Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Have You Understood All This?

Scripture for the 7th Sunday after Pentecost includes Genesis 29:15-28; Romans 8:26-39; Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

“’Have you understood all this?” The twelve disciples answered, ‘Yes.’”

Really? Since when? Aren’t these the very same slow wits who waited until the crowds had left before admitting to Jesus that they just didn’t get the meaning of all those parables he was telling? And that’s on occasions when he told just one parable (like the sower and seed, heard two Sundays ago, and last Sunday’s parable of the weeds and the wheat): this time he lets loose five little parables. And they have understood all this?

My take is that their Yes means really No, as in No we don’t understand a word of it—and as long as those vengeful angels are hovering overhead we’d just as soon avoid them, please… send them away!

Perhaps they understood some of these five little parablettes. But Barbara Brown Taylor, in her book “Learning to Walk in the Dark”, puts this business of understanding in perspective: “’If you have understood, then what you have understood is not God,’ Saint Augustine said in the fourth century. Sixteen hundred years later, the Northern Irish theologian Peter Rollins says the same thing with equal force. God is an event, he says, ‘not a fact to be grasped but an incoming to be undergone.’”

The nature of a parable is that there’s something surprising about it, something that makes you scratch your head and wonder what the story really says, what the figures of speech might mean. And it’s not as if there’s just one meaning: for all their brevity, parables are roomy little places and the view through one window in the room might be quite different from the perspective through another.

One surprise is that in these five little cameos, each uses a material object to talk about spiritual experience. A seed, a spore, a treasure, a pearl, a net. Is this the tool kit you would assemble if you were an itinerant preacher?

Sure, if they match your audience; and Galilee was rural country occupied by farmers and fishermen and their families. Oh, and they were dirt poor. No material wealth, but Jesus finds a wealth of matter to use in order to speak to poor farmers and fishermen and their spouses and children. He knew what he was doing, not just announcing the kingdom of God but practicing its credo that things are to be used and people are to be loved—quite the opposite of the kingdoms of this world, in which things are loved and people used.

And notice how Jesus’s parables pose increasing degrees of challenge. The mustard seed and the yeast spore get us recognizing that God gives the growth: neither requires much from the human beings who scatter the seed or mix in the yeast. Does this represent entry-level Christianity? Discipleship 101?

But then come those two more complex sketches: Someone finds treasure hidden in a field, then checks with his local realtor and, joy of joys, finds the field is for sale (well, not for long!) but it takes selling all he owns to purchase that field.

The companion piece to that sketch is another, of a merchant dealing in pearls, discovering one that is so valuable he just has to have it. He too, like the last fellow, must sell everything he has to own this pearl. In the progression of faith, this represents commitment, sealing the deal, owning the gift.

So far, in his first two parables Jesus invites our awareness that ordinary everyday life is underwritten by amazing grace, matter imbued with the power to grow. Then, in his next two parables he invites our recognition that what is worth most to us requires that we choose it. (After decades of praying, I know nothing better, when praying for people, than to pray that they see and take their best choices, and avoid their worst.) And what is most worth our treasuring and our valuing above all else? Another way of asking that: What deserves our worth-ship… our worship?

Can you feel the escalating of challenge here? To each of the twelve men he called to accompany him in his itinerant preaching journeys, he said something along the lines of, “Come, follow me…” And while he wasn’t yet rocking the boat enough to summon women into that road trip (law and culture forbade that), it was just a matter of time before the apostolic band would include Mary and Martha of Bethany, and Mary Magdalene, and more… for his parables speak to everyone, including us.

And yet they aren’t about us. They are about the kingdom of God. They aren’t about self-improvement: they describe the incursion of God into human life, the ongoing transformation of a me-and-mine-first world into what St. Paul calls “a large family” presided over and shaped by Jesus Christ, the firstborn of many who have come to know themselves as children of God. In his powerful little sayings he calls us to welcome in our hearts daily the eternally shifting paradigm from the old way, in dread of an angry God whom we could never satisfy, to the Spirit who helps us in our weakness, searches and knows us and calls us into intimate gracious inseparable union with God in Christ.

Probably best not to say much about understanding this divine call. Rather, hearing and obeying this call is what matters. The Bible makes clear that this call will come in a still small voice, one that grows on us, one that must be listened for in order to be heard. Hence the mustard seed and the yeast and the hidden treasure.

The hidden treasure and the exceptional pearl express this choosing to listen. And what about the net that catches fish of every kind? Remember how he says to his recent recruits from the fishermen along the Sea of Galilee, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.”

So the net is the Word, the message of the nearness of the Kingdom of God, the call to choose to follow, to belong, to serve, to lead.

Parables Jesus has told earlier in Matthew—parables we’ve heard on the past two Sundays-- support the idea that the Word that Jesus embodies is going to land on people differently (that was the parable of the sower and the seed), but all who hear the Word are given opportunity to yield a harvest for God. And yielding is the whole point. Becoming part of God’s great chain of self-giving is what the Word invites us to embrace. And, if you’ll recall that parable with all its varying conditions of soil, the fruitful hearer of God’s Word is the person whose bumper sticker reads, “Manure Happens: Use It!” Into each life manure must fall: learn how to fold it in so it will break down and build up, creating good soil useful to God.

Then last Sunday’s parable endeared itself to all us backyard gardeners: the weeds that sprout among the wheat cannot be pulled without uprooting the intended good. “An enemy has done this!” (the cry of the farmer when he discovers his best laid plans have been interrupted by life)… isn’t that exactly how it feels, when you’re doing battle with bishopsweed or wood anemones or that awful faux morning-glory… when you don’t know whether to laugh or cry.

Those little stories help make sense of the net Jesus throws today. He catches all our theories, all our interpretations, all our hopes, and simply does not relieve us of the necessity to keep scratching our heads in order to comprehend the mind, the will, the purpose of God. Angels despatched from heaven to separate the evil from the righteous, consigning the evil to a furnace of fire? What is that about?

Is that how it felt in the earliest centuries of the church, when the Roman emperor and his henchmen brutally persecuted innocent Christians because they called Jesus their king? Was Matthew giving voice to our ancestors who were itching for justice to be done, consigning the ruthless to a miserable end, the more so the better?

And in the aftermath of those persecutions, when many Christians compromised their faith and placed in the fire that pinch of incense that quietly expressed consent to worship the emperor (so as to escape death at his hands), was Matthew expressing the dilemma faced by the church community divided between those whose loved ones had paid the ultimate price for their faith and those who were living a double life?

Perhaps, in settings like those, angels despatched from heaven to set things right is an answer we too might understand.

However, our actual setting in life requires of us a compassionate use of what is old, as we accept the call of God to help bring out of God’s treasure what is gracious and just from the past, in service to what is needed now in new fresh manifestation of grace and justice.

Have we understood all this? Well, yes. Becoming part of God’s great chain of self-giving is what the Word invites us to embrace. Learning how to yield requires learning how to fold into our lives much that we would rather reject. Yet the call is to comprehend, to make room for opposites to live together in peace.

(Barbara Brown Taylor's "Learning to Walk in the Dark" is published by Harper One, 2014.)

The Thin Distance between Earth and Heaven

Scripture appointed for the 6th Sunday after Pentecost includes Genesis 28:10-19a; Romans 8:12-25; Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43

So what’s with the stone pillow? The story of the patriarch Jacob’s epic journey draws us into it in any number of ways today. But using a stone for a pillow?

Good luck finding a commentary that lets you walk away saying, “Oh, so that’s why Jacob sleeps on a stone pillow.” No. All we get is that the sun had set, and in this prehistoric era before headlights and street lights, when the sun set the journey ended for the night, and it was time to improvise.

But wouldn’t you think that a fellow on an epic journey might have been clever enough to have stashed in his camel bag something soft to cradle his head? And if there was one thing Jacob was, he was clever.

But wait. Maybe we need to recognize a clever purpose in this odd detail. After a night of astonishing dreams (and who wouldn’t have astonishing dreams, sleeping on a rock?), Jacob “took the stone that he had put under his head and set it up for a pillar… and called that place Bethel.”

Ah. Now we can get it. The story tellers in the Book of Genesis all have the purpose of explaining how Israel came to be a great nation. One of the things going on in today’s story is that we’re hearing how the famous pilgrim shine at Bethel came to be. In later periods, before the grandeur of the great temple in Jerusalem, Bethel was holy ground, a favored destination for pilgrimage, renowned for its great stone pillars, standing stones not unlike the older sacred circles in the British Isles—the Stonehenge of the Middle East.

And don’t you suppose that one of them was known as Jacob’s stone? Gerhard von Rad, the granddaddy of Genesis scholars, writes, “If Jacob erected the stone… as a memorial column, then he must have had colossal strength, for such “massebahs”, known from the entire Orient, were often nearly seven feet high. There are other references to Jacob’s herculean strength… But above all, the purpose of the narrative becomes clear…: it intends to tell how Bethel, which was later so famous, came to be a cultic center and in what way the holiness of the place first became known.”

In Celtic spirituality, people speak of experiencing “thin places.” Do a search on that phrase, and you may find Eric Weiner’s March 9, 2012 “Cultured Traveler” piece in the New York Times, headlined “Where Heaven and Earth Come Closer.” Catch his message.

“Travel, like life, is best understood backward but must be experienced forward, to paraphrase Kierkegaard. (For me) After decades of wandering, only now does a pattern emerge. I’m drawn to places that beguile and inspire, sedate and stir, places where, for a few blissful moments I loosen my death grip on life, and can breathe again. It turns out these destinations have a name: thin places.

“It is, admittedly, an odd term. They are locales where the distance between heaven and earth collapses and we’re able to catch glimpses of the divine, or the transcendent or, as I like to think of it, the Infinite Whatever.

“Travel to thin places does not necessarily lead to anything as grandiose as a “spiritual breakthrough,” whatever that means, but it does disorient. It confuses. We lose our bearings, and find new ones. Or not. Either way, we are jolted out of old ways of seeing the world, and therein lies the transformative magic of travel.”

Something happens to you in a thin place. You do not emerge quite the same as before. Jacob, whose cleverness set him at odds with his brother Esau; Jacob, who willfully deceived his own father on his deathbed so as to inherit the double share of his estate; Jacob leaves the thin place of Bethel confronted with, and humbled by, heaven. “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.”

Earlier this morning, we learned that Williamstown may be a thin place for two dozen young pilgrims, Israeli, Palestinian, and American. They are enrolled in a program at Buxton School, run by Artsbridge, a nonprofit whose executive director, Deborah Nathan, was our speaker at our 9:00 gathering. Artsbridge uses a combination of reflective dialogue, artistic expression, and expressive therapy to engage with youth and empower them to become change-makers and leaders in their own communities. This reflective model of dialogue teaches students how to truly listen to each other and to ask questions out of curiosity and interest. Through expressive therapy, Artsbridge works to provide healing for the trauma that all participants experience living in a region of conflict. The art component teaches participants how to work together, think creatively, and communicate constructively.

I wonder if these two dozen young men and women may return home having been jolted out of old ways of seeing the world.

Ancient Bethel was a thin place well before the founding of its city, 2000 years before Jesus. It was a place of springs, and people chose to be buried there. Before it was part of Israel, Bethel was owned by the Canaanites, natives of Palestine, and over the centuries (as wars were fought) Bethel changed hands across that border. Before Bethel was a shrine to Yahweh, the Hebrew God, Bethel was a shrine to the Canaanite god whose name was Bethel. Across its long history, Israelis and Palestinians have been buried there in Bethel. At Bethel, deceitful Jacob was renamed Israel after his nighttime wrestling match with the angel of God entitled him to be called Israel, which means “the one who has striven with God and with humans and has prevailed” (the Genesis story we’ll hear on August 3rd).

In that word “prevailed”, the seeds of our present Middle East conflict are sown. Year after year, generation after generation, Israelis and Palestinians struggle to prevail, one over the other. In these same weeks that our young pilgrims are here, their homelands have erupted in fresh violence—fresh, but ever so repetitively familiar: Hamas inflicts an act of terrorism killing a number of Israelis, the Israelis retaliate not symbolically but strategically, surgically trying to rid Gaza, for example, of its known missile locations that are purposefully located in residential neighborhoods, just as Israeli military installations are said to be situated near population centers—resulting in large numbers of fatalities which further infuriate the Palestinians, ensuring endless rounds of this ritualized violence. Violence which has little respect for the wisdom of Jesus’s parable, that there is no uprooting the weeds without uprooting also the wheat. This is the world in which our young pilgrims have been raised and formed, and to which they will soon return: a world understood and described by St. Paul as caught in slavery and fear, subjected to futility, in bondage to decay, endlessly groaning in labor pains that do not yield birth. Yet.

But what if (Paul asks) the sufferings of this present time are the crucible from which the long-awaited revealing of the children of God will come? What if this is the generation that finally hears and believes that “all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God.”? All.

Wars are fought over land and boundaries. Ancient stories justify Israel’s entitlement to land once owned by others. “I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring,” promises God to Jacob.

I suppose that ancient stories of exceptionalism have shaped the claims of countless nations, our own among them.

But blessing never comes without responsibility. And that too is clear in Jacob’s story, as God is remembered to have said to Israel, “All the families of the earth shall be blessed in you and in your offspring.”

There, again, is that powerful word “all”. Israelis and Palestinians must learn and embrace the power of that word. It lies at the heart of a fresh new hymn sung for the first time anywhere here on June 22. You’ll find the text of “We Inherit the World” printed below.

St. John’s commissioned composer Alice Parker to create a hymn to mark the retirement of our organist and choir director, Barbara Kourajian. I found a meditation by the 17th century English metaphysical poet Thomas Traherne, and Alice brought it into contemporary English, keeping Traherne’s use of the words, “This is the House of God and the Gate of Heaven,” words by which Jacob recognized how thin was the distance between earth and heaven, there at Bethel, as it is in more places than we may know. Would you join me in reading aloud the words of this hymn?

“We Inherit the World”

We inherit the world when we are born:
the sun, the sky, the sea, the stars, the vast immensity.
This is the House of God and the Gate of Heaven.

We give thanks for this world through all our days:
the outer glory, the inner space, the myriad mysteries.
This is the House of God and the Gate of Heaven.

We belong to this world in equal claim
with every soul, with all that live in God’s infinity.
This is the House of God and the Gate of Heaven.

We inherit the world in life, in death:
in faith and hope for love and peace in God’s eternity.
This is the House of God and the Gate of Heaven.

Alice Parker, after Thomas Traherne

Gerhard von Rad’s commentary “Genesis” is published by The Westminster Press, 1972. His comments on this passage appear on page 285.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

All in This Together

Scripture for the 5th Sunday after Pentecost includes Genesis 25:19-34; Romans 8:1-11; Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

“Jesus went out and sat beside the sea.”

As I nibbled away at preparing to preach, the past few days, I too was beside the sea, on Martha’s Vineyard, where Diana and I enjoyed a few days off and a chance to catch up with our son Alex, who moved there this summer.

Great crowds filled the beach by the Sea of Galilee, and you won’t be surprised to hear that the island was teeming with visitors and summer residents. This will get only more so, as August arrives and the summer White House sets up digs. Beaches and crowds go hand in hand.

To achieve a degree of critical distance, to invite the attention of all those people, and to be visible to them, Jesus got into a boat and put out a short way. From that humble vantage point, he spoke to them.

The pulpit of St. Andrew’s Church in Edgartown is built in the shape of the bow of a dory. In a way, perhaps all pulpits nose their way into the nave to gain those same simple advantages Jesus sought, that day.

I don’t mean the Leonardo di Caprio effect in the bow of the Titanic. But that name “nave” (from the Latin “navus”, boat, source of “navy”) conveys the core message running beneath us as steady as a keel, and that message is, “We’re all in this boat together!”

Don’t you agree that this message needs to be heard just about everywhere, as a corrective to isolating behavior, a call to find a better response than escalating violence? We’re all in the same boat… we’re all in this together, whether the context is a friendship or a family in crisis, a government paralyzed in dysfunction, people of religious faith making sense of a pluralistic world, or a world confronted by profound challenges of climate change and desperately-needed new ways to steward the earth’s resources.

As I looked around me on the streets of Edgartown and Vineyard Haven, what I saw was disconnected clusters of people all looking for a good time, a good meal, a certain kind of shop, a change in pace, a fresh experience.

I’ll guess that this described the crowds Jesus addressed on that beach in Galilee. Each person, each household, was there in search of what mattered most to them at that moment, and they were there to get that certain something.

If there was one element they had in common, it was their hope, their hunch, their expectation that Jesus could provide that something—whether it was a healing, an exorcism, a miraculous meal, a rebuke to the powerful, a lifting up of the lowly, the raising of a dead person, or at least a good sermon that would get them reconsidering the status quo.

Jesus was unafraid to be the one element of unity that brought this crowd together. He aimed his bow towards shore, towards them, not out to the open sea, not avoiding them.

In what he then said to them, he invited openness: “Listen!” he calls to them. He then launches into a short pithy story that we churchfolk call a parable, a zinger with a singularly simple plot line, but a story that leaves the hearers scratching their heads wondering about its meaning.

And when the story ends, Jesus again invites openness: “Let anyone with ears listen!”

That’s essential to the core message of Jesus: We’re all in the same boat, we’re all in this together, and what’s required of us all—what can help unite us--- is that we learn to listen. Listen to one another, to the truth of our own experience; listen for God, for wisdom, for clarity.

In the story he tells, he reaches not into the world of fishermen but into the home ground of the Galilean farmers who may have made up a large part of the crowd.

A farmer sows seed. Or maybe, given the unlikely terrain described, this isn’t a fulltime farmer but an ever-optimistic backyard gardener limited to a small patch of land, rocks and thorns included. Four different conditions on the ground destine the seed to different outcomes—not so much four outcomes as two: success and lack of success. One out of four sown seeds yields a harvest; the other three get eaten, scorched, or choked. Those odds seem spot-on from my limited experience growing plants from seed.

And the one variable that accounts for success is good soil. Soil that has all the riches and all the rejects of the past turned over and worked in like a cover crop, wasting nothing organic, utilizing all the off-scourings, the manure from the stable, the ashes from the hearth.

It’s all a parable, isn’t it?

Isn’t good soil like the capacity we have to let the manure that falls upon our lives get folded into our experience as we learn how to turn over what lies on the surface so it breaks down and builds up, restoring the ground we stand on by wasting not a shred of the emotional-physical-spiritual complexity we either face and utilize, or try to escape and so become fugitives from the rich soil of our own lives?

In her book, “Learning to Walk in the Dark,” Barbara Brown Taylor writes, “the best thing to do when you are flattened by despair is to spend time in a community where despair is daily bread.”

Or, turning that a bit, isn’t the rich harvest Jesus points to in his parable the faith and hope and love which are the ground we walk on, the blood that pulses in our veins, and the tide that floats our boats in Christian community?

That’s the rich soil of community in Jesus that we want for Charlotte and Sylvia: ground so firm and dependable while also porous and receptive to the tender requirements of growth. Ground that welcomes believers, seekers, and skeptics: rich ground not to be fought over but freely shared. Holy ground where all may find Jesus’s way to see ourselves whole, to make whole the world around us, addressing with compassion the hardships suffered on the path, on rocky ground, and among the thorns.

I notice that our Gospel portion today presents in the first half Jesus’s parable, then in the second half an explanation of it. Is that explaining voice the voice of Jesus or of Matthew? Does Jesus offer this commentary in response to a long awkward pause after the bare simple story? Was everyone on shore going, “Huh?”

At similar moments elsewhere in the Gospels, it’s the twelve disciples who admit to Jesus (later, in private) that they just don’t get it, and so he explains the parable to them. But he insists that in his public preaching he will not stop speaking in parables. This remains his preferred way to invite openness to his message: by getting people to puzzle out the meaning.

We are all in the same boat. We are in life together. Together we treasure and steward the precious gift of life. This requires of us that we learn to listen deeply, deeply enough to fold into our good soil all that we learn, all that we understand, and all that we do not.

(Barbara Brown Taylor's "Learning to Walk in the Dark" is published by Harper One, 2014.)

Farewell to the Cramptons

Scripture for the 4th Sunday after Pentecost includes Genesis 24:34-38, 42-49, 58-67; Song of Solomon 2:8-13; Romans 7:15-25a; Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

I hope you won’t be too disappointed to hear that I’m not prepared to delve into that hot little passage from the Song of Solomon. No other book in the Bible has had as many commentaries written about it than the Song of Solomon—no wonder, with its blend of almost Harlequin romance and almost Shakespearean sonnet, not to mention that peeking through the lattice that makes us wonder how the author would fare in safe church training.

We likely associate this passage with weddings, since it’s one of the readings suggested for such an occasion, and on the face of it the context appears to be the union of two people fulfilling their hearts’ desire. On the other hand, all those commentaries are bird-dogging the scent of allegory, hearing in these verses the spiritual union between Christ and his Church, or the intimate union of the soul with its champion, the Christ who speaks from Matthew’s Gospel promising rest from the weariness of life’s heavy burdens.

I’m also not going to attempt to do justice to today’s story about what happened to the patriarch Isaac after he escaped his father’s religious zeal on Mount Moriah, heard last Sunday. Let it be enough to hear that, some years later, the young man again becomes a project of his father, who this time assumes the role of matchmaker, aiming to find for Isaac a wife from the old country. This is an interesting companion piece for the Song of Solomon: by contrast to the rhapsody sung there, here it’s jaw-dropping amazement at how many times good fortune can strike when a missionary journey is blessed by God.

Themes of journey and pilgrimage hover over us, this summer. In our 9:00 gatherings, we’ve walked the Camino, the ancient pilgrim route across Spain, with Jamie Martin. We’ve stood on the heights of Machu Picchu in Peru with Jim and Alison Kolesar. Perhaps you have a journey or a pilgrimage to share, this summer (let me know, if you do!), while next Sunday Drew Gibson will lead the gathering in Bible study that will do justice to what becomes of the posterity of Isaac: the pivotal journey of his son Jacob, to be recounted from the Book of Genesis next Sunday.

And on Sunday, July 20th, our guest speaker at 9:00 will be Deborah Nathan, Executive Director of Artsbridge, an exchange program that makes Buxton School here in Williamstown the destination for twenty-four teenagers, nine pilgrims from Palestine, nine from Israel, six from the United States, on a journey to discover how reconciliation can be reached through the arts.

Today, we have a different journey to consider, one about to be made by Stuart and Susan Crampton, their move to Ohio to a retirement community near their son and his family.

Stuart’s ties to Williams College date back sixty years, to 1954, when he arrived as a freshman. Ten years later, he would return to teach physics. With him came his bride of almost three years, Susan, and (Susan reports) one-and-a-half little Cramptons.

Fast-forward to February 4, 1978, and here in this church, Susan was ordained a priest, the first female diocesan resident to be ordained, just two years after the national Church decided that women should be ordained. For six years, Susan would serve as Associate Rector here, before going on to serve as Vicar of St. John’s in Ashfield, Associate at St. Andrew’s, Longmeadow, and Rector of Christ Church, Sheffield until her retirement in 2003. I wonder how many women—and men—Susan has mentored on their journeys to and through ordination.

For the eleven years since her retirement, she has served as one of several priests who have made it possible for us, hand in hand with lay members of our healing team, to offer anointing and the laying-on of hands for healing at every principal Sunday eucharist. Susan has also preached and celebrated for us, and in recent years has, with Charles O’Brien, served the people of St. Andrew’s in Blackinton.

Together, she and Stuart have been stalwart members of our choir. They have both been leaders of Coffee Conversations, popular gatherings after worship to read and discuss books that present brave options for understanding theology, scripture, spiritual practice, science and religion (and that last topic is another frontier that both Cramptons have tackled together in the wider community—imagine their pillow talk about quarks and dark matter and the Big Bang…)

You may not know that both Stuart and Susan have served in countless ways to strengthen the Diocese of Western Massachusetts. For years, Stuart served on the diocesan Finance Committee. Susan has served on several task forces, including an advisory committee on the full inclusion of LGBT people in the life of the Church.

And both have lent their support to the fledgling Berkshire Organizing Project. Stuart is one of the founders of the Northern Berkshire Interfaith Action Initiative, whose members run the Friendship Center food pantry in North Adams, and he championed the transfer of the long-standing Ministry Fund that provides emergency assistance, from the defunct Williamstown Ecumenical Association to the interfaith group.

The same analytical skills and systemic thinking that led to Stuart’s appointment as Provost of Williams College have been his hallmark here, in his service in our capital campaign, our Finance Committee, the Vestry, our first Website design, to name a few. He shaped and led our Planned Giving program, and passionately advocated maintaining a Youth Minister on our staff.

Did you know that for several years, Stuart has quietly and single-handedly handled this parish’s recycling of paper (all those Sunday leaflets!) and bottles, etc.?

And with all that said, I know I’ve not named all the ways these two people have strengthened the hearts and hands of this parish, our wider community, the Episcopal Church, Williams College, and the many other churches, schools, and institutions that they hold dear.

How fortunate we are! And how we will miss them.

May they keep opening their hearts and minds to the grace of God in Jesus Christ that hallows all our journeys by the Holy Spirit dwelling within us, reigning over us, and illumining the path before us.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Outgrowing Old Sacrificial Systems

Scripture for the 3rd Sunday after Pentecost includes Genesis 22:1-14, Romans 6:12-23, Matthew 10:40-42

That is one mighty powerful story from the Book of Genesis. Mighty disturbing, too, I know. It’s one of the central texts of the Hebrew Bible to be heard by the Church at the Easter Eve Vigil, on the holiest night of the year. But I will confess to you that we here at St. John’s avoid it like a skunk at a lawn party: for that night, we select readings that we like to put in the hands of children to dramatize—and while violence abounds in video games and movies, this case study in blind devotion is a tough one to ask children to grasp. Or adults.

And until, and unless, you allow some latitude in interpreting the point of this story, it doesn’t place God in a very, well, Godly role. The point made is the sharp end and the razor edge of that knife in Abraham’s hand. Who is Abraham and what is he doing? Who is this God, and what is he doing?

All the stories in the Book of Genesis demand being heard as stories that reveal the nature of God and the purposes of God, and as stories that reveal the nature of Israel and the purposes of Israel. These stories enlist individuals—today it’s Abraham and Isaac, while barely mentioned are the young men handling the donkeys, and in the far background is Isaac’s unmentioned mother Sarah.

Their purpose is to get us to relate to them, to elicit empathy, admiration, outrage, insight, revelation, so that we become fully engaged in the story. A frequent approach to Bible study with such a story as this one is to ask people in the circle, “Which of these individuals do you resonate with most?” Imagine the self-revelation in saying, I relate to Abraham… or I would pick Isaac. Far easier to select the donkey-handlers (or the donkey, for that matter) all of whom look upon this dreadful scene and wonder, What is going on here? And then get to look upon the transformation of this pending crime scene into an encounter with sheer grace.

For the purpose of God, insist all the stories in the great anthology of Genesis, is to form a people, a nation, a partner in covenanted love and obedience. And the purpose of Israel will be to stand as an embodiment of righteousness, an example to lead all peoples into covenant faithfulness to God.

What God is doing on Mount Moriah, goes the traditional answer, is testing the faithfulness of Abraham. Ruthlessly. This offends us, and it should, for this is not the character of God we encounter in Jesus Christ. Or is it?

Doesn’t Jesus undergo just such a harrowing test of his devotion? Isn’t that the breath-taking impact of the line Celia sings in the Exsultet on Easter Eve: “How wonderful and beyond our knowing, O God, is your mercy and loving-kindness to us, that to redeem a slave, you gave a Son.”?

A critical mind might object, “Wait: you’re saying that two thousand years pass and still we’re dealing with a God who requires the sacrifice of a son… but now it’s his own Son? And this is an improvement? This is evolution?

From the Bible’s point of view, yes, there is progress here. The story of Abraham and Isaac, from ancient Israel’s pre-history, shows what life was like before Israel had the Law to guide and shape its moral vision. A father—without consulting a mother—could expose his son to a most dreadful death, at his own hand, believing that such obedience was the requirement of God. The Law would outlaw this. But before the law, this kind of ultimate sacrifice is known to have happened, and to be part of the religious practice of at least one of the competing ancient Gods in the Middle East.

So time-travel from our first reading to our second reading. Let’s say two thousand years have passed. During those centuries, the law has developed in Israel, has shaped Israel. From those core ten commandments from God’s mouth to Israel’s heart, the law has grown to more than six hundred statutes, many of them regulating what it meant to be righteous before God. Some of these rules expanded the moral vision of Israel (for example, requiring the humane treatment of immigrants), but many strike us today as being obsessed with ritual purity and the rooting-out of impurity (dangerous ground for any religion to stand on, witness how certain categories of people have been excluded under these rules, including women and homosexuals).

But now, St. Paul announces, in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, God has shaped a new creation, a new covenant, based not on law but on grace, the undeserved love of God. “For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace.”

“And Abraham looked up and saw a ram, caught in a thicket by its horns. He went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son. So Abraham called that place ‘The Lord will provide.’”

One way to interpret our thorny story from Genesis is to recognize that from the beginning we have been under grace. But grace was not a familiar category of human experience, given Abraham’s instinct to raise the knife first, raising his sights second—almost a second too late!

And it’s not too flip to observe that the moment was far from gracious for the ram. You can tell that the story teller in Genesis comes from a later time when the great temple in Jerusalem was awash in the blood of sacrificial animals. Ritual purity was understood to require the sacrifice of life. By comparison to two thousand years before, grace could be seen in that the victim was four-footed, not two-footed. There’s progress.

And in the new creation that St. Paul announces, there’s no place for continuing this industry of animal sacrifice. Think of the many encounters Jesus had on this very subject, urging people to raise their sights, not their knives. It is because of Jesus, Paul declares, that we are no longer under law and its required killing of countless victims. Jesus has put himself in their place, in our place; has become the scape goat, the sacrificial lamb (that we see painted on our altar) whose voluntary and total commitment to non-violent confrontation has given to God not appeasement, but traction to launch the new creation and its higher righteousness under grace. This truly is progress.

But wait: two thousand years have passed from then to now. Our sights are raised, but the more they are, the more we see:

Honor killings of free-thinking young women and men in Afghanistan and Pakistan, in the name of God.

Displacement, famine and epidemics obliterate whole generations of children in Africa, implementing strategies of ethnic cleansing.

Reprisal killings in Iraq, neighbors killing neighbors for differing interpretations and practices of their one religion—just as in Ireland, in the time of the Troubles—though surely such bloodbaths are also about money and jobs and influence and personal grudges.

American youths paying the ultimate price for freedom in nations that don’t know; what to do with freedom.

While here at home, the knife is replaced by the dollar as the greed of the elders is visited upon our children, whose future may be marked by more and more sacrifice.

Globally, the long view of what we are doing with the resources of the earth, and what we are not doing to change our life here on earth, will see the sacrifice of children’s children.

Can you stand any more of this? Where is the good news? We need to hear it. Where is progress? We need to see it. St. Matthew, in his Gospel, helps us recognize it. The reward of the righteous comes not to the person who thinks rightly, or believes rightly, or belongs to the right community, but to the one who acts rightly. Each one of us is empowered by the Spirit of God to walk in this world as an agent of grace, mercy, generosity, and free commitment to non-violence. These are the powers of the new creation, the bands of light that show the path to take.

And when we do, Jesus promises that whoever welcomes us welcomes him, and whoever welcomes him welcomes the one who sent him. There is the promise and the power that undergird progress. And it us up to us to affirm common purpose with all who raise their sights from old sacrificial systems the world must outgrow.