Easter 6 A 2017
I remember a story I heard not long ago, about a mother who was taking her daughters to dinner one night. It had been a long day, the restaurant was mostly empty, and the waitress was taking a little extra time with each of the customers after the crush of the early evening. These children, both of them girls, had been adopted from orphanages in China when they were infants, in a time before they could remember; they were well-behaved, polite and beautiful. When the waitress approached their table to give them their menus, she looked at the mother and then at the two children. She smiled at the mother and asked where her beautiful girls came from. The mother had heard this question many times before and it may have been the lateness of the hour or the exhaustion of a single mom, but she paused for a moment, looked up at the waitress and said very evenly, “Why, they came from the same place all children do. They came from God”.
I believe that this young woman was being honest, but I also think she is offering some light for our gospels during Eastertide, especially for the promises Jesus has made for this morning. By any conceivable measure the situation of the disciples is a precarious one. They are in the midst of betrayal by one of their own, a threat which John’s own community would have felt keenly, with their own deaths an ever-present possibility. Even in death, however, the promise is not abandonment but the love of a family; they will not be left orphans but, if they love one another, will receive the spirit of God among them. By the keeping of his commandment to love one another, that promise radiates outward to his disciples and beyond them, to the inheritors of that promise sitting with all of us today. The arrival of the Holy Spirit is not a replacement but an extension of the love of Jesus toward those who, in their own halting way, full of misunderstanding and fear, are creating a new world in that upper room. It is one based on communal love, one that could not be more different than the world outside.
To be an orphan in Jesus’ day, and in John’s, meant exclusion from the system through which all people found their identity, the great extended families of the Roman and Semitic world. It is to be in a kind of limbo, without the mooring of a parent or family by which they can be identified. But even before the Easter event, Jesus is redefining what it means to be a family. These disciples are his children, and the love that binds the disciples to him is greater than incomprehension or weakness. It is not a private relationship or devotion that he is offering them; it is a love that ties them to him and to each other. Just as Jesus identifies himself both with the Father and the Spirit that is yet to come, they are to imitate that communion with each other.
I believe it is helpful to remember that connection between the love of God and the brothers and sisters on whom we depend. It was a staple of the faith from its earliest days in many communities, especially among the desert monastics. Their concept of the spirit of truth contained the idea of mutual interdependence, that we all stood on the circumference of a great circle, with God at its center. As each of us moved closer to God, we became closer to one another. In the same way, as we became closer to one another, we inevitably became nearer to God. It was in that movement that they found the presence of the “other Advocate,” the presence of the Father in Jesus and the dwelling of both in the community of believers. Even in an atmosphere of imminent betrayal, the promise of God is the love that will penetrate them all, through the life of their community and in their own hearts.
No one, least of all those in the early Christian communities, pretends that believing these relationships are easy or that they will save us from suffering. The author of First Peter makes it clear that suffering is part of the bargain, that “it is better to suffer for doing good, if suffering be God’s will, than to suffer for doing evil.” The promise, however, is that we cannot be harmed, in the deepest part of ourselves, if we are eager to do what is good. By this calculus, suffering is negligible because it is temporal, unrelated to the eternal promise of interrelationship among all of God’s children and the coming of the Holy Spirit. Even if our lives are fleeting, we are not orphans, and it is the love of God for us, reflecting the love within God, that will sustain us.
In Jesus’ promise is the invitation to find our own identity in that love, a promise made good in the resurrection appearance. And we find that identity because we too are adopted, with our idiosyncrasies and our enmities, at our most beautiful and our most broken. Anne Lamott talks about this God who refuses to leave us alone, who gives us each other in this new kingdom coming to be in that upper room. “You’ve got to love this in a God,”, she says, “consistently assembling the motleyest people to bring, into the lonely and frightening world, a commitment to caring and community. It’s a centuries-long reality show—Moses the stutterer, David the adulterer, Mary the homeless teenager. Not to mention all the mealy-mouthed disciples. Not to mention a raging insecure narcissist like me.” We are all tied together by this love commandment, and the gift of the Spirit cements that love among us, even those of us who count ourselves among the motley bunch of God’s people.
Something I have heard both from parents of children who are adopted and biologically their own is how deep a process of self-discovery it is. We grow in our own self-understanding as we come to know these people who have entered our lives; something draws us closer to each other as we discover how individual we are, in our eating and our sleeping (sometimes), in our play and what fascinates us; it is our mutual delight that sustains us, almost as deeply as the food itself. It is the same with the love of God: we too are drawn into the mutual indwelling of the Father and Son, and the promise is that, as broken as we are, we are inseparable from that love, a love that calls us out of ourselves and into love with the rest of God’s adopted children. We will not be left alone because we were made for each other, in a time before any of us can remember, and we have the conviction, even at our most stressed and least lovable, that we too are children of God.
Easter 4 A 2017
John 10: 1-10
Today is known as Shepherd Sunday, and those who have been in the church for a few years will know it from the twenty-third psalm, which we hear every year, to all the talk of lambs among us, the ones among us and the one at the center of the throne in heaven. In my mind's eye, I often wait for the sheep themselves to show up, meandering down the aisles, memories of cotton-ball sheep from Sunday-school classes, guests and old friends that wander in among us. The readings for this morning are about the lambs we all are, the ways we are led in and out by the shepherd of us all, the parts of our relationship with the holy that are most reassuring, which is why we hear them at times when we are in need of comfort, times of distress or grief. But it is the claim that Jesus makes over his sheep that really defines this morning. It is the God revealed through the presence of a protector, one who guides us, who loves us too much to leave us alone, the one leads us out and brings us back. I am the good shepherd; I am the gate for the sheep.
A long time ago, someone gave me an icon of Jesus as the Good Shepherd. It is one that I have treasured, because, like many icons, it acts as both a picture and a mirror. In my case it has taught me a great deal about what it means to be a shepherd, to be pastoral under all circumstances, because those of us who have given our lives to this vocation do so under the guidance of the shepherd who is the guardian of our souls, who calls us to return when all of us go astray. I have been especially grateful for this icon since I heard a talk from Desmond Tutu about how we completely misunderstand this image of Jesus; in my icon, which is a copy of one many of you may have seen, the sheep lies across the shoulders of the shepherd, a beatific expression on his face, the whiteness of his wool immaculate. In truth, Tutu says, that sheep ought to be covered in mud, bloodied be the scrapes he has been through, stinking from the fetid water he has been playing in, which is how I feel on days when I have haven't been especially attentive to the voice I should have been hearing, calling me back to the life I know I need. And yet Jesus, broad-shouldered and impassive, has a claim on this sheep, one who knows his voice and simply has to decide whether it is more alluring than those of the bandits and thieves who are after his life.
It is this claim on us that Jesus talks about as the gatekeeper for the sheep that we all are this day, and it is both about invitation and promise. All of us take comfort in the psalm we have said together this morning, about the God who sees us through our own darkest valleys, whose goodness and mercy shall follow us forever. I would be willing to bet that many of us have it committed to memory, or at least the parts that speak most deeply to us, and I am quite sure that I have heard it in more hospital rooms than any other single piece of scripture. But to hear of Jesus as gatekeeper is about the abiding, protective love of God, especially when we are lying in bed, being eaten alive by worries or guilt about the messes we have made in our lives. It is an invitation to recognize the voice of the one who is calling us, asking us to make a decision about whose voice is the one we are going to follow, apart from the other voices that tear at us. It is, in the end, about relationship, the relationship we are willing to cultivate with each other and the living God instead of the whistling in the dark we often do when the world encroaches on us.
After all, we know the thieves and bandits in our lives and their voices are legion. They are the voices we hear in answer to the despondency and fear we carry, the things to which we cling to buy us a sense of peace. We want to believe that the shareholder letter, the reassuring note about our pension plan, gives us the kind of security that keeps our lives from being taken away, little by little. But when we use language like “my family”, maybe “my spouse” or even “my sheep”, we are using the language of relationship, one for which we would give up anything else in our lives. It is about the God and people to whom we are bound so tightly that we are a part of them and they are a part of us, a God who offers what saves us through the person of Jesus. It is not about the fluffy, immaculate, docile people we often wish we were but about a relationship that defines who we are in relation to the love of God. It is that relationship that means life to us, so much so that we would not recognize ourselves without it.
It may be easier to see this relationship in others than it is in ourselves. When I was in my early twenties, another lifetime ago, I remember the experience of playing Bach's b-minor mass with Robert Shaw. I was young enough that I didn't really understand what it was in which I was participating, but I do remember what he looked like when we got to the Agnus Dei, the Lamb of God, almost at the end of the piece. I don't even remember who the alto soloist was. I simply remember what Mr. Shaw looked like, utterly spent, a man in his mid-eighties who had done this a thousand times before, but for whom there was only this moment, imbued by the love of God, this fusion of this most haunting music with everything that he was. Sitting there on that stage, watching the sweat pooling on his face and shirt, tears starting down his cheeks, it was impossible for any of us to know where he stopped and the music began.
In case we have any doubt, it is the claim of that relationship that remains with us all the days of our lives. Someone I know has described an experience of sitting with a friend when she was dying, someone who kept trying to give away what she owned but who kept receiving gifts from well-meaning friends. One day someone gave her a polished stone with a hole in it to wear around her neck, and she didn't know what to do with it. “' What is it?', she breathed, turning it around and around in front of her face. Then she brought it close to one eye so that she could look straight through the middle of the stone. 'Ah,' she said, 'now I see. This is the way through.'”
The promise of the Good Shepherd, the gate for the sheep that we all are, is nothing that any of us can quantify, put on a balance sheet or lock in a safety-deposit box. It is just that, a promise, and there is blessedly nothing we can do about it. It is made by someone who knows us better than ourselves, who is indeed a part of ourselves, and the invitation is simply to stop what we are doing to earn away the things that are eating at us and to listen for a very faint voice, the voice we do our best to drown-out by agonizing over the messes and fears of our lives. It is then that we can count on the presence of the shepherd, the one whose goodness and mercy will follow us no matter what we do, so that all of us, wonderful and flawed as we are, will find a way through.
Lent 3 A 2017
John 4: 5-42
One of the gifts of John’s gospel is that it shows us the distance between the words we use and what they can actually mean, the gap between what we say and the meaning we are trying to convey. Although we don’t usually have this experience in day-to-day encounters in places where we live or work, I have had this sense with my own children. When my son was young, we had baby gates all over the house; one day he found a gate that was open as he wheeled around a corner, found a gate that was open, took a tumble halfway down a flight of stairs (carpeted, thanks be to God) and saw me looking intently at him, half ready to grab the keys for the emergency room. In fact, I felt at that moment that if the police, Oprah and the entire crew of Sixty Minutes were to show up, it would serve me right, parental fraud that I was. But without saying a word, he handed me the bear he was clutching, as if to comfort me. I remember my daughter’s first trip to the zoo, with all the strange creatures around her that she could not even imagine, a mixture of wonder and fear on her face and feelings that she couldn’t describe when the trip was over. There is always a critical space between words and their meaning that children seem to understand instinctively, until we reach that terrible age where we are taught to be precise about what we mean, which usually coincides with the time when they realize that there are people different from us and we have to decide how to respond to them.
This space between words and what they mean is both a challenge and a reward in John’s gospel, because I often feel that we are having to learn a new language: the misunderstanding between Jesus and Nicodemus on being born a second time, the incomprehension we hear from the disciples later in the gospel. But the conversation between Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well challenges everything we know about words, faith and the distance we find between them. This sense of distance is heightened by barriers of ethnicity and gender, but it isn’t limited to them. But because she is both a Samaritan and a woman and their conversation is violating several social taboos, she ironically has the freedom to understand in a way that Nicodemus could not last week. She is slowly learning a new language that lies beyond the edge of our words, moving ever closer to an understanding of who Jesus is and providing a model for our own growth in faith.
It is important to understand that Jesus is asking for the water while his disciples are in town buying food. It is an invitation for her not only to see the Christ in the other but to notice that she alone is in the presence of the living God. She is the one with the bucket, even though he can draw the water himself, and their entire exchange depends on his willingness to let her see to whom she is speaking. When he offers her living water, “gushing up to eternal life,” she cannot offer her own belief until Jesus demonstrates his foreknowledge of her five previous husbands. What he is telling her is not what she expects to hear from a Jew, that legitimate worship happens not in Jerusalem but in the heart of the believer, “the Word made flesh and dwelt among us,” as we hear in the prologue of the gospel. To hear that we will worship in spirit and in truth is, by nature, communal, unbound by time or space. “By the power of your spirit,” Frederick Buechner says, “you can empower me to do things and be things that I can never manage on my own, and this can remain true whether we are six feet apart or six thousand miles, six years or sixty.” We are changed by the movement of the spirit, for which we have no words, and it changes how we think about the place we meet God.
It is when the Samaritan woman says yes to the coming of the Messiah, when her own understanding becomes unmoored from the literal, Jesus reveals who he is and allows her to become a co-witness in the proclamation of his divinity: “I am he, the one who is speaking to you.” Even our translation fails us; in the original Greek, Jesus says simply, “I am,” which is the name of God: I am the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, I am the Good Shepherd, I am the way and the truth and the life. I am the God who is with you in your darkest moments, when you fear for your parents or your children, the God present in your deepest joys. Like this woman, we are invited into that space between what we can offer in our words and the depth of the event. As with this woman, Jesus is patient with us, knowing that we can only understand who and what he is at our own pace, aware that our words can only take us so far.
When the disciples return, surprised to see him talking to this outsider, she leaves her water bottle and rushes off to ask those in her village to come and see someone who has told her everything she has ever done. To come and see are the words of Philip to Nathaniel at the beginning of the gospel, an invitation to meet the Messiah, and the woman’s rhetorical question echoes that of the disciples’: “He cannot be the Messiah, can he?” While they come to their own conclusion after he stays with them for two days, that he is “ truly the Savior of the world,” the question hangs in the air for all of us, long after she has dropped her water jar. The story is so full of irony, of words and signs uncomprehended or barely understood, that we are beckoned into a different way of thinking about how critical our words are for the meaning of our faith. Former Archbishop Rowan Williams talks about a “ray of darkness,” when people claim to have encountered God. He says that “they don’t mean they have seen a thing, or a face, or even a person. They mean they’ve been interrupted and turned inside-out; ; they’ve seen a process in which they are put into question at their deepest level.” There are moments, he says, when the world of our experience or memory confronts us as something utterly beyond control or understanding, leaving us shut out, alienated or impotent. It is in that darkness that we, like Nicodemus, meet this God, who is there at the end of our words and loves us despite our failure to express what we know at the deepest part of ourselves.
And all that is left is the invitation to stay, as the Samaritans invite him to remain among them, to abide, to rest, in St. John’s favorite term. Those things for which we have no words are, after all, the things that are keys to us, and our lack of words, frustrating as it is, is the clue to how important they are. We are children ourselves in this way, pushing ourselves to the end of what we can say and allowing our faith to do the rest. Like Philip and Nathaniel, like this nameless Samaritan woman, we have only our faith to offer, in our encounter with this God who doesn’t want our words as much as the commitment to rest in him, to give ourselves to him in ways beyond what any of us could express.
Conversion of St. Paul
Acts 26: 9-21
Galatians 1: 11-24
In the art history class I took in college, the only undergraduate class I took pass/fail, I was introduced to one of my favorite painters, the early 17th century master Caravaggio. Although he painted a variety of Biblical subjects, it was his Conversion of St. Paul that was one of my favorites, with its play of light and dark, the chiaroscuro that makes him so easy to identify, even with untrained eyes like mine. In the painting, there are myriad shades of darkness over the bare-backed horse and the soldier trying to control him, while a slave reaches toward the image of Saul on the ground, bathed in light and covering his eyes. You could hardly call it idealized, but it shows the abruptness, even the violence so many of us associate with conversion moments. Saul, the self-proclaimed “breather of threats against the disciples of the Lord”, punishing them in the synagogues, pursuing them even to foreign cities, lies utterly vulnerable and it is in this vulnerability that that he is rescued from his people and sent to open their eyes, as he tells King Agrippa this morning, that they may turn from darkness to light.
In fact, it is darkness against light that we most associate with Damascus Road moments, the divine flash of the conversion of John Newton, a slave-trader who became the evangelical composer of Amazing Grace, of Dorothy Day deciding to break from the disorder of Eugene O’Neill’s crowd from the back pew of St. James’ Church in Greenwich Village, of countless others who can locate the beginning of their faith in a single life-altering, soul-stirring moment. Many of us can only look on in envy through these unbidden transformations; if we need help in coveting the experience, there are plenty of our evangelical sisters and brothers who are willing to make that judgment for us, whether we want it or not. If these were pass/fail encounters, I would have no trouble telling you where I would end up.
For most of the people I know, it simply doesn’t work that way, or it doesn’t tell the whole story. For Paul, whose commitment to the cause of discipleship is unwavering, his own divine bolt-from-the-blue is marked by three days of waiting until his sight is restored, instruction in the faith that he has so violently opposed, followed by three years in Arabia and Damascus that he details in his Letter to the Galatians, until he is able to return to Jerusalem to see Peter and begin his work around the Mediterranean. The period before his missionary activity is not simply fallow time; although we can only guess at what this mysterious period meant for Paul, we can be sure that it offered a serious opportunity for reflection, time given to make sense of his experience. It is this time that is the real gift, an opportunity to make sense of what has happened to him and what it meant for the time going forward, of what this experience was going to mean for his subsequent work. The Damascus Road experience represents a beginning, but there is no painter or theologian who can encompass the meaning of that conversion, from one who was trying to destroy the church of God to one to whom God was pleased to reveal his Son, that he might proclaim him to the Gentiles. It is because it is only the beginning of his real conversion, a conversion that would end only at the offering of his life for the faith he had tried to destroy.
Few of us have an experience that we can define as the moment at which the meaning of our lives with God became clear to us, because our lives are journeys that are marked by periods of uncertainty rooted in deep vulnerability, of seeking something that feels like a sense of calling. These are not black-and white events; they are times bathed in the color of our experiences, whether they are the numinous, vivid moments like the one behind our altar or ones defined by shadow like Caravaggio’s. At the center of our experience is God’s persistent call to us, righting our journeys, looking with compassion on our missteps, loving us through all the meandering that we can only understand in retrospect. These journeys last a lifetime, because conversion is less an event than a process, a working-out of the creative movement of God in our lives.
In Thomas Merton’s biography, the monk and writer talks of tentative steps toward the church he later embraced, one he reached In an epiphany of his own in through a sermon by a young, unassuming priest in New York, where he was “beaten into the semblance of some kind of humility.” He is confused by the experience, but he later says, “All I know is that I walked in a new world. Even the ugly buildings of Columbia [University] were transfigured in it, and everywhere there was peace in these streets designed for violence and noise.” It is only after he has embraced the church, all its glory and shortcomings, that he is able to recognize the transformation that this moment has worked on him. His recognition was that the gift of this moment made all the subsequent work, meditations and friendships possible by the door opened for him in that instant.
My guess is that we all have these moments of vulnerability, when we can trace the hand of God, recognizing our own openness in the moment and seeing our own journeys through the filter of these experiences. I had such an experience through a parish in the diocese of Atlanta, a place where I spent a great deal of time because it was so utterly different from any other place that I had ever been. It was the Church of the Holy Comforter, and what made it unique were the communicants, sixty percent of whom came from group homes in south-central part of the city, many of whom had some sort of mental disability. The sights and the sounds were amazing, people from all backgrounds worshipping together, and where there was the most glorious lack of concern for propriety that I have ever seen in the church. The exchange of the peace could go on for fifteen minutes, and the rector had figured out long before I first attended that he could do nothing about the length of the prayers, which were spontaneous and could last indefinitely. And yet it was impossible not to feel the love of God in that place, tears running down faces, all of us there good and broken and very human. A colleague of mine came away from one of the services saying, “This has got to be what the kingdom of God is like.” As it was for many of my friends, that experience became a crucible through which I have measured much of my subsequent ministry.
My own view is that the kingdom is only visible through these moments of transformation made possible through our own vulnerability. But that is only the beginning. What follows is continued conversion, a slow process of discernment and waiting on God, utterly at odds with the flash and thunder we read about in the lives of the saints, even the originator of our faith. It is, after all, the way it happened in the early church, where it was several years before the convert could be admitted to full worship in the body of the faithful, with all its risks and dangers. The risks for us are no less real, the continuing questions God is asking of us threatening all we know of our lives. The promise at the end of these conversions is that we really will know our lives, lights, thunder and donkeys aside, and that we will know the work given us by a God who is willing to knock us speechless and wait a lifetime for the result.