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Friday, December 13, 2013

What did you go out to see? - strategies of grace

Recently I wrote about a third movement of Advent that is taken up in the liturgy of the third (Gaudete) Sunday, the movement of rejoicing. As I wondered about who is actually supposed to be rejoicing, and about what, I tried to keep coming back to the question Jesus poses to the emissaries of John the Baptizer, who want to know if he is "the one who is to come." The reason I did that was that we find what we are looking for based upon our expectations. Sometimes, finding what we're looking for is a matter of changing focus, like those weird patterned pictures made by Magic Eye, that looked like busy wallpaper or fractal designs until your eyes focus on a spot beyond the plane and you see a flock of geese or a lion or in this case, a bunny, clear as day. You don't even need to be told what the image is to look for it: you just refocus, and you can tell someone else what you see. Sometimes you have a preconception that prevents you from finding what you're looking for, like picking out a child in a crowd who is the offspring of two people you just met. You're looking for a child who has mom's eyes, or dad's nose, but the child turns out to be adopted, perhaps of another race even, with no family resemblance at all.

Looking for the presence of God is like that. People looking for a messiah who reflects a god of war, or revenge, or judgment will find someone who fits their expectations. That was part of the problem with John's apocalyptic vision, and with the apocalyptic vision of many in Israel in the last two centuries especially before the birth of Jesus, and for a few decades (or a couple of millennia?) following. Instead of reproving the questioners, or dismissing the question, Jesus reverences the seeker in them, knowing they are attracted by his reputation, his words and actions. So he just says, "Tell John what you have seen and heard." In other words, trust your senses. You've witnessed healing, joy, and liberation. Is that what you are looking for? Jesus invites them into his own journey, to take part in his peaceful "revolution" on behalf of the empire of God.
Then what did you go out to see?
Someone dressed in fine clothing?
Those who wear fine clothing are in royal palaces.
Jesus asks the crowd about their vision. Your instincts, he seems to be saying, were right. You didn't go out to look at reeds, or expecting to see a prince or a priest. You went out because you expected to see a prophet, someone whose word stood up against kings and priests. Jesus honors the imprisoned John even as he tries to move him, through his (John's) disciples, from his expectation of violence to a different expectation. God, Jesus is implying, isn't like the people who are in charge now. Don't wish for more of that: violence brings nothing but misery.

How would we report back to the seeker about our encounter with Jesus? What have we seen? Where do we look to find the emergence of the empire of God in our own world, our own lives? Sometimes, as I said above, we need to refocus, sometimes we will be surprised anyway, like when the child we're looking for turns out to be adopted.

I call these appearances of the kingdom or empire of God "strategies of grace," a phrase I took from the late Fr. Jim Dunning. They are movements within the systems of the world that arise to do the work of God who heals, liberates, and brings joy. They push back against the forces of civilization that thrive on violence, threats, exploitation, and fear. And like the "adopted child," they aren't all explicitly offshoots of the church or believers, though we have every reason to believe that they take their energy from the heart of God.

We see movements like this in our parishes and neighborhoods. Local and regional food pantries sponsored by parishes, resale shops like St. Anne's "House of Hope," groups of doctors and dentists who travel at their own expense to health care deserts in inner cities and even foreign countries to provide free clinics, my friends who have spent years of their lives serving in the Peace Corps, the Jesuit Volunteer Corps, all of that kind of work falls into the category of strategies of grace, that is, organized systems of social improvement. Others are even more institutionalized and globalized, for better or worse. I would include groups like

  • Medicins sans Frontières (Doctors without Borders)
  • Catholic Relief Services
  • Truth and Reconciliation Commissions
  • The Innocence Project
  • Kiva, and other micro loan organizations
  • International Red Cross
  • The United Nations
  • Pax Christi International
  • my friend Tim Schmaltz's "Protecting Arizona's Families Coalition" and similar groups
  • my friend Tom O'Hern's "Family Hope Charity" in Korogocho, Kenya
Well, you get the idea. Generally speaking, the people served by these folks and folks like them are the ones with something to "rejoice" about, because the strategies of these groups cut across the grain of power and economy in order to bring empowerment, healing, hope, and liberation to the underserved. 

What "strategies of grace" do you see in the world? If someone is looking for signs of a benevolent, peaceful God who suffuses this troubled planet with hope and possibility of safety, where would you look? If disciples of violence asked you, "Is your God worth following, or should we look elsewhere?" what would you say? I think I could say, "Let me tell you about my friends, and some of these folks who go to church with me." Not that all of them feel the same way about God that I do, naturally, but it's because of them, and how they act, that I can keep going. 
Are you the one, or should we look for another?
What did you go out into the wilderness to see?
Those questions should keep us busy for another week or so, don't you think? Maybe if we align ourselves together, shift our vision a little, look for the unexpected, we too can give someone who needs it something to rejoice about.