How We Rich Exclude Ourselves from the Kingdom of God

Readings for 30th Sunday in Ordinary Time: SIR 35: 12-14, 11-18; PS 34: 2-3, 17-18, 19, 28; 2 TM 4: 6-8, 16-18; LK 18: 9-14. 

“A pope and a pimp went into St. Peter’s to Pray.” That’s the way scripture scholar, John Dominic Crossan, conveys the shock that must have been felt by Jesus’ audience when he opened today’s familiar gospel parable with the words “A pharisee and a tax collector went up to the temple to pray.” Even joining the words “Pharisee” and “tax collector” in the same sentence was like putting “pope” and “pimp” together. It jars the ear. And why would a pimp be praying at all? Why would a tax collector?

Despite its shocking overtones, homilists generally domesticate this parable to make it reinforce conventional wisdom about pride and humility. The Pharisee was proud, they say. The tax collector was humble. Be like the tax collector.

Crossan however says that there’s something much more challenging and fundamental going on in this parable. The focus of Jesus’ story is not pride vs. humility. It’s about rejecting the Pharisee’s conventional morality. The parable even calls us to scrap conventional wisdom about pride and humility.

More positively, the story is a summons to enter God’s Kingdom by identifying with the poor and despised who are celebrated throughout today’s liturgy of the word. The parable and its supporting readings also explain why the conventionally good simply cannot enter the Kingdom of God, which in Jesus’ understanding is never about life after death, but a this-worldly reality where God is king instead of Caesar.

Please give a listen to the readings. You can find them here. My “translations” run as follows:

 SIR 35: 1-14, 16-18
 
God’ justice reverses
The world’s preferential option
For the rich.
It is instead
Duly prejudiced
In favor of
The poor, oppressed,
The orphan, and the widow.
God listens to them
And affirms
Their rights
To speedy justice.
 
 
 
PS 34: 2-3, 17-18, 19, 23
 
Yes, be thankful and glad
That God hears
The cry of the poor
The brokenhearted
And those whose spirits
Have been crushed
By oppressors
Whose names
Will soon
Be forgotten.
 
2 TM 4: 6-8, 16-18
 
The apostle Paul was
One of the oppressed.
He kept faith
In God’s justice
Even during
His rigged
Imperial trial
When his friends
Abandoned him.
Though exhausted
Like a long-distance runner
Or a gladiator
Before a lion,
He nonetheless
Felt God’s presence
As his source
Of strength and courage
Enabling him
To proclaim
God’s Kingdom
To everyone.
.
 
2 COR 5:19
 
God’s preferential
Option for the poor
Is the very message
Of Jesus, the Christ.
It can save the world.
 
LK 18: 9-14
 
Jesus’ parable
Of the Pharisee and Tax Collector
Taught that
Self-justifying
Conventional morality
Is not pleasing to God –
Not even when supported
By long prayers,
Generous tithes,
Sexual purity,
And frequent fasting.
(Yes, the Pharisee
Did all of that!)
Instead,
Entrance into God’s Kingdom
Requires nothing
But membership
In the group
Considered sinful
By us pharisees and
Our conventional morality.

To unpack those readings, first of all, think of the last one in terms of popes and pimps. Popes are generally respected people. They’re religious leaders. Wherever they go, crowds flock around them just to get a glimpse, a blessing, or possibly even a smile or touch.

Pharisees in Jesus’ time enjoyed similar respect with the common people. Pharisees were religious teachers and textbook examples of conventional morality. They usually did what the one in today’s gospel said he did. They kept the law. The Pharisee in today’s reading was probably right; chances are he wasn’t like most people.

Generally, Pharisees were not greedy, dishonest, or adulterers. Or as their exemplar in Luke put it, he was not like the tax collector alongside him in the Temple. Pharisees gave tithes on all they possessed – to help with Temple upkeep.

On the other hand, tax collectors in Jesus’ day were notorious crooks. Like pimps, they were usually despised. Tax collectors were typically dishonest and greedy. They were adulterers too. They took advantage of their power by extorting widows unable to pay in money into paying in kind.

In other words, the Pharisee’s prayer was correct on all counts.

But we might ask, what about the tax collector’s prayer: “O God, be merciful to me, a sinner?” A beautiful prayer, no?

Don’t be so quick to say “yes.”

Notice that this tax collector doesn’t repent. He doesn’t say, like the tax collector Zacchaeus in Luke’s very next chapter, “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much (LK 19:8). There is no sign of repentance or of willingness to change his profession on the part of this particular crook.

And yet Jesus concludes his parable by saying: “I tell you, the latter (i.e. the tax collector) went home justified, not the former. . .” Why?

I think the rest of today’s liturgy of the word supplies an answer. Each reading is about God’s partiality towards the poor, oppressed, orphans, widows and the lowly – those who need God’s special protection, because the culture at large tends to write them off or ignore them. Typically, they’re the ones conventionality classifies as deviant. The Jewish morality of Jesus time called them all “unclean.”

However, all of them – even the worst – were especially dear to Jesus’ heart. And this not because they were “virtuous,” but simply because of their social location. Elsewhere, Jesus specifically includes tax collectors (and prostitutes) in that group. In MT 21: 38-42, he tells the Pharisees, “Prostitutes and tax collectors will enter God’s Kingdom before you religious professionals.”

But why would a good person like the Pharisee be excluded from God’s Kingdom? Does God somehow bar his entry? I don’t think so. God’s Kingdom is for everyone.

Rather it was because men like the Pharisee in the temple don’t really want to enter that place of GREAT REVERSAL, where the first are last, the rich are poor, the poor are rich, and where (as I said) prostitutes and tax collectors are rewarded.

The Pharisee excludes himself! In fact, the temple’s holy people wanted nothing to do with the people they considered “unclean.” In other words, it was impossible for Pharisees and the Temple Establishment to conceive of a Kingdom open to the unclean. And even if there was such a Kingdom, these purists didn’t want to be there.

Let’s put that in terms we can understand in our culture.

Usually rich white people don’t want to live next door to poor people or in the same neighborhood with people of color – especially if those in question aren’t rich like them.

Imagine God’s Kingdom in terms of the ghetto, the barrio or favela. Rich white people don’t want to be there.

Yes, according to this morning’s readings – according to Jesus – the “undesirables” among us are the ones to whom the Kingdom of God belongs. They are the favorites of the God who Sirach says is “not unduly partial to the weak.” Rather God is fittingly partial to them as the Sirach reading itself and the rest of today’s liturgy of the word make perfectly clear!

This means that any separation from God’s chosen poor amounts to excluding oneself from the Kingdom white Christians spend so much time obsessing about.

So, today’s readings are much more radical than usually understood. The parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector – of the pope and the pimp in St. Peter’s – is not an affirmation of conventional morality. It’s not even a celebration of imagined virtue on the part of the poor or about repentance. It rejects all such ethnocentric hypocrisy! Jesus’ parable is not even about approving conventional wisdom concerning pride and humility.

As always with Jesus’ teachings, it is about the Kingdom of God, about those who belong and about us who exclude ourselves.

The Real Reason for Trump’s Strategy in Syria

People are scratching their heads over President Trump’s sudden decision to withdraw troops from the Kurdish area in northeastern Syria. In effect, American troops there had been acting as human shields against the designs of Turkish President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and his long-standing vendetta against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in Turkey and their Kurdish allies in Syria. Both have struggled for Kurdish rights and independence since 1979.

As well, American troops have guaranteed the stability of prison camps for terrorists in Northern Syria, where up to eleven thousand Muslim militants have been concentrated after the supposed defeat of ISIS in Syria. In the absence of U.S. troops, Erdogan now has free rein not only to decimate his Kurdish opponents, but to release those ISIS fighters who, he says, will help him defeat the PKK in Turkey.

But why this apparently impulsive decision on the part of President Trump ?

A number of reasons have been advanced to explain it, as well as to understand Turkey’s sudden aggressive action:

  • The United States is cultivating Turkey to become the dominant regional power rather than Iran.
  • The U.S. is tired of fighting the war in Syria that has cost billions of dollars.
  • Trump has business interests in Turkey where he’s building two Trump Towers. To protect those interests, he’s doing Erdogan a political and military favor.
  • According to Erdogan, he is simply attempting to create a “safe zone” for the relocation of 3.5 million Syrian refugees who have sought asylum in Turkey during the war in Syria.
  • As well, Turkey claims that the safe zone would destroy the terror corridor which the PKK and Kurdish-led Syrian Defense Forces have been trying to establish on Turkey’s southern border.
  • The U.S. isn’t really interested in defeating ISIS. On the contrary, it favors its revival in order to use it in regime-change wars, and to justify continuance of an endless “war on terror” – all in order to benefit the military-industrial complex.

In the end, all of those “explanations” might have some credibility. No doubt, each of them plays some part in creating the chaos that now reigns in Syria.

Nevertheless, U.S. history after World War II indicates that Tulsi Gabbard put her finger on the real reason for the events unfolding in Syria. I’m referring to her remark that the conflict in Syria represents an illegal regime-change war initiated by the United States. That is, absent U.S. efforts to unseat Syria’s president Bashar al-Assad, the current crisis would not exist. That she was onto something was indicated by the severe backlash she experienced from Hilary Clinton, a principal advocate of U.S. policy in Syria.

None of this means that without American intervention Syria would be care-free. On the contrary, its unprecedented climate-change drought and accompanying desertification have caused farmers to migrate to Syria’s large cities in turn leading to an unemployment crisis and civil unrest that beggar description. The drought and resulting state of emergency also created an opening and excuse for the U.S. to mount a campaign to remove Syria’s president from office.

But why specifically does the United States want al-Assad removed? As I’ve indicated elsewhere, the U.S. wants him out because he’s a Baathist, i.e. a Pan Arab socialist.  And wherever the United States encounters socialism, Pan Arabism or Pan Africanism, it works for regime change, since such movements constitute a threat to America’s white supremacist, imperialist, capitalist patriarchy. Think of Iraq, Libya, Egypt, Honduras, Nicaragua, Cuba, Brazil, the former Yugoslavia, and a host of countries in Africa.

To implement its world-wide regime change strategy, America creates and/or employs local anti-government groups like the Mujahedeen in Afghanistan, the Contras in Nicaragua, or the Kurds in Syria. It continues to use “terrorist” forces like al-Qaeda as it did successfully in Afghanistan against the Russians. In the Syrian conflict, those forces were renamed and described as “moderate” for purposes of fighting ISIS – another U.S. creation this time unintentionally produced by its illegal invasion of Iraq in 2003. Meanwhile, America’s real quarry in Syria remained Bashar al-Assad.

As Chris Hedges has recently noted, the United States has no loyalty to such agents, and often drops them as soon as convenient once their services are no longer required. It vilifies them anew with their old names restored – al-Qaeda and ISIS.

Using such forces, efforts to overthrow Assad (begun in 2013) have failed miserably. So, the U.S. and Turkey have decided to give up on the Kurds, who in northeastern Syria are also socialists. Additionally, they are allies of the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK), Erdogan’s archenemies in Turkey. In terms of socialism, the PKK’s name says it all.

Put otherwise, in the face of our country’s regime change failure, Trump and Erdogan are trying to save the imperialist day by at least defeating the socialist Kurds in both Turkey and Syria. However, they have instead driven Syrian Kurds to seek protection from Bashar al-Assad. His troops have been welcomed as heroes in the Syrian northeast. And so have Russian support troops who represent the only legal foreign military presence in Syria, since they are there at the behest of the Syrian government.

The bottom line here is that the United States has no legal leg to stand on in Syria. It should leave the country entirely. In fact, its military should leave the Middle East altogether. The U.S. should instead sponsor diplomatic solutions to the mess it has created. There are no military solutions to any of the problems in the region.

While this does not mean completely abandoning the Middle East to its own devices, it does mean abandoning the use of force. Correspondingly, it entails seeking diplomatic solutions through the U.N. which was created precisely to avoid the kind of illegal, arbitrary military measures routinely implemented by U.S. presidents of both parties.

But to prioritize diplomacy over war, the U.N.’s international law as well as U.S. legislation must be respected. I’m referring to the international requirement that member nations seek U.N. approval for initiating any military action not demanded as immediate response to direct attack. Similarly, our own government must respect the U.S. Constitution’s requirement that Congress (not the executive branch) approve any acts of war by our nation.

In summary, while Trump’s reassignment of U.S. troops in Syria from protecting Kurds to protecting Syria’s northeaster oil fields may have been puzzling to those not paying attention, consummate insiders like Tulsi Gabbard, see the pattern. And it looks like serial regime change criminality.

What even Gabbard might not see is the pattern’s very raison d’etre. It’s that American leadership always becomes alarmed when any head of state on the one hand or anti-imperialist force on the other attempts to create a country where the interests of all (not just the elite) are served. When that happens, the “guilty” party will be subject to regime change measures of one kind or another. In the Middle East, that’s been the case with Baathists, Pan Arabs, Pan Africans, and now with the PKK.  As Ozlem Goner has indicated, such indigenous entities typically cultivate democratic, non-patriarchal, anti-imperial, and gender-egalitarian structures.

To repeat: that invariably proves intolerable to the United States and its bought-and-paid-for clients. History since the Second Inter-Capitalist War has shown as much.

But you won’t read about this long-standing dynamic in the New York Times. Instead, you’ll find it in sources like Howard Zinn‘s A People’s History of the United States, in Eduardo Galeano‘s The Open Veins of Latin America, in Walter Rodney‘s How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, in Oliver Stone‘s and Peter Kuznick’s The Untold History of the United States, and in Vijay Prashad‘s The Poorer Nations: a Possible History of the Global South.  I recommend all of them very highly.

A Frightening Child & Prayer to Save the Environment

Readings for the 29th Sunday in Ordinary Time:  EX 17: 8-13; PS 121: 1-8; 2 TM 3: 14-4:2; HEB 4: 12; LK 18: 1-8

Were you inspired by Greta Thunberg? I couldn’t get over her courage.

Imagine: a child of 16 years suddenly thrust beneath the blinding spotlight of the world’s stage – speaking confidently with a pope and with heads of state, addressing huge crowds and the United Nations itself. All of that would frighten me. How about you?

And she called them all to task. “How dare you!” she repeated again and again to the world’s movers and shakers whose programs for addressing climate change fell far short of the goals set by climate scientists. “Don’t listen to me,” she repeated; “listen to the scientists.” In other words, align yourselves with what Mother Nature, Life Itself, and the Universe are telling us.

And, of course, you saw the effects of her audacity. Millions were mobilized across the planet.

What started as a one-girl protest before the Swedish parliament swiftly became a thing.

Youngsters everywhere, including my own grandchildren, walked out of class and imitated Greta’s defiance. My five-year-old grandson challenged us all for driving a Volvo van whose gas engine, he said, is destroying the environment. “We should be driving an electric car instead” he objected. A five-year-old!

As someone pointed out, it’s a “Children’s Crusade” against capitalism’s worship of Moloch.

And what fear it inspired in the powerful! This wisp of a girl exercising the super-powers of concentration and focus conferred by an Asperger’s condition that would have others hiding under a rock, suddenly had the movers and shakers shaking with fear. Some ganged up on her, attacked her parents, and even belittled the teenager as mentally deficient. Their cowardly desperation showed that they were more afraid of her than she of them.

All of that is relevant to today’s liturgy of the word. It’s about prayer understood as Greta- Thunberg-like alignment with Life’s processes. Regardless of what we might call it, such re-orientation can change the world and cause powerful enemies of justice to tremble even before those they see as the weakest among us.

More specifically, today’s readings trace biblical understandings of prayer from a voodoo-like practice intent on harming one’s enemies to the alignment with Life’s purposes just described. Here’s the way they run according to my own “translation.” Judge for yourself to see if I’ve got them right. You can read the originals here

 Long ago
When Israel’s primitive faith
Still pictured God
As a Man O’ War,
They magically imagined
A Yahweh persuaded
To slaughter their enemies
By Moses’ adoption
Of Wiccan postures,
Magic rocks
And feats of
Super-human endurance.
 
PS 121: 1-8
 
They were right,
Of course,
To intuit
That the Creator
Is eternally helpful
In protecting
The lives
And chosen paths
Of his creatures
Providing sunlight by day
And moonlight by night.
Divine power
Is always disposed
To help
The oppressed.
 
2 TM 3: 14-4:2
 
However, the mystic Paul
Had already
Ventured far beyond
His forebears’ voodoo.
Though he recognized
Israel’s written tradition
As inspired,
He also
Identified Jesus
As its ultimate interpreter.
For the Master,
Life’s Author
Was no Man O’ War
But a loving, patient, encouraging
Father.
 
HEB 4: 12
 
Deep in our hearts
We already knew
This to be true.
Thank you!
 
LK 18: 1-8
 
The comic Jesus
Even joked about
Those who thought
Of God as a cruel judge
Susceptible
To tiresome entreaties
And cowering before
Poor widows who
Might cuff him
About the ears
If he didn’t
Answer their petitions.
Better, he said
To “pray always”
In a quiet way
That matches
God’s unwavering disposal
To secure justice
For the oppressed.
No Man O’ War
No exhausting prayers
No Mosaic sorcerer
Here!

There are salutary lessons in those readings.

According to their vision, prayer does not mean persuading some Man in The Sky to change his mind to match our capricious whims. Instead, it’s the process of aligning our minds with the Universal Love that underpins all of reality and that in practice expresses itself in justice for widows, orphans, and immigrants – the traditional biblical protegees of God’s concern. Prayer is a habit of mind that doesn’t call for words or supplications, but for awareness of the places in life where love-as-justice is breaking in.

That love remains nearly invisible because of human attempts to obscure it with tropes about rugged individualism, survival of the fittest, dog-eat-dog reality, and “nature red in tooth and claw.” Such worldly wisdom normalizes fear. Unlike Greta Thunberg, ordinary people adopting that normality become frightened and immobilized before terror -inspiring kings, presidents, bosses and judges.

Jesus’ parable of the widow and the judge turns that familiar dynamic on its head. It calls us to “pray always” in the sense earlier described. Then, once our minds are aligned with God’s loving purposes, we’re called to imitate the widow who insistently sought justice not from God, but from the judge “who neither feared God nor respected any human being.”

In other words, Love understood as Justice for the oppressed will drive us (as it did Greta and her Children’s Crusade) to petition, protest, demonstrate, and engage in the type of direct action that threatens such agents of injustice. Jesus’ joke about the judge’s fear that a poor widow might do him physical harm makes his point that the selfish ones who exercise power over us are more afraid of us than we of them.

So, today’s readings suggest, align with justice and then join Greta in the streets. Be as courageous as she. Become as a little child (MT 18:3). Frighten the hell out of those judges, presidents and worshippers of Moloch! Save the planet!  

The Biblical Tradition Advocates Healthcare for All – Even for Enemies of the State

Readings for the 28th Sunday in Ordinary Time: 2 KGS 5: 14-17; PS 98: 1-4; 2 TM 2: 8-13; 1 THES 5:18; LK 17: 11-19

On October 4th, President Trump signed a proclamation denying visas to immigrants who can’t afford to purchase health insurance within 30 days of their arrival to the United States. The new restrictions are scheduled to be implemented on November 3. They will also exclude immigrants from subsidies under the Affordable Care Act.

In its proclamation, the White House said it was taking this step to safeguard the health-care system for American citizens by preventing immigrants from enrolling in Medicaid or going to emergency rooms with no insurance, requiring hospitals or taxpayers to cover the cost.

“President Trump has taken action to promote immigrant self-sufficiency, which has long been a fundamental aspect of our immigration system,” the proclamation said.

In other words, (and listen for the irony here) the uber-rich president’s action is directed against poor people and is designed to save money for a revenue base recently depleted by tax breaks principally benefitting the richest people in the most affluent country in the world.

It’s simply another onslaught in Trump’s war of rich against poor.

Today’s liturgy of the word shows that the new proclamation is not only ironic, it also stands in sharp contradiction to the Judeo-Christian tradition and its emphasis on gratuitous healing.

I mean, this week’s readings seem providentially related to the issue of healthcare not only for resident aliens, but for explicit enemies of the state. The selections have two prophets (Elisha in the case of the Jewish Testament) and Jesus (in its Christian extension) curing foreign lepers. In Elisha’s case, the beneficiary of his cure is a general in an enemy army (Assyria) actually at war with Israel. That would be like Americans extending care to a notorious terrorist.  

Additionally, the readings connect with current debate about Medicare for All by suggesting the inappropriateness of charging money for healing which is understood as a gift from God. As such, the readings intimate, it should be available to all humans with no distinctions about race, class, or gender.

Please read the texts in question here. What follows is my own “translation” of their unusually coherent message about foreigners and healthcare.

 2 KGS 5: 14-17
 
During Assyria’s war on Israel,
Naaman, an enemy general,
Was cured of leprosy
By Israel’s prophet, Elisha.
The general offered
A valuable gift
In exchange.
But Elisha refused
To profit from
God’s healing.
Such salvation
Is as free as earth itself,
He implied.
It is entirely fungible
To entirely
Fungible people.
 
PS 98: 1-4
 
So, let’s sing
Of God’s healing (salvation).
On behalf of Israel
It manifests
God’s favor to non-Jews too
Causing the whole earth
To break out in song.
 
2 TM 2: 8-13
 
Jesus the Risen Christ
Endorsed Paul’s teaching
About the equality
Of Jews, Greeks,
Slaves and free,
Male and female
Prisoners and criminals.
Jesus identifies with all,
Paul said.
Every one of them
Is “chosen.”
God cannot deny
God’s generous Self.
 
1 THES 5:18
We are so grateful
For this wonderful teaching!
 
LK 17: 11-19
 
Like Elisha,
Jesus cured leprosy
This time
In a gang of 10 –
Including a Samaritan
An enemy of the people
Just like Naaman.
It was Healing
For nothing
Except for the outsider's
Singular word of thanks
Which healed him
Totally.
[No doubt
The ungrateful ones
Remained (partially) healed
As well.]

Not much needs to be added to the teachings so clearly embedded in today’s readings.

They’re about curing a culture’s most dreaded disease. They’re about foreigners and a divine dispensation that recognizes no one as somehow “foreign” or to be “shunned.” That’s true even if they represent a designated enemy of the state or adherents to a religion considered intrinsically evil by prevailing community standards.

As usual, then, and in other words, this week’s readings challenge our most cherished certainties. They call us to open ourselves to the poor, to foreigners, and even to those we’re taught to fear and hate.

They call us to denounce and resist Trumpian “proclamations” like the recent one punishing immigrants and refugees for their poverty and accidents of birth over which they have no control, but which especially endear them to the Author of Life.

We Baptize Our New Grandson, Sebastian Nels

Last Sunday, we had yet another baptism in our family — this one of our new grandson, Sebastian Nels. And what a beautiful event it was!

Our daughter, Maggie (Sebastian’s mother) was the MC. Sebastian’s godmothers were outstanding. One, Eden Werring, gave a beautifully sung Jewish blessing; the other, Claudine Maidique read the Gibran classic “On Children.” Rob Silvan, the music minister at our new church here in Connecticut (Talmadge Hill Community Church) led us in singing “Down to the River” (from “O, Brother, Where Art Thou”), “Swimming to the Other Side,” “The Prayer of St. Francis, and “This Little Light of Mine.”

Our son, Patrick, was here with his lovely girlfriend, Michelle. And later, we all retired to Maggie’s beautiful home here in Westport for the after-party. It featured a bluegrass band, a hot-dog food truck, and lots of good conversation and laughter. What fun!

As I remarked to Maggie, it was all perfect in its imperfection. The star of the event, however, was little Sebastian Nels. I’ve never seen a more tranquil baby. His quiet demeanor made the remarks I share below (my homily on the occasion) even more relevant. Please allow me share them with you. To begin with here are the readings:

  • LK 3: 21-22: When all the people were being baptized, Jesus was baptized too. And as he was praying, heaven was opened 22 and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”
  • LK 3:21-22: So, in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, 27 for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 28 There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. 29 If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.
  • MK 10: 13-16: 13 People were bringing little children to Jesus for him to place his hands on them, but the disciples rebuked them. 14 When Jesus saw this, he was indignant. He said to them, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. 15 Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.” 16 And he took the children in his arms, placed his hands on them and blessed them.

And here is the homily:

“Sebastian’s First Sermon”

Here we are yet again, gathered for yet another baptism. Having done this with Eva, Oscar, Orlando, and Markandeya, it’s now Sebastian’s turn. These experiences are always so memorable.

Of course, Sebastian knows nothing of why we’re doing this. After all, as my good friend, Guy Patrick (also a former priest), reminds us, religion really isn’t for children, much less for babies. It’s an adult thing. And when children express boredom or rebellion against going to church or religious practice, we should patiently tell them, “Don’t worry, if you’re lucky, you’ll one day ‘get it,’ maybe when you grow up. And if you don’t get it then, perhaps you will in some other life.” (At least, that’s what Guy says. I think he’s right. He usually is about these things.)

So, what’s here for adults to “get”? Today’s readings and that beautiful song, “Swimming to the Other Side,” suggest an answer. Baptism, they tell us, is about personal transformation. It’s about navigating from the world’s way of thinking to God’s way, which lies on the other side of the Jordan, where Jesus himself was baptized. It’s about swimming against the world’s current to what Jesus called the “Kingdom of God.” God’s way of thinking is 180 degrees opposed to that of the world. It’s the very definition of “the other side.”

Think about Jesus’ own baptism. As a 30-something adult, he has evidently reached a decision point about the direction of his life. As a disciple of John, he’s seeking a new course; he wants to “swim to the other side.” So, like so many others (Luke tells us “all the people” were being baptized) he presents himself for a rite of conversion performed by John the Baptist whom Luke describes as completely counter-cultural in his dress, diet, and way of speaking. [Jesus will later describe him as the greatest person who has ever lived (MT 11:11).]

Anyway, Jesus goes down to the Jordan River, is pushed beneath the water, and emerges with a new vocation. He hears a voice that tells him “You are my beloved Son.” Evidently puzzled by that revelation, the next thing he does is to go out into the desert to discover what those words might mean.

He’s on a vision quest. And there, in the desert’s heat and cold, in the company of wild beasts and scorpions, the visions come to him. Fevered from 40 days of starvation and thirst, he sees angels, devils, and fantastic possible futures. He imagines stones as bread. He’s taken to a mountain, and to the pinnacle of the temple. The thought of suicide crosses his mind. He’s shown all the kingdoms of the world. He’s presented with unlimited possibilities.

In all of this, his question is the same as ours. Which will he choose? Will it be the world’s ways of pleasure, power, profit, and prestige? Or will he instead swim against the current and live out his identity as God’s beloved son?

We all know Jesus’ decision. He chose poverty over wealth, non-violence over violence, and identification with the poor, oppressed, tortured and victims of capital punishment. Those were his decisions. They’re what his followers claim commitment to.

What a challenge to us!

Sebastian, quite naturally, understands none of that.

But that doesn’t mean that he’s disconnected from Jesus’ vision quest or that his role here is entirely passive. Quite the contrary. By merely acting like a baby, Sebastian is preaching a sermon – his first one. He’s reminding us of what Jesus discovered in the desert. He’s showing us who we are as we come from the hand of God. He’s reminding us of what’s important in life. And it’s not what the world says. 

It’s not borders or of being American. Sebastian knows nothing of such things – nothing of male privilege, or white privilege, of war, lust, politics, or the power of money.

What he does know is love. He knows that he’s entitled to food and warmth, to the simplest of clothing. He’s aware of his entitlement to care from his mother, father, siblings, grandparents, and from all those strangers who are constantly fawning over him, picking him up, and making all those strange happy sounds. In our adult language, we’d call all of those human rights.

Yes, by simply being a baby, Sebastian is preaching us a sermon. He’s saying, “Be like me.

Set aside what the world values, because those values are categorically opposed to life as those closest to its origins experience it. Swim against the current. Swim to the other side to what Jesus called the God’s Kingdom. At your deepest level, live the consciousness I experience and exemplify.” Become as little children – or as St. Paul puts it: live in a world uncontaminated by race, class, or sexual orientation. In God’s world, Paul says, there is “neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female.”

Of course, we don’t know if any of this will stick for Sebastian. We don’t know if in this lifetime he’ll choose to follow Jesus’ teachings. We pray that he will. But at this moment – before he forgets –  his silence couldn’t be more eloquent in reminding us of the nature of life as it comes from the hands of God! This is his first sermon. Let’s all take it all in, remember it, – and now get on with his baptism.

Liberation Theology: Seeing Divine Intervention on Behalf of the Poor

Readings for 27th Sunday in Ordinary Time: HAB 1: 2-3; 2:2-4; PS 95: 1-2, 6-7, 8-9; 2 TM 1: 6-8, 13-14; 1 PT 1:25; LK 17: 5-10

Last week’s homily on “Dives and Lazarus” evoked an interesting comment from one of the most faithful and thoughtful readers of this blog. The point of address was a statement in my related reflections on liberation theology, viz. that in the biblical tradition “God passes from being a neutral observer of earth’s injustices to an active participant with the poor as they struggle for justice here on earth.”

In response, the reader commented, “The disheartening truth is that I see no evidence of this ever having been the case in the literal sense. Metaphorically, yes, and in prophetic but unfulfilled texts, but I fail to see even one concrete example. The rich and the poor seem to be equal in that both will have to wait for some nebulous afterlife to receive their reward. Meanwhile, the rich, proverbially, get richer.”

The comment is providentially related to this Sunday’s readings, which address the question of unanswered prayers and the frustration of those who look for evidence of God’s presence in the world and find none. Before I get to that, however, let me respond directly to what the reader said.

To begin with, I agree with his comment in that:

  1. It is often “disheartening” to look for God’s intervention on behalf of the poor (or any of us for that matter) and to see none.
  2. No one will see or ever has seen “literal,” “concrete,” and undeniable evidence of such intervention.
  3. So, in relation to faith and speech about God, metaphor used by “seers” (i.e. prophets gifted with capacity to see what’s opaque to the rest of us) is all we have.
  4. Contrary to biblical tradition, our inherited, domesticated religious culture insists that the rich and poor are equal in God’s eyes and that we must endure obscene wealth disparities till after death.
  5. As a result, wealth disparities flourish; the rich get richer.

So, relative to such observations and according to liberation theologians, what do the seers (those who can see beyond the shadows in our “Plato’s Cave”) tell us about God’s siding with the poor? Just this:

  1. God is Love and has established a loving order with room for everyone. This loving order of Universal Intelligence represents the larger, unchanging dispensation in which we live and move and have our being. It is the world as God created it.
  2. Throughout history, human structures (familial, economic, social, political, etc.) have been set up by the rich and powerful in opposition to the divine order. This is the origin of race-consciousness, nations, borders, latifundial holdings, slavery, poverty and wars. None of these represent the world as it comes from the hand of God, where the world belongs to everyone.
  3. The spokespersons for that other world are the “prophets” who have always been among us pointing out the in-breaking of the Love that is always there (e.g. Krishna, the Buddha, Jesus, Mohammed, Marx, Gandhi, King, Greta Thunberg . . .) Uniformly, they point out the opposition between the order of Universal Intelligence and the “wisdom of the world;” they indicate where Love is manifesting Itself; they invite the rest of us to “see” and to align with Love’s order.
  4. Those who listen to the prophets are the indispensable agents of Universal Intelligence for the “salvation” of humanity from the inevitable destructive results of the world’s “wisdom.” They are everywhere for those with eyes to see.
  5. In the end, however, Love’s order will prevail regardless of human activity; it alone is Real; the rest is illusion and doomed to pass.

With that in mind, please turn your attention to today’s liturgy of the word. You can find the readings here. In the meantime, what follows are my “translations.” As you’ll see, they directly address unanswered prayers and Love’s order as decreed by Universal Intelligence.

 HAB 1: 2-3; 2:2-4
 
I’ve been praying
Dear God,
For your Kingdom to come,
For violence to cease
For relief from our misery.
Yet you seem deaf
To my pleas.
After all,
Wars continue
Violence increases
Everyone’s at
Each other’s throat.
What should I think?
 
Only this:
(And write it in stone!)
My timetable,
My order
Is vastly different
From yours.
What’s invisible,
What seems delay to you
Is always there
And perfectly timely for me.
So, be patient
Keep your commitment
To my just order.
My answer to prayer
Is never late.
It’s omnipresent.
 
PS 95: 1-2, 6-7, 8-9
 
I have heard your response,
Dear God
I’m thankful and happy
For the reminder.
Your words
Are solid as rock.
It’s true:
You know far more
Than us.
You have never
Let us down.
I will therefore not ever
Lose faith
Against your
Proven fidelity.
 
2 TM 1: 6-8, 13-14
 
Such words of response
Are wise.
They are the expression
Of a Holy Spirit,
Within us all.
It can set
The world ablaze
With love.
It is courageous
And disciplined,
It expresses the
Strength of God.
It enables us
To endure even prison
And hardships
Of all kinds.
It is the very Spirit
Of Jesus, the Christ.
 
1 PT 1:25
 
We’re happy to say that
We share
Such enduring faith
With sisters and brothers
Past and present.
What joy to live
In such holy company!
 
 
LK 17: 5-10
 
When Jesus’ followers
Prayed for stronger faith,
He reminded them
That even a little bit
Can change
Expectations profoundly.
Never forget, he said,
That you are not in charge;
Love is.
You are only Love’s servants.
God is not
Your errand boy
Beholden to
Culturally-shaped
Plans and needs.

With those readings in mind, i.e. when we allow God’s word to open our eyes and ears, when we listen to the prophets (God’s spokespersons), we see concrete manifestations of God’s presence and siding with the poor everywhere. Right now, they’re evident, I think, in:

  1. Nature Itself: Regardless of human efforts to obscure and deny the divine, its presence calls constantly to us in events so close to us and taken-for-granted that they’ve become invisible. I’m thinking about the sun, the ocean, trees, the moon, stars, wild flowers – and our own bodies whose intelligence performs unbelievable feats each moment of our lives.
  2. Liberation Theology: This rediscovery of God’s preferential option for the poor has changed and is changing the world. One cannot explain the pink tide that swept Latin America during the 1970s, ‘80s, and 90s – not Brazil, Argentina, Nicaragua, Venezuela – without highlighting the inspiration provided by liberation theology. Neither can one explain the rebellion of the Muslim world against western imperialism without confronting Islam’s inherent liberating drive – again on behalf of the disenfranchised, impoverished, and imperialized.
  3. Contemporary Social Movements: Think Occupy, Black Lives Matter, the Sunrise Movement, Yellow Vests, Standing Rock, the Green New Deal, and prophetic figures like (once again) Greta Thunberg, Naomi Klein, Bill McKibben, and Pope Francis with his landmark climate encyclical Laudato si’ . All of these movements and figures stand on the side of the poor and are having their effect.
  4. Marianne Williamson’s Campaign: Of all the current candidates for president, Marianne Williamson most articulately and faithfully bases her “politics of love” on the five prophetic insights referenced above. The mere fact that she is actually running for president signals an actual and potential awakening of American consciousness far beyond what’s (thankfully) portended even in the candidacies of Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.

Martin Luther King once famously said that the moral arc of the universe is long, but that it bends towards justice. “Justice” in his vocabulary meant overcoming the laws and social structures crafted by the rich and powerful to keep the poor in their place. King (and Malcolm as well) was a practitioner of African-American liberation theology. As such, he was gifted with eyes to see differently — to see the Judeo-Christian tradition as revealing a God on the side of the poor.

That’s what our Sunday liturgies of the word reveal consistently. This week is no exception. It invites us to open our eyes.