Saturday, September 21, 2019

The Letter of Reference From The Poor

- Fr. Ron Rolheiser, OMI (Oblates of Mary Immaculate
Fr. Ron goes on to say, “The great Jewish prophets, the forerunners of Jesus, coined a mantra which ran something like this: The quality of your faith will be judged by the quality of justice in the land and the quality of justice in the land will be judged by how "widows, orphans and strangers" (biblical code for the poor and most vulnerable groups in society) fared while you were alive.”

Amos (ca.750 BCE) issues a similar warning in Amos 8:4-7: ‘“Hear this, you that trample on the needy, and bring to ruin the poor of the land, saying, "When will the new moon be over so that we may sell grain; and the sabbath, so that we may offer wheat for sale? We will make the ephah small and the shekel great, and practice deceit with false balances, buying the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals, and selling the sweepings of the wheat." The Lord has sworn by the pride of Jacob: Surely, I will never forget any of their deeds.”’

That is, the rich who control commerce in the land are tipping the scales, cheating farmers and other workers, and using the profits to buy Jimmy Choos and Air Jordans, while even packaging the sweepings off the threshing house floor as the next gourmet treat – that is they are cheating the workers, the farmers and the consumers so they might have a Museum of Shoes such as Imelda Marcos had. No letter of reference for them, says Amos. As Jesus promises elsewhere, the Marcos Shoe Collection is today molding and rotting away in storage. Says Amos, the titans of industry and commerce are not getting a letter of reference! Their so-called “deeds” will never be forgotten. We might think of farmers who have lost the Asian markets for their soy beans due to the recent trade wars, auto workers who are seeing one plant after another closed, and coal miners who see one mine after another closed.

It is difficult, due to poor translation, to see that Jesus is making the same points as Amos Fr. Rolheiser in what first appears to be a parable commending dishonesty in business dealings in Luke 16: 1-9. Nothing could be further from the truth of this story.

To be clear, Luke in the gospel, and in his companion volume The Acts of the Apostles, has a major theme: how money, wealth and possessions are and are not to be used in what some call Kingdom Economics. Wealth is toxic if accumulated and hoarded for oneself as in the story of the man who built barns to house all his wealth and possessions only to find his life taken from him just as he celebrates his achievement – by himself (Luke 12:13-21). He has no friends but himself because he has devoted his life to accumulating wealth. The counter-narrative is to redistribute money, wealth and possessions to assist and support those in need – that is money and wealth need to be kept in circulation for the common good of all people, rich and poor alike. The Common Good is a virtue that has long been in decline in our society. Luke-Acts asserts repeatedly that Jesus stands in the tradition of Amos and others who take caring for the poor widows, orphans and strangers as the measure of a just society.

Succinctly put, the Bible asserts that The Empire (Egypt, Babylon, Rome) accumulates power, access and wealth for a few at the expense of the many; while Torah (Genesis-Deuteronomy), The Prophets, The Wisdom Literature and the New Testament Documents all offer the counter-narrative of shared wealth kept in circulation so that it benefits the whole community, not just the few. Luke-Acts advances this Biblical counter-narrative in an atmosphere that has seen the Empire destroy the Jerusalem Temple and all of Israelite culture, accompanied by the severe persecution of the emerging community of Jesus, what would become The Christian Church. The Bible’s strategy concerning wealth is born of faithfulness to the traditions of Scripture, and a strategy for survival against the oppressive, totalitarian machinations of the Empire in any and every era.

Luke 16:1-9 is often referred to as the Parable of the Dishonest Manager/Steward. The first thing one notices in the Greek text is that there is no mention of dishonesty whatsoever. Dishonesty has been added to modern English translations to try to make sense of a strange and offensive sounding parable. The misdirection begins in the opening sentence that says, "There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was squandering his property.” Notice how different it sounds when the corrected text reads, “There was a rich man who had a manager who had been slandered for spreading his property around.” Suddenly, those who are represented as calling the manager’s character into question (bringing “charges” against him) are now revealed to be slanderers – that is they are the ones making dishonest claims. The word regarding “spreading his property around” might indicate squandering, but it most often means sowing seed in a field. That could be wasteful scattering, but it could also be making the rich man’s properties more productive. On the basis of the slander, for which there is no evidence provided, we are told the rich man fires the manager, and demands an accounting.

The manager then goes to tenant farmers who work the rich man’s property. These farmers typically, due to bad growing seasons, often ended up further and further in debt to land owners like the rich man in the story. The manager’s primary job is to collect the rent, tithes and other monies and produce owed to the rich man. This system often extracted unjust sums of money and commodities, ensuring that the farmers become further indebted. Unable to imagine himself becoming a beggar or day laborer, the manager goes to the tenant farmers and reduces the unjust amounts to a more manageable amount – reducing one client’s bill by 20% and another by 50%.

Some have suggested that he is merely reducing the bills by the amount of the commission he legitimately could tack on to the bill – yet, we all would like such a job! Commissions of 20% and 50% are virtually unheard of accept among loan sharks, the mob and drug dealers. Grocery stores often work on margins less than 5%, as do real estate agents. He is reducing what was an unjust amount of rent and other monies due hoping that when he is unemployed the people he has helped to retain more of the fruits of their labor will take care of him when he is in need. He will get a good letter of reference from the poor among the rich man’s tenants. The clue that the amount is reduced is not his commission is revealed in yet another questionable translation when he shows his accounting to the rich man. Reducing the rich man’s excessive accumulation of wealth, itself evidence of injustice, the manager redresses the injustice by that redistribution of wealth called “giving alms.”

In English the conclusion reads, “And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly…And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.” It sounds as if the rich man is commending dishonesty. As already noted, the word “dishonest” does not appear in the Greek text. Instead it ought to read, “And his master commended the manager of unjust wealth because he had acted shrewdly…And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of unjust wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal dwelling places.”

As Sharon Ringe, in her commentary Luke (Westminster Bible Companion) concludes, “As a good manager, then, he has used the very fruits of injustice in the forging of that new community of accountability based on justice that already participates in God’s project or reign.” (p 214) That is, the manager is getting a letter of reference from the poor, and from the rich man! It does not take much time to ponder why the translators and interpreters try to tame this parable.

Luke’s Jesus telling of this odd tale is not urging dishonesty at all. In fact, the story means to call attention to the dishonesty of those who have a monopoly on power, access and wealth. Instead, he is urging the sort of redistribution of wealth and keeping money in circulation for the benefit of the common good of the whole community. In Luke’s second volume, the Book of Acts, he details how the early Christian community pooled their resources and kept wealth and money in circulation to address human need. It was the practice of this counter-narrative over against life in The Empire that propelled the number of believers to grow as we read in chapter 2: “Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.” [Acts 2:43-47]

This story of the “manager of injustice” urges us, like Jesus, to work to end unjust economic practices and begin a modern era of kingdom economics for the common good and survival of the whole community, that is all people. The health and survival of the community, and indeed all of humankind, all creatures great and small, and this ‘fragile Earth our island home,” depends on our hearing  and doing what Jesus and the Prophets urge us to do: to strive for justice and peace for all people, especially the poor widows, orphans and strangers in the land. In addition, every church should be able to get a letter of recommendation from the poor in their community.

Saturday, September 14, 2019

The Wrath of God

Proper 19 C 2019

“The wrath of God is his relentless compassion, pursuing us even when we are at our worst. 
Lord, give us mercy to bear your mercy.” - Maggie Ross [The Fire of Your Life, p 137]

Perhaps it helps us to remember that the fourteenth chapter of Luke concludes, “Let anyone with ears to hear listen!” [14:35] Then we hear, “Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him.” Tax collectors were reviled because in the depressed economy of first century Israel under Roman occupation, some of the people in Israel had taken the only jobs they could find: collecting taxes for the Emperor. For this they were reviled and seen as traitors. As to sinners, well Jeremiah chapter 4 and Psalm 14 pretty well sum things up with phrases such as, “They are skilled in doing evil and do not know how to do good,” “my people are foolish and do not know me,” “The Lord looks down from heaven upon us all, to see if there is any who is wise,
if there is one who seeks after God. Everyone has proved faithless; all alike have turned bad.”

The only comfort in such pronouncements is that we are all in this together! What is interesting in these little parabolic stories in Luke 15 is that some new folks are drawing near “to listen”: the Pharisees and scribes, that is those who most often challenge Jesus to test and sniff out his orthodoxy. They have yet to grasp that we are all in this together and sneer, “This man welcomes ssssssssinnnners and eats with them.” Perhaps Jesus tells these stories as he notices that his simple practice of hospitality toward all persons has attracted a new group of listeners!

A sheep and a coin are lost. Their owners go to great lengths to find them, presumably a shepherd, which were most often men, and a housewife, a woman. Shepherds had particularly nasty reputations and were considered so outside the boundaries of civil life that they were not allowed to testify in legal proceedings. And yet, in Luke’s story of Jesus they are the first to announce, to testify, to the birth of the Christ child!

Going to the heart of these stories, the shepherd and the woman play the part of God. Despite the ongoing angst of some at having to admit it, the Bible frequently depicts God as a woman: as a mother nursing her child, as a mother hen gathering her chicks, and as this woman searching for a lost “sinner.” God is depicted as a woman! And here Jesus tells us what the parables are about: lost sinners are found and God and the angels in heaven rejoice. We might note in both stories the result is the same. Both the shepherd and the woman invite all their neighbors, as in all, everyone without qualification, to “Rejoice with me, for I have found…that which was lost.” There is joy over one sinner who is found than any 99 who have no need for repentance.

There’s the rub. We try to understand the joke implied in Jesus’s conclusion by making confession every Sunday either in the Eucharist or Morning Prayer. But often we are like the scribes and Pharisees who think everyone else but them needs to repent, to turn, turn till they come down right as the Shaker hymn has it.

We can assume Jesus knows who is surrounding him to listen. The scribes and Pharisees are newly interested. They are sneering at the crowd with no understanding whatsoever that they are now a part of the very crowd at which they sneer! Sneering ranks low on the scale of Biblical virtues and high on the scale of sin itself.

There are lessons for all who have ears and listen – really truly listen to what’s going on here. For what we have is a story of God’s unstoppable goodness – God’s unstoppable love and compassion for all people, all creatures and all creation itself. We are to note the great risk the shepherd takes in leaving the 99 in the wilderness while he pursues his search for the one who is lost – because anyone who knows anything at all about sheep, when he gets back they will be as good as gone! Yet, he still throws a party for everyone which no doubt will cost him more than the value of the one sheep he has spent all his energy to find! Perhaps neither the tax collectors or the sinners are lost except in the narrow eyes and stereotyping of the scribes and Pharisees.

Similarly, the woman will have had to set aside all her daily household chores. She disrupts the world of her home, and as extended families tended to live in several attached buildings or tents, the daily life and world of those in her whole family, just to find the one coin that may not in itself cover the cost for the block and neighborhood party she throws to Rejoice!

What these stories are meant to do, by Jesus’s own interpretation, is to contrast the value system of Jesus’s challengers with that of  “heaven” and God and the angels whom Jesus represents. And although the challengers object to the presence of tax collectors and sinners, surely even they would rejoice at one of those who turns, repents and is found.

Given that Jesus says, let those with ears to hear listen, is it too much to presume that the very presence of tax collectors and sinners who come to listen have made a first step in turning, in repenting? We would be remiss not to note that the parables are in part Jesus’s way of responding to the objections of his challengers in such a way that they might listen and hear that there is still room for repentance in their value system to let go of stereotyping others who are not at all like them.

In a world in which such stereotyping and demeaning of others has become the commonplace every day rhetoric of people on all sides of all conflicts, can we place ourselves in this crowd of tax collectors, sinners, Pharisees and scribes and listen to what is being said?

Until we accept that we are all lost how can we ever be found? Because the witness of the Biblical story from Genesis to Revelation is that our God is indeed relentlessly compassionate, pursuing us even when we are at our worst.

To recall and slightly amend the words of Maggie Ross, “Lord, give us mercy to bear and accept your mercy.” For the acceptance of God’s mercy, love and compassion requires us all to turn, to change, to repent of all thoughts and behaviors that stereotype and demean others. For in such turning will be our salvation. And our salvation is a gift from that power that is much greater than we are. And these stories are talking of the salvation of our whole community, the whole world, united in rejoicing that we have all finally turned and abandoned all rhetoric of exclusion!

Thank God for God’s wrath, for one day we will be found.

Saturday, September 7, 2019

By Gracious Powers

I remember it was a bitter, cold day standing amongst the ruins of the Dachau Concentration Camp, the first of many such camps established by the German Nazi regime in 1933 to house political prisoners and those believed to be unfit for life in the glorious White Aryan Third Reich some twenty or so miles outside of Munich. Munichen means “by the monks,” recalling the Benedictine monastery that once stood on the site of this now bustling modern city of innovation, culture and commerce. I was standing outside of a modern Carmelite monastery attached to the outer wall of the Camp, and built under the direction of a survivor of the camp, Dr. Johannes Neuhäusler, one of thousands of clergymen who were sent to Dachau as “enemies of the state” for preaching against the regime – all culture including religion was required to conform to Nazi  White Supremacy ideology.

As I wandered alone from our group which had come from America as a protest to visit the Perlacher Forst in Munich while our President, Ronald Reagan was in Bitburg honoring dead SS Troops buried there. Perlacher is where Sophie Scholl, her brother Hans and other young people who were part of The White Rose, a resistance movement to the Nazi regime, are buried having been executed for their efforts to warn German citizens what was happening. We had met with some White Rose survivors the night before taking the train to Dachau. It was a sobering privilege to be amongst them as we were enacting our feeble little protest of the Bitburg visit by our President. What did they think of a U.S President honoring the very troops who had executed their comrades? As we waited for the train to Dachau I was talking with Ernie Michel, himself a survivor of Auschwitz where he had been interned at age 16. Growing up in Mannheim, his family would visit Munich and he said he could still recall the sickly-sweet stench of burning flesh in the Munich air all the way from Dachau some twenty miles away. Ironically, Munich which had once been the home to Benedictine monks had been declared “The Capital of the Movement.”

As I walked across the vast expanse of now empty space, snow flurries floating in the air, I see a man in a beret on a bicycle making his way toward me over the gravel that now covers much of Dachau. He hails me, stops and begins talking in mixed German and English with wild gesticulations. He had been interned in Dachau as a young man for leading a youth group in his church. Thousands of clergy and church lay people had been held in Dachau, worked to the bone, and many thousands were gassed or shot in groups. He presses a small pamphlet into my hand and rides off into the snow. I imagine he comes here every day to remember. Though liberated in 1945, he still cannot leave. Elie Wiesel, a mentor of mine, writes about our need to pay attention to the mad men and women who really are prophets trying to gain our attention to what is really happening in this world of ours. The Madman of Dachau is one of these.

As I read Luke 14:25-33 over and over this week in which Jesus says, “Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple. For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and estimate the cost…”, all I can think of is Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s book, The Cost of Discipleship. Written in 1937, four years after Dachau  was established, the book was a warning against “cheap grace,” a phrase he had learned while attending church at Adam Clayton Powell Sr’s Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem while at Union Seminary: “Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline. Communion without confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ.” He goes on to write about “costly grace”: “Costly grace confronts us as a gracious call to follow Jesus, it comes as a word of forgiveness to the broken spirit and the contrite heart. It is costly because it compels a man to submit to the yoke of Christ and follow him; it is grace because Jesus says: ‘My yoke is easy and my burden is light.’" The Cost of Discipleship also includes Bonhoeffer’s critique of the Imperial or Triumphant Church’s use of the cross once the Emperor Constantine declared, “In hoc signo vinces” – In This Sign Conquer. Crusaders had the cross emblazoned on their shields as they slaughtered not only Muslims and Jews, but Christians of whom they did not approve across Europe, Jerusalem and the Middle East, making it no longer a sign of sacrifice, service and redemption for the whole world.

Bonhoeffer, a Lutheran Pastor and Theologian, and others in his family, was an outspoken critic of the Nazi regime and its ideology and actions against Jews, invalids, homosexuals, gypsies, immigrants and anyone who dared to challenge White-Aryan Supremacy. While on his second visit to the U.S. he was encouraged by many at the seminary to remain here until things resolved, but he was compelled by his own theology to return to carry the cross and follow Jesus. Like Jesus in Luke whose face was “set toward Jerusalem” to confront the powers of religion and the Roman Empire, Bonhoeffer returned and continued to work in the resistance like the members of the White Rose I had met in Munich. He was eventually arrested, and was executed April 9, 1945, at the Flossenburg concentration camp just days before the camp’s liberation, having paid the cost of discipleship.

As the new year began in 1945, Bonhoeffer sent a letter home to his mother. In it was a poem. The poem speaks directly to the circumstances of both his incarceration and the madness of evil that had taken over what was once perhaps the most cultured and Christian of European nations that had given the world Beethoven, Bach, Goethe, Martin Luther and so many others. His words, like those of Jesus in Luke chapter 14, are both hard in their unflinching realism, and yet at the same time powerfully inspiring for many who have faced tragic circumstances in their own lives and treacherous times in their own countries. Translated by the British Methodist minister and hymnodist F. Pratt Green, and put to music by many, Bonhoeffer’s words of strength and hope in the midst of crisis remain amongst the most powerful words and hymns of the Twentieth Century. Whenever I read or sing them, I recall that day at Dachau, the Madman of Dachau, and the thousands of fellow priests and clergy and church lay leaders whose lives were ended in that place for having carried the cross and followed Jesus.

By gracious powers so wonderfully sheltered,
And confidently waiting come what may,
we know that God is with us night and morning,
and never fails to greet us each new day.

Yet is this heart by its old foe tormented,
Still evil days bring burdens hard to bear;
Oh, give our frightened souls the sure salvation
for which, O Lord, You taught us to prepare.

And when this cup You give is filled to brimming
With bitter suffering, hard to understand,
we take it thankfully and without trembling,
out of so good and so beloved a hand.

Yet when again in this same world You give us
The joy we had, the brightness of Your Sun,
we shall remember all the days we lived through,
and our whole life shall then be Yours alone.

Saturday, August 31, 2019

The Party Starts Now!

Luke 14:1-24 begins with Jesus invited to share a Sabbath meal with a leader of the Pharisees – a group concerned with living life according to Torah, and a group who has been both challenging Jesus and warning him of political opposition to his movement from none other than Herod, Rome’s appointed King of the Jews. Jesus, it turns out, is a most unusual dinner guest. We are told that other invited guests are “watching him closely.” Little wonder. A play in four acts ensues.
 Act One. Right away a man with dropsy, or edema, appears and Jesus immediately challenges his host and the invited guests, the very people who have been challenging his orthodoxy all along the way to Jerusalem: “Is it lawful to cure people on the Sabbath, or not?” Surely, they have heard that he has been healing people on the Sabbath in local synagogues, and the controversies they have sparked. We are told they remain silent. He proceeds to heal the man while saying, “Surely if one of you had a child or ox that has fallen into a well, would you not immediately pull it out on the Sabbath day?” They still have no reply.
Act Two. Jesus notices how the guests are all choosing to sit in places of honor. He chides the guests once again with a parable: Don’t take the most important seat for you might find out that when someone even more distinguished than you arrives you will be asked to give up your seat and retreat to the foot of the table, which will be embarrassing. Rather, sit at the lowest seat in case the host comes and invites you to sit near the head of the table, and you will be honored by all who are present. Then comes the zinger: “For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” Anyone paying attention at this point ought to realize that this is not about First Century Etiquette. It is a warning that a reversal is in store, and life’s rules and behaviors as we know them are due for a change.
Act Three. But, that’s not all. Now he challenges his host with instructions on who to invite and who not to invite. As we may expect, a proper list as Jesus sees it does not include the usual suspects who are already attending this Sabbath meal. “"When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous." Put succinctly, who we choose to spend time with and honor at the meal table has eternal consequences. It becomes more clear that Jesus is not Emily Post, but rather is reshaping what it means to be a people of the God of the Sabbath. Do not presume to think you are the arbiters of what it means to observe Sabbath, or how to honor the Lord God of Creation, the Sabbath and the Passover-Exodus event. The discomfort of his host and guests, and most of us, is becoming palpable.
Act Four. One guest appears to catch on and says, “Blessed is the one who will eat bread in the Kingdom of God.” Guessing that the rest are still scratching their heads at all of this, and asking themselves just why the host has invited this rude guest to share the Sabbath meal in their presence, Jesus tells another parable. Someone gave a dinner and invited many. He sends his slave to each of those invited to proclaim, “Come; for everything is ready now.” But they all have excuses: one has to go and see a piece of land he has just purchased; one has just bought a team of five oxen and is going to try them out; another has just been married, “and therefore I cannot come.” I cannot come to the banquet. The slave reported back to his master the excuses. The master of the house says, “Then go out into the streets and lanes and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame.” The slave does so and says to the master of the house, “I have done this, and still there is more room.” The master then says to the slave, “Go out into the streets and the lanes and compel people to come in, so that my house may be filled. For I tell you, none of those who were invited will taste my dinner.” That last line, “For I tell you…” in Greek is plural – that is the master of the house is addressing everyone, not just the slave. “For I tell y’all, none of those invited will taste my dinner.” The humble will be exalted, the exalted will be humbled; the first will be last and the last will be first; come, for everything is ready now. Now, not later. Not tomorrow. Not next week. Not next year. Not after you are dead and gone. Now, not any time later. There is no time to delay. There are no excuses. Here endeth the reading. The Word of the Lord.
Perhaps one hears echoes of the Song of Mary way back in the first chapter of Luke:
His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.
Or, perhaps echoes of his first sermon in his home town synagogue in Luke chapter 4: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor…Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” Today. Now, not later, but today.
Those first invited were people who owned land, participated in commerce and customs of society on the assumption that those rules might always be counted upon. They learn that for this particular banquette, such socially guaranteed privileges no longer count. On the other hand, the new guests, both urban and country marginalized peoples of all kinds, people with no social position whatsoever, see this invitation as an unexpected gift. What one might call Good News!
The master of the house (house is oikos in Greek, from which we get words like economy [law of the household] and ecology [the study of how to be good stewards of the household]), in this telling can be assumed to be none other than YHWH – whom Moses learned at the burning bush is the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God of hope and promises kept. In this story he addresses all those present, for all have a role to play in bringing everyone, all kinds of people, most especially those who cannot reciprocate, into the banquet feast of the Lord. This whole episode is about the reign of God that begins today with Jesus and those who follow him. It is a story about what is truly holy and appropriate behavior in the Sabbath setting. The healing makes clear that in God’s reign, not ours, not Herod’s, not Caesar’s, that holy times are times for life, health and wholeness that stretch the boundaries of social, civil or religious law. All presumptions of privilege and social status, all business as usual crumbles in the face of the invitation to drop everything that contributes to one’s system of security, and join the party. For those who come it is, is, not will be, but is a splendid feast indeed! [Luke, Sharon Ringe, Westminster Bible Companion, p 199-200]
 Jesus is a most unusual dinner guest indeed. As guest he always becomes the host – and the very bread of the kingdom of God. Who knew one’s behavior at meals and choice of dinner guests has such eternal consequences! Come, for everything is ready now! The reversal begins here!

Saturday, August 24, 2019

Sabbath Work

Sabbath Work
One day is not like another – although relatively recently we have allowed the distinctions to blur. Not long ago, tasks that make life manageable had their day: Monday is for doing the laundry, Tuesday is time to market, Wednesday is for baking, and so on. One thing Christians, Muslims and Jews share in common is that one day of the week is set apart from the rest as Sabbath – the first day of the week for Christians, the sixth day for Muslims and the seventh day for the Jewish people.

For Jesus and his people the command is positive: you are to remember and sanctify the seventh day. It was one of several decisive marks of being a people of God. As slaves in Egypt they had no day off. In Exile in Babylon there was no day off. So, Sabbath is both an argument and a sign of who we are and whose we are. It is a form of resistance against tyranny and oppression of all kinds, be it slavery in Egypt, in Babylon, against the Greek Empire of Antiochus IV, and by the First Century, against the military occupation and subjugation to Rome and its Emperor. It is a day to reset one’s focus and the focus of all the people on God’s promises in the midst of the most unpromising circumstances.

Sabbath time symbolizes release from the yokes of bondage of all kinds. In Luke 13 we meet a woman who has been bound by Satan, and has been bent over for 18 years. Yet, she still makes it to Synagogue to pray, so important is Sabbath time to her. Jesus calls her over and sets her free from her bondage and she immediately stands up and begins to praise God – the God who frees people from slavery, exile and bondage of all kinds.

An argument ensues over what one is or is not allowed to do on the Sabbath. This is normal in the life of the Jewish people, going back at least to that day Abraham went toe-to-toe with God over the impending destruction of Sodom, and Moses arguing with God over whether or not to abandon the misbehaving people in the wilderness after the incident with the Golden Calf. Faithful people owe one another a good strong argument that issues forth in wise decisions – and in this story much rejoicing on the part of all those observing the Sabbath that day!

Jesus argues from the lesser to the greater: if one is allowed to untie an animal and lead it to water on the Sabbath, how much more does this “daughter of Abraham” deserve to be unbound from that which has crippled her for eighteen long years? Besides, this is the one day of the week to remember God’s promises to free all people, as in everyone, from all that yokes them and keeps them in bondage. The argument, of course, is that Sabbath, and all of life, is not to be enslaved to ritual, but to acts of justice and freedom for all people and all of creation itself.

Evidently, Jesus is in good standing, because some 500 years earlier Isaiah chapter 58 had already made similar arguments. One religion professor in my college days began the Introduction to the New Testament course with a study of Isaiah – for without an understanding of Isaiah much of the New Testament makes little sense.

In Isaiah 58:5, the Lord through his prophet Isaiah, first raises questions about fasting: Is it meant to be a series of self-deprecating rituals meant to curry God’s favor? As if we are at all capable of manipulating the Lord God of the Exodus! The answer, of course is a resounding, “No!” Rather, in verse 6 we hear the answer: “Isn’t this the fast that I have chosen: to release the bonds of wickedness, to undo the thongs of the yoke, and to let the oppressed go free, and that you break every yoke; Isn’t it to distribute your bread to the hungry, and that you bring the poor who are cast out to your house? When you see the naked, that you cover him?” Sounds very much like what Jesus is up to, not only on the Sabbath, but every day of the week wherever he is.

Then in verse 9 we get this: “If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil of others, if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday.” Followed by a warning not to pursue your own interests on “my Holy day.” We are to pursue God’s interests: undoing all that yokes people, let the oppressed go free, bring the poor into your house, distribute bread to the hungry, don’t blame others, don’t call others names and speak poorly of them – rather, pursue God’s ways of redemption and release.

Sabbath is meant to embody all of this. Yet, it seems as a nation and a culture we no longer take one day a week to reboot and realign our priorities with those of our God. I can still remember Sundays when stores were closed, movie houses were closed, and people still took one day off to spend with family. They would celebrate and rejoice like the people in our story from Luke. I remember Sandy Koufax taking himself out of the 1965 World Series game one to observe Yom Kippur, a Sabbath Day. But now Sabbath days are days of commerce. Now Sabbath days are days to continue whatever work you did not get done the other six days of the week. Sabbath is a time for ever bigger and better sales. We just cannot afford to take a day off any more. It seems that now one day is just like any other day.

Which would be all right if only. If only we would truly attend to removing the yokes that bind people to overcrowded encampments for immigrants, families and children separated from one another, finding homes for the homeless, medical care for our veterans, providing food for the hungry, providing care and justice for all who suffer sexual abuse and rape, advocating for the rights of women both at home and abroad, putting an end to a culture of blame and the harsh rhetoric that speaks evil things about others, rooting out bigotry of all kinds, including racism, and all kinds of white supremacy and nationalism. When we engage in these sorts of activities every day becomes a Sabbath Day, and once again one day will be like another – attending to the very things the Lord our God promises will result in a world of justice and peace for all people, and dignity for every human being. And who knows? Once every day becomes the kind of Sabbath and Fasting the Lord has chosen we might just find the time to attend to the Earth, our home, our house; for our house is on fire, and the canopy of trees that provides 20% of the oxygen we breathe is in jeopardy of burning to the ground. One would think this would merit our full attention in between all the coming Labor Day and Back To School Sales.

We would do well to note that in Isaiah 58, the Lord God says “if…you stop these things…and attend to the things I choose…the promises of a peaceful world of peaceful people under a peaceful sky will be yours.” It’s hard to argue with that. But then, someone who thought helping someone on the Sabbath argued with Jesus until everyone saw the woman stand up and praise God when all of a sudden, “all his opponents were put to shame; and the entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things that he was doing.” We can either wait for that day, or roll up our sleeves and get to work. Sabbath work! What a shocking idea. No doubt just as shocking as it was 2600 years ago!

Friday, August 9, 2019

Lessons From Kabul

"I think the bicycle has done more to emancipate women than any one thing in the world. I rejoice every time I see a woman ride by on a bike. It gives her a feeling of self-reliance and independence the moment she takes her seat; and away she goes, the picture of
untrammelled womanhood." – Susan B Anthony, 1896
I want to talk about bicycles. But first, we hear Jesus say repeatedly, “Fear not little flock…Do not be afraid…Let not your hearts be troubled.” Then we have three reported mass shootings in one week and reports that people are becoming increasingly afraid to shop, go to school, or even go to church.

A few days later this appears in my Facebook feed from a former student when I was at St Timothy’s School for Girls, Fatima Haidari from Afghanistan: “‘No, I am not really scared. It is Kabul, you never know when it’s your time,’ Abeda, one of our students, said today seconds after the explosion in district-3, Kabul; around 1 mile away from Asef-e-mayel High School where our art module was taking place. “You know something is very very wrong with a city when mass murder is normalized for it’s elementary kids. This picture [of children doing an art project] was taken a few minutes before we had to rush through the broken glass in the school hallway, and me answering back to back calls from horrified parents to assure them their kid survived the explosion. 5th day of STEAM Camp Kabul. [Science Technology Engineering Arts Math]”

Something is very very wrong. Consider, this fall’s collection of student backpacks includes options like bulletproof panels, and mass murder is normalized for elementary, middle school, high school, college kids and adults – especially adults of various specific ethnic and religious groups. It seems impossible not to have troubled hearts until we remember that Jesus says, “Fear not,” amidst equally turbulent and violent life under the military occupation and oppressive rule of Rome. Crucified victims of the Empire lined the roadways as reminders of who is in charge.

So, just how do we move forward without being paralyzed by both the targeted and indiscriminate violence that pervades daily life? The writer of the treatise we call Hebrews in the eleventh chapter points to Faith: “Now faith is the reality of things hoped for, the proof of things not seen.” The text goes on to highlight a long list of people like Abel, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Sampson, David, the prophets among them – all of whom faced violence, catastrophe and trouble; all of whom had the vision to press forward toward the promise of a better future, a more just future, a safer and more secure future in God’s promise. Now what is missing, of course, in the eleventh chapter of Hebrews are the names of women of faith who are many: Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, Leah, Miriam, Ruth, Mary….and the list can go on and on. In the midst of our nation’s current pandemic of violence and ongoing violence in places like Afghanistan, my faith is shored-up and strengthened to hear that one of Fatima’s young students can live out exactly what Jesus is talking about and say, “No, I’m not really scared…you never know when it is your time.” This is the kind of faith Hebrews means to commend.   [David Steindl-Rast, OSB, reminds us that sundials in old monasteries bore one of two inscriptions: memento mori, or memento vivere – remember you will die/remember to live – and that there is really no difference between these two admonitions. In Speaking of Silence, Paulist Press, p. 24]

For faith is not some kind of personal internal belief. It is not a platitude about belief, but a highly provocative claim that faith itself moves in the direction of the realization of those things that are presently beyond demonstration. Like the young student in Kabul, we all know the end-game. Faith is the choice to continue to live despite our known end, and despite all current circumstances. Hebrews asserts that in faith those of us whom Jesus tells to “Fear Not” already anticipate the final outcome, the final reality of the very vision of life lived as God calls us to live: loving God and loving neighbor – which means justice and peace for all people and respecting the dignity of every human being.

As I read Fatima’s report about life in Kabul I had two thoughts. One was that presently we all live in Kabul – we all increasingly face similar if not the same circumstances. I also recalled an earlier episode in Fatima’s life. While home one summer she recalled how much fun it was as a child to ride her bike. As she got older the Taliban had restricted women from most modes of transportation, and even required them to remain in the home. After Taliban rule was suspended things improved, but women riding bicycles is still rare. With help and support from Girl Up, a group from the UN Foundation that advocates for girls around the world, Fatima began a girl’s cycling club. It is not uncommon for a woman to be taunted and scolded for riding a bicycle in public in Kabul, but Fatima believed that it would be freeing and empowering to have a once a week bicycle ride through the city. But it is about more than biking. “We're trying to push women to have equal presence in society, and biking is just part of it,” she says.

Now twenty girls strong, they ride through the streets together. There have been incidents, like the time one girl was pushed off her bike – in front of the Ministry of Education. Recalls Fatima, “It was right in front of the Ministry of Education, where there were guards. And they didn't do anything! The Ministry of Education is supposed to inform people about human rights and that women should use their freedom. But the guards were just staring. It was really ironic that there was nobody to protect us — or at least to call the person out.”

The next week, however was different. “On our second group bike ride in Darlaman, an old man stopped us. To be honest, all of us were scared, but he told us: ‘You girls raise Afghanistan’s flag. Foreigners will change their minds about Afghanistan when they see you biking around. Let me tell you something, I am in charge of that park right there and I am not allowed to let bicycles inside, but today is a good day, and I am proud of you so I can make an exception!’”

Now faith is the reality of things hoped for, the proof of things not seen. Here is an example of such faith when an 18 year-old girl could see the future for herself, for other women and for her country. “I hope one day the domination of one sex in an activity stops, because a society really develops when both men and women can participate in all the activities. If bike riding for girls is not acceptable for people, it means we have a long way to civilization. Let girls bike, and civilization will be right in front of our doors.”

Fatima and her friends illustrate what Jesus and his disciples understood “Fear Not” to mean. There will be obstacles along the way, but to enter into a life of faith is to live the reality you know to be just and true. Walter Rauschenbusch, in a little book The Social Principles of Jesus, wrote in 1916, “Faith does not ‘believe.’ Faith is that quality of vision of those among us who have the power of projection into the future. Faith is the quality of mind which sees things before they are visible, which acts on ideals before they are realities, and which feels the distant kingdom of God to be more dear, substantial and attractive than the edible profitable present.” Fatima Haidari, Malala Yousafzai, Dorothy Day, Mother Theresa, Toni Morrison, Rosa Parks and countless numbers of women demonstrate what faith looks like amidst the challenges facing us all – like teaching or riding your bike in Kabul. At the end of the day, it looks as if we all live in Kabul.

Sunday morning I will be baptizing another little girl into the faith we live and share. It is a moment in time in which we recall what it means to be a person of faith. We will pledge to support her in her life in faith. If we are fearless in our support perhaps one day she may model for us how to be faithful under the most challenging and difficult of circumstances. Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father's good pleasure to give you the kingdom – a future of justice and peace for all people, everywhere, all the time.  
Biking On The Streets of Kabul, by Fatima Haidari

Saturday, August 3, 2019

Breathe In, Breathe Out

Qoheleth [Koe hell’ eth]. This is the Hebrew name of the book commonly known as Ecclesiastes, which begins with the familiar words, “Vanity of vanities, says Qoheleth, vanity of vanities! All is vanity and striving/chasing after wind.”.” This becomes a refrain repeated seven times throughout the book. The idea is that of utter futility in this life, in this place. We are consumed with the busyness and business of life, we die, and others we do not even know enjoy the fruits of our labor. “All things (or, Words) are wearisome, more than one can express…” [1:8] At one time or another we all feel this way: All is futility and a striving after wind. A somewhat pessimistic, or at best Stoic, worldview.

Look what happens, however, if we get radical, which simply means getting to the root of things. The Hebrew word hebel translated “vanity,” or “futility,” at its root means “vapor” or “breath.” And the word translated as “wind,” ruach, also is often rendered as breath or spirit. Ruach is one of the first words in the Bible appearing in the creation story of Genesis 1:2, “…while the Spirit-Breath of G_d swept over the face of the waters.” Much later in the gospel of John, chapter 3, Jesus points out to the seeker Nicodemus that this spirit-breath of G_d is like the wind, it comes from we know not where, and goes where it will, animating and giving life to all things.

So, what happens when we render the text as, “Vapor, nothing but vapor and striving after the spirit-breath of G_d.”? Or, “Breath, nothing but breath and striving after Spirit.”? There then seems to be a double entendre rooted in the text urging the listener to guard against hubris and futility, and also honor the mystery of life, the mystery of the spirit, the mystery of creation and its creator!

For amongst the endless lists of seeming human suffering and futility are buried little gems such as found in chapter 11 verse 5, “As you know not what is the way, the path of the spirit, nor how the bones do grow in the womb of her that is with child: even so you know not the works of God who makes all.” Who makes all. All. As in everything from the largest of nuclear blast-furnace stars to the tiniest speck of dust, quark, gluon and Higgs boson! We like to think we know it all, how this all works. We fashion it all into working hypotheses, formulas, beautiful equations, which works up to a point until we hit the wall as we realize there must be at least one more variable, one more detail, one elusive mechanism that would help us describe it all. Qoheleth means to remind us of how little we really know and the importance instead of enjoying the very things which are given to us, “There is nothing better for mortals than to eat and drink and find enjoyment in their toil. This also, I saw, is from the hand of G_d; for apart from him who can eat or who can have enjoyment? For to the one who pleases him G_d gives wisdom and knowledge and joy; but to the sinner he gives the work of gathering and heaping, only to give to one who pleases G_d. This also is vanity and chasing after wind.” [2:24-26] Or, is it, This also is breath and walking in the way of G_d’s animating spirit!

Sticking with our radical understanding of the text, sin or sinner is an ancient archery term for “one who misses the mark or target.” That is, one who misses what life is really all about – where we come from, where we are going, and what we are to be doing in the meantime. In the creation story in Genesis 2 we find G_d taking up a handful of moist soil to create the first creature, the first person, giving it life, animating this person, by breathing into its nostrils. Anyone who has witnessed the birth of a child will recognize that first grasp of breath coming in and breath going out. It is believed by some that the unspeakable name of the G_d of Genesis 2, YHWH, mimics that sound of the animating breath of life coming in and going out. Which suggests that the first word we say when we are born is the name of G_d, and last word we say when like the wind we return to whence we came is name of G_d. That is, there is no Christian, Buddhist, Muslim, Taoist or Confucian way of breathing. No African, European, Asian, American way of breathing. We have all strive after the same breath, the same spirit from the moment we are born to the day we die. Which is why taking time to just sit and breathe is the most universal form of spiritual practice – contemplative prayer, mindfulness, call it what we will – we can all do it. No one has a lock on it. It is what gives us life. A gift. The gift really. We miss the mark when we do not stop to acknowledge this.

Like the man Jesus describes in Luke chapter 12:13-21. A brother approaches Jesus and asks him to settle their father’s estate. Keep in mind that “father” means something special to Jesus, it is his name for the animating force of life. He tells them that he is not a probate judge, but I would be happy to tell you a story about the fact that life is not about greed, or the abundance of possessions. The land of a rich man produces abundantly He works hard. He thinks to himself, “Self, we have lots of produce! What should we do? My barns are not big enough to store it all for my self and my future. I know! I’ll tear them down and build bigger barns. Which he does! Then he says to himself, “Self! We have done it. We have set up provisions for years to come!” Then, sounding a bit like Qoheleth, “Now we can relax, eat, drink and be merry!” A voice from offstage, however, says, “Self? You ain’t no self. You are a fool. This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?” So, it is, he concludes, with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward G_d – the way of spirit-breath.  

Futility, all is futility and chasing after wind! Or, breath, all is breath and striving to walk the path of the spirit. G_d breathes into us, we breathe out. Breathe in, breathe out. “On this model,” writes Richard Swanson in his book Provoking the Gospel of Luke, “every time a person (living creature) breathes in, G_d re-does creation….every time a person breathes out, G_d’s act of sharing life is imitated. Breathe in, receive life from G_d, breathe out, share life with G_d’s creation. This is a powerful image of what it means to be part of God’s creation. On this model, the farmer has only mastered the first half of human-being. He can breathe in, but he cannot breathe out. If he follows this plan long enough, he will explode!” [Swanson p 174-175] Or, as Qoheleth puts it, “The lover of money will not be satisfied; nor the lover of wealth with gain. This too is vapor, nothing but vapor!” [5:10]

How does one master what it means to be a human-being. Our texts suggest this involves some equal measure of eschewing hubris and accepting and preserving the divine mystery of all. And all traditions suggest taking time-out to simply Be – to do nothing more than breathe in and breathe out. Evelyn Underhill in her little book, The Spiritual Life, writes: “We mostly spend our lives conjugating three verbs: to Want, to Have, and to Do. Craving, clutching, and fussing, on the material, political, social, emotional, intellectual – even on the religious – plane, we are kept in perpetual unrest: forgetting that none of these verbs have any ultimate significance, except so far as they are transcended by and included in, the fundamental verb, to Be: and that Being, not wanting, having and doing, is the essence of a spiritual life.” [p 20]

The essence of Being is to breathe – breathe in and breathe out. Not wanting, having, accumulating and storing up all you can, but to share life with G_d’s people and all creation. To only breathe in is not to be human. Breathing in takes life; breathing out gives live – the life of G_d’s spirit-breath. Life, say Jesus and Qoheleth, is short – and too important to keep to oneself. Otherwise you end up all alone like the farmer in the story. To do so results in no self at all. Breathe. Breath, nothing but breath and striving after Spirit! Chase after G_d’s spirit-breath, not after vapor and wind.