Archive for September, 1999

Feast of Michael, Gabriel, & Raphael, Archangels

Let Annie Dillard deliver the homily today. She knows more about angels than I ever will. This is from “A Field of Silence” in Teaching a Stone to Talk.

“The farm! … I lived there once and I have seen, from behind the barn, the roadside pastures heaped with silence … silence heaped on the fields like trays. That day the green hayfields supported silence evenly sown; the fields bent just so under the even pressure of silence, bearing it, palming it aloft: cleared fields, part of a land, a planet, that did not buckle beneath the heel of silence … but instead lay secret, disguised as time and matter as though that were nothing, ordinary…
I do not want, I think, ever to see such a sight again…
It was Saturday morning late in the summer, in early September, clear-aired and still. I climbed the barnyard fence between the poultry and the pastures; I watched the red rooster, and the rooster, reptilian, kept one alert and alien eye on me. … From time to time I looked beyond the pastures to learn if anyone might be seen on the road.
When I was turned away in this manner, the silence gathered and struck me. It bashed me broadside from the heavens above me like yard goods; ten acres of fallen, invisible sky choked the fields. The pastures on either side of the road turned green in a surrealistic fashion, monstrous, impeccable, as if they were holding their breaths. … There was only silence. It was the silence of matter caught in the act and embarrassed. … I could see the shape of the land, how it lay holding silence. Its poise and its stillness were unendurable, like the ring of the silence you hear in your skull when you’re little and notice you’re living, the ring which resumes later in life when you’re sick…
I stood in pieces, afraid I was unable to move. Something had unhinged the world. The houses and roadsides and pastures were buckling under the silence. Then a Labrador, black, loped up a distant driveway, fluid and cartoon-like. I had to try to turn away. Holiness is a force, and like the others it can be resisted. It was given, but I didn’t want to see it, God, or no God. It was as if God had said, “I am here, but not as you have known me. This is the look of silence, and of loneliness unendurable; it too has always been mine, and now will be yours.” I was not ready for a life of sorrow, sorrow deriving from the knowledge I could just as well stop at the gate. I turned away, wilful, and the whole show vanished. The realness of things disassembled. … the air above the fields released its pressure and the fields lay hooded as before.

Several months later, walking past the farm on the way to a volleyball game, I remarked to a friend, by way of information, “There are angels in those fields.” Angels! That silence so grave and so stricken, that choked and unbearable green! I have rarely been so surprised at something I’ve said. Angels! What are angels? I had never thought of angels, in any way at all.
From that time I began to think of angels… I began to review the thing I had seen that morning. My impression now of those fields is of thousands of spirits—spirits trapped, perhaps, by my refusal to call them more fully, or by the paralysis of my own spirit at that time—thousands of spirits, angels in fact, almost discernible to the eye, and whirling. If pressed I would say they were three or four feet from the ground. Only their motion was clear (clockwise, if you insist); that, and their beauty unspeakable.
There are angels in those fields, and, I presume, in all fields, and everywhere else. I would go to the lions for this conviction, to witness this fact. What all this means about perception, or language, or angels, or my own sanity, I have no idea.”

September 29th, 1999

Sunday Week 25 Year A

The reign of God is like an SAT examination: some worked night and day exhausting themselves in preparation; some paid thousands in coaching fees to learn the secret tricks; and some went out partying every night and guessed the answers. All got the same score.
The reign of God is like a soccer game: one side scored five goals, the other none. It was a draw.
The reign of God is like life: a woman works harder than a man but the man gets the promotion.
Emily Post, mistress of etiquette says there are three persons that can properly be recipients of a gift shower: “a bride-to-be, an expectant mother, and …” can you guess? … (a new clergyman)
What’s a man doing in the company of nubile and pregnant women?
While you’re at it wonder this too: Why are there no women in the parable of the vineyard? Why only men out there idling and working, owning and paying?
The parable of the vineyard is a set up—all parables are. It twists you into a contradiction. The reign of God is like this landowner… But exactly how is the reign of God like this landowner?
The story sets itself up to be all about work and payment, and the tricky questions of what’s fair, what’s just, and what’s generous? You listen and you assume pretty quickly that God is the landowner. But the storyteller, Jesus or Matthew, manipulates you into feeling that the landowner has done an injustice in the way he pays his workers. So you have to juggle two thoughts, innocent enough on their own but explosive when mixed: God is the landowner and the landowner is unfair. Parables don’t have answers. That’s why we need so many questions to do them justice. How can we take away the sting of the parable: easy take away the questions. We can go for either side of the contradiction. Either God isn’t fair or God isn’t the landowner. And I don’t know which way to go. So let me go both ways.
Why no women in the story? The place I found the tidbit about Emily Post was a book about Gift. The author reckons that there are two separate economies in which we live our lives: gift and property. Gifts exchanged are passed on, human bonds are made, communities built. Property is bought, and kept, and earned. It stands still. It divides rather than joining. Property comes from the hard work and the sweat of the brow. Gift is the fruit of labours of love. In the property economy a person has a fixed value according to what they have earned and anyone of equal property has equal value. In the gift economy a person gains in worth by what they give away to others. All the little labours of life which have to be offered freely and received gratefully at the hands of another. And as things stand in our society still women’s work is expected to be gift and men earn their manhood amongst property. Unless you are a clergyman. We strange beasts are not expected to earn property but to give and receive as gift. To charge for worship is to make it something else. So maybe God isn’t fair … Maybe God’s economy is one of gift and not property. Maybe this parable is telling us all that the workplace is no place for God. That the reign of God is not earned but given. That charity trumps justice in God’s game of life.
Maybe … But if you’ve ever played Monopoly with a Jesuit you have to wonder. And what about those missing women? What about injustice? Does God not care? Well maybe God isn’t the landowner in the story. Maybe we don’t have to do spiritual gymnastics to redefine fairness. But then exactly how is the reign of God like this story?
One thing I know is that all week I’ve avoided asking the one group of people who might have been able to give me an answer. I watched them the other day … went down to Fourth Street Berkeley and stood among the upscale stores with my Peet’s latte and watched the day-labourers standing idle on the corner waiting to be hired for the day. Living lives of such uncertainty that day to day … Well I don’t know what… I didn’t ask. I watched from a distance and didn’t make human contact. At least the landowner had the decency or the gall to meet face to face with those whose lives he toyed with while calling himself generous. But I watched. And the gap between me and them is the gap between my heart and the heart of the story.
Where is God in the story? I suspect God is labouring in the vineyard, from dawn ‘til dusk, breaking her back picking grapes, bearing the burden of the day and the scorching heat.
I suspect … but it’s only a suspicion… Until I answer the parable’s invitation and receive the gift held for me by the men on the corner I’ll never know.

September 19th, 1999

Sunday Week 24 Year A

Wrath and anger are hateful things yet we hug them tight. Why the hell do we do that? Any ideas? Cause it baffles me! We hug tight the things that hurt us, we rehearse our hurt in words, honing them to an edge, even when we know they’ll echo around inside us cutting us as deeply as the ones we intend to hurt. I can just about understand why we feel we need to hurt each other. But why our own selves? It beats me! … Unless we don’t believe the power of our own words. Just own them like so many hand guns and are amazed when they main or kill.
But like I said, I have an apology to make. I need to eat my own words. Interesting how many expressions for apology involve digestion—eating humble pie, swallowing your pride, eating crow, eating your words—as if our language knew what we strain to forget—that words aren’t ethereal, vanishing things but hang around heavy and binding and bitter until we take them back, until we let them loose, until we make them flesh once more.
I preached two weeks ago about denial—about Peter’s fear of loss, and about my own inability to digest my friend Paul’s leaving of the Jesuits. Denial! I don’t exactly deny what I said then … but I need to tell you what happened next because … it shook me. If you remember I had managed then to find Jesus long enough to rail at him over my loss—”Jesus! Where the hell are you. Why do you give me limbs and then saw them off?” But the truth is I hadn’t stayed long enough to recognise him, to notice him, his feeling, his mood. And for the next few days all I knew was that I couldn’t find him. He wasn’t in any of the usual interior places that I look. He wasn’t wakening me up with love songs the way he’s been doing for months. So something was amiss. But it wasn’t the places that were wrong but the guy who I was seeking. I was looking for the one I’d been shouting at, the one I expected to have an answer for me, to comfort me or encourage me or at least put me right.
The Jesus I eventually found—and that simply by asking him where he was—well, he was a surprise to me. He was close to tears. He was unable to speak. He wanted to be held. He needed my shelter.
I held him and he cried. I held him tighter and he sobbed. I held him, wrapped in my body, and gave him shelter and a place of safety. And when he could at last speak he said just this. “Why do you think I could give you limbs and then saw them off?”
What can you say to that? “Why do I think you’re cool and in command? Why do I think you have it all together? Why do I believe you’re above hurt and fear and confusion? Why do I think you always get what you want, even if I don’t?”
Why do I hug tight the things that hurt me? Beats me! But I do! How many times does Jesus have to show me who he is before I’ll believe him? How far does he have to go? One of Ursula Le Guin’s characters asks that question and gets the answer “only too far is far enough.” Only too far is far enough.
That’s the big puzzle of the parable for me. Not the way we can accept our own liberation so easily and still imprison others—that’s the stuff of daily headlines—but where God is in the story? Only one character acts out of anger. Only one character acts out of gut-wrenching pity. The same character, the King, the Master. Is this God? Capable of writing off a lifetime’s debt in a stroke of compassion. Capable of giving the word to torture the same guy unrelentingly. Is this who Jesus is pointing to? I don’t know. My mind wants to work overtime to smooth out the rough edges and keep God above both those dangers—keep God wise and cool and above both anger and compassion. But the parable won’t let me do that. It makes me return again to Jesus and ask him—not so much to know about the parable as to know him. To let his reality pierce my protective prejudices. To let him cry if he needs to. To let him be as hurt and afraid and confused as he happens to be. To learn again that he doesn’t always get what he wants either.
So I have to eat my words. To him: for not knowing him. To: you for not speaking him. Above all: for not writing him well. That’s what he wants from me: to write him well. He knows the power of words. He lived and died by words. His word cured the sick and drove out devils. His word stirred up opposition and stilled the storm. He stuck to his word though it stuck him to a cross. But he didn’t want to die—he wanted to live. Given the choice he would have chosen life. To keep his word and live. But we wouldn’t let him—we made him choose between them, between his life and his word. And he chose to keep his word. But before he held himself to his words he came to supper with those he loved and he took his words and made them flesh. He went too far. Spoke himself bread, uttered himself wine. Thickened his words into life. Set them in bowl and cup and ate them. He ate his words with tears and swallowed his pride. And offered us each, at the table, forgiveness—and a way in word and flesh to forgive each other and give each other life. No longer strangers. No longer lost and alone.
And asked of us, too, a far harder task—to forgive him for not being the God we fear.

1 comment September 12th, 1999


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