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Saturday, November 21, 2015

Bending toward the Most High (Christ the King, Year B)

"Not like those of this world..." (Really???)
I saw one like a "son of man" coming on the clouds of heaven.
Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! (Psalm 118, gospel verse, quoted in Mark 11:9)
For this I was born and for this I came into the world: to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who hears the truth hears my voice.

The other night at our "Forgiving Victim" session, one of the participants asked me privately about the saying of Jesus in John's gospel that "no one comes to the Father except through me." He was taught, as many of us have been at one time or another, that this was a kind of exclusive claim that Jesus made, that only an explicit claim of salvation through Jesus could save a person. I told him that a more inclusive way of hearing it, following, I suppose, the "anonymous Christian" thinking of the masterful Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner, was from the other perspective: that in God's sight, whoever comes toward God comes through Jesus, the forgiving victim. In other words, since Jesus and God are one with the Holy Spirit, whatever moves anyone, whether they specifically know Jesus or not, to occupy the place of shame without fear or desire for retribution, that is, with love, that person is the forgiving victim, and takes part in God's work of saving the world through the peaceful, reconciling life of Christ. It is, in fact, the mystical body of Christ, but one that is controlled not by the juridical manifestation of the church's baptism, but by the universal, benevolent will of God for the happiness and joy of the world.

I think that a similar hermeneutic might be applied to what Jesus tells Pilate at the end of the marvelously ironic confrontation of empires that takes place in today's gospels, between one emperor who seems have the power of life and death and uses it for death, and one who actually has that power and uses it for life by going to his death. When John's Jesus says to Pilate, "Everyone who hears the truth hears my voice," he's saying that truth is one, and that his truth, the truth of the reign of God, the truth of the overriding reality of love and life and human intercommunion, is what anyone who acts on behalf of love and life and unity hears. The way, the truth, and the life are one in Christ. Since the life of Christ in the human race is the Holy Spirit, we do not control that life in any way. We may celebrate its apparent working through our sacraments, but the approach of God from within our structures of brutality and death in a way that completely subverts them is not under our control. To the prophets, in fact, the mountain themselves prepare the way, the wilderness obeys the herald that calls out to lower mountains and raise valleys. Even Persians, says Isaiah, can serve as the right hand of God.

Another quick thought about the gospel verse, taken from Mark 11 but quoting Psalm 118, and referencing another wonderful insight gleaned from Jesus the Forgiving Victim: Listening for the Unheard Voice, James Alison's "introduction to Christianity." Much more of the scriptures, particularly the gospels, allude to the Jewish rites of atonement than I was ever exposed to in other approaches to scripture, and Alison makes the point (I assume based on the work of other scholars) that Psalm 118 is a cultic psalm from the atonement liturgy. We tend, because the close connection between the death and resurrection of Jesus occurring by tradition around the Passover to associate Psalm 118 with passover and Easter events. But the approach of the high priest out of the Holy of Holies, a reconstruction of the Second Temple based on oral traditions about Solomon's Temple cult that survived the Babylonian captivity, was a liturgical instantiation of the approach of YHWH from heaven, sacrificing himself on behalf of his people through the two identical sacrificial goats, coming to loving keep the covenant and be at-one with Israel in the atonement rite. "Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord" is a cry that echoes the moment in the rite when the high priest comes out of the Holy of Holies wearing the gleaming white and gold vesture with the tiara with the tetragrammaton emblazoned in gold on his head, and pronouncing, for the only time in the year that the Name was ever said aloud, the name that God spoke to Moses when the freedom march out of Egypt was announced.

Over the years (nearly three now, with this blog) I've said a lot echoing the themes of scripture scholars who have been telling us for decades now about the "Jesus versus empire" theme that runs through the Christian scriptures. The post referenced below, "Thy Kingdom (not of this world) Come," has my thoughts about the confrontation of Jesus and Pilate, and the clash of their ideologies about kings and empires. There are times when I think it's time to retire this kind of language, because even when we use the terminology of empire and power with all the irony we can muster in the image of a crucified rabbi who washes the feet of his own students, we still, with our mimetic tendency and seemingly innate desire to lord it over other people, hear the words "empire" and "power" as virtues to be imitated rather than terms to be redefined. There are times when it seems like irony turned back on itself, when the ultimate "triumph" of Christianity over all the other religions and non-religions, at whatever cost, is the outcome of the preaching on these feasts of Christ the King, with their intentionally non-regal imagery that equates kingship with participation in service (year A), non-violence (year B), and forgiveness (year C). All we hear is: King. Rule. Power. Glory.

Maybe it's just me! The many apocalyptic images of the "son of man" that originate in the book of Daniel and are picked up in the book of Revelation (see today's readings, for instance, with the reference to "coming in the clouds" and in the gospels are read in a far too fundamentalist way by most of us, who see the "divine cleanup" of the mess on earth less with the hope-filled anguish of the conquered nation from which they originated than with the manifest destiny of the economic imperialism of modern first world nations. But I suppose that the reason I have faith that ultimately we'll come around is that we can't abandon the scripture, which in where revelation is treasured, and the memory of Jesus, who is the revelation of God made flesh. In him there is no violence and no competitive desire to rule. The scripture will continue to put the lie to all attempts to make it serve any human agenda of subjugation, oppression, and the manifest destiny of any religion, nation, or economic system.

But we need to keep telling the story, and living the story. We need to continue to gather on Sunday, and from my experience, that may be the biggest danger we face as a people right now. We've blown it, I think, by telling the wrong story for a while, or by imagining that other kinds of Sunday experiences are as important as gathering for the word and eucharist, in some form or another, but explicitly for that reason. There is reason for hope, there is no question about that. There is a voice from the church catholic that resists the persecution of aliens, the victimization of the poor, the rejection of refugees and exiles, the enthronement of a god who judges and punishes when that god is nothing but an extension of our own bloodlust for retribution and victory. I know that the arc of history bends toward love, on a path prepared by Christ and the gospel. It is an arc that bends down from heaven to a manger, to foot-washing, to the cross. And it bends, ultimately, toward the God Who Bows, bends below all things, toward the Most High.

Other blog posts on Christ the King (and similar topics)

No King but Caesar (Year C)
Cleaning Up Our Mess (Year A)
To You Who Bow (SongStories post)
Thy Kingdom (not of this world) Come (Jesus before Pilate in John's gospel)
Christ the King, and What Can I Do About It? (Year A)

What we're singing Sunday:

Entrance: Psalm 122: The Road to Jerusalem
Kyrie: Kendzia/Daigle
Gloria: Mass of St. Ann (Bolduc)
Psalm 97: The Lord Is King
Presentation of gifts: To You Who Bow
(alternate): Only This I Want
Communion: Heart of a Shepherd (Gelineau/Cooney)
Sending forth: Soon and Very Soon

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Violence, Desire, and Prayer

Over the past week, since the terrible bombings in France and Lebanon, the reprisals and political repercussions for Syrian refugees, there have been a lot of tweets, memes, and other posts about prayer flying around. How we should pray for this and pray for that, as though things were so desperate that only God can extricate us from the deadly rhythm of violence and counter-violence into which we find ourselves plunged? It's a complicated mess; sometimes it feels like rather than make the hard decision to actually follow the gospel, knowing full well that to do so is to put the good of the other ahead of our own life, we throw it up to heaven and, in doing so, let the forces that truly frighten us carry the day. But what made me think I wanted to write about this isn't any kind of frustration with that process; I mean, it's hard to organize a political response to huge problems when religious allies are so scattered and fellow Christians are, let's face it, widely divided on what a good resolution of the problem may be. We remember that our Christian nation denied entry of Jews requesting asylum before the second world war, and interned innocent American citizens during that conflict as well. Our ambivalence about just who the gospel's "little ones" might be is part of a national and religious heritage that includes but predates slavery and the displacement and mass murder of First Nation peoples on three continents.

One question that came up among the many good questions I've seen people asking these days is, "What good does prayer do? When people on both sides of an issue are praying for opposite outcomes of the same issue, how does God decide who wins? Does praying 'change God's mind,' or is it just a way of transferring responsibility for my life to another polarity and achieving some psychic distance from the horror I'm willing to inflict on other people?" 

I don't have any answer to those questions, really, but I think I have stumbled upon another way of looking at prayer that offers some insight, and of course it comes with the anthropological starting point that characterizes the work of Rene Girard. In my parish, we're nearing the end of part 3 of 4 in our study and reflection with James Alison in his systematic Girardian approach to Christianity in Jesus, the Forgiving Victim. As it turns out, I've been reading and re-reading the chapter on what prayer means in his radical view of the faith, and I thought that as long as I'm thinking about it, I'd try to share my interiorization of what he has to say with you, both as an exercise for me and perhaps as a partial response to all the questions about prayer that are going on around the world.

We like to think of ourselves as individuals who are unique and distinguishable from others, but the reality is that everything that we are, starting with our existence, is given to us by the "social other," that is, everything which exists (apart from God) that is not me. We are beings who see and imitate. Our ability to speak, walk, make faces, eat, everything we do is a process into which we're inducted by others. In Alison's words (this may be a quote from Girard himself), we "desire according to the desire of the other." In other words, we learn what to want, what is good and bad, by imitating others. We're very good at it; better, in fact, than any of our simian cousins. We receive our "self" from the other. If we lose our memory, for instance, the only way we can have access to it is by someone else remembering for us, and reminding us. We truly are part of an organism that perpetuates itself by imitation.

Where this gets to be problem, of course, is when we start desiring the same things. This gets into the heart of the Girardian hypothesis about violence and mimesis,  and the origins of civilization, both political and religious, in controlling the murderous process by which equilibrium is achieved when mimetic desire reaches critical mass in a group. At that point, he says, a process which has come to be called the "scapegoat mechanism" kicks in, whereby the group achieves unanimity in blaming someone, generally an outsider or a person of importance within the group, laying the burden of blame on that individual or group, and then killing or ostracizing that person. 

The religious question is, is there another "other" besides the social other, that is, besides what we're told to desire and imitate by civilization, who can extricate us from the patterns of desire and imitation that we absorb and participate in handing on?  Most gods (clearly, including counterfeits of the God of Moses and Jesus) are just projections of the fears and hatred of the Social Other, the group that formed us in the first place. Prayer and sacrifice to these gods is really just a way of ritualizing the scapegoat mechanism, in a sense, it's praying to an extension of ourselves, a deification of the values of the group we belong to. But the "God who is not like the other gods," the One God of the Jews and of Jesus, approaches us from beyond (and yet, within) the social other as "another Other" who is full of desire for us, and who invites us to share in the universal desire for good that belongs to God alone. It is the approach of this God in scripture, in the self-revelation to a people, that first revealed to us the possibility of the innocence of the victim, as we first hear in the Servant Songs of Isaiah. It is the narrative of Christ that makes clear in human history an alternate way of being human, of escaping forever the cycle of violence and sacrifice that shapes our race, by revealing that not only is the victim of our violence just like ourselves, but that the process is a lie, the victim is innocent, and that furthermore, God's own self has taken the victim's place and returned with words of love on his lips. We don't have to do that any more. God doesn't want victims and sacrifice. God wants a family that cares for every other person. No victims, no outsiders. 

So, what is prayer in the context of this view of faith, wherein we pray not to a projection of our own violence and division but to a God who is not like those other gods, a God who, rather than demanding our approach by sacrifice, is approaching us, telling us that there's nothing to be afraid of because God has already been into the breach and is unaffected by death? What does Jesus do when he prays? What does he say about praying?

When Jesus talks about praying, he says, "Don't pray like the hypocrites." Don't receive your self, don't desire and imitate, based on what others think of you. Jesus, a human being like us, knows well how we receive who we are and what we want from one another, and he knows that what we want is almost inherently self-serving. The problem is that we might get what we desire from others, the flattery, the adulation, and "already have your reward," receive what we want, but not what we ask for. Jesus tells us to go to your "inner room" (your "larder," says Alison, not bedroom; the larder in the Middle Eastern home is a windowless, enclosed room, where there's no outside view). There, "your Father who sees in secret" will hear your prayer. We are to receive our self, who we really are, by hearing and imitating the Other Other, the One who loves fearlessly and without need or desire to reciprocation. Jesus gets away from the crowds after healings and miracles for the same reason: their desire for themselves and for him, whether to make him king or kill him, cannot be allowed to shape his self-image; he retreats to a place where he can listen for the voice of the One who calls him "my beloved," the One whose love is always approaching him, and from whom he derives his strength to be-for-others. In his prayer, he is shaped by the approaching presence of the One who loves him unconditionally.

We don't know how to pray, St. Paul says in Romans. But the Spirit cries out for us, "Abba!" The Spirit leads us to the Father, so that we begin to understand in our prayer our relationship to one another. Those two relationships are inseparable, as Jesus taught: loving God is "like" loving our neighbor. As the Eucharistic Prayer for Reconciliation puts it, "You gave him up to death so that we might turn again to you and find our way to one another." Christian prayer leads us toward one another, whether the other is aware of God's approach or not, because God comes toward us from within the social other, and yet beyond it. It is exactly as Pope Francis expressed in a speech last year, "First you pray for the hungry, then you feed them. That is how prayer works." By helping us break the cycle of desire and imitation that once had us being shaped by what the gospels call "the world," that is, the violent and grasping civilization all around us, and then reshaping our desire, the other Other, the "God who is not like the other gods," has entered the place of rejection, shame, and death and come back from the dead with only words of love and desire for us.

So back to the original question, in the middle of all this violence, how does prayer work? My suspicion is that as we learn to pray by being awakened by the gospel to a God who is approaching us and every other person who is, or was, or will be with words of love that urge us from deep within to stop blaming the stranger, the outsider, the rich, the poor, the king, anyone, and to stop allowing the patterns of violence and exclusion that run civilization from shaping our choices. That God calls to us from the margins of history through the scriptures to be aware of our destructive behavior and misuse of religion to be a swamp of legalism and judgment rather than the liberating life of love-enabled service that it was meant to be. Prayer leads us toward the other Other, that is, Abba, and what Jesus called the "kingdom of God," where death has no power and the influence of violent civilization has ended. It introduces us to a new world wherein the Spirit prays for us, drawing us together in this world, on behalf of victims everywhere. When we find ourselves taking the place of the victims, whoever they are, wherever they are, we're praying rightly. When we find ourselves praying for protection from victims, to keep things the way they are while we enjoy the life we deny to others, our prayer is being guided by gods who are projections of our worst self. Idols.

As I said at the outset, this is probably a vain attempt to articulate what I'm only beginning to take to heart myself. But it is helping me, anyway, to know that God is approaching us, that victimization of innocents has been exposed as a lie, and that, yes, I am Syria, I am the Mexican immigrant, I am Paris, #blacklivesmatter, #alllivesmatter. The process of shedding deeply-held American exceptionalism and Catholic exceptionalism and white exceptionalism and straight, white, wealth-attuned exceptionalism that I have received from the "social other" and receiving a new self from the loving, liberating Other other is not difficult only for me. I can read its difficulty in every post I read on Facebook, every story on CNN, every homily I hear on Sunday. Our blood and our boundaries are thicker than baptismal water. I just know that I want to become the one who welcomes, whatever the cost, and not the one who is unmoved by and hostile to the victims of our skewed desire. That's where I find myself at the end of this year of grace, just a few days before the feast of Christ the King, on which we hear the story of one terrible day when it seemed like civilization won, and power, sacrifice, and violence had their day. But Christ lives, and out of the garbage dump outside the walls of Jerusalem the opportunity for a new way of being human has emerged.  

"Well, that was a real mess," Jesus said on the road to Emmaus. "What do you say we start a new game?"  

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Looking for the good news? (B33O)

If Sunday's gospel sounds familiar, maybe it's because we heard it eleven months ago on the First Sunday of Advent. A little more of the passage that day, but today's entire gospel was what we heard as we started off Year B back in 2014.

Reading through the first reading and gospel for Sunday, one could legitimately, from a comfortable pew in an upscale church in the United States of America, ask the question, "How in the hell is this good news?" That question would probably come after a smirk and a smile for some, a chill of dystopian horror for others, as we dealt with our gut reaction to the deployment of the divine Übermensch who arrives to settle accounts for the Ancient of Days, and at whose arrival in the gospel verses the sun and stars go out while other omens fill the skies.

So here are just a couple of thoughts. First, about the apocalypse of Daniel and the "little apocalypse" of Mark. The word "apocalypse" means "behind the veil," and so an unveiling, a revelation. But it's important to keep in mind the context with these texts, like it is with any biblical writing. The kind of writing we describe as apocalyptic is analogous to an underground newspaper, or the subversive skits and cabaret acts of Hitler-era Berlin, or The Crucible and (maybe) High Noon in the McCarthy-era 1950s. When the political heat is on and open dissent is suppressed, sometimes it falls upon artists to sustain hope and identity by parodying the regime and expressing the values of the marginalized. In the case of the book of Daniel, the context is persecution of the emperor Antiochus IV (called Epiphanes, "God manifest") who precipitated the Maccabean revolt by the excesses of his cruelty and desecration of the temple. At the time the gospel of Mark was written, Judea was a hotbed of revolution and counter-revolutionary violence that culminated in the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple by Titus, who may have been responsible (according to Josephus) for the deaths of a million Jews. And the apocalypse of John the Divine was an encoded condemnation of the Roman Empire under Vespasian and Domitian, though the "number of the beast" (666) seems to be a numerological play (gematria) on the name Nero.

The pericope we hear Sunday from Mark's gospel takes place on Tuesday of what we call Holy Week, as is so clearly and insightfully marked out in the Borg/Crossan book The Last Week: What the Gospels Really Teach About Jesus's Final Days in Jerusalem, published in 2006. In God and Empire: Jesus Against Rome, Then and Now, Crossan describes Jesus's preaching about the already-present reign of God as the "divine cleanup of the world," but warns that this process in not to be violent; indeed, in Jesus, the divine cleanup is a process that is participatory, a way of life in which Jesus invites his followers to participate and bring others along. It is, in fact, ordered against the violence of empire, but is "not like an empire (kingdom) of this world," and is built on acts and strategies of peace and just living.

I like to think that this may be a way of understanding "Michael, the great prince," in the book of Daniel. The name Michael in Hebrew comes from words that mean "one who is like God," but is not a god, but a human being. The "divine cleanup" is to be the work of human beings who are "like God," that is, people who give themselves for others, people who love, people who "let the sun shine and the rain fall on good and bad alike."

So these nightmare-conjuring images from the first reading and gospel, how are they good news? It seems to me that part of the answer to that question is our point of view. Are we allies of the emperor, or are we part of the community of the oppressed? That's always the way it is. To the empire and its collaborators, any subversive activity, even if it's initiated by God, has to be perceived as a threat. When our way of being is shaped by habits of acquisition, economic imperialism, asset-protection, and, to put a term on it, entitlement, another point of view that says, "everyone, not just the elite, is entitled to have enough to be safe and happy," then a new Way, a gospel of shared resources, service, and interdependence, is a threat. And, to be honest, it's probably part of the reason I have a hard time sleeping at night!

Two others scriptural insights from Sunday may help us at this point. We're supposed to be upset, I think. Not frightened really, I don't think that's helpful, but shaken into a new awareness and a new resolve do something differently because what we're doing now isn't working for everybody, which is the only way we can tell if the empire of God is present. It has to work for everybody. We need to be awakened to who we are, to the reality of the lopsided, unfair world we've created so that we can be part of its recreation. So we can first look at the psalm 16, which declares, You will show me the path of life. The blueprint for the reign of God is right in the gospel. It's in the beatitudes, the Our Father, and in the rest of the Sermon on the Mount, it's in the parables, it's in the life and works, the enemy-love and forgiveness and healing ministry of Jesus and the experience of the apostles. "You will show me the path of life." Not Donald Trump. Not the Pentagon. Not Google, Berkshire Hathaway, Exxon Mobil, or General Electric. You, the Abba of Jesus, through the one whom you sent, and by the indwelling of your Holy Spirit, You will show me the path of life.

No need to be afraid of that path, because, as the Entrance Antiphon for Sunday says, "I think thoughts of peace and not of affliction." The divine cleanup, the apocalypse, is not a nightmare scenario. It's a dream of peace and justice for everyone, not just the 1%, or the 10%, or the 30%. Everyone. It's a matter of waking up to it out of this nightmare in which we're already living.

Here's what we're singing this weekend:

Entrance: The King Shall Come When Morning Dawns or Thy Kingdom Come
Psalm 16: Path of Life (Dameans)
Presentation of Gifts: Trumpet in the Morning
Communion: I Am the Bread of Life 
Recessional: Soon and Very Soon or Over My Head

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Devouring widows' houses (B32O)

The widow's mite, as illustrated by the MAFA artist
Bénédite de la Roncière.
With five appointed uses in the three-year lectionary cycle, as well as a place in the "common psalms" available to use any Sunday in Ordinary Time, Psalm 146 is in an elite group of psalms with the likes of Psalms 19, 23, and 98, perhaps better-known than itself. As I've commented previously, most recently just this past September when it last came up, it is a great example of what Walter Brueggeman described in Israel's Praise: Doxology Against Idolatry and Ideology as "tale-become-liturgy," full of the "vitality of reason." Psalm 146 is so cogent a liturgical song because it summons the hearer and the singer (and, in the case of the king, the observer and regent, who is charged with turning liturgy into policy) to "praise YHWH" for his specific and concrete intervention in the world on behalf of the poor. In the words of Brueggeman's translation (page 93), the psalm sings "Alleluia - praise YHWH who
made heaven and earth,
the sea, and all that is in them;
who keeps faith for ever;
who executes justice for the oppressed;
who gives food to the hungry.
The LORD sets the prisoners free;
the LORD opens the eyes of the blind.
The LORD lifts up those who are bowed down;
the LORD loves the righteous.
The LORD watches over the sojourners,
he upholds the widow and fatherless.
Brueggeman writes, "No great rhetoric of persuasion is needed when the memory itself persuades. Such a raw, embarrassing, revolutionary statement lives happily and trustfully in the still-available memory and experience of transformation." (emphases mine)

So, my first exhortation of the day is that communities ought to know an empowering, convinced setting of Psalm 146 that helps "tell it like it is." I'm quite sure that reading Brueggeman's book helped me think about how to set this psalm back in the 1980s when I did. And when we got around to recording it with GIA on Psalms for the Church Year, Volume IV, I approved of Gary's re-imagining the rhythm of the song in a sort of reggae style, which puts it solidly in the musical language of the poor and disenfranchised. All I can do, of course, is play it; I can't be the poor, but praying the psalm helps me and others to remember that we're called not just to join in the praise but to join in the politics of Psalm 146, to take the side of the poor, where God is.

Since she appears in the psalm today along with the other ones who are "bowed down," I think we're supposed to keep our eye on the widow in the first reading and gospel as well, doncha think?

There are a couple of ways that exegetes and preachers that I have read and heard interpret the gospel for today. In one, there is the predictable contrast of the ostentatious and probably coveted generosity of the wealthy with their big-number contributions to the upkeep of Herod's beautiful temple and its caretakers with the sustenance-level generosity of a poor widow, who gives "all she had, her whole livelihood." From this we are to understand that both people are generous, but the woman's gift was more generous and beneficial because she gave from her need rather than like the rich, who gave from their excess.

In another approach, there is a political element that suggests that Jesus's rising anger over the management of the temple and its transformation into a site of political collaboration between Jewish leaders and Roman authorities has brought him to a crisis. In the previous verses in Mark, Jesus has entered Jerusalem in a mock military style, attacked the Sadduccees and scribes in a series of ripostes and parables, and entered the temple courtyard and overturned the moneychangers' tables. He has just made an outraged speech against those scribes who wear long robes, enjoy privileged positions in society, and "devour the houses of widows." Now, he goes back into the temple, "takes a seat opposite the treasury," and calls the disciples to notice the contributions being made. He sits across from, distancing himself from, the source of his anger. His statement to the disciples in this reading, which is taken by Ched Myers and others in "Say to This Mountain" Mark's Story of Discipleship, might be interpreted more like this: "Would you take a look at that? Look how they bleed the poor to keep up their beautiful temple, when they ought to be busy 'upholding the widow and orphan,' like they sing in their songs. John Shea has a similar conclusion in his The Spiritual Wisdom of Gospels for Christian Preachers and Teachers: Eating with the Bridegroom Year B. Jesus, says Myers, "exits the temple grounds for the last time in disgust."

So, how do we read this? Is the widow cooperating in some way with her own exploitation? Is she to be imitated in her generosity, or taken as an example of someone being wronged by the economic establishment and, in modern terms, votes against her own best interest? Is there a third way?

Maybe, in a non-rivalrous world, a world imagined by the great René Girard, who died this week at the age of ninety-one, there is a third way. Maybe it is possible to desire to imitate the generosity of the poor widow even as she is being exploited, if we can imagine a widow so full of God-like love that it is possible for her, even as she knows that she is being exploited, to play the game of exploitation so that it is exposed as evil through her generous poverty? Maybe it is possible to imitate her contribution to the community enterprise of the temple, while still sitting in judgment, like Jesus "opposite the treasury," rejecting its contagion. One side of the argument, in any case, wins the battle of words and symbols in Jerusalem in the first half of the first century of the Common Era, in the same way that it has over and over since. The forces that build the status quo, that keep the temple working and pay the armies, swat the fly that buzzes around their conscience.

That gadfly, Jesus, once preached to his own congregation in Nazareth about the encounter between Elijah and the widow we heard about in today's first reading. That widow, too, had next to nothing, and shared it with a "sojourner" when she was asked, at the very edge between her own life and death, and that of her son. Her generosity saved her, more than once, and God's favor to her through Elijah, Jesus said, had not been shown to any Israelite widow, but to a widow from Sidon, the homeland of Ahab's queen, Jezebel. For that little bit of a homily, the hometown crowd wanted to kill him even then. This time, in the shadow of the temple, they will succeed in doing so, in just a few days.

Some will devour widows' houses. Some will devour the house of the Lord. The liturgy lets us know that when they do, Christ will raise it up again in three days. And when they devour the houses of widows, the Lord of the temple is watching from a seat across the room, choosing again whose house to favor with food in famine and resurrection from the dead and whose offering will be remembered as the name of the story that's told, and about whom it will only be said, "There is no more chance that they can 'get' the reign of God than a caravan can hora through a needle's eye."

Here's what we're singing at St Anne:

Entrance: All That We Have (Dameans)
Psalm 146: Praise the Lord, My Soul (RC, GIA)
Presentation of Gifts: These Alone Are Enough (Schutte, OCP)
Communion: Cry of the Poor or Within the Reign of God
Sending forth: Let Justice Roll Like a River

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

A cloud of surprise witnesses (All Saints)

The pictures in this post are details of the "Communion
of Saints" tapestries in the Cathedral of Los Angeles,
created by John Nava
After this I had a vision of a great multitude,
which no one could count,
from every nation, race, people, and tongue.

Nadia Bolz-Weber's latest book, Accidental Saints: Finding God in All the Wrong People, is an unpredictable tour of the liturgical year that begins and ends with celebrations of All Saints' day at her Denver ELCA church called "House for All Sinners and Saints." What is immensely refreshing about her take on holiness and being church is just how rough-around-the-edges it is, in fact, to many people, I suspect it would be unrecognizable as holy. She sees relentlessly through the hard work churches do to appear holy, to do good things, all the while avoiding the very people whom Jesus names in the beatitudes and with whom Jesus, as best we know, used to hang out. In fact, as best we know, the ones with whom he still hangs out.

For me, she hits almost every nail right on the head, and doesn't really seem to care how much noise her hammer makes. She's as rough on herself, rougher maybe, than she is on any other ecclesial hypocrisy she nails, and she does find God in what seems to me are all the right places, like, for instance, "when I am confronted by the beauty of the gospel so much that I cannot hate my enemies," and "when I am forgiven by someone even though I don't deserve it, and my forgiver does this because he, too, is trapped by the gospel. (pp. 8-9). In fact, she writes,
And anyway, it has been my experience that what makes us the saints of   God is not our ability to be saintly but rather God’s ability to work through sinners. The title “saint” is always conferred, never earned. Or as the good Saint Paul puts it, “For it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Philippians 2: 13). I have come to realize that all the saints I’ve known have been accidental ones  —   people who inadvertently stumbled into redemption like they were looking for something else at the time, people who have just a wee bit of a drinking problem and manage to get sober and help others to do the same, people who are as kind as they are hostile. Bolz-Weber, Nadia (2015-09-08). Accidental Saints: Finding God in All the Wrong People (p. 7). The Crown Publishing Group. Kindle Edition. 
This was my thought exactly when reading about beatifications and canonizations of this one or that one who seemed to be a poster child of reactionaries in the church, and a way I have of forcing myself to remember that no one ever "earns" sainthood. It is God who makes saints, sometimes in spite of, but often actually by means of the very weaknesses and sinfulness to which I or others might take exception. Which, of course, is very good news. Especially to me. It's not a ledger-based accounting system. God is not in competition or rivalry with evil. God is utterly good, and cannot be marred by our sin, and so is completely present to us even in our sin. We're slow to recognize God's goodness, wary about it, lest we seem to recognize the unworthy as saints of God. So it's good for us to remember that naming someone a "saint" does nothing for them that God hasn't already done for them, and for ours, and for us long before, loving us into "blessedness," and laying on our unmeriting hearts the names "saint" and "child" and "beloved of God."

Looking back over all my old stuff, I've never actually written about All Saints before, not that I can find, anyway. What I see in the scriptures of today, wonderfully available to us to ponder and celebrate on a Sunday, is a triptych of texts in the two NT readings and psalm that are lit up by the gospel. In Revelation, we see the political cost, that is, the cross, paid by so many who have followed the gospel way, not just in the persecutions of the second century of the Common Era, but in every age up until the present day. Many are not given the option to negotiate with the violent gods who demand tribute and participation in their bloody sacrifices to oppression, war, and the marginalization of the weak. Many have simply been sacrificed themselves, made victims to appease the murderous need of civilization to have its scapegoats. Like their master, Jesus, they went to their death perhaps in terror and abandonment, but they discovered that God did not abandon them, but "sealed them with the sign of the servants of God," and made them part of the new world.

"This is the people that longs to see your face," we sing in the psalm, and following the wisdom of the Torah, proclaim that "One whose hands are sinless, whose heart is clean, who desires not what is vain" receives blessing from God, "reward from God his savior." But with Israel, we have also learned that not even Torah is salvation; we are able to follow the law of God and act with integrity and justice only because God's love enables us to do so before we act. In covenant with the ever-faithful God, we are able to be like God, and act with love and justice, because of a response to God who loved us first. Thus we are called, in 1 John, "children of God." Implied in that epithet, and spelled out in I John and elsewhere, are the identity-shaping fatherhood of God, who loves us in Christ into a new way of being together, and the family identity we share with one another. As children of God, the implied ethic is that we love one another as God in Christ has loved us, and with the agape love that the indwelling of their Spirit makes possible.

Crowning the liturgy of the word on this day is the proclamation of the Beatitudes, which, I think, is too often mistaken for an ethical blueprint and not seen for what it is: a manifesto to the powerless that God is already with and in them. The beatitudes are less "you will be blessed if you are poor/merciful/peacemakers/persecuted" than the more radical idea that "no matter how it appears, you are blessed if you are poor/blessed/peacemakers/persecuted." "Blessed" (Gk. makarioi, i.e., fortunate) means "blessed because God is with you, present to you, now," which is the only blessedness that means anything. As I wrote in a previous post about the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus "thinks of his audience, and that is us, as 'blessed,' that is, makarioi or full up with the good fortune of being loved by God who is right here with us in the trenches when we're poor, lowly, thirsty for justice, merciful, peacemakers, single-hearted, and put down because we try to be on God's side."

So while Revelation looks forward, in a sense, out of a chaotic present to an end-time when God will straighten out all injustice and make the world right, 1 John and the beatitudes teach us that the project of the divine clean-up has already started and is active in the present, and that it comes about by our participation in this project which God dreamed up in Christ in the first place. "Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we shall be has not yet been revealed," says the author of I John. Being God's children, we can look for the particular blessedness, the experience of divine presence, in those times when we experience our own poverty, efforts at giving or receiving mercy and peacemaking, in the thirst for justice, the experience of persecution, and when we try to live in solidarity with those who are already clearly living in those places.

In the eschatological parable of Matthew 25 (31-46), when the last day comes and the world is gathered in front of the king, divided in two by a blur of remembered lifetimes, everybody, everybody, is surprised. "Good heavens! When did we see you hungry or thirsty?" "What the hell? When did we see you naked, or sick, or in prison?" We are, like people have always been when confronted by the gospel, by the real presence, amazed to be among neighbors we imagined would be in the other pile of humanity. On that day it will be God's job to "love your enemies, do good to those who hate you" in a way that right now is unimaginable. Maybe the last boundary, confronted by indefatigable love and relentless desire for unity, will evaporate before the One who is in rivalry with nothing and who has no equal among all who live. We have no idea. But pleading the case for the "ones on his left," I imagine, may be the cloud of surprise witnesses and accidental saints, with the experience of forgiveness and mercy burning in their hearts like a first love taken to an irrational exponent, taking up across the universe the song we start Sunday, moving through and embracing as sisters and brothers the crowd across the aisle: "Lord, this is the people that longs to see your face."

Here's what we're singing at St. Anne this week:

Gathering: Ye Watchers and Ye Holy Ones
Psalm 24 (Kevin Keil)
Presentation of Gifts: New Jerusalem
Communion: I Will Live On (Haas)
Recessional: Jerusalem, My Destiny

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Speaking up (B30O)

"Son of David, have pity on me."

It might be significant that this week's gospel, at the end of chapter 10 of Mark, forms an inclusio with another healing of a blind man, the one that took place in Bethsaida in chapter 8. Between the healings of these two blind men, we hear three predictions of the passion, Peter's "confession" that Jesus is the messiah, which is something about which he and Jesus have a misunderstanding, the story of the rich man who walks away, and the request of the sons of Zebedee we heard about last week, another gospel set-piece about misunderstanding what the "messiah" is going to do. This technique of the inclusio is to call our attention to what has transpired between the two incidents (of healing), and compare and contrast them to what is going on in the healings themselves.

My reading revealed to me that there is a lot of interest just in the name of Bartimaeus, the fact that the author of Mark tells his presumably non-Jewish readers that "bar-Timaeus" means "son of Timaeus." The name "Timaeus" then becomes a source of inquiry. What are the possible Aramaic or Greek roots. Does it mean anything? Some make a point of saying that Bartimaeus is one of the few who are named in Mark's gospel, but that makes me wonder, is calling somebody "son of Timaeus" really a "name," or just a patronymic, like calling Jesus "son of Joseph"? What is interesting to me is that the son of Timaeus calls Jesus "son of David," which is a literary device that I can't ignore, whether "Timaeus" has another meaning or not! And there's the intriguing question, too, as to whether "Timaeus" (a Greek name) might be a reference to the Timaeus Dialogue of Plato, in which Timaeus "takes the design of the eyes and the mechanics of vision as an important case in point" in a discussion about rescuing the intellect from the imperfections of its creation. 

At any rate, this blind son, perhaps "son of honor," perhaps "son of shame," perhaps just of "son of Timaeus," cries out from his accustomed place by the side of the road, "Son of David! Have pity on me!" The Greek verb here, ἐλέησόν, you will recognize as the "eleison" of the liturgy. So "have mercy" might be a more consistent translation for us. There are a couple of important cultural references here. The whole scene, with Jesus, the "son of David," an honorific that declares him king of Israel, coming down the road and the beggar sitting on the side yelling "ἐλέησόν", we may be seeing a parody of imperial Rome. The Emperor and his generals, parading after a military victory, would make a great spectacle of the spoils of war the procession. Crowds of people lining the streets might then cry out to their divine emperor, "Kyrie! Eleison", that is, "Hey! we kept the fires burning and supported you in your victory...let some of the spoils come to us, too! You got it, and we need it! Let all that goodness you have be poured out on us!" And, like Mardi Gras, some of the goodness would be thrown to the crowds from the victors. Jesus is his emperor, and Bartimaeus expects the generosity of the victor to be thrown to him who announces his belief.

Bartimaeus, see, in this story, is calling Jesus his king, his kyrios, the "son of David." Which is a good reason for the people around, whether the disciples or other people along the side of the street, to tell him to shut up, because that kind of talk can get people arrested or beaten or worse. And the son of Timaeus would not shut up, he kept calling out to the son of David, because in his blindness he could see his emperor. The ones telling him to be quiet were now told by Jesus, "Call him." One commentator sees this as a remedy to the "anti-healing" of the attempt to make the blind man also mute! And Jesus asks him, "What do you want me to do for you?", which is a little reminiscent, don't you think, of the last pericope we heard, a few verses ago, when the sons of Zebedee said, "We want you to do for us whatever we ask you." But this supplicant will get what he asks for because it is something within Jesus's power to give: sight.

Finally, I love that Jesus tells him to go, and he doesn't go, he "follows (Jesus) on the Way." Which I suppose doesn't necessarily mean that he didn't go, but it sounds like joyful disobedience to me.

Those stories between the healings of these two blind beggars are all about what it means to be "the anointed one" of God (Christ, messiah) and what it doesn't mean. The light that Jesus is, showing the way of God that is the way of service and healing, is not the expected road of deliverance for us who admire the efficiency of brute force. We like the idea of conquering our enemies, taking over the palace, and having not just our daily bread and maybe some for tomorrow, but money in our bank accounts to assure bread and cheese and meat for a long time to come, and insurance to cover the bank accounts, and money in our wallets, and line of credit. We especially want these things if we're a long time in the "have not" category of LBJ's Great Society dialectic. We don't really want to think about waiting, about consensus, about non-violence toward the violent, about overthrowing the strong. You sit by the side of the road and wait for light to come along. You receive the empire of God like a child: you take baby steps, you get gradually loved into walking in the way on your own two feet. You do right, treat others with the care you would like to receive, you believe that God who gave life in the first place will not abandon you in the place of death, and when integrity requires it, against every instinct for survival, you enter that place with forgiveness and a psalm on your lips, trusting that in some unknowable way God will pull you out of it. Alive.

Does that have anything to do with us in the twenty-first century, rich, armed to the teeth and, for some reason, afraid we don't have enough guns and firepower to protect what we have? Various candidates, representing the empire with the guns and money, all have a list of solutions that appeal, they hope, to enough voters to give them power to distribute the guns and money and food and influence to those whom they deem worthy. But even if they could appeal to all  the voters, it seems to me that it's the empire itself that is the problem.

Bartimaeus, called by Jesus, "threw aside his cloak," which may mean that he knows his past is behind him. His cloak may be his old life, may represent the place where, as a beggar, he collected money from almsgivers. In the hands of the gospel writer, he may be, like the folks at the eastern gate of Jerusalem will be in a few verses, throwing down his cloak and singing hosanna to the "son of David" to announce the arrival of the strange messiah, the unexpected Christ, who arrives not on a warhorse but on a donkey. Clearly, something's brewing in Jericho. The empire will respond in its usual way, but the empire will not have the last word. Light will.

The Lord has done great things for us; we are filled with joy.

May God give me strength to speak up, to shout Have mercy on me from the side of the road of empire, and to be able to discern between the messiah and the king. I want to see. I want to be happy, and follow Christ on the way.

What we're singing this weekend:

Entrance: Christ Be Our Light (Farrell)
Gifts: Open My Eyes
Communion: You Are Mine (Haas)
Sending Forth: Walk in the Reign or Be Thou My Vision

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Second thoughts: We want you to do for us whatever we ask! (B29O)

The Zebedee brothers, with their infamous request, "We want you to do for us whatever we ask of you," stand in for a lot of Christian and even pre-Christian history in our relationship with God and the gods. The author of Mark goes out of his way to try to let us see how wrong the disciples are and how wrong this approach is; it misses utterly the reality of Jesus and his meaning for the world. We'll see just how Mark does this on Sunday, when Jesus heals another blind man in Jericho, his last stop before entering Jerusalem from the east.

I'd like to think that Mark is holding up the disciples for us, with their continual misunderstanding of who Jesus is and what his ministry means, just for this reason, so that we who also want to exchange good deeds and moral, law-abiding lives for a merited crown, will also see how off-the-mark we are. Because nothing is merited. Everything is already given and present. We can't make ourselves "good enough" for God, there is no path to that. But it doesn't matter. "Only God is good," the Torah teaches. To enter into goodness, we need to be like God. To be like God, we need to walk in God's life, in agape, which is to say, to love without thought of self-promotion or reward. To love even strangers and enemies, always and only because every human being is a child of God, and not because anyone has merited our love any more than we merit God's. To love is to want the life of the other to flourish with the same passion that we want our own to flourish. This is the meaning of the "golden rule," "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you."

"We want you to do for us whatever we ask of you." Well, yeah. Don't we all? Even our psalm Sunday had us pray, "Let your mercy be on us, O Lord, as we place our trust in you." Even the psalm seems to be asking for payback, like Peter did, when, after the rich man was sent away in the gospel a couple of weeks ago, Peter said, "What about us? We've left everything to follow you." And Jesus answers him in a positive way, but needs to be heard. To follow Jesus, to leave the past behind, isn't like following a general. It's being formed in the image of the servant of God, in the image of agape, being the one who allows self to go into the place of shame, abasement, and death knowing that there is life there, that God is there, so that the fearlessness of the victim, that unknowing but faithful fearlessness, can make a way of faith for others. As Nadia Bolz-Weber defines leadership in her congregation, it's saying, "OK, screw it. I'll go first" into whatever fire or hell or place of unknowing and lovelessness requires it.

That is the cup that from which Jesus is going to drink, and about which he has three times, in this section of Mark, told the disciples. "Follow me" means "follow me to the cross," because that's the place from which he can show us that death has no power, the darkness into which he can empty himself because of his faith that the light of Abba is there, to give him life, and those who follow him, life again.

We want you to do for us whatever we ask.
We want world peace. We want the end of hunger, disease, and poverty. We want the end of war and armies and hatred.
Can you drink the cup that I drink?

We want you to do for us whatever we ask.
We want to be safe. We want our children to grow up without fear and violence. We want everyone to have enough, to be treated as equals, to be able to live freely.
Can you drink the cup that I drink?

We want you to do for us whatever we ask.
We want to be happy, we want our lives to mean something.We want to be remembered, to be imitated, admired, respected. We want to stop being afraid. We want to live together in peace.
Can you drink the cup that I drink?

Our civilization, economy, borders, and collective wisdom tells us that in order to get what we want, which is what everyone else wants, we need to protect what we have from everyone else, stick together, define ourselves against the other. The gospel says we are the other, that we are all the handiwork of the same God who wants us to be like a family, looking out for one another's good. The cross is the place where those worlds collide, and the truth of agape and falsehood of the world of ambition and violence is exposed. The cross is the price of participating in God's project of saving the world from itself, for being a bridge-builder, and for refusing to be a part of the culture of violence and greed that is civilization by the powerful, for the powerful.

Jesus didn't come simply to do something for us. He comes among us as God's word, God's self-expression, to help us do something together. Atonement, "at-one-ment," is not by proxy. It is participatory. Jesus invites us into God's project of saving the world. Ambition and self-aggrandizement are just off the table, they are counterfeits of divine presence. Greatness in the reign of God is defined by service, the greatest of us all led by washing feet, by refusing to be defended by the sword, by laying aside the very name and accoutrements of divinity and showing us, literally step by desert step, a different way to be together.

We want God to do for us whatever we ask. God sees that we want the wrong things, things that have proven over and over that they cause harm and not happiness; or that we want the right things, but we want them for ourselves and not for God's other children. He shows us in a short life time the Way to the empire of God, a world of peace and justice. But the question still remains, even as we heard it again Sunday: Can you drink the cup that I drink or be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized? And he keeps moving down the road. Like you, I don't know whether to follow, or not. The destination seems right; the path seems too terrible.

Jesus seems to know that, and love me anyway. Like Pastor Nadia, he says to me and all of us in so many words, "Screw it. I'll go first."