Monday, February 24, 2014

Christian Tonglen

The Seventh Sunday after Epiphany
23 Feb 2014
Padre Christian

Leviticus 19:1-2,9-18
Psalm 119:33-40
1Corinthians 3:10-11,16-23
Matthew 5:38-48

For the better part of 30 years I wasn’t very good at turning the other cheek. As a kid, when Mark Lee tried out his Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle moves on me against my will, I ducked a reptilian heal kick and threw him into a fence breaking his arm. Later in adolescence, on a Boy Scout trip, when John Frye caught me in the temple with a rock and then ran over to check on me, I jumped back up and popped him in the mouth. And the beat went on, I hit a kid with a crow bar in High School who tried to vandalize a nativity scene I was building, and in college I punched a guy in the neck who tried to shake me down for cigarettes.
I grew up believing you met evil for evil, and violence for violence. So when the Twin Towers fell, it was no surprise I volunteered to take an eye for eye (or as the rest of that saying from Exodus goes, a tooth for a tooth, a hand for a hand, a foot for a foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe, and eventually a life for a life). But during that time of blood and sand I came to doubt the wisdom of redemptive violence.
The more I read the Gospels, the more I pondered today’s readings, the more I studied the life of Christ and the saints, I realized there was another wisdom made evident in the life of Christ. I could meet evil with good, violence with nonviolence, hate with love, and help to transform a wounded world. I came to believe I could love my enemies, but in practice I fell woefully short of being perfect in love like my Father in heaven.
My frustration with loving my enemy came from the disconnect between my head and my heart. I know Jesus says to love the guy who stops at the top of the on ramp while trying to merge onto the interstate, but my heart and my horn believe something else. I expected my will to overcome my habit, without any help from practice. It was like thinking I wanted to be a long distance runner, reading Born to Run, and then without any actual training, expecting to finish a marathon the next week.
Loving our enemies is not something we merely assent to; it is something we have to practice. If we want to play the organ like Jim Garvey, we have to spend our a lot of time up in that loft. If we want to practice nonviolence like James Lawson we have to put in the time being assaulted by our friends, so when the time comes for us to be assaulted by our enemies, we can sit at that counter with confidence and courage. And if we want to love our enemies, we have to practice radical compassion.
Almost every week we read about Jesus practicing this kind of radical compassion. The Romans occupied Jesus’ homeland, they taxed his people into poverty, and yet when a Roman Centurion comes to Jesus and asks him to heal his servant, Jesus does not turn him away – he heals the servant of his enemy. Jesus practiced what he preached, he loved his enemies all through his life, and when the Romans drove nails into his hand, Jesus did not curse their names, instead he asked his father to forgive because they did not know what they were doing. Christ met the inhumanity of Empire with courageous human compassion. How can we love like that? How can we nurture our own compassion to allow us to duplicate such feats?
Some of the Christian mystics and Catholic Social workers have developed compassion exercises, but for me, I have found that Buddhists do that kind of training the best. I studied Tonglen while in divinity school. It's a contemplative compassion meditation I first learned from an Episcopal Priest in Nashville, and then practiced regularly with a Buddhist monk in Nepal. My original hope for today was to lead you all through that meditation, but given time and furniture constraints, I think I’ll just give you the basic outline. If you like what you hear, let me know, and perhaps I’ll work the actual meditation into the Sunday School Class Brett and I are doing in lent.
So after some important preparatory meditations Tonglen begins in earnest with you imagining someone you care deeply for, but who you know is in pain.

  • It could be a parent struggling with cancer. A friend dealing with alcoholism. Or a pet battling blindness.
  • And then you imagine the source of their suffering as black smoke, and you imagine drawing that black smoke out of their body as you inhale. You picture that smoke leaving their body and entering your body; in through your nose and down into your chest where your heart awaits.
  • And then you imagine that black smoke being transformed into light by an invincible sun which is your heart, and on the exhale, you to visualize rays of light traveling back out your body and returning to your friend in pain.
  • And then you repeat this process for few minutes of breathing. Black smoke in, a heart of transformation, radiant light back out. The idea is to really feel the weight of your loved one’s suffering, their cancer, their addiction, their tunnel vision, and then to feel it burn away in the heat of your heart, and finally to feel the warmth of sending back to them your health, your strength, and your love in the form of radiant light.
  • At the end of this first exercise you picture your loved one smiling and then let that friend fade from your mind’s eye. This is how we begin to build compassion. We start by loving those who love us.
  • In the next part of the exercise you are asked to picture someone you don’t know very well, but you see quite often. A barista at Starbucks, a neighbor who walks their dog by your house, or someone three pews removed from you on Sunday morning. And you to try to imagine the suffering in their life.
  • Imagine the barista’s exhaustion from working two jobs, imagine the neighbor’s shame in losing his job, imagine your fellow parishioner struggling with depression.
  • And just like before, you visualize these pains as a black smoke circulating in their body.
  • And like you did with your loved one, you imagine breathing in that smoke, transforming that darkness into light in your heart, and then returning to these people loving rays of radiant light.
  • Similarly to the first exercise, you take a few minutes to feel the weight of their suffering during your in breaths, their exhaustion, their shame, and their depression, and then on the out breaths you focus on the warmth of your vitality, your love, and your joy, which you are returning to them.
  • And this second exercise ends by picturing this acquaintance smiling, and then letting them fade away from your mind’s eye. Again the idea here is building up our capacity for compassion by extending our love in wider and wider circles.
  • Almost everyone manages the first exercise, and most people complete the second exercise without much problem, but the third exercise is usually when things become a little tougher. In the third exercise you are asked to picture in your mind’s eye someone you are not very fond of, but who you have a regular interaction with. Perhaps a co-worker who steals your pudding from the community fridge, or a neighbor who burns his trash right on your property line, or maybe a cousin who always ruined the family monopoly game by throwing hotels at you.
  • It is important to note though that the third exercise is not the time to picture your mortal enemy or a political pundit. Trying to bench press a Volkswagen on your first trip to the gym is only going to hurt and frustrate you. Such as it is with compassion training, no one needs to picture Hitler in the third exercise.
  • But, just as before though, you are asked to imagine the pain of this person in your mind’s eye. And because of your familiarity with them, you probably have some inkling as to their suffering. Your co-worker might be dealing with body image struggles. Your neighbor might be in so much debt he can’t afford trash service, and you know your cousin parents were always gone for work and the only way she could get any attention was by acting out.
  • And once again you to try and breath in the black smoke of their pain, their doubt, their fear, and their loneliness. Take it all in through your nose and draw into to your heart, where, like all that other black smoke, it is transformed by love into radiant light once more.
  • And once again you try to return to this person rays of comfort, rays of love, and rays of warm embrace. This is how we build compassion. We take in the suffering of a fallen creation and in return we offer the transformative love that dwells within our hearts. This is how we come to love our enemies, by training our hearts to meet evil with good.
  • And so the exercises continue delving ever deeper down our dislike spectrum. And at some point, usually at some very specific person, our hearts begin to waver. Those brilliant suns of transformative love begin to cool and hardened. And in that cooling we lose the ability to turn darkness into light. At some point you’ll have a tough time returning love and light to an abusive parent, a betraying spouse, or fascist dictator. So here’s what you do, when you start to feel that cooling.
  • You picture within your heart an inner sanctum, and you imagine Jesus Christ taking up residence in that interior space. The image I find most helpful is that of the sacred heart - that flaming organ encircled with thorns and topped with a cross.
  • When you no longer have the ability to transform the darkness into light on your own, you draw that darkness into the sacred heart of God, into that invincible furnace of the Holy Spirit, and you let Christ do the transformative work.1
  • In regard to the closing lines of today’s gospel, this is how we love perfectly like our Father in heaven. We go as far as we can along the path of love and compassion, and when we can’t go any farther we surrender to the Trinity.
  • Grace perfects our imperfect attempts at love. Through Christ we can witness, and even be a part of that kind of perfect, transformative love.
  • We saw it on the cross. But we have also read about it as the daughter of missionaries beheaded by the Imperial Japanese comforted and cared for Japanese POWs in America.2 And we also have seen it in our prison ministries as the father of a murder child helps to baptize his daughter’s killer in a penitentiary chapel.
  • None of these people, from the cross to the font, came to love their enemy on their own and through mere assent of the mind. These folks practiced compassion, and when the time came for them to love beyond their nature, grace perfected their practice.
  • Lent is approaching quickly, and if you’re looking for a little something different to do this year might I suggest a few minutes of Tonglen every day. We really can come to love those folks who stop on the on-ramp. We come to love our enemies by practicing compassion, and it begins so with the darkness, out with light, and let Christ take up residence in our hearts. Thanks be to God for that gift.

1 Traditional Tibetan Buddhist Tonglen does not include the Christ transformations – it's only something I found helpful in my practice.
2 See God’s Samurai – thanks Ann Nelson

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Parking on Grace

The Rev. Robert P. Travis
Epiphany 3rd Sunday Sermon  – 8:00am and 10:30am Church of the Ascension, Knoxville TN
RCL Epiphany 6 Year A 2/16/2014

Scripture Text: Deuteronomy 30:15-20, Psalm 119:1-8, 1 Corinthians 3:1-9, Matthew 5:21-37

Sermon Text:
We have a bit of a parking problem here at Ascension.
So those of you who get here early each week
might not realize it,
but those of you who are like my parents,
who came last week,
and were about 10 minutes late for the 10:30 service
and struggle to get places even on time,
much less early,
know that many Sundays our parking lot fills up,
it’s a good problem to have,
and our vestry and leadership have been working
on the options for a while,
but one thing that I and other staff members do,
to help alleviate the problem,
is park elsewhere on Sunday mornings.
I for one, love to park just across Agnes,
on the Avenue called Grace.
And a while back it struck me as a good thing,
that I park on Grace.

I thought to myself,
I wonder if that will come up
in a sermon,
if I’ll get to preach on parking on Grace,
and sure enough, this week it has, and I will.

Last weekend, as many of you know,
we had diocesan convention,
and the preacher at the closing Eucharist
was the bishop of our companion diocese, South Dakota.
I was inspired by his sermon,
and one image in particular stuck with me this week.

He described what he was doing as midrash,
on the Sermon on the Mount,
and it helped me to understand what Jesus is doing in our Gospel today.
You see,
the bishop told us to imagine,
that as people gathered by the sea of Galilee
to hear Jesus preach
among those thousands of people,
there would have been religious leaders.
Probably standing around in back,
with all their fancy clothes, and cynical looks,
listening to every word Jesus said,
and judging every sentence to see whether
this new teacher was teaching the law of God
as they believed it must be followed.
(I’m glad when we preach up here,
that it’s only our ushers who are standing around in back,
and I hope they’re not judging everything I say that way!)
But most of the people Jesus was teaching,
were just regular folks, trying to live a good life,
trying to get by and make it to the next day.
So the “blessed are those” lines,
the beatitudes, as they are called,
would have been very comforting to the regular people,
but certainly would have given the religious leaders pause, maybe even caused them to murmur,
that Jesus was being too easy on people,
that he did not know the law.

Then Jesus gets to the part of the sermon we hear today,
where he takes on some very practical parts of the law,
and Jesus takes the law so seriously,
that I imagine the religious leaders would have just started shaking their heads, and saying
he just doesn’t get it.
How could anyone possibly follow a law like that?”

Look at some of the things that Jesus says
are necessary to be right with God,
you heard it was said . . . you shall not murder;
and whoever murders shall be liable to judgement.’
But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister
you will be liable to judgement.”
Well, I’m certainly liable to judgement then,
and so is everyone in my family.

You have heard it was said ‘you shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”
Some of you may remember that when President Carter
was interviewed in Playboy,
and asked if he had ever committed adultery,
he quoted this scripture.
I wonder if any man can honestly say that they have never done the same in their heart.

Then there’s the divorce teaching,
a teaching with which a large percentage of our congregation
has struggled and is probably still trying to figure out.
As a married man, I can say, I am terrified of that teaching,
because I know a lot of good people who are divorced
and remarried.
And it’s hard to believe,
that all of them are breaking one of the 10 commandments.

So Jesus is taking the law of the God of Israel,
and rather than make it easier to follow,
he makes it harder.
Now some scholars I have read,
even some I learned from in seminary,
said that Jesus was using hyperbole here,
that he was exaggerating for effect.
And who knows, maybe he was?
Maybe he was joking around with the religious leaders.
We don’t have the benefit of hearing the way he delivered these words.
(Sometimes I really wish YouTube was available in the time of Christ.)
But even the greatest comedians I have listened to,
are funny because what they say is true.
Sometimes comedy is so true that it makes us laugh,
because it pushes the limits of our comfort.

I had a seminary professor like that,
Don Armentrout,
who taught us Church History,
which as you can imagine can be incredibly dry and boring.
But the way he told it,
the story was always interesting,
and sometimes hilarious.
He would make these statements that seemed so outrageous.
And all we could do was laugh at them as if they were jokes.
But as I reflected on his teaching,
and knew him as a person,
I came to realize that every word he taught us,
he believed to be true,
and he just came to accept our laughter
as part of the course.
As a follower of Jesus,
I would prefer to believe that everything he said was true,
even if it makes us uncomfortable,
and so I struggle to teach without belittling,
or writing off in anyway what we have heard from Him,
even though I’ll tell you,
it is tempting to do so.
It is always tempting to belittle the truth,
and make it more comfortable.
And the smarter we are, the easier it is to do that,
to find a way around the rules that are so hard to follow.

But given the truth of what Jesus is saying,
what hope is there?
How can we possibly hope to follow Jesus,
and become right with God,
when the standard of righteousness is so high?
The standard of righteousness is our very hearts,
the thoughts of our hearts and minds.
Can you control your thoughts,
your hearts, and your very attitudes towards others?

The psalm today says
happy are they whose way is blameless,
who walk in the law of the Lord! . . .
who never do any wrong,
but always walk in his ways.”
Have you ever met a person like that?
I wonder who can really be happy by that standard.

Let’s be honest
We can all try, and some of us do better than others,
in some areas of our lives.
But we all fall down, we all sin,
and even if it is not open,
the psalms say “our sin is ever before us.”

What Jesus does, in making the law so hard to achieve,
is leave us no alternative
but to rely on God’s grace.
Look at how Paul puts it,
Paul who understood the law like a good Pharisee,
was and could have been one of the religious leaders
judging Jesus, but learned intimately about his sin.
Even though he helped build up the church of Jesus,
more than almost any other early Christian,
he writes,
So neither the one who plants, nor the one who waters
is anything, but only God who gives the growth.”

And what God helps us do, is learn to love.
The law that Jesus teach, that is impossible
for us to learn without God's grace,
is Love.

Jesus’ law is love,
that’s what Jesus was teaching,
and his whole teaching is based on it.
If you strive to love people, God, creation, life etc.
That is how you can appreciate God’s grace.
If you’re so concerned about being perfect,
so concerned with your own sins,
with following the rules,
just for the sake of the rules themselves,
it becomes self-centered,
and essentially hurts others because
when you focus exclusively on the rules,
you end up ignoring others, other people, and God.
The law of love is always other-centered
and that is how God makes our hearts right.

We have to stop focussing on ourselves,
and rely entirely on God
to save us from our sins,
to make right our very minds,
to teach us each day how to seek Him with all our hearts!

That is the nature of God’s grace,
that in spite of our weakness, and our tendencies towards evil, deception, and even self-deception,
God’s grace is sufficient to save us,
and to make us right with God,
and we cannot do it ourselves.
So that’s why I park on Grace,
literally, and metaphorically.
And I invite you to do the same,
metaphorically of course.

Park on Grace in your own life,
and reflect on the greatness of God’s grace,
that God is the source,
the beginning,
the means and the end,
of a grace-filled life.
And it is only by his grace that we can hope
to choose life and live abundantly.


Monday, February 3, 2014

Coming Face to Face with God

The Rev. Amy Morehous
Feast of the Presentation
Church of the Ascension
February 2, 2014

Let us too stand in the Temple and hold God's Son and embrace him; and that we may deserve leave to withdraw and start on our way towards a better land, let us pray to God, the all-powerful, and to the little Jesus himself, whom we so much want to speak to and hold in our arms. His are glory and power now and always. Amen.
                                              -Origen c. 184-254

Today was once one of the great feast days in the church - it's the Feast of the Presentation. It became commonly known as 'Candlemas' because it was most frequently celebrated by blessing the candles for the coming year, in honor of and thanksgiving for "the light for the revelation to the Gentiles." It is a celebration of the Light of the World coming into the Temple, into the holiest place in all Israel.

One of the first writers to describe this early church feast was a very adventurous nun named Egeria, who took a pilgrimage to the Holy Land early in the church's history. She sent letters back to her sister nuns, and her letter she wrote: "On that day there is a procession, in which all take part ... and all things are done in their order with the greatest joy, just as at Easter. All the priests, and after them the bishop, preach, always taking for their subject that part of the Gospel where Joseph and Mary brought the Lord into the Temple on the fortieth day." So, just as Egeria described in 342, we're casting back to the spirit of the early church, and all the clergy are going to take turns preaching a full sermon today! (Just kidding - we wouldn't do that to you.)

As a faithful Jewish family, Mary and Joseph arrived at the temple to present Jesus for dedication to God, and for Mary's rites of purification after childbirth. According to the ritual laws of the time, this is the first time Mary and Joseph and Jesus would have been able to go to the temple together as a family. They go for blessing and sacrifice and for worship.

If you've had children yourself, when was the first time you went somewhere together as a new family? How did that feel to you? When we first took Katherine anywhere, I was painfully aware of how much more vulnerable this new person was. Anne Lamott says having a child is suddenly realizing that your heart is walking around outside your body. I had no idea how many more things I had to fear until I became a parent.

Mary, Joseph and Jesus bring this tiny, vulnerable human on the six-mile trek from Bethlehem to Jerusalem, to the Temple - the place where the Jewish people believe God is actually present on earth. While they are there, they are found by not one but two extraordinary people - Simeon, and Anna. Remember that Temple complex itself - buildings and markets and courts - was about 35 acres. This is not just like walking into church, and speaking to your neighbor. This is being drawn by the Holy Spirit to a small infant, a small family, in the midst of a small town.

Simeon and Anna are both drawn to Jesus, and they both go to seek him out - they could have resisted, but instead they follow the leading of the Holy Spirit. They leave what they were doing before, and they go to greet this new family. In doing so, they step outside accustomed rules and roles and practices, and do something extraordinary. In doing so, they come face to face with the living and incarnate God.

Anna has spent most of her 84 years as a widow in the temple.  For decades, she has seen people come into the temple, and go. But this child...this child is different. This child is life changing. Something about her encounter with this child makes Anna not only a prophet, but also an evangelist. She "began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem."

And then, Simeon. Simeon, who gives us this beautiful, lyrical song of thanksgiving and praise - the Nunc Dimittis - a canticle that affirms that God keeps promises, affirms that we can rest in peace - for an evening or for a lifetime. The words from Simeon's song close out the service of Compline and have for hundreds of years. It reminds us that God has not forgotten God's people, that God has intervened in history in the wondrous gift of this tiny, vulnerable child. Simeon must have even asked to hold Jesus in his arms. There is something miraculous in holding someone so tiny - it can be almost as if we are looking into the face of the future. In the child he holds, patient, faithful Simeon sees not only possibility, but he sees a promise fulfilled. He holds the light of the world in his arms, and is so moved that he begins to prophesy.

Anna becomes an evangelist. Simeon becomes a prophet. How about you? Have you had an encounter with the living Christ? How did you see him? In the kind act of another faithful person? In worship? In service to someone else?  Where did Christ meet you in surprising and unexpected fashion...and how did you respond? How did your life change? Or has it?

As a people, we like to intellectualize our faith - at least, I know that I do. It's easier to analyze it, to learn about it from a safe distance. There's nothing distant about this Jesus, this tiny, vulnerable human boy. This child is an extraordinary interruption in the ordinary course of events.

It was very easy, as I was writing this sermon, to clutter it up with facts about the Presentation, or Jewish rites of purification, or life in Jerusalem in the time of Jesus. I find those things fascinating. And all those facts that I accumulated on paper or up here in my head do help my understanding of what's happening in this Gospel. But I can tell you every fact in my head and if you add them all up together, they aren't even slightly transformational. They weren't life changing, and I'm here to tell you that when the Incarnate Word breaks into your life, it rearranges your priorities and your vision for the future. It changes your very life, and you are never the same again.

Just as the disciples would do for Jesus, Simeon and Anna leave what they were doing, and become new people in Christ. If that doesn't make us uncomfortable...or even make us a little afraid, then maybe we aren't really paying attention. It's hard enough to be vulnerable and honest with one another. How hard is it to be vulnerable and open to God? To leave space for Christ to work within us, when our hearts and our lives are already crowded full of fear and uncertainty? Are we really willing to give up our illusion of control of our own lives? What if God doesn't come through? What if we are stuck here, trusting and hoping for something or Someone who never comes? In all the stuff that surrounds us today, it's easy to grow cynical, to become too cool and too hip to be hopeful. We put our cynicism on as if it were armor - to distance ourselves from potential pain.

So I am not here to give you facts this morning. I'm here to tell you that God keeps promises. I'm here to tell you that Jesus will show up somewhere in your life if you are looking for Him - and sometimes, even if you aren't. Jesus Christ is working within each of our lives already - even when we cannot see him. That's not magic - that's God's gracious gift of presence. Jesus may appear when you least expect it, and he may not look like what you thought.   Simeon may have expected the arrival of a mighty, conquering warrior. Instead, his life was changed by welcoming a tiny, visiting child, and holding him in his arms.

Today, I want to urge you to be willing to let the extraordinary break into the ordinary. To be willing to stop what you're doing, and to listen for the stirrings of the Holy Spirit, and follow where it might lead you. Don't keep Jesus at a safe distance. As Anna was, as Simeon was, allow yourself to be open to a living encounter with Him. If you want to throw caution to the wind, openly pray for Jesus to work in transformative fashion in your life. I challenge you to pray that, and mean it.  Leave open the possibility that He will work in your life, and have faith that you will be changed, that His light will shine from within your heart into the lives of others who still walk in darkness.  

Jesus works by invitation...not by force. Love does not terrify or compel. Today He is a tiny child, a Light cradled gently in a faithful man's arms.

May we be bold enough to follow the Holy Spirit's leading, and give Christ's holy and transformative light a home in our hearts and space in our lives. May that gift spill out into all the dark places, into a world in need of hope and transformation. And may that holy light illuminate the way home for all who wander.


"Behold then, the candle alight in Simeon's hands. You must light your own candles by enkindling them at his, those lamps which the Lord commanded you to bear in your hands. So come to him and be enlightened that you do not so much bear lamps as become them, shining within yourself and radiating light to your neighbors. May there be a lamp in your heart, in your hand and in your mouth: let the lamp in your heart shine for yourself, the lamp in your hand and mouth shine for your neighbors. The lamp in your heart is a reverence for God inspired by faith; the lamp in your hand is the example of a good life; and the lamp in your mouth are the words of consolation you speak.
Then, when the lamp of this mortal life is extinguished, there will appear for you who had so many lamps shining within you the light of unquenchable life, and it will shine for you at the evening of your life like the brightness of the noonday sun."
                        -Guerric of Igny c.1070-1157
        quoted from Celebrating the Seasons, by Robert Atwell