Sunday, December 11, 2011

Prophet in a Trenchcoat

The Spirit Has Anointed Me…
• Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11
• Psalm 126 or Luke 1:46b-55
• 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24
• John 1:6-8, 19-28
Holy Trinity Episcopal Church
The Rev. Este Gardner Cantor, 12/11/11

As an Episcopal Priest in Berkeley, I not infrequently find myself at dinner tables or in group conversations with all kinds of people. And at the revelation that I am a priest, a kind of shocked and horrified silence often settles upon the crowd. And I hear all sorts of unsolicited opinions. Some that have been stated before they know I am a priest.
“All religion is absurd!” I hear.
“Why does there need to be a “magical being who controls everything?”
or “We don’t need God to be good people”
“More harm than good has been done in the name of religion”
“And finally, “You have no hold on reality”

Once I gather my tenuous hold on reality, I say,

“What a bleak world it must be, to believe only in science, to believe only what is visible, what is scientifically provable. What would we do without people of imagination, people of faith, people of the Spirit, what would we do without our prophets? What new invention could come into being without the inventor having imagination, taking a leap of faith, trusting in something that has not yet been proved, and that possibly never can be? What artwork would be created if everything had to have a logical and practical use and explanation and be proven to fit into the scientifically defined realm of reality?
And what force would help us to resist our human tendencies toward greed and self interest and spur us on to a compassionate and just world?”

None of these arguments particularly convince.

I am used to being around atheists here in Berkeley, and I am used to seeing intelligent people on the news or on talk shows who seem to share those views. So I was quite astonished to hear this from the brilliant comedian and writer of the priceless “The Daily Show,” John Steward. He said the following when referring to the great economic inequities in our country. “It’s not Christian!” Then recovering himself, he said, “Or Jewish or Muslim!” He himself is a Jew, married to a Catholic. Then soon after, on a different news show, I heard the wonderful and always controversial Keith Olberman say, when describing Michael Blomberg’s destruction of the Occupy Wall Street camp, exactly the same thing- “Its not Christian!” he bellowed.

But nothing surprised me more that the amazing words of the prophet Chris Hedges.

Chris Hedges is a modern day prophet, whom the Spirit of the Lord has surely anointed. He is a hugely talented, Pulitzer-prize-winning author, journalist and war correspondent, who is also, I found to my amazement, a faithful Christian. I had no idea of his religious background until he made an extraordinary speech, and I looked him up. Then I read that he had gone to seminary at Harvard Divinity School, and that his father was a Presbyterian minister. He has been absolutely fearless, as a prophet must be, covering wars all over the world, and seeing the inevitable horrors. He is quoted in the beginning of the award-winning film about the Iraq War, “The Hurt Locker:
"The rush of battle is often a potent and lethal addiction, for war is a drug."
And yet with all this experience, all this knowledge that would turn most people cynical, he has held on to his faith- in God and in humankind.

Chris Hedges wrote a book, as it turns out, called “I Don’t Believe in Atheists” which came out of a series of interviews he did with three prominent authors, who have been called “The New Atheists.”
Chris Hedges compares the new Atheists with the Christian Fundamentalists, in that the Atheists have made science an absolute religion, whose every word must be taken for absolute truth. They see nothing in shades of gray- everything is absolute- everything is black and white. There is no room for diversity of thought, diversity of belief.

Then I saw another astonishing piece written by Chris Hedges that truly had the passion and fiery certainty of an Old Testament Social Justice prophet, and the blazing heraldry of John the Baptizer proclaiming the coming of something great. This was a defense of the occupy movement, which was also a defense of Christianity, pointing out the great social justice movements in history have been inspired or led by religious leaders. He urges the church of today to embrace the Occupy movement- not let it die. The name of the piece is “Were You There when they Crucified my Movement?”
He started out by saying that outside the doors of churches, many of which have trouble filling a quarter of the pews on Sundays, struggles a movement, driven largely by young men and women, which has as its unofficial credo the Beatitudes:
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are they who mourn, for they shall be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they shall possess the earth.
Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for justice, for they shall be satisfied….
Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.
Blessed are the pure of heart, for they shall see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons and daughters of God.
Blessed are they who suffer persecution for justice sake, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.
He goes on to point out that it was the church, and its expression in Liberation Theology in Latin America, which gave moral support and direction for the opposition to dictatorship in the bloody 1970’s in those desperately oppressed countries.
It was the church in East Germany that organized the peaceful opposition marches in Leipzig that would bring down the Communist regime in that country.
It was the church in Czechoslovakia, and its 90-year-old cardinal, that blessed and defended the Velvet Revolution.
And of course it was the church, and especially the African-American church, that made possible the civil rights movements. Not only Martin Luther King Jr, but other the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, Rev. John Duffy and so many faithful lay people.
In Advent, when we celebrate hope, when we remember in the church how Mary and Joseph left Nazareth for Bethlehem, we remember who it was who came into the world. We remember who was incarnated on that holy night. Who it was who gave us the Gospel’s radical message of justice and compassion. Who gave us the message of love.

I saw a film of Chris Hedges as he was walking down a New York street, talking to someone about the Occupy movement. He said something like, “I’ve got kids now (he has four as it turns out) and this is not about us anymore, it is about the next generation, my children’s generation. This is about them. My passion for the justice of what you young people are doing, and I would even use the word love, is that you are fighting for the future of my three year old daughter [and here this hardened war correspondent began to cry] and he said, God bless you for it- God bless you.” An unnamed long-haired young man appeared from outside the frame of the film, and, Jesus-like, embraced the tearful prophet, bringing him good news, indeed.


Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Occupy Christ

Reflections on Is. 64:1-9; Ps. 80: 1-7, 17-19; 1 Cor. 1:3-9; Mk. 13:24-37
Good Shepherd Episcopal Church
The Rev. Este Gardner Cantor, 11/27/11

The first Sunday of Advent is a good time to come to church. If you stay awake and pay attention, you will hear that all the dark scriptural readings we have just heard are trying to prepare us for something. Clearly, it is something other than Santa Claus.

The readings are dark powerful and alarming. These are not quiet readings, These are not peaceful readings. The sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give it’s light, the stars will fall, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken.

The vision of the coming of the Son of Man, in clouds and great glory, comes directly from a dream. It is the dream of Daniel the prophet, which begins by describing four surrealistically horrifying beasts who emerge from the sea:- a lion with eagle’s wings, a bear with three tusks, a winged leopard and most horrific of all, a gigantic beast with ten horns and steel teeth. The Son of Man arrives on his clouds of glory, interrupting the fourth beast as it tries to destroy the enthroned Ancient One, robed in white. With the coming of the Son of Man, the beast is vanquished. Darkness and chaos are overcome.

The readers of Mark would have been quite familiar with this image and this story from the Book of Daniel, where the Son of Man is placed on his heavenly throne, and given dominion over everything. But in our Gospel reading, the coming of the Son of Man marks the second earthly coming of Jesus, When he comes he faithfully gathers his elect, from all the corners of the earth.

This is an end-time story we hear at the very dawn of Advent. But we are cautioned to stay awake- to keep watch. Because, as the prophets have foretold, something really extraordinary is beginning. From darkness and chaos, something revolutionary will emerge. The whole order of the world will change, the world will be flooded with light, and the forces of darkness will be repelled. After all the suffering, tidings of joy, are heralded.

The truth is, if we are awake at all, if we have ears to hear and eyes to see, we will behold striking expression of the Advent times here in our streets and all over the world- a moving of the spirit and a caution to stay awake that is hard to miss.

My parents we proto-beatniks and they loved nothing so much as to share a bottle of wine and then waft out into the woods, reciting poetry to each other and then (according to my mother, my hand to God) actually embrace the trees. So, from the very beginning, because of my genetics and through no fault of my own, I never had a fighting chance of being a Republican. So I do admit to a weakness for radical movements, a weakness, in fact for revolution. And that is one of the big reasons that I became a Christian. Jesus is just SO RADICAL! He started, from a very unpromising little band of brothers and sisters, who began Occupy Galilee, a most profound and lasting revolution that is still as challenging and radical as the day it was born. And he did it non-violently. Jesus and his disciples kept a common purse, kept no extraneous possessions- and so they were radical in their self-imposed poverty. Jesus told them, “Call no man your master, call no man father, he said “If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all.” He said let me do the work of a slave, let me wash your feet. So I even I believe he might have preferred a leaderless movement if he could have had one. I believe he would still like that.

Tuesday November 17 I was safe at home in my fold. It was my day off and I was really enjoying doing nothing. But my husband bounded through the door and said, “Robert Reiche, (the wonderful writer, professor and political philosopher), is going to speak at the UC Campus at Sproul Hall at 8:00- let’s go hear him!” It was warm in my house, and I was betting it would be cold at Sproul Plaza, no matter how inspiring the talk. But I decided to stretch my comfort zone and leave the nest. When we approached Sproul Plaza, it was clear that we were not the only ones who decided to come. It looked to be about 5,000 people milling about or sitting in little organized circles. It turned out that these organized circles were the General Assembly of Occupy Cal going full force.
The Wednesday before, the protestors at Occupy Cal had set up tents, as had so many occupy sites, and as in so many other cases, the police were called to pull them down. But what was so astonishing was that the very first action by the police was to viciously (I saw the tape) drive their night sticks into the rib cages of the students who had formed a circle, linking arms to protect their campsite. Well, on Tuesday night, the General Assembly was taking a vote on whether or not to erect the tents again. I was floored at their courage. I was floored anyway, because I had not seen anything like this many young people protesting for peace and justice in just about exactly forty years. I lived in Washington DC during the Vietnam War, so I saw a lot of mass protests of young people then. But not since then. Eighty percent of the students voted to put the tents up again. The motion passed.
At bottom the Occupy movement is about compassion and justice, and not only economic justice. But according to the author of Sacred Economics, Charles Eisenstein, it is about much more than that. He says it is about nothing less than creating a new world, a world of equality and peace and healing that our hearts tell us is possible. Tidings of great joy indeed. I went on a site called, a switchboard for live streaming coverage of the Occupy movement, and up came a picture of a broadly smiling young woman with bright pink hair, holding a sign. It said “Compassion is Revolutionary”. I couldn’t agree more. Then came the live-streaming part: I saw police bristling with nightsticks in riot gear roughly shoving protestors who were trying to march. I thought about the beast with the steel teeth. One woman was poignantly speaking to the policeman pushing her back- “Please don’t fight us-we need you- join us- don’t fight us- we are you!” Then a chant sounded as the police began the arrests “This is a peaceful protest! This is a peaceful protest!” As people were being pushed to the ground the chant changed “The whole world is watching!” The whole world is watching. And compassion is revolutionary. And expensive.

In this Advent season, amid the unavoidable chaos and darkness, we pray for the peace to slow down and open our hearts. For the grace to be ready to embrace the coming Messiah- Emmanuel- God-with-us. For surrender to get our hearts and minds around this amazing and precious notion of God coming to us as a helpless infant. What could be more radical than that? What could be more radical than the incarnation? What could possibly be more radical, more revolutionary than God flooding into a mortal being that he might grow in grace and wisdom and flood into all of us? Last week we heard the gospel reading that showed us that the compassion of Jesus was so complete that he not only identified with the us, he insisted that he actually WAS us; “When I was hungry, you gave me food, when I was thirsty, you gave me drink, when I was a stranger you took me in …”

Even with all its imperfections, the remarkable modern movement we have been witnessing seems to contain something of that spirit- something of divine generosity, something of the Reign of God. All the nations seem to be gathered before us, as the needs of the poor and marginalized are being lifted up to the public attention world-wide- proclaimed in the marketplace, in our modern temples, and on the street.

There has been a lot of anxiety that the movement seems to have no leader. But what I see is the incarnation of the radical Jesus in thousands of leaders in this movement, over-turning the tables of the money changers in the temple, and pointing out the hypocrisy of the mighty. People also complain that there are no specific demands. I would say that they have one great demand, very like the one spoken by the prophet Amos, and taught by Jesus:

"Let Justice roll down like the waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream."

Stay awake- something remarkable is going to be born.

Monday, May 9, 2011

In the Breaking...

Reflections on Luke 24:13-23 5:1-12

Holy Trinity La Santisima Trinidad and Good Shepherd Berkeley, 5/8/11, Easter II
The Rev. Este Gardner Cantor

What a week we have lived through. And what a neck-snappingly swift global change of focus we have had, from the pomp and frills of the royal wedding to the brutal death of Osama Bin Laden. Our own Bishop Marc recently said that we are in an apocalyptic moment. He said that an apocalyptic moment in history is like a baptismal moment for an individual. But what are we being baptized into?

In an individual baptism, you are baptized into the death of Christ, that you might be raised with him, that you might recognize and live into the living Christ. An appropriate notion for our Easter season. And one of the signs of the living Christ, Bishop Marc goes on to say, is how we treat our enemies. Well, the way we have treated our arch enemy just this past week, has created, in my mind, the baptism of fire that we now find ourselves in.

Sometimes it is hard to tell who our enemies are. Sometimes we may wonder if we have any real enemies at all. Often we may feel that we have met the enemy, and he is us. But no such problem exists with the formerly living human being we know as Osama Bin Laden. He is obviously our enemy, and someone who was undeniably instrumental in the deaths of 3,000 of our tribe.

Jesus’ notion of “love your enemy” rather than “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,” the Old Testament suggestion for enemy combatants, is one of the most original ideas Jesus ever had. Most everything else Jesus said (well, outside of the extraordinarily long-winded monologues in the Gospel of John) are re-iterations of his beloved justice-loving prophets of the Old Testament, who taught him what it was to be a truly righteous Jew.

Do we believe Jesus meant what he said when he told us to love our enemies? When he indicated that even “the least of these my brethren” were worthy to be seen as Christ himself? Was he sincere when he cried out “No more of this!” at his arrest when his disciple severed the ear of the slave?

As civilized, let alone spiritual beings, there must be a way to at least begin to obey these teachings, which are so profound. Assassinating and then proudly proclaiming the death of our enemy, literally dancing in the streets in celebration of man shot to death in the presence of his 12 year-old daughter, does not seem to me to be a close following of the letter of Jesus’ intent.

I understand and share the very basic human tendency to want to celebrate. Times are hard- especially for those of us who have lost our jobs, our homes, our security. We long to run out into the streets, throw our hats up in the air and shout for joy. And I understand the need for a feeling of justice and closure for the horrific events of almost ten years ago. But speaking only for myself, the killing of Bin Laden does not bring justice or closure. It just adds one more death to the tragic toll of 3,000.

I have read many comments and many quotes people have come up with to try to deal with the horrendous and divisive nature of this recent assassination, and the response the world over. Brian McLaren, a progressive Evangelical pastor and writer said,

"Joyfully celebrating the killing of a killer who joyfully celebrated killing, carries an irony that I hope will not be lost on us. Are we learning anything, or are we simply spinning harder in the cycle of violence?”

I also saw a quote from Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1963 book, The Strength to Love, he writes:

"Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars… violence multiplies violence … in a descending spiral of destruction. So when Jesus says “Love your enemies,” he is setting forth a profound and ultimately inescapable admonition. Have we not come to such an impasse in the modern world that we must love our enemies– or else?"

Our gospel story today follows a death that similarly upset the fabric of the society of the day. Some rejoiced mightily, some mourned mightily. There are many eerie similarities in the news of our week and our Gospel story. In both there was an execution of a man who profoundly threatened the powers and principalities of the day.

Great emotions were stirred. Certainly grief and mourning in some sectors- in the heart of the 12 year old daughter in one, and in the heart of Mother Mary, in the other. Great rejoicing took place in our modern story, in front of the White House and at Ground Zero. Doubtless there was rejoicing in some quarters after the crucifixion. And great fear followed both incidents. In our modern day, some might even be tempted to stay inside for fear of the Muslims.

Our gospel contains, once again, a story of mistaken identity. As in Shakespeare, it is a revealing and useful plot devise, because it illustrates how wrong we can be in our assumptions, and it is always useful to be showed how wrong we can be. In our Easter Gospel story, Mary fails to recognize the risen Christ, and mistakes him for the gardener. Our travelers to Emmaus, probably fleeing Jerusalem in terror, fearing for their lives, are not able to recognize Jesus in the several hours they apparently spent together. Until the breaking of the bread.

What are we not recognizing? There is a poignant coincidence in the similarity of the names of our president and of the dead arch enemy. Several times I have caught myself accidentally referring to the death of Obama, and then wanting to knock on wood, cross myself and turn around three times after spitting on the earth, that it may never be so! The Osama/Obama rhyme reveals to us how very differently we recognize these two human beings. We do not even see the humanity, let alone the Christ in one of these children of God.

What else are we not recognizing? I would say that if we allow ourselves to celebrate, if we are complicit in anyway with the murderous act of last week, we are not seeing the Christ in ourselves.

As theologian, writer, and rebel, Father Matthew Fox writes:

"Only the human species dares to deny it’s divinity. But now it is time to 'deny the denial.'” And then he asks :

"Can our churches themselves believe enough in the resurrection and in Pentecost to be resurrected and to become awakeners of the Spirit?”

My response to this question would be, “Yes, we can.”

We need a recognition of the divinity Matthew Fox speaks of, and the inevitable breaking of our cycle of violence that will result. We need it as desperately as we need the breaking of the bread. And it is in this breaking that we will be able to recognize Christ, in ourselves, in our enemies, and in our lives, as we truly live into this baptism of ours, which will, one day, break upon us like a long-awaited dawn.


Wednesday, April 27, 2011

The Art of Resurrection

Easter Sunday, 4/24/11
Reflections on John 20:1-18
Holy Trinity/La Santisima Trinidad/ Good Shepherd, Berkeley

Alleluia! Christ has risen!

Three images of the resurrection have come to me lately to illuminate this holy week.

The image on the banner you might have noticed outside the church today describes the heart of our Gospel reading. If you didn’t, it is also helpfully provided in your bulletin! It is from a 12th century fresco in the Scroveni chapel in Padua Italy, and the artist is Giotto di Bondone.

It depicts the moment after Mary Magdalene has heard the voice of Jesus calling out her name- the moment of recognition. She cries out “Rabbouni!” which means “dear teacher”, and falls to her knees, reaching out to touch him. We know from the gospel that Jesus’ reply to her is "Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to my father.”

The angels who stood guard at the tomb are now magically outside of it, appropriately wearing wings and halos, and each brandishing a slender scepter. They are perched high atop what appears to be a huge stone ossuary, and one angel is front and center, with Jesus at the far right and the other angel at the far left. The soldiers guarding the tomb, like the unroused souls in hell, are fast asleep and lie in a heap behind the figure of Mary Magdalene.

Mary, who had already been pulled out of a very dark tomb once by Jesus when he freed her of seven demons, reaches out to touch Jesus as she kneels before him.

A different but equally beautiful depiction of resurrection is on a small plague in our sacristy here. It is 14th century Russian Orthodox icon called “Icon of Victory- The Resurrection.” In this amazing image, The risen Christ, far from resisting their touch, is pulling Adam and Eve from their tombs, grasping them by their wrists and hauling them up into life. They are surrounded by the Old Testament righteous and those souls who Jesus has already liberated from Hell. Below them are the chaotic remains of hell, with Satan bound and gagged and all of hell disintegrated into small sharp fragments. As the old Easter hymn goes,

Christ is risen from the dead,
Trampling down death by death,
And upon those in the tombs bestowing life!

Every year at Easter in Guatemala, another work of art is created by the people.
I read a children’s book that described this annual miracle. The surface of the streets are covered in what appears to be flowers, in fantastic ornamental patterns that resemble the exquisite hupiles that the indigenous women all wear. But fact they are not flowers, but patterns made of colored saw dust, laboriously assembled on the surface of the streets, awaiting the great Easter procession.

The children’s book was about a little girl who had taken part in the creation of this ornate carpeting, or alfombra. When the procession carrying the image of Jesus came to the section of the street the little girl had helped to create, she suddenly ran out and blocked the way with her body- she could not bear to see the beautiful work destroyed.

Her father took her by the hand and led her away. “My daughter,” he said. “It is our custom. The alfombras are like offerings to life. They are not fixed in time. The flowers bloom and then die, but they give us seeds for the birth of other flowers. Life follows death and death follows life.”

In this procession, Jesus was trampling down, not the gates of hell, but an equisite offering- a masterpiece of new blossoms, bearing the seeds of resurrection.

The long days of Lent, long before blossoming, long before seeds, and the progression of Holy week, leading up to the desolation of Good Friday have been fullfilled. These days mirror our own lives, our own descents into the tomb. The tomb of loss- loss of a home, a job, a wife, a husband, a child. Losing our health, our wholeness, our spirit, our faith. Looking into that tomb, as Mary did, hopefully, even in her grief, and not even finding the expected body- finding only an empty tomb. Finding only two small piles of desolate rags. And so Mary weeps as do we. Mary despairs as do we.

And then Jesus apprears, but in her greif, as perhaps in ours at first, she does not recognize the risen Christ. Then, in that joyful moment of recognition, she reaches out her hands.

Why does Jesus tell Mary not to hold onto him, when he seems like the only thing worth holding on to? One comentary I read simply said that Mary must learn a new relationship with Jesus- a spiritual rather than a physical one. I think Mary has the same instinct we all do when a loved one has passed away- we want to hold onto them- to have a lock of their hair, to hold onto a possession of theirs, to bury our face in their garment.

But Jesus was in a liminal state, one that could not be grasped. The tomb and the angels had created some kind of Chrisalis for the resurrection. And now in our Gospel reading, Jesus finds himself, in the words of ancient Celtic spirituality, in a “thin place” between life and death, a place where the veil between this world and the next is very thin. Mary has to see, as do we all, that there is a more eternal presence than the physical one. And although we might not be able to hold that presence, it is able to hold us, and eternally.

We don’t always know what resurrection might look like for us- or what it might take to get us there. We don’t know how that blinding light breaking on us from outside of the tomb might feel. To our shock, our sawdust flowers may be swept away to be replaced by the real thing. The familliar comfort of our coffin may be denied us.

But Jesus comes to us, and reaches for our hands, and whether or not we reach for him, he takes our wrists, and pulls us, blinking and gasping, into the bright, unaccustomed brilliance of abundant life.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Open Your Eyes...

Reflections on John 9:1-41
Holy Trinity/La Santisima Trinidad, Richmond, 4/3/11

This is a long and astonishing parable on blindness and belief. As always in the Gospel of John, the true believers are the ones who, unfailingly believe in Jesus as the Messiah. The unbelievers are the people of Jesus’ religion and heritage: the Jews.

We hear of the strictness of the Pharisaic code- a man must not work on the Sabbath - even to mix saliva with mud to enact a miracle. A man born blind is simply proof of the sins of his parents or himself- the only question is- which one sinned? But nothing is more chilling than the terror displayed by the parents of the man born blind. When pressed by “the Jews” they would sooner turn in their own son “Let him speak for himself” than suffer the worst thing imaginable for any Jew- to be expelled from the synagogue.

A text now called the Birkat Ha-minim, or Benediction Against Heretics was discovered in the Cairo Genizah in 1896. Apparently, any first century Jew was forced to recite this before they could enter the temple, making it impossible for the Christian Jews to enter their former house of worship.

…And let the arrogant Government (the Romans)
be speedily uprooted in our days.
Let the Nazarenes (the Christians)
And the Minim (the heretics) be destroyed in a moment
And let them be blotted out of the Bood of Life and
Not be inscribed together with the righteous.
Blessed art thou, O Lord, who humblest the proud.

Blindness in the presence of miracles is an oft-repeated theme in the Old and New Testaments. I spoke of Hagar last week, who was certain that she was lost in the wilderness, and so desperate that she left her young son under a bush so that she would not see him die, then she wandered away.

But God opened her eyes- he took away her desperate blindness, and she saw that she was right in front of a well of water. No longer desperate, but filled.
Mary Magdalene, upon seeing the risen Lord, was blind enough to take him for the gardener! And on the road to Emmaus, two of Jesus’ disciples, those closest to him, came upon Jesus on the road, and took him for just some guy who, apparently had a remarkably good handle on the scriptures!

How do we remain blind to the miraculous? After a long cold winter, I took down heavy curtains in my bedroom to launder them. When I woke up, for the first time in a very long time, I was looking directly outside at the dawn. There were exquisite bands of gold and pink stretching across the sky, and I thought-
“Wow! Does this happen every day?” How do we insulate ourselves, how do we protect our selves, how do we all remain blind to the miraculous?

For more than a year, I have been mourning my best friend Alison, who died after a long illness. She used to travel to California from Georgia every summer for 13 years with her young son, Alexander. My eyes were gloriously opened, this Spring, when her beautiful son, now 21 years old and the spitting image of her (except that he is 6’6”) gave us a call. He said he wanted to continue the tradition- he wanted to spend his Spring break with us, and then come back to camp with us in Big Sur in the summer- just as he and Alison always used to do. The miraculous occurred- Alison was resurrected for me in her beautiful boy, and now I too, have a son, and Alexander has the closet thing possible to a mother. He spent a wonderful week with us in March, and his smile, his humor, his sandy blond hair- so much of him was my dear friend come to visit. My daughters were reunited with their new older brother, and it was, for the first time in my life, like having three kids!

Before his visit, I had known, I had seen what was true, which was that there was no resurrection, and I had lost my best friend of 43 years, and there could be no comfort for me. But fortunately, my eyes were opened to the miraculous, in the person of my tall, blond, sweet new son.

Jesus, tells us that he came into the world so that those who are blind may see, and those who see may become blind.

I think all of us err on the side of out-thinking God. We KNOW what will or will not happen. We can just SEE it. We don’t take into account that miracles can and do happen. We are too apt to see what we see, believe what we believe. The disciples of course, were champions at this. There they were, actually in Jesus’ presence, and still, so often, they were blind.

Thich Nhat Hanh, the Christian/Buddhist poet and theologian has a lovely passage about this in a meditation about the Eucharist:

The disciples had been following Jesus, and had seen Him, had the chance to look at Him, to look into his eyes, to see him smile, to see Him in reality. But it seems they were not capable of being in contact with that marvelous reality. Then he broke bread and poured wine and said, “This is my flesh and blood, take it, eat it, drink it, and you will have eternal life.” We eat a lot, we drink a lot [we SEE a lot] but what do we eat? We eat phantoms, we drink ghosts. We don’t eat real bread, real wine, real life. But Jesus said, “This is my flesh, this is my blood. It’s a very drastic way of awakening us from our forgetfulness, from our ignorance.

A drastic way of awakening us from our blindness.

Jesus Met the Woman at the Well

Holy Trinity/La Santisima Trinidad, Richmond; Good Shepherd 3/27/11

Reflections on John 4:5-42

The Rev. Este Gardner Cantor

In the Old Testament as well as the new, there is just something about women and wells. For the men, the thing seems to be the parting of waters. But for the women, it’s the wells.

All through the Old Testament, women received blessing, grace, and often husbands, at wells of water. Hagar, the slave of Abraham and Sarah had been cast out into the desert with her young son, and wandered along lost for some time. Her skin of water was empty, and she left her son under a bush and walked away so that she would not have to see him die. She wept loudly in her agony. God answered her by opening her eyes and allowing her to see that she was standing in front of a well of water. God assured her with a further blessing- that God would make a great nation of her son.

When it came time for Abraham to find a wife for his other son, Isaac, he sent a servant to search far and wide. He found Rebecca at a well. She proved that she was the chosen one by her kindness, giving water to the camels, and then agreeing to travel back home to marry Isaac.

Isaac’s son, Jacob, whose well is the one featured in today’s story, first met his favorite (but not his first) wife Rachel at a well. He watered her flock, kissed her and wept aloud. This was apparently enough to win her.

Finally, Ziporah and her sisters came to a well to water their flock. Moses drew water for them and defended them from the other shepherds. Zipporah later became the wife of Moses. And it was Moses who was the first, and the most famous of a series of water-parting male prophets. He raised his staff and parted the Red Sea so that the nation of Israel could be delivered to faith and freedom.

Then Joshua, his protégé, led his warriors through the River Jordan. As they marched behind the Arc of the Covenant, the waters rose up in a heap so that the soldiers could cross on dry land.

Also at the River Jordan, Elijah rode to glory in a flaming chariot, while his protégé, Elisha, watched in astonishment. Then Elisha struck the River Jordon with Elijah’s cloak, and sure enough, the waters parted.

I have heard it said that In the New Testament, Jesus transcends all these parting of the water stories, also at the River Jordan. He parts the waters ABOVE the firmament. At his baptism, the heavens part and the Holy Spirit comes down to pay a call on the New Creation, who was, himself, a well of living water.

The is was a place of pairings. And just as Jesus’ baptism brought the partings of the waters to a new level, Jesus’ meeting with the Samaritan woman at the well brings a new dimension to the pairing stories. This time at Jacob’s ancient well, it was not just a man and a woman who were paired. It was the pairing- the symbolic reconciliation- of two tribes who despised each other with a passion.
A pair of tribes possessed of seemingly irreconcilable differences. Their hatred is well illustrated by a quote from the Book of Sirach, which presents the Samaritans as sub-human:

Two nations my soul detests, and the third is not even a people: Those who live in Seir, and the Philistines, and those foolish ones who live in Shechem [of Samaria]

As a Jewish Rabbi, Jesus could not have chosen a less likely subject with whom to share water than the Samaritan woman. With his offering of living water, Jesus turns the age-old story of tribalism, of hating one’s enemy, one its head. You had only to look at the sky to see what time it was. The time was high noon, and that bright sun shone on a transcendental laying down of arms.

The Samaritan woman is almost an opposite entity to the person of Nicodemus, whom we heard about last week. Nicodemus was not only a Jew, but a respected religious leader, and, of course, a man. The Samaritan woman has so little status that she is not even given a name in our story. She is female, from a despised tribe, has a highly questionable marital history, and is now living unmarried with yet another man. I have read that the normal time of day for women to gather at the well and draw water was early morning- but this woman comes at noon when no one else is there, possibly to avoid their distain. But Jesus does not distain her- does not judge her for any of these things. And more amazingly, he proceeds to have the longest theological discussion with her of any in the New Testament. His conversation with her far surpasses his exchange with Nicodemus, which Jesus cuts short in apparent impatience. But with the Samaritan woman, Jesus blasts through their cultural differences to usher her into the Kingdom of God, which, as he says is not only coming soon, but is now here.

The story’s opening shocker is Jesus asking a foreign woman to lend him her unclean utensil to give him a drink of water. After she sputters her protest, he offers her, as he says, “living water.” She apparently takes this to mean running or flowing water, which would have been precious enough in the parched land of Samaria. Jewish renderings of the apocalypse are filled with lush gardens thick with rivers and streams. The Book of Zechariah describes the Day of the Lord like this: “On that day, living waters will flow out of Jerusalem.”

But Jesus will convince the Samaritan woman that he has replaced the Jerusalem Temple, and the Samaritan Temple. The living water now flows from him.

Even after Jesus offers her living water, the woman perceives Jesus only as a prophet. Since the only prophet recognized by the Samaritans was Moses, the giver of the Law, she asks Jesus a legal question- on the location of the Temple, which Samaritans believe to be on Mount Gerazin, not in Jerusalem.

This question puts the dispute between the Samaritans and the Temple Jews in center place, but Jesus does not take the bait. His response opens the door to salvation for both the Samaritans and the Jews- in fact, for everyone. He says that the location of the temple does not matter anymore. In the Kingdom of God, place is irrelevant. The hour is coming, and is now here, when people will worship the Father, not in any temple, but in Spirit and in Truth. When the woman says that she believes that the Messiah is coming, Jesus simply says,
“I am he.” This seems to be enough for her to believe. She walks away, transformed, and leaves her jar- after all, she certainly does not need it for the Water of Life. And Jesus transforms the Old Testament stories in terms of gender as well. It is he who waits passively at the well, and the Samaritan woman who becomes a leader of her people. Like all those water-parting prophets, she is clearing a path to bring her people to faith and freedom.

What was it like for this woman to have been accepted, taken seriously, to have been so respected by Jesus- to have been offered the water of life? What was it like for her? What is it like for those of us who can’t believe that Jesus would offer US the water of life? It is astonishing. It is confounding. How comforting it is for those of us who have, during our lives been wedded to at least five things that were supposed to make us happy and did not. Or for those of us who may have long worshipped at the wrong temple, and I don’t mean the one on Mount Gerazim.

But Jesus does come to us. And just as he scandalously requests a drink of water from the Samaritan woman, he asks something of us as well. Something that we, at least at first, may have no idea how to give him. We may believe, as the Samaritan woman did, that the obstacles are great, that societal conventions forbid us to answer his request. But Jesus breaks down all those barriers. He parts the waters and sweeps away mountains and leads us to the well. And when Jesus gives us this living water, then we have a pairing from which we need never part. We are like the Prodigal Son in the arms of his father, like the lost sheep in the arms of the shepherd, like the child who unquestionably owns the Kingdom of Heaven. Amen

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

The Evolution of Angels

Reflections on Matthew 2:13-15,19-23

Good Shepherd Church 1/2/11
The Rev. Este Gardner Cantor

The readings we have been enjoying in the Christmas season describe a very familiar message from the angels – one that we all know and treasure. A baby arrives, like many babies do, in a cold, unsheltered environment, sheltered only by the love of its astonished parents. This is a very prosaic beginning- a baby human born among his human parents, and several common animals. Even the arrival of the shepherds is not overly surprising, but then, the shepherds begin to tell the tale of what the angels said to them: “To you is born this day in the City of David, a Savior, who is the Messiah. We read that “all who heard it were amazed” and Mary, astonished, treasures this news in her heart.

But in our Gospel reading today, we hear of a new set of angelic messages- beginning with a very ominous one. Joseph is warned by the angels that he must flee with his family, or Herod will surely destroy the child. Joseph unquestioningly follows the advise of the angel and brings his child to Egypt. Twice more Joseph is visited by the angel in a dream, and twice more he obeys, and brings his wife and child to safety in Nazareth.

When did angels first appear in human consciousness? When did the idea of the Holy begin? When did the first notion of God emerge? These questions are beautifully explored in a great book I am now reading. Karen Armstrong’s “The Case for God”, is not only a remarkable and intelligent attempt to answer these questions, it also seems to be an answer to the numerous books we now see that are basically “The Case for Atheism.”

In the beginning of Ms. Armstrong’s book, we find ourselves in France, in the underground caverns of Lascaux. The guide has just switched off his flashlight and, as one visitor recalled,” The senses are suddenly wiped out- the millennia drop away. You were never in a darker darkness in your life.” Then as now, in order to arrive at the caves with the famous prehistoric animals painted on the ceiling, one has to go back to the utter, formless, directionless blackness of... the beginning. Then as now, the pilgrims must “stumble for eighty feet down a long sloping tunnel, sixty-five feet below ground level, penetrating ever more deeply into the bowels of the earth.” They then have the privilege of seeing what seems to be an incredibly ancient precedent to ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

The earliest French site at Grosse Chavet, dates from about 30,000 BCE. It is now apparently accepted that these labyrinthine caves were sacred places for the performance of a religious ritual- they were man-made wombs for the Holy. They were temples. Why did humans, in these distant times, express themselves, make their mark, go to such extraordinary lengths and expend so much energy, so much apparently unproductive labor, to create these amazing images of oxen and bison horses and mammoths- these startlingly beautiful images? What angels were they obeying?

On my vacation last month my husband and I had a rare opportunity to spend five days in the museums and Galleries of the amazing (and free!) Smithsonian Institution, as I had as a child. We were particularly captivated by a wonderful display of early Homo Sapiens and their tools, art work, early rituals and religion. Probably the very first implication of a ritual action, a consciousness of the afterworld, is the fact that among a number of skeletons deposited in a deep cave, was a smooth carved and burnished stone that had been placed there with the bodies. There seemed to be a need to honor them, or to equip them for the afterlife. The evidence is mounting that even these early humans had some consciousness of the sacred.

Far from shrinking from the scientific evidence of creation, as some modern as well as ancient Christianians have done, our own Bishop Marc brought with him, when he first joined us from Alabama, a wonderful presentation called the Cosmic Walk. This is a ritual created to celebrate and illustrate the miracle of the natural history of the universe, using sacred language. A rope is placed on the ground in a great spiral, and candles are lit at important milestones. We are given the opportunity to see what this glorious creation, so often celebrated in our religion, is really all about. I have always noted that this account has much in common with the Genesis story. It begins with “The Great Flaring Forth” more commonly known as “The Big Bang” 14 Billion years ago, and then describes the development of the stars, the supernovas, the universe, the earth, the emergence of plant and animal life, finally detailing human evolution. Here it is in a MUCH edited and abridged form:

5 Million Years Ago – Human Ancestors Walk on Two Legs
In Africa, our ancestors leave the forest, stand up, and walk!

140,000 years ago – Anatomically Modern Human Emerges
The ancestors of modern humans walk the savannah of east-central
Africa. All modern humans are the progeny of one small group of these.

12,000 years ago- A Homo Sapiens artist paints an image on the walls of Lascaux: A large bison that has been pierced by a spear, thrust through its hindquarters. Lying in front of the animal is a man, with arms outstretched, wearing what seems to be a bird mask. His staff, also lying on the ground, is also topped by a bird’s head. The image is repeated many times in different places, and the man depicted is likely a shaman.

Armstrong contends that the very first efforts at art and the very first efforts at worship were one and the same. There was a irresistible pull to soothe or explain the profound discomfort felt even then, by the killing of creatures so much like themselves. The shaman- a early priest, was doing his or her best to span the mystery of life and death- slaughter and survival. As Armstrong writes, “From the very beginning, it seems, religious life was rooted in an acknowledgement of the fact that life depends on the destruction of other creatures”- on sacrifice.

Angel-like, the shaman were thought to have a kind of mystical power of flight- thus the bird-mask. And the paints were composed of animal elements- blood and fat- so there was an attempt to miraculously resurrect those sacrificed beings.

We have seen how all the wonder of creation came about- how the stars were formed, how humans came to be. But the consciousness of the holy, the yearning and pull toward morality, the existence of love for other creatures, seems to have been there from the very beginning. And as soon as human consciousness was born, we felt it. And just as Joseph listened to the angels, humankind responded to this unnamed Holy Spirit. It does not have a scientific explanation, we cannot measure God, but we feel it. All through all the vast darkness of space, through the trials and errors of evolution, the light shone in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

This life-giving, loving glory was in the beginning with God, this light, this magnificence, this glorious cosmic creation. It is a vast mystery-we cannot fully comprehend it, anymore than those early artists of Lascaux could. But we have a human incarnation of this holiness, this enfleshment of God’s loving word, this new creation, this reality that outshines every darkness. This is the love of Christ, foretold by the angels, and given by God.