Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Us AND Them?

St. James Episcopal Church San Francisco, California April 28, 2013
By Elizabeth Nelson
Lectionary: Acts 11:1-18; Psalm 148; Revelation 21:1-6; John 13:13-35

The Spirit told me to go with them, and not to make a distinction between them and us.

Today’s readings start to direct our attention on beyond the events of Easter, to help us get ready for what’s going to happen next. The first thing that’s going to happen next is the coming of the Holy Spirit, at Pentecost – a Spirit that will transform Jesus’ disciples from a baffled, frightened group that meets only behind locked doors into a cadre of men and women infused with the same conviction of God’s love that infused Jesus ... men and women made fearless and plain-spoken and compassionate and creative in the way they remember Jesus being, but that they themselves have never been before. That’s the first thing that’s going to happen next.

The last thing that’s going to happen next – and all the New Testament writers believed it would happen soon – is God making a new heaven and a new earth ... where not just individual souls, not just some human communities, but all creation will be infused with the conviction of God’s love; where anything in our natures –anything in Nature! – that’s governed by hunger and fear and pain and decay and death will be no more, and all things will be made new. Someday soon. Any millennium now.

But today’s Gospel takes us back before the coming of the New Creation, back before the coming of the Holy Spirit, back before Easter. It takes us back to the night before the Crucifixion, and Jesus is telling his disciples – his little ones, his kids – that he’s going to be leaving them soon, telling them what they need to do after they can’t see him any longer. And what they need to do is: Love one another. Love one another the same way Jesus has loved them.

That’s the Gospel teaching that we’re given today: Love one another. And in case we’re in any doubt about what “love” looks like, or in case we’re in any doubt about who’s included in “one another,” we’re given this story from the Acts of the Apostles, about Peter and his fellow Christians.

Most of today’s reading from Acts, Chapter 11 is taken up with Peter telling a story that got told once already in Chapter 10: about the vision God sent him, about how he was summoned to the home of a Gentile who’d been told by an angel to listen to what Peter had to say, about how that Gentile and his household responded to Jesus’ message when Peter shared it with them. There’s one detail from Chapter 10 that nobody mentions in Chapter 11, possibly because it’s too heinous to say out loud: The man who summoned Peter, the Gentile whose house Peter and his companions visited, the Gentile Peter baptized and welcomed as a fellow believer, was not just any Gentile; he was a Roman Centurion. He was part of the army of occupation that was making life miserable for the people of Israel. He was a brother officer of the men who had nailed Jesus to the cross.

I’ve been trying to make real to myself what it could have been like for Peter to get that summons and answer it, what it could have been like for the community of believers in Jerusalem to find out about it after the fact. All I’ve come up with is a really bad analogy. I apologize for it in advance, and I’m going to share it with you anyway.

When I try to feel my way into this story, I find myself remembering what my own life was like in late 2003, early 2004. The war in Iraq had been going on for several months, and I could still barely breathe with how grieved I was over that war and how alienated I felt by the decisions and actions of my country’s government. I was stumbling around, with no previous experience in activism, trying to find a way to live out my convictions. I had done some reading; I had stood with others holding up some signs in some public places; I had written a couple of letters to some people in Washington (okay, maybe more than a couple of letters); I had helped to start up the prayer for peace and justice that still goes on after the 10 o’clock service here at St. James.

In the scope of the empire – not even a blip on the radar.

Just suppose that, during that time, there’d come a knock at my door one day and two men in neat dark suits had said to me, “Ms. Nelson, we work for Vice President Cheney. He’s been told that he should listen to what you have to say about the situation in Iraq. If you’ll come with us now, please, we’ll take you to him.”  That did not happen. If it had, though, I can imagine myself having a couple of reactions – at least a couple of reactions – one after the other:

First: I’m supposed to talk to him? Seriously, me? And then: I’m supposed to talk to him? Seriously, him? I can imagine also how some of my friends here in San Francisco might have reacted if they had heard about an invitation like that, after the fact: You went where? You talked to who? You told him what?

If that had happened, it would have taken the Holy Spirit – plus a truly awesome and explicit vision – to bring me, in that situation, to the understanding that Peter came to: “The Spirit told me to go with them and not to make a distinction between them and us.” Because, I’m sorry, in that situation – in many situations – the distinction between Them and Us is perfectly clear to me ... and I’m guessing it’s clear to you, too. You and I may disagree about whether (for example) Mr. Cheney is one of Them or one of Us, and that’s fine. But I’ll bet all the money in my pockets that you do have a Them. I have a Them ... several sets of Them. Those early believers in Jerusalem had a Them. It’s human nature to distinguish between Us and Them.

And it’s the nature of God’s Love to pour out its healing and forgiveness and creativity and renewal on Them, the same way it pours those things out on Us. When Jesus commands us to love one another the way he loves, he is commanding us to love Them.

That’s today’s Gospel. Is it good news? Think for a minute about Them, about who you believe Them to be. No distinction between Them and Us. Seriously, is that good news?

This is where we need the Holy Spirit to infuse us with the conviction of God’s love. It’s where we need the reminder that love is defined, always, by what we do, not always by what we feel. It’s where we need each other – to share love and share stories, to challenge one another to keep widening the circle of Us. 

And maybe it’s where we need the vision of a new heaven and a new earth ... the end of division and conflict and suffering, all creation united in the life of God’s love. Someday soon. Any millennium now.

Jesus told his disciples, “The same way I have loved you, you should love one another.”

Peter told his fellow believers, “The Spirit told me to go with them, and not to make a distinction between them and us .... and who was I that I could hinder God?” God, help us. Come, Holy Spirit! Alleluia. Amen.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Jesus' Sheep

Stained Glass, St. James Episcopal Church, San Francisco
As Nancy Rockwell points out in her insightful commentary on the "Good Shepherd Sunday" Gospel reading, the context of Jesus’ pointed exchange with the temple authorities provides important clues as to its meaning.   Jesus is in Jerusalem for the festival of the Dedication, better know to us as Hanukkah.  Hanukkah commemorates the rededication of the Second Temple in 164 BCE after its desecration by Antiochus IV.[1]

Antiochus, Alexander the Great’s successor, appointed a Hellenized high priest to the Temple and required pigs to be sacrificed on the high altar. He was trying to force the Jews to assimilate to Greek cultural norms.  In 165 the Hasmonean family of the legitimate High Priest, Mattiyahu, and his son, Judah Maccabee organized a revolt, and eventually evicted the Syrian-Greeks from Israel.  There followed a brief period of Jewish autonomy until the Romans occupied Israel. 

When the Maccabees liberated Jerusalem there was only enough purified oil to keep the Eternal Light burning in the Temple one more day, but the oil miraculously lasted eight days, until more could be prepared.  Hanukkah commemorates with joy the Light of the presence of God that could not be extinguished, preserving the Temple from becoming abandoned by God as well as desecrated.

Hanukkah raises the question:  does salvation come through sacrificing victims – in battle and on the altar – or by the light of God’s presence illuminating the darkness of our world?  Both military revolt and miraculous Presence are intertwined in the story and in its celebration. 

Hanukkah also raises the question of appropriate assimilation.  How Gentile can one become and still be Jewish, still part of the people of God?  What differences are necessary to preserve identity and under what conditions can the boundaries be relaxed?   Who decides?

It is perhaps ironic that Jesus and the authorities meet in the portico of Solomon.  Solomon, of course, built the first Temple in Jerusalem.  He was famously Israel’s wisest king.  But he also married women from many nations, incorporating their laws and customs in the exercise of his reign.  He allowed them to practice their religions (even in the Temple!); their children were mixed-race kids.  Solomon was a cosmopolitan multiculturalist.  He also was a Jew, but he was no purist.[2]

Antiochus said, “My way or the highway.”  The Maccabees responded in kind.  Solomon was more of a “let a thousand flowers bloom” kind of guy.  This rubbed the purists the wrong way in his own day and ever since; leaving them in the curious position of doubting the Jewishness of the king who founded the very Temple cult that defined their identity.

When Jesus and the religious authorities encountered one another on Solomon’s portico during the Hanukkah celebration, the issues of salvation and identity were very much alive for them too.  The Roman occupation wasn’t as bad as Antiochus, but Herod (a half-Jew, at best) and Pilate were no picnic.  Hellenization proceeded apace, eroding traditional Jewish identity; especially when one became richer by being more “Roman.” 

So, the religious leaders demand that Jesus put his cards on the table.  “How long are you going to keep us in suspense?  If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.”[3]  This is a challenge, to be sure, but I also hear the desperation in their voice.   Jesus was a suspicious character.  He played fast and loose with the law, hung out with the wrong kind of people, and generally pushed the boundaries.  He was no purist.  But desperate times call for desperate measures.   Jesus did seem able to move the masses.  Maybe he would just have to do. 

Many Jewish leaders were looking for a second Hanukkah:  a new Judah Maccabee to liberate them from Roman occupation and restore proper Jewish identity.  Salvation would come by sacrificing appropriate victims in the Temple and on the battlefield.  Bring on the sheep and the Roman legions and let the bloodletting begin.

Jesus answered, “I have told you, and you do not believe.   The works that I do in my Father’s name testify to me; but you do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep.  My sheep hear my voice.  I know them and they follow me.”[4]

To continue with the Hanukkah image, Jesus is all about the light of God’s presence.  It is the works that he does in his Father’s name that manifest this presence:  healing, feeding, forgiving, and freeing people without regard for distinctions of gender, class, race, culture or creed.  The source of salvation is this wellspring of divine compassion that flows everywhere, creating a new and undivided humanity.  Jesus demonstrates his unity with the Father in action.  He is God because he does God. To paraphrase James Alison, he “gods god goddingly.”[5]

“I don’t need to tell you I’m the Messiah,” says Jesus, “because my actions speak for themselves.  You didn’t give your heart to me, you didn’t commit yourself to participating in my work, and so you couldn’t hear me.  You don’t belong to my sheep.”

Here we come to the heart of the matter.  For Jesus, everything turns on identifying with the sheep.  It is a prominent metaphor in John’s Gospel.  John the Baptist introduces us to Jesus with the exclamation, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!”[6]  Later, Jesus heals a paralytic on the Sabbath near the Sheep Gate in Jerusalem.[7]  This was the entrance through which sheep were led into a holding pen in preparation for their use in the sacrificial cult of the Temple. 

Then we have the familiar figures of speech employed by Jesus to describe his identity and mission:  “I am the gate for the sheep . . . whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture.”  “I am the good shepherd.  The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.”  “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold.  I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice.  So there will be one flock, one shepherd.”[8]

When Jesus speaks of sheep, he is not talking about soft, fuzzy pets.  He isn’t talking about simple-minded followers who do what they are told.  He is talking about sacrificial victims.  Those who belong to Jesus’ “sheep” are those who identify with society’s victims, who act in compassionate solidarity with the poor, the outcast, and the “other.”

Jesus’ use of sheep and shepherd imagery is rather peculiar.[9]   He is the “gate” through which the sheep enter, but unlike the Sheep Gate in Jerusalem it does not lead to being made a victim.  The sheep are free to move in and out, so that they can find green pastures.  It is an image of freedom, of shelter and feeding, of relaxed boundaries. 

It is the good shepherd who lays down his life instead of the sheep.  The good shepherd gives his life freely so that sheep will no be sacrificed.  The shepherd becomes a sheep, but his death is a choice that gives life.  It is an act of freedom, an act of compassion that refuses to make new victims in response to violence.  Jesus entrusts himself entirely to the light of God’s presence, which cannot be extinguished, to hold him in life even in death. 

The good shepherd-who-becomes-a-sheep is an image of indeterminate identity.  There is no clinging to rigid distinctions, no need to shore up boundaries as if salvation were a matter of preserving purity:  not being contaminated by those people.  As we move through the “gate” that is the “good shepherd” we discover other sheep, different flocks, which also hear his voice.  We discover ourselves become part of a “we” that is in no way defined by a “they.”  There is just one flock, one shepherd.

“The Father and I are one,” says Jesus.[10]  As Gil Bailie notes, “we have a Son who is indistinguishable from the Father, a shepherd who is indistinguishable from the sheep, and a Lord who is indistinguishable from a brother or friend.”[11]  This is an expansive vision of a unified reality that includes each and all.  Jesus’ sheep hear his voice, they recognize this reality, and they follow him by acting with compassionate awareness.  They, too, “god god goddingly.”

When we die to our fear of death, of being outcast, of being a victim, we are free to transcend fixed identities and respond with compassion to suffering victims and anxious purists alike.  Like Solomon, we can acknowledge the sheep of other folds as gifts, as partners in the work of love, as rays of the light of God’s presence that enhance the brightness of the light in a dark world.  We can reject the domination of an Antiochus or a Herod, without becoming another Judah Maccabee. 

In the debate between purists and assimilationists, Jesus comes down squarely on the side of the assimilationists, but with a twist.  The unity we share can only be realized through compassionate awareness of the divine Presence.  Such awareness preserves difference-within-unity and is the complete opposite of authoritarian uniformity.  Purist domination is to be resisted nonviolently in imitation of the good shepherd, who becomes a sheep in order to break the cycle of sacrificial violence.  Salvation means no more victims. 

[1] Nancy Rockwell’s commentary is found at http://biteintheapple.com/assimilation/
[2] Rockwell, ibid.
[3] John 10:24
[4] John 10:25-27
[5] James Alison, “How Do We Talk About The Spirit,” at http://www.jamesalison.co.uk/texts/eng47.html
[6] John 1:29
[7] John 5:2
[8] John 10:9, 11, 16
[9] As James Alison notes in his essay, “The Good Shepherd” at http://girardianlectionary.net/res/goodshepherd.htm
[10] John 10:30
[11] Bailie is quoted at http://girardianlectionary.net/year_c/easter4c.htm.  Cf. John 15:13-15.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Coming to Believe: A Meditation on "Doubting" Thomas

"The Incredulity of Saint Thomas," Carravagio

Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.  John 20:29

I know that some of you are musicians or artists.  You play an instrument, draw calligraphy, paint, dance.  How many of you believed you could play a Bach concerto the first time you touched a piano key?  How many of you believed you could dance the role of the black swan after your first ballet class? 

No one becomes an accomplished artist overnight.  You come to believe you can do these things.  It requires a lot of practice and commitment.  Now, you just do them.  But the music or the brush stroke or the body movement begins as something separate from us, unfamiliar, maybe almost impossible to grasp.  Slowly, over time, you come to entrust yourselves to the creative process, to give yourselves over to it. 

You begin by practicing the art, until eventually the art expresses itself through you.  You become united with the creative process.  You no longer are separate, an outside observer looking in.  You have come to believe that you are an artist.

Now, we can easily recognize this same process at work in many dimensions of life:  from golf to medicine, from tennis to writing.  We always begin at the beginning: doubtful of our ability, unsure of our commitment, wondering what difference it will make in our life.  Some of us know, however, from our own experience the difference between playing golf and being a golfer or playing the piano and being a pianist.  And when we are really cookin’, we know the difference between being a dancer and being the dance.

When we give ourselves to something or someone with our whole heart, and commit to practice those things that bring us closer to realizing our union with that thing or person, it changes us.  We take on a new identity and see ourselves, and the world, differently. 

Whatever the art or craft may be, if we really want to be transformed by our engagement with it, we need three things:  a teacher, a discipline of practice, and a community that supports us in that discipline.  The Suzuki Music Program that meets here at St. James is a good example. 

Ed Wilcox is a master teacher of the Suzuki method; he is a well-formed disciple of the Japanese violinist, Shin’ichi Suzuki, who founded the Suzuki school.  Ed is, if you will, filled with the spirit of Suzuki.  The students follow a strict regimen of practicing the violin on their own, attending classes with Ed, and performing in concerts with others.  In addition, Ed has worked to create a community of families who support one another so that their children can move from playing the violin to being violinists in the way of Suzuki.

The same is true of religion.  If we wish to be spiritually transformed, to come to believe that we are united with Christ, we need a teacher, a discipline of practice, and a community that supports us in that practice.  We see all three elements at work in the story of Thomas that we heard today.  Thomas shows us the process of coming to believe.

For Christians it is Jesus, of course, who is the founder, the teacher whose spirit fills all the other teachers of the way of Jesus.  Jesus is our Shin’ichi Suzuki, if you will.  But notice what the risen Jesus does in his encounter with his disciples.  He breathes his spirit on them and sends them to carry out his work in the world.  He provides us with the teachers that we need to follow his way. 

I don’t know why it is that we are more than willing to accept that we need someone to teach us math, or ballet, or how to hit a baseball, but we think we can figure things out for ourselves when it comes to religion.  We need a teacher.  We need the examples of people who are filled with the spirit of Jesus, who have practiced his way with discipline and commitment.  They show us the way, until we can walk the path ourselves.

Thomas quickly grasps this.  Some have thought him bad for insisting on experiencing the risen Jesus for himself, but it seems to me that he understood something important: no one can practice our religion for us.  Their teaching and example point us in the right direction, but we have to walk the path ourselves. We have to observe those practices that support our own encounter with the living Christ, our union with Christ. 

Your spouse can’t do your worshipping, your meditating, and your volunteer work for you.   Your children can’t study the Scriptures, work for justice, or practice forgiveness for you.  We have to do the hard work of preparing ourselves to seek and service Christ in our neighbor; to become Christ for our neighbor.  Just as no one can do our suffering for us, no one can experience our salvation for us.

But notice that Jesus appears to Thomas when he is in the company of others.  This is true of almost all of the stories of Jesus appearing to his disciples – he usually appears to them when two or three or more are gathered together.  So while we have to walk the path ourselves, we do not have to do it alone. 

In fact, we cannot.  We need the prayers, the generosity, and support of others along the way; sometimes they push or pull us along, sometimes they carry us, sometimes they simply walk beside us.  Without them, our courage and our dedication would flag.  Without them, would Thomas have come to believe?

Recently, Mary Balmana was sharing with a small group of us about how people respond when a loved one dies in Filipino culture.  For the first forty days after someone dies – equivalent to the forty days that the risen Jesus appeared to his disciples before his ascension – the family and friends engage in a practice of prayerful attention, waiting for the spirit of the deceased to appear to them.  Often, the appearance happens at night, perhaps in a dream.  At the end of the forty days, the family and friends gather for a feast and joyfully share their experiences of the resurrection life of the deceased. 

It seems to me that this is always the work of the church.  We gather together to support one another in the practice of prayerful attention to the ways that Jesus, our beloved brother and teacher, continues to appear in our midst.  Following his way is difficult.  It is not free from suffering.  It requires a lot of hard work.  But the joy of the new life that opens up for us when we follow his way – a life of peace, of compassion, of forgiveness, of service – transcends even death.

Religion is hard work.  Whoever said it would be easy?  It requires a teacher, a dedicated practice, and a whole community of support.  But like Thomas, if we are willing to follow the path, we too, will move from doubt to trust; from self-preoccupation to service to others; from isolation to community.  We, too, will be changed.  Eventually, we will not just be playing church. 

We will become Christ.