Friday, December 28, 2007

And the Darkness Shall Not Overcome It…

Church of Our Saviour, December 30, 2007
Reflection on John 1:1-18

I had an extraordinarily rich Christmas. The two services here on Christmas Eve were both feasts for the eyes, ears and spirit, and I was invited with my whole family to a wonderful and warm Christmas Eve feast here in Mill Valley. On Christmas day my family had our usual Christmas dinner with all of my in-laws and a few dear friends. I was gifted with many things, material and otherwise, and I felt deeply blessed.

The day after Christmas I was preparing to preside at the Wednesday morning Eucharist, and as I hurried toward the sacristy, I saw the manger we had used in the Christmas pageant, sitting on the porch off the sanctuary with the blanket for the Christ child thrown into the empty manger.

It was such a striking sight that I stopped and stared. What did that empty manger say? Christmas was over, the waiting weeks of Advent, the glory and warmth and transformational power of the incarnation had seemingly come and gone, and there was the empty manger, like the empty tomb at the other end of the story. I attempted to shake the feeling off, but I couldn’t help but feel the world going back to business as usual. And business as usual is the killing of prophets, as we saw in our reading of that day.

At home, still surrounded by the Christmas tree, the lights and decorations and the presents still littering the house, I was checking my e-mail when I saw to my horror the news flash- Benazir Bhutto had been assassinated. On the third day of Christmas, on the 27th day of the holy month of Ramadan, another prophet was killed. Ramadan is the holy month for Muslims because it is believed that it was during this month that the Koran was revealed to Mohammed. In a different kind of incarnation, the word was made flesh.

Later the same day, I was going over the script of “As You Like It”, the play that my daughter is working on. I saw hatred recorded for comic effect in a script written four hundred years ago. As Rosalind, disguised as a man, is given an angry letter from the spurned shepherdess she describes it by saying, “ Why, ’tis a boisterous and a cruel style, a style for challengers; why, she defies me,
Like Turk to Christian.” The Crusades were not such a distant memory, and the hatred of Christians for Muslims was so ingrained that it was good fodder for comedy.

And now in this holy season, violence has broken out, again, and it is somehow more shocking than the deaths of thousands from the conflicts all over the world- more shocking because it is a woman whose face we all know, the first female prime minister of a Muslim country, the champion of the democracy that we hold dear. Like Judas, the assailant caused her death and then killed himself.

This is business as usual in our world and this is why we need the word made flesh so desperately. This is why we need to experience the new creation in ourselves and our world every day. This is when we need to hold close and live the promise of newness and life that is given us in this exquisite prologue to the Gospel of John: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”

This prologue streaks past the other gospels that begin with the beauty of the nativity, or the announcements of John the Baptist. The opening of the Gospel of John goes right for the enormity, the cosmic, the infinite nature of the coming of Christ. He came, not on Christmas night, but in the very beginning, with God.

We have been given this reading in our lectionary text at Christmas time, rather than the narrative about angels, a manger and the Magi to show that the people who wrote this narrative had been utterly transformed by grace upon grace. This is the testimony of those whose lives have been profoundly changed by “The Word.”

Thomas Merton, the Catholic monk and brilliant writer, had an epiphany in a Louisville shopping district at fourth and Walnut in 1958. He suddenly saw that he loved and was one with all the shoppers there- that he was theirs and they were his, and his long dream of separateness and isolation was over. In trying to describe the experience he wrote:

There is no way to tell people that they are all walking around shining like the sun. It was as if I suddenly saw the secret beauty of their hearts… where neither sin or desire nor self-knowledge can reach, the core of their reality, the person that each one is in God’s eyes. If only they could all see each other as they really are. If only we could see each other that way all the time. There would be no more war, no more hatred, no more cruelty, no more greed… I suppose the big problem we would have then would be that we would all fall down and worship each other.

Merton goes on to say that this change- the transformation that inspires non-violence- has to come from the realization of an inner spiritual source. This is a concept he received from Ghandi, another slain prophet- a Hindu prophet. Merton writes:

At the center of our being is a point of nothingness which is untouched by sin and by illusion, a point of pure truth, a point or spark which belongs entirely to God, which is never at our disposal, from which God disposes of our lives, which is inaccessible to the fantasies of our own mind, or the brutalities of our own will. This little point of nothingness and of absolute poverty is the pure glory of God within us. It is, so to speak, his name written in us…. It is like a pure diamond, blazing with the invisible light of heaven. It is in everybody, and if we could see it, we would see these billions of points of light coming together in the face and blaze of a sun that would make all the darkness and cruelty of life vanish completely…. I have no program for this seeing. It is only given. But the gate of Heaven is everywhere.

What sense can we make of the glorious words in our Gospel today if we do not in a deep sense begin to manifest that beginning, that light- if we do not, as Merton says “shine like the sun” deep from within that place where there is no sin, no cruelty? The opportunities are infinite- the gate of Heaven is in the face of every stranger, every being that seems to be our opposite- every needy soul who frightens us into isolation.

Jesus has given us the power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God- Jesus has become incarnate in us, and he has given us grace upon grace, and the courage to manifest his Light.

The baby is still in the manger. The empty manger is an illusion, as is our separateness and our isolation from each other. And we can still glimpse the glory of the incarnation if our hearts can open to that unbearably pure, utterly grace-filled light, so close to the heart of God, that that is already in our deepest selves, and always has been, from the very beginning.


Tuesday, December 11, 2007

The Wolf May Lie down with the Lamb, But the Lamb Won't Get a Very Good Night's Sleep...

Sermon Dec. 9, 2007, The Rev Este Gardner Cantor
Church of Our Saviour, Mill Valley

All of the readings today talk of waiting, hoping, watching- they are in a way, strange Advent readings, but I can see why they were picked.

In heart-breakingly beautiful prose, Isaiah speaks of the coming of the Messiah. He speaks of one who will come not judging with his eyes and hears- those faulty human organs, but with righteousness, with God’s eyes and ears. And he shall come from the stump of Jessie- King David’s father. And when he comes, what a transformation there will be. The text reads that the wolf (not the lion, by the way) will lie down with the lamb. The leopard and the lion and the adder will not hurt or destroy in all this holy Kingdom. For, just as Jeremiah predicted that the law of God would be written on our hearts, the earth, and presumably all its creatures, will be filled with the knowledge of God.

This is not the Kingdom of Earth that is being described. In the Kingdom of Earth, as Woody Allen has noted, the wolf may lie down with the lamb, but the lamb will not get a very good night’s sleep. No, what is being described is a paradise of peace, a realm of trust and love between all beings.

John the Baptist also predicts the coming of the Messiah, and he warns that there is not much time to repent. He shouts out, like any street profit “Repent! The End is near! The Kingdom of Heaven is at hand!” The Pharisees and Sadducees who have the nerve to join him at the River Jordan soon find out that their status means nothing to John, as it will mean nothing to God. The dark side of the Day of Judgment is described- unless you bear fruits of repentance- of transformation, you may be thrown in with the chaff. In this text the Greek word Metanoia is badly translated as repentance. Repentance is from the Latin for “turn around.” A better translation of metanoia might be true transformation.

So what is our part in this? Is there a way that we can speed or facilitate the coming of the Kingdom of Heaven? And must it be a future vision, or can it be in our time? The timing of the Kingdom of Heaven varies from Gospel to Gospel, but it is sometimes clearly stated to be now at hand, especially in the Gospel of John.

I recently heard a beautiful story of the manifestation of the Kingdom of Heaven. The story was told by the Buddhist teacher Jack Kornfield, who was born Jewish, and the protagonist of the story was a Muslim, the Palestinian poet, Naomi Shihab Nye.

The poet was taking a flight from Phoenix to Huston and she suddenly heard a flight attendant frantically calling out, “Does anyone speak Arabic?” Well, as the poet said, these days one hesitates, but her better nature prevailed, and she came forward. Greatly relieved, the flight attendant ushered her over to a woman in her sixties. She was dressed in full traditional Moslem dress and had collapsed into a heap on the floor, loudly crying. “I announced that the flight had been delayed four hours and this happened!” The flight attendant said. The poet knelt down beside the woman and began to ask her why she was crying in a language she could understand. It turned out that the woman had misunderstood the flight attendant and thought that the flight had been cancelled all together. She had to be in Huston for a medical procedure and was terrified that she would not make it in time. After learning the times and particulars the poet assured her that she could make it and asked who was picking her up. The women gave her her son’s number, the poet called him and they had a nice chat. It turned out that the Muslim woman had three other sons, and the poet called them all up too (they had four hours to kill after all.) Then she began calling some other Palestinian poets she knew, and introducing them to the woman, just for fun.

The woman, now very much more calm, had brought many things in her carry-on luggage (among them a potted plant- a classic folk medicinal remedy) and a huge supply of incredibly good little home-made powdered sugar cookies. She began passing them out to all the passengers waiting for the flight, primarily Texans. All exclaimed that these were the best cookies they had ever eaten and not one person refused the cookies from the woman in full perdah, who spoke not one word of Englis, and there was not one shred of mistrust in evidence. “This is the kind of world I want to live in,” said the poet, “Where we all share in one sacrament, where we are all covered with the same powdered sugar, where the grandmotherly goodness of a generous woman can be savored even as she wears her scarf and long dress, communicating through the universal language of powdered sugar cookies.”

These cookies were fruits worthy of repentance- of metanoia. They were offered by a woman some would associate with terrorists to people who some would associate with bigotry. But the lion lay down with the lamb. In my imagining of the story, after a few hours went by, they started to take naps, and the rich Republican Houston Oil executive lay down with the Muslim woman in full perdah, and no one was hurt or destroyed in all that Holy waiting area.

Perhaps this is the kind of metanoia spoken of by John the Baptist- the dissolving of age old prejudice in favor of full communion.

"Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near. Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight, and share thy sugar cookies without restraint.”

The indiscriminant acceptance of these fruits of metanoia, this instant communion, and the age old prejudices laid down herald for me the coming of the Kingdom as clearly as any lion eating straw, any child-friendly adder, or any angel’s declaration.

Stories like these show us the possibilities of grace, even of paradise in the here and now. And here, in our second Sunday in Advent, we remember that the kingdom is indeed at hand, and that a little child shall lead us.