Thursday, October 18, 2018

Fighting for Second and Third Place in the Kingdom of God

James and John, Sons of Thunder
James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to Jesus and said to him, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” And he said to them, “What is it you want me to do for you?” And they said to him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” But Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” They replied, “We are able.” Then Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized; but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.”
When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John. So Jesus called them and said to them, “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” Mark 10:35-45

I grew up playing team sports. The competition to make the varsity squad in soccer was intense, and then you had to compete to make the starting roster. Before any quantifiable proof of your worth-goals, assists, or saves-you had to win the opportunity to wear the jersey, to get off the bench. I was a good player, but not great. Right in the middle of the pack. I could start a play, contribute to the game and make the save; but I have one career goal to my name: a penalty score my senior year. I even had to share my varsity jersey with a team mate. We were both number "16."

Never being first did not feel particularly good. Even on a team that worked together to win, we still competed with each other. We fought for game time. We fought to get the goal, the assist, the save, and during practice it was often at the expense of our team mates. During those practices, we would often do drills or run intervals. The coach would push us to be the first over the line, and I spent years struggling to keep up with the faster runners on the team.

Then, my junior year, I ran track in the spring. I was not a great runner, but I benefited from the extra work on speed and endurance. Coming back to soccer that fall, we started practices with running and ended with sprints up and down the field. After the extra conditioning I had that last spring and summer, I found I suddenly had wheels. Over and over again, I was the first to cross the line during sprints. I got to taste what "being first" felt like often enough to begin to like it. Luckily, I was not good enough to get to expect it.

That taste of being first though, I remember what it felt like. To hold that favored spot, to know that through merit and effort I was first...or second, or third....on the team that day, that week, that season, felt GOOD. At least, I thought so. Soon, though, I realized that while I was first over the line, I was still the kid in the middle of the pack. What joy I got from being fast was being lost in the struggle to gain status and approval among team mates who were not very interested in offering either. What good was it to climb a ladder, even a few rungs, if it cost another boy his role, his sense of self? What good was it to win a spot, but lose the team's sense of community? I learned from those competitive days that while competition works on the field, it fails to deliver on building up community, and it usually damages people along the way.

The lesson learned from that journey is the same one that lies at the core of this week's gospel story. James and John love Jesus, and I am sure they also bear great affection for the other members of the community of disciples that had grown up around them. The thing is, they-along with Peter and Andrew-were the first to cast down their lives in order to take up the Way of Jesus' teachings. They had seniority, and I am sure after listening to Jesus longer than the others that they felt closer to him and to his message. They wanted to support their teacher, as well as to hold places near/next to him. They wanted to keep their places near this rising "number one" teacher, who by his grace made second and third place seem like a pretty good gig.

People should refrain from assuming that they were asking for a place of privilege for its own sake. Instead, let's allow that they simply wanted to formalize a fact that they felt was already true: that they were there on Jesus' right and left, having earned their spot on the team.

That is not how God rolls. High school or college soccer teams might run on those rules, but the Kingdom of God in Christ does not do so. Instead, says Jesus, look to the bottom of the roster, to the the cut list. I tell you, says Jesus, that the heart of the team is not the tip of the proverbial spear. The heart lies in the hands of the vast multitude of people who are NOT the starting line up. In fact, they probably missed try outs all together.

If you want to lead, says Jesus...then serve. If you want to be a true success, then ask not how much can I do to win but what is it that gives life to the team. It's not about me, you is about the community.

I am still learning that hard and complex lesson. With every moment of advancement in this life and ministry that I have known, the price of pride in success has been dear indeed. When I have been graced with a willingness to embrace a more humble posture, then the innate competitiveness I possess fades just enough for me to not just hope for a glimpse of the Kingdom, but to let it shine through me. When I fail to do so, I can watch brows crease, eyebrows raise and a breeze blows between me and the growing void of relationship between myself and others.

James and John did us all a favor. By asking a question most of us would be afraid to speak out loud, they beg the question of who had more status in the community gathered in Christ's name. They think that the places at Jesus' right and left (a celestial 2nd and 3rd place!) carry with them particular accrual of status. They don't. Instead, they entail us being open to being rejected, humiliated, scorned, scourged and perhaps even slain in Jesus' Name, and for His sake. Our job is to take those words of Jesus to heart as he chides them gently to let go of trying to make the squad.

You already have made it, says Jesus....and now, what are you going to do about it? Are you going to use this position to push others down, or lift them up? To labor in order to add to the health of the community, rather than secure your own comfortable station. Jesus tell James and John that they can share his cup and his bread, but he can't give them those eats. James and John, and we ourselves, must now be open to learning how to set aside the pettiness of harmful competitiveness in favor of a deeper and more powerful connect to the challenge Jesus makes over and over again....if you want to lead my church, then learn how to serve it and the people in it.

Thursday, October 11, 2018

Letting Go: What Jesus Has To Say About Attachment

St. Peter's, Spotswood ca. 2011:
An historic wall destroyed by an historic flood

Holding On

We forget, too often, that Christianity is not a religion founded in the West. The dominant, occidental model of understanding the practice of faith as we know it has much shallower roots. Christianity's deepest sense of its self is actually more Eastern, and the influences of oriental ways of approaching a practice and relationship with the Holy and with each other was first fed from those ancient streams of faith and philosophy. 

What that means for you and me is an invitation to take a critical eye and a willing heart into just how profoundly materially and physically bound our usual practice of faith is when compared to some of the more esoteric roots of faith that Jesus drew on to reform our practice of being in right relationship with God and with each other. In other words, and in plain English...we Western Christians hold on a little too tightly to things and to stuff. We forge attachments that distract us from being in right relationship with God and with each other...and then we call that forged attachment good.  We dress it up and call it tradition, because there is something enobling about that word. Tradition is fine, as long as we don't get too attached to it. I must confess, though, that after 50 years of life as an aware Episcopalian...and nearly a quarter century as a priest...I am one of those to whom an over-weaning sense of tradition-among a lot of other attachments-comes as easy as breathing.

Attachment, though, is the very thing Jesus spends an awe-filled amount of time encouraging us to distance our practice from when it comes to walking in faith His Way. Let go of that stuff, he says. He invites us to cast down our pre-occupations (and in some cases our very occupations!) and follow him. Leave it, he says. Let's go, he says.

Wonderful, we say. 

And then, we hesitate.


Because we rely on those things we are attached to in this life. They provide support. They provide definition. They define the edges we need to know where we end and others begin. Good fences, as they say, make good neighbors...and those attachments of ours make good fences.

There is a brick wall that borders the Church Yard at St. Peter's. It is just about 100 years old, and a bit older in some places. The bricks are kiln-fired, glazed....historic. The wall has stood in place for more than a lifetime, and has defined where the Church (for some, in toto) Yard ends and the world begins. In 2011, A flood from Tropical Storm Irene toppled about 40 feet of the wall, knocking it down and into pieces. For many, including me, it became a symbol of the need to recover from, and repair, the damage caused by that storm. The thing is, even toppled it also stood in the way of our recovery.

People assumed that because the repair was taking time, we were lagging in our facility and intent to make repairs. The very sight of it was demoralizing. That wall should be up and repaired....but why? Because it was a sign of the disorder in our lives we wanted to move past. Because it was evidence that things we had assumed were stable and secure were not. Because we were attached to that wall being UP instead of if the wall determined our recovery. How could it? It's just a wall.

That attachment to things get us into trouble when it comes to the life of Christ. Being human, we need things to survive. Being human, we are always risking becoming attached to those things just because they are ours. Turns out as well, the more we have often means the more we become attached.

Eastern cultures call this the root of suffering. Buddhists call it samsara. It is the stumbling block we all have to resolve before we can attain enlightenment-freedom from suffering.

When Jesus is approached by someone seeking the Way ("what must I do to inherit life eternal?"), that person is described as being a young man with riches. Jesus tells him to keep a faithful practice, to adhere to the Law as it was revealed to Moses. Turns out the young man is not only rich, but also steadfast. He has practiced those laws. He is in right relationship with God and his neighbor. 

Jesus sees him in that moment and loves him. This young man has laid the foundation for the transformation he seeks! He just lacks one thing.

One little thing.

He needs to surrender his attachments, and leaving them behind to follow Jesus.

Let is all go, Jesus tells the young-rich-man. Let it go, and come follow me.

Mark 10:17-31
As Jesus was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother.’” He said to him, “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.” Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.
Then Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” And the disciples were perplexed at these words. But Jesus said to them again, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” They were greatly astounded and said to one another, “Then who can be saved?” Jesus looked at them and said, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.”
Peter began to say to him, “Look, we have left everything and followed you.” Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age—houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.”
This very moment is THAT moment for all of us. Jesus, welcoming us, sees us and loves us. He truly adores us as we are. We just lack one thing....the willingness to surrender our attachments and then get up and follow him. That is something the East has to teach the West, a gift of illumination that pushes us past materialism and attachment and into a place where we find the resolve to address not only our predilection to attachment but also to face our fears of letting them go.

Don't worry....yes, we will fail at that challenge over and over and over in this lifetime. What matters is that Jesus still sees us and loves us....and the invitation still stands.

We lack just one surrender the things we are attached to, devote our resources away from attachment and thus tot he service of others....and then to get up and follow Him who call us.

Simple, right?

If only I were not so attached to....

Thursday, October 04, 2018

Overcoming a Hardened Heart

Things we all yearn to hear from someone, some place outside of our own, inner monologue:

  • You are not alone
  • You are welcome
  • You belong
  • You....are
  • You matter
  • You are not alone........
Of course, we can acknowledge the reality that we are not alone. In this crowded world, you have to travel to some truly remote and inhospitable places on this planet in order to be truly separated from other people. Even if you are willing and able to make that trek, though, it is highly likely that others have gone before you. 

I remember hiking in a remote part of the county I grew up in as a young man. As I wandered along impressed with my intrepid explorer's pride that I was blazing a new trail, I came upon a small clearing in the middle of "no where" and someone had gone to the trouble to haul a sofa and coffee table into the wilderness. I have to admit the view from the clearing across the valley was impressive, but who carries a sofa and coffee table 4 miles from anywhere into the woods? Proof positive that no matter where we go, it is likely that some one was there before us, and it is likely that someone will soon pass near to the places we stand now. 

We are truly never, really alone...and yet it feels like that so often. When our relationships are strained or breaking, when our being of one sort or another fails to conform to a group's expectations, when things don't seem to go our way....when that all combines with our struggle to not be alone in the middle of the crowd that humanity is nowadays....well, our sense of loss and isolation are just a breath or two away.

So, in a humanity that teems with neighbors, it is easy for us to feel cut off from one another. That cutting off can become so profound that we can wind up feeling alienated not only from our fellow human beings, we can also wind up inured to God's presence and even wind up in a state of feeling that our own existence lacks meaning or import at all.

It take surprisingly little suffering and rejection to put us in those places. Even people with the strongest egos, even those with great privilege, wind up needing very little to tips them over the edge of confidence that we are not alone, that we are welcome, that we belong, etc., into a place of feeling like our very heart-the seat of our emotional and personal intelligence-is becoming hardened.

That is the end of that sense of isolation, a hardness of heart.

When we are cut off from one another, whether because of misfortune or misadventure, be it a result of intentional or unintentional harm, it is too often the case that we wind up with isolated, hardened hearts. 

Jesus confronts that hardened heart in all of us. He knows the suffering that a human being must endure. He knows the rejection we all face at some point in life. He knows just how dark and dank a place it is that fosters the hardening of the human heart. His response is not to crack it open, though. He chooses instead to embrace it. Rather than fix us, God in Christ instead enfolds us in connection, welcoming us into an embrace that lets us know that we do belong in relationship to each other and to the Almighty. God goes into those darkest places we inhabit and instead of blasting us with light simply affirms that hardness with a simple and direct, "I know." 

Once we embrace that grace, then the world takes on a different hue.  Our burdens lighten. We cease to be isolated. We become more adept at challenging a lack of welcome of belonging in ourselves and in others. We begin to soften our hearts to the presence of others. We find sharing the good and the bad to be an affirmation of healing and community. Even the most dreadful suffering can be shared, for Jesus himself took on the greatest suffering a human being/body can compass in order to ensure that we would never, ever be cut off from God again.

It is not easy to allow those hardened fibers in our isolated hearts to soften. I wish that would be as easy as it was for me to sit down on that couch in the wilderness as I shared some other person's joy of taking in a particular point of view. To have our hearts softened means that we need to let our gaze float from Christ on the cross to our neighbors and allow that same care for Him to become a love for THEM.

And then, a hard heart is softened. Indeed.