A Great Light
Good Shepherd, Berkeley 7/21/13
• Isaiah 9:2-7
• Psalm 96 •
• Titus 2:11-14 •
• Luke 2:1-14, (15-20)
The Rev. Este Gardner Cantor
The Gospel reading for Christmas is so beautiful, so well-known, so cherished, that I am amazed every year that it touches me, almost as if I had never heard it before. The story slowly, inevitably pries opens our reluctant hearts. It speaks of hope in the midst of deep darkness, hope in the cold and the rough shelter of a barn, hope to the lowly and despised shepherds, hope to a young woman, giving birth in the most desperate of circumstances- hope for us all.
Hope is sung out to the shepherds by a lone angel- cracking the sky open with light, and then by a great heavenly host, loudly singing out the dearest hope of an oppressed and brutalized people- peace on earth.
I wonder- did the shepherds then just leave everything when the angels called them? Did they leave their flocks and throw down their staffs as the fishermen later left their boats and their nets? It sounds like it. The angels swoop back to heaven, and the shepherds can’t wait to go and be witnesses to “this thing that has happened”.
The angels gave very poor directions- the only sign given was that the baby would be wrapped in clothes, as every baby was, and- less expectedly- lying in a manger. But the shepherds had no trouble finding the baby, even without the benefit of the start that the magi later navigated with.
From every detail of the story, we are made to understand that this Messiah came, not to the comfortable, but to the lowly. The marginalized and homeless, the young and terrified, the holy family living among the animals because there was no place for them in a place of comfort- a place of privilege- no place for them at the inn.
Mary had had quite a night. She had just had the epiphany, after great pain and struggle, that every new mother has. She has the certainty that she has survived the greatest miracle of her life. Mary must have been startled at the arrival of the rough and fragrant shepherds, clamoring around her precious newborn. But the shepherds were irrepressible and told Mary and everyone else who would listen what the angels had told them. That the long-awaited Messiah had indeed been born. Mary had birthed the Christ, this holy child, now lying in a manger.
And so, after the hardest, and the holiest night of her young life, Mary listened and pondered, and was left to “treasure all these things in her heart,” even as we now treasure this story in ours.
The remembrance of this shining night every year is truly magical. It seems like the one time of the year where we are allowed to be innocent, to be hopeful, joyful, peaceful, expecting and deserving comfort and joy. The unexpected happens. Those who would never darken the door of a church sing with full passionate voices, “Come let us adore him, Christ the Lord!” And “Hark the herald angels sing…”
People who usually speak intelligibly, sing “Ba rumpabum bum, rumbabumbum, rumpabum bum. And all to praise the coming of the angels, the coming of the Light.
The people who walked in darkness, the lowly, the cold, the oppressed, the desperately poor, have seen a great light. To those who lived in a land of deep darkness on them light has shined.
At this time of year, on this shining night, we are all called out of our deep darkness. We are all a people called in from the cold, given the most precious possession imaginable, shown that all our fears, our pessimism, our cynicism, our every dark crevice are all flooded with light.
The baby Jesus is ours, the baby Jesus is us. We hunker down with the Holy Family to look at the luminous child shining from the manger, to see the radiant but exhausted face of Mary, the fearful face of Joseph, the shocked silence of the cow and the donkey and the lamb, the joyous confusion of the breathless shepherds. We are, all for this one night, part of the Holy Family, no matter our origins. We have come to adore him, to proclaim Joy to the World, to spread the good news of great joy, like the shepherds and the angels before us.
The lowly in all of us is lifted up. Our deepest hopes are answered and prayers we didn’t even pray are fulfilled, because the Christ child himself is the answer to every prayer.
Something is born in us that is shining with light, something long awaited and vulnerable as a newborn. It is not only possible but, this night, manifest, that we will be at peace, that our struggles and longings will cease, that we will be saved from ourselves and our circumstances. We will be forgiven, loved, redeemed, lifted up. We have only to listen to the song of the angels.
The Beatle Mass on the Second Sunday in Advent
Here Comes the Son
12/8/13 The Rev. Este Gardner Cantor
Perhaps every Beatles fan thinks this, but I really feel that I was just at the perfect age when the Beatles came to America. They were a huge and healing force for us all, but for a 13 year-old loner misfit like myself, they were true salvation.
After the Beatles came, it changed all of us. We were no longer a depressed people living in a violent country, mourning, the death of our beloved president, John Kennedy. We were now transformed. We were loved, and we loved them, yeah, yeah, yeah.
For me, personally, when the Beatles came, the world went away. My brother became slightly less cruel. My father’s drinking seemed to lessen. I suddenly had a common love with the kids at school who despised me. Because ALL the kids at my school, the greasers, the hoods, the good kids, the bad kids, the nerds and the geeks and the misfits ALL loved the Beatles.
My best and only friend, Alison and I had long felt that all rock music was imbecilic. But we both agreed- the Beatles were different. The Beatles transcended rock music. In those days, my children, if you wanted to see a movie multiple times, you had to go to the theater and pay to see it. I don’t know how we found the money, but my girl friend and I went to see “A Hard Day’s Night” again and again. Things began to look up so dramatically that after a while I actually had a boyfriend. He, of course, adored the Beatles too.
For my sixteenth birthday, he took me to see the Beatles at DC Stadium in Washington DC. It was to be the second to last performance they ever did.
August 15th is always lovingly enshrined in my memory, because it is not only the Feast Day of the Heavenly Assumption of the Virgin Mary, but it was also the day I saw and heard the Beatles.
John Lennon had a life-long fascination with Jesus. When I saw the Beatles on that day in 1966, a contingent from the Prince George’s County Ku Klux Klan, dressed in robes and led by the Imperial Grand Wizard of the Maryland clan, held a parade outside the stadium to protest against John Lennon’s comments that The Beatles were more popular than Jesus.
He later desperately tried to explain that he wasn’t saying that it was GOOD that the Beatles were more popular. He said, in fact,
I’m not saying that we’re better or greater, or comparing us with Jesus Christ as a person or God as a thing or whatever it is. I just said what I said and it was wrong. Or it was taken wrong. And now it’s all this.
John was brought up in the Church of England, and the giant Anglican Cathedral in Liverpool towered over his house. Paul McCartney recalled it looming up at every window when he visited John. I am sure that the harmonies of all those hymns John sang in in the junior choir informed their songs. As a child, John attended St. Peter’s Parish Church, sang in the choir and was a member of the bible class. He belonged to the youth group, which was then 170 strong, and he was at church events four nights a week. It was at the annual Fete of St Peter’s Church, Woolton, July 6, 1957, that John first met Paul McCartney, after a performance of John’s band, The Quarrymen. They met in the same church parish hall where John had attended all those bible classes. Three months later, he asked Paul to join the band, and the rest is history.
After the Beatles became famous, and John had gotten together with Yoko Ono, he visited his Aunt Mimi, who raised him. He hadn’t seen her in a long time. John’s hair was now shoulder-length, he had a long beard, and he was dressed all in white, as he and Yoko often were. Mimi took one look at him and then said, “So what is it, John? Is it the second coming, then?”
It could be that this comment took root in his subconscious, because not long after that, according to John’s boyhood friend Pete Shotton, John urgently called a meeting of all the other Beatles and the officials of their company, Apple Corp. With Yoko at his side, he announced that he had realized that he was, in fact the second coming of Jesus Christ. He wanted to issue a public statement to that effect immediately to the press. Apple’s press officer Derek Taylor, who was also present, listened attentively but wisely ignored the plea, hoping that John would wake up the next day and realize that he was, in fact, John Lennon.
But it is not entirely clear to me if John ever stopped thinking that he was the Christ. He described himself in various ways; as a working class hero, as a loser, as someone crying for “HELP”, and he finally said, “The way things are going, they’re gonna crucify me.”
As he matured, John’s songs delved deep. He sang, “God is a concept by which we measure our pain.” Then, in case we didn’t get it, he sang, “I’ll say it again, God is a concept by which we measure our pain.” John’s life was one that was forged in pain. His father deserted him when he was three, and then popped back into his life when he was five, at which time he was asked to choose between his mother and his father. When his mother, whom he chose, began living with another man, he was sent away to his Aunt Mimi’s house to live. As a teenager he became very close to his mother again, and then when he was 18, she was hit by a car and killed as he waited for her to come home. He never entirely recovered.
Perhaps it takes someone steeped in that much pain to create a paradise to escape to, to create a heaven on earth. Or perhaps when you have felt that much pain, you gain the courage to be prophetic- you no longer fear pain yourself.
Tragically, like Jesus, like John the Baptist, his prophetic voice put him in very dangerous waters. Eventually he was killed. But as Yoko said, we hear his words still.
Produce your own dream.… Don’t expect John Lennon or Yoko Ono or Bob Dylan or Jesus Christ to come and do it for you. You have to do it yourself.
That’s what the great masters and mistresses have been saying ever since time began. They can point the way, leave signposts and little instructions in various books that are now called holy and worshipped for the cover of the book and not for what it says, but the instructions are all there for all to see… … I can’t wake you up. You can wake you up. I can’t cure you. You can cure you.”
John had much in common with the John of our Gospel reading, John the Baptist. John Lennon emerged out of the wilderness of the rough and tumble seaport town of Liverpool, and there is no doubt that in those days the people of Liverpool and then and all of England were going out to him, and being baptized by the transforming music of the Beatles.
And like John the Baptist, he urged those who followed him to repent- or in a more accurate translation, to transform.
Among the many prophetic things John ever did, and one that generated the most violent hatred, was to fall in love with and then marry Yoko Ono, a Japanese avant-guard artist. But even more astonishingly than that, he staunchly considered her to be his equal, to be on his own level of importance. He considered her work equal in value to his own. The Women’s Movement was barely flickering into existence when he wrote “Woman is the N-word of the World” and presented it to a shocked fan base.
In the end he was killed by a fan. And oddly enough, it seems that John the Baptist was killed by a fan as well. Apparently, King Herod went out to hear John, like the rest of the adoring throngs. In the Book of Mark we read that Herod was perplexed by what John said, and yet, we read, he liked to listen to him. Many were perplexed by John Lennon. Many were transported, and many were transformed.
I sometimes think that I experienced something like a baptism the first time I heard the Beatles- maybe even a baptism of fire. My old life was definitely dead to me- I was born again as a Beatle fan, washed clean of my previous life of misery.
Maybe this is true of many of us. Why was John’s music so transporting, so redeeming? Were our sins forgiven? Was our chaff burned away? Did we die in baptism and rise again with him? Something transforming occurred.
One of our parishioners here said that the years from 1963-72 were so awful, with the assassinations, the war and the brutal racism, that we desperately needed the music we were gifted with.
Thank God it was given to us. And as for the Beatles, they were a pure shot of God’s grace. Thank God that when we really needed them, they wanted to hold our hands. And thank God that somehow, it seems, they still do.
On All My Holy Mountain
The Rev. Este Gardner Cantor
Church of the Good Shepherd, Berkeley, 11/24/13
• Jeremiah 23:1-6 and Psalm 46 •
• Colossians 1:11-20 •
• Luke 23:33-43
Given Good Shepherd’s preference for non-hierarchical and gender-inclusive language for God, it seems ironic that what we celebrate on this last day of the church year, the Sunday before Advent, is “Christ the King”. And actually, this Sunday always seems ironic to me, given what I read as Jesus’ radical anti-hierarchical teachings. I think he meant what he said: “the first shall be last,” “the meek shall inherit the earth,” and even, “call no man ‘father’ on this earth.”
But, there is a way in which our Gospel reading is very appropriate for this Sunday. Because just this last week, was the Transgender Day of Remembrance, where all the transgender victims of hate crimes are honored. And so it is sadly appropriate that today’s Gospel reading is about the crucifixion.
It is no coincidence that of the many transgender people honored at the Day of Remembrance, the vast majority of these crucified peoples are people of color. Those who are transgender AND people of color are twice targeted. The numbers of people who died are staggering. Last year 238 transgender people were murdered worldwide last year, and this number does not include suicide.
The very recent example of the attack on Sasha Fleischman (the Oakland teen who was set on fire on an AC Transit bus) is a very different kind of tragedy in some ways, but in some ways it is very much the same. It must be noted that, first of all, Sasha survived the attack, which is a great blessing, and second of all, unlike so many of the transgender tragedies, Sasha is white and from an affluent family. But the reason for the attack, sadly, was just the same. Fear, ignorance, literally blind rage at the unknown and therefore despised.
And in the case of Sasha Fleischman, there is another tragedy that took place simultaneously. The other side of this tragedy is the child who set the fire. Unlike the medieval picture of a burning at the stake, it was not a figure of authority, not a power or principality, who set the flame. The attacker was, as Jesus would say, among the least of these my brethren.
The theologian Walter Wink teaches us much about Powers and Principalities, and the evil they can create, as well as the good. He writes that every institution has it’s own spirituality, it’s own personality. People in the system act from this corporate spirituality, for good or for evil.
He uses as an example, the South in the 60’s when racial discrimination was supported by Jim Crow laws, by state and local police, and by extra-legal acts of terrorism. These things were supported, passively or actively, by the vast majority of white citizens. Our passivity, our lack of action implicates us all in the holocaust that transgender people have suffered.
Wink writes that we have repeatedly been shown that people who fight domination with violence become as evil as those they oppose. We have to find the third way; the way Jesus talked about- the way around the “myth of redemptive violence.”
But as I recently read, we are all ready to plunge right into redemptive violence, meted out on the person of a 16 year old child of color, Richard Thomas, who was formally charged in the attack on Sasha Fleischman. Richard is to be tried as an adult for a hate crime, aggravated mayhem and felony assault. God only knows how long he will be in prison.
Richard Thomas goes to Oakland High, a school in the deeply distressed area of East Oakland. I know very little about him aside from what his actions and his situation would suggest. He is an African American child in a society and a location where being a young African American male defines you as an endangered species. At the court hearings he was accompanied by his mother and grandmother, no father figure was in appearance. I couldn’t help but wonder if he gone to the spectacular private school that Sasha Fleishman attended (I know because my daughter went there) whether he would have committed such a crime. If he were not in a culture permeated by violence and fear, if he had been educated about the realities and beauty of gender diversity…
In our Reading from Colossians we hear that Christ
… is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything.
And yet if we are to believe what Jesus said about the first being last, we have to believe that Christ is in Richard Thomas, as Christ is in all of the dispossessed, the marginalized, the outcasts, the crucified, the children.
Jesus was deeply influenced by the vision of non-violence painted in his beloved scripture, in the Book of Isaiah, where even in the animal food chain, domination was turned on its head:
The wolf shall live with the lamb, and the leopard shall
lie down with the kid
The calf and the lion and the fatling together
And a little child shall lead them.
…They will not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain…
Walter Wink went to South Africa in 1987, and witnessed the horrors of Apartheid first hand. But he also witnessed what he described as “perhaps the largest grass roots eruption of diverse non-violent strategies in a single struggle in human history.”
He wrote a small book entitled, Violence and Non-violence in South Africa, and with the help of several American churches, he mailed 3,200 copies to black and white clergy in South Africa. Reading between the lines of his great book, The Powers that Be, this mailing seems to have been the well-planted seed that later generated the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa. This movement brought healing and closure to many victims of atrocities. And it was utterly non-violent.
When I attended the Forum on Gun Violence at St. Paul’s Church in Oakland, I heard of a program in the schools that addresses the atrocities happening weekly in Oakland in a thoughtful non-violent way. It is called Restorative Justice, and it has much in common with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Victims or the families of victims and perpetrators are brought together face to face. The perpetrators are faced with their actions in a way no other circumstance could offer, and the victims or families are able to tell their feelings to the attackers. And all non-violently.
This would be my vision of the Holy Mountain; that Sasha and Richard could meet and reconcile. That together they could educate Oakland youth about the beauties of gender diversity. That they could both became free of violence, free of fear.
In our Gospel reading, Jesus finds himself a victim of institutionalized violence. He finds himself in the place of the utterly despised, the desperate, the criminal. Crucified between two thieves, he still manages to live out the last minutes of his life suffused with love, suffused with forgiveness. What is the paradise he offers to his fellow sufferer?
Perhaps it is the Holy Mountain. Perhaps it is a land of harmony and grace where there is no earthly violence, where all the children of God, made in God’s image, male or female, male AND female, will live together, and “They shall not hurt nor destroy in all that holy mountain.”
The Blessed Francis
Good Shepherd, Berkeley, October 7, 2013
• Habakkuk 1:1-4; 2:1-4 and Psalm 37:1-9 •
• 2 Timothy 1:1-14 •
• Luke 17:5-10
The Rev. Este Gardner Cantor
Before I saw the readings for today, I was looking forward to writing a happy little sermon about that lovable saint, Francis of Assisi. I really did not want to preach about violence, about the law that becomes slack and the justice that never prevails. But then I saw the readings, and given what is happening in our nation and our neighborhood, I saw no other option. I felt like Habakkuk’s oracle, crying out to God,
Why do you make me see wrongdoing and look at trouble? Destruction and violence are before me; strife and contention rise.
Although it can be all too easy to go back to normal after a trauma has occurred, these readings bring home to me the suffering and the violence that we have witnessed in this very neighborhood in the past year. On February 4, a little over a month after the Sandy Hook disaster, Zontee Jones, a 34 year old maintenance man, was fatally shot at 10th and Delaware, literally around the corner from our parish hall where we were happily chatting and making sandwiches. We did a short liturgy for him a week later, and also read all the names of the Sandy Hook children and teachers. We wrote letters to our representatives and had area ministry meetings about what we could do to fight gun violence. But we didn’t really do much else. On August 1, Dustin Bynum , 24 years old, was fatally shot across the street from the first killing, in front of Bing’s Liquors. He was a Berkeley boy, attending Jefferson Elementary, MLK Jr. Middle School and Berkeley High. The whole neighborhood was in shock.
So we had a huge neighborhood meeting here at Good Shepherd. Councilwoman Linda Maio brought 4 police officers and they all seemed to be at a loss for a solution, as everyone did. It seemed there was nothing we could do. I had attended a Friday night Oakland Ceasefire walk a few months before this. The joyousness of the walk astonished me, as did the feeling of safety, as 70 people of diverse cultures and faiths walked and talked together through some very scary places. Lots of pit bulls. I planned to go once a month, but I never made it back. Then, at our neighborhood meeting, I suggested that we do a Berkeley Ceasefire walk against violence in our own neighborhood, and there was a lot of nodding of heads. It was at least something that we could do. After a while, I got busy, I lost courage, and I kind of forgot about it. But then the third murder happened, at 10th and Camila. His cousin, who I later met, described the victim, Anthony Madearis, another boy from Berkeley High, a 22 year-old father of three, as the shining star of his family.
I then woke from my stupor. I got in touch with (BOCA) Berkeley Congregations Organizing for Action, and I asked them to help me organize an Oakland Ceasefire type of walk. They were happy to spread the word.
I went to the diocesan forum of gun violence at St. Paul’s to promote our Oct 3rd Walk against violence, and I heard more and more horror stories. I met Loraine Taylor who founded 1000 Mother’s Against Violence. She had lost her 22-year-old twin sons- BOTH of them to gun violence in East Oakland. After a long period of depression she found she could do nothing but work against gun violence, and provide comfort to the mothers of the victims. The most striking speaker was 16-year-old Precious Brazil. This young woman had just lost her best friend, Olajuwon Clayborn , an honor roll student and an athlete. He was a really good kid, she said. Just wanted to do good in school and help his friends. She could not remember how many funerals she had been to since she had been at East Oakland’s Castlemont High. She said among other things that now a lot of girls are starting to carry guns, out of fear, and out of a desire to outgun the boys. We heard about one woman who was just leaving the Oakland Whole Foods after a shopping trip. A bullet hit her and nobody ever figured out where it came from. Bullets were literally flying from everywhere. We heard about the most tragic of realities: an eight-year-old child, Alaysha Carradine, who was killed as a gang retaliation for the South Berkeley killing this year.
Finally, with a ray of hope, we heard Representatives of Restorative Justice, a program based on the Truth and Reconciliation program used in South Africa, where victims and perpetrators actually talk to each other. The perpetrators learn to take responsibility from hearing directly from the victims’ families, and both sides learn to talk to each other, to talk about their feelings, find out how to communicate, find out how to forgive. This what they are trying to teach in East Oakland schools.
I was kindly given a moment to urge people to join us on October 3rd at Good Shepherd for our Berkeley Ceasefire Walk. I thought about the vastness of the problem in Oakland, and I hoped they could even hear me, talking about the third death in our neighborhood.
So, on Oct. 3rd, last Thursday night I stood in our parish hall at about 6:30 with Antony Burrill, the office manager for BOCA (Berkeley Organizing Congregations for Action) waiting for people to show for our walk. We counted 25 people.
“Not bad!” He said, “You never know how many people are going to show up for these things.” We began a half-hour orientation and by the end of it we saw that people had filled the parish hall to such an extent that latecomers had to wait outside for the walk to begin. Fourteen different congregations were represented- Jewish, Catholic, Lutheran, Baptist, Evangelical and, even five Episcopal churches! Also of course, many neighbors and others from the Atheist faith. The League of Women Voters, 1000 Mothers Against Violence, Linda Maio and Daryl Moore from Berkeley City Council, and the Berkeley Rotary Club all showed up too! There were 200 people, not including those outside.
It seemed that our faith, which was certainly no larger than a mustard seed, had given us something. It had given us the ability to, as Habakkuk did, stand at a watch post, and to keep watch together on those streets. We were able, together to be a witness, even if “ the law becomes slack and justice never prevails” where we desperately need it.
We walked our streets together, stopping at the scene of each murder for a moment of prayer. Finally, we stopped at the scene of the third murder, that of Anthony Medairis. It seemed that his family had heard about the walk, and there they were, wearing pictures of their shining star on their chests. Rabbi Menachem Creditor was leading this prayer, and we were both speechless at the wall of grief we had before us. He so rightly said there was nothing we could say to ease their pain. But we could tell them that there were 200 people here to honor Anthony with them. They prayed with us and then joined the march, all the way back to Good Shepherd.
It may seem that nothing will increase our faith, but we act anyway. We act for those who are too paralyzed with grief to act for themselves, to weak with mourning to do much. And perhaps here is where I can bring in the Blessed St. Francis after all.
We have an epidemic on our hands of a disease that resists attempts to cure, that spreads to and kills the innocent, that tragically targets the young.
And although Francis is popularly known for preaching to birds and bunnies, what Francis was actually about was embracing and trying to heal those most grievously diseased- those most marginalized in society, those who most suffered. Francis would wash their wounds, would sit with them, would eat with them, clothe them and love them. I think we need to find a way to do this for the sufferers of our own modern epidemic. Walking and witnessing with them might be a good start. It just might be a way to begin to bind their wounds and ours as well.
The Potter’s House
Good Shepherd, Berkeley 9/8/13
• Jeremiah 18:1-11 and Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18 •
• Philemon 1:1-1:21 •
• Luke 14:25-33
• The Rev. Este Gardner Cantor
In reading Jesus’ daunting declaration in our Gospel today, I have to ask myself: just what is the transformation asked of us? What shape is the mashed up clay supposed to take in the potter’s hands?
“Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.” –Mt 23:9
What is demanded here? A desertion of what makes us human? A renouncing of the strongest love we are likely to feel? Even the love for one’s own child?
Commentaries often chalk these kinds of passages up to what is known as “rabbinical hyperbole” – in other words, Jesus didn’t really mean it! But I think that seems too easy.
Because contrary to what you might hear in certain sectors, Jesus was not, above all, a family values kind of guy. He in fact had no wife or children, and his relationship with his family was famously problematic. For example, nowhere in the Gospels does he ever say a single word about his father Joseph. He does however command the disciples to:
Call no one your father on earth, for you have one father, the one in heaven. – Mt 23:9
In the Gospel of Luke, an ecstatic follower says these words to Jesus after he casts out a demon:
Blessed is the womb that bore you and blessed are the breasts that nursed you!-Lk 11:27
Jesus’ reply to this lovely benediction to his mother’s not insubstantial role in his life was,
Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it! – Lk 11:28
In the Gospel of Matthew, someone in the crowd says to him,
Look, your mother and your brothers are outside wanting to speak to you.
But Jesus only replies,
‘Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?’ Pointing to his disciples he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers. For whoever does the will of my father in heaven is my mother and my sister and my brother.” Mt 12:46-50
Jesus did not share the exclusivity and tribal instinct of his people, or for that matter, people all through the ages. He was after something truly revolutionary, truly unheard of: love equal to that you share with your nearest and dearest for those outside your family, outside your tribe. He modeled this in many instances, shocking his disciples to the core. Jesus shared water with a woman from the despised tribe of the Samaritans. He told the story of the Good Samaritan, understanding that this phrase would be heard as a contradiction in terms. He was compassionate toward Gentiles, healing the servant of the Centurion and the daughter of the Syrophoenician woman, even as he acknowledged that she was not of his tribe.
Jesus was radically anti-tribal in a brutally tribal society.
Is this the transformation Jesus asks of us? Is this the way the clay is to be utterly reformed on the potter’s wheel? As if this wasn’t enough, Jesus casually mentions at the end of the gospel, “Oh, and another thing: none of you can be my disciples unless you give up your possessions.” But who are we without our exclusively precious love for our family, who are we without our essential and precious possessions?
We here at Good Shepherd have had a taste of this poverty, and an experience of this kind of loss. This parish hall, a worship space that is decidedly not of our tribe, has become as dear to us as the hallowed landmark we lost. Our beloved church was taken from us, and although we pray it will be restored to us, it will inevitably be transformed, even as we have been. We discovered what it is to worship in poverty, in loss, in faith. And we found out that all the people living around our church, of so many different tribes and cultures, cared about our church in ways we couldn’t have imagined.
In my wanderings I have heard amazing things from them. Giovanni, who always comes to our free Friday lunches said he needed to talk to me- it was important. He said that he noticed that we cut down a large limb from the Giant Sequoia that graces our churchyard. He asked me what we are going to do with it.
I don’t know, I said, I’m not sure yet. He became adamant.
“Listen,” he said. “All through your churches’ history the people of the church, for more than a century have walked around this tree, breathing out carbon molecules and nourishing it. Part of those people are in this tree now- all those people through the ages, they are in the tree, and they are in the branch you cut- you have to build something for the church out of that branch!” I thought of M.R. Ritley and of Susan Finch Hicks, of Jim McInerney and all those who had gone before. I was stunned to think of this huge memorial to them, and I told him I would be thinking about this for a long time.
Last Sunday, after our deacon Ellen’s sermon about inviting the unlikely, I approached a group of young men standing outside their house on Delaware Street. I was wearing my collar and as I began to speak to them they practically jumped out of their skins with surprise. “Hi! I am the pastor from the church right over there at 9th and Dwight. You know, the one that burned. We have services every Sunday at 11:00, come and join us sometime.” Two of the young men, sprouting piercings and attitude to spare, silently turned their backs to me and looked deliberately in the other direction. But one of them began to speak to me. For all his tattoos and pierces he looked to be about 18. “We don’t go to church, he said. But we DO believe in God. He put a tattooed hand to his chest and said, “We believe that God is here, in our hearts.” Once I regained my composure, I said that I believe that too. Well, I said, it is really cool that you believe in God. A young woman with a child came out of the house and they all stared to go inside. “Nice to meet you,” I said..
In the past two days, two very marginalized, very distressed people have walked into this church building for pastoral care. They walked in here because they feel our welcome, and they know they will not be turned away, whatever their situation, whatever their tribe. A homeless gentleman who had just come out of the hospital was devastated, not so much because of his injury, but because of the fact that it was someone in his family who hurt him. He knew he could come in here and sit and cry and get a glass of water and a hug and some groceries. Yesterday a woman I knew of but had never met finally walked though our doors. I knew her only by her lengthy answering machine messages, which she has left us frequently. I heard her voice and recognized it right away, and to her surprise, I greeted her by name. “I want to see the pastor,” she said. Then, when she found out that was me she said- “I am a lesbian- is that Ok with you?” Yes, I said.
That’s fine. “I saw the rainbow flag before,” she said, “so I figured… “
We had quite an intense talk, and then she gave me a knuckle bump and said she was glad to meet me. I invited her to church and she said,
“I can’t come to church, I am an atheist. But I believe in people.” “That’s who you will find here on Sunday,” I said, “people.” She smiled.
“I like your church and I’m really sorry it burned,” she said.
What is the transforming process we are called to? Will we be able to continue to transform into a church that is ever less tribal, ever more accepting of the stranger, the other, the outcast? Will we be able to welcome more children from the neighborhood? Will more day laborers join us for worship? Will our new church really be a house of prayer for all people?
Jesus makes it clear that transformation is not easy. He asks us to take stock before we attempt the challenging way of the cross. Check out our foundations- see how much of an inner militia we can muster. But we here, in this place have a lot of history and a lot of grace behind us.
I hope and pray that our trajectory will continue; that we will honor our roots of radical inclusion and social justice. That we will continue to give the community a spiritual home, and fill the needs of many. And I can’t wait to see the newly formed vessel, refined with fire in the hands of God.
The Better Part
Good Shepherd, Berkeley 7/21/13
Amos 8:1-12 and Psalm 52 • Colossians 1:15-28 • Luke 10:38-42
The Rev. Este Gardner Cantor
In the mysterious realm of Old Testament scripture, it is possible to go from the lovely and fragrant offering of a basket of summer fruit, to the wailings of the damned and the casting out of dead bodies in the twinkling of an eye. How can this be?
It seems to us, and even to the prophet Amos, apparently, like the beginning of a happy, or at the very least very appetizing story. But it turns out that the basket of summer fruit is meant to symbolize Israel, as the first fruit, the first born of the Lord our God. In the Book of Exodus, along with many other commandments, there is the following: “The choicest of the first fruits of your ground you shall bring into the house of the Lord your God.” The fruit was brought into the temple, and no one but the Levitical priests were granted the right to consume them.
But it seems that many who are not so authorized have been consuming Israel, the first-born of God. Continually guilty of this sacrilege were those who trample on the needy, those who bring ruin to the poor of the land. They have no patience to observe the Holy time of the new moon, the sanctity of the Sabbath, before they resume their customary occupation robbing and cheating the poor.
We hear God tell Amos of the day when God will make the sun go down at noon, and darken the earth in broad daylight. We hear him compare this disaster to the mourning for an only son. This might well conjure up for us the day of the crucifixion, the most grievous injustice imaginable.
But at the end of the passage, the Lord God threatens a reality that is shown to be the most devastating of all the horrors described. A famine. But a famine not of bread, or of water; a famine of hearing the word of the Lord. A famine, we might say, of the Bread of Life.
Well, in a sermon only a few weeks ago, I was jubilant about the advances for social justice and equality that had just begun to dawn. But our cheers had barely begun to fade when a whole raft of new legislative injustices rolled our way, almost as if the legers had to be balanced toward the dark side.
These new horrors attack the poor, the young, disenfranchised and, of course, women.
Everyone has heard about the miscarriage of justice in the case of Trayvon Martin. It seems that he was tribally at risk in this society, being young, black, and male. The most succinct analysis I saw was a headline in Al Jazeera English: “In the Trial of Trayvon Martin, the US is found Guilty.”
And even as we rejoiced at the decisions about prop 8 and DOMA, a vital section in the voting rights act was struck down by the Supreme Court.
The Court cut out the heart of the of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, freeing nine mostly Southern states, to change their election laws however they might wish, without federal approval.
The current system, Chief Justice Roberts wrote, is “based on 40-year-old facts having no logical relationship to the present day.” Of course they don’t. Because there is no racism in our country today- and certainly not in the South!
In a further victory in the War on the Poor, last week the House of Representatives passed the Farm Bill, and in an unprecedented act, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (or SNAP), formerly known as food stamps, was entirely struck out, stranding the millions of families who depend of it. Republican leaders said the revised bill merely strips out “extraneous” provisions that would prevent the bill from passing.
But the 47 million people who are on SNAP are not extraneous. They are important. They are part of our community. They are our brothers and out sisters. Our own California Democrat Barbara Lee called this a “new low” for the House of Representatives.
In other news, in our continuing war on the young, Federal Stafford subsidized student loans rates were recently doubled, making it even more impossible for the less than wealthy to get a decent education- particularly considering skyrocketing tuition costs. Curious about what this will actually mean for the US government (I know what it will mean for students) I found that the projected profit from these loans for the US government in 2013 is a staggering 51 billion dollars! Exxon’s projected profit is only 44 billion! This I find astonishing. The government is milking its young like a heard of cows. We used to do just the opposite, at least here in California. We used to offer free tuition, so that everyone, regardless of economic status, could get a good education, for the good of the students, for the good of the people, and for the good of the country! Those days are apparently long gone.
Well, finally we come to the latest salvo in the War on Women. The House GOP just passed the most radical federal anti-choice bill we’ve seen in a decade- legislation could set us back to the sixties in terms of women’s reproductive rights.
And even though it is unlikely that the bill will see the light of day given the Democratic-controlled Senate and White House, it has rekindled the war on choice and the War on Women. Since anyone with enough money can always get an abortion, this is really a war on poor women.
All of these things all sound to me like that trampling of the needy, and bringing to ruin the poor of the land that Amos rails against. Like buying the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals, and selling them the sweepings of the wheat.
It could be that the authors of all these travesties are suffering from a famine- Amos’s promised famine of the word of God. The word that speaks of compassion, mercy, grace, generosity and the constantly offered commandment to care for the poor and marginalized.
It is, of course, most frustrating when these victims of drought proclaim themselves to be thoroughly Christian, which, unfortunately, is often the case.
ow, let me pause in my Old Testament-style ravings, to consider Jesus of Nazareth. In our reading from Luke today, we see a portrait more compassionate than mine of one who suffers from a drought of the word of God. Martha, like many of us, just wants to get things done, and get them done her way. She sees her sister as somewhat misled, perhaps lazy, and simply wants Jesus to set her straight.
Both Martha and Mary are in the presence if Jesus. This would seem an unimaginable privilege to most of us. But Martha, like so many of us, is “distracted by her many tasks”, all of which seem so much more important than what Mary is doing. Even as the voice of Jesus sounds in her ears, she is distracted and worried and determined that Mary should be so too.
Mary, living in the radical patriarchy of first century Judaism, is studying at the feet of Jesus, shockingly oblivious to tradition, with Jesus’ blessing. She has lived all her life with a poverty of the word, with no opportunity to be with a teacher, any teacher, let alone the master of masters. But now she has won the role of the disciple and she has, as Jesus says, taken the better part.
Martha wants her to leave this holy place at the feet of Jesus, and join her in the place a woman should rightfully hold- slaving in the kitchen! Like Martha, so many of us feel that we know. We feel that the word of God is just too difficult to hear, and so we surge forth with our many tasks. We surge forth, missing the sound of Jesus’ voice, gently urging us to drop our myriad chores, to sit at his feet, to stop trying to disrupt the bliss of our sisters or brothers, and listen to the word of God, the sound we were created to hear.