Saturday, August 29, 2009

A Food Fight?

A colleague observed that it was odd that in the shortest of the Gospel accounts Mark devotes more than half a chapter to what might be described as a food fight. The argument between Jesus and the Pharisees wasn't, of course, only about food, but about washing hands and other matters of religious custom. Mark may have devoted so much attention to this area of conflict because his own community was struggling with the question of whether one had to be kosher in order to be Christian, but I doubt it.

What I see at the heart of this story of conflict in Mark 7 is Jesus' hope that people will focus on what really matters in a life lived in friendship with God. There may be nothing wrong with the religious customs to which the Pharisees adhered, but focusing so intently, even exclusively, on them was, as a friend once put it, "majoring in the minors." Rather than focusing on one's own scrupulous religious observance, Jesus calls us to focus on "the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith." (Matthew 23:23)

I see this conflict as nothing new, but as one that had been part of the life of Israel for centuries. Jesus stood in the great prophetic tradition of Israel:
  • Of Isaiah: Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.

  • Of Jeremiah: Thus says the LORD: Do not let the wise boast in their wisdom, do not let the mighty boast in their might, do not let the wealthy boast in their wealth; but let those who boast boast in this, that they understand and know me, that I am the LORD; I act with steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth, for in these things I delight, says the LORD.

  • Of Amos: I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals I will not look upon. Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

  • Of Micah: He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?

The great scholar of the Hebrew Scriptures Walter Brueggemann, in commenting on these words of Micah, said that we walk humbly with God not because God is so much greater than we are - which God is - but because that is how God walks with us. In the Incarnation, God became Immanuel, God with us, God with the last, the least, and the lost. And that is where God wants us to be as well.

George McLeod, founder of the Iona Community, called for this kind of engagement with the world, with the last, the least, and the lost when he wrote in Only One Way Left:

I simply argue that the cross be raised again at the center of the marketplace as well as on the steeple of the church. I am recovering the clam that Jesus was not crucified in a cathedral between two candles: but on a cross between two thieves; on a town garbage heap; at a crossroad of politics so cosmopolitan that they had to write His title in Hebrew and in Latin and in Greek. And at the kind of place where cynics talk smut, and thieves curse and soldiers gamble. Because that is where He died, and that is what he died about and that is where Christ’s people ought to be, and what church people ought to be about.

At the center of the marketplace? Where are those places in the here and now that McLeod -or Jesus - might want to see the cross raised? There are many, but one which I see is the debate over health care reform. The issues are clearly too complex for me to come up with the perfect plan, but what strikes me about the debate as I have watched it is that there seems to be little evidence of compassion, of the prophet's concern for justice for the poor in it. I have read the comments of Christians who assert that it is absolutely wrong to take their hard-earned money and use it to give health care to people who haven't earned it! Comments like that are a far-cry from the words of Jesus, "Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me." I have also found myself bristling when I hear the phrase socialized medicine. I never hear people speak of socialized education. or police and fire protection. or roads, or libraries. As a people we have decided that there are some things that need to be provided by all of us for all of us. Whether health care is one of them is still an open question, a question which we all can take part in answering. I hope that the answer we make as a people will reflect in no small measure the love of the One who is Immanuel, God with us, God with the last, the least, and the lost.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Painting With a Broad Brush

Two priests I know found themselves in the 1970s in the less-than-comfortable position of being on the opposite side on the issue of women's ordination from people with whom they had worked in the civil rights and peace movements. Another priest, with whom I stood shoulder-to-shoulder at anti-war rallies, is on the "other side" in the debates about same-sex relationships.

People, being people, often have convictions which are hard to figure out at first. In exchanges in the blogosphere, I often see this difficulty leading to unwarranted assumptions about other people's convictions. Someone assumes that the person who disagrees with the traditional interpretation of Scripture on same-sex relationships must also not believe in the Incarnation or the Resurrection. When I post comments on other people's blogs, I often find myself being accused of holding positions which I do not hold and which, usually, haven't even been part of the discussion.

Recently I posted a comment about bishops who were opposed to the ordination of women. What I said was that I thought it was wrong for a bishop's convictions to trump those of vestries that might want to call a woman as rector. That simple comment brought a response from one anonymous person about how I refused to admit that those bishops' convictions were shared by many people in the pews - after all, the bishops convictions were well-known when they were elected - and that many of those bishops and their diocesan conventions had voted to leave the Episcopal Church, and that the leadership of the Episcopal Church wanted to silence all dissent.

Whew! I wondered where that came from. Perhaps it came from the all-too-human temptation to categorize, to put folks into neat boxes, assuming that all the "liberals" hold identical convictions about everything. Perhaps it was simply laziness. As President Andrew Shepherd said near the end of The American President, "We've got serious problems, and we need serious people...This is a time for serious people...." Serious people take the time to listen and to understand others. Serious people understand that people are complicated and can't really be categorized and put into neat boxes. Serious people aren't satisfied with sound-bites and slogans, and want real conversation because real conversation holds out the promise of real solutions.

Becoming Bread

For four Sundays in August the Revised Common Lectionary Gospel reading was from the sixth chapter of the Gospel according to John and they were all about bread. Jesus is the bread of life, the living bread, the bread that came down from heaven.

Jesus’ teaching about bread was hard teaching and many disciples stopped following him. It was hard, I think, for two reasons. Some of those who heard Jesus said, "Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say, `I have come down from heaven'?” Familiarity, as they say, can breed contempt. These people knew who Jesus was and where he came from and they were certain that he had not come down from heaven!

But I think there is another deeper reason. Disciples are to become like their Rabbi and, if Jesus is living bread, aren’t his disciples to become bread as well? St. Augustine of Hippo grasped this when he said, “Through that bread and wine the Lord Christ willed to commend His Body and Blood, which He poured out for us unto the forgiveness of sins. If you receive worthily, you are what you have received.”

We are to become bread, each of us and all of us together.

And that’s a challenge for us because bread – the bread of the Eucharist, the bread that we are to become – is taken, blessed, broken and shared.

I think of these four actions as two pairs – bread is taken with thanksgiving – bread is broken to be shared.

Taken with thanksgiving: how often do we look at ourselves, our lives, and the life of our parish and give thanks? Far too often we are like Peter in the story at the end of the Fourth Gospel. When Jesus told him about the death he would die, Peter looked over at the disciple whom Jesus loved and asked, “What about him?” Far too often I wish had someone else’s good looks or money or talents and fail to give thanks for my life. Far too often members of churches look at another church and wish that their church could be like that church. If we are to become bread, if our parishes are to become bread, we need to embrace the life that God has given us with thanksgiving. This does not mean that we are to be stuck where we are, not growing, not open to God’s transforming power. We are, as we give thanks for the life that God has given us, to be about the business of discerning the purpose of that life. Why has God given me these particular gifts and placed me in this particular place? Why are these people with their gifts members of our parish? How are we to be bread here and now? Or, to put it another way, what kind of bread are we becoming?

Broken to be shared: this is even harder. We don’t really want our lives, our life together to be broken open for the sake of the world. But that is what God wants. This requires further discernment as we seek to discover how our particular gifts can be offered to others. In two parishes which I have served there were significant signs of the parishes’ being open to the wider community. In a parish I served in Massachusetts, the front doors of the parish church had been replaced by glass doors. People walking by on Sunday morning often stopped and looked in to see what we were doing. One of my dear friends wondered how many people had over the years stood on the doorstep in times of despair and found hope as they looked in and saw the lamp burning before the altar. Since 2001 the parish church here in East Aurora has been open round the clock during most of the year and I talked with people who have stopped in to pray in the middle of the night. These signs of being open aren’t, of course, enough. Our buildings can be open while we remain closed off, unavailable to anyone outside of a small circle of friends.

I believe God’s call to participate in the missio Dei, God’s mission of reconciliation, is a call for our parishes to become bread. To paraphrase Thomas Merton, each congregation is to become bread, the Body of Christ, in its own unique way, and when a congregation fails to become the bread that God is calling it to be, its wider community may go hungry.