Monday, July 21, 2014

God of the Weeds

         Good Shepherd Episcopal Church
July 20, 2014
The Rev. Este Gardner Cantor

Jesus is once again, patiently, creatively, doggedly trying to give the disciples an idea of the Kingdom of Heaven.
After the parable of the Weeds, Jesus gives the disciples an explanation, two parables later. I am a little suspicious of this, given that Jesus very rarely explained anything, and, like a Zen master tended to leave his puzzling words to work the minds and hearts of the listener. Modern scholars have been just as puzzled, and there have been many interpretations of what the parable of the weeds might actually mean. But one struck me as particularly likely, given what we know about Jesus.
This interpretation said that Jesus was indeed using the weed-clogged field as a metaphor for the Kingdom of Heaven, but this was a Kingdom of Heaven in which there were neither enemies, children of the evil one, a devil or weeping and gnashing of teeth.
Jesus was making a declaration against the efforts to purify a community of human “weeds” –an all to common tendency in those days. He is decrying the practice of making brutal distinctions between tribes, and exterminating or banishing those who did not fit in. Jesus suggests that these differences, if indeed they are significant, will be addressed by God on judgment day, and are beyond the scope of humankind to meddle in. Even the weeds, he says, must be left to grow, even to flourish along side the grain.
The news this past week has been devastating. The brutal “weeding out” of the other has reached such tragic proportions that the pain is sent like shockwaves all over the world. Four Palestinian children, a nine year old, two ten year olds and an eleven year old were killed last week as they played on the beach, by rockets from an Israeli plane. They were all from the same family, a family so devastated that the pictures of their faces are unbearable to behold. As their parents would say of these lost children, “To God they belong and to God they will return”
This was only the last incident in the killing of many Palestinian civilians, collateral damage in the surge of violence following the killing of three Israeli teenagers.
Two of the slain Israeli boys were sixteen, the other nineteen. The first clues the police found in searching for their bodies were their teffillin- leather-bound holy texts discovered in a burned out car. The teffillin are part of the life of every observant Jewish boy and are bound on their arms during prayer in obedience to the instructions in Leviticus: “You shall teach the commandments to your children and shall talk of them when you sit in your house and when you walk by the way and when you lie down and when you rise up. You shall bind them as a sign on your arm.” As the parents of the young men would say, “May their names be for a blessing”.
In our own country another example of weeding out of the impure has come home to us.
Seventy thousand children have been sent by their parents out of the most terrifying conditions to throw themselves on the barely existent mercy of our great nation. I heard a newscast describing the life of a child in Honduras, whose school has come under the control of a drug cartel. The drug lords send recruiters into the schools and if the teachers try to get in the way of the abduction of children, a gun is held to their heads. If they still don’t comply, they are shot. Then the abducted children are forced to go back into the school to recruit more innocents. Many people, including children, have been killed by these drug lords. But we don’t want the children here. We think they should be sent back.
The town of Murrieta, Arizona exploded in protest when buses of young immigrants, some as young as six years old, drove into town to process the overflowing numbers of children. A crowd held up signs that said, “Non-Yankees Go Home” and “Return to Sender.” The buses were forced to turn around and seek another location for the processing. Patrice Lynes, a Murietta resident was quoted as saying, “I’m so happy,” she said. “I feel Murrieta inspired America. I think it’s awesome… We’re standing up as patriotic Americans to enforce our laws at the borders.” I saw a picture of a detention center which I first thought was a picture of a morgue.
There were dozens of small bodies wrapped in what appeared to be tinfoil, laid out like sardines. I then realized they were sleeping children wrapped in emergency blankets. Walls of chain-link fencing surrounded the sleeping children. As their parents would say, Que sueñes con los angelitos “May they dream of angels.”
In Paul’s letter to the Romans, we are given us some welcome perspective- some desperately needed hope for the pain we are all feeling now, in this time of violence and brutality. Now, as Paul tells us, all creation is groaning with the labor pains, and not only the creation, but we ourselves, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.

We await the birth of the time when we will know without hesitation that we are all children of the same God, all children of the same sower, all heirs as Paul tells us, free from the slavery of violence, of hatred.
I hope and pray that the sufferings of the present time will be worth the glory that will be revealed to us.
I have no doubt that Jesus would not rip out the tender shoots from where they are, knowing it would damage not only the introduced plants, but the wheat as well. I have no doubt that Jesus sees no difference between Israeli teenagers, Palestinian children, Latino refugees, and first world children.
I know that for all our pristine vestments, cathedrals and sacred vessels, God is not a God of purity. And in spite of the artistic interpretations of Jacob’s ladder, it must be remembered that the angels traveled up AND down that ladder, perhaps traveling down to lend a hand to those small sleeping angels. God is not a God of “up.” God is always down. Down to the level of the poor, the refugee, the wounded, the hungry, the weeds. God knows that you can’t build a bridge from up in the air. You have to start down low. At the level of a child.
The children killed on the beach were all from the same family, and we must somehow remember that we are all from the same family, all children of a God who knows our inmost parts, who has searched us out and knows us, and loves us even in all our brutal betrayal.
There is nowhere we can flee where God is not, as Godless as the world may seem. If we say, “Surely the darkness will cover us, and the light around us becomes night” God will be with us. Search us out, God, know us, and bring us into your new creation.

Sacrificing Isaacs

Good Shepherd, Berkeley 6/29/14

Our Gospel passage follows the sending out of the twelve apostles, with many instructions and warnings. Cast out unclean spirits, says Jesus, cure every disease, cleanse the lepers, raise the dead, He doesn’t ask much. But Jesus also warns, “Go nowhere among the Gentiles and enter no town of the Samaritans. Go, rather, only to the lost tribe of Israel.”

I am sending you, he says, like sheep into the midst of wolves. It seems the disciples are being sent out into a very bad neighborhood indeed.

Then comes the good news: Jesus talks a lot about welcoming. He says: “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.” He goes on to say, that whoever offers even a cup of cold water to the disciple, (one of these little ones, he calls them) will never lose their reward.” God will be with them.

Our Old Testament passage is one of the most disturbing and puzzling of them all. Here, a little one is offered not water, but fire. Abraham is instructed by God to sacrifice his beloved son Isaac. As the story progresses, the son seems to be happily accompanying his father, carrying the wood obediently on his back, only asking finally where the lamb is that they are to sacrifice. We cannot know if Abraham betrayed any emotion when he simply says, “God will provide the lamb.”

Like the twelve disciples, we here at Good Shepherd, have been sent out. Like Jesus, the Holy Spirit blasted us out into the wilderness for a forced discernment, just after our baptism of fire. And like Abraham, a great sacrifice has been asked of us.  We had been very comfortable in a gorgeous interior space for a very long time. But that dear space was sacrificed. We were forced into a long exile- an exile during which we worshiped in the same place as the great weekly Friday lunch gathering of our brothers and sisters of the outside world, of every tribe.

These guests are not from the tribe of Israel, although many could be identified as lost sheep. We had to begin to notice that our church community was fed in the building on Sunday at 11:00 and the neighborhood was fed at 12:00 on Fridays. But as I have noted, our Episcopal force field lowered to unprecedented levels, and some of the Friday guests and their friends even began to join us on Sundays.

We were sent out. Out of our comfort zone- out to a new place where we saw who we really were. And even more than simply worshipping in our parish hall, we were sent out to be the church outside, not just welcoming from the inside.
Even just by worshipping here in the parish hall, we were suddenly sent out into the neighborhood, and the neighborhood welcomed us.

I went on another Night Walk Against Gun Violence week before last. This one was based out of McGee Ave Baptist Church.  We literally went out into the neighborhood, as this community of Good Shepherd, with so many others did last October, and we, too were hardily welcomed. As we gathered in a circle of prayer at the spot where yet another person had been shot, a woman came running out of her house in her bare feet, towing her two young sons along, just to tell us how grateful she was that we cared about the neighborhood. One young man even followed us back into the church. At the debriefing afterwards, there were three African American speakers- three Abrahams who are not willing to sacrifice any more Isaacs. The first one, Pastor Michael Smith, told a story about a conversation he had with a person he kindly referred to as a “street pharmacist.” He asked the man, “How is it that you get the trust of these young people? Why do they come to you for solutions?”

The dope dealer (my less compassionate term) said to him, “When the kids go to school in the morning at 8:00AM I am there. When they get out of school and come home at 3:00 I am there. When they sneak out of their houses at 11:00PM to meet up or get snacks I am there.” Then he looked at Pastor Smith and said, “Where are you?”-

He had a point. We have an epidemic of sacrificed Isaacs in our neighborhood and in our city. No one has listened hard enough to hear God saying, no- stop the sacrifice- do no harm to these children. Sacrifice something else!

We here at Good Shepherd have indeed had our own sacrifice. A great loss of something very dear to us. One of the first things we were sent out to do was to take care of each other, and this we have done marvelously well. To me, this closeness we have achieved, this caring for one another shows us that we will not meet with more sacrifice if we continue to open our circle. Because we are sent out all together. So it could be that the only thing that was really sacrificed was our loneliness, our distance from our brothers and out sisters who were so close at hand.

When we come back to our Jerusalem after our long exile, we will see that though the exterior of our beloved church is just the same, the inside will be different. To me it would not make sense to be sent out and then return to exactly the same place. -Our Gospel passage speaks of welcome, and I believe that we are called to make room for more of our brothers and sisters, and to make our church more accessible to everyone.

When the flooring was first being repaired, we discovered that the original floor was almost 100% level, with just a small raised altar at the very front where the priest celebrated with his (and I do mean his) back to the congregation.

We are restoring the level floor, but adding a movable raised platform that can be placed anywhere in the space. It will be the most flexible interior possible. It will be much more navigable for all abilities, and it will put the emphasis on welcoming community.

The other great change is the chairs. We will have one hundred new and beautiful chairs which will seat more people, be much more accessible and comfortable, and allow more welcoming worship styles. We even have a few raised chairs to welcome those with ailing knees and hips. We will be able to express the welcoming circle we share at the Eucharist by forming worship in the round if we want. We will never be the same people as we were before we were sent out, and our space will never be the same either.

We have been sent out. With whatever gifts we have or do not have, we have been sent out to heal the sick, to heal each other, to bring life to those who seem dead, and to take care of the little ones. But most of all, we are sent to bring the church to the lost sheep of every tribe and nation, including our own.        Amen

Dreams and Visions

The Day of Pentecost, 6/8/14. Good Shepherd, Berkeley
The Spirit of God, that moved over the dark waters at Creation, when the earth was without form, that flew down from heaven in a rushing wind, that Jesus exhaled softly, came to rest on the disciples on that Pentecost morning.

The result was astounding. They were inside the house, and yet all those down in the street could hear the cacophony of their many tongues- the drunken, firey, ecstatic sound of their voices.

What happened to them? How were they so utterly transformed? What kind of glory overtook them? How were they made to prophesy, to have visions, to dream dreams? Whatever it was, we might be tempted to say, in the modern vernacular,  “I’ll have what they’re having.”

Highly contagious ecstasy, firey energy, a means of communicating that went past all barriers. So full of life, so unencumbered that they seemed to be drunk. I’ll have what they’re having.

This Pentecost miracle occurred 50 days after the Easter miracle. But there is absolutely no separation between Easter and Jesus’ exhalation of the Holy Spirit in our reading from the gospel of John, because it happens on Easter Eve. Not only is there no fire or mighty wind, but Jesus gives absolutely no clue, either to his disciples or to us, as to what he is commissioning them to do.

And yet on this first Easter evening, on this first encounter with the risen Christ, his gift is the breath of the Holy Spirit. And once you are filled with the Holy Spirit, by definition, you will know what to do.          

It seems to me that this is a Pentecost moment for all of us here at this church. We are situated in a neighborhood not unlike that described in our reading from Acts. There are people here, not necessarily pious people, from every nation under heaven and the diversity is not only geographical. It is spiritual, cultural, economic, age-related and spans a breath taking range of abilities of every sort, or lack thereof.

We are about to publicly reopen the church that we thought none of them had ever noticed. And we have learned that they HAVE noticed us, that in fact, they always had noticed us. Perhaps we just didn’t notice them. When the scaffolding was removed, people stood in a line at the curb gawking. People of all languages. They couldn’t get over it. People driving their cars pulled over and took a look.

I got the following phone message on the church line. “I am a human person and hate religion and Christianity, but I love you guys. You are so good to the neighborhood. I am so glad you rebuilt the church!”

As Teddy and Tom Slocumb handed out flyers advertising the San Francisco Scottish Fiddler’s Concert, people asked Teddy if we would have a series of open houses once the church was finished so they could all see it- you know- more than just one grand opening. “Yes!” I said! We will hold a long series of open houses every single Sunday from 11:00 to one WITH a free snack!” I know that is not what they meant, but that is what we offer.

What will happen when all those neighbors and curiosity seekers come and see our church? Will we be able to speak their language? Will we be able to welcome the language of children, and not just tolerate them? Will be able to do what we have been sent to do?  Although the fire at the church is long extinguished, I hope we will still have some fire in the belly.  And I hope we always remember what we have been through these past two years.

We have been refugees, although we are only 50 feet from home. We have persevered, we have worked to keep our worship strong, we have been patient, and we been transformed, but not in a way we ever would have planned on or sought.

We have been filled with the Holy Spirit, every bit as much as those disciples of long ago. And however much static and even furniture that might tend to obscure it, we are all temples of the Holy Spirit.

Can we now welcome those of many languages? Can we welcome the language of those familiar to our Friday free lunches, but not our church? Can we be drunk on our own good fortune, to have such an amazing opportunity to prophesy? To have visions, to dream dreams of what do we want this church to be?

Peter quotes the glorious hymn written by the prophet Joel perhaps 900 years before. An amazing, inclusive, outrageously optimistic prophesy of future glory for humankind.

“I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young ones shall see visions, and your old ones shall dream dreams. Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy.” -Acts 2:17-18.

At our Bishop Committee retreat, a week before Easter, we did have visions and we did dream dreams, and we have the drawings to prove it. We went through a process called theological reflection. We first came up with an image that expressed what we felt about the experience of having gone through the fire and having persevered as a welcoming faith community. It was a vision of a church, which was utterly wide open. Its walls were open to the street, and people were looking in from the neighborhood and some were walking up the stairs. We noticed that the way the chairs all faced the altar in the back made it so that the parishioners all had their backs to those who entered. This is why we wanted to try worship in the round.

When we took the next step, to find a biblical image that related to our vision, we came up with Jesus in the town square, openly teaching and healing. Open to everyone. Jesus breathing the Holy Spirit all over the place.

Last week I preached a great deal about glory, because that seemed to be a key word in our gospel reading. We found out that it meant power, splendor, light, importance, weightiness and weightlessness. The disciples at Pentecost received a kind of glory- a kind of holy power- they were on fire with the Holy Spirit- they were blazingly alive.

The second century bishop and theologian Iraneus defined glory as a kind of Pentecost that is the birthright of everyone- a Pentecost poured out on all flesh. “The glory of God,” he said, “is the human person fully alive.” This is what is promised- life and life abundant if we follow the promptings of the Spirit. If we use the life we are gifted with to offer ourselves and our spirit to those who may be gasping for breath, without even knowing it.   Amen.

Bring Home Our Sheep

Good Shepherd, Berkeley 5/11/14
                                        The Rev. Este Gardner Cantor
I am always in a quandary when I preach on Mother’s Day. I myself am a mother, and it has been the richest experience of my life. It was very important that my daughter called me this morning, and later in the day I expect one or two long worshipful essays on Facebook. But we are not all mothers- we do not all have that experience in our lives. And there are many, many other beautiful expressions of God’s love to celebrate besides that of mother. So the celebration of Mother’s Day, I think, must be seen in perspective.

But whether or not we have ever BEEN a mother, we have all HAD mothers, whether or not they are still with us in body and in spirit. And inevitably, there is a way in which one’s mother might recall either the acts of the Good Shepherd, or perhaps some exemplary gate we might aspire to. My own mother was not a perfect shepherd, but of course I adored her. My most enduring vision of her is as a glamorous blonde lying back on a chase lounge, holding a cigarette in one manicured hand while frowning intensely into her magazine. As a child I was not entirely sure if she would ever lay down her magazine, let alone her life for me, but of course I worshipped her anyway.
And she did give me many gifts of good shepherdly abundance. My mother was the one who brought me to the Episcopal Church as a child, and after a few years I was prepared for confirmation. She bought me a white lace dress that was so expensive that it occasioned a screaming fight between my parents. My father, to her fury, boycotted the confirmation event as a result.
After the service we came home, and in a few minutes our Priest, Don Seaton came storming through the unlocked door.
“Where the hell were you this morning Dave Gardner?” He roared at my father, who was seated in his easy chair. I was thrilled. I ever after thought of that act of his as that of a Good Shepherd- looking after one of his small sheep.
But for any travails I had as a child, I was singularly blessed to enjoy my confirmation classes and my schools, to be educated, to be taken care of, kept safe. No one doubted that I deserved and would get an education. There was no danger in this. No question about it.
But it seems such things cannot be taken for granted anymore. The news story that has most riveted my attention of late, describes the act of a group of thieves and bandits who kidnapped almost 300 girls from the Chibok Girls’ Secondary School in Northern Nigeria. These girls were targeted just because they were seeking an education. The thieves who broke in to steal these girls, as they were taking their final exams, belong to the terrorist organization, Boko Haram, a word which means “Western education is forbidden”
To the great frustration of the mothers and fathers of the abducted girls, the Nigerian government seemed uninterested in doing anything at all. Many of the fathers of the girls, unarmed and unsupported by their government went off to find the girls, knowing the danger they faced.
In the voice of the Good Shepherd, they said, “We are going to find our girls. And if we die, we die.” Slowly the word got out, and slowly it became apparent that the whole world was watching. I have now heard that President Obama has sent a team of military and law enforcement agents to help the Nigerian government to find and rescuing the girls. To my great relief we also now have Britain, France, Canada, and China pledging to help as well.

They are at last following the lost sheep, even into the valley of the shadow of death, because if they manage to rescue them, they may be saving these girls from a death-like life.

This is the way of Christ the Good Shepherd. This is the gate he bids us walk through. Thank God that there are those brave enough to go through this gate, to risk suffering for, as Peter’s letter would have it, God’s work.
The terrorists and the girls are believed to be hiding in the vast Sambisa Forest in northeastern Nigeria, so it will not be an easy task to find them. But in these seemingly impossible situations, a Good Shepherd, someone of extraordinary courage is often likely to arise. A gate, through which we might choose to pass.

A Good Shepherd has indeed raised her strong voice against this atrocity. She has an authority few would question, although she is an unlikely heroine. Beginning at the tender age of 11 years old, she began to write a blog, in the Swat Valley, in Northern Afghanistan near the Pakistan boarder. She was inspired to write in protest when the Taliban began banning girls from attending school. She had been blogging under a pseudonym, but encouraged by a New York Times journalist, she revealed her identity. Her name is Malala  Yousafzai. She then rose to prominence, speaking out against the ban in interviews in print and on television and wherever she could.
She was soon nominated for the International Children’s Peace Prize by Desmond Tutu. She was later nominated for the Noel Peace Prize. But on Tuesday October 9, 2012, as she boarded her school bus, Malala was attacked by a terrorist and sustained a gunshot wound to the head.
Although she lay in critical condition for weeks, she eventually recovered, and went right on with her courageous work. She continued to go through that Christ-like gate and follow her calling.
When she was asked in an interview is she was afraid for her life, she admitted that at first, she was. She said she imagined what she would do if a gunman appeared again. At first, she said, I thought I would take off my shoe and try to hit him with it. But then decided that I must not do that, because then I would be as bad as he was. So I decided I would say to him, I wish for your daughters and sons that they have an education too, and I would die for their right. Then, I thought if he wants to kill me, he will kill me. When she stood before the United Nations, still recovering from her wounds, she said, “One child, one teacher, one book will change the world.”
Malala also talked about a gate. She said that having an education was like walking through a gate into a beautiful dream.
And as for her mother- what was she doing? As Malala said these things, her mother was sitting close by, tears of pride and joy streaming down her face. And her father, asked about his daughter said, “She is not only our daughter. She is the whole world’s daughter now.”
Now that we know the sound of her voice, perhaps we might all follow her.     

The Signature of all Things

Good Shepherd, Berkeley 6/1/14
            Acts 1:6-14  • Psalm 68:1-10, 32-35  • 1 Peter 4:12-14; 5:6-11  • John 17:1-11
                                        The Rev. Este Gardner Cantor
Our readings today are literally full of glory. Jesus prays that God might glorify him, that he might, in turn, glorify God. “Glory” is an incandescent word- full of beauty, full of light- but I wondered- what does it actually mean?
The Hebrew word for Glory is Kahad, meaning “weighty” or “important.” This was translated to the Greek Doxa, which has the sense of power, splendor and light.  The English word we ended up with, “glory” comes from the Latin word Gloria which means “fame or renown.”
The most common manifestation of the glory of God in the New Testament is that of brilliantly radiant light. The glory of God broke out into ordinary time with Jesus at the transfiguration, when “His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as the light.” (Mt. 17:2) In another gloriously stunning image in The Revelation to John, we read of Christ’s bride, the New Jerusalem which is “bright with God’s glory, with the radiance of a very rare jewel, like jasper, clear as crystal.” (Rev. 21:11)            Paul called Jesus the Lord of glory, and wrote that the glory of God shone from his face.
But John’s gospel is truly the gospel of Glory. From the gorgeous opening hymn we hear, “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.” (Jn 1:14) And then, throughout the gospel we read over and over again of God’s light, God’s glory, until the prayer in John that we read today, which is so very drenched in glory.
Jesus prays that the disciples will be protected, will be granted eternal life, will share in God’s glory.
Jacob Boehm, a 15th century German mystic wrote a book called The Signature of All Things. In it he postulates that God had hidden clues for humanity’s betterment – little blasts of glory- inside the design of every flower, leaf, fruit, shell pattern, and tree on earth. All the world is a divine code, containing proof of our Creator’s love. God had pressed Godself into the world and left an imprint, a signature there for us to discover. But he said we have to move through fire in order to learn to read it. Could this be another definition of Glory, these cryptic illuminations God left us? Does God glorify us by imprinting God’s bright image upon us?

As we ourselves are creatures of nature, perhaps we already carry these imprints as well, perfectly decipherable if we allow the chaff to be burned off.

I have of late, and for the past two years since my scientist father died, seen something of great glory in the revelations of science. Science seems to reveal how many ways God leaves a signature on all things. Every atom flares forth photons- little units of light- electromagnetic energy- little blasts of glory- whenever it is somehow transformed- when it passes through the fire of transformation.

So everything, as it is transformed, is illuminated, is radiating glory. Surely Jesus, so full of light, was beginning his great transformation at the time of our Gospel reading- and he was heralding the transformation about to engulf the disciples. He tells them of the glory to come in our reading from the Acts of the Apostles: “… you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth." He says this just before he ascends, like a ray of light, and vanishes into heaven.

Jesus prays to God, “you have given me authority over all people, to give eternal life to all whom you have given me.  And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.”

Time is a flexible thing in the realm of glory, as in the realm of science. It seems that eternal life is not immortality- not a life that never ends in temporal time- it is truly knowing the eternal God- knowing God’s imprint, God’s signature on all of things, but first and most illuminatingly, on God’s natural son, Jesus the Christ.

God has been glorified because Jesus has taught the twelve to recognize the eternal God- to know God in creation- to see light in everything, to see God in each other and all their sisters and brothers, no matter their station in life.

Hildegard of Bingen, the astonishing 12th century Christian Mystic said, “every creature is a glittering mirror of divinity.” In terms of John’s gospel, this is the light of Christ in every creature.

Every atom has the potential to generate a photon, but it must be in a transformative process- either being heated or in collision with another atom.
In other words, in order to create light- to create glory, atoms, and we, have to go through transformation, through the fire, through the light.
One of the physical properties of light is that it has no resting mass- it suggests perfect freedom- it weights absolutely nothing- it is weightless! How far we have traveled from glory’s original Hebrew meaning of “weighty!” Light travels with unimaginable speed- 186,000 miles per second. Light exhibits the properties of both wave and particle and so it is best described by quantum mechanics, because we do not understand light anymore than we understand glory. Light is brilliant, weightless, powerful and can travel anywhere, only occasionally getting trapped in black holes, as we all do.
And of course, when matter is transforming, like wood to glowing coal, light results.
We here at Good Shepherd have, of course, gone through the fire. What has it taught us? What light has been shed? Do we now see the signature of God in all things? In more things than we used to? We were able to see the holy, even the glory in this modest parish hall almost immediately. And I noticed that the Episcopal force field, that normally surrounds all our churches was transformed in our case, perhaps even disengaged, and we have welcomed new faces, and we have seen the light of Christ in them.
We have strayed from our own small world to glimpse something larger, and we have experienced a surprising kind of energy- a surprising kind of freedom, a surprising kind of glory; we are being transformed. As St. Paul so beautifully put it in his second letter to the Corinthians:
“Where the Spirit of God is, there is freedom. And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of God as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into God’s image from one degree of glory to another.”


                  Good Shepherd, Berkeley 4/20/14 Easter
 Jeremiah 31:1-6 Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24  • Colossians 3:1-4,  Matthew 28:1-10

At the first light of dawn, Mary Magdalene, and the other Mary- very possibly Jesus’ mother- went to see Jesus’ tomb. Suddenly, the very earth and the heavens seem to violently respond to something miraculous that has occurred. The Earth quakes. A bolt of lightening, in the form of an angel descends. The angel rolls away the stone from the tomb, that the two Marys might see the miracle first hand. There is only black emptiness. Jesus is not there, for he has risen. The angel, flooded with light is a herald of the light of Jesus’ resurrection- blinding light emanating from the darkest of places.

We have had much need of that Light in the past year. We have been mourning and recovering from the loss of our beloved church home. We have had to accept that great loss, and learn to with it and to worship with it. Last year, on Good Friday, we actually worshipped in the burned-out shell of the old church. A more tomb-like place could hardly be imagined. We desperately needed light to shine from that tomb.

We have pondered our baptism of fire for over a year now, and the readings during Lent, readings surprisingly filled with light, seemed to me to be helping us along our way, leading us to some kind of Easter revelation.

We read the story of the man born blind. A man born without light. Jesus happens upon him, walking down the road, and his disciples ask him, “Why was this man born blind? Was it because of his sins, or the sins of his family?”

Jesus surprises them: he says, ‘Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.” The tragedy of his blindness was a portal for the glory of God.

The following week we had the story of Lazarus. When the anxious disciples, knowing how dear Lazarus was to their teacher, told Jesus that Lazarus was sick unto death, Jesus surprised them as well: "This sickness,” he said,  “will not end in death. No, it is for God's glory so that God's Son may be glorified through it." It seems that Jesus offers us the possibility that all our wounds, all our tragedies are portals for God’s glory- portals for the light- Light coming into us and light shining out of us.  Jesus’ own wounds, and Jesus own death are the ultimate manifestation of the glory that shines through desolation.

Why did our beloved church burn so tragically? Was it because of our sins, or the sins of the diocese at large? For a very long time I wasn’t ready to consider that, but now I can honestly say that it must have happened to show forth the glory of God.  We have received grace upon grace from our community, from our neighbors, from within our own congregation, discovering resilience and resources we never could have imagined. We began to experience resurrection long before the beautiful building that will be our new church began to take shape. We have been like Jeremiah’s people, who survived the sword and found grace in the wilderness. As the angel and as Jesus told the the two Marys, we had nothing to be afraid of. Resurrection greeted us even as the sight of the tomb was still in our eyes.

During Holy Week the old cross that stood as the pinnacle at the top of the steeple for 137 years had to be taken down for repair. When I saw it on the workbench in the church, I told our contractor that I wanted to use it for our Good Friday service. Those of you who joined me on Good Friday will know this story. I was told that the center of the old cross was so corroded that it had hollowed out, and that it actually fell apart when they removed it. The contractor was skeptical that I would want such a wounded thing to worship with. On Good Friday, I told the story of another thing I learned about the cross. Inside the hollow of that cross, in the very heart of it, was a swallow’s nest. And that there was even still the remnant of an eggshell from the last inhabitant. Long ago, the baby bird apparently hatched himself from that dark place, left the nest and ascended unto heaven.

Every Friday, we feed a big hot lunch to anyone who is hungry in the neighborhood. This often includes me, so I have sat and lunched with and gotten to know many of our guests. But on Good Friday, we had to cancel the lunch, because our service was right at 12:00. In spite of getting the word out ahead of time, in spite of several signs in English and Spanish, several people came, expecting to be fed.

They stayed for the service anyway.

These guests of ours know something about brokenness, about dark places. After the service, I opened up the broken cross, and we all saw the nest, right in the heart of the cross, and we saw the fragments of eggshell. Our unexpected guests came for food, for physical sustenance, but what they were fed, what we all were fed with, was the vision of new life rising out of damage, out of brokenness, out of woundedness.

This is the message of the resurrection. New life, abundant life, abundant light coming from the darkest place imaginable. Coming from brokenness, coming from pain, coming even from death.

The beautiful words we heard from Jeremiah today predict a time of sacred reconciliation between God and mankind. A time when, as God says, “I will be the God of all the families of Israel.” This was Jeremiah’s sacred New Covenant between God and God’s people that Jesus spoke of at the last supper. God would know our sins no more, we would be utterly forgiven, and we would be God’s people. Jesus used his own death to seal that covenant. Christ’s death is the ultimate expression of blinding light emanating from the tomb- darkness and wounding acting as a conduit for the glory of God. Love, life, light, forgiveness emanating from desolation.

The resurrection of Jesus brings the possibility of resurrection for us all. Resurrection out of our death-like places, our darkness, our brokenness. Resurrection out of our own tombs.

The possibility can arise that we find ourselves resurrected indeed, ready and able to truly come alive and take wing. Alleluia!

Alleluia, Christ is risen!

Good Friday

Good Friday

                  Good Shepherd, Berkeley 4/20/14

Last year at this time, we worshipped in the blackened shell of our old church. There was barely enough light to see, but there was just enough. The smell of smoke was still strong, and the sheer tomb-like blackness of the space was over-whelming. The grief we feel for Jesus’ death every year was mixed with the grief we felt for our beloved church. The church was dark in mid-day, as was the sky on the day of Jesus’ crucifixion.

Today we have before us the cross that has stood as the highest peak of this church for almost 138 years. It is damaged, broken, lying on the floor for us to reverence. I was told that the cross was so weatherworn and wounded that it was surprising that it had not come completely apart and fallen off the steeple. I was told that the wood of the interior of the cross was completely corroded, and the cross broke open when the contractor pulled it down. One of the four gold ornaments on the cross had fallen off and long ago been replaced with the gold-painted ceramic lid of a jar.

As the workmen began to strip the paint from the cross they went through quite a few layers, until they saw that the original cross was all gold- gold leaf in fact. The first people of this church had had that beacon shining from the steeple’s pinnacle for a very long time. It must have lit up the neighborhood, even in the dark.

When the cross lay on the worktable, the craftsmen began to take it apart to see how much was salvageable. When they did, they saw that there had been a hole in the very heart of the cross, right in the center. And in this hole, a swallow’s nest was still in evidence. There was even the remnant of eggshells from a long ago baby swallow.

When I first asked the contractor to bring the cross over for us to reverence for our Good Friday service he said, of course- in fact the timing will be perfect. By that time it will be stripped, repaired, repainted and the gold ornaments will be good as new. It will be perfect. I had to explain that I thought it was beautiful the way it was, that we were remembering Jesus damage, Jesus’ brokenness, Jesus’ pain. As it happened, it turned out that the cross was too damaged to keep, and most of it will have to be entirely rebuilt. So we have our dear, damaged broken cross to reverence today.

For me, the damage makes the cross more lovable, perhaps helps us see and forgive our own damage somehow, perhaps even makes us see and forgive our own betrayals, our own dark places in the heart. And it reminds us, as the swallow would demonstrate, that new life inevitably comes from those dark places.