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Sunday, September 15, 2013

All are welcome—to what? (Part 2)

This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.

The readings for this Sunday are the ones we heard, one might say providentially if forgettably, on the weekend after 9/11/01. One would think that such a nexus would provide some meaty material for the homilies on the weekend after the memorial of that awful day, with its "never forget, always remember" refrain, about what Christians need to remember and forget. What I got last night was about the sacrament of penance. Maybe that worked for some folks, but not for me. And that was with the omission the parable of the two lost sons, since the short version of the gospel was used. It was like scripture gave us a sledgehammer, and we used it to swat a fly.


Earlier this week, I pointed out that Kenneth Bailey, in his essential work on the literary criticism of the parables called Poet and Peasant and Through Peasant’s Eyes, says that the semiotic center of each of the three parables is a community celebration. He demonstrates this by using the Greek texts of Luke, pairing off phrases from the outside of each story, until what is left is the “center,” and in each case, it’s the celebration. This stands to reason: the group of parables in Luke 15-16 comes after the observation by some of the Pharisees that “this man welcomes sinners and eats with them,” so the parables are a response and riposte to that accusation.  God’s search and prodigal mercy are only part of the story, though they are the doxological foundation for what follows. The announcement of the arrival of God’s empire is the point of  the ministry and in particular the meals of Jesus. 

But which God is it whose empire is here? It is the God of mercy, who abandons all propriety, including heaven and godliness itself, to embrace the world. Of note, too, is the fact that the younger son does not repent, any more than the coin or lamb found their way back. He can be said to have a change of heart, but not because of his rudeness, arrogance, or reprehensible behavior, just because of his discomfort. Whatever his motivation for returning, his father doesn’t wait to hear it. He comes out and meets him in the road, cutting off his planned speech with his song of restoration.

The detail that is out of place in these finely balanced parables is the response of the elder son. This is such a masterpiece of storytelling that it is virtually without peer among the parables. The vindictive (and disrespectful) elder son, presumably a metaphor for anyone, scribe or Pharisee or anyone, who can’t deal with the generosity and extravagance of God’s mercy measured against his or her own perceived fidelity to the covenant and the “lost” son’s wasting of his father’s fortune, is still outside when the story is over. His rancorous “sound byte” of protest, masquerading as a plea for justice, is followed by the father's protest of love that bids him enter the feast. This detail has no parallel in the storyteller’s economy. It’s meant to echo inside the hearer, and irritate the heart until the hearer makes a decision: does the son (do I) go into the feast, or not?

The scribes challenge Jesus because they see his table-fellowship as an offense against God. If he claims a special relationship, or any relationship to God, and shares his table with sinners, then he brings dishonor to God, and commits blasphemy. It's an important question to them, and apparently, even to us, as the question of who is in and who is out persists in Christian assemblies to this day. This parable and the questions it raises about who is inside and who is outside the feast, who it is that Jesus wants to have dinner with, brings up the paradox of “all are welcome,” and forces us to ask, “all are welcome to what?”

One year, the cover of our bulletin sported this quotation for this Sunday (I made a note of it): "Every parish must find a way to make all welcome at the Sunday Eucharist--to make all ages at home together around the Table, and in the sharing of our Christian lives." Well, yes. But I would contend that the point of the Christian Eucharist is not solely nor even primarily to gather people around the eucharistic table, any more than the table-ministry of Jesus was just about eating. The purpose of eucharist, identical to the purpose of the empire of God, is not a bigger church—it is a transformed world. Eating justly at the Eucharist is a way of training us and empowering us to eat justly at the table of the world, and to bring others to that table. Jesus did not seem particularly concerned about “converting” pagans to Judaism: his seemed to perceive his mission as reintroducing Israel to its own heart, and helping it find its way out of the morass of legalism and class distinction that had penetrated its identity. The outward thrust of the gospel, apparent in Luke and Acts, and to some extent generated by the expulsion of Christians from the temple and synagogues in the late 1st century CE, offered to the client nations of the Pax Romana an alternative to Caesar’s empire.

As someone involved in initiation ministry and who sees the great good in the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults, though, I can see that the table ministry of Jesus vis-à-vis the modern eucharist brings up a debated point. If the table is the entry point to the reign of God, why does baptism precede it? It seems the example of Jesus shows that we eat together first, then, as one “gets it” and comes to realize God’s universal love and the arrival of God’s empire, then one is baptized. This is, at least, a conclusion one might draw from the silence of the NT about this, that baptism is the end of a process, not the beginning of one; the result of table-fellowship, not the doorway to it. The feeding of the multitudes was not preceded by a mass baptism, even a Johannine one, necessarily. Changing church practice on this would uproot our entire tradition, but would solve our problem of the closed table. The church is having none of it. Not the Roman one, anyway.

But the eucharist is not the same as the table-fellowship of Jesus, is it? The eucharist, as Pope Benedict once unhappily if correctly put it, is opus Dei, the work of God, saving the world through, with, and in Christ. The analog for the table-fellowship of Jesus in the modern church is not primarily the eucharist, which is less than a tithe of the day for even the rigorous daily mass attendee. It is, rather, the work of the community of Jesus in the world to be present to the world, to heal, reconcile, and exorcise, the work of announcing the good news to the poor, in the many places where that happens. It seems too simplistic to me to assert that anyone can come to the table, any time they want. It seems reasonable for the Catholic Church to say that its self-expression in the eucharist requires that a person be initiated into the community publicly to fully take part. This is because one must be part of Christ, an event signified by baptism and confirmation, to take part in the messianic mission into which the Church is sent in the eucharist, a mission which includes the cross. Simply stated, one can’t “do” Christ until one is “made” Christ, and the making happens, once and for all, at the baptismal bath and the anointing of confirmation, followed by eucharist. Others churches can do as they wish with the breaking of the bread, but this is how Catholics have done it, for a couple of thousand years. So, there is sound theological reason for maintaining the closed table.

But on the other hand, we have in the eucharist what Fr. Richard Fragomeni has called “anti-ritual ritual," that is, this inner energy that the eucharist has to break out of any boundaries we set around it because its imagery and history is so full of outsiders and the invitation to “come and eat without cost.” It is the eucharist itself that is calling us to break down the boundaries that keep some outside and some inside all kinds of human endeavors including the Church. But its call is not to a false unity, a pretense of intimacy that requires no human solidarity, but the genuine article into which one must opt and not be coerced, into which one can only be invited, not conscripted. This kind of unity is built within the eucharistic community in its ritual and then missioned with energy into the world at the end of every eucharistic celebration.

“Dining with sinners and eating with them” is not about sacramental actions, it’s about living daily life in the reign of God. This kind of being-with the marginalized and rejected is the kind of work parishes and churches ought to do outside of their eucharistic assemblies, the very kind of efforts for which those assemblies ought to be preparing us. Those who begin to see our solidarity with and care for the powerless might then be encouraged to be in solidarity with us, come to know the God who called us to this mission, and join us around the table of the Messiah which points toward and begins to celebrate the eschatalogical banquet that is already-not-yet taking place in this world.

I feel that there is an almost equally strong case for an open table. In the sense that, if the Eucharist is a sign of God’s action in the world through Christ, and that it is a “rehearsal” of right relationships that ought to endure outside of the church event, then an open table could say, “Look, here is everyone, with God letting divine presence come to 'good and bad' alike, stranger and friend, rich and poor, member and non-member. Now, go ye and do likewise." That works for me too. It doesn’t take away deeper meanings of Christic incorporation among the baptized, but it allows the meaning of the sacrament to develop in a person’s life. It’s not that far, it seems to me, from our practice of baptizing and giving Eucharist (in the East) to babies, who also don’t “know” what they are receiving but are allowed to grow into it, the way people do with everything. Put another way, the unity of the world, all children of one Father, that the Eucharist symbolizes on behalf of the kingdom pre-exists the experience of the Eucharist, otherwise, the Eucharist isn’t a sacrament. The reign of God is “at hand,” already here, and the Eucharist, like the meals of Jesus, is a sign of that reality. Participating in the Eucharist then, for anyone, “effects what it symbolizes” because it is first and primarily opus Dei, the work of God, not the work of people, neither the priest nor merely the gathered body of believers.

"Amazing Grace" was probably sung in a lot of churches this weekend, preparing to hear, or reflecting on, the gospel parables. When I was a teenager, I had a problem with the line 'saved a wretch like me." I think I had some sense of being a sinner. But God loved me, so I couldn't possibly be a wretch. It took time for me to learn to look at all the sin in which I participate, and of which I was not aware, and against which I have no apparent power. And I do not have the martyr’s desire to throw myself in front of a Tomahawk missile, or protest outside of Walmart or other users of foreign child labor, or do the research required to find out which kinds of coffee that I drink keep people impoverished, and which pay a fair wage to their workers. I guess I feel that, unless I'm dreaming through life, or unless I'm better at serving the marginalized than Mother Teresa, I'm a wretch, and I'd better get busy admitting it. As a wretch, I’m in plentiful company. Isn't St. Paul eloquent about it in the letter to Timothy we happily heard this weekend? 
I was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and arrogant,
but I have been mercifully treated
because I acted out of ignorance in my unbelief. 
Indeed, the grace of our Lord has been abundant,
along with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. 
This saying is trustworthy and deserves full acceptance:
Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.
Of these I am the foremost. 
But for that reason I was mercifully treated…
God’s love doesn’t make me not a wretch—it makes my wretchedness irrelevant. As a wretch, I’m beloved by God who calls me “child” and holds me in mercy in spite of my wretchedness, like the prodigal, kenotic father in the parable of the two lost sons. Whether I’m the older or the younger son in the story doesn’t really matter: I’m God’s child, and so is every other person.

So what does that parable have to do with 9/11? I think I know, and I think the preachers know, and I think no one wants to say it out loud, because Caesar is listening, as are Caesar's happy citizens. It’s easier to gaze at our navels and talk about welcoming people into church than it is to talk about not killing Syrians and Afghanis and Iraqis, housing and caring for the mentally ill on our streets, or subsidizing the military-industrial complex. It’s easier to criticize the church’s closed eucharist than to criticize immigration policy or the growing hegemony of the rich. In any case, it’s easier to criticize than to formulate a strategy of grace and intervention and do something.

Still, the Eucharist of Jesus, in its classic Catholic form, keeps rehearsing us in right relationships, and needling us in our complacency with the two-edged sword of the divine word. Even when it’s a problem, the Eucharist can’t help but nudge us in the right direction, not because we’re so clever, but because it’s the opus Dei. It's God's work, God's idea. Thanks be to God.