You fool!

The setting

They are gathering on the plain that stretches out before Jesus. The crowds are increasingly drawn by his teachings and healings. Jesus’ teaching on prayer is concise, yet monumental in its implications see last week’s blog entry  When you Pray. Jesus now begins casting out demons and makes a series of striking denunciations. He denounces those who follow the letter of the Law while remaining unchanged by its spirit. He denounces the crowd’s fear of physical violence and death, being hauled before judges and tribunals, telling them that these are not the things to be most afraid of. What they should fear are the compromises that slip easily into their lives and that are capable of separating them from God.

This is heavy-duty teaching and Jesus is in full flow when some idiot, taking advantage of a lull in Jesus’ tempo pipes up and asks Jesus to settle an inheritance dispute with his brother. Can you sense Jesus taking a double take for a moment? I have a picture of Jesus turning toward the direction of the voice, and saying to this guy: what’d you just say? Have you not heard anything I have been saying? Do we not hear just a hint of facetiousness in Jesus’ response when he continues: friend, who set me to be judge or arbitrator over you? He now warns the crowd to take care lest they confuse material possessions with the abundance of life. He follows up with a parable, a story with a sting in its tail.

The farmer and his barns

The parable about the farmer who builds larger barns to store his bumper harvest before settling down to a life of ease and security has often been interpreted as a teaching against the folly of accumulating wealth. In this vein, John Wesley is reputed to have said:

When I have money, I get rid of it quickly, lest it find a way into my heart. 

It is a mistake to confuse material prosperity for the signs of an abundance of life. It’s a common mistake as confirmed by the pervasiveness of wealth righteousness in popular American religion, and the frantic and unsatisfying futility of materialism in the wider secular culture. Yet, Jesus is asking the deep question of the spiritual life a question which David Lose poses thus:[1]

Is our material abundance sufficient to meet the weight of meaning, significance, and joy that we seek? 

The parable about the farmer and his barns echoes Jesus’ encounter with the rich young man, in Mark’s Gospel. More problematic than confusing wealth accumulation with the abundance of life, it is a reliance on one’s own self-sufficiency that constitutes the most serious roadblock along the spiritual path.

The parable about the farmer and his barns could be read as simply an example of good husbandry. Is this not the very thing Joseph did in preparation against the arrival of famine in the land of Egypt? But note the final lines in verses 20-21:

You fool! This very night you life will be demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?

It’s clear that Jesus is talking here about the illusion of self-sufficiency as the fatal foolishness in of the spiritual life. For:

So it is for those who store up treasure for themselves but are not rich toward God. 

Why is self-sufficiency – after all a core value in our culture – the ultimate foolishness in the spiritual life? We need to make some distinctions to unravel the answer to this question.

An important distinction

Our culture values personal responsibility, individual ingenuity and skill, along with the rewarding of enterprise and effort. Yet none of these qualities can flourish in isolation from an individual’s membership of community. No one can claim to be self-made. Individuals flourish on the back of community infrastructure and social stability. A baseline of social capital is always required in the forms of education, physical infrastructure supported by taxation, law and order, a stable and functioning rule of law, and the opportunities afforded by freedom of choice. The key definition of an idolatry is the replacing of God with another source for ultimate significance. It is when these values and virtues degenerate into an idolatry of self-sufficiency that the problem Jesus is addressing arises.

The problem for the farmer was that he lacked gratitude to God for the bumper nature of his harvest and he was oblivious to the key requirement of gratitude, which is to live generously. He believed it was all about him. This is a man isolated in his narcissism.

The N word again!

It’s not all about you! There is no more humiliating put-down than this. We all understand narcissism intuitively if not psychologically. I believe that one of the corrosive hallmarks of our contemporary society is the prevalence of a collective narcissism. We are mesmerized by the creed of celebrity. We are drawn to the demagogues who paradoxically allay our fears by making us more afraid. We applaud the politicians who speak to our frustrations by claiming to have the power to deliver the undeliverable.

In a time of change, our desire for certainty becomes reminiscent of that passage in Alice in Wonderland, where, in a conversation with the Red Queen Alice laughs exclaiming that one can’t believe impossible things. To which the Queen replied:

I dare say you haven’t had much practice. When I was your age I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes  I believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.

Everywhere we encounter the message – you can be, you can have, it’s all because of you, it’s all up to you! When religion adopts this message we easily fall for the illusion that we are the authors of our own salvation. Salvation is God’s gift and it is offered not to us as narcissistic individuals but to us through our membership of the community that is saved. We say Sunday by Sunday: we are the Body of Christ, never, I am the Body of Christ. Remember there is no such thing as one Christian.

We are all aware of the form of narcissism expressed by an individual engorged and enthralled by their grossly inflated sense of self. This is the easy form to spot. More tricky, because it’s more intimate, is the form of narcissism that is an expression of fear, turning us into people who never take risks, who hunker down in our self-protected and defended bunkers, who settle for lives lived within only that which is knowable and predictable where everything becomes only about us.

Self-sufficiency equals security. The illusion that we need no one else, that we alone can take care of ourselves, provides some sense of being in control. However, when we are in control that means that God is shut out from our lives. If we are in control, what need have we for God? If God is present at all, it’s a God of our own imagining, a God who is concerned only with me.

Jesus poses a question at the heart of the parable of the farmer and his barns. When we confuse material possessions for the life of abundance, is our narcissistic illusion of our own self-sufficiency capable of delivering the meaning, significance, and joy that we seek?

When surveyed on the significance of their lives many report three regrets:

  1. They wish they had been more loving.
  2. They wish they had taken more risks.
  3. They wish they could have made a greater contribution that will continue after their death.

Jesus says: you fool! Unless you live life generously now, it will be too late when you are dead.

[1]  David Lose in his Commentary on Luke 12:13-21, in Working Preacher August 1st, 2010.

When you pray say this


In the Eucharist, the Book of Common Prayer begins the Lord’s Prayer with the following words:

As our Savior Christ has commanded and taught us, we are bold to say “Our Father”.

It’s easy to read the tone of this as a command, an exhortation to obedience. Yet, taken within a wider context it’s really an invitation, although a rather formal sounding one.

We are being invited to pray as Jesus himself prayed. In giving his disciples this simple form of prayer Jesus invites them into a different kind of relationship with God, the kind of relationship that he enjoyed with God. In short, the Lord’s Prayer is Jesus invitation for us to model our relationship with God on the relationship he shows himself enjoying with God. Through the Lord’s Prayer we are being invited into the life of the Divine Community of the Lover, the Beloved, and the Lovesharer.

Intimacy -Father/Our Father

Our granddaughter Claire will be 11-years old on the 15th of August. When she was younger, she often referred to her father not simply as daddy, but my daddy.  Hearing Claire utter the words my daddy, produced in me a kind of melting sensation; a sensation carrying the strongest intimations of warmth and intimacy, born of trust and an unquestioning presumption of safety. When Jesus told his disciples: when you pray, say Abba; is my melting experience what Jesus had in mind? Abba most directly translates in English not as father but as daddy or the more adult friendly  papa.  Yet, even when I address God as papa let alone daddy, why is it so hard for me to capture the experience I glimpse that Claire has in relation to her daddy?

This intimation of warmth and the intimacy can only arise from a sense of unquestioned trust and safety. This is the experience Jesus clearly had in mind when he told his disciples: when you pray, say Abba, hallowed be your name.  Like nearly everything Jesus said to his disciples, this would have provoked in them the error message of this does not compute.  Intimacy, affection, and unquestioning trust were not expectations they had when addressing God. For them, God was the God-of-our Fathers, the Creator of the universe. 2,000 years separate us, and yet we are not so different from them in our expectations when addressing God in prayer.

Paradoxically, I feel more comfortable with a little distance between God and me. Temperamentally, I am more comfortable addressing God as our Father, rather than as my Papa and to be truthful, Papa leaves me feeling a little silly. Maybe that’s because I am an Episcopalian? There is something in our religious DNA the balks at too much intimacy. It’s our Cranmerian legacy, the courtier bishop Thomas Cramer addressing God in the BCP in the same tones he approached Henry VIII. How can you hallow, which means to honor and respect as holy the name of God, if you call God daddy?  This quality of intimacy is the very thing our parched souls cry out for? It is this quality of love and trust that Jesus shockingly holds out to us as the fruit of prayer that always begins with, My Papa- holy is your name.

Vision – Your Kingdom come – your will be done

Jesus believed himself to be the embodiment of God’s in-breaking kingdom. In his first teaching in the synagogue at Nazareth recorded in Luke 4:18 he proclaims the vision of Isaiah and tells them that: 

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor; he has sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised, … 

The notion of the in-breaking of the kingdom plays havoc with our sense of time, for it is both now and yet also something yet to come. We are all acutely aware from the evidence around us that in so many ways our world is still waiting for this vision to become a reality. When we pray these words we recognize that in Jesus the Kingdom of God, the age-old dream of the prophets of Israel, is already inaugurated, yet not fulfilled. Our task as Christians is to fight for the kingdom’s fulfillment in our own time and place as we pray: your kingdom come, you will be done on earth, dear Lord.

Confidence – Give us today our daily bread

In the time-span between the inauguration and fulfillment of the kingdom, we journey through a wilderness where there is no sustenance apart from what God gives us. Our Christian life unfolds within the New Exodus experience, evoking the memory of the Israelite’s dependency on the manna God provided in the wilderness of Sinai. Give us today our daily bread becomes both a personal and social request as we pray that we will receive that which is sufficient for our needs. For it is together we journey towards the Promised Land. In the wilderness, we pray give us not me that which is necessary unto this day. The potency of this request lies in the fact that it is intrinsically an inclusive one.

The rub – Forgive us our debts/sins as we forgive others….

Healthy societies need a periodic social reset. We feel ourselves today catapulting into the unpredictable because we have no ready to hand mechanism for social reset. In forgive us our debts as we forgive others …, we hear Jesus echoing the Jewish concept of the Jubilee, the year in which all debts were canceled. The English translators chose to use the word trespasses here. I find this very helpful because the definition of trespass is to find oneself where we have no right to be. In our relationships, we encroach upon one another and structure our social and personal relationships as instruments of self-assertion. Holding others in our debt and being in debt to others in relational terms, is a gross example of trespass. Jesus is inviting us to enter into an experience of the relationship he enjoys with God. His invitation is predicated on God’s prior forgiveness. Being forgiven requires us to also be forgiving.

Endurance – Lead us not into Temptation, but deliver us from the Evil One

What is the temptation here and who tempts whom? A traditional reading is that it’s God who tempts us as a way of testing our resolve and capacity for endurance. However, it’s not from the time of trial sustain us, but in the time of trial sustain us, good Lord. In last Wednesday’s daily E-message Obedience –Brother Give Us A Word, Br. David Vryhof SSJE noted:

There are times when the path to which God calls us leads us into trouble or difficulty. Being faithful to that path, being obedient to that call, can prove to be very costly. We have only to recall Christ’s agony in Gethsemane to know that this was true for Jesus, and he assures us that it will also be true for many of those who choose to embrace and follow him on the way. 

The temptation to take the line of least resistance is a continual danger for us as we work for the realization of the kingdom in our own contexts.  Whether we locate the source of evil in a being – the Devil, or in a collective malignancy that thrives in what Augustine called a privation of good, evil’s continual attack is real. We must always be mindful that the conditions that allow evil to thrive require only that good people do nothing.

Parables of prayer

Jesus does not simply hand his disciples a form of words. He demonstrates what the praying of the words involves in the three parables that follow his giving this prayer.

In the story of the man waking his neighbor at midnight for three loaves of bread, we can note a startling characteristic of Jesus’ attitude to prayer. The request for three loaves is an excessive request given that bread was baked fresh each morning and not kept longer than the day of baking. No one would have at midnight that much bread left over from the day. Therefore, we note that prayer involves the audacity of asking for a lot rather than a little.

We are told that his neighbor gives-in to his insistence not because he pities the man or feels generous, but because of the man’s anaideia mistranslated into English as perseverance. Yet, perseverance is not the meaning of anaideia. The correct English translation is not perseverance but as shamelessness, as to not care what anyone thinks of our behavior. Prayer involves abandoning our cherished self-respect and exposing ourselves to the shame of wanting and longing. For us, it’s a shameful thing to be at the mercy of our longing and a fearful thing to risk the humiliation of exposing our neediness to another. In our prayer with God, we must be audacious, impudent, and also beyond shame in our expression of our need of God.  

When we pray in the only words Jesus has given us to pray we become audacious and shameless, reveling in the intimacy of a loving relationship in which trust and safety are assumed. When we pray in the only words Jesus gave us we strive to make present the future fulfillment of the kingdom as we live according to its expectations in the here and now. Forgiveness becomes the hallmark of our mutual relationships, and as we face up the costs of discipleship, in doing so we loosen the grip of evil in the world.

ou_kbc_pcf24_largePrayer involves the courage to ask in order to receive, to seek in order to find, to knock so that opportunities will open to us. This text is put into perspective in the famous Holman Hunt painting The Light of the Worldnow hanging in London’s St Paul’s Cathedral. Jesus is pictured standing with a lamp, knocking at a door overgrown with ivy and brambles. He clearly seeks entry, yet on closer inspection the door has no handle. The implication is that it can only be opened from the inside. What is depicted here is the door of the heart. Hunt captures who it is that knocks and who it is that opens to the knock. Paradoxically, it is Jesus who is doing the knocking, and it is we who have the power to open, or not.

Contemplation in a World of Action: a tale of two women


In a sermon some time ago I mentioned the film The Way in which Martin Sheen plays the role of a father who undertakes to walk the Camino de Compostela, the ancient pilgrimage route to the shrine of Santiago (St. James) in the Basque region of northern Spain. It’s a film images-2about love’s redemption through transformative action by a father driven to repair his relationship with his son who has tragically died some weeks earlier while undertaking the first stage of this pilgrimage.

To make a pilgrimage is to set out on a journey. To follow a way is a metaphor for more than the physical road taken. Pilgrimage is an action. One takes or makes a pilgrimage. We commonly think the goal of this kind of journey-making is to arrive at a location of spiritual significance. Yet, perhaps more significantly than arriving at a place, a location, pilgrimage is the experience of transformation along the way. The film The Way poignantly captures this process.

The Gospel

The short passage appointed for the gospel on the 9th Sunday following Pentecost is comprised of five short verses from Luke describing Jesus’ visit to the house of Mary and Martha. In John’s Gospel, we encounter both women as the sisters of Jesus’ friend Lazarus. Yet Luke offers no such biographical connection.

martha-and-mary-he-qi-1This story is one of those stories that Christian’s over the centuries have loved to moralize about. It’s a story that has given rise to two strong archetypes. In common parlance, we invoke the Martha and Mary of this story as epithets for the competing tensions in the spiritual life. The Tradition has popularly read Jesus’ rebuke of the complaining Martha to justify placing contemplation before action. The Church has often taught that the life of contemplative withdrawal is a higher calling than that of active life sullied by the taint of worldly carnality.

However, we should hold this passage within the larger context of Jesus being on his journey to Jerusalem. Like any pilgrimage, it’s the journey itself that is transformative, as along the way Jesus uses incidents and events to teach his followers what it means to travel the way of discipleship.

Action and/versus contemplation?

Last week’s parable of the Good Samaritan, when taken together with this week’s story of Martha and Mary, focuses the spotlight on the tension between action and contemplation in Christian spiritual living. In the Good Samaritan story, Jesus ends with the words go and do likewise. In the Martha and Mary story, he seems to be advocating the very opposite.

Beginning with the story of the sending out of the 70 disciples to all the towns of the Galilee the connective theme of Jesus’ Lucan journey to Jerusalem seems to be the importance of hospitality as a central attribute for those who seek to travel along the discipleship trail.

The story of Martha and Mary and it’s larger archetypal projection of do-ers and pray-ers, of action versus the inaction, focuses on the centrality of hospitality in the spiritual life. Hospitality, or the lack of, it is the key theme in the sending out of the 70. It goes to the heart of the Good Samaritan parable, where the unlikely neighbor recognizes his obligations towards an injured man. Hospitality is the central theme of the Mary and Martha story. Martha’s practice of hospitality is active. Mary’s is contemplative. In short, hospitality provides the connective tissue for the various elements of the spiritual life.

Martha practices the responsibilities of hospitality. She welcomes Jesus and then busies herself with the necessary preparations of the host upon a visiting guest’s arrival on the doorstep. Mary practices the responsibilities of hospitality in her welcoming of that which Jesus has come to bring, his teaching and presence. But Martha has something else going on inside her. There is often a danger of feeling aggrieved or feeling put upon that can afflict those who are drawn to the active side of the spiritual equation.  Jesus does not rank Martha beneath Mary. It is to Martha’s accusative sense of grievance that Jesus speaks sharply.

Assessing the tensions

We become busy and we use activity to distract ourselves from something that is feared to be more challenging. Being preoccupied with action avoids needing to go deeper. Noise and action cover over our anxiety concerning silence. If we have nothing to do then what might happen in the seemingly empty spaces that open before us. For most of us Descartes’ declaration: I think, therefore I am, easily degenerates into I do, therefore I am.

Action and contemplation are opposite sides of the same coin. Both are essential elements of a balanced spiritual life. Action ceases to hold spiritual value when our busy-ness causes us to feel resentful. We become resentful, feeling aggrieved as out actions slip, often imperceptibly from a generous regard for another’s needs to a meeting of our own.

Contemplation is the development of a capacity to sit in silence in order to welcome God speaking through the spaces between actions, words, and thoughts. Yet, it ceases to be of any spiritual value when it degenerates into self-preoccupation.

I struggle with my own personal impoverishment. I do not possess the reservoirs of charity and compassion towards others that leads me to automatically place their needs before my own. I lack the reservoirs of courage and resilience that would otherwise propel me to get involved in another’s struggles. I find myself turning away from opportunities for Christian action and I fail to stand in solidarity with others because I am afraid of getting involved. I fill my time with busy-ness, always having something to do, something to worry over, something to be preoccupied by, because this is an easy way, not of actually helping others, but of serving my own needs and avoiding the challenges of contemplation. Yet without the renewal of contemplation, my addiction to action leads me only to burnout.

Somewhat paradoxically, I am also drawn to the idea of contemplation and have a fantasy of what such a practice should look like. Yet my experience of contemplation is usually a frustrating one. I never get to that state of awareness I long for. I continually fail to achieve that degree of spiritual high I crave. Meditation as a practice of contemplation becomes an arid experience of a kind of emptiness where I interpret emptiness as an absence, something missing.

My title for this entry is taken from the well-known book Contemplation in a World of Action by the great 20th-century contemplative, Thomas Merton.  He observes:

….as long as man thinks that the solution of his ‘identity crisis’ consists in achieving this capacity for self-assertion, we can have no peace.

The problem is that there is too much me-I  in my contemplation, as there is too much me-I in my life of action. If my contemplation does not open me to the sense of spacious hospitality within which God is welcome, then it fosters only a frustrated sense of isolation and the ego reproach of I can’t even do this right! Note the verb do as in accomplish in this reproach.

A matter of temperament

Temperamentally, each person has a default towards one pole of the tension between action and contemplation. Some of us are very action oriented, while others are more withdrawn and inwardly focused. The task is to balance our predisposition through the cultivation of its opposite. In each practice, however, the essential element is that of a spirit of hospitality, which is a spirit of curiosity, a spirit of openness, a generous welcoming of otherness. When we work to reduce the centrality of our own ego, it becomes possible to become transformed into a conduit for the Holy Spirit – the love sharer –in action.

Redressing imbalance

In the film The Way, Martin Sheen plays a father struggling in his relationship with his
son. The father is a busy dentist with an onerous load of work and social responsibilities that are part and parcel of being a successful American professional. If he is not working, he’s playing golf. Playing implies pleasure or recreation. But this kind of golf has little of either. It’s just another form of work, using the game as a social networking device. This father is critical of his son’s decision to take a break from the rat race and waste his time with what the father feels is the self-indulgence of spiritual seeking. Martha is peeved with Mary.

The news of his son’s death on the first part of the Camino has a devastating effect on him. He becomes compelled to complete what the son cannot now finish. His whole life becomes transformed in the process. Sheen’s character had failed to reconcile the tension between action and contemplation in his own life, and this became a tension acted out in his relationship with his son. Like Martha, he was critical and resentful of the way his son’s spirit of hospitality to the spiritual enabled him to sit at Jesus’ feet.

Through an act of redemption the father is led to a new self-understanding. Through completing his son’s unfinished action the father incorporates his son’s spiritual hospitality, making it his own. The film’s ultimate conclusion is not the arrival at the shrine of Santiago. The rest you will have to find out for yourselves.


Race: the current lightening rod for otherness

Two reflections on race

I. Following Easter this year, Al and I took the inside of a week to visit friends in Washington DC. Our friend John is an inveterate day-tripper to places of interest. On one of the days, he had organized a visit to the not commonly known National Building Museum. One of the museum’s permanent exhibits explores examples of innovative and ground breaking town planning projects in a number of US cities; selected as representing bold experiments in community living.

One such project integrated young professional and low-income housing within the same community. The exhibit recorded young professional and low-income residents speaking about the experience of living in an integrated community. Despite a commitment by members of both sets of residents to invest in the success of the experiment, each spoke of tensions resulting from the very different ways each group used the public space.

For the predominantly low-income black families, the common space of the street and the parks provided the venue for social gathering. For the liberally minded, mostly white young professionals, this use of the public space amounted to loitering. They feared and were intimidated by their neighbors differently minded use of the public space, fearing in their neighbor’s exuberant and often noisy outdoor social gatherings the potential for trouble-making. The low-income residents experienced their white neighbor’s anxieties, which often resulted in the calling of the police, as racially motivated attempts to control them.

Communities and individuals tend to stereotype difference. We are acutely aware of this as we experience the world around us during this electoral season. Especially remembering the racial violence of the last week, we see the anxieties about race in particular, surfacing and exhibiting a violent quality we associate with the evils of a more racist past we like to tell ourselves is long gone.

kadir-nelson-the-new-yorker-cover-july-11-2016II. I was particularly struck by the power of the cover of this week’s New Yorker. The New Yorker covers always communicate a complex truth with an ambiguity of suggestion that is open to multiple interpretations.

This week the cover depicted a tall, handsomely physiqued young black man, carrying his son on his shoulders. He is accompanied by two very  pretty daughters, the younger one contentedly eating an ice cream while walking at his side along a white sandy beach. It’s a scene of family summer vacation. It’s a picture of any young American father and his children at the beach, instantly relatable to as if their race is but another one of a number of attractive things about them.

But it’s a picture that is out of time and out of place given current events and larger social trends. Maybe this is its point! It’s a picture of a shared human commonality capable of transcending divisions of class, race, and skin color. I mention class here because it’s essentially a picture of a family free of the trappings of the normal projections of race as a socio-economic class indicator of poverty and crime-ridden community. Instead here, the inference is of an  American dream affluence that enables this black family to enjoy the kind of summer vacation at the beach, normally associated with middle-class, white, family summers.

Gospel reflection

Tribal and communal assumptions

Luke’s Gospel was written to commend early Christianity to the Greco-Roman world. His writing has a universal social appeal that especially speaks to us today because it paints a picture of God as being compassionately concerned with the plight of the vulnerable and outcast. Thus it’s no accident that the two most well-known of all of the parables of Jesus – The Prodigal Son and The Good Samaritan only occur in Luke’s Gospel. These parables remain, even in a predominantly secular society, the archetypes for forgiveness, inclusion, and good neighborliness.

On the 8th Sunday after Pentecost much will be written and even more preached about the meaning of the parable of The Good Samaritan. The historical reasons for the animosity between Jews and Samaritans will be explored. It’s a parable that plays with the tensions of tribal community stereotypes of otherness.

My visit to the National Building Museum shows the sorry truth that even with the best intentions in the world it is difficult to embrace racial and cultural differences. The parable of The Good Samaritan reminds us that it’s not the radically different cultures on the other side of the world that it’s hardest to tolerate, but the nearby neighbor whose skin color, language, rituals, values, ancestry, history, and customs are different from one’s own. 

The New Yorker Magazine shows that skin color or race is not really the issue so much as the socio-economics of class and how these play out in images and experiences. The parable of the Good Samaritan confronts the hearer with our assumptions rooted in tribal community stereotypes of otherness.

As if we needed any reminding, we have just lived through another dreadful week when deadly police violence against black men has now triggered a backlash of racially motivated violence targeting otherwise innocent, white police officers. I am in agreement when the President who speaking from the Nato Summit noted:

What I can say is that all of us as Americans should be troubled by these shootings because these are not isolated incidents. They’re symptomatic of a broader set of racial disparities that exist in our criminal justice system.

Few now fail to recognize the criminal justice system and especially its law and order enforcement agencies are where our national failure to come to terms with the wound of racism upon our collective consciousness becomes most sharply focused. Race is not only a historical and culturally unresolved issue. It represents a key indicator of current economic inequality. Race acts as a lightening rod for societal anxiety, injustice, and oppression.

Personal-interpersonal assumptions

The core question in the parable fo the Good Samaritan concerns who is my neighbor? Christians in many churches throughout the land will be exhorted to follow the example of the Good Samaritan as if it’s a morality parable about being good rather than addressing the thorny issue of our responsibilities to our neighbor. Because in a society where the increasingly violent forces of polarization leave none of us unscathed, we want to sharply restrict the range of this question.

Today we seem to be just as guilty as those to whom 200 years ago John Wesley issued a warning against the danger of:

contracting our hearts into an insensibility for all the human race to but a small number whose sentiments and practices are so much our own that our love towards them is but self-love reflected.

So much of the fear that prevents us reaching out across the spaces that divide us is because it’s safer to confine our love to those like us; a kind of self-referencing love masquerading as love of another.

Limiting the concept of who constitutes our neighbor while convincing ourselves that we are good, decent people may be understandable, but the Christian life is not about being good. Being good is simply self-referencing not God referencing. I know this may seem to many to be a fine distinction but it is one of crucial importance.  In a world where secular humanitarian impulses are showing signs of chronic fatigue, the Christian witness needs to be more deeply rooted than in our own notions of being good, being decent.

The only way I can overcome my fear of the other is to be compelled by my desire to love God and to open myself to encounter my gratitude to God expressed in a generosity of spirit towards another.

Two ways of reading

It seems to me there are two ways to read the parable of The Good Samaritan. We can take a traditional reading and see the parable as an exhortation to copy the behavior of the Good Samaritan.This is to treat it as a morality play about personal goodness. But this leaves open the question for me of – do I possess that amount of good will, that level of altruistic motivation, that amount of personal generosity towards others? The answer is that when I measure my motivations and actions against this standard of behavior, I fall far short. It’s not that I don’t care, it’s that I think I can avoid becoming involved.

An alternative reading is to see this as a parable of God’s own nature. My actions towards others are rooted not in my own ability or willingness to be good, but in the recognition that the God whom I desire to love, is that good! My actions towards others emerge from my gratitude for the generosity God shows towards me because there but for the grace of God, go I.

We do not love others from our own easily exhaustible reservoir of self-love. We can only love others when we first recognize that it is God’s love for us, and our experience of God’s inexhaustible reservoir of love that inevitably compels us into a concerned involvement with and for one to another.

Let us renounce that bigotry and party zeal which would contract our hearts into an insensibility for all the human race to but a small number whose sentiments and practices are so much our own, that our love to them is but self-love reflected. With an honest openness of mind let us always remember that kindred between man and man, and cultivate that happy instinct whereby, in the original constitution of our nature, God has strongly bound us to each other. John Wesley



A Profusion of Thoughts on the 4th of July Weekend

On the 4th of July Weekend, the last thing I feel inspired to do is write a sermon for Sunday. The prospect of a less than half full Church, and the general atmosphere of weekend enjoyment and celebration sap me of any will towards inspired utterance.

I notice that I have a number of fragmentary associations coursing through the neural pathways in my brain, leading to seemingly unrelated thoughts about the 4th of July, current politics, and the readings for the 7th Sunday after Pentecost.

One neural pathway

Some of the difficulties we currently experience in engaging in civic discourse reflect the fact that a conversation across the social divides – political, racial, religious – is now a conversation of the deaf. It’s easy to point to those others and see how deaf they are to one’s own point of view. Yet, temperamentally tolerant types like me, experience real difficulty in the current environment of seriously listening to any account of the world that does not accord with my own worldview. We are all the victims, each of us falling under the sway of the zeitgeist, i.e. popular mood of the time – a mood of fear and suspicion.

In the Western World, it seems to me we are witnessing an increasing attack upon our systems of representative democracy. In the US, we frequently hear politicians defend inaction in the name of letting the people speak. The Senate will not meet, let alone enter into confirmation hearings for candidates proposed to fill Supreme Court vacancies on the pretext of waiting for an opportunity to let the people speak through the presidential election. This constitutes a serious attack on the institutions of representative government.

The UK has undermined the structures of its representative democracy. The Cameron government has gambled and lost its risky wager. In an attempt to secure its own political advantage it allowed a referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU. Let the people speak is a dangerous slogan in the hands of a political class increasingly clinging to electoral power through inflaming and exploiting public anxieties.

The Founding Fathers were not democrats- with a small d. They not only feared autocracy, they also feared democracy, knowing full well the dangers of mob rule. They knew the popular will was something most vulnerable to manipulation and exploitation. Consequently, the Founding Fathers were republicans – with a small r. The republic is one form of representative democracy. Parliamentary democracy is another.

The American and British systems of representative democracy both evolved as lessons learned from the horrors of the French Revolution, an event that ushered in a century of civic bloodletting and European war. In the face of the threat to liberty from an imperial autocracy, the Declaration of Independence celebrated on the glorious Fourth, embodies the Founders refusal to abdicate their historic liberties enshrined in English Common law.  Yet, just over a decade later, the writing and ratification of the Constitution embodied the Founders response to the threat to national unity from populist democracy. The Articles of Confederation championed the partisan interests of each of the States against one another, undermining the collective and national interests of the new nation.

Following the Brexit referendum, we see the British political party system in serious turmoil.There now is a very serious threat to the uity of the United Kingdom. It’s a good and hallowed political principle that has served Western Democracies well – that the government governs with the consent of a majority of the governed. As we can see all too clearly from the current British political scene, it’s quite another experience when the government governs at the dictate of a slim majority of the governed.

Another neural pathway

Tribalism is a stage of social evolution characterised by small ethnic, social, or religious units, each firmly believing that God is on their side. The notion that God is on our side is one of the most pernicious examples of idolatry. Any notion of our god replaces the God with a culturally, or politically constructed, idol.

There is a view that sees the development of our Western Society as a linear evolutionary process in which successive social, cultural and political developments and organisational states replace previous social, cultural, and political stages of organisation. Thus, mutually hostile tribal groups eventually coalesce to form larger ethnic, religious, or culturally based confederations. These larger units after a period of time coalesce into empires. Empires eventually regress at points of crisis into their constituent, homogenous cultural, ethnic, or religious units to become nation states. Nation states ususally represent ethnic, cultural, or religious identifications. As with earlier tribal units, after a period of renewed mutual rivalry and hostility, neigboring nations coalesce back towards wider collaborative collectives. The driver for coalescence at each stage of evolution is perceived self-interest leading to a sustained experience of collective self-interest, i.e. we gain more through coopertaing than we do through fighting.

Another view is that this evolutionary process is far from linear and more holarchical, as in holographic. Each part of a hologram perfectly reflects every other part. Concepts of linear or hierarchical development rest on the notion that successive stages of organisation replace and leave behind previous ones. By contrast, holarchical development sees successive organizational stages as embracing and including previous ones. Nothing is left behind, nothing completely forgotten. Every previous rung on the evolutionary ladder still remains within the successive stages of development, every ready to reassert itself when evolutionary momentum reaches a crisis point. Crisis points have the potential to reverse evolutionary momentum and developmental direction. Successive stages collapse and regress back into previous states of organisation.

images-1The American experience is of 13 communities that for 200 years identifed as colonies within the British Empire. Increasing political and economic pressures led on the 4th of July in 1776 to the Declaration of Independence, triggering an armed insurrection in defense of historic liberties dating back to the Magna Carter. During the war for independence, the 13 colonies were forced to coalesce around new, mutual identification as a fledgling American Nation. The new nation emerged through victory into a collective of sovereign states volunteering, in as far as their self-interests allowed, to coalesce within a loose confederation based on shared cultural, political and economic history. In 1787 these sovereign states elected to cede sovereignty via a written Constitution to a federal structure with a central government. 1789 is the point at which we can really speak about an American Republic as we now understand it.

Today, under the crisis pressures of economic globalization, the fears generated by the rise of militant religion, and mass population migration the US suffers a paralysis of representative governmental institutions allowing earlier ‘tribal interests’ to reemerge as the voice-s (for there are several tribes) of popular discontent. The EU, which developmentally is in the stage between a confederal and federal structure, struggles to face the same pressures affecting the US. The difference though is that it’s not the tribal voices within a single nation but the national voices within a confederation of nation states that gives voice to popular discontent. The British are simply the first to be offered the mechanism of referendum to express the rise of populist, xenophobic sentiments, and because of the failure of the Cameron government’s calculation, they are likely to be the last.

Yet another neural pathway

The readings for the 7th Sunday after Pentecost cover the historical span from 800-850BC to 70 AD. Three readings, one from the Second Book of the Kings, one from Paul’s letter to the Galatians, and one from Luke’s Gospel all express the tension between tribal and universal visions of God.

It’s Naaman, the commander of the Syrian army and vanquisher of Israel to whom God gives healing. Paul proclaims to the Galatians that neither Jewish circumcision nor Gentile uncircumcision counts for anything when compared to the new creation God offers to everyone through Christ. And Luke records Jesus sending out of the 70(2) disciples to the towns of Galilee. 70(2) is a number that signifies the 70 gentile nations of the ancient world.

Matthew tells the same story but he records Jesus sending his disciples only to the lost of the House of Israel. Luke’s account dramatically and characteristically presents Jesus sending his disciples out with an open invitation of salvation to anyone – Jew and Gentile- who welcomes his disciples because they recognise that the Kingdom of God has come near to them.

For me, the challenge is always to apply the universality of God to my experience of the world. I am deepely commited to this in principle, but the rub is applying it in situations where annimosity and fear shape my encounters and reactions. I long to be able to cease seeing the world in dualistic, oppositional terms? Isn’t it true that most human beings simply want the same thing: somewhere to safely live, someone to love and to be loved by, something to do that brings a sense of self-worth and contributes towards the greater good. We come to fear one another when we believe that there is not enough of these basics to go around.

What if there is no their god or my god, but only our God, and the reality that the Kingdom of God has come near to us. What then? Maybe something like this. I invite you to visit this link, either here or on our FaceBook site.

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