Proper 24, Year C
Sorry this is late, folks; Blogger has been refusing my connection.
On a personal note, I'd like to ask for your prayers this Friday and Saturday, when I'll be interviewed for postulancy, the biggest hurdle in the ordination process in the Episcopal Church (if you're not familiar with what that process looks like, you can read a summary of the process in the Diocese of New York. I'm in the Diocese of Maryland, not New York, but there are a lot of similarities in how they do things). By mid-week next week, I should know whether the bishop wants to make me a postulant right away, perhaps later, or never.
Now, to this Sunday's readings ...
It's the custom at the parish where I work to do only two readings, either the Hebrew Bible or the epistle (but not both) and the gospel, in Sunday services. This week, since I'm preaching, I've asked that we do all three.
The 2 Timothy passage we've got this week has always been and is still is an important one for me personally. When as a teenager, I had a conversion experience -- in evangelical parlance, I accepted Jesus as my personal Lord and Savior -- it was largely in response to what I heard from God in my extensive and enthusiastic reading of the Bible, both on my own and in small groups. Scripture has been integral as well to my other conversion experiences since then -- for example, when I first felt confronted with my own racism and sought to repent from it and be intentional about my ongoing formation in a way that would further my ongoing conversion.
Scripture is also central in my sense of vocation. I feel called to a ministry that is sacramental and pastoral, but I don't know how I'd understand what either of those things mean in the context of Christian community were it not for my many years and ongoing practice of studying Scripture regularly, intensively, and enthusiastically.
And of course, one of the elements of my vocation that I'm particularly passionate about is teaching, empowering people to interpret Scripture in a way that will further their own ongoing conversion, formation, discernment, and ministry. On the live album Rattle and Hum by the rock band U2, lead singer Bono introduces the song "Helter Skelter" with the words, "This is a song that Charles Manson stole from the Beatles. We're stealing it back!" Sometimes that's how I feel about the Bible. Plantation owners may have given slaves the Bible to try to inspire obedience, but in the process, slaves learned the story of Moses. Some people try to steal the Bible so they can conceal their claims to power in it, as some do with the flag. But we're stealing it back.
"All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work" (2 Timothy 3:16-17). This is a true saying, and worth repeating, even as we confess one (and only one) Word of God, no book, but a person: Jesus, the Christ of God, the Word made flesh in Nazareth and dwelling among us still. Our study of Scripture informs our sense of who Jesus is and how we are called to respond to his invitation to follow him, but Jesus, not Scripture, is our end. Scripture is inspired and useful, but Jesus is the Truth, and the Way, and the Life.
And furthermore, much as I give thanks for the printing press and the Internet, these media are a mixed blessing in creating the illusion that we can read the Bible in our "prayer closets," in isolation from community. In the ancient world, writing materials were very expensive, so copies of scriptural works were difficult for individuals to obtain, and most Christians would have been unable to read anyway. As a result, the early Christians studied Scripture in community, pooling resources to obtain copies of books and reading them aloud together, in community.
In a context like that, it's easier to follow 2 Timothy's counsel, which I'd say doesn't start with verse 14 (where our lectionary picks it up), but in verse 10. 2 Timothy counsels us to learn not solely from Paul's letters, but from his life -- his conduct, his aim, his faith, his patience, his love, and his steadfastly holding to a response of love even when persecuted. When I think about those moments of conversion in my own life in which Scripture was key, it becomes clear that the presence of the Spirit that made conversion possible was mediated not solely by my reading Scripture on my own, but also (and in some ways, perhaps more importantly) by the example of others in community. I love studying Scripture, and if I may paraphrase St. Paul, I thank God that I have opportunity to do it more than most people. I commend intensive study of the scriptures at every opportunity to all; there's nothing more useful for those of us with the hubris to serve as teachers.
It's useful. I'd say it's necessary, if we're to be proficient, equipping God's people for every good work. But it's not sufficient. There's something else we need, something that 2 Timothy 3:10-11 hints at, and that I draw from our Hebrew Bible and our gospel reading for this Sunday. We need contact. We need community.
Not that community is all hearts and flowers and happiness. All communities go through conflict, and conflict isn't fun. But conflict in community isn't a distraction from the spiritual; it is a place in which we can encounter God, find blessing, and experience conversion. In Genesis 32:3-30, Jacob is in the midst of a feud with his brother that's serious stuff -- he believes that his brother may be coming to kill him and his entire family, "the mothers with the children," as verse 11 (omitted in the lectionary) says. And that's where God shows up. Even Jacob's encounter with God isn't exactly lovey-dovey; it's an all-night smackdown that ends with Jacob dislocating his hip. But Jacob holds on to his opponent, saying, "I will not let you go, unless you bless me" (verse 26), and Jacob leaves blessed by God, empowered to reconcile with his brother Esau.
As in our Hebrew Bible reading, the parable from this Sunday's gospel starts with seemingly irreconcilable differences, as a widow seeks justice from a judge whom the text explicitly says neither fears God nor respects anyone. But she won't let go; no matter how many times the judge dismisses her, she keeps coming back. She won't let the matter drop until she sees justice. At the end of the story, we might be tempted to say that the widow wins and the judge loses, but I think that's a misleading statement. The widow won her case, but the judge got a gift even more valuable; he received the gift of conversion.
When the widow wrung the verdict she sought from the judge, her efforts turned the judge from a man of injustice to a man who does justice. The man who at the story's beginning is identified only as an unjust judge who respects no one, having done justice and listened to the widow, will need a new name, just as Jacob received a new name. The widow reminds me of Desmond Tutu, calling in the darkest days of apartheid to the soldiers who threatened him, saying "It's not too late! You can still join the winning side!" Like Tutu, the widow refuses to demonize her oppressor, to treat him as if he were the evil man everyone -- including the narrative voice in the text -- says he is. So the widow wins, and the judge joins the winning side.
So when I preach this Sunday, I will have something to say about Scripture and its usefulness for correction, but I won't stop there. The meat of the message this Sunday, I think, will be about the wrestling we do in community. I'm preaching the day before the Lambeth Commission chaired by Archbishop Robin Eames issues its recommendations -- recommendations which some are saying, or even hoping, will be the end of communion, a definitive break in fellowship. It won't be. That's true not only because of the facts of our polity, because any recommendations issued by the commission will have to go to the primates' meeting, and then to the Anglican Consultative Counsel, and even then instruments for implementing decisions are limited. That's also true because there are too many of us who will not let go. On the commission and off it, from cathedral thrones to parish pews and in the streets, there are too many of us who will refuse to go away until justice is done -- for African children in danger of dying of malaria for want of a $2.50 net, for LGBT martyrs who put their life on the line for justice, for those tortured in Abu Ghraib or in Cook County Jail in Chicago. We won't let go until our wrestling partners and angels -- we refuse to respond to them as enemies or demons -- become sources of blessing and justice.
With God's help, we're holding on. And all of God's children will receive the new name and the blessing God promises.
Thanks be to God!