Michaelmas

"Virgin's Monastery (benedictine nuns), Petrópolis, Rio de Janeiro State, Brazil05" by Cláudio Pastro ; foto de Eugenio Hansen, OFS - Own work. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Virgin%27s_Monastery_(benedictine_nuns),_Petr%C3%B3polis,_Rio_de_Janeiro_State,_Brazil05.JPG#mediaviewer/File:Virgin%27s_Monastery_(benedictine_nuns),_Petr%C3%B3polis,_Rio_de_Janeiro_State,_Brazil05.JPG

“Virgin’s Monastery (benedictine nuns), Petrópolis, Rio de Janeiro State, Brazil05″ by Cláudio Pastro ; foto de Eugenio Hansen, OFS – Own work. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Outside. Beside.
Closer than expected.
Too close for comfort.

Gestures and visions.
Function, not nature.
Here, not there.

Grabbing my attention
directing it back:
Beside. Inside.

Height to height,
glory to glory,
deep calls out to deep.

Going Down With the Ship: Modern Life and the Way of the Cross

When I was a kid, I was fascinated by shipwrecks.

I even had a favorite: RMS Titanic, sunk April 15, 1912. Now, just as a point of pride: I should note that I fell in love with the Titanic years before that horrible movie came out in the 1990s. In fact, when it did come out, I was that annoying guy in the theatre who kept pointing out all the things they got wrong. And now that the movie’s popularity has faded, I can finally talk about my love for the Titanic once again without sounding like a 13 year old girl.

What continues to fascinate me about that ship is the sheer modern arrogance that went into its production (and ultimately led to its sinking): they thought they could build a ship that was unsinkable. Boy, were they wrong! If there’s only one line of the Titanic movie that I appreciated, it was the one from the scene where the main character, upon learning that the ship had struck an iceberg and was about to sink, exclaimed, “But it can’t sink!” and the ship’s designer replies, “It’s made of iron; I assure you it can!”

With the benefit of hindsight, just about everyone can see how arrogant it was to claim that anything made of 52,000 tons of steel was unsinkable. It’s almost asking for trouble. Yet, this outrageous claim was totally consistent with the spirit of the age in which the Titanic was built. Historians sometimes call that period in the late 19th and early 20th centuries “the Gilded Age” or “the Progressive Era”. It was a time when modern people put a lot of faith in their ability to figure things out. They thought that science and technology would eventually solve every human problem. There was one point during that time when the government considered closing the patent office, because they assumed that people had already invented everything that could be invented. In the church, there were several “modern” theologians who even believed that we would one day eliminate the problem of sin in humanity through education and discipline. All of this is the same kind of arrogance that went into the construction (and subsequent destruction) of the Titanic.

This human arrogance finally did cool down during the 20th century, but it took two World Wars, the Holocaust, and the dropping of the atomic bomb to convince us otherwise. We thought that science and technology would solve all of our problems, but then we dedicated that knowledge to destruction and violence. We went in with the intention of improving life, but ended up destroying life by the millions (when it comes to nuclear weapons, we developed the ability to destroy all life on planet Earth). To use the Titanic as a symbol: we modern humans thought that, with enough dedication and know-how, we could build the unsinkable ship, but we ended up at the bottom of the Atlantic.

That’s the story of the 20th century, but what about us? How does this modern attitude affect us, personally? Well, even though we’ve seen its folly, we have yet to fully recover from our addiction to that modern ideal of “Bigger! Better! Faster! More!” (a phrase I’ve borrowed from an album by the rock band Four Non Blondes). The modern mind, for all the good it has brought us, is rather myopic: its vision is too narrow. To the modern mind, only that which can be observed and measured is real. You can’t measure mystery, so (to the modern mind) mystery isn’t real (it’s just a question we haven’t answered yet). You can’t measure wonder, so wonder isn’t real. You can’t measure love, so love isn’t real. You can’t measure God, so God isn’t real.

Modern people keep trying to measure things like happiness, goodness, and quality of life, but they run up against a wall time and time again because there’s no universally recognized way to measure those things. In fact, there’s only one numerical unit that modern people have come up with to measure happiness, and it’s not a very good one, but that hasn’t stopped us from using it. Do you want to guess what it is? Money. People try to measure happiness with money: Bigger houses, better gadgets, faster cars, and more money – Bigger, better, faster, more! We even compete, fight, and kill one another in this so-called “pursuit of happiness.”

Modern people measure “quality of life” in terms of production and consumption. Those who perform the most useful tasks earn the most money and spend that money on things that are supposed to make them happy. Does it work?

If it did, then people like the Hiltons and the Kardashians would be the most serene and happy people on the earth, but we know for a fact that we can make whole seasons of “reality” TV shows just by pointing a camera at these people and showing the world how miserable they are… even with all their money.

On the flip side of this equation, the modern world counts people with disabilities or mental illness as having the least quality of life, simply because they don’t produce and consume resources at the same rate as others. Our twisted culture looks at those who do not participate in the monetary economy as people whose lives are without value. Some people in the past have even argued that pteople who cannot produce and consume should be killed as an act of mercy. They simply cannot comprehend the dignity of a human life that does not rely on producing and consuming.

But if that was true, then how could we explain the sheer joy we see on people’s faces at the Togetherness Group? What explanation is there for the vibrancy of worship that pastors and laypeople alike experience whenever they visit North Church?

We are a living testimony that there is something more to life than producing and consuming in this capitalist economy. Money is not the measure of happiness or a meaningful life.

The modern world, with its obsession with taking and consuming resources, has a lot in common with Adam and Eve, humanity’s earliest ancestors in the book of Genesis. According to that story, Adam and Eve were made in God’s image. God formed them from the dust and breathed the breath of life into their bodies. But they wanted more. They wanted to “be like God,” as the story says. So, what did they do? They took the fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. They lusted after power and control, thinking that would make them more like God. But it didn’t work, did it? The result of their grasping after power was exile from paradise and death in the wilderness.

I think their story has been the story of the entire human race: we grasp after power and control, but end up causing death. In our day, this grasping after power has taken the form of this obsession with money and all things “bigger, better, faster, and more.” We are only re-enacting in our lives the story of Adam and Eve from the book of Genesis. Our grasping after power has not led to greater happiness.

But the Gospel, the Christian story, presents us with another way of living, another way of “being like God,” as Adam and Eve tried to do. St. Paul, in this morning’s reading from his letter to the Philippians, lays out for us the story of Jesus and compares it to the story of Adam and Eve in the garden. Like Adam, Paul says that Jesus was “in the form (or image) of God”. But, unlike Adam and Eve, Jesus “did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited.” Another translation of this word exploited could be “grasped,” just like Adam and Eve “grasped” the fruit that they thought would make them powerful. Adam and Eve grasped in order to be like God; Jesus was like God but did not grasp.

Adam and Eve tried to become masters of their own destiny. But Jesus took “the form of a slave”. Adam and Eve filled themselves with the fruit of the tree; Jesus, according to Paul, “emptied himself.” Adam and Eve sought life and were trapped by death; Jesus embraced death and received new life. Adam and Eve exalted themselves and were cast out of paradise; Jesus humbled himself and was given “the name that is above every name.”

The Gospel of Jesus presents us with a fundamentally different way of being human in the world. The Christian life is not a life that can be measured in terms of “bigger, better, faster, more.” We do not depend on production and consumption to give our lives value. We find ourselves called by God, not to the center of the halls of power, but to edges of society. We stand in solidarity with the poor and oppressed peoples of the earth and discover their God-given dignity, which cannot be measured by human standards.

We are called to follow the same path as Jesus: the way of crucifixion to an old way of life and resurrection to a new one. When we give up our “inalienable right” to “the pursuit of happiness” (by this world’s standards), we discover that joy is a gift given freely to those who serve Christ in their brothers and sisters.

Here at North Church, we have stumbled across this Gospel truth as we live and serve with our neighbors who are disabled or have a mental illness. We have here something of the mystery of Christ that cannot be measured in terms of money or power.

I would say that this way of life is actually a lifeboat with room enough to rescue anyone who wants to get off the sinking shipwreck of modern life.

God has given us this gift, not just to grasp it and keep it for ourselves, but to share it with the rest of God’s people in the world. Our neighbors in the community and our brothers and sisters in the Church desperately need what we have here. Let’s share it with them; let’s move over and make room in the lifeboat for anyone who might need or want a seat.

St. Hildegard von Bingen, Doctor of the Church (1098-1179)

St. Hildegard von Bingen was a Benedictine nun, visionary mystic, community leader, scientist, writer, and musical composer.

On this, the day of her memorial, I can do no better than to let her speak in her own words, interspersed with illustrations from her writings (whose production she supervised personally). All quotes are borrowed from the Spirituality and Practice website.

Images are borrowed from Wikimedia Commons.

While you meditate, I invite you to listen to this music, which she composed…

Holy persons draw to themselves all that is earthly. . . .
The earth is at the same time mother,
She is mother of all that is natural,
mother of all that is human.
She is the mother of all,
for contained in her
are the seeds of all.

God hugs you.
You are encircled by the arms
of the mystery of God.

Good People,
most royal greening verdancy,
rooted in the sun,
you shine with radiant light.

Humankind, full of all creative possibilities, is God’s work. Humankind alone is called to assist God. Humankind is called to co-create. With nature’s help, humankind can set into creation all that is necessary and life-sustaining.

Should I not be concerned?

Today’s reading comes from Jonah 4:1-11.

Today we see the prophet Jonah in all his ironic, satirical glory. Much like Samson the judge, Jonah is almost a parody of a prophet. He hears the divine voice, but runs from it. When his preaching career turns out to be a success, he whines and mopes about it.

In today’s passage, Jonah loses his cool with God over a bush that had served as his shade from the sun for a day. He throws a dramatic tantrum comparable to that of a three-year-old who wants another piece of candy before bed.

Jonah feels utterly abandoned and unloved. One can imagine God standing by until the “prophet” runs out of breath and the screaming finally dies down.

God: “You done yet?”

Jonah: “Yup.”

God: “You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labor and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night. And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?”

The reality of the situation is precisely the opposite of what Jonah fears. It’s not that God doesn’t love or doesn’t care; it’s that God loves and cares even more than Jonah can possibly imagine. Divine compassion extends far beyond the bounds that Jonah’s prejudice will allow… even to the heathen, the pagans, and the sworn enemies of God’s chosen people.

Today is also the day that we remember St. Cornelius, who  served as Pope during one of the persecutions of the third century. He had a rival contender for that position: the Anti-Pope Novatian, who despised Cornelius’ liberal attitude toward those who had recanted their faith during the persecution.

Novatian, concerned primarily with the purity of the church, said there was no hope for those who abandoned Christ under duress; they were to be cast out forever.

Cornelius, on the other hand, left room for those who recanted to return to the fold, provided that due penance was completed. The door of divine grace is never closed to those who knock with an open heart.

I find it comforting that the historic church has acknowledged Cornelius over Novatian as the one who best represents the gospel. The church is willing to err on the side of grace and mystery, trusting that the river of God’s love runs deeper and wider than our own.

Let us not close our hearts to our fellow human beings like Jonah and Novatian. Whether it is in the name of politics or religion, our task is to “seek and serve Christ in all people” as it says in the baptismal vows of the Book of Common Prayer. This vow challenges us to not fall into the neat categories of politico-religious orthodoxy, purity, and exclusion. Our God is far to messy for that. God refuses to fit in our neatly organized boxes.

Like St. Cornelius, let us err on the side of grace and open our hearts, minds, and doors to our neighbors (especially those who we have reason to hate). Let us hear God challenge us again with the question he poses to Jonah:

“And should I not be concerned about Nineveh?”

Exaltation of the Holy Cross

From a prayer to the Holy Cross by St. Anselm of Canterbury:

We do not acknowledge you because of the cruelty that godless and foolish ones prepared you to effect upon the most gentle Lord, but because of the wisdom and goodness of him who of his own free will took you up. For they could not have done anything unless his wisdom had permitted it, and he could not suffer except that in his mercy he willed it.

They chose you that they might carry out their evil deeds; he chose you that he might fulfill the work of his goodness. They that by you they might hand over the righteous to death; he that through you he might save sinners from death. They that they might kill life; he that he might destroy death. They that they might condemn the Savior; he that he might save the condemned. They that they might bring death to the living; he that he might bring life to the dead.

Forgiveness: The Beginning of a New World

“An eye for an eye and eventually the whole world goes blind.” –Mohandas K. Gandhi

This is one of those one-line quips that has stuck with me over the years. I think Jesus would high five Gandhi after hearing this. He might even say, “I wish I’d thought of that!”

In fact, he did say something quite like it in his Sermon on the Mount:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ 39 But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also

I admit that I roll my eyes sometimes when I hear people getting excited about prisoners being executed for their crimes. Quite often, they are quick to cite Exodus 21:24, the original biblical source for the phrase “An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.”

It almost seems to me like they haven’t read Jesus’ own teaching on that very subject in Matthew 5:38, where he quite specifically and deliberately overturns what was previously written in the Bible.

This is one of those moments when we (if we’re going to call ourselves Christians) cannot simply worship Christ as our Savior unless we also follow him as our Lord.

As God’s people, we are called to be “holy”, which is to say: “different from the rest of the world.” And how does the rest of the world operate? Is there very much “turning of the cheek” going on when it comes to the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians? How about Bloods and Crips? Republicans and Democrats? Ku Klux Klan and Black Panthers? Not so much.

I think our brother Gandhi spoke the truth when he said, “An eye for an eye and eventually the whole world goes blind.”

We sinners have a pretty warped sense of justice when we limit its definition to punishment and revenge. Each side says, “Well, they started it!” meaning that “we” are always justified in our acts of violence against “them” because we are simply righting a wrong through vengeance: “An eye for an eye.”

So we set up these infinitely repeating cycles of violence where it’s “Us vs. Them” forever. Bloods vs. Crips, Israelis vs. Palestinians, Hatfields vs. McCoys. Where does it end? It doesn’t.

Whether it’s a feud between neighbors or nations, we’re just going to sit around, poking each other’s eyes out for eternity unless we can tap into some deeper vein of wisdom and come up with a better definition of justice.

I think you won’t be surprised to hear (from a preacher in church on Sunday morning) that our Lord Jesus offers us exactly what we need in terms of this deeper wisdom, this better definition of justice. I believe that he offers us the good news: “the truth that will set us free” from the endless cycles of violence and vengeance.

Jesus’ teaching this morning comes to us once again from Matthew’s gospel. It comes right on the heels of the passage we read last week, the one about “winning each other” and resolving conflict in a way that is consistent with what we believe as Christians.

Today’s passage is all about forgiveness. More specifically, it’s a cautionary tale about what is at stake when we don’t forgive and choose to continue those cycles of violence for another generation.

It begins with a question to Jesus from Peter:

“Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?”

Peter “tips his hand” and accidentally “shows us his cards” with this question. He reveals that he accepts the notion of forgiveness as a temporary measure for those minor offenders who “aren’t really all that bad” but his core assumption remains the same: that revenge is only way to achieve real justice.

Peter thinks mercy is weak, but he’s wrong.

It’s a common misconception: people mistake kindness for weakness. They equate violence with power, but they’re wrong.

In his usual style, Jesus answers Peter’s question and makes his point by telling a story.

Jesus tells Peter about a hypothetical employee who owed his boss an impossible amount of money: “Ten thousand talents,” to be exact. Now, I read in a commentary this week that a “talent” was a unit of measurement worth about six thousand denarii. So let’s do a little math:

A denarius is a day’s wage for a working person. Let’s be generous and go with the minimum wage that many people are currently fighting for in Michigan: $10 an hour.

$10 an hour times an 8 hour workday is $80. That’s a denarius in today’s terms.

A talent is six thousand denarii, which equals $480,000.

And remember that this employee owed his boss ten thousand talents, which equals a grand total of $4.8 billion, in today’s terms. That’s how much this person owed. This is no small debt.

When the boss simply forgives this loan, we’re talking federal bailout money.

On the other hand, this employee, who was forgiven so much, has a coworker who owes 100 denarii. Using the system we’ve just laid out, that would be about $8,000.

It’s a lot of money for a working person, certainly more than one could ever hope to pay, but it’s almost nothing compared to $4.8 billion.

But this first employee, still flying high from being bailed out by the government, serves an order of collection against the coworker who owed so little. The car is repossessed, the house is foreclosed on. This family is left destitute and the system calls it “justice.”

But Jesus sees this sham for what it is. He speaks through the boss in the parable, asking: “Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?”

Kindness is not weakness. Forgiveness is not free. It is given freely, but it asks everything of us.

When God forgives us our sins, it comes with the one and only price tag that we too must forgive those who sin against us. The only way to keep God’s forgiveness is to pass it on.

We Christians are called to make forgiveness the foundational principle of a new society, a new economy, and a new justice system.

When relationships are broken by sin, the only way to repair the damage is to let the cycle of violence stop with us. We have to refuse the rite of revenge and refrain from throwing the next stone of accusation at our neighbor. If a new world is going to be possible, then someone has to give up their right to having the last word.

According to the Christian gospel, that is exactly what God has done for us in Christ.

When our relationship with God was broken by our sin, did God simply stay up in heaven and reign down fire and brimstone on the world? No.

According to John’s gospel, God “took on flesh and moved into the neighborhood (see Peterson, The Message).” God dwelled among us in the person of Jesus Christ.

In Jesus, God experienced firsthand all the pain and torture that life has to offer. When the preachers and seminary professors saw the light of Jesus’ divinity, they called it demonic. Jesus’ own mother thought he was crazy. His followers abandoned him, his friends denied him, his apostles betrayed him. Ultimately, when the powers-that-be of this world could not stand to look at Jesus any longer, they brought down the full weight of their twisted “justice” system upon his head, back, hands, feet, and side. In the person of Christ and the body of Jesus, God absorbed the full force of humanity’s sin and refused to have the last word, except to say this:

“Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

Jesus knew (and embodied this truth in his life and death) that in order to initiate a new world, which he called the kingdom of heaven on earth, he would have to absorb all the sinful violence and hatred without returning it in kind. To the rest of the world, this would look like failure, weakness, and death.

St. Paul, in his most famous commentary on these events (found in his letter to the Philippians), says that Christ Jesus,

though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
    he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.

But death on a cross was not the end of the story.

We read in the gospels that, on the morning of the third day after these events took place, a few women made their way to pay their respects at Jesus’ tomb. But when they got there, they found something they didn’t expect to see:

The stone had been rolled away from the entrance, the soldiers had passed out from fright, and an angel stood in the doorway, picking his teeth and asked them, “Why do you seek the living among the dead? He is not here.”

Why not?

“He is risen.”

Today is the day that everything changes. Death itself has begun to work backwards. The dead come alive. The blind see. The deaf hear. The mute sing. The lame dance. The weak are strong. The foolish are wise. The first are now last and last are now first. The whole world is being turned upside down… or is it right side up?

In these events, the death and resurrection of Jesus, the foundation for a new society has been laid. Herein we find a new definition of justice that goes deeper than “an eye for an eye.”

Mercy, and not revenge, has the power to restore relationships broken by sin.

This failed revolutionary, who died in failure and disgrace with forgiveness on his lips, is now hailed as the most influential person in human history. His ridiculous gospel, which looked so weak to the rest of the world, outlived the Roman Empire that tried to suppress it with all its military might. That same gospel has now reached the shores of every continent on this planet and continues to spread as people like you and I choose to forgive the small debts that are owed to us because God in Christ has forgiven the huge debt that we owed to him.

Jesus says to us and to Peter, “Don’t judge by what your eyes see: forgiveness is not weakness. Mercy has the power to save the world from self-destruction by halting cycles of violence in their tracks.”

Mercy has the power to create a new world.

Let there be peace on earth and let it begin with me.

Faithful Wounds and Tough Love

Today’s first reading at the Office of Vigils was from Jonah 1:11-17.

Nevertheless, the men rowed hard to bring the ship back to land, but they could not, for the sea grew more and more stormy against them.

I love the story of these sailors at the beginning of the book of Jonah. So gentle and humane are their spirits that they would even defy the pronouncement of divine judgment for the sake of their fellow human being. It reminds me of my own approach to life and ministry: Let theology be flexible; only let me care well for those entrusted to me.

Generally speaking, I think we need more people like these sailors in today’s world, where relationships are often sacrificed on the altars of ideology: opponents are demonized, gay and lesbian children are kicked out of homes by their parents, and friendships are ended (or never begun) because two people see the world differently. Where are kind souls who would risk their own lives (or their theologies) for others’ sake?

Nevertheless, there comes a moment in the development of relationships where it becomes impossible to go on, to grow as human beings in relationship, unless we risk confrontation and have the courage to tell one another the bad news.

This takes an incredible amount of trust between all parties if it is to work well.

St. Benedict writes in chapter 69 of his Rule:

Care must be taken that no monk presume on any ground
to defend another monk in the monastery

This sentence is written for those people who have made a lifelong commitment to one another in the intentional community of a monastery. Such commitment is not made lightly and only comes after an extended period of formation in the novitiate. People who have reached the point of professing permanent vows have presumably built enough trust with one another (and their superiors) to engage in the difficult work of truth-telling. We should be able to say the same about marriage, parenthood, and a handful of other relationships in life.

Rescuing (Benedict calls it “defending”) one another, so that our loved ones never have to experience any pain or hardship can sometimes short-circuit God’s work in their lives. There are trials we must endure if we are to grow as human beings and we must be able to trust God and a few others to help us work through them, rather than avoid them.

Faithful are the wounds of a friend,” goes the old saying in Proverbs 27:6 (KJV). Speaking the truth in love is an icky-tasting medicine. It should be used like a surgeon’s scalpel: as rarely as possible and only with great care by one who has earned the right to be heard.

The sailors on Jonah’s ship reached the point where they could not go on any longer. Like the addict who has “bottomed out”, they had to make a choice between drastic action or death. After a final prayer, they did what had to be done: they tossed Jonah overboard.

As it turns out, this hard act of trust had salvific implications, not only for their physical lives, but their spiritual lives as well. They came away from this encounter with a deepened reverence for Yahweh. Likewise, the sailors’ willingness to do the hard thing opened up the possibility for Jonah to fulfill his own destiny. The doom he feared did not come upon him: Jonah was rescued (albeit in the most disgusting way possible) and he went on to be the vessel of Ninevah’s deliverance from destruction. An entire city was saved because of the sailors’ willingness to let go and cast Jonah overboard.

Do we have that kind of faith in God and each other? Are we willing to do the hard thing and “speak the truth in love” (Eph. 4:15) when necessary?

Many who participate in Alcoholics Anonymous or other 12 Step groups have learned that kind of trust through their sponsors and the power of the group. Tough love makes recovery possible.

I learned it from a trusted mentor when I was in college. He loved me enough to back me up against a wall and tell me some hard truths when I needed to hear them. He did not employ this technique often or lightly. He did not do it just to “be right” or for the sake of his own ego. He earned the right to be heard by me. Faithful were the wounds of this friend.