Sunday, December 30, 2007

episcopal tashlikh

this sermon from the first sunday after Christmas, St. Mark's Palo Alto on Isaiah 61:10-62:3 , Galatians 3:23-25;4:4-7 , John 1:1-18 , and Psalm 147:13-21

“Time is an enormous long river,” says old-time storyteller Utah Phillips. The practice of reading and interpreting scripture gives us a glimpse upstream, a way to stand in the river and notice how we are changed by who and what has gone before. We should not be surprised that each of us receives these stories differently. According to one midrash, or commentary on the Jewish Torah, if there were six hundred thousand Jews present at Mount Sinai, there were also six hundred thousand versions of what happened.

Do you have a family historian? A person who tries to set the record straight, and resists any creative changes or artistic license in their retelling of family stories? There’s a story my mom loves to tell, and for many years I always corrected her, assuming the only right way to tell the story was the way I remembered it happening. I noticed that every time she told the story, she painted herself as less embarrassed, less the victim of a silly situation, and more mischievous and creative. I always thought this was blasphemy!

But what is setting the record straight, anyway? My version of the story was not the only one; maybe her memory of the day had changed. Rabbi Lawrence Kushner, in his recent novel Kabbalah, tells about a man who notices his memory changing, and revealing new possibilities for his life. The man tells a friend, “A few weeks ago, I was recounting the story and I realized that some things might have happened differently. I’m sure if there had been a videocamera on the ceiling, like they have in banks, the tape would be the same each time it was played. But what those gestures and shadows mean changes with each new viewing. I’ll go farther: The holier the event, the more ways it can be retold.” (Kabbalah, 106)

St. John’s version of the holy Christmas event is very different from the one we read on Christmas eve, and much more difficult to act out. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. In our pageant this year, the Paschal candle appeared on the stage at the moment of Jesus’ birth, the light of Christ. The gospel of John was the last of the four canonical gospels to be written, many years after Matthew and Luke, which were themselves many years after Mark. Each successive story starts further back in time, further upstream in the enormous long river: Mark begins with the baptism of a thirtysomething Jesus, Matthew and Luke with a baby in a stable, and John way back at the beginning of the world.

Phillips described time as a river to say that our attempts to divide time are basically false. How were “the 60s” different from “the 70s” if the Vietnam War heated up in 1965 and ended in 1975? Is January 1, 2008 really going to be all that different from December 31, 2007? It is certainly true that each day is the first day of the rest of your life, but it’s also true you that you need a healthy relationship with the past in order to accept the gift of the future, of the world that is coming.

Since we each have a part in the world that is coming, it can be fine thing to set goals or make resolutions for our own growth. I tend, when making resolutions, to judge myself harshly for the habit I want to change. I try desperately to get away from a “bad old” self to a “good new” self, I guess because I’ve decided “bad old” self is uncool and unloveable. It is this habit of beating ourselves up that St. Paul is referring to in Galatians. “Now that faith has come, we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian.” The disciplinarian is the judge within us who tries to get us to grow by force and rules. Christ has come to encourage our faith that God’s love is not conditional on our successfully meeting our goals. I have a bedtime prayer from New Zealand near my bed. It says, “God our judge and teacher, let us not waste time when day is done in guilt or self-reproach. Give us rather the courage to face whatever has been, accept forgiveness, and move on to something better.” We cannot grow from fear, only from love.

One response to the fear of not being good enough, of being unworthy of even God’s love, is to try to start over. I have always been tempted by offers of fresh starts, where I’m offered chances to go somewhere new, with new people, doing new things. I almost went to live and work on a boat instead of going back for my last year of college. And this year, I almost left you all and this community I love, to move to Kansas City. These offers are like chances to make-your-own New Years, a shiny new start within which you can pretend to be able to erase your past mistakes. And then, of course, wherever you go, there you are. Healing is important precisely because we can’t erase the past.

Looking back at those months when I was talking about moving, I’m reminded of another New Years ritual, a flipside to making resolutions. It’s done on the Jewish New Year, the afternoon of Rosh Hashanah. The ceremony is called tashlikh, which means casting off. You stand on the banks of a river or other body of water, and throw pieces of bread in the water to represent the sins you’re carrying with you from the past year.

Moving to Kansas City would not have been a sin. What I want to throw in the river, though, is the way I acted for awhile there as if I were already gone.

I went to lunch with my sister one day this spring. She was worried about my plans,

and asked, “What would you do if you changed your mind and came back?"

“Go back to St. Mark’s.”

“Why would they want to take you back?”

“Because they love me.”

“Do you love them?”


“Then why are you leaving them?”

I sighed. I said, “Good question. The only good answer is, because it’s time.”

It wasn’t time. I’m very glad I’m still here. I’m glad because here is home; not just because Palo Alto is my hometown, but St. Mark’s too is now part of me and there’s a lot we can be and do together yet. And because you’re teaching me how to forgive and love like Christ.

A holy relationship with the past, then, is a paradox. On the one hand you hold your sins with compassion, without judgement, and on the other hand you cast them off. You let them be food for fish. You stand in the river but you don’t let it drown you. Brian Taylor says, “We tend to think that we’re supposed to get rid of our dark side, our spiritual failure, our annoyingly habitual faults, and then present ourselves as pure and proper before God. But the Spirit needs us to be real. The manure of our lives should not be hidden from God; it should be dug into our souls so that its nutrients can help produce needed growth.” We don’t become righteous because we are perfect (or hiding something!), but rather salvation sets us free to be our best selves.

As you look back over 2007, what things are you holding onto? What things are holding onto you? What might you do to accept them and accept forgiveness? Would it help to ask for forgiveness, or ask for support?

What are you called to grow into this next year? How might you nurture that growth? How can we move forward together as a healthy and healing community?

May we learn to see the light of hope, the promise of healing, in all the stories of our lives this year. May we trust that God’s enormous long river is flowing towards the kingdom And may we come with joy to meet our Lord, forgiven, loved, and free. Amen.

Friday, December 28, 2007

christmas sermon from a wisdom christian

sung/said by me at st. mark's palo alto, christmas morning:

Oh, what a beautiful city
oh, what a beautiful city
oh, what a beautiful city
there’s twelve gates to the city, Hallelujah

I learned about singing old-time gospel and mountain music from a woman named Ginny Hawker. She led a gospel sing in a beautiful, small wooden building, a former blacksmith shop, at a music camp I attended. People at this camp were mostly spiritual-but-not-religious agnostic types. Someone asked her whether she believed in everything we were singing, naming an anxiety felt by many of us. Ginny said, “Good question. I don’t agree with some of these words. They’re all important to me, though, because they were important to my grandmother. When I sing these songs I’m honoring her.” I think we were also asking that day: “Is it okay to enjoy this prayerful space we’ve just created by singing these songs together? Don’t we have to have checked our minds and checkbooks into a religious community to get this benefit?” Are we hypocrites if we sing and pray along with words we don’t understand, or don’t believe are true?

No; walk on in and you’ll be welcome in the city.

A friend of my familiy has a similar approach to saying the Creed in church (the list of “we believe’s that we’ll get to after I sit down): he says it’s okay to hum along with the parts you can’t say. Humming along doesn’t make you any less welcome. This question is central to our Anglican tradition; Elizabeth I, on inheriting a country full of people killing each other over whether or not to be Roman Catholic, said, “Enough!” She helped to create a church more grounded in common practice than in common belief. Keep praying together, especially when you disagree. There’s twelve gates to the city, hallelujah.

So what is this city with twelve gates? It is the kingdom of God on earth, an idea that to me means we’re evolving beyond a theology of insiders and outsiders. In the heavenly city, in what progressive theologians in this century have called the beloved community, there are no chosen people. Or, perhaps more accurately, there are no unchosen people.

The prophet Isaiah, in today’s first reading, says “You who remind the Lord, take no rest, and give him no rest until he establishes Jerusalem and makes it renowned throughout the earth.” Maybe that’s a weird sentence to get excited about, but here’s why I got excited about it: Isaiah was among the first in the Hebrew tradition to push past the idea that God chose the Hebrews above all others. God’s love and acceptance can’t be limited to people who look like us, believe like us, or are in our family. So Isaiah isn’t recommending a military charge. Nor is the psalmist, even thought we just said, “a fire goes before him and burns up his enemies on every side.” Christ is the Lord who came to transform Empire, not to beat Caesar at his own game. Isaiah invites all the world to the heavenly city; no one will be brought there as a prisoner. The prophet is issuing a charge, a call to each of us to work at building that city. And more, a call to live as though it were already here, for in the deepest sense, it is.

This summer in the Catheral of Notre Dame in Chartres, France, I understood Isaiah. I also understood Mary. The cathedral was pretty dark inside, but when we turned a corner and could see the Mary chapel, it was all light. Hundreds of votive candles in red glass holders surrounded a 7th-century statue, the Black Mary. I sat in this chapel, more interested in feeling what this place was like than in walking around with my friends. I got out the Bible I had brought, my grandmother’s, and flipped through Luke. I was looking for the Christmas reading, “Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.” I noticed old women going up to the statue, which rested on a big pillar, and kissing the pillar in devotion. I learned that the common name Pilar means Mary, the pillar of the church, the family, the community. Mary held the Christ child in her heart and in her body, and responded to God’s call to her with unbelievable strenth.

Coming from the warmth and quiet of Mary’s sanctuary, I responded to the rest of what the cathedral had to offer me differently. Images of the heavenly city appeared everywhere, carved and in windows. I began to see in them Isaiah’s hope for unity, Mary’s hope for her son, his hope for the world. The hopes and fears of all the years, all met in me. Oh, what a beautiful city.

I can see from all this two different ways for us to live into the Christmas story.
Some will be prophets and evangelists, like the shepherds and like Isaiah. The prophets, like teenagers, are often not politically correct. You speak the truth, and call us to our best selves. You’re also excited; the shepherds went and told everyone they knew about this child, not stopping to think how they’d be received. You yearn for the world to be made new, for the cleansing fire to burn away all that keeps us apart.

Others will prefer to play Mary. Your role is to treasure and to cherish all the miracles you can find, past, present, and future. It’s kind of an Appreciative Inquiry model; Mary makes more of what is good in the world by nurturing the good we already have. She’s also reflective, in prayer and stillness she uncovers important insights and connections.

As in a family, and as in our church, we need both of these characters. And we need to be able to learn from each other. The great modern mystic Henri Nouwen said, “No mystic (read: Mary) can prevent herself from becoming a social critic, since in self-reflection she will uncover the roots of a sick society. Similarly, no revolutionary (read: prophet) can avoid facing his own human condition, since in the midst of his struggle for a new world he will find that he is also fighting his own reactionary fears and false ambitions.” There’s twelve gates to the city, hallelujah. recently featured an interview with theologian John Haight. The interviewer asked him if he believes God answers prayer. He warned against focusing too narrowly on ourselves, saying:
Yes, but I have to…ask, what if God answered everybody's prayers? What kind of world would we have? I also have to think of what Jesus said when his disciples asked him to teach them to pray. What he told them, in effect, was to pray for something really big. He called it "the kingdom of God." What that means is praying for the ultimate fulfillment of all being, of all the universe. So when we pray, we're asking that the world might have a future.
May God’s will be done, and kingdom come, the heavenly city.
And may your hearts burn within you with joy.

Saturday, December 1, 2007

something in the air, y'all

today the episcopal church in the diocese of california practices what we're calling a "retreat in daily life." many of us have folded-up 8.5"x 11" pieces of paper with scripture readings, prayers, and reflection questions that we're carrying with us as we go about our day. the day is organized around the ancient monastic prctice of praying the hours; every few hours we stop at an appointed time to pray. my friends in the order of the holy cross say that praying the hours amounts to committing to a life of leisure--that is, one in which there is time for everything and everything has its time. the practice in monasteries is to pick up your pen--even in the middle of a word--when the bell rings for prayer, and leave the work unfinished. the practice is a powerful antedote to my own and our collective "one last thing syndrome." my sense is that those living this life, over time, encounter less unfinished work than the rest of us. or maybe they just don't let it get to them.

i already feel different today. i paused, after 10:00am but then i don't have monastery bells, to pray the office of Terce from my little sheeet. i made some notes with my ideas to send back to the diocese, then i sat down at my computer. my friend bob blogged this morning about world aids day today. then i read the newsletter of the buddhist peace fellowship, which was in my email inbox, and followed links to a beautiful interview with Alice Walker:
I like to say that as long as the earth can make a spring, spring time, I can do that also, because we are one. My solace and my comfort comes from being in nature. Every day I look out at peach trees and hills and water and sky. I just picked a lot of plums today. I can’t give up because nature has not, even in places that have been battered beyond recognition of what was there before.
but what was amazing was not that there are wise minds and great souls whose words i have access to from my kitchen table. what was--is--amazing is how much more they touched my heart today. i (we) have consecrated the day through my (our) prayer, and i can see and feel through all sorts of fences, walls, and barriers.