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Sunday, June 9, 2013

"You have rescued me"

Back from Pittsburgh and our penultimate Forum institute on the RCIA. Feeling both recharged and vulnerable. Nothing makes you more aware of the possibilities of Christianity than interacting intentionally with Christians, and certainly nothing reveals your own sinfulness and shortcomings to you better than being in a position where the gospel is on your lips and your life is right before your eyes. Sigh. Better than living in the darkness, I guess. (Insert "fleshpots of Egypt" quote here.)

Since I worked with today's readings during the institute, I had had a better chance than usual to reflect on them, and even to hear Andy Varga, another team member and priest from the diocese of Bridgeport, CT, preach on it. But as usual, it's another matter entirely to hear scripture at Sunday worship with one's community, and a few things struck me more strongly than before as I listened today.

Now, this would be anything but exegesis, but one thing that struck me was the attention Jesus paid to
Mongbwalu, democratic Republic of Congo, October 2004.
A mother holds her child who recently died of malaria.
Roger LeMoyne/Alexia Foundation
the plight of a widow who had lost her son. Not to get proleptic here, but from the perspective of the gospel writer in the 70s or 80s, it's certainly a possibility that Jesus's own mother was a widow who had lost her son, who was also raised from the dead. But just within the boundaries of the story itself, it is not hard for me to imagine that, with Joseph apparently missing from the narrative of the gospel after then scene from the "overture" infancy narrative of chapter 2, perhaps Jesus was keenly aware of the plight of widows in his culture. Not bad enough that in the Jewish society wives were property of husbands and part of the husband's family, so that with the husband's death, there was no fixed support system unless her sons were old enough to take her in (and wanted to). But that Jewish society operated on a survival basis, conquered and subsisting as a vassal state of the Roman empire. I remember that in one of Crossan's books, he spoke of Roman squads dispatched frequently from their fortresses to put down insurrections in Galilee and Judea, and that in their brutal forays they might murder and rape their way through the countryside, and it wasn't hard to imagine that Joseph might have been a victim of one of those events. Purely conjecture, of course, but within the boundaries of possibility. And no matter the cause of Mary's ostensible widowhood, Jesus might have been particularly sensitive to their plight both from his attending to the Torah and from his own experience. He wasn't, as our pastor said in his homily, apparently attuned to reviving the son for the son's sake, i.e., for restoring his life to him, but for his mother's sake! So a poet might even conceive of the mercy of Jesus in this case reflecting the compassion of God for widows, since God, too, is understood in Christian faith to be a parent who has lost a son.

However, taken together with the first reading today from 1 Kings (Elijah and the widow of Zarephath), the echo I heard more strongly still was with Luke 4, the "inaugural homily" of Jesus at the synagogue in Nazareth which the church inexplicably splits into two successive weeks' gospels early in Year C. There, Jesus reads from Isaiah 61, announcing his mission as being defined by the jubilee action of God, which at first causes the assembly to assent and approve. Then, Jesus goes on to remind them that "there were many widows in Israel at the time of Elijah, but the prophet was sent to none of them," but to a widow of Sidon, a foreigner. He makes a parallel case about lepers and the prophet Elisha, sent to Naaman, who was a Syrian. God's preference, then as now, is to show no preference, but to heal whoever needs healing, good, bad, or ugly, homie or foreigner, taxpayer or "illegal alien," one might say.

When the folks say "A great prophet has arisen among us," it is this prophet that they are getting: one who relentlessly preaches and practices the compassion of God for all people, even the Romans, as the healing of the centurion's "boy" in the gospel of Luke has it, immediately before today's pericope. God's compassion is not defined by our idea of worthiness or even fairness. God makes the sun shine and the rain fall on everyone the same. God invites. Everything depends on how we respond. That's what conversion is about.

It is conversion to which Jesus is inviting those listeners in the Nazareth synagogue just as he invites us today. "Turn away from sin, and believe in the gospel." There are two claimants to your allegiance, he says: Caesar, who claims to be god, the God who brought you out of Egypt and made you a nation. You can't serve them both. In order to serve God, you need to turn your back on the god Caesar. Take up the cross that will inevitably come, and follow me, says Jesus. Put away your sword. Love one another—feed each other—as I have loved you.

St. Paul in the letter to the Galatians speaks of his own conversion to the Way, how different it was from that of the other apostles, and his journey gives us some food for thought about the future for us in a church and world of changed orientation. When we think about Saul/Paul before and after the Damascus road, we see in both cases an evangelist, an apostle, and a zealot: and a servant of the same God! But what changed in Paul? He became like Christ. He put down the sword, the threats, the summons to court, and took to invitation, exhortation, and persuasion. He came to know Christ crucified and risen, and saw that his previous strategies of violence and rigid orthodoxy were the strategies of the wrong god, the strategies of Caesar. Paul took up the breaking of the bread, the sharing of story and meal with those who might listen, as the strategy of transformation in the reign of God. Roman citizen that he was, he was not led to the cross and tradition says Peter and Andrew, at least, were, but was beheaded in the Coliseum when he finally came to Rome. Nevertheless, he took up the cross, and received the reward of the enemies of the god Caesar.

These thoughts seemed all connected to me in some esoteric way, the resurrection of the widow's son, the homily in Nazareth, the conversion of St. Paul, the Forum's next-to-last institute. I couldn't put my finger on it until I went back to mass tonight for the evening service, when it dawned on me like a familiar refrain, because, well, it is a familiar refrain.

If I'm friendless and bereft like the Phoenician widow, and a stranger from another country raises my son from death, let me sing, "I will praise you, Lord, for you have rescued me."

If my life is occupied by hostile people, if at every turn life deals with me harshly, and even my son, my last hope, lies dead at my feet, and a stranger sees my pain and restores my world to me, let me sing, "I will praise you, Lord, for you have rescued me."

If I think of myself as a sword in the hand of God, breathing fire on his enemies, cursing infidels and backsliders and the lukewarm and revisionists, and peaceful light knocks me off my high horse and asks me with love, "What the hell are you doing to me?", let me sing, "I will praise you, Lord, for you have rescued me."

When I think that God hasn't noticed the service of my friends and colleagues and mentors in the Forum, has forgotten their devotion to God's word and the mission of Jesus, and let our mission dissolve in front of some who wished for its demise, and then I find myself in a room of people from parishes from Seattle to Boston who are hungry for formation and on fire for that same mission, let me sing, "I will praise you, Lord, for you have rescued me."

And wondrously, without even knowing what I was singing, I did sing those exact words with them just Friday morning. Things are going to be all right by and by. God, in the Lord Jesus, "who from (our) mother’s womb had set (us) apart and called (us) through his grace" is passing by to utter a word: "I say to you, arise!" No servant of Caesar, no hopelessness, or subjugation, or death, can resist the exhilaration of that summons.
Lord, I will praise you, God of my rescue.
See how my foes are struck dumb and amazed!
When death was my doom, you shattered my tomb.
Your love drew me clear of the grasp of the grave.
God has come near me with mercy to hear me,
With loving compassion her child to defend.
My mourning has fled, and dancing instead,
I thank you forever, my maker and friend.  
I will praise you, Lord, for you have rescued me.
(Psalm 30, "I Will Praise You, Lord," by Rory Cooney © 1989. Music by Gary Daigle.)