Friday, October 30, 2015

The Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus

The Misunderstood Jew: The Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus, Amy-Jill Levine, Harper One, 2006. 

This past summer I read this book and found it to be the kind of read that I wanted to discuss with others. Levine is a practicing Jew, who teaches the New Testament (that's right, that's not a typo!) at Vanderbilt Divinity School. I wondered what it might be like to discuss this book with a group of Episcopal clergy and some rabbi friends over lunch, and for the past two weeks we have been doing just that. We have one more week left. Unfortunately, there was only one rabbi who could make it, so she is definitely outnumbered by the dozen or so Episcopal clergy who have been attending, but she is quite capable of holding her own.

Many of us were taught growing up not to talk about politics or religion or anything that might expose difference or prove embarrassing, or worst of all, confrontational. We have paid a price and seem to be losing the art of dialogue and real conversation at a time when we desperately need those skills if we mean to keep the social fabric from completely tearing apart. The truth is that our group has been having a blast, laughing and learning together.

One of the main points of Levine's book (and her life work) is that in order to bridge the gap that has emerged between Christians and Jews over the past two thousand years,we have to re-situate Jesus in his first-century Jewish context, and not as the only "good Jew" against all those legalistic scribes and Pharisees who were taking Leviticus literally as he moved Christians toward the "spirit of the Torah." In fact first-century Jewish theology and practice was probably at least as diverse as twenty-first century Jewish and Christian theologies and practices. Who speaks for the Christian community? The televangelists? The pope? Bishop Spong?

There are clearly differences between what Christians and Jews believe. But one thing I always (re)-discover in conversations like this one is that there are as many differences within religious traditions as there are between them. What I mean is that while our understanding of who Jesus is is a pretty big difference between Christians and Jews, the questions of how we understand God, or read sacred texts, or encourage healthy congregations very often reveal greater differences among Christians and among Jews than necessarily between them. The range of view points within both traditions are remarkably similar. Moreover, the challenges of being people of faith in a culture that doesn't seem to encourage or value this invites us to learn so much from each other.

Levine's own story is that she grew up in New Bedford, Massachusetts as an orthodox Jew in a Portuguese Roman Catholic neighborhood. She tells the story of how her childhood ambition was to grow up and become pope. As we gathered together, each of us shared our own stories of growing up and our exposure to people of other faiths. Some of us grew up in enclaves of people more or less like us - and we therefore assumed this was how the world was. Others of us grew up in the midst of more diversity and, like Levine, becoming aware of our own "otherness" within that larger culture at a fairly early age. In either case, this life experience clearly left a mark on all of us.

Yet the world is definitely becoming smaller. How can rabbis and ordained ministers - and the congregations we serve - become more adept at having conversations that help us all to grow in our faith? It seems to me that we need to find more intentional ways of doing just that. This doesn't make us the same; but it does lead us toward common ground. It's also a lot of fun.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Blind Bartimaeus

Filling in at Christ Church, Fitchburg today. The readings for the 22nd Sunday after Pentecost can be found here.

Six weeks ago our gospel reading came from the eighth chapter of Mark’s Gospel. There we heard Peter’s confession at Caesarea Philippi. He responds to the question being asked by his friend, Jesus. Who do you say that I am? by saying, “You are the Christ.”

Now that’s a long time ago, I admit. I can’t remember what I did six days ago! But Mark’s Gospel has been cruising along ever since then. That declaration in Caesarea Philippi represented a key turning point in Mark’s Gospel, and from that moment until today’s reading from the tenth chapter of Mark, we have been “on the way” to Jerusalem.

The total distance between Galilee and Jerusalem is about 120 miles, roughly the same distance as Stockbridge to Boston. It would have taken Jesus and the disciples around six days or so to make this journey, covering about twenty miles or so a day. (That’s about the same pace our bishop took when he walked this diocese, including Worcester County last fall when he walked from Trinity, Milford to here.)

That pace leaves a lot of time to talk along the way. So the stuff we’ve been hearing about over these past six weeks is what Mark remembers as the highlights of that pilgrimage. Today we reach the suburbs of Jericho, only about fifteen miles from the city limits of Jerusalem. It’s the last leg of the journey. In liturgical time it’s almost Palm Sunday, just hours before Jesus will enter the city on a donkey as the crowds shout “Hosanna” and lay down their palm branches before him.

While Peter’s eyes were opened in that moment at Caesarea Philippi, it’s been clear ever since that the disciples had the experience but missed the meaning. Jesus has been talking along the way about the meaning of the Cross he is headed towards: he has put a child in their midst, he’s told them that the last will be first, he has insisted that they must be servants of all. But they are slow learners. Just last week we heard the sons of Zebedee jockeying for positions in Jesus’ cabinet after he installs a new government in Jerusalem. They still don’t get it!

Jesus and his disciples were neither the first Galileans nor the last to travel to Jerusalem. In fact, this religious pilgrimage was undertaken by faithful Jews as many as three times a year and especially to celebrate high holy days like Passover, which is what Jesus and the disciples have come to do. Jerusalem’s whole economy was built on religious tourism and the temple. So the route the disciples have been taking is the AAA recommended one. Along the way there are beggars because beggars are smart; they don’t hang out where there aren’t any people. They like places like Harvard Square and Grand Central Station and the exit and entrance ramps off 290 in Worcester. And well-traveled roads like the road from Jericho to Jerusalem. So we shouldn’t be surprised that there is a blind beggar in Jericho; there are lots of blind beggars in Jericho. But this story is about one in particular, Bartimaeus:  Timmy’s  boy.

We’ve heard plenty of these kinds of stories from Mark already about how Jesus healed people in and around Galilee before this journey began. We’ve heard about how he made the blind see and the deaf to hear and about how he healed the woman with the hemorrhage and raised Jairus’ daughter. So it comes as no big surprise that Jesus can make the blind son of Timaeus see.

Bartimaeus cries out: “Jesus, Son of David…have mercy on me!” making him the first person in Mark’s Gospel to use that title for Jesus. We’ve come all this way since the Jordan River, where God said Jesus was his “beloved Son.” We’ve heard Jesus speak of himself as the “Son of Man.” We’ve heard Peter recognize Jesus as “the Christ/the Messiah.” But now, as we near the city gates of Jerusalem and just before the crowds wave their palm branches and make the very same claim, Jesus is identified (by a blind man no less!) as the long-awaited son of King David. Timaeus’ kid “sees” what no one else has yet been able to see, that the dawn of a new day is on the horizon.

He also makes a scene. He cries out, and is initially silenced by the crowd. But he cries out all the more until he gets Jesus’ attention: Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me. And then Jesus invites him to come to him. I find that detail interesting; Jesus doesn’t go to Bartimaeus but rather calls Bartimaeus to come to him. I mean, the guy is blind! Wouldn’t Jesus be “compassionate” enough (given that he can see where he is going just fine) to walk toward Bartimaeus rather than making Bartimaeus grope in the darkness? I find this detail interesting because of what it literally says and because of what it metaphorically suggests: Jesus is no enabler. I don’t want to minimize the hardship of being blind or lame or deaf. But sometimes we can allow a person’s disabilities to define them. Sometimes we can let our disabilities define us. And when we do that, we stop being fellow travelers on a journey. There are hints of that here in that we don’t even know his name; he’s just Tim’s blind kid.

Sometimes we create dependency rather than truly serving our neighbor. There is a big difference between “helping people” because it makes us feel good or because we need to be needed and serving people because we see the image of God in them. Sometimes in our weakness others make us feel even weaker than we are, and then they do for us what we can and need to do for ourselves. The difference has to do with respecting the dignity of every human being. Have you ever been around a couple where the “caregiver” feels the need to answer all questions addressed to the “patient?” So Jesus treats Baritmaeus as a human being, as a beloved child of God. In so doing I think he is already working toward making him whole, which is about more than simply curing his retinal nerves.

After Jesus calls Bartimaeus to come to him, Bartimaeus “leaps up and tosses off his cloak”—before he regains his sight. This tossing of his cloak is a bridge-burning act. That coat is the means by which a blind beggar would gather in the coins tossed to him by others and shake them in. What Mark is telling us is that this man completely trusts that Jesus is about to transform his life, and that is about more than healing his blindness. He’s not going to have to beg anymore. And then once more, Jesus puts it back on Bartimaeus: “what do you want me to do for you?” It’s tempting to want to spoof a response, as if Bartimaeus might say: “hello…son of David, I’m BLIND…what do you think I want, cookies and milk?!” But I think this falls under that same heading: Jesus treats him as a person. Bartimaeus is asked to articulate what he wants, what he needs, what he desires.

I have no problem believing this happened this way because this is who Jesus is. But I also think that the story is laden with implications that ripple down through the centuries as well. I think we are meant to chuckle at how Timaeus’ blind kid sees better than the disciples who Jesus really is and what he is about. He regains his sight and becomes a follower “on The Way” which is to say that he’s headed to Jerusalem with them. He apparently has no illusions about what is coming, but he has been touched by the amazing grace of Jesus, for he was once blind but now he sees and that is such an amazing gift that he cannot but help to respond with his life.

I also think that we are meant to wonder about our own blindness or at least our blind spots. We tend to think we see it all, but that is a great illusion. Each of us sees what we want to see, or what we are able to see, and usually from a fairly narrow perspective. None of us have eyes in the back of our heads. None of us have 20/20 vision, at least not in a spiritual sense. Much is hidden from our understanding and always we are looking through a dark glass. Part of spiritual maturity is beginning to see things in new ways, from new angles. But I also think part of spiritual maturity is becoming more profoundly aware that we don’t see it all, that we don’t have all the answers, and that what we do see isn’t all there is to see. We therefore need others. In and through Christian community, Jesus helps us to see in new ways, especially by way of other people whose life experiences may be very different from ours. This is why a congregation like this matters so much if the goal is to grow in our faith.

In our own journeys, we may at times be tempted to sit back and wait for Jesus to come to us. But I think the journey begins in fact when we find ourselves groping in the dark and crying out, “Son of David, Jesus, have mercy on me” and we stumble along trying to find our way. Perhaps it is incumbent upon us to cry out in the darkness, to ask for what we need, and to do our best to get up and move. It’s not magic; it requires our participation and great risk. Is your desire to see strong enough for you to be willing to throw off the coat that you rely on in your present blindness? Jesus doesn’t make faith easy for us, I think, because he respects us too much. He insists that we come to him, not because he isn’t “pastoral,” but because the struggle to find him is part of the gift and part of the journey. Prayer is at least in part about learning to articulate what we need and there is spiritual growth that comes simply by learning to articulate what we are asking for, not because Jesus needs for us to do that, but because we need to do that.

One commentator puts it this way, which is a pretty good summary of what I hope you’ve been hearing me say today:
Discipleship depends upon whether or not we really want to see. To see our weary world as it truly is, without denial and delusion: the tough realities of and inconvenient truths about economic disparity and racial oppression and ecological destruction and war without end. And to see our beautiful world as it truly could and should be, free of despair or distraction: the divine dream of enough for all and beloved community and restored creation and the peaceable kingdom. (See Ched Meyers)
All of this is gift, and sheer grace. It is true that God really is the Giver; but we still need to receive that gift. I know that in this parish as across the diocese folks are praying about stewardship and their own giving – as we are in my household as well. There is no magic formula for this. But the move beyond “tipping” or acting as if the church is one more charity in the midst of a pledge drive is always rooted in this recognition that Jesus is the one who gives us sight, the one who claims and marks and seals us for the living God. In seeing who he is we begin to see who we are and recognize that it’s true: all that we are and all that we have is of God. The practice of faithful stewardship doesn’t end there but it always begins with our ability to see this, and then like blind Bartimaus we are called to respond. We who once were blind, now see. May we receive the gift of God’s amazing grace, and then continue to follow Jesus along the Way. 

Sunday, October 18, 2015

A Man from Uz

This week I am at Christ Church in Rochdale - a part of Leicester. The readings for this 21st Sunday after the Feast of Pentecost include God speaking to Job out of the whirlwind.

Once upon a time there was this man from Uz, named Job. He had it all: a beautiful wife, well-adjusted kids, a great job, good health, and plenty of friends. And then the bottom fell out. He lost it all, practically overnight. It sounds a bit like a warped fairy tale and maybe it was originally just that; a simple story meant to explore an interesting question. Will people stay faithful if they aren’t being rewarded for their good behavior? What if they faithfully pray the Prayer of Jabez, but bad things still happen to them?

All of us come across people in our daily lives who have way more than their share of troubles, usually because of circumstances beyond their control. And once things begin to spiral downward it is difficult to turn all of that around. What is amazing to me, and scary to me, is just how quickly a well-ordered life can unravel. All of a sudden the company we worked for closes its doors to open a plant where labor costs are lower. Think Detroit, or maybe closer to home of GE closing up plants in Pittsfield or Fitchburg. Overnight the salary we had assumed would cover college tuitions and the mortgage on the summer place is gone. In the blink of an eye your marriage is falling apart and your middle child is addicted to pain-killers.  It can happen so very fast.

So last week we heard Job crying out to the God whom it is no longer clear is even there. It’s just too dark for Job to tell. He looks to his right and left, in front and behind, but he can’t find God. And he needs to find God because he wants his day in court. He wants to make his argument, to make his case before the Almighty: what has happened to him is not fair. And we kind of left it there.

Perhaps you’ve been there, or known someone who has. We owe it to God and one another to speak truthful words here, even when those words are difficult ones. Job is no whiner and his complaint is justified, I think. His questions are fair ones that go to the heart of faith and that I’ve heard on the lips of ordinary parishioners over many years now as a priest: if God is just, and if God is powerful, then why is there so much pain and suffering in this world? Why is it coming at me? What did I do to deserve this?  

So today, as the story continues, God shows up like a whirlwind in the midst of thunder and lightening! Imagine that! Imagine yourself praying for a sign, praying for God to show up and it happens just like that. Only God doesn’t show up sheepishly to be cross-examined by Job. Nor does God show up with answers as to why the just suffer or to be more specific why this bad stuff has happened to this good man. Instead, God shows up loaded for bear. God shows up with God’s own set of questions. In fact that is the first thing I want you to notice because I think it is of profound importance theologically. Job had one big question for God: “why me?” God literally comes at Job with a whirlwind of questions: “gird up your loins like a man, Job and I will question you…”

Who is this…?
Where were you…?
Who determined…?
Who stretched…?
Who has put…?
Who has given…?
Can you lift?
Can you provide? …
Can you send…?
Can you hunt…?

We’ll have to wait until next week to hear how Job responds, but for today it is our task to reflect on this whirlwind speech. What does it mean?

One interpretative trajectory focuses on the sovereignty and inscrutability of God: God gets to be God, not us. God’s questions remind Job (and more importantly the reader of the Book of Job) that we aren’t as smart as we think we are. God’s ways are in fact not our ways. That isn’t an answer to the question of human suffering, but it’s a clear reminder that the universe doesn’t work like a clock and God isn’t a giant clock-winder in the sky.

I think of the film, Bruce Almighty, which I love not only because I happen to be a fan of Jim Carrey and Morgan Freeman and Jennifer Aniston, but because I also think underneath all the laughs there is a pretty serious point directly related to the topic at hand. You may recall that Morgan Freeman plays God in that film, but he’s tired and in need of a break so he leaves Jim Carrey in charge of the universe for a while. One of my favorite parts is when he just grants every prayer request as if prayer was like throwing a coin into a wishing well. Everyone wins the lottery; I mean everyone who prayed that they would win does win. So the “jackpot” is split so far that the winnings total about 49 cents each! Granting every prayer request leads to chaos, because most people don’t really know what is best for them, but only what they think is best for them.

So maybe we can imagine Morgan Freeman here today and playing the role of God again, and speaking those words we heard from our Old Testament reading this morning and sounding a bit beleaguered. And sort of saying to Job something like this: “Do you want to switch jobs for a while, Job? I’ll take a little vacation and leave you in charge of the universe for a week or so and we’ll see how that goes, alright? You up for that?” Gird up your loins like a man, boy!

Another possible meaning of the whirlwind speech starts at the opposite end, with Job. One thing about suffering - and this is an observation, not a judgment: suffering can make us very self-centered. Our world becomes smaller and smaller. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, in her work on the stages of grief, spoke about isolation and depression as stages one who is going through loss has to navigate. That is very real and part of what has happened to Job. Granted, his friends are real schmucks. Nevertheless, Job’s very real pain has meant the loss of family and a rift with his friends. He’s literally all alone in the world and his support system is gone, and so of course it feels as if God has also abandoned him. He had looked to his left and to his right but he felt all alone and in the dark.

So the mere presence of God is a kind of grace, because at least he knows that he is not alone in the universe, or completely crazy to have put his trust in God in the first place. Notice how God’s speech points Job outward, beyond himself to the natural world. God helps Job get un-stuck, like a tough but wise therapist. So one might hear God’s whirlwind speech as something like this: 

Job: you need to go on a whale watch and consider Leviathan that I made for the sport of it. Or take a walk along the ridge of the Grand Canyon, or hike the Rockies or camp underneath Pleides and Orion in Acadia National Park. Or consider the glorious array of maples from the top of Mt. Wachusett on a clear autumn day in central Massachusetts. Sit on your porch during a lightning storm and consider. Consider the ravens and the mountain lions. Consider the lilies of the field…

Now this trajectory isn’t mutually exclusive from the first one. In fact, I think they might be just two sides to the very same coin. The first focuses on God’s sovereignty and the second on human limitations. In both cases we are reminded that the job of being the Almighty is not in fact open, Hollywood comedies aside. And this is a good thing; we aren’t in charge. It’s not all about us.

That doesn’t mean that God doesn’t care about us; it does mean that our measure of the universe can’t always be about what is or is not working for us at any given moment, even when we are in real pain. This in no way means that our pain is less real, but we cannot usually find a good explanation for unexplained loss. What we can do is grieve, and then by God’s grace move forward one day at a time.  A child is killed by a drunk driver, and there is no answer to that question of why God has “allowed this to happen.” In fact I think it’s the wrong question. I don’t need to defend God; I just think the universe functions in a certain way and human beings cause these things to happen and too much alcohol and a machine that can travel at fast speeds is a terrible combination. But there are other children and there are other drunk drivers out there. So when mothers get M.A.D.D. together and step beyond their own circle of pain to embrace the needs of others, both they and the world are in some real and tangible way set on the path toward healing. Things begin to change. And I think that’s God at work in the world.

Or a man sits and waits for his chemotherapy and notices this incredibly brave nine-year old girl who has lost all of her hair, and it dawns on him that he is not the only one fighting this terrible disease and the link between them is strong enough to inspire him to keep fighting, not only for himself, but as part of something bigger than self. I think that is God at work in the world.

The Book of Job may generate more questions than answers. It may have multiple interpretations. But it stands for us, I think, as a reminder that the synagogue and the church need to be places where there is room for such questions. Where we come sometimes to scream at the heavens: why? Just as Jesus cried out on a dark Friday, “why have you forsaken me, O God?”

Did we really expect that God to show up and say to Job, “Well, Job, your questions are very fair so let me sit down and explain to you how this universe thing works?” There will be time at the end for further questions!

Perhaps it is enough simply that God does show up not just in Job’s life but in our lives to point us to some new questions. Perhaps the question “why me?” is not the best or only question for us to ask. As someone has written, “why not me?”

The Book of Job doesn’t answer the question about why the just suffer. What it does do is to point us toward some new and bigger questions that have the potential to lead us to hope. New life is possible. We gather here on the Day of Resurrection to remember the Paschal mystery, which is just another way of saying that Good Friday never gets the last word. It is hope that brings us together in communities like this one, not only to share our joys, but to share our sorrow and pain as well. It is into this time and this place, into our lives, that the inscrutable, sovereign Creator continues to speak to us out of the whirlwind, reminding us that our vocation is to be faithful creatures – not the Almighty. That job is taken. 

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Celebration of New Ministry: The Rev. Dave Woessner at St. Michael's-on-the-Heights

I first stepped foot in this parish in the early months of 1998, as the brand new rector of St. Francis Church in Holden. Our senior warden wanted us to do a vestry retreat “off-site” and she suggested we do it here. And since I always listened to my wardens, we did just that. 

I first met Dave when I was chairing the Commission on Ministry and the rector of All Saints Church, Kevin Bean, brought Dave to an inquirers meeting to consider ordination.

So when I began as Canon to the Ordinary back in June 2013, and I came here early on with Ed Farrell who was, at the time, the interim transition officer for our diocese, a chain of events was set in motion that ultimately led to this day. As with all discernment, however, it’s a lot easier to see it from the present backwards than it was then to know back then where it was going to end up. I believe I’ve preached and supplied in this parish more than in any other in this diocese since taking this new call. In any case, all of this feels like a long time ago, but right now, looking at all of you from this pulpit, it seems providential that the long and winding path of Dave’s road to ordination and of this congregation’s search for a priest-in-charge would converge.

And so it came to pass that Deacon Dave came to serve this parish. I was honored to be here in the pews on the Feast of St. Benedict when Deacon Dave became Father Dave, and am honored tonight to bring greetings from Bishop Fisher as we celebrate this new shared ministry that is already well underway. 

As Christians our central narrative is the one about how on the night before Jesus died for us, Jesus took the bread and he blessed it, and broke it, and gave it to his friends saying: “do this for the remembrance of me.” This narrative is central to our identity and our calling: because there is one bread and one body, we who are many are one – for we all partake of the one bread. With hope and confidence we therefore make our song, from Holy Baptism to the grave: Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.

This story not only helps us to remember who we are (and to re-member week after week who we are) but it points us outward to the world where we are called to become what we have received as living members of this risen Body of Christ. This story not only roots us in a great cloud of witnesses, but it shapes the people we are becoming, always with God’s help.

I wonder tonight, Dave: what are the stories that you tell yourself about who you are, and what it means to be a pastor and priest? And I wonder tonight, St. Michael’s: what are the stories you tell yourselves about who you are and what your priest should look and act like?

And here is what excites me, and when I’m honest also scares the daylights out of me: I wonder how those stories are going to continue to intersect and sometimes even collide in the weeks and months and years ahead. How will a young priest (we used to say “baby priest” back in the day, but maybe that is no longer politically correct?) will grow into the priest needed for this particular time and this particular place and at the same time how this particular congregation will be stretched and grow as these narratives come together. If by God’s grace they are framed by that larger narrative of Jesus taking the bread and blessing and breaking and giving it, then the new thing that God is doing here on the heights and around the city of Worcester will revive us all as the next chapter of this priest and this congregation gets written. To say this another way, it's not all about us. It's about the bread - and how Jesus takes it and blesses it and breaks it and gives it to us all. 

Our stories about who we are shape the people we are becoming. So they matter not only because of what was, but they both limit and make possible what will be. I wonder if this is in part what Jesus meant when he talked so much about new wine and old wineskins. Tonight is a happy night and a real celebration. But sooner or later (if it’s not happening already) the old stories will collide and there will be conflict. Count on it. It may be little or it may be big, but it will happen. And then the question is: what to do with that? Are we willing in that moment to learn some new songs, or will we be controlled by the old tapes?

There are some narratives here at St. Michael’s, for example, about conflict. And perhaps those who have been bruised wish there would never be conflict again – not ever, just a very long honeymoon with a nice new priest. And they all lived happily ever after. 

But of course that is a fantasy, a wish dream. I can tell you this with the assurance that an old priest like me has learned over time: Dave is going to disappoint you. He’ll do something, sooner or later, that will collide with your narrative of what a good priest is supposed to do. He is talented, but he’s human. And Dave, ditto for these good folks. They will break your heart at some point.

But when that happens, there is both opportunity and danger. In that moment in time it may be that Dave is right, which will be an invitation for St. Michael’s to change. Or it may be that he is wrong, which will be an invitation for him to change. But far more likely, it’ll be a little of both. And therefore an opportunity to write a new script, with God’s help. To be re-scripted by the Holy Spirit, to embrace the new thing, shaped by God’s story of the bread taken and blessed, broken and shared by priest and people. What I want to say to you tonight is that it is such moments hold within them the possibility of new and abundant life – and of new stories written together, and of hope for a future filled with possibilities where the reign of God breaks in. Such moments make Easter morning not something to be intellectually debated but moments when you know that the risen Christ is not lying in a tomb but is alive, and here, now. Be known to us, Lord Christ, in the breaking of the bread.

Do you all remember Gary Larson? There’s an old “Far Side” cartoon I’ve always appreciated: God is in the kitchen, cooking up the world. And the image of God in the picture is of that old bearded creator, hair a little wild. So “he’s” got all kinds of ingredients to sprinkle over the globe, which is in a skillet on the stove. There are birds and trees and reptiles; light-skinned people and medium-skinned people and dark-skinned people. But the “spice” that Chef God is holding in his hands says “jerks.”  And the thought bubble over Chef God’s head reads: “…just to make it interesting…”

A few years back I read a little book published by The Alban Institute, written primarily for clergy, with the title “Never Call Them Jerks.” It’s a good book about dealing with difficult behaviors in congregations. Now here is the thing: the fact that a book needed to be written on this topic with that title about the challenges of congregational life makes the very point that it’s not always easy. Sometimes in the midst of our own disappointments and conflicts and hurts, we are tempted to see those who stand in our way as “jerks.” I read that book just when I needed it, because I was dealing with some folks at St. Francis that I was tempted to call jerks and not because I thought they were making the world interesting.

Authentic faith communities take a lot of work. It’s a whole lot easier to be spiritual, but not religious and to go for long walks on the beach than it is to be part of a living, authentic community of faith. But this is what Baptism into Christ demands of us. We are called into a communion of saints, into a great cloud of witnesses. And here is the thing, our Lutheran friends get this so well: every saint is also, always, a sinner. This means that ministry is supposed to be hard, and is always interesting.

This brings me to tonight’s gospel reading. It comes from what the Biblical scholars call “Jesus’ Farewell Discourse.” He and the Twelve have gathered in the Upper Room. For John it’s not a Seder – the paschal lamb is going to die on a cross the next day. There is no institution of the Eucharist, a reminder that the early Christian communities were able to tolerate a diversity of narratives. Rather, Jesus has gathered his friends together to give them some final instructions. After supper he takes a towel and some water and he washes their feet – some of them are reluctant at first, but he insists.

And then this: they, and we, are commanded to love one another. It’s not an option. Jesus gives us a mandatum novum—a new mandate that we love one another. On this commandment rests all the law and the prophets. Want to be a Christian? Love God, love your neighbor. Even the one who is in this country illegally? Yes. Even the one who passes me on the right going 85 miles an hour on 290? Yes. Even the one who roots for the New York Yankees? Yes. Even the one who sits two pews away from me on Sunday mornings and can’t carry a tune to save her life but still sings really, really loudly. The living, risen Christ says, “which part of this commandment are you not understanding?” Love one another.

This love isn’t about the people we like or already feel committed to or who always get it right. It isn’t about Hallmark card love on Valentine’s Day card love or even Mother’s Day card love. Nor is about giving people a free-pass and not holding them accountable for their actions.  Rather the Word became flesh so that we could see God’s glory in the world. And so that this enfleshed love might be spread in a world where there are too many wars and too many incidents of campus violence, and too much fear. The Church exists for love. Nothing else. Not to tell people what to believe or that their beliefs are wrong, but for love.

Jesus acts out a parable that is incredibly relevant to the Church in our time and in every time, because it invites us not to be conformed to this world but to be transformed in the way we talk to one another and about one another. To enter into the mystery of what our Lord does on the last night of his life is a hard and difficult path. It requires risk and vulnerability and intimacy that most of us are scared to death of. Yet this God of ours seems committed to being patient, and is “all in” on our freedom. We sometimes wish for a benevolent dictator God, but if the Incarnation means anything at all and if the Cross means anything at all – it is that we are free to despise and reject the One who stretches forth his arms of love on the hard wood of the cross so that all might be within the reach of his saving embrace. Or, by God’s grace, we can choose to follow him into new and abundant life, and to share with him in work of reconciliation, one day at a time.

That’s what we get, my friends. This is no cure-all for conflicts and disappointments in the Church. But the mystery of this commandment given to us by Jesus to simply love one another invites us to see one another differently—to look through a different set of lenses than we are used to. It asks us to look for the face of Jesus always, even when we think someone is being a jerk. And to be servants first to one another, and then as we practice here to be servants in the neighborhood. This commitment has the potential to change us all for good.

We gather tonight on the Feast of St. Francis. The animals have been blessed this weekend in this parish and across the diocese, and I’m sure there have been countless wonderful sermons all around the world about caring for this fragile earth, our island home. But in closing let me just add one Franciscan challenge. Live the prayer attributed to Francis which he surely lived even if he didn’t write the words. You don’t need me to tell you that the world has too much hatred and injury and discord and doubt and despair and darkness and sadness. We know that every time we pick up a newspaper or turn on the news.

But in this world, in this city, in this Burncoat neighborhood, you and I are called to be instruments of God’s peace and what that means is that we are called to sow seeds of love and pardon and union and faith and hope and light and joy. We are called to be the Church where strangers become friends, and then join together to do this work God has given us to do. We are called to focus more on understanding than being understood, which is another way of saying we need to listen. If you live out of that narrative here on the heights, all will be well, and all manner of things will be well. Never easy, but well. 

Love one another.

The Feast of St. Francis

This morning, on the Feast of St. Francis, I am at All Saints Church in Worcester.

I’m sure that many of you have seen the familiar statue of St. Francis in a garden, perhaps even in your own gardens: he’s keeping a serene eye on things; and often some birds are there with him or some animal is sitting at his feet. He looks so peaceful.

For fifteen years I served the only parish in this diocese that takes its name from Francis. When I arrived I didn’t know much about him, but over the course of those many years and reading several biographies of him and a pilgrimage to Assisi, I feel like I know him a little bit, which I think is the reason that I was invited to be with you today. In fact as the people of St. Francis would tell you, I took to calling him “Frank.”  So I want to share with you a bit today about my old pal…

Francis died eight hundred and nineteen years ago today. The saints of the church are not remembered when they were born but rather when they enter eternal life. He was born in 1182, and baptized in the cathedral font of Assisi, an Umbrian town half-way between Rome and Florence that sits up on a hill. His mother was a religious person who decided to name her son after John the Baptist—the one who “prepared the way” for Jesus. And so he was christened “Giovanni.”

He was given the nickname “Francesco” by his father, Pietro, a cloth trader who traveled regularly on business to France. Francesco means “little Frenchman”—presumably because of his dad’s love for all things French. In the latter part of the twelfth century, Assisi was moving from a feudal society to a mercantile society and Pietro was, like the Jeffersons all those centuries later, “movin’ on up.” Francis may have even traveled with Pietro on business trips in his teenage years. If he did and he got to Paris, then he would have seen a new cathedral being built that was to be named for the mother of our Lord, a little place called Notre Dame.

By all accounts, Francesco was a spoiled rich kid. It can happen when parents are upwardly mobile and they want to indulge their children in the “opportunities” they didn’t have. His father clearly expected his son to follow in the family business. Something happened, though, that led to a change in his worldview. Some say he came down with an illness that left him bedridden for a long period of time. In any case, he ended up in the military, wanting to become a knight.

When someone says “semper fi” to you, you know that they are shaped by a whole set of values that make that person a marine. Knights in the Middle Ages were something like that, and the equivalent of “semper fi” was the notion of chivalry. Two “core values” for a knight were a commitment to largesse (i.e. to give freely) and to be always courteous. Yes, sir. No thank you ma’am. I mention that because as profoundly shaped as Francesco would be by the gospel, like all of us he was also shaped by his life experiences, and these military values clearly played a role in shaping the person he was becoming. Generosity and courtesy permeate the Rule of Francis; they are obviously gospel values, but they were reinforced by his training as a knight.

So Francis has this powerful religious awakening in the church in San Damiano. While praying, he heard Christ calling to him “Francesco, rebuild my church.” Some might call this a “conversion experience,” but I prefer to think of such experiences as “awakenings”—because they remind us that it’s about what God was already doing in his life. He had already been “claimed and sealed and marked as Christ’s own forever” at that cathedral font all those years earlier. It wasn’t God’s fault that he was asleep to that reality for so many years! In any event, he finally begins to “wake up” to this reality and when he does he takes the vision literally at first, as he begins to rebuild the church in San Damiano, which had fallen into disrepair. Eventually however he comes to see this process of repairing and rebuilding the Church as something much bigger.

Francesco starts to become really generous. The problem is that the money is giving away isn’t money he earned, but money that came from his father. The moment of ultimate conflict between father and son comes when Pietro makes a call to his personal friend, the bishop, to ask him to talk some sense into the boy who was beginning to take his faith too seriously.

In the upper church in Assisi there is a fresco that captures the horrible falling out Francesco and his father had in the public square of Assisi. Perhaps some of you have known the turmoil and sense of shame and betrayal that both parent and child must have felt that day as Francesco went, shall we say, “al fresco.” He takes off all of his clothes and hands them to his father, saying, “I don’t want any of your stuff anymore. I’m done with you.” The bishop is trying to cover Francis up. There is such humanity and pathos in that scene, long before Francis became a statue in our gardens. (He does not look so serene.) Even if he is now canonized, I think we make a mistake if we turn Francis into the hero of this moment and his father into the devil. I imagine his dad, especially within this context of a changing world where there were increasing opportunities for those willing to work hard, as honestly wanting the very best for his son. The problem is that father and son don’t see eye-to-eye on what is best. Their core values clash and Francis has to live the life he believes God is calling him to, not his father’s dreams. It’s a very old story.

I have sometimes wondered if this isn’t a kind of inverted story of the prodigal son: instead of the father running out to embrace the long lost son, Francesco’s father seems in the fresco to be almost recoiling, pulling away from the son he can no longer understand. Who is this kid and what has happened to him? With all due respect to Francis, as a parent I can’t help but feel some empathy for the father. That isn’t to say he was right: we raise our kids in order to let them become adults who will find their own path to God and their own way in the world. But moments like this one are so hard. And not just for father and son (not to mention for the bishop) but for all of us who are eavesdropping on a family matter being played out in the town square.

If you ever get to Assisi stand by that fresco for a while. It’s a sad and heart-wrenching moment. And yet it is so clearly a defining moment in Francis’ spiritual journey. It seems the two never reconcile. Yet Francis spends the rest of his life trying to live the prayer he may or may not have actually written, to be a servant of God’s peace, an agent of reconciliation by seeking more to understand than to be understood.

In 1219, Francis heads off to the Middle East during the time of the Crusades. War is always hell, but the Crusades were particularly brutal (as perhaps only religious conflicts are.) Yet Francis goes down to Egypt to the sultan’s palace to meet with a caliph who is roughly the same age he is—late thirties at the time. The Muslim leader (most likely a Sufi mystic) is fond of religious poetry, intellectually curious, and on good terms with the merchants of Venice. The two men meet and Francis tries to convert him to Christianity. That doesn’t happen, but they depart in peace and on good terms. It is another encounter in Francis’ life worth pondering: in the heart of the Islamic world, in the middle of the Crusades, Francis bears witness to the love of God he knew in Jesus. He listens and treats the stranger with dignity and respect. Neither one converts to the other’s religion but both are in some deeper way changed for good. 

The word crusader literally means “the one who bears the cross.” In the twelfth century and to this very day, however, that word often sends chills down the spines of people who remember the atrocities done in the name of Christ and in the name of the cross, especially in the Muslim world. Our language is so easily manipulated in times of war, isn’t it?  Yet Francis bore witness in the midst of all of that to another way. He was the true crusader in the right sense of that word; for him the “way of the cross” meant the way of mutual respect and conversation, being an instrument of peace in a world gone mad, living with hope for the dawn of a new day when love triumphs over evil.

What lessons does a man who lived nine hundred years ago have to teach us as twenty-first Christians here in Worcester? Most of you know already of St. Francis’ love for the earth and all creatures, great and small. It’s become a practice to bless animals this weekend and also to focus on our more cosmic relatives: brother sun and sister moon, and this fragile earth, our island home. We pray that somehow Francis might awaken in us this awareness that our planet is in trouble and we need to listen not to the rhetoric of politicians owned by the special interests but to real scientists with hard evidence.

We are called to hear our own names called by the living God to share in the work of rebuilding the Church. Not just Greg and Jose but all of us. Not just the people of All Saints but the folks across town at St. Mark’s and St. Matthew’s and St. Luke’s, where they are welcoming a new priest-in-charge this morning; and at St. Michael’s where they will celebrate a new ministry this afternoon with a priest-in-charge raised up by this parish. God is doing something new in this city, even now; can you perceive it?

I think we are called to become crusaders in the true sense of that word: not as people who wield power over others, but who bear the cross as a sign of hope, and of our own weakness and vulnerability. As we heard today from St. Paul, “may we never boast of anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (Galatians 6:14)  We need to find ways to do that as witnesses to the gospel in a nation obsessed with guns – not to go out hunting deer but with assault weapons meant for the battlefield, claiming the lives of our young people from Newtown to Roseburg. Lord, make us instruments of thy peace…

Like Francis, we do well to remember that sometimes the hardest work of reconciliation is in reaching across the kitchen table to heal the rifts between father and son, or mother and daughter, or brother and sister. And if this congregation is anything like the one I served for fifteen years, then it is pretty unlikely that everyone here agrees on everything and holds hands at every vestry meeting and sings kumbaya. Sometimes the work of reconciliation is requires us to reach across those tables, because the truth is that wherever two or three gather together in Christ’s name, there is sure to be conflict. Finding the right pace in a season of change is never easy, and inevitably things will go too fast for some and too slow for others. 

As bearers of the cross in a world where this is so much hatred and injury and discord and doubt and despair and darkness and sadness,  may we sow love and pardon and union and faith and hope and light and joy. Some of our encounters will lead to reconciliation, thanks be to God—or at least to deeper understanding, like Francis’ encounter in the Holy Land. Others will leave us deeply wounded, like that awful scene between father and son in the piazza. But through it all, our calling remains, a prayer we dare to pray not only with our lips but with our lives:  Lord, make us servants of thy peace.