Money in Trust and a Failed First Harvest – Lammas 2012

Romans 13:11-14, 14:17; Mark 13; Luke 18-19

In the Northern Hemisphere of Planet Earth, now is the time of the first harvest.  In the old European Celtic Wheel of the Year, the bread for the festival Communion Mass (Lammas, August 1) was made from the first grains – barley, wheat, rye.  This year, 2012, the great “bread basket of the world” – midwestern United States – has been in drought for months.  The winter wheat crop was good. But the summer corn and soybean crops are gone.

Economic uncertainty is a symptom; the disease is planet-wide: ecological breakdown, climate change, “global warming.”  Denying the facts of climate change has been a priority for right-wing business and Christian fundamentalist leaders.  Unlimited sums of money have been poured into research that surely would destroy the credibility of left-wing “socialists” determined to destroy the “freedom” of the people to make all the money they want to make; until Richard Muller, professor of physics of UC Berkeley took his “no strings attached half-million bucks” from the Koch Brothers and discovered the scientists were right – not only about climate change, but the fact that humans are the cause.  What really fries the right is that Prof. Muller was a climate change skeptic.

One of the prophets of our time is the Rev. Dr. Matthew Fox. Fox is the founder of a theology called Creation Spirituality, which has at its core the revolutionary conviction that the Universe and everything in it is an original blessing, not an original sin.  At a recent conference sponsored by Evolve Chesapeake (a Creation Spirituality community), Fox discussed the necessity for “awakening imagination for transformation” – a mouthful of words that boils down to putting human creativity to work to solve the problem.  After all, as Professor Muller says, human creativity got us into this ecological mess and human creativity can get us out of it.

Fox suggests that super-capitalism – the hegemony of the very wealthy – runs on the suppression of our own creativity – i.e., wilful ignorance.  Wilful ignorance prompted Marie Antoinette to wonder why – if they don’t have bread– the people can’t eat cake instead?  Now as then, the economic precariousness of the working classes has not yet percolated up through the layers of protective investments to affect the well-being of the wealthy.  In a New York Times Op ed, “Corn for Food, Not Fuel,” Colin A. Carter and Henry I. Miller (July 30, 2012) write:

        By suspending renewable-fuel standards that were unwise from the start, the Environmental Protection Agency could divert vast amounts of corn from inefficient ethanol production back into the food chain, where market forces and common sense dictate it should go. The drought has now parched about 60 percent of the contiguous 48 states. As a result, global food prices are rising steeply. Corn futures prices on the Chicago exchange have risen about 60 percent since mid-June, hitting record levels, and other grains such as wheat and soybeans are also sharply higher. Livestock and dairy product prices will inevitably follow. . . . The price of corn is a critical variable in the world food equation, and food markets are on edge because American corn supplies are plummeting. The combination of the drought and American ethanol policy will lead in many parts of the world to widespread inflation, more hunger, less food security, slower economic growth and political instability, especially in poor countries.

“Who cares?” says the ghost of the clueless Marie Antoinette.  But inevitably, the shortage of cake (never mind the absence of bread) will become apparent, even to those who thought that the higher the price the greater the profit for them.

The writer of the Gospel of Luke reports a parable told by Jesus that has stumped the faithful for centuries.  But the meaning is perhaps not so mysterious, despite the ending – which may or may not be an addition supplied by Luke.  At the end of the parable of the money in trust, in which a landowner returns to find that one of his slaves had been too afraid of the master’s ruthlessness to risk investing the money entrusted to him, the boss says “I’m telling you, to everyone who has, more will be given and from those who don’t have, even what they do have will be taken away.”  He then rewards his corporate allies ten-fold, and orders the execution of the members of the board who opposed his plan to merge with another company ( Luke 19:12-27).  Putting the parable in the current context, suppose your CEO, a known crook whom everyone hates, gives you a million dollars to invest in corn futures and ethanol production.  The only way to maintain your livelihood may be to bury the money in the atrium garden. You won’t get a raise – your colleagues who play the game will get their reward – but you will at least save your life. Or, as in the parable of the Shrewd Manager, if your boss is threatening to fire you because the profit margin isn’t satisfying the shareholders, make side-bets that pay off the creditors and save the business (Luke 16:1-8).

Jesus’ parables tell us how use our creativity to subvert the putative rulers of Earth.  Jesus got into trouble for suggesting that the way to assure that all of the people have food to eat is to share whatever they have.  And don’t assume that your traditional enemy has no soul.  The very powers that are supposed to have your best interest at heart will pass you by on the other side of the road while you die in the ditch (“The Good Samaritan” Luke 10:30-35).  To love your enemies is to have no enemies.

The much-misunderstood and dismissed Apostle Paul wrote in the first century:

        I don’t have to tell you that we are living in the most decisive moment in human history.  The hour has already passed for you to be roused from your sleep, because the time of ultimate fulfillment is nearer now than when we first put our unconditional confidence and trust in God.  The night is almost gone, the day is almost here.  Let us rid ourselves of the preoccupations of the darkness and clothe ourselves with the armor of light.  Let us conduct ourselves in ways befitting those who live in the full light of day, not in gluttony and drunkenness, now in promiscuous sexual behavior nor in uninhibited self-indulgence, not in contentiousness and envy.  But adopt the manner of life of our lord, Jesus, God’s Anointed, and make no concession to the lifestyle of this age and its pursuit of self-gratification. . . . For the empire of God is not about food and drink, but it is about the integrity and peace and joy that comes through God’s presence and power among us. Romans 13:11-14, 14:17.  The Authentic Letters of Paul (Polebridge Press, 2010).

The first step is to acknowledge the depth of the sin, but what does this mean in a secular world? Paul is not talking about petty trespass, like making love before marriage, or eating too much at a party.  Paul is not suggesting that the answer is easy piety – going to church, giving money to charity, volunteering at the soup kitchen.  When Paul talks about making no concession to the lifestyle of this age, he’s not implying the internet is evil, or technology is de-humanizing, or that abortion, divorce, and contraception will send you to hell.  That’s the easy stuff.  What’s not so easy is the integrity that comes through the presence and power of God.

The presence and power of God is radical fairness – distributive justice-compassion.  The only way to achieve that is through the radical abandonment of self-interest.  In Paul’s words, “no concession to the lifestyle of this age and its pursuit of self-gratification.”  This is the “inner work” that Matthew Fox calls the via negativa.  To do this inner work means acknowledging and owning the conditions that lead to fear for survival, greed, war, and the destruction of the Planet.  That “inner work” results in a transformation of attitude that then leads to creative ways to act with distributive justice-compassion – to a share world instead of a greed world.

In a share world, when corn is lost to drought, what is saved is not dedicated to conversion into fuel, but used for food.  In a share world, mountaintops are not destroyed to save the expense of deep-mining for coal. In a share world, land and water are not destroyed for short-term economic gain.  Paul claims that Jesus “made no concession to the lifestyle of this age and its pursuit of self-gratification.”  Indeed, Jesus got into major trouble for suggesting that while Cesar may have thought he was master of the universe, he in fact owned nothing but the coin with his name on it.  “God” owns the earth and everything in it.

Apocalypticism is on the rise, whether among religious fundamentalists or atheists.  For the religious – especially Christian fundamentalists – the end times have never seemed more imminent.  Even though the “little apocalypse” in the Gospel of Mark is clearly about the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem in 66-70, the language has lent itself to every political, social, economic, and ecological disaster of the past two millennia of the common era.  “Wars and rumors of wars”; earthquakes, famines, persecutions, wild weather; and of course “phony messiahs and phony prophets will show up and they’ll provide signs and omens in an attempt to deceive, if possible, the chosen people.” Mark 13:22, The Complete Gospels (Polebridge Press, 2010).

One effective way to deceive the people is to suggest that misfortune is its own fault.  So poverty is the fault of the poor; drug and alcohol addiction are caused by moral weakness; unemployment is the result of laziness.  The result is denial on a global scale, across all social and economic strata of the seriousness and depth of what we are facing as a species.  Scientists are telling us that we have the ability to choose whether to listen to the primitive parts of our brains and respond to fear, or to use the intuitive, creative parts of our brains to assure that we continue to evolve. Indeed we are at a point where we can watch over our own evolution – choice not chance.

Matthew Fox reminds us that there is really only one question: How to love the world.  Pessimism, cynicism, and despair teach us how not to love the world.  These are sins that lead us – in Paul’s updated words – to make concessions to “the lifestyle of the age and its pursuit of self-gratification.”  The world is heavily invested in denial.  Denial is the choice to be deliberately ignorant of conditions that will overtake us in the end if we do not wake up.

Please pass the bread.

Alone in the Universe?

Charles Krauthammer has signed onto Carl Sagan’s pessimistic conclusion that there is no intelligent life in the universe (other than Earth Humans) because advanced civilizations destroy themselves.  It seems to be the ultimate Cosmic Joke.  As Worf’s son Alexander opined at a Star Trek wedding, “the higher, the fewer.”  Krauthammer – of course – has no time for the theological implications.  He concludes: “Politics – in all its grubby, grasping, corrupt, contemptible manifestations – is sovereign in human affairs . . . Fairly or not, politics . . . will determine whether we live long enough to be heard one day.  Out there.  By them, the few – the only – who got it right.”

I would argue that politics is not sovereign in human affairs. …

On Resurrection: Proper 16, Year A

Matthew 22:23-33; 1 Corinthians 15; Revelation 21:1-8

Much of the end of the Gospel of Matthew is normally considered during Lent and Easter.  Commentary on those readings that are included in the Revised Common Lectionary may be found in the highlights for Year A.  However, portions of these last chapters are routinely skipped by the Elves either because they are covered more traditionally in Mark and Luke, or because they do not fall into the orthodox belief system promulgated by the RCL.  The discussion on the resurrection in Matthew 22:23-33 is lifted word-for-word from Mark, and repeated in Luke.  Luke’s version is the only one that is read, as the Christian liturgical year winds down to the triumphalism of Christ the King Sunday, and – insistence on an actual season of Advent notwithstanding – the Christmas season begins.

The “Resurrection” of Jesus is the defining story of Christianity.  But what does it mean in a post-modern, post-Enlightenment, even post-Christian world, in which science leaves little room for meaningful metaphor?  Logos has been trumping Mythos since Mark first set down the story:…

Bread and Debt

Luke 11:1-4

The version of “the Lord’s prayer” in Luke is the one that is included in the Revised Common LectionaryMatthew’s version is skipped.  Perhaps it is skipped because Matthew’s version is closest to the “Our Father” that is prayed in nearly all Christian denominations.  The Elves include Luke’s version in a series of readings for Proper 12 of Year C that appear to relate to how God answers prayer (Luke 11:5-13).  As we shall see over the next two weeks, Luke’s parable about “the friend at midnight,” the “ask, seek, knock” aphorism, and the “bread/stone fish/snake” dichotomies have little if anything to do with Jesus’s original prayers about bread, debt, and adversity.

The NRSV translation of Luke’s form is:

        Father, hallowed be your name.  Your kingdom come.  Give us each day our daily bread.  And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.  And do not bring us to the time of trial.

The Jesus Seminar Scholars suggest that when verses from both Matthew and Luke are combined, the prayer that probably appeared in Q was:

        Abba [Daddy], your name be revered.  Impose your imperial rule.  Provide us with the bread we need for the day; Forgive our debts to the extent we have forgiven those in debt to us.  And please don’t subject us to test after test.  The Five Gospels, p. 327.

What has been known as “the Lord’s prayer” for nearly two millennia was probably never prayed by Jesus in any form that appears, whether in Q, Matthew or Luke.  Instead, the prayer consists of a collection of individual prayer fragments that may have been public prayers, or prayer-like aphorisms that Jesus said, on the order of “God forbid!” or “God only knows!” or “God’ll get you for that!”  The intent was to nudge listeners into changing their attitudes, joining the Way, and ushering in the realm of God.  In a 1998 essay published in The Fourth R, Jesus Seminar Fellow Hal Taussig discussed Jesus’s prayer in detail (“Behind and Before the Lord’s Prayer,” May-June 1998).  One of Taussig’s more provocative statements is, “[T]hese prayers . . . were wise-cracking prayers which pushed those who said them to re-examine themselves.”  I would also suggest that Jesus’s prayers were the opposite of petitions (desperate or trivial) to an interventionist god, and far removed from the pious mantra used to open 21st century church committee meetings or finish off the Sunday pastoral prayer.

The first phrase, “Daddy, your name be revered,” sounds shocking to 21st Century notions of holy propriety; for 1st Century Jews who were prohibited from speaking the name of God, it must have bordered on blasphemy.  Next comes the request to “Impose your imperial rule.”  That means God’s imperial rule, not Cesar’s.  The next two phrases were seriously modified by Luke.  First, Luke’s version asks for God to provide bread each day.  The Q version – closer to what Jesus probably would have said – asks only for the bread needed for the day:  today; now.  But the kicker in the Q version is eliminated by Luke.  The Q people prayed, “forgive our debts to the extent we forgive those in debt to us.”  Luke says, “forgive us our sins because [for] we ourselves  forgive everyone indebted to us.”  Luke’s pious community is off the hook.  Finally, the last prayer fragment whines: “And please don’t subject us to test after test.”

To address deity as “Abba” – “Daddy” – presumes a partnership, not a hierarchical order of power.  To then ask for forgiveness of debt to the extent that the one praying forgives debt owed presumes active participation, not passive acceptance of whatever “God’s will” might turn out to be.  In other words, Jesus’s prayers are an illustration of the Covenant relationship demonstrated in the stories of the Jewish people throughout the Old Testament.

In the most recent edition of The Fourth R (Vol 23, No. 5, May-June 2010), Jack A. Hill explores the relationship of contemporary American culture with what he calls “the Divine Domain.”  He lays out three aspects of a “culture of fear” in the United States: 1) fear of personal non-existence; 2) fear of diversity; and 3) fear of transformative innovation.  He speaks of “evolutionary amnesia,” which is the root for a prevailing fear of death, and cuts us off from a realization of our commonality and profound relationship with the natural world.  He relates two stories of people who survived shipwreck in the open sea because dolphins came to their rescue.  He says, “we have forgotten what it feels like to greet the morning breeze as a friend, to be kept safe in the womb of the ocean, to be warmly regarded by the birds . . . .”  These are experiences of what might be called “enchantment.”  For a few years before the turn of the 21st Century, there was some discussion of the need for “re-enchantment” of corporate life.  Perhaps even a reclaiming of the root meaning of the word “religion”: the realignment of human spirit with the divine realms, i.e., a return to Covenant.  We must assume that is the kind of relationship Jesus had with God’s realm – God’s world.  This relationship is reflected in his prayers.

This is not misty-eyed, romantic, “spirituality.”  Jesus’s prayer suggests a non-violent alternative to oppression under the Roman empire.  If one lives in God’s realm of distributive justice-compassion, then there is no reason to be worried about having bread for the day.  Forgiving debt means declining to participate in the normal economic systems.  Finally, God does not need to test people who are already participating in the Kingdom.  Mark’s story about Jesus and the Devil comes to mind (Mark 1:12-13).

Eckhart Tolle is a popular, contemporary “spiritual teacher.” He has written two books that are categorized by under “Health, Body, and Mind.”  They combine a variety of western “Zen” or “Buddhism” and generalized Christian traditionalism.  But the basic message both in The Power of Now and A New Earth is the quest for what Tich Nat Han calls mindfulness, and what these commentaries would call “Covenant,” and what Jack A. Hill described above as “Divine Domain.”  Tolle writes:

        The mind is more comfortable in a landscaped park because it has been planned through thought:  it has not grown organically.  There is an order here that the mind can understand.  In the forest, there is an incomprehensible order that to the mind looks like chaos.  It is beyond the mental categories of good and bad.  You cannot understand it through thought, but you can sense it when you let go of thought, become still and alert, and don’t try to understand or explain.  Only then can you be aware of the sacredness of the forest.  As soon as you sense the hidden harmony, that sacredness, you realize you are not separate from it, and when you realize that, you become a conscious participant in it.  In this way, nature can help you become realigned with the wholeness of life.  A New Earth (Penguin, 2006) p. 196.

This experience leaves no room or role for an interventionist “god” who is outside of ourselves and the world in which we live.  The relationship is more intimate than even a concept like “Daddy” can reach.  “Mama” may come closer.  A petition for food or debt relief or forgiveness becomes meaningless in such a context, where there is no boundary between me and the divine.  If there is no boundary, then there is no greater or lesser transformational power than my own.  But while this hidden harmony, this sacred space, is a place to gather strength, it is not a place where I can hide.  To live in that divine domain (as Hill describes it) requires mindful action.  The struggle is always to find our way into that divine domain, or as Jesus put it, to find the treasure that is hidden in the field, or mixed like leaven into the flour.  The joke is that we are already there – all we have to do is open our eyes and look and listen.

Jesus’s prayer makes that clear: God’s sacred space is holy, and that holy realm rules.  We have what we need for now – indeed there is no other time than now.  And there is no debt, so long as we do not hold debt ourselves.  Finally, there is no demand for perfection, no trial, no test, unless – to stretch Tolle’s metaphor – we fail to see the forest because of the trees.