Sunday, October 23, 2011

Holy God!

Leviticus 19:1-2, 15-18

Leviticus is not a name that engenders much applause among forward-thinking Christians. The third book in the Bible, in some ways the crown jewel of the Torah, with its elaborations of the Ten Commandments, is one that a number of us find nauseating because it has been hurled so frequently as a weapon against sexual minorities. But there are some things that are not so rough in the Book of Leviticus—not so rough, that is, unless you are really ethically challenged. Leviticus sees a deep connection between the nature of God and profoundly ethical behavior. The headline of the whole work is, “BE HOLY, FOR I THE LORD YOUR GOD AM HOLY.”

More than any other word we could think of, “holiness” expresses what we mean by “the sacred.” It is not something that is owned by one religious tradition. In his book The Idea of the Holy, written many years ago, German theologian Rudolf Otto noted that holiness is peculiar to the sphere of all religion, and is only secondarily transferred to the sphere of ethics as well. It is the experience of the holy that blasts the neat categories of the rational and puts us in the terrain of the inexpressible. We have come to use the word “holy” to mean completely good. Well, that’s not quite accurate. The holy is the real innermost core of any religion. Only in relation to that core can actions and behavior be said to be “holy.”

It is important to get our minds straight on what the holy is, because frankly it is not on the list of the top things that most Americans want to be. Or think they are. But the truth of the matter is we are created to be holy. Or, to be more precise, we are created with the capacity of being Godlike, else it would make no sense for God to issue the command, “Be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.” Sometimes I muse about where we human beings get that idea. Of course, the tradition is that God actually spoke in revealing terms laying the notion out plainly. And that may well be. But you have to allow for the possibility that God could speak on and on about holiness—or this, that, and the other—and it would all be for naught unless human beings had the capacity to hear it. And that is to say that we carry around with us the idea that it is possible to be different from what we would be if we were just left to our own devices and desires. Left in the wild, so to say, we would revert to basic mammal behavior, looking after ourselves, our young, and our own kind, with loyalties only to our den, our pride, our herd, our flock, our warren. Left to ourselves, we could quite easily behave more as reptilians than gods. William Golding’s Lord of the Flies is perhaps still the classic narrative of what happens to a community of humans that, with all constraints of civilization removed, goes down into the sinkhole of savagery. Boys will not only be boys, but savage boys if left completely to themselves.

But let us not make the mistake of thinking that there is anything necessarily godly about civilization itself. We continue to make that mistake by thinking and believing that anything that controls human behavior, that produces ostensible progress, that shapes human community is necessarily a good thing. We ought to know better. Crowns and thrones perish, kingdoms rise and wane, civilizations come and go. And while all that is happening there is in the center of human experience an impulse to live differently. And while that impulse may not in every instance equate with the current of holiness that comes out of the nature of God, still that impulse keeps surfacing. We humans keep grasping every now and then the idea that we are being called from outside ourselves to live differently, to lay aside some of our most intuitive and automatic behaviors. And the Book of Leviticus testifies that that call is from nowhere other than Yahweh, God, Lord. Yahweh frees and also commands, “Be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.”

The slice of Leviticus that we heard read today is not particularly hard to get a handle on. Indeed its ideas are very popular with many people, religious and non-religious. Don’t render an unjust judgment. Treat the poor and the rich alike. Do not go around slandering people. Do not hate your own kin. Reprove your neighbor, because you both are a part of the same community and what each of you does affects the other. Don’t be vengeful; don’t bear grudges. Love your neighbor as yourself. Who could take issue with those things? If this were all that is involved in being holy as the Lord God is holy, most of us would sign on without hesitation. We have Jesus to thank for teaching us that it is not so simple as that. Being right with God involves more than being ritually pure and legally flawless. And we have Paul to thank for hammering home the point that the essence of wholeness or salvation is not the keeping of a set of rules, no matter how sensible. We become holy by participating in the divine nature that Jesus embodies, and which through baptism and life in Christian community he shares with us.

And what is that divine nature, that holiness of God that God invites us into practicing and living? You won’t be surprised if I tell you that it cannot be neatly summed up, will you? No, it cannot be, precisely because the holiness of God stretches through all space and time and oozes as well into every cell of your body. We cannot cram it into the category of moral perfection, or even boil it down to right relationships, for holiness is like the source of all the energy in the universe, driving the entire cosmos. We cannot pick out a theme here or an idea there and say that we have laid hands firmly on what it means to be holy, because by its very nature, the holy eludes us. Nor can we reduce holiness to rational ideas or concepts, because what Otto called “the numinous” is trans-rational, mysterious, beyond our ability to describe and prescribe. If we had to choose some basic element by which to depict holiness, it would doubtless be the metaphor in which holiness most often appears in the Bible: fire. Like the ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus, who saw the world itself as an everlasting ball of fire, the tradition sees the holiness of God as a consuming, purging flame, licking up everything opposed to the nature, truth, and faithfulness of God. So we may well scratch our heads and wonder what on earth or what for God’s sake does God mean by “Be holy, as I the Lord your God am holy.”

And yet, among all the ritual regulations and liturgical directions and sexual proscriptions in Leviticus, there is something that arises out of the Holiness Code that beckons us forward and upward in the progression from primal protoplasm to the God-nature shot through with glory. It is generosity. There is something about God that, when all is said and done, is exceedingly kind and generous. The fact that we would even be conscious of such a thing is itself a remarkable gift, for on our best days we realize that this life we are living can be so much better if we are not concerned only with our own safety and livelihood, but with the welfare of others, and that is a godly thing to think. “When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest. You shall not strip your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen grapes; you shall leave them for the poor and the alien, for I the Lord am your God. You shall not defraud your neighbor; you shall not steal; and you shall not keep for yourself the wages of a laborer until morning. You shall not revile the deaf or put a stumbling block before the blind; I am the Lord.” That is not all there is to holiness, but that is a key aspect of it. God’s hand is generously open with every gift humanity could possibly want, let alone deserve. And our hands are to be no less open. For we are to be holy, as the Lord God is holy.

And that brings us to the stretch of weeks which we inaugurate today, a season you have become accustomed to if you have been in this or some other church for much time at all. For this is fall, and it is the time when we talk about money and the virtue of generosity and such things. I want to level with you. I do not mind talking about money (Jesus talked more about it than any other single subject). I do not mind asking you to give generously to St. Stephen’s, where we try our level best to do ministry that we perceive the Body of Christ cannot not do. But I mind very much wrapping an exhortation to give your dollars for ministry in some kind of religious sophistry that constantly edges away from the plain fact that ministry costs. The older I get the more I realize that the things that cost much are not necessarily the things that are worth much, but the things that are worth much frequently cost a great deal. The relationships in my life that make my heart sing require gentle tending and nurturing. The things that I do that make much difference in mine and others’ lives cost time and effort. And the causes and communities that actually help make the world a better place for all God’s creatures deserve as much money as I can possibly share. The practice of stewardship is about nothing else than practicing the virtue of generosity–not just in church and to church, but everywhere. It has to do with how you tip the wait staff and how you give your time and whether you listen to someone else’s story as well as to how you give to St. Stephen and the Incarnation. It has to do with the attitude we have—or don’t have—which cherishes our neighbors the way we cherish ourselves, or ought to cherish ourselves. Generosity is the spark of holiness that lights the way for us to live intentionally the life of the One who says, “Be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.”

© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2011

Tuesday, October 04, 2011

Just Imagine

Ignatian Prayer and Scripture

Isaiah 5:1-7
Matthew 21:33-46

Over the years I have heard about everything in the liturgy criticized for one reason or another. But this week I have wracked my brain trying to recall if I could remember someone’s suggesting that scripture not be read in church. Perhaps there has been such a time, but I cannot recall it. Some have wondered why we read three lessons, as opposed to one or two. Some devotees of The Great Vigil of Easter want to read as much scripture as possible. But virtually no one suggests that we ought to dispense with reading the Bible. The reason to read it seems obvious. It is the sacred story of the Covenant People. Nearly all Christians, although they may disagree on how to read scripture, assume that the Bible has something to say. And if you ask folks what they most want out of a sermon, they will nearly invariably say that they want the preacher to show how the Bible is relevant to ordinary daily life.

Along comes a pair of passages like the ones from Isaiah and Matthew today on the theme of God’s vineyard. The meaning of them is not particularly obscure. The Isaiah passage, sometimes called “The Song of the Vineyard,” describes the House of Israel as God’s vineyard. As the planter and owner, God sees a vineyard that has not lived up to expectations. Instead of bearing lots of fruit, the vines have grown wild grapes. Thus God will destroy the vineyard. The parable of the wicked tenants in Matthew is even less obscure, since Matthew has taken care to put it in allegorical form. The prophets all come to Israel and one by one are rejected. Finally the Son comes and is thrown out of the vineyard and killed. It certainly conforms to what Matthew knew was the story and fate of Jesus.

Although their meaning may be fairly plain, what are we to do with passages like these? What are we to make of them? In a larger sense, this is the perennial question facing the community of faith in every generation: what are we to make of any scripture? How do we use it? How does it inform our life? One sermon, of course, cannot get into all the nooks and crannies of interpreting scripture. What I’d like to do today is to look at the way this image of the vineyard is used and to see what that has to tell us about hearing the message of scripture in general.


Picture a singer standing at the entrance of the Columbia Heights Metro station, singing something that sounds like a ballad. She begins with what sounds like an ancient couplet, “I will sing a song for my friend, a song of love for his vineyard.” We don’t have to know much about vineyards in Washington, DC, for such a singer to get our attention. What we need is for the singer to be good—good enough to get a couple of people per hour to pause and listen. But she is better than good. She is amazing. She halts our rush to Target or to Starbucks just to pause and listen to the sweet strains blending words and melody. By the time she gets to the second verse, we begin to realize that this is a tragic poem that she is singing. She begins to sing of how her friend who owns the vineyard despairs of vines that only produce sour grapes, good for nothing but to be spat out. The intent listener begins to wonder what on earth has gone wrong. Is the story about some disease that has invaded the vineyard? Is the singer an environmentalist making a point about the dangers of pesticides? We listen on. The riddle is solved, but in a way that is alarming. We, say singer and and song, we the people of Washington are the vineyard. And the lover who so sweetly planted us is the Author and Giver of Life. We are the ones who are his darlings. Then, in a plaintive, haunting lament, the singer ends the song, and by now several dozen people have stopped to listen. The vineyard planter looks to us to have produced justice but instead found only injustice. Instead of right relationships, he hears only a cry, only a cry. Only a cry. The singer stops, slips through the crowd and is gone.

Who was that singer? Where did she come from? Is she just another religious nut stirring up guilt? Shouldn’t we know the name of someone who is that good a singer? Her song hangs in the air; and the ending: what can we do about the ending? We walk away, not knowing exactly what, and get it out of our heads by continuing up the street, avoiding a street vender, ducking into Tynan’s for a cup of coffee, eventually being absorbed in the wave of people oblivious to anything but their own lists.

Look at what has happened, just in the last two or three minutes. A text—or even the oblique reference to a text—has caught our attention and in some way begun to work on us. You know what that experience is like because you have had it. You have seen a movie that has done slightly less than change your life, but that has entered your mind like hot steel, cleaving your soul, leaving you wondering, wondering. Or you have read a book that you can’t quite let go. That is what Isaiah intends to do. As he proceeds to show, the Song of the Vineyard was simply to get the attention of Israel so that they could identify with the plight of the vineyard, take responsibility for their own devastation, and know that the One to whom they owed their life was none other than Yahweh Sabaoth, the Lord of Hosts. Isaiah then proceeds to articulate a series of woes—seven in all—that implicitly indict those who have betrayed the covenant by undermining right relationships and by subverting justice. And why does he do all that? Ultimately his aim is to bring his hearers around to changing. It could be said that he is foretelling the future, and that might be true. But equally likely, he is describing a situation that is unmistakably true and present in the community’s life. His short-term goal is to proclaim the absolute trustworthiness and righteousness of God. His long-term goal is to bring the people into a renewed covenant relationship with God.


Jesus might or might not have told the parable of the wicked tenants the way we hear it in Matthew’s gospel. An older version appears in Mark. Unlike most of the parables it is an allegory, wherein everything and everybody represents a person or an idea or an event. Whatever else Jesus did, it is quite likely that he used the image of the vineyard straight from Isaiah to make his point. His hearers, the authorities of Israel, knew well enough the Song of the Vineyard. But Jesus introduces the figures of tenants, suggesting that the problem was not the vineyard at all, which unlike Isaiah’s vineyard, produced perhaps bumper crops of good grapes. The problem was rather that those who had tenancy of the vineyard were scoundrels. When slaves come from the owner to collect the produce, the tenants beat them up. Finally the owner sends his son, who he is sure the tenants will perforce respect. Wrong! The tenants, perhaps knowing that as tenants they have rights of possession, proceed to assassinate the one who stands in their way, the heir.

As a good storyteller, Jesus then sets up his hearers for the inevitable response. What will the owner do? The answer is obvious. He will avenge the death of his son! He will put the tenants to death, the hearers answer (Jesus does not comment on that!) and lease the vineyard to other tenants who would give him his produce in due season.
Then Jesus does something that later tradition was to make much of. He quotes from Psalm 118: “The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is amazing in our eyes.” He does not spell out the allegory but tells plainly its meaning. The kingdom of God will be taken away from the religious leaders (the tenants) and given to a people producing the fruits of the kingdom. He then issues a not-so-oblique threat, saying that the “stone” that was “rejected” will cause anyone who falls on it (stumbles upon it) to be broken to pieces and anyone on whom it falls will be crushed.

So here is another way that scripture is used. A metaphor, the rejected stone, referred to in scripture, is mined out of its setting and used to drive home a point, in this case a prophetic warning. The chief priests and the Pharisees get the point all right. They know that he is talking about them. And they react with characteristic and predictable rage, determined to arrest Jesus. It is absolutely fair to say that this was indeed the result that Jesus intended. The entire passage in Matthew’s gospel suggests that Jesus intended to press the point with the chief priests and Pharisees—and by extension the ones whom they led—that their days in charge of God’s community were numbered.

The story does not stop there, of course. Either the Church found in the tradition this nugget of a parable traceable to Jesus that it could confirm as a keeper precisely because sooner or later it came true. Or it doctored up the parable to bring it in line with recent events. Either way, it is a story that demonstrates what happens when those in charge of God’s vineyard are faithless, and a story of what happens in history when the rejected one (Jesus) becomes the keystone or cornerstone.


But the most important question perhaps is always, “So what”? That is indeed the question that The New Testament is forever addressing. One typical response to those who read the Bible, and especially to these kinds of things in the Bible, is to jump to a moral meaning, a “moral of the story,” as it were. That is not always bad or inappropriate, especially if one gets from Isaiah the message that we need to reform our ways and get ourselves on the side of justice; or if one gets from Matthew the message that we need to produce the fruits of the Reign of God. An unfortunate response that some make is to use such passages as anti-Jewish propaganda, projecting onto present-day Jews the profiles of ancient Israel ironically drawn from texts out of the heart of Israel’s own sacred tradition. A counter-response that liberals typically make is to silence Matthew and others from saying what they have to say because we are embarrassed at what can be and has been construed to be words and images that put Jews in a bad light. Another reaction can easily be that we treat all this material as far too abstruse to be of much use, all the historical issues having been settled, and the symbols and language too incendiary to risk using.

St. Ignatius Loyola in his Spiritual Exercises uses a method of pondering scripture that could help us here. He takes a passage, like the parable of the wicked tenants, for example, and encourages the listener to move into the content of the passage with one’s senses. What colors, odors, sounds do we hear in the vineyard? And whom do we relate to? The tenants? The slaves? The owner? The son? Typically one uses one’s imagination to move into an experience like that being described, always for the purpose of coming closer to Jesus, clearer in one’s relationship with God. In that way, reading scripture is definitely a form of prayer, a piece of communication with God that is continuous with external life as well as with internal psyche.


If the central question is, “So what?” surely the second question is, “What difference does it make?” What happens when we read scripture imaginatively, opening ourselves up to have the scenes, the words, the ideas make a deep impact upon our consciousness? Little by little—or perhaps on occasion, in a leap—we change, and that is the heart of what the entire gospel is up to. That can probably happen only when we begin to see ourselves in the stories. Are we the poor slaves who are just trying to do the master’s bidding, beaten and abused by the powers we confront? Are we the tenants who have robbed the owner by arrogating to ourselves what does not belong to us? Or are we some of both, depending on which day of the week it is and where we find ourselves in a particular pecking order? What is the Word that God is speaking and that Jesus is embodying right now? And do we rejoice at the rejected stone becoming the cornerstone, or become angry and depressed because in so doing he overthrows our own power? It is marvelous in our eyes or noxious to us, quite honestly?

The gospel, indeed the whole Bible, can be good news or bad news for us, depending upon who we are and where we are in any particular story. But that is part of, maybe the biggest part of, the challenge to which we open ourselves by opening the book in the first place. It is the likelihood that when we read or hear the scriptures, we will come to a moment of recognition. A split second later, we may well find ourselves having to decide exactly what we are going to do with this Jesus who shakes our foundations, how we are going to respond to this God who hounds us demanding justice. Such a moment came to the chief priests and Pharisees when they realized that he was speaking about them.

© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2011