Month: February 2014

On Asparagus and being a neighbor

A sermon at St Mark’s Church in the Bowery, February 23, 2014

When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest. You shall not strip your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the alien.

-Leviticus 19:9-10

The lesson from Leviticus today is from what scholars call the “Holiness Code.” It’s a set of instructions of how the people of Israel are to be a holy people, dedicated to God. There are paragraphs that talk about right worship and ritual purity, but just as much, the commands of God about being a holy people are about ordinary everyday things. Things that were not special to the Israelites, but were simply things that were expected of upstanding people: “You shall not defraud your neighbor, you shall not steal; and you shall not keep for yourself the wages of a laborer until the morning,” for instance.

The text I quoted is one of those. It defines gleaning. In our urban context, we might not be familiar with it, or, if we know about it, we might be inclined to romanticize it or think it’s a particularly religious thing. I grew up in Idaho, prosperous farming country. For over forty years, my father sold insurance to farmers, mostly to cover their farming business. When I was very little, my earliest memories are of living in a little house in the countryside. My parents were young and just starting out, and they were renting what had been a “hired-man’s house” from a prosperous farmer down the road. Sometimes I would walk with my mom along the country road. The banks of the irrigation ditches were allowed to grow wild, with sunflowers and weeds and grass.

AsparagusBirds would take shelter there and sometimes build their nests. The ditch banks belonged to the farmers’ fields, but nobody particularly cared what you did on the ditch banks as long as you didn’t divert the water. One of the things that we did, even long after we moved to town, was to hunt for wild asparagus on the ditch banks. This was a kind of gleaning, you didn’t have to be poor or on the margins of society. In the spring, lots of people would drive slowly along country roads until they spied a little colony of the vegetable. It was fun, it was good to eat, and commercially grown asparagus was almost unknown in Idaho at that time. The thing is, the boundaries of the fields were more or less necessary waste space. You couldn’t efficiently harvest crops out to the very edges, and those margins became in effect part of the commons which people could share, if they followed the unwritten rules. Allowing this and other kinds of gleaning wasn’t seen as particularly virtuous or holy, it was simply being part of being relaxed neighbors.

So what’s the deal in the Leviticus passage? The most important part of being holy is leading a decent, common-sense, human life. But there’s always someone who wants to game that—to scrape just a little closer to the edge of the field; or even to enhance their relative position by making someone else’s life just a little harder, even if there is no positive gain in doing that. Why send your slaves out to rake up all the loose grapes that have fallen to the ground? It nets little or nothing. Certainly not compared to the benefit of being a good neighbor.
Jesus was teaching in a different historical period—a thousand years or more after the time depicted in the Leviticus passage. In those days of Roman occupation people could be compelled to carry burdens for the army, for instance, and society was more complex with more towns and cities. But Jesus’ concern is the same – he didn’t want people to try to establish rights over others just to assert some kind of advantage over them. Jesus uses extreme imagery of radical non-resistance and absolute generosity, but that’s not to establish a new game with higher stakes—some sort of all or nothing game. Jesus is challenging us to give up on self-justification based on playing around with rules and rights, and to pay attention and become real neighbors.

Neighbors are people that you share things with, and that you have to get along with in order to have a functioning life. It doesn’t mean that they are people you like, or agree with or even share tastes or cultural preferences. The more complex the society, the more complex is the question of our neighbors.

One response to this complexity is to define more clearly and tightly who neighbors might be. Corporations have always existed for the benefit of their owners, the stockholders, but in the past couple of decades this has been pushed to its logical and most efficient limit (as philosophers would say, its reductio ad absurdam)—no neighborly action is justified unless it can be demonstrated that it enhances shareholder profit. Some try to limit the complexity of who they deal with, based on culture, ethnicity, visa status, or political allegiance. And this is not true of only one end of the political spectrum. It is easy to seek out enclaves of like-minded friends, and to shut out and ignore those that one assumes might think or say things that would make you uncomfortable.

But Jesus says: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven…”

It takes great courage to take Jesus at his word and to face our complex society with openness and generosity of spirit. It can be costly, as it was for Jesus, to love those who aren’t your sisters and brothers but it is really the only way to healing and holiness. As the passage from Leviticus ends: “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.”

The Way of Wisdom

A sermon for Theological Education Sunday

St. Paul’s, Ossining, NY 4th Sunday after Epiphany, February 2, 2014

God has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?

Who knows what today is? Of course, we all know what it is—Super Bowl Sunday. And this year, the most important event in the American secular calendar falls on February second, the same day as Groundhog Day. Even in the calendar of the Church it is at least three other things: In the Book of Common Prayer, February 2 is a major feast, the Presentation of our Lord Jesus Christ in the Temple, in older days and in some contexts the same feast was called the feast of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The lectionary also has today as the Fourth Sunday after Epiphany, and that’s where today’s lessons come from. But in the Episcopal Church, the first Sunday in February is designated as Theological Education Sunday, and I’m here today, as a faculty member of the General Theological Seminary, to talk with you about Theological Education.

So what IS Theological Education? Over the years there have been a lot of confused, obscure and frankly, quite deadly, sermons and other presentations on that topic. There’s actually a reason for that. Theological Education has been regarded as being about the training of professional clergy in specialized skills which are seldom of interest or relevance to ordinary Christians or about the support of theologians whose job is to think thoughts and write books in obscure terminology that are usually inaccessible to most ordinary church members and often to ordinary clergy.
Thus presentation of Theological Education is usually an anemic attempt to communicate across a vast divide to a foreign audience. This is a problem, not just with seminaries, but with the whole church, including congregational life. The faculty of General spent a very intense week on retreat in January working on this very problem, and I would like to report out some of my perception of what we arrived at.

Theology does not have to mean a distant and abstract thing. It is clear that in the early centuries of the church, theology meant the participation in the ever-deepening practice of the Christian life which we all share. The whole church needs to be called to a more intentional and deeper commitment to this. We’re calling this the Way of Wisdom. There’s a reason for this because if we call it theology, people will get confused because they have a different idea of what theology should be about. But make no mistake: this is theology that is meant to be practiced on the ground at St. Paul’s.

TutumandelaBut what does this mean? From the Old Testament, we have a statement of the Way of Wisdom at the end of our lesson from Micah: “God has told you, O Mortal, what is good;” –and what is that?—“and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” We could spend a long time unpacking that statement, and we should—we should spend our whole lifetime understanding and living what it is to walk humbly with God, love kindness, and to do justice. You could think of it as the art of living the Christian life and that’s the theology we call the Way of Wisdom.

The Way of Wisdom is exactly the same in a parish or a seminary, or indeed in all the contexts of ministry that we have, whether a soup kitchen, community organizing, outreach to returning veterans or an EFM group gathered from a number of churches. We all share our wisdom and we encourage one another in the Gospel. But among us, some are leaders who particularly focus on encouraging and helping others to grow in the depth of the Christian life. Some become clergy and others have ministries that don’t fit that mold. So at seminary we have a group that is seeking that, to grow into more depth, usually to become leaders in the church. Some are young, some are not; some have a lot of experience in life or in the church, some have less. But to one degree or another they have already embarked on the Way of Wisdom, some more than they know and others less than they think. The conversation and the community broadens and deepens.

The faculty introduces them to voices they have never known existed—from the church of the second, third and fourth centuries, from the Middle Ages and the Reformation, and from more recent times. The community critically reflects on scripture—for instance, how it impacts women in the present and in the past, or how we might sort through the controversies of the present day and how the church has done so in many critical times in the past. Even those philosophical, theological, and theoretical thinkers such as I mentioned earlier are engaged, so those voices are heard and understood, and their insights incorporated into the way of wisdom that is our life together. But none of this is just an academic or scholarly exercise, no matter how exciting that might be for some.

What does it mean to those students when they return to a parish community or another ministry and work to help people in their community deepen their walk with Christ? What does it mean in teaching, or visiting the sick, or organizing ministries, or standing in the pulpit and trying to say something true? This takes reflection, and listening, and acquiring a habit of learning and prayer.

These students, remember, don’t come to the seminary as tabula rasa. Their own wisdom is always an important part of the experience of everyone, faculty, students, staff, and others as learning and growing community. Together we learn to become those words of Micah: what is it to do justice? That takes more than a couple of minutes to answer. What is it to love kindness? What is it to be a community that always seeks to be kinder and more compassionate, especially to those who are troubled or marginalized? And how indeed can we walk humbly with our God, except for one small step at a time, and falling back and retracing those steps. The seminary provides community, so that when one stumbles along the way, there are fellow seekers there to lift one up.

So our goal at seminary is not to produce priests who have pre-made solutions to problems and who are solely focused on fixing things. What we are here to do is to provide wise, resourceful people who know how it feels to struggle to live on the Way of Wisdom and who know how to be companions to others following alongside.

That doesn’t mean we want our students to be impractical or too abstruse to bother with finding solutions to problems. On the Way of Wisdom, sometimes you have to know some skills and whether your skills address the problem at hand, or if you need to find someone with the right set of skills. Sometimes you have to fight back against injustice, while at other times, the solution is to reframe one’s perspective and let go of the issue. And sometimes, we must just be companions to one another in the difficulty of the moment. It takes resilience and wisdom to choose and shape those solutions to the hard questions, and that is where theological education is an invaluable guide.

We need to look only as far as our Gospel lesson today, the Beatitudes, for an example of what I have been talking about. The Beatitudes are Jesus’ blessing on his people on the Way of Wisdom. These blessings in many ways are simple—conveying the love of God for everyone—for example: “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.”

Yet when we reflect on these well-known passages tough questions emerge. Let’s just examine the first Beatitude: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” What does that mean, “the poor in spirit?” People have a lot to say about that, to the point where it can end up meaning not very much at all. The Gospel of Luke says: “Blessed are you who are poor”—so maybe the writer of the Gospel of Matthew is just softening up Jesus’ original revolutionary message. Perhaps, but what does that have to do with how we live our lives? Maybe “poor in spirit” means that I’m blessed if I just feel poor—sort of like the guy who wrote an article for the New York Times a couple of weeks ago, describing how he was furious one year because he got a $3.6 million dollar bonus and he was convinced that he deserved and needed far more than that. Lots of us feel poor like that, though probably not quite in such a dramatic fashion. Do we just use the Gospel to make ourselves feel justified and content?

It is certainly possible to interpret “poor in spirit” as humble. In fact I think that humility is essential to our understanding. But it is also easy to fall into a negative and complacent humility, regarding ourselves as not much good, with little to offer. That’s safe. And passive. And lazy.

Jesus says: “Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.” This does not mean that if you are passive you will go to heaven. In all of Jesus’ teaching, the Kingdom is dynamic, God among his people, transforming and healing. If we try to understand the lesson through its literary form: in the first beatitude the blessing on the poor in spirit is the kingdom of heaven, and in the last beatitude the blessing is also the kingdom of heaven, even though none of the others have the same blessing. There is a parallel between the first and last passage. But the first is “poor in spirit” and the last is “persecuted for righteousness sake,” which is the only one that is repeated and elaborated. Humility is in fact being at the service of God. Recognizing our weakness and sinfulness, nevertheless, when we are poor in spirit we are in God’s service. And that service is courageous witness to the truth in our lives, which is the witness that historically resulted in martyrs in the early church and at other times.

And that is an abbreviated example of the kind of reflection that goes on in theological education. It’s for the students yes, but it’s also so that we can continue to form courageous people to walk humbly, both followed and led by their sisters and brothers in the church, and by the whole world.

The Kingdom of God and the Way of Wisdom describe essentially the same thing: our growing along with one another in the life of God. It is for us all, the art of living our lives in Christ. We all are active participants, but disciplined reflection and knowledge is needed to challenge us to live our life together in the Way to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with our God.