Wealth and Poverty

John Paul II is often caricatured by people who disagree with some of the social stances of the Roman Catholic Church and by those who are predisposed against Christianity in general.  While there is much valid critique that can be levied against Catholicism, caricatures of John Paul II disregard his own courageous and forthright stands on justice.  John Paul II anticipated much of the economic and financial debacle we now experience.  His tempered and faithful voice provides essential counsel for our present political situation, in which all rational discourse, and all historical definitions for what it means to be “conservative” or “liberal,” have been thrown out the window.

What follow are excerpts from JP II’s “Private Property and the Universal Destination of Material Goods”:

“It is a strict duty of justice and truth not to allow fundamental human needs to remain unsatisfied, and not to allow those burdened by such needs to perish…Even prior to the logic of a fair exchange of goods, there exists something which is due to man because he is man…These objectives include a sufficient wage for the support of the family, social insurance for old age and unemployment, and the adequate protection for the conditions of employment…

…Such a society is not directed against the market, but demands that the market be appropriately controlled by the forces of society and by the state, so as to guarantee that the basic needs of the whole of society are satisfied…

…Profitability is not the only indicator of a firm’s condition.  It is possible for the financial accounts to be in order, and yet for the people—who make up the firm’s most valuable asset—to be humiliated and their dignity offended…

…Indeed, there is a risk that a radical capitalistic ideology could spread which refuses even to consider these problems, in the a priori belief that any attempt to solve them is doomed to failure, and which blindly entrusts their solution to the free development of market forces.

…The Church offers her social teaching as an indispensable and ideal orientation, which recognizes the positive value of the market and of enterprise, but which at the same time points out that these need to be oriented towards the common good.”

Are you reading your Bible?

ImageOn Wednesday evenings during Lent, one hundred parishioners gathered for a five-part series on “The Authority of the Bible.”  We started by asking, “What does it mean for the Bible to have authority in our lives?”  More about this question in a moment.

In later sessions, we discussed the various ways faithful people have approached the Bible through the centuries.  We recognized that the contemporary obsession with whether or not everything in the Bible is “literally” true is a relatively new phenomenon.  Until the modern era, Christians and Jews were far more interested in the allegorical meaning, the moral messages, and the mythic and timeless truths of Holy Scripture than whether every jot and tittle on the page “actually happened.”  To ancient Christians and Jews, the truth of the Bible was more important than the bare facts.

In our final session we discussed whether there are some things in the Bible that are more essential to our faith than others.  We allowed ourselves to be guided by the thought of renowned biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann, who says we should always read Holy Scripture through the lens of the Bible’s “main theme.”  Brueggemann says this theme is “the conviction that the God who creates the world in love redeems the world in suffering and will consummate the world in joyous well-being.”

This idea embodies what God is doing in the world.  If any interpretation of a passage from scripture fails to fit with this pervasive theme, then we need to rethink that interpretation carefully.  If we find ourselves emphasizing portions of the Bible that have little to do with this theme, then we should consider stressing other portions that do.

All of this is important for us to remember as Episcopal Christians.  But none of it bears any real weight in our lives apart from the question we asked in our first Lenten session: “What does it mean for the Bible to have authority in our lives?”

In the midst of that initial discussion, we realized that the Bible can have no real authority for us—it cannot affect how we make decisions about how we will live—if we don’t actually read the Bible!

Are you reading your Bible?  Do you make time each day to engage Holy Scripture?  Do you participate in a small group Bible study?  The Bible is a miraculous and life-giving book, but unless we give the Bible precedence in our schedules, its authority will be no more than an illusion.

If reading the Bible is new for you, it may be difficult to know where to begin.  Consider these options:

  1. Read the Gospel of Mark in one sitting.  It will scarcely take one hour, and reading the story of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection in one sitting is an enlightening encounter.
  2. Read Genesis.  From the creation of the world to the movement of Israel into Egypt, Genesis is essential reading in order to understand God’s project of salvation.
  3. Read the Psalms.   These poems carry the reader to heights of joy and through depths of sorrow.  Their truth is universal.

Golgotha Fun Park

A few miles due east of Mammoth Cave National Park in southern Kentucky, just off of U.S. Highway 70, one finds the Golgotha Fun Park.  Really.  There, rather than the stark and terrifying hill called “the Skull” on which the Romans made a practice of crucifying their victims in acts of terror, Golgotha is a putt-putt golf course designed for children and families.  Religious travelogue author Timothy Beal writes in his review, “Who wouldn’t want to putt-putt away an afternoon at Golgotha Fun Park?”

Adjacent to the putt-putt course, Golgotha Fun Park has a paintball range.  Beal points out, “The Ten Commandments say ‘Thou shalt not kill,’ but apparently pretending with paintball is okay.”

Back at the course itself, Beal describes the seventeenth hole: “Taking a sharp turn between the central cross and the one for the thief to Jesus’ left, putters finally meet the risen Lord standing at the end of a relatively long fairway atop the empty tomb…The stone is rolled away, Jesus is out.  In goes the ball.”

Golgotha Fun Park is all-too-real, but Tim Beal’s review is tongue-in-cheek.  He recognizes the surreal quality of what he sees.  Beal ends his review by offering this:

“‘Golgotha, the place of the skull,’ doesn’t exactly go with ‘fun.’  The jarring association of skulls, Crucifixion, and fun is…uncommon in the world of miniature golf, let alone theology…‘Golgotha’ and ‘fun park’ create cognitive dissonance, combining lighthearted attraction with mortality and the death of God.”

How is it that the Crucifixion was allowed to happen?  How is it that the Son of God, who entered Jerusalem less than a week ago to fanfare and alleluias, was hoisted on a rough and wooden pole to asphyxiate, naked and alone, with the added humiliation of having his mother watch him die?

There is only one answer to that question.  There is only one reason.  Jesus the Christ died today—Jesus the Christ dies today—because we deny him.

Praising Jesus on Palm Sunday right up until the moment it matters, right up until the moment it entails risk, the crowd then shouts to Pilate, “Crucify him!”  When given the chance to set Christ free, to have him returned to them, the crowd instead embraces another named Jesus Barabbas—Jesus bar Abba, which means “Jesus, son of God.”  Catch that: the crowd looks away from the Incarnate Christ in favor of a false son of God who requires nothing of them, who will not give them the discomfort and whiplash of mixing joy with sacrifice and sorrow.

Following Jesus right up until the moment that it matters, right up until the moment it entails risk, the Apostle Peter then denies him three times.  “You’re one of his disciples, aren’t you?” asks the slave of the high priest.  And Peter looks the man square in the eye and says, “I am not.”

Remembering Jesus right up until the moment it matters, right up until the moment it entails risk, only two hundred will mourn him at St. John’s today, when eight hundred sang hosanna on Palm Sunday and well over a thousand will celebrate with happy abandon on Easter Day.  The same will be true in congregations everywhere.

We deny Jesus when it matters.  And he dies naked and alone on the cross.  The Son of God dies, because we deny him.

Calling upon Jesus in our need—when we seek material comfort, or equanimity of mind, or solace from our hurts—we deny him when following Jesus means releasing him, instead of the false gods of the world, to be the Lord of us.

We deny him when following Jesus means claiming, even in the most uncomfortable circumstances, “Yes, I know the man; yes, I am his disciple.”

We deny him when it matters most, when our real-life choices are on the line, when knowing Jesus means we actually must decide differently about the kinds of persons we will be and the choices we will make.

We can’t abide the reality of the Son of God come among us and laying claim to us.  We won’t wrap our hearts around the risk and pain faith sometimes requires.  We can’t fathom Golgotha.  And so, too often we build in our hearts only fun park faith, in which a benign cartoon Jesus smiles warmly upon us as we putt-putt through life unchanged.  The image we craft, and to which we give our assent, makes a macabre mockery of Jesus, not unlike the mockery of the soldiers who dress him in purple with a crown of thorns.

This is the lowest day of the year.  It is the day of our denial.  It is the day we kill the God of love.

Blessedly, there is more.  Blessedly, the story does not end here.

You see, even as the crowd yells “Crucify him”…even as Peter says, “I do not know the man”…even as we blithely tee off at the seventeenth hole and think of the Passion only long enough for it to be brief and darkened spot in an otherwise sunny faith, God is not inactive.

Tradition tells us that during the days between Good Friday and Easter Jesus travels even into the depths of hell to save those whose denial of God continues into the next life.

And at dawn on Easter we will discover again that death cannot hold God.  Even our denial of him cannot drive him from us.  It pains God too much to lose us, and so he will go to any cost to win us back.  And on Easter, because we have acknowledged our denial and grieved for ourselves as we grieve for Jesus, the joy that comes will not be the superficial happiness of the amusement park but the joy that recognizes just how much we had to lose on this dark day.

Even now, we know what Peter and the crowd did not: Easter is coming, and it cannot come too soon.