The Bread of “Bread & Puppet” Was Not Easy to Chew: Neither Is Jesus’ Bread

Readings for the 19th Sunday in Ordinary Time: I Kgs. 19:4-8; Eph. 4:30-5:2; Jn. 6:41-51

This Sunday’s readings are about prophets and bread. Somehow that seems fitting since last week the world lost an artist whose work centralized both prophecy and the staff of life.

I’m talking about Elka Schumann, the co-founder of Vermont’s Bread and Puppet Theater Company. She died a week ago today at the age of 85.

Elka’s Puppets

Elka was born in the Soviet Union and came to the United States at the age of 6. She was the grandchild of Scott and Helen Nearing, the revered back-to-nature sages and activists. Elka and her husband Peter founded Bread and Puppet in 1963 originally to protest poor housing conditions in New York City. Since then, their giant puppets – some more than 20 feet high – have made spectacular appearances at protests and demonstrations everywhere.

Over those years, the Schumanns’ focus expanded to include the Vietnam War, climate change, Nicaragua and the Contras, El Salvador, Archbishop Romero, liberation theology, and the general failure of capitalism. Every summer hundreds of volunteers participated in their elaborate outdoor pageants highlighting issues like those.

(My wife, Peggy, was once a puppet horse in a Bread and Puppet portrayal of a circus. And a couple of years ago, she and I visited the company’s Museum in Glover, Vermont. Reviewing the various puppet collections was like reliving the great issues of the past half century. It was all such an inspiring display of insight, creativity, commitment, joy, and courage. The Schumanns’ giant puppets have provided a truly prophetic deepening our collective consciousness.)

Elka’s Bread

However, the mammoth puppets were so stunning and arresting that it’s easy to forget the part that bread played in their work. After all, the name of their company is Bread and Puppet.” (And homemade bread was served at all their performances.) Elka Schumann herself made the connection in a 2001 film about her work. The documentary was produced by her daughter Tamar and DeeDee Halleck. Elka said:

“We have a grinder over there, and we grind the grain ourselves. And the bread is not at all like your supermarket bread. You really have to chew it. You really have to put some work into it. But then you get something very good for that. And when our theater is successful, we feel it’s the same way. You’ve got to think about — it doesn’t like tell you everything. It’s not like Wonder Bread: It’s just like there it is, here’s the story, this is what it means. You’ve got to do some figuring yourself in the theater, in our theater. And if the play is successful, then at the end you probably feel it was worth the work.”

Elka’s words underline the essentials of good theater, good art, good religion. They don’t tell you everything. You must put in some work trying to figure out the message, to unpack it all. Good theater, good religion is not like eating white bread from Piggly Wiggly. 

Jesus’ Bread

As mentioned earlier, that aspect of theater and faith is important to note this particular Sunday, since the day’s readings highlight the connections between bread, prophets, and the teachings of Yeshua, the giant, larger-than-life (!) construction worker from Nazareth.

What Jesus taught in his illustrative parables – in fact, what’s found throughout the Bible – challenges us to think and question our own lives, the values of our culture, and our too easy “understandings” of life and “God.” That’s what the Schumanns were doing too

Think about the prodigal son, Jesus’ response to the woman about to be stoned for adultery, his dialog with Pontius Pilate about the nature of truth, and the issues raised by the fact that Jesus was executed as a rebel against Rome. Think about the prophet’s dying prayer for his enemies, his injunction to treat others as we would like to be treated, his “beatitudes’” centralizing purity of intention, poverty, gentleness, bereavement, imprisonment, mercy, peacemaking, and passion for justice. At every turn his words and deeds are challenging and (if you puzzle over them) difficult but rewarding to digest.

Understood in terms of rejecting Wonder Bread’s superficiality, all of those elements in the accounts of Jesus’ words and deeds should give “Americans” pause. They should call into question the very notion of patriarchy, our worship of the rich, our wars against the world’s poor, our attitudes towards empire and capital punishment, as well as our very denial of truth’s possibility (which Gandhi boldly identified with God).

That sort of hard-to-chew bread forms the backdrop implied in today’s readings. See for yourself. Here are my “translations.” You could find the originals here to tell if I got them right.

I Kings 19: 4-8

Prophets are lonely people
Living on the edge of 
Death and despair.
Elijah was no different.
He even prayed for death
On his way to Mt. Sinai.
Instead, a generous Spirit
Fed him with bread and water
Twice!
He didn’t have to eat again
For the remaining 40 days
Of his journey
To God’s holy mountain.

Psalm 34: 2-9

Elijah’s miraculous bread
Gave him a taste of 
Life’s Supreme Goodness
Directed especially 
Towards the threatened 
And afflicted poor.
The taste of bread 
Replaces their shame
And distress
With joy and confidence
In Life’s protective Source.

Ephesians 4: 30-5:2

So, Elijah
Should never have been sad.
In fact,
For those filled with God’s Spirit
(And bread!)
There can be no room for sadness
Bitterness, fury, anger,
Shouting, reviling or malice.
There is room only for
Kindness, compassion,
Forgiveness and love
That mirror
Life’s own abundance
And inherent generosity.

John 6: 42-51

John’s community of faith
Identified Jesus’ teaching
With the bread
That fed Elijah.
In fact,
They called Jesus himself
“The Bread of Heaven”
Whose consumption
Would strengthen them
For “the journey without distance”
(From heart to head).
This still upsets outsiders
Unable to overcome 
Fundamentalist literalism
That yet confuses 
Spiritual nourishment
With fairy tales 
And gross cannibalism. 

Conclusion

When I was a kid, I actually liked Wonder Bread. In fact, I still kind of do. Don’t you? I mean it’s a bit sweet; it’s easy to chew; it’s a nice base for peanut butter and jelly, and it goes down easy. My well-intentioned mother fed it to me and my three siblings without a second thought. I ate it the same way.

But then most of us got more conscientious about what we put into our bodies. With Elka Schumann, we realized that Wonder Bread didn’t really nourish us. So, we turned to bread that  (initially at least) was  less familiar and that required more chewing and changing of taste-preferences – a bit more work – maybe not as strong as Elka’s bread, but more substantial nonetheless.

For many of us who have stuck with faith as a source of meaning, it’s been the same. We outgrew the beliefs that no longer nourished. We woke up to the fact that Jesus’ teachings need adult interpretation that demands thought and decision about those issues I mentioned earlier — patriarchy, grossly unequal wealth distribution, perpetual wars precisely against the world’s poor, empire, capital punishment, and about agnosticism concerning the Truth that parallels our denial of what we know to be genuine relative to the great issues of our day.

Instead, we’ve reduced “faith” to childish fairy tales that none of us can believe. We’ve made it into Wonder Bread. And this at a time in history when acceptance of life’s essential unity – proclaimed not only by Elijah and Jesus, but by all the world’s great religious traditions – is necessary for our species’ very survival.

In the words of John, the Evangelist, I’m trying to say we need the Bread of Heaven, the Bread of Life now more than ever.

Thank you, Elka Schumann for using your puppets and bread to drive home that truth.

On Leaving behind Our Childhood Faith and Becoming Adult Believers.

Readings for the 19th Sunday in Ordinary Time: I Kgs. 19:4-8; Eph. 4:30-5:2; Jn. 6:41-51

Recently, I had a long talk with one of my dearest friends in the world. After reading a book I recommended, he found himself in crisis.

“I don’t know what to believe now,” he lamented. “I have no idea who Jesus was or is.

I could sympathize with my friend. I even felt a little guilty that I had recommended that he read the book in question – Marcus Borg’s Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time. In laypersons’ terms, it acquaints readers with the search for the historical Jesus that has been in full swing for more than 100 years.

Borg concludes that the 4th century Council of Nicaea was correct in its assessment that Jesus was a divine person who was fully God and fully human. It just doesn’t say how that’s possible.

Borg’s own explanation is that Jesus was fully human before his resurrection and fully God in the faith of his bereft disciples after the event, whatever its exact nature might have been. That means that the pre-resurrection Jesus was in important respects very like the rest of us. He too shared our spiritual journey and grew (as the Gospel of Luke says) “in age, and wisdom and grace” (LK 2:52).

“Why wasn’t I told any of this before,” my friend complained.

Well, today’s liturgy of the word addresses my friend’s frustration. It highlights the faith quest that all of us share – even with Jesus.

For starters, think about Elijah from I Kings. At first glance, it seems like a child’s tale. I mean: angels, miraculous bread . . .

And then there are those words attributed to Jesus in the reading from John the Evangelist. There, Jesus claims that he is bread, and we’re supposed to eat his flesh?

It all seems so (excuse me) absurd. We’re told Jesus was talking about the Eucharist or something. But, many of us find it harder and harder to believe even what we’ve been taught about that. God in a piece of bread? It’s easy to understand how faith is threatened rather than strengthened by such readings. Spiritually it can be rather discouraging.

But my friend shouldn’t be discouraged by such thoughts. Neither should any of us. On the contrary, they can be seen as signs we’re growing up spiritually. Painful as it is, perhaps it’s time for reassessing our faith.

I mean (if we’re lucky) there comes a point in everyone’s life where faith has to be reevaluated – where what we were taught and believed as children no longer meets our adult needs. At those times discouragement (despondency is the term used in today’s first reading) is actually a good sign. It can mean we’ve outgrown old ways of thinking and are being called to growth which is always difficult. So, we shouldn’t give up in the face of discouragement, but embrace it with hope.

With that in mind, please realize that today’s readings are about the spiritual journey, the search for God and the discouragement that comes along with it. They are about finding God’s presence hidden in plain sight – within our own flesh (as Jesus put it) – closer to us than our jugular vein.

That theme of spiritual journey is announced in the first reading – the story about the prophet Elijah fed by angels under a juniper tree. Elijah did his work in the Northern Kingdom of Israel about 800 years before the birth of Jesus. He is remembered as one of the great, great prophets of the Jewish Testament. In fact, he was so powerful that Jesus’ followers thought Jesus to be the prophet’s reincarnation. John the Baptist’s followers thought the same about him. (Btw: does that mean that Jesus and his contemporaries believed in reincarnation?) So, Elijah is a key figure in our tradition.

In any case, today’s story about Elijah describes the classic stages of the spiritual journey that we’re all called to – from immature believing things about God and Jesus to something more holistic that finds and honors God’s manifestations everywhere.

As we join him in today’s first reading, Elijah is described as beginning a literal journey. He’s traveling to Mt. Horeb (or Sinai) – the place where Moses and the slaves who had escaped from Egypt made their Covenant with their God, Yahweh. Elijah is confused about God (“despondent”), and evidently thinks that by returning to the origins of his faith, he’ll get some clarity.

At this stage of his spiritual growth, Elijah’s faith is less mature. He has a very ethnocentric idea about God. And he’s being called to move beyond that stage of development. The ethnocentric idea has it that God is all about us – our people, our nation, our wars, our prosperity. God is our God and we are his chosen people – truly exceptional. In passages from the Book of Kings just before today’s reading Elijah manifested that understanding of God in a contest with the priests of Baal – a Phoenician God that the King of Israel, Achab and his wife Jezebel had flirted with.

You remember the story. Elijah challenged forty priests to a contest – your sacrifices against ours. Call on your gods to light your sacrificial fires, and I’ll call on Yahweh, and then we’ll see who’s really God. Of course, the priests of Baal can’t get their gods to come through. They chant, and dance, and sing. But the sacrificial wood remains cold. However, Yahweh comes through for his prophet; he lights Elijah’s fire even though in a display of bravado, the prophet had the wood doused with water. Not only that, but Yahweh kills the forty priests for good measure.

That’s the ethnocentric idea: “Our God is better than your god. He has more magic power.” And he’s (this is almost always a male concept) very violent and vindictive. He’ll turn on you and go off on you at the drop of a hat. That’s the God that no longer seems to be working for Elijah. It has made him a wanted man. Queen Jezebel is after him and wants his head. Life is not worth living, the prophet concludes. He wants it all to end – there under the juniper tree.

But two people (whom Elijah later understands as messengers from God) feed him, and on the strength of food provided by strangers he completes his journey and arrives at a cave high on Mt. Sinai. And there, God reveals his true nature not as an ethnocentric God belonging to a single “chosen” people. Neither does God reveal Godself in nature’s elements – not in earth (an earthquake), not in air (a whirlwind), nor in fire (lightning). Instead God (definitely not predominantly male) is disclosed as a “still small voice” within the prophet himself.

And what is a “still” voice, a “small” voice? It seems to me that it’s a communication without sound – one that can be hardly heard – a far cry from the deity who magically lights sacrificial fires and slays Phoenician priests. That magical violent understanding of God seems frankly childish – a God who enters into competition with other “worthy opponents” over whom he has greater magical powers.

No, the revelation to Elijah discloses a God who is much subtler and who resides within all persons be they Hebrew or Phoenician. By traditional standards, it is a “weak” unspectacular God. God is found within; God is small and quiet and belongs to everyone. Or rather, everyone belongs to God regardless of their nationality or race. And in Elijah’s story, it’s not clear that the prophet even grasps the point.

Elijah might not have gotten the point. But it’s evident that his reincarnation in Jesus of Nazareth did – or at least that John the Evangelist writing 60-90 years after Jesus’ death got the point. By then it was possible to put words in Jesus’ mouth that the construction worker from Nazareth could never have said – especially about eating his flesh and above all drinking his blood. Jews, of course, were forbidden from imbibing the blood of any living thing, let alone human blood. However, by John’s time Jesus’ followers had increasingly left behind their Jewish origins. They had become friendly with Gnosticism and were coming to terms with Roman “mystery cults.” Both worshipped “dying and rising gods” who offered “eternal life” to those who ate the god’s body and drank the god’s blood under the forms of bread and wine.

Evidently, John the Evangelist and others like John’s contemporary who wrote “The Gospel of Thomas” recognized an affinity between the teachings of Jesus and the beliefs of the Gnostics who found God’s presence in all of creation. The Gospel of Thomas has Jesus say “Split a block of wood and I am there; lift up a rock and find me there.

In other words, by the end of the first century, Christians were developing an ecumenical understanding of God that went far beyond the Jewish ethnocentrism of Elijah. By that time Christians could see that Jesus was not only a prophet, not only a movement founder of reform within Judaism, not only an insightful story teller and extraordinary healer, but a “Spirit Person” who like the Gnostics found God’s presence in every element of creation – principally in that “still, small voice” revealed to Elijah.

So, Jesus found God’s presence in wood, under rocks, in the breaking of bread, in the sharing of wine, within his self, here and now (not in some afterlife) but in his very flesh and blood. In other words, shared divine presence lent a unity and sameness to everything. Bread and flesh, wine and blood turn out to be the same across time and space. John has Jesus say all of that quite shockingly: “When you eat bread you are eating my flesh; when you drink wine, you are imbibing my blood. We, all of creation, are all one!”

What I’m saying here is that faith changes and grows. Discouragement with old models and paradigms is a hopeful sign. Think of today’s readings and the distance traveled from Elijah’s Magical Killer God to the Still Small Voice to the God present in bread, wine, and in every cell of Jesus’ and our own bodies.

If your own spiritual journey has you longing for further exploration of such adult themes, I can’t do better than to recommend the book I urged that friend of mine to read. I’m referring to Marcus Borg’s Meeting Jesus again for the First Time. His The Heart of Christianity is similarly helpful.

Like my friend, you might find them initially disturbing. But they will deepen your faith and help make it more worthy of a mature adult.

Amos & Jesus Agree: America’s Not the Greatest Country in the World

Readings for 15th Sunday in ordinary time: Am. 7:12-15; Ps. 85:9-10, 11-2, 13-14; Eph. 1:3-14; Mk. 6:7-13

Do any of you remember the HBO series “Newsroom?” It lasted only a couple of seasons. However, I found it interesting and watched it faithfully.

As far as I’m concerned, the series’ highlight came when lead actor, Jeff Daniels, delivered a speech about then-current dismal state of our country. I’m sure many of you have seen it. It seems more relevant today than it did in 2012.

As a news anchorman of the stature and credibility of Walter Cronkite, Daniels’ character is badgered into answering the question “Can you say why America is the greatest country in the world?” Here’s how he answered:

Whew! That’s hard for most of us to hear, isn’t it? It’s almost as if the speaker were viewing the United States the way foreigners often do – or at least as someone highly sympathetic to the uneducated, infants, the poor, sick, imprisoned, and the victims of imperialistic wars. He seems to be saying that the experience of such people represents the measure of greatness.

I raise the “Newsroom” speech today because of today’s first reading from the Book of Amos. He was a prophet whose most famous speech was very like the one we just saw.

I mean his words were similar in that they were offensive to patriotic ears and centralized the experience of the poor. And they were delivered by an outsider. As we saw in today’s first reading, Amos’ words also evoked such negative response that they led the chief priest of Israel to lobby for the deportation of the prophet.

And what did Amos say?

Well, he was a very clever speaker. He did his prophetic work towards the end of the 8th century B.C.E. That was after the death of Solomon, when the Hebrew people had split into two kingdoms. The northern one was “Israel;” the southern one was “Judah.” Often the two were at war with one another. Yes, the “People of God” were that deeply divided even then.

Amos came from Judah, the southern kingdom. He went up north, to Israel, and confronted the people there. And he tricked his audience into agreeing with him that all their official enemies were really bad – the Aramites, Philistines, Moabites, and especially Judah, that kingdom to the south. God is extremely angry with these people, Amos promised. They would all be soundly thrashed.

“And they all deserve it!” his audience would have agreed.

And then the prophet turned the tables on his listeners. “But you know the nation that will be punished more harshly than all of them put together, don’t you? You know who the worst of all is, I’m sure.” (By now he now had his audience in the palm of his hand.)

“Who?” they asked eagerly.

“YOU!” the prophet shouted. “The nation of Israel has been the worst of all because of your treatment of the poor. You have shorted them on their wages. You have sold them into slavery. Your rich have feasted and lived in luxury, while those closest to God’s heart, the poor, have languished in hunger and poverty. In punishment, the Assyrians will invade your country and reduce all of you to the level of the lowest among you.

Of course, the prophet lost his audience at that point. They didn’t want to hear it.

It was almost as if the Daniels character in “Newsroom” had responded like this to the question “Can you say why America is the greatest country?” No, I take that back. It’s almost as if some foreigner – one of our designated enemies, say from Iraq or Afghanistan, answered the question by saying:

“Well, America surely isn’t Nazi Germany, and it’s not the Soviet Union. Those places were hell on earth, weren’t they? They caused havoc in the world; I’m sure we’d all agree. Those countries were truly the enemies of humankind. Neither is America Saddam’s Iraq, or Kaddafi’s Libya. It’s none of those. But you know what? AMERICA IS A LOT WORSE! And that’s because of the way it treats not only its own poor, but the way it savages the poor of other countries. Treatment of the poor is God’s criterion for greatness. And America falls flat before it!”

My point is that it sometimes takes someone who doesn’t share our cultural values and especially our class loyalties to help us see ourselves in something like the way God sees us. Those outside our culture often perceive us more clearly than we see ourselves.

Do you think Amos’ concern for the poor (the Bible’s real People of God) might be also centralized in today’s Gospel? I think it is. Mark seems to be reminding his audience (40 years after Jesus’ death) that the poor represent the touchstone for Christian authenticity.

In the Gospel reading, Jesus sends off his 12 apostles two by two as his emissaries. They are to drive out unclean spirits and demons and to cure the sick. Can you even imagine them doing that? They were just fishermen, maybe a traveling merchant or two, a former tax collector – all of them likely illiterate – not public speakers at all. Who would ever listen to such people?

And yet Mark pictures Jesus sending them off in pairs to preach his message: “Repent; the Kingdom of God is at hand.” These are the same disciples who Mark tells us later never really grasped what Jesus was all about. And yet here they are preaching, curing the sick and driving out demons.

Such considerations lead scripture scholars to conclude that these words were probably never spoken by the historical Jesus. Instead they were added later by a more developed church. (Early Christians evidently believed so strongly in Jesus’ post-resurrection presence that they thought the risen Christ continued addressing their problems even though those difficulties were unknown to him and his immediate followers while he walked the earth. So they made up stories like this one.)

And what was the message to those later followers? It seems to have been this: “Remember where we came from. We’re followers of that poor man from Nazareth. So, stay close to the poor as Jesus did: walk; don’t ride. Steer clear of money. Don’t even worry about food. The clothes on your back are enough for anyone. Others will give you shelter for the night.” (This passage from Mark almost pictures Jesus’ followers like Buddhist monks with their saffron robes and begging bowls.)

Mark’s message to his community 40 years after Jesus — and to us today — seems to be: “Only by staying close to the poor can you even recognize the world’s unclean spirits. So concealed and disguised are they by material concerns and by things like patriotism and religious loyalties. Therefore, don’t be seduced by identification with the rich, your own culture, and what they value — sleek transportation, money, luxurious food, clothes and homes.”

Surrendering to such seductions, Mark seems to be saying, is to depart from the instructions of Jesus. We’d say it is a recipe for loss of soul on both the individual and national levels as described by Amos and “Newsroom’s” Jeff Daniels.

But identification with the poor is hard, isn’t it? It’s hard to be the voice of the voiceless as both Amos and Jesus were. It’s difficult to walk instead of ride, to have less money, to share food and housing with others. It’s hard to make political and economic choices on the basis of policy’s impact on the poor rather than the rich.

For that reason, Jesus sends his apostles off not as individuals, but in pairs. The message here is that we need one another for support. This is also true because adopting counter-cultural viewpoints like those of Amos, Jesus, and the “Newsroom” anchorman evoke such negative response.

What do you think? Are we Christians really called to centralize concern for the poor, to simplify our lifestyles, and run the risk of being judged enemies of the state as Amos, Jesus and early Christians were?

If so, how can we support one another in doing that? (Discussion follows.)

Jimmy Lai vs. Julian Assange: Prophets without Honor (A July 4th Sunday Reflection)

Readings for the 14th Sunday in Ordinary Time: Ezekiel 2: 2-5; Psalm 123: 1-4; 2nd Corinthians 12: 7-10; Luke 4: 18; Mark 6: 1-6

I can’t believe that we’re still expected to believe that the United States and Great Britain are concerned about human rights or press freedom or that either has any leg to stand on in such posturing.

I mean, how can any of us still believe after the lies about Iraq, Abu Ghraib, the refusal to punish Saudi Arabia for the murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi, the imprisonment of Julian Assange, the demonization of Wikileaks, and the cooperation of the mainstream media (MSM) with all of it.

You’re telling me that either London or Washington has the right to pronounce on press freedom? On human rights? Please!

Demonization of China

Nonetheless, they’re at it again in relation to China and the desperate campaign of both Great Britain and America to demonize Beijing and its implied invocation of an Asian version of The Monroe Doctrine in relation to Hong Kong [which, by the way, (unlike the U.S. relationship to Nicaragua, Honduras, Cuba, or Venezuela) is actually part of China.]

More specifically, we’re supposed to join the MSM and “our” government as well as England’s in worrying about the recent shutdown of the Apple Daily newspaper in Hong Kong – a publication that sounds a lot like The National Inquirer.

Judge for yourself. A recent cover story in The Guardian describes the paper as a tabloid-style publication that has “a chequered history including cheque-book journalism, muckraking and sometimes unethical reporting alongside fearless investigation into government corruption and police brutality.”

What? Chequered history? Paying sources for information (probably with money from the CIA or the National Endowment for Democracy) and unethical reporting?

Oh, and the paper is owned by billionaire Jimmy Lai who has been imprisoned (according to The Guardian) “on protest-related convictions and national security charges.”

So, now it’s “Hands across the Planet” for poor Jimmy and his yellow journalism.

Meanwhile Julian Assange wastes away precisely in a British prison for publishing government secrets exactly about U.S. war crimes in Wikileaks – a source that publishes the Washington’s own unquestionably true confessions of the criminal acts it desperately wants kept secret from the rest of us.

So let me get this straight: Jimmy Lai’s a hero. And we’re all supposed to get misty-eyed about the Hong Inquirer’s brave reporters. But Julian Assange is a criminal. And Wikileaks doesn’t even qualify as journalism.

And, by the way, we’re supposed to forget that there was absolutely no press freedom all those years the Brits controlled Hong Kong.

Does anyone else sense the irony?

Today’s Readings

Such considerations are especially relevant this July 4th as we celebrate our supposed “freedoms” and the tarnished ideals of the United States. Significantly, this month marks as well the 100th anniversary of the founding of China’s Communist Party (CCP) whose good example (in drastically reducing world poverty and extending foreign aid) our country so fears.  

Besides being July 4th, today also happens to be Sunday, time for a weekly “Homily for Progressives” where the theme of the day is prophecy in the sense of social criticism in the name of all that’s holy.

The first reading from the prophet Ezekiel implicitly reminds us that there were two kinds of prophets among the ancient Hebrews. Both are still with us today.

One type was a “court prophet” telling the king and power structure what they wanted to hear – justifying their oppression of the poor. (On this Independence Day you’ll hear a lot of their drivel as they praise “America” as though it were not – as Martin King put it – “the world’s greatest purveyor of violence.”) Think about The Apple Daily, Jimmy Lai and our MSM as court prophets.

The other type of prophet spoke for the Truth that was commonly referred to as “God.” The words of such men and women were routinely dismissed by the powers that happened to be. Some prophets (as is the case with Jesus in today’s final reading) were even rejected by the very oppressed people they were trying to champion. Their words were thought too dangerous and, in some cases, too good to be true. Think about Julian Assange as a prophet in the mold of Ezekiel or the Nazareth construction worker many of us claim to follow.

In any case, here are my “translations” of today’s selections. You should really check them out here to see if I got them right. As you read, think of Julian Assange.

Ezekiel 2: 2-5

I was startled
When God’s Spirit
Demanded that
I criticize my own people
As ungodly and stubborn
Telling me 
To make them uncomfortably
Aware
That a fearless prophet
Was at work
Among them.

Psalm 123: 1-4

Great and holy Parent
We invoke your compassion
On your prophetic
Servants and handmaids
So eager to serve you
Despite contemptuous mistreatment
At the hands 
Of our so-called “leaders”
With their pride and arrogance
Directed 
Against your beloved poor.

2 Corinthians 12: 7-10

Neither do prophets 
Have to be perfect.
Even Paul of Tarsus
Despite his many gifts
Suffered under
“An angel of Satan”
And “a thorn in the flesh"
To keep him humble
Lest he take credit
For the work
Of the Holy Spirit
Within him.

Mark 6: 1-6

But like Ezekiel
Jesus was rejected 
By his own townsfolk
Who complained that
He had gotten “above his raisin’s”
They didn’t even
Call him by  
His father’s name
(Implying he was a bastard)
While dismissing
His brothers and sisters
As quite unremarkable.
There’d be
No mighty deeds
For such whiners.
Only cures for
A few ailing beggars.

Conclusion

In a recent New York Times editorial, another court prophet, Yi-Zheng Lian, the former chief editor of The Hong Kong Economic Journal, joined the chorus of warnings about China’s grave threat to the West.

To an audience acquainted with the revelations of Edward Snowden Lian decried China’s surveillance system. To those whose country has bombed and killed Muslims by the scores and thousands every day over the last 20 years, he complained about treatment of Uyghurs in Xinjiang. To Americans who have lived through a Trump presidency, he criticized Chinese governance by lies. (His example? President Xi Jinping actually claimed that China seeks an international image that is “trustworthy,” “respectable” and “lovable.”) The horror of it all!   

Nonetheless, Lian also pointed out the fact that the Chinese Communist Party retains high popularity among a vast majority of its people. In fact, the party has grown by 20% annually since its foundation 100 years ago. There are no refugees from China. Travelers and students come and go at will and usually return home.

For Lian, the bottom line is that China is showing no evident signs of decline. This means that it will remain a formidable force continuing to threaten the United States and Western allies for years to come. This will be true, he said, not just militarily and ideologically, but also technologically and economically.

So, the West, Lian concludes, had better get used to the CCP’s threatening presence “at its front door.”

Of course, all this talk of threat and menace from a country that (unlike the United States and Great Britain) has bombed no one in the last 40 years – all this imperial identification of a country more than 7000 miles away as at “our front door” is nonsense.

So is any continued posturing about “our” championing of human rights and press freedom. July 4th in the context of faith reflection is a good time for reminders of such home truths.  

Jesus Was a Radical Feminist

Bleeding Woman

Readings for 13th Sunday in Ordinary Time: Wisdom 1:13-16, 2:23-24; Ps. 30:2, 4-6, 11-13; 2Cor. 8:7, 9, 13-16; Mk. 5:21-43

My wife, Peggy, is a radical feminist. As emerita director of the Women and Gender Studies Program at Berea College in Kentucky, she has always been so.

Whenever we discuss world issues, my tendency is to trace their roots to capitalism. Peggy’s is to find their origins in patriarchy. Capitalism itself, she says, is founded on patriarchy. Until we realize that and address the influence of patriarchy, nothing can really change.

She goes on. Ironically, patriarchy has men making decisions for women on issues that impact females much more directly than males – matters such as contraception, maternity leave, funding for childcare, abortion, wage disparity between men and women, the Equal Rights Amendment, and wages for housework. All of that, she adds, has to change.

I find Peggy’s logic and criticism compelling. This morning’s gospel reading indicates that Jesus would too.

In fact, the gospels in general show Jesus himself to be a radical feminist. In addressing specifically female issues, he favored women who spoke for themselves and courageously exercised their own initiative. Jesus even praised women who disobeyed laws aimed against them precisely as women. He ended up preferring the disobedient ones to females who were passive captives of the religious patriarchy. To repeat: we find an example of such radical feminism on the part of Jesus in today’s reading from the Mark’s gospel.

First of all, consider Mark’s literary strategy. In today’s reading he creates a “literary sandwich” – a “story within a story.” The device focuses on two kinds of females within the Jewish faith of Jesus’ day. In fact, Mark’s gospel is liberally sprinkled with doublets like the one just described. When they appear, both stories are meant to play off one another and illuminate each other.

In today’s doublet, we find two women. One is just entering puberty at the age of 12; the other has had a menstrual problem for the entire life span of the adolescent girl. (Today we’d call her condition a kind of menorrhagia.) So, to begin with the number 12 is centralized. It’s a literary “marker” suggesting that the narrative has something to do with the twelve tribes of Israel – and in the early church, with the apostolic leadership of “the twelve.” The connection with Israel is confirmed by the fact that the 12-year old in the story is the daughter of a synagogue official. As a man in a patriarchal culture, he can approach Jesus directly and speak for his daughter.

The other woman in the doublet has no man to speak for her; she has to approach Jesus covertly and on her own. She comes from the opposite end of the socio-economic spectrum from the 12-year old daughter of the synagogue leader. The older woman is without honor. She is poor and penniless. Her menstrual problem has rendered her sterile, and so she’s considered technically dead by her faith community.

Her condition has also excluded her from the synagogue. In the eyes of community leaders like Jairus, the petitioning father in the story, she is “unclean.” (Remember that according to Jewish law, all women were considered unclean during their monthly period. So, the woman in today’s drama is exceedingly unclean. She and all menstruating women were not to be touched.)

All of that means that Jairus as a synagogue leader is in effect the patriarchal oppressor of the second woman. On top of that, the older woman in the story has been humiliated, exploited, and impoverished by the male medical profession which has been ineffective in addressing her condition.

In other words, the second woman is the victim of a misogynist religious system which, by the way, saw the blood of animals as valuable and pleasing in God’s eyes, but the blood of women as repulsively unclean.

Nonetheless, it is the bleeding woman who turns out to be the hero of the story. Her faith is so strong that she believes a mere touch of Jesus’ garment will suffice to restore her to life, and that her action won’t even be noticed. So, she reaches out and touches the Master. Doing so was extremely bold and highly disobedient to Jewish law, since her touch would have rendered Jesus himself unclean. She refuses to believe that.

Instead of being made unclean by the woman’s touch, Jesus’ being responds by exuding healing power, apparently without his even being aware. The woman is cured. Jesus asks, “Who touched me?” The disciples object, “What do you mean? Everybody’s touching you,” they say.

Finally, the unclean woman is identified. Jesus praises her faith and (significantly!) calls her “daughter.” (What we therefore end up finding in this literary doublet are two Jewish “daughters” – yet another point of comparison.)

While Jesus is attending to the bleeding woman, the first daughter in the story apparently dies. Jesus insists on seeing her anyhow. When he observes that she is merely asleep, the bystanders laugh him to scorn. But Jesus is right. When he speaks to her in Aramaic, the girl awakens and is hungry. Mark records Jesus’ actual words. The Master says, “Talitha Kumi,” i.e. “Wake up!” Everyone is astonished, and Jesus has to remind them to feed her.

What does all the comparison mean? The doublet represented in today’s Gospel addresses issues that couldn’t be more female – more feminist. The message here is that bold and active women unafraid of disobeying the religious patriarchy will save our world from death. It will awaken us from our death-like slumber.

“Believe and act like the bleeding woman” is the message of today’s Gospel. “Otherwise our world will be for all practical purposes dead.”

Could this possibly mean that feminist faith like that of the hero in today’s Gospel will ultimately be our salvation from patriarchy? Is our reading calling us to a world led by women rather than the elderly, white, out-of-touch men who overwhelmingly hold elective office?

My Peggy would say yes.

Today’s Gospel, she would say, suggests that it’s time for men to stop telling women how to be women – to stop pronouncing on issues of female sexuality whether it be menstruation, abortion, contraception, same-sex attractions, or whether women are called by God to the priesthood.

Correspondingly, it’s time for women to disobey such male pronouncements, and to exercise leadership in accord with their common sense – in accord with women’s ways of knowing. Only that will save our world which is currently sick unto death.

Talitha Kumi! It’s time to wake up.

Jesus’ Angry Call to Fearlessly Protect the Waters of the Earth

Readings for the Twelfth Sunday in Ordinary Time: Job 38: 8-11; Psalm 107: 23-31; 2 Corinthians 5: 14-17; Mark 4: 35-41

This Sunday’s readings celebrate water as a fundamental gift from the universe. They remind us that without water life itself is impossible.

More specifically, the account of Jesus calming a storm at sea centralizes the Master’s impatience with our fearful paralysis in the face of nature’s brute force demonstrated today in the disaster of climate chaos.  

In the process, today’s selections also give insight into the way that modern scripture scholarship deals with the miraculous that post-moderns might reject out of hand as unacceptable or simply childish. Such knee-jerk reaction closes us off to the saving relevance of biblical narratives like those we encounter on this Twelfth Sunday in Ordinary Time.

To avoid such dismissal, contemporary scholarship applies what Jesuit theologian Roger Haight calls the principle of analogy. It says that we should not ordinarily expect to have happened in the past what is thought or proven to be impossible in the present.  In applying that rule, scholars’ purpose is to get to the historical facts and (more importantly) to the human meanings that may lie behind biblical stories most of us might otherwise reject.

Let’s apply that principle to the Gospel story just mentioned (Jesus’ calming of a threatening storm). Doing so will unexpectedly reveal the humanity of Jesus as it calls us to recognize the Great Parent’s gift of water and its human-induced crisis.

Our Water Crisis

To set all of that up, however, consider more generally our readings’ focus on water.

Today’s biblical excerpts tell us that the ocean represents the Goddess’ ultimate self-disclosure. It manifests her sacred order. When waters are in trouble, human life itself is endangered.

And the planet’s waters are certainly in danger as we speak.

Think for example about the importance of water. Evolutionarily speaking, we all came from the ocean. Up to 60% of the adult human body remains water. Seventy-three percent of brain and heart are composed of water; the lungs are about 83% H2O. In the absence of potable water, we inevitably perish.  

And yet, humans have come to treat this miraculous gift as simply another commodity. In my privileged position as a community elder, I still can’t believe that we bottle water in plastic, sell it at a price that far exceeds gasoline, and then throw its plastic container into the ocean, where it kills whales and other sea life.

In fact, the world’s oceans have become for us like huge commodes where we spew not only human but industrial waste including pesticides, chemical fertilizers, and nuclear detritus. With virtual impunity, cargo ships flush and spill oil into our seas along with untold chemicals. Islands of plastic the size of entire countries threaten to replace the earthen landmasses our post-industrial lifestyles surrender to surging sea levels caused by human-induced climate change. Wars waged primarily by the United States and its allies routinely bomb water purification plants serving civilian populations – as in Yemen and Gaza.

Then when those immediately affected by such disasters arise as anti-colonialists or “water protectors,” authorities employ police, dogs, tear gas, live ammunition and water cannons to make them cease and desist. Elected officials enlist reporters and media in general to discredit protestors, even branding protectors of water as terrorists.    

However, one Protestor whom industry-friendly authorities cannot silence is Mother Earth herself. Her responses to her children’s shameless elder abuse include tsunamis, hurricanes, massive flooding, and destruction of entire cities. The Earth’s response is to promise destruction of human life as we know it.

Today’s Readings

Despite all that, humans seem paralyzed by the multifaceted water crisis at hand. We end up arguing about the reality of the tragedy unfolding before our very eyes. We’re like Jesus and his disciples caught at sea in the eye of a terrible squall while they waste time and energy paralyzed by argument about who’s to blame.

At least, that’s the interpretation of today’s final reading as given by Cuban theologians Maria Lopez Vigil and her brother Jose Ignacio in Just Jesus. (The book is based on a radio program series they broadcast some years ago throughout Latin America. Scandalously to many and delightfully to even more, the airwave transmission attempted to put a human face on Jesus that accords with the interpretations of the modern scholarship mentioned above.)

Accordingly, the Lopez Vigils attempt to uncover the real-life basis of the story (assuming, of course, that some suggestive event may have actually occurred and that the account wasn’t a whole cloth invention of Mark’s community). In doing so, the Lopez Vigils implicitly take note of revealing phrases in today’s reading indicating that:

  • As a construction worker, not a seafarer, Jesus was out of his element in a boat. (He was truly “at sea.”)
  • It was he who suggested a late evening crossing of the sea.
  • In Mark’s mysterious words, his fisherman friends took him “just as he was.”
  • Jesus fell asleep and improbably remained unconscious even though the boat was tossed about and in danger of being swamped.
  • The disciples awaken the Master and blame him for not caring about their fate.
  • Jesus responds with a shout calling for “quiet” and “calm,” and with remonstrations about unwarranted fear and lack of faith.

With all of that in mind, the Lopez Vigils, elaborate Mark’s spare account. Their analysis involves an inexperienced landlubber Jesus persuading his disciples to cross the Sea of Galilee despite indications of an approaching storm. Against their better judgment those veteran seamen obey.

Then Jesus gets seasick and passes out. In the middle of the trip, the storm hits, but the comatose Jesus remains dead to the world. The frantic disciples shake him awake. They blame not only him, but their terrified companions for not paying attention to what their experienced eyes told them would inevitably happen.

But instead of entering argument, Jesus shouts to everyone to shut up and start rowing. Miraculously, it seemed, the disciples’ resulting efforts save the day and bring them successfully to shore.

My Translations

Put all of that in the larger context that includes all of today’s liturgy of the word, and (for me) it comes out something like my following “translations.” Please check out the originals here to see if I got them right:

Job 38: 1, 8-11

Our Holy Mother Earth
Manifests herself
Through the ocean
To which her laws
Set firm boundaries
As if behind a mighty 
Firmly sealed door.
As if its waters burst 
From her very womb,
Attired at night
In shrouds of darkness
And by day in raiment
Of fluffy white clouds.

Psalm 107: 24-31

Thus, we know
Her love and power
As every astonished sailor
Can attest
As huge breakers
Toss about 
Their magnificent vessels
Raising them like toys 
To the heavens
Then thrusting them 
Towards a bottomless abyss.
Their desperate prayers
Seek answer in Goddess calm
Gentle breezes
And safe return home.
(For such answered invocations
We are grateful.)


2 Corinthians 5: 14-17

Our Master Jesus
Knew such fearful threat
But his sailor’s prayers 
For deliverance
Finally went unanswered.
Instead, he showed us
How to die
Under his saving conviction
That life can never end
And that apparent death
Leads inevitably to
New Creation.

Mark 4: 35-41

To illustrate his faith, 
His friends recalled
How one day
Amid a fearful squall
The landlubber Jesus 
Caught seasickness
And passed out.
They remembered 
How he came to
And shouted indignantly
At his paralyzed friends
To overcome their fears
And row mightily 
Against the mountain waves
Until as if by miracle
They reached calm haven.
Some however remembered
That like creation’s Goddess
He had quieted
The storm directly
With his angry remonstrations alone.
(Both versions may be true.)

Conclusion

So here we are, like Jesus, knowing full well our basic relationship to water, but nonetheless landlubbers with little understanding of the sea, oceans, and the laws governing such bodies.

And so, we blithely endanger our lives by adopting courses of action that fly in the face of Mother Nature’s warnings that are abundantly apparent not only to climate scientists, but to “water protectors,” fishermen, and others mystically in tune with nature’s cycles and rhythms.

Today’s readings make us aware that (again, like a sleeping Jesus) we can still be shaken awake by the more insightful among us.

Then once awakened, we need to listen to the courageous Master’s voice shouting at us to overcome our paralysis and fear. We cannot depend on divine intervention, the improbably miraculous, or on some scientific deus ex machina that will suddenly save us.

Instead, accepting the principle of analogy, we need ourselves to seize the oars of what’s become our Lifeboat Earth and row mightily against the mountainous waves that will otherwise engulf and swallow all of us including our children and grandchildren.

God’s Kingdom is for Clowns, Comedians, Immigrants and Exiles

Readings for the 11th Sunday in Ordinary Time: Exodus 17:22-24; Psalm 92: 2-3, 13-16; 2nd Corinthians 5: 6-10; Mark 4: 26-34.

Today’s readings put me in mind of two superb films I’ve recently watched, “Joker” and “In the Heights,” both available on HBO.

Each film described a world inhabited by people our culture tends to despise and that empires like ours devalue and vilify. In that sense, both “Joker” and “In the Heights” focus on individuals very like the Hebrews liberated from Egyptian slavery and like Jesus himself and his friends who lived under impoverishing Roman occupation.  

“Joker” showed the dark threatening side of life under an order structured to favor the rich. “In the Heights” was infinitely more positive. However, taken together, they illustrate a theme suggested in today’s liturgical readings. It’s that positively or negatively, the poor represent our future. They are the key factor that will either destroy or save us.

Joker

Begin with “Joker.” It points up the need for a new (divine) order in our collapsing world whose worship of the rich is leading to disaster.

“Joker” is the story of Arthur Fleck, a sign-spinning clown and aspiring comedian who, he admits, has never had a positive thought in his life.

And there’s good reason for Arthur’s depression (ironically underlined by uncontrollable laughing fits). As a child, he was abused by his adoptive mother’s boyfriend. He’s down and out and spends much of his life watching television with his now sick mother. Crucially, he has no other community.

The world in Arthur’s Gotham City is also disintegrating. Garbage litters its streets. Rats are running wild. And rampant crime plagues city streets.

Meanwhile the rich hide behind their gated estates, all the time blaming the poor characterizing them as lazy clowns who need sermonizing from above rather than the dignity of employment at a living wage. Tellingly, at one point the headline of the city’s main paper reads “Kill the Rich!”  

Little wonder then that after Arthur murders three Wall Streeters on the subway following their unprovoked attack on him, alienated poor people throughout the city adopt his clown mask as a sign of rebellion reminiscent of the Guy Fawkes mask in “V for Vendetta.”

Arthur had unwittingly started a class war of poor against rich. He has his community at last, but it is completely hopeless, nihilist and destructive.

In the Heights

Compare that with Latinix life portrayed in Lin Manuel Miranda’s “In the Heights.”  It too unfolds in New York City’s real-life version of comic book Gotham.

True, Washington Heights has problems like Arthur’s context – poverty, prejudice against immigrants and the poor. Nonetheless, “In the Heights” underlines the unmistakable gift-to-America brought by its Latinix citizens with their sense of community and solidarity – not to mention patience and faith. It’s all so hopeful and joyous.

That’s because those living in Miranda’s idealized Washington Heights have community.  As individuals, they are hard workers with lofty aspirations. But in community they share rich cultures with enviable familial unselfishness, joy, music, dance, colorful language, and resourcefulness. They all love their children and grandparents; they care for one another. They scrimp and scrape and give their neighbors hope by sharing their meager resources.

All of that enables them to endure blackouts (recalling months without power in post-Maria Puerto Rico) that render them powerless in more ways than one, but without diminishing their indomitable carnival spirits.

Today’s Readings

In the perspective of today’s liturgy of the word, Miranda’s romanticized barrio contrasts sharply with “Joker’s” more realistic dark and dirty city streets. However, both put faces on abstractions like Jesus’ description of the “Kingdom of God.”

I mean, today’s readings present Jesus in his familiar role as the Great Reverser of values and cultural expectations. He agrees with Miranda in celebrating the poor and insignificant as the very embodiment of the joy and happiness that give life meaning. However, Jesus does so in a way that might confuse those unfamiliar with his peasant context.

Conventional thought in Jesus’ day is reflected in today’s first reading from the Book of Exodus. It estimates that bigger is better. A Cedar of Lebanon celebrated at the beginning of Hebrew history is an obvious image of the kind of national power to which Israel (and all other nations) aspired. To speak of Israel as a huge and powerful cedar — as a kind of Gotham — made common sense.

But more than 1000 years later, Jesus reverses all of that. In a world that (like ours) seems to be falling apart, his “ridiculous” metaphor for national prosperity is a mustard plant – a kind of weed which farmers in his day thought of as a curse.

In the spirit of Small is Beautiful, Jesus nonetheless ascribes to a weed the very same qualities that the author of Exodus accords a giant old-growth tree. He sees it as imposing, fruitful, and providing shelter for birds of all kinds. In short, the pesky and irrepressible shares the same characteristics that the world evaluates as formidable and powerful. Washington Heights is worthier than the rest of NYC.

Moreover, one could argue that the Divine Parent has chosen the poor (not Gotham’s rich Wall Streeters) as the locale of divine revelation, because the poor reveal what’s wrong with our lives and the directions for righting the wrong.

To suggest what I mean, here are my “translations” of today’s readings. Please note their upbeat tone.

Exodus 17:22-24

After their liberation from Egypt
Runaway slaves
Understood the Great Parent
Promising
That they would flourish
Like a giant old-growth cedar
A fruitful and mighty home
For escaped jailbirds like them 
According to the wise plan
Inherent in Life’s Great Force.

Psalm 92: 2-3, 13-16

We thank you, Almighty Parent,
For your kind and faithful care
Showered upon us 
From bright dawns  
Through fearful nights.
Your will is that 
We all flourish like palm trees
And Cedars of Lebanon
In a just New World Order
Where all enjoy vigorous health 
And long productive lives.
Thank you indeed.

2nd Corinthians 5: 6-10

Knowing all of that
Is a source of our great courage
Admittedly based upon  
Unprovable convictions
That we will one day
Live in the just world
Called “God’s Kingdom.”
Yes, we trust in Christ’s judgment
That in following him,
We are advancing towards that end.

Mark 4: 26-34

Trailing the Master
At a confusing distance
We are like farmers
Who sow seeds
Knowing they will grow
But without understanding
Why or how.
It’s that way too
With God’s Kingdom
Which, it turns out,
Is more like a pesky weed
Than Moses’ mighty cedar.
Yet even Jesus’ poor mustard plant
Draws the same odd birds
To flourish in its shade.
(How’s that
For a head-scratching simile?)


Conclusion

So, the choice is up to us. Do we want a powerful world with room for a few to flourish obscenely behind locked gates while the many are forced to exist with rats, garbage, envy, and hatred? That world can pretend to be as mighty as an ancient cedar tree. But too often its apparent might conceals desperate inner rot, nihilism and misery.

Or do we want a simpler powerless world with room for everyone, where people prioritize not money and might, but family, each other, joy, spicy food, party, carnival, and love?

Again, it’s up to us — to follow the example (or not) of those our culture despises and rejects.

We all know how wise spiritual masters from Moses to Jesus and his rebellious Mother Mary have answered our question. It’s what’s suggested in today’s readings.

Whether we live in a culture that seems like a mighty cedar or one that resembles the weedy mustard bush, all of us know the direction we’re called to take.

If we don’t choose it, Arthur Fleck’s gun points towards the destiny that will inevitably be ours.

How the Eucharist Transforms Us (Not Bread) into the Body of Christ

One Loaf

Readings for the Solemnity of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ: Exodus 24: 3-8; Psalm 116: 12-18; Hebrews 9: 11-15; Mark 14: 12-16, 22-26

This Sunday Catholics celebrate the Solemnity of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ. Before the Second Vatican Council (1962-’65), it was called Corpus Christi (Latin for “the Body of Christ”).

It’s a day when restorationist priests will preach “Catholic” fundamentalist and literalist notions of Jesus’ “Real Presence” in the “Blessed Sacrament” that even St. Augustine rejected way back in the 4th century. He wrote: “Can Christ’s limbs be digested? Of course, not!”

Most thinking Catholics have come to similar conclusions. But rather than see the beautiful symbolism of the Eucharist’s shared bread, many of them have simply rejected the ideas of “Holy Sacrifice” and “Real Presence” as childhood fantasies akin to belief in Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy.

To my mind, that’s tragic. That’s because such rejection represents a dismissal of Jesus’ insightful and salvific teaching about the unity of all creation. In an era of constant global war, that teaching is needed more than ever. It’s contained in the Master’s words, “This is my body . . . this is my blood . . . Do this in remembrance of me?”

Let me explain.

To begin with, according to contemporary historical theologians like Hans Kung, the Great Reformers of the 16th century had it right: The Eucharist of the early church was no sacrifice. It was a commemoration of “The Lord’s Supper.” The phrase however does not refer to “The Last Supper” alone. Instead it references all the meals Jesus shared with friends as he made meal-sharing rather than Temple sacrifice the center of his reform movement, from the wedding feast at Cana (JN2:1-12), through his feeding of 5000 (MK 6:31-44) and then of 4000 (MK 8: 1-9), through his supper at the Pharisee’s home (LK 7:36-50), and with the tax collector Zacchaeus (LK 19:1-10), through the Last Supper (MK 14:12-26), and Emmaus (LK 24:13-35), and his post-resurrection breakfast with his apostles (JN 21:12). Jesus treated shared meals as an anticipatory here-and-now experience of God’s Kingdom.

But why? What’s the connection between breaking bread together and the “salvation” Jesus offers? Think about it like this:

Besides being a prophet, Jesus was a mystic. Like all mystics, he taught the unity of all life.

“Salvation” is the realization of that unity. In fact, if we might sum up the central insight of the great spiritual masters and avatars down through the ages, it would be ALL LIFE IS ONE. That was Jesus’ fundamental teaching as well.

That was something even uneducated fishermen could grasp. It’s a teaching accessible to any child: All of us are sons (and daughters) of God just as Jesus was. Differences between us are only apparent. In the final analysis, THERE IS REALLY ONLY ONE OF US HERE. In a sense, then we are all Jesus. The Christ-Self (or Krishna-Self or Buddha-Self) is our True Self. God has only one Son and it is us. When we use violence against Muslims and immigrants, we are attacking no one but ourselves. What we do to and for others we literally do to and for ourselves.

That’s a profound teaching. It’s easy to grasp, but extremely difficult to live out.

Buddhists sometimes express this same insight in terms of waves on the ocean. In some sense, they say, human beings are like those waves which appear to be individual and identifiable as such. Like us, if they had consciousness, the waves might easily forget that they are part of an infinitely larger reality. Their amnesia would lead to great anxiety about the prospect of ceasing to be. They might even see other waves as competitors or enemies. However, recollection that they are really one with the ocean and all its waves would remove that anxiety. It would enable “individual” waves to relax into their unity with the ocean, their larger, more powerful Self. All competition, defensiveness, and individuality would then become meaningless.

Something similar happens to humans, Buddhist masters tell us, when we realize our unity with our True Self which is identical with the True Self of every other human being. In the light of that realization, all fear, defensiveness and violence melt away. We are saved from our own self-destructiveness.

Similarly, Buddhists use the imagery of the sun. As its individual beams pass through clouds, they might get the idea that they are individuals somehow separate from their source and from other sunbeams which (again) they might see as competitors or enemies. But all of that is illusory. All light-shafts from the sun are really manifestations emanating from the same source. It’s like that with human beings too. To repeat: our individuality is only apparent. THERE IS REALLY ONLY ONE OF US HERE.

In his own down-to-earth way, Jesus expressed the same classic mystical insight not in terms of waves or sunbeams, but of bread. Human beings are like a loaf of bread, he taught. The loaf is made up of many grains, but each grain is part of the one loaf. Recognizing the loaf’s unity, then breaking it up, and consuming those morsels together is a powerful reminder that all of life — all of us – are really one. In a sense, that conscious act of eating a single loaf strengthens awareness of the unity that otherwise might go unnoticed and uncelebrated.

Paul took Jesus’ insight a step further. In his writings (the earliest we have in the New Testament) he identifies Christ as the True Self uniting us all. Our True Self is the Christ within. In other words, what Jesus called “the one loaf” Paul referred to as the one Body of Christ.

All of Jesus’ followers, the apostle taught, make up that body.

Evidently, the early church conflated Jesus’ insight with Paul’s. So, their liturgies identified Jesus’ One Loaf image with Paul’s Body of Christ metaphor. In this way, the loaf of bread becomes the body of Christ. Jesus is thus presented as blessing a single loaf, breaking it up, and saying, “Take and eat. This is my body.”

And there’s more – the remembrance part of Jesus’ “words of institution.” They are connected with Paul’s teaching about “The Mystical Body of Christ.” His instruction is found in I COR: 12-12-27:

“12 There is one body, but it has many parts. But all its many parts make up one body. It is the same with Christ. 13 We were all baptized by one Holy Spirit. And so, we are formed into one body. It didn’t matter whether we were Jews or Gentiles, slaves or free people. We were all given the same Spirit to drink. 14 So the body is not made up of just one part. It has many parts. . .
You are the body of Christ. Each one of you is a part of it.”

Here it’s easy to see the beauty of Paul’s image. We are all members of Christ’s body (Paul’s fundamental metaphor for that human-unity insight I explained). As individual members, we each have our functions – as eye, ear, nose, foot, or private parts. However, the fact that we live separately can lead us to forget that we are all members of the same body. So, it helps to RE-MEMBER ourselves occasionally – to symbolically bring our separate members together. That’s what “re-membering” means in this context. That’s what the Eucharist is: an occasion for getting ourselves together – for recalling that we are the way Christ lives and works in the world today.

In the final analysis, that’s the meaning of Jesus’ injunction: “Do this to RE-MEMBER me. And then afterwards – as a re-membered Christ, act together as I would.”

Do you see how rich, how poetic, how complex and mysterious all of that is – ocean waves, sunbeams, bread, Christ’s body, re-membering?

It’s powerful. The Eucharist is a meal where the many and separate members of Christ’s body are re-membered so they might subsequently act in a concerted way in imitation of Christ.

That’s why it’s important to recover and make apparent the table fellowship character of The Lord’s Supper. It is not a Jewish or Roman sacrifice; it is a shared meal.

The world our grandchildren will inherit needs everything symbolized by all of that. The Eucharist is not childish fantasy. It’s a counter-cultural challenge to our era’s individualism, ethnocentrism, and perpetual war.

Keep that in mind this Sunday, when your priest lectures you on “the real presence.” The real presence is us.

My “Sermon” @ My New Church — on Liberation Theology

For a couple of years now my pastor (Carter Via) at our newly-adopted non-denominational Talmadge Hill Community Church (THCC) has tried to find an opening for me to speak about liberation theology during one of our Sunday services. But Covid-19 as well as Peggy’s and my three months in Florida this winter made it difficult to arrange.

However, now that most of us are vaccinated, we’re back to in-person Sunday worship services. So, my opportunity to speak came over the Memorial Day weekend. The holiday made it possible for many members of my family to attend.

To illustrate liberation theology’s approach to the Bible, I selected for my remarks the strange story of The Healing of the Gerasene Demoniac that appears in the Gospel of Mark 5:1-20. It was read beautifully by our co-pastor (Jennifer McCleery).

Carter had asked me not only to explain liberation theology, but my personal journey towards accepting its approach to the following of Jesus.

What follows is the church service. If you watch the entire thing, it may give you an idea of why Peggy and I find ourselves drawn to this particular church community. Otherwise, of course, you can simply move the cursor to the point where my remarks begin (around the 22 minute mark). Find the link immediately below. Scroll down to the second video viewer.

https://www.talmadgehill.org/sunday-morning-live

Jeshua’s Peace Invites Tax Resistance

Readings for Third Sunday of Easter: Acts 3: 15, 17-18; PS 4: 2, 4, 7-9; I JN 2: 1-5A; LK 34: 24-32; LK 24: 35-48

On April 4th, 1967, Martin Luther King famously called the United States “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world.” That was in his “Beyond Vietnam: a Time to Break Silence.” Delivered at New York’s Riverside Church, it was perhaps his greatest, most courageous speech.  King’s words are worth reading again.

Time Magazine denounced him for it.

Despite the fact that U.S. soldiers had killed more than two million Vietnamese, (and would kill another million before the war’s end), King was excoriated as a traitor. Even the African-American community quickly distanced itself from their champion because of his strong words.

To this day, King’s speech is largely ignored as the daring truth-teller has been successfully transformed into a harmless dreamer – an achievement beyond the wildest dreams of the prophet’s arch-enemy, the FBI’s J. Edgar Hoover who considered King a communist.

One wonders what Rev. King would say about the U.S. today. For despite what the mainstream media tells us about ISIS, the U.S. remains exactly what Dr. King called it. It’s still the greatest purveyor of violence in the world – even more so. By comparison, ISIS is a pacifist organization.

Face it: absent the United States, the world would surely be a much better place. Even President Obama identified the rise of ISIS (our contemporary bete noire) as the direct result of the unlawful and mendacious invasion of Iraq in 2003. That act of supreme aggression (in the U.N.’s terms) is alone responsible for the deaths of well more than one million people.

And this is not even to mention the fact that our country is fighting poor people throughout the world – in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, Libya, Syria, and who knows where else?  “Americans” claim the right to assassinate without trial anyone anywhere – even U.S. citizens – simply on suspicion of falling into the amorphous category of “terrorist.”

Can you imagine the terror any of us would experience if enemy drones constantly hovered overhead poised to strike family members or friends because some “pilot” six thousand miles away might judge one of our weddings to be a terrorist gathering? Can you imagine picking up the severed heads and scorched bodies of little children and their mothers for purposes of identification following such terrorist attacks? This is the reality of our day. Again by comparison ISIS beheadings are completely overshadowed.

I bring all of this up because of the Risen Lord’s insistence on peace in today’s gospel reading.  As in last week‘s episode about Doubting Thomas, the Risen Christ’s first words to his disciples breathless from their meeting with him on the Road to Emmaus are “Peace be with you.”

Last week in their own homilies about that greeting, I’m sure that pastors everywhere throughout our Great Country were quick to point out that the peace of Christ is not merely absence of war; it is about the interior peace that passes understanding.

Their observation was, of course, correct. However, reality in the belly of the beast – the world’s greatest purveyor of violence – suggests that such comfort is out-of-place. We need to be reminded that inner tranquility is impossible for citizens of a terrorist nation. Rather than giving us comfort, pastors should be telling us that the peace of the risen Christ is not merely about peace of mind and spirit; IT IS ABOUT ABSENCE OF WAR.

So instead of comforting us, Jesus’ words of greeting should cut us to the heart. They should remind us of our obligation in faith to own our identity as the Peace Church Jesus’ words suggest. More specifically, as Christian tax payers (having performed the annual IRS ritual last week) we should be organizing a nation-wide tax resistance effort that refuses to pay the 40% of IRS levies that go to the military. While it is absolutely heroic for individuals to refuse, there is safety and strength in numbers.

So an ecumenical movement to transform Christian churches into a unified peace movement of tax resistance should start today. All of us need to write letters to Pope Francis begging him to call his constituency to tax resistance – to call the UN and the U.S. Congress to stop the aggression.

Once again: there can be no interior peace for terrorists. And Dr. King was right: Americans remain the world’s greatest terrorists. We are traitors to the Risen Christ!

Focusing on a utopian interior peace while butchering children across the globe is simply obscene.