Sunday, January 19, 2014

What are you looking for?

If I asked you, “What are you looking for?” what would you say? Are you looking for a community? Friends? Jesus? Peace? Nothing—because you’re totally satisfied with what you have? Something totally outside the theological arena? You’d probably have a different answer depending upon who asked the question… I’m a religious professional and we’re in church—so when I ask the question you’d probably answer with something along the lines of a churchy or spiritual response. If we were at a bar and you didn’t know what I did for a living, you might give me a very different answer.

Jesus asks that question, “What are you looking for?” of the two disciples of John, who have just been told to look at him because he is the Lamb of God. And they answer with what has to be the weirdest non sequitur in scripture. Jesus asks, “What are you looking for?” and they answer, “Rabbi, where are you staying?” Unless what they’re looking for is a hotel, that is a very strange answer to the question, “What are you looking for?” when the Lamb of God is asking it. They’re looking for a place—and Jesus is inviting them into a relationship and a way of life. It’s a very clear way of making sure that we understand that these future disciples have absolutely no idea what it is they are looking for.

The act of looking is so important in the Gospel of John, and particularly in this passage. The Greek words for look and see are used ten times today. John the Baptist can see—he sees Jesus, recognizes him, and testifies. Jesus can see—he looks at Simon and identifies him as the one who will be called Cephas. But the other guys cannot see yet. Blindness in the Gospel of John is never about physical blindness; it’s about spiritual blindness. And these guys are spiritually blind. They don’t know what they’re looking for; they don’t know who Jesus is; they haven’t taken in the revelation to which John has testified.

Have you heard of the invisible gorilla experiment? Subjects were asked to watch a short video of 3 people in white t-shirts and 3 people in black t-shirts passing basketballs around, and asked to keep a silent count of the number of passes made by the people in the white t-shirts. At some point midway through the video, a person in a gorilla suit walks into the video, thumps his chest, and walks out. More than half the people who were subjects in the experiment could not recall seeing the gorilla. I did it with Nathan yesterday—he didn’t see the gorilla. He was counting passes.

Sometimes, we can only see what’s in front of us if we’re looking for it. So what we’re looking for matters... not because we have to be looking for something specific in order to see it—who would be looking for a gorilla to show up? But if we’re so busy looking for unimportant things we can’t notice the big things, we may miss them. Jesus in his glory is not a gorilla… but he may be as obvious as a gorilla, and if we’re so busy keeping our eye “on the ball” that we miss him we will miss out.

But there’s good news: no matter how spiritually blind we are, Jesus repeatedly invites us to “come and see”. He draws attention to the gorilla in the room. It takes these disciples years to fully understand what they’re looking for—and what they’ve found. But he keeps inviting… and they keep following. If you don’t know what you’re looking for, come and see. If you can’t take in the news that the Lamb of God is standing right in front of you, come and see—spend some time with him, and eventually you will be able to see. By the end of the afternoon, Andrew realizes that Jesus is the Messiah, and goes and fetches his brother.

So what are you looking for, particularly here at Epiphany? There are a million answers—none of them wrong. Well, I guess you could come up with a few wrong answers… But often, what we think we’re looking for isn’t what we find; we look for a church for our kids to learn about God, and discover that we are the ones who are learning about God; we look for a place with friends, and discover that what we find the divine. Or it goes the other way—we area looking for God and discover a loving community of friends which is the earthly manifestation of God’s love.

Our collect this morning calls for us to be the light that helps the world see Jesus in all his glory. “Grant that your people, illumined by your Word and Sacraments, may shine with the radiance of Christ's glory, that he may be known, worshipped, and obeyed to the ends of the earth.” We are the people called to shine with the radiance of Christ’s glory so that everyone can see. So that when we ask, “What are you looking for?” the answer isn’t a non sequitur; the answer is some version of “I’m looking for Jesus.” And we can answer, like Jesus, “Come and see.” Come follow me, and you’ll meet him. Come follow me and you’ll see who he is. Come and see his justice and peace. Come and see the glory of the Lord.

Are we looking for the glory of God? I’m not quite sure what the glory of the Lord is—but it’s in scripture all the time. I can only think of it in terms of metaphor—the glory of the Lord is like the fiery colors of a sunset; is like the sound of an organ playing Vidor’s Toccatta; it is like the breathtaking view of Yosemite Valley. We will be remembering Dr. Martin Luther King tomorrow as a nation; the last words that he spoke in his last speech the night before he was assassinated were “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.” He knew what he was looking for. And even if he couldn’t see the future in reality, he could see God’s reality. He closed that speech:

“Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land! And so I'm happy, tonight. I'm not worried about anything. I'm not fearing any man! Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!!”

Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord;
He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored;
He hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword:
His truth is marching on.
Glory, glory, hallelujah!
Glory, glory, hallelujah!
Glory, glory, hallelujah!
His truth is marching on.

In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea,
With a glory in His bosom that transfigures you and me.
As He died to make men holy, let us die to make men free,
While God is marching on.
Glory, glory, hallelujah!
Glory, glory, hallelujah!
Glory, glory, hallelujah!
While God is marching on.

That’s what we are looking for.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

"Why Anna?"

Spoiler alert: if you have not seen Episode 2 of Season 3 of Downton Abbey, you may not want to keep reading…   Or you may. 

Blogs and friends have been crying out "Why Anna?" since this week's episode of Downton Abbey.  Why must Anna be raped? Why has Julian Fellowes cruelly done this to her (and us)?  They feel he is using sexual violence as a plot device and manipulating his audience in a way that is unacceptable, insensitive, historically unlikely, offensive, or sensational.

I don't disagree that I felt manipulated Sunday night, but that's hardly a new experience with Downton--it was Season 1 when O'Brien put the bar of soap on the floor to cause a miscarriage. Sensational violence has been a part of the show all along.

But as I felt my own dread building on Sunday night when I realized what was coming, I thought about all the violence I see on TV and in the media daily and ignore.  Why do I not find it offensive to see a character commit a murder?

Rape has a special taboo.   You could say that because rape is so personal and intimate, it is in a special category and "tasteful" art doesn't include it; or at least that mainstream drama shouldn't go there because of the powerful response it can inspire in the viewer.

But in a modern world where 60% of rapes are not reported to the police, and 98% of rapists don't spend a single day in jail, doesn't that just reinforce the taboos that prevent women (and men) who are raped from seeking help and justice?  I deliberately avoid TV shows that feature sexual violence, so don't feel like rape is over-used as a dramatic device.  I found Sunday's episode shocking.

Why Anna?  Why anyone? But dramatically, why not Anna? Why not remind the world that rape doesn't just happen to people who are not close to our hearts?

Anna was raped by someone she knew.  She is afraid of telling anyone because she fears she will lose her marriage and her security.  She was raped even though she's nice, everyone likes her, and she wasn't doing something perceived by society as being risky.  She was raped even though she's already had enough bad stuff happen to her that it seems like she should be getting a break--not more trauma.

That sounds entirely plausible. And incredibly tragic.  If only sexual violence were rare, sensational, and came when we knew we needed to be emotionally prepared.

I'm sorry for people who felt traumatized by Sunday's Downton episode, and very sympathetic.  I know what it's like to get blindsided by an image of violence when I was least expecting it that left me in a full-blown panic attack.

But I hope there are a few more conversations because of it about rape survivors seeking healing, telling their stories, and seeking justice.  Art (and I would include Downton as art) is meant to move us, to inspire us, and to change us. It hopes to affect our hearts and even our actions.  I pray that may be so--for the better--from this.

Monday, January 6, 2014

The multitude of Camels

A multitude of camels shall cover you,
the young camels of Midian and Ephah;
all those from Sheba shall come.

A multitude of camels shall cover you? Really? Every year I hear that verse on Epiphany and I just want to laugh. The idea of being covered by a single camel, much less a multitude of camels, sounds exceedingly unpleasant and smelly. I know when I read it more closely that it means that a multitude of camels will cover the land of Israel, not a single person… but it always takes me a minute to remember that “you” means “Israel” and not an individual.

But they’re in Isaiah because camels represent wealth. A lot of wealth. Both then and now—a friend deals with banking around the world, including spending some time in Mongolia, and he mentioned to me a few months ago that camels were what you really wanted for collateral for loans in Mongolia—every camel is worth one and a half horses, or 3-4 cows.

This Isaiah passage is like the culmination of the entire book of Isaiah: Isaiah has prophesied that if the people do not repent and follow the Lord they will be exiled; that has happened; the people have endured the exile; and then Isaiah has prophesied that they will be returned to their homeland and that has happened; and now the prophesy is that this new Jerusalem and rebuilt temple will be so amazing that everyone from the nations—and all their wealth—will flow in to Israel. “They shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall proclaim the praise of the LORD.” Being covered in a multitude of camels means to be covered in a multitude of wealth; to have the honor and adulation of all the surrounding people, and have them pay homage to Israel.

Matthew’s Gospel takes this prophecy and puts an interesting spin on this. Here are foreigners, members of the nations, who are bringing gifts to the land of Israel. No camels are mentioned… but gold and frankincense are, along with myrrh. It’s just like Isaiah! But the riches they are bringing are not going to King Herod (even though they stop by), nor to the Temple (which they completely ignore). They are bringing the riches to this baby in Bethlehem, not to the nation as a whole. It’s not quite what Isaiah was aiming for in his prophecy about the camels.

And then it gets even stranger. One reason that the Magi enter into the birth narratives is to showcase that Jesus is king, not just of Israel, but of all people; and that the gospel Good News is for the all the nations, and not just the chosen people of God. Even at his birth in Matthew, he is worshipped first by the foreigners. People who are outside of Israel have something to offer—and even offer more than they know in terms of understanding the identity of this child: one interpretation of the gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh is that they were intended to highlight Jesus’ identity as King—from the gold; as divinity—from the frankincense; and as mortal from the myrrh, which was used to anoint the dead. Mary and Joseph may not entirely grasp who their child is; but these Magi tell the reader what we need to know.

As an aside, the kerfuffle this week about how the numbers of Americans who believe in evolution have actually declined is perhaps a modern example of the need for this Epiphany story. The Magi of the gospel were the scientists of their era—they looked to the stars to understand the past, present, and future—we obviously have a different understanding of astronomy and astrology today, but the idea that we learn about ourselves and the nature of the universe by looking at the natural world still stands. And through their wisdom, they had knowledge that was important for the people of God, even though they were not themselves part of that nation. The Gospel is open to—and even requires—the wise input of the outsider, of the non-believer, for the true identity of Christ to be revealed. And in turn, that exchange of the wealth of knowledge and revelation has the capacity to change the outsider—because by the time they leave, the Magi are believers. They have worshiped. They have responded to divine intervention in dreams. When Christians are loathe to accept knowledge from outside our own people, whether from science or from other faith traditions, or even different kinds of Christians, we can miss an essential part of the Gospel—as well as an opportunity for evangelism. There are obviously many scientists who are people of faith—some of them here in our own congregation; but I wonder if much of the hostility of some scientists towards religion would be tempered if they perceived that people of faith not only honored their wisdom, but found it valuable and enlightening for our faith.

And that outward orientation is what the Epiphany brings on all levels. Even the orientation of wealth has changed. Instead of the nations having wealth that God wants to bring into Israel, now Israel is in possession of the greatest item of wealth and is called upon to share it and send it out into the nations. Paul writes to the Ephesians today, “Although I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given to me to bring to the Gentiles the news of the boundless riches of Christ, and to make everyone see what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things; so that through the church the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places.” As Christians, it is our mission to share the riches of Christ with everyone—even those who we perceive as being outside the boundaries of God’s grace.

So what does this mean for us today? We talk a lot about needing to bring people in to the church—and that’s true. Please—be evangelists, be inviters… but at one level, is that just another way of waiting for the camels to show up? Or are we called not to ask people to come to us, but for us to go to them? The invitation isn’t “Please come to church to make our church better and richer,” the invitation is “I have good news for you that I would like to share so that you can become better and richer.” We’re not inviters and evangelists for the sake of the church; we’re inviters and evangelists for the sake of the world.

Yesterday afternoon Nathan took the city’s gifted and talented test. I am not above bribery, so of the last three delicious gold-foil-wrapped Italian chocolates that were left from my parents’ visit here, I gave him one before to get him out of the house to get him to the test, and brought the other two (along with some goldfish and a juice box), saying he could have them afterwards. They do the test in groups of kids, and he had made a new friend; Max followed him out and announced to his mother that he wanted to keep playing with Nathan. Nathan came to me and got his chocolate, and then started eating goldfish crackers, and offered them to Max. How sweet, he’s sharing, the other mother and I remarked. Then he reached into my purse, took out the last chocolate, and without a word, gave it to Max. There was a part of me that wanted to scream, “that’s the last one, and you gave it away!!!!” I was hoping that I could sneak it myself it he forgot about it… But of course he was right. If someone gives you something precious, you share it, especially if you’ve already been fed.

It’s time to get on our camels and share the riches of Christ. Give them away freely. Because we won’t run out of them. We will come back here and find the food we need to sustain us for our journey and we’ll go out again. I know that sharing the gospel and sharing the riches of Christ is something that makes us feel self-conscious as Episcopalians—talking about our faith is one of those things we could maybe learn from other Christian traditions outside of our own. But at least you won’t have to do it from the back of a camel. You have been given priceless riches—now share them. Not for our sake, but for the sake of that world.