The Odd Couple

I had a friend in college who changed roommates every term.  Our alma mater, Hendrix College, was on a trimester system back then, so a student theoretically could have three different roommates in the span of an academic year.  Except with my friend, it wasn’t theoretical.  Each trimester he would petition the housing office for a new roommate.  By the end of our sophomore year, he’d had six.  He came to me and lamented, “I can’t figure out why the college keeps giving me such lousy roommates.”  And I responded, as pastorally as I could, “Jim, sooner or later you have to ask the question, ‘Is the problem the roommates?’”

Most people will remember “The Odd Couple,” either from the Neil Simon Broadway play, the 1970s television series starring Jack Klugman and Tony Randall, or the brand new T.V. reboot starring Matthew Perry.  The storyline is the same in all three iterations.  Felix Unger and Oscar Madison are roommates.  Force by circumstance to live together, Felix and Oscar are a mismatched pair.  One is tidy and fastidious, while the other is a free-wheeling, devil-may-care slob.  Nothing about them belongs in close proximity.  They are like oil and water, mayonnaise and peanut butter, matches and gasoline.

Odd Couple

Mismatched and ill-suited pairs came to mind this past week as I studied the biblical passages assigned by the lectionary for today.  Both the Old Testament lesson from Song of Solomon and the Gospel lesson from Mark are a drastic departure from what we’ve been reading for the past month.  Song of Solomon has nothing to do with the history of King David and his successors, and Mark leaves behind the Jesus’ long “bread of life” soliloquy from John.  These readings are disconnected from what’s come before, and they are surely disconnected from one another.  In a survey of the entire bible, I’m not sure you could find a more mismatched coupling.  Oscar and Felix, to be sure.

Let’s look at the Gospel first.  The Pharisees who approach and verbally attack Jesus are scrupulous in their religion, but Jesus responds that their outward observance is not mirrored by their character in the world, or their inner constitution.  The Pharisees emphasize the wrong things, Jesus says.  They observe their religion with one eye on the crowd, to make sure they’re racking up piety points for their prayer, their purity, their fastidiousness in things holy.  All the while, they condemn, disregard, and cast aspersions on others with curled lips and self-righteous tongues.

Mark’s account is about hypocrisy, about putting on religious airs, about outward and visible piety that masks an inward being Jesus calls, in another setting, “a whitewashed tomb.”[i] What’s the Song of Solomon about?

The Song of Solomon is so unlike anything else in Holy Scripture that when quoted unnamed many people find it difficult to believe it’s from the Bible at all.  It is a love poem, earthy and intimate, blushingly sensual in many places, celebrating the knowing (in the biblical sense) of those deeply in love.  I doubt the Pharisees liked it very much!

Today’s reading begins with one of those overblown, gushing passages in the poem: “Look, [my beloved] comes, leaping upon the mountains, bounding over the hills.  My beloved is like a gazelle or a young stag.”  Seriously?  A gazelle?  Who talks like that, except those gushingly, unguardedly, in love?

Gazelle

But the syrup recedes at crucial turning points in the Song of Solomon, and midway through today’s reading is one such point.  At this moment, we sense that the lovers, even before their union, have already braved some harrowing things.  They have walked through darkness—through winter’s cold—and they have come out the other side together.  Listen again to these words:

Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away;

For the winter is past, the rain is over and gone. 

The flowers appear on the earth; the time of singing has come…

Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away.

We sense that their love is not, after all, flighty.  It has already been tested.

This passage is one of the readings the Prayer Book appoints for weddings, and when used there, another couple of verses are added to the end.[ii]  They include these words, “Set me as a seal upon your heart, as a seal upon your arm.”

The meaning is lost on twenty-first century folk.  In a world in which physical intimacy wasn’t nearly as trivialized as it is today, the “seal ring,” which is mentioned here, was a solemn oath a couple would make to each other the morning after their first night together, when they would awaken to the immense risk they had taken by giving themselves to one another, by making themselves so vulnerable.

In other words, in the afterglow of love, any light and flirtatious banter is replaced by an acknowledgement that something transforming, something sacred, has occurred between them.  So that the couple don’t dismiss, disregard, or forget what has passed between them, they seal themselves with an oath upon one another’s heart.

Only with this seal—only with this acknowledged commitment—can the lovers claim the final words from the wedding reading:

For love is as strong as death,

Passion fierce as the grave.

Its flashes are flashes of fire, a raging flame.

Many waters cannot quench love, neither can floods drown it.

If offered for love all the wealth of one’s house,

It would be utterly scorned.

As I’ve prayed on these “Odd Couple” passages from the Song of Solomon and the Gospel of Mark this past week, I’ve come to realize that either the compilers of the lectionary are brilliant, or else the Holy Spirit does, indeed, work in wondrous ways.  Because, in the end, what Mark and the Song of Solomon juxtapose are two diametrically opposed ways of worshiping God.

The first is the Pharisees’ way.  Worship means presenting oneself as holy to the outside world, appearing holy as God is holy.  And as outwards appearances are, so the thinking goes, inward being will follow.  But we know, as Jesus tells us and as we’ve seen even this past week in the increasingly vitriolic social and political rhetoric and in the Ashley Madison lists of our world, that too often outward polish merely hides inner corrosion, even from the Pharisee himself.  A veneer of holiness masks, in Jesus’ words, “evil intentions, slander, pride, and folly” towards the world and the children of God.

The second manner of worship, embodied in the Old Testament reading, is all about adoration.  You see, the reason the love poem that is the Song of Solomon is included in the bible is that it has always been embraced as a metaphor for the love between God and creation, between Christ and the Church.  Read that way, the poem is all about giving oneself over to God vulnerably and in love.  One can’t fall in love in theory.  One cannot—except in a bad reality T.V. show—fall in love only on the surface.  Falling in love is all-in.  Falling in love necessarily means a wholesale transformation in one’s interests, one’s priorities, one’s values, one’s being.  And, most importantly, falling in love leads with the heart, so that one comes to love what his lover loves.  He begins to see the world through her eyes, and so he sees it anew.

adoration

The Pharisees could no more understand this than they could imagine a man landing on the moon.  They see Jesus, who is clearly in love with God in this way, and he mystifies them.  “What’s wrong with him?” they ask themselves, and when they can’t put their finger on it, they make the only petty accusations they can muster: He laughs too much; he doesn’t wash his hands.

Blessedly, those in the throes of love are deaf to such slings and arrows.  They are awash in one another, and they won’t be distracted by the Pharisees’ slur about washing hands.  But make no mistake: Those in love with God are not naïve.  Ours is not a flighty, springtime, puppy love.  It has been tested through the winters of our lives, those times when we know we are not holy; when we know we are not strong; when we know that, but for the unfailing love of God for us, the floods would undoubtedly drown us.

This is how we worship God, not with pious words that have no connection to our hearts, but all in, leading with the heart, waking up and realizing that we now see the world anew as though through God’s eyes, that we are called to love the things, people, the world, as God loves them.

This includes, of course, seeing ourselves in this way, not having to hide our inner lives behind a false veneer of holiness, but seeing ourselves as God our love sees us, the God whose seal of love is unbreakable; whose passion for us is as fierce as the grave; who looks upon us, within us—even us—and says, “Arise, my love, my fair one.  The winter has passed.  The time of singing has come.”

[i] Matthew 23:27.

[ii] Song of Solomon 8:6-7.

I own guns, and I believe in gun control

I own guns.  I am a bird hunter, about which I have blogged in the past, and I own shotguns for that purpose.  I also own a single-action, six-shot revolver loaded with shotshells as protection against poisonous snakes on our small piece of land in the country, where copperheads are as common as mosquitos.  My father taught me to shoot guns responsibly before I was a teenager.  I am teaching my kids to do the same.

Quail hunt, January 2012

I am also, like so many, appalled at the gun violence endemic in our country, violence amplified this past week by the on-air murder of two journalists, Alison Parker and Adam Ward, outside my former hometown of Roanoke, Virginia, and the gas station assassination of a deputy sheriff, Darren Goforth, in my present hometown of Houston, Texas.  These horrific events come on the heels of this summer’s murders at Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, which in turn followed a year of high-profile shootings of unarmed black men and years of school shootings that extend all the way back to the March 1998 Westside Elementary School shooting in Northeast Arkansas, a half hour from the community of my birth.

In a culture increasingly marked by histrionic rhetoric on virtually every topic of concern to the Commonweal, no topic has greater, tangible, numeric impact—and no topic incites greater hysteria—than gun violence and gun control.

Last week New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristoff published a column in which he offered several points of fact (points later verified by the web site Politifact.com). These include that:

  • More Americans die by gun violence every six months than have died in the last 25 years in every terrorist attack and in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq combined.
  • More Americans have died from guns in the United States since 1968 than on all the battlefields of all the wars in American history.
  • American children are 14 times as likely to die from guns as children in other developed countries.

Additionally, in 2013 ABC News provided comparative statistics for gun deaths in the United States versus other developed countries.  Per 100,000 people, Great Britain suffers .25 deaths by gun violence annually.  Australia experiences 1.4 deaths by gun violence.  The United States tops the lists—beating even South Africa—with a staggering 10.2 deaths per 100,000 people.  Houston, we have a problem, and it’s time we acknowledged as much.

Those opposed to any gun control claim that guns, as inanimate objects, don’t kill people.  If one maintains that logic, then neither do automobiles kill people.   And yet, we regulate automobiles so law abiding citizens are able to utilize them safely and not in ways that are likely to maim and kill.  (As the father of a son approaching driving age, I’m particularly thankful for that.)

“And yet, driving is not a constitutional right, whereas gun ownership is,” some will say.  Indeed, in recent Supreme Court decisions District of Columbia vs. Heller and McDonald vs. Chicago, the Court ruled that United States citizens have, under the Second Amendment, just such a right to own handguns in addition to long guns (like shotguns and rifles).  Though I am a priest and certainly not a legal scholar, I was raised by a mother who is an English teacher, and I would argue that in its recent rulings the Supreme Court failed the grammar lesson.  The Second Amendment reads:

“A well-regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.”

The amendment’s first, dependent clause is, in plain reading, integral to the meaning of the whole sentence.  Blogger Mark Moe explains this better than I can:

“No less a constitutional authority than Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall [declares] that ‘it cannot be presumed that any clause in the constitution is intended to be without effect.’  Thus, to call the first clause of the Second Amendment superfluous is to insult both Marshall and the framers. The ‘absolute’ clause construction of the Second amendment was quite common at the time, and appears in many state constitutions and framing documents. The primary purpose in these constructions is to give the conditions under which the rest of the sentence is true or valid. As a prime example of the ablative absolute, the first clause of the Second Amendment may stand grammatically free, but serves semantically to modify or clarify the meaning of the rest of the sentence. The Framers were clearly familiar with the ablative absolute and used it not as rhetorical fluff or flourish, but as a way of clarifying intent, in this case clarifying that the right to bear arms is granted in the context and within the scope of establishing a militia. Nothing more, nothing less.”

Chief Justice John Marshall

Chief Justice John Marshall

Today, our militias consist of professional National Guards, not local Minute Men with a musket above the mantel.  The right to bear arms is predicated (literally, grammatically) on a social institution that no longer exists.  Be that as it may, the Supreme Court has ruled, and no jurisdiction may prohibit absolutely the ownership of handguns or long guns by citizens.  And even if one could, a thoughtful and provocative essay by Jeffrey Goldberg in The Atlantic convinces me that American society is already so awash in guns that any outright prohibition would be impossible even if it were advisable.

I don’t believe it is advisable.  As I said at the outset, I am a gun owner who keeps and uses specific kinds of firearms for the intentions for which they were constructed.  That said, on the topic of gun violence, statistical and anecdotal evidence coincide.  We indeed have a festering societal problem, and as a minister of the Gospel of Jesus, the Prince of Peace, I say we have moral problem.  At least for those who follow the God of Jesus, a God whose vision for the world is that we “beat swords into ploughshares and spears into pruning hooks” (Isaiah 2 :4), the gun violence in our country is a symptom of soul sickness.  Something must be done to stem the tide, and an unfettered access to guns is no better solution than attempting to put out a fire with gasoline.

In its recent rulings, the Supreme Court affirms that gun regulation short of outright ban is permissible.  Specifically, in the majority opinion of District of Columbia vs. Heller, Justice Scalia wrote:

“We also recognize another important limitation on the right to keep and carry arms.  Miller said, as we have explained, that the sorts of weapons protected were those ‘in common use at the time.’ We think that limitation is fairly supported by the historical tradition of prohibiting the carrying of ‘dangerous and unusual weapons.’” 

Justice Scalia adds:

“Nothing in our opinion should be taken to cast doubt on…laws imposing conditions and qualifications on the commercial sale of arms.”

Justice Scalia

Justice Scalia

Engaging in histrionics on either side of this debate is disingenuous and unhelpful.  It is high time, I contend, that we dispassionately ask a basic question, seeking basic answers, and then develop policy and law based upon those answers:

Why do we wish to own guns?  Hunting, sporting, and home and/or personal protection seem to me to be the legitimate answers to the question.  The guns I own are exactly adequate to those uses.  (If I were a deer hunter, I would also own a deer rifle.)  What is unneeded for any of these purposes is an assault rifle, or even a semi-automatic pistol with a high capacity magazine.  Such weapons are designed for the sole and express purpose of incapacitating many people quickly, which is, lamentably in our broken world, the sometime responsibility of law enforcement and the military.  It is virtually never—even in a home invasion situation—a circumstance legitimately faced by private citizens.

Guns

Personally, I favor prohibiting private ownership (not only sales) of assault rifles and other military-grade firearms and at least prohibiting sales of semi-automatic pistols with high capacity magazines.  It seems to me we should take Justice Scalia at his word and call these what they are: “dangerous and unusual weapons.”  I favor a national firearm registry.  (Analogously, I have a constitutional right to vote, but I must register to do so.)  I favor universal background checks and a return to the seven-day waiting period to purchase a handgun.  Taking the long view, over a generation these serious, but not onerous, regulations might well shift both our culture’s perspective on guns and actual gun violence statistics.

Of course, before taking action it would be very helpful to know what, if any, substantive positive effects on gun violence such regulations would have.  I have little interest in feel-good palliatives that do no social good.  Unfortunately, presently Congress will not fund gun violence prevention research at the Centers for Disease Control. The best, first step in approaching this vexing topic rationally—in meeting our moral challenge—is to restore that funding.  With reliable research, people of good will can begin working to prevent events such as those of this past week from becoming daily experience to which we are increasingly numb.

(**The follow-up post discussing gun violence and mental illness is found here.)

Prepaid Postage

In 1848, General Zachery Taylor was fresh from his victories in the Mexican-American War, when the Whig Party set its eyes upon him as a presidential contender.  In an era of frequently rancorous and deadlocked political party conventions, at the Whig convention in Philadelphia, Taylor was joyously and resoundingly elected as the party’s candidate for president.

But the General himself was not present; he was back at home in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, tending to his farm.  Enthusiastic Whig Party leaders immediately dashed off a letter to Taylor, extending the offer and honor of the nomination, and they eagerly awaited Taylor’s acceptance.  And waited; and waited.  A second letter was sent, to which there was also no reply.  Only after a third missive was sent, by which time some Whig Party leaders were rethinking their choice of candidate, did Zachery Taylor finally get the word of his nomination.

Zachary Taylor,  who almost missed his presidential nomination.

Zachary Taylor, who almost missed his presidential nomination.

You see, in the 1840s, virtually all United States postage was paid on receipt.  General Taylor’s letters had arrived at his local post office with postage due, and because of a mix-up, the invitations kept ending up in the dead letter box.  So it was that Zachery Taylor almost missed becoming President of the United States due to a letter that got lost in the mail!

In light of the Taylor incident and others, Postmaster General Cave Johnson introduced to the United States the prepaid postage stamp.  From then on, if a sender wanted to ensure that his correspondent received a letter, package or gift, the sender could pay the postage in advance.  The recipient had to do nothing at all except receive with open arms whatever gifts were sent through the mail, even an invitation to be President of the United States.

It seems so many of the things we receive have, as it were, postage due on receipt.  There is always fine print, always strings attached.  Even the most important, intangible things in life such as acceptance and love are, in our experience, conditional.  If we don’t pay the postman, we are left empty handed.

Early American postage stamp

Early American postage stamp

The grand exception is the grace of God.  Repeatedly in the Gospels, God’s love, incarnate in the person of Jesus Christ, shows up with healing power and accepting embrace without conditions, with no postage due.  This is no less true in our own day.  And unlike the U.S. Mail, God’s grace refuses to settle in the dead letter box.  It arrives newly, day after day after day, as Good News to be received with no strings attached: We are cherished and accepted by the God who creates us in love more than we can ask or imagine.

The invitation we receive from God to be part of the life of grace is a greater gift even than a summons to be President of the United States.  This month, as we begin a new semester of ministry, programming, and fellowship at Christ Church, it is my hope that every Cathedral parishioner will accept God’s gift of grace with open arms and joyous hearts.

Is God here?

The first parish I served as a priest is Holy Apostles, located in suburban Memphis.  When I arrived there, however, Holy Apostles wasn’t located anywhere.  I mean that geographically, not spiritually.  Holy Apostles had been planted in a city neighborhood in the early 1970s, and as the demographics of Memphis shifted over the years, the parish’s fortunes waxed and waned.  Some years before my arrival, Holy Apostles had shrunk precipitously and sold its church building.  For some years they’d rented worship space in a Presbyterian church parish hall.  Eventually, that church, too, was slated to close, and Holy Apostles once again became a shrinking band of wandering nomads.  The low point may have been the day the Mission Council formally interviewed me to be their new vicar at a Perkins Restaurant on Old Shelby Drive in the middle of Memphis, amidst waiters busing scrambled eggs and French toast.

Once I’d arrived as the sheepskin-holding, seminary-trained, newly-minted cleric, our first order of shared business was to find a new house of worship.  I finalized negotiations with the headmaster of the brand new St. George’s High School at the edge of the suburbs for us to move into their chapel, which we did.  Between the chapel’s front door and the road was a large, flat field.  At this point, Holy Apostles’ worshipping congregation was something like forty people.  Eventually, we grew by leaps and bounds, but those first few months I would stand before church at that front door and gaze longingly across the field, toward the road.  Cars would drive into my line of sight, and I would pray, “Please, sweet Jesus, make them turn onto our driveway.  Please nudge them to come to church.”  And I always fretted that no one would come.

“Please, sweet Jesus, make them turn onto our driveway.

“Please, sweet Jesus, make them turn onto our driveway.” Agape Chapel at St. George’s School, where Holy Apostles found a new worship home.

Some part of me still stands on that front stoop today, more than a dozen years later.  Every Sunday morning my heart reaches out to my savior and my Lord and begs, “Please, sweet Jesus, please nudge them to come to church today.”  Every priest is that way, I think, which is why we loathe the doldrums of late summer and so look forward to Rally Day.  You came to church today!  Thank you, and thank you, Jesus.  (**Sigh**)

Roughly ten thousand years ago, some unnamed nomadic hunter-gatherer picked some wild wheat from a field and, after chewing on it a while and gazing across that field, had the epiphany that he might be able to plant roots right there, to cultivate that wheat year after year, to give up his traveling tent and instead make a home.  He did, and others did, and almost as soon as there were settled communities, there were also places of worship.  I visited two of the very oldest this summer, in Malta and Ireland, each dating back more than five thousand years.  Those early settled people painted ornate, infinite loops on the ceilings and walls of their proto-churches.  They oriented them to catch the sunlight at dawn on the winter solstice.  They did everything they could to entice not one another, but God to show up.  I can imagine the wheat-chewing fellow standing at the front stoop of his village temple, nervous about the spring planting, needing God’s favor and grace, and praying, “Please, God, please turn in here.  Please show up today.”

The ancient Tarxien Temples in Malta

The ancient Tarxien Temples in Malta

The history of the Israelites follows that pattern almost exactly: Forty years of nomadic wandering in the wilderness, followed by a barely settled era in the Holy Land, until King David finally stabilizes the realm.  But even then, there is no temple.  It isn’t until David is dead and gone and Solomon is on the throne that the Israelites build a permanent house of God.  It is the dedication of that temple about which we read in the Old Testament today.  Most of the description is mystifying to us.  You sort of had to be there, I think.  Lots of incense, smoke, liturgical parades, and more priests than you’d find at a cocktail party with free food.  Right in the middle of the ceremony, King Solomon gives the keynote address, and it’s very kingly.  He speaks in confident, lofty terms about this house he has built for God, the doors of which have been opened, with the ark of the covenant safely stored in the holy of holies.  But then something odd happens.  There is no break in the dialogue, but Solomon seems to turn aside.  He leaves his prepared text.  And almost to himself (under his breath, maybe?) he asks, “But will God indeed dwell on the earth?  Even heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain God, much less this house that I have built.  Hear my prayer and my plea, dear God, that your eyes may be open towards this house.”

Solomon dedicating the temple

“King Solomon praying before the Temple,” Giuseppe Bonito, c. 1750

Behind all the bombast, Solomon the Wise is shaky and uncertain.  Perhaps it is in his uncertainty that his wisdom lies.  He stands there, needing God’s favor and grace, and praying, “Please God, please turn in here.  Please show up today.”

This oscillation between confidence and unease will mark the history of Israel’s relationship with their God from this point forward.  The question perennially will be asked, often in the midst of religious celebration, pageantry, and fanfare, “Is God in the temple?”

So here we are on Rally Day, this day on which I am so glad we are all here.  We showed up!  But Solomon was far wiser than I am, and his uncertainty begs for me—for us—the question:  Does our presence—our showing up—mean that God is here, too?  If you’ll permit me a brief moment of pride, I daresay our expression of liturgy and music could give Solomon’s temple a run for its money.  Think of the worship aesthetics of a high holy day here at Christ Church, from morning Eucharist to Evensong.  There is visual beauty; there is sublime music; there is (I hope) sophisticated and faithful preaching.  Or, consider the Rally Day celebration and fellowship that will occur between today’s morning services.  There will be joy among us, and that will serve as an anticipatory prelude to an entire semester of learning, formation, and shared experience for every age.  Or, lean on our prayers, our doctrine, our formularies.  We say the creed each week.  We read the Gospel.  We confess our sins.

Does this do it?  Do all these things ensure for us that, as the Spirit of God moves down Texas Avenue of a morning, she’ll turn in here?  In this temple, this house of the Lord, this cathedral, is God here?  How can we know?

“Do not trust in these deceptive words: ‘This is the temple of the LORD, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord.’”

Solomon dies without an answer to the question, but three hundred years later, a voice thundered through the temple from the lips of arguably God’s greatest prophet, Jeremiah.  Jeremiah’s words reached back across history to connect directly to the wise king’s question, “But will God indeed dwell in this place?”  And through the mouthpiece of the prophet, God himself—God himself—says, “Hear the word of the Lord, all you who enter these gates to worship the Lord. Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, ‘Do not trust in these deceptive words: “This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord.” For [only] if you truly act justly one with another, if you do not oppress the alien, the orphan, and the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not go after other gods to your own hurt, then I will dwell with you in this place…forever and ever.’”[i]

For those of us for whom our worship is primary—certainly for the guy who preaches for a living—God’s answer is startling.  All that we do here, this beautiful and moving worship, this formation and fellowship, is derivative.  It is rightly the response to something else, and that something else is discipleship.  For what other word is there for the life’s path that puts God first and sets aside all other idols, that seeks first the justice of God; the healing of the sick; the feeding of the hungry; the hard work and exhausting effort to find the lost and bring them home, to God’s home, to this place where only then, when we have done these things, will God himself dwell within.  That is, after all, what it means in the Gospel today when Jesus says we must eat of his body and drink of his blood for him to dwell within us.  Yes, we consume the break and the wine in the Eucharist, but even that most holy act is a response to our eating and drinking of the Way of Jesus in our lives.  The Eucharist is the sup of discipleship, the nourishment for those who are all in for the justice and grace of God.

As we begin this new semester, as we come together in our beauty and our joy, it is crucial that we, like wise Solomon, pause.  It is crucial that we, like the disciples, admit that this teaching is difficult.

The Beacon

And yet, here, blessedly and by the grace of God, after the question has been asked we can unfurrow our brows and renew our joy, because I have never known a place so committed to the justice of God as Christ Church Cathedral.  As we rally this day, let’s remember that The Beacon, and Compass, and New Hope Housing are our foundation to the east, and that the Hines Center for Spirituality and Prayer will soon be our foundation to the west, feeding gnawing hunger both physical and spiritual.  Recall the work of the Mission Outreach and Justice & Peace Councils, and Canon Logan’s Johnny’s Walkers, and the work of Kid’s Hope and the At Risk Youth program in our schools.

This is the temple of the Lord, the grand Cathedral of this great city, where beauty and majesty are our loving response to the God who is the center of our lives, whose justice in this world is the true north of our being.  The Spirit of God is here.  Jesus the Christ does abide in us and we in him, in worship, in song, and in discipleship into the world.

Rally Day 2014 2

[i] Jeremiah 7.

Hanging between heaven and earth

He was left there hanging between heaven and earth.  What a line in the Old Testament reading today!  Holy Scripture can turn one heck of a phrase and tell one heck of a story.  As both Canon Razim and Canon Callaham pointed out in their very good sermons last week, this summer the lectionary is taking us through the long and conflicted reign of Israel’s King David.  David is one of Scripture’s most complex characters.  Of David, the poet Robert Pinsky says, “He is wily like Odysseus and an impetuous daredevil like the Scarlet Pimpernel.  Like Hamlet, he pretends to be crazy.  Like Joan of Arc, he comes from nowhere, ardent and innocent, to infuriate the conventional elders…Like Robin Hood, he gathers a band of outcasts and outlaws.  Like Lear, he is overthrown and betrayed by his offspring.”[i]

“He is wily like Odysseus and an impetuous daredevil like the Scarlet Pimpernel.

“He is wily like Odysseus and an impetuous daredevil like the Scarlet Pimpernel.”

It is that last bit to which today’s reading from 2nd Samuel pertains.  Most people both inside and outside the Church call tell you the details of the story of David and Goliath.  Many also remember David’s murderous desire for Bathsheba.  But the biblical rebellion of Prince Absalom against his father King David is, these days, obscure.  It’s an epic story worthy of a Hollywood action movie, so let’s see if we can remedy that obscurity.

Absalom is David’s charmed third born son.  We’re told he is exceedingly handsome.  (2nd Samuel actually spends several verses talking about Absalom’s beautiful hair.)  He is talented.  And he is good.  Absalom is one that some might want to hate due to pettiness or jealousy, but he is able to win over all skeptics, not because he is slick, but because his graces are genuine.  Absalom doesn’t put on airs.  He shows legitimate concern for those in need.  In a world of potentates and peasants, he is a different kind of prince.

Ironically, Absalom’s private life is a mirror image of the public adulation he receives.  Absalom’s beloved sister is assaulted by their shared half-brother, and King David refuses Absalom’s request for justice.  As a result, Absalom feels slighted and disregarded by the one whose approval he most desires.

And eventually, whether due to the public praise, the private disregard, or some combination of both, the lens through which Absalom views the world shifts.  On the one hand, he begins to believe that the rules which apply to other people don’t necessarily apply to him.  He believes he is justified no matter what he does, that he is entitled to the adulation he has received and more.  On the other hand, he develops a deep resentment for and suspicion of those who have slighted him.  Ultimately, Absalom begins to believe that he can rule Israel better than his father, that he, in fact, deserves to rule.

Maybe Absalom had a grand plan to usurp the throne all along.  Maybe he was calculated and conniving from the beginning.  But I don’t think so.  I believe that with each small step down his new and darkened path, Absalom uncritically fed his resentment, fed his suspicions, fed his sense of entitlement until he slowly, really, failed to recognize right from wrong.  He almost casually allowed himself to rationalize each next action so that it seemed to be in the service of the good, until he finally took up arms against his father the king.  And today, Absalom reaps what he has sown.  He finds himself and his army defeated at the Battle of Ephraim Wood.

“He was left there hanging, between heaven and earth.”

“He was left there hanging, between heaven and earth.”

Here’s the scene as we read it this morning: His forces scattered, Prince Absalom escapes on a mule.  Mules being unruly creatures, Absalom’s runs under the thick, low hanging branches of an oak tree.  The Prince gets clotheslined and caught by the neck in the notch of a branch, and his mule keeps running out from under him.  Can you visualize it?  The whole scene intends to be ludicrous.  Prince Absalom the beautiful, the brave, the good—always together, clear-eyed, and stalwart—now flails ridiculously from a tree as even the donkey flees from him.  And the narrator says, “He was left there hanging, between heaven and earth.”  He is dangling and exposed, and within minutes the horde descends upon him and rips him apart.

He was left there hanging, between heaven and earth.  The line, of course, is more than a visual depiction of the scene.  It describes what Absalom’s life had become in the months and years leading up to his rebellion, as he had fed his skewed view of reality and taken small step after small step away from the good into the darkness.

Who could claim that the Bible has no relevance today?  We know this story.  We see it on the news every day.  Maybe we experience it in our own lives, though hopefully without such dire consequences.  The politician, the businessperson, the pastor, the teacher, or the spouse rationalizes some small decision as acceptable or justified.  “I deserve this something extra,” one might say, or “He took advantage of me, so he deserves what’s coming to him,” or “No one will notice if I just…”  That one small decision leads to another, and to another.  It’s rarely one large bad choice that leads to the clotheslining.  Rather, it’s feeding on small bites of cynicism, or resentment, or entitlement; it’s a series of small steps in to the darkness.  As 2nd Samuel says today, “The forest claimed more victims than the sword.”  It is death by paper cuts, until eventually one finds himself hanging between heaven and earth, confused about right and wrong because they have been intermingled for so long.

“The politician, the businessperson, the pastor, the teacher, or the spouse rationalizes some small decision as acceptable or justified. ‘I deserve this something extra,’ he might say, or ‘He took advantage of me, so he deserves what’s coming to him,’ or ‘No one will notice if I just…’”

In these days in which privacy has all but ceased to exist, scarcely a day goes by—including this past week—without some public figure being, like Absalom, exposed for those decisions, for going down that road, and the horde surely descends to pick that person apart.  We do so, I suspect, because it deflects our attention from the ways we rationalize the undeserved liberties we, ourselves, sometimes take.

What to do?  Is it enough to take Absalom as a cautionary tale?  No.  We must with steely eyes name the justifications we sometimes make and quit feeding ourselves those untrue narratives.  We must cease using our blessings or bad experiences to rationalize ways of being in the world that lack charity and grace.  We must not pretend, and then believe, that our experiences in this world give us license to follow a false path and call it good.  Paul says as much in Ephesians today.  “Put away all that is false,” Paul says,  “Put away all bitterness and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice…[Say and do] only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear.  Be imitators of God, and live in love, as Christ loved us.”  We know Paul is right.  We know that love, and charity, and the acknowledgement that every good we have is grace are the food that nourishes and strengthens, and keeps us on the path of the good, even after we encounter the dizzying heights and harrowing lows of life.

“I am the bread life.”

And so, at the end we come round to the Gospel.  Three weeks into Jesus’ “bread of life” speech, we may be wearying of the metaphor.  But it’s never been more important than today.  In our lives, we must pause and ask from where we get our life, our nourishment, and our strength.

There is that old Native American story in which a grandfather imparts wisdom to his grandson.  The grandfather says, “Child, within me there are two wolves, and they are at war with one another.  One wolf is resentment, justification, self-deception, and falsehood.  The other wolf is hope, and gratitude, and joy, and grace.”

The grandson thinks for a moment and then asks his grandfather, “Which wolf wins?”  To which the grandfather responds simply, “The one I feed.”[ii]

We are all, sooner or later, just hanging there between heaven and earth.  Jesus says, “I am the living bread that comes down from heaven.  Whoever eats of this bread will live, and live forever.”

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[i] Pinsky, Robert.  The Life of David, 4-5.

[ii] This story was given to me by Carolyn H’Doubler.