Friday, April 17, 2009

The Unexpected Kingdom

A Reflection on Mt. 29:13:31- 13:52
The Rev. Este Gardner Cantor

I went on a pilgrimage recently, and the more I think about it, the more I realize that I had an experience of the Kingdom of Heaven in the most unexpected of places.

The destination of the pilgrimage was supposed to be the gigantic Cathedral of St. John the Divine, where one would expect to have a revelation. But my first unlikely glimpse of the Kingdom was in the huge and dilapidated Methodist Church of St. Paul and St. Andrew on 86th and Broadway. I stayed there for 8 days with my fellow priest, Father Richard, the other adult chaperone, Gay Johnson, and 7 of our wonderful high school youth.

There is no denying the fact that the church was a daunting place to live. We shared a shower with the homeless shelter, and after my first look, I attacked the stall with a long brush and some Comet and strove to make it look clean. But for all my scrubbing, this was not really possible. There was also a considerable population of mice in that church. We took to adopting the habits of wilderness campers who hang their packs high in the trees to keep them from the bears. We hung our bags from the wall lamps to keep them from the mice. Our youth group was housed in two fine rooms the first night- until a huge youth group took over one of our rooms, and then, later in the week, a third youth group was welcomed in, and even our plan B space became endangered.

There were always meetings going on in our room when we wanted to be there to rest. We soon learned that obtaining a set schedule for these meetings was not possible. When we wanted to use the kitchen, we would often find it occupied by some darn program feeding the homeless. It was an amazing experience to be there, but it certainly was uncomfortable. We actually considered leaving at one point, and then one of our youth pointed out to us we were on a pilgrimage, not a vacation.

I slowly began to realize that this dilapidated church we were camping in resembled nothing so much as the radically welcoming branches of the transformed mustard seed.

This church runs a women’s shelter. They host a food pantry, run by former clients, who are now happily employed there. The church sends out hundreds of Meals on Wheels packages every day. They have a mothers and babies group. They have a martial arts class for youth. They have a tutoring program. They have music classes in the sanctuary. The night we arrived there was a huge and joyous Indian flavored rock concert in progress, also in the sanctuary. They have a beautiful theatrical stage on the 2nd floor, which was used by no fewer than six theater groups. They have dozens of 12 step programs going all the time, and they often happened in the room we were staying in! The church houses a very large and rather famous radical synagogue, B’nai Jesurun. It also houses a Presbyterian church whose usual space was being renovated. During the Sunday service on Gay Pride Day all of the marchers were welcomed to the center of the church, and everyone laid hands on them to bless them on their march. They used inclusive language in every prayer- God was never a “he.”

Everyone was welcomed in- even us- even the mice. It seemed that no bird would be turned away from building a nest in this great tree, and if a place could be said to have a great heart, this one sure did.

It seemed to me that the blessing and the curse of being part of this great teeming Kingdom was the same thing- we were automatically part of the hospitality because we were given hospitality. We had to accept that our nest was just one of hundreds, and not the center of the tree. And after a while we found that even if we were bumped out of our room there was always somewhere for us to perch, and we found some rather lovely places. We could always camp on the cool and quiet balcony of the vast sanctuary, sometimes hearing the beautiful strains of music from some of our neighboring birds. It did feel a little like heaven up there.

The Kingdom of Heaven popped up unexpectedly again for me in quite another place- this time after the planned part of the pilgrimage was over.

My husband joined me after the pilgrims went home, and after a few days in New York, we decided to go to Washington DC to see the fireworks on the 4th of July. I had lived in Washington for many years, so I called an old boyfriend of mine, Art Grosman, who still lives there, and I asked if we could stay with him. He was delighted to offer us a room at the big brownstone he shares with his girlfriend. I hadn’t seen him in 20 years, but he hadn’t changed a bit. Long ago, when we were both professional hippies, we had crossed Canada together in our VW van, resplendent with tie-dyed curtains. When I saw him on this recent visit, he still had all the photos from that trip, which included the many and sometimes motley hitch-hikers we picked up along the way.

I left this man because he was always doing exactly what he had done for those hitch-hikers and for my husband and me. He was always inviting anyone and everyone to stay- every derelict old friend of his was welcome at the table. Art’s particular call was providing services for free that usually cost something. He started the Washington Free Press. He started the Washington Free clinic, and when he got together with his girlfriend, they housed the Washington Free School. I now realize that I had to leave him because my heart was not big enough. But I got to know his girlfriend Marty for the first time on this trip, and realized that this time he had found someone whose heart was big enough. Before he met her, Marty had already adopted two kids whose parents had been institutionalized. Nobody else wanted these kids. Then, once they got together, they spent the next 20 years, taking in emergency foster kids- kids whose parents were in prison, or on crack, or just not there. Some of these kids stayed for 10 years or more. During this time they managed to have two of their own biological kids as well.

Art is a Jewish atheist (like all my friends were in Washington), and so I was surprised to see an obituary tacked up on his wall for Kenneth Taylor, the man who started the huge Christian publishing house, Tyndale Press. Kenneth Taylor created “The Living Bible” which I have on my shelf because my grandfather gave it to me. This was an early attempt to put the bible into understandable English. I was told that this titan of the Christian publishing business was Marty’s father. He used to read the bible to his children every night and explain what it meant. One time Marty said, ”Well, if that’s what they mean, why don’t they just say it?” This was the catalyst for the creation of "The Living Bible.”

Art and Marty never married during their 30 year old courtship, and this was hard on Marty’s father. But I understand that before he died, he came to realize that Art and Marty were married in the eyes of God. And I hope he realized that contrary to appearances, the words of the bible he had read his daughter all those years had not fallen on deaf ears. Married or not, Marty and Art were doing the work of the Kingdom of Heaven-- taking in the homeless orphans, providing for the poor, opening their house to everyone who needed it- even me and my husband.

Being part of this bustling kingdom must not have been easy. I’m sure there were hardships for their birth children, navigating between so many little sheltered birds, and probably difficulties among the many foster children. And surely there were stresses between the two parents. But they too, apparently recognized that they were on a pilgrimage, not a vacation.

This led me to consider that life is, or should be a lot more like a pilgrimage than a vacation. And if we believe what Jesus tells us, that the Kingdom of God is at hand, maybe that Kingdom isn’t supposed to be entirely comfortable either. Or maybe in the Kingdom of Heaven we are transformed in a way that changes the meaning of being comfortable all together. How comfortable is the wolf when she lies down with the lamb? And if the lamb is comfortable, it is in a way we can’t yet fathom.

I read that if we wanted to have every human being on earth enjoy the lifestyle of an affluent North American, we would need four planet earths. I wonder if the bustling and rich kingdom of our New York City Methodist church, or the loving chaos of Art and Marty’s house could be microcosms of what life might be if we evened out the score on a global basis. It might not be comfortable in our own present terms, but it just might be our introduction into the Kingdom of Heaven.

I believe that in the Kingdom of Heaven, we all get enfolded in the great green branches spawned from that tiny mustard seed, we all glory in the abundance of unconditional love. And, if we can bear it, we get to bring out our treasures, both old and new, and scatter them out from our comfortable households throughout the whole of the Kingdom.


The Undefended Heart

The Rev. Este Gardner Cantor
Reflection on John 12:22-33 and Jeremiah 31:31-34

Archbishop Desmond Tutu points out that Jesus did not say “I draw SOME people to myself." He said, "I will draw ALL people to myself.” And the most ancient texts are even more radically inclusive- they say, “I will draw all THINGS to myself.”

What strikes me about this passage, as with so much of what Jesus said is the radical inclusivity, the radical abundance, and the radical love that is illuminated, even with the approaching darkness.

The introduction of the Greeks at the very beginning clues us into the idea of universality- of an abundance of nationalities, of ethnicities. Then Jesus speaks of the grain of sand that dies, but then bears much fruit- in fact has to die in order to bear an abundance of fruit.

Jesus speaks of those who love their lives losing them- a frightening comment on the face of it. But it could be that those of us who hang on too desperately to our life as we need to see it (and I preach to myself here) may not end up with the kind of abundance we most want. Like us, the crowd in the story never seems to get what Jesus is talking about. Like us, they sometimes hear God speaking and all they perceive are storm warnings. But even in a storm, there can be abundance. In fact I have just recently heard it said that life is not about waiting for a storm to pass- it is about learning to dance in the rain.

The things that I hear over and over again from Jesus, the things that stand out either because they are said so often, or because they are so revolutionary and impossible, are all expressions of divine abundance: abundance of love, of inclusivity and of courage:

Love your enemy
Let go of your possessions
And do not be afraid.

“Do not be afraid,” said mostly by angels or by Jesus, appears in scripture 365 times- perhaps once for every day of the year. So Jesus must have meant it we have to work this practice every day of our lives- have this faith on a daily basis- do not be afraid, no matter what.

In this terrifying time of economic insecurity I have had the twin traumatic experiences of losing my job, (and I am very sorry to be leaving you) and my daughter preparing for college, and so, potentially leaving me. And then a tragedy occurred that made my misfortunes seem like nothing. Someone I knew lost her child. Suddenly I realized that I had been living in riotous abundance- paradise, really, possessing a literal embarrassment of riches, without even noticing it. It also made me realize with a shock how fragile, how precious, and how terrifyingly unpredictatable life really is. I absorbed some of the shock myself and was initially plunged into fear. I learned the meaning of “pray without ceasing” and I saw at very close vantage point Job’s whirlwind.

I spent as much time as I could with my friend, and to my astonishment I saw grace and healing even in what I considered to be the very worse possible thing. Her community embraced her, she was not alone with the bearing of her cross, floods of love came her way, not just from her community but from her daughter’s sweet friends as well. I saw the beginning of healing, the beginning of resurrection.

And yet my friend’s loss struck me in the heart- removed my denial that something like that could ever happen even to someone I knew, let alone to me. In our passage today the human Jesus tells us, “Now my soul is troubled.” He apparently is fearful because he forsees his own death, and perhaps tempted to say what he did say in the Gospel of Luke “Take this cup from my lips.” But Jesus is steadfast and heaven answers him that he made the right decision, that his Father’s name will be glorified. The fearful moment seems to pass.

It is somehow comforting to have an incarnated God who is sometimes fearful, sometimes in pain and grief and even rage. Jesus cries tears of blood in the Garden of Gethsemane, he weeps at the death of his friend Lazareth, he explodes into a violent rage at the money changers in the temple. And yet he somehow returns to faith, to love, to an awareness of God’s abundance. Even at the threat of death, even through death itself.

In the Old and New Testaments, there is a constant reminder that God’s abundance, God’s grace is limitless, and is there is for all people- therefore there really is enough for everyone, in spite of our fears. I have heard this described as God’s “more-than-enoughness.”

We are now moving to the end of Lent, and we are asked by Christ to mimic the ridiculous abundance of the anointing woman- to have such over-flowing abundant love that we wash each other’s feet- doing the work of a slave, as Jesus the master did. Jesus models the abundance he sees in God his father, described in the scripture he knew so well. In Genesis, God makes his covenant, when he places the rainbow in the sky, not with humans only, but with all creation.

God Blesses Abraham and Sarah so that they will bless all nations.

And when the Pharoah finally lets the Hebrews slaves go, they start on their way across the wilderness, with “A mixed multitude and very many animals, both flocks and herds.” So it follows that the covenant at Sanai was not given only to the Jews, but to all people- to the whole “mixed multitude” of humanity. To ALL of us, God extravagantly declared, “I will be your God and you will be my people.”

With the birth of Jesus, it was the foreigners, the non-Jewish Magi who found the Christ child- the abundance of revelation was not only given to the chosen people even in this treasured nativity story of ours. They brought valuable gifts, like the nard ointment the woman poured so recklessly on Jesus’ head, like the spices brought by the women at the tomb to lavish on what they thought was their dead master.

In the Revelation to John, he speaks of “a great multitude that no one could count, of every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the Lamb.”

And in the Gospel of John, Jesus says, “I will draw ALL people to myself.” This is Jesus of the undefended heart- the mind of Christ that St. Paul urged us to attempt. Jesus always accepted, always loved “all people.” The undefended heart knows no fear, knows no limitation, and excludes no one. Jesus’ impossible but persistent teaching is that we love abundantly-fearlessly- even our enemies. That we have nothing to be afraid of, because abundant life is all around us in the abundant love of God. As the Buddhist/Christian poet and holy man Thick Nat Hahn has said “The winds of grace are always blowing- you have only to put up your sails.”

It may not look like the abundant life we thought we should have. It may sound like thunder and look like crucifixion. It may scare the daylights out of us. But Jesus said “I will always be with you”- this is the meaning of Emmanuel- “God with us.”

Jesus would have known well the beautiful passage from Jeremiah about the new covenant. This is one of my very favorite passages in the whole bible. How can we think the Old Testament is Old when it contains the New Covenant?

"The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah."

We have the rainbow covenant in Genesis and the covenant at Sinai revealed to be for all people- surely this promise is as well: Surely the law will be written in all of our hearts. Surely the struggle can end- straining to know the law, know the Lord, know the answers to everything. Surely this promise holds abundantly for all people- that we will know God without fear, and know that even in all circumstances, even in the very worst circumstances, even in our pain and in our fear, that we are deeply and abundantly forgiven, and deeply and abundantly loved, and that God is with us.

Then we can feel, beating in our breast, the undefended heart, the heart that has opened up and let go of fear where God can and will write her law.