Today is our annual parish meeting, so it seems a good time to share this anecdote. A priest of my acquaintance, rector of a prestigious urban parish for only a few months, was preparing for the parish’s annual meeting (and that’s a lot of work, as my colleagues can attest). In the midst of this, the priest’s two young children simultaneously came down with the kind of nasty bug that seems to appear regularly, all too frequently, in families with small kids. Usually at the worst possible time.
The beleaguered cleric took a moment out from preparing the obligatory annual report and tending to ailing offspring, to make this journal entry:
“Hey – it’s sick, screaming kids weekend – just in time for the Annual Meeting. Well played, Satan.”
Well played, Satan. Could there be a more appropriate, or accurate, summing up of many of the goings-on in our nation, in the world?
Well played, Satan. How else are we to understand the rancor and rudeness, the disrespect and division that surround us, that have turned public discourse into public discord?
You may wonder what Satan is doing in the midst of this reflection, this liturgy, our lives. Well, the short answer is: the usual. Wreaking havoc, leading us astray, sowing doubt and fear, encouraging us to put ourselves at the center of power and privilege and abandon others to the outskirts. Urging us to hear only our own voices, and to stifle or silence the voices of others. Even, or especially, the voice of God. Offering prosperity to a few of us, at the price of poverty for many of us. Distracting us with seductive visions of safety and security — as long as we turn a blind eye to artificial walls of division and the needs of others. Calling our attention away from the persecuted who turn to us seeking shelter, that we may focus only on our own material comfort and well being. Make no mistake: Satan will let us rule — as long as we play by Satan’s rules.
The contentious, conflicted milieu in which we find ourselves may be unfamiliar, but it is nothing new to God. The prophet Micah preached to the wayward people of Israel, reminding them of God’s steadfast love, generated not by a rota of ritual sacrifice or public display of self-righteousness, but in justice, mercy, and humility.
Paul wrote to the church in Corinth, reminding the fledgling Christians of the then-novel, topsy-turvy theology of God’s kingdom: what is foolish will shame what is wise; what is weak will shame what is strong; what is low and despised will bring to nothing worldly things and thoughts. This is Christ, and him crucified: foolish, weak, low, despised, and the hope of the world.
Perhaps in writing this Paul had in mind the familiar teaching of Jesus in the portion of Matthew’s Gospel we know as the Beatitudes. Jesus lays out a vision of the world which dwells in (straddles) two places: the present and the future.
In the present, we have those who are blessed — the poor, the mourners, the meek; in the future, they shall be comforted, shall inherit the earth.
In the present, we have those who seek righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers; in the future, they shall be satisfied, shall obtain mercy, shall see God; shall be called children of God.
In the present, we have those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake…who are reviled and have “evil uttered against them on my account”, says Jesus, reminding his listeners that the prophets, too, were so persecuted.
There are some who would inherit the earth through fear and domination. There are some who would inherit the earth through hoarding their riches like the man who came up with a plan to preserve his burgeoning treasure by tearing down his barns, and building ever-larger ones.
But Jesus assigns this inheritance of the earth not to those with earthly authority or unimaginable wealth, but to the meek.
I would like to suggest that the meek have gotten a bad rap. I once worked with a high-powered executive who scornfully spoke of the potential promotion of a less-aggressive colleague: It’ll happen, he said, when the meek inherit the earth.
Yet the coupling of the meek and the inheritance of the earth, or the land, is well grounded in scripture— for example, Psalm 37. (And let’s remember that the Psalms are essentially Jesus’ prayer book.) In this psalm, the Hebrew words used for “possess” or “dwell” or “inherit” translate more accurately, if less gracefully, as “tenant” (think of it as a verb) and “tabernacle” (same thing). Those who will tenant the land and tabernacle the earth are the godly; who are generous in giving; whose steps are directed by God; who are faithful; who keep God’s law in their heart. Those are the meek. The meek, we might say, are people who keep the two great commandments: who love God with all their heart, soul, and mind, and who love their neighbors as themselves.
This is heady stuff to lead us into, or out of, a parish annual meeting. But never was there a better time to call to remembrance why we are here, what we are doing, and for whom.