The Problem with Transcendence

I’ve been to the mountaintop.

Dr Martin Luther King Jr.

The Mountaintop is an Illusion

Joy is an experience of connection, communion, presence, and grace within the ordinariness of our daily experience. Yet, paradoxically, joy is also found in moments of great suffering. Meg Wheatley, a spiritual writer and change consultant with an acute eye to the paradoxical nature of our contemporary experience notes that it is in pursuit of happiness that we estrange ourselves from joy.

She speaks of joy being the same as sadness for both states embrace us with an energy that is beyond the physical. Laughing or crying – it doesn’t matter. This strikes us as paradoxical. We might doubt the truth of the statement until we realize that joy and sadness are both states of self-transcendence. Both open us to a level of experience that takes us beyond the tyranny of the preoccupied self – the self that is preoccupied with itself, confined within a state of profound disenchantment.

Faced with a birth, a wedding, an anniversary – we are captivated by joy. In the face of sickness, a death, a disaster, a tragedy of personal or epic proportions, sorrow and sadness capture us as we suffer with, console, and love one another.

We have two stories of mountaintop experience in the readings for the last Sunday before Lent. These are stories of transcendent – or to use Maslow’s term, peak experience. Peak experience is problematic. The spatial image of the mountain summit works in some ways for us, yet, it feeds an assumption that it’s only there that self-transcendent experiences such as joy can be found. Under this illusion we will miss the more ordinary and everyday places where true joy is – by chance – encountered.

The image of the mountain top is an image of an encounter with God that ordinarily feels so out of our reach. However, it’s not altitude that separates us from a life-enhancing encounter with the living God, but a dogged refusal to let go of the self’s preoccupation with itself. Transcendent experiences are not found by climbing mountains but in experiences like joy and sadness – ordinary everyday experiences that take us beyond our disillusioned or disenchanted selves into here and now experiences of self-transcendence.

The Mountaintop is a place of concealment

The image of the mountaintop is a place concealed in thick cloud. What comes to be known there cannot be spoken about. On the mountaintop Peter, James, and John experience an epiphany of Jesus clothed in his divinity as the Christ. This is a fleeting experience, no sooner glimpsed than it is gone – forever eluding their desire to capture and contain it. Then the disciples must negotiate the even more perilous path down the mountain carrying the experience. They must carry the remembrance of what they have seen and yet, at the same time, practice a kind of forgetting. We can’t pursue self-transcendence. We need to forget about it and only then, through experiences like joy and suffering, self-transcendence finds us.

The Mountaintop and the contemporary imagination

Events on the mount of the Transfiguration are only at a midpoint in the gospel narrative. After the Transfiguration, Jesus turns his face to Jerusalem and the hard road to his Passion. It seems that in the spiritual life peak experience is only a means to, and not an end in itself.

As they were coming down the mountain Jesus ordered them, “tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead”.

Today we do not look for God in material space-time. The acceptance by past generations, whose enchantment shaped expectations of encountering God in material objects and places is now firmly rejected by most of us as superstition. Nevertheless, the question is not does a separate spiritual dimension still exist for the modern imagination, but where and how does it exist for the modern mind, mired in a state of disenchantment?

Spatial references to up and down don’t work in the same way for us. For us, God no longer inhabits the mountaintop. Heaven is no longer imagined as up there, or not-heaven down below. Yet, the metaphors of in and out do work for us. For a modern imagination, the spiritual realm is best conceived of as a parallel dimension that interpenetrates with our experience in space-time.

When Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said he’d been to the mountaintop, no one assumed he had actually climbed a mountain. The mountaintop now becomes the metaphor for the possibility of a different order of experience, one that challenges our acceptance of the absence of the spiritual – in lives given over to a preoccupation with our small self.

Our God is no longer the Hebrew God who inhabits mountaintops and sacred places, who is physically present in climate events – flood and drought, wind and fire. We no longer look for God on the physical mountaintop in quite the same way as our Biblical ancestors did, because we now must look within where we discover God emotionally and experientially available to us.

The Mountaintop as paradox

The paradox is that while we reject enchantment as superstition, no generation craves with greater intensity a desire of self-transcendence than we do. Magical realism, heroic superhuman sagas abound in Hollywood’s works. Opioids, marketed as a solution for physical pain establish a hold on society as a solution to the increasing levels of our spiritual pain.

Meg Wheatley speaks of joy as an example of a transcendent experience because joy is able to encompass both delight and sadness. Joy is not happiness, which is a very one-sided experience. Happiness is easily destroyed because it is the product of self-preoccupation. Joy radiates outwards, opening new pathways for interconnection and relief from self-preoccupation.

So here is the clue. For us today, transcendence is found in the web of interconnectedness with one another. God inhabits the relational spaces between us as well as the internal spaces of the heart -mind-spirit connection. We transcend the limited confines of self not into the emptiness of bliss, but into the joy of being fully present for one another. Wheatley quotes from the great 19th-century Bengali poet and spiritual teacher, Rabindranath Tagore:

I slept and dreamt that life was joy. I awoke and saw that life was service. I acted and behold, service was joy.

Rabindranath Tagore

The Transfiguration story is a halfway point in Matthew’s account of the life and times of Jesus. It marks the transition point from his preaching and teaching in the Galilean countryside to his final and eventful journey to Jerusalem.

The Visit of the Magi and the Transfiguration bookend the Epiphany season. From here on, we move into a different section of the spiritual journey. The landscape becomes rocky and desert-like as we journey down the mountain into the Lent of our lives.

Learning from Experience

Deuteronomy 30:15-20 & Matthew 5:21-37

In the wide and deep sweep of history separating Moses from Jesus – we can see a clear development in human understanding of God – moving always in the direction of greater sophistication. In his book God: A Biography, Jack Miles recounts the evolution of God’s character – as seen as the protagonist in the religious story of Israel.  The book’s central structure is that God’s character develops progressively within the narrative. Miles draws from the Biblical record to deduce information about God’s nature and motivation. His book won the 1996 Pulitzer Prize for Biography or Autobiography.

Miles presents God as a figure evolving into a greater sophistication of character through the long and tumultuous relationship with humanity – as represented by Israel. The capacity to seemingly learn from experience, esp. mistakes, is the key quality that jumps out from Miles’ somewhat startling portrayal of God.

The capacity to learn from our experience, esp. our mistakes, is the primary way that we humans continue to evolve in the direction of greater psycho-socio-spiritual complexity. In short, learning is fundamental to our survival.

Bracketing for a moment our traditional theological anxieties resulting from Miles’ portrayal of God as a learning God, we might at least hypothetically embrace the idea that God is also capable of learning from experience.  Put another way, maybe that’s why humanity is imbued with this capacity of learning from experience because we are made in the image of a God who also learns and grows through experience, and in particular through learning from mistakes.

The Biblical story of God’s relationship with humanity represented by Israel is full of instances where God changes his mind and is even convinced by human beings like Moses to repeatedly change his mind. God acts, often precipitously, only to on reflection, regret impulsive action. God is frequently convinced to moderate his genocidal impulses, which alarmingly in the earlier sections of the story, seem to be God’s default response in the face of human folly and resistance.

But let me quell a possible growing anxiety in portraying God as anything but omnipotent and unchanging, omniscient and all knowing. We might be more comfortable with saying it’s not God who really changes but human understanding of God that deepens and grows over historical time. Either way, the God who emerges in relationship with Moses is both consistent with and yet also different from the God whom Jesus portrays. In the broad and deep sweep of history separating Moses and Jesus, Jewish understanding of God had continued its evolution in religious consciousness in the direction of greater complexity.

In Deuteronomy 30:15-20 we hear Moses’ dramatic ultimatum: I call upon heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God.

This is a call to make choices, which can be either life enhancing or death dealing. The Deuteronomists conceived of the choice for life as being faithful to and acting upon God’s commandments given to Moses – given primarily to ensure the just governing of society. For contemporary Judaism, Torah observance remains the way to contribute to the building up of society through performing the actions that lead to making the world a better place.

By the 1st-century of the Common Era – the time of Jesus – an extensive shift had occurred in the evolution from a Hebrew to a Jewish religious consciousness.

The Hebrew God of Moses inhabited the natural world of mountain tops and sacred places. This God controlled the elements – reigning down either blessing or punishment.

By the 1st-century the Jewish experience was of God inhabiting the subjective space within human consciousness. This is not a God of mountain tops but of the mind and heart. It is into this religious evolution that Jesus of Nazareth emerges onto the world stage.

In Matthew chapter 5 in his Sermon on the Mount Jesus refers his listeners back to the ancient Hebrew understanding of God’s commandments. He begins and then repeats the phrase: You have heard that it was said to those of ancient time. This is his springboard into a reframing of Jewish religious practice. Jesus reframes an evolving Jewish inner consciousness of God taking it to a new level.

Many of us would probably prefer to remain ancient Hebrews in our orientation to the requirements of the religious life. This accounts for the popularity in the growth of Christian Fundamentalism. Give us a good external commandment we can choose to follow or not as the case may be, and we at least will know where we are.

In contrast, what Jesus is teaching is frightening in its seeming complexity let alone its impossibility. For who among us exercises the degree of self-control over our thoughts and intentions, our impulses and motivations, let alone our fantasies which Jesus seems to require of us? It is no longer a matter of refraining from unethical actions, we now must harbor only virtuous intentions; without which despite leading outwardly upright and ethical lives, we all remain serial murderers and adulterers in our hearts.

The penalty for non-virtuous thoughts and impulses, even if firmly under our self-control, is astonishingly severe indeed!

Jesus issues and invitation to pay attention to a subjective experience of God dwelling amongst the unruly passions of the human heart. I imagine his disciples found this as unnerving as we do. But one thing is clear, Jesus has our attention!

In this difficult teaching Jesus is reminding us that spiritual contamination comes not from the outside but already resides within of us. In Matthew 15, Jesus tells his disciples that we are not defiled by what goes into the body. The stuff we should worry about is what comes out of the human heart.

Jesus ushers in the dawning of a new religious age of the inbreaking of God’s Kingdom. No longer camouflaged by an externalized morality of rules and obligations, religious observance now requires a subjective examination of the projections of the hardness of the human heart. Moral and ethical action is good, but right intention is better. Right belief is one thing, but right relationship is even better. This is the subject of Jesus’ teaching and it represents the big leap for humanity into a new kind of relationship with God.

2016-20 will be remembered as when America abandoned the traditional fig leaf of religious and moral hypocrisy. As long as anyone can remember the maintenance of outward moral and ethical fig leaf concealed the inner intentions of our hearts. Lapses in moral and ethical behavior – though frequent and numerous still only proved the rule. Hypocrisy defined as the gap between outward action and inner intention was the name of much of the game.

Now the fig leaf has been cast aside. We stand before one another stark naked with the hardness of our hearts on full display. The murderous bile that flows from us into every platform of social media that rewards our envy and dishonesty. Aided and abetted by Net anonymity – the unregulated narcissism of the human heart is fully displayed for all to see. We seem to no longer know shame. Online pornography assuages our baser impulses and desires – and we need not move from the privacy of our armchair or sofa.

Even the fig leaf of virtuous government is now under pressure from the office holder of the presidency – abetted by a congress whose only God is the worship of power and a judiciary whose increasing focus is the protection of proprietary and sectional interests over the dictates of social justice.

If Jesus delivered his Sermon on the Mount today these would be the examples he would draw from. So, does he have our attention yet?

Moses warned the Israelites against making the choices of death that would result in them not living long in the land God was giving them. Our continued and unchecked landslide into environmental catastrophe means that our children and their children may not live long in the land either. Jesus understood that the choice for death is ever present within our hearts.

Bad as things are, let’s not yet abandon hope. Remember that like God, our capacity to learn from experience, esp. our mistakes is the fundamental ingredient necessary for our survival.

Lips & Lives, Truth & Lies Salt & Light Etc: Mtt. 5, Is. 58

The Prayer of General Thanksgiving in the Book of Common Prayer is recited at the end of the offices of Morning and Evening Prayer. You will recall I wrote about the offices in the E-News this past week. Towards the end in the General Thanksgiving come the lines:

And, we pray, give us such an awareness of your mercies, that with truly thankful hearts we may show forth your praise, not only with our lips, but in our lives, by giving up ourselves to your service, and by walking before you in holiness and righteousness all our days.

Living the Christian life is not a matter of confessing lips as much as it’s a matter of active lives. Living in God’s service is always more than the words we say. It’s the actions we take; the bread we break.

We are living through a time when the discrepancy between words and actions has never been greater. We are devastated by the fracturing of words from actions. Words trump action never taken. Action trumps lies concealing evil action.

But the person on the street says it’s no big deal because who cares about truth these days?

Truth has become a completely subjective concept. If I say black is white, then it is. If I assert my lie as truth and reject another’s truth as a lie – a hoax, then who’s to seriously contradict me? The objective evidence of the physical world around us is now dismissed as mere hoax.

Well the short answer to who cares is that God cares. But if that’s too remote a concern for you, then the answer is that I care, you care, we care. Is that good enough?

Jesus said be salty but beware of losing your saltiness.

Did you know that the interesting thing about salt is that it can’t lose its salinity unless the chemical bond between sodium and chlorine is broken. As one of the most stable of compounds, only an electric charge is able to loosen the NaCl molecule. Thus, when salt is dissolved in water it enjoys a greater volume as it is released from crystal form, but it remains essentially salt in all its savory-ness.

In Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount Jesus’ tell his disciples: you are the salt of the earth. This has found its way into our common language. When we describe someone as the salt of the earth, we are recognizing their value as a person who expresses a no nonsense wholesomeness; someone whose life of fruitful action, of effective service, is enviable.

Jesus said: but if salt loses its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything and is thrown out and trampled underfoot. Salt losing its salinity? Jesus clearly had been asleep in his elementary chemistry classes?

Jesus would have observed how salt was collected from saltpans. When dried out the substance in which the salt was embedded was raked into mounds still containing a lot of impurities. While salt as sodium chloride can’t be dissolved it can be leached out. Heavy rain would leach the sodium chloride out of surface layers of the salt mounds – leaving the residue of impurities that were essentially tasteless. Like fine sand, it was good only as material to loosely gravel a pathway where it would be trampled underfoot.

Jesus had a habit of taking ordinary things to reveal spiritual truth. So, he takes salt – something crucially important in everyday life as a savory and a preservative for food. As well as a fixing for dying cloth, salt was also a staple commodity in commercial transaction – Roman soldiers were often paid in salt in lieu of coin.

The leaching of salt from the surface of the salt mound becomes an evocative metaphor for a loss of spiritual effectiveness.

When our lips are out of sync with our lives; our words are severed from our actions – we resemble the residue at the top of the salt mound -its saltiness leached out; fine sand useful only as material to pave the path.

Where one metaphor was good, for Jesus, two were better. Like the salt mounds after heavy rain, when our saltiness is leached out of us – the powerful search light of truth becomes hidden in us and we easily become complicit in narratives of lies and misinformation.

You are the light of the world, Jesus reminds us. A city on a hill cannot be hid. So let your light shine forth that others may find their way to God through you.

The shining city on a hill that cannot be hid has been an abiding metaphor in the American imagination. However, there’s another metaphor in the American imagination, that of Gotham City, a city shrouded in darkness. A city where the expediencies of power extinguish the light of truth.  

What is the way out of our current state of civic and moral corruption? Let’s turn to the lighthouse of Holy Scripture.

The prophet Isaiah confronts the people of Israel’s collective image of themselves as a faithful worshiping community – an ancient city (literally) built on Zion’s hill. Believing themselves faithful they nevertheless bitterly complained that God did not reward their scrupulous observances.

God responds:

Look, you can bow your head like a bulrush and lie in sackcloth and ashes all you want but you serve your own interest on the fast day and oppress all your workers. Look, you fast only to quarrel and fight and to strike with a wicked fist. Such fasting as you do today will not make your voice heard on high. 

God’s response to Israel’s complaint is to point out that words severed from moral action is ritual observance without the saltiness of social action.  That Zion, no longer a shining city on a hill had become a city shrouded in Gotham-like darkness. Israel’s worship expressed neither the saltiness of a social conscience nor the commitment to the searchlight of truth. The result was connivance with the deceptions of lies and the actions of oppression.  

In worship, God addresses us as a community so that community becomes the vehicle for saltiness in action and the search light of truth. Communal action is always social in nature.

We need to note that it is to a whole people Isaiah speaks. Likewise, it is to the community of the disciples Jesus speaks. The you addressed by both Isaiah and Jesus is the collective you. Worship is always communal. Worship bears fruit in communal action. In worship, God addresses us as a community so that the community becomes a vehicle for saltiness in action and the search light of truth.

Jesus proclaims that he will not take one jot away from the Law of the Lord given to Israel until the fulfilment of God’s unfinished business is completed.

The Law of the Lord, whether expressed as Jewish Torah faithfulness or Christian Gospel fruitfulness – it is the same thing.

Observance of living Torah and commitment to Gospel action both express God’s expectation for the way we should govern our life together; an expectation to: Do Justice, Love Kindness, and Walk humbly with God. 

So let us with urgency commit ourselves as we pray

…. that with truly thankful hearts we may show forth your praise, not only with our lips, but in our lives, by giving up ourselves to your service, and by walking before you in holiness and righteousness all our days.

Be Careful What You Wait For

Post image is Simeon-and-Jesus-in-the-Temple-Rembrandt-harmenszoon-van-rijn-.jpg

Feast of the Presentation, The Rev. Linda Mackie Griggs       Luke 2:22-40, 2 February 2020                                       

Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed– and a sword will pierce your own soul too.”

The Feast of the Presentation of Jesus, which we celebrate today, is based on Luke’s account of Jesus’ parents doing what good, faithful Jewish parents did for their firstborn sons: They brought him to the Temple for the ritual of the Redemption of the Firstborn. Since the first male child of a Jewish family, according to Torah, was to be “designated as holy”, that is, predestined to serve as a priest, the family would “redeem” him, or effectively buy him back from that duty.

So Mary and Joseph made the 64-mile journey from Nazareth to Jerusalem to fulfill their religious obligation.

Did they have any idea what awaited them in the Temple?

Because the Spirit was at work in Jerusalem. She came to an old man, righteous and devout, whose entire life had been devoted to waiting for the coming Messiah—“looking forward to the consolation of Israel.” Biblical storyteller Richard Swanson writes that the Greek for “looking forward” here is better translated as “receiving forward”—not merely anticipation, but a metaphorically leaning, stretching; reaching out, as if to grasp a future that has been desperately yearned for and is now just at his fingertips.  This, Simeon’s waiting, says Swanson, “…carries the metaphoric hint of being stretched tight, stretched even to the breaking point, like a string on a guitar, tightened and tightened and tightened yet some more, until finally it is about to snap.”

It is into this waiting, reaching, stretching that the Spirit comes.

And rests.

What did Simeon expect to see when the Spirit urged him toward the Temple? If he knew his Isaiah, and we can safely assume that he did, he would have expected a male child: “Unto us a child is born…a son is given…and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” Was Simeon surprised, then, to see a poor couple, dusty and tired from their journey, carrying a six-week-old bundle and a paltry two doves for the ritual sacrifice? The parents of the Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, unable to afford a lamb for an offering—what must have gone through his head?

Apparently only love. Only joy. Only confirmation of fulfillment of a life of waiting. Only the desire to reach out and carefully take the baby in old arms that had been empty for so long.

Because he had given his life to waiting for this child.

“Lord, you now have set your servant free to go in peace as you have promised; For these eyes of mine have seen the Savior… “I have kept watch. Now I can die in peace.”

Both Simeon and Anna knew something about waiting. They may not always have waited patiently, but they did wait faithfully.

We have heard a lot this past Advent about waiting—about knowing that the act of waiting hopefully is part of making the future Dream of God a reality in the present. So, how we wait is to wait in hope. But what is the cost of what we wait for? That is the question that Simeon and Anna prompt us to ponder.

Waiting can be complicated. On the one hand there is the relatively straightforward wait against clock and calendar, waiting for noon lunchtime or graduation day in May or June. These are set objectives—clear and finite. But there is also the indefinite side of waiting, when what we are waiting for isn’t marked by alerts on our computers and mobile devices. This kind of waiting affects the way in which we wait, and what it requires of us. Test results. Healing. Justice. The other shoe to drop.  We wait with dread, anticipation, anxiety, hope—and it requires our energy, our focus, our time, our sweat, and sometimes even our safety.

Waiting costs. And depending on what we are waiting for, the cost will vary.

So be careful what you wait for.

Did Anna know the cost of what she waited for? It isn’t clear. Yes, she was a prophet, but the role of prophets is not always to predict the future but to speak truth to power. Anna’s joyful news about the redemption of Jerusalem, spoken excitedly to everyone in the Temple, was a triumphant declaration to all with ears to hear that change was coming, thanks be to God.

But she was eighty-four years old. Her waiting would not see Jesus arrested, tortured, condemned and crucified. How might her triumph be tempered had she known what would come before his ultimate victory? Waiting is complicated—would she be prepared for the cost of discipleship?

Simeon doesn’t speak to the crowd like Anna does. He speaks more intimately to the little family in front of him. To Mary he confides that a sword will pierce her soul, a prophecy that is short on detail and laden with dreadful portent. He also speaks of the falling and rising of many in Israel—notice he doesn’t say rising and falling. Rising and falling is what happens to principalities and powers. Falling and rising is what happens to co-creators of the Dream of God—to those who know the cost of what they await.

Is it any wonder that Mary and Joseph were amazed at this encounter? Even with all that had happened in the life of this little family from the beginning, this would rank as momentous news. Yet this is the first time in the Gospels where Mary has been directly told that the future of the child now cradled in Simeon’s arms would bring her pain–that bearing the Promised One of God would cost her dearly.

And yet she bore his words as Mary always did—taking and pondering these things in her heart as she and Joseph completed their mitzvah and made the long trip back to Nazareth, where they would continue doing what parents do—raising their child to become strong and filled with wisdom, yet from the moment of their encounter with Simeon waiting for the life of their precious son to unfold, come what may.

Be careful what you wait for. What are we waiting for? And what will it ask of us? An answer, and the Good News, lies in Simeon’s outstretched arms. The baby. There is something about babies.

We’re suckers for them. We are virtually guaranteed to turn into sentimental puddles in the presence of an infant, and if you don’t believe me, just wait until Louis Clifton Schoch’s baptism next week.

We are hard-wired to fall in love with babies. It’s one of the ways that nature has equipped us to keep the species going. Think of the transformation that takes place: When we make a commitment to a child either by birth, adoption, or baptism, we willingly give away a large measure of our independence. We accept a call to give our lives to these helpless creatures—to nurture, cherish and protect them. And no matter how old they grow we will be forever imprinted with the image of them as creatures fresh from God.

So is it any surprise that God would come to us in an incarnation that elicits this response? Yes, Isaiah declared that the child would be named Mighty God, Everlasting Father. But, as Simeon discovered, this Messiah defies all expectation of grandeur and power. Instead this Incarnation—God With Us–challenges us to dig deep to the spark that lights us all—love. He calls forth from us the hard-wired willingness to pay the cost of what we await; to dedicate ourselves to the nurturing and protection of the beloved children of God.

Our celebration of the Presentation acts as a reminder of something we are prone to forget; that the cost of what we await in the Messiah, past, present, and future, is the extension of our protective, nurturing, compassionate love to all of the vulnerable—the easily forgotten victims of poverty, injustice, war, complacency and complicity. The cost of what we await is our discipleship—proclaiming the Good News not only with our lips but in our lives by giving up our selves to God’s service for the healing of this world.

What is the cost of what we wait for? Only, as with Simeon and Anna, our entire lives.

This shouldn’t be a surprise. Nowhere in the Bible does God say that God wants only half of our heart. God calls for all of it.

And God is waiting. Amen.

Being Curious!

John 1: 29-42

Image from Lentera Keluarga – Kedekatan Dengan Yesus | SESAWI.NET

It’s confusing. In John’s Gospel there’s more than one John. There are three to be precise. In his opening chapter John the Evangelist focuses on John elsewhere known as the Baptist, as witness to the messiah. But there’s also a third John lurking in the background – John the Beloved Disciple of Jesus. Despite the Tradition, it’s clear that John the Evangelist is not John the Beloved Disciple. The Evangelist is writing in the 120’s, a period beyond the normal lifespan of the Beloved Disciple. So, John the Evangelist is someone who stands in the tradition of the Beloved Disciple, and as a young man probably knew him personally.

John’s gospel opens on the majestic panorama painted in the Prologue before plunging us into the opening moments in Jesus’ earthly ministry. The evangelist known as John fills this opening chapter and actually the whole of his gospel with word allusions and metaphors indicating the mysterious connections between Jesus and the fulfilment of Old Testament expectations of the Messiah.

We can tie ourselves up in knots trying to decipher just what these allusions and metaphors meant for the Evangelist John and his community. But so much of John remains mysterious.

For instance, John alone uses the metaphor of the Lamb of God. Taken in the context and period in which he is writing this is a peculiar metaphor for Jesus. The practice of Temple animal sacrifice is by this time but a distant memory. John’s metaphors are arresting and in chapter one we have two on display – Lamb of God and God the Son. Lamb of God as well as God the Son -new titles for Jesus deeply resonated in the imagination of the early Church and thus eventually found their way into the mainstream of orthodox Christology, i.e. the branch of theology that relates to the identity, and nature of Jesus.

Seeing as believing is the major theme in John’s gospel. First hand seeing is not necessary, believing through hearsay, i.e. the words of another is enough.

Chapter one is a story set over three days. Day one the Jewish elders come to interrogate John (the Baptist) during which he identifies Jesus as the messiah because of what he has seen and can bear witness to. Day two, John’s out an about with two of his disciples – one of whom is Andrew the brother of Simon Peter. When Jesus walks by and John points him out as the Lamb of God, curiosity gets the better of Andrew and his unnamed companion, who follow Jesus asking him where he is staying? Jesus replies come and see. Andrew then recruits his brother Simon. In the section following this passage on the next day – day three Jesus journeys to Galilee where he encounters one Philip who then recruits his friend, Nathaniel (Bartholomew) and tells him he has seen the messiah.

John is showing his readers how discipleship happens and how it works. One person’s curiosity leads to discovery of Jesus. This discovery is then shared with a friend and they both begin to follow Jesus.

Jesus and his new disciples are now in position on day three for the first of John’s great signs – the wedding at Cana of Galilee which opens chapter two. John is not telling his readers about the call of the first disciples as much as he is showing them how discipleship works – you notice, you become curious, you ask, and then respond to the invitation to come and see, you then tell your friends what you’ve found and invite them into the same process.

John’s Gospel is a gospel for our own age precisely because John the Evangelist addresses a mixed community in tension; a community comprised from different constituencies.

  1. There are the former disciples of John the Baptist, hence the Evangelist’s emphasis on the initial role of John (the Baptist) in the first chapter.
  2. There is a strong contingent of Samaritans as evidenced by the story in chapter four where the Samaritan woman he encounters at the well is the first to recognize his true identity.
  3. There are gentile spiritual seekers. Later in 12:21 we read that some Greeks come and ask Philip: please sir, we want to see Jesus.
  4. There are Jews who have openly split with the synagogue
  5. There are Jews who still faithfully attend the synagogue but also secretly hang out with John’s ragbag of a Christian community on Sundays.

John’s task is to speak to the inner tensions in a community made-up of factions, each with their own slightly different history and take on Jesus; all seeking to hold together against the backdrop of an unremitting hostility from the Jewish authorities represented by the emergence of rabbinic Judaism.

Consequently, the internal tensions within the Johannine Community in the early decades of the 2nd-century are too great for there to be a commonly recognized authority. John’s community is a flat hierarchy community. It seems to have no recognized leaders apart from the guidance of the Evangelist in his gospel. For instance, John never mentions the teaching authority of the apostles as the community leaders so evident elsewhere in the New Testament. Everyone ins John is simply a disciple. All disciples are equal sitting under the tutelage of the Holy Spirit. There are no sacraments, no doctrine, only the willingness to be led by the Holy Spirit in the way of love.

The community of John the Evangelist comes to be known as the Beloved Community in which the golden rule is given by Jesus in chapter 13:35 when he tells the disciples to love one another, for by this the world will know them as his disciples.

Come and See, See what? Come and see a community characterized by the quality with which its member love one another. Now there’s a rare and seeming unworkable thing!

I believe that in the world of 2020, Episcopalian Christians with our tolerant and inclusive understanding of Christian community have something to offer our nation torn asunder by so many bitterly held divisions.

Our Presiding Bishop, The Most Rev. Michael Curry chanel’s the message of John the Evangelist; inviting us to the renewal that flows from reframing ourselves as the contemporary Jesus Movement, a modern-day Johannine community embarked on the Way of Love.

The Way of Love involves seven practices:

  1. Turn – pause, listen, and choose to follow Jesus.
  2. Learn – through reflecting on Scripture each day, esp. on Jesus life and teachings.
  3. Pray – dwell intentionally with God daily.
  4. Worship – gather in community weekly to thank, praise and dwell with God.
  5. Bless- share our faith unselfishly – one might suggest unselfconsciously- in order to give and serve.
  6. Go- cross boundaries, listen deeply and live like Jesus.
  7. Rest -receive the gift of God’s grace, peace and restoration.

The Way of Love is a very Johannine project flowing naturally out of our Anglican love for the Gospel of John. As a historic community, Anglicanism like John’s community has some experience of holding together internal tension within a spirit of right relationship rather than an emphasis on right belief under a strong and centralised hierarchical authority structure.

Our only obligation is to Come and See! Are we willing?

In Memory of Jane Langmuir

Here are the recordings from the Eulogies from Karl & Christia Langmuir, and Mary Worrell given at Jane’s requiem this morning at St Martin’s.

Below is the text of my tribute to Jane

Jane was our friend. With her death we have all lost a valued and esteemed friend and member in our community. The first woman to hold the position of Church Warden, a position she held on two separate occasions; together, Jane and her husband Paul over several decades contributed their prodigious talents and energies to the building-up and sustaining of this wonderful St Martin’s community. Jane and Paul were integral members of a core of individuals, couples, and families – at a time not so distant but now passed, when church community played a greater role in East Side family and community life.

After Paul’s death ten years ago now, Jane gradually withdrew from much of the hands-on involvement in parish life– though still keeping an important oversight brief for the architectural preservation of this historically significant church. Although no longer able to play a guiding role in our recent extensive restoration project, the work recently accomplished brought her great satisfaction and peace of mind.

After Paul’s death, Jane began to forge a different role for herself within the community. Rather than her activity, it was her mystical spirituality that now began to emerge more prominently. Always a woman whose opinions others valued, Jane came to be increasingly seen as a trusted source for spiritual insight, emotional support, and wise counsel.

*

Jane was my friend. I well remember the moment during my first interview with the discernment team – when standing in the pulpit at St Paul’s Church in Pawtucket where the discernment team had retreated to privately assess the caliber of the new interviewee for the position of rector; looking down over the small congregation our eyes met. I was struck by the quality of the gaze in which Jane held me. Between us, a mutual recognition flashed. Held in her gaze I came to realize that I was indeed the right candidate. In her gaze I came to know without question that St Martin’s was the door God was opening for me.

In that moment Jane and I became friends.

Friendship between pastor and parishioner is always a wonderful thing. Despite the church’s official warnings to the clergy that our parishioners cannot be our friends, many variations of friendship flourish between pastor and parishioner. Yet, always there is the recognition that the pastor must keep in check – or at the very least, be mindful of his or her own personal needs in order to hold open the interpersonal space in which the parishioner’s needs take priority.

Jane was my friend, but not in the ordinary sense that I might say that of so many of the folk in this wonderful St Martin’s community. Jane was my friend and for Al and myself, she quickly became our friend – because in a real sense she needed nothing from me or from us except the desire for a balanced reciprocity – the ordinary everyday coinage of human friendship.

With Jane, I found that rare freedom to air my fears and anxieties without concern for lessening her trust and confidence in me. She received the revealing of my fallibilities – often expressed through the pent-up feelings and frustrations that any priest experiences within the discipline of the pastoral role. I received from Jane her unjudging compassion and her wise counsel that often concluded in a sound piece of advice for me to get over myself. She didn’t say it quite like that, but Jane understood the creative use of pain and suffering, and she expected nothing less of me than she did of herself.

*

Beyond speaking of friendship, I have another task this morning. It is to speak about how within the tradition of Christian faith we might imagine life for Jane now. For life is what she still enjoys – except it’s from the other side of the veil that separates the parallel dimensions of God Space from Our Space.

The medieval images of heaven as a place up there among the clouds no longer works for our 21st-century minds. We need to exercise our imaginations in a different direction. For us, heaven is none other than the divine dimension –God Space -that sits alongside Our Space; the dimension of time, space, and matter. The energies of the divine dimension interpenetrate this dimension of Our Space.

Having been adopted by the ancient spirit of the Langmuir name, Jane was intuitively drawn to the landscapes and Celtic spirituality of Scotland’s Western Isles; the isle of Iona in particular, which Jane and Paul visited a number of times. After Paul’s death it was to the holy Isle of Iona that Jane returned a portion of his ashes. She was to visit Iona again – where she still found the needed spiritual sustenance and confirmation in this thin place.

Celtic spirituality recognizes the thin place in both geographic locations and also in spiritual -nonphysical states of experience. Within the thin place the energies of the divine co-mingle with the energies of time and space. In her everyday life, Jane often experienced this interpenetration – or interleafing of dimensional energies characteristic of the co-mingling of divine and temporal dimensions; the God Space’s entry within Our Space.

Jane has now made the return journey. The event of her biological death has freed her to enter into the fullness of the God Space. Yet, Christian faith does not view this event as the end for her. There is too much emphasis these days on the souls of the dead living for ever in the presence of God as if eternity in the God Space is our ultimate destination. Christian faith views entry into the God Space following biological death as simply an interim stage awaiting the final renewal of the whole of the physical creation – in a new heaven and a new earth.

*

Jane was our friend. She was a friend to so many of us here this morning. As her friends; as her children; as her sisters – none of us experienced Jane to be a saint. Like all of us, she was far from perfect. To come close with Jane was also to experience her own particular limitations and struggles.

Let us be mindful of two things. In the words of the Prayer Book Preface for the Dead, which we will hear in a moment, for Jane life is now changed but not ended. And, that our task now is to take the gifts she has bequeathed to us through her love and friendship and incorporate them into our lives – qualities and values that hopefully will re-prioritize our living. So that in the meantime, Jane will live on in us.

I conclude with words from the great mystic poet, John O’Donohue in his poem For Longing. The late John O’Donohue was not a Celt of the Western Isles, but nevertheless, the next best thing, a Celt of the Irish homeland.

I offer us these words as Jane’s final benediction and blessing to us until the day of our eventual reunion.

For Longing

Blessed be the longing that brought you here
And quickens your soul with wonder.

May you have the courage to listen to the voice of desire
That disturbs you when you have settled for something safe.

May you have the wisdom to enter generously into your own unease
To discover the new direction your longing wants you to take.

May the forms of your belonging—in love, creativity, and friendship—  
Be equal to the grandeur and the call of your soul.

May the one you long for long for you.

May your dreams gradually reveal the destination of your desire.

May a secret Providence guide your thought and nurture your feeling.

May your mind inhabit life with the sureness with which your body inhabits the world.

May your heart never be haunted by ghost-structures of old damage.

May you come to accept your longing as divine urgency.

May you know the urgency with which God longs for you.

Amen.

Stories of Birth and Adoption

The image comes from a mural in Kessler Park’s United Methodist Church

*

So it seems the world is gripped by the latest royal drama. This time it centers on the Duke and Duchess of Sussex’s desire to step back from the first rank of the Royal Family to carve out for themselves a more independent lifestyle and protective identity.

Identity is a tricky thing. Is identity a given or is it constructed? Prince Harry has finally said enough is enough of the blatant racial abuse of his wife by the British popular press, with the Daily Mail – like Fox News part of the Murdoch media empire not surprisingly, leading the charge in expressing scurrilous media persecution and bigotry.

The depth of the racism expressed against the Duchess is astonishing. The BBC fired Danny Baker one of its more populist Radio Five presenters for tweeting a picture of a chimpanzee after Meghan gave birth to Prince Archie. Even a member of the Royal Family, Princess Michael of Kent – the wife of Prince Michael, a cousin to the Queen, was forced to apologise for sporting a blackamoor brooch on her lapel as she attended a royal family event. Though educated largely in Australia, we might remember that Princess Michael is the daughter of minor German nobility with her father having been a principal aristocratic supporter of Hitler’s Nazi party. Princess Michael and her husband are no strangers to controversy.

Identity stories shape us. Prince Harry is not the first royal to struggle within the tension between the identity he was born into and the one he seeks to adopt for himself and his family.

**

I wish I was a natural storyteller. I firmly believe that as human beings it’s through stories that we create meaning from our experience in the world. A recurring theme for me is that story is all we have; that human beings construct personal and social meaning through the stories we tell ourselves and each other; that certain stories influence us, shaping our worldview, claiming our allegiance whether we know it or not.

Though not naturally gifted as a storyteller – an appreciation for the power of story lies at the heart of my theology. I think of myself as a narrative Christian. A narrative Christian is one who chiefly encounters God within the overarching Biblical Story – a story that is brought to life through participation in the life of the Christian Community.

Where do we draw our identity from; now a burning question for Harry and Meghan? Stories that privilege material progress, increased social inclusiveness, the building of a society based on principles of equality, justice, and the rule of law; these are among the central stories that lay principal claim on me and have shaped my sense of personal identity as someone who passionately believes that such stories identify those pillars of society that are non-negotiable. These story themes have transmitted to us across 4000-years of the human community’s struggle to stay in faithful relationship with the God who throughout the great biblical story of Jewish and Christian history unequivocally reveals such social stories as sacred.

***

In a matter of days, 19 to be exact, liturgical time has moved us through 30 years of Jesus’ life – from the stories of his birth to the story of his baptism.

The New Testament gives us four Jesus origin stories. Matthew and Luke begin with Jesus’ birth – and the birth of Jesus took place in this way. The third origin story comes from John, who paints an overarching scenario of cosmic proportions – harkening back to the first chapter of Genesis – in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God. The Word was God and became flesh and lived among us and we have seen his glory as of the Father’s only son.

Prologue to John’s gospel

Yet, there’s a fourth origin story most strongly echoed in the writings of the Apostle Paul. It’s this story that Mark begins his gospel with, and which Matthew repeats in the Gospel reading for this Sunday. With the story of Jesus’ baptism the Church concludes the Christmas cycle.

For centuries we thought that the beginning of Mark’s Gospel had been lost because he omits Jesus birth story – opening instead with the adult Jesus striding out of the wilderness to receive baptism from John in the Jordan.

Mark is the evangelist writing towards the end of Paul’s ministry. Paul preached a revolutionary connection between Jesus’ birth and our status as followers of Jesus. Paul is not concerned only with Jesus’ biography as Son of God. His more pressing concern is the make plain the connection binding Jesus Son of God with those who follow him.

Paul proclaims: But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children.

Galatians 4:4-5

****

Stories of identity through birth sit alongside a stories of identity by adoption. For most of us life is shaped not by the story we are born into, British Royalty aside for a moment -but by the story that we are adopted into; by the story that adopts us.

You and I do not aspire to the status of children of God through the accident of our birth. Neither is our claim to be children of God a product of some pre-existent cosmic status. We are adopted into becoming the children of God. This adoption is expressed through our baptism. At his baptism, God adopted Jesus as his son – this is my son on whom my favor rests. Likewise at our baptism, we too became adopted as those upon whom God’s favor rests.

Adoption takes us to the heart of what it means to have faith. Faith is not an accident of birth, but something deliberately chosen. For Christians, faith is the story of our adoption through baptism as children of a loving God.

Birth is an accident from which we can take neither credit nor bear blame. Adoption, now this is another matter. For adoption is always about a conscious choice, a deliberate decision made, a clear direction chosen.

If the central meaning of the birth of Jesus is that to be fully human is to become most like God, then the central meaning of his baptism is to take this truth one stage further. Our humanity not only accords us God-like potential. Our baptism is a choice taken to live in the conscious knowledge and self-awareness that to be fully human is to be most like God.

We are God’s daughters and God’s sons and upon us God’s favor rests. As it was for Jesus, the gift of identity through adoption was a costly one. The tricky question is – will we risk the cost of living into the promise of our adoption and allow ourselves to become the people God intends us to be?

I guess at a more mundane level, Harry and Meghan are about to find out what identity through adoption rather than birth or marriage might cost them.

Star of Wonder, Guide Us

Christmas 2 (Epiphany transf.)   from the Rev. Linda Mackie Griggs

Matthew 2: 1-12                                                                                5 January 2020

We three kings of Orient are,

bearing gifts we traverse afar,

field and fountain, moor and mountain,

following yonder star.

A colleague of mine told me of a job interview in which he was asked by a seasoned old rector, “You’re not on some kind of journey are you?

I have to say that this is one of the saddest things I’ve heard in my vocational life; an utter dismissal of one of the most vital aspects of a life of faith. How can a life of faith be lived without some sort of trajectory? The spiritual journey moves forward, backward, and may even occasionally stall for a time—but wherever it goes it forms us, if we choose, as children of God, and offers us, through our questioning, struggle, and moments of epiphany, an opportunity for humility, self-awareness, and a heightened sense of perspective, all of which are vital in a time when many people’s perspective is blocked by anxiety and fear of wars and rumors of wars. Now more than ever the spiritual journey is not an optional side excursion in a life of faith; it is the soul of the trip.

The Eastern sages from afar can teach us something about journeying. Later tradition tells us that they were kings, and that there were only three of them, but Matthew tells us what we need to know; that an undetermined number of outsiders read signs in the stars and followed them westward to a foreign land where their inquiries about a new Jewish king sounded alarm bells in the halls of power.  These outsiders followed the star first to Jerusalem where they asked directions of Herod, who consulted his own wise ones, the chief priests and scribes. Note that when they read the signs in scripture: “`And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.'” –the scribes and chief priests did not feel prompted to accompany their Eastern counterparts and seek the promised one in Bethlehem. I hadn’t noticed that before–they stayed put. Why? Because part of their job was to keep the peace in the Jewish community in order to keep the Roman occupiers at bay.  This alleged Messiah was a threat to King Herod’s authority. And when King Herod wasn’t happy, nobody was happy. So the Temple authorities remained in Jerusalem and kept the peace, while Herod plotted murder. And the magi journeyed onward, unaware of the danger that followed in their wake.

There are those who say that a journey is more important than its destination, and that’s true in a lot of cases, but not all the time. Sometimes the journey is formed by the destination. Or, in the words of J.R.R. Tolkien, “Not all who wander are lost.” For all we may enjoy the picturesque image of the Wise Men on their camels trudging through the desert, we must never forget that the Epiphany story is not about the kings; it’s about what they seek: the Christ Child. The star they follow has revealed the birth of this Messiah, this promised one, and the Magi will not rest until the God-shaped space inside of them is filled.

“When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy.”

Matthew says that they brought three symbolic gifts: gold for a king, frankincense for a God, and myrrh presaging death. But there was a fourth gift, given before all the others.

“…they knelt down and paid him homage.”

This is a specific term; the Greek word “proskyneo” means that they prostrated themselves, lying face down upon the ground in front of the child Jesus. This gesture was their first and most important gift. For all of the symbolism of the gold, frankincense and myrrh, the gesture of offering them was physically a political act; something offered by kings to a king as in a diplomatic mission. But the act of complete humility and obeisance shown through prostration—paying homage—was a gift, not of tangible objects, but of their devotion, their very selves. These outsiders from the East, prompted by Creation itself, had wandered for months in unfamiliar and dangerous territory—wandering, but not lost— focused on offering their lives to a Jewish Messiah. When the star rested at last, it revealed the Christ as Savior to all of God’s people throughout the world, eliminating the boundaries between insiders and outsiders—a theme that would mark the life and ministry of the One to whom the Magi now offered their lives.

This first Epiphany was not the end of the journey. Where spiritual journeys are concerned there is no such thing. The God-shaped space, once filled, becomes dynamic—a source of invitation, challenge and vocation; an inner stirring that reveals a new way of envisioning the world, leading to a shift in priorities, even a dramatic change in one’s life.. And so the wise ones went home by another way—a new journey in new territory, to a home that might not look the same to them, because they were not the same.

What are we to make of this as we enter a new year—a year that for many doesn’t so much beckon as loom with uncertainty and anxiety? We can’t avoid remembering that Matthew’s story of the Magi ended with the warning in a dream of Herod’s evil intentions toward Jesus, prompting them to avoid Jerusalem on their way home. Thwarted by the Magi’s dream, Herod sent his soldiers to kill all toddler boys throughout the region—an unspeakable event that the Church now commemorates three days after Christmas as the Holy Innocents. The proximity of these two diametrically opposed remembrances—Christmas and Holy Innocents– reminds us that the world into which the Christ Child was born did not immediately become a painless paradise. It remained as broken and wounded as our world is today. So it is crucial that we must also remember that this is exactly why the prophet Isaiah named the child born in Bethlehem Emmanuel—God with us. Journeying with us. When fear and anxiety grip our hearts, we must remember that in this Epiphany we celebrate the star’s illumination of the promised Messiah who said, “Do not be afraid”; whose own journey reveals that Herod does not get the last word; that cruelty and injustice and war and terror and Twitter do not get the last word. It is the Christ who reveals on this Epiphany that love, life and hope will have the final say.

“You’re not on some kind of journey, are you?”

Well, I hope so. Unlike the wise ones, we no longer follow the Star. Now we seek to follow Jesus; called to live our lives as if lit from within by the star that finally rested over Bethlehem. It is my prayer for each of us, and for this St. Martin’s community, that by God’s grace we will find what we seek and that the journey itself will form us as dreamers and co-builders of God’s Dream for all of Creation.

Glorious now behold him arise,

king and God and sacrifice;

heaven sings alleluia;

alleluia the earth replies.

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