Pentecost 16

Proper 17  ~  Lectionary Year  A  ~  August 31, 2008

Holy Trinity & St. Anskar


For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life?


+In the Name of God, the Holy and Undivided Trinity


What is this life  ~  this soul that we must lose ~ in order to find it? What are the divine things that Peter fails to set his mind upon, so that the rock of truth turns into another kind of rock – a stumbling block and an obstacle in the way of life? What is the world, to which Paul advises us not to be conformed?  What are those words that Jeremiah said he ate and they became to him a delight and the joy of his heart? What is the life that we shall lose if we try to save it?

          Among the inexhaustible profundities of this paradox, there is one to be found in today’s epistle, where the Apostle tells us that we who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another. To look for life anywhere else than in this Body is to lose our life. To imagine ourselves to be independent of it is death. To live as though we were a law unto ourselves is to die. Such a mistake petrifies a soul, like Peter, the Rock was petrified by setting his mind on earthly things.  .

          The mind set on earthly things ~ the worldly, fleshly consciousness,  conformed unto the world, as Paul put it ~ is a sense of self APART from the Body. Apart from others. And therefore APART from God, because a refusal to obey the second great commandment: to love your neighbor As YOURSELF, is a refusal also of the first, which is like it. One who declares himself apart from neighbor declares himself APART also from God, whom his neighbor resembles.

          The opposite of this apartheid is the solidarity of the Body, in Paul’s great analogy. It is not confined to the Church: this solidarity extends to all humanity and to all created flesh, to be united in the Mystical Body of Christ at the end of time, a unity of which the visible Church in the Holy Eucharist is a foretaste and pledge. We are all members of one another right now, in and out of the visible Church. The mystical solidarity of the Body of Christ is not to be distinguished from the social solidarity with one another here and now, which the Gospel calls the Reign of God. The mystical theology of the Christian tradition here yokes itself to a political economy that can be called Christian, and to a principle the late Pope John Paul II called the priority of labor.

          Yes, on Labor Day weekend, we contemplate the mystical Body – the life which we find by losing the imaginary life of  autonomy and apartheid, and the convergence of today’s readings with our own national celebration invites us to recognize the connection between the spiritual truth and our own political structures and struggles.  Just as I cannot find spiritual fulfillment alone, just as my own theosis or transfiguration into the divine likeness happens within the communion of the Church, so the justice we seek in our social arrangements requires us to renounce the illusion of individuality. We are individually members of one another in human society right now, and not only in a sacramental, mystical sense. Social solidarity reflects the solidarity of creation in general in Christ.

          That means that the work we do in the world, whatever it is, is not for ourselves alone and for our own enrichment or “getting ahead”. That kind of thinking is petrified. Satanic. It is a thirst for blood, a hand full of evil plots, a right hand full of bribes.  The political economy of “getting ahead” is nothing other than pure capitalism! (A word that comes from “head” and means “getting ahead”.) Now there is nothing wrong with accumulating capital, as long as it is for the purpose of the common good, and the general advancement of the Body of which we are all members.  But the work we do in the world is not for our enrichment as individuals; it is our contribution to the life of the body, and our way of loving our neighbor as ourselves.

          And that work comes first. It is the source of capital and it is more important than capital. It has been said that capital is nothing other than stored labor; a way of saving our labor so that its fruits may be enjoyed later, rather like energy is stored in a battery. Labor is prior to capital. More importantly, as the Pope said, our work is our way of obeying the second commandment. It expresses our love of neighbor. It is our participation in one another’s lives, that is, in the common life of the body. Our work expresses our solidarity with the rest of the human community. Everyone’s work, however humble, is sacred, and of equal importance    just as all the members of a physical body are equal in importance. In our work, we pour out our vital energy ~ our life ~ and our creativity ~ the image of God ~ for one another, for the common good.  By this contribution, we lose our life as individuals and exchange them for the incomparably more satisfying life of solidarity and mutual love.

          Therefore, it is fundamentally sinful to exploit or cheat a worker or to force anyone to work against her will. The Law of Moses says that it is a sin that cries out to heaven for justice. Our work may be our contribution to the common life, but we are not reducible to our work. Our dignity as the personal image of God means that our labor must never be reduced to the level of a commodity, to be bought and sold according to the so-called “law” of supply and demand. Slavery is the great enemy of human solidarity. If the apostolic church did not denounce slavery, it was because it thought the world was coming to an end, and it would be gone soon enough. Later, the Apostles’ successors gradually prevailed over the empire to mitigate and finally to abolish slavery.  But sinful ingenuity found other ways to cheat and exploit human labor, and today those with “hands full of bribes” seem to write the laws of our own country.

          Because, in this vale of tears, such sinful motives are very much with us, for more than a hundred years, the Church has recognized the righteousness of workers organizing to safeguard the dignity of their labor.  That it might not be reduced to mere commodity by inhuman structures of avarice. This is not “class warfare” or the adoption of a materialist ideology. It is a way of exercising our God-ordained solidarity and incarnating the fact that we ARE all members of one another.  An injury to one is an injury to all.

          Here’s a historical fact: the standard of living of working people is directly proportionate to union membership. The greater the percentage of our population that belongs to labor unions, the higher the general standard of living and the smaller the gap between rich and poor. Those who want to weaken and destroy the labor movement and increase that gap are the class warriors. As we have moved in that direction abuses thought long-ago eradicated have crept back into our society: exploitation that amounts to slavery in sweat-shops from Mannhattan to the Marshall Islands, and plantations from Florida the Pacific Northwest. And the victims are not only the especially vulnerable newcomers who can’t speak English. Native-born suburban white kids have been ensnared in schemes involving door-to-door sales, in which they are threatened with physical violence if they try to escape, just like Abramoff’s new slaves in the U.S. Marshall Islands or the agricultural debt-peons in the South. This has happened because of the deliberate weakening of labor unions in our country, and because of federal executives generally unsympathetic to the nation’s labor laws. So now the same irrational hatred of government regulation that brought us the Savings and Loan scandals and the crisis in the housing market (which still threatens to sink the whole world in a depression so vast as to make the ‘30s seem an era of relative prosperity) this same laissez faire idiocy has succeeded in re-introducing slavery into the United States.

          In the name of freedom, we have embraced slavery. What will they gain if they forfeit their life? Is this not an example of losing our life ~ or our soul ~ by trying to save it? This is the rock we trip over when we set our minds on earthly things (“getting ahead”) rather than divine things (solidarity). We have to stop thinking of ourselves as APART from everybody else and instead allow the Holy Spirit to transform us by the renewing of our minds, so that we really identify ourselves as members of one another. It may seem like death and loss, but if we are to live at all, in the end like Jeremiah we must EAT the words of God as they are found, so that they may become our joy and the delight of our hearts:

those who want to save their life will lose it, and

those who lose their life for my sake will find it

This is true religion, which we pray today may increase in us. This is the awful Love of the Name, which we pray today God may graft into our hearts. This is the good works which we pray today God may bring forth in us: the life of solidarity in the Body of Christ, and in the human commonwealth of labor:  His Kingdom come on earth as in heaven.