First Sunday in Lent, Year B
“In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan.”
It sounds fairly dry and matter-of-fact, doesn't it? But there's a lot going on between the lines. Jesus' home and family are in Nazareth of Galilee, and Jesus isn't. This isn't 21st-century white and middle-class America, when adults are expected to leave home to go to college, travel if they can afford it, and find their way in the world alone. It's first-century Palestine, and the decent thing for Jesus to do, by conventional standards would be for him to stay in Nazareth and look after his mother (and his father, if he's alive -- the gospels' silence about Joseph after Jesus' childhood suggests to some that he may have died) until they died, and to make sure they got an honorable burial. That would be the decent thing for a son to do.
The normal thing for a man to do in Jesus' culture, especially for a spiritual leader, would be to stay in Nazareth, marry, and have children -- preferably including at least one son to carry on the family name. That's true even more within most branches of first-century Judaism, in which “be fruitful and multiply” was seen as a binding command from God, not a vague expression of good wishes.
But Jesus didn't do either of those things. Had he married and had children (as the FICTIONAL book The Da Vinci Code suggests), his disciples would have been shouting that from the rooftops, not trying to conceal it -- “Our guy WAS a real man and a good Jew!” But his followers didn't say that, and the best historical explanation for that is that, embarrassing as it was to say that Jesus died having never married or had children, there was just no escaping the fact.
Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. Jesus left his home -- abandoned his family, they would say in the village -- on a spiritual quest.
We have now entered the desert of Lent on a spiritual quest of our own. Lent often gets turned into a very domesticated kind of pious self-improvement; I give up something that most respectable people think is a good thing to give up, at least for a time -- chocolate, beer, swearing, or somesuch -- drop a few pounds and maybe look a little more like what our culture thinks of as 'good,' and other than the purple on the altar Sunday mornings, hardly notice the difference. But if I want to experience this quest fully, I need to note for myself the ways in which the quest we're on for these forty days is NOT tame or respectable. Jesus left his family and entered a desert with wild beasts and angels (and I don't know about you, but I suspect that the reason that the first thing out of an angel's mouth is “don't be afraid!” is that angels are often at least as terrifying as wild beasts), and we are striving to follow him.
That sounds lonely as well as terrifying. How on earth could we do it? Why on earth would we do it?
I think that this Sunday's gospel provides a clue. Jesus enters that desert as a man who is discovering his Baptismal identity, taking it in fully and acting on what he hears from God in Baptism. Jesus has no family where he is -- but in Baptism, God calls Jesus his beloved son, and Jesus hears God say, “with you I am well pleased.”
That means that Jesus has a family. His family by blood is going to come after him to drag him home as a crazy man who's bringing shaming the family name (Mark 2:21), but in Baptism, Jesus has mother and sisters and brothers in whoever does God's will (Mark 3:32-35). Jesus is leaving house and tools, but he will find shelter with others seeking God and God's reign. Jesus is not alone on his journey, and neither are we.
We have one another, and we also have something else on our journey: the opportunity to encounter God as Jesus did, to take in deeply God's word to us that we are God's beloved children, to claim that identity as the central one or maybe even the only one we have.
I don't think that Jesus spent his life after his Baptism trying to figure out what a good person, a good teacher, a good friend, a good leader would say or do and then trying to say or do that. I believe that Jesus sought the living God, claimed his identity as God's child, and let his life, his words, his relationships, and his love, even to giving of himself on the cross, flow from that identity as God's beloved.
Perhaps that's what God is calling me to do this Lenten season: to follow Jesus into that desert to listen deeply for what God has to say to me through my Baptism. And if that's God's call, those wild beasts won't destroy anything worth keeping. Mr. Beaver said of Aslan, “he isn't tame, but he's good,” and I believe that's true of God as well. I want to be alive in the spirit, as Jesus was, and that's a good enough reason to follow Jesus. If God is there, I won't be alone.
And besides, you're coming too, aren't you?
Thanks be to God!
Sixth Sunday in Easter, Year A
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And now to this Sunday's texts ...
One of the questions for small group discussion in the first session of Connect, a six-week course I developed with the Rev. John de Beer that uses the liturgy of the Eucharist as a framework to explore Christian faith, goes like this:
Have you ever had that experience of feeling welcomed unconditionally? What was that like?
An experience that always comes to mind when I think about that question was my time in Kenya, where I found an amazingly high value placed on hospitality. In remote places in the bush there, a traveler coming across a family dwelling might have a conversation like this:
Traveler: Hello! I am a visitor. May I stay with you?
Householder: Can you work in the garden?
Householder: How many months would you like to stay?
And the traveler would be welcomed in for a feast with whatever was available that night, and would stay for the duration named.
Can you imagine a conversation like that happening between two complete strangers in an American suburb? The image always gets a laugh when I use it in a sermon or presentation. But from what I gathered, such conversations weren't particularly unusual in Kenya.
I imagine that's partly because of a combination of two things:
First, in the Kenyan bush, everyone is aware of the dangers a traveler on his or her own could face in the open at night. Second, householders know that when they need to journey across a long stretch of bush, they will face the same vulnerabilities, and will be just as dependent upon the generosity of those they meet.
I thought of that again when I read the gospel appointed for Sunday, and about its vivid imagery for abiding in Jesus as Vine, us as branches. It's a rich image. Branches depend upon the vine for their very life. The vine provides all their nourishment, and a healthy vine holds nothing back. It's an image of profound closeness as well as interdependence, and like Paul's favorite metaphor (well, perhaps tied with the metaphor implied by his language of Christians as sisters and brothers) for our relationships as the Church -- that of one Body, with Christ as its head -- it suggests a relationship that couldn't be closer or fuller.
The community that produced the Gospel of John had a strong sense of the absolute necessity of abiding in Jesus and of the closeness of that relationship. I think that their experience of that came in part from another experience they shared as a community:
They will put you out of the synagogues. Indeed, an hour is coming when those who kill you will think that by doing so they are offering worship to God.
-- John 16:2
This persecution didn't come without cause, nor was it a simple matter of disagreement about theology. It came because Jesus' followers were living as Jesus lived and lives. It came because living as Jesus lives has the potential to transform the world, and because those who benefit from the order of the world as it is quite wisely understand that this is a threat to their privilege.
Where will the kings of this world if their armies decide to turn the other cheek and love their enemies? Where will the tycoons be if the world starts measuring a person's worth by how humbly they serve, rather than by how much of and what kind they can consume? Where will those whose power comes from spreading fear of the other when our communities decide to embrace the perfect love, that casts out fear (1 John 4:18)?
Our gospel reading for this Sunday stops at verse 8 of chapter 15. But if we want to understand the energy behind the eight verses we read this Sunday, we'll need to read at least the rest of the chapter, and see the fires of persecution that John's community saw. It's at least as true in justice-making and as it is in teaching or psychotherapy: the work starts where the resistance starts. If we're not encountering any resistance, then we have to ask ourselves whether we've confused the Gospel of Jesus with our culture's rules for respectability. John's community knew it. Israel's exiles hearing God's prophetic word to them in Isaiah knew it. The community that produced 1 Peter knew it. The new life that God brings comes in the midst of powers that are hostile to it.
Not much of a sales pitch, is it: "Come, and be hated, reviled and persecuted!" When we walk into a church and see a cross, that should, if nothing else, cause is to ask whether any ride is worth that price of admission.
But there is something else, something that transformed the Cross from an instrument of fear for rulers to control rebels and prophets into the means of our salvation. And that's Jesus. Jesus, lifted up on the Cross, draws all people to him. Jesus, who loved even his persecutors to the end, shows us that resurrection, not persecution, is the final word. That new life is already flowing through the Vine to the branches, bearing the fruit of the Spirit as a sign given to and for the world. The power and peace of that new life is almost beyond description, but for now, for this Sunday, we have John's description of the life of the risen Body of Christ in the world.
"I am the vine; you are the branches." We know that best when we're living out the Good News in the places most in need of transformation, and most likely to pose resistance. We know that most deeply when we need it most profoundly. And when we are in that place where fires threaten, we do need need to fear. We abide in Christ, and in that relationship, we find new life in where others see only pain; we experience that rush of refreshment and joy that inspired the psalmist:
He has raised up strength for his people
and praise for all his loyal servants,
the children of Israel, a people who are near him.
-- Psalm 148:14
Thanks be to God!
Fifth Sunday of Easter, Year A
I had an evangelical conversation experience of accepting Jesus as my personal Lord and Savior when I was thirteen, and 1 Peter 2 played a significant role in my sense of what that experience was about. I was a pretty morose teenager; I wanted to think that things, that my life, MEAN something, were a part of something larger, and I really wasn't seeing what that something larger could be. 1 Peter 2 didn't give me very specific content about what that was either, but when I read that text at age thirteen, I got a sense that there was something bigger, something I could be a part of, something that would not only give me a sense of belonging, but a sense of meaning -- a sense of calling.
My sense of what that calling is and what it means has -- thank God! -- changed and deepened a great deal. When I was thirteen, I don't think I knew much about Jesus and what Jesus was about beyond that Jesus was calling me. But the more I understand about what Jesus' own work among us was and is, the more I understand the meaning of that call to follow Jesus, to be part of the Temple that has him as its cornerstone. My sense of my own call is embedded in my sense of what Jesus' call is. That's a very challenging and occasionally costly call, but there's a huge payoff: when my sense of call is most deeply embedded in Jesus' mission, then my sense of my identity flows more deeply from the identity I have in Christ.
And Jesus' sense of his own identity flowed completely out of his sense of God's identity. Who do you think God is, really? What is God most concerned about? And what does your life say about that? Here's the radical claim that Jesus made on the subject:
God looks like Jesus. God acts like Jesus. God is concerned about the things that Jesus' followers saw his actions address, all the way up to the Cross.
So what's God like? God is like Jesus, who will sit down with five thousand strangers -- prostitutes and Pharisees, Greeks and Jews, peasants and priests -- to share a meal handed from hand to hand, with no opportunities to check the purity of the kitchen where the bread was baked or the cleanness of the countless pairs of hands that got the food to you. God is like Jesus, who was reviled, persecuted, tortured, and executed, and yet spoke words of forgivenesss to his tormentors. God is like Jesus, who taught us that the kingdom of God would be ushered in not with the political and military muscle of kings and generals, but quietly raised from mustard seeds of touching the unclean, feeding the hungry, healing those bound by disease, inviting the outcast, reconciling enemies.
Even today, and even in many churches, that's a radical view of who God is and how God acts. I'd like to think that Christians' dreams of the future are more like The End of Poverty than like Left Behind. Anxiety and fireworks usually sell better, though.
Why is that? What would happen if we really took to heart Jesus' words, "believe in God" -- the God Jesus proclaimed -- and "believe also in me"? What would happen if we believed Jesus' message that the time of fulfilment for scriptures proclaiming good news to the poor, release to prisoners, sight to the blind, freedom for the oppressed, and the year of jubilee has come? What would happen if we believed that Jesus sent to come upon us the same Spirit which empowered him to feed the hungry, heal the sick, prophesy to the powerful, and proclaim God's kingdom? What if our lives proclaimed a God who is at work in the world as Jesus' followers saw him at work among them?
For starters, our age of anxiety might finally be able to take in Jesus' exhortation, "do not let your hearts be troubled." When everybody wins, the rats can stop racing. There's no sense in suing for property or privilege when the year of jubliee is at hand. The God who created the universe is at work in Christ, the Christ in whom we abide. God's kingdom, God's dream, is no fantasy; it's the most fundamental of realities.
If we believe Jesus, then we can stop saying "no way!" and live into the reality of Jesus the Way, until everyone God made and loves can tell the story of God's people as their own:
Once you were not a people,
but now you are God's people;
once you had not received mercy,
but now you have received mercy.
(1 Peter 2:10; Hosea 1:10, 2:23)
Thanks be to God!