Saturday, August 30, 2014

Bread and Roses: Elizabeth of Hungary, Poverty, and Justice

[Given in St John's Chapel at the Episcopal Divinity School in November 1999. Posted for Labor Day 2014]

A woman, a widow with three children, no stranger to poverty, dies of exhaustion at the age of 27. The setting could be the barrios of Manila today or of rural Palestine in the first century, but it was Marburg in Germany in 1231. The woman was not born to poverty but to wealth and power, and chose a life of service to and even identification with the poor. This was St Elizabeth of Hungary.

Elizabeth was born in Hungary, a daughter of the King, and at 14 married the ruler of one of the principalities in what is now Germany. Like Margaret of Scotland whom we remembered earlier in the week, at least part of her fame lay in generous and compassionate use of power to address gross poverty and sickness. Like Margaret, Elizabeth was distinguished by charitable works and the founding of hospitals. Elizabeth is somewhat different, however, in the extent or depth of her identification with the poor.

Elizabeth, like Hilda of Whitby whom we celebrated yesterday, is the subject of one of the windows in the North transept of the St John’s Chapel at the Episcopal Divinity School. Many are not aware of this and some might assume that Blessed Mary is the royal personage, but no, it is the rather un-Anglo-Saxon Elizabeth. The popularity of Elizabeth in Episcopalian stained glass and suchlike in the later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries would make a good Master’s thesis for anyone curious the intersection of art, popular piety and social concern. She stands opposite the window of her teacher Francis – whether there was any intentionality about that I do not know – but her pairing with Michael the Archangel in the transept is said to represent the balance or interdependence of spiritual warfare (his work) with social outreach (hers).

 But I confess to being both fascinated and disappointed by various details of the window. She is depicted as a queen, which she was, distributing food to children. Her complex crown – a triple crown in some depictions – reflects her royal birth, royal marriage and heavenly coronation as a saint.

The disappointment comes mainly from the image of Elizabeth as the kindly philantropist, moved internally but unaffected materially by those to whom she ministers. Her clothes are royal, theirs are rags. In fact her own life was marked by personal struggle and suffering, including poverty. Her generosity during her husband’s life went beyond noblesse oblige to sacrificial and controversial measures. She used both her dowry and later her personal jewelry to respond to the needs of the local people in Wartburg, earning as much opposition and anger from others in the court as appreciation from the poor.

From the age of sixteen she was greatly influenced by her older contemporary Francis of Assisi, who had also chosen poverty rather than being born to it. When Friars visited her city she was inspired by the preaching she heard and became a Tertiary, the first member in Germany of the third order which opened the Franciscan life and spirit to women and men who were married or otherwise engaged in secular life.

Here’s the part that fascinated me. In her basket are bread and roses. When EDS tutor David Siegenthaler pointed this out I first didn’t think much of it, although it reminded me of the old socialist song of that name:

“As we go marching, marching, in the beauty of the day,
A million darkened kitchens, a thousand mill lofts gray,
Are touched with all the radiance that a sudden sun discloses,
For the people hear us singing: Bread and Roses! Bread and Roses!”

I discovered that the basis of the image in the window is a story of Elizabeth’s attempt to continue her service to the poor after the death of her husband and the accession of his less sympathetic brother. As she was smuggling bread out of the castle in her apron, she was challenged by her relative, and when she opened the apron what was inside were just the roses.

The epilogue to this connection was my discovery that the socialist and feminist anthem quoted was written in 1912 at the time of the strike by women mill workers in Lawrence, Massachusetts. I cannot help wondering whether this window or others like it were known to the writer, to the singers, or how this window looked to those who worshipped here in that year.

Having donned the Franciscan habit, Elizabeth lived with and for the poor thereafter until her early death. In her identification with the poor despite her royal status, power and wealth, and her acceptance of the radical spirit of the Gospel and not mere of philanthropy, Elizabeth not only fills the role of saint, or saintly woman in particular but actually transforms it. Praxis here is not merely charity or even activism, but a personal spiritual transformation that expresses the necessity of faith and justice to one another, not just bread but roses too. Retaining both elements, bread and roses, the artist of the window invokes for me something of the same “both and” expressed in the song:

"Our lives shall not be sweated from birth until life closes;
Hearts starve as well as bodies; give us bread, but give us roses!"

Friday, August 22, 2014

The Importance of Being Wrong

[Proper 15, Year A: Is 56: 1, 6-8, Ps 67, Rom 11:1-2a, 29-32, Matt 15: 21-28]

Don’t you just hate it when Jesus is wrong?

Lastman, Christ and the Canaanite Woman
(Web Gallery of Art)
In the Gospel for this week from the Common Lectionary, Jesus signally fails to say what we all know he ought to have said. Let me be clear: when he says to his disciples that he was sent "only to the lost sheep of Israel," and to the Canaanite woman that one should not take "the children’s food and give it to the dogs," surely this is wrong.

What I want him to have said, and maybe you will think similarly, is something like this: "I was sent not only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel, but to lost sheep—and dogs—everywhere. In me there is neither dog nor sheep, Canaanite nor Israelite, male nor female.” I want a Jesus who will uncompromisingly reject the barriers by which people oppress, exclude, marginalize. I want all to be children, or at least to be sheep—and for all to feast. Instead we have talk of dogs, and crumbs.

Jesus misses the golden opportunity for the unambiguous teaching moment that we could all have been using this past week regarding events in Ferguson, Missouri; earlier in the month regarding the crisis on Mt Sinjar; all year, regarding events in Gaza, and who knows where else for centuries before now. Hasn’t he even read Isaiah 56 (which we just heard) and the promise of God calling all nations to the holy mountain?

This group, leaning generally if not universally to the more progressive side of religion and/or politics (according to the latest scientific poll taken at coffee hour today), are not the only ones to have been disappointed by Jesus. The 20th Century German NT scholar Ernst K√§semann tells a story of a group of conservative Dutch Reformed elders who gathered on the eve of disastrous floods that in 1953 threatened to overwhelm the dykes that protected their homes from the threatening tides of the North Sea. Their theological dilemma was not one of persons but of time; the floods threatened to hit on a Sunday, and they were being called to reinforce the dykes on the “Sabbath” when Calvinist ethic demanded pious inactivity. The minister, seeking to enrich the conversation, pointed out that Jesus himself had asked about the forms Sabbath observance should take, and said it was lawful to do good on the Sabbath. One elder voiced the doubts others were feeling:

"I have been troubled, pastor, by something I have not been able to say in public. Now the time has come to say it. I have always had the feeling our Lord Jesus was just a bit of a liberal.”1

Truth be told, Jesus is often getting it wrong, making mistakes, disappointing us. He thinks Moses wrote the Pentateuch and David the Psalms—you’ve got about a week left to live with those fantasies, junior class. A little earlier on this journey, he wants a fruitless fig tree to yield out of season—no happy ending there. And a few verses after this story, it’s Peter who shows what it means to be right, saying Jesus is the Messianic savior of Israel; but instead of accepting and throwing off the yoke of Roman oppression, Jesus predicts his doom, calls a friend one who will turn out to betray him—and gets himself killed.

So failing to fix the anti-Canaanite dogs-and-crumbs problem isn’t so much a departure from the usual for Jesus, it’s characteristic. Being disappointed by Jesus’ failure isn’t so much an exception in the Gospels, it’s typical.

The good news is that this is what incarnation means. God’s encounter with us in Jesus is a sharing in our own limitations, even our mortality. A Gospel with no mistakes might not have mere crumbs for dogs, but it has no cross either. The Gospel has a cross, because it is a Gospel for a real world that has crosses in it.

Jesus’ encounter with the Canaanite woman isn’t perfect—that’s because the situation in which they meet is not perfect. Some commentators see the Canaanite woman as challenging and instructing Jesus, even changing his heart and mind. The text allows this conclusion. Yet in their encounter, each of these two speaks from the beginning in ways whose honesty is discomforting for us, because they do not avoid what unmistakably real for them.  The greater error is that of the disciples, who want to sent the woman and her need away—Jesus will not. Jesus joins in the difficult conversation. He does not however pretend at any point that Canaanites will no longer struggle for Israelite crumbs, when he has gone on his way from the region of Tyre and Sidon. But neither does he deny that a certain woman’s faith is great. And for all the verbal sparring, on that day more than crumbs was given, and a child—not a dog—was restored and healed.

At this table we commemorate and share with the real Jesus, who apparently makes mistakes; above all, the mistake of becoming a vulnerable person who has a body and blood to spill and share, not just fine fare that is all plenty and no pain. These, however, are crumbs worth gathering. The God he reveals likewise may not run the world the way we might prefer, but has entered into it fully and shared in our reality, with honesty and no qualms. Even God has let go of being “right” all the time.

God does not ask you to be right today, or in class, or when the first paper is handed in, or the first quiz completed; not to be right first, but to be here. So, come to this table, trusting not in your own right-ness, but in God’s many-fold and great mercy. God may not give you what you want first either, but here Jesus gives us what we need. God’s crumbs are worth begging for, but we will be fed more generously than that, with Jesus’ very presence. Thus, we may ever more dwell in him, and he in us.

Fed, empowered, embodied thus, we are called to travel into different and difficult places; to pursue God’s uncomfortable conversations about love and justice and healing and wholeness; and to be willing to be at least as wrong as he was.

Sermon from the Berkeley Divinity School Community Eucharist, Marquand Chapel, Yale Divinity School, during Before the Fall Orientation 2014

1. Jesus Means Freedom (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1970) 16

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Gutenberg in Melbourne: Inventing the Bible

From the Manchester Gutenberg Bible: the beginning of
Paul's Letter to the Romans
The rare and valuable character of the Gutenberg Bible, an example of which is about to be exhibited at the University of Melbourne's Baillieu Library (on loan from the John Rylands Library of the University of Manchester), belies its real significance.

What is most remarkable about this first book printed with movable type is that it heralded an era of plentiful and cheap books. For all its passing resemblance to the beautiful illuminated manuscripts of its own time, the spiritual offspring of Gutenberg's project are the aesthetically modest Bibles of modern hotel-room drawers, and indeed mass-produced paperbacks in general.

Before Gutenberg or what Gutenberg and his Bible represent, much of what is now taken for granted about books, secular and sacred alike, was impossible. The new technology, based on a flexible and reusable type whose expense could be recouped not just in multiple copies of a single work, but in an infinite number of works, ushered in new possibilities beyond Gutenberg's intention or imagination.

Prior to the invention of movable type, books in the West were of course rare and expensive. This meant not only that they were largely in the hands of wealthy individuals and powerful institutions, but also that the purposes of books were largely focussed on the public liturgy and private devotions of Christianity.

The contents of those older scriptural books conformed only rarely to the modern idea of a "Bible". Gospel books, epistolaries, psalters, lectionaries, and other collections and selections from a biblical library, were the tools of trade of those who led liturgy, and the media through which most heard scripture read. But they were not "Bibles".

Johannes Gutenberg's project was not intended to change this social and religious reality, so much as profit from it; his market was still an elite section of society, as the impressive "rubrication" (supplementary decoration and adornment) of the Gutenberg Bible makes clear enough. After all, relatively few had the level of education that allowed them to read. And while Gutenberg's Bible heralded a new level of access to the biblical text, his own publication was still the traditional Vulgate, the canonical Latin scriptural text of the Roman Catholic Church. The new printed Bible preceded the German Reformation by the best part of a century.

It is hyperbolic to say that Gutenberg "invented" the Bible; but without him the Bible as it is now understood in many places - as a single and particular book synonymous in content with the canon of Christian scripture -  simply could not have come about. Christian scripture, of course, is very much older, but these sacra biblia ("holy books") hitherto constituted not a single book but an inspired library, which most heard communally rather than read individually. As already noted, the conjunction and collection of different scriptural works in one binding was determined mostly by liturgical use. When the whole of scripture could readily be encompassed in a single volume (or two, as most Gutenberg Bibles were bound), a new possibility emerged; the library of scripture now became a single book, and canon itself, rather than devotional and communal use, determined its internal architecture.

The disruptive character of the new technology, and its potential significantly to increase access to scriptural and other texts, thus did not appear overnight, and required other social and intellectual developments to catalyse it. The emergence of a bourgeoisie whose interests, material and spiritual, did not sit easily with the traditional alliance of Church and old aristocracy, was crucial. As a larger group of educated and increasingly powerful merchants and professionals found themselves able to ponder scripture, as well as the classics and other sources encouraging critical reasoning, they were ripe also for the ideas of such as Luther. The new printing technology then allowed the very writings that fomented reform to circulate rapidly, too.

While it is impossible to imagine Protestantism, or the place of the Bible in it, without these complementary social and technological developments, there were further changes before distinctive modern forms of western Christianity, with their assumptions about faith and spirituality based on personal Bible reading, could emerge. Gutenberg's movable type did not yet create mass literacy, or make Bibles cheap enough for typical households. Yet it had allowed the idea of a "Bible" in a hitherto almost impossible sense.

While this technological revolution in printing was a necessary condition of democratising literacy in general and the Bible in particular, the same developments were at best a two-edged sword for the centrality of the Bible, and for the place of Christianity in western culture. For the infinite variability of moveable type heralded a new and open-ended set of textual possibilities; if the Bible were indeed a "book", it would now have many other books alongside it, and form part of an increasingly complex  and competitive library of meaning.