Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Daily Wages in the Kingdom of God

The meditations that follow are adapted from the homily I preached at Mass last week. It is the normal practice in my tradition for a congregation to hear a set of readings appointed for the day. This schedule of readings, or lectionary, helps ensure that the teaching of the Faith in a local parish is based upon a broad selection of Scripture. In each passage, the character of the Christian God is demonstrated to stand over against normal standards of fairness.

The Old Testament (Hebrew Bible) reading comes from Jonah 3.10-4.11, one of the “minor” prophetic books in the OT. This book is unusual for the literature in that it recounts the prophet’s story rather than his prophecy.

God sent Jonah to Nineveh, that great heathen city and enemy of Israel, to warn of God’s impending judgment upon their immorality. Jonah was more than a little reluctant, and he ran as far as he could, but finally submitted to the prophetic call and preached to that alien people.

Jonah’s mission was a success, and he was furious.

Perhaps he feared his reputation as a prophet – after all, if you threaten fire from the sky upon the city brothels, but everyone gets a soft rain on their sackcloth, it’s a good indication that either the prophet is a crackpot, or that the prophet’s God is merciful and loving. Jonah is likely more concerned for his own reputation than that of the Lord – to say nothing of all the time and energy he wasted. I know that if I were going to a strange land to make threats in public, I’d want to see a much bigger body count. It doesn’t help either that, in general, good news for big pagan cities was bad news for little Israel.

God, for his part, seems quite upset that Jonah has not seen fit to emulate God’s attitude toward the roaring pagans of Nineveh. It almost seems like he spits his words at the Lord, as beautiful words of praise are intended as a stinging rebuke “…I knew you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.” If God is so capricious, so shallow and fickle, thinks Jonah, as to take the pious playacting of the pagans as evidence of real repentance, let him kill Jonah now, because that makes for a pretty untrustworthy God. Jonah, you understand, was being something of a drama queen.

But the Lord grows a plant to shade the fuming Jonah from the heat of the sun. And then he kills it. Jonah rails against God, renewing his righteous indignation against an arbitrary deity. God continues his Socratic questioning: “You care about a plant. You care about the plant because you find it useful. Those people and those animals – they’re not doing me any good at all, but I care very much for them. The cows, Jonah! I think about the cows. Which one of us is really arbitrary? Which one of us really cannot be trusted to be faithful?

Today’s words from Paul in 1:21-27 in his Letter to the Philippians offer a stark contrast to Jonah’s resentment. Whereas Jonah suffered because of his rejection of God’s love for the undeserving, Paul suffers because of his willingness to preach the good news about Jesus, the world’s true Lord, to even the Imperial Household! Jonah despaired of death because he despised the mercy of the Lord, finding it unfair and by his own standards, arbitrary. Paul, however, was a man transformed by God’s mercy through Jesus Christ and was so grateful for this that he was pleased to spend himself to share that experience with others. Paul welcomed death because of his real suffering, and Jonah’s suffering stemmed only from his choice of ingratitude.

In our gospel reading, Jesus offers us a parable of economics in the Kingdom of God – the Kingdom of which Caesar’s empire is only a parody. In biblical literature, vineyard workers usually signify the people of God living and working according to God’s rule in the land of Israel. In our story, God is represented as a vineyard owner who pays only fairly to those who work all day, and is much more than fair to those who come around later: he gives them all the same wages. Jesus’ story would have had particular resonance for somebody like Paul. Though as a Jew, his people – the first vineyard workers – were included first in God’s Kingdom project. Gentiles were hired later, as it were.

Paul himself was a latecomer to the Movement. He had persecuted the fledgling Church with vigor, and having received forgiveness was eager to proclaim the same grace to a pagan people that didn’t know the God of Israel. We could safely say that at least one purpose in the Matthean context was to place Jewish and Gentile believers on equal footing.

Attempts at contemporary application for the parable can be murky, however. One popular interpretation of the parable reads it in the context of conversion and the Final Judgment, arguing that it demonstrates full validity for the last-minute, deathbed conversions of raucous sinners. Without directly challenging the time-honored practice of snatching sick sinners right from the very maw of eternal hell, I will argue that we cannot use the parable for this purpose. First, such an interpretation that offers equal eschatological rewards for unequal efforts directly contradicts the previous paragraph in Matthew in which Jesus states that everybody’s going to get paid back a hundredfold for everything they left behind for the Kingdom. Second, I’m reluctant to consider this a parable of judgment, because when Jesus tells those, he’s usually alluding to his own rejection and God’s vindication: in Jesus’ parables of judgment, the owner usually comes home and burns the vineyard and kills the wicked servants. This parable is not presented as a parable of judgment, but an illustration of everyday life under God’s reign: this is what the Kingdom of God is like. After all, a denarius is a daily wage, and a subsistence wage at that. That doesn’t sound like a hundredfold return to me, or much of a “final reward.” It’s more than an little out of place to represent eschatological judgment in this fashion: “Oh, you’ve come to the restoration of heaven and earth. Here’s a days’ worth of food; do try to make it last.”

So as we put aside the usual interpretations, how do we hear this story? As Kingdom people – a community that lives presently under God’s Reign, we “tend the vineyard” by living according to his rule and carry out his Mission. Cyril of Alexandria offers his reading:
“He gives to all ‘their single denarius,’ which is the grace of the Spirit, perfecting the saints in conformity with God and impressing the heavenly stamp on their souls and leading them to life and immortality.”
As we do this work, each of us is offered the same necessary grace and supply of the Spirit for faithful work.

Some of us are “early hires” in the work of the Lord. We show hospitality. We teach to any who would listen, the Christian message of God’s reign established in Christ. We are faithful to study the Scriptures, pray the Office, work the disciplines and cultivate a life of forgiveness toward our friends and blessings for our enemies. We have spent years learning to dedicate ourselves to holiness and the work of God in his world. People like us can be easily tempted to think like Jonah and the other early hires of whom Jesus spoke: ready to say how and when and why God should show generosity to others. We can be quick to consider our accolades, awards, degrees, reputations, and expect that a good God will make sure everything is fairly apportioned.

This is Jesus’ call to his faithful ones: “Set aside your symbols of accomplishment, and let go of your comparisons to others. Step away from each talisman of security and worth, and really trust me. Trust that I love you. Trust that even while I delight in your faithfulness, I don’t love you because of it. Trust that I simply love you.” We always begin to lose our way when we imagine that we can earn or deepen the love of God.

Some of us might think of ourselves as “late hires.” Perhaps we’ve only met Jesus late on our lives, or only recently began to get serious about discipleship. Maybe we’re not seriously dedicated to the Kingdom yet at all! Some of us come from alternative religious traditions in which we were told lies about God, and so we’re more than happy to keep Jesus at arm’s length for awhile. Maybe we stand at the far end of a lot of years or an entire life in which we didn’t do anything that we meant to, and find hopes and our dreams for our selves, our families, our religion and our careers to be dashed upon a rock. Nobody’s going to pick us first for kickball, vineyard tending or dog catching. Some of us strive after those accolades and degrees, looking for a rationale to talk other people into loving us, and to talk Jesus into saying we’re good enough. We desperately need to believe that Jesus really does love us and will love us and will heal us regardless of our accomplishments, because we just don’t have very many of those.

Here is good news: he offers all of us the same grace, and the same hope of transformation, whether we are 18 or 80, faithful or failing. Jesus is our host. He invites us all to the same table to get what we so desperately need: to eat his flesh and drink his blood in these holy mysteries, and to receive the supply of the Spirit in order to amend our lives and to carry on the work of his Kingdom. “Come to me, all you who are weak, and carry a heavy burden. I will place my yolk upon your shoulders, and you will find rest for your souls.”

Holiness is not a function of what we avoid, or even the good works we perform. Christian holiness means that we belong to Jesus, and seek to grow in love. We progress in that life by confessing our failings and confessing our trust in the one who can and will do a good work in us for the sake of his love. One of the most urgent questions in the life of the ancient Christian churches was how to understand the reality of the Church’s holiness through its mystical union with Jesus Christ as well as the reality of its members’ sinfulness. Some argued that the Church could only be holy if its members always maintained their moral purity, always resisted sin, and never denied the Lord through their words or actions. All of those who fall short after baptism must be put out. Saint Augustine maintained that such a stance placed the Church over against the teaching of Jesus, who entreated us daily to ask forgiveness for our sins – we would do poorly to prefer our perfectionism over Jesus’ merciful realism. [1]

Christians do not grow in holiness because they avoid everything that’s bad for them, and make all of the right choices. If this were true, we’d simultaneously be growing in pride. It’s not about checking off all the right boxes and obeying all the rules. Holiness comes through ongoing exposure to truth – the truth about ourselves and the truth about Jesus Christ. As the Lord and the Christian Community reveal our sins to us, we confess them and place our trust in the forgiveness and generous mercy of Jesus Christ. We are made holy through our receptivity to the truth, and our admission of our own need for healing and forgiveness, and continual trust in God to restore us.

Last week the Church commemorated one of her martyrs, a pastor named Cyprian. Cyprian was made bishop of the Church at Carthage in the year 250, just in time for a short but vicious persecution of Christians at the hands of the Empire. In the face of torture, exile, and loss of property, many Christians kept the faith, and refused to deny Christ. Some lived and some died. Others gave into the pressure of the persecution and denied the Lord. When the persecution ended, there was great controversy over the fate of the lapsed who wished to rejoin the Christian community. Rigorists insisted that the lapsed had committed the sin against the Holy Spirit in denying the Lord, and should not be re-admitted to the community. Cyprian was one of the bishops who insisted upon modeling the Lord’s mercy, and maintained that He welcomed all who repented and turned again. The lapsed were required to undergo a long period of penance before admission to the Lord’s table – a period of fasting and spiritual disciplines, in order that they would be strong enough to confess the Holy Name.

AD257 saw a new persecution in North Africa, at which point Cyprian re-admitted all of the lapsed to the table of the Lord. He entreated other bishops to do the same, for reasons he describes in a letter to the Bishop of Rome:
“…Now peace is necessary, not for the sick, but for the strong…. And, as the Eucharist is appointed a safeguard to those who receive, we need it in order to arm, with the protection of the Lord’s abundance, those whom we wish to be safe against the adversary. For how do we teach or provoke them to shed their blood in confession of his Name, if we deny to those who are about to enter warfare the Blood of Christ? How do we make them fit for the cup of martyrdom, if we do not first admit them to drink, in the Church, the cup of the Lord by right of Communion?”
Jesus Christ and his Church call us to be faithful workers in the vineyard by cultivating holiness and growing in faithfulness to mission. In baptism, we receive a work of grace by which we no longer belong to ourselves, but to Jesus Christ and one another. In this initiation sacrament there is spiritual power as we are made alive in Jesus to stand against sin and death, both in our own lives and the culture around us. In the sacrament of Holy Communion we receive “the medicine of immortality” by which we overcome fear, addiction, selfishness, and all the snares of the evil one. In study of the Scriptures, we learn the truth that sets us free from all the lies we may have believed about God and ourselves. Steps of obedience in the life of the Christian community and faithful study of the Christian tradition will teach us to walk with integrity and wisdom, and to be more faithful to our identity in Christ.

All of this, of course, leads us on in mission as we seek to be vineyard workers faithful to the vision of the vineyard owner. We have been sent to speak and enact an alternative story of love and forgiveness in the midst of a people who are determined that everybody should have just what they deserve. We are a people who will bless our enemies, pray for those who use us, and lavish forgiveness on those who want to hurt us. We will offer people what they need regardless of what they deserve: a relationship with Jesus Christ and a place in his new humanity.

So draw near to God by making faithful and honest confession of your faults. Come to the table praying forgiveness for those who have wronged you, and blessing for those you can’t stand. Come and share mystical communion with the risen Lord by eating his flesh and drinking his blood. Receive power to be Jesus People.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

[1] This paragraph is adapted from a great discussion in the second chapter of Rowan Williams, Why Study the Past? The Quest for the Historical Church, Eerdmans, 2005.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Rich Mullins, d.1997

Today we remember Rich Mullins, a musician and song writer. He was influential for my faith as I learned how Christians relate to God. Rich, ora pro nobis.

And may peace rain down from Heaven
Like little pieces of the sky
Little keepers of the promise
Falling on these souls
This drought has dried
In His Blood and in His Body
In the Bread and in this Wine
Peace to you
Peace of Christ to you

- "Peace (A Communion Blessing from St Joseph's Square)"

"The Bible is not a book for the faint of heart. It is a book full of all the greed and glory and violence and tenderness and sex and betrayal that benefits mankind. It is not the collection of pretty little anecdotes mouthed by pious little church mice. It does not so much nibble at our shoe as it cuts to the heart and splits the marrow from bone to bone. It does not give us answers fitted to our smaller minded questions but truth that goes beyond what we even know to ask."

"I don't think you read the Bible to know truth. I think you read the Bible to find God, that we encounter Him there. Paul says that the scriptures are God's breath and I kind of go, wow, so let's breathe this as deeply as possible. And this is what liturgy offers that all the razzmatazz of our modern worship can't touch. You don't go home from church going, 'Oh I am just moved to tears.' You go home from church going, 'Wow, I just took communion and you know what? If Augustine were alive today, he would have had it with me and maybe he is and maybe he did.'"
Here's a remembrance by Jason Boyett.

Terry Mattingly: "Enigmatic, restless, Catholic."

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Hiding Bodies

While the stone tablet went out of vogue some time ago, printed matter retains an almost mystical sense of permanence for some people. Up until the last few years, people even saw books with the same reverence they have for the Internet: if it's in a book, it's got to be true.*

Writing a book carries a sense of accomplishment that people often describe with the language of giving birth - look what I did! That's a little part of me, unleashed upon the world! We even try to nurture in our young a sense of wonder and awe for printed matter so they won't grow up to be thick and illiterate - a kind of Reading Rainbow mythology. Books are wonderful! All kinds of books! Books hold wonderful, magical worlds of surprise and joy!

Of course, like everything else beautiful and innocent, this mythology gets deconstructed in the cold, hard world of the academy. Eventually all who walk these hallowed halls must learn the terrible truth: not all books are really Worth Something. That molding, discombobulated text about cancer treatments, published in 1913? It has no academic value to our institution, since we don't have any medical history doctoral programs. It's worthless as an antique, since it's falling apart and gross. We must dispose of it. Here's a hardcover thriller from 1995 somebody dropped off. We already have a copy in the stacks, and the 112 copies of it on offer at are listed at $1 each. We just need to get it out of the way.

Here's the problem: because of this strange reverence for the written word - any written word - getting rid of a useless book is like hiding the bodies in your backyard. If anybody sees you disposing of it, you're in deep trouble. The general reading (or non-reading) public is horrified that a librarian would destroy any book that retains 65% of its pages. "Hitler burned books," they are quick to accuse. It doesn't matter that Hitler burned important books by prominent Jewish scientists, and that I'm throwing away a dog-eared John Grisham paperback with water damage. Hitler burned books, I'm throwing books away: we're pretty much the same person.

Our library doesn't have as many volumes as we'd like. I imagine that this is true for any library with a book-buying budget, instead of say, a book maintenance budget, or a candy bowl budget. If people see me getting rid of a set of World Book Encyclopedias that contain the most up-to-date articles on trade between Rhodesia and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, they will say, "We don't have enough books as it is, and they're just throwing them away!" It doesn't matter that it's a 1978 textbook on building circuits that happens to be written in Esperanto. What matters is that I'm "throwing away" books, as if all books were equally valuable. It's a really quick way to get called a Nazi, one way or another. Most academic libraries never accept donations in order to avoid the difficulty of disposing of books they can't use. Our institution gladly and gratefully accepts donations, in the case of items like the ones I've mentioned, it raises the problem of getting rid of the bodies. It has to happen under the cover of night, with no witnesses.

Heaven help you if you stumble upon a librarian in the woods with a shovel. I promise you that only one of you will walk back down the mountain.

*Whenever I want to convince our housecat of the veracity of my arguments, I tell him I read it in a book. He can't read, so he always believes me. Makes me feel a little bit like a jerk, though.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Upon the Feast of the Holy Cross

"If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me."
- Jesus
"When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die."
- Dietrich Bonhoeffer
It is presently popular in our culture to construe the Christian religion as a system of spirituality designed to make bad lives better and good lives great.* Here's the problem: Christian theology finds its genesis in stories about persons and relationships, beginning with the Trinitarian God. Christian truth does not begin with the stories we tell about our own lives or our assessment of our own problems, but rather the story that God tells about Himself, and about us. It's not a story about affirming our desires or giving us the lives we always wanted, but giving us the good things that we were never capable of desiring, and the life with God that we never believed possible. God's stories about us have a plotline. All of the stories - God's hopes and dreams for us - find their climax in the Cross.

Jesus is unlike any other man, and unlike any other God. He is the God/Man, and at just the right time he showed up to bring Israel's story to its climax and to enable our lives to flow into that great Reality. As a man always obedient to the Father, he walked into the place of Damnation for us. Abandoned by his own people and subject to the power of Roman justice and Roman control, he was executed as the Godforsaken and damned. Those of us who never knew the name of the True God were loved by that God so creatively so strongly by Him that he absorbed into himself the full force of our alienation and rebellion - bore our sins in his own Body.

Our problem is not that we have poor self-esteem, or that we don't know the 5, 7, 12, 14 or 21 habits, laws, practices, or secrets for a better life. We do not need a spirituality that will make us highly successful versions of the people we already are. We do not need "our best life now." Indeed, the very last thing we need is a magician god who will make all of our most selfish fantasies come true. Some Christian thinkers have defined Hell in just that fashion. I know that some of my desires lead me away from the love of God in Jesus Christ, and I would bet that some of yours do as well. Our problem is that we find ourselves cut off from the life of God, and are often so mired in our selfishness that we cannot see the way he's made to bring us back to himself.

We give thanks for the Cross of Christ, because we realize that we are a people of disordered loves. Our motives are mixed, and not always clear to ourselves. We treasure attitudes that kill the life of God in us. We nurture habits that lead us further way from the People we were created to be. The bitter joy comes when we realize that while there is much in us that needs to die, the God of Jesus Christ is out of his great love ready to kill the habits and attitudes and stories that are killing us. This is good news, because the love of God is not a love that abandons us to the darker aspects of our personalities. It is a love that brings healing and new life, but for new life to flourish, there must be a death.

May God save us from a religion that seeks only to affirm us, and not to change us.

Check out Josh's work on the theme: "United in Repentance."

*The most spectacular and egregious offenses, of course, are committed by Joel Osteen, a popular self-help guru who preaches a version of the Christian religion that removes its power and purpose by denying the reality of the Cross. You can read more on him from the Internet Monk, Michael Spencer.