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If I began this sermon by saying that I planned to talk about the philosophical theology of Thomas Aquinas and its influence on 20th century European existentialism, I would most probably look out on a congregation divided between anxious boredom and pleasant reverie, depending upon how easily each of you could tune me out.
If I said, however, I was going to talk about idolatry and sin, I might have more of your attention – but it would be the same sermon.
I’m going to talk today about idolatry and sin.
From Abraham, to Moses, to David, to the prophets, to Jesus, and even to Mohammed in the Judeo-Christian-Moslem monotheistic traditions before and after, the central spiritual realization had to do with the perception of the oneness of God, and the rejection of idolatry as a means of relating with God – both of which insights constitute a redefinition of what is meant by the idea of God.
The second commandment given to Moses later on this same mountain says, “Thou shalt not make to thyself any graven image, nor the likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or in the earth beneath, or in the water under the earth; thou shalt not bow down to them, nor worship them.” This constitutes much more than a ban on religious stone carving. It means to say that you cannot “objectify” God in any way. God was not in the stone images of Egypt or Canaan. But neither was God in the power of the thunder and lightening, or the fertility of the earth. God is not a “supreme being”, a being among other beings. God is not “in” the universe at all.
Now, this isn’t just difficult to think about. It is impossible to think about. That’s why we have prayer and sacraments – they point, they don’t define. That’s why the Bible is filled with stories, not doctrines. The stories are metaphoric truths, not objective facts. The stories don’t present us with information, they invite us into relationship. God is like a father; God is like the Word of truth; God is like the breath of spirit. Those concepts don’t define God, and get God all theologically pinned down, any more than last week’s Gospel, that said God’s love and “longing for us is like a mother hen wanting to shield her brood under her wings” means that God is actually a chicken. God is not a “what” or a “who.” God just is.
For Christians, of course, the stories that bring us closest to this sense of God, into real relationship with God, are the stories told about the birth, life, teaching, death, and resurrection of Jesus. But today’s Old Testament lesson comes as close as any to disclosing the Judeo-Christian-Moslem alternative to idolatry. (Thomas Aquinas and others of his time – Jewish, Christian and Muslim – focused on this as well, which is how Thomas Aquinas fits in.)
Moses asks the name of God, and God says, “ I am”…Not a noun for this name, but a ver, b”I am. God is not a being, supreme or otherwise, God is Being itself…Or at least it’s inbeing itself that we meet God, and discern God, and connect with God in such a way that the love of God, the creativity of God, the peace, the joy flows through to us and out into the world. And the Hebrew word for being also means becoming, so there is a double sense of activity, of non-pin-down-ability in God. Being/becoming is what we share with God. Being/becoming is what is made in God’s image.
Just as God is that process or essence or quality by which everything in the universe exists – but God cannot be identified with any particular thing in that universe – so we too in our most true selves, made in the image of God, are the lives we lead in their wholeness and becoming, but not any particular part of those lives – not our bodies, not our thoughts, not our experiences, not our memories, but our sense of personal being that stands behind each of those. Our lives are like fields of illumination in which and through which stuff happens and comes and goes. And “our” field of illumination is a part of the larger field of God’s illumination, which is all creation….The first words spoken were “let their be light.”
We don’t realize that very often. We don’t experience it very often, because just as idolatry hardens and distorts our vision of God as the source of pure being and becoming, so sin hardens and distorts our experience of the illumination of pure existence. We get distracted, we get sucked into, we get attached to the stuff that’s illuminated. We no longer see the light, or even see the world by the light. Our life becomes, as Plato said, like shadows on a cave wall, or as St. Paul said, like an image seen through a glass darkly, in a mirror dimly.
That’s why the images of slavery and exile….of being strangers in a strange land carry such power in the tradition that flows from this encounter on Mt. Sinai. There’s a sense of being out of touch, out of contact with something at the very foundation of life….and all the defensiveness, and exercise of power, and accumulation of wealth and experience that we engage in to try to recover it only makes it worse.
And that’s when we turn to idolatry. Thinking that we’re being religious, instead of letting go of our self-centeredness, instead of reawakening to our true nature as the image of God, we end up making a God in our image….a God who’s like a human being, only bigger and more powerful, and more able to fulfill our self-centered desires. And when it doesn’t work we just figure we’ve done something wrong, misbehaved in some way, gotten the formula messed up, so we try to “get it right” the next time….again and again and again and again.
Jesus says forget about all that! He says “consider the lilies of the field.” He says no to the Pharisees, no to the Sadducees, no to Herod, no to Pontius Pilate. Jesus says the same thing that J. B. Phillips said in the 1970s that helped convince me to go to seminary: “Your God is too small!”
In the life of Jesus, his birth and teaching and death and resurrection we see the light of the world. And he calls us as wellto let our light shine….to once again experience the illumination of the whole of our lives that connects us to God….To do this for the remembrance of him…..So that we can remember who we really are as well.
So if you come across a bush that blazing, but not consumed, turn aside and look at the sight. And remove your sandals from your feet as well, because the place you’ll be standing will be your holy ground.
Thanks be to God.
Sometimes I say things that sound like I am opposed to evangelism. For example, that I don’t think everybody needs to be a Christian.
Now, for some people that contradicts what evangelists refer to as “the great commission” where, at the end of the Gospel according to Matthew, Jesus says, “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit”.
Outside of the fact that such a formula seems too formulaic to really have been spoken by Jesus, and more probably reflects the early mission of the church, I focus on one word there. The word that is translated as “of” in the phrase “make disciples of all nations”. The word in Greek can mean “of”, but it can also mean “from”, which is how I choose to interpret it and that makes a lot of difference.
What Jesus could be saying is that this new covenant, unlike the old covenant, is not limited to one nation, one chosen people, but that disciples are welcomed after being called from all nations.
Even more radically, it could mean that what is really important is not that everybody be made into a Christian but that there be a core, a piece, a representation of this Way in each nation, from each nation, and that that would be enough. It would mean that disciples are planted, are given as servants, to bring God’s love everywhere – no matter what path the rest of the population of those nations follows.
It’s like, I think it’s from the Hopi tradition, that they see their religious practice as essential in keeping the sun moving across the sky, and thus keeping the world alive. It’s enough for them to do their job, not everyone needs to do that job. It may be enough for Christians to be Christians, without everyone having to become Christian. Jesus often uses the metaphor of leavening in the f lour (“a little leaven leavens the whole lump”). The purpose of leaven isn’t to turn all the flour into yeast; it’s to make the whole loaf rise. That may be out job too as disciples from this nation, to make the whole rise.
I am opposed to cultural imperialism, which often masquerades as evangelism. That kind of thing involves a double error.
First is the confusion of Christian faith for the cultural context, in which that faith is received and expressed, that creates what Kirkegaard talked about as a kind of cultural “Christianism”, rather than true Christianity. And then secondarily, this Christianism gets imposed upon some non-Christian culture, society, or institution almost always as a support for political and economic control.
This process is so far from the spirit of Jesus that to refer to it by the holy name of evangelism comes pretty close to being blasphemous.
In a more innocent form it involves the trappings of Christianity, being offered as if the trappings would automatically carry the core teaching. I have talked before about my first visit to the mountainous province in northern Luzon in the Philippines back in 1977.
When the US took over the Philippines after the Spanish-American War, the protestant denominations divided up the country for evangelical efforts. Out of deference to their Roman Catholic cousins, the Episcopal Church didn’t go to any already Catholic areas, but instead focused missionary efforts in the Moslem south, in Mindanao, and in the pagan villages of the mountain province of Luzon. As far as I know, we never converted any Moslems in the south, but part of the mountain province became almost entirely Episcopalian. Now, I’m sure there was a solid religious faith that was grasped, but when I went in 1977 it was really strange to go into a village, with fairly timeless primitive conditions (thatched roof huts, people in native dress with tribal decoration), and still they had acolytes, and lay readers, and an altar guild and a vestry and the blue United Thank Offering boxes, and the Girls Friendly Society. It was as though all the stuff of a northern Virginia or middle Tennessee parish had been air-lifted to this Igarot mountainside, (along with country music, incidentally.)
Of course, if you’ve ever read James Michener’s Hawaii you know that this Christianization process can have a much darker side. And when you move on to the conquistadors, and the missionary efforts in parts of the Amazon or New Guinea, it gets hard to tell the difference between evangelism and cultural genocide.
Evangelos, with the prefix “eu” meaning good – as in eugenics or euthanasia – and angelos meaning message or messenger — from which we get “angel” — Evangelos means “good news”. To evangelize simply means to share the good news, the good news of the love of God, the good news of the freedom offered through the life of Jesus, shared and offered in a way that people can incorporate it into their lives. And that last part is the tricky part.
One of the major moves of the Reformation in England and elsewhere was the translation of the Bible and the liturgical services into English and other vernacular languages.xcv The Gospel, the reformers insisted, had to be presented in a language that the people understood. And yet, translation is always a compromise. The Moslems refuse to acknowledge that any translation from the Arabic of the Quran is not the real Quran, and they may have a point.
The promulgation of Christianism is really based on one extreme of this dilemma. It insists that to really understand, accept, and incorporate the faith you have to conform to the whole cultural context in which it is presented. We know that Saint Paul objected to that. His first and biggest argument with the apostolic, Jerusalem based, church was whether Gentiles had to be circumcised, had to become fully Jewish, culturally Jewish, in order to become Christian, in order to receive the good news. And yet today’s story from Acts about Paul and Barnabas shows the problem on the other end. The people at Lystra took what Paul and Barnabas were saying and doing and interpreted it within their cultural context leading to deep misunderstanding. (We do that when we distort the Christian message just to make it popular)
What is needed, I think, is balance that can discern the core but adapt its presentation. Two examples of that are the Virgin of Guadalupe and Paul’s speech from Acts to the Athenians.
In spite of all the power and pressure of the conquistadors and secular authorities the indigenous people of Mexico did not convert to Christianity easily. It was only when cooler and wiser minds prevailed in the missionary effort that, rather than impose Spanish culture, Spanish theology, and Spanish saints on the Mexicans a way was found, through the story of the appearance of the Virgin Mary to a native peasant, at a site that was sacred to the Aztec moon goddess, and using the symbols of that sacred mood goddess, and at the time of the festival of the same moon goddess, that a bridge was opened between the two cultures that allowed the good news to be heard as well as spoken.
In his speech to the Athenians (the description of which is, incidentally, used as a lesson for this same Sunday in Year A of our lectionary cycle of readings) Paul looks around at all the statues of the Greek gods and says, “Men of Athens I perceive that you are a very religious people. Why I even see here a statue that is dedicated to “the unknown” god, and that is the God I want to talk to you about.”
Now people have questioned both of these efforts. “If it talks like a moon goddess and looks like a moon goddess and acts like a moon goddess”, some people may say, “what makes you think it’s Mary?” The early church father Tertullian asked, “What does Athens have to do with Jerusalem?” He was questioning the practice common in his day (and I think essential to successful evangelism)…the practice of drawing parallels between Jewish religion and Greek philosophy.
It’s never an easy question: tradition vs. adaptation, relevance vs. compromise, continuity vs. change. But the underlying call to true evangelism is not an option. We are called to share the good news of God’s love in all our life. We don’t live a Christian life by coming into the church from the world, but by going out of the church to the world.
How in your life are you called to evangelism? Maybe it is by inviting someone to church. I’ve never understood why people are less ready to recommend their church to a friend they thing would like it than they are to recommend a movie or a restaurant. Somebody you know must want what we have.
But usually evangelism doesn’t have anything to do with church or even religion. It involves being a peaceful, loving, accepting presence in someone’s life. A lending of your secure foundation in faith to someone who may not have one – usually without their ever knowing it.
If you think you don’t know how to do all this, remember that He sends the counselor, and that Spirit will be with you when you come to need it the most.
Thanks be to God.
On Good Friday, at both of our services, I talked about the importance of betrayal in the development of faith, in the deepening of faith, in the movement through the cross to resurrection.
Not all that many people were able to be at those services so I wanted to go over what I said again, and expand a little on it. And I do so today because the Gospel today, I think, makes the very same connection.
At the Last Supper, when Judas had gone out, Jesus said, “Now is the Son of Man glorified.”
There is a contextual, if not a causal connection, between the betrayal and the glorification of Christ here that is worth, I think, a deeper investigation.
When I was thinking about Good Friday, and thinking about betrayal, I realized betrayal had played a very important role in my life. I have been a betrayer and I have been betrayed. (That may be true for all parents and children.) It may be true in small or large ways for anyone who has been married, or been in any long term committed relationship. I know it is true for anyone who has been divorced.
My own divorce and the events leading up to it compounded my enmeshment in betrayal because, in all that I not only betrayed my marriage, but my ordination and parish and bishop as well. The ordination service asks the question: “Will you do your best to pattern your life and that of your family in accordance with the teachings of Christ, so that you may be a wholesome example to your people?” Well, maybe that was my best, but it wasn’t very good.
And then the justified consequences of my betrayal came about because I was, in turn, betrayed — by people I trusted, by people I loved. And I don’t say all this as a kind of confessional exhibitionism, but to let you know that I’ve thought a lot about all of this. I’ve had a lot of time to think, and being a “glass is half full, when life gives you lemons make lemonade” kind of guy, I’ve tried to learn from it, to dig into its wisdom.
I don’t know whether it was before or after all this, I think it must have been before…but ever since I read the books for the first time, and even more after I’d seen the BBC serial production with Alec Guinness, I’ve always been fascinated by John Le Carre’s novels Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and Smiley’s People. They are all about betrayal.
Set in the context of the British Intelligence Service, Tinker,Tailor is about the uncovering of a Russian counter-spy, a mole, in the service. And then Smiley’s People is about the turning of the Russian spymaster who placed the mole and his own defection to the West. The main protagonist is George Smiley (Alec Guinness) who comes out of retirement to make it all right – but if doesn’t really get made “all right”. In the midst of following his duty and destiny, Smiley is both professionally and personally disillusioned with the bittersweet enlightenment that comes when any of us loses our illusions. Toward the end of the second novel, nearing his triumph, Smiley writes to the Russian spymaster he’s about to bring down
He writes: “By you actions you have disowned the system that made you. You have placed love above duty. The ground on which you once stood is cut away. You have become a citizen of No Man’s Land. I send you my greetings”. I can identify with that.
The psychologist, Jean Houston, has written that “Betrayal, of all the woundings that may be suffered by the sour, can be the greatest agent of the sacred. This wound has always had an awful and luminous quality surrounding it. It marks the end of primal, unconscious trust and forces upon us those terrible conditions that accompany the taking of the next step”.
Houston points out that there are three spiritually unhealthy ways of responding to betrayal.
The first of these is revenge. The Bible may say ‘an eye for an eye’, but as has been pointed out, if you follow that to its logical conclusion, everyone gets blinded in the end. The focus of revenge, and its spiritual companion resentment, narrows the focus of life – bringing both the betrayer and the betrayed into one’s own soul in a continuing hate, so that the story of the betrayal becomes the story of one’s life. That’s what happened in Germany between the wars and brought Hitler to power, and it’s what is behind some of the most fanatic and violent expressions of Islam. I recently saw a documentary about the genocide in Rwanda and its aftermath. Toward the end of the film there were pictures of the bewildered survivors, with a beautiful song playing in the background, and the words to the song translated at the bottom of the screen. “Listen to me, God of Rwanda,” the song went, ” Protect me from the urge to vengeance.”
Another unhealthy reaction to betrayal, almost the opposite of revenge and resentment, is denial. This is the pretense that the betrayal never happened, that “it just wasn’t meant to be,” that we didn’t really care.
But the whole point of betrayal, or at least the main positive point, it seems to me, is that it tears up our phony scripts. It doesn’t let us pretend anymore that we, or anybody else, can live up to the artificial roles we set for ourselves. It forces us to be real. And that’s what God created us to be. Denial just writes another script, and goes back to the beginning to betray and be betrayed again and again. How sad! How boring!
Lastly there is cynicism, which is probably the most crippling reaction to betrayal. It responds to lost hope with hopelessness, and a rejection of any opening to trust or love at all. Even more sad! Even more boring!
“The key to redeeming our betrayal,” Houston says, “is forgiveness.” And I would add it has to be that radical kind of forgiveness that moves beyond forgiveness and on into gratitude.
I pointed out to the Good Friday congregation that I always used to carry a level of tension in my neck and shoulders – but when my marriage fell apart and I was suspended from ministry, the tension went away. I was forced to allow myself to be just who I was – a spy who came in from the cold.
If it hadn’t been for that bundle of betrayal I’d still have and be a pain in the neck. Not only would I not have a new marriage and a new congregation, but I wouldn’t have the finally real, mutually appreciative relationship I have now with my ex-wife and my kids, as well as with our newly ex-Bishop.
“Only at the end of primal trust,” Jean Houston says, “is Jesus available to the fullness of the human condition. He can die and be reborn and a fuller love, a fuller beingness comes then into existence.”
Love is central for the meaning of betrayal. Without love there would be nothing to betray. And it is often in the search for love that betrayal takes place. And yet it is also true that love lies at the end of betrayal’s healing. The forgiveness that Jean Houston talks about comes from love and leads to love. The Gospel reading today, that begins in the context of betrayal, ends in the commandment to love one another.
Along with John Le Carre’s novels one of my favorite modern parables is the movie “The Truman Show”. The premise of the movie is that this guy, Truman, played by Jim Carey, is the star of the ultimate reality TV show where his whole life, from the day he was born, from the day he was conceived, has been broadcast 24 hours a day. His whole world is a TV studio, big enough to be seen from outer space, and he is the only one who is not in on it, the only one who is not an actor. Everyone in “his” world is just playing a part in “his” life.
Little by little he begins to get a sense of the falseness of it all, and the motivating force behind this dawning realization is love. The lies perpetrated on him constitute a profound betrayal and, in a sense his desire to get away from them is a kind of betrayal as well. Where would the show be if he finally left it?
It is the story, ultimately, of how a life centered on ourselves alone is a betrayal of our true human potential. Truman faces his greatest fears, faces even death in trying to discover the truth beyond the betrayal and lies. In the end, he steps out into the darkness of reality – a reality not unlike the “No Man’s Land” referred to by Le Carre – although with Truman, instead of George Smiley’s bittersweet disillusionment, there is a kind of triumph of the human spirit, and a realistic hope for love, which pleases me – being a “glass is half full, if life gives you lemons then make lemonade” kind of guy.
In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus says that where he is going we can’t come. But he says in another place that if we have love for one another he will be with us to the end of the age.
Love one another. Love one another. Love one another.
Thanks be to God.
Two themes of redemption, two ideas of the plan of salvation came out of the land of the Chaldeans with Abraham and his family. One was exclusive. One was inclusive. One emphasized the idea of being “chosen from”. The other emphasized the idea of being “chosen for”. And it is the exclusive, “chosen from” theme that has actually been the most dominant.
From this view Abraham is called out of his homeland because he could not follow God there. It was a land too filled with other gods. So he wandered. And after him, Isaac wandered. And after him, Jacob wandered because there was not yet a place where they could be alone in their exclusive worship of “their” God.
Joseph’s going to Egypt was never a settling down in Egypt. At first it was a refuge and then it evolved into a slavery. In this exclusive view any integration, any compromise, any necessary tolerance is seen as a kind of slavery..
Moses brought the people out again, and, purified in the wilderness of all foreign contamination, they entered the Promised Land with the mission to slay all who stood in their way – at least according to the Book of Joshua that carries on the exclusivist theme. The first use of the word holocaust refers to the required killing of all people in one Canaanite town and the destruction of all their property…the burning of it all.
The family of Abraham became a great nation – fulfilling the sense of the promise of this theme, although it was hard to stay that way what with exiles and conquests and dispersions and all. Exclusion reached its nationalistic height after the return from exile in Babylon when Ezra and Nehemiah had all foreign wives expelled from Israel to keep the country pure the prophetic expression of separate and unequal (religio-ethnic cleansing from another point of view.) When the nation could no longer violently enforce its will, exclusion was carried out by means of the law. Circumcision, the dietary laws, the Sabbath all put a circle, a hedge, around the chosen people.
And some in the early Christian church adopted this theme of exclusion (ecclesia means being “called from”). The Church in Jerusalem that fought against Paul’s mission and trailed around after him to set the wayward right. And in many ways the Church that developed after them remained exclusive – only with a broader boundary, a creedal boundary, an authoritarian boundary. Whether Orthodox or Roman Catholic, or Geneva Reform, puritanism of one sort or another has been a major theme in Christian religion. Chosen from, chosen out of, saved from the world, saved from hell. Not of those who are “left behind”. They tell you what to think, they tell you how to live, they tell you how to vote.
There is, however, another way…another way of seeing things. There has been another theme, a subtext since the beginning. God said to Abraham “Go out from your country and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation; and I will bless you and make your name great.”…”And”…”And … you will be a blessing…in you all the families of the earth will be blessed.” Abraham here is not just chosen from, he is chosen for. The purpose of Abraham’s call is not to serve himself or even serve God, but to serve the whole world, to bring a blessing to everyone – to include, not to exclude.
The prophets may have sounded the exclusivist note when they feared assimilation, but they also insisted that inclusion of the chosen was not an elitist issue, it was a calling, a calling of love, a calling to all.
The writer of the Book of Ruth saw that. This story was not written at the time of Ruth and Naomi. It was written much later, in the time of Wisdom. This story is told as a direct assault on the exclusivist nationalist mentality found in Ezra and Nehemiah.
Where Ezra and Nehemiah called for the expulsion of foreign wives, the Book of Ruth reminds everyone that it was the foreign wife who was an ancestor of David, who showed the greatest faith and fealty of any woman in the tradition. “Where you go I will go, where you lodge I will lodge, your people shall be my people, and your God my God.”
And it was this very mission of inclusion that was at the center of the ministry of Jesus. And it was this very mission of inclusion that the elitist exclusivist Pharisees, Sadducees, Zealots and Essenes found so threatening in the ministry of Jesus. Jesus broke the Sabbath law. He broke down the hedge of exclusivity. He associated with sinners and traitors and foreigners. “Come to me all who labor and are heavy laden and I will give you rest.” “A light to enlighten the nations,” to bring that blessing of Abram to the world, to the whole world – whether they know it or not. Hidden within the creeds and crusades of Christian puritan exclusiveness is this Good News.
It is what moved Saint Paul and all other missionaries who, rather than imposing their way on others, found in the way of others an echo of this truth and pointed it out … called it out, baptized it, confirmed it, communed with it, and were transformed by it.
One of the reasons I am an Episcopalian is because of the openness of this church to diverse expressions of that which is essentially inexpressible. That’s has been part of our teaching since the days of Queen Elizabeth I. We don’t draw boundaries. We break through them. That’s why we moved ahead with women’s ordination. It’s why we’ve moved ahead with accepting gay clergy and gay relationships. We look for ways to include, not to exclude. I’ve been criticized for offering communion to those who aren’t baptized, (or at least those who I don’t know if they are baptized or not.) But I would much rather be judged for including someone I should have excluded than for excluding someone I should have included. We’re even willing to include those who would rather exclude – we tolerate the intolerant. That’s important. It keeps us humble. (They might be right.) And it models integrity. We shouldn’t just voice what everyone else is saying. We need to think about and really believe what we say. God can work out the differences.
And this is a spiritual issue as well as an historical one and a theological one These two themes aren’t just “back then”, or “out there”. They play out in our own minds, play out in our own hearts, play out in our own lives.
From the time we begin to make conscious decisions we develop a kind of “chosen” life, an outward pattern a personal style, habits and beliefs that give us our identity. But for every choice there’s a road not taken, a minority report that doesn’t go away, but gets hidden in a way, goes into a kind of inner sanctum. It’s the outward persona, the ego-self, the life of the will, morality, and responsibility that marks the “chosen from” life. But it is the other part, the rejected part, the hidden part, the foreign part, the inner part, that needs to be included if we are to fulfill our “chosen for” calling.
The attempt to banish from our lives, to separate from our identities all those parts we find unacceptable, leaves us presenting to God only those aspects of our lives and parts of our selves where God is not needed. “Our less presentable parts,” St. Paul said, “we need to endow with greater honor.” In and at our points of weakness is where we find our spiritual strength.
But that’s not the end of it. Conversion’s not the end of it. Healings is not the end of it. Transformation of our weakness into strength is not the end of it. And here I turn from the lesson to the Gospel. Only one of the ten healed lepers in our Gospel reading returned, it says.
It is all too common that when we get through a hard time in life, when we get over a problem, when we get out of a fix, when we get past the consequences of our mistakes, we forget all about it. And if we do that, a kind of scar tissue forms. We become harder instead of softer…more closed instead of more open. You see that when a formerly oppressed group is liberated and then becomes the oppressor. You see it when a formerly judged and excluded group becomes extremely judgmental once they are accepted.
It may be good to forgive and forget. But it is never good, or healthy, or holy to be forgiven and forget.
We need to remember. We need to remember not only to be grateful for our healing but to offer it to others. We need to remember where we were, remember where we came from. Include it all in life and reach out to make it whole. Reach out daily to bring in the stranger, the foreigner….within and without. Include the excluded.
If we can do that, our faith can heal the world.
Thanks be to God!
Today is the Day of Pentecost. It is the birthday of the Christian Church, so Happy Birthday. It was also the Jewish Harvest Festival, so Happy Thanksgiving as well.
Preeminently, though, Pentecost is the celebration of the Holy Spirit without which neither the Church nor the harvest, nor in fact life itself could exist or be sustained.
For those of us in the broad stream of the Christian faith that flowed from the Council of Nicea and affirms a Trinitarian conceptualization of God, the Holy Spirit is as important as God the Father, as important as the life of Jesus, and yet we speak of it far less – at least in the Episcopal Church. In part that may be because the spirit is simply hard to talk about. Spirit means breath or wind and, as the Gospel says, “It blows where it will, and you do not know whence it comes or wither it goes.” In today’s lesson from Acts the Spirit appears as fire, which is also very hard to get hold of, and when you try you an get burned.
It may be that we avoid discussion of the Spirit because the Spirit so often in the history of the Church has been associated with splinter groups, and breakaway communities with private revelation and teachings that came to be seen as heretical and misleading. That was true from the earliest days of the Church. It was true in the Middle Ages. And it is still true today. The very writing and adoption of the Gospel according to Luke and the Book of Acts as officially sanctioned Holy Scripture may be part of a process of trying to bring the power of the Spirit under the control of the institutional Church. That certainly was true for the creeds and the later developments of Trinitarian doctrine – but Spirit always resists such control.
One of the biggest arguments in the history of the Christian Church centered on an issue involving the Holy Spirit. This was the debate about the so-called “filioque” clause in the Nicene Creed. (It’s so much fun when you can bring some obscure information from seminary into a sermon.) Filioque, in Latin, means “and the son” and the filioque clause refers to the part in the Nicene Creed where we say that the Holy Spirit “proceeded from the Father, and the Son”. The filioque, “and the Son”, part was added by the Church in the West late in Church history. It wasn’t part of the creed adopted at Nicea and was strongly resisted by the eastern portions of the Church. It became the chief theological bond of contention in the split between the Eastern Orthodox expressions of Christianity in Greece, Russia and elsewhere, and the Western Catholic tradition that followed the pattern of the Church at Rome.
As is the case in many strong disagreements, the two sides in this argument, I believe, were not so much in disagreement over one point, but rather emphasize points that arise from different perspectives. They were each afraid that if they conceded the perspective they would undermine the whole theological structure that had been built upon it.
What I would like to do this morning is to briefly share the understanding of the Spirit inherent in each of these views, and talk a little about how we can apply these understandings to our lives today.
The Roman focus, the Western focus, the focus of the filioque, the double procession of the Spirit from the Father and the Son, I think is meant to emphasize the action of the Spirit in history. We encounter the first procession of the Spirit from the Son in the breath of life that is breathed into Adam, which is the first mention of Spirit which follows the speaking of the word of creation. Here Spirit is life, or the life force, the energizing principle of human beings, and by extension an energizing principle of all creation just as the Son, the Word, the logos, is the ordering principle of creation. The Spirit puts the already ordered world in motion. And that is really the beginning of history.
The second example of the perspective of the Spirit comes with the birth and baptism of Jesus. It is the Spirit that comes to Mary. Jesus is conceived, we say, “by the Holy Spirit”. The Spirit descends at the Baptism in the form of a dove and the ministry of Jesus is begun. Until that time Mary only “pondered these things in her heart”. So again here the focus is on energy – the Spirit is the energy behind the transformation of the divine incarnation, and the energy that puts life into the incarnate Word and sets the ministry off and running.
In the lessons we have for today from Acts and from John, the disciples are off alone waiting as they had been waiting since running away from the cross, and waiting since witnessing the risen Christ. It is only with the coming of the power of the Spirit that they are moved to action to start the Church’s mission.
This image of divine energy is important for our life, our ministry, and our mission as well. At Baptism and Confirmation it is the Spirit that is invoked to come into our individual lives with a transforming power that moves us and enables whatever “calling” may be potential in our lives to be heart and acted upon.
The Spirit, proceeding from the Son as well as from the Father is, I think, the understanding of Spirit that is present in some forms of prayer, particularly intercessory prayer, and particularly prays for healing. In most intercessory prayer, healing prayer, there is an expression of need, of insufficiency, of something missing in life, and the power of the spirit is invoked to supply what is needed. When I visit people who are in the hospital, or sick at home, I anoint them with the words, “As you are outwardly anointed with this Holy Oil so may our heavenly Father grant you the inward anointing of the Holy Spirit, through Jesus Christ, our Lord.” In this as well the Spirit is understood as divine energy, moving and activating the already existing structures of wholeness and health. Filioque.
But there is another way to look at Spirit. A way that flows more from the East than from the West. It centers not on the double procession of the Spirit from the Son as well as the Father which places the primary activity of the Spirit in history, but looks before that, emphasizing the co-eternity of Father, Son and Spirit, placing Spirit before time, and our connection with the Spirit as an experience beyond time.
When the universe was created, Genesis says, before the first Word was spoken by God, “The Spirit was moving over the face of the waters” the waters of chaos, the face of the deep. It was that deep combination of chaos and spirit that is organized and structured by the Word. “Let there be light … let there be dry land … let us make Adam in our own image.” Spirit here isn’t so much an energy of creation, but a basic component of creation, like space or time, like a dimension that somehow pervades everything. From this perspective we don’t “have” Spirit, we “are” Spirit.
One entry point into this way of experiencing Spirit is the phenomenon of language. Language on its surface is a logical phenomenon. It would seem to be fully under the dominance of the Word. Our understanding of this second person of the Trinity, the ordering principle of the universe that is incarnate in the life of Jesus, the Son, is built around language. Yet, notice in the story of the coming of the Spirit to the apostles that one of the effects of the Spirit is that they could speak in languages that they themselves did not understand. In the letter to the Corinthians Saint Paul speaks of a similar experience when he says, “If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels…” Here its is not just other languages that come out through the Spirit, but a special spiritual language – the phenomenon of speaking in tongues. And the practice of speaking in tongues today is widespread among Christians who focus their attention on the Holy Spirit. There is also prophetic speech. In the Nicene Creed we say that the Spirit “has spoken through the prophets” giving them a perception of truth beyond the historical and often beyond the logical. In all these expressions (speaking languages that aren’t understood, speaking in tongues and prophetic speech) normal language is transcended, normal boundaries in life drop away. And in that openness, in that non-objective clearing, we become aware of the spiritual dimension that is always there, but can’t be directly experienced when we’re stuck in the historical presence of our ego.
Prayer in the Spirit, in this Spirit at least, is never prayer “for” something. It’s the contemplation that comes when we experience union with God and with all that is in this original eternity of Spirit. We sometimes shy away for it because of its proximity to chaos. Without a balance from the Word, and from the Church, from some kind of sacramental structure, encounters with the Spirit can be overwhelming. But given such balance and structure, openness to life in the Spirit, as well as Spirit in life, can yield abundantly the fruit of the Spirit. The fruit of the Spirit, Paul tells the Galatians, is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self control. These are not so much ‘powers’ for mission and ministry as they are elements of a human life that is resting on a deep foundation.
I hope our lives express both East and West. I hope the chances and changes of our lives reflect their eternal security in the depth of the Spirit, and that that same Spirit be focused and magnified in our lives, and through our lives, to transform the world and all of creation.
Thanks be to God.
Happy Saint James day. That was a wonderful celebration yesterday. Everybody up for it again in another 125 years?
The theme of fiesta connects a bit with what I want to talk about because fiestas represent a kind of uncomplicated unity between the spiritual and everyday life, that creates a kind of spark – a kind of special connection with God.
We find that in the Old Testament lesson today. There is a deep familiarity between Abraham and God in this negotiation, this bargaining, this almost street market haggling over the fate of Sodom. “Suppose there are fifty righteous in the city, will you then destroy the place and not spare it for the fifty righteous? Far be it from you to do such a thing to slayy the righteous with the wicked. Will not the judge of all the earth do right? What about forty? What about ten?”
It reminds me of making a purchase in Varanasi, India when I was 21 years old. “Kuch kam kijie bhay. Mai Vidhyarti hum. Tourist nahi hum.” Bring down the price a little brother. I’m a poor student, not a tourist.”
One of the things you see over the course of the Old Testament is a progressive distancing of God from human beings. Abraham can bargain. Moses has to take off his shoes, because he is standing on holy ground. And by the time you get to Jesus the Holy of Holies was stuck off behind a curtain in the Temple where the high priest would prostrate himself once a year. It was an increasing spiritualization of God that was one of the targets of Jesus’ protests when he says, “Abba (Daddy), just give us our daily bread.”
Yet, as the Christian Church evolved, Jesus himself became more and more distant from human relationship. Mary and the Saints somewhat filled the gap, but the intimacy of Abraham’s bargaining or Jesus’ simple prayer has been hard to maintain. Where the intimacy is lost, I think, has been in the focus on one of the other of two extremes of spirituality or materialism.
The Jewish and Christian rejection of intimacy with God came with an over-valuing of the realm of the spirit and a near rejection of the material world. Spirit was good. Matter was bad. Spirit was the ultimately real. Matter always contained a kind of hidden lie. Satan was the Lord of this material world. But with God in his heaven all would be made right. Death was seen as a release from bondage. Heaven and pure spirit were seen as our ultimate reward. Augustine’s spiritual City of God was contrasted with the fallen city of men. And on, and on, and on.
That sort of dualism, I believe, is really contrary to the central monotheistic assertions of the Bible. It came into the Old Testament from Persian Zoroastrianism and into the early church, in spite of the warning in the letter to the Colossians, from its long tradition in Greek philosophy. And we still struggle with such dualism today. We see it in the puritanical reaction that anything that is really fun must be at least somewhat sinful.
And yet when all is said and done, the modern world is pretty much in the camp of the opposite extreme of materialism. We don’t really fully believe in the reality of experiences that aren’t tied to our physical senses. That’s why we are so impressed with miracles, with healings, with answers to our prayers, and visions of the Virgin Mary. What you see is what you get…we think. We really only value the physical world, the material world and its rewards. We find it nearly impossible to conceptualize, for example, the motivation of the enemies of our “way of life” when it isn’t based on a materialistic way of thinking. At least with Communism (dialectical materialism) we were fighting against people who had an equivalent philosophical materialist foundation. With radical Islam that’s simply not the case.
I don’t have a problem with most of modern American religion because it is too spiritual, I have a problem with it because it is too materialistic. Fundamentalism takes what used to be the arena of spirituality, accessed through religious institutions, religious thought and ritual and expresses it in a materialist form. Taking the Bible only literally is a materialist misinterpretation. Focusing issues of religious life only on morality is a materialist lifestyle. And, in both of these ways, extreme spiritualization and extreme materialization, intimacy with God is lost, relationship with God is lost, true faith is lost. That’s where we are. It is why some people say that God is dead in the modern world.
But an answer to this dilemma, I think, can be found in the concept of soul. But I need to explain what I mean by that word. The word “soul” has been used by spiritualists to mean the real person as opposed to the physical person. And it’s been used by materialists, at least fundamentalist materialists, to mean some quasi-physical expression of a person’s spirit which goes to heaven or hell when we die…the “immortal soul”. (A very un-Biblical concept, because in the Bible nothing and no one is immortal but God!)
The way I use soul is to mean an entirely new aspect of reality that comes into being with the coming together of spirit and matter. God made Adam from the dust of the earth and breathed the spirit into Adam and Adam became a living being. Without the spirit there is no life. Without the dust there is no being. With the two together, a synthesis takes place, a third is created, something new is created. With the two together there is a soul. There is life. Soul is life…not just thoughts about life, not just the physical in life, but the whole of life…the life of life. And that’s something that is very, very special; very, very holy.
With the two extremes of spiritualism and materialism certain methods, certain techniques were developed to increase access to those realms and filter out interference.
Spirituality, for example, encouraged ascetic practices – self-denial, celibacy, fasting, that sort of thing, in order to disconnect from the material world. It developed various forms of meditation to increase contact with spiritual reality. The most spiritual state is seen as a contemplative state where the mind is cleared of all clutter and distraction.
Materialism uses the scientific method. Science deepens our ability to examine the physical, filters out emotion and bias and other non-material reality, which it really doesn’t understand as being reality at all.
But soul has its method as well. It involves the imagination, what some psychologists call the imaginal(distinguishing it from the concept of the “imaginary” that materialism equates with “unreal.”) The imaginal works with symbols and metaphors. And it aims primarily at finding meaning in things, meaning in experiences, meaning in life.
In pure spirituality there is not need for any kind of “meaning”. In pure materialism there is no possibility of it. But the realm of the soul is filled with meaning…in dreams, in sacraments, in the scriptures when read in depth, in relationships, in love. Soul is where we find purpose in life. Soul, in fact, is our purpose in life. And, I believe, its is what the Church today can bring to the world…to individual lives, and to the world at large. And this third, this life, this meaning, can be accessed and realized today in few other contexts. I know that in my heart. I know that in my soul. It’s what, I am convinced at this point in my life, that my calling is all about. The creation of meaning, the creation of soul was at the heart also of the wandering of Abraham. It was at the heart in all its depth and passion in the life and death and resurrection of Jesus. The creation of meaning, the creation of soul is what the community at St. James has been about for 125 years. And we’re not stopping now. It’s what incarnation is all about. It’s what creation is for.
Soul, this coming together of the spiritual and the physical to create something else, something new, a synthetic third is not just there for us (even though we as human beings are the focal point of soul because of our awareness of both the spiritual and the physical.) Soul is also the growing edge, the evolving edge of God; the purpose and meaning of God as creator…a mirror, an extension, a child, a new chance.
The late Edward Edinger, a depth psychologist from Los Angeles, claimed, for example, that this encounter between Abraham and God talked about in the Old Testament lesson today, the debate over the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah shows God learning something from Abraham, shows God moving away from the amoral destructiveness seen in much of the Old Testament, and into a deeper justice.
And then in Jesus there is a full identification, an emptying of all distancing spirituality in favor of a passionate empathy with humankind that brings love rather than anger to address the evil in the world. “In him the whole fullness of deity dwelt bodily.” In us as well. The universe is being made in us, meaning in life is created through us, the Word is being spoken. We are the body of Christ. Just use your imagination.
Thanks be to God.
I remember my mother saying, “Don’t get too big for your britches.”
My doctor has said that too, more recently, but I think he is kind of a literalist.
Nevertheless, my reaction to both experiences was similar. It was shame.
My doctor wanted me to lose 4 more pounds, after I had already lost 10 pounds on my own initiative, but the result of his prodding was that I gained 3 pounds almost immediately.
I don’t remember the exact context for my mother’s statement. It was probably justified. But the way I took it expanded it beyond the field of its justification. It made me wary about claiming any special gifts or identity, wary of standing out too much in case I would get shot down. It sent me into a kind of hiding; not a true humility, but a kind of “cover” that cut me off from the reality checks on which true humility and self-esteem are based.
I don’t know whether it was just that comment, or the wide-ranging emotional environment that a comment like that symbolizes, or if maybe I just remember it that way, because it’s an issue I’ve struggled with a lot, and thought about a lot, especially this past week thinking about these lessons.
Both the Old Testament lessons and the Gospel reading today address the issue of arrogance and humility. It is a pretty tricky issue. Where is the line between true humility and the kind of “low self-esteem”, the “inferiority complex” that psychologists say is at the heart of so much suffering?
Of course, arrogance can be as much of a problem as a sense of inferiority. We’ve see it a little in the Olympics, although maybe not as much as you might think ….the chest thumping, “we’re number one” chants, or the excuses of the poor losers. I think you see it more in the political realm where the powerful power of a great nation’s armies and the powerless power of the suicide bomber can turn arrogance very deadly.
We encourage it too. We see any admission of a mistake or uncertainty as a disqualifying weakness. We may say we don’t but it always seems to work out that way. There is fear all over the place in all this. I know there is fear in false humility, fear of being caught at being yourself, fear that the dream will vanish in the light. And there is even more fear behind arrogance, the bravado that compensates for a missing bravery, the identification with the act that hides the actor.
It begins in the beginning, like everything does. In the garden with God; Adam’s and Eve’s desire to be like God; the opening of the eyes; the awareness of good and evil. With that separation from everything else, that standing out that makes us human, we wanted to prove ourselves worthy, even outstanding. But remember even Jesus said, “No one is good, but God alone.” We saw our nakedness. We saw our own vulnerability. We put on fig-leaf aprons and began the great lie.
We basically have it all reversed. We’re arrogant when we should be humble and cowardly when we should be proud. Each of us does stand out. Each of us is a unique miracle never to be duplicated in all the universe, in all eternity. Yet, for that very reason, we have no claim to superiority. There are no comparisons between people, between lives. We are not “better than.” We just are.
It is like the Olympics again. I can understand winning and losing in swimming races and track races and soccer and softball. But when it comes to gymnastics or diving I don’t get it. Maybe there’s a sense that one person does better than the others, but the scores are a delusion, an attempt to quantify quality that just can’t be done. Life is much more like that than its is like any race or game. We do our own routine, and the degree of difficulty is totally individualized. We’re all doing the best that we can …. not that we couldn’t do better…..maybe.
And beyond that, of course, our achievements are never “ours” alone. That’s even true for the races and the games. There are no “self made” men or women. There’s a conditionality to all achievement that connects back in time and out in context in a web of dependency involving people and events and relationships way beyond our awareness, but definitely calling for our gratitude. It’s not just the people who help us who help us, who contribute to our success, or our genetic heritage, or our training and education. Each success is also somehow built on a failure. Each victory in the Olympics was dependent on a loss. Each new invention is dependent on prior ignorance. Each act of kindness is based on a preceding state of need. Light depends on darkness. That’s partly why Jesus says to love our enemies, because we wouldn’t be who we are without them. That’s why death on a cross leads to eternal life with God.
False pride and false humility both act as a denial of our humanity. “Humanity” and “humility” share the same root origin. They come from “humus” meaning ground, dirt, earth, soil, or ground. Dust to dust, earth to earth. Arrogance and false pride are a denial of death. We want to be like God. The serpent said to the woman, “You won’t die.” False humility is a kind of playing dead so we won’t get caught and killed, so it amounts to the same thing.
But it is only in death, our return to the earth, our connection to earth, our true humanity in true humility, that we are firmly grounded. It’s the only solid ground on which to build, and building is what we are called to do, from the ground up; not focused on the upper stories, but on the next story, on ourstory. I think that’s really why the tower of Babel fell, not the language thing. They were only concerned with how high it was going, and not on the firmness of the foundation, or, even better yet, on the subterranean structure.
That brings me to Jesus who is the model for our humility and our humanity. He was in the form of God. (I’ll bet Mary never told him he was too big for his britches.) He was in the form of God, Philippians says, but did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, (resisting the fear-based arrogance of Adam’s grasping.) “He emptied himself, taking the form of a servant,” the emptiness contrasting with Adam’s nakedness. (The emptiness can be filled; the nakedness just calls for cover.) “And being found in human form”, humble form, grounded, “He became obedient unto death,” undergrounded….
I don’t think we appreciate the wideness of the gap this emptying bridges between God and human beings. How it’s more in this humility than in his exaltation that the uniqueness of Jesus is found.
Every religion has its “hero” figures, its miracle makers, its incarnate divinity. But Christians are offered a dead servant, a failed Messiah, because that’s precisely the place, the only place where we can meet God. We can only approach the heroic with arrogance or groveling. We can come to Jesus eye to eye, face to face, heart to heart. He knows us as we really are, waking and dreaming.
Mori Zaitsu has been sharing the writings of the Japanese Christian Shusaku Endo who tells the story of early Japanese Christians who were given the choice of stepping on an image of Jesus or of being killed. It was a serious crisis of conscience and courage, particularly for the European clergy who were seen by both friend and enemy as examples of faith. But one of them hears the voice of Jesus saying, “Go ahead, step on it. I am here to be trampled on.” The shame of cowardice met the shame of the cross in the truth of redemption and grace.
In a book dealing with shame and recovery from addiction, Ernie Kurtz points out that while it is a good thing to be guiltless, it is not thought to be a good thing to be shameless. Maybe “shame” is just a sign that we are incomplete when we’re alone.
Maybe my problem wasn’t with my size, my assertions or dreams; maybe the problem was with my britches. Not, as St. Paul says, that we would be unclothed, but that we would be further clothed in heavenly robes at the heavenly banquet.,
Friend, come up higher…..
Thanks be to God.
A few weeks ago I read a short work by the influential 11th century Muslim religious teacher, Al-Ghazali, wherein he advocated the necessity of personal religious experience for a full religious life, rather than relying on interpretive authority, or philosophical logic, or just conforming to tradition.
I agreed with a lot of what he had to say, but some of the arguments he made in support of his basic point, I thought, actually hurt his case more than they helped. One in particular that struck me was his statement that the insights of astronomy and medicine were proof of divine reality and prophetic power because they could never be arrived at by human effort alone.
Clearly he was wrong (except maybe in the most subtle sense that nothing comes by human effort alone). He had mistaken the knowledge, understanding and worldview of his particular time for some kind of universal standpoint.
It’s like what’s known as the “God of the gaps” approach to theology, where anything that’s not understood is attributed to God or to miracles. The problem with this, of course, is that as knowledge increases God retreats.
Certainly Christians have done that as well.
Two examples emerge from the lessons today.
One is the Ascension. Last Thursday was the Feast of the Ascension, and, as the Sunday after the Ascension today’s lessons, or at least the Collect, assume it. (I don’t think that either Paul, or the author of Revelation, or the author of the Fourth Gospel knew anything about the Ascension, so it is an unwarranted assumption. But it has been assumed by the Church.) All four Gospels mention the resurrection appearances but only Luke talks about the Ascension. It provides a kind of stage direction for Luke to get Jesus off stage so the Spirit can make its entrance. Luke divides, in this way, his understanding of salvation history into an age of Jesus, the time of foundation, and an age of the Spirit, a time of beginning and a time for the mission of the Church. But Luke does this based on a faulty understanding of the cosmos. The Ascension assumes that heaven is “up”, that it is above the sky, above the domes of the sun and moon and the planets and the stars. But, today we know there are not such domes, the sky is a reflection, and “up” is a relative concept. Now, within the context of our own Christian faith, this may not seem like much of a problem. But it can seriously block the communication of the essentials of our faith (the “good news” I spoke of last week) with people who don’t already believe, with people who aren’t willing to check their brains at the door of the church, with people who are the very people we are best situated to reach.
The other example is the story from Acts today about the exorcism and the earthquake. Fortune telling, demon possession, and personally targeted geological events are all part of a worldview that isn’t shared today. And this is not just an innocent distinction. I have seen tremendous harm done to those suffering from mental illness when some well-meaning but naively arrogant friend tries to apply “Biblical therapy” to their situation. Earthquakes don’t just shake off shackles and open locked doors without bringing down walls and ceilings that leave the prisoners in a worse-off situation than before the earthquake happened. But I am not even saying that the modern view is “right”, and the 1stcentury view is “wrong”. I’m just saying that, as with Al-Gazali, these examples that were written to convince unbelievers of the truth of Christianity, in a modern setting, only serve to keep them away.
But actually they do worse than that. They keep us away as well. Unless we’re in a cult or a sociologically isolated community, and only listen to Christian radio and home school our children with a creationist curriculum we can’t help but share the worldview of our dominant 21st century secular society. We’ve seen men walk on the moon. In order to maintain our understanding of things like the Ascension and the stories from Acts as factual, “gospel truth” on every lever we have to split our consciousness with one part for our religion and another for the rest of our life, which makes our religion useless for our life except as an escape from it. Worse yet, it pulls God down into our world, subject to our limits, and at times by implication, under our control.
To doubt this kind of thing is not faithless. Rather, as Martha pointed our in her sermon about Thomas on the Sunday after Easter, doubt frees us for true faith in our real lives and frees the Gospel to be an active spiritual power rather than just a God of the gaps.
We don’t need to reject these stories. (The Holy Scripture remains Holy Scripture.) But we do need to turn, to reframe, to convert them in certain ways to find their relevance and power for the Church, for us, today.
One turn involves moving from the literal, objective sense of scripture to a sacramental, subjective sense. A sacramental act – baptism, the holy Eucharist, any sacramental act – is defined as “an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.” The act always points to a reality beyond itself, and is necessitated by the fact that the reality toward which it points is incapable of direct, objective expression. Sacraments were developed as a way within the world of subject-object consciousness to move beyond and experience life beyond that subject-object split. We understand that in the Episcopal Church. We also understand the dangers that arise, under the heading of “idolatry”, when a sacramental act takes on more importance than the spiritual reality, the grace, toward which it points. These stories and images from the Bible – the Ascension, the exorcism, the earthquakes – can be seen in the same way.
We need to read, mark, learn, inwardly digest, and meditate on these stories, not because they’re examples of God’s miraculous powers intervening in the early church, but to find where in our own lives we can ascend to be with God, where we can be healed, where we can be set free from whatever chains bind us. Where is spiritual grace for us in these outward and visible signs?
As I said in the newsletter article about images this month, both Biblical literalism and modern skepticism are trapped in a materialist worldview. But this kind of sacramental approach to the Bible can lead beyond that, for them and for us.
Still there is another way to read these stories that overcomes the dangers of dualism, isolation, and idolatry that are part of a literalistic interpretation, but avoids the personalized, subjective approach of either Al-Gazali or the sacramental interpretation. And that is to look at these stories as calling us to transcend our current worldview as much as our current worldview transcends that of the 1st Century. Both the literalistic and sacramental approaches to these stories are asking what they mean for us. The real question may be; what do we mean for them?
God is not a part of “our” reality. Our reality is part of God.
Jesus said I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, and he prayed that we be made completely one.
Healing, earthquakes, the Ascension are all signs of transformation…transformation that will take us from who we think we are to the realization of who and what we were created to become: sacraments ourselves, outward and visible signs, of God’s wonderful web of love that constitutes creation…grace upon grace that leads into glory.
The world is dying of thirst while it’s standing right next to a stream of living water.
Look around. Look up.
Let every one who hears say “come”.
Let everyone who is thirsty come.
Maranatha. Come Lord Jesus
Thanks be to God.
I don’t know if it was something he picked up living in the fairly “high church” diocese of Chicago, but my father taught us that instead of saying “good morning” or “Happy Easter” on Eater morning, the appropriate greeting was, “The Lord is risen”, to which the appropriate response was “He is risen indeed!”
The Lord is risen – He is risen indeed.
The Lord is risen – He is risen indeed.
The Lord is risen – He is risen indeed.
Good – that makes me feel a little like a real preacher. It makes me feel a little like my dad.
There are three times of resurrection.
One is in the past. The resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth who “suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified , died and was buried, and the third day he rose again…..”, the first Easter, wherein the Christian faith arose as well. That place, that time, is the source of our tradition: a tradition that involves the transcendence of place and time, but never its abandonment. It’s the tradition of which Peter speaks as foundational for the Church.
I remember when I was in college studying Indian religion, and very taken with the Hindu notion of the ultimate God – Brahman. Non-dual, without qualities, the impersonal source of the wholeness of the universe, which was essentially one with the innermost self. Being good Episcopalians, my parents invited the local university chaplain over to see just how far off base I’d gone and to debate the case for Christianity on what they, flattering to me, felt was a comparable philosophical level. I remember that he focused on this idea of the personality of God. I remember him arguing that the Christian God, being personal, was superior to the Hindu idea of God, since personality was better than impersonality. I remember disagreeing with him, at least inwardly, since in spite of my outward show of sophomoric sophistication and arrogant philosophizing, I didn’t really like myself very much. Personality seemed too messy to be the bearer of ultimate truth, too chaotic and imperfect. Real life was, for me at least, a spiritual embarrassment.
I think, in some ways, we feel the same way about history. It seems so limited, almost absurd, to see one point in time as the focus for divine revelation. And the whole history, really, of our church tradition is filled with similar embarrassing moments: from the Hebrew’s genocide of the native populations as they entered the Holy Land, to the crusades and conquistadors who were motivated far more by greed than piety, to the patriarchal pomp and falseness of so much of the church….the role playing and game playing, catering to the elite of each era with all our social and political and economic compromises. History is messy, as messy as the personalities that inhabit it. But it’s part of who we are. And, in some way or another, it provided the crucial context for resurrection. It tells us that it’s not in “spiritual” escape from the messiness of life that we find God, but right in its midst, with all its embarrassing features, all our embarrassing features as the building blocks of divine creation and salvation.
Our faith connects us to that time, and brings that time into our lives as a people of that resurrection.
But that’s not the only resurrection, and faith is not the only, or even really the primary, attitude governing our Christian life.
The idea of resurrection, as it emerged in post-exilic Judaism, was always associated with the end of time. The resurrection of Jesus, for the early Church, basically marked the beginning of the end.
I think that now the most common Christian belief is that the resurrection is something that happens at the end of an individual life, rather than the end of time.
But whether it is at the end of the age or the end of our life, resurrection is seen as a future event. And the primary attitude with respect to such a future is one of hope.
Hope in the resurrection was all that sustained most people during much of Christian history when life was very hard and death and suffering much closer at hand, more palpable and inevitable than they seem to be today.
But it is really very interesting. Even as day to day life has become easier in the modern world the centrality of hope has not been left behind. In fact, it’s become stronger. Even for people who aren’t particularly religious the idea of a new life, the focus on a goal, the idea that “what you see now, what you have now, is not what you have to settle for,” has been brought down from heaven to earth to become the main motivating attitude in our society.
We plan. We invest. We save. We build. All because we believe the future will be better. And that approach to life began with the hope of the future resurrection.
I had a point in my life when I could have been hopeless. I had been suspended from ministry. My marriage had failed. But something in my faith, something I may not have, at the time, even recognized as faith kept hope alive. And the hope kept me going until I was restored to the ministry, called to a new parish, and began a new marriage. For me that’s been a miracle of resurrection. And in my continued hope it’s only a small taste of what is to come.
As Christians we can have a sense of hope and possibility throughout our life. We need never feel lost. We need never despair. We need never feel abandoned. And not even death puts an end to this resurrection hope. That’s what the letter to the Colossians is about today. God isn’t finished with us yet – not nearly.
And yet resurrection is also very near. It isn’t only past or future – it’s now. Here and now.
Jesus said, “I am the resurrection and the life.” Jesus said, “today you will be with me in paradise.” The angels said to the women at the tomb, “Why do you seek the living among the dead?” We say “The Lord is risen….. He is risen indeed.”
Resurrection in the here and now opens to us the presence of eternity. Our normal sense of time as flowing and passing, of the past being gone and the future as not yet, is essentially an illusion brought on by the limitations of our self-centered consciousness. It would be as if I believed that since I left Iowa in 1985, Iowa ceased to exist, or that until I go home to Pacific Grove this afternoon, Pacific Grove doesn’t yet exist. For God – that is in ultimate reality, in ultimate truth – there is no time as we know it, no flow of time, no passing of time, there’s only the fullness of time. And that’s the resurrection. It’s in that resurrection, resurrection here and now in the eternal here, the eternal now that we realize our full life in communion with God.
Such a realization has tremendous effect.
So much of life is crippled by fear. We fear terrorism and death. We fear high gas prices and job loss. We fear the collapse of our health care system and the institution of marriage. (I mean we fear the collapse of the institution of marriage). War comes from fear. Much illness comes from fear. All hatred and prejudice come from fear.
But just as a sense of the resurrection in the past calls forth faith, and a sense of the resurrection in the future calls forth hope, the realization of our participation in the resurrection now calls forth love – perfect love – and “perfect love casts out fear.” In the perfect love of the resurrection in the here and now, we can transform our usual re-action to people and things and thoughts and emotions into action through which we become co-creators with God, tying together with our risen lives, the past and the future, into the wholeness of heaven.
As we heard once again this week, and as we know from the struggles of our own lives, it takes the cross to get there. But the prize is worth the price.
In speaking these words I can only point. Whenever we think we have the resurrection defined, described, pinned down or penned up with words, our faith, hope and love objectified – we kill it. So we point – and we worship — and we sing — and we make Eucharist.
In a little while we’ll come to the altar. We’ll share in bread and wine as Jesus did with his disciples in the past. And in doing so, we’ll have what’s been called “a foretaste of the heavenly banquet.” But mostly we gather in the eternal now to share in communion the presence of resurrection as we incorporate the strength of the body and the life’s blood of Christ, to go forth and proclaim the good news of love to a world that so desperately needs it.
The Lord is risen. He is risen indeed.
Thanks be to God.
I’m searching for, I’m struggling to find an alternative to the standard interpretation of the atonement that’s deep enough and important enough to justify the cross.
I really liked what Martha wrote for the April newsletter about her reaction to Mel Gibson’s movie…that somehow this exclusive focus on the passion… excessively violent, out of context, separated from the birth and the teaching of Jesus, as well as from the community of the church, inevitably distorted the events it portrayed. I saw a cartoon recently in Christianity Today that showed Jesus carrying the cross, saying “I told you, the question’s “why”, not “what.”
Yet I don’t find the standard answer to that question “why” acceptable.
That standard answer, the standard understanding of the passion, the “why” of the cross, at least for modern American Christianity, is based on the theory of vicarious atonement. Adam sinned, somehow implanting original sin into human beings, and we continue to sin. And the only sacrifice, in this view, that was thought to be pure enough to pay the penalty for that sin was the unspotted, perfect sacrifice of the sinless God-with-us person Jesus. Christ died for us, in this view, means Christ died “instead of us” or Christ died “because of us”, to pay a debt we could not pay.
But if you go back to the source, back to the Bible, it is not all that simple, at least it’s not all that clear. The Gospels, like Mel Gibson’s movie, generally talk about what, not why. The whys are implied implied as clear within the context of the chosen people and the ancient scriptures and the new Christian community. But we don’t share their context, so we can’t share their clarity. When we turn to Paul, who does talk about why, it’s usually not the cross that is instrumental in taking away our sins, but the resurrection (which is one of the points that Martha made). Paul tells the Corinthians, “If Christ has not been raised your faith is futile and you are still in your sins.”, which for me doesn’t fit with the standard conception of a substitutionary atonement.
But an even bigger barrier to my acceptance of this idea relates to what it implies about God. What kind of God is appeased by human sacrifice? What kind of sadism creates fallibility, and then demands perfection? What kind of masochism says “look at me while I torture myself and know that it is all your fault”? I know that that interpretation comes in pretty early, and it’s lingered through the ages. But in its rawest form it strikes me as less a part of some divine plan, and more like a rationalization for the unexpected and horrendously disappointing event of the cross…an event that maybe shouldn’t be rationalized at all, but simply entered into in the process of opening the whole of our life to God.
As I said, it’s a struggle to try to understand it. But in the past few weeks of being particularly conscious of that struggle as I’ve wrestled with this concept I’ve found three points of focus that I think may offer clues, may offer keys .
One of these has to do with the concept of sacrifice.
We think of sacrifice as a kind of giving up. We’ll sacrifice something for our children, we sacrifice something during Lent, we’ll sacrifice some current desire for a future greater good. Something is lost in a sacrifice, something’s given up, something’s given over.
But the real meaning of the word sacrifice, the root meaning doesn’t have anything to do with “giving up” something at all. It means “to make sacred.” The cross isn’t a giving up by God of a son in such a way that the son is lost. It’s really the semi-final, penultimate, act in completing the sanctification of the world begun in creation, continuing through human evolution, to the point of an awareness of relationship with God, through Christmas with its full embrace of humanity (rejecting along the way the worldly kingship that came with palms and the shouts of hosannas) up to the cross…open even to death…making sacred even death…the embrace of the enemy…the last enemy, death…loving the enemy… for the raising of it all.
Fall and redemption theology is only one way to understand salvation history. This view, promulgated initially by Augustine, starts in paradise with a closeness between God and human beings, and then says that, due to human sin, that closeness was lost, with the goal then being to get back what was lost…back to the closeness, back to the garden, back to where we started from…and the cross as vicarious suffering fits into that view.
But there is another understanding that the “fall” wasn’t really so much of a fall as the beginning of a journey…the leaving out of paradise…the leaving of a merely creaturely state of being, necessitated by the loss of human innocence in the acquisition of knowledge and discernment. In this view begins a journey which will eventually take us beyond where we began and closer to God than we can imagine.
Salvation history, including the cross, from this view is seen as a necessary work in extending the kingdom, rather than just trying to get back into the castle. Sacrifice is the name of that whole work. Bringing light to the darkness, and love where it is most needed.
Then there’s the Passover. That’s another clue, another key. The whole of the Passion is set into the symbolism of Passover. In three of the Gospels the Last Supper is a Seder, a Passover meal. In John’s Gospel, Jesus himself acts as the paschal lamb…but we need to be careful here. This vicarious suffering understanding of the atonement, I think, confuses the Passover lamb with its linkage to Abraham and Isaac, its linkage with Moses in Egypt with the “scapegoat”, which is something else altogether.
The scapegoat was a part of a ritual where the sins of individuals and the sins of the people were symbolically put onto a goat that was then stoned and driven out into the wilderness. The goat bore the sins of the people and took them away.
The Passover lamb is more an offering up than a killing. It’s the symbol of our openness to the grace of God beyond our control, deserving, or comprehension. Death passed over Isaac. Death passed over the slaves in Egypt. Christ passed over from life into death so that we might pass over from death into life. Therefore let us keep the feast.
A third key, along with sacrifice and Passover, is the figure of the suffering servant.
The crucifixion, as I said earlier, was a terrible shock. Again and again the Gospels tell us that the disciples didn’t see it coming. It contradicted what was thought to be the triumphant essence of the Messiah. So when it happened they combed the scriptures for some alternate image that would make sense of it all. And they found the figure of the suffering servant that is mentioned four different places in Isaiah. These passages had never before been associated with the Messiah, and it was in fact these passages, refined and interpreted, that gave rise to the idea of the cross as a substitutionary sacrifice and vicarious atonement.
But there are alternative ways of understanding the suffering servant. The most obvious of which occurs to me when I ask who it is this servant serves.
In the idea of vicarious atonement, where Christ’s dying for us is taken to mean dying instead of us, dying because of us, paying our debt so that we don’t have to pay it, it seems to me the servant serves us. But the servant in Isaiah is the servant of God.
We learned from Elaine Pagels, in our Lenten Study, that Jesus in the Gospels shows us not only what God is like, but always also what we are like as well, in our own true nature, in our most spiritual potential.
His suffering service even to death on the cross may be telling us to put our death as well as our life, our suffering as well as our bliss, at the service of God…to convert that suffering to the service of God. Maybe there is no why to our suffering until we provide it …provide it by turning it over and offering it up. Into thy hands I commit my spirit.
The cross may be telling us that it is not “our” live to gain or lose… that the stage we are acting on is far bigger than we thought.
Like I said, I’m just searching, I still struggling with all this. I know some interpretations of the cross and passion that I can’t accept. But I don’t really have fully formed alternatives, just thoughts and clues…sacrifice, Passover, suffering service….
I don’t really understand the cross. But I am still willing to carry it. I invite you to join me.
Thanks be to God.
I think I’ve told this story before when I’ve talked about prayer, but it is one that I think makes an important spiritual point, particularly when connected with the lesson from Ecclesiastes that we heard this morning.
I had a friend in college named Make Hubbard whom I had known since 6th grade. He was a psychology major at Iowa where I was a comparative religion major. Every once in a while he would have to do experiments and would recruit people as guinea pigs, when real guinea pigs wouldn’t do. I was always happy to oblige since we got pain $15 for our trouble which was a lot back in the days of 35 cent beers. And also because, since the psychology department was totally experimental, behavior, scientific, and materially based, I always looked for an opportunity to throw in a religious perspective.
Anyway, this particular experiment had to do with learning and it involved this very complicated instrument panel. The panel was contained in a sound-proof room with Mike sitting outside observing and taking notes. The panel was fairly high so you had to sit on a drafting chair to work at it. It had two dials on the top, a slide mechanism like some kinds of volume controls at the bottom left, a calculator key pad on the bottom right, and a counter in the center, like the odometer on a car, except that it would click up each number with a very audible sound.
Mike just had you go into the room with no instructions and you had to figure things out from there. It seemed clear though that the point was to accumulate “points” to make the “odometer” go higher. But to do that you had to figure out what each dial did, what the slide thing did, how to work the calculator, and that wasn’t something all that obvious. Sometimes you would do something and it would get you points and sometime you would do the same thing and the points would disappear. So it seemed like the order in which you did stuff was somehow important.
You looked for connections. You looked for patterns in order to achieve positive results or avoid negative ones. Every so often you would do something and all the points would vanish. You would have to start all over again, and I remember that possibility bringing particular stress into the experiment.
After the experiment, which took about half an hour, Mike debriefed me to find out how much I had “learned”. I had thought I had figured out how to get points, but not how to keep from losing them. (Which actually has sort of been a pattern in my life, now that I think about it.) I had even begun to wonder, if when it came to losing points, if it might not have anything to do with what I did, but rather depended on how I did it. How I sat, or how quickly or slowly I reacted, or something else that then caused Mike, who was observing me, to do something that cost me the points. Maybe it was really all his fault, or somebody else in some other room … (Not knowing why your are losing points can make you a little paranoid!)
As it turned out, the whole thing was entirely random. The dials, the slide, the number on the calculator weren’t connected to anything. Mike didn’t even control the points. Gaining or losing just happened.
The writer of Ecclesiastes expresses the same opinion about most of the way we live most of our lives. “Vanity, vanity, all is vanity and the chasing after wind.”
I know that may sound cynical, but we have all had that same experience of vanity in many more areas of our lives than college psychology experiments. I’ve had it in raising children for example. Over the past nearly twenty-five years as a parent I have seen standards of parenting shift, great insights rise and fall, breakthroughs come and go, from “enriched environments” in the playpen to “touch love” for teenagers, from discipline to freedom to benign neglect and back again. After all that somebody comes out and says that the only thing that is really important is consistency.
Still, my kids have turned out okay, more or less, so far. (That is another thing, I thought parenting stopped when they were 18!) The important thing is that, I really do like my kids. And I think that’s all that really matters.
Now I’ve known families that have followed pretty much the same path I have whose kids have turned out really great, and others who have followed pretty much the same path I have whose kids have had a really hard time. I was pretty consistent in my inconsistency with both of my kind, and they are very different from each other. There are just too many factors involved to do all that much predicting and prescribing. A creative challenge for one person can be a disabling trauma for another, or for the same person at another time and place. I know kids can be broken. I could have broken Mike’s machine in frustration, and I wouldn’t have gotten any points – or the 15 dollars. But short of that extreme I guess I am saying we are probably just not very much in control. We just pretend to be in control, pushing the buttons and turning the dials, and that helps to keep the panic down . And that may be a worthwhile thing in itself, but it can end up in vanity of we really buy into that delusion of control.
I found the same thing to be true in my work with people suffering from mental illness. Nature, nurture, medication, therapy, it all worked some but never really predictably. Every time some new idea would come along about a cause or a cure for mental illness it would as if people were saying, “We used to think that this elephant was gray, but now we know it’s actually big.”
I have seen it with the Church as well. Church growth programs, stewardship programs come and go. They may keep us occupied and out of serious trouble. But God is doing something here that we are not in charge of, and to pretend to be in charge may just get in the way.
The problem with arrogantly thinking we have it all figured out, that the surface answers and latest self-help books can deal with real problems of real life, is not just that we get caught up in vanity, but that the vanity blocks us from seeing the deeper truth. It blocks us from access to the true power beyond our false presumptions of power. It blocks us from God.
That’s what Jesus is talking about in the Gospel today. Then, as now, wealth was a way to exercise control, to find a kind of security. The man in the parable thought about building more barns, I check out my IRA in the mutual fund list in the newspaper, and look at the sales price for comparable houses with mind. It is the same sort of thing.
But Jesus says, “This day your soul is required of you.” Anything can happen. We can’t find real security in retirement accounts or airport checks or orange alerts. We are just pushing buttons and turning knobs, trying to keep the panic down. All of which is okay, but only if it doesn’t keep us from finding true security that can only be found in relationship with God. We try so hard sometimes to paddle up stream. We never seem to make way. The only difference is that we won’t see the rapids as we approach them. Only if we turn around – which is the real meaning of the word conversion – only if we go with God’s current instead of against it, can we ever hope to steer a little, and that is the most we can do…along with enjoying the ride.
It is interesting. The New English Bible translated the word that here is translated as ‘vanity’ by using the word ‘emptiness’. “Emptiness, emptiness, all is emptiness and a chasing after wind.” And that really is the root of the word ‘vanity’. It is connected with the world ‘vanish’. It may also be connected with the word ‘pane’, as in windowpane that has to be empty in order to see through.
Such emptiness is a spiritual truth in many traditions. It is at the heart of the non-attachment I talked about a few weeks ago. We have to be empty in order to be filled. We have to see past the vanity, the surface of the world, through the emptiness of the objective and the apparent in order to see the truth, to go with the flow. The flow of the spirit, the breath of God, the wind of God.
Emptiness, emptiness, all is emptiness, and a chasing after … spirit? AA would just say, “Let go and let God.”
That does not mean we stop raising children, or treating the mentally ill, or working for the growth of the church, or saving for retirement. It just means that we shouldn’t take ourselves so seriously.
We still pray. We still do good works. We go about our lives with as much skill as we can muster and try to use our paddle to avoid at least the visible rocks. Maybe we will end up with points left over. We get the $15 no matter what. But we are not in control.
Let go and let God. But also realize that God doesn’t really need our permission.
Thanks be to God.