Wednesday, October 29, 2008

So priketh hem nature in hir courages

The majority of men are subjective towards themselves and objective towards all others, terribly objective sometimes--but the real task is in fact to be objective towards oneself and subjective towards all others.

Whan that Aprille with his shoores soote
The drought of March hath perced to the roote
And bathed every vein in swich liquor
Of which vertu engendred is the flour
When Zephyrus eek with his sweete breeth
Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
The tendre croppes and the yonge sun
Hath in the ram his halve cours yronne
And smale fowles maken melodye
That slepen all the night with open eye
So priketh hem nature in hir courages
Thanne longen folke to goon pilgrimages

I'm picking this up from Mimi, and although I fully intended to respond to the comments that are already growing cold and stale below, here I go jackdawing after some other shiny thing. That said, I'm reading this and thinking: "Hmmm, maybe...."

Until we can come to terms with what is means to proclaim tangible good news to the people who live here, literally in the shadow of some of the most luxurious properties and respectable churches, all of our pieties are simply gilded abstractions divorced from the concrete realities that every atheist has an honest right to rage about.
My sympathies are here; but then again, not quite. My first thought is almost wholly uncharitable, and that is to respond to the hyperbole by noting that atheists have an honest right to rage about a lot of things, and Christians finally agreeing on what personal sacrifices are necessary to be a Christian are not going to settle anything for them, or give Christians a justifiably moral stance. Which is straining at gnats and swallowing camels, because Christians do need to come to terms with proclaiming tangible good news. It is not something we do very well, frankly. We've generally strained everything out of the good news except a doctrine of salvation which is almost utterly foreign to the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth or Paul of Tarsus or the early church at all, at least until the "early church" starting going through its own kind of hell, thanks to Rome (a hell on earth which prompted the apocalyptic visions of John on Patmos). But bear with me a moment, because substantially, I agree with this:

What does it mean to speak of a homeless God when all of our conceptions of divinity are firmly lodged in heaven? Jesus was rejected, hungry, harassed by the authorities, transiently moved from town to town, called a drunk, glutton, and an associate of prostitutes and sinners. He was both deemed to be mentally ill and derided as being somehow under the influence of the devil. To say that somehow God is intertwined with the real flesh and blood conditions experienced by Jesus of Nazareth, is to break the sacred glass around the term God and allow Jesus to sully it ten times more than I am about to here. To speak of Jesus as God is to speak of a homeless God whose only registration in the system was an arrest and an execution warrant by the State.
But I don't think it means I have to lunge for the Midnight Oil and fret about standing while the world is turning:

These spots are blemishes on our banquet because as long as one person lives like this, we are all diminished as part of the human community. They are ground zero for what the incarnation means in terms of divine solidarity with a world full of pain and suffering . Hopes, dreams and fractured relationships are taken down from the cross and buried here in the cold night long after we are safely tucked away in the warmth of our homes. The men and women who sleep here also know something about being rejected by their own, harassed by authorities, transiently moved from town to town and being diagnosed as under the influence of the devil.
My experience as a pastor taught me, early, that the world turns on without me and that, in fact, I didn't set it spinning, nor am I responsible for how it turns. And if I'm going to make this teaching central to my Christian practice, I'm going to toss out Paul and all the rest of the New Testament, and reduce the Gospels to just the Q source (where Matthew and Luke got this passage about Jesus the Homeless God). I'm not being critical here, though it sounds like it. But I went into seminary with all the passion of a true believer, convinced finally that I'd found my calling and the world would welcome me with open arms, and hear my voice and acknowledge my sincerity.

Didn't quite work out that way. Parish ministry, it turns out, never does. Sometimes it dies on those shoals; sometimes it survives the shipwreck. But the hard reality is, the world is a much more complicated place than living under the overpass, or in the mansion on top of the hill. And when you start making idols of those things, or even of the living God, you start to run into trouble. It is a terrible thing, to fall into the hands of the living God. It can be especially terrible if you are trying as hard as you can to make a fetish, an item of worship, out of your own convictions.

There's a reason the Hebrews banned worship of idols: it's because any image of God you come up with, becomes your god. And it remains nothing more than your image. Jesus was homeless. Jesus also drank wine at wedding parties (I've heard many a good Baptist and other conservative Southern Christian patiently explain to me the wine was non-alcoholic). Jesus enjoyed life. Jesus suffered from life. Jesus was a stern teacher. Jesus was a comforting healer. Jesus was brusque, enigmatic, impatient and in a hurry (Mark's version); Jesus was a reforming Jew (Matthew); Jesus was an itinerant Cynic who reached out to Gentiles (Luke); Jesus was a Gnostic exemplar of ethereal mysteries who spoke only to those who could hear (John). Jesus was the pure servant who because of his faithfulness was resurrected after death as an example to us all (Paul). With which of these images am I authorized to sit in judgment over others?

My sympathies are entirely with the homeless god, although my actions belie my words. I have not sold all I have and given it to the poor, and yet I still call myself a follower of Jesus. I have not devoted my life to charitable works, and yet I still call myself a disciple of Christ. This is perhaps the most blatant kind of hypocrisy. Or perhaps it is the mystery of faith.

I remember hearing a chaplain speak once, and explain his ministry. He related it to the chapel keepers who provided medieval pilgrims with a safe place to stay the night, and to worship, on their pilgrimage to one holy shrine or another. The chapel was the chapel keeper, the person who helped the pilgrim on the journey. A pastor takes on a bit more responsibility, but woe be unto the pastor who identifies the flock as his own, and his alone. I've seen many a retired pastor unable to retire because his identity (always "he;" the female pastors haven't had a chance to retire yet after an adulthood in parish ministry; well, not a majority of the pastors, anyway) was in his congregation, and he couldn't separate himself from them. There is a kind of idolatry there, too.

"What does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God?"--Micah 6:8 What else does God require of us? Yet what does it mean to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God? The Desert Fathers spent a lifetime pursuing that question, and one of the few clear answers they came to was the lesson Jesus himself taught: Don't judge, so you are not judged. It's one of the hardest lessons of all. Pastors are always tempted to judge: to decry the troublemaker in the congregation, to complain about the hard-heartedness of the flock, to deride everyone within the walls on Sunday morning as "baptized heathens." All of it is true. All of it is beside the point. "Don't pass judgment, so you won't be judged." Matthew 7:1 (that's from "Q" as well, by the way). It's a sort of all-encompassing provision against being a prophet in your own mind.

I like the image of the pilgrimage. It places us all on a journey and, rather like Chaucer's poem, makes us all equal. Not entirely equal, of course: the Knight is still superior to the Miller, the Monk above the Parson. But all are equal as storytellers on the journey. Jesus challenged the hierarchy of the Roman Empire, but never enough to seriously challenge it, despite his divinity (what could the Son of God not accomplish, if he chose to? That is a question we ask about Jesus, now. It was less of a challenge and more of a justification, when it was addressed to the Caesars, themselves divi filius, or "sons of god." It's hard to exaggerate that:

A coin of Julius Caesar shows his spirit descending cometlike to takes it place among the eternal deities. A coin of Augustus Caesar calls him divi filius, son of a divine one, son of a god, son of the aforesaid comet. A coin of Tiberius Caesar hails him as pontifex maximuis, supreme bridge builder between earth and heaven, high priest of an imperial people. A silver denarius was a day's pay for a laborer and, if a day laborer meant somebody who worked every day rather than somebody who looked for work every day, it would have been a very good salary. Imagine this situation: If, after three days of hard work, a day laborer held those silver denarii in his hand, how would he, could he, should he distinguish between politics and religion in the Roman Empire?....

Rome, and Rome alone, had built a kingdom and only it could approve how to build an underkingdom, a minrealm, a subordinate rule.
Jon Dominic Cross and Jonathan Reed, Excavating Jesus, revised & updated (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 2001), pp. 178-79. As Crossan and Reed argue, Paul's challenge to that rule was as direct, and as devious, and as subversive, as the challenge made by Jesus of Nazareth. And yet Paul did not free slaves, or set up churches in opposition to Roman society, or otherwise condemn Roman or even Jewish custom. There are ways of being insubordinate that do not depend on always overturning the tables in the Temple.

To speak of Jesus as God is to speak of a homeless God whose only registration in the system was an arrest and an execution warrant by the State.
We can go lower than that, if we wish. Dom Crossan asserts that Jesus of Nazareth was buried in a shallow grave, not a magnificent tomb (the resting place of the wealthy, not a homeless peasant), and most likely dogs dispoiled the remains. Not a pretty picture for an Easter Sunday service, but if you want "to sully [the term 'God'] ten times more," you could do worse than use history to do it. For me, that raises a pastoral issue, because while it may be accurate, is it appropriate? The answer to that depends upon your pilgrimage, your place along the journey. Which is not to say I should stand guard over you, protect you from those thoughts or ideas I deem heretical or improper (much as the early church concealed, and apparently destroyed, the apocryphal "Secret Mark," a variant gospel which left only a trace behind in the canon). At the same time, we don't try to teach 6th graders calculus and trigonometry. We understand, in matters of education, that even adults can be pilgrims, and they might have to start over with the Freshman year of college, before trying to do the work of a college senior.

In the discussion of the death of Jesus in Crossan's The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Peasant, Crossan is speculating about the burial of Jesus, based on the usual treatment of a powerless political criminal with no real connections. It is useful historical speculation after 2000 years of conjecture and fabulation. But Crossan discounts perhaps too much the human connections such a powerfully spiritual person as Jesus would have made. Is it possible a man like Jesus drew the attention of the wealthy as well as the poor? If we accept that a peasant drew the attention of Rome, at least as high as the Governor of Palestine, and that he made such an impression that generations later disparate people were writing his life story, so much so that the author of Luke addresses Theophilus to say this gospel is meant to set forth the most accurate account possible of this man everyone is talking about; then is it so far-fetched to think someone of means might have sought to provide a more appropriate burial place than a shallow hole? The gospel stories are just as likely true in their record of the burial, just because they are so unusual. Jesus of Nazareth was, clearly and to say the least, unusual. None of which rebuts Crossan's account; but it gives it another perspective. Still, there are those who don't need Crossan's account, who might live their lives just as well without it. The truth will set you free; but not all truths are equal.

So a pastor ends up sitting in judgment over ideas. It is a terrible place to be, and a terrible burden. Welcome to the pilgrimage. We are, none of us, below another, especially the homeless, the powerless, the helpless. Most especially the beggar, the alcoholic, the drug addict, the prostitute, the mentally ill. We are none of us above judgment, either. We are all of us in this together. The gospel that comes to the homeless comes also to the comfortable; the gospel that speaks to the afflicted speaks also to the powerful; the gospel that renders us all equal also doesn't render us all downward. This gospel upends society, but in subtle and potent ways we haven't begun to experience or experiment with yet. This gospel is for everyone. Now, go and preach that message. Go and struggle with that truth. Go and believe, and pray God to help you with your unbelief.

That is the prayer, and the work, of a pilgrim.

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