Proper 11, Year C

Colossians 1:15-28
Luke 10:38-42

Regular readers of this blog know that I highly recommend The Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels as a supplement to other kinds of commentaries. The Social Science Commentary chooses a particularly intriguing (for some) and/or provocative (for some) heading for the verses from Luke that form our gospel reading for this Sunday:

"Legitimation of a Woman Taking a Male Role Among Jesus' Followers"

This is a wonderful gospel passage to have for services the day before we celebrate the feast day of Mary Magdalene, whom I've preached about before as a woman who found freedom as a "loose woman" without conventional attachments to conventional men, as honored patron of Jesus' followers even before there was such a thing as a "church" or such a word as "Christian," and as apostle to the apostles, chosen among the first witnesses' to Jesus' resurrection.

This Sunday, we get to see a bit of why Mary Magdalene was not an oddity among Jesus' earliest followers for being a woman, or for taking on many roles of service to Jesus and his mission that would normally in her culture belong to men. Indeed, Christianity was mocked by many as a religion of women and slaves because Mary Magdalene was NOT an oddity in the church, because although she may have been exceptionally gifted, she had many female colleagues in Christian leadership.

I have heard many sermons on this Sunday's gospel, and nearly all of them could have borne a title along the lines of, "Why Martha Is Very, Very Wrong." That's hardly fair to Martha. Martha in this story is being a good woman. Somebody has to see that dinner is made and all of the myriad other domestic needs -- and this is way before electric ovens and dishwashers -- are taken care of. It's not as though all of the male disciples would instantly leap to their feet and rush to the kitchen to help.

And it's not as though their help would necessarily be welcomed if they did so. As the Social-Science Commentary helpfully points out, even though women were traditionally confined to the domestic sphere, they still could have some serious influence with culturally prescribed roles. And as lots of us have observed in lots of contexts, wherever there's power -- especially when it's perceived as being in limited supply within a particular segment of a community -- there's a great deal of competition for that power.

Women in the first-century Mediterranean world were largely segregated from the public competition for honor that took place among men in the public sphere -- but that in no way kept them from competition within their own sphere, and that competition could be fierce. Furthermore, the honor of a household depended significantly upon the management of that household. Martha is being a good woman in trying to see that everyone on the "domestic sphere" team works together.

In short, let's not rag on Martha this Sunday. She is doing her best to fulfill what most of the men present no doubt expected of her.

And if I can have a little excursis here, I'd like to indulge in one to explain what I mean when I say that I think this story, as so many stories from Jesus' ministry, can be read fruitfully as one should read a parable. As I've talked about before in this blog, parables aren't cute little allegories that provide a little narrative color to some good ol' fashioned and entirely conventional wisdom. The message of the "Parable of the Sower," for example, is NOT that smart farmers distribute seed in good soil rather than in pigeon-packed parking lots. When we read Jesus' parables, we haven't read them well if we haven't seen the most important characteristic of those parables: how they confound expectations in surprising and often shocking ways. The "Parable of the Sower" is not about a farmer learning not to throw seed in "bad soil"; it's about God surprisingly (and in many minds, inexplicably) blessing a farmer of very limited means who DOES toss valuable grain about as if he had all the grain in the world.

Similarly, the story of Martha and Mary that we read today is NOT the story of a Bad Disciple or a grumpy housewife who doesn't have a clue about what's important in life. It is a shocking story -- shocking like those electrified paddles that can give life to people whose hearts have stopped beating. The Social-Science Commentary points toward that shocking, life-giving truth in this Sunday's gospel in their heading: "Legitimation of a Woman Taking a Male Role Among Jesus' Followers."

Perhaps the social-science-ness of the first word puts you to sleep. That is an odd power of certain kinds of academic language. But I think even that doesn't completely dull the point: Jesus praises a woman for acting as though she were a man.

There's a lot in there to grate on sensibilities.

If you think that God on the day of humanity's creation ordained certain roles for women and other certain roles for men, and that we can't be good women or good men without defining clearly those changeless roles and living strictly within those boundaries, then this Sunday's gospel is going to blow your mind if you pay too much attention.

But it doesn't stop there -- or at least, it doesn't have to. We can take a lot more from this passage, because while I believe the passage speaks strongly against a view of roles for men and women as static, divinely ordained, and not overlapping, I think it points toward a much larger and more mind-blowing possibility:

God didn't make you to fill a role. God made you for love -- to be loved by God, and to express with your life how you see God loving the world.

For example, I would say to people who share my citizenship that God didn't make you an American, and God doesn't expect you to be a good American.

We could try out some different versions of this, and some of them might be fruitful for some of us. For me, it's sometimes fruitful to wonder what it might mean to say that God didn't make me a priest, and God doesn't expect me to be a good priest. I don't mean by that to say that I don't feel called to priestly ministry (I do), or that I don't take the vows involved in that seriously (I do!). What I mean is that there may be some challenging, liberating, refocusing, life-giving fruit in thinking of my identity and my ministry first and foremost as a child of God loved by God, as a human being made in God's image, as a follower of Jesus with a Baptismal identity that ideally, any other identity I take seriously will express, and frequently, that other identities will be eclipsed by.

I am a woman. I love being a woman. The good things I experience as a woman are God's gift. But God is not calling me to be a "good woman"; God calls me to be a faithful disciple.

I am an Anglican and an Episcopalian. I experience rich blessings through the tradition of which I'm privileged to be a part, and I don't expect to be called to a different tradition. But God is not calling me to be a good Anglican; God is calling me to be a faithful Christian.

I am a progressive. I feel strongly about the progressive convictions I hold, and I am blessed by the advocacy work I do. But God is not calling me to be a good progressive; God is calling me to follow Jesus.

You get the idea. I chose a few particular roles, a few identities, to cite as examples not because I'm "dissing" those roles, but because I value them -- and because the most seductive of temptations is the temptation to hold on to something good even if it means foregoing something better. And we who are richly blessed are most vulnerable to that temptation.

It's fully possible that Mary, Martha's sister, chose to sit at Jesus' feet on that day because she was embarrassed at her terrible cooking skills, because she was lazy or tired, because she was filled with hubris about her own status or jealous of the male disciples who took sitting at Jesus' feet for granted. We don't know what was going on in her head any more than Martha did. What we do know -- what Jesus tells us -- is that Mary's choice to be a bad woman and a bad sister on this day is praised as the conduct of a good disciple.

What happened next? I like to think that Mary's choice to be a "bad woman" inspired a few other disciples to be "bad men," to behave in ways their culture would say were absolutely shameful for men and to go into the kitchen and offer to serve the women as woman had so often served them.

Because that could be the behavior of "bad men" and good disciples. It's maleness as Jesus lived his, after all; just look at the exalted language used of him in our epistle for this Sunday and compare it to his behavior as he washed his followers' feet, as he forgave from the cross, as he took on the role of a slave, as Philippians 2 points out.

God knows (and I mean that; it's not just an expression) how powerful the roles we play, the names we take, can be in seeming to make an endless series of choices for us. God knows how many people will tell us with how much honest passion just what grief will befall us and those we love if we don't do what our society says we ought to do within those roles. For example, I know many sisters in Christ who are "helicopter moms (or dads)" hovering over their children or "workaholic dads (or moms)" spending more and more time away from those they love at least as much for fear of what will happen if they deviate from that role as from any kind of joy or peace they derive from it. But what if the hope that "we may present everyone mature in Christ" means that at least at points we have to relinquish those roles -- even when they give us respectability, admiration from people who want to know how we do it all, and any number of other seductive rewards -- so that we can make room for someone else to stretch into new areas of service, other ways of discipleship?

The message of this Sunday's gospel is not that study with a rabbi or minister always trumps housework. It's not that women's work is inferior to men's. And you'd have to be smoking something very potent and probably illegal to think that it's that gender roles were established by God and are blurred at our spiritual peril. The message, I think, is that we all may be and often are called to relinquish roles, identities, patterns of behavior that feel "tried and true" or even immutable not only for the sake of growing in our own discipleship, but to invite others -- even or especially others who may seem perfectly happy with a privileged role they've got -- to become more fully who they are in Christ, and to live more fully into the ministry to which Christ calls them.

And the wonderful, shocking, life-giving truth is that relinquishing for Christ's sake often yields more blessings than we know how to gather -- blessings so rich they must be shared.

Thanks be to God!

July 19, 2007 in Colossians, Conversion, Discipleship, Honor/Shame, Leadership, Luke, Ordinary Time, Parables, Philippians, Power/Empowerment, Women, Year C | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Proper 5, Year C

Galatians 1:11-24

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!

June 8, 2007 in Community, Conversion, Current Events, Discipleship, Eucharist, Forgiveness, Galatians, Ordinary Time, Reconciliation, Year C | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Fourth Sunday of Easter, Year C

Acts 9:36-43 - link to NRSV text
Revelation 7:9-17
- link to NRSV text
John 10:22-30
- link to NRSV test

"I give (my sheep) eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand. What my Father has given me is greater than all else, and no one can ever snatch it out of the Father's hand. The Father and I are one."
    -- John 10:28-30

John 10:30 -- "The Father and I are one" -- gets quoted in isolation from its context a great deal -- and not just by Sunday Schoolers looking for another short verse to memorize after "Jesus wept" (John 11:5). Ripped out of its context in John, "the Father and I are one" gets used in lots of contexts that make it sound like a dogmatic formula on something like a pre-flight checklist for those who want to go to heaven. But really, it's Good News.

Think of it this way, as I'd wager John's earliest readers did: Jesus' saying "the Father and I are one" is saying that if you want to know what God is doing in the world, look at what Jesus does. If you want to know how God treats sinners and outcasts, look at how Jesus treats them.

There is one more dimension to what John is saying in John 10:30, and it's a rather difficult one. I often find reading John uncomfortable. It was written by a community that was experiencing serious and sometimes life-threatening persecution, and it seeks to comfort those who were cast out by their communities, with the cost not only of feeling of alienation, but with the loss of honor and of community itself that left many members of the Johannine community destitute -- if not fearing for their lives from those who would turn them in to to Roman authorities as disturbing the peace. Such circumstances make for a "circle the wagons" mentality -- which makes indications in the Gospel According to John of concern for "the world" all the more remarkable for their rarity.

In other words, something that I think needs to be kept in mind in reading nearly any chapter of the Gospel According to John is that this is the testimony of a community under the pressure of persecution. And under these circumstances in particular, "the Father and I are one" is crucial testimony to the community under persecution -- persecution for behaving as Jesus did -- that they are received by God with grace, love, and rich blessing, even as "the world" tells them that they are abominations behaving abominably.

In other words, we cannot read John 10 without the context of John 9 and John 11.

James Allison has written eloquently about the ways in which John 9's healing of the man born blind shows the Johannine community's revelation of Jesus as one who redefines what it means to be sinful, to be born in sin, or to be marginalized as one assumed to be particularly tainted with sin. What the priestly tradition in scripture condemned as being unworthy to be received in God's presence, the prophetic tradition in scripture affirmed by Jesus proclaims as the beloved recipient of an uncontainable God's grace.

John 11 is about to give us an even stronger image of just how strong, how unyielding God's gift of life in Christ Jesus is -- how it radiates even into the grace. It's an image worth citing now, as the memory of the tragedy of blood shed at Virginia Tech is still fresh in our minds, as we're still asking ourselves where God is in the midst of the loss of innocent life.

Please remember that this question, the question on the hearts of so many after this loss as after so many and so great losses, was live on the minds of those early Christians who wrote what we read today.

Their friends were carted away. Their sons and daughters and sisters and brothers and mothers and fathers lost their lives. And still, as our rites of burial call on us to join, they sing even from the grave:

Alleluia!

Alleluia. For the Lord is present and the God who created the universe is at work then, and now, and in countless moments to come, as one woman or man or one community of women and men does what Jesus did and declares what Jesus declared.

And while there are religious people in religious attire who will religiously declare that this person, this place, or this situation is beyond God's redemption, God's people will yet sing:

Alleluia!

Alleluia -- God is bringing life to every desolate place.

Alleluia -- God calls as prophets even those who would seek to flee over the seas from God's call.

Alleluia -- in the midst of senseless death, on the road to the grave before which Jesus wept, Jesus tells us a truth that should give those of us who hope in him inexhaustible hope, courage, and life:

Jesus and the Father are one.

In other words, the Father -- the God who created the universe, the ultimate patriarch of those who value patriarchal authority as well as the ultimate love of the ultimately loving, motherly presence, is as Jesus is, is doing as Jesus is doing, is bound as Jesus is bound, and liberates as Jesus liberates.

Oh God, may your Church realize the destiny to which that faithful declaration leads!

The Father, the creator of the universe, and Jesus of Nazareth are one. Those who would measure humanity by the measure of God now must now wonder in the utter vulnerability of the Christ who exhorts us all to measure God by the life of God's Christ, God's anointed -- Jesus of Nazareth, who spat in the mud, wept for his friend, forgave the adulteress and pointed to the absence yet did not demand punishment for the adulterer. Jesus of Nazareth, who, to all canonical reports, never in his life refused to break bread with anyone -- prostitute or Pharisee, doubter or stumbling disciple, inquirer or persecutor.

Jesus, who brings new life to those who are dead as well as those who are dying.

Jesus, who will gather multitudes and cleanse them at the last day.

Jesus, from whom no evil force can snatch those who are beloved.

And please, if you are listening and are in any doubt, listen to this:

Jesus and the Father, the God who created the universe, are one.

Jesus, who is one with that God, is calling you and loves you.

There may be people who say that the world isn't made for people like you and is stacked against you. Those people are full of what the King James translators rendered as "manure."

If Jesus and God are one, than God is every bit as indiscriminately loving as Jesus was. Fundamentalists might wave bibles at you all the time. Fine. Read it! Jesus broke bread with, healed, and loved people who were at least as much on the 'outs' in their culture as you are in ours.

If Jesus and God are one, than God doesn't give any more of a rodent's posterior than Jesus did who you parents were, how pure you are, are how well you're esteemed in any number of other measures of a person's worth that our culture might offer.

Jesus cares about something else. God cares about something else.

God, like Jesus, cares about YOU. God, through Christ, has given you gifts through which you can participate in the ultimate destiny of the world -- the saving of the world through the love of God in God's anointed.

God, like Jesus, through Jesus, in Jesus, invites you, anoints you, offers you a life that is part and parcel of the new life of a risen world in the Risen Christ.

Dorcas, God's servant, received it. John, God's visionary, foresaw it. You, God's beloved, can experience it.

Thanks be to God!

April 28, 2007 in Acts, Conversion, Current Events, Easter, John, Redemption, Year C | Permalink | Comments (1)

Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany, Year C

Isaiah 6:1-8, [9-13] - link to NRSV text
Luke 5:1-11 - link to NRSV text

I hope you'll pardon me if I start with a shameless plug, as the gospel passage for this Sunday and my reading of it play a substantial role in the Connect course I wrote with John de Beer, one of the founders of the Education for Ministry (EFM) program.

Connect is a six-week exploration of what it can mean to connect to a Eucharistic community. It takes place in small groups that invite participants to gather over a dinner to reflect on and share their own stories, and to explore what it might mean to see those stories in context of the larger story of God's love and redemption of the world. The experience of gathering, breaking bread, inviting, experiencing, and acknowledging God's presence among the gathered community, and exploring what God's call might be to each of us is in itself a sacramental experience that helps unchurched participants, should they decide to join the congregation for worship, understand and have made personal connection with the liturgy of the Eucharist.

One of the most interesting things about Connect for me is that we have released it on an "open source" basis. You don't have to pay anything at all to download it or use it; you do, however, commit to sharing any adaptations or modifications you make to it on the same basis as Connect itself is distributed. The practical advantages of "open source" development and distribution are clear from what they've done for programs like the Firefox web browser, which can offer extensive support from others who use the product and innumerable "plug-ins" and translations that make it more stable and more useful to more people. That's my hope for distributing Connect on an "open source" basis -- and I hope it will inspire others developing resources to do the same.

I also have a theological reason for this approach to Connect's "open source" way. The dinners in Connect are designed to give people an experience of what they're hearing about in Jesus' ministry. They are welcomed to a community that understands that they have gifts to offer the community, including their story, and that encourages them to offer their gifts. They experience a small taste of what it's like to be in a community that lives as one Body and shares with one another as freely and graciously as God is with us. And I think those messages are also underscored by Connect being "open source." As developers of the course, we're sharing what wisdom we've got, but we assume that you all have gifts that could make it much better, and appropriate for use in far more communities. Because Connect is "open source," those who have expressed interest in versions for university campuses, Native American communities, Australian cultural settings, and numerous other communities have been free -- applauded, even -- for taking the Connect materials, modifying them appropriately, and letting us know what you've done and how it worked.

In short, rather than seeing evangelism and Christian formation as a "pie" of a market with all of us competing for slices, we've started, continued in, and pray to finish faithful to a central point in Jesus' teaching and ministry:

God's love and grace are so abundant as to be inexhaustible, and the more we enter into that, the more we joyfully seek to extend that kind of grace to others, and with all of God's good gifts. I'm not talking about feeling 'guilted' into generosity toward others, about being generous so God will notice and finally give us love and approval we've found to be too rare in our lives, or about trying to earn some kind of generosity medal that will help us get some other limited and valuable commodity, like others' respect.

I'm talking about a personal transformation that can transform the world: I'm talking about LIVING with a deep sense that there is more than enough of "the good stuff" -- the things our truest selves, the people we were made to be in Christ, want, need, and enjoy. I'm talking about an end to the constant, creeping anxiety I've seen so much pastorally in communities -- especially the wealthiest and most powerful communities (so many of which are filled with wealthy people so overextended financially to afford those grand homes in the neighborhoods with the good schools that they are a single paycheck from bankruptcy) -- as we worry about whether we have or can accumulate enough to shield ourselves and our loved ones from illness, danger, and deprivation. I'm talking about the kind of emotional freedom and deep peace that comes when we no longer feel the need to worry about whether we can get enough love, peace, or approval. I'm not talking about what Bonhoeffer called "cheap grace"; I know the cost of discipleship can be steep in worldly terms. It's more than worth it, though -- not only because the shallow "peace" and "freedom" we get from accumulating resources and respectability for ourselves isn't nearly what it's cracked up to be, but also and more importantly because the abundance of real joy, peace, and love we can find following Jesus really can give us the true, eternal, and abundant life for which we thirst, and can let us start living into it now.

What I'm talking about it illustrated very well in this Sunday's gospel.

As Jesus comes across the fishers on the lake of Gennesaret, it's not hard to see how they could have concerns weighing profoundly on them. These are poor fishers. Every day as they go to their boats, they have to be wondering to themselves, "Will I catch enough fish today?" They have families to feed, and on top of that they have to get access to and repair the boats, get and maintain the nets. Fishing rights on the lake could cost them nearly half of a catch, and they were often paid far less than their catch was worth besides. Life was precarious at best, and it wasn't always at its best. One storm, one rotten stroke of luck could spell disaster.

So every day, a nagging worry: "Will we catch enough fish today to survive?"

And then Jesus calls them. They respond, and let down their nets once more. And in an instant, the central question in their life changes.

They have caught such abundance that they can't spare a moment to ask the now-ridiculous question of "Will we catch enough fish for my family to survive?" -- the far more urgent question is "Can we gather enough people to take in this abundance such that it doesn't swamp the boat?" Their lives are forever changed; as Jesus says, "from now on, you will be catching people."

What would it mean for us to hear Jesus' call to a similar transformation? I'd like to dream aloud about that a bit.

What would my life look like if I always looked with joy upon others' accomplishments, and without the slightest niggling doubt of whether they mean that others will grab limited slots for (you name it -- ordination, employment, perception of "hipness")?

What would my household budget look like if it was guided more by a concern for others' immediate needs to sustain life than by a worry of what would happen to me if my car broke down, I got sick with something that would leave me with bills I couldn't pay, or I didn't have money for tuition?

What would church politics look like if the basis for our every plan was the certain knowledge that God is providing what we need for our participation in God's mission, and therefore there is no need to grasp at what others have? If we believed and lived the conviction that God's grace and love are such that we don't have to choose any population to shut out or shout down, and can afford to "strive to outdo one another in showing honor," as St. Paul writes in Romans 12:10? What if we took energy spent on competing for shares of budgets and used it to foster generosity to increase them?

What would the world look like if those of us who seek to follow Jesus let him transform our lives around the central question, "How will we gather enough people to share God's abundance?"

Among other things, I suspect that the Millennium Development Goals would then seem less like an audacious vision we hope to achieve IF (and only if) everything goes smoothly and no other needs arise, and more like a helpful, albeit modest, first step. Fully funding them would be a given -- we NEED all of these people, all of these children of God, to take in the abundance God gives! We can't afford to lose a single one to what U2's singer Bono calls "stupid poverty" -- this poverty that we can eliminate with resources we've got. And there is no one too conservative or too progressive or too anything else to justify ignoring or slighting their gifts. I have faith that God has given each and every one of us something else in immeasurable, overflowing abundance, and that's compassion.

That might sound hard to believe at first. Steve Cook has done an outstanding job in his post this week on Isaiah 6 sketching some of the ways in which we can choose a path that desensitizes us to both the pain and the gifts of those around us in a way that can become a vicious circle (as U2 puts it, "You become a monster / so the monster will not break you"). Each one of us has the capacity to experience God's compassion for us, and when we do, we will find it an urgent need every day to find others to help take it in and extend it to others in turn.

Thanks be to God!

[And if you're curious about Connect, you can get more information on it and on the other two parts of the Klesis (from the Greek word for "call") program to which it belongs and can download Connect for free here.]

February 2, 2007 in Call Narratives, Conversion, Discipleship, Evangelism, Isaiah, Luke, Miracle stories, ONE campaign/Millennium Development Goals, Romans, Year C | Permalink | Comments (5)

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)

Fourth Sunday in Lent, Year B

As many of you know, I work part-time as editor of The Witness -- "an Anglican voice for justice since 1917," as the masthead reads. This week, I've posted my lectionary reflection there -- please do check it out, and check out the rest of the magazine while you're there!

It's titled "Freedom in God's Family."

March 21, 2006 in Conversion, John, Kinship/Family, Lent, Year B | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Second Sunday of Advent, Year B

Sorry this took so long, all. It's been one heck of a week. Phew!

Printer-friendly version

Isaiah 40:1-11 - link to NRSV text
Psalm 85 - link to BCP text
2 Peter 3:8-15a,18 - link to NRSV text
Mark 1:1-8 - link to NRSV text

This is the beginning of the Good News of Jesus, God's Anointed:

John the Baptizer proclaimed in the wilderness a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.

This was a radical thing to do. It wasn't radical or even unusual to proclaim that people could find forgiveness for sins. The Temple hierarchy had been saying for hundreds of years that God was merciful and eager to forgive: the sacrifices in the Temple brought forgiveness to God's people. Prophets like Isaiah proved to be a thorn in the side of the Temple hierarchy, proclaiming that God isn't impressed by burnt sacrifices, doesn't live in a house built by human hands, is not confined to one holy land. The prophets proclaimed that God's reach extends across every land, God dwells wherever justice and peace are lived out in community, and that justice and peace is the only sacrifice God wants.

John the Baptizer made his ministry a living parable of that message. Isaiah 40 speaks of a voice in the wilderness crying out that the Lord is coming, and we are to prepare the way (depending on your comma placement, that is -- there was no punctuation in the Hebrew Bible or the Septuagint, so readers were free to play in their communities with the many possible variations of meaning from which modern editors choose. Many, like the community in Qumran that produced the Dead Sea Scrolls, read the text as meaning something more like, “A voice cries out: prepare in the wilderness the way of the LORD.”). John the Baptizer based himself in the wilderness along the Jordan River outside Jerusalem, and proclaimed to all who would hear that forgiveness was available to any who would be baptized — no Temple sacrifice necessary. According to Matthew and Luke, John the Baptizer taught that blood ties to Abraham were of no account in God's eyes — the high priest needed the baptism of repentance just as much as a Gentile convert to Judaism, and Abraham's inheritance would go to any who would receive it through that baptism.

This is the beginning of the Good News of Jesus, God's Anointed.

The world did not need Jesus merely to hear a message that forgiveness of sins and a relationship — a close, personal relationship — with the God who created the world was available to all. That message of grace was proclaimed in the Temple by Sadducees who believed that the blood spilled in the Temple was sufficient to cover sins, and by Pharisees who said that God welcomes converts from any nation who want to join God's people and walk in accordance with God's Torah.

And if I may bring a bit of Passover into Advent, I'll take up a refrain from the Passover liturgy: dayenu, “it would have been sufficient.”

The world did not need Jesus merely to hear that we can find forgiveness and join God's people without a Temple, without preconditions apart from conversion through repentance and baptism. John the Baptizer taught that much, and it would have been sufficient for that much. If all we expect from Jesus' coming and Jesus' work among us is that we will find forgiveness for sin, find relationship with God, and join God's people if we're willing to repent and experience conversion, we're due for a surprise.

This is the beginning of the Good News of Jesus, God's Anointed. And the grace of this message is astonishing. But it is only the beginning.

We expect more. Especially during this Advent season, we expect Jesus, and the full realization of Jesus' reconciling work on earth. As 2 Peter tells us, we wait for new heavens and a new earth, where God's justice is at home. And we will not be disappointed. Jesus is coming! Jesus is coming, inviting us to experience conversion, to be given a heart full of God's deep compassion, to be forgiven for our sins — and much, much more. Jesus is reconciling the whole world, each of us with one another and with God. Jesus gives us a vision of a world in which all of the barriers that separate us — the poor from the rich, the West from the South, nation from nation — will be no more. And that would have been sufficient for us to sing God's praises forever.

But it's just the beginning. Jesus has given us not only the vision, but the Spirit — the power to prepare the way of the LORD, casting down the mighty and raising up the lowly in the ultimate leveling of the proverbial playing field. As the Psalm says, “justice (a better translation, I think, than ”righteousness,“ as it makes clear what the prophets proclaimed is the right sort of relationship that defines God's righteousness) shall go before him, and peace shall be a pathway for his feet”; we prepare the way of the LORD whenever we do justice and make peace.

This is the grace we experience and the calling God gives us. And it's just the beginning. I'm inclined to that that the opening of Mark 1, the phrase, “the beginning of the Good News of Jesus the Christ,” refers not only to the ministry of John the Baptizer we remember today, but the whole of Mark's gospel, the whole story of Jesus' work among us, his death on the Cross, the empty tomb and God's messenger's proclaiming his resurrection and sending his followers forth. As you probably know, the last words of Mark's gospel have long been a puzzle to scholars. The very last word in our earliest texts of Mark 16:8 is gar, Greek for “for.” It seems almost like the “Castle of Aaaaaaaaaaaa ....” in Monty Python and the Quest for the Holy Grail -- a trailing off rather than a proper ending.

It isn't a proper ending.

It's a proper beginning. All of this — the whole story we'll be reading in this Year B of the lectionary as we journey through Mark's gospel — is the beginning of the Good News. That beginning ends with God's messenger saying something that's always true on our journey with Jesus — “he has gone ahead of you” — and the call to follow. We have become characters in that story, that Great Story of Good News, and we are to expect great things. The end of extreme poverty in this generation isn't overreaching: it's just the beginning of the Good News of the Lord whose way we are called to prepare. Have you or your parish been giving money to help our impoverished sisters and brothers in Haiti or Africa? That's good. But on December 13th, we have the opportunity to let the nations of the world know that we will no longer support trade practices that flood markets with subsidized American and European rice that robs Haitian and African farmers of their livelihood and Haitian and African children of life. We have the opportunity to Make Trade Fair, upholding the dignity of work and of workers and coming closer to giving every child the chance we want for our own children.

Now THAT would be a beginning. I say that not because we haven't had real, honest, and significant beginnings before; we have. But as we deepen our sense of what the end, the telos of Jesus' ministry is — and that's what all of these apocalyptic texts we read in Advent are meant to instill in us — we find the need and the power for a new beginning.

This is the day. This is the beginning of the Good News of Jesus?

Are you ready? Let's begin.

Thanks be to God!

December 1, 2005 in 2 Peter, Advent, Conversion, Eschatology, Forgiveness, Isaiah, Justice, Mark, ONE campaign/Millennium Development Goals, Prophets, Repentance, Year B | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack