Archive for 1999
Are you like me? Very well-protected against God. It’s not that I don’t want God to be close to me … it all happens beneath the threshold of want or desire. My body seems to have a frozen memory of some hurt or other that it won’t willingly repeat. So that though I say I long for God, long for his touch, long for her whisper—and I think I really do yearn for it—just let God get too close and God gets a black eye.
Are you like me? Oh usually my defense is far more civilised than fisticuffs. My preferred approach is to keep busy. It doesn’t actually have to be productive activity—in fact it works much better if it is useless—busy-work or even TV—and you don’t even have to enjoy it. There’s a certain kick to be gotten out of bearing an unpleasant task nobly while secretly congratulating yourself at keeping God so successfully at arms length.
Maybe you are not like me at all. But at least I have David on my side. David has perfected the art of keeping God in his place. David even hopes to build a special place to put God, a safe place, a beautiful cage of a place—a church.
David has been busy with war and politics—perfect narcotics for the soul—but now peace has fallen upon him, peace and prosperity. All that distracting rape and pillage is done with … David is in a fine new palace with time on his hands. And God is getting close. The empty chambers echo with her whispers. And every now and again … his fleeting touch. But the big problem is the tent—the tabernacle—out in the back where God has wandered for centuries with the people. God has pitched his tent among the people but David lives in a fine new palace, with fine new walls, and a fine new roof.
How can you live in comfort when your God lives out in the cold? How can you be settled when your God has no place to lay his head? How can you rest easy when God is only at home with a homeless people? David is in serious danger of letting God get to him. So he decides to bring God indoors, wants to give God a palace, wants to make God into a king in his own image.
But God is not a king. God is the wandering heart of a wandering people. Only at home with those who have no home. God has pitched tent with the people. David may settle easily but God can’t. God can’t live in a palace until all the people do. God is going to be out in the cold as long as the least of God’s people are out in the cold. God is under canvas because some of God’s people are under newspapers.
Who knows what David has been so afraid to keep God at bay. But even his best efforts fail. God sneaks in under his guard. And speaks the words that David must have longed to hear even as he was braced against them: “David, I have been with you wherever you went. You don’t need to take care of me. I am taking care of you. I have taken care of you and I will.” David is moved to tears, drops his guard and drops his plans.
I’ve found that God is very good at getting in under my guard too. Especially here in this place. I sit, on guard against rumours of angels, but while I’m looking one way—there! it’s done. Jesus is by my side, inside my reach, standing against me. My arm around his waist. Warm. And before I can stop myself my head is against his side. And as the tears well up his hand is in my hair and he whispers, “Hush!” … “Hush…”
I wonder if Gabriel ever got tired of his spiel. “Hail X, full of grace, the Lord is with you!” This is probably heresy of the highest water but I can’t resist it. How many times in the history of the human race did that poor archangel draw close to some candidate for annunciation never to get beneath their guard? Hundreds? Thousands? My guess is millions upon millions. God says to the angel, “find me a place.” And I have a hunch that Gabriel approached every single person to have lived with that strange offer of presence before Mary finally accepted it. 999,999 times out of a million it went like this: “Hail …” Black Eye! Maybe sometimes Gabe got as far as “Hail Charlie” or “Hail Sallie” before the defenses kicked in. For a very, very few the angel maybe finished the sentence. But in my imagination Mary was the only one undefended enough to hear the proposal and, before she can stop herself, say yes. I imagine Gabriel surprised as hell! Offering each new word gingerly expecting yet another fist in the face—which does not come. Far from the palaces, far from the temples, here in a tiny village where nothing ever happens, something happens for the first time in the history of our race. God finds a place, a place outside the palace walls to pitch his tent. To be at last and again the wandering heart of a wandering people.
Does Gabriel smile? Can angels do that? A long retirement to look forward to, feathered feet up, a job well done? Maybe it crosses the angelic mind but not for long. God’s voice speaks, “find me another place.” And Gabriel begins again. Searching for a place now for Mary’s son. Every moment making the greeting, “Hail Josephine,” “Hail Rob.” Full of grace. Highly favoured. Turned down mostly. Angelic eyes black and blue. But looking for any opening. Any gap in the defenses. Any way under the guard. Every day. But in Advent especially. Seeking a home for Mary’s son. On this day, maybe, above all days. Hoping one story will kindle another. The guard will drop. A word be spoken. A nod. A smile. Tears maybe.
Once again a wandering heart un-alone. And who knows what might be accomplished.
December 22nd, 1999
Do I have to be honest? … I don’t want to rejoice heartily. Let alone rejoice always. I’m in no mood for it. Until yesterday there was the possibility—albeit only a slim possibility—that I might be in line for a job which would have kept me here in the Bay Area for the foreseeable future. But my boss back in Britain let me know yesterday that I couldn’t apply for it. … See, I knew it was a mistake to renew my vows last week! Poverty, chastity, … and obedience—and not even multiple choice! Anyway, right now I’m practising obedience with gritted teeth and I have no intention of doing it joyfully. Harumph! Humbug!
I doubt it was any easier for Isaiah’s people to hear his command to rejoice. They are probably the returning remnant straggling home from their deportation to Babylon back to a homeland that no one remembered but all had longed for. That land flowing with milk and honey; where the soil is your own to crumble in your hand; where you prune your own vines and live to taste the fruit. Longings! Dreams! But imagine the reality: arriving un-welcomed with nothing to war-torn walls and drought-cracked fields; overgrown vineyards and hostile villages. These are the people who hear the prophet cry “rejoice heartily!” Listen with them to Isaiah’s words:
“God has sent me to bring glad tidings to the poor, to heal the broken-hearted, to proclaim liberty to captives, release to prisoners. God has sent me to announce a year of favour and a day of vindication.”
Beautiful words … but how exactly are you going to do this Isaiah? We, the poor, would really like those glad tidings. We, the broken-hearted, would really like that healing. We, the captive, would really like that liberty. When is it coming Isaiah? Hmm? Well… when it does we’ll rejoice—oh there’ll be food and dancing, song and laughter—but pardon us for waiting Isaiah, pardon us for not getting our hopes up quite yet. Tell you what … you bring us the Year of Favour, you bring us the Jubilee, and then we’ll rejoice!
Ah jubilee! Have you made your pledge? Got it with you? Are you ready to change the world? Because it certainly needs changing! … Have you read the paper this week? Seattle? Chechnya? What’s caught your heart? A barrack room and a baseball bat? Or maybe you don’t need to read the paper to know the longing for things to be different. Maybe you know that first-hand.
The poor we have always with us. The broken-hearted, the captive, wait for us. Maybe we too wait for Jubilee. But who are we?
Who are you John the Baptist? “I am not the Messiah.” Who are you? “I am not Elijah.” Well who? “I am not the prophet.” Well, John, who the hell are you? “I am a voice, crying, a voice in the desert.”
John’s great gift is to know who he is not. He is not God. He is not the one to bring glad tidings, healing, liberty. He is not. Yet he is … something. He is the glass half-empty. He is the broken reed. He is one who longs. He is one who weeps in the wasteland. He is a voice, begging. He is one who makes room for another. And because he is not, he can rejoice in one who will be!
Six hundred years after Isaiah promised otherwise the poor, the broken-hearted, and the captive were unsatisfied still. And Jesus chose to make his own those very same words, to pledge himself to the task. But he couldn’t deliver either. Now, two thousand years on, we are pledging ourselves to the same longing, the same heartbreak, the same hole in the heart. And being invited to rejoice heartily, rejoice always. What fools we are! But that may be our great gift too. To know with John who we are not. Not God. Not the one. But something. Glasses half empty, broken reeds, people who long, who weep in the wasteland. And maybe there is joy there. Half-empty there is space to be filled. The absence in our hearts has room for a presence. The lack in our lives keeps us awake to desire. And the silence of the wasteland might be the only place to hear the voice we long to hear.
Sometimes we don’t even know what we long for until we hear the voice. Another voice has been after my attention this morning. Quiet but insistent. It spoke four hundred and sixty eight years ago today on a hill in Mexico and made a pledge and sealed it with roses in wintertime. Our Lady of Guadalupe appeared to an impoverished people, broken by sickness, held captive by their conquerors.
She didn’t speak to the conquerors but to the conquered. To one who knew what he was not. She spoke in his own language and she made him, like John, a messenger. That message speaks to us too as we pledge ourselves to Jubilee: build a church. Not just four walls and a roof to keep God in, but a church without walls to keep anyone in or out. Make a place for God in this world. Go where God already is make it known. The voice of Isaiah echoed in Jesus ears and drove him to pledge Jubilee even though he couldn’t deliver it. Fool that he was, he took his stand with the poor, the broken-hearted, and the captive. Two thousand years on are we foolish enough to take our stand with Jesus even if we can’t deliver either?
It may be winter but even in winter time there are roses. Build the church.
December 12th, 1999
I would not be a happy sheep. No matter how comforting and homely that shepherds voice, no matter the promise of protection from wolves, no matter the assurance of food in the belly and warmth at night. No matter—because I would know that in the end I would be the one on the block, on the spit, and on the table. So, good luck to that one sensible sheep who listens to the herder’s voice and still hightails it out of the flock and off on her own.
Voices can be confusing. They can be deceptive. They can be prophetic. Ambrose, as military governor goes to the church to quell a riot between rival factions fighting over who is to be the next bishop of Milan and words of such soothing eloquence issue from his lips that the voice of a child pipes up “Ambrose for Bishop!” Well, every voice there joins in … and Ambrose, Ambrose runs like hell. And to show the people how wrong they are, he indulges in a spot of impromptu torturing and whoring but to no avail—he cannot run from the people’s call.
Voices can be very confusing. If the first Isaiah was called by a vision, today we hear second Isaiah called by audition. All those voices surrounding him. And it’s hard to tell whose they are. In one sense, of course, they are all his own. He writes them, his lips utter them, and his hand shapes the ink on the page. But who is speaking? Who are the voices crying out? Only one is clear and that’s Isaiah’s own, and it’s fighting the call. “Speak tenderly, give comfort,” says the voice and Isaiah snarls back, “all flesh is grass, it withers it wilts.”
And he’s got a point. Do you believe the words given us each day of Advent? The desert will bloom, the lion will lie down with the lamb, there will be no more poverty, no more hunger, no more dying and crying, the mountains will lie down and the valleys rise up to make a Holy Way for the coming together of all nations. Yeah, Yeah, Yeah!
Stirs the heart while we are here but go and read the newspaper. Never has the earth been more troubled by the presence of humanity. Never has humanity been so troubled by itself.
“Comfort, oh comfort my people,” says the voice of God. “Like a shepherd he feeds his flock,” says another. But isn’t there always the haunting voice whispering that when the banquet is prepared we will be the ones on the menu.
What amazes me is that though the prophet resists the voice of his calling, though he knows only too well the tragedy of a broken people in exile from their land and their God, even so he produces some of the finest poetry of hope and consolation the world has ever heard. Poetry of such promise and eloquence, such confidence in God. And such a God! A God who not only gathers home from exile the lost tribes of Israel but makes the whole earth a home for all. Transforming the very ground under our feet and the heavens above us. Doing away with death and enmity, violence and decay, predator and prey. No more disasters. No more fear.
Do we believe it? No! But could we? Maybe …
For centuries we’ve been pursuing our own salvation at the expense of the earth’s. Hell, at the expense of the other guys! Isaiah’s voices promise us more than we want, more than we can believe—there is hope, there is consolation, there is good news—but it doesn’t come to us alone. It comes to all things or to none because our fate is tied to the planets not just in the simple sense that if we mess it up we mess up our own home but in the difficult sense that God’s dream is so much larger than our own. It’s for every created thing that creeps and crawls upon this earth and all the things that don’t even manage that. And maybe the earth knows the dream before we do, maybe it hears the promise better than we do. Maybe the earth feels the need more.
According to legend, long before that voice spoke up in the church and sealed Ambrose’s fate, when he was still a child, a swarm of bees settled on his lips, sign of the sweet words he was to live by. Sometimes the earth knows these things before we do. And if that is even a tiny bit true then this Advent we could do much worse than listen to the voices of creation yearning all around us. Listen to the silent voices of bee and grass, the long rumble of mountains, the sharp longing of the salmon heading home, the aching of Antarctic ice throwing itself into the sea. And, if we hear, when we hear, speak what we hear, speak challenge, speak comfort, speak hope, speak truth.
Ambrose said told his people that God created the universe so that all might find their life within it, the earth as common inheritance. “When you give to the poor,” he said, “you are giving them back what is their own, you are paying back a debt.” We are in debt to all things no matter how small, and somehow our fate will be theirs. But “comfort, oh comfort my people—it is God’s desire that not a single one of these little ones shall ever come to grief.”
December 7th, 1999
Jesus is up in the hills of the Galilee, sitting there, and crowds flock to him with their needy, the lame, the crippled, the blind, the sick. They are placed at his feet and he heals them and the crowd erupts in praise of God. But not only are the people crippled and sick—he sees their hunger and he feeds them, feeds them all when there isn’t enough to go round.
According to the New York Times this morning the crowd that gathered in Seattle yesterday was “a Noah’s’ Ark of flat-earth advocates, protectionist trade unions, and yuppies looking for their 1960s fix.” Well the crowd was definitely an astonishing mix of people bringing the needs of those they represent—ecological advocates and labour unions, anarchists and lobbyists. But one way or another they were—are—looking for their needs to be met and—ultimately—looking for food.
“On this mountain the Lord of Hosts will prepare for all peoples a banquet of rich food, and fine wine. On this mountain god will remove the mourning veil covering all peoples, the shroud enwrapping all nations—God will destroy death forever.”
It’s those three images that stand together in my mind and confuse me. Jesus, once upon a time, drawing to him a crowd of the sick and needy and satisfying them. The restored Israel of the end-times, drawing all the world to it for feeding, for healing, for life. And the world trade organisation besieged by protesters. Are they parallels or not?
I’ve spent the afternoon reading news reports from around the world about the Seattle riots and I can’t for the life of me unravel who wants what and why and who wants the very opposite. I can’t adjudicate the claims. There doesn’t seem to be enough to go round. I’m sure it’s not as simple as Free Trade vs. Fair Trade but it does seem to me that end-time vision of jubilee is at stake. Are we heading towards food and life for all people or towards greater profit for those who have the economic clout? I know they shouldn’t be opposites. I know that trade brings food, brings life. But why are all these different groups drawn here to beg that the face of those dear to them not be forgotten?
And where are we? Why did the people once stream to Jesus and promise again to flock to Zion but here and now riot around the WTO? Why does God seem irrelevant? It can’t be that food and life no longer matter to God. Maybe it’s because they no longer matter to us. Isn’t it a relief that the crowds riot in Seattle and not Rome, and not at our front door? Isn’t it a relief that we are not responsible for feeding the hungry and healing the sick? Thank God it’s out of our hands!
But it can’t be. It can’t be as long as we celebrate Eucharist. We are in the business of feeding. Jesus took the loaves and gave thanks and broke them and handed them to the disciples who handed them to the crowds. Taken, blessed, broken, given.
Whatever is going on in Seattle—tear gas and all—is wound up in what we do here. Or what we do here isn’t Eucharist at all.
December 1st, 1999
Ten young people ready for a wedding party. Waiting for the bus to arrive to get them there. They are excited. They are ready. All dressed up. They all want the bus to hurry up. All ten are eager. But the bus takes longer and longer. They are getting tired. So all ten decide to take a nap so they’ll be fresh when the time comes.
When the bus does eventually arrive, all ten shake themselves awake. Five of them had been careful before they napped and kept their clothes neat and ready but the other five hadn’t bothered too, figuring there’d be plenty of time. But when the bus finally turned up it was late and in a hurry. The first five were able to fix their hair, smooth our their wrinkled clothes and get on board. But the others were running around begging for combs and hair-gel and steam irons. And by the time they were ready to go the bus had gone.
We spend quite a lot of our time in the Month of November praying for our dead—the family and friends who have gone before us marked with the sign of faith to be with God. We have the confidence that they have found a home in heaven. But it wasn’t always so. The second reading today comes from the earliest bit of Christian scripture we have and you can see that the dead were an embarrassment to the early community. They believed the promises that Jesus would come again. Would come again soon. In fact would come again before the present generation had passed away. So when that coming in glory was delayed, and delayed, and delayed, people began to worry: what was going to happen to those who had died when Jesus did come? Was his salvation only for the living? Well St. Paul tells them No. All those who have faith in Jesus will find a home in heaven.
The gospel story we have today was written maybe decades after Paul’s letter. And by then the Christian community was getting used to the fact that Jesus hadn’t come back yet and wasn’t coming back anytime soon. So how should they live in the meantime?
What’s the difference between the wise and the foolish in the story? They’re all waiting eagerly. They all take a nap because of the delay. The difference is just this: five have common sense and five don’t. Five are practical and five aren’t. It’s important to spend the time waiting wisely.
All the Christian people who have ever lived, lived their lives out without Jesus second coming. There are some groups of Christians living now who are so sure the end is coming in their lifetime that they’ve stop caring about the world and just look after themselves. They couldn’t care less about the future because they don’t think they’ll have one. Why bother about global warming if the world ends next year? Why care about pollution if your children won’t be around to be poisoned? Why resist war if you think that a final battle is needed to bring on the end?
The parable today says simply: don’t be stupid. Be practical. Live as if the future really mattered. Live as if the world really mattered. Take care of your children. Live honourably. Have some common sense.
Today, as a community, we do one of those practical things—we welcome two new Christians to be part of our body through baptism. Two children who can’t yet understand what’s involved, can’t yet feel eager themselves, can’t yet take care of themselves let alone others. What they do best is sleep. We this afternoon offer to do some things for them until they can do them themselves. To understand for them what’s involved in being a Christian. To feel the eager desire for the kingdom on their behalf. And to take care of them and of each other for them. So that as they grow up to make their own minds up about their faith they can see our common sense, our care for each other and the world, and our own longing for God.
Now there’s no doubt we’ll fall asleep on the job. But that doesn’t matter if we’ve had the common sense to take care of what’s necessary. If we’ve built a good foundation for them, then their faith will survive when we get sleepy. In a moment we all renew our own baptismal promises—let’s make sure when we do that we mean what we say and intend our promises to have some practical effect.
November 7th, 1999
Half a planet away right now in England I can guarantee that the cold night air stinks of sulphur and smoke and the ground is littered with the spent carcasses of fireworks large and small. As a kid we’d spend the weeks running up to bonfire night out in the freezing evenings scavenging wood to burn and dragging from door to door our “Guy”—a dummy flung together out of old clothes and newspapers—begging for money for fireworks. “A penny for the Guy!”
A cold and complex work, that preparation for the fifth of November. Keeping your wood dry. Keeping it out of the hands of the big kids down the hill who would raid your pile to make theirs bigger. Calculating just what proportion of bottle rockets to bangers to roman candles made the best of the meagre money you’d scrounged together.
And then come tonight … the Guy would be on top of that bonfire burning away, the fireworks would be screeching and exploding all around, and you’d be baking potatoes and sausages in the fire—frozen on one side, scorched on the other—you and the sausages.
“Remember, remember, the fifth of November. Gunpowder, treason and plot.”
None of us really thought that we were burning an effigy of a Roman Catholic caught 400 years ago in a plot to blow up the King and all his ministers. Or if we thought it we didn’t think it strange. Or even consider the power of propaganda to keep such a memory going for four centuries.
King James, so his own mouth told it, was warned in a dream, by God’s own self no less, that the filthy treasonous Catholics were plotting to blow him up and all parliament with him. He dispatched his men straight to the spot under the parliament building were Guy Fawkes, Catholic and munitions expert, was in hiding with enough gunpowder to blast them all sky high. Fawkes was arrested, tortured, and killed along with whoever else it was convenient to remove from the political scene. And every year since Guy Fawkes has been burned in effigy by hordes of school children out for some fun. But who was really behind the gunpowder, treason and plot? “Jesuits,” said the king. “Lying, equivocating, treacherous, devil Jesuits!”
Now that’s probably all propaganda. But it makes you wonder what was so troublesome about those Jesuits, real or imagined, that it was worth inventing rituals so powerful that they persist even today. Why did James fear them so? Why, more recently, did the Salvadoran military? Or any number of political powers between the two in time and space.
The answer is in the readings today. And it extends beyond the Company of Jesus to anyone who sincerely wishes to walk in company with Jesus. “The word is very near to you.” “Unless a grain of wheat…” If we, sitting here tonight, truly believed those readings and let them live in our lives we would be a force to terrify any evil power. To believe that God’s desire and will for you and for me is not distant or abstract or alien or difficult to fathom but is here—in our heart, upon our tongue, behind our eyes—available, powerful, clear, direct. That’s what Ignatius taught his followers and showed them how to do.
To believe too that the word of God’s desire once we have discovered it will turn out to be more valuable to us than life itself. A word that speaks most loudly by laying down its life.
Now if we were convinced of that tonight—if we found the desires of God burning in us stronger than life itself—then wouldn’t the powers of air and darkness tremble. Wouldn’t we be scary!
November 5th, 1999
I learned this week that I am to be an uncle. My brother and his wife are to be parents and my mother is to be a grandparent. Not just a new life coming to term, growing into being, but a whole web of new relationships being born. I’ve done nothing but wait, but who I am, and am to be, is being changed. Soon I’ll be an uncle and right now I am an uncle-to-be.
I’ve been thinking about relationships. The power they have to change us whether we cooperate or not. It’s a shame we are a such a focused culture—parent-child, partner-partner, sibling-sibling—these are about the only kin ties we really recognise—who can figure out all that cousin stuff. Other places and other times kinship was a wider web and our identity an ever-flowing flux.
When relationships end our vocabulary is even poorer. If my wife or husband dies I am widow. If my parent, orphan. But my child, my brother, my nephew, my aunt—I am merely bereaved. I have lost something but what I’ve lost cannot be specified. This week I’ve been wanting a word for someone who has lost a parishioner, a fellow minister, a nearly-friend, a choir-member, a guy I admired but didn’t know too well—Charlie. Because his death has touched me this week and I haven’t had the words to say why or even how.
From day to day I spend my life destroying the empty page. That’s my job right now—to cover empty pages with ink and unfold a story of how God loves the world. Oh but how each page feels like an enemy! You conquer one and the next rises up as blank as the last to mirror the empty feeling inside. Yet there’s no way between the thought in the heart and the expression on the inky page except through the empty hole of the unwritten page. Each page speaks of emptiness, of death, of nothingness. And each page filled is a miracle. It might never have been at all and as it is it might be better dead.
As I’ve tried to get near Charlie’s death this week I’ve felt the same thing. A reluctance to approach the hole in life which death seems to be. Every time I’ve crept there I’ve backed off before tears threatened. Because after all Charlie isn’t my parent or my brother—I am not widow or orphan—only … what? It took a love song to bring me tears. Yesterday, driving, Jesus sang to me in Shania Twain’s voice and for a moment the tears flowed. Who am I to God that God should love me so? Well the tears lasted only a moment. They did their job and left me amazed and grateful and awestruck—and right here. Remembering Charlie sing, remembering his humour, his strength, his courage. And feeling, I think, some of what God feels about his passing—delighted by his life, angry as hell at his early death, and relieved to have him beyond pain, beyond wheelchairs, and fully alive again.
We are not used to having law seasoned with love. But only love explains anger. And God is promising to be angry—angry as hell if the stranger is mistreated, if the widow is wronged, the orphan abandoned, the poor made poorer. Who are these people? All of them fall outside the web of relationships. They are kin to none, protected by none—no one’s uncle or sister or parent or niece—no one is personally involved enough to blaze with anger when they are hurt. But God is! God stakes his claim. God claims her own. The kin-less are kin of God.
Which brings us here—you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind—and your neighbour as yourself. Who are we? Who is my neighbour? What weaves a web of relationship between us? Only the one God who has claimed us each as kin and made us each essential to the other. “No man is an island,” preached John Donne, “each man’s death diminishes me.” Now if only I could put a name on what I’ve lost this week and what I’ve found. And if only I could bridge the gap between the two.
The hole between each of us … the empty air between our skins makes all relationship a miracle. A miracle of love. A risk. A death. A life. Between the good idea and it’s expression lies the empty page. Between you and me lies the empty air. How do we bridge the gap? How do we find the touching place? How do we create a new life, a new relationship, a new song? Only by taking the risk that God takes constantly—the risk of death, of emptiness, of not getting it right—the risk of creation, the risk of love.
Charlie lived with AIDS for a long time. Unlike most of us he faced his death early and often. He touched that empty space in between life and death. And he didn’t let it kill him early. Somehow he found the courage to sing.
So must we all.
October 25th, 1999
I want everyone to take out a coin and have a look at it. Read it. Smell it. Feel it. And keep hold of it!
I don’t know how many of you have seen a British pound coin… They are about the size of a nickel, but maybe three times as thick, and they are a dull yellow colour. When they were first minted Margaret Thatcher was queen of England—or at least thought she was. At least queen—the more cynical members of her own party called her “the blessed Margaret” because of her pretensions to righteousness. And in her waning days the political cartoonists had her wild eyed and toga-ed as the mad emperor Nero fiddling while Britain burned.
Where was I? The pound coin! When it replaced the tatty old pound note, some wit decided that it ought to be named “the maggie” after Mrs. T. since, like her, it was bold, brassy and worth virtually nothing.
You can probably tell that she’s not my favourite person. But she’s been on my mind this week as I’ve thought over these readings. Another of her achievements was the Poll Tax—a census tax like the one causing so much trouble in the gospel. And for the same reasons—how far can the state go in demanding money in exchange for citizenship? for identity?
And identity is at stake. Money is never a purely economic thing. It’s always political too and it’s always religious. You can’t keep God off the coinage. God’s name is written in tiny letters on all American coins—”in god we trust”—but just in case there’s always the dollar. The denarius, the Roman coin used to pay the census tax, bore the head of Caesar and, in Jesus’ day, the inscription “Tiberius Caesar, son of the divine Augustus, great high priest.” So Mrs. Thatcher isn’t the only ruler with delusions of grandeur.
There’s a compact, a contract, a tacit agreement, embodied in every coin: you admit the power of the nation, the ruler, the flag—take your pick—and I’ll let you buy and sell and make a living. And it’s not as if we have any choice in the matter. Getting by without money isn’t an option. Even the militiamen of Idaho who want nothing to do with the state have to fence off their freedom with guns bought with the state’s money.
So here’s Jesus faced with a strange alliance: the supporters of Herod who relied on the Roman state for their own power and privilege and the Pharisees—for whom paying tribute to Rome was tantamount to blasphemy. They have made common cause because they both fear the religious impact of Jesus. All those parables upsetting the apple cart. Threatening to take away both the Herodian’s privilege and the Pharisees’ popular status.
And they say an interesting thing: we know Jesus that you are not concerned with anyone’s opinion and do not regard a person’s status. And that phrase “a person’s status” is really a Greek word meaning originally the mask that an actor in Greek drama might wear. OK Jesus, they say, we know you don’t look at a person’s mask … so tell us …
And they are right … because Jesus understands immediately what is going on behind their masks, behind the face, and catches the mismatch, the hypocrisy. And he unveils it by asking for the coin and asking for the face that’s stamped there. And it’s a double whammy! The fact that a Pharisee can produce the coin with its head of Caesar shows that they have already bought into the power of Caesar. Their question is idle. But the second blow is hidden in the language and hits both Pharisees and Herodians … and us. They praise Jesus by talking about the face which is the mask, the public status. But Jesus responds by asking about the face which is the image, the likeness, the resemblance. Not how do you appear or what masks do you wear but who are you really. “Who do you resemble?” he’s asking his askers. Who’s face is stamped on you. Who has made an impression on your soul.
And there’s the challenge. Are you in fact more like God or more like the face upon your coins.
Because among our earliest traditions is that we are indeed made in the image and likeness of god. Somehow our truest identity is already that—we have the face of god stamped in our deepest selves. Me, you, the guy sitting next to you, your evil boss at work, the kid who bullies you at school, the faithless lover, the selfish colleague—yes and even Margaret Thatcher. Each and every one of us, alive with the image of God. The problem is the mask, the mask we wear to hide that image. And the fear that picks up the mask. And the habit that keeps it in place. And the crippled imagination which cannot see any other way to be with one another, any other way to spend our money, any other way to cast our vote, or make our laws.
Still got those coins? There is a price to being here today. There is a charge for coming forward for communion. But it is not paid in cash or credit. The cost is this: to put down the mask and stand side by side with others to meet god face to face and taste who you really are. And then to carry that image with you through the week, unmasked.
October 18th, 1999
We have no right to be here… any of us. But here we are.
The last few weeks the gospel stories from Matthew have been putting the question over and over again: who is worthy to be in God’s kingdom? Remember the labourers in the vineyard who get paid a flat rate no matter how much they’ve worked. Remember the tax collectors and prostitutes who get into the kingdom instead of the good people. Remember the tenants who took over the vineyard and killed the owners son.
One way or another all about worth. Who has the right to be counted in? Who can rest on their laurels and feel safe with God?
And today—the great wedding feast. Like Isaiah’s promised banquet when all good things come to the people… from the finest food and wine to the abolition of death and shame and every tear. Well Jesus says, the banquet is here and now. The invitations have all been sent out. The time has been set. The food is ready. The wine poured. And none of the worthy people have turned up. Not a one of them. They’ve cooked up excuses. They’ve snubbed God. They’ve resorted to violence.
So what does God do? If you invite the people of honour and they insult your honour by not coming what do you do? God does a strange, strange thing. God invites people who have no honour. People who would never be invited. People of no standing. People who are altogether unworthy.
God sits down to eat with sinners and slackers, with the man on the street, with the woman at the corner, with anyone God can find.
So here we are. We are that second crop of guests. Dragged in off the street. With no way to repay the invitation. No way to do the host honour. Sinners and slackers the lot of us. But we are here. And that’s more than can be said for most.
We have no right to be here… any of us. But here we are.
Good and bad alike, the parable says. And that makes you want to look around and sort people out. Who among us are the good ones and who are the bad? And how would you tell?
God doesn’t seem to be able to tell … He invites the worthy people and they don’t turn up. So then he takes all-comers. What matters most is not that we are good or bad but that we are here. Not that we have a ticket to gain us admittance but that we have accepted the invitation.
Most of us struggle with doing the right thing. Day to day. The way we live in our families. The things we have to do at work. The choices we are faced with. The way we vote. The way we spend our cash.
Because things aren’t easy. And we keep on making compromises that sadden us and make us feel cheap. We do some good and we do some bad. And some times we’re not sure which is which. And some times things work out and some times all hell breaks loose. We’re not sure ourselves whether we are good or bad. Let alone looking at the person next to us and wondering about them.
But the important thing right now is not that we can stand up proudly and say we’ve done a good job—or even admit that we’ve messed up—but just that we’ve accepted the invitation to be here.
Not just here, as in church, as in being a Catholic, a Christian, but here as in being someone living life as if God mattered and as if God’s dreams mattered.
Because God’s dreams for us and for the whole world are awesome. God’s dream is that all this … should be a party, a banquet, a feast. That sadness should be no more, that death be destroyed, that every tear be wiped away, and every accusation denied. Do you know how to do that? Does anyone? … But God does. And God’s invitation is to live life as if we believed in the dream … as if it mattered. As if we cared.
We have no right to be part of the party. But then the people who did have turned down the invitation. Who are we? We are the leftovers. The guys dragged in from the streets. We are good and bad. We are sinners and slackers … and saints. But we are here. And that’s what matters.
October 10th, 1999
Sometimes God has no right to be merciful! If God wasn’t so damned merciful the world would be a much better place. Why does God let us get away with so much? How is that we can murder each other and nothing happens? That we can torture the innocent, deprive the poor, and defile the planet … and still wake up each morning to eat our corn flakes and worry about classes?
How much mercy would we be willing to give up in exchange for a little more justice? Because, of course, you and I don’t commit the murder or perform the torture. That’s other people. And as for the poor and the planet … well we do our share of damage but it’s a mighty small one compared to what multinationals and governments and rich folks get up to. So why not trade a little of God’s mercy for a little more justice. We’d not notice it much anyway. We haven’t that much to be afraid of. We’d pick up the benefits and the bad guys would pick up the tab. Wouldn’t a little fear be a fair price?
So why doesn’t God run the world the way I would? I offer my advice but God never listens. When a guy is dragged behind a truck for being black I pray and I tell God to get it right. When a guy is hung up to die on a fence post for being gay I pray and I tell God to get it right.
But of course I never hear back! I shouting into the void and only hear the echo of my own anger. ’Cause God knows I’m right.
But once in a while, beneath the din of my own right-ness, the silence behind me speaks. It’s a quiet voice and it’s uncertain, fragile, tentative. It asks me for forgiveness. God asking me to forgive her for not being the God I fear.
October 6th, 1999