Saturday, December 28, 2019

Things Used To Make Sense

Traditionally John chapter one is read on Christmas Day. Verse one of John goes like this: En arche en ho logos, kai ho logos pros ton en theos, kai theos en ho logos. Which we usually render: In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and God was the Word.

Without getting too deep into the intricacies of translation, however, we might focus on three words: en, the imperfect tense of the verb eimi, or to be; theos, which is one of the names used for God in the Greek; and logos, which can mean word, story or logical rationality.

Starting with theos – this is the translation of the Hebrew Elohim, which is the name used for God understood as Justice: so Theos is used to describe a God who acts to restore justice, seek retribution, or to punish wrongdoing.

As for the imperfect of eimi, this is sometimes best rendered as “what used to be the case”; an ongoing action in the past, or an incomplete action in the past.

Richard Swanson in his book, Provoking the Gospel of John. suggests one possible translation, assuming that en refers to a state that used to exist, and logos is logical rationality, we might end up translating the beginning of John something like, “Things used to make sense, and what made sense used to be Justice, and Justice was what used to make sense.”

We might say John is referring to some sort of social-religio-political vertigo – things just are not the same as they once were. Which was certainly the case when the fourth gospel was written. We note that John, like Mark, has no Christmas story like Luke and Matthew. John looks at the current situation – the time between two failed revolts against the Roman occupation in which Jerusalem lies in ruins, the people of Israel are scattered, and there are only a few people returned to live in Jerusalem, understood as the center of the universe. Since that time the Jewish people have primarily lived in diaspora, a word meaning anywhere but Israel. The world had been turned upside down, and this is the world into which we encounter Jesus for the first time as a fully developed adult person. A person who represents the logical-rational world we once knew – ruled by a Just God, a God of Justice.

Is it a stretch to say that we live in just such a world? I am currently reading a book of poems about the tsunami and nuclear reactor meltdown in Japan, another on being Latino in America, and a book of essays of what it is like to be African or African descent and living in America. A young woman spent several weeks in our country calling our attention to the effects of climate change as wild fires rage in Australia in the southern hemisphere, and above the arctic circle in the northern hemisphere. All the while I find myself, the son of an Army veteran who served n WWII and during the “Korean Conflict” in efforts to bring about “world peace,” and yet have lived my entire lifetime with the US involved in a seemingly never-ending series of wars and armed conflicts. As I was driving into Georgetown this week-end I passed an entire homeless tent city in a highway underpass. Not long ago we rejoiced and danced in the streets when the Berlin Wall was torn down, now we are hell-bent on building a wall on our southern border. Needless to say, there is more that connects our time on this earth to the time that John was writing than there are differences.

Yet, this is the world that John writes that God as Justice chooses to live in, or more correctly, in which to dwell – which literally means “to tent,” recalling the forty years after the Passover-Exodus, thereby connecting Jesus to the long and complicated time-line of the Jewish people. That is, God as Theos, as Justice, comes to shine the light of Justice into the dark corners of John’s world to give us one more chance to be the people we are called to be – born to be.

There can be no denying that if things ever “used to make sense,” they sure do not make much sense now just as they did not seem to make sense back then. Given the shape of the world then and now, why on earth would God-Theos want to tent among us?

A poet of our own time also struggles to get it just right. Madeliene L’Engle in her book Winter Song, offers another vision of Christmas. She wonders just how or why this God-Theos or Logos-Word would choose to tent among us in a world in which words like evil, hate, enmity, fear, aggression, war, nuclear weapons, cloning, murder, and darkness seem to be the daily coin of the realm.

This is no time for a child to be born
With the earth betrayed by war and hate
And nova lighting the sky to warn
That time runs out and sun burns late.

That was no time for a child to be born,
In a land in the crushing grip of Rome;
Honor and truth were trampled by scorn –
Yet here did the Saviour make his home.

When is the time for love to be born?
The inn is full on the planet earth,
And by greed and pride the sky is torn –
Yet love still takes the risk at birth.

If we close our eyes and listen to the poets, John and L’Engle, we can catch a glimpse of the light that shines in the darkness and which the darkness has not overcome. We can catch a glimpse of the Logos-Word tenting among us as risky and unlikely as that seems.

Why? Because it is time. It is time for the Christ to be born in our hearts and minds. It is time for us to see the Light – the light that reveals Justice. In catching a glimpse of this light perhaps a bit of our darkness is dispelled, and we are drawn ever closer to the Light, to the Theos of Justice, to the Logos-Word, and suddenly the world makes a little more sense than it did a week ago, or a month ago, or years and years ago.

Just a glimpse is all that we need. Perhaps it is all that we are given.

But it is enough. More than enough to dispel a little of our present darkness and draw us ever closer to the light, the true light, which even now is coming into the world. And for this may we quietly in the stillness of John’s cosmic nativity give thanks. Amen.

Monday, December 23, 2019

Be Vigilant, He's Coming!

Be Vigilant, He’s Coming
That was the header on the email sent by this year’s Christmas Angel. As I sat in my writing-chair, scanning my email, pondering just what I have left to say about Christmas that has not already been said, I was watching our dog, Bella, standing on the chair, looking out the window for something, anything, to invade our property that might be deserving of her barking an  announcement, I thought just how Vigilant she looks. Nothing I say or do can distract her from watching with vigilant purpose and intensity. Someone is coming. That was the message staring at me in my email list: Be Vigilant, He’s Coming. This is what Advent was all about: Watch. Wait. Be Vigilant!

Like the shepherds, I thought, who were keeping vigilant watch over their flocks by night when suddenly, like the email, an angel of the Lord appeared to announce a child had been born in nearby Bethlehem – the city of David, the boy who had become king and had been a good shepherd in these same hills. “Good News!” sang a multitude of angels. “Go and see! We bring you good news of a great joy for all the people!” They bounded down the hillside into the town to see this child of which the angels sing! There they were: the young girl, an older man, and between them the baby, wrapped in bands of cloth just as the angels had said. They tell the couple what the angels had said, how this child was God’s Anointed, the Christ, the Messiah. Then, as they hurried back to keep vigilant watch over their flocks they were glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them. That’s what we are supposed to be doing – be like the shepherds: vigilant and telling this story.  While Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.

The story, of course, begins with an awkward marriage arrangement. And another angel assuring both Mary and Joseph not to worry. Do not fear. Or, does it begin some forty-two generations earlier with David the shepherd King. Or really, several generations before that with an immigrant family that was forced to flee Israel because of a famine. Elimelech, Naomi and their two sons flee to Moab. It’s in the book of Ruth which I had to translate from Hebrew years ago as a senior in college. In Moab the sons marry gentile Moabite women, Orpah (which is where Oprah gets her name!) and Ruth (which is where Oprah gets her name!). Over time, Elimelech and the two sons die, leaving the women to fend for themselves. Naomi decides to return home to Israel and encourages her daughters-in-law to return to their homes. Orpah leaves, but in what is perhaps the most beautiful speech in all of scripture, Ruth pledges to stay with Naomi: “Entreat me not to leave you, or turn back from following you! Where you go, I will go; where you live, I will live; your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die, I will die – there will I be buried. May the Lord do thus and so to me, and more as well, if even death parts me from you.” Ruth’s pledge expresses a kind of vigilant faithfulness, love and devotion to God and to care for her widowed  mother-in-law.

Now it is Ruth who is the immigrant in Israel. Naomi has a kinsman named Boaz. Ruth works in his fields to support her mother-in-law. Through a series of astonishing events and negotiations, Boaz marries the immigrant, Ruth; they have a child; the child is named Obed; he becomes the father of Jesse; Jesse is the father of the shepherd boy David – the most renowned King of Israel. All because Boaz the Israelite welcomed the immigrant from Moab, Ruth, she becomes the great-great-great, 44-times great-grandmother of Jesus, for Joseph is from the house of David. All because Ruth was vigilant in her love for Naomi and for Naomi’s God, the God of Israel.

Not long after the child Jesus was born Joseph hears from another angel of the Lord that he is to take the child and Mary and flee to Egypt to escape the terrible Slaughter of Innocent Israelite children ordered by Herod, King of the Jews. Joseph, Mary and Jesus live as immigrants in safety in Egypt of all places! Until another angel of the Lord comes to Joseph in yet another dream to issue the all-clear signal: Herod is dead, and it is time to go home. Where people are watching, waiting and keeping vigil with John the Baptizer for someone to save them from their sins and from the Roman captivity that already seems endless. Their vigilance is rewarded as the child Jesus grows up to show how we are to live in ways that transcend any and all tribalism and to shine light in the darkness despite the threats and machinations of the Empire. Despite the implicit truth of this story: that the wood of the manger turns out to be the wood of the cross. And yet, even Roman crucifixion cannot defeat the power of the child’s Love for all persons.

It turns out that love is the answer – love of God, love of neighbor, love of the poor, love of the hungry, love of the thirsty, the naked, the prisoners and the strangers – immigrant strangers, without whom we would not be here to witness once again the birth of Love in our midst; in our hearts; in our lives; in all that we do and say as we serve the Spirit of Christ that is in all persons, all creatures and all of creation! All this was going through my mind as I watched Bella keeping vigilant watch over our home, when suddenly there appeared in my email the message from another angel – Christina Garvan, my long-time mentor at St. Timothy’s School for Girls, my colleague, teacher and friend of Jesus. Her message was a story. Another story of how we come to be here this night. The story is titled, Be Vigilant, He’s Coming:

Our heroine is leaving her cousin’s house today. It has been a good time but now for María the
journey increases in difficulty with each day as her womb grows. She is a funny kind of heroine
because she is so quiet and even, we might say, passive. She has always been this way. She
did not want or have friends other than her sisters and her dear mother, if you can call family
friends. She listens well and knows no other course than obedience. She hopes to join the
sisterhood when all this is over. She has no brothers and no boys or young men have ever
called. That is not unusual in her town. Lots of children help at home and never go to school.
María believes her mother that babies come from God. Hers surely does.

José comes to take her on the journey. They are married but not really. He has lost his wife and
will be with her for the crossing. They have the papers showing they are official, a husband, a
wife, and a baby to come. Without the papers José is a bandit or worse a coyote, and María is a
pregnant whore. That’s how they are seen. María is a good listener and she has heard the
words. The baby will not be born like she was at home. The baby will be born across the river
and through the gates. The baby is for every town and has to leave behind the humble

The couple are learning to be kind to each other. José has arranged some rides so they won’t
walk the whole way. Usually they will sit in the front of a truck, offer gas money or even spell the driver. María has no license but José does and most vehicles have a long way to go and little
time. Sometimes the two walk and sometimes join others. María left home months ago when the
sun was blistering but now the days are short and the evenings cold. It is best when they ride
through the night.

At the border there are huge crowds. María and José are not worried. They have papers. They
have to make the crossing. The papers say so. María heard why. José has been given the
ultimate responsibility. The baby must learn something of which neither Maria nor José have
knowledge. In their town the poor and rich help each other. Some have more, some have less
but all are as one. The baby would grow there magnificently and in isolation. So María and José
have been instructed the baby shall be among the wolves not the gentle lambs. He will be
helpless and tiny and brown. The border agents will see Him and for the first time will see God.

But that part of the story is coming.

After a long wait the line, the throng, the mass of people cross the river. The bridge holds. María
walks with her head up and hopes for rest soon. The gates are besieged with people and so
another long time for waiting ensues. María is ready to deliver. José has shown the woman
officer the papers. It is time. The officer knows the time is here. She leads the man and woman,
now weeping in fear, in excitement, in awe, to shelter. The officer apologizes, now weeping too,
and shows the mat on the floor. She calls for help. They come. The others who know. They
kneel down. Some gather outside the fenced-in cage. The baby cries.

The Savior has arrived. Glory to God in the Highest, and on Earth, Peace.

I asked Christina’s permission to share this with you, and she said yes, “as it is my gift to the ones at the border.” For you see, his story is their story. And their story is His story. And their story is our story.

My sisters, my brothers, this Jesus is the gift for which we await. He comes to remind us just who we are and whose we are – and to remind us of our calling to love our neighbors – all neighbors. All people. As angels continually sing, only we can give Glory to God; only we can be Peace and Love on Earth – Earth which itself is held captive by our over-consumption of its resources. We are to shine his light in the darkness. Know that there is a place deep within you where the Christ child is being born, awakening you and sending you out into all the world to proclaim the Good News of great Joy for All the people! We are to remember all those immigrants without whom we would not be celebrating the Christ child’s birth. We are to be like Joseph, to open our hearts to our dreams and the messages of angels who are, even now, here among us, singing to us visions of Peace and Mercy and Love and Forgiveness for All the people, for all the land. Look up and see that it is Good. By God, it is Good!

Be Vigilant, He’s Coming, even now, to be born again in our hearts and in our land. Who knows? Even now, “some gather outside the fenced-in cage. The baby cries. The Savior has arrived. Glory to God in the Highest, and on Earth, Peace.”

May we hear the message of the angels throughout the ages. God bless us, every one!

Thanks to Christina Garvan for her story, Be Vigilant, He’s Coming!

Saturday, December 14, 2019

Ever Green, Ever Hopeful

We Are Evergreen People
“The future belongs to those who give the next generation reason for hope.” –Pierre Teilhard de Chardin

Or, as Stanley Hauerwas might put it, Christians are those people who have a story, conform their lives to the shape of that narrative, and who sustain the virtue of hope in a world that rarely gives evidence that such hope is justified.

John the Baptist carries on his revival meeting on the banks of the Jordan River hoping that the repentance from the sins of the whole of Judea will carry the hope for better days. Even from jail one can hear the hope he carries that Jesus be the One. Meanwhile, Mary proclaims the hope of generations as she sings: “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord; my spirit rejoices in God my Savior; for he has looked with favor on his lowly servant. From this day all generations will call me blessed: The Almighty has done great things for me, and holy is his Name. He has mercy on those who fear him in every generation. He has shown the strength of his arm, he has scattered the proud in their conceit. He has cast down the mighty from their thrones, *
and has lifted up the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty. He has come to the help of his servant Israel, for he has remembered his promise of mercy, the promise he made to our fathers, to Abraham and his children for ever.” Take time to reflect on this song of profound hope.

Which brings us to the Advent Wreath – a custom that predates Christianity in northern Europe and was adopted by the Church sometime after the middle ages, with the custom we now know as a ring, a circle or a wheel of evergreens decorated with candles perhaps originating in Germany in the 19th century.

The circle or wheel of life is a part of spiritual practices ranging from Buddhism in the Far East all the way to the native peoples of what would come to be called the Americas. This circle represents the circle of life and the eternal cycle of seasons, while the evergreens represent the persistence of life in the midst of the bareness of winter. The candles, of course, burn as symbols of light in a world which literally is getting darker and darker until the sun begins to return day by day beginning with the winter solstice.

Sometime around the 4th and 5th centuries Christians established the celebration of our savior’s birth to coincide with the Roman holiday of Saturnalia, a festival leading up to the increasing light of the solstice. December 25th was the conclusion of Saturnalia, and the Church hoped to attract non-Christians by celebrating The Feast of the Incarnation on that day. Customs like the wreath with candles and actually bringing an evergreen tree into the house eventually were adopted and given a Christian re-interpretation of hope sustained in the darkest and coldest of days.

The greenness of the branches and the light of the candles have come to symbolize that Christians, like Christ, are to be those people who sustain the hope of life in the midst of death and light in the midst of darkness.

A story from the Cherokee people pre-dating European immigration to the Americas well illustrates the kind of people Jesus calls us to be. It is sometimes called, Why Some Trees Are Evergreen. John Shea, a priest from my native Chicago, tells it this way.

When the plants and the trees were first made the Great Mystery gave a gift to each species. But first he set up a contest to determine which gift would be most useful to whom.

“I want you to stay awake and keep watch over the earth for seven nights,” the Great Mystery told them.

The young trees and plants were so excited to be trusted with such an important job that the first night they would have found it difficult not to stay awake. However, the second night was not so easy, and just before dawn a few fell asleep. On the third night the trees and the plants whispered among themselves in the wind trying to keep from dropping off, but it was too much work for some of them. Even more fell asleep on the fourth night.

By the time the seventh night came the only trees and plants still awake were the cedar, the pine, the spruce, the fir, the holly and the laurel.

“What wonderful endurance you have!” exclaimed the Great Mystery. “You shall be given the gift of remaining green forever. You will be the guardians of the forest. Even in the seeming dead of winter your brother and sister creatures will find life protected in your branches.”

Ever since then all the other trees and plants lose their leaves and sleep all winter, while the evergreens stay awake.

This tale, concludes, Shea, talks about greenness in the midst of barrenness and associates this greenness with the ability to stay awake. “Staying awake” is standard code in spiritual literature. It means remaining aware of our life-giving connection to divine reality even when inner and outer forces militate against it. Just as the light in the darkness reminds us of this truth, so does the green-leafed tree in the leafless forest.

When we light the candles of the Advent Wreath and gaze at the vigilant greenness of its branches, we are to remember who we are and whose we are. In a world that appears to be overrun with darkness, barrenness and death dealing, we are those people of God who stay awake and sustain the truths of light and life as ever-present realities. When others are obsessed with fear and darkness, we are to be those people who stay awake and sustain visions of hopefulness.

We are to be evergreen people for one another and for the world. The future, says Father Teilhard, belongs to those to give the next generation reason for hope! We are those people who seek to become persistence of life in the midst of bareness, of light in the midst of darkness. We are called to gaze upon the Advent Wreath and become the kind of people it has symbolized for thousands of years: a people of life, of light and of hope.

Saturday, November 30, 2019

When We Gonna Wake Up!

When We Gonna Wake Up
That’s the basic question for all of us: When are we going to wake up? Spiritual teachers inside and beyond the Church all say the same thing – Wake Up! Tony De Mello, the Jesuit priest and psychotherapist would remind everyone he ever taught, most of us, whether we know it or not, are sleep-walking through life. We are born asleep. We live asleep, we marry in our sleep, we have children and raise families in our sleep. And we die in our sleep without ever waking up. We rarely if ever take time to understand the loveliness and beauty of this thing we call human existence. All the mystics of any and all religious traditions, no matter what their theology, no matter what their religion, or no religion, are unanimous on one thing: all shall be well, all shall be well, all manner of thing shall be well. Though everything is a mess, all is well. Strange paradox, to be sure. But tragically, most people never get to see that all is well because they are asleep. They are having a nightmare. WAKE UP! [Awareness, Anthony De Mello, p 5]

You know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. Romans 13:11

I remember my seminary faculty advisor, professor of Church History, priest and friend Fred Shriver, preaching at Church of the Good Shepherd, Ruxton, MD reminding us that the fundamental teaching of Jesus sees him breaking bread. Not a little or even oversize wafer, but a crusty loaf of peasant bread. See him now at the table with his closest friends the night before he is to be crucified on a Roman cross. He takes the bread. Blesses the bread. Breaks the bread. And Gives it to them. This is my body given to you and given for the world. Take, Bless, Break and Give. The summary of his life, death and resurrection. Take, Bless, Break and Give/Share. That’s the spiritual life Jesus taught. Listen as the crust breaks open. I invite you to open your heart it seems to say. Let me into your life, into your heart, into your mind he is saying. Allow me to break you open and awaken you to new life, true life, eternal life. That cracking of the crust that we think is there to protect us, that we maintain to keep everything close and tightly kept inside. Listen to the sound of the bread being broken, he seems to say. When you see me break it allow it to awaken you. Wake Up!

Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. Matthew 24:42

Tony De Mello tells the story of a father who knocks on his son’s bedroom door and says, “John, wake up.” John answers, “I don’t want to wake up, papa.” The father shouts, “Get up, you have to go to school.” John says, “I don’t want to go to school.” “Why not,” asks his father. “I have three reasons,” says Jaime. “First, because it is so dull. Second, because the kids tease me. And third, I hate school.” And the father says, “I am going to give you three reasons why you must go to school: First, because it is your duty; second, because you are forty-five years old; and third, because you are the headmaster.” Wake up! Wake up! You have grown up! You are too big to stay asleep. Stop playing with your toys. WAKE UP!

Wake up, and strengthen what remains… Revelation 3:2

Most people want to stay in kindergarten. But don’t believe it. They want you to fix their broken toys. “Give me back my marriage. Give me back my job, my money, my reputation, my success.” Waking up is unpleasant. It is comfortable to be in bed. It is irritating to be woken up. The wisest spiritual teachers do not attempt to wake people up. It is none of my business, they say. Even though from time to time they urge us to wake up, they know. They know that they can only dance their dance and live their lives and if we wake up and learn something, so be it. If not, fine. As the saying goes, “The nature of rain is the same, but it makes thorns grow in the marshes, and flowers in the gardens.” Look at the image of Jesus in the third chapter of Revelation (there is no “s”). “Behold, I stand at the door and knock!” The famous pre-Raphelite painting of this by William Holman Hunt shows that there is no door handle on Jesus’s side of the door. He cannot open us up. He can only knock on our door. He can only break open the crust that keeps us asleep in our beds of idleness, presumed knowledge, false senses of security, unaware that things shall be well and are well if only we will open our eyes, our hearts, our minds, open the door and wake up. WAKE UP!

Shoshin. Shoshin, is a Japanese word. It means “beginner’s mind.” As Shunyru Suzuki teaches, “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.” We think waking up is hard to do. To practice Shoshin is hard. To unlearn what we think we already know is difficult and too much work. To wake up means to always keep our beginner’s mind – to always encounter the things we do and say as if for the first time. This is hard to do. We begin Advent and think it is a time to prepare for Christmas, the birth of the Christ child. But, with a beginner’s mind, we learn that Advent means coming, and that it was originally meant to be a time to wake up and to prepare for the Risen Lord to come again into our messy and suffering world. It is a time to stop all the busyness that distracts us from our beginner’s mind and allow Jesus to break open our hearts, our minds, our lives so we can open the door and welcome him in right now, right here. Because. Because he is here, now. He promises to be with us to the “end of the age.” All shall be well. All is well when we open the door. But unless we practice beginner’s mind, we forget this promise he makes to all of his followers, his disciples, those who say they walk in his way, and yet forget to stop to heal the sick, welcome the immigrant- stranger, visit those in prison, clothe the naked and give a drink to those who are thirsty.

Behold, he stands at the door and knocks. There is no handle on his side of the door. The only handle is on our side of the door. Do we even hear him knock? Or, are we so dead-tired and asleep from all the distractions of this life, this world, that we cannot even hear him knocking? Let alone do we wake up, walk over and open the door? And what does chapter three of Revelation (no “s”) say will happen if we do wake up and open the door? “Behold! I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me.” That is the promise. We will have a marvelous meal and party with him! We will wake up and discover all is well. If only we will practice beginner’s mind, wake up, walk over, open the door and let Jesus in!

And to those who have ears, he says listen: WAKE UP! Your life and the life of the world depends on it. When we gonna wake up, when we gonna wake up, when we gonna wake up and strengthen the things that remain?

Saturday, November 23, 2019

Filled With Love - Christ the King

Filled With Love
What to do as nationalism, secularism and strong-man dictators rise up across the world? In 1925 Pope Pius XI instituted Christ the King Sunday because he felt, that with the rising nationalism, secularism, and strong man dictators that eventually became World War II, a Sunday was necessary to refocus us on why we are here – to be icons of God’s love in this world. Originally set as the last Sunday of October, in 1969, another era of social turmoil, Pope Paul VI moved it to the Last Sunday before Advent and called it, “The Solemnity of our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe.” Sunday, November 24, 2019 is Christ the King Sunday, King of the Universe.

Christ the King is a title that strikes a peculiar tension since any and all descriptions of Jesus who is called Christ thankfully bear little to no resemblance to the kinds of earthly leaders and kings Jeremiah condemns in no uncertain terms: “Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture! says the Lord. Therefore, thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, concerning the shepherds who shepherd my people: It is you who have scattered my flock, and have driven them away, and you have not attended to them. So, I will attend to you for your evil doings, says the Lord.” Jesus, he who is called Christ – anointed, messiah– has none of the trappings of these wicked, evil shepherds: Christ does not destroy, scatter and divide. Rather, he heals, restores, gathers and unites every one and every thing.

It is plain to see that he is like no earthly king at all. And yet. We who will in another few weeks proclaim the Incarnation of God in the Christ child need be reminded that the child born of Mary, a young woman from a small town in Galilee, was, according to the Letter to the Colossians, and the majestic and profound opening lines of the Gospel of John, present before that first Incarnation, that first revealing of God’s power and love of every thing, the Creation of all that is, seen and unseen. This First Incarnation took place some 13.7 billion years before the Second Incarnation we celebrate in the arrival of the fullness of God in the Christ child. He did not come into this world as much as he comes out of an already Christ-soaked world as God’s presence poured into a single human being so that divinity and humanity can be seen operating in him.

“He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers-- all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. … For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.” [Colossians 1:11-20]

Richard Rohr is quick to point out that it is a leap of faith “trusting that Jesus together with Christ gave us one human but fully accurate window into the Eternal Now that we call God…This is a leap of faith that many believe they have made when they say, ‘Jesus is God!’ But strictly speaking, those words are not theologically correct. Christ is God, and Jesus is the Christ’s historical manifestation in time. Jesus is a Third Someone, not just God and not just man, but God and human together.” [Richard Rohr, The Universal Christ, p18]

Theologians in the Middle Ages began to see that this Christ is a Cosmic Christ. And that this is one of the earliest understandings of just who Jesus is as witnessed in Colossians, John and throughout the New Testament. We say “is” because as John chapter one puts it, “The true light... was coming into the world.” That is, the Christ Mystery is not a one-time event, but an ongoing process throughout time – as constant as the light that fills the universe. We must remember, that we do not so much as see light but that light enables us to see every thing there is to see – just as the Cosmic Christ enables us to see both who and what God is, and therefore who and what we are – Love. “God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him.” [1 John 4:16b]

Consider, that for the philosophers and theologians of the Middle Ages, this Second Incarnation in the life of Jesus provides divine clues as to the structure and meaning not only of humanity, but of all life and of the entire universe! Ilia Delio, in her book The Humility of God, points out that the thirteenth century philosopher Dun Scotus, focused on such passages as John 1, Colossians 1, and 1 John 4, concludes that “the Incarnation was too great a mystery to simply remedy a defect. Rather, from all eternity, Christ was willed by God to come in the highest glory. The reason, according to Scotus, is simply that God is love and wanted to love a creature who could fully respond in love. Christ would have come, he said, even if there had been no sin. Christ is the first in God’s intention to love and it is because of Christ that creation has its meaning.” [Delio p 50] That is, concludes Delio, in understanding Jesus as the Cosmic Christ, King of the Universe, Incarnation occurs because of a positive – love – not a negative – sin. Such an understanding of Christ the King makes all the difference as to how we are to shape our lives as Christians in this world.

“If love is the reason for the Incarnation then it is also the reason for God’s humility because…God’s love is a humble love. It is a love that goes out of itself toward the other for the sake of the other…Bonaventure captured the core of the humility of God when he wrote, …’the eternal God has humbly bent down and lifted the dust of our nature into unity with his own person.’” [Ibid p 51]. God’s love is, writes Delio, a love which bends down to lift us up even when we are at our worst. Which is why we see God’s humility expressed most vividly in the cross because God could not bend over any further in love for us and creation than in the suffering and death of the cross. [Ibid p53] For it is on the cross where we see the Christ still comforting, healing and reconciling all to himself as he forgives those who have crucified him and promises the criminal on the cross nearby, "Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise." [Luke 23:33-43]

Jesus comes out of creation to show us that all of creation, all of God, all of every thing is filled with the presence of the Eternal Now that we call God. And if it is as John and Colossians says, that all things, every thing, come from this Cosmic Christ, then every thing, not just people, but every thing, seen and unseen, visible and invisible, is a “child of God.” The Whole of Creation is the Beloved Community of God’s Love, not just the Church. Every thing, every person, is holy ground – as Woody Guthrie once wrote, “every speck of dust is holy ground.” Every atom, every neutrino, is holy ground. We must seek Christ, not merely in “all persons,” but in all creatures and in every thing throughout the created universe, for all things come out of this Christ-filled creation as an expression of God’s love for all.

We have been misled by bad shepherds to think that faith consists in our assent to certain mental beliefs, rather than our calm and hopeful assent to the presence of the Cosmic Christ in all and in every thing. As St Paul tells us in his hymn to Love, only three things last, three things that are the essence of the Christ-filled life: faith, hope and love. And each of these must always include the other two: faith is always loving and hopeful; hope is always faithful and loving, and love is always faithful and hopeful. And faith and love and hope are all things that we do, not things that we say. As Jesus himself says, what matters is “doing this right,” not “saying this right.” [Luke 6:46] As Richard Rohr concludes about this Cosmic Christ, “Jesus came to show us how to be human much more than how to be spiritual, and the process still seems to be in its early stages!” [Richard Rohr, Ibid pp 22-23]

Whether Pius XI knew it or not, by calling us annually to reflect on the Cosmic Christ, King of the Universe, he calls us to come to new understandings of faith, hope and love: No one religion can ever encompass the depth of such faith. No ethnicity has a monopoly on such hope. No nationality can control or limit this flow of such universal love. [Rohr ibid p 22] Just as all creation is filled with this love, so may our hearts also be filled with this love - a love that goes out of itself toward the other for the sake of the other.

Saturday, November 16, 2019

Apocalyptic Boogie

“See, the day is coming, burning like an oven, when all the arrogant and all evildoers will be stubble… But for you who revere my name the sun of righteousness shall rise, with healing in its wings.” [Malachi 4:1-2a]

We tend to find the Apocalyptic literature in the Bible to be baffling at best. We overlook its primary purpose: to be a literature urging Perseverance in hard times and sustain Hope for a New Day. But let’s be clear about this from the outset: the kind of “redemption” promised in the Bible’s Apocalyptic literature “is not a private lifeboat to save a few privileged folk while everything else is destroyed. Rather, redemption is equated with the coming [the advent] of God’s reign, which spells transformation, healing and wholeness for all of life.” [Sharon Ringe, Luke, p 253] Apocalyptic makes the promise that the world and creation will be made new!

When some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, Jesus said, “As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down…By your endurance you will gain your souls…Truly I tell you, this generation shall not pass away until all things have taken place.” [Luke 21:5-38]

We tend to shy away from these sorts of Apocalyptic passages in the Bible, viewing them as bizarre, incomprehensible, intended for some other people, some other time, some other place. Or, worse still, by avoiding them and paying as little attention as possible to them, we allow others to turn this genre of faith literature into so much commercialized pablum that distorts it all to advance some elitist agenda or other that says some version of, “Only these sorts of believers will be saved, or “Unless you believe what we are telling you, you will be left behind.” As if God’s redemption is somehow limited to a precious few. As if God does not really love all of creation, including all people. As if in our baptism we have not pledged to seek and serve Christ in ALL persons, loving your neighbor as yourself. As if we have not pledged to STRIVE for Justice and Peace for ALL people, respecting the DIGNITY of EVERY human being.

Furthermore, how near the time is coming is never made exactly clear. “How near the time will be is not exactly clear. The word ‘generation’ can refer to the thirty or so years that one would normally assume for a human life cycle. It can also, however, refer to an entire era marked by a particular quality (‘this age’), which could encompass all of human history. We do not know what Luke meant, or in the similar saying in 9:27. But the essence of the ‘revelation’ has been to put an end to such calculation, emphasizing instead, confidence in God’s faithfulness to God’s promises of salvation (21:33).” [Ibid p 253-254]  We do well to note that the Apocalypse in Luke 21 urges us to Be Alert, Endure, and concludes with what to do in the meantime following the lead of Jesus: spend nights in quiet  prayer and contemplation in a sacred place of one’s choosing, and get up early in the morning to, as the voice from heaven commanded back at the Transfiguration (Luke 9:28-36), “Listen to him.”

 Such franchises as the Left Behind books and movie only serve to trivialize what is going on here. For the audience Luke addresses has seen the destruction of the Temple, and indeed all of Jerusalem, come true. The Temple is central to Luke’s story of Jesus. Luke begins in the Temple with Zechariah. The infant Jesus is brought to the Temple. His family regularly goes to the Temple. He teaches openly in the Temple. The Temple is not only the center of his story, but it is the very center of the universe for all of Israel. It was the center of the Jewish and early Christian faith, the place where God’s finger touched the Earth and held it still. Now, after Rome destroyed it in the year 70CE, not one stone was on top of another, and the entire city, Jeru-salem, “city of Shalom”, “city of peace”, lay in smouldering ruins. It literally looked like Hell.

Try, for just a moment, to imagine what impact this had on the psyche of both the people of Israel and the early Christians, who we are told in Acts chapter 2, worshipped in the Temple every day. Think of other crises that have resulted in generations of psychic memory: The Crusades, The Trail of Tears, Slavery in the U.S., Pearl Harbor, The Holocaust, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Carpet Bombing, Agent Orange, Thalidomide, Assassinations (JFK, MLKjr, Bobby, Anwar Sadat), September 11, the Climate Crisis. Imagine the lasting damage of any one of these.

Luke, along with Mark and Matthew, includes this Apocalyptic revelation specifically to quell any time wasted calculating the ‘when,’ and even the ‘what,’ to refocus the people, to refocus us, on the importance of what we should be about here and now in “this generation.” The examples are quite simple: prayer and contemplation, and continue to listen to Jesus and to follow him wherever he goes and whatever he does. That’s it. No disaster stories with some swept up we know not where while others are left in eternal torment. Go back and review the list of the kinds of events that linger in the psyche of a people for generations, for decades, for millennia, and realize all kinds of eternal torment are already forever etched in the DNA and memories of all people everywhere.

We do well to note that in giving the disciples an answer as to when the Day of the Lord will come, Jesus instead urges them to sustain the virtue of Hope that the falseness of this world is ultimately bounded by greater Truth and Light. His vision and his revelation is that God’s redemption, salvation, reign, or whatever else one wants to call it, is about transformation, healing and wholeness for all of life – not for some elite group, not for some private lifeboat for a few privileged people, but for all of life – all people, all creatures, all of creation.

And that life is not primarily about what we believe, but rather about what we do. His call is to follow him, to walk in his way, a way that is self-evident in its care for the “least of these of my sisters and brothers.” Jesus repeatedly urges us to remain confident in God’s promises, to be Alert, to Endure, and to Persevere in following the man from Galilee. And to live a life informed by quiet prayer and listening to him.

All other attempts to sensationalize Apocalyptic thinking is the fantasy of those who find the call to follow Jesus too difficult to imagine and instead are looking for an easy ticket out of here. Boy, will they be surprised! It’s not about best-selling books, disaster movies, and calculating when the Day of the Lord will come upon us. It will more likely come out of our faithfulness to a way of walking in this life than anything we can say or believe. Faith and Love are about doing, not saying a thing. Persevere in doing Faith and Love until the New Day dawns from on high.

Saturday, November 9, 2019

We Come From Love, We Return To Love, and Love Is All Around

“Since no one really knows anything about God,
those who think they do are just troublemakers.”*
The eighth-century Sufi female mystic Rabia best captures the scene in Luke 20:27-38. Some Sadducees approach Jesus in Jerusalem. He is nearing the end of his journey to the cross and resurrection, to return to whence he came. Up until now Jesus has been sparring most often with Pharisees who, like himself, believed in the resurrection from the dead. Sparring, or debating, Torah is what the Pharisees loved most! It was their way of trying to be closer to God, the living God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. It was their love of debating Torah that sustained their hope in resurrection because they imagined that the eternity of the next age would offer them endless time to debate the meanings of Torah for ever and ever, all of the time! What could be better?

The Sadducees, on the other hand, were a more conservative group, largely located in Jerusalem – they were aristocrats and priestly families, maintaining the sacred life of sacrifices in the Temple. They felt they were responsible for the continued life of the people Israel. And they felt that there was little else to debate, discuss or learn about God and God’s ways. The Sadducees renounced fate, the concept that God commits evil (all evil emerges from humanity’s free will), the immortality of the soul (Plato et al), an afterlife, and postmortem rewards or punishments.

Their plan to trick Jesus and demonstrate how impossible and absurd hope in resurrection was, admittedly, a good one. They based it on the practice of Levirate Marriage. Levirate marriage is a type of marriage in which the brother of a deceased man who is childless is obliged to marry his brother's widow. Although its primary concern was to keep common family property in the family and continue the family line lest a widow marry outside the clan; it was also a way of protecting the widow and keeping her within the care of her deceased husband’s family.

So, some Sadducees, “those who say there is no resurrection,” come up with a fantastic version of Levirate marriage in which a poor widow remains childless through her marriage to seven brothers, each of whom dies childless. Which of the seven brothers, then, will be her husband in the resurrection? Ha! Let this country bumpkin from Galilee answer that one if he can. Surely this will demonstrate how absurd it is to believe in the resurrection of the dead.

Now surely Jesus can see just how absurd their puzzle is since it assumes the very thing the Sadducees deny: the resurrection of the dead! What do they care? Of course, it is just a trap. But not so fast. Although outside the canon of Torah and the Tanakh, the whole of Hebrew Scriptures, he might have sited the story of the mother and her seven sons who were tortured and killed by Antiochus IV for refusing to deny the God of Israel and eat some pork to prove their denial. One by one they all refused to disobey the commandments of their God. Their mother bore the anguish of watching her sons die with good courage “because of her hope in the Lord…Filled with a noble spirit, she reinforced her woman’s reasoning with a man’s courage, and said to them, ‘I do not know how you came into being in my womb. It was not I who gave you life and breath, nor I who set in order the elements within each of you. Therefore, the Creator of the world, who shaped the beginning of humankind and devised the origin of all things, will in his mercy give life and breath back to you again, since you now forget yourselves for the sake of his laws.’” [2 Maccabees 7:20-23] That is belief in the resurrection of the dead!

Jesus might have replied with this story. But Jesus showing infinite patience and wisdom has another answer. "Those who belong to this age marry and are given in marriage; but those who are considered worthy of a place in that age and in the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage. Indeed, they cannot die anymore, because they are like angels and are children of God, being children of the resurrection. And the fact that the dead are raised Moses himself showed, in the story about the bush, where he speaks of the Lord as the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. Now he is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive."

We might note the not so subtle dig at the Sadducees when he says, “…but those who are considered worthy of a place in that age!” Ouch! The argument, of course, is that resurrection life will not be a replica of this life, and the commandments for living in this life have no relevance in the age to come. We say, at the time of our mortal death life is changed, not ended. Levirate marriage was necessary for preserving family lines in this world, but then we shall all be children of one father, one God, children of the resurrection! We are made one with all creation from the very beginning. Like Jesus, we shall all return to from whence we came.

Jesus shows patience and mercy with his opponents, a quality of character we would all do well to make our own. We live in a world in which troublemakers like the Sadducees in this story try to undermine all that is good and wonderful and true in this life with trick questions, false narratives and patent untruths. As Rabia learned 13 centuries ago in Basra, those who think they know it all and are unwilling to open themselves to that which is true are the real troublemakers – and they are often the saddest among us all. As the old quip puts it, “The Sadducees did not believe in the resurrection – that is why they are sad, you see!” And after the destruction of the Temple, the Sadducees disappeared from history altogether along with all parties and movements that refuse to align themselves with the truth. Thomas Aquinas, the thirteenth-century theologian, reminds us:                            All are having a relationship with God.
A pear taken from a limb and
set in a bowl,

surely it is talking to its Lord,
and happy that it is being honored for its life,

and somehow knowing
that soon it will be
returning to

We use words like “returning.”
Think about that. Inherent in that word is

and separation from God is never
really possible.

What can you be that He is not? “You
cannot be what I am not,”
my Lord once said
to me.*

*[Quotations from Rabia and Thomas Aquinas are from Love Poems From God, Daniel Ladinsky, translator, Penguin Compass, 2002, pp 27 & 147]

Saturday, November 2, 2019

All Saints 2019

Scientia Cordis
I recall one Sunday after church, a gentleman came into my office, sat down and declared more than ask, “Why do we pray for the dead? It’s not in the Bible!” I don’t recall what I said to him that day, but today I would say something like this: Because our mystical communion with the dead is what strengthens our virtue of 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. When we pray and reflect on the things they did in this life it inspires us to live lives of faith, hope and charity – even risking everything to bring greater truth and light to all persons, all creatures and creation itself.

For this reason our tradition sets aside three days to face into our mortality as a way of maintaining our hope – “the blessed hope of everlasting life…and when our mortal body doth lie in death, there is prepared for us a dwelling place eternal in the heavens.” [BCP 349] It is this hope, not love, that is unique to the Christian faith, for nearly all religions can and do instruct us on how to love others as well or even better than we do. Nor is our perspective on faith unique. As Fr. Sam Portaro observes, “It is the basis of all religion, and the very substance of government and economy, for no God can inspire, no government can rule, no commerce can work without genuine faith – faith in God’s authority to guide, faith in those who govern, faith in the value of goods and services. But where else is hope?” Where, indeed. [Sam Portaro, Brightest and Best, p 200]

So, All Hallows Eve (Oct 31) originated as a festival to use the powers of humor and ridicule to confront the power of, and our fear of, death. On All Saints Day (Nov 1) we reflect on the lives of those who embody faith, hope and charity and their remarkable deeds of triumph over the powers of darkness and the devil. And All Souls (Nov 2) we remember the great diversity of all who have gone before us as we again proclaim our aspirations, hope and expectations of a shared eternity, recalling that all the people of God in the early church were commonly referred to as “saints.” As the hymn proclaims in song, “there’s not any reason no, not the least, why we all shouldn’t be one too.” [Ibid p 199]

The book of Daniel is a book of tales and visions written several hundred years before Jesus. In chapter seven, Daniel has a dream, a vision: “I, Daniel, saw in my vision by night the four winds of heaven stirring up the great sea, and four great beasts came up out of the sea, different from one another.” [Daniel 7:1-3] Seeking clarification, Daniel learns it is about four kings rising up, but that ultimately, “… the holy ones of the Most High shall receive the kingdom and possess the kingdom for ever—for ever and ever." These ‘holy ones of the Most High’ are the people like the rest of us. To the extent that Daniel describes a messiah, that messiah is the faithful people of God! That is the holy ones of the Most High are you and me! Written in a time of severe repression, and being forbidden to practice the religious rites and rituals of Israel while under foreign occupation, this vision among others in Daniel counters the depression of the people with the hope that ultimately, the people will one day, collectively, “possess the kingdom for ever.” And if that is not enough, the interpreter adds, “for ever and ever.” This is no doubt the equivalent of Buzz Lightyear’s, “To infinity and beyond!”

Jesus in Luke chapter 6, in his blessings and woes [v 20-31] encourages a similar hope as Israel is now under the domination of Caesar’s Rome. Only Jesus takes it all a step further: Blessed are you who are poor, hungry, weeping, and persecuted “on account of the Son of Man,” for yours shall be the kingdom. But Woe to those who are rich, full, happy and well regarded; you will now be poor, hungry, mourning and will now be regarded as false prophets in the reign of God. Once again, the people of God, not those presently in charge, will inherit everlasting life, once again sustaining the hope that all the people shall be the holy ones, the saints of God in this world and the next. And what matters most, Jesus continues, is to love God, love neighbor, love your enemies, and in your spare time be merciful as God is merciful!

After chasing after our fears of death, ghosts, goblins and the devils on All Hallows Eve, we reflect on the lives of those who in their time most embodied what it means to be “holy ones of the Most High" and saints of the church of Jesus Christ. Some of their names are familiar, like Martin Luther King, Jr, Cady Stanton, Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, and Jonathan Myrick Daniels. Others, like William Laud, Richard Hooker, Evelyn Underhill, Elizabeth of Hungry and Hugh of Lincoln we need to read about to learn who they are and what they have contributed to human society. We would learn that Hugh, Bishop of Lincoln, alone among all bishops in England, quelled anti-Semitic riots and killings in his diocese in the twelfth century. Elizabeth of Hungry, a wealthy princess, married well, and yet escaped the “woes” Jesus enumerates for the rich by giving all her wealth away: after her husband died she gave her dowry away as alms, sold her jewels to establish a hospital, opened the royal granaries in time of famine to feed the poor, and when her resources were reduced to subsistence she devoted herself to serving others until she died of exhaustion – ending a life of one who gave all she had as a “holy one of the Most High.”

Jean Vanier, was a Canadian Naval Officer, philosopher, theologian and founder of the L’Arche communities where he and others live together in homes as companions and care givers for those who have what he calls intellectual disabilities. Vanier began the first L’Arche home in1964, and lived in them until he died this past May. The experience has been healing for everyone involved. In one book called Becoming Human, Vanier describes some of what he has learned from those he serves about what the ancients call “Scientia Cordis,” science of the heart: “The science of the heart permits us to be vulnerable with others, not to fear them but to listen to them, to see their beauty and value, to understand them in all their fears, needs, and hopes, even to challenge them if need be…The mature heart does not seek to force beliefs on others; it does not seek to impose a faith. The mature heart listens for what another’s heart is called to be. It no longer judges or condemns. It is a heart of forgiveness. Such a heart is a compassionate heart that sees the presence of God in others. It lets itself be led by them into unchartered land. It is the heart that calls us to grow, to change, to evolve, and to become more fully human.”(Vanier, p.88)

I had my own experience of this mature heart one Sunday as guest preacher at St. Mark’s, Newark, NY, a parish that has a ministry to those who have intellectual disabilities and live in a nearby State Hospital. As I was preaching, there they were in the front row. Among them was Phyliss, a somewhat loud but loving woman. She was so proud as she told us she would soon receive an award for 25-years-service in a work program. Phyllis felt comfortable interrupting me when she had something to add to whatever I was saying. At one point when I was talking about the presence and grace of God in our lives, Phyllis told us all about being in the hospital the year before, and how it is true that God was with her through the whole ordeal of her surgery and recovery. I simply stopped and we listened to Phyllis for several minutes witness to the power of God in her life.

When she finished there really was nothing more I could say. I thanked her and encouraged us all to take a few moments of silence to take her words to heart. For whatever capabilities Phyllis may lack, hers is surely a mature heart, and a heart that rests in the very heart of God in Christ – she is one of the “holy ones of the Most High” from whom we all have something to learn.

Jesus encourages us to see that the communion of saints and Holy Ones extends far beyond the William Lauds and Richard Hookers of the church, far beyond the Desmond Tutus and Mother Theresas. To be human is to be merciful as God is merciful. To be human is to have a mature heart that reflects the very heart of Christ. To be human is to be one of God’s saints and holy ones.

Today we give thanks and praise for ALL the saints. Those who from their labors rest, and those who, like Phyllis, live among us even now. We give thanks for a tradition that takes three days each year to remember the great and broad diversity of saints among us now and throughout all time. We give thanks for everyone who in any way gives us a glimpse of what it means to be human, imago Dei, created in the image of God. We give thanks for ALL the saints. And we give thanks that “there’s not any reason no, not the least, why we all shouldn’t be one too.” And that is why we pray for the dead: so we can become human, sustain the virtue of hope, and live life with a mature heart. Amen.

Saturday, October 26, 2019

The Trap

The Trap
Jesus tells another story, a parable, and it’s a trap. It’s about a Pharisee and a Tax Collector in Luke 18:9-14. The Pharisee, a respected teacher and authority on matters of Torah, gives a somewhat puffed up rundown of how he has practiced Torah fasting and tithing beyond the commands, unlike others “like this tax collector.” The Tax Collector, considered by many to be collaborating with the Roman oppressors by collecting tolls and taxes for Caesar and tacking on more for himself, on the other hand, looks up to God and simply says, “O God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” Luke, as narrator, frames it as being aimed at those who consider themselves righteous – in a right relationship with God – and who therefore “despise others.” And Luke tacks on a familiar conclusion by this time in his gospel: “…everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” Thus, how Luke frames the story leads one to the standard interpretation: the Tax Collector, because of his humility, leaves “justified,” while the Pharisee, as a result of his perceived arrogance, does not.

There are several problems with this interpretation. 1) Such an interpretation leads to negative and quite distorted views of Judaism and Torah, leading directly to tacit or outright anti-Semitism. Such negative views of Judaism and Temple ritual stands against both the teachings of Jesus and the witness of his followers who, long after his death and resurrection, Luke tells us in his second volume, The Acts of the Apostles, “day by day” continue to worship in the Temple together. 2) The parables of Jesus are meant to shock, surprise and make us think in new and different ways, which the standard interpretation does not do. The standard zero-sum solution, one must be justified and one is not, in the end is limits Divine Grace and Generosity, and leads us to practice the kind of elitist chauvinism this caricature of a Pharisee suggests. We are happy to be “saved” ourselves; we are less happy when those we dislike or look down on are also saved, especially if they are “sinners.” 3) And of course, all of us are sinners. There is that.

The standard interpretation suffers from several misconceptions of the world Jesus lives in regarding the place of the Temple in Judaism, the place of faithful practice of prayer and Torah in a communitarian culture, and as usual, an English translation issue. If it is at all shocking that the Tax Collector, a self-confessed sinner, is justified, a deeper understanding of the world in which this parable lives can lead to an even more shocking conclusion!

Worshipping in the Jerusalem Temple was not limited to male descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob/Israel. Quite the contrary, people from all over the ancient world, female and male, were welcome as the Temple had a place for everyone to stand: the Holy of Holies for the Ark of the Covenant, the Sacrificing Altar for the Priests, a court for Jewish men, a court for Jewish women, and an outer court for everyone else, i.e. Gentiles. Life in the Temple, and throughout the land of Israel, was communitarian. Jewish prayers speak to “Our Father…Give us…Forgive us….”. Praying in the plural recognizes that each member of the community is responsible for every other. The Temple is where we come to remember this and make things right.

That is, the negative practices, sins, of one person can negatively impact everyone else, just as the good deeds of one person can positively impact the whole community. Similarly, the Temple sacrifices were offered for the well-being of the whole community. In the story before us, it is likely that first-century Jews understood that the Tax Collector with his prayer of atonement might tap into the merits and practices of the Pharisee, especially since he stands in the very place where atonement can be attained: the Temple. Just as one person’s actions can bring calamity upon the community, so can the merited behavior of one person save the whole community. It is just such an understanding that leads Christians to believe that Jesus’s actions and faithfulness allows others to be justified.

Then there is the problem with verse 14a, most often translated, “I tell you, this man [the Tax Collector] went down to his house justified rather than the other.” Yet, it can also be rendered, “To you, I say, descending to his house, this one is justified alongside that one.” The Greek word in question is para, from which we get such words as ‘parallel,’ ‘paradox,’ and ‘parable.’ It can mean “rather than,” but just as often it means, “alongside of,” or “because of.” To judge one or the other as “better” is to fall into the trap of the parable. To judge one or the other leaves us believing that God’s mercy and forgiveness is limited – which goes against that core Biblical teaching that “the sun shines on both the good and the bad, on the just and unjust alike.” To dismiss them both also traps us, since few of us are as overwhelmingly good as the Pharisee, nor as sinful as the Tax collector.

Which is why the more challenging interpretation of the parable rests on the very generosity that allows the Tax Collector to benefit from the collective repentance of the Temple system and the good deeds people like the Pharisee. [Amy Jill Levine, Short Stories by Jesus, p. 211] Yet, often this is what we want for ourselves, but don’t want others to have. Yet, deep down inside we know this does not sound like a consequence Jesus wants to teach us. Jesus teaches and practices the wideness of God’s mercy. God’s love, forgiveness and mercy are limitless and available to all. There’s enough for everyone. It is not a zero-sum, either-or world that Jesus practices.

Amy Jill Levine likens this all to a middle-school-group-project. One person may have the wisdom, one artistic talent, one can provide the snacks, and one appears to contribute nothing. Yet, if the project gets an A, all four benefit, even the one who did nothing. “This may seem unfair, but what if it is because the other three of us dismiss him as lazy or stupid. The other three may signal disappointment at his being assigned to our group. He may have felt unworthy in our presence. Yet, he trusted us and the system. Had the rest of us been more generous with him rather than resentful, we would have learned more as well. And what if he didn’t care at all? What if he depended on us, even though we were fools for doing his work for him? What we do is still worthwhile. We can afford to be generous. There are other systems of justice (e.g. test grades, a final judgment) in which his contributions or sins well be assessed.” [ibid p 211- 212]

In the end, like all parables, the story is left unresolved. Does the Pharisee praise God, or praise and only care for himself? Does the Tax Collector change his job and offer restitution to those he ripped off, or must he continue to work for Caesar’s Empire? Is only the Tax Collector justified in the end? Or, is he justified along with and because of the extraordinary life of the Pharisee? Do we believe we are our sister’s and brother’s keeper? Do we choose to live in a communitarian world where we all have something to contribute, even if what we give is the opportunity for someone else to provide us a benefit? And if our good deeds aid someone else, rather than begrudge them, why not celebrate and live a life in which all are justified? Will we despise others? Or, will we work and pray on behalf of the common good for all people?

The choices are left to us. Deep down inside we all know the choices Jesus makes. Will we fall into the traps in this story? Or, will we walk in the way Jesus calls us to follow? We know God’s goodness and mercy exceeds all that we can either desire or ask for! Thanks be to God forever and ever. Amen!

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.