Thursday, April 29, 2010

Almost May ...

And for those of us who make the journey from East Hampton to Southampton at least once a day the talk is of nothing else but that of teams of workers erecting tarpaulins, electric cabling and new shelves at the number of farm stands on that six mile stretch of road. That can mean only one thing: They are about to open for the season.

The first exciting moment will be the appearance of the local asparagus which is, in my opinion, world-ranking. But more about that, hopefully, next week!

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Just when you thought you were in control...

There's a Jewish story about a rabbi crossing the village square for morning prayers at the synagogue, as he did every day. One morning the rabbi is stopped. "Where are you going?" asks his accuser. The rabbi replies, "I don't know." This answer angers the accuser, who insists, "For twenty-five years you've crossed the square to pray. How can you really not know?! Don't be insolent with me!" The accuser drags the rabbi off to prison, and as the key is turned in the cell door the rabbi says, "See, I didn't know."

(Thanks to Naomi King for reminding me of this story)

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Thought delivered on the Fourth Sunday of Easter, April 25th, 2010

In recent Episcopalian tradition, (if that is not an oxymoron, and I think it probably is) and by that I mean since the advent of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer, the fourth Sunday after Easter has become known as “Good Shepherd Sunday.” And depending on whether we are in Lectionary Year A, B or C we take our Gospel reading from one of the many parts of John’s Gospel that use the image of the sheep and the shepherd to convey… What?

A pastoral lesson? Perhaps not, certainly not in the conventional sense of pastoral care.

A theological image of a sacrificial lamb? Yes. For John’s Gospel asks the reader to believe that. We recall how Jesus is first introduced to us as he walked toward John the Baptist at the River Jordan.

“Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.”

It’s pure sacrificial language, and deeply rooted in Hebrew traditional belief and practice.

The use of such imagery is difficult at times. First because we are tempted to use the various metaphors and titles literally, and then get ourselves into all sorts of convoluted difficulties when we realize that Jesus cannot be a sheep the one minute and the shepherd the next!

And secondly, and I have to approach this from a personal point of view: How many ways are there of preaching about Christ the Good Shepherd? In twenty-four years of trying to do so I believe that I have covered most, if not all angles!

Of course I could resort to the use of object lessons, but I’ve seen too many bad ones used in churches. And some cathedrals. I read last year that one cathedral in England arranged for a larger than life hologram of a sheep to be projected onto a platform near the front of the nave. The result: The young children panicked, and were so scared that many started screaming and crying and there was a complete breakdown of law and order! I wonder what was really learned in church that day.

So on this day, this Good Shepherd Sunday, may I set aside the traditional images for a year, and even set aside that most beautiful 23rd Psalm which speaks of the relationship between Israel and the Almighty – and use this day to open up one line from the Gospel reading, placed on the lips of Jesus:

My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me.

For in those few words is the most wonderful realization, even announcement that God calls, is calling us.

Now this may come as a surprise to many, or else we dress it up in more formal language and refer to “vocations.” But vocations are for the clergy or religious orders, are they not? Well the answer is no, not only. For we are all called.

I used the word wonderful, in its literal sense, for the call of God is beyond human limitations or rationale, but for some the notion of being called by God is a scary one, because they are quite happy to stay where they are, doing what they are doing. How dare the Almighty have other plans?!

But the truth of the matter is that God does have plans for all of us, for the Church – but it is down to us to actually listen for and to that calling voice.

But in doing so we must be wary of two things: Projecting our own needs onto the will of God (and thus claiming to know the mind of God), and then pretending that responding to God’s call will be painless.

You see a tried and tested vocation demands a price, and not all can pay it. Even though responding to the divine voice may seem irresistible, its point is not contentment. C.S. Lewis once wrote that it is the nature of vocation to appear simultaneously both as desire and as duty. And he went on to say, “To follow the vocation does not mean happiness; but once it has been heard, there is no happiness for those who do not follow.”

Once again: My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me.

Over the next few weeks and months I hope that, as a church and parish, we can do some listening. Yes, I know that we will be moving into summer, and yes, I know that means that we will be busy – but the still, small voice of calm that is of God can still be heard above the clamor of Main Street.

We will be asking ourselves questions, personally and by member canvas. Questions about our Christian, community life. The way we do things. The way we might do things. (Someone naughtily suggested that could be worded: The things we have done and the things we ought not to have done!)

But this is no paper exercise, neither a way to keep the Rector, Wardens and Vestry busy and out of mischief. (And heaven knows that is necessary at times!) It is rather part of that listening process – listening for God’s voice.

I ask that everyone be a part of this. And to ask the question, “How am I called to serve God?”

And then to trust in the answer.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Definite signs of spring!

Within the space of an hour I saw three signs that spring most definitely is here. First, the girls at softball practice were not shivering and turning blue; second, a passing thunderstorm meaning that warmer air is out there, up there; and third, a sign at the Water Mill (organic) farm stand announcing that their kale will be available from April 29th!

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Ramblings in Riverhead, April 21, 2010

It's been a while since I was last here in the county town of Suffolk, that rather personality-challenged settlement where the North and South Forks join the rest of Long Island. In fact I think that there were small piles of now in dark corners that long ago day. It doesn't matter. Neither should I give Riverhead too much of a hard time, for over the unforeseeable future I will be spending quite a bit of time here, either through my daughter's education, or else my own (now promoted) area responsibilities. So I guess I'll grow to like it better. It's not that bad a place (well, it is somewhat ugly) but the problem is that the true blue pleasures mostly involve spending money. In other words Riverhead is a shopping destination, whether to the major stores along County Road 58, or that satellite of shopping, the Tanger Mall. (Angels and ministers of grace, defend us.)

Yet for me, if I visit for reasons of family or work, Riverhead is a place to have a good cup of coffee. That good cup can be made to last quite a while, so that is money well spent. Sadly the local branch of Starbucks is tucked away in the (Lord, have mercy) "food court" of the aforementioned Tanger Mall, but Seattle's Best coffee shop in Borders is simply wonderful. I scribbled these words, fueled by a perfect cappuccino, lazing in a comfy leather armchair. Yes, money well-spent.

This morning was the delightful occasion of Kate, together with others being inducted into the National Junior Honors Society. Congratulations to them, and thanks to those who came as already inducted members to explain and to support and encourage. It was a time of pure optimistic joy, yet tinged with sadness.

I have enjoyed this chair, and the coffee even more. Now I must up and go to Walmart of all places in search of a cat litter tray. Such missions enrich and give life deeper meaning, you know! My closing thought is that which I pasted on Facebook about twenty minutes ago:

"Cappuccino is as close to being a sacrament as it could be, without being one."

Tempus fugit...

And I really must pay more regular attention to these pages! I just need time and inspiration! And patience. Now!

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Thoughts delivered on Easter morning, April 4th, 2010

Mary Magdalene came to the tomb before sunrise. It's an enigmatic and beautiful beginning to what is an astonishing piece of literature: St John's version of the story of that first Easter morning. A scene in which Mary Magdalene is the principal witness. A scene that is spoiled only by the crass stupidity of the two male disciples who not only failed to grasp what had happened, but then decided to return to their homes. As if a normal domestic morning was possible that day!

No, it is the gentle figure of Mary who brings grace and feminine dignity to the story, as she poured out her tears in confusion and genuine grief. Grief, because we forget, in our eagerness to light and process the Paschal Candle, sing, hunt for chocolate eggs and celebrate Easter in a spring-like fashion, that as the scene opens, a scene filled with the vocabulary of love, Mary Magdalene was convinced that Jesus was dead.

When he wrote his essay entitled, "Sharing in the Resurrection" Thomas Merton gave us these thoughts:

We often forget that in all the accounts of the Resurrection the witnesses started out with the unshakeable conviction that Christ was dead. Those going to the tomb thought of Jesus as dead and gone.

But Merton then continues:

Now this is the psychological pattern that we often act out in our Christian lives. Though we say with our lips that Christ is risen, we secretly believe him, in practice, to be dead. And we believe that there is a massive stone blocking the way and keeping us from getting to his dead body. Such Christianity is no longer life in the Risen Christ.

Those are harsh, judgmental words on a sunny April morning. But are they true? If they are then all our Alleluias are empty.

When all others ran away from that garden, Mary Magdalene stayed. Lingered. The language of John's Gospel is emotionally charged almost to the point of overflowing. She didn't stop weeping, and her next words were so desolate:

They have taken away my Lord and I do not know where they have laid him.

Now, not only is Jesus dead, but his body has been removed with no prior warning.

And the next moment, the encounter and exchange between Jesus and Mary, is so wonderfully and tenderly written that on some days it has reduced readers to tears. I know from personal experience.

I have said on many an occasion that if I could have just one fragment of the Christian scriptures to keep with me at all times it would be the words of this morning's Gospel story. Because they are words that speak to us, not only of the Risen Christ, but also of love.

Since the very beginnings of the Church on Easter morning we acclaim, "Christ is Risen!"

Let's consider those words. "Christ is Risen." That is a proclamation in the present tense. "Is Risen!" Not "was Risen" or "was raised" but "Is Risen!"

It lies at the very heart of our faith - that the resurrection is not a 2000 year old event to be recalled, great though the story is, but rather that the resurrection is real now, today, for all of us.

Christ is Risen! Yes! But we are a part of that proclamation. What the resurrected Christ did was to empower people, us, to continue his work, be instruments of his love, be healers in his name, and work for justice and peace in the world. We can never explain the resurrection of Christ, but we can allow it to shape us, speak to us - and fill us to the point where we live and breathe it, as people who live the risen life of Christ, then our stones have been rolled away. And the psychological pattern of death is broke.

At times it is difficult to see, just as Mary did not recognize Jesus in the garden, but then all becomes clear as she tells the others, I have seen the Lord!

A Happy Easter to you all!

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Thoughts delivered on Good Friday, April 2nd, 2010

This, and every Good Friday, I have to phrase the question: Why was Jesus killed?

That is not a rhetorical question. Neither is it a theological question. I’m trying to avoid those today. There are so many theological questions, just as there are too many theological answers.. Some make sense, some are incomprehensible. Others are bizarre.

The old song asks: Were you there when they crucified my Lord? Well, the answer is “no.” We were not there. We rely on the accounts of others who were there, and who passed their story on in faith that others might know, and believe. But even their accounts, which are remarkably consistent, do not tell us why.

Rather than ask a theologian, perhaps we should ask a lawyer to make sense of all of this. But that might prove expensive.

The legal aspects of the death of Jesus are fascinating, but we have to be careful in misusing the New Testament accounts and pretending that we can make a case for or against him.

What do we know about the legal process against Jesus? The charges against him were blasphemy and treason. In other words activities against both Temple and State.

If we accept the gospel accounts, despite some of their inconsistencies, there are immediate legal problems here. Jesus was arrested at night (which was against the Law of Moses) without a formal charge and tried, again illegally, at night. Then Caiaphas the High Priest acted unlawfully by assuming the role of prosecutor. It was extraordinarily irregular, even corrupt. . Clearly both Temple and State wanted to deal with this one swiftly, and so expediency was the name of the game that night.

But Caiaphas liked that word, for at another time he had said:

… that it is expedient for you that one man die for the people, and that the whole nation not perish.

And all the while, behind the scenes, Annas, the wealthy aristocrat and plutocrat – manipulating, controlling, negotiating, scheming.

When Jesus was brought before Pilate there was no mention of the charge of blasphemy because the Romans simply didn’t care about Jewish religious law. The charge was therefore treason – that of undermining or overthrowing the State. In this case it was made by the Roman authorities because Jesus had allowed his followers to refer to him as their king.

Pontius Pilate was only interested in keeping the peace. He was a military man, a high ranking career officer. He saw no real threat in Jesus, and so his primary feelings were ones of irritation. He would have been delighted to have found an excuse not to deal with Jesus, and he thought he had found one when he learned that Jesus was a Galilean – therefore Herod’s responsibility.

How convenient! Herod was in town for the Passover. But the excuse didn’t work. Herod passed the buck back to Pilate.

So Pilate indeed had to make the decision. He didn’t have to sit on the Judgment Seat. He knew what his priorities were. Law and order, and getting the taxes paid and the Temple clergy back in line. They should stick to matters religious, and get their people off the streets. And so Pontius Pilate disdainfully agreed to put Jesus to death. And yet, in all his political callousness, did he not wonder…? Perhaps he did.

So why did Jesus die? Jesus died for the sake of peace and quiet, good government, due process and religion. From the moment he entered Jerusalem his fate was sealed. It was the perfect no-win scenario.

He died because of the unimaginable blending of the cynicism of the diplomat, the self-serving Temple clergy and the crowd that hypocritically shouted, “We have no king but Caesar.”

He died because the most powerful and highly-developed political authority of the time, and the most powerful religious authority of the time – suddenly found common cause. Both needed to get rid of a troublemaker.

And so Jesus died at the hands of the only legitimate sentencing authority of the day. Rome, and the Pax Romana.

On Good Friday we kneel at the foot of the instrument of his death, the Cross.

We have to look at the Cross, but it’s hard. Harder still because it won’t go away, won’t leave us alone. And the more we look the more we are troubled by what we see.

We want to understand the Cross but we can’t. We need to explain it, but again we fail.

And then we look again, and we see Jesus hanging there. We are still unable to give an answer, but we realize that in the middle of human weakness and selfishness, surrounded by Machiavellian politics, colored by fear, paranoia and hysteria - we are being touched by the love of God.

Something happened that first Good Friday that men and women have pondered down the ages. Something that changed individual lives for ever.. Something that changed the way we look at life and the way we live it. Something that radically altered our view of God, and our understanding of God’s will and purpose for us.

The questions that surround the Cross won’t go away, but neither does the power of the Cross.

People the world over, and throughout history look to this mysterious power to find their direction, their inspiration, their faith, even giving them their hope of heaven when all around them is sheer hell.

This Good Friday, it’s time to look on the Cross once again.