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Wednesday, October 28, 2015

A cloud of surprise witnesses (All Saints)

The pictures in this post are details of the "Communion
of Saints" tapestries in the Cathedral of Los Angeles,
created by John Nava
After this I had a vision of a great multitude,
which no one could count,
from every nation, race, people, and tongue.

Nadia Bolz-Weber's latest book, Accidental Saints: Finding God in All the Wrong People, is an unpredictable tour of the liturgical year that begins and ends with celebrations of All Saints' day at her Denver ELCA church called "House for All Sinners and Saints." What is immensely refreshing about her take on holiness and being church is just how rough-around-the-edges it is, in fact, to many people, I suspect it would be unrecognizable as holy. She sees relentlessly through the hard work churches do to appear holy, to do good things, all the while avoiding the very people whom Jesus names in the beatitudes and with whom Jesus, as best we know, used to hang out. In fact, as best we know, the ones with whom he still hangs out.

For me, she hits almost every nail right on the head, and doesn't really seem to care how much noise her hammer makes. She's as rough on herself, rougher maybe, than she is on any other ecclesial hypocrisy she nails, and she does find God in what seems to me are all the right places, like, for instance, "when I am confronted by the beauty of the gospel so much that I cannot hate my enemies," and "when I am forgiven by someone even though I don't deserve it, and my forgiver does this because he, too, is trapped by the gospel. (pp. 8-9). In fact, she writes,
And anyway, it has been my experience that what makes us the saints of   God is not our ability to be saintly but rather God’s ability to work through sinners. The title “saint” is always conferred, never earned. Or as the good Saint Paul puts it, “For it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Philippians 2: 13). I have come to realize that all the saints I’ve known have been accidental ones  —   people who inadvertently stumbled into redemption like they were looking for something else at the time, people who have just a wee bit of a drinking problem and manage to get sober and help others to do the same, people who are as kind as they are hostile. Bolz-Weber, Nadia (2015-09-08). Accidental Saints: Finding God in All the Wrong People (p. 7). The Crown Publishing Group. Kindle Edition. 
This was my thought exactly when reading about beatifications and canonizations of this one or that one who seemed to be a poster child of reactionaries in the church, and a way I have of forcing myself to remember that no one ever "earns" sainthood. It is God who makes saints, sometimes in spite of, but often actually by means of the very weaknesses and sinfulness to which I or others might take exception. Which, of course, is very good news. Especially to me. It's not a ledger-based accounting system. God is not in competition or rivalry with evil. God is utterly good, and cannot be marred by our sin, and so is completely present to us even in our sin. We're slow to recognize God's goodness, wary about it, lest we seem to recognize the unworthy as saints of God. So it's good for us to remember that naming someone a "saint" does nothing for them that God hasn't already done for them, and for ours, and for us long before, loving us into "blessedness," and laying on our unmeriting hearts the names "saint" and "child" and "beloved of God."

Looking back over all my old stuff, I've never actually written about All Saints before, not that I can find, anyway. What I see in the scriptures of today, wonderfully available to us to ponder and celebrate on a Sunday, is a triptych of texts in the two NT readings and psalm that are lit up by the gospel. In Revelation, we see the political cost, that is, the cross, paid by so many who have followed the gospel way, not just in the persecutions of the second century of the Common Era, but in every age up until the present day. Many are not given the option to negotiate with the violent gods who demand tribute and participation in their bloody sacrifices to oppression, war, and the marginalization of the weak. Many have simply been sacrificed themselves, made victims to appease the murderous need of civilization to have its scapegoats. Like their master, Jesus, they went to their death perhaps in terror and abandonment, but they discovered that God did not abandon them, but "sealed them with the sign of the servants of God," and made them part of the new world.

"This is the people that longs to see your face," we sing in the psalm, and following the wisdom of the Torah, proclaim that "One whose hands are sinless, whose heart is clean, who desires not what is vain" receives blessing from God, "reward from God his savior." But with Israel, we have also learned that not even Torah is salvation; we are able to follow the law of God and act with integrity and justice only because God's love enables us to do so before we act. In covenant with the ever-faithful God, we are able to be like God, and act with love and justice, because of a response to God who loved us first. Thus we are called, in 1 John, "children of God." Implied in that epithet, and spelled out in I John and elsewhere, are the identity-shaping fatherhood of God, who loves us in Christ into a new way of being together, and the family identity we share with one another. As children of God, the implied ethic is that we love one another as God in Christ has loved us, and with the agape love that the indwelling of their Spirit makes possible.

Crowning the liturgy of the word on this day is the proclamation of the Beatitudes, which, I think, is too often mistaken for an ethical blueprint and not seen for what it is: a manifesto to the powerless that God is already with and in them. The beatitudes are less "you will be blessed if you are poor/merciful/peacemakers/persecuted" than the more radical idea that "no matter how it appears, you are blessed if you are poor/blessed/peacemakers/persecuted." "Blessed" (Gk. makarioi, i.e., fortunate) means "blessed because God is with you, present to you, now," which is the only blessedness that means anything. As I wrote in a previous post about the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus "thinks of his audience, and that is us, as 'blessed,' that is, makarioi or full up with the good fortune of being loved by God who is right here with us in the trenches when we're poor, lowly, thirsty for justice, merciful, peacemakers, single-hearted, and put down because we try to be on God's side."

So while Revelation looks forward, in a sense, out of a chaotic present to an end-time when God will straighten out all injustice and make the world right, 1 John and the beatitudes teach us that the project of the divine clean-up has already started and is active in the present, and that it comes about by our participation in this project which God dreamed up in Christ in the first place. "Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we shall be has not yet been revealed," says the author of I John. Being God's children, we can look for the particular blessedness, the experience of divine presence, in those times when we experience our own poverty, efforts at giving or receiving mercy and peacemaking, in the thirst for justice, the experience of persecution, and when we try to live in solidarity with those who are already clearly living in those places.

In the eschatological parable of Matthew 25 (31-46), when the last day comes and the world is gathered in front of the king, divided in two by a blur of remembered lifetimes, everybody, everybody, is surprised. "Good heavens! When did we see you hungry or thirsty?" "What the hell? When did we see you naked, or sick, or in prison?" We are, like people have always been when confronted by the gospel, by the real presence, amazed to be among neighbors we imagined would be in the other pile of humanity. On that day it will be God's job to "love your enemies, do good to those who hate you" in a way that right now is unimaginable. Maybe the last boundary, confronted by indefatigable love and relentless desire for unity, will evaporate before the One who is in rivalry with nothing and who has no equal among all who live. We have no idea. But pleading the case for the "ones on his left," I imagine, may be the cloud of surprise witnesses and accidental saints, with the experience of forgiveness and mercy burning in their hearts like a first love taken to an irrational exponent, taking up across the universe the song we start Sunday, moving through and embracing as sisters and brothers the crowd across the aisle: "Lord, this is the people that longs to see your face."

Here's what we're singing at St. Anne this week:

Gathering: Ye Watchers and Ye Holy Ones
Psalm 24 (Kevin Keil)
Presentation of Gifts: New Jerusalem
Communion: I Will Live On (Haas)
Recessional: Jerusalem, My Destiny

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Speaking up (B30O)

"Son of David, have pity on me."

It might be significant that this week's gospel, at the end of chapter 10 of Mark, forms an inclusio with another healing of a blind man, the one that took place in Bethsaida in chapter 8. Between the healings of these two blind men, we hear three predictions of the passion, Peter's "confession" that Jesus is the messiah, which is something about which he and Jesus have a misunderstanding, the story of the rich man who walks away, and the request of the sons of Zebedee we heard about last week, another gospel set-piece about misunderstanding what the "messiah" is going to do. This technique of the inclusio is to call our attention to what has transpired between the two incidents (of healing), and compare and contrast them to what is going on in the healings themselves.

My reading revealed to me that there is a lot of interest just in the name of Bartimaeus, the fact that the author of Mark tells his presumably non-Jewish readers that "bar-Timaeus" means "son of Timaeus." The name "Timaeus" then becomes a source of inquiry. What are the possible Aramaic or Greek roots. Does it mean anything? Some make a point of saying that Bartimaeus is one of the few who are named in Mark's gospel, but that makes me wonder, is calling somebody "son of Timaeus" really a "name," or just a patronymic, like calling Jesus "son of Joseph"? What is interesting to me is that the son of Timaeus calls Jesus "son of David," which is a literary device that I can't ignore, whether "Timaeus" has another meaning or not! And there's the intriguing question, too, as to whether "Timaeus" (a Greek name) might be a reference to the Timaeus Dialogue of Plato, in which Timaeus "takes the design of the eyes and the mechanics of vision as an important case in point" in a discussion about rescuing the intellect from the imperfections of its creation. 

At any rate, this blind son, perhaps "son of honor," perhaps "son of shame," perhaps just of "son of Timaeus," cries out from his accustomed place by the side of the road, "Son of David! Have pity on me!" The Greek verb here, ἐλέησόν, you will recognize as the "eleison" of the liturgy. So "have mercy" might be a more consistent translation for us. There are a couple of important cultural references here. The whole scene, with Jesus, the "son of David," an honorific that declares him king of Israel, coming down the road and the beggar sitting on the side yelling "ἐλέησόν", we may be seeing a parody of imperial Rome. The Emperor and his generals, parading after a military victory, would make a great spectacle of the spoils of war the procession. Crowds of people lining the streets might then cry out to their divine emperor, "Kyrie! Eleison", that is, "Hey! we kept the fires burning and supported you in your victory...let some of the spoils come to us, too! You got it, and we need it! Let all that goodness you have be poured out on us!" And, like Mardi Gras, some of the goodness would be thrown to the crowds from the victors. Jesus is his emperor, and Bartimaeus expects the generosity of the victor to be thrown to him who announces his belief.

Bartimaeus, see, in this story, is calling Jesus his king, his kyrios, the "son of David." Which is a good reason for the people around, whether the disciples or other people along the side of the street, to tell him to shut up, because that kind of talk can get people arrested or beaten or worse. And the son of Timaeus would not shut up, he kept calling out to the son of David, because in his blindness he could see his emperor. The ones telling him to be quiet were now told by Jesus, "Call him." One commentator sees this as a remedy to the "anti-healing" of the attempt to make the blind man also mute! And Jesus asks him, "What do you want me to do for you?", which is a little reminiscent, don't you think, of the last pericope we heard, a few verses ago, when the sons of Zebedee said, "We want you to do for us whatever we ask you." But this supplicant will get what he asks for because it is something within Jesus's power to give: sight.

Finally, I love that Jesus tells him to go, and he doesn't go, he "follows (Jesus) on the Way." Which I suppose doesn't necessarily mean that he didn't go, but it sounds like joyful disobedience to me.

Those stories between the healings of these two blind beggars are all about what it means to be "the anointed one" of God (Christ, messiah) and what it doesn't mean. The light that Jesus is, showing the way of God that is the way of service and healing, is not the expected road of deliverance for us who admire the efficiency of brute force. We like the idea of conquering our enemies, taking over the palace, and having not just our daily bread and maybe some for tomorrow, but money in our bank accounts to assure bread and cheese and meat for a long time to come, and insurance to cover the bank accounts, and money in our wallets, and line of credit. We especially want these things if we're a long time in the "have not" category of LBJ's Great Society dialectic. We don't really want to think about waiting, about consensus, about non-violence toward the violent, about overthrowing the strong. You sit by the side of the road and wait for light to come along. You receive the empire of God like a child: you take baby steps, you get gradually loved into walking in the way on your own two feet. You do right, treat others with the care you would like to receive, you believe that God who gave life in the first place will not abandon you in the place of death, and when integrity requires it, against every instinct for survival, you enter that place with forgiveness and a psalm on your lips, trusting that in some unknowable way God will pull you out of it. Alive.

Does that have anything to do with us in the twenty-first century, rich, armed to the teeth and, for some reason, afraid we don't have enough guns and firepower to protect what we have? Various candidates, representing the empire with the guns and money, all have a list of solutions that appeal, they hope, to enough voters to give them power to distribute the guns and money and food and influence to those whom they deem worthy. But even if they could appeal to all  the voters, it seems to me that it's the empire itself that is the problem.

Bartimaeus, called by Jesus, "threw aside his cloak," which may mean that he knows his past is behind him. His cloak may be his old life, may represent the place where, as a beggar, he collected money from almsgivers. In the hands of the gospel writer, he may be, like the folks at the eastern gate of Jerusalem will be in a few verses, throwing down his cloak and singing hosanna to the "son of David" to announce the arrival of the strange messiah, the unexpected Christ, who arrives not on a warhorse but on a donkey. Clearly, something's brewing in Jericho. The empire will respond in its usual way, but the empire will not have the last word. Light will.

The Lord has done great things for us; we are filled with joy.

May God give me strength to speak up, to shout Have mercy on me from the side of the road of empire, and to be able to discern between the messiah and the king. I want to see. I want to be happy, and follow Christ on the way.

What we're singing this weekend:

Entrance: Christ Be Our Light (Farrell)
Gifts: Open My Eyes
Communion: You Are Mine (Haas)
Sending Forth: Walk in the Reign or Be Thou My Vision

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Second thoughts: We want you to do for us whatever we ask! (B29O)

The Zebedee brothers, with their infamous request, "We want you to do for us whatever we ask of you," stand in for a lot of Christian and even pre-Christian history in our relationship with God and the gods. The author of Mark goes out of his way to try to let us see how wrong the disciples are and how wrong this approach is; it misses utterly the reality of Jesus and his meaning for the world. We'll see just how Mark does this on Sunday, when Jesus heals another blind man in Jericho, his last stop before entering Jerusalem from the east.

I'd like to think that Mark is holding up the disciples for us, with their continual misunderstanding of who Jesus is and what his ministry means, just for this reason, so that we who also want to exchange good deeds and moral, law-abiding lives for a merited crown, will also see how off-the-mark we are. Because nothing is merited. Everything is already given and present. We can't make ourselves "good enough" for God, there is no path to that. But it doesn't matter. "Only God is good," the Torah teaches. To enter into goodness, we need to be like God. To be like God, we need to walk in God's life, in agape, which is to say, to love without thought of self-promotion or reward. To love even strangers and enemies, always and only because every human being is a child of God, and not because anyone has merited our love any more than we merit God's. To love is to want the life of the other to flourish with the same passion that we want our own to flourish. This is the meaning of the "golden rule," "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you."

"We want you to do for us whatever we ask of you." Well, yeah. Don't we all? Even our psalm Sunday had us pray, "Let your mercy be on us, O Lord, as we place our trust in you." Even the psalm seems to be asking for payback, like Peter did, when, after the rich man was sent away in the gospel a couple of weeks ago, Peter said, "What about us? We've left everything to follow you." And Jesus answers him in a positive way, but needs to be heard. To follow Jesus, to leave the past behind, isn't like following a general. It's being formed in the image of the servant of God, in the image of agape, being the one who allows self to go into the place of shame, abasement, and death knowing that there is life there, that God is there, so that the fearlessness of the victim, that unknowing but faithful fearlessness, can make a way of faith for others. As Nadia Bolz-Weber defines leadership in her congregation, it's saying, "OK, screw it. I'll go first" into whatever fire or hell or place of unknowing and lovelessness requires it.

That is the cup that from which Jesus is going to drink, and about which he has three times, in this section of Mark, told the disciples. "Follow me" means "follow me to the cross," because that's the place from which he can show us that death has no power, the darkness into which he can empty himself because of his faith that the light of Abba is there, to give him life, and those who follow him, life again.

We want you to do for us whatever we ask.
We want world peace. We want the end of hunger, disease, and poverty. We want the end of war and armies and hatred.
Can you drink the cup that I drink?

We want you to do for us whatever we ask.
We want to be safe. We want our children to grow up without fear and violence. We want everyone to have enough, to be treated as equals, to be able to live freely.
Can you drink the cup that I drink?

We want you to do for us whatever we ask.
We want to be happy, we want our lives to mean something.We want to be remembered, to be imitated, admired, respected. We want to stop being afraid. We want to live together in peace.
Can you drink the cup that I drink?

Our civilization, economy, borders, and collective wisdom tells us that in order to get what we want, which is what everyone else wants, we need to protect what we have from everyone else, stick together, define ourselves against the other. The gospel says we are the other, that we are all the handiwork of the same God who wants us to be like a family, looking out for one another's good. The cross is the place where those worlds collide, and the truth of agape and falsehood of the world of ambition and violence is exposed. The cross is the price of participating in God's project of saving the world from itself, for being a bridge-builder, and for refusing to be a part of the culture of violence and greed that is civilization by the powerful, for the powerful.

Jesus didn't come simply to do something for us. He comes among us as God's word, God's self-expression, to help us do something together. Atonement, "at-one-ment," is not by proxy. It is participatory. Jesus invites us into God's project of saving the world. Ambition and self-aggrandizement are just off the table, they are counterfeits of divine presence. Greatness in the reign of God is defined by service, the greatest of us all led by washing feet, by refusing to be defended by the sword, by laying aside the very name and accoutrements of divinity and showing us, literally step by desert step, a different way to be together.

We want God to do for us whatever we ask. God sees that we want the wrong things, things that have proven over and over that they cause harm and not happiness; or that we want the right things, but we want them for ourselves and not for God's other children. He shows us in a short life time the Way to the empire of God, a world of peace and justice. But the question still remains, even as we heard it again Sunday: Can you drink the cup that I drink or be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized? And he keeps moving down the road. Like you, I don't know whether to follow, or not. The destination seems right; the path seems too terrible.

Jesus seems to know that, and love me anyway. Like Pastor Nadia, he says to me and all of us in so many words, "Screw it. I'll go first."

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.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Second thoughts: Wealth, Wisdom, and Futility (B28O)

In my rush to finish something for week 28 of Ordinary Time the other day, I forewent writing anything about the first reading and psalm, and thought that, having listened to the scripture proclaimed twice (so far), I'd give you some of what I heard when I was present to the Word.

The book of Wisdom, as you probably know, is a very late book in the Hebrew scriptures. In fact, it dates from only a few decades before the Common Era, before the birth of Christ, maybe just fifty years. Its prologue and voice makes it sound as though it were Solomon who were the author, but this kind of ascribed authorship is a common technique of the period, and is certainly found in the Christian scriptures as well, with non-Pauline material being attributed to St. Paul, for instance. In Sunday's passage, to prepare our ears for the gospel with its back-story in the Torah and the contrast between the Way and the cult of money, we hear how the author opts for wisdom over wealth and power, health and beauty. So we might take "wisdom" by its generic usage to mean something as simple as choosing to be intelligence over other praiseworthy "gifts."

Our recent exploration of "The Difference that Jesus Makes," part three of James Alison's four-part Jesus the Forgiving Victim series brings another kind of insight that ties the late Jewish concept of Wisdom to the memory of the First Temple, and all that has happened in Israel since then. In a way, this is no surprise. The experience of exile and return had a great effect on the consciousness of Israel, in no small way influencing the editing of their sacred texts as they gradually moved from being generally oral traditions into the written versions we know today. In a sense, the destruction of the kingdoms of Israel and Judah, the leveling of the Temple, and the deportation to Babylon and the return from there under Cyrus of Persia became not only the Exodus, but the creation of the world. But Alison has this to say about what "wisdom" means in the literature of Second Temple Judaism:
The wisdom literature also kept alive many of the elements of the old priestly vision. In fact “Wisdom” was strongly linked to the priestly understanding of God opening up Creation from the Holy Place in the Temple. The vision was that everything that is, having been brought into being by God, is shot through with, undergirded by, orchestrated by, Wisdom, originally seen as a feminine figure alongside God at creation. The loss of the old priestly world was seen as a loss of sight, and of Wisdom, so that things could no longer be seen as they were, tending towards their glory as created reflections of God. The opposite of Wisdom was vanity or futility, with things tending towards nothing and winding down pointlessly. Naturally this vision of things was strongly contrasted with the Deuteronomic vision in which “asking after the things that are above or below” was strongly discouraged, and a focus on listening to the words of the Law asserted instead. Indeed in the Book of Deuteronomy it was insisted that at Sinai the people did not see the form of God, but only heard the words. Nevertheless, the protests are not silenced, and in the Book of Proverbs, for example, there is a long and beautiful passage (1.20-33) in which Wisdom, speaking as a goddess who has been spurned and thrown out, complains against those who have rejected her and the vision which she offers. (Jesus, the Forgiving Victim, Essay Six, Undergoing Atonement, Kindle Edition, location 2575.)
So maybe we can start by hearing "wisdom" as meaning something more in that light, in the sense of "living in the presence of YHWH," the Creator-God who walked in the Garden, and who was instantiated in visions to Moses and Elijah. This immanent divinity was somewhat played down if not rejected by the Deuteronomist tradition, whose less visionary, more practical theology was focused on keeping the covenant, obeying the Torah, as the path to righteousness. Wisdom might thus be identified, in the mindset of the lectionary today, as choosing the "reign of God" as proclaimed by Jesus, with its priorities of the immanence of Abba whose desire is mutual love among all as sisters and brothers, its insistence that "blessing" or "beatitude" has nothing to do with status, wealth, nationality, or even religion, but is discovered in the need of the other and the surrender to and work on behalf of the reign of God. Thus, wealth is not a blessing, but poverty is, in the sense that it is an opportunity to serve another, correct injustice, and discover in the reign of God an alternative economy. Beauty is not a blessing, but the Crucified one is. Health is not a blessing, but the suffering or mourning of people is, in the sense that it is an opportunity again to discover the reign of God both in service and in being served. Nadia Bolz-Weber has a good insight into this in Accidental Saints: Finding God in All the Wrong People, where she writes:
And to be clear, Christ does not come to us as the poor and hungry. Because, as anyone for whom the poor are not an abstraction but actual flesh-and-blood people knows, the poor and hungry and imprisoned are not a romantic special class of Christlike people. And those who meet their needs are not a romantic special class of Christlike people. We all are equally as sinful and saintly as the other. No, Christ comes to us in the needs of the poor and hungry, needs that are met by another so that the gleaming redemption of God might be known.  
No one gets to play Jesus. But we do get to experience Jesus in that holy place where we meet others’ needs and have our own needs met. We are all the needy and the ones who meet needs. To place ourselves or anyone else in only one category is to lie to ourselves. (emphases mine; Accidental Saints: Finding God in All the Wrong People, by Nadia Bolz-Weber, Chapter 5: You Are Not "The Blessing"; Kindle Edition, location 746)
So perhaps, arriving at the gospel after asking in the psalm that God "fill us with your joy," and that we might live our lives well so as to "gain wisdom of heart," we can begin to see that the difficulty for those who have amassed wealth, or have been given it, is that wealth gives the illusion of self-sufficiency, of being insulated against the vagaries of everyday life in a way that most people do not experience. In order to keep the security that wealth affords us, we have to keep others away from us by building walls on our borders, making laws, gerrymandering districts. Wealth blocks the sight of the heart to the needs, even the rights, of others. The assumption about wealth in the time of Jesus was that all the goods that were available were distributed, so in order to get more wealth, it had to be taken (unjustly) from others. Jesus's preaching of the reign of God, the "jubilee economics" of Leviticus that is genuinely good news for the poor (Is. 61), is that if all that wealth is freely given for the good of the other, and that everyone lives as daughters and sons of Abba in a self-aware communion of love and service made possible by God's indwelling Holy Spirit, then there will be a world of peace and justice no longer blinded by the false security of violence, coercion, and the amassing of wealth at the expense of others. Wisdom is the choice of this gentle path that imitates the Creator and therefore is the path of life; futility is the path of violence and greed that inevitably leads to the cycle of mimetic violence and scapegoating, and thus the path of death.

Even so, as the apostles find out, no claim is made on God by just living. Peter says to him, in the verse following the gospel, "We have given up everything to follow you," the implication being, "so we will be part of the kingdom, right?" The life is God is still given freely, not earned, wheedled, entreated, besought, or bribed. It is already there for the taking. To begin to live justly is to begin to live eternal life, God's life, right now. It is as though a thirsty man, obsessed with the salty ocean in front of him that only increases his thirst, is being told, "Turn around and take a little walk. There's a river of fresh water right behind you." The journey from futility to wisdom, says Jesus, is a step in the other direction. "Follow me."

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Can't buy me Agape (B28O)

Jesus looked around and said to his disciples,
"How hard it is for those who have wealth
to enter the kingdom of God!"
The disciples were amazed at his words.

So Jesus again said to them in reply,
"Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God!

It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle
than for one who is rich to enter the kingdom of God."

They were exceedingly astonished and said among themselves,
"Then who can be saved?" (RNAB)
Late again, but I'm going to try to add a few thoughts anyway. In other times, I would have salivated over this gospel, and the opportunity to excoriate the rich and delight over their impending miseries, but I think I see it differently this year. And it's not just that I'm rich, either, part of the tiny number of the world's population that has more of its share of the riches of the world while a huge majority of people barely eke out a living. It's that while I'm pretty sure Jesus meant exactly what he said, that it is impossibly hard for the rich to enter the reign of God, I also think it's less about money itself than about entitlement ("I've been good, God owes me") and signification ("I'm rich,  therefore I'm blessed"). At the heart of all this, the metaphorical camel going through the needle's eye, is the damned assurance that I can stay the way I am, comfortable and unchanged, and come to understand within myself that I can be part of the life of God.

A few things I've picked up about the language of the gospel from sources, particularly "Say to This Mountain" Mark's Story of Discipleship by Ched Myers and others, and The Jewish Annotated New Testament, edited by Amy-Jill Levine etal, but most of it can be found in other resources as well. 

Like other passages, this event takes place "on the way," "setting out on a journey." A wealthy man does homage to Jesus and asks him, "What must I do to inherit eternal life?" The verb "inherit" indicates that the man expects that a relationship exists there whereby, due to some vagary of birth, he is owed something by God. If he had asked "how can I earn eternal life?" he would have made a much more common mistake, right, one we all make in our relationships not only with God but with each other. While it is a common disorientation in us that imagines we can "earn" our way into the relationship with God that will deepen our life into God's own, it's a peculiar mistake of the rich and religious that imagines we can get there by bloodlines or creed. Note at the end of the reading that the disciples are incredulous that the rich can't easily enter—or aren't already clearly in—the reign of God. They are spectacularly "blessed" in life, isn't that a sign of God's favor? And looking at that insight from this perspective, that is, that the rich, with all their foibles, cruelties, injustices, and manipulations are somehow "blessed" by God, what does that make people imagine God is like? No  wonder, I think, people were ready to hear the gospel. They knew something was wrong, and finally here was a teacher smart enough and good enough to say it out loud.

He calls Jesus "good teacher," and Jesus calls him out on it, because "only God is good," and so he is about to teach him the Torah, which he purports to know and follow well. Jesus's response is, "You know the Torah," and he lists the second half of the decalogue, but with a notable deviation. Instead of the final commandment about desiring the property of another, Jesus substitutes, "you shall not defraud," which is indeed in the Torah, but from a section of Leviticus about property, rather than from Deuteronomy (and Exodus.) Jesus knows that the man is wealthy; maybe he even knows him and reputation, and that his disciples and others suspect (or know) that, like all of the rich, what they have is not their own, but has been taken by fraud from others. 

"You're just missing one thing," Jesus announces. "Sell it all, give it to the poor. Then come follow me." There it is, that nagging demand that he, and all of us, "turn around and believe in the gospel," that is, turn from the mechanics and economy that we think determine civilization and give our hearts (be-love) to the good news of the other, alternative, kingdom of God. And, by the way, "eternal life" does not mean (only, or primarily) "life after death." The only eternal being is God, so "eternal life" is a figure of speech, a metonymy, that means "share in the fullness of God's life." It means a way of being now, in this world. Jesus is already living there. He's inviting the young man to join him, but his attachment to his own world, the world of money and property and power, is holding him (and us) back. Jesus isn't offering him heaven after he dies. He's offering him freedom and happiness now. But we have to let go of what makes us unhappy first, and what we are clinging onto that makes everyone, the whole world, in fact, unhappy.

We have tried really hard to soften this particular piece of scripture. There was a medieval story about this text that there was a gate in Jerusalem called "the needle's eye" that a camel could only get through "on its knees," and I know that I've heard that story, known to be false for a long time, repeated in homilies. More subtly, some evangelical preaching I've read said that Jesus only meant this particular road for this particular would-be saint, that not everyone is called to "sell everything and give it to the poor," and I really want to believe this, but I think it's another dodge. 

The rich young man, with us, feels that he can barter some of what we have in such a way as to make God pleased with us and give us heaven because we're somehow "owed." But the truth is that God doesn't owe us anything. God has already given us all there is to give. We have to get out of our own way, and tear down the structures we've created to hang onto what is ours, in order to experience the life that God is offering through Christ. Real freedom. Real community. Real joy and security. But we can't live in both worlds. We can't go into any relationship and imagine that the other person owes us love. Love, when it is given, is always just that, a gift, or it is not love. This is what the rich young man doesn't understand. He can't receive it because his hands are full of pictures and gifts of his other girlfriend, who really is no good for him! 

Jesus is offering him love. In fact, Mark says so. "Jesus looked at him and loved him." This is the only time (or one of two, I lost the reference) that the verb agapoi is used in the entire gospel of Mark. Jesus wants the young man to get past his own vision and see with God's eyes, but instead, his vision goes to the ground, "his face fell," and he walked away. 

I can't condemn him, that's for sure. I believe that God loves me, not because of what I have done or might do, not even because of who I am ("God can raise up sons of Abraham (or anybody else) out of the clay"), but because that's what God does. That's what God is. So God's love empowers me to do the same for others, and to try to live in such a way that the lives of others are made better with the same energy by which I try to live well myself. It's not that I can earn my way to God. The path is wide open, waiting for me to walk on it. Every step I take is so tentative, even with all these witnesses, and I take two back for every one toward it.

But the Beatitudes, and the life of Jesus itself, demonstrates that God is already present in the places where we most think God absent: poverty, innocence, meekness, peacemaking, the bottom of the justice food chain. In being bullied and beaten down and killed for thinking that it's all right not to be beautiful, wealthy, straight, Christian, a gun advocate, Republican, Democrat, or have my own lobbyist. All of that entitlement thinking is sin. We have to sell it all, give it away, and hit the road with the Rabbi. It's a journey, that's for damn sure.

Here's what we're singing at St. Anne:

Entrance: Walk in the Reign
Psalm 90: In Every Age (Whitaker)
Presentation of Gifts: These Alone Are Enough (Schutte)
Communion: I Say Yes/Digo Si (Peña)
Sending Forth: We Are Called (Haas)