Saturday, October 19, 2019

Faith and Law

Emunah and Halakhah
Walking on his way to Jerusalem, Jesus tells another story, about a widow demanding justice from a judge. He says it is about prayer, but quickly it becomes about faith and justice. It ends asking, When the Son of Man appears, will he find faith on earth? [Luke 18-8] The Hebrew word for faith is אמונה, emunah, and is an action-oriented word meaning "support". This is important because the Western concept of faith places the action on the one you have faith in, such as "faith in God". But, the Hebrew word emunah places the responsibility of action on those of us who "support God". When the Israelites find themselves embattled with a foe, as long as Moses holds his hands up, they prevail. When he tires and lets them down, they lose ground. Eventually, two of the Israelites find a rock for him to sit on, and then each of them hold up one of his arms. This is emunah. This is what faith looks like in the Bible: supporting and assisting others. All others.

As in we are to support and to love our neighbor, especially widows, orphans and the alien who lives among us – we are to provide them with daily bread. We are to give them a place to stay. We are to provide safety for them. And, “When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God. [Leviticus 19:33-34] That is, true faith is striving for justice and peace for all people, loving your neighbor as yourself. And remembering where we come from and who saved us.

That is, we are to live according to the laws of the God of Israel: the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Jesus. This is called הֲלָכָה, halakhah – which is often translated as Judeo-Christian Law, but literally means “the path one walks.” The basic Biblical understanding of faith has nothing to do with what comes out of our mouths, what we say and believe. People are willing to say all kinds of things, and confess all sorts of beliefs, but it is our actions that matter in the world God creates for us, for all people and all creatures. In fact, halakhah demands that in addition to observing sabbath, praying at least twice a day, what to do when we wake up and go to bed, most important of all is the love we are to have for all other people and all creatures. Halakhah insists that neither people nor animals are to be mistreated. Neither God nor people look at what comes out of our mouths, but watch where our feet take us to provide justice for all people, all creatures and this fragile island home, the Earth. We are to walk the walk.

So, as we read that a widow comes to a judge asking for justice, [Luke 18:1-8] we immediately recall she represents a special protected class of people without resources. We are not told who her opponent is, nor what sort of justice she desires, but we do know that to live a life of faith, of halakha, it has to do with someone being required to do something that will improve her life. The judge we are told neither cares for God, nor does he care for people. We might say he is a secular rationalist. He does not reverence God, nor does he walk in God’s ways, and he does not follow human opinion polls, but rather does his job as he sees fit – which in some ways may make him an impartial and just judge.

Yet, he betrays his lack of concern for people in that he does care about his reputation. For when the text says that due to her persistence she will “wear him out,” the word literally means to “give him a black eye.” That is, his reputation will suffer if he does not grant her justice as understood in the halakhah YHWH has commanded. He will lose both his reputation and his privileged place in the community. The story is about faith, emunah, and that faith means doing justice, doing love of neighbor, including love of widows, orphans and resident aliens. This was summed up neatly by the prophet Micah approximately 700 years before the time of Jesus: “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?

Granted, the judge in the story is not particularly humble, but he does do what is required whether or not he regards the teachings of halakhah. Jesus’s question, “When the Son of Man returns will he find faith on earth?” it means he expects to find anyone who claims to be walking in his way to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God. That is, emunah, or faith, is the sum of our actions on behalf of God and of others – all others. There is no neutral stance – faith is action, action is faith. It is also true that prayer is action, and action is prayer.

This is true even among the most mundane things that we do, e.g. wash our hands, do the dishes, share a meal with others, observe sabbath. When everything we do is for God and for others, there is justice for all, and that is the sign that we are faithful people. This attentiveness to what we do is what Tich Nhat Hanh calls being mindful of every little thing we do. We are to remember that it is not about having faith “in God, and that God will do something for us,” but rather that the word emunah requires action from those of us who support God, support others, and walk on the path of God’s ways, God’s halakhah. It’s about being mindful of what we do.

That is, we are those people who speak God’s truth to Power, and are the hands and feet of God in this world. Bishop Desmond Tutu spoke of the life of faith as not remaining neutral and doing nothing in the face of injustice and the falseness of this world. Those who suffer are not at all impressed by our neutrality. The recently deceased  Congressman Elijah Cummings, my representative in the United States Congress, summed this up earlier this year commenting on the risk, pain, sacrifice and suffering Michael Cohen had undertaken by testifying before the House Oversight Committee: “When we’re dancing with the angels, the question we’ll be asked is: In 2019, what did we do to make sure we kept our democracy intact? Did we stand on the sidelines and say and do nothing?”

This parable of Jesus declares a resounding, “No!” Jesus expects to see those of us who call ourselves Christians, whose faith means to walk the path he walked to Jerusalem and do the things that faith calls us to do on behalf of others, not standing on the side lines, but engaged in actions that declare that our hope and our faith is that the falseness of this world is ultimately bounded by a greater truth. And that acts of faith, hope, justice and charity are the very essence of what it means to be human, created in the image of God. Female and male, God creates us in God’s own image which is that of a God who loves, gives and is merciful.

As the Old Testament declares repeatedly, “The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness.” [Exodus 34:6] This is the God Jesus knows. The God who has faith in us to walk in his way. Jesus walks in the way of this God, in the ways of emunah and halakhah. In this little parable, Jesus urges us to be persistent in having the kind of faith that continually is acting on behalf of God and of others. So that when we are dancing with the angels there will be no question that we are not those people who live their lives on the side lines, but that we are those who walk in the way of the Lord. The question remains, When the Son of man comes will he find faith on earth?

Saturday, October 5, 2019

Faith Is A Verb

Faith Is A Verb
The apostles said to the Lord, "Increase our faith!" (insert a still audible,”Sighhhhhhh…” before he answers): "If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, `Be uprooted and planted in the sea,' and it would obey you. – Luke 17:5-6 The disciples want more faith. As if faith is a commodity. As if faith is quantifiable. According to Jesus, just the tiniest bit of faith is enough. Mustard seeds are tiny – and yet, that seed can grow into a tree of anywhere from six to thirty feet tall under ideal conditions!

Faith is best understood as a verb, not a noun. Or, suggests Fredrick Buechner, more as a process than a possession. “It is on-again-off-again rather than once-and-for-all. Faith is not being sure where you’re going but going anyway. A journey without maps. Tillich said that doubt is not the opposite of faith; it is an element of faith.” And as to doubt Buechner writes, “Whether your faith is that there is a God or that there is not a God, if you don’t have any doubts you are either kidding yourself or asleep. Doubts are the ants in the pants of faith. They keep it awake and moving.” [Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC, Frederick Buechner, Harper&Row, pp 20&25]

Faith, then, has at least two dimensions: 1) This first dimension, as Hebrews has it, is our assurance or trust in things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. And we know that the vast majority of creation, the universe, remains unseen; and 2) To act and to live in ways that sustain the hope that the falseness of this world is ultimately bounded by a greater truth and light despite the fact that the world rarely provides much evidence that such hope is justified. [Stanley Hauerwas, A Community of Character]

Faith throughout the Bible means something like holding up or supporting others when they are weary or in need – even when we may be exhausted ourselves. It also can mean allowing others to support and hold us up – especially when we are exhausted or losing our faith.

While reading the Sports section of the Baltimore Sun the other morning (Thursday, October 3, 2019) Peter Schmuck described what was undoubtedly the best thing that happened at M&T Bank Stadium last Sunday: the celebration of O.J. Brigance’s 50th Birthday. Brigance was on the Ravens 2001 Super Bowl winning team and had a 13-year NFL career. In 2007 he was diagnosed with ALS, aka Lou Gehrig’s Disease. Yet, he remains with the organization as a senior adviser for player development. And he, and his wife Chanda have founded the Brigance Brigade Foundation to help victims and families of victims of the disease deal with the impact of ALS on their lives. The day Brigance was diagnosed, he and Chanda fell to the floor in the kitchen racked with tears and uncertainty. “Through their faith, O.J. and Chanda knew they would be OK and their attention turned to others in need. The Brigances chose to be a beacon of light for those affected — to show you can remain positive, continue to love and continue to feel the blessings of the life you were given, no matter the circumstances.” [Schmuck, ibid]

As 60,000 fans sang happy birthday to him, Brigance broke out in a big smile that lit up the entire stadium. Thanks to AAC (augmentative alternative communication) devices and Tobii Eye Trackers, people with ALS (PALS) can speak. And after the singing OJ addressed the crowd: “It’s an honor to be considered an inspiration, but we began this whole journey to help those that are walking the same journey. We have focused on how we can be a blessing to others, instead of focusing purely on what is happening with us. The opportunity to establish a lasting legacy of hope is something that we are very proud of. One of our greatest joys comes when someone shares how our actions or words have encouraged them in their lives.” [Ibid]

Brigance is not alone in living his life of faith despite ALS. A long-time friend in Maine, Sue Gawler, a Botanist and Regional Vegetation Ecologist at NatureServe, succumbed to the disease a little over four years ago. After not having seen her for many years, she began to communicate with me on Facebook, responding to my posted sermons. As a scientist she was also a person of deep faith, and like Brigance, she also possessed an irrepressible 50,000 Watt smile. It was a low time in my life, and I was constantly buoyed by her positive spirit as we ‘discussed’ the intersections of science and religion. As her ALS progressed, she eventually got an AAC device and Tobii Eye Tracker. She kept up with the world and all her friends who, like myself, felt supported by her while we tried our best to support her. Our FaceBook conversations helped to get me through some of my darkest times. While in Maine conducting a memorial service for a musician friend of some nearly 50 years, I called her brother John to see if I could visit. Alas, she had just gone down for a nap, but Kirk Jr, my friend of 50 plus years John Koehler and I, did stop in Belgrade Lakes, Maine, to talk with John. “It’s the darndest thing,” said her brother, “but despite everything else, her smile remains even on the most difficult days. It just continues to shine all the time. Those face muscles have just been trained to do nothing but smile.”

Sue posted this on her 60th birthday: “What a fantabulous 60th birthday I had last Friday,,! First,, all the wonderful posts from you, my fb friends.... I read them all, and sent love to each of you as I did; I'm sorry not to have the eye strength to Like each one.” The day after she died her sister posted this, “Able to say goodbye to my darling sister today. What a beautiful inspiration she has been to us all! She wanted to die peacefully, and that's what she accomplished. Right up until the end, she managed it all with such wisdom, and with exquisite compassion for her loved ones. And now . . . Radiating loving-kindness over the entire world . . .Meg Gawler”

Recently, another friend, Robert Benjamin, has been diagnosed with ALS. Bob and I were religion majors and studied Hebrew together in college. We have kept in touch throughout the years, with Bob usually calling me with a theological or Biblical question. I was devastated to learn of his diagnosis, but that devastation is turned to wonder when I talk to him on the phone, which is difficult for him, and when I visited him last May. Bob is Jewish and in a continuing care center. He joined a Christian Bible Study group there to continue his faith journey, and has become one of the leaders in the group. He also heard of a woman who missed her Catholic Mass on the Sundays there was no visiting priest. Bob said, “Let’s you and I have time together on those Sundays and worship together.” He told me that since he has accepted his diagnosis, he has found a whole new purpose in life beyond his career at Goldman Sachs. He lives his faith through supporting the faith of others – all others, no matter how their faith may differ from his. As I traveled around the facility with Bob in his motorized chair, the greetings and smiles from everyone we passed in the halls were testimony to the positive power of Bob’s witness to his faith. Like OJ and Sue, Bob lives his faith in action.

These stories of faith, I believe, illustrate what Jesus was telling his disciples. There is no quantity to faith, only quality. And there is only quality in faith when you live it, share it and give it away. For that is what is meant by the Bible’s instruction, to love one’s neighbor, whoever it may be. The falseness of this world is bounded by greater truth and light thanks to people like OJ Brigance, Sue Gawler and Bob Benjamin. A mustard seeds bit of faith does change lives.  

Saturday, September 28, 2019

When Will We?

When Will We?
As I have pondered the parable of Lazarus and The Rich Man [Luke 16:19-31 I am constantly reminded how easy it is to forget how this story, the story of God, God’s creation and God’s people, begins. In chapter one of Genesis we are created, female and male, imago Dei, in the image of God. Further, as a collective all of us, not some of us, a few of us, or even a lot of us, but all of us are tasked to be stewards, caretakers, of all of the earth, all its creatures, and one another. From the outset things go wrong, so wrong that God is pictured walking through the Garden in the cool of the evening calling out to us, “Where are you?” That is, we tend to fix a divide between ourselves and God, and between ourselves and one another.

The counter narrative does not take long to begin. In chapter four of Genesis, after a fit of anger and jealousy results in Cain killing his brother Abel, the Lord again asks, “Where is Abel your brother?” Cain replies in words that have replaced all notions of ‘the common good’ among nations and individuals, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” From there on out, from Genesis through The Revelation of John the answer is, “Yes, yes you are your sister’s and your brother’s keeper.” For as Richard Swanson reminds us, this is what makes us human at all: that we care for the earth and we care for one another. The most basic characteristic of being human is to respond, or what we call responsibility – the ability to respond. As the Psalmist sings, “The earth is the Lord’s, and everything therein.” [Psalm 24:1] Any worldview that denies this then lives out of a worldview that believes it’s “every man for himself,” which results in a world of endless violence.

The world, writes Swanson, has always been an intricate web and an interdependence of need and ability. “We respond to each other; that is what makes us, together, human. If we sever that link of responsibility [like the chasm that separates the Rich Man from Lazarus in life and in death], we become something less than human. These days we have instituted governmental programs to act out our responsibilities to each other. We have also trained ourselves to resent the taxes that fund those programs. It should be noted in passing that this resentment amounts to a wish to sever the links of responsibility and, as such, represents a threat to our humanity, our ability to live together in [and with] God’s creation.” [Provoking the Gospel of Luke, Swanson, p.203] This applies to communities, states and nations as it does to society as a whole.

In the story, although he passes by poor Lazarus, covered with sores, every time he exits or enters his house, the Rich Man has maintained a chasm, a divide, between his life and that of Lazarus, despite everything in the Law of Moses (Torah – Genesis-Deuteronomy) and the Prophets urges and even requires love of neighbor – and neighbors are to include poor widows, orphans, and strangers in the land, i.e. all those who for whatever reason are without resources to care for themselves. The word “love” in these texts does not mean telling them “to pull yourself up by your own bootstraps,” but rather to provide material assistance. Period. For whatever reason, the Rich Man, who has no name in the story perhaps to represent an entire class of rich persons, cannot even bring himself to send a plate of leftovers out to Lazarus who desires only the crumbs under the table. Only the dogs in the street reach out to comfort poor Lazarus. The Rich Man does not even possess the compassion of a dog. What a sad man.

Amos, who preached some 750 years before Jesus tells this story, issued a warning to “those who are at ease…who lie on beds of ivory and lounge on their couches…who drink wine from bowls,
and anoint themselves with the finest oils, but are not grieved over the ruin of Joseph! Therefore, they shall now be the first to go into exile, and the revelry of the loungers shall pass away.”

The “ruin of Joseph” addresses the plight of the whole nation, not an individual. Corporate responsibility for the whole nation and all those who dwell therein. We forget that we are our sister’s and brother’s keeper at great peril, as the Rich Man finds out all too soon. Lazarus dies. So does the Rich Man. There is a reversal. Lazarus ends up in the lap of Father Abraham, the Rich Man finds himself in Hades, tormented, and cries out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.' Despite his tormented state, he still thinks he is a Rich Man who can order people like Lazarus to do his bidding. Abraham points out it is too late. Although their situations are reversed, the chasm between them remains. Still not concerned with anyone but himself and his own family, the Rich Man wants Abraham to order Lazarus to warn his family, his five brothers.

This is where the story becomes interesting. “They have Moses and the Prophets, just as you had. They should listen to them.” That is, let them read and live out of the covenant I made through Moses, and the warnings of my Prophets like Amos to return to my covenant of Love for all people, especially those in need. The Rich Man pleads to send Lazarus, “one from the dead” to warn them. In case we did not listen the first time, the story ends as Abraham repeats, `If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.' That is, the covenant of Love with Israel is the covenant of Love Jesus preaches and lives. Jesus is calling for a return to the beginning. A return to the common good of all people, the earth, and everything therein. A return, a “repentance,” to putting the world right-side-up again. A call to Tikkun Olam – Repair of the World. The whole world and everything within.

For, as Sister Catherine Nerney, SSJ, illustrates in her book, The Compassion Connection: Recovering Our Original Oneness: “The whole thing is one, just at different stages, all of it loved corporately by God (and, one hopes, by us). Within this worldview, we are saved not by being privately perfect, but by being “part of the body,” humble links in the great chain of history. This view echoes the biblical concept of a covenant love that was granted to the Jewish people as a whole, and never just to one individual like Abraham, Sarah, Moses, Esther, or David. Similarly, the prophets and Jesus spoke both their judgments and their promises to the collective of the House of Jacob, Moab, Bashan, Gilgal, Capernaum, Bethsaida, Jerusalem (and on and on) much more than they ever did to individuals. Many Christians’ failure to recognize this has led to a major misinterpretation of the entire Bible.” [p 12-13]

That is, we are all in this together. The warnings have been in front of us all along. The love of neighbor has always been there. Alms giving and tithing for the common good has always been there. As Amy-Jill Levine concludes in her commentary on this parable, the problem is not the message; the problem is that people don’t listen. Or, sadly, just don’t care. She concludes, “Ironically, what the Rich Man asked Lazarus to do – to warn his brothers of the threat of hell – the parable does for [its] readers. Will the five brothers, who may hear Torah’s insistence that they ‘love the neighbor’ and ‘love the stranger,’ listen? We do not know. Will we?”
[Short stories by Jesus, Harper One, Amy-Jill Levine, p 294,296]

PS “The Gospel is less about how to get into The Kingdom of Heaven after you die, and more about how to live in The Kingdom of Heaven before you die.” – Dallas Willard

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!