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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?