Tuesday, May 16, 2006
I rejoice that my lay sisters and brothers have not promised to "be loyal to the doctrine, discipline, and worship of Christ as this Church has received them" or to "obey your bishop and other ministers who may have authority over you and your work." (BCP, p. 526) This gives them much more room to speak truth to power and to urge the prophetic and innovative in our common life. At the same time, I rejoice that I have made such promises, so that lay people have something to work with and against in our shared responsibility continually to renew our tradition and make it a living sacrament for the world.
I've commented previously on priesthood here and here. I leave it to those who live them to comment on the other orders of ministry. I do want to say a brief word about what seminaries are for. I think Chris is right that theological education should be available to all the orders of ministry, and that each order should contribute to such education, particularly if we recall that the Greek Fathers understood theologia to be the contemplation of God. As Thomas Merton describes it, "Theologia . . . is a direct quasi-experiential contact with God beyond all thought, that is to say, without the medium of concepts . . . Theology in this sense is a direct contact with God." (The Inner Experience: Notes on Contemplation, p. 68)
Seminaries, then, should primarily be schools of prayer that serve to facilitate contemplation of God. These days, they tend to focus almost exclusively on what the Fathers called theoria physike, "the intuition of divine things in and through the reflection of God in nature and in the symbols of revelation." (Ibid.) While this, too, is a proper object of theological education, it often becomes the whole of seminary study to the neglect of the experiential element. Such an experience of God is not reserved to spiritual elites, much less clerics, but is the baptismal birthright of every Christian. What would seminary studies look like if we recaptured this sense of theology? What would congregations look like, for that matter?
Sunday, May 14, 2006
I John 4:16b.
Today’s lesson from the Gospel of John about the vine and the branches is four verses short of a sermon. Allow me to add the missing pieces. Jesus goes on to say, As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete. This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. John 15:9-12
It would be easy to misunderstand the metaphor of the vine and branches were it not for the commandment to love one another as I have loved you. This is what it means to abide in God: to abide in love just as Jesus loved. This is his commandment. There is no other; at least, all else flows from this single command. Yet, it is a strange commandment when you think about it.
One does not have to “command” a branch to abide in a vine. It is organically connected to the vine; to be a branch is to be part of the vine. Abiding in the branch is simply what it means to be a vine. The branch doesn’t have to “do” anything to become part of the vine.
In a sense then, what Jesus is saying is: “remember your true nature.” We are connected to God organically; God is love and to be human is to be grounded in love. Abiding in love is simply what it means to be human. Human beings don’t have to “do” anything to abide in love.
So when Jesus says: “I am the vine and you are the branches,” he is simply providing a description of reality. Love is the real thing, it is the power that creates and holds all things in being. To be in touch with reality is to experience being awash in love. Thus, to command a human being to love is a bit like telling a fish to swim in water. How can we live otherwise?
The fact is, however, that sometimes we do try to live otherwise; hence the command to love. Too often we loose our sense of connection to God, our grounding in love. We suffer from the illusion that we are unlovable or unable to love. We come to believe we are a branch without a vine, or that we are the vine ourselves.
We sometimes act as if money, or status, or power, or our nation, or “people like us” is the vine, the ground of our being. All of these illusions and delusions plague us. They are expressions of what the bible calls sin, all those things that alienate us from our sense of connection with God and with all of creation.
The command to love is, then, really an invitation to rediscover our true nature, rather than the imposition of an external law that is alien to us. Notice that Jesus doesn’t say, “I am a vine.” No, he says, “I am the true vine” or in Raymond Brown’s translation: “I am the real vine.” Jesus is simply describing reality, pointing us to the nature of things as they are. He is saying “I am the real thing, not a counterfeit.” The real thing, of course, is love. To abide in love is to remain who we are created to be by and in God.
It is in light of this that we must understand this business of burning and pruning the branches. Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers: such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. John 15:6 I would like to suggest that this is an observation, not a judgment. It is simply what happens when we are cut off from the ground of our being in God, when we no longer abide in love. Without love, human beings wither and die. That seems to me to be an undeniable fact.
On the other hand, when we abide in love, human beings flourish. They bear much fruit, bursting like a cluster of ripe grapes on the vine. It is a beautiful image: an image of fullness, completeness, wholeness communicating a sense of having something wonderful to offer the world.
When we are secure in love, we have a lively sense of our giftedness and a willingness to take risks to allow our gifts to ripen and become part of the rich harvest of human generosity and service. Yet, the degree of our fruitfulness is directly proportional to our willingness to be pruned by God. Every branch that bears fruit [God] prunes to make it bear more fruit. John 15:2b
Here, too, Jesus is inviting us to see deeply into the nature of reality. Our lives are richer in meaning and purpose to the degree that we are willing to let go of all of those things that undermine our capacity to experience God as love. Christian discipleship, really following Jesus, requires a willingness to allow God to prune away everything impeding our experience of love, human and divine; which is to say, our experience of reality.
What this boils down to is allowing perfect love, mature love, to cast out fear. God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them. Love has been perfected among us in this: that we have boldness on the day of judgment, because as [God] is, so are we in the world. 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. I John 4:16b-18.
The hard pruning to which we must submit is the acknowledgement of our own inner demons, the fear that enslaves us and keeps us from experiencing the depths of divine love in our own being. It is our fear of judgment, of condemnation, of failure, our fear of seeing deeply into our own inner life and of being seen that reveals our need to hear the words of Jesus. If the real vine is love, why are we so afraid of remaining connected to God and to each other?
We must move beyond our captivity to the illusion of a God of condemnation and judgment, our resistance to integrating and seeing beneath the shadow side of our own self, so that we can perceive our true nature. Our fear cuts us off from the real vine that nourishes us at the root of our being, and so we skim across the surface of life rather than experience the depths of love.
Christian tradition teaches us that this pruning is essentially the work of contemplative prayer. It is through contemplative prayer that we acknowledge our fears, our inner demons, and expose them to the light of God’s love. Over time, the practice of contemplative prayer slowly strips away our fears, our illusions, and our preoccupation with superficial things, so that we may rest in the presence God, securely rooted in love.
Contemplative prayer basically consists of sitting in silence in a relaxed but alert posture, gradually detaching one’s self from all sensations, emotions, and thoughts in a state of pure receptivity. It is a means of opening one’s self to the mystery of God beyond concepts, with the intention of reaching out in love to God alone. Thomas Merton described it as an experience of the fact that God is infinite Love, that He has given Himself completely to us, and that henceforth love is all that matters. The Inner Experience: Notes on Contemplation, p. 73.
The seed of such experience is planted in us in baptism and nourished by Holy Communion and the life of prayer and service in Christian community. All this is preparation for its fullest realization through a direct, intuitive, interior encounter with God in the darkness and hiddenness of our inner life.
The basic and most fundamental problem of the spiritual life, writes Merton, is this acceptance of our hidden and dark self, with which we tend to identify all that is evil in us. We must learn by discernment to separate the evil growth of our actions from the good ground of the soul. And we must prepare that ground so that a new life can grow up from it within us, beyond our knowledge and beyond our conscious control. The sacred attitude is, then, one of reverence, awe, and silence before the mystery that begins to take place within us when we become aware of our inmost self. In silence, hope, expectation, and unknowing, the man of faith abandons himself to the divine will: not as an arbitrary and magic power whose decrees must be spelled out from cryptic ciphers, but as the stream of reality and of life itself. The sacred attitude is, then, one of deep and fundamental respect for the real in whatever new form it may present itself. The Inner Experience: Notes on Contemplation, p. 55.
Christian faith isn’t simply to believe certain ideas about God, but rather a journey of encounter with the living God in the mystery of our own being. “God is love” isn’t just a nice idea: it is reality, and Jesus invites us to experience the real thing for ourselves: I have said these things to you that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete. Amen. John 15:11
Thursday, May 11, 2006
This essay focuses on the question of how sexual communion can be understood as a sacrament, as a sign of God’s love. How does a couple’s self-giving love, which is given its fullest expression in sexual union, advance the mission and ministry of the Church as a sacramental sign? While the Church eventually taught that marriage is a sacrament, it wasn’t until the 12th Century that the dogma of marriage as one of the seven sacraments of the Church was promulgated.
Moreover, throughout its history the Church has been, at best, ambivalent about the role of sex even in marriage, only sanctioning the amount of sexual activity necessary for procreation. By the middle ages the Church forbade sex 40 days before Christmas, 40 days before and 8 days after Easter, 8 days after Pentecost, the eves of feast days, on Sundays in honor of the resurrection, on Wednesdays to call to mind the beginning of Lent, on Fridays in memory of the crucifixion, during pregnancy and 30 days after the birth of a child (40 days if the child was female), during menstruation, and five days before communion. This all adds up to 252 excluded days plus approximately 30 feast days, leaving 83 days (aside from pregnancy and menstruation) where a married couple could have (but not enjoy) sexual intercourse so long as they intended procreation.
While there have been hints here and there in the tradition of a more positive view of sexual love, it has really only been in the last 50 years or so that a fully developed alternative understanding of sexual love has emerged. I’d like to share this alternative perspective on the sacramental nature of sexual love. In doing so I will speak of the sacrament of marriage, or more specifically of marriages as sacraments. As a matter of clarification, let me say up front that in using the term “marriage”, I mean it in the sense of a lifelong covenant between two people blessed by the Church, and not in the sense of a legal institution. As such, I will use “marriage” as a shorthand term for both heterosexual and same-sex covenanted relationships. As will become clear, I understand sexual communion to be at the heart of the sacramental nature of such covenants.
But first, a word about the meaning of “sacrament” more generally. According to the catechism, “The sacraments are outward and visible signs of inward and spiritual grace, given by Christ as sure and certain means by which we receive that grace.” In our tradition, the dominical sacraments (those instituted directly by Jesus) are Holy Baptism and the Holy Eucharist. Confirmation, ordination, holy matrimony, reconciliation of a penitent (penance), and unction (anointing of the sick) are considered sacramental rites – also means of grace, but not necessary in the way that baptism and Eucharist are central to Christian identity.
Interestingly, the catechism goes on to say that “God does not limit himself to these rites; they are patterns of countless ways by which God uses material things to reach out to us.” While the common experiences of water and bathing, and of eating and drinking, have become the chief signs of how God makes us new and nourishes us in baptism and the Eucharist, all of our experiences are, potentially, sacramental in nature. Thus, the Anglican tradition affirms what is known as the “sacramental principle” – the idea that the whole created world is rooted in and expressive of the divine life, capable of conveying or revealing God’s love for us. God uses the ordinary, material realities we experience in daily life to make himself known to us.
All of the Church’s sacraments begin as actions, as sensate, human phenomena, which subsequently are developed into ritualized actions. This ritual action consists of two components: God’s action joined to the human action that is used to work the effect God intends. So we have two aspects of sacrament: the divine intention revealed through Christ’s death and resurrection and the matrix of human experience.
The Church is the context for all of the sacraments. As Christians we are called to holiness, to a union with God that is oriented toward the neighbor through sharing God’s creative and redemptive love. This love is revealed to us in the paschal mystery – God’s self-giving through Christ’s life, death, and resurrection, reconciling and drawing all of creation into union with himself. We live out our call to holiness through participation in the community of women and men carrying on the paschal mystery – the Church. As the Body of Christ carrying on Christ’s work in the world, the Church is itself a sacrament – the visible, tangible sign of God’s creative and redemptive love revealed through Christ. Because the Church is a sacrament, all of its life processes are sacramental – including marriage.
What is the nature of the work the Church is called to do? And how does marriage contribute to it? The Church is called to be a sign of the loving unity of humanity with God. This work takes place in a world torn asunder by sin, a world in which people are alienated from God and from each other, and are resistant to the loving unity that God intends for all. This makes the Church’s work an historical struggle whose ultimate outcome will only be fully realized with the coming of God’s kingdom on earth as it is in heaven at the end of time.
The Jesuit scholar Theodore Mackin argues that at the core of sin is fear – a primitive and pervasive fear of the loss of self that prevents us from embracing the self-giving love of God that we are called to imitate in union with him. As Mackin says, “It follows that Christ’s work in the world, the unfinished work he left his followers to carry on, is to heal men and women of this fear of loss. It follows finally that marriage as a specific sacrament within the inclusive Church-sacrament is a specific strategy for this healing.”
How does this healing work itself out in marriage? What is the human matrix of marriage as sacrament? There are two key aspects to the human matrix of marriage: covenant and union. As covenant, marriage is a love relationship marked by personal choice and commitment. This love relationship forms an intense union between the spouses, an undivided sharing in the whole of life. This union is formed by a covenant of irrevocable personal consent. It is an act of informed, mutual self-giving.
One can say that the covenant provides the structure wherein the union of the spouses can develop. This “personalist” understanding of the matrix of marriage has several important consequences:
1. Only the couple making a gift of their persons to one another can create marriage as a sacrament. This gift-giving must create a union of their persons that is a sharing in all of life.
2. Couples act out their sacrament at other times than the marriage rite itself (both before and after), in every act of self-giving that shares what is specific in their lives toward the end of enhancing their union. Spouses either live out their sacrament or they don’t; the marriage rite is not magic, it simply publicly declares and affirms the couples’ intention to make of their life together a sacrament of God’s self-giving love for the sake of the world.
3. Finally, marriages have the capacity to become more sacramental over time as the union of the spouses becomes an ever deeper participation in the paschal mystery, God’s own self-giving love. As a marriage becomes more sacramental it also becomes more indissoluble. This approach to the issue of divorce seems to me to be much more humane and helpful than the traditional juridical approach.
Now, to the role of sexual communion in the sacrament. The specific sign action at the heart of the human matrix of marriage is the spouse’s sexual communion. It is the fullest, most complete, most characteristic expression of the union of persons that is marriage. Sexual communion for the married is a way of expressing and completing a love designed and awakened in them by God. It enacts and strengthens the giving away of their persons to one another as gifts to one another, enriching one another as persons.
In addition, the tradition speaks of this self-giving love being ordered toward the good of procreation. The good of procreation, however, is more generally an embracing of generativity, a life-enhancing quality that may take forms in the marriage other than bearing or adopting and rearing children. Even so, if marriage is a participation in the paschal mystery, it will be most evident in the orientation of the spouse’s love toward the neighbor, beginning with each other and expanding to welcome the stranger, including the strangers who come to us in the form of children. The main point is that sexual communion is a kind of death of the self that gives life (biologically and spiritually), and such self-giving love can be an imitation of God’s love revealed in the paschal mystery.
It is important to note in this context that sexual love is much more than genital urgency. It is a giving of one’s self that is ordered toward psychological maturity, emotional interpenetration, and holiness. The healing power of sexual intercourse lies in its ability to overcome the fear of loss of self, and the distrust and alienation that result from it, by accepting our vulnerability to the beloved and, ultimately, to God.
Sexual pleasure, on this more inclusive understanding of sexual communion, is a giving of self for the happiness of the beloved. This happiness goes beyond sexual pleasure to embrace the joy of being desired, trusted, and respected. A generous reciprocity is at work in the sharing of such pleasure and it is a vital dimension of the healing potential of sexual love-making, a potential that is bound up with the extent to which all other dimensions of married life exemplify this same self-giving love.
This sexual healing is the sign action specific to marriage, which is manifest in the whole of the couple’s life in community. It is a commitment to co-work with God specifically by means of sexual self-giving. This self-giving love marks marriage as a genuine Christian vocation, a way of participating in and advancing the work of the Church. It is at the heart of the way married Christians focus and live out the ministry given to them in baptism. This sacrament is not simply for the benefit of the couple; rather, the healing and reconciliation to which it gives rise moves outward from the couple themselves to the Christian community and the human family. Marriages as sacraments rooted in the paschal mystery give expression to a love that is an event of salvation. Thus, sexual communion can make us holy.
Can same-sex relationships evidence self-giving love, and can the sexual communion of same-sex couples open them to the depths of the paschal mystery, thereby making their life together a sacrament of the Church? These, it seems to me, are the main questions that the Church must answer as it grapples with the issue of the blessing of same-sex unions.
Unless it can be demonstrated empirically that heterosexual unions are somehow more sacramental than same-sex unions, the institutional and liturgical form given to same-sex covenants must be equivalent to marriage. To fail to do so would be diabolical – a failure to give expression to the unifying impulse of the paschal mystery in the life of the Church.
Wednesday, May 10, 2006
In fact, I would go so far as to argue that the Church should treat a couples’ decision to have their relationship blessed by the church as a serious vocational commitment, one that is on a par with an individual’s decision to pursue baptism or holy orders. That is to say, a comparable level of discernment, preparation, and continuing education expected of individual lay or ordained ministry, should be provided to nurture the ministry of couples.
In recent years, the Church has recovered the idea and practice of the catechumenate, a period of intense preparation leading to baptism. By the second century, the Church developed a formal process of prayer, exorcism, scrutinies, instruction, fasting, service and worship to prepare candidates for baptism. This process could take up to three years, culminating in baptism, anointing, and first communion at the Easter vigil. The early Church took seriously the notion that Christians are made, not born, that one had to learn how to be a Christian, and that becoming a Christian was a life changing experience in which one took on a new identity. By the fourth century, due to the pressures of mass conversions the cathechumenate was largely reduced to the forty days of Lent, and by the Middle Ages the predominance of infant baptism lead to its disappearance altogether.
Today, many churches are reintroducing the catechumenate for adult converts, lasting anywhere from forty days to one year in length. This involves a variety of exercises in prayer, community service, worship and learning, and rituals to mark one’s progress toward baptism: becoming a catechumenate, becoming a candidate, and, of course, baptism itself. We also have an expectation that one will continue to grow in ministry, with opportunities for the ritual renewal of baptismal vows at the annual Easter vigil.
I would like to suggest that the Church develop a process of conjugal catechesis for those who choose to live out their baptismal vows through the spiritual discipline of radical proximity, of henosis: two becoming one-flesh as a couple; a formal process of preparation not unlike that required of those who are called to ordained ministry as a further specification of their baptismal ministry.
What might such a process of conjugal catechesis look like?
1. It would be a two-stage ritual process rather than a one-step rite, as in the current practice of marriage and the blessing of same-sex unions. Historical precedents for this lie in the medieval practice of spousals and nuptials, betrothal and matrimony. The intention to marry was ritualized in betrothal ceremonies that actually constituted the couple as a legitimate household, followed by the vows and blessing of the marriage at a later date. Thus, we have intention and commitment in a two-stage process, not unlike the “simple” or “provisional” vows and the later “solemn” or “permanent” vows of monks.
2. This two-stage ritual process allows for a significant amount of time devoted to discernment and preparation between the two rites. I would suggest that one year is not too much time to ask a couple to discern along with the community their readiness for the commitment entailed by marriage or same-sex union ceremonies. This time of preparation could involve several components: the sort of learning that we associate with “premarital counseling,” but consisting of a longer duration and more intense practice of the spiritual disciplines of conjugal life – sexual communion and interpersonal communication as dedicated paths to union with God; mentoring from an older, more experienced couple in the congregation, serving as a resource and guide along the conjugal path; intercessory prayer on behalf of the couple offered in the prayers of the people during the liturgy.
3. This would help to restore the integrity of marriage and the blessing of same-sex unions as sacraments -- as liturgical, and therefore public, expressions of God’s love manifest in a couple’s commitment to place their love for each other in service to the building of God’s kingdom on earth. As a sacrament, the couple’s love is ordered toward the Church’s common life and its unity in Christ. It is a sign of hope for the entire community and a particular way in which the baptismal covenant is lived out.
Furthermore, just as candidates for holy orders must submit their sense of call to the judgment of the Church, candidates for marriage/blessing ceremonies would be subject to the community’s discernment of their readiness for this commitment. Again, the rite is a sacrament of the Church, not the couple’s personal possession, and it is for the upbuilding of the community, not simply the "bride’s big day."
Finally, the Church would commit itself to providing the same kind of continuing formation in the understanding and practice of the faith that it provides for other kinds of specialized lay and ordained ministries. Couples would not be married/blessed and then left to their own devices to figure it out. Rather, they would continue to be supported, nurtured, instructed, and held accountable. If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a village to make a committed relationship work as well.
What I’m calling for here is not a maudlin or conservative reduction of the Church’s mission to defending “family values,” but a challenge to our sentimentalization and privatization of marriage, and our incapacity to see it as a sacrament, a vocation, and a real contribution to the common good of the community. The values of fidelity, truthfulness, forgiveness, responsibility, sharing, generosity, reconciliation, and communion that are forged in the disciplines of conjugal life are values that should permeate all relationships, and thus healthy marriages/unions can be sacramental icons of holy relationship that inspire all of us whether we are married, divorced, single, sexually active, or celibate. They can be signs of God’s self-giving love revealed in Christ, a love that as followers of Christ we are all called to imitate.
Sunday, May 7, 2006
In case you haven’t noticed yet, today is Good Shepherd Sunday. The image of the shepherd and the sheep suffuses our worship in story, prayer and song. It is an ever-present Eucharistic image, as we recall that Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us – the Passover sacrifice being a lamb. Christ is for us both shepherd and sheep; indeed, he is the Good Shepherd and the sacrificial lamb par excellence.
For most, if not all of us, however, the metaphor of shepherd and sheep doesn’t carry much resonance. I suppose even in our era of agribusiness and livestock factories there remain a few shepherds tending flocks somewhere in the USA, but I’ve never met one. Sheep are not part of my daily life, and I rarely encounter lambs except on my dinner plate with a bit of mint jelly. While sheep and goats continue to hold great economic value in many developing nations, making the difference between life and death, that generally isn’t our experience.
Still, there is one place in my life where this image remains powerfully operative. I affectionately call my son “lamb” or “little lamb,” much as my mother often referred to me when I was a child. In my best moments, I understand my relationship to my son on the model of the Good Shepherd, as one of tender care, vigilant oversight, and sacrificial love. This profound religious image still has the capacity to shape my sense of who God is and who I am called to be in response to God’s love. The image of the shepherd is a deep metaphor that, once it takes hold, continually, even unconsciously, calls us to model our own lives after that of the Good Shepherd.
In fact, the phrase, “good shepherd,” that we find in John’s Gospel might be translated more accurately, though perhaps less artfully, as the “model or ideal shepherd.” In today’s Gospel lesson Jesus is pointedly identifying himself as the good shepherd in contrast to the religious and political leadership of his day, echoing the prophet Ezekiel’s fierce denunciation of the corrupt leadership of the rulers of Israel as well as his assertion of God’s sovereignty as the true shepherd of Israel. The point of the shepherd imagery is not only to reveal something of who God is as exemplified in Christ, but also something of who we are called to be in imitation of Christ. Christ is the model after which we are to pattern our life. Christ is both shepherd and sheep, and so are we. So what might it mean to be “model shepherds?”
Our tendency is probably to identify with the sheep in this story; not with the shepherd. It is the shepherd parables in Matthew and Luke that have been most influential, where Christ is the shepherd and we are the stray sheep for whom Christ risks all to find and safely bring back home. The problem with this reading of the parable is that it relieves us of the responsibility of being good shepherds. We tend to sentimentalize and privatize the shepherd image, like so much else having to do with religion, and make it about our personal relationship with Jesus. While the personal aspects of our relationship with God are not to be neglected, we need to read Ezekiel and John’s use of the shepherd image to provide a wider, corrective interpretive lense.
In Ezekiel and John, the shepherd image is not about a personal drama of guilt and forgiveness, of being lost and found, but rather a collective experience of exile and homecoming. We are not to model ourselves after the good shepherd only in the intimacy of private life, but also in the equally morally demanding sphere of public life. What is at stake is not simply personal salvation, but the right ordering of all creation in conformity with God's desire for wholeness.
Ezekiel is emphatic on this point. The problem is that Israel’s leaders have exploited the public for their own benefit: they have fleeced the sheep rather than feeding them. The weak, the sick, the injured, the marginalized have been treated with force and harshness rather than justice. The experience of being fleeced by politicians (or by preachers for that matter) is perhaps one with which we can all identify. This failure of leadership led to the complete disruption of the bonds of social life that held the community together, leading ultimately to the destruction of Jerusalem and the exile of the Jewish people in Babylon.
In the midst of this corruption and chaos, God speaks through the prophet Ezekiel saying, I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I will make them lie down, says the Lord God. I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, but the fat and strong I will destroy. I will feed them with justice. (Ezekiel 34:15-16)
This gospel vision is the opposite of the social Darwinism that operates all too often in our society, in which we are cast as lone and lonely individuals in a competition dictated by the survival of the fittest, where the winners take all and the losers must fend for themselves. No, the gospel vision articulated by Ezekiel is one of mutual care and connection, where the needs of the neighbor are not neglected, and good shepherds feed the sheep the justice for which they are so hungry.
Jesus takes this image from Ezekiel and expands upon it in two directions. He agrees with Ezekiel’s indictment of so-called shepherds who are like hired hands throwing the sheep to the wolves, leaving them scattered. Social connections are fraying, people are divided and alone, vulnerable to the wolves of the world, and in need of a shepherd who will restore the bonds of community.
In response to this crisis, Jesus points to himself as the model shepherd, emphasizing two dimensions of his ministry that reflect and stretch the shepherd image presented in Hebrew scripture. Jesus speaks of his relationship with the sheep in the same terms of mutual indwelling, knowledge, and identification that mark his relationship with God. For the Good Shepherd, the relationship with God and the relationship with the neighbor are one and the same thing. To know and love one is to know and love the other.
Moreover, this love is sacrificial in character: “I lay down my life for the sheep.” Here, Jesus goes beyond the inherited meanings attached to the shepherd image. God as the true shepherd may vindicate and restore the sheep, but die for them? What is novel about Jesus’ use of the shepherd image is the sacrificial nature of love that it manifests, not only in human terms but also at the heart of the divine life. Yahweh, the Holy One, the God of Israel, is revealed in Jesus to be the Shepherd who becomes himself a sacrificial lamb for the sake of the sheep.
Jesus is the good shepherd in that he refuses to sunder love of God and love of neighbor, as if divine sanction could legitimate exploitation of the weak, the sick, and the poor. Rather, Jesus feeds the sheep the justice for which they hunger, just as God does.
Jesus is the good shepherd because he refuses to sacrifice the sheep for his own benefit. Rather, he sacrifices his own life that they might be saved. Jesus dies to expose the injustice of this world, so that we might be raised up with him into the reign of God where all the sheep are truly cared for – even those that do not belong to “our fold.” In God’s reign, there is but one flock, one shepherd, and we are called to care for them all.
Jesus is the Good Shepherd who gathers the scattered sheep of a divided church, a divided world, and feeds them the justice for which they hunger. If we are to imitate the One who is the Model Shepherd, then we, too, must love God and neighbor with the same sacrificial love that Christ embodies; and that, not only in our private, intimate relationships, but in the ordering of our public and communal life as well. The good news is that in Christ we have a shepherd who loved us enough even to die for us, whose care embraces us especially when we are weak, sick, injured, and lost. But the good news is also that we have been given the gift of the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Christ in us, so that we may share in Christ’s ministry of sacrificial love reconciling the sheep of every fold, every nation, language, and people.
As we prepare to welcome the Rt. Rev. Marc Andrus as our new bishop, chief pastor and shepherd, we can rejoice that his ministry has been one patterned after that of the Model Shepherd. It is to such an understanding of the bishop as shepherd that we must hold him accountable. It is to such a pattern of life that he must hold us accountable as well. Bishop Marc is called to be an icon of the kind of shepherd ministry in which we all share. Together, we must all strive to be good shepherds for the sake of a suffering world.
As Bishop Marc said in his remarks to the electing convention yesterday,
We must all understand, and here I address the diocese of California and those listening from elsewhere, that your vote today remains a vote for inclusion and communion – of gay and lesbian people in their full lives as single or partnered people, of women, of all ethnic minorities, and all people. My commitment to Jesus Christ’s own mission of inclusion is resolute . . .
I take this election to be an expression of our common desire to be part of the whole, the Communion and the world, in what may be a new way. We will work together in the listening process, lending the unique voice of the Bay Area Episcopalians to this great conversation and working to end global human suffering.
Finally, let me say that being nourished as a bishop by the Episcopal Diocese of Alabama, fed by the historic and living witness of so many heroes of the struggle for human rights, whose words and deeds of compassion and justice have inspired and sustained me, I say to you the words of a west coast hero – “In the cause of peace, we cannot be sprinters, we must be long distance runners.”
All we like sheep have gone astray – true enough. But sheep we must remain no longer, for the Good Shepherd who became a sacrificial lamb for our sake, now raises us up into the life of the risen Christ so that we, too, might be Good Shepherds. As we feast on the justice that God offers us in the Eucharist today, may we in turn be Good Shepherds who share it with all those who are weak, sick, injured, and scattered in our fold and in every fold. Amen.
Wednesday, May 3, 2006
Since early 2003, Sudanese government forces and ethnic militia called “Janjaweed” have engaged in an armed conflict with two rebel groups called the Sudanese Liberation Army/Movement (SLA/SLM) and the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM). As part of its operations against the rebels, government forces have waged a systematic campaign of “ethnic cleansing” against the civilian population who are members of the same ethnic groups as the rebels. The count of those killed since 2003 is estimated at 300,000; total deaths since the beginning of this 2-decade conflict are unfathomable.
Between 2003 and 2005, the Sudanese government and the Janjaweed militias burned and destroyed hundreds of rural villages, killed tens of thousands of people and raped and assaulted thousands of women and girls. As of 2006, some 1.8 million live in camps in Darfur and approximately 220,000 have fled into
Thousands of women and children have been abducted and/or raped and hundreds of villages destroyed and relatives still missing; yet, not one perpetrator of war crimes or crimes against humanity is known to have been brought to justice in
The Sudanese people therefore need the help of the international community.
In early 2005, the number of government attacks on civilians dropped, partly because the vast majority of rural villages were already destroyed and their inhabitants displaced from the rural areas. As of 2006, however, the situation has dramatically worsened and the fighting has increased. Janjaweed forces with Chadian rebels are conducting attacks over the border into
These people, who have been driven from their homes, now face death from starvation and disease as the Government and militias attempt to prevent humanitarian aid from reaching them. The same forces have destroyed the people of
The African Union mediated an April 2004 ceasefire and sent in a ceasefire monitoring team in May 2004. As violence against civilians continued in 2004, the African Union force (AMIS) expanded and received funding and equipment from the European Union, the United Kingodm, the United States and other partners. The African Union is also mediating negotiations in
The U.N. already has a peacekeeping mandate for southern
In the first few years of the conflict, the Sudanese government regularly described the situation in
The Arab League has been largely silent on the atrocities in
The UN Security Council is divided on
The majority of the displaced people in
People cannot return to their homes due to the continuing presence of government-backed militias in the rural areas. Those that do escape the camps and attempt the trek through the desert find themselves faced with the harshest conditions – extreme heat, no water, no food and falling prey to militia forces or animals seeking their own source of food.
The situation in
Tuesday, May 2, 2006
On April 16, 1963, Martin Luther King, Jr., wrote an open letter to fellow clergy from the Birmingham Jail. It is the best-known documentary contribution of the twentieth century to the American tradition of civil disobedience and conscience. He wrote to explain why the movement couldn’t yield to pressure to let up on its non-violent campaign civil disobedience–why they couldn’t wait.
Written nearly half a century ago, that letter sheds light on why the Diocese of California (Bay Area) would provoke further crisis at their General Convention, and why the national Church could very well provoke the international Anglican Communion to suspend the American Episcopal Church from full participation. Because in the American context the civil rights movement models the struggle for full acceptance of homosexuals. It also suggests why the moratorium on consecration of bishops living in same sex unions will neither be honored by California as determinative of its election nor extended by the House of Bishops as the Archbishop of Canterbury has requested. More compelling than any sermon of the past century, the “Letter from the Birmingham Jail” is embedded in the American conscience.
According to it nonviolent direct action does not so much create tension as “bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive . . . where it can be seen and dealt with.” The gospel fitfully propels “social progress” so that groups that have been excluded or persecuted in the past for the sake of harmony are incorporated by means of acceptance and reconciliation. While successive holocausts of the twentieth century have called social progress into question, it remains the basic assumption of the liberal American consensus. Even with that consensus breaking down, it is the moral clarity of the Letter from the Birmingham Jail–enshrined as American holy writ¬–that informs the interpretation of the Episcopal Church.
“The present tension in the South is a necessary phase…[the American Negro] has been caught up by the Zeitgeist, and with his black brothers of Africa and his brown and yellow brothers of Asia, South America and the Caribbean, the United States Negro is moving with a sense of great urgency toward the promised land of racial justice.” He sees the wrenching discontinuity between the “already” and the “not yet” being played out in the struggle for justice moving from one “peace” to another. So he calls upon his colleagues in ministry to reject moderation and become “extremists for love,” for “the cause of justice.” So the Episcopal Church will respectfully disregard calls to wait until the worldwide communion of Anglican churches does its long overdue “listening” to the witness of homosexuals and reaches a new consensus.
King affirms “the interrelatedness of all communities:” “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” Globalization makes this sound less rhetorical today; our “network of mutuality” is gloriously and painfully obvious. We can no longer cast any vote in the developed north and ignore its impact on our sisters and brothers in the less developed global south. When the Anglican Primate of an African province publicly supports laws banning homosexual relationships in his own country, it is experienced as an attack in the American Church. When the General Convention is confronted with the provocative prospect of confirming the election of a bishop in a committed same-sex relationship, it is out of love for those who, though united to us, violently disagree with us that we will decide for consent. In the words of the prayer remembering Dr. King, to “resist oppression in the name of [God’s] love” anywhere is to seek to “secure for all [God’s] children the blessed liberty of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.”
King’s words from jail haunt us: “Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct-action campaign that was ‘well timed’ in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word ‘Wait!’ It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This ‘Wait’ has almost always meant ‘Never.’ We must come to see…that ‘justice too long delayed is justice denied.’” The nomination process in the Diocese of California was conducted with prayerful consideration of who might best serve the whole church. If the outcome on May 6 is the election of a priest in a same-sex relationship, General Convention will be called to an act of ecclesial disobedience, which in the spirit of Martin Luther King, Jr., will be the equivalent of a “direct action campaign.” May we be up to the challenge.
–The Rev. James S. Ward is rector, St. Stephen’s Church, Belvedere/Tiburon, California