Archive for October, 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