Monday, January 17, 2011

Aiming Higher

Scripture for the 2nd Sunday after the Epiphany includes Isaiah 49:1-7; I Corinthians 1:1-9; and John 1:29-42

Did you watch President Obama’s address at the memorial for the victims in Tucson?

Without seeing what came before and after that address, without context, it was hard for me to appreciate the crowd’s energy level. It sounded more like a rally than a memorial service. And when our President arrived at that podium, his sober expression only sharpened the contrast with that wired crowd. I guess that’s what you get when 27,000 Arizonans gather in one place, and that place is a sports stadium.

As a colleague said to me last week, it’s an old saying from the world of architects, “The room always wins.”

Or maybe that electricity is what you get when those 27,000 Arizonans are upset. Angry that their city, their state, should gain this notoriety and draw such attention from around the world. Indignant that these good people—a nine-year-old charmer, a judge’s judge, two sweet old ladies, a retired construction worker and pastor, a bright young congressional intern—should lose their lives, and many more should be injured, including a fearless, dynamic member of Congress.

And irritated that the State of the Union is so troubled that this United States representative couldn’t do her job of listening to her people without an eruption of violence that simply doesn’t belong in a civil society.

Not that we have one. But we want one. And who wouldn’t agree with the imperative President Obama gave us, that we must create a civil society, and it is up to us to do it. And who would argue with his motivating us by asking that we create an America that nine-year-old Christina and Judge Roll and Gabe Zimmerman and all the other victims would be proud of?

No arguments came out of that address, nor should they have; he did a masterful job of honoring the fallen, recognizing their families’ pain, transcending the vitriol, and prescribing healing.

But there are arguments that must be had, before that civilizing can be won.

Few in Washington want to advance this argument, but we need gun control legislation at the federal level. Gun control is considered the most toxic political issue of our time. What is more truly toxic and lethal is the availability of assault weapons, the availability of automatic ammunition magazines that achieve rapid-fire unrelieved slaughter, and our unwillingness to figure out how to keep handguns out of the hands of people known to be in trouble with the law, and people known to be mentally unstable. There needs to be an argument made that these restrictions can be made at the federal level without eroding a constitutional right to bear arms, or a state’s right to regulate.

Arguments need to be had about treatment of people with mental illness. We must make treatment available and affordable and effective, and make our social treatment of people with mental illness more humane. And we must debate the role of law to mandate treatment and to monitor that mandate.

And we’ve got to discipline all our arguments so that we debate principles and have dialogue about issues, not attack or incite people who stand on the opposite side of our arguments, issues, and principles.

“If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I speak with power and claim to understand mysteries, and if I am so confident that I say to a mountain ‘Jump,’ and it jumps, but don’t have love, I’m nothing.”

Without love, we are nothing.

That scripture is not appointed for today, but it is needed for today.

And in the Gospel we have today, one detail may be full of God. John the Gospel-writer is going to great lengths to explain the relationship between Jesus and John the Baptizer. Enough attention, enough air time is given to this to suggest that the first-century Church had divisions and partisan spirit in it. Perhaps for a time, perhaps for quite some time, followers of John and disciples of Jesus did not see eye to eye, did not recognize the necessity or the opportunity for bipartisan cooperation.

Here, two disciples of John the Baptizer hear him admire and elevate Jesus. “One of the two who heard John speak and followed Jesus was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother… He brought Simon to Jesus, who looked at him and said, “ …You are to be called Peter.”

There’s the detail I mean. Andrew and Peter, two who play big parts in the public ministry of Jesus and the apostolic foundation of the Church, they first were disciples of John the Baptizer. At least Andrew was, and it was through him that Peter entered the orbit of Jesus.

The Jesus movement builds on the John-the-Baptist movement. John’s message of repentance and ethical behavior is where Jesus’s Gospel starts but does not stop: Jesus proclaims Good News based not on what people must do, but on what God does and who God is. John tells people what they should do. Jesus inspires people to be all that God gives them to be. John brings people to accept that they are freed from their sins; Jesus invites and summons and sings his love-song to people, causing them to comprehend, to reach for and grasp, all that God frees them for.

Andrew and Peter and countless others who will be celebrated and remembered for how they lived positive, creative, generative lives in destructive dangerous times—right across the centuries to The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.—they show us lives built on forgiveness and responsible ethics, and the need to aim higher, the awareness that more is needed for God’s will to be done on earth as in heaven.

In his address, President Obama helped us see ourselves as good people. He told us of our courage as he honored Daniel Hernandez, the young intern who cradled Gabby Giffords after she was shot, running to her, not away; and Bill Badger and Roger Salzgeber and Patricia Maisch, the spunky seniors who helped disarm Jared Loughner.

The President affirmed our readiness to embrace challenge as he described this trait in young Christina and her role-model, Gabby.

He deftly wove the textures and colors of our rich tapestry of national identity, as he honored what was shown to be bright and beautiful about each of the victims of this savage attack by one disturbed young man who seems to have felt no stake in the society he would destroy.

Now more is needed: more than the courage of the few, our own courage and appetite for challenge are needed, and will be ignited as we, like Andrew and Peter and Martin, open ourselves to the call of Christ and the work of the Spirit, to see and speak and serve truth.

Like Andrew and Peter and Martin, we must aim higher.

A ten-year-old boy in Tucson said, “Gabby has opened her eyes. Now we have to open ours.”

Flow On, Jordan

Scripture for the first Sunday after the Epiphany includes Isaiah 42:1-9; Acts 10:34-43; and Matthew 3:13-17

I have never seen the Jordan River, but my trusty “Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible” tells me that the Jordan Valley, down which the river runs, lies in a deep rift in the earth’s crust which is part of the same line of weakness that, much farther south, shows itself in the Great African Rift cutting deep into East Africa.

Let’s put that in our tool kit for understanding the baptism of Jesus. It happens right where the earth is weak, in a depression that cuts across international boundaries, linking peoples and cultures of many lands.

Of course, we know that the Jordan River figures in Israel’s history, from the primitive times of Father Abraham to the bloody conquest of Canaan, where the river was the last obstacle to be surmounted before the Israelites crossed over into what they called the promised land, Moses dying on one side, God not permitting him to set foot across the Jordan, passing on that leadership to Joshua. In subsequent generations, in one military campaign after another, the Jordan River will be a strong line of defense.

America has the Potomac, and the Mississippi, Old Man River. In Israel, the psalmist sang, “There is a river, whose streams make glad the city of God…”

And for our toolkit today, the Jordan figures in the miracles of the prophets Elijah and Elisha. Remember how Elijah, before his ascension to heaven, took off his cloak and struck the water with it, causing the river to divide, allowing him and Elisha to cross on dry ground (a reprise of the Passover, when another body of water flowed into the oral history of Israel).

When Naaman, commander of the army of neighboring Syria, at odds with Israel, sought out Elisha for his healing power, it was to the Jordan that the prophet sent him to bathe. To be cured of his leprosy, the enemy had to swallow his nationalistic pride, sputtering all the way about how, back home in Damascus, they had the Pharpar, a river sparkling clear, not like the dirty muddy waters of the Jordan.

So look where it happens, the baptism of Jesus. It was there at the Jordan where John the Baptizer emerged from the wilderness like Elijah, and, like Elisha, prescribed a cure—but for moral illness, not physical—calling all sorts and conditions of people to come and bathe in the muddy waters of the Jordan, and confess their greed, their violence, their toxic values, their missed opportunities, their misplaced passions…

And there, on the fault line traversing the Indian and African Plates, at that symbolic place still soaked in the bloody encounters of Israelites and Canaanites, there on holy ground and holy water with a great cloud of patriarchs, matriarchs, and prophets swirling in the collective memory of these crowds pressing in to claim the healing, to be slapped by the ethical challenge, of John…

There is where Jesus receives his first and forever mission, to bring forth justice to the nations, to open eyes that are blind, to bring prisoners out of their dungeons, to declare new things.

“The voice of the LORD is upon the waters,” we heard the psalmist sing.

Not far from the Sea of Galilee is Nazareth, Jesus’s home. Fed by the Jordan, that little sea and the cities all around it would be where the early months of Jesus’s public ministry took place. The watershed moment in his career, if it wasn’t the baptism we celebrate today, was at Caesarea Philippi when he confronted his disciples with the question, “Who do men say that I am?” And yet more to the quick, “And you, who do you say I am?” And Peter answered, “You are the Messiah sent from God!” And all this happened at the most eastern source of the Jordan. And down the east side of that valley he walked, teaching, healing, freeing, disturbing, revealing the equality and the dignity of all people.

For the last time he crossed the Jordan at Jericho, and from there embarked on the final chapter of his public mission in Jerusalem, the mission he received from John, from God, that day, knee-deep in the silty Jordan. To roil the waters of unexamined privilege until they give way to justice. To calm the waters of chaos, until they rise to swallow him. And then to wait until God is pleased to give new voice to the Word from deep within the belly of the grave, and then to rise to new life in us who are baptized into his Name.

For our tool-kit to understand his baptism: notice the great leveling that goes on between John and Jesus as they face off in the Jordan. John insists, “I need to be baptized by you! And do you come to me? This all feels wrong.” And Jesus insists, “It must be this way now, trust me.” Jesus will not let John keep a hierarchical world. All things are being made new; even John, as full of light as he is, must think new thoughts, must move beyond his old categories that could keep him from growing.

The New Testament remembers John for having summoned people to a baptism of repentance for forgiveness of their sins. John’s insistence that he isn’t qualified to baptize Jesus—or is it that Jesus doesn’t qualify as a sinner?—either way, misses the point of the new creation that God is about.

As the breaking of a mother’s water is the sign of new birth, what is breaking open here in the Jordan is radical human equality. John was already midwifing that birth. All sorts and conditions of people were drawn to that river, compelled by John’s vision of justice being theirs to accomplish (“Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.”) He was wakening in them a power to transform a brutal and selfish world, first freeing them from their failures, then freeing them for their responsibilities.

Jesus receives this baptism at John’s hands. As he comes up from the water, there is given to him a vision of the Spirit of God coming down like a dove and alighting on him. He hears a voice, yet the message is for us: “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

In two ways the message is for us. We need to hear God say who Jesus is. And we need to hear God say who we are, because of who Jesus is. We need to hear God singing this lovesong over every person we meet. We need to hear God singing this lovesong to us, one by one. “You are my daughter, my son, beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

In the new creation in Jesus, God puts us on a surer foundation, more secure even than the freeing power of forgiveness of sin. God puts you, God sees you, God declares you God’s own, beloved, a source and a recipient and an agent of God’s pleasure.

You may or may not find in today’s Gospel all that I am claiming. You will find it in the baptismal covenant that unites us to God in Christ. In our collect we prayed for grace to keep that covenant.

Such keeping requires, for sure, the keeping of vows. Required, also, is keeping close the moral commitment and the divine mercy of John the Baptist’s vision.

But first and forever, keeping the covenant of our baptismal standing with God requires that we dare to hear God’s passionate favor spoken to us, person by person, and to hear that Word being formed over each person we meet, leveling us in radical human equality in keeping with Jesus Christ.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Make Way for Wonder

Scripture read on the 2nd Sunday after Christmas Day includes Jeremiah 31:7-14; Ephesians 1:3-6, 15-19a); Luke 2:41-52

In the children’s service on Christmas Eve, the shape of what happens is predictable. The words of the Bible lessons, the carols, the step by step setting of the Crèche, all are familiar. And roomy enough to contain an occasional surprise, a moment when the expected moves over to make room for wonder.

You who were here that evening may have noticed any number of such moments, but the one that made me stop in my tracks and simply watch it happen was when the three kings were set, with their camel, in that middle window.

We know better than to place them at the Crèche, that night. We’re Episcopalians, and we know that if we don’t take them the long way ‘round, we won’t have Epiphany, and we like our seasons.

This parish custom of moving the magi from place to place, from one window to another, sometimes to the piano top, until they reach Bethlehem on the twelfth day and their mission is realized, this custom has its risks.

Not unlike their real journey, there are slippery slopes along the way. Specifically, that second window from the front, where the sill tips down towards the aisle, not unlike the slope of a sand dune—but minus the traction.

I believe it was there, one Christmas in the 90’s, that the camel fell. Not the one we have now (a hardy breed made of resin), but the original plaster one that came with the set, brought from Italy in the 1920’s. With a great crash he fell, and when we went (with sadness) to sweep up the pieces, we found that the impact had broken away all that was camel from an older figure at the core of the camel, and behold, that was a kneeling angel.

You didn’t need to squint and imagine it was an angel: it was a very convincing angel that hadn’t come out of the mold quite right, and instead of being tossed in the trash it was built upon, slipped into the camel mold as its base. It was a Depression-era camel, nothing wasted.

Well, I tell you all that to set the stage for this Christmas Eve. I don’t recall who set the first wise man in place that night—just that it was our soft king, the one Paula Consolini made to replace yet one more casualty of a Christmas past. Then a second king was brought, and the camel (the new technologically improved camel) was made to fit an increasingly crowded window-sill, in light of the candle that had to be navigated around.

I was watching the progress at that window because the next move was going to be mine, to lead a prayer for peace. I counted magi and got to two, then my eyes were drawn to the font, where I saw the journey of the third.

He was in David’s hands, David who is blind and who, holding that third king, could feel every fold in his robe, the gold bands at his biceps, the braids of his hair and that jeweled crown, and, clutched against his chest, the golden jar of myrrh. David had the king in much the same grip, and by his busy fingers he knew, I expect, more about this figure than you or I will ever know.

Up that west aisle he came, step by step, squeezing by the folks in folding chairs, guided by his father behind him, his father with a hand on each of his son’s shoulders, talking him along each step of the way, coaching him through a careful perfect landing in the tightest of spots, the royal entourage tucked in just as tight as being seated in coach.

I don’t know how many of that Christmas Eve multitude saw what was happening. I knew it was the most important action I was likely to see that night, so I just watched it happen. Perhaps some thought something was wrong—but something was very right.

In that respect, this surprising moment shared some features of St. Luke’s story of Jesus in the Temple, as a teenager. This scene is caught in that same middle window on the west aisle, Louis Comfort Tiffany’s image of Jesus in dialogue with the elders. See how his arm is raised, making a rhetorical point.

Yes, we have fast-forwarded twelve years from Bethlehem in the twinkling of a Sunday. Mary and Joseph have brought their son to the big city for the festival of Passover, and now they’re heading home to Nazareth. In caravan as a large group of travelers, Joseph and Mary hadn’t had a sighting of Jesus for the better part of a day, but they trusted him and assumed he was farther back (or ahead) with family and friends in that caravan.

But they were wrong, and they quickly acted to right that wrong by searching for him until they found him. When they did, it was not quickly clear to them that something was very right. This was unclear to them as they saw him sitting with the older men who taught the laws and interpreted the holy writings of the Jewish people.

Child, why have you treated us like this? They ask him, as soon as they catch a private moment with him. Didn’t you know we’d be worried sick looking for you?

Mother, father, why would you worry, and where else would you look but here in my Father’s house? His voice is guiding me, I can hear him. I am in his hands, as always—I feel them on my shoulders.

Now, the joke is on me. I chose this Gospel for today among three that are provided in our new common lectionary of readings. The other two are about the three kings, and when I saw the option of this Gospel I thought, “This would be new and fresh, hearing this story on the Sunday nearest the Epiphany,” as if magi, camel, and star were feeling dated, shopworn, and stale. I wasn’t expecting to talk about the arrival of the kings.

So instead we have the arrival of Jesus where he belongs, in the Temple where he will have a lifelong argument with the powers of religion that will not see or speak truth.

We are not told what questions Jesus and his elders were debating, this day in the Temple when his parents find him, but it’s not far-fetched to imagine that those distinguished teachers were defending the dignity of the Temple, while Jesus was defending the dignity of human nature made in the likeness of God. That those teachers were describing the superiority of properly educated, correctly believing, and righteously behaving religious people… while Jesus was describing the mission of God in lovingkindness restoring all people to unity with himself.

Joseph and Mary were familiar enough with formal education to sense what was wrong, seeing their son seated not at the feet of his elders, but among the teachers. Three days had passed in anguish for Mary and Joseph, choking back panic as they couldn’t find him. Those same three days had fired the mind and heart of the teenager from Nazareth who couldn’t get enough of this encounter, listening, questioning, answering, inching his way in from the edges and up from the floor and onto the benches of open debate, fingering timeless issues of law and justice, mercy and faithfulness, showing in those three days how he knew those matters more intimately than venerable worthies three, four, five times his age.

We’re left with the impression that his parents could not explain the intensely clear vision of their son. But in a world where the apple does not fall far from the tree, it could be that Mary and Joseph could not explain, either, the refusal of religious teachers to see and speak truth. Instinctively they must have felt danger mounting, relieved (for now) by they return to Nazareth and a semblance of normalcy, giving them time to treasure and puzzle-over these things, especially their son’s intuitive grasp (as if God had his ear) and their child’s courage (as if he had, on each shoulder, the guiding touch of a father’s or a mother’s hand).

Questions for the new year:

What coaching, what guidance, will you welcome?

Will you listen for the whisperings of God, or have you ruled them out?

Will you move with or against the pressures of wisdom and love?