Monday, November 20, 2017

Welcome The Children

Celebration of Holy Baptism, St. James Episcopal Church, San Francisco

People were bringing little children to him in order that he might touch them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them. But when Jesus saw this, he was indignant and said to them, ‘Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.’ And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.

- Mark 10:13-16

I wonder if Jesus enjoyed spending time with children.

Last Sunday, Andrew and I hosted the new rector at St. Mary the Virgin, David Ericson, his wife, Heather, and their children, Gabriella (5), and John (3) for dinner.  Our son, Nehemiah, is a college sophomore in Boston, so it has been a while since we’ve had little ones in the house.   Andrew found a box of old toy trains and planes, stuffed animals, and books from Nehemiah’s childhood and put it in the living room.  Gabriella and John were enchanted to discover these old treasures, which were new to them.  John seemed to enjoy shooting a plastic cannon ball at me.  Gabriella, a budding ballerina, was taken by a pink elephant wearing a tutu that I had forgotten about.  No wonder Nehemiah is a dance major! 

During dinner, John would periodically disappear under the table and scratch my leg, pretending to be a dog.  Finally, he worked his way onto my lap and asked, “Am I sleeping here tonight?”  I’m not sure if he asked out of hope or fear or both.  When they left, I was exhausted.  But I had a great big grin on my face.

I think Jesus welcomed the children because he knew he would enjoy it. 

I wonder, though, if Jesus also found his time with these children heart-breaking.  Remember that people were bringing these children to him so that he might touch them.  Usually, when people wanted Jesus to touch them, it was because they needed healing.  These were probably children from peasant families, malnourished, and unwell.  These kids needed help. 

It is easy for us to romanticize childhood.  We live in a society where very few infants are lost at birth or prior to weaning.  In Jesus’ world, probably a third of children born live died before the age of six.  By sixteen, something like 60% would be dead.[1]  For Jesus to allow these children to come close to him, was to come close to the pain in the communities he visited.  It had to be heart-breaking.

Jesus was indignant – he was angry – when his disciples tried to prevent people from bringing the children to him.  I used to think the disciples were just being mean, treating these children as expendable, unworthy of Jesus’ attention.  I’m not so sure now.  Maybe they were just practicing triage, believing that these kids were hopeless cases.  Maybe they were trying to protect Jesus from compassion fatigue.  I’m sure they had the best of intentions. 

But Jesus refuses their protection.  By embracing these children, he embraces their vulnerability, as well as his own.  In this mutual vulnerability, hedged around with love and care, they claim the blessing that is their birthright. 

When the children come to Jesus, don’t think of kids sitting on Santa’s lap posing for a picture.  Think of Mother Teresa in the streets of Calcutta.  Did Jesus find joy in these children?  Yes!  But not before he came close to their pain.  Which is the flat-out truth of the matter even for the most privileged families: children are vulnerable by definition.  They just come that way.  Jesus tells us that we must stand in solidarity with the most vulnerable people in our community, we must be willing to come close to their pain, if we want to enter the kingdom of God.  The kingdom happens when we make our mutual vulnerability a blessing rather than a curse; an opportunity for joy rather than for exploitation.

It is the social location of these children – as marginal, expendable, worthless – not some romantic notion of their innocence –  that cries out for our solidarity with them.  Notice too, that this solidarity is not just the responsibility of parents or families.  Jesus is not a parent.  These are not his biological or adoptive children, but he takes responsibility for blessing them and admonishes his followers to imitate him in this. 

Earlier in Mark’s Gospel, Jesus tells his disciples, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”[2]   This is a radical statement in a culture where children were socially marginal and subject to exposure when unwanted or considered burdensome:  literally, disposable people.  Jesus says that embracing a child is embracing God!   There is that of God in each of us.  There are no disposable people!  The only way to realize the kingdom of God is to embrace the deep truth of our intrinsic value and interdependence.   For Jesus, welcoming and blessing children epitomizes God gracious embrace of the vulnerable and needy.[3]

It isn’t easy to acknowledge our vulnerability.  It isn’t easy to come close to the pain in our communities.  But to close ourselves off from the vulnerability and pain, to prevent the children from coming to us, also closes us off from the joy of claiming and sharing God’s blessing.  

Earlier this week, I had occasion to attend the San Francisco Unified School District Board of Education meeting, along with a couple of other members of St. James, and leaders from other congregations who are a part of Faith in Action Bay Area’s faith-based community organizing work.  We were there to support the efforts of Dr. Vincent Matthews, the Superintendent, who declared a state of emergency among African American children in our city.

Since 2000, the African American community in San Francisco shrank by 27 percent.  Life expectancy among African Americans here is 15 years less than the rest of the population.  The median household income of white households is more than $100k, while that of African American households is $30K.  48% of African American children live in households earning less than the federal poverty line, compared to 2% of white children.   Our schools are failing these children, 74% of whom score well below grade level on standardized tests and have been for more than 25 years across different state tests.  It is no wonder that 67% of African Americans in our city do not have a high school diploma, compared to 16% of the white population.[4]  Racial and socioeconomic segregation and institutional racism is creating a public health crisis for African American children in our city.  This is what a slow-moving genocide looks like.

Are we willing to come close to the pain in our community?  What would it look like to embrace and bless these children?  

These are not easy questions.  But I do know this:  white guilt and white fragility, the attitude that issues of race are just too painful and unpleasant to address, is the resort of privilege.  Jesus invites us to choose a different option: using our privilege and power to welcome, heal, and bless.  In our baptism, we are empowered to be ambassadors of Jesus, agents of reconciliation.  The work of reconciliation begins with relationship. 

What if we chose to come close to the pain rather than deny or ignore it?  What if we partnered with a congregation in the Bayview or Western Addition to adopt a failing elementary school there?  What if we built relationships with the families in that congregation, listened deeply to their stories, and opened ourselves, as Elizabeth Nelson invited us last week, not only to their brokenness but also to the unique gifts they bring to the party?  What if, like Jesus, we discovered that we enjoyed our time with these families and their children? What if we claimed them as our children too.  I’m sure that we would feel vulnerable, even uncomfortable.  I suspect that we would be changed.  I trust that we would find ourselves on the inside of the kingdom of God. 

Today, we welcome and embrace Boden, Brooks, and Logan in the sacrament of Holy Baptism.  We promise to hold them close in their pain and in their joy.  We promise to honor the unique gifts they bring to the table, a table in which all are invited and included.  In so doing, they push the circle of our embrace to make it a little bit wider.  May the scope of that embrace keep expanding until it knows no limits.  Let the children come.  It may be exhausting sometimes, but it will leave a big grin on your face.  Amen. 

[1] John Dominic Crossan, The Historical Jesus:  The Life of Mediterranean Jewish Peasant (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1991), p. 4.
[2] Mark 9:37.
[3] James L. Bailey, “Experiencing the Kingdom as a Little Child: A Rereading of Mark 10:13-16,” Word & World (Volume XV, Number 1, Winter 1995), p. 62.
[4] Data from the 2016 San Francisco Community Health Needs Assessment and the Superintendent’s 90-Day Report.

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

We Are Powerful People

We are powerful people.

But sometimes, we forget.  And sometimes, the rulers of this world would like us to believe otherwise.  It isn’t true.  Don’t believe them for a minute.  We are powerful people.

Many of you have been personally affected by the terrible wild fires that swept through this part of the country last month, leaving 42 people dead and others still missing.   More than 8,000 buildings were engulfed in flames covering some 250 square miles, displacing thousands of people.  Santa Rosa alone lost 3,000 homes. 

In the face of such catastrophe, it would be easy to feel powerless, but within two days of the fires food and clothing distribution centers already were overwhelmed – not by the need of the victims – but by the generosity of donors.  Neighbors quickly opened their doors to neighbors, some of whom they will be housing for many months.  The crisis is far from over, and the work of reconstruction has only begun, but there is hope because of people like you.

One of the silver linings of this terrible experience has been the discovery that we can make a difference in our world.  Our action – and inaction – has real consequences.  When we allow ourselves to see and experience the pain of others, when we hear their cry, we want to help.  When we recognize our common humanity, we can claim our power to alleviate suffering and promote healing and restorative justice.  

One of the many moving stories related to the fires was about the 3,800 forest fire fighters who are California prison inmates.  Prisoners convicted of low level felonies with good behavior can volunteer to serve in this capacity, developing useful skills, earning $2 per hour and reducing their sentence by two days for each day of service to the community.  They literally underwent a baptism by fire that will lead to new life for them and others.  No matter our circumstances, every one of us has the capacity to be of service to others.

We are powerful people.

Now it was hard to miss the fires.  Even in San Francisco, we were choking on the fumes.  We couldn’t act like everything was OK, that it wasn’t our problem, that life should just go on as if nothing bad were happening.  We are too close to the pain to pretend it isn’t there.  It was our pain too.

And yet, and yet, seeing and experiencing the pain of others is a choice.  We can and do choose to ignore suffering.  We can even benefit from the pain of others, and so mask their suffering to preserve our privilege.  The prophet Micah wails against the leaders of Judah and the false prophets who cry, “Peace!” and say, “Surely the Lord is with us!  No harm shall come upon us,” willfully denying their complicity in the violent exploitation of the poor. 

Micah defends subsistence farmers struggling to keep their ancestral inheritance against the greedy expropriation of their land by Judean elites.   There was a homeless crisis in Judea, exacerbated by rapacious landlords evicting tenants without any regard for their pain, supported by corrupt judges eager to accept bribes and false prophets preaching a gospel of prosperity. 

In this conflict between the all too real pain of the poor, and the denial of their pain on the part of the privileged, Micah finds his voice, shouting, “I am filled with power, with the spirit of the Lord, and with justice and might, to declare to Jacob his transgression and to Israel his sin.” 

Don’t believe those false prophets!  We are powerful people!  When others deny the reality of injustice, we can make the pain visible!  We have the power to de-legitimate social structures that oppress God’s children.  But we must choose to see.  We must be willing to experience the pain that others willfully dismiss.

Some pain is hard to see.  It isn’t like a roaring forest fire.  It smolders in the shadowy spaces of society, kept out of sight and out of mind in hospitals, jails, trailer parks, tent cities, and detention centers.  We must look for the pain to be in touch with it.  We must exercise our power to uncover it, to bring it into the light of day so that it can be seen, challenged, and healed. 

The detention and deportation machine that is crushing the lives of millions of undocumented immigrants, tearing parents away from their children, and forcing people to live in fear is one of the hidden structures of evil in our society.  It is the source of great pain, but it is far removed from most of us.  We don’t see Immigration and Customs Enforcement police raiding our schools, homes, and businesses.  

We don’t see people like Floricel Ramos, a single mother and farm worker, who was picked up by ICE in Lodi.  She is now being held in detention.  Last week, she had a hearing before an Immigration Court in San Francisco.  Floricel's hearing, which was scheduled for 9am, did not come before the judge until 11:55 am.  The judge summarily declared that five minutes was not enough time before the noon recess for the government to make its case. Therefore, the judge said, she would postpone the hearing for 15 more days.

Floricel’s daughter, Jennifer, wept, desperate for her mother. At 17, Jennifer is a parent to her younger siblings, Michael, 13, and Daisy, 10. She coordinates school drop-offs and pick-ups and takes Daisy, who has autism, to her speech therapy sessions. She takes them to mass, helps them with their homework, and takes them to the park on the weekend after she finishes her shift at a local taco truck. Because her father was deported five years ago, she is also a surrogate partner to her mother in detention, reassuring her on their daily phone calls that the children are well. Jennifer is also a normal high school student who spends her evenings studying for her medical assistant class.

Floricel and her children are not alone.  Members of Faith in Action, a faith based community organizing group promoting dignity and justice, including folks from St. James and other Episcopal congregations, packed the courtroom, offering prayers, and chanting, Liberen a Floricel! Free Floricel.  We are now raising money to make bond and reunite this beautiful family.  Last weekend, the Episcopal Diocese of California’s Convention voted to declare ourselves a Sanctuary Diocese.   We see their pain, and the pain of the 11 million undocumented sisters and brothers in our land, and we will not be silent.   We will accompany them in their pain, advocate for justice, protect their children and claim our citizenship in a kingdom without borders because we are powerful people. 

Jesus reserved his sharpest criticism for those who, secure in their privilege, place great burdens on the poor who live on the margins of society, while making no attempt to relieve their pain.   Jesus instructs us to have no regard for their privilege, to afford them no special, much less, superior deference or honor because greatness is reserved for those who live lives of humble service:  people like Floricel and Jennifer Ramos.  Rather, Jesus invites us to join him in a discipleship of equals, in which all are sisters and brothers, bound together in mutual service, living close to the pain in our communities, and claiming our power to promote dignity and justice. 

We are powerful people, because we serve a powerful God. God comes to us in Jesus, the pain-bearer, the life-giver, to reignite our imagination and creativity, our collective power to resist evil and become the midwives of a new world that God is birthing, a world in which God’s reign becomes our reality.  This power takes the form of love. It is ours!  We were made for it! Claim it! Use it!  Share it!  Give it away! 

We can make a difference in our world.  We are powerful people and God is counting on us!  Thanks be to God, whose power, working in us, can do infinitely more than we can ask for or imagine!  Amen.

Monday, October 16, 2017

The Secret of Life

Many of you have no doubt seen the fish symbol common in early Christianity; although on Bay Area bumper stickers, it is more likely to have “Darwin” written in the middle of it!  Its use as a religious symbol predates the Church, which made it particularly useful for Christians in hiding during periods of persecution.  Its use would not have aroused suspicions; but, for those in the know, the head of the fish pointed to the site of local gatherings of the underground Jesus movement.  The Greek letters in the word “fish” form an acrostic signifying “Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior.”  The fish directed people searching for the good news of Jesus. 

What was it about these early Christians, that people were willing to go underground, risking arrest, torture, and death, to join their movement?  What did they see in them?  Huston Smith, the great historian of comparative religion, suggests that “They saw lives that had been transformed – men and women who were ordinary in every way except for the fact that they seemed to have found the secret of living.”[1]   They were enjoying life. 

More specifically, their lives evidenced two qualities. The first was mutual love demonstrated by concrete acts of care.  Tertullian wrote that the Romans would exclaim of Christians, “Look how they love one another . . . and how they are even ready to die for one another.”[2]  This mutual regard transcended all social boundaries: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus,”[3] St. Paul wrote to the churches in Galatia.  Justin Martyr described Christian love this way: 

. . . we who valued above all things the acquisition of wealth and possessions, now bring what we have into a common stock, and communicate to everyone in need; we who hated and destroyed one another, and on account of their different manners would not live with men of a different tribe, now, since the coming of Christ, live familiarly with them, and pray for our enemies, and endeavor to persuade those who hate us unjustly to live conformably to the good precepts of Christ, to the end that they may become partakers with us of the same joyful hope . . .[4]   

Such love made for a discipleship of equals.

The second quality evidenced by these Christians was joy.  They had obtained an inner peace that radiated joy.  Now, by and large these early Christian communities weren’t numerous, wealthy, or powerful.  They didn’t reek of success.  In fact, they were marginalized and frequently persecuted.  In a cultural climate marked by fatalism and pessimism, in which poverty and death loomed large, Christians were notable simply for being happy.   

St. Paul is a good example.  He sacrificed the security and prestige of his status as a learned Pharisee when he joined the Jesus movement, which he had previously persecuted.  During his missionary journeys he suffered hunger, public stoning and whippings, and even shipwreck.  He was ridiculed and opposed for sharing the good news of Jesus.  Yet, he considered the loss of privilege to be nothing, a pile of crap, compared to the surpassing value of knowing Jesus Christ.[5] 
Writing from prison – where torture and deprivation were commonplace in the 1st Century – Paul encourages the churches in Philippi, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice . . . Do not worry about anything . . . and the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.”[6]  Paul and other disciples in the Jesus movement where held in a peace that was impervious to external circumstances.  Their joy was rooted in something deeper than normal considerations of pleasure and pain, gain and loss.  It was rooted in an unshakable sense of being unconditionally loved.

People saw the mutual care exercised in this discipleship of equals and the joy they shared and they said, “I want what they have.”  And they were willing to do anything to get it.  What was the secret to living that these Jesus people seemed to know?  They knew that God loved them, and this love freed them from the barriers that keep us from being fully alive.  I’m not talking about a formal, abstract idea of love, but an intimate, personal experience of being loved by God communicated by their encounter with Jesus.  Jesus imparted a love that transcended death: Resurrection love.  It made everything new.  They couldn’t help but re-joice: get their joy on again and again and again.

Huston Smith uses the analogy of the atom.  Within the atom is locked the energy of the sun itself.  For this energy to be released it must be bombarded from without.  So, too, locked in every human being is the energy of God’s love, but it can only be unlocked by being bombarded by love from without, breaking through the barriers that contain this energy so that we can respond to love with love.[7]  Jesus set off a chain reaction of love breaking through the barriers to love that is still expanding even now.   

We can be swept up in this great unfolding of love, joining in God’s project of renewing the world, of getting its joy on again.  But the barriers to love are real.  In another analogy, St. Teresa of Avila describes the soul as an interior castle “made entirely out of a diamond or of a very clear crystal . . . a paradise where the Lord says He finds His delight.”[8]  This is almost unimaginable to us.  At the center of our being God makes Her home in us because She delights in us.  This is the deepest truth about us!  We are loved.  God delights in us.  Teresa goes on to lament that we don’t understand ourselves or know who we are.[9]  What prevents us from knowing ourselves to be so beautiful and beloved?  

We are diamonds encased in thick walls of fear, guilt, and self-centeredness.  Only God’s love can shatter those walls and reveal us to ourselves as reflections of God’s own glory.  Only love can break through our fear of loss, of failure, and finally, of death.  Fear looms large in us these days:  fear of the loss of basic civility; loss of democratic government; loss of a sustainable planet to bequeath to our children and grandchildren.   And beneath it all, the fear that we are not loved or loveable.  Only love can break through our fear and release our compassion – our passion with – ourselves and others.

In the face of so many threats, our guilt looms even larger:  guilt that we haven’t done enough to solve our world’s problems; guilt about our privilege in the face of so much suffering; guilt about our complicity in the systems that cause this suffering and preserves our privilege.  Only love can break through our guilt and unleash our creativity so that we can do our part to mend the world.

Overwhelmed by the enormity of it all and our uncertainty about the future, the retreat into self-centeredness is an ever-present temptation; the preoccupation with me and mine; the frantic scramble to secure my piece of the pie; the sacrifice of integrity before the false idols of fantasy, illusion, and compulsive escapism in all its forms in our culture.  Only love can break through our self-centeredness and restore our connection with reality so that we can reclaim our place as part of a larger whole with awareness and humility. 

God’s love doesn’t solve all our problems.  It doesn’t protect us from suffering.  What it does provide is an inner peace and joy that sustains us amid life’s problems and inevitable suffering.  Leaning back into that love, we can re-joice, get our groove back, get our joy on again. 

We are experiencing dark times in our world, but, as Andy Crouch points out,

There was violence and disintegration in the day of Jesus, too.  Jesus was hardly shy about confronting the patterns of sin in his culture – though he was consistently harder on the pious than he was on the pagans.  But everywhere Jesus went, life blossomed.  The sick were healed, lepers were touched, daughters and sons were plucked from the mouth of the grave.  Jesus left behind him a trail of leaps and laughter, reunited families, and terrific wine, as well as dumb-founded synagogue leaders, uneasy monarchs, and sleepless procurators.  His witness against violence, amidst a culture in rebellion against the good, was neither withdrawal or war.  It was simply life:  abundant, just, generous life.  And, ultimately, a willingness to let the enemies of life do their worst, confident that even death could not extinguish the abundant life of God.[10]

Jesus was like the man in the Parable of the Wedding Banquet:  he didn’t fit in at the party, refused to conform to the oppressive violence celebrated there, and so was thrown into outer darkness.[11]  But I suspect he enjoyed the open bar while he was there, and never refused anyone who asked him to dance.  He got his joy on and it was contagious.  And that was what really pissed off the evil powers of this world. 

Even as we go down to the grave, we make our song:  Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia![12]  Nothing can steal our joy, for we are held in a deathless love.  You are loved.  You are loved.  You are loved.  This is the first and last word, and it will carry you through everything in between.  It is greater than your fear, your guilt, and your self-preoccupation.  You are a diamond reflecting the glory of God and nothing ultimately can dim this light:  So get your joy on and let it shine!

[1] Huston Smith, “Reasons for Joy,” Christian Century (October 4, 2005), p. 10.
[2] Tertullian, Apology, Chapter 39 in The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. III, p. 46.
[3] Galatians 3:28.
[4] Justin Martyr, First Apology, Chapter 14, in The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. I, p. 167.
[5] Philippians 3:7-10.
[6] Philippians 4:4a, 6a, 7.
[7] Smith, p. 11.
[8] St. Teresa of Avila, The Interior Castle 1:1, p. 283 in The Collected Works of St. Teresa of Avila, Volume 2. 
[9] St. Teresa, p. 284.
[10] Andy Crouch, “Furrowed Brows Inc.,” Christianity Today (April 2006), p. 100.
[11] Matthew 22:1-14.
[12] See “The Commendation” in the Burial Office, The Book of Common Prayer, p. 499.

Monday, October 9, 2017

"Failed Politicians"

Zurbarán's St. Francis
What is it about St. Francis, and other saints, that is so fascinating, even to those who are not Christians?  What is the secret of their continuing hold on our attention, such that we appreciate them even when we no longer seek to imitate them?  Two stories about St. Francis provide a clue to this secret. 

One day before his conversion, Francis of Assisi was walking along the highway weeping.  Thinking he was ill, a man asked him: “What’s the matter with you, brother?”  “Ah,” he answered, “For the love of Christ, I should not be ashamed of going around the world like this grieving for my Savior’s agony.”[1] 

Many years later, at the end of his life when St. Francis was going blind, the doctors found the cause to be an excess of tears.[2]   This “excess of tears” is an expression not only of grief, but also of joy.  You know the wrenching tears evoked by tragedies such as those in Puerto Rico and Las Vegas, as well as the grief of personal loss.  But you also know the tears of joy shed the first time you held your newborn baby in your arms, or when that same child graduated from high school.  I’ve officiated at enough weddings to have witnessed plenty of tears of joy – usually the groom’s!  I hope it is tears of joy . . .  I recall starting down a trailhead at the Bishop’s Ranch for a hike and suddenly being overwhelmed by the beauty and sense of homecoming evoked by that special place.  I burst into tears.

It is this “excess of tears” that both fascinates and frightens us.  We are a little bit undone by the vulnerability of the saints, their capacity to embrace the sorrow and joy of the world with undefended hearts.  Yet, in their vulnerability, the saints also wield a certain kind of power.

Even Friedrich Nietzsche, no lover of Christianity, recognized this when he noted that

So far the most powerful human beings have still bowed worshipfully before the saint as the riddle of self-conquest and deliberate final renunciation.  Why did they bow?  In him . . . they sensed the superior force that sought to test itself in such a conquest, the strength of the will in which they recognized and honored their own strength and delight in dominion:  they honored something in themselves when they honored the saint.  Moreover, the sight of the saint awakened a suspicion in them:  such an enormity of denial, of anti-nature will not have been desired for nothing . . . There may be a reason for it, some very great danger about which the ascetic, thanks to his secret comforters and visitors, might have inside information.  In short, the powerful of the world learned a new fear before him; they sensed a new power, a strange, yet unconquered enemy – it was the “will to power” that made them stop before the saint.  They had to ask him -[3]

The powerful of the world recognize the power of the saint:  she mirrors something of their own authority.  They just have to ask, like the chief priests and elders of Israel asked Jesus, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?”[4]  The powerful are fascinated, not just by the ascetic feats of self-control whereby the saints master their own desires, but also by the saints’ will to know and to love, to know through loving, that compels them to action in the world.  The saints exercise power.  This is what brings them to the attention of the politicians in the first place.   

As E. M. Cioran notes in his Tears and Saints,

The difference between mystics and saints is that the former stop at an inner vision, while the latter put it into practice . . . Ethics plus mysticism gives birth to the intriguing phenomenon of sainthood.  The mystics cultivate a heavenly sensuality, a voluptuousness born of their intercourse with the sky; only saints take on their shoulders the load of others, the suffering of unknown people; only they act.  Compared to the pure mystic, the saint is a politician.[5] 

The saint is a politician: one who acts in the public realm.  Cioran thinks of them as “failed politicians,” but I’m not so sure.  They are successful enough not only to come to the attention of conventional politicians, but to come into conflict with them:  Nietzsche refers to saints as a “strange, unconquered enemy.”  I suppose Jesus’ execution as an enemy of the state marks him as a failed politician.  St. Francis imitated Jesus even in this failure.  Five year before he died, Francis lost control of the Order of Friars Minor that he founded because of his insistence on the renunciation of private property.  It is the authority of these powerless saints, these failed politicians, that so fascinates the powerful of the world and eludes their understanding.

What they fail to understand is this “excess of tears” that motivates the saints’ will to power, their relentless desire to know through love all things in God, and so to become transparent to God’s healing love for the sake of the world.  It is love that energizes their action in the world.

The difference between authority derived from God and human authority is the way in which power is exercised.  Violence and the sacrifice of human lives is the normal way of exercising human authority, as the chief priests and elders affirm in their description of what the owner of the vineyard will do to the wicked tenants in the parable by Jesus: “He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time.”[6]  This is how law and order is maintained.

The chief priests and elders identify with the owner in the story.  They are members of the aristocratic, landowning class, and they know all about how to deal with unruly tenant farmers.  They assume Jesus will agree with their response to the parable, and are shocked when he replies: “Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom.”[7] God’s authority is not exercised like human authority.  It is exercised through the power of love, which takes the form of justice in history.  That power is demonstrated through self-sacrifice in solidarity with the victims of injustice, rather than through sacrificing victims to maintain privilege masking as law and order. 

Human authority is recognizable by the excess of blood it produces.  Divine authority is recognizable by the excess of tears it produces; tears of compassion and tears of joy.   Human authority creates subjects with power and objects to be acted upon, who are divided against each other.  Divine authority creates communion between subjects who share the power of love in a common life.  The saints inhabit a kingdom without borders, and recognize no ultimate authority other than that of God.  It is love that makes them strange, unconquered enemies of violent human authority. 

And yet it is to the powerful, as well as the powerless, that Jesus and St. Francis preach the good news of God’s Kingdom.  In his parable of the wicked tenants, Jesus follows the prophetic tradition of using parables as a kind of verbal ju-jitsu to turn the tables on the powerful.  He draws them into a story that they think is about somebody else – the erratic violence of unruly tenants – only to discover that the story is very much about them – and the violence of law and order, the systemic violence of the powerful. 

In so doing, Jesus breaks one of the cardinal rules of social order.  It is OK to speak of the immorality and violence of the oppressed.  It is not acceptable to speak of the systemic immorality and violence of the powerful.  Into this silence, Jesus speaks the mercy of God.  Into this silence, St. Francis spoke the mercy of God to lepers, outcasts, birds and wolves, even Muslims: the perennial bogeyman of the West beginning with the crusades that Francis preached - against.  This mercy is for the sake of the powerful as well.  It is preached for their conversion, so that they may embrace communion instead of domination; so that together we can touch into the depths of joy that lies beneath our tears. 

Jesus quotes Psalm 118 and describes himself as the stone that the builders rejected.  If he is a “failed politician,” it is because the powerful reject the invitation to conversion that Jesus offers them; the renunciation of their exploitation of the poor that turns them into landless tenants in the first place.  They reject mercy, dismissing this “excess of tears.”  Yet, Jesus remains the cornerstone of a new form of human community, an alternative way of exercising power together, upon which St. Francis and all the saints, have continued to build.    

Nietzsche saw correctly that the powerful fear the saints.  This is what is so amazing about the them!  Despite their failure, their excess of tears, their rejection by the powerful, God is continually renewing the world through the ever-flowing stream of mercy flowing from their lives.  If the Cross reveals the usual imposition of law and order for what it is: a sacrifice of victims; the Resurrection reveals the life-giving power of God to forgive, heal, and renew.  St. Francis exercised that power.  That is the power that we are invited to exercise.  We can claim our vulnerability, our solidarity, our compassion, and jump into the stream of mercy that is renewing the world. 

The imitation of Jesus and the saints requires us to become “failed politicians.”  This is the Lord’s doing, and it is amazing in our eyes!

[1] E. M. Cioran, Tears and Saints (Chicago:  University of Chicago Press, 1995), p. 30.
[2] Cioran, p. 62.
[3] Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil: Prelude to a Philosophy of the Future (New York: Random House, 1966), p. 65.
[4] Matthew 21:23b.
[5] Cioran, p. 6 – 7.
[6] Matthew 21:40-41.
[7] Matthew 21:43.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

To Mercy Bound

After a week punctuated by fires, floods, and an earthquake, someone posted a simple, two panel comic strip on Facebook.  In the first panel, a pious looking preacher, prays to God, “Lord, why do you pile all these troubles upon us?  It’s because of the gays, isn’t it?”  To which the voice of God replies, “Yes, it is.”

Second panel: “I knew it,” says the preacher.  “You’re punishing us for their abominations!”  “Oh, no, no, no, not at all,” responds God.  “I’m punishing you for the shitty way you treat them.” 

Now, there was a part of me that enjoyed the smug smirk that crossed my face when I read this.  It felt satisfying to see the tables turned for a change.  Most of us, no matter how we distinguish between the good guys and the bad guys, have internalized the cultural meme that good guys should be rewarded and bad guys should be punished.  It is a familiar plot device in literature and film, the foundation of our legal system, and a deeply cathartic experience; even more satisfying, when we believe God is on our side.

But my smirk quickly turned to a frown.  This comic may work as satire, but it is poor theology.  Aside from the indiscriminate and disproportionate nature of the punishment it describes, its basic commitment to the reward/punishment scheme doesn’t square with the arc of the biblical story and the image of God it portrays. 

When Joseph’s brothers, who, out of jealousy, sold him into slavery, come seeking forgiveness, he assures them, “Do not be afraid!  Am I in the place of God?”[1]  With tears in his eyes, Joseph forgives them, trusting that God was at work to preserve life even though his brothers intended harm.  Having experienced God’s mercy, Joseph shares that mercy with his brothers and provides for them in their need.

St. Paul knew that there is no fight like a church fight.  He urges the churches in Rome to welcome those who disagree with them, because God has welcomed them.  “Why do you pass judgment on servants of another,” he asks them.  It is before the Lord that they stand or fall, and, Paul says confidently, “the Lord is able to make them stand.”[2]  Who are we to take the place of God?

And when St. Peter asks Jesus, “how often should I forgive?”  Jesus’ response implicitly means there is no limit to forgiveness.[3]  Forgiveness, as an expression of love, is a renewable resource.  It is inexhaustible. God’s mercy is boundless, and to mercy we are bound. 

So, let’s talk about forgiveness and mercy, beginning with forgiveness.  I’d like to suggest that forgiveness is a response to people and situations in which we’ve suffered or caused harm.  It is a way of healing and reclaiming our freedom.

There are still consequences for the harmful behavior.  Forgiveness doesn’t mean everything is now OK.  It simply means that the past no longer has the power to define my present reality, and that the possibility of reconciliation exists, so long as all the parties involved are willing to take responsibility for their part.  Forgiveness prizes relationship over reward or punishment, without sacrificing human dignity or physical or emotional safety. 

Forgiveness is a process, not an event.  Some harms are so profoundly wounding, and the guilt we carry for having committed them is so debilitating, that forgiveness can take a lifetime.  It cannot be forced.  It begins by simply acknowledging the harm that has been done.  The second step is the recovery of our capacity to acknowledge the humanity of the victim or the perpetrator, perhaps by becoming willing to hold them in prayer.  It may proceed to the offer and acceptance of forgiveness.  In some cases, as with Joseph and his brothers, it can even lead to the restoration of relationship. 

Note that forgiveness does not depend on the action of another.  If harmed, I do not need wait upon the repentance of the perpetrator to forgive.  If I have harmed another, I do not need wait upon the forgiveness of my victim to repent and amend my life.  In either case, I simply must become willing to take responsibility for my part in the process of healing and restoration of freedom.   

We always begin with forgiveness, for it is freedom from the past that makes the healing of wounds and the amendment of life possible.  When we are no longer defined by the harms we’ve suffered or caused, we can begin to live again.  Reward and punishment become quite secondary to the primacy of being alive.

Forgiveness is not simple or easy, but without it, spiritual growth is stifled and viable community becomes impossible.  It is the key that unlocks the vicious cycles of despair, resentment, remorse, and vengeance that make our world a living hell.  Forgiveness is hard work.  It is utterly dependent upon the inexhaustible mercy of God.

Mercy is deeper and broader than forgiveness.  I think of it as the background atmosphere of forgiveness, the oxygen that we need to engage particular acts of forgiveness.  Mercy is the “existential forgiveness” that comes with simply being alive, recognizing the enormous debts we owe to our ancestors, to society, to the Earth community, and ultimately to God; debts that we can never possibly repay. Mercy is the powerful experience that this “debt” is forgiven; that there is nothing we need or can do to repay it, no way we can be worthy of it.  It is pure gift, quite apart from questions of punishment and reward.    

In one of her essays, Margaret Atwood relates the true story of the nature writer, Ernest Thompson Seton.   On his 21st birthday, Ernest had an unusual bill presented to him by his father.  It was a record of all the expenses accrued while raising him, beginning with the fee charged by the doctor who delivered him.  The bill was now due.  Ernest’s father was implicitly saying, “I’ve met my obligation.  Now pay up, and we are even.”  It assumes moral relationships are like business transactions, in which payment of the debt ends the relationship.  Ernest paid the bill, we are told, and never spoke to his father again.[4]

Giving and receiving what is due, is not the only way to imagine a moral relationship.  A parent imagined in this way, much less acting in this way, is rightly considered a monster.  There is also the giving and receiving of gifts, not out of obligation, but as an act of love.  Yet, isn’t this the way we too often think about God?  As One to whom we owe a considerable debt, beyond our capacity to pay, yet who still presents us with a bill?  Which brings me to today’s parable of the unforgiving servant.[5] 

Jesus tells this parable, precisely to subvert our usual understanding of God as a divine creditor.  Remember that parables are metaphorical in character, not allegorical.  The kingdom of heaven is like what is described in the parable, but also unlike what is described, and there is no strict correspondence between say, God and the king in the parable.  They are alike and unlike. 

In its immediate context, the parable is told in response to Peter’s question about forgiveness.  Does forgiveness have a limit? Jesus affirms unlimited forgiveness.  Peter assumed the cultural norm that good guys should be rewarded and bad guys should be punished.  And, he assumed that he was one of the good guys. 

Peter was in danger of being like the unjust slave in the parable.  If we owe debts to our ancestors, to society, and to the Earth community, how much more do we “owe” to God?  More than we could ever pay.  But God doesn’t hold us accountable.  All is gift, not debt.  We need to reimagine what all our relationships look like considering God’s mercy, and imitate God in this way of being. 

The unforgiving slave feels entitled to demand everything owed him, no matter how little it may be.  He wants his due, no matter how badly his demands, however formally just, hurt others.  Note that the other slaves, when they see what he is doing, are greatly distressed.  They are distressed because their fellow slave is bound to the logic of reward and punishment, rather than to mercy, the very mercy he has received so unconditionally. 

When his lord discovers what this wicked slave has done, he hands him over to be tortured until his entire debt is repaid.  The same language of “handing over” is used when Jesus is “handed over” to the authorities.  This correspondence between the unforgiving slave and Jesus subverts our notions of justice – the slave getting what he deserves, while Jesus did not.  It isn’t about getting what you deserve.  We all owe more than we can ever pay.  The question is: will we allow God’s mercy to transform our imagination so that we can share that mercy with others, or will we refuse this mercy and double down on the hell of demanding our due, fueling the cycle of vengeance, rivalry, and violence?

In the ancient world, if you were unable to pay your debt, your creditor could have you imprisoned and even tortured to coerce your family, friends, or benefactors to pay the debt for you.  If your creditor was unforgiving, you became dependent on the mercy of others.  I wonder if there isn’t a certain irony in this parable, a subtle message that there is no way around mercy.  We can realize this the easy way, by accepting God’s mercy and allow it to change us so that we, too, can forgive from the heart, out of love.  Or, we will realize it the hard way, coming to see our need for mercy only through our own experience of suffering.  Either way, in the end, we all depend upon the mercy of God and each other.

We can forgive from the heart, really forgive as an expression of the mercy we have received from God, or we can remain locked in the torture of strict accounting of reward and punishment.  God comes to us in Jesus, not to pay our debt, but to share the gift of mercy; to reveal the bonds of mutual love, not strict reciprocity, that bind us together.  We are all to mercy bound. 

[1] Genesis 50:19.

[2] Romans 14:1-4.

[3] Matthew 18:21-22.

[4] Recounted by David Graeber, Debt: The First 5,000 Years (Brooklyn, NY:  Melville Publishing House, 2012), p. 92.  Graeber provides a fascinating anthropology of moral discourse and the metaphor of debt.

[5] Matthew 18:23-35.