Archives for the month of: September, 2013

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Difficult Words Unpacked

Today’s gospel from Luke is a little vexing.  Jesus appears to be praising the “dishonest manager.”  In fact he is just saying that the dishonest manager wasshrewd from the perspective of his economic world view.  Then he challenges us to be shrewd from the perspective of a more expansive economic world view, the Kingdom of God.  After that Jesus says another puzzling thing: “And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealthso that when it is gone, they may welcome you into eternal homes.” (Luke 16:9)  What does this mean?  To try to answer that, I want to describe what I call thebig picture economic system.  Then I want to compare that to our present market economic system.  Finally I’ll take a stab at answering what the point of all this is.  Here we go.

Big Picture Economy

If we look at the big picture of how the good things of life come to us (i.e., the real economy), we see a pattern of pure gift.  The world simply produces things out of a continual abundance.  Seeds are planted by birds.  Rain provides water for the growth of plants.  Bees pollinate the plants.  All of this is “free of charge.”  Food is available for us and indeed for all species out of the good earth and its rich waters.  If we keep looking at the big picture, we find mothers of more complex species providing for their young, e.g. mammals breast feeding.  Free of charge.  Human parents provide food to their children without charging. Grandparents babysit without charging.  The big picture is a cosmic economy of abundance, given-ness and sharing[i].  Long before humans and for a while after humans appeared, this system prevailed.

Furthermore, my basic experience of life, which the simple act of contemplative meditation opens me up to, is that I am constantly on the receiving end of life coming from outside of me as a complete unearned gift.  My last breath is mine in a sense, but it did not come from me.  It quickly becomes me as the oxygen courses through my circulatory system.  You could say that I am analogous to an electric fan that only “experiences” itself because of its connection to the power grid.  There is no fanning without my being a part of something greater.  Upon paying attention to my life I see that I am in many ways connected to this whole system, inseparable from it, and continually benefiting from it.  As I go deeper into this reality I sense the loving presence of what I believe to be Source of it all; I’m touched and moved to gratitude.  This is why the ancients had thanksgivings after harvests.  We don’t always hear those Alleluia’s at Schnucks,[ii]so I thought I would remind us of this tonight.  We’ll come back to this important sense of gratitude in a moment.

The Market, A Different System

While domestic life tends to perpetuate this system of egalitarian participation in all that the family has, the marketplace rarely does.  The big banks that control the capital of the world do not have as a primary aim making sure that everyone has enough.  Their aim is that their investors get even more money in the process; their goal is that those who have will have even more.  It is widely understood that this is the investors’ motivation for participating: making more money.  Many feel that this is the only motivation that makes the whole market work; the chance of having even more money.  Notice though that it is not a system designed to provide, modeled on the abundant earth and how it functions.  The market is a system that is at its core designed to acquire.  If this market system were imbued with the values of the big picture economy (described above), it would be a system determined to provide. 

Of course the narrative that the market economy tells is that it is in fact providing, that as its participants do their business, goods are distributed and others are making money to live on.  But the market provides in a way that disproportionately distributes the goods of the one earth to those who already “own” most of it to begin with[iii].  And so we see lately new evidence that the rich are getting richer and the poor poorer and, not only that but, at an increasing rate.[iv]

What Does This Mean?

What is fundamentally missing is congruence between the pattern of the abundant earth, authored and sustained by the mystery of Providence, and the machinations of the market economy.  This is why the evangelist Luke in tonight’s gospel refers to wealth as being problematic.  We tend to earn wealth through a system that is literally un-godly because it has opted out of the big picture.  So Jesus in Luke’s gospel is challenging us, “What are you going to do with the money that you have acquired through this system?  Are you going to make a choice to get more in line with the values of the big picture economy, the universe that is striving to keep all of life thriving.  Or is it just going to be about accumulating while others people and other species go without?  We cannot serve the goals of each of these two economic perspectives at the same time because they are contradictory.  This is what Jesus in Luke means by, “You cannot serve God and wealth.”  He is asking us to think about the primary purpose of the money we have.  (Notice too that the first reading from Amos testifies to the fact that the Hebrew tradition was always concerned about the unequal distribution of wealth.)

We Are Not Made to Hoard

When we realize that our life has always been a precious gift, gratitude wells up within us.  This is the beginning of the desire to give.  I said before that I could be analogous to an electric fan.  It would be better to say that I am called to be more like a wind turbine.  In that analogy I freely receive the wind; I freely give the electric power.  It is all meant to flow through me not to be hoarded within me.  In this way I imitate the mysterious Visitor whom I find residing deep within me.  She has given me everything I have; the gratitude I sense is the beginning of Her workings, urging me to keep up the giving pattern. 

September 21, 2013
Twenty-fifth Sunday of the Year
Sts. Clare & Francis ECC
Amos 8:4-7
1 Timothy 2:1-8
Luke 16:1-13
Homily by Frank Krebs

Photo by Ojie Paloma on flickr.com


[i] I don’t mean to overly romanticize this; I understand that the “food chain” can be violent.  We are a people who believe we can move beyond violence; but that’s another discussion.

[ii] A local grocery chain.

[iii] Of course I put “own” in quotes because the Judeo-Christian tradition is that only God owns the earth.  We are simply its stewards or managers.

path

These three readings this evening go together very well.  

They all speak about humans who lost their way and found their way back to a way of life that was more genuinely life-giving than where they had wandered.  The Israelites in the first reading from Exodus get off the path; they thought it would be easier to relate to a god of their making; it was easier, but not as life-giving.  Paul in the second reading tells Timothy in the second reading about how he (Paul) has been lost in a life of violence (violating others including killing) and how he finally found the path.  Jesus, in tonight’s gospel passage, is accused of spending too much time with those who were “off the path.”  He explains that there is a special joy in finding what had been lost.

These readings invite us to reflect on our experience of this mystery, our experience of wandering from the path.  For some reason it is difficult for many of us to admit that we have lost our way.  That is certainly true for me; I get pretty defensive when someone suggests my behavior is not up to standard.  My ego wants to be viewed as perfect in every way.  I wonder if this aversion is what is behind a certain reticence to allow the vocabulary of “failure” or “being in the wrong” to enter into our contemporary religious conversations.  Most of us come from a tradition that used to make a big deal out of “confession.”  Today, not so much.  Some of us wince at the words from an ancient hymn, “Amazing grace! How sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me!”  A wretch?  Please, I’m not going to identify as a wretch!

A Wretch?

Well, let’s take a look at this.  John Newton, the author of that hymn, was the captain of a slave ship.  He was a violent man; he participated in the enslavement of human beings, robbing them of their freedom.  He had the insight to realize this and saw himself as a wretch.  That was a good thing, right?  Wouldn’t it have been better for thousands of people’s financial security if Bernie Maedoff had realized he was a wretch and done an about face?  Wouldn’t it have been better if Ariel Castro had realized he was a wretch and stopped this behavior after holding the first woman hostage?

So maybe my being so defensive and needing to be seen as perfect is not such a good thing—if it is stopping me from changing and growing where I need to.

A Wretch…to the Core?

Now, on the other hand, Ariel Castro took his own life in prison, perhaps because he saw himself as a wretch.  That’s different.  There is nothing about our understanding of God that I’m aware of that would cause us to see ourselves as worthless or somehow at our core despicable.  (I believe the opposite to be true!) What we are saying in these moments of insight is that our behavior was wretched, and that we own it as our behavior.  In that moment because of the intense feeling we may not be too careful about how we express ourselves; but we know there is something about ourselves that we want to change.  We are capable of getting off the path; we are capable of returning to the path when we wander.

I had a marvelous experience as a priest many years ago when a man came to confession.  He avoided the normal formalities and simply announced, “I’ve been a son-of-a-bitch.”  He hadn’t been to confession for a long time and confessed all the things he was aware of that he had done wrong.  He wanted to change.  I invited him “for his penance” to follow me into church and kneel down with me to pray for a few minutes.  I intuited that the body-memory of kneeling down might help him know he was “back on the path.”  He cried like a baby as soon as his knees hit the kneeler.  Calling himself a son-of-a-bitch was a good thing; it was an insight.  Knowing that he was on a much more profound level a different kind of son was a better thing altogether.

The Message for Us

The witness of thousands of years of Christianity, Judaism, and Buddhism (to name three) tell us that we should not be surprised that we wander from the path of doing what is true (The Hebrew word for “sin” means “missing the mark.”).  Our Jewish friends just celebrated Yom Kippur.  Buddhists know all about how the “water buffalos they are raising” (namely their own selves) tend to wander from the path.  Christian around the world this evening are invited to “come to our senses” like the son in the gospel and go back home where we are able to enjoy the love that has been there looking for us all along.

This meal we are about to celebrate is meant to echo the feast that is pictured in the gospel.  God is putting a royal robe on us “wretches” and calling us sons and daughters and feeding us like we’ve never been fed before.  This experience of love is meant to penetrate our being.  There is a strange paradox at play here.  (Many of you are aware that Carl Jung talks about this in terms of the “shadow self.”)  The more we love the part of us that “gets off the path,” the less likely we are to wander from the path.  So we are really invited to love ourselves the same way God loves us—unconditionally.  And then the dynamic continues.  As we love ourselves unconditionally—despite our wanderings—we are more able to love others who are not perfect either.  Good thing, becauseno one is perfect.  So unless we want to be alone for the rest of our lives, this is a good way to go!

September 15, 2013
24th Sunday of the Year
Sts. Clare & Francis
Exodus 32:7-11, 13-14
1 Timothy 1:12-17
Luke 15:1-32
Homily by Frank Krebs

Photo by Michael B. on flickr.com

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The Readings

The first reading tonight from Wisdom reminds us that God thinks on a higher plane than we do; we can never assume we have nothing to learn from God.  That will be important in understanding tonight’s message.

The gospel for tonight reminds us that we have to be careful about assuming that our identity comes from how we are socio-economically connected.  That will be key for tonight’s message as well.

But I want to zero in on the second reading this evening.  With our work with Father Dickson’s Cemetery and our concern with the mass incarceration of people of color in the US, this text begs to be unpacked.  This is one of the oldest existing letters that we have from Paul, and it is the shortest.  It is written to one person especially, Philemon.

The Letter to Philemon in Particular

Philemon is apparently a wealthy man in Colossae, who has a large house where the local church meets.  Philemon has at least one slave, Onesimus, a “slave name” which means “useful.”  Sad isn’t it.  Maybe a third of the population in Roman times was enslaved.  They were, as Onesimus’ name suggests, animated tools for their enslavers.

When slaves become  Christian, they are treated as equals within the church; but in terms of their life outside the church, their slavery continues.  Christians were able to see that status distinctions did not count in their relations with one another; but they did not know how to wrap their arms around social change except through violent social upheaval, which they disavowed.  So to be a slave and to be a Christian meant that at least in church circles the slave was “an equal.”

Appealing to Escape Possible Death

If a slave did something wrong, say broke a vase, he/she could be severely punished.  They could appeal, under Roman law[i], by turning to someone who was the social superior to the slave holder.  Onesimus is apparently appealing to Paul, who as an apostle is “socially superior” to Philemon.  (I put “socially superior” in quotes because on the one hand, Paul argues against ranking people; but on the other hand he seems to be “pulling rank” here in his argument for Onesimus’ life.)

Paul is Advocating

This is a letter about Paul stepping in to be an ally of, an advocate for, an enslaved human person who could easily be killed.  Paul flatters Philemon, the slaveholder.  He cajoles him.  He reminds him that in some way Philemon owes his own life to Paul (it is not clear why).  At a time in human consciousness where it was all but impossible to think of “social systems critique,” Paul pushes the envelope as far as one could.  He argues not just that Onesimus be forgiven, and be received back, but that he be freed!  Paul makes it very clear that he does not just want Onesimus to be treated equally “in church” but everywhere in his life.  (See vs. 16, “both in the flesh and in the Lord.”)  Paul says he doesn’t want to coerce Philemon, but instead wants Philemon to do this out of love.  But, perhaps because he is arguing for Onesimus’ life, he wavers.  The letter is written to Philemon, but he wants it read in front of the whole church!  (Social pressure!)  And then in the end, he even expects obedience from Philemon.  (“Confident of your obedience, I am writing to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say.” vs. 21)

Notice the Language

The language that most stands out for me is that Paul refers to Onesimus as his child (a tender reference one would never expect toward a slave and which might mean that Paul is Onesimus’ father in the faith, i.e., baptized him), as his brother (how Paul saw all members of the church, namely as brothers and sisters), as his “heart” (a way of pointing to a deep love he has for this person, Onesimus), and then finally as his very self (“So if you consider me your partner, welcome him as you would welcome me.” vs. 17)  This is the interior “mind of Christ” awareness that undergirds Paul’s request for freedom.  It is what motivates him—utter respect and love for Onesimus.  This is the nugget, the take-away for us this evening.

Today’s Context

We live in a different time where we are able to do a social critique and to imagine systemic solutions.  But the “mind of Christ” that allows us to look at the enslaved person and to see our child, our sibling, our heart, our very selves is what impels us today to stay motivated in the work of justice.  This is our child who is sitting in an inadequate school.  This is our sibling who has inadequate resources to take on the criminal justice system.  This is our heart that has no access to healthcare.  This is our very self who rummages for food.

We may be called in our lives (that is, we may be shown opportunities and have sense a tug inside us) to champion someone in need—maybe even to “pull rank” as the culture understands rank.  But we do it because we have refused to see this desperate person as on a lower rank than ourselves.  Christ has shown me, as Christ showed Paul, that I am in some deep way not other than this person.  There is a bond, which Christ will not let me forget, which Christ will not let me pretend I do not know.

No, we can never assume we have nothing to learn from God.  And, no, our socio-economic network is not our deepest identity.   We are discovering a thoroughgoing, inner transformation that leads to (and in an amazing way comes from) things like our Communal Work of Service.  This is just where I want to be.  You?


[i] I am getting most of my information about this epistle from Borg and Crossan’s First Paul.  I am also relying on some information at WorkingPreacher.org by Christian A. Eberhart, Professor of New Testament Studies, University of Saskatchewan, Canada.

23rd Week of the Year
Sts. Clare & Francis
September 7, 2013
Wisdom 9:13-18
Philemon 1-21
Luke 14:25-33
Homily by Frank Krebs

Photo by Casey Konstantín on flickr.com

Photo by Brian Siewiorek at Flickr.com

The tradition puts us in a tough spot today.  Most of the Christian virtues, like patience, kindness and mercy, connect with us at a deep, intuitive level.  But humility?  Not so much.  We do not send our loved ones into the world wishing them a “humble day.”  We do not look forward to parent/teacher conferences hoping we will hear how humble our child is.  We cheer when the humble step up and fight for justice.  In this connected world we have taken self-esteem and self-promotion to new levels.

What actually is humility?  A recurring definition comes from the Last Supper when Jesus washed the feet of his disciples.  The text says Jesus knew “where he had come from and where he was going” and then prepared to humbly serve.  Humility has something to do with knowing who we truly are.  The good news from the gospel today is that humility is something we can practice – like scales on a piano. Jesus invites us today to practice humility and create room for who we truly are.

Practicing the Presence of God

It is interesting that in today’s gospel Jesus does not tell the disciples to be humble.  Rather he tells them to look for opportunities to do humble things, such as taking the lower position at a status conscious event (like certain meals in Jesus’ day).  Since the disciples should know where they came from and where they are going they do not need to play status games.  Another example Jesus provides is to invite people over for dinner who do not increase our status and who cannot reciprocate.  Our true self does not need to conspire for honor.  We are free to choose humility.

But there is a dynamic here deeper than freedom.  Doing humble acts is like practicing scales to play piano in the symphony that is God.  It is practicing the presence of God.  It sounds odd to say it out loud, but God is humble.  There are images everywhere in the songs and prayers of the tradition of a great and powerful God that, in short, are not very humble.  That is why Jesus was, and is, so difficult for people and why imaging God as Love is so critical.  God is patient and kind, not jealous or boastful, not arrogant or rude.  God does not insist on getting God’s own way.  God believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.  (1 Corinthians 13.)  Practicing humility puts us on the same frequency as a humble God.

We also know doing humble acts is practicing the presence of God from our own experience.  Whenever we glimpse the infinite in our finite world, whether it be seeing children at play, a flock of birds descending, a vulnerable moment with a friend, a piece of music or art, a moment of deep prayer, the moment of awareness is always humbling! At these moments we know we had nothing at all to do with the awareness.  We did not produce it; it was given.  In these moments of love and clarity our worries, passions and immediate desires are exposed to be so small. Our preconceptions of reality are revealed as so inadequate.  Humility is always part of the package when we experience the infinite God in our finite world.

A few weeks ago (August 10th) the readings challenged us to sit down and get reacquainted with our false selves – that part of us that is our outer container that is compelled to protect us, promote us and project us into the world.  This is not our true self, it is not humble.  The great news is that the false self is very uncomfortable with humility!  It retreats from humble acts, creating room for the true self to grow.  When we do what Jesus says in this gospel we get as close as we can to a “false-self free zone” and we get a good look at our true selves.

A Modern Take on Jesus’ Instruction on Humility

If humility is practicing the presence of God then we should see evidence outside our tradition as well.  The philosopher Eckert Tolle in his classic “The New Earth,” has a modern take on practicing humility as a path to more conscious living.  Although he does not write from a specifically Christian perspective, he loves this gospel reading on humility.  He says we do not have to look for opportunities to perform a humble act – life has a way of bringing to us humbling events where we are at times embarrassed, rejected or neglected. Tolle recommends a practice to intentionally avoid reacting with outrage, anger and retaliation at these times and be alert to how the humility feels. He says if we practice this a few times we “come to realize that nothing REAL has been diminished.” In fact he says we will find more room inside and it is much more effective to pursue justice from this “roomier” position.

We were at home “channel surfing” the other evening and saw the end of the movie “Sweet Home Alabama” with Reese Witherspoon that echoes Tolle.  It is a love triangle movie where Reese leaves the very good looking, very connected guy from the big city at the altar and goes back to her childhood sweetheart.  The hunk was played by Patrick Dempsey (of Grey’s Anatomy fame) and he is the type that never gets left at the altar.  He reacts to the embarrassing rejection with grace and almost mystical awareness that it was healthy for him to spend time contemplating on how this feels.  He got bigger.  His mother was there and played the role of the false self, reacting in outrage at the indignity of the rejection and inciting modest violence.  She got smaller.  This is a great picture of what Tolle is talking about.

Inside each of us is someone who knows where we came from and where we are going.  This is who we truly are.  Practicing acts of humility as Jesus suggests is a way to create room for this part of ourselves.  Let’s help each other learn to create room for the presence of God.

Amen

George von Stamwitz

Homily – Creating Room For Reality

Sts. Clare & Francis Ecumenical Catholic Community

Saturday evening,  August 31, 2013

Liturgy for the 22nd Sunday of Ordinary Time

Focus text: Luke 14:7-14 (“choosing the lower place”)

 

Photo by Brian Siewiorek at Flickr.com