Touching the Body of the Risen Christ

 

St Peter was guarding the Pearly Gates where he would welcome and then interview new souls who were coming into heaven.  He saw Jesus walking by and caught his attention and said, “Hey Jesus! Would you mind guarding the gate for a bit while I go run an errand?”

Jesus said, “Sure. What do I have to do?”

Peter said, “Just find out about the people who arrive. Ask them about their background, their family, and their lives. Then decide if they deserve entry into heaven.”

“Ok,” Jesus said, “Sounds easy enough.”

So Jesus manned the gates for St. Peter (kind of like our senior warden Mike is manning the gate for the bounce house after Eucharist). The first person to arrive at the gates was an old man. Jesus welcomed him and then looked closely at him and asked, “What did you do for a living?”

The old man replied, “I was a carpenter.”

Jesus remembered his own earthly existence and leaned forward and asked, “Did you have any family?”

“Yes,” the old man said, “I had a son, but I lost him.”

Jesus leaned in more closely and said, “You lost your son? Can you tell me about him?”

“Well,” the man said, “he had holes in his hands and feet.”

Jesus leaned forward even more and whispered, “Father?”

The old man leaned forward and whispered, “Pinocchio?”

 

We have a misrecognition of Jesus in this story just as we do in our Gospel reading this morning. Just as the old man Geppetto thought Jesus was his son Pinocchio at the Pearly Gates so too does Mary Magdalene think Jesus was the gardener at the tomb. It is not until Jesus says Mary’s name that she recognizes him as her Risen Lord and cries out “Rabbi!”[1] So a question for us this morning is how do we recognize and experience the Risen Christ in our lives?

After recognizing Jesus, it appears that Mary then rushes to embrace him since, according to our translation, Jesus says, “Do not hold on to me.” Other translations render the phrase “Do not cling to me.” However, the Greek verb here is actually hapto, which means “touch.” So Jesus is actually saying, “Do not touch me” (me mou hapto in Greek. Noli me tangere in Latin). Now these words are very mysterious and to me, very frustrating. They are frustrating to me since this entire season of Lent, which began 40 days ago, back in March (March 1st), we at Redeemer have been trying to experience the Gospel of John and Jesus through the five bodily senses: through listening, tasting, seeing, smelling and throughout this Holy Week, through touching. A couple days ago (on Maundy Thursday), we gathered here to wash each other’s feet, as Jesus commanded us to do, as a symbol of love and service to one another. In general, the Gospel of John invites us to use our senses to understand and appreciate deeper spiritual realities, but here Jesus says, “Don’t touch me.”

What makes this statement of Jesus also very mysterious is the fact that in this very same chapter in John (chapter 20), Jesus invites his disciple Thomas (often known as Doubting Thomas) to put his finger on his hands and side. So why does he tell Thomas to touch while telling Mary, “Do not touch me”? Well, as I said, way back on Ash Wednesday, apparent incongruities in Scripture are not simply mistakes or mere contradictions, but rather invitations into the deep, paradoxical mysteries of God. So what mystery are we invited to understand and experience, even with our sense of touch, on this Easter morning?

What does Jesus say to Mary after saying, “Do not touch me”? He says to Mary, “Go to my brothers” (20:17). With these words, Jesus is telling Mary that if she wants to touch Jesus’s body, she is now invited to do so among the community of believers, which, after Easter, is understood to be the Body of Christ. In one sense, the Risen Christ has ascended to heaven and sits at the right hand of the Father; and in another sense, the Risen Christ remains here among us, whenever we gather in his Name. New Testament scholar Sandra Schneiders writes, “The fundamental sign […] of the really present Jesus is the ecclesial community itself, which is now the Body of Christ, the New Temple raised up in the world.”[2] This is why it makes sense for Jesus to invite Thomas to touch his risen flesh in the very same chapter because Thomas is in the midst of the community of believers, the Body of Christ.

The Gospel of John teaches that if we want to experience and touch the Risen Christ today, we can do so whenever we gather as a worshipping community, as the Body of Christ. Because we do not live in first century Palestine, we cannot touch that same tangible body that Mary Magdalene touched. But we can touch the Body of Christ as it is made manifest to us today, in the Eucharist and in this very gathering of people who proclaim the resurrection.

One of the benefits of being a smaller, more intimate community, is that, during the passing of the Peace, we generally get to greet everyone in the room. And that is generally done with some tangible sign of peace: a handshake or a hug or a kiss. I often have to cut short the Peace because there is so much greeting and hugging. And then after that, we have a tradition of gathering in a circle to bless people on their birthdays and anniversaries. I have realized that we are kind of a touchy-feely group. And although some people might be uncomfortable with that and we need to always be respectful of people’s boundaries, I see us, in many ways, fulfilling Jesus’s command to Mary to “Go to my brothers and sisters” because, Jesus says, if you want to experience me now, you can now do so among the community of believers. So every time we greet and hug one another, we are greeting and hugging and being hugged by the Risen Christ, who promises to be present and alive among us.

My spiritual journey has led me to explore other faith traditions and to seek wisdom from various spiritual leaders such as the Buddha, Lao Tzu and even the prophet Muhammad. However, after a few years of exploration, it became clear to me that Jesus was my rabbi and my guru. I appreciate understanding Jesus as my guru because a guru functions as one’s access to the divine as Jesus is for me; and also because the term reminds me of an experience that my father shared with me about his own spiritual journey. My father, who grew up Jewish and explored a variety of spiritualties, wanted to become a follower of a living Indian guru named Sri Chinmoy (who died about 10 years ago). However, Sri Chinmoy turned him away because, in his apparent wisdom, he sensed that my father’s true guru was actually Jesus. At the time, my father was disappointed by this because he knew that it was much more helpful and spiritually beneficial to have a living guru with whom one could physically engage and interact, rather than a teacher like Jesus who died 2,000 years ago. But it was actually through a group of Jewish believers in Jesus that my father came to understand Christ as very much alive (as we proclaim on this Easter Sunday) and very much present within the church. As I have grown in my own personal understanding of Christ, I have also come to experience him as very much alive and present; not just present within our thoughts and memories and prayers; but present in the physical sacraments; the consecrated bread and wine; and present within and through our own bodies, which are temples of the Holy Spirit.

I also came to understand that in order to truly grow in my experience of the Risen Christ, my relationship with him needed to expand beyond an individual and personal relationship to a communal relationship. In other words, if I wanted to touch and be touched by the Risen Christ, I felt invited to do so within the community of believers, the Church, within the Body of Christ. And that’s really why I am here now as a priest, because I have come to experience the Risen Christ tangibly within the church, and tangibly within this particular church, the Episcopal Church of the Redeemer, and Redeemer being another important name for my guru. And even though things get challenging and messy within community (as things do in all communities), the Risen Christ, the Redeemer, promises to remain present and at work within the church, within this community. The Risen Christ is alive and here with us, right now, tangible and accessible to our bodily senses. Can we recognize him?

I would like to conclude with one beautiful and practical way that we can experience and perhaps recognize the Risen Christ among us right now through our bodily senses; and that is, by singing together. Throughout the season of Lent, which is a time of repentance, we have been fasting from using the word “Hallelujah” which we say during times of joy. This Easter morning is a time of joy so we can finally unleash our Alleluias and I’d like us to do so together by singing a song by another spiritual master named Leonard Cohen. It goes like this…

[1] See Zacharias Thundy, Rabbouni (John 21:16) by Mary Magdalene: A Misreading (2016)

[2] Sandra M. Schneiders, Jesus Risen in Our Midst: Essays on the Resurrection of Jesus in the Fourth Gospel (Collegeville MN: Liturgical Press, 2013) 58.

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Touching the Feet of Christ

Eight years ago, during Holy Week, I had the privilege of visiting the largest church in Christendom: St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican in Rome. I remember it as a multi-sensory experience, as I heard the echo of visitor’s footsteps and the whispers of prayers, smelled and almost tasted the fragrant incense in the air, beheld Michelangelo’s magnificent Pieta and Bernini’s bronze canopy (baldacchino) towering over the high altar; and I remember touching the cool and smooth feet of a bronze statue of St. Peter. Even before touching the feet, I could see that it had been touched and rubbed and even kissed by thousands, if not millions, of pilgrims before me. Peter’s feet no longer looked like human feet, but more like those of a deformed duckbill platypus since they had been eroded and worn down by the hands of countless pilgrims throughout the centuries. Even though it was a statute, pilgrims still experienced holiness and potential healing in simply touching the feet that had been touched and washed by Christ. As Protestants, we have a healthy skepticism of devotion to statues and even icons, yet I still felt something powerful and sacred in touching something that had been so revered and venerated by so many lovers of Christ throughout the centuries. I felt a tangible connection to millions of other Christians both living and dead; and through that experience, I also felt a tangible connection to St. Peter, to Christ, to God.

One of the central doctrines of Christianity is the doctrine of the Incarnation and one of its primary implications is the belief that God makes Godself accessible to us through tangible and touch-able matter and through flesh. Roman Catholics tend to incorporate this doctrine into their spiritual piety more so than Protestants, but this evening we get to experience God by touching and washing each other’s feet just as Jesus washed Peter’s feet and commanded us to do the same.

Usually when preachers (including myself) comment on the foot washing of Maundy Thursday, we explain that foot washing was an expected act of hospitality within ancient Middle Eastern culture, where people often walked long distances without shoes or socks along dusty roads often covered in camel dung. Because people’s feet were often so smelly and disgusting, the foot washing was generally expected to be performed by servants and slaves. So us preachers often highlight the great humility of Jesus who meekly enacts the role of servant and slave as he washes his disciples’ smelly feet, before dying a slave’s death. This is a beautiful and historically accurate understanding of the foot washing practice and one that helps us appreciate the spiritual depth of a practice that might seem rather foreign and even awkward to us today. This context and understanding helps us to see the foot washing as a symbolic act of humility, service, hospitality and self-giving love for one another; as a symbolic way of fulfilling Christ’s maundatum for us to love one another as he has loved us, the maundatum from which Maundy Thursday derives its name.

However, I believe there is something even deeper going on in this symbolic act of washing each other’s feet. Beyond symbolically showing our humility and love for one another, this act invites us to experience Christ in each other’s flesh; to touch and wash the feet of Christ, the very feet of God incarnate. In the Middle East and other Eastern cultures, the feet were much more than a body part that frequently required cleaning. Within [Eastern] culture, the feet of a spiritual master or guru or rabbi were considered to be “channels of divine grace.”[1] In his book Miracle of Love, spiritual teacher Ram Dass writes, “Touching, holding, rubbing the guru’s feet has profound significance in the Hindu tradition. For out of the guru’s feet comes the spiritual elixir, the soma, the nectar, the essence of the sacred Ganges River—the subtle pran, or energy that heals and awakens. To touch the feet of such a being is not only to receive this grace, but it is an act of submission, of surrender to God, for that is what the guru represents on earth.”[2] This Eastern understanding of feet helps illuminate references to foot washing and anointing within our Hebrew and Christian Scriptures. In Genesis 18, Abraham offers foot washing to visitors who are revealed to be divine. And all four Gospels relate accounts of women anointing the feet of their rabbi and guru Jesus Christ, who comes to be understood as divine. The feet of spiritual masters are channels of divine grace. So it is indeed scandalous and confusing for the divine Jesus Christ to venerate his bumbling disciples as bearers of divinity by washing their feet.

Episcopal priest and author Dr. James Hughes Reho writes, “From the perspective of his culture, Jesus in washing his disciples’ feet is not only giving them an example of humility, he is affirming to them that they themselves carry the Divine within themselves, that they…can and should function as channels of…divine glory, for others. He is venerating them ‘as if’ they are already deified beings, because in one sense they—and all of us—already are.”[3]

According to the doctrine of the Incarnation, the divine can be made manifest in material and flesh. We can experience the divine through our bodily senses. This evening, Christ invites us to experience the divine in one another, even in each other’s flesh, in the intimate and sometimes awkward act of touching and washing one of the most sensitive parts of our entire body: our feet. So I invite us to relax into the potential awkwardness and intimacy of this practice and open ourselves up to the possibility that when we touch the feet of one another (each one of us—bumbling disciples), we are acknowledging the divine within each of us and we are touching the flesh of Christ.

[1] James Hughes Reho, Tantric Jesus: The Erotic Heart of Early Christianity (Rochester VT: Destiny Books, 2017), 272.

[2] Ram Dass, Miracle of Love: Stories about Neem Karoli Baba (Santa Fe NM: Hanuman Foundation, 1979), 33.

[3] Reho, Tantric Jesus, 282.

 

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Exegesis of John 8:44 for Grace Cathedral

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Readings for Thursday in the Fifth Week of Lent

Genesis 17:1-8

Psalm 105:4-11

John 8:51-59

This homily was preached by Daniel London at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco on April 6, 2017

The Gospel readings for this Fifth Week of Lent have included passages from the 8th chapter of John, which contains one of the most beloved stories in all the Gospels as well as one the most troubling. The former involves a woman caught in adultery and the latter involves Jesus and the Jews caught in a vitriolic debate. Our reading today includes the final jabs of this troubling dispute between Jesus and the Jews, which ends with the Jews attempting to stone Jesus. This argument is so troubling that the lectionary organizers thought it best to omit a significant portion of it; several verses which have been highly prone to misinterpretation and which have, in fact, been used to justify Christian violence against Jews. The verse most prone to pernicious readings is verse 8:44 in which Jesus says to the Jews, “You are from your father the devil, and you choose to do your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him.” To this day, white supremacists and anti-Semitic communities point to this verse as justification for their “Christian” anti-Judaism, this verse in which Jesus seems to call the Jews to whom he is speaking “children of the devil.”[1]

In many ways, it probably was wise for the lectionary organizers to omit this verse and others like it from the Lenten readings since it is so fraught and so very difficult to interpret. However, as someone with Jewish background, I cannot help but grasp the nettle and grapple with these words of Jesus. Although unpacking and dismantling the apparent anti-Judaism in the Gospel of John cannot be accomplished in one brief homily, I would like to offer a reading that has been helpful for me.

Jesus was a Jewish rabbi arguing with other Jewish rabbis about how to interpret the Torah as rabbis are wont to do. This was an intra-Jewish debate, a debate within the Jewish community. Throughout John, Jesus seems to highlight the portions of the Torah that defend and advocate for society’s victims while his interlocutors tend to focus on the parts of the Torah that condemn, punish, accuse and expel. In general, Jesus plays the role of the Advocate while his interlocutors play the role of the Accuser. In Hebrew, the word for Accuser is “Ha Satan” (Satan) which is translated into the Greek as diabolos and into English as devil. Later on in John, Jesus calls the Spirit which he will leave for his disciples the “Paraclete,” which is Greek for the Advocate. A significant part of Jesus’s ministry involved healing, protecting and defending victims from the social mechanism known as scapegoating which the Bible personifies as Ha Satan, the Accuser. We are all very susceptible to this social mechanism of blaming and scapegoating innocent victims; and many fascists have risen to power on the backs of various scapegoats and remain in power by consistently deflecting blame onto others. The Bible exposes the reality and violence of this social mechanism of scapegoating and Jesus stands fully within the Jewish prophetic tradition when he exposes others who are caught up in this behavior.

One of my favorite theologian James Alison points out how “Jesus uses the word ‘devil’ about his interlocutors’ paternity and his interlocutors use ‘demon’ to get back at Jesus…the word diabolos in John always refers to the founding principle of fratricidal order [scapegoating], and is a revelation of a principle that is to be overcome, not an accusation of ‘bad people.’ The word ‘demon’ – daimonion – is the accusatory word from within the fratricidally structured cultural order, the way one indicates someone as not ‘one of us.’ Jesus’ word diabolos reveals the murderous structure of [the scapegoating mechanism] the interlocutors’ word daimonion is a function of that [scapegoating mechanism].”[2] In other words, when Jesus says to the Jews that their father is the devil, he is not trying to insult them or demonize them; he is trying to show them that they are caught up in the behavior of the Accuser, the Satan. They behave as the Satan by accusing Jesus of having a demon and then by seeking to stone him to death just as they hoped to do to the woman supposedly caught in adultery. We all know the saying, When we point the finger at someone, we are always pointing three fingers back at ourselves. Jesus is saying that whenever we point a finger at someone else to accuse and victimize and demonize there are always three fingers pointing back at us, indicating our complicity in the work of the Satan.

The tragic irony is that the very passage that calls us to stop demonizing others has been used to do just that. Throughout history, Christians have too often played the role of the Satan by using this passage and others like it to accuse, demonize and victimize Jews and other vulnerable peoples and communities. When we do this, we fall into the very trap from which Jesus came to save us.

The Spirit which Jesus gave us is the Spirit of the Advocate, the Paraclete, the same Holy Spirit who has been speaking up for outcasts and victims ever since Abraham interceded for others and welcomed strangers into his home. The Holy Spirit has been speaking up for outcasts and victims even before Abraham and it is that Spirit that Jesus embodies and invokes when he says, “Very truly, I tell you, before Abraham was, I am.” And it is that Spirit that Jesus pours out on his disciples and on all of us at our baptism, inviting us to bury our addictions to accusation and blame and to defend and advocate for those of us who are vulnerable and victimized, including those parts of ourselves that are vulnerable and victimized; for by doing so we are continuing the work of Christ and abiding with the Spirit who rejoiced with God at creation and who lives and reigns with God both now and forevermore. Amen.

[1] The website of the anti-Semitic White Nationalist Community called Stormfront.org cites John 8:44 in their list of “What World Famous Men Said about the Jews” https://www.stormfront.org/jewish/antisemite.html, accessed April, 6, 2017.

[2] James Alison, Faith Beyond Resentment: Fragments Catholic and Gay (Crossroads, 2001), 68.

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Aromatizing our Prayers

This Lent, I have been trying to experience the Fourth Gospel through the five senses and experience God through the five senses. I have been trying to listen to the Spirit of God in my breath and in the wind. I have been trying to appreciate tasting, drinking and eating particularly the consecrated bread and wine through which the Spirit of Christ enters me and makes my body into a temple of the Holy Spirit. I have been trying to open my eyes to see opportunities for creativity and healing where once I saw opportunities to blame; and to see God’s creativity and healing power at work even when things appear to be very, very messy.

I have been trying to do this. In some ways, it has been really encouraging and has helped me be present and in other ways it has been disappointing and discouraging. I have often found that my reflections on the bodily senses tend to become too abstract and spiritualized way too quickly while the intent was to engage the senses in a down-to-earth and practical way. However, the Fourth Gospel keeps pushing me to go deeper in my engagement with the senses and to understand the senses as symbols of deeper spiritual realities. In a way, this makes a lot of sense. Most of us don’t come to church to focus on our flesh but rather to focus on our spirit, or more specifically, on the Holy Spirit that gives life to our flesh. As Paul says, “To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace” (Romans 8:6). But then he goes on to remind us that our fleshly bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit. Indeed, “The Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you” (Romans 8:11). The Fourth Gospel similarly invites us to understand our bodies as temples of the same Spirit who raised both Jesus and Lazarus from the dead. I have been trying to find this balance between appreciating the spirit that gives life to the body and appreciating the body that houses the spirit. It has been hard and frustrating and sometimes disappointing.

So I brought this disappointment with me to our gathering here last Saturday along with other frustrations around sickness in my family. I had been struggling to find the right words to pray so it was helpful for me to ease into the ancient words of the Psalms, which express a kaleidoscopic range of emotions. We lit some frankincense and prayed psalms of joy, anger, confusion and sadness. We chanted the Psalms; we read responsively, antiphonally, softly, joyfully, loudly (especially when we competed with the lawnmowers outside). And all the while, the frankincense kept burning, releasing its holy fragrance and reminding us of how all our prayers were, in the words of Psalm 141, “set before God like incense.”

Initially, the aroma of the frankincense reminded me of the stunning Anglo-Catholic parish at Time’s Square: St. Mary’s Episcopal Church, known for its frequent use of frankincense and fondly referred to as “Smoky Mary’s.” Now that holy scent has taken on new meaning for me as it will remind me of this church and this sacred space and time when we gathered to prayerfully read all 150 Psalms. The aroma will remind me of how all our prayers —both joyful and sorrowful—were received by God as sweet-smelling incense.

Our sense of smell, as we all know, has a unique way of triggering memories and deep emotions; and our Gospel this morning is suffused with references to smell, memory and deep emotions. When we are introduced to Mary, we are reminded that she is the one who poured (or will pour) expensive perfume on Jesus’s feet and filled the entire house with its potent fragrance. Martha tries to remind Jesus that there is already a stench of death and decay emanating from Lazarus’s tomb. And the onlookers remind themselves of Jesus’s love for Lazarus and his previous healings as they observe Mary, Martha and Jesus each express their own intense emotions.

Just as the Psalmists and those who pray the Psalms express their intense emotions to God so too do Martha and Mary express their emotions to Christ in this morning’s Gospel. Mary and Martha show us that no matter how despairing and even hopeless our prayers might be they are still received lovingly by God as sweet-smelling incense.

Both Mary and Martha embody the many psalms that cry out to God for help when they say together, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” Also like the Psalmists, Mary and Martha must struggle with the inexplicable delay of their Lord. As readers, we too are baffled by Christ’s delay when we read the puzzling words: “Though Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, after having heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.” Why would Jesus stay after having heard this news? As readers, we are compelled to ask this question and to also imagine the confusion of Martha and Mary, who must have been praying something akin to the potent words of Psalm 44, which cries out: “Wake up, O Lord! What are you waiting for? Rise up, come to our help.”

When Jesus does finally arrive, he appears to be too late; and Mary and Martha each respond to Jesus’s significant tardiness in their own way. Martha’s response embodies the psalms that express anger and confusion but then reaffirm their trust in God’s saving power when she says, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.” What I love so much about the Gospels in general and this morning’s passage in particular is how we get to see how God in Christ responds specifically to emotion-filled prayers and complaints, like those in the Psalms. Jesus receives Martha’s complaint and subsequent affirmation of faith by inviting her to broaden and deepen her understanding of the resurrection and of himself, proclaiming, “I am the resurrection and the life.”

Mary’s response to Jesus’s delay embodies the darker psalms that both begin and end in anger and confusion when she falls at Jesus’s feet, weeping and says simply, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” In other words, “Why weren’t you here earlier? You could have saved him. He is dead now because of you.” Commentators often point out that, with these words, Mary is rebuking Jesus.

And how does Jesus respond to Mary’s raw emotions? He seems to accept her complaint as a genuine act of faith and responds with one of the most profound, humble and human acts of love and pastoral care within all the Gospels. He weeps with her. He responds to her tear-stained prayer by crying with her. One of the Psalms (Psalm 56) says to God, “You keep track of all my sorrows. You have collected all my tears in your bottle. You have recorded each one in your book.” Our tears are precious to God, so precious that they move him to tears as well. Throughout John’s Gospel and especially throughout this passage, Jesus is no stoic. He is bursting and overflowing with intense emotions. The fully human Jesus of John empathizes fully with all of our sorrows. He not only receives our prayers as incense; he also enters into our deepest emotions with us.

The fully human Jesus of John is also fully divine; therefore, he can also hear the prayers of one who is dead and buried; of Lazarus who embodies perhaps the darkest Psalm of all: Psalm 88, which concludes with these haunting words: “Your terrors have swept over me; they have engulfed me completely. You have taken away my loved ones. My only friend is darkness.” In the stinking darkness of death and decay, Jesus smells hints of new life and calls them forth when he cries, “Lazarus, come out!” We learn that even the most dark and disturbing secrets and feelings which we are sure must smell like death to God are received by Christ who will transform them into new life.

Episcopal priest and author Martin L. Smith writes, “In Lent…we often try to palm off on God the renunciation of desserts and treats, when Christ is [really] summoning us to hand over our burdens” (127-128). So what burdens is Christ summoning you to hand over to him this Lent? What emotions or complaints or frustrations are you being invited to bring to God in prayer? I invite us to trust that whatever we bring to God in prayer will be received by him as sweet-smelling incense. I also invite us to aromatize our prayers. What do I mean by that?  I mean that I invite us to not only practice being present to the moment and to our bodies by appreciating our sense of smell but I also invite us to let God speak to us through our sense of smell. Perhaps there is an emotion or wound or longing hidden deep within us that can only be triggered and unleashed through the smell of some aroma. Let us invite God to tap into those deep parts of us this week through our sense of smell so that we can bring those emotions or wounds or longings to God in prayer, like Mary and Martha and the Psalmists; so that we can hand over our burdens to Christ; so that we can we allow God to breathe his refreshing life into those dark parts of our soul that might feel dead. And by doing so, we can experience resurrection and new life in our own tombs and valleys of dry bones through the One who is the Resurrection and the Life. Amen.

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Seeing God in the Mud

We are now well into the season of Lent and our Gospel readings from John have invited us to appreciate our bodies as temples of the Holy Spirit by listening to our God-given breath (which is also God’s life-giving spirit within us) and by tasting (drinking and eating) the consecrated bread and wine and water through which the Spirit of Christ enters our bodies and quenches our deepest thirst. Today, the Gospel invites us to open our eyes and to see; to be liberated from our blindness and to see the world as Christ sees the world.

“As Jesus walks along, he sees a man blind from birth.” His disciples also see the blind man, whom Christian tradition has given the name Celidonius; but the disciples seem to see Celidonius as an object for theological debate and as an opportunity to apportion blame, in this case to blame the victim. They ask, “Who sinned this man or his parents that he was born blind?” Jesus’s response to their question reveals the stark difference between how Jesus sees and how the disciples see. He says, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned. But in order that the works of God might be revealed in him, we must work the works of him who sent me.” Where the disciples see an opportunity to blame Jesus sees an opportunity to heal. And with this response, Jesus reveals our true blindness. We are all blinded to an extent by our compulsion to blame and to scapegoat.

I remember preaching here several years ago at Pentecost and asking you all, “Why do you think we have ordained clergy since we believe as a church in the priesthood of all believers?” I remember someone here said that we need leaders who have studied the Scriptures and traditions well enough to teach and preach effectively. But I also remember someone saying in a kind of tongue-in-cheek sort of way, “Well, we got to have someone to blame.” And I’ll never forget that because I think it is so insightful. (And I am actually quite sure that it was our guest music director Jay who said that). It is true that a significant part of being a leader is not only receiving praise when things go well but also bearing the blame when things go poorly. Some leaders strategically deflect this blame by scapegoating various innocent victims either within or outside of the community; and this has been a very effective strategy for fascists, who capitalize on our blindness, our compulsion to blame. World leaders have risen to power using this scapegoating strategy and sometimes priests use it as well. But in today’s Gospel, Jesus rejects that strategy; he rejects that way of seeing and invites us to be healed of our compulsion to blame which so often blinds us from the larger and more complex reality.

Blaming and scapegoating others is not the same as trying to locate the source or sources of a complex problem in order to try fixing it. Blaming and scapegoating others involves grossly oversimplifying a problem in order to unleash our own frustrations, anxieties and insecurities onto someone else, who is often innocent. Although Jesus himself is scapegoated, he refuses to scapegoat others, which we see very clearly in this passage. In fact, this entire chapter of John which we read (chapter 9) exhibits the consequences of this way of seeing, which is essentially blindness, being blinded by our compulsion to blame. The disciples first blame the blind man for his physical blindness; then the neighbors and the Pharisees seek someone to blame for his new ability to now see; the parents deflect blame by redirecting it back to their son; and it all ends in deeper division, exclusion, and eventually expulsion. No wonder Jesus concludes by saying that those who think they can see are actually the ones who are truly blind.

John’s Gospel shows us the ways that we are blinded by blame and how this blindness leads to deeper division and even destruction. There are also many ways that Jesus tries to heal us from this blindness and help us to open our eyes and to see more deeply and expansively.

As I have said many times before, the Gospel of John is a sensual Gospel in that it uses the bodily senses in order to communicate spiritual truths while also inviting us to appreciate our bodily senses and sensuality, which can be infused with God’s Spirit. It is only in John that we see Jesus getting his hands really dirty and muddy as he makes healing clay out of his own saliva. It’s hard to think of a more natural and organic ointment than mud made out of saliva. And yet it’s also quite startling and even disturbing. The disciples must have been fairly confused when they saw Jesus respond to their question by spitting on the ground, making mud and then putting the mud on the man’s eyes! This is a muddy sensuality. And yet is through the muddy sensuality that healing takes place. From an outside perspective, it might seem like Jesus is just making things worse and messier. But Jesus is trying to get his disciples and us to open our eyes and to see how the healing and illuminating power of God is at work in the muddy messiness of our lives. Jesus wants us to see God in the mud. Rather than rushing to remove the mud or fling the mud on others whom we want to scapegoat and blame, Jesus invites us to let go for a moment and let God work his healing power through what appears to be very messy. In his book Messy Spirituality, Mike Yaconelli writes, “Spirituality is not about being fixed; it is about God being present in the mess of our unfixedness.”

There are indeed many problems that need fixing in our lives, in this country, in this church and in the preschool. We have lots of work to do and there is an urgency. As Jesus says, “We must do the works of him who sent me while it is day. Night is coming.” Jesus certainly does not condone a lazy passivity. But Jesus is inviting us to expand our vision by first recognizing how much we limit ourselves and our purview by blaming others; how we are blinded by blame. And he invites us to expand our vision by seeing God’s presence with us and God’s healing power at work in what might appear to be very, very messy.

As we read in First Samuel, the Lord does not see as mortals see; he does not judge by outward appearance. And Psalm 23 also invites us to see as God sees, to look deeper and broader in order to see God walking along side us, comforting us, even as we walk through the dark and muddy valley of the shadow of death. And Ephesians invites us to wake up, open up our eyes of faith and rise from the dead blindness of blame so that Christ may shine upon us and help us to see his rod and staff guiding and consoling us through the muddy valley so that we may be healed and enter what the Psalmist calls “the house of the Lord” where our cups overflow and where goodness and mercy follow us all the days of our lives. Let us open our eyes in order to start seeing as God sees. Amen.

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Quenching Our Deepest Thirst

During this season of Lent, we have started reading and experiencing portions of the Fourth Gospel through the five bodily senses. Last week, Jesus’s conversation with Nicodemus in John 3 invited us to appreciate our auditory sense by listening to the wind, to the silence, and to our very breath. In this morning’s Gospel, we read about Jesus experiencing thirst and asking a woman for a drink. In fact, in John’s Gospel, Jesus expresses his physical thirst a couple times: here, as well as on the cross when he says, “I am thirsty” (19:28) and then receives wine on a branch of hyssop. However, in our Gospel this morning, we never actually read about Jesus receiving the drink for which he physically thirsts. It appears that, as a result of his conversation with the Samaritan woman, his deeper hunger and thirst have been satisfied, so much so that he refuses to even eat the food that his disciples bring to him. It also appears that the Samaritan woman’s deeper thirst has been quenched a well as a result of their fruitful and enlightening conversation. Although the Samaritan woman remains nameless in the Bible, Christian tradition has given her the name Photini or St. Photini, which means the “Enlightened One.” She is kind of like a Christian Buddha. (“Buddha” meaning the “Awakened One.”) So through this conversation with Jesus, the woman awakens to some deep theological insight that is so substantial and meaty and refreshing that she and her entire town can feast on it for days. So what is this deep insight and how can it enlighten us and quench our own deep thirst?

Let us begin by first setting the context for this theologically dense conversation and then briefly unpack some of its many meanings. First of all, the Samaritans were descendants of the Israelites who remained in the land of Israel when the Judeans were exiled to Babylon in 586 BCE. The Samaritans were ostracized by the Jews because, during this time of exile, five foreign nations moved in and corrupted the Samaritans with their foreign gods: Babylon, Cuth, Hamath, the Avvites and the Sepharvites (2 Kings 17:29-30). In addition to these five nations and their gods, the Syrian king Antiochus Epiphanes added yet another deity by calling their primary temple on Mount Gerizim the temple of Zeus Xenios and the Samaritans seemed to welcome this addition (2 Maccabees 6:1-2). Some recent commentators have suggested that the woman’s five husbands and current partner ought not be understood literally but symbolically since she herself represents the Samaritan people who have had five foreign gods, as well as one who was currently not their true god. The Samaritans only considered the first five books of the Bible to be Scripture and refused to acknowledge the validity of the other writings, such as the prophets and the psalms. They also refused to acknowledge the validity of the temple in Jerusalem. Their temple was on Mount Gerizim.

So Jesus speaking to a Samaritan woman is scandalous because A) she is a Samaritan and B) she is a woman and according to conventional Jewish wisdom at the time (Pirke Avot 1:5), “he who talks too much with women brings evil upon himself and…will in the end inherit Gehenna.” But Jesus is thirsty and wants a drink and is willing to risk criticism and Gehenna by speaking to the Samaritan woman, who is then flummoxed and asks, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask for a drink from me, a woman of Samaria?” Basically asking, “Don’t you know that your people look down on us and avoid us because we have a completely different temple and style of worship?” Jesus responds by very subtly hinting at an entirely new way of understanding temple worship. He says, “If you knew who you were talking to, you would be asking me for living water.” Now the phrase “living water” generally referred to flowing water so the woman is now completely confused since Jesus doesn’t even have a bucket. But since Jesus speaks in symbolic and prophetic language, his use of the phrase “living water” likely refers to the “living waters” that would flow out from the true temple of God, as prophesied by Zechariah (14:8) and Ezekiel (47:1-12). With these words, he is pointing to a temple that will both transcend and include Jews and Samaritans, a temple that he himself will fill with his life-giving, thirst-quenching and replenishing spirit.

“Sir,” she says, “Give me this water. Show me this temple.”

Although it initially seems like Jesus changes the subject, I see him as again responding to her request with subtle and prophetic wit. He says, “Go, call your husband, and come back.” Now if we suppose (as most people do) that the Samaritan woman literally did have five husbands, then this would not be a sign that she was a loose and immoral woman (as many male commentators like to suggest). Instead, this would be a sign that she was a victim of her own society. As I mentioned a few weeks ago in a sermon about Jesus’s teachings on divorce, wives generally could not divorce their husbands. At the time, some rabbis were arguing that a man should be able to divorce his wife for whatever reason he wanted (be it overcooking dinner or just losing interest in her). In this case, the woman would constantly be under the threat of being divorced, which would lead to social ostracism and economic destitution. Remember in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus sided with the school of thought (the School of Rabbi Hillel) that protected women from simply being tossed aside by fickle and selfish men. The Samaritan woman, it seems, had been abandoned and tossed aside by men five times!

However, the most likely reason for this series of failed marriages would not have been the fickleness of the men but rather the barrenness of the woman. Being barren was often grounds for divorce since a man was obligated to father two children.[1] It seems that the Samaritan woman was likely barren which would also explain why she came to the well alone at noon, thus avoiding the other women who would have likely seen her infertility as a punishment from God.

By understanding the woman in this light, we see Jesus reaching out to someone who has been pushed around by men because of her womanhood, belittled by Jews because of her Samaritan identity, victimized by society and scorned by other women because of her body and its apparent barrenness. Jesus is reaching out to an excluded person who represents a whole community of excluded people. He is reaching out to someone who is excluded by the excluded; excluded because of her body by a group of people who are excluded because of their ethnicity.

The Samaritan woman then seems to bring the conversation back to the subject of temple and worship and the differences between the Samaritans and the Jews. But for Jesus, he was already addressing this issue by gently inviting her to acknowledge the ways in which she felt abandoned and betrayed by men and by a God who seemed to give her a deeply flawed body. He was responding to her questions about temples and worship from the beginning by inviting her to see her body not as flawed but as a vessel for the living waters of the Spirit of God to rush through, as a temple for the Holy Spirit. He says, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. The hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth” (4:21, 23-24).

Jesus is saying, “Beloved sister, your deepest thirst is not to know about who is right and who is wrong when it comes to the temple and worship. Your deepest thirst is to be loved and accepted and to love and accept yourself and your own body, which has been the source of such shame for you. I am here to quench that deepest thirst by telling you that you are not only loved and accepted by God and by me but also by revealing to you that the true temple of the Holy Spirit of God is now your body.”

Jesus says this to the woman in his mystical and subtle way and she responds incredulously and dismissively by saying, “Well, yes, I know that the Messiah is coming and someday he will explain all these things and finally accomplish all of these wonderful things you’re describing.” And Jesus says, “No, it’s happening right now. Someday is today. Right now, if you are open, I can make your body into a temple of the holy spirit, out of which the living waters of God will come gushing forth. I can quench your deepest thirst. I am the Messiah, the one who is speaking to you.”

At these words, the Samaritan woman becomes Photini, the enlightened one. She leaves her water jar at the well because now her deeper thirst has been quenched. She begins to understand her body as a temple of the Holy Spirit as she returns to the city with new courage and conviction, inviting others to meet the man who knew and quenched her deepest hunger. She invites us as well to “come and see” and encounter the Christ who can satisfy our thirst by making our bodies into temples of the Holy Spirit. Her conversation, conversion and subsequent evangelism of the Samaritans of Sychar are so profound that one Johannine scholar, Sandra Schneiders, suggests that she is the textual alter-ego of the author of John’s Gospel; that perhaps Photini is not only the enlightened one but also the beloved disciple who leaned on Jesus’s bosom at the last supper, and who listened to the heartbeat of the one who gave his spirit to her so that the body which was once a source of shame could become a holy temple for the divine spirit to dwell. From then on, every time she would take a simple sip of water or wine or eat a piece of bread, she would remember and invite us to remember the one who quenched her deepest thirst and satisfied her deepest hunger by making her body into God’s true temple.

I can’t help but imagine St. Photini inspiring St. Paul to write the following words to the church in Corinth, when he said, “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God…therefore glorify God in your body” (1 Cor 6:19-20). As we appreciate the bodily gifts of listening and tasting (and seeing, smelling and touching) throughout this season of Lent, may we do so as people enlightened like Photini, giving thanks and praise and glory to the God who dwells within the mansions of our hearts and the temples of our bodies. Amen.

[1] The School of Hillel argued that a man should have one daughter and one son while the school of Shammai argued that a man should have two sons. Sefer Hasidim

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Listening to the Wind

In today’s Gospel, we witness an encounter between Jesus and a Pharisee named Nicodemus who approaches Jesus rather clandestinely at night. Throughout the conversation, Jesus tries to guide and pull Nicodemus out of his narrow worldview in order to hear Jesus’s words with a more deep and expansive understanding. Jesus is essentially trying to lead Nicodemus out of a literalistic understanding into a more spiritual understanding.

There are many Christians who insist that there is only one plain meaning of Scripture. According to the Gospel of John, however, this way of understanding and hearing Scripture as literal, plain, straightforward and univocal is actually exposed as myopic, obtuse and ridiculous. To all of the many Bible teachers out there who assert that their interpretation is the most straightforward, literal and plain and the “only proper” interpretation, Jesus asks, “How can you be a teacher and not understand these things? How can you be a teacher of Scripture and not understand that there are many deeper meanings?”

Please understand that whenever I preach and offer an interpretation of Scripture and the teachings of Christ, I am never insisting that my interpretation is the only one. The more I read and pray and study, the more I am pushed to be open to a deeper and wider expanse of interpretation. There are certainly boundaries to interpretation, but there is enormous depth and breadth and height within those boundaries. This is why I enjoy hearing how the Scriptures speak to you in your own particular life and context, as I hope we can do later this morning.

The words of Jesus in John are multi-vocal, which means they are jam-packed with meaning and we could spend the rest of Lent unpacking and chewing and digesting these teachings in John 3. However, as I read these teachings today, there is one particular verse that resonates most deeply with me and that is verse 8: “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.”

In these words, I hear Jesus inviting Nicodemus and us into a deeper kind of listening. In the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) Jesus often says, “Whoever has ears, let them hear!” In John, Jesus is saying the same thing in a more subtle and poetic way: “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.” With these words, Jesus invites Nicodemus and us to listen, to be still and quiet enough to actually listen to the wind.

How often do actually hear the wind? Sometimes the wind makes itself very apparent, as it did on the first Sunday of Epiphany when Justin and I were here early and felt a mighty wind shake the entire building. Or maybe you’ve had an experience while camping when the night winds seem to violently howl the very name of God (“Yahweh!”) and toss you and your tent to and fro, as was my experience at Zion National Park several years ago. Or maybe you’ve experienced heavy windstorms or tornadoes or hurricanes.

But often the wind is making a soft and gentle noise that we generally do not hear. And it is by stopping and listening to the wind that we are actually being attentive to the Spirit. The Hebrew word for “Spirit” is ruach, which is the same word for wind. The Greek word for “Spirit” is pneuma, which is also the same word for wind. According to the Hebrew and Greek languages (the languages of the Bible), when we are listening to the wind, we are listening to the Spirit. So I invite you this week to take some time to simply listen to the wind.

 

In order to do this, we first need to be still and silent. And by being still and silent we can actually listen to the wind even when there seems like there is no wind to be heard. If you take some time to simply sit in silence, you will likely find that what you initially thought was silent was not silent at all.

Whenever I teach Godly Play or lead worship with children, I begin by inviting them to pray by simply being silent. I remind them that prayer is not just us talking to God but also listening to the God who wants to speak to us. And all the great mystics agree that “God’s first language is silence. Everything else is a poor translation.” (And remember what Rabbi Gamliel said: “I have been raised on the talk of sages, but have found nothing more true than silence”). I often wonder if this is how Abram heard the voice of God call him and bless him. Did God speak audibly to Abram in the voice of Charlton Heston? Or was Abram consistently attentive to the Spirit, listening to the windy silences of the vast Arabian deserts?

Blaise Pascal said, “All of humanity’s problems stem from our inability to sit quietly in a room.” Many of us are very uncomfortable with silence, but we will be divinely blessed, not unlike Abram, if we spend time listening to what the poet Rainer Marie Rilke called the “ceaseless message that forms itself out of silence.” And what is that ceaseless message that forms itself out of silence? It is what Catholic priest and contemplative Henri Nouwen called the inner voice of Love. Nouwen wrote,

Have you ever tried to spend a whole hour doing nothing but listening to the voice that dwells deep in your heart? … It is not easy to enter into the silence and reach beyond the many boisterous and demanding voices of our world and to discover there the small intimate voice saying: “You are my Beloved Child, on you my favor rests.” Still, if we dare to embrace our solitude and befriend our silence, we will come to know that voice.”[1]

 

By listening to silence, we can come to know more intimately that wonderful love of a Father who gave his only Son so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life; the love that does not seek to condemn but rather seeks to save.

I invite us this week to listen to the wind, to listen to the silence and also to listen to the sound of our own very breath. The Hebrew word for Spirit is ruach, which means “wind” and it also means “breath.” So if you think there is no wind to be heard at all, there is always the life-giving wind blowing through our bodies. According to the Hebrew language, the breath that we breathe in this moment is the same as the wind blowing through the trees, which is the same as the Spirit that hovered over the primordial waters in Genesis and who dances with the Father and the Son in the Holy Trinity. So listen to the wind, the silence and your breath because by doing so, you are listening to the Holy Spirit. Listen.

[1] Henri Nouwen, Life of the Beloved: Spiritual Living in a Secular World (New York: Crossroads, 2002), excerpt from the Inward/Outward daily meditation

 

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Patience and Presence

For the last several years, I have had the privilege to teach at the Episcopal School for Deacons in Berkeley, where our deacon today, the Rev. Rebecca Morehouse, worked for many years and from which she has recently retired (or tried to retire). The class I have taught since 2013 has been Christian Social Ethics and in this class, I teach students (most of whom will become deacons in the Episcopal Church) a method for ethical decision making. The method is expressed in the word DISCERN, which functions as an acronym for a seven-step process, with each letter of the word DISCERN representing each step. So the “D” stands for “Determining possible outcomes” of the decision. This involves applying the utilitarian or teleological approach which seeks to provide the greatest good for the greatest number. English philosophers John Stuart Mill and Jeremy Bentham. The “I” stands for “Imagining universal application”; imagining a world in which everyone made a similar decision if there were in a similar circumstance.  The “S” stands for “Seeking wisdom in your faith tradition” and we spend much of the class gleaning relevant wisdom for today from the rich Anglican Moral Tradition. The “C” stands for “Consulting broadly,” seeking wisdom from outside the Anglican Moral Tradition and even beyond the Christian tradition. The “E” stands for “Examining Personal Experience” and the “R” for “Reflecting on Biases” and the “N” for “Never Stop Praying.” We spend a semester unpacking each of these steps and then applying this method to several case studies. But this morning we’re not going to do that. This morning I want to very briefly unpack the penultimate step in the method and that is “Reflecting on Biases.” Part of this step involves engaging with three major thinkers of the 19th and 20thcentury: Sigmund Freud, Karl Marx and Friedrich Nietzsche, philosophers who have been called the “Masters of Suspicion” and who have collectively asserted the everyone is driven by three major forces: sex, money, and power. Perhaps you can already guess which thinker is associated with each: Freud thinks that sexual desire often drives our unconscious impulses; Marx thinks that ideology controls society; and Nietzsche thinks we are all driven, in one way or another, by the will to power. Sex, money and power. These “Masters of Suspicion” do not necessarily think there is anything inherently wrong with sex, money or power, but they help us to see the many ways in which we can easily become controlled and manipulated by these forces every day. When we fall prey to these forces or to an inordinate attachment to them, we can very easily fall into sin.

Although these Masters of Suspicion were each wonderfully creative thinkers, they were not entirely original. The Jewish and Christian traditions had already recognized the dangerous potency of these three forces, as attested to in our readings this morning. The Scriptures wrestle with sex, money, and power in their own way, usually in terms of pleasure, possessions and pride. In our reading from Genesis, we see these three forces subtly at work in influencing Eve to eat the fruit of the forbidden tree. The Scriptures say, “The woman saw that the tree was good for food (to possess), and that it was a delight to the eyes (pleasure), and that the tree was desired to make one wise (pride), so she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate.” Pleasure, possessions and pride push humanity to fall headlong into sin.

In our Gospel reading, Jesus confronts these same forces in the desert when the devil tempts him to satisfy his hunger by miraculously turning stones into delicious loaves of bread (so pleasure), to possess all the kingdoms of the world and all of their splendid riches (possessions), and to assert his power over the angels to protect him from self-sabotage (power). By resisting these temptations, Jesus acts as the new Adam and begins reversing the effects of the Fall and begins renegotiating our relationship to power, possessions, and pride (sex, money, and power).

With this understanding, we can see why Jesus emphasized three particular acts of righteousness in the Sermon on the Mount, which we heard on Ash Wednesday, when he emphasized fasting, alms-giving and prayer, in order to help temper our attachment to pleasure, possessions and pride.

In the Gospel this morning, we get to see Jesus in action, responding to the temptations of pleasure, possessions and pride, which the devil dangles before him with diabolic brilliance. I want to highlight two characteristics of Jesus’s response, which I invite us to imitate throughout this season of Lent.

First of all, Jesus responds to each of the three temptations with words from the Holy Scriptures. He had immersed himself in the Torah, in the teachings of the Prophets, and in the poetic prayers of the Psalms. He knew them by heart. While Jesus was physically fasting in the desert, he was spiritually feasting on “every word that comes from the mouth of God.” So when the devil himself uses Scripture in an attempt to make Jesus grasp for power, Jesus is fully equipped with yet another reference to Scripture to quote in order to counter the attack. So this Lent, I invite us to feast spiritually on the Word of God so that we too can resist the devil’s many temptations and temper our relationship with pleasure, possessions and pride. This Lent, we will immerse ourselves in the Scriptures by feasting on portions of the Gospel of John, starting next Sunday.

The second characteristic about Jesus’s response to temptation that I want to highlight is slightly more subtle and complex, but equally important. In order to appreciate this characteristic, we need to first appreciate how tempting these offers actually were for Jesus. These offers to miraculously make bread, to escape death and to become the king of all the world were extremely tempting offers for Jesus because he really wanted to do these things. We know he wanted to do these things because later on in Matthew’s Gospel, he does all of them: He miraculously makes bread (to feed thousands of people), he escapes death in his resurrection and then he commissions his followers to make disciples of all the nations of the world. So does this mean that Jesus eventually succumbs to the devil’s temptations? Absolutely not!

Jesus fulfills his deep desires, but he does so in God’s time and in God’s way, rather than in the devil’s way. The devil offers him the fast-food approach of instant gratification, which is tempting indeed. But God’s way often requires patience and long-suffering and sacrifice. The timing was right for Jesus to miraculously make bread when there was more than just his mouth to feed. And the timing was right for Jesus to escape the clutches of death only after he had endured the suffering of the cross and the grave.

As I preached about on Ash Wednesday, our process of spiritual growth and deification is a long and arduous one. Indeed, it is the way of the Cross, the via dolorosa, the path of pain and suffering and sorrow. Of course, we would prefer to bypass all of that and just get straight to the good stuff. As the blues singer Albert King said, “Everybody wants to go to Heaven, but Nobody wants to Die.”

Matthew’s Gospel teaches us that when it comes to the spiritual life, the fast-food approach is actually the devil’s approach. This is why we don’t just hop from Epiphany to Easter. We first walk the via dolorosa of the Lenten season. In this season, we train ourselves to trust in God’s time and to follow God’s way, even when it is full of difficulty, pain, self-denial, and boredom. It is in this season, that we renegotiate and recalibrate our relationship with pleasure, possessions and pride; with sex, money and power. God wants us to flourish and thrive and God has tremendous blessings in store for each of us here as well as for this church as a whole. But, in order to claim them, we must first walk the way of the Cross. Before we can properly celebrate the glorious resurrection on Easter Sunday, we must first observe a holy and somber Lent. Before we can go to Heaven, we first have to die.

So what is this second characteristic of Jesus’s response to temptation that I want to highlight? I would say it is his patience, his calm refusal to rush and grasp at the rich blessings that are in store for him, his ability to be present to the here and now. This Lent, as we read through John’s Gospel, I invite us to practice being patient by being fully present to the here and now. One of the best ways I have learned how to do this (or at least start doing this) is by simply being in my body, being mindful and grateful for even a single breath that I breathe, a bite that I take, an aroma I smell, a texture I touch, a beauty I see, or a melodious sound I hear. As we will be reading parts of John’s Gospel throughout Lent, I will be highlighting an aspect of John that I noticed while writing my dissertation; and that is the Gospel’s emphasis on the body and the bodily senses, the Gospel’s invitation to experience the divine pulsating through our flesh, to be refreshed by the God who became flesh in order to help us see our bodies as temples of the Holy Spirit.

Being present to the here and now is actually very difficult work, especially when the “here and now” is troubling and painful and might be the last place or moment in which we want to be. But ultimately, this practice of mindfulness helps prepare us to receive the many blessings that are in store for us as well as those that are in front of us right now. This practice also helps temper our relationship with pleasure, possessions and pride so that we may more fully enjoy our God-given pleasures, possessions and pride in God’s time and in God’s way.

So once again, in the words of the Book of Common Prayer, “I invite you, in the name of the Church, to the observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word,” but above all, by practicing patience and being present to the here and now through mindfulness and appreciation of our bodies, these temples of the Holy Spirit, and being renewed and refreshed by the divine Word who became flesh. Amen.

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Ash Wednesday Sermon: Practicing Deification for Lent

Whenever I preach on Ash Wednesday, I like to highlight the apparent incongruity built into the service, in which we hear Jesus tell us, “Whenever you’re being pious, don’t make a show of it” and then we proceed to put ashes on our foreheads thus making a show of our piety, whether that is our intention or not. I like to highlight this as well as other incongruities and occasions in which we seem to not only fail in obeying Jesus but our disobedience to Jesus, in some cases, is built into the very way we do church. For example, earlier in the Sermon on the Mount, we heard Jesus say, “Do not make vows” (Matt 5:34) and then we proceed to make very important vows at our baptism and at marriage. These vows are central to the sacraments. Later on in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus says to his disciples, “Do not call anyone on earth ‘Father’” (Matt 23:9), and then we proceed to address not only our earthly fathers but also some clergy often as “Father,” including myself. Now I’m not at all opposed to any of this: I’m not opposed to calling someone “Father” or being called “Father;” I’m definitely not opposed to our baptismal vows or marriage vows and certainly not opposed to the imposition of ashes, but there is clearly a tension here. Jesus teaches us not to do something and, when we gather as his body on earth, in some cases, we do that very thing.

Also, several weeks ago, we heard Jesus say, “You are the light of the world…let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:16) and today, in the same sermon, Jesus basically says, “Don’t do your good deeds before others in order to be seen by them” (Matthew 6:1). Which one is it, Jesus? Make up your mind. We see incongruities not only between Jesus’s teachings and the way we do church, but we see them within Jesus’s teachings themselves, indeed within the very same sermon! So how do we approach this?

Apparent incongruities in Scripture are not simply mistakes or mere contradictions, but rather invitations into the deep, paradoxical mysteries of God. In Paul’s letter to the church in Corinth, he doesn’t shirk at all from the paradoxes that have come to mark his life and ministry. He is very honest and upfront about them when he says, “We are treated as impostors, and yet are true; as unknown, and yet are well known; as dying, and see– we are alive…as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything.”

Lent is a season of prayerful and penitential preparation for the Feast of the Resurrection. And it is a long liminal space between Epiphany and Easter, that invites us to sit with the incongruities and allow them to open us up to receive the divine mysteries lurking underneath, and to appreciate the paradoxical mysteries that are all around us: We are dust, but we are dust that breathes the breath of God. We are mortals, but we have eternity in our hearts. And tonight we mark ourselves with the cross, the great coincidence of opposites, the symbol that represents the simultaneous glorification and humiliation of the One who was both God and man. There is a plethora of these paradoxes.

This year, as I have had the opportunity to study and read deeply with you all the portion of the Sermon on the Mount that precedes the Ash Wednesday reading, I have come to see a particularly profound mystery and paradox that flows through the currents of the whole Sermon on the Mount and might even be the heart of the entire sermon, which I have come to understand and refer to as the Teachings of a Jewish Mystic.

And I see this Jewish Mystic, who is also my Lord, conveying this paradoxical mystery or mysterious paradox especially in his teachings tonight. And it is this: If we seek to become God, we will inevitably bump up hard against our human limitations and fall headlong into sin (which is deep disconnection from ourselves and from everyone around us). But if we relax into our humanity and lean lovingly into the divine source of our every breath, we will find ourselves growing into divinity.

In other words, if we seek to become God over and against the one true God, I’m sorry to say we’re not going to make it. He’s going to win. We will end up strangling ourselves with our own spiritual arrogance, which, according to C. S. Lewis, is the sin that made the devil become the devil. (Ego-centric arrogance and seeking to become God over and against God).

But, if we seek to partner with God, fully aware of our human limitations and of our absolute need for God, who graciously provides with the gift of every single breath we breathe, then we begin a journey that leads to such profound union with God that we begin participating in divinity ourselves. The ancient Christian theologians called this process “theosis” or “deification.” And St. Athanasius, who is known as the Father of Orthodoxy, sums up the entire Gospel when he said, “God became human so that humans can become God.”

So there are two ways of saying, “I am God.” One is an expression of the utmost arrogance, on par with the devil’s arrogance. And the other is an expression of the utmost humility. One is an expression of competition with God while the other is an expression of a human who realizes that she is dust in whom God has breathed life and who seeks to merge and partner with the divine source of every breath. Paradoxically, it is by acknowledging our humanity that we can participate in divinity. As another ancient Christian theologian Irenaeus put it: “The glory of God is the human person fully alive.”

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus expects us to give, pray and fast in order to recognize our utter dependence on God for every single breath we take, for every bite of bread we consume, for every single penny we receive. Ironically, this is how we store up treasures for ourselves in heaven by becoming fully alive as humans, as God-breathed dust. This Lent, I invite us to seek and participate in the glory of God by becoming more fully alive, by relaxing into our humanity and abandoning ourselves completely to what Dante called “the love that moves the sun and the other stars” and to merge in love with the divine source of our every breath. Amen.

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“The Cloud his Bow, the Fire his Spear”

 

Readings for the Last Sunday after Epiphany:

Exodus 24:12-18

Psalm 99

2 Peter 1:16-21

Matthew 17:1-9

This sermon was preached at the St. Francis of Assisi Episcopal Church in Novato CA on February 26, 2017.

Tomorrow is the feast day of the seventeenth century Anglican priest George Herbert who is arguably the most skillful religious poet of the English language. Ever since I read his poem “Easter Wings” in high school, I have been fed and inspired by his words and wisdom. The poem I have been chewing on the last few days is one with the deceptively simple title: “The Bag.” The third stanza of the poem describes Christ’s self-emptying and incarnation with these words:

The stars his tire of light and rings obtain’d,

The cloud his bow, the fire his spear,

The sky is azure mantle gain’d.

And when they ask’d, what he would wear;

He smil’d and said as he did go,

He had new clothes a making here below.

The two images that resonate most deeply with me are in the second line: “The cloud his bow, the fire his spear.” The Cloud and the Fire. These images are ubiquitous throughout Scripture in describing God—they both appear several times in our readings this morning—and they have become emblematic of different understandings of God that have conflicted and developed over and against each other throughout the centuries. The Fire and the Cloud.

I have been teaching an online course on pre-Reformation English Spirituality and Mysticism at CDSP and we have been studying the 14th century English mystics, whose profound spirituality fed into the ocean of Anglicanism in which George Herbert swam. Today, the most famous of these 14th century English mystics is the beloved Julian of Norwich, but there are others who also deserve our attention, since we are their spiritual descendants, as Episcopalians and Anglicans. The two others that I want to highlight this morning are the anonymous author of The Cloud of Unknowing and a freelance hermit named Richard Rolle, who is the author of a book called The Fire of Love. These two mystics can help deepen our appreciation of the Transfiguration of Christ, as told in Matthew’s Gospel.

Richard Rolle is one of my favorite of the English mystics and he uses the image of fire to describe his bodily experience of God. In his book The Fire of Love, he writes, “When a [person] is perfectly converted to Christ, he…feels a warmth most sweet, burning like a fire. He is filled with wonderful sweetness, and glories in jubilant song.”[1] Rolle experienced God as one who tasted sweet, who felt warm like a fire and who sounded like a melodious song. Many other Christians have experienced and understood God in similar ways, as a divine fire that can be physically felt. Such Christians are generally part of what is called the kataphatic tradition, which emphasizes the imminence of God, who can be imagined in our minds and felt in our bodies. However, there is another tradition in Christianity that is quite different, a tradition that is often associated with the image of the cloud.

The anonymous author of The Cloud of Unknowing used the image of a cloud to describe how we fail to see the God who is right in front of us. This mystic is often referred to as the Cloud author because, in his most famous text, he explained that between God and us, there is what he called a “Cloud of Unknowing” that obscures our vision of God. We cannot penetrate this cloud with any rational thought or theological insight or rigorous study. The only we can penetrate and see through the Cloud of Unknowing is by shooting through it arrows of love (“humble impulses of love”). The Cloud author is very skeptical and suspicious of any physical experiences of God like those described by Richard Rolle. He instead encourages a kind of prayer that does not try to access God through the mind or body, but purely through the heart. This author is part of what is called the apophatic tradition, which emphasizes the transcendence and incomprehensibility of God.

These two major traditions invite us to ask ourselves, “How do we experience God? Do we experience God with our bodily senses as a fiery warmth and melodious song? Or do we experience God as on the other side of a ‘Cloud of Unknowing,’ beyond anything we can grasp with our minds or bodies, but accessible only through love and centering prayer?” Historically, those who have experienced God as one beyond the cloud have been at loggerheads with those who have experienced God as fire. This particular division may or may not resonate with us today, but it may remind us of other divisions more close to home. For instance, those who experience God more through contemplative silence can often clash with those who prefer contemporary worship music that makes us feel those wonderful warm fuzzies that Richard Rolle talks about. Or those who want to integrate their spirituality with political justice often clash with those who prefer to keep religion and politics separate. Or those who attend the 8 o’clock service may clash with the 10 o’clockers; or those who prefer Rite I may clash with those who prefer Rite II. The clash between the Cloud of Unknowing and the Fire of Love is emblematic of the many clashes that continue to challenge and plague the church.

The invitation in our readings this morning is to hold them both together, both the Fire and the Cloud. The readings invite us to recognize them both as valid understandings of and approaches to the divine. The reading from Exodus holds them both together when it describes the cloud that covered Mount Sinai for six days while simultaneously saying that the glory of the LORD was a like a “devouring fire.” Also, remember that in Exodus, God led the children of Israel as a cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. Psalm 99 brings these images together by describing “the pillar of cloud” out of which God speaks. Peter invites us to pay attention to the heavenly voice that spoke from the cloud as if it were a fiery lamp shining in a dark place. And in Matthew’s account of the Transfiguration, Jesus’s face shines like the fiery sun while being overshadowed by a bright cloud. Mark and Luke emphasize the whiteness and the cloud in the Transfiguration, but Matthew highlights both the cloud and the fire. Matthew seems to understand that Peter, James and John may have all experienced the Transfiguration somewhat differently. For Peter, it might have been more like a fire of love while for James and John, it might have been more like a great cloud of unknowing. Matthew makes space for both.

In my class, I invited my students to choose between the Fire of Love track and the Cloud of Unknowing track. The first track involved reading Richard Rolle and repeating the name of Jesus while remaining open to various thoughts, images, and even warm fuzzies. The second track involved reading the Cloud of Unknowing and practicing a form of Centering Prayer that consistently let go of any thoughts, images or warm fuzzies. I was impressed with how well they were able to enter into their own prayer practice while remaining open and curious and enthusiastic about the experiences of their classmates who engaged in the opposite prayer practice. Like Matthew in his account of the Transfiguration, they were able to hold together both the Fire and the Cloud, different understandings and approaches to the divine.

This ability to hold together differences is the great charism of English spirituality and Anglicanism. It is part of our Anglican identity and in our Anglican DNA. And few exemplify this ability better than the beloved Julian of Norwich. As she endured a life-threatening illness, Julian received 16 different visions of God, some fiery and some cloudy. It took her about 20 years to make sense of them and reconcile the apparent contradictions, but she was committed to working through the many different representations of God. To me, Julian embodies the Anglican Via Media (the “middle road”) not so much by compromising, but by holding together both the fiery kataphatic understanding of God and the cloudy apophatic understanding, honoring them both and acknowledging their differences and apparent contradictions. In Julian of Norwich, the fire and the cloud can be held as one. She learns how to do this through her deep theological reflection on her knowledge and experience of Christ, especially the open wound on Christ’s side, which she describes as a “fair and delectable place, large enough for all mankind to be saved and to rest in peace and love” (Ch 24). For Julian, Christ’s side wound becomes a symbol of openness and hospitality to all kinds of different people with all kinds of different experiences. And it becomes an important symbol for Anglican spirituality as a whole. In fact, it is also used by George Herbert at the end of his poem “The Bag.” He writes,

As Jesus was returning, there came one

That ran upon him with a spear.

He, who came hither all alone,

Bringing nor man, nor arms, nor fear,

Receiv’d the blow upon his side,

And straight he turn’d, and to his brethren cry’d.

 

If ye have anything to send or write,

(I have no bag, but here is room)

Unto my father’s hands and sight

(Believe me) it shall safely come.

That I shall mind what you impart,

Look, you may put it very near my heart.

 

Christ, in his radical self-giving, invites us into a spaciousness, into the wideness of God’s mercy, so wide that it can hold both the fire and the cloud. George Herbert, Julian of Norwich and St. Matthew knew that this spaciousness was, like Christ’s side wound, close to the heart of God. They knew that it was in this spaciousness that we can be touched by the One who says to us, “Get up and do not be afraid”; that we can, in the words of the Collect, be strengthened to bear our cross and be changed into his likeness from glory to glory, through Jesus Christ our Lord, who with “the cloud as his bow and the fire as his spear,” lives and reigns with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen

[1] Richard Rolle, The Fire of Love, Chapter 19, translated and introduced by Clifton Wolters (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1972), 107.

 

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