A Different Relationship with Time

A little over a decade ago the novelist Alan Lightman penned a national bestseller entitled: Einstein’s Dreams. The book plays with time. Lightman describes a series of imagined dreams. Einstein’s conscious is hard at work by day on the theory of relativity. But by night his subconscious produces a number of different worlds, imagining how time *could* function. In one scenario time moves more slowly the farther you get from the center of the earth, so the wealthy build palaces on top of the highest mountains and keep the poor in the valleys below. In another dream, there is a spot where time stands still. Lovers and parents clinging to their children make pilgrimage to the place, to hold one another through time. Lightman’s novel debuted at the beginning of our recent cultural obsession with Einstein. But I wonder is there something more to the relative appeal of these stories and of the scientist? Do we long for a different relationship with time?

“You know not the day or the hour.” Jesus tells a simple story about wise and foolish bridesmaids. Some come prepared for the wait, others are left out in the dark. Be like the wise bridesmaids, Jesus exhorts his disciples. Keep awake. Except the story Jesus told wasn’t literally about staying awake. All of the bridesmaids fall asleep in the parable. The bridesmaids who make it into the banquet also slept. Wisdom in not about sleeplessness.

We know about sleeplessness in this country. We know about worry. I worried this week how the news of last week’s shooting in a Texas Church would affect our attendance today. Of course we’ll pray for the victims. And I worry that we still won’t be able to address the problem with guns in this country. I worry a lot, but maybe not more than most these days. Left to my own devices, I can descend into worry.

I want to venture, following our readings, wisdom is about being awake, but not about anxiety. You can’t worry your way to wisdom. Wisdom is a different kind of awake-ness. And Wisdom has something to do with how we relate to time.

Jesus’ choice of descriptor for the bridesmaids: “wise” is an important one. Our reading from the book of Wisdom raises the stakes a bit. Wisdom is Sophia, lady Wisdom. Christians have often read this divine description as a way of speaking about the Holy Spirit, one of the reasons some Christians tend to gender the Spirit feminine. For Christians Wisdom “capital W” and the Spirit “capital S” are one. To be wise is to be awake, to be awake is to be Spiritual. These wise bridesmaids have their finger on something. The oil is parabolic. Oil is a metaphor. The distinction between wisdom and foolishness has something to do with spirituality, something to do with preparation, and something to do with time.

“One who rises early to find Wisdom will have no difficulty, for she will be found sitting at the gate.”

In so many ways, Spirituality is made out as a pursuit. We religious officials prescribe specific postures, practices, and prayers. So often people respond: “I don’t have the time.” But the writer of the Book of Wisdom answers. Wisdom, Spirituality, isn’t just for the professionals. Spirituality is for the busy. The Spirit will find you. She will meet you in your path.

Spirituality is not about accumulating hours of prayer for the sake of appearing holy. It isn’t about adding. Spirituality is about deepening. Often that deepening comes by subtracting. Spirituality is being awake to God’s presence in every moment. Wisdom is found when we are fully awake, fully present. We don’t find God in all those hours we don’t have in a day. God finds us in the moments we do have.

One of the great teachers of mysticism in the Anglican tradition was an English lay woman, Evelyn Underhill. Her books on Mysticism became best sellers in the years spanning the First and Second World Wars. Underhill was a pacifist, an active Anglican lay leader, and most importantly, a mystic. She argued that mysticism, contemplation, the life of prayer, isn’t just for monks and nuns. Spirituality is for practical people. Learning to be awake, learning to truly see, are the outcomes of the Spiritual life. Listen to Underhill describe the work of contemplative prayer as “looking with the eyes of love:”

To “look with the eyes of love” seems a vague and sentimental recommendation: yet the whole art of spiritual communion is summed in it, and exact and important results flow from this exercise…When you look thus, you surrender your I-hood; see things at last as the artist does, for their sake, not for your own…The doors of perception are cleansed, and everything appears as it is. The disfiguring results of hate, rivalry, prejudice, vanish away. Into that silent place to which recollection has brought you, new music, new colour, new light, are poured from the outward world.

Prayer, Contemplation, Spirituality are practical. They are about being awake, truly awake, deeply awake. Wisdom comes in the moment we are consciously in time, when we are able to “look with the eyes of love.” Such gaze takes practice. But the practices of Spirituality are not “busy work.” We don’t pray just to pass the time. Prayerful practice is about cultivating the “loving gaze” to use Underhill’s word. Spirituality is about learning to be more and more deeply awake in the midst of time.

As Underhill hints awake-ness has another dimension, beyond the personal. I want to return to the Gospel and play for a moment with the wise bridesmaids. I want to ask, what is spiritual about their seemingly small decision to bring the extra oil? Why does this small act matter? To dig in, we have to talk for a moment about first century weddings.

The definition of marriage has shifted a great deal in the last two millennia, thank God. But in the time of Jesus, brides were usually purchased. Women were the property of men. Wedding parties were elaborate multi-day festivities, but they began with a negotiation. Before the feast, before the bridegroom processed to the banquet hall, there was bargaining to be done. The price for the bride needed to be set.

Scholars tell us that the parable’s “bridesmaids” were most likely members of the bridegroom’s family. They would have waited outside until the deal was settled to follow their relative into the banquet and greet his new wife. Knowing this background, the wise bridesmaid interaction gets a little deeper. These particular women know their kinsman. They know him well enough to think through the evening’s likely events: “With this guy we might want to have some extra midnight oil. He’s apt to offer too low a price and this negotiation might drag on. Better bring the backup.” (This reading might also explain why the jerk won’t let the other women into the banquet later.)

The wise bridesmaids have not simply prepared ahead, they’ve thought about their context. They’ve contemplated the likely scenario. These women are awake in a specific way to their time. They are conscious of the economic, gender, and power dynamics in their society, and in their own family.

As an aside, if all of this discussion about first century chattel marriage makes your skin crawl, if the idea that a young woman might be bought and purchased by an adult man makes you uncomfortable, you might not want to move to Alabama.

The Alabama State Auditor this week tried to defend Senate Candidate Roy Moore (noted for his zealous opposition to marriage equality for same sex couples). Moore has been accused of sexual assault on a minor. When the alleged events happened, the candidate was in his thirties and the girl was 14. The State Auditor, coming to Moore’s defense, tried to point to the Bible and say, “well Joseph was an adult and Mary, [the mother of Jesus] was a teen.” Speaking just for this church, let me say, “No.” You don’t get to use the Bible to justify abuse of a minor. Religion should never justify abuse. This seems pretty basic. His misuse of the Bible should be condemned from pulpits across Alabama today. It should be.

Our definition of marriage has shifted from the first century. As I said before, thank God. Yet in this parable, even in the midst of his particular time, Jesus seems to be advocating a specific kind of awareness. Jesus was woke. Jesus encouraged his followers to develop cultivated consciousness toward the dynamics of economics, gender, and power. Here in our day, in our city, we would add race, class, immigration status, ability sexual orientation…

Woke-ness is important for Spiritual folks who live in the bounds of time. The Islamic Scholar Omid Safi quoted Dr. Martin Luther King in an article published about this time last year. He reminded his readers that Dr. King once said “Time is morally neutral.” Safi then elaborated:

Time is morally neutral…Things do not get better by themselves. They also do not get worse by themselves. That’s true whether we are talking about a society bending the arc of the moral universe towards the good and the just, or sliding towards an abyss of authoritarianism.

Time marches on, says Safi, and we have to choose whether we are along for the ride or working to change direction. Time does not heal all wounds, not on its own. Time does not always mean progress, just as age does not always equal wisdom. Awake-ness matters if we seek to make change in our time. If we move from a place of ignorance, if we do not listen deeply to the voices of those who are marginalized, we risk bending the wrong way. We risk making life worse for those who suffer.

Fortunately the levers of power are never solely in our hands. Those words are difficult for folks like us here at Holy Communion. I know that many of you, like me, like to be in charge, like to feel in control. In that sense, time is a great reckoner. We can’t manage the flow of time. Time marches on. We can really only control our own attitude and attention, and even in that realm, we’re working with subtle nuance. A spiritual director of mine once shared a parable he heard from a Navajo friend: “White people have all the watches, but Indians have all the time.”

Jesus’ followers encounter the conundrum of time in a particular way. His earliest followers were waiting for an imminent return. Jesus was coming back, soon. But as the days turned to years, the years to centuries, Jesus’ followers have had to ask: “What are we to do with all of this time?”

How can we use our time intentionally? How can we become more attuned to the Spirit as she is living and active? How can we, like Evelyn Underhill, cultivate an inner life that allows us to more fully see the outer world? How do we stay awake to the dynamics of power inviting us to act for justice?

If for you, time seems fleeting, if you find yourself rushed by errands, trying to find oil for your lamp, could Jesus today be inviting you to find a new relationship with time?

All Saints, All Souls: What happens to us when we die?

The Revelation to John is not often listed among the top 10 favorite books of the Bible for Christians who worship in Episcopal churches. Today, All Saints Sunday, is one of the few Sundays the church consents to read a passage from this suspect book in service. We’re suspicious about the “Revelation” I think in part because we are loathe to think of ourselves as “literalists.” Folks who consider themselves “biblical literalists” tend to love the Book of Revelation. Many try to calculate the hours, looking for signs of the end times. I once heard a pastor who had declared based on John’s Revelation, definitively, that Colin Powell was the anti-Christ.

I worry about definitives when it comes to the Bible, especially with prophecy and visions. I would disagree with my brother pastor about Colin Powell’s true identity. But this morning I do want to invite you to spend some time with John’s Revelation. For all of our supposed enlightenment in the Episcopal Church, for our willingness to subject Scripture to the scrutiny of history, I worry that we may be writing some of the hope and blessed assurance out of our faith. This morning I want to hold together the Revelation of John and I want to explore an anxious question:

What happens to us when we die?

I call this an anxious question because Christians have created a lot of anxiety around the inquiry. What happens to us when we die? Do we go to heaven or hell? Do we, as Socrates said, fall into a restful dreamless sleep? Does our consciousness simply cease? Does the answer depend on how we lived our lives?

They tell writers and preachers not to ask a question in your text unless you plan to provide an answer. I am afraid I will break that rule today. I don’t have all of the answers, even with two theology degrees. Death in so many ways continues to be a mystery. Death can be a painful mystery. We pray not painful for those who die, but even a peaceful gentle death is often painful for the loved ones left behind. The feeling is strange when someone you have loved, someone you have leaned on, is no longer there. It feels somehow unsteady.

In a society like ours, a culture that prefers scientific certainty,  question like “what happens to us when we die?” can be hard questions with which to grapple. Likewise, for those of us who bring academic tools like linguistics, sociology, and archeology to scripture, it can be easy to dismiss “revelations” and “prophecies.” But if we dismiss books like Revelation, when we come up against the mystery of death, we don’t have the language, the images, the assurance.

I want to hold on to the image from today’s reading in the Revelation of John. It really is quite striking. A countless multitude stands before God, robed in white, from every language and tribe and people and nation. This image of diversity is also an image of wholeness. John envisions the heavenly banquet as a sign of completeness, of wholeness. All God’s people are there around the throne.

This image of wholeness is also an image of hope. The image stands in contrast to an image that came before. The previous several verses of John’s Revelation have listed the 144,000 people who will be saved. Maybe you’ve heard that number before? Here is the danger with literalism: you have to pick and choose which verses to get literal about. Just after those lists of numbers comes our passage today, and we have a vision of wholeness. If you just read the first half of the Revelation of John chapter 7, you might think heaven had a fixed seating capacity. But then John looks again, and behold, the countless multitude. All God’s people are there. All of them.

That vision of wholeness is a vision worth holding, worth contemplating. John’s revelation stands in contrast with theologies that say: “when we die some of us go to heaven, and some go right to hell.” At Theology on Tap Tuesday, we’ll talk a bit about the development of the doctrine of heaven and hell, the different things Christians have believed over time about death.

Suffice it to say for today, Heaven and Hell are an oversimplification. For most of Christian history the old phrase “may she rest in peace and rise in glory” was a fair summary of Christian theology. The vision of Revelation, and the visions often described by Jesus of a “last day” were seen as eventual, that is to say, they were coming events. Christians believed that those who died were “at rest” until the last day. St. Paul had to reassure the Corinthians that their loved ones were “asleep” in Christ. They would still rise in glory.

Most Christian teaching about life after death involves “two steps,” rest until the last day, and rising like Christ in the general resurrection. Jesus’ conquering of death is seen as ours as well.

What happens on that last day? Isn’t that the day of Judgement? The images of judgement are strong in the Bible. Matthew talks about the sheep and the goats. Revelation has images of gnashing teeth. Again, I find today’s image a compelling contrast, this vision of wholeness, of completeness, every tribe, language, people, and nation, the countless multitude that appears for John. Notice, they are not there to be judged. The crowd has not appeared to wait in line before St. Peter, no, they’re already gathered round the throne, and they’ve come to sing. Their songs ring through the heavens, giving praise to God. They rise in glory.

Christian mystics will often talk about prayer as an early taste of the heavenly banquet. We say that of the Eucharist, the sacramental prayer, we say we get a taste of heavenly food. I find it to be more and more true for me that I can “feel” that taste in a congregation that looks like the crowd in Revelation. When I look around the room and see people from different tribes, languages, nations, colors, genders, and orientations, I get a sense that what we are doing is connected to what God’s eternal work in this world.

Now you might get the impression from all of this that I am a Universalist, that I believe all people are saved. My response to you is a complicated yes. The wild crowd in Revelation today cries out “Salvation belongs to God.” Who is saved is not up to me.

I think the state of your soul still matters. This last day that John describes seems like a really good party, which I find is a useful image for eternity. I believe in free will. I think it is possible that some folk might not enjoy a really good party. I think that the human soul has the capacity to tie itself up in angry, hateful, and frustrated knots. In life some of us get really tied up. Even after some blessed rest, I want to hold out the possibility that some souls might arrive to the heavenly banquet a little grumpy, a little haggard. Some people might sulk in a corner, at least for awhile.

Notice how the passage ends. John was writing to Christians who faced persecution. In the midst of a military empire that conquered and controlled, Christians stood for love, and they suffered. “These are they who have come out of the great ordeal” John hears. And God will wipe away every tear. In death God shields the soul from any future suffering, God grants rest and sustenance, but God’s love is not just a shelter for the eternal future. The countless multitude will receive comfort for the past, whatever the experiences and trials faced in life, in death we will be made whole. I can only speak for me, but that kind of eternal love, I imagine, will eventually turn the hearts of the most knotted soul.

How do you measure the state of a soul?

Today is the Feast of All Saints. Historically we’ve been able to point to some souls that “got it right.” Today we celebrate not just one Saint or another, not just Lucy or Barnabas. We celebrate ALL of them. Now, saints are sort of tricky business for Episcopalians.  We make them more complicated than we need to. We’re not exactly sure what to do with Saints. We have a calendar, well, actually we have about four different calendars of saints, and our governing body, the General Convention sort of left a mess of which one we are supposed to follow. I’m not sure which saints we’re actually counting at the moment.

So we’re a little unsure about the saints officially, but unofficially, we Episcopalians really like saints. In my view, the best Episcopalian understanding of sainthood comes from the author Madeleine L’Engle, an Episcopalian. She used to canonize her own saints. She talked about St. Johann Sebastian Bach and St. Einstein. She talked about the lives she looked to who helped point her to the divine. I like Madeleine’s idea, because her saints seem a little more approachable. We know JS Bach was a great composer and a very human being. We know Einstein was a genius, and he could be a bit of a mess. Think about that hair.

We have a capacity as human beings, to hold up certain examples. We learn to be better human beings by emulation. We learn kindness and gentleness, patience and prayer, when we see these virtues modeled by those we admire. We learn to be generous when we see our parents or grandparents faithfully giving away their time, talent, and money. We learn prayer when our families pray together over meals or before bed. We learn strength when we walk with a friend who is facing cancer and who will still take time to make us laugh. We learn virtues by looking up to others.

These capital “S” Saints which we honor in the church, and the small “s” saints we honor personally or locally, they help point us in the direction of the heavenly banquet. We measure our spiritual health by their example.

I do love that very Episcopalian hymn we sing for All Saints day: “I sing a song of the saints of God.” As an aside, I know the hymn isn’t exactly what you’d call “a fine piece of music.” Many organists I know have complained about the childish tune, and I can be a bit childish about the words. There are several alternatives. My favorite goes like this: “And one was a doctor, and one was a queen, and one was both, if you know what I mean.” But if you continue, you get to the best theology in the hymn. “The saints of God are just folk like me, and I mean to be one too.”

There’s a deep invitation in the hymn, in the feast of All Saints. The invitation is to consider how a life well lived, in love and in service of others, prepares us for life after death. When we ask, “what happens to us when we die?” the Saints point us toward an answer. In death, as in life, we are invited to get lost in wonder, in love, in praise. We are invited by God to ensure that all people know their invitation to the great banquet. And this day we have the faithful assurance, the assurance of the saints, the vision of St. John, that in the end we will feast with God, and God will wipe away every tear.

God’s Economics (part 2): Perspective and Generosity

This week we’re returning to a sermon series on “God’s economics.” Last week we took a pause to bless the animals. Gosh it was nice to have that blessing last week. It’s good to have a little fun in church, especially these days, and to remember that God blesses all creation. In a way, blessing creation is a reflection on God’s economics as well. But this week, we’re back to the formal discussion.

Two weeks ago I preached about two characteristics of God’s economics: abundance and equity. Where we struggle with scarcity, with anxiety that there will never be enough, God provides abundantly. And God invites us to work for more equity, so that regardless of the color of your skin, or the profession of your parents, all might know God’s abundant blessings in this life.

This week, I want to look at two more facets of God’s economics. These two are pretty intimately linked. This morning I want to talk about economic perspective and the practice of generosity.

Perpective

Jesus’ parable from Matthew describes a group of tenants who have lost all perspective. As was true with the parable I spoke about two weeks ago, this is a story that is often interpreted as being about Jewish/Christian relationships. There’s an element of the religious in the story. Jesus means the religious authorities to question their place, and they do after he tells the tale. But again, as I did two weeks ago, I’m going to lay aside the question of Jewish relations today. I want to look at Jesus’ economic message.

After his strange story, Jesus asks his followers, “when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” The tenants who have conspired to steal fruit, killed his messengers, and his son, what will the landowner do to them? Jesus followers respond quickly: He’ll knock out the thieves, the murderers, and he’ll lease the vineyard to someone else.

As I said, this is a story about tenants who have lost all perspective. The story makes no sense on a literal level. How could a group of tenants think they could get away with this scheme? Remember, this is a parable. It’s a story with a message. The message is about perspective. They’ve lost perspective.

One of the best explanations of sin that I know comes from the Confessions of St. Augustine. Augustine talked about sin as dis-ordered love. Sin arises when we get our loves out of order.

I want to argue that the tenants in this story have sinned, they’ve lost perspective, they’ve gotten things out of order. They’ve put their love of wealth above their relationship with the landowner. They have a disordered relationship with wealth, and this disorder drives the drama of the parable.

Now, it’s pretty clear, no matter how you read the parable, the landowner in the story represents God. The stakes just got higher. Remember that first commandment to Moses and the people Israel: “You shall have no other gods before me.” The people have made an idol of wealth, they’ve set wealth up as the ultimate test. There’s an economics to this story.

This week, as we heard more and more about the man who committed acts of domestic terrorism in Las Vegas, I was stunned by one question. I heard the question again and again, from the news, in casual conversation. One question kept coming up: “Why would he commit such terrorism, wasn’t he wealthy?” Wasn’t he wealthy?

Do you hear the implicit assumption in that question? How could you be unhappy if you’re wealthy? Friends, that assumption is just plain wrong. I’ve known some wealthy people who are miserable. We say “Money doesn’t buy happiness.” But do we believe it? Really? Truly? It sure didn’t seem so this week.

Another word on Las Vegas, if you’ll permit me. The killer who took the lives of all those people a week ago tonight raised again the question about gun control in this country. We have a disordered relationship with wealth, and we have a disordered relationship with guns in this country. Former Supreme Court Chief Justice William Burger once remarked that the Second Amendment has been the subject of one of the greatest pieces of fraud, I repeat that word ‘fraud,’ on the American public by special interest groups that I have ever seen in my lifetime.” Strong words from Justice Burger.

I choose that word “disorder” specifically. Our constitution does contain a qualified right to “keep and bear arms.” But before the Bill of Rights, in the Declaration of Independence, our founders spoke about “certain inalienable rights.” Among them were life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Those rights come first. The right to life comes before the right to keep and bear arms. It has to. But we’ve been behaving as if that were not the case. How many people have to die before we’ll have a serious conversation about sensible gun control in this country? We have our priorities out of order. It’s a disorder. And people are dying.

In Jesus story, the tenants resort to violence. Their lack of perspective on wealth drives them to murder. Sin tends to compound. Human beings are not meant to put wealth first. We’re not meant to serve mammon. When we do, when we lose perspective we can end up in strange and awful places.   

Generosity

One of the best ways I know to keep perspective, to let go of the idol of wealth, is to practice generosity. Now there are a couple of problems that occur when a pastor preaches generosity. I want to head one of them off at the pass. I won’t promise you that practicing generosity will be some kind of magic. I won’t ask you to put ten dollars in an envelope and send it to the church, and tell you you’ll receive it back ten fold. Some so-called pastors run pyramid schemes and call them churches. We’re not that kind of church.

I will tell you practicing generosity can change your relationship with money, not magically, but like any spiritual practice. Generosity is inner work. Generosity is soul work. A practice of generosity can help shift your perspective and lower your anxiety.

When I meet with couples for pre-marital counseling, one of the pieces of homework I give them in our sessions is to do a “pie chart budget.” I tell them that money is a factor in the overwhelming majority of divorces. Conversation about money is essential to a healthy marriage. So I ask them to prepare a budget, and to make a visual representation of that budget. I don’t ask for figures, but I do ask to see percentages. I especially ask them to show me, as a part of their homework, what percentage of their money they plan to give away, and what percentage of their money they plan to save. I emphasize this part of the homework: “Talk together about WHY you are saving, for WHAT. And talk about WHERE you want to give your money,” I say. How many of those couples, when they come back with their homework, do you think have giving and savings on their pie chart? (I’d say only about two in ten).

When we get talking about money, we tend to talk about it from the perspective of scarcity. How are we going to have enough to make ends meet? How are we going to pay the rent, the mortgage, pay off the student loans? How can internet service be that expensive? I tell these couples don’t start there.

Too often we treat generosity as a “last fruit.” We give $20 here or there. We say, “I can spare that bit of money.” The Bible asks God’s people to give away their “first fruits.” Have a practice of generosity that auto-debits on the first of the month, just like your rent. Give away a percentage of your income, if you can. Give so that you notice. And do it first, make it a priority.

My grandmother’s generation used to say that before you did anything else, you set aside ten percent for your tithe, and ten percent in savings. Too few of us are saving. I’d encourage you to have a practice of savings, and to talk with your spouse or partner about why you’re saving, for what you are saving. Why are we saving tends to be a pretty hopeful conversation. You talk about education, your dream house, retirement.

But generosity is even more of a perspective shift. Talk about where you want to give this money you are prioritizing. What causes or organizations would you like to support? Where do you want your work to be a blessing? Think about this: if you give away a calculable portion of your income, you can think of your workday a little differently. If you had a long work week, if you put in more than your forty hours, how many of those hours did you work so that you could help feed someone, help wash someone’s clothes, help support a scholarship for a minority student?

Many of you have heard me quote my former rector in Washington, The Rev. Dr. Luis Leon, when talking about money. You’ll probably here me say this again this season: “Money is a powerful tool. If you can give away some of your money, you have power over the tool. If you can’t give away some of your money, it has power over you.” I hope you have a practice of generosity. I hope you value the work that Holy Communion is doing enough that you want to give some of your money here, and I hope you are giving money to more organizations and causes beyond Holy Communion. Generosity helps us to remember that all that we have comes from God. Practicing generosity helps shift our perspective toward money.

You should have received a pledge letter from the church this week in the mail. The theme for this years pledge drive is an oldy, but a goody:

“All things come of Thee, O Lord, and of Thine own have we given Thee.”

Those words come from the book of Chronicles. We say them as we bring up the gifts at church. We raise the collection plates, and the bread and wine, and we remember. All we have comes from God. We give back what belongs to God. We keep perspective by remembering that all way have comes from God. We keep perspective by practicing generosity, giving back so that God’s work may continue in our world.