Monday, June 25, 2012

Things Not Always as They Seem

Scripture for the 4th Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 7) includes I Samuel 17:32-49; II Corinthians 6:1-13; Mark 4:35-41

As I listen to our readings this morning, I hear one caption that applies to all three: Things are not always as they seem.

I wonder if that simple message resonates at all for you, today. Things are not always as they appear.

This is doubly true in that action-packed portion of I Samuel. Goliath is thought to be invincible, but he is not. David is said to be just a boy, but he is more. Each of these men represents a certain kind of strength and power, and in the contrast between these two different kinds the point of the story is revealed. You could even say that it is the chief and central point of the entire Bible.

The Philistine warrior is all about size. The Hebrew shepherd is all about speed. Given David’s technology, all he needs is for Goliath to hold still long enough that he can get off a good shot; and when you’re the size of Goliath, and loaded down with iron and bronze, you do a lot of holding still and moving slowly. While this contrast does give us something to think about— like the advantages of traveling light—it barely scratches the surface of the differing strengths and powers of these two men.

Dig deeper and notice that for the warrior there is no higher power, no greater cause, no transcendent frame of reference, than his own brute force and arsenal of weapons. “Today I defy the ranks of Israel! Give me a man, that we may fight together.” That is life, for Goliath.

David’s reply reveals the contrast between them. “You come to me with sword and spear and javelin; but I come to you in the name of the Lord of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have defied. This very day the Lord will deliver you into my hand… so that all the earth may know that there is a God in Israel…” That is life, for David.

The shepherd is a rustic theologian. What he sees as he looks on the encounter before him is not a giant of a man growling for blood; David sees a big windbag mocking the God of Israel, and all around him those hosts the Lord God of hosts has to do his bidding, an army of angels, their fiery swords filling the sky, confirming what David knows: You don’t mess around with God. (I know, I made some of that up, but I do believe we get to use our imaginations as we tell these stories, don’t you?)

So while Goliath sees himself as what the show is all about, David seems himself as a small cog in the gears of God’s action to establish God’s people, Israel. He sums this up, saying, “The Lord does not save by sword and spear; for the battle is the Lord’s…” To Goliath, our caption applies: Things are not always as they seem.

Those words apply to David, too. He is no small cog: he is on his way to meteoric promotion and all its attendant dangers. And the more powerful he becomes, the more he yields to the temptation to lead with the sword and cause Israel’s history to be written in human blood. Things are not always what they seem.

That insight fits also our portion of St. Paul’s 2nd Letter to the Corinthians: “We apostles are treated as impostors, and yet are true; as unknown, and yet are well known; as dying, and see—we are alive; as punished, and yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything.”

There is Paul, the next principal voice of the New Testament after Jesus, describing what to expect if you’re a follower of Jesus. Bliss, rapture, comfort, security, and fulfillment? Not so much. And yet, because we are committed to what God is doing in the world, we learn to trust God’s ability to work through what the world dishes out, the afflictions, hardships, hungers, and sleepless nights we experience—not only to build up what God needs in the world, but also to build us up. For Paul, like David, the battle is the Lord’s. And things are not always what they seem.

Which brings us to that boat on the Sea of Galilee. Waves swamp that little boat, as a sudden storm threatens them with mortal danger. And Jesus is asleep in the stern, on a cushion. “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” It looks to them as if he does not.

I’m pretty sure they had spent enough time with Jesus by then to realize that mystery and paradox would likely remain their constant companions as long as they followed him. He was training them to respond in trust rather than react in anxiety, to cast all their cares on
God who cares for all. So in this moment they cast their cares on him: Teacher? Teacher, wake up! Do you not know? Do you not care?

They’re simply being honest, aren’t they?

I doubt this will be the last time his disciples urgently ask whether God is still in the battle with them, still on board, still with hand near the helm. As the agents of political and ecclesiastical treachery circled around them at that last Passover, their anxiety must have shot high, for he spoke to it directly in the Last Supper (which we’re still unpacking, each Lord’s Day) when he used the bread and wine of table fellowship and the water and towel of servanthood to shape their faith into an adequate answer to their fears.

Things are not always what they seem. A crisis may give birth to honesty and new determination to choose trust over anxiety. Smooth sailing may not develop our skills of navigation.

How does this little caption apply to you?

Monday, June 11, 2012

Creating New Family

Scripture for the 2nd Sunday after Pentecost includes I Samuel 8:4-11, 16-20; II Corinthians 4:13-5:1; Mark 3:20-35

What an intriguing Gospel to hear on a day when we honor high school seniors. I’ve said it before and I’m saying it again: I don’t pick these readings. They’re assigned from headquarters, appointed for a given Sunday, listed in the Book of Common Prayer, and they are what we make of them.

To help us roll up our sleeves and discover what we’re hearing today, I’d like you to notice two of our stained glass windows. It’s said that in the middle ages stained glass became popular in churches because it became the Bible for people who couldn’t read. And for people whose attention span doesn’t match the length of an average sermon, I’ve often taken comfort in the thought that some of the wandering eyes I may notice from here land on Bible scenes that can launch alternative sermons, perhaps of the Spirit’s making.

So the first window I want you to notice today is the second one on the west aisle. That’s Jesus as a teenager in the temple at Jerusalem. If he looks as if he’s about to dive into a debate, he is: this is that scene where Jesus’s mom and dad are frantic because he’s been missing for 24 hours and when they finally find him he’s in the temple having it out with the religious high muck de mucks. And there’s electricity in the air, this kid Jesus carrying his side of the debate so brightly that the poobahs are beginning to wish he’d go home and stop showing them up.

What I admire about this window is how its designer, Louis Comfort Tiffany, plays with our eyeballs. Where does he direct our attention? To the face, yes, earnest and pure of heart but intense and ready to tangle. Also to the chest, where a dose of pretty outrageous color locates his heart, the seat of his passion. And to the play of light on the floor, where it looks to me like the shape of a cross emerges as light streams in from above and illuminates this young man’s future.

The second window is a lost cause to see until you come to the altar rail: it’s in the bottom half of the first window in from the left. It’s the same scene as our first window, but imagined differently. Jesus sits (a sign of a teacher’s authority) and his highly educated and officially powerful elders appear to be scrambling through their scripture scrolls as Jesus holds his against his chest, from the heart presenting to them the Word of God which he has come not just to explain, but to be.

How come one little church has in it two windows dedicated to the only story we have about Jesus as an adolescent? And it’s not an easy story to hear, if you’re a parent, because it ends with Mary and Joseph finally finding their runaway child, letting their feelings hang out as they say to him, “What were you thinking? Didn’t you know we’d be scared out of our minds worrying about you?”, only to hear him say, “What? Why didn’t you know where you would find me, right here in my Father’s house.” Here was an attitude that illuminated their future even more so than that light on the floor.

Today’s Gospel fast-forwards us almost twenty years. One thing hasn’t changed. Jesus is in a very different place from where his family is. He is neither tied to his mother’s apronstrings nor following in his father’s footsteps (I know there’s the legend that Joseph was a carpenter and so was Jesus, but by the time of today’s encounter Jesus has hung up his toolbelt).

He is at the epicenter of a tsunami of people who swamp him and the little band of disciples at every turn. What drives them to him is their need. Many are sick with physical disease, others with psychosis, some are paralyzed, others are troubled by guilt, and quite likely a lot of them were hungry and thirsty, and most were on empty in terms of their faith and hope and love. The rest were there to watch.

One joker has said that this sounds like your typical Episcopal parish.

That crowd was so vast and their expectations so relentless that Jesus and his team could not even eat. Word traveled to Jesus’s family that he was beside himself, maybe even losing his grip on reality. Loyal to Jesus in ways that only parents and siblings know how to be, they move in to protect him, maybe helicopter him out of there… somehow… but they get only close enough to overhear nasty comments from a few high-placed scribes from Jerusalem, maybe some of the same men Jesus had outshone in the temple, once upon a time many years before. “He’s possessed by demons,” these men say, discrediting him, defaming him.

What Jesus has done for the crowds, what has kept those crowds growing, the healing, the forgiving, the feeding, the teaching and empowering, he has done by the Spirit of God. So he defends himself now, pointing out that if he were an agent of evil he could not achieve what he does.

It’s at that moment that word reaches Jesus that his family is there, looking for him. Instead of letting that be a reason to step out of the eye of the storm, Jesus reveals and acts upon a loyalty that runs deeper than that between parents and child, deeper than that among siblings.

There had to have been gasps in the crowd when he raised his voice to reply, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” Looking at those who were with him there on the front lines he exclaimed, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”

Doesn’t this remind you of how he stood apart from Mary and Joseph, twenty years earlier? Is this evidence that the American Psychological Association is right, saying that traits of adolescence, especially in males, can persist into the thirties?

However that may be, Jesus models for us a courageous use of freedom as he fashions his new family. Parents are wise when they recognize early on that this is the task of their children. Families that equip their increasingly adult children to create new circles of kinship may reap the harvest of grown children who, claiming that freedom, discover that they do not lose it when they maintain loyalty to their own original families.

We stand today with seven families who celebrate the high school graduation of their daughters and sons, whom they treasure, and whose freedom to create new community, new family, they respect (even while it may make them catch their breath in wonder).

What does it mean that in this holy place there are prominent windows remembering the adolescence of Jesus? Perhaps, situated at the heart of a college campus, this place just has to bear witness to the holy task of becoming. And to hallow and bless the rubs, those occasional confrontations, that generations must have as freedom is exercised. And to marvel at how increasingly adult children cause their parents to keep growing in wisdom, patience, comprehension, courage—all those traits parents have sought for their children-- until, eventually, parents begin to appear to their children wiser, smarter, braver than they once seemed.

Finally, perhaps our two windows of the becoming Jesus tell us that whatever our age, we are all, from God’s vantage point, simultaneously God’s treasured children, God’s trusted partners in creation and reconciliation, and God’s dwelling-place in the world, by the Spirit we have been given.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Holy Trinity!

Scripture for Trinity Sunday includes Isaiah 6:1-8; Romans 8:12-17; John 3:1-17

To devote one Sunday to the central Christian vision of God as the Holy Trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit seems, well, stingy— more giving a nod to ancient doctrine than modeling a profound bow to the living God.

Far back in antiquity, this was simply the Sunday next after the Day of Pentecost, and that proximity gave it an afterglow which, by the Middle Ages, got the Church thinking that it made sense to let this Sunday mark the conclusion of that half of the Christian year, Advent to Pentecost, that presents liturgically the life of Christ and the bestowal of the Holy Spirit.

So I think of Trinity Sunday as a big bold exclamation mark, our way of saying, “See where all this story of redemptive love comes from? God! See where all this commitment to incarnate love leads to? God!”

Exactly when it was that Trinity Sunday began to be observed we don’t know. But in 1334 a memo went out from Rome urging this observance everywhere. It already had special cachet in England, since St. Thomas Becket had been consecrated bishop on that day in 1162. Those of us of a certain age will recall that the old Book of Common Prayer measured all the rest of the Sundays of the year by numbering them after this day (as in the Umpteenth Sunday after Trinity), whereas these days the Prayer Book numbers the second half of our Sundays as “after Pentecost”.

That’s not to diminish the importance of the Trinity; I hear it, rather, as a choice to anchor the whole of the Christian year in the one story of what God has done for us in Jesus
Christ, whose giving of the Spirit is understood not as the end of that story but the beginning of our story as the Church. To recognize Pentecost as the birthday of the Church is to claim as our own the whole story of salvation which is still being written by our choices, our commitments, our communion with God.

The vision of the Holy Trinity remains central to our faith and practice, no less so as we hear the persons of God recast from Father, Son, and Holy Spirit to Creator, Redeemer, and Guide. Are those terms as intimate as the originals? Are they fresh and accessible in an age when many yearn to reach beyond needlessly masculine reference to God?

And speaking of what may seem dated, what is meant by “the persons of God”? In ordinary language, three persons would sound like a committee; and if there’s one thing the doctrine of the Trinity does not want to say, it is that we worship three gods.

So here is where we need to read the footnotes and recall what we must have heard in at least one Trinity Sunday sermon from the past, that the term “personae” comes from the ancient Roman theater. On a familiar level, any drama brings us characters emanating from the creative processes of an author’s writing and the actors’ taking on those roles. On a less familiar note, ancient actors used masks to express their characters, and these masks were called “personae”.

It doesn’t ring true to imagine Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as masks of God. That’s too superficial an image to describe the intimate reality we expect of God. But to say that God has more than one character sounds credible, and to listen to such New Testament texts as we’ve heard today is to notice that indeed from the first century three characterizations of God were familiar: Abba Father (in Aramaic, Abba was a term of endearment, what a child called his or her Dad), the Son of Man sent into the world to save people from what diminishes them, and the Spirit who intimately engages our spirit and gives new birth to what is spiritual in us.

John’s Gospel is a rich sketch book of how these personae of God operate. Jesus takes his Father’s truth and makes it known to people. After his ascension, this work of revelation is continued by the Spirit who demonstrates what Jesus has taught, and implants this truth in people, equipping them to do in the world what Jesus does in the world, a costly love that glorifies God whose likeness (image, persona) in us is this very ability to love.

In the rough and tumble forum of world religions, the concept of the Trinity takes its share of hits, often because it is not understood. And often it is not understood because Christians have not presented it well. In the unfolding conversation between Christianity and Islam, the Trinity is a stumbling block to Muslims. They may have 99 names of God, each revealing a characteristic of Allah, but their cri de coeur is that there is one God; and they fault Christians for believing there are three.

Shame on us, if that misunderstanding is the result of our poor public relations. Good for us, that the dialogue with Muslims will point us to the doctrine this day advances, for this vision of God is not the property of seminary professors and their students. The Holy Trinity makes theologians of us all, as we discover that getting the sense of this vision is not an elective—it’s required that we get clear how we have one God, not three, while having access to God in three ways, not one.

We’ll gain more and more of that sense, not so much through exercises in symbolic geometry like the equilateral triangle, the trefoil clover leaf, the three fish in circular motion, or the traditional tic-tac-toe model you’ll find in today’s announcements sheet.

We’ll gain the vision by practice. From very early times, Christian prayer has been made to God the Father through Jesus Christ the Son in the Holy Spirit that unites us to God. Catch those prepositions—to, through, in—and notice what we might call the aerodynamics of the Holy Trinity, how prayer moves.

And if you’re a Foundations course alum, you know how triangles pop up everywhere in the big picture of Christian practice. My favorite is nicknamed The Benedictine Promise, a shorthand way to grasp the big picture as it is experienced in monastic communities. You have a graphic for this today, too.

Picture a triangle. At the peak is stability, where the promise is that we will keep finding God as we enter more and more deeply the relationships and patterns of a congregation’s life. Bloom where you’re planted.

At the next point of the triangle is obedience: the promise is we will keep finding God as we listen deeply to the world, to holy scripture, to the wisdom of the church over the ages, to each other, to the whole of creation, and to the deepest longings and prayer of our hearts.

At the third point is conversion of life: the promise that we will keep finding God on the journey and in the new place our obedience calls us to go to, in losing the familiar and becoming ready to desire and find new life, in openness to our own transformation.

A commitment to stability allows the hearing required by obedience. Our commitment to obedience, to deep hearing, will guide our steps both to risk and to safety. Our commitment to conversion as a way of life leads on to more blooming where we’re next planted.

In the mystery of Trinity, these three points are in continuing spin and dance. The Trinity is much about movement, freedom, becoming.

And when I look at that model, Stability reminds me of God our Father/Mother/Maker/Sustainer. Obedience makes me picture Jesus who redeems by fulfilling a call and a vision not of his own design. Conversion of life causes me to imagine the Holy Spirit, mighty wind of holy change.

The Holy Trinity makes theologians of us all, enrolls us as disciples in a discipline not requiring a classroom, but a practice of life in a costly love out in the world.

And if you think that’s surprising enough to justify an exclamation mark, well, so be it! It’s the nature of this day. It’s in the nature of this faith.