement, both local and national.

Our story resembles that of the disciple Tabitha. We’ve been raised from our deathbed. And it has taken apostolic zeal to achieve that.

To achieve what? Associated Press journalist Seth Borenstein answers: “Forty years later… smog levels nationwide have dropped by about a quarter, lead levels in the air are down more than 90 percent. Formerly fetid lakes and burning rivers are now open to swimmers…” and are habitat again for loons and herons. These improvements took shape in the form of the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and changes in the way businesses treat the environment—reforms that grew out of the first Earth Day, 1970. Some would say that this is the most powerful, sweeping, society-wide change America has made since the New Deal.

The need for such change was dramatic in the months leading up to Earth Day 1970. Cleveland’s main river, the Cuyahoga, caught fire every now and again. An epic oil spill contaminated 30 miles of Southern California beaches.

Now, Borenstein says, “The challenges to the planet today are largely invisible—and therefore tougher to tackle.”

He quotes William Ruckelshaus, first head of the Environmental Protection Agency: “What we’ve done is shift from the very visible kinds of issues to those that are a lot more subtle today.”

Since 1970, carbon dioxide levels in the air are up by 19%, raising the average annual world temperature by one degree Fahrenheit, reports the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

“They will hunger no more, and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat; for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them…”

We encounter those words at funerals and hear them describing heaven. Consider them describing God’s new creation, the universal renewal of life that God is accomplishing in Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit.

And the metaphor the Church gives us on this Sunday in Eastertide is that of the shepherd. We are to understand God’s universal renewal of life requiring the tenacious responsibility of Jesus Christ the Good Shepherd, the brave guardian who will battle wolves and frustrate thieves to fulfil his promise to his flock, “You will never perish. No one will snatch you out of my hand.”

Let’s not be too busy at other things to hear an Earth Day application of this metaphor: We who belong to Jesus Christ the Good Shepherd have his care by listening to his voice and doing what he calls us to do. He calls us to his mission, the universal renewal of life. He asks us to share his own passionate responsibility for the whole shimmering orb of life that God has placed in his hands, and in ours… in his compassionate care and in ours.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Breakfast Is Served

The Gospel appointed for the 3rd Sunday of Easter is John 21:1-19

It’s not every candidate for holy baptism who can say she has played the part of Jesus onstage, and the part of Caiaphas, and in the same play. Nor is it common in my experience that someone, prior to her baptism, has wrestled with the Book of Job bravely enough to write a play about his story.

But such are the distinctions that Chloe can claim. Though the Chloe I’ve come to know isn’t likely to make such claims.

Not that she’s shy. In fact, I will have lasting memories of the Williams Class of 2010 because Chloe is its third member to extend me a hand in self-introduction and add, “I’d like to be baptized,” (or confirmed, as in the case of the other two). That’s a record, at least in my time here.

And I have one more thing to say about Chloe, hoping it will give you a sense of the young woman I have been coming to know, and expecting that this may help pave the way for her later in this service. I met with her on Wednesday, to walk through the rite of baptism, and when we came to a moment when the Prayer Book directs me to ask her, “Do you desire to be baptized?” I found I had an urge (I resisted it at first, but decided to trust it) to follow her affirmative answer with another question: “Why?” When I shared that fragment of fantasy with her, she pretty much replied, “Okay.” And so, at the time when announcements usually happen, Chloe will tell us why.

Someone else is working today on the question Why, and that is Simon Peter. The portion of Luke’s Gospel appointed for Easter Day showed him walking away from the ebullient Mary Magdalene, shaking his head in puzzlement over all these things that had taken place. The disciple Mary was already an apostle, witnessing to those eleven men what she had experienced at the empty tomb. Not one of them was willing to believe her. Peter was the one who ran to the tomb to confirm her story, but he could make no sense of what he saw.

He deals with what he cannot figure out by returning to what he knows so well. “I am going fishing,” he announces to a little gaggle of his buddies. They all agree: that’s the thing to do. Perhaps this little fishing expedition is an exercise in avoidance, a trip down the river Denial. They get nowhere, catch nothing, and, when last seen, spent that long night, well, in the dark. Heaven knows what they talked about, whether they expressed their heartsick grief, or, in their empty boat, just quietly bobbed on the water, waiting, inwardly sinking under a sense that life would forever feel half empty, never again full.

“Children, you have no fish, have you?” comes the pointed words that waken their hearing just as sunlight touches their eyes.

“No.” That’s it, these are men of few words. But doesn’t something stir? Some synapses fire as they try to make out the figure on the shore against the light of dawn, and strain to hear what’s familiar in the cadences of that voice? This moment is like an icon of the soul seeking God: on this side of death, it will often be like seeing in a mirror dimly, a familiar phrase of St. Paul which Eugene Peterson in “The Message” paraphrases, “squinting in a fog, peering through a mist.”

Who beyond their own parents would call these grown men “children?” They slowly put two and two together, but he doesn’t wait: sharp advice comes next, feeding their hope, convincing them how close they are to the mother-lode that they will claim, a boatload of fish and an apostolate of faith.

Abundance triggers Peter’s recognition. Their three short years with Jesus taught them what the poet Richard Wilbur sees to be the point of another abundance-miracle, the water turned to wine at Cana:

“…It made no earthly sense, unless to show
How whatsoever love elects to bless
Brims to a sweet excess
That can without depletion overflow.
Which is to say that what love sees is true;
That the world’s fullness is not made but found.
Life hungers to abound
And pour its plenty out for such as you…”

Then comes a moment of quick change: flustered Peter covers his nakedness, and jumps into the sea! An image of baptism, they say. In the early Church, each candidate for baptism was dressed in a plain white tunic, symbol of transformation and new life: into water over the head, but clothed in Christ whose abundant love holds us in life and raises us from death.

Then is heard an invitation that could make us laugh and cry. We have heard a lot made of “Come unto me, all who labor and are heavy-laden, and I will give you rest,” and “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world…” But what do we make of “Come and have breakfast”? By the nature of the Gospel, that invitation, like those other better-known invitations, is made not only to first-century disciples, but to us as well.

Jesus Christ invites you to breakfast! Is that both wonderful and weird? So try it this way: Jesus Christ invites you to break bread with him. That’s more familiar.

And what he does with this circle of apostles-in-the-making is to do with bread and fish what in the other Gospels he does with bread and wine: he takes, he blesses, he breaks, he gives. While not all these verbs are present, what is suggested is the familiar action of eucharist, communion.

Then he confronts Peter with a grilling, not of fish, but of an apostle who had shown promise for leading the others, but had in short order betrayed his master when the going got rough, betrayed him three times. Three times now, Jesus asks, “Do you love me?”, tearing open Peter’s heart. Which is just what Peter needs.

Conversion, said C. G. Jung, often involves a collapse of the ego, a discovery that one’s ego is not sufficient for life. Or, to borrow an image from Poet Laureate Kay Ryan, if one has made for oneself a life raft, it can be hard to give that craft a graceful hull.

Will the change that comes upon Peter in his boat carry into his soul? Will that flurry of baptismal dunking turn around Peter’s heart to belong to God, make whole the heart that betrayed, convert Peter to whole-hearted commitment and service?

This will be shown, says Jesus, not by Peter’s words but in Peter’s life. A converted life, he says, will show itself in feeding my lambs, tending my sheep, feeding my sheep.

The order here matters. First Jesus feeds us, then he asks us to feed others. What God expects, God enables. Grace is given before responsibility. God’s abundance inspires our gratitude and releases our generosity. We love because God first loves us.

The order here matters. “After this,” we are told, Jesus said to Peter, “Follow me.”

“First, know me enough… know your heart enough… and follow me. You will find the rest.”

First, he makes himself known, shows his mercy and his love, reveals enough of his nature that one desires to follow him, and follow him as he is, not a distorted image of him. First, he gives himself, then he asks of us.

What Chloe desires, she already has, by his self-giving. In the action of her baptism, Christ’s people seal and celebrate his promise’s fulfillment, well underway even before she claims it, his promise to be with her always, to the end of time and beyond.

In the action of her baptism, Chloe will claim his promise and respond with promises of her own. It is for us to encourage her—and each other—to keep claiming his promise, and, by grace, to keep the vows we make.

(Richard Wilbur’s verse is excerpted from his poem “A Wedding Toast”, found in his “New and Collected Poems”, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1988, p. 61.)

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Become the Evidence

Collect for the 2nd Sunday of Easter:

Almighty and everlasting God, who in the Paschal mystery established the new covenant of reconciliation: Grant that all who have been reborn into the fellowship of Christ’s Body may show forth in their lives what they profess by their faith; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

The scripture appointed includes Acts 5:27-32; Revelation 1:4-8; John 20:19-31.

Three sweet essential messages speak to me, this Easter, and they’re all heard in today’s collect.

First, in the mystery of Easter God has established a new covenant of reconciliation, a new way to build peace on earth.

Second, in the mystery of our baptism we have been reborn into the fellowship of Christ’s Body. Our first birth is into a family, our second birth into a worldwide fellowship.

Third, our relationship to both these mysteries requires us to act on what we believe, to show in our lives what we claim by our faith.

It’s impressive, how six short lines of prayer can pack such a punch, collect light like a prism and cast such a rainbow of good news.

First, the new covenant of reconciliation. The old covenant is an agreement between God and Israel, God calling Israel to obey laws of purity and justice, God promising to Israel steadfast love, Israel accepting the responsibilities that go along with the privilege of being chosen to serve as a light to the nations. This covenant still defines the Jewish people.

The new covenant of reconciliation announces news that God is using the Easter mystery to reach out beyond the first covenant. Beyond Israel to the Greek world, and to extend that offer the young Church’s leaders (most of them Jewish) learned to speak of Jesus as Alpha and Omega, advertising in Greek his first and last importance.

But the first Christians had to learn peacemaking the hard way, from the inside out. This would be harder than learning a few Greek words. They would teach that in God’s eyes, there is no important difference between Jews and Greeks, or between men and women, or between slaves and free.

But demonstrating that peaceful spirit, helping all people see themselves as one proved hard. In our lesson from the Book of Acts today, we hear the Jewish high priests cry out to Jesus’s apostles, “You keep blaming us for your master’s death!”

“Darned right!” answer Peter and his fellow disciples. “You had him killed by hanging him on a cross!”

That’s a snapshot of how Christians and Jews got along—or didn’t get along—in New Testament times, and it has affected (you might say infected) relations between the two religious communities ever since. None of us wants that to continue, and all of us have a responsibility to read and tell the Bible’s stories in ways that advertise good news of God’s way of making peace through Jesus Christ—not by blame, but by such a love that frees in us a deep honesty to recognize the unity we have in God.

We who carry his name, who have the sign of his cross on our foreheads and the presence of his Spirit in our hearts from baptism, find in Jesus Christ the love that frees us for, and binds us to, deep honesty. In the mystery of our baptism we have been reborn into the fellowship of Christ’s Body. Our first birth is into a family, our second birth into a worldwide fellowship.

And the long 2000-year history of that universal Church is really the collected stories of the literally billions of us who have found a relationship with Jesus Christ as personal and real as his first apostles had with him. For the new covenant of reconciliation reaches out beyond death, indeed through death, which became for Jesus not the obstacle but the very pathway by which we know him.

It is an astonishing claim, but what is offered in Jesus Christ is no less than friendship with him, knowing him and being known by him, his presence real to you and your presence in this world made all the more real in him. It is he who is offered to Chloe in baptism, next Sunday. It is he who is offered to each of us at the communion rail. And he who is with us when we pray. And when we don’t. He is with us always, to the close of time and beyond: that is his promise in the new covenant.

The relationship that you or I have to both the Easter mystery and the baptismal mystery requires us to act on what we believe, to show in our lives what we claim by our faith.

That is dramatized for us in Thomas’s story. He’s a very modern man, logical, practical, and feeling alone. He isn’t with his brothers and sisters, that Easter night. He needs peace and reconciliation, and he’s struggling with the whole fellowship thing.

So he works out of the logical, practical, isolating side of himself and demands meaningful evidence. He must touch the wounds of Jesus; only then will he believe.

Thomas knows how to do reasoning. Like so many of us, he has to learn how to do the mystical. Remember, what we’re given in Christianity is Easter mystery, baptismal mystery. It’s how Jesus will be known.

And when he is, when Thomas returns to fellowship and in that community meets Jesus all over again, Jesus uses that mystical moment to honor reason. Go ahead, he says, examine your evidence.

And then Jesus drives it all home. “Do not doubt, but believe.” Jesus calls Thomas to action. Take all that effort and energy by which you’ve been doubting and redirect it. To believe is itself an action of the will: it is to welcome the reconciling love that Jesus brings to the friendship, and then to build peace with that love. To believe is itself an action of the will, receiving the gift of relationship with God in Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit, freeing us for, and binding us to, honesty.

To believe is the act of the will by which we become evidence of the risen Jesus.

Think of that! But don’t think too long… Become.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Rising from Violence

I was stopped dead in my tracks the other night, in conversation with one of my sons. We were watching the 6:30 news, and I was stuck in disbelief at the report of a Christian militia in southern Michigan.

I struggled with even saying those two words in one breath, Christian militia. I sputtered about how it was unthinkable to me, that professed Christians should plot to kill and incite armed conflict. What a name they’re giving to Christianity, I muttered.

“You’re forgetting about the Crusades?” replied my son.

At whatever age, children are such a trip. Perhaps God gives them to us so that we can’t stay too settled in our thoughts and assumptions.

I was left without words at that moment, so I chose to listen to what was being called up within myself: and as I did, the first thing that came to my mind was slavery and how the Church for so long was on the wrong side of that monstrous abuse of power, one more example of Christian violence.

It was through men and women of religious conviction that slavery was outlawed in England, then here. Powerful Christian witness is part of that story, though it took an astonishing 1800 years or more after the first Easter Day for Christians to hear in their Bible and in their evolving consciences the clear call to end such inhumanity that robs human beings of their freedom and dignity.

It is time now for Christians to find fresh, effective ways to disavow armed violence, verbal violence, and emotional violence. It is time, standing as we do nearly 2,000 years after the first Easter Day, to pay close attention to how our Bible calls us to love, including our enemies, and to take apart, piece by piece, the walls of hostility that separate one part of the human family from another.

Haven’t our consciences evolved enough to know that reactive violence—verbal, emotional, physical—is incompatible with our nature as children of God? Is human violence too settled an oppression to be dislodged?

In the account of the first Easter, it takes angels to roll away the stone from the tomb. Surely the point of that detail is to convince us what power is on our side when we do our best to follow Jesus.

What explains the abuse of power by our homegrown American Christian terrorists? What motivates that twisted church family from Kansas who protest at the funerals of young Americans who have lost their lives in Iraq and Afghanistan? They blame these young soldiers for serving their nation, a country these Christians say has angered God in a number of ways, including by recognizing the rights of gays and lesbians. Have these agents of hate experienced such shifting of power sharply away from supporting their world-view, as if the laws of physics had been repealed and their planet is wobbling out of orbit?

However we understand these fellow Americans, or cannot understand them, nothing justifies their resorting to armed violence or verbal and emotional violence.

Why, you may wonder, do I choose to speak of such things at Easter? Why spend even a moment considering extremists like Christian militias and hate-spewing protestors? Aren’t we the good guys and they the bad guys, and never the two shall mix?

Not if you’ve recently renewed your appreciation of Holy Week, when cruel and damaging things happened to Jesus as much through his sworn friends as by his sworn enemies. We may not find ourselves drawn to extremism, but a lively sense of sin ought to remind us that we and they (the extremists) occupy one world, one society, and, it seems, one Body of Christ.

And I speak of extremists today because they do what they do in our name. No, in his name, and that is the more outrageous offense. What Christian witness will counteract and outweigh their message to our society? As fewer and fewer children and teenagers feel any belonging in our churches, what messiahs will our kids meet in the media ether that surrounds them? We know they’ll meet zealots of insurrection whose hallmark is hatred and defamation. Will we find the zeal to make sure that our children and grandchildren meet the Christ of resurrection who makes himself known in the breaking of bread, the washing of feet, the indwelling of hearts and the making of peace?

We may put extremists in a different category from ourselves. But what infects them is at large and free-floating in our society. The same society that has spawned 1700 militias has created a far larger number of school bullies. It was in South Hadley, a town much like ours, where last month 15-year-old Phoebe Prince was taken down by months of emotional, verbal, and physical violence from a few of her peers.

And can you remember a time when members of congress have had their lives threatened and their character defamed as in these past two weeks? A brick through a window, venomous words hurled…it all becomes too easy.

At work in our society, shown by agents of hatred, is a death of the heart and a death of the imagination from which we all are called to rise, called by Jesus Christ who absorbed the world’s venom and defeated it by being true to his nature, true to God.

God is his nature: Jesus Christ is God’s Son. Not another talking head in history, Jesus Christ is divine so that each of us may be a dwelling-place of God, an agent of Jesus’s love. He is in each of us by divine Spirit, our finest hope and our truest nature. God in the DNA of Jesus unites him to God as surely as a compass points to magnetic north. So the risen Christ in us draws us to claim and show our truest nature.

By the grace of resurrection set loose in our world on this day some 2000 years ago, we are equipped to practice and demonstrate a yet more excellent way than reactive violence. Our homes, churches and workplaces, our friendships, politics, and foreign policy are all locations to practice the call of God in Jesus Christ to live by the Spirit of truth and love and reverence, which is our truest nature.

How will we inspire and encourage and expect one another to show this yet more excellent way?