Monday, October 12, 2009

The Next Day

Hebrews 4: 12 - 16; Mark 10: 17 - 31

Remember Groundhog Day? Bill Murray plays Phil, a self centered tv anchorman, who is sent to the small town of Punxsutawney, to film a news piece on Groundhog Day. While he is there, he falls into a time warp that traps him into repeating the same day over and over. The same waiter dropping the same tray of plates at exactly the same time. The same boy falling out of a tree. The same ladies getting a flat tire. The same insurance salesman. Every morning he wakes up to the same music on the radio.

Once he figures out that there are no consequences to anything he does, he tries increasing his self centeredness into meanness - trips the old lady that bugs him; walks in front of cars; barks at a man who annoys him. But after awhile, being mean ceases to amuse him, and he grows increasingly horrified at being doomed to repeat the same day - over and over.

So, he does the opposite. He discovers the happiness of being good. Of going out of his way to help other people and make other people feel good. The goodness of following the Golden Rule; the 10 commandments. Sure enough - he's happier. But

he's still trapped. Same day. Over and over.

Until..….. he begins to love - without regard to self - without regard to appropriating / taking / for his very own / anyone or anything. Phil, the self-centered anchorman, becomes Phil, the golden rule guy, becomes Phil, the one who loves - without regard to whether or not he will be rewarded, without regard to whether or not his own dream will come true.

And then - lo and behold - he's free. The next day begins. The clock flips over to February 3rd! Love that does not have self at it's center - is the key to Phil's freedom.

Something of the same thing is going on for the rich man who comes to Jesus. This man has already discovered the happiness of the commandments. He isn't one of the people who've been tormenting and trying to trap Jesus with trick questions. This is a man who lives what St. Teresa of Avila called a "well ordered life." He is a good Jew. He follows the commandments. He does what is expected of him. He's nice to elderly ladies and to children. He tithes. He honors his parents.

But something is missing. He longs for something he can't quite put his finger on … but something more. Something greater. for freedom maybe - for the adventure of the next day. Of the day after. He is looking for the doorway into whatever it is the comes next after you've got the "being good" part down pat.

Forgive me for overlaying modern themes on this old Gospel story - but I wonder if perhaps this wealthy man was either young or middle aged . Because those are the times in our lives when we are most familiar with our hungers for the next step - for something more. For young people just graduating from high school or college - this hunger often reveals itself as a quest - perhaps a pilgrimage to a far distant land, where all the familiar support systems are absent and the traveling young person needs to dig deep within themselves to find inner resources they didn't know they had. For some questers, they find a new relationship with God. The familiar God of parents and culture now becomes the God with whom they have their own relationship.

We are also familiar with this hunger for the next step - for the next day - that arises often in middle age. When the familiar no longer satisfies and there is a gnawing need to enter life from a very different angle.

Maybe this wealthy man was young or middle aged - but in any event, he runs to Jesus and falls on his knees and asks him a big question - what Fred Craddock calls - one of those ultimate questions. And Jesus honored him by giving a big answer. A small answer would have been insulting.

So Jesus gave him a simple answer that was big enough to go straight to the very heart of the matter, straight to the next step on this man's journey towards the Divine. This answer that Jesus gave - wasn't complex or nuanced or obscure - it didn't need academic theologians to decipher it. Though many have given it their best shot.

This particular gospel reading has been the subject of hundreds of commentaries - mostly designed to soften it or explain it away. I'm sure, through the years, you've heard all the methods for blunting the simple sharpness of this reading. The main two being:

1. Jesus said this to this particular man - because this man had an issue around wealth. No one, not Jesus and not Mark, meant it as applicable to the rest of us.
2. What it really means is not that wealth is the problem, but that trusting in wealth is the problem.

It's simplicity of course, did not make it easy to swallow or to follow - and it's not any easier today. In our weekly gospel readings, we are advancing into the truly rigorous part of Jesus' teaching - as Jesus walks towards certain crucifixion in Jerusalem, his words are aimed directly at reaching through the walls we put up around our hearts.

But before he said anything, "Jesus looked at him and loved him." Saw right into him. Knew him.

Maybe you're like me and this is what you want most - to be seen all the way through, known completely, loved without measure. This was the kind of love with which Jesus looked at this man. But this kind of love has consequences. The truth is, the loving gaze of Jesus penetrates to the heart. Because he is the Living Word that the letter to the Hebrews speaks of - the living and active Word of God whose gaze can pierce, like a scalpel, and dissect bone from marrow. He is the one whose winnowing fork separates wheat from chaff. His love sees clearly and speaks truthfully.

And the words follow. Twelve step language has become part of our vocabulary - and so using 12 step language, we could say that Jesus performed an intervention with this man, with the kind of love that steps with boldness between the addict and the addiction. It is the kind of love that speaks clearly and truthfully about the things that bind him, that keep him from true joy. First things first, as theologian Kathleen Grieb says. Change this one thing - and everything will change.

"You lack one thing," Jesus tells him. "Go, sell what you own and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me." This is the story that converted Francis of Assisi. Remember the story from last week? Francis went from the church to the public square, and completely disrobed. He took these words exactly to heart, and followed Jesus into an entirely different life path.

We are clearly in another world here - what I am talking about is non-rational. Don't even try to make this make sense in a logical, linear sort of way. This is a camel through the eye of a needle kind of talk. And the only way to enter into it is through the heart. The imagination. The soul. The Spirit.

So what might it mean for you and for me?

I don't have an answer - but what I can say is this - discipleship begins when the one thing that enslaves us is released, and it's claims upon you are dissolved. On that day, you begin to walk differently in the world. That day may have already happened for you - and it may not have. It may have happened over and over again. But at some point, if you continue in the path of Jesus, you'll come to a crossroads -

and this gospel story is here to help you across.

What else helps you across?

The story - and the community. Jesus does not intend for us to be solitary and lonely. He promises fields and family and houses to those who follow - not in a prosperity gospel sort of way, but in the real way of those who've crossed the crossroad and entered into Jesus' inner circle. There are mothers and fathers and brothers and sisters there. And while it's not hunky dory all the time in God's household, there is the splendiferous light of Love shining underneath and around and through - all the time - whether you personally can see it or not.

What else helps you across? There's the story and the community and the Spirit. When Jesus invites the man to follow - his invitation itself confers the power to do so. Mission Impossible is God's daily agenda! We are not left to ourselves in this matter. Ultimately, as Deacon Cynthia so wisely said at the 8 AM service, "it is simply a matter of surrender." Surrendering to the beauty and power of God's Spirit. In this surrendered state, you really can let go over everything you "own" and find yourself blessed beyond belief with abundance and joy. It's true. And I cannot describe exactly why or how it is true. But I can verify that it is so.

We don't know what happened after the man turned away sadly. He very well might have thought about it and figured out that joy really did lie in the direction Jesus pointed him to. But whatever happened with him - the closer question is what will happen with you?

You may be, after all, in this wealthy man's position. Hungry for the next step in your pilgrimage into God. Maybe you've sat on various committees of the church, you've pledged significantly for years, you've assiduously followed ethical business practices, you live a well ordered life - and that's all good, and you don't intend to give it up - but you're ready for the next step in the pilgrimage to God. You long for whatever it is that comes next. And so - Jesus invites you too into the day after - the next day - the day of freedom.

Christian Century, A. Katherine Grieb, October 2009
Fred Craddock
Teresa de Avila, Interior Castles
Kai Harris, "Quests, Communities and Stewards", to be published in Broadcast, newsletter for Young Adults and College Students.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Feast of St. Francis with children and adults

Galatians 6:14-18; Matthew 11:25-30

Do any of you carry big heavy back packs? Sometimes back packs come with wheels on them so you don’t have to carry so much weight. I don’t like carrying really heavy things, do you? It hurts!

But sometimes we carry heavy burdens inside and we don’t really know it. We just know that we don’t feel so good. Sometimes we might think that life is really not very fair and that somebody else has a way easier time of it than we do. Or we might want something we don’t have. Or we might resent that somebody else got all the notice for work that we actually did. There’s all kinds of things that can weigh us down – we might be addicted to something like alcohol, or somebody, like a boyfriend or girlfriend. We might be burdened with too much guilt, or too much worry, or just too much of too much!

Carrying all that stuff around inside hurts, and it can make us sick or sad or lonely.

But Jesus said that his burden was light and his load was easy to carry. Just love God with everything you have. Everything you own, love God with it. And love your neighbor as yourself. Love with everything you have. Don’t keep anything back – just abandon yourself, warts and wiggles and all, to God. And don’t hold anything back from your neighbor. No act of love is too small.

And that’s it! You’ll be light as a feather, shiny as a star. No more heavy backpacks on the inside to lug around. So why isn’t it easier? Why is it so hard? That is a very good mystery.

Really, Jesus was talking about being who you are naturally – a God centered, God shaped being. We’re made for love and to love. So carrying Jesus’ easy burden really means becoming exactly who you are naturally meant to be. Animals certainly know how to be exactly who they are meant to be. Trees know how to do this. The sun is the sun’s truest self at all times. So are children. Tired? Wah! Hungry? Let’s get something to eat! Joyful? Let’s yell and dance around!

But something happens as we get older and wiser. Older and smarter. We start getting so smart that we can’t just hear Jesus and believe him and follow him. It takes the full on power of the Lord’s Spirit to get us to lay our burdens down and be healed. It takes Prayer – usually of a whole community - for us to become utterly convinced of God’s love and acceptance.

So Jesus was enamored with the little ones – with those who were not burdened by sureness in their own abilities. People who were foolishness enough to just take God completely at his word. People like Francis of Assisi.

When Francis heard God say – “Go and re-build my church” – he did, stone by stone, begging people for rocks to rebuild the little village church that had fallen into disrepair. When he went to church and heard the gospel reading for the morning that said – “go and sell all that you have and come and follow me” – he did. Fortunately for his father, Petro Bernardone, most of the family business was not in Francis’ keeping!

Jesus called God, “Father”, so Francis did too. So literally that he took off all of his clothes in the public square and said, ““From now on I can freely say ‘Our Father Who art in heaven,’ not father Peter Bernardone….”The Bishop tried to rescue the whole situation, by taking off his cope to wrap around Francis.

Because God was Francis’ Father, all creatures were his brother and sister. The lepers. The trees. The birds and the wolves. The Sun and the moon. The water. Cold and fire and death itself.

Francis’ life became a parable of the Divine. And the Divine Life abounds in paradoxes – the kind that our brilliant minds simply can’t make sense of. Who can “understand” God? Well, maybe children who love stories, or animals who live utterly true to their own nature, or those fortunate enough or foolish enough to be utterly abandoned to the fire of the Holy Spirit.

For those of us bumbling along the way, feeling our way rather blindly toward the Divine, living parables like Francis help light the way. Actually, if you meditate on the saints enough, they will de-stabilize you more and more until you too tip over the edge into the pure ocean of God.

So – one of these paradoxes Francis discovered was this: Poverty – by which Francis meant not appropriating anything or anyone for your very own – this Poverty was actually Freedom and Wealth.

This is as impossible to understand now as it was in Francis’ day as it was in Jesus’ day. There is no human learning that can make this make sense or make it a checked off item on your “getting spiritual to do” list. It’s not something you do or don’t do. It’s a holy work of the Holy Spirit. All you can do is fervently desire that the Holy Spirit comes to you, and fills you and brings you closer and closer to the feet of Christ.

And meanwhile, love in whatever small way that is open to you. Walk in however much light you’ve been given. Eat the body of Christ with as much faith as you have that this is indeed the bread – the very sustenance – of heaven itself. And the Lord will work his holy work in you – gradually and gently, or suddenly and stormily – either way you are being brought safely home.

Let us pray.
Relieve us of our own wisdom, Holy God, so that our only wisdom is Your eternal Word, Jesus. Help us set down those things which weigh us down, and fill us with your easy burden and the light load of your Love for others. Grant us the peace that passes all our understanding. And make of us a church that delights in paradoxes, in children, in animals, and in You.

Two Stories

Esther 7:1-6, 9-10, 9:20-22; James 5:13-20; Mark 9:38-50

Courage for community. Fervent, embodied prayer that makes a difference. Difficult decisions made on behalf of the safety and wellbeing of the little ones. These are the urgent, life and death matters that run through the scriptures this morning.

I’ve told one story already this morning – from the only book of the Bible with a woman’s name attached to it. Esther had the courage for community – she “came out” as a Jew to the King, though it could have cost her her life – and the community prayed fervently on her behalf, to support her as she risked everything in order to try to save them.

I’m going to tell you two more stories. The first is a tragedy. It highlights the unspeakable consequences of life lived at a pace that is outside grace in which it is difficult for little ones to thrive. The second is a story of leading a wandering soul back to safety. They are both of them, stories of community in which God is active – though not directly spoken about – just as in the Book of Esther.

A doting father tears up whenever co-workers ask about his baby son. He and his wife are overjoyed about this baby. They are also distracted with the care of an infant and the demands of their professional lives. One morning, the father parked his car at the BART lot, and rode the train to work. He’d not had a lot of sleep and his routine had been disrupted. So much so that he drove straight to the BART rather than to day care to drop off his four month old son. He returned to his car, as usual, in the early evening. Too late. When this happened, I lived just a few blocks from the train station. The outpouring of support for this young mother and father was overwhelming – coming from all over the Bay Area – though none of it could ever take away the exquisite grief etched into their hearts.

Around the edges, questions began being asked - why is forty hours of work no longer considered sufficient? Why are we working ourselves and our children to death? And why did no one see the child? The car was in the middle of a very busy parking lot. God forbid, that someone saw the child and figured it was none of their business. The comments and conversations continued – and people began making pledges to look up away from their own routine, their own world, their own blinders, and out into the world around them. Who needs help? Who needs a hand? Who needs an ax, literal or metaphorical, to help release a little one from danger.

Jesus said that everyone of us is responsible to be a place of safety for little ones. To do that, we need to get out of our heads and into the common sense of the world around us.

Whenever the disciples got into a heady discussion –or so far into their own agenda, Jesus took a little child, set him in the middle of the disciples and said, “Look. This is the way. Right here. Standing in front of you.” Zen Buddhists call this “beginner’s mind.” Christians call this “the way to heaven.” Mothers and Fathers call this, “I need some rest. Could someone help me for awhile.” And the Christian community is pledged by our Lord to say yes. We can help you.

A second story. One of my dearest friends is in her mid eighties. She swims every day at her club in Marin. She is helping to raise her grandchildren and she is often beside herself with frustration with them. But a couple days ago, when she had just gotten out of the pool, she noticed a teenager she didn’t know off to the side of the pool, talking on her cell phone– right under the sign that said, “No cell phones!” The girl was crying, sobbing, really. “I don’t know why she did that to me. My name will be all over the school now. I can’t imagine going back there.” Now, Nancy has gotten way past the point of caring whether she’s in fashion or not, or whether she is politically correct or not. So she stopped and touched the girl’s shoulder. "Believe me," my friend said, "whatever she did to you, put it out of your mind. In the long run, it will harm her more than it will you. Look out,– there’s so much in the world for you to be part of. Forget these people who treat you badly. Move out into all the good the world has for you. There are good people – do things with them.” Of course - she was a teenager - she didn't respond! – but I don't doubt for a minute that this act of kindness connected the girl to a larger reality and saved some piece of her soul from the terrible ravaging that only teen age girls know how to inflict on each other.

It would have been very easy, and probably much more socially correct, for Nancy to have pretended that she didn’t hear the conversation, didn’t notice the girl’s tears. Touching her on the shoulder. Offering her an elder’s wisdom. All of this is slightly beyond the norm.

But when your hearts and minds are engaged with the people around you, and you have been fervently praying to be of service, you will find yourselves in situations where you are able to offer a word or a touch of healing and hope. And while God’s name may never be spoken, it is nevertheless true, that God is present and active. It’s also true that most of the time, you will never know the good you have done.

It is my hope that it can be said of Good Shepherd in the years to come, “This is a community whose prayers are effective, whose touch confers healing and harbor for anyone in need – and who knows how to celebrate salvation with exuberance and thanks.