Sunday, February 24, 2013

Civitas Sancti Tui

A quick exercise: close your eyes. What is the word that comes to mind first when I say the word, “Jerusalem”?  

When I do this myself, it’s actually two words that come to mind: “violent” and “holy”.  

Jesus says today in the Gospel, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” Jerusalem is the place he knows he is going to die. Herod is the fox; Jesus is the mother hen. Like most mothers, Jesus will not shirk his fate just because it is dangerous. He has a mission to do, and he will do it, no matter the cost. 

But of course, this isn’t the first time that Jesus is preparing to go to Jerusalem in Luke’s gospel—Luke is the gospel that says that Jesus and his family went to Jerusalem every year while he was growing up to celebrate the Passover; an occurrence so normal that they didn’t even notice when he stayed behind teaching and learning in the temple, and identifying the temple as “his father’s house.” Jerusalem is a place of learning and communing with God his father.  

Holy and violent. And as true today as it was then. 

The authors of The Last Week, the book we’re reading for Lent this year, note the incredible ambiguity of Jerusalem at the time of Jesus: Jerusalem is at once in the Hebrew Bible the ideal city: it’s the city developed by King David when Israel is gathering into it greatest strength—and it’s not just the political and military power that makes Davidic Jerusalem great, it is the justice that it is founded on. The world’s laws are not what rule Jerusalem—God’s laws are what rule Jerusalem. The widow and the orphan will be cared for in Jerusalem. It is the location of the Temple, the physical dwelling of God. 

But it’s also the location of the breaking down of the law and temple worship; the place that prophet after prophet came to before the exile, preaching that it would be destroyed if the nobility and temple authorities did not start dealing in justice rather than exploiting the poor; the temple where Yahweh was not the only God being worshiped all the time; and where since the return the elites of Israel have had to compromise theologically and politically to varying degrees with foreign governments to remain in power up to the time of Jesus. 

And remember that by the time Luke’s gospel was written, Jerusalem had already been destroyed. In the year 70, a rebellion against Rome culminated in the destruction of the temple and the razing of most of the city. When Christians in the first century heard this verse, Jerusalem was a word that was met immediately with lament and wistfulness. When they heard “See, your house is left to you,” they would have remembered the destruction of the temple. And they would have grieved.  

William Byrd, one of my favorite composers, wrote a motet called Civitas Sancti, the Holy City, and the text—referring to the first destruction of Jerusalem goes like this:

Your holy city has become a wilderness.
Zion is wasted; is wasted and forlorn,
Jerusalem has been made desolate.
And it’s the word, “Jerusalem” that echoes down again and again, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem….” I’ve almost never heard anything so sad as that soprano line. How many tears have been shed in that city… in this city. In every city. It’s a lament for what might have been; for what is now… we don’t often speak in the language of lament today. We turn our sorrow into self-help. But we can stay in lament, too, and grieve: Jerusalem, Jerusalem

Jerusalem is both incredibly unique—it is that potent, fractured intersection of the three Abrahamic faiths—and a stand-in for our own cities and holy places. The choir’s anthem today, “O pray for the peace of Jerusalem” by the English composer Herbert Howells is one of his anthems from the series, “In a time of war,” written during World War II. Pray for the peace of Jerusalem… but also for London, and Coventry, and Dresden… Hiroshima and Auschwitz… and everywhere else in the succeeding eras.

I never saw the World Trade Center as a holy site while it was standing… but once it was destroyed my memories were of the life and vitality that passed through its doors every day. I wonder if in the time of Luke they felt that way after the destruction of Jerusalem. A city wounded by the destruction of its icon, bleeding out its holy blood on the shaken ground.

Christians are always seeking that City of God, from St. John the Divine in Revelation to St. Augustine in his treatise, The City of God. They envisioned heaven as a city—not a wilderness, and not fluffy clouds with angels in nightgowns. Heaven required people, food, trade, communication, public works… the wilderness, nature was the uncontrolled chaotic place where evil dwelled and which had to be kept at bay. You didn’t want to go to the wilderness (very different than today!) You wanted to be in the city, which was perceived as ordered and under divine control.

Theologians picked this up at the turn of the 20th Century with the Social Gospel movement—Walter Rauschenbusch and others began writing and believing that bringing about the Kingdom of God was something that required action now—not just belief in a heavenly city but work to make our own cities more just. Think of Jacob Riis, and Dorothy Day and people who fought to end child labor and unhygienic living conditions and extreme urban poverty. Those strains get picked up by Martin Luther King Jr and others in the Civil Rights movement and have helped transform some facets of our cities.

This rings true for me. I am an urban person. I know God dwells in suburbs and villages and the wilderness (and I love visiting them) but it is the city where I find God challenging me and viscerally present. Cities are places where people from so many cultures are thrown together; they have a vitality that make me think of what heaven must be like. They are holy. And violent. Cities can’t hide injustice… my first expeirence of living in a city, in New Haven was where I first got a real glimpse of poverty and social injustice. Where I learned that when I stepped off Yale’s campus onto Dixwell Avenue, I notice that the only storefronts that seemed to be open were funeral homes, churches, and pawn shops. The suburb where I grew up was designed to hide that. When you’re in a city people ask you for your money and your attention and your time because they need it and they are there. Cities are places of public assembly—for celebration, for sport, for protest. I love it all. Even in its frail and imperfect and unjust reality.

What would it take for us to work on building the City of God? A City of Peace—a city without violence, without oppression, based on justice, full of compassion. A city where people had enough to eat, places to live, meaningful work. A city that worshipped—a city that was humble enough to see its strengths as a gift and not ane entitlement? Can we imagine that? Jesus can. Jesus can imagine a Jerusalem that is so different than what it was—so different than what it is, which is why he is so devastated in today’s Gospel. Jesus can imagine a New York City so different than what it is.
There’s a wonderful hymn text about this… it’s at number 582 in your hymnals, but I’ll read it now. It’s a vision of the heavenly city connected to our own cities—and written at the time of the Social Gospel movement, which obviously influenced it: 

O holy city, seen of John, where Christ the Lamb, doth reign, 
within whose foursquare walls shall come no night nor need, nor pain,
and where the tears are wiped from eyes that shall not weep again!

O shame to us who rest content while lust and greed for gain
in street and shop and tenement wring gold from human pain,
and bitter lips in blind despair cry “Christ hath died in vain!”

Give us, O God, the strength to build the city that hath stood
too long a dream, whose laws are love, whose crown is servanthood,
and where the sun that shineth is God’s grace for human good.

Already in the mind of God that city riseth fair:
lo, how its splendor challenges the souls that greatly dare—
yea, bids us seize the whole of life and build its glory there.

Walter Russell Bowie (1882-1969)

Byrd's Civitas Sancti

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Ash Wednesday Poem

Courtney Cowart posted this on her Facebook page yesterday, and I recited it in my sermon; I'm  not sure if she wrote it or got it elsewhere--when I find out, I will revise this!
Fast from pessimism; feast on optimism.
Fast from criticism; feast on praise.
Fast from self-pity; feast on joy.
Fast from bitterness; feast on forgiveness.
Fast from idle gossip; feast on purposeful silence.
Fast from jealousy; feast on love.
Fast from discouragement; feast on hope.
Fast from complaining; feast on appreciation.
Fast from selfishness; feast on service.
Fast from fear; feast on faith.
Fast from anger; feast on patience.
Fast from self-concern; feast on compassion for others.
Fast from discontent; feast on gratitude.


Sunday, February 10, 2013

Disciples together, in the mountain and the valley

Last summer, the family of one of Nathan’s school friends invited us to spend a day on their boat zipping around the Long Island Sound. As Nathan knelt on a seat with the wind whipping through his hair and his fingers white-knuckling around the handles, Jonathan asked him, “Are you excited or scared?” His response, “I’m excited and scared.” His face was a mix of terror and delight—part smile, part grimace—and the day was unforgettable for him. 

Luke’s gospel says that Peter, James and John were terrified… but they must also have been exhilarated. And I bet it showed in their faces when they came down the hill just like it did in Nathan’s—they were excited and scared, smiling and grimacing, adrenaline pumping, sure they would never forget that moment on the mountaintop. They have heard the voice of God say, “This is my son, the chosen, listen to him,” and hearing the voice of God changes you—just look at what it did to Moses in the first reading. He glowed so much he had to put a veil over his face to even talk to the rest of the Israelites. 

So when Jesus, Peter, James, and John come down off the mountain, aglow with being excited and scared—even though they’re silent about what transpired up there—I wonder what Andrew, Philip, Bartholomew, Matthew, Thomas, James son of Alphaeus, Simon who was called the Zealot, Judas son of James, and Judas Iscariot thought? As I read that second story in today’s gospel, I figure that it’s the other nine disciples who were the ones trying to heal the boy with epiplepsy. While Jesus, Peter, James and John are off galivanting and having a mountaintop experience, the rest of them spend a frustrating day trying to heal this boy—no doubt praying and laying hands on him and grieving and feeling totally helpless when they fail. Following Jesus looked easier when he was there—now he’s off with a smaller group, and they are left to their own devices and discover that they aren’t as powerful as they thought they were; and in a scene that is sandwiched between predictions of Jesus’ passion and the haunting phrase that he has “set his face to Jerusalem,” it’s a foreshadowing of what life will be like after his death, resurrection and ascension. Eventually, they will have to rely on Jesus at a greater distance than they do now.  

And then their four compatriots come down off the mountain, and Jesus calls some group—perhaps the crowd, perhaps the nine disciples—a “faithless and perverse generation” and heals the boy in an instant. How frustrating that must have been. And to look over at Peter and James and John and see them aglow with their expeirence must have been maddening—even if they didn’t say specifically what happened on that mountaintop, I’m sure the other nine knew that something had happened from the glow on their faces. I don’t believe it’s a coincidence that it’s only a few verses later that the disciples get caught arguing on the road about which one of them was the greatest. They’ve been divided by their experience.  

Which is why this year I’m reading this Transfiguration story as a story about how to be a disciple in a community. How do mountaintop experiences—profoundly moving experiences of the divine where you feel you are in the presence of God and are somehow transfigured yourself—how do those experiences affect a community of disciples? Because I know there are people in this church today who have had that kind of experience… and I’m also pretty sure that there are people in this church today who have never had that kind of experience. And yet we’re all one community and we’re all disciples of Jesus.

Being a disciple is being willing to face our own fears and accompany Jesus on the mountain. Being a disciple is staying awake long enough to see the miraculous. Being a disciple is being willing to make mistakes—to be a Peter and volunteer the wrong suggestion. And sometimes being a disciple is staying in the valley, slogging away, working hard without appreciation or an emotional payoff. 

One of the challenges and gifts of being part of a community is that we are never all at the same spiritual place at the same time. A few people may be on the mountaintop; some people may be on their way up the mountain path; others are on their way down, caught in the afterglow; some have only distant memories of what it was like to be on the mountaintop years ago; and for a few, there’s probably doubt that they will ever find the right mountain to climb, because they have never felt transfigured.  

How do we celebrate one disciple’s mountaintop experience without getting jealous? And how do we not allow our communities to be divided into those who have had mountaintop expeirences and those who have not? We hold the mountaintop experience up as something to be desired, and we should—to have a moment where you are close to God in a transformative way is is desirable; but it can be terrifying, and there are many of us who would prefer not to be terrified and transformed, even if it is what God is calling us towards. I don’t think you fail at being a disciple in some way if you don’t have a formative mountaintop experience. But the reason the Israelites want Moses to veil his face is that it can be discomforting to see someone so transfigured by their encounter with God.  

Perhaps most importantly, how do we do the work that at some level Peter was trying to do in building the booths by inviting people into places and times that have the potential to be mountaintop experiences. Peter believes that if Jesus, Moses and Elijah can stay in that transfigured moment, then he can go back down the mountain and bring everyone else up to share in it. He can share the mountaintop experience with all the believers, not just the three who accompanied Jesus that day. That’s not how mountaintop experiences work. They are inherently transient and temporary. And they are usually only for a small group at a time. But we can work together to make sure that there are opportunities within our church and our world for people who are seeking God to deepen their life as a disciple of Christ and hear that voice from heaven. 

If you’ve had a mountaintop experience—don’t hide it, or put a veil over it. Share it. Help it move the rest of us along—show us a new path, a new way that might lead to a different mountaintop for one of us. And if you’ve never had a mountaintop experience—don’t hide that either. Let that ground those who have—remind them that ministry doesn’t happen on the mountaintop, it happens in the valley. Those rare but substantive mountaintop experiences are what give us the strength and courage to set our faces to Jerusalem; to prepare ourselves for the cross and suffering and give us hope for resurrection. But the healings, the teachings, most of the prayers—those happen in the valley.  

In thinking about my own mountaintop experiences this week, one stood out—because four years ago on Transfiguration Sunday I was in the middle of one, giving birth to Nathan. Talk about “exciting and scared.” But as I was reflecting on it, I realize that the moment that it became transfiguring for me wasn’t the actual birth—that was too overwhelming; it was dinner the next day. Jonathan brought me dinner, and finally it was just the three of us. Jonathan and I had always sung the doxology, “Praise God from whom all blessings flow” as our dinner grace… and we always included our cats in the “all creatures here below” since once of them used to know that this particular song meant there was a good chance he could get a handout from the table. We started to sing it in the hospital, with Nathan in his little bassinet. And then it hit me. Here was the blessing that had flowed from God. Here was a new “creature here below.” Jonathan and I were both a weepy mess by the time we finished singing. Most of motherhood, for me, is life in the valley, but Nathan’s birth changed how I live life that in the valley profoundly. I never understood God’s love for us in as full a way as I do now until I met Nathan. Life in my family community was transfigured, too—it was harder, but so much more full, and has increased my understanding of dependence, patience, and forgiveness—both of myself and others. And each member of our little community has the potential to move the whole community forward. Thursday night, I was explaining to Nathan that our cat was very old and sick, so old and sick that she was going to die. He buried his face in my chest for a moment and appeared to be crying, and I—as a mother—thought, “Oh good, I’m helping him grieve.” Then a moment later he looked up at me with a big grin and exclaimed, “Now we can get a puppy!” By the next day Nathan had refocused on getting a kitten. Jonathan and I were looking forward to some time being a family of just humans… but I found myself looking up Abyssinian kittens online over the weekend. You never know—Nathan’s mountaintop revelation that there was room for more feline love in our house may move us all forward. And so might the stories of your mountaintop experiences. Amen.