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Thursday, October 15, 2015

Mercy, mercy, mercy (B29O)

Metropolitan Anthony of Sourish was the Russian Orthodox
Metropolitan of England and Ireland, +2003. 
Sunday's first reading echoes the first reading on Good Friday, a snippet from the fourth Servant Song in the book of Isaiah. The RNAB notes that the surprise expressed in verse one of chapter 53, from which this passage is taken, is because this kind of suffering, by which one man is laden with the sufferings of many, justifying them all, has no precedent in the Hebrew scriptures.

It has also led to all kinds of strange interpretations through the years about God, hasn't it? It seems like so many of us, myself included for many years, imagined a god who was so offended by the sin (disobedience? pride?) of our first parents that his (sic) wrath could not be assuaged except by blood. And since this god was, well, God, the insult was so huge that only a god could repay the debt, so the god's son became human and was killed to make things all better with the insulted god.

This process, common called "substitutionary atonement," works all right, but only if you posit a god capable of being angry, hurt, or petulant, and who is so monstrous as to require an impossible blood debt be settled by the very people he created with the freedom to disobey. The fallout of this, of course, is a universe where the mighty rule, where vengeance is justice, and the disproportion of revenge to the crime is limited only by the monstrous imagination and power of the offended party.

And this pretty much describes the world we live in, and have always lived in. Is there any other explanation for it, and any other way out of it, than the substitutionary atonement which seems to do little but make a religion out of violence?

Let your mercy be on us, O Lord, as we place our trust in you.

The vision of James Alison, based on the mimetic anthropology of Rene Girard, shows another way. Rather than imagining a god who imposes this necessary death on his son in order to assuage is just anger, Alison imagines a God who is not like the other gods, that is, the gods whom we are capable of imagining and imitating in our own vengeful and power-lusting ways, who is beyond death and whose nature is absolute perfect love. In Alison's theology, God sees the way we are from inside and beyond us, knows the kinds of gods we manufacture, and subverts that way of being from within, introducing into the human heart an alternative vision of how things might be that Jesus called the reign of God. This is the same phrase as "kingdom of heaven" and other ways of translating the phrase, but what it means is an empire, realm, or sphere of influence and life in which God's alternative plan for humanity unfolds in time. It is a present reality. "Heaven" does not describe a quasi-geographical site where God dwells and we will go after we die; it describes the reality in which God already exists, and where it is possible, if we believe the word of the gospel, for us to live, as Christ did, here and now.

In the alternative vision, God sees and knows that we are unhappy and violent people, and that we organize government, economy, and culture by powerful majorities (in democracies) and minorities (in oligarchies and monarchies) in such a way that there are always winners and losers, ins and outs, rich and poor, friends and enemies. God knows that we are afraid of death, and that we depend on social climbing and financial status in order to be differentiated from others, and that we are willing to achieve those desires by almost any means possible, including violence and deprivation to others, though we may not inflict it directly ourselves. Our systems do that dirty work for us, most of the time, and other systems insulate us from the outcome, from seeing the destruction our achievements cause in the lives of others.

But God, from outside of our realm of desire and mimesis, says something like this:
“I know that you are susceptible. I know that you find it very difficult to believe that God loves you. I know that you are inclined to be frightened of death. And because of that you are inclined to run from death, mete it out to others and engage in all sorts of forms of self-delusion and self-destruction. You find it difficult to imagine that things really will be well and that you are being held in being by someone who is utterly trustworthy. All this I know.” 
“What I want to do is to try to nudge you into being able to trust that the One who brought you and everything into being is actually trustable, not out to get you. You can believe him. Believe in him, believe in me. I am going to act out in such a way as to make it possible for you to believe I am setting out to prove God’s trustworthiness for you.”  (James Alison, Jesus, the Forgiving Victim: Listening for the Unheard Voice; book Three, page 207, Amazon Kindle Edition.)
In other words, to a world which has created itself in the image of a wrathful, violent god, God speaks a word of calm and trust, and that word is Jesus, the anointed (christos) prophet and instantiation of the reign of God. And this Jesus, in our gospel Sunday, echoing the words of Isaiah 53, has this to say about the whole power structure of world, and about how those who walk in the Way are not to imitate it, but imitate him:
"You know that those who are recognized as rulers over the Gentiles
lord it over them,
and their great ones make their authority over them felt.
But it shall not be so among you.
Rather, whoever wishes to be great among you will be your servant;
whoever wishes to be first among you will be the slave of all.
For the Son of Man did not come to be served
but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.
In We Make the Road by Walking, Pastor Brian McLaren writes this, starting from the argument that began today's gospel and ending at the Last Supper:
Soon, we've moved on from arguing about which of us is the worst disciple to arguing about which of us is the greatest. It's pretty pathetic, when you think about it. It says a lot about us disciples, and a lot about human nature, too. Jesus is trying to tell us he's about to suffer and die, and all we can do it think about ourselves, our egos, our status in the pecking order! 
Even this becomes a teaching opportunity for Jesus. Gentiles, meaning the Romans who occupy our land and seek to dominate us in every way, play these kinds of status games, he says. They cover up their status games with all kinds of language games. "That's not the way it will be with you," Jesus says."Instead, the greatest among you must become like a person of lower status and the leader like a servant." 
Years from now, when the Fourth Gospel will tell the story, it will make this theme of service the focal point of this whole evening. It won't even include the bread and wine and Jesus's solemn words about them...Jesus...washes the dust from (their) feet, one by one. When he finishes, he explains that he has set an example—of humble service, not domination—and he means us to imitate his example. (We Make the Road by Walking, A Year-Long Quest for Spiritual Formation, Reorientation, and Activation, © 2014 FaithWords. NOOK edition, pp 199-201)
God in Jesus comes into the human family to occupy the place of shame, that place we are so terrified to occupy, and to occupy that place right into the jaws of death, and is raised from the dead, coming back among us not with words of vengeance and condemnation but with words of love and invitation. His resurrection message continues to be "Follow me!" His living demonstration of love and solidarity with the outsider, his kenosis of divinity into humanity, is all a way of showing the Way to a different world that is already present among us if we just turn away (repent, metanoia) from the strategies of rivalry and empire and embrace the God who wants to be known as Abba, father, and brother.

Let your mercy be on us, O Lord, as we place our trust in you.

This is what, I think, is meant by mercy at its heart, the reality of this particular God who is utterly different from one we might make up, who is capable of transforming our world from within by offering this Way, by making the Way himself in Jesus, who goes before us into the place of death and shame and demonstrates that in the reign of God death has no power because death, for God, is nothing. Mercy sees the desperate place in which we find ourselves, sees the violence and hatred we inflict on others in our fear and self-loathing, and loves us anyway, and shows us the way out of hell.

Do we need to embrace this God, whose patience and hospitality offers, at every moment, the opportunity to change and live without fear and competition for the fullest possible life for every human being? Now, more than ever. Except that, now as much as ever, we are gently reminded, the pathway goes through the cross. Which is why we hear about the cross so much through the liturgical year of grace, why the gospel brings it up so many times under so many circumstances, like today, during a little argument among friends among who gets the best places when our buddy wins the throne. Which is why, in the middle of October, we hear an echo of Good Friday on a blue-and-gold autumn morning.

SIDE NOTE: And at St. Anne, we celebrate the Combined Rite of Acceptance into the Order of Catechumens and Welcoming of Baptized and Uncatechized Candidates etc. etc. and blessed do not even need to use the ritual mass, because, really, you can't be more confronted with the reality of the cross and its meaning in Christian life than the way we hear it in today's readings! Coincidentally (?), the psalm for today is precisely the same psalm (different antiphon) used in the ritual mass.

What we're singing:
Entrance: Here I Am, Lord (Schutte)
Psalm 33: Let Your Mercy Be on Us (Haugen)
Presentation of Gifts: To You Who Bow or Only This I Want (Schutte)
Communion: This Is My Example (O'Brien)
Recessional: Glory in the Cross (Schutte)

Note to music directors: Days like this should be used, in my opinion, to bring out the paschal repertoire, to use music as much as possible that is used or will be used during Holy Week and Triduum. Every Sunday has a paschal character, and sometimes we so over-theme the liturgy that that reality gets lost. We should recover it. The cross and the paschal mystery are the reality that shapes and gives meaning to our lives. If we don't help reimagine God as someone beyond our imagination, someone Other than a god-like-the-other-gods, full of condemnation and revenge, then apparently nobody will. 

Let your mercy be on us, O Lord, as we place our trust in you.