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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.