Sunday, April 26, 2015

Good Magic: I am a Potent Package

Ten thousand years ago in the West Asian regions where many years later Abraham journeyed and many years later still, Jesus walked; in these very same lands, most of your diet began.   Wheat and barley, lentils and green peas, goats, sheep, pigs, and cows: human agriculture begins there in the Fertile Crescent.  The first farmers, the first cowboys and the first shepherds were all there in what today we know as Jordan, Iraq, Israel, Palestine, Turkey, Lebanon.  Scientist and popular author Jared Diamond calls this combination of earliest domesticated plants and animals “a potent and balanced biological package”.  This package spread quickly and to this day forms the base of most of the world’s diet and renewable resources.  All this is to say,  that in West Asia shepherding has roots as deep as civilization itself. 

I am the good shepherd. Beautiful, and deeply ancient.   Of all Jesus’ ‘I am’ statements it is certainly the most obvious and least metaphorical.  A shepherd is a leader, a shepherd is human.  I am the vine.  Also deeply ancient, however, um, Jesus, we know what vines look like.  You do not look like a vine.  I am the bread.  Um. Huh?  

John’s gospel isn’t the most straightforward.  It is a mystical journey with Jesus that assumes you already know the story.  You know him, his incarnation, his teaching, his death and his resurrection.  These ‘I am’ statements are poetry and metaphor pointing beyond the details and back at himself in ways that are almost magical.  Trying to bring forth that un-nameable thing that draws us to him.

I am the good shepherd.  I want to stop for a moment and examine that qualifier: good.  Good is both a throw away word and one of those words that maybe should only be used by God.  How are you feeling?  The noncommittal casual answer is ‘I’m good.’  Have you noticed those ‘life is good’ t-shirts?  They tug at our deepest hopes and bring to mind memories magical that make us utter ‘yeah’.  In English the adjective good can mean high quality, or high-but-not-excellent quality.  Good can mean suitable, pleasant, proper and loyal.  The competent-but-not-excellent shepherd doesn’t sound like someone who would lay down his life.  The proper shepherd doesn’t sound like Jesus at all.  The Greek word here actually means something like model or noble.  It hints at originality, this is the shepherd from which all shepherds descend.  This is the icon, the ultimate one that we should strive to find ourselves in.  He is the good shepherd, the ultimate holy-enchanted-beloved kind of good shepherd.

It all started there, these people, this witness.  John is telling us what happened before Jesus laid down his life, but he is also telling us what resurrection means, telling how in Jesus God broke open our systems of death and destruction.  John is telling us both of these stories at the same time.  If you walk forward three verses you learn more about the third story that is being told.  “There was another division among the Jews because of Jesus’ words.  Many of them said, “He has a demon and has lost his mind. Why listen to him?” Others said, “These aren’t the words of someone who has a demon. Can a demon heal the eyes of people who are blind?” 

Ancient Eucharistic Bread stamps
The third story being told is much like the situation in our Acts lesson, where there has been a healing by the Apostles in Jesus’ name, and the authorities are upset.  The proclamation of the Good News brought new life, but it also brought division with the early church’s closest friends and neighbors.  The mission to fellow Judeans was being met with division and deafness.  By the time that John and Acts were written divisions are deeper and sharper and meaner.  The invitation that 'I am the gate' and 'I am the good shepherd', this is filling out the deeper truth of the healing of the man born blind.  He is one who steps outside the boundaries established by the authorities.  He enters the gate, which is Christ our Lord.  Outcast by his or his parents presumed sins, this one who was outcast and rejected, he is a sheep who follows the loving voice of his original master.  Where the proclamation failed at home, it spread elsewhere fast and far and wide.  This Good Shepherd brought light, and life and food and healing.  The witness of the early Christians wasn’t just words about healing, feeding, light, and life.  It was the actual experience of healing, eating, seeing and knowing new life.

It isn’t enough to think Jesus teaches righteous things, it isn’t enough to think he is adequate.  The early church struggled with neighbors and empire, just as we do.  Yet they were so bound to the experience of the Incarnation that no human boundary was able to quash or silence it.  To know this good shepherd is to know the one who loves us beyond what words can say.  Walking through this gate, following this shepherd, sharing this bread, it pulls us into the an ancient community that reveals God’s desire for a world healed of violence, death and destruction.

The archeological record shows that all that prehistoric shepherding and gardening spread incredibly fast and broadly through temperate the zones of Asia, Europe, and Africa.  I find it interesting that the early spread of the Christian witness followed almost the exact same pattern and speed.  Good news that changes everything for the better is like magic.  Gardens and herds for people who had only known subsistence, this was good news.  It found hungry people seeking nourishment, in need of guidance, healing, and love.  It was very good.  So too did this One who says he is bread, vine, gate, way, truth life.  He is the amazing-awesome-holy and way beyond everyday good shepherd. 

St. Paul's Episcopal Church
Walla Walla, Washington
April 26, 2015

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

A Field of Dreams: Vigil Keeping

The MLB season and Easter collaborated beautifully this year.  It was opening night and it smelled like he is risen, Alleluia and Amen!!!  A most amazing day that felt like spring had bloomed at last. In the empty tomb of Easter the universe figuratively explodes.  Easter should amaze like a grand slam, it should pop like kettle corn. There should be much in common with the feeling of Opening Night and Easter.  Christ is Alive! Alleluia!  

Wherefore, dearly beloved, we who have come to know that this special night has been illumined by the grace of our Lord's resurrection must also take particular care lest any least part of it become dark in our hearts.  -Venerable Bede

One of the many blessings of friends who are new to the Episcopal traditions is their excitement.  The 'this' and the 'that' which have become for me dull and unremarkable, are brought into the light of new hope.  Easter Vigil was once this new spark of mystery and wonder for me.  The fire, the darkness, the sacred story and the outrageous party that followed. In my career, I have experienced this same pop in Vigils that were standing room only, and I have even found a small gracious light in celebrations that were elegant and elaborate but dull and cold.  This is Opening Day.  It should call strongly to the avid fan and entice the casual fan.

On this night, because of the mystery of our Lord's resurrection, the order of time was changed.  He rose from the dead during the night, and on the following day he showed the effect of his resurrection to his disciples.  Having shared a feast with them, he proved the truth of his power as they wondered and rejoiced. -Venerable Bede

Some Easter liturgies do not feel much like Opening Day.  There is much clanging of cymbals but something is missing, or perhaps there is a bit too much of everything.  Maybe it is like an overcooked gourmet hot dog with every elaborate topping anyone can conceive of.   Peeps! Shaved fermented brussels sprouts!  Salted Caramel!   Perhaps like the great game, the accessorizing has gotten out of control. Spiderman movie advertisements on the bases!  Foam fingers make good pillows, and tonight, tonight we shall prove that we really do read the Bible and put you to sleep in one absurd double play!  Why pull out all the stops this night? Is it the costumes or union with Christ?  Stagecraft or the amazing Easter walk-off win of all time? 

Long before there was a 2015 MLB Opening Day, there were men on a field with a bat and a ball. And long before the 20th century liturgical science reforms there were people gathered with fire and candles and stories and meal.  This is ancient and primordial stuff.  This is a celebration of faith that digs deep into the selves that we barely remember but are called to enter into.

If you build it, they will come.  This is not always a successful ministry strategy.  Such moments are heart breakers in the life of the pastoral leader.  Many of us who enter into pastoral ministry love liturgical occasions like the Vigil, we love the elaborateness and the movements and the sacred silliness.  We want our friends to find the same wonder there, but they never make it out to the field of dreams.  In the cold light of a spring day, many of our faithful friends might hear the crack of the bat, but they do not make it to the game.

Middle of the night sounds amazing to a night owl, however plenty of  parishioners do not want to come out late at night for a rather long occasion. Some have children with tender sleeping schedules, some are mature and night driving is a dangerous choice, and there are of course other reasons both realistic and diverted.  So I have to wonder, are not clock time and things such as midnight are human constructs?  Are we telling the wonder of the Resurrection on human terms, or are we peering into the timelessness of a holy corn field?   How do we take particular care to keep this sacred game alive? 

I call it the Original Vigil (which of course, it is not). We begin at sundown because that is how the ancients told time.  We gather at a home, like the first Christians did.  We begin around a fire pit in the backyard.  We bring out the expired linens and oils and set the holy fire aflame.   We remain around the fire with our vigil candles while people take on telling of our sacred story.  Some read them, some act them out. The family of Christ gathered around the fire interact with the story, they have it remembered into their beating hearts and God willing, their everyday lives.

The liturgical leadership is shared, choosing to have the clergy lead only what they absolutely must. Thanks be to God for some amazingly playful priests and deacons!  Then we share a blessed feast in the Hippolytus manner with cheese and olives and fruit and sparkling Washington wine and bread (and hummus).   It is by no means what many might think of as a Vigil, but is an almost ancient and mindful opening night.   To me it feels like God's people in love with Christ and seeking to live in his way.   We tell our stories, we share food, and it is both simple and bursting with resurrection life.  And somewhere in the melding of people and narrative and nurture is the mystery of Easter.  A risen Christ full to the brim with unexpected life, calling us into a sacred freedom, leading us toward his reign. 

The liturgy is a “hearts and minds”strategy, a pedagogy that trains us as disciples precisely by putting our bodies through a regimen of repeated practices that get hold of our heart and “aim”our love toward the kingdom of God.  -James Smith

This homestyle liturgy is embodied formation.  It not only says that the resurrected life happens beyond the nave in the midst of everyday life, it actually practices this kind of life, this kind of Resurrection.  The neighbors cat is wandering around our feet, the weather is less than cooperative.  Yet still we rise.  We rise with him to love unbounded.  We are not museum pieces but  'desiring, affective, liturgical animals.' (Smith)  Our deepest formation happens on the levels of experience, of basic needs such as warmth and food and community.  The Easter Vigil is full of words but it is also beyond words.  That may be where we sometimes over decorate it.  We hope that one more topping will reveal the sacred hope of this night.  

It is a spring night and a full moon and frogs croaking and corks popping.  Christ is alive and we are bound to him and his reign.   We are what we love, and our love is shaped, primed, and aimed by liturgical practices that take hold of our gut and aim our heart to certain ends. (Smith)  This Jesus, this union with our risen Lord is our end.  A wise friend once told me of how important Christmas eve was to her parenting.  This story, this story of Christ's salvation, it is important that it gets lived into before the deluge of the profiteering chocolates and gifts.  It is not best experienced like a commercial break.  This is the night, this is the story.  It seems important to me that the amazing brilliance of Vigil continue, and that it continue in ways that are both mysterious and broadly accessible.  Because on this night the order of time was changed.  Christ is Risen!  Alleluia!  Play Ball!!

Quotes from the Venerable Bede

Smith, James K.A.  Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation (Cultural Liturgies). Baker Academic (2009). 

Copies of the text of the Original Vigil available on request.  Primarily sourced from Common Worship and the BCP1979.