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.

(Sunday Homily) Transforming Our Addiction to Child Sacrifice

child sacrifice 2

Readings for 2nd Sunday of Lent: GN 22: 1-2, 3A, 10-13, 15-18; PS 118: 10, 15-19; ROM 8: 31B-34; MK 9: 2-10

Question most Americans – perhaps the majority in this congregation – and they would profess pride to be able to sacrifice their sons and daughters to defend “American interests” even in far off places like Iraq and Afghanistan.

Question the Christians among us, and many would shed no tears over the innumerable children incinerated by our drones, napalm, and white phosphorous. Of course, we’d rather avoid such casualties, but collateral damage is collateral damage.

Question most of us benefitting from our present economic system. Tell us that it causes 30,000 children to die each day from perfectly preventable causes like starvation and diarrhea, and most will simply shrug. We accept such deaths as the inevitable cost of doing business. It’s preferable that children die rather than interfere with the out-workings of the global free market. (Even though it ends up giving 85 men as much wealth as the world’s 3.5 billion poorest.)

In other words, most of us – even the most “pro-life” among us – have little problem with most forms of child sacrifice. In fact, it’s not far off to say that most who identify themselves as pro-life are not really pro-life, but simply anti-abortion. Otherwise, child sacrifice is perfectly acceptable and even celebrated.

Today’s liturgy of the word (centering on the “transfigurations” of Abraham and Jesus) calls all of that into question.

First of all, consider the familiar story of Abraham and Isaac, its rejection of child sacrifice, and how it transfigured or transformed the roots of Jewish faith.

At first glance, the text seems to praise the great patriarch for his readiness to plunge a knife into Isaac’s heart. It has God saying, “For now I know that your fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son from me.” It’s as though Abraham’s readiness to do violence to his son were a unique proof of his faith.

Such understanding however is to forget that in ancient Mesopotamia it was required of all parents to sacrifice their firstborn sons. So despite the text’s claim, there would have been nothing remarkable about Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son. Everyone in Abraham’s culture had that sort of primitive “faith.”

Scripture scholars conclude that the words just quoted (“For now I know that your fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son from me.”) represent an editorial addition inserted centuries after the reported event, when people no longer remembered the ancient and universal requirement of tribal gods to sacrifice the first-born of family and flock.

The editors were priests and scribes in service to Israel’s royal family. They adjusted the Abraham story to suit their employers’ needs for patriotic cannon-fodder. This explains the addition of the words indicating God’s pleasure at parents’ willingness to sacrifice their children.

In contrast to that textual adjustment, and as originally told, the Abraham-Isaac tale was about the ancient patriarch’s transfigured understanding of God. It was about his discovery of Yahweh as the God of Life who prohibited rather than required child sacrifice. [Note that even in this morning’s English translation, it is “God” (meaning Baal, the biblical name denoting foreign idols) who gives Abraham the order to sacrifice his son. But it is “the Lord” (meaning Yahweh, the God of Abraham) who tells the patriarch to stay his hand.]

So Abraham’s real merit is found not in his willingness to sacrifice his son, but in his unwillingness to do so.  In that sense, Abraham in this instance is like Yahweh, the non-violent God of life, who (Abraham discovers) never endorses child sacrifice. That realization should have transfigured Abrahamic faiths forever. Unfortunately, it did not.

Jesus carries on and expands Abraham’s insight.  He rejects violence of any type. He is the one who said: “love one another. Love your enemies. Forgive one another. Be compassionate. Be merciful. Seek God’s reign and God’s justice. Put away the sword. Rise and do not be afraid.”

Today’s gospel about Jesus’ “transfiguration” concludes with a voice directing us to “Listen to him.”

If we did, our world would indeed be transfigured. We would be transfigured – totally transformed.

What do you think is entailed in Jesus’ call – in Abraham’s call – to non-violence? How do we “listen to them?”

Discussion follows

Abram’s Self-Butchering God (Sunday Homily)

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Readings for 2nd Sunday of Lent: Gn. 15:5-12, 17-18; Ps. 27:1, 7-9, 13-14; Phil. 3:17-4:1; Lk. M9:28B-36. http://www.usccb.org/bible/readings/022413.cfm

For the last several months I’ve been involved with an alternative faith community in central Kentucky. It calls itself the “Ecumenical Table.” It’s composed of people like me who for one reason or another find ourselves dissatisfied with our local church experiences.

In my own case, I find Sunday experiences in my Catholic parish irrelevant to my life and disconnected from reality in general. Here we are living in a world of rampant violence, widespread addictions, permanent war, torture, climate change, drone attacks on the innocent, and rather complete cultural disintegration, and yet in church none of these problems is even mentioned.

We pretend to be following the example of a Martyr who opposed empire and religious hypocrisy on the one hand, and who literally identified with the tortured and victims of capital punishment on the other. And still we carry on as though that Martyr, Jesus of Nazareth, was somehow like white bourgeois Americans and blessed our addiction to imperial overconsumption and violence. I find that painful to endure.

And so I find myself following the hallowed example of religious protesters (Protestants) over the last 2000 years, and looking for something better. Actually, I find myself following the example of the Jewish Testament’s Abram, and that of Jesus himself as he’s pictured in today’s gospel account of his transfiguration. Abram was himself looking for something better. And in today’s reading, he receives assurance that the One in whom we live and move and have our being would lead him there. For his part, Jesus of Nazareth, received reassurance in today’s gospel episode that his life as professional troublemaker was on the right track. Let me explain. . . .

Abram was an ancient sheik, who turned out to be the furthest back ancestor the Jews could remember. He originally lived in ancient Babylon but felt called to move off to the west, to start over, find a new homeland, and start a new independent tribe. He somehow felt that God was calling him to do all these things. Problem was, Abram was already advanced in years and his wife, Sarah, was beyond menopause. Still, he felt that God was promising him a large family – a tribe whose people would be as numerous as the stars of the heavens.

In today’s readings, Abram evidently feels time is running out on God’s promise. The sheik is looking for reassurance. It comes in the form of a dream. The dream answers his question: how trustworthy is God? How far can you trust an agreement – a covenant – with this God who has promised him a large family? Can God be trusted to guide Abram as he starts over and begins a new life?

Abram’s question makes this tribal pastoralist dream of the most solemn human covenant he knew of – the “Covenant of Pieces.” According to tribal practice, when an inferior made an important agreement with a patron – say to transfer property, do work, fight a battle, or repay a debt – he had to go through an extremely graphic pledge ritual. The ceremony involved sacrificing animals from the client’s flock (in today’s reading a mature heifer, she goat and a ram along with a turtle dove and a pigeon). The inferior was to split the animals in two, and align the carcasses in rows so that they formed a path with one half the heifer’s carcass on the left and the other on the right, and the same with the she goat and ram. Then with the patron holding his hand, the client was to solemnly walk between the carcasses taking note of their dead rotting state, their putrid smell, and of the vultures flying overhead.

All of this was a reminder of the power the client was handing over to his patron. He was saying in effect, if I don’t keep my pledge, I’m giving you permission to do this to me and to my family. You can butcher us all and leave us to rot in the sun. That’s a pretty serious commitment. Sheik Abram could think of nothing more solemn, reassuring or binding.

So his dream which at first glance seems so strange and confusing to us was extremely comforting to him as a tribal pastoralist. It had God (in the form of fire and smoke) playing the role of client to Abram. God was performing the “pieces” ritual in Abram’s presence by running the gauntlet formed by rotting meat. That is if God did not keep his word, God was willing to be butchered! This, of course, could never happen. So the dream meant God could never not keep God’s word. A God willing to be butchered rather than break his word? Reassuring indeed!

Jesus obtains similarly strong reassurance from Abram’s Servant God in today’s reading from Luke. The young carpenter is on his way to Jerusalem. And something extremely risky is about to happen there. He’s determined to be part of it. The risky action has to do with the temple and Jesus’ dissatisfaction with what routinely happens there. (It was not unlike the dissatisfaction with church that I referenced earlier.)

The temple has become worse than irrelevant to the situation of his people living under Roman oppression. What happens there not only ignores Jewish political reality. The temple leadership has become the most important Jewish collaborator of the oppressing power. And Jesus has decided to address that intolerable situation.

Everyone knows that a big demonstration against the Romans is planned in Jerusalem for the weekend of Passover. There’ll be chanting mobs. The slogans are already set. “Hosanna, hosanna, in the highest” will be one chant. Another will be “Hosanna to the Son of David!” “Hosanna” is the key word here. It means “save us!” The Romans won’t notice that the real meaning is “Save us from the Romans.” “Restore an independent Israel – like David’s kingdom!”

Jesus has heard that one of the main organizers of the demonstration is the guerrilla Zealot called Barabbas. Barabbas doesn’t call what’s planned a “demonstration.” He prefers the term “The Uprising” or “ the Insurrection” (Mk. 15). Barabbas has a following as enthusiastic as that of Jesus. After all, Barabbas is a “sicarius” – a guerrilla whose solemn mission is to assassinate Roman soldiers. His courage has made him a hero to the crowds. (John Dominic Cross compares him to the Mel Gibson character in “The Patriot.”)

Jesus’ assigned part in the demonstration will be to attack the Temple and symbolically destroy it. He plans to enter the temple with his friends and disrupt business as usual. They’ll all shout at the money-changers whose business exploits the poor. They’ll turn over their tables. As a proponent of non-violence, they’re thinking not in Barabbas’ terms of “uprising,” but of forcing God’s hand to bring in the Lord’s “Kingdom” to replace Roman domination. Passover, the Jewish holiday of national independence could not be a more appropriate time for the planned event. Jesus is thinking in terms of “Exodus.”

And yet, this peasant from Galilee is troubled by it all. What if the plan doesn’t work and God’s Kingdom doesn’t dawn this Passover? What if the Romans succeed in doing what they’ve always done in response to uprisings and demonstrations? Pilate’s standing order to deal with lower class disturbances is simply to arrest everyone involved and crucify them all as terrorists. Why would it be different this time? Like Abram before him, Jesus has doubts.

So before setting out for Jerusalem, he takes his three closest friends and ascends a mountain for a long night of prayer. He’s seeking reassurance before the single most important act in his life. As usual, Peter, James and John soon fall fast asleep. True to form they are uncomprehending and dull.

However, while the lazy fall into unconsciousness, the ever-alert and thoughtful Jesus has a vision. Moses appears to him, and so does Elijah. (Together they represent the entire Jewish scriptural testament – the law and the prophets.) This means that on this mountain of prayer, Jesus considers his contemplated path in the light of his people’s entire tradition.

Last week, we saw in the reading from Deuteronomy 26, that tradition centered on the Exodus. Fittingly then, Jesus, Moses, and Elijah “discuss” what is about to take place in Jerusalem. Or as Luke puts it, “And behold, two men were conversing with him, Moses and Elijah, who appeared in glory and spoke of his exodus that he was going to accomplish in Jerusalem.” Jesus Exodus!

It is easy to imagine Moses’ part in the conversation. That would be to remind Jesus of the chances Moses took when he led the original Exodus from Egypt. That might have failed too. Elijah’s part was likely to recall for Jesus the “prophet script” that all prophets must follow. That script has God’s spokespersons speaking truth to power and suffering the inevitable consequences. Elijah reminds Jesus: So what if Barabbas and those following the path of violence are defeated again? So what if Jesus’ non-violent direct action in the temple fails to bring in the Kingdom? So what if Jesus is arrested and crucified? That’s just the cost of doing prophetic business. Despite appearances to the contrary, Abram’s faithful God will somehow triumph in the end.

Is there a message here for us – in the experience of Abram and of Jesus, both of them seeking reassurance as they embark on risky paths in response to a compassionate Servant God? Is there hidden meaning for those of us who like Abram are seeking a new home and “church” community blessed by a God who would rather die than be unfaithful? Is there a message here for followers of the Nazarene rabbi who cannot separate worship and political commitment and activism?

Those are the kind of questions Christians should ask and discuss around Ecumenical Tables everywhere on this Second Sunday of Lent.

(Discussion follows)