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Wednesday, September 25, 2019

Making the 60-second Sermon (C26O) (C06O)

First, have you ever thought about how hard it is to say something, just one thing, something you feel strongly about in a persuasive way, in just one minute? When I was asked to contribute to the PrayTell blog's "60-Second Sermon" series, I knew that it felt like a good idea, but I didn't realize how hard it would be to try to say anything meaningful in one minute. The time I spend editing my idea down to a single minute is a much, much longer process than coming up with an idea and writing a draft.

Living at St. John's Abbey (and University) in Collegeville, MN, Benedictine monk, musician, and liturgical scholar Fr. Anthony Ruff began the PrayTell blog in 2010 as a well-informed and "intellectually grounded" forum for "pastors, liturgists, musicians, and scholars," containing "practical wisdom about prayer, sacraments, and the community of the faithful – in short, worship." The blog has certainly evolved into a wonderful meeting place of minds, people of various points of view, engaged in mostly respectful dialogue on every imaginable subject related to the discipline. In the latter part of 2018, Ruff contacted a few dozen people from his address book and asked them to film themselves giving a "60-Second Homily" on a specific Sunday or feast day, and the series has, first under John Kyler and Nic Cortez and now Jason Horstman (SJU grad assistants) been online consistently since the first Sunday of Advent in 2018.

I've seen a lot of the posts, but not all, and know that familiar faces and names like Rita Ferrone and Rita Burns Senseman, Jaime Cortez and Craig Colson, Diana Macalintal and Kate Williams and Michael Silhavy have all contributed.

In October of last year, John Kyler contacted me on behalf of Fr. Anthony, asking if I'd be part of the new project. The concept, he said, was that each "preacher" would give a one-minute message based on the gospel, inspirational and "right-to-the-point." The part that really interested me was that the message be characterized by "compelling imagery, short anecdotes, and wit and humor," all of which appealed to my style. Later, I was assigned the 6th Sunday in Ordinary Time earlier this year, for which I wore a cheap crown and referred to King George III's song in the musical "Hamilton" to talk about the reign of God. So much fun.

I got my friend Mark Karney, a videographer at whose studio we have made several albums and who has made some catechetical videos from my songs for parish events, to help me realize some of my ideas. He made the videos way better than anything I could have done. I mean, it's the gospel, it's a minute-long commentary, not a Spielberg movie, but people are accustomed to a certain level of professionalism in video, and Mark definitely contributes that piece. Using green screen and background graphics and videos made the "sermon" more interesting and engaging, and Mark loves doing this kind of thing as much as I do.

Then, this summer, PrayTell asked me to do a handful more of these during the year, and I was delighted to be able to say "yes." Our second little sermon is on the parable of Lazarus and the rich man.

Here is the new video, if you haven't seen it. Note that the "famous" crown from my first 60-Second Sermon has been placed casually to my right on the bookshelf, in front of the "Atlas of the Bible." This was by popular demand, and I think it is a very great idea that references Alfred Hitchcock's style and will have filmmakers talking for generations. 😅 Click here to see the readings for this Sunday to which the video refers.

Pro tip: when you're green screening in a video, don't wear a shirt with green checks. 😑🙄 How was I to know? Who am I, Bill Maher? I'm not even Matt Maher. Luckily Mark is a genius and you can't tell.

I actually made two "test" videos to share with a small group of friends to get feedback on which idea they liked better, and I think they chose wisely. What I presented to the crew at PrayTell was pretty much the first of the two ideas I'd had, though I changed the ending at lunch on the day we taped it, right before heading over to Mark Karney's house to make the video. The second one did have its advocates, however.

In that second test video, I focused more on the responsorial psalm as a representation of the (fictional) Lazarus's faith, and wondered, "I wonder what the rich man is singing today?" The question is reminiscent of a (possibly apocryphal) Tom Conry story from the 1980s (but if it didn't happen, it should have), when Tom said at a conference that he had a gut sense of what was wrong with the church when he heard a church assembly of well-fed white suburbanites (like me) singing John Foley's "The Cry of the Poor" (like me) and thinking that they were singing about themselves (like...😳) Here's the rough video that I did not send to PrayTell.

And, because there's no end to this once you start, here's a third one that I wrote but didn't video. It was too late and I had already made the one you saw. That doesn't stop Brain from working. This is about 20% too long, so I would have had to do some serious editing to get it down to a minute.

We have a wealthy man, and outside his doorway, a poor sick man named Lazarus.
The rich fellow doesn’t see Lazarus.
He is selectively blind to Lazarus, to his pain, his need, his hunger.
I’m that rich guy.
No question that through very little fault of my own I have a good income,
Good health, good family, a home,
And once I get over the shock of realizing how that separates me from most of the world,
I have to start asking myself,
Who am I not seeing?
Who am I walking over to get comfortable again?

I hoard my time.
So when Mick corners me on Sunday morning with the list of his woes,
I can’t wait to break out of that conversation.
Lazarus was probably relieved to hear Jesus say that there’s no freaking way the rich can get inside the reign of God. Not even Abraham has strings to pull.
So whatever you’re rich in, start giving it away.
Do everything you can to wake up to people’s need.
Pour yourself into the breach.
That’s how the chasm between the heaven and hell inside us—and between us —starts to disappear. 
That's a little bit about my little contribution to Fr. Anthony Ruff's terrific project out of Collegeville, the 60-Second Sermons that are published on the blog every Monday for the following Sunday. Here is a link to the archive of the series, so you can click around and hear what different people did with different gospels. The wonderful richness of everyone's insight is really edifying in the best possible sense.

That's about it. This is important to me because the process makes me distill my insight, knowledge, and faith experience about a certain group of scriptures down to an essence of one minute, and so I have a responsibility to be both clear and evocative, using images and the resources of my personality to express truths that don't originate with me or belong to me. It's like both poetry and music: at the end, you want the piece to say more than you actually put into it, and you trust that it does because, first of all, you never had it all in the first place. Like the seed scattered in the field, it grows when we're asleep, it does our work in us, and we pass it on as best we can. It's just a story, from a man who told really good stories about a reality for which there really are no words: the reign of God.

I look forward to doing a few more of these. Keep listening, friends, and pass the stories along. If necessary, as St. Francis of Assisi said, use words!

Now, since all free video comes with a commercial (in this case, a PSA!) and these couple of Sundays give us prophet Amos as well as Lazarus and mammon, I wanted to offer you one of many ways that we can actually do something on behalf of the poor: support the Crop Hunger Walk in Barrington on October 13. Here is a link to my walker page: some choir members and other parishioners are walking the 10K in support of fighting hunger, with people from all the churches of Barrington. I will keep you in my prayers that Sunday at my masses, and hope that the word of God will always remind all of us to be doers as well as hearers. Crop Hunger Walk, an activity of Church World Service, does just that. Thanks for reading this far!

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

The parable of God's Name (C3L)

"Jesus Christ is the face of the Father’s mercy. These words might well sum up the mystery of the Christian faith." Misericordiae Vultus, 4/11/2015, Pope Francis

The Lord is kind and merciful. Full stop.

Is there any word from beyond which we need to hear any more during Lent? In these days when we are more aware than ever of how how impossibly vain we are and how futile our attempts to do good are, how far we are from what the gospel calls us to do and to be, what's more important to hear that those six words from the psalm Sunday? Or these, from the first reading: "I know well what (my people) are suffering. Therefore I have come down to rescue them."

Of course we want God to come down to rescue people from their suffering, and when triaging that, we hope God gets to us first, however self-focused and petty our misery. Meanwhile, we tend to carom between amazement and blame when we witness the suffering of others, still convinced in our heart of hearts that the Deuteronomist was right, that those who suffer are being punished for their sins, or for being infidels, or for being born in the southern hemisphere, and that those who are doing well are the blessed and chosen.

In these readings for the third Sunday of Lent in year C, it seems to me that we have a couple of parables of God's mercy, one from Luke and one from Exodus. We see, as it were, God's Son in one and God's name in the other, and from both of those there radiates the tenderness and compassion we hear proclaimed for our violent, exploitative, and recidivist race, the spark of whose interior life nevertheless shines with the very image and likeness of the creator.

Reports come in to Jesus asking for his judgment on an item heard on Herod-the-Fox News, about an abomination perpetrated by the sadistic Roman governor, apparently murdering some Galileans in the middle of some religious rituals. Quickly losing patience with their bewilderment, Jesus throws in another story making the rounds, about the deaths of eighteen people when a tower collapsed at a site near Jerusalem. His point was not to shock the crowd into silence, but to make them stop wondering whether the victims were somehow at fault for what happened, more worthy of their terrible fate than other Jews including his listeners. The question is, how did he get from their misfortune to "unless you repent, your fate will be the same"? Is he saying that repenting of sin will render the penitent immune from disaster?

It's hard to think so, looking at the arc of history and the rest of the gospel kerygma. But what if by "repent" he continues to mean "get your meaning and destiny from God," and start believing and living in the kingdom? Stop believing in Rome, and start believing in your own God, in solidarity, community, and social equality. Start believing in a God who doesn't prevent disaster but is present to disaster, and become agents of God's presence with your healing and hospitality.

Jesus turns to a parable, as he always seems to do when discursive language isn't enough. When we hear this parable, we often want to turn it into an allegory. Who does the fig tree represent? Who is the planter? Who is the gardener? The trouble with an allegory is, if you get a character wrong the first time around, it blows the meaning of the whole story. Are we the fig tree and is God the planter? (Psalm 80 and other scriptures could support this reading.) Maybe. That might fit the "angry God" theory, as though Jesus and God disagreed on the fate of the world, and Jesus talks God out of chopping us down. Is that how we want to think of God? Is it possible for the Father and Son to be so out of sync with each other? I can't imagine it.

But maybe the planter is just "the way everything is." The planter is the law of entropy. Everything deteriorates to chaos. The planter is "might makes right" and "survival of the fittest" and the Pax Romana. The planter is the way all of us look at the wreck of our lives, at the destruction wrought by our culture, when we take the time to assess it and admit our complicity. The planter is the voice that says, "It was worthless anyway, throw it out. Let them die. They deserved it. Life is futility, chaos. We bring order. Rip it all out and we'll try something else." And maybe, just maybe, God, and therefore Jesus, is the gardener. When we turn back to the values of our culture for the thousandth time, when we refuse to believe in peace and equality, when we work and vote and support terrible, divisive ideas that take life away from people, that steal from the poor and give to the rich, even after decades of listening the gospel and singing the songs and going through the rituals, and we're right at the place where no one would blame God or Jesus or anyone else from throwing the book at us and letting us experience some of the very suffering we've caused the world, God steps between the victim and the axe, the culture and its victims. Christ the gardener takes the maligned tree tenderly in infinitely merciful fingers and says, "Wait a minute. Here I am. Let me work with it again." Here's someone, finally, who can make something out of nothing, a world out of the dust that we are. Someone believes that we have possibility. Can we remember that touch?

In the Exodus story, God sees the way things are, the "normalcy of civilization" in Crossan's wonderful phrase, and comes to Moses in a sign that breaks open the possibility that "normalcy" isn't the way things are going to be any more. There is a bush. It is on fire. And it is not burning. There's something you don't see every day. God sends Moses, a renegade slave hiding from a murder rap, back to the seat of power, to Pharaoh, to demand the release of the Hebrews. The conversation around the name of God, which Moses thinks would be a good idea to know, since the Egyptians know so many gods that they're bound to ask him which one sent him, is exasperating in how little it reveals. In other words, it tells the truth. "You don't know me. You can't even imagine my name." That's one way of reading the unpronounceable, unknown name Moses receives. Another way, one excellent article suggests, is that the text is in the future tense: "I WILL BE THAT WHICH I WILL BE." The (Jewish) commentator says that the future tense is used in the Hebrew, which the commentator finds interesting because it's the only form of the verb that doesn't specify gender. "The people will come to  know God through their unfolding experiences together...(The name) seems to tease us, saying, 'You want to know my name, just wait and see!' While God is absolute, there are no divine absolutes; each of us, in our own time, will come to know God in our own way." (The article is here.) (And another good one.)

In the gospel, Jesus reminds us that repenting is for everyone. And Jesus doesn't mean beating our breast and being miserable: he means turning in another direction, he means turning toward the Father, and he has already said that he is showing the direction ("follow me"), ditto his honor-bestowing mother ("Do whatever he says") and Father ("Listen to him.") The baptismal message of Lent is: God keeps coming after us. Stick together. Wash off the "way things have to be" and start living in the new world. Stick together. Take care of each other. Make peace through your just living.

See, God is the protagonist in the universe. It is God who is acting from utterly beyond all knowing but more intimately than we can imagine. We are players in God's world. Or would be, if we weren't constantly being distracted by the counterfeits of peace, safety, and power that are being pushed on us by "the way things are," the normalcy of civilization. That is Egypt. That is Rome. That is empire.  Our refusal to turn, or blindness, or fear, whatever it is, is what is making us so unhappy. The "other god" demands unanimity or destruction, cooperation or the cross, submission or slavery, participation or marginalization. The One who reveals self in action, "I AM WHO I SHALL BE," invites us to walk through the cleansing water to the margins of civilization and do something new. Together. With Jesus, the "face of the Father's mercy," we place ourselves between the fig tree and the axe, and ask for a little time to work on things.

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

Entrance song: Lead Me, Guide Me
Kyrie: Daigle-Kendzia "Lead Us to the Water"
Psalm 103: The Lord Is Kind and Merciful (Cotter)
Gospel acclamation and General Intercessions: Mass of Christ the Servant (still in beta)
Preparation Rite: Be Merciful (Haugen)
Mass of Creation
Lamb of God: Mass of St. Aidan
Communion: Christ Be Our Light
Closing: Amazing Grace

Wednesday, March 6, 2019

Life without Alleluia

Literally burying the Alleluia at
Fraternity of St Joseph the Guardian
 in La Londe-les-Maures, France
My friend and uber-musician from Long Island, Christopher Ferraro, posted on Facebook a quotation from Dom Prosper Gueranger’s masterworkThe Liturgical Year. Gueranger was a French monk, the abbot of the Solesmes monastery for nearly four decades in the mid-18thcentury. The classic 15-volume work ($459 on Amazon--cheap!), written over the years from 1841 until his death, was left unfinished. Ferraro’s quotation concerned the “Suspension of the Alleluia” during the season of Lent:

"That indifference for the liturgy of the Church, which is the strongest indication of a weak faith, and which now reigns so universally in the world, is the reason why so many, even practical Catholics, can witness this yearly suspension of the Alleluia, without profiting by the lesson it conveys. A passing remark, or a chance thought, is the most they give to it, for they care for no other devotions but such as are private; the spirit of the Church, in her various seasons, is quite beneath their notice.…Why be indifferent in this present instance? Why deem of no interest to piety this suspension of the Alleluia, which she, the Church, considers as one of the principle and most solemn incidents in her liturgical year?”

It struck me that, though I try to maintain the practice of figuratively “burying the alleluia” on the Sunday and (now) the Tuesday morning before Ash Wednesday, I’ve never actually put into words for myself why ought to notice it, or why it is important enough that, through the changes of the Second Vatican Council, it survived in liturgical practice in Western Catholicism even though in the East the Alleluia continues to be sung through Lent. I came up with three thoughts we might ponder while we are not singing the Alleluia. (After Mass, of course…don’t be distracted from the homily!)
  • Remembering God. Years ago, Walter Brueggemann, in his book Israel’s Praise: Doxology Against Idolatry and Ideologyreminded us that when we read and pray scripture, especially in the psalms, we should keep in mind that in Israel there was often too-close a connection between the court, which ruled Israel in the world, and the Temple, which preserved the presence of God and the memory that it is the just and merciful God who is the only true king of Israel. It is difficult to tell in the psalms just who is being enthroned and worshipped: the king or God? It was the job of the priestly class (and when they failed, the prophets) to be sure those lines were neatly drawn. Sometimes, as in Psalm 150, the line is completely obscured. It seems to be a litany of “Alleluia! Praise the Lord in the temple! Praise him in the sky! Praise him with all your instruments!”, on and on without ever saying why? When prayer gets like that, all "Alleluia, ain't life great," it becomes oppressive, a tool of the status quo, the ruling class and their interest. But other psalms, even some Hallel psalms (psalms with the words “Hallelu Yah” in them, “Praise the Lord”), are more deliberate. Psalm 146 is a good foil for 150. It encourages us to “Hallelujah” because God is always faithful, is just to the oppressed, gives food to the hungry, and so on. This “doxology” in the prayer is a reminder to the king that God is in charge, even of the king, and that the king should act like God, and “give bread to the hungry” and “set prisoners free.” So the first thing we could do when we miss singing the Alleluia is remember why we sing it in the first place: to help us remember that God, and the works of God in Christ, are the very reason we rejoice. The status quo isn't always good for everyone—it rarely is, but God is always good, has been in the past, and will continue to be into the future.
  • Solidarity with those who live without an Alleluia. There continues to be a danger, there is for me, anyway, that my “Alleluia” is a word of worship of an idol, of a god who props up the prosperity and power of the rich and powerful (I include myself in this number when speaking about the world as a whole.) “Alleluia” in our worship as it announces the gospel and peppers our music can be a real cheerleader’s “RAH!!” for the first world. So on one level, fasting from the Alleluia during Lent gives an opportunity to see the world through the eyes of the poor, the persecuted, and the hopeless. The number of these people, our brothers and sisters in Christ, beloved children of the same Father, is nearly one in two in the world. Nearly one in four live in extreme poverty, on less than the equivalent of $1.25 a day. When we sing “The Lord hears the cry of the poor,” to paraphrase, possibly apocryphally, Tom Conry, we’re not singing about ourselves. Silencing the Alleluia for a while can help us remember that. At the same time, it can help us to remember those who are not living an “Easter” existence, even in a temporary sense. Brutally knocked down by loss of security, by sickness or death, many people whom we know have lost the Alleluia in their heart. Again, the silencing of the Alleluia for Lent can help us remember them and act on their behalf if we choose to do so mindfully.
  • “If Christ is not risen, our faith is empty.” Finally, and certainly not least among these three, is the opportunity to reflect on what the world might be like if Jesus of Nazareth were just a rabble-rousing nationalist preacher and had been forgotten after enduring the sentence of capital punishment executed upon him by the Roman governor. What if God had not intervened, had left us to wonder, had not snatched Jesus from the grave to let the authority of his life give us a shining option to the normalcy of violence and “might makes right”? Christians hear and pray and sing “Alleluia” as our Easter song, as the anthem of resurrection and the proclamation that Christ is alive in the life and mission of the Church. Not singing the Alleluia for the duration of Lent gives us an opportunity to imagine the chaos of a world without the Sermon on the Mount, without the Good Shepherd and the Good Samaritan, without the good news of a God-who-is-with-us, a loving Parent for all, who calls us beloved children. It’s a bleak prospect, a dystopia in which love is even more fragile than now, without the hope that every act of self-giving imitates the One whose love formed the world.
One mystic (Abbot Rupert, quoted in Guéranger) speaks of the “Alleluia” as “a stranger amidst our other words. Its mysterious beauty is as though a drop of Heaven’s overflowing joy had fallen down on our earth…For this reason, the word Alleluia has not been translated. It has been left in its original Hebrew as a stranger to tell us that there is a joy in his native land which could not dwell in ours.” Perhaps "Alleluia" is the song of the "already-not yet" reign of God, and during Lent, we ponder the "not yet" of God's reign and our participation in with others who refuse to "hear the cry of the poor" by forgoing the "already."  

Preface 1 for Lent, in the previous translation, included these words: "Each year you give us this joyful season when we prepare to celebrate the paschal mystery with mind and heart renewed." During these weeks when we “fast” from singing or even saying the word “Alleluia” during our liturgical prayer, maybe some of these thoughts can help us find a place to take that sense of discomfort and maybe even loss to find an even greater joy when it returns to the liturgy at the Easter Vigil.

Saturday, March 2, 2019

Beam and Splinter (C8O)

My first thought while considering the gospel this week was to advise you to take its warning seriously when reading this blog: "Can a blind person guide a blind person? Will not both fall into a pit?" The message isn't "don't read this blog," it's "this blog isn't the gospel, so exercise discretion and use discernment."

As I've grown older, and a little more open to criticism and other points of view, I've more and more come to understand the great wisdom in the "beam in your own eye" gospel adage. Of course, there is a certain irony in it that is inescapable: you always hear it from someone else, and so it's probably generated from inside that person's conscience, that is, the beam in the accuser's eye noticing the beam in yours. The point is that we all have beams. Some of them are light beams, and they actually help us see our own faults in the faults of others. Because of mimetic desire, we jump at the chance to distance ourselves from the wrongdoing we see, while neglecting to accept the truth that what we see in the other is a reflection of something within us.

Relationships with friends and family may provide an example. Let me make one up, this is completely fiction. But let's say your brother and his wife have an argument. I know your brother and his wife. They're both really good people, altruistic, hard-working, fun to be around. But your brother's wife thinks he's too critical of her: she tells him from time to time that he always finds fault
with what she says, is constantly correcting her, and she finds this wearisome and hurtful. Your brother, meanwhile, is thinking to himself, "Luke 6: 41-42," but doesn't dare say it because your sister-in-law will look it up and begin divorce proceedings.

The thing is, they're both right, probably, to some extent. But no matter how big the beam is, the story doesn't end there. Dig deeper and what do we find? All kinds of childhood hurts, lack of affirmation, denial of worth, the imitation of learned behaviors of criticism. We all do this: we try to make ourselves feel better by making someone else feel worse, and often by doing the same things we are accusing the other of doing. We can't help it. We were made to imitate others. When we act in self-defense we tend to use the weapons at hand.

I'm going to let go of this now because I'm not a psychologist and I'm not even that good an observer of human nature, I'm just trying to know myself better and I know that I do criticize in others what I don't like in myself. When I look back even at older posts in this blog at snarky and read the nasty things I've said about this priest or that politician, I'm shocked sometimes to realize that there are traits in me that are exactly what I was criticizing in my splinter-afflicted target.

Maybe those beams are all splinters? Maybe we're all the sum of all the treatment and mistreatment we've received in our lives, and some of us (I include myself in this group) have been unreflective about how that pain has influenced our interaction with the world, with the people we know and the decisions we make in our lives.

I'm guessing that to God, they're pretty much all splinters, and God is like a grandma who loves us so much, sees us with the finger-pointing and name-calling, and can't do much more than shake her head, get us a cold Pepsi and some fried chicken, and change the subject so we learn to see each other again as siblings instead of feral beasts or sworn enemies. And that's why Jesus wants to stop learning from each other, but to learn from and imitate him, because he imitates God who is "kind to the ungrateful and wicked." To learn from Jesus is this regard is its own reward, because as we heard in last Sunday's gospel, "...the measure with which you measure will in return be measured out to you." Not only will our lives be full of the divine love that gives rather than the mimetic divisiveness that seeks to destroy the other in order to build ourselves up: Jesus promises that "when fully trained, every disciple will be like his teacher."

As I said earlier about the Sermon on the Plain, after his Nazareth sermon about his vision of his ministry and vision of the arrival of the jubilee, Jesus gathered disciples, embarked on a campaign of miracles and exorcism (healing and liberation) and now takes the time to do some mystagogy with them on what all that means. They, and we, need new hearts to understand what we are seeing and hearing in Jesus. We have no other experience of someone who acts not to be admired or to divide and conquer enemies. We've lived by the rules of "how things have to be," of the normalcy of civilization for so long, that this surprising announcement of a new, peaceful kingdom is befuddling because we want it to become like all the kingdoms we've known: one that defeats enemies and makes us rich and powerful. It is not, and will never be like this, not in our world, not even in our homes. It is a place and time and method of invitation, collaboration, and self-gift. It is a reign of love by a Father-God or, if it works better for you overall (it does for me), a Grandma-God, who gathers rather than rules, who feeds rather than conquers, wait us out rather than gets angry.

I want to get inside of being my grandma. I'm the right age, anyway. I want to listen to the gospel, and finally act my age. I hope you don't have to wait this long!

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

Entrance Song: We Are Called (Haas)
Penitential Rite: (Kendzia/Daigle) "Lead Us to the Water"
Psalm 1: Roots in the Earth (Cooney) not the psalm of the day, but a wisdom psalm that summons us to delight in good and grow where the nutrients of the soul are most abundant
Celtic Alleluia (O'Carroll/Walker)
Preparation of Gifts: Were I the Perfect Child of God (John Bell) This charming text and accompanying Scottish melody seem wonderfully suited to today's liturgy, tacitly acknowledging both the faults have and the grace that helps us correct them. 
Eucharistic Acclamations: Mass of Joy and Peace (Alonso)
Lamb of God and Communion: May We Be One (Daigle/Cooney)
Recessional: Halle, Halle, Halle (Bell, arr. Haugen) To bury the Alleluia until Easter!

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

My enemy: God's beloved (C7O)

The readings this weekend are amazing, particularly the graphic scene in the first reading from 1 Samuel in which David refuses to kill his enemy Saul when it would have been both easy and expedient, and the gospel that continued Luke’s Sermon on the Plain with its discomfiting if familiar urging that we love our enemies, stop judging, and do to others as we would have them do for us.

The last time we had these readings was in 2007, and my friend Rev. Cyprian Consiglio OSB Cam. was visiting us and giving a little concert in the church. He said mass a couple times that Sunday. He began the homily with a story that gave us an immediate glimpse into where he might be headed, a story about a prior at the abbey where he attended seminary admonishing the body of seminarians never to use the words, “What Jesus really meant was...” Obviously, none of us really knows “what Jesus meant to say.” What we know is what is in the gospel, which is what Luke meant to say, and even that is under considerable scrutiny from divergent sources and innumerable cultural and linguistic variants through the years. Last week, for instance, there was an entire meme on Facebook and Twitter on the difference between what the Gospel said ("Woe to the rich") and what homilists said in their homilies ("Jesus didn't really mean 'Woe to the rich.')

But in the context of this gospel, Cyprian was clearly headed in a specific direction. Rather than try to pasteurize (and thus bowdlerize) the gospel command to love our enemies and do good to those who hate us, he told us to take it for what it is: the heart of the gospel, the Spirit-empowered nurturing of divine identity. To love our enemies is to be like God, who loves the good and bad alike. Cyprian went on to mention not only René Girard, but also the wonderful theologian James Allison in his homily, so I was completely in heaven, and thrilled that at least one other person in the room was resonating with what I was hearing. What a feeling of solidarity!

That same evening at St. Anne, a visiting Congolese priest, Father Mokucha, began his homily with Mahatma Gandhi and ended with Martin Luther King, and even asked for personal witness from anyone in the assembly who had experience “loving those who hate” us. A lovely woman, who looked like she might be a mother of middle-school-age children (read, younger than I) talked about knowing that a friend of hers gossiped about her behind her back, and she wept when she talked about how much that hurt her, because she wanted this person so badly as a friend. She said that the way she tried to love this woman was to be extra kind to her children when they came over to play, which was remarkably touching and perfect for all of us to hear. All in all, that day, twelve years ago, was a good day for preaching. You might say, “perfect.”

I think we just try to keep what's happening in Jesus's Galilean ministry in front of us as we hear these gospels. He is baptized by John, undergoes some kind of validating transformation in which he understands the depth of God's love for him and, one must conclude, everyone. He is the "beloved son," in whom God is well pleased. John's baptism was exactly about washing off the contamination of empire and returning to the Promised Land, the "kingdom of heaven", by passing through the waters of Jordan. It was a rejection of the values of the conqueror, and being washed in the values of the Torah and the prophets. Then Jesus is driven "by the spirit" into the desert for his retreat, the testing and sussing out of his mission, at the climax of which he gives "messiah lessons" to the Tempter, describing the difference between human ways, the ways of empire, and the ways of God. He returns to Nazareth and gives that startling homily in the synagogue, opening the word of the prophet Isaiah, declaring it fulfilled "here, on this day," and then explicating it in such a way as to offer the freedom and healing of God's intervention to the whole world, not only to the "chosen." Avoiding an assassination attempt, he moves to Capernaum, calls followers, and begins a campaign of healing and exorcism in Galilee. Finally, here, where we are these Sundays, he takes to openly teaching about the reign of God, how it is not what anyone expects, how it begins and ends with love freely exchanged among all as unlimited currency, available to all who seek it from the infinite source that is Abba. When even this does not shake off the habits of empire for want of power and status, Jesus resorts to parables, and finally a march to Jerusalem, where the Luke's story really begins, and then begins again, in Acts of the Apostles.

More on "Even sinners do the same" (Don't the pagans do as much?) Part 1     Part 2
More on "Enemy love"

About a year ago, I wrote the following about my song “Be Perfect,” based on the Matthaean version of the same Jesus sayings. I’ll just quote it here as I close, because it contains both my thoughts on this text and my own inspiration for writing the song. Maybe you’ll find some hope or inspiration in it as well. "Be merciful" is the way Luke puts the same thought: mercy is the defining quality of God, which of course doesn't define at all. As we reflected recently for an entire year, Jesus is the "face of God's mercy," the icon of the invisible God. "Perfect" refers to the mercy of God which treats everyone equally, no outsiders. Jesus keeps coming back to this: love of God and love of neighbor are the same thing. As we hear later in Luke in the parable of the Good Samaritan, mercy is as mercy does. We become neighbor when we "do" neighbor.
“Be Perfect” is a song I wrote from the intersection of the parish travails of a good friend and colleague of mine and my reading of the French-American anthropologist Réné Girard. Part of Girard’s thesis about the origin of societies and religion in violence, a thesis generally termed “mimetic desire,” is that we don’t want things in themselves, but we want them because others have them. We learn to desire from others, and want what others have simply because they have things. 
Girard’s theory, while complex and necessarily oversimplified here, is that this desire escalates into violence unless a “scapegoating mechanism” is triggered, and the violence within society can be focused on a single person or group and thus released. Girard, a Catholic, saw the Paschal Mystery as the way out of the cycle of escalating violence and scapegoating by revealing our violence for what it is, an assault upon an innocent victim. Scapegoating only works by associating God with the accusers, by making a demon of the one cast away. But in the Christian story, Jesus is revealed in the resurrection to be both innocent and the Son of God. The false religion of sacrifice is revealed for the murderous thing it is. 
By refocusing our desire after the desire of Jesus, to be like the Father who loves unconditionally and “makes the rain fall and sun shine upon the just and the unjust,” we can be part of the emergence of the reign of God. The passage upon which the refrain is based, taken from the Sermon on the Mount, is almost invariably watered down by homilists afraid to imagine that it might be possible to act as Jesus does, and imitate the perfect love of God. There is a certain sense in which the admonition to “be perfect” has been understood in a semi-Pelagian way, that is, that we need to keep practicing our spiritual exercises until we get them right, and arrive at some state of sinlessness reserved for the true spiritual Olympian athlete. This sort of thinking denies both the perfection of divine love, which loves us right in the midst of our sinfulness, and the divine initiative, by which we mean that grace precedes and enables the response of repentance. 
But there’s something even more important here: to be perfect means to be like God, to make being-like-God the object of our desire of our loving imitation. And this is not being like just any God, but being like the God of Jesus, who “makes the sun to shine and the rain to fall on the just and the unjust alike.” To keep Jesus’s admonition before us to “be perfect” is to resolve not to forget the admonition to love our enemies and to do good to those who hate us. It keeps the church honest, and helps us to recall that it’s not enough to “be nice” and to love each other in our families and communities of intention. The gospel call is to love everyone with the divine love, the love that puts the good of the other first, even if, especially if, the other is our enemy. ...
Full disclosure: let me be the first to admit that this "love your enemies" stuff, hard as it is to even say the words, it's WAY harder to actually practice. We live in such a fractious culture. If the world scene weren't dangerous enough, even within the American sphere, even within the church sphere, it is hard to love one's enemies. In church, we shouldn't even have any! But it goes back to the mimetic rivalry process: we define ourselves and who we are against other people: I'm not a Mormon; I'm not Muslim, I'm not a Leninist. But it gets even crazier, right? I'm not a Trumpster, I'm not a socialist, I'm not an EWTN Catholic, I'm not a liberal, I'm not 1%, and so on. Turns out we're enemies in some way with people within our own families, and every conversation is either walking on eggs or full of vitriol and expletives. How do we stop that? How can I even say I follow the gospel if my heart is riddled with the cancer of violence, even if it's just violent or abusive speech?

One thing I think we can do is "first do no harm." "Love your enemies" might start with "don't kill anybody." Full stop. Most of us think that's something we do already, but we might take a second and look at the politicians and policies we support and see whether even there we fail against this precept of the kingdom of God. Avoiding "near occasions of sin" is an old expression we used to describe a therapy of repentance. If you're an ax murderer, for instance, avoid hardware stores. But it might mean avoiding Facebook, or Twitter, or "comments" after online news stories. I've taken to just deleting people from my "friends" list who are recidivist haters, whose only method of discourse is ad hominem attack. I can understand how this might make me vulnerable to confirmation bias with the people I have left, but in all honesty, I've unfriended fewer than 1% of my contacts, so there's that. I still have to try to stop wigging out at every (perceived) insane thing that our current President, beloved child of God that he is, blasts out on social media. Unfortunately, it's not quite as easy to filter out news from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, or Mar-a-Lago. But I can refrain from commenting, especially when using certain emoji to help make my point.

Anyway, friends, let’s get out there and “be perfect." Or merciful, if that suits you better! Every journey starts with a single step. One less cyber-finger, maybe.

Here's what we're singing this weekend:

Entrance: The Call Is Clear and Simple (text: Ruth Duck, PASSION CHORALE) This text by the late  Ruth Duck made me do a double take the first time I read through it, and it continues to both challenge and attract me, so I'm unleashing it on the congregation to sit with it as they hear the readings. Love, however "clear and simple" the gospel call, isn't easy, and there's not really a clear map about how we do it right. After our Liturgical Composers Forum sessions with Bernadette Farrell and Kate Williams' recent article in GIA Quarterly about the women's perspective in songwriting, I realized (rightly or wrongly) that maybe a man could not have written this song. I couldn't have, anyway. So maybe this is a good thing.
Psalm 103: The Lord Is Kind (Cooney, OCP) My setting uses the 19th century James Montgomery text that Stephen Schwartz appropriated for Godspell.

Presentation of Gifts: Be Perfect (more on this blog page)
Communion: Be Merciful (Haugen) (YouTube audio above)
Recessional: Let There Be Peace on Earth (Jackson/Miller) This camp song from the 1940s by the once-married couple moves the talk of love and mercy to the global view. I attended a Unity church in St. Louis with Terry a few times, and the service would invariably end with this song and with the minister and his wife walking down the aisle to the doors smiling and reaching out to the people who had attended. My only wish is that someone would make a definitive text so that there aren't so many different versions of the "with God as our Father/Brothers all are we" in the books. People have a hard enough time reading a hymnal. Why make it harder with alternative texts printed in the book?

Monday, February 11, 2019

The world turned upside down (C6O)

I've been writing this blog since 2016, though some of the content was borrowed and expanded from older versions of my writing online back in the days of Apple's "iWeb" pages. Some of my oldest blog pages date to 2006! But it still occurs occasionally that I come up against a Sunday or, in this case, as series of Sundays which I have not written about before. In 2019, we have the 6th, 7th, and 8th Sundays in Ordinary Time, Year C. The first two haven't been in the liturgical calendar since 2007, and the last one not since 2001. That wasn't before I was using the internet with a noisy modem, but it was before I had even heard the word "blog." Thus in the hope of trying to write something on each Sunday of the church year in order to maybe someday write a book, here we go with some thoughts on the 6th Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year C, or in my personal shorthand (which I recommend to you), C06O.

Since the beginning of Luke's narrative of the Galilean ministry of Jesus in chapter 3 of his gospel, beginning with his baptism in the Jordan and his desert retreat, but for our purposes from the sermon in the synagogue in Nazareth (Lk. 4:16-13), the author of the third gospel is spelling out in story after story exactly what Jesus believes the mission of God to be. In the simplest terms, the care of God is showered upon all, every person is beloved, the blessings of jubilee are meant for the whole world. But this is an "opt in" jubilee, and those who have experienced bounty in their lives, or some other manifestation of jubilee economics, are bound by gratitude and family-love to share that with others. We are not to see this jubilee as meant for ourselves, or our family, or our nation alone, but for the whole human family. Jesus, soon along with the disciples, moves about the region, preaching the "good news to the poor," exorcising demons (a liberating practice which we would come to spiritualize as "redemption"), and healing (which we would come to term "salvation"). The fragment of Isaiah 61 upon which his sermon was based was meant to call to mind the whole sweep of sabbath and jubilee economics (Lev. 25: 8-24) as the intent of the "kingdom of heaven," which we, again, came to think of as a place other than where-we-are, a place where God lives. It took a while for us to start to understand that things are just fine in heaven: it's here, on earth, now, where we need to do the work of Christ. Earth too is the realm, or kingdom, or empire of God as well, only God is less like an emperor or king than the head of a family, Jesus tells us. Jesus will show the way. "Follow me," he says, to get inside this new thing God is doing. We'll bring the others along too.

Unlike Matthew who, for his more Jewish audience, edited his narrative to show Jesus as a new Moses and his followers as a new Israel (and think of "new" here as "new creation," rather than as a retread of the old), Luke wants to show Jesus as a new (different, not rivalrous or a retread) Caesar, using the infancy narrative to situate him in the Roman empire, using vocabulary ("gospel" and "peace") that was the provenance of Caesar Augustus to describe the birth of Christ, along with the ancestry of David to place him within the mythology of Israel's "once and future king." (Crossan & Borg, The First Christmas.) Luke, whose gospel continues into the second book that we know as Acts, has already seen the outcome of story of Jesus, the crucifixion and resurrection, Pentecost, the conversion of Saul, and the spread of the Way from Damascus to Rome and beyond. Among those claiming the name Christ, the titles of the emperor have been turned over to Jesus: Lord, Son of God, Prince of Peace, Light of the World. But Luke also knows that Jesus is a radically different "emperor" and radically different "God" from the emperor in Rome. Luke in his lifetime has already seen the world turned upside down, or as he puts it in the "Magnificat" overture to his gospel, "(God) has torn the mighty from their thrones and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty."

Our gospel this Sunday begins the "sermon on the plain." Where Matthew has Jesus do this earliest bit of teaching in an extended "sermon on the mount," pointing to the story of Moses giving to Israel the book of the law from God, Luke has the sermon take place on "level ground," a different way of seeing God and people together more in line with Jesus's egalitarian proclamation of the jubilee. These first few verses of the sermon on the plain are made up of Luke's four beatitudes, followed by four woes.

When John Kyler called me late last year to take part in the PrayTell blog's new series, "60 Second Sermons" for C year that began this past Advent, he asked me to do the sermon for this Sunday, and when I saw the gospel, I thought it was worth spending the minute tying in Luke's beatitudes with the "reversal of worlds" theme of the gospel, and also saying a word about the influence of the Deuteronomist on much of the Septuagint and therefore on the evangelists. I think we need to be careful reading these texts that we read them with the heart of Jesus, who had no problem casting aside texts and traditions that he felt did not adequately or fully represent the God whom he represented. Soon after today's gospel pericope in Luke comes the parable of the new wine and old wineskins: Jesus knows that a new proclamation of God's favor will require a new attitude about old presumptions garnered from the law and the prophets. This is not to say that it all has to be cast aside. Rather, we need to acknowledge that the counteroffensive mounted by human culture against the ideas of mutual love, hospitality to all, share resources, not to mention enemy love, will make its appearance in the Bible, right in the very place where the countercultural jubilee is announced. We want walls. We want a god who hates the same people we do. The violent god of the Caesars makes his appearance in the Bible, all the way to the book of Revelation, where he is made up to look like Jesus. But we need to keep in mind as we read that that Jesus was clear that violence is not the answer, that the sword must be put away, that service is the mark of leadership, not coercion.

The language of relationship between the god-emperors of Mesopotamia, the Assyrians, Babylonians, possibly the Sumerians before them, and kings and peoples they conquered, is found in covenants that still exist and can be read in various references. As we read them, we see how they are imitated by the covenant language of Deuteronomy. "If you do as I command," the Assyrian god-king will proclaim, that is, pay the tributes, work the land, obey the occupying forces, then your harvests will be plenty, your children happy, your barns full, your wives and daughters your joy. But if you do not do as I command, then fire will rain down on your fields, the armies of Assyria will devour you like locusts, your children split open on the rocks, your wives and daughters will be our slaves. You get the idea. Compare this to, for instance, the language in Deuteronomy 28 and 29 (and other places.) Dead ringer.

The thing is, the Bible, with the influence of the Deuteronomist front and center, is how we learned what God is like. Do good, God loves you. Do bad, you go to hell. Simple as that. Blessings for those who love God, curses for those who don't. We then started looking at the world as it is, and started making judgments on ourselves and others about who was blessed. That person has money, status, good trajectory. That person must be blessed by God. That person is sick, lost a family, had her house burned down, had a child run away. That person must have done something to deserve it. Even though that kind of judgement doesn't jibe with the teachings of Jesus about who God is, we clung to it. It works for us: we're blessed for doing good, cursed for doing evil.

There's a huge hole in the logic, though, the more we look at the world. The author of the book of Job points it out clearly. As one theologian put it, after Job, the Deuteronomist should have been erased once and for all, but it didn't happen. In fact, not even Jesus could put the Deuteronomist to bed, because the Deuteronomist is what we want to believe. But God is not like that. "Blessed are the poor," Jesus says. "Blessed are those who mourn." Jesus turns our idea of who's blessed upside down. In Luke he even makes sure we get the point by stating the other side of the coin: "Woe to the rich!" They're not blessed after all, it appears. "Woe to those who have enough to eat." However it appears, God is not on the side of those with more than their share, as long as there are those who are underserved, hungry, unhappy. God is with those people. That is what "blessed" means. (Woody Allen, I think, also struggled with this reality in his brilliant and underrated movie Crimes and Misdemeanors, which asks the question "Why do good things happen to bad people, and vice versa, and is there any punishment in this life for the most heinous of crimes (murder)?"

Jesus turns our view of who is blessed (to whom God is near and present) upside down. It has nothing to do with status, well-being, or the luck of the draw. Our psalm and first reading today, like the gospel, present what seems to be a dualistic view of life: good people prosper, bad people are ruined. But maybe it's possible to see the dualism not as a reflection of God, but as a reflection of bad choices we make. It's not God who does the cursing, who makes life woe for those who choose wealth, power, comfort, and influence, but rather it is a result of the choices they make. The thing is, this seems to go against our experience as well, if we are looking through the lens of the reign of the world (as Ezekiel puts it, the one "whose heart turns away from the Lord,"), and not of the reign of God,  (the one who "who trusts in the Lord.") We don't see, in the first case, the influence we have upon the whole human family, the damage we cause by our self-interest. In the reign of God, it is always the other upon whom the gaze of our concern lies because we imitate God in loving all people, in wanting the good of all people, not just of ourselves, our family, our country.

This was the lesson of the Nazareth sermon, when Jesus's explication Isaiah savaged the expectations of his listeners, people who up to that moment had been enthralled with his preaching. They wanted confirmation bias, what they got was the gospel: the announcement of a new empire, a new king in town, who not only wasn't going to do what was expected, he wasn't even going to be a king in any recognizable way. These good citizens of Judea (and Rome) wanted nothing to do with Jesus's global view of God. They showed him to the door and then to a precipice in what seems to be a literary rehearsal of a scapegoat ritual (from the rite of atonement). Literary, because we know that there weren't any cliffs in Nazareth. Rehearsal, because we know, with Luke, that even though Jesus "passed through their midst" unharmed, there was going to come a day when he would not, and for the same reasons.

What's the lesson for us? Well, we could start by not thinking of people who are rich, well fed, happy, and unharmed as "blessed." People like most of us. We might be lucky, but blessed has nothing to do with it. "Blessed" has a different role call. The rich, well fed, and happy might be blessed when they learn to share their bounty in significant ways with those who are poor, hungry, and sorrowful. Otherwise, they're not blessed at all, at least not in those qualities. Jesus has introduced us to a world turned upside-down, where the greatest among us serve the rest, where power serves, where God, who is holy, goes to dine with sinners. We need to stop thinking like they want us to think, that we are nothing more than what we can produce and purchase, that we need to buy more things and better things to have self-esteem, that our value resides in where we were born, the color of our skin, the things we own, who our friends are. We need to stop thinking that might makes right, that "he who has the gold makes the rules," that "God is on our side," and not on the other side.

Jesus says that God is for everybody. God is like a Father, and we are all related and need to take care of each other. Jesus shows up our gods for what they are: images of ourselves, the petty despots and vengeful judges that we want to be, vested with the guns-blazing, golden-armored authority of the divine. "Blessed are the poor" means, "Think different, my friends. Follow me. We're going in the other direction. Don't be afraid, I'll go first. It's going to be better than you can imagine."

I'll leave you with the video clip of my "Sixty-second sermon." I would have started with it, but then why would you take six thousand seconds to read the rest of this stuff?

Here's what we're singing at St. Anne this week, if, for the first time in a month, crappy weather doesn't 86 rehearsal for the choir:

Entrance: How Can I Keep from Singing Part of the struggle is just to keep remembering who we are, the children of God, all of us beloved together. What makes it good news is hearing in some broken part of our lives that the doctor is in the house. We're all broken, and God is faithful, and in Christ, God in present to us in each other.
Celtic Alleluia
Preparation of Gifts: There Is a River (Manion) Tim's great gospel song of divine solidarity with human beings turns Psalm 46 is a musical post-it note that reminds us that we have nothing to fear when we stick together in our quest for peace and the promise of new world right here, on this planet.
Eucharistic Acclamations: Mass of Joy and Peace (Alonso)
Recessional: Canticle of the Turning ...because the Magnificat is part of the Lucan overture to the whole gospel, and nothing says "the emperor is a liar and a phony" like the song of an unmarried, pregnant teenage girl who teaches her son what power and glory really look like at the hearth of a little house in a backwater town in a third-rate province of the Roman Empire. More here in another blog post.

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Advent, Year C -- Selected blog posts

Advent Year C

First Sunday: For you I wait all the day (C1A)
Second Sunday: The Advent joy of the gospel (C2A)
Second Sunday 2: Second thoughts—(C2A) Baruch, God's mercy, and the dreary curse of a Pelagian Advent

Third Sunday: What Should We Do? (C3A)
Third Sunday 2: Second thoughts: Dancing in the darkness with God

Fourth Sunday: Bethlehem, you think you're so small? (C4A)
Fourth Sunday 2: Joseph as "primary catechist" of the Word

General posts about the season

Advent 101: Waiting (these first four essays explore a key dynamic of each Sunday)

Advent 102: Preparing

Advent 103: Rejoicing

Advent 104: Solidarity

Gaudete in Tenebris - Advent in 2012 (rejoicing in the darkness; Advent after Sandy Hook, but this year there was Thousand Oaks, and Pittsburgh, and Florida, and a million other places.)

Advent reading - homework for the snowbound

Interlude (a little poem about being between things, unfinished)

Songs for Advent