Good Shepherd, Berkeley 3/30/14
1 Samuel 16:1-13 • Psalm 23 • Ephesians 5:8-14 • John 9:1-41
The Rev. Este Gardner Cantor
“I am the Light of the World.” I think this is the most beautiful of Jesus’ many “I am” statements. It certainly evokes the feeling that Jesus could actually give sight to the blind- bring light to the desperate.
Our Gospel story of today falls in the first half of John’s Gospel, which is known as “The Book of Signs.” This section contains all the healing and revealing miracles of Jesus in the Gospel of John. The second part of the Gospel is known as “The Book of Glory,” which covers everything from the Last Supper to the Resurrection. So today’s story comes in the midst of miracles, but also in the midst of some heated conflict between Jesus and the Pharisees, called “the Jews” in John’s Gospel.
Jesus performs his great “sign”- of the healing of the blind man, proving, at least to the blind man, if not to the skeptical Pharisees, that he is, indeed, the light of the world. It is no wonder that the Pharisees are skeptical, because Jesus has previously told them, “I am the bread that has come down from heaven.” To their fury, his claim seems to be that he is replacing Moses- replacing the bringing of the manna from heaven. This was bad enough, but then he says, “…unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood you shall not have eternal life.”
This was too much even for the disciples who had begun to follow him.
“This teaching is difficult,” they say. “Who can accept it?” After this, many of his disciples “…turned back and no longer went about with him.” He even turned to the remaining twelve and said, “Will you leave me as well?”
As if he were not unpopular enough, he now denies a whole mob the pleasure of stoning a woman who had been found “in the very act” of adultery. There was, interestingly, no corresponding male sinner available for punishment.
And then, just before our story begins, “the Jews” have finally had enough. After Jesus disrespects their father Abraham one time too many, they pick up stones to stone him to death, perhaps to make up for the stoning they had just missed out on. But Jesus somehow hides and makes his way out of the temple.
Jesus has emerged from a forest of blind men; stone blind to the glory of God, stone blind to the compassionate alternative to stoning, stone blind to the reality of who Jesus really is. The blind ones picked up stones to kill Jesus with, but luckily, they are blind.
Walking along, just after his escape, Jesus comes upon a man literally born blind. His few remaining disciples have reassembled again, and, as usual, they want answers. “Why was this man born blind?” they ask. “Whose sin caused it?” At this time it was believed that if someone was born with a disability, it was God’s punishment for sin.
Jesus says something revolutionary, as usual. He said that sin had nothing to do with it. It existed, like all wounds and illnesses, as a portal for the glory of God.
“As long as I am in the world,” he says, “I am the light of the world.” Then Jesus, the new creation, acts the part of the creator. He makes something out of clay, and then he makes light.
When neighbors of the man born blind refuse to believe that this miracle has happened, that this sighted man is the same one who was blind, the man keeps saying, “I am the man.” He is echoing the “I am” statements of the Christ- proclaiming the Christ-light he had found in himself.
In these weeks of Lent, we may long for our own Book of Signs. We may hope we will receive signs, revelations, portals for light, even miracles. We look deeply into our lives, and hope we can see more clearly this time around. What are we blind to?
What is it that, like glory of Jesus, is staring us right in the face, offering miraculous signs, telling us great truths that we just can’t see? Maybe we are blind to what our bodies are telling us, or what our nearest and dearest are telling us, or what our broken relationships are telling us.
The unwelcome light that has flooded into my Lent is the startling fact that I need to make amends to my brother. I had to remind myself that it has been 48 years since he last beat me up. I had to admit that he has done a lot of good things since then, and even before then. And I was forced, against my will, apparently by God, to ask myself what kind of sister I had been to him in the intervening years. Answer: not good.
I have carefully kept my anger and resentment in almost archival condition, and I have not given him something material that he asked for, basically because I don’t feel he deserves it. If forgiveness is possible, if I am to follow one of Jesus’ most basic suggestions, I need to allow the scales to fall from my eyes, and see if there is a chance for reconciliation. This is a wound that could really use a little of God’s glory, and I am praying that it will be so. So I am going to go try to go and wash off some mud.
I do have faith that, no matter what we do, the Spirit seems to work in Lent to change our long Book of Signs to our own Book of Glory. By the end of our Lenten trek, we may well experience something like renewed sight, light, healing, some kind of resurrection.
We may have had a revelation of wounding or pain, so that the light may enter. Jesus tells us that our wounds have nothing to do with sin, nothing to do with guilt. He explains that they are portals for the Glory of God, ways in which God’s work may be revealed in us.
The poet Rumi wrote: “The wound is the place where the light enters you.” So it was with this man’s blindness, so it is with my childhood pain, so it might be for us all. We struggle with the layers of our blindfolds, all the way through Holy Week until we hear in the Easter liturgy,
“Behold! The Light of Christ!” Our hurts and our hungers and our shortcomings have been offered up. The mud is washed out of our eyes and we rejoice. Newly illuminated, we might say to that we used to fear, to that which used to blind us, to the fleeing darkness, “I am.”
FIRST SUNDAY AFTER THE EPIPHANY, JANUARY 12, 2014
Year A: Isaiah 42:1-9; Psalm 29; Acts 10:34-43; Matthew 3:13-17
Our Psalm this morning gave us a classic picture of an epiphany, complete with plenty of noise and spectacle:
The voice of God is upon the waters;
the God of glory thunders. . . .
The voice of God breaks the cedar trees. . . .
The voice of God shakes the wilderness,
God shakes the wilderness of Kadesh. . . (St. Helena Psalter)
But an epiphany isn’t just a matter of divine showing off. God has a purpose in encountering us; and the purpose is not to frighten or destroy, but to give a gift. The fireworks that take up most of Psalm 29 are just there to wake us up, to attract our attention, to show us we’re dealing with something and someone of great importance. But the real purpose is to give a gift. Remember how the Psalm concludes:
God shall give strength to the people;
God shall give the people the blessing of peace.
First the rumblings, the the gift of peace.
And this morning, in the story of Jesus’ baptism, we have an epiphany that almost skips the spectacle altogether. Still it’s an epiphany, and a very important one. In the Greek Orthodox church, if you refer to “the Epiphany” you mean Jesus’ Baptism. (The coming of the Magi is “the Theophany.”) It’s an epiphany because it’s the occasion at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry when he first presents himself to the world at large.
The only hint of power in this epiphany actually comes right before the passage we read, in the preaching of John the Baptist: “one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” We never see that epiphany. Neither did John. We just hear about it..
And Jesus shows up to be baptized with none of those splendid trappings. It must have been a disappointment to John. Worse yet, Luke tells us that Jesus was John’s cousin, a familiar face, a known quantity—not the sort of person he was expecting in this role! And even worse than that, he was there not to punish sin and enforce righteousness, but to submit to John’s baptism, a baptism for confessing sins. Even so, John somehow recognized him as the one even though everything else about this picture must have seemed just wrong.
God, it seems, was trying out a different kind of epiphany. All those epiphanies of power and wonder: the great storm in our Psalm, the pillar of smoke by day and fire by night that led the Israelites through the wilderness, the blazing torch that visited Abraham and the burning bush that confronted Moses—all these had their value. But, ultimately, they couldn’t convey all that God wanted to convey. And in the epiphany of Jesus’ baptism, God sets them all aside. God just shows up without any special claims—no noise, no spectacle. Indeed, Jesus doesn’t even claim to be exempt from the charge of sin, though Christians from earliest times thought that he was indeed that rarest of birds, a sinless person.
John objects. “Wait a minute, you don’t qualify here! This is a baptism for confessing sins.” But Jesus replies, “Let it be so now; for is is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Or, maybe a clearer way of putting it: “This is the way I need to go about showing my loving purpose.”
God’s purpose in this loving epiphany is to tear down all barriers between God and us. To become one with us, God will give up even the claim to perfection, will stand along with us in the line waiting to be baptized for our sins.
To be sure, there is a moment of relatively modest glory when the Spirit descends like a dove and the voice from heaven proclaims, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” But those are after the fact. And no one seems much to have noticed them anyway. Maybe only Jesus and John saw or heard anything. In any case, they don’t serve to wake us up and prepare the way for the message. As most, they set a seal on it. They say, in effect, “Don’t expect to be overwhelmed. Expect me in the form of someone like yourself, like your neighbor, like any human being in the world.” God. they say, has become one of us. That’s the real epiphany.
This is the message of a hymn we’re singing today. Some of you may recognize it from last year at this time when it was sung for the first time anywhere. You’ll find it on the insert, but you might try just listening to the words, which sometimes get lost as we sing:
A Carol for Jesus’ Baptism
Jordan springs from mountain snows;
sparkling down the rocks it flows.
Jesus, born from God’s own might,
came to us as light from light.
Like mountain water, undefiled,
he came to us a little child.
Jordan flows from hill to lake,
waters earth for creatures’ sake.
There came Jesus’ cousin John,
calling out to everyone,
“Repent your wrongs; begin anew.
And God will wash all dirt from you.”
Jordan flows from lake to sea,
muddy, moving sluggishly.
Jesus came to John one day—
came to wash his sins away.
His cousin said, “It cannot be.
You need to cleanse the likes of me.”
Jordan flows from high to low,
where the proud would never go.
Jesus said, “For this alone
I came down from lordly throne.
I did not come to shun or shame,
but live your life and share the blame.
“Heav’nly might can shine abroad
armed with lightning as its sword.
Heav’nly love gives up its power—
shares your lowest human hour.”
So John did as his cousin said
and poured the Jordan on his head.
Recovery Sunday Lent 1 A, March 9, 2014
Genesis 2:15-17, 3:1-7; Matthew 4:1-11
Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous
I would like to think that I was called to talk with you today about Lent, because I am actually really lousy at maintaining a Lenten discipline. The bishop of my diocese issued us a Bible challenge for the rest of the year, starting on Ash Wednesday, to read the New Testament, and a psalm, and a prayer from somewhere in the Book of Common Prayer. OK. Not a bad idea, I thought. Good way to give my Lent some structure. So I started on Ash Wednesday, full of good intentions. And I stopped on Thursday. We’re now five days into Lent, and I’m not sure whether I’m going to try to catch up.
On Ash Wednesday, I meditated on the directions Jesus was giving us about prayer, and fasting, and giving alms, and I concluded that I’m really terrible at sticking to the way of doing them that he laid out. I do pray, and I do fast, and I do give alms. But my right hand is perfectly aware of what the left hand is doing. I give alms, and I jot them down in my tax records. I fast, and I count how many Weight Watchers points I’ve used up. I pray, and I worry that I’m not doing it enough, and I worry about who I’m actually praying to. And as a priest, I have to pray in public now and then, and so I worry about just how big a hypocrite I have become. Could I be too neurotic to keep a holy Lent?
And the story we just heard, about Jesus and the Tempter in the wilderness— I find that that story doesn’t help me much with my problem with Lenten discipline. It seems to me that it’s more about the link between the stories we hear in Epiphany and the rest of the story of Jesus. Jesus has just come from being baptized by John, and has just heard the voice from heaven saying “This is my Son, the beloved, in whom I am well pleased.” And so the Tempter picks up on that theme, and starts off his temptations with, “If you are the Son of God…” change these stones into bread. Jump off this tower. Take over the world. At the baptism, Jesus’ identity has been revealed to him. Now, in the wilderness, he has to struggle with what that identity means. So the story about Jesus in the wilderness really seems to have the shape of a legend about a hero. He is undergoing a series of tests as he receives his heroic name.
Now, we may enter the Lenten wilderness wearing our nametag, the identity we received in baptism: “This is my child, the beloved, in whom I am well pleased.” And here in the wilderness, we may become hungry, or lonely, or tired, and find that we’re vulnerable to the sweet-talk of the Tempter, and so we may, like Jesus, have to wrestle with our own identity as the sons and daughters of God. It seems to me that that is exactly what we are called to do in Lent. But most of us will not be tempted to live out that identity by jumping off of tall buildings or performing miracles. Our temptations are not of heroic size. They might take the shape or the voice of a box of See’s chocolates. They might find their homes in the loneliness of an empty house. They might ambush us in our busy-ness, when we’re too scattered to focus in on meditation or prayer. The temptations we face in the Lenten wilderness are not, in general, very lofty. In fact, our temptations tend to crawl on their bellies, like snakes.
There was just one time in my life when I actually succeeded in keeping Lent the way I planned. It was 1981, and I was not very happy, and I was not very healthy, but I was going to church as usual, and I experienced a mysterious sort of spark of recognition that I have never been able to describe. No burning bushes, no voices from heaven, nothing like that. But I knew, somehow, that something was up, and so in the time leading up to Lent I was sort of on alert. Listening. And I will not say I got any message directing me. But what I quietly realized during that time was that I needed to quit drinking for Lent.
Now, I will bet that everyone who is a church person and also has an addiction has tried at some time to give up that addiction for Lent. I had done it quite a few times, always unsuccessfully. See, my lack of success at a Lenten discipline is not something new for me. I’ve never been able to do it. Gave up drinking lots of times. Always started again, sometimes in less than a week. And of course, Sundays don’t count.
But in 1981, something was different. Instead of just giving up drinking as a discipline, I decided to spend Lent thinking about who I was, and who I was becoming. I wasn’t consciously thinking in terms of my baptismal nametag, but in fact that’s what I was doing. And I came to the realization that I didn’t like who I was, and that who I was was being dragged down by alcohol, even when I wasn’t actually drinking at the moment. I realized that after Lent was over, I needed not to start up drinking again.
So far, the story could be the same as all those other experiences of unsuccessful Lenten disciplines. But this time, one thing was really, really different. I figured out that I couldn’t handle it alone. And from very early in the whole thing, I started depending on other people to help me. And of course, not right away, but within a few weeks, I had discovered Alcoholics Anonymous, and for the first time in my life had heard someone read the Twelve Steps. And my first reaction was, “Where has this been all my life?”
X X X
Has it occurred to you that maybe only Christians pay attention to that story of Jesus and the Tempter in the wilderness? The story has made it into popular culture to a certain extent, but you don’t see it depicted on salt and pepper shakers. The story of Adam and Eve and the serpent in the garden is quite another matter. We paint lots of pictures of it. We make jokes about it. And we joke about it, I submit, because every one of us knows exactly what it’s about. We’ve been there. We know that snake.
The snake in that story is not something evil. He is one of the creatures that God created, and pronounced them all good. We might say the same thing about the many substances or behaviors we get addicted to. Many of them may be good in themselves. They may warm the heart or fill an empty place. The question is whether they present a temptation to trust in them instead of in God.
On our journey of recovery, we “made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God, as we understood God.” We made a decision to focus our trust on God, and not on the substance or behavior of our addiction. And people’s understandings of that God they trust are all over the map. As a child of the church, I grew up with pictures and stories about God that shaped the way I understood him/her/it. But my experience in the fellowship of A.A. offered me a much more fundamental understanding. As one of those wise quotable quotes puts it: “There’s only one thing you really need to know about God. You’re not him.” That’s a bumper sticker slogan worth a thousand volumes of theology. Meditate on it day and night.
For me, there is another dimension to the God of my understanding. The God of my understanding, the God in whom I put my trust, is a God I most often encounter in community. Yes, I do meditate now and then, in my undisciplined way. Yes, I do pray in secret, in my closet. But I am powerless to maintain my trust in God without the help of my fellow-seekers, my fellow-Christians, my fellow-addicts. I have come to believe that a power greater than myself can restore me to sanity, and I also believe that that power often expresses itself through the support of my friends.
How very appropriate that your parish community has chosen this way of marking the beginning of Lent. Some of us may like trying to rise to the challenge of some particular kind of solo spiritual calisthenics. Some of us may be motivated by the heroism of shouting down Satan when he tempts us to grandiosity. But most of us, it seems to me, can relate pretty quickly to recognizing our powerlessness in the face of the creeping temptations of the snake. It’s a fundamental truth about being human, creatures of dust that we are. About being, in fact, the beloved children of God. May our unsuccessful attempts at a Lenten discipline remind us, over and over, of our true identity, our identity in community, and move us again to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God, as we understand God.
A poem for Lent…
You and I have spoken all these words, but as for the way
we have to go, words
are no preparation. There is no getting ready, other than
Inside each of us, there’s continual autumn. Our leaves
fall and are blown out
over the water. A crow sits in the blackened limbs and talks
about what’s gone. Then
your generosity returns: spring, moisture, intelligence, the
scent of hyacinth and rose
There’s a necessary dying, and then Jesus breaths again.
Very little grows on jagged
rock. Be ground. Be crumbled, so wildflowers will come up
where you are. You’ve been
stony for too many years. Try something different. Try Surrender.
The Texts This Week:
1 Samuel 16:1-13 • Psalm 23 • Ephesians 5:8-14 • John 9:1-41
Please pray for:
Deborah Williams; Rosemary Johnson; Jeff Mendonca, partner of Julie Wakelee-Lynch, who is recovering from surgery; and the family of Leanne Bearden.
Sunday Lenten Series:
Please join us in the parish hall after coffee hour for our Lenten series: “Los Olvidados – The Forgotten Ones.” This morning we welcome Friends of Sabeel who will tell us about the Plight of Christians in Palestine. We’ll meet in the Sisson Salon after coffee hour.
SPRING CLEANING, April 5 and 6, 2014:
We’re making the parish hall and grounds clean and pretty for Easter Day! Join us on Saturday April 5 10:00-3:00, and please bring a bag lunch. Sunday, April 6th, we’ll pick up our brooms and brushes after the forum with Sheila Andrus (please bring a pot luck dish for lunch). AND please bring/wear grubby clothes on Sunday. We will, among other things be painting our bathrooms!
The Socks Project!
The School for Deacons is holding its annual drive for socks – The Socks Project. Students from the School gather new and/or second-hand socks for the homeless men and women of our community and they are brought to St. Martin de Porres in San Francisco for blessing and distribution. Our diaconal seminarian, George Bandorf, will be collecting the socks for Good Shepherd and you can donate throughout Lent by dropping socks in the box behind the greeter’s table. For more information about the drive, please see George.
Wednesday Night Lenten Prayer:
Wednesday nights in Lent we will have a service of contemplative prayer from 7:00 to 8:00PM, using scriptural and non-scriptural readings with chanting and meditation. Join us in the parish hall!
Equipping the Beloved Community in May
St. Timothy’s, Danville, will be the hosts on Saturday, May 17, when the Contra Costa Deanery offers a variety of workshops for leaders and learners, including an all-day track of Godly Play and a variety of workshops for lay training, liturgy and arts, congregational development, and outreach. Eucharistic Ministry and Visiting training will also be available, which require 6–8 weeks of advance preparation.
When: Saturday, May 17, 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.
Where: St. Timothy’s, 1550 Diablo Road, Danville
Contact: Julia McCray-Goldsmith, email@example.com, 415.869.7826
The Rev. Este Gardner Cantor 2/16/14
Deuteronomy 30:15-20 Psalm 119:1-8 • 1 Corinthians 3:1-9 • Matthew 5:21-37
With readings like those we heard today, it might be suggested to a preacher to not be too preachy. Because who among us can say that they perfectly keep the original 10 commandments, let alone Jesus’ ambitious upgrade- 10.2.
In Deuteronomy we read,
If you obey the commandments of the LORD your God … then you shall live and become numerous, and the LORD your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to possess.
But if your heart turns away and you do not hear, but are led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them,…you shall perish…
Like it or not, we are clearly being told that following these commandments is a matter of life or death. Not merely physical life and death, though. However we may wail at our losses, we all know the bargain we have made as far as that goes.
Annie Dillard puts it beautifully, speaking of life with God’s strange death-inclusive plan:
…We could have planned things more mercifully, perhaps, but our plan would never get off the drawing board until we agreed to the very compromising terms that are the only ones that being offers; It is a covenant to which every thing, even every hydrogen atom is bound. The terms are clear: if you want to live, you have to die…The world came into being with the signing of that contract.
We all signed that contract. We all know we are going to die. But Christianity is concerned with a different kind of life and death, and a different kind of covenant. We seek to have abundant life in this lifetime, and eternal life as well. The great question is: how do we do this? And how do we avoid the worship of those oh so enticing “other gods?”
Our reading in Deuteronomy speaks of the wanderings of the heart, and perhaps this question is a matter of the heart as well. What if Jeremiah had the right idea when he described the new covenant of the Lord? It is upon our hearts, as Jeremiah so beautifully puts it, that God’s laws will be written:
I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another or say, “Know the Lord,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest…for I will forgive their iniquities and remember their sin no more.
What is described is following the commandments because you can’t help it- because it is written in your heart, it is part of your very being. I believe that this is the new covenant Jesus was talking about at the last supper- the creation of a oneness between God and humankind, a forgiveness of sin that was effortless and inevitable because the two parts are one.
We do not, in this particular violent and competitive culture, act from our hearts very often. We act out of fear, out of intellect, occasionally out of pity. Certainly our minds often rule over our hearts. And our hearts, I would say, resist being written on like a new building resists graffiti.
Our minds, in obedience to our culture, obey the laws of separation, of binary thinking, of a kind of brutal duality, of a consciousness that is still in some ways, on survival mode.
“Putting on the Mind of Christ” is a wonderful book by Jim Marion, who is not a theologian, but, of all things, a Washington Lawyer! The title of his book refers to St. Paul’s plea in Philippians 2:5:
“Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.” This is a tall order- and an astonishing thought-that we might actually acquire the consciousness of Jesus. Marion puts forth the idea that the Kingdom of God that Jesus is always on about is not only not a physical place, but it is a state of consciousness. A non-dual consciousness where there is indeed no separation between God and humankind, and no separation between humans.
Jesus is doing something quite revolutionary- quite shocking in this Gospel passage. I read that it was not unusual, in rabbinical literature of the time, to cast one form of teaching in contrast to another, and then conclude with “But I say to you…” but no rabbi contrasted his own ideas with the word of God in the Torah. This took a lot of chutzpah. This was a radicalization of the Torah, as shocking as Jesus’ other radicalizations. Not only murder, but anger, and insults are also seen as outside of the Kingdom of Heaven. But Jesus, with typical compassion, knows that we will, inevitably, have conflict with our brother or sister, and he tells us what to do about it.
This is a highly inconvenient truth for me, as I just had a fight with my brother over a trifle. Even more embarrassingly, it was a Facebook fight. Facebook had previously seemed like a safe way for us to communicate, but that proved false even in the private message mode. I felt he did, in fact, insult me. But I am, according to Jesus, to leave my gift before the altar and go and be reconciled to him. He, who insulted me! Where’s the fun in that?
I have to say, Jesus putting this scenario of reconciliation so close to the commandment not to murder seems to lend it a lot of heft. I am going to have to call my brother. I am going to have to try to see with the half-blind eye of my heart.
And it seems that I can’t even swear about my brother in the privacy of my own heart, because Jesus is pretty clear about that too. Jesus’ injunction against swearing is kind of a fascinating peek into the things that people actually said. Apparently they actually said things like, “By my head, 100 denari for that miserable donkey is an abomination!” or, “By Jerusalem, I will never drink wine at this inn again!”
But we are not to swear at all- we are only to say only “Yes, yes” or “No, no.” I have to say that if I had heeded that advise, my conversation with my brother would have gone a lot more smoothly.
How do we get to the place where we can reconcile with our brother or sister? How can we see with the eye of the heart? Upgrading our consciousness is not an easy task, but this is Jesus’ great suggestion.
“Blessed are the pure in heart,” he tells us. We can follow the lead of Jesus, and make sure to find a time when we can “withdraw to a solitary and private place” for prayer and meditation, as he often did. That may be the easy part, but we will never get to the next part without it. For the next part- the hard part, we can only try to bless each other, as he commands, with forgiveness, with gentleness, with prayer and of course, with love. Then we may get to glimpse the Kingdom. Then we might begin to see, although through a glass darkly, the view from the heart.