Saturday, May 23, 2009

Bless Me a River

John 17: 6-19

The Rev. Este Gardner Cantor

Church of the Holy Innocents, Corte Madera

Today we are privileged to eavesdrop on an exquisite 3-part prayer Jesus prays to God his Father in the presence of his beloved disciples. This beautiful prayer is often called the high priestly prayer of Jesus. In the first part Jesus prays for himself, in the longest section (our Gospel for today) he prays for his disciples, and in the short last section he prays for the believers yet to come- you and me.

Jesus prays with great love and great concern for the welfare and protection of his small flock. He begins by affirming that he has made the name of God known to his disciples- he has made God himself known. He has in fact fulfilled the promise of the beginning verses of the Gospel of John- the glorious hymn that reads in part:

It is God the only Son who is close to the father’s heart, who has made God known.

This prayer we hear today often echoes the Lord’s Prayer, which is given to us in the Gospel of Matthew. The name of our Father in Heaven is frequently hallowed in this prayer. And references to the Kingdom proliferate: The disciple’s joy that will be made complete speaks of the coming of the Kingdom, as does the longed for oneness of the community- Jesus prays to God, “That they may be one as we are one.” Jesus asks God to “protect his disciples from the evil one” just as the Lord’s Prayer asks that we be delivered from evil. But this is not a prayer Jesus teaches us to pray. And this is not a discourse addressed to the disciples as the rest of the long farewell address at the last supper has been. Jesus prays this prayer directly to God for the disciples, for us, perhaps as a lesson. In his last hours on earth Jesus does not make a last ditch effort to give the disciples a final list of revelations. He addresses it all to God, as if to instruct that he is leaving the church in the hands of God, which is where the disciples should place their future and their hopes. They need to understand that the life of the community rests in God’s hands.

We get to hear as did the disciples, the utter intimacy of Jesus’ relationship with God his father. The Hebrew word Abba, that Jesus used translates not as father, but as Daddy, an affectionate term you will not hear in used in Old Testament references to God- this intimate relationship with God was something new. Jesus’ faith in the love that God has for him is striking, and the confidence that he will be heard seems to be complete. ”You have given, you have loved, you have sent. Now keep, sanctify, and let them be one.” Jesus prays. Jesus is moving toward his pre-existent relationship with God- moving into a permanent oneness with Him. But for Jesus to return to this pre-existent glory, the incarnation must come to an end- Jesus must die. So there is an urgency- a poignancy to this intimate intercession.

When hearing Jesus’ great intimacy with God, we are given a glimpse of the Kingdom. We are given a glimpse of a relationship with God that transcends all limits and conventional notions of life. A glimpse of a day when our joy will in fact be complete, a day when God’s care and love and knowledge of us will be realized. We will experience the end of ordinary reality and the beginning of our reunion with the divine.

And finally, at the end of this prayer, it becomes clear that what we are hearing is a commissioning. We are to be sanctified in the truth. To sanctify is to be commissioned for some particular task, and therefore to be made holy. But it is mission that is the substance of this sanctification- the task is more important that the holiness.

And so the disciples, and you, and me, are being sent out- commissioned, to spread the truth. A chapter after our Gospel story, Jesus, being interrogated by Pilot, says to him,

I came into the world to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” Pilot famously asks him, “What is the truth?” Jn 18:37

Truth in the Gospel of John seems to be the whole of the revelation of God, and it seems to be synonymous with “the word,” and synonymous with Jesus. Jesus brings grace and truth (1:17); he is the truth (14:6) the true light (1:9); and the true vine (15:1) and he is the way, the truth and the life. This truth then, is the revelation of God’s substance as redeeming love as expressed in Jesus. Jesus then prays for the disciples to be set apart for the truth. This truth is both the sanctifying power and the purpose for the sending out of the disciples, for the sending out of all of us.

As much as the gospel message today is full of Jesus’ great love and protectiveness for his disciples, its last words are these words of commissioning- of dedication. The prayer is no less that the sanctification of the whole world through the sanctification of Jesus’ disciples.

I am reminded of a time I was preparing some young people to watch a baptism. I was about to show them the blessing over the water that is part of the baptismal service, when one rather precocious child said, “Shouldn’t we use living water- wild water for something like that? So we walked a short block to a creek in the park and we scooped up a bowl full of water. Having brought the prayer book with me I said the blessing over the water, and we prepared to head back to the church. Another one of the young people suddenly lit up and said “Why don’t we pour the holy water into the creek- then the creek will run into the river, and the river will run into the ocean, and all that water will be holy!” Unable to resist such an original theological thought, I handed the bowl to her and she poured the water into the creek. I never checked in with the creatures of the creek and on-ward to the sea, but we never forgot that day, when we sent out that blessing, all the way to the ocean.

Jesus poured his disciples into the river of the world, having sanctified them, having taught them to know God’s name, God’s truth and God’s son. And those disciples poured us out into that untested water. And in the last part of the priestly prayer, Jesus says, “May the love with which you have loved me be in them, and I in them.”

This is a solemn commissioning, but it is not without levity- even joy. Jesus wants to make our joy complete- he said so. “I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.” He wants for us the joy of the children who were so easily welcomed into the kingdom of heaven, the joy of children who stop at nothing in their joyous attempts to sanctify a creek and a river and an ocean. If we can but glimpse that infinite love that exists between Jesus and his father, that Jesus so generously shared with us, if we can even begin to mirror it with our own fathers, mothers, sons, daughters, friends and especially strangers, that blessing just might begin to stretch from ocean to ocean, and illuminate a truth we will never have to explain.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Feed My Sheep

St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, Berkeley

May 2, 2009

The Rev. Este Gardner Cantor

Good Morning, and thank you for having me. Well, as we can hear from our exquisite readings, today is Good Shepherd Sunday. It seems appropriate on this day to honor the ministry that St. Marks has faithfully carried out for an amazing 25 years to the ever-changing flock of elders at Berkeley Pines Convalescent Hospital, and to listen to see if we might hear the voice of the shepherd calling us to do something similar.

All our beautiful readings today, and perhaps psalm 23 most gorgeously of all, sing the glories of the Good Shepherd- the glories of healing and nurturing, binding up wounds and protecting the weak. And like so many images in Jesus’ stories, the image of the good shepherd vs the bad Shepard (the hired hand in our Gospel of today) is an Old Testament reference, in this case from Ezekiel. Initially in the book of Ezekiel, the Lord God seems to damn all shepherds as selfish, careless, carnivorous. He childes the shepherds for only being interested in feeding themselves. He says,

You eat the fat, clothe yourselves with the wool, slaughter the fatlings, but you do not feed the sheep.

The Lord God then goes on to further scold the shepherds, pointing out the utter lack of the pastoral skills that later defined Jesus ministry:

You have not strengthened the weak, you have not healed the sick, you have not bound up the injured, you have not sought the lost.

In contrast to this image of a hungry, careless and selfish shepherd, The Lord God says:

I myself will seek out my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places they have been scattered on a day of thick darkness.

This is the course Jesus is claiming when he says, “I am the Good Shepherd.” If the wild animals come, the course of the good shepherd is staying with his sheep thereby risking his life to protect them. There was a practice of shepherds at the time of Jesus, of lying down to sleep across the threshold of the enclosure to insure that wild animals could not get in, and the sheep could not get out. This was literally laying down the body for the sake of the sheep, which recalls of Jesus laying down his life, with great willingness and authority, out of a great love for his flock.

What is described in all these beautiful words is a kind of true community, a community where the weak are protected and comforted. A community where there is chance for reconciliation and redemption for everyone.

In our reading from the first letter of John, it is our brothers and sisters for whom we are asked to lay down our lives. As Jesus has elsewhere said, it is the least of our brothers and sisters who most need to be found, healed, strengthened, loved. These are least esteemed of society, that Jesus always raised up- the sick, the poor, women, orphans and widows. The hired hand may have the job, he may be in the community, but he is doing little more than taking up space and feeding on lamb chops. We may feel sympathy and some identification with the hired hand because all the sacrifices that are implied in creating true community, putting other’s needs before our own, are hard to make in our present climate of economic crisis, flavored with swine flu. It might seem like it would be better to stay home- hold no one’s hand, avoid contact with the rest of the flock, keep your store of fat and wool close to your chests, hang on to what you’ve got. But it could be argued that too many hired hands and not enough Good Shepherds got us into our present situation where too many wolves are at the door of too many of our flock. I have heard it said that most people will not see the light until they feel the heat. We are feeling the heat of the neglect, worldwide, of the realities of true community. We really are utterly inter-dependent.

The only reading today that does not specifically sing the praises of the Good Shepherd is our reading from Acts, which celebrates a healing at the Beautiful Gate and the power of Jesus’ name.

Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit proclaims to the rulers of the people and the elders:

`The stone that was rejected by you, the builders;

has become the cornerstone.'

And he goes on to say that there is salvation in no one else but Jesus.

Well, what is it to be saved- what is salvation? We often hear that it means proclaiming Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior. We might think it means that if we believe in Jesus, we will go to heaven and not to hell.

Or we may think of salvation as freedom from the prison of our membership in the society of the hired hand. Maybe salvation is freedom from the hell of living only to eat fat, wear wool and save our own necks, attractive as that hell might sometimes be to us all. But Jesus clearly points out that doing that is not the way to salvation. Jesus is the Good Shepherd and Jesus is the beautiful gate- and it is through him- through modeling, however imperfectly, his own acts of mercy and justice that we will be saved. And as he continually reminds us, the sacrifices we make toward this end shrink in comparison to all you get back- the life you take up again, the promise of overflowing abundance.

Maybe salvation is hearing and then answering the voice of the shepherd, calling us into true community, calling us to be a true shepherd, or at least a true member of the flock. The hired hand who runs away at the pain or need of a brother or sister, the loneliness of the old or the pain of the wounded, pays for his comfort with his soul. Pays with the loss of a community of the spirit.

Sometimes it is good to hear from a voice that is technically not of our flock- here is a reading from the brilliant Sufi mystic Jellaladin Rumi:

There is a community of the spirit.

Join it, and feel the delight

of walking in the noisy street,

and being the noise…

Open your hands,

if you want to be held.

Sit down in this circle.

Quit acting like a wolf, and feel

the shepherd’s love filling you….

Be empty of worrying.

Think of who created thought!

Why do you stay in prison

when the door is so wide open?