“That they all may be one, like us.”, John 17, New Jerusalem Bible
The work of the ecumenical movement of the 60’s and 70’s led to the common lectionary and to this blog.The lectionary is a three year cycle of readings from the Hebrew and Christian scriptures that are read aloud each Sunday in a majority of Christian communities. I receive notices from all over the world because of the lectionary and also the work of Textweek.com and FB. So ecumenism does work.
Frank Cloherty, the Roman Catholic priest in a nearby parish, called my home one day. He wanted to know if I’d be interested in ARC, the Anglican-Roman Catholic dialogue. It was 1976, the same year, I think that we developed the Common Lectionary. I was ecstatic. “Yes!” I replied.
The text for this Sunday was Frank’s seminal text for what it meant to be the Church: the movement into oneness, into the living body of the Christ, where there is only knowing and no separation. And as often is the case, the Church, when it talks about Oneness, is usually faced with its divisions. Indeed, in my growing up years, our separations were paramount. “Why are we unique, what is our special identity, how is the other wrong and we are right.”
One of the great blessings of my youth was my step-dad. My father was killed in WWII. Even now when I think of it, although he was in the US Air Force, the grief due to the death of a parent from violence has no national or racial boundaries. My step-Dad was Roman Catholic. In my teens I teethed on infuriating him with ideas I was bringing home from school. He was a bright and conservative man. I admired him for his devotional life. He went to church on all the Holy Days. He seldom missed Church on Sunday. He had been taught not to enter a Protestant church. When he married my mother who refused to become a Roman Catholic, they had to be married in the rectory rather than in the church. At twelve, when I was confirmed in the Episcopal Church, what joy I felt and respect when Dad came to the church. I saw him look around the building and wondered if he might be anxious that the roof would fall in on him.
Well, Frank became a good friend. He participated with me when my son Christopher was born and was our youngest child’s Godfather. We would hike into the mountains and come down after a long sweaty trek to a six pack of beer we had left in the mountain stream at the base of the trail. We did years of Bible study and sermon preparation time together.
It’s all about oneness. For many of us in the West, it is becoming that unity modeled between Christ and the Divine. In that unity he was able to see beyond all outward divisions to draw out the heart of love in all whom he encountered. And yet the world is so founded upon division, tribalism, right and wrong, us and them.
Jesus and the wisdom masters, such as the Dalai Lama, offer another way: To learn to see with the One eye, to see not only with the mind but through the eye of the heart. To practice love of neighbor where there’s no longer any separation, that we are all in this life together: is the Oneness Jesus is getting at.
As Jesse Jackson famously quoted the old spiritual: “We all came on different ships, but we’re all in the same boat now”, we are a unity of being, now dwelling on One planet and either we love the earth and learn to live in deep peace with all her beings, or we will remain stuck in a spiritual wilderness.
Jesus extends an invitation to live into the Oneness of being. Our competitions are an illusion, built on a mind of us and them, of right and wrong, win and lose. Instead we can chose to live with a different mind; a mind that is connected the fourteen inches to the heart. It is in the heart connected mind, the eye if the heart, where our only desire is the well-being of all creatures. We tend to listen more than define our boundary lines; Seeing in the eyes of the enemy as we are, a child of God and blessed enough to have a friend like Frank to help us along the way.
Easter 5, John: 15.
“I am the vine…you are the branches.”
Grape vines need radical pruning to keep their productivity. The year before last Jean pruned the vines and combined with the wet spring, the Niagara grapes were abundant. Last year there were hardly any. The roots also need care. Weeding and compost build what seems over the years to produce almost indestructible plants.
You can also cross various kinds of grapes. A man named Ephraim Bull in Concord, MA, by chance, cross pollinated a wild grape with his cultivated one and from that came the Concord grape, a favorite of my youth and the base for “Welch’s Grape Juice”. Despite the fact that the company’s president was the head of the John Birch Society, the grapes are still sweet.
There’s probably no more potent deterrent to life in the spirit than a closed mind, a blocked heart and a clenched fist. I suspect the root Jesus was fully connected to was openness to drawing the meaning, the water and nutrients of life from the source or all being. As he drew from that source he was given the power to see and hear and live in God’s presence no matter what.
Jesus is saying that He has been in a process of pruning. Life itself prunes. He was pruned by his connection to what he saw as his calling and mission. In order for the pruning to bear much fruit, the main vine can’t be severed from the root. But when that root and vine are nourished they bear much fruit.
Raimon Pannikar said: “I am one with the source insofar as I act as a source, making everything I have received flow again-just like Jesus.” In her wonderful book, The Wisdom Jesus, Cynthia Bourgeault describes Jesus process of keeping the flow of divine energy open as His radical self-emptying love. Instead of storing up the divine love, he “is throwing it all away.”
The point is that the disciple stays connected to the root not by making an idol of the Christ, but becoming like Him, through a process of letting go, of opening the heart and mind and our clenched hands to be emissaries of divine love. And, like Him, to stay one with the source, the root, enfleshed and alive in the wonder and tragedy of the world. The Christ gives to us Christians that connection. And in a sense, if we look at Jesus without too many of the accoutrements of history and culture, we can see his working in the creation to keep us open to the heart and soul of the divine love and to find ways to act out that love in the particulars of our time.
After all the sweetest grapes came from Mr. Bull’s, accidental cross pollination of wild grapes to his cultivated vines in Concord, MA. Mr. Bull died penniless, but so did Jesus. Money is such a false idol.
But Tomb was Empty: Easter
I like to tell stories about people with Down syndrome, in part because my son Christopher was born with Down syndrome. Down syndrome people sometimes have a way of seeing the world differently than those of us so called normal people. And so it is sometimes helpful for us to approach life and scripture through their eyes. It’s an education.
There’s an old story about a Sunday school class that was learning about the Resurrection. Among the children in the class was David, a boy of about seven who had Down syndrome. The teacher had gathered a number to Legg containers, the egg shaped plastic containers that held nylon stretch leggings for women.
The teacher asked the class, “now children take this container and gather some sign of new life”. The children went outside for it was a nice day in April and not in unpredictable Vermont. The children all returned and revealed their various discoveries and treasures of the signs of new life. One little girl scored a butterfly which she let out and it flew up and into the room and out a window, another a crocus, another a bud from an apple tree, and another a tuft of new spring grass. One boy came back with a stone to symbolize the stone that was rolled away from the empty tomb.
When it came time for David to open his Legg’s container, it was empty. “Oh David some of the children said, didn’t you see something that was the sign of new life?” The other children chimed in. David confused at their response, said, “ but, but the tomb was empty.”
As it happens with some children with Down syndrome, they are also born with a heart defect. David had such a heart and within a few months of the class, he died. At the church David’s coffin lay in state and each of the children came to his funeral and each carefully and reverently set their Legg containers, beautifully decorated, on David’s coffin. All of them were empty.
As with Mary of Magdala, she came that first Easter and the tomb was empty. The only ones to have seen the resurrection were the angels. When Peter and John came they looked. Saw the empty tomb, turned around and left. Mary stayed and begged the gardener “tell me where you have taken him so I can finish dressing and anointing his body for burial.” It was then she heard her name, it was called in a voice that was familiar to her, and she saw Jesus. And that has been the way the faithful have experienced the presence of Jesus since that time. A voice, or a presence, or in what the Celts call the thin places that lightly separate us from the holy, Christ comes.
The tomb was empty, but someone keeps calling my name.
There’s nothing wrong with the doubtful mind. It makes distinctions, protects the ego, questions authority. It’s when I find my heart seizes up and closes down and stops letting the river flow; that I find I get into trouble. Each day,it seems, becomes a challenge to stay awake and open to wonder.
When Eddie Wiggin showed up, none of us knew he was coming. Eddie is the son of a parishioner who was, until the time of his death, a very active and beloved member of the congregation. Their son Eddie was born with Down syndrome and when he first was born he was sheltered, hidden from the congregation, until a former priest of the church said, “Bring him to church.” He learned to serve at the altar, skills that I was impressed he had’nt forgotten.
Eddie was pressed into service. The banner that his parents gave to the church was taken down and he carried it in procession. But he could not see in front of him so he had to be guided by Ed Hammond, an older man also with Down syndrome, into the church. The moment was priceless. The two could not see and so the last of the procession inched forward while the front of the procession had already arrived at the sanctuary. Up the aisle walked the young crucifer and torch bearers in front of the full choir, while Eddie, Ed, Jim Wilson, the associate priest, and I trailed along behind Eddie to the singing of Jesus Christ is Risen today.
It was a holy moment, one that I had not anticipated. I know there were some who were dismayed at the slow pace of our banner bearers. Certainly they had their points. I was terribly spontaneous sometimes and enlisting the inexperienced Ed into the procession was a stretch. And yet his father had recently died in the hospital while I stood beside him with the doctor, an orthodox Jew, as we shut off the life support and we each held a hand while his heartbeat slipped away, his stepmother in the emergency room bed only twenty feet away.
So when Eddie showed up, there was a rightness to have their son carry the banner that was given by them to the church. I walked entranced by the sheer poignancy of the event. The music continued until the two banner carriers reached the front of the church, and we clergy found out places.
We could have gone home. It was enough, another homely incursion of Jesus through the locked doors of our hearts, breaking in to show us that what we do now is filled with the life of those who have gone before and those who will come after.
And yet that day and so many times before and after, Jesus walked with us, slowly almost painfully coming with us up the aisle, walking with the two Eddies, two fragile ones with good souls, leading the clergy,
“So there are times when we are the church and times we are akin to those frightened disciples behind bolted doors. And it is to that church also, to which the risen Christ comes. The risen Christ comes and says “Peace be with you.” And tells them he is sending them out into the world to be his hands and feet, wounded and yet holy instruments of the living God. Then he breathes on them, giving them the Holy Spirit, bestowing on them the power to forgive sins.
Church is a gift from a God who refuses to leave us be. God comes to us. God’s presence makes the church. To the church who has nothing, Christ gives everything: Spirit, Mission, and Forgiveness. Church isn’t my hard work, your earnest effort, our long range planning. Church is a gift, a visitation, an intrusion of the living Christ standing among us.*
*The last paragraph is inspired by Tom Long..