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Thursday, September 4, 2014

Can't We All Just Get Along? (A23O)

If you're anything like me, you have a love-hate relationship with the internet and social media. You see a lot of stuff that makes you cringe, that makes you want to leave it all, but social media also binds you to others, gives you hope, and lets you give and experience the compassion of others in ways that weren't possible all that long ago. But the down side can be really down, right? Pick out any story on CNN or any other news outlet, and then read the comments. Leave aside the few who want to discuss and disagree on principles with facts and interpretations of facts presented in an intelligent or meaningful way. There are people across the spectrum who just want to spew venom on others, cast wild aspersions on people they don't even know, attribute the worst of intentions to others, and it's all seemingly just for the thrill of the free publicity that trolling provides to their name or avatar. It's as though human discourse and interrelationship were a work of art, and the appropriate response to it were to vomit on it while slashing at the canvas with a knife. Generally, this all comes under the rubric of "freedom of speech," interpreted as "freedom to say or write whatever I can think of, however disgusting," rather than "freedom to speak a responsible truth with respect for my hearers." It is a parody of communication, and not in any way a legitimate form of it. It's relationship to freedom of speech is that of a sewer to a mountain stream. They both flow, and that's about it.

When you first start in with this social media thing, and engaging with news stories and e-zine articles in the comments section, you assume that other people are there for the same reason, to react to the article, give alternate points of view, praise or take issue with the writer. But you soon learn that that is not at all why some people are there. In the uncompromisingly democratic world of the internet, every word has exactly the same weight. What a constitutional lawyer writes about the constitution has no more heft than the rantings of a delusional sociopath, and the comments on an article about a tragedy in Ukraine are likely to include specious links to dangerous websites, philippics about the current administration, counter-diatribes about the previous one, come-to-Jesus exhortations and atheist responses about flying spaghetti monsters. It's nothing like dialogue, to which it bears the same resemblance as the cacophony of a trading floor bears to Shakespeare.

The reason that I know this, of course, is that I used to think that ideas mattered, and that internet dialogue could move things forward with light speed. Quickly disabused of that quaint concept, I leapt into the silicon cockfight myself, until I realized the absolute futility and self-destructiveness of it. Now, I just don't click the little "comments" arrow beside any article, with a few minor exceptions in my own field of interest, i.e., music and liturgy. But generally, the trolls are even there, and it's usually better not to look.

I suppose the gospel has something to say to us about all this. First of all, we are not citizens of this nor any other nation. Second, "put not your trust in princes" (or princesses), but in God alone (though this psalmic admonition is not in from the gospel proper). Third, "power" in the reign of God is not like power as we know it: loud, abusive, self-interested, and armed to the teeth. But I still have to live here, and still have to try to put a dent in the poverty, waste, and hopelessness of billions. I can’t do it alone. But in my heart of hearts, I also know that even with a nation full of conscientious civil servants we couldn’t do it by legislation and all the rhetoric in the world. Ultimately, it’s a matter of a change of heart, and that’s just something that we have to work on together. There’s enough evidence that a few, with hearts turned toward the reign of God, can make a difference.

Getting along in the church ought to be easier, right? But the evidence is tha there have been serious problems from the outset. Sunday’s gospel is about getting along. The passage is taken from the middle of a couple of chapters of Matthew about how communities, whatever shape they might take in a house, a neighborhood, or the world, might get along.
If your brother sins against you,

go and tell him his fault between you and him alone.

If he listens to you, you have won over your brother.

If he does not listen,

take one or two others along with you,

so that ‘every fact may be established

on the testimony of two or three witnesses.’

If he refuses to listen to them, tell the church.

If he refuses to listen even to the church,

then treat him as you would a Gentile or a tax collector. 

Amen, I say to you,

whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven,

and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.

I like that, taken with the first reading’s call to the prophet (thus to us anointed prophetically in baptism and confirmation) to be the watch for the behavior of the sister or brother; the call to be “my brother’s (or sister's) keeper.” The idea is that we’re not an aggregate of individuals, but rather we are constituted as a community. We are responsible for one another, not in the sense of running each other’s lives, but we have no right to put big fences around our private property with a “F**k You, Go Home!” sign hung on the electrified gate. There is no thread of individual salvation running through any of scripture, let alone the New Testament. This would have been unthinkable in the context of the culture which produced it. For them, separation from the family, the clan, the village spelled death. We’re all in this together, and we always have been. The first covenant and the second are with a people, not individuals, but together. Jesus taught us to pray "Our Father" with intention.

I also like that the words about binding and loosing, about pulling together and tearing asunder, are given to the whole community of disciples, not just to Peter, not even to just the twelve. This is borne out even in the sacrosanct, sacerdotal prayer of absolution in the Rite of Penance, when the priest absolves “through the ministry of the church.” Back for a second to the “brother’s keeper” thread in the first reading and gospel, answering the expected objections from libertarians, I hear the words of the famous overachieving American clergyman William Sloane Coffin,
“Am I my brother's keeper? No, I am my brother's brother or sister. Human unity is not something we are called upon to create, only to recognize. … If what we think is right divides still further the human family, there must be something wrong with what we think is right." (emphasis mine)
Somehow, I don’t think that Coffin would be giving the invocation in Congress these days, even if he were alive to give it.

Then, proving once again that scripture breathes with a single breath and beats with but one heart, there are the words of St. Paul in the second reading, from the letter to the Romans, coming around as randomly and cyclically as summer rain:
Owe nothing to anyone, except to love one another;

for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.

The commandments…are summed up in this saying, namely,

“You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” 

Love does no evil to the neighbor;

hence, love is the fulfillment of the law.

“Doing no evil to the neighbor,” it seems to me, includes not taking his job, not paying him less than he’s worth, not dropping smart bombs on him, not torturing him, not selling him junk bonds, not raking in windfall profits on his misfortune. You know, things like that. Concrete things. “Loving one another” isn’t just having a prayer meeting with your business friends or Congressional caucus, then going out for the stick-it-to-’em business as usual day at work. “Love one another” means, “live as God lives.” Let your rain fall and sun shine on the good and back alike. No favorites. Life for everybody, not just people inside your protected borders. It’s not a feeling, it’s a way of being.

Sigh. I know. Physician, heal thyself. I’m quick enough to criticize anyone else who lacks “tenderness underneath their honesty,” to paraphrase Paul Simon. The one thing I can’t take is that arrogant American sense of entitlement that lets us categorize other people as “evil” while we torture, bomb, and economically and ecologically ruin whole nations. The word "evil," in fact, has taken such a hold in American civil religion that its semiotic field has nothing to do with God any more (who alone is good) and everything to do with American interests. America is "good," our enemies are "evil," no matter who in this country is preaching. But the gospel has news for us: we’re not the chosen people, and this is not the kingdom. If we believe that we are, we are no better than the radical religious “evildoers” we are threatening "pursue to the gates of hell," as Mr. Biden put it today.

But the gospel says: if you have a problem, talk it out. Go to the offending party, take a friend, do an intervention, whatever it takes. Then Jesus says, If none of that works, treat the person as you would a Gentile or a tax collector. This, I think, might be a hidden gem of gospel irony. It sounds like permission to ostracize the recalcitrant offender, but the whole thrust of the gospel moves the community toward welcoming Gentiles and tax collectors and other spurned outsiders into community. In other words, Jesus seems to say, Try A, B, and then C. If none of them work, go back to A. Do whatever it takes. However we read that text, it seems to preclude ridiculing those who disagree with  us, and particularly within the community of believers we should try to work within a framework of gentle, truthful confrontation and mutual respect.

The gospel passage climaxes with the Lord's declaration that
if two of you agree on earth
about anything for which they are to pray,
it shall be granted to them by my heavenly Father.
For where two or three are gathered together in my name,
there am I in the midst of them.
Jesus probably thought that it was safe to promise that if we could agree on anything it would be granted by God, since we so rarely agree on anything. It's comforting to remember going through these days of adversarial politics and the rhetoric of demonization that he himself got pissed off when those who were supposed to be ministers of God used their learning and position to make things harder for people instead of freeing them, or helping them see through the trees of restrictive law to the forest of God's covenant loving-kindness. Sometimes you can win an argument by lobbing truth in a parabola over the obstacle of prejudice, or by a counter-argument from the law that demonstrates God's broader way over the rigorous legalism of fundamentalists. Sometime, you just have to throw some furniture around and call a son-of-a-snake a son-of-a-snake. (And suffer the consequences with a forgiving heart.)

But, Jesus, it's hard to live on Monday that gospel we read on Sunday. We hear it on Sunday, and then go back to our “real” lives on Monday. Sabbath, rather than contextualizing our lives, compartmentalizes them, so that we can keep mutuality and loving-kindness in church where it belongs.

Well, in that compartment, then, here’s what we’re singing this Sunday.

Gathering: Eyes and Hands of Christ (Kendzia, OCP octavo) We’ve used this a few times this year, a very nice refrain for people to sing. Obviously, I’m trying to hook into the gospel, “where two or three are gathered in my name, there I am in the midst of them.” If Matthew’s gospel, which names Jesus Emmanuel in its first chapter and promises that he will be with us always in its last verse, is about answering the question “Well, if God is with us in Jesus, where is he, since he’s dead and risen?” then this is one of the verses, along with places like 10:40 and 25:40, where the question begins to get answered.

Psalm 95: Harden Not Your Hearts (Cooney, GIA)  This is an interesting choice in the lectionary; I’m not sure of the exact connection to the readings, but it seems to be just that refrain as the psalm harkens back to the Exodus and the grumbling in the desert. Or maybe it’s oriented toward the “wicked one” in the first reading to whom the prophet is sent. The refrain's admonition to open our heart to the voice of God and change is worth noting, especially since the imperative is directed at the people, the community, whose heart is hardened.

Gifts: God Is Love or Make Me a Channel of Your Peace. The so-called Prayer of St. Francis is a great choice for today; everybody knows it by heart, and it says what needs to be said about our participation in the work of reconciliation and healing. My song "God Is Love" on the other hand is relatively new, but it tries to reinforce our conviction that in God, being love and loving are the same thing, that loving (agape) is self-gift, self-emptying (kenosis), and that human love should strive to look the same. I think that's in the spirit of today's scriptures, which is why I chose it for today.

Communion: Faithful Family  “Faithful Family” is based on the ancient hymn “Ubi Caritas,” the verses being my own metric translation, while the refrain is adapted from Ephesians 4:32 - 5:2, and all that follows about the family. This song is standard repertoire for communion at St. Anne’s and often appears in the Triduum liturgy.

Recessional: I Am for You or We Are Called. "I Am for You" is a song that helps us identify as God's people by identifying with God's name, "I Am for You." If we can be reminded that God is for us, and all of us, always, at the same time, maybe we can be inspired to engage with one another creatively and positively, and move out of this vicious logjam of narcissism and loveless ridicule that tries to pass for conversation and relationship.

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