Sunday, August 26, 2012

Diving into Dangerous Truths - Pentecost 13B

In the summer of 1959, when I was 13 years old, I practiced diving almost religiously at the L-shaped pool at the back of the small tennis club three blocks from where my parents lived in Sacramento, California. It was a great summer! Looking back, all that practice, that discipline, may have had to do with making sense, making peace, with the body that was growing too fast, in ways that surprised me; trying to master and make peace with that growing mystery. Part of it also might have been learning to be a teenaged pack animal – most of my friends at the tennis club that summer were doing the same thing. But at any rate, alongside of some tennis, a good part of my days were spent practicing a swan dive, a jackknife, and a cannonball (which I was quite proud of). I decided against trying a cutaway dive when a friend's attempt ended up with knocking out four front teeth on the diving board. Instead I worked to master, in increasing order of difficulty; the half gainer, the backflip, and the full forward somersault.

Learning the half gainer wasn't too hard after I reconciled myself to the fact that I would often land painfully flat on my back, leaving a large red mark, until I got to the point where my feet finally hit the water first. I used my height to make the backflip work; flailing in a way that, if not elegant, was effective in turning me over in the middle of the air and generally completing a full backwards somersault. But the forward somersault was a different matter. I couldn't just jump forward and let the momentum of the dive carry me over: instead, I had to jump and rise as if I were going into a jackknife, then tuck my arms and head into a ball and propel myself quickly enough so that I could turn over in time to meet the water fingers first. It was not easy at all.

And I kept coming back to this memory, this teenage liturgy from over 50 years ago, when I was reading and rereading John's Gospel for this morning. What is Jesus trying to tell us in this reading? What is the center, what was the destination, why is it such a difficult teaching, how do we dive into the living water here?

But John's Gospel constantly points to this hard-to-grasp possibility, that Jesus points to as an actuality, that the very word of God - there from the beginning, creating, ordering, redeeming the universe  - has come to dwell with us, literally pitching his tent with us, in the middle of human being. And that we are called to incorporate him into our being by partaking of him, by eating his very flesh and blood.

This teaching was not easy at all for his disciples, or for any Jews of the time. Cannibalism was forbidden, and for someone to be touched by human blood was to be defiled, and here was Jesus calling his friends and followers to, literally, drink his blood, to gnaw on his very flesh.

These tough teachings are typical of John’s Gospel. In many ways this conversations resonates with an earlier one with Nicodemus in Chapter three; “Unless a man be born again he cannot inherit the kingdom of heaven” When Nicodemus protests at physical impossibility, Jesus points to a spiritual reality where the "wind blows where it blows" and where the spirit comes where it will, where God's will will be done. And that confounds Nicodemus, “how can these things happen?.” And I think it confounds us as well.

So while we’re chewing on this improbable possibility, no less than Nicodemus wondering about being born again, Jesus goes on beyond us. “It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless. The words that were spoken to you are spirit and life.”

But what if learning to take in the substance and spirit of Jesus's life, the body and blood of his teaching, is a little like the way I learned to tuck my body into a very small place in order to turnover : this momentary conversion, so that I could move quickly in the middle of the air and complete that difficult dive; ending up as I would with a regular jackknife, but with this wonderful revolution in the middle.

There was a song popular in the middle 1950s that began, “Pretend you're happy when you are blue, it isn’t very hard to do, and you will find happiness without an end whenever you pretend.”

Sacraments are not like this: the water of baptism, the rings at a wedding, laying on of hands at confirmation or ordination, the oils of healing or unction, the very bread and wine we gather ‘round today, have nothing of pretense or magic about them. But they are actions which open us to be aware of the reality of life and death and resurrection in Christ's world. They are occasions, times when we move carefully and take heed, where we take in the possibility that all life is holy because God is here and he has pitched his tent in our very midst and has come to be our friend.

In the late 1960s, some 10 years after my disciplined diving summer, I was baptized in the Episcopal Church, the American Anglicans. The poet Philip Larkin says we come to church to “take ourselves more seriously” and there was a bit of that. But there was also a great hope opening in me, responding to a half heard, half hoped-for call, that the universe might mean more, might be leading me in love, in a way that I could not quite believe, but could almost reach out and touch, and wanted to dive into; and three passes of water on my forehead began that journey

Jesus says we must be born again of water and the Spirit. Jesus says we must incorporate his body and blood into our lives, Jesus says we are called to be his friends: and that is what we are here for; to act that out here, so that we can live that out everywhere.

Going back to the diving board: what I learned there was something about discipline and dedication, a willingness to learn, a growing sense of commitment to seeing it through, to moving towards the right action, so that I could  take a jump, turn around in time and come home at the last. In that way the forward somersault was a kind of sacramental preparation for the waters of life.

It is a bit of a dangerous opportunity,like those sacramental moments: the refreshing water, the bread and wine, the hands on the head, the rings shared, the blessings given, the journey begun. And we can be forgiven for sometimes forgetting that these moments of refreshment and renewal all point outward to remind us of our larger life, our deeper ministry in the world.

But what we do here moves us in that direction, towards that revolution, for Christ has said he will be here, in his self-giving, in sharing his body and blood, substance and spirit, in imparting his purpose and passion, that we may be members of his body,; a body of belief, of action, of compassion, people brought together by the spirit in love to be love: to be a city on a Hill, to be the salt of the earth, to be the light of the world.  Amen.

Sunday, August 05, 2012

Jesus want to know...

Here’s a question to start: Have you ever been to a gathering, a meeting, a party on your way to somewhere else and met someone who decided they really wanted to know you and you think, “this is going to take longer than I expected.”?
Perhaps Jesus is like this, particularly in John’s Gospel: here is a picture of the word of God, who has been here from the beginning pitching his tent  in the middle of our living room, somewhere between the TV, the couch, the door to the kitchen. It can be difficult.
But in each of the Gospels he tends to be demanding: it is no accident that the two words that occur most in the gospel of Mark are “immediately” and “astonished”: because things change when Jesus is around! Luke stretches us out by making inconvenient and important connections with people we might rather overlook; and Matthew weaves the story of this irregular Messiah, Saviour, God-with-us, using images and stories which seem as old as the creation.
And Jesus shows up in John’s Gospel and says, “I am the bread of life,” and sometimes we can be forgiven for thinking that actually we might  be satisfied by a drink, some dip, and maybe peanuts before we go on somewhere else, to the rest of our life; But this Jesus is still saying something like he is the center of everything. And how do we get around that?
Here’s a little one-liner; “No matter where you are, it is not always easy being here.” But we live in a culture that is increasingly well designed to make us want to be somewhere else, someone else, and fairly quickly at that.
Ann Wilson Sheaf writes that we are addicted to the 3 ifs: “what if”, “as if”, and “if only”: They’re a seductive trio that make almost everything a threat, or a promise or a vague possibility: but while we stand paralyzed at these wide crossroads Jesus comes and says: “You are light, a city, salt. Whose silence are you? Whose hopes are you? Who are you?" And Jesus comes to say that he is bread for the world, living water, wine for the banquet, a celebration that culminates in the present moment and lasts forever. 
And we face him in Scripture, through the tradition, in our churches, at our gatherings, in the friend and the stranger, in the surprising emergencies and opportunities of our lives, the places were we pause and pass on, where he surprises and threatens and renews us. And it isn't easy to get our heads around what a relationship with Jesus looks like, especially with the Gospel of John where he calls us to come and see, to look at him and ourselves like we've never seen anything before; as if this meeting might be more real than we ever could have asked or imagined.
Most of us are not used to meeting people like this, in this world where those three ‘if”s: “what if”, “as if”, “if only”, live. He can be a threat here, where that living death burns up in the face of his dying life, his vivid reality, his real hope
Some years ago I was the senior chaplain at RMIT University in Melbourne, and I will never forget a young student, single mother, daughter of immigrants, dealing with deep depression, sitting in my office and saying, “I go to the mall, and I look on the web, and I don't see anyone who looks like me, and I don't know what is wrong with me.”
What was wrong was her answer needed to be larger than question she was asking; what was wrong was that the mall and web couldn't allow the conversation that needed to take place so that she could remember, be reminded, be renewed, in who she was and where she came from and why all the traveling. 
But when Jesus meets us in the middle of our lives and tells us who he is and asks us who we are, then suddenly the whole world becomes present in a new way and we realize we have to become brand new people. And to get there from here we have to have faith in Jesus, we have to have a new choreography of belief and action; we have to learn to live and move and have our being in this new possibility of relationship and reality
Marcus Borg, in a book called “The Heart of Christianity,” breaks the word “faith” into four dimensions, images and actions which can build a body of belief, understanding and practice. He uses four Latin words to define what biblical, theological, critical, real faith, in Jesus might mean for us today.
The first is, “Accensus,” what we assent to: not just signing on the dotted line, but the formulations of faith, that delineate our desires and dedications, our values and priorities, our dilemma and our diagnosis. Anyone here remember the 4 spiritual laws? Four simple questions, four easy answers, sign on the dotted line and your place in heaven is assured. Maybe add the Nicene Creed or the 39 articles; they both can be valuable - though neither is a particularly good party piece. Better possibilities might be the Lord's Prayer, the Beatitudes, the places where Jesus assures us we will meet him in the hungry, the lonely, the lame and the lost: or these wonderful one-liners in the Gospel of John where he calls us to participate in the presence, in the dance, of the spirit as we join him in returning to the Father. So, not just sign on that dotted line, but live into that long journey!
The second word for faith is “Fiducia” related to fiduciary, a place where we can find trust. About twenty five years ago I was teaching a class on meditation at our Cathedral in San Francisco and suddenly remembered sitting on my grandfather's lap as a young boy, resting back on his ample belly and feeling safe and held. The image of God as a fat old man doesn't work for everyone, (though the farther I go, the more I like it) but finding the place where we can sit and trust being, where we can just let being be, is incredibly valuable  -- although it is not easy, because it can remind us of our noisy allegiances to those 3 ifs as well as the call of the Mall and the web. But the truth is that a meditative practice, a dedication to simple silence, can show so much noise in your life
A few nights ago I was having a meditative moment in my hotel room after walking out to that very interesting “Art Gallery and Museum of the Northern Territory.”  I was simply using a phrase and following my breathing to find the silence under everything, when I heard a very small sound and surprised myself by thinking that there was almost no likelihood that the son of Sweetheart, that very large crocodile, had found its way to the adjoining bathroom. To learn to lean into God's dependable silence is to come to know how noisy, how crazy, our lives can be if we’re not careful.
The third word Borg uses for faith is “Fidelitas” as a faithful relationship -- with a partner, friend, with a stranger at the party, with the very glory of God. For, in John's Gospel, Jesus calls us to a conversation, a dancing with God  with all the distinctive disabilities and detritus and desires of our lives while making room for absolutely everything and everyone in that dance. It makes the world very big and extremely intimate.
But This relates to today’s other lessons; the relentless egoism of King David taking another man's life, another man's wife, and not seeing a world that is larger than his own needs or ambitions. Relates to the vision in the letter of the Ephesians: the ecology of the faithful family or village, the community of faith, where gifts are shared, where compassion and companionship are held in common.
The fourth phrase is “Visio’ related to Vision. Finally Borg asks us how we see, envision, move to live out into this new possibility in these four dimensions of faith, with the given texts and contexts of our times, learning to lean deep into the dependability of God and the mystery of the present moment, committing to this lively wrestling with God in the context of each and all of our relationships; stepping into this in each and every moment of our lives in God's great dance right in the middle of humankind
That is what this liturgy is about, to turn us around to see today anew: that Christ is here, Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again. These four dimensions of life that come to us right here in the middle of our lives: the chance for a conversation with the God who has pitched his tent in the middle of all these gathering opportunities, beginning now and lasting forever.
Assensus, Fiducia, Fidelitas, Visio. “Life, Death, Resurrection, Return!” "Quick, now, here, now, aways", Jesus comes to the middle of our lives and asks us who we are. And we turn around like people newly born and say to him, you are the bread of life!