So then you are no longer strangers and sojourners…
I move a lot. At fifty-plus, I’ve still never been in the same place for more than 4 Christmases. It’s not like I don’t try: but life in the lower-middle class (or upper lower-class, whatever) is lived from paycheck to paycheck. My last layoff left me stranded in the middle of one of the most expensive cities in America. My only defense was more mobility. That is one thing I can do. I’ve been doing it since I was born: never spending too much time in one place was a skill my mother learned from her father, the train-riding hobo. Mom and Dad were both in the Air Force: moving was a given.
Someone coming from outside to “here” for the first time or recently is a stranger. We’ve never met him before and he smells funny. Someone who has been around for a while – but ain’t from here – is a sojourner. You can be a sojourner for a lot of time if you’re in a small town. In a big city it won’t take as long before you “become” a native. In and after college, I lived in NYC for 12 years, with 8 different addresses. At the point when I had been in SF for the same amount of time (with 9 different addresses) I began to feel sort of like an SFer. SF, however, is very different than a small town in Alabama. In the latter they will know – nearly forever – that you’re not from there: you stay a Sojourner all your life. At your requiem, the old ladies will say, “He was nearly like one of us, weren’t he?” In SF, a new generation of newbies shows up every couple of years. You’re the relative native in no time at all.
A friend of mine, who was an Episcopal Priest, once said he had gotten use to the idea there was no home for him in this world. I am with him on this – based only on my moving experience, although San Francisco and Asheville, NC, feel most like home to me. (If you ask me, yes, generally I feel rather sympathetic to refugees of any sort or condition.)
The Church, says St Paul, is rather more like San Francisco than that small town in Alabama. One might be a neophyte, still learning things, but from the mystery of Baptism, one already stands at the the One Table of our One Lord, Jesus, both God and Man, surrounded by Patriarchs, Prophets, and the Pious of all ages, especially the Most Blessed, Ever Glorious, and All Holy Virgin Mary. We are all in it, together. We don’t get to say, “You’re not good enough because you came from some other place.” We don’t get to say “you can’t pray in that language” and we don’t get to confuse our country – the “Holy” Mother or “Holy” Father Land – with the kingdom of God and thus make other countries into something less than our “holy” place.
The Apostles (today we remember, especially, St Simon and St Jude) came from one, tiny place and went all over the world. Wherever they went, they had to create/plant/bring Church with the Eucharist, the Apostolic succession and teaching. Whenever Christians came together at the table of the Lord, they were Home.
That is how it is for us – or it should be. We’ve got some growing up to do: when a headline reads “to understand our country, you must look at our church” and then spends pages of space discussing the political situation – with nothing about Jesus at all – you know you’re in the wrong place. It can’t be church married to the politics like that. It’s just an arm of the state. Is outrage! And anyone who has visited such a place knows that the “natives” make all the strangers learn to be natives, not of the Kingdom of God but of that earthly “holy” mother, that sojourners must grow to pretend to be natives looking down on others, and people confuse working out their salvation with dressing up in folk costumes for the highest holy day of the year: the annual Parish Food Festival.
In the world we are strangers to each other. In the Table Fellowship of God we are fellow-citizens: that makes us brothers and sisters to each other and, in the world, we are only Sojourners, now. We’re just here, just passing through.
Come home. Time to leave the childish foolishness of the world behind and go to Church.
For we are not contending against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places.
The readings from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians this week have seemed to confirm a lot of social norms. I hope my postings from the last couple of days have showed otherwise: God wants us to be like leaven, making little changes here and there, taking what is good, moving forward. Paul didn’t want to overthrow all of the culture of Rome: yes there were some things wrong with it, but Paul didn’t blame the Romans for that problem. In fact, over and over, the Apostles and the tradition of the Church seems to say mankind would have been ok, prepped for the Gospel “with the law written in our hearts”, but for one thing: demons. There is no god, Zeus, but there is a demon that has made us imagine that deity. There is no goddess commanding sexual immorality as her worship, but there are evil spirits doing so.
We wrestle not with flesh and blood, with the person, the icon of God standing in front of us, rather we approach them with mercy. Pope Francis has named this the Jubilee Year of Mercy for the Roman Catholic Church, but God’s mercy is not limited to one year only, nor is it a special project needed only in the Catholic Church. We all need to be reminded of God’s mercy. The person you see attacking you is not the source of the attack. We should not be moved into a defensive posture – Jesus is our armor and he has already won the battle! Rather we should be moved by pity for this person who is being spurred by the demons like a horse by a vicious rider. It matters not if the attack is from courts, various sexual errors, or being yelled by “radical atheists”. The party in front of you is only a tool: not the source. Inside their soul is being killed too – just as yours is if you are moved by anger.
When we realize that the attack coming at us is not coming from this person here and now, but from demons who have deluded that person into saying or doing things, then we can be open to show God’s mercy and win a new brother or sister from the demons. Attacking other humans is right out. We do not wrestle with flesh and blood. It’s the spiritual powers that we’re fighting. These are not destroyed by logical argument or by yelling and screaming. You do not win fights with demons by posts on Facebook or angry tweet storms: but you can drive away a person God has given you to love. We need to woo our human brothers and sisters away from the demons. This may be by steps in a logical argument, or by emotions. Bishop Robert Barron says to show them the Beautiful parts of our faith and let them fall in love – we can get the teaching and morality later. This is, I think, St Paul’s teaching as well.
This verse has been on my mind a lot lately and here it comes up in the daily lections for mass. Why, you might ask, has this verse been on my mind? This seems even more important to say as the election is looming up in front of us. Even the candidate of the “other side” is a human being created in God’s image. How much more so his or her supporters who disagree with you on every side, who call you names, who even question your faith because of your political choices. At the end of the day, only the demons will profit from two persons, created in God’s image, having a huge fight in person or on line. But if you bring that person into a healed communion with you, in Jesus’ name, then you have gained a brother, and saved his soul and yours.
Slaves, be obedient to those who are your earthly masters, with fear and trembling, in singleness of heart, as to Christ.
This is one of those hard places in the Church’s tradition. In fact this whole chapter from Ephesians is – yesterday I totally ignored the obvious “Wives submit yourselves to your husbands” on purpose. I wanted to come to this verse where Paul, to modern eyes, says “there’s nothing wrong with slavery” and that very point has been taken by both Abolitionists and slaveholders.
And they’re both wrong.
Paul is talking to a small sect of specific persons – what you think? Maybe 30,000 in all the empire? This is not a revolution, yes. This is brewing one. As with marriage – in fact, as with most of Roman Culture he encounters – Paul is subverting it but not, yet, overthrowing it. He’s making sacraments out of the whole thing so it can be changed.
Paul has come across a social custom – slavery – about which we can guess his attitude (see the entire epistle of Philemon) and he has this problem. The first Christian in a house may be slave or free, male or female, young or old. Paul wants the entire household to come into the Church but he knows if he sends someone back preaching revolution there’s just going to be a lot of slammed doors. In fact, even after the whole family converts (see Philemon, again) revolution won’t happen instantly. It takes a long while for Christians to grow into the fullness of the Kingdom and even then it will only be “as far as they can bear it” because individual humans can only get so far in this life. So: slow and steady wins the race.
Paul started this train of thought in Chapter 5, verse 21. “Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ.” And then he begins to speak in culturally appropriate ways not as commands but as examples… Wives obey your husbands. Husbands reverence your wives, children obey your parents and respect your elders, parents don’t abuse your children, and today’s lines, slaves obey your masters and masters do the same to them (verse 9 – and also, again, 5:21). It’s important to realize that, in Church, it could be the slave that was the priest – or even the Bishop. No matter who they are in the world, at the table of the Lord, they are all in it together.
Have you ever read CS Lewis’ Space Trilogy? I’m thinking especially of of the third book, That Hideous Strength just now. There’s a character, Mrs Ivy Maggs, who is a housemaid. At the beginning of the book, in fact, she’s cleaning the house of the Heroine. As the plot develops (no spoilers), Mrs Maggs becomes quite important and, because of her developing Christian faith, the Heroine must learn that it is quite possible for a housemaid to also be one’s equal, one’s superior and, one’s friend, and finally one’s sister, all the while still being a housemaid.
Paul is walking the Church at Ephesus through this process. We only get one snapshot, but we see him doing the same thing in other places, other epistles. Paul is using if you will, Identity Sacramentalism: each person’s cultural identity – slave, wife, children, etc – becomes a teaching sacrament aimed at the powerful. This is possible because, in Christ, each person is an icon of God. How do you paint the icon of God as a slave? How as a housemaid?
The question is how to apply it now, today? It’s 100% true that mutual obedience is still the path of Christian virtue. Self-will leads only to one place…
We live in a world of “Demand Your Rights” and “Overthrow the Oppressors!” “Eat the Rich!” “Not in my backyard!” “We are the 99%!” Paul’s solution to this problem is evangelism. As the Tao te Ching says, “Water flows to the lowest place and fills up the valley”. By being the lowest we conquer. No protests, no revolutions, no overthrow. But subversion.
And self-will is not that. Decidedly not that.
The Kingdom of God is like leaven which a woman took and hid in three measures of flour, till it was all leavened.
I heard a preacher once get this horribly wrong. I knew he wasn’t a baker as a result of hearing his take on this. He pointed out that in those days “leaven” wasn’t powdered yeast like we buy in the store. It was a moist goop that you saved for ever because you might not be able to get more – and your family needed bread daily. So you needed leaven daily. His theory was that this woman had used up all her yeast on these three measures of flour and the point of the parable was how extravagant God is. But any baker knows this is exactly what you do with traditional leaven – what we would call sourdough today: you pour it all in… you stir it up and you let it rise… then you take a pinch of the dough and set it aside as the leaven for tomorrow. (You don’t use just a pinch of the old leaven to start a new loaf because all of the leaven needs to be “fed” as it is call, to keep it burping away. Once the whole loaf is active, then you set aside a cup or so for tomorrow)
That’s what the Kingdom of God is like.
A little leaven is all it takes to “leaven the whole lump” as St Paul says in Galatians. Remember Jesus is talking to 12 guys on a dirty road one day, or, maybe, a couple hundred in a field one day and pops off with some version of “We’re going to change everything”. It went from 12 guys to billions and billions of people throughout history. In the first 300 years it took over essentially the known world. In the next 800 years, nearly everything. It went from being something know one ever heard of to being the thing everyone had to respond to – either yes or no.
I’m not here to debate the content of the truth: but rather to note it’s like a little yeast. You’re still free to say no…
But the bread is rising.
Once upon a time there was essentially only one Christian in all of the East – and he had to run away and hide in the Roman west: heretics had taken over and everyone was killing the orthodox Christians. The last one – Maximus the Confessor – by his death, saved the Catholic Faith in the east. All it takes is a little leaven. Ireland was converted entirely without bloodshed by faithful missionaries: a little leaven. St Raphael of Brooklyn travelled the width of the country (by train) several times, teaching the faithful and encouraging them to pray in their homes and keep the traditions. A little leaven.The Russian sea chaplains that visited the Russians in San Francisco and gave them the Sacraments created from their ships and created the Oldest Orthodox Community in the lower 48 – a Little Leaven. Benedict XVI made explicit the existing permission to use the traditional Latin Mass to the entire Catholic church and began a huge outreach that has even affected the Ordinary Form of the Roman Rite with the “Reform of the Reform” – a little leaven. Mother St Teresa, Dorothy Day, Blessed Cardinal Newman. All just a little leaven.
One traditional prayer for the morning asks God to use me to bless each person I come in contact with throughout the day, “whether through the word I speak, the prayer I breath, or the life I live.” We can be leaven in so many ways.
It only takes a little – and the whole lump will rise.
You, what are you doing? It only takes a little.
Let there be no filthiness, nor silly talk, nor levity, which are not fitting; but instead let there be thanksgiving.
This is so very hard for me. Moving away from the secular world into the Christian one, one realizes how much of modern, secular culture is predicated on sexual content. We can make some obvious comment here about “adult” entertainment, freely available on the internet, if you wish. But that is only a symptom. It’s all-pervasive hypersexualism.
Paul seems to indicate that it was present in Ephesus in the first century and that the Resurrected Christ called people out of that. How do we live into this new method of communication?
So, I find myself in conversations where I want to drop an F bomb, as the saying goes, and I have to stop. I catch myself nearly using a sexual innuendo or tossing out a sex-ladened joke, even one that is clean.
I watched a “Christian Comedian” the other day who – without using one bad word all night – carried on contrary to the Apostle’s counsel for nearly two hours, with evangelicals laughing. When he grabbed on to some man’s bicep and started to comment about how big it was I nearly lost it because come on… are we all so desirous to blend in that we don’t care even if it’s homoerotic humor? We can be just like you heathens… but we do it for Jesus. Paul says, “No, you don’t.” Paul wants all that humor and levity and coarseness and filthiness to be replaced with thanksgiving. Now, I confess I got no idea what means.
In the South we don’t gossip: we offer prayer requests: “Samantha, I need you to pray for my friend Louis, bless his heart. His wife has been dating the butcher and Louis just found out. His kids are all still in the house and Louis has found out that all them are really the Butcher’s too, and he’s been loving on them for 15 years, the oldest one, and youngest one just last year. And, dear Jesus, you’d think he might have known something with all their red hair, but his Daddy’s Momma had red hair so he thought was just in the family. So she done kicked him out of the house and the butcher’s moved in and Louis is staying with my wife and me, Jesus help him. ” And I can imagine St Paul’s advice here would be applied with equal gusto, “Lord I thank you that she is so hot…” Of course all that is levity and silly talk. And I can’t seem to help myself either.
I love the quote above – that swearing is just “peppercorn rent” to the devil who is really in charge. How do we move away?
But I’m working hard at getting the sex talk out: what’s so frustrating is, being aware, how common it is, how many times you have to say “not going to say that” or “just going to ignore that”. It happens at business meetings, on the bus, in church (both in the first and second person). I have a good friend who gets a seriously pained look on his face when it comes up at Church and I find myself taking comfort in his look, because at least one other person hears what I hear.
Can we step away from the sex talk? Or the use of irony and sarcasm? Can we stop the making fun of, and the verbal abuse of others at least in the first person? Can I?