Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Wet with Our Tears

Scripture for the 4th Sunday after Pentecost includes Job 38:1-11; II Corinthians 6:1-13; Mark 4:35-41

One day last week, I met with Asher and his Dad. That was because I thought it might be good if Asher and I had a little face time together before today. Not long ago, either Bill or Alix asked me a question about their son’s baptism: I think it was, “How do you baptize a four-year-old?” And I answered, “With a squirt gun.” It didn’t take long to realize that this was a bit flippant, and their question really was an invitation to me to think it through. What better way than to spend some time together?

So Asher helped me water the palm tree that we’ve had recently at the font. Then we replenished the water in the bowl of the prayer nook, where people float the candles they’ve lit in prayer. By then, we’d begun naming many ways that water is part of our lives. We wash dishes. We wash cars. We sweat. We take baths. And, of course, we drink water. Without it, we would shrivel up and blow away.

We didn’t think of rain falling on thirsty gardens and lawns.

Nor did we get as far as sailing boats on it. Or surviving great windstorms when waves beat into the boat. But if the object is to appreciate why water is used in holy baptism, navigation and survival deserve to be named.

And tears. We got sweat, but we didn’t think of tears. Yet the broken hearts of our nation this past week surely make tears such an important part of the significance of water. As we cry, we grieve, we heal. And we wonder how many tears will it take to cleanse this nation of racial hatred.

When the water of baptism is poured and blessed at the font in a few minutes, we will be reminded of yet more meanings of the gift of water.

“Over it the Holy Spirit moved in the beginning of creation.” And today’s reading from the Book of Job insists that God’s claim upon the earth, the stars, and the sea puts us in our place not as owners but as stewards of life.”

“Through water, God led the children of Israel out of their bondage… into the land of promise.” In its own way, this reminds us how obscene racial hatred is, lacking compassion for fellow human beings whose journeys across hazardous oceans brought them into bondage, not freedom—economic bondage which still, despite the oceans of tears shed in our Civil War, and the flood of tears shed throughout generations of Jim Crow, economic bondage still claims a vise grip on so many.

“In water, Jesus received the baptism of John and was anointed by the Holy Spirit as the Messiah, the Christ, to lead us, through his death and resurrection, from the bondage of sin into everlasting life.” Asher and Bill and I saw that story drawn in glass above the altar, at the top of that second window. And right below, Jesus is seated with children in his lap and at his feet, showing clearly how he gives to each of us, from as early in life as can be, the very same love that God has given him.

That love, God’s love for us, each of us, one at a time, is what we celebrate in every baptism. And as one person comes to the font today to set his sights on learning that love, practicing that love, growing that love, in the same moments of his baptism, each one of us is invited to renew the baptismal agreement (for which “covenant” is a fancier word), the agreement God wants from us.

Still wet from the tears of these past few days, we renew today our agreement to persevere in resisting evil… to seek and serve Christ in all persons… to strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being.”

Wednesday night, in Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, eleven people offered this very kind of love, God’s love, to Dylann Roof, but he had no room, no use, no respect, no desire for such love as came to him in that circle of generosity created by Cynthia Hurd, Tywanza Sanders, Pastor Clementa Pinckney, Myra Thompson, Ethel Lee Lance, Susie Jackson, The Rev. Daniel Lee Simmons, DePayne Middleton- Doctor, Felecia Sanders, Cynthia Taylor, and Sharonda Coleman- Singleton.

He broke that circle with his hatred, and with the gun he carried he broke the life and the family circle of nine of those people who had made a place for him among them.

Still wet in the blood of Roof’s gun violence, our nation must again choose either to reform or to keep condoning the appalling ease with which guns are obtained and carried and used.

Still wet in the water of baptism today, we will make good on our promises to practice the love that will prove stronger than death, the love that will be the antidote to what poisons the well of this nation.

This is also the love that knows how to answer the question Jesus asks of each of us: “Why are you afraid?”

We are in the same boat as those disciples. We have ample reason to be afraid. Bad enough when brutal senseless mind-numbing violence occurs half a globe and two or three oceans away; but when it swamps our own boat—and I expect you’ll agree that this attempted desecration of one house of prayer is an invasion of all spaces, both sacred and civic—when this hatred worms its way into spaces we have pledged to make safe for all, then it is natural to fear.

But Jesus will not let us get away with locking the doors of this house of prayer which have been open at least daytimes for all its 121 years. The answer is not to circle our wagons. Nor is it to issue IDs for admission to bible study. Jesus will teach us precisely what he taught his disciples in that boat: that to be human is to be vulnerable, and to know ourselves to be vulnerable creatures is how we will face both reality and eternity honestly and openly.

Jesus calls us to trust him. To trust his presence not to protect us from vulnerability, but to equip us for the reality of the present moment that is fully known to him, and to equip us for eternal life which, we rejoice to affirm today, is given to us as sheer gift, amazing grace.

“Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” they ask him. And so do we.

Yet it will never be otherwise with this precious gift of life. The religion opened to Asher today through his baptism does not pretend otherwise. As St. Paul puts it, in the language of our second reading, “What part of afflictions, hardships, and calamities do you not understand? If these happened to me, they will happen to you. Be ready for them. When they come, keep trusting the one who knows the next step.”

Jesus hears his disciples ask whether he cares that they are perishing. What else can he be thinking but, “And so am I.” And it’s right then that what he demonstrates to them is courageous leadership facing into the windstorm and a deep marshaling of the ability to bestow peace and still chaos. His vulnerability does not limit his powers. His vulnerability inspires countless generations to believe that they—we—are the hands and feet, the body, the eyes of Jesus in our day. We are practitioners of his powers.

How the nation and the world need those powers now. How we need the baptismal agreement to renew in us the conviction that these powers are given, planted in baptism, cultivated by parents and siblings, Godparents and community. How fortunate we are, in the shadow and aftermath of these days of our tears, to get wet today with Asher in his baptism.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Essence of Church

Scripture for the 3rd Sunday after Pentecost includes Ezekiel 17:22-24; II Corinthians 5:6-17; Mark 4: 26-34

“With many such parables Jesus spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it; he did not speak to them except in parables, but he explained everything in private to his disciples.”

What do you think it’s like, being a teacher who has to explain everything to the supposedly star pupils in the class?

What’s it like, being identified as high achievers in the class, but nonetheless needing everything to be explained?

And what’s the dynamic at work among all the rest of the students who aren’t invited to those private sessions?

The four Gospels can’t tell the Gospel story, the Good News, without commenting on certain facts of life. Like, that some who encounter Jesus are quick studies, while some require coaching, and yet others will walk away from the encounter clueless as to what it was all about.

Put that another way: There is more than one kind of intelligence, more than one form of aptitude, and (as the apostle Paul was fond of saying) a variety of spiritual gifts. Intelligence comes in a rainbow of styles: cognitive, social, emotional, intuitive, organizational. Aptitude embraces artistic ability, language fluency, mechanical skill, leadership. And St. Paul’s several lists of spiritual gifts and spiritual fruits could keep us going all morning.

Put in yet another way, the Jesus movement is forever remembered by its fruits, its results in fulfilling its mission to (says our collect of the day) “proclaim God’s truth with boldness and minister God’s justice with compassion.” The Jesus movement shapes an apostolic community, in which those who get it give it. Those who get the message know they are entrusted with proclaiming it. Those who are loved by Jesus into new knowledge of who and whose they are give away that love to others as generously as they’ve gotten it. Those who are forgiven forgive. We know we are called to reconcile—to set right—all people to one another and to God. We come to know ourselves as people sent to embody the ministry of Jesus Christ in the world.

All this knowing engages the whole human being. We know not through one hemisphere of a brain dominated by either logical and analytical and objective processing of information or by the other hemisphere’s intuitive, conceptual, and subjective kinds of knowing; our knowing occurs through both hemispheres of the brain communicating to one another and working together.

The whole of our knowing requires a reconciling within us that may start within the brain’s hemispheres talking to one another; but surely our customary inventory includes the heart’s ways of knowing, and the instincts of the gut, the ethics of the backbone, and the reflexes of our muscles. All told, and all functioning, our knowings process our encounters and make relational sense of our world. In doing that wondrous work, imagination and belief play their roles as we encounter not just the immanence of flesh but also the transcendence of spirit.

Imagination and belief played a big part in our Vestry’s recent Day Away at Sheep Hill Farm, home of Williamstown’s Rural Lands Foundation. Our Wardens, Claudia Ellet and Margot Sanger, with the help of Canon Pam Mott from the Bishop’s staff, organized a decidedly different sort of Day Away.

It was a come-alive gorgeous day on May 30, and we had the run of the place. What had been arranged for us goes by the nickname Visual Explorer. Taking over the old main barn, Pam had spread out on tables and across wide swaths of the floor, 250 pictures, some photographs, some paintings, some archival drawings, just the most eclectic batch of images you’d ever expect to see. Our task was to consider and explore every image, silently, until each person had found one that best illustrates the essence of Church. The essence of Church. We then found out way into threesomes to share what it was each of us had found in the image that had spoken so clearly.

I could never have expected to choose what I did: a 19th-century painting of an Italian village of that same period, the town’s residents gathered on the plaza outside the parish church and adjacent school. I couldn’t tell exactly what was happening on that plaza, except that the town’s young men were being sent off—perhaps to war (though no one had alarm in their faces), perhaps on a more peaceable mission (a football tournament, who knows?)—wives kissing their husbands, children offering their fathers bouquets, and the young men shouldering great backpacks, evidence of an important mission ahead. Better than 249 other images, this one (quirky as it was) conveyed to me the essence of Church: A responsive community of people who know they are called, and are acting on it.

Verbalizing what each image represented was part of our task. How often the word “community” was heard. One Vestry member had chosen—I’m not making this up-- a photo of a cluster of meerkats. Meerkats! Those sleek creatures with four legs but famously vertical, each of the cats looking off at a different angle suggesting that the essence of Church is a community whose individual members support the whole by looking in different directions as they search, anticipating opportunity or danger. Another member’s image conveyed a similar insight: that community is a working-together of groups that become aware that each individual brings value to the whole, and it is often the outliers who signal what we need to know.

Other takes on the essence of Church: God’s workshop where each one of us is essential. Helping others connects the Church to the wider world. Being bathed in the light of God’s love for all. A community of save haven to face life’s challenges. And a photo of an open air market inspired this: The Church is God’s produce brought to be useful and available by the hands of his people. (That’s a timely image, since last week the first twelve bags of lettuce and spinach were harvested from the Garden of Eatin’ out back, and brought to the Friendship Center food pantry.)

This was the morning task, imagining, reflecting, sharing. In the afternoon, the same pattern, to find the image that best shows the outward and visible sign of the Church’s essence. Actually, I believe the instruction was to free ourselves from the constraints of church budgets and the press of maintaining church buildings, then ask ourselves what this essence would look like.

Again, what I chose surprised me, but seeing all 249 images again, I knew it was this: A close-up photo of five African children, early elementary ages, their faces full of promise, their posture an eager waiting, perhaps for a school door to open. Putting this to words, for me the outward and visible sign of our essence is our community’s caring not just for itself here at home, but equally for the emergent communities of the world rising from poverty, and those that need help doing so.

Around the circle of Vestry, other answers came, one after another. One said that for her the sign is our heading out into deeper waters away from the safety of the shore. Another, moving forward on the road to do God’s work and ours, confidently, competently, cheerfully. The verbs “share” and “support” were frequent, the sign of our essence being the sharing of our gifts and the bounties of creation to support others to accomplish their goals. And for another, the sign is our offering a place and a community to explore transcendence.

I said that this was a distinctly different sort of Day Away. We didn’t learn a body of information. We didn’t build a plan. We didn’t analyze a problem. We purposely catered to both hemispheres of our brains, took into account the varied ways of knowing we use. We enjoyed a day together that also gave us time and space apart as individuals. I guess you could say we spent the day being bathed in images, playing with parables: puzzling metaphors that tease the mind to think and imagine and recognize and believe.

And throughout this day a drama was unfolding in the tall grasses just off the edge of the pond, right near where several small groups were meeting. A young fawn (turns out just a week old) was nestled in those grasses. Every so often, when human voices rose, so did the fawn, looking around, toddling onto its legs but staying tight to its spot. A doe had been seen climbing Sheep Hill earlier that morning, and we dared hope—no, we truly needed it to be—that she had gone foraging and would be back.

The hours passed. Two hours, three, four, five. The fawn kept rustling, rising, looking about, no doe. Then, at the last, someone called out, “She’s back!” And as we gathered in the doorway to watch, there was the doe, standing over her fawn who was nursing. We don’t get to see that every day.

On the other hand, perhaps we could. Perhaps we would see more evidence of grace, more birthing of new life, more drama of redemption, if we sought more communion between our human hemispheres of explanation and awareness, more communion between daily life and the kingdom of God.

Monday, June 1, 2015

Imagine and Believe

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

I need visuals to help us consider the Nicodemus story. If you can’t see what these words say, let me help you with that: One says Believe, the other Imagine. They’ve sat in our library for a long time, awaiting their debut. We need them today, as we unpack the story of a secret disciple who makes an interesting companion on Trinity Sunday.

Nicodemus is introduced as a Pharisee. Pharisees have gotten bad press in ages past. Reappraised more recently, they’re understood now as having been progressive agents of change in the first century, helping shape what would become modern Judaism.

It could be that Episcopalians and Pharisees have more in common than we’d guessed. By whatever path he got there, Nicodemus displayed both a privileged life and a sense of social responsibility that made of him a leader. But he seems secretive in his approach to Jesus, coming to him under the cover of night. And if there’s one more trait that might make him one of us, he has a kind of puffy use of the pronoun “we”: “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God…” I can hear our Lord’s disciples muttering, “Oh? Who’s that “we”? For whom is Nicodemus making this claim? Is he leading a temple coup among the Pharisees, or is he a lone ranger covering his tracks and making himself sound grander than he is?”

One might even wonder whether Nicodemus, this man of substance who wears the mantle of authority and carries social approval, might be hoping to co-opt Jesus, an itinerant street preacher from impoverished Galilee, known to hang out with all the wrong sorts, a fellow “we” think has great potential if he would just go to the right seminary and polish his approach, get a little less other-worldly and help us keep the peace here on earth…

Notice how flattering Nicodemus’s words can be taken, and how Jesus does not take them: he cuts to the chase and confronts with his own spiritual purposes whatever agenda Nicodemus has: “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”

Here is where Nicodemus, to believe, must imagine. Imagine what Jesus might mean by being born from above. This stumps Nicodemus. Astonishes him. I think it even offends him at some level of his propriety.

And yet… Astonishment is one reason Nicodemus has sought out Jesus. “No one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” When Nicodemus is face to face with Jesus’s actions—his healings, exorcisms, feedings—the resulting astonishment does not block the Pharisee’s believing: in fact, it quickens his faith. But when he encounters Jesus himself, hears Jesus’s words, experiences Jesus’s attitude, finds himself in face to face relationship with Jesus, the resulting astonishment pushes the edge of the envelope. And suddenly, he is arguing with Jesus.

Nicodemus’s mind appears to be hemmed-in by his literal thinking, his insistence that one word must mean one thing. You could say that he lacks imagination. To believe, he must be freed to imagine. To be freed, he must welcome and experience the compassionate faithfulness of God that is being made intimately available to him in Jesus Christ, as it is to each of us.

I wonder if something very basic is going on in Nicodemus’s resistance. When Jesus chose not to respond to Nicodemus’s flattery, he answered the Pharisee with words that I imagine pushed him right out of his comfort zone. Words that we recognize as being about baptism—“You must be born from above”, and if that’s not clear enough, “born of water and Spirit.” To speak of baptism at that point in time was to evoke the image of John the Baptizer, that ragged firebrand who violated the propriety that would have mattered to this Pharisee. John the Baptizer attracted all sorts and conditions of people, by the hundreds and perhaps thousands, including the great unwashed lower classes. And what John preached was radical: “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” Tax collectors were told to stop collecting more than was due, and soldiers were ordered to stop extorting bribes and issuing threats. Soldiers of the occupying Roman imperial army were being ordered around by the likes of this wild man, John. What is the world coming to?

And Jesus is implying that Nicodemus must wade into the muddy water of the Jordan River, rubbing shoulders with all that teeming humanity, to what end? To lose face, to be branded as a wild-eyed revolutionary, to be targeted by Rome?

Doesn’t Jesus know that if he wants to establish a movement, he must make it easy for people, not harder than it already will be? What is he imagining, Nicodemus wonders.

I imagine that Nicodemus can’t yet shake free from his pride, his self-sufficiency, and his fear.

Nicodemus and Jesus are on two different wavelengths. The one is focused on the earthy, the other on the heavenly, the spiritual. Nicodemus can say to Jesus, “We know that you have come from God…” Jesus can say, “We speak of what we know…yet you do not receive our testimony.”

As true as it is to say that to believe, Nicodemus must imagine, it is also true that in order to imagine (in order to image what is challenging and puzzling) this human power needs to be yoked to belief, be inspired by believing, be guided by faith.

Nicodemus’s story makes an intriguing partner with Trinity Sunday. Today, the Church celebrates a doctrine, the one time in the rotation of fifty-two Sundays that we do this. Timing is everything, and it’s right on the heels of Pentecost, God’s giving of the Spirit to ignite the Church to respond to its calling to help God renew the face of the earth. It’s as if we watch God add the dynamic of the Holy Spirit to an equation that already has in it God the Creator and Jesus Christ the beloved, and the Church recognizes, “Yes! That’s it! Those are the three key ways we have come to know God, the one God in three aspects, three self-revealings, three ways to relate to the one God who chooses to relate to us with a singular love that casts out fear and challenges pride.”

Like Nicodemus, to believe we must imagine, and to imagine we need to hitch our wagon to the star of faith. Unlike Nicodemus, we do this spiritual work not secretly but transparently in fellowship with one another and in communion with God, both celebrating this doctrine of the Holy Trinity and puzzling over its meaning. This includes astonishment that Jesus, the Son of Man, must be lifted high upon the cross, amazement that eternal life is thrown open so graciously, and awe that the world—with all its teeming humanity and all its shimmering web of life—is to be made whole in him.

How it will happen, this renewal of the face of the earth and all its glorious mantle of life, will depend in no small part on our using our God-given gracious powers to believe and to imagine.