Wednesday, September 15, 2010

All your possessing - give it up!

This long weekend signals the end of summer. I’m celebrating with the gift of all my children visiting! Right on the Sunday that Jesus says to hate your family and take up your cross and follow…. And Paul asks Philemon to forego his rights of possession, and refrain from making a sound business decision and instead act as a disciple of Jesus the Christ – and from Jeremiah, a story about clay and potters and judgment. The lectionary is often like that – juxtaposing the way of God with whatever is happening in our lives, whether that is convenient or not!

So – family is what is happening for me. And I think it has been for many of you throughout this summer. Summer is often a time for families to re-connect, could be vacations or reunions or just barbeques in the back yard. And as we leave summer and move into Fall – some of you are saying good bye to children heading off to college. Some of you are saying good bye for a few hours at the kindergarten door. I’ve watched parents all this past couple weeks bringing their three and four year olds to preschool – and waving at them as they disappear around the corner and into a new world. Some of you said goodbye to children long ago, and now are thrilled – like me – when they come back for a brief visit.

So – whether are children are at home, or grown and gone, our job as parents and grandparents and aunts and uncles and family friends, is to let go – whether it is that traumatic first day of kindergarten, or seeing them off on the plane that will take them to Europe or Africa or Latin America. Parenting means giving everything you have, but giving it with a completely open hand. And none of us do that perfectly.

Neither did our parents. We all want to have had parents who gave us roots to ground us and wings to fly with. But the truth is, we are all grounded with roots that are a bit shallow in some places, and we all fly with wings that were clipped here and there. That’s how therapists make their living.

So, the love we give and the love we receive is an imperfect mixture of altruism and selfishness. But it’s good. And it provides us with meaning and shelter in the world. There’s a book with a great title, “I only say this because I love you”. In it, Deborah Tannen writes, “Family represents a sense of belonging – a foundation for everything else we are or do. It feels that if we can fit into our families, we can fit into the world. And if our families can see us for who we really are, we can be who we are not only in the family but also in the world. But the coin has another side: If members of our family are critical, if those who, presumably, know us best and care the most find us wanting, then who will love us?”…But regardless of whether our experience of family is mostly positive or not the majority of us “continue to keep calling – by telephone, email, or in our hearts-because we want the connection that family affords.” So we read with horror this gospel passage about hating one’s family. It goes against the human grain. It’s distasteful.

It was also distasteful to the people to whom Jesus said it. It was a guaranteed crowd thinner.

Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem. He knew what awaited him there but the people around him did not. Still when there was a large crowd following him, you might think he’d say: “Glad you’re here!” But instead he said: “Whoever comes after me and doesn’t hate their father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sister, even life itself….don’t bother. You can’t be my disciple. If you want to follow me, you need to carry a cross and give up all your possessions.” It wasn’t the first time that Luke reports Jesus saying things like this. Earlier he’d said, “I come to bring division. A family of five will be divided two against three.”

Traditional biblical scholarship says that this is oriental hyperbole. That’s true. It’s also the way that prophetic biblical language re-balanced the people’s priorities. It’s a big and dramatic kind of language. For example, Jesus called the religious leaders to account because they were so focused on the letter of the law regarding tithing, but neglecting the higher order of kindness and compassion. You are straining for fleas, he said, but swallowing camels. That’s hyperbole to make a point!

Hate is hyperbole that gets our attention. And if we are students of Jesus and not inclined to simply dismiss what the gospels report of him, then it makes us wonder what he might have been driving at with such forceful language. I believe he was pointing our need to re-balance our priorities. If we make our children or our spouse or our parents or our jobs or our church into our gods – then we are not only out of whack spiritually, but we are endangering the very connections that we desire so deeply.

My guess is that, like me, what is most dear to you is your mom and your dad, your children, your husband, your wife, your partner, your life. We are deeply inclined to want to cling to these people. We are deeply inclined to want to possess our life as something we’ve earned. But our life, and the people who are the nearest and dearest to us are gifts. If we try to grasp them, hang on to them, make them be who and how we want them to be, we suffocate them or we alienate them – and either way we end up lonely and unfulfilled.

So the key to having fulfilling relationships is in the final, “therefore” of this passage. “Therefore, none of you can become my disciples if you do not give up your possessions.” Actually, from the Greek, we could also say "all your possessing." "So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessing."

What is Jesus getting at? I think this: our human problem boils down to one of possessing. We don't simply desire the things that are of value to us, the things we "love." We also want to possess them. We love each other to death. It's our possessing things that turns love to hate and life to death. When we give up trying to claim our children and our lovers and our positions and possess them for our very own, we are able to receive them in a way that offers everyone spaciousness and freedom and the experience of true love. How do we do that?

It helps to look to Jesus because Jesus came and did it. Jesus became human like one of us and was able to love in a way that didn’t love us to death. The key mark of Jesus as the form of God in human flesh was that he did not grasp at equality with God but became obedient. God’s love is not a possessing love; it’s a gifting love. It’s a love not bent on possessing, but one that gives, even in the face of death.

God, as revealed by Jesus, is the creator who does not grasp. Who gives us life and breath and being – freely. Who sends rain and sun on the just and the unjust, on the lovely and the unlovely alike, without regard for return gratitude. This God that Jesus revealed, initiated a way of life and a people that that seeks to practice a gracious kind of freedom towards others that lets them be exactly who and what they are, without withdrawing love and respect and value - just as God does for every one of us.

As we learn through the Spirit to live our lives with open hands – remembering always that the people we love, and life itself is sheer gift – as we do this more and more, we are choosing life, not death, blessing not curse. To truly let go, to pry our fingers off the wheel of life and off our children and our spouses and friends and jobs and church and anything and everything that is not God – it can feel like death. It can feel like we are flinging ourselves off into the sheer unknown – and we are. That’s why life lived under the sign of the cross is not meant to be done solo. The Christ life can only be lived in community – as flawed and fragile as community is. We do this letting go looking to the witness of others who live this way as well – and above all to the assurance of Jesus that it is the way to life – abundant life. Abundant love. Abundant wealth – true wealth.

These past couple of weeks, I’ve been watching and hearing the children and teachers of the preschool get acquainted. I think I can sing the bathroom hand washing song in my sleep! I’ve watched the children unknowingly follow Jesus’ command as they turned their backs on their parents and step out into a new corner of the world. And I’ve watched their parent help them to do so – being encouraging and available and trustworthy – without attempting to hold their children back. They were all growing in the image of God, whether they knew it or not.

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Hatched Open Hearts

During vacation a couple weeks ago, my mother and I looked through old family photo albums. I have this ongoing project to rescue old photos by scanning them into my Macbook Pro and then creating individualized books with them. I’ve discovered that looking through old albums unlocks forgotten stories. When I ask Mom, “tell me what was happening here and who these people were,” I have to be ready to type fast as I get the story of my great uncle’s kidnapping in Hawaii, and my great grandmother's mincemeat pie recipe. The stories, just like the photos, are loosely organized – but they are all about memories, connections and meaning.

Parishes stories are like that too. Over the last year – I have heard a lot of stories. About the tree dedicated to Michael Agliano in the front. Now accompanied by the tree dedicated to three year old Sebastian Balch. The watering system and the work that Charlie Haberkorn put into it. The BBQ area and how Bill Deming decided it should be cleared and then organized the people who came together to do the work and how Bill then built the big picnic table that we still sit around on Wednesday evenings. The kneelers – and how the women searched for designs from all over the world – and finally decided upon their own design featuring the birds and animals and flowers of this area. The windows – and how Carol replaced one of them with shower door glass when her daughter was going to be married here, and she wanted the windows to match, at least somewhat! And I’ve heard about shenanigans as well. Something about abandoned cars down the creek, and boys going off on adventures to bring various parts back to build forts… I think Mike could probably provide the details! Just like old family photo albums - the stories fit together – sometimes quite loosely, and sometimes we’re only able to recognize the thread that binds them all together after a long time has passed. But the thread is there – and almost always the thread that binds families and parishes together, as well as individual lives, has to do with love and loyalty, faithfulness and forgiveness.

Today’s epistle is like looking through a congregational photo album. The letter to the Hebrews gives what appear to be random snapshots – of hospitality, prison, marriage, adultery, finance, but they are bound together under the banner of love. “Let mutual love continue,” the writer begins, echoing Jesus’ commandment to “Love one another.”

But how did that congregation turn a broad injunction to love others into actual behavior that led to a measurably, demonstrably different way of life? How did they “let mutual love continue”? How do we?

The letter writer began with hospitality, first with those closest to you and then widening the circle wider and wider until you are including the stranger, the exile, the one who has no one else. So your first stop in this practice of graciousness is with the person with whom you share your tube of toothpaste. Then it widens to your parish partner with whom you put on coffee hour. The truth is, this parish lives on mutual love. We have several elderly who are no longer able to come to church and they thrive on visits – the thing is, as I hear over and over from you and as I know from my own visits – it’s you, the visitor, that gets the greatest blessing! Mutual love is just that – it’s mutual –everyone gets blessed! Then the circle widens and includes our greater church family. There are pictures and thank you notes on the Outreach table in the back from Iglesia Episcopal San Pablo Apostol, an Episcopal mission church in Seaside, with whom we partnered to provide back packs for children in need. The children’s smiles tell it all!

The next photo shot in the Hebrews album is about showing hospitality to strangers. Actually “hospitality” is philaxenia – which means phila, as in Philadelphia – brotherly love – and xena- as in xenophobia. Xenaphobia means fear of the stranger. You’ve heard that in the news recently about border immigration and the building of an Islamic Center in the blocks around Ground Zero. But this photo from the Book of Hebrews is about just the opposite – right after mutual love for other believers – is philaxenia – showing brotherly love for the stranger. Maybe you start small – with the new clerk in the check out line at the grocery store who doesn’t know what he is doing, and you are running late. You smile at him – from your feet, to your liver, to your heart, to your mind, to your face – the whole of you graciously smiling. Try it. You will get a blessing for sure – he may or may not be an angel in disguise, but you will be.

But the clerk in the grocery store isn’t where we stop. This morning’s gospel gives us a clear and discomforting picture of hospitality to strangers, especially to the desperately poor and those on the margins of society. Jesus didn’t talk about handouts. He talked about the more costly path of relationship, of real conversation, and of kindness that is vulnerable to the realities of being human together.

I read recently in the NYTimes about the death of Judith Peabody. Anyone know that name? I didn’t either – she’s a New Yorker! – but I’m glad I do know. Judith grew up in a world of privilege. She attended Miss Hewitt’s Classes in New York City and graduated form the Ethel Walker School in Connecticut. Her coming out party was held at the Piping Rock Club on Long Island. Her name and countless photographs appeared in Women’s Wear Daily and New York Social Diary and in fashion and social columns in Vogue and The New York Times. And yet, this was not her whole world. Her whole world included Hispanic gang members in East Harlem, as well as recovering drug addicts from the tenements of Harlem. In the mid-1980’s, she showed up at a home for gay men dying of a new, dreaded disease, called AIDS. She showed up, without fail, every other Friday for years – doing the work of physically caring for men who were social pariahs. At a time when people thought that just being in the same room could cause you to catch the illness.

The truth is, there are many such angels here this morning. This letter to the Hebrews encourages you to continue letting your light shine at home, with other believers, and with all the complications and blessings of widening your circle further and further to include real relationships with real people who are real different.

And these final double sided snapshots – “keep your lives free from the love of money, and be content with what you have.” I love how the scriptures zing right to the heart in such a few words – like all worthwhile pictures do.

The good news is that Jesus stepped in to save us from the death trap of preoccupation with self. To help us become content with exactly who we are, at rest, in God. To set us free from having to buy the next best self-help book that promises freedom and happiness.

But what a way Jesus opened to us! Open your life and your heart to those who don’t matter; to those who don’t count; to those who are overlooked, to those who cannot pay you back with social invitations or with anything resembling the currency of prestige. Jesus pointed us towards Life by pushing us to the edge of our very human, fundamental fears about not mattering, about being nobody, ultimately really about death.

That is why Christianity is dangerous and why the Pharisees were “watching him closely”, not in a friendly sort of way at all. Because the pulsating generative truth at the heart of the gospel is that you must lose your life in order to save it. Or as the modern theologian, Marcus Borg puts it; “your heart must be hatched open.”

The snapshots contained in the letter to the Hebrew’ show us what a hatched open heart looks like. It is an awakened heart filled with gratitude and wonder and the mystery of joining hands with our spouses and our fellow believers and with the prisoners and the poor. It is a lively heart that imitates Christ who did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking on the form of a servant.

This is our family album, bound together by love and faithfulness. It is a series of snapshots of each one of us, out in the world, practicing our religion, letting the Holy Spirit work through the sacraments and the scriptures and our daily encounters with others to break our hearts open so that we do, in truth, let mutual love continue and we are known for our brotherly love toward the stranger.

The Heart of Christianity, Marcus Borg
The Paradox of Choice, Barry Schwartz
Peace, Walter Brueggemann
Christian Century, 8/24/04, Living by the Word, Bruce Wollenberg
New York Times, July 27, 2010, Obituaries