Sunday, November 21, 2010

Who is the true ruler of the world?

It’s a familiar trope in TV and the movies.  The hero appears defeated: the boxer has taken a brutal beating and is on the ropes; the plucky underdogs put up a good fight, but the heavy favorites went on a roll (probably some cheating was involved) and our guys are down by two touchdowns and the clock is running out; the spy has been caught and lashed to the mad scientist’s super-weapon, which is about to go off.  All seems lost.  And then suddenly, with a sudden swelling of the soundtrack the hero springs to action, his face set in a steely look of determination.  All the pent-up force of his righteous anger suddenly breaks like a dam and in a stirring and decisive burst of violence, he thrashes his adversaries, avenging their crimes and breaking their power forever.
The criminal hanging on the cross next to Jesus may not have seen any of these movies, but he seems familiar enough with the script.  “Are you not the Messiah?” he cries, “Save yourself and us.”  This Jesus had done wonders that were the talk of the nation, giving the blind their sight and the dead their life.  The authorities had been pursuing him for months and he had eluded them every time, even coming to Jerusalem to flaunt his defiance openly.  But why now, after all that, this helpless passivity?  Isn’t he going to   finish what he started?
This criminal is not the only one sneering at Jesus.  The leaders of the people, who conspired against him and handed him over to the Roman enforcers, taunt him.  So do the soldiers who are carrying out the execution, and in the same way.  “If you really were the Anointed chosen one of God or the King of the Jews, you would save yourself.”  These men, who would see themselves on either side of a deep cultural and religious divide, are actually thinking with the same mind.  They believe in the same kind of power, the kind that is first and foremost concerned for itself.   This Jesus had spoken with such authority and done such deeds of power that many had been led astray, thinking that he was a new David, anointed by God to liberate Israel from bondage.   Seeing him now, unable even to save his life from their hands, they feel the strange fear that he had awakened in them subsiding.  Seeing him submitting to the death they chose for him, they imagine that his story is over, and the future belongs to them.
And yet even then, there is something about this man.  The criminal, the religious leaders and soldiers could not see it before, and they cannot see it now.  But there is one who can, one who hangs on the other side of Jesus.  This criminal is another in a long line of characters in the gospel who encounter Jesus and in that meeting find their lives suddenly opening out into a new possibility they had scarcely known they hoped for.  Even here, hanging on the stake, he finds the freedom to accept the truth about himself, and to know that love is still possible.  This is perhaps the greatest of Jesus’ miracles, that one man being tortured to death awakens repentance, devotion and hope in another.  He does nothing, and says nothing but to assure his new friend that he will not abandon him, that even in that moment they have a future in God.

Like the repentant criminal, we acknowledge this Jesus as the Christ, the Anointed Savior and Lord not in spite of his refusal to save himself, but because of it. He was, as we are, in a body, under the condemnation of death and at the mercies of the world’s rulers.  But who is the true ruler of this world—the person who is Godlike in bending others to his will, in defending his winnings and taking life; or the one who is Godlike in loving others, in forgiving them and blessing their every impulse toward healing, wisdom, and service?  We have to answer this question for ourselves, and if we do not someone will answer it for us, for the general drift of human affairs is what is has always been—the worship of force and the service of self.

This past Monday, on my way out to coast to go surfing, I listened to an interview with a journalist named Charles Bowden who has recently written a book called Murder City, about Ciudad Juarez, the sister city of El Paso, Texas.   Juarez is descending into an inferno of senseless violence fueled by corruption, poverty, and the insatiable desire of North Americans for illegal drugs.  Bowden told a story about an incident that took place last January 31st when a group of working-class parents organized a fiesta for their high school age children to celebrate their victory in a soccer tournament.  They held it in a private house rather than a public place because the city is too dangerous, but gunmen showed up at the party anyway and machine-gunned fifteen children. 

The President of Mexico, on a visit to Japan at the time, announced from Tokyo that the victims were all gang kids involved in the drug trade, clearly implying that they deserved what they got and that, like the 5,000 other murders that have taken place in Juarez in the last two years, there would be no investigation of the crime and no prosecution of the perpetrators.  This caused a huge uproar in Juarez that would not die down, so a week or so later the President flew to the city to address the population.   He secreted himself in an auditorium in a hotel, surrounded by Mexican army troops, to speak to a hand-picked audience and the TV cameras.  But a poor woman named Luz Dábilo, the mother of two of the murdered boys somehow got into the room and suddenly, in the middle of his remarks she stood up. “Mr. President,” she said, “you’re not welcome in this city.  What you said about my sons is a lie.  If your son were murdered you’d turn over every stone in Mexico to get justice.”  And then she turned around and stood, with her back to the President of Mexico, for the rest of the press conference without saying another word.

Where did Señora Dábilo get the strength and courage to take this action that almost certainly will lead to her death?  According to the letter to the Colossians, from the glorious power of God the Father, the true sovereign of the world.  It is he who “has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his Son.” As a citizen of that kingdom, Señora Dábilo knew that that she had the authority over the false power whose only concern is to save itself.  In the face of its army of lies and fear, she raised the banner of her king, which is truth and the loving memory of the victims.  In a nation in the grip of total despair, she raised the possibility of repentance, and the hope of the king’s justice.

At  its worst the church has been just another institution bent in obedience to lesser powers, claiming for human rulers an omnipotence and infallibility that they do not have.  But at its best, it has been what it was at the beginning, a community of resistance.  This little building on the corner of 5th and C is meant to be an outpost where it is spoken and remembered, celebrated and enacted with joy and thanksgiving that the true ruler of the world has visited us.  He has shown us the things that make for peace, and has washed us clean from lies and the denial of death.  He nourishes us with his blood, that we might know that he remembers us and has given us the Spirit of the Father with its glorious power.  We do not lose hope, even as our people fall before the power of addiction, unemployment, violence, and greed, but we endure with patience, because he has promised to visit us again with perfect compassion and liberating justice.  We joyfully give thanks and we raise his flag, because he has the first place in everything, and we are his glorified body.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Holding the world in balance.

This morning’s gospel lesson is one of those passages that people who say that every word in the scriptures is to be understood and applied in its plain and literal sense never seem to quote.  Maybe it’s because, like us, they know that, in relative terms they are rich, well-fed, and highly thought-of.  Taken as practical advice for living, these words seem assured to leave us broken, bruised, and naked.  Indeed, by themselves, out of context, they have been shown to be deadly—applied as rules, they have instructed women to stay married and subservient to abusive and controlling drunks; they have told enslaved peoples to submit without revolt to their exploitation.  So while they express the highest moral truth, and absolutely mean what they say, I think I am not off base in saying that these are words of poetry.   And the work of poetry is making connections, making things whole that our ordinary, limited mind has broken apart. 
These words affirm that the imagination of God holds the world in balance.  They tell us that there is always another side to the story we tell ourselves about the lives we are leading and the worlds we inhabit.  These are words that speak to us when times are hard, reminding us that life itself is a gift worth celebrating.   They trouble us when everything seems flush and rosy, reminding us that nothing in this world lasts.  They urge us to see through our anxieties about other people, about how they might mistreat or humiliate us, abuse us or rip us off, and see that they can never deprive us of our freedom to meet them on terms of respect.  When we choose to believe that other people are like us, sharing our weakness and our dignity, we find new possibilities in the experience of what unites us, even with those who are mired in denial. 
This freedom to act on the truth is the nonviolent power that Jesus wielded.  His teachings are not abstract rules from on high, but they have real meaning because they were lived.  He refuses to let his enemies, trapped in inhumanity by their fear and blindness, to define his own course of action and spur him to retaliation in kind.   Grounded in the imagination of God, he keeps offering them the whole truth about himself and them, which is also known by the name of “love.”  
Jesus speaks from the imagination of God and people can hear and see the power of God because they can see and hear him.  Again, it’s like poetry, which is able to sing of the invisible because it breathes with what is sensed and thought and felt.  We do not want to be poor, or grieving, or hungry, we do not want to be struck, or robbed, or defamed.  We are afraid of these things, and of what we imagine what they would be like for us.  But because Jesus spoke these words, and because he lived them, our fear is balanced by a totally new possibility—a joy that is not diminished by other peoples’ injustice.  Because he himself was naked, broke, and bruised, and showed that no one really has the power to destroy us or separate us from God, we have come to trust Him more than our terror of loss or dreams of happiness.  And instead of a dreaming of a place on the right side of a world permanently divided into poor and rich, weeping and laughing, hungry and satisfied, we learn to hope and work and sacrifice for a world of one united people—God’s people. 
I got a call this week from a friend of mine who is the Associate Rector at a large Episcopal Church in a wealthy suburb in the Diocese of California.  His parish had applied for a zoning variance so they could regularly host a vanload of homeless men as part of a rotating shelter program shared with some 15 other congregations in their area.  He was calling me for moral support because these plans had touched off a violent storm of protest in the community.  Neighbors of the church have been sending alarmist emails around town about plunging property values and the imminent prospect of unsupervised mentally-ill drug-addicted sex-offenders wandering their tree-lined streets.  Legal action has been threatened, and the Rector and vestry are weighing whether or not to pull their application.  Incidentally, the same thing happened last year, and they were hoping that emotions might have cooled off enough that they could get it done on the second try, but no such luck. 
It is tempting to see this situation in terms of good guys and villains, loving compassionate Christians vs. hard-hearted elitist haters, and to want to marshal the forces of good for a decisive victory.  But I think the approach that my friend and his church are taking is closer to the New Testament vision of holiness, which is to stay in the painful heart of the conflict.  Members of their congregation have been converted to their need to do this ministry by their experience of serving the clients of this program at other churches and synagogues.  Their imagination has expanded beyond their fears and stereotypes by meeting real homeless people.  Similarly, they have not sought to meet the resistance to their plans with superior force, but to keep opening the door to actual face-to-face encounter with the aggrieved neighbors, looking for the opportunities for actual communication.  This kind of patient, vulnerable, when necessary even suffering, witness has always characterized the truly great saints of the church.  It speaks of hope that is grounded in the imagination of God, that sees beyond the tragedy of human divisions, conflicts, and contradictions to the divine comedy of Christ, the sacrificial victim enthroned above every rule and dominion.
This truth that is love, that sees and speaks the world whole, is the enduring power that orders and sustains the universe.  It is the power that Jesus refers to as “The Kingdom of God.” When the prophet Daniel sees a terrifying vision of monstrous beasts, each more terrible than the last, arising from the sea to dominate the world, he turns to an attendant in the court of heaven who explains: these are the empires of the earth that rise and then fall prey to another, “but the holy ones of the Most High shall receive the kingdom and possess the kingdom for ever—for ever and ever.”   This is the kingdom that already is, already ruling in the lives of those who live not for the praise and worship of empires, but for the glory of God.  But it is also the kingdom that is coming, the kingdom of the Son of Man.  This Son of Man is Everyman, the common representative of what it really means to be human.  But he is also what comes next, the one who shows us what we will be when the imagination of God is enfleshed in us completely, with love, and will, and power.  To follow him is to journey deeply into the fear and longing that are at the heart of the space between ourselves and others.   To trust him is to find there, in those very particular spaces, the wisdom to bring everyone together at last, the revelation of an end to misery and violence and injustice, and the power to do something about it.

About Me

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Petaluma, California, United States
I am a priest in the Episcopal Church, and have been (among other things) an organic farmer and gardener, and a Zen monk. I have a lifelong interest in social and spiritual renewal on the basis of contemplative discipline, creative nonviolence, and ecological practice. In recent years my work has focused intensely on the responsibility of pastoral ministry in the humanistic, evangelical, and catholic branch of Christianity known as Anglicanism. I'm married with a daughter, and have three brothers and two parents.