“The question we pose in this gathering is not if the Church should engage the work of healing, reparation and repair, but how.”
So Elaine and Ched began their first session with us, linking together the ancient words of Isaiah 58, our anticipation of Ash Wednesday, and the clarion call to discipleship in these troubled times. Meagan and I had the privilege of participating in the Bartimaeus Kinsler Institute in Ojai, California several weeks ago. The theme for this gathering was ‘Just Community’ and around 70 participants wrestled with the call to discipleship amidst the interlocking sets of crises we face - the exhaustion of global pandemic, the grief of climate chaos, the trauma of gun violence, violence against women and LGBTQIA+ folx, and the unveiling of historic violence against indigenous people, and the Church’s role (or lack thereof) in it all…
What might it mean to fashion and form a community amidst such complex times?
These are core questions at the heart of our community at Emmaus and the AbbeyChurch. And I was grateful to have wise elders and co-strugglers to spend a few days wrestling with and learning from! This included Elaine and Ched from Bartimaeus Cooperative Ministries, along with elders Deacon Harry Lafond (Muskeg Lake Cree, and ordained Deacon in the Catholic Church), Rev. Janet Wolf (retired United Methodist pastor, organizer, and member of National Council of Elders), and Rev. Linda Kaufman (retired Episcopal priest and community organizer), another couple dozen workshop leaders and more!
(picture: web of interconnections as we shared joys and grief from the last two years)
Workshops included embodied expression, alternative economic paradigms, land back/ reparation projects, watershed discipleship, and a local tour of Indigenous places. In addition to the worship and main sessions, we sang together, ate meals together (including specific tables for conversation and those for quiet), danced on Mardi gras, marked our foreheads with Ashes made from local forest fires, wood from war-torn Ukraine, and burnt palms, and held space for the grief of all those gathered and all that was lost in the years of pandemic (this being the first gathering in person since Covid-19 began). These rituals gave expression to the weight of all we have been carrying, and seeing all of our grief written on a long scroll extending down from the altar was a powerful witness of God’s presence amidst our processing of pain.
It was young Zaccheus who was offered as a model for discipleship. Contrary to the sunday school jingle, the word often translated as ‘little’ or ‘short’ is elsewhere interpreted as ‘youngest.’ As Luke narrates the story, young Zach has inherited a massive fortune and risen to the ranks of Chief Tax Collector, collecting taxes of goods from the poor in the land and turning them into cash for Rome. Considered corrupt and traitorous to the Jewish community, young Zach nevertheless lives a life of great material wealth and privilege. What excactly compels him to seek Jesus from up in the tree we do not know, but wishing to ‘see’, he climbs up only to find himself called down and invited to host a dinner for Jesus and all his riff raff followers. The crowd is indignant! Jesus would eat with this self-enriching trader?!
But of course he does! Jesus invites himself for dinner and here, during one of Luke’s ten pivotal meal scenes, guest becomes host and in Jesus' words, "salvation has come to this house!" Zach's 'Come to Jesus' moment takes an economic turn, curious perhaps to modern readers: “Half of my possessions, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.”
Economic justice as the fruits of saving faith! What encounter must've taken place between this man and Jesus? The text is sparse. But it makes plain that the next step for young Zach was a turning from the harm his life had caused to the long work of healing and repair with all those who had been wronged. Giving away half of his inherited wealth, young Zach confronts the legacy of a broken system which maybe he is not 'personally responsible' for, but which he nonetheless is deeply implicated within and benefiting personally from. His dissent from that system may not transform Roman taxation, and may well cost him dearly, but the willingness to walk this way of costly discipleship (Bonhoeffer) marks him as one repairer of the breach amidst a legacy of exploitation against the poor of the land. Zacchaeus opened his hands to Jesus' gift and divested himself of material wealth. One thinks of another Saint Francis, doing the same 1000 years later. In each, the spiritual life and material reality were not seen as in conflict, but rather called into a different form of arrangement, what Myers' calls Sabbath Economics - an economics of enough rooted in God's good Creation.
St. Augustine once said that God is always trying to give us good things but our hands are too full to receive them.
How might we, as inheritors of diverse forms of privilege and wealth, open our hands to justice? What of our personal and collective accumulated wealth and addiction must we empty our hands of in order to confront the legacy of a system that gives access and opportunity to some while withholding it from others? How might we think differently about wealth in ways that lead to the flourishing of our neighbourhoods and the earth? How, in a life vowed to simplicity, might we divest ourselves of privilege and power to make room for healing, reparation, and repair? How, as we follow the living Christ on the way might we open our homes to Jesus and all God's diverse and beloved community? What are the losses we still need to grieve and name together from three years of pandemic? What are the joys we need to lift up and celebrate with one another so that healing and wholeness become not just individual but part of a collective flourishing?
These are deep questions we hope to explore together over the coming months. Watch this space for opportunities to take part and to join us.
Learn more about Bartimaeus Cooperative Ministries.
Watch Elaine and Ched interview Dr. Barbara Holmes, teacher, activist, and scholar, former President of United Theological Seminary and Dean of Memphis Theological Seminary.
Read Ched's reflection, The Fast Creator Recognizes: Reading Isaiah 58 on Ash Wednesday.
Check out this eclectic playlist from our musical leaders - the Holy Fools.