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Friday, April 4, 2014

Doing our best, and doing right—not necessarily the same thing

We've been holding "Change Our Hearts" Thursdays in the parish this Lent. A couple dozen folks gather in our hospitality room to share soup and bread, and then share some faith experiences from the previous week that might have arisen from their meditation on the daily readings and the reflections from my book on the Lenten readings, called Change Our Hearts: Daily Meditations for Lent. Due to my being in Massachusetts for the 2nd and 3rd Thursdays of Lent, I wasn't able to attend all of the sessions. Last night was the last one, with next Thursday being our parish penance service, and the following Thursday being the Mass of the Lord's supper. But I thoroughly enjoyed the experience of sitting informally with new and old friends from St. Anne and sharing our faith in wide-ranging conversation for an hour or so.

I was privileged, the first night and last night, to begin the conversation by giving a sort of introduction to the concept of the book, which is a particular view of the Lenten journey through the lens of the baptismal promises, and then applying it to the readings that we had heard or read for the week since the last time we had met. So last night we were discussing the readings from last Friday (the third week of Lent) through yesterday's texts, the Thursday of the fourth week.

Since it was going to be our last evening together, I wanted to try to reorient us toward behavior, and make an attempt to show that myself, how a particular meditation might call us, or, actually, me, to a new way of seeing or acting. It may seem like I spill my guts easily in these little blog posts, but doing so in public, with people I know, in this case, with Terry present, isn't easy for me at all. But I felt like unless I got to a place where I could say, "this is where I am with this, and I think this is where I want to go," then it might all just stay in the realm of theory, and again, nothing will ever change. As I mentioned a few days ago, it's easier to be in love with love than it is to actually love somebody. I'm built for brainstorming, less so for action. One recent Pope asked that very question of us, wondering why so much Eucharist is going on, and the world is changing so slowly, if at all.

So I reminded my fellow parishioners that the baptismal promises we will be asked to renew will ask us to reject sin and believe in God, Father, Son, and Spirit. How do the readings we've read this week, anchored by the great scriptures of this past Sunday, ask us to think about what sin is? I think that the scriptures of Lent give us some new insight, and ask us to rethink some of what we take for granted about the nature of sin. Secondly, who is this God in whom we're asked to believe? Again, we need to re-evaluate the God we worship, because we can, like the Israelites in the desert, make graven images even of the true God, which are no less repugnant than images of false ones. We might be led by the scriptures to think about a God who like underdogs, like the shepherd David, youngest of Jesse's sons, a God who sees behind appearances and norms and looks into the heart. We might see a God who creates light, who brings light out of darkness, who is bigger than the ways our religion sometimes tries to restrict grace or even define what God wants and doesn't want.

One of this week's major themes seemed to be that we all love some god or another. But the God to whom we are vowed, the God of our baptismal promises, is a God of self-emptying love, the God of mercy, a God who acts on behalf of those who are weak, poor, sick. This is a God who is so deeply involved in this world that he enters it personally in the man Jesus. And what we see in the story of Jesus is that the world is so set against this wide-open, wall-crushing, healing, feeding, equalizing love that forces of violence are set by motion by the very act of healing.

We're more than halfway through Lent. What has made a difference for us so far?  Has this journey through the readings helped us see our Christian calling with fresh eyes? Has it made a difference in our prayer, our relationships? In the way we see the demands of work, government, other voices competing for our attention over the voice of God? Has it helped us see that renewing out baptismal promises is actually a choice between gods?

I came clean about my meditation (a lot of this happened in the shower, by the way…I hope I didn't waste a lot of water) on the readings from last Saturday, a piece from Hosea and the Lucan account of Jesus's parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector. In my book, I focused on hesed and how Hosea plays with its meaning, and how the psalm refrain reinforces that, unexpectedly coming from outside the psalm, from Hosea itself, with the verse, "It is mercy that I desire, not sacrifice." And this leads into the gospel story.

This is where my mind stayed as I reflected on these readings, with the Pharisee and tax collector and their relationship with God in covenant. Their relationship (as Jews) is analogous to mine as a believer in Jesus. They, too, are called to remember and renew that covenant relationship, and the parable is a story about that relationship.

I want to give both men the benefit of the doubt. They do, after all, both go up to the temple to pray. Like me (and you, I assume), they both know something is fundamentally messed up with the world. They both live in a country subject to a pagan emperor who says he's god, and they and their whole nation have to pay tribute to this god. The Pharisee knows something is wrong, but in this mind, it's not him. He's the good guy. He keeps the law, tithes, he's grasping, cheating, adulterous—not part of the problem, like that tax collector over there.

But the tax collector knows something is wrong, too. But notice what he says: be merciful to me, a sinner. The tax collector is our patron saint. The tax collector is the pope. Remember that we're taking the view toward baptismal promises that respond to Jesus and his specific call to turn away from sin and believe in the Gospel. The tax collector knows he's part of the problem, and he is. Literally. He is on the payroll of the other god. No matter how good he is (he also went up to the temple to pray), he's playing for the wrong team. But he's got his heart right. This is the key: he understands that doing his best to navigate the treacherous world of Caesar, but he also realizes that doing his best isn't the same as doing right. Nevertheless, he knows that God is good and source of mercy, and that he is in covenant relationship with this God whose hesed cannot fail, so his prayer is, "have mercy on me, a sinner. I am the problem, he says. It's the best I can do, and it's not good. What does Jesus say? He went away justified, and not the other guy. Why did he go away justified? Because he knows who God is, and who he is, that God is good, and his best is his best but it's not truly good, and that God loves him anyway because that's what God does. The Pharisee, assuming his own goodness, doesn't give God a chance to be God, which means the Pharisee doesn't really have a chance to be human, and live in genuine covenant relationship.

There's irony built into the story, because as Jesus (or the evangelist) is telling it, the audience knows that both men are part of the problem. This is the genius of the storyteller, so wherever the hearer's sympathy might lie, the hearer is in for a shock. Everybody knows that the situation in the world is FUBAR, as they say in the military, but most of us don't really feel we're part of the problem. We're "doing the best we can" in the situation, and I think we feel that's good enough, because all God wants of us is to try. Well, yes and no. 

I'm like that guy. I'm like both of them. I know something's wrong, and I know I'm part of the problem, the wrong god owns my soul. The best I can hope for now, as a Christian, as a man, as a human being, is to know for certain that doing the best I can do isn't necessarily the same as doing good. I can discern that gradually by looking at my life and my actions against the template of agape: am I acting for the good of others? Am I dissipated toward equality with those who have less than I do, or do I hedge my bets? I hedge my bets. "When you've done all you've been commanded to do, say, 'We are useless servants. We only did what we were told.'"

But God is good. Really, really good, and loves me us even in our sin. I need to keep turning, aware of the sin that wants to own me, that wants to reward me with creature comforts and temporary happiness that comes at the expense of the pain and unhappiness of others. Real good, real happiness, calls me to shared life with everyone, and promises the undying covenant of creator comforts and deep-down, eternal happiness, where eternity is deeply now, present in a way that transcends the present. So I keep praying with that tax collector, Have mercy on me, a sinner. 

That's where I am today.