Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Mincing No Words

Scripture for the 2nd Sunday in Lent includes Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18; Philippians 3:17-4:1; Luke 13:31-35

On June 2, 2012, the same day when we in Western Massachusetts elected a new bishop, the people of the Diocese of Atlanta elected as their new bishop another priest from the Diocese of New York, Rob Wright.

On Wednesday, Bishop Wright appeared under the gold dome of the Georgia State House, to give the prayer opening a session of the Georgia legislature. Handlers of clergy invited to that honored task warn each cleric not to delve into issues that may be under consideration by lawmakers, but to stay above the fray and keep it in neutral.

Bishop Wright doesn’t handle well. He offered a prayer, but not until he had also offered a message to legislators. In his warm-up, he urged lawmakers to “hold on to your souls and your most generous selves in the face of the insidious temptation to care narrowly for your own constituency. Inspire us by your boldness,” he urged.

The real task of representatives, he said, is not “to mummify the Constitution with our fear but to revive its best hopes with our courage and compassion.” Arriving at the heart of his message, he called upon legislators to provide “greater safety for her citizens—greater safety for her children” by enacting universal background checks for gun purchases.

“It is hollow,” he said, “to respond to parents who have lost children to gun violence that their dead child is somehow just the price of keeping the Second Amendment intact. And it is unseemly to bury our law enforcement men and women knowing we didn’t give them every advantage over the criminals they face…. I urge this body: Lead the South again from this gold dome, provide for the law-abiding gun owner and sportsman while at the same time making Georgia more safe.”

According to Episcopal News Service, Bishop Wright also called upon legislators to pass laws providing for “the ignorant, the indigent and the immigrants of our state. Step over your fears,” he said, “and do what is right on behalf of the elderly, the poor, the orphan, the veteran, the prisoner and those who love differently. The time is always right to do right. This is what Jesus of Nazareth invites us to do.”

Atlanta television did not miss this moment. Interviewed afterward, the state representative who invited Bishop Wright said she found his remarks refreshing: time to nerve up!”, she quipped. Another lawmaker, with a sheepish grin, said that this was a no-no… but refreshing. Members of one party issued a statement to the effect that the Bishop’s comments were completely inappropriate. I imagine they drew a sharp distinction between his exhortation and his prayer (which, by the way, I found less inspiring than his exhortation). They wanted him to stick to praying, but I would say that he prayed throughout; only it was through them rather than above them or around them, and I suspect they just weren’t used to piercing prayer.

I do wonder what it will be like to be the next clergyperson to offer prayer under that gold dome… I hope he or she will rise to the challenge and the opportunity.

Our New Testament readings today come in the voices of two men who also minced no words, Paul and Jesus.

Paul reminds the Christians at Philippi that their citizenship is in heaven. The Greek word that is translated citizenship (politeuma, a word that shares its root with our word “political”) is used both of the commonwealth or state to which people belong and the citizenship (the privileges and duties) given to them. How did the Philippians take to this message that they had privileges and duties beyond those that pertained to Philippi?

They understood. Philippi was a Roman colony, so its citizens held citizenship also in the distant city of Rome—and they may well have been proud of it. It was in Philippi that Paul, after being publicly beaten and thrown in jail because of his public ministry, declared himself a Roman citizen, and therefore entitled to due process of Roman law (this to prevent the police and local magistrates from covering up their illegal man-handling of Paul and his fellow believers). Paul’s faith committed him to speak truth to power, and while he might have lived a longer apostolic life if he had kept his mouth shut, he would fulfill his apostolate only by seeking justice for his vulnerable community of believers. He chose to take his case to the supreme court, the emperor’s court in Rome, where, instead of vindication, he would meet his death.

To Philippians hearing that they were citizens of another commonwealth, that claim would have made sense. But no, he insists: another commonwealth beyond the Roman empire, is what I mean. In fact, another commonwealth diametrically opposed to the violent, destructive, terror-dominated, belly-driven, humiliating values of Rome is what I mean, what I point you to. The kingdom of God is that higher power that shapes Christians’ choices, forms believers’ faith, and commands the church’s allegiance.

And each Christian’s choices, faith, and allegiance play their part in the coming of that kingdom on earth. For us, kingdom is a time-encrusted metaphor, isn’t it? Perhaps different language--the rule of God, the reign of God makes the point better in the 21st century. Here is how New Zealand Anglicans express the heart of their Lord’s Prayer:

“The hallowing of your name echo through the universe!
The way of your justice be followed by the peoples of the world!
Your heavenly will be done by all created beings!
Your commonwealth of peace and freedom sustain our hope and come on earth.”

Paul’s passion for justice comes from the passion of his savior, Jesus. Paul is the apple falling not far from its tree: Jesus won’t hide from imperial authority, but willingly stands in the cross-hairs of the very system he wishes to confront and change.

Apparently sympathetic Pharisees approach Jesus. Perhaps they’re just devious, tempting him, like Satan in the wilderness, to let anxiety govern his choices. “Run!” they urge Jesus, “Run for your life. Herod’s after you.”

Jesus brushes off this warning as if it were an annoying housefly. He calls King Herod a fox—sly, cunning, evasive, voracious. Go tell that fox, says Jesus, that I am here today, will be here tomorrow, and the day after that as well. If he wants an appointment, let him call. What I’ll be doing is what I do: freeing people from their demons, healing people, repairing the damage done to people’s souls and bodies. What he didn’t need to say hung overhead like a rainbow: All these actions of his demonstrate the nearness of the kingdom of God, the commonwealth of peace and freedom.

He knows where it will lead. To Jerusalem, the capital, the gold dome, the temple parapet, the corridors of power. There his truth must be spoken, and he will not back down from doing that hard work. Nor will Paul in Rome. Nor will Aslan in Narnia. Or Bishop Wright in Atlanta.

Who will do that in Boston? In Washington? Could we get Bishop Wright invited to open a joint session of the United States Congress?

Washington, Washington, the city that strangles leaders and silences prophets, and turns to stone those who are sent to it!

It’s no abuse of the Torah to lift language from our Hebrew Bible reading today and say that a deep and terrifying darkness has descended in Washington. Visibility is so bad, transparency so clouded and initiative so blocked that we’d do well to pray for a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch to pass through and focus us all on what the covenant of citizenship requires: courage, compassion, cooperation, and a willingness to be gathered under the wings of Lady Wisdom, who teaches a precious balance between privilege and responsibility.