Consumed by Love: The Flames of Candlemas

Giovanni Bellini, The Presentation in the Temple (1459)

Today is Candlemas, the 40thday after the Nativity. Its liturgical origins are obscure, but its blazing processions of candles in the winter dark not only made a glorious end to the extended Christmas celebrations of less hurried times, it also provided a brilliant preview of the resurrection fires of the Easter Vigil. Although it still may allow, for a few liturgically-minded procrastinators, a generous extension of the deadline for boxing up our holiday decorations, Candlemas is rarely observed in American homes and churches. Our minds are fixed on groundhogs and football, not the Presentation of our Lord in the Temple.

Still, I would gladly join a candlelight procession to a holy place on this night, to beseech the Light of the World “to pour into the hearts of your faithful people the brilliance of your eternal splendor, that we, who by these kindling flames light up this temple to your glory, may have the darkness of our souls dispelled.”

In the Eastern churches, Candlemas is called “The Meeting,” highlighting the moment when two old souls, Simeon and Anna, met the One for whom they had waited all their lives. Simeon had been told “by the Holy Spirit” that he would not see death before the coming of the Messiah. Every time he went to the Temple, he wondered, “Could this be the Promised Day?” Whatever he may have imagined––the House of God filled with smoke and shining angels, a mighty king arriving in noisy triumph––the long-expected day arrived like any other, without the slightest fanfare.

Simeon liked to go to the Temple early, when it was still blissfully quiet and uncrowded. He began his prayers as usual, but his attention wandered when the entrance of a young couple and their baby caught his eye. He could tell they were country people, the way they looked with such amazement at the vast interior. As they passed by him, he smiled kindly, then closed his eyes to resume his prayers.

But everything within him shouted, “Look! This is the time. Don’t miss it.” As soon as he opened his eyes again, he knew. He didn’t know how, but he knew. That child, cradled in the arms of a peasant girl, was the One!

“Please,” he said. “Please wait!” The couple stopped and turned to face him. Simeon held out his arms, and the girl, as though they had both rehearsed it a hundred times, handed him the baby without the least hesitation. And gazing into those infant eyes, seeing there the future of God’s hopes for all the world, Simeon began to murmur the prayer which the faithful have sung ever since at close of day:

Lord, now at last you release your servant
to depart in peace,
for my eyes have seen the Savior,
just as you have promised.

Then Anna, the old prophetess who had camped out in the Temple for many years, stepped out of the shadows to add her own confirming praises. Joy to the world, the Lord is come!

The Nunc Dimittis of these two old saints, near the end of their lives, being granted the grace of completion on that Temple morning, is beautifully echoed in a passage from Wendell Berry’s novel, Jayber Crow:

I am an old man now and oftentimes I whisper to myself. I have heard myself whispering things that I didn’t know I had ever thought. “Forty years” or “Fifty years” or “Sixty years,” I hear myself whispering. My life lengthens. History grows shorter…

 

I whisper over to myself the way of loss, the names of the dead. One by one, we lose our loved ones, our friends, our powers of work and pleasure, our landmarks, the days of our allotted time. One by one, the way we lose them, they return to us and are treasured up in our hearts. Grief affirms them, preserves them, sets the cost. Finally a man stands up alone, scoured and charred like a burnt tree, having lost everything and (at the cost only of its loss) found everything, and is ready to go. Now I am ready.

It is a custom at Candlemas to bless the candles for the rest of the year. In 2003, I happened to be in London’s Cathedral of St. Paul for a similar rite, when members of the Wax Chandlers Livery Company, in a practice dating back to the fifteenth century, brought long candles to be blessed for their service on the high altar.

The preacher on that occasion, Canon Martin Warner, took comfort in the fact that when his own brief candle should come to an end, another candle, the Paschal Candle of Easter, would burn over his coffin, declaring by its resurrection light that each of us is but wax “being consumed by the incredible flame of love that is God’s own self, melted not into oblivion but into the freedom of attaining our perfection and deepest longings.”

A candle is a temporal thing, fulfilling its function of radiance and warmth at the cost of its own vanishing. Even so, the fire that consumes it bears Love’s name, and does Love’s work. Whatever is offered up shall receive its true being. Whatever is lost shall be found anew.

Fire of heaven, make us ready.

Piero della Francesca’s Baptism of Christ

Piero della Francesca, The Baptism of Christ (after 1437), National Gallery, London. (Creative Commons license)

A few years ago, while visiting London, I wanted to connect with a friend who lives at the outskirts of the city. Neil, who is an artist as well as a priest[i], told me to meet him at Piero della Francesca’s painting of the Baptism of Christ in the National Gallery. I arrived first, and stood transfixed before that marvelous 15thcentury painting. John the Baptist pours water over Jesus as the Holy Dove hovers just overhead. They stand at the edge of the river, in the shade of a great tree. The formality of the figures and the almost eternal sense of stillness induced a responding quietude in me. When I felt a hand on my shoulder, I knew it was Neil, but I did not look away from the painting. “Remember your baptism,” he whispered, and with a small vial of water drawn from his parish font, he poured a few drops onto my head.

It was a whimsical yet powerful way of connecting my own baptism with the baptism of Christ, making them both present in a single moment, inviting me to receive their multiple meanings into my heart and soul. When the Church celebrates the Baptism of Our Lord this Sunday, I will be thinking of that moment, and that painting.

Piero’s baptismal scene is untroubled by modern oppositions between empirical and spiritual. Its visible world is charged with something more than the eye can see. Or rather, what the eye sees participates in a reality the senses cannot directly grasp.

The Renaissance embrace of the empirical is clear. The sky is blue, not the gold of eternity. The natural world is prominent in the trees and landscape. The human bodies, while in the stylized poses of dancers, are not abstractions. They have weight and substance.

Yet we also see a world governed by invisible meanings: the dove, while rhyming perfectly with the hovering clouds, is the Holy Spirit; the trio on the left is angelic; the principal gestures are sacramental signs of inward grace; and the strong heavenward reach of the picture’s verticals balances harmoniously with its earthly horizontals. Strangely, there are no shadows, as if light is not cast from a distant, separate source, but inheres equally in everything: a sure sign of divine presence.

The more you look, the more you see. The face of the Baptist, who must now “decrease” with the coming of Christ (John 3:30), is only seen in profile, while the full face of Jesus confronts us directly, like an icon. But his eyes do not look outward to fix us with an iconic gaze; their attention is wholly interior. The bent figure on the right could be a realistic touch, another candidate preparing for baptism, but his faceless anonymity suggests a more symbolic meaning. The garment that hides his individuality indicates an identity in transition: either he is shedding the old self which is left behind in the sacrament of new birth, or he is putting on New Being as in the Pauline image from Galations 3:26: “All you who have been baptized have been clothed with Christ.”

The great tree, apparently an Italian walnut, is clearly more than an object of botanical interest. Everything about it suggests the Tree of Life, a mythic image prominent in the first and last chapters of the Bible. Rooted deeply in the earth, it reaches into the heavens, beyond the frame of the painting, where human sight cannot follow. Like the Christ whose erect body it exactly parallels (even its bark shares the identical color and smoothness of Christ’s skin), the Tree unites the dualities of earth and heaven, integrating them into a harmonious whole.

Perhaps the most uncanny element in Piero’s painting is the Jordan River. As the biblical boundary between the wilderness wandering of the Exodus and the land of Promise on the other side, the Jordan became a traditional image of the passage not only between old and new, past and future, but between life and death. Many examples occur in the American spirituals and shape note songs I love to sing with my folkie friends.

I’ve almost gained my heavenly home of friends and kindred dear;
I’ve brushed the dew on Jordan’s banks, the crossing must be near.

These lines, from “Angel Band,” suggest a gentle crossing. But other songs, like “The Promised Land,” strike a note of anxiety and risk:

On Jordan’s stormy banks I stand and cast a wishful eye,
To Canaan’s fair and happy land where my possessions lie. . .
Though Jordan’s waves around me roll, fearless I’d launch away.

But in Piero’s depiction, the river is no formidable flood fraught with difficulty and danger, but a quiet, meandering channel, calm and smooth as a mirror. And it comes to an end at the place where Jesus stands. This could be a direct reference to Joshua’s crossing of the Jordan, which parted like the Red Sea to let God’s people cross over into the Promised Land (Joshua 3:14-17). Or it could be showing Christ to be the one who opens the way between the worlds of life and death, sin and salvation.

The sacrament of baptism employs the tension between water as an image of life (birth, growth, and the quenching of thirst) and an image of death (flood and drowning), expressing the inseparable connection between dying and rising in the Paschal Mystery. We die to self in order to live to God. But in the eternal stillness and calm of this painting, that tension is absent. The raging flood has been tamed into a tranquil pool. We have already crossed over into the peace of heaven.

Of course, it’s only a freeze frame. Soon history will resume and pick up speed. The river will start to rise and become once again tricky to cross. Jesus will begin to make his way through many dangers, toils and snares. So will we. But I am grateful to Piero for this moment of calm, a promising glimpse of something behind and beyond the raucous flow of time.

 

[i]The Rev. Neil Lambert is the vicar of St. Mary’s, Ash Vale, a 40-minute train ride from Waterloo Station. You can read more about him in my post, “Dreaming the Church that wants to be.”

The Morning After: A Sermon for Christmas Day

Nativity (12th century), Cloister of St. Trophime, Arles, France. (Photo by Jim Friedrich)

On January 2, 1734, a Boston poet and distiller named Joseph Green wrote these words in a letter to a friend:

 “The last Day I shall mention is Christmas. And this, I believe, keeps many People in good Terms with Religion, who would otherwise be at variance with it. They taste Sweet on this day, unknown to them the whole Year beside. Many who are Proof against a Religious Argument, cannot withstand a Dish of Plumb Porridge, and it is past all doubt to me, that a Christmas Sermon makes fewer converts than a Christmas Pye.”

But alas, I have no pie, so a sermon will have to do. But what exactly can we say on the morning after, when we’re trying to remember what really happened during the strange and wondrous night at that little stable on the edge of town. Some of us are still sleeping it off. Some of us didn’t get any sleep at all, or maybe we were asleep the whole time, and it was all just a dream. It seems like that now.

There was a really bright star, and then the sky started singing: Gloria in excelsis Deo! It was angels, someone said. I don’t know about that, but it was so beautiful, as if music were being invented for the very first time.

And suddenly, we all started running, don’t ask me why, until we came to this cave––it was a stable with a cow and a couple of donkeys––and in the back there was a woman lying down on some hay, and a man kneeling by her. And between them there was a little baby, just a few hours old, I’d say. What a place to begin your life! They must have been pretty desperate to end up there. Maybe they were refugees. Or undocumented. I don’t know. But they didn’t look scared or out of place. They seemed to belong there. And you know, I had the feeling that I belonged there too. We all did.

I can’t really explain it, but I got this feeling that everything in my life before that had just been waiting around for this moment, as if after a long and pointless journey I had finally come home.

And I know it sounds weird, but I swear that little baby looked right at me, as if he knew who I was––or who I was going to be, because when I left that stable I knew––I knew!––that my life was never going to be the same. Pretty crazy, right? I kind of hope it was just a dream, because if it’s not, I’m not sure I’m ready for whatever’s next.

Thus spake one of the Bethlehem shepherds. And each of us will have our own version of last night’s peculiar doings. But I suspect that everyone who was there caught at least a glimpse of a possibility, a promise, maybe even a vision of what this world could be if the angels’ beautiful song were true. But on the morning after, with the dazzling darkness of the holy night already a receding memory, will its meanings survive the cold light of everyday reality?

Well, as it turns out, what happens in Bethlehem doesn’t stay in Bethlehem. It goes home with us, it gets in our blood, it becomes part of our story. Nothing in the world will ever be the same again. Nothing in our lives will ever be the same again.

And that is why, on the morning after, we listen to St. John’s grand prologue to the Fourth Gospel. Its cosmic perspective on the birth of Christ reminds us how vast and consequential was that humble birth in a lowly stable.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. . . And this divine Word became flesh and lived among us. (John 1:1-14)

In other words, God was not content to remain purely within the confines of the divine self. God desired to go beyond the inner life of the divine, to enter the realm of time and space and history, to become incarnate as the mortal subject of a human life and experience the human condition from the inside. The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us.

But why? Why would God want to leave the peace and bliss of heaven to live and die as one of us? The doctrine of redemption says that God became incarnate to save us from the web of wrongness we have been powerless to escape on our own. That is no small thing, and we are oh so grateful for the gift of salvation. But was that the only reason for the Incarnation? The Christian imagination has suggested there may be more to make of this great mystery.

The nature of the trinitarian God is to be self-giving, and extending the eternal self-giving of divinity beyond the Godhead to include created beings is what God has chosen to do. In the language of the Fourth Gospel, God so loved the worldthat God gave the Only-Begotten to meet creation on its own ground. God loves us so much that God wants to be intimate with us, and not just love us at a distance.

So God didn’t just come because we needed saving. God came because God enjoys our company (though given our many faults, God only knows why!). But the Incarnation isn’t only a matter of God wanting to share our humanity, to make our humanness part of the divine experience. It is also God’s desire that we in turn become partakers of the divine nature.

St. John put it this way in his gospel:

To all who received the Incarnate Word, who believed in his name,” says the gospel, “the Word gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or the will of human beings, but of God. (John 1:12-13)

In the centuries that followed, this theme of theosis, or deification––becoming God-like––has pushed the envelope of anthropology by setting a very high bar for the definition of human potential.

In the early church, Irenaeus said that “God became what we are, in order to make us what he is” Athanasius was even more explicit about the consequences of Incarnation, saying that “God became human so that humans might become God-like.” God-like! Imagine that after watching the evening news.

Martin Luther, perhaps surprisingly for someone so focused on the burden of human sin, said we were all called to be “little Christs,” and in a Christmas sermon he described the Incarnation as a two-way street: “Just as the word of God became flesh,” he said, “so it is certainly also necessary that the flesh may become word. . . [God] takes what is ours to himself in order to impart what is his to us.”

In the 18th century, some of Charles Wesley’s great hymns were almost shockingly explicit about our capacity to contain divinity.

He deigns in flesh to appear,
Widest extremes to join,
To bring our vileness near,
And make us all divine.

Heavenly Adam, life divine,
Change my nature into Thine;
Move and spread throughout my soul,
Actuate and fill the whole;
Be it I no longer now
Living in the flesh, but Thou.

In the 20thcentury, whose atrocities left our confidence in human potential badly shaken, the Catholic contemplative Thomas Merton could still claim that we “exist solely for this, to be the place God has chosen for the divine Presence. The real value of our own self is the sign of God in our being, the signature of God upon our being.” [i]

And after his famous epiphany at the corner of Fourth and Walnut in Louisville, Merton said, “It is a glorious destiny to be a member of the human race, though it is a race dedicated to many absurdities and one which makes many mistakes: yet, with all that, [God’s own self] glorified in becoming a member of the human race.

“I have the immense joy of being [a human person],” he continued, “a member of a race in which [God’s own self] became incarnate. As if the sorrows and stupidities of the human condition could overwhelm me, now I realize what we all are. And if only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. “There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.” [ii]

Is this all this talk about divinization going too far? Could we really be walking around shining like the sun? Or at least have the potential for such glory, even if we’re not there yet? If the Nativity in Bethlehem means what I think it does, then the answer has to be yes.

On that wondrous night in Bethlehem, our nature was lifted up as the place where God chooses to dwell. We may still be works in progress, but we are bound for glory. St. Paul believed this when he said that “all of us, with our unveiled faces like mirrors reflecting the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the image that we reflect in brighter and brighter glory.” (II Cor. 3:18)

Another ancient theologian said, “As they who behold the light are within the light and partake of its brightness, so they who behold God are within God, partaking of God’s brightness.”

What happens in Bethlehem doesn’t stay in Bethlehem.

On the Winter Solstice about 25 years ago, I was flying across the San Fernando Valley into L.A.’s Burbank airport on a brilliant December day. The noonday sun was low enough in the southern sky to be reflecting its rays off the surface of swimming pools running along a line parallel to our flight path. There are so many pools in the Valley, and each one, as it was struck by the sun, exploded with an intense dazzle of white light. In rapid succession, tranquil blue surfaces were transformed into momentary images of the sun’s bright fire.

“They who behold the light are within the light and partake of its brightness.” Our pale mirrors are made to contain the most impossible brilliance. And though we have turned away from the Light, the Light seeks us out. No matter how shadowy the path we have taken, the Light will find us, and fill us with divine radiance. That is our destiny, says the Child in the manger.

We may not feel capable or worthy or prepared to receive the Word into the flesh of our own lives, but it is what we were made for. Paradoxical as it may sound, partaking of divinity is the only path to becoming fully human.

A month before he died, Edward Pusey, a 19thcentury English priest, wrote to a spiritual friend about our God-bearing capacity:

“God ripen you more and more,” he said. “Each day is a day of growth. God says to you, ‘Open thy mouth and I will fill it.’ Only long. . . The parched soil, by its cracks, opens itself for the rain from heaven and invites it. The parched soil cries out to the living God. O then long and long and long, and God will find thee. More love, more love, more love.”

Participating in divinity doesn’t mean having superpowers or being invulnerable. We won’t be throwing any lightning bolts. Just look at Jesus. His life tells you what “God-like” means. He was born in poverty and weakness, in a stable not a palace, and he lived a life of utter self-emptying and self-offering, giving himself away for the life of the world.

In a novel by the Anglican writer Charles Williams, a young woman goes to church with her aunt on Christmas morning. She is a seeker, not quite a believer, but as they are singing a carol about the mystery of the Incarnation, she leans over and whispers to her aunt, “Is it true?” Her aunt, one of those quiet saints who has spent her life submitting to Love divine, turns to her niece with a smile and says simply, “Try it, darling.”[iii]

So if you want to try it, if you want to complete your humanity by partaking of divinity, there are many ways to do that. Weep with those who weep and dance with those who dance,the Bible says. Love God with all your heart, and your neighbor as yourself. Welcome the stranger, feed the hungry, free the captive.There are plenty of to-do lists out there. I recently came across an excellent one from the Dalai Lama:

May I become at all times,
both now and forever:
A protector for all who are helpless.
A guide for all who have lost their way.
A ship for all who sail the oceans.
A bridge for all who cross over rivers.
A sanctuary for all who are in danger.
A lamp for all who are in darkness.
A place of refuge for all who lack shelter.
And a servant for all those who are in need.
May I find hope in the darkest of days,
and focus in the brightest.

No, Bethlehem is not a dream fading away into the past. It is the human future.
And this is not the morning after. It is the first day of the rest of our journey into God.

 

 

 

[i]q. in Paul Elie, The Life You Save May Be Your Own(2004), 403.

[ii]Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander (1966)

[iii]The novel is The Greater Trumps(1932)

Trying to Get Home for Thanksgiving

Tom (Thomasin McKenzie) and Will (Ben Foster) searching for home in “Leave No Trace.”

There’s no place like home.

–– Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz

 And he never had the sense of home so much as when he felt that he was going there.
It was only when he got there that his homelessness began.

–– Thomas Wolfe, You Can Never Go Home Again

To be human means both to dwell and to wander.

–– Erazim Kohák

 

This is the week of the great American quest for a place of belonging where we will be welcomed and known and understood. Nearly 50 million of us will travel many a mile to find such a “home.” The rest will seek it closer at hand.  But every one of us will be looking for something that may be real or imagined or both, and often beyond our reach.

The painful irony of this particular Thanksgiving is that thousands of American men and women in uniform have been denied their own chance to make it home for the holiday. Instead, they’ve been ordered to our southern border as props for a shameful and heartless message: STRANGERS NOT WELCOME HERE!

The Pilgrim immigrants at the first Thanksgiving were lucky to have had more generous hosts. And whatever the balance of truth and myth in the famous story of Europeans and native Americans sharing a feast in 1621, many of us cherish the biblical hope that every one of the human family can one day come home to a table with room enough and food enough and love enough for everyone.

The Bible is one long story of exiles trying to find their way home: Adam and Eve expelled from the garden; Cain condemned to perpetual lostness; Abraham and Sarah commanded to leave everything behind “for a place I will show you”; Joseph exiled to Egypt; the people of the Exodus wandering the Sinai; the displaced Jews weeping by the rivers of Babylon. The New Testament tacks on a happy ending in its last book: a great city of welcome where we come home to God at last. But for the time being, that abiding city remains somewhere over the rainbow. Eve’s children still walk endless roads, dreaming of home.

In Debra Granik’s powerful film, Leave No Trace (2018), a father and his teenage daughter are living off the grid in a nature reserve near Portland, Oregon. Their secret encampment seems infinitely distant from the hectic complexities of contemporary America. When they are discovered by the authorities, they are dragged back into civilization as bewildered strangers in a strange land.

As we witness their distressing exile, we share their longing for what they’ve lost: an Edenic simplicity deeply connected with the natural world. But that longing is complicated by our awareness that Will, the father, is more Cain than Adam. As a veteran with PTSD, he was suffering the condition of exile long prior to his forest sojourn. Alienated from the world which had damaged him so deeply, he had retreated into nature, trying to exit history and “get back to the garden.” Trying to get home.

His daughter Tom seems to possess a purer innocence, like a prelapsarian Eve. When she is taken to a government agency and put in a room with a couple of runaway teens, they ask about her story.

–– Where were you?
–– With my dad. In the park.
–– So you were homeless, then?
–– No.
–– Why else would you be living in the woods? If you had a home, they wouldn’t have brought you here.
–– They just don’t understand that it was my home.

Exile and the search for home are the central subjects of this unforgettable film. The meandering journey of father and daughter takes them through the kind of marginal social terrain which many of us dismissively stereotype or even fear. Granik’s compassionate eye provides a revelatory glimpse of community and kindness in places where our impoverished social maps say little more than “Here be dragons.” And while the heavenly city of an abiding home remains elusive for Will and Tom, Leave No Trace does not leave us comfortless. Even in exile, one may find divine traces of blessing and grace.

In his compelling essay, “Longing for Home,” Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel reflects on the theme of exile and return. It is a subject that Jews know all too well. Painful memories and vanished dwelling places are deeply woven into their history. But out of loss comes longing, and out of longing, hope.

“Would the paradise be a paradise if it were not lost? But what about longing for the future? Moses did not long for his Egyptian past but for his Jewish future. Messianic redemption implies the distant kingdom of David transformed in hope for a better future, a future when every human being everywhere will feel at home––at last––at home in his or her faith, country, and socio-economic environment.” [i]

One of the greatest injunctions of the Torah was forged from the experience of exile and homelessness:

Never forget what it was like to be a homeless stranger,
grateful for whatever shelter or meal could be found.
Welcome the homeless, for you too were once homeless exiles.
Welcome the immigrant, for you too had no place of your own.[ii]

Jesus knew this law so very well,
and he practiced it every time he reached out to the lost
or dined with the outcast.

Yes, Dorothy, there is no place like home,
except where we ourselves become
both givers and receivers
of the divine hospitality:
where no one is a stranger,
and there is always room enough,
and food enough,
and love enough
for everyone at the table of welcome.

May this Thanksgiving feast be a time of welcome, blessing, and deep gratitude for you, dear reader. And until that day when everyone of God’s beloved family comes home to the welcome table, let us all remain hungry for the justice to make it so.

 

 

Related posts

No Place Like Home

Utopian Dreams and Cold Realities: A Thanksgiving Homily

We the People: Voices of the Immigrant Experience

 

[i]Elie Wiesel, “Longing for Home,” in Leroy S. Rouner, ed., The Longing for Home(Notre Dame, IN: Notre Dame University Press, 1996), 28.

[ii]Exodus 23:9, Leviticus 19:34, Deuteronomy 10:19. The injunction to welcome the stranger is invoked 36 times in the Torah, more than any other commandment.

The Widow’s Mite

Jesus sat down opposite the treasury, and watched people as they put money into it. 

–– Mark 12:40

 

How many of you have used a mite box? It’s a little blue cardboard box that’s a sort of Christian piggy bank. You put money into it every day in thanksgiving for the blessings in your life. As you call to mind the gifts you have received, your sense of gratitude is deepened.

When your box is full, you give it to a church mission fund. In the Episcopal Church, this fund is called the United Thank Offering (UTO), an early form of crowdsourcing that turns many small contributions into sums large enough to do something special. The UTO was started by Episcopal women in 1889, and it continues to fund innovative mission and ministry work throughout the Anglican Communion.

When I was growing up in the Diocese of Los Angeles, there was an annual ingathering of our mite boxes. Children from all over the diocese came together in an outdoor amphitheater to sing and pray and listen to a little preaching. And then came the big moment when all us kids got up and carried our mite boxes down a long aisle and up onto a stage, where a large hollow cross stood in the center. Then each of us in turn would place our little blue box inside that cross.

It was something I looked forward to every year. It was exciting to come together with so many other children, to see myself as part of a larger community––the community of Jesus’ youngest friends. Isn’t that one of the reasons we come to church––to see with our own eyes a living image of the communion of saints?

I was a shy child, but the experience of carrying my mite box down the aisle to put it in the cross gave me a sense of agency, a sense that I could make a difference, that my contribution mattered. It was an exercise in self-offering, a tiny imitation of the self-offering performed eternally in the trinitarian heart of God––though I certainly didn’t grasp the depths of that theological mystery at the time! It just felt good to give.

The part of the ingathering I loved best was watching all our little mite boxes, one by one, stack up inside that hollow cross. The stack grew higher and higher, turning the cross bluer and bluer, until it was completely filled in by the color of our collective gratitude.

The term “mite box” isn’t used much anymore. They’re simply called blue boxes now, but the original term is from the King James Version of the gospel story about a widow who puts two “mites”––an old English term for the smallest of coins––into the Temple treasury.

The widow’s action has become a model for sacrificial giving. The text says that the rich put “large sums” into the Temple treasury, but Jesus knows they are just showing off. The wealthy have so much money, their contribution amounts to little more than spare change. The poverty-stricken widow, on the other hand, gives everything she has. Eugene Peterson’s contemporary translation draws this contrast sharply:

“The truth is that this poor widow gave more to the collection than all the others put together. All the others gave what they’ll never miss; she gave extravagantly what she couldn’t afford––she gave her all.” [i]

Those of us who have enough, those of us who do not want––we may feel the sting of this verse. We could all give more. Who does not hold something back when it comes to the collective responsibility of caring for one another, sharing God’s word, serving the needy, and repairing the world? It’s only practical. Times are uncertain, and budgets can be tight. Still, some of us might wonder how our contributions to mission and ministry stack up against our contributions to Starbucks, Comcast, Apple, and Costco.

And so it is that countless preachers have asked: Are we going to be stingy like the scribes or generous like the widow? That’s a very good question, and well worth considering. But many biblical scholars tell us that it is not the question Jesus is asking in this particular story.

There are certainly many places in the gospel when Jesus challenges our priorities, as when he tests the commitment of the rich young man, or warns his friends about the cost of discipleship, demonstrating just how serious he is by giving himself up to death, even death on a cross. The way of Jesus isn’t easy, and when he asks whether we can drink the cup that he must drink, we do tend to stammer.

But this particular moment at the Temple treasury is not a stewardship story. It’s a justice story. You see, the Temple was not just a place of worship in the benign sense we might assume from our own church experience. It was a marketplace, an exploitative economic system which fostered and exacerbated the extreme economic inequality of first-century Palestine. The money collected into its treasury did not go to things like pastoral care or outreach. It funded a bureaucracy of sacrifice which benefitted the few while sucking up the meager portions of the many. As Ched Myers says in his study of Mark’s gospel, “The Temple, like the scribal class, no longer protects the poor, but crushes them.”[ii] Or as Jesus puts it so succinctly, the rich “devour widow’s houses” (Mark 12:40).

Now in Mark’s account, Jesus is teaching in the Temple, saying a lot of critical things about the powers-that-be. The crowd is eating it up. Then Jesus takes a break, and goes to sit down by the treasury, the offering box where people drop off their contributions. And he says to his disciples, “Listen up. I want you just to watch for a while and see what happens.” And so they do. Mostly, it’s one well-dressed person after another strutting up to the treasury, pulling out a handful of money and, with a quick glance to make sure he’s being noticed, dropping it ostentatiously into the box. They didn’t have paper currency back then, so a big offering made a lot of noise as the coins clattered into the box. It was a good way to get everyone’s attention.

But as Jesus points out, all that theatrically lavish giving was not really sacrificial for the rich folks. For them, it was a bit of spare change. I like to think Jesus makes this comment in a stage whisper loud enough to trouble the pride of the prominent givers. And then this widow steps up, very quietly, to drop in her two mites: an insignificant act by an insignificant person, the kind of thing no one usually notices. Such a small, humble gesture by the sort of person who has been virtually invisible in every society––poor, powerless, unimportant, not male.

Look, Jesus says. Look at that woman. See her situation, see who she is. Don’t just see what she is doing; see what is being done to her. She is being exploited by the injustice of an economy which takes everything from her and gives nothing back. But do you notice how, instead of acting like a helpless victim, she is taking as much charge over the situation as she can?

Though the system is corrupt, she will not be deterred from the devotional practice of making a sacrificial offering to God. She has the heart of a giver, and she will not let that be taken from her. Nor will she live in fear. Even though she has little and is living on the edge of survival, she refuses to act out of a grasping sense of scarcity. She trusts that the Lord will provide. And perhaps she is even having some fun at the expense of the preening scribes, making an ironic contrast between their stinginess and the breathtaking costliness of her two little mites.

The text doesn’t say any of this, but when Jesus tells me to look at the widow, that’s what I see. So it’s not a stewardship story in the usual sense. Jesus doesn’t end with “Go and do likewise” the way he does when he’s urging exemplary behavior. No, this is a justice story.

And I think what Jesus is telling us here is this: Look! Look closely at what’s happening around you. Start to notice what is too often invisible: the injustice of the way things are, the people who are left out or left behind, the people who are invisible. Look at the way we ourselves participate in that injustice, consciously or unconsciously. Look at the assumptions and blindnesses which allow us to enable or perpetuate the brokenness and harshness of the world with insufficiently troubled consciences.

Let the widow in the Temple be our teacher, inviting us to wonder about who she is and what she does, and about who we are and what we do. Yes, do have the heart of a giver. Fill up the hollow cross with your blue boxes. Yes, refuse the fearful mentality of scarcity, and trust that the gifts you need will continue to show up in your life. And yes, open your eyes to everything that diminishes human flourishing, and discern the actions you can take––and the actions we can take together––to restore justice, repair the world, and welcome the Kingdom of God.

In that small moment, Jesus invites us to see the wrong in our world. But he also encourages us to see the possibility for a life of gratitude and giving, manifesting itself in even the smallest of gestures.

This gospel reading happens to coincide in the Lectionary with the 100th anniversary of the end of the Great War, known to us now as the First World War. November 11, Veterans Day, used to be called Armistice Day, to commemorate the moment when the guns ceased their terrible thunder on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month in 1918, the moment when a 4-year nightmare came to an end and peace was declared at last.

At the outset of that conflict in 1914, Europe was almost buoyant with anticipation. The poet/soldier Rupert Brooke spoke for many when he romanticized the clash of armies as a way to arouse western civilization from its slumbering decadence:

Now God be thanked Who has matched us with His hour,
And caught our youth, and wakened us from sleeping,
With hand made sure, clear eye, and sharpened power,
To turn, as swimmers into cleanness leaping,
Glad from a world grown old and cold and weary. . . [iii]

This kind of romantic nonsense made even news reports start to sound like medieval sagas. “Soldiers” were called “warriors,” the “enemy” was the “foe,” to “die” was to “perish,” the battlefield dead were the “fallen,” and the blood of young men became “the red/Sweet wine of youth.” [iv]

It didn’t take long for the grim futility of trench warfare to dispel such illusions. “Never such innocence again,” wrote Philip Larkin, while Robert Graves spoke of the “Extinction of each happy art and faith /. . . The inward scream, the duty to run mad.” A German soldier called the Great War “the suicide of nations.” [v]

When it was over, the old world was finished, and one could argue that we’ve never quite recovered. Certainly the ideology of history as steady progress has been thoroughly discredited. We worry––a lot––about the future, and about our power to shape it wisely. But let me end by dropping a few mites into our common treasury, in the form of words from someone who lived through the Great War with her hope intact.

Vera Brittain was a brilliant young woman studying at Oxford when the war broke out. She left school to volunteer as a nurse, working near the front lines in France to treat the seriously wounded. The man she was in love with, as well the brother she adored, were both slaughtered in muddy battles. As a woman, and as a young person, Brittain was hardly a major player on the stage of history. She had only a few small mites to give for the repair of a world so wounded and shattered.

But for the rest of her life, she did what she could. Her memoir of the war, Testament of Youth, would inspire many over the years. And what she wrote at the end of that book a century ago still speaks to us today:

It did not seem, perhaps, as though we, the War generation, would be able to do all that we once hoped for the actual rebuilding of civilization. I understood now that the results of the War would last longer than ourselves; it was obvious . . . that its consequences were deeply rooted, and farther reaching, than any of us, with our lack of experience, had believed just after it was over. . .

 If the dead could come back, I wondered, what would they say to me? . . . In spite of the War, which destroyed so much hope, so much beauty, so much promise, life is still here to be lived; so long as I am in the world, how can I ignore the obligation to be part of it, cope with its problems . . . ? The surge and swell of its movements, its changes, its tendencies, still mold me and the surviving remnant of my generation whether we wish it or not, and no one now living will ever understand so clearly as ourselves, whose lives have been darkened by the universal breakdown of reason in 1914, how completely the future of civilized humanity depends upon the success of our present halting endeavors to control our political and social passions, and to substitute for our destructive impulses the vitalizing authority of constructive thought. To rescue [hu]mankind from that domination by the irrational which leads to war could surely be a more exultant fight than war itself . . .[vi]

What Brittain called “our present halting endeavors” to repair the world was too soon interrupted and mocked by Auschwitz and Hiroshima, and now, in our own day, is under assault again by the shocking resurgence of authoritarianism and tribal hatred in so many countries, including our own. In the face of such immensely discouraging challenges, we feel the poverty of our own capacities. Can our two mites make any difference at all?

Jesus thinks so. When he asks us to look at that widow, he wants us to see her two mites not as an indicator of poverty, but as a sign of strength.

Weakness shall the strong confound, as an old carol reminds us. That woman wasn’t daunted by  how corrupt the system was, or how uncertain tomorrow felt, or how insignificant her actions seemed. No matter what, she was going to continue being who she was: generous, grateful, and trusting.

And that young rabbi, who paid such homage to her in the Temple? It turns out that he is also the Lord of history, calling to us across the ages:

“Look,” he says. “Look: I am making all things new.
And all it’s going to cost you is two mites.”

 

 

 

This homily will be preached on November 11 at Grace Episcopal Church, Lopez Island, WA.

[i]Mark 12:43-44, trans. Eugene H. Peterson, The Message: The Bible in Contemporary Language(Colorado Springs: NavPress, 2002), 1836.

[ii]Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus(Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1989).

[iii]Rupert Brooke, “Peace,” in Max Egremont, Some Desperate Glory: The First World War the Poets Knew(New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2014), 57.

[iv]Paul Fussell, The Great War and Modern Memory (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1975), 21-22.

[v]Philip Larkin, “MCMXIV,” in Fussell, 19; Robert Graves, “Recalling War,” in Egremont, 294; German prisoner interviewed by Philip Gibbs after the battle of the Somme, in Fussell, 72.

[vi]Vera Brittain, Testament of Youth(London and New York: Penguin Books, 1933/2004), 645, 655-56.

“Save us from the time of trial” –– Climate Change as Apocalypse

The angel dictates a word of hope and promise to St. John: “Blessed are those who are invited to the feast of the Lamb.” (Rev 19)

 The humanist/scholar became quite emotional in conceiving of the world devoid of human beings, which was a possibility brought on by one disaster or another, due, it must be said, to our own actions. This would be the worst thing he could imagine––worlds devoid of human beings, even if these worlds were populated by other intelligent and enterprising life forms.

–– Joy Williams, Ninety-Nine Stories of God

 What have you got to worry about? We’re only adrift in an open sea with a drunken captain and an engine that’s liable to explode at any moment.

–– Humphrey Bogart in Beat the Devil

 

The end is near! The world as we know it is on the verge of extinction, according to the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.[i]But where is the sense of collective alarm? Where is the will to act? Our house is burning down, but instead of shouting “Fire!” and grabbing some hoses, we carry on as usual, unable to muster a sense of emergency. Perhaps we are just too exhausted by the endless stream of horrors under Republican rule, from children’s prison camps to the spread of American fascism, to have any bandwidth left to address the environmental apocalypse.

As columnist Leonard Pitts suggests,

“So then you read where the planet is melting, dire results expected soon, and you just shrug and file it away with all the other terrible things you’ll worry about when you get a chance. That’s understandable. But it presumes a luxury we don’t have — time. Again, this report says the world has 10 years in which to save itself — and we’ll spend at least two of those under Trump.” [ii]

Don’t ask me to explain why the party in power and its corporate handlers are doing everything they can to make things worse, as if the fate of the planet––and the well-being of their own children’s children––is nothing compared to the allure of short-term power and profit for themselves. Such suicidal selfishness is utterly incomprehensible to me. But we don’t have to approve of it to be caught up in it. We are all participants in an unsustainable culture.

Death rides a pale horse. (Rev 6)

Of course, there are many people, governments and institutions who recognize the climate crisis and are working to address it. Even in the heart of Trumpian coal country, West Virginia’s Charleston Gazette-Mailis sounding the alarm:

“When today’s kindergartners are in their 20s, they may find a devastated world wracked by horrible hurricanes, droughts, floods, wildfires, tornadoes and other tragedies made worse by global warming. Coastal cities may be abandoned, sunken wrecks. Poverty and misery may result.”

The editorial goes on to note that hurricanes Florence and Michael have “inflicted more loss than the entire worth of West Virginia’s coal industry — but conservative politicians still won’t act to reduce the damage.” [iii]

The Second Trumpet: The sea is polluted by fire, blood and death. (Rev 8)

Only ten years left to avert catastrophe! The message is clear: change or die. But given the dysfunctional paralysis of the American government, the iron grip of vulture capitalism, and the enormity of scale required for worldwide transformation, the prospects for success are bleak. The Titanic can’t turn on a dime. And when the captain doesn’t even believe in icebergs, it’s time to strike up “Nearer, my God, to Thee.”

On a recent trip to France, I beheld, for the first time, the extraordinary Tapestry of the Apocalypse in Angers, whose 84 large panels depict scenes from the Revelation of St. John the Divine. This riveting medieval visual sequence­­––the largest wall-hanging ever woven in Europe–– extends in parallel rows for 104 meters down the length of a vast, dimly-lit hall. It’s like a gigantic textile comic strip. Although the 700-year-old dyes have faded over time, these visionary scenes remain compellingly vivid, dense with iconography and narrative.

The Tapestry of the Apocalypse, Angers, France.

Theologian Austin Farrer described their source, the book of Revelation, as a great work of religious imagination.  “It is the one great poem which the first Christian age produced, it is a single and living unity from end to end, and it contains a whole world of spiritual imagery to be entered into and possessed.” [iv] Gonzo journalist Hunter Thompson added his own appreciation. “I still read the Book of Revelation,” he said, “when I need to get cranked up about language.” [v]

The meaning and value of the Bible’s last book have long been debated. Was it a mystical vision, a theo-political critique of the Roman Empire, or a quasi-liturgical dramatization of eschatological themes? The violent imagery of Revelation has been misused by religious cranks and maniacs in notoriously unhealthy ways, but the text has also––more than any other biblical book––given us many sublime prayer and hymn texts. Often neglected in times of contentment or complacency, it speaks loudly in times of crisis. Dietrich Bonhoeffer said that the book never made much sense to him until the rise of the Nazis.

“Babylon” is Revelation’s code name for the Roman empire, the oppressive and sinful social consensus whose claims of absolute totality were grounded in seduction, deceit and the enforcing threat of violence. And while that particular empire is long gone, Babylon is still around. “Bellicose, selfish, self-deluded, icy, absurdly resolute––behold the Rome of the book of Revelation,” said the Jesuit prophet-poet Daniel Berrigan. And, he added, “Behold also America.” [vi] Forty years after he wrote that, it seems truer than ever.

The Babylons of every age want us to believe that resistance is futile, because “this is the way things are.” We’re all implicated in the system. Even if we don’t like it, we can’t imagine living without it. Try preaching an exit from global capitalism next Sunday and see what happens! We may dream of the “New Jerusalem” of justice, peace and universal blessedness, but it seems impossibly distant. “If the Babylon of our time is already, from God’s perspective, a smoking ruin, how and where do we find the New Jerusalem? Is it really possible to ‘come out’ of empire when it surrounds us so completely?” [vii]

“Who is like the beast, and who can fight against it?” The people worship the beast of worldly power as the Dragon (Satan) approves. (Rev 13)

Like all apocalyptic literature, Revelation is pessimistic about the present age and where it is headed. But it is also full of hope about the age to come––the unexpectedly redemptive future emerging from a time of emergency. “The apocalypticist sees meaning where the uninitiated sees only chaos or catastrophe.” [viii]

Revelation insists that Babylon’s “reality” is a lie: there is an alternative to its culture of seduction and death. This alternative, the New Jerusalem, is not to be sought in some unreachable elsewhere. It is here among us, though only visible to the eyes of faith. And in every moment, every time we choose life over death, we begin to make our exodus, however small and tentative, out of Babylon’s prison into the space of divine blessedness.

The fall of Babylon. Only its demons are left to haunt the rubble. (Rev 18)

The Tapestry of the Apocalypse was created by inhabitants of their own medieval Babylon, an exitless world fraught with anxiety and doom. As half of Europe was being struck down by the Black Plague, Revelation’s harrowing images of a death-haunted, perishing world struck home. The obsessive immensity of the tapestry project testifies to a depth of existential engagement with ultimate concerns, as if the artists and weavers were driven to create a comprehensive record of their longing––and their dread––before they themselves ran out of time.

As I processed slowly, contemplatively, through the crepuscular vastness of Angers’ tapestry hall, the strange images flickered before me like an old silent movie, as though their colors and forms were signaling across the centuries with the light of a long-vanished past. Whatever these visions first said to John the Divine in his Patmos cave, whatever they meant to the fourteenth-century French weavers, they were now pleading for my attention.

See! God is making all things new.
Death will be no more,
mourning and sadness and pain will be no more.
The world of the past is gone. [ix]

 

The New Jerusalem comes down from heaven, bringing divine glory into earthly presence. (Rev 21)

Babylon is fallen. The gates to God’s eternal city are open wide. And the urgent question for believers today, in the face of a climate apocalypse, is this:

How do we hold fast to the redemptive vision
of the New Jerusalem
through the long dark night of catastrophe?

 

The Dragon pursues the expectant mother, “robed in the sun,” into the wilderness, trying to prevent the birth of hope. (Rev 12)

In the short term, we can practice both personal and collective environmental ethics, foster alliances with environmental changemakers, and incorporate a deep love and respect for the planet––and all who dwell therein––into our worship and our spiritual formation. And, setting aside for now our differences on a multitude of political and economic questions, we absolutely need to unite in casting our votes for defenders of the earth and against every climate change denier and pollution enabler. When the Beast is on the ballot, vote no!

In the long term, people of faith may face an even more daunting challenge––to cling to hope amid almost unimaginable destruction and loss: the disappearance of coastal cities and large land masses; countless millions of climate refugees; a horrific number of human deaths; mass extinction of species and habitats; economic havoc from fires, storms and floods; an endangered food supply; global conflicts over migration and dwindling resources; and the strain on political systems as they try to cope. How shall we declare God’s blessings then?

If we fail to change and the worst does come, our greatest enemy may be despair. I don’t need to contemplate the whole catalog of loss to feel the weight of immense sadness. Just picturing a single High Sierra meadow choked in smoke, or withered into a lifeless desert, is enough to make me weep.

Save us from the time of trial. That’s what the Lord’s Prayer really means by the more familiar “lead us not into temptation.” But the prayer is not asking to be spared from difficult challenges. That would make it irrelevant in the face of planetary apocalypse. We are all going to be tested by an uncertain future. But if we can beseech God with all our hearts to bring us through the experience of loss, despair and doubt with our faith and hope still intact, then “save us from the time of trial” may prove, in the climate crisis, our most earnest and necessary plea.

Meanwhile, get out of Babylon while you still can.

The Third Trumpet: A burning star falls to earth and pollutes the water supply. (Rev 8)

All photos by Jim Friedrich

 

[i] Summary and links to complete report: http://www.un.org/en/sections/issues-depth/climate-change/

[ii] Leonard Pitts, Jr., “We only have 10 years to save ourselves from climage change,” Miami Herald, Oct. 12, 2018: https://www.miamiherald.com/opinion/opn-columns-blogs/leonard-pitts-jr/article219870680.html

[iii] Editorial, “Like a weather report, with time, climate change projections closer, more ominous,” Charleston Gazette-Mail, October 16, 2018: https://www.wvgazettemail.com/opinion/gazette_opinion/editorial/gazette-editorial-like-a-weather-report-with-time-climate-change/article_26d13b8a-47e3-517a-9882-037b9bff6d70.html

[iv] Austin Farrer, A Rebirth of Images: The Making of St. John’s Apocalypse(1949), q. in Richard K. Emmerson, “The Apocalypse in Medieval Culture,” in The Apocalypse in the Middle Ages, ed. Richard K. Emmerson & Bernard McGinn (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1992), 293.

[v] Hunter Thompson interview in Atlantic Unbound, August 26, 1997, q. in Unveiling Empire: Reading Revelation Then and Now, Wes Howard-Brook & Anthony Gwyther (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1999), 2 n. 3.

[vi] Daniel Berrigan, S.J., The Nightmare of God (1983), q. in Unveiling Empire, 44.

[vii]Unveiling Empire, 260.

[viii] Bernard McGinn, “John’s Apocalypse and the Apocalyptic Mentality,” in The Apocalypse in the Middle Ages, 9.

[ix] Revelation 21:4-5.

Jesus and the Rich Man: “Do you want me to tell you easy things?”

The Getty Villa in Malibu, California, is a careful reconstruction of a Roman villa. Funded by the estate of a 20th century oil billionaire, it is a lavish display of the wealth of two eras: the ancient world and our own Gilded Age.

The word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And before him no creature is hidden, but all are naked and laid bare to the eyes of the one to whom we must render an account.

–– Hebrews 4:12-13

 

Is that why we come to church––to be pierced by the sharpness of God’s word, to have our innermost selves laid bare to the eyes of the one “to whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid?” [i]

Not all the time, surely. Who could bear that? In a world of sin and strife, we all need an oasis of rest and refreshment, a word of consolation and encouragement. But God is not always easy, as our first two readings make clear.

“Today my complaint is bitter,” cries Job. “God’s hand is heavy despite my groaning. . .
God has made my heart faint; the Almighty has terrified me.” [ii]

And the Psalmist who sings of goodness and mercy, and a soul restored by divine presence, is now heard to cry out one of the most terrible lines in all of Scripture:

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? [iii]

No, God is not always easy. And neither is Jesus. One moment he’s the Good Shepherd, saying “Come unto me, all you who struggle and are heavily laden, and I will refresh you,” and the next moment he’s challenging you to change your life.

The poet John Berryman captures this contradictory quality when he says that Jesus’ words were “short, precise, terrible, & full of refreshment.” [iv] Another poet, James McAuley, echoes the image from Hebrews in his own poem about Jesus:

He thrust his speech among them like a sword. . .
And told them nothing that they wished to hear. [v]

Today’s gospel, Mark 10:17-31, is a case in point. A man runs up to Jesus, kneels before him, and asks, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” At first, Jesus gives the stock answer, like something out of the catechism:

“You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother.’”

The man, impatient for an answer he has not yet found, shoots back, “Yes, Teacher. I’ve always kept those commandments, even when I was young.” This gets Jesus’ full attention. The text tells us that Jesus looked at the man and loved him. That’s such an interesting description. He looked at him and loved him. It sounds a little like love at first sight. There isn’t another sentence quite like it in the gospels.

If this were a movie we’d get a closeup of Jesus’ face, taking in the man’s truest and best self with a gaze that is both affectionate and inquisitive, as though his eyes are asking, “Are you the disciple I’ve been waiting for so long to show up, the disciple whose singleness of heart, shorn of all lesser desires, wants nothing but the only thing truly worth having?” Then we’d cut to a closeup of the man’s face, so earnest and hopeful, on the verge of finding at last his heart’s true desire.

But then Jesus says to him, “There’s just one more thing you need to do; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come and follow me.”

We can imagine the man’s expectant face slowly collapsing into disappointment. This is not what he wanted to hear. He lowers his head and stares at the ground, trying to absorb the shock of Jesus’ shattering directive. Then he gets up and backs away slowly, like a boxer reeling from a punch, until he finally turns his back on Jesus and disappears into the crowd. As Mark reports, he “went away grieving, for he had many possessions.”

As a lifelong Episcopalian, I’ve had to listen to this gospel many, many times in the liturgy––for seven decades. And as a North American person with more privileges and possessions than most of the earth’s inhabitants, I have always shared the agonizing discomfort of that man who found it way too hard to give up everything for the sake of the gospel.

Some Christians have taken this story quite literally. In the 3rdcentury, a wealthy young man named Antony heard it read at Sunday mass. He could not escape the feeling that the words were aimed directly at him. As soon as the liturgy was over, he rushed out to sell his possessions, give the money to the poor, and move to the desert, where for the next 80 years he lived a life of radical simplicity and exemplary sanctity––a life which had a great impact on the development of monastic spirituality.

A thousand years later, another wealthy young man shocked his family and friends when he renounced his worldly goods to embrace a life of poverty, service and prayer. We are still in awe of that man, Francis of Assisi, who found himself utterly unable to say no to Jesus.

In the 20th century, Dorothy Day would sacrifice the comforts of her class to live in solidarity with the poor, founding the Catholic Worker and devoting her heart and mind and strength to the vision of a just and peaceful society.

Many other saints have done the same. And even though you and I are not going to walk out those doors this morning to give away everything we have, we cannot repress the questions which the story of the rich man poses for us. We’ve heard this gospel before, and we’ll hear it again. And each time we must wonder, what is it trying to say to us?

There is no single answer, no single response to the challenge of this gospel. It’s a story, not a rule, and most Christians have not felt compelled to take Jesus’ words to the rich man in the demandingly literal way of an Antony, Francis, or Dorothy Day. But this gospel will never cease to trouble us with questions about both personal and social economics. Is the common wealth of society justly distributed? What is true wealth in God’s eyes? And where does our own treasure lie?

In first-century Palestine, wealth was measured more by the amount of land you owned than by the number of things you had. And since land acquisition usually came through the default of debtors who could not keep up their payments, wealth at the top was accrued at the expense of those further down the economic ladder. More wealth for the rich meant more poverty for the rest.

We have a similar imbalance in our own day. Right now in America, the richest 10% own 77% of the nation’s wealth. The 20 richest individualsown more than the entire bottom half of the population. As wealth concentrates in fewer and fewer hands, the poverty of the many grows wider and deeper. As in the time of Jesus, those at the top get richer by taking from those below them. The recent tax cuts are a perfect example, siphoning huge increases in wealth to the rich, while cutting survival assistance to the needy. Fewer school lunches for poor children, more private jets for the rich.

But if ours is an age of grotesque economic inequality, it is also an age of remarkable private generosity. We have come to look upon billionaires and wealthy foundations as the solvers of public problems, as they dispense impressive grants to improve the lives of the many. So when Bill Gates or Jeff Bezos give away enormous sums or underwrite beneficial actions, are they in fact doing what the rich man fails to do in the gospel story? Are they doing what Jesus asked?

Anand Giridharadas has studied this critical question, and in his provocative book, Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World, he argues that the powerful rich who address problems without changing the very conditions that create those problems is at best a failure of social imagination. A lot of good may be done by the rich, but the system that perpetuates the wrongs being addressed remains firmly in place. In fact, such acts of benevolence provide justification for the continuation of the status quo, making it appear more benign than it really is.

In a recent talk in Seattle, Giridharadas put it this way:

“You can tell rich people to do more good, but you can never tell them to do less harm. You can tell them to give back, but you can never tell them to take less. You can tell them to share the spoils of the system that benefitted them, but you can’t ask them to concede that system.” [vi]

If this is true, then the question that Jesus poses to the rich man, and to us, is not simply about the individual stewardship of our personal wealth, but about our willingness to work and pray for a very different kind of economy.

As biblical scholar Ched Myers has argued in his commentary on this gospel story, if you want to enter God’s kingdom, you have to make an exodus from the dominant paradigm of economic inequality. “The only way [into the Kingdom],” he says, “is to restore to the poor what is theirs by the right of community justice.” [vii]

Perhaps a better term for the Kingdom of God would be the Economy of God, something that was first described in the Book of Exodus. God delivered the people of Israel from the unjust slave economy of Egypt, and then spent the next 40 years providing a desert workshop, trying to teach them a new economy, a new way of living together––without greed, fear, or self-protective violence.

In the desert, God’s people learned to depend on what the Lord’s Prayer calls “our daily bread” – whatever each day provides for you (“give us the bread we need today”).

In Egypt, the idea was to accumulate enough stuff that you didn’t have to depend on others. You didn’t have to trust that you would be provided for as you went along. You could live without God and live without neighbor. But in the desert, you needed God and you needed each other. Whenever the Israelites tried to hoard the manna that fell from heaven each morning, the manna would rot.

Now when the people of Israel came into the Promised Land, they succumbed to the trap of accumulation like the rest of us. But they did not entirely forget their desert wisdom. In the concepts of Sabbath and Jubilee, as well as the impassioned exhortations of the prophets, the Economy of God opposed the concentration of wealth through accumulation, while advocating the circulation of wealth through redistribution.

The Economy of God is an interdependent, communal condition where there are no more divisions of rich and poor. So when Jesus says that the idea of a rich man getting into the kingdom is as absurd as a camel squeezing through the eye of a needle, is he judging individual behavior? Or is he saying that in the Economy of God the categories of rich and poor will vanish with the just distribution of divine abundance?

The Economy of God is not like our commodity economy, where things are accumulated, hoarded, and protected by the threat of force. The Economy of God is a gift economy, where the gifts of creation and the gifts of human labor and skill are freely shared, the way manna was shared in the desert by the Israelites of the Exodus.

We practice that economy in this church every Sunday. Every time we break the bread and share it at Christ’s table, we remember the economy of grace taught to our ancestors. The eucharist is a rebuke to the selfish economics of haves and have-nots. It is an invitation into a new way of living and being together.

Is this too much to ask? The rich man in the gospel thought so. But as Wendell Berry reminds us, “The great obstacle is simply this: the conviction that we cannot change because we are dependent upon what is wrong. But that is the addict’s excuse, and we know that it will not do.”

When Jesus invites the rich man to let go not only of his wealth, but also of his participation in an unjust economy, he is calling him out of his comfort zone into an entirely new way of being. That’s what Jesus did, and what Jesus continues to do. As one of my former theology professors, Harvey Cox, has said,

Meeting [Jesus] always seemed to shake people up. He constantly pushed them to think beyond their own immediate interests, to picture themselves in a variety of situations in which choice and action were required – in short, to use their imaginations.” [viii]

In 1969, BBC television aired an unusual production on the life of Jesus, written by the brilliant David Potter. [ix] My favorite scene in this film shows Jesus trying to convey another one of his most challenging teachings––in this case, to love your enemies. As he moves among the crowd, Jesus gets them to embrace one other, as in our liturgical Passing of the Peace.

“Go on,” he says, “love each other. See? It’s nice, isn’t it? It’s easy––easy to love your brother, easy to love those who love you. Even the tax collector can do that. But tell me, tell me, happy people, what is so extraordinary about holding the hands of your brothers and sisters? Do you want me to congratulate you for that, for loving only those who love you? But I say, love your enemy. Love your enemy!

[The crowd is taken aback. Some murmur in protest.]

Love those who hate you, love those who would destroy you,
love the man who would kick you and spit at you. . .

[The protests grow louder.]

Listen to me! What I’m telling you now hasn’t been said since the world began.
I bring you the Way. I am holding up a light in the darkness. . .

 We cannot divide ourselves. We must love each other. . . Pray for your enemy, love your persecutor. . . It is easy to love only those who love you. Would I come to tell you easy things? Do you want me to tell you easy things?

Jesus might have said the same to the rich man. And to us.

Do you want me to tell you easy things?

 

 

 

 

[i] Collect for Purity, The Holy Eucharist Rite Two, Episcopal Book of Common Prayer.

[ii] Job 23:2, 16.

[iii] Psalm 22:1.

[iv] John Berryman, “Eleven Addresses to the Lord,” Love and Fame (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1970). Berryman attributes the description to Justin Martyr (c. 100 – c. 165).

[v] James McAuley, “Jesus,” Divine Inspiration: The Life of Jesus in World Poetry (eds. Robert Atwan, George Dardess & Peggy Rosenthal (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), 104. McAuley (1912-1981) was an Australian Roman Catholic.

[vi] Originally delivered September 20th, 2018, at Seattle’s Southside Commons as part of the Town Hall Civics lecture series, it was broadcast on the Seattle NPR station, KUOW, in their Speakers Forum: https://soundcloud.com/kuow/anand-giridharasdas-full-talk-at-southside-community-center

[vii] Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1989).

[viii] Harvey Cox, When Jesus Came to Harvard (New York: Mariner Books, 2004), 25-6.

[ix] Son of Man (BBC, 1969), directed by Gareth Davies. Irish actor Colin Blakely played Jesus. Dennis Potter, who wrote the script, also wrote the strange and brilliant serial drama, The Singing Detectivein the 1980s.