Search This Blog


Friday, August 28, 2015

About the Eucharist - collection of "Gentle Reign" posts

I have gone back over the posts I've done over the past three years that specifically focus on one aspect of the Eucharist or another. Of course, many more speak of the Eucharist, but these are the ones most specifically about the sacrament. Whenever you see a strange-looking series of alphanumerics in a title, that's my shorthand for the Sunday it appeared. For instance, "B21O" means "the 21st Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B." I hope this makes things easier to search if you're looking for something specific.

You can see all of these posts at once in your browser by clicking the "Labels" link to the right that says, "About Eucharist."

Final thoughts 2—Bread of Life: Sign and foretaste of heaven

Final thoughts 1—Bread of Life: Looking beyond the manna and the man

Bread of Life—To whom shall we go? (B21O)

Bread of Life—Giving thanks, always, for everything (B20O)

Taken, Blessed, Broken, Shared: Being the Bread of Life (B19O)

Bread of Life—Liberation and transformation (B18O)

Bread of Life—The hand of the Lord feeds us

It takes a village to pitch a no-no (or feed 5000. or the world) (B17O)

Intimacy for Mission - my 'homily' for the Solemnity of the Body and Blood of Christ

We proclaim the death of the Lord

Real Presence

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Thy true religion in our hearts increase (B22O)

The internet was abuzz a few months ago about the funeral of Vice President Biden's son Beau. There were lots of critics of the funeral liturgy celebrated because, aside from the celebrity of the deceased, his family, and the invitation-only attendees, it was as liturgically flawed and mawkishly homely as most of the hundreds of funerals I’ve attended over the years. We Catholics have a really, really good funeral liturgy. We just tend to be loath to impose it upon people in toto in their moment of grief. I’m not sure why, since we impose other laws and rites on them, but this just doesn’t seem the time. Or maybe we aren’t really sure about the resurrection, and this is just the time our lack of faith reveals itself. At any rate, let’s just say that the funeral may not have been our finest moment in really public worship. But it was not, by my estimate anyway, in any way worse than what most parishes do all the time. Focused on the accomplishments or personality of the deceased, we very often miss the opportunity to focus on the One who gives life to both the deceased and to us from the beginning of time to the end. It’s just the way we are. A memory of the beloved in hand is worth two anamneses in the theological bush.

But this Sunday's liturgy speaks, perhaps in an oblique way, to this issue. The equation set up in the gospel between true worship and just living brought this controversy to mind. I have encounter in my parish over the years a false dichotomy set up between the law (in contemporary usage, meaning the liturgical law guiding ritual and church law in general) and "real" Christianity, which is somehow loving everybody and doing whatever we want with ritual so that our freedom as Christians isn’t unnecessarily constricted by the pettiness of rubrics. Some see liturgical law as parallel to the pharisaic dietary restrictions being challenged in the gospel story yesterday, as though following the rite of the Church or insisting that participation in the Eucharist is for the baptized were a “mere human precept” that can be swept aside by anyone who wants to for the purpose of not being “exclusionary.” 

It’s certainly true that, built into the very fabric of Christianity, there is a tension between belonging (to an “in” group of those who have accepted the gospel) and mission (to serve and evangelize those not within the group.) The sense of baptismal belonging can easily degenerate into a mentality of “in” and “out”, a ghetto or parochial tunnel vision which segregates the Church from the world. The gospel has us keep reevaluating our vision, though, and helps us to see, when we have the courage to reflect upon it, that membership in the Church is a sacrament of the rest of life. As sacrament, it is a sign, a symbol with the weight of reality, of what our lives outside of the church milieu represent, and even more than that, of what God is doing in the world. God’s work is not restricted by the work of the Church, though to some extent the participation or non-participation of the Church in the enterprise of agape on God’s behalf can either promote or hinder the emergence of the empire of God.

Sunday’s gospel was set up by a passage from the Torah that assured us that observance of the law is wise and intelligent, a sign of our awareness of God’s nearness to us, and we are admonished that we in our careful observance we are not to “add to what I command you nor subtract from it.” Then, the responsorial psalm has us proclaim together the core of the law: “They who do justice will live in the presence of God.” The beginning of the letter of St. James, with characteristic practicality and directness, then said the following:

Be doers of the word and not hearers only, deluding yourselves.

 Religion that is pure and undefiled before God and the Father is this:
 to care for orphans and widows in their affliction 
and to keep oneself unstained by the world.

This great letter, written by the leader of the Jerusalem church and possibly the "brother of the Lord" who knew Jesus and his message personally, proclaims that religion and action are inseparable; that the truth of faith, that is, of God’s saving presence in the heart of the believer, is not simply confessional, internal, or a matter of “belonging,” but is a matter of action, a matter of being like God, and risking one’s own livelihood for the sake of the powerless and afflicted. The gospel, then, goes on to admonish us about the way we want to condemn people who don’t follow our rules, like hungry people who eat without washing their hands:

“Well did Isaiah prophesy about you hypocrites, as it is written:
 This people honors me with their lips, 
but their hearts are far from me;
 in vain do they worship me,
 teaching as doctrines human precepts. 
You disregard God’s commandment but cling to human tradition.”

Jesus is always concerned that conversion precede discipline, that our desire to be “in” be informed by our commitment to God and the work of justice in the world. He does not, it seems to me, subscribe to the false dichotomy between law and love. He rather sees obedience to law as an outward expression of an interior reality, and that reality is the conviction, acted on in every aspect of life, that every other person is a beloved child of God to the very same extent that I am, and that my service of the other is my connection to the life of God. Agape is one. God is agape. As human beings, we keep order and pass on our beliefs about this very God through our rites and laws. But our adherence to them, and our way of passing on the laws, really must be informed by our conviction that others also already live in the all-encompassing sphere of divine favor, and that doing justice to others is underpinning truth of the Torah. And by justice, Torah means “the way God treats people,” or “the way things would be if the world were completely transformed into the reign of God.”

Getting back, then, to the Biden funeral: what does it say about some of us “Catholics” that we cannot do any better than criticize the music or the prayers at the funeral in a family whose public life has been devoted to the plight of widows and orphans and immigrants, whose passion is universal health care, education, and equality? As with the Kennedys, why does our conversation turn to the public “sins” of the man, the weakness, the apparent bad judgment or bad choices, rather than to the extraordinary way in which they used their prodigious talent and influence to do the very things the gospel of Christ urges us to do? Where is the mercy, the non-judgment, the appreciation of gospel life?

Inaction brings its own judgment upon itself, as we know from Matthew 25. Those who think that their religion and its rites alone will count them among the blessed are in for a rude awakening, if we are to believe that apocalyptic parable (Mt. 25: 31-46). Be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deluding yourselves. There is no dichotomy between belonging and mission, between law and love, for those with ears to hear the gospel. Love precedes and informs law; belonging is for mission, which expands the circle of belonging. True religion is living in agape, the love-life of God, which only God makes possible. Those who live in love live in God, even sinners. Even Democrats.

Here’s what we're singing in the parish:

Gathering: Lead Us to the Water (Kendzia)
Psalm 15: Those Who Do Justice (Haas)

Preparation Rite: Change Our Hearts
Communion: Lord, When You Came (Pescador de Hombres)
Recessional: Let Justice Roll Like a River (Haugen)

Religion that is pure and undefiled before God and the Father is this:

to care for orphans and widows in their affliction... (Jas. 1:27)

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Final thoughts 2—Bread of Life: Sign and foretaste of heaven

Rethinking our idea of God, learning God’s ways based upon the Jesus of the gospels and not upon Baal or Zeus or the human emperors whose wealth and power we crave, will necessarily cause us to rethink our idea of what heaven is. It can help us get an idea of how the eucharist is a “foretaste of heaven,” since heaven, we imagine, describes the dwelling of God, or the realm or sphere of divine presence and influence. And I keep coming back to that hymn in Philippians that Paul quotes near the outset of that letter, “Though (Christ) was in the form of God, he did not imagine that equality with God was something to be hoarded. Instead, he emptied himself, and took the form of a slave.” Whatever else we say about God, it must include this central notion of our faith that God empties himself, does not cling to divinity, in order to love and serve. Clearly, already, heaven must be more like the kitchen than the banquet hall; more like the servants’ quarters than the throne room; in the image of the venerable British drama, more like downstairs than upstairs.

The god for whom Jesus was mistaken in the narrative of John 6 and in the other multiplication gospels enters history on a white horse to disrupt it, breaking the laws of physics, casting aside the harsh reality of laboring for daily bread, setting things right by giving everyone a winning lottery ticket and free meal pass. But Jesus had rejected that sort of messianic mission, as the stories of the temptations in the desert suggest. The God of Jesus is not like Pharaoh or Caesar, nor a magician who produces abundance by legerdemain. The true God enters history with all its unfairness, violence, and ungodliness, subverting it from within through solidarity with us, and showing us by example how the greedy and violent dynamics of history can be overcome by agape, the selfless solidarity of other-centeredness.

There is a familiar metaphor for heaven that works for me here. It’s an image in which heaven and hell are exactly alike, with people sitting across from each other at great banquet tables laden with rich food and drink. Angels bring plate after plate of wonderful dishes to the center of these tables. The trouble is, the forks are all three feet long. The people in hell are starving, the food is turning, because they can’t reach from their forks to their mouths to feed themselves. Those in heaven, on the other hand, are laughing and full, because they are feeding each other. They’ve learned the lesson of the kenotic Christ, who came “not to be served, but to serve.” He is the image of the invisible God.

In the letter to the Ephesians we heard during these Bread of Life weeks, St. Paul asks believers to “be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and handed himself over for us.” To “live in love,” we have been shown by Jesus, is to serve the other person, to “enter history on behalf of the poor,” in Nathan Mitchell’s phrase, and not to cling to our correctness or status or imagined “goodness” if it gets in the way of solidarity with the other and putting the other’s needs above our own. Within the community, this means we ought to remove from our lives “all bitterness, fury, anger, shouting, and reviling...along with all malice.” Imitating God means living in agape, which is focused upon the needs of the other at our own expense: “be kind to one another, compassionate, forgiving one another as God has forgiven you in Christ.” To St. Paul, it doesn’t matter who is right and who is wrong, it only matters who does right, and doing right is a matter of imitating God, emptying ourselves into history “as Christ loved us and handed himself over to us.”

Solidarity with others at this level, being-like-God when God is a servant and not a despot, is a dangerous business. The food that strengthened Elijah in the desert came to him because he was in flight from the persecution of Queen Jezebel and her husband, Ahab. Jesus and his disciple Paul both experience capital punishment at the hands of the empire. That having been said, this political nature of eucharistic life and solidarity among us is not a coercive or violent movement, but a movement of people who choose life. It surrenders rights, rather than claims them; this is how God is, not even hoarding the status of divinity, but surrendering divine right and rightness to be God-among-us. I say this as a way of countering any claim that the Eucharist is essentially a “spiritual” exercise: it is, quite to the contrary, a sign of the integrity of humanity, body and soul.

Maybe that’s why we have the Eucharist, finally, as a meal. It is God emptied into bread and wine, but it remains real food for real people, bodies and souls, confronted by and then surrendering to a divine presence that transforms us into someone we could never become on our own: Christ. In Christ, humanity becomes divine. But this is not to say that we rise to some new kind of superiority or splendor: it is to say that we are more and more transformed by agape into servants of the world in the image of the God by whom we were created. The sign and foretaste of heaven brings us ever closer to the dwelling place of God: with the human race. We arrive at the beginning, in Eliot’s phrase, and discover it for the first time. Christ, as he did with Zacchaeus, has come to stay in the house of a sinner. Our house. Heaven, the dwelling-place of God, is with the human race.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Final thoughts 1—Bread of Life: Looking beyond the manna and the man

Buddhists talk of their teaching as a finger
pointing at the moon—we're meant to see
the goal, not the finger.
At the beginning of the ministry of Jesus, recorded in some form in all four gospels, there is a story about the John-baptized Jesus being driven into the wilderness for trial. In the more detailed narratives, the evangelists tell of dialogue between Jesus and Satan, who, in one case, tries to get Jesus to turn rocks into loaves of bread. In these lessons in “how to be a bad messiah,” Satan attempts to make Jesus into the very kind of messiah that people will actually want, will root for: one who can feed them when they get hungry, rule over their rulers, and manipulate God into answering whatever prayer might be on their lips at the time. In every case, Jesus not only rejects the suggestion of the tempter, but, using God’s own word, demonstrates that the kind of actions Satan suggests were never God’s idea in the first place. Satan, foiled in this attempt to divert Jesus from his calling and from his elevated status as God’s beloved, goes away to try again later. “Later,” we are to understand, is the darkness of the cross.

The cluster of sayings and dialogues gathered and redacted into the sixth chapter of John are dense and weighted with references to the feeding of the Hebrews wandering in the desert with manna, “bread from heaven.” What does “bread from heaven” mean? Is it like “pennies from heaven,” a kind of panis ex machina that is like winning the hunger lottery? I think to answer this question, we have to come to terms with what kind of God it is whom we worship. If “heaven” is the abode of God, or the sphere of divine influence, then the kind of God we worship will determine much about what heaven is like. For instance, if we believe in a God in the likeness of a human monarch, then heaven will be somehow like a castle, with royal attendants, rich fixtures, a throne, “golden crowns upon the glassy sea,” and so forth. But what if, as I have often been advocating here and in my music (not my own idea, but gleaned from other readings) that Jesus Christ “is the image of the invisible God,” and that our best glimpse of God, and therefore of heaven, is to consider Christ himself? Might not, in the end, this be something like what Jesus means when he says, in words laden with connotative references to the exodus narrative, “I AM the living bread which has come down from heaven”? In other words, My work is the work of the God of Exodus, the living God, the God of freedom and equality. Abba gives me to the world, as Abba gave the manna in the desert to your ancestors. To be fully alive is to take me inside of you, to take me to your heart, to become who I am. This, too, is the gift of Abba.”

Jesus keeps urging the crowd to “look beyond” Moses, and see that the wonder worker was doing the work of the One who led them out of Egypt. In the same way, he wants the crowd, along with both his disciples and detractors, to see that it is God who feeds them. And how did God accomplish this? Are we to believe that, after a miraculous multiplication of food in front of thousands of people, there would still be incredulity? Well, we are a tough crowd; I suppose it’s (barely) possible. But what kind of God would be revealed in such a miracle, a god who feeds this crowd, today, and another one? Not a hungrier one, for instance, of which there are plenty. Wouldn’t such a miracle reveal a god who breaks all the rules set up at creation for a moment of glory? Being this kind of messiah, wouldn’t Jesus just be doing what Satan had tempted him to do in the desert, when he reprimanded the Divider by saying, “People don’t live on bread alone”? Is it more likely, as some have imagined, that the preaching of Jesus about the empire of God, about an alternative to greed, gain-centered labor, war and competitiveness in the invitation to live in agape, might have moved the crowd to open its burses and pockets, stimulated by the sight of a boy surrendering his five loaves and two fishes, to share their food with one another?

What kind of bread, from what kind of “heaven”, might that be? What God might dwell in a heaven that is other people, that is a spirit of shared life, that is about acknowledged mutual value and equality as children of one family? Wouldn’t that kind of bread feed more than just the belly; yes, the belly, but also the heart and soul? 

The paschal mystery of God demands that kind of bread. It is not bread that changes our life like a winning lottery ticket, but it’s bread that changes our life like spring rain and sunlight, spread over the whole earth so that the earth itself brings forth enough for everyone. It’s bread that changes everyone’s life. The God whom we worship as a community of persons in eternal mutual surrender and service is revealed by a messiah who turns a crowd of hungry seekers into a table of plenty.

In the Buddhist parable, the seeker is warned not to miss the moon’s beauty by concentrating on the finger pointing at the moon. Jesus’s message to the crowds is much the same: it’s not the food that is so important, and it’s not even the one who brings it to the table. What’s important is the God who sends the bread from heaven. Knowing that God, knowing the divine economy of abundance that shines out when we stop coveting and hoarding and praying for a miracle and start opening our picnic baskets and sharing, that might be the important thing. Looking beyond the gift to the giver, sharing the bread from that heaven, we begin, in St. Augustine’s beautiful words, to become what we eat, not through any work of our own, but because the Holy Spirit fills the bread of agape with the very life of God.

Amen, amen, I say to you, you are looking for me not because you saw signs but because you ate the loaves and were filled. (Jn 6:26)

Friday, August 21, 2015

Friday fol-de-rol—Fun with iTunes

Driving home from Lincoln, Nebraska, on Wednesday gave me the opportunity to listen to a good cross-section of my iTunes collection, at least the small part stored on my iPhone. One of the playlists that always makes me smile is one I call "AlphaOne." My parameters for creating it were simple: one song for each letter of the alphabet, and the title had to be just one word, only one song per artist. As I was listening to it, I kept thinking that I had to try to create "AlphaOne—II", but some of the letters will really be tough! This is my playlist...could you make another one without repeating any of these songs, right out of your collection? Or are you just wondering why I have Olivia Newton-John in my iTunes collection at all? :-)

Amie Pure Prairie League
Birdland The Manhattan Transfer
Conquistador Procol Harum
Dandelion The Rolling Stones
Everywhere Fleetwood Mac
Fernando ABBA
Goldfinger Shirley Bassey
Hallelujah Bono
Inside Sting
Jump Van Halen
Kodachrome Paul Simon
Lodi Creedence Clearwater Revival
Maniac Michael Sembello
Nobody Robert Randolph & The Family Band
One Three Dog Night
Peg Steely Dan
Question Moody Blues
Respect Aretha Franklin
Sitting Cat Stevens
Twisted Annie Lennox
Unwell Matchbox Twenty
Vehicle Ides of March
War Edwin Starr
Xanadu Olivia Newton-John
Yesterday The Beatles
Zanzibar Billy Joel

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Bread of Life—To whom shall we go? (B21O)

Finishing up (for now) with the Bread of Life discourse, I thought I'd just say a few more words about real presence, and recall Joshua's words and Peter's statement, "Lord, to whom shall we go?"

I've written a lot about "real presence" before, most thoroughly here. As I was reading about yet another homilist rail against the remnant about the bogus statistic that "only 40% of Catholics believe in the real presence," I was thinking to myself, well, Father, why don't you say a little bit about human experience of how food changes when we gather around it, and about the ability of God, being God, to change things completely? Yes, it's a mystery. But it's not incomprehensible. It's just too much to completely comprehend, ever. 

One example of this came to me as I read Nathaniel Philbrick's engrossing little book called Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War. In this book, Philbrick, the historian of Nantucket Island and its whaling past, gives us a popular historian's view of the settling of Massachusetts by the Pilgrims, their encounters with the indigenous peoples of the area, the first Thanksgiving, and King Philip's War, all of which happened within the span of a single generation or so. The reference to Thanksgiving made me think about human presence and the way we are capable of transforming food. I mean, turkey is just turkey. But in 1621 when a group of sorry settlers already decimated by disease and hunger were befriended by a group of Pokanoket Indians and their chief, Massasoit, the blessing of the autumn feast at the end of their first year in Plymouth made turkeys enter the world of myth. Even though turkeys, indigenous to the New World, had been brought to Europe by the conquistadors and were introduced in England eighty years before the Pilgrims sailed from Holland, it was this singular feast, marked by a hesitant attempt at a cultural exchange, that made the roast turkey a symbol of a nation's thanksgiving.

But it was people, gathered around food, that changed food into something more than just, well, charred bird. I can't even look at a turkey, or smell a turkey cooking, at any time of year, without thinking of Thanksgiving, pilgrims, my mother, my family, and my country. The food was changed by presence; yes, the presence of pilgrims and Indians around food that first Thanksgiving, but also by the remembrance of that event in millions of households for nearly four hundred years. Is the turkey just turkey? Well, yes. Certainly a farmer from Mongolia, a schoolboy from Delhi, or a Masai tribesman from South Africa might only recognize the bird. But to many, including many who have only read about American history, folklore, and mythology, the roast turkey is more than just a bird. In an important sense, to Americans, the "accidents," that is, the sensible parts of the turkey, remain the same, but the "turkey-ness" of the bird, the essence, or what Aristotle would have called its "substance", has been changed, at least in a way that we can generally agree to on some level.

As I said in my previous post, the important thing that faith brings to the table, as it were, is that in the Eucharist, it is not just human persons gathered around the table. It is human persons baptized in the Holy Spirit, who are joined in mystical union as a body with the Lord Jesus as the head of the body, who are gathered. It is God who is gathered with us. If human presence can transform food in the way I tried to outline above and in my previous post, isn't it true that, when God is involved in the gathering and in the food, the food can be seen to have changed completely? It is God who is creator, by whose word the heavens and earth were made in all their parts. "God speaks, and it is done," says Psalm 33, a sentiment strongly echoed in Isaiah 55, when the prophet writes, in God's voice, 

"For just as from the heavens the rain and snow come down
And do not return there till they have watered the earth,
making it fertile and fruitful,
Giving seed to him who sows and bread to him who eats,
So shall my word be that goes forth from my mouth;
It shall not return to me void, but shall do my will,
achieving the end for which I sent it." 

God's word, God's Word, changes food completely, making it, and therefore those who eat it, a new creation. It's not our doing. Only God can do it, only God can invite to the table. "No one can come to me unless the Father beckon."
 The thing is, God invites everyone, and is waiting for us to spread the invitation. Again, that great line of Archbishop Desmond Tutu comes to mind: "We can't do it without God; God won't do it without us."
Finally, a word wrapping up some thoughts from last time. Joshua, in today's first reading, renews the covenant between God and people at Shechem. Again, the covenant with the God of life is renewed in the context of freedom. The new life that the former slave nation was to experience in Israel was a life of freedom, they were called to it by the God YHWH—"I am"—who had given them bread from heaven, manna. Jesus, in the discourse just concluded in chapter 6 of John, recalls that very God when he says to the crowd "I AM the bread of life," "I AM the living bread which came down from heaven." Jesus is the new manna, the bread of life, the bread of freedom, who reveals God as a God who wants freedom for all people. The meaning of this freedom Jesus will further demonstrate at the Last Supper, which is only represented in the fourth gospel by the washing of the feet (about which Jesus says, "as I have done, so you must do"). Further, in his appearance before Pilate, Jesus admits to being a king, but not in a kingdom like those of this world, where hordes of followers would put up a fight to prevent his trial and execution. In the kingdom of life and freedom, swords are sheathed, and life is freely given so that the freedom of others to choose is not thwarted. The bread of life, the bread of freedom, lets us enter into the very life of God, whose inner life is one of self-gift, shared power, and eternal dialogue. This, too, is a great mystery.

"Lord, to whom shall we go? You alone have the words of eternal life." You alone have the words of utter freedom, you promise and make a world of peace, as hard as it seems sometimes to listen to your word. How often I have repeated those words to friends and family members when we get into the discussion about the Church, about how hopeless our leadership can be, how sinful we ourselves are, how nothing ever seems to change, how, some people see it, the world isn't about to turn, in spite of what my song says. Lord, to whom shall we go? We are part of a people, simul justus et peccator, as the old saying goes, both God-like and sinful. We have no dependable access to Christ other than through a community. Revelation requires discernment, discernment requires other people, if you want to be at least fairly sure that the voice you are hearing is not some food that disagreed with you, or a phlegmatic chemical in your brain, or your own wishful thinking. I may want to go it alone, but Christ has made a covenant with us as a people, not as individuals, but as a body. Like Groucho, I may not want to be part of any group that would have me as a member, but here I am, not here because I chose Christ, but because Christ chose me. I have a list of reasons as long as my arm for leaving this crazy church behind, but then I remember that God has a list as long as her arm about why I shouldn't be allowed to stay, and God's arm is much longer than mine. Irascible and still allured by the pretty but empty covenants of death, I have much of which to empty myself as I try to find the road, the truth, and the freedom who is Christ. I hope I never settle for anything less than transcendence, for a sense that what I am involved in and to whomever I am immediately and utterly present has a reality and a truth that goes beyond my ability to entirely grasp it, a meaning and finality that will endure beyond the grave. That is what Christ offers. I've seen it again and again in my life. 

Tomorrow we may ask ourselves again why we do what we do, why we seem to be the dance band on the Titanic, why we work so hard to have it all cut out from under us by a pompous cleric, or a bitter, fearful reactionary, or the carelessness of those who ought to care the most about the liturgy. And again, I'll try to remember those words, thankfully a little closer to the forefront of my assaulted memory: Lord, to whom can we go? You alone have the words of everlasting life.

I do believe, Lord. Help my unbelief.

This is our music for Sunday at St. Anne:

GATHERING:   Look Beyond (Ducote)
RESP. PSALM:   O Taste and See (Haugen)
PREP RITE:   We Come to Your Feast (Joncas)
FRACTION:   Notre Dame (Isele)
COMMUNION:   One In Love (Kendzia)
SENDING FORTH:   We Will Serve the Lord (Cooney)

Monday, August 17, 2015

Taste and See the Goodness of the Lord (reflection on B20O)

“[I]f you believe in God omnipresent, then you must believe everything that comes into your life, person or event, must have something of God in it to be experienced and loved; not hated.”
― Elizabeth Goudge, Green Dolphin Street

Yesterday, August 16, it was my privilege to give the reflection on the readings at my parish, St. Anne in Barrington. This is, more or less, what I had to say to my friends and neighbors at church.

As I was reflecting on the readings for this weekend, I thought it would be interesting to look at the "bread of life" discourse, and what Jesus says about the himself in John 6, through the lens of the psalm we have been singing for four weeks now. Just in those very short verses of Psalm 34, there is a lot to ponder as we "address one another in psalms and hymns and inspired songs, singing and playing to the Lord" in our hearts, as Ephesians said. But before I do that, I'd like to briefly look at some repeated words in those first two readings, and how they suggest a way to think about the word of God today.

Did you notice that both Proverbs and Ephesians start off with exhortations to "forsake foolishness"? What do they mean by that? I suspect we'd have a wide range of meanings for "foolishness." If there were a political debate, say, between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, and each used the word "foolishness," they would probably mean almost universally different things, probably pointing to the other as they said it. But what is foolishness to the writers of today's readings?

It would help if we looked at all of Proverbs 9 today, because there are two women inviting people into their houses. Lady Wisdom's invitation is here, but Lady Folly's invitation doesn't begin for a few more verses. The whole of chapters 1-9 in Wisdom speak of the tug-of-war between wisdom and foolishness. The call to the simple and uncomplicated in today's first reading is an open invitation to experience the bounty of Lady Wisdom's house by obedience to the Torah, acting with justice toward the neighbor. Folly, on the other hand, does what it wants to do, without regard to the law and prophets. The path to each house and the outcomes of living in them are clear. They are the result of choices that we make in life. They are not rewards and punishments. They are consequences of our choices. Good choices, symbolized by the covenant or Torah, are made possible by God's invitation.

The teaching of Jesus is much the same, though Jesus also reveals for us the love behind the law. Jesus preached in Galilee, a Jew in a nation under the rule of the Roman empire. Rome, like every empire before and since, embraced a view of civilization that used military violence and threats to keep a version of peace. As long as people accepted Rome as their master and paid their taxes, they would have a measure of peace and security. And Rome had a god—Caesar—Octavian, later called "Augustus," the "majestic," who also had titles like "son of God," "God" "savior of the world”, LORD, and "prince of peace." Octavian, the adopted son of Julius Caesar, passed these titles on to his adopted son, Tiberius, and so on while the Caesars lasted. (Footnote: the word evangelion, the word we translate as "gospel," was a word used by the regional governors of the empire to commemorate the victorious Octavian's military victories which brought "peace" to the world. They used the word in the plural; the Paul and the NT writers use it in the singular to refer to the gospel of Jesus Christ: that is, his death and resurrection which are the peaceful "victory" over Caesar.)

That was the "gospel" of Rome; but Jesus, and later the church, preached a different way. He knew people knew that things weren't working, that people weren't happy, that they were suspicious and often jealous of each other, that they worked too hard, and were afraid of what terrors the next day might hold for them and their families. Of course, that was then, and this is now, right? Jesus wanted people to remember who they really were: God's chosen people. So we might hear his message as, "How's that Roman empire working out for you? How is that god 'Caesar' working out for you?" And he reminded them, and he reminds us, about who we were before Caesar and the rest of the civilizers showed up: Jew or non-Jew, we are the sons and daughters of a God who wants us to act like a family that takes care of each other. To make this as obvious as possible, he called this God "father, abba"—the head of the household of creation. He called for a world organized not by violence and threats but by justice, equality, and love.

Rome disagreed, and executed him as a disturber of the Pax Romana. But we know the rest of the story. Abba raised him up, the beloved son, the servant, on the third day. And his disciples continued to preach the message of the empire of the Father, a world organized by love and justice. So when the Church called Jesus “Lord,” or "Son of God" or "Prince of Peace," it was as a clear alternative to the "Lord" of Rome. At the heart of this new movement of healing, love, and reconciliation was a meal shared in equality in memory of Jesus. As Jesus had shared his table with everyone, the infant church gathered around a meal to remember Jesus and spread the word of the empire, the kingdom of God.

I want to say that this is what Jesus means by the "bread of life." Do you remember that these gospels began four weeks ago with the multiplication of the loaves and fishes, and that the whole event took place "near the time of passover"? The "bread that came down from heaven" is part of the passover story. Manna, the bread of exodus, the bread of freedom, is the bread that came down from God. Now Jesus says, "I am the bread that came down from heaven. I am the bread of life." We're meant to hear "I AM" as the name of the God of the Exodus, the god of freedom. Wisdom, freedom, joy, equality, and God are life. Whatever is not like this God, whatever belongs to the other god, Caesar, the one who civilizes by threats, violence, and force, that god is death. To choose that god is to choose death, to taste and see death. Just like the two women in Proverbs, there are two calls into two houses. Each comes with consequences. But only one call comes from God.

So when our psalm sings, "Taste and see the goodness of the Lord," we should try to keep in mind which Lord the psalmist is so enthusiastic about. It is the paschal God, the God of passover. We can taste and see that God because God created everything out of God's own goodness, so that everything created shines with the freedom and love that made the universe. This is the God who doesn't even cling to divinity, but pours self out to come among us when we lose our way to show us, in an utterly human body and soul in Jesus of Nazareth, what the real God is like. In Jesus, I AM shows us how to live with compassion and healing, and how the walls we put up between each other with money, power, property and greed are nothing but illusions that will dissipate when we just turn around from one god to the other, when we turn from death to life. So, in the words of our psalm,

When we bless this Lord at all times, the "lowly will hear and be glad."
When we seek this Lord, the paschal God, the god of freedom and love, then this Lord will answer, and deliver us from all our distress.
When we look to this God, the paschal God, our faces will not be ashamed.
When we cry out to this God, the paschal God, then the poor are rescued from distress.

It is this God whom we taste and see in the Eucharist. It is this God who says, in Jesus Christ, I AM. I AM the bread of life. I AM the living manna. And it is into this God, in Jesus Christ, that we are baptized, and whose life we share not through any good we do or any merit of our own, but because of the loving kindness and the call of God. It is this God whose spirit, in baptism, makes us into the body of Christ, to keep proclaiming by our lives the gospel of compassion and service. It is now our vocation to ask one another, to ask the fearful, jealous, unhappy, overworked world, "How's that other empire working out for you?" It's for us show by our lives a different way, not reinforcing "civilized" threats of force and violence, but demonstrating a way of living together based on service, compassion, freedom, invitation. That is the goodness that we can "taste and see" when we encounter this Lord in the body that is this church and in the body that is the eucharist. That is the goodness that we are, that enables us, that inspires, in-spirits us to sing,
I myself am the bread of life.
You and I are the bread of life,
Taken and blessed, broken and shared by Christ
That the world may live.
We begin to taste and see the goodness of the paschal God, of one another, of a world that God is bringing to be, when we live as the daughters and sons of Abba, and come together around the supper table of the Passover lamb.

So at communion today, let us say "amen" to who we are, the beloved children of God, committed to God's empire of peace, justice, and freedom, and "taste and see the goodness of the Lord," both at the table of the Eucharist, and at the table of the world.