(Sunday Homily) Marianne Williamson Raises Jesus from the Dead!

Marianne

Readings for the Fifth Sunday of Lent: EZ 37: 12-14; PS 130: 1-8; ROM 8:8-11; JN 11: 1-45

Last week, the great spiritual teacher and social justice advocate, Marianne Williamson came through Berea like a Pentecost whirlwind. The message she brought connects intimately with today’s Liturgy of the Word that centralizes the political realities of resurrection from the dead in hopeless circumstances like those we’re currently experiencing in the United States.

Marianne Williamson had been invited to Berea College by my wife, Peggy, who heads the Women and Gender Studies program there. It was a real coup. Peggy worked for months trying to make it happen. In the realm of spiritual leadership, she (Marianne and my wife too) is a rock star.

Ms. Williamson not only presented an inspiring hour and a half convocation lecture with Q&A, she did the same thing for an hour at Peggy’s “Peanut Butter & Gender” luncheon series at noon. Afterwards, Peggy and I along with Berea’s president and seven of the college’s feminist leaders shared supper with Marianne at Berea’s famous Boone Tavern. To top it all off, Peggy and I drove Marianne and her secretary back to Cincinnati – a two-hour trip that was filled with wonderful conversation about (as my blog site puts it, “Things that Matter”). The whole experience was for me unforgettable.

Here are a few nuggets of Marianne’s wisdom:

  • In the Trump phenomenon, we’ve witnessed a kind of Stockholm Syndrome that has poor and middle class people identifying with and seeming to love their captors and oppressors.
  • Our country and the world are in unprecedented crisis. Our Titanic is headed towards huge icebergs represented by nuclear weapons, climate change, and chemical poisoning.
  • In such context, citizens, not politicians, are captains of our ship. There is nothing more important than our seizing control before it’s too late. Working to do so should fill our waking hours.
  • Young people, no doubt, have much to offer in helping our ship to reverse course. However, as community elders, others of us are Keepers of the Story. We remember the invaluable lessons of Malcolm, MLK, Dorothy Day, JFK, Bobby Kennedy, Gandhi, and Eleanor Roosevelt. We experienced the resistance of the Civil Rights Movement and opposition to the Vietnam War. We must share that experience and the understanding it generated.
  • If in doing so, you find everyone agreeing with you, you’re probably not speaking the truth.
  • On the other hand, when you hear the truth spoken (even if others are rolling their eyes), it’s incumbent on you to say, “Actually I agree with her,” if that’s the case. Studies show that speaking up like that encourages others to overcome inhibitions in advancing the conversation and speaking more truthfully.
  • In its attempts to speak truth, the left is making a huge mistake by not owning the power of faith. It was no accident that abolitionists and women suffragists were Quakers. It’s no accident that Martin Luther King was a Baptist preacher or that Mohandas Gandhi was a Hindu prophet.
  • Imitate those people of faith. It’s no use waiting for the others to “come around.” The majority didn’t support abolition of slavery, women getting the vote, the Civil Rights Movement, gay marriage – or the American Revolution, for that matter. Such changes were effected by relatively small groups of highly committed idealists.
  • In fact, people are hungering for spiritual nourishment; and if they’re not offered authentic spirituality, they’ll accept its ersatz version.
  • That’s a reality that the political right has exploited. It has substituted a Prosperity Gospel that worships capitalism and money for authentic spirituality’s advocacy of social justice.
  • In the Christian context, the ersatz version has figuratively killed Jesus, who needs once again to be raised from the dead.

It’s that last point that especially connects with today’s liturgical readings – and with our current seemingly hopeless political reality. There to begin with, Ezekiel coins the concept of “raising from the dead” to refer to Israel’s impending liberation from its own despair during its Babylonian Captivity. Ezekiel’s metaphor reappears in today’s gospel reading where John the evangelist presents his familiar parable about Jesus raising Lazarus from the grave where Jesus’ friend lay moldering for more than three days.

Consider the hopelessness of Ezekiel’s Israel. His sixth century was the saddest of times – the era of his nation’s Great Exile. The Hebrews had been defeated and humiliated by Babylon (modern day Iraq). Its leaders and a large portion of its populace had been abducted to that enemy state. The exiles felt as if they had been slaughtered culturally. They were far from home, controlled by foreign masters, and apparently abandoned by God.

But the prophet Ezekiel did not share his people’s general despair. So in an effort to regenerate hope, he coined the idea of resurrection. Ezekiel loved that concept. [Recall his Vision of Dry Bones (EZ 7: 1-14).] For Ezekiel resurrection was a political metaphor that promised a new vital future despite appearances to the contrary. Israel, he said, would be liberated from Babylon, return home and experience rebirth. They would come back to life.

In her convocation address to Berea College students, Marianne Williamson embraced not only Ezekiel’s spirit, but that of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead. She did so by rescuing them both from conservative forces whose version of Christianity has held center stage for the last 45 years. It’s that version, Marianne said, which has metaphorically killed the Jesus of the Gospels, who proclaimed the imminent arrival of God’s Kingdom which belongs to the poor and all of God’s creation, not to the rich whom ersatz Christians prioritize.

Like Ezekiel, Jesus made his proclamation when all appearances indicated that Israel was dead. It was entirely under the heel of Roman jackboots and there seemed no escape. Yet Jesus described a horizon of hope that enlivened the spirits of the poor who were crushed by the Romans and by their rich Jewish collaborators who headed the temple establishment.

In such dire straits, Jesus proclaimed a new future where everything would be turned upside down. He said audacious things. In God’s realm, he insisted, the poor would be in charge. The last would be first, and the first would be last. The rich would be poor and the poor would be well–fed and prosperous. The powerless and gentle would have the earth for their possession. Jesus’ unemployed and famished audiences couldn’t hear enough of that!

So he elaborated. He told parable after parable – all about the kingdom and its unstoppable power. It was like leaven in bread – unseen but universally active and transforming. It was like the mustard seed – a weed that sprouted up everywhere impervious to eradication efforts. It was like a precious pearl discovered in the ash bin – like a coin a poor woman loses and then rediscovers. His metaphors, similes and parables were powerful.

To repeat, Marianne strongly implied that socio-economic conservatism has murdered the Jesus I’ve just described. It has done so by its “preferential option for the rich.” It embraces free-market capitalism, trickle-down theory, and cut-backs in health care, education, and anti-poverty programs. Conservatives complement such horrors with huge tax-breaks for the country’s 1%. All of this is chillingly represented recently by “devout Catholic,” Paul Ryan whose budget promised to sock it to the poor and middle class, while enriching military industrialists along with his affluent friends.

As Ms. Williamson indicated, no one can support policies like Ryan’s and claim at the same time to be a follower of Jesus.

In other words, Ryan on the one hand, and Marianne, and Jesus on the other are on completely different pages. While conservatives have buried the Gospel Jesus, today’s Gospel reading calls him back to life. It’s as if the followers of the authentic Jesus were standing before his grave shouting ”Come Forth!”

And so the tomb opens. And a Jesus who has been buried more than three decades stumbles out. And in doing so, he renews our faith.

Our faith is renewed because, as Marianne reminded us last week, we recognize in Jesus the embodiment of one of life’s fundamental truths: utopian visions of the good and true and beautiful can never be killed, even though they might appear lifeless and be pronounced dead by those who once loved them.

As Marianne Williamson constantly reminds her congregations, “There is no order of difficulty in miracles.” She  reminds us that united with our neighbors, we too, the People of God, possess the power to raise the dead.

So today, as we stand before the grave of God, the church, and Jesus, let’s echo her cry: “Jesus, come forth!” And then for the rest of our lives, let our actions make that resurrection happen in our own!

(Sunday Homily) Everybody’s Right (Even Donald Trump) and Is Doing the Best S/he Can

trump-crowd

Readings for First Sunday in Lent: GN 2:7-9, 3:1-7; PS 51: 3-6, 12-13, 17; ROM 5: 12-19; MT 4: 1-11.

Today is the first Sunday of Lent. Its liturgy of the word reminds me of what’s been on my mind these days as I’m working on my critical thinking book. For the last two weeks, I’ve shared some of those thoughts here on my blog.

So, I wrote a week ago about the stages of human development – from egocentric to ethnocentric, to world-centric and cosmic-centric. It probably reminded some of the work of Abraham Maslow and Jean Piaget. Actually, though, my principal reference was to Ken Wilber who, in his A Theory of Everything and elsewhere attempts to integrate and transcend those more familiar works. I recommend Wilber very strongly.

In any case, it strikes me, on this first Sunday of Lent that the season’s challenge is to expand our awareness to something approaching what Jesus manifests in today’s Gospel selection. There, the carpenter from Nazareth is depicted as passing forty days in the desert enduring temptation the whole time.

The story not only recalls the history of Israel’s forty years in the desert; it tracks Jesus’ growth through the stages of human development that all of us must pass through. No one can skip any of them. And the limits of our particular stage of growth make it very difficult and even impossible for us to understand stages beyond our own. Thus, for instance, a person like Donald Trump cannot begin to understand someone like Pope Francis.

This means that when we were children at the egocentric stage, we couldn’t really understand ethnocentrism, much less world-centrism or cosmic-centrism. Similarly, those at the ethnocentric stage cannot understand the evolutionary stages beyond their own. To them it all seems like nonsense and even dangerous.

No one is to blame for any of that. It’s perfectly natural. However, the fear of moving forward can freeze some at lower stages of development. Some remain egocentric all their lives. And it’s the same with ethnocentrism and world-centrism. Nonetheless, we’re all called to the fullness of being human as embodied in avatars like Jesus of Nazareth. In his fullness of human development, he recognized the unity of all creation and everyone’s essential innocence. So as the Compassionate Christ, he saw that (given their stage of development) everyone’s right and is doing the best s/he can. As a result, he could even forgive his executioners who (as he said) “know not what they do.”

Jesus was committed, however, to moving human consciousness forward. He called that stage “the Kingdom of God” — a this-worldly reality. To get there, Jesus recognized that it is not at all necessary for everyone to advance to Kingdom-consciousness or even world-centrism. A small group embodying such awareness would be sufficient to move the entire world forward. [In Wilber’s terms, there’s a tipping point at about 10% of the world’s population. He estimates that at present about 40-60% of the world is fixated at the ethnocentric stage. About 25% are at world-centrism, and about 7% stand at cosmic-centrism. Only a 3% growth in the latter would reach the tipping point.]

Notice Jesus growth as depicted in this morning’s highly condensed symbolic story. Jesus’ first temptation is ego-centric – to feed himself by turning stones into bread. His second temptation is ethnocentric – connected with his nation’s temple and the quasi-magical attributes accorded the structure by his Jewish contemporaries. Jesus’ final temptation is world-centric – to exercise dominion of “all the nations of the world.” By rejecting all three (including the imperial, dominator hierarchy implied in the final temptation), Jesus symbolically achieves the cosmic-consciousness we’re all summoned to. The story ends with his being ministered to by angels. (Thus the divine growth hierarchy I’m trying to explain here is affirmed.)

The bottom line is that Jesus’ vision quest in the desert maps out our Lenten path. It leads from self-centeredness to cosmic consciousness of unity with the One in whom we live and move and have our being. There egoism no longer makes sense, nor does nationalism. Instead all the thinking and values of this world are turned on their heads. God alone matters. Forgiveness of everyone – compassion towards all — is natural.

If that sounds excessively utopian, the point is made about the inability of those at lower stages of development to understand and accept the Christ-consciousness towards which we’re all summoned to stretch. Those who claim to be Christians must simply take Jesus at his word, and pray for further growth.

In other words, the Christ-consciousness that Jesus attained can look at those whom we at lower stages of development might be tempted to vilify and despise and simply forgive them. Our forgiveness recognizes that we too passed through the stages at which they might be frozen. Put still otherwise, we can recognize that the childish, the greedy, the nationalists, and others seduced by the thinking of our world – and we ourselves – are right (given our respective stages of growth) and are doing the best we can.

So Lent challenges us all. Our path this season cannot be traveled without struggle. Its goal cannot be achieved without breaking free from selfishness, xenophobia, and the arrogance of life in an imperial center whose ways are unsustainable and far removed from its evolutionary roots. That’s the point of Lent’s prayerfulness, penance, fasting, and abstinence.

Practically speaking realizing our True Self this Lent – being transformed like Jesus – moving the world’s consciousness forward — might mean:

  • Renewing our prayer life. Even unbelievers can do this. How? I recommend reading Eknath Easwaran’s Passage Meditation to find out. Yes, meditate each day during Lent. It will bring you into contact with your True Self. (And, I predict, you won’t stop at the end of 40 days – it’s that life-transforming.)
    • Abstaining from fast food and reclaiming the kitchen. Leave behind for forty days the typically chemicalized, fatty, sugar-hyped American diet, and perhaps experiment with vegetarianism. That seems far more beneficial than traditional “fast and abstinence.”
    • Shopping locally and refusing to set foot in any of the Big Boxes during Lent’s 40 days. Think of it as homage to Jesus’ counter-cultural resort to the desert.
    • Escaping ethnocentrism and imperial sway, by adopting as your news source OpEdNews and/or Al Jazzera rather than the New York Times.
    • Resolving each day to actually respond to one of those many appeals we all receive to make phone calls and write letters to our “representatives” in Congress.

In the “Comment” space below, please share other suggestions.

Yes, it’s Lent once again. We faced up to our origins in dust last Ash Wednesday. A good Lent which leaves behind selfishness, ethnocentrism and allegiance to empire will also challenge us to move the world forward towards the Christ-consciousness that Jesus embodies.

(Sunday Homily) Pope Francis on Climate Change: Nature Never Forgives!

Francis creation

Readings for 1st Sunday of Lent: GN 9: 8-15; PS 25: 4-9; I PT 3: 18-22; MK 1: 12-15

Pope Francis is going to be a busy man this spring. In June he’ll publish his much-anticipated encyclical on climate change. He’ll then convoke a meeting of world religious leaders to discuss the topic. Presumably, they’ll endorse the encyclical’s main points.

Then in September, the pope will travel to New York to bring the message of those leaders to the United Nations. Afterwards, he’ll head off to D.C. to do the same before the U.S. Congress.

Clearly, the pope is a man on a mission. At the age of 78, he’s evidently experiencing a sense of urgency. He has a clear spiritual and practical vision for saving the world from impending disaster brought on by unregulated industrial capitalism and by a neo-liberal world order that he has rejected out of hand on more than one occasion during his brief reign as Supreme Pontiff.

The liturgy of the word for this first Sunday of Lent highlights the pope’s concern for the environment and calls us to become visionaries like him – and especially like the young prophet, Jesus of Nazareth, as depicted in today’s Gospel.

Take this morning’s first reading. Its focus, like the pope’s, is environmental destruction. Genesis, chapter nine gives the ending of the familiar story of Noah and his Ark.  There God makes a promise (3 times in fact) to Noah, his sons, their descendants, and (significantly) to the birds and animals, that he will never again destroy “all bodily creatures” by flood waters.

The Responsorial Psalm then reminds us that we can trust God’s word, because God, in the psalmist’s words, is compassionate, loving, kind, good, upright and just.

It’s that loving God whose Spirit in today’s gospel drives Jesus out to the desert for his “Lenten Retreat” – 40 days and nights of prayer and fasting. The Spirit sends him on a vision quest intimately connected with Pope Francis’ vision for the world’s future.

Recall the circumstances of Jesus’ quest. John the Baptizer has just baptized Jesus as one of his disciples. On emerging from the waters of the Jordan, Jesus receives a startling revelation about his true identity. A voice from heaven addresses him, “You are my beloved son,” it says.

Surprised and perhaps shaken by that revelation, Jesus retreats to the desert to determine what it all might mean. As I said, it’s a vision quest. And immediately the visions come – more heavenly voices, Satan, angels, and wild beasts.

All of these elements are important. They belong to Israel’s “apocalyptic” tradition – a highly political genre promising the overthrow of the nation’s imperial oppressors. Jesus’ visions call him to continue the work of John the Baptist, who, Mark informs us, has just been arrested. Jesus’ task is to announce the proximity of “God’s Kingdom.” It’s a world where God is king instead of Caesar. It’s a world like the one promised in the Book of Genesis.  There human beings live in complete harmony with their Heavenly Father/Mother, with one another, with animals, birds, fish, and plants.

That’s the vision Pope Francis will evoke in his upcoming encyclical. If his past statements are any guide, he’ll remind us that God may have promised not to destroy the earth by flood. But Mother Nature has given no such guarantee.

A month ago, on his flight to Manila, the pontiff told reporters, “God always forgives, we sometimes forgive, but when nature — creation — is mistreated, she never forgives!”

This Lent we would do well to ponder those words and to implement changes in our own spiritual, political and economic visions to prevent a disaster completely reminiscent of Noah’s familiar story.

What Lenten changes do you think most appropriate – for us as individuals and for our country?

Discussion follows

Lenten Reflection II: Why Lenten Penance?

Manhattan

Recently, a good friend of mine wrote to ask how my Lenten resolutions were faring. It’s half-way through Lent, and given what I wrote here on Ash Wednesday (located in the “Thoughts for the Day” category just below the masthead of this blog site), I think I owe her an answer. I’m hoping that the reflection needed for sharing like this might reignite my own Lenten fire. Perhaps it might also encourage reflection in others. They might even share their experiences using the “Comment” feature on this blog site. And that in turn might encourage the rest of us to “save” our Lents before it’s too late.

In general, my Lent is going well. Two elements have made it special. A third (a chance conversation) has given me a fresh understanding of the purpose of Lenten penance.

The two special elements are first of all my experience with an emerging “Ecumenical Table” in our local area. The second is a Lenten study group I’m leading about the historical Jesus.

I’ve mentioned the “Ecumenical Table” several times before in these blog postings. It’s a lay-led gathering of Christians who are looking for deeper meaning in Sunday liturgies. We’ve been gathering monthly for Lord’s Supper liturgies since Pentecost last year. But this Lent we’ve decided to meet every Sunday in a more focused attempt to discern whether our form of community worship is what we’re seeking ultimately. The liturgies the past three weeks have been beautiful and thoughtful. And hearing the voices of women as Lord’s Supper celebrants and homilists is unbelievably enriching. It makes it so apparent how the Catholic Church impoverishes itself and its people by insisting on an all-male clergy.

The second special element of this year’s Lent is our little seminar on the historical Jesus. We’ve been meeting each Wednesday night for an hour and a half. Our purpose is (as Marcus Borg put it) to “meet Jesus again for the first time.” We’re trying to encounter the Jesus of history who stands behind the faith-inspired interpretations of the canonical gospels.

So far the seminar has been going well, although I’ve found my own leadership uneven. But the participants (about 25 at each session) have been unbelievably generous in their showing up, contributing to discussions, and overlooking leadership shortcomings. (Some have told me it’s their Lenten penance!) In any case, the discussion of the gospel readings for the Sunday following each Wednesday’s meeting is proving to be especially rewarding. The same holds true for the segments of the PBS series, “From Jesus to Christ.”

I’ve even found the sessions spilling over into casual conversations. In particular two of my ex-priest friends who have done me the honor of attending have helped clarify my own thought and have advised me about how to do better over hot chocolates at our local gathering place, Berea Coffee and Tea.

The third special element of this year’s Lent, my attempts at Lenten discipline, has been greatly influenced by a conversation I had with a friend weeks before Lent began. He and his wife had come over for supper, and I offered him a cocktail beforehand. My friend declined. He said his son was alcoholic, and as an act of solidarity with his son’s efforts to resist alcohol, my friend too was giving it up.

At first I supposed he was thinking in terms of good example. But then I realized there was far more to it than that. After all, his son wasn’t present to witness my friend’s abstinence. Instead my friend was expressing his faith in the basic unity of all human beings. His abstinence affirmed that acts of solidarity with others somehow influence them even when they are not physically present – even when they’re not consciously aware that those acts are being performed. That’s a deep act of faith quite relevant to Lenten disciplines.

My friend’s words made me realize that at least one purpose of abstinence and other forms of what we used to call “penance” is to raise consciousness of our unity with others – especially with whose negative experiences of life we’ve managed to escape. The hope is that the resulting vicarious experience will somehow strengthen them and move us to action towards eliminating the causes of their distress. So for example,

• Following my friend’s example of abstinence from alcohol establishes a bond with those struggling to break addictions to liquor and drugs.

• Not eating meat somehow unites us with the hungry and raises consciousness about the effects meat-eating has on them and on the environment in general.

• Lowering the water temperature in one’s morning shower creates solidarity with those in U.S. prison camps subjected to water torture in various forms – including cold and scalding showers and waterboarding.

• Turning off the TV above the elliptical machine while exercising, and repeating one’s mantram instead begins to break the bond with the culture of overconsumption and destructive growth.

• The same holds true for establishing a daily discipline of consulting e-mail only once or twice a day instead of every fifteen minutes.

My friend’s refusal of liquor that night taught me that the realization of human solidarity in addictions and other problems is the whole point of Lent and its “penance.” All the rest including formal worship and study of the historical Jesus is simply means to that end.

No, I take that back. The end isn’t realizing human solidarity. The end is doing something about it.

And yet as Gandhi taught us, the end is mysteriously contained in the means – however seemingly insignificant.

Lenten Reflection: The Ash Wednesday after the Pope’s Resignation

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Well, it’s Lent. Today is Ash Wednesday. My question is what does that mean for activists who are aspiring to follow in the footsteps of the great prophet, dissident, teacher of unconventional wisdom, story-teller, mystic, and movement founder, Yeshua of Nazareth?

The question is obscured by long centuries of covering up those identities in favor of Jesus’ overwhelming identification as “Son of God.” That title swallows up all the rest and makes it difficult, if not impossible to engage in what Thomas a Kempis called “The Imitation of Christ.”

But for the moment, suppose we set aside “Jesus the Christ,” and concentrate on that man his mother named Yeshua. He lived in a time not unlike our own, in a province occupied by an empire similar to ours. He found such occupation unbearable, and devoted his public life to replacing the “Pax Romana” with what he called the “Kingdom of God.” There the world would be governed not by Roman jackboots, or by the law of the strongest, but by compassion and gift – even towards those his culture saw as undeserving.

The latter was “Good News” for the poor and oppressed among whom he found himself and his friends – laborers, working girls, beggars, lepers infected with a disease not unlike AIDS, and those fortunate enough to have government work as toll gatherers. He ate with such people. He drank wine with them. Some said he got drunk with them. He defended such friends in public. And he harshly criticized their oppressors, beginning with his religion’s equivalents of popes, bishops, priests, ministers, and TV evangelists. “Woe to you rich!” he said. “White-washed tombs!” he called the religious “leaders.”

What does it mean to follow such an activist and champion of the poor this Ash Wednesday February 13, 2013?

I would say it means first of all to ask that question and to pray humbly for an answer.

Other questions for this Lent: Does following Jesus mean taking a public stance against empire and “church” as he did? Does it mean praying for the defeat of U.S. imperial forces wherever they wage their wars of expansion and aggression? Does it mean discouraging our daughters and sons from participating in a disgrace-full military? Does it mean leaving our churches which have become the white-washed tombs of a God who through failed church leadership has lost credibility and the vital capacity to effectively summon us beyond our nationalism, militarism, and addiction to guns and violence? Does it mean lobbying, making phone calls on behalf of and generally supporting those our culture finds undeserving and “unclean?”

Does it mean for Catholics that we somehow make our voices heard all the way to Rome demanding that any new pope save the church from itself by rejecting the anti-Vatican II schismatic tendencies of the last two popes, healing the wounds of the pedophilia crisis, reversing the disaster of “Humanae Vitae’s” prohibition of contraception, allowing women to become priests, eliminating mandatory celibacy as a prerequisite for ordination, and recognizing and honoring the contributions of Catholic women like the members of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR)?

Yes, I think, it means all of those things. But Lent also calls for self-purification from the spirit that arrogantly locates all the world’s evils “out there” in “those people.” In its wisdom, the grassroots church of Hildegard of Bingen, Francis of Assisi and St. Clare, of Daniel and Phil Berrigan, Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King, Oscar Romero, Ignacio Ellacuria, Jean Donovan, and Matthew Fox calls us to deepen our interior lives for purposes of sharpening our discernment about how to contribute towards replacing empire with God’s Kingdom. All of those saints, remember, were condemned by the hierarchy just the way Yeshua was in his own day.

Six weeks is a relatively long time for the purification necessary to eliminate undesirable patterns in our lives and to replace them with habits exemplified in the lives of the saints I’ve just mentioned. It’s plenty of time for working on our addictions to the pursuit of pleasure, profit, power, and prestige. Each of us knows what behaviors in our own lives are associated with those categories. So it’s time to get to work.

As for myself . . . besides using this period for training my senses, I intend to recommit myself with renewed fervor to my daily practice of meditation, my mantram (“Yeshua, Yeshua”), spiritual reading, slowing down, one-pointed attention, spiritual companionship, and putting the needs of others first – the eight-point program outlined by Eknath Easwaran in his book Passage Meditation. I’m going to keep a spiritual journal this Lent to make sure I stay focused.

I’m also joining some friends of mine in a resolution to give up church for Lent. We’re doing so in favor of a six week experiment with an “Ecumenical Table” — a lay-led liturgical gathering often featuring a woman as homilist and Eucharistic Prayer leader. Though some in the group will also continue to attend their normal churches, the experiment may help us discern how to finally cope with the white-washed tombs of God I mentioned earlier.

And then there’s our parish Lenten Program I’ll be facilitating. It’s called “The Quest of the Historical Jesus: from Jesus to Christ.” It will be devoted to discovering the carpenter Yeshua behind the Jesus Christ of the gospels. In the light of our discoveries, we’ll unpack the liturgical readings for the following Sunday in hopes of making those Lenten liturgies more meaningful and challenging.

Additionally, my wife Peggy and I will also be working hard on our communication and have decided to devote significant time each evening to listening to each other in a loving respectful way.

In these ways I hope to pass my most fruitful Lent ever, to be truly able to rise with Yeshua to a new level of Kingdom-commitment on Easter Sunday.

Give Up Church for Lent!

Readings for 2nd Sunday in Advent: Bar. 5: 1-9; Ps. 126: 1-6; Phil. 1: 4-6, 8-12; Lk. 3: 1-6 http://www.usccb.org/bible/readings/120912.cfm

In my town of Berea, Kentucky, a kind of religious revival is taking place. A spirited group of people across denominational lines meets once a month to experiment with and “Ecumenical Table Fellowship.” It’s a community of Christians without benefit of clerical leadership meeting to reflect on our common biblical tradition in the light of what Vatican II called “the signs of the times.” The group breaks bread liturgically in the spirit of Jesus’ Last Supper and of the early church. Roman Catholics are prominent in the group. They are discouraged by today’s conservative pre-Vatican II “restorationism” that emphasizes the power of the church hierarchy and ordained priesthood at the expense of Vatican II’s emphasis on the priesthood of the faithful.

Some in the group agree with spiritual theologian, Matthew Fox that their church leadership is in schism against the spirit of the Second Vatican Council, which remains the official teaching of the Catholic Church. Pope John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and the conservative bishops they have appointed are the culprits in schism. These clerics are defensive of hierarchy and the power of an exclusively male priesthood. They devalue lay leadership and the prominent biblical stories of Exodus and Return from Exile that are highlighted in today’s liturgy of the word where they are contrasted with “the priestly story” that currently plagues the Catholic Church.

The great Jesus scholar, Marcus Borg, reminds us that amid the literally hundreds of stories in the Bible, there are three “macro-stories” that give coherence to the Jewish Testament and its Christian counterpart. The first and most important is the story of Exodus. Its’ a tale of liberation from slavery and journey to a “Promised Land.” For the ancient Hebrews, the Exodus was grounded in an actual historical event, the release of slaves from their oppression under the pharaohs of Egypt perhaps 1200 years before the birth of Jesus.  It was the Exodus that provided the ancient Hebrews with their first experience of their God, Yahweh.  For them, Yahweh’s fundamental identity was the One Who Liberates from Oppression. In our day, the macro-story of Exodus has become central for third world people living under the harsh realities of U.S. imperialism.

The second Old Testament macro-story is Exile and Return. It too was grounded in history. In the year 587 BCE, the Hebrews were conquered by Babylon (modern Iraq). The Babylonians transported the Hebrew elite to Iraq till the Persian King Cyrus released them after conquering Babylon in 539.The story of exile and return shaped the ancient Israelites almost as much as the Exodus story. Like oppression and slavery, that narrative represents a human archetype that all of us can relate to it in one way or another.  The archetype evokes the feelings of grief, sadness and displacement reflected in one of the psalms of exile, “By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down and wept when we remembered Zion.” The Advent Hymn “O Come Emanuel” expresses the same feelings in its own reference to the Babylonian Exile: “O Come O Come, Emanuel, and ransom captive Israel, that mourns in lonely exile here.”  For one reason or another, all of us feel somehow exiled, sad, and displaced.

The third macro-story of the Jewish Testament comes from priestly sources. It is not grounded in a particular historical event, but in temple ritual and worship. It is the story of sin, guilt and of forgiveness mediated by the priestly class, their sacrifices, rules, rituals and prayers. Judging from the attitudes of Israel’s prophets and especially of Jesus, the priestly narrative is far less important than either Exodus or Exile. In fact, along with many other prophets, Jesus expressed harsh criticism and even hostility towards priestly pretensions and business-as-usual within the temple precincts. And yet, the priestly narrative has carried the day in terms of dominant Judeo-Christian spirituality. “Jewish guilt” and “Catholic guilt” are legendary. Jesus is primarily understood as the one who “died for our sins.” God’s wrath and the threat of hell are staples of Sunday sermons and of Christian neuroses.

The focus of today’s liturgy of the word is Exile and Return in sharp contrast to the Priestly Story of sin, guilt, sacrifice and forgiveness. The first reading from the Book of Baruch was probably written about 150 BCE when Israel was under the sway of the Seleucid Greeks. However the book is presented as though it were written 400 years earlier during the Babylonian Exile – as if it were addressed to the exiles then. Baruch’s real audience however was the Jews at war with the Greeks. His real intention was to encourage his contemporaries in their resistance to Greece – promising them that the rough road they were then traveling would soon be made smooth by Yahweh –   the one who frees the oppressed and brings exiles back from captivity.

In today’s gospel, Luke presents John the Baptist in terms of both Exile and Return and Exodus. Luke sees John as fulfilling the words of the prophet Isaiah nearly 600 years earlier. By anchoring John’s appearance in Isaiah, Luke is implying that John represents a continuation of Isaiah’s work of announcing the end of exile. This was a bold claim for Luke, since many Jews of his day believed that prophetic voices – nearly always lay people – had forever fallen silent. But here is John presented as fulfilling Isaiah’s words. He is making the rough way smooth. He’s leveling mountains and filling in valleys.  At the same time, John’s proclamation as presented by Luke has overtones of the priestly story. Luke shows John proclaiming a baptism of repentance for forgiveness of sin.

But here it is important to note the Exodus dimensions of John’s work. He is presented as preaching and baptizing specifically outside the temple and sphere of the priests. In fact, John appears in the wilderness – in the desert. For Jews, this would not only have evoked overtones of the Exodus macro-story, it would also have signaled a subversive significance in John’s work. After all, the “desert” or “wilderness” was the place where contemporary resistance movements were spawned. As scripture scholar, Ched Myers points out, Luke could not have picked a narrative “coordinate” further removed from the temple. For Luke the regeneration of prophecy was happening not in Baruch’s Zion but at the margins of Jewish society – in the desert where it all began with the Exodus. In other words, Luke presents John’s ministry as a complete break with the priestly establishment which controlled the mechanisms of social redemption from their power base in Jerusalem.

All of this raises questions for thoughtful Christians in the context of our own exilic sadness as we face the contemporary irrelevance of what happens in our own “temples.”  Is it time to move out of that realm now dominated by schismatic popes, bishops and priests and to relocate where our worship tradition began – in homes with Eucharists led by lay people?

Perhaps we’re not yet ready to substitute an Ecumenical Table experience for weekly Mass. But we could supplement Sunday Mass with such fellowship once a month. Alternatively, what if an Ecumenical Table were offered each Sunday at the very time of our parish Mass (9:00 am at St. Clare’s in Berea)?  That would give parishioners a choice. At least on occasion they could attend the Ecumenical Table and compare it with “business as usual.”

Another idea: Lent is fast approaching (Ash Wednesday is Feb. 13th). Might Lent not be a good time to “give up” church, and for six weeks and experiment with this alternative form of worship?

In today’s excerpt from his letter to Philemon, Paul prays that the church meeting at Philemon’s house might be given discernment to distinguish what is really important. Today’s liturgy of the word suggests that Exodus from business as usual and return from the Exile of pre-Vatican II Restorationism might be more important than honoring the priestly order that has dominated Catholic consciousness for too long.

Let’s consider trying to recapture Philemon’s home church experience and see what happens – if only for Lent’s six weeks. At the very least, the absence of people at Sunday Mass might get the attention of our bishop and pastor. It might help them realize that something’s amiss!

(Discussion follows)