Fourth Sunday in Lent, Year C
[Sorry about the delays this week, folks -- my computer's overworked power supply wore out, but Apple came to the rescue -- and I hope in time to be of some help to y'all! --Dylan]
1 Corinthians 5:16-21 - link to NRSV text
Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32 - link to NRSV text
Jesus' parables nearly always hinge on a surprising reversal of some kind, and a good rule of thumb when reading them is that if you haven't found anything that's very surprising and challenging, read it again.
Jesus' parable of "The Lost Son" starts with several, and then keeps going. The younger of two sons asks his father to divide the family's property and give him now the share of it that would be his inheritance when the father died.
This is one of those scenes that remind me of a regular feature in the Highlights children's magazines that were ubiquitous in dentist's offices when I was growing up. The feature was "What's Wrong With This Picture?," and it consisted of a line drawing of a cheerful scene, inviting the reader to circle everything wrong or odd in the picture. "What's Wrong With This Picture?" The birds are flying upside-down, the tricycle has one wheel that's square and another that's triangular, the spider has twelve legs, the fishing pole has no line, and the fish are happily playing cards on a tree branch! The feature might have been more challenging if the object were to circle what was right with the picture, because it always seemed that practically nothing was.
There's so much that's wrong at the beginning of the story of the Lost Son that it's hard to point to anything that's right, expected, or normal:
The son asks the father to divide the family farm. Such a division would diminish the family's fortunes. Although this family seems to be doing reasonably well at the moment, anyone whose livelihood depends on agriculture can find their fortunes changing dramatically with the weather or other factors, and this family doesn't seem to be among the most prosperous, who lived in luxury in the cities while stewards managed tenant farmers and slaves who did the work. Doing what the younger son asks is a substantial and entirely unwarranted risk for the whole family.
Perhaps even more importantly, the younger son's request diminishes the whole family's honor. There's hardly any such thing as a secret in village life, and a dishonorable son shames not only himself, but his father, and by extension the entire family name. And by asking for his inheritance now, the younger son has, in effect and in full view of the village, said to his father, "I wish you were dead, so please make it as much as possible like what it would be if I'd buried you."
Stories about two sons, one good and one treacherous, aren't uncommon. The beginning of our gospel story makes it clear as day that the younger one could never be the good one. And in view of how shocking the son's behavior is, his father's behavior in granting the request might be even more surprising.
So the younger son goes off to a distant land, lives in shameful ways among Gentile foreigners and their pigs, and loses everything he has -- which is, we should remember, a substantial portion of the family's resources. And then he decides to go home.
This is also a surprising decision on the young man's part. After the way he has treated his father and family, he has no ground on which he might expect a gracious reception. Heck, he'd be lucky if he made if he made it back to his father's house, since the moment he was within sight of the village, he'd be very likely to be attacked by any who saw him. He has not only shamed his family, but the whole village, where every father must have wondered anxiously whether his behavior would give their sons rebellious, shameful, and disruptive ideas. Even if his own father isn't rushing to pick up the first stone, this young man is in real danger from the whole village. But surprisingly, he decides to go back anyway.
And surprisingly, his father must have been looking for him, for he catches glimpse of his son on the horizon. And then the father, shamed so profoundly by his younger son's behavior, does yet another surprising thing: he gathers up the last shreds of precarious dignity he's got to lift his robes and run to meet the son who'd betrayed him. Picking up robes like that is not something a self-respecting father would do, and running even less so -- the combination is undignified in a way entirely unbefitting an elder in the culture in which the story takes place. But this is not a move just of joy at a son's return; it's a rescue mission of the most urgent nature.
The father has to reach the son before the villagers do, or his son is doomed to the mob. Once more, the father sacrifices his dignity and this time even risks his life for the Bad Seed. But once the father's arms are around that younger son, and especially when he launched the celebration, it's clear that the prodigal is now fully under his father's protection. And everyone would have known as much, since everyone would have been invited to the celebration. A fatted calf is most assuredly not a Quarter-Pounder, and once killed, would need to be consumed by a lot of people in one big party, perhaps lasting for days.
So let's total up costs the father has incurred thus far for the sake of the younger son, the Bad Seed. The father as surely as the younger son squandered the family's resources by giving them to a son who so clearly was Bad News, with no loyalty at all to father or family. He squandered his dignity as he lifted up his impressive robes to dash like a madman toward the young man upon his return, and given the mood of the village, may have been risking his welfare too -- who knows who in the village would blame the father's indulgence for the shame on the village and the danger to the social order in every family there? He killed the fatted calf, which might have gone on to produce far more cattle and recover some of what the younger son had squandered, to throw a party to secure his younger son's status as a full and fully protected member of the family. But the biggest cost is yet to come -- and here comes what might be the biggest shock of the story.
It's the elder son. Supposedly the Good Son. The son who, if you take a look at the story from verse 25 on, refuses even to call his father "father." The son who doesn't just shame his father by rejecting his will in the closest thing to private that village life has, though the village will hear. The elder son, as the whole village is gathered "and they began to celebrate," takes the opportunity to show his true colors to his father. He chews out his father in the totally immediate and full view of all gathered to celebrate. In other words, the elder son shows himself to be a disobedient son, a dishonoring son, a son who shames his father. The whole "Good Son/Bad Son" structure becomes, like so many things in Jesus' ministry, a stunning reversal.
And then there's one more surprise.
The father once more responds graciously, saying even in front of the whole village that the kind of father he is must celebrate and rejoice when the lost are found. The father of the parable celebrates every measure of resurrection, of life from death, without pausing to judge whether the one given life deserved it, or what the consequences are for village or cosmic justice, or even how the loyal will respond. He just hopes that those who profess loyalty to him will follow his example.
And when will we follow his example?
It's far, far too easy for progressives to preach this parable as saying nothing more than "God loves you as you are. Come home." It says that, of course, and that's worth saying. But it says more than that. It invites us, as does all that Jesus says and does, to consider giving -- honor, forgiveness, and joy of our very selves -- sacrificially and without regard to worthiness to our sisters and brothers. It challenges us to consider what kind of party we'd throw and whose looks askance we'd take on gladly when the opportunity presented itself for renewed fellowship with people that every kind of common sense our culture has to offer would say are not worth our time, whether because of their past misdeeds or their peripheral status in our circles of friends or circles of power.
When will we embrace the example of the father in this story? That is, after all, the example God gave us in sending the prophets and sending Jesus. That is, after all, the example Jesus gave at the beginning of Luke chapter 15, as he invited sinners and the righteous alike -- indeed, anyone who was willing -- to table with him.
Fortunately, the example and the invitation are always there, no matter how many times we ignore of fumble it. And in the moment when we're thinking of ourselves as crazy as we gather up our robes and run to embrace the despised and envelop them in protection even from our neighbors, we'll understand that much more deeply and truly just how God loves and sustains us.
Thanks be to God!
Proper 6, Year B
2 Corinthians 5:1-10
Psalm 92 OR Psalm 92:1-4, 11-14
Keep, O Lord, your household the Church in your steadfast faith and love, that through your grace we may proclaim your truth with boldness, and minister your justice with compassion; for the sake of our Savior Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.
-- BCP Collect for Proper 6
It's an apt prayer for the church during this General Convention. While we can only know provisionally, we want to proclaim the truth as we understand it boldly; especially because our perception of God's justice is never complete, we wish to minister it with compassion. And if we look at the world through the lens of Jesus' ministry and God's mission, we see endless opportunities to do both, innumerable places where Good News and compassionate justice are desperately needed.
That's never more apparent to me than at convention. The exhibit hall hosts hundreds of organizations seeking to inform the church about and bring healing and transformation to various needs of the world. Just reading all of the resolutions inviting participation in God's mission of justice and reconciliation in some corner of the world takes hours; serious advocacy for more than a handful at any given time is beyond any one mortal's capacity. Listening to the stories, looking at the figures, and taking in testimony could keep me in meetings from 7:00 a.m. until 11:30 p.m. or later every day of the week. And I can't help but think for everything I can't do whether that one extra bit of effort might have made a difference. How would I feel if this initiative failed because I was in bed, out to lunch, hanging out with a friend instead of alerting people to some development, using my voice, at least praying for the situation?
And then I have to chuckle at my hubris. Jesus offers an excellent corrective for people like me -- people who at times mistake the invitation to participate in God's mission for an invitation to play God, who alone is the world's Creator -- in the two parables of this Sunday's gospel.
The first parable is my second favorite in the gospels. (What can I say? I'll always have a soft spot for the so-called "Parable of the Unjust Steward" in Luke 16.) Commentators call it the "Parable of the Seed Growing Secretly," and it's the shortest parable in the canon. A farmer scatters seed, and it grows, "he knows not how. The earth produces of itself." No farmer, no matter how clever, can MAKE seeds grow. She can participate in the process by influencing conditions to make them more conducive to growth -- watering, composting, and so on -- but the gifts of life and growth come from God, and only from God, who graciously created a fruitful earth and gives without calculation of deserving the gifts of sun and rain.
This picture is a wonderful corrective not only to activists teetering on the edge of exhaustion, but also for those who talk of the world God made as if the most basic truth about it is that it is fraught with dangerous evils. The world isn't perfect by any stretch, but it was made and is being redeemed by a God whose grace exceeds our wildest imaginings. The most basic truth about the world is that it arcs irresistibly toward the justice for which it aches, and each day is bursting with opportunities to experience God's grace, joy, peace, and love. Like St. Paul, we can be confident that even if an earthly tent can be destroyed, the home and identity we have as new creations in Christ are eternally rooted and eternally lasting, and the smallest of mustard seeds will produce great and fruitful trees.
With that confidence comes a lightness of spirit, a sense of abundant life and even, dare I say, fun -- even or especially in situations the world sees as heavy and hopeless. We need that lightness. A life of activism and of mission that is fueled mostly or solely by a sense of desperation or thirst for martyrdom is bound to be a short career, and probably a less effective one. God calls us to participate in God's mission, but God provides opportunities along the way for sabbath, for quiet, for laughter, and each of us was made to enjoy those good gifts even as we strive to further their availability to every child, woman, and man. Being faithful is not just about working in mission; it is also about knowing when to rest and play, giving thanks for all of God's abundant and good gifts.
It is a good thing to give thanks to the LORD,
and to sing praises to your Name, O Most High;
To tell of your loing-kindness early in the morning
and of your faithfulness in the night season.
-- Psalm 92:1-2
Thanks be to God!
Seventh Sunday after the Epiphany, Year B
“Your sins are forgiven.”
What was so shocking about those words? Far too much is made far too often about a supposed contrast between the reluctance of an “Old Testament God” or “God of Judaism” to forgive and the readiness of Jesus or a “Christian God” of grace, of letting sinners get a new start.
It's a false contrast. Read Psalm 32 -- heck, do any substantial reading at all in the Old Testament with an open mind -- and it's clear that, as Psalm 103 puts it, “The LORD is gracious and full of compassion, / slow to anger and of great kindness. / The LORD is loving to everyone / and his compassion is over all his works.” The prophet Micah tells us that what God requires of us includes doing justice and loving mercy, and those things aren't in tension for God any more than they are in what God's people are called to do. Those who worshipped the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob understood deeply that God in God's mercy “has not dealt with us according to our sins, / nor rewarded us according to our wickedness. / For as the heavens are high above the earth, / so is his mercy great upon those who fear him. / As far as the east is from the west, / so far has he removed our sins from us” (Psalm 103).
Indeed, God's mercy was great enough to provide for forgiveness of sins for as often as a member of God's people failed to do God's will. Christians (especially Protestant ones) often say that the problem for which Jesus was the solution was that no human being could keep the Law, and that God couldn't forgive us for such shortcomings, and so was distant from humanity until Jesus came to make forgiveness possible. That's a misreading of St. Paul, though, following on a non-reading of Hebrew scripture. Not only did Paul believe that he could (and did!) keep the Law -- in Philippians 3:6 he notes that he was “as to righteous under the Law, blameless” -- but Hebrew scripture is clear that when people sin, God is gracious to forgive -- so gracious as to provide for a system of sacrifice and prayer culminating in the yearly Day of Atonement to provide for forgiveness of all Israel's sin -- and I've seen no indication that anyone thought that these measures were less than totally efficacious for forgiveness of sin and restoring a person to intimate relationship with God.
So why, then, were Jesus' words to the paralytic anything other than old news to all his hearers?
I think the answer is now as it ever was:
Because we still don't get it.
We still don't get that the God who created us not only can stand the sight of ourselves as we are, but really, really loves us. This is pretty much the root of the classic sermon that I hope (perhaps beyond hope) is a relic of the distant past -- the one that says, “God pretty much can't stand the sight of you, except insofar as God can hallucinate that you are God's Own Son.”
Let's get it straight, so to speak: God loves you. God really, really loves you -- even more than anyone ever loved Sally Field (whose Oscar acceptance speech still lives vividly in my memory, and whom I'll always love irrationally for her smiling endurance of The Flying Nun and the Gidget television series). God didn't have to send Jesus to make it possible for God to love you:
God sent Jesus because God loved you. Already.
And God was overflowing with forgiveness toward you. Already.
But do you get it? “Do you not perceive it,” as Isaiah asks?
On the whole, we don't. We do maybe sometimes, but usually in a manner that's a bit askew. We think that God loves us and forgives us because we said a prayer to convert, or because we really, really tried to be good, or because at least we're better than those awful, awful other homosexuals/bigots/terrorists/jerks/what-have-you.
But that's not it. God made a world that's good, and created people who were pretty amazing as creations go (I'm a pretty creative person, and I've yet to make a sentient being of any kind, let alone one capable of art and poetry and prayer and real, live, love), and then set us in communities in which we had what we needed to become the Body of Christ on earth, and we're still pfaffing around with apologies.
Your sins are forgiven, and now it's time to walk.
Walk in love, as Christ loved us, and gave himself for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God.
Is this a new thing? It's as new as God's love is for us -- new every morning, every moment. Is it enough for us to stop waiting for others to do something to deserve our forgiveness? If Jesus came to speak God's forgiveness to someone on the basis of nothing more than that this person was there and had need, I don't see why not. What excuse do we have to play Twenty Questions about whether someone deserves what God is gracious enough to give, now that we have been privileged with place to see just how boundless is God's grace?
It's not new, but I have to admit that it's new to me -- new every moment in which I'm given grace to see and to wonder.
Thanks be to God!
Trinity Sunday, Year A
Please feel free to check out this sermon from a previous Trinity Sunday and this lectionary blog entry from Trinity Sunday last year if you're looking for additional inspiration. I found myself going in a rather different direction this year!
The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you.
-- 2 Corinthians 13:13
This Sunday is Trinity Sunday, a time when we celebrate especially the communion that is God's very Self, and remember the Great Commission that the risen Jesus gave us to baptize people from all nations.
But the commission Christ gave us doesn't stop there, and too often what follows is the Great Omission in the life of the church. We're called not just to baptize. We're not called to make churchgoers, people who include religion as one among many respectable civic activities. We're called to make disciples, people who really follow Jesus as Lord.
That language of lordship has fallen out of favor in a lot of circles, and I completely understand why: too many people have used it for too long to support their own agendas, ones that undermine the radical freedom which is Christ's gift to us. Case in point: the “Bush fish,” which literally enmeshes the bearer's identity as a follower of Bush in the symbol which is supposed to identify the bearer as a follower of Jesus. For that reason, I have to agree with Slactivist's observation that “this isn't quite 'the abomination that causes desolation, standing in the holy place' -- but it comes close.” I'd feel just the same about it if it was the “Kerry fish” or the “Dean fish.” I'd also feel the same way if it were an American flag, or a Canadian flag, or any other flag, embedded in the fish, and this Sunday's gospel is one reason why I've got such a problem with the idea.
In this Sunday's gospel, the risen Jesus says, “all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.” That's what we mean when we confess that Jesus is Lord. And that's actually Good News, “liberty to the prisoners,” for the very reason that the confession has that troubling edge in our history. It's Good News because there are a great many people in the world who want to be lord.
You had to win, you couldn't just pass
The smartest ass at the top of the class
Your flying colours, your family tree
And all your lessons in history.
-- U2, “Please,” Pop
You know that among the nations, those whom they recognize as their the rulers of the nations lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them.
-- Mark 10:42
The bad news is that there's a lot of competition for the title of “lord,” and most of the candidates will enrich themselves at your expense. But those candidates haven't heard or heeded the news that they've lost the race. The position has been filled, once and for all time. And the really Good News is that the winning candidate is Jesus, the one who gave this vision as an alternative to that of the rulers of the nations:
It is not so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant ... for the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.
-- Mark 10:43-45
In other words, the Lord of all is someone whose only agenda is to serve the servants. The one to whom all power belongs is using all of that power to empower the powerless. And this one Lord is the one to whom all of our allegiance belongs. Furthermore, the Great Commission is to make disciples of all nations through baptism, in which all of us from all nations die to our former ties; from all nations, those of us who were once not a people are called as God's people, in which all barriers between Jew and Greek, American and Iraqi, fall away. We participate in national affairs as paroikoi, pilgrims who live in and among the nations, but whose baptism calls us to seek and serve Christ in others, and to serve Christ only. Putting one of the rulers of the nations in the same category as Jesus and allegiance to one nation's agenda in the same category as our citizenship in God's kingdom indicate a fundamental category confusion, a tragic mistake.
I use that phrase intentionally. New Testament texts have a name for the sort of confusion that puts “God and country” in the same category: they call it hamartia. It's a word that can mean “mistake.” Aristotle in his book on tragedy used it to refer to a particular kind of mistake, a fundamental category confusion that leads to the downfall of a great hero, like mistaking your daughter for a sacrificial lamb, or your betrayer for your most faithful friend. It's a “flaw,” as in “tragic flaw.” We don't usually translate the word as “flaw,” or even as “mistake” when it occurs in the New Testament, though; we translate it as “sin.”
But for a moment, let's look at it in an Aristotelian context as a tragic mistake, the instrument of a fall. I think that's what it is. It's a mistake, and usually an honest one from honest people who love their country and quite rightly want to work with those who work for what's right. That's what makes it so heartbreaking. Such pure and strong intention makes it easy to push that much harder, take it that much further. Just enough awareness of what Jesus asks of us may inspire someone to believe that following the way of the Cross means that violence is inevitable, or even that the kingdom can be brought about by violence.
Your holy war, your northern star
Your sermon on the mount from the boot of your car ...
So love is hard
And love is tough
But love is not
What you're thinking of.
-- U2, “Please,” Pop
That's not it at all. The Cross doesn't belong to you, or to any of us, any more than the crown does. In religious language, Jesus' sacrifice was full, perfect, sufficient. In plain terms, if Christianity is right, then no one ever need die again because of sin, just as no one ever need follow the rulers of the nations as lord. All of that's over, and here's what remains:
God's kingdom coming, making all as it was when the world was born: lands as borderless as the skies. Humanity in the image of God, invited into communion with the God whose very Being is Triune communion. The grace of the Lord, Jesus the Christ. The love of God. The communion of the Holy Spirit. With all of us, always.
So please, get up off your knees. The risen Christ invites us to into the world bearing this Good News!
Thanks be to God.