Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Spiritual Redemption from Spiritual Bondage

Scripture for the Day of Pentecost includes Acts 2:1-21; Romans 8:22-27; John 15:26-27, 16:4b-15

We need one more thing happening here today. I’m kidding. Nor am I complaining. Pentecost should be a day of deep movement, both of God’s Spirit and of ours, hence also a day of much activity as bodies and minds join forces to turn the Easter momentum into powerful traction as Good News takes hold. And I especially won’t complain about a well-packed schedule today because my colleague Rabbi Rachel Barenblat was up until 4:00 this morning leading her congregation in prayer and Torah study in celebration of Shavu’ot.

That’s the ancient Jewish festival that gained the nickname Pentecost, meaning 50 days, in the Jewish context 50 days after the Passover. Its Hebrew name, Shavu’ot, means Festival of Weeks (seven weeks times seven days, seven being a number with mystical cachet), and it ranks second among the three annual Jewish festivals (Passover being the first, Sukkot the third). For Christians, Pentecost is among our three major festivals, too. And this year, Pentecost falls on the same day for both religions.

For Jews, Shavu’ot recalls the first harvesting of wheat, evidence of how much can happen in just those 50 days from the seedtime of Passover to the presentation of the first fruits in the temple at Jerusalem.

But where the rubber hits the road for both Christians and Jews is that this day is all about God’s giving: for Jews, God’s giving the Torah at Mount Sinai. Passover had freed the Hebrew people from bondage physically; Pentecost marks God’s giving Israel its signature code of law and its foundational holy scripture, the Torah, redeeming Israel spiritually from idolatry and immorality.

For Christians, Pentecost celebrates God’s giving the divine Spirit to all races and nations. We do get clubby about that, sometimes speaking as if the Holy Ghost descended only upon card-carrying Christian apostles—overlooking the fact that as of this day there were none of those yet. This was the day that whistled them into being, breathed into them the will and the courage and the faith to see the vision, dream the dream, prophesy the truth of God’s global embrace in Jesus Christ, not by might nor by human power, but by God’s Spirit.

This is where Jews and Christians celebrate the same divine action today: spiritual redemption from spiritual bondage. St. Paul gives a name to that redemption: he calls it adoption, a powerful metaphor of intimacy with God, who chooses to draw us into an embrace that releases us from our addictions to greed, to violence, to narcissism, to prejudice, to isolation, to idolatry (worshiping as if God what is decidedly not God). By adoption, God has restored to us our identity as children of God, and our awareness of who and whose we are empowers us to get with the program of love, reconciling love, redeeming love.

Hence the salient details of Pentecost. The rush of a mighty wind, shaking us free from past compulsions and habits that stand in the way of the Spirit. Tongues of fire burning away the crud of our worst mistakes, lighting and showing what our best choices will be. And tongues in the other sense, freedom and conviction to express our gratitude, our faith and hope and love, telling, testifying—across old boundaries of language and ethnic division-- showing where and how we sense God at work in the world. And joy, such exuberance that the self-appointed guardians of good taste dismissed all this Pentecostal revelry as just that, drunkenness.

And one last Pentecostal detail: They were all together in one place. It’s estimated somewhere that they were about 120 in number. We could fit that number handily here, filling some of these empty spots. They had been called in out of the cold rain of their fears and their grieving at the death of their master; we too are called in here to reaffirm who and whose we are, members of one Body, fed from one loaf, bound by one love, harnessed to one mission.

A mighty rush, a shaking free, many tongues, transcendent joy, unity in mission—these are all traits of the General Convention of the Episcopal Church, its triennial legislative assembly, to meet this summer in Salt Lake City. Representing our sister Diocese of Massachusetts, our sister Sarah Neumann, a sophomore at Williams, will be seated in the 900-member House of Deputies, whose work is to debate and perfect literally hundreds of pieces of legislation shaping our Church internationally and locally. I’d put money on the likelihood that she will be the youngest Deputy there, and perhaps ever in the long history of the House of Deputies. On this her last Sunday in town before summer break, we will bless her on her way and look forward to her helping us unpack General Convention in the fall.

Our Easter Series presents its third and final speaker today on the subject of Climate Change and Creation Care. Ethan Zuckerman will address the same three questions we’ve put to all our speakers: How are you thinking about these realities? How are you praying about them? What are you doing about them?

Because we know these are the same basic questions we need to ask of ourselves, next Sunday we’ll offer an opportunity for series participants to stay on right after the 10:00 service, here in the church, to reflect on what you’ve heard in the series. This will be a chance to identify ideas and insights that we’ve taken home with us, from Bill Moomaw’s visit, from Rabbi Rachel Barenblat’s and Chaplain Rick Spalding’s presentation, and from Ethan’s today. I promise that this reflection session will not prevent you from getting in some coffee hour time.

Ethan Zuckerman is well placed to speak to us today about climate change from a global perspective. He is Director of the Center for Civic Media at MIT, and a principal research scientist at MIT's Media Lab, where he heads research on Media Cloud, a system for quantitative analysis of agenda setting in digital media, and Promise Tracker, a platform that allows citizens to monitor powerful institutions using mobile and web technologies. He is the author of "Rewire: Digital Cosmopolitans in the Age of Connection", published by W.W. Norton. Ethan co-founded international blogging community Global Voices, which showcases news and opinions from citizen media in over 150 nations and thirty languages. I think that makes Ethan Pentecostal!

And today Bishop Fisher begins his long walk through the Berkshires. He’s doubtless striding along Route 2 on his way here for lunch at 12:30. At 1:30 he and his companions will be driven south to the Store at Five Corners, where his walk resumes at 1:45. By 5:30, he’s expected at St. Luke’s for evening prayer.

You and I are invited to join him, one way or another. Come for lunch, when we’ll bless him on his way. We’re grateful to the several Vestry members who are overseeing the lunch in our upper room. And/or… meet him at the Store at Five Corners and walk with him a while. Just please don’t leave your car parked at the store—the lot isn’t roomy enough—if you’d like a ride to the store, that we can provide. And, as long as it’s within the six miles south of Five Corners, we’ll provide roadside pickup when you’ve reached your limit. In the printed announcements today, you’ll find several ideal spots for pickup. And, whether you walk there or drive there, join the Bishop for evening prayer in Lanesboro.

Why is our Bishop walking? That’s answered in the recent issue of our diocesan magazine, “Abundant Times”:

"In ancient days bishops walked their territories – staff in hand – as a visible sign of the universal Church embodied in its leader. The Bishop continues to be that witness of presence and the bridge between local congregations and the larger Church. Although Bishop Fisher has visited each of the 60 congregations at least once in the past two years, he is setting out on foot to:
o LISTEN to the experiences and hopes of the people he meets
o TALK about the Gospel informally
o PRAY with people where they are – beyond church walls
o BLESS all who serve the poor, the imprisoned, the sick, the homeless and all who seek justice."

On Memorial Day weekend, our thoughts turn to the long walk towards justice in this nation, as we recall how this federal holiday originally (when it was called Decoration Day) remembered all who gave their lives in the Civil War, both Union and Confederate forces. That war ultimately accomplished the abolition of slavery, and a reunited nation found it just to solemnly recognize the ultimate price paid by both sides.

In the 20th century, the concept of Memorial Day broadened to include all the men and women who gave their lives to safeguard freedom and reprove injustice, in whatever wars of that war-weary century (and future centuries) in which they served.

Memorial Day has become a sort of gateway on the path to summer, a time to visit and tend the graves of loved ones, whether they served in the armed forces or not. It’s in keeping with a democracy that we include everyone. It’s in keeping with Pentecost that boundaries be porous and that our embrace in the name of God be ever widening, to include all, absolutely all.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Drawn to His Feet

Scripture for the 7th Sunday of Easter includes Acts 1:15-17, 21-26; I John 5:9-13; John 17:6-19

“He ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father.” So says the Nicene Creed, capturing a moment that would have gone viral if YouTube had been available in the first century. Instead, it was by the social media of the New Testament that the Ascension became the culminating feature, truly the high point, in the Gospel story of Jesus Christ.

In the middle ages, paintings—another form of social media—depicted the Ascension, sometimes giving the impression that Jesus was levitating. These paintings have in common a hill top, a band of disciples huddled around an empty central spot, craning their necks to see rising above that central spot their Lord Jesus, not in an action hero pose of ascent, but, well, levitating, rising, as if in no rush, as if intending to be seen, persuasively seen, one hand holding a scepter, the other raised in blessing. You can see a good example of this scene in the next to last window in the Gospel series above our altar. And, unavoidably, perhaps strategically, in some of these paintings one’s eye is drawn… to his feet. There they are, dangling in mid-air.

This would be a good moment to remind you that next Sunday our Bishop begins his walk through Berkshire County, starting in North Adams for eucharist at All Saints, coming here for lunch at 12:30, leaving by 1:30 heading south, his goal for that day being St. Luke’s, Lanesboro, for evening prayer at 5:30.

In his ascension, Jesus is glorified, exalted far above all earthly power and authority, showing that his rule transcends all other dominion, his love embraces all. There’s a Greek name for this exaltation. Apotheosis, making God-like what was previously hidden.

The story of Cinderella has an apotheosis, the servant girl who sweeps the hearth sweeps up the heart of a prince and, through gradual revelation and the overcoming of obstacles, she is freed to rise and claim a new life, a throne, a kingdom.

The story of a real person, George Washington, comes complete with apotheosis. What a rise to glory, from feisty teenager trying out his tree-felling skills in his neighbor’s orchard, to accomplished military officer, to first President of the United States (remember that many were so taken by him that they wanted to ditch democracy and make him king). At least one artist of the time, attempting to capture the moment of Washington’s death, showed him rising from his deathbed to ascend into heaven. Talk about ranking high in the popularity polls!

Apotheosis: making like God what was once hidden. Exalting the humble. Revealing the true and ultimate worth, the highest degree of development. The last shall be first, the least the greatest.

Our Bishop is demonstrating some of these themes in his plein air pilgrimage. He is allowing hidden worth and importance to be revealed along highways and town roads we’ve driven countless times without looking up, without looking-in to see who is there, without getting out of the car to set our feet on the earth, without hallowing the ground by actually seeing what’s there and how it might delight God by its beauty or disturb God by its condition, might in some as yet undetected way matter more to God than it does to us, might therefore be inviting us to recognize opportunity to learn, to serve, to love.

I believe that our Bishop, in these three long walks the full lengths of our three geographic valleys, is walking for all of us, nudging us all to wonder and imagine, recognize and consider, how the work of the church and the work of the world are related, how what lies hidden might be holy, how ultimate worth might be revealed, and the highest degree of development encouraged. How what we think of last when we think of the mission of the Church might deserve to be put first, and how what we tend to put first stacks up against the wider world, with its needs and opportunities, its realities. All of this is the work of apotheosis.

Exaltation is the English word that best translates the ancient Greek word. Our collect of the day says that the King of glory, God, has exalted his son Jesus to his kingdom in heaven. Just when we might be wondering, Is this like Dad (or Mom) passing on the family business to his (or her) next generation, or handing-on the deed to the family ranch?, just then we hear the collect shift the focus to us. Send us your Holy Spirit to strengthen us, and exalt us to that place where our Savior Christ has gone before.

We are going to be promoted to headquarters. That is the Holy Spirit’s job: readying us for management. Management of our own body-mind-spirit complex, management of our multiple relationships, management of our life in community, management of this fragile earth, our island home. Or is it that we have already been promoted? I believe that’s more in line with the message of St. John in his letter today: “This is the testimony: God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. Whoever has the Son has life…”

The final verse in a hymn we sang here on Ascension Day (this past Thursday) catches this puzzling theme of our own exaltation: “Thou hast raised our human nature on the clouds to God’s right hand: There we sit in heavenly places, there with thee in glory stand. Jesus reigns, adored by angels; Man with God is on the throne; mighty Lord, in thine ascension, we by faith behold our own.”

Jesus embraces all, absolutely all. All who embrace him-- by baptism, by faith, by practicing his love—whoever has the Son-- has life. And life, says St. John in his Gospel just two or three verses before today’s portion, is for glorifying God on earth by finishing the work we have been given to do. One might say finishing the work of reconciliation and redemption, and on a good day seeing that we can do this through the finishing of our own work.

Not working in ways that silence the Spirit, or distract us from the Spirit, or result in our rejecting the Spirit: That would be the opposite of exaltation. No, in today’s Gospel Jesus makes it clear that we are not to be dominated by demands and obligation and duty, but we are to have his joy made complete in ourselves. We are to stop, from time to time, and look up—to clear our senses, gain fresh perspective, allow room and space in our work for joy and laughter, wonder and imagination, openness and inspiration. For these will rank high among the spiritual gifts that equip us to reach our fullest development and train us to trust God’s reach. For by that unerring grasp we shall be exalted, as his ascension becomes our own.

Monday, May 4, 2015

Radical Equality, Radical Reverence

Scripture for the 5th Sunday of Easter includes Acts 8:26-40; I John 4:7-21; John 15:1-8

Read the New Testament and it won’t take you long to notice how often the Hebrew Bible is quoted in the Christian writings of the early Church. The Jesus Movement happened within first-century Judaism. What by mid-century came to be called Christian was first Jewish, for the pioneer and perfecter of our faith is a Jew, Jesus of Nazareth.

And the Book of the Prophet Isaiah is, along with the Book of Psalms, a frequent source of these quotations. A quick scan reveals 22 locations where Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, and Paul, the top rock band of the New Testament, sing to a new tune the old yet ever-new lyrics of Isaiah and actually credit him as their source. Who knows how many, many, more times Isaiah’s thought is paraphrased, working its way into the Good News organically because these troubadors of Christ had heard the prophet since their childhood?

And it’s not as if these liftings are minor footnotes to the Christian story. Here are five examples.

“ Jesus left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled: ‘Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali, on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles--the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.’” (Matthew 4:13-16)

“(And he) cured all who were sick. This was to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah, ‘He took our infirmities and bore our diseases.’” (Matthew 8:16-17)

“Many crowds followed Jesus… and he ordered them not to make him known. This was to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah: ‘Here is my servant, whom I have chosen, my beloved, with whom my soul is well pleased. I will put my Spirit upon him, and he will proclaim justice to the Gentiles. He will not wrangle or cry aloud, nor will anyone hear his voice in the streets. He will not break a bruised reed or quench a smoldering wick until he brings justice to victory.” (Matthew 12:15b-20)

“As it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah, ‘The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth, and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”’” (Luke 3:4-6)

“When Jesus came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written, ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release of the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.’ And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all… were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’” (Luke 4:16-21)

These are not minor brush strokes: These are solid background and lustrous foreground on the canvas of the Good News of God in Jesus Christ. And what do our New Testament authors’ use of Isaiah illuminate? They show who the Christ is, what he comes for, and what our mission is within the new life he opens to us.

This is big stuff. And there’s no more exciting example of this transformative messaging than today’s story of the Ethiopian royal treasurer. You notice how I introduce this man, who is without a name. I mean, who ever would introduce such an important person by calling attention to a missing body part? The long shelf life of that disadvantage he suffered, the institutionalized violence he would bear for a lifetime, makes sense only if this is understood to be a story of what God wants us to do about human discrimination, about the injustice of keeping marginalized people under control.

What is he reading? He has borrowed from the royal library—or perhaps is well-off enough that he can afford his own—a scroll of the prophet Isaiah. “Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter, and like a lamb silent before its shearer, so he does not open his mouth. In his humiliation justice was denied him. Who can describe his generation? For his life is taken away from the earth.”

“About whom does the prophet speak?” he asks the apostle Philip, who has popped up on this wilderness road, despatched by the Holy Spirit, and has accepted the Ethiopian’s invitation to step up into his chariot and help him understand what the scripture means. “Does the prophet say this about himself, or about someone else?”

Here is where I once heard brilliant teaching by Lutheran preacher and scholar Barbara Lundblad. She surprised an audience of several hundred of us at the Chautauqua Institute, one steamy summer day. We were used to the idea that Isaiah gets quoted a lot in the New Testament in order to strengthen the Christian claim that Jesus Christ fulfills the Jewish law and prophets. Barbara went deeper.

“Dry trees,” she told us. That’s what they called men who had been made eunuchs in order to serve in the royal harem. Barbara invited us to imagine the snickering that went with that put-down. In a culture that equated having many children with having God’s favor, a culture that saw its children ensuring the future of family, tribe, and nation, a dry tree was counted as less than a whole person, no present standing in the eyes of God or the nation, no future claim to live on in his children. The Ethiopian stands in a long time line of people, many people, especially resident aliens, being counted not as whole persons, but as three-fifths of a person, and treated accordingly.

Barbara Lundblad had pretty much climbed up into that chariot by now, and said, “Boys, let me show you something. You’re trying to understand Chapter 53 of Isaiah. If you scroll down to chapter 56, listen to what you find there: “Do not let the foreigner joined to the LORD say, ‘The LORD will surely separate me from his people;’ and do not let the eunuch say, ‘I am just a dry tree.’ For thus says the LORD: To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths, who choose the things that please me and hold fast my covenant, I will give, in my house and within my walls, a monument and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off. And the foreigners who join themselves to the LORD, to minister to him, to love the name of the LORD, and to be his servants, all who keep the sabbath, and do not profane it, and hold fast my covenant—these I will bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer… for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples…” (Isaiah 56:3-7)

The Ethiopian’s heart resonates perfectly with Isaiah’s portrait of a man suffering humiliation and the denial of justice. “About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet says this, about himself or about… someone else?”

The early Church’s evangelists wanted their hearers to say, “It is about Jesus that Isaiah writes!” Barbara Lundblad sensed that the eunuch was daring to wonder, “Could this be true of me? Can the humiliating power of discrimination be overcome in me?”

Philip’s answer must have persuaded this man of the radical equality of all people in the eyes of God, whose only requirement of us is that we embrace the covenant love that embraces us, and extend that great chain of giving respect and care, freely, generously, and unearned, to all people and to all creatures. The Ethiopian embraces this new vision, this new life: When he sees a pool of water, he cries out, “What is to prevent me from being baptized?”

To that, the answer is only that he stop his chariot, step off the treadmill of his old thinking, recognize in himself and in others the image of God, let God flush away the toxins swallowed over years of ill treatment, prejudice, exclusion, and contempt.

Just don’t miss this, added Barbara: This was a wilderness road, a desert road. One does not expect to find pools of water along a road like this. It is purely by God’s grace that this man goes down into water he could never have expected, and rises new.

Such grace had prompted Philip to be on that road, to be open to whomever he found there, to renounce the safe distance people keep from each other. Such grace had stirred the Ethiopian to hunger and thirst for right understanding of the way of God, and such grace had humbled him to welcome help towards that understanding.

Such grace keeps happening because of the love of God for the whole creation. It keeps happening because Jesus Christ walks our wilderness roads with us. Such grace keeps happening because faith and hope and love are inherently and relentlessly stronger than fear.

Such grace reveals the radical equality of all people, and the power of radical reverence for all life. How we build with these givens, how they free us and bind us must be worked out on city streets, in the chambers of government, in our response to global crises, in sharp debate, in the rainbow of the arts and in the stewardship of science, in the ethics of private wealth and commonwealth, in the power of peacemaking and in the peaceable use of power.

Because given to us also are the responsibility and the opportunity and the desperate need to build the all-embracing community of justice seen and served by Isaiah and the prophets, by Jesus and the apostles, and the countless circle of people over many centuries who have let themselves be embraced by the love of God.