Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Jesus calls us - into turmoil

Proper 7-b; June 24, 2012
1 Samuel 17:1a, 4-11, 19-23
Psalm 9:9-20
Mark 4: 35-41

During the summer, the lectionary takes us on two different train rides, on two different tracks. We travel along at the same speed on each of them, so there is the possibility that we can talk across the rails time and again. It may make for some interesting conversation, but you might just be interested in where one lesson-thread is going, and not pay that much attention to the other one.

So the lectionary gives us highlights from the life of King David for most of the summer, and today, we have this extraordinary story of David and Goliath. I am glad the lectionary gives us this opportunity to catch up with these old Bible stories – for the last time some of us read this story, we were small children ourselves. The characters in this story look very different to children – isn’t David like us, we used to think. Ruddy and handsome. A superhero at a young age. Confident and assured not only of his abilities, but that he is loved by God.

But think of Saul and Goliath, warriors in mid-life, at the height of their powers – men of power and ability, brought down – in different ways --  by this young whipper-snapper. By changing times and circumstances. By someone whose star is rising while theirs is falling. Do we, people “of a certain age” think differently of Goliath’s experience than we did when we were children? Are we now perhaps not so ready to toss aside Saul as little more than yesterday’s news? Are we not able to see more shades of gray in such tales of triumphant heroes? David may be perfect now, but later, as we shall see, he gets into a lot of trouble.

At whatever age, to be called by God to take on some task can be difficult. It seems to be God’s aim to get us to put it all on the line, to put even our lives at risk. The disciples cannot even go sailing – they cannot even ply their trade as fishermen – without Jesus leading them into treacherous waters.

“Let’s go over to the other side,” Jesus says. “The other side” in Gospel of Mark talk means the other side of human experience – the gentiles instead of the Jews, the foreign instead of the familiar, the unknown and alien. Mark’s Jesus preaches a critique of the established order. His Good News is that there is a way to live that is not dominated by Roman oppression or life-less religious observance. He breaks down that old order as he seeks to build a new one – and to understand what he has in mind perhaps we have to get over to the other side and look back on what we could leave behind forever.

But where does Jesus take us? Into the whirlwind, into chaos and danger. “Jesus, wake up! Don’t you see we are dying here. We don’t want to know about the other side if this is the price we have to pay. Let’s go back – to the familiar shore, to the way things used to be, to the way things are supposed to be.

Change is never easy – unless you are young. Think about all those graduates at this time of year – commencing on to the next phase in their lives. Legions of young Davids ready to replace those outmoded Sauls and take down the Goliaths in their paths. Change is all around us, upsetting every imaginable apple cart. Our boats seem to be riding on endlessly stormy seas, and not even Jesus seems to care. Jesus has even called us into this turmoil – taking us to “the other side,” to see who is on the other shore. People are there, people we do not yet know, waiting to hear some smidgen of good news, astounded to see the storm subside, and the seas grow calm, wondering just who could be in that boat.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

To be human is to embody music

Memorial Service
June 23, 2012
1 Thessalonians 4:13-17
John 6:37-40

For the Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God: and the dead in Christ shall rise first: Then we which are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air: and so shall we ever be with the Lord.

This passage from the First Letter to the Church in Thessalonika is about the future. It describes what the Christian believes will happen at the end of days. It depicts something which must be terrifying but also glorious, as all who will then be alive will be reunited with all who have gone before. It is a scene of great drama, and of great movement, and of great sound. It cannot be a surprise to us humans that the end of days is accompanied by great music.

Anthropologists frequently describe “the thing” that humans are made for: the animal who thinks. The animal who remembers. The animal with the opposable thumb. But this passage indicates that the human could be named “the animal who sings.” The human body itself is made to be an instrument. When we make sound, it is never just blah blah blah. It has meaning and structure. The tones are connected to each other in precise relationships. The sounds we make not only make sense, they make beauty. We know this, in our very bones.

About a year ago, a movie came out about some of the ancient cave painting in southern France. The paintings are astounding, and date from 37,000 to 11,000 years ago. But the movie showed something of human creation even older than the paintings: a flute, carved from the bone of a bird, from a cave in Germany, that was 40,000 years old. One of the scientists made a meticulous replica of that 40,000-year-old flute, and discovered that it plays a perfect pentatonic scale. In a pentatonic scale, the notes are precisely one-fifth apart.

This is not a coincidence, in a 40,000 year-old flute, carved from the bone of a bird. The person who made this flute already knew music, already understood the relationships between tones that made sense, that made beauty, that were pleasing to the ear. The person who made this flute already knew what it sounded like to make a note one-fifth higher than the one she had just sung. The person who made this flute did not invent the pentatonic scale any more that Stravinsky invented the 12-tone scale. The person who made this flute already heard that music, deep inside her or his own bones, and used the material at hand to fashion an instrument to amplify the sounds of her or his own body – the very essence of what it means to be human – out into the world. From that ancient flute until the last trumpet sounds, to be human is to embody music. It is the gift of the creator, embedded in our very bodies, one more sign of the incarnation, God not only with us, but within us.

I was not here, Peter, when you and Judy were parishioners at St. David’s, but many people have told me stories of your time here, and what an important and beloved part of this community you both were. Many of these stories involve music. Many were told with love and compassion about being with Judy as she retreated deeper and deeper into herself, not always sure where she was or what she was doing. But it was the music, one friend said, that always caught her attention, that brought her back to herself and to you, Peter. She could hear the music, she could recognize your voice. From deep inside the core of her being, she heard that music and she knew that she was alive, and that everything made sense and she was loved.

Judy died on Easter Day. The voice of the archangel, and the trump of God were just too alluring to her – she could no longer resist their call. You have gathered all of us here today, Peter, to remind us of that – to remind us that the music God gives us is at the core of what makes us human, and what connects us to God. It is what has tied us all together for thousands of years, and will tie us all together in the life to come. 

Paleontologist Wulf Hein playing a replica of the 40,000-year-old flute
from The Cave of Forgotten Dreams, a film by Werner Herzog

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Binding the strong man & shooting marbles

Proper 5 B; June 10, 2012
1 Samuel 8:4-11, 16-20; Ps. 138
2 Corinthians 4:13-5:1; Mark 3:20-35

Simon and I are hooked on the new BBC version of Sherlock Holmes. Sherlock still lives at 221B Baker Street, Mrs. Hudson is still his landlady, and Dr. Watson is still his best friend – but it is 2012. Sherlock tweets and texts, Watson is a veteran of the war in Iraq, and Mrs. Hudson is sweet on the Pakistani grocer next door. It’s hip and fast and glitzy, but the stories are the same, as are Sherlock’s skills at detection and his peculiar personality – kind of hyper-active and “special needs.” But the most chilling aspect of this “new Sherlock” – more chilling than past dramatizations, and certainly more chilling than reading the stories, is the depiction of Sherlock’s arch-enemy, Moriarty. He is creepy and post-modernly pathological, with no moral code, no rationality, no pattern other than the goal of absolute destruction. Just when you want Sherlock to solve a nice, cut-and-dry criminal mystery like “The Red-Headed League” or “The Hound of the Baskervilles,” up pops Moriarty, sneering and destabilizing. As Moriarity himself says, “Every good fairy tale needs a villain.”[i]

Satan, or Beezebul, the arch-enemy of humanity, makes an appearance in today’s Gospel – which, Moriarty’s maxim aside, does NOT have a fairy-tale ending. Jesus has been casting out all those Satan-sent demons inhabiting the people around him, and at the end of this passage, seems to be casting out his family, as well.

Satan has played a time-honored role in our religious imagination. Satan acted as an agent of God in some Hebrew texts, as in Job, where his job was “to uncover the weaknesses”[ii] of exemplar human beings. Satan gradually becomes less of an accomplice of God and more of an adversary, an out-and-out tempter, especially as Persian religion influenced Judaism, bringing in a dualistic world view, with struggles between darkness and light, evil and goodness.

By the time Jesus meets him, during the 40 days of temptation in the wilderness, Satan has no “good side” to his cruel suggestions –- he is no “vision-quest” ally helping the young messiah prove himself. Satan’s goal is to un-do God’s mission and to un-seat Jesus as the one sent by God to bring about God’s reign. Jesus from the beginning recognized him as the one to be cast out at every turn – and that is just what Jesus has been doing. Those possessed by spirits so powerful they were made crazy and anti-social – those who have been so sick that they have been cast out by their neighbors and families – Jesus has been about the business of healing these people, restoring them to their rightful minds, to their rightful bodies, their rightful places in the community.

Jesus has been restoring order – and Satan has been sowing the seeds of disorder. He has been suggesting to people that Jesus is the one who is deranged, who is upsetting “the way things are” too much. At every turn, Jesus has been binding this strong man, the one who gains when people are broken and distant and incapable of living full lives. The strong man is striking back – telling even Jesus’ family that their brother and son is the one who needs to be bound, who needs to be the obedient child in the family system where everyone behaves and does what they are supposed to do –- you know that family system, the one where everyone knows things might be bad but nothing ever changes, that family where people might be miserable but at least it is the misery and bondage they know.

But the Gospel of Mark is no Sherlock Holmes story, and the bible is no fairy tale. We might really want to see that Satan is God’s evil twin, God’s dark side, that this good-evil thing is a contest between equals. But alas, no. There are villainous things in this world, for sure. We can fall into traps, trip headlong into ditches, end up doing all sorts of things that we know are horrible and stupid and cruel and mean. We can fight like hell to keep things just the way they are, even when we know that “business as usual” – “what we are used to” – is sucking the life out of us and leading us to an early grave.

In another version of this story, when Jesus’ family tries to rein him in, and the people of Nazareth lead him to cliff at the edge of town, ready to throw him off, Jesus puts up no resistance. He just walks through the crowd and goes back to his work of healing and restoration. At the end of his life, Mark notes, Jesus is bound, as he stands before Pontius Pilate. Those forces of darkness seem apparently to have won. The villain has his day.

But no – just as calmly as Jesus walked through the crowds and away from the cliff, just as evenly as Jesus dismisses the claims his family tries to make on him, to change what he is doing and make it more “acceptable,” Jesus rises from the dead – the stories of the resurrection, remember, tell simple, quiet tales: Jesus sits in the garden, walks through walls, strolls along roadsides, cooks breakfast on the beach. The good news is so good that it just happens.

Last week was Trinity Sunday, and starting today we embark on this long season “after Pentecost,” when we read story after story of Jesus’ work in the world – healing, teaching, feeding – no fairy tales these: just stories that describe what the world will be like when God’s reign has begun.

[ii] Ibid.

Proper 6-B; June 17, 2012
1 Samuel 15:34-16:13
Psalm 20; Mark 4:26-34

It’s the time of year for science fairs. You’ve probably been to one, or even entered one of your experiments in one. I remember doing one on clouds. In one of the fairs I went to once, two of the children experimented with plants: did a plant grow faster if one played classical music, rock music or rap music next to it?

The children were convinced rap music did the trick. In one boy’s experiment, one plant was kind of shrunk down compared to the others. The other boy said that the rap music one was taller – the classical music one looked vigorous and healthy to me – but the rap music one had broken its stem on the way to school. But I was skeptical. Maybe I had today’s parable in mind: we sow the seed, but it sprouts on its own – it grows tall – we know not how. It grows to tall, ripe grain, or to become a shrub so might that the birds nest in its branches. Even controlling for variables in a scientific experiment, it is still God’s seed, God’s mystery, God’s power, God’s time.

That is kind of what is meant by “the kingdom of God.” That kingdom is not necessarily a place, with border guards and boundaries, but a sense of God’s power. God’s dominion. God rules here. God’s rules rule here. The seeds sprout and grow into plants. The sun rises and sets. We work, we sleep, we rise. We see God’s kingdom at work in the world around us.

Following the rules of God’s kingdom is a balancing act between the work God calls us to do, and an utter detachment from the results of that work. In every way, God wants us, I think, to participate in the work of that kingdom: to plant seeds. What are the seeds God has given you in your life? How do you think God wants you to participate in the kingdom of God?

What was God looking for when he chose David out of all the warriors offered to him, David, the youngest, to be the one chosen and beloved of God? What could David have possibly done to deserve such a blessing?

There are moments in our lives when we just can’t make things fit. Try as hard as we can, something just doesn’t work. A relationship, a task, a problem to be solved. Aren’t we just prone to worry ourselves sick? Don’t we just want to get this right, that perfect, to please ourselves, to please God? Is this what God would want? How do we know what is the right thing to do? What if we just worked a little harder, fixed this thing a little better, dug a little deeper, stayed up a little later? Wouldn’t there be more justice in the world? Wouldn’t there be more mercy? Wouldn’t things be RIGHT?

One of my favorite summer stories is set in New York City, in an indeterminate decade sometime in the middle of the 20th century. It’s a story of boys playing marbles on the street, in the deepening dusk. The narrator is Buddy, shooting marbles with his friend, Ira. Buddy’s brother, Seymour, comes up to them.

One late afternoon, at that faintly soupy quarter of an hour in New York when the street lights have just been turned on and the parking lights of cars are just getting turned on - some on, some still off- I was playing curb marbles with a boy named Ira Yankauer, on the farther side of the side street just opposite the canvas canopy of our apartment house. I was eight. I was using Seymour's technique, or trying to - his side flick, his way of widely curving his marble at the other guy's - and I was losing steadily. Steadily but painlessly. For it was the time of day when New York City boys are much like Tiffin, Ohio, boys who hear a distant train whistle just as the last cow is being driven into the barn. At that magic quarter hour, if you lose marbles, you lose just marbles. Ira, too, I think, was properly time-suspended, and if so, all he could have been winning was marbles. Out of this quietness, and entirely in key with it, Seymour called to me. It came as a pleasant shock that there was a third person in the universe, and to this feeling was added the justness of its being Seymour. I turned around, totally, and I suspect Ira must have, too. The bulby bright lights had just gone on under the canopy of our house. Seymour was standing on the curb edge before it, facing us, balanced on his arches, his hands in the slash pockets of his sheep-lined coat. With the canopy lights behind him, his face was shadowed, dimmed out. He was ten. From the way he was balanced on the curb edge, from the position of his hands, from - well, the quantity x itself, I knew as well then as I know now that he was immensely conscious himself of the magic hour of the day. 'Could you try not aiming so much?' he asked me, still standing there. 'If you hit him when you aim, it'll just be luck.' He was speaking, communicating, and yet not breaking the spell. I then broke it. Quite deliberately. 'How can it be luck if I aim?' I said back to him, not loud (despite the italics) but with rather more irritation in my voice than I was actually feeling. He didn't say anything for a moment but simply stood balanced on the curb, looking at me, I knew imperfectly, with love. 'Because it will be,' he said. 'You'll be glad if you hit his marble - Ira's marble - won't you? Won't you be glad? And if you're glad when you hit somebody's marble, then you sort of secretly didn't expect too much to do it. So there'd have to be some luck in it, there'd have to be slightly quite a lot of accident in it.'[i]
There are no accidents in the kingdom of God. We sow the seed, we shoot the marble, we reach out to the friend in need. The seeds sprout, we know not how, and when we turn around, a great tree has grown up in our midst, and the kingdom of God is here.

[i] J.D. Salinger, from “Seymour, An Introduction” in Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters (Little, Brown 1963)

Monday, June 18, 2012

Twitter and the Trinity

Trinity-B  June 3, 2012
Isaiah 6:1-8; Psalm 29
Romans 8:12-17; John 3:1-17
In the year that King Uzziah died … there were no garage sales.

In the year the King Uzziah died … professional athletes did not tattoo their foreheads with religious shorthand such as “John 3:16”.

In the year the King Uzziah died … the Dalai Lama would not have had more devoted Twitter followers than Justin Bieber does. As a matter of fact, the New York Times reported yesterday, not only does the Dalai Lama rock the world with his Tweets, but there are 

evangelical Christian leaders whose inspirational message of God’s love perform about 30 times as well as Twitter messages from pop cultural powerhouses like Lady Gaga.[i] 

I have to admit that I feel a little bit like King Uzziah when I read that, because I don’t really know what it means to say that some messages “perform” better on Twitter than others. But it must be good.

I do get the point that a lot of people are talking about God, asking questions about God, wondering about where they can find out more about God – and about themselves and how they can live good lives. Of course, this desire and longing for the courts of the Lord is nothing new – we humans have always expressed it in the medium at hand: ancient papyrus, illuminated manuscript, Gutenberg press, newsprint or Tweets all perform the same function. “Woe is me!” humans have cried for centuries, and now they can tweet: “I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips and I live among a people of unclean lips!”

“Fifteen percent of adult Internet users in the United States are on Twitter, and about half of those use the network every day,”[ii] the Times tells us. Granted, that is mostly chaff – most conversation – even face-to-face conversation is forgettable and trivial. But listen to this story of Ann Voskamp, a mother of six who lives on a farm in Ontario:

Her book “One Thousand Gifts,” about moments of everyday grace, started a Twitter conversation that is still going 18 months after its publication.
Under the hashtag #1000gifts, readers share their own moments, like “seeing the beauty in the mess” and “sitting down at the table to eat dinner as a family.” Dozens of #1000gifts posts are still sent every day.
Mrs. Voskamp says the network is successful as a source of spiritual support because it is tailor-made for today’s culture. “In a fast world, they get what they need from that one little tweet,” she said.[iii]

How much different is that Twitter culture from that of Nicodemus, whom one preacher called “the Patron Saint of Seekers?” Not much different, if you think about it. Nicodemus seems right in the middle of the group that contemporary demographers call “the unchurched.” Look how Jesus responds to this stranger in the midst of the community of disciples. If Nicodemus walked into one of our meetings one night, twittering all the way, we might ask, What are you doing here? This kind of church, where we still remember when King Uzziah died, doesn’t seem to be your cup of tea.

In contrast to our derision, Jesus receives Nicodemus as a pilgrim, a sincere religious seeker. Jesus welcomes him and his searching mind. Jesus immediately senses that this learned Pharisee … is responding to something in Jesus' teaching. He seems to know that Nicodemus is willing to risk leaving behind the truth as he has known it in order to explore something new. Jesus invites him into a new realm of insight, and takes Nicodemus seriously even as he pushes him far beyond his comfort zone. Recognizing a spiritual pilgrim who is starting down a path, Jesus seeks not to embarrass Nicodemus, nor condemn him, but to offer him, instead, the possibility of new life.[iv]

If the disciples spent all of their time talking with each other, they would have missed Nicodemus entirely. Think of it this way: the disciples were all updating their Facebook pages, making sure they “friended” only their friends. They were a closed circle, facing inward, their knees touching and their heads bent. But what Jesus is talking about, and what Nicodemus is responding to, is the equivalent of a Twitter feed, which once you send it, goes out into the world: “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” Does Nicodemus come to Jesus wanting a hard and fast answer? Or is he more like us, we who live in a time when hard and fast answers don’t answer enough of the questions we have? O, Nicodemus, Patron Saint of those of us who wonder where the Spirit of God is taking us now: where is your hashtag when we need it?

Isaiah’s story from the days of King Uzziah is spooky and mysterious and mythic. It’s an image of the Ancient of Days, and at first glance you might think, what has this to do with us? With our experience of God?

But look at the last lines: “Whom shall I send and who will go for us?” God is asking: who will tell God’s story? Who will bring God’s message to a world that very much needs it? How we will answer that? In our neighborhood, our community, our city, among our family and friends? Do we put “John 3:16” up on billboards? Do we tweet messages of God’s love in inspirational snippets? Do we set up a Good News telephone tree? Do we put flyers in people’s shopping carts at Wegman’s?

Who will go for God into this world? Who will tell God’s story, of how much God loves this world and all of us in it?

All of us are in church today because SOMEONE bothered to tell us that story, and told it to us in the words we could understand. We know what we will answer, don’t we, when God asks us, as God asks us every day: Who will go for us? Here am I; send me.

[ii] Ibid.
[iii] Ibid.
[iv] Patricia Farris, “Nicodemus the Pharisee”, The Christian Century, February 2002

Jesus speaks his peace -- and then sends us on our way

May 27, 2012
Acts 2:1-21; Psalm 104
Romans 8:22-27
John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15

Jesus Christ, Son of the Living God, speak through me to others. Jesus Christ, Son of the Living God, speak through others to me.

That old prayer is a form of Evangelism -- perfectly appropriate for Pentecost, the feast when we celebrate the Spirit of God speaking in many languages to the very new church gathered Jerusalem.

Jesus Christ, Son of the Living God, speak through me to others. Jesus Christ, Son of the Living God, speak through others to me.

This day is also known as the birthday of the church. The ecstatic spirit of the church is described in Acts. In John's gospel, Jesus breathes the spirit on the disciples and gives them their marching orders -- their authority: "When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth.”

So Jesus can speak to us and through us in a variety of ways, and the Holy Spirit speaks the truth to us and through us in a variety of ways, through what may appear to an outsider as drunken, crazy behavior. Paul, of course, says it better than anyone: "The Spirit intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words."

Jesus can speak through us and to us in ways that make us happy, and that's what Pentecost is usually about. It's the day when people who speak in tongues can really shine. But Jesus' words are sometimes more ambiguous than we would like. We're left hanging, with questions in our mind, conflicts not quite resolved, solutions not yet formed.

The Pentecost experience happens, as you will recall, after the Ascension – after Jesus has left his disciples for the last time. Remember the words Jesus spoke to them, during one of his appearances to them after the resurrection: “Peace be with you.”

The disciples were probably not in a very peaceful place just then. John reveals none of the disciples' emotions other than they were glad to see him. Surely they were in turmoil: their friend and leader had just been killed, they were in hiding, grieving and mourning, and then he appears. Surely they were astonished, stunned, shocked. Neither the "before" or "after" of this scene can be described as peaceful, but that is what Jesus says to them, twice: "Peace be with you."

Our passage today comes from when Jesus teaches his disciples what to in these days – these post-resurrection, post-Ascension days: Be strong. The Spirit will come, and will direct you in all truth.
With these with these words of encouragement, Jesus is sending the disciples, and, by extension, us, out into the world. We are not allowed to indulge in a spirit-filled peace for very long. We cannot linger with the mountaintop experience, for Jesus is calling us into the world, the world that longs for and desperately needs peace. Jesus breathes his spirit upon us -- speaks his peace -- and then sends us out into the world where people hurt and get sick and go hungry, and expects us to speak peace to them, to speak truth to them, to bring hope to this broken world that does not know what to expect next. The Pentecost story reminds us that the Spirit makes up for our deficiencies – in sighs deeper than the words we cannot find, and in the words of all the languages we cannot speak.

When I wrote this, the wind was blowing wonderfully, rustling the new leaves. A sliver of a moon peeked through the tree limbs. It’s Memorial Day weekend, the beginning of summer, the end of the school year, a time of both remembrance and of looking forward, of endings, and of hope. It is easy to feel the Spirit moving among us at such a liminal time.

St. David’s Church is at an exciting moment in its life. How will we open ourselves to the calling of the Spirit? What words will we use to engage people yearning to find hope and good news and friendship and community? What is that something wonderful and new that might indeed be emerging from among and around us? What is alighting on our heads, even now?
Jesus Christ, Son of the Living God, speak through me to others. Jesus Christ, Son of the Living God, speak through others to me.

In what language do we hear these words? In what language must we speak, so that others can hear them, too?