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Tuesday, March 4, 2014

My Lenten Manifesto

There's a tremendously poignant scene in the musical Camelot when Arthur and Guinevere try to find
a way to be together even as the world of the Round Table is collapsing around them. Arthur suspects that she and Lancelot are in love, the jealousy of Mordred and the dissatisfaction among the knights with Arthur's new code are causing dangerous rifts inside and outside the palace,  but Arthur is determined to turn his eye away from his own problems, not believe the rumors, and try to fix things in his marriage. The song, of course, is "What Do the Simple Folk Do?" The king and queen try to sing, whistle, and dance themselves back into the bliss of their lives before their idealism began to run aground on the rocks of bad choices and political inertia, but it is no use, and they know it. For all that they continue to feel for one another, they've come to place where they don't recognize in each other what they once did, or at least they are unable to return to the place they were. They fell out of love, and momentum of events around them is carrying them to places they do not want to go, or wish on one another.

In our parish, and I think this is the case in a lot of parishes, if not all of them, we do a lot of singing, whistling, and dancing. There's a lot of good stuff going on, people being fed, buildings being built for people who need them, clothing the naked, visiting sick and prisoners. But there's also a lot of wasted energy on the parish and diocesan level: initiative after initiative on behalf of this or that group, this new study, that new program. We barely finish the consultation and paperwork on one diocesan initiative when another one is started, and we wonder what happened with the hours of implementation we invested in the last one went. When you're standing in the middle of all that, it feels like something important is not being addressed. Some good and positive things are going on, but they seem to be disconnected from the structure. There is apparently some "ideal parish" out there somewhere, made up of ideal Christians, and we're all being groomed to measure up to that standard. Meanwhile, enthusiasm is waning, energy is dissipated on spinning wheels that are going nowhere, and frustration in the community mounts as it feels we're less and less relevant to the very people who should be most invested: Catholics.

I'm just speaking for myself, of course. But why does it feel this way?

I feel like we've gone way off message. We see success stories in business, judge success by numbers, particularly economic ones, and then embrace strategies that orient us toward business-like success, bigger numbers and more money. But once the folks arrive, what do we have for them? What's the "product"? Entertainment? It's cheaper, better, and more diverse elsewhere. Community? They can get it from sports teams and neighborhood, work, and school connections. Vision? Some people, at least, still think it's available from political parties. What about reconciliation, healing, and altruism? There's therapy, there are twelve-step programs, and certainly PBS, Doctors Without Borders, the Red Cross, and hundreds of other worthy places to donate disposable charity income. So, what's our product? Clearly, when it comes to entertainment, community, vision, reconciliation, healing, and altruism, "even the pagans do as much"!

I wonder if it's possible that the church has lost its way, that we have forgotten who God is, been attracted to the glitzier distractions of our first-world environment, and fallen in love with someone else. I wonder if, like Guinevere, we love the idea of our lover and the ideas of our lover, but our heart really wants to go play in a waterfall with the handsome stranger and forget about the love that built our house, gave us a worthy vision, and, in fact, brought the handsome stranger into town.

The trouble is, I think, the handsome stranger looks like a good choice, but in fact only has his own ends in mind. The attractive stranger is vapid and one-dimensional, is full of pretty lies and empty promises. He tells us, "just you and me, baby," but he says that to everyone, and we all end up wanting the very same things, which is bound to cause us nothing but trouble. When the Olympics of desire begin, the only way to keep order is through violence and threats; there will be competition, some will win, some will lose. A few will have a lot, most will not have enough. We want security, enough to live on, happiness, and we find that we're quite willing to compromise the unhappiness, pain, and insecurity of others to possess them ourselves. This is the dowry of the attractive stranger: competition, violence, and jealousy, a Ponzi-scheme happiness built on the sometimes invisible destruction of the other.

"No one can serve two masters. You will either love one and hate the other, or serve one and despise the other." What we, the church, have to offer is a different God. It is not the same god as we put on our coins, it is not the same god whose name we write on bombs and bullets. That is a different god, and Jesus knew that other god too, and came with a message for everyone who felt deep in their heart that something was terribly, impossibly wrong. It was this: Turn around, follow me. There's another God and another empire available.

In the first and second centuries CE, it was Caesar who claimed to be god. This is not a metaphor. In the Roman empire, there was no "division of church and state." Caesar was the state, and Caesar was god. The Pax Romana, the peace that was the promise and pride of the Roman empire, was bought and enforced at the edge of a brutal sword, and those who challenged Rome or its god quickly found out what it was like to for a mere human to incur the wrath of the god Caesar, and frequently, that knowledge was the last thing the dissenter thought as s/he suffocated on a cross.

Jesus came preaching a different God, a different empire, and a different strategy. He came to talk to anyone, but especially outsiders, people not among the religious, economic, or political elite, who knew deep down that something was wrong with the system. I like to say his message was something like this: "How's that Roman empire working out for you? How's that whole temple thing working out for you? Well, that's their god. I have another God for you, and that world you want is as close you as turning away from the other god, and following me to this one." Of course, the God Jesus proclaimed was not a complete stranger. Other gods were borrowing Abba's look and promise, and masquerading as the real thing. But the real thing is a violent emperor, a severe judge, or a meticulous bookkeeper. The real thing is "Our Father". The real God is like the head of a household, who cares that everyone in the household has enough to be happy, and where everyone in the household belongs and acts like it, brothers, sisters, aunts and uncles to each other.

What the Christian scripture refers to as the "kingdom of this world" is opposed to god. What defines "this world" are many nations, economies, and special interests. Borders, economies, armies, immigration control, corporations, and secret bank accounts are part of that world. It is a world of families, not family, and those families quickly become Hatfields and McCoys, with more and more sophisticated weapons that unleash more and more savagery. Jesus's message, repeated each Ash Wednesday but echoing through every verse of the New Testament, is "Repent, and believe in the gospel." To "repent" means to turn around, go in another direction. To "believe in the gospel" means that there's good news about our emperor. "Gospel" is a word that Mark used in his, well, gospel, a word that had not been used before in quite the same way. It's a word from military vocabulary, a word that means that there has been a victory over another hostile force. The good news, in our case, is that Caesar has been defeated by Abba, our Father, the God of Jesus.

So how are we going to turn this thing around? There's no easy answer. It has to be by forming a community of intention, people who are, in Hauerwas's happy words that echo St. Paul, "resident aliens." We have to begin to recognize the patterns of violence and competition that are the pattern and strategy of civilization, recognize the prophets of that god, and turn away from them. Do something new. We have to believe in God, in Jesus Christ, in the Holy Spirit, the forgiveness of sins, the trans-national community that is the church. We still have the habit of Sunday worship, thank God. We need to take Sunday back from the mall, the arena, and the entertainment world. We need to recover our core message, and translate it into the vernacular. We need to appeal to the dissatisfaction in the human heart, the knowledge we all have that our happiness, when built on the destruction of other people, is not a blessing from God, but an illusion and narcotic from the other god. We need to recover the sense of the human family that is not satisfied to be "like the pagans," that honors the poor and weak and offers to everyone enough of the earth's goodness to live well. And our forgiveness and good will needs to extend to our enemies. Finally, we need to live as though we believe Abba's empire is not like those of this world, and is not defended by the violence, or threats, drones, border patrols, or economic sanctions. We have the gifts of millions to employ in this strategy. We need to deploy them in a peaceful way.

"Turn away from sin." Sin is anything we do as a church, country, town, family, individual, that makes me happy (where me is the individual, or any group with specific goals or desires, including churches) and excludes, exploits, or oppresses others. In forty days or so we'll be asked again, "Do you reject sin? Do you reject the glamor of sin?" The "glamor of sin" is about as close as we can get to translating the Hebrew word "mammon" - the glint of gratification in an action or situation that is a counterfeit of happiness because it's not for everyone, or comes at a cost to others while delivering some comfort or security to us.

"Believe in the good news." There's a new sheriff in town, and the really good news is that God is not a sheriff, but the head of a household, a father, if that term works for you. The gospel lays out in the Sermon on the Mount and the parables of Jesus, and ultimately in the story of his peaceful, fiercely conscious refusal to negotiate with or even submit to the authority of powers other than Abba, his death by capital punishment and vindication by God, the terrain of the dominion of God and the route to the new world that is right where we are already standing. The empire of God, the reign of Abba, is for everybody, it's available now. What is required is that we turn around, and, following Jesus, walk the other way.

Tired of spinning our wheels, false starts, voices beckoning in ever new ways to waste our energy going nowhere, staying in the same patterns and routines. Even now, we can hear the gentle admonition of Jesus prodding us toward change: "How is the 'kingdom of this world' working out for you?" We know deep down inside, not even deep down sometimes, that we aren't happy. If we think we are, we're not remembering that we're part of an elite group of people who have profited from the exploitation of the earth and her peoples, and who defend those profits and our gains by violence, threats, and sanctions. Some of us actually have the power to change things in the whole world. But this change can't be achieved through violence, or military threats, banking strategies, or insurance plans. It comes by a change of heart, a gathering into community, and refusal to cooperate with the entrenched social strategies of sin.

Pope Francis seems to be trying to make inroads. Preaching a God of love and not judgment, but a love that is shown by involvement, going outside the walls, making mistakes, stirring things up. but "the kingdoms of this world" will no doubt push back, as I'm sure he finds out every day in the walls of the Vatican. "No servant is greater than the master," and the sign of the cross is a grim reminder of the destiny Caesar has in store for blasphemers against the cult of the emperor. People like us.

But I want to catch the vision of Mt. Tabor, the world that is just a step away, where the prophets of every generation, hunted down by their entrenched adversaries, speak their truth down the ages even as their powerful persecutors and murderers are forgotten. I want to fall in love again with the one who forgives my treason and treacheries three times, and cooks me breakfast; who takes my love for what it is and invites me to a future that I can't see but is as inevitable as love itself; who transfigures my surrender to death and hesitant choice to live right here and now into copious, unimagined life. I want Lent to mean something, I want my baptism to mean something. I want church to mean something.

I believe that the gospel is a choice. I hear Jesus say, "Do not be afraid," and yet I am afraid. I feel like I've been, like we have been, like the church has been, so assimilated into civilization that even we in the church don't believe any more in dialogue and invitation, but resort to threats and shunning to get our way. We use the strategy of Caesar to achieve a goal that isn't even on the agenda. We organize our activities around the strategies of IBM and General Foods, and we have forgotten who we are, that we have a message different from business, from Democrats, Republicans, and Ted Nugent.

But I believe there is hope. We still gather around to hear the gospel. Christ is still among us. We have been given the Holy Spirit within. We have the hunger and the silence that Lent offers to remember who we have been called to be, and what we might be if we just turn around and believe in the gospel. I don't know if we can do it on our own, which is why my prayer is, "Lord, this time, change our hearts."

We are ambassadors for Christ,
as if God were appealing through us.
We implore you on behalf of Christ,
be reconciled to God.
For our sake he made him to be sin who did not know sin, 
so that we might become the righteousness of God in him.

Working together, then,
we appeal to you not to receive the grace of God in vain.
For he says:

In an acceptable time I heard you,
and on the day of salvation I helped you.

Behold, now is a very acceptable time;
behold, now is the day of salvation.