Sunday, April 29, 2012

A Sermon for Marilynne

Good morning.

This morning we celebrate Good Shepherd Sunday – in case you didn’t know, which is why we have all these readings about Jesus as the good shepherd.  This is the tradition across Christendom for the fourth Sunday in Eastertide.  

Sermons on Good Shepherd Sunday tend to go on at length about the peculiarities of sheep and the quality of their relationship to shepherds, all of which is well and good but to be perfectly honest, I’ve never much appreciated the metaphor.  For one thing, I’ve never felt inclined to compare members of my congregation to animals that let’s just say are not known for their intelligence; and for another thing I’ve always been confused as to whether I should be relating to the sheep or to the shepherd.  If pastors today are shepherds, we’re more shepherds of cats than of sheep, for starters; and for another thing, it is obvious to me that Jesus is the shepherd, not me, so then I’m left wondering “What then, am I?” and that just gets me all confused.
But then I get to thinking about what it must have been like to be a shepherd lying awake at night under the stars, and a different sermon emerges.

Last week I was in Michigan, attending a writer’s conference, where I had the pleasure of listening to one of my favorite writers, Marilynne Robinson.   Robinson is one of those rare novelists who writes very slowly and very brilliantly; she has written only three novels, and each one has received some of the greatest awards in the field, including the Pulitzer, the PEN, the National Book Critics’ Circle.  If you haven’t read Gilead yet, you must put it on your reading list, along with its sequel, entitled Home.

While I was there I picked up a copy of her latest book of essays, entitled When I Was A Child I Read Books, and I found in her preface a lovely discussion of Walt Whitman and those other American writers who appreciated, as does Robinson, the sense of wonder that seizes us as we look up at the stars and realize the fact that, through us, the universe has found a way to perceive itself.  

She quotes Whitman here:
There is, in sanest hours, a consciousness, a thought that rises, independent, lifted out from all else, calm, like the stars, shining eternal.  This is the thought of identity – yours for you, whoever you are, as mine for me.  Miracle of miracles, beyond statement, most spiritual and vaguest of earth’s dreams, yet hardest basic fact, and only entrance to all facts.  In such devout hours, in the midst of the significant wonders of heaven and earth,… creeds, conventions fall away and become of no account before this simple idea. 

This simple idea: that we are this extremely rare and special creation, a creature that is able to utter the word, “I” and “you” and “all of this.”  

This is the kind of insight that comes to people who spend a bit of time staring up at the stars.  People like shepherds.  When you live in the fields, like a shepherd, and your primary form of entertainment is to sit under the stars by a campfire and tell stories of what you see up there, and every night you fall asleep staring up into the black void of space and the infinite magnificence of it all, you begin to appreciate just how rare and beautiful a thing it is that we have any awareness at all.  

I think this is the reason why it was the shepherds who were the first witnesses to the Incarnation – they were the most exquisitely attuned to the possibility of miracles.  I think it was after a night staring up at the stars that Whitman was able to write these ecstatic songs of praise:

All parts away for the progress of souls,
All religion, all solid things, arts, governments, all that was or is
apparent upon this globe or any globe,
falls into niches and corners
before the procession of souls along
the grand roads of the universe.

Marilynne Robinson reminds us that this is a common theme in many 19th Century American writers, including Emerson, Melville, and Dickinson – they all experienced consciousness itself as having the quality of revelation; they all developed a reverence for this experience that is born under the stars; those moments when we identify what Robinson calls the “sacred mystery with every individual experience, every life.”  And, she says, this is the experience that gives birth to democracy as an ideal – because as we experience the miracle of what it means to be alive and conscious, we find ourselves identifying all other conscious beings as sacred and worthy of reverence.  Because it is impossible to accept the miracle of our own conscious life without also acknowledging the sacred miracle of every conscious life.  It is this revelation that leads us to imagine the possibility that everyone is important; everyone is worthy of God’s love; everyone is equal; everyone gets a vote.

In Jesus’ time, shepherds were among the poorest and least respected members of society.  And so of course they would become the ones most ready to recognize the miracle of God taking the form of a homeless child born to an unwed mother.

It was the shepherds, witnesses to fireballs and meteors, eclipses and solstices, thunder and lightning, who would be most attuned to possibility that the universe is filled with miracles.  These days, modern astronomers and physicists continue to play that role, as they tell us stories of great mystery, where the laws of ordinary physics bend and warp at the edges of what is real.  What is time, after all?  The only explanation physicists can give us is that time is the thing that clocks measure.  What is gravity?  They tell us gravity has to do with a bending of the timespace continuum – who can understand that?  And yet we all feel the weight of our bodies on these pews.   We are all participants in this mystery; we are held in place by a warp in timespace.

And so the shepherds began to imagine time in reverse – a moment when we would grow younger, not older; the ancients, telling stories under the stars, began to imagine a time when our inevitable decline into old age and death was reversed.  And why not?   All of reality has this sense of contingency about it – as if, at any time, another set of rules might prevail.  The constant fact of our suffering would give way to joy; the shroud of death would be lifted; our hunger would resolve into feasting on the mountaintop.  And then Jesus comes along, and he enacts this new being: the lame are healed, the blind receive their sight; the dead are raised; the oppressed are relieved; justice is restored to the shepherds and to all others whose dignity is denied in the present age.  Jesus is seen by the shepherds as the sign that this great reversal has begun.  

In our Scriptures this morning we hear about Peter’s speech before the rulers of his day.  And what has he done to get him into trouble with the most powerful people of his time?  He has healed a man who had been lame since his birth.  Peter, walking in the spirit of the resurrection, has begun to spread this new reality around.  The high priest and the scribes and elders are astonished that as ignorant and unlearned men should have this power.  The King James Bible has Peter referring to this moment as the “time of refreshing;” it is the “restitution of all things.”  Clearly, this has to be stopped; this great reversal cannot be allowed to continue.  And so they threaten Peter and John – as if death has any meaning to them anymore.  And their threats do nothing but condemn the ones doing the threatening, as people who are confused as to the nature of reality, and blinded by their worldly power.

And so the virus of new life begins to spread.  The seed of a new reality is being planted.  The time of refreshing has begun.  This is the proclamation of shepherds and fishermen, who have gazed up at the stars long enough to know of its possibility; and who have seen it become real in the person of Jesus.

And this is why we care about homeless people – the outcasts of our age, those men and women who go to bed at night with nothing between them and heaven.  They are every bit as miraculous as any one of us, and we see that in their eyes, where Christ is alive, and where the great reversal is taking place.

Thanks be to God for this great privilege: to be alive on this planet; to have the privilege of loving the least among us: the shepherds and outcasts, the sinners and the heretics and the saints, all of us brothers and sisters on this tiny planet, singing praises to God in the Spirit of the one who is bringing about the great reversal, one soul at a time.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Sermon Easter Sunday April 8, 2012

Good morning!

Alleluia! Christ is risen! The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!

Good! Okay! Wonderful! But what does that mean?

We all have that question, I think: Christ is risen – but I’m still the same old dope I’ve always been. Christ is risen – but my father is still beating up my mother. Christ is risen – but politicians still lie and cheat and steal. Christ is risen – but women and children in Syria are still being murdered.

So what good is it? What does it actually mean?

Do you ever wonder about that?

Well, the first question I think we have to ask is this: Is Christ really risen, or not? Because to look at the state of things, sometimes it’s hard to believe that he actually is.

Barbara Ehrenreich, that wonderful writer, wrote a book about the working class in the United States. To do her research, she actually went “undercover,” working as a waitress and a hotel maid and a house cleaner for $6 - $7/hour. Her question was, “How does anyone survive on those kinds of wages? How does anyone get ahead?” And her answer was that most of the time, they don’t.

Anyway, one day she went to a church revival meeting where a lot of her co-workers were going to church. She found herself sitting with these incredibly hard-working and poor people, while the preacher went on and on about believing in Jesus so they could go to heaven. She wrote:

It would be nice if someone would read this sad-eyed crowd the Sermon on the Mount, accompanied by a rousing commentary on income inequality and the need for a hike in the minimum wage. But Jesus makes his appearance here only as a corpse; the living [Jesus]… is never once mentioned, nor anything he ever had to say. Christ crucified rules, and it may be that the true business of modern Christianity is to crucify him again and again so that he can never get a word out of his mouth. (Quoted by Borg and Crossan in The Last Week.)

She concludes her story by saying, “I get up to leave,… and walk out to search for my car, half expecting to find Jesus out there in the dark, gagged and tethered to a tent pole.”

This has become a very familiar kind of criticism that we hear a lot these days: that the people most responsible for keeping Jesus crucified are Christians themselves, especially preachers. And so we see things like the YouTube video entitled “Why I hate religion but love Jesus.” If you haven’t seen it, just ask your kids, they probably have – at last count had over 20 million hits. And so we have this cover story in Newsweek by Andrew Sullivan: “Forget the Church; Follow Jesus.” And so we have countless celebrities, who are happy to talk about Jesus as their “guru” but are quick to say that of course they think organized religion is for the birds.

And of course, the thing is, they’re right: there are all sorts of ways in which modern Christianity is the first offender against Jesus. On the one hand, conservative churches are selling their souls to gain favor with right-wing politicians while ignoring everything that Jesus and the Bible actually says about economic justice; and on the other hand liberal churches are so lacking in imagination and stuck in the rhetoric of the 1960’s that they are quickly becoming obsolete.

All that is true. And I just wish all of those people would just come to our church and see how it’s done right! If only all Christians would become Episcopalians! Then we’d get it right for a change!

But seriously, I think it's fair to say that here, Jesus is not found bound and gagged outside; here, the homeless Jesus is fed a hot meal on Sunday morning; here, the homeless women and children Jesuses are fed and cared for Monday-Friday; here, we don’t violate everything Jesus taught by condemning homosexuals or by coddling millionaires or by pretending that Jesus was a free-market capitalist. All that is nonsense. We just praise God and feed poor people and that’s at least a pretty good start.

But of course, we have our problems, too – huge surprise – which is exactly the point. Churches are institutions, like hospitals and schools and sports teams. In order to survive, they have to have rules and boundaries and budgets. And that always leads to compromise and disappointment because there’s no way an institution can be Jesus.

But people who say they want to follow Jesus but they don’t want to join a church – that’s like saying I want to play football but I don’t want to join a team; I want to get open heart surgery but I don’t want to go to a hospital; I want to become a scientist but I don’t want to go to a university. It’s like saying I want to change the world but I want to do it alone and entirely on my own terms.

In other words, it’s incredibly na├»ve. Because like it or not, being a disciple of Jesus is a team sport.

But now I’ve gotten carried away again – that’s just a little rant that I have to make now and again. But let’s get back to the original question, which is: Yes, Christ is risen! But what does that mean?

To answer this question, I rely on two of my favorite scholars, Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan. During Holy Week I’ve been reading their very good book, The Last Week, which takes us through the final days of Jesus from an historical perspective.

And what they finally conclude is that, to the people who wrote the Gospels, the resurrection of Jesus means two things. The first thing is about us as a society; and the second thing is about us as individuals.

The first thing is this: Jesus was not killed in a car accident. He was killed by the politicians of his day. The Roman Empire killed Jesus; the chief priests – paid collaborators of the Empire – killed Jesus: because he was presenting himself as the King of the Jews, when everyone knew that Caesar was the King of the Jews. He was called the Son of God, when it was Caesar who claimed that title – he even had it written on the coins bearing his likeness. Jesus called for a Kingdom in which the poor were sitting at the banquet table, not the rich; he called for a world where people who had become slaves and prisoners because of their debts were freed, and restored to the land that was taken from them. There is no doubt that this was Jesus’ message; it got him in trouble with the people in power and it got him killed.

I’m sorry to have to say it, but anyone who says Christ was not political simply does not have his facts straight.

So when we say “Christ is risen,” we’re saying that those in power have no power; we’re saying that God is on the side of those who are hungry and powerless; that Caesar can kill the messenger but the message lives on because the universe itself favors justice and compassion.

Christ is alive every place where love and justice stand against contempt and violence. It doesn’t matter if the people who know this power of love are Jews or Muslims or Christians: the power of the resurrection is not contained by any mere religion. Every time people stand for life against death – whether it be in Damascus, or Tehran, or Selma, or Stonewall – the resurrection is alive.

Some people say it’s impossible to prove the existence of God. But I say, look no further than the example of those who prove, with their very lives, that God’s love is greater than any power on this earth.

This is what St. Paul – who despite his flaws was himself a model of this fearless love – this was what he was talking about when he said,

Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? … No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:35, 37-39)

No power on this earth can get between us and God. Because God is alive in each of us.

And that’s where the personal dimension of the resurrection comes in.

Because, no matter what it is that’s oppressing us – whether it’s a dictator like Assad, or just a terrible boss; whether it’s a battering husband, or just a case of low self-esteem – nothing on this earth can separate us from the love and power of God.

The other day I found myself staring at a photograph in the newspaper of a protest going on in Damascus, Syria. There is no place on earth more similar to Jerusalem 2,000 years ago than Damascus today. I found myself staring at the faces in the photograph. They had a certain look to them – as if they were lit from within – and I found myself wondering: where have I seen that look before?

And then I realized. It’s that same look I see in the faces of people here in this church. It’s the same look as I saw on the face of Jose ___ – who even as the pancreatic cancer was literally ripping his abdominal wall, he had no words on his lips but love for his family and friends. I saw it on the face of Margaret ___, who for years battled cancer and yet never flagged from her call to serve the community, and who bore her pain and her grief with enormous courage.

I see that look now, on your faces. I see it on the face of Barbara ___, one of our most active servant ministers, who I swear is growing younger, not older. I see it on the face of the homeless men who come to our breakfast program, who despite the trouble they’ve seen, still live with gratitude and kindness. I see it on the faces of every person who comes to this communion rail, as they take in the body and blood of Christ, and in the process give themselves over to lives of service and of love.

Yes, that resurrection power is alive and well here at Church of the Incarnation. How do we find it? We find it in Christ, who counsels us to spend time with those who are worse off than we are – they might have something to teach us; who counsels us to let go of our egos, our aspirations, our striving – that all just gets in the way; who counsels us to be like the seed, which falls to the ground and dies, in order for new life to be born from it.

I pray that this same resurrection power, which knows no bounds, may find its way into all of our hearts, on this Easter morning, and always.

So... Yes! Alleluia! Christ is risen!
The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!


Thursday, April 5, 2012

Andrew Sullivan's bizarre screed

Andrew Sullivan's cover story in Newsweek, "Forget the Church, Follow Jesus"

is one of the most bizarre and ridiculous articles I've ever read - by a writer I usually love.

1. If you're going to issue a sweeping broadside against all religion in order to create a sexy cover and sell a ton of magazines to your most important demographic, which is the millions of kids downloading "Why I Hate Religion But Love Jesus", then it is inconvenient to have religions that you actually respect and love on the same table with the bad churches. So you quietly remove them from the table before you sweep the rest of them off with loud and dramatic flourish.

Thus, Sullivan dismisses the "Mainline" churches as being in such "rapid decline" that they apparently don't even count as religions anymore. He's talking about churches like mine, which are actually thriving, thank you very much, and not because we're trying to seize power or gain national media attention but instead because we are happily going about our lives praising God and feeding poor people.

Sullivan thus makes sweeping declamations against Religion without seeming to offend the religions that he actually respects and values. As on-the-mark as his critiques of the Catholics and Evangelicals are, they do not constitute all of religion. This is just lazy writing for dramatic effect.

2. Let us pause to appreciate the sheer hilarity, the incomprehensibility of this idea that Jefferson was devoted to following an "apolitical Jesus". How is it that someone who rose to the very top of the political world claims to follow an apolitical Jesus? What is he talking about?

Sullivan tries to critique institutional religion by asking, "What does it matter how strictly you proclaim your belief in various doctrines if you do not live as these doctrines demand?" You mean, like Jefferson hearing Jesus say we should "give up power over others," as he rises to the highest office in the land? What is he talking about?

Sullivan later describes Jefferson as "renouncing Caesar in favor of Christ". When was that, exactly? After he was the American version of Caesar, or before? After he retired from the most powerful job in the land, sold Monticello and gave the money away to his slaves, whom he freed? Because that would most definitely have been what Jesus taught.

3. Sullivan cites the fact that "Obama invokes his faith in Jesus to defend his plan for universal health care" as evidence that "the ability to be faithful in a religious space and reasonable in a political one has atrophied before our eyes." What is he talking about? Is he saying the President should not reflect on the Golden Rule and how it guides his values? Must a president be silent about the religious ground of his convictions, and is that somehow a violation of what Jesus preached? Are you kidding? How has the President abdicated his responsibility to be "faithful in a religious space and reasonable in a political one?"

4. "I think I grasp what it means to be both God and human..." Really? Seriously? He's got that figured out? Wow.

5. "There are times when great injustices - slavery, imperialism, totalitarianism, segregation - require spiritual mobilization and public witness. But from Gandhi to King, the greatest examples of these movements renounce power as well." Again, what the is he talking about? Gandhi and King were all ABOUT power! Nonviolent power, the power of love and social justice, "soul force," - but it was power in every sense of the word, thoughtfully and pragmatically applied in order to bring about real political change. To say that Dr. King was not political or was not interested in power is just delusional.

As it was with Dr. King, so it was with Jesus. Jesus grew up 4 miles from a town that was burned to the ground by the Romans. Jesus directly challenged the heart of the political system of his day, riding that colt into the capital city, into the very heart of Roman domination, critiquing the very people in power while he knowingly commits a treasonous act that would get him killed in a particular manner reserved for political criminals. Jesus was political from day one. How could anyone who knows anything about Jesus say he was apolitical? He quoted the prophets directly and modeled himself after them. He explicitly presented himself as an alternative king in the line of David, in direct opposition to the Emperor. Why would Sullivan pretend otherwise? What the hell is he talking about?