Sunday, July 4, 2010

Dusty Hope

Hope comes on dusty feet. God, speaking through Isaiah in the first reading, makes a ringing promise of great liberation for Jerusalem (Isaiah 66:10-14c). However, in today’s gospel (Luke 10:1-12, 17-20), Jesus sends seventy-two of his disciples out in pair with nothing to recommend them but their message: “The kingdom of God is at hand for you.” The seal on their verbal scroll is only the name “Jesus of Nazareth.”

Now, these are not men who can lay claim to Isaiah’s “well-trained tongue” (Isaiah 50:4). As far as we know, they are fishermen, a tax collector, and who knows what else—men who work with their hands and, in Matthew’s case, their cunning, not with the golden mouths of polished preachers like the later John Chrysostom. There may be a scribe or two among them, of course, but none is ever mentioned in the gospels. They go out as beggars, too: “no money bag, no sack, no sandals.” Why should anyone lay aside plow or baking bowl or fishnet to listen to such as these?

People did, it seems. They return jubilant with their success, only to have Jesus correct their misguided ideas of what real success is. After all, the bearers of hope come armed not with the tricks of the world’s wisdom, as Paul would say in 1 Corinthians 1, but with the unappealing message of the cross. Those first disciples didn’t know it yet, but the kingdom they were proclaiming came with a price tag paid in full by their Teacher, but with smaller shares left over for all those who would follow him down the same road through tomb to glory (e.g. Mark, 8:34). Yet even that unlikely comfort has been embraced down the years by multitudes able to sort the gold from the tinsel of false promises of ease.

Hope still walks on unlikely feet. A handful of men gathered on this day in 1776 to put their names to a document that was no more than words on paper, while the armies of a great empire guaranteed their defeat, as Rome before Constantine had guaranteed the defeat of the gospel. The clarion call of 1776, written with conviction on the air of improbability set fire to farmers, seamstresses, lawyers, housewives, gentlemen of property, able wives of willing participants. Men and women rose up, armed with no more than a claim to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” and forged a nation out of mud, blood, folly and loss.

But even that claim is small compared with the one that belongs by even greater right to those committed not to any particular political entity, however admirable, but to the greater reality of the kingdom of God preached by those dusty-footed followers of a Galilean carpenter so long ago. Their names are written not on a yellowed piece of paper, however treasured, but “in heaven.” Their promise, though they hardly knew it then, is the conquest of a tyrant far greater than King George: death itself. That battle too costs blood, sweat and tears, as Churchill would say of a lesser war, but it has already been won in Gethsemane and on Calvary. We have only to make the victory our own, armed with weapons as unlikely as the bearers of comfort God seems habitually to choose: truth, righteousness, faith, salvation, word, and the readiness for peace (see Ephesians 6:13-17).

Today is a celebration of hope already confirmed and promises yet to be fulfilled, both in the United States of a flawed but still willing America and in the far greater, more important, and more enduring kingdom of God. The fray is not over in either case, but both struggles remain as worthy a challenge now as they were for those ready warriors of the pen at Philadelphia and, long before and after them, those dusty-footed disciples on the roads of Palestine. They are not unrelated. After all, the sweat-stained labors for “peace and justice for all” within the geographical boundaries of one nation do serve as one small contribution toward the fulfillment of God’s promise of peace and justice for all peoples of all times and places. Let freedom ring!

Copyright 2010 Abbey of St. Walburga

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

The Freedom of St. Francis

At present, I'm living with a Franciscan community of Poor Clare Nuns of Perpetual Adoration. On the Franciscan liturgical calendar, May 24 celebrates the dedication of the Basilica of St. Francis in Assisi. The ordo prescribes readings from the Common of the Dedication of a Church, but the readings for the day--Monday of the 8th Week in Ordinary Time--turned out to be much more appropriate for St. Francis.

The gospel was the well-known story of the rich man who asked Jesus what he must do to gain the one thing he didn't have: eternal life (cf. Mark 10:17-22). Jesus answered, "Simple, just sell all you have, give to the poor, and come follow me." As you may remember, the rich man didn't find that simple at all, so he went away sad, but many saints, including St. Francis, found it the simplest thing of all, though it sometimes took them time and struggle to recognize it.

St. Francis and St. Clare wove a rich tapestry of interpretations of poverty undertaken for the sake of the gospel. One thread followed the notion that poverty means freedom: freedom from material possessions and all the preoccupations they lay on our shoulders; freedom for Christ. We get a taste of that freedom when we clean out a closet and give away all those clothes we know perfectly well we'll never wear again, or all those books we finally admit we will not actually read. (My monastic vows mean that I don't actually own anything, including books, but I often have to remind myself as I cart a load of "will-reads" back to the monastery library across from my room that, really, they will be just a few steps away if I finally do get around to taking one up!)

For some reason, this notion of poverty as freedom for Christ reminds me of a line from Psalm 119: "Blessed is the one who turns not aside after gain." A Christian's life trajectory is toward Christ, the one all-satisfying good. Blessed is the one who, like the disciples urged to dump even a change of clothes as they set off to preach the gospel, drops everything that hinders or slows that trajectory. But how sad the one who, like the rich man, sees the goal and turns aside after some lesser gain.''

Copyright 2010, Abbey of St. Walburga