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Wednesday, September 17, 2014

The Surprise of "Right and Just" (A25O)

The first reading this Sunday, a short piece of Isaiah 55, connects us back to the Easter Vigil where most of chapter 55 is read. Another snippet of this chapter was read a few weeks ago as the “firestarter” in the liturgy of the word whose gospel is the parable of the sower. Today, however, the emphasis is different, as the gospel will echo backwards to the word “generous,” and as always, when we encounter parables of the reign of God, the deceptively simple statement that
my thoughts are not your thoughts,

nor are your ways my ways, says the LORD.

As high as the heavens are above the earth,

so high are my ways above your ways

and my thoughts above your thoughts.

It would be great if we dealt with this reality a little more, if there were a little more preaching about the unexpectedness of the dominion of God. Virtually all of our instinctive reactions to one another: jealousy, revenge, punishment, competitiveness, even charity and altruism, are simply not a part of God’s nature or vocabulary.

Theological note: as I’m writing this, I am painfully aware of the inadequacy of anything I say to do any better to describe God than anything else. Even the best human statements, Rahnerian, Gandhian, Thomistic, are shadows of the reality, distant echoes of the truth. The best we can do is really grapple with the reality of Jesus, who is by faith the sacrament of the invisible God. Whatever we say about God cannot contradict that reality, which is why I think the liturgy is as remiss in continuing to call God “Deus Sabaoth” in the eucharistic prayer as in using the divine name “YHWH” in some of its songs.

Language just fails us in the description of God or even the trails the dominion of God leaves among us. Words like “lord,” “kingdom,” and even “right” and “just” are left in the dust because they have been used for so long to describe human enterprises and qualities that the baggage they bring to a consideration of the divine simply overwhelm the conversation. This is why the gospel says that the reign of God “is not like the kingdoms of this world,” and why St. Paul points, with the gospel, toward a crucified Jew when he means “lord,” and not to the only apparent “lord and god” of the time, Caesar Claudius (or Nero). Jesus, of all people, traveling the diaphanous boundaries between the “reign of God” and the lives of ordinary people, and somehow intuiting that he had to impart to us a way of re-imagining life without the restrictive categories of human judgment, value, and the whole patron-client / dominant-subject framework of human economy and intercourse, needed to find a vocabulary and semiotic system that would allow him to undercut the discussion. His life and teaching needed to sow the seeds of doubt about “the way things have always been.” In short, he needed a way of subverting the dialogue of civilization itself, of giving us a new way of discourse for an option to Caesar, a kingdom not like those of this world. And so he turned to story, and particularly to the parable.

Sunday’s gospel is one of those unsettling parables, one that sets God’s justice up not as we would have it, but as a way of invitation and equality. “What is right” in the parable turns out to be a place to work, a daily wage, and a beneficent vineyard owner who pays everyone who answers the invitation enough for their daily bread. But it’s the invitation and the response to it that matter the most; it is the vineyard owner who is at the center of the story. It is chilling to recall the last line of the parable, spoken to those who came earliest to work, and who demanded human “justice,” that is to say, less for those who worked less, more for those who worked longer, “take what is yours and go.” Justice, it turns out, isn’t enough. None of us has enough. It is the invitation into the vineyard that matters. To imagine that some of us should have “more” because we got there first, or worked harder, or said prayers in Latin, or prayed with guitars, or were good Catholics from childhood, or “got it” as adults: irrelevant. God matters, the kingdom matters. All else will be given to you besides. We can’t earn it.

The implication is that we need to begin to understand that our relationships need to be free-flowing and utterly generous and inviting, and not feeble “trickle-down” counterfeits of generosity and agape. When we stop inviting and start demanding, we stop living kingdom lives. When stop being glad for the motley crew in the vineyard and start grumbling about the ones who aren’t like us, we stop living kingdom lives. When we stop being grateful, and start imagining we have some kind of right to more than everyone else, we’ve stopped living kingdom lives. This is why, I’m sure, the proclamation that “the reign of God is close by” is always preceded or followed by, “reform your lives,” or “turn in the other direction,” and believe in the good news. It’s not good news unless it’s good news for everybody.

Here’s what we’re singing at St. Anne this weekend:

Gathering: We Are Called (David Haas) Sounds the call to live in the light and act with justice. The gospel today helps us disabuse ourselves about false ideas of justice. We have to try to get ready to hear it.
Psalm 25 "Remember Your Mercies". (Rory Cooney, OCP) This is the proper psalm for next week, and in the common psalter. With the Isaiah reminder that God's ways and thoughts are high above ours, we remind the Holy One, in his own words, to take it easy on us while we catch up.
Gifts: A Place at the Table (Music by Lori True, words by Shirley Erena Murray) I confess to having mixed feelings about this song, but I'm not the one who feels displaced, either, and feel that it might be best to put my own critique aside and see how it goes. The lyric goes to some worthy and daring places ("abuser, abused, with need to forgive") but sometimes too facilely for my taste. The chorus, "And God will rejoice when we are creators of justice and joy" may be true, but sounds a little pretentious with the effusive, optimistic melody. Still, de gustibus non (Anglo-Saxon expletive deleted) disputandis, and a lot of people around the country really like this song. We'll give it our best shot.
Communion: One in Love (music by Tom Kendzia, text by Rory Cooney, OCP)
Recessional: Canticle of the Turning (Rory Cooney, GIA) The parabolic motif of the day is the overturning of our expectations about God which, in turn, can overturn the world and "the way we've always done it." Can't beat the Magnificat for that kind of theology.