Saturday, August 11, 2007

Heavy Laden

A Reflection on
Luke 12:32-40
Isaiah 1:1, 10-20

We have heard some beautiful and some hair-raising things in our readings of this morning.

But there is an emerging theme that can only be good news for us slowly evolving Christians. The theme is perfect freedom. Jesus has been called our Passover- our Moses who leads us from slavery to freedom and our paschal lamb, causing death to pass over us that we might have abundant life. Jesus frees us from the death-like grip of our great burdens, not only of possessions and sins, but of our fears, our worries. And worry is simply a lack of faith.

"Do not be afraid, little flock." Jesus tells us in today's reading. But he goes into a lot more detail about those fears of ours in the passages just before. He goes into detail about the nature of perfect freedom: "Do not worry about your life, what you will eat, or about your body, what you will wear." He points out that if God has clothed the lilies of the field in raiment more glorious than king Solomon, how much more will he clothe us- we of little faith.

We may not see those lily-like raiments, that field of ever-growing crops, that over-flowing table. But faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. With such affection, such fondness, Jesus calls us his little flock and tells us not to be afraid- not to worry, to have faith.

In our Old Testament reading, Isaiah thunders out the disgruntled word of the Lord. It seems an amazingly harsh and detailed liturgical critique on the part of God- God hates sacrifices, including burnt offerings of rams, blood of bulls or lambs or goats. The trampling of God's courts (God is talking about religious processions) and all offerings. And incense is to God an abomination, a viewpoint shared by some modern parishioners as well. The sacred and required festivals of the new moon and apparently all other appointed festivals are also hated by God. Most heart-breakingly of all, God even rejects the prayers of the people- the "stretching out of their hands." Because, as he says, your hands are full of blood.

Jesus later said to the law-obsessed Pharisees, "I desire mercy, not sacrifice." Isaiah is saying that if we don't wash our selves clean of our violent natures, cease to do evil, learn to do good, and seek justice, the most elaborately beautiful liturgy in the world is nothing but empty pomp. Apparently God wants us to be stripped down, essential, without pomp and circumstance, without pride and grandiosity. Another very similar liturgical critic was Amos who said, in the words of God, "Take away from me the music of your songs, I will not listen to the melody of your harps, but let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream."

In keeping with Jesus' conception of God as a loving father, he echoes these same thoughts in a kinder, gentler way. We are to be free of our justice-defying obsessions, but most of all, from our worries, our fears. But that freedom can never be ours unless we fulfill our obligation to the powerless, to justice. Jesus gently urges us away from those things that will not truly bring us salvation in this life or the next.

But too often, we seem to prefer to live in our comfortable slavery of property, dissention, violence, of being first, of being other than who we really are, which is all God wants of us. The rich young man who sought the Kingdom of Heaven was looked at lovingly by Jesus. Jesus wanted to free this young man, but was unable, for the time being. And so the young man walked away sad, and we are all walking away sad.

I was riding BART the other day and I saw another young man. I'm sure this was not a rich young man, but he was apparently not free of the all too common obsession with money and violence. He was wearing a black store-bought jacket with metallic gold logos all over the place. It's bad enough when the garment makes you a walking advertisement for the brand name, but this was much worse. I was so stunned when I read the logos that I discreetly jotted them down. They read: "Criminal Minded," "Most Wanted," "Get Rich or Die Trying," "Money, Power, Respect," "Blood Money," Road to Riches," Gotta be Thug," and most poignantly, "I was given this world, I didn't make it." This is the gospel taught to young people in our world right now. These are the violent and greedy impulses that are fostered. This is the level of anxiety that is maintained. The wearer of this jacket was not free. The culture we live in seems determined to bind us evermore tightly into our modern form of slavery. It encourages debt, greed, self-obsession, indeed, self-loathing if we don't fit the advertised norm. It encourages violence and narcissism, not justice and freedom. Can we be beacons in the world for our young people to show them that there is something more valuable than money, some way out of the necessity of blood sacrifices? Can we ourselves be willing to let go of our desperate, enslaved clinging to life as we must have it, at all costs?

Jesus wants us to travel light. "Come to me all you who travail and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest." He wants us to be able to pass through, as he puts it a little later in Luke, that narrow door. But where are we without our possessions, without our fears and worries, without our regrets and obsessions, without our great and bulky lack of faith? It seems that we are hovering over a void that most of us will not want to enter- a gap we are loath to fall into.

Annie Dillard, in her glorious hymn to the natural world, "Pilgrim at Tinker Creek," says this:

Ezekiel condemns false prophets as those who have not 'gone up into the gaps.' The gaps are the thing. The gaps are the spirit's one home, the altitudes and latitudes so dazzlingly spare and clean that the spirit can discover itself for the first time, like a once-blind man unbound."

In fact, whether we are willing to let go or not, what we are actually hovering over is nothing but the welcoming hands of God. Part and parcel of letting go is giving substance to our faith in God, providing ourselves with purses that will not grow old, even though we, in our great vulnerability, surely will.

In the beginning of Luke's gospel, the angel Gabriel asks the impossible of a young woman. But she proves herself able and willing to enter through that narrow door. "Here I am." She says. "The handmaiden of the Lord." And then the soul of this young woman does indeed expand to 'magnify the Lord."

Jesus wants to set us on fire, want to grow us up to the grand dimensions of the transformed mustard seed. He is the arsonist of transformation, and it is transformation, not security that he brings us. He is not only the fisher of women and men, but also the carpenter of that narrow door that he kindly invites us to enter. He calls to us whether or not we answer. "Stay awake- stay with me," he calls, urging us to keep our lamps lit, to keep our eyes open. He calls to us again and again, "Do not be afraid, little flock." It is your Father's good pleasure to free you- to give you the kingdom.


Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Our Fathers- Not in Heaven

Genesis 18:22-33
Luke 11:1-13

In our wonderful reading from Genesis today, Abraham pleads for the fate of Sodom, that undeserving city, like a mischievous little child begging his father for some great favor. In six easy steps, he gets God to agree to have mercy even if there are only 10 good men in the whole city of Sodom. Abraham mirrors our own pleadings for God to answer our prayers, even as we sometimes feel there may be only ten percent at the most that is truly good in us. And yet still we ask, and we receive. God plays the part of the ever-forgiving father, forgiving of Abraham’s insolence in his constant bargaining and forgiving even of the corrupt city of Sodom. Abraham asks, asks and asks again, and he receives.

In Luke’s version of the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus, rather than giving the disciples the magic words they seem to seek, teaches them about the nature of the one they are praying to, the nature of a perfect father.

In this prayer the hierarchy of a father is not the point. God is not introduced as “Our Father in heaven,” but simply as “Father.” We are so used to hearing God called “Our Father” that its meaning has been lost. But it was a very unusual way to address God at the time that Jesus did it. “Lord, King, glorious, Almighty, all-powerful,” these are the terms that would have been more familiar. And in fact, the doxology at the end of the Lord’s Prayer, which was added later, fulfills some of what Luke left out- “Thine is the kingdom, and the power and the glory”- but that was not there in the gospels. So the compassion, the limitless giving and forgiving of a father seems to be the point of the prayer, not God’s great power. God is like a father who would never refuse you what you need- the one you can ultimately rely on with never a doubt. The one who will protect you from trial, and the one who will always forgive you, no matter what.

This makes me reflect on what Jesus’ relationship with his earthly father might have been. At first thought, it might seem that Jesus had such a wonderful concept of God the Father because he had an extraordinary relationship with his own father, Joseph. Perhaps he was never disappointed, never deserted, perhaps his mistakes were always forgiven, perhaps he was always protected. Of course we will never know for sure, but what we do know is that Joseph was a human father, and human fathers are by definition, imperfect. And it may have been that Joseph’s beginnings with Jesus were not the of smoothest sort, as Jesus was, in a sense, a step child. We also know that Jesus never mentioned his father at all in the gospels, although Jesus’ rare references to earthly fathers are interesting.

Early in Jesus’ ministry, a young man approaches Jesus, wanting to follow him and be his disciple. He begs Jesus, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.” Jesus says, “Follow me and let the dead bury the dead.” (Mt 8:21). And when criticizing the hierarchy of the scribes and Pharisees, Jesus says, “Call no one your father on earth, for you have one father- the one in heaven.” He also tells his disciples, “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wives and children, brothers and sisters and even life itself cannot be my disciple.”

Although Jesus does not mention his earthly father, Joseph was well known to the people Jesus preached to. They objected to Jesus getting above his raisin’s saying, “Is this not Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know?" (Jn 6:42)

And in the gospel of John, in another scuffle with the Pharisees, Jesus confronts them with strong language saying, “You are from your father the devil and you choose to do your father’s desires. When he lies, he speaks according to his own nature for he is a liar and the father of lies.” From these few examples, it seems possible at least that Jesus’ experience of earthly fathers was not entirely rosy.

The disciples ask Jesus for a special set prayer, one that would identify their faith from others- and they probably wanted one grander than the one Jesus delivered. Jesus gives them a prayer that stands in stark contrast to the one his father Joseph undoubtedly taught him as a boy- the ancient Hebrew Shema, drawn from Deuteronomy and Numbers. It was required that this prayer be chanted morning and night by all pious Jews and was specifically required to be taught to all children.

The simple, spare text of the Lord’s Prayer we read today seems almost comically brief, by contrast. It must have sounded something like this to Jesus’ disciples: “You want me to tell you how to pray? OK- pray like this: Dad, may your reign begin. Give us bread, forgive us, keep us from being tempted to do stupid things.” That’s it. There is not even an Amen.

In great contrast, the Shema, the prayer Jesus had recited since boyhood, goes on for paragraphs, and emphasizes keeping the Lord’s commandments, with very specific threats as to what will happen if you don’t. A very strict disciplinarian father God is depicted.

The blessings of the Lord; grain, wine and oil, and rain on your fields, are highly conditional on following the commandments. If the commandments are not kept, “The anger of the Lord will blaze against you and he will close up the heavens and you shall not have rain… and you shall perish from the good land the Lord has given you.”

This God is not the same loving father that Jesus describes- one who will forgive his child again and again. One who will always provide as a father will provide food to his child.

Psalm 85, a beautiful work probably penned by King David, seems to provide a bridge between the severity of God the father in the Shema and the compassion of the Father in the Lord’s Prayer.

The psalmist, cajoling God like Abraham did, recalls a time when God did forgive his people:

You forgave the iniquity of your people; you pardoned all their sin.
You withdrew all your wrath;

Will you be angry with us forever? Will you prolong your anger to all generations?
Show us your steadfast love, O LORD, and grant us your salvation.

Paul’s letter to the Colossians refers to Christ in the most mystical and holy of terms:

For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily.

And then Paul shows us how this impacts on us as lowly, needy humans.
He says that since we have died and risen with Christ “we have come to fullness in him.”

Coming to fullness in him is knowing, having perfect faith that when you ask it shall be given to you; that if you seek, you shall find, and that if you knock the door will be opened to you. This is to know God as Jesus does, as a perfect father. We ask like a child, we seek like one who is lost, we knock, like one without shelter, but with all these desperate needs, we know we will be taken care of.

When we do manage to admit our vulnerability and get down on our knees and pray, what door is opened to us? It might not be the door we expect. But Jesus has a genius for opening things. When he opens that door, he opens our eyes to God, he opens our hearts, and he opens our minds, perhaps even to such an extent that when that open door reveals something that is God’s will and not our own we may grow to accept it.

We are all imperfect, needy, vulnerable, often lost, and we all need a father. But we all share the same fate of having human fathers, fathers who inevitably fail us in one way or another, fathers who may not have been ultimately forgiving. But Jesus opens our eyes to the possibility of having a father who will never forsake us- and who will always forgive us. And he opens our hearts to the possibility of forgiving our own erring fathers, as we would want them to forgive us.

Jesus seems to love us all the more for our great neediness and he even points out our small virtues- our tendency to care for and lovingly feed our children. As Jesus says, if even we can do that, how much more will our Father in heaven do. And if on occasion, we cannot even do that, if we can’t even be the father or the mother that we know we should be, we know there is still God’s infinite fatherly forgiveness and the chance to try again.


An Ocean of Suffering by the Side of the Road

No man is an island, entire of itself…any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind: and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee

I begin today with this quote from our own divine Anglican divine, John Donne because after this past remarkable week, I am hearing it in a new way. I had heard that Sheila Andrus, wife of our own Bishop Marc, was teaching a class at my old seminary CDSP. So I took the plunge and found myself in seminary again, if only for the week. Throughout the course we studied, in exhaustive detail, the Millennium Development Goals that our diocese, as of the last convention, pledged to support. We saw films, heard countless statistics and stories and were graced with the presence of Bishop Marc and my favorite
seminary teacher the Eco-feminist scholar genius, Marion Grau. The great gift from Marion was the idea that you cold work toward these goals not out of guilt that you hadn’t done enough, and not out of anger that other people had not, but out of joyousness that you could do something. And she said to just start from wherever you are- if you are doing nothing, do something. If you are doing something, perhaps you could do a little more.
And the great gift from Bishop Marc was adding a ninth MDG- peace and reconciliation. So here are the Millennium Development Goals- with the newly added #9:

1. Eradicate extreme poverty and hunger.
2. Achieve universal primary education for children.
3. Promote gender equality and empower women.
4. Reduce child mortality.
5. Improve maternal health.
6. Combat AIDS, malaria and other diseases.
7. Ensure environmental sustainability.
8. Create a global partnership for development.
9. Promote peace and reconciliation among all people.

The first thing we had to learn, as they put it, was how the world is today. In all the many stories we heard through the week there were startlingly depressing revelations, as well as some very hopeful ones. And although many countries were in dire straights, by far it was Africa that came through as a veritable ocean of suffering. The statistics are horrifying. There are 13 million AIDS orphans in Africa – as many as there are children under 5 years old in the United States.

The story that stayed with me the most was the story of Olivia, a twelve-year-old living in Africa who, after her father and her siblings died of AIDS, was the only one left to care for her mother. After her mother died in her arms, she had no one at all. By some streak of luck, she was discovered by an American governmental agency that had arrived to help. She was immediately recognized for her articulate and heart-rending ability to tell her story- thus her appearance in the film. She was asked to come to Washington to tell her story there, which she did, with great dignity, clarity and heart. She made a very strong impression and her appearance was instrumental in the increase in AIDS funding. Then she returned to Africa. She had been tested and it was discovered that she, too was HIV positive, and she began to sicken. The government worker who first found her was shown on film describing her own desperate efforts to get and pay for the medication that Olivia needed. The cost was $500 a month. The worker finally realized that the only way she could get the medication for Olivia was if she paid for it herself, which she was willing to do. But for Olivia it was too late. She had contracted meningitis and died soon after returning from Washington. She was a bright, beautiful and articulate girl, and she had given so much of herself to help so many people.

But there was also the story of Beatrice, another African Village girl, also bright and beautiful who was luckier. She too came from a desperately poor African family, living in a hut made out of salvaged materials. But Heifer International made their way to that village and they gave that girl a baby goat. Given our own parish’s involvement in buying a small flock of goats last year for Heifer International, this story was particularly heartening for me. The filmmakers stayed with this child for ten years, and so we first see footage of her as she lay sleeping with a silky little baby goat in her arms. Beatrice was an extraordinarily bright child and had long wanted to go to school, but there was no money in the family. Slowly, the family accumulated enough profit from the goat’s milk that they were able to send Beatrice to a local school. She began school at ten with absolutely no ability to read or write. But she dug in furiously and caught up with the other students, sometimes working all night to make up for lost time. She soon won a scholarship to a secondary school, and from there she earned a scholarship to an American college. We see her on the film beaming with pride, even as she describes the unbelievably cold winters in Connecticut. After graduation there was only one thing Beatrice wanted to do. She wanted to go back to Africa. We see an African ceremony in which a family that was previously gifted with a goat gives one of the off- spring to a new family. Beatrice, in celebratory African garb is asked by the interviewer what she wants to do with her life. “I want to start a school,” she said, “to make sure that children can get an education as I did. And I want to start an orphanage too.”

Finally, we heard the victorious story of Dr. Paul Farmer who has been working for two decades taking care of desperately sick AIDS patients in Haiti. Dr. Farmer constantly turned a deaf ear to arguments that giving expensive medications to the very poor was a waste of money, that they would be unable to understand how to take them properly, that for one reason or another, it was not cost-effective. He proved those arguments wrong, and real progress was made through his tireless efforts. As he puts it: “A decade of prevention plus treatment plus addressing social issues equals success, weather we measure success by AIDS mortality, numbers of new infections prevented, or numbers of patients who receive their first real dose of primary health care.” We saw images of Joseph Jeune, a 26 year old who was weak and skeletal, and looked like so many others on their way to death. But because Joseph was able to receive anti-viral therapy, we see him in the next image robust and smiling, holding his healthy infant son. He is now an activist for AIDS relief and in the last image we see him speaking before a health and human rights conference. Wonderful progress was made but there are still far, far too many tragic stories, far too few people to help. Dr. Farmer, like so many courageous workers we learned about this past week embraced a sector of humanity that was far from his own tribe, far from where he had grown up, far from people he might consider his neighbors.

In our gospel reading for today Jesus tries to give us a different sense of what a tribe, what a neighbor might be.

“Who is my neighbor?” This was the second question posed to Jesus by the curious lawyer in our Gospel story. It is a very good question, and one that requires Jesus to tell the famous story. The priest and the Levite leave the poor man bleeding by the side of the road. It may have been less pure heartlessness than a faithful keeping to the purity codes- as an observant Jew; one could not legally touch anyone who was bleeding. But it was a Samaritan, one of the tribes that the Hebrews despised most, who came to the aid of this fallen Jew. Jesus tells the story of one who took the risk of reaching out to help, to bind the wounds of someone of another tribe.

This is how we, as Christians, have been told to recognize our neighbor: The one who is outcast, the one who is rejected, the one who is suffering and being ignored again and again.

Africa lies bleeding by the side of the road, and countries and peoples and nations are passing her by. She is not of our tribe, but she is surely our neighbor.

The last thing Jesus says makes it plain that he has hope for the lawyer whose first question was what is the recipe for eternal life. Eternal life is that quality of life that shows mercy to those in need. Jesus is talking about mercy, and mercy pays no attention to class or tribe or race or religion or region. At last, Jesus refers to the selfless act of the Good Samaritan and he says, “Go and do likewise,” We can all take heart at this last phrase. Perhaps we too might transcend our tribal nature, our allergy to compassion, our primitive self-protection. Our neighbor lies bleeding, and we can help her. Another question arises- one that we might ask ourselves- Will we pass her by?