I am one of those people who lives a lot in my head.
I carry so much – my calendar, the church calendars, the calendars of my three children, thoughts for the class I’m getting ready to teach and what I need to say to Noah’s teacher as his conference and whether we can pull off dinner with what we have in the refrigerator --
With all this noise in my head,
I don’t always see what’s right in front of my face.
The first church I served had one of those signs –
you know, the ones with clever sayings that change every week.
Our sign message changed on Mondays, and after a while I noticed that people could ask me about a message on the sign on Thursday or Friday – when I’d driven into and out of the parking lot approximately a dozen times – and I would have no idea what it said.
So a top spiritual discipline in my life is to notice.
To stop and breathe, inhabit the place I’m in, see what and who is around me.
And I’ve found that the practice of noticing usually leads me
into the practice of giving thanks.
And it’s become easier – noticing the gorgeous trees changing color in the bosque as I cross the bridge each morning;
noticing the moon rising over the mountains while I sit at an afternoon soccer game; interrupting my work to notice my son sitting next to me on the couch,
and invite him into a cuddle.
And when I notice, and breathe in the beauty of the moment, I naturally breathe out – Thank You. Thank you, God.
Seminary president and blogger David Lose says that it is noticing
that sets the Samaritan apart from the others who are healed
in the gospel story about the 10 lepers.
It is so often read as a morality tale –
10 were healed, but only one came back to say thank you.
Make sure you are like that one!
And the zinger is that the one who came back is a Samaritan –
an outsider, mistrusted, even despised.
But, Lose says, the other nine don’t do anything wrong.
They do just what Jesus tells them to do.
But the Samaritan does something more.
He notices – his healing, and the one who healed him.
In noticing, he is filled with gratitude – a gratitude he has to express.
He returns to Jesus, and gives thanks –
and in so doing, he is blessed a second time.
Jesus says to him, Your faith has made you well.
He was already healed.
But his gratitude, his return to Jesus, brings another blessing – Jesus says he is saved – made whole – even beyond the healing of his body.
What is your experience with noticing and giving thanks?
In this season, we are invited to look for things to be grateful for.
A number of my Facebook friends have been doing 30 days of gratitude,
and it’s fun to see what people post.
Everyone expects to see friends, family, teachers, coworkers, pets
– but I love the list of one of my friends who includes text messaging,
the NM growing season, and Sharpies.
You’ve got to think there’s a story behind the sharpies, and I’d love to hear it.
It’s a good reminder to ourselves, to “count our blessings,”
and remember the things we are grateful for.
But I think it’s even more than that.
It’s realizing there are more blessings around us than we ever knew.
It’s moving from the world’s attitude of scarcity –
there’s not enough, so I have to look out for number one –
to an attitude of abundance –
knowing we are surrounded always by God’s love and mercy and grace,
which appears before us in natural beauty and the people we meet
and sometimes even the challenges we face.
Earier this fall I was listening to a radio show called On Being, with Krista Tippett.
The guest was linguist and anthropologist Mary Catherine Bateson, the daughter of the iconic anthropologists Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson
Bateson spoke about one of my favorite moments in the Bible, in a way I’d never thought of before.
You probably know the story of Job – how he loses everything in a bet between God and the Satan, and how his dubious friends try to convince him it’s his fault.
Finally – in the 38th chapter of the book – God speaks from a whirlwind.
And God says, where were you when I created all this? Do you make it work?
Do you give it life?
But Bateson points out another direction God’s lengthy response to Job takes.
Have you noticed what I’ve made?
Have you seen the light that shines in a dark night?
Have you watched a storm rage?
Have you noticed the wild animals – the mountain lion, and the deer, and how they go about their lives apart from humans?
Have you watched a horse run, or a hawk soar?
In essence, God says – Job, have you seen the wonder of the world around you?
Have you seen the beauty and power in my creation?
God invites Job into healing by inviting Job to open his eyes.
To see what is beyond his own suffering and be in awe of it.
To take that first step from suffering and grief to new life.
It’s not a short journey, or an easy one,
from grief and suffering back to fullness of life.
But noticing, and giving thanks, starts us on the path.
So tonight, we come to practice Thanksgiving.
To notice what we may not always notice,
and speak aloud before God and one another our words of thanks.
It is our second blessing.
It is our invitation to healing.
It is an experience of wholeness and salvation here and now.
Thanks be to God.
“Jesus answered, ‘My kingdom is not of this world.’” (John 18)
A number of years ago, I was invited to share in a Passover Seder with a large Jewish family in New York City. Like many extended families, this particular family included an eccentric and outspoken uncle, who throughout the sacred meal insisted on making rather sarcastic remarks about everything that was said and done.
At the first cup of blessing, for instance, when the words are said, “Blessed are you, Lord God, King of the universe …,” this uncle let out a loud guffaw and blurted, “Why do we say that, anyway? Who believes in kings anymore?”
Now, for all of its insolence, his question is actually quite relevant to us today, for we are celebrating the Feast of Christ the King, the final Sunday of the liturgical year, when we might ask ourselves a similar question: what good does it do us to refer to Jesus as a king, when our whole identity as citizens of the modern world is invested in the values of a democratic, pluralist society? Don’t we regard kings and kingdoms as at best quaint relics of the past; or at worst as tyrannical dictatorships, as in the caliphates and theocracies of today’s Middle East? And so can speaking of Christ as king, really be anything more than an awkward anachronism? A pertinent question, indeed, both for our times and for today’s lessons from scripture, each of which dwells on the theme of kingship and dominion!
Jesus himself gives us a clue of where to start in trying to get our minds around how to approach this issue. Drawing a clear line at his trial before Pilate, he says that “My kingdom is not of this world.” Well, if that is true (that Jesus’ kingdom is not of this world), then it immediately puts us on notice that all the pre-conceived ideas we have of what kingship is like, are here made irrelevant. From our historical experience, we naturally bring assumptions that kings rule by edit, enforced by armed authority; that kings represent a hierarchical social structure, with enforced inequalities; or that kings rule by dividing and conquering, holding authority through the exercise of raw power.
Jesus, however, tells Pilate that his kingdom is not of this world, and therefore not of that kind. “If my kingdom were of this world,” he says, “my followers would be fighting,” or in other words, they would be asserting that very kind of coercive power which we associate with the idea of kingship. But, to reiterate, Jesus’ kingdom is not of that sort. So of what type is it?
Well, our reading from the Revelation to John begins to point us in an alternative direction. This imaginary vision, full of symbolism and references whose meaning we can often only guess at, tries to paint a vivid image of how all things ultimately fit together. For example, it describes Christ as the alpha and omega, the beginning and the end, the one “who is and who was and who is to come.” The terms here may be temporal in form, but their sense is that everything that exists, exists only in and through Christ. The implication is that God did not create a universe through his Word and then step back to watch it run; no, the creative activity of Christ is a metaphysical constant, evident in each and every moment. Were God not creating and sustaining our existence right here and now, at this very moment, we would not be.
The creation we inhabit, therefore, belongs to Christ, because it is only through him that everything that is, lives and moves and has its being. And here we come to the essential point: the kingship of Christ is a kingship that is given its meaning by its comprehensive inclusion of everything that is in one reality, rather than its division into competing and warring factions. All things are gathered together in Christ, because they all share in him both their origin and destiny. And so the division and partitions we associate with the kingdoms of this world, turn out to be the exact opposite—the antithesis—of the kingship of Christ. Their politics of division are signs of a world gone wrong, where a focus on power masks the underlying oneness of creation. So as people of faith, we are called to seek the commonality of humanity and creation, not to exacerbate its points of division and enmity: as our collect led us to pray today, “may the people of this earth, divided and enslaved by sin, be freed and brought together.”
To celebrate the Feast of Christ the King is thus to celebrate the drawing together, the in-gathering, of all people and all things and all people into one divine reality (the dominion of all peoples, nations and languages of which we heard in the reading from Daniel). For us as Christians, the kingship of Christ is the focal point of this oneness. And while we have to say that it seems to be the will of God that in this eon there should be a diversity of religious expressions (as Abraham Heschel once put it), we can assert this fundamental oneness with a confidence that at the end of time, the seeming parallelism of the rails of the variety of religious traditions nevertheless converge, like train tracks that mysteriously meet at the horizon.
So, to bring all this closer to home: when we speak of “building God’s kingdom” in here at St. Michael and All Angels Church (as we have been doing throughout this fall), what we mean is our determination through our communal patterns of hospitality, celebration, prayer, and service to create a visible and tangible experience of the fundamental oneness and interconnectedness of humanity in God—right here on Montano Road, in the northwest quadrant of the city of Albuquerque. By building these connections and relationships, we aim for nothing less than that our life together should be a foretaste of that vision in the book of Daniel, where all people, all races, all classes—all religions—are gathered around the heavenly throne. In every act of kindness, every act of welcome, every act of concern we extend to one another, and to the stranger in our midst, we offer a glimpse of that ultimate unified reality.
To make this Feast of Christ the King also the in-gathering of our financial gifts and pledges, then, takes on a much larger meaning than just an act of fundraising (to which we are always prone to reduce it), for in the offering of our personal gifts, we are engaging in a sacramental action that expresses our deeper convictions about the spiritual reality of the kingship of Christ. Just as we offer at this altar bread and wine, and they are returned to us as Christ’s body and blood; and just as we offer our own bodies and souls, and they are returned to us as Christ’s hands and feet in the world; so too do we offer our gifts of time, talent and treasure, only to have them returned to us in the form of the church, the body of Christ in this place. Our gifts are transformed by the Spirit into that wonderful, loving, daring, caring, dynamic community that we call St. Michael’s: that is a truly sacramental experience.
These interlocking patterns of giving and receiving thus take on the larger meaning of being the means by which we experience in tangible terms the kingship of Christ as a parish community, for they are the way we demonstrate that all things belong to Christ, from the most cosmic and transcendent to the most mundane and ordinary. One of our hymns puts it well, where we sing:
Lord, you make the common holy: “This my body, this my blood.”
Let us all, for earth’s true glory, daily lift life heavenward,
asking that the world around us share your children’s liberty.
With the spirit’s gifts empower us, for the work of ministry. Amen.
(“Lord, you give the Great Commission,” Hymnal 1982 #528;
Words by Jeffery Rowthorn)
© Joseph Britton, 2015
“This widow, out of her poverty, has put in everything she had, her whole living.” (Mark 12:44)
Among the very moving collection of pictures in the All Souls ofrenda here behind the altar, none was more touching to me than a newspaper clipping placed there about the burial of Lilly Garcia. It has been a little over two weeks now since this four-year old girl was shot dead in a road-rage incident on our city’s streets, and while we are surrounded almost daily by such incidents of violence, her death seemed to touch an especially raw nerve for many of us by its shear insanity.
Now I’m skeptical of saying that we live in a particularly violent age, for the record of human history would suggest that violence is endemic to our nature. Yet I’m also skeptical of writing off violence as a problem we can’t engage, simply because it is so pervasive. Violence in all of its forms—physical, mental, and spiritual—is the most fundamental human problem, and we are called to confront it by the simple fact that the crucifix, the image of Christ crucified, reminds us of the price of violence, and its terrible distortion of the human person.
What, then, can we say—holding the image of Christ crucified in our mind, while also turning our attention to a four-year-old girl shot dead for no other reason than uncontrolled anger?
Rowan Williams, in a little book called The Truce of God, offers an extended meditation on the prevalence of violence and how Christians are equipped to respond to it. He first locates violence (among all of its complex causes) in the anger that comes from a loss of a sense of human freedom. When we feel threatened, hemmed in, unable to control our own destiny—our innate response is to react violently against those inhibitors which we perceive to lie at the cause of this restriction of our freedom.
The recent stabbings in Israel are a prime example: faced with a sense that they have no rights, no hope, and no freedom, some Palestinians have turned to random killing as an expression of their despair and frustration.
Similarly, the terrorist turns to violence as means of resistance to a perceived threat from an alien culture, power, or ideology that threatens to encroach on his sense of place in the world.
These more societal manifestations of violence are, in some sense, relatively clear instances of how a perceived loss of freedom is a source for the impulse to violence. But what about the violence we have recently experienced closer to home—the shooting of a school girl, or a city cop? How are we to account for that?
Williams would have us to wrestle with the possibility that such random violence likewise exhibits a reactive response to a perceived threat to individual freedom that manifests itself as anger. But this is not just an issue for certain unbalanced individuals: we can’t absolve ourselves of responsibility by saying “it’s someone else’s problem.” As Abraham Heschel put it, “Some may be guilty, but all are responsible.” For the predilection toward violence has its roots in deeper cultural biases which we all share and nurture within ourselves.
Williams argues that as a culture, we are nourished with a sense of entitled exceptionalism that trains us to think that we are somehow exempted from the patterns of accountability and responsibility that govern an authentically complex and global society. We assume, for instance, that we can consume, whatever we desire. We assume that we have a unique claim on personal safety and security that protects us from the unpredictability and conflict under which most of the world lives. We assume that when another human being gets in our way, we have the right to remove them from our path, whether off the road or across the border. And so goes the list … and it results in a virile perception of individual invincibility and independence that makes us quick to respond angrily and defensively to any threat against us—both as individuals and as a nation.
When a Christian confronts this pattern of angry defensiveness, however, Williams argues that he or she must place it in the context of the self-critical repentance to which Jesus continually calls each of us. The dynamic of such repentance is not just one of feeling guilt—for that would only lead us further into a despairing cynicism. Rather, just as one who grieves must reawaken hope in order to move forward, so too must we who are made to feel helpless in the face of cynical violence learn to rekindle hope. And in the Christian reckoning, the engine for such hope is being able honestly to name first what is wrong, to seek God’s forgiveness for it, and then to be given the possibility (the hope) of doing better. To find hope, in other words, is to reclaim an authentic sense of our ability to influence the course of our own lives.
So naming violence for what it is, and taking responsibility for the place each of us has in perpetuating its cultural roots, is the first step toward resisting its prevalence and reforming its casual acceptance in our society. As Williams puts it, “To resist this destruction is to affirm a faith in a human future; and the Gospel, by driving us to repentance, grounds this affirmation of the future in the loving will of God, remaking us through our conversion.”1
So in the face of the uninhibited violence of our age, the mission of the church becomes nothing less than modeling the conversion of the human heart. We are called, therefore, as a religious community to ask deeper and harder questions than either our power-driven political leaders, or our entertainment-driven media, are capable of. In the church’s own pattern of repentance and renewal—the very thing that we are doing here today—it must represent for society the fundamental process of dismantling the structures of violence through the recovery of freedom and hope. What we are doing around this altar thus becomes of supreme importance: it is nothing less than our answer to the scourge of violence, by proposing an alternative vision of human community.
But conversion to what, you may ask? Here I am put in mind of another powerful little book, Love’s Endeavour, Love’s Expense, written by a certain William Hubert Vanstone. Vanstone—who died only a few years ago—was a brilliant theologian who declined numerous academic offers in Britain’s most prestigious universities, to serve instead as a parish priest in the housing developments of Lancashire. Throughout his ministry, he wrestled with the central question which he framed as, what makes the church of “supreme and unconditional importance,” as opposed to the seeming indifference he found toward it in the suburban housing estates in which he ministered? (Or, put more simply, why does the church still matter?)
The answer that he worked out in this little book, published only toward the end of his life after decades of personal struggle, was that above all, the church is the unique channel through which we human beings respond to the reality “that all being depends upon [God’s] love expended in self-giving, wholly expended, without residue or reserve, drained, exhausted, spent.”2 The church in other words makes of itself an offering—its life, its worship, its buildings, its activity … all are offered to God—as the means by which the one inescapable and ultimate reality of divine love is made manifest in the world. Vanstone once compared the church to a swimming pool, “in which all of the noise comes from the shallow end.” To make of ourselves an offering to the divine love, however, is to move to the spiritual deep end, and it is only there that the church’s authentic mission is to be found.
Our conversion as Christian people, then, is to this same pattern of self-giving, self-emptying love as we move from the shallow to the deep end: we must learn to love with the love God has for us, wholly expended, without residue or reserve, drained, exhausted, and spent. For the redirection of our violence-producing anxiety and fear can only be into the self-emptying act of love, which is the corrective antithesis of the self-centered nature of violence. The church offers its life—and by implication, we as members of the body offer our own—as an alternative vision of hope and concern in the midst of anxiety and cynical indifference.
And here we come at last to our gospel story of the widow’s mite. Jesus affirms the value of the gift this poor woman makes of her worldly resources—“everything she had”—because he sees in it an offering not just of two copper coins, but an offering of her whole life as an image of the self-emptying nature of love. She has moved to the deep end, and unlike the scribes and Pharisees who are chattering away in the shallow end, she opens in herself a small space to contribute to the world’s redemption, because through her act of generosity, she has pointed beyond the tragedy of her own poverty, to the triumph of love, wholly expended. It’s the same kind of moment as when two people say to one another in a marriage service, “with all that I am, and all that I have, I honor you,” as Bob Bowman and Jack Knight did together here last evening (the first-ever time that we have been able to witness and bless the marriage of a same-sex couple in this church). That is a supreme moment of self-emptying love, and the widow likewise embodies such a moment in exactly what Vanstone names as the ultimate mission of the church: to occupy the meeting point between God and humanity, where God’s most passionate longing evokes and embraces our deepest piety.
I offer these thoughts in memory of Lilly, and all those whose lives have been touched by the scourge of needless violence. May they rest in peace. In the name of the Father … Amen.
© Joseph Britton, 2015
1 Rowan Williams, The Truce of God, 2nd ed. (Eerdmans, 2005), 21.
2 W. H. Vanstone, Love’s Endeavor, Love’s Expense (Darton, Longman & Todd, 1977), 115.
So today we come to All Saints Day, a much beloved observance especially here in New Mexico, especially because of its association with the rather raucous celebrations of the Day of the Dead, the Dia de los Muertos.
Yet there is also something deeply profound at stake in the meaning of this occasion, for it brings together in one day the three great mysteries of our existence: life, love, and death. Today we hold these three mysteries in close proximity, as we remember in love those who have died, even while we entrust them into the hands of the living God. They are, if you will, the holy trinity of mysteries that touch the very core of what it means to be human.
I am put in mind by this day of the time several years ago when I heard for the first time that one of my college classmates had died: Larry was his name, one of my closest friends, and he was simultaneously a physician, a priest, a husband, and a father. Another of our classmates was asked to give the sermon—Ellen Aitken, who was dean of the Faculty of Theology at McGill University. In one of the most eloquent such orations I have ever heard, Ellen spoke to those of us who had known and loved Larry in these words:
We love knowing that those whom we love will die; we love knowing that our hearts will be broken. [Yet even so, we choose to love. That’s the paradox at the center of our lives.]
And then, quoting the poet Mary Oliver, she said:
To live in this world
you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it
against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.1
Such is the nature of the interconnectedness of love and death. Yet such a paradox doesn’t just come from nowhere. It begins with God, and with God’s own love, which seeking an object toward which to direct its own passion and longing brings into being the creation, and places us within it as partners in God’s creative activity.
Even so, this creation in which we live, is not God but only God’s gift, so it is not itself eternal. Only God is that. Creation is temporal, and therefore it necessarily resolves itself into death, as the Day of the Dead so vividly reminds us. We human beings die. Plants and animals, die. Even stars die.
But the great wonder is, that even knowing we exist within this inescapable matrix of life and death, we human beings choose to love that which we know will die—spouses, partners, children, friends—and so we put ourselves inexorably on course to have our hearts broken when they die. Grief is the price of love. We nevertheless seem to reason that the richness and depth of the experience of love is so great and so fundamental to who we are, that we are willing to accept the price—to accept the price of having our hearts broken.
Our scriptures today, however, would have us to realize that such grief is not the last word; it is not an unlimited price. In John’s vision of a New Jerusalem given to us in the book of Revelation, he sees a new heaven and a new earth in which all things will be made new. In this new creation, the death toward which this life leads is not definitive, but like everything else that is created, death itself is only temporal—and it leads toward a new reality.
Jesus’ raising of Lazarus in today’s gospel is meant to demonstrate this point as vividly as the writer knows how to make it. The scene is this: Jesus has been called to Bethany to tend his sick friend Lazarus, but by the time he gets there from where he was the other side of the Jordan, Lazarus has died and has already been in the tomb for four days. Now, the text goes out of its way to emphasize just how dead Lazarus really is: Mary (the dead man’s sister) is actively grieving his death, as are all her weeping friends. And when Jesus asks for the tomb to be opened, Martha (Lazarus’ other sister) recoils in horror: there will certainly be a revolting stench by now, for the body will be decaying. Lazarus is very dead.
But Jesus persists, so the tomb is opened, and then Jesus calls the dead man forth—and to the amazement of all, Lazarus appears at the entrance to the tomb still wrapped in his burial cloths, from which Jesus commands that he be unbound and let go.
Now John gives us ample clues that the point of this episode is not just that Jesus was able to resuscitate a corpse—and a decaying one at that. Remember that this is John’s gospel, the one that begins with the prologue, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” John’s Jesus is the incarnate Word, the Cosmic Christ, the one through whom all things were made, and so the raising of Lazarus is presented not just as a miracle story, but as a sign that the one through whom life itself was first created and given to Lazarus, is also the one who is able to make that life new.
On one hand, this is the same Jesus who, like us, shares the experience of both loving and grieving his departed friend. Jesus, John tells us, weeps. But we also glimpse another side of Jesus as he moves beyond his grief to call on the Father, the one from whom he has been sent, to reveal his glory in the gift of new life. Lazarus standing at the entrance to his own tomb is not, therefore, simply an instance of a miraculous restoration of a life that was thought to have expired in death—but rather it is a vision of the new creation toward which life leads even in death, overtaking death and putting it aside.
Think of it this way: in that trinity of life, love, and death that is the central mystery of our being, we do not remain stationary or trapped at any one of those three poles. Rather, we continually circulate among them: we move from love to its expression in life, from life to its eclipse in death, and from death to its renewal in love’s new creation. Indeed these three mysteries of life, love, and death mirror the Trinity of God’s own being as Father, Son and Holy Spirit: just as the self-emptying love of the three persons circulates among them, so too is there a circulation between the mysteries of live, love, and death.
C. S. Lewis, in his book A Grief Observed, noted that, “all reality is iconoclastic.” He meant that what we tend to take for granted is often contradicted when we encounter the true, authentic reality of God. Death is one such thing. The finality of death which we take to be absolute, is contradicted by the deeper reality of the loving communion which we continue to share through God with those who have gone before us. That is not to say that grief is not real; nor is it to say that grief is not one of the hardest things we have to bear; but it is to say that it is not ultimate.
My friend Ellen captured this idea in concluding her sermon for Larry. “Larry,” she said, “was peculiarly, even precociously, aware of the mortality knit into our bodies, into the fabric of our lives and loves; this is, I would say, what gave him the deep capacity for receiving into his heart and mind the complexities of human life. Yet over the years I knew him, he became increasingly and visibly aware of the other reality knit into our souls and bodies, the reality of resurrection life, pulsing within us, already at work this side of the grave.” That is the iconoclastic reality of Christian faith. That is the iconoclastic nature of the trinity of life, love, and death, that holy mystery we commemorate together today as the Feast of All Saints. Amen.