Sunday, August 29, 2010

A Place at the Table

Reflections on
Heb 13:1-8, 15-16, and Lk 14:1, 7-14
Holy Trinity/La Santisima Trinidad/ Good Shepherd, Berkeley
August 29, 2010

Our readings today speak of the forsaking of God, of the necessity to continue in mutual love, and the urging by Jesus that we not take the place of honor at the table. Yesterday was a date that resonates for me with all these things.

Yesterday was August 28. This date is the anniversary of three seminal events; one tragic, the second filled with hope, and the third an apparent fulfillment of that hope.

The first of these three anniversaries is the incident that kicked off the modern civil rights movement: the murder of Emmet Louis Till, a fourteen-year-old boy who was tortured and murdered on August 28, 1955 in Money, Mississippi, when he allegedly whistled at a white woman. I saw a picture of Emmet Till’s face. He was a beautiful boy, his up-turned face filled with hope, with confidence, with humor. But that is not the face the world saw. His distraught mother made the decision to have an open casket at the funeral, so that, as she said, everyone “could see what they did to my baby.” The horror of that day was not only shared with the many mourners who came to pay their respects, but also, through photographs of the open coffin, the horror was shared with the whole world. Adding to the universal fury was that his two murderers were acquitted on the very day of the funeral, after the all-white jury deliberated for 67 minutes. One juror was quoted as saying that it wouldn’t have taken so long if they had not taken a break for soda pop. The murder of Emmet Till resonated through history, and set the struggle for human rights on fire. After so many horrors had been dismissed or hidden, this was the catalyst for the events that led to the next indelible anniversary of August 28: The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, where Martin Luther King made his famous “I Have a Dream” speech.

Whereas fifty thousand people had stood in line in the sweltering Chicago streets to pay tribute to Emmet Till, at the March on Washington. exactly 8 years later, two hundred and fifty thousand people marched for the rights that Emmet would never have the chance to enjoy.

When the March on Washington took place, I was about the age of Emmet Till when he died. And since I lived in Silver Spring Maryland, very close to Washington DC, I wanted to go. I wanted to march. My family belonged to St. Michael and All Angels Church in Adelphi Maryland, and we considered ourselves to be pretty radical. We had mimes performing during the liturgy, we had the blues guitarist John Fahey providing music, we had a committee for civil rights, and when I was 12, I started going on demonstrations with my mother. Fahey later wrote and recorded a song, March! For Martin Luther King! although, unlike my mother, he didn’t have the courage to actually march. Before the March on Washington, protesting in large numbers for civil rights was synonymous with getting your head bashed in, getting dogs sicked on you, or if you were lucky, just getting water hoses trained in your direction, and very likely going to jail. It was a real risk to go on the March on Washington.

Medgar Evers had been the Field Secretary for the NAACP, and had been among those who had searched for Emmet Till. He was also among those devastated when the body was found. Medgar Evers was assassinated outside his home in Mississippi on June 12, 1963. After his funeral, where 5,000 people came to pay homage to him, a smaller number of mourners hit the street singing and moving toward the main street of the city. The police stopped them with billy clubs and dogs. The mourners responded by throwing bricks, bottles and rocks. This was the atmosphere at the time of the march on Washington.
So my mother forbade me to go. But I remember the day very well, because I was at home, filled with mixed feelings of guilty relief, because I was afraid the march might turn violent, fear for my mother, and regret that I didn’t go. So my mom got to go to the march, and hear Martin Luther King, Jr. give his famous speech, and all I got was this lousy bulletin from the march. But from the bulletin, I know that the program began with Marian Anderson singing the National Anthem on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. The last time she sang there was on Easter Sunday 1939, after being barred from singing in Constitution Hall by the Daughters of the American Revolution, because she was black. So with the help of Eleanor Roosevelt, she had her open air concert, with the great statue of Abraham Lincoln looking on in approval, while 75,000 people attended and millions listened on their radios.
I know from the bulletin that Mrs. Medgar Evers, two and a half months after the murder of her husband, led a tribute to “Negro Women Fighters for Freedom” that included Rosa Parks. And number 16 on the list of speakers, simply listed under “remarks” was The Rev. Martin Luther King, Junior. Inside the bulletin was a special plea by the organizers that showed that they feared violence as well:
“We, the undersigned, who see the Washington March as wrapping up the dreams, hopes, ambitions tears and prayers of millions who have lived for this day, call upon the members, followers and well-wishers of our several organizations to make the march a disciplined and purposeful demonstration. We call upon them, black and white, to resist provocations to disorder and violence… We call for self-discipline, so that no one in our own ranks, however enthusiastic, shall be the spark for disorder.
Under another section entitled “What We Demand” were such outrageous requests as: Comprehensive and effective civil rights legislation to guarantee to all Americans: Decent housing Adequate and integrated education The right to vote Meaningful and dignified jobs at decent wages.
We may feel that the reign of Jim Crow is long over. But quite aside from the victims of the on-going economic crisis, those who have lost their homes, their jobs and their dignity, there is a whole class of people whose rights, those hard-won rights demanded at the March on Washington, are being systematically stripped away.
I recently read that as many as 1 in every 9 young black American men is now incarcerated. The vast majority of these are for nonviolent crimes, mostly drug-related. The percentage of black men in prison is even more incredible when you read the stats that young white men are just as likely to be involved in this kind of non-violent crime. And once one is incarcerated, every right that we take for granted as Americans, is lost. I heard this trend described recently as the new reign of Jim Crow- even the right to vote can be rescinded. Employment is made incredibly difficult, even public housing is out of bounds.
Paul entreats us, in his letter to the Hebrews, to “remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them.” It is also those who have served their time and find themselves permanently on the bottom of a brutal caste system who need us to remember them.
Paul also urges us to “remember those who are being tortured, as though we ourselves were being tortured.” We can honor Emmet Louis Till, by remembering that he was tortured and killed solely because he was a young black man.
We have continually taken the place of honor at the table. We have enjoyed incredible freedoms, privileges, rights. The right to vote, the right to live in a decent place, the right to a good education, and for some of us, the right to marry. Paul also urges us to “let marriage be held in honor by all” and how better to honor it than to make sure this human right is shared with everyone.
Paul urges also us to “continue in mutual love,” and if he is following the teachings of Jesus, that means love for everyone, even the stranger, even the outcast, even the lowly.
Martin Luther King wrote, poignantly from the Birmingham jail:
I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride for freedom is not the… Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice…
King wanted us all to remember that none of us are free until everyone is free.
But there is, in all this seemingly endless, seemingly hopeless struggle, a ray of hope, an almost painfully promising ray of hope. The third anniversary.

On August 28, 2008, Barack Obama accepted the nomination of the Democratic Party for the office of President of the United States. Ninety thousand ecstatic people watched his acceptance speech in a Denver auditorium, and through the media, the whole world was watching. A place of honor had been granted to a person from the struggling class, from an enslaved people. Now those troubled young black men whose previous career options had been life in prison or gang membership, had another option: They might become the president of the United States. It seemed to be so tangibly the answer to Dr. King’s dream, to the great promise he held.

We need to continue to dream. Because dreams, like prayers, can move mountains. Can profoundly change hearts. Perhaps Paul was dreaming when he asked so much of us, but it is a beautiful dream: Let mutual love continue. Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have. And do not neglect to show hospitality to those not of your tribe, for by doing that some have entertained angels without even knowing it.

Monday, August 16, 2010


Reflections on Luke 12:49-56
Holy Trinity/La Santisima Trinidad/ Good Shepherd, Berkeley
August 15, 2010

Well, what happened to “Do not worry about your life?” What happened to the lilies of the field? What happened to “Do not be afraid, little flock?” Jesus, in this stunning passage, seems to be saying “Be afraid, be very afraid!”

In trying to tease out the meaning of this passage, we find many references to sayings in the Old and New Testaments, some that confirm the old prophesies, some that turn them on their heads. In his promise of fire upon the earth, Jesus seems to be confirming the proclamation of John in the beginning of the gospel, that Jesus will “baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.” And calling down fire on the heads of opponents is a time-honored tradition, done several times in the Old Testament, by Elijah in Kings I and II against the prophets of the pagan god, Baal and a few other unfortunates. It was such a familiar act that James and John helpfully offered to “command fire to come down from heaven and consume” the Samaritans who refused to receive Jesus in their village, earlier in the Gospel of Luke (Luke 9:54). Jesus refers to his own coming baptism, but it is nothing like his gentle experience with the water and the dove. Rather it is his own baptism of fire, his crucifixion and death that he is dreading, that is causing him, in this understated modern translation, such “stress.” And poignantly, the bright predictions of the peace that Jesus will bring are flatly contradicted. In the song of Zechariah, the Prophet of the most High is sent to “guide our feet into the way of peace.” And of course, once he is born, the angels sing, “peace on earth, goodwill toward men.”

The source for the awful division of family unity and love seems to be in the Book of Micah, which reads:
Put no trust in a friend, have no confidence in a loved one;
Guard the doors of your mouth
from her who lies in your embrace.
For the son treats the father with contempt,
The daughter rises up against her mother
The daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law.
Your enemies are members of your own household. (Mic. 7:5-6)

Since Jesus chose to quote this horrendous passage, it kind of makes you wonder what his own family life might have been like.

But there is a more reassuring passage from the book of Malachi, although it begins as harshly as any fire and brimstone in the Old Testament:

See the day is coming, burning like an oven, when all the arrogant and all evil-doers will be stubble; the day that comes shall burn them up says the Lord of hosts, so that it will leave them neither root nor branch. (Mal. 4:1)

But then a few verses later we have:

Lo, I will send you the prophet Elijah. …he will turn the hearts of parents to their children and the hearts of children to their parents…(Mal 4:5-6)

Well, anyone who has had difficult and even fiery relations with a parent (perhaps as even Jesus did) or with a child, knows that sometimes the fire is necessary before the reconciliation is possible. I have experienced that in my own life with both of my parents, but a friend of mine just told me a story of fire and reconciliation that goes beyond anything I have ever experienced.

The story began with an urgent call from my friend. She was begging me to pray for her son, who was in the emergency room after a massive stroke. He was 40 years old. She had had a difficult relationship with him for a long time. When they communicated he was hostile and secretive, arrogant, and he surely treated his mother with contempt. This had been the case for many, many years, and eventually she gave up hoping for a reconciliation. Then he had this sudden massive stroke, and suddenly she was by his bedside every day, begging everyone she knew to pray for the life of her son.

In the emergency room he was comatose and bristling with tubes. After some days, the doctors told her to summon all the family who needed to travel. They said that her son would surely die. My friend called someone she knew of, a non-traditional healer, since Western medicine seemed to have given up on her son. The healer told her to place her hand on the heart of her unconscious son and say the following. ”Someone broke your heart. Your heart is broken, but now you can begin to heal.” She did this for days, literally reaching out through the fire for healing and reconciliation. As she continued to pray, she was aware that she was violating one of her own rules of prayer- that she pray only for God’s will and the power to carry it out. But she could not bear to pray for anything but the survival of her son. For days in the hospital he seemed to be slowly fading and she kept up her fervent prayers along with the mantra the healer had taught her. Then, she was visited by a woman who had lost a baby. The woman described seeing her beloved infant covered with tubes, in apparent pain, and unable to come home, to be held, or to have any kind of a normal life. The woman told my friend that she finally let go, she let God have her child. After two weeks in the hospital, after one more visit to see her comatose entubated son, my friend went home and prayed. She finally said I am ready, God. If this is your will, I accept it. I pray that my son be in your arms, and whatever your will is, that is what I pray for.

The next time she visited her son, to her amazement, he began to come around. And not only did her son slowly come back to health, but he confessed to her and to the doctors that he had been an addict of methamphetamine for 23 years. This is what caused the stroke. As he confessed these things, he asked his mother what she had been saying to him while he was unconscious. She told him what the healer had told her to say. Then her son said to her, “That’s right. Someone did break my heart.” Twenty-five years before, unbeknownst to his mother, he and his girlfriend had lost their infant, and then his girlfriend left him. In his great broken-hearted grief, he destroyed his health and was lost to addiction. But now he wanted to start over with his life, and he wanted to go into recovery. My friend said that his personality had completely changed. He spoke to her with respect, with love and gratitude, his heart had turned toward his mother. The fire he had gone through, the fire that my friend had gone through, seemed to have burned away a lot of dross, and seemed to have made their reconciliation possible.

She was amazed that she had not seen the signs, that she had not suspected any kind of addiction. He had held down a job, she had never seen him high, or so she thought. She had considered herself to be a very wise and perceptive woman, but although she knew how to predict when the rain was going to come, or the scorching heat, she had not anticipated the Kingdom of Heaven reaching out for her son.

Later in our Gospel of Luke, the fire did arrive. But it was the fire of Pentecost, not a destroying fire, but an inspiring, blessing, illuminating fire. A fire of the spirit that first created familial unity between the disciples, and then spread to a familial unity between the vastly diverse members of the Body of Christ. The Greeks, the Jews, the Africans, the slaves, the free, the males and the females, the rich and the poor.

We are feeling a fire between many members of the family of God in the world today. The fire that separates human rights from those who, by their identity as children of God, deserve them. The fire of warfare on innocent people, the fire of inequity of wealth the world round. If we fight this fire, surely there will be those in the family of humanity who will turn against us. But as we watch with anxious eyes the signs of the earth, let’s remember that the time for justice, the time for reconciliation, between family members and within the family of humanity, is now, is in the present time.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010


The Rev. Este Gardner Cantor
Hosea 11:1-11 and Psalm 107:1-9, 43 , Colossians 3:1-11 Luke 12:13-21
Holy Trinity/La Santisima Trinidad/ Good Shepherd, Berkeley
August 8, 2010

Well, in last week’s gospel reading, Jesus warned us about greed, and this week he isn’t letting up any. Jesus has also previously urged us to stay awake- just as he begged the disciples to in the garden of Gethsemane. Here he tells us to have our lamps lit- to be ready for action. Speaking only for myself, if I don’t make a conscious effort I do fall asleep. And if I don’t keep my lamp lit, I fall into self-centered thinking. I fall into self-addiction. I had already been thinking along these lines, given last week’s gospel, when I happened to begin reading a book a friend gave me a long time ago. I whole-heartedly recommend to you. It is called “Blue Like Jazz,” and it is an unusual book, in that it is a fervently and even evangelically Christian book, written by a generation exer named Donald Miller. He tells many wonderful stories of his Christian journey, but he often goes back to the theme of self-addiction- just the thing that Jesus always tries to free us from.

Miller recalls the hero of the wonderful film About a Boy, who thinks that life is a movie about him. He is the main character and everybody else in his life are just supporting players. Things always get out of hand when one of the supporting players seems to think they are the star.

When author spoke of his troubles to his pastor, after thinking about it, the pastor answered him very baldly: Unless you can wake up every morning and be willing to die to self, maybe you should question whether or not you are really following Jesus…

CS Lewis makes a confession of his self-addiction in this refreshingly honest poem, called As the Ruin Falls. Achingly, he realizes that his self-involvement is only beginning to fade as he is losing his wife to cancer:

All this is flashy rhetoric about loving you.
I never had a selfless thought since I was born.
I am mercenary and self-seeking through and through:
I want God, you, all friends, merely to serve my turn.

Peace, re-assurance, pleasure, are the goals I seek,
I cannot crawl one inch outside my proper skin:
I talk of love --a scholar's parrot may talk Greek--
But, self-imprisoned, always end where I begin.

Only that now you have taught me (but how late) my lack,
I see the chasm. And everything you are was making
My heart into a bridge by which I might get back
From exile, and grow man. And now the bridge is breaking.

For this I bless you as the ruin falls. The pains
You give me are more precious than all other gains.

We might hope that it will not have to come to this. That we would not have to have the ultimate heart-break in order to see the illusion of our superiority- the illusion of our separateness. The relative triviality of our needs when compared to someone else’s’.

My favorite part of Donald Miller’s book was the amazing and unlikely time he spent at Reed College. Apparently Reed has a reputation of being somewhat anti-religious, and perhaps anti-Christian. But there was a small brave band of Christians on campus, and our hero was one of them. Reportedly, there was a big party at Reed every year, kind of a pagan love fest, called Renn Fayre. It was known for its drinking and drugging and wild behavior. So Don asked his fellow Christians what kind of a statement did they want to make at Renn Fyre. At first they couldn’t think of anything, just that it would be a good time to come out of the closet, a good time to introduce themselves to the school as Christians. Finally, Don jokingly suggested, let’s set up a confession booth right out there on the square. Everyone laughed except for one of their number, a particularly convicted young Christian named Tony, who sat up like he had been electrified. YES! He said. That is exactly what we will do! They rest of the group protested wildly, “No Tony, no!” They will lynch us! They will burn the booth down!” Tony looked at them all with a smile. “No! we will build it, but there will be a catch.”

Everyone was quiet, trying to hear what the catch was. “The catch is, we will confess to them. We will confess that, as followers of Jesus, we have not been very loving. We have been bitter, and for that we are sorry. We have been judgmental. We have not been true to the teachings of Jesus. We will apologize for the Crusades, for televangelists, for neglecting the poor and lonely and we will ask them to forgive us.”

They all recognized the genius of this and they actually went through with this. They built their booth, a few stoned curiosity seekers came inside and got the surprise of their lives. After the first student was confessed to he said, “I think what you guys are doing is really cool. I am going to go and tell my friends.” After that the relationships between the Christian group and the rest of the campus changed dramatically. A group started volunteering at a homeless shelter, and soon they had to rent a second van because so many people wanted to come. There was a volunteer poverty day where people lived on 3 dollars a day to show solidarity with the poor. And at one point they had four bible study groups going, made up entirely of non-Christians.

Paul tells us in our lesson from Hebrews today, that faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. To have faith, then, is to somehow be assured, regardless of what IS seen, regardless of external factors, that the things we hope for will be fulfilled. But I would also say that faith is not what you believe, but what you do. Jesus gives us very strong advise in all the gospels. We may feel that we believe it, but do we do it?

In another part of his wonderful book, Don Miller talks about a church that was planted in Seattle, and their efforts to grow it. For a long time it was just 20 people. The author described it as an AA meeting gone bad. Then one week the pastor showed up looking kind of beaten up. He had been at a conference where it was stated that the church had lost touch with people who didn’t know about Jesus. Had lost touch with people who were different than the typical church goer. Rick suggested that they repent, that is, repent in the original sense, which does not mean to say you are sorry, it simply means to change. The best translation from the original Greek of metanoia would be to transform. He suggested that they should transform into missional Christans who are actually doing what Jesus suggested- loving people who are different from themselves.

Two chapters before our gospel of today in Luke, a lawyer asks Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life. Jesus asks him, what is written in the law? The lawyer who may not have been up on his scriptures answers, “You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.” Actually, the first commandment says nothing about loving God, but simply says, “You shall have no other gods before me.” Then way over in Leviticus, between the dictates of whose nakedness you must not uncover, is written, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” But in Leviticus, the commandment bears a different meaning from what Jesus apparently thought it meant. The whole passage in Leviticus makes it clear that it is your kin and those of your tribe whom we are to love as ourselves. The whole sentence goes, “You shall not make vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” But when Jesus is questioned, “Who is my neighbor?” he uses as an example the biggest enemy of his tribe, a Samaritan.

So Don’s pastor suggested that they start listening to Jesus, and praying every week that God would teach them to live missional lives, to notice people who needed to be loved, even, and especially those different from themselves. The goal was not to love them so they would come to church, the goal was just to love them. And they seemed to subscribe to the idea that love is not what you think or say, love is what you do.

Our author tells us that lots of people started coming to their church after that.

The good news is what is said at the very beginning of our gospel:
"Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father's good pleasure to give you the kingdom.

It is God’s will, God’s good pleasure that we should enjoy all of the fruits of the kingdom, that we should experience heaven on earth. But apparently, heaven is not a very homogeneous place. It includes all kinds of people, people who love each other, and it does not seem to include an addiction to possessions. Heaven is a place where we are able and willing to continually keep our lamps lit, to keep our eyes and our hearts open for the Kingdom of God.

The Unequal Inheritance: August 1, 2010

Hosea 11:1-11 and Psalm 107:1-9, 43 , Colossians 3:1-11 Luke 12:13-21
Holy Trinity/La Santisima Trinidad/ Good Shepherd, Berkeley

As most of you know, I have been in Guatemala for the past month, and it has been a breath-taking and eye-opening and uncomfortable experience. On the one hand, I saw a high level of Bay Area style luxury, apparent in the swank hotel near the house I stayed in, where I paid to experience an actual shower, some of the restaurants that cater to tourists, and some of the shops and markets. These places looked and felt somewhat familiar to me.

But then there is the sharply different Guatemala. The Guatemala of the indigenous people and the many workers and laborers, sellers of trinkets, hawkers of beautiful indigenous fabric and bags on the street, drivers of the tourist-seeking horse-drawn carriages, street beggars, and the servants in so many houses including the one I stayed in. The Mayan servant in our house, Ruty, named after the biblical Ruth, works hard for 9 hours a day, six days a week and makes $250 dollars a month. And our landlady frequently pointed out how well she paid her. In fact, I found out that Ruty was a trained nurse, but that her job cleaning our house and making meals paid better than hospital work, and had much more humane working hours. One morning, one of our number at breakfast didn`t want the single egg we were offered, and suggested that it be given to a fellow student of Spanish with a big appetite. Ruty paused, confused, although her Spanish was very good. We later realized that she just could not conceive of anyone having the opportunity, or even the ability to consume more than one egg at a sitting.

Mayan woman in their exquisite native clothing were everywhere, including the great and beautiful Iglesia de San Francisco, the largest and most beautiful of the four huge and ancient Catholic churches in Antigua. At one service I saw 12 indigenous babies baptized. To the right of the great altar there was a section that read Sólo para las oraciónes- For prayer only. After the service I went through the railing to pray and I beheld a vast and beautiful mural, featuring multitudes of indigenousness women with their gloriously colorful wipiles and skirts, laborers and farmers and children and babies surrounding an image of Jesus emerging from the water after his baptism. To my amazement, the mural, which depicted so many beautiful brown Mayan faces, rendered a Jesus who resembled no one so much as Peter O’Toole. A blond blue-eyed Jesus in a sea of black haired, brown-eyed indigenous people. This was bad enough, but then when I told my Spanish teacher about it, she told me that in her little pueblo of Pastores, just outside of Antigua, there is a statue of a Mayan God, Maximon, with distinctly European features. I later read that the God Maximon was originally embraced by the Catholic church, but then they decided he was too threatening, so they began to depict him as Judas Iscariot. What have we left them, I thought. Co-opting Jesus was bad enough, but stealing the identity of their own Gods as well?

I was constantly torn between dismay at these absurd inequities, at seeing the tremendous need of so many in the streets, and struggling with my own middle class discomforts- the lack of all the things I take for granted- drinkable water, electricity that stays on, showers with warm, clean water, dry clothes and shoes, beds with no uninvited living creatures, and disturbingly of all, inconsistent cell phone and internet access!

Our gospel warns us about greed, but desafortunadamente, by the time I decided to check out the readings, I had been treating my discomforts with retail therapy, and my natural greed was in full flower. I was assailed on all sides by expert saleswomen in the streets offering some of the most beautiful fabric items I had ever seen at, of course, ridiculously low prices. By the time I saw the readings about greed I was praying every morning for God to grant me the strength not to purchase every piece of beautiful fabric in Guatemala. But like the man who planned to build two new barns to house his many possessions, I found I had to purchase two more bags to bring home all my bounty.

After my brain was bursting trying to memorize the myriad verb forms in the past tense, my Spanish teacher suggested I get a Latin American Bible and that we just read through that.

I went right away for the most familiar and beloved passages, and I opened the beginning of the Gospel of John. But to my great surprise, the passage was not as I expected En el principio era la Palabra or “In the beginning was the word.” It read instead, En el pricipio era el verbo. “In the beginning was the verb.” After that bible reading, God started giving me all kinds of unsubtle hints about how I might also be a verbo.

I went to a lecture about an organization that is deeply involved in building schools and insuring better education for the children of Guatemala: Common Hope/ Familias de Esperanza. The opportunity for sponsoring a child’s education for a pittance appealed to me, but I also wondered about a more direct involvement. The man who spoke said that Guatemala had the highest gap between rich and poor of any nation on earth. He said that only one quarter of the students even pass first grade. This was due to conditions in the home which, to say the least, are not conducive to successful learning. Food and shelter and clothing, the bare necessities of life, were often not available to them. The men are very often out of work, all too often alcoholic, and the women are often left to figure out a way to survive.

We saw the sad extreme solution to that problem when we drove past the red light district on way out of town, and saw the women leaning out of windows, with their children playing in the dirt outside.

Then a woman I met at the Spanish school recommended a book, Three Cups of Tea. This is a really incredible story about a Midwestern mountain climbing drifter, Greg Mortenson, who became an unstoppable force for promoting education to impoverished children in Pakistan, and then Afghanistan, by actually building schools in these difficult mountainous areas. He was especially interested in educating girls, and this was in Muslim country just before during and after 911. The story was astonishing and inspiring.

Finally, we heard about an after-school program for needy kids called Angel Guardian, started by a woman who had been an orphan herself. The kids had nowhere to go after school, and normally they would just be out on the streets. But at Guardian Angel, they got help with their home work, opportunities to make art, healthy snacks and loving care. During one visit, I played for about an hour with a four year old Mayan girl who seemed to have big anger issues. We played with blocks, tranquilly for a while, and then, apparently trusting me a little more, she started letting the blocks fall down the cement step we were playing on, then eventually she started violently smashing the blocks together, then letting them fall to the ground like dead people. After doing this for about an hour, she calmed down and quietly ate her snack while sitting on my lap. I was later told that her father, to whom she had been very close, had been murdered in the marketplace, traumatizing her and rendering the family destitute. Many of the mothers of the kids who go to Guardian Angel are employed there, or in a neighboring farm that benefits the program. My little friend’s mother had found a job at Guardian Angel, and the girl had apparently come a long way since she had come to the center.

When I planned to go to Antigua, no one told me that July was the rainy season, and that I would experience torrential rainfall every afternoon, if not all day every day. That my shoes would never dry out, because I would have to wade through deep water in the narrow streets which quickly became rivers. The last day I visited Guardian Angel, I noticed that all the kids seemed to have colds. Outside, a particularly impressive thunderstorm was in progress, and at 5:00 all the kids pulled small scraps of plastic over their heads and proceeded into the downpour on their long walk home. I too waded home in the downpour, trying not to think of exactly what was in the water we were deeply wading through. But as I walked that soggy way home, I suddenly thought of a way to be a verbo. I had noticed at the grand mercado in Antigua, that children’s raincoats were very colorful and cheap. I told my friend about my plan to buy 20 raincoats, and she donated enough money to buy five more. The next day, my last day in Guatemala, I asked my Spanish teacher if she would come and help me bargain. Whenever she spotted a stall with raincoats I made myself scarce. Three stalls and twenty-five beautiful colorful impermeables later she proudly gave me change back for the amount that I thought it would cost. I spent a ridiculously small amount of money to keep twenty-five kids happily dry through the rest of the rainy season. It felt good to be a verbo for a change.

As our gospel of today tells us, you can`t take it with you. It is implied that rather than building barns for our possessions, it is possible to build the Kingdom of Heaven right here on earth. In fact I think one of the surest ways we can experience heaven is when we pass it on to someone living in of hell.

Of course these organizations would love your support, but you don’t have to go to Guatemala or Afghanistan to be a verbo for children’s education. The children of Wilson Elementary School in Richmond need help and support, and Liberty Hill Baptist Church one block from Good Shepherd in Berkeley does free tutoring for high school kids every Saturday morning at 10:00. They could use our help too.

When the man who gave the lecture on unequal wealth in Guatemala finished with his statistics and his numbers, he said the following to the very white and affluent group who had gathered to hear him:

"The gap between rich and poor in Guatemala is just an example of the gap between rich and poor world-wide. Given that we are on the grossly rich end of that unequal divide, I have two questions for you: 1. How do you feel about that? and 2. What are you going to do about it?"


June 27, 2010: Home: Reflections on Luke 9:51-62.

2 Kings 2:1-2, 6-14Ps 77:1-2, 11-20, Gal 5:1, 13-25
Luke 9:51-62
Holy Trinity/La Santisima Trinidad NOT GS

After all the healings, the feasts, the anointing, the praying, Jesus finally sets his face for Jerusalem, for his awful and inevitable death. He sent messengers ahead of him to provide for lodging, because as we hear, the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.

But if this was the intention, the village of the Samaritans would provide no such thing. They would not receive him precisely because his face was set toward Jerusalem. The Samaritans worshipped only on Mount Gerizim, and did not acknowledge the Temple in Jerusalem as the home of God, and the Jerusalem Temple Jews and the Samaritans despised each other with a passion. The hatred of the Jews for the Samaritans is well illustrated by a passage from the Book of Sirach, which represents the Samaritans as sub-humans;

Two nations my soul detests and the third is not even a people: Those who live in Seir, the Philistines and those foolish ones who live in Shechem [of Samaria].
(Sir 50:25-26)

There were solid reasons for hatred from both sides. The Samaritans, although they were the descendents of the Jews of the Northern Kingdom, had included pagan elements in their worship, which was anathema to the Jews of the Jerusalem Temple. The Samaritans rejected all the books of the Jewish prophets and all references to Temple worship in Jerusalem. The Samaritans worshipped on Mount Gerizim, until their temple was destroyed by a Jewish high priest a hundred years before Christ. Apparently a hundred years was a small amount of time to those villagers in Samaria who refused to receive Jesus.

The continuing sentiments of the Jews toward the Samaritans are well-illustrated by The helpful offer of James and John:
"Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?"

Jesus had twice in other gospels, demonstrated his outrageous and shocking acceptance of the Samaritans, both in his tale of the Good Samaritan a little later in our Gospel of Luke, and the beautiful story of the Samaritan woman at the well in the Gospel of John. In both cases he is reaching out to or praising Samaritans individuals. A less likely source of praise or fellowship could scarcely be imagined by his disciples. To their continuing shock, he refused to punish or judge the Samaritans, and he rebukes his disciples for even proposing such a thing. They were probably so exasperated that they just passed on to another village without further comment. A devout disciple on the road proclaims that he will follow Jesus where ever he goes, and Jesus answers,
"Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head."

This past week I did something I had wanted to do for years. I joined the San Francisco Night Ministry on one of their amazing tours through the freezing and non-tourist oriented tours of the night. I went with a youth group that came to visit from Washington State. They were all children of migrant workers, all Latino, but with indigenous languages, not Spanish as their first language. They had heard about out Latino ministries on the web and came and stayed at the house next to Good Shepherd Church. So with some excitement and some anxiety, I rode with them in their van into San Francisco at 8:00 Tuesday night. This left some time for orientation with the night ministry chaplains, because they do not get going until 9 or 10:00.

I was teamed with a tall blond chaplain named Tom and a 19 year old from the youth group named Juan Carlos. With the chilly fog blowing all around us, we walked down the street from the church headquarters into the Tenderloin. Almost immediately an emaciated man with a paper cup in his hand engaged the chaplain in conversation. He never asked for money, as he knew that the night ministers never hand it out. They hand out something much more important than money. They hand out a kind of home to the homeless. A place of acceptance, non-judgment and most importantly, a listening ear. Apparently, the gentleman we were conversing with was not only used to the Chaplain making his rounds, but also used to others accompanying him, as he started telling us about his life immediately. He was standing at the garage exit of a hotel with his paper cup, waiting for the guests to exit and hopefully, contribute. He gestured to a overhang near the entrance and said that was where he lived. Juan Carlos, immediately intrigued, asked “Where do you go to the bathroom?” This remained unanswered. The man told us that he had AIDS, that he had been addicted to crack for many years, that he was an abused child, had seen his sister raped and was sexually abused by his parents. That was in the first 5 minutes. He had that dramatically pinched face and absence of teeth of one who not only suffered from malnutrition, but from drug addiction as well. He said he was given medication for his depression, but that it only made him crazier. He had a remarkably kind and gentle aspect for someone in his condition, and I began to realize how absurd it was for us to be afraid of people like this. After a while the chaplain offered him a new pair of clean socks, which were received with gratitude. As another car came through the drive way we said our good-byes.

After a while, we began to move out of the Tenderloin and into Union Square, where many go to beg. We approached a laughing group of tourists standing in front of an African American gentleman who was performing as a mime. Standing perfectly still and then suddenly coming to life moving quickly, as each group approached. The tourist laughed riotously and dropped a few coins into his cup. The night was freezing and the mime was wearing a t-shirt. After they left he resumed his stock-still vigil.

On the corner next to Macy’s was the most defeated-looking woman I have ever seen. She was kneeling on the cold pavement with a small dog around her shoulders, and a cup in front of her, her face cast down to the street. We approached her and after a moment, during which she did not look up, I asked her what kind of dog she had. “Jack Russell Terrier,” she said immediately with surprising dignity in her voice. We stayed and chatted for a few minutes and then the chaplain handed her a few granola bars. They apparently knew each other well.

At the church headquarters when we returned, we discussed who we had seen that night. A man who said he was a pirate, a man who wanted to chase them away, like the demons inside the possessed man in the Gospel we heard of last week. And someone who said he was Jesus. They laughed at that and said, “Oh yes, we have met Jesus many times.” I thought to myself, yes, you have met Jesus EVERY time. We had all met the Jesus who says "Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head." If we believe what Jesus says in Matthew 25, everything we did or said to these brethren and sistern that night we did and said to Jesus. He is them.

This Gospel passage we heard today is all about home. The dispute of the Jews and the Samaritans was the question of where the home of God lay. The follower on the road was willing to follow Jesus, but may not have understood the homelessness that following Jesus would entail. One follower wants to go home to bury his father before following Jesus, and another wants to say farewell to those at home. Jesus tries to explain that only the Kingdom of God will be their home from now on.

Thich Nhat Hanh, the Vietnamese Buddhist Christian I have quoted to you before, practices what he calls engaged Buddhism. He is always reaching out to the suffering, working for peace, putting himself in danger or discomfort to do these things. But he has a calm and serenity that is enviable, because he has found his true home. He speaks of a home that to me is comparable to the Kingdom of God. Jesus has said that the Kingdom of God is at hand, is in the present moment, that it is within us. And in today’s scripture he is saying that to go back to the past, to what is dead, is to relinquish this precious kingdom. Thich Nhat Hanh says the following mantra as he mediates:
I have arrived. I am home. I have arrived in the Pure Land, a real home where I can touch the paradise of childhood, and all the wonders of life. I am no longer concerned with being and nonbeing, coming and going, being born or dying. In my true home I have no fear, no anxiety. I have peace and liberation. My true home is the here and now.

We might even say, my true home is the Kingdom of God.

Longing for Running Water: Father's Day 6/20/10

Reflections on Luke 8:26-39
Holy Trinity/La Santisima Trinidad/Good Shepherd

What great readings for Father’s Day! A single frightened prophet is plagued by survivor’s guilt, a dear longs for running water, and a man full of demons is finally healed. I don’t know about you, but I have to say that these stories really remind me of my dear old dad.

My father always seemed to be longing for something beyond his reach- something that might soothe him as surely as cool water soothes a forest animal. He has longed for it his whole life so far, and for much of that time, what he longed was a mystery to me. But at some point I realized that what my father was longing for was his own mother, who died very suddenly when he was only thirteen. I know that like our psalmist of today, for many years my father felt that tears were his only food day and night, and the question certainly came up for him, "Where is my God?" My father developed into a life-long atheist, probably because he just couldn’t answer that question, given what he felt God had done to him.

So it seemed that the only thing nearly big enough to even begin to fill the void that my father lived with, was the whole of glorious creation. He made the worship of our great mother earth his whole life and became a geologist.

My father had very early wilderness experiences which shaped him his whole life. His father was a crusty old silver miner named A.C. Gardner, and so my father grew up in a tiny encampment right on the silver mine- the Betty O’Neil mine near Battle Mountain Nevada. My brother and I once made a pilgrimage there just to see if it was real. It was.

When my father was two years old, he was given a huge, shaggy and protective companion named Bobbie dog. With Bobby dog to protect him my father was apparently free to roam the Nevada desert. He was after all, the youngest of 4 and his mother was very busy. One time, when my father was only five or so, a rattle snake appeared out in that desert and quick as lightening, Bobbie Dog leaped between my father and the snake, who bit the dog on the nose. My father ran home, terrified, assuming that Bobbie dog would follow, as he always did. But to his great sadness, Bobby dog did not follow him home, and for two weeks they waited in vain. Finally one night at suppertime they heard a faint scratching on the front door, and there stood Bobby dog, skinny, weak and covered with mud. They later realized that he had gone down to the river and stuck his nose in the mud, instinctively knowing how to save his own life. He was immediately named the hero of the town and my father basked in the reflected glory.

My father joined the Navy as a young man, and was delighted to experience marine wilderness. His longing for running water took him to many strange places. He told me that once when he was on leave from his duties he found himself in North Carolina at the beach right after a hurricane when the waves were still tremendously high. Longing for running, in fact, crashing water, he and two of his buddies swam out to body surf in these towering waves and one of his friends had brought a canteen and handed it to my father. It was not full of running water, but rather, it was full of running vodka, but the discovery did not dissuade my father. They got more enthusiastic as the afternoon and evening wore on and my father apparently felt more and more at one with the elements as he continued to assault the great waves as the night grew very dark. For some reason he did not drown, but eventually looked around and realized that his buddies had gone home, and the canteen was empty and he was freezing cold. As he splashed ashore a Coast Guard officer spotted him, and watched him stagger out of the water in swimming trunks, obviously disoriented. The officer assumed that my father was a ship-wrecked sailor. My father decided to enhance this impression by speaking only in rapid Portuguese and making wild arm movements describing the sinking of his ship. The officer took him to a police station, and while my father dried off he over-heard the officer submitting a report that detailed his courageous rescue of this drowning Portuguese civilian. My father, dry and almost sober at this point yelled out, “Oh give me a break!” These were the first English words he had uttered and a chilly silence followed. When my father was court marshaled he said that the judge, upon hearing the story had to pretend to cough and finally to cover his face with a handkerchief to hide his laughter. He didn’t give my father any formal punishment, but once he had gained control of himself he uttered a phrase that would live long in my family history. He told my father, “Not every one has a sense of humor like yours, Gardner.”

Vodka continued to be my fathers way of staving off his demons, with predictable results.
Of course there were wonderful times interspersed with the very bad. One Christmas not long ago I called my father to reminisce about our Christmases and how I had loved to go and buy the Christmas tree with him and drag it home through the snow. “I’m really glad to hear you say that,” my father said. “Because your brother just called me up to tell me that I ruined every Christmas we ever had with my drinking.”

After a short but very successful and promising career as a soil scientist, as the head of the National Soil Survey, which is now the National Geological Survey, the demons that my father had held at bay for so long, possessed him with a vengeance. My father contracted a demonic disease at 38 years of age that hadn’t even been invented yet. Arithema Multiformi, was a crisis of the immune system that was scarcely seen again for another 30 years, when it became common among AIDS patients. It involved among other things, horrible sores on his arms and legs and a swelling of his throat that stopped his breathing and almost killed him. The disease was so rare and fascinating to the doctors that my father was hospitalized at the National Institute of Health in Bethesda Maryland, and teams of medical students would stop by my father’s bed to stare at his bizarre and spectacular allergic symptoms. The doctors told us that he would surely die. He lost an incredible amount of weight, and finally he could hardly lift his head off the pillow. We would go and visit him and reminisce about the places we used to go as a family, about the camping trips and the mountain hikes and the beautiful beaches. Slowly and to the doctor’s amazement and embarrassment, my father began to rally. He was such a devout atheist that he never would have prayed for himself, but his family prayed for him. We prayed fervently at our little church of St. Michael and all Angels in Adelphi Maryland. Apparently Michael or one of the other angels troubled the waters in just the right way and my father got well.

My father never gave a thought to thanking God, and since he just kept getting sick again, it sort of makes you wonder. He continued to battle ill heath, probably caused by the internal scars of first illness, all his life. But he always seems to rally and rebound from the very brink of death. There have been quite a few death bed visitations that have turned into bright chatty gab sessions. The last time I visited my father, he regaled me with stories of his days in the navy, his courtship of my mother, and his bizarre sense of humor.

But perhaps the most remarkable thing about my last visit to my father, was what seemed to be his awkwardly emerging faith. He had a giant bible by his bed and I, of course, asked him about it. Glossing over the fact of his life-long atheism he said, “Oh- it’s the King James Version- don’t even talk to me about the other translations.” Then he asked me to read the part in Revelation that talked about the end times. Feeling like I was in a strange dream, I found chapter 20 of the book of Revelation and read it to him. He listened carefully, remarking on the beauty of the passages. He also showed me a copy of “The Purpose Driven Life” which one of his nurses had given him. Not taking any chances, she signed his name on the dotted line where you commit yourself to Christ. He thought this charming. Before I went I asked him if I could say a healing prayer for him and he consented immediately. I put my hands on his thin silver hair and offered a healing prayer. I prayed for his health, for his comfort and for peace in his heart. He was visibly touched and, as he said, very grateful.

When my father was healed, saved, from the demonic disease, like the man in the story, he was able to go home again, but, of course, not praising God. My father was somehow saved, after a youth of bitter mourning, horrific illness and alcoholism in his adult life, and life-long bouts of euphoria and depression. He was saved by God in creation and he didn’t even know it. He was saved by all the glorious running waters he took us to, the glory of God in everything from the exquisite paramecia in the soil he loved so well to the grandeur of the planets and the stars and the glory of the earth itself. He was saved by God in creation, and God apparently never even minded that the favor was not acknowledged. At least not so far.

The Outrageous Anointing: 6/13/10

Holy Trinity/La Santisima Trinidad
Reflections on
Luke 7:36-8:3

The story of the anointing woman is a well-known and well-cherished one and probably was at the time that the Gospel of Luke was written. It is dear to my heart because it illuminates two of the elements of Jesus’ life and teachings that fascinate me most: Jesus’ relationship with the women of the New Testament, and the teaching that Jesus tried so hard to convey to his uncomprehending disciples - the teaching of unconditional, extravagant love.

This story occurs, in differing versions, in all four gospels, which is very unusual for any of the New Testament stories. In every version it is an outrageous act, for differing reasons. But in only one of the four stories, in our story of today from the Gospel of Luke, is the anointing woman is a sinner. And so in this version it is the fact of Jesus receiving and touching a “woman of the city- a sinner,” that shocks the on-lookers. As his host testily says, “If this man were a prophet he would know who and what this woman is.” There was a strict taboo against any first century woman letting a man other than her husband even see her hair, it was usually tightly bound with cloth-so you can imaging how shocking this scene would have been.

In the anointing woman story in John and in Matthew and Mark, it is the extravagant waste of the very precious oil that shocks the bystanders. It was then and is now an utterly counter-cultural act. Love without counting the cost. But the extravagance in our story today is the gesture, heedless of propriety, heedless of taboos, heedless of any thought of limitation or fear. It is a outrageously courageous act.

I suppose that in every one of us there is something of the Pharisee and something of the anointing woman. It is a little surprising that Jesus was invited to the home of the Pharisee. The Pharisees were a very strict and exclusive sect, their name coming from the Hebrew “Parush” or “set apart.” Jesus alienated himself constantly from the Pharisees by his contempt for the law- and the purity codes- healing on the Sabbath, refusing to fast, taking women as disciples, allowing the touch of a bleeding woman, speaking with, healing and raising up women of the despised races of the Canaanites and the Samaritans, and, of course associating with sinners, as he does in our gospel of today. You have to wonder if Simon the Pharisee did not have a few misgivings in inviting him over. Then when this outrageous act occurs, at his tidy dinner table, he must have thought “Oh my God, I was afraid something like this might happen!” Jesus obviously hears his thoughts when the Pharisee sneers at the woman, as she covers Jesus feet with her tears and her kisses.

“Simon, I have something to say to you.” This is one of the most direct statements we ever hear from Jesus. He will not let pass the opportunity to show the Pharisee what a true disciple should be like. He will not pass up the opportunity to show Simon the human miracle taking place before them.

There are many examples of Jesus performing miracles of unimaginable abundance in all the gospels: The feeding of the multitudes, the massive catch of fish that Simon and his fellow fishermen harvest, the gallons and gallons of expensive wedding wine, and Jesus’ instruction to forgive your brother not seven times but seventy times seven times. ”

But in the story of the anointing woman, we have someone other than Jesus actually performing a courageous, taboo-breaking act of tremendous generosity. We are shown that one doesn’t have to be Jesus of Nazareth, one doesn’t have to have miraculous powers to emulate the kind of unconditional and almost limitless love that Jesus models.

In Matthew and Mark, Jesus defends the anointing woman from the scolding disciples saying, “Truly I tell you, wherever this good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.” Ironically, in these two Gospels, she is never named. And, for the most part, it is Luke’s sinful woman of the city that has traditionally remained as a composite portrait of her. She has often been inaccurately identified as Mary Magdalene, although nowhere in the Gospels is it written that Mary of Magdalene was any kind of sinner. But this sermon today and so many throughout the centuries have fulfilled the prophecy that she will be remembered. And Jesus’ words hold more importance than can be ascribed to a simple act of extravagance. It is the anointing of the Anointed One. It is the good news- the news that we can allow the Grace to rain from us for a change; we can give something without calculating the cost.

In the book of Isaiah, God says,

Do not remember the former things,
Or consider the things of old.
I am about to do a new thing
Now it springs forth do you not perceive it?

Like the Old Testament God of Isaiah, the anointing woman, and Jesus of Nazareth, were trying a new thing. As it sprang forth, like that flood of fragrant oil, like that extravagant gesture of love that Jesus presented to the uncomprehending Pharisee, a new idea came into being, a new life and a new hope, not based on market forces, not based on self-preservation, but based on unlimited love. Based on the unfettered compulsion to give back something for something incredibly precious that has been given. What we all have been given is unimaginably precious. We have been given the glory of creation, we have been given the miracle of Jesus, and we have been given boundless grace.

The Christian Buddhist, Thick Nhat Hahn best describes for me this abundance that we are all gifted with: He reminds us that:

The winds of grace are always blowing- we have only to put up our sails.

Jesus calls us to mirror the anointing woman and give back in some small measure, the love that has been so extravagantly poured out for us.
The never-ending raining down of Grace in our lives- Grace we did not earn, Grace we can’t even conceive of, and grace that does not ever exist in terms of lack or cost, but only in glorious abundance.


Trinity Sunday: 6/6/10

Holy Trinity/La Santisima Trinidad/Good Shepherd
Reflections on 1 Kings 17:17-24, Ps. 30, Gal. 1:11-24, Luke 7:11-17

Today is Trinity Sunday and often, on Trinity Sunday, we hear the ancient hymn, I bind unto myself today the strong name of the Trinity, the three in one, the one in three. Whenever Trinity Sunday comes around, I have to stop and ask- Just what are we binding ourselves unto? Well, the truth is, we don’t really know. The truth is, none of us really knows exactly what God is, let alone what the Trinity is. All of us, in this sense are agnostic. So in a sense to try to explain God, even through the time honored and holy persons of the Trinity is a little dangerous. God is the unexplainable mystery- Job’s whirlwind. As God tells us through the words of Isaiah, “My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are my ways your ways. “ So how can we understand her, triune or not? But we can ponder. We can ponder anew.

Gregory of Nyssa, his brother Basil and their friend Gregory of Nazianzus were desert monks in the 4th century who greatly helped in the understanding (or impossibility of really understanding) the Trinity. They warned their initiates against striving for a clear understanding of the Triune God. Instead of struggling to understand what they deemed was a holy mystery, initiates were encouraged to keep their minds swinging back and forth between the one and the three. Gregory of Nazianzus writes:
No sooner do I conceive of the One, than I am illumed by the splendor of the three. No sooner do I distinguish Three than I am carried back to the one. When I think of any of the three I think of him as the Whole and my eyes are filled, and the greater part of what I am thinking escapes me. I cannot grasp the greatness of that One so as to attribute a greater greatness to the rest. When I see the three together, I see but one torch, and cannot divine or measure the undivided light.

Before I went to seminary I was very comfortable with the idea of God, but very uncomfortable with the idea of Jesus. After 6 years of seminary, I found that I was very comfortable with the idea of Jesus, but uncomfortable with the idea of God. I didn’t think of it much then, but I guess I had always been most comfortable with the idea of the Holy Spirit- or maybe the Great Spirit.

I used to think of God through the lens of Lakota Sioux spirituality: MITAKUYE OYASIN, which is Sioux for “All my Relations.” In other words, God is truly all-encompassing. All creatures are our relations and are all part of God with us. There really was nowhere that God did not touch, and the why and wherefores of what God did and did not do were a huge mystery, not to be too deeply plumbed.

Then I read about process theology and I read Rabbi Harold Kushner’s book ”Why Bad Things Happen to Good People.” Rabbi Kushner came to a new conclusion about God when his young child died of cancer. He could not reconcile the God he loved with anyone who would allow such a thing to happen. He described his new philosophy like this:

A 707 crashed into a bridge in Washington DC- that was physics. But when Maury Schmutnick, who had never had a heroic thought in his life, jumped into the river to save a drowning stewardess, that’s God. A Christian perspective might have called it the Holy Spirit. This explanation of what seemed to be God’s unexplainable foibles initially appealed to me.

But as time went on, I realized that Rabbi Kuschner’s idea of God was too easy an answer. I felt it was wrong to put God in a box, that God in fact was the very definition of “out of the box.” And maybe that is the true value of the Trinity- it keeps God out of the box. As I pondered this, a phrase I heard somewhere kept coming back to me: “Do you praise God only when the hurricanes do not blow?”

Or do you embrace and say yes to creation in all its wildness? Is that not at least one definition of faith? Around this time one of my influences was a kind of an out-of-the-box priest who was at the time serving (for free) as vicar of a small church in Oakland. Right after the great tragedy of the Tsunami title waves in Indonesia in 2004, I asked him:

“How do you reconcile the reality of that scale of devastation with the idea of a loving God?” He said, “God gives the plates of the earth’s crust the freedom to be plates of the earth’s crust. They then do what plates of the earth’s crust do- they shift.” He challenged me to imagine a world in which creation did not have this freedom. An utterly ordered world with no death, never any chaos, no wildness- no wilderness.

In the book of Job God speaks out of the whirlwind. He speaks of the glories of creation; the unfathomable complexity and power of that God-made creation, and man’s arrogance in thinking he can comprehend or control it.

Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding. Who determined its measurements, surely you know! Or who stretched the line upon it? On what were its bases sunk, or who laid its cornerstone when the morning stars sang together and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy?”

God speaks of the great power of the Leviathan, the sea monster whose creation is noted in Genesis.

Can you draw out Leviathan with a fishhook? Put a rope in its nose or pierce its jaw with a hook?
Will it make a covenant to be your servant forever?

These wonders are a mystery I don’t want to mess with; the great and truly unfathomable whirlwind that is the glory of God. But I do believe that when we are sheltered and nourished and even when we are challenged by God’s exquisite creation, this is the purest form of God’s love for us.

Predictably, Fr. Matthew Fox, author of “Creation Spirituality,” doesn’t want to mess with the mystery of God in Creation either. He just wants to glory in it. He sees the ecstasy of the Trinity, in perhaps a different but just as powerful way as those initiates of the Cappadocian Fathers. He glories in Creation and in the mystery of the Holy Spirit, while pointing out the Jesus-centric tendencies of conventional Christianity. He was once confronted by an impatient listener at a lecture he gave in Australia. “I hear you speak of the Cosmic Christ,” the man said. “Well, are you a Christian or not? Do accept Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior or not?”

Fox replied, “I am a Trinitarian Christian. Those who think that Christianity is exclusively about Jesus are in fact heretics. They deny the Trinitarian Divinity.”
He later accuses many Christians of what he calls Jesusolotry. He goes on:
“To zero in on redemption of sin only, is anthropocentric and leaves out the mystical experience we have of God in creation and of the Spirit in our world.” Then he adds that it leaves out what he calls the Cosmic Christ, the Cosmic Wisdom that was present before the creation of the world (which we heard about in proverbs 8) who was incarnated in Jesus (Jn 1:14) and whom Jesus promises to send as spirit.” As it says in our Gospel reading of today.

Perhaps it is more important to see what the Trinity leads to than what it actually means. Matthew Fox’s idea of the Cosmic Christ comes from the brilliant and radical Catholic theologian Father Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, whose writings were banned by the Catholic Church. He seems to think that what it all leads to is his idea of the Cosmic Christ, and he places humankind itself as one with Christ in the Trinity. According to Teilhard de Chardin, Christ is the force behind a collective "Christ consciousness" of humankind, which will culminate in the emergence of a "Cosmic Christ" - the true parousia, or presence. Teilhard de Chardin essentially taught that the whole world itself was being transubstantiated into Christ. Is that cool or what!

Since the word “Trinity” never appears in the bible, on this Trinity Sunday, the lections are selected, as best they can be to reflect the idea of the Trinity.
Our wonderful reading of Proverbs today, that Matthew Fox alluded to, could indeed be said to reflect his concept of the Cosmic Christ, imparting wisdom, and understanding, and existing, just as “the Word” did in the prolog of John, before the beginnings of the earth. She seems to be at all places at once, in the present time as well as the past. She is, all at once:

…on the heights, beside the way, at the crossroads, at the gates in front of the town, at the entrance of the portals.

And at every stage of creation, Wisdom was working alongside God the creator. Expressing her ecstasy at co-creating with God she says:
Then I was the craftsman at God’s side.
I was filled with delight day after day,
rejoicing always in the presence of God,
Rejoicing in the whole world and delighting in all humankind.

We need the wilderness, we need wildness of creation, but the majesty and the glory and the fearful mystery of God is too much for us. I guess that’s why we need the Trinity- we need the humanity of Jesus and the soft transcendence of the Spirit.

But if we truly have a have a triune God, whether or not we can grasp the three in one, then we must have something astounding. We have all the vastness and wildness and unpredictability of God the Creator. But we also, in the same being, have the human compassion, forgiveness and redeeming love of Jesus. And we have the mystery of the Holy Spirit, channeling that love and power through us, if we will allow it, like a great ecstatic river. Amen.

The Spirit of Truth: Pentecost, 5/23/10

Holy Trinity/La Santisima Trinidad
Reflections on Acts 2:1-21 Psalm 104:24-34, 35b, Romans 8:14-17
John 14:8-17, (25-27)

We have heard the story of Pentecost, and we have heard the wonderful cacophony of at least several if not many languages telling this beautiful story at the same time. We have heard the symbols of wind and fire used to paint the picture of the shell-shocked disciples, still reeling from the loss of their master, suddenly filled with the Holy Spirit. One of the miracles of the Pentecost story is that suddenly, without any effort, they could all speak and all understand many different languages.

As is noted, there were Parthians, Medes, Elamites, Mesapotameans, people from Judea, Cappadocians (turkey to us) Egyptians, Libya, Romans, Arabs and more. The healing and opposition of the tragedy of the tower of Babel, where they could not understand each other took place on this Holy day. The Power of the Spirit gave them so much enthusiasm and such loud and joyous ability to communicate, that it was assumed that they were drunk. Peter, apparently keeping a straight face, defends his brethren. We are not drunk, he insists, but filled with a different kind of Spirit. He quotes the old scripture from the book of Joel:

I will pour out my spirit on all flesh
Your sons and your daughter s will prophesy.
Your young men shall see visions and your old men shall dream dreams.

After Jesus was crucified, there is no doubt that the disciples were very afraid. We read that there were only 120 left of the multitudes that used to throng to hear Jesus preach. And on that first day of Pentecost, it had been 50 days since the disciples had lost their beloved master. In the beginning of Acts, the author reminds us that Jesus told the disciples that while John may have baptized with water, they would soon be baptized with the Holy Spirit. Perhaps it was this promised baptism of the Holy Spirit that they kept them going. On that day of Pentecost, at that baptism of the Holy Spirit, something new was created. The Body of Christ was created.

As in all creation stories the natural elements play a huge part- the rushing wind conjuring up the beginning in Genesis when a mighty wind swept over the face of the water. And a flame appears on each of the disciples, reminding us of the first light at the beginning of time. Creation is not a comfortable thing. A great wind and fire, especially a fire that alights on a human being does not conjure up comfort. In fact the advent of a new creation is far from a comfortable thing- just ask any birthing mother. But it seems a necessary art of any creation, including the creation we witness in Pentecost.

The Holy Spirit often inspires groups of people, sometimes when only two or more are gathered together in the name of Christ.

1901 the Holy Spirit swept into Point Richmond, and the first two Episcopal services were planned and celebrated by a small group of determined Episcopalians.

J.A. Emery the arch deacon of the diocese of California was first one to conduct an Episcopal service, and the Rev. D.A Kelly was the first vicar of what became Holy Trinity Mission. In Dec 8, 1901 at Trinity Mission, Bishop Nichols petitioned God to continue to fill seven confirmands with the holy Spirit more and more in their lives as he laid his hands on their firey heads and confirmed them..

The church must have burst it’s seams, because in 1922 property at 10th and Barrett in Richmond was purchased to accommodate the growing numbers of Episcopalians there. This became St. Edmonds Mission.

On May 24, 1922 the first service was held, and the bishop petitioned God to daily increase the Holy Spirit more and more in the lives of seven confirmands.

I was extremely interested to note that from 1901-1922- a series of 7 priests served both missions at the same time. This could be considered antique area ministry, and a precedent for what I am doing now.

In 1935 a Sunday school was opened at the corner of San Pablo and Barrett. There was not enough room at either Trinity Mission in Pt. Richmond or at St. Edmond’s for the 100 children who were housed at the new Sunday school.

Trinity mission at Pt. Richmond closed in 1930, and land was eventually purchased at 37th and Roosevelt. St. Edmonds was soon closed as well, and by May 1948 services started at our present location.

And then about about 20 years ago the Holy Spirit visited three sisters, one of whom, Gloria Del Castillo, is now an Episcopal priest. The Del Castillo sisters, Episcopalians from Peru, visited the diocese of California saying they wanted to start a Latino ministry. A Latino priest, Ricardo Francisco was assigned the task, and with the assistance of Dorothy Curry, who was the priest at Holy Trinity at that time, a Latino presence came to Holy Trinity. And we are now so blessed to have Padre Javier and a great cloud of witnesses in our church, living and worshipping as part of our congregation.

Like any creation story, there have been discomforts, there have been rushing winds, hot fires and initial difficulty in interpreting different tongues. But all along, there has been the Holy Spirit. All along there has been the pioneering splendor and pain of a Pentecost experience. We are blessed and challenged in this church to have the opportunity to learn to understand each other’s cultures, to be all together in one place, to listen to the winds of heaven. To be baptized with the Holy Spirit, as Jesus promised us we would surely be.

Mother's Day: 5/9/10

Mother's Day Sermon,
Holy Trinity Richmond/La Santisima Trinidad

Well, I always like to preach on Mother’s day, because I have never met a mother who did not remind me, at least a little bit, of Jesus. Because we are the ones who wash your feet! We are the ones who heal the owies, and we are the ones most likely to be called upon to feed the five thousand.

If you are a mother, you know what I am talking about. And if you are a mother, there's nothing I can tell you about being a mother that you don't already know. But if you are not a mother, then maybe you will do what I am going to do today. Maybe you will reminisce about your own mother. Maybe you will recall her in all her short-comings and all her glory.

When I think about how the Holy Spirit worked through my mother to bring me into the Episcopal Church, I picture it like this. In the beginning, the Spirit of God moved over the face of the deep and chlorinated waters of the Indian Springs swimming pool in rural Maryland. She then glided over the shallow end and kept moving until she rested on the sun-tanned face of Babs Warren, who immediately removed her sunglasses and sat bolt upright. She turned to the sunbathing figure of my mother lying next to her and proclaimed, "Joan! I've been meaning to tell you about this neat little church I've started going to! St. Michael and All Angels Church over in Adelphi!"

The next Sunday my mother took me there. She didn't say I had to go. She never said I had to go. She would just put on some great-looking little suit and say, "I'm going to church. Wanta go?" I did want to go. I always wanted to go. I had never set foot in a church until I was 8 years old so it was strange, fascinating and exotic to me. Since I was a girl I could not, of course, be an acolyte like my brother, but I did everything I could do. I joined the choir, I went to Sunday school, I played Jesus in the Easter pageant. I performed in the variety shows. I went to the pot lucks. After a while my mother got confirmed and I asked her if I could do that. She told me that I had to be baptized first, and I was all for that. And so I was baptized on Easter Even in April of 1962, wide-eyed and blasted with the Holy Spirit. A week later I was confirmed by Bishop William Creighton.

I remember standing a the communion rail, watching the Bishop move towards me. I didn’t notice that everyone else was kneeling, and my best friend, Laura Libby, kneeling to my right, desperately pulled on my dress to get me to kneel, which, mortified, I immediately did. The Bishop loomed over me, placed his enormous hands on my head and said,

Defend, O Lord, this child with thy heavenly grace: that she may continue thine for ever; and daily increase in they Holy Spirit more and more, until she come into thy everlasting kingdom. Amen.

Because my mother saved it for me, I still have the bulletin from that day.

My mother had purchased a beautiful white lacy dress for me for the confirmation. This purchase caused a screaming fight between my mother and father, so the dress must have been really expensive. My father boycotted the confirmation event, probably because of the dress. But I had the satisfaction of watching my priest, Don Seaton, storm into our apartment without knocking on the afternoon of my confirmation. He shouted at my father, who had been reclining on an easy chair, "Where the hell were you this morning, Dave Gardner?" I was thrilled.

My mother had extraordinarily high boundaries when it came to church work. She never joined the choir. I never saw her enter the church kitchen. She was never on the altar guild. Never even taught Sunday school. And for years she never joined a committee. I later realized that as the daughter of a preacher she felt she had done her time as far as church work was concerned all through her childhood and youth. But she was in those pews every Sunday, and finally, there came a time when she did join a committee.

My mother not only introduced me to the Episcopal church, she also introduced me to social justice. In the sixties the Episcopal Society for Cultural and Racial Unity (or ESCRU) was very active in the civil rights movement, and St. Michael and All Angels became involved too. This was the committee that my mother finally joined. Groups from the church would go out and participate in civil rights demonstrations which my Mother, however, felt were too dangerous for me to go to. But I remember joining my mother and a group from St. Michael's to picket a housing development in rural Maryland called the "Belle Aire Estates." They cluelessly advertised the fact that they would admit no black families to their housing developments. At twelve years old I walked proudly behind my mother in the picket line, carrying a placard and miming her obliviousness to the rude comments that were hurled in our direction.

In August 1963 the March on Washington was being organized and I begged to go. But in many quarters it was feared that the march would be a bloodbath, as so many marches had been in the South, and so my mother forbade me to go. Not many people in our church had the courage to go to that march, but my mother was one of them. She got to hear the "I Have a Dream" speech by Martin Luther King Jr., and all I got was her lousy bulletin from the march. It was clear from the remarks on the bulletin that the organizers expected the march might be violent as well. It read in part, "We call upon all marchers, black and white to resist all provocations to disorder and violence." The march, of course was a peaceful and history-making event.

My mother was also before her time in her support of what we now call gay rights, although she wouldn't have called it that. When I was five years old, she worked as an Arthur Murray's Dance Studio instructor. I loved watching my mother dance in rhinestones and her gauzy formal gowns. I noticed right away that most of her co-workers were good-looking young men who dressed extremely well. And they all seemed to pair off socially. When I asked her about this she told me that the reason they liked each other so much and were not married was because they were gay. And that's also why they are so much fun, she added.

The advent of the sixties seemed to suit my mother really well. In one of St. Michael's infamous floor shows, she organized a group of women to do a modern dance as beatniks. Dressed in black tights, long black turtlenecks and berets, they did a slow and Jules Feiffer-like modern Dance while they intoned the nursery rhyme, "Peas porridge hot, peas porridge cold, peas porridge in the pot, nine days old" My mother looked great in tights, and she was aware of this.

My mother, through St. Michael's church, also introduced me to pastoral care. We would frequently drive out with the church group to orphanages or half-way houses for youth to play with the children there. I clearly remember my mother sitting on the sidewalk with a few of the girls from the half way house, playing jacks and laughing.

After I left home my parents separated and my mother moved out of our little apartment in the suburbs, and into a breathtakingly dangerous neighborhood in South East Washington DC. She immediately made friends with her neighbors and allowed the children of the neighborhood to have the run of her small apartment, often feeding them or giving them small gifts. She was not tempted to move out of the neighborhood even when her apartment was, predictably enough, burglarized. Finally, one of her neighbors was murdered and our family insisted that she move into a safer area. So she moved to am apartment directly across the street from Christ's Church in a slightly safer part of town, as if to say that this was all the protection she needed.

Like many great women in history, my mother's courage and virtues did not always extend to her duties as a mother. But she had no patience for my complaints. She seems to lack the guilt gene that I inherited so strikingly. In answer to my protests about her neglect or her dishonesty, she would exclaim with great incredulity, "Oh, give me a break!" When pushed she might finally say, "Mea Culpa! Mea Culpa! All right?"

By the time I was 24, which was the year she died, I had decided that her manifold sins and wickedness were beyond my powers of forgiveness. We were barely on speaking terms. I was in art school at the time, painting large silver cubes or something. When she ventured that she couldn't see that there would be any money in that, I took it as proof of her great, sabotaging lack of faith in me. Then, a week before she died, she heard me being interviewed on the radio for a show I was in. The next time I saw her, which was the last time I ever saw her, she embraced me and told me how proud she was of me – that she was glad I was doing what I really wanted to do, and was sure I would succeed. This exchange was so utterly uncharacteristic of her, that I don't think I uttered a word in response. Luckily I did return her embrace.

My mother brought me back to the Episcopal church again, twenty-some years later, when my long suppressed mourning for her reached a fever pitch, and going to church was the only thing I could think of doing. Over the years, especially when I was on the rocky path to holy orders, I have thought about her a lot. Sometimes, when I look out and notice that the front right pew is empty, I suddenly realize that is not really empty at all. I can feel her presence very palpably at those times, sitting right there in that front pew, in one of those great little suits.

As I wait with all of you for the Holy Spirit promised by Jesus in our passage today, I strive to experience forgiveness, to feel the breath of God on my life. And to realize, that like Jesus, my mother left only so she could come back again, in a way that leaves my heart untroubled, in a way that gives me in deep peace.

Peace she left me, peace she gave me. My heart is not troubled, and I am, now, finally, not afraid.


Earth Sunday 4/25/10

The Rev. Este Gardner Cantor
Acts 9:36-43 • Psalm 23 • John 10:22-30
Holy Trinity/La Santisima Trinidad 4/25/10

My father was and is a geologist and a physical scientist, and when every Earth Day rolls around I inevitably think of him. He was from my earliest memory, a devout atheist, and an ecstatic, evangelical lover of God’s creation. All through my childhood I was gifted with many camping trips in the various places we lived. We moved from place to place, not infrequently, as he carried out his work as head of the United States Geological Soil Survey. He even made dirt seem wonderful. He took us to The Appalachian Mountains, the Shenandoah River, Mount Washington, Sugar Loaf mountain, Rehoboth Beach, Bethany Beach, Assoteague and Chiniteague islands, the beautiful Tridelphia Resevoir on the Patuxant River, the glaciers of Upstate New York, and the Eastern shore of the Chesapeake Bay.

I absolutely received my first experience of God through this instructed love of nature. On a camping trip when I was five years old, my father gave me the job of walking down a wooded path to put the milk and the eggs into the ice-cold stream. I was thrilled to see, when I came back to fetch them, that a raccoon had found them and had a glorious breakfast. I then got lost trying to find my way back, so I climbed a friendly-looking tree and waited for my father to come and find me, which he soon did.

I never darkened the door of an Episcopal Church until I was eight years old. At that time, my mother, a preacher’s kid who married an atheist, finally found she had to come back to church. But I knew who God was and I had an inexpressible gratitude for what she had created.

My father, from the beginning, was a good shepherd to us kids, teaching us to be good shepherds to the beautiful fauna and flora of the earth. After he stopped working for the government, he was a professor of geology and physical science for 25 years, and he taught this same love of nature and responsibility for shepherding to all his students. When I would go back to Maryland to visit, we could not go to a public place without ecstatic former students of his calling out “Dr. Gardner! Dr. Gardner!” They certainly knew his name.

From a very young age I was told all about how the earth fit together. I was told about plate tectonics, about air pressure, wind patterns and why the sky was blue. I was taught how rocks were formed, igneous, sedimentary and metamorphic including my father’s personal favorite igneous rock, granite. I heard him talk so much about granite as a young child, that the first time I ever heard someone complain that they were being taken for granite ( probably my mother) I imagined that it meant they were mistaken for a large gray rock.

I was pretty sure my father was the Messiah, at least it certainly seemed like it to me. He knew everything- he knew about how the earth was created, how stars were made- how creatures evolved. I thought he was brilliant. I remember clearly that he took me aside one November when I was 3 years old and told me that I was to tell no one, but that he was going to vote for Eisenhower. How silly, I thought. Anyone would be able to tell that my father would be the best imaginable president. Why bother with other candidates?

When I was 10 my father became desperately ill, and his energy for shepherding shrank to nothing. He lost his job at the Soil Survey, got full disability, and had to rebuild his life from zero, once he began to recover. But, thank God, it seemed that nothing could snatch him from my hand, and he did regain his health.

Our beautiful psalm for today, the 23rd psalm, speaks of a father, of a shepherd whom we know will never be snatched from our hands. It speaks of a God who gifts us with the glory of creation, symbolized by the green pastures and the serenity of the still waters. It speaks of a God who will fill our every need, feed us with the finest food, keep us from fear. It speaks of a God who will restore our souls.

As I was writing this my father called me on the phone from Maryland. He wanted to talk about the volcano in Iceland that is still erupting, and correct several misconceptions about it. He also told me that he had been on that volcano (it is called E-16, he said) in Iceland when all it was doing was melting the glaciers a little. Volcanic ash is a misnomer he said emphatically. You only get cinders and ash from combustion, and there is combustion in a volcano only in Hollywood movies. He began to explain to me that what people call volcanic ash is actually tiny fragments of rock- in this case basalt- that has exploded apart when the hot lava hits water and steam erupts from the volcano. He then went on to tell me the exact physics of a volcanic eruption, about the viscous mantle of lava under the earth’s crust, and what happens when it begins to leak through, which, given plate tectonics, it inevitably does.

I was reminded again that I had a father who gifted me with creation, and that, amazingly he is still in my life, unrolling its mysteries. Although he would never put it this way, I believe that when are sheltered and nourished and even when we are challenged by God’s exquisite creation, this is the purest form of God’s love for us.

As Henri Nouwen implies in our second reading, if we can see all of nature as a sacrament, just as we see the bread and the wine, we have a chance of saving the glory of nature from our own destructive hands. He goes on:

“God is with us, not as an isolated event once a week, but as the concentration of a mystery about which nature speaks day and night.”

The mystery continues in the roaring of hurricanes, the endless tides, the blue mountain mists, the glory of our vast forests, and the extraordinary and fierce explosions of a volcano. It is the whirlwind described in the Book of Job, it is unknowable and unspeakably precious.

God in creation knows our names- knows all our needs and fulfills them all. We and this beautiful, fragile creation are one.

Feed My Sheep: Third Sunday of Easter 4/17/10

Holy Trinity/La Santisima Trinidad/Good Shepherd
Reflections on Acts 9:1-6(7-20),Rev. 5:11-14, John 21:1-19

In Our gospel reading, we hear that today’s story is the third time that Jesus appeared to the disciples. But it is actually the fourth time by my count, unless you don’t count the appearance to Mary Magdalene. But Jesus did appear to Mary at the tomb, and this of course was the first resurrection appearance, although she did not recognize him at first. The second time, Jesus appeared to the disciples when the they were anxiously gathered together, locking their doors for fear of Jesus’ persecutors. He showed them his wounded hands and feet, breathed the Holy Spirit on them and left. Thomas was not among the disciples then. The third time is our story of last week, when Thomas makes his huge leap from doubt to belief.

By the time of our story of today, even with these miraculous appearances, it seems that the disciples have gone back to doing what fisherman do. They fish- and not for people. The desolation of life without their beloved teacher was deepened by their utterly barren night of fishing.

Then, at dawn, the disciples, exhausted, discouraged, notice someone on the shore, apparently begging for food. Perhaps he was an old man, for he called them children. He apparently wanted to be fed. Just as Mary mistook Jesus for the gardener, the disciples mistook Jesus for just some guy on the beach. But they take his advise unquestioningly, and throw out the net, this time on the right side of the boat.

They then have their miraculous catch of fish, and it is the beloved disciple who recognizes Jesus. Peter, buffoonish as ever, pulls on his clothes and plunges into the water. Why was he naked on the boat in the first place, and why did he put his clothes ON to jump into the water? This was just what Peter was like- always getting it backwards.

The disciples move in this story from utter emptiness and desolation to abundant fullness- they are fed the bread (and the fish) of life.

The story of Saul of Tarsus is an extreme example of someone moving from doubt to faith. In his case he moved from murder to evangelism. Saul, who was an energetic captor and persecutor of Christians, was literally on his way to Damascus to deliver letters to the synagogues requesting that they turn in the Jews who have begun the follow the Way, so that he might bring them bound to Jerusalem where they would be put to death.

But a brilliant, literally blinding light stops him in his tracks, and he hears a voice. Like Mary, like the disciples in today’s story, he does not recognize Jesus. But Jesus tells him what to do, and he blindly follows. He remains blind, experiencing physically what he had lived out spiritually, until Ananias lays hands on him, and invokes the name of Jesus. Saul, of course, became Paul, who spent his life helping everyone he encountered to recognize Jesus.

In our Gospel story, after Jesus has given communion to the disciples, he takes Peter aside. Knowing well Peter’s short-comings, Jesus asks him not once but three times, do you love me? Perhaps it was a way of undoing Peter’s betrayal, when three times, he professed that he did not know Jesus at all. Peter affirms, with growing upset, three times that yes, he does love Jesus.

And each time Peter affirms this love, the message that is given is “Feed my sheep.” We are given to understand that to love Jesus and to feed his sheep are one and the same thing. Jesus’ great commandment is repeated three times, lest we miss it- feed my sheep.

It is a comfort and a blessing to be reminded that it was Peter- Peter the betrayer, Peter the clumsy doubter, Peter the naked buffoon, to whom Jesus gives this command. It is Peter who is called the rock upon which Jesus will build his church. And Jesus finds a way for Peter to transcend his betrayal, gives him an opportunity to affirm his love, and even to feed his sheep. And even more amazingly, it is Saul, captor and murderer of the early struggling Christians, to whom Jesus appears. It is Saul who is gifted with the mission to carry the work to all corners of his world.

What a comfort to those of us who, although we may not be murderers, and although we may have slightly more grace than Peter, still may feel unworthy or unable to love as Jesus has commanded us. There is hope, it seems, even for the most unimaginable unlikely among us.

John’s gospel begins and ends with miracles of vast abundance in Galilee. And in each case the miracle is the occasion for an epiphany. The gospel begins with the miracle at Cana, where the vast abundance of wine is the first sign of the divinity of Jesus. And we end with the miraculous catch of fish, where Jesus reveals that he is the one who will feed us with incredible abundance.

But right in the middle of the gospel is the human miracle of vast generosity- the tremendous abundance of nard that Mary of Bethany pours on the feet of Jesus.

It seems that the only miracle that we humans can attempt, is to transcend our ever-present fears, and love abundantly, feed each other abundantly.. To transcend our fear of running out of wine, of giving too much away, of catching absolutely no fish, and to listen to Jesus’ commandment. However many times we may have betrayed his teachings, however we may have murdered some of his children in our hearts, there is the possibility that even we can in fact love and feed each other abundantly. That we can fulfill this great commandment “Feed my sheep, feed my sheep, feed my sheep.”