Belonging, Risk-Taking and Freedom

Alfonso Sasieta

March 10, 2019

Texts:

Good morning friends and family, I’m so grateful for this opportunity to be surrounded by you on the day of Santiago’s baptism. I’d like to begin with a prayer.

——————

Holy Spirit, comforting Spirit,
happy are they who turn to you
over and over again!

And when we entrust to you,
even without words,
our lives and those of others,
our longings find a Gospel response.[1]
 

Amen.

——————

Today, I’d like to loosely follow three themes that I see in the scriptures, especially as they relate to baptism and lent.

Part 1: Belonging

part 2: Risk-taking

part 3: Freedom

Part 1: Belonging

When I was just 3 or 4, my Peruvian grandfather named Papapa left Peru for a few weeks to come spend some time with my family in the Midwest. On Mondays, my father would often drive to St. Louis from our small hometown, Carrollton, IL, to buy produce for my parents’ pizza restaurant. So that Monday, the three of us, my father, my Papapa, and I, we spent the day in St. Louis.

In the evening, my father left Papapa and me at Barnes and Noble while he went to go run an errand. After a while, someone became suspicious when they saw Papapa talking to me in a mixture of Spanish and English. As a three or four-year old focused on acquiring as many Thomas the Train engines as I possibly could, I am sure that I was not too focused on heeding Papapa’s instructions.

Eventually the police arrived — suspicious, wondering why this dark, Spanish speaking man was looking after this fair-skinned, English boy. The police asked Papapa how do you know this child? In broken English, he told them, “I am his grandpa.” The police, turning to me, looked for confirmation. “Young boy, is this man your grandpa?”

I paused, thought about it for a second, and responded, “Noooooo.” In my head, it was a dumb question. He is my Papapa, not my Grandpa. They’re different people!

Fortunately, my father returned before long and sorted out the situation, confirming that Papapa was indeed my grandpa.

———

Last January, Crisely and I were able to go to Peru for the first part of our honeymoon and visit Papapa, amongst others. We spent two wonderful weeks with my Peruvian family. Each day that we were in Lima with my family, I got to spend some time sitting with my grandfather, or as I called him in Spanish, my Papapa. This past fall, after many years of losing mobility and becoming increasingly bedridden with Parkinson’s disease, he died in his sleep.

When Papapa was younger, he was a suave, kind man — and a grandfather who erred on the side of a love that was expressed…of a love that showed delight. He and I used to play a game called “cangrejos and arañas,” which in Spanish means, “crabs and spiders.” The game consisted of him moving his hands slowly, and then suddenly, towards me to tickle me, to show me physically, he loved me. Papapa also used to do this dance where he would cross legs like this, and to us grandchildren, we thought it was hilarious.

Before Papapa died, on this last visit, my Mamama pulled out a scrap book of poems that Papapa had written over the course of his life. Most of them were dedicated to Mamama, but much to my surprise, one was entitled To my little grandson, Alfonso Miguel. It was dated October 27th, 1991. Two months after I was born, the day after he had met me. And so recently I read it for the first time.

 

To my little grandson, Alfonso Miguel

Yesterday, when I was with you,
I was able to confirm that
in spite of your tenderness
you knew me.

Yes, you were able to recognize me
as…grandfather,
with your smile of goodness.
and your gazes, so tender,

And upon those gazes
I understood that you were my grandson.
I realized that I was…your grandpa.

What emotion I felt in the first instant, when,
upon losing yourself in my arms
you looked at me intently
and in your intelligent gaze
you left an indelible mark
which I could clearly read:

This beautiful boy you see,
this image of dulzura (sweetness)
this gift from Godis your grandson.

—————————-

 That was how I was welcomed into the world by Papapa.

—————————-

Now, rewind the story a further 52 years, to the birth of my American grandpa — not Papapa, but grandpa.

My grandpa was born in what were, without a doubt, tumultuous circumstances. His mother, my great-grandmother, Louise Beadle, became pregnant with my grandpa out of wedlock in the spring of 1939. In my grandpa’s estimation, that the conception was consensual was doubtful. Furthermore, the father of my grandpa really wanted my great-grandmother Louise to have an abortion. And yet, in spite of the fact that it wasn’t what the father wanted, and in spite of the very real risks she ran to potentially lose her job that supported herself and her widowed father, not too mention the public shaming towards pregnant women who weren’t married, my great-grandmother went forward with the pregnancy.

As a result of her wide girth and large build, my great-grandmother attempted to keep the pregnancy to herself. Incredibly, she was successful in hiding the entirety of her pregnancy. No one ever realized that she was pregnant. She worked as a school-teacher in a one room school in rural NY, and she worked as a teacher up until the day of grandpa’s birth. After school on Tuesday, January 16th, 1940, my great-grandmother drove herself 4 hours to a birthing hospital to Albany Hospital where she saw a doctor for the first time in her pregnancy, called out sick from teaching on Wednesday, and then promptly gave birth to my grandfather. On Wednesday, she arranged with the doctor to find a home with another family, had him baptized, and in the middle of the night, signed herself out, drove back to rural NY four hours away, on her own, and was back in the classroom with her school children on Thursday morning.

My great-grandmother never told anyone about my grandfather. For almost four decades, she held the knowledge of her living son to herself, without the support of community or family or a partner to accompany her. What must have that been like for her — to have to hide such a big life-event? Eventually, my grandpa, at 37 years old, was able to make contact with her and visit her. Together, my grandmother, my mom, and my uncle, who are all here today, all drove from southern Illinois to upstate New York to meet this woman. Upon seeing him and embracing him, her first words to my grandpa were: “I have prayed for you every day of my life.”

—————————-

Papapas poem, the reunion between my grandpa and his mother — these are both sketches of belonging.

And so too, in our gospel reading, do we bear witness to another dynamic sketch of belonging.
In today’s Gospel,|
the Holy Trinity,
the Holy Relationship

this First community of love,
is descending
and dashing about,
closing the distance
|as quickly as possible.

he dove moves swiftly,
thrilled to be near
a good friend

The Father tears open the heavens,
to express,
in just a few words,
a blessing.

You are my Son,
the Beloved,
You are mine.
I belong to you,
and you to me.

—————————-

And who are we in our deepest origins? This is what Gordon Cosby, the founder of our church, writes:

At bottom we are love because Love resides in our depths. We are made, in our depths, in the image and likeness of God, who is love and light. In God there is no darkness at all. Made in that image, we are beauty, we are truth, we are goodness.
What God is, we are. We are unique, we are priceless.  Our goal is to go down, down and down into our own inner beauty and love, to rest in our own depths. We commit, together in community, to being more more ourselves, our real selves.[1]


[1] Seized By the Power of a Great Affection, by Gordon Cosby

 Part 1: We belong. We are beloved.

Part 2: Risk-taking & Truth-Telling

To rest in our depths, where God’s Spirit resides, is a significant part of our journey, but if we are to learn from Jesus, we will notice that it is a small part. For every Sabbath, there are six days of work, and for every Jubilee Year, there are 48 years of effort.

After this incredible blessing, after Jesus hears what any child would want to hear from their father, the Scriptures say that “the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness.” There is not even a pause. Mark, the shortest gospel, uses this word — immediately — 40 times! Jesus’ sense of belonging within the Trinity kindles a holy restlessness. In the baptized Christ, in the Christ who now knows that he is loved, there is a sudden eagerness of a child that rises up, an intuition that he has to go, that he has to leave, and now.

Matthew’s account of this moment in Jesus life also gives us a why that lets us in on Jesus’ decision to run off into the desert. In Matthew 4, it reads, “Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert in order to be tempted by the devil.

This is an astounding and possibly delusional move by Jesus, one would think. Jesus moves directly towards the very source of death and darkness, on purpose. He goes to the desert, knowing the tempter will be there. This encounter with the devil is pre-meditated, not accidental.

———

One priest, Richard Rohr, writes, “If we never take time to retreat, we never find our center, but for every retreat, there should be at least one confront!” He goes on, “the incarnation was not a contemplative move on God’s part but a confrontative move!”[3]

Carol Bullard Bates’ decision to do peace-making work in Pakistan and Colombia. Paul Fitch regularly traveling to El Salvador. The Hilfikers choosing not only to begin Joseph’s House, but also, to uproot their family and move into Joseph’s House on the intuition of their 15-year old daughter (!):

These are all confrontative moves, towards sources of chaos or pain or uncertainty.

True belonging nourishes risk-taking.

I think that this virtue of risk-taking is a charism that runs deep in our tradition, here in 8th Day. Most of you know, and some of you were here 40 years ago, when a few members of this community decided to go hear Jean Vanier, the founder of L’Arche, give a talk at Georgetown 40 years ago. A small group of you and others believed in the vision. A seed was planted in a few hearts, and these hearts encouraged the community to take a significant financial risk. The Church of the Savior sold a property — 2474 Ontario Rd — to L’Arche for the total cost of $1.

John Cook told me this week that L’Arche was placed a couple of blocks from 8th Day and the Potter’s House on purpose. There was the intuition, 40 years ago, that it would be mutually life-giving for both L’Arche and our church community to be near one another. And now, it seems so obvious. In L’Arche, there is a community that is focused on belonging, on welcome. And in the Church of the Savior, there is a long history of risk-taking, of honoring the holy impulse to give life in new and ever-evolving ways.

And you begin to see how L’Arche and 8th Day help one another to live into the Great Commandment. Belonging nurturing risk-taking, which in turn extends belonging again — ever widening circles where the sense of family is expanded, as I feel that it is today. 

———

In America, we know Christ as King, we know Christ as the Savior-hero, but do we know Christ as the risk-taking, truth-telling prophet that he is? Is it an accident that liturgically, within the Catholic Church, there is a “Christ the King” Sunday but not a “Christ the Prophet” Sunday?

In America, we are obsessed with the guy on top, with the powerful — with the one who establishes order. We’re smitten with the archetype of the King, and so too were the Romans. When Jesus is being questioned by Pilate, Pilate asks him over and over? Who do you say you are — are you a king? Are you the King of the Jews? Jesus defers not once but twice, but still Pilate twists his words to confirm his fearful prejudice: "You are a king, then!” he exclaims. To this, Jesus answers "You say that I am a king. But, the reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to the truth.”[4]

In one short sentence to Pilate, Jesus clarifies that he did not come to rule as much as he came to bear witness to what is real, to what is true.

This is the Christ who Paul describes as a stumbling block,[5] the Christ who Simeon, in Luke 2, prophecies will be a “sign of contradiction.”[6] This is the Christ who said, “I have come to bring division.”[7] This is the Christ who provoked Oscar Romero to wonder:

  • a gospel that doesn’t unsettle,
  • a word of God that doesn’t get under anyone’s skin,
  • a word of God that doesn’t touch the real sin
  •             of the society in which it is being proclaimed —
  • what gospel is that?[1]

[1] The Violence of Love, by Oscar Romero

To be truly prophetic entails standing alone. This is why Dorothy Day, the founder of the Catholic Worker Movement, entitled her autobiography The Long Loneliness. She had to live it her whole life, remaining loyal to her intuition that the Gospel was non-violent, that Christ really did love the poor, that war really is always evil.  From her fellow unionists, her fellow communists, her fellow Catholics — for the most part they all abandoned and persecuted her because she didn’t quite fit, she was too radical. In the midst of persecutions and loneliness, she lost her life, which is to say, that it was saved.

The wilderness will always be before us.
Our options are to dread it,
or to see it
through the eyes of Mary Oliver:
as though
“it offers itself to your imagination
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting.”[9]

Part 1: We belong.

Part 2: Belonging leads to risk-taking and truth-telling.

Part 3: Freedom

In L’Arche, I learned that it is hard for me to tell the truth, to hold others accountable, to “give a knock,” as Jean Vanier puts it. I arrived to L’Arche more practiced in turning a blind eye than giving a word of truth.

I have a theory that most teachers’ school day, they each have a class that they prefer to teach and a class that they would prefer to not teach. For me, the most difficult class is my 8th grade class. Two of my 8th graders, Diamond and Angel, often push the boundaries with me in the classroom— sleeping, cussing, eating in class, leaving class—you name it, they’ve done it. Often, the rest of the class will call me out on my lack of accountability with them! They are ruthless, and more faithfully than I would prefer!

They hold up a mirror to my incongruent actions.

The latin root of the word vulnerability is “vulneras,” meaning wound. In the words of David Whyte, an English poet, the place where you are vulnerable “is really the place where you are open to the world, whether you want to be or not.” Teaching 8th graders, becoming a Father  — these are places where I am open to the world, and trust me, I would often rather not have a roomful of middle schoolers turn on me to teach me that I am not held together properly! But, it’s my reality. These are now the spaces where I belong.

At first, I thought that Lent was a strange time for Santiago to be baptized. But thinking about baptism in the context of Lent has made Paul’s description all the more clear. When we’re baptized, we’re baptized into Christ’s death, into Christ’s vulnerable path — which happens to be, surprisingly, a path towards freedom.

And how we arrive to this path seems to me a wonderful paradox! It seems to me that that God is at both the perfect nearness and the perfect distance all at once.

While one apostle writes that “nothing can separate us from God’s love,”[10] another writes that “God stands at the door and knocks.”[11] In God, there is no coercion, no bullish behavior, no smothering! With kindheartedness, without forcing himself onto us, with total respect for our freedom, Christ is near us, and at the same time, giving us the space we need to love him freely in return.

Santiago, this is the path that awaits you, if you want it. But really, by bringing you here today, I want you to know people who are just searching for this paradoxical road. I want you to know that it is good to walk in vulnerability, or as one poem says, to walk in your rags of love[12]; it is okay to not know the way forward sometimes, it is healthy to fail; it is healthy for your life to be circular, for you to come back to belonging, to family, to community, to your roots. To Crisely and to me. To la familia Melecio y la Zambranera. To the Sasietas and the Schmidts. To your Great-Great grandmother, Louise Beadle. To 8th Day, to L’Arche. To Sonny and to Joelle, your godparents. And to all the new communities you will help to shape with your presence.

You will also need to leave; you will need to stand alone and take risks and really struggle to be loyal to your intuitions. Like your mother and your father, you will do this imperfectly. But then, you will know deeper love called grace, and then, in your own language, you will know that God is beautiful.

Hijo, this is the pattern. A journey inward and a journey outward. So surrender yourself, give yourself, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap.[13]

 

It is for freedom that you have been set free.
I pray you know that in your bones.
It is for freedom that you have been set free.[14]

—-

Amen.




[1] prayer by Brother Roger of the Taize community

[2] Seized By the Power of a Great Affection, by Gordon Cosby

[3] The Wild Man’s Journey, by Richard Rohr

[4] John 18:37

[5] 1 Corinthians 1:18

[6] Luke 2:36

[7] Matthew 10:34-39

[8] The Violence of Love, by Oscar Romero

[9] “Wild Geese” by Mary Oliver

[10] Romans 8:38

[11] Revelation 3:20

[12] “Santiago” by David White

[13] Luke 6:38

[14] Galatians 5:1