Saturday, October 08, 2011
Occupy the Kingdom of Heaven
I'll be preaching at three services, and the last one will include the Blessing of the Animals, right in the middle of the service. We'll see if the barking dogs and wailing cats drown me out! As always, I'll bring photos of our three, but won't subject them to the alarm and indignity of being stuffed into their carriers and driven to a Place With Dogs.
Today we observe the Feast of St. Francis of Assisi. Born in 1181, the son of a wealthy cloth merchant, Francis spent his early years partying with rich friends. He was a rising merchant himself, but after a religious conversion in his mid-twenties, he put aside his costly clothing to wear beggar’s rags. Determined to imitate Christ’s life by doing Christ’s work, Francis founded an order devoted to poverty. He turned from the riches of the marketplace to the splendors of the natural world, calling all creatures his brothers and sisters. He is the patron saint of the poor, of merchants – those two sound like a contradiction, until you know his story – of ecology, and of animals. At the 5:00 service today, we will bless companion animals in his name.
Today we observe the Feast of St. Francis. Today we are also called to ponder the Parable of the Wedding Feast, which contains its own contradictions. Who wouldn’t want to attend such a fabulous party? And why, after being dragged in off the street at the last minute, is one of the guests thrown out again for not wearing party apparel? That detail’s especially startling against the background of Francis pulling off his stylish threads to wear a hair shirt. Isn’t casual Friday what Christ would want? Since when does God have a dress code?
The parable offers some clues about why the people on the first guest list don’t show. “They made light of it and went away, one to his farm, another to his business.” These guests have no time for a party; they have to work. The farmer grows his own food. He doesn’t need anybody else’s banquet. Another needs to tend to his business to make money. No handouts for these two, nosirree. They’ll put their own food on their own tables all by themselves.
In his homily last week, Father Kirk talked about how difficult it can be for us to recognize grace, the unearned gifts we receive from God. The parable of the wedding banquet is a prime example. When the invited guests reject God’s grace and send regrets, the banquet’s thrown open to everybody. But we still have to wonder what’s up with the dress code.
Nine years ago, I heard a very fine preacher explain that the wedding robe is metaphorical. The guest didn’t bring his best, most joyous self to God’s banquet. Whatever his body wore, his soul wasn’t clothed in its brightest garments. That’s a good answer, but it didn’t completely satisfy me. Nine years later, preparing to preach today, I found the tensions between wealth and poverty in Francis’ life starkly mirrored in the news. Exploring those parallels, I found another possible answer to that nagging question about the banquet.
However you feel about the Occupy Wall Street Movement, the grassroots protest that has now spread across the country, no one can deny that issues of poverty and privilege are at its heart. The protest is driven by rage at economic injustice, at the growing chasm between rich and poor. Reading about it reminds me not only of Francis’ call to voluntary poverty, but of Jesus’ challenges to the wealthy and powerful of his own day. But the rhetoric on both sides is filled with anger, ugly us/them divisions. Where is the love Jesus insisted on? Watching this hurts.
And then, a few days ago, I found a blog maintained by a group of Boston-based Christians, many affiliated with the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts, who call themselves Protest Chaplains. One of them, Kevin Vetiac, writes about marching down Wall Street: “We were there to be a specifically Christian witness against corporate greed and excess and the exploitation of the poor.” Protest Chaplain Marisa Egerstrom, writing on the CNN blog, describes the community created by the protesters. “Trained medics volunteer their skills to treat injuries and illness. The food station is ‘loaves and fishes’ in action: There is always more than enough to eat, and homeless folks eat side by side with lawyers and students off of donated plates.” Protest Chaplain Dave Woessner, describing Occupy Boston as “real community,” lists free food, free medical care, and “the ‘really really free market’ of clothes and supplies.”
Always more than enough to eat? That sounds like a banquet to me. These descriptions also sound like the early church in the Book of Acts: “All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.” And when I read about the “really really free market” of clothes, the wedding robe in today’s Gospel suddenly came into new focus.
The king in the parable sends his slaves out into the streets to gather anyone they can find. What if those streets are occupied by a real community, with a really really free market of clothing? What if anyone can have a wedding robe, just for the asking, and this unnamed guest has refused to ask: out of pride, out of sloth, out of shame at accepting the generosity of others? What if he won’t take anything he hasn’t earned or paid for? What if he refuses grace? If he can’t accept a free robe, how joyously can he accept the king’s hospitality, all that free food?
This is a partial answer too. Jesus told parables to make us ask questions, to make us think. When this reading comes around in another three years, our answers will look different, because we’ll be living in different circumstances.
There is no doubt, though, that Jesus wants us to occupy the Kingdom of Heaven in the here and now. This isn’t the afterlife; it’s the reign of God here on earth. Jesus says it is within us and all around us. The keys to its gates are love of neighbors, forgiveness of enemies, and renunciation of wealth and power. Sometimes we catch glimpses of the Kingdom even in the midst of chaos and violence.
The Occupy Wall Street movement has produced disturbing reports of police brutality. They’re among the grimmest of the us/them stories coming out of the demonstrations. But Protest Chaplain Julia Capurso writes in delight about a police officer who, instead of beating or macing the sidewalk protesters, coached them instead: “You need practice! Stand together so you’ll look stronger! Keep your feet moving!” This officer proves that us/them divisions can be overcome, that those in power can reach over social barriers to offer aid and encouragement.
Here’s another story about power, poverty, and feasting. It happened right here in Reno, and it includes St. Francis’ beloved animals. During one of my volunteer shifts at the hospital, a nurse told me about a homeless patient who’d come to the ER. Waiting for some tests, the patient worried about his pets. “I had to leave them outside, with my shopping cart,” he said.
The nurse went outside, and found a shopping cart loaded with the patient’s possessions, including two clean, spacious pet carriers. In one, a calm, healthy cat was eating a piece of boneless chicken breast. In the other, a calm, healthy guinea pig was nibbling on a piece of biscotti. The nurse went back inside and told the patient, “Your pets are fine. Don’t worry.”
But a passerby saw the animals and called Animal Control. The patient was terrified that his beloved pets would be taken away. But after the Animal Control officer had looked at the cat and the guinea pig, he came back inside to talk to the patient. “Your pets look fine, sir, and I can tell you’re taking good care of them. But, you know, it’s dangerous for them out there, because someone could steal them or hurt them. So here’s my card. The next time you have to come to the ER, please call me, and I’ll come watch your animals to make sure they’re safe.”
Instead of abusing his power, the Animal Control officer used it to love a poor neighbor. I think both Francis and Jesus would approve. I think the Protest Chaplains would, too.