Sunday, September 29, 2013

Rich Man/Poor Man

With the impending possibility of the nation’s finances and government grinding to a halt this week because of the willful intransigence of a group of small-minded, ignorant, self-aggrandizing ideologues in Congress, totally irresponsible and uncaring about the real and critical needs of poor, needy, dispossessed, hardworking U.S. citizens, today’s Scriptures could hardly be more timely.   

In Luke’s Gospel passage (16:19-31) today, there’s a rich man and a poor man. The rich man isn’t named, though he’s often referred to in tradition as Dives = Latin for rich [person]. Luke describes him as “dressed in purple”, so he may have been either a high-ranking official or a member of royalty. The Romans had standards regarding who could wear
purple and how much purple could be worn: a fact possibly consoling for non-Roman Anglican and Episcopal bishops -- or not! Dives’ estate was undoubtedly a “gated” community, as Luke intimates. The rich man dressed “in fine linen and...feasted sumptuously” on gourmet delicacies: every day, says Luke!
Then there was the “poor man”, Lazarus, who lay at Dives’ gate: on the outside, of course. Lazarus is Lazar in Aramaic, from the Hebrew Eleazar = God has helped, a rather common name. Luke says that, in addition to being poor and laying at Dives’ gate, Lazarus bore sores on his body which, as Luke perceptively observes, “even the dogs would come and lick”. If that weren’t enough, poor Lazarus was, perhaps, starving because he longed just for the crumbs that fell from Dives’ table. At a feast, apparently an everyday occurrence at Dives’ home, it was common etiquette to use bread to wipe grease from one’s hands, then chuck it under the table: understandable, because the rich man’s cleaning crew of slaves would’ve been expected to move in and tidy up after guests had left the table. Luke doesn’t tell us whether Lazarus actually ever got any of the leftovers, only that he was craving them.
Luke then simply states: “The poor man died…”, leaving us to wonder how and why. Perhaps of starvation... even just a few steps from Dives’ table? Perhaps from overexposure on a cold night, while Dives slept on his custom-made linen?
As a reminder that the Grim Reaper is no stranger to anyone, Luke then tells us: “The rich man...died and was buried.”, leaving us, once again, to wonder about the cause. Given his propensity to eat “sumptuously”, maybe it was gout, or bad cholesterol or blood pressure which finally caught up with him, and was more than his heart could take. In which case, the very food which he could have shared with hungry Lazarus in the end did him in. We’re left to wonder if Lazarus was properly buried, or just thrown into a pauper’s grave. Dives was, of course, buried, probably after a large, ostentatious funeral, presumably in the rich purple and fine linen to which he was accustomed, with all his cronies solemnly offering lying tributes of praise for the rich man’s nobleness and “generosity”.
In the next scene, things get interesting and Luke gets to the heart of his purpose in relating this story. Lazarus unexpectedly appears, in the words of an old African American Gospel spiritual, “in the bosom of Abraham”, much to the astonishment of Dives who’s “being tormented”, Luke says, “in Hades”. Judaism saw sheol or Hades as the place of silence where all humans went after death. Luke hints that there was a “cool” side and a “hot” side, insurmountably separate from each other. “Abraham’s bosom” became a common designation for a place of comfort, the highest state of glory and blessedness. It also reminded people of the Messianic banquet, where God’s guest is given the place of honor at the right hand, the hand of power.  “Hades”, on the other hand  was the underworld, the place of darkness, the abode of the dead, “the end”, the final stop.
To many Jews this story would’ve been a bit shocking, for it was common belief that blessings and wealth in this life were a sign of God’s favor. Whereas illness, poverty, and tragedy happened only to the those with whom God was displeased. (The Book of Job comes to mind.) So, how could a poor beggar end up in Abraham’s bosom?
You and I, of course, need not wonder why Dives ended up where he did. The rich man’s sin, so far as we know, wasn’t that he physically mistreated Lazarus, or spit on him, or actually had anything at all to do with him. Dives‘ sin was much greater. Not only did he not have any gratitude for this human being, or probably anyone else: his sin was that he didn’t even care about Lazarus. He ignored him, blew him off. He was indifferent. He was insensitive to a fellow human being’s basic needs, when he, out of his overabundance, his undoubted entitlement, could easily have addressed those needs.
As the tables are turned now, Dives calls out to Abraham, rather presumptuously according to Luke, asking him to send the beggar over “to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue”. Abraham reminds Dives that there’s an unbreachable barrier, a chasm between him and Lazarus, similar to the one he’d set up to cut Lazarus out of his circle of concern in life. In death, the rich man is now the one excluded, cut off forever, alone, suffering. No one can reach him now, not even the circle of his own family. He’s eternally stuck in his total ingratitude, indifference, selfishness, a fair description of what we call hell.
Jeanne Stevenson-Moessner Associate Professor of Pastoral Theology and Christian Formation at the University of Dubuque Theological Seminary, in Iowa, and editor of two pioneering books on pastoral care, offers a perceptive comment on what follows. She says:The rich man had hoped to command Lazarus as servant to run back to his mansion and warn his five brothers. Alas, the wealth that had afforded him such power to command people on earth survived neither death nor the flames of hell. Sharon Ringe, in her Luke commentary, elucidates this concern for the rich man's five brothers: ‘The biological family, and not a wider or more inclusive community, continues to function as his principal, (even his only) point of reference, security, and concern.’" In other words, even in Hades, Dives doesn’t “get it”.
The sins of the fathers are often visited on their children. Perhaps indifference and ingratitude for the wider community ran in the family of Dives, or at least was passed on to the next generation. Abraham reminds the rich man that the brothers have the Scriptures to guide them: “Moses and the prophets: they should listen to them…” But if only someone goes to them from the dead, says Dives, then surely they’ll repent.
In other words, the ole signs and wonders routine! Jesus had encountered this warped mentality throughout his ministry: “Teacher, we want to see a miraculous sign from you…” (Matthew 12); “What miraculous sign can you show us to prove your authority?…”; “Unless you people see signs and wonders you will never believe…” “What miraculous sign, then, will you give that we may see it and believe you?…” (John 2, 4, & 6)  And you and I still run into this misguided and contemptible attitude today: the desire for something big, dramatic, spectacular, “life-changing”, in order to draw people into the Church. 
Luke’s Abraham ends the passage with the words: “If they do not listen to [the Scriptures], neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.” Today’s Scriptures encourage us, in the words of the conclusion to the second reading (1 Timothy 6:6-19), to “take hold of the life which is life indeed.” The Word of God spells out for us, in so many places, how to get from indifference and ingratitude, to caring, to sharing, and to community. 
Normally, I think most folks don’t do too bad with some of the corporal works of mercy: feeding the hungry, clothing the needy, visiting the sick, comforting those who lose loved ones. But there are also the spiritual works of mercy. You and I might ask ourselves “When did I last…
- take time with someone who expressed doubt in their faith?
- try to comfort or get help for someone in psychological or spiritual pain?
- patiently bear criticism or being “blown off” by another person,  without reacting?
- forgive a long-standing grievance?
The author of 1 Timothy reminds us to “ rich in good works, generous, and ready to share, thus storing up...the treasure of a good foundation for the future…” 

Harold Ivan Smith writes:
Even a boxer is guaranteed
to stand in his corner
between rounds of brutal blows
Someone to care for his needs
before the bell would summon 
to yet another round.
How many pilgrims
have struggled to their corner
only to be alone?
Are we not to step between the ropes
to wipe a forehead or
to offer a word of encouragement?
To risk the stain of sweat
the sting of blood
the despair of agony?

Sunday, September 22, 2013

A Lesson In Managing

Today's Collect could easily be the opening chapter of a book entitled How To Proceed In Managing A Life In Christ. "Grant us, Lord, not to be anxious about earthly things, but to love things heavenly; and even now, while we are placed among things that are passing away, to hold fast to those that shall endure..." Such a book might go on to develop the themes of justice and compassion, trust in God, good living and respect for others based in our baptismal calling, and wise boldness and prudence. 

 In view of the current domestic circumstances of the U.S., and specifically, the gridlock in the U.S. Congress in recent weeks, the Scripture readings from Jeremiah, 1st Timothy and Luke are most timely. The Greek word used for "steward/manager" in the NRSV translation is oikonómos: a rich word which can mean house-distributor; manager; overseer; fiscal agent; treasurer; figuratively, a preacher (of the Gospel); chamberlain. Webster defines the Old English stiweord as keeper of a household. I'm pretty sure our English word economist derives from this, although it has obviously lost most of the root meanings, in this country at least. In my humble opinion, it's far past time to be "charitable", to put the best face on, to use euphemisms, and, as a nation, to call to account the majority of the members of the U.S. Congress, both Democrats and Republicans, but specifically the ultra-conservative and Tea Party-inspired Republicans who are leading this country to an inevitable collapse through their willful, mean spirited mismanagement and lack of stewardship! 

Jeremiah's words today echo in the hearts of all those who seek simple justice for all: "My joy is gone, grief is upon me, my heart is sick. Hark, the cry of my poor people from far and wide in the land: 'Is the Lord not in Zion? Is her King not in her?' ("Why have they provoked me to anger with their images, with their foreign idols?") For the hurt of my poor people I am hurt, I mourn, and dismay has taken hold of me. Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there? Why then has the health of my poor people not been restored?..." (8:18-9:1) And Paul's message to Timothy: "I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone, for...all who are in high positions, so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity. This is right and is acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth..." (2:1-7) 

 Luke's Gospel passage (16:1-13) is one of the toughest in Scripture to either understand fully or to preach on. He begins with a Donald Trump-type rich man, summoning an underling who's been "squandering his property". We can visualize a figure no less imperious than "The Donald", demanding an accounting from the employee and informing him: "You're fired!

 There ensues a inner monologue by the unfortunate steward, weighing his options and figuring out how he can get through this unforeseen turn of events, still landing on his feet. He lines up appointments with the boss' debtors, "one by one", says Luke. 100 jugs of olive oil was equivalent to c. 600 gallons: the yield of 150 olive trees, and worth 1000 denarii which was equal to one's income for three years, working 6 days per week! The steward knocks the bill in half. 100 containers of wheat was roughly 650 bushels, worth some 2500 denarii. The debt is reduced to 80 containers. 

 What was the steward up to? A couple of possibilities come to mind. 1) He cheated the master by reducing the debt, which was illegal. 2) He, perhaps, subtracted the exorbitant interest (prohibited, incidentally, by Exodus 22:25). It still cost the master, but made both the master and the steward look gracious in the debtors' eyes. 3) It could be that the steward even subtracted his own commission, thereby upping his esteem with the debtors (useful for calling in some chips later!), and displaying his shrewdness and prudence. Whatever the real reason, the story gets curiouser and curiouser because the parable characters don't behave as we'd expect. The master, Luke says, "commended the dishonest manager because he acted shrewdly..." Then Jesus continues with the shocking statement: "And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.

 I, for one, can't believe that Jesus is urging you and me to form new alliances or to hang with the likes of the Koch brothers, the Goldman Sachs crowd, or the other sleazy Wall Street scammers whose love for one thing -- money and the power that accompanies it -- immunizes them from any real understanding of or compassion for the "little people" in American society. Jesus clearly doesn't condone evil or hold up "unrighteous mammon" as an ideal. On the other hand, neither does Jesus condemn a proper and judicious use of resources, including money, to realize a reasonable increase on one's legitimate investment. What he and Scripture do condemn is the love, the idolization, of money, or of any other human gift, for that matter. The alternative which Jesus suggests is: 1) that we make bold, decisive, prudent choices which favor others, especially the needy and the oppressed; and 2) that we use all our human resources and gifts (money, possessions, talents, etc.) faithfully and wisely, as practice for real wealth, i.e., the essential things we need for following Christ. "The reign of God is within you...Wherever your treasure is, there your heart is also...

 Some questions to ponder throughout the coming week: Who is my lord, my master: Jesus the Christ or mammon? You can't have the best of both. What is it that I'm most anxious about? or most grasping for? How faithfully do I live what I've committed to in the baptismal covenant? Am I a good manager/steward of my relationships: with myself? with others? with God? or do I give them only my second-best?

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

God: The Center of Our Lives

"Forgetting about God leads to harmful and idle chatter such as: 'How can we know about God if we have never seen him? And why should we have any regard for him if we have never set eyes on him?' People who talk like that are no longer mindful of their creator, and their minds are in the darkness of unbelief. But God had created human beings to be full of light so that they could see the radiance of pure ether and hear the songs of angels. He had clothed them in such radiance that they shone with the splendor of it. But all this was lost when man disobeyed God's commandment and so caused nature to fall with him. Yet the natural elements retained a glimmering of their former pristine position, which human sin could not destroy completely. For which reason people should retain a glimmering of their knowledge of God. They should allow God to return to the centre of their lives, recognising that they owe their very existence to no one else save God alone, who is the creator of all."

(From A Reading from The Book of Life's Merits by Hildegard of Bingen,
in Celebrating the Saints, compiled by Robert Atwell
Canterbury Press, Norwich: 1998, pp. 325-326)

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Perdido y Encontrado

El pecado es una parte muy real de todos los aspectos de nuestras vidas. El escritor de Éxodo (32:7-14) habla acerca de cómo el pueblo de Israel se comportaban perversamente, se hacían a un lado, y adoraban un ídolo de oro fundido. Cada uno de nosotros podría admitir que, junto con San Pablo, quien escribió a Timoteo (1:12 ) que "Cristo Jesús vino al mundo para salvar a los pecadores, de los cuales yo soy el primero." Y en el Evangelio de San Lucas (15:1-10) Jesús es criticado por asociarse con "los pecadores", pero habla abiertamente y con valentía en su nombre. A veces puede parecer que "el pecador" es la otra persona, pero el único "pecador" que usted y yo conocemos de primera mano realmente es nuestro propio ser. San Juan nos recuerda, "Si decimos que no tenemos pecado, no engañamosa nosotros mismos y no hay verdad en nosotros."

"Los que tienen espíritu de pobres", las personas comunes como nosotros, se sienten seguros de ser justos. Nos preguntamos nuestros propios motivos, y nos preocupamos de traicionarnos a nosotros mismos. En general, no cometeremos grave mal. Desagradable que puede ser, nuestro sentido del pecado personal es exactamente lo que nos impide ser demasiado egoísta. A pesar de que es muy doloroso a veces, es una enorme bendición y es una garantía eficaz contra este grave mal.

Las Escrituras hoy, sin embargo, nos ayudan a reflexionar sobre la "común" variedad de pecado. Una de las mejores descripciones del pecado se encuentra en el Libro de Oración Común: "El pecado es seguir nuestra voluntad en lugar de la voluntad de Dios, deformando así nuestra relación con él, con las otras personas y con toda la creación."

En la Biblia hay dos expresiones principales por el pecado: 1) "errar el tiro", perdiendo así una recompensa o premio; y 2) "vida desmandada", sin guías. Que se supone que vive una persona irresponsable, y vive como un tonto. Por último, el pecado es egoísmo. Es el intento de hacer uno mismo Número Uno. Ese egoísmo abusa de y distorsiona nuestras relaciones: con Dios, con otras personas y con toda la creación.

El increíblemente buena noticia es que, al igual que Dios hizo en la vida de San Pablo y en muchas otras vidas a lo largo de los siglos, de modo que Dios tiene para usted y para mí el don de la vida eterna, simplemente porque el paciente, amoroso Jesús quiere que tengamos. Este amor de Dios se nos reveló en Jesús que nos amó tanto que abrió sus brazos y murió por nosotros en una cruz. Como alguien dijo, la grandeza del cristianismo y de la Iglesia, se mide por los brazos abiertos que tiene.

Dios sólomente le pide que me reconocer humildemente, reconocer y confesar mi pecado, y que abrirme con mucho gusto a fuerza de Dios, a la gracia de Dios, la gracia de Dios en Jesús, a fin de cambiar mi. El objeto de la misericordia de Dios debe ser un pecador: una persona que reconoce la necesidad por salvación. De lo contrario, Dios es impotente. Liberación de nuestra debilidad humana y el egoísmo, y de todas sus consecuencias, sólo es posible por la voluntad de Dios en Cristo, porque de la Gracia Divina y la misericordia rebosante en nuestro nombre. Ese fue el sentido de la misión de Jesús. Y esa es nuestra misión: hacer una verdadera compasión, misericordia y amor una realidad para nuestros hermanos y hermanas.

¿Cómo puede ser que esta misericordia de Jesús es tan accesible, de manera incondicional? La perfecta paciencia de Jesús es el modelo para todos los que creen en él para la vida eterna. Si creo en Jesús, si usted cree que su misericordia funciona de esta forma, usted y yo voy a hacer lo mismo y incorporar esta misericordia en nuestras propias acciones.

En el Evangelio de San Lucas, Capítulo Quince presenta las historias de Dios de inmensa misericordia: la oveja perdida, la moneda extraviada, y el hijo pródigo. Dios es muy felices cuando Dios encuentra el que se pierde. Es como si la misericordia de Dios y el perdón debe encontrar su expresión en la pura celebración y compartir sin límites. Hoy las parábolas de la oveja perdida y de la moneda extraviada de la mujer estrés llamando al "justo" a celebrar y participar en alabanza de Dios, que no conoce límites de paciencia, misericordia, el cuidado y el amor, en lugar de llamar a los pecadores al arrepentimiento. Si usted y yo son resistentes y no están dispuestos a unirse para celebrar la misericordia de Dios a los demás, entonces nos excluimos de la gracia de Dios, al igual que los refunfuñones entre los Fariseos y los escribas.

Autor Corita Kent dice: "La maldad, tal vez, no significa ver lo suficientemente bien. Tal vez, lo sólo que hay que ver más con el fin de ser menos mal, a ver lo que no hemos visto antes…" Que Dios nos ayude a ver con los ojos del Cristo misericordioso!

+    +    +

Sin is a very real part of all of our lives. The writer of Exodus (32:7-14) speaks about how the people of Israel acted “perversely”, turned aside, cast an idol for themselves and worshiped it. Each of us could admit, along with St. Paul who wrote to Timothy (1:12-17) that “...Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost.” And in Luke’s Gospel (15:1-10) Jesus is criticized for associating with “sinners”, yet he speaks openly and boldly in their behalf.  Oftentimes it may seem to us that “the sinner” is the other person, but the only “sinner” whom you and I really know firsthand is our self. St. John reminds us, “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.
Those who are pure in spirit”, ordinary people like us, feel uncertain about being righteous. We question our own motives, and we worry about betraying ourselves. In general, we don’t commit serious evil. Unpleasant as it may be, our sense of personal sin is exactly what keeps us from being too selfish. Even though that feels quite painful at times, it is an enormous blessing and is an effective safeguard against doing serious evil.  
The Scriptures today, however, help us to reflect on the “common” variety of sin. One of the best descriptions of sin is found in the Book of Common Prayer: “Sin is seeking of our own will instead of the will of God, thus distorting our relationship with God, with other people, and with all creation.” 

In the Bible there are two major expressions for sin: 1) “missing the mark”, thus losing a reward or prize; and 2) “living lawlessly”, without guidelines. It implies that a person lives irresponsibly, and lives as a fool. Ultimately, sin is selfishness. It is the attempt to make oneself Number One. Such selfishness misuses and distorts our relationships: with God, with other people, and with God’s whole creation.

The incredibly Good News is that, just as God worked in the life of St. Paul, and in many other lives throughout the centuries, so God holds out to you and me the gift of eternal life, simply because the patient, loving Jesus wants us to have it. This love of God is revealed to us in Jesus who loved us so much, who opened his arms to us, and who died for us on a cross. As someone has said, the grandeur of Christianity and of the Church is that of its open arms. 

God asks only that I humbly acknowledge, admit and confess my sin, and that I willingly open myself to God’s strength, God’s favor, God’s grace in Jesus, in order to change me. The object of God’s mercy must be a sinner: a person who acknowledges the need to be saved. Otherwise, God is powerless. Our release from human weakness and selfishness, and all their consequences, is possible only because of God in Christ, because of Divine Grace and Mercy overflowing on our behalf. That was the whole meaning of the mission of Jesus. And that is our mission: to make genuine compassion, mercy, and love a reality for our sisters and brothers.
How can it be that this mercy of Jesus is so accessible, so unconditional? The perfect patience of Jesus is the model for all who believe in him for eternal life. If you believe Jesus, if you believe that his mercy works this way, then you and I will do likewise and incorporate such mercifulness into our own actions. 
In the Gospel of Luke, Chapter 15 consists of stories of God’s overwhelming mercy: the lost sheep, the lost coin, the lost prodigal son. God is so overjoyed when whatever or whoever is lost is found. It is as if God’s mercy and forgiveness must find expression in pure unbounded celebration and sharing. Today’s parables of the lost sheep and of the woman’s lost coin stress calling the “righteous” to celebrate and join in praise of God’s unlimited patience, mercy, caring and love, rather than calling sinners to repentance. If you and I are resistant and unwilling to join in celebrating God’s mercy to others, then we exclude ourselves from God’s grace, just like the grumblers among the Pharisees and the Scribes. 
Author Corita Kent says: “Evil may be not seeing well enough, So perhaps to become less evil we need only to see more, see what we didn’t see before…” May God help us to see with the eyes of the merciful Christ!

Sunday, September 8, 2013

A Psalm About Two Choices

In my almost 50 years as a priest, I haven’t often preached specifically on the Psalm of the liturgy. That’s really a shame because the Psalms are so down-to-earth and full of very real and emotional human stuff. They’re poetry and prayer, poured out to God from human hearts like ours, sometimes full of praise and joy, sometimes anguished statements of suffering and despair, sometimes pleas of ardent longing and even of bitterness and anger. Today’s Psalm 1, part of a group of 34 title-less Psalms, often called “orphan Psalms”, is quite basic and sets the teaching tone, not only for the whole Psalter, but also for today’s liturgical readings.

In the fall of 1964 I was a newly ordained Catholic priest, assigned to teach freshman and senior religion classes at St. Anthony’s High School in Detroit. While studying the Bible, specifically the Psalms, I asked the freshman class to choose one of the 150 Psalms and to rewrite it in their own language, according to their personal interests. They produced some rather remarkable paraphrases, one in particular which I’ve carried around with me for these 50 years and have used in many sermons. A young man who was pretty average academically, but whose passion was cars, chose to rewrite Psalm 1 thus:

Man is like a car,
    oiled well and kept in good running condition.
That runs good when necessary
    whose pistons will never crack.
Not so the wicked, not so;
    they are like dirt, which the air filter removes.
Therefore, in a check-up 
    the dirt will be no more,
    nor the grime, in the motor of man.
For God, the mechanic, watches closely,
    so the dirt and grime will be no more.

Jim Cyrowski, wherever you are...thank you for once again inspiring me and the people who may be reading this today!

Psalm 1’s themes of reward for the righteous and virtuous person, and of punishment for the wicked and the ungodly, characterize Israel’s ancient wisdom teachers, particularly the writers of the books of Proverbs, Job, and Ecclesiastes. The psalm dates from about c. 400 B.C.E., when wisdom and God’s law were considered virtually identical. In the simplest terms, the sage-writer of Psalm 1 aims to teach people how to live. Wisdom: hokma in Hebrew, means human wisdom as it is lived and practiced. The “wise” person is one who has “practical ability”, “professional skill”, one who can live well, rule well, think well. Such a person is interested in the great questions of life, and how to translate the wisdom of the insights and answers to such questions into everyday, practical, here-and-now living. A wise person or sage is one who gains such knowledge through a relatively long life, through many and varied experiences, and through integrity, wholeness, and holiness learned from relationship with one’s self, with one’s fellow human beings, and, most of all, from one’s relationship with God.  Such a person is called righteous: possessing true shalom = peace, because one’s relationships, with self, with other human beings, and with God, are integral, whole, and therefore, sacred. Sadly, such a concept of wisdom is increasingly quite foreign to the American culture.
Like the Beatitudes of Jesus, verses 1-3 of Psalm 1 describe the righteous one using the wisdom-writers’ term, happy, blessed = makarios, in Greek. That’s truly a wise and clever device, isn’t it, because, right away, it holds out to all who hear or read it exactly what each of us presumably really wants in life: to be happy. The psalmist then goes on to show how a person can accomplish this, in three ways: 1) negatively, 2) positively and 3) by means of a metaphor,.  
Negatively, he advises against a threefold, progressive association with undesirables: “don’t walk in the counsel of the wicked”; “don’t stand in the way of sinners”; “don’t sit in the seat of scoffers”. Shun evildoing; don’t follow advice from those who act contrary to God’s wishes, or take as role models people who’ve gone off the path of the true and the right. Don’t join the company of the arrogant who scorn and sneer at others and at God.

Positively, take delight in Torah, commonly called “the law of the Lord”, which is not meant in a written or legal sense. It refers, rather, to God’s guidance and instruction, God’s Sophia or Wisdom, i.e., God’s very Self. That is to be one’s “delight”, God’s Wisdom, such that it’s never a burden or a yoke, but the sweet, stable foundation of the whole of one’s life. Meditation or prayer is to center at all times, throughout the entire day, and, indeed, throughout one’s whole life, on the Holy One who is All Wisdom and All Truth.
Finally, by means of a metaphor used frequently throughout the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures, whereby the psalmist depicts the righteous person as a tree, “planted by streams of water, which yields fruit in its season, and whose leaves do not wither…” It’s a picture of abundance, prosperity, productivity, usefulness, and ability to endure life’s hardships: all made possible by the nourishing streams of the outpouring of Godself into one’s life. For an Israelite, trees and water were essential sources of food and of relief from the heat. As a tree graciously flourishes and becomes fruit-bearing, so a righteous person branches out, reaches out, graciously and generously to others.

The image of “streams of water” suggests many things: 
  • Torah, God’s law, divine Wisdom, pouring Itself out in the creation of the natural world and of humankind; 
  • the life-giving Blood of Jesus which the Epistle to the Hebrews refers to as “a better word than the blood of Abel” and as “the new and living way... opened for us”; 
  • and, finally, the waters of Baptism where, as the Book of Common Prayer says, we’re “sealed by the Holy Spirit [often symbolized as Sophia/Wisdom]...and marked as Christ’s own for ever”. The celebrant also prays that we be given “an inquiring and discerning heart, [and] the courage to will and to persevere…and the gift of joy and wonder in all [God’s] works.
In verses 4-6 of Psalm 1, the sage contrasts the righteous one, the flourishing tree by the water-stream, with the image of chaff, recalling the harvesting process. This involved cutting the grain with sickles,  gathering it into sheaves, then taken to the threshing floor where metal-toothed sledges drawn by oxen could thresh the grain. As grain was winnowed, or tossed into the air, the wind carried off the chaff, leaving the heavier kernels and straw to fall to the ground. Finally, the kernels were shaken in a sieve, made of a wooden hoop with leather thongs, after which the grain was sacked and stored. The Psalmist likens the ungodly, conniving, wicked person, i.e., the fool, to chaff: “The wicked chaff that the wind drives away…”. The life of one caught up in godlessness and evil, rather than being “happy”, is pictured as being foolish: fleeting, without permanence, shifting, never settled. Such a person isn’t integral, whole, or at peace with oneself, with others, or, most of all, with God. Sadly, by  their own choice, such people live in separation from God and from “the congregation of the righteous”.
Psalm 1 concludes, in the literal rendering of the Greek text, stating that “the Lord tells/teaches the path of the righteous, whereas the path of the wicked leads to losing oneself.” Another source describes it more graphically: “The path followed by the righteous is broad and safe, because the Lord knows, i.e., it is under his protection. In contrast the path of the wicked, like a desert trail, leads nowhere and will soon peter out... perhaps beside a dry water hole marked by the skeletons of those who followed it.
The other readings today each suggest in their own way the two options for living which the wisdom-writer of Psalm 1 presents to us. Moses, in Deuteronomy (30:15-20), expresses it most clearly, perhaps: “See, I set before you today life and prosperity, death and and death, blessings and curses… Probably written well after the conquest of what we know as the Holy Land, the text hints that God’s people had, time and again during the years after the Exodus, ignored God’s words. They’d taken up the worship of other gods, and had suffered both the consequence of becoming a relatively powerless people whose land was the crossroads of other mighty empires, and the consequence of their own failures and betrayal of God. Deuteronomy presents Moses' words in the context of Israel’s having experienced a happy, as well as tragic, roller coaster ride in the years after entering the promised land: without Moses, of course. 
Moses is shown giving a final pep-talk to the descendants of those with whom he escaped from Egypt a generation back. They’re on the frontier of the Promised Land. God has already informed Moses that he’ll glimpse it before he dies, without ever entering it. Moses himself never saw the Torah as any sort of burden. He assures the people that God’s will, “the law of the Lord”, is "not too hard ..., nor is it too far away". God's Wisdom is, in fact, "in your mouth and in your heart". That’s how intimate and immediate God’s Presence is to people in leading them on the path of the righteous. The community of Israel already has the Torah on its collective lips and in its heart, presumably as the result of their continual individual and communal reflection on it. The choice for them is quite clear: if you love God by doing God's will, then you’ll have long life and blessing. If you serve other gods, then you’ll die. God calls all heaven and earth to witness to the choice which God offers again: life or death.  
The Letter to Philemon (1-21) is slightly different in that Paul poses a choice, a rather radical one at that, to Philemon regarding his runaway slave. Philemon was a dearly beloved friend of Paul’s, as well as a leader in the Colossian community. Paul refers to “the church in your house”. Philemon’s slave, Onesimus, had somehow ended up running away from, or at least leaving, Philemon’s household and serendipitously connecting with Paul, most likely in Ephesus. Paul was in prison there, and Onesimus became Paul’s right-hand man, much to Paul’s delight. Paul several times plays on the name, Onesimus, which means useful or beneficial.  
Paul proposes that Philemon accept Onesimus back. In returning Onesimus, Paul wants to be “legally correct”, because that would’ve been the right thing to do, and he makes it very clear both that Onesimus will honor Philemon’s decision, either way, and that he, Paul, will pay any outstanding expenses which Philemon has incurred. Paul says that he’d prefer that Philemon would honor his request willingly, instead of feeling pressured to do so. Yet, Paul is shamelessly unrelenting in laying a guilt trip on Philemon. Paul plays the "age card": “...I, Paul, do this as an old man…”, then adds the "suffering servant card": “...and now also as a prisoner of Christ Jesus…” He tells Philemon that Onesimus has been such an invaluable assistant in the ministry that he’s become like a son. Paul even hints that he’d like to keep Onesimus with him, truth be told! Yet though Paul would welcome Philemon’s sending Onesimus back to him as a gift, he’s willing to let him go, if only Philemon will take him back unconditionally, no longer as a slave, but as “a beloved brother”. In fact, Paul urges Philemon to “welcome him as you would welcome me”, throwing in the little jab that “I say nothing about your owing me even your own self”. Paul admits his confidence that Philemon “will do even more than I say”. 

It’s possible that Paul’s letter wasn’t just meant for Philemon, but that Paul wanted it to be read to the Colossian community also. That would prod others to reassess their conscious willingness to accept all others as Christ would. Imagine yourself as Philemon, hearing this read during the Sunday announcements! I also wonder if anyone took bets on what Philemon would ultimately choose to do!
Then there’s that Gospel passage (Luke 14:25-33), where Luke’s Jesus expresses, most painfully and uncompromisingly of the three readings, the gist of Psalm 1’s message: “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, and even life itself—cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.” There’s no way to tone down or euphemize the intensity of the verb usually translated as "hate": the word miseo, in the Greek text, is clear. 19 out of 21 translations which I checked use that exact word. Parenthetically, the Gospel of Thomas, an ancient source, not included in our Christian canon of Scripture, has virtually the same passage and wording in two places. St. Matthew’s Gospel account (10:37), gives a softened version: “Any one who loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and any one who loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.” This is a dilemma, at least for me, because I can’t imagine Jesus teaching anyone to literally hate another person for any reason, much less a close family member. The commentaries which I’ve studied either side-step the question or go along with Matthew’s viewpoint. Here’s what I personally feel sure of: that I’m called to do no less than what Matthew’s Jesus commands, i.e., to love no person or thing more than Jesus the Christ. As to what Luke’s Jesus commands, here’s something for you to maybe  “chew on” and to pray about for yourselves during the coming week:

Pastor Lisa Davison, of the Disciples of Christ Church and professor of religious studies at Lynchburg College in Virginia, offers this: “...As Jesus has been making his way to Jerusalem, the crowd following him has increased, as more people are moved by his message and make the spontaneous choice to join the cause. Most, if not all, of them have no idea what they are signing up for...On down the road, when the going gets tough, they will turn away...Jesus does not want such unthinking discipleship, and he also does not want anyone to be uninformed of what will be asked of them. He overstates the level of commitment that is required of his followers (e.g., hating family and life) to make clear that nothing else can come before their loyalty to God and the gospel message. Nothing and no one in their lives can come before God.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

The Grace & Mercy Which Trumps All

Whatever our age, regardless of what we do, we’re all aware of the inner struggle for acceptance, for being recognized, for being valued in some way. To be accomplished in at least one thing is something which can motivate us. For some it would be sports skills, for others being gifted musicians or dancers. More common perhaps, for various motives, is the attempt to try to dazzle others with knowledge or position on the corporate ladder; or with the car we drive; or with the size of our house; or with our perceived handsome face or abeautiful body. In itself, the desire to improve and to excel is quite natural, and today’s texts reflect upon this very human need for recognition and self-esteem.

As was his frequent custom, Jesus used parables and stories, to convey his message. The examples in Luke’s Gospel (14:7-14) relate to the role of guests and hosts at table. Jesus notes how guests are maneuvering for the honored places. He’s also aware that his host has put him, and probably others of prominence, on display in order to impress the host’s friends. And Jesus challenges both for that. In this setting his message points to a higher wisdom, allowing one to escape being preoccupied, often to one’s own detriment and to that of others, with an unending quest for recognition. The Epistle from Hebrews (13:1-8; 15-16) helps us to apply this message of the Gospel parable to some very specific areas and people in our lives, guiding us to understand the real source of human esteem and worth.

Jesus had been invited to a Sabbath dinner at the home of a Pharisee, probably a VIP, well-recognized and prominent in the community. Of course, Jesus was no slouch either when it came to being noticed! Earlier, in Chapter 11, Luke records a woman from a crowd eagerly blurting out, “Blessed is the womb that bore you and the breasts that nursed you!” In the next chapter Luke says that “many thousands had gathered” to hear Jesus, “so that they were trampling on one another”: this, at a time long before rock concerts, mind you! In last week’s Gospel, from Chapter 13, Luke comments that “the people were delighted with all the wonderful things he was doing”, on that particular occasion, making the religious hypocrites in the synagogue look foolish.

Luke’s next words today, then, shouldn’t surprise us: “...they were watching him.” Some, much to the delight of the host, would ogle Jesus because here was someone whom the townspeople were talking about, this prophet of Nazareth, an “item” of interest. Others, however, Jesus’ enemies, the “religious” folks, were engaged in a sort of “rabbi-sting operation”: pretending open hospitality, yet waiting for, hoping for, some indiscretion on Jesus’ part that would justify their getting rid of him. Perhaps as the evening wore on Jesus would loosen up a bit with food and wine, and say or do something that would make their day!

Luke omits what Jesus did next, in the shift from verse 1 to verse 7. Verse 2 reads: “There in front of [Jesus] was a man suffering from dropsy.” [More commonly called edema, dropsy refers to an abnormal accumulation of fluid which can affect the eyes, the extremities, the feet and other organs.] “...So taking hold of the man,” says Luke, “he healed him and sent him away...

 The sacredness of the Sabbath for the Jewish people had been enshrined in the Genesis creation story itself, with God’s own “resting” after creation, justifying the foundation and basis of the Sabbath day of rest for all. Nevertheless, over the centuries the weekly rest, meant to be a blessing rather than a burden, had become a source of bondage for many Jews. Law after law defined what was work and what wasn’t. Some 39 kinds of work were forbidden on Shabbat. Because one could walk only a certain distance from home on the Sabbath, even an act of mercy to someone in need was to be avoided in order to be “on the safe side”. 

What Jesus asked and eventually did at the dinner was quite astounding, and, to Pharisees, outrageous! Jesus‘ so-called “indiscretion” at this dinner far exceeded their wildest hopes! Here’s this man with dropsy sitting before him. “Jesus asked the Pharisees and experts in the Law, ‘Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath or not?‘“ He’s met with stony silence. You can imagine them looking from Jesus to the man with dropsy, and thinking, “He wouldn’t dare.” But he did dare! “...taking hold of the man, he healed him and sent him away.” 

One can only imagine the headlines the next day: “Yeshua bar Joseph Caught In Synagogue, Blaspheming on the Sabbath!” Jesus was clearly either guilty of breaking the Law, or else he was conveying a radically new message to the Pharisees, and to us. The message is simple: God’s grace and mercy trumps everything else. The only recognition, esteem or worth, the only thing which really makes you and me valuable and acceptable, and therefore equal, that makes you and me Number 1, is the fact that God accepts us through God’s enduring grace.

Many of us don’t find it easy to “accept that we are accepted” by God, as theologian Paul Tillich phrased it. The idea of grace: that I would be accepted and recognized and loved by God, simply for who, and what, and as I am, is so foreign to the way human beings normally deal with one another that we think that there must be a catch of some sort! Throughout his ministry, Jesus, in essence, has to almost jump up and down, and do and say outrageous things just to get people’s attention and convince them, and us, that it’s true.

God is graciousness personified: grace, gratia = free gift. For a Cursillo weekend three years ago, I was assigned the talk on Grace, and I love the Prayer Book’s definition given in the Outline of the Faith, which I quoted in my talk: “Grace is God’s favor towards us, unearned and undeserved; by grace God forgives our sins, enlightens our minds, stirs our hearts, and strengthens our wills.” That graciousness never wears thin. “The loving kindness of the Lord endures forever”, says the Psalmist.

Fr. Michael Malone writes the following: Imagine the following scene. A person feeling badly about himself; he has been involved in a minor traffic accident, hitting the car in front of him. It had been mostly the other driver’s fault for stopping abruptly without warning. The driver of the rear car has straightened out the matter, apologizing to the other driver as he feels a Christian should. But he knows that he has not meant the apology and really doesn’t feel sorry. A friend notices and says, ‘You speak now as though you regret something.‘ ‘Yes, I know I should have felt the sorrow which I expressed but didn’t feel.‘ ‘In other words, you feel sorry about not feeling sorry?‘ the friend asks. ‘Yes. I’m dissatisfied with myself: I don’t feel the sorrow which I think I should feel.‘ The friends asks, ‘And if you really did feel sorry about hitting the other car, then would you be happy?‘  The man says, ‘Well, I guess so. Then I wouldn’t feel as if God is holding up a final installment of forgiveness until I feel the way I think I ought to feel.‘ His friend smiles. ‘Do you think that God’s grace is conditional upon your feelings?‘ ‘I guess that’s what I think,‘ the driver admits. ‘Then how is that ‘grace‘ in any sense of the word? If you’ve earned it, then it isn’t a gift!’

So often we believe that God’s forgiveness and grace “takes” only if we’re perfect, only if we do and feel the “right” things. We live with guilt and with the suspicion that sooner or later we’ll ring up a “No Sale” at God’s cash register! So often we write ourselves and others off as something less than we really are. “Why would God look twice at us?” How could God be more of a “patsy” or a pushover than we are?

As the Letter to the Hebrews notes, the reason God is gracious to you and me is because God created us with the Love which is grace, and in God’s Son, “Jesus Christ, the same yesterday, today, and for ever”, God redeemed us by grace and mercy, even when we were unworthy of it. God assures us that grace is ongoing: “I will never fail you nor forsake you.” The only way in which you and I could not be Number 1 in God’s eyes is if we were to deliberately choose, through selfishness, to be less than that. True, God’s grace and mercy isn’t without challenge. Once accepted, it will certainly push us to our limits. It may even offend us because it’s so unlike how we would act, so foreign to the yardstick we generally use to measure recognition and success.

Michel Quoist writes:

You said it in your Gospel: ‘not one hair of your head falls
without my permission.’

It’s true, Lord, that you are always thinking of us.
It’s true, from the beginning of time, before we existed,
Even before the world existed,
You have been dreaming of me,
Thinking of me,
Loving me.
And it’s true that your Love created me,
Not on an assembly-line, but unique,
The first one so made, and the last,
Indispensable to humanity.
It’s true, Lord, that you have conceived for my life a unique
It’s true that you have an eternal plan for me alone, 
A wonderful plan that you have always cherished in your heart,
as a [parent] thinks over the smallest details in the life of [the]
little one still unborn.
It’s true that, always bending over me, you guide me to bring
your plan about, light on my path and strength for my soul.
It’s true that…when I stray or run hasten to pick me up if I 
stumble or fall...

You, the divine Attentive One,
the divine Patient One,
the divine Present One,
See that at no time I forget your presence.
I don’t ask you to bless what I myself have decided to do, but
Give me the grace to discover and to live what you have dreamed
for me. 
( From Prayers, Michel Quoist, “The Bald Head”, Sheed & Ward, 1963, pp. 91-92)