Credibility

Now is my way clear, now the meaning plain; Temptation shall not come in this kind again. The last temptation is the greatest treason: to do the right deed for the wrong reason. T.S. Eliot Murder in the Cathedral

The readings for the 13th Sunday in the season after Pentecost are particularly rich. In the second track O.T. reading from the book of Joshua, Joshua now an elderly man presents the option for the people; they can either follow the God their ancestors worshipped before they entered the Land of Canaan or they can adopt the Gods of their Amorite neighbors. But, they must choose according to what they are willing to do. He tells them that: as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord. The people respond: therefore we also will serve the Lord for he is our God. 

The Gospel continues with working it’s way through John 6. Jesus has been speaking about himself as the bread from heaven before moving onto more graphic imagery in which he exhorts his listeners to accept that unless they eat his flesh and drink his blood they cannot have eternal life. In my last two posts, Bread and The Seed of an Idea I explored both of these metaphors in the context of Eucharistic worship.

To choose or not to choose, that is the question

Relationship with God seems always to involve a choice. To be in relationship with God is hard. Despite their affirmations, the Israelites discover over and over again that serving the Lord requires more from them than they are prepared to give. Jesus is not about to win followers through tailoring a seductive and inspiring message. Consequently, in 6:66 John tells us that: because of [his message] many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him. 

This seems to cost Jesus something. He seems resolute in his message but not exactly unperturbed, left unshaken by its consequences. We can sense him taking a deep breath as taking his courage in his hands he asks the twelve – his core group: Do you also wish to go away? Peter speaking on behalf of the twelve says Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. Phew!

Picture this scene. Place yourself in it. Do you not hear the catch in Jesus’ throat as he puts himself on the line with those who mean most to him. We can see the tears in Peter’s and the other disciples eyes as they acknowledge that for them there is simply, nowhere else to go, no one else to go to, for this is where their hearts have led them. They make a choice.

Although subsequent events reveal that neither the Israelites nor the twelve are ready to accept all the consequences of their choice, their choice places a marker in the ground, a place from which to at least struggle to stand firm. Standing firm is what Paul or a writer steeped in Paul’s thought exhorts the Ephesians to do through the imagery of donning the armor of God.

Choosing and then standing firm is less of a once-and-for-all resolute stand and more of a repetitive cycle of wandering and returning. From time to time, we will be knocked off our marker by what The Book of Common Prayer refers to as changes and chances of transitory life. Sometimes, we will willingly, though misguidedly wander from our marker – the imprint of our choice on the ground. Yet, having made the choice, we have a marker in the ground to which we are able to repetitively return.

Jesus, like his great forerunner Joshua, remains resolutely on-message. He recognises that the consequence will likely be that people will turn away because the message isn’t to their liking, or because it’s too costly for them to bear.  I, on the other hand, want to present a convincing image of Christian faith in a world where to choose to be a disciple of Jesus is increasingly countercultural and seemingly non-credible for the majority. The pressure to make the message credible is great.

For me, the treason to do the right deed for the wrong reason is all too real a temptation. Unlike Jesus, who refuses, I am tempted to do the right deed, i.e. win new adherents and attract new people to the parish, but for the wrong reason, i.e. a desire to be successful in my work of building strong Christian community. I want to ease the anxiety of choosing by presenting the choice as credible. The question which present itself every week in sermon preparation is this: does being credible require tailoring the message for the ears of the listeners? Most of the time I think it does. Yet, a closer reading of Jesus ministry shows that this is a temptation he resolutely resists.

This exploration is making me uncomfortably aware that I have a strong need to make the Christian faith a credible choice within the context of a highly educated and intellectually sophisticated community. After all, is this not why they called me to be their rector? Yet, I am also aware that credibility is not the standard Jesus used in constructing his message. Paradoxically, the power of Jesus’ message lies in its challenge to what in any given society is regarded as credible.

What faced the Israelites over and over again was that the pagan religions who’s Gods represented every aspect of human domestic-agrarian-warrior culture were more credible than the overarching and emotionally remote deity Yahweh. The crowds flocked to Jesus because they wanted to hear a credible message that proclaimed liberation from hunger, poverty, and oppression. They fell away because the message they heard was not a credible vehicle for realizing their aspirations.

In Eliot’s play Murder in the Cathedral, Thomas A Becket, Henry II’s hand picked man in the end refuses to tailor the gospel to fit the King’s needs. Four barons take it upon themselves to rid the King of his troublesome priest, murdering the archbishop on the altar steps in Canterbury Cathedral.

Down the generations little changes, it seems. What is the message we choose to hear, I wonder?  The disciples of Jesus found themselves in what often struck them as a non-credible place. It was a place of the heart, that made little sense to the mind. Having chosen, they arrived at a place where they became acutely aware that they could choose to be nowhere other and to be with not one else. If you take the courage to choose the gospel, then you find you have little choice. In a society captive to the illusion of power through choice, the option of faith seems non-credible.

Today, so many exhibit the signs of spiritual hunger. The food we are in search of is the food of faith, faith lived through community. The dilemma remains that faith only comes after we take the courage to believe. This might seem to many, incredible.

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A Really Big Caricature

The seed of an idea

Scott Hoezee in his weekly blog The Lectionary Gospel refers to an incident in The River by the Southern Gothic author Flannery O’Connor in which a child drowns while trying to baptize himself in a river. O’Connor was heavily criticized for this depiction that seems to many grotesque. She responded by reminding us that within the symbolism of baptism is the notion of dying to the old self and being reborn in Christ. She noted that:

In the land of the nearly blind, you need to draw really big caricatures.

The text

Last week in a piece entitled Bread  I asked the question: do we at St Martin’s come Sunday by Sunday with a real expectation of eating the bread from heaven?

The bread from heaven is the a phrase Jesus uses in his conversation with the crowd following the feeding of the 5000 in John 6. We’ve spent the last two weeks making our way in bite-sized chunks through this chapter.

This week’s gospel section opens at verse 51 where Jesus, again likens himself to the living bread that came down from heaven. We see that the debate with the crowds is now heating up, initially sparked by Jesus’ question: are you coming to see the signs of God or for a free meal? They don’t like his referring to himself as the bread from heaven. They know this man and because they know his family background the crowd objects when Jesus attributes to himself a phrase they associate with Moses and the feeding of their ancestors in the wilderness of Sinai. Such attribution amounts to a human confiscation of God’s qualities – in other words, blasphemy.

Not being a man to over explain himself in an attempt to avoid an argument, Jesus now ratchets up the level of tension by abandoning the historically significant and metaphorically rich bread from heaven image, an image that is already getting him into trouble with the crowd. Instead, he offers them a really big caricature: his very flesh and blood:

Very truly I tell you. Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you … for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. 

The power of big caricature

As with our instinctive reaction to Flannery O’Connor’s story of the boy drowning himself in a baptism seemingly gone tragically wrong, Jesus offers an image to his hearers, which for them, is truly grotesque.

It’s grotesque on two levels. Firstly, it’s cannibalistic, and secondly, it’s blasphemous. The first reaction is the instinctive repulsion human beings feel when confronted by cannibalism. The second reaction is the equally strong and socially programmed reaction of human beings to an assault upon cherished religious images and beliefs.

In the land of the nearly blind, you need to draw really big caricatures!

Intuitively, I draw back from really big caricatures. They offend my need for reasonableness. We live in a political world where reasonable debate has been replaced by grotesque caricature and incendiary sound-bite.

If you are Episcopalian, chances are you have come to the Episcopal Church attracted to the reasonableness and moderation of its Anglican ethos. Anglican ethos has a tendency to smooth over the bumpy caricatures of more extreme and less reasonable forms of Christianity with a spirit of balanced and gentle moderation. Yet, it has to be noted that our great strength at the same time is always in danger of degenerating into a kind of nothingness that is so vanilla that no one can take offense at it. If you never make any demand of people then no one ever has to say no, and we can all happily jog along in the land of the nearly blind. 

Revelation is never reasonable

The fact is that the message of Jesus is not reasonable – it is revelatory. Jesus is not trying to convince his hearers of rightness based on the reasonableness of his worldview. In that sense, he’s not very Episcopalian. Jesus’s priority is to shock us out of our cultural and religious insularities in order to catch a glimpse of things from the perspective of a self-giving God. Jesus reveals God giving [his] life to the life of the world. How better to do this than to present an image of religious participation as the ingestion of his flesh and blood, with no apology for the inevitable cannibalistic overtones.

So what do we at St Martin’s think we are doing Sunday by Sunday? Do we really come expecting to eat the bread of heaven? Possibly, when understood as tasteful metaphor. Do we come with and intention of consuming the flesh and blood of Christ? Unlikely, not even if understood as a less attractive metaphor.

I believe that most of us attend compelled by an inarticulate desire for what Anglicanism traditionally has referred to as the awe and wonder of worship, or the beauty of holiness. What does this mean, and what might it look like?

In the land of the blind

In 1979, The Rev. Bruce Reed published his book The Dynamics of Religion. Reed was an example of that great English tradition of a priest deeply involved with a sociological and psychological engagement with wider society. An American focus might be: how does church serve an individual? The English focus finds expression more in the question: how is society served by the existence and practice of the Church?

Drawing from Durkheim as well as Freud, Reed described the process of worship in terms of oscillation. Psychologically, oscillation describes a movement between rational and non-rational states of awareness. Reed understood the non-rational not as irrational, but akin to dream or even psychospiritual states where the boundaries of time and space and individual identity, are in constant flux. Sociologically, oscillation describes the process of movement between individual and collective aspects of experience. Reed noted that a primary function of worship is to focus and then manage the process of oscillation in both senses.

Put most succinctly oscillation is the process of energetic renewal. Psychologically, we arrive at worship clothed in our right minds in order to experience without interruption to rational functioning the irrigation of deeper currents of energy. Interestingly, charismatic worship most clearly exemplifies a process, which for non-charismatic Christians operates mostly at an unconscious level. Charismatic worship allows for a more dramatic oscillation where the influx of the deeper currents of energy for a time, overwhelm the rational state of the worshiper. Charismatic forms of worship meet the needs of communities where the day-to-day experience of suffering rooted in the experience of poverty, racism, and other forms of discrimination, is more intense.

Similarly, in our relationship between our individual and our collective identities, we are empowered individually through our participation in communal or collective rites of passage, in order for our lives to become better shaped by a deeper and more energetic connection with the common good.

Eating the body and drinking the blood of Christ is a psychotic idea. What I mean by this is that to eat human flesh and drink human blood requires a serious alteration of rational consciousness. For example, the Maori of New Zealand practiced ritualistic cannibalism prior to European arrival. They consumed human flesh within a context of religious ritual. The Maori ate the flesh of their enemies only in the highly ritualized context of warfare where cannibalism expressed spiritual domination over one’s mortal enemies through ingesting their flesh.

The interplay within and between – getting to the nub

Jesus did not literally offer his flesh and blood. No one ate Jesus and he did not intend for anyone to do so. He was employing psychotic- non-rational imagery – a really big caricature – as a revelatory device to show that through him, God is doing a new thing. God, through Jesus, is entering into the very heart of created life as an expression of love for the world. Jesus embodies this love through the events of the cross and resurrection. The really big caricature of eating his flesh and drinking his blood is his way of driving home the message that nothing short of complete incorporation of God in the form of physical ingestion will satisfy our spiritual hunger.

I cannot overemphasize two points here:

  1. Communion, i.e. participation in God’s self-giving is not an individualized, esoteric, spiritualized phenomenon according to Jesus. Communion with God requires ingesting real food – bread and wine transformed by collective memory and future hope into the flesh and blood of the Savior. This is the psycho-spiritual event of Eucharist.
  2. Eucharist is also a community event, properly understood when we realize that no one individual can celebrate Eucharist alone. Through the ritual of Eucharist we are incorporated into a communal meal at which it is as a community we take God into ourselves, thus satisfying our need to recharge our individual batteries from the our communal charging station. This is the socio-spiritual event of Eucharist.

Psychospritually, the ritual of Eucharist weaves a complex interplay between the ideas of physical and spiritual hunger, spiritual and physical food. In both cases, ingesting is the way to satisfying our need of God. Sociospiritually, the ritual of Eucharist draws us as individuals into an experience of the communal, an entity greater than the sum total of its parts, also referred to a the Body of Christ. Eating and drinking is the most powerful expression of social solidarity. Consuming the bread of heaven is the most effective way of ensuring that there is enough bread of the world to feed the hungry.  

In the land of the nearly blind, this requires drawing a really big caricature!

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Bread

 Individual Remembering

As a child, I remember buying bread at the grocery. I remember it came as whole loaves, either white or brown. That’s all I remember about bread until at some point imagesa third option became available – sliced. The arrival of a slicing machine in the grocery meant that in our house bread now came presliced in a plastic wrapper.

A common saying in both New Zealand and the UK is: it’s the best thing since sliced bread! Maybe it’s a saying used by Americans as well. Being a denizen of all three cultures, it’s increasingly difficult for me to keep straight in which of the three cultures a certain aphorism originates. The saying means: wow, this [thing, situation] is a wonderful invention. I remember sliced bread as the staple of my childhood, for bread was not the specialty item to be savored and delighted over that those of us living in Providence find at Seven Stars Bakery. images-1Bread was bread, white or brown, sliced or not, used as toast or to make a sandwich or a bread pudding –a great favorite of visits to my maternal grandmother.

I also remember a time when the eating of bread had little down side. The purity of the grain and the metabolism of youth allowed me to consume bread without regard to quantity or consequence. This is alas, is no longer so. The processed nature of much wheat used in making bread is making bread toxic and I now strictly monitor my wheat intake. The slowing of my body’s metabolism also means that bread is now a source of unwanted carbs, and unwanted carbs are the enemy of my aging male waste line.

Bread is the staple food in all cultures where wheat is the staple grain. Bread is the staple food, the fruit of nature’s bounty. Wheat growing societies dependence on bread as the staple food has led such societies to view Bread is also a symbol of divine generosity – an embodiment of God’s care and concern for human beings. Our own religious memory contains countless instances and references to bread as a sign of God’s presence, God’s communication with and involvement in human affairs.

Collective remembering

We read of the prophet Elijah (1Kings:19) at a point of despair retiring under a solitary broom tree to await the welcomed release of death only to be awoken to find God’s gift of bread, baked on stones heated by the merciless sun as a both a means not only of physical sustenance but also as a sign of God’s promise of a future. The feeding of the Israelites (Exodus 16) with manna (a form of flaky bread) in the wilderness has become the archetypal bread story. It’s ecimages-6ho sounds throughout the scriptural record where bread becomes a sign of divine deliverance at times of crisis and a promise for the future. This story finds a strong resonance in ministry of Jesus, who feeds 5000 with two loaves; again bread used not only as a real material expression of God’s care and concern but an action that has a huge symbolic significance, the meaning of which Jesus begins to unfold.

We continue in the 6th chapter of John’s gospel with Jesus following his feeding of the 5000, expanding on his theology of bread. The crowds flock in increasing numbers to hear Jesus, drawn as he suggests not simply by the signs and wonders he performs but by the promise of a full stomach; the satisfying their physical hunger. We recall that hunger was the commonplace experience for the masses of displaced peasantry that flocked to hear Jesus. 1st Century Palestine was undergoing a commercialization of agricultural production with land being increasingly vested in powerful landowners who like the powerful in our own time were intent on the monopolizing of resources. Independent peasant farmers were being displaced and turned into itinerant day laborers, a story as old as time, and one alarmingly familiar to us as we view with a sense of increasing helplessness the trajectory of economic developments in our own day.

Jesus challenges the crowds to consider what it is they have come expecting. If it’s to be fed then that’s important but only a temporary fix. He pushes them beyond the familiarity of their boundaried imaginations and they don’t like it. They begin to challenge his presenting himself as the bread come down from heaven. Jesus is telling them he is the manna of God, which is much more than physical bread that temporarily satiates hunger. As God’s living bread, Jesus offers them the spiritual nourishment of transformation. If Jesus had read Maslow he would have realized that it is a tall order telling people about spiritual nourishment, whose bellies need filling.

I don’t imagine that Jesus as unsympathetic to the crowds drawn to him by the promise of a free meal. Yet, his purpose seems to be to lay out a much larger perspective, within which satisfying physical needs has a place, but cannot be the ultimate end goal. As human beings, we need spiritual nourishment that enables transformation, as well.

Bread the life of heaven and the life of the world

Bread is the fundamental element in Christian community. Christian community, to be Christian must be concerned with the need for real bread to feed the hungry. Give us this day our daily breadextends bread as a metaphor for all of life’s basic needs: something to eat, somewhere to live, and someone to love and be loved by. Christian community is also concerned with the bread from heaven that feeds our spiritual hunger.

Every Sunday and in some communities more frequently than that, Jesus’ gift of the bread from heaven that feeds the life of the world is renewed in time and space in the celebration of the Eucharist. The Eucharist is the central aspect of Christian worship. At the Eucharist real bread, the staple of life becomes the bread from heaven that feeds our spiritual hunger.

The celebration of the Eucharist must bear certain characteristics according to one of America’s greatest lay theologians of the 20th Century, William Stringfellow.images-5

In an essay entitled Liturgy as Political Action1 Stringfellow outlines three basic characteristics for liturgy that roots it in the integrity of the gospel. Let me apply some of Stringfellow’s thinking about liturgy more specifically to my task in hand.

Transcending categories of time

The Eucharist is where the Biblical story of creation is recalled and rehearsed in the full knowledge of the world’s redemption by Christ. In a modern world enthralled by the concepts of time travel and parallel multidimensional connections across time, the Eucharist, as action forges a conduit between past and future allowing the energies of the past and the promises of the future to flow into the present, i.e. into present time and the particularity of place.

This drama – dramatic action requires the full participation of all the people to prevent it becoming simply a spectacle to be observed. As Stringfellow puts it:

As a transcendent event, the [Eucharist] collects all that has already happened in this world from the beginning of time and prophesies all that is to come until the end of time. But the [Eucharist] is also a contemporary event, involving these particular persons gathered in this specific place and in this peculiar way.

In other words, the Eucharist is here and now and its effects are real in the here and now. It becomes for us a way of focusing our attention on our connections within the community – past and present, and between the community and rest of the world around it. [It] is the normative and conclusive ethical commitment of the Christian people to the world2

The Eucharist celebrates not only God’s gift of Godself in Christ as the bread from heaven given for the life of the world, it also expresses the involvement of the Christian community in the life of the everyday world through the acts of service and witness, i.e. real bread, necessary for real people as staple of life.

Eucharist is the central act of worship in the historicl3 tradition of Christianity of which the Episcopal Church as a Church of the Anglican Tradition is a part. This summer at St Martin’s we are deepening our understanding of Eucharist, which for many of us becomes rather routine and devoid of impact, cocooned within the familiar recitations on Sunday mornings. Eucharist becomes merely a matter of doing what we do without any real connection to the why. For the months of July and August, we are exploring Eucharist in instructional format at the different time of  5.30pm on Sunday evenings. In this format, the familiar cadences of the Prayer Book give way to reveal the skeleton of actions that undergirds Eucharist as one whole action.

Returning to an expansive vision

Since the 1979 revision of the Book of Common Prayer, we have sought to overcome the legacy of the arid argument as to whether at the Eucharist the bread becomes Christ’s real body or remains just bread. Today we transcend the controversy particular and peculiar to the 16th century by reconnecting to a larger and more encompassing vision of sacramental action and sacramental authority.

Our current science fiction fascination with time and anomalies of time fuelled by the real physics of Quantum observation opens a way to revisit the historic concepts of anamnesis, i.e. the remembrance of things past made effective again through action in the present. Like the crowds that came to hear Jesus, what are our expectations as members of a community whose central action in the world is the celebration of Eucharist?

St Paul offered two tests for measuring our spiritual vitality. Can we allow ourselves to be part of community -something greater than ourselves, and can we engage with our individual calling through which we can make our distinctive contribution, bringing our skills, passion, and resources to the building up of the community?

For so many of us our membership of the community of faith has become perfunctory and at times can mean little more to us than belonging by habit to a club or association. This is not always our fault. It can be just the way life is at times. Yet, no matter how exuberant or lackluster we feel about church, I have yet to meet a person who is not spiritually hungry for something more.

Bread, the bread from heaven, which satisfies our spiritual hunger (John 6:35, 41-51) in the celebration of the Eucharist brings the nature of Christian community into sharper focus. Is our community a place where we can expect to eat the bread of heaven? Is St Martin’s a place where we can begin to distinguish between our emotional wants and moods and our spiritual needs? It can be only if we invest ourselves in its life.

Much of what we long for is not more happiness, but a more vital sense of purpose and connection beyond ourselves. We find that what we need as a community of seekers journeying together is to become a community where transformation is an expectation in everyday experience. We long not only for personal transformation; we also long to become transformed as a community, fit to carry out the mission of the being Christ’s body in the world.

The Book of Common Prayer tells us that the mission of the Church is to pray, worship, proclaim the Gospel, and promote justice, peace, and love (Pg 854BCP). Through whom does the Church carry out its mission? The Church carries out its mission through the ministry of all its members, i.e. you and me gathered to celebrate and receive the bread from heaven.

William Stringfellow again: Eucharist is not any ritual such as the rituals of the Masons or any other secret society. It uses ordinary things that are the staples of life in the world –

bread, wine, water, cloth, money, color, music, words, or whatever else is readily at hand.

Using the ordinary things at hand to celebrate and make present the extraordinary gifts of God is a political event. By political event Stringfellow clearly has an event in mind that challenges and changes things.

The very example of salvation, it is the festival of life that foretells the fulfillment and maturity of all of life for all of time and in this time. The liturgy is social action because it is the characteristic style of life for human beings in this world. 4

quote-the-practice-of-the-christian-life-consists-of-the-discernment-of-the-seeing-and-hearing-william-stringfellow-70-51-64

[1] A Keeper of the Word: Selected Writings of William Stringfellow (1994) Ed by Bill Wylie Kellermann. Eerdmans Publishing, Grand Rapids, Michigan.

[2] The History of the Liturgy Pp 124-5

[3] Catholic and Apostolic

[4] Pp 125-6

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Spiritual Maturity

Reverie

Cork is a wonderful material, a natural product of the Quercus suba or cork oak tree. I remember in the house I grew up in, there was a cook floor in the Wtree-360dining and sitting rooms made from large squares of cork arranged in an alternating pattern of honey and coffee coloured tiles. Because the ultraviolet rays of the sun are so intense in New Zealand, after a while the contrasts faded and every so often the floors needed sanding to restore them to the colours of the original pattern. It was a very 1960’s look. Cork tile floors are ubiquitous with the great movement in design called Mid-century Modern, a style common around the Pacific Rim but which seems not to have made much inroad into New England; a style I note, that is once again the rage in design magazines like CB2.

You don’t see cork as much as you once did. Even its last great bastion, the wine cork, seems to be on its way out. More often than not wine bottles are now sealed with the easy to open screw-top, or something, which interestingly we still refer to as a plastic cork. It’s ironic how cork now refers to a function, i.e. sealing or stopping, rather than the material of the seal or stopper itself.

Cork was for centuries prized for its buoyancy making it an essential material in the traditional fishing industries. Even here, or maybe especially here, cork has now largely been replaced. Fishing buoys made from cork are now hard to find. Universally, buoys are now made from a material I call polystyrene, which translate for Americans as Styrofoam.

My cork reverie was evoked by the passage in Ephesians 4:14-16 that speaks of being tossed to and fro, an image for me of the action of swimming in the surf, of being helplessly carried upward and downward, forward and backward, propelled by the action of the waves. 

We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming. But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love. 

This passage offers two intriguing contrasts.

1. Being anchored

The first contrast is between corks and buoys, whether the latter are made from the material cork or not. In the image of being tossed to and fro, in my mind’s eye I picture the contrast between the image of a cork bobbing up and down on the surface of the water, at the mercy of the ebb and flow of the currents, and that of the buoy rising and falling with the action of the waves but firmly anchored in one place.

Am I a cork or a buoy? Do I feel like a cork or a buoy? Are these even different questions? As I explored last week in the Illusoriness of Reality, these are different questions to the extent that feelings are not always an accurate indication of what is real. Yet, feeling states are what we have ready, conscious access to, so I guess there are times when I feel more or less cork-like. Yet, feelings are no indication of spiritual maturity.

There is an important distinction between spiritual and emotional states. Optimism, or pessimism, happy or sad, these are emotional states. They are not accurate indicators of spiritual vitality, because each is a reflection of circumstances in the external world. Things go well and we feel happy and optimistic. Things are tough and we feel sad and pessimistic.

Spiritual discernment has traditionally made a distinction between consolation and desolation. These are spiritual states that contradict, rather than reflect feeling states tied to external perception. For instance, things appear to going well for us. We seem to have all we could desire, and in the midst of our optimism we feel hollow and empty. This is the spiritual state of desolation and it alerts us to the illusory mistake of identifying spiritual vitality with material or emotional happiness. Correspondingly, consolation galvanizes us during tough times. When we face up against the large uncertainties of life, the seeming impossibilities that loom large before us, we experience a certainty of purpose and direction anchored by a palpable – felt but not seen – trust in God.

Spiritual states have an objective quality, i.e. an expression of something in us that is greater than we are, whereas emotional states are highly subjective, i.e. resulting only from inside ourselves. Yet, it seems both spiritual and emotional states involve maturing.Returning to my metaphor of the cork and buoy, the key spiritual question is: am I a cork cast adrift and vulnerable to the unpredictability of tide and wind, or am I a buoy, firmly anchored to the ocean floor with a cord strong and elastic enough to ride the turbulent current and hold-fast into the prevailing wind?

2.Growing up

In exploring this question I note the second contrast that Paul –whether it is actually the historical Paul or a later disciple imbued with his spirituality makes in the Ephesians passage between spiritual immaturity, the state associated with being a child and maturity.

We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro …. [But] we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ …

Here’s a nice theological question: does the soul grow up, i.e. does it grow and mature with the passage of life? Theologically, the soul has been seen as immutable or unchanging. This is somewhat the position held by transpersonal psychologies such as Psychosynthesis, which see the soul as a higher center of supraconsciousness, independent from, but contributing to our emotional development. The soul may be unchanging, but spiritual maturity, rather like emotional maturity is constantly forming.

Different languages

The theologian James Fowler, while not the only one to do so, has developed a schematic of spiritual maturity across psycho-spiritual formational stages, which he links with those of increasing emotional development. This is not the place to go into an analysis of his six stages of spiritual formation so visit https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/James_W._Fowler to explore further.

Without access to a modern psychology of psycho-spiritual formation, Paul and those speaking Paul’s message to a later generation had two core measures for individual spiritual maturity.

The first is a measure of a healthy capacity to participate in community and to strengthen the sinews that link individuals into a whole, i.e. a maturity that supports unity. The second is a measure of participation in one’s individual call. Spiritual maturity manifests differently in each of us according our discernment and acceptance of our calling, our vocation.

If the first measure of spiritual maturity is the capacity to participate in something greater than one’s self, the second measure is of a capacity to contribute our difference, something very individual to one’s self, to the building up of the greater whole. Paul often uses the metaphor of the human body to speak of this; one body, yet different organs. Ephesians takes up this metaphor and presents a process for building up the body through the promise of spiritual maturity.

Ephesians speaks of spiritual maturity, of growing up, in the language of:

The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ.

Fowler’s sixth stage of formation offers us a modern language for the spiritual maturation Ephesians speaks of. Spiritual maturity, while exhibiting a number of different characteristics is the capacity to treat any person with compassion, accepting them as a part of the same universal community, according to the Christ-centered principles of love, tolerance, and inclusive justice.

One image I easily have for myself is that like a cork tossed about, I feel vulnerable, at times child-like and ill equipped in the face of shifting opinions and conflicting worldviews. In the face of this turbulence, my overriding anxiety is to please, to fit in, to be included by making myself acceptable. This is an image of being adrift in a sea of fearful feelings. It’s an image for spiritual immaturity.

An alternative image is that like a buoy I ride the turbulent surface of living in the world with courage knowing that I ride the surface tempest anchored by a cord that is strong and elastic enough to hold me fast to God’s promise for me to grow into the full stature of Christ. Here, I am not afraid to express my difference and to tolerate if not embrace other’s difference as we grow together. This is an image of spiritual maturity in action. This is Christ’s promise and God’s gift.

There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all. But each of us was given grace according to the measure of Christ’s gift. 

Spiritual maturity is demonstrated in our ability to discern and take up our calling, and to realize that we do not do so not in isolation, but in the company of one another. Together we use our individual gifts to built the body, helping rather than hindering one another as together we mature into the full statue of Christ.

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The Illusoriness of Reality

Like others I suspect, the reoccurring tension for me lies in my confusing what I can see with what really exists. I have two prayers that form the bedrock of my daily devotion that seem to help me with this.

The first is: Please God, show me what I have yet to be able to see. The field of my awareness takes shape from what I think I see in front of me. Yet, I know that what I see is actually the product of the interplay between an objective reality and my imagination that interprets what I see according to the available templates of my memory. I know this. Yet I live as if what I see and the way I perceive it is an accurate reflection of something objective, i.e. independent of my perception.

My second prayer comes from my adaptation of a line in the ancient Christian prayer known as the Salve Regina. This is a prayer of heartfelt intercession to Mary. It is a prayer I learned a long time ago and within my current spiritual practice it remains an artifact from the fervor of my Anglo-Catholic youth. It survives when many other aspects of this earlier spiritual phase have fallen away simply because one day I found myself unthinkingly changing the line that runs:

to you do we sigh, mouring and weeping passing through this vale of tears, to:         to you do we sigh, mouring and weeping passing through this veil of illusion. 

My adaptation reflects a shift in my spirituality away from a medieval notion of the plight of human suffering to a notion that suffering is a perception that is rooted in the tension between subjectivity and objectivity. Sometimes this tension reflects our imprisonment within the way memory confines imagination or put another way a reflection of being shackled by the familiar. However, this tension can also be a place of imaginative creativity when imagination breaks free an opens to new shifts in awareness.

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There is a scholarly controversy over whether Ephesians is actually from the hand of Paul or from that of a later disciple writing in the style of Paul. The controversy over Ephesians is a modern concern and not one that would have made any sense to Paul, himself. Ephesians strikes a different tone with its focus on the qualities of an ordered spiritual life that indicates a less turbulent and more settled time than the one Paul lived through. Nevertheless in so many places it approaches the intensity of Paul’s vision. In the portion appointed for the epistle (Ephesians 3:14-21) on the 9th Sunday after Pentecost, the author, whether Paul or not, articulates a powerful Pauline vision:

I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. 

My heartfelt response to this passage is –if only. What I mean is, if only this expectation would resonate through my whole and undivided being. I long to expand my perception beyond the limitations placed by my need to stay within the security of what I already know. I so desire to comprehend beyond the limitations of what I think I see.  I long for this Pauline expectation to become my reality. I live in the tension between such a hope and my encapsulation within a small, limited, and overly self-referenced perspective; a perspective resulting from still being firmly on this side of the veil of illusion.

**

In John 6:1-21, the gospel appointed for Pentecost 9 we receive the miracles of the feeding of the 5000 and Jesus walking on the water. The feeding of the 5000 is one of those rare events recorded in all four Gospels.

John does not record many of the events that form the bedrock of the synoptic writers. Unlike Mark, Matthew and Luke, John is not writing a synopsis – general theological and chronological overview of Jesus life and ministry. John is constructing a theology of theophany i.e. God’s visible manifestation to humankind. He reconstructs the ministry of Jesus around seven signs, all of which focus attention on the nature of Jesus’ and God’s identity as intertwined. At the heart of John’s gospel lies his theology that in Jesus we see God; a God who reveals through signs or miracles.

Misapprehension, misunderstanding, rejection, are themes that run through John’s narrative of theophany because our ability to see reality is distorted by the veil of illusion constructed from our self-referenced and imaginatively encapsulated hopes and expectations. The crowds are firmly rooted on this side the of the veil of illusion, with Jesus on the other side. Interestingly, reality and illusion are often so close together, and can be likened to the opposite sides of the same coin.

The crowd is attracted to Jesus because of the signs he works, signs that make him a powerful target for the projections of their unrequited longing.  For the crowd, Jesus is Moses or Elijah come again. The prophet of old who will lead them from their current state of subjection into a new promised land. Ecstatic with expectation, they try to make Jesus a king – the Messiah who will deliver Israel from its bondage. These expectations are close to the truth but perceived from the illusory side of the coin.

On the other side of the coin, John tells the story of the feeding of the 5000 to create an echo between Jesus and Moses. In John’s version Jesus echoes God through Moses feeding the people with manna – limitless bread in the wilderness. After feeding the people John has Jesus go up onto a mountain beside the lake – a probable reference to the Golan Heights, but an echo of Moses ascending Mt Sinai to witness theophany.

It’s as if God’s self revelation is designed to actively trigger the people’s collective religious memory, creating an association between Jesus and Moses. God desires that the people see that in Jesus something radically new is coming to pass. Yet, then as well as now, humankind tends to limit itself to perceptions shaped by what it already knows. The need is for humankind to see something new. John sees in Jesus something new and he never seems to come to terms with the fact that most people around him don’t. Today, the danger is that we continue to construct God as a manifestation of our own self image – a kind of anthophany.

The feeding of the 5000 followed by the walking on the water are the fourth and fifth of John’s miracle signs. But, what is a miracle? Put most simply a miracle seems to be an event that on the face of it has no rational or logical explanation according to our expectations of how things work in the universe.

On one side we have the externalists, those who see miracles as events in time and space that are miraculous because they mysteriously and inexplicably suspend the Newtonian laws of physics. The miraculous becomes its own explanation. On the other side we have the internalists, those who believe the seemingly miraculous is a psychospiritual event – something occurring within the inner consciousness of individuals. Between these two positions is a profound theological disagreement. The externalists affirm miracles because God can do what God likes, that’s the function of being omnipotent. The internalists counter with, having set up the laws along which the universe seems to operate, God becomes confined by a self-imposed restriction to only operate as a good Newtonian.

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For me, the question do miracles happen is the wrong question. Miracles are defined not by how they happen but by their consequences. Miracles change perceptions and the course of events. I am happy to be agnostic about whether they are external or internal events because I find this distinction to be an illusion. I have only my internal perception of any objective event in external reality.

I prefer to see miracles as those experiences that show us the more than what we are conditioned by memory-shaped imagination to expect. It’s not do they, or how do they, happen? It’s how is our sense of the possible reshaped by such events so that we make the imaginative leap into expecting more than we have dared to hope for?

The hypothesis that I have been at pains to articulate here is that the expectations of God’s KINGDOM are never limited to the possible or even to the probable. The expectations of the KINGDOM come to us in the form of a discovery that we are not limited by the boundaries of only what we can imagine.

The veil of illusion is permeable! Through courageous expectation and hope-filled action we are called to comprehend the breath and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses all knowledge so that we may not only be filled with the fullness of God, but be those through whom God is able to accomplish abundantly far more than we can ask or imagine.

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The Invitation of a Nightmare

Sermon for Pentecost 6 from Linda Griggs who is the Director for Christian Formation at St Martin’s, Providence.

Immediately the king sent a soldier of the guard with orders to bring John’s head. He went and beheaded him in the prison, brought his head on a platter, and gave it to the girl. Then the girl gave it to her mother.”

It’s like a train wreck, isn’t it? You just can’t look away. The story of the beheading of John the Baptist is a cultural rubbernecking phenomenon: composers, writers, choreographers, and visual artists have all interpreted it with varying degrees of lurid detail. Pastry chefs have even gotten in on the act: A fellow parishioner recently told me that she attended a presentation of the Strauss opera about this story, called Salome. When she arrived at the after party she was curious as to the contents of a cake box and couldn’t resist a peek. You are correct in imagining what was in the box. Another friend told me that this story is the first Bible story that actually frightened her. And I’m sure she’s not alone. This is the stuff of nightmares. And yet.

Nightmares have their place. A Jungian analyst once told me that, scary and heart-pounding as they are, nightmares can be invitations to transformation—in other words the collective unconscious is trying to wake you up to something new that you might be ignoring. So, rather than being frightened of a nightmare, you might want to see what it is trying to tell you.

So since we began by comparing today’s Gospel to a nightmare, let’s take it one step further and accept that it may also be an invitation—or even a challenge.

First, we need to remember that in Jungian dream work everyone in the dream represents an aspect of our own Self. It’s as though we are looking in mirror with more than one panel. That means that if your dream has someone in it that is saintly and perfect, that’s you. And that other person in the dream who is a real jerk? That’s you too. We all have our shadow.

So who are the characters in our nightmare/story? John the Baptist is a charismatic preacher who has been making waves all over Galilee, calling for repentance and amendment of life for everyone. He speaks truth, calling out wrong where he sees it, even into the highest and shiniest seats of Roman power and influence. John is arguably the focal point of story, yet he has been making way for another—one whose life, death and resurrection call people to a new Way of compassion, healing and reconciliation. Of all of our characters, John is the one we’d like to identify with, isn’t he? Courageous, eloquent, cousin to the Messiah…it’s easy to want to see him when we look in the mirror. Or is it? Are we ready to take the risks that John did? Maybe, before we jump into John’s sandals, we need to see who else looks back at us from the mirror.

Herod Antipas: the youngest son of Herod the Great; he had to struggle with his brothers to gain and maintain his position as ruler over Galilee and Perea. Further, his personal life is major tabloid fodder. He travelled to Rome to visit his half-brother Philip, and he met Philip’s wife, Herodias (who was also Herod’s niece). They fell in love. Herod divorced his wife, which did not go over well, and he and Herodias got married. So we can see that he was insecure politically and sketchy in his personal relationships, —and yet intrigued by the preaching of John. John struck a chord with Herod as he railed against him for an adulterous and incestuous marriage. Herod knew that John “was a righteous and holy man…When he heard him, he was greatly perplexed; and yet he liked to listen to him. Can you just imagine Herod’s heart—wounded by political struggles, guilty about his infidelity and divorce, yet touched by God through John? Can you just imagine his heart being gently wedged open? Can you imagine him just beginning to nurture a flickering ember of repentance? Can you just imagine his personal failures just crushing that ember like a bug?

And we have Herodias. Unfaithful to her first husband. Probably insecure. And definitely angry. Imagine her fury with this popular upstart John the Baptizer who dares to speak such—truth. Truth that she will not admit to herself. Imagine her muttering to herself that John Must. Be. Stopped. Imagine her biding her time.

And the daughter. Scholars acknowledge that a transcription error in the text has named her for her mother, but tradition has named her Salome, so for simplicity’s sake that’s what we’ll call her too. Tradition has also portrayed her in a number of ways—as scheming, calculating, and even unstable. But look closely at today’s story. Salome is none of those things. She is a daughter. She is a step-daughter. She is a young woman in first-century Palestine. She is a dancer.

And when she enters the story, it begins to move. Up to this point I have imagined Herod sitting on his throne. John sitting in jail. Herodias sitting in the women’s quarters. But Salome dances. And does it so well that Herod’s guests are exceedingly pleased, and Herod decides to show off to his powerful and influential colleagues—to offer Salome some largesse to make himself look good—to give his pride a little birthday boost. So Salome completes her dance and, bidden to do so, breathlessly approaches her stepfather, who offers her anything she wants, even half of his kingdom. In response she zips to her mother, asking what shall I request. Herodias seizes the opportunity and tells her to request the head of John the Baptizer. Salome zips back to Herod: “‘I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptizer on a platter.’” Back and forth; Salome is synonymous with movement.

But strangely, while we see what she DOES, we don’t know how she FEELS. We are left to wonder about this young woman: Is she powerless? Arguably yes. She is a daughter. She is a young woman in first century Palestine. She doesn’t have a lot of power, even as daughter of a king. Her function is to Obey. She does what Mom says. She is powerless. Or is she? She dances. She moves between King and Queen. As long as she moves, the action of the story moves. As long as she moves, John the Baptist’s death creeps inexorably closer. Without Salome’s movement, Herodias’ revenge is incomplete. Without Salome’s movement, Herod still has a chance at repentance and transformation through a continued opportunity to listen to John.

Salome moves, and the tragedy unfolds. It can’t happen without her. Powerless? Yes, and no. She is also catalyst. She is agent. She is, unwittingly perhaps, in collusion as events unfold.

I wonder if we see parts of ourselves in this nightmare/tragedy. In the queen, furious at someone who bids her confront the truth of something she has done wrong? Do we see ourselves in the king, guilty and insecure, vulnerable to God’s grace and yet more vulnerable to his pride and political expediency? Or in the daughter, whose actions are both unwitting and yet crucially catalytic, acting as an agent for tragedy—even evil?

This is chilling. But if we are going to even think of looking in the mirror and seeing John the Baptizer the truth-teller, prophet and virtuous victim in this story we are going to have to admit that there are parts of us that are less than savory.

If we want to find the invitation to transformation in this nightmare—to find the Good News in this Gospel, we need to look in the mirror a little closer. Any of these characters can call to us—open a window on our faults and, yes, sins. Herod haunts me because of the missed opportunity—the heart almost broken open, and then hardened by pride. But the one that has most drawn me for the past few weeks is Salome herself.

As I have said, Salome is the catalyst. Without her, nothing happens. Yet she is in many ways just an extension of her parents and their own baggage. She is an ironic combination of power and powerlessness.

A couple of days after I found out that I would be preaching on this passage the horrific shootings in Charleston took place, with all of the events that have unfolded since then. This passage and these events became linked in the same way that you can remember where you were when something important happened. I couldn’t help but ponder the pain in the headlines somehow mapped upon the pain in this Gospel lesson. I felt invited by the Spirit to wonder if Salome has something to show us—like a nightmare bidding us to wake up to something we are uncomfortable seeing.

Does Salome somehow symbolize a dynamic in our society with regard to our painful and conflicted relationship with race? Are we, like Salome, an extension of the baggage of previous generations, seemingly powerless to respond to calls for difficult conversation, conversion and action for justice? Or are we actually powerful catalysts for perpetuation of the status quo?

If you haven’t seen the documentary, Traces of the Trade, I highly recommend it, but the first time I saw it, I was heartbroken by what I learned. It tells the hard truths of the wealthy DeWolf family’s close ties to the Triangle slave trade. They and their descendants were also prominent and influential in the Episcopal Church, including the founding and building of our own church. The Right Rev. James DeWolf Perry was 7th Bishop of Rhode Island and 18th Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church. The rich history of our denomination is interwoven with pain and a need for reconciliation. We need to consider the fact that our inability to see difficult truths may actually be an agent in perpetuating institutional racism today.

So as you can see, Salome haunts me. I wonder what we can do. I wonder where the Good News is in all of this. Have we, like Herod, missed our opportunity for grace? Are our hearts irretrievably hardened?

And then I remember. This story didn’t end with Salome’s final movements as she reached to take the platter from the soldier’s hands and turned to give it to her mother. There was one more action.

When the disciples heard about it, they came and took his body, and laid it in a tomb.” Where have we heard words like this before?

Friends, HERE is the Good News of this nightmare. This entire story points to resurrection and healing. Out of the nightmare of the tomb emerges the quiet echo of words of Jesus’ resurrection—a foreshadowing of Easter joy. It is a joy that prevails in spite of human frailty.

And today we see similar signs of resurrection hope in the face of tragedy. We see it in the wonderful photo of Bree Newsome who climbed a flagpole on the Statehouse grounds in Columbia, South Carolina and took down the Confederate battle flag. And the white woman, a descendent of Jefferson Davis, whose impassioned speech in the S.C. House terminated all last-minute efforts at delay and resulted in the permanent removal of the flag this past Friday afternoon. Now there are two women who are catalysts. We see it in St. Louis, Missouri– Christ Church Cathedral’s response to a spate of black church burnings with the interfaith Rebuild the Churches Fund. There is an agent of resurrection. We see it in our own diocese with the effort to establish a museum on the slave trade and center for reconciliation at the Cathedral of St. John. There is our own diocese, in collusion with Hope. And we see it in the wider church; the same church whose 17th Presiding Bishop was a descendent of slave traders, electing an African American as its 27th Presiding Bishop. Resurrection indeed.

But resurrection is not synonymous with rest. The nightmare is an invitation, but once we understand its call—its challenge, we need to pay attention. We cannot let our newfound understanding rob this story of its power to disturb us.

“When [Herod] heard him, he was greatly perplexed; and yet he liked to listen to him.”Amen.

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The Chasm of the Unrequited

There is a deep chasm that lies between being sent and being received. Like the Grand Canyon, there is a huge contrast between the surface, which presents an unbridgeable span, and the base or floor, which is narrow and winding, across which a bridge can be made.images-5

The visual metaphor of the Grand Canyon offers an image for an emotional and spiritual chasm within us. We find in the readings for Pentecost VI the echoes of that experience, an experience of the particular vulnerability we name as the unrequited

The unrequited spans the experience between being sent and being received. For some of us, most of the time, and for all of us, some of the time, the fear of feeling unrequited prevents us from taking the risks we need to take in order to plumb the depth of the chasm. For further down, near the fecund floor there is a span that is narrow enough to bridge our fear of emotional vulnerability lying between being sent and being received.

Even God it seems has the experience of the unrequited. Time and again throughout the long history of a relationship with humanity, which for God appears to be a slow torture, the possibility of bridging the experience we name as unrequited is always held out as a possibility, a risk worth taking or in the memorable words of the divine Miss M: It’s the heart afraid of breaking, That never learns to dance.


God invites and yearns for our response. In addressing Ezekiel, God declares:

Whether they hear or refuse to hear (for they are a rebellious house), they shall know that there has been a prophet among them. 

Ezekiel, like all the prophets before and after is the one taken from among us, who embodies God’s risking – spanning the chasm of the unrequited in the relationship God invites us into and from which we pull back.

In his second letter to the Christians at Corinth, a city that ranked among the big apples of the Graeco-Roman world, Paul wears upon his sleeve his unrequited experience. He plumbs the depths of this chasm to discover a space narrow enough to bridge the span. In the paradoxical relationship between weakness and strength, which at the surface of the chasm appear in their polarity to be so far apart, Paul discovers nearer the chasm floor, that they are more like the two sides of the same coin – strength is weakness and weakness is strength. This is quite a risk to take in a culture where it’s only strength, particularly the strength of authority and leadership that is respected. The human dilemma, then and now, is that we long for strong leadership when it’s leadership strong enough to show vulnerability we really are in need of. The nature of this vulnerability is to let others see that we too can be hurt and still continue onwards.

It is Mark, who through the plain-speaking of his gospel offers us a glimpse of Jesus struggling with his experience of the unrequited. In the face of his neighbors insult to him: is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary …. and they took offense at him – Jesus is dumbfounded by – at a loss to explain their hostility. In Matthew the townsfolk exclaim: is this not Joseph’s son who’s mother is Mary? Matthew excises the reference to illegitimacy that Mark seems to feel is important to keep in. Yet, even in Matthew his neighbors take offense at him. Luke omits any reference to Jesus’ lineage, legitimate or otherwise, but has the townsfolk move beyond taking offense to attempting his murder.

Jesus’ response to what must have been a deeply painful experience of the unrequited, is to send his disciples out into the world. He sends them out, in effect saying: go out and risk being vulnerable – take only a staff, no bread, no money, only sandals and one tunic, and go and stay where you are received and where not, take your leave shaking the dust from your feet. As he himself is doing, Jesus instructs his disciples to go out and risk being vulnerable, armed only with the message of healing for a world that is broken.

Last night, I watched Bishop Michael Curry’s charge for the Episcopal Church to go out into the world with the message of the gospel as a healing for a world that is broken. Bishop Curry was elected in these last days as the next Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church. I then watched President Obama’s message of grace, amazing grace in a broken world, delivered at the funeral eulogy for the Rev. State Senator Clementa Pinckney.

Viewing these two men, back to back on Youtube, each the first African American to hold their respective offices, brought home for me the reality that it is through our experience of vulnerability in the face of perceived weakness that makes us fearful of the chasm of the unrequited. Like, Ezekiel, Paul, and Jesus, I heard bishop and president find the courage to risk plumbing the depth of the chasm, to risk the experience of the unrequited, there to discover God’s bridging of the chasm, not at its wide surface but nearer the floor, which remember is often a long way down from our preference to loiter at the surface, fearfully fixed upon our own self-protection.

The President reminded us on the eve of the celebration of the Forth of July, that we are plagued by our ignorance of history, and more significantly, that we are ignorant of one another’s histories. The President quoted the hymn Amazing Grace, the song of repentance of a former slave ship captain, no longer fleeing from his own history images-6

John Newton through his conversion and life-long repentance thereby embraced the call to live as one who is sent, regardless of the risk of not being received. For Barack Obama, in John Newton’s words there is clearly a personal poignancy combined with something Bishop Curry must also know well, the poignancy of being found by God despite rejection based on race.

Bishop Curry cited Julia Ward Howe’s words in what has come to be known as the Battle Hymn of the Republic. He took poetic license with her lyrics in order to amplify the meaning of his charge to the Church to go forth in the faith: that as Jesus died to make men holy, let us live to make all free, while God is marching on.

Whether it’s 1776, 1865, 1965, or 2015, the lesson of being sent and not received, which at each point is so painfully learned, seems to have to be relearned over and over again. Freud noted that what we can no longer remember we are destined to repeat.

When we’ve been there ten thousand years,
Bright shining as the sun,
We’ve no less days to sing God’s praise                                                                 than when we’d first begun.

One history   Another history 

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