Proper 17, Year A
Last week, I blogged about Peter's confession of Jesus as God's anointed and why he's rebuked in this Sunday's gospel. Peter thinks that Jesus was anointed to defeat their enemies, and that's the star he wants to hitch his wagon to: he wants to share in the victory he anticipates Jesus will win.
Peter is going to share in Jesus' victory, but it's not the kind of victory he anticipated when he first called Jesus God's messiah. It's a victory won not by killing enemies, but by forgiving them. It's a victory won on the cross, and Peter will share it when he's ready to take up his cross and follow Jesus.
But what does that mean, to take up one's cross? It's clearly something that's important to Matthew, as he reports Jesus saying something very like this twice: here in chapter 16, and earlier, in Matthew 10:38-39, and I think the context from chapter 10 can help us figure out what "taking up the cross" means in chapter 16 as well.
Let me start first by saying one thing that it does NOT mean for most of us: it doesn't mean that we're supposed to seek literal or figurative martyrdom. If Jesus' death on the cross was a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, then nobody has any right to demand bloodshed or suffering for sins or crimes. For some of us, the hard part of taking that in and living it out is that we have to give up vengeance; for some, the hard part is to stop punishing ourselves. Paul writes in Romans 12 that we are to present ourselves as "living sacrifices," but that's a very different thing from becoming a kind of living dead. God wants us to live as fully and joyously as we possibly can.
We might be surprised, though, at what the path to that full and joyous life looks like. In Matthew 10, it looks like sons set against fathers, daughters against mothers, persecution from one's own family. And as emotionally painful as that must have been, that wasn't the end of it. In Jesus' culture, extended families lived together; many of those adult sons and daughters set against their parents would be losing their homes. And honor was family honor: cut off from family as rebellious and shamed sons and daughters, Jesus' followers were also cut off from the source of honor that made others willing to be in any kind of relationship with them; they could find themselves with no way to make a living in their community, nowhere to turn except to their sisters and brothers in Christ. In losing their home and family, they lost the life they'd known.
I preached about this in this sermon, when I last preached on Matthew's Beatitudes. Like the Beatitudes, the passages in which Jesus tells his followers to take up the cross implicitly tell the story of what happened to many who followed Jesus. Some were left destitute -- and some ended up on literal crosses of their own. They had heard Jesus' call to follow him, and had left everything they'd known. In some cases, their example was inspiring others. Women sneaked off to nighttime meetings where they consorted with men as freely as they did with their brothers, and they refused to marry those their fathers chose from them; they said they would not be "unequally yoked," and so would marry whom they chose. Slaves were saying that they had only one Lord, and it wasn't the person who'd bought them at the market. They had to be made examples of how the Empire treated troublemakers. Otherwise, they might be seen by other sons and daughters and slaves as examples of how to behave, and the good order of the Empire, which rested on the authority of fathers, masters, and governors, would crumble. Some were scourged; some were executed.
They could have known that the price was steep for the way of life they were choosing. So why, then, did they choose it?
On one hand, it was because they also saw a cost to remaining where they were, to the way of life that would have earned them praise, respect, and/or relative material security. For that reason, it was somewhat easier to choose to follow Jesus for those for whom the price for staying put was more obvious and immediate -- younger sons who might not inherit; young women whose older sisters had died in childbirth after their marriage at age 14 or less, and who feared the same fate when they were married; slaves whose masters mistreated them.
But I don't think that these people chose to follow Jesus because they lacked hope where they were so much as it was because of the hope they found in Jesus. Jesus himself was homeless, and if Mark 3:21 is any indication, his own family thought he was crazy (while the NRSV says "people" said he was crazy, the Greek just says "they" said so, in which case it would be more natural to assume that the "they" in question is his family, who are the "they" of the first half of the sentence), and if Matthew 13:57 is any indication, Jesus saw himself as being without honor in his homeland and family. And still Jesus was known as a "party animal," in the words of John Dominic Crossan, in contrast to the grim figure of John the Baptizer (Matthew 11:16-19). Jesus offered real freedom, deep peace, and abundant joy -- and those who saw him living it believed him.
We've got decisions of our own to make. There are times when there's tension or flat-out contradiction between how our culture defines being a good, patriotic citizen -- or being a good liberal, for that matter -- and following Jesus. It might be at a point when we're advocating forgiveness for enemies and a neighbor sees this as a slight to a son in danger while serving in Iraq. It might be when we're accused of being bad parents as we encourage our children to spend time on their spiritual formation and serving the poor even if that displaces some studying or going to an S.A.T. prep class. It might be when we're accused of betraying "the cause" by working with people on the other side of important and divisive questions. It might come when we let go of needing others to see us as right in service to letting someone else feel deeply heard and fully understoof. There's a price to pay for defying these cultural mandates, and though it's often miniscule in comparison to the price Jesus paid on our behalf -- or, for that matter, the price paid by those murdered for their stance against apartheid, for example -- it's going to feel like a steep one for those of us accustomed to privilege.
But there's a price for staying where we are too. We can give up the rest and play that we need for health so that we can achieve more (at least in the short term); we can give entirely in to our culture's assertion that we are what we accomplish and what we can earn. And if we do, that's what we're going to pass along to our children, who will believe their worth to be at least as conditional as our lives say that our worth is. We can try to protect ourselves by threatening violence to any who would harm us, but we'll find the number of those who would harm us multiplying because of the fear and resentment our policies instill. The bottom line is that the networks of dysfunctional relationship that we think will get us ahead in the eyes of the world will enmesh and enslave us if we don't make serious changes.
And if we do answer Jesus' call? What if we did present ourselves as living sacrifices to God, not conformed to the world's expectations, but being transformed in Christ's image? Let's be clear about who this "Christ," this anointed one, is: he's Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified as a threat to the order of families and of the Empire. This Jesus, is the one the God of Israel chose as the Son of Man, judge of the nations, who repays evildoers by calling down forgiveness rather than fire. And so believing that the nations will be judged can bring freedom from fear, when we believe that the judge is Jesus. We can be at peace even when we're in conflict with the authorities of this world when we're in the care of the Prince of Peace. We don't have to prove to anyone, even ourselves, that we're worthy of love if we take in that Jesus loved us without regard for deserving.
As we follow Jesus, things will change -- us, our relationships, our world. Change means losing things as they were, but if we've caught Jesus' vision for how God is redeeming the world, we know that what we gain is of far greater value than the chains we lose. Jesus brings us out of old ways of being and relating that bring sorrow and death so that we can be free for new ways of relating to one another, and in the self-giving love in which Jesus forms us, we find real, deep, and eternal joy.
Thanks be to God!
Proper 11, Year A
Those of you who have been reading this blog for a while have seen me blog about what anthropologists mean when they talk about an "honor/shame culture," and that Jesus' culture was one of them. Among other things, it means that in the culture in which Jesus told his parables, a "good" man was a "real" man, someone who would retaliate when someone attacked him or his family (and hence his honor).
However, Jesus consistently taught that retaliation is never appropriate, even when one is attacked and no matter how brutal or unwarranted the attack is. In many ways, that went even harder against the grain of Jesus' culture than it does against ours -- but it still goes against the grain of our culture in at least some ways.
I'm thinking right now about September 11, 2001. I was volunteering at a polling center during a political primary, so I was standing outside an elementary school with other volunteers when the first plane hit the World Trade Center. With the other volunteers, I got news as drivers slowed down when they saw us, rolled down their windows, and shouted news or their personal response to it. Bits of information and misinformation came to us this way: "Another plane hit the World Trade Center!" "A bomb went off outside the State Department!" Bits of prayers did too. And many drivers shouted resolutions, most of which were like that shouted by one young man as he drove past:
"I'm going out right now to kick the first Arab @ss I can find!"
When I heard that shouted with such conviction and urgency, I found myself thinking back to the 2000 presidential election campaign, and specifically to George Bush's much-maligned comment that his favorite political philosopher was Jesus of Nazareth. And an image came to my mind of a press conference, in which now-President Bush would say something like this:
"You all remember during the campaign, when I said that my favorite political philosopher is Jesus. You remember how I said that I do my best to think about what Jesus would do when I think about decisions I need to make. I've also made clear that I'm an evangelical Christian, and this guides my decisions in office. And I'm a man who means what he says, so I hope you'll understand when I tell you about a very hard decision I've had to make. The attacks against our country, against innocent people of all faiths in Washington and in New York were inexcusable and ruthless -- evil, even. But I follow Jesus, and when Jesus was attacked by evildoers, he responded by going to the cross they prepared for him, and by forgiving those who drove in the nails. There are those who say that the blood of the victims of these terrorist attacks cries out for blood, that those who took lives must pay with their own. But as an evangelical Christian, I believe that Jesus' blood shed was and is the sacrifice for all the sins of the world. And so my response, my only response, will be to pray for those who perpetrated this evil. May God bless our those who make war against us as God blesses the peacemakers. I am not America's sovereign; God is, as God is sovereign of the whole world, and will one day sort the sheep from the goats, the healers from the evildoers. And to evildoers, I urge you to accept the mercy of this God while God offers it, and to thank God for it. Were it not for the mercy I've seen, I would be vowing to hunt you down wherever you are. Were it not for this mercy, I would dismiss the deaths of any who stood between you and me as 'collateral damage' and the necessary cost of justice. But because God has shown me mercy, I will bless you through my tears and my anger. May God have mercy on your souls."
That's where my imagination went on September 11, 2001. I guess that means I have a pretty wild imagination, because a president who said such a thing would not have been reelected. Too many of us were too frightened that if were were seen as being anything but resolute, if we showed any hesitation before striking back, we would be attacked again. We were afraid of that because, I think, we knew in our heart of hearts that we WOULD be attacked again, no matter how we responded. We were even more afraid of that than we were of breeding even more terrorists in the terror of war. (Please see this short Flash movie on the subject, if you haven't already.) And so we tried to identify the evildoers so we could punish them, so we could kill them.
Please don't misunderstand me; it's totally understandable to want to do that. We want to protect ourselves and our children. It's only fair that those who want to kill innocent people might end up dying violently themselves.
That's exactly my point. In this Sunday's gospel, Matthew speaks to a community of people who KNOW what terror is. At any moment, they believe that someone -- anyone, even a brother or a father -- might haul them before a governor to be tortured, or worse. I've blogged about that before. The following week, I blogged about Jesus' advice and Matthew's to those terrified of that possibility, that likelihood. It's the traditional word of the angels, in scripture and even in many pop-culture angelophanies: Don't be afraid. God loves you. The words sound cheesy and lame. But the EXPERIENCE of that has a power that's unmatched.
That's the power of Jesus' name, of Jesus' character, of Jesus' ministry.
And that's our power. I've seen the pop-culture pictures of power as a warrior who blasts away in his anger, shouting "Kill 'em all -- let God sort 'em out!" That's not power. That's fear. That's terror. The truth that Jesus has for us is that there's something far more powerful than that: the Son of Man, the judge of the nations with all the power of the angelic hosts behind him, saying "Have mercy on them all. Love them all. Let them all grow, and their fruits sort them out."
Inept gardeners may think they know the weeds from the wheat. Wise farmers know that these tares (weeds) can't be pulled out from the wheat; only when they all reach maturity can they be distinguished. The more we think we know about who can safely be called an evildoer beyond redemption, the more we prove ourselves to be not only inept gardeners, but immature weeds. But those who are mature know who they are, and they know who they're not.
The mature know that they are not the judge of the nations because they know the judge personally. It's Jesus. And we're not Jesus, as we know when we're following him. So Matthew's word to us, even when we're under attack, even -- or especially -- when the attacks are brutal, is that we're not to usurp the role of judge. That's a role God has given only to the Son of Man, to Jesus. And when we fail to remember that and start trying to sort out the evildoers from the righteous, God's people from dispensible people, we are to remember at least what the approach is of God's appointed judge to the nations.
For neither is there any god besides you, whose care is for all people,
to whom you should prove that you have not judged unjustly;
For your strength is the source of righteousness,
and your sovereignty over all causes you to spare all.
-- Wisdom 12:13, 16
God's judgment, God's righteousness, God's perfection is perfect love and mercy: blessings of sun and rain upon the righteous and the unrighteous alike. Like Father, like Son, as they say. This Sunday's gospel tells us that when we're wronged, we're to look to Jesus' teachings and, most importantly, how Jesus behaves when he's is treated with contempt as pointless as that of the enemy sows weeds among his neighbor's wheat (wouldn't the enemy really have the best revenge if he had spent that energy sowing crops in his own field and left his neighbor envying his harvest?). We're to look to Jesus' behavior in going to the cross and forgiving his tormentors from it. And we're to remind ourselves and one another:
Don't be afraid; don't give in to fear. Give in to love. We're not called to serve as judge, so judging will only make us more anxious as we try to maintain constant vigilance, always eyeing our neighbors to try to pick out the enemies. Our vocation, our destiny, is better than that.
... the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. ... For in hope we were saved.
-- Romans 8:18, 24
Jesus is the judge, so we don't have to worry about how to do his job. Jesus is the judge, and so we have access to an unshakable hope, the blessed assurance that we will be judged with the same infinite mercy as will our enemies.
God is still in charge. God and Jesus are still and always of the same character, the same love. And we are the charges, the children, of the same God Jesus proclaimed. Let all who have ears hear this blessed assurance, this Good News!
Thanks be to God!
Good Friday, Year A
I've long appreciated and admired The Witness, with its fabulous masthead proclaiming, "A Feisty and Opinionated Journal since 1917." God willing, I plan to have a long (and feisty!) career, and I'd be very pleased if at the end of it, my bio read even a little like their history from their 'About Us' page:
Since 1917, The Witness has been examining church and society in light of faith and conscience - advocating for those denied systemic power as well as celebrating those who, in theologian William Stringfellow's words, have found ways to "live humanly in the midst of death."
I encourage you to read The Witness regularly, and you'll find my reflection for Good Friday there. It's called "The Narrow Place." While you're there, check out the rest of the site. It recently got a new look, and I particularly appreciate the excellent and moving photography now featured on their welcome page.