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!
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.
(Click here to return to the reflection.)
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)
Fourth Sunday of Easter, Year C
"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. 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 -- 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!
First Sunday in Lent, Year C
Deuteronomy 26:1-11 - link to NRSV text
Psalm 91:1-2, 9-16 - link to BCP text
Romans 10:8b-13 - link to NRSV text
Luke 4:1-13 - link to NRSV text
Over Advent and Christmas in 2004/2005, I was working in a parish where I was on the regular rota of preachers. On this particular year, I preached on December 19 -- the last Sunday of Advent -- and then again on January 2, in the season of Christmas. Had you asked me a month ahead of time what the thematic shift between those two sermons were going to be like, I probably would have talked about Advent as a time of tension between experiencing the world's brokenness and injustice and the hope we stake our lives on as Christians, that Jesus is coming to make all things new, and will complete what he has begun. When the Christmas sermon came around, I imagined would have been talking about Incarnation and celebration. When the time came, I was, in a manner of speaking, but in the meantime something had happened.
There was a tsunami in Southeast Asia, a devastating one, on December 26. 230,000 or more people swept away. Family members were torn from another before their eyes as they desperately tried to hold on to one another. It was a dark twist on some familiar texts:
For as the days of Noah were ... before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage ... and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away ... Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left (Matthew 24:37-41).
Dark texts about dark days. Advent texts.
What had I said in Advent? I'd tried to communicate a healthy awareness of the darkness in our world, the darkness that texts like Matthew 24 spoke from and to.
I talked about how the world's darkness sometimes seems relentless and inexorable if not impenetrable. And I talked about Advent hope. The sermon was called "Dancing at the World's End"; its central image was of the Berlin Wall -- a symbol when I was growing up of the Cold War that we all thought would end in nuclear war and winter, the end of the world. I talked about the day people started tearing that wall down -- when I lived in Scotland, close enough to join my fellow students who were streaming to Berlin in droves to dance on the wall's ruins. I didn't go -- I had classes, after all, a job waiting on tables, no time off and little money. And I talked about how little all of those seemingly important obstacles were in light of the change that was happening, the history I could have witnessed firsthand, the joy I could have shared with all those who were there. I asked myself and those in the church on that day what we might do if we were going to live in Advent hope -- seeing in the darkness the signs that the world -- the whole world of big and banal evils, of suffering and despair and death -- was crumbling before our eyes. If the Berlin Wall coming down was a change worth my skipping class and letting the waitressing take care of itself (and I believe with all my heart it was), what is it worth, what would we leave behind and what would we take up, to be present to dance on the ruins of sin and death itself?
Advent hope. That Advent, I spoke of it primarily as an antidote to what we wealthy Westerners sometimes call "the grind," which can feel oppressive enough. Hope can feel bold in the midst of that.
And then, the second day of Christmas, the waters came. The images and the stories of the tsunami itself were devastating; the reminder of just how many quieter but more devastating floods hit the most vulnerable:
About every six months, a tsunami's worth of women dying in entirely preventable ways while giving birth, and another tsunami's worth of people dying of HIV/AIDS.
Every week, just short of a tsunami's worth of children under five dying of preventable or treatable diseases like malaria.
The list goes on. We've heard about these things before, and most of us have wept about them before. And of course, I'm talking about things I've talked about before. The best thing I could think of to do in the pulpit in that dark Christmas season was to reclaim a familiar carol as a protest song:
No more let sin and sorrow grow
or thorns infest the ground
he comes to make his mercies flow
far as the curse is found.
"Far as the Curse Is Found." That's what I called the sermon.
I'm sorry to spend so much time rehearsing the past, but it's present in my mind once more this week. Our world is still troubled by much of what troubled us as I sang from the pulpit a little over two years ago. And I have many, many friends whose hearts are breaking this week. There are all the things I read about in the papers, of course, and more. Mothers worried about their sons and daughters at war, or wounded by war. Friends worried about friends who are addicts hurting themselves and others. People of all sorts and conditions who held out hopes for the meeting of our Anglican Primates (archbishops and other heads of churches) that were dashed in ways that felt deeply personal.
A world of grief. A world of anger. A world of hurt.
Where's our happy ending? Didn't God promise a land, an inheritance, freedom from slavery and from fear that would be celebrated with feasting? What of the psalmist's song?
There shall no evil happen to you,
neither shall any plague come near your dwelling.
For God shall give his angels charge over you
to keep you in all your ways.
What of the scriptures St. Paul quoted to the churches in Rome, that "No one who believes in him shall be put to shame" and "Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved?" How can someone in real grief and real hurt open the bible and find anything helpful when real suffering comes on like a flood?
She can, I can, you can because the bible isn't that book that a lot of us heard about in Sunday School -- the one that says that we should be quiet, good, and cheerful in a world of smiling white guys who look a little like hippies patting the heads of fresh-faced children and snow-white cartoon sheep. It isn't a book that says that we should all be nice because everything is really OK. Read a book like Luke-Acts closely and you'll see a group of people grappling hard with hard questions, real oppression, serious pain.
Something stood out to me right away when I revisited the portion of Luke we'll be reading this Sunday, the first Sunday in Lent:
Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil.
Full of the Holy Spirit -- led by the Spirit -- tempted by the devil. These aren't phrases linked naturally for a lot of us, I think. For a lot of us, when we're in a desolate place, we're likely to ask what we did wrong. How could we be led by the Holy Spirit and be in a place like this?
The people who wrote and read Luke-Acts asked questions like this too, I think. Some had left not only their homes, but their spouse, sisters and brothers, parents, and children for the sake of God's kingdom, and they were often met with persecution for it. Journey with these people and you've got company in your pain. They know what's wrong with the world -- enough to say even that the glory and authority of the world's kingdoms have been given to the devil. They know that sometimes -- too often -- the kingdoms of this world reward what Jesus called evil (and by the way, I'm not talking about homosexuality).
All of that is very, very real to the Christians we walk alongside as we read Luke-Acts. When we follow Jesus, we walk with and behind sisters and brothers who have known pain and oppression.
And let's not gloss over that, because without seeing that, we can't take in the full impact of the Good News they share with us:
That Jesus the Christ, full of the Holy Spirit, came to confront all the powers of sin and death, everything that separates us from one another, from God, and from the joyful, peaceful, loving life for which God made us -- and Jesus won.
Jesus won on the Cross, and we're going to talk a lot about that in the days to come, but let's not skip ahead. We don't need to. On this first Sunday in Lent, Luke shares with us the Good News that Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, confronted the devil directly AND WON.
As Sue Garrett points out, the story of Jesus in the wilderness that we read this week is an early installment of the outcome her book's title points toward as a major theme in Luke's gospel: The Demise of the Devil. This isn't just the story of Jesus being tempted in the wilderness, in which Jesus doesn't give in and a stalemate is declared. It belongs in an extensive tradition of stories in which Satan's or the devil's retreat in the face of the godly hero's strength isn't a coffee break, but a defeat, as in The Testament of Job (27:2-6):
And as he [Satan] stood, he wept, saying, "Look, Job, I am weary and I withdraw from you, even though you are flesh and I a spirit. You suffer a plague, but I am in deep distress. I became like one athlete wrestling another, and one pinned the other. The upper one silenced the lower one ... because he showed endurance and did not grow weary, at the end the upper one cried out in defeat. So you also, Job ... conquered my wrestling tactics which I brought on you. Then Satan, ashamed, left me for three years.
(Garrett, p. 42)
The language of Luke's gospel this Sunday echoes that of such stories -- this isn't a stalemate, but a victory.
And yet it's not the final victory. We (well, maybe I should speak for myself alone, but this does seem at least to be an American "prosperity gospel" tendency at least) accustomed to thinking of victory of evil as preventing pain, or at least ending it. In this Sunday's gospel, victory over evil involves a willingness to endure pain in confronting the powers that oppress and divide us. It's the devil, not God, who promises safety and success. But it's God, working in Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, who wins. This is, in the end, God's world -- as it was in the beginning. God's light has shone in the darkness, and the darkness has never extinguished it.
We see and taste God's goodness and the wholeness for which God made Creation in countless small and breathtaking ways -- in sunrises and laughter, in an embrace or a shared tear, and even in chocolate (which I'm convinced is the single most underutilized argument for the existence of a gracious Creator). But chiefly we see it in the life and ministry among us of Jesus the Christ, who knew pain and desolation and betrayal as well as laughter and peace and love. Luke in particular promises glimpses of Jesus' final victory over the very real destructive forces at work in the world -- not just fleetingly and rare, but as regular nourishment for the journey.
If we are to start this journey with Jesus, or to enter more deeply and intentionally into it, or to better notice, know, and learn from our companions on that journey, I can think of no better time than this Lent. If your heart is breaking, so is mine; walk with me, and our stories and prayers will sustain us. If you're laughing, so do I; let's share it, and lighten the way. Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, was led into desolation and victory, and is company for us both in the full complexity of the winding path we're on together toward healing and reconciliation.
Thanks be to God!
February 23, 2007 in Advent, Apocalyptic, Current Events, Deuteronomy, Eschatology, Luke, ONE campaign/Millennium Development Goals, Pastoral Concerns, Psalms, Romans, Scripture, Temptation, Year C | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack
Fourth Sunday of Advent, Year C
A Christmas entry is coming tomorrow.
Luke 1:39-45(46-55) - link to NRSV text
I have to admit that I'm a little sad that Advent is almost over. It just might be my favorite liturgical season. It isn't just the Christmas pre-show that points toward and helps us prepare for the Big Event on December 25. Indeed, what Advent readings -- especially the gospel readings -- urge us to long for expectantly isn't so much the birth of the Christ child as it is the full realization of God's redemption of the world in Christ.
That's why I love it -- and why I need it. I need regularly to get in touch with that big-picture view. There is so much going on in the world that, taken in isolation from the big picture we see in Advent, might make me think that the world's story is like this Del Amitri song I used to cover in clubs:
Bill hoardings advertise products that nobody needs
While angry from Manchester writes to complain about
All the repeats on T.V.
And computer terminals report some gains
On the values of copper and tin
While American businessmen snap up Van Goghs
For the price of a hospital wing
Nothing ever happens, nothing happens at all
The needle returns to the start of the song
And we all sing along like before
Nothing ever happens, nothing happens at all
They'll burn down the synagogues at six o'clock
And we'll all go along like before
And we'll all be lonely tonight and lonely tomorrow
The title of the song? "Nothing Ever Happens." When my dissertation supervisor came to hear me play one night, as I recall, he referred to it as the "let's just drink a bottle of Lysol song." It can be depressing as hell -- a word I use advisedly here -- to think that way, to see all of what's gone horribly wrong in the world around us and to enter into that state of impoverished imagination that says that this is how the world was, and is, and will be. It's a step toward hope to say I'll work for change, but when I think it's all about your and my working, it can still be overwhelming. I know many good people who have picked up the newspaper and finally said to themselves something like this:
"It's time to grow up. It's time to give up all of that youthful idealism stuff that says we can change the world. The world is just plain messed up, and I owe it to myself and my family to face facts and concentrate on making my world -- my family's home, and schools, and neighborhood -- a haven from the world and the even worse place it's headed."
But Advent reminds us that this way of looking at the world is missing a crucial piece -- actually, several crucial pieces -- of the picture:
God made this world. God loves this world. And God is redeeming this world. The universe arcs toward the peace, joy, love, and wholeness in and for which it was made.
All of that scary stuff we've been reading about fire and disaster and fear over the last few weeks isn't there to suggest that this is how the world ends; it is there to let us know even when we are surrounded by fire and disaster and fear that God is there with us -- suffering with us, yes, and also working among us to bring an end to suffering:
See, the home of God is among mortals.
He will dwell with them as their God;
they will be his peoples,
and God himself will be with them;
he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away.
And the one who was seated on the throne said, "See, I am making all things new." Also he said, "Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true."
What does it look like when we have taken in this vision of where the world -- God's world -- is headed? What happens in our history when we write and live it in the context of God's history? It looks like this:
A young girl -- no more than fourteen, it's almost certain -- is making her way alone on a journey. Everyone knows that there is much to fear on these lonely roads even when traveling in a well-prepared group. These are desperate times. The rulers of Judea and Israel are desperate to consolidate their positions of power -- always tenuous, and completely dependent on the good will of Caesar, who rules the world, and that takes tributes, and building projects, and armies, and good order maintained by armies -- all of which must be paid for by someone. Taxes are high. People are desperate. Brigands seem to be everywhere.
Not that the world was ever a safe place to be for a young girl on her own.
Far from it, and especially for a pregnant girl, who ought to be at home guarding what, if anything, is left of her shame.
But not this girl. Not today. She makes her way through the hill country alone and yet unafraid. Her haste is not the haste of one running for cover; it's the rush of someone who can't wait to share the good news she knows.
She finds her cousin, who has good news of her own, and that moment of joy and hope and faith is so powerful, so far from anyone's containing it, that the children in their wombs leap for joy with the women. And they are filled with the Holy Spirit, filled with the fullness of what God is doing, wonderful beyond comprehension or description.
If there weren't so much competition for the title among so many suffering, it would have been difficult to find two people so unlikely to be hopeful to the point of being ecstatic -- the single pregnant girl traveling alone and the elderly wife of a poor country priest considered cursed by his neighbors.
And yet there it is. Hope is born -- in Advent, not in Christmas. And more than hope: power is born, power for a girl to pass joyfully and peacefully through wilderness and bands of thieves like her son would one day pass through crowds seeking to stone him (Luke 4:4-30).
As a singer, I particularly love it that Mary's passage, like Jesus' a few chapters later, is centered on a song.
Christmas is coming. It's hours away at the point when those who go to church at all for the fourth Sunday of Advent as it falls on December 24 will be hearing a sermon on these texts. Christmas is coming, and I know it's a Big Deal in its own right. But in my estimation, anyone who misses observing the fourth Sunday of Advent misses out in a big way -- misses out on the moment in Luke's gospel in which we truly see hope born as two poor women dance and sing.
It isn't Christmas, but this is Advent, and in this very moment, we see born among us the hope for which the whole world hasn't dared hope.
My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he had filled the hungry with good things,
and sent away the rich empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants forever.
What a moment it was when that poor girl who traveled alone burst into song! In that moment, she saw as present and lasting reality not just the miracle of her being received in her village rather than stoned (and surely this is the first miracle of Jesus' birth we celebrate), not just the miracle of a healthy child born healthy and honored even when no one -- no family, and not even an inn -- would take the family in (which is miracle enough to dance), and even beyond the miracles her son would work before his death (which were wonders that set many free).
In this moment -- THIS moment, with none gathered to celebrate and no liturgy beyond a young girl and an old woman leaping for joy with their children to be -- we hear, in the song of the prophet and leader, the single and pregnant teenager, Mary of Nazareth, the end for which the world was made.
It may seem sometimes that "Nothing Ever Happens," but we can be sure that Something is happening -- something beyond speech and remotely hinted at in prophetic song.
It is here! Hope is here. and what a life-changing, world-changing miracle that is: we hope that the mighty who dominate by force will fall to the meek whom they dismissed, the poor know plenty while the rich finally understand what it is to want and need, and the world -- broken, mixed-up, violent, world that sets up gulfs between us and between us and God so vast that it's hard to imagine even angels could cross them -- is made whole at last.
I will celebrate the wonders of Christmas when it comes. But God, please help me to take in the wonder of Mary's vision and Elizabeth's so I can sing and dance with them in what they see and know. Let me do that now, in this moment, and in every moment.
My soul rejoices in anticipation I can feel in my body.
Thanks be to God!
Christ the King, Year B
Last week, I had a lot to say about why we shouldn't dodge preaching on and wrestling with the apocalyptic texts like those in the lectionary this week, and that we are called to engage in Advent. This week, I want to concentrate on the payoff for doing so.
In a sense, these texts are talking about "the end of the world." Only the most jaded reader can encounter the kind of vivid imagery of power in passages like our reading for this Sunday from Daniel without a sharp intake of breath and a slight skip of the heartbeat. That's not merely normal; it's necessary, I think, to appreciate what these texts are talking about. The biblical books of Daniel and Revelation are both talking about the judgment of the nations, history's end. I want to underscore that word 'end,' and at least two resonances it has, because I think it points to the heart of Christ the King Sunday, the gateway to our Advent anticipation.
'End' means the passing away of what is. It means a transition so pronounced that we can say, "things will never be the same." Facing 'the end' means that we must finally acknowledge our attachments to what is and our limitations in perspective and power as mortal human beings. 'The end' means that we will no longer be able to deny or dodge them, and we will -- we must -- let go. This is frightening for us -- and the more we cling to illusions that what we know is all there is and can control all we know, the more frightening 'the end' will be.
That's why I want to suggest this week that when Pilate hears Jesus say, "my kingdom is not of this world" and then sends Jesus to be crucified as guilty of treason against the Roman Empire, it is not because he fails to understand Jesus: it is because he understands Jesus.
The reign of God that Jesus proclaims, that in Jesus' ministry is breaking through among us even now, is not just a reshuffling of this world's cabinet while worldly power structures continue mostly as they are. Jesus is not seizing Caesar's throne. A plan to do so, leaving Caesar or his heir and his generals in exile to plot a return to power, would have been more than enough for Pilate to send Jesus to the cross. But Jesus' plan is far more radical than that.
Jesus is not seeking a throne in the world as it is; Jesus is inaugurating the end of this world.
I'm not talking about the destruction of the planet; that just doesn't make any sense from a biblical perspective. God made this world and said it was good. God made humankind and said it was VERY good. God so loved the world that God sent the Son that we might have abundant, eternal life. Read Left Behind for amusement or to dialogue with others who have read it, but its theology has no substantial claim to be "biblical." God does not intend destruction for Creation or for humankind.
So what do I mean, then, when I talk about "the end of the world" in the prophetic thrust of Daniel, Revelation, and the canonical gospels?
I do mean that a sharp transition is on the way. Someone who, like Pilate, likes the world best to the extent that it is ordered by empires will probably receive the news of the world's end as very bad news indeed, at least initially. After all, the world order of empire works out very well, at least superficially, for many of us. I'm hardly the richest person in America, for example, and yet I consistently make the top tenth of better in the ranking of the world's richest people. By virtue of my skin color, the country of my birth, and my education (to which my skin color and the country of my birth helped provide access), I have a great deal of power in the world as it is.
And yet I long for change. My heart aches for children whom the world as it is leaves without a chance -- those without clean water, good food, medical care, basic shelter, primary education. But my longing for change isn't just a generous impulse. Maintaining this world order is costly beyond my ability to add. It is polluting our atmosphere with such abandon that one way or another, it will come to an end within a generation or two -- whether because we change how we live to slow the global climate change, or because the devastation that change causes -- devastation we've already observed in weather patterns causing drought in some places and flooding in others unparalleled in our time -- so profound that our planet will never recover. And there are less immediately measurable costs to maintaining this world order as well. Our children inherit our all of our anxieties that unless we work harder and longer and are very lucky besides, the hyper-competitive and never-ending quest for achievement that's a part of the world in which many of us live will leave us without resources and without community in a world of hostility. I've preached about the cost our children pay here and now for maintaining our world of privilege before in communities profoundly privileged by worldly standards, and I encourage you to take a look at this sermon if you're wondering what I mean when I say that the world order of empires -- even for those of us now living in the world's richest empire -- imposes a very steep cost in body, psyche, and spirit to ALL of us. And yet who or what can disentangle us from all of the tangled webs we and our parents' parents have woven that have made this world so many of us think is all there is? We might well cry with St. Paul, "Who will rescue me from this body of death?" (Romans 7:24).
And, if we have claimed the story of the prophets and apostles, the story proclaimed by Jesus as the story of the world God made and loves, as our own, we can also answer with St. Paul: Thanks be to God through Christ Jesus, our and our only Lord! The world of empires, the world that places the Pilates in palaces and so many children in the grave, the world of endless scrabbling and scrapping for resources and power, the world of anxiety and domination, is passing away.
Think I'm dreaming? Well, I'm happy enough to be guilty of that; it would place me in the company of the prophets who proclaimed God's dream for the world even in the midst of the greatest darkness, the ugliest violence of intense persecution. But the dream is close enough to reality. Many of the world's brightest economists tell us that the world in which thousands upon thousands of children die in extreme poverty -- the world into which I was born, and through much of my life the world in which I thought I'd die -- could see its end by the year 2015. Extreme poverty GONE in under ten years. Imagine the dancing at the party where we celebrate that!
And, by the way, please check out my earlier sermon, "Dancing at the World's End," if you haven't already. I was born in 1970, and by some people's reckoning (especially among U.S. Episcopalians!) am still young. And yet I've seen in my own lifetime empires fall, rules change, "certain" destruction averted, new worlds open. I've seen enough poverty and suffering in my travels to be glad enough at the news that a kingdom not of this world is coming to change everything. The judgment of the nations sounds like bad news -- but not to those who know Jesus, and who identify him as the Christ, the anointed king, the one of whom Daniel spoke with awe as "one like a son of man" who would judge.
Jesus is coming. Each time two or three of us gathers, Jesus is come. Each time we proclaim the Good News of the prophets and apostles that the world of empires is passing away, and God's dream for Creation is breaking through it even now, Jesus is come. Each time we proclaim Jesus the Christ and not any worldly power or principality as our Lord, Jesus' kingdom breaks through that much more.
The kingdom of God. The peaceable realm in which all are free from anxiety, as all have what they need -- the bread and wine, the water and power, the love and joy.
It's not just the end of the church year, we're anticipating this Sunday.
It's the end of the world as we know it.
And I feel FINE.
Thanks be to God!
November 21, 2006 in Advent, Apocalyptic, Christ the King, Christology, Current Events, Daniel, Eschatology, John, Justice, ONE campaign/Millennium Development Goals, Ordinary Time, Prophets, Year B | Permalink | Comments (1)
Proper 14, Year B
I often say that I don't believe in perfection, but in redemption.
I want to talk about redemption this week.
There are several reasons for having that topic on my mind at this moment.
The first is that the texts suggest it to me. The gospel passage for this Sunday is part of a lengthy monologue in which Jesus relates Exodus 16's account of "bread from heaven" to his own ministry, and to God's ministry among God's people. The writer of the Gospel According to John is inviting his Christian community specifically and repeatedly to think of their journey in tandem with that of the Hebrews from Egypt -- the journey from slavery to freedom to serve God, from being dominated to being agents of God's liberating work, from being no people to being one people, God's people.
There's an intriguing detail in the biblical story of the Exodus that doesn't often get much attention, but that also invites drawing parallels between the exodus of the Hebrews from Egypt to the journey of the Johannine community (i.e., the community that produced and read the Gospel According to John, the biblical letters attributed to John, and the book of Revelation). With most of my books still in boxes from my move, I can't check my books, so I hope a sharp-eyed reader will catch me if I'm misremembering when I say that the Septuagint (i.e., the Greek version of the Old Testament, which was what the earliest Christians were talking about when they said 'scripture') is pretty clear on this point, which also comes across in the NRSV, though less strongly:
What God told Moses to ask for, and what the Pharoah did in the end, was not to 'release' the Hebrews, but to send, almost drive them out. My recollection, which I hope an astute reader might confirm or correct, is that in the Septuagint, the word used is exapostello (and if someone knows how to transcribe a long vowel in Internet-friendly text, please tell me -- that last 'o' is an omega). That's the verb to "send out," but it's often not the kind of "sending" you'd want. It's the word the Septuagint uses to dismiss a wife in a divorce. It's a word used to dismiss a servant empty-handed, or a prisoner to her doom. What we remember and retell explicitly in every Passover haggadah starts with something translated more accurately as God saying "send my people out, that they may serve me" than "let my people go." And the Egyptian people don't line the streets to heap floral leis and good wishes upon the Hebrews after resisting the command to send them away; they drive out their former servants with a fear that, given the horrible things the Hebrew god has visited upon them, is as understandable as it is great.
Small wonder that in the Passover celebration, God's people are urged to recall tears and bitterness. It's not just about remembering the bitterness of slavery; it's also about remembering the tears and anguish of the families who lost husbands when the Sea of Reeds closed over the Egyptian army, or lost an elder brother or firstborn son in the plague of death.
So amidst such tears, is the story we tell of Exodus as liberation to celebrate a lie?
This is the kind of question that makes me say that I believe in redemption, not perfection. And it's a question burned freshly in my mind this week.
Some friends -- my former bosses when I worked at St. Martin's parish in Maryland -- lost their eldest son this week. I can think of few people who seemed as full of life and purpose as well as gentle good humor as their son Mike was. He was 33 years old and very active when, while on a weekend camping trip, he died of a massive heart attack. Nothing can prepare a parent for such a shock and loss, and in any case there was no prior indication that anything like this might be coming. Having lost a 26-year-old elder brother almost as suddenly almost exactly ten years ago, I can barely -- but only just barely -- imagine how my friends, Mike's parents, are feeling.
If we lived in a perfect world, we might say, as many well-meaning people said when my brother died, something like, "God took him for a reason," and we might even try to supply a reason, like "God called him as an angel" (as a number of people said of my brother), much as we could say of the Egyptians' tears (or the tears of the Israelites who lost loved ones to the plague of poisonous quail later in the desert) something like, "this happened so that God's glory could be shown in mighty works." Maybe that works for you. It doesn't work at all for me, and to be honest, I've never met anyone for whom it really did work, for whom it really rang true over time and at a level of deep self-awareness.
So is the story of life and hope, of freedom and celebration, a lie?
I don't think so.
I think that something happens within and among us, something that's happening all the time around our messed-up world, amidst all the pain and bitter tears, as our stories take shape in our journey with God.
That something is called redemption.
Redemption doesn't say (as Stoic philosophers said) that there's no such thing as slavery to someone whose mind or heart is in the right place; it is a word, a story, a narrated act in community that frees someone enslaved to a new set of relationships, a new identity in community in which that person can live much more fully into her or his God-given identity and God-issued call. When we say "God is redeeming the world in Christ," we are not saying that there is no pain, no loss, no wrong, no brokenness in the world to grieve; we are saying that God's power is such that all of that pain, loss, sin (that's a word that needs to be said sometimes), and brokenness in the world -- all that it is meet and right as well as just plain HONEST for us to grieve -- is being incorporated into a larger story, a deeper and broader context in which our lives and the life of the world are about redemption -- about making whole -- and resurrection, bringing new life.
This is not some Monty Python-eque "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life" song to be sung mindlessly amidst and in denial of pain. Anyone who spends enough time with enough children, artists, visionaries, or prophets knows that stories -- especially ones told truthfully and well -- knows that stories are incredibly powerful. Stories are, or can be, acts of the word in the world that bring very real and powerful life and light into the world. In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God, and God spoke, and there was life, and light -- a whole world come into being. The story of God's people -- of Exodus and John, among other stories -- being inspired by God, is more powerful than bean-counting so-called "pragmatists" might imagine.
As I write, I keep thinking of an experience I had on a youth group retreat -- one I blogged about on Grace Notes, my personal blog, in an entry called "Fingerpainting and Forgiveness." Please take the time to read it if you can -- and don't skip the comments. The last comment there as I write this shows something how an evening in which I told a story in a community, and we told more stories in childish art, became a larger story in which someone none of us on that retreat had met found freedom and new life. When I say that I believe not in perfection but in redemption, I'm saying that I believe that when your sin and my sin, your brokenness and grief and mine, are offered to God and into the story of God's stumbling, broken, grieving and gifted people journeying with all Creation toward healing, wholeness, and reconciliation with one another and with God in Christ, the ashes and dirt become in their own way a part of God's art, an expression through God's grace of the love in and through and for which God made all in Creation that was, is, or will be.
So I write this week in pain, and with tears -- for my friends' eldest son, and for my friends; for a world in which too many sons and daughters and mothers and fathers are torn from us far, far too soon; for hunger and war; for fear and darkness and oppression. And I write in hope in Jesus the Christ, who in the Gospel According to John spoke to a community driven out of their homes, their synagogues -- a community in which many had been "sent forth" as prisoners condemned by the testimony of those they had called neighbor -- and said, "I am the Bread of Life." Jesus said to them that in the midst of their alienation, their grief, their tears, he was with them, sustaining them, incorporating their story into the Great Story of reconciliation that is the story of the world God made and loves --
A story of redemption. The Johannine community saw its end like this:
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,
See, the home of God is among mortals.
He will dwell with them as their God;
they will be his peoples,
and God himself will be with them;
he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away.
And the one who was seated on the throne said, "See, I am coming to make all things news." Also he said, "Write this, for these worlds are trustworthy and true."
-- Revelation 21:1-5
I say through tears: See, God is coming soon! Blessed are those who keep the vision of God's prophets, who tell the story of God's past, present, and coming redemption of the world.
Pray for those who mourn. There are too damn many of them, though it is God's blessing and glory that their comfort is even now at hand.
I feel it is too bold to say, but in faith I'll say it: Thanks be to God.
Fifth Sunday in Lent, Year B
"Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out."
That's what Jesus says in this Sunday's gospel. It's quite a statement. I wonder how we might live, what choices we'd make, if we were going to live into this more deeply. What would it mean to say that the "one day" of the prophets was NOW? What would it mean if the "ruler of this world" will be driven out NOW?
For one thing, I think it would mean that it's time to stop kissing up to all prior candidates and all wannabees for the title of "ruler of this world." It's astonishing how often we get sucked into some path we didn't exactly choose, but seemed like the thing to do -- the respectable thing, the thing that successful people do, the thing that responsible people do -- and then structure every other choice around this one unchosen and unfulfilling fact. Or maybe our master has been some idea of self-sufficiency, of somehow accruing enough money or status to be "free" to do what we want, get what we want, be who we want to be, but it never seems to be quite enough -- we discover new ways in which we are vulnerable, and try to get more money or status to make it go away, but then discover we're still vulnerable, and we start the cycle over again. As U2 puts it, "you can never get enough/of what you don't really need" ("Stuck In a Moment," All That You Can't Leave Behind).
Well if the time is now, there's no reason to remain stuck in all that. The old boss -- all the old bosses -- are GONE. Their power was illusory, and now even the illusion is passing away. That's what we mean when we say "Jesus is Lord." That's why all of this talk about "the judgment of this world" is GOOD news -- because, as I've preached about before, the judge is Jesus, the one who loved us enough to give his very life for us. "The judgment of this world" is not a gorefest like the Left Behind books; it's the culmination of Jesus' work on earth, the end of everything that separates us from one another and from God. We expect nothing less than that, the answer to our prayer that God's kingdom would come and God's will be done -- on earth as it is in heaven.
And nothing else has hold on us.
Are you waiting to use your voice, your power, your life for justice until you've got the education, the money, the institutional clearance, the world's permission to be heard? Well there's no line, no waiting, if the time is now. If there's something you're passionate about, some possibility that has ignited your imagination to make some corner of the world a little more like the visible sign of God's love, God's peace, God's justice, and God's blessing, you need no permission from the rulers of this world. Those who use the power they have to maintain their privilege would like nothing better than for you to sit back and wait for their authorization, but you don't need it:
Now is the judgment of this world.
In these last days of Lent, we start looking ahead to Holy Week, toward Jesus' journey to the Cross. We're invited to read texts that have Jesus talking about what's going to happen, what he's going to accomplish in Jerusalem. This is clearly a solemn time. Jesus' disciples in this Sunday's gospel picked up on that. They knew something big was coming, but they didn't know what, and they were anxious and afraid. And these are days of great anxiety for many in our world. There are wars and rumors of wars, elected and unelected men of power being cast down. There are changes afoot, and there are plenty of self-appointed prophets of doom ready to tell us that we SHOULD be afraid, that we need to stay the course, toe the line, do what they tell us lest something even more terrible fall upon us.
But what if Jesus is right?
If Jesus is right, then we don't need to fear. We need to follow. When Jesus is lifted up, he draws ALL people to him -- the Greeks who just now are telling Philip they want to see Jesus and the Pharisees who fear he's stirring up the people, the prophets of doom and the peasants just trying to get by. The God Jesus proclaimed, the God who created the universe, is still drawing the universe toward the justice for which it aches. That God is calling.
The days are surely coming. God wants to inscribe God's just and liberating word on our hearts, and all, from the least to the greatest, will know it, experience it, celebrate it.
What if the time is now?
Thanks be to God!
Third Sunday in Lent, Year B
"I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do."
When St. Paul wrote this in Romans 7, it wasn't about a lack of willpower, and it wasn't saying that obeying the Law's commandments was impossible. After all, we're talking about the guy who said in Philippians 3:6 that he was "as to the Law, blameless."
St. Paul believes that he did obey the Law's commandments; he also believes that while he was doing that, he accomplished "not ... the good I want, but the evil I do not want," as he says in Romans. Paul's problem, as he came to understand it, was that while obeying the commandments -- from the "big ten" to the last ordinance -- he became "as to zeal, a persecutor of the church" (Philippians 3:6). Acts 8:1 reports that when the blood of Stephen, the first Christian martyr, was spilled, Paul was there, looking with approval.
Paul's very zeal to do God's will led him to participate, by a consistent pattern of "things done and left undone," in the death of people like Stephen. That bloodshed haunted him throughout his life. Those deaths placed Paul in a "body of death" (Romans 7:24) from which no amount of zeal could rescue him -- until he met the risen Jesus, who rescued him from a body of death and made him a member of the Body of Christ. At least two things happened at once in Paul (and by the way, his name didn't change when he encountered Jesus. If you read Acts carefully, you'll see that continues to carry the name Saul after his Damascus road experience; most likely, as Roman citizens had three names, his first two names were "Saulus Paulus," and then his third name would be the family name by which citizenship came to his family) in that encounter:
He realized that Jesus was in fact God's anointed, raised by the God of Israel from the dead. It followed from that was that Paul had been horribly, tragically wrong in persecuting Jesus' followers.
He realized also as he was received by Ananias and the very church he had been rushing to persecute just how profound was the height and depth and breadth of the love of Christ -- and by extension, Christ's Body on earth. The Christians Paul met after he was blinded on the road didn't demand Paul's blood in retaliation for the blood Paul shed; they received him (however hard they had to gulp while doing so) as a brother.
Why would they do something like that? Why not just pick up a rock to hurl at Paul with regret only that Paul had just one life they could take in payment for the lives Paul had taken?
Because they understood that Jesus' death -- indeed, Jesus' whole life -- was putting an end to bloodshed. I preached about that last week (shout-out to the good folks of Trinity Cathedral in Cleveland -- what a wonderful congregation, and what great hosts!),
but this Sunday's gospel is another good entry point to that message.
This week, we hear the story of Jesus' actions in the Temple, actions often referred to as Jesus' "cleansing the Temple." I wish they weren't. "Cleansing the Temple" makes it sound like Jesus was just trying to straighten it up, purify it by removing things that shouldn't be there. The idea that Jesus' actions in this Sunday's gospel are "cleansing the Temple" is predicated on the assumption that moneychangers and dovesellers didn't belong in those courtyards, when there's no way that the Temple could function without them.
God's law, after all -- "God's will revealed in scripture," to use a phrase popular with a lot of preachers today -- demanded sacrifice. The sacrifices had to be unblemished: the Law required it, and so did common sense. Hey, you wouldn't give a chipped coffee mug to your kid's teacher -- why would you think it's cool to bring "factory seconds" to Yahweh? And it's not like no provision was made for the poor. The Law allowed the poor to offer a dove rather than a lamb in sacrifice. It just had to be an unblemished dove, and how much of a bummer would it be if you schlepped all the way to Jerusalem from your village in Galilee hauling a dove, only to find out once you got there that it wasn't going to make the grade? Selling animals suitable for sacrifice was a service.
And surely you remember the commandment not to make any graven image, right? It's one of the "big ten," after all -- the first one, to be precise (depending on how you number them, and Jews, Roman Catholics, and Protestants number them differently -- which is one more reason that we can't post a list of the Ten Commandments anywhere without it being a sectarian act). It's bad enough to have to deal at all with money bearing Caesar's image; it's beyond the pale to bear that image into the areas of the Temple where sacrifice is offered to the God who said (right up front in the "big ten") not to have any lord besides the Creator. Incidentally, this is another way in which Jesus is extraordinarily clever in Mark 12:13-17 and parallels, when Jesus is asked whether it's lawful to pay taxes to Caesar. When Jesus says, "hey, who's got a denarius with them" and one of his oh-so-scrupulous about the Law questioners produces one to show him, you can almost hear the "D'OH!" from them all when they realize that there they are in the Temple, and they've just been shown up for everyone to see as not having changed their money over in the courtyard to coinage that didn't bear Caesar's image. You bear Caesar's image into the Temple's inner courts, and you're making clear where your true loyalties are -- Caesar, not God. Money-changers in the outer courts are providing a service that, like the dove-sellers, is necessary for the Temple system to continue.
And Jesus will have none of it.
Jesus drives out the dove-sellers and the money-changers, without which people -- poor people, even (the dove-sellers are mentioned specifically) -- won't be able to offer their sacrifices. He's not "cleansing" the Temple -- he's ending it. That's why all four gospels report in connection with their report of Jesus' messing with the money-changers and sacrifice-sellers that Jesus prophesied the Temple's destruction.
Now why would Jesus do something like that? After all, isn't scripture clear that God wanted the Temple built and maintained, along with everything that was supposed to take place inside it?
This is an excellent case in point for how difficult it is to teach "what the bible says" about nearly anything: scripture is not by any means unanimous that Israel should have a temple (or, for that matter, a king). Writers from the priestly upper classes -- people who owed their livelihood to kings who claimed descent from Solomon and kings like Herod the Great, who wanted to be seen as ruling with Solomon's mantle, rather unsurprisingly are quite clear that God wanted the Temple built and commanded that sacrifices happen there. Prophetic writers like Isaiah never bought that agenda, though. Prophets like Isaiah say things like this:
Thus says the LORD:
Heaven is my throne
and the earth is my footstool;
wheat is the house that you would build for me,
and what is my resting place?
All these things my hand has made,
and so all these things are mine,
says the LORD.
Isaiah wasn't keen on animal or grain sacrifices either. He goes on to say:
Whoever slaughters an ox is like one who kills a human being;
whoever sacrifices a lamb, like one who breaks a dog's neck;
whoever presents a grain offering, like one who offers swine's blood;
whever makes a memorial offering of frankincense,
like one who blesses an idol.
These have chosen their own ways,
and in their abominations they take delight.
Prophets like Isaiah clearly were NOT charter members of the Society for the Preservation of the Temple. Nor did they think what God really wanted was more personal piety -- more fasts, more "devotional time," more bible study. Not that there's anything wrong with those things as such. But here's what they thought of as the kind of worship God really wants:
Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not hide yourself from your own kin?
Ever notice how often Jesus quotes Isaiah, especially relative to other biblical writers? It isn't hard to tell where Jesus falls on this question about what kind of worship God wants -- and just how little interest God has in a building. Actually, that's an understatement. Jesus didn't just think that God had little interest in the Temple; he thought that God was opposed to the Temple -- hence Jesus' running around the courtyards screaming things, and waving a whip, which was definitely not is usual style.
Solomon had built his temple on the backs of the poor, as kings tend to do. When kings launch some major project, they rarely pay for it themselves; it's the poor, the blind, the lame -- those who have the least to offer a monarch, and therefore get the least attention from the world's rulers -- who pay most dearly. They paid dearly under Solomon's reign. When Herod decided to demonstrate just how much he deserved the title of king and the nickname "the Great," he remodeled and vastly expanded the Temple, and -- as with all his building projects -- the poor under his rule paid most dearly. Herod got his massive and impressive building so God got a bigger and better place for bloodshed.
But God doesn't want blood.
God wants justice.
God wants the hungry fed, the sick cured, the prisoners set free. There will always be someone claiming that God wants another crusade, another war, another dose (or river) of blood to set things right, even the score. And when that happens, when the rulers and "men of vision" of this world launch their grand crusades, it's still the case that the poor pay most dearly. That's certainly the case in the country of my birth. We're embroiled in a war financed by cuts to programs serving those most in need -- well, that and an unprecedented level of debt that will impede our ability to feed the hungry for years to come, if not generations.
Could Jesus have been any clearer? I don't think that God ever wanted blood; I think Micah was right, and what God wanted from us from the start was for us to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God. God sent prophet after prophet to tell us that, and we contracted the world's most profound and persistent case of spiritual ear wax. So God in the unfathomable height and depth and breadth of God's mercy sent Jesus the Christ, and if we believe that his blood shed on the Cross was a perfect, full, and sufficient sacrifice, then the time has come for us to hear God's word and do it:
No more blood. No more death. Not another soul needs to die for anyone's sins. We've got far too much to do to devote a single penny or a single calorie to vengeance or war.
It's true that we've built up an astonishingly elaborate global system that widens the already vast gap between rich and poor, that plunders the earth's resources in ways that lower quality of life for all of us and (no surprise here) most of all for the poor, that pulls us harder and harder apart from one another and from God, and we can't by our own power extricate ourselves to participate in God's mission of healing and reconciliation.
But when we're ready to cry, "who will deliever me from this body of death?" we have have an answer: "Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!" No, I don't think that good progressive intentions coupled with sheer willpower are sufficient to save the world. Indeed, we saw in the early 20th century that those things can have a dark side -- it was good American progressives in what we call the Progressive Era who looked at the science of heredity and decided that forced sterilizations (or worse) of the "feeble-minded" and deviant (not coincidentally, that would mostly be poor people, and no eugenic scientist ever thought s/he was anything but the best of breeding stock) were a crucial part of a strategy to eliminate poverty. Zeal is not enough -- it's what got St. Paul in the pit he was in before he met Jesus. But zeal isn't all we've got:
We've got Jesus. We've got the Body of Christ, this astonishingly diverse worldwide family of sisters and brothers upon whom God has breathed God's Spirit. Listening deeply to one another -- and especially to the poorest and most marginalized among us -- is the best way to cure and prevent recurrence of spiritual ear wax. I'm not saying it's easy, and I'm not saying it isn't painful. It's hard and it hurts sometimes -- that's why Jesus said his followers had to take up the Cross. But we have to trust Jesus, who put his own life on the line, that this is the way to abundant life. And we need to stay in touch with the living, breathing, growing Body of Christ.
We can't free ourselves by sheer willpower, but Christ has freed us and set us in communities of fellow travelers to heal, to serve, and to love with all the power of the Spirit.
Thanks be to God!
First Sunday of Advent, Year B
This reflection also appears in The Witness, a magazine that's been an Anglican voice for justice since 1917, and also happens to be my new employer. Please do visit there regularly; reflections on the Revised Common Lectionary readings appear there every week, along with compelling news and commentary from around the world.
Sometimes I wish that Mark 13 came, like the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, with a cover bearing the large-type friendly admonition, “DON'T PANIC.”
Yes, I know it can be a pretty scary chapter — especially the parts our lectionary leaves out. It starts with the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. It continues with images of war, earthquake, and famine, of family members betraying one another, of great suffering. But don't forget that in verses 30-31, Mark says very clearly and emphatically that these things are NOT predictions of doom in the distant future: “Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place.” And as Malina and Rohrbaugh point out, that even gets backed up with an oath in very strong terms indeed: “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.”
The truly frightening stuff described in Mark 13 is, for Mark's readers, not a prediction to frighten future generations, but words of comfort for a generation that used this vivid language, the language of nightmares mixed with literal retellings of the kinds of betrayal and threats facing community members, to describe what they'd already seen brothers and sisters in Christ going through. Jesus went around calling women and slaves and sons alike to follow him, and leaving out any hint that they need to get someone else's permission to do so. His followers after his resurrection called him “lord” or “master,” suggesting that others who wanted to claim that title need not apply. That's not the kind of thing you can say — let alone a way of life you can live — without getting in trouble, and so Christians were dragged before local authorities, sometimes by members of their own family. Furthermore, war was on the horizon, if not already happening — the Jewish Revolt of 66 - 70 A.D., the war that would bring the destruction of the second Temple in Jerusalem, an abomination causing desolation to match Antiochus Epiphanies' desecration of the Holy of Holies in the Maccabean Revolt a century and a half earlier.
That's the bad news, and that's the stuff that the community didn't particularly need to be told. They knew it already. Under those circumstances, a person who just danced up and said some first-century Greek equivalent of “don't worry — be happy” would be more likely to get a sock in the jaw than to succeed in encouraging listeners. When people are going through that kind of pain, you've got to acknowledge that pain, that grief, the seriousness of the obstacles before saying, and not seeming flip:
Yes, there is serious pain in the world, in your community. There are wars and rumors of wars. There's strife within families, and even within the family of faith, those called to be one in Christ. And God's name is profaned, used as a political prop to assert power over the powerless — an abomination to those for whom God's name is the name of one who feeds the hungry, lifts up the lowly, frees the prisoner. The first readers of the Gospel According to Mark knew that as well or better than we do. So when you see these things happening, don't think it's a sign that the kingdom of God Jesus promised is late in coming or has been derailed.
A community that saw Nero's power come and go has another word for us. Heaven and earth will pass away before Jesus' words will pass away. We don't know the day or hour, but we know that God is faithful, and Jesus' resurrection from the dead is a sign to us as it was to Mary Magdalene, Simon Peter, Mark's community, and our own wounded communities: Jesus is coming, and God's kingdom, inaugurated with Jesus' ministry, is being revealed, finding fulfillment.
Yes, I know that there are people who want to say that the Day of the Lord should inspire terror, but we know something that they don't seem to realize: the person we call Lord is none other than Jesus of Nazareth, who taught and healed, who welcomed the outcast and broke bread with anyone willing to eat with him. It's Jesus, whose way of life and manner of death underscored what his words taught: love your enemies. When we know Jesus, the Jesus of the gospels, we know that God is love, and love drives out fear.
So don't panic. Panic, like sleep, keeps a person from watching and listening, from the ability to respond to another person, and with that, the ability to love. Don't panic when someone tells you about suffering in the present or suffering to come: keep watch, and respond with love. Don't nod off when the comforts of life in one of the richest nations of the world try to lull you into complacency: keep watch, and respond with love. There will be earthquakes and wars and famines, as well as more personal catastrophes of betrayal, but there is nothing that can derail this train, so people, get ready:
Jesus is here, and Jesus is coming.
Thanks be to God!