Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Saint Photini

The story of the Samaritan woman at the well is a familiar passage from John’s Gospel, rich in allusion and meaning.  Jacob’s Well, the main setting of the story, was an historic public watering hole and meeting place, where earlier encounters between Isaac and Rebekah and Jacob and Rachel had taken place.  Moses also met his wife, Zipporah, at a well.   The setting hints at the possibility that yet another important relationship is about to commence. 

The question of thirst and the provision of water also bring to mind Israel’s complaining in the wilderness, until Moses struck the rock from which water flowed to slake their thirst.  Hovering in the background of the dialogue between Jesus and this woman is the plaintive question raised then:  “Is the Lord among us or not?”  It is a timeless question, the question I daresay we’ve all asked at one time or another, whenever we’ve found ourselves in a desert place; dried out, bone tired, and parched.  In those times when it seems like God has brought us this far, only to abandon us, we, too, can wonder if the well has run dry.  

We don’t know much about this Samaritan woman.  The Western church treats her much like Mary Magdalene: as an icon of fallen womanhood restored to moral propriety.  Of course, there is none of that in John’s story.   Jesus says nothing of repentance or sin, as he does with the woman caught in adultery later in John’s Gospel. 

We can assume that the people of Sychar treated her like an outcast. There is no other explanation for her being at the well at noon, alone during the heat of the day, rather than in the morning or evening when everyone else came to the well to gather water and gossip.  Only a woman already marginalized would appear in public unaccompanied by a male relative.  In the course of her conversation with Jesus, we learn that she has had five husbands and is now dependent upon a man with whom she is not married.  That is a tragic situation, but not necessarily sinful; she could have been a widow, and only men could initiate divorce in that time and place.  Her initial responses to Jesus are guarded, even a bit cynical. She is hardly a woman on the make.

Although the people of Sychar treated her as a scapegoat, Jesus does not, so why should we perpetuate her victimization?  Whereas others saw her as a wanton among respectable people, a mere woman in a man’s world, a Samaritan heretic cut-off from God’s chosen people, Jesus saw her as a vessel of living water welling up to eternal life.  Being seen in this way changes everything for her.  She had internalized the image reflected in the contemptuous faces of the people around her.  Her heart had become well defended against the world, with a rocklike armor.  But Jesus touched her heart, and living water flowed out from the rock.  That current of love was so powerful that it washed over the whole community. 

Jesus saw her whole, telling her everything she had ever done!  Can you imagine?  He accepted every bit of who she had been and who she was and said, “I see a spring of water gushing up in you to eternal life.  Isn’t that the water you really want?  Isn’t this who you really are?”  He tells her not to get caught up by the invidious distinctions we make based on religion and ethnicity and gender, worrying about who is in and who is out, who is right and who is wrong:  none of that matters.  What matters is worshipping God in spirit and in truth, whether in Jerusalem or Samaria, Rome or Canterbury, Mecca or Bodh Gaya.  The location of the well is unimportant.  Just drink deeply.

Jesus invites her into an intimate relationship with God without preconditions.  She doesn’t need to change in any way to drink this living water.  But having drunk deeply, her world would change in ways she couldn’t have possibly imagined.   She became the first apostle, beating out even Mary Magdalene for the title.

We are told that she left her water jar behind and ran back to Sychar, telling everyone in town that she has met the Messiah.  She can hardly believe it herself, “He cannot be the Messiah, can he?”  What is even more amazing is that many of them believed her!   This woman, who had made herself as small and defended against them as she possibly could, sneaking to the well at midday to avoid attention, was suddenly in their face; and not with bitter recriminations at having been victimized by them, but with an offer of a love the she just could not keep dammed up. 

Even more believed because of Jesus’ word.  The Samaritan woman did not point to herself, but to the one who healed her.  “They said to the woman, ‘It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Savior of the world.’”  This is what a good apostle does:  invites people to tap into the flow of living water themselves.  God desires an intimate, loving relationship with absolutely everybody. 

If the Western church has looked down its collective nose at the Samaritan woman, the Eastern church saw her very differently.  In the hagiography of Eastern Orthodoxy, the Samaritan woman, along with her sisters and her son, were baptized at Pentecost.  At her baptism, she took the name, Photini, which means, “enlightened one.”  She then began a wide-ranging missionary career, which eventually brought her to Rome, where she attempted to convert none other than the emperor, Nero, who had already ordered her arrest!  When he asked her why she had come to Rome, she replied, “We have come to teach you to believe in Christ.” 

Three years passed, during which Nero tried and failed to get her and her companions to renounce Christ through a combination of temptation and torture.   In fact, it resulted in the conversion of Nero’s daughter, Domnina, to the Christina faith.  Their prison became a joyful center of Christian preaching and worship.  Nero finally ordered Photini’s death.  Guess how she became a martyr?  By being thrown down a well.  And so she became St. Photini, hailed by the fathers of the Eastern church as an apostle, as reflected in the Troparion to St. Photini:

“Illuminated by the Holy Spirit, All-Glorious One, from Christ the Savior you drank the water of salvation.
 With open hand you give it to those who thirst.
 Great martyr, St. Photini, equal to the Apostles,
pray to Christ for the salvation of our souls.”

The Samaritan woman became St. Photini.  She discovered within herself a well of living water gushing up to eternal life by looking into the face of Jesus, and seeing reflected there her image as the beloved caught in the gaze of the divine lover. 


The true nature of your Beloved.

In His loving eyes your every thought,

Word and movement is always-

Always Beautiful.”

The Sufi mystic, Hafiz, expresses what I imagine St. Photini must have experienced so powerfully in her encounter with Jesus at Jacob’s well.  There commenced a new and important relationship – a relationship that forever answered the question, “Is the Lord among us or not?” with a resounding, “Yes!  He is here.  He has always been here.”  St. Photini knew herself loved, and she invited absolutely everybody, even Nero, to discover this truth for themselves. 

God desires an intimate, loving relationship with you, without preconditions.   You do not have to change to be loved, but being loved, you will be changed forever.  Amen.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Faiths United to Prevent Gun Violence

Sermon for Gun Violence Sabbath Sunday
March 16, 2014
by The Rev. John Kirkley

This weekend, faith communities across the nation are gathering to remember those who have lost their lives to gunfire, to pray for those whose lives have been forever changed because of the loss of a loved one, and to continue the discussion on how communities of faith can work together to help reduce gun violence. In 2010, guns took the lives of more than 30,000 Americans in homicides, suicides, and accidental shootings.  In any two-year period, the number of Americans who die from gun violence exceeds the total number of American deaths in the Vietnam War.[1]  We are suffering an epidemic of gun violence.  Some 50 denominations, including The Episcopal Church, are part of Faiths United to Prevent Gun Violence, which has formed to respond to this epidemic.   

While tragedies like the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown make headlines, we tend to overlook the trauma of everyday violence affecting children, especially poor children of color, in too many of our communities.   On average, eight young people under the age of 20 are killed by gun violence every day in the United States.[2]  Firearm homicide is the second leading cause of death (after motor vehicle accidents) for people in this age category,[3] and the leading cause of death among young African-Americans; nearly one in four American teens have witnessed a shooting.

One of those teens is 19-year-old “Hayden,” who lives in East Oakland.[4]  Her world began to unravel in 2008, when her mother was shot in the leg by a random bullet, leaving Hayden to care for her two younger siblings.  A week later, an uncle who lived with the family was shot and killed.  He was the third uncle she has lost to gun violence since 2001.

Hayden describes her response, “I was traumatized, I was hurt.  I didn’t know how to feel.  It’s someone you see everyday, and you don’t get to see him anymore.”  She then recounts the recent deaths of five other friends.  Another stray bullet killed a sixteen-year-old girl, who was like a sister to her.  Gunfire also killed a fifteen-year-old friend as he walked through a nearby park.  Another young man was shot multiple times as he went to the store.  

These were random shootings, and they left Hayden in a constant state of terror.  She fears gunfire.  She no longer walks around her own neighborhood. She would leave class to visit her uncle’s gravestone.  Not one of her teachers asked her about the disappearances.  She dropped out of high school, unable to cope with the well of grief that overwhelmed her. 

Hayden has since found refuge in the East Oakland Youth Development Center, where she earned her GED and now works as a tutor.   She is one of the survivors of an epidemic of violence that is saddling a whole generation of children with the burdens of depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder.  In 2012 there were 2,000 violent crimes committed per 100,000 people in Oakland, compared to a national average of 387 violent crimes per 1,000 people.  Children are growing up in a war zone that leaves them isolated, traumatized, and vulnerable to repeating the cycle of violence.[5]

In 2008, the U.S. Department of Justice surveyed thousands of teenagers about how often they were exposed to sexual assault, domestic battery, child abuse, and community violence.  More than 60% reported at least one incident in the previous year, and 40% percent were victims of two or more violent acts.  10% were victimized five or more times.[6]   This epidemic of violence disproportionately affects communities of color, but it is, in fact, everywhere. 

Recognizing and healing this trauma is an important step in interrupting the cycle of violence.  Javier Arango is a beautiful example of what is possible.   The night of his high school prom, Javier was caught in a blast of gunfire that left him a paraplegic.  Terrified of being in a wheelchair in a tough neighborhood, he secured a bullet-proof jacket and a gun, and joined the Border Brothers gang.  He began to self medicate with drugs and alcohol, trying to ease the memory of his shooting and the shooting deaths of three close friends.

Eventually, at the age of 22, Arango quit gangbanging and found help from Catholic Charities of the East Bay.  It was there that he learned he was suffering from PTSD.  According to Arango, “There is basically a war going on in Oakland.  It’s not that you leave the war.  You always live inside the war.  You’re not going back home.”

But instead of being a soldier and victim in this war, Arango has become a kind of front line paramedic.  Now 24-years-old, Arango works at Catholic Charities as a youth specialist leading “trauma circles,” gatherings of high-risk adolescents to confidentially talk about how to cope with their experiences of violence.  He is helping young people to realize that such violence isn’t normal and that they deserve a better future.  “I want the government to make more programs to help out more and to understand that we’re all human beings,” he says.  “We just happen to live in a cold world, in a messed-up world, in a dirty world.  But we deserve all the opportunities that anybody else deserves.” 

We are at the beginning of a movement that understands the toxic stress that children experience in Oakland, and other communities like it, as a public health issue.  Gun violence is part of a larger structure of racism and poverty that produces extreme manifestations of trauma, similar in its effects to survivors of mass shootings and war.  Arango knows his place in this movement.  “It’s like I’m putting my brick into building a better community,” and he goes on to note that when he was growing up there were no “original gangsters,” or wiser people who had recovered from the trauma and could provide guidance to a better way of life.  “We didn’t have people like that,” he said.  “But there’s me now.  I could do it.”

What is our place in this movement?  How are we rebuilding safe, healthy communities where everyone is treated like a human being?  What can we do?  Faiths United to Prevent Gun Violence advocates common sense policy prescriptions that should be enacted without delay.[7]  The first is to require universal criminal background checks for gun purchases.  The current system only applies to about 60% of gun sales, omitting online sales and purchases at gun shows.  In 2012, some 6.6 million guns were transferred without a background check on the purchaser.  A national survey of inmates found that nearly 80% of those who used a handgun in a crime acquired it in a private transfer.

Since the Brady Law was passed in 1994, about 2 million gun sales have been blocked, and about half of those blocked attempts were by felons.  Background checks save lives, and states with universal criminal background checks have experienced dramatic decreases in gun related domestic violence, suicides, police murders, and guns exported to other states.  Nine out of ten Americans support universal background checks, including 75% of NRA members. 

Secondly, we need to ban the sale of military-style assault weapons and high capacity magazines.   Such weapons were developed solely for the purpose of killing as many people as quickly as possible in military combat.  There is no justification for allowing our neighborhoods to be turned into war zones.   The shooters at Virginia Tech, Tucson, Aurora, Oak Creek, and Newtown all used high capacity magazines that would have been banned if the Brady Law ban had not been allowed to lapse in 2004.   There is overwhelming public support for the ban, including more than 70% of gun owners.

A related measure is to strengthen the laws punishing gun trafficking.  Today, criminals can easily buy guns from unlicensed dealers or with the help of “straw purchasers” who pass the background check.  Those who traffick these guns are generally only prosecuted for paperwork violations, which carries the same punishment as trafficking chicken or livestock.   We need to empower law enforcement to investigate and prosecute straw purchasers, gun traffickers, and their criminal networks.

These are common sense proposals with broad public support.   Their enactment would be a good first step in limiting the epidemic of gun violence that is traumatizing a generation of children; children like Hayden and Javier, who are our neighbors, kids in our own schools, congregations, and communities.  It is the least we can do for them.

Measures also need to be taken to strengthen the infrastructure of our public health and public education systems, and reform the criminal justice system to reintegrate rather than stigmatize former felons, reduce recidivism, and end the so-called war on drugs that disproportionately criminalizes men of color for the nonviolent possession and sale of drugs.   Gun violence and mass incarceration of men of color are related phenomenon.  We need to address both issues together to break the cycle of violence. 

The PICO National Network, a faith based community organizing project, has initiated the “Lifelines to Healing” campaign to do just that.[8]  I’ll be attending an organizing meeting to learn more about the campaign this coming Thursday.  Mary Balmana, a member of our parish, is serving on the recently created diocesan Task Force on Gun Violence Prevention as well. 

Gun violence prevention is not about ideology.  It is, finally, about people like Hayden and Javier.  It is about recognizing them as our brothers and sisters in Christ, as part of the world that God so loved that he sent his Son to heal it.  In keeping with our baptismal promise to strive for justice and peace and respect the dignity of every human being, let us continue the conversation about how we, individually and together, can be lifelines of God’s healing love for the world.

[2] The Brady Campaign averaged three years of data from death certificates (2008-2010) and estimates of emergency room admissions (2009-2011) available via the CDC’s National Center for Injury Prevention and Control’s Web-based Injury Statistics Query and Reporting System,  Data retrieved 12/28/12.
[3] National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, Web-based Injury Statistics Query and Reporting System (2007 (deaths) and 2008 (injuries)),  Calculations by Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, 2009.ii
[4] The following stories and quotes about “Hayden” and Javier Arango are from “Life, Death, and PTSD in Oakland” by Rebecca Ruiz, published in the December 11, 2013 edition of the East Bay Express.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Ibid.
[7] Go to for background on these policy prescriptions.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Remember That You Are (Star)Dust

“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”[1]  Is that a threat, or a promise?

As the psalmist reminds us, life is fleeting:  “Our days are like the grass; we flourish like a flower of the field; when the wind goes over it, it is gone, and its place shall know it no more.”[2]  We are mortal, and we do well to remember that this is so.  God remembers that we are dust, but we too easily forget.  We try to make ourselves invulnerable, and so close ourselves off from this precious life and the love that gives it enduring meaning.  In trying to forget that we die, we forget to truly live as well.

“But” and this is a big “but,” “the merciful goodness of the Lord endures for ever on those who fear him, and his righteousness on children’s children; on those who keep his covenant and remember his commandments and do them.”[3]  We are mortal, but death is not a threat because we participate in God’s goodness forever – however hard that may be for us to grasp or imagine.  We can begin to enjoy that goodness by observing the covenant, attending to our relationship with God, here and now.   We don’t have to wait until we die.

Returning to the dust is not a threat.  It is a promise.  As Carl Sagan once observed, “The nitrogen in our DNA, the calcium in our teeth, the iron in our blood, the carbon in our apple pies were made in the interiors of collapsing stars. We are made of starstuff.”  The dust to which we return, signified by the ashes we receive today, is a reminder of our deep connection to everything that is.  The dust to which we return, in which we are made, is stardust.   We think of “returning to the dust” as the threat of death.  But maybe it is the promise of reunion, of homecoming, of realizing that we are at home in the universe.  God’s goodness rests upon us forever and we can live in the joy of that realization today.

But we forget that we are stardust.  God’s doesn’t, but we do.  We experience ourselves as separate from the rest of the world, sometimes even estranged.   It is this sense of estrangement that the Bible speaks of as sin.  It is an ontological condition, not a moral failing.  Sin is the condition of being separate from the world – “more than,” or “less than,” maybe, but not “part of.”  It is when we lose our sense of participation in the whole of life as an integral part of creation that we are in bondage to sin.  This is the necessary precondition for “sins” – the moral failings that arise when we see ourselves as unrelated to the rest of the world. 

The many “sins” that we will confess tonight are really expressions of the condition of sin, the result of our forgetting that we are stardust.   We are only capable of exploiting people whom we see as fundamentally separate from us.  We can only be indifferent to injustice and cruelty when its victims are “those people,” not included in our sense of “we.”   It is only when we become alienated from the fundamental elements of life that sustain our existence that we become capable of wasting and polluting the planet. 

When we forget that we are dust, we treat others like “dirt.” 

Lent is an invitation to remember that we are stardust, to renew our sense of deep connection with the whole of reality; to rediscover the goodness of God and our participation in that goodness.  It is an invitation to become whole again.

I don’t know how we came to frame this invitation as being about renunciation.  “What are you giving up for Lent?”  That is the question we tend to ask.   Anthony De Mello tells a story that helps to reframe this question:

There was once an ascetic who lived a celibate life and made it his life's mission to fight against sex in himself and others. In due course, he died. And his disciple, who could not stand the shock, died a little after him. When the disciple reached the other world he couldn't believe what he saw: there was his beloved Master with the most extraordinarily beautiful woman seated on his lap!

His sense of shock faded when it occurred to him that his Master was being rewarded for his sexual abstinence on earth. He went up to him and said, "Beloved Master, now I know that God is just, for you are being rewarded in heaven for your austerities on earth."

The Master seemed annoyed. "Idiot!" he said, "This isn't heaven and I'm not being rewarded - she's being punished."

De Mello offers the following commentary on this story:  “When the shoe fits, the foot is forgotten; when the belt fits, the waist is forgotten; when all things are in harmony, the ego is forgotten. Of what use, then, are your austerities?”[4]

Renunciation only binds us more tightly to what we are trying to avoid. Cultivate insight, understanding, detachment, and compassion instead, and whatever needs to be let go will drop away of its own dead weight. You will not need to "give it up." You will not even notice "it" anymore.
The question is not “What are you giving up for Lent?” but rather “What helps you to remember that you are dust?”  This is the point of our covenant with God, the end for which keeping the commandments is simply a means: living in harmony with the rest of the world, secure in our identity as part of the whole.   Lent is not about giving things up, but about looking deeply at the fears and desires that shape our life, becoming willing to let go those things that obstruct the energy of love.  It isn’t about renunciation or repression, but about integration. 
The Master in De Mello’s parable tried to repress his sexual energy rather than integrating it into the whole of his life.  It became split off, and ultimately came to dominate his perception of reality, such that death was a threat and eternity a punishment.  He forgot that he is dust, and that sexuality was just another dimension of life that needs to be given its proper place.  It became something that separated him from others, rather than connecting him to others and to the generative energy of the cosmos.
It seems to me that this gets to the heart of Jesus’ teaching in today’s Gospel lesson.[5]  We can use spiritual practices to separate us from others, to divide us into good and bad, and to cut us off from the energy of divine love:  that is practicing our piety to be seen by others.  Our reward is a big ego, a reputation for holiness that sets us apart.  Yet, these same practices of prayer, fasting, and generosity can be a means of remembering that we are dust, fostering that connection which is true holiness – realizing our identity as part of the whole of God’s creation.  Our reward then is heavenly treasure: participation in the goodness of God that lasts forever, and that can be experienced today, here and now. 
What helps you to remember that you are stardust?  What deepens your connection to God and to other people and to the creation that sustains our common life?  Lent is a time to engage these questions anew.  Not because returning to dust is a threat, but because it holds the promise of homecoming and wholeness:  the treasure that is our heart’s deepest desire.

[1] BCP, p. 265. 
[2] Psalm 103:15-16.
[3] Psalm 103:17-18.
[4] De Mello, Taking Flight: A Book of Story Meditations.
[5] Matthew 6:1-6,16-21.