Holding Back the Fire—Embracing the Beloved Community

GuestsoutsideWhen called by the prophet Elijah, (1 Kings 19: 19–21) Elisha asks to kiss his mother and father first. When he is rebuked for this demurral, he slaughters his oxen, breaks the yokes and burns them, and then follows Elijah. That is, he burns his bridges in making a clean break. Elisha makes this break, however, to join a brotherhood of prophets who have set up an alternate community to the violent and idolatrous kingdom of Ahab and Jezebel. Unfortunately, this community is also compromised by violence as Elijah calls fire down on his enemies (2 Kings 1: 10–12) and one of the prophets anoints Jehu to pull of a violent coup d’état. (2 Kings 9)

We see the same dynamics of making a clean break in the stories of Jesus calling his disciples. The earlier callings of Peter, Andrew, James, John and the others were successful as they left their boats and families and followed Jesus. But when Jesus begins his journey to Jerusalem where he will be crucified, we have what appear to be three failed callings. (Lk. 9: 57-62) In each case, Jesus is stressing the homelessness and the break with the culture these people have known, just as Elijah was asking Elishah to do. They will have no place to lay their heads because, with Jesus, they will no longer have a place in the culture. The dead can bury the dead because the culture they would be leaving is dead. Like a farmer at the plow, they must look ahead, towards Jerusalem, not back the way they came.

We normally think the cultures we live in are pretty good. After all, they have nurtured us from infancy and we owe a lot to them. But the story preceding the failed callings shows up the problem with our cultures. The solidarity with our “own” people tends to put us at enmity with those who are “other.” The beginning of Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem takes him through Samaria, where a village there did not “receive” them. Whether or not they were actually rejected by the Samaritans is not clear, but the suggestion of James and John that they command fire to rain down on the Samaritans suggests they probably were. This quick escalation from rejection to total destruction is the trademark of human culture that builds up such enmity and violence. Jesus rebukes his disciples for suggesting such a thing. Interestingly, some manuscripts add a verse where Jesus says: “You do not know what spirit you are of, for the Son of Man has not come to destroy the lives of human beings but to save them.” Even if this added verse is not authentic, Jesus’s rebuke already conveys that sentiment. Rejection and raining down fire is the culture of violence that the disciples and would-be disciples are commanded to turn away from.

Turning away from one’s own culture, in itself, is negative. As long as it is negative, it is fueled by alienation and resentment, which leads to the seething irrational anger of the Underground Man as Dostoevsky calls him. Cutting oneself off from everybody is also a violent act, one that can lead to senseless violence as it does with the Underground Man who eventually attacks another person out of sheer spite. I myself was mired in such alienation and resentment for some years when the problems with my own culture became evident through the Viet Nam War, racist practices and other social ills. This attitude felt like freedom until I was freed by God from the resentment and discovered it had really been a prison.

In Galatians 5, Paul illustrates the culture Jesus is calling us from, what he calls the “works of the flesh,” as “licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy” and much, much more. It is precisely envy, quarreling, strife and the like that makes human culture so violent that rejection from other humans leads to raining down fire in retaliation. No wonder some people turn away in disgust and resentment. But Jesus would have us turn away from the culture of death and violence, not to close in on ourselves in impotent fury, but to embrace humanity in a much deeper, much more inclusive way. Paul says that the fruits of the Spirit, the spirit that comes to save lives, not destroy them, are “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. “ (Gal. 5: 22–23) Just a bit further on his journey to Jerusalem, Jesus illustrates the fruit of the Spirit with the Parable of the Good Samaritan (Lk. 10: 25–37) where the enemy the disciples would rain fire on is the one who shows compassion for an enemy who, in turn, is challenged to accept love from an enemy. Paul says this is crucifying the “flesh with its passions and desires.” (Gal. 5: 24) As Jesus shows at the end of the road to Jerusalem, kindness, generosity, gentleness and the like end up on the cross where the strife, jealousy and envy of the people is absorbed. Once we embrace this culture of love, what Martin Luther King Jr. called “the Beloved Community,” we embrace the culture we have renounced so as to bring it into the culture of the Spirit.

It Was Necessary

yellowTulips1Easter is an occasion of great rejoicing with bells, boisterous singing, and feasting. But do we really know what we are celebrating? The Gospel reading, doesn’t exactly ring out with Christmas joy of angels filling the skies with songs of God’s glory. Instead, we get “two men in dazzling clothes” who tell the women who came to the grave to anoint Jesus’ body that Jesus was not there but had risen. They had come to the wrong place.

A small group of confused women running off to stammer the news to the disciples isn’t exactly a celebration either. The disciples’s thinking the news is an “idle tale” may reflect a masculine condescending attitude towards women, but their reaction also shows how totally disorienting the news was. The Gospel reading ends with Peter running to the tomb to take a look for himself, seeing the empty linen clothes lying about, and then going home, “amazed at what had happened.” (Lk. 24: 12) Still no celebration; just a lot of unanswered questions. Luke continues his Resurrection narrative with two followers of Jesus walking to Emmaus with no indication of why they should be going there, implying that they are going the wrong way. Their conversation with a stranger on the way confirms their sense of confusion. Should we, too, be too disoriented to celebrate?

I think the key to understanding the problem lies in the words of the angelic beings: “Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.” (Lk. 24: 6–7) The stranger who met up with the two disciples asked them rhetorically: “Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” (Lk. 24: 26) The word “must” is the key here. The Greek word dei is often translated “it is necessary.” In this case, for whom was it “necessary” that Jesus be handed over to sinners to be crucified and then rise on the third day? There is a tendency to think the death was necessary for God, but that suggests that God needed to have God’s own son die a painful death. Many people have a problem with that notion, I among them.

I find the French thinker René Girard helpful here. He interprets the available anthropological evidence as indicating a tendency of archaic societies to solve social tensions by a process that transforms competitive relationships throughout the society into a shared desire to focus on one person and then kill that person who is deemed responsible for the social tensions. The ensuing peace (for a time) is so strong that the victim is then worshiped as a deity. It is this social mechanism that convinces people that it is necessary for “god” that the victim be killed. Throughout this process, the truth of the victim is precisely what nobody knows, except possibly the victim.

This truth of the victim was gradually being revealed in the prophetic tradition of the Jewish people, most prominently in the verses about the “Suffering Servant” in Isaiah, whom the people accounted “stricken, struck down by God, and afflicted.” (Is. 53: 4) But then the people realized that they, not the victim, were the guilty ones. God had vindicated the “stricken one,” not the persecutors. It was these passages in Isaiah that most helped Jesus’ followers begin to make sense of what had happened to Jesus.

But on the day of Jesus’ Resurrection, the disciples had not thought to connect Jesus with the Suffering Servant. Jesus had told them many times that it was “necessary” that he be handed over to be crucified, but they could not understand. How could it be “necessary” that the man who they thought was going to restore Israel should be handed over to death? They assumed it was “necessary” that the guilty ones be handed over, not the innocent. Then, at Passover time, Jesus was deemed to be the guilty one who was causing the tumult by both religious and civil authorities, and so he was handed over. But the disciples had thought Jesus was innocent. Had they gotten their man wrong? Their fleeing when Jesus was arrested suggests they weren’t so sure.

The empty tomb was the first hint that Jesus’ death wasn’t business as usual. A tomb was supposed to have the corpse of the guilty one, but this one didn’t. The announcement of the angelic beings to the women was a stronger hint that Jesus was innocent after all. The women were told that it, although it was “necessary” that Jesus be handed over and killed, it was even more necessary that Jesus be raised from the dead. By raising Jesus from the dead, God showed Jesus’ followers that the “necessity” that Jesus die was a human necessity, a necessity of human factors, and that it was Jesus’ rising from the dead that was the true divine necessity. Only then could the disciples have their minds opened to understand the scriptures when the Risen Lord met with them himself. (Lk. 24: 45)

It is gloriously great news and a wondrous cause for rejoicing that we are freed from the human “necessity” to blame a victim who is put to death for the crimes of a society. That is, unless we feel too disoriented about not having scapegoats. Maybe that is why rejoicing in Jesus’ Resurrection is a much greater challenge than rejoicing in the birth of a child who is going to accomplish something great—what, we don’t know. Rejoicing in the necessity that Jesus be raised from the dead requires us to change our minds and hearts in radical ways to take in this news. Most challenging of all, we have to accept and then embody the forgiveness of the Risen Victim when storms of accusation remain the status quo even at this present day. Are we up to the challenge? Will we come to the party?

For an introduction to the thought of René Girard see Violence and the Kingdom of God and Living Stones in the House of the Forgiving Victim

On Living with Temptation

altarDistance1The temptations of Jesus in Matthew and Luke are stylized accounts of three temptations that may not have happened in so neat a fashion in real life, but are clearly meant to be comprehensive of the fundamental temptations that challenge all humans, Jesus included. Jesus’ responses to the three temptations, which would have been particularly strong during his forty days of solitude in the wilderness, are a guide to dealing with the same temptations in our own lives.

The first temptation, that Jesus should turn stones into bread, can stand for all sensual temptations. It is surely not a sin to satisfy one’s hunger but it is a sin to be focused on physical sustenance to the neglect of all else, to make god our belly. (Phil. 3: 19) The devil’s proposal puts bread front and center, which sparks the competitive tendencies of humans to seek more material goods for the sake of having more material goods than others. Jesus’ reply puts bread in a wider context, implying what Matthew spells out, that we not only need bread but “every word that comes from the mouth of God.” (Mt. 4:4) Within this broader context, bread is provided in the wilderness by God as it was to the Israelites in their desert journey after escaping from Egypt. When bread is a gift from God, then it should also be a gift between humans as well.

Lust for power is often thought to be the greatest human temptation, as Matthew suggests in his ordering of the temptations, but Luke makes it the second greatest temptation. We might think that the devil’s offering Jesus “all the kingdoms of the world” as being out of our league, but all of us tend to seek power in our own social settings. That is, we try to build up what sociologists call “social capital.” This is what Jesus was warning us about in the Gospel for Ash Wednesday when he told us not to fast or give alms “like the hypocrites” who compete for human admiration. (Matthew 6) In seeking social capital, we try to build our little kingdoms piece by piece. As with the first temptation, Jesus responds with the larger picture grounded in God by alluding to Deuteronomy 6: 13: “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.” That is, we should seek our social capital first with God rather than with humans. By worshiping and serving God, we will then serve other people rightly and thus gain social capital in less competitive ways.

The third temptation is the most subtle and the most dangerous. The first two temptations proposed substitutes for focusing primarily on God. The third temptation focuses on God. The devil quotes Psalm 91 to assure Jesus that if he threw himself from the pinnacle of the temple, Jesus’ heavenly Abba would surely save him, as promised in the psalm. But the focus on God is distorted in what amounts to an attempt to manipulate God, which would make God a competitor among human competitors. Catching this distortion, Jesus clarifies the right focus on God by saying that one should not put God to the test. The distortion of the third temptation is subtle because it is based on the profound truth that God cares for each of us and takes care of us. But to assume that we can do anything, no matter how heedless and reckless because God will take care of us is presumption, putting God to the test. If there is anything the prophets have taught us, it is that God allows us to live with the consequences of our choices. Otherwise, what meaning would free will have?

The imposition of ashes on Ash Wednesday is a reminder of our frailty as mortal creatures. The temptations of Christ, the same temptations we experience daily, remind us of our moral and spiritual frailty. If Jesus had to remain mindful of his heavenly Abba and guard against distortions in that relationship, we should do no less. Let us take comfort that, as the author of Hebrews said, precisely by being tempted in every way as we are, Jesus is the pioneer and perfecter of our faith. (Heb. 4: 15, 12: 2)

Celebrating our Baptism

baptism_of_christ_by_tiffany (2)Luke stresses the contrast between John the Baptist and Jesus much more than the three other evangelists. Most strikingly, Luke does not specifically say that John himself baptized Jesus. Luke describes John’s ministry and then says Herod added to all his other crimes by putting John in prison. (Lk. 3: 19–20) Then Luke puts Jesus front and center by saying the he was baptized “when all the people were baptized.” (Lk. 3:21)

The Holy Spirit descending upon Jesus in the “bodily form of a dove” and the voice from Heaven proclaiming Jesus to be God’s son, “the beloved,” (Lk. 3: 21–22) could not be a greater contrast to John’s closing words that the one who is “more powerful” was going to bring a winnowing fork to baptize by burning the chaff with “unquenchable fire.” John’s water baptism was a rite of purification and he expected the one who was coming to bring fire to do a more powerful job of purifying. But instead Jesus’ first act of preaching was to “proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Lk. 4: 16–19) Quite a different approach than John’s! Jesus was going for transformation, not purification.

We celebrate our own baptism on this day as we follow Jesus to the river Jordan, see the dove for ourselves and listen to the voice from Heaven proclaim us sons and daughters of God. Our baptism, too, is a call to spread God’s love and favor to others. We are used to living in a culture built on wrath and disfavor, where we bind and oppress captives rather than free them. The call of baptism is a constant call to leave this culture of wrath to journey towards a culture of love and the freeing of captives.

Isaiah’s prophecy of Israel’s return from exile gives us powerful images for our own return from exile through baptism. Isaiah grounds this call in creation, linking baptism with God’s calling us into being. The journey is arduous, as Jesus’ journey in the desert was an arduous testing by Satan. We will pass through waters and rivers but God will be with us and they will not overwhelm us. We will walk through fire but the flame will not consume us. (Is. 43: 2) As with the Flood from which Noah was delivered and the waters of the Red Sea through which the Israelites fled from Egypt, we can see the waters and the fire as images of the wrathful culture that is trying to pull us back. In his exuberance, Isaiah himself stumbles by suggesting that other nations are given in ransom for the freeing and gathering of Israel. Jesus’ baptism, on the other hand, is the first step of bearing the sins of all people so that he will be a ransom for everybody, Egypt, Ethiopia, and even Babylon, included.

Each of us receives a unique call to play our part in the baptismal journey. Can we hear the voice from Heaven declaring God’s love for us and moving us in the direction we are each to go to perform our part of the journey?

John the Baptist: A transitional Figure

220px-John_the_Baptist_Prokopiy_ChirinAlthough John burned with a conviction that God was going to do something new, he had only the models of past prophets to guide him in opening a way to the great new thing. He lived in the desert, wore a camel hair coat and ate wild locusts and honey in imitation of Elijah. Like the prophets of the past, he warned the brood of vipers of the wrath to come if people did not shape up and turn back to God. (Lk. 3: 7) Again like the prophets, he told soldiers not to oppress vulnerable people. Yet again like the prophets, he rebuked his ruler, Herod. And like so many of the prophets, he was put to death.

In John’s time, baptism was established as a custom for cleansing converts. John gave it a new twist by insisting that his fellow Jews needed to be converted as much as the Gentiles and so were in need of being baptized. This was a prophetic action to dramatize God’s word. Today we call it guerilla theater. The teaching dramatized in this novel way was traditional: the people should return to the Lord who will purify them of their sins.

John defined himself through the words of Isaiah by quoting Isaiah’s prophecy of a new pathway of the Lord. (Is. 40: 3) The pathway through the desert that Isaiah was prophesying was for the return of the exiles from Babylon to Jerusalem, a great new thing God was doing in Isaiah’s time. In quoting these words, John was announcing that God was going to do yet another new thing, something God had never done before.

For John, this new thing was focused on a person who was to come. John believed that Jesus was this person when he came to the river. But John was confused about him, and not for the last time, when Jesus insisted on being baptized although John thought Jesus was the one person who didn’t need it.

When he was in prison by order of King Herod, John had doubts about Jesus and he sent two followers to ask Jesus if he was the one he was expecting. It seems odd that the healing miracles John’s disciples had just reported should cause doubts, but a ministry of healing was beyond the scope of John’s own ministry. Typically, Jesus did not answer the question, but pointed to his healings and said “ blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.” (Lk. 7: 23) Given the fiery rhetoric of John’s own preaching, the sentiments of the Sermon on the Mount may also have been confusing to John.

John knew that his prophetic ministry was fading. In such a situation, most people fight back and try to regain the upper hand. René Girard suggests in The Scapegoat that John denounced Herod’s marriage not so much on legal grounds but because of the rivalrous action of taking his brother’s wife. This realization would have made John all the more cautious about rivalry on his own part and caused him to take Jesus’ admonition to avoid offense to heart, as offense is the spark that flames rivalry. John managed to renounce rivalrous behavior to the extent of saying that Jesus would increase while John would decrease. But did John know what he was renouncing rivalry for? Did John ever get an inkling that the greatest new thing God was doing in Isaiah’s time was not returning the exiles to Jerusalem but raising up a person who accepted disgrace, torment and possibly death without retaliating in any way? On reflecting on Jesus’ insistence that he be baptized, did John finally realize that Jesus was taking on the sins of the people as did Isaiah’s Suffering Servant, which would make Jesus the “lamb of God?” Most Bible scholars think it unlikely that John arrived at these insights and they think the evangelists wrote them into the narrative to elucidate John’s place in relation to Jesus. Maybe. But John obviously thought long and hard about his own vocation in relation to Jesus and he was outspoken enough to cry out glimpses of insight he still did not understand.

In our time we may think we know what John was pointing to even when John didn’t, but we do well to ponder why, in her infinite wisdom, the Church gives us a liturgical year that begins with Advent where John the Baptist is prominent. Why have a season to look forward to what we know we are looking forward to? Maybe we are more in the dark about what it means for Jesus to be the Lamb of God than we think we are. Maybe we still don’t really know what great new thing God has done and what greater thing God will do. Maybe we have a lot more to look forward to than we know.

God’s Kingdom in Two Small Coins

widow's miteThe widow who put “two small copper coins” in the temple treasury, all she had to live on, (Mk. 12: 42) has been held up by many preachers as a touching example of heart-warming generosity. Those of us who have come to notice the social and economic issues in the Gospels have seen some concerns that are rather chilling.

Highly troubling are the preceding verses where Jesus denounces the scribes who “devour widows’ houses.” The scribes of today wear state-of-the-art business suits, sit on prestigious boards, and make a great display of their almsgiving after defrauding vulnerable people with such practices as predatory loans. Although using economic power to defraud the vulnerable is not the same thing as passively receiving a penny from a poor widow, the juxtaposition of these references to widows raises questions. The questions become more worrisome when we recall how the prophets denounced those who oppressed widows and orphans almost every time they spoke out on social issues.

The very next verse on the other side of the story of the widow and her two coins raises even more urgent questions. In response to a disciple’s commenting on the great stones of the temple, Jesus says: “Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.” (Mk. 13: 1) This suggests that the poor widow is giving her last two coins for a bad cause. The Epistle to the Hebrews drives home this point when he says: “Christ did not enter a sanctuary made by human hands, a mere copy of the true one, but he entered into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf.” (Heb. 9: 24) Jesus himself has become the Temple and there is no need for any other.

Is this poor widow a bad example, then? By no means. This poor widow reminds us of the widow who gave Elijah some of the last grains of meal that she had after which she expected to die with her son. (1 Kings 17: 12) Moreover, the poor widow’s generosity in giving everything she had echoes the story of the rich man who was also asked to give everything but went away sad because of his great wealth. Since giving everything is a sign of the Kingdom of God, the poor widow is a sign of the Kingdom while the rich man who went away sad and the rich who contributed lavishly to the temple treasury are not. On the other hand, the woman who poured a jar of ointment over Jesus’ head (Mk. 14: 3–9) was also giving most, if not all, she had. Another sign of the Kingdom.

The matter of a bad cause reminds us that generosity is required of those who depend on alms. We must be good causes. In a time when many “scribes” of today create charitable scams, it is important to use charity money in a charitable way. I feel this responsibility as a member of a monastic community as I remember where the money we spend comes from.

The Jar of meal from which the widow baked a cake for Elijah did not run out in spite of the long famine. Jesus, who also gave all of himself on the Cross, rose to new life, a new life of endless abundance that the widow who gave two small coins surely shares along with the woman who poured out a jar of oil over Jesus’ head. Will we be signs of God’s Kingdom like these two women?

Transfiguring Darkness

Transfigurazione_(Raffaello)_September_2015-1aI was introduced to the Transfiguration of Our Lord when Raphael’s great painting of the event hit me between the eyes during my student travels in Rome. With the Feast of the Transfiguration coming during my church’s summer slump (and it wouldn’t have celebrated the feast anyway) I knew nothing about it. In many ways, I didn’t have to. The painting opened up a vision of a transfiguration of humanity beyond what I had thought possible. At the time, what faith I had wasn’t centered around any particular religious viewpoint but I was majoring in religion because I thought the subject dealt with the most important things in life. Seeing the painting was more of a religious awakening than I knew. I was, of course, impressed by the sublimity of the upper half of the canvas where Jesus is floating in the air with Moses and Elijah. But I was even more impressed by the inroads the transfigured light made into the lower half which is often interpreted as indicating sinful and benighted humanity. It has taken me years to see further into the significance of this chiaroscuro effect.

Now that I have preached on the Transfiguration more times than I can count, I have had many occasions to study and reflect on it. I remain inspired by Raphael’s vision of the transfiguring light and fascinated by the Eastern Orthodox doctrine that holy persons can be filled with the uncreated energies that emanated from Mount Tabor. But under the influence of René Girard’s thinking about the scapegoat mechanism, I am most impressed by the proximity of Jesus’ death and resurrection to the transfiguring light.

The narrative begins: “Now about eight days after these sayings.” (Lk. (9: 28) These sayings were about Jesus announcing that he was going to be rejected by the chief priests and scribes and be killed after great suffering, followed by Jesus’ famous words about carrying one’s cross daily. After the return from the mountain and delivering a demon-possessed boy, Jesus said : “The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into human hands.” (Lk. 9: 44) So it is that predictions of Jesus’ passion envelope the transfiguration. Moreover, on the mountain, Moses and Elijah speak to Jesus about “his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem.” (Lk. 9: 31) So Jesus and his two great predecessors weren’t exactly whooping it up and playing games with primordial light. Both Moses and Elijah knew a lot more about persecution than they really wanted to know and Jesus knew what the scriptures said about them.

There is much talk about the transfiguring light being an encouragement to Jesus and his disciples in preparation for the suffering ahead. There is truth to that and I have said as much in previous sermons. But the deeper truth I am seeing is that the suffering and death of Jesus is the transfiguration. The primordial uncreated energies have penetrated into the depths of human suffering, not only that of Christ but of all other people. This is the significance of the light reaching the people in darkness at the foot of the mountain in Raphael’s painting. A particularly bright spot of light lands on the chest of the boy Jesus delivers of a demon as soon as he comes down. What is the uncreated glory of God? It is that God would come to us in our darkness and suffer with us the sufferings that we inflict upon one another with the rage that makes us foam at the mouth and persecute one another. We can’t stay on the mountaintop, even if we should ever get there, but we can bring the mountaintop to others if we are willing to take up our crosses and follow Jesus down to the bottom where foul spirits rage and foam. What makes the glory of God glorious is that, as St. Peter says, the light shines in the darkness “until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.” (2 Pet. 1: 19)