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
Proper 17, Year B
There are all kinds of irresponsible caricatures drawn from pulpits about what Judaism and Pharisaism was and/or is like, and I expect that too many of them will be drawn this Sunday. This Sunday especially, we need to remember that there's a reason that, for example, Jewish ministries on college campuses are called "Hillel House" after the man who's probably the most famous Pharisee (other than Paul of Tarsus, whom Christians call St. Paul) in history: to my knowledge, all branches of Judaism today are descended from Pharisaism. When we Christians use the word "Pharisee" as a synonym for "hypocrite" or speak of Pharisaism as a religion of empty ceremonies and heartless enforcement of rules, we are using rhetoric that insults today's Jews and Judaism. Such rhetoric is not only insulting, but also profoundly misleading.
Pharisees in Jesus' day didn't hold to a religion that said that God was more distant or less loving or merciful than the god we proclaim. Anyone who looks up words like 'love/loving' and 'mercy' in a decent concordance that includes the Hebrew bible will find plentiful evidence that the Pharisees taught that God is, in the words of Exodus 34:6-7, "merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness," and "forgiving iniquity and sin." Neither did the Pharisees teach that God is distant or that human beings can't have an intimate relationship with God, as anyone who reads the Psalms can witness. Indeed, the Pharisees, unlike the Sadducees, taught that God could be present in anyone's kitchen, workplace, and bedroom as God is present in the Temple. Nor did the Pharisees confine God's love to Jews or suggest that one had to be born Jewish to know or follow God, as this passage from the Numbers Rabbah (8.3) on proselytes (Gentile converts to Judaism) suggests:
The Holy One loves proselytes exceedingly. To what is the matter like? To a king who had a number of sheep and goats which went forth every morning to the pasture, and returned in the evening to the stable. One day a stag joined the flock and grazed with the sheep, and returned with them. Then the shepherd said to the king, "There is a stag which goes out with the sheep and grazes with them, and comes home with them." And the king loved the stag exceedingly. And he commanded the shepherd, saying, "Give heed unto this stag, that no man beat it"; and when the sheep returned in the evening, he would order that the stag should have food and drink. Then the shepherds said to him, "My Lord, thou hast many goats and sheep and kids, and thou givest us no directions about these, but about this stag thou givest us orders day by day." Then the king replied, "It is the custom of the sheep to graze in the pasture, but the stags dwell in the wilderness, and it is not their custom to come among men in the cultivated land. But to this stag who has come to us and lives with us, should we not be grateful that he has left the great wilderness, where many stags and gazelles feed, and has come to live among us? It behooves us to be grateful." So too spoke the Holy One: "I owe great thanks to the stranger, in that he has left his family and his father's house, and has come to dwell among us; therefore I order in the Law: 'Love ye the stranger'" (Deuteronomy 10:19).
-- The New Testament Background, pp. 208-209
Jesus criticized Pharisees, to be sure, but even when he was doing so harshly, he acknowledged their zeal in evangelism, in letting Gentiles everywhere know that the God of Israel would receive them gladly -- take a look at Matthew 23:15, in which Jesus specifically says to Pharisees, "you cross sea and land to make a single convert." Nor were the Pharisees uninterested in justice for the poor; they taught that scripture passages like this week's reading from Deuteronomy mean that God made the Hebrews a people and chose them specifically so they could be a community that did things differently from the nations, including caring for the poor, and in a way that could make the people of the God of Israel a light for the whole world.
In short, Jesus didn't criticize Pharisees so passionately because they were the furthest from his point of view; he criticized particular Pharisees because in so many ways their thinking was so very close to his. In other words, Jesus' quarrel with the Pharisees is a quarrel between brothers -- which, as anyone who grew up with siblings knows, can be the most animated kinds of arguments.
So what, then, was the substance of Jesus' quarrel with the Pharisees? I've said a great deal so far about what it was NOT, but little about what it was. The short answer is, I think, the main point of this week's gospel reading, and it's a point that ought to be very challenging for us too. The Pharisees weren't concerned only with purity laws; they are, after all, the people who lobbied longest and hardest for prophetic books like Isaiah to be counted as scripture. And their position on purity laws was one that, I think most Pharisees were argue (if you'll forgive my saying this in anachronistic terms), was an inclusive and progressive one. Sadducees would say that the purity rules that priests (and you had to be a male without deformity born into a priestly family to be a priest -- it wasn't something one could choose or decline) were supposed to follow surrounding their periods of service in the Temple were just for those born in a position that would bring them into God's holy place. The Pharisees were making Judaism and the sense it offered of being in God's presence accessible to anyone by saying that anyone could be a Jew and a Pharisee, and any place could be holy to God if only people would treat it as such. That point is the core, I think, of Jesus' agreement with his Pharisaic contemporaries.
The disagreement was about what it was that made a place holy, what it was that constituted purity. This Sunday's gospel shows Jesus teaching something with potentially radical implications. It's not that purity doesn't matter. Getting people to treat everything and everyone as pure would, in my opinion, be hopeless in any culture, and probably not desirable either. Sometimes I ask students to make a list of the purity rules they follow. At first they usually object that they don't follow any, but then I offer some examples. Most of us grow up being taught not to eat or leave the bathroom without washing our hands. Oh, but that's just about germs, right? Our purity rules are just about health and science, and those are the only purity rules worth following. But we generally think it's weird or even offensive to prepare food in the bathroom -- a rule that's not at core about germs, as studies have demonstrated that the bathroom is generally the least germ-ridden place in our houses. But guests would be puzzled or grossed out if they thought I'd prepared their dinner in the room I used to defecate. I'm not saying that's bad or stupid -- I'm just saying that we ALL have purity rules that we follow.
And that's why I think what Jesus does in this Sunday's gospel is so brilliantly subversive. Jesus redefines purity in terms of "what comes out of a person" -- of qualities we demonstrate in relationships.
It's brilliant because it would have been someone between fruitless and counter-productive for Jesus to say anything like "purity doesn't matter." Human beings just aren't 'wired' culturally to be that way -- and being the kind of person who will say "that just isn't appropriate," especially when we feel and say it on a gut level, can be very helpful in some circumstances. But Jesus is proposing that intentionally, in community, we 're-wire' ourselves, building a subculture that trains us to feel as much 'ick factor' about carelessly wounding remarks as most of us were taught growing up to feel about carelessly (or, if you have to have it in 'scientific' terms, unhygienically) prepared food. Jesus is proposing that we intentionally build a culture that worries about whether our behavior is feeding grudges or a spiral of violence in the same way -- but with considerably more intensity -- than most of us were brought up to worry about food practices feeding bacteria. And building that kind of culture requires that we engage intentionally with one another in the kind of gentle, consistent, persistent, 24/7 formation in community that, in most healthy households, gradually teaches children about washing hands and being careful with meat and potato salad. That would be a radical move. Can you imagine how much more positively people at large would view churches if every congregation put as much care into seeing that our children aren't infected with racism or pride as we generally want them to put into seeing that they're not infected with salmonella at the potluck?
That would be cool. But that's not the most radical implication of what Jesus teaches about purity.
The most radical implication of Jesus' view of purity is something that St. Paul picks up and applies to his view of marriage in 1 Corinthians 7. Most views of purity that anyone would count sensible know that if just one impure thing comes into contact with something pure, that transmits the impurity -- in other words, both things will now be impure. If just a wee bit of litter from the catbox makes it into a cake, that cake -- not just a piece of it, and regardless of what scientific tests demonstrate that some part of it is free of bacterial nastiness -- is not going to be seen as suitable to serve to guests. That assumption about purity often carries over into how we treat people, though. There are some things people can do that render them in relational terms "radioactive" -- treated as untouchable, lest we "catch" their bad reputation and/or bad conduct. But what if purity is every bit as transmittable as impurity? What if purity can actually overpower impurity? In St. Paul's view, a woman -- a person the culture sees as easily made impure -- can actually render her whole household "pure," holy, a place where God is powerfully present and powerfully at work. That attributes a great deal of positive power to the woman.
And that's an idea I'd say Paul got from Jesus, and specifically as a solid inference from passages like this Sunday's gospel, as well as from Jesus' consistent example. It is possible, Jesus teaches us, to live in such a way, to display in our relationships a quality and consistency of love, that something the world writes off as irredeemable is transformed into something bearing witness to God's power to redeem. If it's "what goes in" that makes someone impure, then people need to guard carefully against coming into contact with the wrong sort of person, lest they come into contact with the wrong sort of things. But if what flows out of people in loving relationship with one another radiates purity, then we are freed to live making decisions based on love and not in fear. That is an incredibly radical, liberating, transformative insight -- one I'm always trying to take in more deeply.
And there's one further insight from Jesus' view of purity that might be more radical still. If purity is something radiated out by how we are in relationships, then we actually NEED other people for a life of holiness. For example, if true purity is about exercising forgiveness, then we NEED to take the risk of staying in relationship with people the world thinks are hopeless to experience God's holiness. If true purity involves exercising compassion, then suffering in the world isn't proof that God doesn't care, but is an opportunity to experience and proclaim just how much and in what ways God does care. If true purity is about relationship, then the challenges facing us as a church of flawed and bickering people are an opportunity to understand God's grace more deeply and proclaim it more powerfully by insisting that reconciliation be the first, middle, and final word. Is that possible? If Jesus is right, if what's "out there" doesn't make us impure and purity flows out in relationship, then past or present nastiness already "out there" is beyond what can be transformed by God's holy and holy-making love. That's Jesus' teaching in this Sunday's gospel; that's the example we have in Jesus' manner of life, which posed a profound challenge to his Pharisaic brothers much as it challenges the church today.
Thanks be to God!
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.
Proper 4, Year A
Would you like your parish to have an assistant who preaches and teaches like this? (And blog entries are just the first draft of my sermon on weeks when I preach!) I'm on the job market, and am also available for consulting, retreats, and guest preaching. My bio and C.V. are here.
Our readings from both the Hebrew bible and the gospel for this Sunday are about something that is somewhere between unpopular and terrifying to hear about for a lot of people (well, for me, anyway):
Obedience. It was in our gospel for last week too, in the “Great Commission,” which commissions us not just to bring people to church, or to get them to say the “sinner's prayer.” We're not making converts. We're making disciples -- people who have not only experienced Baptism, but who also have experienced catechesis, having been taught what it means to follow Jesus in a way that is actually going make a difference in behavior. In other words, Jesus' followers actually do what Jesus taught people to do, as I blogged about last week. This week's readings have a lot to say about that.
Our reading from Deuteronomy for this Sunday also has a lot to say about family. And I've blogged about this before as well. When this subject has come up in the past, it's usually been in response to one of Jesus' consistently negative comments about what we usually mean when we say “family,” namely the group of people who are related to one another by blood or marriage.
People are often taken aback when they discover that Jesus didn't speak highly of that kind of family. When someone in the crowd called out, “blessed is the womb that bore you and the breasts that nourished you” (Luke 11:27-28), Jesus' reply wasn't, “Blessed rather are ALL mothers, as there's no calling in a woman's life that could be more important.” It wasn't even, “No, for your blessing betrays some serious sexism. You should say, 'blessed are all PARENTS,' as fathers are just as important as mothers, and parenthood is the most important thing in the world for men as well as women.” Here's what Jesus said:
“Blessed rather is the one who hears the word of God and obeys it.”
It's very similar to what Jesus says when he's told that his mother, sisters, and brothers are outside waiting to see him: “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother, and sister, and mother” (Mark 3:31-34).
It isn't that all families are awful, in Jesus' eyes. It's just that they are wonderful or awful precisely to the extent that they do what Christian communities do, inviting all members to use their gifts to help the whole community move toward maturity in Christ. Parents are disciples first, second, and always. So are children. For Christians, families are groups of disciples who live together in community, and as very local gatherings of the Body of Christ, the Great Commission is for them as well.
Our reading from Deuteronomy for this Sunday points to one specific way in which families are called to live into the Great Commission: like all Christian communities, they are called to catechesis, to teach and equip one another for discipleship. This, by the way, is one of the reasons I'm such a great fan of Faith Inkubators, and especially their Faith Stepping Stones curriculum. Their motto is “every night in every home,” as that's where most formation for children and youth takes place -- for better or for worse.
It's just not possible to outsource this to Sunday School teachers or youth pastors. Here's what happens when a family tries this: for one to three hours (maybe as much as five, if the kids never miss a youth group meeting) each week, kids are exposed to one or two adults who at least pay lip service to the importance of formation (one would hope that it would be WAY more than lip service, but when churches pay those who work with children and youth least if they have a designated staff person for it at all, sometimes congregations end up with children's or youth minister who has a great heart but very little training, if any). And each week, the kids spend the rest of their waking hours either on their own, or with adults who don't talk with them about the faith and stories of God's people as we see them in the bible. Here's a pretty primitive visual aid representing the number of waking hours a young person has in a week:
Each red 'o' represents one hour of intentional Christian formation outsourced to church workers: five hours in a week, assuming a young person who goes to Sunday worship, Sunday School, and youth group every week without fail. Each blue 'X' represents one waking hour in which young people are being formed with mentoring from their teachers, SpongeBob (who's a great guy, as far as animated characters go -- and I'm glad he's received an unequivocal welcome from the United Church of Christ -- but I wouldn't say he's necessarily the best person to teach my kids about who God is), and by what they observe of their parents' priorities.
How much effect do you think that the 'X' hours have in comparison to the 'o'?
God is immeasurably gracious, and can work powerfully even in a climate least hospitable to the work of the Spirit, but let's face it -- we're seriously tempting fate if we expect that Sunday School and youth group will on their own provide sufficient catechesis for serious discipleship ...
Unless, that is, we take Deuteronomy 11 seriously. In the ancient world, people were seen as the sum of three 'zones': thought and feeling, listening and responding, and making and doing (once more, props to Malina and Rohrbaugh). By saying that we are to take God's word into our heart and soul and write it on our forehead and hand, Deuteronomy is telling us that God's word is to permeate our whole selves -- body and soul, at all times and in all places. When we do that, our children can see for themselves what's important to us. Nothing else could be a more powerful influence to form our children as disciples who love scripture. And when we treat our home and the set of those who live there as an intentional Christian community, every bit as much as any parish or monastery, we find that each member has gifts to build up the whole for mission; our children will teach us and minister to us as well.
Not everyone who cries, “Jesus is Lord of this family!” or plasters fish alongside the American flags on the minivan will experience the fullness of what God wants for us, the rich blessings of living in a community in which Jesus really is received as Lord. Blood relation, adoption papers, a seal of approval from the state, and the right combination of genders for parents don't make real family any more than hours of shuttling to soccer practices and SAT prep classes will. Jesus never said anything about “family values,” but he said a lot about what kind of community he values, whether it's a parents and some children, a set of roommates, a monastery, or a parish.
Real family, real community, is found wherever members hear Jesus' words and follow him. That's what's solid, no matter what state laws or genetic ties say. It's true what they say: love makes a family. And not just the love of members for one another, but the kind of love that Jesus showed, a Great Commission kind of love, that says that this group of people are members of one Body, given not just for their own joy, but for the sake of others, for the sake of the world.
That's Jesus' view of family. When we hear this word on this and put it into action, we will find and value our family whenever and wherever we meet sisters and brothers in Christ of any generation and whatever their genetic or legal relationships. And our children, having grown up steeped in God's word, Jesus' love, and Christian community will, like Abraham, be blessed so that they will be a blessing (Genesis 12:2) -- to us, to the world, and to the God who made and loves them.
Thanks be to God!
Good Friday, Year A
I've long appreciated and admired The Witness, with its fabulous masthead proclaiming, "A Feisty and Opinionated Journal since 1917." God willing, I plan to have a long (and feisty!) career, and I'd be very pleased if at the end of it, my bio read even a little like their history from their 'About Us' page:
Since 1917, The Witness has been examining church and society in light of faith and conscience - advocating for those denied systemic power as well as celebrating those who, in theologian William Stringfellow's words, have found ways to "live humanly in the midst of death."
I encourage you to read The Witness regularly, and you'll find my reflection for Good Friday there. It's called "The Narrow Place." While you're there, check out the rest of the site. It recently got a new look, and I particularly appreciate the excellent and moving photography now featured on their welcome page.