AD 2016: The Election Year of Mercy

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Philippians 3:17-4:1
Luke 16:1-8

The master commended the dishonest steward for his shrewdness.
Luke 16:8a

Do you find this passage confusing? It’s one that usually stumps me when it comes up in the lectionary. Here’s my go for this year: If this is a parable of the Kingdom, then the Rich Man is like God and the Steward is like a priest who has many sins of his own as he hears the confessions of the people. Mindful of his own sins, and of how it is that God is being merciful to him, he is also merciful to those who come to him; giving them light penances, and generous pardon.

Such mercy is also our own business. We name this and claim this in the Lord’s Prayer, right? Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors. Yes, the man in the parable is forgiving debts owed to his lord rather than to himself, but all sin is against God, is it not? “Against you, you alone have I sinned” says the Prophet David in Psalm 50. Even when we sin “at” another person, it is the icon of God, the presence of God himself that receives the offence. It is God against whom we always sin. This is a realistic view: the Church teaches we are all sinners. It also teaches that I can not judge the sins of my neighbor. Rather I must acknowledge that my sins are the cause of my destruction – and be merciful to my neighbor.

The Fathers say that he who covers another’s sin will find his own sins covered. He who uncovers another’s sins will find his own sins shouted from the housetops. That’s an interesting proposition in this election cycle, no? I have Facebooked in Anger about the sins of at least one candidate. I can imagine my readers coming up with all sorts of theological justifications for why we should broadcast the sins of XX or XY to the internet – as if the talk show hosts are not already doing that for us. But the reality is that all the candidates (especially the one you don’t like the most) are merely sinners like me. Dare I say, like you.

It also seems as though there are enough haters in this world without Christians adding to the pile. We – and they – fit into St Paul’s description of “many, of whom I have often told you and now tell you even with tears, live as enemies of the cross of Christ.”

I’m not good at this, mind you: I think one is just dragging us down to despotism yelling and screaming and the other is smiling whilst doing the same. Neither of them will do anything to stop the killing at home, abroad, or in utero. And, being sinners, both are part of the hedonistic and usurious culture of immodesty, sex, and greed that gives rise to that killing at home, abroad, and in utero. Truly, “their end is destruction, their god is the belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things.” In other words they are garden variety sinners of today, modern in every way and needing salvation. And in a system built on lies, calumny, gossip, and rancor, it behooves a Christian to remember that we are only forgiven as we forgive. That is the bargain we make with the God who loves everyone – especially the candidate you like the least – with a love so great that it cost him his life.

Certainly: to point at real sin and name it sin is not to commit a sin. But: preach, brothers and sisters, don’t make it a political point. We are all sinners. Most of the things we allow in our society will damn people to hell. It is real love to say so and call people out of that, although it will gain us no popularity, nor political strength. It is in fact, a sin of our own if we fail to do so. But it is not charity – it is sinful, in fact – to make political hay and call it theology.

Getting Gold for Dung

Philippians 3:3-8a
Luke 15:1-10

Rejoice with me, because I have found my…
Luke 15:6 or 9

Jesus tells us two parables saying, Look, some things are very important to God and he shows us in two ways: the lost coin and the lost sheep. The coin we understand, I think: If I only have 100 pennies and one is missing then I need to find the other. It’s gone: I can’t go buy a cup of coffee being one penny short. I won’t be able to exchange it for a paper $1 bill, because who would give me a dollar for ninety-nine pennies? Tearing up the house means no more bother than having to put it together again. The sheep, though, seem different: because leaving the ninety-nine alone, unguarded “in the desert” means that they could wander off as well, no? And, after all, properly tended the sheep will make more – that’s what animals do. Just wait, next year there will be more. Pennies don’t breed. So, searching for a penny seems safe, as it were whilst the sheep business is markedly risky.

Jesus is hanging out with sinners again and eating with them. As in an episode of Southpark, the crowd stands around and “Rabbles” although in the Bible everyone “murmurs”. Murmur! Murmur! Murmur! Murmur!

He is accused of “receiving” sinners. The Greek verb used (προσδέχομαι) implies reciprocity: it’s a mutual hugfest, really. They are taking him in and he is welcoming them. It’s a synergistic dance.Yet remember: God is always the leader in the dance. They are drawn to him, they are welcomed when they get there.

So it is with us, here and now, of course. Some sinners in the world are like the Lost Coin: they’re just around the corner, maybe still in the Church, just not quite connected. It’s like they’re on the inside. There’s a cleaning under the bed and a finding of the little sparkles among all the dust bunnies. The Lapsed come home at Christmas, you know.

Some, however, are more like the lost lamb: we’ve gone so very far away that God has to go to extraordinary lengths to bring them home. But so far he will go. And happily. He may have to wander far in the wilderness; there are pits and peaks, valleys and rivers to navigate. The sheep are there, but it’s harder to find them all, surrounded by their natural beauty and the glories of the world. These sheep left the church a long time ago, or were never inside at all. Some of these went astray from the very beginning: they were never even part of the House of the Israel of God. They are surrounded and engulfed by the false beauties and deluded by the illicit half-lights of the world. Yet God only made one humanity: he never intended a division, only an icon. As the Fathers say: there is only one Human Nature. Many persons share in the human nature – including, by virtue of the Incarnation, God the Son – but the nature itself, is one. And that is how far God has gone to get us: into this messy world and beyond, into Hell itself.

In Philippians Paul says, having listed his right to claim authority among his own people (elsewhere adding to this list that he was a student of St Gamaliel), he says, “All the things I have gained I count as loss for Christ.” Meaning they were wasted time, if I had known Jesus 30 years ago. And he goes further and says in fact, “I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as dung that I may gain Christ.” Paul made his own finding rather more like the sheep than the coin for he had even engaged in persecuting the Church. Fallen into a pit, God had to appear to him and say, “look, here’s the way out…” That’s how far God will go. And further.

Will you come home? Will you count the wilderness or the dusty floor to be lost energy and wasted time? Will you count it all to be dung so that you can come home, finally?

Faintly Falling Upon the Dead

Certainly there’s no snow in Alabama ‘tall. But my brain on All Souls’ Day remembers the Dead for whom a Rosary will be said and all the offices today.

My Grandparents, Bessie and Ken, who raised me for the first 6 years of my life, and at whose passing I do, sometimes, feel like an orphan, even though my own parents are alive.

My brother, Jimmy, who was killed in a motorcycle accident in 1983. He’d have passed 50 last year and I do wonder what it would have been like to have had a brother all this time.

My best friend, Brian, who was killed in the accident as well, and his sister, Michelle, who was murdered the year before – the first death most any of us kids had experienced.

Mills, Bernie, Timmy, William, Geoff, and Thomas, who died of AIDS-related complications, as we used to say. I got out of the plague remarkably lightly, but Mills’ and Timmy’s passings were very hard. And also a wakeup call that probably saved my life.

Edward, Joel, Linda, Paul and Edmund. Episcopal clergy (along with Mills and Bernie above) who had a huge effect on the church as well as on persons around them.

Archpriest Victor and Mat. Barbara, whose strong, earthly love wrapped me up and held me godwards.

All my other family, known and unknown.

Requiem Aeternam. May their memories be eternal.

“His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.” – James Joyce, The Dead, in Dubliners

Dies Irae

Wisdom 3:1-9
Romans 5:5-11
John 6:37-40

God hath tried them, and found them worthy of himself. As gold in the furnace he hath proved them, and as a victim of a holocaust he hath received them, and in time there shall be respect had to them.
Wisdom 3:5b-6

All Souls Day: the day we set aside for these prayers in the Western Rite, although, actually, pretty much the entire month of November is set aside for these prayers – masses for the dead are said nearly every day. Individual order (eg, the Benedictines, the Cistercians, etc) will have days celebrating “All Saints of our Order” followed by days of prayer for “All Our Departed Brethren”. In parishes, the departed will be remembered by name. Some will go to a cemetery for prayers at gravesites. In the Eastern Rites, there are four such days throughout the year, called “Soul Saturdays” – they were, in part, brought into the Church from pre-Christian Slavic tradition. They serve the same purpose.

The only real difference between liturgical East and West on this teaching is that the West (at least in the Anti-western mind of the East) seems to posit a specific place. Dante draws this more evidently – a third placement of souls between Hell and Heaven. But the Roman Church teaches Purgatory is a “state of being“. In that I think East and West agree: it’s a thing in us. A state of being. The East teaches, really, there’s only one place to go after death: into the presence of God. But for some of us that will be joy, peace, bliss, and all light and love. For some, that very concept of all that light and communion will be hellish. But we will work it out, as a long-ago friend of mine said, “roasting in the unending fires of God’s love for us.” That’s it. Right there.

God hath tried them… As gold in the furnace he hath proved them Humans do not like to imagine a love so pure that it purifies them; or, more correctly, we do not like to imagine we’re not pure enough for that love. There are parts of me that must go. Maybe there are parts that I wrongly imagine are a central part of my “identity as me” that will burn away. Right now, where I am, these parts of me feel as if they “really are me”. But if they are misconceptions, if they are constructs based on false or even sinful understandings of what God wanted a human being to be, then “roasting in the unending fires of God’s love for us” will fix it.

When we hear that God is calling us to be our true selves what we vainly imagine is “my true self is this dude right here right now.” We imagine our choicest sins are, in fact, ourselves. “I AM WHAT I AM: PROUD TO BE A (fill in the blank),” as if we could really be anything other than the image and likeness of God’s purity, God’s love, God’s charity. Anything less is missing the mark, anything less is sin. When God tries us, proves in the furnace, he removes all the dross: the egotism, the prideful actions, selfish ideas of sex, failed conceptions of love; it all goes away and frees our self, finally, to be.

In the 16th Century, the English Christians produced an act of devotion called “The Jesus Psalter“. It, together with the Rosary of the Blessed Virgin, sustained the Church through the persecution following the English Schism. It’s a collection of devotions centered around the recitation of the name of Jesus. By the end of the recitation one will have said the Holy Name more than 450 times together with an increasingly abstract set of prayers. It’s starts out with “Jesus, Jesus, Jesus: Have mercy on me.” The tenth petition, is “Jesus, Jesus, Jesus: send me here my purgatory.”

Jesus, send me here my purgatory, and so prevent the torments of that cleansing fire, which, after this life, awaits unpurged souls. 

Vouchsafe to grant me those merciful crosses and afflictions, which Thou seest are necessary to break off my affections from all things here below. 

Since none can see Thee that loves any thing but for Thy sake, permit not my heart to find here any rest but a seeking after Thee. 

Too bitter, alas! will be the anguish of a separated soul that desires, but cannot come to Thee, clogged with the heavy chains of sin. 

Here then, O my Savior, keep me continually mortified in this world; that purged thoroughly by the fire of love, I may immediately pass into the everlasting possessions.

That is purgatory – both here and hereafter – in both the East and the West: those merciful crosses and afflictions, which Thou seest are necessary to break off my affections from all things here below. It is the place where we, mere mortals, can find our perfection. That is only in the light of God’s love for us.

Today we pray for the souls in purgatory and our prayers avail much. We are all part of the same church: the Saints, the LIving and the souls in Purgatory. We all pray for each other. This is the meaning of the Three Days of the All Hallows Triduum. Christ the King rules over us all: on Earth, in Heaven, and in Purgatory. To not pray this day – and every day, in fact – for the souls of the departed is to cut off the larger part of our Church not-yet in heaven. To limit our prayers to a few lucky stiffs who happen to be walking on the surface of this orb is to have a really tiny, tiny Church.

A Blessed Feast!

Per the Wiki: “For All the Saints” was written as a processional hymn by the Anglican Bishop of Wakefield, William Walsham How. The hymn was first printed in Hymns for Saints’ Days, and Other Hymns, by Earl Nelson, 1864.

NB: No one sings verses 3, 5, and 6 any more.

1. For all the saints, who from their labours rest,
Who Thee by faith before the world confessed,
Thy Name, O Jesus, be forever blessed.
Alleluia, Alleluia!
2. Thou wast their Rock, their Fortress and their Might;
Thou, Lord, their Captain in the well fought fight;
Thou, in the darkness drear, their one true Light.
Alleluia, Alleluia!
3. For the Apostles’ glorious company,
Who bearing forth the Cross o’er land and sea,
Shook all the mighty world, we sing to Thee:
Alleluia, Alleluia!
4. O may Thy soldiers, faithful, true and bold,
Fight as the saints who nobly fought of old,
And win with them the victor’s crown of gold.
Alleluia, Alleluia!
5. For the Evangelists, by whose blest word,
Like fourfold streams, the garden of the Lord,
Is fair and fruitful, be Thy Name adored.
Alleluia, Alleluia!
6. For Martyrs, who with rapture kindled eye,
Saw the bright crown descending from the sky,
And seeing, grasped it, Thee we glorify.
Alleluia, Alleluia!
7. O blest communion, fellowship divine!
We feebly struggle, they in glory shine;
Yet all are one in Thee, for all are Thine.
Alleluia, Alleluia!
8. And when the strife is fierce, the warfare long,
Steals on the ear the distant triumph song,
And hearts are brave, again, and arms are strong.
Alleluia, Alleluia!
9. The golden evening brightens in the west;
Soon, soon to faithful warriors comes their rest;
Sweet is the calm of paradise the blessed.
Alleluia, Alleluia!
10. But lo! there breaks a yet more glorious day;
The saints triumphant rise in bright array;
The King of glory passes on His way.
Alleluia, Alleluia!
11. From earth’s wide bounds, from ocean’s farthest coast,
Through gates of pearl streams in the countless host,
Singing to Father, Son and Holy Ghost:
Alleluia, Alleluia!

12b or Not 12b?

Revelation 7:2-4, 9-14
I John 3:1-3
Matthew 5:1-12a

For so they persecuted the prophets that were before you.
Matthew 5:12b

The Eastern Rite (both Orthodox and Byzantine Catholic) sings this Gospel passage – the Beatitudes – every week at Liturgy (at least in the Slavic traditions). That singing does not include the second part of verse 12. That part of the verse does not show up in any of the assigned readings in the traditional Byzantine lectionary. Likewise, neither the Gospel assigned for this feast of All Saints Day in the older, Extraordinary Form (the Latin Mass) nor the Gospel assigned for today in the Novus Ordo Mass include verse 12b. It would seem it’s never assigned to be read (although someone reading from a Bible, rather than a pre-printed text, might accidentally read to the end of the verse). I can’t find it in any of the traditional lectionaries, so I’m going to talk about it.

Please chew on it first: they persecuted the prophets that were before you. The “they” in that verse is other Jews. Israel enjoyed having prophets around – because, Hey, look! We have real prophets and you don’t! – but they never really liked listening to them. They killed them or drove them into exile. Even when they were around to rescue Israel from some bad folks, the Prophets got themselves killed when they started explaining why the bad folks were there in the first place.

The why was sin, mostly. All of Israel was involved in sin so God let bad stuff happen to them. The prophets said so, the response was “How dare he say that? Kill him!” Jesus basically says, “When things get really sucky, you know you’re doing something right because they did this to other folks whom I also called to speak up in my name.”

I have no doubt that nonbelievers do and will continue to persecute believers, but “so persecuted they” with  “they” meaning other Jews seems to read to me like a prophecy that some, at least, of the coming persecutions will come from people who wear the name of “Christian” at least in the eyes of the world.

There are Church people out there who think that “Christian” means doing what a “good” gov’t says. (That is defined as “agrees with me”.) Christians in England met a lot of persecution from politically-active Church people. The Queen, herself, was a nice Church Girl, of course, but she killed faithful Christians at the drop of a feather, making holy and pious martyrs out of some of the best minds in her country. She even killed one of my ancestors. An icon of the 40 Martyrs of England, slain by that nice Church Girl, is at the head of this post. (There is an excellent fictionalized account of this period written by another convert to Catholic Church, Robert Hugh Benson, called Come Rack, Come Rope.)

There are people out there who think Christianity is about being nice and giving social services, not about getting saved and certainly not about contravening prevailing misunderstandings of humanity or sexuality. These are not Christians, properly understood, but they are Church people. They are quite happy to ditch the rest of us if they can have their pretty music and their nice buildings. One Anti-Christian Church Girl spent a lot of her denomination’s money filing lawsuits against Christians. It came as quite a shock to Christians how willing she was to punish them. They never read 12b, I think.

Countries behind the Iron Curtain gave us millions of martyrs in the last century (Orate Pro Nobis!) but they, as it were, saw it coming.  We’re blind to the fact that we’re surrounded by people who want to use the “How to Boil a Toad” method of killing the Church. Some of them are just being anti-Christian, but a good few are sitting in the church down the road preaching a different gospel. They just imagine they have it right, finally, after 2000 years of error. The rest of us need “reeducation”. They don’t know that trying to kill the Church is how you make it grow, but that doesn’t do us much good in the short term. Boiling is still boiling. We’re not in a place to fight back: turning the other cheek and all that. We may be called to be the blood of martyrs watering the seed of the Church. But if we’ve never read 12b it’s a surprise. I afraid we’ll all chicken out. Some folks seem to think one candidate for president will be worse, in this regard, than the other. But I think not, I think both could be rather nightmarish to their “not-supporters”. Both, it is to be noted, are Nice Church People.

On All Saints Day, it helps to remember how we got the feast: the Church realized there were so many martyrs that she couldn’t celebrate them all properly. To be honest, your host thinks the Martyrs of England, slain by a nice Church Girl, may be our proper model be the reader Roman Catholic, Orthodox, or elsewise. I think they may even be pertinent for some Muslims, Jews and other religious folks. I say this regardless of who gets elected: because regardless of who gets elected, the Gov’t wins. The Gov’t over the last 50 years has been taking power to itself not granted by the Constitution and using that power against decent, God-fearing people. It has done this regardless of who gets elected, regardless of their state policy. When it all crystallizes, it won’t be pretty regardless of who is in power.

We may (or may not) be about to enter a new growth spurt, if you will. Do everything else in the Gospel, but read 12b. Make wise choices and don’t be surprised.

Holy Martyrs of England and Wales, pray to God for us!

Source for the painting at the top and this key:

They maintain the fabric of the world

The wisdom of the scribe depends on the opportunity of leisure; only the one who has little business can become wise. How can one become wise who handles the plough, and who glories in the shaft of a goad, who drives oxen and is occupied with their work, and whose talk is about bulls?

He sets his heart on ploughing furrows, and he is careful about fodder for the heifers. So it is with every artisan and master artisan who labours by night as well as by day; those who cut the signets of seals, each is diligent in making a great variety; they set their heart on painting a lifelike image, and they are careful to finish their work. So it is with the smith, sitting by the anvil, intent on his ironwork; the breath of the fire melts his flesh, and he struggles with the heat of the furnace; the sound of the hammer deafens his ears, and his eyes are on the pattern of the object. He sets his heart on finishing his handiwork, and he is careful to complete its decoration. So it is with is the potter sitting at his work and turning the wheel with his feet; he is always deeply concerned over his products, and he produces them in quantity. He moulds the clay with his arm and makes it pliable with his feet; he sets his heart on finishing the glazing, and he takes care in firing the kiln. All these rely on their hands, and all are skilful in their own work. Without them no city can be inhabited, and wherever they live, they will not go hungry. Yet they are not sought out for the council of the people, nor do they attain eminence in the public assembly. They do not sit in the judge’s seat, nor do they understand the decisions of the courts; they cannot expound discipline or judgement, and they are not found among the rulers. But they maintain the fabric of the world, and their concern is for the exercise of their trade.

– Ben Sirach 38:24-38