cjbanning: (Bowed Head)
As preached to the congregation of the Episcopal Church of the Ascension in Gloucester City, at their Morning Prayer service on the 8th of August, 2010. . . .

Proper 14 (Sunday Closest to August 10), Year C

Isaiah 1:1, 10-20
Psalm 50:1-8, 23-24
Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16
Luke 12:32-40

Many of my friends, including all of my housemates, are members of a nearby congregation operating under the Brethren in Christ, so most Sunday evenings I find myself worshipping with them at their weekly Public Meeting. Their style of worship there is fairly different than ours here; sometimes it seems that they think it is more important for sacred music to be loud than pretty. It’s really not at all my style of worship at all, really, and at times I find myself more alienated than uplifted.

Back during Lent, I was at the public meeting, and I’m surrounded by these energetic figures, fellow twenty-somethings who are just exploding with their love for Christ, and I’m left completely cold. And then I was blessed to look over to my right and I see a married couple I know, about my age, and on the husband’s lap is their then-eight-month-old daughter, gleefully smiling and clapping.

Holy Scripture talks about the hardening and softening of hearts. I think that’s the best way of describing what happened: the Spirit softened my heart. Seeing that baby girl take such innocent joy in worshipping the Lord helped me recenter my focus away from my own own nitpicks about the theology of the lyrics or the aesthetics of the melody, and back towards God.

When I got home, I got on my computer and posted a status update to my Facebook: “Cole Banning has been inspired by the faith of a child.”

It got me thinking about what that means, the faith of a child. The phrase is of course biblical: Jesus tells us in Saint Matthew’s Gospel that it is a necessary condition for entering the Kingdom of Heaven. But what is it, exactly?

Often it seems we use it to mean a totally uncritical acceptance, belief without doubt, so-called “blind faith.” But that’s not what happened in the case of Baby Lydia. Her faith was far from blind. Instead, it was a response to what she saw and heard in front of her. Even as a baby, even prior to her acquisition of language, she was able to recognize the goodness of God’s creation and respond by giving praise to glory to God in the simple ways available to her, by participating in our worship, in what our Psalm today calls “the sacrifice of thanksgiving.”

I wonder sometimes where that notion of a child’s faith being blind or uncritical comes from. I’m not a parent, but one thing I know about children is that they’re constantly questioning. It’s an iconic image: the young child, incessantly asking “why?” Why this? Why that? And when given an answer, responding to that answer with the question “why?” and if one is willing to answer that too, once again meeting the answer with “why?” unto infinite regress. “Why?” “Why?” “Why?” This is not an uncritical faith but rather a faith which seeks to learn, to grow, to challenge what it is told.

In our epistle reading, the author of Hebrews talks about the great faith of Abraham and Sarah and their family. I think that Abraham had the faith of a child. When we think about Abraham, we tend to think about his obedience, obedience which was important and a right and goodful thing. But I think we can appreciate the passage from Hebrews best if we remember that Abraham’s faith was larger than just obedience, a relationship with God that consisted of more than just Abraham following commands.

In our reading from the Hebrew scriptures, there is a reference to Sodom and Gomorrah, the two cities which the Torah tells us God destroyed in a rain of fire and brimstone. The Torah also tells us that Abraham argued with God over the fates of Sodom and Gomorrah: he negotiated, bargained. “Will you save the cities if there are 50 righteous people to be found?” “Will you save the cities if there 45?” “What abouty forty?” Talk about the faith of a child! I’m reminded of a child at a cookie jar: “Can I have a cookie, Mommy? Can I have two cookies? Three? Three and a half?”

Abraham, while always remaining obedient to the will of God, was at the same time willing to challenge God, to question God, in his attempt to understand God’s will.

Jacob, Abraham and Sarah’s grandson whom Isaiah also mentions, wrestled with the angel of the LORD at Penuel. When God revealed Godself to Moses, the descendent of Abraham and Sarah and the great leader of Israel who only saw the promised kingdom from afar, Moses too argued. He said, “I don’t think I can do this, God.”

And God said, “Okay, I’ll send your sister and brother with you to help you.” That’s dialogue: a process which consists of both give and take for both persons involved.

Moses constantly negotiated with God on behalf of the people of Israel. Indeed, we think of Sinai as this place where God’s will was committed to human beings, but it’s instructive to remember that Moses spent forty days and forty nights on Sinai before he brought down the Decalogue: they had a lot to talk about up there.

Isaiah writes: “Come now, let us argue it out, says the LORD.” The underlying metaphor in the Hebrew is that of a law court: Israel is standing trial for its sins. But it presents us with a call to enter into dialogue with God. The Inclusive Bible translates the line as “Let’s look at the choices before you,” while it is rendered in the New American Bible as “let us set things right”: this dialogic encounter with God opens an opportunity for a process of self-discovery that allows us to set order to the way in which we live our lives.

This then is, I think, the picture of authentic Biblical faith which Scripture provides us: a relationship with God which is primarily experiential, rooted in our encounter with the divine: in prayer, in service, and of course in the Sacrament of Christ’s Body and Blood -- back next week!

Thomas Merton reminds us that “faith is the door to the full inner life of the Church, a life which includes not only access to an authoritative teaching but above all to a deep personal experience which is at once unique and yet shared by the whole Body of Christ, in the Spirit of Christ.”

“Come now, let us argue it out, says the LORD.”

Liberation theologian Leonardo Boff makes a similar point when he writes that “[f]aith is not primarily adhesion to a teaching that gives access to revelation and the supernatural. Then faith would be tantamount to ideology, in the sense of an idea or belief inculcated in someone from the outside. This extrinsic character of so-called faith can give rise to various forms of fundamentalism and religious warfare. All groups tend to affirm their own truths to the exclusion of all others.

“Faith is meaningful and possesses truth only when it represents a response to an experience of God made personally and communally. Then faith is the expression of an encounter with God which embraces all existence and feeling -- the heart, the intellect, and the will.” “Close quote.”

I think this type of response, described by Boff, is the type of response which Jesus describes in our Gospel reading today, being “dressed for action” and having our “lamps lit,” making our treasure in heaven by our works of mercy and charity, through our voluntary poverty. So too in Isaiah when God tells Israel, and us, to cease evil and learn to do good; to seek justice and rescue the oppressed; to defend the orphan and plead for the widow.

This Wednesday is the feast day of Saint Clare of Assisi. Now, Clare is my favorite capital-S Saint because she’s the patron saint of television, which makes her in an indirect sort of way the patron saint of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. But Clare, who ran away from her aristocratic family to join Saint Francis in his example of God-devoted poverty, also models for us the Gospel call we’ve heard read today.

But let’s be frank: the type of response we hear called for in today’s readings, that we see in the life of Clare, is not one that can come out of obedience alone, a response only to the mere commands of a perceived spiritual authority. All the threats in the world will do no more than compel us to do -- reluctantly -- the very least of what is called of us.

And that’s not good enough. Isaiah tells how the Israelites’ offering of sacrifices and their keeping of festivals brought no delight in God, for the people had turned away from God’s will in spirit.

The radical commitment we’ve heard described is only possible through being transformed by the Spirt so that we may abide in the love of Christ Jesus. This transformation is the legacy of our baptism, but it is not a free ride. Neither is it some massive mystical revelatory encounter where Jesus appears and sets all our doubts to rest. God knows I wouldn’t mind one of those, but it’s not necessary.

No, instead it takes active participation, both by us and by God, in an authentic encounter grounded in the activities of our everyday lives: coming to church on Sunday, listening to Father and meditating on his words--without necessarily always having to agree with them; praying and reading Scripture throughout the week; performing service for all our sisters and brothers and siblings here on planet Earth through our works of mercy and justice-seeking social action; engaging in conversation and discussion with other members of the Body of Christ--a process which should begin at coffee hour but not end there.

“Come now, let us argue it out, says the LORD.”

We must work to develop our faith lives, to question why we believe what we say we believe and why we do what we do. We cannot be afraid of the difficult questions, or be ashamed of those doubts which are a natural element of a mature faith.

“Come now, let us argue it out, says the LORD.”

We are called to challenge too-simple truths, to reject fallacious authority, to argue with our God. God does not need or want yes-men and yes-women and yes-persons: God is God, omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent. God wants and needs a family of sisters and brothers and siblings in Christ--a communion of saints.

My hope and prayer for us, therefore, is that we may be inspired by the incredible faith of those who have gone before us that we may be empowered to follow the examples of the matriarchs, patriarchs, prophets, and saints: that of Abraham and Sarah, of Jacob, of Moses, Aaron, and Miriam, of Clare and Francis, and -- perhaps most of all -- of that annoying little child, incessantly asking . . . “Why?”

Amen.

cjbanning: (The Bishop)
I'm without a computer right now, so I'm not really upset about these not getting written; it's just the way things are. But for some reason this Sunday's took a hold of me, so here it is. As Elizabeth would say, written as if preached on the day (June 13).

Proper 6


1 Kings 21:1-21a
Psalm 5:1-8
Galatians 2:15-21
Luke 7:36-8:3

The Church is a community of plurality, billions of people--many races, many genders, many sexualities, many nations, many ideologies and political viewpoints, many denominations and theologies--who are united, through the sacrament of their baptism, into a single Body, the mystical Body of Christ, holy, catholic, and apostolic. The God we worship is a God of plurality, three in One, three Persons in one Being: Adonai, Messiah, and Chokmah. Jesus is a man of plurality, fully God and fully human. The paschal meal which we share today is a meal of plurality: to all outward appearances mere bread and mere wine, but in its most fundamental being it contains the Real Presence of Christ Jesus.

It is appropriate, then, and perhaps shouldn't be too surprising, that our Scripture is a book of plurality: many books, written by many authors from many different times and historical contexts, testifying to many different understandings and experiences of the divine, uniting into one canon, the book, la biblia, the Bible. Any single viewpoint would be far too limited to be able to contain the multi-splendored nature of God; the multitude of inconsistencies and incoherencies which run througout Scripture, from the two competing accounts of Creation onwards, give necessary testimony that no collection of words could ever contain the fullness of the divine. This richness is sadly lost to those who would approach Scripture as a single discrete text by a single divine author, using the various prophets and evangelists merely as secretaries taking dictation.

Our Lectionary exploits this truth about Scripture by juxtaposing these various voices within the context of the praise, worship, and study which is the Liturgy of the Word, typically--as in this week--a reading from the Hebrew Scriptures, a reading specifically from the Psalter, a reading from the Epistles, and a reading from the Gospels, but modified sometimes so as to fit the needs of various points in the church year. (For example, during Easter season we read from the Acts of the Apostles and the Revelation of St. John the Divine.) Sometimes, we walk away from this juxtaposition struck by the unity of the message running like a thread through disparate portions of Scripture; sometimes, the passages stand in critique and challenge to each other.

This week we see in our Lectionary passages several distinct perspectives on the moral order of the universe, perspectives which speak to different moments in Jewish thought, each which their own historical context which it is important for us to understand. While many of the psalms in the Psalter are attributed to King David within the text itself, modern scholars tend to see them as the product of many different authors--a microcosm of the Bible as a whole, so to speak--most of them probably written some time after the Exile, for liturgical uses. The Books of Kings was probably compiled around the same time, sometime in the sixth century B.C.E., from earlier historical material. It is not surprising, then, that to a great degree the two works share a common worldview as to the nature of good and evil in the world.

Central to understanding the moral order operative in the Psalter and in the Books of Kings is realizing that our notion of an afterlife as punishment or reward for a life ill- or well-lived did not yet exist in the times in which they were written. Sheol for these Jews was a shadowy half-existence more akin to oblivion than to our notions of Heaven or of Hell; indeed, there is some evidence of the Jews thinking of the soul as being utterly consumed and obliterated within it. The Hebrews thus looked to the more-or-less direct intervention of God, working through prophets like Elijah, through nature, and through history, to upkeep the moral order, to punish the wicked and reward the righteous, within the confines of an earthly lifespan.

Throughout the Psalter runs the faithful conviction, held both in good times and in bad, that righteousness will be rewarded and wickedness will be punished. Psalms of celebration exalt the way in which those rewards are enjoyed today; psalms of lamentation nonetheless are firm in their insistence that it will come tomorrow. Note that a critical element of this moral order is the destruction of one's enemies; not only will those who are faithful to God be raised up and exalted, but those who persecute God's faithfull will be laid low. God "hates all those who work wickedness," abhors "the bloodthirsty and deceitful," and "destroys those who speak lies"--and the Psalms positively relish in that destruction, unapologetically revelling in the misfortune of others and viewing it as evidence of a just god at work in the world. "Love your enemies" is not a message which one finds in the Psalter, at least not on the surface, nor is the unconditional love of God for all people and races.

Around the second century B.C.E., however, a new paradigm began to emerge in Jewish thought, in response to the Maccabean exile and a growing frustration with God's tendency to side with those with the larger armies, and a belief in the resurrection of the dead, that the faithful--defined as those who upheld God's law by keeping the Jewish purity laws--would be rewarded in a future, messianic age in which our bodies would be restored to life and made immortal. One of the sects which held this were the Pharisees, in contrast to the Sadducees, the temple priests, who denied the resurrection. Acts 23:8 reminds us that “The Sadducees say that there is no resurrection, or angel, or spirit; but the Pharisees acknowledge all three." The Sadducees were religious conservatives who interpreted the Torah literally; the Pharisees were religious liberals who democratized Judaism by transferring authority from the priests to the people. While the Pharisees are attacked throughout the Gospels for their legalism, they were in fact less legalistic in most ways than the other Jewish sects in favor during the time of the life of Christ.

Jesus was, of course, Christself a Pharisee, at least insofar as Jesus' thought and teachings can be situated within the context of any particular school of Jewish thought. Perhaps this is why Jesus' spends so much time criticizing them, holding them to a higher standard because they have already glimpsed some small glimmer of the truth.

In our Gospel passage today, Jesus eats at the home of another Pharisee, Simon. Simon, like Jesus, believes in the resurrection of the body; he recognizes the hope of a resurrected life. This is a point they agree on, a common starting point in their paradigmatic understandings of the universal moral order which unites them as they break bread with each other, Simon eager to learn from Jesus as Teacher. Yet Jesus nonetheless presents a fundamental challenge and correction to Simon's understanding.

Simon's belief in the resurrection only pushes the earlier Jewish understanding of God rewarding good and punishing evil onto a future afterlife; it is still, essentially, a bribe for being good, a celestial equivalent to a mother telling her children she'll buy them ice cream if they behave at Grandma's. The fundamental system of accounting, so to speak, which we see operative in the Psalter and in Kings has not been changed. But when Jesus forgives the sins of the woman kissing his feet, Jesus explodes this calculus, turning Simon's world upside down in the process.

Jesus presents instead a vision of a world where we do good and act justly not because we hope to earn some type of reward, whether in this life or in heaven--what craven people we must be to need to be bribed to do the right thing! Jesus shows us a world where we do not avoid evil because we are afraid of a Hell where we will be mercilessly punished forever for our sins. Jesus shows Simon the possibility of a still third moral order, one in which we act lovingly not in hope of some reward but because we are filled with love, because that is our authentic response as Christians to Jesus' redemptive Presence. Broken free from the calculus of reward-and-punish, we sing praise to God not to incur divine favor, but because our mouths cannot bear to be silent; we pray to God because our hearts will not be still; we do the work of God because our hands cannot bear to be idle.

May it ever be so for all of us.

Amen.

4th Easter

Monday, 26 April 2010 03:19 pm
cjbanning: (Bowed Head)

Acts 9:36-43
Psalm 23
Revelation 7:9-17
John 10:22-30

"The Lord is my Shepherd," the psalmist writes, "I shall not want." These words may not seem to describe our lives today: we are constantly wanting. The new video game console which is faster, better, with better graphics and cooler games. The pair of shoes on half price at the mall. The fast food cheeseburger which all by itself constitutes half your recommended calories for the day. We are a culture which is constantly wanting, but--as the immortal Rolling Stones song tells us--we "can't always get what [we] want, / But if [we] try sometimes well [we] just might find / [we] get what [we] need."

So unless the psalmist lived a much luckier life than any of us here--where "luck" is measured by a standard of egoistic hedonism--we have to assume the psalmist meant the statement "I shall not want" not as a description of an operative state of affairs but as a moral imperative, the "shall" in "I shall not want" being the same "shall" as in "Thou shall not bear false witness against your neighbor." The psalmist, like the Rolling Stones, is reminding us that we get what we need.

God provides for our needs. To explain how God provides for our needs, though, the psalmist turns to the metaphor of a shepherd. Jesus expands on this metaphor in the Gospel of St. John the Evangelist (as well as in the synoptic gospels), and St. John the Divine references back to it in his account of the apocalyptic Revelation provided to him. When we consider the metaphor further, we might gleam some further understanding of why and how we live in such a crazy world where our desires so often run counter to the reality which we find.

Think of the life of an ordinary shepherd. She wakes up early, takes the sheep from wherever it is the sheep might spend the night, in stables perhaps, and she leads them to the "green pastures" where they are set loose to graze. And that, my sisters and brothers and siblings in Christ, is where all the trouble begins.

Because grazing sheep get into trouble. They need to be protected from predators, but also they need to be kept from wandering off and getting lost. Think of the sheep in Jesus' parables; they're constantly getting lost or otherwise in trouble, so that the shepherd must leave the flock behind and search for them. It's enough to drive our poor shepherd insane. But sheep need to be free to graze.

And as it is for sheep, it is even more so for people. God is raising a flock of free-range souls; the freedom of our wills is a gift from God, but so too is it a consequence of our being a reflection of God, the imago dei, created in the divine image.

God could, in God's divine omnipotence, order the universe such that our desires and our daily bread were always in harmony; God could run God's Creation like a well-oiled train station. But God chooses instead to allow us to exercise our freedom, recognizing in God's omnibenevolence that as the greater good. As Baptist theologian Roger Olson notes, "God is in charge of everything without controlling everything." Such are the actions of a good shepherd, or for that matter a good parent--or a good God.

The Second Vatican Council of the Roman Catholic Church affirmed the importance of the doctrine of free will thusly:
Only in freedom can [a person] direct [themself] toward goodness. Our contemporaries make much of this freedom and pursue it eagerly; and rightly to be sure. Often however they foster it perversely as a license for doing whatever pleases them, even if it is evil. For its part, authentic freedom is an exceptional sign of the divine image within [a human being]. For God has willed that [humans] remain "under the control of [their] own decisions," so that [they] can seek [their] Creator spontaneously, and come freely to utter and blissful perfection through loyalty to [God].

Hence [a person's] dignity demands that [they] act according to a knowing and free choice that is personally motivated and prompted from within, not under blind internal impulse nor by mere external pressure. [A person] achieves such dignity when, emancipating [themself] from all captivity to passion, [they] pursue [their] goal in a spontaneous choice of what is good, and procures for themself through effective and skilful action, apt helps to that end. Since [humans'] freedom has been damaged by sin, only by the aid of God's grace can [one] bring such a relationship with God into full flower. Before the judgement seat of God each [person] must render an account of [their] own life, whether [they have] done good or evil.
This is simply a reaffirmation, in somewhat--ahem--nicer terms, of the doctrine as articulated at the Council of Trent:
If any one shall affirm, that [the] freewill [of human beings], moved and excited by God, does not, by consenting, cooperate with God, the mover and exciter, so as to prepare and dispose itself for the attainment of justification; if moreover, anyone shall say, that the human will cannot refuse complying, if it pleases, but that it is inactive, and merely passive; let such a one be accursed.

If anyone shall affirm, that since the fall of Adam [and of Eve], [the] freewill [of human beings] is lost and extinguished; or, that it is a thing titular, yea a name, without a thing, and a fiction introduced by Satan into the Church; let such an one be accursed.

If any one saith, that it is not in [the] power [of a human being] to make [their] ways evil, but that the works that are evil God worketh as well as those that are good, not permissively only, but properly, and of [Godself], in such wise that the treason of Judas is no less [God's] own proper work than the vocation of Paul; let [them] be anathema.
If a person's dignity demands on their part a free choice not forced by external forces, however, then any attack against their freedom--whether by church, government, or culture--is an offense against that dignity, a sacrilege against the imago dei itself.

Our duty, then, is to oppose those structures in the world which would act to undermine the agency of our sister and brother and sibling human beings: sexism and racism, transphobia and homophobia; poverty and hunger; totalitarianism and fascism. We must stand in solidarity against that which would diminish the autonomy of the oppressed and downtrodden, against ideologies of fear, of hatred, and of control. We must not allow the voices of any people to be silenced. For the most fundamental freedom of all is the freedom to simply be who we are, who we are called to be by Christ: female and/or male and/or intersexed and/or genderqueer; gay and/or straight; white and/or of color; Jew and/or gentile. "I am woman, hear me roar"--the first line of the 1972 Helen Reddy song "I Am Woman" which became an iconic catchphrase for liberation and empowerment-- is a phrase we make fun of nowadays, but it bespeaks the truth that this freedom is not always easily won, and its exercise often transgressive. Sometimes merely demanding the right to be ourselves, and to speak with our own voices, can be radical in itself.

I am reminded of the radical freedom commended to us in the homilectic exhortation of Saint Augustine: "Love, and do what you like." The truth is, it is not possible to do one of these things without the other. Authentic freedom is always necessarily rooted in love, and authentic love is that which fosters freedom. And that being the case, it should be no surprise that it is within the love, which is boundless and abundant, of Christ the Good Shepherd for the flock which is humanity, that we find our most perfect freedom. Freedom from sin, freedom from fear, even freedom from death itself, but most fundamentally the freedom to be ourselves--all of these are the consequences of God's grace, of we and our robes being washed in the blood of the Lamb and made stainless.

Alleluia.

3rd Easter

Sunday, 18 April 2010 09:45 pm
cjbanning: (St. Thomas)
Acts 9:1-6, (7-20)
Psalm 30
Revelation 5:11-14
John 21:1-19

"And one was a doctor," goes the hymn, (#293 in the 1982 Hymnal, full lyrics) "and one was a queen, and one was a shepherdess on the green; [. . .] And one was a soldier, and one was a priest, and one was slain by a fierce wild beast." There are many different Saints in today's readings, too, and in many ways they are as different from each other as the Saints in the hymn.

There's Saint Paul, who started out as Saul of Tarsus, persecuting Christians, but was transformed when Christ appeared to him on the road to Damascus to become not only the writer of the largest chunk of the canonical Christian Scriptures, but to make voyage after voyage planting new churches and uniting the existing ones in the message of the Good News of Christ.

There's Peter, the Rock of the Church, who dropped everything when he saw Christ, put on his clothes--because he wanted to look his best for the Risen Christ--and swam to Jesus. Today's Gospel reminds us that Peter was called to martyrdom, hung on an upside-down cross, that it was an essential part of his vocation as the Rock of the Church to be at odds with the powerful in his society

There's Nathaniel, whom you have to feel sorry for. Who here can tell me anything about Nathaniel? (Wikipedia tells me he is identified with Bartholomew, one of the Twelve who is, really, not really any less forgettable.) I'll have forgotten he was even in this story by next week. I have the deepest respect and admiration for the Nathaniels of the world, those people who do the hard work of just being where they are called to be, doing the hard work, and getting none of the glory.

There are the sons of Zebedee and the other disciples, who are not even given names.

Once again this week, I find that I am a Thomas.

Thomas looks around at what he has on hand; he finds himself in a fishing boat. Rather than viewing the fishing boat as a distraction to the path in Christ he is called to follow, he uses the boat to bring himself to Christ--and he brings with him fish to eat, given to him through Jesus' power, so that he and Nathaniel and Peter can share a meal with Jesus, to break bread and share this time together as a Church, and to partake in the goodness of creation.

Last week, Thomas insisted on being able to see and touch the physical body of the Risen Christ. This week, he brings Jesus fish to eat. For Thomas, the Risen Christ is a not a spiritual ruler of a distant land, but someone who is always and already deeply enmeshed in the physical world of Creation. Tradition tells us that Thomas was a builder by trade; he was a man for whom the physical was never unimportant, who would have known intimately about the goodness of creation.

Tradition tells us that Thomas, like Peter, was also martyred, dying as he lived, immersed in that physicality.

Scripture does not adjudicate between these approaches. It is a good and rightful thing for St. Peter to put his clothes on and swim to Jesus; it is a good and rightful thing for Sts. Thomas and Nathaniel and the others to take the boat to Jesus and bring the fish with them. The Church in its earliest beginnings has thus been called to be a Broad Church, to encourage a diversity of worship and a diversity of mission. There is room in the Church for Pauls and Peters and Nathaniels and Thomases, for both Marys and Marthas.

It takes all types to make a Church.

The Church takes all of these approaches and fashions them into something greater than any of them individually: something which is, in its unity, holy, catholic, and apostolic. Think of the image from the Revelation to St. John the Divine: millions and myriads singing together for the greater glory of God. I don't imagine they all would take the melody line. That would be a weak sort of song for so many voices--sort of like singing "If You're Happy and You Know It" when you have the resources for Handel's "Alleluia Chorus"--or rather for something which would be to the Handel as the Handel is to "If You're Happy and You Know It." No, that level of beauty requires harmony, difference complementing itself. Harmonies within harmonies, even, exploiting the fact that we are all different: we are sopranos and mezzo-sopranos and contraltos, tenors and baritones and basses.

Jesus' command to Peter is, "Feed My Sheep." Jesus' command to Nathaniel and Thomas and the unnamed disciples is, "Bring some of the fish that you have caught, and come and have breakfast." Jesus' command to Saul is "Get up and enter the city." Jesus' command to Ananias is, "Get up and go to the street called Straight, and at the house of Judas look for a man of Tarsus named Saul. Go in and lay your hands on him so that he might regain his sight."

What is Jesus' command to us? How do we discern where we, individually, fit in within the Church?

We know that any command we might receive will only be a futher refinement and elaboration of the two greatest commandments: "Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind" and "Love your neighbor as yourself." So we must ask ourselves how, given our unique skills and abilities, our own unique temperaments and interests, our own unique connections to the world around us, how best we are able to live out a love for God and for each other and for ourselves. What is it that we love to do? What are we good at? What do we care about?

Of course, sometimes we are called to things we are not very good at--so that we may become better, or that we may learn humility, or just because somebody needs to do it and there is no one else. Often we are called to do things which we don't necessarily want to do, exactly, as Ananias at first did not want to heal Saul. But we recognize, at those times, that there exists a need, and that God has put us there,

What needs do you see in the world around you? How can you work with your sisters and brothers and siblings in Christ to fill those needs?

If we each live out our lives in full response to the answers to these questions, answers which will in all likelihood be different for each and every one of us, then the Church's mission will be complete--not complete in the sense of finished, not yet, but in the sense of being full, having no lack in its present-day efforts to build a just and peaceful Kingdom. This is not a fairy-book fantasy: with the power and inspiration of the Holy Spirit, with God's prevenient grace, it is not only possible, but imperative. It is the mission of the Church, and each of our own individual vocations acts to support it.

And so, my dear sisters and brothers and siblings in Christ, I return to the words of our hymn: The Saints loved their Lord so dear, so dear, and Christ's love made them strong; and they followed the right for Jesus' sake the whole of their good lives long. And there's not any reason--no, not the least--why we shouldn't be saints, too.

Alleluia.

2nd Easter

Sunday, 11 April 2010 12:32 am
cjbanning: (The Bishop)
Acts 5:27-32
Psalm 118:14-29 
Revelation 1:4-8
John 20:19-31

The second Sunday of Easter is my favorite Sunday in the entire liturgical year. Part of the reason is because the message it gives us is not simple to decipher or easy to hear; it challenges us, invites us to engage the story of St. Thomas just as Thomas engaged the physical body of the Risen Christ: fully, critically, and reverently. Even now, years since I've come to terms with this Gospel story (although my relation to it is still changing, never static), the challenges which it gave me in the past serve to enrichen and deepen my response to it in the present.

These are the words of Jesus the Christ to the doubting St. Thomas: "Blessed are they who have not seen and yet believe."

In a world where ignorance and uncritical thinking are commonplace, where religious intolerance is rampant and fanaticism begets horrific violence, these are challenging words. It seems, after all, like the absolutely last thing this world needs is more uncritical belief without evidence.

But as I've reflected over this Gospel passage over the years, these are also words that have come to bring me much hope and joy. Imagine all the things Jesus could have said, but didn't. Jesus could have cursed St. Thomas, just as Jesus had cursed the fig tree which had not born fruit out of season. Words of reprimand, of condemnation, of anger or disappointment, could have followed. Jesus could have berated St. Thomas for his lack of belief.

But none of those things happened. Instead: "Blessed are they who have not seen and yet believe."

But the truest, deepest source of joy isn't just that we aren't, say, damned to hell forever for our doubts, for our unbelief--as if we could ever possibly imagine such a thing of a loving and just Creator. It's this: that when Thomas reached out for a deeper, relational connection with Christ, to see and touch and feel Jesus, the Risen Christ appeared. We are not required to hold blind faith, to believe without seeing. When we need Jesus, when we ask for Jesus, Jesus shows up. Every time, without fail, just like Jesus did for St. Thomas.

Well, maybe not just like. If you expect Jesus to show up bodily in front of you, to give you a chance to put your fingers in Jesus' side, you're probably going to be disappointed--probably. I suppose I can't rule out the possibility completely--but if it happens to you, you're probably best off not telling me about it. If you're looking for some grand supernatural violation of the natural order of God's creation, you're going to be disappointed; at best, you'll get a violation of the established rules as we currently understand them. And if you expect "proof" for some set of propositional truths, to the exclusion of some other set of propositions, some final demonstration that you're right and everyone else is wrong, you're almost certainly going to be disappointed. Faith, at least as I understand it, doesn't work like that.

"First of all," writes the liberation theologian Leonardo Boff in his book Liberation and Ecology, "comes the experience of mystery, the experience of God":
Only afterward does faith supervene. Faith is not primarily adhesion to a teaching that gives access to revelation and the supernatural. Then faith would be tantamount to ideology, in the sense of an idea or belief inculcated in someone from outside. This extrinsic character of so-called faith can give rise to various forms of fundamentalism and religious warfare. All groups tend to affirm their own truths to the exclusion of all others. Faith is meaningful and possesses truth only when it represents a response to an experience of God made personally and communally. Then faith is the expression of an encounter with God which embraces all existence and feeling--the heart, the intellect, and the will.
This may well be the purest description of my personal theology as has ever been written; I know that ever since I first read Boff's words, in 2004, they have been written on my heart. And I cannot think about the story of St. Thomas without thinking of them.

Jesus' appearance to St. Thomas did not put an end to the possibly of doubt or disbelief. Imagine what we might wonder were we to find ourselves in Thomas' shoes. Is it really Jesus--and not, say, Jesus' identical twin? Could it be a trick with mirrors, or a delusion of the mind? Can we be sure that Jesus really died, and wasn't resuscitated by some scientifically-explainable process (and never underestimate the ingenuity of scientists in constructing explanations, it's what they do)?

Jesus' appearance to St. Thomas did not make these questions impossible. Instead, it made them irrelevant. Because in that moment, the reality of Christ's presence transcended all necessity to explain how or whether or why.

But if we cannot expect the Risen Christ to show up bodily in our living rooms and instruct us to touch Christ's wounds, then how, then, can we experience Christ in the modern world as twenty-first century postmoderns? How do we have the type of experience St. Thomas did? Where do we find this sacred mystery? Primarily, we can do this through the Sacraments, the outward and visible signs of inward, invisible grace--and most especially the Eucharist, the sacrament of Christ's Body and Blood, where we receive Jesus Christself into us in order to strengthen and renew our identity as Christ's mystical Body. We encounter Christ communally and relationally, through our relationships with others, our work for justice and works of mercy: we see Jesus in the face of the stranger who is the least of our sisters or brothers or siblings. And also in solitude and contemplation, through prayer and sacramentals--but like with Thomas, our engagement with Christ must necessarily begin with our engagement with our community, in our challenging and being challenged by our sisters and brothers and siblings in Christ.

All of these things sustain us and make possible the type of holistic faithful response Boff talks about. They don't prove some truth claim and disprove some other; they don't have to, because what they're doing is far more important. That we know Christ is so much infinitely more important than that we know that Christ exists. That we know the Caretaker-God is so much more important than that we know the Caretaker-God exists. That we know the Spirit is so much more--well, I think you get the idea.

I don't always know what to do with all the belief-language in the Bible, especially the New Testament. I may never come to terms with it all completely. I don't speak or read Greek, and I don't speak or read Hebrew. So I don't know which words the Bible authors were using when my translations use a form of "faith" or "belief," and I don't know what those words would have meant to them, what nuances of meaning might be present, when what is being discussed is belief--which is to say, trust--in a person, or propositional belief in a fact, or perhaps even some other type of belief in something else entirely. I don't know to what degree belief and faith would have been thought of as synonymous or differing concepts. These are interesting questions, not because we must necessarily remain bound to the the understanding of the saints of two thousand years ago, but because they provide resources upon which to draw in our attempt at constructing, in enriching and deepening, a theology which is liberatory for all people today while rooted in our shared history.

I have no doubt I will one day learn at least some of these answers. Already I know more than I did a year ago, which is more than I knew five years ago. But in the end, I don't think that really matters, because in my heart I know that mere beliefs don't have the power to save, and never could. Christ, the person whom every one of us has the opportunity to know and befriend, is the One who saves.

Thomas rejected holding a truth claim about Christ in favor of knowing the Christ, feeling and touching and seeing the Christ. And Jesus showed up. Jesus always shows up. Jesus tells us that Thomas' type of faith isn't the only type of faith which is valid or acceptable to God: "Blessed are they who have not seen and yet believe." This is no doubt an important corrective to the temptation to judge the faith of others, to declare it too uncritical, too simple, too uninformed or unenlightened. But I firmly believe--I cannot but believe--that those of us who are called to the faith of St. Thomas are blessed, too. How can we not be, when Jesus always shows up?

I love the second Sunday of Easter because it is this truth--that Jesus shows up, that Jesus always shows up--which fills me with joy like no other New Testament message can. The story of St. Thomas speaks to me so powerfully on a personal level, it is his story which fills me with hope like no other New Testament story can, because in Thomas I find a vision of a mature, questioning, critical faith which is not thwarted, but rather manages to find its fulfillment in Christ's Presence.

Jesus shows up. Jesus always shows up.

Alleluia.
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My Prayer

"This is my prayer: that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best."
-- St. Paul's Epistle to the Philippians 1:9-10

All entries copyrighted © 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012 by Cole J. Banning


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