Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Under the Surface

In these days just after the Autumn Equinox, I step out my back door into the last mortal exuberance of the garden. The late clematis is at the end of its three-week riot: thousands of small, scented white blossoms billowing over the fence, over my neighbour's garage, into the grape arbor of the yard next door. The corroded bronze Buddha sits on his small shelf just to the left of the garden gate, nearly obscured by the forsythia. What's left of the dicentra and ferns lie sprawled across the paving bricks in the corner nearest the steps from the deck. And day by day, the pond moves slowly but steadily toward dormancy.

The sunlight that sliced through its surface two months ago now barely grazes the far end. The floating plants--water lettuce, parrot feather--get leggier as they reach for light and slow down their relentless spread that from late June to early August needed thinning nearly every week. The goldfish, gluttons that they are, continue to guzzle anything I drop into the water for them with as much enthusiasm as ever, even though their metabolisms are slowing as the water temperature drops imperceptibly from morning to morning.

Down below, God knows what's going on. Fiteen years ago, I released half a dozen Japanese trap-door snails. An enterprising raccoon occasionally manages to fish one out and leaves the fragments of shell on the edging stones--sometimes along with a chaotic tangle of vegetation--as proof they're still going about their invertebrate business in the thickening layer of muck at the bottom and in the hoary film of algae that clings to the sides. I have no idea whether the current population of goldfish still includes any of the half-dozen ten-cent feeders that my ex and I turned loose in 1997. Some additions over the years have clearly contributed their genes to the mix.

I marvel at how little effort I have to invest in this more-or-less self-contained ecosystem the size of three or four bathtubs. I plug in a floating electric heater for the winter to keep enough of the surface free of ice that the fish--hibernating near the bottom except when the odd warm spell brings them churning sleepily up to the surface--don't suffocate by spring. In early May, an algae bloom turns the water an opaque emerald. A week or two later, the pond weeds begin to suck up enough free nitrogen for the algae to calm down and the water to clear again. By early summer, the seasonal floating plants and the water lily shade enough of the surface to regulate the water temperature. The marginal plants grow happily on a diet of fish shit, their roots functioning as a natural filtration system. I know what little I need to do to sustain these cycles. But I also know that my job is mostly just to get out of the way, and to give thanks.

It's all so long, so slow, and so resolutely under the surface. I'm directly aware only of the barest fraction of its life. And therein lies the lesson I continue to learn from it, more deeply with each year that it settles gradually into stasis and then wakes again the following spring into new life: that what happens fast and with obvious drama often just barely skims the surface, while something far more richly interconnected moves out of sight to its own rhythms.

Monday, September 17, 2012

5773: Some Thoughts for the Anniversary of the World

The poignancy of Rosh HaShanah (literally, the "head of the year") is that it invites those who observe it--Jews, those partnered with Jews, and other fellow travellers--to remember the world at the moment of its mythical creation. And in remembering its newness, at once to celebrate its promise, and to mourn how far short of that promise it has fallen; to assert as an act of faith that the world might still be perfected, or at least repaired; to imagine that we could be, in some small way, the instrument of its perfection.

At the funky, quirky, fiercely inclusive alternative shul that I attend, goy toy of my partner that I am, I was offered this morning the following:

"Each time I stand for the Amidah [the great, silently recited prayer at the heart of the first part of the service] I sift through the tangle of legend and learning that is our inheritance, searching for my own blessings, my own prayer. I stand with one foot planted in empiricism and the other entwined in the messiness of my own humanity. No body part touches the God of my ancestors. My heart wishes to be open, my mind to be fully present. And so each time I stand for the Amidah I invent my own religion." -- Claudia Bernard

"The peak of religious ethical perfection to which Judaism aspires is the human being as creator. When God created the world, God provided an opportunity for the work of His hands--humanity--to participate in creation. The Creator, as it were, impaired reality in order that mortal humans could repair its flaws and perfect it. God gave us the Book of Creation…not simply for the sake of theoretical study but in order that we might continue the act of creations."--Joseph Soloveitchik

In these two quotes, I find a place for myself as a queer participant in a tradition that doesn't belong to me. I find space to invent my own religion. I find the chutzpah to believe that by inventing it, I am participating in the completion of the world. I find the ethical leverage I need to insist that part of my calling is to correct the great world faith traditions when they fail to see queer identities and queer love as part of the richness of Spirit's unfolding.

Monday, September 10, 2012


My partner and I have just returned to the house we left fifteen months ago. It's been surprisingly easy to settle in. The couple who were living here were extremely conscientious about giving it back to us more or less as we left it.

But what's surprised me over the last ten days is how little I'm in a rush to unpack the stuff we stored in a corner of the basement the spring before last, or to reclaim the five or six boxes we shlepped to a friend's attic. It's not just that I've lived without this stuff for over a year and probably don't need it back right away. It's that I wonder why I need it back at all. And why I'd want to weight myself down with it.

I don't want to romanticize this impusle to chuck some ballast. It's one thing to live a thoroughly middle-class life (as I do) and think, wouldn't it be great not to be so thoroughly owned by my possessions? It's quite another to be living on the street, trying to piece together the price of a room for the night. But it does seem like a good opportunity to remember that life isn't all getting and spending.

And now for the wisdom of George Carlin:

Sunday, September 2, 2012

John 6

This post carries an explicit Christian content alert. I preached this sermon a week ago on the following passage from the Gospel of John.

So Jesus said to them, ‘Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live for ever.’ He said these things while he was teaching in the synagogue at Capernaum.

When many of his disciples heard it, they said, ‘This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?’ But Jesus, being aware that his disciples were complaining about it, said to them, ‘Does this offend you? Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before? It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. But among you there are some who do not believe.’ For Jesus knew from the first who were the ones that did not believe, and who was the one that would betray him. And he said, ‘For this reason I have told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted by the Father.’

Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him. So Jesus asked the twelve, ‘Do you also wish to go away?’ Simon Peter answered him, ‘Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.’

Once every three years, today's Gospel reading comes around, and we're reminded where the acclamation comes from that we sing every week: "Alleluia, Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life." And we remember the context of these words in the Gospel of John, and with it everything they imply.

Jesus says something over-the-top outrageous this morning, as we observed last week as well: "I came from God and live because of God. Eat my flesh, drink my blood, and you'll live forever as I live forever." This is what all the passages from the sixth chapter of John that we've been listening to for several weeks have been leading up to.

Imagine how freaked out pious first-century Jews hearing this would have been. Or you don't have to bother imagining: just ask a Jewish friend in our own day how bizarre, and how offensive the idea is of consuming flesh and blood, in light of the injunctions of the Torah, let alone counting it as the flesh and blood of God in human form. And then think of the amount of conflict the doctrine of the Eucharist has created within the history of Christianity itself, with Roman Catholics believing in transubstantiation, and Protestants saying that the bread and wine are simply symbolic of an inner spiritual reality, and Episcopalians and Lutherans and the Eastern Orthodox trying variously to steer up the middle without hitting any oncoming traffic.

I promise not to treat you to a long disquisition on the doctrine of the Eucharist. Let's just leave it with this: here, now, in this place, in a few minutes, we'll participate in a Mystery that we share with every Christian who's confessed the faith, for very nearly two thousand years, that Jesus has the words of eternal life; that in the person of Jesus we receive the Word that was in the beginning, that was with God, that was God; that nothing came into being without this Word. We gather on the first day of the week to remember that on the first day of the week Jesus broke the chains of death and won for us and for all Creation victory over the grave. Christians have gathered to remember this Mystery in an unbroken chain of Sundays for twenty centuries.

And yet, every Eucharist is different. When we celebrate this Mystery, we don't just remember what Jesus did two thousand years ago. We confess that Jesus's victory is present here among us, in Amagansett, by the highway, at the end of August, just next to a construction site that in a few months will be home to a whole new community of people who'll be glad to have an affordable roof over their heads. We confess that the Mystery of Jesus's victory over death is present here among us, even while some of us are living with cancer or other life-threatening illnesses; while some of us struggle with disability, or depression, or addictions, or bereavement, or broken relationships. We bring whatever suffering we endure, whatever hopes we cherish, to this table that we share with all the faithful in every time and place. We say, here, take what I'm bringing. Make my suffering into part of your suffering. Transform my hopes into your hopes.

When we remember Jesus, we participate in a Mystery by which Jesus is present among us, here and now. It may sound strange, but in some way, God has been waiting all this time for us to show up this morning and make a Eucharist that will be different from every other Eucharist that's going on this morning, and different from every Eucharist that's taken place since the disciples saw Jesus on the road to Emmaus. We bring who we are in the moment, and we ask to be transformed by the power of the Holy Spirit, as grain is transformed into one bread, as grapes are transformed into wine. Jesus is our host, and Jesus is our feast. And he needs us and invites us to become, like him, the bread with which he will feed the world.

This is a message of radical inclusion. God loved the world so much that God dwelt among us and suffered alongside us, unable to bear that we should have to go through anything apart from God's presence. God in the person of Jesus proved that love is stronger than death and pain and decay. God invites us in this Eucharist to be as radically inclusive in our love as that.


And yet, there's another side to today's Gospel, an edge of exclusion and estrangement. Peter says, "Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life" when some of the disciples have taken off, unable to receive what Jesus has said. Jesus asks the ones who remain behind whether they're going to walk away as well. Peter is saying, "What choice do we have? There's no one besides you to whom we could turn."

If your experience of life is anything like mine, maybe you share at least a little sympathy for the disciples who couldn't accept what Jesus was saying and who felt they had to depart. My partner is Jewish, and I'm intensely aware of how uncomfortable he is with the crucifix that hangs above my desk, and how weird bordering on blasphemous he finds a lot of Christian worship and devotional practice. I suspect most of us know people of other faiths, as well as people who haven't experienced Christianity as either liberatory, or life-giving. When the disciples who depart leave the scene, I'm not comfortable with just writing them off, as though they've missed the boat and they're no longer any of my concern. I want to know what becomes of them, and I certainly want to understand better what's at stake in their decision that they have to leave.

The Gospel of John is unique among the four Gospels. It stands out from Matthew, Mark, and Luke in a lot of ways, and it was almost certainly the last of the four Gospels to be written. It came from a time when Jewish believers in Jesus were getting expelled from many of their synagogues, after several generations of acrimonious disagreement over whether Jesus was the Messiah. I don't think it's unfaithful of us to keep this in mind when we consider how the author represents Jesus and what Jesus says to the disciples. The community for which John's Gospel was written was feeling the sting of being marginalized by their fellow Jews. We see this expressed in today's Gospel by the statement that some of Jesus's followers found his words too much to swallow, and left. We can hear the hurt and resentment of the community that first read John's Gospel expressed by this story that some rejected Jesus's message.

But I'd like to think that maybe we can receive the precious message of John's Gospel about God's radically inclusive love for the world in the person of Jesus, and still resist the understandable human resentment of a community that sometimes saw the world as divided into us versus them:" us", the believers who receive Jesus as the Word of eternal life, and "them", those who've walked away. I'd like to think that the Jesus to whom the Gospel of John witnesses is even more surprising than the community that first listened to John's Gospel was fully able to take in.

Think about the appearances of Jesus after the Resurrection in the Gospel of John. Jesus appears to Mary Magdalene in the garden, but she doesn't recognize him at first. She mistakes him for the gardener. When she sees the resurrected Lord, she sees him where she doesn't expect. Jesus twice appears to the disciples behind locked doors, suddenly appearing even though they've shut themselves in. They've divided the world into us versus them out of fear, in as tangible a way as they could, by locking "them" out; and yet, there before them somehow appears the One who has broken the power of death.

A similar choice still confronts Christians in the twenty-first century. We can see ourselves as the in-group of those who've confessed faith in Jesus, in contrast to everyone else who hasn't. Or instead, we can see ourselves as the ones who gather at this table to eat in thanksgiving the Bread of Life, and to pray that the Holy Spirit will make us as well into the Bread of Life, knowing that in Jesus is life, and that that life is the light of the world; knowing that light and life pass when they have to through the locked doors that separate "us" from "them." Knowing that the risen Lord shows up in the strangest places, appearing even to those who aren't part of our charmed circle, even to those who from our perspective are the among the disciples who left.

Some of you have met my godson when he's come to visit me. He attends a very liberal, very high church Episcopalian congregation in Rochester. The church faces an artsy streetscape in the center of town, and one very hot summer day, when there was a street fair, the congregation decided that passing out free bottled water and cookies would be a nice way of offering hospitality. Down the block an evangelical group set up a table, and their leader came up to the rector of Nate's church and asked with evident suspicion, "What's your Gospel?"

The rector replied, "That God loves the world." And the leader of the evangelical group told him, "If you believe that, then you're going to hell."

I love that story for how clearly it exemplifies the choice we always have before us, just as the first hearers of the Gospel of John had it before them. Like them, we're always at risk of twisting the grace that's offered to all into our own special possession that someone else doesn't share. Or instead, we can embrace the radically inclusive love that compels God to offer Godself to us, over and over again, week after week, year after year, generation after generation, as bread for our journey; the love that walks through the walls we put up to shut out those we fear and resent, and says to us, "Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you."