Archive for 2001
I must admit that once we’ve had Christ the King I want Advent to start right away. I need that change of gear, particularly after all the nastiness with the Maccabees last week. But as far as the lectionary is concerned, though we are in the final act, the opera isn’t over yet, the fat lady hasn’t sung, and the crescendo is still building.
And that’s important to remember when we hear the story of the widow today. It’s not just another sound bite, another nice saying, another wise word. Though Luke tells it swiftly and smoothly we have to remember where we’ve been and where we are going. Or else we’ll let the widow pass unnoticed and not notice ourselves the one who claims her as kin.
Remember, as Luke tells it, Jesus has already made his entry into Jerusalem on his donkey. He arrived with a bang and ran around causing trouble. In the last few days he’s taught in the Temple and threatened its destruction, he’s taken on Caesar and dethroned him from godhood, he’s taken on the scribes and disinherited them, taken on the Sadducees and dissed their theology. Now here he is watching the crowds pour into the Temple, watching the well-to-do pour out their easy riches into the treasury. And I see him near breaking point. Has no one listened to him? What about the eye of that needle? Has his message been a waste of time? What about Zacchaeus up his tree? Has he wandered these last years, left home and work and respect, for this? For business as usual? The rich as rich as ever, the poor ever poorer. Does nothing change? What more can he give? What more can he say? What does he have left?
Then she comes along and stretches out her almost empty hand and pours out the last dregs of all she has—her livelihood, her living, her life. And he sees and he knows and he feels. He sees her heart. He knows neither of them is likely to make it through the weekend. And he feels his burden shared. There might not be much left to say. There might only be dregs to give. There might only be failure and dishonour and doubt ahead. But you give what you have. You do what you must. You take the risk. You trust the God who gave you birth, the God who touched your heart, and you let it go, you pour it out, your very life, and let God take care of whatever comes.
November 26th, 2001
What do we give thanks for and what do we take for granted?
I found myself this morning shopping for Thanksgiving Dinner getting caught up with a sense of loss way beyond the simple experience of not finding charcoal or canned pumpkin. It was probably my first real pang of homesickness for the states. Some of my warmest memories of the US are set in kitchens with the smell of spice and the scent of smoke wafting in from a charcoal fire, drinking trinities and chopping vegetables and laughing and crying with people I love. I didn’t know I was trying to recapture that until I checked my email just now and found a half-dozen thanksgiving messages from the people who are missing me.
This gospel was the one I preached on for my last mass in my parish in Oakland. I guess, like the fool, I’m trying to build the barns to preserve the blessings God has given me. The kind of gifts that have changed me and sent my life along a different path. I guess I don’t trust God to do right now what he has done before—or do even more in a different place.
I wonder what it is like to live thanksgiving this year, at war, under threat. You’ll pick it up in the prayers for the mass today—this feast is always a looking back and a checking up. A looking back at blessings given—land, freedom, riches, and mission (how America feels its god-given mission)—and a checking up. “Are we still the ones given the gift? Are we still worthy of purpose? Or have we built up barns and defended them and tried to preserve our blessings by the work of our hands?”
Probably as a nation it is many years since we have asked ourselves such questions. On the downward slope of our worldly influence an easy cynicism feels more comfortable. But maybe we can ask our own selves those thanksgiving questions, looking back and checking up: remembering the blessings that set us on our life’s path and giving ourselves afresh to the purpose and the call.
November 21st, 2001
This is one of those stories where Jesus turns everything upside down but, unfortunately, two thousand years and a whole life’s listening have turned it back the wrong way up. We know that Pharisees are the baddies and we know that Jesus used to hang around with tax-collectors and all that knowing takes the sting out of the tale.
How do you put it back? Dominic Crossan tells it this way, ‘A pope and a pimp went to St. Peters to pray …’ (but, as you hear, that just makes us laugh) … I thought of telling it with Mother Teresa and Osama bin Laden … but that made me too uncomfortable.
So, back to the drawing board… Let’s set the scene. It’s the temple … not just any church but the Church, the one place of sacrifice … let’s say it’s time for the afternoon sacrifice and the special moment when the Priest enters the Holy Place to burn incense for the forgiveness of sins. The tax-collector is stuck at the back, not out of humility, but because people like him were kept back so as not to make others ritually impure. The story is all about impurity. To take part in the temple rituals that brought forgiveness and forged a people for God you had to be pure. And that’s not just morally good. All the rules and rituals of the Law, and all the extra ones followed by a Pharisee, were about making sure you didn’t become impure and in that way out of the whole ritual economy of God’s people. And the ways of becoming impure were many—like breaking a Sabbath rule or eating the wrong kind of food or food that had touched other foods or dealing with gentiles or having certain kinds of sickness or touching a menstruating woman or just being a woman. All that or just bumping into someone else who was already impure. Basically, if you were poor or just an ordinary person living from day to day you didn’t have the time or the opportunity to be ritually pure, so you were stuck at the back watching and not taking part. And if anyone was impure it was our tax-collector, who had the dirty job of sitting in his toll-booth squeezing the tax that his boss demanded, because some bigger boss said so, because the Roman governor had levied it.
Our Pharisee, on the other hand, gets to sit up front, close to the action and be so sure of its power that he doesn’t even have to ask for forgiveness—he can just stand up tall and thank God for his good fortune. Our Pharisee was not on his own. Here’s the advice of the Rabbi Judah: ‘One must utter three praises everyday: Praised (be the Lord) that He did not make me a heathen, for all the heathen are as nothing before Him; praised be He, that He did not make me a woman, for woman is not under obligation to fulfil the law; praised by He that He did not make me an uneducated man, for the uneducated man is not cautious to avoid sins.’ Let’s give our Pharisee the benefit of the doubt and presume that he is sincere in his praise of God for making him good and keeping him from impurity. Let’s presume too that he is honest and he really does do what he says he does and isn’t just being a hypocrite like some of the other Pharisees that get the sharp edge of Jesus’ tongue. Well, If they are both honest and both sincere what’s the difference between them? Why does Jesus say the tax-collector is the one who goes home redeemed by God?
It’s not sincerity that makes the difference. It surely can’t be what the two actually have done in their lives because the Pharisee really is good and the tax-collector really is bad—a corrupt, debt-collector, working for the occupying army. It’s not sincerity and it’s not morality and I don’t think its humility either. There’s been so much dodgy stuff taught through the years about not thinking well of yourself as if that could redeem you in God’s eyes. Half of us need to think better of ourselves not worse to be true to God’s own vision of us.
I think that all that separates the two actors in our drama is empathy. The Pharisee has had life so good, so easy, that he has no grasp of what it might be like to have life tough. He doesn’t know what life can be like on the other side of the street. And because he doesn’t have that basic empathy he can slander the debt-collector and the rest of mankind and not know what that feels like. He can’t put himself in the shoes of the grasping, unjust, adulterous of ordinary people. And because he can’t the doors of grace are shut to him. He is a door shut to grace. All God’s redeeming grace finds no opening in him.
Thank God that we who pray here today are not like that Pharisee—self-centred, hard-hearted, and unfeeling … but of course we are like him. We are human. We are all of us, each of us, capable of any heroism and any atrocity. That’s the tax-collector’s gift to us: the empathy to make us one of the crowd, just another sinner, just another human being, just someone else, like him, standing in need of mercy, in hope of redemption. Here we are God; we need you; redeem our lives or they are wasted.
October 28th, 2001
Here we are listening like the lawyer to Jesus going off at the Pharisees again, calling them the worst things he can lay his tongue to, and we are, as always, faced with a choice: we can get prickly and stand on our dignity the way he seems to do and come to their aid—they are after all just trying their best to be good and god-fearing—or, as we probably do, we can listen self-righteously because we have had 2000 years of thinking we know the final score—Jesus One Pharisees Nil. Either way, though, we make just that judgement, that condemnation, that Paul is so exercised about. In judging others we condemn ourselves. And, even if we keep our mouths shut, slowly the gaze of Jesus turns upon us and from his lips issues the precise measure of our problem. ‘Alas for you too because you load on people burdens they cannot carry, burdens you won’t lift a finger to lighten.’ We don’t have to be lawyers it seems to ruin peoples lives.
A time of retreat shows up just how much life with God is a life of choices. Unfortunately choices that judge others or, more likely, judge ourselves seem so easy to make. We all have our own inner-Pharisee, our own inner lawyer, ready to lay a burden impossible to bear on some poor set of shoulders. And our own will do. We all want to make life difficult. It can’t be this easy we say to ourselves. Surely there’s more to it than this? God can’t be this good, leave me this free, offer me so much with so little asked in return. If only the burden were heavier I carry it gladly. If only the sacrifice were greater I’d make it. If only the price were exorbitant I’d pay it. But what can a free gift be worth?
Maybe I’m preaching to myself again? I do that. I know I need to hear the gift is freely given, the promise generously made, the pearl without a price, the love offered without reservation, and the burden, oh the burden light. Because choosing life is the hardest thing to do because it is the easiest. So, this is my end-of-retreat prayer, my rest-of-life prayer, my every-day-of the year prayer—for me, for you, for all: if you get a choice to sit it out or dance, I hope you dance.
October 17th, 2001
I’ve been wondering to anyone who will listen for the last couple of days … just what the hell is getting Joel so wound up!? After all these are the last kind of readings we want to hear on retreat—doom and gloom and sackcloth and ashes and a guilt trip to end all guilt trips. ‘What is eating Joel,’ I’ve thought. Well that idle phrase turns out to be not far off. It’s not too obvious from the fragments we get today but Joel is writing in response to a national disaster: a plague of locusts—the cutter, the hopper, the devourer—who come like a cloud, engulf everything, and leave nothing but dust for the children to eat. ‘Day of darkness and gloom, day of cloud and blackness.’
We’re a month on from the September 11th and its day of cloud and darkness, and Christians worldwide are faced, and continue to be faced, with Joel’s problem: how do you respond to disaster, to destruction, to devastation. You can’t launch an armed offensive against locusts but maybe you can’t against terrorists either. What do we do?
Joel solution is to bargain. ‘Order a fast, pass the night in sackcloth, lament … wail’, and maybe the Lord will relent. Two problems with that: who’s blaming God anyway? Do we blame God for the tragedy of the twin towers? Maybe we do—but should we? And second, who’s blaming us? Whatever the right wing religious in America say we don’t have disaster because of feminism or gay liberation or shopping on Sundays.
Jesus has a response to evil. Name it, take power over it, and cast it out. But he doesn’t make a fuss about it. He does it to heal. We have a tendency either to leave hurts unhealed or to rush around righteously rooting out evil—whether it’s in our own hearts or right next door, or halfway across the world—and in the process don’t we make things seven times worse. There’s a cycle of evil just as there’s a cycle of violence—and Jesus wants us to dissolve the circle. And you don’t do that by casting out but by filling up. That’s the best response to evil: give it no room; fill your house, fill your heart, fill your nation, with good. Make a dwelling for God and evil is left homeless.
October 12th, 2001
Well what the hell is that all about?! Problems, problems, problems! The crafty steward is a preacher’s nightmare. Some writers reckon that the bunch of sayings tacked on at its end—which all seem to try and interpret it—are themselves leftovers from four or five different homilies given in Luke’s own community. And look how they contradict each other! What chance do we have?
Well … maybe in the context of the reading from Amos and in the context of the two standards we can have a stab at getting some sense out of it.
As Ignatius sees it the way evil works in the world is to look good on the surface but be horrible underneath. We know the attraction of temptation only too well—we might not be outrageous and exploitative capitalists but we all know the attraction of security, of having something material to fall back on, of having money in the bank. After all nothing soothes the aching heart like retail therapy. The strategy of evil is definitely alluring but it is also deadly. It starts with the very reasonable attraction to good things and ends up bullying us into murder. That’s what both Ignatius and Amos agree on even if we resist the thought. We can be deeply religious and yet complicit in outright evil. Don’t we sometimes feel trapped by the things we have and the economic situation we are part of—when we see the poverty of African children or the use and abuse of our tender planet. But, we say, you can’t just change the world. You have to live with its realities. Yet don’t we feel the guilt when we see the victims of our possession? That’s the trap of the evil one. We start by being attracted to good things but end up ensnared and un-free and unable to change. Look at the language of the evil standard—it is all about snares and chains, tempting, bullying. But that reality has to be unveiled: outwardly it is all good sense and good stewardship. The veil of ordinary life and its compromises has to be lifted free … and when it is we see the throne of fire and smoke underneath.
The other standard has the opposite problem. “Attract them to poverty, to contempt, to humility.” Right! As if they are, in any way, attractive values. Outwardly they are horrible and terrifying. Ask the steward who is threatened with a dose of poverty and contempt and humiliation! But the language is all gentleness: none of the bad spirit’s force and fury. Jesus recommends, he chooses, he attracts. And when the veil is drawn away from the outward hardship of those words what is underneath is the plain of Jerusalem, lowly, beautiful and attractive—and Jesus sitting there, himself lowly, beautiful, and attractive—inviting you to join him.
Amos leaves us no wiggle room—godliness is not about religion but about justice, about how we spend our money. Religion gets pulled into the most evil of systems. And you don’t have a third choice, a third flag to fly—either you are with the poor or exploiting them.
The battle lines have been drawn up. If the parable says anything, it says ‘watch out… you never know when you’ll be called to account, you never know when you’ll be asked to show your bank book to the world.’ I guess I mean that metaphorically. But isn’t that a literal terror too. What reveals your real values better than the money you spend and how you spend it?
At least the wasteful steward came up with a contingency plan—he worked out what he could do when suddenly his values were held to account. Damn good idea too! Use money to make some friends.
That’s the challenge I guess … what’s our contingency plan? Where will we end up when our real values are put on display? If we had half the nous of the steward, half the astuteness of the children of this world, we come up with something good.
September 23rd, 2001
These readings leave me somewhere between gasping and all numbed-out by too much good news! Who’d have thought you could have too much good news, too much blessing, too many promises of good fortune?! But that’s the strange economy that gets played out in both Paul and Luke today—a kind of tumbling, over-pouring, gush of words—as if saying it fast and saying it over and over might get it through our thick skulls. God has given us so much in an outpouring of generosity that we can be just as unstinting in our over-bubbling gratitude. But even then God will not be outdone and will overload us with even more—gifts in full measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, poured into our over-burdened lap.
But like I said I’m a little to world–weary to take either Paul or Jesus at face value. I know there must be a catch. I know there has to be the small print … what’s in it for you God? And besides the last few days have shown the magnitude of the forgiveness the world demands and I’m not sure I have it in me.
In the face of all the over-pouring promises of God there is the icy realism of the prince of this world. “Don’t get carried away! Don’t give till you see what you need! Don’t build up your hopes they’ll only get dashed! Don’t take a risk you’ll only get hurt. Don’t let God get too close you’ll only be disappointed!”
Aren’t both these voices working already in the first days of retreat? The surprising, too-good-to-be-true, overwhelming what-ifs of God—what if God really loves me? what if God really has plans for my peace? what if God really thinks I don’t need to change?” And the sweet, safe, comfortable, reasonable, deadly voices of worry, of fear, of doubt, of regret.
But God is not reasonable—God’s calculations run in ever growing circles of ever greater gifts. And I know, despite my doubts, where my deepest desires lie—surprise me God!
September 20th, 2001
I say this with images of yesterdays horror still sharp and bright-edged in my mind’s eye—and maybe that places me—places us—closer to Paul and his hearers than we might otherwise be. Because it’s a shocking image he’s using here to catch an inkling of what it means to have a new life in Christ—it is like death.
Let that sink in—with all its images of falling bodies, crumbling buildings, fire and smoke and dust—being a Christian is like dying—“you have died and your life is hidden with Christ in God”—and that’s not just died and risen—living a fourth-week life—the revelation of that glory has to await the time when “Christ our life is revealed”.
Being saved, living as a Christian, is for Paul so damned radical it is best compared to the absolute and irreversible change brought to us by death.
And since we have all been changed so dramatically—since we are all dead—what difference does it make if we were once Jew or Greek, Arab or Israeli or American, catholic or protestant, female or male. Put Paul and Luke together and we might hear it—“happy are you dead—life and peace should be yours!”
But I don’t believe that—death is not my cup of tea—be it slow or sudden, peaceful or violent, untimely or timely … I want my consolation now, my satisfaction now, my laughter now, my reputation and friends now.
Alas for me …
September 12th, 2001
What gets me here is the way people don’t meet. The centurion doesn’t go to Jesus himself, never speaks for himself—maybe he wants to go through the proper channels, maybe he wants whatever leverage he can get from the Jewish elders—and it must have been enough because Jesus does come to cure his beloved servant but then when Jesus is almost there the soldier sends out his friends this time to keep Jesus right where he is even as he is expressing by proxy confidence in his power to act at a distance. Jesus never gets to meet the centurion he praises so much—as having faith beyond any in Israel. But the boy, the soldier’s dear one, ends up in perfect health anyway. And Jesus learns something about faith—Luke uses that phrase ‘turning around’ exactly seven times and each one is a physical turning which implies a spiritual turning too …
But whatever faith the man expresses, and whatever cure the boy receives, and whatever Jesus learns about his calling, I’m left with a little sadness, a wistfulness. I wish they had met, face-to-face… Jesus and that faithful Roman. I wish they had done more than speak through go-betweens, exchange messages and authority, I wish they had got to know each other. Spoken about what they both held dear. Who. What they both loved. What they had each learned about life and love and God.
I wonder if their lives had been different, if they’d not both been bound by their own authority, their own callings, whether they might not have become friends. Because power is one thing, being healed is one thing, finding your way is one thing—but friendship, ah friendship, is something else, something greater, deeper, brighter, harder, finer…
And though God offers us power, and though God offers us healing, and though God offers us a way—these are nothing next to what God offers us—must long for us to accept—friendship.
September 3rd, 2001
Call, or vocation, or ministry often gets painted in the most macho terms. Maybe we’ve experienced it that way ourselves. As something heroic, demanding, self-denying. Joseph Campbell, the great student of myth, writes about the hero journey as archetypically involving leaving, leaving home, leaving family, leaving familiarity and setting out on a lone quest to slay the dragon, find the un-findable treasure, and become a man. There’s echoes of that in Jesus’ own calling—leaving the comfort of his life, his work, his home and heading out to meet John at the Jordan and be driven, dripping wet, into the desert to face his demons and embark on a short and heroic life. It’s there too in the call of the disciples. Leaving, leaving behind, growing up.
But that’s only the men. While the men are gadding about heroically slaying dragons, the women get to stay at home and mend socks. What does the women’s hero-journey look like? And is it even a journey at all?
That’s what’s so important about Ruth. She is every bit as much a disciple, every bit as much one called, as Nathaniel but her vocation is one of fidelity. Of holding tight instead of letting go. Of staying with instead of setting out. ‘Wherever you go I will go, where you lodge I will lodge, your people shall be my people, and your God, my God.’ I’m not suggesting there’s one way for women and another for men. Exactly the opposite. All of us need to do what Ruth did—to feel our desire and let it live as love. ‘Wherever you go I will go, where you lodge I will lodge, your people shall be my people, and your God, my God.’ And there she is in the lineage of Jesus—a foreigner, among the Hebrews, a women among the men. If she had not looked within and listened to her deepest desires and answered her call and spoken her words we would not have Jesus and we wouldn’t be here today.
September 3rd, 2001