Monday, December 31, 2007

"What Will Endure?"

This is a reflection that was given on December 30, 2007 at Trinity @ 7

I have often thought of endurance
Not to run the race
But of what will last
From age to age
Or as eternal as a flower bloom
In the timeline of history
What is five hundred years
Or a few thousand, even
In the span of humanity?

But still, I consider endurance
A family name will not endure
A fortune will not endure
A violin will not endure
A temple will not endure
This building will not endure
Cities will rise, cities will fall
Civilizations will peak and decline
Or fall ruin and be forgotten
In two short generations.

It is rather a silly illusion to think
In terms of forever
They say the Buddhist monks
Paint intricately in sand
Take a good look
And destroy their art
Because nothing lasts
And it is an illusion to think it does
It creates only more suffering
When we try to prolong
What needs to die

But, a story may endure
A cradle song, passed down unthinkingly
From mother to child
To father to child may endure
Stories themselves will certainly endure
For we are a storytelling people
And not just since the invention
Of the moving picture
Music and song will endure

But as I think of these things
I wonder,
Is there anything I can create that will endure?
Is there anything our community
Our society can create
That might endure?

But all the while my thoughts are not innocently wandering
I have a destination
And I’d like to arrive there
Integrity intact
Because I wonder about a world
Where peace is assumed as a foundation
Where disagreements are reconciled without violence
Where people have dignity, all people
And no one is left outside of justice
Not just lip service
Not the next campaign promise
Nor the next Millenium Development Goal
Not the next single actor using their power for good
Instead of evil
Not one person shouting to be heard

An entire world civilization,
Because I think to myself,
That might endure
But what is the path
That will lead us to the road
Where this can be experienced?
Because the path of tyranny does not lead there
And the path of an arms race does not lead there
And the path of my god is better than your god
Does not lead there
We walk so many paths, as a planet that do not lead there
America walks so many paths as a nation that do not lead there
New York walks so many paths as a state that do not lead there
Buffalo walks so many paths as a city that do not lead there
And you and I, even we sitting here, thinking these noble thoughts
We walk far too many paths ourselves, that do not lead
To such an enduring place

And yet, when we back up from the canvas of our lives
Tilt our head and squint a bit
What is it that we do that will endure?
Our stories?
Our cradle songs?
Certainly not our monuments
Standing back, looking at the canvas
What is it we do
Each one of us
Each day
That works toward that which endures?

For even when tyranny attempts to wipe that out
It crops up all the stronger
Like a weed in the midst of your formal garden
It seems to endure
Despite your best efforts

What can we do, I wonder, to help it along?

Sunday, December 30, 2007

Who is Jesus?

This was the sermon preached this morning, Christmas 1, Year A, 2007

Merry Christmas.

You know what I love about the season of Christmas? That it only really starts on Christmas Eve. Of course, all around us you would think that the official beginning of Christmas was the day after Thanksgiving (or is it the day after Halloween these days?), and the end is about noon on Christmas day, but this is not the case. It will be Christmas until Epiphany, which is next Sunday, January the 6th.

Now the Christmas season is about a lot of things, really. You can focus in tight on the picture and say that it’s about the birth of a child. You can take a wider view and see an ancient nation crying out against injustice from within and injustice imposed from without, crying out for someone to come and stop the madness. You can take a still wider view and see that this is the celebration of a beginning of a life that would change the landscape of global history – sometimes for good, sometimes for ill. You can take that wide angle view and call this individual God, some kind of manifestation of God, but then that opens the door for some serious splitting of hairs. God from God? Sort of God? Son of God? (Wait, aren’t all prophets ‘Sons of God’?) Mostly God, Slightly Human? Entirely God, Entirely Human? Created by God, but Created First? Uncreated and Eternal? A Completely Separate God, Bigger and Better and Nicer than that God of Moses?

And I have just named to you some of the major heresies and controversies of the Early Church. And when I say major, I mean major. People were fighting in the streets about this sort of thing, back then. …Oh wait, we still do that.

We still do that.

We still say that my god is better than your god.

We still say that something eternally horrific is going to happen to you if you don’t follow my god.

We still say that even though we follow the same god, you’re doing it all wrong, so you don’t count.

We still do this, or at least, a great number of us on the planet still do this. But there is an alternative – and I’m guessing more than one, but here’s the one that inspires me: (I like to call it, How To Be A Christian Without Tripping Over Yourself.)

I think of Jesus. (I know, this doesn’t shock you.) I think of how for Jesus, so very often, the proof was in the pudding. He cared less about what people believed, and what they purported to believe, and he cared more about what they actually did. Because what they did spoke volumes about where their heart was. You see this all throughout the gospel accounts of his life and ministry. It might not seem quite as sensational as a Fox News report to us, but believe me, for his time he was breaking social rule left and right. Let me give you a few examples.

The Pharisees and Saducees – remember them? Jesus, as a Rabbi and prophet could have been on good terms with them, but he typically said things that rocked the political and social and religious boat, so they had no great love for him. And he refused to be blinded by their so called piety as easily as he side-stepped the many times they tried to trap him in his own words. But the thing is, these were people who were supposed to be the good guys – these were the holy ones, but Jesus saw through what they seemed to be on the outside. In fact, one account has him calling them ‘whitewashed tombs’, meaning that they were pretty and presentable on the outside, but rotting on the inside.

Another example of Jesus not taking someone’s public face as the descriptor of who they were as a human being is the story of the Centurion and his daughter. Jarius, was his name. Now, in ancient Roman-occupied Israel you can imagine, perhaps just how very unpopular a Roman Centurion was. Oh yes, you’re very polite to them if you happen to meet one on the way because there are dire consequences if you’re not, but on the inside you’re seething with anger and resentment. You feel this way not because of something the Centurion has necessarily done, but because of what they represent. (Any Americans traveling abroad may have encountered this phenomena.) But this was not the reaction of Jesus. When the Centurion came to find this traveling preacher and healer so that his own daughter could be healed, Jesus saw through the armor plate of Rome to the man underneath who was suffering and who had reached out. And as the story goes, Jesus agreed to come. And then of course, Jarius stopped him, not wanting to unduly waste the master’s time, but rather told him to simply say the word, because as Jarius himself knew, as someone who had the management of many men, all Jesus would have to do is say the word, and his daughter would be healed. Jesus, as the story goes, was happily astounded, and rounded on his students and hangers on and told them all to be more like the Centurion, which I’m sure they did not enjoy. Why? Because this is one of the very few times in the Gospels where someone gets it, without having to have it explained to them. They get that it is what you do, even more than what you say.

And there are more examples all throughout the Gospels. They usually involve Jesus snubbing, or showing up someone who is in some way hypocritical, or Jesus being radically hospitable to someone who is on the margins – women, children, the sick and contagious, foreigners, prostitutes, people in typically corrupt jobs like tax collectors, people connected to the occupying force, like Jarius the Centurion.

And so, when I think, how do I be a Christian Without Tripping Over Myself, my answer is radical hospitality. Or put a different way, I consider this: I do not make my own belief a bludgeon with which to brutalize others, and I don’t respect those who do. Rather, I do pattern my life on a radical hope that peace is possible, justice can flow like a great river, and violence need not be the answer. Now, yes, these are very simple, general concepts, but they are applicable throughout all of life. In our homes, in our neighborhoods, in our city, in our nation, and in our world. And thing that inspires me toward this radical hope, and maybe it’s what inspires you as well, or maybe there’s some other facet that works for you, but what inspires me is this vision of God who loves like a parent (a functional parent mind, not a disfunctional one), this vision of God that so enraptured the man we call Jesus that he went out and lived for this God, right up until the point that he died.

And as for the controversy of who Jesus is, I take his cue there as well. In three out of the four gospel accounts of his life and ministry, (and I may say, the earliest three) Jesus was rather hesitant to put an title to himself, or a name to what he was doing, other than ‘teacher’ or ‘rabbi’. He frequently got irked when his students got uppity and tried to label him. Why did he do this? I can’t say. But in my imagination, it is because he knew, somehow, that when we label things, we tend to stop thinking about them, because if we label them, we know what they are, and we can more easily discount them, if not ignore them all together. After all, the ancient world didn’t need one more messiah. Messiahs were a dime a dozen – everybody and their brother was claiming to be the messiah. The world needed someone willing to roll up their sleeves and do some work.

The world still needs that.

Merry Christmas.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

A Christmas Collect

It's a Christmas Collect somewhat different from the one in the BCP.

O God, you make us glad by the yearly festival of the birth of Jesus the Messiah, Prophet and Son whose message and ministry provide for us light in the midst of darkness, hope in the midst of apathy, and strength in the midst of weakness: Grant that we, who see him as our inspiration in this world may hold fast to our faith and relationship with you, knowing that nothing in heaven or on earth can part us from your love; this we pray in the name of the Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier God. Amen.

"A Dream in Aramaic & English"

This sermon was given on December 16, 2007, which was Advent 3, Year A.

When I wondered what it meant when we said that we believe Jesus is the Messiah, when I wondered if that meant that Jesus was God, or that Jesus was the Son of God, or that Jesus (along with all of the other prophets of the Hebrew scriptures, as well as the angels as we have them in the Hebrew scriptures) is a Son of God, when I wondered how much of what we take for granted now has more to do with other people thought of Jesus, with their own personal and cultural spin, and less to do with what actually might have occurred in a rigorous and factual way, when I get to wondering about all of this, as I did the other day, thinking about this Sermon, I had a little daydream, which I’d like to share with you.

I start by wondering if we – we, the historical church in all of it’s branches down throughout the twenty centuries we’ve been kicking around – I wonder if we are making Jesus into someone he would have been scandalized to be seen as, when he walked on this earth. And so I have a little daydream about what would happen if Jesus and I went to a Midnight Christmas Eve service at St. John the Divine. And I have a little daydream about what would happen if Jesus and I went to the 11am Easter Sunday service at the National Cathedral – not something to otherwise miss. And assuming that I or he somehow got over the Aramaic-English thing (because really, my ancient Hebrew is terrible and my Aramaic non-existent. And really, English hadn’t been invented yet, when he was around.) So, assuming that we got over the formidable language barrier, what would we have? One flipped out prophet?

Would he be horrified to see images of himself on a Roman instrument of torture and execution, right up front? Would he be horrified that there were crosses EVERYWHERE on EVERYONE, including little golden crosses on little girls?

What do you think this Jewish peasant would make of our hymnody with organ and trumpet and choir and string section? What of the stories? His birth, a star in the sky, kingly gifts, choirs of angels, to say nothing of a virgin birth. He might recognize that motive better than we – it was the same story the Caesars got to use about their own births so they could claim that they were less human and more divine than everybody else. It was used as a way to rationalize the abuse of power. Do you think that this man, this rabbi in occupied Israel would be pleased, or even impressed by being compared this way to the head of the Roman government? I wonder.

But in my imagination, after being horrified by some of our religious imagery, I can imagine this Jesus make some inquiries of his own:

Have you managed to phase out violence?
(After all, we have had 2000 years to work on this issue, so you’d imagine we’d have made some progress, but, erm, no, not really…)

Are those with wealth and influence acting in just ways to the poor?
(Er, not so much yes as no.)

Are the powerful acting with equity for all people?
(Rarely, I’d have to reply, being as I am, at least moderately well aware of not only the politics of my own country, but of several other countries around the world. Rarely, I’d have to reply, even in those nations where the people themselves share in the ruling.)

Are the little people taking care of their own?
(Sometimes, I’d say ruefully, but it’s generally the exception, not the rule.)

Is God known universally as a source of love and light?
(That particular God doesn’t get much press, I’d report with slight embarrassment. Meanwhile, I’d hope he wouldn’t ask me about the Vatican’s sanction of the Holocaust, or the Crusades, or the Jesuits during the Inquisition, or the Protestant Witch Hunts, or the Jihads, or Northern Ireland, or the Sudan, or the KKK, or, or… really, anything.)

And this is about the time, in the flight of fancy that I’m having, that my insides are just twisted up in knots, because for every small advance our world has made toward living out the kingdom of Heaven, it seems to me that we’ve made steps backwards, sometimes larger, even, than our progress forward. And that realization is, to me, a sharp pain in the midst of this holiday season – a pain which feels at first out of place, but then upon closer examination, upon living with that pain a bit, seems to be exactly what Advent is about, even if it is diametrically opposed to the theme of commercial Christmas.

And this is about the time in this flight of fancy that I’m having, where I expect to turn to Jesus, my oddball Ancient Aramaic companion, and see condemnation in his eyes, a rod of iron in his hand, ready to beat me and the rest of the world – particularly everyone who dares to call themselves Christian – ready to beat us to a bloody pulp for this. In fact, this vision of Christ is the one I was raised with. The Lord coming in Majesty to Judge with a Rod of Iron. And when I turn to my companion all I see is a short middle eastern man who is in the process of rolling up his sleeves. When I look at him and silence hangs between us as I try to understand what is going on, actually, so different from what I’d always assumed, and I ask, my voice more timid than I want to admit to, “So then, I’m not going to hell?”

He rolls his eyes, as if to say, “Would you please get over yourself? Who says this is all about you?” But instead, he poses his own question – and really, that is the Jesus I’ve come to know: always ready to deflect someone who is on entirely the wrong track with a question of his own that will set them to thinking on the right track.

So he asks his question, as we stand in my imagination on the close of the National Cathedral, listening to the carillon and the happy shrieks of small children in their Easter best, I stand next to this peasant-wonder with his sleeves rolled up and he asks, “Well, we’ve got a lot of work to do, then, don’t we?”