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.

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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.

AMEN.

Lightning

                  The Rev. Este Gardner Cantor, Easter Sunday April 20, 2014

Jeremiah 31:1-6 Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24  • Colossians 3:1-4,  Matthew 28:1-10

 At the first light of dawn, Mary Magdalene, and the other Mary- very possibly Jesus’ mother- went to see Jesus’ tomb. Suddenly, the very earth and the heavens seem to violently respond to something miraculous that has occurred. The Earth quakes. A bolt of lightening, in the form of an angel descends. The angel rolls away the stone from the tomb, that the two Marys might see the miracle first hand. There is only black emptiness. Jesus is not there, for he has risen. The angel, flooded with light is a herald of the light of Jesus’ resurrection- blinding light emanating from the darkest of places.

We have had much need of that Light in the past year. We have been mourning and recovering from the loss of our beloved church home. We have had to accept that great loss, and learn to with it and to worship with it. Last year, on Good Friday, we actually worshipped in the burned-out shell of the old church. A more tomb-like place could hardly be imagined. We desperately needed light to shine from that tomb.

We have pondered our baptism of fire for over a year now, and the readings during Lent, readings surprisingly filled with light, seemed to me to be helping us along our way, leading us to some kind of Easter revelation.

We read the story of the man born blind. A man born without light. Jesus happens upon him, walking down the road, and his disciples ask him, “Why was this man born blind? Was it because of his sins, or the sins of his family?”

Jesus surprises them: he says, ‘Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.” The tragedy of his blindness was a portal for the glory of God.

The following week we had the story of Lazarus. When the anxious disciples, knowing how dear Lazarus was to their teacher, told Jesus that Lazarus was sick unto death, Jesus surprised them as well: “This sickness,” he said,  “will not end in death. No, it is for God’s glory so that God’s Son may be glorified through it.” It seems that Jesus offers us the possibility that

The Rev. Este Gardner Cantor

The Rev. Este Gardner Cantor

all our wounds, all our tragedies are portals for God’s glory- portals for the light- Light coming into us and light shining out of us.  Jesus’ own wounds, and Jesus own death are the ultimate manifestation of the glory that shines through desolation.

Why did our beloved church burn so tragically? Was it because of our sins, or the sins of the diocese at large? For a very long time I wasn’t ready to consider that, but now I can honestly say that it must have happened to show forth the glory of God.  We have received grace upon grace from our community, from our neighbors, from within our own congregation, discovering resilience and resources we never could have imagined. We began to experience resurrection long before the beautiful building that will be our new church began to take shape. We have been like Jeremiah’s people, who survived the sword and found grace in the wilderness. As the angel and as Jesus told the the two Marys, we had nothing to be afraid of. Resurrection greeted us even as the sight of the tomb was still in our eyes.

During Holy Week the old cross that stood as the pinnacle at the top of the steeple for 137 years had to be taken down for repair. When I saw it on the workbench in the church, I told our contractor that I wanted to use it for our Good Friday service. Those of you who joined me on Good Friday will know this story. I was told that the center of the old cross was so corroded that it had hollowed out, and that it actually fell apart when they removed it. The contractor was skeptical that I would want such a wounded thing to worship with. On Good Friday, I told the story of another thing I learned about the cross. Inside the hollow of that cross, in the very heart of it, was a swallow’s nest. And that there was even still the remnant of an eggshell from the last inhabitant. Long ago, the baby bird apparently hatched himself from that dark place, left the nest and ascended unto heaven.

Every Friday, we feed a big hot lunch to anyone who is hungry in the neighborhood. This often includes me, so I have sat and lunched with and gotten to know many of our guests. But on Good Friday, we had to cancel the lunch, because our service was right at 12:00. In spite of getting the word out ahead of time, in spite of several signs in English and Spanish, several people came, expecting to be fed.

They stayed for the service anyway.

These guests of ours know something about brokenness, about dark places. After the service, I opened up the broken cross, and we all saw the nest, right in the heart of the cross, and we saw the fragments of eggshell. Our unexpected guests came for food, for physical sustenance, but what they were fed, what we all were fed with, was the vision of new life rising out of damage, out of brokenness, out of woundedness.

This is the message of the resurrection. New life, abundant life, abundant light coming from the darkest place imaginable. Coming from brokenness, coming from pain, coming even from death.

The beautiful words we heard from Jeremiah today predict a time of sacred reconciliation between God and mankind. A time when, as God says, “I will be the God of all the families of Israel.” This was Jeremiah’s sacred New Covenant between God and God’s people that Jesus spoke of at the last supper. God would know our sins no more, we would be utterly forgiven, and we would be God’s people. Jesus used his own death to seal that covenant. Christ’s death is the ultimate expression of blinding light emanating from the tomb- darkness and wounding acting as a conduit for the glory of God. Love, life, light, forgiveness emanating from desolation.

The resurrection of Jesus brings the possibility of resurrection for us all. Resurrection out of our death-like places, our darkness, our brokenness. Resurrection out of our own tombs.

The possibility can arise that we find ourselves resurrected indeed, ready and able to truly come alive and take wing. Alleluia! Chris

Alleluia, Christ is risen!

 

 

Good Friday

The Rev. Este Gardner Cantor 4/18/14

Last year at this time, we worshipped in the blackened shell of our old church. There was barely enough light to see, but there was just enough. The smell of smoke was still strong, and the sheer tomb-like blackness of the space was over-whelming. The grief we feel for Jesus’ death every year was mixed with the grief we felt for our beloved church. The church was dark in mid-day, as was the sky on the day of Jesus’ crucifixion.

Today we have before us the cross that has stood as the highest peak of this church for almost 138 years. It is damaged, broken, lying on the floor for us to reverence. I was told that the cross was so weatherworn and wounded that it was surprising that it had not come completely apart and fallen off the steeple. I was told that the wood of the interior of the cross was completely corroded, and the cross broke open when the contractor pulled it down. One of the four gold ornaments on the cross had fallen off and long ago been replaced with the gold-painted ceramic lid of a jar.

As the workmen began to strip the paint from the cross they went through quite a few layers, until they saw that the original cross was all gold- gold leaf in fact. The first people of this church had had that beacon shining from the steeple’s pinnacle for a very long time. It must have lit up the neighborhood, even in the dark.

When the cross lay on the worktable, the craftsmen began to take it apart to see how much was salvageable. When they did, they saw that there had been a hole in the very heart of the cross, right in the center. And in this hole, a swallow’s nest was still in evidence. There was even the remnant of eggshells from a long ago baby swallow.

When I first asked the contractor to bring the cross over for us to reverence for our Good Friday service he said, of course- in fact the timing will be perfect. By that time it will be stripped, repaired, repainted and the gold ornaments will be good as new. It will be perfect. I had to explain that I thought it was beautiful the way it was, that we were remembering Jesus damage, Jesus’ brokenness, Jesus’ pain. As it happened, it turned out that the cross was too damaged to keep, and most of it will have to be entirely rebuilt. So we have our dear, damaged broken cross to reverence today.

For me, the damage makes the cross more lovable, perhaps helps us see and forgive our own damage somehow, perhaps even makes us see and forgive our own betrayals, our own dark places in the heart. And it reminds us, as the swallow would demonstrate, that new life inevitably comes from those dark places.

Photo 4- Damaged cross from top of churchAmen.

The Light of the World (text)

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.”
Amen.

The Epiphany of Jesus

Bill Countryman

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.