Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Make Way for the Advocate

Scripture for the 6th Sunday of Easter includes Acts 17:22-31, I Peter 3:13-22, and John 14:15-21

At Wednesday’s eucharist at Sweet Brook Care Center, I thought I’d test the currency of the word Advocate. “What is an advocate?” I asked, hoping the question might launch a seat-of-the-britches nursing home homily, but fearing it might just as likely sink it.

Scanning their faces, I thought “Note to self: think twice about starting out with a question like that,” when, clear as a bell, from the front row, the person directly in front of me, came this voice: “It’s someone who stands up for you, speaks for you in front of a magistrate.” Thank you, Joan.

From there it is a graciously short reach to grasp the barely-imaginable good news announced by Jesus: that in whatever trials we will face we will be represented, defended, counseled, by One whom God the Father will send to us.

If you’re a fan of the Christian Year, you know what season comes next. You also know that this One Jesus promises is the Holy Spirit, the very energy of God that we will celebrate on June 12th, the Day of Pentecost, and keep celebrating the following Sunday, Trinity Sunday, when we need our fingers to count the ways we and God encounter one another.

And if this One who will represent, defend, and counsel us sounds too airy-fairy to grab hold of, or to be able to embrace us, it might help to hear Lutheran re-voicer of scripture Eugene Peterson speak not of the Advocate, but the Friend (capital F) who will always be with us.

I find appealing the growing trend to speak of this Spirit of Truth, this third person of the Holy Trinity, as feminine in nature. That’s not a modern or novel idea; it rises from the period between Old and New Testaments, when the Wisdom literature of Israel personified Lady Wisdom, and subsequent Christians found it easy to imagine that this Lady Wisdom, said to be present at the creation of the universe, could be that Spirit of truth promised by the Christ who, according to the Gospel-writer John, was also present at the creation.

So indulge me, and argue with me later. I’m picturing the Advocate, the One sent from God with all the energy of God to defend, represent, and counsel us, as any one of an array of compassionate but tough, gracious but gritty female attorneys who could, even for a moment of fantasy, serve us metaphorically. Name your pick: Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Martha Coakley, Sonja Sotamayor, or that passionate, intense, persistent and very hot Assistant DA on Law and Order (you know the one?). I’ll bet you can do a better job generating a list of candidates, but let’s not lose our focus…

Which is that when any one of us is in a time of trial, and must face any number of things that could go against us, for us and for our salvation stands one who speaks for us, who knows us better than we know ourselves, and whose role it is to speak the deepest truth, so moving the whole proceedings from the courtroom of fear to the sanctuary of faith.

Our scriptures today bear witness to what that deep truth is.

The concept of conscience is brought to us in the First Letter of Peter. By classic definition, conscience is the voice of God within us. By equally classic distortion of religion, that voice is quick to accuse and judge us guilty. But Peter speaks of conscience as if it were a sanctuary to be kept clear and open for the reconciling love of God to work on our behalf. Even more, he reminds us that baptism’s saving power is how it roots conscience in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. This takes conscience to a deeper place than right and wrong, innocent and guilty. The resurrection takes us to the purifying place where all that is human is bathed and renewed in all that is God, all that is limited in the limitless, the mortal in the eternal, the wounded in healing.

The deep truth the Advocate speaks is not that we are guilty, but that we are loved. I believe this good news is just as revolutionary and transformative in our 21st century as in our New Testament’s first century, and just as urgently needed to be heard. It is news that brings our souls to a new springtime, and frees the human will to love as boldly and generously as God in Christ loves all.

And there is Christianity’s best claim on our allegiance. That the voice of God-in-us calls the human race not to pour out more blood, sweat, and tears on more altars whether public or private, but to respect the dignity of every human being and learn to live up to the full stature of Christ, not live down to the common denominators of fear, greed, blame, and self-serving power.

Which brings us to our lesson from the Book of Acts. There we find the apostle Paul, a Jew trained in the rabbinic model of religious argument, reaching out to philosophical Greeks in their great city, Athens. He presents credentials meant to open Greek ears, the talent to carefully observe and reflect upon the phenomena of life. He says little judgmentally about the various shrines he must have seen, shrines that glorified those traits that made the Greek gods what they were, displaying those attributes by the art of craftsmen in gold, silver, and stone. But he implies that these various altars and shrines required endless offerings by human hands, and I think we hear, barely below the surface of Paul’s words, his inner conviction that what he saw was idolatry, the worshiping of something human or manmade as if it were God, and it isn’t.

But he sits on that judgment and rather deftly addresses these Greeks as a religious audience in a religious way about religious matters, looking for a religious response. And like any good commencement speaker (and it is very much a commencing that Paul intends), he uses a local site layered with legend to catch the attention and open the minds and hearts of his audience.

Somewhere in Athens, he has found an altar with the inscription, “To an unknown god.” For Paul, this is like finding the gene in the genome that opens the future to new life, restoring the wholeness of the body. He is able to use this evidence to remind the Greeks that by their own light they have recognized that there is more to the divine than they know, and Paul names this the Creator God who made the world and everything in it, all nations, all people. (This is, you know, how Israel described God.) Here is an altar that shows recognition of religion as claiming something much more than tribal or nationalistic or idolatrous allegiance. Here is a religion that may be of the mind and of the heart and of the will. And Paul intends to ride this horse right into the corral of Jesus Christ, and hope someone follows him (a small number do, and so a Christian congregation is born in Athens).

He builds a sympathetic case. This God who has made the very web of life has planted in us the desire to know him, the urge to search for God “and perhaps grope for him and find him—though indeed he is not far from each one of us.” This may sound less like Paul the Rabbi and more like Paul presenting himself as a philosopher like Socrates, while in fact being true to his calling to be a winsome truth-teller like Jesus.

The point Paul drives home in Athens is the same he makes in Corinth and Rome and every other city he visits: that the one true God has not left us comfortless, has not left us to our own devices to find truth and to know the Holy One. God has taken on our human flesh in Jesus of Nazareth and by his resurrection has completely revealed this Jesus as the Christ so that through him the world may be set right, one person, one household, one community at a time. “In him we live and move and have our being,” wrote an unnamed Stoic philosopher; and to this Paul says, “Yes, and now it is up to each person to enter that truth, lay claim to it, make the astonishing discovery that what God says to each is not ‘I judge you,’ but ‘I love you,’ and thereby frees each person from the ancient way of blame, frees each person for the new life of self-giving love.”

Such is the freedom we claim today for Nicholas and Diego. What is truly ours to claim is a joyful responsibility to introduce these boys to a religion of the heart and mind and will, one that will have more appeal than the altars of 21st-century gods of gold, silver, stone, success, technology, sensation, and violence—all the powers that fall far short of love. Religion can fall far short of love, too, and what we wangt for Diego and Nicholas is a dose of St. Paul’s insight that by our own best light there is more to know of God than we yet know.

We, their families, their Godparents, their Church will fulfill our responsibility best by deeply hearing, receiving, and treasuring the Advocate, the Friend, the relentless voice of love that frees us to be agents of the very energy of God.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Planting Good Seed in a Time of Terror

Scripture for the third Sunday of Easter includes Acts 2:14a, 36-41; Psalm 116: 1-3, 10-17; I Peter 1:17-23; Luke 24:13-35

I find this Gospel story from the road to Emmaus deeply satisfying.

To start with, it presents Jesus Christ as our companion in pilgrimage. We’re always on our way somewhere, and so is he. There will be times when he comes near us and journeys with us. We may or may not notice him, recognize him. He may or may not help us recognize him: he may play us on the line the way he did those two disciples. They were hooked in dialogue with him, but he kept on feeding them all the line they needed to swim in great figure eights under his boat until, exhausted, they’re landed and he pulls out of their pitiable mouths the sharp hook of their grief and frees them.

I know, I just turned that into a fish story. You don’t have to hear it that way to find it satisfying.

But it’s that disconnect between the disciples and their familiar teacher that’s so fascinating, isn’t it? He draws near to them, but he sees no spark of awareness in their eyes, which are glassed-over by pain and loss. Is he unrecognizable because of his three days of torture, assassination, and harrowing of hell? Could be, though Luke doesn ‘t invite us to go there.

Quite simply, Jesus calls them out of their tomb by a most superficial question, “What are you talking about?”

Then comes the delicious moment when they answer, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who doesn’t know?”

“Know what?” he plays along.

Then comes the part that later must have caused these two to slap their foreheads: they lay it all out to him, what he has just gone through, and along the way they drop a few clues about their own short-sightedness. They call him a prophet, not the highest opinion of him in the circle of their peers (Peter, early on, knew that he was the Messiah, the anointed one of God). They tuck in their own disappointment (“But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel,” in other words the Messiah) as if he had somehow flunked the test. And their report of astonishment at the announcement by the women that his tomb was empty reveals how little these men had been paying attention to the promise of God, that justice and lovingkindness will prevail on earth as in heaven.

So, in perfect segue, Jesus upbraids them. “You seem to think that God has failed, that because you are in pain and grief, this suffering of the Messiah should never have happened. How foolish you are! How slow of heart to believe the deep truth of the prophets! Salvation comes in the shadow of judgment. First the Messiah takes on the full freight of human flesh, including suffering and death; then, having crossed through those perils, he is able to lead the human race into his own freedom. You’d rather have it some other way, would you? Like, God aiming the turret gun of his tank right at the imperial throne and blasting the powers of oppression to smithereens? That is so old, so lame, don’t you see that? These three dark days show God suffering with you, for you, to build in you a power that will leave human violence in the dust, the power of spirit and truth transcendent over terror and all that terror teaches.”

This Gospel could help us consider the recurring headline of this past week, America’s finding and killing Osama bin Laden. I’m not sure I can explain why, but I find these two disciples good companions as I try to make sense of what has happened. Maybe it’s because their story brings into focus a powerful history of suffering that can be told in different ways, from very different points of view, and on that road to Emmaus those viewpoints are brought into dialogue. And much to the point, that dialogue reveals two distinctly opposite understandings of power. Our Lord Jesus facilitates this dialogue and enters it fully. So must we.

You could say that the disciples enroute to Emmaus represent everyman and his instincts. You could also rightly say that they were representatives of the Church in its very first generation. In a sense, Luke the Gospel writer operates somewhat like a journalist, thrusting a microphone to the mouths of these men on the street.

Had a reporter done that to me last week, as happened doubtless to countless religious representatives around the world, with the question, “How do you respond to the killing of Bin Laden?”, I think I might have said—and still will say—that I am torn between the requirement of justice, satisfied that it finally caught up with this mass murderer, and on the very terms which he himself required by his outlaw way of daring us to find him. And, on the other hand, tearing apart that satisfaction is my certainty that if this midnight raid fulfills any holy scripture, it is that they who live by the sword will die by the sword.

Painfully, I have to apply that to us as well as to Osama bin Laden. When I do, I recognize that by spilling his blood we have forged one more link in the ancient chain of retribution, and that chain, now heavier by one more (and universally known) act of violence, weighs down the whole human race in bondage to the power of the iron fist. A verse of our psalm today echoes eerily when cast in the present tense, “ The cords of death entangle us; the grip of the grave takes hold of us; we come to grief and sorrow” as violence begets violence.

In a more perfect scenario, Bin Laden would have been captured, and perhaps killed nonetheless, by operatives of a Muslim nation, not by armed Americans; and with that, the ancient chain could have had its last link snapped apart, the otherwise endless dynamics of blame snuffed out, and the glory of martyrdom denied this man of violence. But we know too well that the Pakistani army would have no part in that dream scenario. Quite to the opposite, they appear to have been playing both ends of a game that resembles more a nightmare of deception and treachery.

It’s truly impressive how our intelligence community and our Navy Seals broke through the subterfuge and found the engineer of 9/11.

We’re discovering that there are differing narratives about what happened in that midnight raid. One early telling of the story suggested that a very different outcome was attempted, capturing Bin Laden rather than killing him. We’ll never know whether that could have resulted in more—or less—deterrence of terrorism.

We’re surely hoping that intelligence gained from computers seized in the raid, and what may be learned from Bin Laden’s wives, will hasten the disintegration of Al Qaeda. But I can’t help thinking that what I know about crabgrass gives me useful metaphors for understanding Al Qaeda: even with the measures I take to counter it, that pest is going to spring up along borders and will flourish in tricky patches that will keep its seed blowing in the wind long after I’m gone. In addition to countering it, my best intelligence tells me to plant good seed, healthy, hearty, desired grass in the thin spots where, otherwise, poverty ensures a new generation of trouble.

Translated out of the garden and into the world, that would be pre-emptive counter-terrorism that counts less on the iron fist of military action and ratchets-up our resourcing of intelligent foreign aid, out-of-the-box diplomacy, and imaginative re-envisioning of person-to-person initiatives like international youth exchange (though perhaps it’s we older adults who ought to be exchanging with one another, less likely to be mistaken as special operatives or spies) and what a 21st-century version of a Peace Corps would look like. There must be other examples of planting good seed, and we need to find them.

In an age when religion divides the peoples of the earth more and more sharply, followers of Jesus must freshly hear “the things about himself in all the scriptures”, paying close attention to those which make our hearts burn within us, never being surprised when these involve the breaking of bread, the sharing of resources, the open hand of what the apostle calls “genuine mutual love” which wields a surprisingly more resilient and liberating power than the iron fist.

That this is true is not because we wish it were, but because, as Jesus reveals to his roadside disciples, and as the apostle echoes, the God who created the universe “judges all people impartially according to their deeds,” and counters the futile ways inherited from our ancestors by extending to all the precious self-offering of Christ, freeing us to be “born anew, not of perishable but of imperishable seed, through the living and enduring Word of God.”