Note: Second Thoughts is an ongoing if sporadic series of posts on Sunday readings and motifs that occur to me after the liturgical experience. Most of what I do as a blogger, because of how my work is organized, is necessarily prior to the Sunday experience, but as most of us have come to understand, the liturgical event itself often shapes our receiving of the scriptures on a particular day. To see other "Second Thoughts" posts, use the "Labels" function on the right, and select that topic.
I wrote about it a little bit two weeks ago, but now it appears that the novel I was raving about then may be a better metaphor for the life-giving, in-breaking love that is the heart of Easter faith and therefore of conversion and initiation than I said even then. That illuminating novel, and it's a first novel to boot, is Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders. Having experienced it as an audio book with a cast of over a hundred characters including Nick Offerman, Megan Mullaly, David Sedaris, Susan Sarandon, and many others, I had been dying to talk to someone else about it for weeks. Terry did finally get a chance to read it and she thought as I do that it's a deep and beautiful book on many levels. Without overstating the religious resonances, there is much to contemplate with regard to ultimate things in life: transcendence, what matters to us, how we relate to each other as human beings, how we deny death and put too much of our energy into things that don't matter, how understanding and mutuality help us break out of those patterns.
I don't mean to give a review or summary of the book here, but there are interesting parallels between what goes in the bardo in Saunders' novel and in our lives interpreted by the Lazarus story in the fourth gospel. For my purposes (and Saunders has taken liberties, by his own admission, with the concept from Tibetan Buddhism in applying the scenario to his novel), the bardo is a place of shadowy life between death and whatever is beyond death, a place which appears to be very much like the surroundings in "real life," but devoid of color and reason. Souls of the dead are circumscribed and defined by unfinished business from their former lives, seem doomed to repeat decisions and actions from their lives, and are encumbered by "physical" transformations of their bodies corresponding to their issues as well: extra eyes, legs, and arms, for instance, and in once particularly prominent case, one character has an oversized, tumescent penis.
But the really strange thing about the bardo is that the inhabitants are unaware that they are dead, and as they accustom to their environs and begin to suspect that all is not right, they enter into a complex denial of their reality and not only won't admit their situation but have an elaborate vocabulary of circumlocution.
Enter into this alternate reality, in February of 1862, the tiny, kindly soul of the innocent Willy Lincoln, who has succumbed to typhoid in the White House, a second child lost in the house of Lincoln. His death completely unhinges his mother, and father Abraham is distraught and inconsolable at a time when he is barely able to clear his head about the weighty problems of the intensifying Civil War. The historical record, which is cited in long chapters of excerpts from contemporary letters and memoirs, indicates that the President went to the rented crypt that housed Willy's body at night to visit with the corpse of his son. It's this event that provides the crisis and forward motion for the occupants of the bardo.
These souls are trapped in the world of their own unreality, unable to see or admit that they are dead, and unwilling to let go of the illusion of the appearance of "life" that they have, lest they lose the illusion of hope that they can reverse some wrong or achieve some goal left unaccomplished. Driven primarily by necessarily selfish preoccupation and trying to put the best face on their situation, even episodes of anger, lust, and murder amount to epiphanies of ennui, to be repeated over and over without change of outcome. Occasionally one or more inhabitants of the bardo will move into another (higher?) plane of being in a flash of light and sound. We're never really sure where they've gone to, but my probably prejudiced feeling is that the beings who sometimes come among them as "angels" are indeed moving them by persuasion toward greater light by encouraging them to imagine themselves forgiven and offered the resolution of their past problems.
Lincoln's entry into the graveyard and the crypt that houses Willy, the exposure of the souls to Willy's confusion and wonder and Lincoln's unabashed grief, along with the bardo inhabitants' previous experience of children's souls (like a memory of compassion) moves some to action. Let me just say that in trying to help the elder Lincoln let go of his grief and leave the cemetery the souls within go to great lengths to achieve their goal, including the occupation of the same space, getting "inside" each other and eventually "inside" Abraham Lincoln, and in doing so achieve new compassion and insight unavailable to them before.
What all this has to do with Lazarus and Jesus may not be clear to you. In fact, it's not crystal clear to me. Lazarus needs help. He's dead. He seems beyond help, though probably not to himself. The occupants of the bardo need help too, they're unaware that they're dead, and unable to progress beyond that unfulfilling stasis between actual life and some kind of afterlife. They need someone to break their silence, tell them to stop pretending that they're alive, and admit their real problem: death. It is Willy who is finally able to break through to the largest number of them, and that because of their intervention with Lincoln.
We all lie to ourselves and each other about our participation in death. We think of ourselves as alive, but our life is really a house built on the suffering of others. We cooperate with death in ways of which we aren't even aware; we've built structures of empire and security that depend on the exploitation and subjugation of others. Somebody has to tell us that we're dead, or we're just going to stay where we are, repeating the patterns of our counterfeit lives, and reinforcing the unjust structures that entomb the poor and marginalized.
Scripture scholar Dominic Crossan's description of the economy of "salvation," or how things get "fixed up" in the end, is "collaborative eschatology." It's as though, he says, we have sat around for four thousand years waiting for God to make justice happen in the world, and at the same time, God is waiting for us. He repeats Archbishop Desmond Tutu's adage that "Without God, we can't. Without us, God won't." God in Jesus has stood at the door of the tomb where the world insists on living and called us to come out. The least God expects us to do, the easy part, it ought to be, is to untie the burial cloths. Christ has done the heavy lifting. It's our job to roll away the stone, and let people go free. If we're unwilling to do that, we're still trapped by death.
Prophesy to the bones! Prophesy to the breath!
That is the urgent invitation God makes to Ezekiel, paralyzed with grief, fear, unknowing, and self-doubt upon the desolate desert plain of Har-megiddo, surrounded by the sun-dried bones of King Josiah and all of his fine young warriors. All Ezekiel has to do is open his mouth, and tell the bones that God can do it. Just that little bit of the prophet's breath would set in motion the possibility of a people's restoration.
I will open your graves, and have you rise from them.
Amid the worst that life can do, the lies, the brutality, the broken promises, the unfulfilled hopes, amid the missiles, the sarin gas, the drone strikes, the closed borders, the deportations, amid the decapitations in foreign lands, the neglect, abandonment, and ultimately executions of the mentally disabled in this one, amid the eyes-averted from famine and genocide, and the preferential option for capital, there is still power in us to tell the truth, to 'prophesy to the bones,' and to hear the splatter and crunch of bones, sinew, blood, and breath as what was dead comes to unimagined life. It seems we need to be forced to look upon the death that our perfidy has caused, even if the spirit needs to carry us by the hair to the battlefield, hospital, or detention center and command us to look at it.
I have spoken, and I will do it! Oracle of G-d.
The ache and rigor of life, the unrelenting taskmaster of conscience when the heart is opened to the agony of the world, the paralysis and inertia of our (my) disconnectedness and alienation from any vision of a non-violent way forward, really forward-together, out of the desert of political impotence, all of this is the colorless bardo in which we wander, I wander, in a dreamy pretense of life that is nothing but a grave. How can I hear, and really, just as important, how can I become the echo of that voice that bellowed out of a roiling gut of lamentation, angry, untouchable, and fearless in the homeland of ruin, despair, and putrefaction:
LAZARUS! Come out!
Believe it or not, that's what the community of the baptized, gathered by the Spirit, the "breath" of God in the name of the deathless Jesus and the God of life, is called to do, to be. Baptismal water drowns the death of isolation and alienation and wakens to the life of a community for others. Is it any wonder we have Lent every year to get ready to renew the promises of baptism, to reject sin and believe the gospel of Christ? Is it any wonder that those who are called to approach those sacraments for the first time apprentice as Christians for months or years, and ultimately undergo three scrutinies for the purpose of purification (rejection of unrecognized or habitual evil) and enlightenment (the truth about ourselves and the gifts we have been given that strengthens us in the love needed to give ourselves away for others)?
Lincoln in the Bardo might need to become a go-to text for adult Lenten discernment, a kind of literary examination of conscience, a metaphor and maybe even an allegory for our spiritual lives, by which I mean an inventory of what is within us that activates and motivates what we do in the world. Those three classic gospels from John do their awesome work, particularly with good preaching, but for me, at least, Saunders' novel picked me up by the hair and set me down in front of a mirror, surrounded by the dry bones of the fine young armies of my heart, to use Leonard Cohen's unapproachably perfect phrase, "torn by what I've done and can't undo." For me this Lent, Leonard, and Ezekiel, and Saunders' Lincoln have been both Inquisitor and Paraclete.
Thanks, Art. I needed that.
Thursday, April 6, 2017
Thursday, March 30, 2017
So when it comes to covering the scrutinies, as I read the scriptures and what is written about the scriptures, when I hear them preached, when I learn from fine scholars how the shape the faith of the church and the practice of our worship, I know that I have leaned heavily in my life toward the awareness of sin, especially when it comes to patterns of social sin that are so woven into American life that we don't even recognize, let alone acknowledge, the ironic blasphemy, say, of going to war in the name of God, or building a border wall, cancelling immigrants' visas, or repealing environmental and climate regulations while going to churches and singing hymns, and writing nasty (and usually non-factual) internet postings about the how America is a Christian nation that was founded to be "under God." I say all this self-critically, because being judgmental about all that is, in itself, as evil as anything else. It all boils down to loving one another, Jesus says, which is the same as loving God. When we stop loving one another, even if it's as simple and seemingly harmless as calling someone an a***ole, even if s/he deserves it, is a step on the road to murder, if we believe the Sermon on the Mount. And I tend to do so.
In my years working in catechumenate ministry with the North American Forum, it took me a while to begin to grasp this, and my early attempts at writing musical settings for the scrutiny prayers were heavy on the "purification" and light (as it were) on "enlightenment." When colleagues pointed this out to me, it was clear, and I was able to make changes in texts that were more balanced, and for every "From fear and isolation, deliver us" there was a "Strengthen us in solidarity and hope, kyrie eleison." Slowly, I hope, changing words will begin to change actions. I think that that is true. It's why we have liturgy.
So this is what I brought to the readings for Lent 4, even though we didn't have a scrutiny this year. It helped me to understand the entire set of readings in the light of that one wonderful line from the first reading, "Not as (human beings) see does God see, because (people) see the appearance, but the Lord looks into the heart." I was reading an article by Amy-Jill Levine about parables recently, when she was speaking about God's preferential option for younger sons. Starting in Genesis (Abel, Isaac, Jacob) and through the rest of the Hebrew scriptures, God favors younger over older sons. Dominic Crossan puts this to God's opposition to the traditions (habits) of civilization itself, which favor the eldest. God, in other words, sides with innovation and evolution, while civilization favors dynasty, routine, predictability. This predilection of the divine, Levine says, is traceable into the parables of Jesus in the Christian scriptures. So one aspect of God's vision is to see the gifts of people, regardless of their social position, as moving humanity forward in new and often chaotic, unpredictable, even unlawful ways.
The essential thing, though, the thing that brought up my conventional and Irish focus on sin and the scrutinies, is that the vision of God always sees good. It is the vision of a father or a mother (as Isaiah 49 reminded us this week at daily mass) that sees a beloved child when it looks at every human individual, no matter or graceful or sin-steeped we may be. Seeing as God sees is to see every person as the image and likeness of God, a beloved child, so to us, a brother and sister loved by a common parent whose love is completely unrivalrous and assuring of all love's bounty. It's that loving vision that allows Jesus to see that God wants the healing of the blind man even on the sabbath, when laws need to be broken to allow it. It's the vision of sin's dominance and the need for human repentance that keeps the opponents of Jesus from being able to recognize the hand of God in Jesus's action. The Deuteronomic code, in fact, almost predicts this outcome. Evil in the world must, Deuteronomy says, be the result of human disobedience, so repentance is a requirement for healing, freedom, and poverty. Even when wisdom literature, such as the book of Job, intervened on behalf of the God of Genesis, and should have left the Deuteronomist on the slag heap of history, human beings just seem to need to associate punishment with their bad behavior, and on we go with our legal codes, habits of violent child-rearing, and war.
But the over-arching tenderness of God, that premiere attribute of loving-kindness, is proclaimed from the first verses of Genesis. We still don't really believe it. What the pseudo-Pauline author of Ephesians calls "light" in the second reading is just that: the tenderness of God, the eyes of love that sing with the unknown rhapsodist that Ephesians quotes:
Sleeper, awake!The enlightenment sought by the scrutinies is a share in that vision of the God of love that can only see us and our sin and foibles with the loving eyes of the Creator, the one who delights in the making, the sustaining, and homecoming of us all. I want to shaped by that vision. I don't want to see shadows of my own perfidy in every person who crosses me, in my church, and in my government. I want my vision of everyone, especially people whom I consider to be my rivals and antagonists, people who like me are trapped in the "be good or else" covenant of the Deuteronomist, to be enlightened and transformed by the vision of God. And I want their vision of me to be transformed, too, and of the earth, and of the poor, and of the economy. To accomplish this, though, I think conversion always needs to keep its eyes on the God of love and the reality of the human family that God wants. The light that the scrutinies and Lent throws upon the way things are in my life and in the world is God's love. "Everything that becomes visible is light," sings Ephesians. When we love, when we see as God sees, we become light, we become localization of the divine. That's what I want to be. That's how I want to be when I renew by baptismal promises at Easter. I want to shine. I want us all to shine, right here, right now, in my home, on my street, in my church, on my job, in this very world.
Rise from death!
Christ will be your light.
Monday, March 20, 2017
|"Waters of Life," sculpture at Chester cathedral.|
I'm very leery of over-personalistic interpretations both of the scrutiny gospels and of the scrutiny themselves. But encased in this prejudice of mine is a gaping opportunity to oversimplify, throw babies out with baptismal water, and ignore important aspects of both story and ritual that are too important to gloss over. While I think it remains true that scrutinies are primarily concerned with social sin and structures of sin that provoke evil from us in ways of which we are not even aware, it is also true that scrutinies are celebrated to strengthen what is weak in us, and also have the explicit task of throwing the light of the gospel on the things we do, the way we act in life, so that we can see ourselves and our complicity in the sinfulness of the structures of civilization itself, so that we can be enlightened enough to turn around (i.e., repent) and start acting in the kingdom of God. Light and strength: these are the aspects for which I'd like to thank the above trio of spiritual gurus for reminding me that there are trees in the forest of insight. In fact, there are no forests without the trees. Let me be concrete.
In one homily I heard, the priest was talking about the thirst in the heart of the Samaritan woman, and quoted Henri Nouwen in a passage about loneliness from The Wounded Healer:
The Christian way of life does not take away our loneliness; it protects and cherishes it as a precious gift. Sometimes it seems as if we do everything possible to avoid the painful confrontation with our basic human loneliness, and allow ourselves to be trapped by false gods promising immediate satisfaction and quick relief. But perhaps the painful awareness of loneliness is an invitation to transcend our limitations and look beyond the boundaries of our existence. The awareness of loneliness might be a gift we must protect and guard, because our loneliness reveals to us an inner emptiness that can be destructive when misunderstood, but filled with promise for him who can tolerate its sweet pain... We easily relate to our human world with devastating expectations. We ignore what we already know... that no love or friendship, no intimate embrace or tender kiss, no community, commune or collective, no man or woman, will ever be able to satisfy our desire to be released from our lonely condition. This truth is so disconcerting and painful that we are more prone to play games with our fantasies than to face the truth of our existence.He didn't use all of that, but that's the idea. The church's preaching has pretty much over-personalized this gospel, and it might seem that invoking spiritual "loneliness" would follow that vector. But the way I heard it, and the sentiment was echoed by another homily that invoked Richard Rohr's well-known image of a "God-sized hole" in the human heart that can only be filled by the divine, the loneliness Nouwen praises as a gift is the human need for transcendence. We are never satisfied without a deep connection to a transcendent Other. A few of us find this in communion with one whom we recognize as divine, but I think that many more of us discover transcendence, at least in a nascent way, in connection with others, with the world of nature, in love. Once we are able to break out of the shell of our self-interest and become aware of relationships and communion, in short, in the experience of ecstasy, the loneliness begins to subside, and we tend to be drawn ever deeper into that network or matrix of divine presence that is the human family and the created universe.
It further seems to me that the formalization of this experience in the Christian community is the process of incorporation the culminates in baptism, confirmation, and eucharist. There are other ways to be connected and to experience transcendence to be sure, some for better (hooking up with a twelve-step program, for instance, joining a charitable or world-building organization like Doctors without Borders or the Peace Corps) and some for worse, like street gangs and nationalist organizations. I would judge the quality of the transcendence by the means to its goal. To the extent that the end of transcendence is self-gift, agapic love, it better satisfies the inner longing Nouwen describes as loneliness. To the extent that it defines itself not by a border between "us and them" but by a desire for encounter that goes ever outward and especially toward those unable to return the gift in kind, it is more genuinely transcendent. While these experiences may result in the growth and happiness of the participants, happiness is not their goal, but love. By not defining myself against others but as part of a grander "whole" that is all-inclusive and outward-bound, I find that the inner loneliness subsides.
For us, all of this has its origin and its destiny in God, just as the preface yesterday so beautifully stated:
"For when he asked the Samaritan woman for water to drink,God is, so God loves. God thirsts for love, so God creates. By Jesus's saying "I'm thirsty, give me a drink of water," Jesus pulls the woman in the story out of her ethnic and gender preoccupations even as he sets his own aside. Jesus knows that the divine fire is already burning in her because of her creation, and certainly because, the Jewish-Samaritan "narcissism of small differences" aside, she has learned the Torah as well, and wants to worship in spirit and truth. In this story of a micro-relationship between a woman and Jesus set at what might as well be the honeymoon suite at Hotel Yenta, the fourth gospel unleashes on the world a blueprint for peace and reconciliation, a blueprint which is being used to form and discern those who are being apprenticed in Christian life. The scrutiny celebrated in churches with catechumens this year wants to do exactly that: make them (and us) examine our "loneliness," and strengthen us to break out of our fearfulness and navel-gazing, claim the gifts we have been given to forge bonds with other people who need our gifts, and fill up that "God-sized hole" in our hearts with the God in whose image every human person has been fashioned.
he had already created the gift of faith within her
and so ardently did he thirst for her faith,
that he kindled in her the fire of divine love."
Then I encountered a short blog post by John Michael Reyes, a liturgist and musician in the diocese of San Jose in California, in campus ministry at the University of Santa Clara. By the time I saw it, a dozen or so of my friends on Facebook were already lit up by his words, and by the end of the day nearly a hundred had read and delighted in his words. He began by posing the question, based on the gospel of the Samaritan woman, "Have you ever been so embarrassed that it paralyzed you?", he catalogued a series of events in his youth that culminated in depression and attempted suicide, became isolated and afraid. In this state, he found an echo of his former self in the woman in yesterday's gospel. False starts, false accusations, not being able to live under the scrutiny of the expectations of others. Seeing himself through the eyes of Christ allowed him to "come out" of the darkness he found himself in, and, like the Samaritan woman, he has been able through grace to work in initiation ministry and issue the same invitation to "come out" to others who seek fulfilment in Christ. He listens to the stories others tell about their lives, and helps them reinterpret their lives through the eyes of Jesus. Again, a different, more intimate take on the story itself, but it opens up the story in a new way in much the way that the Emmaus story does. Our personal story may have us arguing about our life in circles, seeing no particular trajectory or value in it. But when we say it out loud, and let Christ—including the Christ who is incarnate in the catechist or spiritual guide—interpret our story through the loving eyes and heart of God, our story is transformed and we find ourselves connected to the beating heart of the universe, and thus to others. Something new is finally possible.
Finally, over the last couple of weeks I had the extraordinary pleasure of listening to what might be the most wonderful book I've read in thirty years, since A Prayer for Owen Meany: I'm talking about George Saunders's luminous and compassionate novel Lincoln in the Bardo. On the off chance that you might take my advice and read this book yourself, I will not reveal plot points, no spoilers from me. But Saunders borrows the concept of the "bardo" from Tibetan Buddhism, and transforms it a little, to describe the place between death and "passing on" to whatever lies beyond. The Tibetan "whatever" is, assumably, reincarnation, but that doesn't seem to be what he has in mind. He seems to mean something like heaven, but for good reason he doesn't describe it in any detail, just in metaphor and promise.
The reason that it seems to appropriate here is that for the dead in the bardo, what is most precious is the illusion that they are still alive, and that they still may be able to get what they wanted in life an missed, or (in their cognizance) haven't achieved yet. What they want most is time to fulfill what is yet unfulfilled. And yet, each is so completely focused on what it is that they want that the perception of others in the bardo about them is that some element or elements of their appearance is exaggerated in a way that broadcasts, to their chagrin, what they don't have.
The entire novel takes place on the day when Lincoln's twelve-year-old son Willy is buried in a borrowed grave in a cemetery near the White House in February of 1862. It is Lincoln's shattering grief over the loss of his sweet son, the shambles of his wife's life, his horror over the first reports of the huge casualties of the battle of Fort Donelson and his mismanagement of the war that all come crashing down on the cemetery to interrupt the grousing and infighting among the dead at the cemetery. Based on the recorded visits of Lincoln to his son's grave under cover of darkness on that winter night, the novel imagines what the boy's spirit's journey might look like, how his love and his father's love might have impacted the souls buried around him, and how Lincoln might have been changed by his encounters.
For purposes of Lent, what interests me and what I want to tell you in the most general way I can is that what matters in the end is the ability to tell the truth about who we are, about acknowledging that we're actually dead, so that we can move on and embrace the possibilities that lie ahead of us. It is this truth-telling that enables us to get out of our dead selves and begin to do for one another, to begin to enter into relationships that are for other people and not focused on what we ourselves need.
For the souls in the bardo, what is actually the possibility of a different future appears to be death. And death it well may be, but it's the death of what passes for life among the dead. Stating it like that shows the contradiction for what is is: a doorway into life. This kind of change is not a fiction. Fiction offers us a metaphor for understanding reality, the world in which we find ourselves, the only world we know for certain, and the world Jesus was interested in changing. When he asks, in the story, the Samaritan woman to give him a drink of water, he shatters the silence and antipathy of centuries and generations. Chapter 8 of Acts of the Apostles (an episode of which we will hear on a Sunday late in the Easter season) will tell us the rest of the story: the Samaritans on hearing the preaching of Philip and others from the Jerusalem diaspora came in great numbers to faith in the gospel. A moment's risk at Jacob's well, a drink of water (one assumes) given to an enemy, opens up the way for the reconciliation of worlds.
Loneliness, paralyzing embarrassment, death masquerading as life and opportunity. Reyes points out, as others have, that we don't know the woman's name from the story. Why do you think that is? I suggest, as James Alison suggests about the "other disciple" with Clopas on the road to Emmaus, that it's an intentional omission, so that the person might be anyone. Anyone who, in this case, has a life whose false starts add up to six, or "infinite incompleteness;" anyone who is "paralyzed by embarrassment," or isolated by terror. Wherever we need to go to get away, the Seventh Husband, Mr. Right, is waiting there with flowers and chocolates. My story may not make sense to me, but when I hear the Stranger tell it, it sounds like a love story. A really good story. A story I belong in. A story with room for everybody. Suddenly, it seems my fear is transformed into something else.
Suddenly, all I can say is, "Let me tell you about someone who's told me everything I've ever done."
Tuesday, February 28, 2017
**Full disclosure: I wrote this post a few years ago, but never published it. So I updated it a little bit, and put it out there today for the fun of it. Things are better for me, but it's true enough!
Tuesday, February 14, 2017
A few sections from the discourse are omitted from the five Sunday proclamation that we hear in Year A. Notably, one large section is used on Ash Wednesday, the section about praying with integrity, and fasting and giving alms with the right disposition. In all, half a dozen of the forty or so gospels during the weekdays of Lent are from the Sermon on the Mount, further highlighting its importance in the Christian life. As I have pointed out before and in my book Change Our Hearts, the Lenten lectionary is a "crash course" or primer in Christian living, a handbook for catechumens in their final days before baptism. Among those gospels are the Our Father, the golden rule, and enemy love. Only the last is an echo of the proclamation on these Sundays.
So I'd like to start by positing that the Beatitudes aren't a blueprint for living or a manifesto. They are Jesus's declaration of how things are right now. Jesus is telling poor, ordinary people in an occupied country that God is present in their poverty, their longing for justice, their merciful and peacemaking actions, their apparent insignificance, their pain and sadness, and their desire for God. That is what "blessed" means, translating the Greek makarios, which has also been translated "happy" or "lucky." Makarios has a sense of "being enlarged" by the grace of God's presence that is already with them. He is telling them, by contrast, that what people of influence think of as a blessing is not necessarily a blessing at all. The lowly are in the enviable (another meaning of makarios) position of already having God at their side. There is no need to desire what it appears the powerful possess, because the living God is already present, with the fullness of divine favor, in their need. As Matthew strings together other sayings of Jesus in his discourse, he lays out just what that means because of what kind of a God his Abba is. Things are just starting to get interesting.
Light and Salt
So after declaring the blessedness, the enviable much-ness of Abba's presence in his children, Matthew's gospel lays in the sayings about them being "light of the world," "salt of the earth," and a "city set upon a hill." He could not say this unless the kingdom of heaven, the reign of God, were already present and available to them. In a cold, dark world of violent greed and escalating retribution that they know only too well from beneath, Jesus challenges the children of Abba to shine their inner beacon outward, and be the catalyst for the fire that will burn the old world away and make something new.
The Our Father
Rabbis teach their disciples to pray. By putting this story into the collection of sayings that make up the Sermon on the Mount, the author of the first gospel helps us understand just what the God in like in whom Jesus believes, whom Jesus trusts with his life, from whom Jesus draws his strength, and, we come to understand, who reveals Jesus as his unique Son by the way he lives his life. I've written about this prayer at length in two posts, "Grokking the 'our' in the Our Father" and "Revisiting the Lord's Prayer," so no need to go into detail here. What's important in the overall placing of the Lord's Prayer in this part of the gospel, in the shadow of the proclamation to "repent, the kingdom of heaven is at hand," is its underlying faith in a provident God who wants to be known as a father to his children. There are many gods available to Jesus's hearers, then and now, notably the god of the Roman empire, Tiberius Caesar. They are only too well aware of the kind of god Tiberius is, a god who brings peace through victory in war, keeps peace by the presence of violent legions and bestial governors, and whose justice benefits the victors alone, and oppresses the empire's subjects.
Jesus's God, on the other hand, they already know from their communal story, and whom their gentile sympathizers know to be a liberator and friend of the weak. But Jesus is even more intimate in his prayer to Abba, reminding them about how they treat their own children, and saying "if you love your children, how much more does abba love his?" Furthermore, the very naming of God as abba invites those who pray into a relationship to one another, a relationship that will be further explored in the Sermon. It is the relationship of a family of sisters and brothers who care for one another, who love each other with the same love with which they love themselves. Even more startlingly, it is a family relationship that includes all of God's children. It's not limited to those whom we consider family: it extends to all of God's beloved children, including the enemy.
The Hypertheses: love as the fullness of the law
There are five sayings in the Sermon on the Mount that teach us how Jesus reads the bible. They are called the hypertheses, and can be identified by the formula, "You have heard it said...but I say to you." On one level, Matthew has been setting Jesus up, even by placing this discourse on a mountain, as a new Moses, and wants to show his Jewish audience, and others who may want to idolize the law of Moses, that law is something that should not restrict good while it protects the weak. Things like these hypertheses, the prophecies fulfilled in the infancy narrative, and the number of discourses in Matthew come in fives because Moses was revered as the author of the first five books of the Jewish scriptures, called the Torah, or the Pentateuch.
I came to see this section in a new light after my encounters with James Alison's Jesus: The Forgiving Victim, as well as a couple of other books dealing with the question of violence in the bible, especially Derek Flood's wonderful book Disarming Scripture. For the sake of the people of God, Jesus is critical of the religious rulers who have turned religious law and worship into strictures of law and summary obedience that is not in their best interest and does not reflect the nature of Abba whom he knows to be relational and not just "a god like the other gods." "The prophetic spirit however is one that lovingly critiques religion from the inside, not as a way to destroy it, but as a way to make it good and whole," writes Flood. "This was the focus of Jesus, and is characteristic of how he read and applied Scripture in the context of confronting the fundamentalism of his day." Jesus makes clear that he has not come to abolish the law, but to fulfill it. The law of love, with Abba showing the way and being the greatest lover of all, doesn't forget to dot an i or cross a t of the law.
Alison helps us understand that every reading of scripture is an interpretation. There has never been one way to interpret any text, and, in fact, when stories had to be told or written texts interpreted, the question was always "through whose eyes do you read the scripture?"
…(F)or ancient readers, even more than the question “What does the text say?” the question was: “How do you read it?” or “What is your interpretation of it?” And that meant, as they well knew, “Who is your rabbi? Through whose eyes do you read this text?”
Alison poses that one answer to that question that can be found in Jewish scriptures, arising out of a story during the Exodus (Numbers 12). There is a row between Miriam, Aaron, and Moses about who ought to be able to speak for God. God answers the question in story by saying it is Moses the "humble, more than anyone else on earth" who speaks on his behalf. So one rabbinic way of interpreting the scripture would be through the eyes of "Moses the meek," giving the gentlest, most expansive interpretation possible. Alison goes on, though, to give a later option, from the dawn of the Christian era:
The other main answer to the question “Through whose eyes do you read the texts of Scripture?” is the answer given not by rabbinical Judaism, but by its slightly older contemporary, Universalizing, or New Testament Judaism, what we now call Christianity, which had begun to try to answer this question in the years between Jesus’ death and the destruction of the Temple in AD 70. That answer was “We read the Scriptures through the eyes of Jesus our Rabbi.” And those who gave this answer were well aware that they were answering a quite specific, and complex, question of interpretation. Their claim was that Jesus was a dead and living Rabbi. In other words, that a living interpretative principle was available to them to open their eyes to read their texts.
All of this is a way of seeing how Jesus reads the scripture in a way that says, "I know that's what your Bible says, but that's not the issue. The issue is that Abba wants a family, wants sisters and brothers who treat one another as equals, with love that is unrestricted by any claims of law or duty. The question was never 'How little can I do and still be a good person?', but rather, 'How can I live as a child of a loving abba in such a way as to reflect and give the love I have received from abba toward everyone else in God's family?"
Enemy love, desire, and the golden rule
Once again, my purpose here is to look at the sayings of Jesus that Matthew has strung into the Sermon on the Mount and see in them an introductory sermon on the kernel of his preaching, "Repent, the kingdom of heaven is at hand." In these few words, Jesus is trying to say that nothing is going to change if we keep doing business as usual. "Repent" means, literally, turn your life around. "Kingdom of heaven" means, the gentle presence of my abba-God. Don't keep using the methods of the world around you. Violence begets violence. The escalating demands of desire for wealth and power put you at odds with one another with terrible consequences. There is another way. There is another God. Don't keep up the old behaviors and expect a different outcome. Turn around—this is really good news. Follow me.
The last of the hypertheses, and at the very heart of this entire sermon, is the saying about enemy love, and the stunning request Jesus makes of us to "be perfect, as (in the way that) your heavenly abba is perfect." What does that mean? We spend our lives judging others, their actions and their motivations, deciding who is worthy of our respect and care and who isn't. Jesus says something different.
You have heard that it was said,To use Girardian language, it is the spiral of mimetic desire and the structures supporting a violent scapegoat mechanism that fuels the carnage of Caesar's world, or just "the world" in the language of the bible. We identify an enemy, internal or external to our group. We define our "in" group over and against the enemy, someone who wants what we have. It doesn't matter what it is. This pattern of blame and demonization leads to violence, and the murder or marginalization of the enemy puts the angst of society relax for a while until the next crisis arises. But the need for more security, more goods, more resources, more room, more jobs, more entitlements inevitably leads to escalating pressure within the "in" group, and the cycle continues. How do we break this cycle that is apparently foundational to civilization itself?
You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.
But I say to you, love your enemies
and pray for those who persecute you,
that you may be children of your heavenly Father,
for he makes his sun rise on the bad and the good,
and causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust.
For if you love those who love you, what recompense will you have?
Do not the tax collectors do the same?
And if you greet your brothers only,
what is unusual about that?
Do not the pagans do the same?
So be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.
Jesus's answer is, "Be perfect like abba is perfect." Stop judging. Stop defining who you are by defining yourself against others. See how God does it: everything that has been made is for everyone. No judgment, just all that life pouring out of the heavens. If you do that, love your neighbor as yourself, if you act like children of abba and family to each other, you can change the world.
What we will be doing is letting the Spirit of God, who is within us, do what the Spirit wants to do: make us one. We have been given the Spirit, all of us, but to us Christians, explicitly and with our ultimate consent, in our baptism. But the Spirit given to us is pure gift, that is, it is the spirit of love, the spirit of self-given-for-others, and so longs to be lavished upon others. To the extent that we act like God, we are divinized. We let our sun shine and rain fall on the good and bad alike. We love our enemies, do good to those who hate us. What people see in this is God working, and so Jesus can say, "your light must shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your heavenly Father."
It's crazy and seems impossible, but it's the only way out of hell, the hell of violence and suspicion that is "the world" without God.
Do not worry
The Sermon on the Mount encompasses all of chapters 5, 6, and 7 of Matthew, but the final installment that we hear in these gospels of Ordinary Time is the end of chapter 6. (Actually, the 9th Sunday in Ordinary Time, which, along with Sundays 10 and 11 isn't celebrated this year due to the way the liturgical calendar is constructed, contains verses 21-27 from chapter 7. You'll have to read that part on your own!)
In the last section that we hear this year, Jesus says that we won't be disappointed when we seek God's reign and its "righteousness" first. He means that we were made for it, that it will fit us like a glove, and the reason that we're unhappy in the kingdom of Caesar is that we're trying to force ourselves into a world for which we were never intended. What made those people go out to hear Jesus that day, and John the Baptist before him? What made those fishermen leave their livelihood and go itinerant with the rabbi when he invited them? Don't you think that they knew there was something wrong, and they heard something right, an echo of their purest, most ancient identity, in his words? I think this is what Matthew means when, at the end of chapter 7 and the conclusion of Jesus's discourse, he says,
When Jesus finished these words, the crowds were astonished at his teaching,At the end of chapter six, Jesus tells them that they're in good hands when they entrust their lives to Abba and to one another as sisters and brothers. That's what is meant by the "kingdom of heaven." Jesus means that when we switch our allegiance, our trust, our hope, from the "kingdoms of this world" to the world of "our Father," we will find the real security, justice, and peace for ourselves and for everyone else, the only real possibility for security and peace and justice, because when everyone has enough, the cycle of mimetic desire and escalating violence is broken. When what we see in others is self-gift, when "doing unto others what you would have do unto you" is practiced by everyone, our human talent for imitation and "desiring according to the desire of the other" is finally turned away from competition and toward mutuality.
for he taught them as one having authority, and not as their scribes.
So "do not worry," because when you care about one another's good, your neighbor's got your back. Do not worry, because that is the way you were made to live in the beginning.
I need to hear this again this year. I think we all need to hear it, because the voice of Tiberius is still telling us to be afraid of enemies on the frontiers, while arming the borders against enemies imagined and, to a lesser extent, real. The choice for us, nominal Christians, liturgical Christians, continues to be "business as usual" and complicity with the almost unspeakable violence of which other gods are capable, or to just turn around and start cooperating with the Spirit of God which has been planted in our heart, and which calls out to others to listen to the voice of Jesus gently pleading with us to live another way. We keep coming back to hear that message, Sunday after Sunday. We know something is wrong. We insist, most of the time, on hedging our bets and throwing in with the guys with the guns. But there he is again, in his gospel being read when we get together, astonishing us with his teaching, a word utterly unlike the tweets and executive orders and threats we hear from the other gods who say they swear to protect us. We know something's wrong, and these words two millennia old sound like they were written just for us today: "Be light. Be a fire. Be reconciled. Do not resist the violent. Love your enemies. Do good to haters. Be perfect. Don't worry. And pray like this: Our Father. Your kingdom come. Your will be done on earth." Our Father. Amen.
My posts on the individual Sundays for the Sermon on the Mount:
4th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A (the Beatitudes)
5th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A (salt and light)
6th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A (reading the Bible like Jesus)
7th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A, part 1 (beyond talion, resisting violence)
7th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A, part 2 (love your enemies, be perfect)
8th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A, (lilies, birds, two masters)
Saturday, February 11, 2017
PALM SUNDAYWho comes in the name of the Lord?
That whole "obedient unto death thing"
HOLY THURSDAYAnniversary: My half-life as a music director
"Gave himself as food and drink"
GOOD FRIDAYIt's not a funeral for Jesus
Nine months until Christmas (Annunciation)
Thy kingdom (not of this world) come
I AM (I am not)
HOLY SATURDAY/EASTER VIGILToward a family-friendly Easter Vigil
Horse and chariot: where the rubber hits the Way
"My creations are drowning, and you are singing before me?"
GENERAL TRIDUUMTriduum music for 2014
Word of the day: Triduum
Who's in charge here?
Wednesday, January 25, 2017
God chose the foolish of the world to shame the wise,I am so looking forward to praying through the Sermon on the Mount in these approaching Sundays of Ordinary Time, and to boot we get the continued reading of the beginning of 1 Corinthians. Sunday's gospel is the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount, that foundational piece of Jesus's preaching which we know by the latinate term beatitudes, or "blessednesses."
and God chose the weak of the world to shame the strong,
and God chose the lowly and despised of the world,
those who count for nothing,
to reduce to nothing those who are something,
so that no human being might boast before God. (1 Cor. 1: 27-29)
Preparing us to hear Matthew is the reading from Zephaniah, naming the "remnant" of Israel, the anawim, those who remained faithful to the covenant after the extreme trials of the captivities. It is from these poor, stateless, faithful Jews, who point the way to God for people who lose their way. Then we hear Paul's mighty boast to the Corinthians, not on his own behalf, but on behalf of the folly of the cross. Paul is alarmed to have heard about rifts in Corinth among believers in different "versions" of the gospel, which we heard about last Sunday. There are divisions as well between rich and poor, rifts that have begun to exhibit themselves in the celebration of the Lord's Supper. So Paul starts at his center, and appeals to the cross and to the immense and unknowable wisdom of God which appears to human beings as folly. Through the unthinkable execution of an innocent man, God reconciles humanity, ends the cycle of scapegoating and sacrifice at the heart of human religion, and offers an alternative worldview to the Pax Romana, which is to say, peace through victory and forced obedience. Through Christ, and therefore through his followers, human wisdom is overturned, and something new is begun.
At the heart of this faith is Paul's relentless belief in the agape that God is. Time after time in his letters, Paul refers to the kenosis of the logos, that is, that God's "personal, definitive self-expression" emptied self into creation. In a sense, God died, giving up life completely for "other" and yet, God's life is never gone, it is, rather, the fullness of life. As human beings, however, we analogically experience that life-to-death-to-life of God as the paschal mystery. We think of God's utter love and self-abandonment as death; we can't see anything else, and yet, God has nothing to do with death. It is love, complete, unknowable, light-filled, utterly other-oriented, that we mistake for death, because we simply can't conceive of it. We can't conceive of a god so selfless that s/he does not cling to god-ness, but pours it out. This is folly to the Greeks, their philosophers and pantheon. But Paul clings to the idea tenaciously, convinced that, in spite of its folly, it is the heart of the reality of God in Christ to the extent that we can understand it.
Perhaps it is thus that Jesus can call the anawim of the earth makarios, or "blessed," "fortunate," or "happy." Having been through all of those translations, I'm in a place now where I'm happy with "blessed." It's a God-word. It can't be mistaken for a sense of giddiness or good luck. To a world, even to his fellow Jews, that believes that to be "blessed" is to be powerful or wealthy, or healthy or intelligent, Jesus proclaims that blessedness is an invisible joy, a gift that can only originate and get its meaning from God, and that blessedness in this God can only be intuited through a sense of not being possessed by the reign of Caesar. In fact, it might be a bonus to be its enemy, to be among the persecuted and calumniated like the master. The poor, even the poor in spirit, the meek, peacemakers, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, the single-hearted, those who are sorrowful, these are the ones closest to God's own nature, God's poverty, God's loss that is creative for the cosmos. God's self-gift, mirrored in Christ, the image of the invisible God, seems to be, unimaginably, a blessedness that we can only perceive as the emptiness of love, and yet it is the creative force that imagined every universe, and sparked the wild singularity that spawned a trillion suns a nanosecond after time was born. If that's death, if that's poverty, I'll take some of that!
A few years ago (I want to say 2011?) on this Sunday we had a busload of Lutherans with us from southern Illinois, they had driven three hours or more to join us in order that we could, together, commission a woman missionary that our communities were sending to the diocese of Goma, in the Congo, to the village of Nkokwe. We committed to supporting that village for five years, and this little community from southern Illinois has already forwarded her a year's worth of living expenses.
When Jackie Griffin was called to the center of the assembly that morning for a commissioning by us and her Lutheran community to her new work in Nkokwe at Rugari parish (Our Lady of the Rosary), the power of the paschal mystery was palpable. I stood with the rest of the community, and felt the breath sucked from my lungs, nearly weeping in that moment of grace, as this woman, full of life and the gospel imperative, committed herself to a year in a turbulent nation where privation, sickness, political violence, and murder are part of the fabric of daily life. This, I became aware, is the real thing, someone who was, for all intents and purposes, selling everything she had, pouring her life out, and giving it to the poor. This was a moment of agape made visible, and anyone who didn't feel that was just not paying attention. In a spiritual, non-threatening sense we were going with her, but it was her life on the line. By the grace of God she planted a seed of the resurrection in that corner of the world, one that we hope will rebound upon us with its clarity. Jackie is blessed. The people whom she goes to serve are blessed. Somehow, by association in the body of Christ, maybe we too, in our suburban outpost of Caesar's empire, will be blessed by our association with them. Slowly, sometimes unwillingly, we learn the lesson of love's emptiness and the joy that is invisible to the privileged and the powerful.
Here's what we're singing for January 29, the 4th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A.
Entrance: Bring Forth the Kingdom (Haugen)
Psalm 146 "Blessed Are the Poor" (Cooney, verses GIA, unpublished refrain)
Preparation Rite: Beatitudes (Balhoff) or Blessed Are They (Haas)
Communion: Within the Reign of God (Haugen)
Sending Forth: Canticle of the Turning (Cooney)