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Thursday, November 2, 2017

Service and Participation (A31O)

My mind and heart are full of thoughts about service and participation this week as I prepare to give the reflection at all the masses this weekend for our liturgical ministry fair, and then to speak later this month in London, Ontario, at King's College at the University of Western Ontario about participation, particularly in song, as an act of faith and conversion. There is a lot to be said about all that, of course. What I'm hoping is to say some of it in a comprehensible and true way, with a beginning and a middle and an end. It will be slightly easier when I can speak for 45 or 50 minutes on the topic; less so this weekend when I want to restrict myself to less than ten minutes speaking time. 

I know that the first reading and gospel offer to any preacher of the word a wonderful opening into the paschal mystery that offers to us a God who tells us, in Jesus, that "whoever would be greatest among you must serve the rest." This can only be true, of course, if it is true of God, so we must somehow try to imagine that God, rather than ordering the universe through fiat and command, does so through the gentle persuasion of love and sacrifice, of somehow serving creation, being at our service, as the story of Jesus, who is "the image of the unseen God," reveals to us in faith.

The contrast between this beautiful reality, which we know to be true through our experience of people whose humility and simplicity in servant leadership have called out our very best through the years, and the image painted of spiritual leadership in the texts from Malachi and the contentious chapters of Matthew that lead up to the arrest, trial, and death of Jesus, couldn't be starker. With language borrowed from vassal state covenants learned from their Babylonian and Assyrian masters, the prophet speaks on behalf of the "great King" who is displeased with his priests:
O priests, this commandment is for you:
If you do not listen,
if you do not lay it to heart,
to give glory to my name, says the LORD of hosts,
I will send a curse upon you
and of your blessing I will make a curse.
You have turned aside from the way,
and have caused many to falter by your instruction;
you have made void the covenant of Levi,
says the LORD of hosts.
I, therefore, have made you contemptible
and base before all the people,
since you do not keep my ways,
but show partiality in your decisions.
Have we not all the one father?
Has not the one God created us?
Why then do we break faith with one another,
violating the covenant of our fathers?
Neither is Jesus pleased with the Jerusalem leadership of the Jews, whom he praises, one must speculate, for their teaching ("observe all things whatsoever they tell you") while excoriating their behavior ("but do not follow their example.")
...For they preach but they do not practice.
They tie up heavy burdens hard to carry
and lay them on people's shoulders,
but they will not lift a finger to move them.
All their works are performed to be seen.
They widen their phylacteries and lengthen their tassels.
They love places of honor at banquets, seats of honor in synagogues,
greetings in marketplaces, and the salutation 'Rabbi.'
The context of all this is the rivalry between Christian Jews and traditional Jews in the community to which the author of Matthew belonged, and it's not pretty, especially the violent rhetoric ascribed to Jesus. The condemnation of the actions of the leadership is set up as an example of how to not to act in the Christian community. Christians aren't to say one thing and do another. Integrity is to be the rule. Humility, honesty of character, should mark the Christian believer. Then we hear that line that rings across all the synoptics in several forms: "The greatest among you must be your servant."

One might be tempted to go after certain corners of church leadership, following Malachi's diatribe against the corrupt priesthood and Jesus's portrayal of the temple leadership. But the "bad news" for us Christians is that we are all called to same integrity. In the eyes of the Church, we are a "royal priesthood" of Christ, all of us baptized into the one priesthood of Jesus. We are all called to the same
high standard of behavioral integrity, to "preach the gospel," as St. Francis is reported to have taught his Little Friars, "with words if necessary." Nobody's off the hook. The good news is we can all stop competing to get to the top of the heap, we can stop losing sleep over our career path. Instead of striving to get higher, we need to learn how to bend lower, but with a purpose: that of serving those who need our help.

In the church like in all of life, the shape of our service is the shape of the impact our gifts can have upon communal need. Service in the liturgy is a sacrament of service outside the liturgy. In our lives, based upon our talents and passions, we try to match those positive energies to the needs of those who have other gifts. I'm a songwriter, for instance; that's one of my talents. What am I supposed to do with that? Well, strange as it seems, people seem to need music for all kinds of reasons, all kinds of reasons having to do with emotional support, creating meaning, and making memory. Not everybody can write songs. I can do what I do, and fill in a hole in what's needed by other people. The same goes for playing them; and for empowering other people to join together to sing. That is a real need. That other people do what I do better than I do, or reach a wider audience, or do so in different genres, it doesn't matter.

So all of us in the church are called to be who we are for the purpose of transforming the world, of "lifting up those who are bowed down," which is what God does, of protecting the weak and reconciling differences among people, which is what God does. We are called by God in our baptism to be facilitators of unity, peace, and reconciliation, with a special love for those without easy access to opportunity and resources.

Liturgy is kind of an act of intentional remembering for the purpose of arousing thanksgiving in mind and action, and also a physical acting-out or rehearsal of a grateful response. We remember who God is, what God has done in Christ through the Holy Spirit for us and for our world, and we set about acting in a way that allows God to act through us. We greet one another, friend, family and stranger alike, as beloved sisters and brothers; we announce and respond to God's word, we sing God's word, we sing memory and forgiveness and thanksgiving and love songs to God; we feed one another from God's table with living bread, the living self-gift that is Jesus Christ in his mystical body; we collect gifts of money for the use of the church and offer them with ourselves and Christ at the altar. Into that apparently mere ritual are folded the other 167 hours of the week, hours filled with caring for one another, especially sick family members, aging parents, volunteering at PADS sites, food pantries, and resale shops; big and little acts of compassion, forgiveness, and reconciliation. All of it a mosaic of people using their gifts to serve the needs of others, with an eye to lifting up the lowly. All of it practice in bowing down, in service to one another. Which is what God does.

Participation in liturgy is a sacrament of participation in life. The more conscious, the more fully aware and active participation in liturgy is, the richer the experience is, just as the experience of all of life is enriched by reflection and gratitude. That's what I'm going to try to tell people at St. Anne this weekend when I'm inviting them to consider participating in liturgical ministry, if it's their time, and if they're feeling the call to do so. I know that there is a need. I believe in the church, and that this is the way the Holy Spirit leads and organizes the church, by relating gift to need. Then I hope I'll be able to relate this entire experience and my own career in music and songwriting as a microcosm of the Spirit's miraculous work in my talk at King's College.

The gospel and tradition of the church calls us to integrity in humility: what we say and do matters. Our deeds need to match our words. The word this weekend is, Do not strive for glory as ministers for God. Instead, become great by going lower, by becoming a servant. That's what God does in Christ, and no servant is greater than the master. We have one master: Christ the servant.

What we're singing at St. Anne this week:

Gathering: Psalm 23 (Conry)
Psalm 131 My Soul Is Longing for Your Peace (Deiss)
Alleluia - Mass of St Aidan
Gifts: To You Who Bow
Eucharistic Acclamations: Mass of Joy and Peace (Alonso)
Communion: Heart of a Shepherd
Closing: Canticle of the Turning

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Baby steps against scapegoating disaster

The world has really taken a hit this year.

Already reeling from the man-made disasters of terrorism on the one hand and a crisis of refugees and immigrants on the other, it seems that now there are natural disasters taking their cue from the mess that we've made with our own ungrateful, violent hands. Terrible floods following cyclones in Bangladesh, an earthquake in Mexico, hurricanes leveling islands in the Caribbean and destroying lives, homes, and food supplies in Florida, Texas, Louisiana, and Mississippi here at home, and dozens if not hundreds of wildfires wreaking havoc from central Canada south and westward through Montana and into California, all of these have people in helpless awe before the unforgiving and random acts of nature.

The natural human response to this kind of thing has always been to assign blame, create a scapegoat, then kill, either ritually or decisively, the supposed offender, or at least ostracize and neutralize them. One needn't look any further than the book of Jonah in the scriptures to see a well-known example of this. The storm in the story was, the sailors piously surmised, caused by God's wrath against someone or something on board their boat. To save themselves, they ascertained the culprit by drawing lots, asked forgiveness for their own sins, including, if necessary, the death of Jonah, and promptly threw Jonah overboard. It must have worked—the storm abated.

Of course, the scapegoat mechanism in the story of Jonah was nothing but a contrivance to move the plot along and help the runaway prophet get vomited onto the shores of Babylon. (You have to admire the biblical geography that allows Jonah to be spit up on a shore and told to make for Nineveh. That would be a hell of a long walk.) But it works in a classical way, and as far as the story is concerned, successfully. In our day, though, you don't have to go too far back in American history to find hurricanes and flooding and other natural disasters blamed on God's wrath against whomever is the easiest and most vulnerable target of majority fear and hatred: Muslims, gay marriage, abortion, and LGBT rights in general have been the favorites in this century. While the mainstream Christian right has been more circumspect this time around than with, say, the Sandy Hook shootings and Katrina, probably because their man is in the White House, nevertheless several conservative Christian bloggers (for instance, here) (here) (and here) were quick to assign blame to Houston's being punished by God for their previous mayor, who happened to be a gay woman.

As a Christian myself, what I want to say is that Jesus put an end to scapegoating by showing it to be a lie about God. He went to the darkest place human beings can go, suffering humiliating public capital death as an innocent victim of a violent empire whose god, Caesar, demanded obedience. When arrested, Jesus forbade violent resistance on the part of his disciples. In his trial before Pilate, in John's story,  Jesus said that there would be no violent response from his subjects, because his kingdom "is not like those of your world." Caesar's surrogate, Pilate, had Jesus killed as an enemy of the Pax Romana, and enemy of Caesar, and a pretender to Caesar's authority and title. But by rising from the dead, without any vengeful language or retributive justice upon his killers or even those who abandoned him and did not take his part, Jesus the forgiving victim put an end to blood sacrifice of behalf of God. God doesn't want it. God goes to the side of the injured, the lied-about, the marginalized, and walks with them. Jesus calls them "blessed," even, which ought to lead us to reevaluate what we mean when we say that we are blessed.

The human response to suffering, then, should not be to assign blame in our fear and ignorance, but to take the side of the injured, homeless, hungry, disenfranchised, and expatriated and do what we can to see that everyone has enough, that everyone has what they need to have life, freedom, and opportunity for happiness. That's where I want to be. I can just imagine Jesus hearing gossipy interpretations of a disaster in Galilee among his disciples that day when he spoke out to them: "Or those eighteen people who were killed when the tower at Siloam fell on them—do you think they were more guilty than everyone else who lived in Jerusalem?" (Luke 13:4) There may have been a political edge to what he said, of course: the context was a violent action by Pilate against some Jews. But Jesus, putting aside Pilate's well-known blood lust, turns their attention to the apparently random collapse of a tower to lay aside any thoughts of God being one who punishes people randomly with injury and death.

So I'm going to put this little article to bed with a request to you who read it and are already so generous to the hungry, homeless, and stateless people of the world. A number of us from the various churches in Barrington are taking part this weekend in the Crop Hunger Walk sponsored through Church World Service. We're trying to take the side of those in need on this weekend in October, and be part of God's plan to change the world through awareness of our connection to one another, and solidarity with all of God's children. My choir members, along with many others from St. Anne, will be walking and raising money for this cause. If you can, please take part by supporting us by clicking here and then clicking on the "DONATE" tab to the right of the page, across from my beaming visage.

Anyone who has sinned knows that God doesn't punish us for our bad behavior, but over and over again forgives us and offers us life, just as we receive life from those who forgive us and help us get past of failures and betrayals. Let's not be a part of the strategies of "The Great Divider" by setting ourselves up as judge on God's behalf. Instead, let's be part of the solution, and strategize and enact methods of change, inclusion, resettlement, uplift, nurture, and dialogue. We're doing it this week through Crop Hunger Walk; next week, it will be some other way. Let's be the change, in whatever ways, big or small, we can imagine. Thank you!

 Crop Walk donor click here

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Forgiving until the 12th of Never (A24O)

When we get to gospel pericopes like the one today, we really need to put on our discernment caps. The author of 2nd Timothy says, "All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for refutation, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that one who belongs to God may be competent, equipped for every good work." Today, we'd want to add, "but not all of scripture is equally useful, probably including 2 Timothy 1."

It's the problem we run into between Jesus's admonition to forgive "seventy-seven times" when it rubs up against that parable in which the master forgives once, but not twice—a problem at least if we are not attuned to parables, and the fact that the master is not God, and that Jesus probably did not add the ending to the parable, which refutes the more shocking (and therefore probably more true) admonition to forgive always.

At any rate, seventy-seven, as Jesus uses it, is not a "rational" number, one that he expected Peter to keep a count of. It might refer, by contrast, to Lamech's (the thrice-great grandson of Cain, in Genesis 4:17-26) boast about the violent revenge which he embraces: "If Cain is avenged seven times, then Lamech seventy-seven times." Footnote in the NABRE says that the language is exactly the same. But Jesus is using the number in contrast to Lamech's, and he means something like we would mean when we say "a kajillion times" or "eleventy infinity" or "until the twelfth of never." It's not a number. It means "always," "without number." And Jesus would not teach this to us unless it were his own way of life, and unless he believed that his Father acted the same way.

So how do we read this parable that begins with forgiveness but ends with retribution and violence? First, it's important to understand that what we read when we read any part of the bible is not something dictated mystically to an author and then infallibly transmitted and translated into every language for every ear. We are reading the last edited version of one manuscript, one among several, and one that has been edited over many years, decades, even (centuries, in the case of some of the Hebrew scriptures). During that time, the text has passed through different understandings of Christianity, different historical circumstances, prejudices, and even belief about Christ. As the years passed through the siege and destruction of Jerusalem and the gospel spread through the
Frederik de Klerk and Nelson Mandela
Mediterranean region, there was some "push back" on the radical gospel of Jesus, on forgiveness, enemy love, and equality in the kingdom, and there was pushback on the radical Pauline doctrines as well, as regards his preaching about slavery, hierarchy, the equality of genders, and even "victory," one of the pillars of Roman civil religion. It is the "normalcy of Roman culture" encroaching on the message of the gospel, along with, occasionally, anti-Jewish rhetoric in the wake of the destruction of the temple and the "poaching" of Gentile converts by Paul, that contributed to this shift in the rhetoric of the gospel and the later letters attributed to Paul. As Dominic Crossan has it in How to Read the Bible and Still Be a Christian,
...Paul was saying that just as Christ was executed and was thereby dead by Rome, so Christians were baptized and thereby dead to Rome. They were dead, specifically, to Rome’s four supreme values of patriarchy, slavery, hierarchy, and victory— especially violent victory on which those other three values depended.
Crossan, John Dominic. How to Read the Bible and Still Be a Christian: Struggling with Divine Violence from Genesis Through Revelation (p. 206). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition. 
So there are those secular influences on the gospel, what Crossan calls a rhythm of assertion and subversion: Paul and Jesus make radical assertions about God, but people, already "infected" by the deep influence of culture and empire, almost without realizing it, dilute and subvert that message as it is passed on, in a kind of game of "revelation telephone."

There is also the nature of parables that we need to contend with. Unless we're warned from this, we tend to see parables not as parables but as allegories. In this case, we would see the servant being forgiven as, say, someone who offended us, and the master as God. So that person who "done us wrong" gets it in the end, because someone, maybe an angel, will rat him out to God and God will torture that person for all eternity. But the story is not an allegory. It's a parable, a much more complex kind of fable, and furthermore, it is in all probability edited and transformed from what Jesus originally told. Let's see what can be made of what we have before us. One thought comes to mind in the light of last week's instruction about how to live in the community of Christ. Fraternal correction demands that we go to the offender, one-on-one, and if necessary, in a group, to point out the fault and seek repentance and redress. But in this story, the fellow slaves immediately go to the highest authority and want, what? Justice? Now the whole story into which we've bought, a story of a master's mercy and the forgiveness of debt, is turned upside down. The other servants have, in effect, acted like the first servant did: they see "sin" and demand punishment. Now, as Bernard Brandon Scott says in his book Hear Then the Parable, (p. 278):
By bringing vengeance on the servant, the fellow servants (and the hearer) have left their own situation in jeopardy. The demand for "like for like," for apparent justice, has left them exposed. If a king can take back his forgiveness, who is safe?
Interestingly, Scott also sees in the parable another lure for Jewish listeners in the punishment rendered  upon the first servant which included the imprisonment of his family. This would have given the original Jewish hearers a sense of outrage and superiority over Greek "justice," because this would not be allowed in Jewish legal settlements. Even more surprise, then, when the master's overturns his own merciful ruling; even more chaos is unleashed upon the world.

The psalm this weekend says what we know to be true, what we trust to be true for everyone, what has been true from the beginning: "The Lord is kind and merciful." In my setting from Do Not Fear to Hope published by OCP, I opted for James Montgomery's beautiful metric paraphrase in the verses:
You will not always chide,
You will with patience wait,
Your wrath is ever slow to rise, and ready to abate.
You pardon all our sins,
Prolong our feeble breath,
And heal our infirmities, and ransom us from death. 
I think we need to hear Sunday's gospel in the context of Matthew's (and Jesus's) great teaching about life in the reign of God, the Sermon on the Mount. It is there that we find the Lord's Prayer, with its words that we pray together as a family across space and time, "forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors." Driving that prayer home, Jesus admonishes us to "love your enemies, do good to those who hate you," not because it's easy, but because it's natural, it's what God has created us to do and be, in God's own image and likeness, because God "lets the rain fall and the sun shine on good and bad alike." Most convincing of all is the actual practice of Jesus, once we get past what Crossan calls the "subversion" of Jesus's non-violent message in certain passages of Matthew that are self-contradictory to the teaching of the Lord in the Sermon on the Mount. In the end, he forgave all of his enemies and his friends who betrayed him. When he was raised from the dead, there was not a movement toward vengeance or retribution or even an icy "I told you so." The "Forgiving Victim" comes back among us still vulnerable, still encouraging us to love, giving us a mission to preach repentance (i.e., "turning around" from the empire of violence toward the empire of God) to all nations.

My experience of the forgiveness of others, both in my greatest failings and in those who have taught me to see, acknowledge, and adjust my behavior for character flaws and learned habits of aggression that might help me compensate for inadequacy and fear, have begun to teach me compassion, to slow down, to not internalize other people's hostility but to try to understand it. Forgiveness teaches forgiveness. It empowers forgiveness, just as all loving actions and behaviors empower love in the recipient. Forgiveness and love are acts of creation, and so are acts of God. They are what we are made for. Nothing should keep us from mindfulness of love and forgiveness, not even a few bible verses that might imply something to the contrary.

What we're singing Sunday at St. Anne in Barrington:
Gathering: Change Our Hearts (we have to get ready to hear this today!)
Penitential Rite (Kendzia)
Psalm 103: The Lord Is Kind (we'll use my setting and Jeanne Cotter's at different masses)
Gospel Acclamation: Mass of St. Aidan
Presentation of Gifts: Be Perfect
Eucharistic Acclamations: Mass of Joy and Peace (Alonso)
Lamb of God: Mass of St. Aidan
Communion: Faithful Family ("Ubi Caritas" verses, reinforcing our Paschal repertoire)
Recessional: We Are Called

Monday, August 7, 2017

Second Thoughts: "My beloved Son" and "Little Boy"

"His face shone like the sun…a bright cloud cast a shadow over them" (Mt. 17: 2, 5)

"…the sudden flare of harsh light was the first indication that something unusual had happened. In that eerily silent moment, white clouds sprung from the clear blue sky." (Allan Bellows, "Eyewitnesses to Hiroshima and Nagasaki")

I'm sure a lot of you sat there during your church services Sunday remembering that it was on August 6, 1945, that a US B-29 bomber dropped a bomb nicknamed "Little Boy" over Hiroshima, Japan, and perhaps 80,000 people lost their lives in the blast and ensuing firestorm. Half as many again died three days later in Nagasaki, and within a few months the death toll had climbed to well over 200,000.

What got me started on this was just the images in the gospel: the face of Jesus shining like the sun, a bright cloud casting a shadow. It was like the language that was used in books and articles I had read about the events of August 1945 to describe the atomic blast, though the latter was an event of historic disfiguration, not transfiguration, as the feast celebrates. And the language is peripheral, even disproportionate and dismissive to the seriousness of the devastation; but I hear words, I can't help it. In spite of the destruction wrought by "Little Boy," language of eyewitnesses like Isao Kita, a weatherman about two miles from ground zero, borrows the language of a poet to describe his first reaction to the event: "…white clouds spread over the blue sky. It was amazing. It was as if blue morning-glories had suddenly bloomed up in the sky."

"Be Thou My Vision" was what we sang to initiate our celebration of the Transfiguration yesterday, and these two memorials represent distinct visions of the future of humanity. In the white flash and heat of Hiroshima, the bright cloud that continues to cast a shadow on our planet after over seventy years, there is the specter of escalating violence that seems to have no upper limit, a road for humanity that is epitomized and encapsulated in the horrific moniker of "mutually assured destruction." The normalcy of civilization requires that various nations and ethnic groups defend themselves against aggression and the possibility of aggression, the buildup of arms, the tangle of vassal states and alliances that compose the fragile network of the balance of power. The explosion at Hiroshima which vaporized a square mile and snuffed out tens of thousands of lives in an instant was an act of retributive "justice," revenge masquerading as necessity. It was disfiguration of our race.

In stark contrast, though, the transfiguration of Jesus on his trek toward Jerusalem and the cross was a moment of revelation, its radiance being another moment of God's unveiling an alternative path for humanity. God was saying, "Yes, here I am," in the face of the one who preached love of enemies, the blessedness of the poor, of the meek, of peacemakers and justice-seekers. "Listen to him, my beloved son" was what the voice in the cloud had to say of him of who, with Moses and Elijah, two faithful witnesses to God against the violence of Egypt's pharaoh and Ahaz, Jezebel, and the court prophets of Israel, was bathed in the sunlight and cloud of the theophany.

"Little Boy" fell on Hiroshima at 8:15 a.m. on a Monday morning in 1945. It was still Sunday here in the United States, where the people who gave the orders had attended church services a few hours before, celebrating "the beloved Son."

No one mentioned Hiroshima at my church yesterday. Do we ever even talk about the choice? Or do we think we are following Jesus even when we choose to support the very rivalrous powers of "normal civilization" that put Jesus to death? The choice between gods and empires is the choice between disfiguration or transfiguration, as Moses, Elijah, Peter, James and John all know, there in the company of Jesus, the beloved of God.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Occam's Razor, the Treasure, and the Pearl

As I listened to the very fine homily this morning in Glendale, AZ, as a member of the assembly for a change, there wasn't much I was "sorry" for. St. Thomas More is a beautiful church celebrating just its 20th anniversary as a parish. Many parishioners from my old parish, St. Jerome, seem to have migrated there, and there were even faces from St. Augustine, where I served over thirty-five years ago. And I ran into a former parishioner from Barrington, though it was long enough ago that our paths didn't cross. The choir was singing through the summer (kudos to them), they had very fine musicians playing drums and clarinet, and their keyboard player Hyung Mi graciously ceded the piano bench to me (for the selections I had written) and played the organ, so we had a wonderful morning of song under the able and hospitable direction of Steve Raml. My brother was singing in the choir, his wonderful adult son was with him, and it was wonderful to be with them.

If there were a single thing I would have wished for, you know, in that perfect world of imagination where nothing we actually experience ever measures up, it would have been a tiny bit more nuance in that homily. The priest, wonderfully prepared and clearly a beloved leader in the parish, spoke first about how parables aren't what we expect them to be. He spoke about how we expect Scripture to give us answers, to give us a road map (a GPS route, he said) to heaven. But, he warned, that's not what we get at all. It's more like a pointer. The kingdom of heaven is indescribable, even to Jesus, was his message. It is like to trying to say what love is like. We don't really have the words, so we use metaphors. All good so far, and especially the part about not looking for answers in the Scriptures, especially in the parables, especially in literal interpretations. The preacher even warned us that Jesus meant us to understand "the kingdom of heaven" not as something that will come later, or someplace we encounter after death, but a present reality that we are meant to live in here and now, in this world.

But then, there is the interpretation of these two parables, and what I heard was...pretty much the obvious. The kingdom is valuable, so much so that, when we find it, it replaces everything else we want, so we should go and give everything for it. 

Occam's razor, I think, would yield the same answer. Look for the simplest explanation, and it's probably right, we say. But the trouble with that and the scripture is in the mist that lies between us and Middle Eastern culture, in what's not said in the parables, and the difference between parables and other kinds of morality tales. So here are a few questions we need to deal with, at least as I see it, when we're unpacking the parables. 

"The kingdom of heaven is like..." How does this solution, i.e. the idea that Jesus simply meant "go for it with all you've got," tell us what the kingdom of heaven is like? 

Whose field is it? If the man found the treasure hidden in a field, then the treasure belongs to the owner of the field. The man is not entitled to it, and to purchase the field without telling the owner is unjust.

"He goes and sells all that he has..." Another caveat in the story is that line. So, once he sells all that he has and buys (unjustly) the treasure or in infatuation the pearl, how does he eat? Where does he live? If he reveals the treasure from his ill-purchased field, he'll be known as a scoundrel and shunned. As some commentators says, "He'll be a laughingstock," a pauper clutching his hidden treasure. 

"Hidden in a field"  The very idea of the kingdom being "hidden" is repugnant to Jewish and Christian theologies. I suppose that the kingdom might be hidden if our starting place is the locus of "I know where the kingdom of God is," in the sense that we can't find it, it's "hidden," because we're looking in the wrong place. It's openness is, ironically, invisible to us. But in Jewish theology, the reign of God is everywhere, it's the residue of God who created everything from nothing, or, more accurately, from self, from love. "The earth is full of the goodness of the Lord," says Psalm 33. In Christian theology, the idea that the kingdom is hidden from us, or that there's some secret we can be told or unlock to gain it, is clearly a kind of Gnosticism. Again, our best instinct tells us, in the light of the gospel, that the kingdom of God is available to everyone and is the free gift of God to those who desire it. No purchase required.

Of course, it's fair to hear the parables on the level where we are without attempting to try to get to what Jesus was actually trying to say twenty centuries ago. I don't see any harm in us wanting the reign of God above all our other possessions; it's just that, if it's worth giving everything for, we don't purchase it directly. We follow the invitation of Jesus, perhaps, to "sell all you have and give it to the poor," which seems to be the shortcut offered to at least one seeker by the master. 

The solution to this parabolic puzzle, at last the one that appeals to me most at this point in my living, is the one that resonates with my experience. Jesus may be trying to tell us to watch out, because wanting to "buy into" the kingdom by use of our talents or wealth may lead us to do things that are unsavory, unjust, or even antithetical to the kingdom itself. Imagining that we can "buy" God's grace and presence through any machinations of our own is ludicrous. Those of us in the church may find ourselves doing crazy things: making judgments about who is good enough to be a member, for instance, or imagining that we can exclusively or infallibly mediate God's favor. We may take shortcuts in ministry that enable us to exclude others from our churches, brush people aside, or define ourselves over against other groups of Christians or other faiths so as to make some claim upon God's favor. Anything we do that says, "I know God and you don't" is part of the craziness that imagines that it's worth betraying God's utter catholicity, God's diversity-in-unity that is our best image of God's nature, by "selling all that we have" of that being let into grace and in order to bar others from its warmth. In fact, we can't do it, and we're the ones left to weep in darkness of our own making, while the feast of the uninvited goes on within earshot, inside doors we've locked from the outside.

Or, maybe it isn't. I think it may be enough to be willing to give all for the reign of God, as long as we don't begin to think we have any kind of exclusive claim on it. But I also think that the world of the parables is an invitation to this kind of critical thinking about the strange words of our clever, open-hearted rabbi who would neither be silenced by the powerful nor countenance that there were any secret or exclusive paths to purchase the love of a God that is given freely, before we even had a mind with which to imagine asking for it. I like thinking sideways about them, and am grateful for those who ask us to engage the text on its own terms, and not imagine that there's a single way to hear the word of the Lord, the word that spoke,  and where there was nothing, everything, and every place and time, happened. 

Thank you, St. Thomas More, people, pastor, and musicians, for a wonderful experience of Church this weekend. Happy anniversary. Thank you for inviting me to be a part of it. 

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Albums 20: To You Who Bow (2017, GIA)

Finally. I'm so happy and proud to be able to introduce to you the latest recording from the Cooney-Daigle-Donohoo trio, To You Who Bow, released by GIA today at the 2017 NPM Convention in Cincinnati, Ohio.

We have been working a long time on this recording. I suppose I've told part of the story before when introducing Like No God We Had Imagined in 2015. We had recorded about half a dozen of these songs with the new songs on Like No God, thinking that it was an album. But when we stopped and listened to the results, it was difficult to imagine that anyone would want to listen to a recording with half Christmas songs and half regular "Sunday" songs at any time of the year, no matter who recorded them and no matter what the concept was. So we opted to take the Christmas songs we had recorded and take some "legacy" seasonal music from Safety Harbor, Stony Landscapes, Today, and Terry's wonderful 1998 recording On Christmas Day in the Morning, and create Like No God which was released two summers ago for NPM.

The title song from this recording, "To You Who Bow," was premiered at NPM in 2014 and was very well received, and was chosen to be included in the new edition of RitualSong which is being released this summer at the music conventions, including NPM. We had been negotiating with GIA since late 2013 on getting some new songs published, and after a long series of emails and meetings, by February 2014 we had letters of intent for about a dozen songs, including the new Christmas arrangements that were to appear later as Like No God, to be recorded. By November, the songs from the original agreements had been recorded, and I had already begun to express misgivings about releasing them together. In April of 2015, Michael Silhavy met with us, and we decided to go ahead an release the album of new Christmas music mixed with some legacy music, and explore recording some more songs to make a truly new collection of songs for liturgy.

After a meeting about content shortly after Christmas, in February of 2016, Michael thought that "If You Had Faith/Si Tuvieras Fe, a translation and SAB arrangement I had done of the Spanish folk song sometimes called Montaña, would fill a gap that GIA had in their NPM lineup for that year, and he asked us to go ahead and record that song right away so that a version could be ready in the summertime. At this time, we knew that we were going to include two songs from a 2013 compilation album called Gathered for God, those songs being Gary's lovely James Tayloresque version of Psalm 23 "The Lord Is My Shepherd," and my song "God Is Love," which ties together the statement about God in 1 John 4:16 with St. Paul's paean to agápe in 1 Cor. 13. We had recorded "Turn Around," "Gathered and Sent," "Send Out, Send Out," "Acts of God," and "To You Who Bow" with the Christmas music back in 2013-14. We decided to record seven more songs to make the new album complete.

For the tracking, we called in some of our friends from the olden days, notably Beth Lederman and
Matt McKenzie, along with Randy Carpenter, a childhood neighbor and lifelong friend of Gary's with whom he'd grown up playing in bands and making music. Beth and Matt both played with Gary in one incarnation of his ensemble while working at the Franciscan Renewal Center in Scottsdale, AZ. Beth is an amazingly talented jazz musician who is one of the busiest working women in the Phoenix area, with a great sensitivity to many Latin rhythms as well, so she is in great demand. Matt moved to Nashville back in the 90s, and has worked with Lyle Lovett, Don Williams, Patty Loveless, and most recently has toured with Olivia Newton-John's band. This incredible trio of musicians did the rhythm tracks for those last seven songs in less than three days in the spring of 2016.

Matt McKenzie
With the rhythm tracking done, Gary turned to a group of singers gathered by Paul Rausch, a McHenry choral director who had built a great program at McHenry High School over the years, and who had a group of alumni who were always ready to work with him again. Terry and I were constantly impressed and amazed at the way this group worked together, how whenever they felt out of synch on a vowel sound or an articulation they would confer on one member or another and come up with a solution in seconds. Four of Paul's sons, also alumni, also sang in this ensemble. An impressive group.

Over the next few weeks, Gary took the opportunity to add instrumental overdubs to the tracks. Over the years since writing the songs, most of them had acquired small orchestral scores; some, in fact, had been commissioned for small church orchestras. To achieve a consistent sound on the recording, Gary tends to seriously adapt parts I've written, substituting much smaller groupings of instruments for what I wrote, and the results, I have learned, are invariably better. In this case, we also got the help of local saxophonist and arranger Jim Gailloreto to write pop horn arrangements for "Si Tuvieras Fe," "Jesus Christ the Cornerstone," "Eyes on the Prize," and "Mary, Don't You Weep," and his parts are both playable for most players we tend to use in our churches and wonderfully adapted to the style and feel of the songs themselves. By the end of September, 2016, the recordings were pretty much in their final form. In November, Gary was able to deliver the mastered CD to GIA.

Terry doing her thing
It was a wonderful surprise that John Flaherty asked to use "O Agápe" at the 2017 LA Religious Education Congress in March of this year. John is one of the folks I like to bounce new material off of, and he remembered this one when he was in planning sessions for the Congress liturgies, and used it for a call to worship. Unfortunately, we were not able to have an octavo ready in time for the conference, but at least the song got some unexpected exposure on the left coast!

This is the list of tracks in play order:

Acts of God 
To You Who Bow
Gathered and Sent 
God Is Love
Eyes on the Prize (Hold On) (African American Spiritual, text adapted RC, arr. RC)
Jesus Christ the Cornerstone
Psalm 18: I Love You (ICEL text)
Psalm 29: The Temple and the Storm
Psalm 23  (ICEL text, music by Gary Daigle)
Turn Around 
Psalm 13: How Long
O Agápe
Psalm 104: Send Out, Send Out (ICEL text)
If You Had Faith/Si Tuvieras Fe (Latin American folk, arr. Rory Cooney, English text by Rory Cooney)
Mary, Don’t You Weep (African American Spiritual, text adapted RC, arr. RC)

Matt and Beth working it out
The “beating heart” of this collection is that Jesus is the “face of God’s mercy,” or as the gospel puts it, “whoever has seen me has seen the Father.” If Jesus is one who puts aside glory to be a person of service, healing, and reconciliation, that is also what God looks like, and the Holy Spirit who is the life of God enables us to live that life in God in this world in a community of mutuality. There are other gods that want our allegiance, most of whom are idols devised by us ourselves, and propagated by us when we decide that we have a better idea about civilization than the Sermon on the Mount. There are gods of war, gods of violence and threats, gods of money and influence. But we cannot serve two masters. The gospel invites us to listen to the voice that calls us with unswerving love in our creation and baptism, and to follow the way of Jesus to a world formed by loving service. The songs in this collection, in one way or another, orbit around that axis. Thus the title song, “To You Who Bow,” honors the God who “did not cling to godliness, but took the form of a slave,” showing us the slow, peaceful way to transforming the earth.

Two of the songs, "Acts of God" and "Gathered and Sent" were commissioned by Old St. Patrick's Church in Chicago for various events, thanks to the generosity of the parish and Bill Fraher, the music director at the time, who continues to direct their special events choirs after passing the liturgical baton to Dominic Trumfio, Jennifer Budziak, and Mark Scozzafave since that time. That parish's great tradition of energetic sung worship and supporting the arts in general continues to be a model for Chicagoland parishes.

Turn Around was commissioned for a parish formation program in Catholic social teaching designed by Jack Jezreel and the folks at JustFaith. The title, “Turn Around,” is a literal translation of the word metanoia, which is often rendered as “conversion” or “repentance.” What the word suggests is a literal turning and going in a different direction, starting from within the heart and mind of a person, then directing one’s actions in the world. It is a call to action that echoes the gospel call to “Repent (i.e., turn around) and believe the good news.” I think it might help congregations refresh and sense anew what conversion really is, hear the call again evangelically, and make a change toward the gospel.

God Is Love - Came from an idea that love is one, though it manifests itself in different ways. In the Greek of 1 John 4:16 and 1 Cor. 13 the word for “love” used by the authors of those letters is agápe, the highest of the four (or five, or six) kinds of love expressed by different words in Greek. So it made sense to me that, as St. Paul writes in Corinthians, if “love is patient, love is kind,” then we ought to be able to say that not only is the human person (especially the Christian) who loves is patient and kind, but also Christ, and also the God of whom Christ is the “living face.” In this song, with 1 Jn 14:16 for the refrain and 1 Cor. 13 for the verses, those concepts get blended in the choral third verse, in which the choir’s “God is love” refrain dovetails with the litany from Corinthians in such a way that the word “love” serves both as the end of one phrase and the beginning of another. 

Two songs in this collection, Eyes on the Prize (Hold On) and Mary, Don’t You Weep have been recorded by dozens, if not hundreds, of artists through the years, expanded and interpreted in the spiritual and folk traditions by artists as diverse as Pete Seeger, Odetta, Bruce SpringsteenMahalia JacksonMavis Staples, and Aaron Neville. As for me, I wondered as I listened to various versions which “Mary” was being referred to in the song, and I think it means Mary Magdalene. But maybe it was Mary the sister of Lazarus, I don’t know. So rather than try to pull it one way or the other, I wrote three different lyrics for different events: one for Mary, Lazarus’s sister, for the 5th Sunday in Lent, one for Magdalene, for Easter Vigil and the Easter season, and another one for all the Marys and the last Sundays of the year. As for Eyes on the Prize (Hold On), in this world, these times, we just need that song all the time.

Please give To You Who Bow a listen! I know that there are songs here that your congregation and will enjoy singing, and can become a part of your repertoire. And I'm prejudiced, of course, but I believe that To You Who Bow is our best "listening" experience since Vision. Gary has done a great job with this recording, and the nearly fifty singers and other musicians who took part in its creation have done a wonderful job.

A special word of thanks, too, to Alec Harris and Michael Silhavy at GIA who stood with us during this project, and to the amazing Andrew Schultz who designed the cover and all the enclosures and design work. We're very proud of our work with GIA over the twenty-eight years we've been working with them, and grateful for the support and trust we've received over the years from everyone there. Thank you.

Friday, July 7, 2017

SongStories 50: (I Myself Am the) Bread of Life (Mystery, 1987; Change Our Hearts, 2000, OCP)

(I Myself Am the) Bread of Life is dedicated to the people of St. Jerome Parish, Phoenix, Arizona. When I was writing this song, it must have been a Mark (B) year in the lectionary, probably mid-1985. I remember sitting with the leaders (late high school, college age and some adults) of the youth group, talking with them about the Eucharist, and what an expansive theology of real presence was available to us in our tradition, and that we ourselves are the bread of life for other people, not because of anything we did, but because in baptism it is no longer we who live, but Christ who lives in us, by the presence of the Holy Spirit. They told me to write a song about that, so I did.

We were still in the midst of a kind of liturgical renaissance in Phoenix at that time. We had been blessed with some kind and enlightened liturgical leadership over the years in Phoenix, notably by people like the late Sr. Anthony Poerio, IBVM, who headed the Office of Worship for many years, and also (Fr.) Michael Martinez, who oversaw liturgy at the Cathedral of Ss. Simon and Jude, where I had directed the choir for a time. Daniel (now Rev. Cyprian) Consiglio and Fr. Dale Fushek had done fine work at St. Jerome's in the early 1980s, as had Fr. Bob Voss and others. The Franciscans at the Casa de Paz y Bien, or the Franciscan Renewal Center (FRC), as well as many of the local clergy were trying to do imaginative things with the liturgy. But what really reconnected Phoenix liturgy with the heart of the tradition as well as with the art community in the city was the arrival of John Gallen, SJ, as liturgy director at the FRC, and his subsequent hiring of Gary Daigle as music director, followed very quickly by his establishment of a "liturgical center" in a downtown Phoenix mall that he called "The Corpus Christi Center for Advanced Liturgical Study." Gallen, in collaboration with the diocese, offered there a two-year certification in liturgy, and brought in some of the real lights of the renewal to teach classes: Virgil Funk, Kevin Irwin, Robert Taft, SJ, Austin Fleming, Fr. Ronald Pachence, John Baldovin, SJ, and Robert Rambusch among many others. John's classes opened up my heart, already full of delight with the liturgy and liturgical music, to new insights and an even deeper theological grounding. It was from this matrix that the songs from Mystery arose, and everything that I've written since.

Since I've written more about this song than probably any other song, I don't see any reason to change my mind about it! Early in the life of this blog, I wrote a couple of posts called "Theological Tempests in Musical Teapots," one of which was devoted to "Bread of Life." I won't rehash what's in that article here, but if you  want a survey of the kinds of things written to and about me regarding this song, and my response, you can click the link. The purpose of the "Tempests" post wasn't to talk about the origin and use of the song, but to answer some of the angry and divisive polemic leveled against it over the years. As I said there, if your pastor or a vocal group of well-meaning parishioners has an issue with the song and are not persuaded by our appeal to scripture, the liturgy, Saints Paul and Augustine, there's no use causing a rift in the community or losing sleep yourself over a dumb song. Just sing something else. I'm grateful beyond words to both NALR for publishing it originally and OCP for continuing to include it in their worship aids up to the present day, under the watchful eye of the BCDW.

Since the song was published, I have written verses that use language and imagery from the "Bread of Life" Sundays in Year B, but of course they may be useful to you at any time, if your communion processions take longer than the original three verses provide for. If you'd like to see those verses, there is a graphic available for download here for assembly, and a PDF of the choral parts here. I think I might have altered the choral parts a little accidentally: just fix them up the way to which you're accustomed.

Bread of Life page at OCP

(I Myself Am the) Bread of Life 
by Rory Cooney 

I myself am the bread of life.
You and I are the bread of life,
Taken and blessed,
Broken and shared by Christ
That the world might live.

This bread is spirit, gift of the Maker's love,
And we who share it know that we can be one,
A living sign of God in Christ.

Here is God's kingdom given to us as food.
This is our body, this our blood,
A living sign of God in Christ.

Lives broken open, stories shared aloud,
Become a banquet, a shelter for the world,
A living sign of God in Christ.

Supplemental verses written in 2012

Full cup of blessing, free as the rain and sun,
Is passed among us, gathering all to one,
A living sign of God in Christ.

We, like Elijah, hunted, afraid, alone,
Receive in slumber food for the path unknown,
A living sign of God in Christ.

Taste Wisdom's table, spread with the richest fare.
The poor and simple dine at her calling there,
A living sign of God in Christ.

Sent from this banquet, strength in our hearts restored,
We go together, summoned to serve the Lord,
A living sign of God in Christ.

Copyright © 1987, 2009 by NALR, published by OCP, Portland, Oregon. All rights reserved.

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Second Thoughts: Love is not jealous (A13O)

I suspect a lot of gospel readers would have liked to have skipped the first half of last Sunday's gospel. I know for sure a lot of us would rather not have listened to it. It's not that I want the gospel to say what I want it to say, that I don't agree with Jesus. It's that what the gospel actually says can't be what I heard, because it would indicate inner contradiction in the message of Jesus. The first half of the gospel would be teaching that Jesus is a jealous lover, a rival for the affection of the disciple with the very people that God put into one's life for all the reasons that we know family and friends exist. The second half would indicate that there is a "reward" at the end of the stick of obedience, both taking the gospel out of the realm of love (i.e. to do a thing for a reward is not doing it for love) and creating a debt that God has to pay for people doing what they are supposed to do. Both of those things are abhorrent to me. 

The juxtaposition of "love me" and "worthy of me" just doesn't work in English, and it certainly doesn't work in any language coming out of the mouth of the same Christ whose Sermon on the Mount (echoed by a passage a couple of weeks ago) told us that God cares for us more than ravens and sparrows and lilies, and we shouldn't worry about anything, and God is like a father to us, that, in fact, 
I say to you, love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you,that you may be children of your heavenly Father, for he makes his sun rise on the bad and the good, and causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust.
So what does this egalitarian love have to do with worthiness?

As I said last week in my Wednesday post, we know from experience that the best kind of love we've ever known has exactly nothing to do with worthiness. It's a bolt out of the blue, as the saying goes, that stops us in our tracks and has us babbling "Hallelujah" like David and Samson and the singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen in the eponymous and ubiquitous tune of the same name. What we know is that love doesn't depend on the beloved, it comes from the lover, and it is a gift, and in its only genuine form, requires nothing in return, and doesn't even nod toward worthiness. Nobody is worthy. Or rather, everyone is worthy because of the created spark of the divine in every person, but when the lover is in touch with that holy fire, worthiness isn't even up for discussion. It's a complete non-issue. Love is given without restriction, it is created from nothing like the best and rest of the universe. It shares in the Being of the one from whom all loving flows. Love, in the beautiful, if Gertrude-Steinian poetry of a joy-drunk Lin-Manuel Miranda, "is love is love is love is love is love is love." Love empowers a response, it doesn't demand it; love enables change, it doesn't expect it. 

Love, says St. Paul in 1 Corinthians 13, is not jealous. It is unthinkable that Jesus, the "visible face of God's mercy," would have placed such a strange restriction on his love to his closest disciples. If "love is not jealous" is meant to describe the relationship among members of the Corinthian church community to whom St. Paul was writing, certainly it is an attribute of the God who is love. God is patient. God is kind. God does not put on airs, is not jealous.

So what is Jesus saying when he says…
Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me,
and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me;
and whoever does not take up his crossand follow after me is not worthy of me.
This whole section of Matthew must be tied to the message that MT is trying to get to the church for which the gospel is being compiled. Perhaps, as John Meyer suggests, the community is split along generational lines, causing rifts in the church, during a time of persecution. Chapter ten of Matthew began with the commissioning of the disciples to preach the gospel, with a no-nonsense warning that they should not expect to be received with universal praise. Ultimately it is not about Jesus that the warnings are given, but about the gospel that he is preaching, and how it is received or not by the community. To all the warnings in this chapter about persecution and the possibility of being rejected, Jesus gives the divine advice from the Jewish scriptures: Do not be afraid. 

For me, the second section of the gospel is just as problematic: the promise of reward for doing good. On one hand, this is straight Deuteronomic morality: if you do good, you get rewarded. If you do evil, evil will befall you. Jesus does not usually teach this way, in fact, his teaching about God in chapter 5, quoted above, is that God lets the sun and rain fall upon the good and bad alike; he makes a parable about weeds and wheat growing together until the final harvest when God will sort it all out with a wisdom more discerning than our scythes and uprooting. Jesus is always more aware that bad things happen to good people, and bad people sometimes seem to be the ones blessed. His concept of God and morality is much more nuanced than the most popular brand of Judaism. As one teacher put it, with the book of Job (and much of the wisdom literature), the Deuteronomist should have died a quick death in the 3rd century BCE. But we seem to be hard-wired for the reward and punishment schema, and we just can't quit it. 

It seems to me that a way of reading "reward" might be to understand it as the natural result of acting the way we were made to act. We're children of God. We're made from love, we're made to love. We're made for generosity, to look out for one another. When we act according to the way we're made, we're happy. It's not a reward. We're just not kicking against the grain. We're floating on a downstream river of loving energy, not swimming upstream and doing everything we can to torpedo our destiny and betray our nature. "A good tree can't bear bad fruit, and a bad tree can't bear good fruit." It's not a matter of reward and punishment; it's a matter of being who we are meant to be, and we are all meant to be sons and daughters of God, brothers and sisters of Jesus, who care for each other and the world in the way we wish we were being treated, even if we aren't being treated that way, and we act that way toward everyone, even if they're not in the same game. 

Finally, by the time the gospel of Matthew was written, the "normalcy of civilization" was beginning to swirl back around the path through the sea that Jesus and the gospel had opened up. Human beings really don't want a God of distributive justice, a God of freedom and love. We want a god of talion justice, who takes at least an eye when an eye is taken; we want a god who gives us ours, whether or not it has to be taken from someone else. We've been treated badly, we think. We deserve better. God will give it to us, and just to be sure, we create a god who do just what we want. This god, probably an Assyrian-Egyptian-Greek-Roman hybrid with a big army, a palace with a prison, and a phalanx of accountants and torturers, was ready to step in and fill the void. Jesus who said in the Sermon on the Mount that "whoever calls his brother a fool shall be liable to judgment" became the Jesus who called the scribes and Pharisees fools, murderers, and whitewashed tombs. Jesus whose parables proclaimed that God will sort out the good and bad in the end cursed, in the same gospel, towns and villages and fig trees. The further we get away from Jesus, from Paul's letters to the Corinthians and Romans, and from the gospel of Mark, the more the message contains hints of compromise with Rome and gospel of Caesar, of an expedient if bloody peace on earth through violence, and a Jesus who sounds, now and then, like the petulant, narrow-minded preachers that overpopulate the airwaves of the twenty-first century. 

But the resurrection happened, and the Risen One came back without any word of revenge, still proclaiming God's merciful love and universal forgiveness at breakfast, lunch, and dinner. The Spirit of God was visibly loosed upon the world in a few fallible women and men utterly changed by their experience of their rabbi, dead and risen. Empowered by their experience, they went out to persuade people everywhere that there was a better world available to anyone willing to turn toward their neighbor and see a child of another God. The "reward" of conversion, of turning from the worship of Caesar to the God of Jesus, was life in a community of equals, of living in a new family that lived in faith of God's distributive justice where all were meant to have enough, and in whose world there is enough for all when it is shared. 

The rich young man in Mark 10 wanted to know the secret of getting in on eternal life, and when Jesus told him it was as simple as sharing what he had and trusting he'd have enough, he "went away sad." Gospel life is its own reward; opting for any other way is its own punishment. We were made for each other. Gospel life is living in the awareness that the world belongs to God, and every person is made in God's image.
Love is patient, love is kind. It is not jealous, is not pompous, it is not inflated, it is not rude, it does not seek its own interests, it is not quick-tempered, it does not brood over injury, it does not rejoice over wrongdoing but rejoices with the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never fails.
God is love is love is love is love. That is the good news, no matter what the gospel may seem to say to the contrary!

Thursday, June 29, 2017

SongStories 49: Come to Us (Do Not Fear to Hope, 1985, and Change Our Hearts, 2000, OCP)

"When people come to you for help, do not turn them off with pious words, saying, 'Have faith and take your troubles to God.' Act instead as though there were no God, as though there were only one person in the world who could help -- only yourself." (Rabbi Moshe Leib of Sasov, quoted in Tales of the Hasidim, by Martin Buber.)
There is a pretty strong motif, especially in my early writing, that presses the Pauline metaphor of the body of Christ to wider interpretation. What I mean is, I said things like, "I myself am the bread of life," by which I meant "I-me-the-singer," not simply "I-Jesus." The song "Like You" from Mystery prays the prayer of John Gabriel Perboyre, CM, the Vincentian martyr of the French revolution:
"Let my hands be your hands, Jesus, please.
Let my heart be your heart.
Think your thoughts in me."
The identification of Jesus with his disciples and Christ with the church in St. Paul and certainly in the gospels of John and Matthew is a binding thread of New Testament christology. It is a physical identification, or rather, a complete human identification. "Whoever welcomes you welcomes me," and "I live now no longer I, but Christ lives in me," and "Whatever you do to one of the least of these, you do to me," and other sayings articulate a truth about the intimacy between the Lord and us. We know that the scripture says these things, but we don't always play them out for their moral consequences.

As a composer and liturgical minister of the word, I want to try to help the assembly understand itself as the ministering Christ, celebrate that reality, and when necessary appreciate the dissonance between the theological reality implied by baptism and the way we actually live once we get out of the church doors. Of course, God is love, forgiveness, and understands our weakness, but we need to be awakened sometimes to the world of escape that religion can provide. We aren't allowed to imagine that worship is a substitute for compassionate action, for the work of distributive justice. We cannot say to the poor and confused, "Go to Christ." We need to learn to say, "Come to us."

Empowering this kind of behavior in our parishes will call forth a certain type of minister who makes connections between the needs of some and the gifts of others. This is exactly how the Church is supposed to work, as St. Paul suggests in 1 Corinthians, when in his metaphor of the body he suggests that "gifts are given for the good of the whole body."

The singers on the version heard on Do Not Fear to Hope were all members of a family who used to sing at St. Jerome, the Denks: Gary, Pamela (Parafiniuk), and Maria. The version we recorded on Change Our Hearts was our usual trio with a few extra singers.

I wrote "Come to Us" after being inspired by a homily preached by Vernon Meyer, my second pastor at St. Jerome and a fine biblical scholar, on the gospel for the 13th Sunday in Ordinary Time, from Matthew 11: 37-42. It must have made an impression on me. I remember that some time after that day, I was backing my car out of the parking lot after work there, and a man was walking along barefoot, or maybe with cardboard on his feet. This is, in Arizona, crazy, both in summer and in winter. I thought to myself, "Well, I have another pair at home," so I called out to him, and said, "I have more shoes, would you like these?" And he happily received them. I was about to pull away, and he asked me for the socks too. Of course I handed them over. What was I thinking?

Now, that stands out in my head not because I'm generous and do that all the time, but because I'm selfish and I don't ever do that. But we need to let the gospel work on us and change our behavior. Sometimes, even I do.

Come to Us
by Rory Cooney

Come to me, come to us,
You who are burdened; 
Come to the word, and come to the meal.
Come without question, or pressure, or price;
Come, be embraced by the body of Christ.

Come to me, come to us,
Pilgrim or stranger,
Looking for change, or challenge, or light.
We are the people whose calling is care,
Bearers of mercy, nourished in prayer.

Come to me, come to us,
Broken or building,
Come with your children, your choices, your chains.
All are invited to friendship or rest,
To share in our struggle, our call, and our quest.

Copyright © 1986 NALR. Published by OCP. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

The goodness of the Lord (A13O)

This weekend and next seem to ask us to reflect on the how kindness and hospitality are both acts of gratitude on the part of those who practice them and sacraments of God's goodness and faith in divine abundance.

No wonder we sing, "Forever I will sing the goodness of the Lord." We keep discovering the breadth, height, and depth of that goodness, an ocean of incomprehensible, universal benevolence. We just get the song started and there's more to sing about than when we began. The "goodness of the Lord" is life.  It is "life to the full," life in abundance. God's love is utterly beyond our understanding. And we have a hard time believing in it, being much more Deuteronomic in our outlook. We like covenants of reward and punishment. We don't trust anyone or anything that gives it all away and asks for nothing in return except consciousness.

The first reading from the Elisha cycle in 2 Kings is a story about the ongoing kindness of a couple who welcome the prophet and his servant into their home. For the hospitality they are shown, the prophet promises the woman, who is advanced in years, a child by the time of his next visit, a promise which comes to pass. The dynamism of God's generosity in the story of Elisha and the Shunammite woman is echoed in the words of Jesus about the life of service to the reign of God. That "the generosity of God is never outdone" is the way this usually gets spelled out in  homilies, but it doesn't help us hear this in the language of reward and worthiness, which isn't the language of the reign of God, but of the world. Agápe is not concerned about worthiness or reward. Love doesn't discern that way. Love discerns on behalf of the receiver, not the giver. Love makes worthy. Love is its own reward. It's not what we want though. Reward and punishment seem to be hard-wired in us, but they're not. They're the result of thousands of generations of going the wrong way.

I'm afraid we can get caught up in the language of the gospel of Matthew, with its rhetoric of worthiness and reward. And for much of life, when we consider ourselves as measurable by a hierarchy of needs, I suppose that kind of thinking does serve a purpose. "Thou shalt not steal" is a good rule to live by, at least until we learn to respect the rights and works of others as our own, but it serves us less well when we see it as an absolute, and apply it, say, against the theft of bread by a starving person. Once we move on to the Golden Rule, "Do to others as you would have them do to you," or to "Love one another as I have loved you," we are not concerned any more about reward and punishment, legalism, or the breast-beating unworthiness of slaves.

"Worthiness" and "reward" are not part of the vocabulary of love. When we hear Jesus's words in the gospel today, we might try to hear the word "reward" in the sense of "the fruit of surrender." That is, the reward is not for "being good" or doing something good. It's the natural result of living the way we were meant to live in the first place, caring for one another, looking out for each other's needs with attentive kindness. "You're beating your moral heads against the wall," says the gospel. "Just stop it. It feels really good. Stop with the self-promotion and greedy hoarding and get with the way you were made to be, in the image of God: generous, creative, nurturing.

It is St. Paul in the letter to the Romans who gets to the heart of the matter here. God has already given everything to us in Christ, who showed us the way, who is the way, to the reign of God. In his death and resurrection, he trusted in God's absolute vivacity, and God flooded him with life. His life demonstrated an option for all time to the deadly "normalcy of civilization," and by living it for the reign of God, he got the "reward" of living life as it was meant to be lived, living for others. Created as a man in God's image and likeness, Jesus walked like God in his life, spreading healing love and generous hospitality all around, and life worked for him. St. Paul reminds us that baptism, and the calling to faith that brought us there, binds us to Jesus, so that we too live in "newness of life" when we live our baptismal life, which he spells out later in chapter 12 of the letter, here quoting from The Message adaptive translation:
Love from the center of who you are; don’t fake it. Run for dear life from evil; hold on for dear life to good. Be good friends who love deeply; practice playing second fiddle. …Don’t quit in hard times; pray all the harder. Help needy Christians; be inventive in hospitality. (Rom. 12: 9-10, 12-13)
We've been watching the Hulu production of Stephen King's 11.22.63, the story about an attempt to use a kind of time travel to stop the Kennedy assassination. The protagonist discovers in the story that the past "pushes back" against any attempt to change it, throws up sickness, accidents, violence, and other roadblocks to anything that might change the outcome. In a sense, that is what the cross is: an instrument of the violent pushback with which the normalcy of civilization greets the gospel. The present, it seems, also doesn't want to be changed, and so the cross is something to be expected by the believer. In times of distress and rejection, we need to keep our eyes focused on the "rewards" of the gospel--the joy of giving and receiving a cup of water, the joy of community, of hospitality, and of service. This deep joy is born from the love that makes and sustains the universe, image and likeness of the servant God who placed human beings in a garden and walked with them there. Every act of hospitality and kindness is a sacrament of God saving the world, an act of the risen Christ bringing forth the reign of God in this world. In our loving service of one another, even more surely than in our song, we sing forever the goodness of the Lord.

What we're singing this week at St. Anne:

Come to Us
Psalm 89: Forever I Will Sing
Where Your Treasure Is (or Whatsoever You Do)
Faithful Family
All Are Welcome