Posts filed under 'Berkeley'
“So I shall say to myself, ‘Self, you have so many good things stored up for so many years, so rest, eat, drink, be merry!’” Famous last words—but not my favourite ones!
My favourite, famous last words come from General John Sedgwick during the Civil War: “They couldn’t hit an elephant at this dist…”
There’s something that fascinates us about last gasp, dying breath, final testaments. Wouldn’t you like to go out in a blaze of wit? Oscar Wilde: “Either this wallpaper goes or I do.” Or even St. Laurence, martyred on the grill “Turn me over—I’m done on this side.”
I like the innocent last words better though, the uncalculated revelations of what is important. Anna Pavlova, the ballerina, asking for her Swan costume, or Tallulah Bankhead calling out, “Codeine … Bourbon…”
Our readings today are playing with the notion of inheritance, of legacy, what you leave behind and who gets their filthy paws on it. For death is a funny thing—in one sense the most private of all life’s passages, the one you make alone and send back no messages, the final accounting that can only be made by you. But on the other hand it is where you are most public—handed over into memory, into legacy, inheritance …things.
What do you want to be remembered for? … What about Orville Wright: “No flying machine will ever make it across the Atlantic.” Or the Warner Brother, “Who the heck wants to hear actors talk?” Or the unnamed executive at Decca Records, “We don’t like their sound, and, anyway, guitar music is on the way out.” The Beatles!
I like it that Jesus was only willing to answer the disgruntled brother in the gospel with a rebuke and with a joke. Because even though Luke calls it a parable it is really more of a joke. But what’s the punch line?
Imagine this you are rich—well pretty well-off anyway—and then you go and win the lottery and you have suddenly more money than you know what to do with. What do you do? Well, what do you do? The guy in the story doesn’t have a bad idea—he plans: “well my checking account won’t do—need to make that money work—dodge the taxes—buy a neat house, a few gadgets—never need to work again. And as we hear it the voice from heaven seems mean-spirited. There goes God ruining everything again. We know death is coming to us all sometime—but why now? Why take away all the innocent pleasure this guy was going to get?
Well maybe that’s the way we might hear it being so used to deciding for ourselves, to having a surplus, however small, in the bank. We hear the story as if it were about famous last words: foolish pride or something.
But back then was another world. And the rich guy’s problem wasn’t so much his pride as his selfishness. Listen to him: What shall I do? I shall… I, I, I. I shall say to myself, Self… Two things are going on. He is treating the windfall as his own property and he is treating himself as his own property. He acts as if the wealth belongs to himself. And he acts as if he belongs to himself. And both would have been a scandal to Jesus’ hearers. They saw both those things as belonging to the village and ultimately as belonging to God. We are used to idea of profit, the lie that one person can gain without depriving others, that wealth trickles down. But to the Palestinian peasant life was a zero-sum game. If I get rich I do it off your back. Probably by your labour. What I have you lack. And when God gives a bumper harvest it isn’t mine to store away—it belongs in part to everyone. … And who am I anyway? Am I a separate self who can forget family and community and all those who hold me in life? In a way, our own lives are based on that lie. You leave me alone and I’ll leave you alone. Here in the states we call it freedom. Only in church do we regularly remember the truth of our lives. We are not alone, we are handed our selves by others, by community. We are most our own selves, not when we are alone and free to do what we want, but when we are relying on each other in worship, in faith, in justice.
That’s the punch line. Look at this dummy—he thinks he belongs to himself. He thinks he can go it alone. He thinks he knows what’s in his own interest. Dummy!
What do we want to be remembered for? As if we could decide that on our own! Dummies! It is always someone else who does the remembering.
Oh, legacy, leaving, memory … we English don’t do goodbyes very well. The stiff upper-lip gets in the way. But God has been insistent that I don’t let this one get away. My prayer 5 years ago, when you all sent me off to be ordained, was that I, as priest, not get in your way, in the way of your work of being the body of Christ. I hope I haven’t. But if I haven’t, I have you all to thank for not letting me get in your way. … It has been tempting this week, with all the farewells and good wishes and embarrassing praise, to think about my impact, my gifts, my legacy—as though this were my bumper harvest and I have to store it all up for myself. But what I have learned here—what you have taught me—is that this—this community, this worship, this really bumper harvest of the spirit—is your work, your joy, your gift to each other, oh and to me. We are each, each other’s work, each other’s joy. If I arrive in England a better priest, a better Christian, a better person, then that is your work … and my joy. I can’t imagine any better place to begin ministry than here with you.
And I’m going to miss this place so much. Miss all your faces. Miss the support you’ve given me, miss your ongoing stories. But where I have been expecting to feel loss and sadness in these last weeks I’ve only found a bumper harvest of surprising joy and tender celebration. And I don’t have to store it up at all. Neither do you …In my prayer in these recent days I find God is immensely proud, proud of what you all do here. Is that a good enough legacy?
August 5th, 2001
Once upon a time—that’s just to let you know that this is one of those homilies—once upon a time, Jesus was sitting there praying, looking out from closed eyes over the sun-scorched hills of his homeland. The guys who followed him from place to place were all there watching him, impatiently, maybe wistfully. They could see the look that came upon his face. They could see … something in his aching body. And they looked at each other and they wanted what he had.
“I wish I could pray,” said Martha.
“I wish I could pray like that,” said her sister.
Peter, ever aware of being in charge, spoke up, “You know, I’ve read all the right books on prayer but I still don’t feel I know how to pray.”
“Not just books either,” added John, “I’ve sat at the feet of some of the best teachers but I still don’t know how to pray the way I’d like.”
“Well, don’t feel bad,” Matthew put in, “books and gurus are fine but even with the best workshops—and I’ve been to them—I still can’t pray properly.”
By now, Jesus was getting distracted by their wrangling so he got up from his prayer to face them. “What is it now?” he asked. Peter spoke up immediately, “Teach us to pray!” “Yes!” “Yes!” the others all echoed his words, “Teach us how to pray!”
“Oh, is that all? Good. Just say this … ‘Look God … these are the things we need … food, forgiveness, and a father … or a mother,” he added, catching a look from Martha.
Well, there was silence. There was embarrassment. They could hear themselves breathe. Until, finally Peter said, “Well, Lord, we already know about prayer of petition, of intercession—and I can see that’s important … but what about real prayer?”
“Yes,” John jumped in, “what comes after the kiddy stuff? Teach us that!”
And Matthew, trying to be helpful, prompted Jesus, “You know, Rabbi … meditation, contemplation, using scripture, centring … Teach us how to really pray?”
“Oh,” said Jesus understanding them at last, “you want the advanced prayer methods. Well that’s quite a lot harder to explain.”
Well, their eyes lit up at that. They licked their lips in anticipation. “But are you sure you are ready?”
“Yes, Lord, Yes!”
“OK! Where to begin … Well in 30 years of careful prayer and study I’ve developed the perfect technique. It can be learned if you have enough discipline and stamina—though, I have to warn you, not everyone has the necessary mental clarity and emotional purity to completely master my methodology. Do you still want to try?”
“OK, well sit down and make yourself comfortable. Ready?”
“Close your eyes. Breathe deeply, breathe easily. Be aware. Now say, ‘Look God … these are the things we need … food, forgiveness, and a father.’”
And Jesus turned and went back to his own prayer.
July 29th, 2001
This is a divisive little episode for we who hear it. Who are you rooting for? Let’s have a show of hands on that… Who’s to blame? Who’s the bad guy? Mary who’s sitting there like a lump neglecting her sister … or Martha who’s so full of her hospitality that she can’t be hospitable?
Now the preacher has this deep temptation to smooth things over, to balance out the blame, or find a way for them all to come out looking good, Jesus included with all his snippy rebukes. Look how the gospel brings out the urge to tidy up. It make Martha’s of us all. All the while it is urging that we get out of the kitchen and sit still but we end up trying to make it all fit and getting angry and irritated that Jesus doesn’t make it easy.
I may have lost one of my best friends this week. I said the wrong thing, or didn’t say the right thing when I should but then said it when I shouldn’t. Like Martha I set aside silence, I let out my feelings of irritation at being overlooked and did it just when it would be most annoying and hardest to handle. And the urge in me to go back and unsay “the said” is enormous and seductive, to seek silence now even at the cost of integrity, to tidy up the mess. But I can’t. Unsaying is an art beyond any of us. And the passion for tidiness has always eluded me. But how I want this tidied up, smoothed over, made neat!
The meeting between Abraham and his three strange guests seems very neat. A tale of hospitality. A tale of reward. For all that kneading of flour, slaughtering of steers, milking of goats Sarah will have a child. What we don’t hear today is what comes next. And it’s a serious omission. Sarah laughed. She was listening in and she laughed out loud—“What!? When I’m dried up and he’s past it”—and the mysterious visitors take offense.
The story is about more than entertaining angels unawares. Abraham has been full of his divine promise—remember it: flocks and riches and descendants as many as the stars and a name to be a blessing for all nations—but Sarah has heard none of it. Abraham has kept it to himself—as though it belonged to him—but today we ought to hear the surprise in Sarah’s voice that she too is part of God’s plan. Abraham has been doing whatever he can to get a son and heir for himself, stooping to adultery to win his prize, passing Sarah off as his sister when he thought he could use her body to bargain with kings and landowners along the way, and all the time—even this morning—she’s been hidden away out of sight, like a piece of property too valuable to put on show. It’s no wonder she laughs, blurts out her shock. She names her surprise with her body: “am I going to have some pleasure out of my dead stick of a husband?” Only when she is overheard laughing does she tidy up that thought and more piously wonder about children. But they all tell her not to laugh. She is forbidden to laugh. She is denied her emotions even while the men are discussing what they will do with her body. And here today she is forbidden again—the story we hear is trimmed neatly so we don’t hear her laugh—as though Abraham’s story is the important one and Sarah’s is not. We don’t get to hear her laugh. But her laugh is important. It breaks the silence. It just bursts out. It won’t let Sarah be ignored.
Meanwhile back in Bethany both sisters are being uppity in their own way. Both of them are pushing it, having a single man in their house. In contrast to Sarah, they are all too visible, somehow they have escaped being owned by men, and are owners of their own property so that Martha can offer her own house to Jesus. It is a much less conventional scene than it first appears. Martha is busy with kitchen things but Luke chooses to describe it as ministry—diakonia—deacon-work. And Mary is not just the silent and adoring listener but takes the place, forbidden to a woman, of a disciple sitting at the feet of a teacher asking to be taught.
But then there’s the outburst. And the very clear rebuke of the text: “Martha, Martha, you are worried and anxious about many things but only one thing is necessary and Mary has chosen it.” So there! And no matter how much you want to agree don’t you feel it’s a bit sharp? Don’t you want to know what’s going on? Don’t you want to smooth those rough edges a bit, tidy them up, make Jesus look less of a bully? I, anyway, found myself getting all busy and anxious trying to make it all alright.
But then it hit me. Look how Jesus shuts Martha up! Sarah mustn’t laugh and Martha must silence her anger. And I got annoyed.
Why does Luke want to shut us up? Isn’t there room for the outburst that tells the truth? And why is only one thing necessary? Why can’t there be two or three or more noble things? Why do the silenced voices never get a hearing?
Sarah’s laugh is important. Martha’s anger is important. Without them the stories we hear are too neat, too tidy, and too comfortable, especially to the ears of men. And even thousands of years of history, countless readings and re-tellings of the stories haven’t erased those awkward outbursts. And if we listened, if we resisted the urge to tidy them up … well God knows what we might learn to do.
July 22nd, 2001
“I saw satan falling from the sky like lightning.” That shadowy figure from the Book of Job and from millenia of myth. The prosecuting attorney, the accuser, the adversary. My spellchecker has been insisting all week that “satan” has a capital “S” while the whole point of Jesus’ strange, ecstatic outburst in the gospel seems to be that satan doesn’t deserve one. Doesn’t deserve a capital S. Doesn’t even deserve a personal pronoun. It—satan—the accuser—has fallen from heaven—fallen like lightning from the sky—and that really matters.
The voice of the accuser is one we all know—here in our heads, in our hearts—keeping us in our place, keeping us under a spell, keeping us out of the battle—and that voice speaks with such quiet authority we never doubt the capital letter—we have been bamboozled to believe satan speaks for God, accuses us in the name of truth and goodness and beauty but, whatever the pretence it might make, the voice of the accuser speaks for no one but itself.
And pretend it does. The world is full of accusing voices, voices that would have us afraid, or bent, or broken—deny our dignity, denigrate our merit, undermine our significance. Voices that claim to know our dirty secrets. And I use “our” broadly—yours and mine, here today, just ordinary Christians just going about our daily labour for daily bread, but, more inclusively, all the ones living as lambs among wolves, and all the ones who have lost the battle with lies—the poor, the sick, the hurt, the oppressed, the despised—every scapegoat of our society.
Every voice that speaks with accusation, every whisper, every insinuation, every final verdict, every sexist jibe, every gay joke, every unequal paycheck, every ad holding up an unattainable ideal, every bully, every accusing voice—don’t they all make the same, silent claim to be holy writ, to divine authority? The satan’s only power is that it puts on a good show of speaking with authority, of being unquestionable, beyond debate. But satan has fallen from the sky and, though the glitter and clamour of the fall might be like lightning to hold our eyes and make us cringe in fear, Jesus himself stands witness—the accuser has been thrown out of heaven and all the pushing and bullying and fear-mongering is only bluster. Whatever satan might have said, might still say, our names are written in heaven, but its is not. There is nothing heavenly, nothing divine, nothing holy about the voice of accusation. Jesus has unmasked it.
And that is what the kingdom is about—unmasking—that is what discipleship and following Jesus is about. Not about the power to go head-to-head with satan, treading spirits underfoot, nor about any kind of comparison, but about unmasking the lie, the lies, that have been told from time immemorial. Lies simple; lies political; subtle lies; holy lies.
Here’s one lie long told: how do you get on in a dog-eat-dog world? Not just live—not just get by—but get on—do what needs to be done? In today’s gospel that question is in its sharpest form—how do you build a church? Who does Jesus entrust the kingdom to?
And the answer seems so frail and yet so demanding. When Jesus sends out the 72 to go before him, to prepare the way for him, he gives them stupid instructions. You or I would know better. Clearly the way to do this is to plan and prepare. To estimate your needs, calculate your expenses, plan a route, book some advance accommodation. Maybe do a seminar on public speaking, the habits of highly effective people, or how to sell. Perhaps plant an ad in the local paper or phone some contacts. Above all I guess you have to know the message you are to spread, make it snappy, cogent, clear.
Jesus has different rules. Rules for lambs among wolves. Don’t travel alone but travel light: no purse, no backpack, no shoes for your feet. Don’t stand and chatter along the way. And when you get there eat what is set before you, offer peace, cure the sick and say simply, “the kingdom of God is here.”
There’s a logic to all that which both attracts and repels me. I can see it. I can see why, if you have to be wolf-bait it makes sense to not have too much meat on your bones. I can see how the way you travel can undermine the message—like the shiny suits and elaborate hairpieces of televangelists—I mean, who hears you when you rise from your comfortable bed to instruct the starving, or who hears you when walk in safety among those struggling to survive.
But it seems such a hard way, that simple way. Such a challenge to my fear. I have listened too well to years of accusation. I do not know how to be simple any more. I do not have the trust. How can I just eat what is set before me when two thirds of the world have little enough on their tables to offer to me?
And even if I braved the journey what peace do I have to give, what healing is in my hands, and where O where is the kingdom of God?!
Satan is very convincing. Better to doubt, to protect, to stay at home. Better that life be complicated and safe than simple and just. Better that I survive than others live. Better not build a church at all than let it change me. I couldn’t possibly … I don’t know how to … I’m not … I don’t deserve …
But satan has lost its capital “S”—never had one. Satan has fallen from the sky and its lies speak for no one but itself.
I could … I do know how … I am … Maybe if we gave Jesus as much inner air-time as we have given the accuser we might be astonished, might be changed, set free, set loose. And the world with us.
July 8th, 2001
Let’s start with children’s stories. Long before there was Harry Potter, there was Sparrowhawk, Archmage of the land of Earthsea. Ursula LeGuin’s four beautiful books are about the magic of names. Her wizards work their wonders by knowing and speaking the names of things—their true names—the names they have in the old tongue, the language dragons speak, the language of the Making by which all things were made.
To know the true name of something is to have power over it. Power and responsibility. Change the name and you change the thing. The art of LeGuin’s wizards is not in knowing magic spells, or having the right equipment, but knowing the true name of a thing. Not just broadly but in detail: not just Tree but oak, not just oak but oak in early summer, oak on this hillside. Not just Ocean but every cove and inlet and beach and wave.
In Earthsea people don’t go by their true name—they dare not. The true name is guarded and kept secret and only given to another—with your whole being—in love or death. But to speak your true name in love is to defeat magic and reveal the essence of who you were made to be.
I’m told my name would have been Pamela Jane if I had been a girl. No deep reasons there … just that my mother liked the sound of them. But, instead, I’m Robert Richard—named after my two grandfathers. There are Richards on my father’s side as far back as we can remember. Though, as a kid, my granddad Marsh always insisted his real name was Aloysius and I never did know whether he was having me on or being serious. The name “Robert” claims my kinship with my maternal grandfather though I only met him a couple of times. It was a controversial choice since my mother’s mother and he were separated. There’s a story there too, but too long for now.
As reasons for names go, all that grandfather stuff is convincing enough but there are other reasons that don’t get spoken—it can be just as important to know what your name is not. You see, I should have had an older brother. My mother gave birth to a little boy some years before me. And there was no doubt about the what and why of his name. “His name is Alan.” Alan was the name of my mother’s older brother. By all accounts he was a perfect brother and, though my mother never talked much about him, I get the impression she idolised him. But Alan died aged around 19 or so from stomach cancer—the story was, medical likelihood aside, that it was the result of a soccer injury.
So my mother had no doubt about the name of her first boy. Alan. But baby Alan’s birth wasn’t easy … there were complications and Alan was born with cerebral palsy and lived only a few days.
I look back and I wonder how my life has been changed by Alan’s own short existence and what it would have been like if he had lived. I was one of those kids that were cared for too much. My parents were determined that I, at least, was going to be safe. So I was stuffed full of vitamins and kept away from germs and plied with cod liver oil and still I caught every childhood disease that was going.
And, instead of being the second child, I grew into all the hang-ups eldest children have—hands up all you eldest children … you know what I mean—well-behaved, over-responsible, achieving. So my name is Robert Richard but there is a silent echo: Alan, Alan. … I wonder what God calls me.
You may have seen in the news a sad story from Britain. A decade ago two ten year olds took a little child and tortured him and killed him. His name was Jamie Bolger—their names we don’t know. Their true names were hidden for their protection and their families’. Now ten years later the young men are about to be released on probation rather than being funnelled into the adult penal system. But how do you go free with such a history, with people lining up to take revenge? Deserve it or not—that’s the battle in the press—deserve it or not they are being given new identities, new names, a second chance, a fresh start.
Sometimes—deserve it or not—each of us needs a second chance, a fresh start, a new name. Or needs to learn again the true name God calls us. We might call ourselves “Forgotten,” when God’s name for us is “Hope.” Others might whisper, “Failure,” while God is proud to call us “Friend.”
“His name is John,” says Elizabeth. A new name, not a father or grandfather. John: “God has shown us favour,” it means. John is meant for something new: a new hope, a new dawn, a new salvation. “God has blessed us.” John is not born to the family trade to be a priest like his father. The name God calls him frees him. He grows up a prophet. A fearless, wild voice to confront kings and inspire his kin. Jesus, himself, was lured from hearth and home by this strange, free, wild cousin of his standing waist deep in Jordan’s water. … Where would we be if John had become Zechariah Junior?
We gather all sorts of names along the way yet God never fails to speak our true name to us, our identity in God’s eyes. And that name might make all the difference. Do you know you true name, the one God calls you? Can you hear God whisper it to you now? Listen! “Your name is …”
June 24th, 2001
Did you ever see a triptych, one of those altar pieces or icons with three panels? Well I’ve got three images to look at today. One is a photograph of the first moon landing. Second is a painting. It’s a naked man with an IV in his chest and purple lesions over his body. The title is “Christ with AIDS.” The third image is a kind of composite, I guess, a video monitor showing clips from a bunch of films—there’s Pearl Harbour, there’s Shrek, there’s Moulin Rouge. I’m not sure quite what happens when you put these three images side-by-side but let’s see.
The films first. Nothing more obsesses us as a culture than love. You can’t sing a song or make a film without romance. But no one ever sings songs or makes films where love is straightforward. There must be obstacles. The course of true love must run awry. There must be a fly in the ointment. Every Ben Affleck has his Josh Harnett. Every Shrek has his Lord Farquadd. And though Ewan McGregor sings his silly love songs to Nicole Kidman there has to be an evil Duke to ruin the day. Our perfect image of perfect love is one-on-one. Two’s company and three’s a crowd. The dreaded love triangle! Somehow we have to get rid of the third side. Find a dragon to swallow it whole. A war to heal it or a death for its dissipation. Is it any wonder, then, we have trouble with Trinity? As love goes, one-on-one won’t do for God. There has to be a third. What we view as a fascinating evil, God sees as essential.
Second panel. 20 years ago this week the plague came upon us in confusion and horror and fear. And, while tens, then hundreds, then thousands of young men were dying and a new public horror of blood was being born, an ancient vision of God was being roused. How do you name God when the plague is raging? Enemy or friend? Consoler or nemesis? For some it was clear: God is God of the pure. Everett Koop, who was Surgeon General, couldn’t even talk about AIDS at the White House because the Christian Right saw it as God’s punishment for being queer. It is an ancient idea. Bad things never happen without a reason. You must have deserved it. It’s your own fault.
Which is just the same thing they said about crucifixion 2000 years ago. It’s your fault. God has cursed you. No one mocks God. But, cross or sickbed, you can only keep that up if you can keep your distance, can keep compassion at bay, if you do not know. You can only name God destroyer if you can keep God distant, at bay, unknown.
But Jesus could never keep God at bay. He knew the name of God, knows where he belongs. God has AIDS.
Paul Monette, in his AIDS memoir “Borrowed Time,” calls his experience of coping with his lover’s diagnosis as “living on the moon.” Lonely, distant, cold and hostile. That’s my third image, that epic photograph from the moon with the flag that pretends to fly even though there’s no wind, the everlasting footprints in the dust, and the man sealed in a spacesuit to keep him from the hostile, airless, cold grasp of nature. That picture is such a scene of triumph and wonder but it’s also a perfect parable of what we’ve done to ourselves as we’ve conquered the world.
There’s a kind of knowing which has to step back to get a good view, best of all to be outside whatever it is we wish to know. It is a kind of knowing that is fair, and honest, and in most ways accurate. Impartial. Just. Unbiased. It’s a way of knowing that pretends that it is possible to withdraw yourself, the one who knows, out of the picture entirely. Science knows that way. Schools tell us it’s the only way to know. But it is a fraud. Imagine you want to know about the whole of creation. Where do you stand to get the perfect view? How can you stand outside everything … without being nothing yourself? That’s what this kind of knowing has to do—pretend that human beings like you and me are nothing. Or imagine again you want to know about human beings, about a wife, or a lover, or a child, or a friend with AIDS. How far away do you have to get to see them properly? And when you get that far can you see them at all?
What is essential is invisible to the eye. But it is real. What is real about a wife, a lover, a child, a friend is the fact that we are part of them, tangled up with them in relationship, in love, in nets of feeling. And that’s a kind of knowing too, a kind of knowing from inside, from up close—a very partial, unjust, involved way of knowing. We call it wisdom. You cannot love without getting involved. You cannot know from a distance. There is no safe viewpoint.
Same with God. God knows this world but not because God has stayed safely outside. If that were true God could not care, could not even see what is essential, that we are alive. God knows you and knows me with wisdom not science. God knows the world from the cross. God has AIDS. God has the best seat in the house and this is the kind of theatre where the audience participates. This is liturgy. God is tangled up with us. And we call that entanglement the Spirit.
Our so called love triangles aren’t triangles at all just angles. There isn’t really a third side. But what makes God God is that the love between Parent and Child is so complete, the knowledge they have of each other is so intimate, their entanglement so profound that it is as real as they are. So real and so entangled that three cannot describe God at all. God is one. But one won’t do either because right in the heart of God there is love, there is self-revelation, there is community, there is entanglement.
Is the Holy Spirit here this morning? Where is she? Not in any of us. The spirit is here between us, in the gaps. The spirit is our entanglement. In so far as we love one another, know one another, suffer with one another, then the Spirit is here. And we, in that same measure, are not many but one. And, in that same measure, we are God.
I think that’s what we celebrate today.
June 10th, 2001
“Why are you standing there looking at the sky?” Don’t you just hate angels with attitude?! Angels are like email—they may be an efficient way to send a message but subtle they are not and tender is beyond them.
Because there has to be something both tender and subtle about what we ponder today. It is subtle. Only Luke really notices it. And he raises it up and makes it this hinge on which his message turns. Volume One ends with it. Volume Two opens with it. Today, just to render the subtlety as confusing as possible, we begin with the end and end with the beginning. And there’s something right about that too. We are in-between. We are waiting. We know we have to go back to the city and wait there —literally sit still. But not quite yet. We are still standing here looking up at the sky.
And there’s the tender part. What kind of witnesses would we be if we could leave so easily the one who has left us?
My mother has a friend. Once upon a time when they were young couples, newly wed, they were a foursome. Alma and Jim and Jean and John. I’ve seen the seaside photographs of cotton-candy and sand castles, of windblown hairdos and held hands. Later, of little ones in pushchairs, wide-eyed, with them parent-proud. But somewhere along the line I understand there was a falling out or at least a falling apart. Distance, silence, little hurts not made up, that kind of thing. And communication cut down to Christmas cards and anniversaries. Yet somewhere along the line that changed again as four became once more two. My father dead and Jean’s husband lost to another woman. And Alma and Jean became again fast friends, united this time not so much by the open future as by memory—by memory and compassion for each other’s loss. But—and I’ve heard them—what they wonder from time to time, in a kind of oneupmanship of grief, is whether it is worse to be widowed or divorced—worse to have the once-beloved taken away or have him leave of his own accord.
“Why are you standing there looking at the sky?” Which is the greater grief: when we lost Jesus through death or when he left of his own accord? What kind of witnesses would we be if we could leave so easily the one who has left us?
Well what kind of witnesses are we? Just exactly what are we witnesses of? What have we seen and what can we tell? How much does Jesus matter to us? How has he changed our world? If the only gospel was to be ours how would it read?
“Stay in the city,” he says, “until you are clothed with power from on high.” For this is about power, this waiting, this witness, the power from on high but also the low-down and dirty power of this world. Who has it. How it works. And how Jesus has destroyed it—even though we do not often see the results.
… Maybe I’m just bearing the grudge of his going a little too heavily but Jesus is a big disappointment to me. His death was a disaster. And though his resurrection kind of makes up for it, it doesn’t put any damn thing right. The rich still oppress the poor, religions still think it is a holy thing to kill for God, bureaucracies still crush the soul, the work of our hands still wounds the world. What the hell has changed with his coming and going? Aren’t the principalities and powers, the dominions and thrones, aren’t they all still in place, brooding over this bent world with their dark wings?
But don’t you think that Jesus asked himself the same things? At home there in Nazareth. “What good have all the prophets been?” I hear him wonder, hear him accuse, “All the history of this chosen people and here we are strangers in our own land, the rich still fatten themselves off the poor, religion still crushes the soul, and the fields blow dry as dust.” But, as Luke tells it, Jesus ups and leaves the life he loves, following his questions to the Jordan where he is drenched first in water and then in Holy Spirit. And there, as he waits, words are whispered in his heart, “you are the child I love.” The rest we know. So began Volume One. But here we are at the beginning of Volume Two. Asking the same questions and waiting the same way. Waiting for that same spirit. Waiting for that same whispered words in our hearts.
Luke needs two books to tell his story. Two books with parallel plot, of oh so very human beings full of questions and soaked with spirit. Witnesses to the words whispered in their hearts. Jesus’ journey comes to an end in Jerusalem. But, picking up where he left off, another journey begins there, in Jerusalem, and spreads out through Judea and Samaria, out to the ends of the earth. Peter and John, Mary and Magdalene, Paul and Barnabas, Lydia who traded in dye, Julia the deacon, Felicity and Perpetua martyrs, Francis and Clare, Ignatius, Francis de Sales, San Lorenzo, and all the martyrs—the witnesses—of Vietnam, of Japan, of El Salvador, even of Oakland.
“Come Holy Spirit fill the hearts of your faithful and we will renew the face of the earth.”
May 27th, 2001
A new heaven and a new earth and a new Jerusalem—maybe even a new Oakland too! And John, the dreamer, means new. The old order—all the things we know, all the things we hate, all the things we love too—has passed away: “Behold,” says the Voice from the throne, “I make all things new!” New! Not just gussied up a bit. Not just re-upholstered. Not “previously owned.” Brand, spanking new!
Isn’t that a dream we want to share? Because the present—for all it’s joys, for all it’s loves—sometimes just feels old, feels like last year’s gift, feels like it’s been worn too long.
If you feel that, if you’re a dreamer too, John has quite a dream for you. Of a new heaven and a new earth. Of a future full of hope. A world drenched with newness, the feeling like clean, crisp sheets to your aching limbs. Like the smell of a new car. Like the eyes of a new-born. Because, says the Voice, God has chosen, at last, a dwelling-place among us. Taken a house in the new and holy city. God is our new neighbour. No longer a stranger.
What would it be like if God really did pitch in with us? John knows! For a start, no more tears. No more dying, no more crying, no more pain, no more mourning, no more false starts, no more loose ends, no more regrets, no more hurting, no more bleeding, no more broken bodies, no more aching hearts. All because God is living with her people and making all things new.
And do you know what is also gone from this new city along with pain and death and tears? It’s a few verses on from our text so we don’t hear it today … but the New Jerusalem has no Temple. No synagogue, no church, no mosque, no ashram. None. Our brave new world doesn’t need a Temple because God is present in person. No more distance and no more religion. You don’t need religion when God is living cheek by jowl with his people. The whole city is a temple. So no more sacred space. And no more secular, either. No more death and no more taxes.
You can’t accuse our John of stinting on imagination. And if there’s anything he’s left out you can add it yourself. Anything you personally would like to see come to an end? Anything you think the world would be better off without? Just add it to the vision of the new world. Let it be the world of our wildest dreams. Let it be all we’ve ever hoped for. Don’t hold back—paint the canvas of the imagination with every new thing you need, the world needs, the poor and hungry need. Hey, forget need and think hope, think desire, think big. Dream dreams.
I let myself get a little carried away with that yesterday. I imagined the world of my wildest dreams and, as I did, I realised, with a shock, I can’t imagine living in it. Well could you? I mean, really? I mean what do you do in such a world from day to day? Do you still get up in the morning and go to work? Do you still sit down to eat? Do you still get to watch “Buffy the Vampire Slayer?”
And God living right next door sounds good but what kind of neighbour would God make? Something tells me all that glory shining over the fence could keep a guy up at nights.
And what do you do in the morning when you bump into God, stumbling, bleary-eyed, out the front door to pick up the paper? “Hi God!”?
I disappoint myself! I can’t imagine a new heaven and a new earth and new Jerusalem where I would be at home. God knows what I’ll do in heaven! But, you know, I’m not happy with the alternative either, at least as we heard it in the first reading. “It is necessary for us to undergo many hardships to enter the kingdom of God.” This is from Paul and Barnabas, rushing like crazed commuters across the face of the old earth. Hard work, many hardships, endless travels, constant persecution, continual quarrels—is this the alternative vision to John’s or is it the same one. The problem with both is the deep divide between hardship and glory, between absence and presence. Suffer now and be rewarded later. John is full of the reward and Paul full of the hardship but they both make the same bargain.
OK, I’ve built up the dilemma so now for the resolution!? Uh uh! Jesus, in the Gospel today, does show a different way, a different bargain. But I’m not sure I like the price.
Here we are at the last supper. Jesus is having his own vision of glory. He himself glorified. God glorified in him. God glorifying herself. And God glorifying Jesus. It’s like he can’t hold all that glory in ordinary words and they tumble and fall after each other. But it isn’t a future, new-world, no-more-tears kind of glory. “Now,” says Jesus, “now is the hour of glory.” Here and now—as night has fallen and Judas has just left the table to sell him for silver. How can Jesus get so excited exactly when he is being betrayed? Is he nuts? This is the moment when everything begins to go wrong for him and, right there, he sees glory in it.
You see the price of this different bargain? The glory and the hardship are all mixed up in his vision and called love. “Love each other as I have loved you.” And he means now. This morning. And he knows love has a price. And he knows love has its glory. And he knows love takes practice. Earth is the right place for love. This is the way his kingdom comes—one little act of love at a time.
May 14th, 2001
We’ve been back for days now, his friends, his witnesses, his followers. And, me, Peter. Back to the Galilee. Waiting. Twice he walked through strong, Jerusalem walls to half-terrify, half-amaze, half-thrill us. Twice he touched us, twice he breathed real breath on us, spoke over and again his peace into us. And then … nothing. “Third time’s the charm,” we said. But nothing.
All that pain and hurt. Then all that shock and delight and hope and expectation. And now this—this waiting for more. He walked right into our mourning with his wounded hands and his tender touch and then he went and left us waiting. … He IS risen. We know that. He isn’t dead. But still we have lost him—it feels like that. You know that special way a friend speaks, how he holds himself, how he smells, just how he’s here and now and touchable and present and available. To have that ripped from you, then given back, then—you slowly realise—not given back at all. It is all going to be different. And all you want is for it to be the way it was. For him to be the way he was. And he’s not even dead so you can’t mourn. I can’t mourn.
We’ve been trying to bring back the feel of him, the memory of that upper room, we wash each other’s feet and it’s almost like him. We take the bread and bless it, break it the way he did and pass it hand to hand and eat and hope to taste him. And sometimes you do. Or close enough to be brought back to that smoky room, smelling of lamb and fear, where you can hold him for a moment.
But it’s not the same. The room is closed. And this is Galilee. And the waiting is killing me. And I half think we’ve had it. Had the best of him. Seen him dead, then not dead, and God knows where or what he is now. And we, poor fisher folk, are left to make sense of it all. Where’s Judas when you need a theologian!
Well enough of it all. If fish is my business then I’m going fishing. Fish you can trust. Fish don’t go appearing and disappearing when they want. Find the place, cast the net, and let all the old skills bring this battered body back to life.
Cold! This late in the night it is cold to the bones and this little charcoal fire might be singeing my beard but my toes are freezing. Dangling them in the dark waters was not a good idea but I never could resist. Now, Peter never would, fisherman for life and all, but a carpenter will brave any chill to get the dust and shavings from between the toes. There hasn’t been much need of that for a while but it did feel so good to sit there fishing in starlight and shadow, trying to remember the tricks Peter taught me, trying to catch something good for him, for them. I want the best I can manage. “Please, God, let me catch more than minnows!” Well, I must have learned something for here they are—three of them, plump and glistening and eager for the fire. The cleaning I can manage. I watched my mom so many times take that sharp blade and slip it in clean and slit and twist and rinse. There! But I’d forgotten how the scales can cut.
God it is cold! Hm… Dawn is climbing over the hills. Not so long now! Just a little while and they’ll be here. And just as cold as me. With the light on them still silver and sharp. And I want the fish perfect. Seared and succulent. Want the scent of it to lead them to me. No better smell than baking bread and fish a-crackle, dripping and flaring onto the coals. Mmm… I can almost taste it already. The fish flaking between half-burnt fingers, soaking into still-warm bread. A little watered-wine to round it off. Their faces will be something! I can almost see the look—that mix of knowing and unknowing—is he-isn’t he?—should they-shouldn’t they. One of them I can guarantee will know and name me. And Peter, Peter will do something wild and glorious as usual, and the rest, as usual, will follow. A useless bunch one-by-one but together, ah together, they’ll change the world. And I love them. Each. All. Oh man I want this breakfast to be so good. Want the taste to linger on their lips for years. Want it to be how they remember me. Not just pent up in that upper room but out here. Out in the place they love. Out where a lifetime’s work has made land and lake a home. Where they can do what they’ve always done. They think they’ve been waiting for me—but truth be told, they’ve been trying to conjure me, to work me out, to do the right thing to get me back. They want to find me—but I’m here to find them. Now they’ve finally given up finding me.
And not in some upper room—I hated that upper room—but right here, under their noses, at home, plying their trade, playing the fool. And they’ll never know where to expect me next. But I’ll find them. I’ll keep on finding them. Finding them and feeding them. Breaking the bread for them. Having one name me, another rush like a fool to reach me, and all the rest to follow and eat and laugh and sing around the fire, the taste of fish on their lips, all hungers satisfied as they share the broken bread and wine dark as—Here they are! O, Thank you! And look at them! What a sorry bunch of weary kids! God! look at them!
“Children! Have you caught anything to eat?
April 29th, 2001
So I slapped her, I slapped her, and I said, “I’m Peter, I’m the Rock, and I’m the one he left in charge, and I’m having none of this nonsense, especially from an hysterical, old whore like you Magdalene!”
I know—I can hear you gasp—I’m not proud of that. Not one bit. But I’m full up to here with things I’m not proud of these last few days—so what’s one more piled up on top, eh? And it was the last thing we needed, she should have known better, not rushing in here, making all kinds of noise, attracting attention and all, gasping and wailing. “Quiet woman! Do you want us all dead like him!?” But she wouldn’t stop and that’s when I slapped her.
And then … between … gasps … she was … spilling it out. Some story. Body-snatchers: his tomb broken open. Another story, another rumour. Like the idiot spreading the tale that the Master didn’t really die—that we switched bodies. Or that we spirited him down off that filthy cross by magic. I wish we could have done. O God yes! … People just don’t want to admit it. Don’t want to accept it. He’s dead. We failed him. And he’s dead. I failed him. … And he’s dead.
If anyone should know that it’s Magdalene. She saw. She watched. … I … I was … somewhere else … I didn’t see. But I believe it. I believe the blood and the screaming and the sound of nails. I believe the silence. Hell, it’s been silent in here since I heard the news. Echoing silence. Empty silence. Just my own betrayal ringing off the walls of my soul, “I do not know him,” accusing me over and over, nothing else. Hollow.
He was the best man I’ve ever known. He made me hope. He made me laugh. He made me think. … He made me preach! He made me—made me into something, something more than the flaky, foul-mouthed fisherman I was. He made me see, more and more, about rich and poor, about life and death, about love, about his passionate, vulnerable, forgiving, living God.
When I look back and see how I got up that day, emptied out my life for him, upped and followed … like a fool. But he was … special. I do not know—I’ve been saying it over and over—I don’t know why he did what he did these last days. But I never knew him. Why he asked for trouble? Why he walked up and begged for it. But more than that, I don’t know how he did it. How he went through with it. How he expected me to, too. How he didn’t back down. Wouldn’t. Back in Bethany I asked him. I said, “Master, this is stupid. This is pride. This is wrong! Don’t throw it away like this. Bide your time. Maybe next year? Marching into the Holy City right now we’d be like lambs to the slaughter. Why risk it?” And he answered me, he did, light at first, “If this is the Holy City, where could we be safer!?” but then, seeing my frown, slow and serious like he could get sometimes. “How can I un-say what I’ve said, Peter? How can I go back on my word? I don’t want to die, Peter, but better one man dies than God be made a liar.”
I wish I could unsay what I’ve said. Unsay my words. Undo my denials. Do it all over different. Stand by him this time, the one who stood by me. Say it, with love, with pride with relief,: “Yes, I do know him.”
Oh Mary kept on weeping, frantic. And you—you he always loved more than any of us—you were looking at me as if I were … Oh I don’t know! With eyes like his. Not accusing. Not angry. I wish you were. Sorrow? He looked at me like that. Challenge? His eyes could speak bibles in a glance. And forgive a sea of sins. God I wish he could forgive me now. I couldn’t meet your eyes. But I didn’t need to because before I knew it you were off and running. And there I was, the leader, following. Again. Trying to keep up. You and me. Running through the empty streets—curfew crashing around us—and me at any rate panting like an old man—and praying, “Please God don’t let it be true, don’t let us have to go through any more of this, just let it be over, let it be over.”
Panting and praying. And you were out of way ahead. I didn’t catch sight of you until I caught up and found you here. And found out Magdalene was right, the tomb mouth was open, gaping. Mary was right. And you were just standing there. Standing there. Standing there. God I hate it when you get that knowing look that leaves me feeling stupid. But there was the hole in the rock, ahead of me, staring at me, the tomb dark and echoing. And inviting me. And I couldn’t believe it but I was stooping and looking in. The cool darkness calming me, drawing me. Then I was in. Inside. Crossing the threshold like the high priest entering the Holy of Holies. Into the sacred, empty heart of all things. I am inside. And it is empty. Full of emptiness. And my heart is pounding. And I don’t know what to think. But my empty heart is filling up. “Please God let it not be over.” And tears are pouring down my beard like blessings. “Let me have another chance.” And silence, breaking like bread, is on my tongue. “Let me live again.” And emptiness, echoing like love, is forgiving me. And then you are behind me saying, for once, the obvious. “He isn’t here.” And though you are right, for once, you are wrong. I’d know him and his touch anywhere. “No, he is here. And, yes, I do know him.”
April 15th, 2001