Proper 23, Year C
Dear SarahLaughed.net community,
You all may have noticed that I've been posting very late in the week recently. This semester is pretty crazy; I'm a full-time student in seminary, who's trying at the same time to finish my Ph.D. dissertation, find a new diocesan home, and work at two jobs. But I've resolved to get back to posting earlier in the week, when new posts are most helpful to preachers, and I appreciate your hanging in there with me in the meantime. Please don't forget that, although I just switched to the Revised Common Lectionary this past Advent, I did blog the entire cycle of readings in the lectionary of The Episcopal Church in the Book of Common Prayer, and there's a great deal of overlap. If I haven't posted yet on a text for which you're looking for inspiration, you may find the 'search this site' box in the left-hand sidebar helpful. The easiest way to find comment on a particular passage is often to enter the full name of the biblical book and the number of the chapter for which you want comment in quotation marks -- e.g., "Luke 17" for this week.
But here's this week's post:
Luke 17:11-19 - link to NRSV text
In this week's gospel, Jesus heals ten lepers. Jesus instructs them to go to the Temple in Jerusalem, as the Law requires. Nine of them obey Jesus, and head off for Jerusalem. But one of the cleansed lepers disobeys Jesus, and instead returns to thank him.
As I pointed out the last time I blogged on this passage, coming back to thank Jesus would not have been seen as the most polite course of action the lepers could take, even if Jesus hadn't instructed them to go to the Temple. If that seems puzzling, it might help to imagine how you'd feel if you'd been out to dinner with a friend, and when the check came, you'd paid it, saying to your friend as he reached for his wallet, "Oh, don't worry about that -- you can get the next one if you'd like." The next day, your friend rings your doorbell with an envelope in his hand containing in cash half the amount of the previous night's dinner and a note saying thanks.
That would be slightly strange behavior, unless your friend thought you were very short on cash. Your "Oh, you can get the next one" comment is a way of declaring an ongoing friendship in which you share resources and cover for one another, but the cash in the envelope, as if it were necessary immediately to even the score, seems to carry a message from the other person saying "we don't have that kind of relationship" -- perhaps also saying something like "I don't really trust you not to hold this over my head" or "I don't expect to have dinner with you again, so I'd better settle any debts now."
The healed leper coming back to thank Jesus is a bit like that. The nine who did what Jesus told them to do were not only honoring the expressed wishes of their benefactor; they were also behaving as people would when they wanted and expected to continue the relationship while looking for opportunity to repay Jesus. The tenth leper, though, cannot obey Jesus' instructions. He is a Samaritan. Samaritans, weren't welcome in the Temple in Jerusalem, and had good reason to expect ill treatment from those who saw the Temple in Jerusalem as being the only true one (you can find some background on why that was so here).
What courage it must have taken for this man to call out to Jesus! The text points out that as they cried out, the whole group kept their distance, as they would have been expected to do as lepers. Even so, their trust in Jesus is clear from their crying out to him. Imagine the joy this group must have felt when they realized that they were cleansed, that their status as outsiders had ended!
Well, all but one of them. As the other nine headed off toward Jerusalem, the tenth realizes that even if he isn't a leper, he's still a Samaritan, set apart even from the nine people he was with when they were all lepers. As the others head off for the Temple, wondering what they can offer Jesus in return, the tenth returns, "praising God with a loud voice." And Jesus in turn praises the Samaritan -- not for giving thanks to him, but for giving praise to God.
As Samaritan and leper, the tenth person healed knew doubly well what it's like to be an outsider. And this is the person who saw and acknowledged God's hand in his healing, in Jesus' ministry.
Longtime readers of this bog may have gathered that one of the trends I've observed that grieves me most is the way in which those of us who are privileged seem increasingly to use our privilege to isolate ourselves from others we fear as not being "people like us." Crime and poverty go together, so we object when housing that's affordable to the poor (or even to less wealthy professionals such as teachers and police officers!) is proposed for our neighborhood. We build gated communities. We fuel "white flight" to the suburbs, even when that gives us long, miserable commutes. Even our churches are often structured to divide rich from poor; the wealthy are "members" who are welcomed warmly to participate fully in worship and leadership, while the poor are targets of "outreach ministry" that assumes those served have no spiritual gifts to offer the community except the chance to make us feel generous and to stay out of sight and preferably somewhere else the rest of the time.
We're missing out in a big way, though, when, by "things done and left undone," we exclude outsiders, when we don't listen deeply and look them in they eye. We're missing out on their spiritual gifts, their vision; we head off for a temple humming happily and we miss the chance to see God in human flesh before us.
But we have another choice. We can turn to face "outsiders" as neighbors, beloved children of God, sisters and brothers in Christ. We can turn to face Jesus, and when we do, we just might find ourselves crying out with Samaritans and outsiders everywhere, giving praise to God who in Christ is healing and reconciling the whole world.
Thanks be to God!
Proper 21, Year C
I have two confessions to make:
The first is that this week is kicking my proverbial butt. New semester at seminary, an unusual (especially for this time of year) concentration of freelance work, the launch of a new physical fitness regimen, and a great deal of pastoral care following the House of Bishops meeting, about which so many were so anxious, has brought me to Thursday night with little extra time to write.
But I have had time to think, and even thinking long and hard about this Sunday's gospel, I think that if I were preaching this Sunday, I would say much the same thing I said last time it came up in the lectionary:
The hard, hard thing in this passage is that the rich man is not described as being ungenerous. For all we know, he was very generous indeed; in any case, the Gospel of Luke treats the rich man's generosity or lack thereof, as well as the rich man's attitude toward money, toward dependence on God, and everything else going on in the rich man's head and heart as being immaterial to the story. So the moral of the story is NOT that as long as I'm generous, or I know I'm really dependent on God, or I'm sufficiently grateful, or I feel sufficiently sad or guilty about my having so much and others having so little, it's totally fine that I am rich and others are poor -- at least a billion so poor that they have no access to clean drinking water, nourishing food, or any chance of changing their situation unless there is profound systemic change in our world. Luke does not give us room to think that.
The hard word in this Sunday's gospel is that we have, in our fallen way of doing things, responded to poverty, sickness, age, vulnerability, and just plain difference by running away from those who remind us of what we fear. Since we can't run far or fast enough, we dig chasms between us. The poor live on one side of the tracks or the river or the freeway, and the rich on another. The poor go to one church, and the rich go to another. The poor are objects of church "outreach programs"; the rich are church members and leaders. You could add to this catalogue of chasms, I know. We build them around all kinds of categories: race or ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, respectability ... the list could go on and on.
And the truth is that whenever we dig such chasms, and especially when we seek to make them unbridgeable, we can be very, very sure that we're on the wrong side of it.
This behavior is hurtful all the way around. Isolating ourselves from our sisters and brothers in the human family doesn't make us less vulnerable; it just denies us the opportunity to see and experience that much more of the image of God. It makes us miserable. It does violence to our souls to live this way as it inflicts violence on the bodies and families of the "have-nots."
We were not made for this. And we have a name for behaving in a way that isolates us from one another and from God. We religious types call it "sin."
It's Good News, though, that we were not made for this. The Good News is that even as we look at our lives, our world, and all the ways we can feel trapped in them the way they are, a part of us knows we were not made for this. The Good News is that just as we're ready to cry with St. Paul in Romans, "Who will rescue me from this body of death?," we can still hear God's call:
Thanks be to God -- when we separated ourselves from one another and from God, God sent the prophets to plead, to shout, to remind us that God made us for justice and peace in community.
Thanks be to God -- in the fullness of time, God sent Jesus, whose life, death, and resurrection shows us that no human power can dig a chasm too broad or deep to be bridged in God's grace.
There is a hard word in the story of Lazarus and the rich man, but there is also an invitation to engage God's mission of healing, justice, and reconciliation in the world. And the marvelous thing -- well, one of the wonders I keep discovering as I seek to follow Jesus -- is that the cool water for which the rich man longs, the peace and freedom and joy that Lazarus enjoys as God's gift, is available to us now -- partially and sometimes fleetingly, but REALLY, a taste of grace that nourishes hope -- whenever we seek justice for the poor, whenever we strive to live in reconciled and reconciling community.
Thanks be to God!
Proper 19, Year C
If you haven't seen it before, please take a look at my entry from three years ago, "The Parable of the Ninety-Nine, Or Why It's Probably a Good Thing That Sheep Don't Talk." This week, I want to take as a launching point the three questions with which I closed that parable:
- At the end of the story, where is the shepherd?
- At the end of the story, where are the ninety-nine sheep?
- If one sheep is with the shepherd and ninety-nine aren't, who's really the stray?
My "Parable of the Ninety-Nine" reflects a number of dynamics in the church, but the questions at the end draw attention to one in particular, I think -- one I'd like to concentrate on this week.
Too often, we think of "ministry" as what happens in church buildings. And it might sound goofy at first, but I think many of us far too often go to church when we want to look for Jesus.
I'm not saying that we won't find Jesus in church. I certainly have, countless times and in powerful and wonderful experiences of Christian community. After all, church buildings frequently host gatherings of Christians, and the assembly of those called in Christ to join God's people is the very Body of Christ in this world. When two or three members of that Body gather, Jesus shows up. Jesus shows up every Sunday morning, and at lots of other times as well, in church buildings.
But Christian discipleship isn't just "having a relationship with Jesus Christ," or at the very least, it's a particular kind of relationship with Jesus:
We are called to follow Jesus, to follow the shepherd.
So why do we slip so often, then, into thinking that deepening Christian discipleship -- following Jesus -- is primarily or even in large part about coming again and again to the same place to meet with the same people? When did Jesus' "Great Commission" of making disciples -- followers of Jesus -- turn into a commitment to go to church and convince others to do the same?
Clearly, I believe the answer is that it didn't, and this Sunday's gospel is an invitation to rethink such an approach.
Jesus is, after all, a shepherd. By most ways of reckoning, he's got a pretty bizarre approach to shepherding -- one not unlike the approach of the farmer in the "Parable of the Sower," who tosses seed in parking lots and pigeon hangouts as well as on good soil, behaving as if seed were in unlimited supply and all soil were good. In this Sunday's gospel, Jesus is portrayed as a shepherd who will leave ninety-nine sheep to care for one. We should probably refer to our stained-glass windows showing Jesus carrying a single lamb on his shoulders as portraits of "The Loopy Shepherd." And yet Jesus suggests that this brand of foolishness is characteristic of the God who created the universe as well as of God's Son.
It's quite a radical statement, and not nearly the sweet and comforting, if somewhat sterile, scene in a lot of art about "The Good Shepherd." Those of us who have no experience of herding livestock might be tempted to think of scenes with shepherds as ones described by the genre of English poetry we call "the pastoral" -- rolling green hills, fresh air and sun, birds twittering peacefully.
The life of a shepherd wasn't like that much of the time, though. It was hard, as shepherds had to sleep out in the cold, exposed to the elements as well as to the predators from which the sheep were to be protected. It was lonely, spending day after day and night after night away from one's family. And it was not viewed as a respectable one. Shepherds' duties in the field left their aging parents, their wives, and their children unprotected at home, and therefore shepherds were widely viewed not only quite literally as perennial outsiders, but also as dishonorable men.
And yet it's the figure of a shepherd -- and one who leaves the ninety-nine sheep at that -- to which Jesus turns in this Sunday's gospel to help us understand what God is like and how God acts in the world.
So this Sunday, let's reflect on the invitation offered in the gospel: an invitation to look for God especially among the outsiders, the poor, the disgraced, those whom our world shelters least. If God is like the shepherd Jesus describes, and if Jesus is truly God's Son, doing what God does, then following Jesus requires venturing out to the margins.
That's one reason I speak so often and so highly of the movement to make extreme poverty history -- of those of us who style ourselves as being at the center of things and whose wealth and privilege put us at the center of worldly power working with others around the world to put our treasure -- and with it our hearts -- out to the margins, to the "bottom billion" trying to live without clean drinking water, access to basic education or medical services, and on less than a dollar a day. I'm enthusiastic about it because I see Jesus as I pursue it.
And while we don't have that kind of extreme poverty in the U.S., every community has its margins -- and therefore a horizon we can pursue to look for Jesus' action in the world. Whom do shopkeepers in your town monitor nervously or chase out of their stores? Who is "the wrong sort of person"? Who makes churchgoers jumpy? Who are the outsiders?
Some of them may be in church. And certainly a good, spiritually growing congregation will provide encouragement and support we may need to find, listen deeply to, serve, and learn from those who aren't in our churches and are probably outside our comfort zones as well.
But this Sunday's gospel invites us to think of church not as the destination for those seeking to follow Jesus and engage God's mission, but as a way station providing strength for the journey.
Thanks be to God!
Proper 17, Year C
Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16
Luke 14:1, 7-14
I was once in a congregation that took two-week turns with other area churches hosting a winter shelter for the homeless. One wintry Sunday morning, a parishioner came up to me in deep distress following the service. "There's a homeless man in the church," she said, "and we're not hosting the shelter this week. Could you do something about it?"
"Of course," I said, and I left my post on the greeting line, walked over to the man, introduced myself, and invited him to coffee hour.
I remember similar raised eyebrows in another congregation that had both a ministry of making bag lunches for homeless people and a group for people in their twenties and thirties when, after talking with a man who sometimes made use of the bag-lunch ministry that he was both Christian in his twenties, I invited him to the young adults' group. Sadly, several members of the group asked him to leave, telling him to come back when the bag lunches were out.
Let mutual love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels unawares. Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you were being tortured. (Hebrews 13:1-3)
I don't know of a single parish that doesn't have what are usually called "Outreach" ministries -- programs such as bag lunches or soup kitchens for the homeless, or raising money to send to a charity overseas. It's good that we know to do at least that much. Sometimes, though, I think the "Outreach" label is a bit of a misnomer, and "Charities" might be more accurate.
Is it really reaching out, after all, if the "outreach ministry" doesn't cultivate a sense that Christians -- rich or poor, black or red or brown or yellow or white -- are members of a single Body of Christ, and all people are children of God and members of one human family? Is what we celebrate on Sunday really a Eucharist in remembrance of Jesus if we, by things done and left undone, cultivate and perpetuate congregational cultures that have a strong and nearly impermeable boundary between those who are recipients of "Outreach," who should take what they're given, be grateful, and leave before the service starts, and those who are members, and therefore invited to worship and fellowship throughout the parish's life?
Jesus tells us in this Sunday's gospel that when we have a dinner party, we shouldn't invite our friends, relatives, or rich neighbors; we should invite the poor, the diseased, the marginalized. Lest we think that we're fulfilling that command solely by sending food or money to other people, Luke pairs this command with another: that we are called not to seek places of honor for ourselves, but to seek to honor others more.
"Honor" is a word that doesn't mean much to a lot of us, so it's worth drawing out a bit of just what that might mean in a cultural context that doesn't give the word the kind of resonance it had in Jesus' culture and Luke's. In the first-century Mediterranean world, "honor" wasn't a rather quaint and abstract value of elites or soldiers. Honor was community esteem in a world in which that esteem was not just immeasurably valuable, but necessary under many circumstances for survival. If your family was seen as without honor (and honor was held collectively by families -- one person's dishonorable behavior blew it for all), people wouldn't do business with you. Members of your family would be poorly placed to enter into a decent marriage -- and in a culture in which having honorable children who could and would care for you when you were old or sick was the only form of social security or retirement, that damage to your family's marriage prospects could put or keep you in utter poverty.
And what kinds of behavior were seen as honorable?
There's a game I've used with people of all ages (and intergenerational groups, where I think it can be particularly fun and poignant) to illustrate this. The game goes like this: There are cards on which a label is written -- "Monarch," "Noble," "Servant," or "Beggar." Each person gets one card taped to her or his back. Your job in the game is to circulate as if you were all at a party (sometimes I'll actually put food and drink out for the purpose), to look at the cards on the back of those with whom you interact, and try to behave as you think a person with your status -- whatever you think the card on your back says -- would treat a person of their status, as indicated by the card on their back. As you talk with other people, you find out more about what your status might be. And you find out very quickly what the card on your back says according to how those of various rank treat you.
Most people find it very easy very quickly to guess what's on their card. I find that the game almost always within five minutes results in four groups of people standing closely together and mostly or entirely ignoring all others -- each group consisting of people with the same label on their back, and the only cross-group interaction being "Monarchs" and "Nobles" trying to get "Servants" to bring them food and to throw out the "Beggars." The "Beggars" find out their status most quickly, since at first nobody at all wants to talk with them; there's no point in begging from one another, after all, and members of all other groups treat them as an unwelcome intrusion at best and less than human at worst.
The game works well to illustrate some of what honor meant because central to "honor" in the first-century Mediterranean world was treating people in a manner appropriate to their status. People honored their betters by treating them as their betters, thereby showing themselves as honorable people -- people who knew their station. They kept their family's honor by treating family as family and outsiders as outsiders. By their behavior in public -- and in Jesus' culture and Luke's, banquets themselves as well as who was invited and how were publicly observed and assessed -- higher-status people declared their honor by treating those below them appropriately, that is, according to their lower status. In other words, honor was about knowing your place and everyone else's and making sure that you behaved according to that hierarchy.
And so when Jesus tells his followers that they should humble themselves by choosing the lowest seat, he's advocating behavior that for all but the lowest at the banquet would be DIShonorable -- not at all how respectable people should behave. Jesus was seriously messing up the game. How can anyone know their place in any society, large or small, if people start treating that society's "Beggars" as if they were "Monarchs"?
The answer, of course, is that they might not. Treat those whom our the group culture -- whether our the group in question in a parish, a neighborhood, a nation, or a world -- says are of no account as if they were not only human beings, but our sisters and brothers or even our betters, and this group's "Beggars" will start getting uppity ideas about their status. They'll start acting as if they belonged.
And before we start congratulating ourselves as to how egalitarian our culture is compared to those wacky people of the ancient world, it's worth noting, for example, that a recent study of a quarter of a million U.S. households (hat tip: A Guy in the Pew) suggests not only that we prefer to do the kinds of things people do in my little "Monarchs and Beggars at Banquet" game, but that we're willing to pony up one of the most ready indicators of value in our culture -- that is, money -- to do it. Furthermore, I've observed anecdotally and studies following "white flight" and commuting patterns suggest that we privileged people are also often willing to spend a lot more time commuting -- away from our families and stuck in traffic or on trains -- to live in communities that are more homogenous in income, education, and ethnicity.
Jesus has a word for us that could really mess up that game.
Jesus says that we who are privileged should seek to place others in positions of privilege. He says that we should treat the poor, the sick, and the marginalized as our friends and family as well as our honored dinner guests.
This is no game. It's radical behavior that, if done consistently will instill some radical ideas: outcasts will come to see themselves as God's insiders, and that kind of thinking will inspire movements that give them access to the center of our groups and our society. Things will change -- a great deal -- when we take the next step beyond charity to treat the lowest as the most honored.
Extreme poverty could be a memory by the year 2015 -- not only eliminating a great deal of senseless suffering and death, but giving this world the voices of millions of people and their dreams who in previous generations would have been denied an education if they survived at all.
Neighborhoods segregated not only by access to income and education, but also by access to hope and power, could become a distant memory too. Our children's lives could be enriched by learning and playing alongside friends from all cultures in a society in which every child has a chance. We could spend less time and energy running from problems belonging to "those people" and use it in fellowship in which we see God in the faces of our diverse communities as well as our families.
Big changes in our world brought about by one big change in our behavior we have seen modeled in Jesus' life, ministry, and death on a cross. Jesus, whom our faith holds as the human being most worthy of honor, the King of Kings, treated the most marginalized people he met as if they were monarchs. If he saw a card on their backs, it didn't say that they were beggars who don't belong; it had titles such as "Child of God," "Beloved," "God's Image," only a little lower than the angels, in Shakespeare's phrase.
It's a radical way of life that respectable people thought dishonorable.
It's the way of life that the God who created the universe vindicated by raising Jesus from the dead.
And that tells us that Jesus' way is the Way of Life, the very heartbeat of the universe God made and loves.
Thanks be to God!
August 30, 2007 in Community, Eucharist, Evangelism, Hebrews, Honor/Shame, Justice, Kinship/Family, Luke, ONE campaign/Millennium Development Goals, Ordinary Time, Power/Empowerment, Year C | Permalink | Comments (1)
Proper 15, Year C
Isaiah 5:1-7 OR
Hebrews 11:29 - 12:2
Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; they will be divided
father against son
and son against father
mother against daughter
and daughter against mother.
mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law
and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.
This is one of those Sundays when parishioners are likely to hear either a sermon on the collect or a sermon of the genre to which I refer as "why Jesus didn't actually mean this," perhaps from the sub-genre of "exegesis according to fictitious quirks of ancient languages." Let's give this approach an acronym for convenience's sake: EAFQuAL.
An EAFQuaL approach to this Sunday's gospel would go something like this: "Yes, these words from Jesus sound really harsh to our ears -- not at all what you'd expect from someone whose message is in practically every way consonant with upper-middle-class respectability and good ol' 'family values.' But if you knew the original language of the gospels/that Jesus spoke -- as I do, having been to seminary and all [most preachers neglect to mention that they only took the language in question for a semester or two, if at all, and that they're depending on a dim recollection of someone or another saying something like they're about to say] -- you'd know that the word translated as 'hate' here really means something more like 'to love just slightly less than you love God, but still definitely to respect deeply, telephone frequently, and send flowers at least annually."
Some preachers taking an EAFQuAL approach to a difficult passage of the gospels will use Greek as their ancient language of recourse -- a sensible choice, since that's the language in which ALL of our earliest manuscripts of the canonical gospels are written. Some will go for Hebrew or even Aramaic instead, on the grounds that Jesus was originally speaking one or the other. This is a more creative and gutsy option in some ways, and even more likely to be a bluff: since all of our earliest texts of the canonical gospels are in Greek, any hypothesized Hebrew or Aramaic "original version" is likely to be either someone's guess based entirely on the Greek but assuming (without any particular reason aside from finding the text as it is difficult) that whoever translated the 'original version' into Greek was doing a very, very bad job of it, or someone's citing a MUCH later text that's also much further from the best-attested streams of the manuscript tradition. On the whole, this kind of EAFQuaL is like a game you can play in which you go to an 'automatic translator' web page such as Babelfish, enter the first few lines of the Gettysburg Address in English, have the site translate it a few times into other languages, and then have Babelfish translate that repeatedly mangled text back into English. The results are sometimes hilarious, but they hardly reflect a more reliable 'original text' of the Gettysburg Address than a decent history textbook will give.
As you can gather, I'm not a fan of EAFQuAL, and one of the many reasons I'm grateful to have had opportunity to study Greek and Hebrew is that it helped me realize something that grates on an awful lot of Christians' sensibilities, particularly among the privileged and the prosperous:
Some of Jesus' sayings -- and some behaviors called for in Christian discipleship, in following Jesus -- really ARE difficult. Jesus was not a twenty-first-century, university-educated, landowning husband and father; small wonder, then, that he frequently doesn't talk or act like a twenty-first century, university-educated, landowning husband and father. It goes further than that, though -- I'm NOT saying that one just has to "translate" what was customary among first-century peasants in Palestine to what's customary for us, and that the result will be that Jesus' way of life won't ever prove particularly challenging.
I can't say that because it's not true. Jesus wasn't a very "good" son to Mary his mother, and wasn't even a "good man" in the reckoning of respectable people around him. A "good son" would have stayed home and worked at the family's trade to care for his mother until her death; he wouldn't have gone off galavanting around the countryside. A "good man" would defend the family name and honor if challenged or attacked; he wouldn't be talking about loving enemies, and he wouldn't be disclaiming his family name by saying "those who hear the word of God and do it are my mother and my sister and my brothers" (Mark 3:35 -- and this is how he responds when someone tries to compliment his mother, and him by extension!). And as if all of the above isn't bad enough in conventional terms, Jesus actually encourages other people to leave their homes and families, to allow their family name and honor to be dismantled by others rather than upheld by retaliation, to follow him and to follow his example.
Much as character in C.S. Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia say that Aslan, the Christ-figure in the series, is "not a tame lion," Jesus is NOT a "good guy" by conventional reckoning. Following Jesus won't make you a "good guy" or "good girl" by most conventional reckonings either. And thus we read a lot in the gospels about forgiving and praying for persecutors -- something you don't need to do if everyone thinks you're a "great guy" or "great gal" and therefore has no desire to oppose your manner of life. How it came to be that so many people would think of Christianity as a ticket to respectability and an affirmation of the "core values" of a society with an vast and growing gap between rich and poor, insiders and outsiders, powerful and marginal, is one of history's most astonishing tricks to me; as with watching an illusionist making the Statue of Liberty 'disappear,' I've got to gasp and say, "I'm watching it, but I don't believe it. This is not the way the universe works, and no matter how much it seems that way, I can't believe it."
All of this may seem like a lengthy digression, and perhaps it is, but I hope at least that it's a useful one to undergo before directly tackling this Sunday's gospel, about which my advice to preachers is:
- Don't try to explain away, apologize for, or do some fancy rhetorical footwork to distract people from just how counter-cultural and difficult this text is. Don't engage in EAFQuAL. Don't say something that boils down to "Jesus didn't really mean this" (or its homiletical cousin, "Jesus didn't really say this, so we can safely ignore it and claim to be better Christians for it" -- a rhetorical strategy that ignores the important but inconvenient point that all historically plausible reconstructions of what Jesus did or didn't say or do depend in the end on the very gospels we're dismissing as less reliable than a historian's paperback). A preacher's job is not to distract the congregation from a biblical text long or skillfully enough for everyone to get away without asking hard questions, and it's not necessarily to make people feel better about their choices (though sometimes a good sermon may have that effect for some or many). If I had to sum up the preacher's job in a sentence, it's to model engagement with biblical texts and current questions in a way that better informs people what discipleship might involve and inspire people to take another step or set of steps to follow Jesus. In my experience, sermons that boil down to "my gut says that Jesus didn't say or mean this; discipleship is pretty much doing what any sensible and decent person would, and not worrying too much about the rest" just don't accomplish much worth doing.
- Do point toward and stay with what's difficult about the texts and about following Jesus long enough for people to really feel it. Remember the maxim -- it often works for teachers, psychotherapists, and preachers alike, I've found -- that "the work starts where the resistance starts." Pointing out how the biblical texts can be difficult to interpret and how discipleship involves facing very real and great challenges both functions as a "reality test" affirming the sanity of observations that intelligent and sensitive people know to be true, such as "there's a lot of beauty, joy, and love in this world, but I have to say that the world doesn't seem to be working as it should." Pausing regularly on Sunday mornings (ideally also in frequent study of scripture and times of prayer during the week, but at the very least starting with the Sunday sermon) to feel how challenging discipleship can be in many situations is a pastoral act that can build some emotional and spiritual muscles that will be very useful when (and it's 'when,' not 'if') the congregation encounters real, undeniable, and painful challenges.
- And though your work isn't done with most texts until you've taken in what can be challenging about them, it also isn't done until you've done your level best to address the question of where the Good News of God's healing and redeeming the world comes in. Personally -- and contrary to what sources such as Left Behind might suggest -- I find eschatology (literally, 'study of the end') to be a great boon in this task. As those who have taken the Connect course (which, by the way, is distributed in an 'open source' manner over the Internet, and is therefore FREE to congregations who want to use it, much as we appreciate contributions of money and effort to improve it) have heard and thought about, our stories -- our pains and joys, our mistakes and what we've learned from them, our dreams and disappointments -- often look different when we see, tell, and listen to them in the context of the larger story of God's making a good world that God loves and is working constantly to heal of the wounds and free it the enslavement that results from our damaging choices in life and relationships. I find that most passages in the lectionary have something to say about how God has redeemed, is redeeming, and will eventually complete the redemption of God's children. When I'm looking for Good News to proclaim, the first questions I ask myself are usually along the lines of how the biblical texts I'm working with fit that pattern. You can see how it would be impossible to see how this step requires a good job with the previous one: you can't see redemption and healing if you don't acknowledge slavery and wounds. I hope that anyone who's heard me preach more than a couple of times would recognize in my work another way I might summarize the preacher's aim: tell a chapter from the story of God's healing the wounded world God loves, and don't stop until you've foreshadowed the end -- the telos for which Creation was intended -- in terms vivd enough to dream.
So that's the pattern I've found most often useful when preaching on particularly difficult texts. How would that pattern look with this Sunday's texts?
In this Sunday's gospel, Jesus tells his friends that following him will cause conflict and division -- even division between families. That's a descriptive statement, and shocking as it is, it's not hard to see the truth of it if you're familiar with what Jesus says and does in the gospels. Imagine for a moment the scene when Peter goes back to his mother-in-law and says, "Hey, mom ... I've got some important news. I'm not going fishing tomorrow morning. I don't know if I'll ever step in a boat or lift a net again. I'm glad that you were healed of that fever, and I hope you don't catch one again, because I have to tell you that I probably won't be around to take care of you or to bury you when you die. See, that man who healed you asked me to follow him as he travels around teaching and healing, and I'm going to do it. I really think that God's kingdom is breaking through in this guy's work, and that's just too important for me to stay here, even to take care of you."
How would you feel if it were your son who said that to you? There's no social security to fall back on if you're Peter's mother-in-law; Peter is the closest thing you've got to that, and he's leaving. I have some idea of what I'd probably feel if I were Peter's mother-in-law: Betrayed. Abandoned. Despised. Shamed. Perhaps even hopeless. I have some idea of the kinds of things I'd say if I were in her shoes too, and a lot of the language I'd be using wouldn't appear in any children's bible. When I found out that Peter AND Andrew were both going, my language would reflect even more anger, grief, fear, and straight-up, no-chaser, and very bitter pain. I think the same would be true of my language if Peter and Andrew had other brothers and I were one of them. I'd want to ask Peter and Andrew how they could do this to all of us, how they think we'll survive without their help with the fishing, and whose prophet would ask a man to walk out on his family. I'd ask Peter and Andrew if this is how they were going to follow God's command in holy writ to honor parents and care for widows (as Peter's mother-in-law most likely was, in my estimation).
Peter's family isn't the only one that would be asking pointed questions or even shouting curses after departing disciples in the wake of Jesus' ministry. It's not at all hard, upon a few close readings of the gospels, to come up with a lot of other people who would be feeling just as hurt, just as angry, and who might attack disciples, even or especially their kin who were following Jesus, with words or more than words. Peace? It's not hard to see how what Jesus brings to such families might be described as well or much better by saying that Jesus brings division and drawn sword. There is a world of hurt behind Jesus' words in this Sunday's gospel.
And yet that's not all that can or should be said about this Sunday's gospel. It's true that Jesus' ministry did and still does dislocate those who follow him from the ways of life and from the relationships they were in. It's true that being extricated from those patterns and those relationships can be painful to all concerned.
It's also true that sometimes, if not often, the only way to find freedom to live in new ways and to form new and healthier relationships is to be extricated or dislocated from the old ones. It's true that Jesus challenges fathers and mothers, and sisters and daughters, husbands and wives to allow Jesus' call to pull them out of those relationships, at least or especially as those relationships are defined by our less-than-healthy world. It's true that Jesus' call in a sense denies those relationships altogether: our mother and our sister and our brothers are NOT those who offer or share a womb or a bloodline, but those who hear the word of God and do it.
That is a circle that can, depending on the choices we make, exclude those who by blood or law are our kin. But that's not the only possible outcome of Jesus' call. It's not the only possible outcome because Peter and Andrew aren't the only ones who have choices. You and I aren't the only ones who have choices. And Peter and Andrew and you and I aren't the only ones whom God calls.
Here's another possible outcome: Peter and Andrew tell Jesus that no prophet of the God of Israel would ask people to ignore the Ten Commandments, and they tell Jesus that on that basis they know precisely what sort of a man Jesus is, and there is no way they'd follow him. They go home and tell their families about what kind of dangerous nutcase the wandering healer turned out to be, and how glad they are that they figured it out. The next morning, they go fishing.
That's not a story that inspires me as a follower of Jesus. Thank God it's not the only other possibility either. Here's another one:
Peter and Andrew tell their families more about Jesus, what he's saying, what he's doing, and what they think that means about what God is accomplishing right now for the world. They talk about the community of people following Jesus and how they care for one another, how their life together is a sign to all of how relationships could be in the world and what might come of it if we believed the kingdom of God was breaking through this world and therefore we could live as though God were king here and now. Peter's mother-in-law, his sisters and all his brothers, and the rest of the family face and go through the break that Jesus talks about in our former relationships. It's only natural for them to grieve sometimes at the passing of old ways of being and to chafe at or stumble in the new relationships that are forming, but they have a new joy, a new peace, a new freedom from anxiety in the living reality that if they have lost a mother-in-law, a son-in-law, a daughter, or a father, they have gained more sisters and brothers than they ever imagined they could have, and had joined a people who would come to fulfill the promise to Abraham of numbering more than the stars of the clear desert sky -- more to care for them and be supported by them, more to love and be loved by than any earthly family could offer. They follow Jesus together, sisters and brothers in Christ.
That's a story that inspires me. It makes me think that perhaps the wounds we suffer following Jesus can, in the context of God's redeeming work, be like the break of a badly healed bone that allows it to become whole again.
Breaking and being made whole. It's core to the story of God's people. We see it in Jeremiah's description of the faithful prophet of God, whose word may be a hammer that breaks but whose witness calls God's people to wholeness. We see it in Isaiah's vision of God's people as a vineyard made desolate by unrighteousness, in failing to recognize God's image in humanity by caring for the poor and in worshipping as gods images of our own wealth and skill. We may not see it by conventional reckonings, with worldly eyes, but we see it through faith, which reminds us of God's faithfulness in the past and of God's redeeming work, ongoing in the present and to be completed in God's time.
It's a story to read and tell over and over until we and our children and parents, sisters and brothers and friends know it by heart, a story that will strengthen us when we're grieving and feel weak, and that will guide us when we're feeling strong. It's a story of pain and tears and brokenness, but it's a story of love, joy, and hope that ends in wholeness, in the world coming to know just how high and broad and deep God's love and blessings for Creation are.
Thanks be to God!
August 14, 2007 in Apocalyptic, Community, Eschatology, Hebrews, Honor/Shame, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Jesus' Hard Sayings, Kinship/Family, Luke, ONE campaign/Millennium Development Goals, Ordinary Time, Pastoral Concerns, Reconciliation, Righteousness, Scripture, Year C | Permalink | Comments (6)
Proper 7, Year C
But those who had seen it told them how the demoniac had been saved.
That's what Luke 8:36 says. The NRSV says "healed" rather than "saved"; I don't know why. "Healed" is true, of course, but in my view, it doesn't tell the story nearly as well.
"Saved." When Jesus found him, the man had been "for a long time" not in a house in the city with family, with friends, but among the tombs, with the dead, shut out from among the living. He was vulnerable to all kinds of dangers -- to the elements, from which he lacked clothes as well as a house to protect him, and also to all of the predators the city gates shut out at night. Apparently someone, probably family, tried to help him, but they couldn't help. They gave up. And for a long time he'd been dead to the world, living among the dead.
It's natural to want to shut out someone like this man. He's as frightening as he is frightened, I think, and not just because of the yelling, the antisocial behavior, the unnatural strength. It's his vulnerability. He is vulnerable to the elements of sun and cold, wind and rain that we mostly understand, but more frightening still is his vulnerability to countless other forces much harder to understand and beyond our ability to control. The Legion that speaks from him reminds his former neighbors of the other legions out there, forces that can tear someone from family, from safety, from community, from everything that makes the world make any sense or have any warmth.
Of course, shutting out the person who reminds us of what we fear doesn't work. If anything it exacerbates fear as it exacerbates division. The Legion that attacked the man among the tombs doesn't pay much attention to city gates, and neither do the other legions.
Jesus paid attention, though. He paid particular attention to those shut out, literally and metaphorically -- those who had nothing and so sat outside the gates to beg, the lepers and others considered 'unclean,' women called "loose" after they were rejected by their husbands and not received by their fathers. Jesus healed people. When Jesus healed a leper, he wasn't merely restoring someone with a physical diseases to physical health. He wasn't just healing a leper. He was healing a community, restoring to community someone who had been shut out from it. Jesus confronts every power that tears us from wholeness, from one another, from knowing the love of God in loving community.
Those powers are legion. In the ancient Mediterranean world, people believed that knowing and using a spirit's name could give you power over it. The Legion oppressing the Gerasene demoniac tries, in effect, to gain power over Jesus by naming him, shouting out to "Jesus, Son of the Most High God." Jesus retaliates by demanding to know the spirit's name. Belief in demons has fallen out of favor in the circles I spend most of my time in these days, but naming remains a powerful step in confronting the powers that oppress and divide us.
In our epistle for this Sunday, St. Paul names the deep divisions of his society -- between Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female -- and names the truth, that in Christ these divisions are to be overcome. Poverty. Racism. Sexism. Religious Bigotry. There are many such powers in this world, a thousand varieties of hardness of heart that shut out some people, and shut us in just as surely. But in Christ we are all children of God through faith -- none less worthy of good food and clean water, shelter, medicine, or education, of love and hope.
In Christ we are empowered to name that truth and called to name and confront the powers that obscure it. And as we follow Jesus, as we participate in his ministry of healing and reconciliation in the world, we find that the outcast restored is not the only one saved. We were made for the unity with one another and with God that was and is Christ's mission, and the healing of a breach with a sister or brother is restoration for the whole Body.
Have you experienced that? Have you caught a glimpse of what it might be like for each one of us when all of us live as God's children? Declare how much God has done for you. Declare what Jesus is doing for the poor and outcast. If you find yourself feared as they were -- as Jesus was in the city after he healed the Geresene demoniac -- name that too, as you pray and work for reconciliation. You are of the Body of Christ, sharing in Christ's power to heal, Christ's mission, and Christ's wholeness. Faith has come, and with it the hope and love that sees every child as a child of promise.
Thanks be to God!
Proper 5, Year C
If I were preaching this Sunday, I think I'd do something that's rather unusual for me:
I'd be preaching on the epistle. I'd be preaching about something that springs to my mind every time I read Galatians, and especially the first half of the letter. It's something that is also prominent in my mind these days when my electronic deliveries of Anglican news arrive:
You can't read Galatians with anything approaching care without noticing that there were serious disagreements about serious matters in the earliest churches. Heck, you can't read any of Paul's letters with anything approaching care without noticing that much, but usually people think of most of those other conflicts as ones between Paul, who was clearly right (what with his being a saint and his letters getting in the canon and all), and anonymous nasty heretics, who were clearly wrong, and probably should not be thought of as being Christian at all.
Well, we can't quite do that with Galatians. In Galatians, Paul describes a very bitter fight he's had (and is having, I'd say; I see no indication in the letter that the disagreement has yet been resolved) with none other than Peter. I've occasionally heard people try to say something along the lines of, "well, they weren't fighting about anything important. It was just about dietary laws; of course Paul was right, but Peter came around to Paul's point of view in the end anyway, so it wasn't a huge deal." I personally wouldn't bet my life that Peter did end up agreeing with Paul, since the only indication that might be the case is the book of Acts, and Paul's practices of table fellowship as described in his letters don't follow the guidelines they supposedly agreed on in Acts 15 (e.g., there's no indication at all in Paul's letters that he thought Christians needed to avoid meat with blood in it). And in any case, at the point Paul writes Galatians, he thinks that Peter is completely wrong -- "self-condemned" and acting in "hypocrisy" in a manner such that others were "led astray" -- and on a matter that is, in Paul's view at least, about the very "truth of the gospel" (Galatians 2:11-14).
So who was the nasty heretic who should have been kicked out of the church, or at least out of all positions of leadership: Peter or Paul? Who is it who's not a real Christian: Peter or Paul?
The answer, I think most people would say, is neither. Most Christians I know today would say that Peter was mistaken on this matter. I wonder occasionally whether Peter ever regretted not being a more prolific letter-writer or being more intentional about cultivating a fan base, as Christians don't have any documents from Peter's pen to give his point of view directly. I'd be willing to bet that if we did have Peter's version of the conflict, there'd be some harsh words about Paul's point of view. And all of this makes me wonder:
If Peter and Paul can disagree passionately about something that Paul and perhaps even both of them thought was about the very "truth of the gospel," and if we can celebrate them both as apostles of Christ and heroes of the faith, why does it seem to happen so often in our churches today that any serious disagreement about an important matter of faith becomes an occasion to condemn one party as not only completely wrong, but outside the bounds of Christianity itself? And don't say that the difference is that money and property weren't at stake then; when famine befalls the Christians in Jerusalem, at least some of whom seem to have been on Peter's side of this conflict, Paul spends no small amount of political capital to get churches he founded to take up a collection for their sisters and brothers in Christ in Jerusalem. Who should have been expelled from the first-century communion of churches: Peter or Paul? Whose witness to Christ was superfluous? Whose ministry was not needed? And if these are silly questions to ask about Peter and Paul, what makes them any less silly to ask about any of our sisters or brothers today?
I think Paul was right about something in Galatians that we often gloss over. I think he was right about the dietary laws; he was right that while Jesus himself seems to have kept those laws, it's a logical extension of his practices of table fellowship (e.g., his feeding of the five thousand, as I talk about in more depth here) to say that "the truth of the gospel" Jesus proclaimed with his words, his life, and his death, and which the God of Israel affirmed in raising Jesus from the dead, is that all of us, having been made one Body, not only can but must live out that truth in the breaking of the bread. We are Christ's Body, called to give of ourselves to and for the world as Christ gave himself; as the Body of Christ, we are to be the presence of the Bread of Life in the world. Breaking bread with one another is an excellent warm-up exercise in that vocation, and if we won't do that with one another, our vocation in the world is in serious trouble.
Someone in a Sunday morning adult formation class once said to me that she missed the altar calls of her youth, and thought that Episcopal congregations were remiss in not offering them at least a couple of times a year. My answer was that we have an altar call every single week, and many congregations multiple times per week. We are called to the altar every time we celebrate the Eucharist. We come together, we confess our sins and ask God's forgiveness, we hear the Good News that we're forgiven and we proclaim words of peace to one another, and then we approach the altar and, as sign and symbol of our conversion and the reconciliation that Christ has effected and is effecting with and among us, we receive Christ. We literally take Christ in as we receive the bread and wine. We have an altar call every time we break bread together because we're called to conversion, to reconciliation with God and one another in Christ, and to live more deeply and fully into that conversion in everything we do. We have an altar call at least once a week because we need that kind of conversion, that sign of reconciliation, not once in a lifetime but countless times. I think of it as a good day if I experience conversion several times before noon. I don't think I'm speaking only for myself when I talk about needing that.
So this Sunday, this altar call, let's be intentional about what we're doing. When we speak words of peace to one another, I pray we're particularly mindful of what it is we're saying -- not "peace be with you, as long as we agree on the important stuff," but "peace be with you." Let's be mindful that as we do this, we're enacting among one another what we believe God is doing in the world. Reconciliation of the whole of Creation in Christ is God's mission, God's program, and as we receive the bread this Sunday, let's be mindful of the call to us as Christ's Body, the very "truth of the gospel" we have received from the apostles, to get with the program.
Thanks be to God!
Trinity Sunday, Year C
Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31
Some years ago, I found myself struggling with the doctrine of the Trinity. A lot of people do, I know. I responded to it in typical academic fashion: I applied for a summer research grant, and spent much of the summer studying what theologians from the ancient world to the present have to say about the Trinity. Now, when Trinity Sunday rolls around, a number of theologians rush to my memory: Jurgen Moltmann, Desmond Tutu, Athanasius, Tertullian ... and The Simpsons.
It's true that The Simpsons never explicitly discuss the Trinity, to my knowledge, but there is one episode that often leaps to mind when I think about any of what can rightly be called the 'mysteries' of faith, and the Trinity is certainly one of them. The episode "Dead Putting Society" from Season 2 has Bart participating in a mini-golf tournament, and Lisa coaching him in Eastern philosophies and martial arts to help.
"What is the sound of one hand clapping?" Lisa asks Bart. "Piece of cake," he says, bending his fingers down to hit his palm. "No, Bart, it's a 3000-year-old riddle with no answer. it's supposed to clear your mind of conscious thought," she replies. "No answer? Lisa, listen up!" Bart fires back, still bending his fingers toward his palm.
Bart is clearly missing the point. He's after a snappy answer that makes it all make sense, that resolves the question in a way that requires no further wrestling with it. I've heard a lot of people try to do similar things with the doctrine of the Trinity. In high school (and several times since -- the latest of them being last week), I listened to someone explain the Trinity as being like H2O, which can be found as ice, water, or steam; God is one substance, like H2O, but can be found as Father, Son, or Holy Spirit. Great explanation -- makes sense, easily understood -- and an excellent example of the ancient heresy of Modalism. Orthodox Trinitarianism doesn't say that God is one person found in three forms, but that God is one Being and three distinct 'persons.'
Every illustration I've heard that makes the doctrine of the Trinity easy to understand ends up falling similarly into some ancient heresy. I actually think that most of those ancient ideas of Trinity rejected by church councils spring from the same impulse that makes preachers want to use the ice/water/steam analogy: They want to make it possible, and preferably easy, to understand the Trinity. After all, every Sunday we stand up and say "we believe" with respect to it, and it's very natural to feel uncomfortable saying, "we believe" if we don't comprehend what we're talking about.
I'm using the word "comprehend" intentionally; it's got that 'hend' root that's about grasping, about having something 'in hand,' literally or metaphorically. And like Bart opening and closing his hand rapidly to try to "solve" the 3000-year-old riddle, I think when we try to 'comprehend' the Trinity, we're missing the point. It's a mystery. It doesn't make logical sense. When we try to chase it and pin it down, we end up running around in logical circles like a dog chasing its tail. That's a process that can be fun (if dizzying) for a while, but is more frustrating than not if it's kept up for very long.
That's not what I think we're called to do with faith's mysteries. They're not something that can be grasped in one's hand or encapsulated in one brilliant analogy that leaves us comfortable or even smug in our confidence that we "get it" and therefore don't have to struggle with it any more. If we are part of God's people, we have been grafted into Israel -- the name Jacob received after his encounter with the angel as one who "wrestles with God." Any intellectual fancy footwork designed to eliminate wrestling, puzzling, and pondering and to settle all questions forever is bound to be unhelpful to a people called to "wrestle with God."
Or let me put it this way:
Most explanations of the Trinity are made to resolve questions and, in effect, end conversation. But the mysteries of our faith are, in my thinking, meant to do almost the opposite. Because they cannot be "solved," they invite conversation. Because they cannot be encapsulated and apprehended by human intellect, they inspire humility. And because they are an integral part of the faith we confess as a Body, we cannot simply say, "oh, I don't get that," and lay them aside; we are rather called together as a people to wrestle with one another as well as with God, to listen deeply to one another as well as to the saints who preceded us and to remain in that creative but sometimes uncomfortable tension that challenges us to love God with our mind as well as our heart, soul, and strength.
Our readings for this week, then, are not explanations so much as invitations. Proverbs 8 doesn't encapsulate a doctrine of the Trinity. It paints a picture of Creation taking place through a personified Wisdom that philosophers and theologians writing in Greek (such as Philo of Alexandria in the first century) called the logos. Much as John 1 poetically describes a logos through whom all things were made before declaring that this logos became flesh and dwelt among us, Proverbs shows Wisdom as God's agent in creating the world and sharing in God's joy in its goodness. Proverbs differs from John, however, in saying quite clearly that Wisdom was created by God, not "begotten," as John says; Proverbs' Wisdom is "with God," but Proverbs wouldn't say that Wisdom "was God."
Neither do our New Testament texts hand us a neatly wrapped doctrine of the Trinity. Our text from Romans presents Jesus as one through whom we have peace with God and the Holy Spirit given to us as means through which God's love is among us. John 16 shows free and full interplay between what we will eventually call persons of the Trinity: Jesus, who is the Truth, sends the Spirit who guides us into all truth, declaring to Jesus' disciples all that belongs to Jesus, which is all that belongs to the Father. But neither of these texts -- indeed, no text in the New Testament -- gives us anything quite like the "one God, three persons" articulation we see in the Nicene Creed. That formulation came after hundreds of years of searching the scriptures and wrestling with them in community, and whatever intent the emperor Constantine had for the council that produced the Nicene Creed, it certainly didn't end conversation or conflict. The wrestling went on, some of it shaming the Spirit as bishops marched against one another in war with troops of armed monks; some of it building up the Body of Christ with theological riches that still speak to the church today.
I'd say we're not done wrestling either -- not for as long as we are grafted onto 'Israel.' There are still people around trying to come up with some single formulation in a creed or a "covenant" that will resolve the questions, ending discussion that includes difference. When we say "we believe" in the creeds, we're not saying, "we've got it." This is not "Constantine (or even Athanasius) said it; I believe it; that settles it." I sometimes wish that the Greek word pistis that often gets translated as "belief" were translated (more accurately, in my opinion) as "trust." We're not saying that we've solved the mystery of the Trinity like Nancy Drew or Scooby Doo, in which all has been explained and all loose ends neatly tied up. We're saying "we trust." We trust God: the Father who created us (and I think that Mother language of God birthing the world is equally appropriate), the Wisdom made flesh to dwell among us and redeem the world, and the Spirit who, as we gather in reconciling communities, is always guiding us more deeply into truth. We trust one another as a result; if we trust the Spirit whose gives gifts to all seeking to follow Jesus, then we must trust the community of disciples in all its diversity enough to stay in relationship and keep wrestling.
God didn't give us hands, after all, so we could try to clap with one of them and show someone that we've got the answer, "piece of cake." God gave us hands so we could use them as Jesus did -- offering them to one another, healing, engaging God's mission together. God didn't give us words to end conversation, but rather sent the Word made flesh to dwell among us -- a living paradox of particularity and transcendence, of strength in weakness, of power in self-offering to empower others, of death on a cross and resurrection life for the world. And so the life of the Trinity is not a problem to be solved, but love we are called to live into, filled increasingly with God's joy and peace.
Thanks be to God!
Day of Pentecost, Year C
Acts 2:1-21 or Genesis 11:1-9
Romans 8:14-17 or Acts 2:1-21
John 14:8-17, (25-27)
If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be among you.
This is Jesus' promise in the gospel for this Sunday, the Day of Pentecost. Some translations render the last clause as "in you," but "among" is grammatically at least as good a translation, and it's one that I think makes much better sense theologically.
After all, what are Jesus' "commandments" in the Gospel According to John? The word "commandment" is used ten times in the Gospel According to John. Once (in John 11:57), it is a "commandment" (or "order") from certain Pharisees to report Jesus' whereabouts that he might be arrested. In John 10:18, 12:49-50, and once of the two times the word appears in John 15:10, the word refers to a command from the Father, in each of these cases a command from the Father to Jesus. So if we want to know what Jesus means in the Gospel According to John when, in John 14, he talks about "my commandments" to be kept by disciples, we should look at the remaining times the word "commandment" appears in John, in the same extended discourse:
John 13:34-35 -- "I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another."
John 15:9-12 -- "As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love ... This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you."
I have thought often of these words and others like them over the past few years, as painful conflict has led many people in my life and in communities I've worked in to question whether we (and everyone thinks of "we" in different ways, including and excluding different groups) might really be better off making a stand with like-minded others and forgetting about the rest. I'm not talking about blithe disregard for others, but of a position born of some combination of pain and principle -- a position a lot of us find ourselves in, or sometimes think we're in, in which we're struggling honestly with how we can live with integrity and also live with these others.
There are a plethora of reasons we need one another. When I think about God's mission in the world -- the audacious vision of a world transformed by God's love in Christ, a world in which poverty and war are unknown and every child has the chance to live and grow and make use of her or his gifts from God, and world in which God's love finds flesh in every relationship in God's Creation -- I can't imagine saying that anyone's gifts are dispensable for realizing such an encompassing vision.
But this Sunday's gospel makes clear something even more basic than that. It's simply not possible to follow Jesus on our own; we need one another -- ALL of us. It's not possible to keep Jesus' command to love others if we're living in some metaphorical cave, isolated from those we are commanded to love.
Somehow, though, I can't imagine anyone being really inspired to love -- especially to stay in loving relationship with others even when that's difficult or painful* -- by a finger-wagging admonition to OBEY THE COMMANDMENT.
That's not all we've got by a long stretch, though. We've got the Spirit, the person of the Trinity we focus on particularly on the Day of Pentecost.
The Spirit is closely tied not only in John, but also in the Luke/Acts and Paul's writings, with love for one another in Christian community. When I say "love," I'm not talking about warm and fuzzy feelings for people. Take a look at Acts 2, when the Spirit comes upon those gathered in Jerusalem for Pentecost. These people didn't even speak the same language; they hardly could have imposed a test of doctrinal or political orthodoxy on one another. But they gathered anyway. We tend all too often to think of the order of things as "we come to agreement, and then the Spirit comes," or at least "we know the Spirit has come among us when we have come to agreement," but that's not how it happens in Acts 2. The Spirit is not hanging out in the heavens saying, "oh, now THAT looks like an amazingly well-organized and harmonious gathering, with everyone looking at things in the same way; I think I'll go there." The room in which the believers are gathered when the Spirit comes upon the gathering probably sounded at least superficially rather like Babel -- and THAT is where the divided tongues of the Spirit unite those gathered in an astonishing reversal of Babel.
Is that so surprising? There were, after all, some important differences between the Christians gathered at Pentecost and the builders at Babel. It may sound odd at first that Babel, where everyone speaks the same language and all are united in a common enterprise, is where humanity is divided, while Pentecost, where people don't speak the same language, let alone think in the same ways, is where the Spirit unites the people. And it certainly sounds odd to many -- especially to some of us Anglicans who value all done 'decently and in order' -- that the effect of the Spirit could lead to such turmoil -- women and slaves and young men speaking up alongside the elders who could take their voice for granted in a patriarchal culture -- that onlookers would think that all were drunk.
And that isn't the half of it. This isn't just a particularly raucous worship service from which everyone goes home scratching their heads and everything resumes as it was in the morning. People are baptized, and as we remember in our Baptismal Covenant, "they devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of the bread and the prayers," and "all who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need" (Acts 2:42-45). Acts 4 makes the tie between the Spirit's work even clearer. I've written both in The Witness and here (among other places) on SarahLaughed.net about the conjunction missing in most English bibles' translation of Acts 4:32-35, which I'm putting in boldface below:
Now the whole group of those who trusted were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possession, but everything they owned was held in common. With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all, for there was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles' feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.
And that's just the kind of turmoil -- that radical change in behavior that makes a radical change in the world -- that characterizes the Spirit's work. That's how people divided at Babel become one in the Spirit. In other words, we experience the power of Jesus' resurrection and great grace when we love one another -- not just by holding hands and singing "Cumbaya," but with deeds showing real love. We all love our children, and none of us would choose to allow our own children to grow up in extreme poverty -- without clean water, sufficient and good food, decent medical care, or the basic education to be able to make their way in the world -- just so we could hold on to an extra one percent of our income. Who could do that to their children and call themselves a loving parent? So I have to ask the question: can we say that we "love one another" as Christians in an increasingly small world when we do that to someone else's child, whether on the next block or another continent? Can we say that if we hold on to our money OR fail to lift our voice when just ONE percent more of the wealthiest countries' wealth would more than eliminate extreme poverty by the year 2015? Or let me put it this way:
Personally, I am energized by the vision of a world without extreme poverty; nothing that could happen at Lambeth 2008 excites me as much as thinking about the celebration that could happen at Lambeth 2016 -- the celebrations that could happen all over the world -- in a world in which extreme poverty is history. Think of the power to which we could testify to Jesus' resurrection, the stories we could tell of new life, having engaged in God's compassionate mission and seen such a wonder. Do we want to know Jesus? Do we want to experience the joy and the peace, the freedom from fear and worry, the power of the Spirit that gives us new life and new life to the world? Then we know what to do: we follow Jesus, and love one another as he loves us. I'm just one person, but I am one person who is part of the one Body of Christ. I am one with children in extreme poverty, and I am one with many even more privileged and powerful than I am. And the Spirit who makes us one is calling us to gather -- in all of our diversity of language and culture and thought and experience, in our riches and our poverty -- to love as Jesus loves.
* I want to be absolutely clear: I am NOT talking about someone continuing to live in a setting of domestic physical, sexual, or emotional abuse. If you're being abused, please GET OUT and get help as soon as you possibly can; any healing or reconciliation that could happen needs to start with your safety. I'm talking about staying in community when there's serious and painful conflict.
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May 25, 2007 in Acts, Community, Current Events, Evangelism, Genesis, Holy Spirit, John, Justice, ONE campaign/Millennium Development Goals, Pentecost, Power/Empowerment, Year C | Permalink | Comments (0)
Second Sunday after the Epiphany, Year C
Our Hebrew bible reading for this Sunday just might win some kind of prize for "most tenuous connection to the gospel reading in a Christian lectionary" -- at least, if the intended connection is that bit at the end: "For as a young man married a young woman, / so shall your builder marry you, / and as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride, / so shall your God rejoice over you." If that's the intended connection, than this Sunday our lectionary implies that John's story of Jesus at the wedding in Cana is somehow about marriage -- much as our current Book of Common Prayer liturgies for marriage imply, and equally unhelpfully. What a ridiculous line of reasoning, to say that because Jesus went to a wedding once, he meant to proclaim marriage as a particularly preferable or blessed state! There's a great deal in scripture to suggest that, as Genesis puts it, "it is not good for the human being to be alone," and that marriage is a vocation for many that is a blessing not just to the couple, but to the world, as their relationship energizes them for ministry. But the focus of this bit of John 2 we're reading this Sunday isn't about commending marriage any more than it is about commending drunkenness (which also happened at that gathering in Cana, and -- unlike the marriage, was actually facilitated by Jesus' actions).
I'd like to think, though, that our lectionary editors had more than a superficial word association around weddings in mind when selecting this portion of Isaiah 62 for this Sunday, and I think a connection is there that can be made with a great deal more integrity.
This Sunday's reading from Isaiah comes from a section ("Third Isaiah") that's difficult to locate precisely in time or circumstance; especially as someone whose speciality is in New Testament, I'm loathe to depend too much on any of its proposed locations when reading the text. But some things about its concerns are clear enough from internal evidence. Third Isaiah speaks to people seeking to honor the God of Israel, but the world of the text is populated also by foreigners. Enemies who threaten are present in cultural memory if not in immediate time and space, but we also see an audacious vision of God, "coming to gather all nations and tongues" (Isaiah 66:18). We see hope.
I'm not talking about the kind of hope we often mean when we use the word; I'm not talking about an idle kind of wishing for something that we dare not invest too much in emotionally, let alone order our lives around. I'm talking about a vision focused on God's intention with such intensity that it reads all human history in the context of God's action. That sounds a little abstract, but I'm talking about something that speaks so powerfully to godly imagination that it's got truly compelling consequences in the tangible world. When I talk about hope this week, I'm talking about the choice -- and in my experience, it's a conscious choice -- to embrace God's vision for the world with conviction that reorders our priorities on every level, making choices that would otherwise seem difficult or nonsensical not merely intelligible, but powerful to the point of being contagious in community. I'm talking about choosing expectation that orders action.
I'm talking about it this week after ruminating a great deal about the connections Isaiah (and not just Third Isaiah) makes between expectation and action. Those of us who spend time in churches over Advent and Christmas hear a fair amount of prophetic expectation. The longing of God's people for redemption is a major theme in many an Advent sermon. But I'm often left thinking that we underplay how God's people were called to respond to that expectation, despite how strong that is as a theme in the prophetic writings we're reading. Isaiah doesn't present hope as something that prompts sighs of powerlessness, but as something that inspires powerful action. When we enter into prophetic hope, our choice to look for God's coming redemption prompts us in the present to live more deeply into what we proclaim as the future God intends and is bringing about among us. In other words, Isaiah's hope for peace is strongly connected to embrace of God's sabbath now. The prophetic vision we share of God gathering all nations and all tongues calls upon God's people in the present to remove vengeance from the realm of human responsibility, to go amongst the nations only to invite and gather. That's hardly what the kings of the world consider sensible foreign policy, but prophetic vision doesn't place trust in or order lives around worldly kings; it calls upon us to stake our very lives on God's rule.
New Testament texts pick up this prophetic vision, often picking up a theme that will pop up a lot in the weeks to come: that NOW, in Jesus' work among us, that rule of God has come upon and is seeping through this world. I think John's story of the wedding at Cana belongs in that tradition. Normally, wedding guests would have not only provided the wine for the celebration, but also would have sent it ahead of time. The family that lacked the resources, in terms of extended family and friends at least as much as any other kind, to provide for the feasting would be left to their shame. But Mary has a thought that's crazy by conventional reckoning: what if the authority Jesus is already starting to exercise in calling followers is a sign that the feasting we anticipated at the redemption of God's people -- the redemption Isaiah metaphorically compares to the joy and freely shared plenty of a wedding feast -- is something that starts NOW?
And so Mary has a word with her son. It's a risk; this is not a private setting by any stretch, Jesus could be left in a compromised position, and as Jesus' mother, Mary's own standing is tied to her son's. She speaks up, and we get our first "sign" in the Gospel According to John. It's not just a sign of Jesus' identity; it's a sign of the times, a sign that God's redemption is happening here and now in Jesus' work.
It's a prophetic sign that, like Isaiah's prophetic vision, calls for action. It calls followers of Jesus in Corinth divided along lines that few could cross -- of ethnicity, wealth, social status, and gender, for starters -- to break bread together and work to support and empower one another as members of one body, united in one Holy Spirit to engage in one mission, God's mission. The challenge of living together in this way is no small task, with challenges not only from within, of uniting such different people, but from without, as such free association across traditional divisions inspired Christians' neighbors and sometimes even family members to see these gatherings as subversive of social order, or even of God's intent. That kind of living brought persecution as well as deep joy.
But if, as prophets like Isaiah proclaimed, the future God intends will gather people of all nations, and if, as Christian prophets were saying, Jesus' eating and drinking as well as his teaching and healing, his death and his resurrection, were signs of God's future breaking into our present, then what other way of life could make sense? And if we know and are seeking to follow Jesus, if we have tasted the wine that God's anointed brings to the feast and have seen his glory, how else would we live? We pray, and we seek to live into what we pray: that we and all God's people may be so illumined, so set afire to live as God's people in our sharing of God's word and sacraments, that our life together may be a proclamation of the Word and a sacrament of God's redemption to the very ends of the earth. Let our lifting of Jesus' cup in our worship remind us that our whole lives are to celebrate our Lord's work in the present until the day of its full realization.
Thanks be to God!