Archive for 1997
The TV does it! The magazines do it! Even the Sunday liturgy does it! “Does what?” I hear you ask. Does this: goes all nostalgic. We’re all looking forward to Christmas by looking backward in memory.
The adverts are full of warm hearths and ruddy-cheeked children and Victorian windows and period costumes and gently drifting snow. Santa Claus speaks in an antique accent and even his ho-ho-hos hearken back to an earlier, rosier time. The table is crammed, the tree is laden, and every eye is full of tinsel and fire.
The ghosts of Christmas past have done their work for Scrooge. Charlie Brown has got his Christmas tree. And once more the Grinch has failed to steal Christmas. It is, indeed, a wonderful life!
Do you remember the songs of Christmas? The tunes that transport you to some former time when you were younger and wiser, when your back ached less, and the Christmas tree loomed so large, and the crèche brought tears to your innocent eyes? Do you remember when all the family managed to be together for the holidays before death and distance made their claim? Do you remember the hush of a silent night, the sleepless wait for a gift-rich daybreak, the rush and tear of all that wrapping paper and ribbon?
Ah, things worth waiting for, things worth remembering. All that nostalgia, all that juice and all that joy, and not a word of Jesus! Isn’t there always a pang of guilt that in all the rush and fluster of Christmas coming and going we miss the reason for the season, as some say. So here’s a Christmas question for you: if Jesus were here, in the flesh, this morning how would he be getting ready to celebrate his birthday?
And while you ponder your answer for a moment let me lead up to mine by dwelling on the extraordinarily ordinary meeting in today’s gospel.
Two women meeting: a young women pregnant in hasty circumstances; an elderly woman expecting after all these years. Two women of no account who wouldn’t be worth a second glance if they weren’t both heavy with child. Two women bound by blood and bodies that ought to be barren but in this winter time are ripening new fruit.
Two odd, simple women suddenly brought to joy by the life inside their bodies and the kinship between them. A simple meeting. A simple pleasure felt in the flesh: “He’s kicking!”
This is how Jesus comes into the world. The headlines don’t shout his coming. The churches are not filled on his account. But two women, in the hills, miles from nowhere, feel it in their waters and find themselves laughing and embracing and singing for the joy and surprise of it all.
And how they must have remembered in later times the sweetness of that meeting and felt again for a moment the confidence in their flesh that joy was alive within the world through them.
Didn’t they take their boys on their knees in later years, when birthdays approached, and tell them the story of that meeting? As they cooked their sons’ favourite food, didn’t they reminisce about warmer times when their backs ached less, and all the family managed to be together, and joy was simple and hope abundant? Didn’t they remember and relish and relive?
With a mother and an aunt like that how else would Jesus be getting ready for his birthday than by remembering! Remembering the day-to-day joys of simply being alive to breathe and taste and hold; relishing all that past pleasures have laid up in his flesh and today’s delight rekindles; reliving with laughter and shining eyes his blood’s excited pulse of waiting.
May we do likewise: remember, relish, relive!
December 21st, 1997
Isn’t it a strange time of year? I’ve always loved Advent and I’ve come in these years to love Thanksgiving yet I never know at this time of year which way to turn, which way to look. This year especially it’s been ambiguous. I’ve had two dear friends here to celebrate with and we’ve found ourselves trying to recapture past experiences of cooking great feasts together and relish a companionship that can only be intermittent these days. And so we find ourselves looking forward to the next time we’ll be together and planning ways to let it happen. But though the past is always with us, and the future never far away, always the present presses in with its own mystery as we grapple together with advent homilies and the daily doings of God in our lives.
This time on the cusp between past and future is a fragile and glorious one. It’s the time of Advent. The time when the clock’s stately sweep moves without faltering, smoothly, from one epoch to the next. The monotonous tick of the clock hardly captures anything of our experience of time because our time is always a time of significance. What difference is there between the dying instant of the last watch of the night and the first glimmer of dawn? Nothing and everything.
My Celtic ancestors had a thing about such “times between times”: the twilight and the dawning, times when the veil between this world and the Other grows thin, the borders of reality waver, and anything might come pouring, half-seen, across the threshold to keep this world of mortals on edge. Things awful or things glorious but always things of significance.
As we cross the sword-bridge at this time-between-times and step from Ordinary time into Advent what things come pouring across the threshold to make our lives significant?
I can’t decide whether Union Square this last week was intent upon exorcising the significance of the season of Advent or was just anticipating the feast with a vengeance. For there, with its glowing lights and angel choirs, its stuffed toys and glittering prizes, the Christ-Child has already come, is already in stock and available for purchase. While here, in this place, we have hardly begun to wait and hardly begun to wonder whether that waiting will be more dread than yearning. Our readings offer us both: a coming time of justice and safety and security but also a time of distress and fear and foreboding. And our secular scriptures – the advertisers – offer us similarly mixed messages with confused images of Christmas warmth and generosity – all hearth-glow and ruddy cheeks – neck and neck with needed panaceas of the pursuit of plenty – for heartburn and headache.
Yes, we live in two worlds but right now the veil draws thin and the times drip with significance. I read recently that new technology has given rise to speculation that the moon might be an ideal laser-powered billboard. After all nobody owns it – it’s free real-estate just begging to bear the logo of Nike or Coca-Cola. There might indeed soon be signs in the heavens.
Speaking of Nike, I hear that while they make their profits from sweatshop labour in the Philippines and while they blitz the inner-cities with advertising for footwear which can only be afforded by theft, they also support at least one Jesuit school with extravagant building programs. The only price being to wear the logo and ignore the pain of taking blood-money.
Or I read yesterday, that in a survey, 1000 Americans claimed they would spend as much time in worship these holidays as in shopping. 16 hours they said. Do you believe that? Or as the article said can it only be true if the it’s the same 16 hours! When shopping is worship the veil has indeed drawn thin!
Or take El Niño. The scapegoat for every ill from unseasonable weather to stock market craziness. Blame it on El Niño: El Niño, the Christ-Child! The Christ-Child is coming and his advent disturbs the heavens and brings turmoil on earth.
So what must we do to be ready for his coming? How must we spend our lives this Advent, this time between times? Well in defiance of the reigning wisdom I say forget the instructions to make space, make time, to pray and ponder lest the real meaning of the coming Christ child get lost in consumer frenzy. Forget it because we live not in two worlds, one silent and serene and the other crazy, but in one. Because the veil has drawn thin and all things have their significance and El Niño is coming to this one world. And all borders have lost their meaning but one. All boundaries have blurred but one: the cut made by the sword of justice. The Christ-Child is coming and his coming means justice. But justice is a sharp and ambiguous sword. For some it means freedom and release and a longed-for joy. For those who need liberating, who bear oppression, who suffer injustice. But for those who impose the slavery, who ignore the oppression, who profit from the injustice, it is will be a day of dread, a day of loss.
So do we know our need for liberation or do we fear what we might lose? There’s an Advent question for us. May it burn in our hearts. May it give us heartburn.
Let us pray that God make our hearts strong in our love for justice so that we long for Christ’s coming, so that we hear his words as a promise and blessing. Stand erect, hold your heads up high, for your liberation is near at hand.
Jesus said to his disciples: “there will be signs in the sun, the moon and the stars. On the earth, the other nations will be in anguish, distraught at the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding in anticipation of what is coming upon the earth. And in the heavens the powers will be shaken. After that, people will see the Son of Man coming on a cloud with great power and glory.
When these things begin to happen, stand erect, hold your heads up high, for your liberation is near at hand.
Be on guard lest your hearts grow heavy with indulgence and drunkenness and the anxieties of life and that great day take you unawares like a trap. For it will come upon all who dwell on the face of the earth. Be alert at all times, praying that you may be able to escape whatever is in prospect and stand secure before the Son of Man.
November 30th, 1997
“Cheer up,” they tell you, “it’s not the end of the world.” When the horrible happens, when someone irreplaceable dies, when someone you love doesn’t love you, when illness strikes like lightning or wastes like acid. “Cheer up! It’s not the end of the world!”
But what do they know? It should be the end of the world. If the world had any decency it wouldn’t want to go on with this pain in it. It shouldn’t be able to just carry on a normal. The stars should fall from the sky. The earth should shake. The ground should open up. The darkness should fall. And then there might be an end to horror and loss and rejection and death.
When the pocketbook is empty, when the baby isn’t born, when the oncoming car isn’t going to miss, when the news reveals another heartbreak, when good people are killed for their goodness. Why doesn’t the world itself wind up its career, call it a day, pack its bags and be done with it. Bring on the darkness!
Today is the eighth anniversary of the killing of six of my brother Jesuits in El Salvador because they would not be silent about the evils done against the poor of that country. Not just killing – butchery and mutilation. And not just the priests but two women who worked with them. Some of the men who followed orders and did the killing had been trained in this country by the American army at the School of the Americas. A place that apparently knew of the use of torture and violence in El Salvador long before this tragedy.
Three weeks ago another Jesuit, this time in India, was beheaded at the hands of a rebel group because of his work with the untouchables; the poorest of the poor in Bihar province.
Here in quiet California, three days ago, the President of the Jesuit School of Theology, hardly a radical, was effectively removed from the job by a letter from Rome referring to an interview he gave years ago to an alumni magazine in which he spoke amongst other things, with measured words, about dissent within the church and about the ordination of women.
“Cheer up,” some have been saying, “it’s not the end of the world.” And maybe it’s not. No butchery; the beheading only symbolic; just bureaucratic abuse by those who should know better.
So it’s not the end of the world. The sun rose this morning. The moon will shine tonight. The stars will be where the stars always have been and the world will go on as if nothing had happened. As if my woes and yours were insignificant.
But the promise of Scripture today is that there will be a time when our troubles will bring on the end of the world. “After trials of every sort the sun will be darkened, the moon will not shed its light, stars will fall from the skies, and the heavenly hosts will be shaken.” The world at last will begin to respond to the horrors we have experienced. And in the middle of all that, when evil is at last unmasked, then we will see the Son of Man coming in the clouds with great power and glory to vindicate his people; to vindicate you and me. It will be the beginning of the end, the end of all evil and hurt, but it will be more. It will be the end of the beginning. Because the end will not be the end. “Learn a lesson,” says Jesus, “learn a lesson from the fig tree. Once the sap of its branches runs high and it begins to sprout leaves you know that summer is near.” The fig tree, which is last to bud and last to green, which sits there looking as dead as winter while all the others bloom and ripen their way through spring. When all hope for petal and leaf is long lost, why, just then the fig tree opens up its heart and summer is here. That’s the lesson: the promise that all our pain and hurt and disappointment, that all the horror and evil and injustice in this world, that all this will bring on the end of the world, yes, but the beginning of a new one. That’s the promise — summer is coming, Jesus is coming.
When doesn’t matter: only why. Why? Because God cares. Because God has already sacrificed his own life for us. Because God feels our pain and wants to share our joy. Because “Cheer up” is never enough.
November 16th, 1997
I’m looking at all your faces and I’m wondering what I can see … you’re a little on edge, you don’t know who I am, but besides that you really quite relaxed, quite calm. You’ve heard the same readings I’ve just heard and you’re calm! You call yourselves disciples and yet you’re relaxed, comfortable. You can listen to this Gospel story and feel … what? superior, safe, reckon you know better … what?
You don’t know how it was for us, we Twelve, trailing after him, down dusty roads, into stinking towns, never knowing what was going to happen next. “Followers of Jesus”! We certainly were followers. I don’t know how many times the morning found us lagging behind as he hurtled on ahead to some private goal, driven by some inner urgency, we could barely grasp. Followers! Sometimes he left us so far behind we lost all sight of him. I don’t know whether it was our confusion that made us lag behind or our hanging back that left us confused. Because, when we were with him, it didn’t seem much to matter, the confusion. We’d stop our wrangling and find ourselves caught up again by him. By his energy, by his gaze, by the strange words that tumbled out of his lips and left an ache in the brain … and one in the heart. And the things he did! We were never sure what came next? One minute he’d be crying inconsolably over a baby’s death and the next curing an incurable old woman. “Why one and not the other?” I’d ask him and he’d give me one of his looks. I thought it was a good question.
One minute he’d be dragging us all to dinner with a bunch of whores or standing on a street corner denouncing respectable religion but then before you knew it he’d be round at their houses too, drinking and feeding his face and letting them pamper him. “How can you accept their money,” I’d ask him, “when you know how they got it?” And he’d look at me, with a smile, and say “Good question. Think about it.” Infuriating!
But at least when we were with him, like that, we felt something and all the voices of doubt would fade and we wouldn’t think of leaving him until the next day on the road.
But those days when he was hurrying ahead and we were dallying behind were different. What an assortment of weirdoes we were, with hardly a thing in common. Except perhaps that we all thought we were the special one, with a unique place in his heart. You can imagine the tension. Especially with all the sleeping rough, with the enemies he was making, with the crowds of hangers on who never left us any peace. Some of them were searching like we were, others were just out for scandal. John Mark was the one I hated the most, always there, always scrounging a story, always ready to blow it up out of proportion with the point nicely tailored to make us look like fools, make us look like we never got anything Jesus said. But he said such strange things, contradictory things. Life and death, together in one sentence, suffering and glory, betrayal and loyalty.
To hear Mark you’d think we were idiots. But we kept our arguing to ourselves. Especially when Jesus began to whisper in private to us about how he’d end up dead and broken and betrayed. It’s all right for you. You’ve had 20 centuries to get used to the idea, 15 or 16 of them adoring my friend’s broken body on the cross. But we could make neither head nor tail of it. Not that we didn’t try! Twelve of us and twelve different opinions. From pious Matthew, who would offer up every flea bite and stubbed toe, to Simon who counted every misfortune as another reason to torch the Temple, or Thomas – the twin we called him because he was always in two minds – who half believed God was in the punishment business. Confused!
Then Jesus disappears up Mt. Tabor with Peter and James and John and comes back intoxicated, glowing, and glorious but dropping details about his dying – betrayal, abuse, flogging, death on a cross.
And, in public, he begins to do his trick with the little kid, and shock everyone silly, and tell us the greatest would be the least and the slave would be the master–and the masters would quail and the slaves stare.
But when we were alone, trailing behind, Peter and James and John would tell their mountaintop story of sound and light and heaven come to earth and we would hope for a while that our tale might have a happier ending than the one Jesus seemed set on. James saw the personal potential right away, I think, and John was always one to tag along. Peter, well Peter, was as stupid as the fish he used to catch – lucky Peter!
And the story, as Mark tells it, isn’t really wrong. The two of them did get more, and less, than they bargained for and the rest of us were angry. But more at Jesus than at them. Why was he going to ruin his life and ours with all this talk about pain? When glory had been given him why was he going to let it all end in shame?
I asked him that too, the first rare moment in private. “You used to love life so much: why this obsession with death?” And again that unsettling look. Right in the eyes. “I thought you would understand, Judas, even if the others didn’t.”
I think that was when I did begin to understand. I saw his future and mine, vaguely at first. I think—I hope—in the end—I did what he wanted. I’m not trying to justify myself. Why should I care what you think? I was there. You weren’t. And he chose me for the job not you.
You should be grateful.
October 19th, 1997
The story so far … We started this series with the feeding of the five thousand and a crowd so impressed that Jesus has to run away so they won’t try and make him a rebel King on the spot. But the crowd find him the next day and Jesus challenges them that they aren’t interested in the sign he has given them but only in the chance to get fed. OK they say so what’s this sign going to be? It is a sign already given, says Jesus, bread that satisfies more than your bellies, living bread fresh from heaven, that will give life a new vitality which cannot be taken away — not even by death. The crowd replies in one voice — Give us some! Yes, give us some of that! And then Jesus ruins it all by claiming that he, himself, is the living bread. Uproar! He feeds the flames. You have to eat my flesh and drink my blood. At which point departs the crowd angry, disappointed, disillusioned, … hungry.
But his disciples remain disappointed, disillusioned, and—today—murmuring: “These are hard words … you’d have to be mad to swallow them.” To which Jesus asks, “Am I a scandal to you? Am I a stumbling block?” And says, John, because of this many of his disciples turned back and stopped walking with him. The crowd has thinned out … Jesus turns to the Twelve: “What about you? Are you also going to leave me?”
A story that started out with signs and wonders comes down to this: to him. Not miracles, not signs, not food, not even doctrine — but to a question … who are you going to walk your days with? Who are you going to choose as your God?
It’s the same question Joshua poses to the Israelites: “decide today whom you will serve.” Who will be your God?
The Israelites as Joshua describes them are gung-ho for God. Adonai is our God. And John writes that Peter speaks for the Twelve when he says “Lord, Adonai, where else could we go? We trust you.”
Is that the way the story ends? Imagine how the TV would do this scene with close-up and long shot. With Jesus a semi-tragic figure, abandoned by so many at the peak of his success, left by his most of his followers, so that just the faithful few cluster around him in the space emptied by so many departures. And the Twelve, some sort of heroes, staying with him, accepting their fate with him, because they alone trust him. Is that the way the story ends?
Not quite. John has his doubts. For a start there’s something fishy about the words Peter uses to express faith in Jesus. “You are the Holy One of God,” he says. That’s a phrase found no where else in John’s gospel and in the other gospels only ever in the mouths of demons. Recognition isn’t everything. Even the devil can declare his faith in Jesus. All the black and white is grey.
Look at the Twelve who remain with Jesus or at least say they will. Judas who will betray him, Peter who will deny him, and ten others who will run away. What do we make of that? Of their promise, of their trust?
Only this: for centuries, for millenia, the choice is offered to human beings freely: who will you choose to walk with? who will be your God? The choice is offered freely without compulsion. Just the offer of something unimaginable, better than belief, stronger than wine, firmer than flesh, deeper than life. “Do you want it?” is the question.
But if the question is freely offered the answer is freely received. The Yes is taken a face value, taken in good faith—even if we are betrayers, deniers or plain cowards. And that is our salvation. That we so often speak words which are better than our lives. We are constantly urged to choose well who to take after, who to walk with and our answers are sometimes better than we are. But God believes us when perhaps we don’t believe ourselves.
We say “Yes Lord we believe,” and we are believed. We say “Yes Lord we trust,” and we are trusted. “Yes Lord we have faith,” and God has faith in us. And God’s faith in us gives us the space to go beyond betrayal, denial and cowardice into the land of life and living. We might trust Jesus more with our lips than our hearts but he trusts us with his life and that trust opens up a world where we can become witnesses, faithful witnesses, beloved disciples, heroic friends.
August 24th, 1997
To live forever! It seems it might even be possible. You can indeed die but live forever … or at least twenty years … if you’re Elvis Presley that is. The King is dead. Long live the King! The TV this week’s been full of Elvis reanimated on celluloid and reincarnated in corpulent and impersonated flesh. The papers have been outdoing each other with humorous or weighty articles on twenty years of a modern myth—a legendary life that captured his era, a mysterious and degrading death, and now a spirit that lives on — at least in the hearts of fans and the pocket books of an industry devoted to his memory and memorabilia. Did you know that $80 could get you a matched pair of Elvis and Barbie dolls — with real wiggling hips!?
Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, it seems the Mediterranean Sea is being taken over by a mutated Pacific seaweed. Delicate in its natural habitat, this weed was used in a German aquarium for its refined beauty. So beautiful in fact that one aquarium shared with another, and another, until in Monaco the Oceanographic Museum when it went out of business emptied its tanks into the sea and this once tender plant, exposed to years of UV light and aquarium chemicals, has been taking over and poisoning the local sea-life. “Nothing can stop it,” went the headlines. It seems that even the trivial things we do, like prettying up our fish tanks, have real and global consequences.
Back in the US, an impact of more modest, but more grisly, proportions: check you freezer for any of the 5 million hamburger patties—that’s over 500 tons of not-so-prime beef—which have been recalled for being contaminated with e coli bacteria. Which is a nice way of saying they’re full of feces. Which is a nice way of saying … well you get my drift! So watch that next trip to the golden arches because you are what you eat. Fast food has its own flesh-and-blood consequences — from fast food-poisoning through slow clogging of the arteries to starving children in the horn of Africa.
“Wisdom has built her house … she has dressed her meat, mixed her wine, yes, she has spread her table.” From the Elvis who now lives in some pseudo-spiritual realm, via the flesh-and-blood realities of our activity in this world, we come here to the table. Our Host, Wisdom, is quite a character. A person in her own right. Sophia, as the Greek text of Proverbs calls her, was there at the right hand of God at the creation of the world when she danced and played in the very ecstasy of crafting something beautiful. And here she is today laying out a banquet for whoever needs her help. Setting out the meat and pouring the wine that leads to life. “Aha! Just like Jesus,” we think, breaking the bread and spilling the wine of eucharist. But there’s more to the comparison than that. When the first believers reflected on who Jesus, their dead but living friend, could be, when they tried to figure out how Jesus was related to Adonai, the God of their ancestors, they turned to the resources of their Jewish faith. And they found there Sophia, Wisdom, ready-made—present with God before the world began, intimately involved with all creation, and setting the table of life for all to share. So one of the very first Biblical ways of understanding Jesus was not as King, not as Master, but as a woman, as Lady Wisdom, come down from heaven in the flesh. It’s an image that quickly got dressed up in men’s clothing but it’s there just under the surface if you look for it. God as She as well as He. My mother says, “I don’t care what you say he’ll always be a he to me.” Surely God is beyond flesh, beyond gender, beyond sex. After all God is spirit isn’t he … she …it?
Well in the teeth of all our attempts to rob God of a body and keep the Divine “It” at a spiritual distance—in the teeth of all that—we have eucharist and we have gospel. “The bread I am going to give, for the life of the world, is my flesh.” “My flesh is real food and my blood real drink.” We try to go one way—from flesh to spirit—but God always goes the opposite direction. We talk of metaphors and symbols but God is distressingly literal, even naive. The eucharist we will shortly share is the very opposite of a symbol. The meal we eat is Jesus’ flesh and blood but not by magic. He made bread, flesh, and wine, blood, by putting his flesh and blood on the line. He spoke the words and made them true with his body, by having it snatched from him: broken, battered, bleeding, … dead.
The bread and wine we eat is only our sacrifice because flesh and blood were his.
Why do we come and eat and drink together like this? Why don’t we stay at home and meditate or do good deeds? Only because Jesus made flesh and blood out of wine and words. We come to eat our words … and his. We come to lay down our flesh and blood, here, for each other’s consumption and for the life of the world. After all a sacrifice of words is nothing. It’s the world that matters—to God and to us. Flesh and blood, seaweed and ground beef, the oceans, the air, people, bodies, breath and breathing. For these … for us … Jesus made a sacrifice of his body. Gave it like bread so that we might feed on him and have life—life enough to lay down, so that the whole world might live.
August 17th, 1997
I have to admit that I was taken by surprise by today’s gospel. We’ve been following Mark’s story for so long that I, reading ahead, was all ready for the feeding of the five thousand. So homily in head, half-prepared, I opened the book and found not Mark but John. The church, in its wisdom, aware that there isn’t enough of Mark to share among the Sundays of Ordinary time, inserts at this point four weeks of John, John meditating on broken bread. You almost can’t see the join. Both gospels are telling the same story of a miraculous feeding but all the details are different. Gone are the sheep without a shepherd from Mark. Instead the crowd follows Jesus because they have seen the signs. Gone is the Jesus who, moved by what he sees, sets out to teach the people at some length. Instead an enigmatic, almost reserved, figure breaks bread in the desert. Gone is the challenge to the disciple to take what little she has and in its breaking and sharing discover an abundant blessing God. Instead a commanding Jesus tests the crowd and the disciples with a question and a sign. And, sad to say, gone is the homily I had prepared. Instead here I am rambling about the homily that I am still preparing. But ramble with me a little longer and let this be a preamble to the next three weeks in which John himself unpacks the meaning of this gospel. I hope you like bread because you’ll have it in abundance!
John puts the familiar picture of the feeding of the five thousand in a skillfully chosen frame. And I want to pull back the focus from the picture to look at the frame. The frame is a careful construction of signs and the seeing of signs. It is fashioned from the heart’s hunger and the quest for satisfaction.
The crowd comes after Jesus, John says, because they saw the signs he worked for the sick. But he means more than just that the crowd wanted healing. A deeper hunger drives them into the desert after this wonder worker, a hunger for deliverance, for freedom, for political change. They want done with these Romans who occupy their land, they want a leader, they want the Messiah, they want a sign that God has returned among the people, they want a second Exodus. God knows the histories of the time are thick with messianic candidates who took their crowd of followers into the desert to show them a sign of God’s promise and blessing on their cause. God knows the same histories tell of crushed rebellions and crowds cut down like grain by Roman blades.
So it’s a risky quest the crowd is on to follow Jesus to this place, and so close to Passover with its reenacted sign of freedom from slavery. Is he the one? Will there be a sign? And Jesus gives them a sign. Stepping into the sandals of Moses, Jesus provides food in the desert — the bread of the poor taken, blessed, broken, given — enough to satisfy any hunger, enough to convince any doubter. Simple food, in abundance, overflowing.
It is a sign—an obvious sign—but a sign of what? To the questing crowd it’s a clear sign that they have found their liberator, their leader, their king. But Jesus turns his back on this meaning by running from kingship back to the mountain. But there was a sign. In some ways the next three weeks ask— a sign of what? What is the hunger being satisfied by the bread from heaven?
It ought to be a sharp question for us, brought to this place once again to see the sign of bread taken, blessed, broken and shared. It ought to be a sharp question for us when slavery is once again in the news. When the bread of the poor is denied them. When strangers are unwelcome in the land. When the sick die alone and the living want to die.
For John the Eucharist is a sign thick with politics. It ought to be for us. To come to this table is to seek to understand a sign — more, it is to take part in a sign that we do not understand, that defies our expectations, that satisfies hungers we didn’t know we had but leaves others gnawing. What we do here goes beyond these walls or it goes nowhere. But where it goes is only to be found by going along. The invitation at this table is not simply to be fed. It is an invitation to be food. When we take the broken bread of God to ourselves we say Amen to being ourselves taken, blessed, broken—yes broken— and given to others. Think twice about that Amen. Think three times. But come and join the sign and be the bread of the poor.
July 27th, 1997
Jefferson stands there, enormous in bronze, in his memorial in DC: caught in mid-stride, stepping boldly forward, eyes gazing into an horizon of promise. I gazed up at him with throngs of fellow tourists in his classical temple of Enlightenment virtues, chiselled round with words of hope and freedom — of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Near his feet, I watched him in the gathering dusk and let myself be moved by the spirit of the place, by his spirit, stirring, optimistic, eager for an unbroken future of promise, free from the bonds of past authorities, old allegiances, with a destiny to fashion — a bold experiment in political freedom, individual liberty, and the good life for all.
A mile down the Mall, in the fallen night, another giant — this one shaped from stone — waited to hold an altogether more ambiguous court. A mile or so, and fourscore and seven years, separate Lincoln from Jefferson. But the gulf of the spirit is broader by far. Lincoln sits like Jehovah of old on his seat of judgement, a face ambiguous as any gods’. Is that a frown? A smile? Is that massive head overlooking his nation benignly or to condemn? Are those eyes promising mercy or justice?
What is certain is the challenge they hold and the silence they bring to the masses who mill at his feet. Between Jefferson and Lincoln something beautiful has been born and has died. A grand experiment in liberty, borne on the backs of slaves. A new land of the imagination stolen from the dreams of it’s native peoples. Lincoln sits at one end of the American promise, bathed in the blood of brother against brother, kith against kin, judging a nation, challenging a people to acknowledge the death of a dream, and to begin it’s birth all over again.
A hundred-odd years later, Lincoln still sits there in ambiguity — sign of an end of dreams, sign of a new beginning. What of now? What of today? America was born in a battle against oppression, against colonialism, against pretensions to global power, against interfering across the seas, against the sway of the strong over the weak. America won that battle and with it the mantle of power and the capacity to become all that she was born not to be. How different is she now? How well does the dream live in American hearts? With welfare in ruins, the stranger unwelcome in the land, with the right to bear arms killing cruelly on every street corner, with international power wielded lightly with a heavy hand. Add your own tests. How well is America doing? What’s the judgement from Lincoln’s throne?
Amaziah, the king’s priest, wants none of those questions asked. Amos the unwilling peasant prophet is deported for speaking in the wrong place: “Don’t prophesy here — in the king’s sanctuary, in the royal temple.” But these are the very places he speaks to — to political power and religious piety in holy alliance against the ideals of a nation. Listen to the words of Adonai, from the lips of a greasy, uppity socialist from south of the border.
“You sell the righteous for silver, and the needy for the price of a pair of sandals — you trample the heads of the poor into the dust of the earth, and push the afflicted out of the way.” “I despise your festivals, your burnt offerings. Get away from me with the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your worship. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”
Amaziah is right to throw Amos and his God out of Israel. Israel had never been more prosperous, more influential as a nation, more hopeful for the future, never been more able to do what it wanted. Israel was discovering its destiny, at last making its way in the world.
So Amos, don’t come here with your words of doom and gloom. You’re out of synch with the signs of the times. Why focus on the little difficulties we have, on the economic inequities that are inevitable in a growing nation. We are doing what we can. We want just what you want. Give us time and we’ll work things out. But right now other things are more important. We’ve got to safeguard jobs, we’ve got to attend to national security, we’ve got to pay our way, we’ve got to make our mark, fulfil our God-given destiny. And look! our liturgy’s never been better! Give us time, Amos, give us time.
Amos and his God gave them twenty five years. Twenty five years before the prosperity crumbled, the nation collapsed, and the rich and famous were taken away in chains to be strangers in a strange land.
Did Amos watch from his village south of the border? Did he smile as his borrowed words came to pass, or is that sadness on his lips?
And as Amos looks from across the border upon this nation, as Lincoln looks from this nation’s heart, is that a smile we see on their ambiguous faces or sadness? Are those eyes promising mercy or justice? Can we hear their silent challenge? Can we let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream?
July 13th, 1997
Last Wednesday I made a pilgrimage. I climbed a hill called Revelation to visit the grave of Paul Monette, the author of “Borrowed Time,” a book I read last summer that moved me very deeply. Subtitled “An Aids Memoir,” it tells very honestly and with great feeling the story of the sickness and death of Monette’s lover, Roger, his “little friend” as the gravestone says. Paul Monette himself died from Aids a few years ago but not without first putting his passion, his anger, his gentleness and his bitterness into print and into speech to protest the public silence over so much suffering.
As I climbed the manicured pastures of Forest Lawns looking for his grave I knew I was looking nervously for an epiphany. Some sign, some word, some significance. But to tell the truth I was disappointed. Beside the simple elegance of Roger’s memorial Paul’s was, if anything, ornately bitter. Lying beside his lover in those sunny lawns, I had hoped that death would bring out his gentle spirit. Yet, as I sat there and gazed with them into the smoggy distance, my disappointment turned to its own bitterness at all that seems lost and broken in my own life. And I found myself accusing God from a stormy heart, “Don’t you care, don’t you care that we are suffering?”
Isn’t that something we’ve all asked when the whirlwind threatens to destroy us? Don’t we all sometimes align ourselves with Job, and with the waterlogged disciples, as we cry out “Don’t you care that we are drowning?”
And look at the answers we get: Job discovers a presence and a voice in the heart of the storm, but a voice that rebukes him to silence—”What do you know? How dare you ask?” And the disciples, themselves, are rebuked as Jesus rebukes the wind and the waves with words you’d use for a stray dog, words he uses to silence demons: “Shut up!”
As silence falls the disciples are terrified. But are they terrified of the storm and the danger to their lives, or are they terrified of him, of Jesus who stills the storm with a casual word?
Don’t we all know it? Sometimes the answer is more terrible than the question. At least until the next question—”Do you have no faith at all?”
Doesn’t he care that we are perishing? Who is this man?
The disciples are in awe. Amazed. And I don’t think it’s just because he stills the storm. I think it’s this: surrounded by storm and raging waters Jesus sleeps. He simply doesn’t notice. They are panicking, shaken, terrified but he rests on a cushion. Mark, in telling the story this way, has a message for his own panicked, persecuted community. When the trouble starts, and death seems just around the corner, and you can think of nothing else, … well … just watch Jesus sleep serenely. Jesus will not panic. Jesus will see it through calmly—and so should you. Treat it lightly. If he wants to still the storm he will. What’s a little martyrdom here or there?
This story is a call to the community—to us, I’m afraid—to make up in faith what Jesus’ first disciples lacked. To stay there in the storm no matter how strong the urge to run.
Back at the graveside, as I asked my sulky question of God, another voice slowly became insistent with it’s own bitter question. Paul Monette asking angrily, asking tenderly, “Don’t you care that we are perishing?” Not asking God … but asking me. Don’t I care?
Do I care enough to enter the storm? Do I care enough to stay there when all I want to do is quit? Do I care enough to be where Jesus is and see it through like him? Do I care enough to be his disciple?
June 10th, 1997
God? Are you there, God? Moses said to ask, so here I am asking. I want to ask you, God, about the dinosaurs. I guess it’s Steven Spielberg’s fault they’re on my mind, but they are. “Ask now about former ages, long before your own,” said Moses. Well, how about 65 million years ago? By the way is it all right to call you God, God? … I hope so!
What I want to know is why you made them, the dinosaurs. No, that’s not it … I want to know … why did you make them if you were going to let them die? God knows—oops sorry—they were around for a long time—longer by far than we mammals—let alone the speck of time my own species has been walking on our hind legs. They peopled this planet for thousands of millions of years. They ate, they fought, they frolicked, they made their music and made their children. They were tiny and they were enormous. They were drab and they were gaudy. They were ferocious and they were gentle—they were all the things that we are—in their own way. And now they’re gone. All of them. We haven’t been around for a hundredth of the time they were and yet we think we’ll be here for ever. Did they ever think that? Were any of them wise enough to wonder? And did any of them in their dino-way ever wonder about you?
OK what’s my point? Is that what you want to know, God? Well what I’m wondering is this: did you like them? You made them … but did you like them? And if you did … where’ve they gone?
Did the poor beasts bore you? Is that what happened? Were you just twiddling your celestial thumbs while they were your tenants? They were kind of showy but not much company? Is that it?
Now that I think of it the dinosaurs themselves were latecomers—only turning up on this blue planet in the last fraction of its history. What were you doing for the other millions upon millions of years before you had even dinosaurs to play with?
To a bipedal mammal like me, just down from the trees, it seems like this world must have been here for ever. But I guess that’s not true. Go back far enough and even the earth isn’t here, even the sun. Our star itself is a latecomer in the universe—one of the second generation born from the drifting ashes of other long dead suns. And even those first stars didn’t form until the universe was well into adulthood. My God! (Sorry!) But I can’t imagine that length of time! What were you doing? Didn’t you die of boredom?
If I were you—hey, we can all dream—if I were you I’d’ve found a quicker way. None of this coalescing and burning and drifting. None of this emerging and evolving and going extinct.
What’s it all been for? … For us? Don’t look at me like that! How can it all have been for us? For me? All of that. OK, forget about the stars, forget about the dinosaurs—hey—forget about the shark, the elk, the chimpanzee, the mosquito—forget about them all. Just tell, me this. Did you really wait all that time, waste all that space, for us? Dwindle all that infinity, all that eternity, for one insignificant species, from a minor planet, way out on the limb of a galaxy somewhere on the edge of nowhere. And not even for a species—for a trifling little tribe from the desert’s margin. And not even for a tribe—but for this woman and for that man—fleshy, fleeting, bags of water and guts. It’d be a miracle to even care for us a bit. And we’re not just small—we can be nasty with it. So what were you thinking to abandon everything and pitch your tent with ours—to come even closer and be one of us! It’s beyond belief. Are we that lovable? Are you that crazy?
Don’t look at me like that! … How can we deserve it? How can we respond? All we are is what you’ve made us. And yet you’ve made us part of your own self. You’ve opened your heart to us. You’ve adopted us into your own life. Of who you’ve always been. Have we been there since before it all began? Will we be there after it’s all ended?
“Ask,” said Moses, “ask has anything so great as this ever happened or has its like ever been heard?”
May 25th, 1997