Thoughts on the 22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time, September 1, 2019
by Rev. Jim Ryan, firstname.lastname@example.org
Community Blog, www.maryofmagdala-mke.org/blog
For years my Father was president of his local chapter of the Union which at the time was called the Lodge of the Brotherhood of Railroad Trainmen (BRT). He said they kept electing him because he was the only one who knew Robert’s Rules of Order and how to run a meeting.
The BRT started in 1883 by eight workers, all brakemen, hence the union’s first name was the Brotherhood of Railroad Brakemen. Possibly the motivation for starting the union was that in the year of its founding fully 1/3 of all the brakemen whom they wanted to organize were injured. These were workers who were earning at the time just over $1 per hour.
It became in its time the largest single union to represent railway workers. It was a positive development in organization, bargaining power, and protection of the brakemen. One of its first membership benefits was an insurance payment on death of $300, which increased to $600 only two years later. Sadly, reflecting its time and culture, it excluded black brakemen. In 1969 the BRT joined with 3 other railway unions, shed the Brotherhood moniker and formed the United Transportation Union.
The BRT’s national governing council was called the Grand Lodge. Every four years there was a convention made up of locally elected representatives who in turn elected (don’t know how “democratic” those elections were) the Council of the Grand Lodge.
Dad decided that he would become a candidate for the convention and run against the man who had been the representative for his local Lodge for years. Dad was ever the guy who walked to a different drumbeat. He was well known among his crewmates for his reading material which included the essays and sermons of Bishop Sheen, the writings of Cardinal Newman, and his various prayer books. But his commitment was to be a trusted representative of the workers’ interests and they knew it.
I was probably a pre-teen, but I remember sitting around the dining room table for several a lot of nights stuffing envelopes and licking stamps for the hand-written letters that Dad wrote to every member with voting rights.
Well, the election became a show of the elite power establishment rewarding their own. You see, in those days, in order for one to achieve such an exalted position one needed to be a Mason and a Protestant. And despite the fact that one of the early leaders of the Grand Lodge was named Morrisey, it didn’t help if you were an Irish Catholic. I don’t think the process was necessarily designed to humiliate the lowly workers, but it certainly delivered the message, “Just who do you think you are?” to think you could stand up for yourselves. I know that Dad’s intention was to represent his co-workers because he certainly enjoyed being one of them.
I think of this family history episode when I hear this Gospel parable about the exalted being humbled and the humble being exalted. (Luke 14:14) I seems to me that these words are often used to prevent and put down persons who challenge the status quo or who have a different view on things. They are accused of self-promotion. (Funny, how that happens especially now in a time when the very top leadership of the US government is nothing if not all about self-promotion.) Yes, the notion of humility can still be used by those who are expert at maintaining their own position of power to make a person doubt oneself, to feel humbled if not humiliated.
This is why the virtue of humility must be associated and linked with the practice of solidarity, especially a social solidarity. If being humble is in fact a process of acknowledging truth then what better way for confirming truth is there than gathering with others who share the value of promoting the common good? The value of humility then lies in promoting the good of exalting all life.
This is the way of humility linked with solidarity. It uplifts the relationships between and among human beings. It also shines light on the creating source of this solidarity which is the Word & Wisdom of God. This is the Word that became human in what we call incarnation. However, this incarnation – more than the Word becoming human – is about all creation.
Eliaabeth Johnson points this out when she cites the Great Hymn in the Letter to the Colossians that “Christ is the firstborn of all creation.” In her book, “Creation and the Cross,” Johnson refers to this way of understanding Christ as “deep Incarnation.” She presents that if this teaching from the New Testament was actually meant to refer to Jesus as human there is a perfectly good Greek word for human in that sense. The word is “anthropos.” Instead the word used is “sarx” which means flesh, and which is in turn a reference to the stuff of all creation.
Her overall point in the book is to take a renewed look at what we mean by God as Supreme Being and Atonement, the theory of satisfaction (as in, God must be appeased for human sinfulness) that often underlies understandings of atonement. These ideas have been integral to Christian teaching and doctrine ever since Anselm taught them a millennium ago.
Johnson sees it differently particularly in her favoring the biblical view on the matter. . In place of the Supreme Being who is forever enthroned Johnson sows the Biblical and Poetic view that God is the One who accompanies us and all creation. And, as the One who accompanies us God does not need to be paid back and satisfied by the killing of the Word become flesh. No, God who accompanies us through Jesus’ barbarous death, according to Johnson, “enacts the solidarity of grace and mercy” with all who suffer, even the species that have become extinct.
One reviewer of “Creation and the Cross” writes that the death of Jesus is not a tradeoff “but a redemption by a God whose compassion is like that of a mother for her child, like a stream that flows in dry land.”
This “deep Incarnation” of the solidarity of the Word of God who became flesh refers not to a flesh in need of redemption so much as a flesh that acknowledges it shares the creative act of the Word with all creation.
With this view of God who accompanies us as we share in solidarity the Incarnation of Christ, the firstborn of all creation – with this view on Labor Day weekend – we gain an appreciation for the humility that exalts, and does not exploit, workers. Workers who, like my Dad, figure everyone should be represented in the Grand Lodge.
A Prayer (JR)
Eternal God, out of your great solidarity, You brought the world into being and exalted it with life. Now show us a world, a cost of living, where pain will not be eased by money we spend on ourselves, but how we spend ourselves for others.
Eternal One, out of Your great solidarity bring us now to strength in the unity of freedom and justice for all.
Amen. (adapted from Iona Abbey Worship Book)
Labor Day Celebration
I hear America singing” Walt Whitman
“I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear..,,
the woodcutter’s song, the ploughboy’s on his way in the morning, or at noon intermission or at sundown,
the delicious singing of the mother, or the young wife at work, or of the girl sewing or washing,
each singing what belongs to her or him and no one else,
the day what belongs to the day—at night the party of young fellows, robust, friendly,
singing with open mouths their strong melodious songs.”