Saturday, April 15, 2017

Blame Me: The Cross and the Power of Love

Perhaps you can admit to this as I must, that anything from a lost sock to a work project gone amiss is more readily attached to someone else’s failings than one’s own, at least initially. 

Again and again, across human history, we find that not just individuals but nations, religions, cities, families - human communities of all shapes and sizes - can readily be drawn into a vortex of blame, where some other, often an outsider or newcomer, is made to carry some burden as source, or merely threat, of harm. The first story of death in the Bible has this character - Cain kills his brother Abel, inexplicably apart from the implication that he resents the other's favor with God. So death enters the world and so it has continued.

There is often someone whose exclusion or destruction offers false assurance of security; and to these we attribute our own ills, our collective failings, what we find hardest to acknowledge in our deepest selves and in the others whom we claim as part of some “us” that is always defined relative to some “other.”

The real threat of terrorism or other crimes does not match the level of anxiety recently attached to refugees and migrants in public discourse, for instance. The fantasy that we can create a safe world for some sub-group chosen by accident of history or privilege of race, by building walls or banning travel, is both illusory as a policy that claims to make us physically safer, and dangerous or simply perverse as a theology of how to be human. It is, again, the quest for the perfect victim, the culpable outsider whose exclusion or even execution can make us safe, not in reality but in some world conjured out by a perverse liturgy of national insecurity, where we close ourselves off to our common humanity.

One of the great ironies of Christian history is how this process of labelling and blaming the other has been applied by Christians to Jews.

Already in the Passion narrative from the Gospel of John - probably the last-written of the four - we find a slippage from the earlier and more historical picture of some local cronies conspiring with the Roman authorities against Jesus, to a picture of “the Jews” collectively as Jesus’ antagonists. This reflects not the actual history of Jesus' trial and death, but the history of early Jewish and Christian communities a generation or two later, siblings in an awkward relationship. In later centuries however, as Christianity grew, that image led to the figure of the Jew as perennial outsider, scapegoat, and Christ-killer.

We may be tempted to think we have left all that far behind us. Those who have received threatening calls at synagogues and community centers this year might beg to differ. But the phenomenon of casting around for those to whom we may attach blame is a wider one, and one played out on the world stage and in our own lives. 

The cross is a sign of this tendency in us, and points to its resolution. 

Jesus does not die to satisfy the honor or the wrath of God. Jesus does not die because God is a larger version of a playground bully or of a despotic ruler, distinguished from the others we know only by scale, and equally lacking thus in love and imagination as to how to save the world. God does not will Jesus’ death, we do.

Jesus dies for the same reason we have variously labelled Jews, refugees, and others as people whose exclusion would somehow make us safe. As we heard in the Passion again, Caiaphas the High Priest had told his contemporaries that “it was better for one man to die for the people."

Jesus indeed dies for the people, but not as may be imagined. And he does not solve the problem of blame and scapegoating in any obvious way by dying on the cross, as history shows us all too clearly. Rather he tells us, in his body, two related things, one about God and one about ourselves. We learn from the cross of God’s unexpected and possibly very dissatisfying answer to our tendency to blame. God’s reality on the cross is not manifest in the appearance of legions of anti-fascist angels who might have set the world to rights, but would have underlined the problem of exclusion and oppression in doing so, but rather in God’s own helplessness, God’s solidarity with those labelled, excluded, and killed. 

God, it seems, cannot fix things by force any more than we can. Walls don’t work, and neither will any bomb of whatever size in the last analysis; neither will divine string-pulling. Instead God reaches out, the only power exercised to fix the world being love.

One of most ancient eucharistic prayers known to us, says that Jesus “stretched out his hands as he suffered so he might free from suffering those who believed.” 

This outstretched openness to love, which refuses to exclude or to label, is what we learn about God, but also what we must learn about ourselves; only love fixes things, and love always entails letting go of power rather than of taking it up. Love can offer itself, but cannot insist on having its way, or else it is no longer love. Hence the cross. The cross exposes the futility of our blaming, and shows us how human life could be lived as well as offering the deepest insight into the life of God. 

Whom then shall we blame? God says “blame me, blame me." Not God has done these things, for we did; but rather because God offers, invites, pleads with us from the cross to end our blaming forever, and to extend our own arms to each other and to the world, and thus truly to embrace life in all its fulness.

Friday, February 03, 2017

On Blessing: Beatitudes, Knowledge, and Power

"Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek…" (Matt 5:3-5)

(Nuccio DiNuzzo / Chicago Tribune)

I don’t know really what these words mean. It’s OK, neither do you.

I mean that fairly seriously, if not completely. Being technicians of knowledge as those of us involved in theological education tend to be, we are always trying to work out what things mean, and how to use them. What’s the point of hearing the word if it doesn’t preach, or if you don’t know what to do about it, or if it doesn’t at least helps us to be right about things? Well - sometimes not knowing what it means or what to do about it or what is right might be more the point than we want to accept.

Blessing is not available for manipulation. The Beatitudes are not a manual for right living, or (sorry) for social activism; they are not anybody’s technique for anything. You can’t read them and then say “this means I have to do x or y” and then imagine you have got it.

Micah’s impassioned plea in the first lesson is one of our favorite social justice snippets, and risks becoming too familiar to actually be heard; it also concerns the difference between thinking of religion as technology, and as transformation. “With what shall I come before the Lord?” - what is the right answer, what do I need to know, shall I do this, shall I do that? The suggestions are technical, ranging from the obvious to the extreme. The famous answer is of course practical - “do justice, and love kindness, and walk humbly with your God" (6:8) but actually deeply counterintuitive too; it is not, as so often assumed or argued, the substitution of ethics for religion; it is the substitution of transformation for technology.

The Beatitudes are also not a division of humanity according to who is right. There are things around us that certainly demand discernment of what is right and support for what is right, and condemnation of what is wrong, but this is not that, not quite. There is a great spiritual risk for us at present, an obvious one, that we fail to respond to evil and normalize it as the temperature of wrongdoing rises as for that proverbial frog in the warming pot.

Yet in fact the greater spiritual risk for us, aside from ignoring injustice itself, may be far less obvious; namely that we will be right all the time as we oppose what is wrong, and that being right risks becoming a protection for us, a defense not only, or not so much, against wrong but against whatever transformation we are being called to in the present. But we are not called to be right, we are called to be transformed.

No, we don’t know what this means. But we know it when we see it.

In a big week or two of images, my favorite was the two dads with kids on ther shoulders at O’Hare airport, a little boy in kippah, a little girl in hijab, with their signs affirming love and opposing hate. I don’t care so much that they were right (they were right), as that they were there, and not so much that they were there but that they met, and were blessed hungering and thirsting for righteousness.

This is the difference between religious technology and blessing. Blessing is mysterious and transformative. A beatitude speaks it into being, but cannot define it so we could grasp and use it.

Blessing isn't about what other people are or do; it’s not about what you know; it’s about who you are. Blessing means that, like Paul’s loving dig at the opinionated Corinthians (cf. 1 Corinthians 1:18-31), that it is grace that gets us here rather than knowledge or power as usually conceived. Blessing hints at the fact that the structure of reality is the one shown by a cross and a resurrection, and where our notions of power and knowledge get reversed.

So no, I don’t know what these beatitudes means, but I know I need this blessing. And so do you.

[From a sermon given at the Berkeley Divinity School Community Eucharist, Marquand Chapel, Feb 1 2017; proper for Fourth Sunday after Epiphany]

Friday, January 06, 2017

Twelfth Night: The Manger and the Cross

S. Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna
[Sermon on the Eve of the Epiphany at the Chapel of the Cross, Chapel Hill, NC, with the Renewal of Ministry including the Installation of Elizabeth Marie Melchionna ('06) as Rector.]

Merry Christmas! I hope Christmas has been good for you, all twelve days, and here we are on Twelfth Night, the Eve of the Epiphany - so for the last time, Merry Christmas, and for the first, Happy Epiphany. This is a time between times, a hinge time as it were, and not just in our Church year but in our civil year as it starts and not least in the life of this parish as you welcome a new Rector.

W. H. Auden’s poem Christmas Oratorio includes a word picture of this time of transition:

Well, so that is that. Now we must dismantle the tree,
Putting the decorations back into their cardboard boxes --
Some have got broken -- and carrying them up to the attic.
The holly and the mistletoe must be taken down and burnt,
And the children got ready for school. There are enough
Left-overs to do, warmed-up, for the rest of the week --
Not that we have much appetite, having drunk such a lot,
Stayed up so late, attempted -- quite unsuccessfully --
To love all of our relatives, and in general
Grossly overestimated our powers. …
The Christmas Feast is already a fading memory,
And already the mind begins to be vaguely aware
Of an unpleasant whiff of apprehension at the thought
Of Lent and Good Friday which cannot, after all, now
Be very far off.

Auden evokes a familiar wistfulness and fatigue as the feast winds down; but at the end of that passage a more sobering note, that “unpleasant whiff of apprehension," is struck.

If there is always some moment of pause as Christmas draws to a close, this particular year we are starting together, and that you will face as a parish community with your new Rector, is not shaping up to be an easy one. The earth itself shakes under our unwieldy footsteps, and even climate witnesses to our arrogance or at least our lack of foresight. Acts of terror around the world, that add perversity to violence by being committed in the name of faith, seem to be worsening. Closer to home, many are wondering what standards or ethics will be shaping both executive and legislative leadership for this country this year and beyond, and how fragile our diversity may prove to be when voices of exclusion are given oxygen by political climate change.

Let’s put it this way - if we had to organize Christmas here next year, we might find ourselves in trouble. Shepherds are low-paid service workers, and might well be undocumented - we will have to hope that they haven’t been deported by then. The Magi, our Epiphany companions, are of rather higher status but are foreigners and their visa applications will have been thrown into doubt by our new policy of hiring only Americans; for that matter they actually come from Iran, so all deals involving Gold are off, even if Frankincense and Myrrh might slip through.

You may or may not see the signs of the times in quite these terms, and bless you in either case. But each year brings realities that map onto the universal truths of human need and brokenness, and speak of the need for hope in troubled times. For this the child came once and was manifest to the nations; now again we must seek his presence and make him known.

So for now Christmas goes, but Epiphany comes - this time when what Christmas had begun "how silently, how silently” now grows, and in this crescendo our holiday fatigue gives way to Gospel glory. For while Christmas began with a word that God spoke privately by an angel to a fearful woman, and continued as a rumor in the obscure fields and back alleys of Bethlehem, beyond the probing eye of kings and away from the curiosity of crowds, the time has now come for what was once told in whispers, or shared among unlikely poor folk lacking in influence, to be manifest to the world.

What is manifest is however no simple thing. There are still tidings of comfort and joy, but they come in a form none of us would have chosen, if those were the only criteria. That “whiff of apprehension” of which Auden spoke concerns the fact that the one born in poverty and under occupation will not only live among us with love we have not otherwise known and can barely imagine, but that the consequence of this will be that "Good Friday...cannot, after all, now Be very far off.” The wood of the manger will become the wood of the Cross. Or as the Dominican theologian Herbert McCabe put it, "if you don’t love, you’re dead; and if you do, they’ll kill you."

Another poet, T. S. Eliot, pondered this strange connection in another famous Epiphany poem, Journey of the Magi, where one of the wandering sages reminisces:

All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.

And this, we insist, is good news to proclaim, and the true way for our own journey; that this God-with-us is manifest not only to mysterious travelers, not just at his baptism, not just at his Transfiguration, but in his abandonment and his desolation and his death.

These are not things we seek, or should seek. But these mean that his presence and his love is manifest, not only in our moments of feasting and festivity, but in our deepest needs and in the hardest places: in Aleppo and in Istanbul, in our toughest neighborhoods, and on both sides of any walls, conceptual or literal, that are built to separate what and whom he would hold together. For in manifesting the triumph of God’s life over death, he allows hope to be manifest to our eyes even in these places, and calls us to them, like the Magi, to bring our gifts and worship him there, there, there - and here. You cannot worship him at the manger if you will not worship him in these crosses that the world continues to manifest.

And in this Renewal of Ministry tonight at this Chapel of the Cross, what is manifest in the world of him is unquestionably what you all this evening, along with Elizabeth Marie your Rector, are affirming your willingness to seek, to embody, to proclaim, privately and publicly, in workplace and home and public square, as well as in Church.

Your ministry here - yours Elizabeth Marie, and all of yours sisters and brothers - is needed, not just because we have religious urges, or because we enjoy dignified worship, or because it’s good to have a moral compass in life, or helpful to have a community, even if those things are all true. We need your ministry here for the same reason we needed the Word to become flesh and to reveal his glory - to manifest the profound, the unimaginable depths of the love of God for a world which is broken. You may at certain times overestimate your powers, or occasionally lose your appetite for all this - but the one who has called you is faithful and loving beyond our imaginings; come, let us do him homage.