Our Lenten Call to Mysticism (Sunday Homily)

Enlightened Jesus

Readings for 2nd Sunday of Lent: GN 12:1-4A; PS 33: 4-5, 18-19, 20, 22; 2 TM 1: 8B-10; MT 17: 1-9

Last week my homily centered on the stages of human development as described by Ken Wilber. His analysis is relevant again on this Second Sunday of Lent, which centralizes Jesus’ Transfiguration. Matthew’s account presents a literally enlightened Jesus. The Master is suddenly filled with brightness. His face shines like the sun; his garments become white as snow.

Jesus’ transfiguration is a call to an engaged Christian mysticism that is both deeply spiritual and ferociously active on behalf of the poor and oppressed among us. Given our world’s current crisis, that connection between the spiritual and activist dimensions of our faith could not be more timely.

Begin with Ken Wilber. You might recall that he understands the evolutionary process we are all called to traverse as starting with egocentrism, passing through ethnocentrism, advancing to world-centrism, and possibly arriving at Cosmo-centrism.

The world of the egocentric is that of children and childish adults. It is governed by magic and expresses itself in a pre-conventional morality. Before the age of seven or so, children believe in Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy; they have little sense of morality.  Some have accused President Trump of inhabiting this space.

For their parts, and politically speaking, the ethnocentric identify with their national and/or religious tribe. Their world is governed by myth and exhibits a conventional morality. The morality of the ethnocentric is dictated by custom, and cultural expectations. Perhaps 40 to 70 percent of the world is ethnocentric.

In fact, many of us get stuck at ethnocentric stage – or even at egocentrism. Politically, socially, and economically, we’re pretty conventional people, and cannot understand those at more advanced stages of development.

The politics of world-centric people have moved beyond tribe and its religion. Their world is governed by reason, rather than by magic or myth. Their morality is post-conventional. For them, self-interest, national laws and religious prohibitions can be transcended by the demands of a larger sense of justice and love. All the great prophets (secular as well as religious) had no trouble breaking laws they considered inhumane. They were boundary-crossers who (in Jesus’ words) recognized that the Sabbath was made for human beings, not the reverse.

The cosmic-centered have entered the realm of Enlightened Masters like the Buddha or Jesus as depicted in today’s gospel. They embody the four basic insights of mysticism found in all the world’s Great Religions: (1) There resides a spark of the divine within every human being, (2) That spark can be realized (i.e. make a real difference in daily life), (3) It is the purpose of life to do so, and (4) Once that happens, the enlightened one begins to see the same spark in every other human being and in all of creation.

Cosmic-centered mystics are governed by compassion. They empathize with the egocentric, ethnocentric, and world-centric. They realize that they themselves have passed through those more primitive stages. They know that those behind them cannot even fathom the realities, joys, and ecstasies experienced by those at higher stages. They forgive rather than blame.

Wilber estimates that possibly 7% of humans today have reached Cosmo-centric consciousness. Only 10% is necessary, he says, for reaching a tipping point where cosmic-centered realities will be generally accepted as the leading edge of evolution.

In today’s gospel selection, Jesus enters that mystical realm, but he does so in a way that recognizes the need for action on behalf of God’s chosen people – the poor and oppressed. Jesus escapes the realm of time, where only the NOW exists and the illusions of past and future disappear. As a result, he’s able to converse with like-minded mystics (Moses and Elijah) from his people’s ancient past. Both of them emphasize the social justice imperative.

Moses, remember, was the great liberator who led a slave rebellion against Egypt’s pharaoh 1200 years before the birth of Jesus. Like Jesus and his companions, Moses ascended a mountain to receive God’s revelation. Elijah was the 9th century BCE prophet who specialized in speaking truth to power. Both Jesus and his mentor, John the Baptist, were considered reincarnations of Elijah.

Jesus “conversing” with Moses and Elijah represents the conviction of the early church that a strong continuity existed between the Jewish Testament’s “old story” and the new one embodied in the Enlightened Jesus.

Accordingly, Jesus was the new liberating Moses. His law of love and compassion epitomized the fulfillment of Sinai’s covenant. Jesus was the new courageous Elijah – uncompromising in his siding with the poor – the widows, orphans, and immigrants.

As both the new Moses and Elijah reincarnated, the transfigured and enlightened Jesus insists on the indispensability of activism informed by transforming spirituality. And he does so in the face of acute knowledge about his fast-approaching premature death. (Jesus references that in the concluding words in today’s gospel episode: “Tell no one of this vision until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”)

What can all of that mean for us today – on this second Sunday in Lent? I think it means:

  • It is an essential Christian calling to seek enlightenment through cultivation of the interior life. The Enlightened Jesus calls us to daily meditation this Lent. There’s no other way to mystical consciousness.
  • At the same time, Jesus’ conversation with Moses and Elijah highlights Christianity’s imperative to side with the poor – to take on their cause as our own. This suggests our doing what we can (by way of phone calls, demonstrations, contributions, lobbying, and teaching) to stop the deportation of immigrants, to restore health care and unemployment benefits for the sick and jobless – to see the world from the margins and periphery.
  • Finally, Jesus’ ever-present awareness of “the prophet script” requiring his own early death reminds us that the work of following our Master can never stop – there’s no retirement from it. The proximity or remoteness of death offers no excuse to relax.

Working without ceasing to change ourselves and the world is the very purpose of life –and of Lent. Jesus’ transfiguration, I believe, suggests all of that.

It’s Time To Post Luke’s Beatitudes in Front of the White House (Sunday Homily)

davidic-covenant

Readings for Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time (Second in the Extraordinary Time of Donald Trump) ZEP 2:3, 3:12-15; PS 146:6-7, 8-10; ICOR 1: 25-31; MT 5: 1-12A.

So we’re a Christian nation, right? At least that’s what right wingers would have us believe, despite the presence of millions of Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists – and atheists – among us.

Well, if we’re so Christian, here’s an idea for you. How about posting the Beatitudes in front of U.S. courthouses instead of the Ten Commandments? How about posting them on the walls of our schools, and in front of the White House? Doesn’t that seem more appropriate? I mean the Beatitudes come from the specifically Christian Testament. The Ten Commandments, on the other hand, come from the Jewish Testament.

I predict that will never happen. In fact, I’ll bet dollars to donuts, there’d be a hue and cry (on the part of Christians, mind you) that would prevent the move. And do you know why? Because the Beatitudes centralized in today’s liturgy of the word are too radical and un-American for the “Christian” right. They make sweeping judgments about classes. They indicate that the rich (evidently no matter how they got their money) are at odds with God’s plan, while the poor (regardless of why they’re poor) are his favorites.

No, I’m not so much talking about the version of the Beatitudes found in the Gospel of Matthew which were read in today’s Gospel excerpt. In Matthew, Jesus’ words are already softened. Instead, my reference is to Luke’s probably earlier version that expresses harsher judgments.

Here’s the way, Luke phrases Jesus’ words in Chapter 6 of his Gospel:

20 And he lifted up his eyes on his disciples, and said:

“Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.

21 “Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you shall be satisfied.

“Blessed are you who weep now, for you shall laugh. . .

24 “But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.

25 “Woe to you who are full now, for you shall be hungry.

“Woe to you who laugh now, for you shall mourn and weep.

26 “Woe to you, when all people speak well of you, for so their fathers did to the false prophets.

Do you see what I mean? Luke’s version doesn’t spiritualize poverty the way Matthew does. Matthew changes Jesus’ second-person statement about poverty (“Blessed are you who are poor”) to a third-person generalized and spiritualized “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” Similarly, Luke’s “Blessed are you who are hungry now” becomes “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice” in Matthew.  In this way physical hunger is turned into something spiritual or psychological. Obviously, Matthew’s community was not as poor as Luke’s – or as the people Jesus habitually addressed.

In fact, the entire Judeo-Christian tradition is so valuable exactly because – unlike most of ancient literature – it represents the lore of poor people about their relationship with God.

Granted, that tradition became the object of class struggle about 1000 years before Jesus’ time, with the contested emergence of a royal class.

That is, starting with King Saul, the royalty of Judah and Israel tried mightily to turn a poor people’s faith into an ideology supporting the country’s elite. More particularly, under King David, palace oligarchs distorted the divine promise to slaves escaped from Egypt. That promise had been “I will be your God and you will be my people.” David turned it into a promise of a permanent dynasty for himself and his descendants. In other words, the country’s royalty transformed the Mosaic Covenant into a Davidic Covenant serving the elite rather than the poor.

However, the people’s prophets resisted them at every step. We find examples of that in all of today’s readings. For instance, in our first selection, the seventh century (BCE) prophet, Zephaniah, addresses the world’s (not simply Israel’s) poor. With his country’s aristocrats and priests in mind, he denounces their lies and “deceitful tongues” and urges them to treat the “humble and lowly” with justice as was prescribed by Moses.

Then with the responsorial Psalm 146 (probably written in the late sixth century) we all found ourselves chanting the words Matthew attributes to Jesus: “Blessed are the poor in spirit; the Kingdom of God is theirs.” The “Kingdom of God,” of course, is shorthand for what the world would be like if God were king instead of those corrupt royal classes. The psalmist says that change would bring justice for the oppressed, hungry, imprisoned, physically handicapped, the fatherless, the widow, and the resident alien. All of these were specific beneficiaries of the Mosaic Covenant.

Today’s third reading from I Corinthians promises a Great Reversal. There Paul of Tarsus (in modern day Turkey) identifies Jesus’ earliest followers as those who “count for nothing” in the eyes of the world. (Do you see the return to the Mosaic Covenant?)  Jesus followers are riffraff. Paul identifies them as unwise, foolish, and weak. They are lowly and despised. Yet in reality, Paul assures his audience, the despised will finally be proven wise and holy. Ominously for their betters, Paul promises that those who count for nothing will reduce to zero those who in the world’s eyes are considered something.

Jesus, of course, appears in Zephaniah’s and Paul’s prophetic tradition as defender of the poor and the Mosaic Covenant. Matthew makes that point unmistakably by changing the location of Luke’s parallel discourse. In Luke, Jesus announces the Beatitudes “on a level place” (LK 6:17). Matthew puts Jesus “on a mount” for the same sermon. His point is that Jesus is the New Moses who also received the Old Covenant on a mount (Sinai). Put otherwise: the so-called Beatitudes represent the New Law of God.

That’s why it makes more sense to place the Beatitudes on a plaque in front of our courthouses, on the walls of our schools, and in front of the White House.

But as I said, don’t hold your breath. Can you imagine Donald Trump and his super-wealthy cabinet members (and their constituents) having to read Luke’s words every day?

“Woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.

25 “Woe to you who are full now, for you shall be hungry.

“Woe to you who laugh now, for you shall mourn and weep.

26 “Woe to you, when all people speak well of you, for so their fathers did to the false prophets.

No, in its essence, the Judeo-Christian tradition belongs precisely to poor people. It belongs to those whom the Trump administration (and perhaps Americans in general) think “count for nothing.” As Paul intimates, those are the very ones who will rise up and reduce to zero those who in the world’s eyes are considered something.

That message is no more welcome today than it was 2000 years ago.

Notes for a Home Church: The Eucharist Is Not a Sacrifice or a Magic Show, But a Shared Meal (Pt. 3 of 4)

magic-show 

My beloved eight-year-old granddaughter is getting ready to receive her First Holy Communion in May, and it’s got me worried. I mean her Sunday School teachers are filling her head with “Catholic” fundamentalist and literalist notions of Jesus’ “Real Presence” in the “Blessed Sacrament” that even St. Augustine rejected. In the 4th century he wrote: “Can Christ’s limbs be digested? Of course, not!”

Eventually, my granddaughter, I predict, will come to the same conclusion. And rather than see the beautiful symbolism of the Eucharist’s Shared Bread, she’ll probably follow the example of so many young people I know and reject the ideas of “Holy Sacrifice” and “Real Presence” as childhood fantasy akin to belief in Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy.

To my mind, that’s tragic. That’s because it represents a rejection of Jesus’ insightful and salvific teaching about the unity of all creation. In an era of constant global war, that teaching is needed more than ever. It’s contained in the Master’s words, “This is my body . . . this is my blood . . . Do this in remembrance of me?”

Let me explain.

To begin with, according to contemporary historical theologians like Hans Kung, the Great Reformers of the 16th century had it right: The Eucharist of the early church was no sacrifice. It was a commemoration of “The Lord’s Supper.” The phrase however does not refer to “The Last Supper” alone. Instead it references all the meals Jesus shared with friends as he made meal-sharing rather than Temple sacrifice the center of his reform movement, From the wedding feast at Cana (JN2:1-12), through his feeding of 5000 (MK 6:31-44) and then of 4000 (MK 8: 1-9), through his supper at the Pharisee’s home (LK 7:36-50), and with the tax collector Zacchaeus (LK 19:1-10), through the Last Supper (MK 14:12-26), and Emmaus (LK 24:13-35), and his post-resurrection breakfast with his apostles (JN 21:12). Jesus treated shared meals as an anticipatory here-and-now experience of God’s Kingdom.

But why? What’s the connection between breaking bread together and the “salvation” Jesus offers? Think about it like this:

Besides being a prophet, Jesus was a mystic. Like all mystics, he taught the unity of all life.

“Salvation” is the realization of that unity. In fact, if we might sum up the central insight of the great spiritual masters and avatars down through the ages, it would be ALL LIFE IS ONE. That was Jesus’ fundamental teaching as well. It was something uneducated fishermen could grasp. It’s a teaching accessible to any child: All of us are sons (and daughters) of God just as Jesus was. Differences between us are only apparent. In the final analysis, THERE IS REALLY ONLY ONE OF US HERE. In a sense, then we are all Jesus. The Christ-Self (or Krishna-Self or Buddha-Self) is our True Self. God has only one Son and it is us. When we use violence against one another, we are attacking no one but ourselves. What we do to and for others we literally do to and for ourselves. That’s a profound teaching. It’s easy to grasp, but extremely difficult to live out.

Buddhists sometimes express this same insight in terms of waves on the ocean. In some sense, they say, human beings are like those waves which appear to be individual and identifiable as such. Like us, if they had consciousness, the waves might easily forget that they are part of an infinitely larger reality. Their amnesia would lead to great anxiety about the prospect of ceasing to be. They might even see other waves as competitors or enemies. However, recollection that they are really one with the ocean and all its waves would remove that anxiety. It would enable “individual” waves to relax into their unity with the ocean, their larger, more powerful Self. All competition, defensiveness, and individuality would then become meaningless.

Something similar happens to humans, Buddhist masters tell us, when we realize our unity with our True Self which is identical with the True Self of every other human being. In the light of that realization, all fear, defensiveness and violence melt away. We are saved from our own self-destructiveness.

Similarly, Buddhists use the imagery of the sun. As its individual beams pass through clouds, they might get the idea that they are individuals somehow separate from their source and from other sunbeams which (again) they might see as competitors or enemies. But all of that is illusory. All are really manifestations emanating from the same source. It’s like that with human beings too. To repeat: our individuality is only apparent. THERE IS REALLY ONLY ONE OF US HERE.

In his own down-to-earth way, Jesus expressed the same classic mystical insight not in terms of waves or sunbeams, but of bread. Human beings are like a loaf of bread, he taught. The loaf is made up of many grains, but each grain is part of the one loaf. Recognizing the loaf’s unity, then breaking it up, and consuming those morsels together is a powerful reminder that all of life — all of us – are really one. In a sense, that conscious act of eating a single loaf strengthens awareness of the unity that otherwise might go unnoticed and uncelebrated.

Paul took Jesus’ insight a step further. In his writings (the earliest we have in the New Testament) he identifies Christ as the True Self uniting us all. Our True Self is the Christ within. In other words, what Jesus called “the one loaf” Paul referred to as the one Body of Christ.

All of Jesus’ followers, the apostle taught, make up that body.

Evidently, the early church conflated Jesus’ insight with Paul’s. So their liturgies identified Jesus’ One Loaf image with Paul’s Body of Christ metaphor. In this way, the loaf of bread becomes the body of Christ. Jesus is thus presented as blessing a single loaf, breaking it up, and saying, “Take and eat. This is my body.”

And there’s more – the remembrance part of Jesus’ “words of institution.” They are connected with Paul’s teaching about “The Mystical Body of Christ.” His instruction (found in I COR: 12-12-27) is worth quoting at length:

12 There is one body, but it has many parts. But all its many parts make up one body. It is the same with Christ. 13 We were all baptized by one Holy Spirit. And so we are formed into one body. It didn’t matter whether we were Jews or Gentiles, slaves or free people. We were all given the same Spirit to drink. 14 So the body is not made up of just one part. It has many parts.

15 Suppose the foot says, “I am not a hand. So I don’t belong to the body.” By saying this, it cannot stop being part of the body. 16 And suppose the ear says, “I am not an eye. So I don’t belong to the body.” By saying this, it cannot stop being part of the body. 17 If the whole body were an eye, how could it hear? If the whole body were an ear, how could it smell? 18 God has placed each part in the body just as he wanted it to be. 19 If all the parts were the same, how could there be a body? 20 As it is, there are many parts. But there is only one body.

21 The eye can’t say to the hand, “I don’t need you!” The head can’t say to the feet, “I don’t need you!” 22 In fact, it is just the opposite. The parts of the body that seem to be weaker are the ones we can’t do without. 23 The parts that we think are less important we treat with special honor. The private parts aren’t shown. But they are treated with special care. 24 The parts that can be shown don’t need special care. But God has put together all the parts of the body. And he has given more honor to the parts that didn’t have any. 25 In that way, the parts of the body will not take sides. All of them will take care of one another. 26 If one part suffers, every part suffers with it. If one part is honored, every part shares in its joy.

27 You are the body of Christ. Each one of you is a part of it.”

Here it’s easy to see the beauty of Paul’s image. We are all members of Christ’s body (Paul’s fundamental metaphor for that human unity insight I explained). As individual members, we each have our functions – as eye, ear, nose, foot, or private parts. However, the fact that we live separately can lead us to forget that we are all members of the same body. So it helps to RE-MEMBER ourselves occasionally – to symbolically bring our separate members together. That’s what “re-membering” means in this context.  That’s what the Eucharist is: an occasion for getting ourselves together – for recalling that we are the way Christ lives and works in the world today.

In the final analysis, that’s the meaning of Jesus’ injunction: “Do this to RE-MEMBER me.  And then afterwards – as a re-membered Christ, act together as I would.”

Do you see how rich, how poetic, how complex and mysterious all of that is – ocean waves, sunbeams, bread, Christ’s body, re-membering?

It’s powerful. The Eucharist is not a magic show. It’s a meal where the many and separate members of Christ’s body are re-membered so they might subsequently act in a concerted way in imitation of Christ.

That’s why it’s important to recover and make apparent the table fellowship character of The Lord’s Supper. It is not a Jewish or Roman sacrifice; it is a shared meal.

My granddaughter and the world she’ll inherit need everything that signifies. The Eucharist is not childish fantasy. It’s a counter-cultural challenge to our era’s individualism, ethnocentrism, and perpetual war.

(Next Week: How priests fit into the Eucharistic picture of the early church)

Starting a House Church: A Faith-Inspired Response to Trumpism (First in a series of four)

barth

Recently, I surprised friends and readers of this blog by announcing plans to “re-appropriate my priesthood” and start a house church. It would be a faith-based response, I said, to Trumpism and its planetary threat. The community, I hoped, would mobilize the spiritual power that in fact dwarfs the U.S. presidency and the president’s capacity as Commander-in-Chief of the mightiest military in the history of the world.

Some of my former priest-colleagues wondered, “Why on earth would you want to do that?”

After all, the church is for all practical purposes dead and the priesthood along with it.

And good riddance. By and large, the church remains sexist, religiously fundamentalist, and arguably the most conservative force on the face of the earth.

“And there’s more,” they said.  “Virtually no one believes in priestly powers any more. According to Catholic faith, it all hangs on two quasi-magical endowments that priests alone allegedly have to: (1) transform bread and wine into the literal body and blood of Christ, and (2) forgive mortal sins that would otherwise send their perpetrators to hell. Few who think about it take such beliefs seriously any more. The others are just coasting along in thoughtless denial. Their children however perceive the nonsense and are jumping the sinking ship in droves. That’s why if ‘former Catholics’ were an actual denomination, they would constitute the third largest church in the United States.

“Moreover, Catholics are virtually indistinguishable from Protestants (or non-believers for that matter) in their life-styles and political positions. They even practice birth control in exactly the same percentages as other Americans. It’s a similar case with divorce and same-sex relationships. And many Catholics vote Republican, despite papal social teachings on social justice, the environment, and war.

“So what’s the point of the Catholic Church with its anachronistic priesthood? It has become a mere social club – good for keeping old friendships alive, but little more. Most of its committees, sodalities, youth and men’s groups are self-serving. Do-gooders could easily find other organizations elsewhere to satisfy their passion for social change – without having to fight resistant Catholic fundamentalists in the process.”

To be frank, I find such objections persuasive.  Despite the best efforts of Pope Francis, the church seems more dead than alive. For all practical purposes, it whistles past the crises that characterize our age. The Sunday Masses I attend completely ignore the unprecedented contemporary context of threats from nuclear war, climate change, racism and sexism.

And yet, I remain firm in my intention to proceed with the house church. That’s because despite the institutional church’s having lost its way, I still find in my faith a source of spiritual strength and political resistance that for me is irreplaceable.

I intend to start a house church also because the objections just mentioned overlook the fact that Catholic Church pews also seat resisters like me. There are people whose faith has been shaped by the reforms of the Second Vatican Council. In the spirit of the conciliar document, “The Church in the Modern World,” their faith engages them not only with world events, but with one another.

For instance, in my own community, a group of more than 20 has met regularly over the past two or three decades as our church’s Peace and Social Justice Committee. Our gatherings often find us reflecting on liturgical readings. Discussions connect them with political organizing, welcoming refugees, war-resistance, the environmental crisis, and with the needs of local unemployed and impoverished families. Work with Habitat for Humanity has been a constant commitment.

I’m loathe to let such relationships and commitments go. At the same time, I’m convinced there has to be a better, more focused, more regular and consistent way of harnessing the deep faith the 20 or so of us share, especially in the face of Trumpism. To repeat: we’re in an unprecedented situation that calls for an unprecedented response.

I’m convinced that the best response is to experiment with house church Sunday liturgies that would bring our sub-community and others together on a weekly basis to reflect, pray, break bread, and plan creative acts of resistance. The liturgies will take place on Saturday evenings (i.e. on the Sabbath) and thus allow those wishing to attend Mass in our church the next morning, to do so.

In the end, my reasons for starting a house church are rooted in history and theology – in post-Vatican II understandings of church, of Eucharist, and of priesthood. A changed understanding of each – more in accord with the leadership of Pope Francis gives hope and direction.

I will try to explain what I mean in subsequent postings over the next three weeks.

Trumpocalypse: America Just Voted for the End of the World (Sunday Homily)

trumpocalypse

Readings for 33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time: MAL 3: 19-20A; Ps. 98: 5-9; 2 THES 3: 7-12; LK 21: 5-9.

We’re still reeling from the astounding results of the November 8th U.S. elections, aren’t we?

For many – especially immigrants, people of color, Muslims, progressives and followers of Jesus – what some have called the “Trumpocalypse” nearly seems like the end of the world as we know it.

Even the Republican Establishment is not completely happy. Mr. Trump is not really one of them.  In effect, (like socialist Bernie Sanders for the Democrats) the Donald was a third (Fascist) party candidate. His election shows that both major parties are disintegrating before our eyes. Powerful third and fourth parties are proliferating alongside Greens and Libertarians. In reality six relevant parties contended in the recently concluded election cycle.

At the moment however, it’s the anti-Gospel political right that is enjoying its moment in the sun.

All of that makes today’s readings disturbingly relevant. They appear to centralize “the end of the world.” And on top of that Paul’s dictum from Second Thessalonians seems eerily to confirm right wing tendencies towards “tough love.” There Paul says “. . . if anyone is unwilling to work, neither should that one eat.”

But don’t be misled. There’s not a trace of “tough love” in Jesus’ treatment of the poor. And “apocalypse” is not about the end of the world. It’s about unsustainability. The word apocalypse means “unveiling.” It’s about “revelation” in that sense – making evident what’s hidden about the world and who’s in charge. Apocalypse affirms the unsustainability of empire. Radical change is inevitable.

Apocalypse emerged a few centuries before the birth of Jesus. To convey its message of impending radical change, it employed stock images of natural catastrophe, plagues, wars, earthquakes, and portents involving the sun, moon, and stars. The change would be cosmic.

The audience of this strange literary form was empire’s victims. It was meant to encourage the poor and dispossessed, the unemployed, sick, widowed and orphaned – not the rich and well-off. Apocalypse assured the poor that all systems of oppression end in flames whether they’re Egyptian, Assyrian, Babylonian, Persian, Greek, or Roman. (Those are the global giants that oppressed Israel at one time or another in its history.) Where are they today? They’ve been swept away by the tide of history. And the apologists for “Eternal Rome” find themselves somewhere in antiquity’s dustbin.

So it’s ironic that apocalypse should be embraced by conservatives and their rich patrons – by those who want to keep things as they are. Things do not have to be that way. And “by God,” they won’t be! That’s the message of apocalypse. A new era is dawning, and you’d better be on the right side of history or you’ll lose out. Being “left behind” means supporting the old order that’s doomed.

The problem is that right from the beginning, believers took literally the cosmic and highly poetic symbolism of apocalypse. (We always get in trouble for being too literal.) That’s the attitude that caused Paul to tear his hair out in today’s second reading. Some in the early Christian community took the imminence of this expectation so seriously that they even stopped working.

What was the point of work, they reasoned? Everything was about to change profoundly by God’s intervention. That made human work meaningless. All believers had to do was sit back and wait for Jesus’ triumphant arrival. Eat, drink, be merry, and whistle past the graveyard in the meantime.

Those are the people Paul addresses in this morning’s excerpt from Second Thessalonians. He’s clearly exasperated. He says, “Look I’m working. And I’m the one responsible for your believing in Jesus’ Second Coming! Get real, people. Go back to work. Stop sponging off the community. Instead, be like me and do your part to bring about the new order we all expect. “

Paul’s words bring to mind the people who refuse to work today because they deem apocalyptic expectations divinely ordained or “natural.” And I’m certainly not referring to welfare queens.

Instead, I’m talking about people so committed to the old order that (with Margaret Thatcher) they’re convinced that “There is no alternative,” even though the “inevitable order” they support threatens the very survival of their own grandchildren. So they do what must be done to perpetuate what in God’s eyes is unsustainable.

Such “busy-bodies” refer to their endeavors as “work,” but in reality, their occupations represent a refusal to work. That is, if we identify that term with what contributes to life and the establishment of the Kingdom community Jesus proclaimed.

On this understanding, involvement in the military and the military-industrial complex is certainly not work. Neither is labor in financial market casinos or in the health-insurance and fossil fuel industries and their nuclear power counterparts. Advertising, fashion, professional sports, or much of what we refer to as “education” and journalism might also qualify as anti-work. Such occupations are not only highly questionable in terms of building up human community and protecting the planet. They are often positively destructive. Their purpose is to ward off or distract from the impending Big Change promised by the great unveiling.

Do I mean followers of Jesus should renounce such “work?” Yes I do. Or at least, we need to work to bring about a world where such occupations are not rewarded with pay – i.e. with a ticket to overconsumption even in terms of food and drink. And, to quote St. Paul, if arms manufacturers want to continue their anti-work as inevitable, let them starve! The world will be better off.

What about the unemployment caused by such radical change? It’s simple: share the remaining work. Make sure everyone is working – say for four hours each day, or three days a week, or six months each year. Get everyone to work building or rebuilding infrastructure, paving highways and covering rooftops with solar cells, and cleaning up the dump sites where all our toxic waste has been buried.

Think of the freedom such changes would create for building up God’s kingdom – to play, to garden, write, converse, make love, raise our children, and do all the things that make us human!

“Totally unrealistic” you say? Precisely! Apocalypse is by nature unrealistic. It calls us to work for an entirely different order we can hardly imagine. It calls us to reclaim our humanity from the insanity of destructive anti-work.

So maybe the election of Donald Trump is exactly what we needed. After all, “America” is just another of those oppressive empires God’s People have always suffered from. It is doomed and will soon disintegrate like Babylon, Rome – and the Soviet Union.

Our apocalyptic readings tell us the present order must end. Second Thessalonians helps us discern directions for a new one

The destruction of both the Democratic and Republican Parties portended by Mr. Trump’s election is a very good start.

Donald Trump and Torture (Sunday Homily)

torture-trump

Readings for 32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time: 2 MC 7: 1-12, 9-14; PS 17:1, 5-6, 3, 15; 2 THES 2:11-3:5; LK 20: 27-38.

One of the wonderful aspects of the Judeo-Christian tradition is how so much of it reflects the consciousness of the poor and oppressed, while at the same time giving expression to a “preferential option for the poor.” That’s a gift for us in a culture that generally despises poor people, oppresses the world’s impoverished majority, and spins the news in ways that ignore the poor and reflect a decided “preferential option for the rich.”

This morning’s first reading is especially valuable for us who live in a system where a candidate for president, Donald Trump, advocates torturing poor people who rebel against American imperialism. He has promised, to bring back water boarding.  He’s said, “I would bring back water boarding, And I would bring back a hell of a lot worse than water boarding.”

Before Abu Grahib, a statement like that would have been unthinkable. Torture is against international law. It contradicts Article 5 of the UN Declaration of Human Rights which identified the right not to be tortured as a fundamental human right. At least since the end of World War II, torture has been considered one of those intrinsic evils about which there simply could be no debate.

However, ever since Abu Ghraib gave the lie to George W. Bush’s famous prevarication, “The United States doesn’t do torture” – ever since our government redefined the word to exclude even waterboarding – it has become apparent that Bush (and so many others of our “thought-leaders”) was lying. So today, it’s possible for a presidential candidate to propose measures worse than water boarding – perhaps cutting out of tongues and removal of limbs – as measures Americans admire and advocate..

But what do tortured terrorists actually think about while having limbs removed and tongues cut out? Read today’s selection about the Maccabee brothers and find out.

The Maccabees were members of a heroic family of guerrilla fighters who in the mid- 2nd century BCE terrorized the invading Greek forces of Antiochus IV Epiphanes. (Actually, “Maccabee” wasn’t the family’s name; it was more a nom de guerre for an entire resistance movement. The word meant “Hammer” – the Hammer Gang – so-called because of its delight in pounding to mincemeat the invaders of their beloved homeland. The term “Maccabee” was similar to “al Qaeda,” when it simply meant “the list” – a reference to the Rolodex of assets the CIA used when it employed al Qaeda back when they were “freedom fighters” against the Russians in Afghanistan.)

For his part, the Seleucid king, Antiochus, was fiercely anti-Semitic. He considered the Jews historically and culturally backward. For him and his empire’s advancement, Jews had to be brought into the 2nd century BCE even if it meant their kicking and screaming the whole way.

Today we might understand Antiochus’ project as “modernizing” the Jews – as Hellenizing them for purposes of imperial control. Evidently the Seleucid king subscribed to the position that if empire can persuade conquered peoples to adopt its patterns of thinking and especially of imagining God, the task of imperial administrators is made that much easier.

Many Jews agreed with the program of Antiochus. After all, the Greeks’ empire seemed invincible. If the empire couldn’t be beat, it was better to join it willingly. So these “Hellenized Jews” stopped circumcising their sons, and changed their diets even to include eating pork. They became more Greek than the Greeks.

They also became the targets of Maccabee “terrorist” attacks. In today’s terms, such Hellenized Jews would be the targets blown up by Maccabee suicide bombers in marketplaces located in Jewish but Greek-loving neighborhoods. (Even if the Maccabee targeting may have been more selective than that, it is certain that Hellenized Jews were as much the objects of Maccabee terror as were the Seleucid forces themselves.)

In countering such extremism, Antiochus IV proscribed the Jewish religion as itself criminal and illegitimate. This was very similar to the way many “Americans” consider Islam. So Greek troops burnt and otherwise desecrated copies of the Torah in much the same way as our “Christian” troops are frequently caught burning or urinating on the Holy Koran and on corpses of Muslim resistance fighters.

Though the Greeks considered the Maccabean forces to be terrorist, faithful Jews admired them as national heroes and servants of God. They understood that the Maccabees were fighting a Holy War against the much more powerful Seleucids. It was David against Goliath all over again.

In any case, according to today’s selection from Second Maccabees, seven brothers of the gang’s leadership were finally arrested (along with their mother) by the Greek invaders. (This would have been reported to Greeks “back home” as a great triumph – “Senior Leaders” captured making “our troops” and “our world” much safer.)

Then the torture and the screaming start.

According to today’s reading, all eight are beaten with whips and instruments designed to tear open their flesh. Then following standard operating procedures still practiced today, other enhanced interrogation techniques were used to torture the brothers one after the other in the presence of their blood-drenched mother, herself near death. The purpose here, of course, was to induce the woman to divulge names, places, and plans that she was privy to as the wife of the one who started the Jewish resistance to the Seleucids.

But what does she do? And what about her sons?

In a word, they are all – mother as well as her sons – completely defiant.

“What do you expect to achieve by questioning us” one of the brothers shouts? “We are ready to die rather than transgress the laws of our ancestors.”

Even at the point of death he spits out the words: “You accursed fiend” (I wonder what expletive he really used!), “you are depriving us of this present life, but the King of the world will raise us up to live again forever. It is for his laws that we are dying.”

Another of the brothers sees that his torturers are actually enjoying their work. (The text refers to cutting out his tongue and amputating his hands as “cruel sport.” Does that remind you of Abu Ghraib?) So he sticks out his tongue and stretches out his hands inviting them to do their work. “It was from Heaven that I received these,” he says. “I’d rather lose them than offend Yahweh” (read Allah).

“Even the king and his attendants marveled at the young man’s courage,” the text says. Far from being intimidated, the freedom-fighter “regarded his suffering as nothing.”

Just before dying, another of the tortured brothers undergoing the very same cruelties says: “It is my choice to die at the hands of men with the hope God gives of being raised up by him; but for you, there will be no resurrection to life.” As indicated by those words, conviction of a happy eternity moved these guerrilla fighters to embrace death willingly. (Seventy-two virgins, anyone?)

So what goes on in the heads of the tortured? Disdain for their torturers. Defiance. Show of courage. Love for the motherland. Hope.

And what is the response from the people they die for? Admiration. Elevation of martyrs and the tortured to sainthood. Motivation to follow their example.

And ultimately victory for the tortured and assassinated. . .  I mean, against all odds, the Jewish resistance – the Hammer Terrorists – did succeed in evicting the Greeks from their homeland.

As I was saying, this reading should cause us to reevaluate our attitude towards terrorism, terrorists, and the scandal of debating the pros and cons of torture. It should cause us to reevaluate any thoughts of voting next Tuesday for the would-be torturer-in-chief, Donald Trump.

(Sunday Homily) Zacchaeus, White People, and the Case for Reparations to African Americans

reparations

Readings for the 31st Sunday in Ordinary Time: WIS 11: 22-12: 2; PS 145: 1-2, 8-11, 13-14; 2 THES 1: 11- 2: 2; LK 19: 1-10.

In the June 2014 issue of the Atlantic Monthly, Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote an article called “The Case for Reparations.” There he argued that the United States owes a huge debt to African Americans. It’s a debt compounded by 250 years of slavery, 90 years of Jim Crow, 60 years of separate but equal and 35 years of racist housing policy. Until those debts are paid, Coates wrote, America will never be whole.

Today’s gospel story about Zacchaeus, the tax collector, relates to Coates’ concern.  It addresses the problem of unjustly acquired wealth and reparation. As such the reading opens a question very much on the minds of our country’s African American community as described in Coates’ Atlantic piece.

White people probably disagree. Surveys show that nearly 75% of us oppose reparations. Slavery happened so long ago, the dissenters argue. They deny that slavery constitutes a factor contributing to the contemporary wealth gap between blacks and whites. At any rate, they think reparations are impractical and even impossible. Needless to say, Christians in that group see no connection between their faith and the reparations Coates was writing about.

Today’s Gospel reading calls such convictions into question.

There Jesus invites himself for dinner to the home of Zacchaeus, a tax collector. The latter is so overjoyed by the invitation that his very first reaction is to divest himself of his wealth and to make reparations for his ill-gotten affluence. He exclaims, “Behold, half of my possessions, Lord, I shall give to the poor, and if I have extorted anything from anyone I shall repay it four times over.”

The first part of Zacchaeus’ promise (“Behold, half of my possessions, Lord, I shall give to the poor”) represents recognition on the tax collector’s part that his extorted wealth constitutes a crime against poor people in general. So it calls for general divestment on his part. He’s going to give away half of his property – half to the poor of Jericho where he’s been overseeing tax collection for years!

The second part of Zacchaeus’ promise (“And if I have extorted anything from anyone, I shall repay it four times over”) is directed specifically to identifiable victims of his extortion. He’ll return to them four times what he defrauded – four times!

Luke’s remembering and repeating a story where wealth divestment and reparation are the very first reactions of a rich person to Jesus’ offer of table fellowship is significant. It seems to suggest that such rectifications are not only recommended for those deciding to join “The Way” of Jesus; they constitute a requirement of discipleship.

All of this suggests that in today’s Gospel we find an invitation to open our eyes to the fact that, far from impractical, reparations are not only possible but required from people of faith. In fact, they have already been proven to work. For instance, in 1988, President Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act that recognized the need to redress the wrongs suffered by Japanese-Americans unjustly interned in World War II concentration camps. Cash payments were made to survivors.

But slavery and its aftermath have been far more hurtful than that particular instance of wrongful imprisonment. Consequently, much more than one-time payments seem due to the descendants of the millions of slaves whose unpaid labor contributed so mightily to the building of America.

Reparations are also due for Jim Crow, low wages, glass ceilings, denial of loans, and segregation’s practices of red-lining. All such measures have prevented the descendants of slaves from participating in the American Way of Life that has remained largely closed to blacks.

As shown by police killings from Ferguson to Baltimore and the resulting Black Lives Matter movement, as shown by the resistance of heroes like Colin Kaepernick, by the brave example of the Black Panthers (whose 50th anniversary we celebrate this year), it’s time for a national conversation on race – for a Peace and Reconciliation Commission to consider the form that long-overdue reparations might take.

Suggestions for spending the estimated $14.2 trillion owed the descendants of slaves include:

  • A federal employment program offering well-paid jobs to all our country’s poor.
  • The provision of state-of-the-art day care centers to help newly-employed parents.
  • A housing program providing decent dwellings for African Americans in urban centers now being gentrified.
  • Major upgrading of public schools attended by black children – to make them equal to those in affluent white suburbs.
  • De-militarization of urban police forces and the introduction of community controlled policing.
  • Release of non-violent offenders from prison and the restoration of their voting rights.
  • Transformation of prisons from places of punishment and degradation to centers of education and personal reform.

All such reparations are clearly possible. They will not happen without the national conversation just mentioned and without a Peace and Reconciliation Commission.

However, as Ta-Nehisi Coates says, absent such measures our country will never be whole.

Today’s Gospel reading seems to endorse his observation. It invites Jesus’ followers to lead the way.