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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If I had a Hammer …..(Pete Seeger)

Part I

spiralSpiral Dynamics  is a tool for the analysis of the stages of societal evolution. The key concept is that human societies evolve through stages of development ranging from primitive subsistence to spiritually progressive systems. This, in itself, is not so remarkable an idea, but Spiral Dynamics offers us a very clear picture of what societal developmental stages, or memes, look like.

Each meme has an associated color and set of characteristics. Don Beck, it’s principal inventor draws on Ken Wilber’s theory of holographic – integral development. The key concept here is that development occurs in stages with each successive stage and expansion and inclusion of the previous stage. The characteristics of the previous stage or meme remain present in latent, form within the new expansion. By contrast, a hierarchical concept of development relies on each successive stage replacing and leaving behind previous stages.

In contemporary society, we are still largely wedded to hierarchical notions of development. This affects both our views of society as well as how we envisage our own personal social and emotional development at the individual level. This helps explain why we are so surprised to find elements of social and personal development, long since relegated to the past reemerging to ambush us.

Racism is a good example. Since the Civil Rights Movement, we have come to believe that American Society has made huge strides in eradicating the scourge of racism. Consequently, we are deeply shocked to discover that it is alive and still violently, kicking hard.

The Spiral Dynamic analysis helps to show how the characteristics of earlier memes of societal evolution continue to be retained within successive stages that appear to have moved beyond the limits of the previous stages. In fact, the transition to the next stage occurs when the social momentum breaks free of its hitherto constraints. This is not driven by the conscious choice of society members, but by the necessity of meeting new and different challenges.

In 21st America, the legacy of a slave-owning society continues within our national DNA even though we are no longer a slave-owning society. The very notion of owning another human being is incomprehensible and repugnant to us because our society has evolved beyond the key characteristics and values of a society, which at an earlier meme of development was dependent upon slavery as its primary economic mode of production. Yet, the patterns of discrimination and oppression that characterize the distinctions between owned and owner classes remain, latent within our collective unconsious. They continue underground, out of sight as it were, becoming located in subgroups within the larger society that still cling to the values and world views that originate in a slave-owning society.

Discrimination and attitudes based on race are complex. Some of it is an expression of an ethnic fear of those who are different. However, in contemporary America, we are finding that the most intractable racial tensions continue to complicate relations between a majority and the descendants of the formerly, enslaved section of the population. Slavery has gone, yet the systemic hostility remains. Only now, it is enacted through public policing and the criminal justice system. We are awakening to this sorry truth once again, that, that which we thought we had left behind- a hierarchical view of development – continues to remain uncomfortably present even though it remains in tension with the larger direction of our society’s development.

In the face of new challenges, as societies are pressured into more evolved social structures designed to better meet those challenges, the previous meme values continue to exercise a destabilizing effect through sub-groups who for whatever reason remain in tension with the necessity for new directions.

Part II

I remarked last week that we seem riveted by the unfolding stories that come to us in the lectionary readings from the 1st and 2nd books of Samuel. The book – one book later divided into two – of the prophet Samuel belongs to a genre of literature in the Old Testament known as the historical books, which comprise a major category in the Old Testament, 12 books in all. In Samuel 1 and 2 we see Israelite society hovering around, and finally achieving the transition from a confederation of tribes to that of a nation – from purple/red to blue memes in Spiral Dynamic terms.

Samuel himself, represents the passing of religious authority from priest to prophet giving Samuel an authority not seen since the days of Moses. Yet, politically, Samuel is the last of the Judges, those who since Joshua have loosely presided over the tribal confederation. The people confront Samuel with the demand that he gives them a king like the other nations. The demands of expansion and meeting new challenges require a new and more centrally organized form of government to enable the Israelite tribes to be more effective in war, against neighbors already organized as nations, led by kings.

Saul is the first king, but things don’t go well under Saul and in punishment for his disobedience in not slaughtering the whole of the Amalekite people, as God seems to have required, God withdraws his mandate from Saul. God instructs Samuel to anoint the shepherd boy David in place of Saul. Saul does not abdicate immediately and some years pass with Saul, insecurely holding onto power while David is the secretly anointed one to replace him. During these years of tension, when Saul tries a number of times to kill David, Saul’s son and heir, Jonathan, gives undying fealty to David, recognizing him as the anointed king in waiting.

David goes on the succeed Saul and becomes the king who unifies the Israelites into a formidable kingdom that becomes a major center of power along the corridor that buffers the great empires of Egypt from Assyria.

In the reading for fifth Sunday of Pentecost, David learns of Saul and Jonathan’s deaths. Jonathan is killed in battle against the Philistines and Saul is mortally wounded. The messenger who brings the news to David claims to be the one – incidentally an Amalekite – who at Saul’s pleading has dispatched Saul to prevent him being captured alive by the Philistines. David’s response to the news of the deaths of Saul and Jonathan is to compose one of the great love eulogies of all time in the form of a psalm of praise and devotion. David’s psalm is an ode to the love between men. Although he seems to equally praise and mourn both Saul his adversary, and Jonathan his friend, it’s Jonathan for whom he mourns.

It is clear from the numerous attempts of commentators over the centuries to deny any homosexual inference in the love that David openly declares for Jonathan, that to be Shakespearean about it: me thinks they protest too much! The anxiety has been how to interpret this love poem as merely fraternal and not also, connubial.images-2David makes it clear that his and Jonathan’s love is connubial, not in the technical sense of being married, but in the natural sense of the feelings between them -they clearly are an emotionally bonded couple and there is something of carnal passion being given voice to here, alongside that of covenanted friendship.

Contemporary liberal commentators no longer deny outrightly at least, the possibility of a homosexual relationship between David and Jonathan. But most continue to take refuge in the suggestion that to say so is an inappropriate reading of contemporary relationality into David’s eulogy to the love of his friend. In contrast, Bruce Gerig is indicative of a growing body of commentators who no longer seek to deny the homosexual nature of the love between David and Jonathan.

I take the view that the love between David and Jonathan is homosexual in nature. However, in asserting so I am not reading a modern construction of gayness back in time. That would be an inappropriate anachronism.  David and Jonathan were not gay in the sense that I am gay.

Gayness is a contemporary construction of homosexuality that understands this to be a normal and natural position on the continuum of sexual object choice. The love between David and Jonathan is the sexually charged love common in intensely patriarchal-warrior cultures, evidenced in such cultures as diverse as those of Classical Greece and Samurai Japan. Deep blue water separates traditional tribal- warrior cultures, with a discrete tolerance for men having sex with men as an aspect of essential male bonding, and our contemporary construction of gayness. Each belongs to a particular stage or meme of societal evolution and should not become confused.

Part III

This week the Supreme Court of the United States recognized something of the distinction I am drawing. I doubt the decision extending same gendered marriage across the Union was informed by a reading of Spiral Dynamics. However, their decision is an implicit endorsement of the notion that societies evolve in an attempt to meet new challenges posed by changing ideas.

In essence, this noninterventionist court has in the course of a couple of days delivered two interventionist decisions as a recognition that the spirit of the law is as important as its letter, and that the face value of words of legislation cannot be used to confound the manifest intention of the legislators. In the separate rulings of on the Affordable Care Act and same gendered marriage, the court has upheld the presumption of equality for all before the law. In the case of the AFCA, the presumption can be inferred not in the letter of the law, but in the clear intention of the legislation as manifest in the Act as a whole. Their ruling on same gendered marriage enunciates a different approach. We know that the Founders did not have black men, or women, or homosexual persons in mind when they enshrined that:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.

We know that they could not have conceived of a same gendered marriage or of a natural homosexual state. Yet, the spirit of the statement is clear and cannot be limited by the meme – the stage of societal and cultural evolution of 18th century America.

The integrity of both the Bible and the US Constitution lies in their capacity to remain true within the ever-changing context of a society evolving in the face of new challenges and changing circumstances. Like the Bible, the Constitution (at least until it is replaced by another) exists to guide the nation through the ever changing tides of time. It cannot guide the nation to meet new challenges if its interpretation is enshrined within the understandings of a previous age.

Like Israel in the time of Samuel and David, America faces new and unheralded challenges posed by a revolution in social attitudes in the arena of sexual identity. The privilege of states rights in the area of defining marriage cannot remain an obstacle, to the equal treatment of all across the Union.

Our history reveals that God speaks most clearly to us through the separation of church and state. The gospel of inclusion, freedom from discrimination, and equality of all before the law, often so seldom heard in the church is now ringing loud and clear throughout the land.

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Love and Hate

Societies in transition

For the last few Sundays I have been struck by the look of rapt attention on people’s faces as they listen to the saga of transition and change taking place in ancient Israel reported in the first book of Samuel. Encapsulated in the stories of the call of Samuel and the anointing of Saul and then David as the first Kings over Israel, we see a major societal shift taking place. Joshua and the succession of Judges who followed him had perpetuated the social and religious structure established by Moses and Aaron. In 1st Samuel, we see these giving way. Underneath the content of the storyline, we perceive a shift in religious authority from the hereditary priesthood represented by Eli and his corrupt sons to the divinely called prophet Samuel. Politically, the rule of the Judges is also giving way to the demands of the people to have a king who will like the kings of the surrounding nations lead them into war. It’s like Game of Thrones has come to church. The stories in first Samuel have hope, intrigue, treachery, jealousy, lust, and murder. They also evoke in us something nostalgic. God is all-powerful, and so are his anointed ones, both prophet, and king.

From story to reality

It’s great to have a bird’s eye view of someone else’s societal transitions. It’s quite another to live through our own. We are currently living through the chaos resulting from the disintegration of the pillars of our past. We face with equal measures of hope and fear, a future frighteningly slow in emerging while the security of the past slips away with increasing velocity.

It’s one thing to awaken to the news of yet another suicide bombing killing and maiming worshipers in a Shia Mosque in Syria or Iraq. It’s another thing to hear of yet another Christian Church bombed in Egypt or Pakistan. We hear daily of the plight of Christians, Yazidi’s and Shia Muslims in ISIL held territory. Now, once again we awake to news of yet another mass shooting in America, this time not at a political meeting in a supermarket car park, not in a school nor a cinema. The killings this week took place in a church, and a black church to be specific. It’s not religion, but race, that forms the focus for this expression of hatred.

Painful reality doubling down

It’s tempting to join the avalanche of political, social, and religious speculation on this tragedy. As usual the label of mental illness is being ascribed to Dylaan Roof, the gun-wielding perpetrator of this crime. Why? Is this not our collusion in another form of major social stigmatizing? When we apply psychiatric labels to explain the inexplicable, when we rush to see Roof as mentally ill, what does this say to our husbands and wives, our sons and daughters, our brothers and sisters, and our neighbors who daily struggle with mental illness? Persons whose experience goes someway to being explained by a psychiatric diagnosis of mental illness do not engage in premeditated mass shootings. Struggling with a bi-polar affective disorder, schizophrenia, or others form of psychosis does not induce someone to go out and with premeditation commit multiple slayings.

The source of the impulses for such blatant disregard for the lives of others lies in the disturbances not of the mind but the heart. We might see Roof as psychopathic, but the term is a misnomer. In this instance what chills us about Roof’s behavior has nothing to do with the psyche and everything to do with the heart. Through his action we see in Roof’s heart the absence of a capacity for love – love in the form of a capacity for empathy. The disturbances that distort moral character and induce people to perpetrate psychopathic acts are rooted in a disruption in normal personality – character development.

My guess is that Dylaan Roof struggles with the failure of ego formation that underpins healthy character formation. His monstrous action communicates an insecure man who craves the form of recognition that comes with mass notoriety. The revulsion of most and the admiration of a few are all the same to him. The only explanation of his actions is that he is a man whose character distortion renders him vulnerable to the extreme impulses of hatred because, in the absence of love, hate substitutes a sense of meaning and purpose.

How does this come about? In early infant development, we all negotiate the tension created by feeling both love and hate. Hate for the infant comes in the form of frustration of omnipotent needs. Hunger for an infant produces not only a sense of love for the breast that will feed it, but also a desire to devour the breast whose absence frustrates the need to be fed. The delay between feeling hungry and being fed becomes filled with rage.

The important developmental milestone is reached when the infant has developed enough mental capacity to connect its loving and hating impulses. This is the stage at which guilt emerges. Guilt is the healthiest of psycho-developmental milestones because it represents the capacity of the infant to realize that its raging desire to devour the breast endangers the very breast it needs to preserve through love.

When we realize that our hatred damages the very thing we love, we move into a capacity for relationship base on an experience of the triumph of loving over hating.

The Second Amendment bestows the right to keep and bear arms. Currently, the Supreme Court majority holds to a doctrine that words mean what on the face of them they say. But words always occur in context, and context shapes meaning. This raises the thorny question as to the mind of the framers of the Second Amendment?

The context for the framers of the Second Amendment was that of having recently fought a bloody war in defense of their rights as Englishmen against the encroachment of royal power. The Second Amendment draws inspiration from the British Bill of Rights of 1689, which had a mere 100 years before enshrined the ancient Common Law right for Englishman to bear arms. The framers of the Second Amendment, steeped in the Common Law would have probably shared the view of the great English jurist Sir William Blackstone who described the right to bear arms as auxiliary, supporting the natural right to self-defense, resistance to oppression, and a civic duty to act in concert for the defense of the state.

The right to bear arms while having a self-defense element, especially on the frontier, had as its main aim the equipping and maintenance of citizen militias to resist government oppression whether domestic or foreign. The right to bear arms with its emphasis on protection of the common good by equipping the citizenry to act in concert – co-operative action- in defense of their liberties is not the same thing as a right of an individual, in a society distorted by the notion of competing individualisms, to own a gun as a precaution against a prevailing and largely imaginary fear of one’s neighbor.

What has the action of Dylaan Roof to do with the Second Amendment? On the face of it, very little. The Second Amendment does not give him the right to do what he did, nor does it defend his actions. The absence of a general right to bear arms would probably have not deterred this extremist from obtaining a weapon. In a culture where the truth of something is determined by tracing a sequence of cause and effect, the general right to bear arms did not cause the deaths in Emmanuel AME Church. Truth however is more than the end result of a traceable sequence of cause and effect. It’s not the possession of guns that is at issue, it’s our attitude to the possession of guns and what this says about the kind of society we seem to be rapidly regressing to.

America in transition

America is no longer a society that approaches the future with a sense of hope and the assumption that things are only going to get better and better. For many the future is a place of fear and anxiety. We have every reason to assume that the future is a place that is likely to be worse than the past when viewed from the perspective of how people feel. Our society is changing and whether merely a perception or not, many feel that it is not changing for the better, either domestically or internationally.

We are in the midst of a huge societal transition not seen since the industrial revolution at the turn of the 18 and 19th Centuries. It’s not only the structures supporting the fabric of civil society that seem to be in transition. We are in the midst of a communications revolution that is bringing about a profound change in the way people communicate and think about common space. A world where communication required one to one contact has been replaced by a world of the virtual. The world of virtual relationality is having a profound effect on psychological, social, and moral development of the young. We live in a world where greater capacity for interconnection leads more and more to our individual isolation from one another. Human being have a need for intimacy. The experience of intimacy or its lack shapes us in particular directions. The consequences of this we are only beginning to become afraid of.

As we move forward to greater virtual connectivity and interdependency, ancient fear based enmities erupt from the collective unconscious where we thought they had been permanently banished. In a supranational world, the fears of difference that characterized our tribal histories, nationalism, racism, and age old ethic and identity phobias, become vehicles for constellating fear into hate. Everyday, everywhere the news from both nation and world affirm this sorry fact.

Ours is a society going through the agonized uncertainties of transition. Race, gender, and sexual identity are the three elements around which hatred constellates. These constellations, for those with severe disturbances of character, become vehicles for identification with something greater than their limited sense of self. Our contemporary litany is God deliver us not from war, pestilence, or famine, but from those whose disordered characters endanger others. What we would traditionally refer to as the presence of evil finds space in the hearts of those who have no experience of love being stronger than hate. An inability to experience the power of love to preserve the very same objects they also hate renders such people a danger to others.

Is love really stronger than hate?

Suffering is inevitable. Complete avoidance of suffering or calamity is not possible. St Paul in his second letter to the Corinthians is pouring out his heart in the Epistle for Pentecost 4.

but as servants of God we have commended ourselves in every way: through great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities,5beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger; 6by purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, holiness of spirit, genuine love,7truthful speech, and the power of God; with the weapons of righteousness for the right hand and for the left; 8in honor and dishonor, in ill repute and good repute. We are treated as impostors, and yet are true; 9as unknown, and yet are well known; as dying, and see—we are alive; as punished, and yet not killed; 10as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything. 

If we measure the quality of life by the absence of suffering then we have missed the point. Often it’s through suffering that the vitality of living shines. Whatever happens we must not lose heart, becoming embalmed in a cocoon of fear. We have a choice. We can live in fear or live in hope. As I face my own fears for the future, as I struggle to process the pain of inexplicable tragedy, I am reminded the choice is mine – to live from fear or to live in hope. Put this way, I am reminded by my fears that I have no other choice than to live from hope. The consequences of not doing so are too terrible to contemplate.

We saw this approach to living in action on Friday when through telelink to the arraignment of Dylaan Roof, the relatives of the slain wanted him to know that they forgave him. At first sight, this strikes many of us as a little contrived. How can they feel this way, we ask? Maybe, this is not how they feel after all they are human. However, it seems to be what they believe, for after being human they are Christian.

They expect Dylaan Roof to be held accountable for full gravity of his action. Their forgiveness is not for him, it’s for themselves. The loved ones of the slain, are putting down their marker as they shoot their arrows of hope towards the future. In them, love is stronger than hate.

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St Martin’s, Sunday Pentecost 3, Preacher – Linda Griggs

The St Martin’s sermon link site takes you to this blog address. Therefore, from time to time to time I will post sermon contributions from other preachers at St Martin’s. This last Sunday, Linda Griggs, St Martin’s Director of Christian Formation delivered the sermon below.

My mother once told me that if you want to keep a baby occupied and quiet, just give her a long piece of scotch tape. It will keep her busy for hours as she puzzles with it, getting it wrapped around her fingers, peeling and sticking it from one hand to another.

I have no memory of my mother actually doing this, Thank God. But I never fail to think of this image of concentration and puzzling when I begin to ponder the parables of Jesus. There are days when I think that Parable Wrestling should be classified as an Olympic sport.

“Parable” is a term that has come to specifically connote many of the teachings of Jesus; comparing difficult concepts to everyday images so that they (ideally) would be easier to comprehend. Yet while the images of God, or the Kingdom, are given more concrete form as Jesus speaks of shepherds and sheep, or farmers sowing seed, or houses built on sand or bedrock, they are not always a whole lot clearer for being made more tangible. If they were, there probably wouldn’t have been endless commentaries from countless points of view written about them over the centuries.

It was in a New Testament class that I first heard the word, “parabolic” used in the context of Biblical scholarship. Prior to that I’d only known of it from geometry class, describing a kind of curve.

When Professor Collins said that, it was as though she had just given me a big piece of sticky tape: I couldn’t stop wondering, how could Jesus’ teachings and the study of geometry be related?

But it does make sense when you think about what parables do. First, think about a parabolic mirror, microphone, or antenna. They’re specifically shaped for the purpose of focusing radio, light, or sound waves. In the same way Jesus was trying to focus his hearers on concepts that were difficult to grasp. Second, if you look at a parabola and the way it curves, you start out in one place, and following the curve you will never return to the same place. Jesus’ teachings were intended to take us to a different place—getting us to see things from a different perspective. Parables are an invitation to a journey of change.

Our Gospel today invites us into a world that is in some ways familiar to us; a world of tension, mystery and promise.

The author of Mark probably wrote just after the middle of the first century, between 60 and 70 AD, during the reign of the Emperor Nero. It was a time of fear and persecution for early Christians. The followers of The Way, as they were called, risked their lives to practice their faith—even using the clandestine symbol of the fish to identify each other nonverbally: The image could be easily drawn with a stick on the ground and then quickly erased with a shuffle of feet if someone suspicious came along. This secrecy, this fear of the authorities, shows how Christianity was countercultural in this period—all the way into the fourth century.

The author of Mark reflected these tensions in his work. For example, he uses the word, “immediately”—or the alternative translation, “at once” all the time—no one saunters or moseys in this Gospel—everybody moves with alacrity—boom, boom, Boom! This sense of urgency reflects a pervasive tension throughout the entire narrative. Tension in Mark’s world; tension in Mark’s gospel.

We see this tension specifically in today’s passage when we look at its context within the fourth chapter narrative as a whole. These parables about seeds and farming and soil and dirt that we hear today are actually sandwiched between descriptions of Jesus on the water.

In the beginning of the chapter Jesus is so pressed by the crowds at the Sea of Galilee that he is forced to get into a boat and teach from there. So we see this sharp juxtaposition of Jesus forced into a boat, where it sits bobbing gently offshore, fish swimming below, seagulls crying above, as he tells stories about farming and sowing and harvesting. And then at the end of the chapter, on the other side of this scriptural ‘sandwich’, Jesus decides to take that boat to the other side of the Sea, a journey that results in a violent storm that Jesus calms after being roused from a sound sleep by his terrified disciples, who he then rebukes for having too little faith.

Sea versus land. Calm versus storm. Faith versus fear. Tension, tension, tension.

And mystery. Even using the most concrete imagery, many parables end up being murky and mind-stretching. There is a pervading sense of hidden or secret knowledge in Mark’s Gospel, knowledge available to only a few insiders. Jesus explained the meaning of his parables in private to the disciples, leaving everyone else to wrestle with the images by themselves, “as they were able to hear it.”

The first parable we heard today describes the eternal mystery–of life itself: “the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain…” The farmer need do nothing until the harvest, and then he “at once”—immediately—springs into action with the sickle.

How do we compare this to the Kingdom? Is this a portrayal of the boundless and effortless grace of God, which comes to us, sprouting, growing and yielding without any effort on our own part? Is the Kingdom a place of rest and trust, which is in contrast with our usual need to give God instructions about matters that belong in God’s hands?

Or should we look deeper still? Taken by itself this image of grace is gratifying and comforting. But what of the harvest? Is God the farmer who wields a sickle of judgment? Perhaps. Or are we the farmers, called to a harvest of fruits of compassion, reconciliation and justice that we have been called to sow?

Is this vision of the Kingdom meant for the distant future, or right now, or both, now and not yet? There is more than one mystery here, and there are many, many possible answers. And how we see them and wrestle with them is woven in with our own tensions and perspectives as individuals and as a community.

And with these mysteries come promise; the promise of the mustard seed. “The smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.” This simple contrast of small and large offers the comfort of knowing that our smallest efforts, our smallest selves, even, can grow prodigiously into something wondrous. Even the most miniscule effort that we expend is a dense package of Kingdom Potential. That’s the promise.

But wait, there’s more! The tiny seeds of the Kingdom are here right now—waiting to grow—in God’s own time—into—what? What Mark describesis not a grand and statuesque oak or beech tree, but a shrub. A great weedy shrub.

A bush. When I read this image I can’t help but think of the huge azaleas in my backyard near the birdfeeder, fairly vibrating with life and energy from all the sparrows, jays, titmice, cardinals, finches, chipmunks and squirrels flitting and scampering around in there. A shrub. A raucous, joyous, song-filled inclusive sanctuary: That’s the Kingdom of God. That’s the promise.

So given all of this, what does our parabolic journey look like, then? We need to begin at a point where we acknowledge our context of tension. We have our own tensions of competing priorities and values, compounded with the added tensionsof whatever burdens or brokenness that we carry.

And then there are the cultural/political tensions of life in our society and world. We find that going to Church is increasingly countercultural. Many things compete for our Sunday time. It often seems to be a luxury to attend to our spiritual well-being/formation with the same level of discipline that we apply to our physical, intellectual or financial well-being. It is vitally important to understand that all of these things are connected! Our spiritual well-being can be a point of parabolic focus for all of the other well-beings in our lives. Our acknowledging of this tension—this need—(this yearning? ) for focus—becomes the beginning point of the journey.

From there we can engage the mystery. Who are we? Whose are we? What is our calling? What is our relationship to God and Creation? How do we live out our Baptismal Covenant to worship, repent, proclaim the Good News and respect the dignity of every human being? How do we live a Christ-like life and model it for the next generations? What should we pray for? Why do we pray?

These questions are just an tiny example of the bountiful harvest of mystery waiting for us, and we need to be ready with the sickle of our questions, doubts and uncertainties. The answers are important, but not necessarily the main objective. The best answers are the ones that lead to more questions. Live them. Engage the mystery.

And that engagement—that mystery—is the seed of promise; that dense package of Kingdom Potential that God invites us to tend and nurture in ourselves, in our children and in our communities.

God gives the growth.

“The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground,  and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how.

Amen.

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Family Scandal

The Text observed

Both Jesus and his message seem to have lost the power to disturb us. So like eavesdroppers on someone else’s conversation, like onlookers in someone else’s drama, we fail to comprehend the truly shocking picture that Mark, alone among the gospel writers, paints for us in chapter 3:20-35. Mark, like Jesus, does not mince his words.

Following his baptism Jesus has been touring the countryside healing and preaching. His healings are not the 1st century equivalent of Medecins Sans Frontieres or Doctors Without Borders. Jesus’ healings are not about healthcare to the poor. Jesus healings are radical actions that reveal God’s head-on confrontation with a society that enshrines religion and social convention as mechanisms to privilege power and exclusion.

In Jesus, God confronts and affronts us. Because of the domestication of Jesus and his message, by which I mean the prevailing image of Jesus as a 1950’s, white, middle class, suburban-values American, we no longer have to fear his message or be disturbed by his actions.

In today’s episode

Jesus comes home again and you could cut the tensions with a knife. Bodies crush images-3together like fans at a rock concert. The density is such that no one has even enough room to lift their arms to pass food from hand to mouth. The intensity of the atmosphere electrifies the crowds as they witness Jesus’ condemnation at the hand of the religious authorities and his skillful rejoinders.

What we are seeing in these early chapters of Mark is the agents of authority, so disturbed by Jesus’ message and outrageous behavior, struggle to neutralize him. Their line of attack is to declare him bad with accusations of demonic, alliance, of being in league with Satan.

It’s not just the authorities that Jesus disturbs – they seek to characterize him as bad, i.e. demonic. Even those who know him intimately, his family, now seek to restrain him, drag him home and silence him by locking him in a back room somewhere. They want to characterize him as mad. Family honor is at stake and in tribal, patriarchal cultures the preservation of family honor is a killing matter.

Mark has no birth narrative. Unlike Matthew and Luke, in Mark there is no happy images-2holy family presented as a parody of a modern nuclear family, blissfully living quiet and industrious lives in Nazareth out of the limelight of events. The only time Mark mentions Jesus’ family is here, and they do not present very well.

The image of Jesus’ family here is one of a clan, angry at the dishonor their wayward son is bringing upon them. So shocking is the picture Mark paints of Jesus family wanting to restrain him because he is mad that both Matthew and Luke expunge this part of the story. So shocking is this picture of family that the King James Version translates chapter 20 as: and when his friends heard it, they went out to lay hold on him: for they said, He is beside himself. His family’s concern for its honor and fear of shame become watered down to his friends concern for his well-being.

It’s bad enough that Jesus confronts the religious mores of his society by profaning the Sabbath, either by healing the sick or allowing his disciples to gather grain. He now confronts the central tenet of traditional society articulated in the cry: blood is thicker than water. His family members, who in verse 20 are prevented by the crush from restraining and carting him away, now make a second attempt. Again they can’t get near him and so send a message to him telling him that his mother and brothers are outside waiting. Jesus could have ignored their message. He could have told them to go away and leave him alone. He does neither. Instead, he challenges the assumption that blood is thicker than water. Jesus challenges blood as the sole definition for the family. The concept of family is not primarily a matter of blood, says Jesus. Family, emerges whenever persons become related to one another when the sharing of purpose and solidarity of action make expectations of God’s Kingdom a reality!

Families 

Church is big on emphasizing the importance of family. In a way that’s one of its historical functions when viewed from the perspective of the Church as the protector of social structures that ensure order and stability.  Despite attempts to pretend otherwise, the concept of family is a continually contested notion that lies at the heart of the tension between Church as a societal agent and Church as the embodiment of the Kingdom of God.

As we move further into the 21st century the old 20th century structures of civil society represented by the institutions of government sponsored welfare, public education, equal access to legal redress, and Church as a privatized incubator of personal moral values, are all fracturing. A new embodiment of the civil society is emerging. As it evolves the Church becomes embroiled in what we call the culture images-4wars, because the Church finds itself both advocate and adversary in the process of social change. There is no area more exciting or contentious, depending on point of view, as we begin to allow for a variety of different experiences of what it means to be family.

I am a parish priest serving a parish that consciously called a married gay man to be its 12th rector. The demographics of our parish comprise a strong representation among the 60+ age range alongside a burgeoning group of parents with young families, and not much in between – at least not yet. Among the young families most if not all comprise a man and a woman living in conventional married relationship.

Christian formation

June 7th is our end of year graduation and certificate awards in Kidzone, our educational program for K through grade 4. We are a family friendly church with every intention in the coming year of further strengthening that identity through increasing the place of musical education for children as part of our formation of the young. It’s fairly obvious to most of us what it means to be a community of families. It’s much less obvious to us what the path to becoming a community family, looks like.

Formation into community

This year we formed a program for linking kids and older adults in prayer partnerships. It was modestly successful. Most people I suspect think this a nice idea, but I wonder how many really understand how important this program is for the formation of our parish into a community family of extended relationships of substance?

For me, a parish that is friendly to the nuclear family is a community that provides for some, often very good spiritual formation of the young. This is the familiar 20th century role for the Church and the results seem to be that kids come to identify being a member of the Church as something they do when young but inevitably grow out of as part of the natural course of things. This early formation might mean that as adult parents they return to the Church because they want their children to repeat the experience. Among our 50+ aged members having raised their children in the Church most are left scratching their heads over why this seems to have had no effect on the next generation’s identification with Church.

Now the conventional answer is that the Church has failed at being interesting or arresting enough for the young as they enter into their early adult years. However this is not an answer, at most it might be a useful observation. The unanswered question is how has the Church failed and what has it failed at?

My stab at an answer to the what is to say that the Church is failing to move its members beyond the 20th century model of privatized spiritual formation for individual nuclear families. The answer to the how is that message accompanying the spiritual formation of the young is that spiritual formation is only for the young and not something ongoing for their parents. Kids seem to notice this disparity.

This shifts the focus for me away from the relatively unproblematic spiritual nurturance of the young to the more challenging need for spiritual nurturance of adults. Such life long nurturance has to go deeper than the Episcopalian love for didactic Bible study and intellectually challenging seminars held at a time of day least available to adults with young children.

They say it takes a village to raise a child. A 21st century vision is of a village needs to move beyond one in which relationships are dictated by blood, clan, or tribe, or the 20th century version of this – a comfortable, common mind.

The 21st century vision of such a village is of a community of spiritually formed persons compelled by a sense of shared purpose and solidarity of action. this seems to be Jesus’ vision of family, as reported by Mark. Community as family, rather than community of families is where water is at least as thick as blood and in many cases may, in the end, be thicker. In such a village, the young will be formed alongside adults being continually re-formed into a community where the Christian faith disturbs our complacent accommodations with the status quo. Might this not prove to be the missing element that much contemporary, family oriented church life is seeking; the intoxication where life-long spiritual formation creates a community capable of making real the expectations of the Kingdom of God.

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Trinity

Jesus said, Whom do men say that I am? And his disciples answered and said, Some say you are John the Baptist returned from the dead; others say Elijah, or other of the old prophets. And Jesus answered and said, But whom do you say that I am? Peter answered and said, “Thou art the Logos, existing in the Father as His rationality and then, by an act of His will, being generated, in consideration of the various functions by which God is related to his creation, but only on the fact that Scripture speaks of a Father, and a Son, and a Holy Spirit, each member of the Trinity being coequal with every other member, and each acting inseparably with and interpenetrating every other member, with only an economic subordination within God, but causing no division which would make the substance no longer simple. “And Jesus answering, said, “What?”

Curious memory

Memories of Trinity Sunday 2014 come to mind as I sit to write about the Trinity for tomorrow’s sermon. It was my first Sunday in the parish having accepted the call to come to St Martin’s just before Easter that year. Trinity Sunday will be forever associated in my memories with the anxieties of new beginnings. Through the haze of half memory, I can still recall my first day at Harewood Primary School, sitting on ‘the mat’ – a large carpet, where in those days children gathered to listen to the teacher, with all the other little kids in Miss Lamb’s primer one (first grade) class. I remember someone pinched my back. I turned round to see the impish grin of one Mark Bradley, beaming back at me.

Jumping forward in time, I remember my university chaplain exclaiming Trinity Sunday – rediculous! How can you celebrate a doctrine as if it’s an event? Although most of us would not put it like this, most of us feel at best ambivalent about the Trinity. As the tongue-in-cheek parody I quoted at the beginning  captures, the Trinity while understood as something of a doctrinal necessity, is not particularly relevant to the increasingly difficult task of believing in the modern world.

Are we not all monotheists now?

Therefore the gobbledygook of three distinct persons in one God, seems to be just that – gobbledygook to the modern mind. So we moderns like to pick and choose in a process of mental slight of hand. One says: for me it’s Jesus, he’s my pal. Another exclaims: for me it’s God the Father, this feels more respectful. And yet another contests: No, no , it’s definitely the Holy Spirit for me, I feel the power.

For the Bishops and theologians of the first four centuries of the Christian era, the wrangling and frequent bloodshed that accompanied their gathering in the great Ecumenical Councils, and which at the First Council of Nicaea in 325 The_Council_of_Nicaeaproduced the doctrine of the Trinity, the task was not to try to explain God’s nature, but to protect it. You see, the first Christians had had this overwhelming experience of God in three distinct contexts. As Jews, they believed in God the creator of the world, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God of Moses, and the Israelites. Yet, through the man Jesus and the events of Easter they had come to experience God in the here and now, first as a human being living among them and then after his death, through an experience of spiritual empowerment, which they associated with the spirit of Jesus returned to earth and active among them, empowering them to continue the work he had begun.

Less is not always more

The Trinity emerges from a bloody period which one writer has referred to as the Jesus Wars. as a way of protecting the relationship between Jesus and God from being streamline the experience of God in one of two directions. The first was to say that Jesus was God masquerading in human form – a distinct godman come down from heaven to live for a while among mortals, much as the classical Gods of antiquity had done. This idea was embraced by the monophysite faction – God as one nature party. The second direction was to say that Jesus was what today we would call an avatar – an exceptionally spiritual human being, but only a human being. God remains God and Jesus, like the later Mohammed was simply his messenger. This faction became known as the Arians, named after their chief proponent, Arius. An astonishingly great amount of blood was shed in pitched street battles and back room assassinations before the official position emerged in the form of the doctrine of God as three persons in one God. Thus the evolution of the experience of God among the first Christians and adherence to the Jewish concept of God as one, not many became reconciled, well sort of.

Perspective from the 21st Century

The demand in each generation is to interpret the Christian Tradition, handed on to us from previous generations so that it empowers us to engage with life as it’s lived, not as it was lived in an imagined previous golden age. For the Christians of the first four centuries, the currency of intellectual thought was Aristotle’s logic. Now the reality today is that few of us use Aristotelean logic to navigate our way through the complexities of life and faith in action. I know some who regret this, but it is as it is. The modern mind has been profoundly shaped by the advance of a psychological worldview.

There is a recognized psychological theory for how our individual identities are also the product of our relationships with others. Our individual identity i.e. who I am is constructed out of a complex dynamic of being in relationship with others. The person I experience myself being is as much a function of how I perceive others viewing me. I catch a glimpse of myself in the face of the other, looking back at me.

andrei--rublev-russian-icons--the-trinity_i-S-61-6179-4K11100Z

Rublev’s famous depiction of the Trinity as three identical persons, lovingly gazing upon one another offers a pictorial metaphor. In Rublev’s depiction of God the Holy Trinity we catch the echo of the conversation we hear God having in Genesis, let us make humanity in our own image. God is not a singular entity, but a relational one.

When we put together the ancient echo in the Genesis record of God’s internal conversation with our current psychologically shaped experience of the fluidity of identity, we arrive at the realization that for us, in our period of history God’s nature takes on a poignantly, relational quality.

Gender distractions

The Tradition of the Trinity ascribed masculine identities to the relational elements – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as he, he. In our own period, it’s important to know that God is not gendered. The importance of the traditional male ascriptions to God lies not in being gendered but relational.  One way to avoid the gendered terms and still retain the relational elements is to see God as Lover, God as also Beloved, and God as Love-Sharer. It’s common to hear Father, Son, and Holy Spirit replaced by creator, redeemer, and sanctifier. The problem here is that these terms denote functions not relationships. It is the relational quality within the community of God that commends itself so powerfully to people living increasingly in a world where relationality, its presence or absence, is the measure of meaning and an indicator of quality of life.

Three folds of the cloth, yet only one napkin is there,
Three joints in the finger, but still only one finger fair,
Three leaves of the shamrock, yet no more than one shamrock to wear,
Frost, snowflakes and ice, all in water their origin share,
Three Persons in God: to one God alone we make our prayer.                                
Celtic prayer to the Trinity.

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With Warm Breast and Ah! Bright Wings

Images

I. The first chapter of Genesis opens upon a huge panorama: In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.

The Hebrew word used for Spirit is the feminine noun Ruach. The Spirit of God carries the pronoun – she.

II. In the 22nd verse in the 8th chapter of his letter to the Romans, Paul offer us the intensely intimate image of the Creation in the travail of giving birth: for we know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now. 

Paul hones this image down even further as he tells us that as we too, continue in labor’s grip, we groan, we pant, and we push, driven by the hope of imminent new birth. In this state of travail, the Holy Spirit, like a midwife comes to our aid, supplying the strength we need to give birth to a new world.

III. For the Evangelist John, as Jesus bids farewell to those he has loved he tells them that: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you. The Advocate provides the energy of truth by which John means the empowerment to live more and more deeply, to grow day-by-day into the profound realization of God’s love for us.

IV. The most popular image for the Day of Pentecost, the 50th day after the Resurrection is given by the Evangelist Luke. Luke constructs a chronology of unfolding events. Incarnation, ministry, death, resurrection, and ascension, all leading to the climactic moment in history when the Holy Spirit descends upon the world. For Luke, the coming of the Holy Spirit marks the point of transition between the ministry of Jesus and its continuance in the life of the Church now impregnated with God’s Holy Spirit.

The 2nd chapter of Luke-Acts opens upon another panorama, this time of Ruach the Spirit of God descending rather than brooding. As in Genesis, the action of the Holy Spirit is depicted through powerful elemental forces of nature, this time of wind and fire.  As modern moviegoers, addicted as we are to special effects, we wonder, some with amazement, others with incredulity, at how this could be?

Luke’s purpose is not to awe us with the pyrotechnics of the latest blockbuster special effects. He wants to draw our attention to the effect upon humanity of the descent of the Spirit. The heat of fire and the noise and rush of wind are metaphors for a new birth, one marked by something very significant – difference no longer a source of division but enrichment.

There is an echo here to the 11th chapter of Genesis that records an example of humanity’s hubris. The people of that day thought they could build a tower tall enough to reach heaven. God frustrated the builders through destroying their ability to communicate in a common language. God says: Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other. On the day of Pentecost, the disciples praise God and all who witness the descent of the Holy Spirit upon them hears them speaking in their own language. The curse of Babel is lifted -difference no longer a source of division but enrichment.

Luke’s theological message is that for human society – born anew as the Church, it is no longer the business as usual of the old order.

Hope and Hopkins

In his poem God’s Grandeur the 19th century English Jesuit and poet Gerard Manley Hopkins proclaims that:

The World is charged with the grandeur of God. It will flame out, like shining from shook foil; It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil – Crushed.

Yet, against the background of this optimistic proclamation Hopkins questions why humanity is so reckless of God’s gift of creation: 

Why do men then now not reck his rod? Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;  And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil and wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: The soil is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

Extending Hopkins’ inquiry I would ask why are we as human beings so fearful of the differences the lie between us?  Our labor pains are marked by the futility of war and the injustice of oppression in which generations have trod, have trod, have trod. We have become insensible to the feel of the earth, increasingly  made barren beneath our shod feetOur social relations are mired: seared with trade, bleared, smeared, with toil sharing man’s smudge. 

We notice that we are not all the same. We notice the obvious differences between us expressed through gender, sexuality, race, culture, and class difference. Such difference becomes emblematic of the differentials of power, privilege, and access to the protection that difference affords to some and denies to others.

The birth of the new Spirit-filled order comes as a challenge to the human propensity to distribute power, unequally. Luke’s vision of the Holy Spirit is of the anima – the feminine energy of new birth, embracing and celebrating the rich diversity of being human. Difference, no longer the source of division becomes the celebration of diversity as the Holy Spirit calms our fear.

God as Holy Spirit is powerfully present in our various communities, but particularly so in the community of the baptized. Each week as spiritually searching people, we negotiate the complexities and pressures of our daily lives. This experience reminds us of something intangible that seems to be lacking in our lives. Our search leads us through a Church door. Initially, we may be somewhat bewildered to find ourselves sitting in the pew of this church; a church for God’s sake, and an Episcopal Church at that, whose liturgy and welcome seem both unfamiliar and wonderful at the same time. This mysterious turn in our lives brings us to return through those doors a second, and a third time. We don’t have to know why we return. Those of us who are seeking God as a source of meaning in our lives intuit that we can be nowhere else.

Luke’s vision of God embracing all kinds of diversity is continually coming true in Church communities of bewildering variety. Genesis presents us with an image of God as Spirit brooding over the abyss of the world calling forth order from chaos, out of which creation is born. Pentecost presents us with an image of God as Spirit now impregnated deep within the human DNA as that longed for God shaped space, or as Hopkins more poignantly says it:

And for all this, nature is never spent; There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;        Rose Window

St Paul phrases it like this: in hope we are saved, but the trick of hope is to have the courage to hope for that as yet unseen. Into the space of the yet to become known, the Holy Spirit pours her power and spreads her balm.

And though the last lights off the black West went   Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs –
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

God’s Grandeur  Gerard Manley Hopkins S.J.

Vada Roseberry’s Creation Window, Trinity Cathedral, Phoenix

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