The world has gotten themselves a new pope. Jorge Mario Bergoglio, (though in Argentina, I have come to understand that despite being an Italian name, it is pronounced BergoGlio) now known to the world as Pope Francis I, the other person aside from Queen Elizabeth who, so far as I know can travel the world without a passport.
And he seems an interesting man. I have some personal affinity with him as I have come to understand that since he was made Archbishop of Buenos Aires, he has refused to live in the Archbishop’s Palace, preferring to live in a downtown apartment and prepare his own meals, even going so far as to decline the chauffeured car that is his due in that position in favor of riding public transit. As a public transportation aficionado, I have been to Kenwood and the city this past week on the bus, I warmly welcome someone with less affectation than average.
I especially liked the scene when he was made pontiff when the official sacristan of the Vatican, a position I assume requires either years of training or an advanced degree in liturgical studies or some such, was trying to get him dressed and he kept trying to fend things off, kept trying to carry less weight, I am sure, in his vestments, kept interfering rather than sitting there in regal splendor and being ministered to as his predecessors have done.
Then, afterwards, instead of riding in the pope mobile or other limousine accommodations back to the residence where the cardinals were staying, he climbed back on the bus that carried the rest of them, apparently chatting and laughing.
Now, it should be noted that the pope and I have different opinions on a large number of things, theological and ecclesiological, but I do like the guy’s style.
And it is not the specifics of his style that appeal to me. For example: while I also ride the bus, it is not his bus riding that appeals. I like that fact that throughout his career, he has remained a priest throughout, acting as pastor and serving as an example of how he thought his flock ought to believe, and pray, and serve. He didn’t stop being Jorge Bergoglio when he became Archbishop and then Cardinal, the advancement in career did not change, so far as we can tell from here, who he was, and what he saw his calling as being.
Accepted, established wisdom aside, he clung to what he saw as right. I hope that that spirit can survive his current position, which must just be a killer. I can only imagine the thought of being responsible for the faith and lives of over a billion people, heck I cannot even imagine being president, so this whole pope thing throws me.
We have a culture that tells us what is right, just as they do at the Vatican. We have certain expectations placed upon us as we travel through the world, through our careers, we are supposed to drive certain things, and have certain things and believe certain things. Advancement in any realm of endeavor should, we are told, be accompanied by a commensurate rise in your standard of living reflected in nicer cars (it used to mean larger cars), nicer homes (it now means larger homes, though it didn’t used to), finer garments, (I can still remember tailor made shirts, oh, such rapture!) nicer amenities, more and nicer are your rewards for advancing in your field.
One of the problems I see with that scenario is, of course, that there is always a higher level, if satisfying the drive to advance and to have the stuff that are the marks of advancement then when do you know that you have enough? What is the level of advancement that is the one that fulfills your dreams? Hey, Bob down the street isn’t any better off than me, so why does he have a new Mercedes? I’d better get back to work so I can have one too, but a newer one, a nicer one. The things that we dreamed of when we were kids seem too little, satisfactions we enjoyed when we bought our first house seem paltry as the scale slides around, changing what is cool changing the target we are trying to hit.
The car you are told is the right one for a person of your stature changes from a large American sedan to a sporty European coupe. The home theater you built in the nineties is passé now and you really need an indoor pool and spa. You never really have to think about what you want, just open a magazine or turn on the television, they’ll tell you what you want, what you need to have to feel like you are a part of the world.
Even amongst the people of God this problem persists, just look at the stuff that goes with being the pope. All of the trappings, the fisherman’s ring to the mitre and all of the rest, do they contribute to the function of the papacy? When I was in New York the Lutheran Bishop wore chasuble and carried the crosier, the big shepherd’s staff and mitre when he processed into our Chrism mass worship, heck even the bishop of this synod carries a crosier. How much of that is just trappings, and by trappings, I mean the trap we fall into when we think that the job we have been selected for somehow changes us, makes us more than we were before. Better, stronger, faster. Sorry, six million dollar man reference.
I find it a little disturbing that the Supreme Court justices in this country have taken to more and more florid displays of their magnificence when it comes to their robes. No more simple black robes adorning the keepers of the justice, now they are stylish and rakish and even a little showy, though still all black. Since when did the servants of the ruler (that’s supposed to be you and me in this country) become princes in their own right?
But you’ve got to do it, you’ve got to have some outward sign that you are a success, that you are winning.
So what happens when someone decides that there is a better way? What happens when someone proposes that giving is actually better than having? What do we do as a people when the notion changes to what can we give instead of what can we get?
Why, naturally we turn that into competition as well, only this time we collect scars, and carry our righteousness like a trophy before us. We make saints out of those who have given everything and call into question the faith of those who fall short. A number of times I have heard people saying that this or that person comes to church in order to be seen coming to church and the speaker is always convinced that they have much nobler motivations.
The trappings of this particular standard are no less traps, and while they might be less showy, they are no less potent as traps. To hear the accolades of the crowd, to feel their love and approval, to know for a fact that you are better than other people because just look at how much you’ve given! I drive a very old car because I give all of my money to the poor. i give up Saturdays in the park in order to give them all to the homeless. I give up evening television shows so that I can teach English to immigrants! Look at me! Look at me!
Why is it that we make it a contest to see who can give up the most. We’re sitting here, on the cusp of Palm Sunday, at the very edge of Easter during Lent and so our minds are focused on giving things up, but what is it about us that measures righteousness by the surrender of pleasure and then awards accolades to those who give up the most, who give it all up. We build and establish structures, contrary to the me first and the gimme gimme of the rest of the world to be sure, but still terribly focused on exceeding the efforts of our neighbors and winning the prize, whatever we perceive that prize to be.
As if it were not the will of God that we be happy as well. And sometimes happiness is a double double cheeseburger and fries, chocolate shake and someone to share the meal with. Often happiness is seeing a movie in the theater, with buttered popcorn and Twizzlers, a coke and someone to share the evening with. It has occasionally happened that happiness is found watching crime dramas on prime time television, after a hearty meal and perhaps a glass of wine, with someone you like being with.
Just who that person is, I cannot tell you. They are your person, they are your friend, lover, spouse, colleague, passerby, fellow bus rider, sales clerk, whoever. They are the person who is not seen in today’s Gospel lesson, with Judas giving the grand lecture about concern for the poor, trying to win the most righteous award for the group. The stranger, in this case the poor, they are the object of Judas’ giving impulse but they are unseen, unheard, invisible, not present.
He knows that there is a way of doing things, a right way, if you have something valuable, especially if it is not needed, not necessary to your day to day life, then you should sell it and give the proceeds to the poor. That is what makes you a loving community, a people of faith and will win you a crown in heaven, doing the right thing, all the time.
No less than the executive who thinks that the Bentley marks him as a man of importance; no less than the people in authority in the churches who find comfort and stature in their trappings and their stuff, palaces, servants, and the like; no less than you and I who do things the way we are supposed to, relying on received wisdom instead of actually thinking, or engaging the questions, Jesus brings Judas up short for being a part of a system instead of a person, for following the rules, instead of following his faith.
It is fine, He says, to love and care for the poor, for people who are not as well off as you but when you make of that the yardstick by which you measure yourself, then you are spending too much time thinking about yourself, turning giving into getting and in the process missing the gifts of a life lived in faith.
Besides, if you are looking for the poor, she is right here, wiping the costly ointment off of my feet with her hair, wearing the scent of her loss because soon she will be without the one who raised her brother back to her, the one who gave meaning and hope to a life too rigid by half to be what God intended. She is poor in spirit because it is all falling apart. Why turn aside from this moment and seek after some vision of righteousness that is somewhere else?
Sure, there is a time and a place for everything, to every thing there is a season; but do not let the way things are supposed to be distract you too much from the way things could be.
The rewards are not nicer cars or bigger houses. Heck, the rewards are not even the accolades and the cheers of the crowd that the righteous thinks are his by right.
The rewards are the double double, with fries and a chocolate shake, shared. The movie shared, the evening spent together. In that there is true joy and happiness because a new friend is a joy that compounds and compounds, a new member of the body of Christ is a fellow worker, making the load lighter and the days more fruitful, another soul saved is the singing of angels because none is so lost that there is not blessing in bringing them home.
Judas is trying to live up to some kind of standards, rigidly adhering to the rule of his society and in so doing is spending too much time with the rules, and not enough time with the people of the faith, the people whom God also loves, missing the opportunity to see them and love them, and missing the opportunity to feel Christ’s love through them.
Sorry, it’s not the easiest set of rules to live by, you have to make your own decisions, take your own risks. But the rewards are the whole of creation, everyone and everything, as one in the love of God, if only we will see them, there at our feet, poor, just like us, and love them.