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Saturday, February 3, 2018

My Lenten Blog Posts, 2013-2017 - a resource

Greetings to all who read this blog!

As we get ready for Lent, I thought you might be able to use this index page for all the material I've written about Lenten Sundays (and a few weekdays), as well as material on the Rite of Election and Scrutinies. Blog posts on Triduum will have their own page, and I'll try to organize Easter later this year.

I apologize in advance for the dearth of material on weeks 3, 4, and 5 of Lent outside of Year A. We only use those readings at St. Anne when we don't have catechumens, and it hasn't happened very often! So good luck with those.

For now at least, I hope these may help give you ideas on music, preaching, and ritual as we head into Lent 2018. Thank you for your support.

Information about my book of Lenten Reflection, Change Our Hearts, can be found here, or using the link to 


1. General

2. Ash Wednesday

3. First Sunday of Lent

5. Third Sunday of Lent

6. Fourth Sunday of Lent

7. Fifth Sunday of Lent

8. Scrutinies and "The Mystery of Sin"

9. Palm Sunday of the Lord's Passion

10. Lenten Weekdays

11. Songs for Lent from "SongStories"

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Thoughts about Advent through the years

In my never ending quest to give people more information than they ask for or even want, I have made an index of my posts (so far) about Advent, in the hope that the index will help someone other than me some day. You're welcome! 😇

General posts about the season
Advent 101: Waiting (these first four essays explore the key dynamics of each Sunday)
Advent 102: Preparing
Advent 103: Rejoicing
Advent 104: Solidarity
God's Unfinished House (written the year our church was being built, this little essay looked at the image of unfinished church as a metaphor for Advent.)
Gaudete in Tenebris - Advent in 2012 (rejoicing in the darkness; Advent after Sandy Hook)

Interlude (a little poem about being between things, unfinished)

First Sunday of Advent
A. Year A - Advent 1 - Let us walk in the light of the Lord

Second Sunday of Advent
A. Advent 2A - Justice and fullness of peace

Third Sunday of Advent

Fourth Sunday of Advent

Songs for Advent 

Saturday, December 9, 2017

Participation as Sacrament, Part 3 (Conclusion)

This short series of posts will be a recreation of the lecture I gave on November 23, 2017, at Kings College, University of Western Ontario, in London, Ontario, the annual Christ the King Lecture in the Veritas series. Rather than put it all in one post, I'll divide it up for easier reading. The title of the lecture as advertised was, "Participation: It's Kind of a Religion with Me."

The final example of how singing is sacramental in its invitation to participate will take us back to “Come All You People” and songs like it that have become part of our worship from many cultures - “Pescador de Hombres,” “Siyahamba,” some of the beautiful melodies that have come into the repertoire from China, Japan, Vietnam, the work of people like Camaldoli abbot Cyprian Consiglio who has worked with ashrams of Benedictines in India adapting the psalms to ancient ragas, rhythms, forms, and tunes of India, Franciscan Rufino Zaragoza with Vietnamese Music, and Ricky Manalo, whom you’ve recently met. Of course another source of this comes to the people of the United States from the spiritual traditions of African-American slaves, songs of deliverance and freedom, which was the original meaning of the religious word “redemption.” These songs have endured to this day. We’re familiar of course with adaptations like “We Shall Overcome,” “Kumbaya,” “Over My Head I Hear Music in the Air,” and “This Little Light of Mine.” Even “When the Saints Go Marching In” is a Christian song, probably not from the spiritual tradition, but ransomed, nonetheless, from it’s absorption into secular culture when it is reclaimed for All Saints day and times like that. The immediacy of folk music and spirituals, its repetitive melodic and lyric motifs that make it memorable, along with a fairly simple vocabulary layered with metaphors and allusions, particularly suit it to congregational singing by people of all ages. ValLimar Jansen and Tom Kendzia, Kim Harris and Reggie Harris, and many others have been demonstrating this for us for years, and keeping those songs in our collective memory and repertoire.

I’ve set a number of traditional tunes from various cultures to new lyrics, from European Christmas songs to “Shenandoah” for these kinds of reasons, but one that has worked great for me is “Mary Don’t You Weep.” At times like the Easter Vigil, I want the music to feel spontaneous and accessible even without a hymnal or printed worship aid. So I turned to the spiritual tradition, this song like many coming down in many versions. I’ve spliced two versions of the melody together for this, but you’ll pick it up quickly.

I’ve been trying to give a few examples from my own life about how music is what we in the church would call sacramental. You might say that liturgical singing is a means to a means to an end. Participation in music is a means toward a more authentic participation in worship as a whole. But participation in worship, and this is critically important, is a means toward a more authentic “full, conscious, and active participation” in the life of the church as it goes about announcing the gospel to the world and its alternative economy and style of rule to what is the violent, rivalrous, winner-takes-all business-as-usual of civilization. Both the church and her worship are the work of and gift of a specific God, a God whose rule is based on service of others, whose very nature is self-emptying, creative love, whose ethic is “do unto others as you would have them do to you,” and in whose communitarian image the human race is created.

The goal of liturgical worship, while it may occasionally be ecstatic, taking us outside of ourselves into the mystic realm of community, is not to make us feel good, but to empower us, make us remember, fill us with gratitude, nourish us with the truth and the presence of God and one another, and send us on mission. Get us out to change our neighborhood, commerce, the justice system, the bad choices of history, and better choices for the future on behalf of those who are without political or economic clout. Different churches, denominations, in different demographics, will find different ways of living out that vocation. At St. Anne in Barrington, where I’ve had the privilege of serving for the past nearly 24 years, we have a community that has built a church in Congo, a mission in Uganda, helps support two parishes in Chicago including a large food pantry and a shelter for homeless women and children, and has founded and continues to staff almost exclusively with hundreds of volunteers a resale shop for clothes and furniture that raises a million dollars a year for charitable grants.

The thing is, in order for all of this to come together, we have to opt in. We can't be satisfied to let everyone else do it. We can't let the experts do it, and just imagine that's the way it is supposed to be. In the reign of God, everyone is important. Everyone is in. Baptism doesn't make us beloved children of God. It somehow makes us aware of being beloved children of God. We're children of God by creation, we're loved from the moment God thought of us. So as we get busy as baptized Christians in the leitos ergos, the liturgy, the public work of the church, everything depends on full, conscious, and active participation. By everybody. There's no question about whether God is present to the work: Christ is present wherever his body is gathered to worship the Father. Everyone is needed. The world is needy, and the Spirit has given the church gifts to serve those needs. Everyone is needed, everyone has gifts. Those gifts serve the needs of all. All of those things are true, in that order.

The music of the liturgy, always inviting the church to full, conscious, and active participation, both reflects the life of the church and forms it. It reflects the life of the church by being the work of everyone, and yet that work is accomplished through the gifts given to community members who respond by using those gifts of singing, song-leading, cantors, choir members, instrumentalists, librarians, songwriters, poets, composers, all to serve the community and to worship God with what John Witvliet has called “cruciform beauty,” beauty that remembers that isn’t ultimately judged by aesthetic standards but by gospel standards: welcome, accessibility, participation, other-centeredness, because it worships a god who is not gluttonous for praise but one who bows down to empower our song, who fills us with the gifts we need to save each other and the world. The invisible reality that is the light within the whole sacramental economy of the church is that God, saving the world from its bad choices, invites us to participate in that saving work by doing what Jesus did: telling the truth, healing, and exposing exclusivity and prejudice of all kinds, living in solidarity with those endangered by the self-appointed guardians of grace as well as the emperors, judges, generals, and satraps who usurp the name of God. A saying of Desmond Tutu about the participatory nature of salvation goes back, at least in spirit, to St. Augustine. “Without God, we cannot. Without us, God will not.”

Perhaps that is why, in our darkest times, there is a sense that there is light among us. Perhaps for those who believe, the light is not at the end of the tunnel, but the light is actually in the darkness of the tunnel. Wherever we experience darkness, that is where God is, because God goes to the place where rescue is required. Let that be our practice too. “Participation…it’s kind of a religion with me.” Let our participation be a habit with us, in song, in worship, in life, because the life of God is participation. Singing together in the darkness, we will discover one among us whom we do not know. We will even discover that the world, seemingly so wrapped in night,  is about to turn.

Friday, December 8, 2017

Participation as Sacrament, Part 2

Gary Daigle (right) and I at the Liturgical
Composers Forum in St. Louis, 2016
This short series of posts will be a recreation of the lecture I gave on November 23, 2017, at Kings College, University of Western Ontario, in London, Ontario, the annual Christ the King Lecture in the Veritas series. Rather than put it all in one post, I'll divide it up for easier reading. The title of the lecture as advertised was, "Participation: It's Kind of a Religion with Me."

I met Fr. John Gallen, the Jesuit liturgist who founded the Notre Dame Center for Pastoral Liturgy, in the early 1980s. I finally began to understand under his guidance in Phoenix at the Corpus Christi Center for Advanced Liturgical Studies the relationship between liturgy and life in a way I hadn’t understood before. About the same time, the National Association of Pastoral Musicians and NALR both became part of my life, then the North American Forum on the Catechumenate, and the relationships between ecclesiology and music and liturgy came more to the fore, along with ways in which music serves liturgy and forms community as it invites people into participation.

On one institute early in my career with the North American Forum, Gary Daigle and I were music and liturgy leaders on an institute in Orange County, CA. We were trying to organize a procession for a penitential rite on Ash Wednesday, and wanted immediate music, something people could sing with little or no rehearsal. We settled on a litany for form, and thought of using a motif from Parce Domine. ("Three Blind Mice" works if you don’t know Parce Domine.)

Cantors begin by intoning the response, which is a prayer in itself. Once people get the form of the litany, they can act on their own. In later years, Gary added accompaniment and choral parts to offer more options. If you’ll look in your booklet at song # 2, we’ll sing a little bit of this.

So here you have the songwriters trying to construct a form that works for non-singers as well as singers. You have trained singers leading the song of the assembly, inviting responses, and choir adding their particular gifts to the mix as well. The music suggests the old as well as something new, using a plainsong melody already associated with Lent, but accommodated to an English text. The form and the classic motif invite participation, and the experience of the piece building in momentum as people join in the music may be sacramental.

I’d like to sing with you another song of mine that uses the form of the litany, but adds a refrain.  What I was trying to do with this song, called “Christ the Icon,” was create a musical experience to help us begin to understand what St Paul (or the author of the letter) is talking about in Colossians when he says that Jesus “is the image (or eikon) of the invisible God.”

One of the images that we haven’t shaken of the reign of God, at least in the United States, is the image of God as an emperor, a conquering general, a judge, all of that medieval imagery that the Jews picked up from their Middle Eastern neighbors and conquerors, emulated in their own kingdom and then in dreams of restoration, all of which came crashing down with the Roman destruction of Jerusalem in 70, only to be miraculously resurrected in Christianity when Constantine made Christianity the religion of the Holy Roman empire.
We started imagining God to be like Constantine and then Charlemagne. No matter how many times we heard Jesus say that his domain “was not like the kingdoms of this world," the only word we actually heard was “kingdom.” I think language failed Jesus. We want a king and a kingdom, winners and losers, we want to beat the bad guys and take their stuff because it belongs to us, who are the good guys. But Jesus, healer, itinerant teacher, companion, speaker of truth to power, all of that, tells us, “whoever has seen me has seen the Father.” So then we have to deal with his death for capital crimes against the state. How is that like a king, like a god?

"Christ the Icon" simply has us tell the story of Jesus through the invocations of a cantor or cantors, to which we respond, “the image of the unseen God.” The choir overlays, as the song progresses, the word “eleison”, and adds harmony to the refrain. Continue to pay attention to the dynamic here: it is the whole church's song, led by a cantor or cantors, supported and maybe embellished by a choir of trained singers and even other trained musicians, string and woodwind and piano and guitar players, even other instruments. Everyone participates in an act of faith and remembering to help the whole body incorporate or internalize the "image of the unseen God," Jesus Christ, the human face of the Father's mercy. But ultimately, the song is in service not only of the liturgy but of the mission of the church in the world, that is, a mission of service, not of rule, of invitation, not force, persuasion, not threat or spiritual blackmail. The act of singing the song together, each taking a ministerial role based on one's gifts, but everyone doing their part, is a rehearsal of the church's role in the neighborhood and the world, everyone at work for the sake of the reign of God in a variety of gifts suited to the needs of actual people.

No wonder Austin Fleming reminded us all those years ago: "Be faithful in the work you do, because through it, the Lord saves his people."

So here you have a scriptural truth: the crucified Jesus, utterly alive, revealing God, whose spirit is the life of the church, the crucified one is the image of the invisible God. We just keep singing that together, over and over again, as an act of non-conformity to a culture that wants to be competitive, wants to honor winners and dispose of losers, wants to look as much and act as much like the emperor-god as possible, painting our enemies as god’s enemies and destroy them. As a singing church, as the spirit-led voice of resistance, we just say no. And we do it the way the church does everything: first, as a body, but as a body with an array of gifts given for the service of all.

To follow up on this theme, I want to reiterate that what we sing, that is, the words we sing in our songs on those occasions when we sing scripture-inspired songs rather than strictly liturgical texts, is also in function of participation. Those of us who write texts for singing try to do so in a way that takes into account artistic principles of familiarity and surprise. I mean  familiarity in the sense that we sing what we believe, in familiar and resonant phrases drawn from scripture and the liturgy. Yet at the same time we depend on the variety of inspiration and creativity to awaken us to what we believe in ways that we weren’t expecting, both affirming our belief and challenging us to take it more seriously, perhaps, than we had before. I’d like to sing with you a hymn I wrote a few years ago called “To You Who Bow,” which I dedicated to my choir. Those of you in music ministry know the number of hours a parish choir puts in preparing for worship over the course of a year, or a pastorate, or a lifetime. It’s a tremendous amount of labor, and it’s a labor of love, and it’s all on behalf of the whole church present in a particular assembly, and oriented toward their actuosa participatio, that is, the role of the choir is to invite the church to use its voice, to inspire, edify, and come to deeper participation in God’s project both in the Eucharist and in the other 167 hours of the week.

Let's sing it: "To You Who Bow."

 Next: Part 3—Participation in Music as Sacrament of Participation in Life

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Participation as Sacrament, Part 1

This short series of posts will be a recreation of the lecture I gave on November 23, 2017, at Kings College, University of Western Ontario, in London, Ontario, the annual Christ the King Lecture in the Veritas series. Rather than put it all in one post, I'll divide it up for easier reading. The title of the lecture as advertised was, "Participation: It's Kind of a Religion with Me." 

I began the talk by quickly teaching and singing (in parts) with the attendees "Uyai Mose," the Zimbabwean praise song by Alexander Gondo, collected and arranged by John Bell. I taught it by rote to give anyone who was not someone who regularly sang in choir or even in church a chance to do so, in the hope that it would give a glimpse forward toward what I wanted to say. Here's the rest of the talk.

Part One -- Singing as a Sacrament

Thank you to the University of Western Ontario, Christ the King College, and all the people who
have been working to see this night would happen since last fall: Fr. Michael Bechard, Melissa Nichols, and Deacon Jim Donovan Panchaud. Thank you for holding my hand across the 49th parallel to bring us to this night.

I got the idea for the title of this talk from a documentary on the life and career of Pete Seeger called “The Power of Song.” It was part of PBS’s series called “American Masters,” and was eye-opening as to the vocation of this man who traveled the countries of the world like a bee going to flowers, dropping off songs here and picking up songs there, cross-pollinating the world with music and with the experience of singing other people’s music together. While he was not alone in this endeavor, we owe to Pete Seeger the popularity of South African songs like “Wimoweh (The Lion Sleeps Tonight)” and the Cuban “Guantanamera,” as well as the once-ubiquitous folk mass song from the African Gullah spiritual of southeastern American slaves, "Kumbaya." He said, as part of an interview in The Power of Song, “I've never sung anywhere without giving the people listening to me a chance to join in – as a kid, as a lefty, as a man touring the U.S.A. and the world, as an oldster. I guess it's kind of a religion with me. Participation. That's what's going to save the human race.” More recently, John Bell, the minister of the Church of Scotland whose home base is the Iona Community, has done much the same kind of work as a musician in churches around the world, bringing congregational singing to congregations on every continent while collecting hymns from them and making those available as well around the world, like the song we just sang, the Zimbabwean song in Shona, "Uyai Mose."

I have a simple thesis I’d like to explore with you tonight, and that is this: that participation in worship, particularly participation in singing, has so much in common with sacraments that it can be described as sacramental. In fact, Roman Catholic documents on liturgy describe music as “integral” to liturgy, and I take that to mean, in its Latinate sense, that it is part of the “whole” of liturgy, that without it, liturgical worship is something less than complete. I would like to lay out a few pieces of that thesis in the context of my own life as a songwriter and musician for the church, because that’s all I have to talk about. (Footnote: my name and “lecture” have never before appeared in the same sentence except ironically, or when my wife says, "Rory Cooney, don't you lecture me." I actually asked my hosts if they had the right person. There’s another Rory Cooney who is well known in the field of veterinary medical biology, especially Irish cattle. I thought they meant to call him.) So I just want to talk about the experience of growing up singing in church before the 2nd Vatican Council, then discovering the liturgical reform while spending a few unenlightened years in the seminary (Footnote: actually eight years, high school, novitiate, and three years of college—I made a hasty departure shortly after they explained to us what celibacy was), and finally coming to embrace songwriting and participation in liturgy as a vocation.

After a little bit of that, I’d like to explore with you a few examples from my own writing to demonstrate the dynamic I’m talking about, that is, how does worship music and participation in singing specifically get us to behave in sacramental ways? Then I’ll make a few closing remarks on the wider meaning of sacramental, that is, how these sacramental actions point us not to the church but to the project God is bringing about in the world, what Jesus called the “kingdom” or reign of God, though those words don’t do the reality justice, and may in fact hide more information than they reveal, even lead us astray a little. I think i can make myself clearer as we go along, but one thing at a time.

So what do I mean by a sacrament? Well, sacrament is a religious word for a specific kind of symbol. We talk about sacraments as being symbolic actions that represent invisible realities, actions that in some way have their origins in the actions of Jesus, and thus represent the work of God in the world. But these signs are more than representational signs, like a stop sign or an “open” sign. Neither accomplishes anything - a stop sign doesn’t make us stop; a sing may say “open” and the store may in fact be closed. but liturgical signs, or sacraments, rehearse us to act in ways that not only represent and remember the actions of Jesus, but in some unseen and yet real way “effect what they signify.” In other words, communal singing in liturgy, in its many forms, really does do something other than organize sound. It also does something more than actually get us out of ourselves, more than get us to do something together, usually without fighting (much). It does something more than help us experience ourselves as part of a whole that is greater than ourselves, and greater than the sum of its parts. Because by doing all of those things and more, singing allows us to participate in God’s work of transforming the world. Through a strategy of labor, discipline, shared breath, listening, and a lot of joy, singing together is a pathway of deliverance from the isolation that keeps us apart and the idol of specialization that makes us think we’re not good enough to sing, we don’t have a singing voice, and that only professionals should be allowed to join in the song.

Ultimately, this is borne out in the witness of the prophets who assure us that the noise we make in the temple is cacophony anyway unless we’re making noise in the streets, in the markets, and in the courts on behalf of those who are powerless. The Amos and Isaiah don’t say, “Stop singing” - they say that the singing, incense, and all the praying and reading we do together don’t amount to anything unless we’re committed to solidarity with the cry of the poor. "It is mercy I desire," says the Lord, "not sacrifice." The demand of a sacramental theology in Christian life is that we never lose sight of that aspect of what we’re up to: we’re not in it for the fun, it’s not our game. We’re called to participation in God’s project, and if we’re going to “hallow thy name,” worship the God of Jesus, through him, with him, and in him,  in union with the Holy Spirit, we’d better not forget who this God is. God does not need or want flattery, no matter how artful and sensually beautiful, from sycophants. God wants actors on behalf of the underprivileged, collaborators for the stateless, homeless, and forgotten. God lets us use a bath, a meal, and community song to form us and get us there and sustain us. But it’s all of a piece. Like love and marriage in the old song, you can’t have one without the other.

Let me come back to this at the end of this talk, but let’s spend a little time singing through some music, and let me tell you how this all came to be in my life.

I’m 65 - grew up going to Catholic grammar school in the early 1960s. The CSL was promulgated when I was in 6th grade. I sang in boys choir and mixed choir – with men, that is – and learned the chant masses along with simple 2 part polyphony that came from the old hymnals like the St. Basil and St. Gregory hymnals. In minor seminary between 1965-1969 in the conservative archdiocese of Los Angeles, hardly friendly to the liturgical changes, we sang chant, organ masses like those of Noel Goemanne and John Lee. But we also started to sing music out of the “Peoples Mass Book,” music by Stephen Somerville and Omer Westendorf and of course Lucien Deiss. And we started singing popular songs with changed words, like “And I Love Him,” about Jesus, and others. Being in the Vincentian community, the community of Hannibale Bugnini, we had some freedom from local ordinaries, even Cardinals, which also suited us well when I went to seminary college in Missouri, where the ordinary was John Carberry.

I tell you all of this because i think my experiences skirting the borders of musical orthopraxis and heteropraxis is a pretty common story. Somewhere along the line, I think it was my association with the Composers Forum for Catholic Worship beginning in about 1970 or 1971 when I began to realize that it was really all right to reimagine the music of the psalms and liturgy in musical idioms that my comrades and I were familiar with, and I began doing so with a few others in my class, informally critiquing one another and learning our craft by the success and failure of our work.

But keep trying to see all of this in terms of eliciting participation. The rubric for liturgical reform Sacrosanctum Concilium was actuosa participatio, translated as “active participation,” or as the whole phrase “full, conscious, active participation.” Whether it was introducing songs people knew that “sounded religious” without even being written as sacred music, for instance, “Blowing in the Wind,” Bob Dylan’s civil rights anthem, or “Day by Day” from Godspell, a theater piece based on a prayer by St. Richard of Chichester, or my rewriting of words to the Carpenters’ song “Crescent Noon” to a text about salvation history, all of it was in service of an urge, a momentum, a desire that we all felt was instilled in us by the Holy Spirit to sing together, and invite others into the song. Of course we made a lot of mistakes along the way in our ardor and enthusiasm, but we found our way.
that emerged from

Part Two: Who sings, and how?

Thursday, November 2, 2017

Service and Participation (A31O)

My mind and heart are full of thoughts about service and participation this week as I prepare to give the reflection at all the masses this weekend for our liturgical ministry fair, and then to speak later this month in London, Ontario, at King's College at the University of Western Ontario about participation, particularly in song, as an act of faith and conversion. There is a lot to be said about all that, of course. What I'm hoping is to say some of it in a comprehensible and true way, with a beginning and a middle and an end. It will be slightly easier when I can speak for 45 or 50 minutes on the topic; less so this weekend when I want to restrict myself to less than ten minutes speaking time. 

I know that the first reading and gospel offer to any preacher of the word a wonderful opening into the paschal mystery that offers to us a God who tells us, in Jesus, that "whoever would be greatest among you must serve the rest." This can only be true, of course, if it is true of God, so we must somehow try to imagine that God, rather than ordering the universe through fiat and command, does so through the gentle persuasion of love and sacrifice, of somehow serving creation, being at our service, as the story of Jesus, who is "the image of the unseen God," reveals to us in faith.

The contrast between this beautiful reality, which we know to be true through our experience of people whose humility and simplicity in servant leadership have called out our very best through the years, and the image painted of spiritual leadership in the texts from Malachi and the contentious chapters of Matthew that lead up to the arrest, trial, and death of Jesus, couldn't be starker. With language borrowed from vassal state covenants learned from their Babylonian and Assyrian masters, the prophet speaks on behalf of the "great King" who is displeased with his priests:
O priests, this commandment is for you:
If you do not listen,
if you do not lay it to heart,
to give glory to my name, says the LORD of hosts,
I will send a curse upon you
and of your blessing I will make a curse.
You have turned aside from the way,
and have caused many to falter by your instruction;
you have made void the covenant of Levi,
says the LORD of hosts.
I, therefore, have made you contemptible
and base before all the people,
since you do not keep my ways,
but show partiality in your decisions.
Have we not all the one father?
Has not the one God created us?
Why then do we break faith with one another,
violating the covenant of our fathers?
Neither is Jesus pleased with the Jerusalem leadership of the Jews, whom he praises, one must speculate, for their teaching ("observe all things whatsoever they tell you") while excoriating their behavior ("but do not follow their example.")
...For they preach but they do not practice.
They tie up heavy burdens hard to carry
and lay them on people's shoulders,
but they will not lift a finger to move them.
All their works are performed to be seen.
They widen their phylacteries and lengthen their tassels.
They love places of honor at banquets, seats of honor in synagogues,
greetings in marketplaces, and the salutation 'Rabbi.'
The context of all this is the rivalry between Christian Jews and traditional Jews in the community to which the author of Matthew belonged, and it's not pretty, especially the violent rhetoric ascribed to Jesus. The condemnation of the actions of the leadership is set up as an example of how to not to act in the Christian community. Christians aren't to say one thing and do another. Integrity is to be the rule. Humility, honesty of character, should mark the Christian believer. Then we hear that line that rings across all the synoptics in several forms: "The greatest among you must be your servant."

One might be tempted to go after certain corners of church leadership, following Malachi's diatribe against the corrupt priesthood and Jesus's portrayal of the temple leadership. But the "bad news" for us Christians is that we are all called to same integrity. In the eyes of the Church, we are a "royal priesthood" of Christ, all of us baptized into the one priesthood of Jesus. We are all called to the same
high standard of behavioral integrity, to "preach the gospel," as St. Francis is reported to have taught his Little Friars, "with words if necessary." Nobody's off the hook. The good news is we can all stop competing to get to the top of the heap, we can stop losing sleep over our career path. Instead of striving to get higher, we need to learn how to bend lower, but with a purpose: that of serving those who need our help.

In the church like in all of life, the shape of our service is the shape of the impact our gifts can have upon communal need. Service in the liturgy is a sacrament of service outside the liturgy. In our lives, based upon our talents and passions, we try to match those positive energies to the needs of those who have other gifts. I'm a songwriter, for instance; that's one of my talents. What am I supposed to do with that? Well, strange as it seems, people seem to need music for all kinds of reasons, all kinds of reasons having to do with emotional support, creating meaning, and making memory. Not everybody can write songs. I can do what I do, and fill in a hole in what's needed by other people. The same goes for playing them; and for empowering other people to join together to sing. That is a real need. That other people do what I do better than I do, or reach a wider audience, or do so in different genres, it doesn't matter.

So all of us in the church are called to be who we are for the purpose of transforming the world, of "lifting up those who are bowed down," which is what God does, of protecting the weak and reconciling differences among people, which is what God does. We are called by God in our baptism to be facilitators of unity, peace, and reconciliation, with a special love for those without easy access to opportunity and resources.

Liturgy is kind of an act of intentional remembering for the purpose of arousing thanksgiving in mind and action, and also a physical acting-out or rehearsal of a grateful response. We remember who God is, what God has done in Christ through the Holy Spirit for us and for our world, and we set about acting in a way that allows God to act through us. We greet one another, friend, family and stranger alike, as beloved sisters and brothers; we announce and respond to God's word, we sing God's word, we sing memory and forgiveness and thanksgiving and love songs to God; we feed one another from God's table with living bread, the living self-gift that is Jesus Christ in his mystical body; we collect gifts of money for the use of the church and offer them with ourselves and Christ at the altar. Into that apparently mere ritual are folded the other 167 hours of the week, hours filled with caring for one another, especially sick family members, aging parents, volunteering at PADS sites, food pantries, and resale shops; big and little acts of compassion, forgiveness, and reconciliation. All of it a mosaic of people using their gifts to serve the needs of others, with an eye to lifting up the lowly. All of it practice in bowing down, in service to one another. Which is what God does.

Participation in liturgy is a sacrament of participation in life. The more conscious, the more fully aware and active participation in liturgy is, the richer the experience is, just as the experience of all of life is enriched by reflection and gratitude. That's what I'm going to try to tell people at St. Anne this weekend when I'm inviting them to consider participating in liturgical ministry, if it's their time, and if they're feeling the call to do so. I know that there is a need. I believe in the church, and that this is the way the Holy Spirit leads and organizes the church, by relating gift to need. Then I hope I'll be able to relate this entire experience and my own career in music and songwriting as a microcosm of the Spirit's miraculous work in my talk at King's College.

The gospel and tradition of the church calls us to integrity in humility: what we say and do matters. Our deeds need to match our words. The word this weekend is, Do not strive for glory as ministers for God. Instead, become great by going lower, by becoming a servant. That's what God does in Christ, and no servant is greater than the master. We have one master: Christ the servant.

What we're singing at St. Anne this week:

Gathering: Psalm 23 (Conry)
Psalm 131 My Soul Is Longing for Your Peace (Deiss)
Alleluia - Mass of St Aidan
Gifts: To You Who Bow
Eucharistic Acclamations: Mass of Joy and Peace (Alonso)
Communion: Heart of a Shepherd
Closing: Canticle of the Turning

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Baby steps against scapegoating disaster

The world has really taken a hit this year.

Already reeling from the man-made disasters of terrorism on the one hand and a crisis of refugees and immigrants on the other, it seems that now there are natural disasters taking their cue from the mess that we've made with our own ungrateful, violent hands. Terrible floods following cyclones in Bangladesh, an earthquake in Mexico, hurricanes leveling islands in the Caribbean and destroying lives, homes, and food supplies in Florida, Texas, Louisiana, and Mississippi here at home, and dozens if not hundreds of wildfires wreaking havoc from central Canada south and westward through Montana and into California, all of these have people in helpless awe before the unforgiving and random acts of nature.

The natural human response to this kind of thing has always been to assign blame, create a scapegoat, then kill, either ritually or decisively, the supposed offender, or at least ostracize and neutralize them. One needn't look any further than the book of Jonah in the scriptures to see a well-known example of this. The storm in the story was, the sailors piously surmised, caused by God's wrath against someone or something on board their boat. To save themselves, they ascertained the culprit by drawing lots, asked forgiveness for their own sins, including, if necessary, the death of Jonah, and promptly threw Jonah overboard. It must have worked—the storm abated.

Of course, the scapegoat mechanism in the story of Jonah was nothing but a contrivance to move the plot along and help the runaway prophet get vomited onto the shores of Babylon. (You have to admire the biblical geography that allows Jonah to be spit up on a shore and told to make for Nineveh. That would be a hell of a long walk.) But it works in a classical way, and as far as the story is concerned, successfully. In our day, though, you don't have to go too far back in American history to find hurricanes and flooding and other natural disasters blamed on God's wrath against whomever is the easiest and most vulnerable target of majority fear and hatred: Muslims, gay marriage, abortion, and LGBT rights in general have been the favorites in this century. While the mainstream Christian right has been more circumspect this time around than with, say, the Sandy Hook shootings and Katrina, probably because their man is in the White House, nevertheless several conservative Christian bloggers (for instance, here) (here) (and here) were quick to assign blame to Houston's being punished by God for their previous mayor, who happened to be a gay woman.

As a Christian myself, what I want to say is that Jesus put an end to scapegoating by showing it to be a lie about God. He went to the darkest place human beings can go, suffering humiliating public capital death as an innocent victim of a violent empire whose god, Caesar, demanded obedience. When arrested, Jesus forbade violent resistance on the part of his disciples. In his trial before Pilate, in John's story,  Jesus said that there would be no violent response from his subjects, because his kingdom "is not like those of your world." Caesar's surrogate, Pilate, had Jesus killed as an enemy of the Pax Romana, and enemy of Caesar, and a pretender to Caesar's authority and title. But by rising from the dead, without any vengeful language or retributive justice upon his killers or even those who abandoned him and did not take his part, Jesus the forgiving victim put an end to blood sacrifice of behalf of God. God doesn't want it. God goes to the side of the injured, the lied-about, the marginalized, and walks with them. Jesus calls them "blessed," even, which ought to lead us to reevaluate what we mean when we say that we are blessed.

The human response to suffering, then, should not be to assign blame in our fear and ignorance, but to take the side of the injured, homeless, hungry, disenfranchised, and expatriated and do what we can to see that everyone has enough, that everyone has what they need to have life, freedom, and opportunity for happiness. That's where I want to be. I can just imagine Jesus hearing gossipy interpretations of a disaster in Galilee among his disciples that day when he spoke out to them: "Or those eighteen people who were killed when the tower at Siloam fell on them—do you think they were more guilty than everyone else who lived in Jerusalem?" (Luke 13:4) There may have been a political edge to what he said, of course: the context was a violent action by Pilate against some Jews. But Jesus, putting aside Pilate's well-known blood lust, turns their attention to the apparently random collapse of a tower to lay aside any thoughts of God being one who punishes people randomly with injury and death.

So I'm going to put this little article to bed with a request to you who read it and are already so generous to the hungry, homeless, and stateless people of the world. A number of us from the various churches in Barrington are taking part this weekend in the Crop Hunger Walk sponsored through Church World Service. We're trying to take the side of those in need on this weekend in October, and be part of God's plan to change the world through awareness of our connection to one another, and solidarity with all of God's children. My choir members, along with many others from St. Anne, will be walking and raising money for this cause. If you can, please take part by supporting us by clicking here and then clicking on the "DONATE" tab to the right of the page, across from my beaming visage.

Anyone who has sinned knows that God doesn't punish us for our bad behavior, but over and over again forgives us and offers us life, just as we receive life from those who forgive us and help us get past of failures and betrayals. Let's not be a part of the strategies of "The Great Divider" by setting ourselves up as judge on God's behalf. Instead, let's be part of the solution, and strategize and enact methods of change, inclusion, resettlement, uplift, nurture, and dialogue. We're doing it this week through Crop Hunger Walk; next week, it will be some other way. Let's be the change, in whatever ways, big or small, we can imagine. Thank you!

 Crop Walk donor click here