It’s in the Air – can you sense it?

Image taken from the Coit Tower in San Francisco murals commemorating the Work Progress Administration 1934

In the culture in which I was raised, making a fuss was considered as something that could only invite personal embarrassment. If you made a fuss, in effect you were drawing attention to yourself, and drawing attention was tantamount to inviting social judgment. Consequently, I am someone who hardly ever makes a fuss, at least, not in public. The one exception is in high-end restaurants. Here I have learned to overcome my conditioning when I am encountered by an attitude of condescension, the kind of attitude that with concealed subtlety communicates that it’s a privilege for me to be eating in this prestigious restaurant while paying through the nose for the privilege of being condescended to. This being the exception, I often find myself hotly ruminating in my mind –repeatedly going over what I should have said to this or that person, in this or that situation, had I been less inhibited by my fear of drawing attention to myself making a fuss.

As we travel through the enveloping cool of autumn, a season that always conjures up for me the opening lines of Keats’ Ode to Autumn:

SEASON of mists and mellow fruitfulness!
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless                                                                                                                                        With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eaves run;       

I am mindful of autumn as a season of renewal – taking spiritual inventory of all the blessings of life.

Last week my sermon took the form of an extended meditation on the inner conflict we experience between the fear of scarcity and the experience of abundance. I commended that passage from Matthew where Jesus tells us that where our treasure is – there also we will find our heart. Paradoxically, the spiritual life is not about money yet financial generosity is one of the key fruits of the spiritual life. What we choose to do or not do with the resources God entrusts us with – proclaims our values to the world. What we invest value in  -we also draw value from.  

Low investment leads only to an experience of a poor return.

The story of Bartimaeus son of Timaeus takes place on the outskirts of the historic city of Jericho. This is a multilayered story in a sequence of multilayered stories that Mark offers us concerning Jesus’ road-trip to Jerusalem. Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem is for those who travel with him – the road to discipleship. Mark recounts several incidents along the way that highlight the tensions within us as we hear the call to discipleship.

Mark chronicles events of blindness and clear-sightedness, of fear and hope, of the fear of not being seen and the desire to be see too much. Like all these experiences the healing of the physically blind becomes the metaphor for another kind of blindness, that of the mind and heart; a blindness repeatedly displayed by the disciples.

Bartimaeus is a blind man, his blindness leaving him not simply poor materially, but according to the prevailing religious attitudes of his time, poor spiritually as well. The 1st-century conventional religious view was of blindness or any kind of illness as punishment for sin. Bartimaeus has placed himself by the roadside so as not to be missed by Jesus as he passes. When he hears Jesus approaching, he begins to make a fuss, and as others try with some severity to silence him, the crescendo of his fuss-making only increases.

Bartimaeus sits by the roadside on the outskirts of Jericho, which in the 6th chapter of the Book of Joshua we are told was the first town to fall to the Israelites who leveled its walls by making a huge commotion of feet tramping, trumpets blaring, and voices shouting. On the roadside, on the outskirts of Jericho, Bartimaeus sits making a commotion as he calls repeatedly: Son of David, have mercy on me!

Jesus, moving amidst the throng of people is halted in his tracks by Bartimaeus’ use of this historic phrase Son of David – an early recognition of Jesus’ messianic secret. Turning around he looks for the source of the voice and spying Bartimaeus he says call him to me. Bartimaeus wastes no time. Mark loves to describe action using the continuous present form of the verb as a way of communicating a sense of immediacy for the reader. He tells us that throwing off his cloak, Bartimaeus sprang up and came to Jesus.

Jesus asks him the proverbial discipleship question: What do you want me to do for you? Compare Bartimaeus’ response to that of James and John to the same question, reported by Mark in last week’s incident along the road. Bartimaeus with simplicity says: My rabbi, let me see again! 

Whenever we respond to the call of discipleship, Jesus simply asks us: what do you want me to do for you? Unlike Bartimaeus, we will often not know how to answer. For me, the point of this story lies in my recognition that Bartimaeus receives his sight through an experience of realignment.

Realignment describes the opening of the heart and mind through investing emotional significance in a person, an object, or an activity.

Realignment describes the opening of the heart and mind through investing emotional significance in a person, an object, a cause or an activity. Bartimaeus becomes deeply invested in the one his heart has been yearning for. The intensity of his yearning heart creates a moment in which he experiences a profound realignment of his world.

To obtain that which our hearts yearn for requires such a realignment. Realignment results when stepping outside of our sense of social conformity we risk making a fuss, and maybe weathering the storm of public rebuke in doing so. Bartimaeus’ heart moves from yearning via commotion-making to investment in the one for whom he has been longing. Through becoming invested in Jesus, he now enters upon the experience of discipleship.

It’s not a coincidence that the renewal of our stewardship falls within the season of mists and mellow fruitfulness. In this season we are invited to give thanks as we review and reflect on our spiritual priorities. In this season when -giving thanks for the fruits that load the wines that run around and through our lives – we open to the possibility for spiritual and emotional realignment.

Jesus asks what do you want me to do for you? Yearning and longing for what- maybe we don’t quite know – but longing to discover. The possibility for personal and communal realignment is in the autumn air. Can you sense it?

For Where the Heart Is

Any attempt to speak about money in the church runs the risk of provoking a defensive response from the overly cynical. Sometimes, understandable as such cynicism might seem, this response misses the point that money is a primary metaphor for values reminding us of that wonderful insight in Matt 6:21 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

When we make a commitment to financially support an organization – it tells others something about our values. It further identifies our desire to contribute value to – as well as derive a sense of value from- because investment is a two-way process providing a sense of purpose and essential meaning.

One of the many paradoxes at the heart of Christian life is that spiritual renewal is so much more than money yet, financial generosity is a key outcome of coming to know our need of God.

Money can make me anxious. I can trace my anxiety back to my early experience of how conversations about money were negotiated in my family.  Hence the question I posed in this week’s E-News: What is your first memory of money – is it a positive or an anxious one?

This early experience has left me with a default expectation of scarcity that is in direct conflict with my actual experience of a life of abundance. This discrepancy between expectation and experience is a paradox- one I am sure I am not alone in having.

God’s promise of abundance is a presumption invites us to trust – despite the countervailing voices of warning sounding in our heads. Because of the evolution of the human brain, fear is a more primary impulse than trust. The architecture of the brain reflects the primal instinct to survive, and fear is more useful than trust in this regard.

Remembering and reflecting on the difference between my fearful expectations and my actual experience in life leads me to recognize that God has been indisputably generous to me. Connecting the dots reminds me that a fear of scarcity, at least in my case, is simply a default state of mind stemming from early memories – fears that persist even in the face of an opposite experience in life.

Our fear of scarcity masks and hides from us our actual experience of abundance. In the grip of presuming scarcity to be the more accurate reflection of reality we fear that being generous will lead to loss of the resources and reserves we might need.

America is the most prosperous country on the globe, maybe the most prosperous society in human history and yet it experiences the highest levels of scarcity anxiety. As the land of plenty to overflowing, we condone unforgivable levels of poverty and deprivation.

There seems to be an inverse relationship between our national prosperity and our levels of societal anxiety.  There persists a belief that there is enough economic capacity for massive tax cuts to the already obscenely wealthy but not enough economic capacity to tackle endemic poverty and inequality. The presumption of abundance, fostering a practice of generosity IS the only effective protest in the face of societal inequality and injustice.

In setting the date for the launch of this year’s fall stewardship drive I should have paid closer attention to the lectionary because it is last Sunday’s gospel reading, I really want for today.

It’s Mark who gives us the most complete sequence of events occurring as Jesus and his disciples take to the road to Jerusalem. The road of course is both an actual road – Jesus and disciples are literally travelling to Jerusalem – and a metaphor for the journey of discipleship.

At Mark 10:17 Jesus is approached by a man who kneeling before him honors him as Good Teacher – then asks what must I do to inherit eternal life? Jesus – ever attuned to the voices of false flattery reminds the man that only God is good. He then in a roundabout way asks the man about following the commandments – presumably the conventionally understood path to eternal life. 

The man responds by telling Jesus he has assiduously kept the commandments since his youth. There then occurs one of those moments best described by the Sanskrit word darsana or darshan – meaning to look beyond the appearance of things into the heart of the matter.

In this moment of darsana – seeing into the heart – Jesus acutely discerns the nature of the man’s dilemma. Despite his sincere and disciplined practice of the religious life he’s been unable to really come to know his need of God – leaving him tortured by the sense of something still lacking. Mark reports that Jesus looking at the man, loved him, confirming that there is indeed onelacking.

The practice of the spiritual life is incomplete unless it propels us beyond mere duty or a desire to do the right thing into a compassionate and passionate engagement with the world around us. The man is shocked by what Jesus tells him – this certainly is not what he wanted to hear -and he goes away grieving in the knowledge that what he so desperately seeks will forever elude him.  

Jesus’ prescription for eternal life is simple. Yet, it’s simplicity reveals its degree of difficulty. For the quest for eternal life is to follow Jesus. Yet to follow Jesus requires an examination of his relationship between his fear of scarcity and his desire for an experience of spiritual abundance.

That evening in the daily review with his disciples of the events of the day – to emphasize the nature of the difficulty for the rich man in connecting up his fear of scarcity with his longing for spiritual abundance  – Jesus uses a metaphor for the seeming impossibility. He says to the disciples: Children, clearly emphasizing their spiritual immaturity – how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.

Now before we misinterpret Jesus as a preaching naked socialism – a misinterpretation that nicely exempts us – well most of us – from his warning about being rich as an impediment to eternal life. We need to pause and take a second look. Jesus is really talking here not about the enjoyment or perils of financial abundance but about the way financial abundance is seen as  th source of self-sufficient security. The problem is not possessing abundance, but the way our abundance is possessed -possessed defensively as a bulwark against the fear of scarcity. It’s all a matter of attitude.

The source of all our loves in life flow from God’s love for us. In acknowledging this  we come to know our need of God. Between now and November 14th – ingathering Sunday – I invite us all to consider the necessity of cultivating practices of generosity. I would also ask you to remember that the practice of generosity fundamentally is the strongest and most effective protest against inequality and injustice. As individuals, through our support of St Martin’s we can do so much more in furtherance of these aims than any one of us can do alone.

One of the many paradoxes at the heart of Christian life is that spiritual renewal is so much more than money yet, financial generosity is a key outcome of coming to know our need of God.

 For where your treasure is -there your heart lies also.

Matt 6:21

Liminal Times: Job a meditation

Image: Job and his family restored, William Blake. The Morgan Library & Museum

At St Martin’s, we find ourselves between the joyful celebration of the success of Opening Our Doors to the Future – the capital campaign and the launch of our Annual Stewardship Drive for 2022. The capital campaign – beyond dollar amounts raised – is an expression of confidence from our current members in the future of St Martin’s. Next week, we will officially launch the stewardship drive for 2022. Over the course of its five-week duration, we will be asking our membership to review and renew their estimate of giving so that we can effectively plan for 2022, our 125th year.

However, this review and renewal process asks us to reflect on the question: can we let our imaginations become tools through which God’s dreaming for the world can flow more freely into our world?

We find ourselves in what Susan Beaumont in her insightful book How to lead when you don’t know where you are going –described as a liminal season. A liminal season is a shoulder season – a time in-between. How do we proceed when between an ending and a new beginning—when the old way of doing things no longer works but a way forward is not yet clear?  It’s not only in the church but as a wider society we find ourselves in a liminal time when the continuity of tradition disintegrates and uncertainty about the future fuels doubt and chaos. In a liminal season it simply is not helpful to pretend we understand what needs to happen next. Prophetic words for us in this moment of history.

St Martin’s endeavors to occupy a place of tension weathering the uncertainty of the times through a commitment to traditional worship combined with a radical theological messaging that recognizes and attempts to speak into the uncertainty of the times. We are all watching the stalwart generation of faithful members pass on to the next great adventure and wonder who is coming up behind them to take their place? Our fear that we are on a trajectory of decline fills some of us with despair while provoking in others a manic attempt to delay what we all fear is inevitable.

In last week’s sermon I offered a sweeping overview of the essential themes found in the book of Job – a book that offers one of the most profound explorations of the nature of human suffering in the face of a God who often seems to us uninterested in our plight – a God who from our experience remains silent in the face of humanity’s age-old question concerning suffering – why?

In today’s Job portion we hear him exclaiming:  Oh that I knew where I might find him, that I might come to his dwelling. We might read this sentence as Oh what I wouldn’t give to know that God is really there. Words that remind us of the partial nature of our knowledge and the narrowness of our vision.

Our vision is clouded with self-preoccupation and protests of self-importance – cutting us off from the divine energy for renewal. So much of our vision – both individually and in community is hedged-in by our need for reassurance. We strain to hear a false note of security – a grasping for knowledge as a defense against the uncertainties of the future.

Job continues:

I would lay my case before him, and fill my mouth with arguments, I would learn what he would answer me, and understand what he would say to me. Would he contend with me in the greatness of his power? No; but he would give heed to me. There an upright person could reason with him, and I should be acquitted forever by my judge.

Eventually, God will respond to Job in rhetorical metaphors that expose the human dilemma; we cannot know what we feel we need to know. We fill the vacuum in our knowledge with simplistic answers such as leading a charmed life is a sign of God’s favor and suffering means God’s punishment or abandonment. Feeling alone and abandoned in an indifferent universe – we cast ourselves even further adrift when concluding that because our suffering is not instantly alleviated – we are not given the miracle we demand, we cease to matter to God.

In the end, God responds to Job by effectively sidestepping his complaint. God will not meet Job’s complaint by justifying divine action or inaction. Instead, we will hear God reminding Job of the paradox of his quest for omniscience -to know the entirety of things:

Where were you when I laid the foundations of the world? Tell me if you have understanding who determined its measurements – surely you know! Who laid the cornerstone when the morning stars sang together, and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy?

We cannot know the entirety of things. We cannot know the future except in outline – glimpsed through a glass darkly. Yet, journeying into the future has never required us to know where we’re going. Oh, I know we like to pretend that we often do, but, we have never known the future before it arrives. In this lies grounds for hope. Instead of being preoccupied with our own construction of a future of either doom and gloom or of false and brittle certainties – can we let our imaginations become tools through which God’s dreaming for the world can flow  with greater freedom?  Our future lies in the mind of God and always has done!

If we learn anything from the serious practice of a spiritual life, God’s surprises are so much more exciting and fulfilling than anything – when left to the impoverishment of our own imaginations -we could predict or plan for ourselves.

Between the Job of the prologue and the Job of the epilogue lies the experience of his suffering. Job’s is not an experience of senseless suffering although through protest he demands for God to show him its meaning.

God never gives Job an answer to his insistent question why. Many see in this refusal to satisfy Job’s demand a suspicion that maybe God can’t give Job a satisfactory answer. Nevertheless, between beginning and ending lies the experience of change and being changed – albeit by something pretty awful. Maybe this is the purpose of Job’s suffering – a catalyst for change.

In the beginning, before Job has everything he cherishes taken from him, he believes that his prosperity reflects his own greatness. In this he is a great icon for many of today’s obscenely wealthy 1%-ters. The book ends with God’s restitution to Job not simply of the original wealth taken from him but of a magnification of that wealth tenfold. But Job is not the same man he was before. Suffering has changed him, and he now understands his wealth as a sign not of his greatness, but of God’s. His wealth is no longer his, but a sign of God’s generosity.

Job’s response to God’s generosity is gratitude. How might any of us express our gratitude? By a dedication and commitment to live in turn, with greater generosity.

Job now does something unheard of – as a sign of his gratitude for all he has he rewrites his will – settling portions of his estate on his three daughters as well as his male heirs. In the time in which this story is set, this action would have been unthinkable -beyond the capacity of the ancient imagination.

Can anything be a clearer demonstration of job as a changed man?

Living amidst the uncertainties, the fear, doubts, and violence of a liminal time, we might pay greater attention to our part in the unfolding of God’s dream for the world. The flow of God’s dreaming for the world requires only two things from us. The first is a capacity to be endlessly curious in the face of doubt and fear. And the second is a willingness to be changed in the direction of becoming more fit for God’s purpose!

Can you love what you cannot control?

The Wisdom genre of writing in the O.T comprises the book of Wisdom, Ecclesiastes, and the book of Job. On the whole, the book of Wisdom presents a conventional view of: do good and you will be rewarded, do bad and you will be punished. Ecclesiastes has a more complex and nuanced view which challenges the book of Wisdom’s more simplistic conclusions. Ecclesiastes views the universe as unpredictable. Bad things happen to good people just as good things happen to bad people, and there is no clear explanation for why this is so. This more nuanced perspective raises a core conundrum: can we rely on God to be both wise, and just? It’s this conundrum that the book of Job addresses.

The author of Job is an Israelite writing at a date that is difficult to determine. However, the point here is that he is drawing on a much older non-Israelite story about a man called Job who lived in Ur –  city of the Chaldeans, which in today’s topography is located somewhere between Damascus and the Euphrates. The book’s prologue and epilogue seem to hang together, both written in Hebrew prose and at first sight offer a simplistic morality more in keeping with the Book of Wisdom. The core of the book between prologue and epilogue is written in the most exquisite Hebrew poetry; the complexity and obscurity of which has posed a serious challenge for any translator.

Job’s story begins in mythical time in the realms of the heavenly conference involving God and the more important angels. In this conference, God boasts about his servant Job, praising him for his faithfulness. The angel known as the Satan which means  accuser, questions God’s assessment of Job.  Satan basically says let me test Job and you will find out that he’s not as faithful as he pretends because once his prosperity is challenged he will curse God. God gives the Satan his wish. He can visit any disaster upon Job so long as he stops short of taking his life.

The prologue presents Job as an ancient embodiment of today’s 1%. He is rich beyond imagining.  He’s a successful market trader – having made prudent investments including making regular propitious sacrifices to God. Suddenly, his whole livelihood is devastated by a huge earthquake which not only destroys all his property but kills livestock, servants and his children. Only Job and his wife are spared. This calamity is followed by a series of physical afflictions, reducing Job to a whimpering heap of festering sores.

At first, Job continues to praise God, and even though eventually he laments the day of his birth, he refuses to believe that God has abandoned him.

From left stage there now enter a couple of Job’s good friends. They tell Job that God is just, and the world is ordered by divine justice, ergo Job must have done something wrong to be so punished by God. His friends faithfully visit Job and try to comfort him in his afflictions.

We can get a sense of how Job’s friends felt when we consider our own experience of supporting a close friend through a period of suffering. After a while, the burden of witnessing pain we are powerless to alleviate plays on our own fears. We find ourselves subtly distancing ourselves from our friend’s suffering by finding an causal explanation for their suffering. This way we can  convince ourselves that because our situation is different then their plight won’t befall us. We may even resort to: after all so-and-so has only themselves to blame, they should have exercised more, drank less and eaten more healthily.

Despite continuing to feel sympathy, it’s comforting if we can assign agency for suffering to something our friend may or may not have done. We might also need to distance ourselves from their experience for the opposite reason – that we fear that this is indeed something that could easily befall us. The reminder of this can be so frightening that we may sever all contact with a once dear friend.

Job’s friends need to find an explanation for Job’s life falling apart. The most obvious one for them is provided by their conventional morality of divine justice – God does not punish the innocent, only the guilty They work hard to get Job to admit his sin. Job vehemently protests his innocence, not only to his friends but also to the Almighty.

As the first two friends are about to give up on Job as a lost cause a new friend arrives. He’s a younger man, full of the untested confidence of youth. He advances a new and novel idea. God is not punishing Job for sin but testing his faithfulness by purging him of ego – God does not regard any who are wise in their own conceit[1].

He continues to persuade Job for the next several chapters and finally, not only has Job had enough, but it seems, God has as well. Dismissing the arguments of the young friend God demands: Who is this who darkens counsel without words of knowledge?[2]

Now, God finally addresses Job directly. Job’s complaint all along has been -how can a just God act so unjustly towards him? God counters with shall a faultfinder contend with the Almighty[3], pushing Job back on the defensive.

God now addresses Job from within a whirlwind saying: gird up your loins like a man for I now wish to question you[4].

God takes Job on a virtual tour of the universe asking him: were you present at the birth of creation? Did you bring order to the universe, have you seen this, been there, done that, and do you know how it all works? Do you claim to understand the complexity of the universe as if you are able to keep it all in good working order?

It’s curious that God does not defend the idea of divine justice but asserts divine sovereignty in the face of Job’s accusations.

The upshot of God’s response to Job is that Job cannot claim to understand anything God does, including the inexplicability of suffering. What may look like an injustice to Job, is from God’s wider perspective simply part of a larger and richer whole encompassed within divine wisdom, something beyond Job’s capacity to understand. And thus, we arrive at the final chapter of the book with Job acknowledging the foolishness of his demands to know all that God knows.

When we are faced with something beyond our understanding, we have alternative choices to make. we can pull back, stay safe, and simply resign ourselves to the inexplicability of God’s will. Or we can reject such a God who would do this thing abandoning ourselves to the meaninglessness of the universe. Or we can treat that which is presently beyond our understanding as an invitation to arouse our curiosity and allow ourselves to be subtly changed not by the answers we receive but by the questions we ask.

Something has shifted for Job and he now embraces that which seems beyond his understanding with curiosity. A new perspective opens for Job from which to view his experience of suffering. Throughout this whole terrible experience, Job has been so fixated on protesting his innocence and calling God to account, he has failed to notice that the experience of suffering has been slowly changing him. Having his whole world blown to smithereens transforms Job so that faced with God’s sovereignty he is able to now confess:

I had heard of you by hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you: therefore, I recant – give up my demand – for I am only a creature that lives among dust and ashes.

Job’s experience is now reframed by his knowing that he is both at the center of God’s concern, yet, at the same time, only one speck of dust within the enormous complexity of God’s perspective. He may be no wiser as to why he has had to suffer but he knows that God has never abandoned him.

The lethal development for any of us is to conclude that because we don’t get an instant alleviation of our suffering – we are not given the miracle we demand, we cease to matter to God.

For Job, and for us also, this is both a thrilling and terrifying discovery. Like Job, it’s hard for us to sit in the tension between knowing that God loves us, utterly, and the recognition that we are powerless to control so much that happens in our lives and our world. The book of Job raises many theological and existential questions to which God in the end gives no where near an adequate account. In the Tanakh – the Jewish canon of scripture equivalent to the Christian Old Testament, God’s address to Job is the last time God speaks. In the books that follow Job, God is forever silent. The rabbis conclude that it is not God who has silenced Job, but after eliciting God’s blazing self-defense it is Job who has finally silenced God.

We now come to what appears to be a happy-ever-after ending as God restores all Job’s losses tenfold. This is a jarring conclusion to what otherwise is the most profound exploration of the relationship between human suffering and God’s justice. It’s seeming simplistic message and the return to the prose style of the prologue has led commentators to see this as an ending tacked on to the original story because, after all, don’t we all like happy endings?

Literary analysis shows that the prose style of the opening and closing scenes in the book of Job belong to a separate more simplistic story. The core of the book – written not in prose style but complex Hebrew poetry is a later insertion – an attempt to deal in a more complex way with the meaning of suffering.

That being so, what appears to be a happy ending gloss-over nevertheless raises some profound questions. It strikes me rather like a reboot of the story. Using the analogy of downloads on our computers, the more significant downloads, the ones that reconfigure aspects of the operating system require a complete machine reboot to take effect.

This traumatic destruction of Job’s whole life and all he thought he could take for granted has changed him and now requires a reboot to take effect. Job is newly restored to even more good fortune. But Job in the epilogue is not the same as Job in the prologue. He is a man who now understands the nature of abundance as a the generosity of God and not simply his reward for good behavior and the offering of propitious sacrifices.

It’s a common human experience that only after we lose something do we come to understand its true value. In short, for the first time Job now understands that God’s generosity is given not earned. If we apply this insight to our own lives we can appreciate the significant shift in self-understanding involved.

This takeaway has a particular meaning for us on the day we are also gathering to give thanks for the success of our recent capital campaign. It’s also a reminder as we look ahead to the launch of our annual stewardship drive in two week’s time. God’s renewal of Job’s prosperity is an unearned gift, for which Job feels a new intensity of gratitude towards God. In response, Job commits to live with greater generosity in the way he uses his wealth. So also must we.

In his reboot, Job now comes to mirror God’s expression of generosity.  He gives his three new daughters evocative names which translate roughly as Dove, Cinnamon, and Rouge-Pot. He settles on them the same inheritance as he settles on his sons; something completely unheard of in ancient Israel.

The central question that arises for us today from the book of Job is this: Can you love what you do not control and still risk living with a spirit of generosity? It is a question worth pondering. Perhaps you have only to think about your children to know what your answer is.

[1] V37:24

[2] V38:2

[3] V40:1-2

[4] V40:6

On the Installation of Canon Tim Watt

I want to speak this evening about the joys and sorrows of serial monogamy.  Ahh! Now I see I have your attention. So, hold that thought and follow along with me while I digress for a moment.

Tonight, in the lections chosen we commemorate Francis – a most remarkable man of God. The legends surrounding him make him the most popular culture saint of our time. Casting my eye over the age range here tonight I am quite confident that many of us became enamored with Francis after experiencing Zeffirelli’s Brother Sun Sister Moon – a depiction of Francis’ story steeped in 1970’s warm romantic hue.

Each generation it seems finds in Francis new inspiration – including the present Pope, of all people. So, I do not intend to say more about Francis other than to note the genius of his ego-uncluttered openness to God made manifest in the grandeur and beauty of the creation. His creation-centered spirituality certainly makes him the saint of this moment as we struggle to embrace the implications of looming ecological disaster.

We have also heard this evening some powerful and disturbing words from the book of Job. Words that remind us of the partial nature of our knowledge and the narrowness of our vision. Unlike Francis – our vision is clouded with self-preoccupation and protests of self-importance – cutting us off from the divine energy for renewal. So much of our vision – both individually and in community is hedged-in by our need for reassurance. We strain to hear a false note of security – a grasping for knowledge as a defense against the uncertainties of the future – always in the process of becoming known.

Do you know when the mountain goats give birth?

Do you observe the calving of the deer?

Can you number the months that they fulfil,

and do you know the time when they give birth,

when they crouch to give birth to their offspring,

and are delivered of their young?

God’s responds to Job in rhetorical metaphors that expose the human dilemma. We cannot know what we feel we need to know – and so we take cover behind a protective wall of hubris.

Last year, Bishop Nicholas encouraged the clergy to read Susan Beaumont’s inciteful book How to lead when you don’t know where you are going. I was so captivated by the title I kept ordering the book before discovering I already had 2 copies on my shelf. Sometimes it pays to read the books that adorn one’s shelves.

Beaumont’s thesis is how do you lead an organization stuck between an ending and a new beginning—when the old way of doing things no longer works but a way forward is not yet clear? She calls such in-between times liminal seasons—threshold times when the continuity of tradition disintegrates and uncertainty about the future fuels doubt and chaos. In a liminal season it simply is not helpful to pretend we understand what needs to happen next. Prophetic words for us in this moment of history.

I’m certain that every priest sitting in this church tonight, every member of a RI congregation – while not necessarily agreeing with me that the combination of traditional worship combined with a radical  – socially-relevant – theological messaging is the way to go – at least will recognize the dilemma we face. As clergy, we are all watching the stalwart generation of faithful members pass on to the next great adventure and wonder who is coming up behind them – to take their place? Our fear that we are on a trajectory of decline fills some of us with despair while provokes in others manic attempts to delay what we all fear is inevitable. We cast our minds into the future to imagine a destination few of us ever want to reach. Employing the metaphor of the ostrich, God reminds Job of the paradox of his quest for omniscience -to know the entirety of things:

‘The ostrich’s wings flap wildly,

   though its pinions lack plumage. *

For it leaves its eggs to the earth,

   and lets them be warmed on the ground,

forgetting that a foot may crush them,

   and that a wild animal may trample them.

 It deals cruelly with its young, as if they were not its own;

   though its labor should be in vain, yet it has no fear;

because God has made it forget wisdom,

   and given it no share in understanding.

When it spreads its plumes aloft, *

   it laughs at the horse and its rider.

These words lead me to pose a question to us tonight. Can we become more Francis-like in the use of our imaginations? We cannot know the entirety of things. We cannot know the future except in outline – glimpsed through a glass darkly. Instead of being preoccupied with our own construction of a future of either doom and gloom or of false and brittle certainties – can we let our imaginations become tools through which God’s dreaming for the world can flow freely?  Our future lies in the mind of God and always has done. If we learn anything from the serious practice of a spiritual life, God’s surprises are so much more exciting and fulfilling than anything – when left to the impoverishment of our own imaginations -we could predict or plan for ourselves.

Our part in the unfolding of God’s dream for the world requires only two things from us. The first is a capacity to be curious, and the second, a willingness to be changed!

Now I know you’ve been waiting with growing impatience for me to get back to my serial monogamy teaser.

This evening we are here to formally acknowledge the arrival of a new rector in this historic church where Anglican Christians have been worshipping since 1698. This present building dates from 1726 and is a testament to a New England vision of a church as community meeting house  before the ravages of the Oxford movement so changed our conception of what a church should look like. Over these centuries – how many serial monogamies has this church either enjoyed or suffered through? As you are beginning to guess by serial monogamy, I am referring to the marriage between parish and rector.

I first knew Tim and later Tania when one Sunday looking out over the congregation of Trinity Cathedral, Phoenix, – it too has a very high pulpit – I wondered to myself – who is that imposing young man I’ve not seen before? Over succeeding months, I came to know Tim and then Tania – both as curious and eager young people – well young to me – yearning to hear the burning questions of their lives reset within the context of an ancient – time tested faith that did not do violence to the reality of the values underpinning the lives they were actually living.

Tim was like a man parched – finding in the Episcopal church a Balm in Gilead to soothe his world-sick soul. Together, Tim and Tania threw themselves into our community life and before long it became clear to me that Tim wanted to share with me something he thought only he knew.

Tim, your call to priesthood came as no secret to me and I was delighted to have the privilege of accompanying you through the tortures of discernment. Watching from afar, I was even more delighted when during your time at VTS you had the opportunity to spend a season at Ripon College, my very own theological alma mater situated in the medieval village of Cuddesdon just outside Oxford. It’s a very particular privilege to have been invited to speak on this the occasion of your installation and induction as rector of Trinity Church.

Members of Trinity, you’ve chosen well in your new marriage partner. Tim is a man of stature and intellect. I believe him to be honest and true – but also gentle in his proclamation and considerate in his conversation. A man in love with the beauty of Anglican tradition and the long experience of English Christianity that gave it birth. Yet, he’s someone who also understands that the tectonic plates of culture and religion are shifting beneath us even as we sit here tonight in pews – gazing up into a pulpit – both better designed for an age long ago passed.  

Tim is a priest who fully understands that the only way our tradition of Christianity can survive is to do what it has always had the genius to do – adapt and change. He understands that it’s not change for change’s sake – but change – contemplated and carefully measured and tested against the biblical witness and the wisdom of the Tradition – both scrutinized by the higher values of reason.

Trinity folk – you are the product of a long line of serial monogamies. Some marriages have been wonderful, some not so – but as in life for those of us who have been married more than once – the real question remains how are we contemplating the new marriage? Do we enter the new relationship mindful of the experience of what has been learned through the successes – but maybe more importantly, the failures of passed relationships?

The genius of our Episcopal tradition is a form of governance that brings priest and people together in the mutuality of a marriage of equals. You are the community in this hallowed church. You were here before Tim arrived and will remain long after he has gone. However, with Tim, you have now contracted another in a your long series of monogamies – each a relationship in which you’ve partnered with a spiritual leader whom you have called to lead you together into the challenges and opportunities of God’s dream for Trinity Church.

For the moment and for foreseeable moments Tim is your rector. Know your responsibility to love and nurture him in his ministry by remaining vigilant over your power to harm and hurt him.

From my own 36 years of experience in priestly leadership I’ve discovered a two-fold litmus test for a successful rector-parish monogamy. The first part of the test I address to the community. Are you able to be intuitively curious about – rather than instinctively resistant to the changes catalyzed by Tim’s spiritual leadership among you? Let this question be the word on your lips as you rise in the morning and the last thought at night before the repose of sleep.

The second part of the test is for you Tim. Are you able to allow yourself to be molded and changed by the demands of your spiritual leadership within the unique dynamics of this community? May this question remain always at the heart of your prayer before God and in your daily encounters with those given over to your care.

God bless you my friend and God bless this parish community as you continue to stumble your way forward into the realization of God’s dream of your becoming more fit for the purpose God has for you.

Shush – Wisdom’s still Speaking

The book of Proverbs belongs to a genre of Biblical writing known as the Wisdom Literature. Proverbs belongs with Psalms, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs (Song of Solomon), Job, and Sirach or sometimes known as Ecclesiasticus.  Although adapted to Jewish issues and concerns Wisdom literature is not Hebrew in origin. Similar material is also found in Egyptian and Babylonian sources.

Wisdom focuses on the challenge to live life skillfully in a spirit of enquiry and wonder. In the face of suffering, Wisdom is unsatisfied by the conventional answer: because God wills it. Wisdom challenges suffering and the apparent futile and fleeting nature of life and says: yes, but why?

Wisdom presents a complex and multilayered worldview – sitting in tension with more conventional biblical voices. We see this tension playing out again and again throughout Proverbs, Psalms, Job, Ecclesiastes, and Sirach. Personified in the feminine – Wisdom expresses the feminine principle – the anima of the divine – later to find an echo in the Christian understanding of the Holy Spirit – the pneuma – the breath of God. The Greek term for Wisdom is sophia. Sophia, expressing creation’s feminine principle has been affectionately known in English literature as Lady Wisdom.

Proverbs 31, enumerating the qualities of the good wife appears to have been written as the inspired utterances of the Queen-Mother for her son, King Lemuel (identity unknown) in his search for the ideal spouse. Thus, the depiction of the capable wife found from verse 10 onwards is in its original context a description of the ideal virtues to be found in a great queen. It is definitely NOT a description of the virtues of ordinary wifeliness which the patriarchal tradition of Jewish and Christian interpretation has embraced.

Last week I stressed the importance of words. Words matter! This week I want to draw attention to two Hebrew words isshah and chayil.

All wives are women but not all women are wives. In the word isshah, ancient Hebrew does not distinguish between wife and woman. In English, as well as other languages with Germanic roots, isshah has been rendered as wife. The difficulty here is that this is an interpretive gloss which reflects the patriarchal bias. All wives are women but not all women are wives. But in patriarchy, that is,  the social structures headed by the father and privileging the power and status of men over women – that all wives are women but not all women are wives becomes all women may not yet be wives – emphasis on the yet. The essence of womanhood is to be fulfilled only through becoming a wife. Hence Proverbs 31’s traditional interpretation as a hymn of praise extoling the attributes of the good wife.

English translators have for 500 years struggled with the Hebrew word Chayil – variously translating it as good, virtuous, valiant, or as the NRSV does – capable. Yet, all these translations miss chayil’s clearest meaning of warrior-like. There is quite a difference when verse 10 if instead of a capable wife, who can find we read a warrior-like – strong woman – who can find?  Wouldn’t this introduce a novel twist to The Handwife’s Tale let alone challenge Evangelical notions of male headship?

Proverbs 31 nowhere presents a picture of dutiful and obedient wifeliness. Neither does it in any place extol the virtues of motherhood. This woman is not chained to her stove or her children, she is not domestic at all but seems to be something of a combination of a wise and frugal merchant, creative artisan and provider, and social philanthropist. The text notes that her husband is well known at the city gates – who with a woman like this at his side – would not be?

When chayil is rendered warrior-like, strong, invincible, Amazon-like, as opposed to merely virtuous or capable, the exhausting list of this woman’s social and domestic productivity is only capped by her crowning glory – which resides not in her industriousness, neither in her physical beauty, nor her cocktail-hour social charm and wit. According to Wisdom, her crowning glory lies in her fear of the Lord – as in holding the Lord in proper esteem. Hence the saying: the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. Never mind her husband’s honor among his peers, Proverbs 31 concludes with:

Give her a share in the fruit of her hand, and let her works praise her in the city gates!

Proverbs 31

In the 21st-century, this is a difficult text for the unwary preacher. It is a text that speaks to both the hopeful expectations as well as the enduring pain and struggle lying at the heart of contemporary issues of gender and power.

It’s extraordinary when considering that such a text, read for centuries as a patriarchal hymn to wifely virtue is one of the clearest biblical endorsements for what we have come to refer to as the emancipation of women. Such a reinterpretation rests on the strength of what the text says. Words Matter! Strip away Tradition’s male-dominated wifely fantasies and we are compelled to allow the text to speak anew into our own gender-contested context.

The emancipation of women and the emergence of the woman’s voice in our political and theological context constitutes not simply a new social awakening – but a return to the vision of womanhood in Proverbs 31. The emancipation of women in our own time is a veritable tsunami that continues to sweep before it centuries of women’s experience of injustice and oppression at the hands of both the female as well as the male supporters of patriarchy. Much of the energy of the anti-abortion movement is understandable only when the age-old patriarchal fear of women being in control of their own reproductive choices is factored in.

In its original context, Proverbs 31 constituted an idealized image of royal womanhood. Nevertheless, allowing for such idealization, the text expresses Wisdom’s image of womanhood not domesticated to the home and hearth but as strong, vital, and socially engaged in all aspects of civic life.

Wisdom’s worldview deeply informs the shape of Jesus ministry and teaching. Wisdom’s challenge to worldly values of dominance and power echoes loudly in Jesus’ deeply countercultural honoring of women.

In Mark 9:30-37, we find Jesus sternly castigating his disciples for masculine preoccupation with power and dominance. His response comes straight from the heart of Wisdom’s playbook. In his day children were even more oppressed than women in the hierarchy of patriarchy. Driving home his point- he -takes a little child and in Wisdom’s voice proclaims:

whoever welcomes one such a child in my name, welcomes me; and not only me, but the one who has sent me!

In the wake of the tsunami of women’s emancipation, and the growing recognition of the rights of the child – we are awakening to a tidal wave of repentance for the way we have been deaf to the age-long cries of women and children. Open your ears – can you hear Wisdom is still speaking?

Words!


When we lived in Phoenix, our granddaughter, Claire, attended a very alternative Montessori school founded by members of the Western Sikh community – you know the men and women clothed in white and sporting impressively high white turbans. One day while collecting Claire I witnessed an argument between two children.

The other children standing around, instead of egging them on  admonished the protagonists to: use your words! Use your words!

I was deeply impressed by these relatively young children – I guess they must have been under 10 years of age – diffusing conflict by urging their peers to process their feelings into words – and avoid unthought out action.

It’s the failure to process feelings into words that lies at the root of a great deal of violence in our society. Instead of feelings being processed into verbal communications – the failure to find words results in feelings remaining unprocessed.

Our unprocessed feelings avoid our conscious scrutiny – taking an end run around our power to choose -becoming acted out in behaviors that unleash the intensity of the feelings through spontaneous action.

Use your words! Use your words! – could well be the motto by which we all seek to live. Through processing into words, we begin to exercise conscious choice over our unconscious or hidden feelings – creating a space between feeling and action for choice.

Our nation’s journey since 9/11 – highlighted more recently during the Trump presidency – has shown us how much words matter and the damage that the wrong words can cause. Words matter!

There are pivotal moments in history when time divides into a time before and time after – a time when nothing again was quite the same. The question: where were you on 9/11? has joined the question: where were you when JFK was assassinated? as two key historical pivot points in our collective memory.

On 9/11, not since Pearl Harbor, had such a devastating wound been inflicted upon the nation – a wound that would evoke a dark desire for reckoning. After Pearl Harbor the desire for a reckoning took a predictable shape against a clearly defined adversary. Following 9/11 – the dark urgency for a reckoning had no clearly defined object. Consequently, our leaders conjured up an imagined adversary – setting us on an unpredictable path – a path from which we are only now finally exiting some 20 years later.

Words matter, and none more so than when President Bush proudly proclaimed those four fateful words: the war on terror. Like President Reagan’s earlier war on drugs, the war on terror –was a phrase – seemingly meaningless in content – yet huge in destructive import.

Words matter – and it’s the wrong words – paradoxically – that sometimes matter most.

  • If our leaders had been able to find words to communicate the complexity of a nation in shock- words capable of giving voice to the confusion and fear of a nation in pain – words of leadership and vision capable of processing the pain and confusion of a nation into positive action.
  • If our leaders had been able to find the words of a Lincoln at Gettysburg, or Churchill in 1941, or MLK at the head of the Washington Mall, or Robert Kennedy standing before a crowd primed for violence – in those moments when the news reached them that MLK was dead – what then – what different direction might history have taken in the years following the events on 9/11?

There were other words uttered in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks – words easily drowned out by a bellicose cacophony. Barbara Lee, the only member of Congress to vote against giving President Bush unsupervised war powers, standing alone on the floor of the House uttered these words

Only the most foolish and the most callous would not understand the grief that has gripped our people and millions across the world. This unspeakable act on the United States has really forced me, however, to rely on my moral compass, my conscience, and my God for direction. September 11th changed the world. Our deepest fears now haunt us. Yet I am convinced that military action will not prevent further acts of international terrorism against the United States. However difficult this vote may be, some of us must urge the use of restraint. Our country is in a state of mourning…Let’s just pause, just for a minute, and think through the implications of our actions today so that this does not spiral out of control.”

She concluded:

I have agonized over this vote. I came to grips with opposing this resolution during the very painful yet very beautiful memorial service. As a member of the clergy so eloquently said, ‘As we act, let us not become the evil that we deplore’.

Words matter. Taking time to pause before acting leads us to find the right words – giving us the power to exercise conscious choices over which actions to take and which to refrain from taking. The power of human conscious thought -ushering forth in considered and well-chosen action is all we have to resist the clamoring and unruly need to assuage the dark collective unconscious desires for reckoning.



Looking back, we can now see 9/11 as a tear in the fabric of time – dividing between a time before and a time after. After 9/11, in the moments that followed we as a nation failed to find the right words to express the gravity of the moment, and consequently took a momentous wrong turn.

Let us imagine for a moment that in the days and weeks following 9/11 -if the leadership and nation had listened to Barbara Lee rather than George Bush – how might her words rather than his have set us upon a different 20-year trajectory? – We know that the fruit of the war on terror was – forever wars.

Even though this is a question we can only speculate upon with a deep sense of regret – yet another of the what-if-conundrums of history – it’s the vital question of this moment – and we must not allow our remembrances to avoid addressing this question of the moment.

In doing so we can find no better guide than the apostle James, brother of Our Lord and leader of the fledgling Jerusalem Church speaking to us through the Epistle set for the Sunday after 9/11.

The tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great exploits. How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! With it we bless the Lord of earth and heaven, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and curse. Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and brackish water? Can a fig tree, yield olives, or a grapevine figs?

Words matter because from them consequences flow. On the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks – with the hindsight of 20 years of forever wars, we give humble thanks with repentant hearts for the end of our intervention in Afghanistan. We remember all who over two decades gave their live. For the many more who returned scarred in body and disturbed and disillusioned in mind.

We cannot escape the vital question – which is not what went wrong in the painful extraction of our forces – but out of the trauma of Afghanistan and Iraq have we managed to create a better future?

Words matter because as the Apostle James boldly states – words bear fruit.

Wise God, on this 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks – we are invited to examine what we failed to reflect upon then - and to face the consequences of our past actions filtering into future challenge. We pray that we may never again lose sight of the significance of words to process feelings at the pivotal moments that still lie ahead- lest when we act we once again become the evil we deplore.

Feet of Clay

Over the summer, we’ve been following with some interruptions the unfolding saga of ancient Israel’s political transition from devolved tribal confederation to centralized monarchy. This is primarily, a story of the contour and vicissitude of power. It’s a saga to enthrall – from murderous ambition and dynastic power struggle to domestic violence, family dysfunction, pain, and personal tragedy galore.

What interests me about this history, recorded by a group of scribes known as the Deuteronomists is its timeless relevance to the exercise of power and authority in our contemporary age. We still struggle with the push and pull between centralized and devolved government – whether in the tussle between federal and state or as we are seeing increasingly being played out – between state and municipality.

Shakespeares’ immemorial line put into the mouth of Richard IV: Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown -certainly is a mantra that must have kept David awake many a night – as with increasing intensity he experienced the unfolding of Nathan’s dire prophecy of a chain of violence that would never leave him, nor his house, in peace. Yet, I’m left wondering however if this sentiment ever crossed Solomon’s mind? Coming full circle Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown is certainly a mantra that Joe Biden is no longer a stranger to. But back to Solomon.

In the second chapter of the first book of the Kings we read that David slept with his ancestors and was buried in the city of David, having reigned an astonishing 40 years – 7 years at Hebron and then after he conquered Jerusalem a further 30.

The weakness in authoritarian regimes lies in the unpredictability of succession. As the once strong leader begins to fail, in the absence of constitutional processes governing the strict line of succession, factionalism thrives. In David’s last years, anxiety increased about who would succeed him as those who had once been the king’s fixers – his right-hand men – vied to influence the succession. The death of Absalom left his brother Adonijah next in the line of succession. But following some pretty murky machinations by Solomon’s mother Bathsheba, David passes his throne to Solomon. Before his death, David advises Solomon on how to clear the field by killing the opposition’s ringleaders. This not only clears his way to the throne, but also settles some of his father’s old scores, -the hand of retribution from beyond the grave – as it were.

Adonijah appears to accept being passed over but then gives Solomon an unexpected excuse to move against him when he manipulates Bathsheba into petitioning Solomon to give him Abishag for his wife. Abishag, you will recall, was the young woman chosen to warm the old king’s feet in his failing years. For Adonijah to claim her seems to indicate a roundabout way of asserting his rights to his father’s inheritance.

Solomon is angered by his mother allowing herself to become Adonijah’s tool to get to him. Gripped by fratricidal rage – Solomon orders Adonijah struck down and killed before moving swiftly against the opposition ringleaders. Joab, once the commander of the army, seeks sanctuary by grasping the horns of the altar.

Solomon nevertheless has Joab struck down in the heart of the Holy of Holies. He then deposes Abiathar as high priest, exiling him to his home village. Zadok, a passionate supporter of Solomon now becomes high priest, and the way is cleared for what happens next.

The Deuteronomic attitude towards Solomon is perplexing. Despite his blood strewn path to the throne, they seem to want to give Solomon a pass. On the one hand he is presented as the embodiment of humility requesting not power and riches before God, but wisdom. God throws in power and riches as part of the package and entrusts Solomon with the task of building a permanent resting place for the Lord in the Jerusalem temple.

Yet this is the same man who had a string of foreign wives, who on ascending to the throne hightails it off to Gibeon where he sacrifices 1000 burnt offering to the pagan gods of the high places. This is the man who adopts foreign ways and worships foreign gods. This is the man who taxed the people into ruin and indentured the male population in the task of temple construction. This is the great and wise king who is promised long life but only lives to 60 – the most explicit sign for the Deuteronomist of God’s ill favor. This is the great king who destroys his father’s legacy – leaving the United Kingdom of David divided into north and south after his death and because of his extravagant misrule.

Like his father before him, Solomon is a complex figure.  Yet Solomon seems not to possess any of his father’s love of the Lord and willingness to acknowledge his sin. The final judgment of the Deuteronomists on Solomon is mixed, but his popular image – as the personification of wisdom in subsequent tradition – is on the balance of historical evidence – completely undeserved.

Based on the absence of hard archeological evidence, some historians of the period doubt whether Solomon ever existed. Certainly, much modern opinion is that the great Davidic kingdom as presented by the Deuteronomists was anything but great. Scholars divide over dating the Deuteronomic history – some seeing it as completed in the reign of Josiah mid 5th-century BCE. Others even later as a product of the monumental root and branch editing of the Hebrew Scriptures during the 4th-century Babylonian Exile. Yet, whenever compiled – the Deuteronomic history creates an imagined golden age against which to explain Israel’s subsequent decline and seeming abandonment by the Lord.

The value of the Deuteronomistic history lies not in its historical accuracy or veracity but in its theme of timeless truths. That the nature of power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. That human society left to its own devices rests on the principle that power is there to be abused.

The history of the United Kingdom of Israel echoes in the tensions in our own time. Our society is grinding under the weight of increasingly huge disparities of wealth between the 1% and the rest. Under the pressure of unrestrained corporate greed, we turn a blind eye to the compounding of individual and national debt. Western democracies are increasingly retreating in the face of a resurgence of authoritarian-nationalisms that exploit our uncertainty and fear in a time of rapid change.

From Samuel, through David, to Solomon and beyond, we see God’s glory encased in vessels of clay. Solomon is the proverbial everyman; he is you and me.  Like him, we too are creatures of our time and shaped by our culture. The continuing church scandals only too painfully reminds us that even our religious institutions – while pointing us to a reality beyond ourselves – are at the same time evidence of the all too corruptible and fallible nature of institutional life.

Like Solomon, we aspire to love God, but mostly we follow our own counsels. We long to give our full allegiance making Christian faith the unifying story around which our lives take shape, yet mostly, we march to the drumbeat of lesser stories that promise us more but deliver less.

The extraordinary thing is how we nevertheless give allegiance again and again to stories that if we did but remember last time spelled disaster. History may not exactly repeat itself but from Saigon to Kabul, South Vietnam to Afghanistan and Iraq – it certainly has a remarkable rhyming quality.

The legacy of the Deuteronomic History is a reminder that we live in a moral universe in which actions have consequences. Our sense of a moral universe flows out of the covenant YHWH made with Israel and which has now been fulfilled in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. This remains the only story with the power to shape our times in the direction we truly long for. Like David and Solomon, we too are the earthen vessels with feet of clay – struggling to reflect the divine vision for creation.

The earth dries and burns. The ice melts and the seas rise. The oceans fill with our waste and rising temperatures fan hurricanes and typhoons of unprecedented scale and frequency. New viruses jump species barriers brutally exposing the fragility and injustice of our societies Our inability to put self-interest aside and collaborate in pursuit of the common good, whether domestically or on the international stage continues to obscure the reality that we are all in this together and no one is protected unless everyone is safe. Living hour by hour, day by day as the dire events of the collapse of Afghanistan unfold before us; as our politicians rush to get down and dirty in the mire of the blame game  – can we not hear God calling us to be better than we currently are – and to do better than we previously have done?

Like Solomon and his people we sit on the cusp of divine judgement – for in the moral universe consequences most certainly follow actions.

The Bread of Action part 2

For many months the first wave of pandemic lockdown prevented us not simply from coming to church, but from coming to church for a particular purpose – namely to celebrate the Eucharist together. As we returned last summer to experience a new outdoor setting for worship, I had a sense that we returned with a heightened sense of our need for the Eucharist – a need discovered during its absence from our lives.

Sunday worship was no longer the gathering of the community at which we celebrated the Eucharist together by way of a default. Instead, worship had become a need to gather as a community in order to celebrate the Eucharist together by choice.  At first sight this might seem a fine distinction but on closer inspection it is a distinction of some significance.

As Episcopalians we are a Eucharistic community – meaning the Eucharist lies at the center of our worship life. This gives our worship life a different feel and flavor from that of our Protestant neighbors. While we share the primacy of Eucharistic worship with our Roman Catholic neighbors – differences of history and culture place Episcopalians in that odd place known historically as the via media or middle way. Our theological outlook – shaped by the Reformation – we nevertheless preserve the historic ministry of bishop, priest and deacon together with the sacramental understanding and worship practices of the ancient Apostolic and Catholic faith. This can be a confusing place to be – often leaving us feeling in the US context neither fish nor fowl and misunderstood or dismissed by both. All this leads to the question – why does the Eucharist lie at the heart of our worship lives – and what does this mean?

Referring to today’s gospel from John, the short answer is because Jesus said: For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink and whoever eats and drinks them will remain in me and I in them.

But this is not much help for many of us, I suspect. Such language can only deepen the quandary. What on earth can this language – which taken at face value suggests cannibalistic overtones – mean for us?

In her novel The River Flannery O’Connor intriguingly observes:

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

Flannery O’Connor The River

Can this be a possible explanation for Jesus’ teaching in chapter 6 of John’s Gospel?

Jesus spoke about himself in the Passover language of bread and wine. The crowds who flocked to hear him, including his disciples well understood this reference but were a little surprised at Jesus’ bodily identification with the Passover elements of bread and wine. The crunch comes when he moves beyond mere Passover images into a shockingly new imagery – of the eating of his body as bread and the drinking of his blood as wine. There were many, John tells us, including some disciples who could not take this teaching – thinking him probably delusional. Many seem to have left him at this point.

Chapter 6 contains three I am statements, each statement more controversial than the last:

  1. I am the bread of life, whoever comes to me will never go hungry.
  2. I am the bread of life, come down from heaven.
  3. I am the living bread, and this bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.

Just when the disciples must have been signaling to Jesus to dial it back a bit, he declares:

For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink and whoever eats and drinks them will remain in me and I in them.

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

His disciples complain that Jesus’ teaching is too hard to follow – it is too difficult to accept – they protest. It’s not difficult for us to see that it’s the overtones of cannibalism that trouble them as well as the blasphemous identification with the Moses and the elements of Passover. In a vulnerable moment, Jesus asks them if they too will leave him? There now follows one of those magic moments when Peter breaks through the limits of imagination to tell Jesus:

Lord, to whom else shall we go? You have the words of eternal life! 

Behind this characteristic Johannine declaration, we can hear Peter saying: Lord, we don’t really understand any of this, but coming this far with you we have nowhere else to go.

It’s interesting that it’s only John’s gospel that records this extended bread of life teaching of Jesus. We are so familiar with John’s presentation of Jesus’ bread of life teaching that we miss that John had a particular need to present this material. It all makes sense when we remember that John is teaching against a background of a growing movement of Jesus denial – that is denial of the importance of Jesus himself in preference to a Spirit inspired personal connection with God that does an end run around Jesus the historical figure.

This Jesus denial group  came to be known in Christian history as the Gnostics. They eventually split from the Johannine community making way for the assimilation of the remnants of John’s community into the wider church – bringing with them their preserved Jesus, the bread of the life of the world, teaching. It’s this teaching – unique to John that becomes the basis of the Apostolic Church’s eucharistic theology.

We can understand the tension in John’s community very much in contemporary terms. It’s the same tension which today we encounter between those of us who claim to be Christian and the many others who say they are spiritual but not religious – or with those who say you don’t have to go to church to be Christian. John’s answer to this contention is to emphasize that without a communal incorporation into Jesus as the bread of life – the life of the world, there is nowhere else to go.

Being spiritual but religious is better than not being spiritual at all. Those who recognize a higher spiritual plane are a force for good in the world. But being spiritual on your own is not the same as being a member of a community called Christian. Being Christian is to be Jesus-centered and an active participant in a community that celebrates Eucharist together.

The bread of eternal life is my flesh which I give [to be consumed] for the life of the world. Do this always to re-member me.

In the Eucharist, as we celebrate the bread from heaven given for the life of the world we also in the same moment make our ethical commitment to the life of this world. The spiritual bread of the Eucharist is also the physical bread of food, shelter, and justice– made available in the everyday world through our actions of service and truth witnessing.

The great Episcopal lay theologian, William Stringfellow who lived the latter part of his life on Block Island and was a towering figure and friend to many in this diocese, wrote of celebrating the Eucharist:

As a transcendent event, [collecting] all that has already happened in this world from the beginning of time and prophesies all that is to come until the end of time.

Keeper of the Word PP 125<<

Here, Stringfellow is articulating the cosmic significance of the Eucharist as an action of taking the flow of time – past and future – and folding them into the present moment – when and where:

The [Eucharist] is also a contemporary event, involving these particular persons gathered in this specific place and in this peculiar way               

While keeping Flannery O’Connor’s wry observation in mind, William Stringfellow most clearly offers us the answer to the earlier question about why Episcopalians are a Eucharistic people – placing an open and welcoming celebration of the Eucharist at the heart of our communal life.

Stringfellow uses a dramatic term for celebrating the Eucharist. He calls it a political event.

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

Keeper of the Word

The Bread of Action

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

The significance of pre-sliced bread has found its way into the language. A common saying in both New Zealand and the UK to describe something wonderful is to say: it’s the best thing since sliced bread! Maybe it’s a saying used by Americans as well. Being a denizen of all three cultures, it’s increasingly difficult for me to keep straight in which of the three cultures a certain aphorism originates.

I remember bread as the staple of my childhood, for bread was not the specialty item to be savored and delighted over that those of us living in Providence find at Seven Stars Bakery. Bread was bread, white or brown, sliced or not. Used as toast or to make a sandwich or a bread pudding –a great favorite of visits to my maternal grandmother.

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

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

For several weeks the gospel readings have been following Jesus’ bread teachings in chapter 6 of John’s Gospel. Jesus following his feeding of the 5000, expands on his theology of bread. The crowds flock in increasing numbers to hear him – but Jesus suspects awed – not simply by the signs and wonders he performs but by the promise of a full stomach.

We recall that hunger was the commonplace experience for the masses of displaced peasantry that flocked to hear Jesus. 1st Century Palestine was undergoing a revolution in agricultural production – with land being increasingly vested in powerful landowners who – like big agribusiness in our own time – were intent on monopolizing resources. Independent peasant farmers were being squeezed out; reduced into itinerant day laborers. This is a story as old as time, and one alarmingly familiar to us as we view with a sense of increasing alarm the monopolistic trajectory of economic developments in our own day.

The crowds don’t like it when Jesus pushes them to move beyond limited expectations. In this morning’s passage they’re beginning to grumble – and worse. In presenting himself as the bread come down from heaven, Jesus evokes a collective memory of the manna that fed their ancestors in the wastes of Sinai. But his use of bread as a metaphor for spiritual food – God’s living bread – falls on deaf ears. If he’d read his Maslow he might have realized that it is a tall order telling people about spiritual nourishment, when their bellies need filling.

Bread is one of the central metaphors of the Christian Faith. We pray: Give us this day our daily bread – extending bread as a metaphor for all of life’s basic needs. Daily bread encompasses not only something to eat, but also somewhere to live, something meaningful to do, and someone to love and be loved by. While we long for the bread from heaven that feeds our spiritual hunger we also must work to provide bread to feed the hungry.

Yet, our expectations are so limited. Dom Helda Camara, a liberation theologian and bishop of the Brazilian diocese of Recife from 1964 to 1985, is famously reported to have said:

When I give the poor bread, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no bread, they call me a communist.

For most of us, feeding the hungry is consigned to the category of personal charitable action – give a little hand out here, write a check to this charity there. How many of us are also deeply committed to the kind of political questioning that recognizes poverty as a product of our political-economic systems? Even fewer of us recognize what to ensure enough bread for the hungry – I’m using bread here as a metaphor for addressing multiple poverties – will cost us in terms of the resources we currently claim for ourselves. Afterall, tax cuts pay for themselves, but investment in infrastructure only adds to the national debt.

In the Eucharist, Jesus gives himself as the bread from heaven that feeds the life of the world – not a heavenly world, but a real world in time and space. Each Sunday in my introduction I remind us that the Eucharist is both a local –that is, here and now event – as well as a cosmic -beyond time and space event. The celebration of the Eucharist bears certain characteristics which the great Episcopal lay theologian, William Stringfellow identified:

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

A Keeper of the Word: Selected Writings of William Stringfellow. 1994 

As the central aspect of Christian worship, at the Eucharist real bread – the staple of life – becomes the bread from heaven that feeds our spiritual hunger. As spiritual bread it feeds and sustains us – who like Jesus’ hearers – are everyday challenged to move beyond our convenient and limited expectations to transform the bread of heaven into the staples of life.

In the Eucharist celebrating the bread from heaven given for the life of the world is also in the same moment making our ethical commitment to the life of the world. The spiritual bread of the Eucharist is also the physical bread of food and shelter – made available in the everyday world through our actions of service and truth witnessing.

Like the crowds that came to hear Jesus, what are our expectations as members of a community whose central action in the world is the celebration of Eucharist?

The bread from heaven, which satisfies our spiritual hunger in the celebration of the Eucharist is our community meal. Is our community a place where we can not only expect to eat the bread of heaven but also ensure that all can eat the bread of life?

Our mission is to pray, worship, and proclaim the Gospel in order to promote justice, and peace.This is what Stringfellow means by Eucharist as a political event.

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

A Keeper of the Word Pp 125-6

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