Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Surviving the Rites of Succession

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

It may be with some relief that we hear today that David has gone to sleep with his ancestors. It has been a long summer hearing his royal saga. And no wonder: he ruled Israel for forty years. That’s a lot of material. Today we’re reminded that David passed the baton—or the crown—to his son Solomon, and thus was born a dynasty.

That may be a more practical model of governance than electing a president every four years. On the down side, dynastic rule does tend to entrench the bad ideas and mistakes of the past; but even in a democracy those seem to have a long shelf life. And even in a democracy we occasionally get dynasties, however short-lived.

But at the rate of David’s tenure, his dynasty would be a long one. And sure enough, Solomon also ruled Israel forty years. His reputation vies with that of his father. It was Solomon who built the great temple in Jerusalem that David wanted to build for God. Among Solomon’s wives was the daughter of an Egyptian pharaoh, which gave commerce a boost and made the good times roll. Solomon is celebrated for his wisdom and his wealth. Jesus used his name as a benchmark when he urged us to recognize God’s superabundant blessings in life, calling us to admire the lilies of the field, which Solomon in all his glory could not out-dress—a famous sermon which makes the point that we should choose gratitude as an antidote to anxiety.

Solomon’s prayer to God, early in his reign, is strong in gratitude for all that God had done to secure the reign of his father David. Solomon saw this as God’s approval of David’s faithfulness, righteousness, and uprightness of heart towards God. Huh? Wait, there’s more: Offering Solomon access to that same covenant mutuality, God says to him, “If you will walk in my ways, keeping my statutes and my commandments, as your father David walked, then I will lengthen your life.”

Now, hold it. Hear the umpire’s whistle on that play. Is this the same David, now being saluted by God, the same David who went way beyond coveting his neighbor’s wife, stealing the lovely Bathsheba, eliminating Bathsheba’s husband by the dirtiest of deeds?

Yes, but when you’re King you get to tell the story, and, Bathsheba being Solomon’s mother, he puts the best of faces on his royal history and hers, the ends justifying the means.

And yes, there is one more aspect for which Solomon is remembered: his wisdom, his wealth, and his women. So many wives we lose count. And through them, Solomon was drawn to dabble in the religious practices of their native cultures. While this put the King at odds with the orthodox, the criticism in today’s reading represents a soft landing: “Solomon loved the Lord, walking in the statutes of his father David; only, he sacrificed and offered incense at the high places.” Lesser mortals would have been drummed out of Israel for that offense, but again, the King gets to tell his own story… and, after all, he kept the economy brisk, those forty years.

What endeared Solomon to his own and subsequent generations appears to have been his humility before God. Again, from his inaugural prayer: I am only a little child; I do not know how to go out or come in. I don’t know everything and I’m not going to pretend I do. And your servant is in the midst of the people whom you have chosen, a great people, so numerous they cannot be numbered or counted. I don’t know how to do this without you. Give your servant therefore an understanding mind to govern your people, able to discern between good and evil; I am not always going to know which is which. And who can govern this your great people, without your guidance?”

Humility, understanding, ethical discernment… doesn’t that sound like a winning package in a head of state? When you hear these signs from a candidate this fall, vote for that person!

And read the whole story in the First Book of Kings. This royal succession was not as smooth as we might imagine. Solomon’s older step-brother wanted to be King, even declared himself enthroned moments before Solomon’s backers gave him the title. You’ll find that Solomon could be ruthless, not above having his step-brother and his father’s chief general executed in order to secure his throne. While we expect there to be blood along the campaign trail, in our day it’s metaphorical; in Solomon’s day, it was actual.

Notice the blood in our Gospel today. “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. ..”

I remember the deep offense felt by a parishioner, hearing these verses. I remember telling her, Yes, it’s meant to offend us, to catch our attention and wrestle with its meaning. But the King gets to tell his own story, and sometimes it’s not pretty.

And what is it Jesus is talking about here? Solomon used to offer a thousand burnt offerings on the altar, we heard today. Now, there’s blood. Jesus spoke to a first-century culture that still believed God required and delighted in the blood sacrifice of animals, though by the time the Gospel-writer John put these words on parchment, the temple had been shut down, obliterated by the Roman emperor’s army as the final blow to the Jewish movement to free Israel. Ceremonial cultic blood sacrifice was a thing of the past by John’s time. By then, for Jews and Christians alike, worship was centered in homes around kitchen tables and in upper rooms for fellowship among neighboring households.

For Jews and Christians, worship was intimately related to mealtimes. The defining ceremony for Christians melded the Jewish Passover supper with all that Jesus did with that liturgy to convey the great and steadfast love of God in the present moment—not just in one historical moment, but now.

But he isn’t describing here the sacramental act of eating the bread and drinking the wine of the eucharist. He digs deeper, into the heart of what that last supper means. His flesh and blood is what God chose to enter and occupy in the Incarnation. In Jesus’s flesh it is God who washes the feet of the disciples, even the treacherous one. The pulsing of Jesus’s blood through the chambers of God’s pure compassion always sustains our Lord’s reach to touch the sick with healing and the obsessed with freedom.

To eat the flesh and drink the blood of Jesus is to want God, to need God with the earnestness of young Solomon. It is to take into ourselves the matter of God on the frontier where divine Spirit must meet our flesh, right in our gut. It is to say, God, we cannot manage our day to day life without you. We’ve tried, and it doesn’t work.

It is, to quote the writer to the Ephesians, being careful—full of care—how we live, as wise people making the most of the time, choosing to be filled with the Spirit that dwells in the flesh and knows how to guide and inspire from within.

We are what we eat. Let it be God. Let it be what is good. Paraphrasing Jesus in his sermon that mentions Solomon, our daily diet will result in either an anxious heart or a grateful one, isolation or communion, pointlessness or mission.

In the vortex of political campaigning swirling around us more and more intensely, we are being asked to swallow a lot, much of it fibs and nonsense. We need the antidote of eating the flesh and drinking the blood of the Prince of Peace, the King of kings, the way, the truth, the life, the Word made flesh.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Members One of Another in a World Going Mad

Scripture for the 11th Sunday after Pentecost includes II Samuel 18:5-9, 15, 31-33; Psalm 130; Ephesians 4:25-5:2; John 6:35, 41-51

We’re nearing the end of King David’s saga. Today we hear and feel the raw pain of a father’s grief. You may recall that the prophet Nathan, many years before this, confronted David in his moral collapse when he stooped to arrange the convenient death of his loyal soldier Uriah so as to take to himself Uriah’s wife Bathsheba. Nathan foretold future anguish for David, rising from the mess he had made of things. Today’s portion shows very dark storm clouds rolling in.

There is civil war, David’s grip on his kingdom threatened, and his own son Absalom has joined the rebels. We witness a slaughter in the forest of Ephraim, and in the course of that mayhem Absalom is trapped, caught in the limbs of a great oak. It’s such a bizarre incident: it’s as if the mule Absalom rides colludes with the oaks (remember how the Bible uses that tree as a symbol of righteousness), as if nature itself defies the treasonous Absalom. No mercy is shown him as David’s men arrive on the scene.

David has been torn between the demands of his kingship and the reality of his indelible love for this hotheaded son. David’s heart is torn open by this news from the front. As we’ve seen before, the royal house of David is not the House of Windsor. There’s no hiding behind a stiff upper lip here. David is plunged deep in grief. He expresses what has been felt by many parents in anguish after the death of a child: “Would I had died instead of you, my son…”

It is out of this deep dark place that today’s first lesson speaks. The psalmist echoes the theme: “Out of the depths have I called to you, O Lord; Lord, hear my voice.” Tradition ascribes authorship of the psalms to David (though that’s taken with a grain of salt, much like claiming Moses to be the author of the first five books of the Bible). The salt on these verses is the residue of bitter tears, and whether or not they bear David’s DNA, they echo his pain.

In our long summer of senseless mayhem, and with sacred texts like these, perhaps our own pain can be laid open. Was it just two Sundays ago that we were reeling from the slaughter in a movie theater in Colorado? Then, last Sunday, Sikh worshipers were targeted in a brutal assault in their temple in Wisconsin.

This latest shooting suggests a similarity to King David’s plight. Perhaps we too are witnessing a civil war, a torn union. In our present moment, the rebels are not well organized. But while Aurora shooter James Holmes seemed to be a deranged individual, Wade Michael Page appears to have been a committed and highly networked White supremacist, a frustrated neo-Nazi , an American who felt compelled to take action to save his country from perceived threat.

He played in bands called Blue Eyed Devils and Definite Hate, and in 2005 created a group called End Apathy. The BBC reported that in 2010 Page talked about the lyrics of the songs he wrote, songs about how “the value of human life has been degraded by being submissive to tyranny and hypocrisy…” As vague as that sounds, Page’s lyrics are precise in their reference to killing Jews, black people, gay people, and minorities. He apparently longed for a racial holy war.

Like Holmes, Page’s style was one of a lone ranger; but Page’s background makes it clear that his action was the outbreak of a movement, not so much, as with Holmes, the breakdown of a human being. When authorities spoke of this incident as domestic terrorism, they used language that suggests a guerrilla war in which Page was both commanding officer and foot soldier. His vision of what this nation should be was not the isolated view of one person. He represented many more.

White Supremacy is active in many other nations. Other brands of ethnic supremacy spawn guerrilla violence in yet more countries. In worst cases on this fragile earth governments sponsor ethnic cleansing—and seem to get away with it with impunity. From a God’s-eye perspective, the human race is in civil war against itself.

Some years ago, you may remember seeing the billboards of a religious ad campaign. One memorable display, white letters against a black background, bore this quote, allegedly from God: “Don’t make me come down there…”

Given the role that religion often plays in ethnic supremacy-- distorted religion, extremist religion, ignorant religion—such a threat of violence from God, even if tongue-in-cheek, would fit right into a world going mad.

Which is why the Christian Gospel needs to be heard clearly and creatively. Imagining God looking out onto our world of strife, Madeleine L’Engle gave us her version of what God might have said.

“In my mind’s ear I can hear God saying to God, ‘Can I do it? Do I love them that much? Can I leave my galaxies, my solar systems, can I leave the hydrogen clouds and the birthing of stars and the journeyings of comets, can I leave all that I have made, give it all up, and become a tiny, unknowing seed in the belly of a young girl? Do I love them that much? Do I have to do that in order to show them what it is to be human?’

L’Engle answers that question: “Yes! The answer on our part is a grateful Alleluia! Amen! God so loved the world that he sent his only begotten son…”

And our Gospel today sums up his global mission: “The bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”

Our mission, in a nation rife with divisions and in a world gone mad, is expressed perfectly in our reading from Ephesians.

Put away falsehood. Speak the truth to all neighbors, make clear that we know that we and they are members one of another.

Let our message build up and give grace to those who hear, dispelling rather than feeding anger.

And this in an election year: Put away all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another as you have been forgiven by God.

Imitate God as beloved children.

This mission, this code of holy behavior, rises from Christ’s self-offering but is spacious enough that it shares much common ground with other religions, and offers a radically gracious vision to counter toxic worldviews that tear people apart.

For we are members one of another.

So we remember six beloved children of God, and tell the truth that, as far away as Oak Creek, Wisconsin, is from the Berkshires, and however like and unlike St. John’s Church is to the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin, out of the painful depths of this violence we affirm that these six people were our neighbors.

Satwant Singh Kaleka, 65, temple president who was shot as he tried to fend off the shooter with a butter knife.

Ranjit Singh, 49, and his 41-year-old brother, Sita Singh, two priests whose families were back in India and whose lives in America revolved around their faith.

Suveg Singh Khattra, 84, a former farmer in India who was a constant presence at the temple.

Prakash Singh, 39, a priest who was remembered as a fun-loving personality who enjoyed telling jokes.

Paramjit Kaur, 41 who worked 66 hours a week to provide for her family, but also found time to pray every day for at least an hour.

We are indeed members one of another.

In that unity, we are called to use the tools of peace to disarm those who want civil war, ethnic war, racial war. Those tools of peace include safeguarding rights of all to religious assembly, respecting the rights of all to freedom of conscience and speech, achieving intelligent gun control, fostering interfaith relationship to dispel fear, and education to detoxify prejudice.

And because foot-soldiers of ethnic war are also our neighbors, understanding what motivates them is among our responsibilities in a civil society, where all are members one of another in a world that all too often appears to be going mad.

(Madeleine L'Engle's words are taken from her "Penguins and Golden Calves".)

Follow Your Reality

Scripture for the 10th Sunday after Pentecost includes II Samuel 11:26-12:13a; Psalm 51; Ephesians 4:1-16; John 6:24-35

Our summer cycle of stories about King David is hard for a preacher to avoid speaking about. I mean, it’s tough to steer around this material—it’s so raw and compelling. For those of you who are tiring of this reality series, it has just two more episodes after today.

David’s story illustrates the adage that power corrupts. Back when the prophet Samuel had the task of anointing a king for Israel, David didn’t have a place even in the primaries. You remember how all his brothers passed before Samuel, but the prophet recognized no spark of inspiration in their eyes until he met the youngest, who was living the humblest life of them all, a shepherd tending his father’s flock. Instantly, David was chosen.

But by the time we meet him today as King, he is sorely compromised. He has let a great gulf settle in between himself and his people, between himself and God, between himself and the truth. That distance marks the trajectory of his ethical collapse.

And he hits bottom today in his encounter with another of Israel’s great ancient prophets, Nathan. Nathan tells David what may be the first and oldest parable in the Bible. It is a story compressed as hard as diamond, pressed by truth.

Every animal lover, anyone who has ever had a soulmate in a cat or a dog (or a lamb), laps up this parable, fully gets it on an emotional level, a spiritual level, and certainly on the level of social injustice.

So does David. That’s a sign of hope, isn’t it? “As the Lord lives, the man who has done this deserves to die!” David explodes.

In fact, what explodes is the lie that David has believed, that there was a vast moral gulf between himself and any rich man who could exploit his advantage as did the fellow in Nathan’s parable.

“You are the man!” cries Nathan.

To quote Pogo Possum, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”

It is in that spirit that we have recited the penitential Psalm 51. We are here not to point the finger at David, but to let his story resonate in our own—probably less dramatic—betrayals and failings.

The silver lining in this story is David’s repentance. This is a story of what the Greeks called “metanoia”, turning about, conversion, remorse leading to a changed mind and heart, renewal in the ever-new embrace of God. Since it is a Hebrew story, it conveys the sense that sinning against a compatriot is also sinning against God, an awareness that such a betrayal does not happen when one is in right relationship with God—therefore what needs changing, renewing, is relationship with God.

In keeping with ancient Hebrew thought, times of national defeat and disgrace were marked with the silver lining of a call to repentance. So David hears Nathan describe the peculiar terms of David’s coming public shaming, and recognizes it is time to take responsibility… and repent. He is still the King. And now he is to become Israel’s King who fell, and rose again.

In that respect, paradoxically, David is a precursor of the Christ. Though the Christ would fall, not under the burden of his own sin, but under the sins of the world. He would fall, not because of any falsehood in himself, but because the church of his time and the civil government of his time were so far from the welfare of their people and so distant from the compassion and mercy of God.

The falling of the Christ would lead to the rising of the Christ, and the author of the Letter to the Ephesians writes, in language that sounds like both creed and praise, how this dying and rising is to fill all creation with his Spirit and his gifts. That Spirit and those gifts, in partnership with our commitment to speak the truth in love, will cause the whole Body of the renewed creation to grow and build itself in love.

How central in our relationship with God is Jesus Christ. Central to us, and central to God. God has centered God’s self in Jesus Christ. You and I are becoming centered in Christ beginning with baptism and opening more and more, day by day. That centering and opening is not just a result of our daily practice; it is primarily the work of the Holy Spirit, who may be well at work even when we may not be much impressed by our own centeredness or openness.

As central as the Christ is, our Gospel today illustrates how far from that mark we can get. The setting of this story is that rolling hillside where Jesus took five fish and two barley loaves, belonging to a little boy and offered with a disciple’s comment, “But what are they among so many?” What Jesus did with them is known to imitate the Eucharistic action: he took, he blessed, he broke, he gave. What happened next is largely unknown, except for the Church’s recollection that there were many leftovers. This is a story told consciously to remind the Church (and teach the world) that we have a God of superabundant love, One who repeats in daily life the archetypal wonder of sending manna from heaven.

But notice how today’s narrative begins. The people who remained after the feeding suddenly realized that Jesus was not there. We get the sense that they simply hadn’t been paying much attention to him, once they’d had their lunch. They lingered at the site, as if hoping that on the heels of such a wonder, another would come. So they kept their eyes on the disciples (who had organized them prior to their windfall meal), but they saw no movement among the twelve and didn’t think to notice where Jesus himself was— there were still lots of people milling about on that hillside, and besides (yawn) they were sleepy after such a meal and it was siesta time.

But the real reason, as he tells them later, is that he could slip away unnoticed because they just didn’t get it, that the feeding was a sign from God that they are to find their deepest feeding in him, the Son of Man, the Christ, and on him they were to set their hope and fix their attention, and keep up with him when he moves.

The abundant life is enjoyed in closeness to him. He is central to relationship with God. Allowing a gulf to open and widen between ourselves and him is to risk the loss of our passion, our compassion, and our sense of right and wrong. Losing track of Jesus is to lose our supply, our sustenance, and our part in building up the whole Body of the renewed creation.

Writing about the Olympics, New Yorker critic Louis Menand says that, “The motto of athletic competition should not be ‘Follow your dream.’ It should be ‘Follow your reality.’”

That observation comes from Menand’s discovering the hard way that as a five-foot-something teenager he might not be cut out to become the next Houdini of the Hardwood, like his idol, Bob Cousy of the Boston Celtics. Painfully, Menand came to realize that achievement in sports complies with the laws of physics. “You can dedicate your life to the sport, but, if you are under six feet tall and weigh less than two hundred pounds, you are never going to throw the discus seventy metres. The motto of athletic competition should not be ‘Follow your dream.” It should be ‘Follow your reality.’”

That comment may highlight the contrast between our two stories today, one about the King, the other about the Christ.

Imagining he could erase the distance between his own royal rooftop and that of his neighbor Uriah, David gained Bathsheba in his bed but lost his soul and, by his own treachery, lost his valiant soldier Uriah, and with that loss lost also the approval of God. All this in the name of following a shepherd boy’s dream of someday having everything.

A dream is followed in our second story, too. Those who have tasted the goodness of God have stayed on, hoping not so much for God but for more magic. And if this Jesus could serve up bread and fish out of seemingly nothing, why, he might turn copper to gold and Israel’s helplessness under Roman occupation into a bloodbath of retribution.

Instead, they—and we—are called to repent of some of our dreams, and follow our reality, utilize and offer who we are and what we have, practice, train, develop the gifts we’ve been given. What we are cut out for by our baptism is to follow Jesus closely, to grow into maturity, into the measure of the full stature of Christ.

So it is in another sense also that we are to follow our reality, Jesus Christ, in whom all the fullness of God has come to dwell, in whom we all have been planted, like seeds, to grow up in love.