Archives for the month of: February, 2014

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The history of discerning God’s will in the Judeo-Christian tradition is a history of moving further and further away from violence and closer and closer to a love that is all inclusive[i].  

Stretching the Objects of Our Love

Our first reading, written up to five centuries before Jesus, aims at limiting the brutality and increasing the love of those who were reading its words.  The author tells us for instance to leave some of the harvest for the poor and traveling foreigners, i.e. to moderate our greed in favor of those in need.  The author also tells us, “You shall not hate in your heart anyone of your kin.”  (Leviticus 19:17)  If one believes that our moral sensibilities evolve, then we understand perhaps why the author is not asking that we love everyone.  It is impossible enough to believe that we can love everyone in our extended families, so let’s start there.  Enemies can be dealt with more severely.

Stretching Some More

Jesus, who stood in this tradition, is pushing the envelope again.  In further attempting to extend love and temper violence, Jesus offers a “third way” between being passive in the face of evil and striking back violently against the perpetrators of evil. The thing that is so striking here is how creative Jesus is.  This creativity is a clue as to how this passage has shaped world history.  (We’ll come back to its historical effect later.)

Resist Lovingly (without Violence)

An extremely important word is missing in our English translations[ii].

“Do not [violently] resist an evildoer.” (Matthew 5:39)

It can almost be a knee jerk reaction to cower into passivity or to strike back in violence.  It can take an enormous amount of creative planning to pull off a non-violent act of loving resistance.

Social Inequities

“But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.” (Mt 5:39)

At the time of Jesus (and in our time too?), those who are higher up the chain of power have a “right” to humiliate someone of a “lower position.”  In Jesus’ day that meant a property owner, for instance, could slap a tenant farmer on the face.  Jesus says essentially, “You don’t need to fall to your knees in obeisance.  Refuse to be humiliated; no one can name you as less than.  Expose your other cheek as a way of showing that even by slapping that one too, you are not humiliated.  By interrupting the normal pattern of the culture, if even for a moment, the perpetrator will know that you are living a different reality.”  I remember once watching a woman at work who had been laid off.  She wore a big, beautiful hat (like one might wear to church) for the rest of the days she worked there, just typing away in her unbowed self. 

Economic Inequities

“…and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well.” (Mt. 5:40)

A rich person was able to take a poor person’s outer garment as collateral when the rich person loaned money to the poor person.  When the rich person was not paid back, he could take the poor person to court and collect the outer garment.  Jesus is essentially saying, “If he demands your outer garment, give him your undergarments as well.  Show him in front of the judge and everyone what he is doing.  Stand there without clothes and status in your simple, and yet great, status as a human being.  Perhaps your common humanity will touch the lender, whose system is making you even poorer.”  Note the point here is to longingly not violently point to a different set of values and alternative motivations for change.  The bus boycotts of Birmingham are great examples of this.  City Hall was not bombed by the oppressed.  Nor did they go passively on in the face of injustice.  They walked instead of riding the bus, thus bringing the city owned bus system to its knees.  Gandhi making salt from the sea and weaving his own clothes rather than buying these things from the British are other examples.  No violence against the British, but they were defeated anyway, while being treated like equals.

Abusive Power

“…and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile.” 
(Mt 5:41)

Soldiers were able to get away with abusing the population of the occupied territories—to a point.  Soldiers made Simon of Cyrene help Jesus with his cross.  “Do it because I said so!”  If they were to have whipped Simon for no reason at all several days in a row, they could have gotten in trouble for that so they wouldn’t do that.  They knew where the line was to protect their own skins.  So Jesus is essentially saying, “If a soldier says to carry his pack for a mile, walk further.  Double the distance.  This will mess up his head.  He might shift from having a domination experience to worrying about whether he is going to be the underdog here and get in trouble.  He might even wonder if instead of humiliation, you are introducing the idea of friendship.  He will in any case be able to see elements of a different system are at play.  Show him you are obeying a different set of rules.”

The Lunch Counter Sit-ins and the Marches to Selma are great examples of making a choice to do something non-violent, knowing that it will evoke a cognitive disturbance in the mind of the oppressors, eventually causing the oppressor to look in the mirror.

Tolstoy and Gandhi and King and Tutu…and You?

The great Russian writer, Leo Tolstoy, was greatly affected by this passage.  He spoke of the need for non-violent resistance to evil in his Letter to a Hindu, which Gandhi read while experiencing the oppressive atmosphere of segregation in South Africa.  This started a correspondence between the two.  We know how Gandhi put the truth of non-violent resistance into practice in India, love shaping the world more in the form of justice rather than violence trying to achieve justice.  Gandhi’s actions greatly influenced the decisions and behavior of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. of the US, and Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa.  Systems of oppression have fallen when these principles have been employed.

Communal Action

We can do this.  And like the examples given above, it is more effective and more creative when it is a group thinking through the appropriate actions to be done.  At a recent Call to Action conference (a Roman Catholic reform organization), someone called for a gathering of priests to meet.  It’s largely a lay organization, so perhaps the priests wanted to gather and ask how they could be helpful with the reform agenda.  Well, some “Roman Catholic Womenpriests” showed up at the meeting.  This was not what the male priests were expecting; but since the event was listed as a “gathering of priests,” the women decided this was an opportunity to shift consciousness and still stay in a place of dignity and love. 

When we become aware of injustice, we have this choice.  Do we remain passive and do nothing?  Do we clobber the offender with a cudgel or blow up their office?  Or do we think through how to creatively, lovingly shift the perspective and motivations of the evil-doer? Our choice! 

Sts. Clare & Francis
February 23, 2014
Seventh Sunday of the Year 
Leviticus 19:1-18 [somewhat focused upon]
1 Corinthians 3:10-23
Matthew 5:38-48 [main focus text]
Homily by Frank Krebs

Photo by Anna Fischer on flickr.com


[i] This is NOT to say that the OT (or the Jewish faith) is less about love than the NT.  It is just to say that there is a kind of growth of consciousness that can be seen over time.  There are certainly passages in the Hebrew Scriptures that point to universal love of humankind. 

[ii] I am using Warren Carter’s analysis and insights about this text.

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For the next few weeks our gospel readings come from the Sermon on the Mount.  This is holy ground which some call the constitution of the Christian faith.  The title of Fr. Richard Rohr’s book on the Sermon captures its scope – “Jesus’ Plan For A New World.”

The problem with entering a new world is getting away from the old one.  The need to deconstruct the world we create for ourselves is seen in the rhythm of the Sermon.  Six time Jesus says “You have heard…….., but I say…..”   Sometimes it is not enough to say what is true.  Sometimes we need to identify and deconstruct what is in the way of what is true.  If Jesus was talking to us today what would be in the way of what is true?  What is in the way of what needs to be built in us?

Deconstructing False Systems

What makes the world we construct so resilient?  Once we adopt a system of thought it is very difficult to change.  Political consultants call this “framing.”  Once we frame an issue in our minds, such as a political or religious issue today, we then filter new information to be consistent with our frame.  You may think the Obama administration is a “socialist disaster” or “change we can believe in,” but regardless you will interpret new information consistent with your chosen narrative.  In my business, jury selection can take a long time because lawyers are trying to discern how potential jurors frame the issues in the case so they can select the jurors with the right framing.

So it makes sense for Jesus to get out the sledge hammer in the Sermon.  None of the dominant narratives of his time were spared.  To the tribal narrative Jesus says forget your silly boundaries and love your enemies.  To those seeking feudal lords to protect them he says make no oaths at all, never give away your loyalty or your integrity whether to a castle on the hill or a factory down the road.  To the patriarchy Jesus calls for more a new morality and more equality in matters such as divorce.  To the system where the tribe or family competes for honor and seeks to elevate itself by shaming others and must retaliate to maintain honor, Jesus says nobody can touch you, nobody can shame your true self, so turn the other cheek, walk the extra mile.  Be free.

A More Personal Sermon

Now let’s imagine Jesus sat down with each of us for our own personal sermon on the mount.  What would Jesus deconstruct of the religious/cultural identity we have built?  What narrative do we have about God and ourselves that needs to be reframed?

Perhaps Jesus would start big and say “you have heard it said that your faith tradition surpasses all others and that your country is exceptional in God’s plan, but I say to you my Father shows no partiality, that my life resides in all humanity equally.”  Perhaps he would look at what we have been taught about our salvation, that we have heard it said that we have been born in sin, cut off from God, helpless without a rescue, but Jesus says to us that we were made in the image of God and the immortal diamond of God’s light is and always has been in us.  Perhaps He would say “you have heard it said over and over that you are what you produce, that getting attention is what matters, but I say to you look for the truth in the eyes of those at the margins of life who cannot produce.”  I can imagine Jesus continuing in this rhythm about “what we have heard” vs. “what He would say” about gender, orientation, race, the Bible etc.

But what if Jesus then looked even deeper at us like a friend who knows us inside out, who knows the narratives we carry around?  Maybe His voice would grow gentle and say you have heard it said over and over that nothing you do is ever good enough, but I say to you I love you just the way you are.  You have said to yourself over and over that you are guilty of something shameful, but I say to you I do not see you that way, I cannot even remember such things.  You have come to believe that you get your value from such things as helping others, from needing to be right, from being creative or from being successful, but I say to you these things are all well and good, but these things can be gone in an instant, your value cannot be measured by these things.

I hope and pray for you and for me that exposure to the Sermon these weeks will help us see the narratives about God and about ourselves that need some deconstruction.  I am sure we all have places within where we need to make room for what is true.  May this Eucharist help us feel the grip of a spiritual hammer and get to work.

Amen

George von Stamwitz

Sts. Clare & Francis Ecumenical Catholic Communion
Liturgy for the 6th Sunday of Ordinary Time
Saturday Evening, February 15, 2014
Focus Text – Matthew 5: 20-34 (portions of the Sermon on the Mount)

Photo by DarrelBirkett on flickr.com

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My focus is this reading from Paul to the Corinthians tonight.  And to unpack it I want to look at an image from ancient Christian art that should help milk the reading’s meaning for us.  Here’s the quote from Paul that I’m focusing on:

“For what human being knows what is truly human except the human spirit that is within? So also no one comprehends what is truly God’s except the Spirit of God.” 
1 Cor 2:11

Here is the image from early Christian art.  It’s of the head of Christ, looking very regal and holding up his hand with two fingers extended as if giving a blessing.  You have perhaps seen this image. 

The first thing to know about this work of art is that it was based on an image of Caesar that was common at the time.   So the early Church was saying Caesar is not our ruler; Jesus Christ is.  This is huge.  And it still has relevance for us today.  Some people for instance think that a latter day Caesar, “Invisible Hand of Capitalism,” will guide us to peace and prosperity; it will be the answer to world poverty for instance.  Yet we know that the economics of the Reign of God are quite different from the economics of greed and hording and dominating.  So the fact that God is given God’s rightful place (above any Caesar) is a good thing. 

Judeo-Christian Blessings Are Not Top-Down

However we need to be careful when using an image of Caesar to portray the Christ.  Why?  Because everything about Caesar’s worldview is top-down.  Caesar is pictured as being the source of all blessings in trickledown fashion for all of humanity.  While God is definitely totally awesome and beyond even the imaginings of humans, God creates communion not domination.   

For the Hebrews the concept of blessing was not a one-way street.  The experience of worship was one where the people “blessed” God, and God “blessed” the people.  It was mutual, an experience of love flowing back and forth between persons. 

The early Christians understood this.  Their experience of God was that of having their own deepest selves mixing freely with God’s own deepest Self in an intimate participation in love and partnership.  (That is the meaning of Paul’s quote above.)  But the reality is even deeper than that. 

The Two Natures of Christ Point to Our True Natures

As the early Christians took in this image of Christ, with his two fingers raised, they gave meaning to those two extended fingers of Christ, a meaning that came out of this deep understanding of blessing that they had.  They saw those two fingers as a symbol, a reminder, of the two natures of Christ, human and divine.  They understood Jesus to be “true God and true human,” as the creed says.  Jesus lived as a human; Jesus lived as God.  This is not just a cold “dogma” that Christians assent to but that has no practical difference in our lives.  This is right at the core of why we are attracted to Christianity at all.

We are invited to live at the same level as Christ.  The two natures of Christ is a pattern that we ourselves are invited into.  It isn’t just that our spirit mixes with the Divine Spirit at a time of worship.  It is that God allows us to participate in God’s own life.  It’s one thing to be in the presence of God and to be loved by God; it is another thing to be living God’s own life.  Such is the blessing that we experience.

We are never alone.  We are never without resources.  Paul tells us in this passage from First Corinthians: “… no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the human heart conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him.”  This is a key conviction we have in the midst of darkness, in the midst of what feels like the imprisonment of our frail humanity, in the midst of life’s crucifixions.  Someone is alive within us Who is not us but Who in some mysterious way is not other than us either.  We are sharing her life.  Living in that reality is a different kind of life.

Epiphany 5A

Sts. Clare & Francis
Fifth Sunday of the Year
Saturday, February 9, 2014
Isaiah 58:1-9a
Roman Catholic reading: Isaiah 58:7-10
1 Corinthians 2:1-12, (13-16)
Matthew 5:13-16
Homily by Frank Krebs

Photo by Derek Davalos on flickr.com

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Tonight we see a young family going to the Temple to present their first-born son to God as required by their tradition.  Unlike the wealthy or connected, they received no special perks.  They were nobodies from nowhere.  They lined up to buy birds to sacrifice rather than plump lambs.  There is no evidence in the text that angels were singing or halos appeared around the heads of the family.  It was a typical bustling, noisy day at the Temple.  Yet two senior citizens, Simeon and Anna, recognized the Christ of history in the child’s obscure humanity.

Simeon and Anna share the fundamental attribute of a disciple – they see the eternal in the ordinary.  The modern Jewish mystic, Joel Michaelson, defines himself as “as spark of God masquerading as me.”  Our two disciples took very different paths to this seeing this spark.  Let’s see if our paths intersect theirs.

Having Faith in My Experience

Simeon represents that disciple that embraces the magic and mystery of the present moment because he believes his experience.  As a younger man he received a word from God that he would not die until he saw the promised Messiah.  Decades go by.  I wonder how many times he doubted his experience.  In our text he was just passing by when he saw the infant Jesus and it clicked!  His experience really is true!  He is not crazy.  His earlier experience of God was not a fake.  He is lost in the moment and out pours a gorgeous prayer beginning with the statement that he can die now in peace for “mine eyes have seen your salvation.”

Have you, like Simeon, had an experience of God earlier in life that you have spent the rest of your life growing into?  I bet you have.  The spiritual writer James Finley says it is very common that some point in our lives we experience God for real and that experience is a touchstone for the rest of our journey.  This experience is like a pair of glasses to see the world in a new way.  We use the experience to recognize and test other glimpses of the infinite.  In our weakness the glasses gather dust because we doubt our experience is true.

Simeon’s pathway to seeing calls us to trust our experience.  We will not face the struggles of life with grace and love because of a doctrine or a dogma.  We will not retain hope through cancer because of what someone else experienced or because we received all the right sacraments.  No, we need to know for ourselves.  We need to believe our experience for ourselves and so we can recognize the spark in common humanity and sing Simeon’s song.

Seeing Though Doing

Anna’s pathway to seeing is a bit different.  She is described as a prophet, a very rare position for a women in those days.  She has been living in the Temple her entire adult life.  She is a doer – she gets up every day to teach, to pray to fast and serve the people who comes to the Temple.  In the midst of her day, she recognizes Jesus as the Messiah, gave thanks, and got right back to work telling everyone about Jesus.

Anna reminds me of a book about Mother Theresa called “Something Beautiful for God.”  This book combined mysticism and action in a new way for me.  The sisters in Calcutta found Jesus in the everyday work of serving the dying.  Finding God in life was no mystery for them – do the loving work of God and you will run into Jesus. Like Anna, they do their loving work, they see Jesus, they give thanks, and they get back to work.

Theologians are starting to find words for this reality of finding God in action.  They ask whether God is better understood as an object or a verb?  Peter Rollins addresses this question in one way or another in all his books:  “God must not be approached as an object we must love, but as a mystery present in the very act of love itself.”  (See his book “Idolatry of God”).  Anna’s relentless, incremental action has her running into God on a regular basis, so she can see when the Christ shows up!

In my reading I came across a story where Simeon energy and Anna energy coincide.  The Republican Convention of 1860 was high drama as four candidates represented different approaches to slavery.  Thousands of Annas had day by day, task by task worked to abolish slavery.  Thousands more had, like Simeon, experienced a God incompatible with slavery.  Abraham Lincoln was the moderate candidate that many of these disciples hoped would be able to press the issue nationally.  After several tense votes the delegates remained divided, until four delegates from Ohio suddenly switched their votes from Salmon Chase to Lincoln.  This switch created a wave that gave Lincoln the nomination.  As soon as Ohio voted many disciples saw in this very human event a glimpse of something infinite.  Some wept, but one delegate spontaneously proclaimed in the loudest of voices the prayer of Simeon concluding, “Now Lord let thy servant depart in peace, for these eyes of mine have seen your salvation.”

Does this text inform how we can see God more clearly in common humanity?  Can we help each other believe in our experience of God that informs our seeing?  Can we have faith that the daily loving of our partners, our families, our faith community, our world is a pathway to seeing?  The liturgical candles we have used tonight for this feast remind us that a spark of divine life lives in everyone.  May this Eucharist help us locate out inner Simeon, our inner Anna, so that we might see this spark of light.

Amen

George von Stamwitz

Sts. Clare & Francis Ecumenical Catholic Community

Saturday Evening, February 1, 2014

Liturgy for the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord

Focus Text: Luke 2:26-40 (Simeon and Anna recognize Jesus)

Photo by Tomas Carrillo on flickr.com