Third Sunday of Advent, Year C

Luke 3:7-18 - link to NRSV text

This Sunday's gospel is in many respects about conversion -- who needs it, what it looks like, and why do it -- and what it meant to John the Baptizer. It's what John was best known for. His nickname of "the Baptizer" came from a remarkable idea he had: namely, that everyone needs to be baptized.

It wasn't at all remarkable that he baptized people; most Jewish movements did. Baptism was one of the things that a person had to undergo to convert to Judaism. What was wild in John's ministry was that he said that Jews were just as much in need of his baptism as anyone else would be. That's what he was teaching when he said, "Do not begin to say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham as our ancestor'; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham," and it's got a number of potentially radical implications.

The first is that bloodlines have absolutely no relevance in God's mission. God is not going to be confined by our boundaries between one family and another or one nation and another, however important we might think they are. This is not the order of the world as we've run it when we've managed to talk ourselves into thinking we're in charge, and it challenges us to re-imagine what the world looks like as God's work among us is realized.

Take a look, for example, at this report from Oxfam on how corporations from the world's wealthiest nations are leveraging their power in their home countries to negotiate international trade agreements that are even more to their advantage, putting farmers, fishers, and others in poorer countries out of business. Consider for a moment how the wealth of the three richest FAMILIES in the world exceeds the gross domestic product of the poorest 48 COUNTRIES in the world. We have ordered the world such that accidents of birth -- in which country or which family a child is born -- often determine whether that child will live to see adulthood. Do we think that our country, our family is so much more highly esteemed in God's eyes than others' are? Or are we willing to "bear fruits worthy of repentance"? God doesn't want our liberal guilt or our good intentions; God wants us to love the world's children as we love our own children.

That will require us to make a choice, and that's the second point I take from John's teaching on conversion. I believe that Christian Baptism does indeed seal and mark a person as Christ's own forever. That doesn't lessen the truth that we are called to a kind of conversion, to a metanoia or repentance, that is a personal choice. We can choose whether to identify Jesus as Lord of our lives, and how we choose to live testifies to what choice we have made on that point. You can choose to Baptize your children, but you can't make the choice for them to follow Christ.

Up to this last point, what I've said about the implications of John's teaching lines of well with what Jesus taught. But Jesus and John didn't agree on everything, or we wouldn't see what we do in Luke 7:18-35, in which messengers from John the Baptizer go to Jesus to ask, "Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?" Jesus is doing enough of what John expected from the coming "mighty one" for John not to have completely abandoned hope in him, but his behavior is raising enough questions that John feels the need to send messengers to ask them.

This Sunday's gospel tells us what John is expecting that Jesus isn't doing. John says that the coming mighty one will baptize "with the Holy Spirit and fire," a phrase that we often gloss over, but is worth paying closer attention to. In the Baptizer's usage, "the Holy Spirit and fire" are not two ways of saying the same thing or an extended reference to what will happen at Pentecost.

We can tell that from the rest of what the Baptizer says about the coming one: his "winnowing shovel is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire." Your translation probably says (as the NRSV does) that it's a "winnowing fork," but this is not supportable; as Robert L. Webb points out, the Greek word is ptuon, which always refers to the winnowing shovel, not the fork.

This actually makes a significant difference in how we read the Baptizer's expectations. A winnowing fork is used to separate the wheat from the chaff. A winnowing shovel is what you use after someone else has done their work with the fork and the wheat and chaff are already separated to do what John says the coming one will do: "gather the wheat into his granary," while "the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire." Jesus is only fulfilling half of what John says the mighty one coming would do: he's baptizing with the Holy Spirit and gathering people for healing, good news, and blessing, but the fire to destroy the wicked is nowhere to be seen.

John the Baptizer calls everyone to conversion so they may avoid destruction when the name-taking and butt-kicking starts. Jesus' response of "Blessed is the one who takes no offense at me" (Luke 7:23) to the Baptizer's pleas to bring on the fire of judgment against the wicked challenges John himself to a kind of conversion. In Jesus' ministry, John is invited to rejoice at what God is doing in the world, and to let go of what God is not doing, to release his preconceptions and take in the reality of God's presence and work.

How the Baptizer responded to that invitation isn't recorded. At least some of his followers remained disappointed in Jesus and attached to the Baptizer's idea that God's mighty one wasn't going to issue any more invitations to conversion, but would simply pour out God's blessings on the righteous and rain destruction on the wicked. Movements following the Baptizer and proclaiming such immanent judgment continued for centuries after his death, suggesting that John received Jesus' reply with sadness not unlike that of the rich ruler who asked Jesus what he needed to do to inherit eternal life. The more we have, the harder it is to give it up, and John the Baptizer had a vast store of hope poured into his expectations of the coming one. He'd sacrificed so much already -- the comforts of home and family, his freedom, and soon his life -- it may be that sacrificing his expectations was one last sacrifice he couldn't make.

Jesus seemed to anticipate that as he said that while "among those born of women no one is greater than John; yet the least in the kingdom of God" -- including a prostitutes or tax collector who had received John's Baptism -- is greater than he" (Luke 7:28). And even in saying that, Jesus' ministry issues an invitation in profound continuity with the one John issued to all those who would hear -- an invitation to repentance and conversion.

We need to hear that invitation. It isn't about getting in to God's good graces or avoiding God's judgment -- in Jesus' ministry, God is already extending grace and suspending judgment before we ask. It's about living into the fullness of that grace. We are invited to make our decision to follow Jesus, and that invitation comes not just once for a lifetime but in every moment we live. Jesus is born anew among us whenever two or three gather in his name. Jesus is at work among us wherever the poor, the sick, and the marginalized are received and find healing and power for new life. And when we keep our eyes, ears, mind, and heart open to receive God's good news, we see it finding flesh in our world in places and in ways as surprising and challenging as they are joyous.

Let's not begin to talk to ourselves about our impressive spiritual pedigree when the very one for whom our ancestors longed and hoped is coming again among us. Let's not presume to draw limits around what God can accomplish and with whom. Let's not measure God's good news of peace according to our own preconceptions when the most certain word we have of it is that it "surpasses all understanding" (Philippians 4:7). Our conversion didn't end with Baptism; that's just where it began, and it ends only where God's love for us does. In other words, it doesn't end. Expect God's coming; expect the unexpected!

And thanks be to God!

December 14, 2006 in Advent, Apocalyptic, Baptism, Christian Formation, Conversion, Discipleship, Eschatology, Luke, ONE campaign/Millennium Development Goals, Philippians, Prophets, Repentance, Year C | Permalink | Comments (1)

First Sunday after Epiphany: Baptism of Our Lord, Year B

First off, I apologize for the delay in getting this up -- I was without a computer this week until today. Sure is good to be online again!

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Isaiah 42:1-9 - link to NRSV text
Acts 10:34-38 - link to NRSV text
Mark 1:7-11 - link to NRSV text

The delay before I got my own trusty PowerBook back was such that I got a chance to do something unusual for me. Before I wrote my own lectionary reflection, I edited another -- Jeff Krantz's wonderful “The God Who Is For Us” in The Witness. Jeff drew my attention once more to something that commentators often note about Mark 1 -- namely the tie between Jesus' Baptism and his Passion, made by Mark's use of schizomai in just two places -- Mark 1:10's “the heavens torn apart” and Mark 15:38's “the curtain of the temple was torn in two.”

I think it's healthy and helpful to have Baptism connected so clearly with the cross on a Sunday when so many will be baptized. After all, the way to which we are committed in Baptism is Jesus' way -- the way of the cross as well as the way of Jesus' resurrected life. I find reflecting on that particularly poignant when infants and young children are baptized. What parent among us would at our child's birth commit him or her to a lifetime in the military? But the Baptismal covenant is in many respects an even more profound and potentially costly commitment. It takes a lot of something -- guts, faith, or both -- to commit our children to that path, and to commit ourselves to equip and encourage them on it.

It's a counter-cultural path, as is clear from Isaiah's description:

Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations. He will not cry or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street; a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice. He will not grow faint or be crushed until he has established justice in the earth; and the coastlands wait for his teaching. Thus says God, the Lord, who created the heavens and stretched them out, who spread out the earth and what comes from it, who gives breath to the people upon it and spirit to those who walk in it: I am the Lord, I have called you in righteousness, I have taken you by the hand and kept you; I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness.

As Christians, we hold that Jesus is God's servant, in whom God delights, and our collection of readings for this Sunday invite us to make that connection with the vision at Jesus' Baptism in which it is revealed that he is God's own child in whom God is well pleased. But Isaiah saw all of God's people as “the servant of the Lord” -- as followers of the way of Jesus, we are called to walk Jesus' walk. We are called as agents of justice to the nations -- not just to our own nation, and certainly not just for our own family and friends. God's servants don't break the bruised reed; we are called to lives of nonviolence. God's servants don't quench a dimly burning wick; our manner of living in the world should empower those the powers of this world -- the powers that keep people poor, sick, uneducated, marginalized -- would extinguish.

And something I really want to concentrate on this week: We are called to release prisoners -- and I write that in country with one of the highest proportions of its citizens behind bars. In the U.S., while crime rates have been falling, rates of incarceration have been rising dramatically.  One of 138 U.S. citizens is behind bars. Those statistics are much higher for racial and ethnic minorities, and while they're rising dramatically across the board, they're rising for women twice as fast as they are for men (and these statistics are based on those from the government's Bureau of Justice Statistics -- hardly a bunch of wild-eyed leftists). In other words, the way of God's servants -- the way of Jesus, and the way to which we commit those we baptize -- runs counter to the way of our world, of our rulers, and sometimes of our friends and neighbors.

That's a hard thing. And I think about that every time I see a child baptized. We want our children to be successful, but we are called to the way of Jesus, who found his greatest victories confronting the powers that oppressed demoniacs -- that is, people cast out of society because of their antisocial behavior -- dining with prostitutes and tax collectors, and hanging on a Roman cross as a slave condemned for treason. How can we help them swim against the cultural tide that wants to turn “Jesus” into a code name for abiding by that Protestant work ethic and following the rules, for country as much as for God, for respectability, for privilege, for cultural hegemony?

We don't have a prayer helping our children with this unless we've made a practice of prayer in our own lives, unless we're intentional about making our homes as well as our churches communities of spiritual formation. Perhaps it's needless to say, but I'll say it anyway: our children are observant. They can tell when we're trotting out Jesus' name or claims about “biblical values” solely when it seems to be convenient to keep them in line. A lot of people want to talk about Jesus' and Christianity's uniqueness when it lets them diss other religions, and I'll be the first person to say that anyone who thinks that all religions are basically the same probably haven't studied any of them very closely. But think of it this way -- no parent I've met of any religion wants their children to be smoking, drinking heavily and/or doing illegal drugs, and be having sex outside of wedlock by the time they're twelve. Our kids -- if they're blessed with that much sense, and in my experience, most are -- know darn well that Jesus' way is not primarily about refraining from those things, any more than it's about saying a little prayer to get into heaven. Especially by the time they're teenagers, they've developed excellent b.s. detectors, and the needles on those well-tuned instruments will be jumping all over the place if we try to tell them on one hand that following Jesus is an important commitment around which they should center their lives and on the other hand that following Jesus doesn't include doing anything that wouldn't be a political asset in almost or more than half the country. If our kids have read the bible at all, or even if they've paid minimal attention when the story was read in church, they're going to know at least one fact about Jesus' life and the way to which his followers commit:

They're going to know that Jesus' way leads to the cross. Jesus was born in the reign of Caesar Augustus, the original “family values” politician, whose domestic policies sought to strengthen the nuclear family as the foundation of the empire because all of those families could produce more little soldiers to replace all those who died in bloody wars before. At Jesus' birth he was proclaimed a different kind of king: a Prince of Peace, who was for ALL nations. The degree to which that was acceptable and respectable shows in where Jesus died: on a cross, vulnerable, exposed, and -- to those whose values were of the empire and the world order which produced it -- shamed.

That's not where the story ends, though. As Christians, as followers on the way of Jesus, we believe that the God who created the universe vindicated Jesus, raising him from the dead and appointing him as the judge of nations whose powers derided his refusal to retaliate when struck. When we baptize our children, that vindication is also on their way -- being baptized into Christ's Body, they experience not only the ways in which Jesus was marginalized and persecuted, but also God's presence with them and God's vindication of Jesus' way.

That's something to rejoice in above all -- above the adorable little dresses and suits, and even above the gathering of family and friends at such an important moment. But the deep joy of God's vindication of the Christ and his Body comes into focus much more fully in light of Jesus' cross -- the cross he exhorts his followers to take up. So when I witness a Baptism, I always take a moment to take in the solemnity as well as the brightness of what's happening before me. This is a moment of tearing apart as well as bringing together -- a small sign today of the immense sweep of God's grace through the universe. God shares in the brokenness of the world, and in Christ, so do we. God is healing and reconciling the whole of Creation -- and in Christ, as we walk in Jesus' way -- so are we.

Thanks be to God!

January 5, 2006 in Acts, Baptism, Christian Formation, Isaiah, Mark, Year B | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Proper 4, Year A

Would you like your parish to have an assistant who preaches and teaches like this? (And blog entries are just the first draft of my sermon on weeks when I preach!) I'm on the job market, and am also available for consulting, retreats, and guest preaching. My bio and C.V. are here.

Deuteronomy 11:18-21,26-28 - link to NRSV text
Matthew 7:21-27 - link to NRSV text

Our readings from both the Hebrew bible and the gospel for this Sunday are about something that is somewhere between unpopular and terrifying to hear about for a lot of people (well, for me, anyway):

Obedience. It was in our gospel for last week too, in the “Great Commission,” which commissions us not just to bring people to church, or to get them to say the “sinner's prayer.” We're not making converts. We're making disciples -- people who have not only experienced Baptism, but who also have experienced catechesis, having been taught what it means to follow Jesus in a way that is actually going make a difference in behavior. In other words, Jesus' followers actually do what Jesus taught people to do, as I blogged about last week. This week's readings have a lot to say about that.

Our reading from Deuteronomy for this Sunday also has a lot to say about family. And I've blogged about this before as well. When this subject has come up in the past, it's usually been in response to one of Jesus' consistently negative comments about what we usually mean when we say “family,” namely the group of people who are related to one another by blood or marriage.

People are often taken aback when they discover that Jesus didn't speak highly of that kind of family. When someone in the crowd called out, “blessed is the womb that bore you and the breasts that nourished you” (Luke 11:27-28), Jesus' reply wasn't, “Blessed rather are ALL mothers, as there's no calling in a woman's life that could be more important.” It wasn't even, “No, for your blessing betrays some serious sexism. You should say, 'blessed are all PARENTS,' as fathers are just as important as mothers, and parenthood is the most important thing in the world for men as well as women.” Here's what Jesus said:

“Blessed rather is the one who hears the word of God and obeys it.”

It's very similar to what Jesus says when he's told that his mother, sisters, and brothers are outside waiting to see him: “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother, and sister, and mother” (Mark 3:31-34).

It isn't that all families are awful, in Jesus' eyes. It's just that they are wonderful or awful precisely to the extent that they do what Christian communities do, inviting all members to use their gifts to help the whole community move toward maturity in Christ. Parents are disciples first, second, and always. So are children. For Christians, families are groups of disciples who live together in community, and as very local gatherings of the Body of Christ, the Great Commission is for them as well.

Our reading from Deuteronomy for this Sunday points to one specific way in which families are called to live into the Great Commission: like all Christian communities, they are called to catechesis, to teach and equip one another for discipleship. This, by the way, is one of the reasons I'm such a great fan of Faith Inkubators, and especially their Faith Stepping Stones curriculum. Their motto is “every night in every home,” as that's where most formation for children and youth takes place -- for better or for worse.

It's just not possible to outsource this to Sunday School teachers or youth pastors. Here's what happens when a family tries this: for one to three hours (maybe as much as five, if the kids never miss a youth group meeting) each week, kids are exposed to one or two adults who at least pay lip service to the importance of formation (one would hope that it would be WAY more than lip service, but when churches pay those who work with children and youth least if they have a designated staff person for it at all, sometimes congregations end up with children's or youth minister who has a great heart but very little training, if any). And each week, the kids spend the rest of their waking hours either on their own, or with adults who don't talk with them about the faith and stories of God's people as we see them in the bible. Here's a pretty primitive visual aid representing the number of waking hours a young person has in a week:

XXXXXoXXXXXXXXXXXXXXoXXXXXXXXXXXX
XXXXXXXXXXXXX
oXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX
XXXXXX
oXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXoXXXXXXXXX

Each red 'o' represents one hour of intentional Christian formation outsourced to church workers: five hours in a week, assuming a young person who goes to Sunday worship, Sunday School, and youth group every week without fail. Each blue 'X' represents one waking hour in which young people are being formed with mentoring from their teachers, SpongeBob (who's a great guy, as far as animated characters go -- and I'm glad he's received an unequivocal welcome from the United Church of Christ -- but I wouldn't say he's necessarily the best person to teach my kids about who God is), and by what they observe of their parents' priorities.

How much effect do you think that the 'X' hours have in comparison to the 'o'?

God is immeasurably gracious, and can work powerfully even in a climate least hospitable to the work of the Spirit, but let's face it -- we're seriously tempting fate if we expect that Sunday School and youth group will on their own provide sufficient catechesis for serious discipleship ...

Unless, that is, we take Deuteronomy 11 seriously. In the ancient world, people were seen as the sum of three 'zones': thought and feeling, listening and responding, and making and doing (once more, props to Malina and Rohrbaugh). By saying that we are to take God's word into our heart and soul and write it on our forehead and hand, Deuteronomy is telling us that God's word is to permeate our whole selves -- body and soul, at all times and in all places. When we do that, our children can see for themselves what's important to us. Nothing else could be a more powerful influence to form our children as disciples who love scripture. And when we treat our home and the set of those who live there as an intentional Christian community, every bit as much as any parish or monastery, we find that each member has gifts to build up the whole for mission; our children will teach us and minister to us as well.

Not everyone who cries, “Jesus is Lord of this family!” or plasters fish alongside the American flags on the minivan will experience the fullness of what God wants for us, the rich blessings of living in a community in which Jesus really is received as Lord. Blood relation, adoption papers, a seal of approval from the state, and the right combination of genders for parents don't make real family any more than hours of shuttling to soccer practices and SAT prep classes will. Jesus never said anything about “family values,” but he said a lot about what kind of community he values, whether it's a parents and some children, a set of roommates, a monastery, or a parish.

Real family, real community, is found wherever members hear Jesus' words and follow him. That's what's solid, no matter what state laws or genetic ties say. It's true what they say: love makes a family. And not just the love of members for one another, but the kind of love that Jesus showed, a Great Commission kind of love, that says that this group of people are members of one Body, given not just for their own joy, but for the sake of others, for the sake of the world.

That's Jesus' view of family. When we hear this word on this and put it into action, we will find and value our family whenever and wherever we meet sisters and brothers in Christ of any generation and whatever their genetic or legal relationships. And our children, having grown up steeped in God's word, Jesus' love, and Christian community will, like Abraham, be blessed so that they will be a blessing (Genesis 12:2) -- to us, to the world, and to the God who made and loves them.

Thanks be to God!

May 25, 2005 in Christian Formation, Deuteronomy, Kinship/Family, Matthew, Ordinary Time, Scripture, Year A | Permalink | Comments (13) | TrackBack