July 15, 2018

Music: Beverly Shuck, “Living In the Moment”

But above all, faith is the opening of an inward eye, the eye of the heart, to be filled with presence of Divine light.
–Thomas Merton

Those who worship God for the hope of gaining,
they’re not real worshippers, they’re merchants.
Those who worship God out of fear of punishment,
they’re slaves.
And those who worship God to be grateful towards their creator,
they are the free people,
and their worship is a real one.
— Husayn Ibn Ali (626-680 CE)

Raids on the Unspeakable — Thomas Merton
It is the sane ones, the well-adapted ones, who can without qualms and without nausea aim the missiles and press the buttons that will initiate the great festival of destruction that they, the sane ones, have prepared…. No one suspects the sane, and the sane ones will have perfectly good reasons, logical, well-adjusted reasons for firing the shot. They will be obeying sane orders that have come sanely down the chain of command….

We can no longer assume that because a man is “sane” he is therefore in his “right mind.” The whole concept of sanity in a society where spiritual values have lost their meaning is itself meaningless…. And so I ask myself: what is the meaning of a concept of sanity that excludes love, considers it irrelevant, and destroys our capacity to love other human beings, to respond to their needs and their sufferings, to recognize them also as persons, to apprehend their pain as one’s own? Evidently this is not necessary for “sanity” at all.

Qur’an 19:12-15; 3:39
We said, ‘John [the Baptizer], hold on to the Scripture firmly.’ While he was still a boy, We granted him wisdom, tenderness from Us, and purity. He was devout, kind to his parents, not domineering or rebellious. Peace on him the day he was born, on the day of his death, and on the day he is raised to life again.

…He will be noble and chaste, a prophet, one of the righteous.

Mark 6:14-29
King Herod heard about it—by now, Jesus’ fame had spread—and people kept saying that John the Baptizer had been raised from the dead and that’s why miraculous powers were at work in him. But others were saying that he was Elijah, and others that he was a prophet like one of the old time prophets.

When Herod got wind of it, he started declaring, “John, the one I beheaded, has been raised!”

Earlier Herod himself had sent someone to arrest John and put him in chains in a dungeon, on account of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, because he had married her. (You see, John had said to Herod, “It is not right for you to have your brother’s wife.”)

So Herodias nursed a grudge against him and wanted to eliminate him, but she couldn’t manage it, because Herod was afraid of John. He knew that he was an upright and holy man, and so protected him, and, although he listened to him frequently, he was very confused, yet he listened to him eagerly.

Now a festival day came, when Herod gave a banquet on his birthday for his courtiers, and his commanders, and the leading citizens o Galilee. And the daughter of Herodias came in and captivated Herod and his dinner guests by dancing. The king said to the girl, “Ask me for whatever you wish and I’ll grant it to you!” then he swore an oath to her: “I’ll grant you whatever you ask for, up to half my domain!”

She went out and said to her mother, “What should I ask for?”
And she replied, “The head of John the Baptizer!”
Right away she hurried back and made her request: “I want you to give me the head of John the Baptizer on a platter, right now!”

The king grew regretful, but because of his oaths an the dinner guests, he didn’t want to refuse her. So right away the king sent for the executioner and commanded him to bring his head. And he went away and beheaded John in prison. He brought his head on a platter and presented it to the girl, and the girl gave it to her mother. When his disciples heard about it, they came and got his body and put it in a tomb.

Jesus, upon whom be peace, laughed a lot. John the Baptist, upon whom be peace, wept a lot. John said to Jesus, “You have become mighty secure from God’s subtle traps to laugh so much.”

“You,” replied Jesus, “have become mighty heedless of God’s subtle and mysterious grace and loving-kindness to weep so much!”

One of God’s saints, who was present at this moment, asked God which of the two was of the more exalted station. God answered, “The one who thinks better of me,” that is, “Within my servant’s conception of me, I am there. Each of My servants has an image or idea of Me. Whatever each of them imagines Me to be, that I am. I am the servant to images within which God lives; I care nothing for any reality where God does not dwell. O My servants, cleanse your thoughts, for they are My dwelling places.

Now make a trial for yourself and see what is more beneficial to you—weeping, laughter, fasting, prayer, or retreat. Choose whichever of these states serves you best and causes you to advance further.”

For the remainder of the year, I am going to use the lectionary gospel reading as the central text for the worship service. Haven’t used the lectionary in a long time. I thought it would be a good challenge.

This week’s text is the beheading of John the Baptist. 

I have to say it was a bit of a challenge coming up with a children’s sermon for that. 

One thing about using the lectionary is that there are all kinds of on-line resources that provide music suggestions, art work, commentary and so forth. The bulletin cover features art work from the 16th century. Salome is holding the head of John the Baptist on a platter.

Of course I have been thinking about this upcoming trip to Iraq for Arbaeen. I am trying to learn some basic Arabic. That is a challenge, too. 

The central focus in that trip is Husayn Ibn Ali, the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad who also lost his head.  Interesting isn’t it, that both Shia Islam and Christianity have a martyr as their central figure for devotion, Husayn and Jesus. 

Martyrs don’t just die. They bear witness. That is the meaning of martyr. There is a reason we honor martyrs. We honor martyrs because we want to stop the killing. The more the powers of this age get away with murder, the more they murder. 

It isn’t fated. It isn’t as though there is nothing to do about it. We are not sheep. The power that the powerful have is that they have convinced us that we have nothing to contribute. We have nothing to say. We are at their mercy.  The solution to that is simple. It is simple logically, but difficult in practice because it requires a spiritual renewal. 

That solution is the honest search for what is true. It is easy and common to parrot what our political allies are saying. It is easy to conform by saying it is not my problem or there is nothing that can be done. 

Those on a spiritual journey, John the Baptist, Jesus, Husayn, decided that truth was more important than to stay with the crowd, take the path of least resistance, go along to get along, trust that someone else will take care of it.  They are the ones we honor because they show us that it is possible to live lives that are life-giving.

The story of John the Baptist is likely a fiction as we have it in Mark. It reads like a story. Herod is like Pilate in the Jesus scene. Both are reluctant to carry out an act that someone else wants done. But they do it because they are pressured. 

The historical Herod, was not that dumb to promise half his kingdom to dancing girl at a party. This is a literary trope. However, John the Baptist was beheaded by Herod. A great read regarding this is John Dominic Crossan’s book, Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography. John the Baptist was a threat, not because of Herod marrying his brother’s wife, but because John the Baptist was, in the spirit of Moses and Elijah, radicalizing people through baptizing them in the River Jordan and sending them back into Jerusalem and throughout the countryside to wait for God’s big showdown as God did with Moses and Joshua and usher in a new age.

This is what the historian Josephus, wrote regarding John the Baptist:

Now many people came in crowds to him, for they were greatly moved by his words. Herod, who feared that the great influence John had over the masses might put them into his power and enable him to raise a rebellion (for they seemed ready to do anything he should advise), thought it best  to put him to death. In this way, he might prevent any mischief John might cause, and not bring himself into difficulties by sparing a man who might make him repent of it when it would be too late. Antiquities, 18:118

That is likely why the Baptist lost his head.  

The Baptist had a dream of an age that was kinder, that was more just, more generous. God would dramatically bring it in.  Jesus had that same vision. The difference might be that for Jesus we participate in bringing in this new age now.  

“The kingdom is within you and among you.”

Jump ahead to the 21st century. I sometimes wonder that we have been so traumatized by spectacle and propaganda that we have lost our dreams. We don’t really even think it might be possible for a more just world, a kinder world, to exist. We are too cynical to even try.

The Christian story is that the dream did not die with John the Baptist.  It did not die with Jesus. It did not die with Husayn. The dream lives in those who have picked up their mantle. There are people who are inspiring in this world. There are people who have not lost that dream. There are people who are people of peace. There are people who are people of truth. We need to remember them and to notice them and to talk with them (if they are still with us) or bear witness to them if they are not. 

I also happened to interview for my live radio show this past Friday at KBOO, two researchers who have shown that Thomas Merton, the prolific writer and monastic contemplative, was not killed by accident, but was murdered, probably by the CIA. He was a harsh critic of the Vietnam War and was in Thailand at a monastic conference when he was killed on December 10th, 1968. 2018 marks the 50th anniversary of his death.  

Theologian Matthew Fox has been long suspicious of the official story that he was electrocuted by a fan when coming out of the shower. This was a story that was invented by Brother Patrick Hart of the Abbey of Gethsemane, Merton’s abbey in Kentucky several years later when writing about his death. The researcher, Hugh Turley, who I interviewed on Friday actually spoke with Brother Patrick and he admitted to him that there was no evidence that Merton took a shower. 

But that meme has persisted among all of the biographies of Merton. 

But that wasn’t the first story. In the police report, such as it was, not signed, the Thai police said he died of a heart attack and fell into the fan knocking it over onto himself. He had a bleeding head wound in the back of his neck. No autopsy.  Merton’s body was taken by the military several hours after his death back to the U.S.  

There is a photograph that the researcher tracked down by one of the witnesses of Merton’s body right when the witnesses found him. He is lying on his back. Hands at his side. Palms down. A fan is lying on top of him. He has his shorts on, so obviously he didn’t come out of any shower.   

It was pretty convincing to me after reading their book, and their website, The Martyrdom of Thomas Merton Dot Com, that his death was not accidental electrocution by a killer fan or a heart attack, but murder. 

Merton was a man of truth. Of peace. Of Spirit. He was critical of the media collusion with the war machine and as in the reading I included in today’s bulletin, he pulled no punches in his analysis of the human condition under the powers that be.  Within a week of JFK’s assassination, he was writing that JFK was not killed by a lone gunman. 

Merton had his eyes open. 

He also was a person of deep humility and poverty. You couldn’t bribe him or scare him. He didn’t have anything to protect except his life and he didn’t care even about that. He wrote and spoke the truth.  

He was a spiritual mentor for the Berrigan Brothers, Daniel and Phillip Berrigan, who were priests burning draft cards and breaking into military compounds to pour blood on the nose cones of missiles that carry nuclear weapons.  The FBI was chasing those guys all around the country in 1968.  

Merton according to Matthew Fox, who I interviewed a couple of years ago about his book, A Way to God: Thomas Merton’s Creation Spirituality Journey, Merton had been receiving death threats. Fox asked CIA agents over the years whether or not they killed Merton. This is what Fox said about that:

For years I have spoken out about how fishy the official story of Thomas Merton’s sudden death smelled to me.  I have also, over the years, met three CIA agents who were present in Southeast Asia at the time and asked them pointedly whether they killed Thomas Merton.  One said: “I will neither affirm it nor deny it.” The second (who spoke to a friend of mine, not to me) said: “We were swimming in cash at the time with absolutely no accountability.  If there was just one agent who felt Merton was a threat to the country he could have had him done in with no questions asked.” The third I met a month after my book A Way To God: Thomas Merton’s Creation Spirituality Journey came out and he answered: “Yes.  And the last 40 years of my life I have been cleansing my soul from what I did as a young man working for the CIA in Southeast Asia in the 1960s.”

Fox praised the new book by Hugh Turley and David Martin, The Martyrdom of Thomas Merton: An Investigation, which show that the fate of Thomas Merton was murder and cover-up, a cover-up that extended to the leadership of his own abbey, the Thai police, the Catholic media, the secular media, and of course, the US government.  

Is anyone really shocked by this? 

Merton was a martyr. 

Merton wasn’t the first prophet to be executed by authorities because of his words.  Just in today’s service, we honor the witness of John the Baptist, Husayn Ibn Ali, and Jesus.

Sadly, he won’t be the last. 

But, on the 50th anniversary of his death, we could be instruments in making it more difficult to silence by whatever means, the truth-tellers and the prophets and the women and men of peace.  We need them. We need to hear them. We need to protect their speech.

Here is how we do it.

We investigate.  

We take the risk of discovering information that we would rather not know.  That is enough. Learn from the “conspiracy theorists”. 

Did you know that the term “conspiracy theorist” was invented by the CIA in 1967 to berate anyone who challenged the Warren Commission’s report on the assassination of JFK? It is one of the most successful campaigns to keep people from challenging official narratives of events.  Call someone a conspiracy theorist and you don’t have to listen to what they have to say. No one wants to be lumped in with that crowd. That is, of course, the purpose. Social pressure.

Catholic writer Joseph Sobran wrote:

“In public controversies, most people are chiefly concerned to play it safe. Before they take any position, they ask themselves not “Is it true?” but “What will happen to me if I say this?” Quoted here.

Let us not be like most people.  

Jesus, who likely would have been called a conspiracy theorist today, said the opposite:

“Seek first the kingdom of God and its righteousness.”