God is not a Helicopter Parent

Preached from the Pulpit of Good Shepherd Berkeley by Bill Countryman, August 10, 2014

Proper 14A: Genesis37:1-4, 12-28; Psalm 105:<1-22>; Romans 10:5-15; Matthew 14:22-33

Of all the disciples, Peter is the most daring. He’s also the one who fails over and over again. In this morning’s gospel reading, he certainly holds true to type. But the thing I’ve always found particularly surprising in this story is that Peter’s failure doesn’t come at the beginning of it, but in the middle. He steps out of the boat: crazy, impulsive thing to do. He’s actually walking on the water. (Yes, that is an impossibility for human beings, large and heavy as we are. You can either accept it as a miracle here or you can take the whole story as a kind of parable. The point, I think, will be pretty much the same, either way.)

But notice how the story unfolds: The disciples are really scared when they see Jesus because they think they’re seeing a ghost or a phantom of some kind. Jesus says to them, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” But Peter wants more: “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.”

Now, think about that for a moment. What’s the point of that? If Peter wasn’t sure that the phantom (or whatever this is) was telling him the truth the first time—in claiming to be Jesus—why would it tell him the truth now? But Peter, of course—Peter isn’t really the type to think things through first. He just gets out of the boat and finds himself . . . walking on the water!
And that’s when the real trouble starts. Having mastered his first few steps, he finds himself free to look around and he realizes, once again, that he’s in the middle of a big storm. This isn’t like walking on dry land—well, maybe dry land in the middle of a really big earthquake. But, no, the winds here are pushing and pulling at him and whipping up the waves. Everything is in motion. Where does he put his foot next? And you know what happens: he panics and starts to sink. Jesus grabs him and gets him back into the ship—the kind of thing he does more than once for Peter, in different ways, in the gospel narratives.

So this is a story about how good we human beings are at losing faith. We even do it just when things are going well, just when God is closest to us, just when you’d think we’d be feeling new strength and confidence. But there we are, all of a sudden, feeling as if the bottom has dropped out and we have no idea where we are or what we’re doing.

It’s also a story about how God deals with us in such moments. God doesn’t keep us out of trouble. But God doesn’t abandon us, either.
We know, of course, that experiences like this aren’t entirely bad for us—unpleasant, for sure, but an essential part of human life. We may wish, at times, that God would be a bit more protective—maybe keep us from geting ourselves into scary situations or, at least, yank us out before we’re about to drown. But the other side to that is that then we’d never have the freedom we need to make our own mistakes and have our own uncertainties. God has decided, it seems, not to be a helicopter parent, always hovering around us. And that’s actually something to be thankful for when you think about it.

Human life is, in large part, a process of trial and error. Sometimes we fail quite badly. Sometimes we may even do harm to ourselves or others by our failures. But how else does a person become human? What sort of world would this be if you had to get everything right the first time—not to mention every time thereafter? What would God be like if God expected that? What does it do to us when we demand that of ourselves? Mostly, I think, it just ties us in knots—knots of anxiety and indecision before the fact, knots of regret and self-recrimination afterward.

But God is not a helicopter parent. God, in fact, isn’t a micromanager of any sort. The ancestral (patriarchal) stories that we’ve been reading lately from Genesis show us the same thing time after time. God prompts Abram to move from Haran to the Promised Land. But Abram quickly finds that he’s more or less on his own once he gets there—and that God isn’t even very quick to fulfill the promises made to him. Isaac finds himself mistakenly giving the blessing to the wrong twin. Jacob. And Jacob, having got the blessing—at the price of alienating most of his family—actually meets God at Bethel on his way into exile, but still finds he has to manage his crafty uncle (and prospective father-in-law) pretty much on his own.

And, today, we come down to the case of Joseph. Joseph is his father’s pet. He gets all kinds of special treatment, not least that famous coat of many colors (in the old translations) or long sleeves (in the newer ones). What’s more, he’s a bit snotty about it all. He has dreams that predict his own superiority and he can’t resist telling everybody. (If you’re wondering how you missed that bit this morning, don’t worry. It’s not Alzheimer’s. It was left out to keep the length of the lesson down.)
At any rate, the young Joseph didn’t have much social sense. He even ratted on some of his brothers at one point. It’s hardly surprising that the brothers didn’t like him. Still, the idea of murdering him was completely beyond the pale. And, even in that day and age, selling your kid brother into slavery in a foreign country wasn’t really considered appropriate behavior. But Joseph did help bring it on himself.

God didn’t abandon him. But God wasn’t in a hurry to bail him out, either. It’s a long story, actually, almost a short novel, and completely absorbing—adventurous, full of danger and unexpected reversals. And it’s psychologically astute and fascinating. If you haven’t read it in a while, it’s worth going back to just for the pleasure of a good read.
But God doesn’t micromanage. Joseph has to learn from experience how to become a wise and honorable adult—a lesson that he’ll eventually have to apply in relation to his brothers when they come calling years later. It doesn’t mean that God abandoned him. It means that God was prepared to let our complex and difficult world do its work and let Joseph grow up in the authentically human way of trial and error.

Many of us, like Joseph, have probably experienced God nudging us from time to time. And I’ve heard more than one person around here over the years talk about God’s propensity for playing jokes—jokes that aren’t always very welcome at the time. In this story of Joseph, God, with consummate irony, even uses the brothers’ crime of selling him into slavery as the means, much later on, to save the whole family from starvation.
God may not be a micromanager. But God is still very much engaged.

God cared deeply about Joseph and Peter both—just as God cares deeply about each of us. And I trust that God never, in fact, abandons us even though we probably all have times that feel that way. But God definitely leaves us space to grow in the only way that human beings really can: trying things out, making our own mistakes, failing, grabbing hold of the nearest hand (which sometime turns out to be God’s hand), trying again. And if, at times, we might find a more intrusive God useful, I suspect that, on the whole, the one we have is actually better: a God who loves each one of us, warts and all, and is giving us space and time to become the even more beautiful person we have it in us (by God’s gift) to become. Maybe after we’ve come through at least a few scary passages.

The Rev. Bill Countryman

The Rev. Bill Countryman

Stone Soup…

Preached from the pulpit of Good Shepherd Church on August 3, 2014, by The Reverend Ellen L. Ekstrom:

8th Sunday After Pentecost, Year A
Proper 13
Matthew 14:18-21

Do you remember the folk tale, Stone Soup?
A stranger enters a village on a cold winter’s night with a pot slung over his back; at that time of day, the place is deserted. He sets up a fire in the market square, finds a nice, smooth pebble in the snow and drops it into the pot, throws in handfuls of snow for water, stirs a couple of times, and . . . . nothing! Nothing but a bit of water and a pebble!

An old woman watches him from her window, as do most of the villagers, peering out from behind shutters and curtains, and while he stirs the water, he wishes aloud that he had a turnip to improve the flavor of the broth. The old woman she thinks she has a turnip past its expiration date somewhere in the vegetable bin, and there it is. She comes out, tosses it in the pot. He thanks her, adding that the perfect thing to compliment a stone and turnip would be a carrot, a few more vegetables. Miraculously, the old woman just happens to have a soft onion somewhere – the skin needed to be peeled back and the bad parts cut off, but it would do, wouldn’t it? And the carrots – well, her old pony won’t mind giving them up, there’d be more tomorrow. The onion is soon joined by a bit of meat from the butcher, a potato from the blacksmith, and some chicken bones for flavor – the ones you save to make stock with. Those came from the dressmaker. Neighbors come by when the good smell of broth simmering drifts through the village; they dig around in their kitchens and drop something they just happen to find in a cupboard or in a bag or barrel, until everyone gathers around to enjoy a wonderful, hearty, meal – all from a pebble and some water.

Somewhere in the story, did you hear Jesus whispering, “You give them something to eat?”

I used this folk tale because the characters and the plot reminded me of this morning’s Gospel. Perhaps the story itself was inspired by the miracle of the loaves and fishes; it’s an example of how God works by faith and action. The Gospel acts out some of the parables of hearing, seeking and growing we’ve shared over the last weeks – the loaves and fishes are like a mustard seed – a little goes a long way; they’re like leaven hidden in the loaf, the way the food increases in number; the Disciples fail to recognize the food hiding almost secretly in the midst of the crowd, maybe like that treasure in the field.

The stranger gets people to act by invitation and necessity. So did Jesus. He acts out of compassion and asks the Disciples to do the same. The crowds need not go away, Jesus says; the Disciples have food — they will share their supper with the crowds. When they opened up their lunch boxes and found five loaves of bread and two fish, instead of the great ‘Aha!’ moment it was the great, “Uh-oh.” They’d need more than that to feed over five thousand people. Maybe they scratched their heads and looked at each other – you know, that look when everyone in the conversation hopes someone else has the answer? One can only imagine what Peter was thinking – or saying.

Let’s give a back story to this scripture before we move on. This event follows the death of John the Baptist at Herod’s birthday feast – a bit different than the feast described here in Chapter 14. Jesus has spent the day preaching – perhaps one of the longest sermons ever offered, and, he’s been healing all those people. When he learns of John the Baptist’s death, he goes off by himself – and the crowds follow; they just won’t go home. Matthew’s text doesn’t state that the crowd was hungry and wanted something to eat, but it does say that the disciples wanted the people to go away and find their supper elsewhere. Here we have one of those moments when being disciples of Christ, of being members of the Body, seems utterly impossible or hopeless, and we look to the pragmatic, the logical, what’s in front of our noses for answers.

So Jesus tells the disciples not only what they do not want to hear, but what they cannot fathom:
“They need not go away; you give them something to eat.”

Rather than argue the point further, the disciples give Jesus the loaves and fishes. Jesus looked to heaven and took the bread, blessed it, broke it, and gave it to his disciples, who in turn gave the bread and the fish to the crowds.

There was plenty to eat, everyone was fed, and there were leftovers.

This miraculous feeding is repeated in all of the gospels and that fact is evidence of the importance of this story to the early Christians as it should be to Christians now: it is the foretaste of the Last Supper and gives us elements of the Eucharist in the orderly arrangement of people, the prayer of blessing, the act of breaking bread and the distribution of the bread to all assembled. It is a call to community.

The Table has become more than just an outward and visible sign of Christ’s compassion. Fed at Christ’s Table, we the faithful work and serve in a world where sharing our resources, our ministries is one way to express our willingness to believe, to take chances against the norm and live and proclaim the Gospel.

What we should note here is not only the miraculous feeding of the five thousand, but the call to action and mission.

Jesus sent The Twelve out with authority to teach, preach, heal, to serve, and we see it at work as they distribute the bread and the fish. They are models for us as they follow the instructions Jesus gives – no matter how impossible it may seem. Perhaps the miracle is that when we trust in the love of God through Christ, completely give ourselves over to that love, we can make things that seem impossible very real in our lives and the lives of those we touch.

A stranger comes to town and invites the people to share a soup they make together – from very little comes an abundance of food and love. The disciples’ five loaves and two fish seem to be lacking in quantity, yet over five thousand people had their fill. No one was turned away. There is enough of God’s love to go around.

And now, my friends, I invite you to join me at the Table and you will have something to eat.
It is only a little bit of bread and wine, but it is so much more.

Our Goodness or God’s?


Preached from the Pulpit of Good Shepherd Church, July 13, 2014, by The Rev. Dr. L. William Countryman:

In the Parable of the Sower, Jesus was, in a way, just pointing out the obvious about his ministry. Some people “got” what he was talking about and some people didn’t. And why didn’t they? In some cases, they didn’t really understand it—couldn’t quite see what it had to do with their own lives. In other cases, they got quite excited when they first heard it, but the excitement was just a thing of the moment. In yet others, their attention was tugged away by the necessities of daily life—or maybe, beyond the necessities themselves, the struggle for prestige, wealth, security, certainty. Only in certain cases—maybe not all that many—did Jesus’ good news really take hold of people and give them new hope, the kind of hope that blossoms into a whole new kind of life. And those people, as Matthew has it, became like plants that “brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty.”

Yes, most of the people in those big crowds that came out to hear the hot new rabbi from Galilee went away shaking their heads and lost interest as the initial public excitement faded. And then there were the others, the ones who kept listening and mulling things over and letting the teaching work on them and change them.

So what is this all about? Is this a matter of separating good people from bad? sheep from goats? Is Jesus condemning the people who didn’t get it? It doesn’t really look that way when we read it carefully. In some cases, Jesus says, “the evil one” was at fault, snatching the seed away before it could take root. In others, he blames the shallowness of people’s environment: it dried out too fast, didn’t give them a chance. In still others, it’s the weeds of worldly cares and temptations that choke the seedlings. To tell the truth, he doesn’t even give much credit to the people who do get it. Their seeds just happened to land in the good soil.
What’s going on here? Aren’t parables (or, for that matter, sermons) supposed to be moral pep talks? We expect them to tell us that we need to try harder. The bonus from that (and it has to have some bonus or we’d have given up on the process long ago) is that if we do manage a bit better, we can then feel good about ourselves for how well we’ve done. You can almost imagine the first disciples, on hearing this parable, turning to one another with a humble smile to acknowledge how good they all were. They must surely be the productive grain Jesus was speaking of.

But, then again, maybe not. The earliest Christians, in fact, had a strong sense that their faith in God owed very little to their own efforts. Think of St.Paul’s conversion. He certainly didn’t deserve any credit for that, did he? No, he got knocked off his feet (or, if you prefer the more dramatic version of the mannerist painters, his horse). (I do worry about that, though. If he was on a horse, how many other injuries did he sustain besides blindness?) In any case, he was as uncooperative as he could be. His conversion was something God did to him, not something he did for God.
That’s why he could write in Romans, “The law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death.” (8:2) We’re not just trying harder, he says; we’ve actually been turned into something new. Thanks to the gift of God’s Spirit, we’re living a different life with a different kind of energy.
Those early Christians discovered that they had somehow become new. And it hadn’t been primarily of their own doing. It was rather a gift from God. God somehow got through to them and showed them something astonishing about the love of God, something they had never suspected; and that gave them a new kind of life, one built on trust and hope and love and actually making a difference in who they were and how they behaved.
They didn’t all get knocked down on the road like Paul. Probably most of them were not quite as stubborn or hard to get through to as Paul. But they did get caught by surprise and given a new start. And it was God who did it, not they themselves. So they really couldn’t think of their faith as evidence for their own moral superiority.
So here’s Jesus undermining his disciples’ self-importance (that, of course, means our self-importance, too) right from the start, just as he was undermining that of the religious establishment of his day. “You think you’re pretty hot stuff? No, you just happened not to be living in a stony field or a weed patch. Lucky you!”

This teaching wasn’t new with Jesus. The same story was told in another way in our reading from Genesis today. Two children are born. The older, Esau, grows up as a bit of a free spirit, a bit disorganized, a bit irresponsible, but not a bad sort at all. The younger, Jacob, is hard working and efficient, but also rather mean-spirited, as we saw in the story about the stew. Yet, it’s Jacob who becomes the focus, the main character of their story in Genesis. He has no right to it. He is the younger son. (I doubt anyone took that story of buying his brother’s birthright seriously. There were no witnesses, after all.) And he’s not morally superior to his brother; if anything, the reverse. At the end of their joint story, it’s Esau who takes the risk of making peace (Gen. 33:4). Yet, God takes him and makes something of him.
God doesn’t pour the Spirit out selectively on the good. We don’t have to try to convince God or ourselves that we deserve it. No, God pours it all out willy-nilly, letting it splash on anyone within reach, and delighted when anyone catches on and opens up to it. Maybe some who turn a deaf ear to it at one time will be caught by it at another and changed in ways they could never have imagined. They’ll find themselves living new, more courageous, more generous lives than they had thought possible.

But wait a minute! Does this mean that God is unfair? Shouldn’t those of us who are trying to be good get at least a few favors? Well, whatever good God is up to in this world, we already know that it doesn’t add up neatly or perfectly, not in ways we can calculate and appreciate.
We often want a God that makes everything come out neatly in the end. It may be an intrinsic human desire. And it got a big boost in the Enlightenment Era, when Newton’s theory of gravity was the end-all of physics and one theologian (an Anglican priest named William Paley) even compared God to a watchmaker—a God with a place for everything and everything in its place, all to produce a thoroughly consistent world.
But our world is not ruled solely by gravity and predictability. We live in a world shaped intellectually by quantum theory and evolution. It may not be very comfortable, but it does at least leave us free to admit that sometimes the world is a mess. If God is at work in this world at all—and God is—then God is working, as people of earlier times also knew, in a world where chance plays a large role. God doesn’t rescue us from chance and make life safe for us. What God does is to live our lives along with us and fling seed in all directions in the hope that some it it will find fertile soil. And it does.
If our lives have some fertile patches in them, it’s no particular credit to us. We know from our own life histories that sometimes the seeds tossed at us have landed in the weeds or the rocks or along the path where the devil or anybody could have picked them off like a flock of hungry birds.
The world is not perfect. And we’re not perfect. But God is deeply involved with us and our world. And if God doesn’t get through to us on the first try, God will try again. And when the seed lands in the right spot at the right time of your life, it will grow and flourish. It will do that by God’s grace. And when it does, you find yourself becoming, maybe just ever so slightly at first, a new person, a person with riches to share, with gifts to give.
“Other seeds . . . brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. Let anyone with ears listen!”

God of the Weeds

Preached from the Pulpit of Good Shepherd Church, July 20, 2014, by the Rev. Este Gardner Cantor:

Jesus is once again, patiently, creatively, doggedly trying to give the disciples an idea of the Kingdom of Heaven.
After the parable of the Weeds, Jesus gives the disciples an explanation, two parables later. I am a little suspicious of this, given that Jesus very rarely explained anything, and, like a Zen master tended to leave his puzzling words to work the minds and hearts of the listener. Modern scholars have been just as puzzled, and there have been many interpretations of what the parable of the weeds might actually mean. But one struck me as particularly likely, given what we know about Jesus.
This interpretation said that Jesus was indeed using the weed-clogged field as a metaphor for the Kingdom of Heaven, but this was a Kingdom of Heaven in which there were neither enemies, children of the evil one, a devil or weeping and gnashing of teeth.
Jesus was making a declaration against the efforts to purify a community of human “weeds” –an all to common tendency in those days. He is decrying the practice of making brutal distinctions between tribes, and exterminating or banishing those who did not fit in. Jesus suggests that these differences, if indeed they are significant, will be addressed by God on judgment day, and are beyond the scope of humankind to meddle in. Even the weeds, he says, must be left to grow, even to flourish along side the grain.
The news this past week has been devastating. The brutal “weeding out” of the other has reached such tragic proportions that the pain is sent like shockwaves all over the world. Four Palestinian children, a nine year old, two ten year olds and an eleven year old were killed last week as they played on the beach, by rockets from an Israeli plane. They were all from the same family, a family so devastated that the pictures of their faces are unbearable to behold. As their parents would say of these lost children, “To God they belong and to God they will return”
This was only the last incident in the killing of many Palestinian civilians, collateral damage in the surge of violence following the killing of three Israeli teenagers.
Two of the slain Israeli boys were sixteen, the other nineteen. The first clues the police found in searching for their bodies were their teffillin- leather-bound holy texts discovered in a burned out car. The teffillin are part of the life of every observant Jewish boy and are bound on their arms during prayer in obedience to the instructions in Leviticus: “You shall teach the commandments to your children and shall talk of them when you sit in your house and when you walk by the way and when you lie down and when you rise up. You shall bind them as a sign on your arm.” As the parents of the young men would say, “May their names be for a blessing”.
In our own country another example of weeding out of the impure has come home to us.
Seventy thousand children have been sent by their parents out of the most terrifying conditions to throw themselves on the barely existent mercy of our great nation. I heard a newscast describing the life of a child in Honduras, whose school has come under the control of a drug cartel. The drug lords send recruiters into the schools and if the teachers try to get in the way of the abduction of children, a gun is held to their heads. If they still don’t comply, they are shot. Then the abducted children are forced to go back into the school to recruit more innocents. Many people, including children, have been killed by these drug lords. But we don’t want the children here. We think they should be sent back.
The town of Murrieta, Arizona exploded in protest when buses of young immigrants, some as young as six years old, drove into town to process the overflowing numbers of children. A crowd held up signs that said, “Non-Yankees Go Home” and “Return to Sender.” The buses were forced to turn around and seek another location for the processing. Patrice Lynes, a Murietta resident was quoted as saying, “I’m so happy,” she said. “I feel Murrieta inspired America. I think it’s awesome… We’re standing up as patriotic Americans to enforce our laws at the borders.” I saw a picture of a detention center which I first thought was a picture of a morgue.
There were dozens of small bodies wrapped in what appeared to be tinfoil, laid out like sardines. I then realized they were sleeping children wrapped in emergency blankets. Walls of chain-link fencing surrounded the sleeping children. As their parents would say, Que sueñes con los angelitos “May they dream of angels.”
In Paul’s letter to the Romans, we are given us some welcome perspective- some desperately needed hope for the pain we are all feeling now, in this time of violence and brutality. Now, as Paul tells us, all creation is groaning with the labor pains, and not only the creation, but we ourselves, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.

We await the birth of the time when we will know without hesitation that we are all children of the same God, all children of the same sower, all heirs as Paul tells us, free from the slavery of violence, of hatred.
I hope and pray that the sufferings of the present time will be worth the glory that will be revealed to us.
I have no doubt that Jesus would not rip out the tender shoots from where they are, knowing it would damage not only the introduced plants, but the wheat as well. I have no doubt that Jesus sees no difference between Israeli teenagers, Palestinian children, Latino refugees, and first world children.
I know that for all our pristine vestments, cathedrals and sacred vessels, God is not a God of purity. And in spite of the artistic interpretations of Jacob’s ladder, it must be remembered that the angels traveled up AND down that ladder, perhaps traveling down to lend a hand to those small sleeping angels. God is not a God of “up.” God is always down. Down to the level of the poor, the refugee, the wounded, the hungry, the weeds. God knows that you can’t build a bridge from up in the air. You have to start down low. At the level of a child.
The children killed on the beach were all from the same family, and we must somehow remember that we are all from the same family, all children of a God who knows our inmost parts, who has searched us out and knows us, and loves us even in all our brutal betrayal.
There is nowhere we can flee where God is not, as Godless as the world may seem. If we say, “Surely the darkness will cover us, and the light around us becomes night” God will be with us. Search us out, God, know us, and bring us into your new creation.


Sacrificing Issacs

Preached from the Pulpit on Sunday, June 29, 2014 by the Rev. Este Gardner Cantor
Our Gospel passage follows the sending out of the twelve apostles, with many instructions and warnings. Cast out unclean spirits, says Jesus, cure every disease, cleanse the lepers, raise the dead, He doesn’t ask much. But Jesus also warns, “Go nowhere among the Gentiles and enter no town of the Samaritans. Go, rather, only to the lost tribe of Israel.”

I am sending you, he says, like sheep into the midst of wolves. It seems the disciples are being sent out into a very bad neighborhood indeed.

Then comes the good news: Jesus talks a lot about welcoming. He says: “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.” He goes on to say, that whoever offers even a cup of cold water to the disciple, (one of these little ones, he calls them) will never lose their reward.” God will be with them.

Our Old Testament passage is one of the most disturbing and puzzling of them all. Here, a little one is offered not water, but fire. Abraham is instructed by God to sacrifice his beloved son Isaac. As the story progresses, the son seems to be happily accompanying his father, carrying the wood obediently on his back, only asking finally where the lamb is that they are to sacrifice. We cannot know if Abraham betrayed any emotion when he simply says, “God will provide the lamb.”

Like the twelve disciples, we here at Good Shepherd, have been sent out. Like Jesus, the Holy Spirit blasted us out into the wilderness for a forced discernment, just after our baptism of fire. And like Abraham, a great sacrifice has been asked of us. We had been very comfortable in a gorgeous interior space for a very long time. But that dear space was sacrificed. We were forced into a long exile- an exile during which we worshiped in the same place as the great weekly Friday lunch gathering of our brothers and sisters of the outside world, of every tribe.

These guests are not from the tribe of Israel, although many could be identified as lost sheep. We had to begin to notice that our church community was fed in the building on Sunday at 11:00 and the neighborhood was fed at 12:00 on Fridays. But as I have noted, our Episcopal force field lowered to unprecedented levels, and some of the Friday guests and their friends even began to join us on Sundays.

We were sent out. Out of our comfort zone- out to a new place where we saw who we really were. And even more than simply worshipping in our parish hall, we were sent out to be the church outside, not just welcoming from the inside.
Even just by worshipping here in the parish hall, we were suddenly sent out into the neighborhood, and the neighborhood welcomed us.

I went on another Night Walk Against Gun Violence week before last. This one was based out of McGee Ave Baptist Church. We literally went out into the neighborhood, as this community of Good Shepherd, with so many others did last October, and we, too were hardily welcomed. As we gathered in a circle of prayer at the spot where yet another person had been shot, a woman came running out of her house in her bare feet, towing her two young sons along, just to tell us how grateful she was that we cared about the neighborhood. One young man even followed us back into the church. At the debriefing afterwards, there were three African American speakers- three Abrahams who are not willing to sacrifice any more Isaacs. The first one, Pastor Michael Smith, told a story about a conversation he had with a person he kindly referred to as a “street pharmacist.” He asked the man, “How is it that you get the trust of these young people? Why do they come to you for solutions?”

The dope dealer (my less compassionate term) said to him, “When the kids go to school in the morning at 8:00AM I am there. When they get out of school and come home at 3:00 I am there. When they sneak out of their houses at 11:00PM to meet up or get snacks I am there.” Then he looked at Pastor Smith and said, “Where are you?”-

He had a point. We have an epidemic of sacrificed Isaacs in our neighborhood and in our city. No one has listened hard enough to hear God saying, no- stop the sacrifice- do no harm to these children. Sacrifice something else!

We here at Good Shepherd have indeed had our own sacrifice. A great loss of something very dear to us. One of the first things we were sent out to do was to take care of each other, and this we have done marvelously well. To me, this closeness we have achieved, this caring for one another shows us that we will not meet with more sacrifice if we continue to open our circle. Because we are sent out all together. So it could be that the only thing that was really sacrificed was our loneliness, our distance from our brothers and out sisters who were so close at hand.

When we come back to our Jerusalem after our long exile, we will see that though the exterior of our beloved church is just the same, the inside will be different. To me it would not make sense to be sent out and then return to exactly the same place. -Our Gospel passage speaks of welcome, and I believe that we are called to make room for more of our brothers and sisters, and to make our church more accessible to everyone.

When the flooring was first being repaired, we discovered that the original floor was almost 100% level, with just a small raised altar at the very front where the priest celebrated with his (and I do mean his) back to the congregation.

We are restoring the level floor, but adding a movable raised platform that can be placed anywhere in the space. It will be the most flexible interior possible. It will be much more navigable for all abilities, and it will put the emphasis on welcoming community.

The other great change is the chairs. We will have one hundred new and beautiful chairs which will seat more people, be much more accessible and comfortable, and allow more welcoming worship styles. We even have a few raised chairs to welcome those with ailing knees and hips. We will be able to express the welcoming circle we share at the Eucharist by forming worship in the round if we want. We will never be the same people as we were before we were sent out, and our space will never be the same either.

We have been sent out. With whatever gifts we have or do not have, we have been sent out to heal the sick, to heal each other, to bring life to those who seem dead, and to take care of the little ones. But most of all, we are sent to bring the church to the lost sheep of every tribe and nation, including our own. Amen

True Equality

Preached from the pulpit of Good Shepherd Episcopal Church on July 3, 2014 by The Rev. Ellen L. Ekstrom:

Romans 7:15-25a
Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30
When we do not understand our actions, and when we do not do the good we want, but just the opposite – ending up doing something less than good, or, as Paul puts it bluntly, evil, we are fortunate to have someone beside us when we are weary and carry heavy burdens. Christ is there. He is gentle and humble in heart. His yoke is easy and his burden is light.

Let’s hear again what Jesus said.
“Take my yoke upon you and learn from me.”

These are comforting words. But what is this yoke?

We know it is a tool – that wooden collar that goes over the neck and shoulders of two beasts of burden, such as oxen, used to attach a plow or wagon so that the tool or vehicle can be pulled along.

This is what the followers of Jesus would have known.
They would have seen the oxen pulling the plow in the fields. Slaves and laborers wore the yoke, too. Jesus is offering to share that yoke.

To the early church, the burden would have been daily life, to be sure, and the dangers and challenges of being a follower of Jesus of Nazareth.  The author of the Gospel of Matthew this morning explains to his audience that it is a burden that Jesus will help them carry.  In the context of this morning’s Gospel scripture, the invitation Jesus extends comes from his teaching. He has explained the importance of John the Baptist’s ministry, for example. John was the herald, the opening act, if you will, for Jesus of Nazareth. John baptized and proclaimed that there was one mightier than he and some people didn’t listen. They failed to recognize God living in their world and change their lives. In fact, it’s a no-win situation: to some, John was a prophet who didn’t deliver; Jesus was a drunkard and a glutton because he dined with the wrong people. Jesus ridicules his critics by comparing them to children who refuse to play nice. He also stresses the need to have childlike trust which we all have before we grow up and enter the adult world and its responsibilities, its skepticism and lack of trust, and yes, lack of faith. What we have heard is that we need to recognize the importance of belief, we need to trust in Jesus and his promise. In other words, we need to strap on that yoke.

And why not?

We take upon ourselves other burdens – each of us, I’m sure, has a long list – so why not sit at the feet of Jesus and listen to what he has been teaching for two millennia? It is, I believe, the perfect solution for what’s wrong in the world today.

Ah, how wonderful it would be if those who wield the power and make the decisions that govern our lives would listen, or even better, strap on that yoke! Yes, I’m talking about you, leaders who believe that corporations are people and allow and condone an avowal of religious belief to discriminate and oppress. Do you understand your actions? Is this the good you want?

For those of you who were buried in World Cup action or actually worked during the U.S. v. Belgium match, the Supreme Court ruled that employers may withhold certain types of medical coverage on the basis of their religious beliefs.

The coverage is for contraception.

I wasn’t surprised by the decision and who handed it down, nor was I surprised by the dissent, or the public’s outcry. It is good and right that Christians who listen to Jesus’ true message of unconditional love and equality are speaking up, saying not so fast. They are saying, “We’re Christian, but we don’t use the faith given to us by Christ to discriminate, to practice bigotry or sexism. Not all Christians are sexually-repressed, judgmental, nor are they hypocritical. But the secular public, at least a percentage, see us like that. Most of all, we don’t beat people over the head with the Bible and force our employees to espouse our faith, or try to get the Supreme Court to do it for us. We strive every day to live what Christ taught and share that message.”

Christ says we should love our enemies. I do. I pray for those who seek to do me harm as a Christian and as a woman, as an individual, and I look for Christ in them, see glimmerings of understanding, and love. But it’s a lot easier to love them than like them.

This Independence Day Weekend, I’m hoping a new pursuit of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness borne of the outcry rising from the Supreme Court’s decision in Burwell versus Hobby Lobby takes hold. Perhaps this momentum starting to spread and grow will finally result in giving equal rights to women and let us have the final say over what we do with our bodies, allow our choices to be those which will benefit our health, our lives and economies and those of our communities. Then it will be an independence day finally, finally, after two hundred and thirty years that represents all Americans. You see, this is the Kingdom of Heaven Jesus proclaims, the place where there are no barriers, no discrimination, where all are invited to the Table and to sit at Christ’s hand, left or right, sit before God and with God, and it begins by shouldering the yoke that is offered to us. We shall not be alone as we learn and labor together, nor shall we go quietly into the night because we will understand our actions and know that they are for the good of all.


God’s Hands Get Dirty – The Rev. Dr. L. Wm. Countryman, June 22, 2014

Genesis 21:8-21 

What is a nice, decent, respectable God like ours doing in a nasty story like this one we just read—the one about Hagar? It’s a “dysfunctional family drama” writ large in the complicated mode of ancient polygamy. Sarah was Abraham’s first wife. They got married, of course, by some complicated family political maneuvering that we’re not privy to. But we know they were close relatives and we can guess that the marriage had something to do with inheritance issues.
And, then, Sarah had no children. In a marriage based on inheritance issues, you can see that this was a big problem. She had a slave woman named Hagar and decided to make Hagar her surrogate. So she gets Abraham to “marry” Hagar. (This would have made Hagar an kind of cross between slave and wife, just about half a step above a concubine, really.) The idea was that Sarah would take Hagar’s child as her own.
So far so good. But when Hagar got pregnant, she began to think rather well of herself. Sarah couldn’t stand it and got her driven out into the desert. (That was the first time Hagar was kicked out, several chapters back in Genesis 16.) By the time of our story today, Sarah has born a son, against all odds. And she’s decided that she isn’t going to tolerate any competition. Once again, Hagar is driven out, this time with child in tow.
Nobody comes out of this story well. Hagar is ambitious and greedy; she wants to take Sarah’s place. Sarah is vindictive. Abraham is cowardly and useless.

So what is God doing in this story at all? You don’t need a divinity to produce this kind of soap opera. Human beings can do it on our own with no trouble at all. If God is going to be a part of it, how abut a more constructive role? How about demanding better behavior all around? How about solving some problems? How about a little justice?
Well, God does solve a few problems—promising to give Abraham descendants through both sons, showing Hagar the well in the desert and saving her life. But none of this really touches what’s wrong with the story as a whole.
You may be wondering why I’m making such a point of this. I’m not just emphasizing the scandal aspect for its own sake. (Though I did get your attention, didn’t I? Scandal tends to do that.) But, actually, there’s a theological and spiritual point involved here, one that’s worth delving into.
The people here are all behaving in utterly human ways. And they’re playing out roles more or less thrust upon them by the culture of their time and place. Sarah desperately needs to produce an heir. She’ll use unorthodox means if necessary. But she will defend her turf. The alternative is too ugly to contemplate.
Hagar has no turf to defend; she’s a slave. She’s called a “wife,” but she doesn’t have any real status or security, as the story shows. She has to press every advantage she’s got. And any gains she may make will be at Sarah’s expense.
Abraham needs an heir; and he’s gone from no heirs to two in just a few years. But now it’s all unraveling on him. Ishmael is the safe bet, since he’s already survived infancy. But Sarah is his “real” wife to whom he is bound not only by their marriage but by broader family interests.
Now, there are moments when we human beings rise above such difficult challenges. They’re a treasure. But it’s a goal we frequently fail to attain. Like Sarah, Hagar, and Abraham, we’re not intrinsically mean, venal, cruel or uncaring people. But, if we’re honest, we know we’re compromised.
We sometimes like to think of God’s job as setting things right. In this story, though, God is almost as compromised as the other characters. The term “co-dependent” might even drift through one’s mind. “Do what Sarah says,” God tells Abram, “and I’ll make it up to your other family.” The principal beneficiary of all this is Isaac, who at this point has done nothing at all except get born.

Now, I don’t mean to underrate our longing for justice. It’s a central human value. And I’m convinced God cares about it deeply. But I think the very difficulties of our story, the ways in which everybody gets compromised, are pointing us toward what is probably the most profound and the most difficult teaching of the Christian faith. Important as justice is to God, something else is even more important. And that something is God’s love for this world and for the human beings that God has planted in it: human beings who have the ability to relate freely to one another and to God, who have the freedom to do this well or badly, the freedom to grow in love or to deny and reject it.
If God were constantly intervening to impose immediate justice and fairness, all that would get short-circuited. Our freedom means, alas, the freedom to harm as well as to love. Love can’t be imposed. It can only be elicited. Sometimes, God has a long wait.
So how is God to accomplish this project of loving us and summoning us to love? There is only one way: God has to get down in the dirt with us. God has to be with us where we are. A God who only sits on the throne and passes judgment on our failings cannot raise us to a higher level of love. As George Ade put it a century ago with reference to a high-minded scheme for improving the poor masses: “When uplifting, get underneath!”

And God is willing to do that. In fact, God has been doing it since the beginning of the human story. God gets involved in the messy family melodrama, the tragic catastrophe, the comedy of errors— even the horror stories that seem to be our favorite modern entertainment and the daily fodder of the news media. Why? Because God would rather be where we are than seated aloft on the throne of judgment. God was not Sarah and Hagar and Abraham’s impatient supervisor. God was their lover. God is our lover, too. God is willing to take the risk of being compromised in order to be part of our lives, our day, our culture, our troubled and uncertain historic moment.
I speak of this as not only the most profound of Christian teachings but also the most difficult one. It is. We have a terrible time accepting it. We want a God who would intervene more quickly, restrain the wrong-doers, rescue the innocent, one who expects more of our enemies, at least, if not of us, one who will enforce justice. But if we had such a God, that would be the end of the story, wouldn’t it? The end of all stories. And probably we’d all be serving time, sometimes for things we didn’t even understand or things we didn’t know we were complicit in, sometimes, like Hagar and Sarah and Abraham, for just trying to keep our heads above water in a difficult world.
Instead, we have a God who seeks us out in love and tries to sustain us through the craziness of human existence. This God doesn’t promise us peace or justice in this life. Jesus, today, even said that he hadn’t come to bring peace, but a sword (Matt. 10:34). No big changes there! But above all, Jesus came to share the life that we live, without any special claims to consideration, even at the risk of death itself.

So I hope you will remember this story and how poorly everybody comes off in it: Abraham, Sarah, Hagar, even God! We could imagine a story where God waves the magic wand and every one lives happily ever after. But this story is actually better. It should give us some hope. God was willing to get dirty hands in the process of cultivating the friendship of those remote, improbable nomads who we count as our ancestors in faith. And God is fully prepared to risk the same in order to seek our love and friendship now, compromised as we all find ourselves to be.

The Rev. L. Wm. Countryman

The Rev. L. Wm. Countryman

The Signature of All Things

The Rev. Este Gardner Cantor

The Rev. Este Gardner Cantor

Acts 1:6-14  • Psalm 68:1-10, 32-35  • 1 Peter 4:12-14; 5:6-11  • John 17:1-11

                                        The Rev. Este Gardner Cantor

Our readings today are literally full of glory. Jesus prays that God might glorify him, that he might, in turn, glorify God. “Glory” is an incandescent word- full of beauty, full of light- but I wondered- what does it actually mean?

The Hebrew word for Glory is Kahad, meaning “weighty” or “important.” This was translated to the Greek Doxa, which has the sense of power, splendor and light.  The English word we ended up with, “glory” comes from the Latin word gloria which means “fame or renown.”

The most common manifestation of the glory of God in the New Testament is that of brilliantly radiant light. The glory of God broke out into ordinary time with Jesus at the transfiguration, when “His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as the light.” (Mt. 17:2) In another gloriously stunning image in The Revelation to John, we read of Chrst’s bride, the New Jerusalem which is “bright with God’s glory, with the radiance of a very rare jewel, like jasper, clear as crystal.” (Rev. 21:11)            Paul called Jesus the Lord of glory, and wrote that the glory of God shone from his face.

But John’s gospel is truly the gospel of Glory. From the gorgeous opening hymn we hear, “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.” (Jn 1:14) And then, throughout the gospel we read over and over again of God’s light, God’s glory, until the prayer in John that we read today, which is so very drenched in glory.

Jesus prays that the disciples will be protected, will be granted eternal life, will share in God’s glory.

Jacob Boehm, a 15th century German mystic wrote a book called The Signature of All Things. In it he postulates that God had hidden clues for humanity’s betterment – little blasts of glory- inside the design of every flower, leaf, fruit, shell pattern, and tree on earth. All the world is a divine code, containing proof of our Creator’s love. God had pressed Godself into the world and left an imprint, a signature there for us to discover. But he said we have to move through fire in order to learn to read it. Could this be another definition of Glory, these cryptic illuminations God left us? Does God glorify us by imprinting God’s bright image upon us?


As we ourselves are creatures of nature, perhaps we already carry these imprints as well, perfectly decipherable if we allow the chaff to be burned off.

I have of late, and for the past two years since my scientist father died, seen something of great glory in the revelations of science. Science seems to reveal how many ways God leaves a signature on all things. Every atom flares forth photons- little units of light- electromagnetic energy- little blasts of glory- whenever it is somehow transformed- when it passes through the fire of transformation.


So everything, as it is transformed, is illuminated, is radiating glory. Surely Jesus, so full of light, was beginning his great transformation at the time of our Gospel reading- and he was heralding the transformation about to engulf the disciples. He tells them of the glory to come in our reading from the Acts of the Apostles: “… you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” He says this just before he ascends, like a ray of light, and vanishes into heaven.

Jesus prays to God, “you have given me authority over all people, to give eternal life to all whom you have given me.  And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.”

Time is a flexible thing in the realm of glory, as in the realm of science. It seems that eternal life is not immortality- not a life that never ends in temporal time- it is truly knowing the eternal God- knowing God’s imprint, God’s signature on all of things, but first and most illuminatingly, on God’s natural son, Jesus the Christ.

God has been glorified because Jesus has taught the twelve to recognize the eternal God- to know God in creation- to see light in everything, to see God in each other and all their sisters and brothers, no matter their station in life.


Hildegard of Bingen, the astonishing 12th century Christian Mystic said, “every creature is a glittering mirror of divinity.” In terms of John’s gospel, this is the light of Christ in every creature.

Every atom has the potential to generate a photon, but it must be in a transformative process- either being heated or in collision with another atom.

In other words, in order to create light- to create glory, atoms, and we, have to go through transformation, through the fire, through the light.

One of the physical properties of light is that it has no resting mass- it suggests perfect freedom- it weights absolutely nothing- it is weightless!. How far we have traveled from glory’s original Hebrew meaning of “weighty!” Light travels with unimaginable speed- 186,000 miles per second. Light exhibits the properties of both wave and particle and so it is best described by quantum mechanics, because we do not understand light anymore than we understand glory. Light is brilliant, weightless, powerful and can travel anywhere, only getting occasionally trapped in black holes, as we all do.

And of course, when matter is transforming, like wood to glowing coal, light results.

We here at Good Shepherd have, of course, gone through the fire. What has it taught us? What light has been shed? Do we now see the signature of God in all things? In more things than we used to? We were able to see the holy, even the glory in this modest parish hall almost immediately. And I noticed that the Episcopal force field, that normally surrounds all our churches was transformed in our case, perhaps even disengaged, and we have welcomed new faces, and we have seen the light of Christ in them.

We have strayed from our own small world to glimpse something larger, and we have experienced a surprising kind of energy- a surprising kind of freedom, a surprising kind of glory; we are being transformed. As St. Paul so beautifully put it in his second letter to the Corinthians:

“Where the Spirit of God is, there is freedom. And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of God as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into God’s image from one degree of glory to another.”










Lost Sheep

Good Shepherd, Berkeley 5/11/14

                   Acts 2:42-47  Psalm 23  • 1 Peter 2:19-25  • John 10:1-10

                                        The Rev. Este Gardner Cantor

I am always in a quandary when I preach on Mother’s Day. I myself am a mother, and it has been the richest experience of my life. It was very important that my daughter called me this morning, and later in the day I expect one or two long worshipful essays on Facebook. But we are not all mothers- we do not all have that experience in our lives. And there are many, many other beautiful expressions of God’s love to celebrate besides that of mother. So the celebration of Mother’s Day, I think, must be seen in perspective.

But whether or not we have ever BEEN a mother, we have all HAD mothers, whether or not they are still with us in body and in spirit. And inevitably, there is a way in which one’s mother might recall either the acts of the Good Shepherd, or perhaps some exemplary gate we might aspire to. My own mother was not a perfect shepherd, but of course I adored her. My most enduring vision of her is as a glamorous blonde lying back on a chase lounge, holding a cigarette in one manicured hand while frowning intensely into her magazine. As a child I was not entirely sure if she would ever lay down her magazine, let alone her life for me, but of course I worshipped her anyway.

And she did give me many gifts of good shepherdly abundance. My mother was the one who brought me to the Episcopal Church as a child, and after a few years I was prepared for confirmation. She bought me a white lace dress that was so expensive that it occasioned a screaming fight between my parents. My father, to her fury, boycotted the confirmation event as a result.

After the service we came home, and in a few minutes our Priest, Don Seaton came storming through the unlocked door.

“Where the hell were you this morning Dave Gardner?” He roared at my father, who was seated in his easy chair. I was thrilled. I ever after thought of that act of his as that of a Good Shepherd- looking after one of his small sheep.

But for any travails I had as a child, I was singularly blessed to enjoy my confirmation classes and my schools, to be educated, to be taken care of, kept safe. No one doubted that I deserved and would get an education. There was no danger in this. No question about it.

But it seems such things cannot be taken for granted anymore. The news story that has most riveted my attention of late, describes the act of a group of thieves and bandits who kidnapped almost 300 girls from the Chibok Girls’ Secondary School in Northern Nigeria. These girls were targeted just because they were seeking an education. The thieves who broke in to steal these girls, as they were taking their final exams, belong to the terrorist organization, Boko Haram, a word which means “Western education is forbidden”

To the great frustration of the mothers and fathers of the abducted girls, the Nigerian government seemed uninterested in doing anything at all. Many of the fathers of the girls, unarmed and unsupported by their government went off to find the girls, knowing the danger they faced.

In the voice of the Good Shepherd, they said, “We are going to find our girls. And if we die, we die.” Slowly the word got out, and slowly it became apparent that the whole world was watching. I have now heard that President Obama has sent a team of military and law enforcement agents to help the Nigerian government to find and rescuing the girls. To my great relief we also now have Britain, France, Canada, and China pledging to help as well.

They are at last following the lost sheep, even into the valley of the shadow of death, because if they manage to rescue them, they may be saving these girls from a death-like life.

This is the way of Christ the Good Shepherd. This is the gate he bids us walk through. Thank God that there are those brave enough to go through this gate, to risk suffering for, as Peter’s letter would have it, God’s work.

The terrorists and the girls are believed to be hiding in the vast Sambisa Forest in northeastern Nigeria, so it will not be an easy task to find them. But in these seemingly impossible situations, a Good Shepherd, someone of extraordinary courage is often likely to arise. A gate, through which we might choose to pass.

A Good Shepherd has indeed raised her strong voice against this atrocity. She has an authority few would question, although she is an unlikely heroine. Beginning at the tender age of 11 years old, she began to write a blog, in the Swat Valley, in Northern Afghanistan near the Pakistan boarder. She was inspired to write in protest when the Taliban began banning girls from attending school. She had been blogging under a pseudonym, but encouraged by a New York Times journalist, she revealed her identity. Her name is Malala  Yousafzai. She then rose to prominence, speaking out against the ban in interviews in print and on television and wherever she could.

She was soon nominated for the International Children’s Peace Prize by Desmond Tutu. She was later nominated for the Noel Peace Prize. But on Tuesday October 9, 2012, as she boarded her school bus, Malala was attacked by a terrorist and sustained a gunshot wound to the head.

Although she lay in critical condition for weeks, she eventually recovered, and went right on with her courageous work. She continued to go through that Christ-like gate and follow her calling.

When she was asked in an interview is she was afraid for her life, she admitted that at first, she was. She said she imagined what she would do if a gunman appeared again. At first, she said, I thought I would take off my shoe and try to hit him with it. But then decided that I must not do that, because then I would be as bad as he was. So I decided I would say to him, I wish for your daughters and sons that they have an education too, and I would die for their right. Then, I thought if he wants to kill me, he will kill me. When she stood before the United Nations, still recovering from her wounds, she said, “One child, one teacher, one book will change the world.”

Malala also talked about a gate. She said that having an education was like walking through a gate into a beautiful dream.

And as for her mother- what was she doing? As Malala said these things, her mother was sitting close by, tears of pride and joy streaming down her face. And her father, asked about his daughter said, “She is not only our daughter. She is the whole world’s daughter now.”

Now that we know the sound of her voice, perhaps we might all follow her.    Amen.

The Rev. Este Gardner Cantor

The Rev. Este Gardner Cantor

Burning Hearts and Unbearable Beauty

3 Easter, May 5, 2014

Acts 2:14a, 36-41  •  Psalm 116:1-4, 12-19  •  1 Peter 1:17-23  •  Luke 24:13-35

By The Rev. Carol Luther

Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight. They said to each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us?”

Remember that the blindness Jesus heals does not just belong to the person without physical sight; every time a pair of eyes is opened, those eyes are mine. But, as eyes must, ours blink, and the stage again goes dark, and what we glimpsed is gone.

Every life has its moments of sheer grace. Moments when the scales fall from our eyes and we see the world in a whole new way. Moments that suggest that everything we thought we knew, everything we thought we felt, everything our society insists has always been the case, just ain’t so. These moments are usually very beautiful. Droplets of new white snow sparkling above the noise and confusion of Times Square; a brown water ouzel hopping and singing amid rainbows cast by thunderous rapids that sweep everything away, except this one brown bird, hopping and singing; Jesus turning into light atop a mountain; the arms of a baby rising up in pure love.

One cannot will such experiences to happen. There’s no magic formula. Such experiences can only come to you. And just as quickly as they come, they are gone. If this is grace, there are also works, for it is also said that we humans get the world we want. We get the world we want, because we work for it. Ideas do indeed take on flesh. What can be tried will be tried. But this does not mean that our works in any way reflect Reality. All the wise ones agree that we live in the midst not only of physical constructions, but also of mental ones; what we insist is just “human nature,” or “the way things are,” are in fact the product of our minds. This is why all religions come to help us order our minds, to learn to see beyond our immediate desires and fears into a greater whole. At the moment, as a culture, we are very bad at seeing beyond the material world. Capitalism has been just too successful. It is too easy to forget that our far-reaching technology, our massive, planetary information networks, that these are purely human, which is why they can be manipulated and tweeked by humans. If your whole world is bounded on all sides by human genius, by human product, if you find transcendence on the Internet, as many now do, your life will never transcend the human. And the wages of not transcending the human are death. Look at our culture. Look at our fear of death. It was the same in Jesus’ day. I’ve said this many times. Empires keep power by promising law and leveraging fear. What is more fearful than death? It follows rather naturally, therefore, that a culture based in human magnificence and human solutions will also be a culture that gives the last word to death.
Only God, say the wise ones, lives beyond the dualities of life and death, power and weakness, have and have not. God, say the wise ones, even lives beyond the universe. If our minds are set upon God, in moments of grace this is what we will see. We will see and experience that God is life. To see that is to see nature, life, work and grace in a whole new light.

The story of the travelers on the Road to Emmaus is the story one such glimpse.

Much is made of the fact that the travelers do not recognize Jesus, even when he is walking with them and interpreting the scriptures. Much is also made of the fact that they finally do recognize him in the breaking of the bread. It suggests that actions speak louder than words, but it also suggests that actions do not make sense unless we understand where they are coming from. So let us begin with the scriptures. Let our scriptures act as prelude to our sacrament. And since this story is about breaking bread, let us look at some scriptures about food.
We began this holy season with two stories about food, one in Luke, one in Genesis. After his baptism, Jesus is sent by the Holy Spirit away from the urban world of data, wealth and empire and back into nature, the world that was given us raw by God, into the world that God gave us to care for. In the wilderness, the tempter arrives, because nature itself tempts us, tempts us to improve upon it, to impose ourselves. The tempter then tells Jesus what the tempter always says: your power can be used for good: turn these stones into bread. Feed people. To you has been given the power to end world hunger. To be acclaimed the savior. This is not the first time food has been used as temptation.

Which brings us to the other reading with which we began Lent. The serpent said,… ‘You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.’

Now let’s return to Emmaus. “When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight.”

Do note that nowhere in this passage is there a discussion of good and evil. Good and evil are warring opposites. That was where the serpent led our first parents astray. By making us dualists. By making us think we knew. This suggests that Cleopas and his unnamed companion’s inability to recognize Jesus is less a matter of Jesus being unrecognizable than it is the fact that they were blinded by what they thought they knew, by conventional, rather than real, wisdom.

During the season of Easter, we live in the tension between conventional thinking and mystical thinking. The Church offers both. Every religion has a conventional way, an ethical doctrine, rules for living, stuff that everyone can understand. Love your neighbor. Go to Church. Give generously. Do not lie. Do not steal. All these precepts are important. They are the scaffolding that holds up the Household of God. They help us sort through our dilmmas and choices. We practice being Christians by the things we do. When a society is healthy and coherent, these precepts can feel almost seamless and self-evident. A person who works hard is rewarded. Families who keep faith with one another attain the crown of years. We see that our nation is great because we are a nation of Godly people. The trouble is that like everything, such coherent communities cannot be maintained. Sin slithers in. Good intentions and honest shortcomings turn into self-righteousness and hypocrisy. The only constant in the universe is that everything changes. Unless stability is your prime cultural value, your outer precepts are bound to crumble. Indigenous cultures, China, India and Egypt all had historic cultures of stability grounded in rites of renewal. The West, on the other hand, rejected stability thousands of years ago. It has been both the genius and the tragedy of the West to understand that the route to power comes through the ability to manipulate and control change, to keep us anxious and guessing.

Does it come as any surprise then that Resurrection is God’s answer to the West?
And so, we have mystical religion. Unlike doctrinal religion, mystical religion is uncontrollable. Mystical religion begins not with outer precept, although again, the precepts help us in discernment. Mystical religion is grounded in the cry of the heart. Mystical religion does not try to pass out rewards and control suffering; mystical religion plunges into suffering’s very depths. Its reward is truth, not money. Mystical religion does not strive for consistency. Mystical religion accepts paradox. The mystic knows that the only way to save your life is to lose it. The mystic knows that the Cross leads to everlasting life. The mystic knows that God is Good, and that we, created in the image of God, are also Good, that what we call “evil” is not what we think. This truth is so deep, so wonderful and so difficult, that no one person can hold it for more than a brief moment, any more than we can hold on to grace. This is a truth that takes practice, that takes community. What I call the “I,” my ego, is but a single cell in the body of Christ. Ecology and economy are one. The logos is the nomos. The Word is the Law. If one is healthy, it heals the other. If one is malignant, it can kill the other.

Jesus gives us a glimpse of wholeness on the Road to Emmaus. By recapitulating that first meal in the Garden of Eden, not as fruit snatched, but as bread broken and shared, he is saying something very important about our role as humans in the universe. We were given the earth as partner, not plunder.

I conclude with a poem by Nobel laureate Derek Walcott:

Love After Love
The time will come
when, with elation
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror
and each will smile at the other’s welcome,
and say, sit here. Eat.
You will love again the stranger who was your self.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you
all your life, whom you ignored
for another, who knows you by heart.
Give back your heart to itself, to the stranger who has loved you. The Christ
we meet on the Road may also be the Christ we meet in the mirror. Give
wine. Give bread. Give back your heart.