Thursday, January 1, 2009

you're my home

As God's chosen ones, holy and beloved,
put compassion, kindness, humility,
gentleness and patience,
bearing with one another and forgiving one another,
if anyone has a grievance against another.
And over all these put on love, the bond of perfection,
and let the peace of Christ dwell in you richly.
Col 3:12-15

(I'm a little behind but before I head out on the road, I want to add these two writings. This was my homily for the feast of the Holy Family on Sunday down at the monastery. )

In the readings for this feast we hear so much about Abraham and his seed, from the Genesis reading, through the letter to the Hebrews and the fulfillment of the promise in Simeon and Anna, but we must be careful. There can also be something distracting about focusing too much on Abraham’s bloodline. Jesus himself (if you’ll excuse the pun) relativizes it. Concerning himself the Gospel’s are at pains to tell us that he does not have Joseph’s blood or genes. And even concerning his mother, whose blood and genes he does share, when someone yells out, “Blessed is the womb that bore you and the breasts that nursed you,” he retorts, “Blessed instead are all those who hear the Word of God and keep it.” And now we are on to something.

I was thinking of another incident in the Gospel of John chapter 8, when Jesus was speaking to a certain group of Jews who he was sure were about to kill him. (I got most of these thoughts from James Alison, by the way) Jesus says to them, “I know you are descendants of Abraham; yet you seek to kill me, because my word finds no place in you.” Then he says a couple of verses later, “If you were Abraham’s children you would do what Abraham did.” He agrees that they, the Jews that he is speaking to, are the “seed” of Abraham, but he points out that being a descendant of Abraham is not the same thing as being a child of God or of Abraham. What’s interesting here are the Greek words. Up ‘til now the Jews had referred to themselves as the sperma–the seed of Abraham, that is, biological heirs; but Jesus switches to use the word tekna–children. If they were really children, as distinct from mere seed, if their hearts were the same as Abraham’s as opposed to their genes, then this would be evidenced by their acceptance of the Gospel that Jesus was proclaiming. And so he concludes, similar to what he had said of his own mother, “Whoever is from God hears the word of God. The reason you do not hear them is that you are not from God.” (8:47)

I don’t mean to diminish the nuclear family in any way, but I don’t think that that is mainly what the feast of the Holy Family is about. How many people do we know who have had to leave their families of birth in order to escape dysfunction or abuse, if not merely to find their own true course in life? Rather I think that this feast is about making sure that all of our comings-together in communities and relationships, including our nuclear families, are as tekna–children, rather than merely sperma–seed. In this sense, water is thicker than blood: that is, the waters of Baptism, the waters of faith, mean more than our bloodlines.

And the reason why Abraham is such a poignant symbol of this for me comes from the fact of something he didn’t do, rather than from what he did. He did not in the end sacrifice his only son. This is a very powerful image in the day and age in which this story was first told, not just because it seems to be a nullification of human sacrifice; but because somehow we learn from Abraham’s being stopped from that sacrifice that God is not really about scape-goating, casting someone outside of the tribe in order to be appeased and propitiated. Is it for this reason that his descendants––his children as opposed to merely his seed––would be as numerous as the stars in the sky and the sands on the seashore? Because, under the fulfillment of the covenant under Jesus, everybody belongs, no one gets left out. This is true family, the place the relationship is which we belong, where we never get left out.

As I was preparing my thoughts about this feast, I kept remembering something that a friend of mine wrote to me over twenty years ago. He was referring both to our friendship and to the church, if I recall correctly, and he said, “We learn along the way that we must first come in before we can go out.” Oddly enough, another friend of mine remarked to me recently something very similar, that the marvelous thing about being loved and loving someone is that you feel, maybe for the first time, as if you are at home when you are with the one or the ones you love, and at the same time you feel, because of that love, as if you can leave home. One other image that goes along with that: There is a beautiful love song called “You’re My Home.” It’s sung by a woman to a man, but I think it applies to all of our relationships, all of our communities: you’re my home. When the community was discussing what would have happened if the fire had burnt down New Camaldoli this summer, the brothers talked about where the community would go, not where individuals would go. The community was saying each to the other, “You’re my home.”

The image that has been foundational for me for some years now in my priestly ministry is what we see in the Baptism of Jesus: the reason that Jesus could head out into the desert and face the temptations, the reason that Jesus could pour his life out in service and in preaching, and ultimately surrender his life into the loving hands of his Father even on the cross, the reason he could leave home, was because he knew there were loving hands to receive him. He knew who he was, because he knew that he was what he had heard over his head in the Jordan River: “You are! You are my beloved! You are beautiful, precious, free.” And that was his strength, this knowledge that nothing could separate him from divine love, and that nothing could destroy his real self, hidden in God. Jesus had nowhere to lay his head, but he knew where his home was, because in his own being he knew his oneness with this Divine One whom he called Abba. We assume that this was all nurtured by Mary and Joseph, both of whom were somehow able to survive their own diminishment: he could go out because he had first had a place to come in.

That to me is what family is: the place where, or better the people with whom, we are home, where we first come in so that we can go out.

I still think we get it all backwards. I do not think that it is our moral behavior that earns us or makes us feel God’s love. It is that love that is the foundation on which to build and the impetus for upright living, for righteousness. We have to first come in––and be invited and welcomed in––before we can go out. I also think that any kind of moral authority that we are going to claim as a church or a spiritual tradition has to come from our first having invited people in so that they can go out, our first having provided a home, being a home for them in our hearts as well as in our communities. Before we make our moral pronouncements, we have to ask ourselves if we are making a home for the people around us. I just don’t think we can issue edicts from penthouses on Park Avenue, or princely palaces, steel girded office buildings, or white houses with classical colonnades, and expect them to carry moral authority based solely on our claim of moral authority imposed from above. That’s simply not what Jesus did. Presidents, priests, prophets––if we so-called religious or moral leaders want to think we are part of the prophetic edge of an embattled-movement while all the while living comfortably inside cocoons of like-minded people or rarified lifestyles, telling each other things we already agree with (as I heard someone else describe it) then we’re living in a kind of mythological world that merely serves as a rationale for crushing dissent, purging deviationists and enforcing a kind of doctrinal purity in an effort to maintain control––in other words, leaving people out, but that’s not really the prophetic edge. Jesus got his hands and feet dirty by making wherever he was a home. He was home to the tax collector; he was home to the woman caught in adultery; he was home to lepers and outcasts of all sorts. And the prophetic edge for us would begin by learning how to make a home wherever we are.

I have a couple of friends I wanted to talk about that I was thinking about particularly on this feast of the Holy Family that I left out of the homily itself due to time, but let me add them here. One of them is an ex-priest who now runs two houses of hospitality in a small and impoverished, Midwestern town. I was visiting him at a drop-in center that they have opened recently. He was telling me about a guy who had been living in his house but had a week before stolen a bunch of money and gone out and gotten drunk. And according to the rules of the house he had to leave. Well, this very guy stopped by that morning at the drop in center, and was making some jokes about making some money so he could go out drinking, and my friend laid into him with language that would have made a sailor blush. And the man took it, why? Because my friend had earned the right to speak to him, correct him, scold him, because he was his home. He had allowed him to come in.

The other is a diocesan priest, who is very heterosexual, it is important to point out, but was asked by his bishop to start a ministry to lesbian and gay Hispanics, and he has. I accompanied him too to one of their meetings. He’s quite traditional theologically and conservative politically, by the way, but he does not spend much time at all talking about sexual morality. What he does is a lot of hugging, and he pulls out his guitar and sings songs with them, and he eats their home cooked food, and listens to them tell their stories, and he goes to visit them in the hospital. He is their home. He told me that he is going to spend the first ten years or so just doing that with them, and then maybe start reviewing the teachings of the church, which they all know well enough and can read on their own anyway. He is their home.

I have one more example, a young man that I have known for some eight years now; we stay in touch mostly by phone conversations. He had a horrible childhood, filled with drugs and alcohol and parents in jail. I have tried to say Yes to him whenever possible, to the extent that he tells me I am too positive all the time. But every now and then he tells me about a decision that he has made, or something that he has done, and I lay into him in no uncertain terms telling him just exactly why I think he is being irresponsible or immature, and he really feels it when I do. But I feel like I have earned my right to speak to him that way by now. He can hear my No because I have said Yes to him so often. I’m his home.

I guess my message is very simple on this feast of the Holy Family; it’s the message of St Paul in his letter to the Colossians, in imitation of Jesus and Mary and Joseph: as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, let’s clothe ourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Let us find a way to bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, do everything possible to forgive each other, just as the Lord has forgiven us. And above all, let us clothe ourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony, and let the peace of Christ rule in our hearts, the peace to which indeed we were called in the one body; and let’s be thankful. And if we are to admonish one another, let’s do it in all wisdom, the wisdom that can only be gained from the way of the cross, the wisdom that can only be gained from being a servant, the wisdom that can only be gained from compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, the wisdom that can only be gained from being home to someone. This is what it would mean to let the word of Christ dwell in us richly; this is what it would mean to be children and not just seed of Abraham; this is what it would mean to be the faithful family of our God.

28 dec 08