Monday, March 31, 2014

Facing Reality, Facing the Future

Scripture for the 4th Sunday in Lent includes I Samuel 16:1-13; Ephesians 5:8-14; John 9:1-41. This poem opened our service, that morning:


Mind in its purest play is like some bat
That beats about in caverns all alone,
Contriving by a kind of senseless wit
Not to conclude against a wall of stone.

It has no need to falter or explore;
Darkly it knows what obstacles are there,
And so may weave and flitter, dip and soar
In perfect courses through the blackest air.

And has this simile a like perfection?
The mind is like a bat. Precisely. Save
That in the very happiest intellection
A graceful error may correct the cave.

Richard Wilbur, New and Collected Poems
Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1998

The fourth Sunday in Lent is nicknamed Refreshment Sunday. As if, midway through this penitential season, we need to kick back, lighten up, and start rehearsing for Easter.

Whatever I might have imagined preaching on, this Sunday, is at least partially eclipsed by the news that has shaken us all in the North County, the closing of North Adams Regional Hospital. I say “partially eclipsed” because I see a couple of ways in which our readings may help us look directly at that difficult decision and its impact. So by the end of this sermon I trust we’ll have had not just current events, but some recollection of scripture.

But for sure, and first, I want to revisit Richard Wilbur’s poem, which he entitles “Mind”. He says that the mind “in its purest play is like some bat that beats about in caverns…” using a “senseless wit not to conclude against a wall of stone.”

The poet isn’t describing the mind only in its thinking function: he says “Mind in its purest play,” to include the whole of its functioning, not just the cerebral cortex that sits enthroned on the mammalian brain, which is atop the reptilian brain, but all those layers, their instincts, the wits we have with and without such senses as sight and hearing. The poet holds the bat in high regard: “It has no need to falter or explore; darkly it knows what obstacles are there, and so may weave and flitter, dip and soar in perfect courses through the blackest air.”

You might even say that a bat navigates far more impressively and successfully than human beings do, even with our global positioning devices (if we’ve learned how to use them). The bat in our poem beats about alone: put two or three human beings in a car, and though they face in one direction, they’ll find it tempting to argue what direction to go in next.

How perfect is this simile: “The mind is like a bat”? In this one way it’s an imprecise comparison: “that in the very happiest intellection a graceful error may correct the cave.”

I don’t know what Richard Wilbur means there. If you do, I’ll look forward to hearing your theory later. But I can’t help wondering if he doesn’t mean to remind us of the allegory of the cave in Plato’s “Republic”. Here’s a pithy little description of that allegory, straight from Wikipedia:

“Plato has Socrates describe a collection of people who have lived chained to the wall of a cave all of their lives, facing a blank wall. The people watch shadows projected on the wall by things passing in front of a fire behind them, and begin to assign names to these shadows. The shadows are as close as the prisoners get to viewing reality. Socrates then explains how the philosopher is like a prisoner who is freed from the cave and comes to understand that the shadows on the wall do not make up reality at all, as he can perceive the true form of reality rather than the mere shadows seen by the prisoners.”

Correcting the cave, reorienting perception within the cave, revealing what is real and true from what is distorted and false, all this is the work of the philosopher, the one who dares break his or her captivity, and turning, turning, comes round right and becomes the truth teller.

So let’s consider the image of the cave. An engulfing crisis (the closing of our hospital, for instance) can feel like a cave, dark, foreboding, confusing, threatening, and while the fire in the cave may give light and warmth, we’re probably not facing it: more likely, our eyes are glued to our ipads, as we search the news sites for… news, with all its shadows and distortions.

Things are not necessarily what they seem. That’s true in Plato’s cave, and it’s true at that ritual gathering at Bethlehem, where the prophet Samuel was looking to anoint the next king of Israel and had before him all the sons of Jesse—all save one, the youngest, the cocky one, the boy Jesse was hoping to train by setting him out to keep the sheep. The Lord God of hosts whispered nothing in Samuel’s ear as each of the more impressive accomplished sons of Jesse filed by, the men in suits, holding their smart phones; but when ruddy David appeared, the Lord said to Samuel, “Rise and anoint him: this is the one.” This scripture calls us to recollect that things are not necessarily what they seem.

That insight is worth keeping as a balancing influence as we ride the waves of the hospital closing. We value transparency in our institutions, but an equally important piece of the puzzle is that we pay attention, keep learning, and, recognizing that the process of sensitive negotiations cannot be turned into public discourse, trust our trustees to have done their very best in a dire situation. Unlike most of us, they have seen the whole picture: not the shadows on the walls, but the real situation.

While seeing is the evident theme of our Gospel today, notice how it vies with another theme: blaming. “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” ask Jesus’s disciples. The disciples! Not the Pharisees or the Sadducees, but Team Jesus. Talk about being chained to a wall: that attitude perpetuates and aggravates the suffering of those who are already suffering. If this blind man in John’s Gospel is blind by some sort of retributive justice wielded by God, what a perfect excuse to abandon him to his isolation and do nothing to help him. Before he can touch and heal this man, Jesus must demolish a theology that is chained to the cave wall.

There is another insight worth holding as a balancing influence as we experience the tension rippling out from the closing of our hospital. Blame, fed by what people don’t see, don’t understand, blame chains people to the wall of their cave. I believe Mayor Alcombright set the right course when he said, last Wednesday, that he will not waste his energy dwelling on why things happened as they did, when every ounce of his attention is needed to find new solutions.

I want to end by sharing with you some of what I have seen, this week.

More North County clergy gathered for one purpose than I have ever seen in the past—evidence, I hope, that this crisis will teach and require our eleven communities to work as one community, more than ever before.

At First Baptist Church in North Adams Thursday evening, in a congregation with sixteen of its members grieving at the loss of their jobs at the hospital, a prayer vigil was held. Chief among its themes was thankfulness for the truly remarkable personal care for which North Adams Regional was rightly known and justly proud. Praying was intense, as Pastor Dave Anderson invited us to consider the needs of so many.

Walking back to my car around 8:00 p.m., my eye was drawn to the TD bank building, where all the lights were on and crowds of people were lined up, cashing their final paychecks issued just a few hours earlier.

Just a few days earlier, some of those nurses and aides, housekeepers and doctors, had generously, graciously cared for one of our parishioners and his family, during his final days. I saw that hospital staff circle the wagons around this family, anticipating their needs and going well beyond ordinary expectations to ease the way.

This kind of extraordinary care we’ve all seen at this hospital, and it’s frightening to imagine our future without it.

Yet we know that all human institutions and communities go through cycles that embrace decline as well as growth, death as well as birth. As people who believe in the redeeming transforming love of God in Jesus Christ, we believe that the human cycle, by the grace of God, is embraced by resurrection. On Easter Day, God corrects the cave.

In that greater cycling, death precedes resurrection. Unless we die, resurrection cannot get hold of us. Martin Smith says in his Lenten book “A Season for the Spirit”, “In the end the Spirit will recruit the disintegrating power of death to break us up enough to be remade whole…”

We pray that resurrection get hold of us here in the North County. We pray for grace and courage to accept the death of the old order at North Adams Regional Hospital, and so free ourselves to find good solutions.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Jesus Needs

Scripture for the 3rd Sunday in Lent includes Exodus 17:1-7; Romans 5:1-11; John 4:5-42

Spring is springing. I know, some of you want more evidence of the claim. O ye of little faith… So consider the following proof that Spring has come:

The goldfinches at our feeders, like the leaf buds on the willow trees, are turning gold.

Bird-song in our yards and fields and woods is turning operatic, the crooners are crooning and those being courted are fanning the flames.

Friday, I saw a crow pumping his way through the air above the student union, a long tuft of grass clamped in his beak, heading from his avian Home Depot to build that nest.

And most of our students are gone, so it must be Spring.

The evidence that spoke to my soul was that crow. Seeing him rise with purloined college property reminded me that we aren’t the only species enjoying the results of our gardens. Watching his determination navigating that beakful I was reminded of the raven Noah sent out from the ark, forty days after that great rescue vessel had come to rest on Mount Ararat: that bird “went to and fro until the waters were dried up from the earth.”

And we think we’ve had a tough winter.

Water, water everywhere in the Book of Genesis, but not a drop to drink, there in the wilderness along the Sinai desert, says the Book of Exodus. On Easter Eve, we will hear the dramatic rescue God achieved for the Hebrew slaves escaping from Egypt; but today we fast-forward to the tough going that followed, when those refugees quarreled with Moses, demanding to know what he would do about their lack of water. What kind of spring break was this, that their lives might be in peril for lack of foresight by the tour management?

In the companion story from John’s Gospel we see Jesus, tired out by his own long desert journey, sitting down by an historic well near the Samaritan city of Sychar. Like the Hebrew refugees encamped at Rephidim, Jesus sits right above a source of water. Like his ancestors, Jesus lacks the tool he needs to get that water. He has no bucket.

I guess you could say that in the Exodus story, Moses has the tool needed to raise that water: his miraculous staff, straight from Hogwarts. But the way the Exodus story reads, the tool the refugees lack is faith, trust in God, confidence in Moses: Their situation matches those words we spoke in today’s collect: they had no power in themselves to help themselves. Well, they did, but they squandered it by their quarreling, their complaining; it seeped through the tightly-gripped fingers of their anxiety. They were powerless, helpless through their incessant blaming of Moses, their inner pool of responsibility evaporated.

By contrast, Jesus is not short on faith, trust, and confidence. But he puts himself quite purposefully into a helpless mode, sitting by a deep well with no bucket. Jesus needs. Jesus needs help. He has power in himself to help himself—recall those intense temptations he met and mastered in the desert—but he chooses to set up shop dead center in the human experience. As St. Paul puts it today, “For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly… while we still were sinners, Christ died for us.” This Savior is not revealed as a take-charge sort of guy. He gets the point about voluntary vulnerability. Heaven knows how long he was sitting there, before a Samaritan woman arrives. He wasn’t doing it for effect. He needed. He needed help. And he willingly saw the waiting as part of the providence of God.

We know that this story sounded in the first century a lot kinkier than it does to us. “Oh, good, here comes a Samaritan woman,” we may say, with all our enlightened naivete. In fact, this encounter occurs along a razor blade of judgment and scorn. The first sign of this is in the words of the woman herself: “How is it that you, a Jewish preacher type, ask a drink of me, obviously a woman, and, in case you hadn’t noticed, a resident of Samaria?” Our patron St. John, wielding his stylus, edits the moment: “Traditionally, Jews and Samaritans don’t share their toys and tools (sort of like Episcopalians and Methodists, with that sloppy schism back in the 18th century, or Episcopalians and Roman Catholics, split asunder by a bloody Reformation).” And then, hello, aren’t the culture police watching as you, a man, speak publicly to me, a woman?

Jesus needs. Jesus needs help. God needs Jesus to occupy this forbidden ground for the sake of reconciliation.

The woman’s story is, as you’ll have noticed, a long one, a complicated one. Five husbands, and (no wonder) she’s no longer quite so interested in marrying her current significant other. This history suggests additional layers of judgmentalism she may fall prey to. And additional reason why God needs Jesus to be right where he is, and as he is, for the work of reconciling love to move forward.

She becomes an apostle to the Samaritans. But notice how even they, her own kinsmen, dismiss her at the end: “It is no longer because of what you said that we believe this Jesus is the Messiah, for we have heard him ourselves (and everyone knows a woman cannot be trusted as a dependable witness)…” Nyah, nyah, nyah… Plenty of people were prepared to call her a sinner. The Gospel of John our patron presents her as an apostle.

That’s one way this story turns everything on its head. Remember the other: for that apostle to have been called, Jesus had to need, had to be powerless a while to create the terms under which they would meet. For the Church to grow, for the kingdom of God to increase, for alienation to give way to reconciliation, Jesus needs… Jesus needs us… Needs us to reconsider the nature of powerlessness, how it may be the holy ground, the vulnerable condition, the way, the truth, the life in which we may meet reconciling love, and help it happen.

Gun Violence Prevention Sabbath 2014

Scripture for the 2nd Sunday in Lent includes Genesis 12:1-4a; Romans 4:1-5, 13-17; John 3:1-17

When it comes to gun violence, we discover a sinister side to American exceptionalism.

The average annual number of gun homicides in Japan is 50. Germany fewer than 150, a range that holds true for Italy and France as well. Canada, fewer than 200.

Combine those rates and there are about 700 gun homicides yearly, grouping all five of these countries whose combined populations equal just over two-thirds of America’s.

In the United States, the average annual number of gun homicides exceeds 10,000 people. Counting suicides, self-defense, law-enforcement and accidental shootings, more than 30,000 people are killed by firearms yearly. Half of them are between the ages of 18 and 35. One third are under the age of 20.

There’s no mistaking the fact that a disproportionate number of victims of our glut of guns are young.

And glut is the right word. 283 million guns are in civilian hands, a number that grows by 4.5 million annually. On the bright side, the percentage of American households with a gun has been steadily declining (from 54% in 1977 to 33% in 2009). On the troubling side, the average number of guns per owner has increased from 4.1 in 1994 to 6.9 in 2004.

When it comes to gun control, it seems as if there are two very different Americas. Nothing has brought that home to me better than a recent op ed piece by Patt Morrison, writing in the Los Angeles Times this past Tuesday. Hear what she wrote.

“What would Jesus shoot?

Some churches in Kentucky and in upstate New York are doing what it takes to get people into the pews to hear the word of God — and in their neck of the woods, that means giving away guns.

The flier for the raffle at Grace Baptist Church, in Troy, N.Y., shows an AR-15 — an assault rifle altered to make it legal in that state — with a quote from the gospel of St. John, “My peace I give unto you.” It isn’t spelled “piece,” but it could have been.

The church's pastor, John Koletas, told the Albany Times Union, “I’m just trying to be a blessing and a help to the gun owners and the hunters and give away a free AR-15. It’s the right thing to do.”

In Kentucky, where gun giveaways happen in some churches just about every week, a free raffle of 25 guns by Paducah's Lone Oak First Baptist Church got about 1,300 people into the church hall for a steak dinner and a pep talk by a gun fancier named Chuck McAlister who’s been hired by Kentucky’s Southern Baptists to help boost congregations by evangelizing — in this case, about guns and sin and Jesus.

A good number of those 1,300 may not wind up in the pews on Sunday morning; a lot of them go to other churches. And there was no Sermon on the Mount, with its remark about the blessed peacemakers, to generate big applause; it was McAlister displaying his grandfather’s gun and saying, "There's no government on the face of this Earth that has the right to take this gun from me.”

Sunday school teacher David Keele told NPR that the church was accomplishing two things: “One, we're going to talk about the 2nd Amendment to bear arms. But that isn't the primary thing. The primary thing is who Jesus is.": And Jesus, in the form of a stack of Bibles, is right there alongside the display of donated guns — but the Bibles, as NPR pointed out, will cost you money.

Tom Jackson isn’t a regular churchgoer, but he showed up for the Kentucky raffle, saying what many say when they’re asked about why they need guns: “If somebody kicks your door down, means to hurt your wife, your kids, you — how do you turn the other cheek to that?”

But there are a lot of things to defend your family against, and a lot of other ways to defend them apart from what comes out of the barrel of a gun.

There’s defending them from illiteracy and sickness. So are there churches in New York or Kentucky, or churches anywhere, raffling off a year’s worth of healthcare coverage, or $500 savings bonds for a child’s education?

Eighty-nine years ago, an adman named Bruce Barton, who co-founded the renowned advertising company BBD&O, wrote a book that proclaimed Jesus to be “the world’s greatest business executive,” and “the founder of modern business.” That Jesus would have understood the principle behind getting people in the door — by loaves and fishes, but probably not by Smith & Wesson.”

I have an idea. Let’s not raffle anything. With the bishop we have, as committed to preventing gambling as he is to preventing gun violence, raffles don’t face a bright future in Western Massachusetts.

Just as well. Let’s keep providing good things—goods and services to those who need them, good services rooted in the challenging culture of the kingdom of God—and rather than try to attract people by appealing to their acquisitive nature, let’s appeal to their inquisitive nature.

And to guard against any holier-than-the-Baptists attitude that I might have unintentionally encouraged this morning, let me say that one of the very best online resources I could find in preparing for today is the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America. I doubt the folks at Grace Church in Troy align themselves with that branch of the Baptist tree.

There are two Americas, when it comes to guns and gun control. That division runs right through communities, denominations, and families. Perhaps it’s more accurate to say that there’s a third America as well, uncommitted, unpersuaded, disengaged. This first Gun Violence Prevention Sabbath is an effort to get dialogue opened among all Americans, for the reconciliation of differences, the discovery of common ground, and an end to the exceptionally high incidence of gun violence that threatens our future.

(Patt Morrison’s article, “Guns for Jesus: Churches fill their pews with weapons giveaways” appeared in the March 11, 2014 issue of the Los Angeles Times.)

Monday, March 17, 2014

Angels Come

Scripture for the 1st Sunday in Lent includes Genesis 2:15-17, 3:1-7; Romans 5:12-19; Matthew 4:1-11

The opening words of our worship today came from priest and poet Michael Hudson, writing about our Lord’s temptations in the desert. Hudson structures his poem by opening each stanza with the most familiar words we know about the subject of temptation: “Lead us not into…”, a phrase he lifts from the tool-kit of prayer that Jesus gave his disciples, the Lord’s Prayer. On the hook of this repeated phrase, Hudson hangs three comments.

First, the way the tempter works is “to bend us from the way that is open to the promise and the purpose of each day.”

Second, the tempter comes enticing, spinning visions of an easy journey. By contrast, “Wisdom knows an easy journey is the devil’s sweetest lie.”

Third, in spite of “lead us not,” Jesus points us toward the desert “with its devils, well aware God is sending better angels on the wind to join us there.”

The poet’s comments on temptation are worth considering more closely. At the root of the word “religion” is “religare”, to tie back—as in staking a sapling so it will grow true. So too, religion trains us to grow towards God. The tempter bends us from, distorts, binds us to negatives, not positives. The tempter has, actually, little to offer us: the promise and purpose of the day are not his to give, but he’s intent on depriving us of having what God has invested in the new day. The tempter distracts us—or contracts us—from being open to the day.

The day, of course, like every day, will not be simple. It will have its own complexities, and people of faith know that God is just as present and active in the difficult passages as in the simpler gifts. By contrast, the tempter persuades us to take what he promises to be an easy journey; but that promise is made of “spinning visions in the sky”, what the poet calls “the devil’s sweetest lie.”

God who works through what challenges us keeps calling us to our deserts because they are such valuable frontiers, workshops, laboratories for discovering priorities and values and goals. In our deserts, we are required to choose what we believe and trust to be our best choices, recognizing that our lives depend on best choices from among the many that we may face.

Perhaps it’s that desert sand that reminds me of the sandpaper at the carpenter’s bench, where we are the wood in this prayer from the Iona Community: “O Christ, the Master Carpenter, who at the last, through wood and nails, purchased our whole salvation, wield well your tools in the workshop of your world, so that we who come rough-hewn to your bench may here be fashioned to a truer beauty of your hand.”

For me, the take-away message from our Gospel today is that when we are at our most vulnerable in the thick of particular temptation, we may feel alone, locked in argument with whatever is tempting us, isolation that may terrify us. But the truth is heard in Matthew’s final words: “Then the devil left Jesus, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.”

If we will recognize and welcome them, we will discover angels of mercy, companions on the way, fellow-tempteds who have something to teach us, fellow travelers who might like to learn from our experiences.

That was no hollow claim, as I read this Gospel to a dear couple in the parish, last week, when I brought communion to their home, where one of these partners is declining (or inclining) towards death. Their children had come and gone, the previous weekend; every day, two or three friends come to visit (different two or three, from day to day), and many phone calls come, including oldest friends and distant relatives.

There must be moments when it’s tempting to believe we’re alone in our extremes of weakness or suffering or doubt or despair. But, if recognized and welcomed, angels come.

(Michael Hudson’s poem, “Meditation for Matthew 4:1-11,” is found in “Songs for the Cycle: Fresh Hymn Texts,” Church Publishing, 2004.)