Faith Is Belief in What the World Cannot See – In What the Mainstream Denies

Readings for 19th Sunday in Ordinary Time: WIS 18:6-9; PS 33 1,12, 18-19, 20-22; HEB 11: 1-2, 8-19; MT 24:42A, 44; LK 12: 32-48

Despite their apparent obscurity, this week’s readings should be powerful and encouraging for people of faith. They are about faith that enables followers of Jesus to see what remains opaque to a purblind world.

By definition faith cannot adjust to what the world takes for granted. It is commitment to what materialists cannot see – to what the mainstream denies. After all, the world’s normalcy exalts individualism, money-grubbing, meaningless entertainment, oppression of “the othered,” endless war, and the never-satisfied quest for pleasure, power, profit, and prestige.

Faith, on the other hand, believes in a world that remains unseen by the dominant culture. It’s the world as it comes from the hand of God: beautiful, simple, loving, forgiving, and belonging to everyone.

As a result, people of faith are called to stand with those our dominant culture rejects. In “America,” that means standing with the poor and homeless, with immigrants, Muslims, people of color, LGBTTQQIAAP humans, socialists, communists, environmentalists, and social justice warriors. . .  That’s the short list, today’s readings suggest, of those who are favored by God.

Put more simply, faith realizes that all of us are one. All are children of God. All creatures from smallest to greatest are loved by God. It’s that simple. It cannot be said too often. That’s why some of us formally celebrate creation’s oneness each week with others who share our simple outlook. That’s why the world’s spiritual teachers of all faiths insist that each day must begin with some spiritual discipline (such as meditation or centering prayer). Such quiet time reminds practitioners that we do not belong to this world. That’s why Jesus told us to “pray always.”

There is nothing more important than living from the truth that all creation is one. NOTHING! That faith alone can save our world from the impending disaster sadly looming on our near horizon in the form of nuclear war and climate disaster.

But it is so hard to swim against the stream, isn’t it? It’s exhausting. After all, we’re surrounded by daily events that contradict it at every turn. Everything in our world conspires to tell us that we’re atomized individuals hostile to everyone unlike us. Think of the daily mass shootings, endless sanctions of designated enemies, obvious public lies, redefinitions of truth, police brutality, worship of money, resources absolutely wasted on war, and the distortions of God and religion for selfish purposes. Think of our belief that our country, the principal cause of the world’s problems, is somehow special, exceptional, and favored by God. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Thank God for Sacred Scripture that calls us back to Center. (That’s the beautiful thing about the Bible – almost alone in ancient western tradition it represents the consciousness and voice of the poor, rather than those of kings, generals, and court prophets.)  

In any case, and for what they’re worth, here are my “translations” of this week’s readings as they’d be understood by their authors who were themselves marginalized people surrounded by Great Powers intent on exploiting and even obliterating them. Please read them for yourself here. At first, and in their original form, they might strike you as obscure. However, read thoughtfully, they are powerful. So, here’s what I take them to say in these dark times. See if you agree.

 WIS 18:6-9 (A reflection on Israel’s Exodus)
 
Our tradition is that of
An enslaved people
Exhibiting the meaning
Of faith
As courageous commitment
To an unseen glorious future
Where the mighty
Are dethroned
And brought to justice
While the exploited
Are exalted
As God’s own people.
 
PS 33: 1, 12, 18-19, 20-22 (Blessed are the people God has chosen to be his own)
 
Yes, God’s Chosen People
Are the famished
And those threated
By death.
They are driven by
A divine Life Force
Calling them
To struggle for justice.
The Force is kind
And protective
Of the oppressed.
 
HEB 11: 1-2, 8-19 (Follow the example of our forebears)
 
In fact,
Faith is a verb,
An active commitment
By the hopeless poor
To a just future
That the world
Cannot even see.
It’s what our ancient ancestors
Lived by
Giving them hope
Even when they were
Only a few immigrants
Among a hostile
Foreign people
Fearful that the poor
Unbelievably fertile “invaders”
Would eventually outnumber
And replace them.
 
MT 24: 42A, 44 (Don’t give up the fight)
 
So, wake up!
God’s future will dawn
Just when the World’s saying
“That can never happen.”
 
LK 12: 32-48 (These readings are meant for everyone)
 
Yes, we might be small in number
And it might take a long time,
But we are the agents
God has chosen
To bring about
Our Master’s future
Where money’s not important,
The rich serve the poor,
The thieves are thwarted,
And empires overthrown
By true humanists,
Yes, humanists
Like Jesus
And us!

Give Up Church for Lent!

Readings for 2nd Sunday in Advent: Bar. 5: 1-9; Ps. 126: 1-6; Phil. 1: 4-6, 8-12; Lk. 3: 1-6 http://www.usccb.org/bible/readings/120912.cfm

In my town of Berea, Kentucky, a kind of religious revival is taking place. A spirited group of people across denominational lines meets once a month to experiment with and “Ecumenical Table Fellowship.” It’s a community of Christians without benefit of clerical leadership meeting to reflect on our common biblical tradition in the light of what Vatican II called “the signs of the times.” The group breaks bread liturgically in the spirit of Jesus’ Last Supper and of the early church. Roman Catholics are prominent in the group. They are discouraged by today’s conservative pre-Vatican II “restorationism” that emphasizes the power of the church hierarchy and ordained priesthood at the expense of Vatican II’s emphasis on the priesthood of the faithful.

Some in the group agree with spiritual theologian, Matthew Fox that their church leadership is in schism against the spirit of the Second Vatican Council, which remains the official teaching of the Catholic Church. Pope John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and the conservative bishops they have appointed are the culprits in schism. These clerics are defensive of hierarchy and the power of an exclusively male priesthood. They devalue lay leadership and the prominent biblical stories of Exodus and Return from Exile that are highlighted in today’s liturgy of the word where they are contrasted with “the priestly story” that currently plagues the Catholic Church.

The great Jesus scholar, Marcus Borg, reminds us that amid the literally hundreds of stories in the Bible, there are three “macro-stories” that give coherence to the Jewish Testament and its Christian counterpart. The first and most important is the story of Exodus. Its’ a tale of liberation from slavery and journey to a “Promised Land.” For the ancient Hebrews, the Exodus was grounded in an actual historical event, the release of slaves from their oppression under the pharaohs of Egypt perhaps 1200 years before the birth of Jesus.  It was the Exodus that provided the ancient Hebrews with their first experience of their God, Yahweh.  For them, Yahweh’s fundamental identity was the One Who Liberates from Oppression. In our day, the macro-story of Exodus has become central for third world people living under the harsh realities of U.S. imperialism.

The second Old Testament macro-story is Exile and Return. It too was grounded in history. In the year 587 BCE, the Hebrews were conquered by Babylon (modern Iraq). The Babylonians transported the Hebrew elite to Iraq till the Persian King Cyrus released them after conquering Babylon in 539.The story of exile and return shaped the ancient Israelites almost as much as the Exodus story. Like oppression and slavery, that narrative represents a human archetype that all of us can relate to it in one way or another.  The archetype evokes the feelings of grief, sadness and displacement reflected in one of the psalms of exile, “By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down and wept when we remembered Zion.” The Advent Hymn “O Come Emanuel” expresses the same feelings in its own reference to the Babylonian Exile: “O Come O Come, Emanuel, and ransom captive Israel, that mourns in lonely exile here.”  For one reason or another, all of us feel somehow exiled, sad, and displaced.

The third macro-story of the Jewish Testament comes from priestly sources. It is not grounded in a particular historical event, but in temple ritual and worship. It is the story of sin, guilt and of forgiveness mediated by the priestly class, their sacrifices, rules, rituals and prayers. Judging from the attitudes of Israel’s prophets and especially of Jesus, the priestly narrative is far less important than either Exodus or Exile. In fact, along with many other prophets, Jesus expressed harsh criticism and even hostility towards priestly pretensions and business-as-usual within the temple precincts. And yet, the priestly narrative has carried the day in terms of dominant Judeo-Christian spirituality. “Jewish guilt” and “Catholic guilt” are legendary. Jesus is primarily understood as the one who “died for our sins.” God’s wrath and the threat of hell are staples of Sunday sermons and of Christian neuroses.

The focus of today’s liturgy of the word is Exile and Return in sharp contrast to the Priestly Story of sin, guilt, sacrifice and forgiveness. The first reading from the Book of Baruch was probably written about 150 BCE when Israel was under the sway of the Seleucid Greeks. However the book is presented as though it were written 400 years earlier during the Babylonian Exile – as if it were addressed to the exiles then. Baruch’s real audience however was the Jews at war with the Greeks. His real intention was to encourage his contemporaries in their resistance to Greece – promising them that the rough road they were then traveling would soon be made smooth by Yahweh –   the one who frees the oppressed and brings exiles back from captivity.

In today’s gospel, Luke presents John the Baptist in terms of both Exile and Return and Exodus. Luke sees John as fulfilling the words of the prophet Isaiah nearly 600 years earlier. By anchoring John’s appearance in Isaiah, Luke is implying that John represents a continuation of Isaiah’s work of announcing the end of exile. This was a bold claim for Luke, since many Jews of his day believed that prophetic voices – nearly always lay people – had forever fallen silent. But here is John presented as fulfilling Isaiah’s words. He is making the rough way smooth. He’s leveling mountains and filling in valleys.  At the same time, John’s proclamation as presented by Luke has overtones of the priestly story. Luke shows John proclaiming a baptism of repentance for forgiveness of sin.

But here it is important to note the Exodus dimensions of John’s work. He is presented as preaching and baptizing specifically outside the temple and sphere of the priests. In fact, John appears in the wilderness – in the desert. For Jews, this would not only have evoked overtones of the Exodus macro-story, it would also have signaled a subversive significance in John’s work. After all, the “desert” or “wilderness” was the place where contemporary resistance movements were spawned. As scripture scholar, Ched Myers points out, Luke could not have picked a narrative “coordinate” further removed from the temple. For Luke the regeneration of prophecy was happening not in Baruch’s Zion but at the margins of Jewish society – in the desert where it all began with the Exodus. In other words, Luke presents John’s ministry as a complete break with the priestly establishment which controlled the mechanisms of social redemption from their power base in Jerusalem.

All of this raises questions for thoughtful Christians in the context of our own exilic sadness as we face the contemporary irrelevance of what happens in our own “temples.”  Is it time to move out of that realm now dominated by schismatic popes, bishops and priests and to relocate where our worship tradition began – in homes with Eucharists led by lay people?

Perhaps we’re not yet ready to substitute an Ecumenical Table experience for weekly Mass. But we could supplement Sunday Mass with such fellowship once a month. Alternatively, what if an Ecumenical Table were offered each Sunday at the very time of our parish Mass (9:00 am at St. Clare’s in Berea)?  That would give parishioners a choice. At least on occasion they could attend the Ecumenical Table and compare it with “business as usual.”

Another idea: Lent is fast approaching (Ash Wednesday is Feb. 13th). Might Lent not be a good time to “give up” church, and for six weeks and experiment with this alternative form of worship?

In today’s excerpt from his letter to Philemon, Paul prays that the church meeting at Philemon’s house might be given discernment to distinguish what is really important. Today’s liturgy of the word suggests that Exodus from business as usual and return from the Exile of pre-Vatican II Restorationism might be more important than honoring the priestly order that has dominated Catholic consciousness for too long.

Let’s consider trying to recapture Philemon’s home church experience and see what happens – if only for Lent’s six weeks. At the very least, the absence of people at Sunday Mass might get the attention of our bishop and pastor. It might help them realize that something’s amiss!

(Discussion follows)