"Do not be afraid; I am the first and the last, and the living one. I was dead, and see, I am alive forever and ever; and I have the keys of Death and of Hades. Now write what you have seen, what is, and what is to take place after this." Rev. 1:17-19.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Baggage at the Narrow Gate

Noonday Eucharist, Chapel of the Apostles, Sewanee

Gen 13:2, 5-18
Ps 15
Mt 7:6, 12-14

The problem with the narrow gate is that we can’t get all of our baggage through. Think of traveling in the airport or in the subway, trying to complete a journey. You’re doing fine until you come to one of those narrow little turnstile-type gates. Perhaps you’re pushing a baby stroller; or you’re laden down by a backpack that covers you like a turtle shell; and you’re pulling a bulging suitcase so heavy that it keeps on tipping over behind you. And you’re trying to get all that stuff through as fast as you can before the bar closes back on you. It’s a real problem.
Think of the brave pioneers heading west to California, wide covered-wagons piled high with beds and dressers and their most treasured possessions. They did fine until the mountains of the Sierra Nevada closed in on them, and the twisting, turning path got narrow, and the rains turned the dust into mud that buried wheels, and the snows covered the trail. The narrow way became hard to find and harder to navigate. The only ones who made it through were the ones who shed all encumbrances by the wayside, quickly, before it was too late.
Think of Lot and Abram on their journey to the land that God has promised them. They’re doing fine until they stumble under the weight of their prosperity. Their baggage bursting with silver and gold, their flocks of animals filled to overflowing, their wealth overwhelms the narrow capacity of their arid land. Going their separate ways, Lot, of course, chooses the wide gate. Who can blame him? As I stood at Green’s View and looked down at the valley yesterday, I thought about poor Lot looking down on the Jordan plain. Like him, I would certainly have chosen the wide expanse of lush farmland, the fertile fields already under cultivation. I would have picked the easy descent into Egypt-like riches over, say, what I saw of the University Farm on the other side, a narrow strip of scraggly land painstakingly reclaimed with sweat and toil from a gravel parking lot.
Now, I’ll admit that Jesus’ warning about gates concerns more than just the bulk of our possessions. I might just be a bit influenced in my reading by our class this summer on money, land, and ecological justice in the bible. But I’m also taking the class on fourth century desert monasticism, and I’m the first to admit that our unwieldy baggage can be made up of other things than gold and silver. Sacks bulging with pride, lust, sloth, gluttony, and all spiritual ills can certainly burden us just as badly on the narrow path to Life in God.
What is clear, is that Jesus is telling us in no uncertain terms that the narrow way is the way to go. It is the only gate that leads to Life, even though it takes us down a path that winds straight through the demanding way of the Sermon on the Mount. Suitcases full of material gain won’t fit in a place where it is the poor, the meek, and the merciful who are blessed. We can’t haul bags full of piety through the shredding blades of the Antitheses. Heavy sacks of judgment will weigh us down. A precious life wrapped in layers of cotton and self-preserving plastic won’t fit through the turnstile.
How do we make it through, then? Like Abram, with eyes lowered in humility, spiritual burdens--and possessions--laid down at God’s feet. We make it through only by putting down our stuff and grasping hold of God’s abundant gifts. We make it through, by emptying our hands so that we can knock at the door, the door where God is waiting to fill our emptied hands with Life.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

God's Table of Love

Almighty and everlasting God, you have given to us your servants grace, by the confession of a true faith, to acknowledge the glory of the eternal Trinity, and in the power of your divine Majesty to worship the Unity: Keep us steadfast in this faith and worship, and bring us at last to see you in your one and eternal glory, O Father; who with the Son and the Holy Spirit live and reign, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Have you ever come into a room alone, only to find everyone else already gathered into private little clumps of friendship, backs to the world? Children, I’ll bet you might have experienced that lonely feeling in the school lunchroom. You stand there awkwardly with your tray and scan the room for a table where you might fit in. Teens, I’ll bet you might have experienced that painful awkwardness in the hallways at school. You come up behind happy classmates clustered by the lockers and stand there with your hands dangling by your sides, trying to find a way to join the closed conversation. Adults, I’ll bet that you might have experienced this kind of discomfort at big, crowded cocktail parties--and yes, even at church.
Long ago, as a newly divorced single mom, new in town and with young children in tow, I found my way to an Episcopal church. While I might have looked as if I fit in, there probably weren’t many parishioners more lost, lonely, and spiritually desolate than I was. With my toddler on one arm, balancing a cup of punch and a flurry of Sunday School coloring pages in the other hand, alternately prodding and luring my whining older children with bribes of doughnuts, I would head over to whatever fellowship opportunity was available after the service. I would peer through the doors of the fellowship hall and survey with wary eyes the groups clustered around the tables. Invariably, I would find happy families and friends huddled together-- laughing, sharing smiles, turned toward each other in closed circles of complicity. There was little room for me and my rowdy bunch to slip smoothly into any group. Almost as a kind of dare, I would plop down at a totally empty table and busy myself with my children, waiting to see if anyone would join us. They never did.
The good news for us today is that God offers the possibility of a different kind of table conversation ... in the doctrine of the Trinity! Take a look at the image of the Trinity on the front of your bulletin. This is a 15th-century icon called The Visitation of Abraham by the Russian Orthodox painter Andrei Rublev. The story behind the icon is the Genesis account of God’s visit to Abraham and Sarah in the desert. One day, Abraham and Sarah welcome three strangers with open arms, bathing their feet and preparing a feast for them, and as the men leave, they promise the aging couple that Sarah will soon give birth to a son.  Interpreting the Old Testament allegorically, ancient Christians saw these three divine messengers as a manifestation of the Trinity.
Notice in this icon that these three figures are wearing gender-neutral robes and hair-styles. They are neither strictly male nor female.  The central figure, who represents Christ, is holding his hand over a golden chalice in blessing, as the other two look on. What is most interesting about this icon is that there is both an openness and a swirling movement to it. Christ is neither looking down nor out at the viewer. Instead, he cocks his head clearly toward the figure to his right. That figure, representing the Father, nods his head across the table to the Holy Spirit on his right, who, in turn, inclines his head back toward Christ. The wings and background objects bend as if caught in a gently turning, circular breeze.
Notice that the figures aren’t huddled around the table in the way that we huddle with our friends in the lunch room, either. Here, there is a clear break in the circle, a clear empty seat at the table, right at the front of the icon, right across from Christ and in front of the chalice. Anyone who looks at this icon automatically becomes the fourth person at the Table and is caught up in the circular fellowship of the other Three. There’s no looking on, waiting to get into the group. This Trinity excludes no one from its conversation. Even if we were all looking at one big copy of this icon at once, we would all have immediately joined the Trinity at the Table.
Today, more than ever, our world needs this open, welcoming, living image of God. Left to our own devices, we can now love and hate from a distance. When I’m waiting for a plane in the airport now, I no longer seek to connect with my fellow travelers. I no longer even look at them. Instead, I poke at my i-phone and check Facebook. And everyone else is doing the same thing. When I want to reach out to my grown children or to parishioners, I can send heartfelt greetings with a quick email or a text—but these greetings don’t open up to you my voice or my person or even the personal loops and squiggles of my unique penmanship. With technology, we can even kill and destroy from a distance now. We can use cruel words on social media that we would never utter in person. A sniper’s bullet or bombs from a computer-driven drone can make human hatred an impersonal and mechanical thing.
Not only do we feel far away from one another, God can seem far away in this kind of a world, as well. God can seem to be a solid, unchanging being that we have boxed up in our imaginations, a far-off Being who seems to watch the world ineffectually “from a distance.” With this kind of a God, we might as well go sit at a table by ourselves, busying ourselves with our human lives and daring God to join us.
The Doctrine of the Trinity that Rublev paints for us reminds us that God is not a changeless, distant object that we can view from afar. The Trinity shows us that God is Love. God is circling movement, constant reaching out for the Other, constant exchange, constant conversation and active relationship.  Love is constant invitation. Love both calls out and answers, “Here I am.” 
 What if the Triune God longs for our company, as much as the needy single mom peaking longingly into our fellowship hall? What is God is as desperate for our friendship as the child longing for an open seat at lunch? Imagine the Trinity sitting at the Table in the Divine Fellowship Hall in the sky, Christ with his hand raised in blessing over a cup of his own blood, whispering a loving “here I am,” to the Father, who whispers, “here I am” to the Spirit, who whispers, “here I am” back to the Son. They wait and wait for us to join them at the Table. They wait for us to take the cup. They wait for us to cry out “here I am” in response. They wait in love so that Love can flow into the distant, empty spaces of our world.
I got an advertisement this week for a new book called The Turquoise Table, by Kristin Schell. It tells the true story of a suburban housewife who got a big picnic table dumped on her front lawn by mistake. Feeling lonely in her world of carpools and malls and evenings spent in front of the computer and the TV set, she decided to keep the table where it was. She painted it bright turquoise and started sitting out there, inviting neighbors and friends to join her around the table. “’When you sit at the Turquoise Table,’” Schell advises, “’make sure all people feel welcome, no matter how young or old, no matter their mother tongue or attire, regardless of race or religion. Invite them to sit awhile.’”[1] She might as well have called her table the “Triple T Trinitarian Turquoise Table.”
Schell said that the turquoise table changed her life, bringing her closer to God and to her fellow human beings. It has even inspired a whole “society of turquoise tables,” as other people have followed her lead across the country. What about us? Instead of daring others to love us, can we invite a stranger to sit awhile at our table? Instead of daring God to join us in our busyness, can we invite God to sit awhile in our hearts? Spend some time in conversation with Rublev’s Trinity this summer. Gaze on the image and sit down at God’s open table. See where the unstoppable movement of God’s love will take you. 

[1] http://www.growchristians.org/2017/06/06/the-turquoise-table-review-excerpt-giveaway/#more-3868