Archive for February, 1996

Ash Wednesday

The apocryphal story being told at breakfast this morning in my community is about Pat Buchanan. Apparently, so someone says, Bob Dole had been talking again about his humble origins in Kansas, how he started with nothing, and how he’s had to work hard for everything he has. On which Buchanan supposedly comments: “if he’s a self-made man it’s sad to see such shoddy workmanship.”

Today we come together to celebrate our humble origins—and to wear their mark. “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.” Dust, ash, dirt—earth. We are earthlings, creatures formed from the dust and the spittle of God. “Adam,” before it was the name of the first human, was a description—”H’adam”—earth creature, created from dust.

We are made of earth. We are made for earth. Earth is what joins us, what marks our common creation. The soil links us to each other, to every other creature of earth, to this very planet, and even to the stars—since every atom of our bodies is the from the dust and ashes of long dead suns. Even here on earth, every atom of our bodies has been used before, countless times, in other bodies; other humans, other creatures. There is something of Jesus in all of us—and something of the slime-mold!

This is humility: to be humus, to be human. To be human, to be humble, is to be someone made, someone well-made, someone made from the same stuff as all other things. Made from dirt, we are yet God’s work of art, made for a purpose we only half know. We are the soil singing a song of reconciliation for all creatures.

So today we begin our Lent, marked on our foreheads with the sign of our origins, which is the sign of our hope. We are made—we are not self-made—yet somehow our future, and the future of all things, is in our hands. And God is calling to us, pleading with us, to get back to the basics of our creation, to get back to our roots in the earth.

In this season we offer ourselves to God to be made again—to be converted—to be made into something new, yet something we have always desired to be.

To let God’s work of prayer and fasting and charity to be done in us and through us, for all things.

To get back to basics. The humility of our origins. The glory of our calling. To remember we are dust and to dust we will return.

February 21st, 1996

Sunday Week 7 Year A

At the beginning of a new year and with Lent just around the corner we are faced today with the urgency of the command: be holy. It is a command spoken three times in the scripture today. Not a request, not an option, but a command. And not just for some, not just for a few but for all of us.

Which is all very well … but to obey that commandment we need to know what it means and that’s not easy.

What is it to be holy? What do the readings say? First of all we hear this: do not hate; do not seek revenge; love your neighbour as yourself. These all seem pretty reasonable conditions for holiness. But Paul’s letter is more mysterious: we are each a temple of the Holy Spirit and we must not destroy this temple; we had better be fools rather than wise, because to this world God is a fool. Finally, in the Gospel, Jesus preaches this powerful list of instructions in holiness: offer no resistance to injury; let yourself be struck rather than fighting back; give up your goods if someone wants them; love those who hate you. These are hard sayings. It is hard to hear these things and think they are for us. They might be ideal ways to live but they don’t seem practical—not if you’ve a job to do, mouths to feed, children to raise. In fact they sound down right dangerous. You would have to be a fool to really live that way. And it doesn’t even sound that ideal. Does God really want us never to think about ourselves, does God wants us to be walked all over, all the time, with no self-respect, no dignity? How can we be temples of the Holy Spirit and let that temple be ruined by other people with no defense. Is this what holiness is all about? And what about the others, the ones doing the striking and the taking, does God want the vicious and the violent to get away with their crimes? . Is this what holiness is all about?

I don’t think so. I think the list of do’s and don’ts is not the point at all. The real point is repeated in each of our three readings: we are to be holy because God is holy. More, we are to be holy because the holy God is present with us, now and always.

The holiness of God takes us back to a sense of the word holy that we can forget when we think mainly about ourselves. The holiness of the Old Testament God was awesome. Dangerous. The presence of God was something to be adored and to be worshipped and even to be feared. Something powerful: like high-voltage electricity or nuclear radiation. Something wonderful, but also pent-up, contained, which if unleashed would blind, and burn, and scour. No one could see the face of God and live, they said. And the reason the Israelite’s gave for this was that God is holy but they were not. This is the reason for the cult and the worship and the sacrifices and all the laws—not to bargain with God or keep God quiet or to get from God what they wanted—but to channel this power, this energy. To let it flow through the nation without tearing it apart. God dwelt with his people. A powerful God, and dangerous, and beautiful, and holy. And the only way to live with such a God was to be holy in turn.

All the rituals and laws and demands for holiness were not about individual piety or personal goodness but about a community were God could dwell and God’s awful power be made known. The command to be holy was as much as anything about safety, about handling that incredible power.

Holiness is dangerous. The demands we hear in the Gospel today, that at first sound so ideal or so stupid should be understood against the background of this danger.

The people who heard Jesus preach were poor and ordinary working people trying to live however they could surrounded by the soldiers of an occupying army. Israel was under Roman military rule. If you belonged to one of the ruling families you could survive because you had money and influence to smooth things over. If you didn’t mind your own people hating you, you could make a living by collecting taxes for the Romans. If you had a suitable temperament you could be a terrorist and fight the Romans that way. But the people listening to Jesus probably had none of those choices. They simply had to work hard to make a living and feed the family, and pay their taxes and just get by. And all the while they bore the brunt of angry soldiers and uncaring officials and their neighbours troubles. It is to these people that Jesus speaks a dangerous message about how to live under a foreign army. If they strike you on the right cheek, offer them the other. If they take your shirt, give them your coat. If they force you into labour do twice as much as they ask. And after all they have done, and will do, love them, greet them, pray for their well-being.

Why? Why do this? Because God does the same. God whose sun rises on the good and the bad alike. Whose rains fall upon both the just and the unjust.

There is life in this vision. Life and power and energy. It is not an ideal to be grudgingly followed day by day. It is not a burden to grind down the passion of life and leave people dry and petty and holier-than-thou. Instead it is a way of life that refuses to be beaten by oppression, and hangs on to freedom in the teeth of fear. It is heroic and dangerous. Maybe it is even attractive.

The challenge for us is not the living of that way of life from 2000 years ago but the struggle to know what it would mean here and now. How can one live with freedom and integrity and honour and passion— not under an occupying army but in a foreign land? What do Jesus’ words say to your situation? Vietnamese in America, trying hard to make a living and feed your family, and pay your taxes and just get by. What are your particular challenges? What is the danger of holiness for you? It’s a new year … Lent is coming. What does Jesus say to you?

February 18th, 1996

Sunday Week 5 Year A

Salt used to be a good thing — now it just raises our blood-pressure. Once packaged foods delighted in their saltiness — now they vie for the label “low Sodium.” Like “no fat” and “caffeine free” what we once sought out for pleasure, we now avoid for long life.

Salt used to be precious—Roman soldiers received part of their pay in salt—their salary. Any of you who are on enforced low-salt diets know just how precious salt still is. Things need taste. We need to be saved from blandness. This, says the gospel, is our communal vocation —to give the world some flavor. But will this low-sodium world thank us for it? I doubt it. But, in fact, our ambivalent feelings about salt offers a good image of our ambiguous relationship to the nation we are part of. We—church—as we lend a little flavor, should also be sending the blood-pressure of the world soaring. The people of Oakland shouldn’t know what to do with us or without us.

Jesus’ message is that, like it or not, we carry the flavor of the reign of God. You cannot take away the taste of salt. Like it or not, the world tastes us, and through us tastes God. We cannot hide the way we taste. So how are we doing? How annoying are we? How salty?

Take this nation, America. The US sees itself as a beacon to the world, a place of freedom, hope, refuge. “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” That once meant something. America saw herself as a God-given experiment in holy politics. A City set on a hill. America is certainly that. There is no hiding America on the world stage. But how does that light shine? What do other nations think of this country? What about today’s immigrants? Do they see the Kingdom of God? Or Oakland’s poor and homeless? Do they taste the gospel?

Which brings me to ourselves? Are we salty enough to give taste to the American stew? Do we taste just the same as the rest of the dish. How does our taste stand out?

I want to mention three ways that come to mind this morning.

First off, take our gathering here. There is something very odd about spending a Sunday morning the way we do? When you could be sleeping in … Or going out … Or reading the papers. But we come here. With nothing in common, but the following of a common criminal, from a foreign land, and a distant time. We come and we pray together and we eat a frugal meal together and we do it rain or shine, in sickness and in health, for richer, for poorer. Those who study culture say that mainstream America has lost its middle: we yearn for intimacy in personal relationships and the imagined golden days when everyone knew each other and we were all friends and people were decent—and everything that isn’t private and personal has become political. They say that Americans don’t know any way of being together that isn’t at one extreme personal and at the other political. Gone is the whole middle ground of the public square. But we have it here. We have a genuine community of the middle. We are not all friends and we are not a political rally. We are a community of memory, searching together for a way of following Jesus. That’s why Renew, which starts again soon, is so important to us. The Renew small groups aren’t about making new friends or sharing sudden intimacies, nor are they about theory and organisation and action. These groups help each of us fill the middle ground between private and political. They help us, this larger community, to be a real community. They are another way to let Jesus search us out and surprise us.

My own group really helped me last fall, as I struggled with a decision I felt God was asking me to make—whether to ask my boss in Britain to let me come back here after my ordination in England—they let me talk about the excitement of that and the fear of it, so that it didn’t all stay private — so I didn’t have to carry it all alone. They listened when I fell out with God over it, and felt God’s presence disappear, and just gave me support and still trusted me enough to tell me about they’re own search for God and it’s ups and downs. During those six weeks I think we all deepened our flavor.

(As an aside, the decision I eventually and peacefully made before Christmas was to go ahead and ask. Yesterday morning I heard from England that I have been given permission to stay. So as the terminator said “I’ll be back”)

My Renew group helped me personally. If you haven’t signed up yet I urge you too. If not for its pleasures then out of duty. The duty to lend flavor. It probably doesn’t come naturally to you, but then that’s the whole point. (Pitch over!)

Now, in a few moments we are going to do something else that doesn’t come naturally in this culture. We are going to anoint the sick. Outside this space, the sick are shunned — The ideal American is fit, healthy, and buff. To be sick isn’t just a misfortune it’s a moral failure — it’s an embarrassment that cuts you out of the way of life which society values —until you get better. On top of the ordinary pain and despair of illness, our society adds loneliness, and exclusion. AIDS is the extreme example but we do the same with handicap, cancer, even age.

Anointing the sick isn’t an magical form of medicine, we are not a cheap HMO, and though we do pray for healing what is really going on here is much deeper — it is a prophetic anointing. We do not understand sickness, we would rather do without it, but here in this church we turn that fear and exclusion upside down. We bring the sick people of our community from the margins, from the fringe, and we place them at the centre. You, if you are ill or wounded in any way, are the broken heart of this community. If we have any saltiness left it is because of you. There is an invitation here, a vocation. Somewhere down the line sickness awaits us all, as does death. The joy of life only has any taste because it is seasoned with sorrow. But sorrow doesn’t exclude anyone from this community. We follow a wounded saviour and we do what the world at large can’t do, we carry our paradoxical sufferings together, and we carry them proudly. We are not ashamed of being human, we are not ashamed of being sick, we are not ashamed of each other. We are the salt of the earth — sick and all.

1 comment February 4th, 1996


February 1996
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