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Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Invisible joy and the emptiness of love (A4O)

God chose the foolish of the world to shame the wise,
and God chose the weak of the world to shame the strong,
and God chose the lowly and despised of the world,
those who count for nothing,
to reduce to nothing those who are something,
so that no human being might boast before God. (1 Cor. 1: 27-29)
I am so looking forward to praying through the Sermon on the Mount in these approaching Sundays of Ordinary Time, and to boot we get the continued reading of the beginning of 1 Corinthians. Sunday's gospel is the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount, that foundational piece of Jesus's preaching which we know by the latinate term beatitudes, or "blessednesses."

Preparing us to hear Matthew is the reading from Zephaniah, naming the "remnant" of Israel, the anawim, those who remained faithful to the covenant after the extreme trials of the captivities. It is from these poor, stateless, faithful Jews, who point the way to God for people who lose their way. Then we hear Paul's mighty boast to the Corinthians, not on his own behalf, but on behalf of the folly of the cross. Paul is alarmed to have heard about rifts in Corinth among believers in different "versions" of the gospel, which we heard about last Sunday. There are divisions as well between rich and poor, rifts that have begun to exhibit themselves in the celebration of the Lord's Supper. So Paul starts at his center, and appeals to the cross and to the immense and unknowable wisdom of God which appears to human beings as folly. Through the unthinkable execution of an innocent man, God reconciles humanity, ends the cycle of scapegoating and sacrifice at the heart of human religion, and offers an alternative worldview to the Pax Romana, which is to say, peace through victory and forced obedience. Through Christ, and therefore through his followers, human wisdom is overturned, and something new is begun.

At the heart of this faith is Paul's relentless belief in the agape that God is. Time after time in his letters, Paul refers to the kenosis of the logos, that is, that God's "personal, definitive self-expression" emptied self into creation. In a sense, God died, giving up life completely for "other" and yet, God's life is never gone, it is, rather, the fullness of life. As human beings, however, we analogically experience that life-to-death-to-life of God as the paschal mystery. We think of God's utter love and self-abandonment as death; we can't see anything else, and yet, God has nothing to do with death. It is love, complete, unknowable, light-filled, utterly other-oriented, that we mistake for death, because we simply can't conceive of it. We can't conceive of a god so selfless that s/he does not cling to god-ness, but pours it out. This is folly to the Greeks, their philosophers and pantheon. But Paul clings to the idea tenaciously, convinced that, in spite of its folly, it is the heart of the reality of God in Christ to the extent that we can understand it.

Perhaps it is thus that Jesus can call the anawim of the earth makarios, or "blessed," "fortunate," or "happy." Having been through all of those translations, I'm in a place now where I'm happy with "blessed." It's a God-word. It can't be mistaken for a sense of giddiness or good luck. To a world, even to his fellow Jews, that believes that to be "blessed" is to be powerful or wealthy, or healthy or intelligent, Jesus proclaims that blessedness is an invisible joy, a gift that can only originate and get its meaning from God, and that blessedness in this God can only be intuited through a sense of not being possessed by the reign of Caesar. In fact, it might be a bonus to be its enemy, to be among the persecuted and calumniated like the master. The poor, even the poor in spirit, the meek, peacemakers, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, the single-hearted, those who are sorrowful, these are the ones closest to God's own nature, God's poverty, God's loss that is creative for the cosmos. God's self-gift, mirrored in Christ, the image of the invisible God, seems to be, unimaginably, a blessedness that we can only perceive as the emptiness of love, and yet it is the creative force that imagined every universe, and sparked the wild singularity that spawned a trillion suns a nanosecond after time was born. If that's death, if that's poverty, I'll take some of that!

A few years ago (I want to say 2011?) on this Sunday we had a busload of Lutherans with us from southern Illinois, they had driven three hours or more to join us in order that we could, together, commission a woman missionary that our communities were sending to the diocese of Goma, in the Congo, to the village of Nkokwe. We committed to supporting that village for five years, and this little community from southern Illinois has already forwarded her a year's worth of living expenses.

When Jackie Griffin was called to the center of the assembly that morning for a commissioning by us and her Lutheran community to her new work in Nkokwe at Rugari parish (Our Lady of the Rosary), the power of the paschal mystery was palpable. I stood with the rest of the community, and felt the breath sucked from my lungs, nearly weeping in that moment of grace, as this woman, full of life and the gospel imperative, committed herself to a year in a turbulent nation where privation, sickness, political violence, and murder are part of the fabric of daily life. This, I became aware, is the real thing, someone who was, for all intents and purposes, selling everything she had, pouring her life out, and giving it to the poor. This was a moment of agape made visible, and anyone who didn't feel that was just not paying attention. In a spiritual, non-threatening sense we were going with her, but it was her life on the line. By the grace of God she planted a seed of the resurrection in that corner of the world, one that we hope will rebound upon us with its clarity. Jackie is blessed. The people whom she goes to serve are blessed. Somehow, by association in the body of Christ, maybe we too, in our suburban outpost of Caesar's empire, will be blessed by our association with them. Slowly, sometimes unwillingly, we learn the lesson of love's emptiness and the joy that is invisible to the privileged and the powerful.

Here's what we're singing for January 29, the 4th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A.

Entrance: Bring Forth the Kingdom (Haugen)
Psalm 146 "Blessed Are the Poor" (Cooney, verses GIA, unpublished refrain)
Preparation Rite: Beatitudes (Balhoff) or Blessed Are They (Haas)
Communion: Within the Reign of God (Haugen)
Sending Forth: Canticle of the Turning (Cooney)