Everyone had had such high hopes. Ten years ago Cyrus, the King of Persia had set them free to return to their beloved Jerusalem. Jerusalem, that treasured memory, embellished in their hearts during the long 50 years of captivity in Babylon. 50 years of mourning and repentance pouring out in the voice of psalm 137:

By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept
when we remembered Zion.
There on the poplars
we hung our harps,
for there our captors asked us for songs,
our tormentors demanded songs of joy;
they said, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”
How can we sing the songs of the LORD
while in a foreign land?
If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
may my right hand forget its skill .
May my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth
if I do not remember you,
if I do not consider Jerusalem
my highest joy.

50 years of waiting during which the Levites, the priestly scholars of the Law, turned their undivided attention to the scrolls of the Torah, which had been carried into exile. The Torah comprised the history of Israel’s relationship with Yahweh-God. With the passion of repentant zeal the Levites  edited the record of the nation’s history, a history that had recorded the ups and downs between Yahweh- God and a stiff-necked people – struggling to remain in relationship together. 50 years, during which the great task of editing the sacred texts was an attempt to find meaning in the face of the disaster of defeat and exile. This process initiated religious reforms as a sign of repentance. Once again the Children of Israel were called to return to the covenant with Yahweh-God. After 50 years, God finally answered them. Cyrus, his instrument – set them free to return to Jerusalem, city of cherished memory.

The returnees had had such high hopes. Yet within a space of years we hear God’s complaint renewed against them in the words of Isaiah, the third of that name. The third Isaiah raises his voice in protest:

Shout out, do not hold back! Lift your voice like a trumpet and announce to my people their rebellion, to the house of Jacob their sins.

The old dynamic had reasserted itself. The people complain against God :

Look we fast and you do not see, we follow the rules, humble ourselves, and you do not notice.

They are attention-seeking, self-preoccupied , their humility a mask for their arrogant complacency.Through the voice of the prophet God blasts them for their complicity in the structural sins of injustice and oppression, which had so quickly corrupted the society of the restored Jerusalem community. Look, Yahweh cries:

you serve your own interests on your fast day, and oppress all your workers …. Such fasting as you do today will not make your voice heard on high. … Is this not the fast I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not hide yourself from your own kin.

The hopes of the returnees, the 50-year task of reform and repentance had given way to the human propensity to retreat from a dream of something new, back into business-as-usual. Human-centered ways of seeing obscure the clarity of a new God-inspired perspective. A perspective grasped only in moments of crisis when the edifice of human self-interest cracks and the resulting fear makes them receptive once more to God’s words. Like Isaiah and the Hebrew prophets before him, Jesus sounded the same call to repentance and change. Christians have come to recognize the echo of Isaiah’s words in Jesus’ proclamation of the in-breaking of the Kingdom of God.

The Apostle Paul reminds the Christians at Corinth that:

When I came to you, brothers and sisters, I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified.  

In such tones Paul confronts the Corinthians with the error of their ways.

As it was with the Jews in 583BC, so with the Corinthians in around 60AD. The French have an expression: plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose- the more things change the more they stay the same. The Corinthians rested their new-found faith upon the foundations of human wisdom, rather than on the power of God. The problem with human wisdom is that it degrades into business-as-usual. By this I mean that human behaviour both individual, and societal inevitably gravitates to what is known, to what is familiar. What we know is the need to scramble for the exercise of power. Power is necessary to protect self-interest. Self-interest always results in a severing of the connections between people and groups in society. Paul tells the Corinthians:

What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor human heart conceived, what God has prepared for those who trust in him. 

The problem, Paul explains is that if human society is driven only by what we already know how to do, the familiar ways and means, business-as-usual – he refers to this as knowing only what the human spirit within tells us – we close-off to the promptings of the Holy Spirit. So then, how are the promptings of the Holy Spirit to be discerned?

Transpersonal psychology, is the psychology that understands that the ordering of the emotions, i.e. the personal life, is only the first phase of psychological work. The ordering of our relationship to the spiritual, i.e.the transpersonal life, remains the second phase of work. Transpersonal psychology makes a distinction between the lesser and greater self. The lesser self is shaped by the experiences of our personal autobiography, i.e. the events and experiences of our individual lives. Our experience of life is given particular meaning through the way we remember our personal history. Memory is a region of smoke and mirrors, which conditions our perception of experience. The memory of the lesser self is only ever partial. Its conclusions drawn for living life are consequently distorted by the emotion of fear.

The greater self is the lesser self, placed within a larger frame of collective and spiritual reference. This larger frame of reference connects us to our collective memories. Connected to collective consciousness society remembers how in the past our tendency towards business-as-usual has always produced unfortunate results. How quickly the exiles returning to Jerusalem forgot the lessons of their collective past. How short the collective memory span of the American public is. Disconnected from our collective consciousness, we remain destined to endlessly repeat the mistakes of the past.

The greater self opens us also to the promptings of the Spirit. Here we are continually refashioned by an encounter with life that reveals to us how interdependent we are upon one another and how dependant we are upon God. Living from the greater self reveals to us that individual prospering is intertwined with the individual wellbeing of others. My prosperity is dependant because it is interconnected with your wellbeing.

The voice of the Prophet Isaiah sounds to us across 2500 years of life lost in the living. Similarly, the words of the Apostle Paul confront us across 1900 years of wisdom lost in knowledge. T.S.Eliot concludes:

The cycles of Heaven in twenty centuries
Brings us farther from God and nearer to the Dust[1].

Jesus had a pithy and somewhat enigmatic way of talking at times. He says: You are the salt of the earth, you are the light of the world. Note, he does not say you are to be the salt of the earth nor does he say you are to become the light of the world. He says, you are! We are the salt of the earth and the light of the world when we live lives of love that unite us within a connection to both our collective memory and the prompting of the Spirit.

Love is expressed interpersonally through compassion and collectively through justice. At the personal level love includes self-acceptance, mutual-acceptance, toleration, forgiveness, self-giving service, humility. Collectively, the expression of love means agitating for justice, fighting inequity, embracing inclusion, practicing tolerance and extending mercy. Living lives of love is no sentimental project.

God called the Jewish exiles to return to the covenant he made with them as a people.  God continues to call us to also live in a covenant. Ours is not the covenant God made with Moses, but the New Covenant initiated by Jesus on the cross, and confirmed by God in the resurrection. It is a New Covenant in my blood reaffirmed each time we celebrate Eucharist together. This is a covenant into which we have all been baptized. Being salty and illuminated, we continue to be those who live the promises of our baptismal covenant.[2]

[1] Choruses from the Rock T.S Eliot.
The endless cycle of idea and action,
Endless invention, endless experiment,
Brings knowledge of motion, but not of stillness;
Knowledge of speech, but not of silence;
Knowledge of words, and ignorance of the Word.
All our knowledge brings us nearer to death,
But nearness to death no nearer to God.
Where is the Life we have lost in living?
Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?
The cycles of Heaven in twenty centuries
Brings us farther from God and nearer to the Dust.

[2]  Celebrant    Will you continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers?
People         I will, with God’s help.
Celebrant    Will you persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?
People         I will, with God’s help.
Celebrant   Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ?
People         I will, with God’s help.
Celebrant   Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?
People        I will, with God’s help.
Celebrant   Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?
People        I will, with God’s help.
(Book of Common Prayer, pp. 304-305)

Incarnation of Dreams

As I gaze out from the height of my perch – 7 feet above contradiction – I spy many familiar faces. Yet, what draws me are the faces of those I have not met, you who are visitors and our guests. Maybe you are drawn to wanting to come to a place of worship where you know you will get a good show. I don’t mean to be flippant about the need for a good show on Christmas eve, a time loaded with memories and associations from the past, where your hearts are lifted by the beauty of the music, your spirits resonate to the dignified rhythms of the liturgy, perhaps even where your  minds are engaged by the quality of the preaching – although you may want to reserve judgment on that for a moment. I want to say to you all, visitors, annually returning old friends, spiritual seekers, the Episcopal Church welcomes you!  Whoever you are, what- ever you think you believe or don’t believe, know that you are in good company here. SO welcome all, to Downton Abbey a world of bewildering, yet magnetic traditions.

For the Episcopal Church and in particular this Cathedral of the Holy Trinity, is the closest we shall come in the Phoenix of the 21st Century, to the spirit of Downton Abbey. If you have watched  Downton Abbey, now entering its third season you will have been drawn into a great drama. Downton Abbey, is an intersection in time and place where the ancient traditions moulded over centuries of English life are brought into a tension-filled engagement with the pressures and demands of a changing world.

In this place of tension between traditions handed-on and the demands of life as it is actually being lived, the inhabitants of Downton struggle to find a way of living that gives  new impetus and new energy to the traditions that have shaped them and from which it is impossible to escape.

The Episcopal Church,  the American expression of Anglican Tradition,  a transmission of the ancient catholic faith shaped by exposure to 1000 years of English culture, like Downton Abbey sits in the tension between the traditions we receive, which appear to have been crafted for another age, and the demands of life as we are actually living it in 21st century America.

America as a nation sits in the tension between the tradition known as the American Dream and the challenges of a rapidly changing world. The Episcopal Church, America’s best kept secret, welcomes you to life in the tension where the gritty struggle between faith and doubt, hope and fear, nostalgia for the past and terror of the future, continues producing the pearl that is God’s love for us.

Luke is the great historian of the New Testament. His Gospel places the birth of Jesus in historical time and place, yet it also comes to us across 2000 years of transmission. It depicts an enchanted world where God communicates through angels to shepherds, those who are on the margins of social acceptability. This is an enchanted world where the Creator of the Universe can be born as a baby, in a stable, in the most marginal of circumstances, and not only survive but be visited by wise men from the east.

For much of Christian history this story resonated so closely with the precarious vulnerability of the lives people actually lived, most in a similar rural poverty. It also resonated with the enchanted mindset in which God was experienced to be magically and mysteriously present in every aspect of the material world that surrounded human life. In this world of enchantment, God was never absent and people were never alone.

So how does this story resonate with us whose lives are lived amidst the urban and technological complexities of 21st century America? How does this story communicate to a people whose disenchanted mindset no-longer has room for the magical and mysterious presence of God at the level of material reality? In this disenchanted world, God seems to us largely absent. 300 years of Scientific progress has left us feeling alone, in a lonely, and potentially hostile universe.

It’s impossible for us to return to that enchanted mindset, no-matter how much we might wish to do so. Ours is not a world filled with the magical presence of God – 300 years of scientific rationalism has unalterably changed the way we think. Yet, human beings are still capable of imagination, we still dream.

The birth of Jesus is significant, not in the biographical details of Luke’s narrative, but because it still resonates with the deeper, imaginative dreaming parts of our lives.  The birth of Jesus is God’s dream coming to rest through its incarnation into the limitations of the world of human reality. It’s significance poses us with the question:- so what do we dream  that will not rest until it becomes incarnated in us?

We feel presently, that it is difficult to allow ourselves the luxury to hope and dream the answer to that question. All around us we see the signs of the world we once trusted and relied upon – disintegrating before our eyes.

We pull back in fear, no longer born on by the optimism that technological and economic progress will take us into a better world.  We live increasingly in fear that the Environment, which for so long has been seen by us as something to be tamed and mastered. Yet, as hurricane Sandy has just shown us the environment, now increasingly delivers what seems to us, a revengeful punishment as Sandy, struck at the heart of the country’s most urban and technologically sophisticated region. We seem newly vulnerability in the face of the power of nature.

It’s a striking coincidence that the name Sandy features also in the place Sandyhook. Here, we could be anywhere in America  and so recent events have plunged not only those intimately affected, but the whole nation into a deep collective suffering, the like of which has not been known in several generations.

We all live in this uncomfortable tension between the world that we came to trust and a newly uncertain future. Yet, the message of the Incarnation is that Dreams are nevertheless made real within the context of limitation and uncertainty.

God calls us to embrace the dream that is seeking to incarnate in us. Like God’s dream incarnated in the birth of Jesus, incarnation of our dreams happens within the limitations of our imperfect human lives. Propitious circumstances are not required for the incarnation of dreams.

Dreams are incarnated in us when we connect with our passions and dedicate ourselves to living passionately, with a compassion born from the realization we are interconnected and interdependent within the ebb and flow of a universe that is responsive to our dreams.

Our dreams are the most accurate reflection of the way the divine universe really functions. Life is not a plan – fixed and finished. Life is more like a dream, always evolving and in the process of becoming. Life is fluid ebbing and flowing around and in response to events and experience.

This is how it works. When we make all the resources of our dreams, our loving, our relating, our hoping and longing, our determination and our courage and especially our suffering and our fearfulness available for living, –  the resources of life flow to meet us. At points of suffering and disillusionment the tide ebbs only to gather and return with flowing fullness towards us.

The message of the Incarnation is that God operates within the limitations of human nature and human society. So then must we. When we allow ourselves to dream and give ourselves over to the pursuit of our dream then abundance is the gift of life to us who pursue the courage to live abundantly.

The Familiar is a Barrier to Our Imagining

It’s the first time I have really noticed that with the conclusion of Mark:6, a cycle completes. From beginning with the Jesus’ baptism by John, Mark moves very quickly into the nitty-gritty of Jesus’ ministry with a focus on how Jesus’ healing action alerts us to the power and operation of God in the world. Mark brings the cycle of Jesus’ actions to a fitting conclusion with King Herod’s political murder of John in the final section of chapter 6. However, there is more of that bit of the story next week.

If it’s not too crass an analogy,  Jesus’ tour through the Galilean countryside: calming storms, casting-out demons, healing the sick is the envy of the current presidential election bus tours being made by President Obama and Governor Romney. Oh, how they each might wish to make such an impact on the crowds as Mark reports Jesus making.

After a ‘successful’ tour  Jesus returns to his hometown where his family and former neighbors are scandalized by, what seems to them, his grandiosity. They are determined to put him back in his place so as not to have their small world disturbed. Is it their unconscious envy that causes them to react like this? Quite probably!

Yet, I think there is something else motivating them as well as their being driven by their unconscious envy. Jesus’ family and their neighbors seem encapsulated within a prison of the familiar. Jesus presents them with an experience that does not fit within the limitations of their world view.  They are open to miracles performed by prophets so long as they are happening elsewhere. They do not have the psychic space to recognize one of their own to be a prophet capable of revealing God’s power in the world. They are trapped within the limits of their own imaginations.

How are our imaginations limited? I invite us to take a deeper look at our lives. Can we notice how our attachment to what is familiar  inhibits and limits our imaginations? We live lives limited by our need for predictability and our minds seem only to recognize what they are somehow already looking for. My own experience is that it is not difficult for us to recognize this state of affairs.

However, let me invite us once more, this time, to take a broader look at our lives. Can we begin to notice those turning points of life where we  have somehow become open to something beyond the familiar?  We have  taken a risk and stepped out there! Maybe this has been a wonderful experience. Maybe it’s also been a difficult and possibly painful step to have taken. Yet, has taking this step not always resulted in an expansion of our living and imagining?

When our lives take an unexpected turn we are rewarded with an enrichment to our living. This enrichment results when we become open to the promise of there being more than we, if left to our own impoverished expectations, expectations carefully tailored by our need to stay within predictable limits, can imagine for ourselves.

We live in a world strongly influenced by something called the Human Potential Movement. Everywhere we see advertisements inviting us to realize our human potential by running with the wolves and diving with the dolphins. This approach to life tells us there are no limits to what and who we can become. The unspoken hitch is that we just need the money to do it. The picture of life extolled by the Human Potential Movement is to realize our fullest happiness and satisfaction. We are enjoined to become all that we have the potential to be. Fortunately, this is not the message of the Gospel.

God’s invitation to us is to risk opening to the process of becoming the person we were created to be. This looks dangerously similar to the invitation to realize our fullest human potential. However, God is not inviting us to throw caution to the winds and run-off to find ourselves. God invites us to step-out and to take a risk. The hallmark of this experience is facing up-to, and struggling within, the boundaries of natural limitations.

God invites us to move beyond the mere achievement of our own human potential. God’s dream for us is that we open ourselves to becoming more than we can imagine for ourselves through struggling within our experience of limitation. The Epistle and the Gospel  for today give us two quite different examples of how this works in our own lives.

The first example is an example of struggling within limitation. In his second letter to the Corinthians, Paul speaks about his struggle with his ‘thorn in the flesh’, which he tells them God has given him. I am not interested in wondering what the thorn actually was. How can we know? However, the example Paul offers us is one of struggling with a problem, a difficulty, a painful aspect of life that does not go away. The cause of Paul’s pain does not go away despite his fervent prayer that God take it away. This results in Paul coming to realize that it is through his weakness, his experience of painful limitation, that God’s grace fulfills and blesses him. He is healed through his being wounded. He is given strength to persevere, i.e. put up with hardship. He experiences an expansion of imagination, an expansion of the horizons that boundary his experience, i.e. some kind of mystical experience of acceptance.  Paul’s stepping-out and risking results in both strength and ecstasy transmitted through God’s gracing his suffering.

Taken alone we might think that Paul’s example is the only approach. However, Jesus in Mark’s Gospel offers a counterbalance. The limitation here is less personal and more situational.  When he goes home Jesus is not struggling with his own experience of limitation. He is facing the limitation of his situation caused by the lack of openness of others. What does he do? He does not use his unique access to God to overwhelm the limits of imagination in his hearers, i.e. blow their minds. He does not wow them with mighty acts.

Jesus accepts that the failure of imagination among his family and their neighbors places a complete road block to his ability to be a conduit for divine action. He recognizes the hopelessness of the situation and he redirects himself, taking a completely different direction. He sends his disciples out on the road. What has been his ministry alone up until this point now becomes theirs as well. Mark tells us that they work the same miracles as Jesus had been working.

Sometimes the need is to persevere and become opened-up through our acceptance of limitation thus allowing God to do in us, and for us, and through us, that which we cannot do for, or by, ourselves.  However, there are some situations where our capacity for living is limited and the needed response here is to walk away. We cease trying to change the unchangeable  and creatively move in another direction. The experience of being blocked opens up a new channel . As we begin to move in that direction, something beyond our imagining expands and enriches our reality.

The trick of knowing how to recognize which kind of limitation we are facing is one of spiritual discernment. Spiritual discernment is a process that involves asking for, and listening to, the wise counsel of others. We then take our own perceptions alongside the perceptions of others into a place of deep prayerfulness before God. This is a place both of openness and felt risk. Openness does not come without that disconcerting sense of risk. A sense of risk is one of the indicators that we are opening. Here we encounter a God who is always dreaming us into becoming more than we can possiblly imagine for ourselves.

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