Archive for August, 1999
Well as they, “Denial isn’t just a big river in Egypt.”
There are two Peters offered us throughout the gospel: there’s the rock of stability, the pillar of faith, who sees the truth about Jesus and speaks it boldly … and then there’s the stumbling block, the well-meaning, shortsighted buffoon who, again and again, stands in Jesus’ way. And the two Peters are one guy … and there’s something for us all to learn from that. We belong to a church proud to identify with Peter the rock. We are so ready to embrace the solidity of Peter’s office but that very firmness of foundation makes it so easy to become Satan, Accuser of the faithful, an obstacle to the brave and foolish Jesus who walks a way to Jerusalem which only idiots can travel. The rock become the stumbling block. Much easier to remember the confidence Jesus placed in Peter and forget the repeated denials. But Peter was one man, not two. And we are one church. And Peter kept on changing. God always managed to get underneath his most stubborn denial and set his feet back on the path.
Ah but denial is much underrated. I’m in denial this weekend. You may have met Paul, my brother Jesuit, who’s been coming to church here over the last year. I’ve been walking with Paul, listening to his life with God through the year, sharing faith and breakfast at Bette’s diner from time to time, and marvelling at how God can surprise and delight and transform someone. His particular transformation has been a call, an invitation … a call to leave the Jesuits, the Company of Jesus as we call ourselves, and walk a road in company with Jesus along another path. And I’ve been blessed by sharing that journey with him, I’ve done my best to bless and support him in it, but yesterday when we said goodbye I felt more than anything that I couldn’t feel what I was feeling. I had followed the path with him but completely denied—in here—that it was diverging from my own. … So embraces made, gifts exchanged, promises spoken, I sat at my computer torn between denial and tears—and desperately not wanting to be alone.
No better tool of denial than the telephone! I try one good Jesuit friend—away doing a wedding. Blast! Auto-dial. Auto-denial! Try another companion of the heart! Away doing a retreat. OK! Last resort! The guy who’s been standing behind me for the last hour: “Jesus? Where the hell are you? Why do you give me limbs and then saw them off.” … And a surprising and clear reply: “Talk to Peter!”
Well denial is hard work! For eight hours I cleaned the fireplace, cleaned the bathroom, surfed the net, answered my mail, even read some theology. Oh did the laundry too. Then, at last, gave in and found Peter. Peter in tears.
“Hey Peter, big boys don’t cry!”
This one does! I don’t understand him at all. All I want is to understand him and walk with him. But every word he says say surprises me. “Who am I?” he asks. And, wherever it comes from, I can blab “God’s anointed” and amaze myself and get all that praise from him, the look behind his eyes—and that frightening proud burden. Then the next moment I utter some confident platitude to lighten him up and he blasts me: Satan, he shouts, snare, stumbling block. But why shouldn’t I wish him well? Why shouldn’t I try to keep his feet on a safe path? But he had to put my feet in their place—back behind him. In step. Going his crazy new way. But what if his way isn’t my way? What if its astray he’s going? What then? Well if he wants to blaze a trail to Jerusalem, if he wants death and glory, then let him have it! I’ve got fish to catch still. I never said I’d stay with him for ever. I didn’t! Just “follow me,” he said and I did. And I’m here and he makes no sense. So maybe this is the parting of the ways. Maybe I’ve got more sense than he has after all, anointed or not. Maybe I’m heading home. Cutting my losses. Staying put. Going home.
But, Peter, if your going home why the tears?
Because I have .. no .. home. He has stolen it from me. He has duped me and I have let myself be duped. The word of life burns in him. And now it’s burning in me—a fire in the heart, a prisoner in my bones. And I have to speak it or exhaust myself holding it in. Where could I run to anyway? Where would I go? Even the fish would laugh at me. All I can do is get back behind him. Trail after him. If he falls I fall with him. If he goes to the gallows I go with him.
Then Peter why are you telling me this?
Because you are me … and the word burns in you and you have no home but the road with Jesus.
Because Paul is me … and the word burns in him and he has no home but the road with Jesus.
Because ways diverge. Because paths cross and uncross. Because wasting your life with Jesus is all that matters. Because denial is more than a big river in Egypt—Denial is where the future begins.
But, Peter, this is a lousy homily! What is the point?
Ah, the point? Nothing matters but the place the next foot falls and whether it falls with Jesus or alone. Everything comes to that. No way is so sure it can be travelled alone. Not for you, not for me, not for the church built upon this shaky rock. Only his feet make the way.
August 29th, 1999
Most of the earthquakes I’ve experienced while here in Berkeley have happened at night and, although they jolt me awake to that state of unnatural attentiveness that’s not quite sure whether to run or hide, it’s hardly the best time for considered reflection.
But last night, seated at the dinner table, when the world bucked and swam I realised that my first feeling was betrayal. Betrayal and affront at the unfairness of it. Just about to tuck in to a good meal and here’s the earth itself disturbing me. Shouldn’t happen. Shouldn’t be.
And I realised that the same reaction is there even in the middle of the night—some chance of sleeping now! Some things just shouldn’t be. Even when the event itself is harmless I feel betrayed. The earth should sit still. Vertical should stay vertical. We have an eye for justness, for rightness, for the way of things.
Jotham’s got a good eye. Even setting aside his personal investment in the downfall of Abimelech he’s got a good point. One we should bear in mind as our political parties strut their stuff. The last person we should trust to rule us is the guy who wants to. Now Abimelech’s got a good argument too. Isn’t it better to be ruled by one person than by 70 squabbling brothers? But Jotham’s got affront on his side and the gut-knowledge that this is not the way things should be. And it gives him the courage to put words into God’s mouth in his propaganda poem we heard today. And the text goes on to say that God agreed with Jotham and Abimelech met an early downfall.
But what happens when the adversary is not a murderous politician but the living God? The day labourers of the gospel are pretty much at the bottom of the heap—lower than slaves—and eke a living—if they manage it at all—one day at a time. Relying on law and custom to see them through to the next day. So when some screwy landowner gets it into his head to play Mr. Generous it must seem like the end of the world. A real economic earthquake ready to smash what little security they have. This is not the way it should be. And to have God take the landowner’s part is a betrayal. It isn’t fair. But maybe the way the world is, isn’t fair either. Maybe God can see that better than we. They way we organise our labour, the way we let ourselves be governed, the way we treat the poor. Not fair. Maybe God feels betrayed. Feels affronted that so much good is squandered and, in the way things are, so much evil is acceptable. But what’s a deity to do about it? When earthquake, fire and flood are ruled out what does God have left to turn the tide? When God doesn’t get what God wants … just what can God do about it?
August 18th, 1999
I said this was an embarrassing feast. And I’d like to convince you of that by starting with a quiz. Eyes closed please… Paying attention to what you are feeling… OK … first question: what does God like most about your body? Just stand there naked before God and see what God’s response is? We might ask the choir in a moment to tell us about their reactions! OK, now the second question: let God take a long look at your soul. What does God like most about your soul? Now for the real question—which is more embarrassing—to have God look at your body or your soul? … I think we’d better let the choir off the hook! You can ask them later if you want!
So … Why this feast? What’s it all about? What are we celebrating?
Well something about Mary the Mother of Jesus certainly, but something too about us all, in fact something about the whole world, the whole cosmos. It’s got two parts and the first is pretty clear from the readings: no matter the power of the dragon—no matter that it can sweep a third of the stars from the sky with a flick of its tail—no matter that it lies in wait to devour all new life—the dragon, death, is doomed. Death itself is dying. And all God’s people are under protection. And Mary carries that burden of life for us all—the first of us, poor bags of blood and water that we are, not to die. A singular success but the pledge of a universal destiny. And in its way this is even more awesome than the resurrection of Jesus. We’re not talking dead and risen here but never died at all. Because the joy of the resurrection has renewed the whole world—something God has done in Jesus has changed the world. And, though we can’t see it too easily, death is dead.
That’s part one of the great assumption. Part two is both weirder and more wonderful. Mary doesn’t die but is taken up body and soul into the life of God. Body and soul.
I’ve been remembering Jim Keeley this week as I’ve prayed with these readings. And thinking too of Michael, a friend of a friend, who has ALS as Jim did, Lou Gehrig’s disease. If anything can rob the body of all dignity yet leave the soul untouched, that’s it. But if our assumption is correct, God isn’t satisfied to have souls winging their ethereal way to the pearly gates—but wants from us all, body and soul, the whole person forever.
But why bother with this carcass? Doesn’t it only get in the way, doesn’t it constantly defeat our attempts to be holy, doesn’t it season all our pleasures with pain, doesn’t it undermine our hopes of unending prosperity and progress? These bodies of ours betray us. Even here in America where they are worshipped above all ages. Buffed or sloppy, they’re going to let us down—and I don’t just mean cellulite and bad breath and the need for Viagra.
So why doesn’t God simply translate Mary’s soul to a happy resting place and let the body drop, let her leave it behind, let it rot. Wouldn’t she be glad to see the back of it anyway—of rheumatism and flu, of inconvenient urges and embarrassing noises.
When I last saw him, Michael could hardly swallow, could hardly make his tongue shape breath into speech, was long beyond even scratching an itch on his disappearing body. This is the assumption in reverse—the assumption mocked. And by God I hate it! But when Michael meets his maker—and pray it will be soon—what body will he wear? He was a strong guy, handsome, athletic, and now that’s keeping him alive when a weaker man would have wasted away long ago. Who will he be before God? And that’s not a frivolous question … for any of us. What does God like about our bodies? Who does God see?
We’ve seen the statues but still have to wonder… is the heavenly Mary really a frail maiden in blue? Why not an elderly woman in widow’s black, or the wide-eyed poet of the gospel today singing the song of death’s overthrow. For though it might be Mary’s soul proclaiming the greatness of God, but her body it is which is blessed with the great things God is doing. And it is the strength of God’s arm which scatters the proud in the imagination of their hearts and casts down the mighty from their thrones. It is the God who found his own body through Mary’s who is always lifting up the lowly and filling the hungry. Why?—because bodies matter. Because God loves bodies. Loves their beauty, marvels at their frailty, is struck to the heart by their power and potential. And, thanks to Mary, God knows bodies from the inside out, knows the feeling of love and pain, of illness and hunger, of fullness and desire, of violence and healing. Because God has fallen in love with the flesh of the world. And when he says today “this is my body, this is my blood,” he means it literally. And when we say Amen to the body of Christ we should dare to mean it literally too. He is here in the flesh, in our flesh, in Michael’s flesh—aching to be taken, broken, eaten … to answer our hunger with bread, and our longing with his own.
August 15th, 1999
How fast does a bullet travel? Something shot across the Atlantic Ocean today at 1800 miles per hour, and gouged a trail through Europe. Billions watched it pass in awe—at least if the weather permitted–a total eclipse. Here’s what Annie Dillard has to say about surviving a total eclipse:
“… I heard screams. People on all the hillsides, including, I think, myself, screamed when the black body of the moon detached from the sky and rolled over the sun. But something else was happening at that same instant, and it was this which made us scream. … The second before the sun went out we saw a wall of dark shadow come speeding at us. We no sooner saw it than it was upon us, like thunder. It roared up the valley. It slammed our hill and knocked us out. It was the monstrous swift shadow cone of the moon. I have since read that this wave of shadow moves 1800 miles an hour. Language can give no sense of this sort of speed—1800 miles an hour. It was 195 miles wide. No end was in sight—you only saw the edge. It rolled across the land at 1800 miles an hour, hauling darkness like a plague behind it. Seeing it, and knowing it was coming straight for you, was like feeling a slug of anaesthetic shot up your arm. If you think very fast, you may have tie to think, “Soon it will hit my brain.” You can feel the deadness race up your arm; you can feel the appalling, inhuman speed of your own blood. We saw the wall of shadow coming, and screamed before it hit…
This was the universe about which we have read so much and never before felt: the universe as a clockwork of loose spheres flung at stupefying, unauthorised speeds. How could anything moving so fast not crash …
Less than two minutes later, when the sun emerged the trailing edge of the shadow cone sped away … coursed down our hill and raced eastward over the plain. … At once the yellow light made the sky blue again; the black lid dissolved and vanished. The real world began there. I remember now; we all hurried away. We were born and bored at a stroke. We rushed down the hill. We found our car. We never looked back. It was a general vamoose, and an odd one, for when we left the hill, the sun was still partially eclipsed—a sight rare enough, and one which, in itself, we would probably have driven five hours to see. But enough is enough. One turns at last even from glory itself with a sigh of relief.”
Enough is enough. But isn’t that the question Clare and all her kind put to the church, and put to us? How much is enough? Aren’t we all torn somewhere between “All I want is to know Christ and the power of his resurrection” and “what do we get for leaving everything to follow you?”
Like an eclipse, Clare’s life … passes before us, unveiling the always present fullness of emptiness … and leaving us wondering—what would be enough for us? What could be real enough, rich enough, ripe enough to seduce us—we who are born and bored at a stroke—seduce us to live, like Clare, face to face with the beauty and glory of Jesus—and not hurry away with a sigh of relief?
August 11th, 1999
Isn’t it the story of our lives? We see a land of promise laid out before us. We hear the voice of a God delighted to be giving us all we have ever desired. There we are wandering in desert, sand in our shoes, backs burdened under the weight of all we have been through … and up ahead a promise of home and hope, of sweetness and nourishment. All there laid out on a map for us: a choice—desert or garden. And we, we choose the familiar desert and leave the fruitful future of our dreams to rot on the vine.
Why? Why do we do it? Maybe we think goodness is too good to be true. Maybe we have an inkling that we’ll have to fight for our dreams. Or maybe our glimpse of glory leaves us feeling like grasshoppers, unfit to live in paradise.
Isn’t it the story of our lives? We are too ready to believe the worst and so careful not to be conned. And doesn’t it frustrate the hell out of the generous God offering us everything? Wouldn’t it be worth the risk to believe the best for once? To take God’s dreams at face value and say just this once “Yes. Yes, please!”
August 4th, 1999