A God Who Does the Same Great New Thing

crossRedVeil1Right after dramatically recalling God’s deliverance of the Jews from the Red Sea, Isaiah proclaims that God is “about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?” (Is. 43: 19) By his time, the Red Sea deliverance was an old thing, something the Jews repeatedly recalled, especially at the celebration of Passover. But at the time of that deliverance, it was a new thing that had sprung forth. Delivering escaped slaves through turbulent waters just wasn’t in the play books of deities at the time. God had changed the play book and revealed the hitherto unknown truth that God is a God who delivers victims and outcasts from the rich and the powerful.

The new thing that Isaiah was proclaiming was another deliverance, this one from the Babylonian Exile. In this respect, the new thing that God was doing was a lot like the old thing: both were acts of deliverance from powerful and tyrannical rulers and both involved leading the people through a desert. One could say that God was actually doing the same old thing that God had done centuries earlier. During the ensuing centuries, the Jews repeatedly recalled the old deliverance, especially at times of crisis such as the Babylonian captivity, bringing the old act into the present in hopes for a repeat performance. Psalm 44, for example, recalls “the days of old” while complaining that the people had been “scattered among the nations” and had become “the derision and scorn of those around us.” Where are the deeds of old? The Psalmist asks. Isaiah replies that the deeds of old have returned, have become “a new thing,” a new act of deliverance. Isaiah affirms that God is a God who delivers victims and outcasts from the rich and the powerful. The old thing is a new thing.

In our time, we might be tempted to think that both of these new things are old things, But we need to keep bringing them into the present time, making them new by realizing that God is always making these deeds new. When we don’t, we backslide. One of the most egregious ways we backslide is by becoming the oppressors of the poor and vulnerable that the Egyptians and Babylonians were. That is what happened between the two great “new” things God did for the Jews. Isaiah and Jeremiah and the other prophets denounced just such oppression. They were making clear that one of the principle ways of making the old things new and present is to imitate God by delivering “from the hand of the oppressor anyone who has been robbed. And do no wrong or violence to the alien, the orphan, and the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place.” (Jer. 22: 3)

St. Paul proclaimed another great new thing accomplished by God: the death and resurrection of Jesus. In comparison with this, Paul declared everything else, most especially his accomplishments, as rubbish (to use a polite term). All Paul wanted was “to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.” (Phil. 3: 10–3) This may seem to be a different thing, even a radically different thing than the earlier “new” things God had done. What is particularly new is that instead of delivering victims and outcasts by mighty acts, God in Jesus Christ died on the cross, thus becoming a victim. In doing this, God subverted the power of oppressors from within their system. Rather than inflict violence on them such as drowning Pharaoh’s army in the Red Sea or sending the Persians against Babylon, God in Jesus Christ died at the hands of his oppressors. It is out of this death that a new life was inaugurated by God when Jesus rose as the forgiving victim. There are times, not least in Romans 5, when Paul proclaims the death and resurrection of Jesus in cosmic terms, but here in Philippians, he proclaims it in personal terms. The great new thing God had accomplished is inside of him. God’s solidarity with victims in Christ has completely overtaken everything else in Paul. Paul himself will prefer to be a victim rather than an oppressor or a mighty avenger who destroys armies. Christ Jesus has made Paul “his own.” (Phil. 3: 12)

A woman pouring ointment all over Jesus to prepare him for his upcoming burial (Jn. 12: 7) may seem an eccentric act but hardly a significant one, hardly a great new thing done by God. But up to that time, how often had any person done such an act of outpouring generosity, giving everything she had in doing it? This looks like God in Jesus Christ completely making this woman, Mary, his own just as much as God in Jesus Christ made Paul his own. This is indeed a great new thing accomplished by God. Will we ourselves be part of this great new thing?

 

See also: A Scandalous Woman as Extravagant as Jesus

On Being Called by God

AndrewPreaching1The narratives of the call of Isaiah, Paul, and Simon Peter bring to mind my own experiences of God’s call. In my case, it wasn’t quite like being attacked by a Cherubim in church, getting knocked down on the Road to Damascus or being told to throw out the fishing nets one more time and being overwhelmed by the catch.

I did quite a lot of fishing as a child for the simple reason that my father loved it and my family spent most summer vacations at a fishing lodge. I lost interest in fishing by the time I was a teenager but the contemplative aspect of fishing stayed with me as I became a monk. While praying the Divine Office and praying silently in the Abbey Church, I constantly sense God calling me out of my self-preoccupations and self-indulgence to the wider concerns of God.

I had the call of Isaiah memorized when I was a choirboy because I sang an overwrought anthem to that text, ending with the prophet’s quiet volunteering to be sent by God. Even then, I had intimations that I might be called to the ministry although I was put off by how much kneeling I would have to do. Even so, one Sunday when our whole family was too sick to go to church, I led the four of us in the Office of Morning Prayer. As for kneeling, liturgical renewal dealt with that.

During my late high school and college years, I was a self-styled religious rebel who didn’t like the way God ran the universe. Like Paul, I was quite vocal about saying what I thought to anyone who would listen and to others who would rather not. By hindsight, I realize that I was being called all that time until I listened sufficiently to get on the track that led me to St. Gregory’s Abbey. By then I had come to realize that God doesn’t try to run the universe but God has pointed out ways we can run it better than we’re doing it if only we would listen.

It is tempting to think that one is special if one senses a call from God, as if God would surely call a superior person such as myself. But Isaiah, Paul, and Simon Peter all felt differently when approached by God. In each case, the call convicted them and pulled them out of the way they were living to a radical change of attitude and activity. In my case, I had to realize that a seminary I went to after graduating from college was the wrong choice for me, one fueled by my rebellious attitude. Only then could I hear the call to a seminary much better suited for me.

In God’s mission charge to Isaiah, God tells him to tell the people: “Keep listening, but do not comprehend; keep looking, but do not understand.” (Is. 6: 9) Jesus uses these same words to characterize the response he got from his own preaching. Some way to be “ catching people.” (Lk. 5: 10) There are many ways one can understand what it means to be a person of unclean lips living “among a people of unclean lips.” (Is. 6: 5) René Girard writes of the human tendency to share desires so intensely that they become rivalrous. When that happens, we may have ears but we will not hear what other people are saying and we will not hear what God is saying to us. In my case, I had cast myself so deeply into rivalry with God that I drowned out the direction of my call for many years. Since the most vulnerable people in a society bear the brunt of the rivalry of the powerful, deafness to the cries of the poor go unheard with only prophets like Isaiah to defend them.

Paul received his call from the resurrected Christ who asked Paul why he was persecuting him in the act of persecuting his people. John’s Gospel has a variant of the story of the overwhelming catch of fish placed after the Resurrection which raises the intriguing question of whether or not Luke placed a resurrection narrative in an early chapter of his narrative. In any case, after deserting Jesus, the disciples did need to be called a second time by the resurrected Christ. Jesus was raised from the dead because first he was killed in an act of collective violence, the sort of persecution Girard argues is the result of a society allowing itself to be swamped in rivalry where we have ears but fail to hear.

Since God’s call to each of us entails preaching the Word and, much more important, witnessing to it in our ways of living, we are fundamentally spreading our repentance to others to open their ears as well. The hazard is that a sense of rivalry can enter through the back door if we treat our ministry of witnessing as a contest in which we try to “defeat” the other and win a “victory.” What we need to do is listen to ourselves in God, and listen to others as God listens to them, and use our listening skills, based on repentance, to help other people learn to listen.

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.

Our Heavenly Father and Teacher

AndrewWashingFeet - CopyThe denunciations by prophets like Micah of the rulers “who abhor justice and pervert all equity” (Mic. 3:9) and Jesus’ denunciations of Pharisees in Matthew 23 tend to curl our mouths in a snide smile as we think about how much better we are than they. But while Jesus is still warming up for his fiery words to come, he slows down and says: “Call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father—the one in heaven. Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Messiah.” (Mt. 23: 9–10) When Jesus goes on with words of woe for the scribes and Pharisees, we are apt to conveniently shove these words aside, but, I think we should linger over them a bit before enjoying the scolding of “other” people.

That the false prophets and wayward rulers, the Pharisees and the scribes are not worthy of being called “Father” or “Teacher” or Leader” is understandable. The broader implication of not calling other people “father” is that we are all brothers and sisters. That is, Jesus is leveling the field among humans so that all of our relationships are fraternal, including relationships with people we usually think are “higher” or “lower” than we are, such as the relationship between parents and children and leaders and their followers. That is, we are all equal but we have a tendency to try to be more equal than others. And that is where we have problems.

Jesus scoffs at those who want the best places in the synagogues and banquets and who want to be greeted with fawning respect in the marketplace. We scoff at them too since mocking the foibles of our leaders and putting them down is everybody’s favorite blood sport. Which is to say that it is not just false prophets and ruthless leaders and scribes and Pharisees who do these things. We all do them. We all try to be a little more equal than other people in little and big ways. It is this desire to be more equal than others that causes us to lay heavy burdens on the shoulders of others and not “lift a finger to move them.” After all, putting a weight on another makes the person stoop, lowering that person. So why do anything to help the lowered person rise up?

The lectionary spares us the rest of Jesus’ harsh words as he dissects the ways we interpret law and morality to our own advantage and the disadvantage of others. Jesus reaches his climax with the charge that we persecute the prophets and so that “all the righteous blood shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah son of Barachiah” will be on our heads. (Mt. 23: 35) Jesus is warning us that the pushing and shoving to get the best seats at the banquet lead to the violence perpetrated against the prophets sent by God.

Forgotten in all this rivalry is Jesus’ teaching: “The greatest among you will be your servant.” (Mt. 23: 11) This is quite the opposite of laying burdens on other people to make them bow down to us in public places. Jesus is also accepting the fact that some humans naturally take more responsibility for others and do act as leaders. Paul, for example, was called to preach the Good News of Jesus and naturally went on to help people organize their churches. But when preaching in Thessalonika, Paul took the burdens on himself and worked hard so as not to be a burden on others. And he dealt with the Thessalonians like “a father with his children” in trying to lead them in a way worthy of God’s kingdom and glory. (1 Thess. W: 11–12) That is, a leader has to make everyone else more important than oneself.

This is what Jesus did, even to dying on the cross. And this is why Jesus is our teacher and guide to his heavenly Abba.

Jesus’ Yoke

eucharist1Jesus’ invitation to come to him with our burdens so that he can give us rest and take his easy yoke upon ourselves sounds like an irresistible blessing. But the troubling words skipped by the lectionary suggest that Jesus’ offer is highly resistible. Here, he bemoans the rejection of Chorazin, Bethsaida and Capernaum. Given the horrifying hardness of heart shown in the story of Sodom and Gomorrah’s destruction, it boggles the mind that Jesus thought those people might have responded better than the people of Capernaum who witnessed Jesus’ first miracles of healing.

How can Jesus’ offer to free us of our burdens be so resistible? We get some hint of this in the powerful, if dense, passage in Romans 7 where Paul cries out against the burden of sin that makes him do what he does not want to do. Most of us think the problem is that the burden of sin renders us powerless. There is something to that, especially in the case of addictions. But the deeper problem is that we have great difficulty knowing what we really desire. The French thinker René Girard has helped us greatly towards an understanding of this problem with his insight into what he called “mimetic desire.” That is, although we tend to be addicted to the illusion that our desires originate from within ourselves, Girard suggests that our desires originate from without: i.e. from other people. That is, we copy the desires of other people. Since the same is true of other people, they are imitating our desires as much as we are imitating theirs. No wonder desires are so complicated. It is telling that Paul says: “I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, ‘You shall not covet.’” (Rom. 7: 7) Covetousness is precisely the sin most driven by mimetic desire. This phenomenon can lead to a spiral of desire that reinforces each others’ desires in love. This is what Jesus us getting at in offering to relieve us of our burdens and take his yoke upon us. But usually, we imitate each other in a downward spiral of rivalry, anger, and vengeance. In this spiral, we become more and more convinced that our anger and rage are our own even as the rage and anger of others overtakes us like a flood. When this happens, we are yoked to our rivals and they to us. This is the yoke Jesus would relieve us of.

Girard argues that a society caught in a downward spiral either implodes into mutually assured destruction (MAD) or channels its common rage against a victim who is scapegoated. The latter is the story told in the four Gospels. However, it is not only the story of the Gospels; it is the story told numerous times in the Hebrew Bible starting with the dawn of humanity. The establishment of violence as the engine of society is what Jesus was getting at when he said, in another verse not included in the lectionary: “From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence and the violent take it by force.” (Mt. 11: 12)

Although we are prone to clinging to the illusion of our individuality, Girard has shown us that we are yoked to others through the matrix of our intertwining desires. Where we can take some responsibility for our lives is to choose how we wish to be yoked and to whom we will be yoked. In rabbinic literature, the yoke is used as an image for a Jewish student’s relationship with his or her rabbi. Jesus, as a rabbi, offers such a yoke. Being yoked to Jesus means being yoked to a Messiah who rides on a donkey in fulfillment of Zechariah’s prophecy. The Greek word translated as “gentle” is praus, the same word used in Matthew’s quote from Zechariah to describe Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem.

Jesus’ yoke may be easy but it is challenging. The temptation to give way to fear, anger, and vengeance, especially when that is all around us, is very strong, but the yoke of vengeful anger is very heavy and it entraps us in the power of sin within us that prevents us from doing what we really want to do. Escaping this trap can seem impossible. As Paul discovered, it is impossible without the grace of Christ who offers us his yoke in place of the yoke of sin. The harsh words against Capernaum and neighboring towns actually offer us hope. If Jesus could envision the possibility of Sodom and Gomorrah converting to Jesus’ yoke if they had seen the wonders done at Capernaum, although the people in these towns united to persecute Lot and his guests, surely Jesus can envision the same for our persecutory society. Can we cast the burdens of fear, anger, and vengeance on Jesus and accept the yoke he offers us, a yoke that burdens us with compassion and love?

[For an introduction to René Girard see Violence and the Kingdom of God.]

Feed My Sheep

AndrewPreaching1In the final chapter of John’s Gospel, Jesus asks Peter three times: “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter has to answer three times that he loves Jesus and then listen to Jesus tell him three times: “Feed my sheep.” (Jn. 21: 15-17) This three-fold question and response is commonly interpreted as Peter undoing his three-fold betrayal of Jesus in the court of the high priest. I agree, but with the caveat that Peter’s betrayal goes further back. At Gethsemane, when Jesus had been seized by the temple police, Peter drew a sword and cut off the right ear of one of the high priest’s servants. This may look like loyalty to most people, but not to Jesus, who said: “Put your sword back into its sheath. Am I not to drink the cup that the Father has given me?” (Jn. 18: 11) That is, Peter had betrayed what Jesus really lived for and was about to die for. As he had at Caesarea Philippi, Peter had acted as a “satan,” a stumbling block to Jesus’ commitment to non-violence, even at the cost of his life. In declaring his love for Jesus three times, Peter declared his love for what Jesus lived for and died for. It is with this love that Peter was told to feed his sheep.

Paul, whom we also celebrate today, is famous for his conversion experience. Like Peter, Paul had to repent of the violence he had committed in what he thought was in the service of God. The voice from Heaven on the road to Damascus told Paul that he was actually persecuting God by persecuting the followers of Jesus. After hearing this voice, Paul realized that, like his fellow Pharisees denounced by Jesus, he had been committing the social violence of heaping burdens on people and not lifting a finger to lift them. With Paul, this social violence had exploded into physical violence against those very people on whom these burdens had been imposed. (Mt. 23: 4) The voice of Heaven converted Paul into being a lifter of heavy burdens from others so that he and those he preached to could embrace the gift of forgiveness Jesus bestowed on him when he drank the cup given by his heavenly Abba and allowed his Abba to raise him from the dead.

Peter and Paul are often posed as opposites, even antagonists, but they are united in one most important thing: both ministered out of their conversion from violence to living by the free gift of God’s mercy grounded in the cross. Out of their conversions, they preached whether “the time [was] favorable or unfavorable.” (2 Tim 4: 2) In doing so, both of their lives were “poured out as a libation” (2 Tim. 4: 6) as they tended the heavenly Abba’s sheep with special care for the sick and the wounded. In the end, both were led away to where they did not wish to go (Jn. 21: 18) but ended up winning “the crown of righteousness.” (2 Tim. 4: 8) If we are to follow these two great saints, we, too, must hear the voice of Jesus warning us of the violence we commit or benefit from and be converted so that we, too, can feed Jesus’ sheep.

God’s Kingdom as Gift

treeBlossoming1There is only one simple qualification for being a disciple of Jesus: give up everything. That’s one whale of a qualification. So hard is this qualification that earnest Christians have thought of many ways to soften Jesus’ words without washing all meaning and challenge out of them. My New Testament professor at Nashotah House, O.C. Edwards, suggested that this qualification means we have to give up everything that comes between us and God. That is, if parents, children, spouses, friends, or fellow members of a community help us draw closer to God, we don’t have to give them up. The same would go for material possessions. Even Benedictine monks have to use things in this world in order to live so we can’t give up having anything at all. The trick is to use things in such a way that the work and recreation we do with them draws us closer to God rather than farther away.

We could phrase this approach by saying that the problem is not possessions but possessiveness. God gives us parents, children, siblings, and friends as gifts. Likewise we should give each ourselves as gifts to other people. The things we use in the world are likewise gifts from God and should be treated accordingly. The problem comes when we prefer to take other people and things rather than receive them. In such cases, the intensity of love we feel for others is actually possessiveness rather than love. We are told to “hate” parents, children, siblings, and friends so as not to be possessive of them. Taking people and things is the result of putting ourselves in competitive relationship with other people. When we compete with others, we have to win and a victory is something we earn, not a gift. This same competitiveness carries over to our attitudes toward possessions. As the French thinker René Girard teaches us, we often want things that other people have or want to have things at the expense of others so that we can claim a victory over them. Of course, competitiveness is a bottomless pit. If we win one round, we always fear losing the next. If we have to have more than other people, or at least as much, we have to keep on accumulating more things no matter the damage our hoarding does to others. In all this, the people we try defeat and our lust to win through possessions become stumbling blocks between ourselves and God. This is what we have to give up.

Paul’s Letter to Philemon illustrates this point very well. Slavery, very common up to the present day (although now other terms such as “trafficking” are often used for it), is perhaps the ultimate in possessing other people. Onesimus was a runaway slave. Paul experienced Onesmimus, not as a possession but as a gift, a person who freely gave of himself to serve Paul while he was a prisoner. Paul is tempted to be possessive and keep Onesimus for himself but he offers Onesemus to Philemon as a gift, clearly hoping that Philemon will give Onesimus back to Paul as a free gift. Paul makes it clear that he is not giving Onesimus back as a slave; instead, he is giving Philemon back as a beloved brother “both in the flesh and in the Lord.” (Philem. 16) If Philemon receives Onesimus as a brother in Christ, he can hardly continue to possess him as a slave.

I’ve always seen Paul’s letter as an artful piece of emotional blackmail, but for all his manipulative rhetoric here, Paul is basically passing on to Philemon Jesus’ invitation to the Kingdom with its one qualification. This sounds simple, but in the heat of daily battles, we find that the possessiveness born of competitiveness is very hard to renounce and it amounts to carrying our cross daily. If we can daily renounce our possessiveness, we will indeed receive everything from God and from others as Gift.

God’s Reconciliation: A Thought on the Feast of Saints Peter & Paul

220px-Greco,_El_-_Sts_Peter_and_PaulIt is interesting and a bit ironic that we celebrate Saints Peter and Paul on the same day. Although there are famous icons of the two embracing one another in Christian love, the two seem not to have had an easy time getting along in real life. Although the two appeared to have been somewhat reconciled at the Council of Jerusalem in Acts 15, in his letter to the Galatians, Paul says that he opposed Peter “to his face” for backing down from what he thought they had agreed on. (Gal. 2: 11) The final chapters of John’s Gospel suggest tensions between the “Beloved Disciple” and Peter, and/or some tension between the two communities derived from them. The Beloved Disciple rests on Jesus’ breast at the Last Supper while Peter stubbornly tries to prevent Jesus from washing his feet. In her book Courting Betrayal,” Helen Orchard argues that Peter was resisting the slavish action of Jesus in washing his feet because he did not want to stoop so low himself. The episode of the Empty Tomb in John shows a rather awkward dance between the two where the Beloved Disciple gets there first but waits at the entrance and allows Peter to go in first. In this little tangle of a narration, both seem to have been first but not in the same way; which suggests some attempt to overcome the tension. In the final chapter of John, after the threefold question to Peter: “Do you love me?,” Peter points to the Beloved Disciple and asks” What about him?” Jesus answer basically tells us it is none of his business.

Peter is redirected to the threefold command he has just been given: “Feed my sheep.” Here is the key for overcoming tension and competition. When we compete with another, we become preoccupied with our rivals and nobody else. What does this do for pastoral care?  The preoccupation of rivals with each other answers the question quite clearly. It is tempting to say that pastors should never fight so as not to undermine their ministries, but there are times when we do have to stand up for the people we minister to. Paul stood up to Peter because he was paying close attention to the pastoral needs of the Galatians and other Gentiles he preached to. There are times in his epistles when Paul comes across as disputatious and rivalrous but in this instance, he was holding his focus on how to feed the sheep entrusted to him and trying to help Peter see the need of the Gentile sheep for himself.

Scripture does not tell us how this conflict ended as far as these two men are concerned although subsequent tradition claims that they were indeed reconciled. Likewise, the Johannine literature stemming from the Beloved Disciple was integrated into the New Testament, creating a deeper unity then Peter and the Beloved Disciple seem to have had. The art of differing and reconciling with others is much too complex to be taught in a brief sermon, but we have a couple of basics to get us started. 1) Keep our attention focused on those who depend on us for pastoral support; 2) Remember that Divine Providence can and will work out a deeper harmony underlying our conflicts and it isn’t always up to us to solve them, which means that, as Peter was told to stop worrying about his rival, we should stop worrying about our own rivals quite so much. And now for a third thought: Both Peter and Paul had much to repent of and they did just that. Can we do the same?