Monday, October 27, 2008

A Wilderness Reflection

Loving God and Your Neighbor
A Reflection for the Wilderness - by James Wall
The 24th Sunday After Pentecost • Year A
26 October 2008

Leviticus 19:1-2,15-18 • Psalm 1 • Matthew 22:34-46

A young physician in Japan named Kusuda met a college friend who had been studying Zen. The young doctor asked him what Zen was.

"I cannot tell you what it is," the friend replied, "but one thing is certain. If you understand Zen, you will not be afraid to die."
"That's fine," said Kusuda. "I will try it. Where can I find a teacher?"

"Go to the master Nan-in," the friend told him.

So Kusuda went to call on Nan-in. He carried a dagger nine and a half inches long to determine whether or not the teacher was afraid to die.

When Nan-in saw Kusuda he exclaimed: "Hello, friend. How are you? We haven't seen each other for a long time!"

This perplexed Kusuda, who replied: "We have never met before."

"That's right," answered Nan-in. "I mistook you for another physician who is receiving instruction here."

With such a beginning, Kusuda lost his chance to test the master, so reluctantly he asked if he might receive Zen instruction.
Nan-in said: "Zen is not a difficult task. If you are a physician, treat your patients with kindness. That is Zen."

Kusuda visited Nan-in three times. Each time Nan-in told him the same thing. "A physician should not waste time around here. Go home and take care of your patients."

It is said that Saint John the Evangelist, the patron saint of this cathedral taught only one sermon: “Love one another.” Of course, many priests when citing this legend on Sunday make joke of it – wouldn’t that be great every Sunday if I got up and said to the congregation: “love one another!” and then got on with the rest of the service.

But my thought is this: perhaps we might actually get it after 100, maybe 1,000 sermons. Probably not.

It’s so simple: love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul and strength and love your neighbor as yourself. On these commandments the whole of the way of life known as Torah, hang.

Saint John got it – and communicated it with Zen-like simplicity every time his community met. Love one another.

But did the rest of the Jesus movement get it? Saint Paul seemed to. His great hymn to love is probably the most moving in any language: let me read it for you as most of you will not have heard outside of the context of a wedding service:

1If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. 2If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing.

 4Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. 5It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. 6Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. 7It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

 8Love never fails.

Do you get it now? Love one another.

But I always find that it’s the “how to” that’s the most difficult part. How the heck do we love the Lord our God with all our heart, mind, soul and strength, let alone loving our neighbor?

Let me start off with another story from the east.

A young man came to a great yogi with a question: how do I find God. The yogi told him to sit, banish all thoughts from his mind and follow his breath. After two days of so doing the man came back to the yogi.

“Surely finding God is more interesting than my breath,” said the man. Can’t you give me a more interesting exercise?”

The yogi told the man to follow him and they walked down to the sea into the crashing waves of the Indian ocean. The yogi suddenly seized the man and held him under water holding him there for a full minute until the man was almost unconscious.

Pulling the terrified man back up out of the water, the yogi screamed: “how interesting is your breath now? If you seek for God as much as you craved your breath under the water, you will find him. If you realize that the very breath you breathe is a miracle, you will know him.”

How much do you yearn for God? How much do you appreciate that our very life is a miracle – that every step we take on this earth is a gift of God’s to be nurtured and thankful for? If we can come to a realization that life is not to be taken for granted – that every moment is infused with divine love: then we come close to loving God with all our heart, mind soul and strength.

The Buddhists call this mindfulness and it takes practice. One weakness, I think of orthodox Christianity is that we think that God is the one who takes all the initiative in the spiritual life – we pray for God to take care of this problem and that issue. But really, we have to meet Him halfway. If we take time every day to sit and be still in God’s presence, perhaps following our breath, perhaps reciting a short prayer to ourselves, we will slowly come to a realization of His presence in every moment in every day. God is, according to theologian Paul Tillich, the very ground of our being. It is in coming to realize this in our bones that we are able to begin the process of loving Him.

The late Trappist monk and writer Thomas Merton insisted that we must awaken to the sacred in the ordinary. In his words: “Life is this simple: We are living in a world that is absolutely transparent and the Divine is shining through it all the time. This is not just a nice story or a fable. It is truth.”

In our community we have a mindfulness exercise that Jesus left us. It is such a great exercise in paying attention that the early church raised this exercise to the status of a sacrament. It is of course, the Eucharist – the taking of the bread and wine to commemorate Jesus’ last supper with his disciples. Of course most Christians, Anglican or otherwise don’t see it this way. Every Sunday, millions in America and others around the world trapes up to the altar to receive a tiny host and a sip of wine while mulling the current status of the World Series or, perhaps, the inappropriate skirt length of the woman in front of them in the line. Is this the appropriate way to receive the Son of God?

In my last two homilies I‘ve asked you to take your shoes off and bow as you move forward to receive communion. Please feel free to do so again if this practice will enable you to become more aware as you receive the bread and the wine.

As you take the bread and wine, do not try to feel anything. Many of us, I think, try to feel holy or something similar as we eat and drink the elements. Instead, be aware and awake. When you take the bread, slowly place it in your mouth. Feel the texture and taste the taste. When you take the cup, know that you are taking the cup. Raise it to your lips slowly and appreciate the strong taste of the wine.

I’ll leave you with a quote from Jean Pierre de Caussade, a French priest of the 18th century:

“The present moment holds infinite riches beyond your wildest dreams but you will only enjoy them to the extent of your faith and love. The more a soul loves, the more it longs, the more it hopes, the more it finds. The will of God is manifest in each moment, an immense ocean which only the heart fathoms insofar as it overflows with faith, trust and love.”


Monday, October 13, 2008

A Wilderness Reflection

A Reflection for the Wilderness
Saint John’s Episcopal Cathedral
The 22nd Sunday after Pentecost • Year A
12 October 2008

Isaiah 25:1-9 • Psalm 23 • Matthew 22:1-14

Tonight, as we begin our season of Creation, I have a story I want to share with you. Find a comfortable position in your seat, close your eyes if you’d like, and try and make yourselves part of the story I’m going to tell.

The time is the early 1970’s. The place, the village of Reni in the rural, forested mountain valleys of northern India. This is a region of small villages, like Reni, where the people live by subsistence farming, the raising of livestock, foraging in the surrounding forests, and trading in various forest products.

For centuries, the villagers have enjoyed unrestricted access to the forests and their bounty, developing a relationship that is relatively stable, both economically and ecologically. By the 19th Century, however, and with increasing regularity in the decades preceding our story, the governments of India, colonial or native, have taken control of the forests to manage them as a commercial resource, though in recent years they have begun to show some interest in protecting certain areas in the region as nature preserves.

Occasionally, over the years, the government auctions off permits to harvest timber in these forests. With increasing regularity, however, the villagers and their local cooperatives are denied logging permits, which go to commercial logging companies with no understanding of the economy or the ecology of the forests. Clear cutting becomes common. Monsoons strip away the soils, causing landslides and floods that destroy homes and kill hundreds, if not thousands, of people. Finally, the villagers decide that they have had enough.

In 1974, the government announces a logging permit auction and invites the leaders of the local villages around Reni to attend a meeting to work out some of their issues and find a resolution to the conflicts that have arisen between the villagers and the logging companies. The villagers agree to the meeting.

Soon after the village leaders leave Reni for the town where the meeting is being held, those remaining hear unmistakable sounds. The loggers have arrived, and the villagers realize the meeting is a ruse. With the village leadership gone, the loggers begin their work, with no concern for the consequences on the villagers and their livelihoods. They just want their trees, and the money they can make off of them. The women of the village, in an act of amazing courage, do the only thing they can do to protect their beloved forests and their family’s livelihoods.

They run into the forest, and right in front of the loggers, throw themselves around the trees.

And thus the term “tree-hugger” is born.

You’ve probably heard the term “tree-hugger” used before. Usually it’s used in a derogatory fashion, meant to belittle those who work to conserve natural resources and create a more sustainable world. But doesn’t that story put the term in a different light? The action was part of the Chipko Movement, as it became known, from the Hindi word meaning “to hug” or “to embrace”, and was more than just about saving a bunch of trees. It was about conserving a natural resource for the livelihood of current and future generations, a need they felt so strongly that the villagers were willing to give their lives for it.

What does this mean for us as part of the Christian community? What can this story tell us about our relationship with Creation? A look at our readings tonight begins to give us a clue. Tonight we were given images of green meadows to rest in and still waters to sit by. We were given a vision of the community of God gathered for a banquet, a banquet of rich food and well-aged wines, all of it the bounty of God’s good creation. Jesus in his parable points us back to this vision, a banquet for all of God’s people, opened to anyone the host’s servants could find, “both good and bad”, as the story notes.

Notice how material our readings are tonight. We often tend to think of our Christian faith as something spiritual, which it is, in part, but our faith is material too. Jesus was born of flesh and blood, he lived among us eating and drinking with his friends, healing sick bodies and minds, he raised the dead to new, material lives, and he died his own horrible and material death. This is just as important to our faith as is the Resurrection of Jesus, and we relive it every time we come together to share the bread and wine as a forerunner of that heavenly banquet Isaiah and Jesus speaks to us about.

But we can take this a step further, maybe many steps. We can also engage this materialness of our faith by honoring everything that God has created and given into our care. As James Jones, the Bishop of Liverpool, notes in his book, Jesus and the Earth, “matter matters to God”.

Matter matters to God. All of creation matters to the God who created us as the material, as well as spiritual, beings that we are. Caring for that creation and being wise stewards of its bounty is a part of our call as Christians to love God and our neighbors. Let us go forward through and from this place, worshiping the Creator of creation, honoring and being responsible stewards of the creation God has given us.

Oh, and if this season of Creation inspires you in some small way to do something as part of your own stewardship and you find yourself called a “tree-hugger” for doing it, thank that person for their compliment. I certainly can’t think of a higher one.