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Wednesday, October 22, 2014

The second is like it (A30O)

This love-your-enemies business is not easy at all. Especially in the last weeks of a political campaign, even in this midterm year. It's so easy to get caught up in the spin, the mud, the lies, the name-calling, and somehow feel that we're all doing what we're doing in the name of justice and righteousness. But it's not. It has nothing to do with God, and the best of the candidates aren't really good, just opportunistic compromisers. Even when I manage to hold my tongue, I'm still taking sides, wondering how certain candidates can be such a**holes, why the good guys aren't better, or why they do such terrible things and think of them as good. And on top of all that, why the church isn't more proactive with love and acceptance and intervention on behalf of the sick and poor, especially when we are the proprietors of universities and hospitals with the personnel and means to act decisively. Church doctors. Church lawyers. Church bankers. Church senators, judges, and congresspeople. And nothing but contention. I find myself in the ironic, you might say parabolic, position of complaining about the church and, yes, being the church. I have what I can only describe as self-righteous indignation to blame. I am a big fat pot calling the kettle black. Which brings us to our readings and the liturgy being prepared for this Sunday.

In another confrontation with the Jewish leadership, Jesus is asked about the greatest commandment. The Pharisee and scholar who asks him is a member of the populist sect of community leaders that grew out of the separatist (hence their name, from the Hebrew "set apart") movements reacting to Hellenistic rule of the Hasmoneans and later of the Romans. They interpreted the law generously, unlike the Sadduccees, though they insisted that obedience to the Torah was necessary for every Jew. So Jesus tells him, straight out of the Torah: love the Lord your God with your whole heart, soul, and mind. That’s from Deuteronomy. And Jesus goes on: the second commandment is like it: love your neighbor as yourself. That’s Leviticus. On these two, Jesus tell him, hangs the entire law, and the prophets as well. The implication being, as you and I both know!

This is one of those passages that makes you go, Just what is the word of the Lord? Different manuscripts and the Dead Sea Scrolls have varying words in the list of ways to love God; “mind,” for instance, is not in every manuscript, so one scholar asks, How did it get in there? The word translated as “strength” in many versions also means “money” or “wealth” or “much-ness.” How much easier would the kind of love meant in the Torah be to preach on if it said, “Love God with your whole heart, mind, soul, and money, and love your neighbor as yourself”? No escape from that one, it seems to me. But as long as we can keep the discussion in the realm of the spiritual and non-specific (“strength”) rather than the concrete (“money”), we can hedge our bets, and fatten our insurance policies.

Love is hard. I think about this every time I attend a wedding and hear 1 Corinthians 13, and think to myself, “God is love,” and that I ought to be too. For years I've thought that would be good song fodder, to use “God is love” and some exhortation to be like God in the refrain, and use 1 Cor 13 in the verses. “Love is patient. Love is kind. Love doesn’t rejoice over misfortune,” etc. etc. I finally got around to trying that a couple of years ago, and it appeared in a compilation collection at GIA in 2012, and will be in our new collection one of these days, if we ever finish recording it. Ultimately, love is about actually believing, and acting on the belief, that the other person’s good is equally important to your own (love as yourself), and therefore putting aside self-preservation instincts in favor of other-preservation, life-giving. It’s not about being right, or surviving to fight another day, or anything like that. It’s just about life-giving.

As though to drive this point home, the first reading, also from the Pentateuch in case there are any Pharisees (that means us) still listening in our assembly, is the reminder to Israel (and that means us) that we’re not to mistreat people outside of our clan, family, or in-group in a way different from the way we would want to be treated. And why? “Because you were once aliens yourselves.” The key is to remember who we are, where we’ve come from. Love is not a feeling, it’s not a philosophy, it’s not a theology. It’s a way of acting, and it’s a way of acting toward those who cannot or will not return the favor. Love is God, and that’s the way we’re supposed to act. It’s the fullness of life, what we’re called to be, it makes us as good as we can be as beings, because it is the way God is. That’s what Jesus came to show us. He did it leading a fairly quiet life in a little corner of the world as a person born outside of the dominant culture. The image of the invisible God never had an army, lifted a weapon, made a threat, or coerced another soul. Why not? Because he was like God. God is love. Love is an action. His entire ministry was letting us know just how good we could have it if we’d just stop believing in empire. Turn around. Believe the gospel. He healed the sick, cast out demons, and ate with the untouchables to show us that no one is outside of God’s love, and that therefore no one should be outside of ours.

For me, that means remembering that God loves John Boehner, Ted Cruz, Cardinal Burke, Bill O'Reilly, and even Dr. Laura as much as S/He loves me. I need to pray for their conversion, even as I pray for mine.

Music for this weekend:

Gathering: Come to Us, (Cooney, NALR, 1985) or I Have Loved You (Joncas, New Dawn, 1979). Playing both sides of the gospel street here, or imagining, maybe, that as we get to be more like to God "to be" and "to do" converge, these two songs aim to open our ears to the presence of the God whom we celebrate and the word we are about to hear. "Come to Us" takes the active approach, putting the singing assembly in persona Christi, announcing its intention to be Christ for others in compassion and service. "I Have Loved You" expresses the "everlasting love" of God for people, and sharpens our hearing for the gospel. Both songs, even in their entireties, are short; this week, we celebrate the combined rite of acceptance and welcome at the parish.
Psalm 18: I Love You (Cooney, unpublished). I wrote this lyric setting of Psalm 18 a couple of years ago. The music tries to express the elation of gratitude for healing and rescue, as expressed in the psalm. I'm still looking for "beta testers" to try it out and give me some feedback - follow the link to check out the score.
Preparation Rite: Gathered and Sent (Cooney, GIA - unpublished), Rain Down (Jaime Cortez, OCP) "Rain down your love on your people" follows the more important arc of the gospel today, that is, the love of the God that enables our response in love, that invites us to imitate its selflessness and compassion rather than indulging our acquisitive greed. "Gathered and Sent" was commissioned by Old St. Patrick's church about three years ago, and we're including it in our new collection of songs that may be available by the end of the decade. No worries, though—there are plenty of other songs out there in the meantime!
Communion: May We Be One (music by Gary Daigle, text by Rory Cooney, GIA, 1994) More information at the link, from the page I wrote on the album, Praise the Maker's Love.
Recessional: Lover of Us All, by Dan Schutte (OCP octavo) Even though it wasn't included in the current version of Gather Comprehensive like it was in the original, it's hard to let go of Dan's joyful and solid anthem. "We come to give you thanks, O lover of us all, and giver of our loving." That line from the refrain pretty much sums up the stance of the church today and the truth embodied in the scriptures we hear this morning. St. Anne's sings this one well, and it's worth the effort to make a worship aid so that we can sing it out again.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

A fiction of Holy Thursday

I have a number of files on my hard drive that are so old and from such diverse programs (AppleWorks) and OSs and held together by such tired electrons that they would be the modern version of Dead Sea Scrolls, paragraphs of text degenerating into digital gibberish, unrecoverable. This is part of an article I wrote about Holy Thursday around 1991. I have no idea how it ends, but it began with this fiction, preceded by the word "Remember."

“What makes this night different from all other nights?”

Simon Peter lay curled on the damp, sour straw of his cell. The words of his young visitor, John Mark, invaded the tedious half-light of the Roman spring evening like a voice from another time. Pesach, he thought, remembering his wife, parents, children, and neighbors gathering around the table in Capernaum, year after circling year. New faces and old, now this one appears, that one gone since the last time. A lifetime ago it was, before we met Yeshua at the lake that day. “Jesus,” he tried again, the foreign sound of it still confounding his tongue, reminding him of his own captors, and of the events that had transpired during the spring festival so many years ago.

The night had begun like so many others, but in Jesus there was a foreboding. Every word, every gesture was a like a farewell. “Remember” was a word that had stuck with Simon from that night, and a word he had repeated a thousand times in telling the story of what had happened. Every meal that the little band had taken together was a story to be told. Sometimes the eating itself had been illegal, made him a little uneasy even, the conscience of the little Jewish boy within sternly reprimanded by the teachers of his childhood. Sometimes they had eaten with local synagogue leaders, and others who wanted to hear from the master’s mouth the words that had excited the countryside. Jesus would invite to table anyone he met, women and men, healed and healthy, sinner and saint. Evening after evening the feast went on: they had gotten a reputation of being gluttons and drunkards. Peter smiled at that, thinking about the filthy fare of his latter days. Things have changed.

He still could not think of what had happened in those hours without a wincing prayer: the master disrobing, washing their feet like a slave, telling them to remember. Always “remember.” Then the arrest, the trial. The bloody day he had watched from great distances of grief and cowardice, jealous of the women who had abandoned all self-concern to lavish their presence on his brutal isolation from whatever closeness they were allowed. The darkness, the storm. And running, running, running...

And the wonder of the days that followed. The women again, and their report of his empty tomb, a report he had verified himself. The real adventure had begun then. Every time they had reached for bread, eyes would meet and they would...remember. Reports from here and there, Emmaus, the lake shore in Galilee, right there in Jerusalem. The fire that began to blaze in us when we realized what was happening, when first the upper room and then the whole city, the whole world seemed too small to contain it. More days, more broken bread, more poured out wine—poured out blood. So much blood into the ground since then, and so many of the sisters and brothers who knew him are gone now; and now, they are saying, Jerusalem is to be sieged.

The Romans seem bloodthirsty, but their quest for power was really sprung from a yearning for the same thing Yeshua had wanted: “that they all be one.” Rome wants to make the world one by force, Peter thought. Yeshua had a different way: he wants the world to be one by surrender. Surrender to gratitude, mostly. Surrender to forgiveness. Surrender to healing. The Romans are ripe for the words of the Master, Peter muses. Already, many have come to the Way. It is really so simple. Let us sit down and eat together. Let us give thanks that we are alive in a world full of the Spirit of God, and remember who is the Creator, our light and our freedom. It is a harder message for the powerful to embrace, but to the lowly, it sings! For my ancestors in Egypt as for my little flock here in Rome, this is a day to keep festival and remember these things. What was that, John Mark?

“Why is this night different from all other nights?”

In the darkness of the cell, Peter raised himself and spoke aloud to his visitor: “It is the Passover of the Lord.”

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

God alone may lead my spirit (A29O)

The Pharisees sent their disciples to Jesus with the Herodians asking...

“Is it lawful to pay the census tax to Caesar or not?" 
Knowing their malice, Jesus said,
"Why are you testing me, you hypocrites? 
Show me the coin that pays the census tax." 
Then they handed him the Roman coin. 
He said to them, "Whose image is this and whose inscription?" 
They replied, "Caesar's."
At that he said to them,
"Then repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar
 and to God what belongs to God." 

Sometimes we forget the context of these stories because of the way the liturgical year uses scripture. I mean, I know I do, and I live with these readings as much as anyone I know. The story of the encounter between Jesus and the representatives of the Pharisees takes place between what we call today “Palm Sunday,” that is, the day Jesus made his symbolic parade on a beast of burden into Jerusalem, and the arrest, trial, and execution of Jesus. Along with the parables of the vineyard owner, the two sons, and the wicked tenants, this passage and the rest of the gospel of Matthew which we hear between now and the end of the year take place during “holy week.” We lose sight of that, don’t we, because for us “holy week” was back in the spring. We place John the Baptist in our imagination in the time before Jesus because we hear about him in the gospels mostly during Advent, before Christmas, but in fact John was the same age as Jesus, if we are to believe Luke’s gospel and the story of Mary and her kinswoman Elizabeth, John’s mother. The only Advent gospel that takes place before the birth of the Lord is the gospel of the fourth Sunday of Advent. Maybe John was just a fast starter, or Jesus a late bloomer. When Jesus comes on the scene, John has already plowed the field ahead of him, and the forces of the status quo dealt with John in a way that foreshadowed how they would deal with Jesus.

I know that I’ve heard the passage above used as a proof text for good citizenship, that Jesus was telling the Pharisees that the answer to their question was to split up your allegiance, give Caesar your worldly side, and give God your spiritual side. But the context of this story, its placement during Holy Week, after the entry in Jerusalem for Passover and the “cleansing of the temple,” requires that we see it differently.

Jesus’s relentless preaching of the reign of God as essentially different from the reign of Caesar and the kingdoms of this world require that we see this differently. John Dominic Crossan, in his engaging book The Last Week: What the Gospels Really Teach About Jesus's Final Days in Jerusalem (co-written with Marcus Borg), helps us see it more persuasively. Jesus outs his interrogators by making them show the Roman coin, which many pious Jews would not even keep on their persons, because it contained a “graven image” of the emperor, another god, contravening the Torah. He asks “Whose coin? Whose picture?” It is they who have to acknowledge the name of the god who is not Abba. Jesus does not answer their question, he gives his famous non-answer, “Give to Caesar what is Caesars, and to God what is God’s.” But what is Caesar’s? What is God’s? As Crossan and Borg point out, the land of Israel belongs to God, and the people of Israel are only its tenants (Lev. 25:23). In fact, Psalm 24 puts it, “The Lord’s are the earth and its fullness, the world, and all who dwell therein.” Crossan and Borg thus conclude, “What belongs to Caesar? The implication is, nothing.” (page 65)

But to me it has been important to remember that Jesus is not implying that a violent revolution has to take place. In fact, he says quite the opposite, warning that violence begets violence, and that those who live by the sword will die by it. The God who is not like Caesar is a God who invites, welcomes, lives in solidarity, gives life. Opting out of the reign of Caesar and its ways of threat and violence has to mean also opting in to the reign of God for it to be effective and have meaning. We can’t just drop out, we have to drop in to another way, the Way, Jesus.

Well, that’s the thing, isn’t it? We don’t have to. See what I mean? I’m so acclimated to speaking in the language of force, coercion, and victory that my own speech is peppered with imperatives. The invitation is to turn around. Take a look at our lives and the way things are going. Look at the rest of the world and see how things are going. Are we happy suffering? Are we happy with the suffering that our insouciance and neglect and violence are causing other people? There’s another way, another road. All we have to do is listen to the gospel, and start walking on it. It sounds so simple, but it’s rarely been tried.

In the meantime, we keep singing, trying to be convinced enough to move.

Our music for Sunday:
Gathering: Psalm 23, by Tom Conry, (OCP.) Tom’s song captures the essence of today’s scripture for me, “God alone may lead my spirit.” The God who is shepherd may lead my spirit, and not the god who is general, emperor, judge, or avenger.
Psalm 96: Glory! Honor! (antiphon 2, with Psalm for Christmas Midnight by Rory Cooney (GIA)) You can download this alternate refrain from my website's "Freebies and Betas" page here.
Preparation: Let Us Go to the Altar of God by Rory Cooney (WLP). I’ve written about this song before; it simply uses the image of gathering at the table of the Lord as a place of solidarity, refuge, and hope in a world that is full of violence and enmity.
Communion: How Can I Keep from Singing, though it's harder to use this pre-1960s version, stripped of the political overtones added by Pete Seeger and others. I may reprint the revisionist text in the worship aid, or not. I wrote about my ambivalence, and the history of this song, in a blog post a few weeks ago. If you missed it, you can read it here.
Or: I Say Yes/Digo Sí, Señor, by Donna Peña (GIA). Donna’s cogent signature line in this song, “Like a politician, inevitably, I say yes, my Lord,” is one reason I chose this song for the day, but also because the one who says yes to God has a lot of good times and bad times ahead, always depending on the Lord’s word to be truthful.
Recessional: We Will Serve the Lord by Rory Cooney (OCP). Over the years, I think I may have used this song of mine, and it’s far from perfect, believe me, more than any other one. It tries to identify solidarity in covenant as the antidote for the desire for wealth, pleasure, and power, and the name of the covenant is Jesus Christ, and him crucified.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Groucho's club at the Messiah's banquet

“I would never wanna belong to any club that would have someone like me for a member.”

(Groucho Marx, as quoted by Woody Allen in Annie Hall

I mentioned the other day that I didn’t have a very cogent thought to express about yesterday's gospel, and maybe I still don’t. But in the meantime, I went back to my favorite book about the parables (my favorite populist book, anyway, since it’s more my speed and you don’t have to know Greek to read a chapter.) I am sure I’ve mentioned it before; it’s called Re-Imagine the World by Bernard Brandon Scott. I had read the chapter in his Hear Then the Parable about the banquet parable, but was left with the feeling that the parable is a mystery to scholarship, too, since it appears in Luke in a different form and with a different point from Matthew, and also in the Gospel of Thomas, and that the original parable from Jesus is probably lost or a matter of conjecture. And there’s some of that sense in Scott’s smaller book above, but I did get something else out of it. That is this, and it actually includes a thought about the first reading yesterday from Isaiah 25. One of the ways Jewish people thought about the kingdom, or the empire of God, was as a banquet, the banquet of the Messiah. You recall the words of Isaiah 25, where all will come to the Lord’s mountain, people from every nation, and dine there on fine meat and wine. There are other references in Isaiah 55 and Ezekiel 39 as I mentioned yesterday, and there are more. So, one of the images being floated about the reign of God was a rich man’s banquet, a king’s banquet, where there is lots of delicious and expensive food for everyone to eat. It’s a poor person’s view of bounty: the rich have it, the powerful have it, I don’t have it, therefore I want it and it must be good and what God wants for everyone.

Scott says, Well, yes, but... He suggests that the parable parodies the idea of the messianic banquet. Here you have a bossy king who invites his rich friends over for dinner, and they give him every excuse they can think of, thus dishonoring him and the dinner. Being someone accustomed to kingly things, he slaughters them all with his army. But he still has a son having a wedding, and now there’s nobody left to invite. So he tells his soldiers to go out into the crossroads and bring in anyone they find, nothing will keep anyone out, the “good and bad alike” were invited in. Good king, good company. Only now, he comes across someone not playing by his new rules, and what does he do? Binds him up and throws him outside. Bad news, bad king. Scared company. So what do we make of this? Scott suggests that Jesus didn’t want people to think of a “king’s banquet” as an image of the messianic kingdom. In fact, Jesus was partial to food metaphors: his public life was lived eating and drinking freely with all kinds of people. He was, one might say, already getting people to eat at the banquet of the messiah, only they didn’t recognize it for what it was. And why? Because they were there, sitting at it! The messianic banquet had to be more like what a king would throw, but Jesus  understood that the empire of God is not like empires of this world, so neither were the banquets! People, like Groucho Marx in the quote at the beginning of this reflection, can’t imagine that sharing a little bit of bread, a starvation meal, with one’s comrades and companions and strangers might be the messianic banquet. We can’t imagine being a part of that exclusive club, or, more likely, we can’t imagine those others being a part of the club, and if they’re in it, we’d just as soon not be!

Well, his idea made more sense to me than anything else I read about the parable, but one has to be willing to jettison some of Matthew’s imagery, and really believe that at the heart of this gospel is a parable and not an allegory in which the king is God. I can do that. First of all, the “tag line” at the end of the story, “many are called, few are chosen,” doesn’t fit the story, in which “all are called, and all but one are chosen.” Luke’s telling of the story leaves out a lot of the gory details in Matthew: nobody kills anybody else in Luke’s version. Matthew places the parable in the last week of Jesus’s life; he is in open ideological conflict with the Jewish leadership (and taunting Roman "peacekeepers"?) after his ceremonial arrival into Jerusalem and his eviction of the money-changers from the outer court of the Temple. This parable is one in a string of parables aimed rhetorically at his enemies, and challenging their worthiness and authority to care for the “vineyard” of Israel. This parable is no exception, but as I listened I heard a warning for us riffraff too: don’t start coveting what the rich have. And don’t imagine that God is a king, like the kings of this world, with a great palace and food for everyone to eat until they’re gorged and require a vomitorium. God is abba, he gives us our daily bread, so that there’s enough for everyone, and expects us to do the same. Stop thinking about God like you think about Caesar, or Warren Buffett, or an Arab prince. God is agape: it’s not about having it all, but giving it all away. We’ve got to turn our minds around.

This thought was reinforced in my head as I prayed the Our Father: “thy kingdom come,” we pray. “Thy will be done on earth as in heaven.” Why the subjunctives? Isn’t God, well, God? Can’t God do
whatever s/he wants, and bring the kingdom now? Well, you know, who knows? But what is clear is that God is not doing that in a predictable way, so we’re stuck with trying to figure out why. And maybe it’s because God is not that kind of king, and this is not that kind of kingdom. God’s empire is an empire of invitation, not coercion; of peace through justice, not peace through might. This tied in with another random thought I had this week about the Satan myth, about how the archangel Michael did battle with the archangel Lucifer, who was all Light, and wanted to be like God (in fact, “Michael” means “who is like God.”) And the legend is that Lucifer/Satan’s last words, falling like lightning from the sky, were “Non serviam.” (Apparently they speak Latin in heaven.) This means, “I will not serve,” so he’s choosing to reign in hell, or on earth, rather than to serve God in heaven. But, I randomly thought, what if we just reinterpret this myth and think, maybe God let them all in on a little secret, that the whole “God” business wasn’t about exercise of power and light and glory, but about serving? What if God told the angels that the key to creation and divine life was service, agape, complete self-gift? And maybe Satan’s thought was, “Hell no. I’ll do anything but serve.” And he didn’t mean serve God, he meant serve anyone.

Well, that’s just a story. Maybe my daughter can think about all that myth-making business. It was the play on “serviam” that caught me, but since there weren’t any witnesses, it’s all just a story anyway.

So, fellow members of The Groucho Club, you have met the messianic banquet, and it is you. And we’re all sitting at table with the last people on earth we expected to see here. Roll up your sleeves and put on the wedding garment, or at least, put on a happy face. And pass the bread.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

2014 MMA Benefit Concert Setlist

It was just a wonderful evening, and I can't say what a privilege it is to sing with so many wonderful musicians. And that's just the people I worship, play, and sing with every Sunday! Last night, there were visitors, and they had gathered with a purpose. As every music director knows, the difference between a "normal" worship service and an "extraordinary" one is that the people who come to the latter are intentional, they are there with a purpose. And last night's concert of liturgical music gave us a couple of great purposes: to sing music written for God's worship, to raise funds to form young people in faith, scripture, and worship, and to be together with some foundational songwriters in the 50 years since the Second Vatican Council. I don't think anyone went away disappointed.
"I Will Praise You, Lord" - Gary, Terry, and me

This whole project started about ten weeks ago when another church had to cancel a benefit concert date David had set for his concert. He sent an email to Gary Daigle and me, saying something innocent-sounding and giggly like, "Hey, guys, any chance we could do this at one of your churches? I just think it would be so much fun!" So I checked the calendar at St. Anne and the evening of October 11, aside from a 4:30 p.m. wedding ceremony (no mass) was open. Everyone at the parish, including the pastor, seemed very open to the idea, so I booked it. What I didn't know was that one of our wedding coordinators had failed to put a rehearsal on the calendar, which should have reserved the church from 6-7. The upshot of this was that we had to take the concert on knowing that our setup time would be about an hour. An hour to set up and sound check for a choir of 40, strings, woodwinds, rhythm section, and the featured performance. Mission: Impossible.

David Haas
Somehow, with a lot of work the evenings before, setting up, setting levels, and breaking down again, the whole thing came together. Flights were on time. Tickets got sold. Volunteers volunteered."The song goes on." A quick inquiry at the beginning of the concert indicated there were visitors who had come to the concert from Canada, Minnesota (besides the artists, I mean), Iowa, Missouri, California, Indiana, Tennessee, and...Germany. (Actually, those are some priest-friends who happened to be staying at St. Anne anyway, but hey, they could have gone somewhere else on a Friday night!)

In case you were just dying to know what went on at St. Anne last night, this is the setlist for the Music Ministry Alive benefit concert. Thanks to Mark Karney, our sound engineer, and Gary Daigle for all their hard prep and technical work, and to the amazing band: Nick Bisesi on sax and flute, Anna Belle O'Shea on flute, Randy Meyers on drums, Orlando Cano on percussion, Paul Hilderbrand on bass, Pat McCoy and Dennis Kantarski on guitars, and the Chicago String Quartet.

All six performers:
Canticle of the Turning (Cooney)
We Come to Your Feast (Joncas)

Daigle-Donohoo-Cooney set
I Am for You (Cooney)
I Will Praise You, Lord (Daigle-Cooney)
Safety Harbor (Cooney)
All Things New (Cooney)
Covenant Hymn (Daigle-Cooney)
We Praise You (Balhoff, Daigle, Ducote)
To You Who Bow (Cooney)

All six performers:
Jerusalem, My Destiny (Cooney)
Blest Are They (Haas)

Haas-Haugen-Joncas set
With the Lord (Psalm 130) (Joncas)
Where Your Treasure Is (Haugen)
One Heart, One Mine (Haas)
I Have Loved You (Joncas)
Shepherd Me, O God (Haugen)
You Are Mine (Haas)
For Every Child (Haugen)
Watch, O Lord (Haugen)
We Are Called (Haas)

All six performers:
Walk in the Reign (Cooney)
On Eagle's Wings (Joncas)

Some smarty-pants asked me if I was going to write some new lyrics during the concert, and you'll be glad to know I didn't. But right before the concert, I decided to sneak a new verse into the end of "Walk in the Reign," which after all these years is still one of my favorites (and, I confess, it still rankles me that it has been excluded from Gather since the first Comprehensive edition, but that's life...). Right before the concert started, I went to the choir and told them to "sing hope" for the people who had gathered, because it's one of the lost virtues, isn't it, in a post-post-modern world that equates hope with a fantasy of winning the lottery, or with divine vengeance wrought upon our enemies. So after the bridge of "Walk," in which we sing, following Micah, "Bethlehem! You think you're so small that God doesn't notice your children at all?", I sang a few new words to lead us into Michael's wonderful "On Eagle's Wings":

We wait in the darkness
As death has its day
We tell ancient stories
We watch, fight, and pray,
But everywhere ‘round us
The sower has strewn
The seeds of the future
And whistles a tune,
God whistles a tune, That 
Close as tomorrow
The sun shall appear,
Freedom is coming,
And healing is near.
And I shall be with you
In laughter and pain,
To stand in the wind,
And walk in the reign,
To walk in the reign.

Knowing we are not alone as we look for signs of those seeds sprouting around us, against what we perceive to be against all odds but as inevitable as the sunrise, that is real hope. All I can say is, "I shall be with you" as we watch and wait and work together, and I can play a song on the piano, or if it's a really easy one, on the guitar. Being with one another, even if we have to go to meetings once in a while, makes hope possible. 

Thanks, Terry, Gary, David, Marty, and Michael, and all you folks who played and sang and gave and wept with us.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

TBT - An Unbegun Book, Chapter 1: Pastoral Musician and Disciple (1992)

I will praise the Lord all my life,
Make music to my God while I live. (Psalm 146)

I am forty years old, and I don't know anything. My car is a mystery to me. The simplest tasks of putting nails into boards or attaching wire A to post B make me sweat nervously. In the matter of human relationships, I have played a guessing-game for as long as I can remember, and have not been above cheating. It is a wonder that I have any friends at all, or that my family has survived knowing me. For eight years I was a travel agent, directing people to cities and airports and hotels to which I had never been, sharpening my skills as a poseur with crafty telephone bravado that made me modestly successful at my work.

What I know the least about is God. And yet my life's work (I have now been longer at my parish in Phoenix than at any other consistent work since grammar school) has been in a service of trying to enable thousands of good people with lives, I surmise, far more honest than my own, to experience the touch of the Holy One through the experience of communal worship.

Many of these people, as far as I can tell, have had much more intimate experiences of God's presence than I have. This arouses in me not jealousy, but curiosity. Some of these people cannot describe moments and days of their lives without tears of joy and gratitude. Many are able to describe moments of knowing God's presence with no doubt in their hearts at all. To me, these heart-held truths are a wonder. My friends at St. Jerome's are describing to me a land to which I have never been, or been invited. And yet, they accept me, and expect me to continue in my work among them. Another mystery.

I have come to suspect that my ministry, and perhaps therefore yours, is valid not because I have been somewhere, but because I sense that we are all going somewhere together. Furthermore, it seems to me that there is a sense that what we all do together especially on Sunday is something that we need each other for: I need the gift of their faith, they need the gift of my music. And what we need each other for is not what we do on Sunday so much as what it stands for: the continuing search for meaning in the turmoil of life, for signs of God's presence, and for the courage to be healing, forgiving, reconciling disciples of Jesus of Nazareth.

Being a disciple means following in the footsteps of a teacher, and for disciples of Jesus it invariably means following in those footsteps together. Discipleship, like my ministry as I have begun to understand it, is less a matter of being something than of going somewhere, of doing a discipline. The teaching of Jesus is not that we must experience God's presence in our lives, for that presence is never anything but God's gift. It comes to us in God's time and in God's ways. The teaching of Jesus is rather that we must behave or act as though we were living in that presence at all times and with all other persons. Jesus called that presence the reign of God or the kingdom. His Jewish heritage describes its relationships as justice, that is, the way that creation (including people) acts when God is around. Those who have followed, from the very beginning, knew that the only way to hold to the teaching of Jesus was to hold to it together, and so they met around each others tables and told the stories that kept him faithful, and they told stories about him.

Christian liturgy is the discipline of acting out the relationships of the reign of God as proclaimed by Jesus and understood by the apostles, the first disciples. Christian liturgy presumes relationships of equality but not identity, unity but not uniformity, diversity and harmony. It presumes the acknowledgment of those present that God is God, and that we are not. It assumes that we are all aware both of our chosen patterns of darkness and those which are our inheritance from our equally imperfect ancestors, and it further assumes that that sin will not have the last word. Our worship assumes that God is not hidden but is jubilantly, even scandalously self-revealing, a betrothed spouse who can hardly wait to consummate the marriage. Our worship makes us aware, week by week, year by year, that God is not a concept to learn or a set of equations that can be memorized, but is reachable through repeated, metaphorical actions using the most ordinary of human things. God is something like bread and wine shared at a table; God is something like being drowned, or bathed, in water, and being rubbed with scented oil; God is like stripping naked and putting on new clothes. God is something like an embrace, a kiss, a vow, or gathering around a sick person with song and prayer and oil. God is to be found in the very urge to assemble, to sing together, to repeat the stories of Jesus, to serve one another with gifts that come from we know not where. And certainly God is like scattering again to be a word of hope and forgiveness, and a bite of bread, to everyone in need of that good news.

In liturgy, we practice being the people whom God has called us to be. The real living of it will come in our homes, at work, in school, while raising our children and voting and being of the political, economic, and social relationships that make up our lives. But the rehearsal is extremely important. It keeps us true to the path of Jesus, and helps us to look with honesty at our patterns of behavior. In learning to be a thankful people we learn to be better stewards. In welcoming each others presence and reverencing strangers, we discover our radical equalizing unity in Christ and, a priori, in creation. I begin to love not only my neighbor as myself, but I begin to see my enemy as my neighbor, and the great-grandchildren of my enemy as the neighbor of my own descendants. The earth herself becomes more precious to me, for we were forged with the same fire, we are made of the same stuff, and all her creatures breathe with the same breath, the same holy Wind, the very Spirit of God. Ritual behavior keeps us true to these course-correcting insights.

We do not tolerate, for instance, places of honor in our liturgical assemblies for the rich or the powerful. No presiding presbyter may extemporize greetings: the ritual relationship requires that we meet as equals, so that communal responses may not be jeopardized by even well-intentioned spurts of spontaneity. "In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit" has a place in our memory and a special rhythm to it to which even small children respond,"Amen." As a prayer, it may need revision based upon the just critique of feminist theology, but it must be revised by the Church, not by an individual, and certainly not first thing Sunday morning! In our gatherings, we all share one cup and one bread (although for most of our churches, this is a charitable euphemism), no one gets more than anyone else. We listen to the word of God and not, for instance, to the latest spiritual tome by this or that writer (although many of us tried that one in the late sixties as well.)

What are the repercussions of this for the pastoral liturgist and musician? First of all, we ourselves need to be disciples, which means not that we have arrived anywhere but that we are one the road, together, following in the footsteps of Jesus. This means we ourselves must be people of the word. We need to study the scripture, and that means reading books about the scripture, and taking classes, as well as knowing the lectionary and its principles. It means reading a gospel, for instance, and not just the fragments we get Sunday to Sunday through the year. And of course, it means being part of a community's life, and living a lifestyle that is oriented toward love, reconciliation, and healing.

A second repercussion is that we have to know the liturgy, and take its demands seriously. It is important to realize the liturgy's value relative to the rest of the community's life, and to make it a servant of the community's needs. It is always painfully obvious when a community's worship is out of touch with its real life. The singing is lackluster, maybe co-opted by professionals alone, responses are perfunctory, attention is lacking, and people leave early. But good celebrations nurture and strengthen faith. The events of people's lives, the economy, the state of war or peace, the condition of the neighborhood, the struggle to live in wholesome relationships, all of these matters must not be ignored by the liturgy. When the liturgy's power is taken seriously, when rite and preaching and music and prayer confront and embrace the world of real experience, we have the sign of a transforming community of conversion. But when there is fire in a community, there is certainly going to be heat, and such a parish may find often find itself in intense self-evaluation, as well as finding itself occasionally out of step with the local powers in order to stay in step with the gospel. Parishes which have opened the doors to women in their ministries, particularly serving at the altar and preaching, will know the pain of which I have spoken.

Being a disciple and a minister means, then, following Jesus through the discipline of the scriptures, respecting the traditions that are delivered to us in the sacred liturgy and enculturating them for the people among whom we minister. Therefore, we must be an active part of that community's life. We share with the rest of the pastoral team the role of transforming our parish, including ourselves, into a more obvious sign that the reign of God is at hand. That means calling forth peoples gifts and empowering them to use those gifts for service of one another, both inside and outside of the liturgical assembly. Ultimately, our destiny is to take our gospel daily to the streets, to invite in all who have been pushed to the outside by whoever or whatever is stronger, and bring them to the wedding feast of the Lamb. Our task is to empower the community to be its best self which is a self for others; to be, in fact, Christ.

The above was written as the opening chapter of an "unbegun book," Amateurs Only Need Apply, in 1992.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

The way to the human heart is through the stomach (A28O)

Then (the king) said to his servants, 'The feast is ready,

but those who were invited were not worthy to come.

Go out, therefore, into the main roads

and invite to the feast whomever you find.’

The servants went out into the streets

and gathered all they found, bad and good alike,

and the hall was filled with guests.

What we don’t see in these gospels from the last several Sundays is that they all happen in Matthew after Jesus has entered Jerusalem, shortly before his arrest, trial, and execution. They are challenges to the local authorities, and the various evangelists twist and turn the parables to suit the circumstances of their hearers. We would do well to read this parable in Matthew, if we can, without seeing the king as God, or else we have to admit that God is a vindictive SOB just as Bill Maher and Dawkins and Hitchens and Sam Harris paint the deity. One really provocative interpretation sees Jesus at the center of the firestorm of authority in this shame and honor culture, just as the leadership of Christianity would be in Matthew’s time, 60 years later. It sees the violent king for just who he is, a powerful bully used to getting his way. When his rage is satisfied in blood, he invited everyone into the banquet, but turns his rant upon the one who doesn’t dress as he’s told, and throws him into the darkness outside. Which is, of course, where Jesus wound up when he wouldn’t dance for the authorities in his day, and where Jewish Christians were ending up in the late 70s and 80s in the Diaspora. In this reading then, which is parabolic and not in the least allegorical, it is silent resistance, non-cooperation with the violent kingdom of the world, that is “like the kingdom of God.” It’s choosing your king wisely. And it’s lonely, and leads to death. But it is not the last word, because there is, in fact, another kingdom.

But the banquet itself is what stands out in the imagery, a banquet to which the poor are finally called, a banquet which Matthew’s heart must have equated with the banquet of Isaiah 25, and Isaiah 55, and Ezekiel 39. Matthew apparently intends us to read the parable more allegorically, so even with the versions of the same story in the other synoptics and Thomas, we don’t really know what Jesus had to say about this story. For Matthew, it’s a big deal that the invited guests, presumably the Jewish leadership, were thrown out (slaughtered? as in the siege of Jerusalem in 70 CE) and that the good and bad alike (remember that phrase in the Sermon on the Mount?) are called in to eat the wedding banquet of his son. One commentator sees a parallel between the excuses in Matthew and the acceptable excuses a soldier may make in Deuteronomy 20:
'Is there anyone who has built a new house and not yet had the housewarming? Let him return home, lest he die in battle and another dedicate it. Is there anyone who has planted a vineyard and never yet enjoyed its fruits? Let him return home, lest he die in battle and another enjoy its fruits in his stead. Is there anyone who has betrothed a woman and not yet taken her as his wife? Let him return home, lest he die in battle and another take her to wife.'

I don’t know. I do know that the banquet is a great image for people who have never been to one. As a boy, a high school student, I was completely unschooled in the ways of the world, and didn’t know from banquets. I was a working-class kid in Phoenix, which was in those days where people went to get away from banquets and the formalities of the East and Midwest. A banquet hall in Phoenix, in the days before the Phoenician and the Camelback Inn, was a big room with sawdust on the floor and steaks on an outdoor grill, a place where, if you had not been warned and mistakenly wore a tie, it would be cut off your neck by a big waiter with a pair of scissors. My music teacher in high school was good to us in the traveling choir, and often took us to upscale restaurants (upscale to us, that is, places like the Brown Derby in Hollywood and Lawry’s, back in the days when they were unique.) It was a glimpse for me into the way “the other half lives,” the privileged, and it became something I wanted to share with people as well, if I could only figure out how to get the money to pay for it.

Who’s not a big fan of movie food? Babette’s Feast, for instance. Eat, Drink, Man, Woman. The Wedding Banquet. The Big Night. Like Water for Chocolate. Tom Jones, Jiro Dreams of Sushi, even this year's Chef. What about the one (only) memorable scene in Hook, the Robin Williams take on the Peter Pan story, where the hungry Lost Boys are told to imagine the feast, and lo and behold, it started appearing in bright primary colors? Or the lavish banquets in the Great Hall of Hogwarts in the Harry Potter stories?

Hungry people don’t need any other metaphor than food for abundance. And the people who populated Israel in the age when the scriptures were written were people of the land just a few days away from starvation. Drought and famine were realities to them. Heavy temporal and religious taxes were part of their lives. The dream, the possibility, of a future of abundance, when they would never be hungry, was a popular national metaphor. The presence of God would make it happen, the presence of God given all at once in the banquet of the messiah. That is why, I think, the image of the “banquet of rich fare, spread for all peoples” is such a cogent one, the mountain of the Lord as mess hall for humanity. All are welcome, come as you are. No fighting. And that’s why churches and church people ought to take part in hunger awareness projects like soup kitchens, food pantries, and Cropwalk. (Click to donate: just another week!)

I guess all I’ve really come away from these readings with is the certainty that the king is not God, and the fact that the banquet is for everyone, the good and bad alike. In the banquet of the real messiah, and, I’m sure, in the original version of this story, even the guy without the garment got in. It’s more likely that it’s God who is thrown out into the cold by human violence than it is that the God of Jesus would cast someone out for not conforming to custom. Or maybe he would, but he’d leave the door unlocked, or send someone outside with a doggie bag.

Next weekend (October 19) is our Crop Hunger Walk, by the way. St. Anne Choir and I are taking part in the annual walk to relieve hunger in our own area and around the world, under the auspices of Church World Service. If you would like to support this ecumenical effort to feed the hungry, click here, and make a donation to the Crop Hunger Walk on behalf of my choir. Thank you!

Here’s what we’re singing this weekend at the parish:

Gathering:  Gather Us In (Haugen)
Psalm 23 I Shall Live in the House  (Cooney, OCP)
Preparation Rite: A Place at the Table (Murray/True)
Communion:  Within the Reign of God (Haugen)
sending forth:  All Are Welcome (Haugen, Gather 753)

I've finished a substantial revision of a mass I wrote in the 1980s and which I have not as yet renamed. I'm very excited about the sound of it, and had hoped to launch it last week, but the onslaught of concert preparations has delayed that. Maybe next week. Until then, we're still using Mass of Creation and the Celtic Alleluia, and Steve Warner's "Lord's Prayer."