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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. Ag├ípe 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