Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Shoveling Snow with the Buddha











Shoveling Snow with the Buddha
A Poem by Billy Collins

Here we are, the Buddha and I, working our way down the driveway,
one shovelful at a time.
We toss the light powder into the clear air.
We feel the cold mist on our faces.
And with every heave we disappear
and become lost to each other
in these sudden clouds of our own making,
these fountain-bursts of snow.
 
This is so much better than a sermon in church,
I say out loud, but Buddha keeps on shoveling.
This is the true religion, the religion of snow,
and sunlight and winter geese barking in the sky,
I say, but he is too busy to hear me.
 
He has thrown himself into shoveling snow
as if it were the purpose of existence,
as if the sign of a perfect life were a clear driveway
you could back the car down easily
and drive off into the vanities of the world
with a broken heater fan and a song on the radio.
 
All morning long we work side by side,
me with my commentary
and he inside his generous pocket of silence,
until the hour is nearly noon
and the snow is piled high all around us;
then, I hear him speak.
 
After this, he asks,
can we go inside and play cards?
 
Certainly, I reply, and I will heat some milk
and bring cups of hot chocolate to the table
while you shuffle the deck.
and our boots stand dripping by the door.
 
Aaah, says the Buddha, lifting his eyes
and leaning for a moment on his shovel
before he drives the thin blade again
deep into the glittering white snow.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

"The Journey of the Magi"

T.S. Eliot

'A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.'
And the camels galled, sorefooted, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.
Then the camel men cursing and grumbling
and running away, and wanting their liquor and women,
And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters,
And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty and charging high prices:
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.

Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;
With a running stream and a water-mill beating the darkness,
And three trees on the low sky,
And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.
Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,
Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,
And feet kiking the empty wine-skins.
But there was no information, and so we continued
And arriving at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you might say) satisfactory.

All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Gaudete

"Gaudete," which is the Latin word for "rejoice," is a name for the Third Sunday in Advent. It comes for beginning of the traditional introit for that Sunday, which begins: "Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say, rejoice" (Philippians 4:4–6). Gaudete can be seen as a break from the "mildly penitential" season of Advent. The traditional color for Gaudete is rose, reflected in the color of the third candle in the Advent wreath.

Gaudete
by Brad Reynolds

Because Christmas is almost here
Because dancing fits so well with music
Because inside baby clothes are miracles.
Gaudete
Because some people love you
Because of chocolate
Because pain does not last forever
Because Santa Claus is coming.
Gaudete
Because of laughter
Because there really are angels
Because your fingers fit your hands
Because forgiveness is yours for the asking
Because of children
Because of parents.
Gaudete
Because the blind see.
And the lame walk.
Gaudete
Because lepers are clean
And the deaf hear.
Gaudete
Because the dead will live again
And there is good news for the poor.
Gaudete
Because of Christmas
Because of Jesus
You rejoice.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

A Song of Christ's Goodness

Our first reading for the coming Sunday, the Second Sunday of Advent, concludes with the verses:
See, the Lord GOD comes with might,
    and his arm rules for him;
his reward is with him,
    and his recompense before him.
He will feed his flock like a shepherd;
    he will gather the lambs in his arms,
and carry them in his bosom,
    and gently lead the mother sheep.
It's not often that we hear about the mighty arms of our tender mother God. What does it mean for God's arm to rule, Isaiah seems to ask, if not for God to gently gather us together in those arms?

St. Anselm of Canterbury
I was reminded, on reading this passage today, of the great poem by St. Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109), the medieval theologian, philosopher, and pastor, that we call "A Song of Christ's Goodness." Here's the version used as a canticle (a response to the readings in Morning or Evening Prayer) in the Episcopal Church's Enriching Our Worship:
Jesus, as a mother you gather your people to you; *
    you are gentle with us as a mother with her children.
Often you weep over our sins and our pride, *
    tenderly you draw us from hatred and judgment.
You comfort us in sorrow and bind up our wounds, *
    in sickness you nurse us and with pure milk you feed us.
Jesus, by your dying, we are born to new life; *
    by your anguish and labor we come forth in joy.
Despair turns to hope through your sweet goodness; *
    through your gentleness, we find comfort in fear.
Your warmth gives life to the dead, *
    your touch makes sinners righteous.
Lord Jesus, in your mercy, heal us; *
    in your love and tenderness, remake us.
In your compassion, bring grace and forgiveness, *
    for the beauty of heaven, may your love prepare us.
In a time when members of churches across the world are searching for language that expresses God's love with something other than masculine imagery, I'm always excited to see such beautiful examples from ancient and medieval sources within the Christian tradition.

And of course, in this season when we prepare to celebrate the simple and beautiful story of the Holy Family, of God born into the world to and through a kind and gentle mother, let's remember the beautiful circle of the love of our God, who was born of a human mother in order to be mother to all humans.

Pieta, sculptor unknown, c. 1420. Harvard Art Museums.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

What Matters in the End

This sermon was given by the Rev. Luther Zeigler at our service of Holy Eucharist on Sunday, November 23rd, Christ the King Sunday. The readings for the day can be found here.

“And the king will answer them, ‘Truly, I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’” Matthew 25:40

This well-known excerpt from the 25th chapter of Matthew – sometimes called ‘the parable of the sheep and the goats’ – is Jesus’ very last teaching in Matthew’s gospel before his betrayal, arrest, trial, and crucifixion. It marks the climax of Jesus’ preaching to his followers, and it is the only detailed account of the final judgment offered by Jesus in all of the New Testament. All of which is to suggest that we probably ought to pay close attention to what Jesus is saying here.

Drawing on the apocalyptic vision from the Book of Daniel, in which the Son of Man comes in glory at the end of times to make manifest God’s reign, Jesus paints for us a vivid picture of the glorified Son sitting on the throne of judgment.  Surrounded by God’s angels, the Son of Man then gathers peoples from all the nations before his throne and, one by one, separates them, like a shepherd separating sheep from goats, into two groups:  those who are blessed and who will inherit the kingdom, and those who are accursed and who will be forever separated from God’s presence.

What separates the sheep from the goats?  The key verses are 40 and 45, where Jesus says, “Truly, I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”  And likewise, “just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.”  Feeding the hungry, it turns out, is to feed Jesus; giving water to those who thirst is to quench our Lord’s thirst; welcoming the stranger is entertaining Christ; clothing the naked is to warm the Body of Christ; caring for the sick is to tend to our Savior’s wounds; and visiting those in prison is to befriend Him as well.  In the final analysis, this is what matters.  

I have three observations about this text and its implications for our lives:

First, notice how little the Son of Man seems to care about whether we’re Gentiles or Jews, Protestants or Catholics, high church or low, man or woman, gay or straight.  We spend so much time and energy quarreling over our theologies and creeds, fighting over who is in and who is out, splitting into endless numbers of denominations and factions, and fussing over the best way to worship; yet, if Jesus is to be believed, the only question we will be asked when we approach the throne of judgment is this: ‘so, tell me, how did you treat the least among you?’

It is what we do for those in need that matters to Christ.  This is not to say that what we believe and how we worship are irrelevant.  Thinking clearly and coherently about who God is and who we are, and adopting practices of worship that allow us to stay in right relationship with God and each other are helpful, but only insofar, Jesus teaches us in today’s gospel, as these beliefs and practices support us in what we do with our lives. Our ultimate aim is to do God’s work in the world and right beliefs and right worship are but a means toward that end.

So, if our actions are what matters, does this mean that our works save us and not our faith?  No, that conclusion does not follow from the premise.  To say that our deeds matter is to say nothing of whence they come.  And Jesus makes clear elsewhere, as does St. Paul, that our capacity for doing works of mercy, for caring for the other, for loving our neighbor, depends crucially and initially upon our faith in Christ, upon letting him abide in our hearts, so that we may become instruments of His grace.  Remember that the two great commandments are, first, to love God with all our heart and mind and soul, so that we might, second, love our neighbor as ourselves.  The order is important.  It is folly to think that we can earn our way into God’s heart through our own efforts apart from first allowing Christ to work in and through us by faith.

Second, notice what this text says about God and where He may be found.  God is emphatically not some distant spirit, far removed from the experience of humanity, as we sometimes imagine Him.  In our lesson today, Jesus tells us, as directly as he can, that God is fully present in the struggles of human existence.  If you want to see the face of God, you need look no further than into the face of a neighbor in distress, for the living Christ is mysteriously there.

When we gather in church, we devote much of our time to experiencing God’s reality in word and sacrament.  We believe, rightly, that God is present in Scripture (and so each Sunday we listen with care to lessons and psalms from our Bible) and that He is present in sacrament (and so, after we hear the Word, we gather around the table to share the bread and wine).  But in today’s gospel, Jesus invites us to expand our sacramental theology by seeking Him not only in Word and Sacrament, but also, and perhaps most especially, in the sorrows and pains and needs of our world.  And plainly, the emphasis in our text today is that the ultimate point of being fed by word and sacrament in church is so that we will leave church to seek Christ’s presence in the faces of all those who are hurting.

This is why the central symbol of our faith is neither the Bible nor the Last Supper, but instead the Cross.  We place a cross at the center of our worship as a sacred reminder that God not only became human in Jesus, but that in Jesus’ life and death, He shared fully in our hunger, our thirst, our estrangement, our nakedness, our sickness, our imprisonment, and ultimately in our suffering and death.  The crucified Christ is and always must remain at the center of our faith so that we remember that the God we worship identifies most profoundly with the poor, the homeless, the hungry, the imprisoned, and with victims of violence; for in Jesus God was all of these.  And so, it is in persons such as these – the least among us – whom we will find Jesus still.

The third and final point I want to make about today’s text is that we should not run from the reality that in it Jesus speaks of judgment.  Quite plainly, Jesus is saying not only that our actions matter, but that what we do and fail to do has consequences for our future life with God.  The notion that our actions matter, and that some day we will be held accountable for our choices, is a sobering reality.  It is sobering because, speaking for myself at least, I seem to act like a goat at least half of the time, maybe more.  I suspect the same may be true for you.  How then can we possibly hope to be on the right side of the divide between the sheep and goats given our all-too-human propensity to stray from the path we know to be the right one?

If the parable of the sheep and goats were the only words we had from Jesus, I’m quite certain that we would be in big trouble. But the task of faithful biblical interpretation is to read texts not merely in isolation, but always in relationship to one another.  And we would do well to remember that the Jesus who promises to judge us in today’s gospel is the very same Jesus who elsewhere promises to chase down and protect every single, lost sheep; who welcomes home with love and thanksgiving every contrite, prodigal child; who called as his followers tax collectors and prostitutes; and whose very last act on the Cross was to turn to a repentant thief and assure him of a place in paradise.  

In short, while we must take seriously these parables of judgment, we must also read them together with our narratives of mercy.  How do we reconcile these competing narratives?  In the end, I’m not sure that we can.  I’m not even sure we’re called to reconcile them.  The reality of our God is bigger and more mysterious than our frail human conceptual categories.  Rather than trying to explain our God in some neat and tidy theology, our task instead, I think, is merely to follow him, and to live in the tension of these narratives, betwixt the poles of judgment and mercy.

On the one hand, we have every reason to trust in the promise of God’s abundant mercy and forgiveness, to follow Christ without fear, and to hope and pray for the redemption of every lost soul, including our own.  On the other hand, and at the same time, we must live our lives as if every choice matters, as if God is counting on us, as if our soul and the souls of all those we are called to serve hang in the balance.

As Reinhold Niebuhr once expressed this paradox:
“The mystery [of living in this tension] is that on the one hand duty is demanded of us as if duty not done will never be done. On the other hand faith declares that man would be undone if God could not complete what we have left incomplete and purify what we have corrupted. The cross is the perfect revelation of both of these truths. In it the sin against man is revealed as the sin against God, as something more than a casual imperfection. Yet in it the merciful purpose of God, to take human evil into himself and smother it there, is also declared.”
Simultaneously both sinner and saint, we live each day in the quiet and sure conviction that God deeply loves the good we do, and that, through the mystery of grace, he also makes straight everything that is crooked in our more wayward doings.  Precisely how this happens we perhaps will never understand; but we can be forever thankful that it happened once and for all on the Cross.


Amen.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

On Earth As It Is In Heaven

This sermon was given by the Rev. Luther Zeigler at our service of Holy Eucharist on Sunday, November 2nd, All Saints' Day. The readings for the day can be found here.

One of my favorite moments in our Eucharistic liturgy is right before the Sanctus, when the Celebrant invites the congregation to join “our voices with Angels and Archangels and with all the company of heaven, who forever sing this hymn to proclaim the glory of God’s Name.”  This invitation is a beautiful reminder that in the mystery of the Eucharist we are deeply connected not only with Christ and each other, but with all who have come before us, from generation to generation.  And, more than a reminder, by singing together the ancient words of the Sanctus and Benedictus, we are all, however briefly, mystically drawn into the joyful life of the communion of the saints.

All Saints Sunday is one of the principal feast days of the church year, and on this day we focus our attention on this “liminal space” between the temporal and the eternal, between this world and the next, between the Church today, the Church across the ages, and the future Church toward which God is calling us.  Through our music, prayers, and lessons, we are given the barest of glimpses into the coming Kingdom and the expansive fellowship of the saints in Christ.

One thing I’ve noticed about Episcopalians over the years, however, is that we often start to get just a little bit nervous when anyone starts talking about a life beyond this one.  We’re all for listening to stories about Jesus, trying to love our neighbors as ourselves, seeking to promote justice, and building up an inclusive community; and we certainly love our beautiful music and pretty vestments; but resurrection and the future Kingdom of God?  For many Episcopalians, that seems a topic better left to our evangelical brothers and sisters.

While I can relate to these feelings of discomfort, our faith at its core is a resurrection faith, and it behooves us, from time to time, to reflect thoughtfully – using the tools of Scripture, tradition, and reason – as to what we actually believe about our future life with God.  For, truth be told, there are a lot of misconceptions in the broader culture about these matters.  For example, I suspect that if you were to ask the average person on the street what Christians believe about life after death, he or she would say:  we go to heaven.  And if you asked this person what he or she means by ‘heaven,’ the answer you would likely get is that it is an ethereal place far removed from this earthly existence where we will be at one with God and others who have gone before us.  On this popular view, when we die, our spirits or souls leave our bodies and this earth and we go to this other place for the rest of eternity.  Our earthly existence, according to this conception, is a training ground for our more permanent home in the distinctly separate sphere of heaven.

While not exactly wrong, the trouble with this view is that it is insufficiently attentive to what the Bible actually teaches us about the relationship between this life and the next, between heaven and earth.  Let’s start with our first lesson today from Revelation.  If you read the Book of Revelation straight through from beginning to end, what you soon appreciate, especially when you get to chapters 21 and 22, is that the Christian hope for the future is not about people leaving earth and going to heaven, as the popular myth would have it.  It is, rather, the exact opposite:  the future that John foretells is of heaven coming down to earth, an eventual merger of these two spheres of existence.  In John’s richly metaphorical language, the eschaton – the end of time – will be that age when the holy city of the “New Jerusalem” comes down from heaven and finally and ultimately transforms our earthly existence.

Thus, in today’s excerpt from Revelation, we hear John point us toward this fully integrated heaven and earth, this newly remade and redeemed world, in which “there is a great multitude that no one can count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages,” where there will be no more hunger or thirst, and where “God will wipe away every tear from our eyes.”  As John’s revelation explains it, the ultimate point of God’s creation of a heaven and an earth is not that earth serve as a training ground for heaven, but rather that heaven and earth are designed to overlap and interlock, and that one day they will do so fully and forever.

The Book of Revelation is not the only, or even the principal, place in the New Testament where we can find this view.  As the great Biblical scholar Tom Wright points out, “When the New Testament speaks of God’s kingdom, it never, ever, refers to heaven pure and simple.  It always refers to God’s kingdom coming on earth as it is in heaven.”  The central text in support of this, of course, is our Lord’s Prayer, that prayer Jesus taught the disciples to pray above all others, and which we too will pray again in just a few minutes.  And what Jesus teaches us to pray is quite specific:  “Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” Contrary to popular belief, the Christian faith is not “other-worldly”; it is very much “this-worldly.”  It is all about bringing God’s Kingdom into reality in and through the gathered Body of Christ on earth.

Indeed, this view of the interlocking relationship between heaven and earth pervades Jesus’ life, teachings, and ministry.  From beginning to end, Jesus’ core proclamation is that God’s Kingdom is not some distant and future reality, but it is, in some very real sense, already here in his person.  We hear this message plainly today, when Jesus begins his Sermon on the Mount with the famous Beatitudes.  These ‘blessings’ describe the life of those who belong to the newly arrived Kingdom of God.  Jesus invites his disciples to bear witness to this emerging Kingdom by organizing themselves around an unlikely, but ultimately life-giving, new set of values – humility, meekness, peacemaking, purity, a detachment from material things, perseverance in the face of adversity, a passion for justice, and a keen sensitivity to those who suffer.

As the theologian Stanley Hauerwas explains, “the Beatitudes are not a heroic ethic,” but instead they are “the constitution of a new people.”  They are not so much a list of moral requirements as they are a description of a community gathered by and around a heavenly vision announced and embodied by Jesus.  Hauerwas writes:  “You cannot live by the demands of the Beatitudes on your own, but that is the point.  Their demands are designed to make us depend upon God and one another.”  (Hauerwas, 61).

Heaven, you see, is already here, at least in part, every time communities, like this one, gather to proclaim in word and deed Jesus’ vision of the New Jerusalem.  And the implications of understanding this are huge.

For one thing, it becomes clear that God’s plan is not for us to escape this world to ascend to some distant heaven, as the popular myth would have it.  Rather, God has sent His Son to this world for the express purpose of enlisting us, as his disciples, to make this world anew in the manner of heaven, and to live into the reality of this New Jerusalem.  For too long, I’m afraid, the Church has acted as if its main order of business is to prepare people for some distant place called ‘heaven,’ such that the Church really needn’t worry about what’s happening on earth.  That betrays Jesus’ message.  Our task as church is to boldly embody what the New Jerusalem looks like, and to critique the broader culture at the pressure points, the places where society and governments drift away from the good order that God wills for his world.

It bears emphasis that we are not asked by Jesus to do this primarily as individuals.  The Kingdom of God that Jesus proclaims is a social and political reality.  In some strands of American Christianity in particular, salvation is often portrayed in starkly individualistic terms:  a question about an individual’s personal relationship with Jesus.  Again, that is not a biblical view.  While it is certainly fair to say that each of us is known and loved by God in our individuality, and cultivating a relationship with God is an important spiritual discipline, the biblical view of salvation, of resurrected life, of the New Jerusalem, is a distinctly social reality, a newly created community consisting of all peoples, nations and races.  Contrary to popular belief, the Christian faith is not about individuals out to save their own souls, but about a beloved and ever-expanding community that faithfully strives to be redeemed and made anew.

As we renew our baptismal vows today, and welcome new friends into the faith, let us remember that we are called to boldly and creatively be Christ’s Body on earth.  We have the awesome responsibility and great blessing to be His hands and feet, and His eyes and ears, as He seeks to heal this broken and troubled world.  Let us not flee or ignore the challenges of this earthly existence in the hopes of a better future in some distant ‘heaven’; but instead, let us honor the lives of all the saints who have come before us by striving to become that New Jerusalem for whom our Lord gave His life, praying always:  “Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”

Amen.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Prayerful Reflections Against Casinos in Massachusetts

A Statement from the Reverend Luther Zeigler, Episcopal Chaplain at Harvard.

Presented at “Towards a New Dawn” – An Interfaith Prayer Rally at Harvard University’s Memorial Church, October 22, 2014 at 7 p.m.

Good evening, my friends.  My name is Luther Zeigler, and I am the Episcopal Chaplain at Harvard. I come with greetings and prayers from the Episcopal Bishop of Massachusetts, Alan Gates, who is so disappointed he cannot be with us tonight, for he shares with me a passionate concern about the important questions of social justice that bring us together, and in particular about the insidious impact that the presence of casinos will have on our communities unless we vote to repeal the casino legislation next month at the ballot box.  We add our Episcopal voices to those of the many faith communities across this great state who urge you to Vote Yes on Question 3, so that we can stop the cynical attempts of the casino industry to sell false hope to our people and to prey on the poor and the desperate.

The fact of the matter is this:  casinos are not trustworthy community partners who build up healthy communities by producing goods or services that we need; rather, casinos siphon off money from the economy, largely by picking the pockets of those who cannot afford to lose their hard-earned dollars, so that wealthy casinos owners and investors, most of whom do not live in our communities, can themselves profit.

The evidence shows that casino gambling generates its income disproportionately from the lowest economic classes.  The net effect is a regressive redistribution of wealth, contributing over time to an even increased disparity between the rich and the poor, the very last thing we need.

The slick television ads sponsored by the casino industry that we have been seeing in recent weeks promise jobs.  Please do not believe these promises.  Manufacturing thousands upon thousands of slot machines into which our people are invited to dump their wages is not a sound jobs strategy.  In fact, each one of these machines sucks about $100,000 annually out of our people’s pockets, money that could be going instead to local business owners who are working hard to provide goods and services that we actually need.

We should learn from the recent experience of states like Connecticut, New Jersey and Ohio.  In those states, exploiting people’s fears in the wake of recent recessions, casino owners persuaded voters to allow for the expansion of casinos with the promise of jobs.  Our new bishop, Alan Gates, comes to us from the state of Ohio, where he was the rector of a large church outside of Cleveland, and he has shared with us that state’s very relevant history with this issue.

A 2009 legislative initiative in Ohio authorized the construction of four casinos.  In its massive campaign selling the initiative, the industry promised the voters of Ohio, as they are now promising us, the creation of tens of thousands of jobs.  Yet, according to an analysis out last month in the Columbus Dispatch, neither the jobs nor the tax revenues promised by the casino owners materialized in Ohio in the ensuing five years.

Rather than getting more jobs or tax revenues, what these communities get instead is a new wave of social problems.  The evidence from the social science is clear.  When casinos come into communities, crime increases, personal bankruptcy rates rise, predatory lending practices surface, and the vulnerable are exploited.

And let there be no mistake about it:  Addiction to gambling is an underappreciated and serious social problem that plagues too many of our friends and neighbors.  And while one can make libertarian arguments that adults should be free to choose how to spend their recreation hours, this leaves out of the equation the profound impact this disease has on our children.  For one of the hard truths about gambling addiction is that its chief impact is often on the children of parents whose addiction leads them to patterns of neglect, abuse, and the depletion of family resources available for the care of children.  How can inviting casinos into our communities possibly be good for our children?

Jesus came to bring good news to the poor; to heal the sick; to free the captives; to create healthy communities that reflect the Kingdom of God.  He did not come to line the pockets of predatory casino investors; to contribute to income inequality; to bring crime into our neighborhoods; or to fuel unhealthy behaviors that hurt the most vulnerable.  Let us say ‘yes’ to Question 3 on November 4th; let us say ‘yes’ to justice; and let us say ‘no’ to casinos in our communities.  Amen.