Faith Meets Works: And the Winner Is . . .

Duccio di Buoninsegna, Jesus open eyes of a man born blind (1311)

Without faith, no good work is ever begun, or completed.

–– Caesarius of Arles

 

A homily for the Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost

One of the longest running debates in Christianity is the one about faith and works.
Which is primary? Which is more necessary?
Are we saved by faith alone, or do our works matter as well?
Is our salvation due entirely to God, or do we ourselves play any part in it?

This argument goes all the way back to the New Testament. As James asks in today’s epistle, “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you?” (James 2:14)

James is responding to the notion that we are saved sola fide––by faith alone–– and not by anything we ourselves are able to do. He seems to be dissenting from St. Paul’s emphasis on “justification by faith,” worrying that it could weaken our ethical motivation.

If the good works that we do make no difference in whether we’re saved––because God is as gracious to sinners as s/he is to saints–– then what’s the point of working hard to do the right thing?

Like the workers in the vineyard, can’t we just show up at the last minute and receive the same wages as those suckers who spend the whole day sweating in the hot sun? (As if our own reward is the heart of the matter!)

Such a caricature, of course, does little justice to the nuanced reflections on faith and works by great thinkers like Paul, Augustine, Luther and Calvin. But still, in the end, it is fair to ask whether the whole debate is more a matter of language than substance. What do we mean by “faith,” or “justification,” or “salvation?” Without getting too far into the theological weeds, I’ll just say that such words, whatever their particular meanings, all signify a state of being tuned in to the divine way–– a condition shaped by and conformed to what James calls “the royal law”: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.

In other words, the life of faith is the life of love, mirroring the eternal self-offering of the Holy Trinity in our own manner of living each and every day. When we no longer live for ourselves but for God, anxiety about whether we’re good enough is the last thing on our minds. When we surrender our lives to the Way, the Truth, and the Life, good works are simply who we are and what we do as Love’s chosen instruments.

Good works are not a means to an end, a way to glorify ourselves or earn heavenly rewards. They are simply what happens when God is in us and we are in God.
If you are a blazing fire, you give off heat and light.
If you are “Christ’s own for ever,” your actions are radiant with love and justice.

As Jesus put it, “Let your light so shine before others,
that they may see your good works and give the glory to God” (Mt. 5:16).

Jesus was speaking from experience. As St. Peter said in one of his sermons, “because God was with him, Jesus went about doing good and curing all who were oppressed by the devil” (Acts 10:38). Today’s gospel, cramming multiple healings into two paragraphs, fits Peter’s concise description of Jesus as a man who went around doing good, a man in a hurry to repair the world.

Good works have been called the fruits of faith, because they make the inwardness of faith visiblein a way that others can see, and nourishingin a way that others can taste. “Good works are witnesses to the Christian faith,” said a fifth-century priest named Salvian, “because otherwise a Christian cannot demonstrate that he has that faith. If he cannot show it, it may as well becompletely nonexistent.” [i]

Where would the world be if we were all faith and no works? The hungry can’t eat our ideas. The vulnerable won’t get much protection from our “thoughts and prayers.” Intention without implementation is pretty useless, as James reminds us in his Epistle:

“If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,’ and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.” (James 2:15-17).

There was once a man whose heart was so broken by all the pain and injustice in the world that he cried out in anger and despair, “O God, see how much your people suffer! See how much anguish and misery there is in the world! Why won’t you send some help?”

And God answered, “I did send help. I sent you.” [ii]

So where do we start? There’s a world of hurt out there. Can we make a difference? Scripture gives high priority to serving the poor, feeding the hungry, welcoming the immigrant, including the outcast, protecting the defenseless, tending the sick, visiting the prisoner, and guarding Creation. At a time when the exact opposite of all these things is being carried out by the highest levels of our government––with the enthusiastic approval of a shockingly high number of white Christians––we can become exhausted, if not despairing, just thinking about the immense labor of resisting evil and preserving the common good.

That’s when works need faith as much as faith needs works––faith that another power is at work here; faith that we aren’t doing it by ourselves. In fact, repairing the world is not a humanproject at all. God started that work, and God will finish it. Meanwhile, as God’s hands and feet in the world, we chip in as best we can for our brief span. Be not afraid. God is always out there ahead of us, hard at work.

God is out there in the attorneys fighting to protect and reunite the children and parents being separated and abused at our southern border. God is there in the faith communities offering protection and sanctuary to the victims of bigotry and racism. God is there in the striking prison inmates who refuse to be treated like animals. God is there marching in the streets against gun violence and environmental suicide.

Oh wait. Is this mixing religion and politics? Of course it is, because religion and politics have always been inseparable, if what you mean by politics is that people actually matter, and the common good actually matters. In a 1979 manifesto, activists Corinne McLaughlin and Gordon Davidson defined politics in what I would call religious terms:

“Politics is the way we live our lives. . . It is the way we treat each other, as individuals, as groups, as government. It is the way we treat our environment. It is the way we treat ourselves. Politics has to do with where we shop, what we eat, how we maintain our health. It has to do with the kinds of schools we create, the energy we use, the neighborhood organizations we build, the work we do. Politics involves our way of seeing the world, of developing our consciousness, of awakening our whole selves. It has to do with our attitudes, our values, our innermost dimensions.” [iii]

Of course, for many of us the work of repairing the world is relatively quiet and local most of the time. Random acts of kindness and so forth. As Wendell Berry says, “The real work of planet-saving will be small, humble and humbling . . .” [iv]

A writer named Bob Libby gives a lovely example of this. He liked to go running at the beach, and whenever the tide was low he saw an old woman “walking along the shore in her white tennis shoes, floppy straw hat, and oversized print dress. She always carried a crumpled brown paper bag that matched the texture and color of her skin.”

Her name was Maggie, and she’d walk along with her head down, pausing occasionally to stoop over, pick something up, and examine it. Then she’d either toss it away or put it in her bag. Libby assumed she was collecting shells, but when he asked her about it one day, she said, “Not shells at all. Glass. Sharp glass. Cuts the feet. Surfers land on it. It sure ruins their summer.” [v]

It doesn’t take much to make the world better, does it? As John Wesley said,

Do all the good you can
by all the means you can,
in all the ways you can,
in all the places you can,
at all the times you can,
to all the people you can,
as long as ever you can. [vi]

I’ll leave you with one more story, a parable by Megan McKenna:

There was a woman who knew the world was falling apart. Every day the news made her more depressed. But one day, as she wandered sadly through her town, she had the impulse to step into a little shop she had never noticed before. To her surprise, standing behind the counter was Jesus! At least he looked like all the pictures she’d ever seen of him.

 So she went over and asked him, “Excuse me, are you Jesus?” “I am.” “Do you work here?” “No,” Jesus said, “I own the store.” “Oh. What do you sell in here?” “Just about anything!” “Anything?” “Yep, anything you want.” Jesus leaned forward. “What do you want?” “Um, I’m not really sure.” “Well,” Jesus said, “feel free, walk up and down the aisles, make a list, see what it is you want, and then come back and we’ll see what we can do for you.”

 So she did just that, walked up and down the aisles. There was peace on earth, no more war, no hunger or poverty, peace in families, no more drugs, harmony, clean air, careful use of resources. She wrote furiously. When she returned to the counter with her very long list, Jesus looked it over. Then he glanced at her with a smile and said, “No problem.”

 Then he bent down behind the counter, picked out a bunch of different small packets, and laid them out in front of her. “What are these?” she asked. “Seed packets,” Jesus said. “You take them home to plant, then you nurture them and help them to grow, and one day in the future there will be others to come and reap the harvest.”

“Oh,” she said. [vii]

 

 

 

[i] Thomas C. Oden, The Good Works Reader (Grand Rapids: Eerdman’s, 2007), 336.

[ii] David Wolpe, Teaching Your Children About God, q. in Frederic & Mary Ann Brussat, Spiritual Literacy: Reading the Sacred in Everyday Life (New York: Scribner, 1996), 317.

[iii] Ibid., 330. McLaughlin and Davidson were part of the New World Alliance, an idealistic project to create a “transformational politics.”

[iv] Wendell Berry, q. in Brussat, 341.

[v]Bob Libby, Grace Happens, q. in Brussat, 341-2.

[vi] q. in Brussat, 360-61.

[vii] Adapted from a story in Megan McKenna, Parables, q. in Brussat, 359. McKenna has the woman walk out without buying anything, like the rich young man who decided following Jesus was too hard. My wife, also a preacher, thought the congregation should be left with the woman’s final response still undecided. So I ended it with “Oh.” But I can’t help hearing the disappointment in her voice.

 

Wars and Rumors of Wars

Antiwar poster, World War I

With a cornered President governing by tantrum and a National Security Advisor eager for Armageddon, storm clouds are gathering––and peacemakers are on the alert. A recent article by Stephen M. Walt in Foreign Policy magazine provides the “Top Five Warning Signs We’re Going to War”:

  • The danger is grave and growing.
  • War will be easy and cheap if we act now.
  • War will solve our problems.
  • The enemy is evil and/or crazy.
  • Peace is unpatriotic.[i]

 Sound familiar? Read the whole article here. And while you’re at it, consider Laurence Lewis’ cautionary piece, “Wars are easy to start. They’re not so easy to end,”[ii] as well as Michael Klare’s “The New ‘Long War,’” which notes a strategic shift in military planning, away from counterterrorism toward old-style great powers confrontation.[iii] These days, it’s natural to be fully absorbed by the downward spiral of American democracy, but the dogs of war are barking as well. Whether the prospect be endless quagmire or sudden apocalypse, we ignore the prophets’ warnings at our peril.

In 1991, Desert Storm rained down fire on Iraq in the name of who-can-remember-what. Twenty-seven years later, we’re still in the global violence business. But after so much blood, treasure and toil, are things better, worse, or the same––not only in the Middle East, but in an America which has been living by the sword for far too long?

In going through some old files last week, I came across the sermon I preached in an Episcopal parish on the first Sunday after the launch of Desert Storm, which had received an overwhelming 79% approval rating from the American people (the war, not the sermon!). In the wake of the recent missile attacks in Syria, it was interesting to re-read that ancient text in light of what has changed––and what has not––in the world, in my country, and in myself over the past three decades. It also made me wonder what God’s friends ought to be saying and doing in our present time of trial.  

I’d be interested to hear your own thoughts on these questions. Meanwhile, here’s what my younger self said so many years ago:

A sermon preached at Christ Church in Ontario, California, on January 20th, 1991.

I would speak to you of war. This war. Our war. Let me say at the outset that I do not believe it to be a just war.

We have been told that Saddam Hussein is a Hitler. But for the last seven or eight years, he was our ally. In violation of U.S. law prohibiting arms sales to terrorist nations, the Reagan-Bush administration secretly provided Iraq with weapons by laundering them through countries such as Jordan. Saddam is a bad and brutal man, no doubt. But is Assad of Syria [Haffez al-Assad, the current president’s father] any better? And Assad, for now, is our ally.

We have been told that we are there to liberate Kuwait, but I doubt that a free Kuwait is what the Emir-in-exile as in mind. So let us be spared the pieties invented to solicit public opinion. This is a war of power politics.

To put it in its best light, we want to demonstrate that the sovereignty of nations cannot be taken lightly if we are to have a stable “new world order.” That is fine as far as it goes. Now you might say, in the light of 52 cases of border-crossing aggression since World War II––most of which the United States ignored––that we might not have paid as much attention to this one if Kuwait’s chief export were broccoli.

But purity of intent is not the issue to be addressed here. What much concern us today is the means employed to achieve our ends. Is this war necessary?

Last Tuesday, George [H. W.] Bush, who worships according to the Book of Common Prayer as we do, spoke with Presiding Bishop Edmund Browning by telephone. We don’t know what was said. But hours later, President Bush unleashed the dogs of war, while his bishop led a march of protest from the National Cathedral to the White House gates.

President Eisenhower once said that “every war is going to astonish you.” The anxiety of these terrible days exists because we don’t know just where the dogs of war intend to go. Perhaps this war will be quick and cause only a minimum of pain for the sake of the greatest good. But what if the greatest air assault in the history of the world has already functioned as a recruiting program for a new generation of terrorists?

Or what if Israel is drawn into the conflict, the coalition falls apart, and the war escalates into a chemical or even nuclear conflict? What if we take out Hussein, only to see another demon take his place, or find the vacuum of Iraq’s defeat filled by Iran? What if Hussein burns the oil fields, throwing world markets into chaos and creating environmental disaster from the massive smoke that would result? What if the war drags on into a war of attrition, causing immense loss of life on both sides and deeply dividing the American people? And what if we can’t foot the bill for this war without robbing the poor and neglecting the environment?

The scenarios of disaster multiply. We pray that none of them will come to pass. But once we started the war, they all became possibilities.

According to the CIA and other experts advising the President, sanctions were working. And serious diplomacy had not even been attempted. This war was nowhere close to being “necessary.”

But this war is not only unnecessary. It is, in the words of the National Council of Churches, “a failure of the human spirit.” It is immoral to punish a dictator by killing innocent women and children. As the Anglican bishops declared in the Lambeth Conference of 1978:

“War as a matter of settling international disputes is incompatible with the teaching and example of our Lord Jesus Christ. The use of the modern technology of war is the most striking example of corporate sin and the prostitution of God’s gifts.”

On a purely pragmatic level, it should be added that the destructiveness of modern weapons has made war obsolete as an instrument of national policy. War has become eschatological. The suicide of the planet seems to be an excessive price to pay for the settling of a border dispute. And even if this war remains “limited,” there can be no winning in the long term.

Violence breeds violence. Americans all suffer from amnesia. We don’t understand cultures with long memories. But I have met Arabs in the Middle East who are still mad about the Crusades.

Americans love winning. “We’re number one!” and all that. But there is a new attitude gaining acceptance in recreational circles today, which is this: “If your opponent stops having fun, you lose.”

Heavy-handed violence––the big guy pushing the little guys around––not only leaves all the essential conflicts unresolved, but it inflames the passions that obstruct fruitful dialogue and resolution. Beware of “victory.” And if our victory is quick and painless, we face another danger: our faith in violence will grow deeper.

Sam Nunn, Chairman of the Senate Armed Forces Committee, said last week that our faith in weapons technology has been vindicated. All those defense contractors who took so much heat for cost overruns and other problems can now stand up and take a bow.

Simone Weil defined violence as the transformation of a person into a thing. When the warrior had to look his victim in the eye, this depersonalization required some work. But weapons technology has made such detachment effortless.

Desert Storm is a great video game. Iraqis are just blips on a screen––abstract, bloodless targets in an electronic arcade. Eighty-three percent of Americans, according to the polls, are caught up in this game. Television, which the military is treating as an instrument of policy, is leading the cheers. Hey, our weapons work! We’re going to win one for a change! I myself am not immune to this. I can feel the predators in my past, singing in my blood.

What, then, is a follower of Jesus to do? First of all, we must look for the cross in this. Where is the crucified Christ to be found? Where Christ is always to be found––in the suffering of the sons and daughters of God. At the cross, there are no Americans, there are no Iraqis. There is only the One who suffers.

In Baghdad’s art center, there is a painting of Jesus, looking over the world with an expression of profound sadness and pain. He wears a Palestinian scarf around his neck, and he is handcuffed. If a Christian pilot knew that Christ was in Baghdad, would he deliver his payload?

Of course, war is not run by the personally motivated decisions of individual soldiers. War is organized from above. Soldiers just play their part. But they can only function as long as the enemy remains a mere target, rather than a brother or sister. Executioners must be indifferent to the stories of their victims. Don’t see. Don’t feel.

You and I cannot let this war be a video game, bloodless and abstract. Let us see Christ crucified in every victim. Let us see whose hands are pierced by the nails, whose cry of anguish rends the heavens. Let us see the Madonna and Child blown to bits in the air raid. Let us see Christ in the foxhole, taking the bullet meant for his buddy.

But let us also see beyond the cross, to the risen life already present in the hope of the faithful. The saints have illumined even the darkest times by holding fast to this hope. Christian Century magazine gives a striking example of this from our own day:

Festo Kivengere, Anglican bishop in Uganda, was a witness to, and in many ways a victim of the barbaric rule of Idi Amin. While in exile he was asked: ‘If you were sitting in Idi Amin’s office with a gun in your hand, what would you do?’ He responded, ‘I would give the gun to Amin, saying, ‘This is your weapon; my weapon is love.’

The peacemaker does not retreat from the struggle against evil. But the peacemaker responds to hate and aggression in ways that create community rather than enemies. When Lincoln was urged to wreak vengeance on the leaders of the Confederacy at the end of the Civil War, he said, ‘Do I not destroy my enemies when I make them my friends?” And Martin Luther King, whose birthday was so disgracefully dishonored by the bombings last week, said, ‘Our ultimate end must be the creation of the blessed community.’

What then is a follower of Jesus to do? Here are the recommendations of the Anglican bishops who met at Lambeth in 1978, calling on Christian people everywhere:

  1. To reexamine as a matter of urgency their own attitudes towards, and their complicity with, violence in its many forms.
  2. To take with utmost seriousness the questions which the teachings of Jesus places against violence in human relationships and the use of armed force by those who would follow him, and the example of redemptive love which the Cross holds before all people.
  3. To engage themselves in non-violent action for justice and peace and to support others so engaged, recognizing that such action will be controversial and may be personally very costly.
  4. To commit themselves to informed, disciplined prayer, not only for all victims of violence, especially for those who suffer for their obedience to the Man of the Cross, but also for those who inflict violence on others.
  5. To protest in whatever way possible at the escalation of the sale of armaments by the producing nations to the developing and dependent nations, and to support with every effort all international proposals and conferences designed to place limitations on, or arrange reductions in, the armaments of war of the nations of the world.

I would add to this list a call for immediate cessation of hostilities and the beginning of real and constructive diplomacy in the Middle East.

Last Sunday night I joined with 1500 Christians, Jews and Muslims for a service of peace. The very fact of such a gathering was extraordinary. We listened to each other’s scriptures, we prayed each other’s prayers. And, at the end, we stood to make a common affirmation which concluded with these words based on the Book of Deuteronomy:

Before us this evening are set life and death.
We choose life
so that we and our children
may live.
Let it be so.

 

Window detail, St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Virginia City, Montana (1903)

 

[i] Stephen M. Walt, “How to Start a War in 5 Easy Steps,” Foreign Policy online, April 2, 2018: https://foreignpolicy.com/2018/04/02/how-to-start-a-war-in-5-easy-steps/

[ii] Laurence Lewis, “Wars are easy to start. They’re not so easy to end,” Daily Kos, April 15, 2018: https://www.dailykos.com/stories/2018/4/15/1756334/-Wars-are-easy-to-start-They-re-not-so-easy-to-end

[iii] Michael Klare, “The New ‘Long War’”, April 3, 2018: http://www.tomdispatch.com/blog/176406/

What Shall We Preach on Easter Sunday?

Harrowing of Hell, Barberini Exultet Scroll (Italy, c. 1087)

The original disciples were shocked into bliss by the Resurrection––
and they never recovered.

–– Dom Sebastian Moore O.S.B.

 

At the entrance to the Jerusalem’s Church of All Nations, next to the Garden of Gethsemane, there is a sign warning every visitor:

NO EXPLANATIONS INSIDE THE CHURCH

This was intended to discourage talkative tour guides from disturbing the church’s prayerful ambience with shouted lectures, but it has always struck me as very good advice for preachers on Easter Sunday. Confronted by a room full of people who spend most of their time in the secular social imaginary where the dead stay dead and God––if there is one––does not intervene in the natural order, preachers are tempted to mount a defense of the Resurrection within the plausibility structures of the modern mindset. In doing so, they not only tame a dangerous mystery into a manageable––and rather harmless––assumption, but they also waste a valuable opportunity to bring the assembly into confrontation with the transformative presence of the living Christ.

There is nothing wrong with addressing people’s doubts, or wondering what facts might lie behind the “painfully untidy stories”[i] of the Easter narratives. But that is work for another day. Easter Sunday is for proclamation, not explanation. It is a time to meet the One who changes everything.

The central question of Easter is not, “What happened to Jesus way back then?” but rather, “Where is Jesus now––for us?” Or even more strikingly, “When is Jesus­­? When is Jesus for us?”[ii] So Easter becomes not a matter of our questioning the Resurrection, but of allowing the Resurrection to question us. Who are we now, and what must we become, in the light of the risen Christ?

If I were preaching on Easter Sunday, I wouldn’t want to convince so much as to invite–– to invite the mixed crowd of believers, seekers and doubters to embrace the Easter experience and consent to its transformative effects. In order to connect the risenness of Jesus with the risenness of us and all creation, I would pursue two fundamental themes: Easter is now! And, Resurrection has consequences!

Easter is now!

Since it only occurs once a year, Easter Sunday is sometimes mistaken for a commemorative anniversary of a past event. In fact, the earliest churches treated the Paschal mystery of Christ’s death and resurrection as the timeless (or time-full) subject of every eucharistic liturgy. The establishment of an annual observance of “Easter Day” was a later development.

The Resurrection, although breaking into history on a specific temporal occasion, is not the property of the past. As God’s future showing itself in our present, it belongs to all times and seasons. Jesus is alive, still showing up as a transfiguring presence in a world fraught with absences. Jesus is not over, and his story is not over. It will only be completed in the divinization of the cosmos, when God is in all and all are in God.

Easter isn’t something we remember. It’s something we live and breathe.

Resurrection has consequences

The Resurrection is more than an idea we talk about or believe propositionally. It’s something we become, something we “prove” in the living of our stories. Rowan Williams describes it this way:

“[T]he believer’s life is a testimony to the risen-ness of Jesus: he or she demonstrates that Jesus is not dead by living a life in which Jesus is the never-failing source of affirmation, challenge, enrichment and enlargement––a pattern, a dance, intelligible as a pattern only when its pivot and heart become manifest. The believer shows Jesus as the center of his or her life.”[iii]

In the Orthodox icon of the Resurrection, Jesus is never by himself. He is always depicted taking the dead by the hand and pulling them out of their own tombs. Christ’s hand snatching us from death is a vivid image (as in the Exultet scroll above), and George Herbert, the seventeenth-century poet-priest, employs it artfully in ‘Easter’:

Sing his praise
Without delayes,
Who takes thee by the hand,
that thou likewise
Mayst rise . . .

But the things that are killing us exert a powerful gravity. We sag under the weight of our despair, we resist the hand that pulls us upward. Nevertheless, Christ persists. “Arise, sad heart,” says Herbert in ‘The Dawning’:

if thou dost not withstand,
Christ’s resurrection thine may be;
Do not by hanging down break from the hand
Which, as it riseth, raiseth thee.

Do not by hanging down break from Christ’s hand. Christ came to save us from our least selves. That’s the gift––and the challenge––of the Resurrection, and it applies to our common life as well as to our private selves. The first disciples, so scattered and shamed by the events of the Passion, made this perfectly clear when their broken and bewildered community was restored to life. And so it is for all of us who follow.

Resurrection is about the healing and restoration of wounded and severed relationships: relationships between God and humanity, between human persons and, ultimately, among all the elements of creation. An Orthodox theologian puts the case in the widest possible terms: “The Resurrection is not the resuscitation of a body; it is the beginning of the transfiguration of the world.”[iv]

That’s what I would preach on Sunday. Of course we don’t control what people take away from the Easter celebration. But we can hope that the faithful will be inspired and empowered, and that “outsiders” may be intrigued–– and even fed–– by spending time with a resurrection community alive with the Spirit.

The primary task of preachers and evangelists on Easter Sunday is not to recite or argue the evidence for the Resurrection, but to help their communities become that evidence. May the whole world one day see and know a church which has been shocked into bliss––and has never recovered!

+

 

Holy Week posts

Dear reader, as we enter the Triduum, the Great Three Days of Holy Week, I pray that your own experience of dying and rising, whether ritually embodied in the traditional rites or undergone in the particularity of your own spiritual path, may bring you to the place of new life and true peace. Easter graces be upon you.

I have written a number of posts about aspects of Holy Week, and I link them below as seeds for your own reflection. As always, I am blessed by your reading.

The Journey is How We Know (The Triduum)

Temporary Resurrection Zones (Maundy Thursday)

We Are Not Alone (Good Friday)

Good Friday

My Body Shall Rest in Hope – A Holy Saturday Reflection

Just a Dream? – Reflections on the Easter Vigil

Are We Too Late for the Resurrection?

 

[i] Rowan Williams, Resurrection: Interpreting the Easter Gospel (Cleveland, OH: The Pilgrim Press, 1982 & 2002), 100.

[ii] Gareth Jones, “The Resurrection in Contemporary Systematic Theology,” in Resurrection Reconsidered, ed. Gavin D’Costa (Oxford: Oneworld Publications, 1996), 42.

[iii] Williams, 55-56.

[iv] Patriarch Athenagoras, q. in Michel Quenot, Resurrection and the Icon, trans. Michael Breck (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1997), 232.

“You say goodbye, I say hello”: A Requiem Sermon

Joe and Phyllis Golowka (1940s)

I’ve brushed the dew on Jordan’s banks, the crossing must be near.

– Jefferson Hascall, “Angel Band” (1860)

This winter, my dear friends Joe and Phyllis Golowka died five weeks apart in their 71st year of marriage. I was privileged to preach the sermon today for their Requiem Eucharist at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Cambria, California.

In his younger days, Joe Golowka led teen backpacking trips in California’s Sierra as part of the camping program for the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles. I had the joy of being the chaplain on those hikes. At some point time caught up with Joe, and he decided to let a younger generation take over, but not before taking one last big trek. We made it a good one: a 10-day traverse of the Sierra Nevada, ascending the western slope along the Middle Fork of the Kings River, crossing two high passes at the crest of the range, and descending the steep eastern escarpment to the Owens Valley. It was one of those revelatory walks which, as John Muir once put it, open a thousand windows to show us God.

On our sixth day, we stopped around noon to make camp along a stream, Palisades Creek, so we wouldn’t have to make a steep climb to our next lake in the heat of day. Instead, we would get up at 4 the next morning, walk by the light of the full moon and a rosy dawn, and reach the lake at sunrise.

With the rest of the day suddenly free, Joe went fishing. He wandered down the stream until he found a pretty good spot, but after a while he got restless, and went looking for some place better. But the second place also failed to satisfy his longing for that holy grail of fishermen: the perfect fishing hole.

As the fairy tales teach us, the magic is always found in the third place––in this case, a slope of smooth granite where the stream rushed down into a quiet, shaded pool. As Joe approached, he saw golden trout leaping out of the pool into the cascade, only to be swept backward by the swift volume of water. Over and over again, the fish threw themselves against the stream’s powerful flow. But none of them could breach the crest of the cascading whitewater.

As Joe watched this spectacle of fierce desire, so thwarted yet so relentless, he felt the call to intervene on life’s behalf. He cast his barbless hook into the deep blue pool, and almost immediately, a trout tugged on his line. He pulled it out, slipped it unharmed off the hook, and tossed it upstream, beyond the cascade, where it could continue its hero’s journey. Again, Joe cast his line, and the same thing happened. Over and over, a trout would bite almost immediately, surrendering to Joe’s saving presence. It was as if the fish somehow understood that the fatal hook would prove to be the instrument of life, not death.

In the space of forty minutes, Joe caught and released thirty-four golden trout. Overcome by the sheer wonder of it, he finally had to stop. Miracles send a lot of voltage through your body. You need to step away and recover. He returned to camp shaking. When he finally shared his story at the evening campfire, it struck me that he had been privileged, for a moment, to share the work of our Creator and Redeemer–– rescuing the hopeless from the depths, casting living seeds into the future, turning a dead end into a gate of life.

And now, forty years later, Joe himself has gone through that gate, with his beloved Phyllis right behind him. They are in glory now, but what about us? Who will wipe the tears from our eyes?

Joe and Phyllis walked this earth for nearly a century. A presence we always took for granted has suddenly been withdrawn. The empty chair, the empty room, startle us with absence, and trouble us with longing.

There Is a time to be born and a time to die––this is the inescapable human condition––but acknowledging our mortal nature does not lessen our grief. Indeed, grief is the price of love, whenever that time comes when we must take the parting hand.

How we wish it were otherwise. Couldn’t we have had them just a little longer?

There’s an Irish song called “The Parting Glass.” They sing it in pubs at closing time. Its minor key and wistful words express the sorrow of ending the evening’s camaraderie as people go their separate ways into the night––a sorrow which feels like a rehearsal for the end of life itself:

Oh, all the comrades that e’er I had,
Are sorry for my going away.
And all the loved ones that e’er I had
Would wish me one more day to stay.
But since it falls unto my lot
That I should rise and you should not,
I’ll gently rise and softly call,
“Goodnight, and joy be with you all.”

I love that last line. The singer doesn’t just say farewell and disappear. He pronounces a blessing upon those who remain: “Joy be with you all.” Yes, we honor our dead by the tears we shed. We honor them even more by embracing the joy they wish for us.

The Bible describes the company of heaven as a great cloud of witnesses, cheering us on from above. The novelist George Eliot called the departed “the choir invisible whose music is the gladness of the world.”[i]

Give your sadness all the time it needs, but remember to hold a space in your heart for the ways the departed will return to you––the choir invisible whose music is the gladness of the world.

For the absence of a loved one in a bodily and temporal form
is succeeded by new forms of presence.

I once asked a group of high school students to write their own epitaph, and this is what one seventeen-year-old girl proposed for her imaginary tombstone:

You say goodbye,
I say hello.

The people who matter have a way of sticking around. Although death changes the relationship, it doesn’t end it. The dead continue to occupy our thoughts. They remain present to us in stories, memories, emotions, DNA (in some cases), and whatever else they left us with.

Our beloved Joe and Phyllis are no longer in one particular place. They are in every place we remember them. They are present when their voices echo in our ears, or in those places where we shared special times together. They are present whenever we think of them, or speak of them, or tell the stories that were their lives.

When C.S. Lewis wrote about the grief process after the death of his wife, he said that as the acute sense of loss began to fade, he wondered whether he was starting to forget her by being happy again, or whether he might betray the rich complexity of her being by reducing her to a fixed set of memories.

But once he just stopped worrying about it, he found that, as he put it, he “began to meet her everywhere.” It wasn’t a voice or an apparition, or even a big emotional experience. It was, he said, “a sort of unobstrusive but massive sense that she is, just as much as ever, a fact to be taken into account.”[ii]

Michael Smith, a folksinger from Chicago, described a similar sense of presence in a song about his late father.

I brought my father with me
I hope that you don’t mind
I couldn’t find it in me
To make him stay behind…

There are some ways I’m just like him
Some ways he was just like me
And sometimes when the mirror’s dim
His face is clear to see
Tonight the winds of heaven
Blow the stars across the sky
I brought my father with me
I couldn’t say goodbye [iii]

We have all  brought Joe and Phyllis with us this morning. And they will remain with each of us in countless ways. I can’t go on a hike without hearing Joe’s voice, telling me to pay attention, to take in the beauty offering itself in every moment. Don’t just stare down at the trail! Look around!

We carry Joe and Phyllis with us. But we also grieve their absence. They’ve been a presence in our lives for so long, It’s hard to believe they are gone. Our hearts go out to their family, especially to their children. Losing one’s parents is one of the hardest things we ever do, no matter how old they were or how old we are. There is great sorrow in that. It is a time to weep.

But it is also a time to dance.
We lament today, but we also praise.

Thank God we had Joe and Phyllis in our lives for so long.
Thank God that Joe was what only Joe could be,
that Phyllis was what only Phyllis could be.
Thank God for what Joe and Phyllis could only be together.
Thank God for what they gave us.
Thank God for the ways they loved and mentored and befriended us.
Thank God for the ways they blessed us.

Joe and Phyllis will live on in memory and story, and we take great comfort and pleasure in that. But we also make a deeper claim here. Joe’s life, and Phyllis’ life, are not just something we remember––because their journey is not over and done. They still have a future––with Christ and in Christ in the company of heaven. God loses no one.

Death is not the last word, the final chapter. It is, rather, the passage into the unimaginable fullness of unending life in God.

Death, be not proud. though some have called thee 
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so; 
For those whom thou think’st thou dost overthrow 
Die not . . .
One short sleep past, we wake eternally 
And death shall be no more . . .[iv]

So said John Donne, 17th century Anglican poet and priest, because he knew how the story goes: Love wins and death dies.

This is the story that God’s friends stake their lives on:
God has loved us into existence.
God sustains us every step of our life’s journey.
And even after our bodies give out,
God loves us too much to let us go.

This Requiem eucharist is above all a celebration of resurrection. In our hymns and our prayers we proclaim the God of life who has made death into the gate of heaven.

Everything we sing and pray today comes down to this: We are here to celebrate the entrance of Joe and Phyllis into the land of light and joy.

Some of you know how I love American shape note hymns. They were written at a time when people with shorter life expectancies had to look death in the face every day, and they still managed to proclaim the victory of life. Even at the grave, they made their song:

Why do we mourn departing friends,
Or shake at death’s alarms?
‘Tis but the voice that Jesus sends
to call them to his arms.[v]

Filled with delight, my raptured soul
Would here no longer stay,
Though Jordan’s wave around me roll,
Fearless, I’d launch away.
I am bound for the Promised Land,
I am bound for the Promised Land![vi]

Farewell, my friends, adieu, adieu,
I can no longer stay with you;
My glitt’ring crown appears in view,
All is well, all is well.[vii]

About the same time those hymns were written, Henry David Thoreau was on his deathbed in Concord, Massachusetts. A few days before he died, a family friend said to him, “You seem so near the brink of the dark river that I almost wonder how the opposite shore may appear to you.”

And Thoreau, who had spent his life carefully observing and describing what he saw in the fields and woods around Walden Pond, replied simply, “One world at a time.”[viii]

However curious we may be about what it’s like across that dark river between the worlds, we can’t see it from here. But I would venture to say that heaven is not so much a place as it is a relationship. We live in God and God lives in us. And that is true on both sides of the river. Whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s possession.

If you want more details, the Scriptures provide so many vivid images of what it means to be in God’s presence:

Isaiah says that wherever the oppressed begin to hear good news, and the prisons go out of business, and the tears of the brokenhearted are replaced by the oil of gladness, heaven is already happening. (Isaiah 61:1-3)

St. Paul assures us that nothing––neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor presidents, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, can ever separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. Nothing. Not now, or ever. (Romans 8:38-9)

Today’s Epistle declares: “God will dwell with mortals, and they will be God’s family… Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more.” (Revelation 21:3-4)

And Jesus our Brother tells us, “It is the will of the One who sent me that I shall lose nothing of all those entrusted to me. . . and I will raise them up on the last day.” (John 6:39-40)

By the way, when I think of the Last Day, I imagine it’s something like the shock of your first morning on a backpack with Joe. You’re in a peaceful sleep, snug in your down bag, content to postpone the shock of the cold mountain air.

Then, as sudden as the angel’s resurrection trumpet, a hand shakes you awake, and a voice shouts, “Rise and shine! Come out of that fluffy cocoon. This is the day which God has made, let us rejoice and be glad in it!” Those may not have been Joe’s exact words, but some of you were there on those mornings. You know what I’m talking about. The Day of Resurrection!

In a few minutes, we will collectively perform our central image for life in God:
We will gather around a table where Love bids us welcome,
to be richly nourished by the food of heaven.

There’s a place for everyone at God’s feast.
No one is excluded or banned or forgotten.
As they say at heaven’s gate, “Weary pilgrim, welcome home.”

One last thing.

Joe and Phyllis were both blessed to die at home, in hospice care, with family keeping vigil. My father-in-law, Arthur, did the same at the end of January, and I found a strangely beautiful grace in those last days. The soul’s departure is an awesome and holy thing to witness. It is life’s profoundest mystery.

When the time comes, people seem to know exactly what to do: their body gradually letting go as their attention shifts from this world to the next.

And as they depart from us, this is how we pray for them:
Receive them into the arms of your mercy,
into the blessed rest of everlasting peace,
and into the glorious company of the saints in light.[ix]

The contemplative monk Thomas Merton said that death is not something that just happens to us as passive recipients. It is, rather, something we do, an act of self-offering, what Merton called “the last free perfect act of love which is at once surrender and acceptance.”[x]

In other words, in the act of dying, we let everything go
and give ourselves over completely into the hands of God.
That is what Joe has done; that is what Phyllis has done.
And one day, you and I will do the same.

And God, as promised, will prove to be “mercy clothed in light.”[xi]

O glorious day! O blessed hope!
My soul leaps forward at the thought:
When, on that happy, happy land,
We’ll no more take the parting hand.
But with our blessed holy Lord
We’ll shout and sing with one accord.[xii]

 

Related post: Fathers, we must part

 

 

 

[i] From her poem, “O May I Join the Choir Invisible,” q. in All in the End is HarvestL An Anthology for Those Who Grieve, ed. Agnes Whitaker (London: Darton, Longman, & Todd, 1984, 1995), 83

[ii] C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed, q. in All in the End, 105

[iii] Michael Smith, “I Brought My Father With Me,” on his album Time, 1994

[iv] John Donne, Holy Sonnets X in John Donne, The Complete English Poems, ed, C.A Patrides (London: Everyman’s Library, 1991), 440-1

[v] “China” in The Sacred Harp 163b (Bremen, GA: The Sacred Harp Publishing Company, 1991)

[vi] “The Promised Land” in ibid., 128

[vii] “All Is Well” in ibid., 122

[viii] Malcolm Clemens Young, The Spiritual Journal of Henry David Thoreau (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 2009), 8

[ix] Ministration at the Time of Death in The Book of Common Prayer (New York: Oxford University Press, 1979), 465

[x] From posthumous publication, Love and Living (1979, p. 103), q. in The Thomas Merton Encylopedia (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2002), 107

[xi] Jane Kenyon’s sublime image is from her poem, “Notes from the Other Side,” in Jane Kenyon: Collected Poems (St. Paul, MN: Graywolf Press, 2005), 267

[xii] “Parting Hand” in The Sacred Harp, 62

Members of the Same Body? A Post-Election Homily

Thomas Cole, Expulsion from the Garden of Eden (1828)

Thomas Cole, Expulsion from the Garden of Eden (1828)

What just happened? Has half the country endorsed hate, fear, ignorance, racism, white nationalism, misogyny, sexual assault, xenophobia, environmental suicide, nuclear instability, and a war against the poor, the immigrant and the “other?” It has certainly given us the sickening prospect of unprecedented vulgarity, cheesiness, immaturity, dishonesty and self-dealing in the White House for the indefinite future.

Is this a case of “they know not what they do?” Those who proudly wear swastikas or Klan hoods, or wallow in the swamp of alt-right delusion, knew exactly what they were doing, but they are relatively small in number. A far larger faction has argued that while Trump might be a “scumbag” (to quote a Facebook friend who voted for him), his opponent, seen through the lens of misogynist fears and Republican fictions, was far worse.

Then there are the pragmatists and cynics who accept the Trumpian nightmare as unavoidable collateral damage in the war for political victory, ideological supremacy, “moral” and “religious” agendas, control of the Supreme Court, and economic privilege. They might cry a few tears for the victims, but somewhere deep down they “love the smell of napalm in the morning” because “it smells like victory.”[i]

And for the many who have swallowed Trump’s vague promises at face value, he is the strong man who will cure what ails them and make America great again. But the authoritarian dream is a con game, “a Kingdom of Hell whose ruler is not so much a Father of Lies as a Father of Wishes.”[ii]

Trump has great appeal for the dispossessed who burn with resentment and pain, the ones so long ignored, laughed at, or forgotten by a world which has left them behind. Trump’s very awfulness makes him the perfect weapon for striking back. “To those ignored, suffering people, Donald Trump is a brick chucked through the window of the elites.”[iii]

Of course, my own sense of bewilderment and shock at the outcome brands me as one of the arrogant and clueless elite. For the crime of writing my last post, Top Ten Reasons to Stop Trump Now, I have had to sweep up my share of broken glass. But where do we go from here? Are truth and reconciliation viable options in such a divided America? Can’t we all get along?

I addressed this very question in a homily following the presidential election in 2004. It was preached at the Episcopal cathedral in Philadelphia, where I had spent a week getting out the vote. The same lectionary readings will be read in the churches this coming Sunday. Portions of what I preached then remain relevant today, and I publish them here:

At the end of the eighteenth century, the President of the United States, supported by the religious right and a wealthy elite, began to round up dissidents and throw journalists in jail. And he garnered support for this assault upon civil liberties by stirring up fears about war and foreign enemies while dividing the country along the fault lines of self-interest and resentment.

The Vice President, deeply disturbed by this mockery of America’s founding ideals of liberty and the common good, tried to summon hope.

“A little patience,” he wrote, “and we shall see the reign of witches pass over, their spells dissolved, and the people recovering their true sight, restoring their government to its true principles. It is true, that in the meantime, we are suffering deeply in spirit, and incurring the horrors of a war, and long oppressions of enormous public debt. … If the game runs sometimes against us at home, we must have patience till luck turns, and then we shall have an opportunity of winning back the principles we have lost. For this is a game where principles are the stake.”

So wrote Thomas Jefferson in 1798.

Eighteen centuries earlier, Jesus surveyed the prospect of imminent public disaster, and how the game would run against his own followers:

Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom.
There will be earthquakes, famines and plague.
And you will be hunted down, arrested, thrown in jail.
Some of you will be killed.
But don’t give in to fear.
Endure. Endure. Keep the faith and you will be saved.[iv]

Jesus’ prophetic vision mingled the political with the cosmic. Jefferson’s concerns were more specifically political, but he also sensed that larger issues were involved. “Principles were at stake.”

But if principles are at stake, is any common ground possible between opposing views? Compromise is the enemy of conviction. As the prophet Malachi wrote:

See, the day is coming, burning like an oven, when all the arrogant and all evildoers will be stubble. The day that comes shall burn them up, says the Lord of hosts…[v]

In the end, Malachi suggests an alternate possibility: The sun of righteousness shall rise, with healing in its wings.[vi] But is that only possible once the demonized “other” has been eliminated?

The dream of forging a new order with blood and fire has mesmerized much of human history, and the Bible sometimes veers in that direction, the direction of “sacred violence”—violence that intends a better world.

Sacred violence has its allure: the dream of remaking the world with force. It’s the dream of terrorists, it’s the dream of the Christian right, and if we ourselves are honest, it’s a dream each of us can understand. Who among us could not suggest a few “arrogant evildoers” as appropriate stubble for God’s cleansing fire? I’ve got my list.

But the Bible, unlike the terrorist, tends to take the point of view of the victim of violence, a perspective which destabilizes all notions of violence as sacred or good. The Son of God hanging on the cross makes all violence suspect.

When the last of the prophets, John the Baptist, considered the tree that fails to produce good fruit, he said, “Chop it down and burn it.” But if we did that, if we really did that, what would be left but a world of stumps and ashes?

When Jesus began his ministry, he renounced the Baptist’s axe, and let himself be nailed upon that barren tree. And by his act of powerless love, he awakened us from the mesmerizing dream of violence and vengeance and victory over our enemies, and made the earth fruitful at last with the feast of forgiveness, the banquet of reconciliation, the food and drink of new and unending life in God.

But how far we now seem from such reconciliation in our civil war between red and blue, rich and poor, rural and urban! If right-wing extremists hate the idea of being in communion with progressives in America, the feeling is certainly mutual. How do we live with these people? How do we dance with these people? Are we not in fact “two nations under God?”[vii]

O Jesus! O Jefferson! Where lies our hope in such a time? Can we endure, as Jesus counsels? Keep on keeping on. This too shall pass.

An imperial, bellicose, gluttonous America is unsustainable in the long run. Reality is simply against it. Whether it’s environmental disaster, economic collapse, civil strife, a Middle East quagmire, or the spiritual costs of building our politics on selfishness and lies, the bill will come due. Must it be the cleansing fire of apocalypse?

Or is there a way of national transformation not so costly to the earth and its people? Is it possible to forge together a political and economic life guided by the better angels of our nature?

In 1630 a little ship called the Arabella brought a group of immigrants to the shores of this country. Their leader, John Winthrop, preached to them before they disembarked: We shall be a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us.

His words would be taken out of context in the 1980s to celebrate a selfish and greedy America of unbridled private interest, where it was believed that the opposite of “wrong” was “poor.” But in fact, the heart of Winthrop’s sermon proposed a vision of the common good that remains unsurpassed in its description of public life as the space where we act out our essential connectedness:

…we must be knit together in this work as one… We must entertain each other in brotherly affection. We must be willing to abridge ourselves of our superfluities for the supply of others’ necessities. We must uphold a familiar commerce together in all meekness, gentleness, patience and liberality. We must delight in each other, make others’ conditions our own, rejoice together, labor and suffer together, always having before our eyes our commission and community in the work, our community as members of the same body.

Is this really possible? Can we truly delight in each other, make others’ conditions our own, rejoice together, labor and suffer together? In one of the darkest moments in American history, this is the work we have been given to do.

Jesus says, “Endure. Keep the faith and you will be saved.” [viii]
Paul says, “Never tire of doing good,”[ix]

Is anybody listening?

Related Posts

We Are the Singers of Life, Not of Death

Is the American Dream a Con Game?

[i] Robert Duvall utters this famous line during a battle in Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979)

[ii] Wikipedia reference: Barnard, Rita. “‘When You Wish Upon a Star’: Fantasy, Experience, and Mass Culture in Nathanael West,” American Literature, Vol. 66, No. 2 (June 1994), pgs. 325-51

[iii] David Wong, “How Half of America Lost Its F**king Mind”, Cracked, Oct. 12, 2016: http://www.cracked.com/blog/6-reasons-trumps-rise-that-no-one-talks-about/  Wong’s analysis is a must-read.

[iv] Luke 21:10-11, 16-18

[v] Malachi 4:1

[vi] Malachi 4:2a

[vii] Thomas Friedman, New York Times, Nov. 2004

[viii] Luke 21:19

[ix] II Thessalonians 3:13

The Rich Man and Lazarus

Medieval illumination, The Rich Man and Lazarus

Medieval illumination, The Rich Man and Lazarus

For when we first believed in Christ we did not immediately acquire an exact understanding of what we should be doing, nor was it clear to us what we should stop doing and what we should continue doing.

— Diodore, Bishop of Tarsus (d. 394) [i]

You see, God who lives in heaven kept quiet about the rich man’s name, because he did not find it written in heaven. He spoke the poor man’s name, because he found it written there… [ii]

— St. Augustine

This Sunday’s gospel tells the parable of the nameless rich man, living the high life in his mansion, and Lazarus the poor man, who is starving just outside his gate. When they both die about the same time, their situations are reversed. The poor man, suffering the torments of Hades, gets a distant glimpse of Lazarus enjoying the blessings of heaven “in the bosom of Abraham.” (Luke 16:19-31)

Where do we find ourselves in this gospel parable? At the gate, or at the rich man’s table? When Jesus tells this story, he doesn’t seem to allow us the option of remaining a spectator, detached and uninvolved.

Jesus is calling us to make a decision.
What would you do in the circumstances of the story?

There’s a 19th century song based on this gospel. I learned to sing it 50 years ago from the legendary Ramblin’ Jack Elliott:

 Only a tramp was Lazarus’ sad fate
When he lay down by the rich man’s gate
To beg for some crumbs from the rich man to eat
But he left him to die like a tramp on the street…

 If Jesus should come and knock at your door
Would you let him come in and take from your store
Or would you turn him away with nothing to eat
Would you leave him to die like a tramp on the street?

What would you do?
In our world of extreme economic inequality, it’s not a hypothetical question.

That’s the thing about the lectionary. We come to church to be illumined, fed, inspired, and renewed; to praise our Maker and Redeemer in the company of God’s friends. But sometimes we’re slammed with a question that’s really hard to answer.

In this case, what’s hard isn’t mustering the good will to do the right thing. If you’re a friend of Jesus, you know what is right. What’s hard is figuring out exactly how to implement our good will in complicated long-term situations.

We could empty our wallets for the homeless on a walk through downtown, but homelessness would remain. We could vote for candidates who put the needs of the poor ahead of the billionaires. But we would still remain entwined in a system driven more by greed and consumption than by the nurture of human flourishing and the health of God’s creation.

So where do we start? Does the parable itself provide any clues? It’s not really a story, but more of a snapshot. On one side there is Lazarus the beggar lying outside the rich man’s gate, covered with sores, dreaming of the scraps of food that fall from the rich man’s table. On the other is the rich man, behind locked doors, dressed in purple and fine linen, eating to his heart’s content – with a clear conscience as far as we know.

And the story seems to imply that he is unaware of Lazarus’ very existence. He doesn’t send his servants out to drive the poor man away. He doesn’t callously pass him by, pretending not to see him.

In the story, the rich man remains inside, Lazarus remains outside, and the two worlds are completely sealed off from each other—until a catastrophe shakes the rich man out of his complacency, and opens his eyes to the suffering he has ignored for so long.

The catastrophe is his own death. This not only plunges him into the fires of Hades but also—even more painful!—it opens his eyes to his lifelong indifference to the suffering of Lazarus, a suffering he could have alleviated, had he been more aware.

So now he must gaze up at Lazarus, safe in the bosom of Abraham, tormented by the knowledge of things done and left undone. It turns out that his blindness to suffering was not the same thing as innocence. The words of the prophet Amos could have been addressed to him:

Woe to those who are at ease in Zion,
and for those who are complacent on the mount of Samaria…
Woe to those who lie on beds of ivory,
and sprawl on their couches,
stuffing themselves with lamb and veal,
singing idle songs and drinking wine by the bowlful,
who anoint themselves with the finest oils,
but are not grieved over the ruin of Joseph. (Amos 6: 1, 4-6)

It’s not that the rich man didn’t care about Lazarus. He didn’t even see him. Lazarus did not exist for him, until he was compelled to see reality through God’s eyes:

And what the rich man is shown by God in the end is this: Lazarus, rocking his soul in the bosom of Abraham, turns out to be very precious to God. But he (the rich man) is a prisoner of his own self-regard, the loveless and isolating condition otherwise known as hell.

And then this parable, as parables often do, turns to us expectantly. So, it wonders, is there anything you are not seeing in the places where you live and move and have your being?

Last week I attended a meeting of the Interfaith Economic Justice Coalition in Seattle. The subject was the situation of the workers at the airport, the ones who clean and load the passenger cabins, who push the wheelchairs and guide the planes to their gates, who prepare and serve the food in the facility’s many restaurants and coffee shops, who rent the cars and staff the parking lots.

When we pass through the airport as travelers, we are served by many of these workers. But how often do we really see them as people or understand their situation?

Are we aware that the Seattle airport, the third largest economic producer in the state, has been a notoriously low-wage pocket within the greater urban area? Other West Coast airports, such as LAX, are way ahead of our own in addressing wage and justice issues.

The employment structure at Sea-Tac Airport is complicated. A variety of corporate contractors apply to the Port Commission and the airlines for the right to provide specific services. Individual airlines can choose to work with their own preferred contractors, so there is a bewildering variety of arrangements in which individual workers may fall through the cracks, as their employers play musical chairs in the bidding and renewal process. Without a guarantee that you will keep your job regardless of which corporation wins the next contract for the service you provide, you could be out of a job with little warning.

The process of bidding and contract renewals has sometimes been used, by both airlines and the Port Commission, to shut out union workers and reduce the job security and benefits of airport employees in general.

When Seattle passed the nation’s first $15 minimum wage law in 2014, some contractors complied, some chose to fight the law in the courts, and some simply ignored the law and continued to pay only $9.45 an hour, until lawsuits forced them to comply.

Some of the contractors are still in court, but this month several of them agreed to pay retroactively the full minimum wage, which amounts to about $10,000 per worker for each of the two years in which they were underpaid. This will make a huge difference for those workers, their families, and the communities in which they live.

This ongoing struggle for a living wage is about the workers’ dignity and well-being as equal participants in an interdependent society. And, as people of faith would insist, it is about their inestimable value as the beloved children of God. But until my eyes were opened by what I learned at that meeting last week, they were almost as invisible to me as Lazarus at the gate.

And now that I see them a little more clearly, what shall I do? When I take a flight next Saturday, I will certainly be asking myself this question. I can pray for the workers, I can thank them for their service. This Tuesday I’ll be joining with workers and faith leaders at a Port Commission meeting to exert continuing pressure for economic justice. But what else?

I may not have a lot of answers yet, but the question is not going away as long as we keep replaying the unsustainable story of the rich man and Lazarus in our economics, our politics, and our social order. It will not go away, in fact, until that promised day when we will all sit together at one table, sharing our essential communion as grateful brothers and sisters in the feast of God.

Holy One, Lover of Justice, bring that day closer.

 

Related Post: Why Do We Work?

 

[i] q. in Thomas C. Oden, The Good Works Reader (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmann’s Publishing, 2007), 333

[ii] Sermon 33a.4, q. in Oden, 54

The Faithful Centurion: A Homily for the 2nd Sunday of Pentecost

Jesus raises the dead with a wand (Roman catacomb, 3rd century)

Jesus raises the dead with a wand (Roman catacomb, 3rd century)

The gospel story for the Second Sunday of Pentecost[i] describes a world in which things don’t happen the way they’re supposed to.

A Roman centurion treats his slave more like a friend than a piece of property. When the slave gets sick and is close to death, the centurion implores the Jewish community to help him find a healer.

Normally, Jews and Romans were not on the best of terms. Occupying armies just don’t get much love, and besides, doesn’t everybody know that foreigners are just “not our kind?” If only we could build a wall high enough to keep them out!

But this Roman centurion has somehow made friends with the local Jewish elders. He has even built a synagogue for them. So they are happy to help.

The Roman has heard some stories about Jesus and his healing gifts, so he asks the elders to go beg Jesus, that he might come and heal his slave.

Now we’ve heard a lot of stories about Jesus getting the local clergy mad at him, so we may be surprised to learn that there were also some of them who admired Jesus, and maintained good relations with him. That is clearly the case here. And what the elders say to Jesus is this: “The centurion is worthy of having you do this for him, for he loves our people.”

So far, not much is going the way we would expect. A centurion treats his slave like a friend. A Roman loves the Jews, and the Jews love him back. And as for Jesus and the local clergy, they are getting along swimmingly.

But there are more surprises to come.

Jesus goes with the elders to find the centurion’s house, but just before they arrive, the centurion sends some friends out to say, “Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy that you should come under my roof; that is why I did not presume to come to you myself. But only speak the word, and my servant shall be healed. For I know something about authority, since I have soldiers serving under me. I say to one, `Go,’ and he goes, and to another, `Come,’ and he comes, and I say to my slave, `Do this,’ and the slave does it.”

How strange to see a Roman officer humbling himself before a wandering Jewish rabbi. “I am not worthy that you should come under my roof,” he says.

And Jesus is “amazed.” That word in the gospel is usually applied to people who are amazed at Jesus. But here it is Jesus’ turn to be amazed. And why? Because the centurion has total faith in the power of Jesus to heal his slave, even at a distance.

“Just as I command my slaves to come and go as I wish, I believe that you have the power to command sickness and death to depart from my house. Only say the word.”

It may seem a little odd that this exchange doesn’t take place directly between Jesus and the centurion. The centurion communicates through intermediaries. This is, he says, because he is not worthy to have Jesus even enter his house. It’s a pretty extraordinary bit of deference on behalf of the powerful Roman.

In any case, Jesus turns to the crowd which has been tagging along because this was clearly the most interesting thing happening in Capernaum that day, and says, “You know what? I haven’t found this kind of faith among any of you folks who go to church. You all could learn something from this centurion fellow. You may call him an unbeliever, but he’s just given you some of the best spiritual teaching you’re ever going to get.”

And then, because this wants to be an odd story from beginning to end, the servant is suddenly well without Jesus ever saying a prayer or speaking a healing word. This miracle happens offstage, and we only hear about it later.

Notice that Jesus never actually meets the centurion or the slave. Everything happens at a distance, through intermediaries, rather the way that prayer works. We may not meet Jesus directly, in the flesh, but his effect on us is still palpable and powerful. And as the centurion believed, it is faith that makes that connection happen.

This strange little story is about a world which is repeatedly and radically disrupted: social and cultural barriers are crossed, enemies act like friends, the master/slave hierarchy is upended, earthly power humbles itself, the religious experts are schooled by a pagan outsider and oh, by the way, a healing miracle happens without any fanfare or even the slightest tangible demonstration of cause and effect. Just another day in the life of the God of surprises.

We could take a number of things from this story, but today my question is this: Who outside our own faith communities has something essential to teach us? And are we capable of appreciative amazement? Are we capable of receiving that teaching with gratitude and humility?

Where are the ones, beyond our institutional and theological boundaries, who are practicing social imagination and nurturing a better future? Where are the ones who are already doing holy work without even knowing God’s name?

Who are the ones
living a practical faith
serving a need
working for change
refusing injustice
breaking boundaries
loving enemies
making peace
showing mercy
finding the lost
tending the sick
visiting the prisoner
binding wounds
soothing the suffering
comforting the afflicted
nourishing wonder
fostering delight
shielding the joyous
organizing the powerless
repairing the world
welcoming the Kingdom . . .

Who are they and how can we learn from them?
How can we support them?
How can we join them?

 

 

 

 

 

[i] Luke 7:1-10 (Revised Common Lectionary, Year C)