Monday, February 17, 2014

Swear by Jerusalem

Good Shepherd, Berkeley 2/16/14
                                        The Rev. Este Gardner Cantor

With readings like those we heard today, it might be suggested to a preacher to not be too preachy. Because who among us can say that they perfectly keep the original 10 commandments, let alone Jesus’ ambitious upgrade- 10.2.
In Deuteronomy we read,
If you obey the commandments of the LORD your God … then you shall live and become numerous, and the LORD your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to possess.

But if your heart turns away and you do not hear, but are led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them,…you shall perish…
Like it or not, we are clearly being told that following these commandments is a matter of life or death. Not merely physical life and death, though. However we may wail at our losses, we all know the bargain we have made as far as that goes.
Annie Dillard puts it beautifully, speaking of life with God’s strange death-inclusive plan:
We could have planned things more mercifully, perhaps, but our plan would never get off the drawing board until we agreed to the very compromising terms that are the only ones that being offers; It is a covenant to which every thing, even every hydrogen atom is bound. The terms are clear: if you want to live, you have to die…The world came into being with the signing of that contract.
We all signed that contract. We all know we are going to die. But Christianity is concerned with a different kind of life and death, and a different kind of covenant. We seek to have abundant life in this lifetime, and eternal life as well. The great question is: how do we do this? And how do we avoid the worship of those oh so enticing “other gods?”
Our reading in Deuteronomy speaks of the wanderings of the heart, and perhaps this question is a matter of the heart as well. What if Jeremiah had the right idea when he described the new covenant of the Lord? It is upon our hearts, as Jeremiah so beautifully puts it, that God’s laws will be written:
I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another or say, “Know the Lord,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest…for I will forgive their iniquities and remember their sin no more.
What is described is following the commandments because you can’t help it- because it is written in your heart, it is part of your very being. I believe that this is the new covenant Jesus was talking about at the last supper- the creation of a oneness between God and humankind, a forgiveness of sin that was effortless and inevitable because the two parts are one.
We do not, in this particular violent and competitive culture, act from our hearts very often. We act out of fear, out of intellect, occasionally out of pity. Certainly our minds often rule over our hearts. And our hearts, I would say, resist being written on like a new building resists graffiti.
Our minds, in obedience to our culture, obey the laws of separation, of binary thinking, of a kind of brutal duality, of a consciousness that is still in some ways, on survival mode.
 “Putting on the Mind of Christ” is a wonderful book by Jim Marion, who is not a theologian, but, of all things, a Washington Lawyer! The title of his book refers to St. Paul’s plea in Philippians 2:5:
“Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.” This is a tall order- and an astonishing thought-that we might actually acquire the consciousness of Jesus. Marion puts forth the idea that the Kingdom of God that Jesus is always on about is not only not a physical place, but it is a state of consciousness. A non-dual consciousness where there is indeed no separation between God and humankind, and no separation between humans.
Jesus is doing something quite revolutionary- quite shocking in this Gospel passage. I read that it was not unusual, in rabbinical literature of the time, to cast one form of teaching in contrast to another, and then conclude with “But I say to you…” but no rabbi contrasted his own ideas with the word of God in the Torah. This took a lot of chutzpah. This was a radicalization of the Torah, as shocking as Jesus’ other radicalizations. Not only murder, but anger, and insults are also seen as outside of the Kingdom of Heaven. But Jesus, with typical compassion, knows that we will, inevitably, have conflict with our brother or sister, and he tells us what to do about it.          
This is a highly inconvenient truth for me, as I just had a fight with my brother over a trifle. Even more embarrassingly, it was a Facebook fight. Facebook had previously seemed like a safe way for us to communicate, but that proved false even in the private message mode. I felt he did, in fact, insult me. But I am, according to Jesus, to leave my gift before the altar and go and be reconciled to him. He, who insulted me! Where’s the fun in that?
I have to say, Jesus putting this scenario of reconciliation so close to the commandment not to murder seems to lend it a lot of heft. I am going to have to call my brother. I am going to have to try to see with the half-blind eye of my heart.
And it seems that I can’t even swear about my brother in the privacy of my own heart, because Jesus is pretty clear about that too. Jesus’ injunction against swearing is kind of a fascinating peek into the things that people actually said. Apparently they actually said things like, “By my head, 100 denari for that miserable donkey is an abomination!” or, “By Jerusalem, I will never drink wine at this inn again!”
But we are not to swear at all- we are only to say only “Yes, yes” or “No, no.” I have to say that if I had heeded that advise, my conversation with my brother would have gone a lot more smoothly.
How do we get to the place where we can reconcile with our brother or sister? How can we see with the eye of the heart? Upgrading our consciousness is not an easy task, but this is Jesus’ great suggestion.
“Blessed are the pure in heart,” he tells us. We can follow the lead of Jesus, and make sure to find a time when we can “withdraw to a solitary and private place” for prayer and meditation, as he often did. That may be the easy part, but we will never get to the next part without it. For the next part- the hard part, we can only try to bless each other, as he commands, with forgiveness, with gentleness, with prayer and of course, with love. Then we may get to glimpse the Kingdom. Then we might begin to see, although through a glass darkly, the view from the h

The New Creation

The New Creation
Good Shepherd, Berkeley 1/19/14
 The Rev. Este Gardner Cantor
Our passage from John at first seems to read a little like a journal or a travelogue, describing a series of remarkable days in the life of Jesus. “The next day… the next day … the next day…” However, in my studies I read a surprising interpretation: given that the Gospel opens with “In the beginning,” followed by a series of days, what is offered is a renewing of the first seven days of creation- or the first seven days of the new creation.[1] This newly formed week begins just before our passage with John the Baptist’s witness that “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, make straight the way of the Lord.
On the second day, John the Baptist testifies that Jesus is the Lamb of God- that John saw the Spirit descend on him, and that “I myself have seen, and have testified that this is the Son of God.”        
On the third day John the Baptist bids his followers to follow Jesus saying, “Look! here is the Lamb of God!”
On the fourth day, Andrew finds his brother Simon, and proclaims to him, “We have found the Messiah”
On the fifth day, Peter is brought to Jesus, and Jesus names him Cephas, translated as Peter, which translates as “The Rock.” Which translates as “Rocky.”
 On the sixth day, which falls after our passage of today, Jesus goes to Galilee and begins his ministry. The week culminates with Jesus’ very first Miracle in the Gospel of John- The Wedding at Cana- a creation miracle of extravagant abundance.[2]
So we move from John proclaiming his role of forerunner, to John’s witness to Jesus’ divinity, through the revelation to the disciples, to the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, to a marriage, foretelling the role of Jesus as the bridegroom.
We are the witnesses of this story of the new creation through John the Baptist, who first witnesses that Jesus is “The Lamb of God” - the paschal lamb- the sacrificial lamb- the victorious Lamb at the center of the throne from the Book of the Revelation to John. God has told John that the one the Holy Spirit not only descends upon, but remains with, dwells with, abides with, is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.
When compared with the other three gospels, the Gospel of John quite consciously elevates the status of the Jesus, and lowers the status of John the Baptizer. As a matter of fact, in this Gospel it is never said that John baptized Jesus at all, John was just a witness to the Spirit descending on and remaining with Jesus. In this new creation story, John ever decreases as Jesus increases.
John ends his first confession by naming Jesus as the Son of God. The story is a fulfillment of the gorgeous prolog. John somehow knows that Jesus was, “In the Beginning.” And that he is was with God and that he was God.
John himself is not the new creation, but John introduces us to the new creation, who divides the waters above and the waters below, as God affirms from heaven, that it is good.
Today, after our service, we will be a communal witness to our creation story of this past year, during which we had to create a new church. In my report for our annual meeting, I said that in our very long history, last year was the first one that the congregation of Good Shepherd church spent outside of the walls of our church. But I later realized that this is actually not true.
In the beginning, when the mission of Good Shepherd Church first blinked into existence, as the Civil War wound down in 1865, our services were held in the Ocean View School House at the intersection of Virginia and San Pablo Avenue, right next to School House Creek. This was handed down to us in the history by our former parishioner, Mary Oliver. The Church building at 9th and Hearst was not occupied until 1878.
And so the last time we spent a year away from our beautiful church building really was in the very beginning. For thirteen long years the Good Shepherd faithful were in an abode just as humble as this one. But they kept the faith. I have no doubt that we are now building up to another important beginning. Then as now, we are creating a new thing.
This coming year will be a year of gestating, of longing for our new space, of struggling in the chrysalis. It may feel that we are longing to come out of the water, longing for the blessing of the Dove, longing for the voice of the beloved. We have all worked so hard and we have all persevered bravely through this Babylonian exile of ours.

And so what is it that we now might witness to? In this coming year, the waiting may turn weary. We may grow tired of moving chairs, tired of putting stilts on an altar, tired of exclaiming what a wonderful worship space we have made out of this humble place. Our courage may fail us and tempers may flare. Perhaps we can be inspired by that rarest of human qualities that John the Baptist modeled so well; the knowledge that there well may be someone among us whose ideas or priorities are sometimes superior to ours.


Perhaps we might witness, as John did, with such great certainty, to the Christ in each other, to the lamb-like vulnerability of each other, to the daughters and sons of God that we all are.

I often think of the wonderful words of C.S. Lewis, “Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses.”

We are called to live in community. And we are also called to be a witness to Christ in the stranger, called to be a witness to the angels that come to call in such extraordinary disguises.

We are called to rise out of the dark water, to rise out of our fears and lack of faith, to feel the blessing of the Holy Spirit through one another, and to witness the light of a new creation. 

[1] Gerald Sloyan, John- Interpretation (John Knox Press, Atlanta, 1988) p. 24.
[2] John: Interpretation, (John Knox Press, Atlanta, 1988) John Sloyan, p. 24