The Feast of the Nativity of John the Baptist

For many years, from the time the concept of kingdoms in instituted — remember a few weeks back when we heard about the people demanding a king — to the years during which Malachi witnessed, God spoke to God’s people by sending them prophets. After Malachi — a name that might not actually be a proper name but simply means “messenger of YHWH” — there was a 450-year period of near-unbearable prophetic silence. It was a silence that was finally broken with the first prophet of the New Testament period: John the Baptist.

The gospel of Luke gives clues to the time and place when the word of God came to John, son of Zechariah. Details such as “the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar” dates John’s story to about the year 26 AD. Luke’s political and religious commentary tells us that the word of God came to John the Baptist when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea. He goes on with other historical detail: Herod was tetrarch (one of four sub-leaders) of Galilee, his brother Philip was tetrarch of Iturea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias was tetrarch of Abilene. Together, these were Rome’s political powers. Jerusalem’s religious establishment is also identified by Luke: the story takes place during the high priesthood of Annas and Annas’ successor, Caiaphas.

While we don’t look at scripture to give us any kind of encyclopedic outline of history, we can take note of major themes when they are lifted up. The details of Luke’s gospel strongly suggest that the word of the Lord through John the Baptist — this great interruption, this breaking of prophetic silence — comes neither from Rome’s imperial government nor from Israel’s religious establishment in the temple. In fact, it is pretty clear that whoever Jesus’ followers found in the desert was NOT from the leading caste! This beloved of God, this desert prophet who forged a path of holiness and warned of the coming of the kingdom, came not from the power of a business board room, not from the intelligentsia of the university laboratory, not from the leisure of the ski lodge, and not from the drama of the power lunch.

God’s word to all humanity, this timely breaker of sacred silence, came from a wild and woolly man who lived in the deep of the desert, on the fringes of society rather than in its corridors of power, at the periphery rather than at any epicenter. The divine messenger and his message originated in an unlikely place and from an improbable source. Remember Jesus asking the people: “What did you expect? A reed shaken by the wind? …Someone dressed in soft robes?” (Luke 7:24) He was none of that! John would have been far too easy to ignore if what you expected or wanted was something normal, safe, traditional. Neither John nor his message was status quo by any stretch of the imagination.

Some scholars think that John was part of an apocalyptic Jewish sect of Essenes who opposed the temple in Jerusalem (in today’s language, John was definitely anti-establishment…the temple was all about establishment). John the Baptizer was a prophet of radical dissent. Even though his father had been part of the religious establishment as a priest in the Jerusalem temple, John fled the comforts and corruptions of the city for the loneliness of the desert. There he dressed in animal skins, ate insects and wild honey, and preached. Living on the margins of society, both literally and figuratively, he preached a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. John preached and lived and witnessed to a life that demanded radical change: a change of heart, a change of attitude, a change of discipline, a change in how one looked at the law and all the prophets that had come before him.

Marcus Borg talks about John’s message as being one of both indictment and invitation. Here we have this ascetic man with a very austere message, and the gospels say that people just flocked to John. In Mark 1:5 we read that the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalemwent out to him. This is important! This wild and woolly man with a message of change or die, with a foreshadowing of God’s kingdom on earth, was oddly compelling! Very much out of their comfort zones, people flocked to the desert, people confessed their sins, people were baptized in what even then was probably a filthy river, the river Jordan. Indictment. Invitation. (paraphrase, Daniel B. Clendenin)

People needed to repent, said John, because the kingdom of heaven is near. And indeed, once Jesus arrives, the same message continues. “Repent,” preached Jesus, “for the kingdom of heaven is near.” And when Jesus sends his followers out into villages and towns, the message goes with them: “As you go, preach this message: ‘The kingdom of heaven is near.’”

Kingdom. All this talk of kingdom. Jesus’ enemies rightly concluded that if Jesus was a king, a Lord, and a ruler who reigned over a realm, then he clearly usurped and upstaged the government in Rome and the temple in Jerusalem. The new kingdom in Jesus clashed with the old powers of politics and religion. This kingdom of God that first John and then Jesus announced and embodied is what life would be like on earth, here and now, if God were king and the rulers of this world were not. Imagine if God ruled the nations, and not the leader to the South, or Kim Jong-il, or Putin, or any of the other tyrants and dictators presently treating creation like their playground. Every aspect of personal and communal life would experience a radical reversal. The political, economic, and social subversions would be almost endless — peace-making instead of war mongering, liberation not exploitation, sacrifice rather than subjugation, mercy not vengeance, care for the vulnerable instead of privileges for the powerful, generosity instead of greed, humility rather than hubris, embrace rather than exclude. The ancient Hebrews had a marvelous word for this, shalom, or human well-being.

Entrance into this kingdom of shalom requires a clear, counter-cultural choice. Today, as we celebrate the Nativity of John the Baptist, we are each invited — by John, by Jesus, by all who follow Jesus — to repent, to confess, and to believe that in following the Way of Jesus, God’s kingdom has arrived. Answering John’s challenge to prove our spiritual intentions by concrete deeds rather than by claims of religious or political affiliation remains a mighty call. To live the Way remains one of the most deeply subversive acts of all time.

The claim of God’s kingdom upon my life, John preached, is ultimate. That means that the claims of the state and religious establishments, of race, gender, culture, and money are, at best, penultimate. Nothing of this world can provide the final word. The earliest and most radical Christian confession was simple: Jesus is Lord. By direct implication, Caesar is notlord or god, and neither are all the other, many false gods of popularity, success, money, sex, power. It is in John’s message that the first steps into the kingdom can be found: turn away from anything and everything that might hinder your allegiance to the Way, make straight our crooked paths, flatten the hilly terrain, and prepare a space for the birth of the Messiah into our own lives. It’s when we do this, when we make room for the kingdom of God within our own hearts, that we subvert and transcend the politics and policies of this earthly kingdom and witness to the new Way possible.

The kingdom of God
isn’t announced with handshakesjanetmorleybook
(however momentous),
political flourishes,
or speeches that move the heart.

it will be known
in thorough healing work:
painstaking attention to particular bodies,
committed lives, strategic action:
the binding and silencing of demons
of hatred and injustice
that will not want to leave
or lose their grip –
the mighty works, in daily life,
of flourishing community.”

Janet Morley
“Companions of God” Christian Aid 1994

 

 

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Exist to Resist

Posted: June 10, 2018 in Language of Exploration

In 2010, then 92-year-old Stéphane Frédéric Hessel published an essay in France called Time for Outrage: Indignez-vous! It was a short book — only 35 pages — a quick read and had an original print run of only 6,000 copies. Today, over 3 million copies in 30 different languages have been sold. Hessel was a diplomat, an ambassador, a writer, a concentration camp survivor, a proud member of the French Resistance, and aBCRA agent (French military intelligence). Born German, he became a naturalised French citizen in 1939. He was an observer of the editing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 and a fervent human rights advocate. In his words, “I’ve always sided with the dissidents and against every form of dehumanization.”

His jeremiad — or list of woes — is a timely message for today: it is a plea to recover a sense of outrage in our generation. Why? Because “the wealthy have installed their slaves in the highest spheres of the state. The banks are privately owned. They are concerned only with profits. They have no interest in the common good. The gap between rich and poor is the widest it’s ever been; the pursuit of riches and the spirit of competition are encouraged and celebrated.”

resist outrageHessel’s challenge to his readers was to move from indifference to indignation. “You must engage — your humanity demands it.” His protest against the status quo of money, politics, and power is a reminder of yet another French Resistance member, Christian Jacques Ellul of Bordeaux, whose famous expression may be familiar to you: “to exist is to resist.”

Status quo. Something that somewhere along the line, all of us were convinced was the good thing, the right thing, the safe thing. The status quo kept unwanted attention from coming our way; the status quo lets us live peacefully — or at least without incident — and keeps domestic worries at bay. If we subscribe to the status quo, we don’t have to worry about paying the bills, feeding the family, meeting the mortgage. We save ourselves from trouble by maintaining the existing social structures and values. Every time we come to election time, we stare down the status quo. We make choices, sometimes hard choices. Will we simply continue to exist? Or will we be like Hessel, like Ellul, and resist?

Well, the readings this week are all about these alternatives: choosing either to mimic the status quo of the world or to live on the fringe in the kingdom of God. One story is about politics, the other more about family life. But both are about not just making the choice but living with the choice.

1 Samuel 8 describes the emergence of centralized power in Israel. The people are all about demanding the status quo: “We want a king like the other nations” they say. And at first Samuel objects to their desire to mimic the other nations. He prays, and God says to Samuel, “Tell them what it’s really going to be like!” But the people persisted: “We want a king over us. Then we will be like all the other nations.” So Samuel gives in to their request even after warning them of the harsh consequences to follow — the government would conscript their children for wars, make them domestic slaves, confiscate their land, and levy exorbitant taxes. This will be the price for accepting the status quo.

Then, in Mark’s gospel, we see what happens when the status quo is subverted. Jesus’ own family thought he had gone mad: “He’s out of his mind,” they said. And, judging by the standard of the status quo, they were right. Let’s remember their history with him… Jesus ran away as a boy, leaving them panicked, as he sat calmly in the temple learning Torah and maybe how to be a teacher himself. Jesus ran away as a twenty-something to follow John’s fringe group, joining this desert troublemaker and his anti-establishment fringe movement. Jesus left them completely when he was thirty-something, Nazareth tried to kill him, his brothers and Mother tried to defend him and protect him and call him back into safety. But Jesus would have none of it. Because Jesus would not have the status quo. Jesus redefined family and community and friendship all in one grand, inclusive gesture. “Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother.”

You see, in Samuel the people reject God as king… all for the status quo. And in Mark, the people want to reject Jesus as prophet and teacher and Rabbi… all for the status quo. We see what happens in Samuel when the status quo becomes the means and method of oppression. We see what happens in Mark — and in all the other gospels — when the kingdom of God is the counter-culture of the status quo. It’s a timely message.

We have a new king in our land. Now, I’m not going to put anyone in the position of defending or justifying or explaining. I simply want us to take note. I want us to take note of the fact that when God’s people stopped believing in and relying on God, they opted for the status quo. And I want us to take note of the fact that when the status quo comes knocking, Jesus meets them with the gospel of love. So now that there is a new king, our only response as Christians is to continue to proclaim that gospel of love. Now is the time to be vigilant. Now is the time to “exist to resist.”

Keep your eyes — and heart — upon the most vulnerable. Because this is what Jesus would do. When services change and systems alter, ask not how this impacts you but how it impacts the ones we serve. Remember our Marks of Mission: to respond, to transform, to safeguard. Remember with whom we have been entrusted: the poor, the hungry, the naked, the imprisoned, the stranger, the sick. Remember that each time you have renewed your baptismal promises that you have re-committed to serve Christ in all persons and to seek justice, peace, and dignity, and to strive to safeguard creation.

That’s all.

You see, I read an essay this week that contained this quote: “If the church is not political, it is irrelevant to the world that God so loves. But if the church is partisan, it becomes a tool of the empire.” So I charge you today with remaining relevant. Love the world God loves. Demand of every new king that their work be about seeking justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with God. Remember who you are and whose you are. And know that all of us who gather with you — who love God and choose the Way of love — are your mother and your brother and your sister.

Thanks be to God.

 

Mark’s Gospel begins at top speed. In just the first chapter, Jesus is baptized, tempted, announced his ministry, calls his disciples, casts out an unclean spirit, heals many people gathered at Simon Peter’s home, goes on a preaching tour, and cleanses a leper. All in a mere 45 verses! And by the end of all this, his fame has spread so far and wide he finds it difficult to move about without attracting a crowd.

The second chapter is just as busy, with Jesus continuing to heal all those in need. But Mark introduces something new in this chapter: the beginning of pushback. The first time happens when Jesus heals a paralyzed man and tells him his sins are forgiven. The scribes — what we might think of as first-century biblical scholars or professors — are offended, as they declare that only God can forgive sin. Jesus teases them a bit, I have to admit, when he asks them whether it really matters that he says, “Your sins are forgiven,” or “Take up your mat and walk,” since each has the same end result. Jesus continues to provoke them as he not only calls a tax collector to be one of his disciples, but also dines with him and all his friends of ill repute. Again, the scribes, this time also joined by the Pharisees — the first-century equivalent of some kind of hybrid of parish council and corporation — are deeply offended. Next comes the squabble over the practice of fasting. You see, Jesus’ disciples, unlike the Pharisees and, for that matter, even John’s disciples, are not fasting.

All of which brings us to today’s gospel and another confrontation with the religious authorities. This time the argument is over two issues related to the Sabbath. In the first, Jesus and his disciples are walking through some grain fields and, hungry, the disciples pick some of the heads of the grain to eat. The Pharisees, by now vigilant regarding all things related to Jesus, complain that they should do no work — neither travel nor pick grain — on the Sabbath, the day of rest. Jesus responds by sharing a story about King David doing something even more sacrilegious — eating food that only priests were supposed to eat — in order to justify that law gives way to need. Immediately afterward, Jesus is in the synagogue and meets a man whose hand has been withered and desires to be healed. Knowing that the religious authorities are waiting to chastise him if he heals on the Sabbath, he asks his would-be accusers whether it is lawful to do good and to save life on the Sabbath or, by implication, whether he should honour the Sabbath even if it means refraining from helping someone in need. Whenever I read this passage, I imagine a scene of bluster and self-righteous sputtering!

I also imagine stunned silence when Jesus pronounces, midway through these scenes that, “The Sabbath was made for humankind, not humankind for the Sabbath.” This is the real point of all of these interactions. This is precisely where these stories extend well beyond their original first-century context to speak to us today. “The biblical witness is clear: God gives us the law to help us get the most out of life and, in particular, to help us get more out of life by helping others, by looking out for them, by taking care of them and, by extension, each other. In this way, the law creates a level of order that makes human flourishing more likely. Law offers a measure of protection, particularly important to those who are most vulnerable. Law establishes a modicum of stability that makes it easier for us to prosper.” All of these things the law does, and we are taught to know and to revere and to follow the law.

But as important as the law is, it is — and shall always be — only, and I mean only, a means to an end, a tool, something in service to a much greater purpose. It is not an end in itself. The purpose of the law is not to simply be followed but to be a tool, a means, a help to live into the identity of a beloved child of God. In fact, God’s love does not depend on our adherence to the law or our ability to recite the law or even our ability to call out others if they have broken the law.

 

And that’s where the good religious folk of the first century — and, truthfully, many of us good religious folk today — get confused. We mistake the law for its end. We think following the law is the point and forget that the law was established to help. We establish our identity based on our ability to obey the law — or at least to obey it better than whatever comparison group we devise — rather than using the law to help those we would compare ourselves against.

The law protects me from the other: from the poor who might steal from me, from those in trouble or distress who might injure me. The law has become a tool for those who have, not for those who have not. It protects our riches. It secures our homes. It guarantees our healthcare and access to transportation and legal services. The law, as we observe it today, has become twisted in many ways and has stopped serving those very vulnerable souls for whom I think it was designed. Remember Jesus’ words as he offers the great commandment, the only commandment of import, to love. Jesus does not say that loving is dependent on the law. Jesus says, instead, that the law hangs on this teaching to love: to love God, to love neighbour, to love ourselves. On these two commandments, our prayer book announces, hang all the law and the prophets! Not the other way around!

It is not about following the rules, the letter of the law. It is not about keeping the ten commandments or the 611 rules of Torah. It is about observing the spirit of the law. It is about recognizing when the instruction is no longer pointing to serving a need. It is as simple as breaking a stranger’s window to save a child. It’s as difficult as owning up and changing historic laws that incited violence and oppression against indigenous Canadians. It is the choice to welcome all to this table — God’s table — recognizing that even church doctrine cannot govern access to the Holy One. It is how we have changed as church: divorce, the ordination of woman, children receiving the sacraments, full inclusion of the LGBTQ2 community, even women bishops! All of this is possible only when we remember that the law serves the people, not the other way around.

The real rules of the Way are not in black and white, not even in stone. They are written on the heart: compassion, acceptance, service, love. Here is how very radical it is to be a Christian…for those of you who think you are pretty main stream and conservative… to be a Christian is to follow the Way. Not the law, but the Way. The Way of Love.

Thanks be to God.

The Feast of Pentecost 

There was more than a bit of excitement in the world yesterday. And even I, allergic to early mornings as I am, awoke at 4:30 am to watch the royal festivities. Admittedly I dozed a bit on and off as the pageantry unfolded: celebrities arriving, outfits scrutinized, hats and fascinators oohed and aahed over. The commentators I watched brought me to the Windsor Castle Pub (as old as the late 1700s), to Clivedon House Hotel (where the bride stayed the night before the wedding), and to the streets of Windsor (where an estimated 100,000 people had gathered to witness the nuptials). Finally, with the Queen in her pew, the service began. I’ll save you the rest of the details, except to say this. The sermon offered by the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church was one of those brilliantly crafted messages that managed to combine the celebration of the moment with the seasons of the church. In other words, Archbishop Michael Curry preached a message about love and passion with a word to the fervour of the Spirit caught up in the gospel in general and Pentecost in particular.

heart of flameThe sermon began yesterday with these words: “The late Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr once said, … ‘We must discover the power of love, the redemptive power of love. And when we discover that, we will be able to make of this old world a new world, for love is the
only way.’ There’s power in love.” And later in his message he turned to the writings of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, a French Jesuit who was arguably one of the great minds, great spirits of the 20th century. Jesuit, Roman Catholic priest, scientist, a scholar, … and a mystic. Archbishop Curry focused on Teilhard de Chardin’s words about fire and how the discovery, or invention, or harnessing of fire was one of the greatest scientific and technological discoveries in all of human history. “Fire,” he said, “to a great extent made human civilization possible.” Love and fire. Fire and love. Words and expressions and realities easily intertwined. One might have thought the good Archbishop knew Pentecost was just ahead…

So we turn to the story of Acts. And what we read there is the story of a community, deeply connected, deeply grieving a shared love, probably afraid, trying to follow Jesus and not get killed by the Romans at the same time. We read of a community that is afraid of being fractured, afraid of getting it wrong, afraid of having found themselves in a house that first fills with gusts of wind, then tongues of fire, and finally explodes in a chorus of language and prophesy. And all this, we know, before lunchtime. “They’re drunk,” the onlookers said. “They’re crazy,” the outsiders accused. And each, in their own language, heard and spoke words of love, words of the Way, words that the Rabbi had taught them as he invited them into a new vision. And now these words would be their commission.

But their commission — and ours — really begins with the incarnation. It is our dialogue with the incarnation that invites us to open ourselves to the divine, to let ourselves be filled and inspired from the inside out, to be inhabited by God. At different points in the gospels, Jesus attempts to encourage the disciples to make themselves part of the storm, both on the sea and in the courts of society. But in the community of Jesus, standing apart leads only to terror; embracing the storm with love and forgiveness brings power.

And so these peasants, these very ordinary people — acting very much like many of us gathered here today hope to — these peasants move from cowardice to bravery, from doubt to faith, from simplicity to complex thinking, and are invited to embrace a new storm that will lead them to inclusivity and change. Unlike us, it will mean martyrdom for many of them. They are captured by love. Captured by fiery passion. Captured and converted and committed. What makes what they do different than charismatic cult figures? It’s the context. They are not living for their own glory or status any longer. They exist only to serve Jesus.

Their passion is for the story of Jesus’ incredible compassion, his sense of justice and his promise of abundant life for all people. It is love now that fuels them, not ego. Their purpose will draw them away from their own people, their own safe assumptions. Their past will be burned away and they will be given new ways to assess the world. Their vision now is to glimpse the world with the eyes of Jesus. They will hear the world with the ears and heart of Jesus. The fire of teaching and serving and loving is irresistible. Their future has moved from the safe and predictable to the uncharted seas of the unknown. The wind that has whipped around and through them will become the breath with which they speak with the authority of lived experience in relationship to Jesus.

And what will animate us? What will animate us together as the church? What will burn away our prejudice and our fears and open our hearts to reconciliation? Love. Love will open our hearts. As Dr. King preached, “the redemptive power of love.” And service. And phoenixlooking into the eyes of our neighbours, not simply past them. And speaking the truth to power. And rejecting that which sets us apart from the rest of creation, the rest of the kingdom.

And fire. The fire that cooks and heats and cleanses and rages. The fire of volcanic lava. The fire of a candle’s solitary flame. The fire of the Holy Spirit, sparking, moving lightly and quickly on the wind, fueled by our very breath. The fire, if we let it in, is unstoppable, just as our love for all of God’s kindom should be unstoppable. It is time to open, anew, the doors of our hearts and minds. We have but one rule to live by: to love without limit or exhaustion.

Thanks be to God.

Mother’s Day (and the odd time in between Ascension and Pentecost)

There is something humbling about knowing that Jesus, the Rabbi, the pastor, the one to whom I have dedicated my life, prays for me. That is what today’s gospel is about: not about bragging or glory, but about the deep love, tenderness, and care of the Beloved. “While I was with them,” he prays, “I protected them…. I guarded them, and not one of them was lost.” Even after all that he has suffered, even after all that he has endured, his prayer continues: “… I speak these things in the world so that they may have my joy made complete in themselves.” Imagine. Christ’ joy complete in our own hearts. And finally, “… I ask you to protect them from evil.”

Humbling, indeed. Yet there is also a certain ache to the words, a waft of pain that these words are spoken at a profound goodbye. I think it’s safe to say that most of us have heard words like these: last words, words that attempt to capture all the adventure and joy and laughter wrapped up in relationship. Words that hold promise and commitment side by side with gentle admissions of failure, or challenges, even disappointments. Words of hope, words that reach into the future looking for possibility and promise. Words that honour. Words that name and call and carry, deep love.

I think that is exactly what the gospel is about today: last words and deep love. And the Irish in me can get all melancholy, wistful, sad. But last words and deep love also give us a text for how we can thrive in community, how we can cherish one another, how we can be companions on this Way of Jesus that each of us has chosen. Because those same words that Jesus prayed on our behalf might read as a mandate of love. Hear those words again, slightly different as a charge: “Protect them. Guard them. Let them know joy complete.” This same prayer, offered to the Holy One, can also be heard as a wise commission for community.IMG_0259.jpg

On this Sunday that celebrates mothers, it is not hard to stretch these Jesus words to be mothering words. Words of care. Words of concern. Words of hope. Words of command. Notice, however, that I said mothering, not mother. Because let’s face it: not everyone won the mother draw. If you did, hallelujah! If you did not, know that you are not alone. Not everyone has a great relationship or any relationship with the woman who gave birth to them. And not all of us have lived out the role of mother, whether by choice or circumstance. But all of us, far beyond the narrow familial role, have been mothered and have mothering qualities. So let’s forget about Hallmark today and look instead to what the bible tells us about mothering.

In the Hebrew scriptures we hear about Deborah, Sarah, Hagar, Hannah, Bathsheba, Huldah, Esther, Judith, Susannah; all women who prevailed despite opposition. These women were faithful and courageous agents of change. Many of them are counted among the prophets and often were heard speaking words of challenge, tough words, and would rarely have matched the sentimental pictures of motherhood that pass in today’s world.

In Christian scriptures, it is none other than Jesus’ mother, Mary, who calls for social upheaval, for a new and egalitarian way of life. There is John’s mother, Elizabeth, who — like Mary — grieves a son executed for speaking the truth. And after Jesus death, it is Mary Magdalene and Mary, Jesus’ mother, who became not only witnesses to the resurrection, but were among several female leaders of different, fledgling communities. And don’t forget Lydia: an independent business woman, who adopts and most likely finances, Paul’s cause.

These are just a few of the names we could mention, part of a litany of mothering servants, a litany that continues through the saints, that remembers the desert mothers — parents of the faith — and the nuns and the mystics and the martyrs of the church.  Remember the prayer, remember Jesus’ charge: “Protect them. Guard them. Let them know joy complete.” In their profound sense of justice, in their loving witness to the compassion of God, the charge of mothering iscomplete in these women. Mothering. Nurturing. Protecting. Cherishing. “We do not live to ourselves,” we read in Romans (14:7), “and we do not die to ourselves.” Mothering.

Mothering shows us what justice might look like. Mothering is the influence that picks you up when you are bruised or weary. Mothering holds the pause that waits until you set yourself on your own feet again. Mothering echoes in Jesus’ prayer here in John as we hear words both protective and sacrificial, as we listen to Jesus — both Divine Self and a model of true humanity — speak into the grief of parting, of letting go, of moving on, of trusting us to God and God to us.

Mothering. With Ascension, the story of Jesus ends. With Pentecost, the story of the Church begins. But here in this in-between time, we wait. We wait and we look around and we are held by all that Jesus prayed for us. What a wonderful celebration to encounter in this in-between time: a celebration of the people and the gifts poured into community that offer us a vision of the kingdom of God. Jesus taught us the grace of mothering communities and people, the grace of mutual service and hope. Jesus taught us how to stand back, how to step in, how be agents of change, how to be passionate advocates, how to be gentle teachers.

On this Mother’s Day, let us give thanks for all who have been able to provide this tremendous gift. And let us pray for those who — in the words of Jan Richardson — “…owing to gaps and fissures in their own landscape, have left pain and emptiness in the space where [mothering] should have been. For those who choose to enter into the empty, motherless places — the “othermothers” who come in the form of teachers, grandmothers, aunts, sisters, neighbours, friends — bless you and thank you for your mothering hearts.” And may we hold in our hearts that this archetype of mothering is not about sentimentality but about the fierce, protective determination of God to love us, deeply, and all creation.

Ultimately, Love

Posted: April 29, 2018 in Language of Exploration

Overload. That’s what it is. Disaster overload. We are on disaster overload. So much so that when I started to make a recent list, I wasn’t sure where the cut-off should be. Do we include natural disasters: wildfires, mudslides, storms, tornados, chemical spills, pipeline leaks? Or do we simply stick with people tragedies? Do we go as far back as the Parkland shooting (17 dead), or the bus crash in India (27 dead), or the terrorist attack in Nice, France (84 dead). Do we try and stem the flow of tragedy by sticking only to Canada: youth suicides right here in Fergus, young athletes in Humboldt, and so close to home…this week in Toronto. These disasters flood our lives with grief and a sense of dread. All of these events were beyond our control. And we are reminded that life is fragile.

Are we to think that these disasters are punishment? Deserved? Necessary lessons? Warnings? God’s plan to shake us up or get our attention or turn our hearts? Let me say this clearly and passionately to you all. The answer is, “No. Absolutely not.” And from where do I get my confidence in this assurance?

My confidence is in the beginning of our faith as followers of Jesus: the incarnation — God taking on human form and entering human history with all its tangles and complications and complexities. God here among us. My confidence is in the miraculously clear answer that we hear today in 1 John — the Word so simple in its proclamation that God is love.And continues, that “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love. We love because God first loved us.” My confidence is only reinforced in the promises of 1 Corinthians 13, the great Love passage, that litanizes the gifts of Love: “Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogantor rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrong-doing, but rejoices in the truth.It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.” God is love. Love is all we have heard.

“Where is God?” we ask when tragedy strikes? Beside us. With us. Loving us. God is the ultimate first responder. God is present in each one of us as we are present. God inhabits our lives, our hearts. God is in our hands and our voices. God is in the food we offer, the clothing we present, the shelter we share, the money we give. Because the love that John talks about in his letter is a love that is lived out, that mustbe lived out, each day of our lives in community. We give of ourselves to those around us. We allow ourselves to be used (not abused). When someone is in need, we are compelled to respond. And when our own hearts are broken, God’s gift is the gathered community into which we reach for love, for patience, for shared tears, for celebrated memories. Ultimately in love there is mutuality. Like the torn temple curtain, like the empty tomb, like our hearts when life seems too much: it’s hard to tell where the line is drawn between Love reaching in and love reaching out.

Let’s think for a moment about those many types of love ‘psychology’ has identified. They are quite distinct and when I first reflected on them, I saw them as something of an increasing scale.

The first love we know is philautia love or shallow love. This is a self-love, one that can be a catalyst for accomplishment but fragile in that it is easily twisted into narcissism or selfishness. Philia love/platonic loveis an affectionate regard, a loyalty shown between true friends, one that enables us to put differences aside and go forward. Storage love or family loveis the love between parents and children or between siblings, and involves respect and honour for one another. Then, of course, comes ludus love/puppy love/first loveand this is the very first time that the stomach goes weak, that you become tongue tied, weak-kneed, butterflies in the stomach. These are the days of writing the person’s name on paper, doodling, wondering “he loves me, he loves me not.” Eros love/passionate loveis the deep love that develops between a couple who have realized that they have discovered their soul mate, their true loving companion. Pragma love/everlasting loveis love that flows from eroslove to a long, lasting relationship and the understanding of two people who love for a lifetime. And there are other loves, certainly. There is a parent’s love, a friend’s love. There is a pastor’s love and a community’s love.

But now, standing back and filtering these stages of love through the Way of Love we understand in the gospels, and in the life and witness of Jesus, I see all of this love as crystalline slivers of the whole and holy love of God. For God is perfect love. The love of God is perfect, perfect as with the Greek teleios, so much more than flawless. Teleiosmeans something completely executed from beginning to end, something fully realized.Where is God? Not simply with us, but in us. Fully realized within us. In the whole and holy Love of God, we cannot be set apart, we cannot be in isolation, we cannot be alone. The very dna of God-Love is in the bonds of community.

This is the Easter story of our lives. Jesus was born into a broken world…as are we. When we speak of perfect love, we are speaking of a cosmic vision that holds all of our history from beginning to end, in the loving, forgiving, empowering embrace of the Holy.  In Jesus life, death and resurrection, we witness what happens when a human being lives entirely in the context of that love. In the story of the cross are all the stories of struggle and suffering. It is at the cross that our deepest pain, our deepest griefs are known. And are borne by love. Darkness fills the tomb: the darkness of losing a child, of knowing a loved one’s betrayal, the darkness of fear, the isolation of loneliness, sadness, depression, anxiety. We can’t prevent disasters and tragedies and heartbreak. We cannot wave a magic wand or correctly perform a task or even find just the right words to demand the solution we desire. But in the darkness, in the tomb, transformation takes place. And we know, we are in fact confident, that the tomb will open. The light returns. Love always rises! Never to what was before, but to something new. Something different. And we can always engage in and with love: receiving or giving, inhabiting, abiding. This is the eternal moment of Love, of Resurrection, of God at home in our lives.

To trust in this cosmic love that was the way of life for Jesus, his truth, will set us free to be lovers too, to delight in life, to be artists of restoration and healing. We will be hospitable, not out of duty, but from a deep urgency in sharing blessings. It is shalom God’s shalom, being at home with Holy around us and within. Of course perfect love reduces those human constructs and insecurities of fear and judgement. Living as the people of the Resurrection we know that there is only life and ultimately love.

Thanks be to God.

 

Feast of the Good Shepherd and Earth Day                                                                                                                 22 April, 2018

The poet Rumi says this: “Nothing I say can explain to you Divine Love, yet all of creation cannot seem to stop talking about it.” Indeed, in all her sounds and stories, our blessed earth sings of Divine Love.

In the beginning. Words we are all familiar with. In the beginning, God created. God created and everything was good! What a beautiful story, what a beautiful origin. This is our history. These are our roots. There is something that stirs in me each time I hear these first words of scripture (Genesis 1:1): “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.” There is something that stirs in me because I am reminded that all of us, all of this, all of creation is borne of goodness, borne of God’s delight and whim and love and generosity. All of creation is God’s. All of creation is the expression of Divine Love. All of creation was gifted to us by God. All of creation, this sacred gift, is rife with everything that we might ever need, ever require, ever desire. It is here — in our midst — food, water, medicine, shelter, companions.

We inhabit this holy ground with the knowledge that the earth, at once, belongs both to God and to all God’s creatures. This vibrant creation is formed of God’s very substance, formed of holiness and majesty and grace and every other word we have ever imagined for the Creator. This creation is made up of God, of “good,” and therefore, of love. I think it is safe to say that at some level we all love nature: we all love how nature caresses our senses. Whether it be smells or sights or texture or sounds. Whether it be sunsets or storm clouds, raging waters or bubbling streams, ice flows or miles of warm, inviting beaches. Whether it be our hands in the dirt or the sound of our feet on wood-chipped paths. We all love nature. But this sense of ownership has gotten us into trouble. We forget that nature returns our love.

Nature shelters us and inspires us. Nature feeds us and forms us. This God-created goodness is our home and we are invited to rest in this beauty much as we are invited to rest in the love of God. Because everything is connected. Everything is one big, beautiful arrangement of which we are only a part. And it is amazing! Did you know that we now understand that trees communicate? Did you know that the DNA deep in those grand Douglas firs in Cathedral Grove on Vancouver Island is a mirror image of human DNA? Did you know that Dolphins talk to each other? Recognize individual voices? Even on the telephone? Did you know that the rain forest of the Amazon produces over 50% of the world’s oxygen? Did you know that for every human on the planet there are over 200 million insects? Did you know that ants stretch when they get up in the morning? Or that rain contains vitamin B12? This creation is exceptional, awe-inspiring… and our unfortunately, often-neglected home. All this wonder, yet it seems we are incapable of simply delighting in creation.

Now I want to remind you of a prayer, actually a Psalm (Psalm 95) that will be familiar to any of you who have worshipped using the BCP. And that is the Venite. Let me remind you of its text:

“O come, let us sing unto the Lord;
let us heartily rejoice in the strength of our salvation.
Let us come before his presence with thanksgiving;
and show ourselves glad in him with psalms.
For the Lord is a great God;
and a great King above all gods.
In his hand are all the corners of the earth;
and the strength of the hills is his also.
The sea is his, and he made it;
and his hands prepared the dry land.
O come, let us worship and fall down,
and kneel before the Lord our Maker.
For he is the Lord our God;
and we are the people of his pasture,
and the sheep of his hand.
Today if ye will hear his voice,
harden not your hearts….”

And I’m going to stop there. The psalm continues a bit more, but this is the place I want to stop. Because this is the place where I think wehave stopped, humanity has stopped, and on this day that is both the Feast of the Good Shepherd and the celebration of Earth Day, it is time to acknowledge that. We should acknowledge that it is time long overdue that we hear — again — God’s voice and harden not our hearts. You see, I think — I hope — we are coming out of a time when our hearts have been hardened, when the Shepherd we encounter in today’s gospel — the one who loves us and knows our names and protects us — has felt quite distant. We are coming out of a time when we have battled on our own, forgetting that the Shepherd is there to lead us and guide us. We’ve been those frenzied sheep, moving as one, a herd connected in our own struggle for survival. We have forgotten the Shepherd. We have forgotten to rest in and love the land that sustains us. We have forgotten to treat our home with the reverence and devotion we might shower upon other, less significant gifts.

I think we are coming out of a time of hardened hearts because I see us joining together on issues of justice; issues like the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, like the Water Warriors, like the Rural Women’s Shelter Network and the Food Bank. I see groups like Generous Space and Narcotics Anonymous and Music Therapy inhabiting our building. I see us throwing open our doors and preparing to practice ministries of accompaniment and presence. And with each action, each gesture or word of love, our hearts are softened. Because we have heard the Shepherd’s voice. As we witness the chaos to the south, we make our decision not to follow the ‘hired hands,’ the operators of injustice, the perpetuators of lies, the ones who take this gospel of love and possibility and twist it into a policy of exclusion and scarcity. No, we choose the Shepherd, the Good Shepherd. And on this Earth Day, we choose creation. We choose to harden not our hearts, to loose what harms us, what harms creation. And we remember what is God’s, and who is God’s and how we are called as followers of the Way to be in this world.

I want to end with a prayer by theologian Thomas Merton:

“Let me seek, then, the gift of silence, and poverty, and solitude, where everything I touch is turned into prayer: where the sky is my prayer, the birds are my prayer, the wind in the trees is my prayer, for God is all in all.”