Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Evensong Sermon, 26 March 2011

When the Dean asked me to give a homily tonight and to relate the readings to the labyrinth, I must admit I wondered, but when I read the Gospel for tonight, I really decided it was a questionable enterprise. So let’s start with three questions:

Where do you come from?
Where do you stand right now?
Where are you going from here?

We’ve had some pointed questions today, in the Gospel this morning with Jesus and the woman at the well, and they continue here in this evenings lesson with the accusations that are gathered around the high priests house.

Three questions or accusations to Jesus: variations on the same question and not unrelated to our first series of questions.

1 - Did you say, ‘I am able to destroy the temple of God and to build it in three days.
2 - Is what they are saying true?
3 (And under oath) Are you the chosen one of God?

Jesus’s response is one that is both mysterious and profound.

“You will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power and coming on the clouds of heaven”

And outside of the high priests house, in the courtyard, three questions or accusations to Peter -- or variations on one question with three similar answers.

Q You were with the Galilean  A I don’t know what you’re talking about
Q You were with the Nazarene. A I don’t know the man
QYou are one of them A I swear I never knew the man

Where do you come from?
Where do you stand right now?
Where are you going from here?

If you haven’t walked a labyrinth you won’t know, but there are times when you’re on the way, the path of it, and you look around, and you are a little lost, and you’re not sure where you are relative to where you started or where you want to go. And the person who was in front of you for such a long while, now seems to be far away, and you fear that you’ve crossed some line and are on the way out when you were supposed to be on the way in, but maybe that’s for the best because you’re frustrated and - “For god’s sake, it’s from France of California or something and let’s just go get dinner or something!”

But the genius of the labyrinth is that it meets you where you are, and if you continue on your way you will find yourself where you should be. You might get surprised, or frustrated, or even agitated on the way, It may take more or less time than you expected, but you’ll make it home at the last. That sometimes is not easy to take.

Almost twenty years ago I lost a job that seemed to me a very important one. It was hard to take and I started working with a priest/spiritual director/therapist. I was fighting against a growing depression and one day he looked at me and said, “I know this is not easy for you, but you are exactly where you should be.”

I could have hit him, but he was right. I was in a place where I needed to answer some questions about meaning and motives and ministry, and it would take some serious and painful introspection.

Two one liners fit here, First, shortly before his death. Dag Hammarskj√∂ld wrote this in his spiritual journal, posthumously published as “Markings;” “The road chose you and you must be thankful.” Next, from a bumper sticker some years ago: “If you are not worried, perhaps you do not fully understand the situation.”

Jesus is asked where he comes from, what he stands for, and what the end of all this will be. And he must know what is coming if..., if what started in love, a ministry of love, of presence, of mercy will last, will continue That there might be pain, then it might hurt, then it will could take  him to hell and back and beyond any human understanding of what life and death and love and connection, to God and to one another,could mean. But he’s not going to leave the way, he’s staying on that mysterious labyrinth, he’s following the path. And that is as it should be.

Peter looks, on the other hand, like he’s losing the thread, He denies who he’s with, how he’s connected, and what he loves. Peter curses the greatest blessing he will ever know. And he runs away from it all, for a little while anyway.

Where do you come from?
Where do you stand right now?
Where are you going from here, and where will you end up?

When you’re on the labyrinth there are times when you lose the idea of yourself as being on somebody else’s journey, when you feel utterly alone, and you just have to go ahead, step by step, now by now. Even if you fear you’ve lost your way, even if you aren’t even sure you want to continue, and you are no longer the person you were when you started, you just keep on the way.

Jesus stays true to the love that “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” to the end and beyond, Peter stalls, cuts and runs, returns later and gets back on the path to the end. And in the end he goes where he’s supposed to go, and he meets Jesus again and again and again on the way.

But not right now. Can you see them so far apart, so that it is hard to think that Peter, even Peter, is where he is supposed to be: so far from Jesus, so far from where he started, so far from home. But he gets there at the last; and maybe be he needs to take all the time it takes. Maybe he was exactly where he was supposed to be in order to learn what he needed to know. Perhaps what looked like a detour was the crucial step on his final pilgrimage home.

An American baseball player, Satchel Page, once said, “wherever you go, there you are!” and this evening, if you find yourself wondering where you come from, where you find firm ground right now, and where you’ll going from here; then you are in the right place. Hold fast to the path, the way, the long route home, and if you lose the way every once in awhile,it is all right. Know this: you are forgiven, maybe even blessed, if you keep trying, come back, one more time again to walk the long way home with the God who comes to be known as the way and the truth and the life.  Amen.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

On The Advantages Of Being Less Sure And Seeing Clearly - rewritten from a few years ago

I was pretty sure of things twenty five years ago. I was taking an intern year away from the Episcopal seminary where I had been studying and was in the middle of an intern year as a youth minister in a small town in Northern California, I had been hitting the gym faithfully, religiously even, and was in the best shape of my life, I was on a proper professional track at the church where I was serving, and I was engaged to be married to a wonderful woman whom I loved and who loved me. So everything was in place, as I was sure it should be, with the exception of the transmission of my car Рwhich was not working at all - and so I found myself on a long and circuitous bus and subway trip to get from Eureka, the town where I was working, to San Francisco, then across the Bay to Berkeley, the city where my seminary and fiancée were waiting. I was so happy, so proud, so sure. I have learned more since then, and in most ways I think I am both happier and more real, but I have never been that sure of myself.

So I took this long bus ride down the Redwood Highway and I read a book on ministry and wrote in my journal and thought about my life, and when I got into San Francisco I went into the nearest BART station, the local interurban subway/railway, to catch the train to Berkeley. And this black guy, African American came up alongside of me on the platform and I could see that he wasn’t walking too steady and his clothes looked a little rough and he might have smelled, though from work or dirty clothes or booze I don’t remember. And he said, “Where do I get the train to Oakland?” and he was right next to me.

So I looked towards the track to our right and said, “I think you’ll find it over there.” And he raised his voice a bit and said, “I don’t want to know what you think, I want to know what you know.” And I thought, “Well, I am going to get mugged or worse, here it comes. And I said, “It’s right over there.” And he said, “Look at me!” And I took a breath and looked up at him – and I saw a man who was probably a bit older than I, and tired, probably harder working than I had ever been, who had a few scars and some real serious dignity that he had likely had to fight for over the years.  And I felt sorry, both for him and, surprisingly, for me, and I wasn’t afraid anymore. And I looked at him and said, “the train for Oakland will be on this platform. And he looked at me for a minute and then said, “Thank you,” and walked away.

And I felt like I saw something about me that I hadn’t seen before. Something about how narrow I was, how snobbish, self-serving, insulated by my own concerns from a world that was big and unpredictable and unsafe and full – maybe – of messengers of God that I might have overlooked in my narrowness of vision. I saw that day that I didn’t see much, about myself and about Gods’ world at all. It’s been twenty five years since, and I can still see his face. I never knew his name, never will. But I have a hunch who he might have been and why he spoke to me.

The part of the Gospel that spoke to me in that encounter, that lit it up further and turned it into a kind of icon, was the story in John where Jesus meets the Samaritan woman at the well. And the question that sparked for me then, and continues to speak to me today is this: What is in your vision? Who do you see? And who sees you? And how is that for you?  There is so much in that biblical encounter scene that I want to cut it down from a very complicated scene in a major motion picture to a couple of photos, a few quick snaps to focus on some things so that we can see what might be happening from a different angle.

Now at first glance nobody sees anybody in the story. Jesus asks the woman at the well for some water and she’s amazed that he doesn’t seem to see she is Samaritan – someone that a good Jew would avoid, keep away from, not share water, utensils, let alone conversation, And she tells him this, then they start talking for real. The pictures become close-ups.

Now Jesus says something very direct. “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink’, you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.”

And maybe the Samaritan woman sees that there is someone, something out of the ordinary here; worth the chance of a direct encounter and she looks at him, and says,  “Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water…are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well? She asks him questions concerned with practicality, history, culture and custom

Then Jesus comes back with one of those memorable one-liners that make the Gospel of John such a majestic document. ‘Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.’

And if they weren’t looking at each other face to face before, they are now. And she says, ‘Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.’ Save me from need, from the daily walk to the well, give me some rest. Can you see them talking now?

 A quick and very direct dialogue follows: like one, two three.
“Go, call your husband, and come back.”
“I have no husband.”
“Right… you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband.”

Let’s pause for two quick questions here: what do you do when you see the Messiah? And what do you do when the Messiah sees you? What do you do when the one who is the ultimate word of God’s love and knowledge and compassion and concern is face to face with you and telling you the story of your life?

The man on the subway platform in San Francisco forced me to look at him, and in that moment I saw parts of myself that I had never seen before. But I also realized that when we were looking at each other, when he forced me to meet him face to face, that he forgave me. It took me a little longer to come to terms with the depth of my racism and classism and the shallowness of my egoism: all that took awhile and in some way it is still working its way out. But that was my problem, not his. He had already forgiven me.  It was both all over and all new at that moment.

Can you imagine what it would feel like for that woman? All the mistakes made, the wrong roads taken, the commandments broken and defenses and denials made up to protect the little girl who got lost on the wrong way a long time before: most of us know something about that path. Then to have Jesus look on you and know you, and love you and forgive you: all over and all new at that moment. What if we looked at all our own history with the deep love and forgiveness of God that we see in the life and teaching, the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the human face of God face to face with us, walking and talking along side us, in the middle of life with us, in love with us? What if we could see our way clear to forgive and love ourselves that much? What if we could forgive and love each other too?

That’s why we are come together as church, in our particular subway stations of the sprit, to look for God in those we overlook, to be forgiven and renewed by those we’ve never seen clearly before, including ourselves. As William Blake writes, we are here “to learn to bear the beams of love,” and to forgive and to see one another, ourselves, our God: in the light of grace and forgiveness and love of Jesus Christ. Sometimes it is not easy, but it can be wonderful. So we stop here on in the middle of the journey of our lives, to come to the table and take the nourishment, bread and wine, living water, the flesh and blood and love of God into our lives. So that we can see it all – the world, the friend, the stranger, more clearly when we meet them all face to face, and so that we can continue the ministry of Christ, to be messengers of repentance, refreshment, forgiveness and renewal, enlightenment. To see the world in God’s light and God’s love and God’s life. All in the name of Christ.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Lent2A - Harvest Festival

What does it mean to be born again?

A Pharisee, a leader, Nicodemus, comes to Jesus by night: “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God,” and Jesus answers him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”

So is he saying that Nicodemus, having seen these things, has been born from above: that’s he’s been reborn and doesn’t know it. Maybe, but Nicodemus’s not sure, he asks, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? And Jesus answers, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.”

He says a lot more, with phrases that have given heart and cause confusion to a lot of people in the last two thousand years, and our selection from John’s Gospel ends with this phrase: “God sent the Son into the world, not to condemn, but in order that the world might be saved [made finally whole, find its right end, get home at last] through him.”

And what does that mean? How can we see the kingdom, how can we born again, how do we make it home at the last? Now you can find people who say it is a simple matter, “sign on the dotted line, simply have faith, and all will be well,” but that’s not my experience after living with this text for over 40 years, ever since I started looking for the kingdom, this new birth, this new reality of life, as a young man. No an easy answer, but maybe something better. For looking deeply into these texts might point you to a reality that is more than words: more vibrant, something that pushes back; like human flesh, like God meeting human flesh, and I want to share some ways we can explore the reality of this relationship

Many in the Anglican tradition make room with a model for learning and discernment that uses the image of a four-legged stool - with one leg each in scripture, tradition, reason and experience. It’s a way we keep our faith spacious, balanced, intimate and honest. But in no way is it easy.

First, we are people of the Scripture, and our daily lives need to be seen and understood in the history, poetry, genealogy, prophesy, revelation we see in the Hebrew Scripture, which we call the Old Testament, as well as in the Christian Gospels, Acts, Epistles and Revelation that we know as the New Testament. And don’t look for too much stained glass all the time: more politics, power plays, shortcuts, love, hate, sex, poetry, violence, history, hope, faith, bad weather and good news. This is both a family history and the foundational story of who we are a humans, the people who have tried - sometimes a little, sometimes a lot, sometimes turning aside and getting it wrong, and starting again and again - to follow God.

We are also a people who have gathered, prayed, considered, and reflected in the light of those books for the last two thousand years. So there is an immense body of work, more writings, poetics, prophesy and politics, that need be considered: the work of the community gathered prayerfully throughout history, with bad mistakes and new beginnings, a deep and profound tradition that resounds and responds to the mighty acts of God over time, to the present day. So, Scripture and Tradition.

Then, we are a people who believe as well that the Spirit of God never ceases working in the whole world. In that light we use our reason to evaluate all good thoughts and actions, from all peoples and places and cultures, through education, the social and natural sciences, all technology, art and media, as ground for inspiration, redemption, recreation. We believe that the creation is good and we are not afraid to use our God-given reason.

And, finally, in light of the incarnation of God in Christ; we honor our very own lives, our corporate and personal experience. Here we take the chance that every one of us here, and everywhere, is a word of God, a gift of God: a place where God’s creativity, redeeming love, intimate conspiracy can come to new birth and speak in a new way.   So Scripture, Tradition, Reason, Experience: these are the four components in this Anglican way as we come to consider what Jesus might mean for us.

That’s how we make sense of our part, both personal and corporate. But there is more. Jesus says, “Follow me,” follow me away from your old history into a new mystery, into a new and faithful pilgrimage to the future, through the old certainties and into the unfinished rhythm of a dying-rising life; right through the middle of life, death, resurrection and return.

How can we live with life this large, life asking this much? How do we follow the way of Jesus into these depths? Through water and the spirit, through faith and grace, being born again and again in the spirit; day by day, moment by moment, giving away and finding our lives within the heart of the Christian story, with the stories, the tradition, the reason and the community, through the way of the Christian year. Four more ways.

Listen: each one of us here has had a moment, and maybe more than one, where God opens our eyes to glory, care, compassion; to the fragile beauty of what it means to be on this tenuous human journey together. And that is perhaps a start of what it might mean to be born again, when, in a sense, our individual participation in the Christmas story comes alive: when Jesus – God’s word and work of love and acceptance and hope, God’s word for the long journey - is born in our lives. It is a kind of Christmas that grows up and moves out, enlightens us and lightens up the world we live in,;an Epiphany where people see the difference, note the newness and the change in us, taking us to a new way of being in the world, being born into a new world. If you’ve lived at all, you know you’ve lived like this.

But for most of us, it doesn’t last that long. The road gets narrow and turns, the fires or floods come, the foundations shake, and we lose the way. For life has tough times, tragic moments, dead ends. And here’s where the man on the cross is a silent and eloquent picture for each of us, a picture of each of us: caught where hope falls silent,, where all we know of faith falls dead, where we lose our lives. For every one there comes a time when you say, “I don’t know how in God’s name I am going to get through this.” and on Good Friday we see that God knows the way through.

That’s where the mystery comes: where we find the reality of the life and love of God rises up above all false hopes, and God’s life even has room for death. By grace we wake up to  an Easter where new life opens in a new world, where hope is bigger than we know; where we can move to an new participation and understanding of  - not only how big God is - but how intimate, how close God can come: a place where the whole creation seems to speak a new language, a Pentecost, where the deep intimacy of the Holy Spirit enlivens our lives and reforms our relations and our understandings. It may not always last, it usually doesn’t. But you will remember.

Christmas, Good Friday, Easter, Pentecost! Life, Death, Resurrection, Return! The stories we tell every Sunday carry all the contradictions that come in living life on life’s terms, trying to be whole and human and holy; and Sunday after Sunday we stand in the middle of our lives, in the middle of this place, and say, Christ has died, Christ is Risen, Christ will come again! Life, death, resurrection, return! It’s the journey of a lifetime.

God has come to offer wholeness, salvation, companionship; and not by any kind of shortcut. “You must be born again!” Right through the middle of the world. It is usually not easy, it can hurt like hell, it made Jesus cry, there’s no room for a stained glass lens to filter out all the nasty bits, but it is worth it. For it is a way that can take you through with a kind of growing understanding and hope, through the tough times, the drought and floods, and into the last gathering, the final harvest, by the long way home.

Almost 20 years ago, when I was the chaplain at San Francisco State University, a really narrow, terribly unpleasant Christian pastor looked at me and asked, “Have you been born again?” And I said, "On a good day, at least four times!" The way God we follow is both that big and that intimate. Moving every instant: into a continuing and deeper participation in God’s creativity, God’s pilgrimage in flesh and history, God’s loving and continuing intercourse in the intimacy of the spirit. It is a wide way, a deep way, a wonderful way, a way that will grow you up and bring you back where you started for God’s sake. So we come here to learn what it means to be alive, dying and rising in a world where Christ has died, Christ is risen, and Christ will come again. We come here, by the grace of God, to learn who we are.

Sunday, March 06, 2011

Epiphany 9A

In todays lessons we look at the tension between law and love, in our hebrew heritage, our churches tradition, there is always the ongoing conversation on how seriously we are to take all the commandments, the customs, the way we always do things, in our community,  and that way God calls us to live in a world that is always renewed, reformed, recalled in love. How do we balance between commandments and compassion. How do we balance between law and love?

A story: the worst dinner party I ever attended happened around 25 years ago. I was invited by a couple I knew through church to a posh private club for dinner. It was all quite grand: we drove up to the main door where their Cadillac was whisked away by the parking attendant, we were led through marble halls and seated in the main dining room with great ceremony, the menus were huge and handed over with suitable flourishes, there was lots of very french-sounding food: but the conversation was forced, and at one point after a long pause, the wife said, “Aren’t we having fun?” And we weren’t! It was what kids used to call play-acting, The conversation and the company neither reached the ground nor came to life. And we lost touch not long after that.

Now in terms of the law, all the proper actions were there, the liturgy was well laid out but the celebration didn’t go anywhere, it was just dead, there was no life, no love, no enlightening spirit connecting it all together.

Now this is not to disparage good food, good entertainment, a dinner with friends at anytime is a joy forever, but where’s the center of our gathering, what’s the focus of meeting friends, meeting the world, meeting God in daily life, what’s the most important part? In a world moved increasingly by the proper image, the right sound bite, the good appearance, Jesus says just looking good, just doing the right thing, is not enough.

Jesus says, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many deeds of power in your name?’ Then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers.’ “Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock

So it’s not something - anything, you do - it has to be deeper than doing, it has to do with who you are.

Deuteronomy says it is “Only to fear the Lord your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, 13and to keep the commandments”

Jesus follows that and says, you are to love God with all your heart, mind, soul and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself. On this hang all the laws and commandments.  So that’s where we build our house, our hope, our daily lives; but it needs to be buttressed up with other daily habitual moral attitudes and actions, and needs to be enlivened by a hopeful heart and a living faith that is founded and grounded in Christ, the rock of our lives.

So how do we get there from here? How do we get to a place where we can better build the house of faith, the grace of action, the discipline of daily duty and discipleship as we follow and serve Christ in our daily lives? Can we do this in a way that enlivens us, in our ongoing rituals and relationships? How do we keep our hearts and pity fresh, so that our prayers, our pieties, our dinner parties and our Eucharists don’t turn into empty rituals and joyless feasts? How do we help to keep our lives as followers of Jesus moving with forgiveness, renewal and love?  Where do we find fresh air, fresh beginnings, in our ongoing pilgrimage within God’s world of law and love?

Let me give three examples;

First, the 14th century devotional book called the Cloud of Unknowing recommends a good but somewhat complex way to pray, I see it as a kind of swimming stroke: we push down on all that keeps us from God, all our past foibles and failures and put them behind us in a “cloud of forgetting”, then we strive forward towards a God who is so much more than we  can ever know in  an a “cloud of unknowing,” That can be a very powerful way of approaching God, and we can make progress in this way, but there are some days when it is just too complex, and then the author says you can always just say “Help!”

“Help” can be one of the best prayers: the man who comes to Jesus with a sick son says, “I believe, help my unbelief... I have faith, help me where faith falls short.” There’s faith and power there in all that undressed honesty. You can just say help, then be prepared to listen, be prepared to be surprised and renewed.

Another story. A woman recently told me that while her husband was dying of a fast-growing cancer they had a quiet moment together. She said, “Do you forgive me?” and he said, “Yes,” then he said, “do you forgive me?” and she said “Yes.” and she said the room was so full of God that she will never forget it, and it changed everything.

Forgiveness opens space, gives room for God to grow in us anew; even a half-held motion in that direction, a prayer that is a “I am not quite there yet but I am willing to try to let go of an old grudge, an old pain or scar:” even that beginning, moving towards a larger forgiveness, opens room for new hope, new healing, new awareness of God’s grace in our daily lives and ministries: get us down to the rock of right action, good faith, good living ground in Christ’s love.

We don’t need to give complex dinner parties, we aren’t called to always know what is right, we know that we’ll make mistakes, cause trouble, take wrong turns, get caught in complex situations; and there are so many customs and commandments, expectation and demands in the world around us that if is only following commandments we’re going to muck up sometimes, and it is not surprising that we sometimes lose hope. But we don’t need to lose our relationship with God.

I was priested just over a year ago, after over 25 years of a ministry spent mainly in university chaplaincy and teaching in parishes and schools, and it’s been wonderful and complex year. But sometimes there are questions of etiquette, proper conduct, custom: should I be called Father or Rob, should I wear a black shirt with collar, a white shirt with crosses, should I swear less, pray more, follow new rules, give up old ways, lose weight, gain gravity? Sometimes it feels quite complex.

Now I tend to wake up before dawn. Where I am now living the living room looks east over lawn and a stand of Eucalyptus, and a few weeks ago, after a rainy night with some thunder and lightning, I was sitting in the dark with a cup of good coffee in my hand, wondering and praying as the light of day slowly came up in the sky front of met. And I considered where I’ve been and where I might be going and how I am doing, and finally I just said, “God, do you love me?” and it was as if God said “Yes,” and I took a breath and a sip of good hot coffee with a bit more light behind the trees to the east and it was as if God said, “Do you love me?” and I said, “Yes.” and nothing really heavy happened, except for two kookaburras began laughing as the light got stronger and the rain started again, and that was enough for me to begin again.

T.S. Eliot writes: “These are only hints and guesses/Hints followed by guesses; and the rest/Is prayer, observance, discipline, thought and action.” But very simple actions can help us in so many ways to keep our daily focus open enough for listening for responding, repentance, renewal; so that our souls can be refreshed by the love of God, the breath of the Spirit, the life of Christ in our daily ministries, and that must be our hope.