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Monday, February 8, 2016

Second Thoughts: No excuses (C5O)

Harmony, Hope, and Healing choir at gospel brunch,
directed by Marge Nykaza
There was a lot going on at the parish yesterday. Looming large in my mind was the fact that it was the Sunday before Ash Wednesday, what we used to call Quinquagesima Sunday. Our elect and candidates (that's how we roll in the archdiocese of Chicago) were not with us because they were at the Rite of Election at Holy Name Cathedral. Of course, the good part of the approach of Ash Wednesday is that tomorrow is Mardi Gras, and I have reason to expect there may be either king cake or paczki in my future. Maybe both, because God is good.

The other big thing going on was that the wonderful women and men of Harmony, Hope, and Healing were with our choir at 11. This group, formed by Marge Nykaza almost twenty years ago, is made up of residents and alumnae of the Martin de Porres Center in Chicago, a recovery house for abused and recovering women and their children. St. Anne has partnered with and sponsored the center for a couple of decades at least, and this was the second time the choir has been with us for mass which we follow with a gospel brunch downstairs.

So those two factors were part of the larger context from which I was hearing the readings yesterday, and we had some really good readers, which either means that I (and others) were being set up to hear something we were really supposed to hear, or that we were just lucky, and I prefer to think the former is true. Amy Florian, whom we are blessed to have as one of our regular readers at the morning mass that Terry cantors at (how amazing is that combination?) read Isaiah with a combination of naïveté and wonder that was, literally breathtaking, as she described the vision of the throne of God, the flying seraphim and the burning coal, and the booming voice that wondered above the celestial liturgy, Who will go for us? Whom shall I send? It got as quiet as our church ever gets as she said in a voice both childlike and intrepid, hesitant and resolute, "Here I am, I said." It was almost a question, as though the prophet were not only just discovering a voice, but just waking up to being alive. And so it was like hearing the reading for the first time, calling for some kind of response.

Of course, that reading was followed by the long passage from Corinthians wherein Paul testifies about his calling to apostleship and the mercy of God that transformed his vision from a violent defender of the Torah to one whose imagination was broken open, allowing him to see that God neither needed to be defended nor was God's call exclusively to Jews, the same reformation and insight that shaped the preaching and ministry, the suffering and death of Jesus. And we heard the gospel in which Jesus calls Peter, James, and John away from their suddenly successful fishing venture, inviting them to follow him on his mission to catch people.

What I kept hearing at first was nothing stunning at all, just that God is love, and as Corinthians said last week, love is patient, and so God's call is always an invitation, even when the one being called is standing in front of a river of fire and being wooed by Angel song and purified by crackling coals and sizzling resins in the unseen hands of flame-eyed seraphim. Who will go for us? Isaiah, Paul, and Peter in their liturgical turn all protest their incompetence or unworthiness. I'm unclean, and everyone I know is unclean; my past is a mess, I'm going in another direction, I'm singularly unqualified to do the kind of thing you're apparently so good at. But underneath it all, there is thing mission. It is something about God being inside of creation and pushing humanity toward a different telos, and knowing that it cannot be done except by invitation and the participation of humanity, not by threats, demands, and laws, but only by joyful surrender and cooperation in community.

But then I heard the witness of one of the women of Harmony, Hope, and Healing who told her story at the choir mass. It was a story of abuse, loss, and alienation, a story of potential squashed and addiction and escape into oblivion, and while it sounded personal and unique I could only imagine it was repeated a million times a day and too often without the rescue in the end. But this woman, in a moment of destitution and addiction so terrible that few people in my circle have ever experienced it, heard some echo of that divine wooing that St. Paul called "grace" and got help. And after years of recovery, she not only got her life back, but she found her joy again in education and spirituality, and is helping to teach and guide women all over the country on the journey back from abuse and addiction. That story is repeated over and over again in the stories of HHH and the Martin de Porres and allied shelters.

For me, see, my excuses pile up. I'm too old. It's too big, I can't do anything about that. No one else is listening. And all that gets broken down when this seraph from the southside flies into our Holy of Holies with a story that burns like a glowing coal, and opens my heart again to that invitation: Who will go for us? I have my addictions too, I suppose, but nothing like heroin and cocaine; I enumerate my excuses, but none approaches the debilitating poverty and abuse these women and men have fought since their childhood.

I had thought that, in the matrix of the other scriptures of the day, the psalm refrain, "In the sight of the angels I will sing your praises, Lord," was rather lame, and didn't get at the heart of call to participate in God's project. But it dawns on me now that when I was singing with those sweet people from Harmony, Hope, and Healing, I was, in fact, singing God's praise among the angels, the angels of the evangelium, the choir that announces the good news, who instantiate and announce the presence of God, wherever that may be. In the ICEL collect we used for mass, our pastor asked God before we heard those readings, "Enlarge our vision, that we may recognize your power at work in your son, and join the apostles and prophets as heralds of your saving word." Be careful what you ask for, I guess, because that's pretty much what happened yesterday, when my vision was enlarged by the visitors "from the margins" whose song transformed the morning.

In the concert at the gospel brunch, the choir sang a little piece that repeated a chorus that echoed a sentiment that really rose out of yesterday's gospel, something like, "Follow me, follow me to place where we can all be free." As they encouraged us to join in the song (even with coffee and/or really inappropriately decadent varieties of french toast in our mouths!), we would repeat the refrain, "follow me to a place where we can all be free," and the soloist interjected between lines, looking at us both playfully and with a prayerful admonition, "before we get to heaven, that is!" This whole patient project of the God who sees us counting our money or injecting heroin into our arm, demonizing and even murdering our enemies, making our excuses about being unfit for the peacemaking, life-giving mission of Christ, is meant for the transformation of this world, and not just to save us from it after we're dead. We're not called to survival, we're called to life, no matter how desperate we are, or the condition of our lives.

That seems perfect for Quinquagesima, within spitting distance of Ash Wednesday. After another year of seduction by the quick-fix strategies of the Great Divider, the one who is so convincing about the effectiveness of force and threats, borders and walls, insurance, savings accounts, and overstuffed closets and pantries, it's time to have our ears open again to that voice that pierces heaven with its cry for participation: Who will go for us? Whom shall I send? Maybe this can be the year for the turnaround, for being caught by the deathless grace that changes everything. Out of the smoke and chaos, the lies and excuses and practiced ineptitude of our isolationist resumés, maybe the touch of a "southside seraph's" voice will give us the courage, like a re-visioned Isaiah, to choke out with a voice that hardly believes it is saying, Here I am.

Interested in learning more about Harmony, Hope, and Healing? Click here, where there is more information, and a way to contribute to the important work of HHH and Martin de Porres Shelter.

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