Saturday, December 24, 2016

Christmas Sermon 2016 - somewhat recycled but sincere

The story I just read from the Gospel of Luke is a very strange one, though it is probably a story you’ve heard many times before; maybe memory connects it to other services in church buildings, connects to old music and stained glass, or to family dinners, and times of joy or maybe frustration and dread; or maybe the story connects  certain movies, either biblical spectaculars or family disaster-comedy ending with reunions in snowy villages with happy resolutions, starring Bing Crosby or Macauley Culkin or a cartoon character, generally not in the same film, generally fiction.

But I would like to go back to that original story we just heard and walk through it in a way that emphasises its original strangeness: the shock of the encounter, the journey, the discovery, and the moment of choosing where we might go from here.

So just imagine that all this is taking place inside your head. You’ve been spending the day minding your thoughts, watching, shepherding your concerns, looking over the various responsibilities that make up your daily existence: the ways you spend your days; whether that has to do with your job or family; with parents, partners or children, people you see on the street or at the store; whether it has to do with demands or depression, with money or meaning, health or wholeness, power or poetry; love, life or death. So you’re sitting here or there with all those concerns wandering like sheep over the meadows and mountains of your mind (And I apologise if this sounds like a 1970s song).

Then something new very happens. You are surprised by an idea, a possibility, a message that comes from someplace you have never considered before. You see something new! Remember the word we translate as angel simply means “messenger;” so pretend that a messenger (maybe several, or even lots of them) arrives on the scene and you have this intuition, insight, that the conveyed message is coming from someplace that is both deeper, higher, larger, livelier than the world you usually inhabit, telling you something new: opening a possibility that there could be, that you could see, a new way of being, of living, becoming, in the world, and that you need to leave aside your taken for granted everyday concerns and attend to this new horizon of reality.

Now these messengers may have wings, they may be in space suits, they may be dressed in an unremarkable manner; but let that matter less than their message, which is moving you towards a new discovery of how to be in the world, of how to be who you are.

So you leave your flocks, the usual and habitual concerns, and let them take care of themselves for a little while, and you follow this promising message to an incongruous destination and find yourself witnessing something that is absolutely newborn.

No birth happens in a vacuum. This one has been nurtured and mothered in the midst of surprise and miracle, there is a husbanding hope and help alongside, and all the animals of every day life are there as well. This all makes sense to the way you see the world: odd, but not too unusual. Yet there is something completely newborn in the middle of it. Something you never thought you’d see.

Any baby is a surprise. When I was young they all seemed to to look like Winston Churchill. But even now they seem to bring a message from another place, they’re seem like they’re not quite with us yet. And this baby is like that, except more so.

So I am going to get theoretical here. An English theologian from the 1950s talked about something called “God-shaped events.” So assume for the moment that the word “God” might mean something concerning holiness, justice, compassion, connectedness, truth, love. And just allow that  sometimes we can see small packages containing those events or transactions carried by or acted out in the life of others, as well as in our own lives: maybe even more than sometimes. Actually I would be surprised if there were anyone in this room today who had not been amazed fairly recently, in the last few hours, earlier today, this week anyway, by some surprise of caring, a “God-shaped” event they have received from another person; an unexpected gift, a quality of presence, a reaching out in love. I’d say that’s close to the centre of being human.

But it is as if this baby, in this stable that seems surprisingly unstable, both carries and is carried by that deepest current of love. It is as if the child is both a wide window into and a window, a vista, in which a depth and height and breadth, of caring is face to face with you. If the earlier messengers spoke a word of hope and holiness, then this infant is both sonnet and symphony, is Technicolor and 3-D and special effects beyond belief, and in looking at this child you see yourself and the world you thought you lived in, anew.

And this is all happening inside your head. Except that your head seems to be open to something bigger than itself, bigger than what you usually think of as the world, and you have this strange perception, call it a hope, that this is bigger than you know, that the baby may be the truth of how we are related to the centre of everything, to the edge of everything, to everything and everyone we know. And it has to do with love, being born in love, traveling in love, making mistakes and failing miserably, and rising up again to begin again in the name of love.

So if that is the case, then this baby, this new beginning, isn’t just happening in your head. It’s happening in the world you live in day to day, in the world of history, institutions, expectations, culture, here and now as well as there and then. And you look around at this church and the people gathered, at the old books, the strange robes, the stained glass and see a tradition and community gathered in the hope that this life, this love, is at the heart of reality.

A wise man once said, “Look at everything, look at anything, until it surprises you, until it tells you something you don’t know.” I’d say this: look at the story: Luke, Joseph, Mary, Bethlehem, the shepherd and the angels, look carefully at the tradition, and the hope of this place, and the hope you carry in your own heart; and see if this perception, tradition, community gathered over time and space can offer you a way to deepen your daily experience of connectedness and compassion and caring for yourself and your neighbour and the stranger too.

Then go back to your daily concerns, shepherding them in your everyday fields, but remembering the Angels as well, the newborn truth, remember the possibility of compassion and connectedness, holiness and hope, that it all may be true.

In the name of Christ. Amen

Saturday, December 17, 2016

Advent 4A

Every season of the Christian year has its own questions and concerns, and the Advent questions are these: How does a word of God come among us? How is it conceived, raised up, given life? How does a message, a newborn relationship, a  newborn call to serve, to heal, to teach, to love, to live out God’s love, first take root in our minds, hearts, priorities and purpose? How does God’s life once again come to live in our lives?

A collection of answer to that question are seen and articulated in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus and in the history of the church. For we are the body of Christ, the living and breathing record of the life and ministry of Jesus, of God’s word in flesh, over time, seen and lived out in history, geography and community. So the recorded lives of the saints, of the apostles, of the martyrs, of every parish and congregation all answer that question in some detail -- and the story of God's life is lived out in our human journey together.

But we can start with the scriptures. Because the wrestling with revelation and community  we see in the writing of Paul is a part of our history; and the same in the struggles in the life of Peter, where we see the disciple changed from saying too much and doing too little; where we see the life of God grow strong in the life of Peter and make him strong, turning him to a rock of faith, a witness and a martyr, sending him out to preach good news, to be good news -- like Jesus and Paul and you and I -- all called to be the body of Christ!

For the last two thousand years the church has been enlightened by the bright witness of saints and martyrs, agents of mercy and forgiveness, pilgrims of poetry and politics, exemplars of repentance and new life. They comes in different shapes and sizes, male and female, Jew and Greek, slave and free, quite a variety. Some of us are saintly, most of us do the best we can with varied results, but simply trying , day after day, with varying degrees of success, “to love God with all our heart and mind and soul and strength, and to love our neighbor as ourselves.”

We do what we can, keeping in mind that most of us are, if not rank sinners, than somewhat damaged goods, just like most of the apostles and disciples we follow. We all start out slowly just like them: less stained glass saints than sick people getting better, made more healthy by living day by day in the light and love of the life of God we see in the life, the ministry, the death and resurrection, the sacrifice and the salvation offered by this Jesus. In this Peter and Paul are a lot like us, as are Mary and Joseph. All of them offering more pictures of how faith can respond to God’s action in our daily lives.

For Mary it seems more clearcut, easier, maybe she is younger, more able to say yes, to be formed with God’s image within her, to be a vehicle for Gods action to be born out of her assent.  Sometimes the message comes and is seen clearly, and we just say yes! Even if it’s a surprise, if it takes us into new beginning, if it meets us at our most inexperienced, and we say yes, willing to be a vessel and vehicle of a new graceful message, and Mary has this experience.

But other times it comes slowly, over time, after deliberation, with some delays and at some cost, and Joseph is a model for this experience. Some traditions states that Joseph was older and -- let’s face it, when you’re older these experience, of a new life in faith, new duties, new directions, just take more time.

It couldn’t be easy for him. “The woman you are planing to marry is pregnant, and it is not your child!” But Joseph shows he’s compassionate right at the start, when he decides to end the relationship without publicity. He could responded with a more violent response which would have been in accord with scripture, but he is merciful, determined to put her away: simply to give her up: maybe he gives the whole matter over to God. And then he has a dream.

Maybe you’re like me; I’ve had a few dreams in my life that have been very helpful where a problem has been solved, a new option outlined. A few times when I’ve awakened with new insights, my mind changed by an insight that allowed a new possibility to be born. It's always a surprise!

So Joseph has a dream where he is told that the woman he planned to marry is pregnant with God’s child, Emmanuel: God with us. It is not as dramatic or as immediate as the experience that Mary has in Luke’s Gospel, and he doesn’t come up with a pretty speech in response. But Joseph wakes up resolved to do as the angel has commanded and he takes Mary as his wife and gives his life to protect, to father this new beginning as best he can, this new birth of God's into the world.

But I wonder if he always had some reservations, lingering doubts? This morning I want to hope so, for then he can be a model, a saint, for all of us who sometimes doubt. Because he still follows through, makes room and gives comfort for that miraculous birth, husbanding the life that allows God’s word to be made flesh and blood, born of Mary, “according to your word.” Joseph supports this, witnesses this, gives his life, the life he has to live and to offer, so that God’s word of hope and love and reconciliation might live in human flash, in human family.

Did Joseph live to see Jesus die?And was he there to see the resurrection light and life at the end of it all, that new beginning. We don’t know. He fades out of the Gospels when Jesus is a boy. Maybe like Moses he dies in sight of that promised land, and will be carried along in hope, like us, Maybe, like us, he gives his life to protect and honour and witness to a newborn life that he doesn’t fully understand, maybe all his days he would still look at this growing Jesus and wrestles with the inconceivable fact of him. Even as he came to love to child he raised as his own, even when he had held the child who would, by God’s grace, become a saviour, when he held the one who would carry him to a larger life. We just don’t know.

So then Joseph is a sign of faith for us. And so today we ask St Joseph to pray for each and all of us today, join us in all our doubts and hopes, as we come to carry this surprising child, prepare to try to care for this soon to be newborn hope. Just like him, not necessarily with all the answers, not with the great assurance that Mary had, but with a crafted and practised resolve that comes with a honed humility, to preserve and protect, to hold and watch and witness as we can, to offer support and strength, to husband that hope, to raise that new beginning, as another gift of God comes to be born in our lives this Christmastide.


Sunday, November 27, 2016

Notes for the Advent Sermon...

This sermon has three parts: a short first part which is preceded by an introduction, then  a middle part, and finally a long part when the short part brought back for a rousing finale. There will probably not be a test following.

First, an introduction. I have been dealing with retirement for the last two years and find it to be tiring. I’ve always tended to be given to rumination and review far too frequently, have a fatal tendency to fill up time by thinking about things, and there’s been a lot to think about the last two years, even in the last two months.

To start with the world. I don’t mean to worry you, but I’m scared shiftless (according to my spellchecker) by what I see as the political list to the far right; to punitive, quasi-parental, punishing models of government by the rich and mighty and for the rich and mighty — and so much of this in the name of people who call themselves followers of Jesus, the same guy who said “Blessed are the poor” and “love your neighbour as yourself.” I’m afraid of what’s happening to my neighbourhood and to the other friends of Jesus. 

Plus there’s the church: I know enough church history to know that over the past 2000 years we’ve had some downward spirals, when we weren’t the best look in the neighbourhood, when we didn’t show the moral high ground, weren’t the flavour of the month, didn’t pack them into the pews. But something is different now; the world has changed so much in the last fifty years and the church has stayed so very much the same. So my question is how do you love the neighbour when the neighbourhood has moved so far away? 

In both the world and the church we need to ask more questions; we need to go back to older ideas and reevaluate them in light of what now might be most important, whether it be love or justice, compassion and community, neediness or neighbourliness. I think the big question is, what does God’s love look like here and now, and how can we deliver on that promised good news?

Then there’s getting older. I turned seventy last April and, though I’m told it has its advantages, it isn’t an awful lot of fun. I’m dealing with a couple of chronic health problems which seem determined to stay the course, I can’t eat or play as much as I used to without disastrous consequences, I need to exercise more and I want to less, and there is one other thing on the list, but I forget what it is. 

So there’s the preface and here’s the short answer followed by the long part: I’ll talk you through it and then we’ll do it together.

In our celebration of the Eucharist this morning there are four parts, take, bless, break, share. That’s what Jesus did, and we are here to learn to do likewise; with whatever elements of life are closest to us at any given moment – whether that be bread or wine, love and hate, hope and fear, beginnings and endings, politics or personalities, education or ecology, neighbourhood or nation. The task is to take whatever is around and let it be blessed by the possibilities of God (You can as easily say that we bless God with these possibilities – other side of the same coin, I think). So as the manual act at the altar is to raise the bread and wine, lifting them up to God’s level, as it were, we do the same with the stuff of our lives, lifting them high maybe so we can see them more clearly and see their God given possibilities and potentials, see more clearly where love might raise them up and how we might take part in these actions.

And it is in light of the possibility of love that we break them apart, seeing them like God might, like food and drink for famished people, new visions and vehicles for grace and grit, for God knows who or what or where or where; to file the vision that, like C. S. Lewis’ Aslan, God might be “on the move,” open and willing and determined to share love and life and light with all the work that entails.

So take, bless, break, share: that’s the short path, now the longer bit…

A monk I knew in California 35 years ago said the big question was this, “Are you in it for the long run or the short run?” He left his order not long thereafter and I here confess I’ve since looked in that direction myself more than a few times with some envy, but the question and its answer are still valid – Why and how do we stay in it for the long run? I think if the actions of the Eucharist offer us the the basic choreography, the box step  of belief, then it is in the shape of the seasons of the church year where we can see the way to make the long run home.

Advent means beginning to see the fact of Christ, to see the promise of God’s presence that each and every one of us holds and carries in our daily lives, in the life of the world, in every place in the planet. To be even more excessively cute I’ll say that each and every one of us has a particular and peculiar gift of God to give — a unique and special Christmas present that is wrapped in the midst of each of our individual lives which is calling to be given away, to be taken, blessed, broken and shared with an unready and increasingly ambivalent world.

And now it it gets more complex.  For that not only means that we need to regard ourselves with honour – being God bearers in the very style of the Virgin Mary, but we really need to look to others with some awe as well; because who knows what holy message what, what good word, what gospel, they might carry, what a company we might become! 

So Mary and the shepherds and the Magi accompany us, with our individual Christmas presents, into the light of the Epiphany, into the brights and strident lights of the common culture of consumerism and capitalism and chaos, “Where the best lack all conviction while the worst are filled with passionate intensity.” That’s William Butler Yeats but T.S. Eliot even said it better, “In a world of fugitives the one going in the opposite direction will appear to be running away.” where “the light shines in the darkness and the darkness.” 
It isn’t always easy. There are repercussions from carrying message of unbounded love into gated communities, people will try to pin you down to simpler solutions. And remember in the centre of the gospel somewhere it says that Mary and the shepherds and the Magi and you and I are not going to get out of this alive. Yet they still call it Good Friday. Because there is something that is larger-than-life and that is the life and love of God that lives in each of us by grace.

The Easter acclamation is that Christ is risen from the grave and some days I find that difficult to believe, to live into; and if you find it easy then, I’ll have what you’re having with a twist!  But for me it often takes time to get there from here, and maybe that’s one of the reasons that the season of Eastertide is longer than then Lent.  Because eternal life is deeper than death and takes more time to dive into this new dimension of existence, where the old confusions and new clarities to all come together in what one medieval theologian called “a coincidence of opposites,” a different way of being, where a new creation requires a new kind of vocabulary, an articulated language of love that can last for the long run (even though it usually doesn’t).

Some lectionaries call the season of Pentecost “Ordinary Time” and this has to do with letting our lives be ordered in the light and by the gift of the spirit, becoming “Children of the Most High” amongst all the ordinary aspects of our daily tasks and times.  Then it is no coincidence that Pentecost is the longest season of the year and it is no surprise this morning that it finally deposits us once again in the season of Advent to begin again. 

For there is always room for a new vocabulary, a larger reality, a new birth. There is always the taking up of these actions so that God’s love may be born here and now in the task at hand. so today and always, take, bless, break, share what you have been given, all you have received, everything that is. And let Christ’s Advent come all of the way into our less than luminescent lives and our half-broken hearts.

For to us a child is coming.  Amen.

Monday, October 10, 2016

Parables, Lepers, Liturgies and Love.

There are three parts to the sermon today. First I want to look at Jesus’ use of parables throughout the gospels, especially today's, and how they connect with the sequence of actions we walk through in our Sunday liturgy, and finally how they can be a model with what we do in our personal and corporate lives, the varied ways we live and move and have our being as Christ’s body, the Church.

Someone once said that if you ask a question, the best answer, the richest response,  is one that asks you a larger question, and parables work like that. They can be wider openings to God’s truth. But it’s important to note that might not be at all what we want. Sometimes we’re simply looking to prove a point or to limit the territory, to delineate the in or out of it, what’s good or bad, to find the cleanest way through all this messy life.  But Jesus’ way quite often doesn’t seem to work like that. When we ask him questions  he seems to take pains to answer practical questions by opening the question wider, even so that the most impractical, the most impossible people, are welcomed into the discussion. Jesus likes to give us questions leading to a living truth, a truth that meets us on our way, where when we try to find a way, a formula, to handle truth, and find that truth and love and mercy are handling us instead! The parables answer us with the possibility that love is larger than we might think but these answers can grow us as we grapple with the chance that  God’s life with us is larger than we know….

Luke parables point us there. Look at the man who forgives his two unpleasant sons; the younger for recklessly wasting his heritage, the older for  carefully acting like a slave and sycophant, both failing to recognise that all this love was waiting in the richness of the father’s life. Another story is about  a lawyer asking who he has to deal as neighbour with, then finding out how a Samaritan, the last person you’d want around, could be a saving neighbour to him. Look at an unjust steward cutting shady deals and being commended for his cleverness by his boss, about a woman throwing a party and spending good money to celebrate finding a lost coin; about someone who had the audacity to leave ninety-nine sheep behind in order to search for the one who went missing.

These are not average people, nor is this a moderate, regular love, these stories witness to a compassion and mercy that go beyond our mete and measure: strange people in stranger stories determined - maybe even designed - but maybe that’s the point! Maybe they are told by Jesus to take us to a dangerous opportunities where we might see a new world beyond the horizon of the life we habitually live; a place where God creates anew out of some almost incomprehensible love; mysterious directional signals that show us where we need  to go, what we need to do to be a new people on a new journey illumined by love that is, itself, ever new.

Isn’t it strange that love has to work this hard to get our attention? But even after the resurrection it takes a few hundred years for the Church to offer the doctrine of the Holy Trinity: a parable like model of a three dimensional loving God working on three horizons at once. The stretches our mind to see the Holy One seen, known and praised  as the creator who fathers-forth the universe; as this redeemer, alongside this journeyman Jesus joining with us in every day of life and death; and as sustainer and breath-spirit, mending all moments of time, making all things new!

This model of the Trinity, just like all parables, aims to enact that awareness of love and life in more fronts than we can easily see or ken; beyond all our knowledge, in the very middle of our human journey, and closer to us than we are to ourselves; from the new beginning, in the muddled middle, to the very end and the very centre of our lives). Parables also allow us to see the graceful chance love lives together in the creative tension of emerging history  dancing in the midst of eternity as if there were all the time in the world. Parables give us room to wonder if all of this could be true.

So now let’s look at the Gospel for today (Luke 17:11-19) in light of our Sunday liturgy.

On the way to Jerusalem Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee. As he entered a village, ten lepers approached him. Keeping their distance, they called out, saying, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” When he saw them, he said to them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went, they were made clean. Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan. Then Jesus asked, “Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” Then he said to him, “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.”

Could this story be a parable that connects with our Sunday liturgy as well as the way we walk in our faithful journey? I think it is possible by following a four part model written by Dom Gregory Dix in a book called, “The Shape of the Liturgy.”

Dix points to four actions: “Take, Bless, Break, Share".  Jesus does these four actions, with his own pilgrim life, and enacts them in the last supper; then the Church, Jesus’ ongoing family, follows to celebrate and continue this outpouring of love in our Eucharist: again, “Take, Bless, Break, Share" and finally we are called to live through these actions, these sacramental benchmarks, in our daily lives as well. If we see it in the gospels then maybe the ten lepers are our older brothers here, helping us learn these particular four steps to the dance of life. “Take, Bless, Break, Share.”

What happens in the Gospel when these ten lepers see Jesus? It must be  somewhere on the outside of town because lepers aren't able to go into town because of all those practical purity laws telling who can go where. But could it be when he sees them, then they see themselves for the first time? So often they’ve been overlooked, even by themselves, but now they see their great need and greater dignity reflected in his larger look of love. There they start to take their live, the God-given gift of it, seen by Jesus, breathed by the spirit, to take it seriously for the very first time. And there’s a little death and rebirth right there. A thousand years ago Symeon the New Theologian said the first thing the Holy Spirit, God’s light of love, does is show us our shadow and that takes both courage and humility, to make an ending and a beginning.

For when holy love looks at you from a human face and you see you’re taken seriously; when you’re seen in that compassionate and merciful glance, that you’re a leper who doesn’t fit in and have been ruled out by custom, religion and law, as officially expendable;  and when you still see, maybe for the first time, that love takes you seriously exactly as you are and calls you to grow then something happens…

But did you just feel the world get larger? Can you just face the light of love allowing you to take a bigger breath, do you reckon there are options opening before you —yes, the blessing of bigger questions, but bigger answers too —  when love looks at you with a blessing — and when the question it often asks is this; can you take that blessing and give it back?

We sometimes forget that our Hebrew heritage calls us to bless God: blessing God for having hearts, souls, minds, bodies, neighbourhoods, nations, being given a world together made of love, love making us new in every moment, larger in every instant; able to bless God for blessing us here and now, always and everywhere, as we are. Bless it all, even if we look to be lepers.

And in light of that love we are called to break apart the world to see what it might look like if God were looking at each and all of us right now with, compassion, encouragement and infinite love.We are called to break free of roles and rules and expectations or landowners and fathers and all sorts of sons, and bad stewards and busy householders and everybody else and break apart the kernel of our being to find the seed of new life in who we already are, where good news call and break through to this deep truth.

For in the lives of each of us God asks a particular and peculiar question and gives a holy and graceful answer. For as we are the body of Christ our very souls and bodies are called to be offered, broken open, shared beyond slick surfaces and shared in a world hungry for a holy food.

If this is true! If the love of God is closer to us than we are to ourselves calling us to share ourselves, to show ourselves, to God’s people as if God could love us as we are, then where can we go and what can we do?

For these are patterns of countless ways God uses material things and the “sacrament of the present moment” to reach out to us. So we take the bread and wine and all the common stuff of daily life like our very lives depended on it. We bless God and let ourselves and our world be blessed as members of that same multi-dimensional love. We break apart all expectations of playing it safe and societal norms and “what would the Romans do?” and look at our lives in the way the God of love might see it!  and we come to learn to share the God-given miracle  of our ongoing lives in this ever-newborn community of the body of Christ in all its many colours — as thanksgiving and doubt, as faith and question, as answer and calling.

It shouldn’t be such a surprise: we tell ourselves in every liturgy, “We are the body of Christ, his spirit is with us" and we are called to, as St Augustine wrote: “Behold what we are; become what we receive.” So as lepers and losers and lovers of the God who loves us so much more, let us come together to share in the scandalous truth that there is a new creation reaching out to everybody, and that is the heart of the Good News.


Sunday, September 18, 2016

Sermon on Luke 16: Law Books and Love Stories,

A couple of stories to start: some twenty years ago when I was in University chaplaincy in San Francisco I had a student tell me that he “didn’t believe all this religion stuff,” because he would never trust himself to a situation where (1) he “didn’t know all the facts,” and (2) he “didn’t keep control of the situation.” In turn I asked him how his love life and was not surprised to hear it was not real good. When he asked why I had  asked my question, I answered because religion is not like a rule book, rather, it’s a relationship!

According to an early church historian, Tatian, who died around 165, the first Gospel came about when Mark wrote down the stories he remembered Peter telling about Jesus to people as they had need to hear them. So do you see the original background picture, the context for the text here? It’s relationship; people sharing stories of healing and hope, of good news in hard times, of the expectation of love meeting them in particular moments carried in a particular context by particular voices -- that's how it lives and moves -- and then the audience expanding, the list of listeners widening, words written down, more voices telling these stories in different ways and to different people and places over the world all these twenty centuries and here we are!

So, yes, some early parts of the Bible might look like a law code, but the prevailing tone, the dominant melody throughout Scripture is one of courtship: for I am convinced that God calls us, not to a legal partnership, but to be incorporated in a loving relationship as a new being. As St. Augustine wrote in the late fourth century: “God is closer to us than we are to ourselves.” I take this to mean God is closer to us than our fears, our hopes, our very capacity for understanding. In another place Augustine says we should pray, to God, “Not as I think you are, but as you know yourself to be.” Do you see the faithful and intimate mysterious embrace there? So we need to keep it from being too practical, too businesslike; because it is an ongoing love story, and maybe a bit of a detective tale too, one that changes for us in the same way as it changes us.

As context and text evolve, so most Christian biblical scholars would agree that our understanding of the scripture itself has been shaped and changed over the years by a continuing conversation involving tradition, reason and experience. I’ve mentioned Tatian's remembrance of the original context of Mark already.  Then, in their work, Matthew and Luke stretch out to shape Marks saving message anew with re-visioning Jewish history and hope in Matthew, and widening an understanding of Hebrew and Greek philosophy and culture in Luke; in the Gospel of John too the theology of Jesus as the Word, the Logos, moves the understanding of the Messiah into a vocabulary that had been unknown in the earlier years.

To quote Jesus in the Revelation to John, “I make all things new!” And that renewing process can include our ongoing understanding of scripture, because the word ripens in us, the spirit breathes more deeply into the particularities of our lives and circumstances, tried and shared in communities of belief and practice, tested through history and tradition, refined by reason and experience, fired by faith over time.

And in the last few hundred years of critical scholarship and new methods of biblical and cultural exegesis we have come to know much more about first century social customs, economics, land use, law and politics in ways that shed new light on the original biblical texts. We even have access to cultural documents and biblical texts in the original Hebrew and Greek that are older than the ones they knew of in Augustine’s time (who, by the way, had no great skill in  reading biblical Hebrew or Greek — we actually know more than he did about the ancient languages).

So when speaking to our Gospel lesson about the unjust steward-manager  and his landlord for today, Barbara Rossing, a Professor of New Testament, gives needed background from current scholarship when she writes:

“Rich landlords and rulers were loan-sharks, using exorbitant interest rates to amass more land and to disinherit peasants of their family land, in direct violation of biblical covenantal law.” New Testament scholar William Herzog writes, "The hidden interest rates appear to have been about 25 percent for money and 50 percent for goods.” And Rossing thinks, “The manipulative steward was probably extracting his own cut of the profits, on top of the 50% layer for the landlord, and the additional payment for Rome.”

So, for Rossing, when the steward reduced the payments, he may have been simply forgiving his own cut of the interest, or just  doing what the law of God in the Hebrew scripture commands, namely forgiving all the hidden interest in the contracts. As another scholar writes, "To ingratiate himself with the debtors, he had them change the amount they owed on their bills to exactly the amount they borrowed." The rich landlord, likely knowing the Torah teaching against interest, might, suddenly realise he needed at least “to appear to be observing convenantal laws, and ends up commended his steward.” —  who had been mainly motivated by his fear that he might be losing his job and was not strong enough to dig and was ashamed to beg. And maybe there’s the end of this puzzling detective story.

It reminds me of T. S. Eliot's writing that the greatest treason is doing the right thing for the wrong reason but it leaves me with a question: how can God be in the centre of these transactions, how does the Gospel come here and change lives? I've preached on this text before and the question stays with me. My working answer for today, subject to revision, is this: would it be too simple to say, "When we act like we are in love, the grace of love lifts us up into new life?"

Like Luke’s earlier story of the prodigal son returning to the Father with a canned repentance speech and hoping to get accepted as a slave, the steward does better than he expects or perhaps deserves; does better than the law and instead abides in a surprising charity to be accepted as a member of a renewed community. Is that the good news? Who knows what can come our way when we do the right thing, even for the wrong reasons, and love lets us come home -- and that just might be the moral of this story.

In John’s Gospel Jesus says the truth will make you free, I would add that it just might kill you along the way, but, as the prodigal son, the steward and the landowner may all have found out, the traveling can turn you into a person you’ve never been before. Maybe that’s where the Good News is today — the surprise of the Gospel, refined by tradition, restored in community and renewing reason with an experience of peace that passes understanding, all finally freeing you to live a new way, to be a new creation of love.

Welcome to God’s love story!  In the name of Christ.

Friday, September 16, 2016

A funeral homily at Holy Trinity Cathedral, Wangaratta

Until about ten years ago this large figure behind the high altar, a Christus Rex, or "Christ the King of creation", was backed with a heavy blue velvet cloth. Then this “Tree of Life” tapestry was commissioned, woven and hung behind it. The range of colours are linked to the windows over the main entrance, modern stained glass picturing life in Wangaratta, that you'll see as you leave the building. I take it as weaving together the lesson that Christ, the picture of God’s love, happens here and now in the midst of nature and culture and commerce, in our work and art and sport, in thought and word and deed and  life and death every single day. It’s a sign that says both, “ I am to be found here” and “All will be well.”

But there are other crosses around here as well: crucifixes, representations of a man dying or dead on a cross; you can see one above the pulpit to my right, and it’s important to note these crosses too because they mark an equally common crossroad in the human condition: the days when it gets worse, when we suffer and die, or when we come together under tragic circumstances like today.

For when a person dies too soon, or when a death is violent or seems senseless and leaves you wondering, “what if?” and “if only,” or when we feel sad and angry and regretful -- knowing that everybody did their best but still  someone you knew and loved got lost, went missing -- then the tragedy multiplies; and any religious optimism that says it gets better can seem a kind of double cross avoiding the disparity between the hypocrisy of cheap and hopeful God talk on one hand, and the deep fragility, the tragedy, the sad music of human life and death on the other.

But the strange thing is, once you’re there, caught in that reality, between two paradoxical realities then the man on the crucifix can make some sense. Because, maybe, Jesus hanging, suffering, dying there on the cross is a sign that the God, the eternal compassion, love, longing and light who might have made the universe (not just then but now), is also hanging around here in the middle of what looks like the worst deal in town -- saying “I'm here too;" with you, and with me, and with R.... Because in Jesus, God might just be saying, “I know what it is to die too young, I know what it is to feel like the world is against me, I know what it is to feel like love is losing, I know what it is to weep, I know what it is to want it all to be taken away; and I can meet you there too!”

It’s a hard truth to swallow and it is far easier to find a “happy clappy" Jesus and that may be easier in the short run, but there are still these other moments when the sky gets dark and the shadow of death is near when family and friends feel far away and life can seem like the ultimate cheat and we really need to know that love can live there too. I'll grant you it’s a big ask, and such a set of beliefs can seems absurd some days, but it still bears watching and wondering: “What if it all hangs together that close? What if love and compassion can live right there in the shadow of pain and death as well?”

I try taking that chance myself: to let a little faith light that way with some hope: “For now we see… dimly, but then we will see face to face. [For] Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.” This might be the way through the very middle of the tragedy to a new way home.

Just keep looking at, looking through, that crucifix, and the other cross too: keep that hope on the horizon, that place between these two crosses, the place where we see the poor in spirit, the hungry , the meek and mourning, where we see Rick and all the rest of us here; found by, a love that bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

May R... now know that hope, that love, that peace: and may we as well.   Amen.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Merton channeled by Ron Seitz in Song for Nobody (1993)

“Now, we’ve got to stop all this stuff about ‘just-i-fi-ca-tion.’ Let go and become who you have always been! That’s the one-time, most important thing you’ve got to remember to remember. That’s the real and true meaning of Resurrection—a return to your original source. Go home to God.

“So stop trying to be other than who you are by erecting monuments of your achievements— such things as books, artworks, great ideas—you know, evidence to prove your worth and justify your existence to God. . . . That’s all so much waste.

“See. That’s the true meaning of hope … to trust in the ultimate goodness of creation. Hope doesn’t mean an anticipation or expectation of a deliverance from an intolerable or oppressive situation or condition. That’s what most of us are doing most of the time: wanting something other than what is. As I said, true hope is trusting that what we have, where we are, and who we are is more than enough for us as creatures of God.

“To appreciate this, you’ve got to know that revelation is all around you all the time … Revelation expressing itself as beauty, truth, goodness, and especially love! Creation is lit up with the numinous. Numinous: that’s God saying ‘Hi!’ (laughing).

“And faith is the surrender to this great gift of love: Life!… To be alive in creation … Submit to it—not in the sense of passive resignation—but in acceptance and participation in being!

Helpful hints for making your own Sabbath...

One question in the Gospel today is about the right way to observe the Sabbath; and the question for us is how can we regularly get from the nonstop noise and numbers of our busy world into the deep peace and promise of God’s time? Today I want offer some simple ways to practice sabbath, each growing into the other, that can change the way you live your  daily life.

Start with your breath, with each breath; and take it in as a gift from God: see that it’s the same breath that creates the world, heals the nations, forgives sin, welcomes the stranger, renews the world. Because there’s no other breath, no other world and no other creator. So we take this breath, like our soul, our body of flesh and blood, all the details of our lives, as a gift from God, just in order to just let it go.

But hold it for an instant before you do that. Take each breath as a gift and savour it for a second before you ask this question, just what does Jesus do? Because in every breath we can share his rhythm of receiving and relinquishing, of taking life and death as a give-away gift. In truth we can’t really live our lives in any other manner; we’re designed and built to carry this gift of God by giving it away; it’s almost beyond belief; that God calls us to share even love life and spirit with people and place and predicaments who are all profoundly unworthy, just because  God is utterly shameless in giving it all away to everyone and God seems to have the ultimate chutzpah to ask us to do the same.

But leave that aside for now and let’s use more of our body. Make the sign of the cross with your right hand, two directions, up and down, left right, can’t get much simpler than that; but it can carry some deep meaning; because what we do can carry what we believe, and  we can mark ourselves and the world with that meaning, with what we believe with our thumbs, or hands, our arms, our whole bodies and lives, Marking the world, remembering Sabbath in two dimensions: move up to remember a world higher than any heaven you can concenive where God creates everything, then wide to the sides as God’s love in Christ, and finally back to the centre by the Spirit who constantly calls us home again.

You can start by naming yourself that way when you enter or leave the church (that’s what the water in the stoup by the main door is for), and you can do it three times when you stand to hear the Gospel: “May I hear your word in my head, speak it with my lips, believe in my whole heart and life;” the words might change but the sabbath you hold will abide. You can even do it at a door before you ring the bell, on top of the table, on someone’s forehead, do it whenever you want, wherever you can, to remember God’s love as God’s beloved.

Now to add another dimension to making sabbath, reciting the Lord’s Prayer has something of the sign of the cross in its motions too. But listen to the prayer like you've never heard it before and see how well it points to a three dimensional mystery.

“Our Father in Heaven” actually is a prayer to the “Dadda of the Universe.” It’s   saying that the realm of this relationship is so big and small and intimate that the creator of the cosmos invites us to call out with a word as familiar as Mamma or Papa. Here God comes close enough to call under any circumstances and at any time with this openhearted, openhanded invitation to meet love in the middle of all our lives!

Then we proclaim three imperatives (and feel free to do hand gestures if you like): may your name be holy, may your love reign, and may I take part that this will be done. Do you see what’s happening? The prayer is weaving the world into one, weaving love into our daily lives as well as weaving us into the world of Sabbath saints, and pilgrims: like Mary, “Be it unto me according to your word,” and like Francis, “Make me an instrument of your peace,” — again, God is love, we deliver!

But now there's a necessary stretch where we go from the vertical to the horizontal, and I would say universal, in three requests that take us to three further dimensions of being human.

First request, “Give us today our daily bread.” Just remember food means company: the bread we eat, the wine we drink means grapes and water, yeast and fat and oil and wheat, mixed and kneaded, warmed and transformed, with many backs bent; many hands stretched out to offer food at our daily tables. So when Jesus says, “This is my body, this is my blood!” I think He is saying “I am willing to be known in this Eucharist, and I tell you I will be here, but prepare to meet me in the entire world, because in my love I have taken up with the body and blood of all humankind and all creation.” So then when we pray, “Give us today our daily bread” we’re asking God to let us know who we're eating with -- everyday, everywhere, every time.

Second request, “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.” Take a big breath here because every every crossroad, every Sabbath means rest and renewal and forgiveness and a new beginning; and it is best (as co-creators) if we can participate in that creative renewal as much as we can and let everyone else do so too. And that means participating in God’s forgiveness business as fully as we participate in the rest of God’s creation, even when it’s tough, meaning we allow people, even people we think have sinned against us, to go free to seek their own Sabbath, go their own way.

And I’ll warn you it goes steep uphill from here. The third request is, “Lead us not into temptation and deliver us from evil.” So take a another deep breath, savour, let it go because the truth is, nobody wants to go there — but the glory of the community of the church comes when we all gather in the very place where sabbath makes an end, where God grants a new beginning, right there in the dead centre where we find out that nobody has to go there alone!

Because every time we gather, when we pray, when we share with Jesus, it happens: someone is betrayed and dying, someone is born and wanting, someone’s in trial and someone’s been tempted, someone’s found peace and someone wakes to glory. And God's love is in the middle, sharing the bread of life, the cup of salvation, given by the very one who knows all about it, the one who is carrying us all the way through the time of trial, just like a good friend, a mother hen, the very breath of life, all the way home.

That's it, how to do Sabbath; to paraphrase St. Augustine: Believe what you see, see what you believe and become what you are… For when we say, “Amen," we are saying, "Yes! I believe this is the Body and Blood of Christ and I will be the Body of Christ to others," and it is our own mystery that is placed on the Lord’s table, it is our own mystery that we are receiving! For here we are saying ‘Amen’ to what we are, and Sabbath comes once again.

Enjoy it!

Thursday, August 18, 2016

From “Elias, variations on a theme…”

The free man is not alone as busy men are
But as birds are. The free man sings
Alone as universes do. Built 
Upon his own inscrutable pattern
Clear, unmistakeable, not invented by himself alone
Or for himself, but for the universe also. 

Nor does he make it his business to be recognised, 
Or care to have himself found out.
As if some special subterfuge were needed
To get himself known for who he is. …

For the free man’s road has neither beginning or end. 

Thomas Merton

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Maybe God is involved in the bad stuff too...

The Zen Roshi Shunru Suzuki was once asked for a two word definition of Buddhism and he said, “Things change.” If I were asked to define Christianity in two more words, I would say, “Keep Dancing.”

Because there is something deep in the rhythm of our faith journey that is a kind of dancing: in seasons of feast and fast, in penance and thanksgiving, with both long journeys lost and a great homecoming, with birth and death and pain and pleasure and the cross and resurrection, as the sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving cuts all across our common life in Christ: I think that’s the heart of it.

It happens even in the silent times when nothing is supposed to happen: those of us who attempt a meditation practice know the various swings between taking in and letting go, receiving and relinquishing. losing track and starting again.

But that two-step dancing rhythm is certainly found all over the Scripture and the Tradition we follow and is close to the heart of the Gospel: even in the very Summary of the Law….

'Hear, O Israel... You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength…This is the first commandment and the second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these..."

So you can see one love moving in several directions, dancing and then dividing a number of ways. Thomas Merton used to tell his students in the monastery, “You have to know you have a heart before you can give it away.”  There too, the alternating rhythm, the sense on one side, of being close to God, being seen by God, loved by God deeper than we know ourselves (and knowing that love to be the centre of it all) — and on the other side the difficult vocation of knowing you have a heart  in order to hand it away.
So, both focussing on heaven, the upward call of Christ, as well as on the horizontal call to  see and hear and connect with your nearest and farthest family and neighbours in a self-giving, heartbreaking charity and clarity. Thats the dance of the twofold gift: to take it all in and to give it all away.

So today Jesus, this sign of God’s love, comes to us not only to be, as Augustine writes, closer to us than we are to ourselves, and to bring us to ourselves, but also “to bring fire, baptism, stress until it is finished, not peace but division.”

And we're not used to that and well might you think, “Wait!” What about “my yoke is easy and my burden light,” What about “casting your cares on Jesus”, What about, “I call you my friends?” If all that is true, then what about this other side of this two-step Jesus, who comes “to bring fire… baptism… stress… until it is finished… not peace but division.” Wait.

And Jesus said, “From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three...: father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.”

As Miss Bette Davis says, in the film, All About Eve, “Fasten your seat-belts, it’s going to be a bumpy night!” Because today Jesus is coming to forecast a confusing time. But I think that this very demanding confusion is the most hopeful and deepest and closest call for the church today: to recall we have a heart in order to give it away just as we have to keep dancing with loving God and loving our neighbours as ourselves.

For as God in Christ continues to join us in exploring what it means to be human and, in that company, can we continue to explore what God and the church might mean in a world where more and more people are less and less interested in any possible definition of religion or relationship, with anything that might be called a God of meaning and mystery, a God of life and love?

I have a working two-fold answer from the early fourth century and the Bishop of Alexandria.  Athanasius wrote that God becomes human so that humankind might become God. You can dance with that a little so that it turns into: “God becomes human so that humankind might become truly human.” Jesus joins us in the very complex middle of the human dance so that we might come to know there really is no place on our journey where we can overlook the possibility of God’s presence in our very human lives, even in all the muck and mystery; that, in fact, there is where the dance is!

This leads to further questions like what Thomas Merton writes:

“Am I sure that the meaning of my life is the meaning God intends for it?  Does God impose a meaning on my life from the outside, through event, custom, routine, law, system, impact with others in society? Or am I called to create from within, with God, with God's grace, a meaning which reflects God's truth and makes me God"s “word” spoken freely in my personal situation?

My true identity lies hidden in God’s call to my freedom  and my response to God.  This means I must use my freedom in order to love… not merely receiving a form imposed on me by external forces, or forming my own life according to an approved social pattern, but directing my love to the personal reality of my [sister and my] brother, and embracing God’s will in its naked, often impenetrable mystery.”

Maybe this has to do with Mother Teresa of India saying that, “The problem with the world is that we draw our family circle too small.” For with almost 1 .7 billion people on the planet maybe the family is divided more than three against two and two four against three and we need to work and pray with these larger numbers.

And maybe this connects to what the German pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote this from a Nazi prison before he was assassinated in 1944:

'I'm still discovering right up to this moment, that it is only by living completely in this world that one learns to have faith. … I mean living unreservedly in life's duties, problems, successes and failures, experiences and perplexities. In so doing we throw ourselves completely into the arms of God.’

Can you see that might just be where worship meets the world? As we often say, “We offer ourselves to you as a living sacrifice through Jesus Christ our Lord. Send us out in the power of your Spirit to live and work to your praise and glory.” Again, there the dance is!

Let’s finish with a prayer from the Gelasian Sacramentary, circa 750AD. Let us pray:

O God of unchangeable power and eternal light: Look favourably on your whole Church, that wonderful and sacred mystery; by the effectual working of your providence, carry out in tranquility the plan of salvation; let the whole world  see and know that things which were cast down are being raised up, and things which had grown old are being made new, and that all things are being brought to their perfection by him through whom all things were made, your Son Jesus Christ our Lord; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Talking about Silent Meditation...

How do I write about meditation without blathering about breathing when what I am learning, a little, to do is not, strictly speaking, meditation, but simply breathing? 

For the last 18 months I have been exploring and expanding my understanding and experience of what I call breath prayer. Consciously being aware of the actions of breathing: the give and take of it, frequency and fervour, rhythm and pace, depth and demeanour.  It gets bigger over time. Years ago somebody said, look at something you think you know until it tells you something new. I’ve been looking at, listening to, breathing with breathing, and I am learning some new things. 

I could write that breathing is not new for me, is an addictive activity that I started early and never got over, but that just panders to my tendency to play the lounge act of the soul, go for cheap laughs, try to introduce profundity through the family entrance, but what I want to say, and here comes the pamphlet, is that the act of breathing can be the most radical thing in the world. Breaking the world, at least of my daily taken for granted, perceptions of it, breaking it all open to a whole new spectrum of interaction, instructions and experience of intimacy that is closer than right next door, just like the little girl in Poltergeist says, “They’re here!” And to begin to allow breathing to breathe you is to turn around the way we live and move and have our being. Don't be surprised if the pamphlet comes next. 

There is a meeting place in the middle of my body where who-I-am meets something that is both bigger and finer than what I usually see as me, something else that challenges the way I separate the world into categories and choices, me and them, right and wrong, good and bad, all those inadequate and facile dichotomies that get lost and found in here and now. 

But writing about breathing is about as difficult as writing about sex, drugs or good musical comedy.  Because it involves everything you thought you were and more, it stretches you physically, mentally, spiritually, it is essentially unspeakable, unremarkable, simple and difficult, as easy as breathing and as easy to miss. So what I try to do is listen, with my breath, to where I meet the boundaries, and attend to what happens then. 

Half my life ago I read a book called Sadhana which opens with a chapter on a simple breath prayer practice I still use. It is to visualise each intake of your  breath travelled into various areas of the body, from the top of the head to the whole sitting posture, and easing tensions, meeting residual feelings, touching the pain of the day and letting it all go with each exhalation of breath. The process has changed over the years for me but it is almost the same; awareness of the breath moves successively from the head to the neck and throat, tops of shoulders, small of back, belly and spine, hips, seat, pelvis, thighs, knees and calves, and finally the whole breathing body. 

It is both a tool for myself and a gift for others. I use it myself and can share it in fifteen or twenty minutes of shared practice that usually makes the experience available to a gathered group. I can walk them through it and afterwards people know it from the inside in a way that makes it theirs.

Thomas Merton sits again!

Just dance!

Northeast Victoria

Where the Merton Centre might go....

Wednesday, 10 August, 4:32 AM, 3°.

I've been awake for last hour listening to some of Jack Kornfield’s book on Buddhism, Bringing the Dharma Home, and now my mind is racing! I just got up, drank some water, and brought my computer back to bed. Right now I'm using Apple’s own native dictator application and some of its features are quite good -– others are lacking. 

Just talking out, writing about a lot of things right now, in no particular order:

I’ve thought for several years about the Buddhist Christian conversation that could be had by carefully studying Jack Kornfield’s book and comparing it to the contemporary western situation the Christian community is experiencing. It could be helpful and refreshing exercise for all participants interested in discussing it in an ongoing (likely online) community.

I am aware of the need, in my own personal life, for a new configuration between meditation, prayer, study, physical fitness and exercise, community, conversation, as well as personal writing, and publishing in the blogging/social media sphere. And what about authentic corporate worship look like in this context?

Is it time to talk about a new idea for “The Merton Centre” — the metaphor/organisation I’ve carried around for the last few decades; making it less a physical place where classes, gatherings, and programs happen (as it has been in its earlier incarnation), and more a sprectrum of online opportunities for ideas for shared reflections, encounters, asynchronous reading, study and reflection to occur over time and place. This could simply mean an expanded and enlarged webpage offering links to online education as well as other online communities and resources.

I have been exploring some of the options for making a more interesting presence with my current blogspot website: it offers a magazine kind of format where I could do some of the linking I talk about above and would lend itself to a more attractive online presence with photos, graphics, videos, and linkages to other interesting sites. 

With my more sustained writing work on Scrivener I am also finding new options for rearranging previously written texts in new ways to new effect; and it might be time to share some of this work for further conversation on social media. And do I now I need to look at other social media sites in order to understand and exercise better options in placing my writing and offering new ways to relate into the larger community? What might the Merton Centre look like in Wangaratta, Victoria, Australia, Cyberspace?

And where am I now, and how does this corporate work make sense and take place, in my own personal journey and development? 

Considers all these intermediate reflections, jottings for a journal; but I’d love your responses as well… 

And now it’s 6:00am. 

Thomas Merton

Am I sure that the meaning of my life is the meaning God intends for it? 

Does God impose a meaning on my life from the outside, 
through event, custom, routine, law, system, impact with others in society? 

Or am I called to create from within, with him, with his grace, 
a meaning which reflects his truth and makes me his “word” 
spoken freely in my personal situation? 

My true identity lies hidden in God’s call to my freedom  and my response to him. 
This means I must use my freedom in order to love, with full responsibility and authenticity, 
not merely receiving a form imposed on me by external forces, 
or forming my own life according to an approved social pattern, 
but directing my love to the personal reality of my brother, 
and embracing God’s will in its naked, often impenetrable mystery.

Thomas Merton

Tuesday, July 05, 2016

Celebrating 25 years since I stopped smoking marijuana, an old sermon from the Berkeley years.

Sermon for the 12 Step Liturgy
All Saints’ Chapel
The Church Divinity School of the Pacific
Wednesday March 14, 2001
Robert Whalley, Visiting Chaplain

You don’t think you really have a problem, you smoke weed, or you enjoy a drink, or food feeds you, or sex, coffee, relationships, whatever. It isn’t a real big deal,  it is a safe little corner for comfort and self-care really and you aren’t hurting anybody, except yourself maybe, much. But there have been a few folks making little remarks, and there were some late papers, and you notice that schedules and laundry and appointments and expectations get put off, and you really hate that fuzzy feeling some mornings and let’s face it, more and more afternoons, and what used to be a little safety valve has gotten bigger now, and it feels like something that you used to think was important might leak out, like your life, except that your life is now deeply  tied in with this most intimate refreshing little rite, ritual, relationship with a substance, and you wonder sometimes if you use it or it uses you. And you never expected to see yourself on this corner, really at a dead end, wondering where to go from here.

Because , in a short period of time a couple of friends, your therapist, and an AA Nazi-Evangelist you studiously avoid at meals, all ask what you have to gain by not going to a 12 step meeting. So one day you walk out alone past the parking lot and turn right to go over to the student health center at Cal and you are sweating a bit and you feel angry and scared, and excited and hopeful in a way you cannot name and like you are losing or gaining some unnamed virginity all over again.

And you pray….

Listen: I am doing what I can, and it's not enough. And I am being the best that I know, and it no longer works.  So somebody open the bloody door!

So God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, the wisdom to know the difference. All that stuff, Because I believe, and I don’t know; I have faith,  and I am not sure. And here I am, on the edge of my own understanding, of my own limits. You be there! Be my hope, my faith, my vision! Be there now! Please….

So you go to the 12 Step meeting and you hate it. The group meets in a generic classroom with blackboards covered by notes for somebody’s staff meeting, the lighting is bad, the ventilation sucks and the liturgy – even if they don’t call it that -- is the worse of twentieth century middle-America-speak! One person talks about this as a spiritual program and a Higher Power and you think: “If this is spiritual, it is pretty flat: and if there’s a power here, it is a pretty drab one: where are the smells and bells, where is the music and the lights, where are the icons?

So you hate it and you would go anywhere else if there were anywhere else to go. But the fact is that you want what they have, you don’t want to use, you don’t want to fall back in that old narrow suffocating relationship, that dead end. You realize that you have a problem – which is getting bigger and bigger- that you cannot manage. So you keep coming back. Help my unbelief.  Please.

And it begins to work. The icons show up after a while in surprising ways. The same people, who seemed so small, boring and whining at the start, turn out to be decent, complex, funny, pretty amazing human beings after all, doing the best they can, honestly, openly, willingly; taking up the business of life for life’s sake, on life’s terms, which means you hear people moaning over pain, crying, laughing, taking risks, feeling feelings, reaching dead ends, starting again. In other words, getting real. The icons get closer.

And these drab little rooms, this flat little liturgy, their subversive meetings in basements and back-rooms, auditoriums, empty classrooms, recovery centers, turn out to be  gates to larger life, places where people meets limits and find freedom that is bigger and more graceful than you could ever imagine before. It gets more real.

The icons grow too! You see lives changed, you hear miracles happen, you see faith practiced in daily living, people giving their wills and lives to a higher power, taking up their lives as stewards, as co-creators, and as gifts to give to others. Even to you. You think you have a unique problem and the person across the room tells your story when they tell their own. And in that you hear some of your solution too. You see not only a way of healing your own wounds, but a way to be in a world where people come together to wake up, to tell the truth, to heal the world from all our patterns and diseases of addiction, to practice these principals in all our affairs. It all becomes iconic: the stranger, the neighbor, the community gathered all become lighted doorways opening you up to a new way of being, a heartfelt, humble, liturgically deficient, yet wonderful way of confession and forgiveness and discernment and renewal and ethics and action and promise too.

And one day someone comes to you at a meeting when you have been spilling your soul, or sharing your rage, or maybe just whining softly into the ozone. Maybe it is that life is getting better and you’re finding a way without using that old stuff, maybe you don’t even remember what you said after you said it, it doesn’t matter. But somebody comes up to you and tells you, “What you said really helped me.” And you realize that you have become an icon too. You are getting into it, over it, through it. You are an addict, an alcoholic, a codependent, helpless over food or smoking or coke or crack or sex or money or relationships. And you are beginning to base your identity and your hope on the fact of a place you never want to visit again, the moment you met your greatest lack and reached out in unbelief to receive an unexpected gift where grace was born. And God is growing you there now.

In the name of Christ.

Monday, June 27, 2016

Thich Nhat Hanh — Looking Deeply into the Deep Roots of Discrimination

A very interesting reflection found on the Web...

In a question and answer session at a retreat at Plum Village, France, my own heart teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh, was asked this question: 

Dear Thay, I feel very well and safe here in Plum Village, but there were times in my life when I experienced discrimination, so there is one question which really interests me. What does Buddhism say about homosexuality? 

His remarkable reply challenges conventional ways of looking at such issues: 

"Discrimination is something that many of us know, and there were times when we wanted to cry out for justice. You might be tempted by violent means in order for injustice to be removed. There are very many of us who are seeking non-violent means in order to remove injustice and discrimination imposed on us. Sometimes those discriminating against us act in the name of God, of the truth. We may belong to the third world, or we may belong to a particular race, we may be people of color, we may be gay or lesbian, and we have been discriminated against for thousands of years. 

So how to work on it, how to liberate ourselves from the suffering of being a victim of discrimination and oppression? In Christianity it is said that God created everything, including man, and there is a distinction made between the creator and the creature. The creature is something created by God. When I look at a rose, a tulip, or a chrysanthemum, I know, I see, I think, that this flower is a creation of God. 

Because I have been practicing as a Buddhist, I know that between the creator and the created there must be some kind of link, otherwise creation would not be possible. So the chrysanthemum can say that God is a flower, and I agree, because there must be the element “flower” in God so that the flower could become a reality. So the flower has the right to say that God is a flower. 

The white person has the right to say that God is white, and the black person also has the right to say that God is black. In fact, if you go to Africa, you’ll see that the Virgin Mary is black. If you don’t make the statue of the Virgin Mary black, it does not inspire people. Because to us the black people, “black is beautiful,” so a black person has the right to say that God is black, and in fact I also believe that God is black, but God is not only black, God is also white, God is also a flower. 

So when a lesbian thinks of her relationship with God, if she practices deeply, she can find out that God is also a lesbian. Otherwise how could you be there? God is a lesbian, that is what I think, and God is gay also. God is no less. God is a lesbian, but also a gay, a black a white, a chrysanthemum. It is because you don’t understand that, that you discriminate. 

When you discriminate against the black or the white, or the flower, or the lesbian, you discriminate against God, which is the basic goodness in you. You create suffering all around you, and you create suffering within yourself, and it is delusion, ignorance, that is the basis of your action, your attitude of discrimination. If the people who are victims of discrimination practice looking deeply, they will say that I share the same wonderful relationship with God, I have no complex. Those who discriminate against me, do so because of their ignorance. “God, please forgive them, because they do not know what they are doing.” 

If you reach that kind of insight, you will no longer get angry at that person who discriminates against you, and you might have compassion toward him or her. You will say: “He does not know what he is doing. He is creating a lot of suffering around him and within him. I will try to help him.” So your heart opens like a flower and suffering is no longer there, you have no complex at all, and you turn to be a bodhisattva in helping the people who have been discriminating against you. That is the way I see it, out of my practice of looking deeply, so one day I made the statement that God is a lesbian, and this is my insight