Sunday, March 23, 2014

Three Questions

As we reflect on the Scriptures, I’m going to ask you three questions, which I hope will make you uncomfortable enough to pray through to some answers during this coming week!

Question #1:  Are you saved?
Episcopal priest Barbara Brown Taylor, in her book, Leaving Church, writes: “Salvation is a word for the divine spaciousness that comes to human beings in all the tight places where their lives are at risk, regardless of how they got there or whether they know God’s name. Sometimes it comes as an extended human hand and sometimes as a bolt from the blue, but either way it opens a door in what looked for all the world like a wall. This is the way of life, and God alone knows how it works...

Little did the Samaritan woman in John’s Gospel (4:5-42) realize how turned-upside-down her life was about to become as she set out for Jacob’s well that day to get some water -- around lunch time, according to John. As she arrives she notices a Jewish man, 30-something, sitting by the well, all sweaty, apparently just in from a tiresome journey. With a few furtive glances, she lowers her bucket to fill the jar beside her. A conversation ensues when the man says: “Give me a drink.” You can almost sense the tension that runs through her body. It’s immediately obvious that, for whatever reason, this is a woman who has bought into the racial discrimination prevalent at the time. “I’ms Samaritan; why are you, a Jew, asking me for anything?” In an aside, John notes: “Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.

Jesus calmly replies: “If you knew the gift of God and who it is who’s asking you for a simple drink from the well, you would ask him and he’d give you ‘living water’”.  A momentary pause. The woman tentatively enters the conversation with Jesus, which is what prayer really is. The focus is on Jacob’s well: its antiquity, its depth, etc. In a comment reflecting “denominational superiority”, the woman observes: “You don’t even have a bucket, so where do you get this ‘living water’? Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob?” She’s quite aware that, if Jesus were to drink from her water jar, he’d be ritually impure in a big way. But subconsciously, this Samaritan woman has begun to open herself, just a little bit, to “divine spaciousness”. 

Insightfully, she lets this man know what a bummer it is to have to come to this well every day in order to draw water and carry it back: how tedious, how time-consuming it is. Normally, she’d have come to the well either earlier or later in the day to avoid the heat, but for whatever reason today she’s here around noon. Archbishop William Temple had a coy observation about such experiences: “When I pray, coincidences happen; when I don’t, they don’t!” The woman doesn’t hide her eagerness to have this ‘living water’, whatever its source. “Where do you get it? Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to the well.

Jesus recognizes well that they’re talking on completely different wave lengths, as so often happens in John’s Gospel. The water which Jesus offers is the Wisdom which gives life. In the language of Jesus’ own Hebrew Scriptures, “living water” refers to Torah, the Law, God’s will, which the rabbis called “the gift of God”. Recognizing and accepting God’s will, expressed in Torah, and living according to it every day was life-giving Wisdom for a Jew.

For writers of the Christian Scriptures, especially, John the Evangelist, “living water”, the Wisdom which gives life and which guides people’s lives, is both Jesus’ teaching, the New Law of Love, summed up in Himself who is the “Word” incarnate, as well as the Spirit of truth whom Jesus sends. “If anyone thirst, let him come to me and drink. The one who sets his heart on me, as the scripture says, ‘Out of his heart shall flow rivers of living water.’ Now he said this about the Spirit which those who set their heart on him were to receive.” (John 7:38-39) The coming of God’s Spirit was to be the sign that the Messiah, the Anointed One, had arrived. “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me...the Lord has anointed heal the brokenhearted...” (Jesus, quoting Isaiah 61:1)

At this point in the story things are about to get interesting. Jesus gets up-close and personal: “Go, call your husband, and come back.” The woman spits back: “I have no husband.” Teacher that he was, Jesus is well-versed in the Jewish rabbis’ tradition of approving no more than three marriages, though any number was legally possible. Another pregnant pause. Then Jesus quietly observes: “You’re right. You’ve had five husbands, and the one you have now isn’t your husband: this is true.” A simple moment of honesty, an embarrassed coming-clean, whatever the reason, is all the opening that the Spirit of God needs to come bursting into a person’s heart with the living water of Truth!

You can almost feel the desperation with which the Samaritan woman tries to steer the conversation in another direction. Jesus had hit too close to home. She changes the subject to discuss “theological” differences between Jews and Samaritans. Jesus, however, knows just how and when to press and when to fall back. Humoring her line of thought, he gently, yet relentlessly, sticks to the thread of “spirit and truth”, pointing out that the “denominational” differences between Jews and Samaritans are, when you come down to it, rather irrelevant. As is the place of worship. The real issue is this: will you open your broken heart and life to salvation: to that “divine spaciousness”, as Barbara Brown Taylor calls it, “that comes to human beings in all the tight places where their lives are at risk”, to the living water of the Spirit of truth. “The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.” (Psalm 50:17) “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.” (Psalm 50:10) Doing this, regardless of how we got to that point or whether we know God’s name, frees the Spirit of Jesus to heal us, to restore us, to create something where before there was nothing. Jesus the Jew does that for the Samaritan woman.

The Gospel account hints that the woman has already figured out that Jesus isn’t just any thirsty Jewish guy taking a lunch break beside the well! She quietly acknowledges him as a “prophet”. She muses aloud: “I know that Messiah is coming, and when he comes he’ll proclaim everything to us.” Jesus, probably looking directly into her eyes, says: “I am he, the one who is speaking to you.

Question #2:  In verse 28 of the Gospel, why, do you think, does the Samaritan woman leave her jar at the well as she runs back home?
Jesus’ disciples arrive back at the well with their take-out lunch just as his conversation with the woman ends, but not without some uneasy looking askance that Jesus is talking God, a woman...and a Samaritan woman, at that! None of them, however, dares to utter a word about the “elephant in the room”. The woman quietly exits, leaving her jar at the well, as John takes pains to point out. Why is that?

Could it be that the woman’s leaving her jar might symbolize that, in dealing with the Holy God and with each other, you and I need to let go, to unclutch, as the Samaritan woman did, our own little “jars”, however large or small? For two reasons: first, in our human restlessness, you and I continually exhaust ourselves trying to contain and put limits around God’s truth, and on determining who, whether ourselves or others, is “worthy” of God’s compassion. The Book of Common Prayer says that, in our unsteadiness and confusion, we “chas[e] after selfish goals”, we “take a measure of...worth”. We’re all searching for the security of “the truth”, whether or not we’re aware of it. But, paradoxically, because of its cost we fearfully do all that we can to evade it. True wisdom comes only when we can finally open our heart to the living water of God’s Spirit, when we can permit God to smash our selfish little “jars” of trying to put limits on God’s Spirit, or of refusing to give God the freedom to break into others‘ brokenness. The Spirit’s action gives us a new start, a “surprise ministry”, if you will. In the words of St. Paul: “...we have this treasure in earthen vessels, to show that the transcendent power belongs to God and not to us.

Secondly, by leaving her jar and hurrying back to town to share her experience with family and friends, the Samaritan woman does something, she acts. It’s indeed a “surprise ministry” to which Jesus, through his Spirit, has called her: to take some Good News back to her own, to bring genuine faith, hope and love to folks who, like her and like most of humankind, live lives of “quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them”, as Henry David Thoreau put it.  We’d be safe in saying that it’s probably something this woman would never have done on her own. Like us, she’d likely have pled “unworthy”, “incapable”, “not having enough time to devote to it”. On the other hand, it highly unlikely that her townspeople would’ve ever recommended her for service as an evangelist! After all, they knew what she was like! As it turned out, it really wasn’t about her or them, but about God’s grander vision for us all. Paul understood this when he preached to the community at Corinth, divided and chaotic because of their partisanship and their playing favorites, their bickering and their selfish sinfulness:
...God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe...we proclaim Christ crucified...Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God...God is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom...and righteousness and sanctification and redemption...these things God has revealed to us through the that we may understand the gifts bestowed on us by God. And we speak of these things in words not taught by human wisdom, but taught by the Spirit...

John tells us that a lot of folks came to faith just by experiencing the dramatic change in the Samaritan woman. They themselves wanted to hear more, and so “...came to him and asked him to stay with them...” Receiving the power and wisdom of God from Jesus firsthand, “...many more believed because of his word.
Sometimes [salvation] comes as an extended hand and sometimes as a bolt from the blue, but either way it opens a door in what looked for all the world like a wall. This is the way of life, and God alone knows how it works...

Question #3:  What is saving your life, my life, now?? 
Barbara Brown Taylor says that she was asked this question when she was invited to speak at a church gathering. Perhaps Barbara’s words in commenting on this could help providing a clue for us as to how you and I might discern an answer for ourselves in the week ahead:
...Although we might use different words to describe it, most of us know what is killing us. For some it is the deadly rush of our lives; for others it is the inability to move. For some it is the prison of our possessions; for others the crushing poverty that dooms our children to more of the same. Few of us can choose our circumstances, but we can choose how we respond to them. To be saved is not only to recognize an alternative to the deadliness pressing down upon us but also to be able to act upon it...”  

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Believing..Or Setting One's Heart On?

The opening verse of Genesis 12 relates God's directive to Abram: "Go from your country and your kindred and your father's house to the land that I will show you…" No itinerary. No map. No GPS. No assurances beyond the journey. Imagine if you were asked to do that!

The passage from John 3:1-17 centers on Nicodemus, "a leader of the Jews." He comes to Jesus in the dark of night, full of questions which bother him: "How can anyone be born [from above] after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother's womb and be born?…How can these things be?"

You and I have probably heard sermons on these texts year after year urging us on, in some form, to believe, trust, have faith. At other times we've heard words bandied about: beliefs, tenets, the Magisterium, dogmas, teachings. That strikes many people as terribly impersonal. Some, experiencing difficulty in understanding what's meant by all that, no longer "buy" it, and have simply stopped saying the words of "The Creed", whether the form is Apostles', Nicene, or Athanasian! Not a few folks admit to being outright skeptics about it all. It appears to them that the Church has made it all so hard, so complicated, so ethereal.

One of my favorite books through the years since the '80's is James Adams' book, So You Think You're Not Religious?, written for modern skeptics. What grabbed me when I read it was the description of faith which he suggests. Adams tells of an incident which he witnessed at Oxford University, where Robert Morgan was giving a series of lectures on Paul's Epistles. Morgan came to the text in Romans 10:9 where Paul says: "...if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved." "Then", Adams recounts, "he looked up and said, 'Believe in your heart. That is the only kind of believing that matters. As you probably know the Latin word 'credo', from which we get our word 'creed', is usually translated 'believe', but it means literally 'to set the heart'." Adams notes that this stunned him, for it suddenly solved for him how a skeptical person might, with integrity, pray the Nicene Creed. "'Credo'...'I believe in', really means 'I set my heart'. It does not mean 'I set my head'."

Not only Abram and Nicodemus, but you and I too are constantly invited to move on, to journey beyond the familiar, to leave our "sure bets" behind, to be "born from above". In short, we're invited to "set our heart on" Jesus the Christ, whom the living God has sent, purely out of love for us, to show us how to do that.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Moral Counterfeiting

During Lent this year I'm using a helpful little work, Daily Reflections for Lent: Not By Bread Alone (Liturgical Press, 2013), by Bishop Robert F. Morneau. The thread he draws through the liturgical readings for today (Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7; Romans 5:12-19; Matthew 4:1-11) is how temptation is experienced by Adam and Eve, by St. Paul, and by Jesus. In Genesis the Adversary, symbolized by the serpent, initiates the temptation for Adam and Eve to be disloyal, disobedient to God's stated wishes. Paul talks about the spread and pervasiveness of temptation to radical disloyalty to God through succeeding generations, resulting from the pattern set by the first couple. Matthew recounts what immediately follows upon Jesus' being declared God's "Beloved", the truly loyal One in whom God is "well pleased", and to whom (cf. last Sunday's Gospel), God directs Jesus' followers to "listen", i.e., to really listen = to obey.

Bishop Morneau cites a passage from Karl Rahner's book, The Need and the Blessing of Prayer: originally sermons which Rahner preached during Lent in 1946 at St. Michal's Church in Munich, Germany. (A 1997 edition is available from Liturgical Press.) In commenting on the human struggle, Rahner refers to "his [man's] hunger for good fortune, his sadness and the melancholy of life that lusts for an anesthetic, his trust in the concrete, his mistrust of the future hereafter, his amazing and uncanny facility for moral counterfeiting which can make good evil and evil good."

How do you and I experience temptation? Perhaps Lent is an opportunity for each of us to assess our "facility for moral counterfeiting". On Ash Wednesday, the Litany of Penitence (BCP, pp. 267-268) reminded us of some of ways by which we do this: pride, hypocrisy, impatience, self-indulgence, exploitation of others, anger, envy, intemperate love of worldly goods and comforts, dishonesty, negligence in prayer and worship, failure to witness to our faith, blindness to human need and suffering, indifference, injustice, cruelty, false judgment, lack of charity, contempt for others' differences, waste and pollution, selfishness. And that's just a sampling! Pondering it could keep us busy far into the future!

And so, we cry out to God: "…Come quickly to help us who are assaulted by many temptations;…as you know the weaknesses of each of us, let each one find you mighty to save, through Jesus Christ your Son…"    

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Bending the Knee of the Heart

O Lord, you are full of compassion, * long-suffering, and abounding in mercy.

You hold back your hand; * you do not punish as we deserve.

In your great goodness, Lord, you have promised forgiveness to sinners, *

that they may repent of their sin and be saved. 

And now, O Lord, I bend the knee of my heart, * and make my appeal, sure of your gracious goodness. 

I have sinned, O Lord, I have sinned, * and I know my wickedness only too well. 

Therefore I make this prayer to you: * Forgive me, Lord, forgive me. 

Do not let me perish in my sin, * nor condemn me to the depths of the earth.

(A Song of Penitence, Book of Common Prayer)

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Beloved Dust

Not long ago, I reconnected briefly with a friend from my Education for Ministry mentoring days: Fr. Robert Davis Hughes, III, who has taught theology at the University of the South, Sewanee, TN, since 1977. Years ago, I was privileged to have been part of a group for which Bob gave a stimulating workshop on the various stages of spiritual development, one in which he introduced us to some impressively creative ideas. My reason for reconnecting with him was the fact that I'd finally got around to reading his excellent book, Beloved Dust: Tides of the Spirit in the Christian Life (Continuum, 2008), and wanted to thank him for it. It's rich fare for anyone who feels willing to plough through a 400-page work with rather small print. I could hardly put it down. It seemed appropriate, therefore, on this day when we a lot about "dust", to share at least a few gems from Bob's fine book which I heartily recommend.

In his chapter entitled "Dust" (Part I, Chapter 4), Hughes writes: "It is time to admit…we are all dust, flesh and blood; time to sweep out the occult and the esoteric and ask what it might be for a self-conscious bag of dust and water to have something called a spiritual life." (p. 55)  He goes on to describe the human being as animated dust, spirited dust, estranged dust and redeemed dust. 

The proper subject of spiritual theology, according to Hughes, "…is the movement of the Holy Spirit in the divine economy in her mission, which has a Trinitarian rhythm to it: first, the Spirit in her hovering, firing, and resting aids the Fount in creation and covenant; then engages with the Word/Wisdom in a complex pas de deux (actually de trois) around all the mysteries of the incarnation…and then works with the other two of the Trinity to fulfill her own proper mission of the final sacramental consecration of the universal pleroma…" Hughes calls his contribution to all of this his "experiment at reinterpreting the classic Trinitarian rhythm of the spiritual life as resonances in us of the Trinitarian structure of the Spirit's mission, as if three resulting concurrent tidal currents [conversion, transfiguration, glory] were breaking on a human shore, understood in the fullness of its own complexity, but in a thoroughly material manner, as dust. The miracle is that the dust finds itself unexpectedly beloved, with a precious and costly love." (p. 370)

The Litany of Penance in the Ash Wednesday liturgy is a moving experience for me each year, and was so again this morning, because it helps us to recognize, in quite vivid terms, the fact that we're "dust", but that we're also "beloved dust". Our propensity to lose sight of that so often is, I believe, ultimately the cause of our human sadness and discouragement. In the words of the Litany: "We have been deaf to your call to serve, as Christ served us. We have not been true to the mind of Christ. We have grieved your Holy Spirit. Have mercy on us, Lord." The concluding words of the celebrant reassure us that, despite all that, God understands, that God holds out to us the real hope of never-ending life and love. 

I suspect that the 40 days of Lent are at least enough for us during which to begin to ponder these realities as they apply to us personally.