Monday, December 25, 2017

The Mystic's Christmas

In his poem, “The Mystic’s Christmas,” John Greenleaf Whittier describes a group of monks who are taken aback by the refusal of one of their brothers to join them in their Christmas revels.   He sits apart, quietly, with a look of sweet peace upon his face.

"Why sitt'st thou thus?" his brethren cried,
"It is the blessed Christmas-tide;
The Christmas lights are all aglow,
The sacred lilies bud and blow.
. . .

"Rejoice with us; no more rebuke
Our gladness with thy quiet look."
The gray monk answered, "Keep, I pray,
Even as ye list, the Lord's birthday.

The gray monk in no way wishes to undermine the joy of his dancing brothers, nor diminish the importance of their sacred celebration.  There was a time when he too, found deep meaning in the observance of Christmas as a special day and enjoins them to keep the feast.  Yet, he says, through God’s exceeding grace we can transcend the mere forms of religion to attain a deeper truth and joy. 

"The outward symbols disappear
From him whose inward sight is clear;
And small must be the choice of days
To him who fills them all with praise!

"Keep while you need it, brothers mine,
With honest seal your Christmas sign,
But judge not him who every morn
Feels in his heart the Lord Christ born!"

The grey monk of Whittier’s poem echoes the teaching of the mystic, St. John of the Cross, who said, “The soul of one who loves God always swims in joy, always keeps holiday, and is always in the mood for singing.”[1]  This is quite a statement from this Spanish mystic best known for his teaching about the dark night of the soul!  St. John of the Cross is no Pollyanna, yet it was his experience that a deep and abiding joy is the fruit of spiritual awakening:  every day is Christmas for those in whom Christ is born.

Our Christmas celebration is meaningless if it does not serve to awaken us to the birth of Christ in our own souls, to the fullness of life and love for which we have been created.  This is God’s desire for us, and it is our deepest desire as well.   Christmas is not only about the birth of Jesus back then and there.  It is also about the realization of our true selves, Christ in us, here and now.   Christmas reminds us of who we are, of all we can become.  It is easy to forget.  

To borrow an analogy from Rabbi Sharon Brous, consider the importance of wedding anniversaries.  As a priest, it is a great privilege for me to help a couple celebrate the holy love they share and to declare it blessed.  Holy Matrimony is a wonderful celebration.  It is an intense, sacramental experience.  

Consider, however, from your own experience, or try to imagine with me, the difference between the intensity of the experience of the wedding day and say, the sixth or seventh anniversary.  By the 16th or 17th anniversary, God willing you should make it that long, you are lucky to remember what day it is when you wake up that morning, and scramble to make a restaurant reservation or hope you can get a card before your beloved springs one on you (or, better yet, hope you aren’t the only one who forgot).  I wasn’t so lucky.  I forgot our 7th anniversary, and my husband has never let me forget that I forgot!

As Rabbi Brous explains it, “religious ritual and rites were essentially designed to serve the function of the anniversary, to be a container in which we would hold on to the remnants of that sacred, revelatory encounter that birthed the religion in the first place. The problem is that after a few centuries, the date remains on the calendar, but the love affair is long dead. That's when we find ourselves in endless, mindless repetitions of words that don't mean anything to us, rising and being seated because someone has asked us to, holding onto jealously guarded doctrine that's completely and wildly out of step with our contemporary reality, engaging in perfunctory practice simply because that's the way things have always been done.”[2]

Christmas, like a wedding anniversary, is a reminder to keep love alive, not just on Christmas day, not just on the anniversary, but every day:  it is a reminder of who we are and of the commitment that love demands of us.  It is an invitation to live in the joy that we can only experience through the sometimes painful, but ultimately life-giving, commitment to love:  not just love of our spouse or of a friend but of God, and of all things in God.  

A religion, like a marriage, becomes stale when the celebration of its anniversary becomes an exercise in nostalgia, reducing love to mere sentimentality.  It becomes routine, lifeless, and, yes, boring; completely disconnected from present reality and the risks and vulnerability of real love.  That is one of the ways that religion goes wrong. 

Another way religion goes wrong is when it becomes extremist, all about domination and control, a form of domestic and even civic violence.  It is used to justify regressive and exploitative politics and policies, using sacred texts to legitimate hatred and violence in God’s name.  Such religion is an exercise in cultivating fear rather than love.  As Rabbi Brous notes, “Religion today has failed to capture the imagination of millions who are repelled by the viciousness of extremism and disenchanted by the dullness of routine-ism.  They refuse to choose between religion that’s deadly and religion that is dead.”[3]

The purpose of religion is not to numb us into complacency or force us into compliance.  It is misused whenever it serves as a form of escapism – “thoughts and prayers religion” – as in “our thoughts and prayers are with the victims of the mass shooting” but we aren’t going to do anything about the fetishizing of guns in America; or “our thoughts and prayers are with the victims of the hurricanes” but we refuse to acknowledge the reality of global climate change much less enact policies to mitigate its effects.  Religion is equally misused when it serves as a form of social control, serving as chaplain to the empire and its idolatry of blood and soil.  

Authentic religion is always an invitation to wake-up and a threat to empire.  Christmas is not a bucolic, sentimental story about sweet baby Jesus, meek and mild.  It is a subversive claim that God is found, not at the center of empire, but in the resistance.  It is a subversive claim that divine power is not exercised through violent domination, but through revolutionary love.  It is a subversive claim that salvation does not come down from above, in the form of noblesse oblige, but wells up from below, in the form of a community of nobodies from nowhere who turn the world upside-down.   The story of the birth of Jesus delegitimizes the official story, and offers an alternative version of religion as the practice of becoming human, fully alive and breathtakingly free.   

In a healthy marriage, anniversaries are celebrated as a joyous recognition of the way love challenges us to change and grow, and discover that the meaning of our life is found in community and in service to others.   Through it, we come to accept our vulnerability as a gift, a means of connection, and honor the vulnerability of our beloved.  We learn to let go of our ego, die to our self-image, so that we can see more clearly and love more deeply, selflessly, and unconditionally, so that we can become mutual agents of our beloved’s healing.  We accept pain in the service of growth, rather than trying to avoid or control reality.  We give ourselves away, and thereby receive all things in return. 

Well, Christmas is the anniversary of our love affair with God, who comes to us in the form of a child and says to us, in the words of another mystic, Mechthild of Magdeburg, “I, God, am your playmate!  I will lead the child in you in wonderful ways for I have chosen you.”[4]  The world is our playground, and God invites us to enjoy it.  Yes, you can get hurt on the playground.  It can be a little dangerous.  But the risk of love is worth the joy of playing together.  When we realize this deep in our soul, beyond our illusions and our fears and our false ideas about religion, then we can say with St. John of the Cross, “The soul of one who loves God always swims in joy, always keeps holiday, and is always in the mood for singing.”  When Christ is born in us, then every day is Christmas.  Amen.

[1] Quoted in The Living Pulpit (October-December, 1996), p. 30.
[2] Rabbi Sharon Brous, “It’s time to reclaim religion,” TED conference talk at
[3] Rabbi Sharon Brous, “I need you to breath,” keynote address at PICO Prophetic Resistance Summit, October 23, 2017 at
[4] Quoted in The Living Pulpit (October-December, 1996), p. 30.

Friday, December 22, 2017

Drop Your Expectations

“Those who sowed with tears will reap with songs of joy.  Those who go out weeping, carrying the seed, will come again with joy, shouldering their sheaves.”[1]  Amen.

A couple of Sundays ago Shari was presiding and I was assisting at Communion. She had the bread; I had the chalice of wine as we moved around the altar.  Holy Communion was being distributed with the usual quiet reverence when I came upon Isaac.  Isaac is five years-old.  When I bent down to give him the chalice, he looked at me with eyes like great big saucers and his cheeks were all puffed up like a squirrel with a passel of nuts stuffed in its mouth.  He could barely speak but he managed to say, “Just a minute, my mouth is full.”  Chomp, chomp, chomp. Chomp, chomp, chomp.  “Not yet.” Eventually, he took a long swig from the chalice, gulping it to wash down that big chunk of bread.  He would have emptied it if I’d let him.

It totally cracked me up.  Later, I remembered Shari saying to me once that kids like to receive big pieces of bread at Communion.  If that is the case, then Isaac was a very satisfied communicant.  Good job, Shari! 

There is a point to this little story, and it is about expectations.  If I had encountered Isaac in that moment with a set of expectations of what reception of the Sacrament of Holy Communion should be like: that it should be solemn and dignified, for example, I might have felt disappointed by Isaac’s response; even a little angry with Shari for “giving him too much;” embarrassed that it had “caused a scene.” Trust me, I’ve seen priests like that.  I’m sure I’ve been that priest at one time or another.  And Isaac might have come away from the experience having internalized my expectation, at the cost of feeling ashamed. 

Instead, at least on that Sunday, I simply was present to what was happening, rather than trying to force it to conform to some set of expectations.  In being open to what was given, I was in communion with Isaac – just as he was, and just as I was in that moment – and experienced the joy of that communion.  Isn’t that the whole point of the sacramental celebration?  It is in such moments that we recognize Christ in each other.  

In reflecting on that experience, I was reminded of a simple truth: if we wish to experience joy, then we have to drop our expectations.  Let them go. They just get in the way of living.  Expectation says: “Everyone must receive Communion reverently for me to be happy.”  Hope says: “I would like people to receive Communion reverently, but my happiness doesn’t depend upon it.  I’m even open to the possibility that my hope may be fulfilled in an entirely unexpected way, or not at all.”  Do you see the difference?  It is the difference between living life and trying to control or avoid it. What makes this time of year difficult for many people is that it is loaded with expectations:  expectations that we want to fulfill and expectations that we want to avoid.  They can feel heavy and they can make us feel really stuck.  
Some of you may be haunted by the ghost of Christmas past.  I know I have been.  When I was a kid, my father was an active alcoholic (thankfully, he stopped drinking about 10 years ago).  We never knew how he was going to show up at family gatherings.  I often felt humiliated by his behavior, and felt a lot of anxiety as the holidays approached. For many years, I approached Christmas walking on eggs, wondering when the other shoe was going to drop, and feeling vaguely responsible for other people’s feelings about the season.  “If only my father didn’t drink, then I could be happy” was the story I told myself.  So, guess what?  I wasn’t happy, especially at Christmastime.  I had expectations.

My heart became closed.  The emotional energy of those childhood experiences hit me like a wave, but rather than letting them pass through me, I adopted a defensive posture, closing my heart and blocking the flow of energy.  The energy kept moving, but rather than being released I trapped it and kept it circling around itself.  

As Michael Singer notes, everything is energy and energy will expand outward if it is not contained.  For physical reality to be manifest, energy must get in the dynamic of circling around itself to create a stable unit: this is one way to describe an atom, the basic building block of the universe.  Atoms have enough energy harnessed in them to blow up the world if it is released.  But unless forced open, the energy remains stable in its equilibrium state.[2]
This cycling energy happens with emotional energy as well.  It can become trapped in our heart, harnessed by our resistance to letting it go.  Our expectations: that it will always be like this, that it must not be like this, that I must avoid or control what happens to be happy is the lock on the door of our heart that keeps this energy circling around itself.  It is exhausting keeping all that emotional energy stored up.  It prevents us from being open to the renewal of energy, what we call Spirit, that continually emerges from the abyss of God’s love.  The solution is to open our hearts to release the flow of energy and receive the inpouring of the Holy Spirit available in each moment. 

There are a variety of spiritual techniques or practices that help us to do this.  Sometimes, the emotional energy trapped in our hearts can be overwhelming, the result of trauma that requires very careful healing support to release.  This is where psychotherapy, or 12 step work, or spiritual direction, or all of the above can be an important resource.  We don’t have to do this work alone.  Yoga, meditation, and other contemplative practices are enormously beneficial.  They help us to claim our identity as “the Witness,” the observer of thoughts, feelings, and sensations that provides perspective and healthy detachment so that we can let go and be in the flow of energy, rather than blocking it.  We can accept the past.  We can release the energy.  We can open our hearts and be present to what is given now.  

The season of Advent is a time set apart to prepare to for the birth of new life, the renewal of the energy of love, symbolized by the birth of the Christ Child.  This preparation requires patience.  It requires repentance – changing our minds.  But another important part of this preparation is simply giving ourselves – and others – a break, by letting go of our expectations and allowing the past to be the past so that we can be open to the present moment.  

So it is OK to grieve what needs grieving.  It is OK to acknowledge what has been lost and give thanks for what has been received.  It is OK to forgive what needs forgiving so that we can be free.  This is how we open our hearts again.  This is how Christ is born in us again.  The realization of our hope for the world does not require perfection, or the absence of pain, or the realization of our expectations.  It only requires us to be open.  Just keep your heart open.  Let the energy flow through you, releasing into the world the love that is the only hope for the world.  

St. Paul tells us, “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. Do not quench the Spirit.”[3]  Keep the flow of energy open and we will discover the joy that is present in all circumstances.   Don’t quench the Spirit!  Keep your heart open!

As I drop my expectations and release the ghost of Christmas past, I find myself noticing a deep joy here and now.  I’m not the little boy clinging to patterns of energy that lock me in circles of fear and shame.  A new wave of energy is washing through me, washing me clean. 

Today, my associations with this season are of the moment: sharing a cup of tea with my husband in the living room at the end of the day as the last rays of winter light come through the window; the joy of my son’s homecoming from college for winter break; the sense of awe accompanying my sense of loss as I ponder the quiet dignity and acceptance with which our sister Nancy walked through the valley of the shadow of death.  Talk about letting go of expectations!  She said she was not afraid of the journey, but she was curious about the final destination. “Curious,” she said, her heart still wide open.  Somehow, I can find no other way of thinking about her death, other than as the release of great souled energy making space for new birth, new life to come roaring in.  If we let it.  Maybe not today.  But we will get there.

Don’t quench the Spirit!  Stay in the flow of the energy of love.  Those who sowed with tears will reap with songs of joy.  Those who go out weeping, carrying the seed, will come again with joy, shouldering their sheaves.”  Amen.

[1] Psalm 26:6-7.
[2] Michael Singer, The Untethered Soul (Oakland, CA:  New Harbinger Publications, Inc., 2007).
[3] I Thessalonians 5:16-17.

Thursday, December 14, 2017

A Change Is Gonna Come

It is often the poets, the artists, who express the truth of our situation and see the possibilities inherent in the moment that we can’t yet see.  They see the tender branch beginning to put forth its leaves, heralding the coming of summer, while we are still shivering in the chill of a seemingly endless winter.   The poets perceive the signs of life taking root in the soil of death, bringing hope to those blinded by grief and judgment upon those blinded by the illusion that all is well.

The poets speak of a world that is not yet to illumine the world as it is, and embolden us to traverse the distance between here and there:  between the wilderness and the promised land, exile and homecoming, the old creation and the new.  While Alabama state troopers beat, gassed, and rode down peaceful protestors crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge on March 7, 1965, Sam Cooke could be heard singing on the radio:

Then I go to my brother
And I say brother help me please
But he winds up knockin' me
Back down on my knees, oh

There have been times that I thought I couldn't last for long
But now I think I'm able to carry on
It's been a long, a long time coming
But I know a change gonna come, oh yes it will

Those beaten back from the bridge that day may not have seen the change that was coming, but Sam Cooke could see it.  Cooke placed his hope in a social movement that transcended his own brief life, trusting like Dr. King that the arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice.  A change gonna come.  But in the meantime, stay woke: alert to the signs of the times, patient in the struggle, living in anticipation of the Beloved Community as if it already were here and now. 

This is what Jesus teaches us in the somewhat enigmatic apocalyptic imagery of Mark chapter 13.  It is about how to persevere in the struggle for a better world, resisting the nightmare in which we find ourselves by living into God’s dream for the earth.   Jesus weaves together the works of Isaiah, Ezekiel, Joel, Zechariah, and Daniel into a new vision.  Grounded in the classics of his tradition, Jesus performs a surprisingly creative variation on the theme of prophetic hope. 

That is what artists do.  They transform the received tradition to make it fresh and relevant, so that we have eyes to see and ears to hear again.  Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come” is a beautiful example.  It was rooted in a long tradition of musical protest that wended its way back through Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ In The Wind,” evoking Woodie Guthrie as well as Paul Robeson’s unsurpassable rendition of Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein’s “Ol’ Man River;” even as it drew on the existential depth and critical perspective of the spirituals and the blues to subvert the inherent racism of 19th Century ministrel anthems.  As critic David Cantwell notes, “Thanks to ‘Ol’ Man River,’ we can move from ‘Dixie,’ the popular song most associated with the Confederacy and Jim Crow, to ‘A Change Is Gonna Come,’ one of the songs most associated with civil rights, in just two steps.”[1] 

Just as Sam Cooke skillfully drew on the best of American musical tradition to subvert its racist roots, Jesus skillfully drew on the best of his religious tradition to subverts its violent images of God.  At its best, the prophetic tradition holds up the promise that God will not forsake us.  It is a tradition of resistance to injustice and hope for a better world.  At its worst, it is a tradition rooted in the myth of redemptive violence, promoting an image of God overcoming evil through cataclysmic destruction to bring about a new creation.  Apocalypse, which simply means “revelation” or “uncovering what was hidden” – living in the truth –  becomes associated with violent end-of-the-world scenarios. 

Jesus takes over this imagery to tell a different story.  Jesus doesn’t elide the truth one bit.  Only the truth can set us free to creatively integrate the past in the service of a better future.  Jesus is profoundly in touch with the suffering of his people, the growing economic inequality between Jewish elites and peasants, the corruption arising from collaboration with Roman imperial power, and the intensification of violence engendered by Jewish resistance and Roman repression.  He uses the motif of apocalyptic to describe the reality of Roman rule, and to predict its denouement in the destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple.

Jesus warns his followers not to be lead astray by these forces contending against each other.  Many false Messiahs will come promoting violent resistance.  He invites them to put their trust in God’s power to sustain them amidst conflict, betrayal, and persecution.  Oppression and suffering is part of the struggle for a better world.   

What is different about Jesus’ use of apocalyptic imagery is that suffering is never the expression of divine vengeance.  It is simply the result of wars, exploitative leaders, famines, and persecution.  God has nothing to do with it.  The only reference to God’s involvement is divine intervention to bring the suffering to an end.  God’s part comes “after that suffering” – this is the good news:  suffering is not the final word. 

What does the world “after the suffering” look like?  Well, it looks like a son of man coming in clouds with great power and glory.  “Son of man” simply means “human being,” and it is a symbol for the advent of a community in which human beings can realize their intrinsic dignity in God’s image.  While the darkened sun and moon and falling stars sound scary, they do not portend the end of the world.  They symbolize unjust rulers falling from power. Then the “son of man” arrives in clouds of glory to gather his chosen ones from all around the world.  This is an allusion to the Book of Daniel, which described violent empires as beasts, while God’s just rule looks like a human being fully alive.

A change gonna come.  When?  No one knows except God, according to Jesus.  We can only stay awake and watch for the signs of the times.  Just as the budding of leaves on the branches of fig trees portends the coming of summer, pay attention to the signs of new life and growth indicating the advent of humanity in our all too inhumane world.  They are there if we have eyes to see.  When the human being arrives, it will be like a homecoming.  Not a stranger, not a thief breaking in, but like the master of the house returning home at last; an occasion of joy, not fear.  Watch with eager expectation, not with apprehension or dread. 

Jesus turns apocalyptic on its head.  We don’t have to be afraid that God is gone get us.  It is our fellow humans we need to worry about!  We can trust that God is coming with power to set us free, to heal and make new.  In fact, the son of man already has come.  The human one is here.  

In Mark’s Gospel, the coming of the son of man is fulfilled in the death and resurrection of Jesus.  Three times, Jesus predicts that the son of man will be crucified and rise again.  Three times, Jesus predicts that the son of man will come in glory.  Two ways of saying the same thing.  God’s way of intervening to address suffering is not through cataclysmic violence, but through revolutionary love continually renewed by the courageous witness of those who work for justice no matter the cost.  It is this love the makes us human and renews the world.

I was born by the river in a little tent
Oh and just like the river I've been running ev'r since
It's been a long time, a long time coming
But I know a change gonna come, oh yes it will

Sam Cooke began his career as a gospel singer and it is telling that “A Change Is Gonna Come” was included in Cooke’s final album entitled, Aint’ That Good NewsIt’s been a long, a long time coming, but a change gonna come.  That was the good news that Jesus announced.  We are that change.  We are the Jesus movement, creating a genuinely human community. And through us, Jesus is coming again, and again, and again, a river that has been runnin’ ever since that first advent.   

[1] David Cantwell, “The Unlikely Story of ‘A Change Is Gonna Come,’” The New Yorker (March 17, 2015)

Monday, November 20, 2017

Welcome The Children

Celebration of Holy Baptism, St. James Episcopal Church, San Francisco

People were bringing little children to him in order that he might touch them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them. But when Jesus saw this, he was indignant and said to them, ‘Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.’ And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.

- Mark 10:13-16

I wonder if Jesus enjoyed spending time with children.

Last Sunday, Andrew and I hosted the new rector at St. Mary the Virgin, David Ericson, his wife, Heather, and their children, Gabriella (5), and John (3) for dinner.  Our son, Nehemiah, is a college sophomore in Boston, so it has been a while since we’ve had little ones in the house.   Andrew found a box of old toy trains and planes, stuffed animals, and books from Nehemiah’s childhood and put it in the living room.  Gabriella and John were enchanted to discover these old treasures, which were new to them.  John seemed to enjoy shooting a plastic cannon ball at me.  Gabriella, a budding ballerina, was taken by a pink elephant wearing a tutu that I had forgotten about.  No wonder Nehemiah is a dance major! 

During dinner, John would periodically disappear under the table and scratch my leg, pretending to be a dog.  Finally, he worked his way onto my lap and asked, “Am I sleeping here tonight?”  I’m not sure if he asked out of hope or fear or both.  When they left, I was exhausted.  But I had a great big grin on my face.

I think Jesus welcomed the children because he knew he would enjoy it. 

I wonder, though, if Jesus also found his time with these children heart-breaking.  Remember that people were bringing these children to him so that he might touch them.  Usually, when people wanted Jesus to touch them, it was because they needed healing.  These were probably children from peasant families, malnourished, and unwell.  These kids needed help. 

It is easy for us to romanticize childhood.  We live in a society where very few infants are lost at birth or prior to weaning.  In Jesus’ world, probably a third of children born live died before the age of six.  By sixteen, something like 60% would be dead.[1]  For Jesus to allow these children to come close to him, was to come close to the pain in the communities he visited.  It had to be heart-breaking.

Jesus was indignant – he was angry – when his disciples tried to prevent people from bringing the children to him.  I used to think the disciples were just being mean, treating these children as expendable, unworthy of Jesus’ attention.  I’m not so sure now.  Maybe they were just practicing triage, believing that these kids were hopeless cases.  Maybe they were trying to protect Jesus from compassion fatigue.  I’m sure they had the best of intentions. 

But Jesus refuses their protection.  By embracing these children, he embraces their vulnerability, as well as his own.  In this mutual vulnerability, hedged around with love and care, they claim the blessing that is their birthright. 

When the children come to Jesus, don’t think of kids sitting on Santa’s lap posing for a picture.  Think of Mother Teresa in the streets of Calcutta.  Did Jesus find joy in these children?  Yes!  But not before he came close to their pain.  Which is the flat-out truth of the matter even for the most privileged families: children are vulnerable by definition.  They just come that way.  Jesus tells us that we must stand in solidarity with the most vulnerable people in our community, we must be willing to come close to their pain, if we want to enter the kingdom of God.  The kingdom happens when we make our mutual vulnerability a blessing rather than a curse; an opportunity for joy rather than for exploitation.

It is the social location of these children – as marginal, expendable, worthless – not some romantic notion of their innocence –  that cries out for our solidarity with them.  Notice too, that this solidarity is not just the responsibility of parents or families.  Jesus is not a parent.  These are not his biological or adoptive children, but he takes responsibility for blessing them and admonishes his followers to imitate him in this. 

Earlier in Mark’s Gospel, Jesus tells his disciples, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”[2]   This is a radical statement in a culture where children were socially marginal and subject to exposure when unwanted or considered burdensome:  literally, disposable people.  Jesus says that embracing a child is embracing God!   There is that of God in each of us.  There are no disposable people!  The only way to realize the kingdom of God is to embrace the deep truth of our intrinsic value and interdependence.   For Jesus, welcoming and blessing children epitomizes God gracious embrace of the vulnerable and needy.[3]

It isn’t easy to acknowledge our vulnerability.  It isn’t easy to come close to the pain in our communities.  But to close ourselves off from the vulnerability and pain, to prevent the children from coming to us, also closes us off from the joy of claiming and sharing God’s blessing.  

Earlier this week, I had occasion to attend the San Francisco Unified School District Board of Education meeting, along with a couple of other members of St. James, and leaders from other congregations who are a part of Faith in Action Bay Area’s faith-based community organizing work.  We were there to support the efforts of Dr. Vincent Matthews, the Superintendent, who declared a state of emergency among African American children in our city.

Since 2000, the African American community in San Francisco shrank by 27 percent.  Life expectancy among African Americans here is 15 years less than the rest of the population.  The median household income of white households is more than $100k, while that of African American households is $30K.  48% of African American children live in households earning less than the federal poverty line, compared to 2% of white children.   Our schools are failing these children, 74% of whom score well below grade level on standardized tests and have been for more than 25 years across different state tests.  It is no wonder that 67% of African Americans in our city do not have a high school diploma, compared to 16% of the white population.[4]  Racial and socioeconomic segregation and institutional racism is creating a public health crisis for African American children in our city.  This is what a slow-moving genocide looks like.

Are we willing to come close to the pain in our community?  What would it look like to embrace and bless these children?  

These are not easy questions.  But I do know this:  white guilt and white fragility, the attitude that issues of race are just too painful and unpleasant to address, is the resort of privilege.  Jesus invites us to choose a different option: using our privilege and power to welcome, heal, and bless.  In our baptism, we are empowered to be ambassadors of Jesus, agents of reconciliation.  The work of reconciliation begins with relationship. 

What if we chose to come close to the pain rather than deny or ignore it?  What if we partnered with a congregation in the Bayview or Western Addition to adopt a failing elementary school there?  What if we built relationships with the families in that congregation, listened deeply to their stories, and opened ourselves, as Elizabeth Nelson invited us last week, not only to their brokenness but also to the unique gifts they bring to the party?  What if, like Jesus, we discovered that we enjoyed our time with these families and their children? What if we claimed them as our children too.  I’m sure that we would feel vulnerable, even uncomfortable.  I suspect that we would be changed.  I trust that we would find ourselves on the inside of the kingdom of God. 

Today, we welcome and embrace Boden, Brooks, and Logan in the sacrament of Holy Baptism.  We promise to hold them close in their pain and in their joy.  We promise to honor the unique gifts they bring to the table, a table in which all are invited and included.  In so doing, they push the circle of our embrace to make it a little bit wider.  May the scope of that embrace keep expanding until it knows no limits.  Let the children come.  It may be exhausting sometimes, but it will leave a big grin on your face.  Amen. 

[1] John Dominic Crossan, The Historical Jesus:  The Life of Mediterranean Jewish Peasant (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1991), p. 4.
[2] Mark 9:37.
[3] James L. Bailey, “Experiencing the Kingdom as a Little Child: A Rereading of Mark 10:13-16,” Word & World (Volume XV, Number 1, Winter 1995), p. 62.
[4] Data from the 2016 San Francisco Community Health Needs Assessment and the Superintendent’s 90-Day Report.

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

We Are Powerful People

We are powerful people.

But sometimes, we forget.  And sometimes, the rulers of this world would like us to believe otherwise.  It isn’t true.  Don’t believe them for a minute.  We are powerful people.

Many of you have been personally affected by the terrible wild fires that swept through this part of the country last month, leaving 42 people dead and others still missing.   More than 8,000 buildings were engulfed in flames covering some 250 square miles, displacing thousands of people.  Santa Rosa alone lost 3,000 homes. 

In the face of such catastrophe, it would be easy to feel powerless, but within two days of the fires food and clothing distribution centers already were overwhelmed – not by the need of the victims – but by the generosity of donors.  Neighbors quickly opened their doors to neighbors, some of whom they will be housing for many months.  The crisis is far from over, and the work of reconstruction has only begun, but there is hope because of people like you.

One of the silver linings of this terrible experience has been the discovery that we can make a difference in our world.  Our action – and inaction – has real consequences.  When we allow ourselves to see and experience the pain of others, when we hear their cry, we want to help.  When we recognize our common humanity, we can claim our power to alleviate suffering and promote healing and restorative justice.  

One of the many moving stories related to the fires was about the 3,800 forest fire fighters who are California prison inmates.  Prisoners convicted of low level felonies with good behavior can volunteer to serve in this capacity, developing useful skills, earning $2 per hour and reducing their sentence by two days for each day of service to the community.  They literally underwent a baptism by fire that will lead to new life for them and others.  No matter our circumstances, every one of us has the capacity to be of service to others.

We are powerful people.

Now it was hard to miss the fires.  Even in San Francisco, we were choking on the fumes.  We couldn’t act like everything was OK, that it wasn’t our problem, that life should just go on as if nothing bad were happening.  We are too close to the pain to pretend it isn’t there.  It was our pain too.

And yet, and yet, seeing and experiencing the pain of others is a choice.  We can and do choose to ignore suffering.  We can even benefit from the pain of others, and so mask their suffering to preserve our privilege.  The prophet Micah wails against the leaders of Judah and the false prophets who cry, “Peace!” and say, “Surely the Lord is with us!  No harm shall come upon us,” willfully denying their complicity in the violent exploitation of the poor. 

Micah defends subsistence farmers struggling to keep their ancestral inheritance against the greedy expropriation of their land by Judean elites.   There was a homeless crisis in Judea, exacerbated by rapacious landlords evicting tenants without any regard for their pain, supported by corrupt judges eager to accept bribes and false prophets preaching a gospel of prosperity. 

In this conflict between the all too real pain of the poor, and the denial of their pain on the part of the privileged, Micah finds his voice, shouting, “I am filled with power, with the spirit of the Lord, and with justice and might, to declare to Jacob his transgression and to Israel his sin.” 

Don’t believe those false prophets!  We are powerful people!  When others deny the reality of injustice, we can make the pain visible!  We have the power to de-legitimate social structures that oppress God’s children.  But we must choose to see.  We must be willing to experience the pain that others willfully dismiss.

Some pain is hard to see.  It isn’t like a roaring forest fire.  It smolders in the shadowy spaces of society, kept out of sight and out of mind in hospitals, jails, trailer parks, tent cities, and detention centers.  We must look for the pain to be in touch with it.  We must exercise our power to uncover it, to bring it into the light of day so that it can be seen, challenged, and healed. 

The detention and deportation machine that is crushing the lives of millions of undocumented immigrants, tearing parents away from their children, and forcing people to live in fear is one of the hidden structures of evil in our society.  It is the source of great pain, but it is far removed from most of us.  We don’t see Immigration and Customs Enforcement police raiding our schools, homes, and businesses.  

We don’t see people like Floricel Ramos, a single mother and farm worker, who was picked up by ICE in Lodi.  She is now being held in detention.  Last week, she had a hearing before an Immigration Court in San Francisco.  Floricel's hearing, which was scheduled for 9am, did not come before the judge until 11:55 am.  The judge summarily declared that five minutes was not enough time before the noon recess for the government to make its case. Therefore, the judge said, she would postpone the hearing for 15 more days.

Floricel’s daughter, Jennifer, wept, desperate for her mother. At 17, Jennifer is a parent to her younger siblings, Michael, 13, and Daisy, 10. She coordinates school drop-offs and pick-ups and takes Daisy, who has autism, to her speech therapy sessions. She takes them to mass, helps them with their homework, and takes them to the park on the weekend after she finishes her shift at a local taco truck. Because her father was deported five years ago, she is also a surrogate partner to her mother in detention, reassuring her on their daily phone calls that the children are well. Jennifer is also a normal high school student who spends her evenings studying for her medical assistant class.

Floricel and her children are not alone.  Members of Faith in Action, a faith based community organizing group promoting dignity and justice, including folks from St. James and other Episcopal congregations, packed the courtroom, offering prayers, and chanting, Liberen a Floricel! Free Floricel.  We are now raising money to make bond and reunite this beautiful family.  Last weekend, the Episcopal Diocese of California’s Convention voted to declare ourselves a Sanctuary Diocese.   We see their pain, and the pain of the 11 million undocumented sisters and brothers in our land, and we will not be silent.   We will accompany them in their pain, advocate for justice, protect their children and claim our citizenship in a kingdom without borders because we are powerful people. 

Jesus reserved his sharpest criticism for those who, secure in their privilege, place great burdens on the poor who live on the margins of society, while making no attempt to relieve their pain.   Jesus instructs us to have no regard for their privilege, to afford them no special, much less, superior deference or honor because greatness is reserved for those who live lives of humble service:  people like Floricel and Jennifer Ramos.  Rather, Jesus invites us to join him in a discipleship of equals, in which all are sisters and brothers, bound together in mutual service, living close to the pain in our communities, and claiming our power to promote dignity and justice. 

We are powerful people, because we serve a powerful God. God comes to us in Jesus, the pain-bearer, the life-giver, to reignite our imagination and creativity, our collective power to resist evil and become the midwives of a new world that God is birthing, a world in which God’s reign becomes our reality.  This power takes the form of love. It is ours!  We were made for it! Claim it! Use it!  Share it!  Give it away! 

We can make a difference in our world.  We are powerful people and God is counting on us!  Thanks be to God, whose power, working in us, can do infinitely more than we can ask for or imagine!  Amen.

Monday, October 16, 2017

The Secret of Life

Many of you have no doubt seen the fish symbol common in early Christianity; although on Bay Area bumper stickers, it is more likely to have “Darwin” written in the middle of it!  Its use as a religious symbol predates the Church, which made it particularly useful for Christians in hiding during periods of persecution.  Its use would not have aroused suspicions; but, for those in the know, the head of the fish pointed to the site of local gatherings of the underground Jesus movement.  The Greek letters in the word “fish” form an acrostic signifying “Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior.”  The fish directed people searching for the good news of Jesus. 

What was it about these early Christians, that people were willing to go underground, risking arrest, torture, and death, to join their movement?  What did they see in them?  Huston Smith, the great historian of comparative religion, suggests that “They saw lives that had been transformed – men and women who were ordinary in every way except for the fact that they seemed to have found the secret of living.”[1]   They were enjoying life. 

More specifically, their lives evidenced two qualities. The first was mutual love demonstrated by concrete acts of care.  Tertullian wrote that the Romans would exclaim of Christians, “Look how they love one another . . . and how they are even ready to die for one another.”[2]  This mutual regard transcended all social boundaries: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus,”[3] St. Paul wrote to the churches in Galatia.  Justin Martyr described Christian love this way: 

. . . we who valued above all things the acquisition of wealth and possessions, now bring what we have into a common stock, and communicate to everyone in need; we who hated and destroyed one another, and on account of their different manners would not live with men of a different tribe, now, since the coming of Christ, live familiarly with them, and pray for our enemies, and endeavor to persuade those who hate us unjustly to live conformably to the good precepts of Christ, to the end that they may become partakers with us of the same joyful hope . . .[4]   

Such love made for a discipleship of equals.

The second quality evidenced by these Christians was joy.  They had obtained an inner peace that radiated joy.  Now, by and large these early Christian communities weren’t numerous, wealthy, or powerful.  They didn’t reek of success.  In fact, they were marginalized and frequently persecuted.  In a cultural climate marked by fatalism and pessimism, in which poverty and death loomed large, Christians were notable simply for being happy.   

St. Paul is a good example.  He sacrificed the security and prestige of his status as a learned Pharisee when he joined the Jesus movement, which he had previously persecuted.  During his missionary journeys he suffered hunger, public stoning and whippings, and even shipwreck.  He was ridiculed and opposed for sharing the good news of Jesus.  Yet, he considered the loss of privilege to be nothing, a pile of crap, compared to the surpassing value of knowing Jesus Christ.[5] 
Writing from prison – where torture and deprivation were commonplace in the 1st Century – Paul encourages the churches in Philippi, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice . . . Do not worry about anything . . . and the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.”[6]  Paul and other disciples in the Jesus movement where held in a peace that was impervious to external circumstances.  Their joy was rooted in something deeper than normal considerations of pleasure and pain, gain and loss.  It was rooted in an unshakable sense of being unconditionally loved.

People saw the mutual care exercised in this discipleship of equals and the joy they shared and they said, “I want what they have.”  And they were willing to do anything to get it.  What was the secret to living that these Jesus people seemed to know?  They knew that God loved them, and this love freed them from the barriers that keep us from being fully alive.  I’m not talking about a formal, abstract idea of love, but an intimate, personal experience of being loved by God communicated by their encounter with Jesus.  Jesus imparted a love that transcended death: Resurrection love.  It made everything new.  They couldn’t help but re-joice: get their joy on again and again and again.

Huston Smith uses the analogy of the atom.  Within the atom is locked the energy of the sun itself.  For this energy to be released it must be bombarded from without.  So, too, locked in every human being is the energy of God’s love, but it can only be unlocked by being bombarded by love from without, breaking through the barriers that contain this energy so that we can respond to love with love.[7]  Jesus set off a chain reaction of love breaking through the barriers to love that is still expanding even now.   

We can be swept up in this great unfolding of love, joining in God’s project of renewing the world, of getting its joy on again.  But the barriers to love are real.  In another analogy, St. Teresa of Avila describes the soul as an interior castle “made entirely out of a diamond or of a very clear crystal . . . a paradise where the Lord says He finds His delight.”[8]  This is almost unimaginable to us.  At the center of our being God makes Her home in us because She delights in us.  This is the deepest truth about us!  We are loved.  God delights in us.  Teresa goes on to lament that we don’t understand ourselves or know who we are.[9]  What prevents us from knowing ourselves to be so beautiful and beloved?  

We are diamonds encased in thick walls of fear, guilt, and self-centeredness.  Only God’s love can shatter those walls and reveal us to ourselves as reflections of God’s own glory.  Only love can break through our fear of loss, of failure, and finally, of death.  Fear looms large in us these days:  fear of the loss of basic civility; loss of democratic government; loss of a sustainable planet to bequeath to our children and grandchildren.   And beneath it all, the fear that we are not loved or loveable.  Only love can break through our fear and release our compassion – our passion with – ourselves and others.

In the face of so many threats, our guilt looms even larger:  guilt that we haven’t done enough to solve our world’s problems; guilt about our privilege in the face of so much suffering; guilt about our complicity in the systems that cause this suffering and preserves our privilege.  Only love can break through our guilt and unleash our creativity so that we can do our part to mend the world.

Overwhelmed by the enormity of it all and our uncertainty about the future, the retreat into self-centeredness is an ever-present temptation; the preoccupation with me and mine; the frantic scramble to secure my piece of the pie; the sacrifice of integrity before the false idols of fantasy, illusion, and compulsive escapism in all its forms in our culture.  Only love can break through our self-centeredness and restore our connection with reality so that we can reclaim our place as part of a larger whole with awareness and humility. 

God’s love doesn’t solve all our problems.  It doesn’t protect us from suffering.  What it does provide is an inner peace and joy that sustains us amid life’s problems and inevitable suffering.  Leaning back into that love, we can re-joice, get our groove back, get our joy on again. 

We are experiencing dark times in our world, but, as Andy Crouch points out,

There was violence and disintegration in the day of Jesus, too.  Jesus was hardly shy about confronting the patterns of sin in his culture – though he was consistently harder on the pious than he was on the pagans.  But everywhere Jesus went, life blossomed.  The sick were healed, lepers were touched, daughters and sons were plucked from the mouth of the grave.  Jesus left behind him a trail of leaps and laughter, reunited families, and terrific wine, as well as dumb-founded synagogue leaders, uneasy monarchs, and sleepless procurators.  His witness against violence, amidst a culture in rebellion against the good, was neither withdrawal or war.  It was simply life:  abundant, just, generous life.  And, ultimately, a willingness to let the enemies of life do their worst, confident that even death could not extinguish the abundant life of God.[10]

Jesus was like the man in the Parable of the Wedding Banquet:  he didn’t fit in at the party, refused to conform to the oppressive violence celebrated there, and so was thrown into outer darkness.[11]  But I suspect he enjoyed the open bar while he was there, and never refused anyone who asked him to dance.  He got his joy on and it was contagious.  And that was what really pissed off the evil powers of this world. 

Even as we go down to the grave, we make our song:  Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia![12]  Nothing can steal our joy, for we are held in a deathless love.  You are loved.  You are loved.  You are loved.  This is the first and last word, and it will carry you through everything in between.  It is greater than your fear, your guilt, and your self-preoccupation.  You are a diamond reflecting the glory of God and nothing ultimately can dim this light:  So get your joy on and let it shine!

[1] Huston Smith, “Reasons for Joy,” Christian Century (October 4, 2005), p. 10.
[2] Tertullian, Apology, Chapter 39 in The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. III, p. 46.
[3] Galatians 3:28.
[4] Justin Martyr, First Apology, Chapter 14, in The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. I, p. 167.
[5] Philippians 3:7-10.
[6] Philippians 4:4a, 6a, 7.
[7] Smith, p. 11.
[8] St. Teresa of Avila, The Interior Castle 1:1, p. 283 in The Collected Works of St. Teresa of Avila, Volume 2. 
[9] St. Teresa, p. 284.
[10] Andy Crouch, “Furrowed Brows Inc.,” Christianity Today (April 2006), p. 100.
[11] Matthew 22:1-14.
[12] See “The Commendation” in the Burial Office, The Book of Common Prayer, p. 499.