Sunday, February 5, 2017

Blessed Beggars

Last weekend my husband Whitney and I traveled to Manhattan with friends to see Martin Luther on Trial, the Fellowship for Performing Arts' most recent play,

We've been following founder Max McLean for a decade or so, since he came to perform his one-man Mark's Gospel for an event Whitney organized in his work at Scripture Union.

The words of the gospel jumped to life in McLean's performance, a rapid-fire journey through the life of Christ from baptism to resurrection.

After years of performing memorized scripture McLean began digging into other material. Several years ago, we invited friends we've known for decades to join us in Philly for The Screwtape Letters, a stylish, sardonic two-person show that captured the complex theology of C. S. Lewis and provided fuel for days of reflection and conversation.

Last year, the same six of us met in New York for The MostReluctant Convert, McLean's story of Lewis' journey into faith. We sat spell-bound in the Pearl Theater while McLean, pipe in hand, brought theology to life, capturing Lewis' brilliance, his disdain for sloppy thinking, his joy as faith broke through his lifelong inner solitude.

McLean's new play, also at the Pearl, ended its off-Broadway run Sunday. I confess, I was not as eager to go. Martin Luther is not one of my heroes, trial drama isn't my favorite, and I've been so busy lately the idea of a weekend away, even in Manhattan, seemed almost more chore than pleasure.

McLean's past plays have been one or two person shows. This one had six actors and for the first time, McLean wasn't one, serving instead as director. The play began with an imposing St. Peter sitting as judge in a trial demanded by an urbane, sardonic Satan.

According to Satan, Martin Luther was guilty of the unforgiveable sin and Satan was prepared to act as prosecutor. Luther's wife, Katie, was called, unprepared, to serve as defense attorney.

Two other actors rotated through the drama as a cast witnesses: Luther's contemporary Rabbi Josel, Hitler, Freud, Michael the Archangel, Martin Luther King, the Apostle Paul, Pope Francis.

Luther himself wandered on and off stage, writing, reading, talking, weeping, hammering his famous thesis to an invisible Wittenberg door.

We don't choose the times in which we live, but we choose how we respond. Luther lived in a time of great corruption, a time when religious leaders had compromised faithfulness to gather enormous financial and political power.

The play depicts Luther's determination to see past the fog of manipulation and corruption, his courage in calling power to account, his deepening depression and unmanageable anger when the church he loved ignored his call to repentance and renewal.

Through it all, his wife Katie defended him, challenged and confronted him, supported, fed and loved him.  Their unconventional love story was an unexpected bonus.

The trial itself spiraled to a grand conclusion, with Satan dropping his cool demeanor to shout accusations at Peter, Luther, Katie, Pope Francis, god himself.

After Satan's spectacular departure, Luther's final words, the same words scribbled on a scrap of paper just before he died, were repeated by others as they left the stage: we are beggars.

The unforgiveable sin was Satan's: demanding power, shouting accusation.

The final defense, for Luther, Peter, Katie, Pope Frances: we are beggars.

Walking back to our hotel through the lights of Times Square, watching beggars maneuver their wheelchairs along the crowded sidewalk, eyeing the sleeping shadows in the side-street alcoves, I found myself thinking of the timeliness of Luther's story.

What do faithful Christians do when Christianity itself seems aligned with power, wealth, manipulation and deceit?

How do we speak truth to power without falling prey to anger and despair?

The next morning our group met for breakfast across from Central Park, then walked down Fifth Avenue, past the machine-gunned-armed guards in front of Trump Tower, to the morning service at St. Thomas's Episcopal Church.

In his homily, (33-47), Canon Turner pulled two neighboring passages together in a way I'd not heard before, moving between the beatitudes in Matthew 5 to the third temptation of Christ in the chapter just before. 
Archbishop Rowan Williams once suggested that in order to understand the power of the Beatitudes . . . we have to look back to the narrative that precedes the Sermon on the Mount to chapter four of Matthew's gospel and the story of the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness. Williams suggest that it is the third and the most terrible of the temptations that is the most compelling as we try to understand the beatitudes.
The response of Jesus is the key to our understanding of the beatitudes.
On that mountain Jesus did not choose a relationship with human power and self-aggrandizement. Instead, he chose the perfect relationship he already had with his father and which relationship he would share with his friends.
The beatitudes are not a blueprint for church life. Neither are they a stoic way of dealing with disappointments. The beatitudes are the values of the kingdom and the making visible of that kingdom on earth.
As followers of Jesus we are called to make his kingdom visible through lives that are Christlike. We are blessed when we put God first and not the values of the world.
Blessed beggars. That's what we're called to be.

By any measure, I live a life of privilege.

Comfort, education, travel, opportunity.

No beggar sleeps in the Omni, attends off-Broadway play, wines and dines with friends.

And yet, on the deepest levels, I know my need.

Like Luther, I have wrestled with depression, anger, doubt.

I have struggled to make visible the values of the kingdom and failed. And know my failure.

Daily, I review the challenges around me and acknowledge how far I fall short of the task.

My patience falls short.

My compassion is lacking.

In every real way, by any honest measure, I am a beggar.

Dependent on grace.

Deeply in need of wisdom, insight, mercy and love far beyond my own.

I read back through the beatitudes, resting in the promise of blessing for all who know and admit their need.

We are blessed when poor in spirit, knowing our need of God.

Blessed as we mourn, saddened, as was Luther, by our own brokenness, and the brokenness of the world around us.

Blessed as we grow more gentle, restraining our own privilege to allow room for others to thrive.

Blessed as we hunger and thirst, pray and plead, for justice and shalom.

Blessed as we struggle to live with integrity, loyalties clear and undivided, centering our souls on God, shining as beacons of light to a broken, hopeless world.

Blessed as we work for peace, as we live in tune with God's redemptive love.

Blessed when condemned for speaking out against injustice.

Blessed when trolled and harassed for maintaining allegiance to God alone rather than the current endorsed idolatrous regime.

Rejoice and be glad at the invitation to live as beacons of another way.

Rejoice and be glad as we live - grounded in love- as a visible challenge to the lack of love around us. 

Like Luther, we live in a time of corruption.

A time of unraveling institutions.

A time of uncertainty, confusion, discord, disillusion.

As we work for justice, we will certainly fall short.

As we struggle to live as light, we will wrestle, daily, with darkness.

What a comfort, to say, with saints of every century: we are blessed beggars. This is true. 

Wir sind bettler.

Hoc est verum.