You could have heard my heart drop to my stomach when Erin brought to my attention that I had accidentally scheduled the Open House for Ohioans to Stop Executions (OTSE) for the same evening as our first celebration of Mass in our chapel.
Some people claim that there are no such things as accidents. In this case, there couldn't have been anything more appropriate than celebrating the Eucharist as a community while steeped in work for social justice. Ours is a two-for-one deal: You come for one and you get the other. The life of prayer and the work for justice are inseparable. We should have planned it this way in the first place!
The fact that this was the Feast of the Birth of St. John the Baptist--himself a victim of capital punishment in a most twisted, political climate of envy and power--was not lost on us.
A couple of events at our house have moved me to tears, and this was one of them. Folks gathered in quiet prayer in the chapel before Mass. The room lifted in song, strong voices. Fr. Jim Smith speaking the words of the Eucharistic Prayer like a poet savoring each morsel that falls from his lips.
The only downside was that the A/C made it difficult to hear during the first part of Mass, until we switched it off. Fortunately, Fr. Smith left us a printed copy of his homily to post online, so that it can be shared widely, including to those of us who didn't catch it all the first time!
Many, many thanks to Kaitlyn, our summer resident, for taking the lead in planning this Mass. Our hope is to host Mass at least once per month with a rotation of priests. She is busy working on that schedule as we speak.
Fr. Jim Smith's profound homily is as follows:
As you know, after such an auspicious Beginning, John Ended in jail. And from his prison he sent messengers to ask Jesus if he were the One. Jesus replied: "Look at the signs of God's Kingdom: the deaf hear, the blind see, the lame walk and the Poor hear the Good News."
Those may have been sufficient signs for John but you and I need more assurance. For us, signs of God's presence are health, wealth & success. Marginal people may evoke our pity; or arouse our anxiety about how vulnerable we Also are. But they do not remind us of God. For us, power & glory stir up inklings of God. So, where IS God?
Liberation Theology thinks that God became human so God could become Poor. Maybe so She could relate to them. Because poverty is un-fake-able. Even God cannot get away with being merely 'poor in spirit' - real poverty has to be experienced. So God became a poor, vulnerable baby human. And that was the Fault Line of human history: the radical, irreducible difference between a Rich God & a Poor God.
But history is written by the Victors: exploits of Kings, cleverness of cardinals. That history values strength, power & success. But what if history were written by Victims? What a different set of values that would extol! Destitute people don't need a million - a dollar will do. Starving people don't demand a banquet - a little rice is fine. Homeless people don't long for a castle - just being out of the cold is a blessing.
And Those are precisely the values which drive you & me back to our basic humanity. That is how poor people force God's presence into a rich world. Because God cannot find a foothold in a Velveeta culture; God cannot leap out of a whipped-cream society. Which means that any time we buy into secular values, whenever we move beyond basic food, shelter & clothing, just then, we pass into the world of the Un-necessary, the Super World. That is when we require Underworld people to shame us back to the basics, the simple necessities.
We must be innocent of Gandhi's Seven Modern Sins: Wealth without work, Business without morality, Pleasure without conscience, Politics without principle, Knowledge without character, Worship without sacrifice. As both ancient John and modern Bonhoeffer learned in prison: "It is not by some religious act that we become Christian, but by participating in the sufferings of God in his world."
We do not have to romanticize poverty - it has an irrefutable power all its own. Nor should we read Scripture in a simplistic, naive way. God does not have to like the Poor - but She is responsible for them. God does not help them because they Deserve it but because they Need it. Someone said that God takes care of the Poor by Default - because no one else does. So, the Kingdom is finally not about rich & poor or good & bad. God's kingdom is about the indigence of us All. In light of which differences of wealth & status are immaterial. Literally, Im-material.
Maybe you have read Flanner O'Connor's vision of the Kingdom: "A vast horde was rumbling toward heaven. White trash clean for the first time, black people in white robes, freaks & lunatics shouting & clapping & leaping like frogs. And bringing up the rear was the tribe of Our Kind of people: who always had a little of everything and the wit to use it right. They were marching with great dignity, accountable as they had always been for good order and common sense and respectable behavior. They alone were singing on key. Yet, one could see by their shocked & altered faces that even their Virtues were being burned away."
Of such as these is the Kingdom on earth as it is in Heaven.