Solidarity and the paschal mystery...

One of the things I treasure about being alive at this moment in time
involves letting go. Richard Rohr has written extensively about the upside wisdom of "falling down in order to be raised up." It is the counter-cultural understanding that acceptance of the world as it is - even as we move towards the world as it could be - is essential for peace-making. Unless we have made peace with reality - starting with ourselves - we can never be honest or compassionate agents for the peace we hope to share with others. Like Jesus makes clear in Matthew 25, loving the least of these our sisters and brothers - the naked, the hungry, the frightened and imprisoned ones - includes those broken, naked and frightened parts of ourselves, too. 

Twenty years ago I was told that this wisdom is called "the Paschal Mystery" of the Christian tradition. Sadly, very few progressive Protestants grasp it - and even fewer know about it. When we abandoned a sacramental worldview after the Protestant Reformation, we lost touch with what it means for the "word to become flesh within and among us." Consequently, we have become addicted to the realm of abstractions and ideas . And this is disastrous when it comes to embodying the Cross of our Lord. Too often we treat the Triduum as an ancient event frozen in time rather than a pathway into spiritual transformation. We favor highly stylized and emotional Maundy Thursday Tenebrae gatherings that casts our gaze backwards. We skip any observance of Good Friday totally and avoid Holy Saturday (where according to the creeds Jesus descends into hell to set us free from the past) altogether.
Such liturgical immaturity drives me crazy, but I see practical problems appearing in the social justice work born of our truncated worship. Over and over our peace and justice pronouncements strike me as an exhausting combination of middle class privilege mixed with naivete and arrogance. Small wonder that I can only think of the words from Macbeth about: a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more. It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. 

Truth be told, I am no longer able to listen to or read most of the liberal Christian calls for social action: they seem to be chest-beating acts of self-righteous fury that change nothing rather than sacrificial acts of compassion and solidarity that might actual offer a measure of healing to a broken world. And I think a big reason for our ineffective blathering is intimately connected to our ignorance of the Paschal Mystery. There is a rhythm to earning trust, there is a pathway that points us towards compassionate wisdom and it has nothing to do with pontificating from the comfort of our warm homes. Rather, the way of the Cross calls us to give up our privilege. At times our bourgeois dispensations can only be stripped away by circumstances beyond our control so that we are awakened to reality by humility. Other times, to paraphrase the acerbic words of Dorothee Soelle: white, middle class folk must engage in "class (or race or gender) suicide." That is, we must willingly cast our lot with the wounded in acts of solidarity that cost us something. And this is always born first through listening, waiting and following as servants rather than shouting, acting or leading.

Earlier this week, Fr. Rohr put it like this:
Jesus is very patient with his disciples, which is good news for all of us. We also have a hard time understanding the "paschal mystery," which is indeed a deep mystery--that the way up is the way down. The way Jesus leads and teaches is not the way we usually want to go. Let's be completely honest about that. Hardly anyone goes willingly. It is often done unto us.
Right after Jesus told the disciples a second time that "The son of man is going to be delivered into the hands of people who will put him to death. But three days after he is killed, he will rise" (Mark 9:31), the disciples start "arguing about which of them was the most important." (You might laugh or cry at how the disciples miss the point.) So Jesus sat down, called the twelve around him, and explained, "Anyone who wants to be the most important has to be the least important--the servant of all the others" (Mark 9:34-35). Just like the Twelve, we usually want to be on top, but Jesus calls us to be free and happy at the bottom. We all want to be the boss, but he tells us to be servants.

A third time, as Jesus and the disciples were heading for Jerusalem, Jesus again explained how he will suffer, die, and rise (Mark 10:33-34). Yet how did the disciples respond? James and John asked if they could sit in glory at his side when he established the messianic kingdom (Mark 10:35-37). You can almost hear the sigh and sadness in the depths of Jesus' heart when he heard their request. He turned to them and said: "You do not know what you are asking. Can you drink the cup that I will drink, or be immersed in the same bath that I will be immersed in?" (Mark 10:38). Jesus was trying to bring them back to reality, the inevitable reality of any human life.

The other disciples became indignant when they heard what James and John were asking. Once again Jesus had to explain to them: "You know how the so-called rulers of nations like to lord it over the people? And how those at the top like to make their authority felt? Well, with you it has to be different. If you want to be important, serve others. The son of man himself did not come to be served but to serve, to give his life so that everyone might be set free" (Mark 10:42-45). Jesus offered the world a new pattern of power and leadership, which few in church or state have ever really agreed with.

If only the Church had shared Jesus' bias toward the bottom the past two thousand years! If only we had seriously believed him, how much sooner we would have seen the coming of peace and justice on this earth. If only we had truly listened to the Gospel, how differently Western history would have unfolded. Instead, we have made easy and happy friends with power, prestige, perks, and possessions--even in the name of God and the Church.

My mentor in ministry, Ray Swartzback, once told me that white, middle class, straight male pastors had to regularly learn to let go of our privilege if we were ever to be soldiers in the army of Christ's peace. We had to become allies through solidarity. We had to earn our street cred by serving rather than speaking and sharing instead of controlling. There is a place for us in the struggle for peace and justice, he continued, but it never begins as the leader. In my message this morning, I recalled the sermon Swartzback preached on the occasion of my ordination: "Trapped in the Trappings." 

In essence Ray first retold the back story to the verse in John's gospel: “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert” and then made it real for my ministry. There are two parts to the back story – do you know them? Part One comes from Torah – the book of Numbers – where after leading his people out of their oppression in Egypt – out of their chains and their suffering and into the desert in search of the Promised Land – Moses is besieged with complaints: why did we ever leave Egypt? We don’t have enough food to eat here – we don’t have any entertainment – the sleeping in the desert is a drag – are we there yet? Why don’t we turn around and give up on this loser Moses?

The text goes on to say – and Ray reminded us all that preachers love the next part of the story – that after a spell of listening to the complaints the people had against both Moses and God, the Lord sent a slew of fiery serpents into their midst who not only bit the complainers but killed many of them, too. And Moses let it happen – he wasn't terribly upset to see some of his biggest complainers return home earlier than others – so he doesn't intervene with the Lord until the people are sick and tired of being bitten by the snakes and dying.

Finally, in prayer the Lord instructs Moses to take one of the serpents and cast it in bronze, set it on a pole as a reminder of the choice we must make between life and death, and hold it up in the air so that all who look upon it will be saved.  He did and it helped them make it through the desert and eventually into the Promised Land we know as Israel.

That’s the first part of the story and I still love it – but it doesn't end there. The image of the bronze serpent returns in the book of II Kings where Israel’s young King Hezekiah – legend suggests 1000 years after Moses – smashes the bronze serpent because it has now become an idol. It is “neshutan” – a thing of brass – a religious symbol that once had been salvific, but had now become superstitious. Do you know anything about King Hezekiah? 

He was one of Israel’s great reformers.  History tells us he was the 13th king of Israel who rediscovered Torah – the books of Moses – after they had been lost and discarded somewhere in the Temple. When he found them, he instituted a dramatic reform of worship, repairing the Temple that had fallen into disrepair and casting out all the idols and superstitious tradition that had built up over time – including smashing the bronze serpent. Do you see where the arc of this story is going? The bronze serpent started as a blessing that saved lives, but without care and intentionality it fell into the realm of empty practice – Neshutan – a thing of brass that had to be smashed.

After a pregnant pause in that old sermon, Swartzy said, “Lumsden, there are still a lot of things that have become neshutan in the church – and they still need to be smashed – so be careful that YOU do not become trapped in the trappings of ministry. Those things will give you the illusion that you are doing something of value, but they will be a lie."

33+ years later I am still trying to figure out the implications of that sermon - it has continued to change my life over and over. And one of the ways has to do with resisting the trap of the trappings. The way I see it, if the body of Christ isn't organizing for justice in solidarity with broken people, if it is just sounding off in the belief that somebody cares about our words without our embodied and sacrificial deeds, it is a waste of time. The older I get, the smarter St. Paul becomes:

If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast,but do not have love, I gain nothing. Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth.It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end.For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. For now we see in a mirror, dimly but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.



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