On Hearing God’s Silence in the Storm

Jesus walking on waterIt is highly significant that Elijah did not find God in the wind, the earthquake, or the fire, but only in a “sound of sheer silence.” (1 Kg 19:12) It happens that Elijah had just run away from fire and storm when he heard this sound of silence. Since Elijah had just “won” the battle with the priests of Baal, one might have thought that God had spoken through wind and fire that time, but the result of “winning” that contest was needing to run for his life because Jezebel was out to get him. So it seems God had not spoken in the wind and fire on Mount Carmel after all. If we stop the story with the “sound of sheer silence,” we are edified, but when we read on to the words Elijah heard, we are seriously troubled. At least I am. Elijah is told to anoint Elisha to be his successor prophet. So far so good. But Elijah is also told to anoint Jehu son of Nimshi to be king of Israel. The narrative of Jehu’s cold-blooded coup d’état is chilling to say the least. (2 Kg. 9) More chilling are the words Elijah heard: “Whoever escapes from the sword of Hazael, Jehu shall kill; and whoever escapes from the sword of Jehu, Elisha shall kill.” (1 Kg. 19: 17) After the violent rivalry between Elijah and the priests of Baal, we get the crossfire of the violent rivalry between Hazael and the House of Ahab: more storm and fire. I have a hard time hearing this storm in the “sound of sheer silence.”

We have more storms in the story of Jesus’ disciples taking a boat across the lake. As almost always with Jesus, there were some human storms. Jesus had just learned of the ignominious death of John the Baptist as a result of a sophisticated mob violence at court. Afterwards, Jesus fed a mob of people who were hungry both for food and God’s Word. Matthew doesn’t mention this mob’s attempt to take Jesus by force to make him king but one can’t help but think that Jesus went off alone to pray because he needed to center himself again on his heavenly Abba after what had just happened. I’m inclined to see in the storm at sea not only a natural phenomena but an interpersonal phenomena as well. I wrote in my book Moving and Resting in God’s Desire: “The story of Peter walking on water — or trying to — also illustrates this aiming [to be centered on God]. (Mt. 14:28-33) The wind and the choppy waves represent our being overwhelmed by the mimetic movements that tend toward rage and persecution. When Peter looked at the waves instead of at Jesus, he started to sink. By himself, he would have sunk and drowned. By looking again at Jesus, Peter was pulled into the boat and the sea grew calm.”

[Tom and Laura Truby develop these thoughts with excellence in their sermon The Raging Storm of Our Own Making.”]

Both of these scripture readings make it dramatically clear that being truly focused on God and God’s peace beyond human understanding is very difficult. Elijah shows how it is very possible to hear the “sheer silence” and yet also “hear” the violence unfolding in his generation. That Elijah was persecuted by Jezebel, Ahab’s wife, makes it understandable that Elijah would hear, even in the “sheer silence,” his own anger and fear towards Ahab’s royal house. Likewise, the disciples in the boat on the stormy sea are so caught up both in the natural storm and the storm of their own disputatiousness that even Jesus himself appears as an object of horror rather than peace. We should take this as a warning of how our prayer in trying times can be distorted by our own anger and anxiety.

There is no simple solution I can offer for this difficulty we all face. In principle, it seems simple to say that we should turn to Jesus and stay turned to him. The problem is that this “simple” solution is difficult minute by minute, second by second. We look at the chaotic waves of the water and sink back into our fears, resentment, and rage. It is a huge help if we remain aware of this weakness and don’t mistake the storms inside ourselves for the word of God. When we fall into our rage, the storm continues, for Jesus calms the waters; he does not stir them up. It takes time and discipline to keep even enough focus on the “sheer silence” to help us see the rage we keep hearing for what it is. Imitating Peter by crying for mercy is essential as this is a cry of repentance of our violence that is the first step to living in the peace of Christ.

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Feed My Sheep

AndrewPreaching1In the final chapter of John’s Gospel, Jesus asks Peter three times: “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter has to answer three times that he loves Jesus and then listen to Jesus tell him three times: “Feed my sheep.” (Jn. 21: 15-17) This three-fold question and response is commonly interpreted as Peter undoing his three-fold betrayal of Jesus in the court of the high priest. I agree, but with the caveat that Peter’s betrayal goes further back. At Gethsemane, when Jesus had been seized by the temple police, Peter drew a sword and cut off the right ear of one of the high priest’s servants. This may look like loyalty to most people, but not to Jesus, who said: “Put your sword back into its sheath. Am I not to drink the cup that the Father has given me?” (Jn. 18: 11) That is, Peter had betrayed what Jesus really lived for and was about to die for. As he had at Caesarea Philippi, Peter had acted as a “satan,” a stumbling block to Jesus’ commitment to non-violence, even at the cost of his life. In declaring his love for Jesus three times, Peter declared his love for what Jesus lived for and died for. It is with this love that Peter was told to feed his sheep.

Paul, whom we also celebrate today, is famous for his conversion experience. Like Peter, Paul had to repent of the violence he had committed in what he thought was in the service of God. The voice from Heaven on the road to Damascus told Paul that he was actually persecuting God by persecuting the followers of Jesus. After hearing this voice, Paul realized that, like his fellow Pharisees denounced by Jesus, he had been committing the social violence of heaping burdens on people and not lifting a finger to lift them. With Paul, this social violence had exploded into physical violence against those very people on whom these burdens had been imposed. (Mt. 23: 4) The voice of Heaven converted Paul into being a lifter of heavy burdens from others so that he and those he preached to could embrace the gift of forgiveness Jesus bestowed on him when he drank the cup given by his heavenly Abba and allowed his Abba to raise him from the dead.

Peter and Paul are often posed as opposites, even antagonists, but they are united in one most important thing: both ministered out of their conversion from violence to living by the free gift of God’s mercy grounded in the cross. Out of their conversions, they preached whether “the time [was] favorable or unfavorable.” (2 Tim 4: 2) In doing so, both of their lives were “poured out as a libation” (2 Tim. 4: 6) as they tended the heavenly Abba’s sheep with special care for the sick and the wounded. In the end, both were led away to where they did not wish to go (Jn. 21: 18) but ended up winning “the crown of righteousness.” (2 Tim. 4: 8) If we are to follow these two great saints, we, too, must hear the voice of Jesus warning us of the violence we commit or benefit from and be converted so that we, too, can feed Jesus’ sheep.

God’s Reconciliation: A Thought on the Feast of Saints Peter & Paul

220px-Greco,_El_-_Sts_Peter_and_PaulIt is interesting and a bit ironic that we celebrate Saints Peter and Paul on the same day. Although there are famous icons of the two embracing one another in Christian love, the two seem not to have had an easy time getting along in real life. Although the two appeared to have been somewhat reconciled at the Council of Jerusalem in Acts 15, in his letter to the Galatians, Paul says that he opposed Peter “to his face” for backing down from what he thought they had agreed on. (Gal. 2: 11) The final chapters of John’s Gospel suggest tensions between the “Beloved Disciple” and Peter, and/or some tension between the two communities derived from them. The Beloved Disciple rests on Jesus’ breast at the Last Supper while Peter stubbornly tries to prevent Jesus from washing his feet. In her book Courting Betrayal,” Helen Orchard argues that Peter was resisting the slavish action of Jesus in washing his feet because he did not want to stoop so low himself. The episode of the Empty Tomb in John shows a rather awkward dance between the two where the Beloved Disciple gets there first but waits at the entrance and allows Peter to go in first. In this little tangle of a narration, both seem to have been first but not in the same way; which suggests some attempt to overcome the tension. In the final chapter of John, after the threefold question to Peter: “Do you love me?,” Peter points to the Beloved Disciple and asks” What about him?” Jesus answer basically tells us it is none of his business.

Peter is redirected to the threefold command he has just been given: “Feed my sheep.” Here is the key for overcoming tension and competition. When we compete with another, we become preoccupied with our rivals and nobody else. What does this do for pastoral care?  The preoccupation of rivals with each other answers the question quite clearly. It is tempting to say that pastors should never fight so as not to undermine their ministries, but there are times when we do have to stand up for the people we minister to. Paul stood up to Peter because he was paying close attention to the pastoral needs of the Galatians and other Gentiles he preached to. There are times in his epistles when Paul comes across as disputatious and rivalrous but in this instance, he was holding his focus on how to feed the sheep entrusted to him and trying to help Peter see the need of the Gentile sheep for himself.

Scripture does not tell us how this conflict ended as far as these two men are concerned although subsequent tradition claims that they were indeed reconciled. Likewise, the Johannine literature stemming from the Beloved Disciple was integrated into the New Testament, creating a deeper unity then Peter and the Beloved Disciple seem to have had. The art of differing and reconciling with others is much too complex to be taught in a brief sermon, but we have a couple of basics to get us started. 1) Keep our attention focused on those who depend on us for pastoral support; 2) Remember that Divine Providence can and will work out a deeper harmony underlying our conflicts and it isn’t always up to us to solve them, which means that, as Peter was told to stop worrying about his rival, we should stop worrying about our own rivals quite so much. And now for a third thought: Both Peter and Paul had much to repent of and they did just that. Can we do the same?

Christian Community (3)

vocationersAtTable1The best-known image of the Church in the New Testament is the analogy of the human body with the Church which is the Body of Christ (1 Cor. 12:12-28). The implication is that as the various parts of a body add up to a unity, the various members of the church, different as we are, also make up a body. This analogy suggests each part must be well-coordinated with all the others. We can see this readily—and impressively—in athletic maneuvers such as acrobatics or in the artistry of a ballet dancer or musician. This image suggests a deep intuition on St. Paul’s part into mimetic desire. Just as each part of the human body must be sensitive and synchronized with each other, so must each member of Christ’s Body resonate with one another. As with the body, this resonance needs to be preconscious, an ongoing awareness of and sensitivity to the other members. The most essential elements of this sensitivity are accepting the other members and not overstepping limits. St. Paul says one part cannot say it doesn’t need another part. His extension of the analogy to a list of various ministries in the church makes it clear that if a foot wants to be a hand, the body won’t walk very well. Neither will the body work well if a foot is amputated. These destructive outcomes happen if the parts of the body fall into mimetic rivalry. The comic character Bottom in Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream is a perfect example of overstepping boundaries. At the rehearsal of the play to be performed before the Duke’s court, Bottom first accepts the part assigned to him but then demands every other part as it is doled out to the cast. The absurdity of Bottom’s demands is clear enough if we try to imagine him doing all the parts in the play himself. It is the same absurdity if the neck tried to do all the walking.

Another image of the Church comes in the First Epistle of Peter. The author envisions the community of Christ as a “holy house” made out of “living stones.” (1 Pet. 2: 5) This image reminds us of St. Paul’s admonition that individually and corporately we should each be a Temple of God. (1 Cor. 3:16) It is significant that Peter calls the building a house and not a temple although it is a place where priestly ministry takes place. I see here a hint that Christ’s household is not a place set apart but a place for everyone, sort of like the City of God that doesn’t have a temple because the whole place is one. We have a sense of unity-in-diversity in this image as well. There are many stones and each has to be in its proper place or the house collapses. The stones are not inert but living, vibrant. Again each living stone should resonate with all the other living stones, another powerful image of mimetic desire working constructively.

Another biblical image that I don’t recall seeing used as an image of the Church, but one that could be, is that of the vine and the branches (John 15: 1-9).Here, we are all to be connected with one another through our rootedness in Christ. This image stresses our resonance with the Desire of God but also our connectedness with others through God’s Desire.

These images of the Church complement one another. The Body of Christ has possible pantheistic overtones if taken too far so that the distinction between us and Christ is blurred. But we are, all of us, called to act the part of Christ in the world. The body is dynamic. It can be still for a time to meditate, but usually it is going places and doing stuff. This body and should go out and minister to people in need. The image of the holy house made of living stones is more static. The dynamism is in the living stones while the building stays in one place. This holy house is to be open for the Holy Spirit to fill it and just as open for people to enter and be in it. That is, we are to be living stones creating a loving environment of hospitality for all. The image of the vine and the branches is the most contemplative. While the other two images emphasize the relationships between the members, the image of the vine and the branches emphasizes the grounding of all members in God. It is an important corrective to the pantheistic pitfall of the Body of Christ image.

In themselves, these images are inspiring ideals. The reality is something different. St. Paul himself knew this full well. Just before presenting the Church as the Body of Christ, he had castigated the Corinthians for their disorderly and exclusionary suppers where some gorge themselves in front of their poorer and hungrier brothers and sisters. This same epistle began with Paul’s outrage over the divisions within the church with its party slogans that reinforced the divisions. Likewise, Luke’s claim that “the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common” (Acts 4:32) was wishful thinking as the subsequent story of Ananias and Sapphira makes clear. Rather than throwing out these images as unrealistic, we need to keep them before us as models we constantly fail to live up to. Without these images, we would just act like the Corinthians without a second thought. We will have to look again at the reality in relationship to these ideal images.

Then there is the matter of the stones. These living stones aren’t just any stones. The cornerstone had been rejected by the builders. What does this mean for the other living stones we are supposed to be? That is another question for further reflection.

Go to Christian Community (4)

Binding and Loosing

AndrewPreaching1How many of us listen to Jesus’ words about correcting fellow members of the church and think they are about punishing people and casting them out? (Mt. 18:15-20) Checking ourselves for such reactions is a good way of taking note how instinctive punishing and excluding are to us and how less instinctive is forgiving and including and welcoming others. It is precisely this instinct to punish that makes it difficult to have ears to hear what Jesus is saying and hear what the Spirit is saying to the churches.

If we take a step back and ask ourselves what our instinctive reaction to being wronged is, we find that the first instinct is to seek revenge. If somebody hits you, hit him back. Simple. But Jesus tells us to go to the person and tell that person what they have done to us. This action puts a serious break on the revenge mechanism and moves in the opposite direction. After all, going to the person peacefully and honestly is the first step towards reconciliation, which is the last thing a person bent on revenge wants. If speaking one to one does not resolve the matter, then the circle widens to two or three and then the whole assembly. What is easily overlooked in this process as described here is that it presupposes that each of us is expected to take responsibility for the community and for each other. This is why we should warn a person who is acting destructively, but it is also why we should be open for others to approach each of us to correct us. Of course, anyone who has ever corrected another person knows that this can result in learning about our own shortcomings. One of our favorite slogans at St. Gregory’s Abbey is” “You do it too.”

Treating an unrepentant person like “a Gentile and a tax collector” sounds straightforward enough. We kick the person out and that is that. But that is not that. For one thing, this is not an act of vengeance, or at least it’s not supposed to be. It is an act of distancing, an act that, when used rightly, shows that the reproved person has distanced him or herself from the community. It is realistic in that some people make themselves impossible and a peaceful parting is necessary. But that is far from the end of that matter. Matthew himself was a tax collector. How was he treated? Jesus called him to follow him and be a disciple. We need to keep in mind the context. Immediately preceding this list of instructions for dealing with a delinquent person is the Parable of the Lost Sheep. All this suggests that the way to treat a Gentile or a tax collector is to try to bring them into the Christian community, which entails forgiveness.

Forgiveness? But we are told that those we loose on earth are loosed in heaven and those who are bound on earth are bound in Heaven. Sounds like we have the power to bind other people for all eternity and God’s hands are tied for as long as we want them to be. How much power is that? But not so fast. Why is it that we so easily assume we are being allowed to bind on earth when we are being encouraged to loose on earth? We need to note what follows immediately after this verse: Peter’s question about how many times he must forgive an offender and Jesus’ parable of the unforgiving debtor. If we have to forgive others as God forgives us, and that without limit, as Jesus’ saying we have to forgive seventy-seven times means, then we are indeed being encouraged to loose on earth and are being warned that if we do not loose on earth, we are bound to our resentment for what others have done to us (or we think they have done to us) and we will be so bound even in Heaven since God’s hands are indeed tied for as long as we refuse to let God untie us.

See also: The Sin against the Holy Spirit

Baptism: Overwhelmed by Christ’s Love (2)

lakeGray1Two dramatic events from the Hebrew Bible have been interpreted as prefiguring baptism are the Flood and the deliverance at the Red Sea. Both are deliverances from highly dysfunctional societies.

Genesis 6 portrays human society as consumed with violence. No wonder if everybody was like Lamech and inflicting seventy-seven-fold vengeance on anybody whom he thought had wronged him. In his second epistle, believed by many scholars to be a baptismal homily, Peter says that the deliverance of Noah and his family corresponds to baptism which saves us now through the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. (1 Pet. 3:21) René Girard has suggested that a flood is an apt image for a society overwhelmed with retaliatory violence. In such a scenario, a man who tried not to be a part of this violence would be an obvious choice of a victim to unite the fragmented society. The Christological interpretation in Peter’s epistle suggests by being baptized into Christ’s death, we are brought out of society consumed with violence and given the chance to begin life anew, the chance that Noah and his family had after the flood waters receded. It is worth noting that when referring to Jesus descending into hell (Sheol), Peter does not say Jesus just brought out righteous people like Abraham but that he preached to the very people who had brought humankind to the boiling point while Noah was building his ark.

St. Paul says that we all “passed through the sea and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and the sea.” (1 Cor. 10:2) Once again we have an overwhelming flood. Moreover, we have a story of a people delivered from a violent and oppressive society. In his book Jesus: the forgiving Victim, James Alison suggests that the Jews were expelled after being blamed for the plagues scourging the country. If the Jews were expelled, why would the Egyptians runs after them to bring them back? Perhaps they realized they would implode without the victims who were deemed responsible for their turmoil. This is what seems to have happened with the Gerasenes when their demoniac was cured by Jesus. One could take the tug-of-war between Moses and Pharaoh as indicating this same tension. (See Dispossessing a Town Possessed) Being overwhelmed by the waters is, again, an apt image of a society succumbing to its own violence once the scapegoats are gone.

Unfortunately, neither new chance at a new life went well. Noah’s drunkenness and rivalry among the brothers that made Ham a scapegoat set humanity on a course where the curse laid on him was used to justify slavery and lynching. The people delivered at the Red Sea suffered from chronic social unrest, leading to Moses raising the bronze serpent in the desert to stop the plague of violence. Likewise, the church continues to fall back into the same rivalry and persecution. Most lynchers, unfortunately, were Christians. A tendency to see baptism as deliverance from personal sin surely reinforces such backsliding. Baptism is not a magical deliverance from personal sin but is a constant invitation to be reborn into the new social life of God’s kingdom centered on the forgiving victim who, like the bronze serpent, was raised up to draw all people to himself.

Baptism: Overwhelmed by Christ’s Love (3)

Baptism: Overwhelmed by Christ’s Love (1)

The Good Shepherd in the Desert

goodShepherdIf Jesus is the “living interpretive principle of scriptures, as James Alison says, then the Parable of the Good Shepherd who leaves the ninety-nine to search out the one lost sheep should be a powerful and accurate interpretive lens for other passages in scripture.

In the RoCa lectionary, this Gospel is coupled with a tense episode in Exodus 32. As he comes down the mountain with the tablets of the Ten Commandments, he finds that Aaron has set up a golden calf for the Israelites to worship. God tells Moses to get out of the way so that his wrath can “burn hot against them.” Doesn’t sound like a good shepherd.  Instead, it is Moses who acts out the part of the good shepherd by interceding with God, as Abraham did earlier to avert the divine wrath from the people. At the end of this same chapter, there is another narration of Moses coming down the mountain. This time, he is so furious he breaks the tablets and then rallies the Levites to his side to slay thee thousand people who were worshipping the golden calf. Although Moses claims to be doing God’s work, what we have is a narrative of human rather than divine violence. Moses doesn’t look like a good shepherd this time, but the morning after this monstrous slaughter, Moses intercedes with God to forgive the people although it is a bit late for the three thousand who were slain. This strange doubling of narrations seems to point to a debate in the Jewish tradition moving in the direction of unveiling God’s love for God’s people.

In 1 Corinthians 10, St. Paul refers to this incident by saying “we must not indulge in immorality as some of them did, and twenty-three thousand fell in a single day.” (He ups the death toll.) In isolation, this is about the chilliest verse in the Pauline epistles but in its sacramental context, it is much more in keeping with Jesus the Good Shepherd. Leading into this verse, Paul says that “we were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same supernatural food and all drank the same supernatural drink.” This, in turn, recalls the reinterpretation of the Flood in 1 Peter where the water corresponds to the baptism that delivered Noah and his family and delivers us now. The Genesis story clearly indicates a social meltdown with a few, probably the intended victims, escaping. The Exodus story refers to the social meltdown in Egypt that lead to the expulsion of the Israelites. In the desert, the Israelites had their own social meltdown centered around rivalry between Moses and Aaron. (Arnold Schönberg’s opera Moses and Aron portrays this rivalry with great insight.) For both Peter and Paul, baptism is the deliverance from the surrounding sacrificial society into the Kingdom centered on the Eucharist, the new way of gathering without need of victims and certainly not needed the slaughter of three thousand. Paul is not, then, warning his readers against a wrathful deity but against a wrathful society that will engulf them if they return to its sacrificial ways, just as a relapse into the wrathful society of Egypt lead to a meltdown in the camp and the deaths of thousands.

Jesus the Good Shepherd does not strike dead those who re-enter a sacrificial society that today manifests hardness of heart to the extent of trying to prevent fundamental ministries such as feeding the hungry. Instead, Jesus enters into the heart of the society to bring back all who are lost. Rather than starting a bloodbath, we should intercede for all such people as Moses did and follow Jesus in searching for the lost.

See also: The Communal Good Shepherd