Fifth Sunday in Lent, Year C

Isaiah 43:16-21 - link to NRSV text

Philippians 3:4b-14 - link to NRSV text

John 12:1-8 - link to NRSV text

I hope you'll indulge me -- I'm going to start with something of an aside this week, as there's something in the epistle reading from Philippians 3 that I very much want to underscore. Its very first sentence points out two things about St. Paul that are often ignored or misunderstood.

First, it's that Paul, like a significant number of early Christians (such as the Pharisaic Christian contingent at the "council of Jerusalem" in Acts 15), identifies as a Pharisee as well as a follower of Jesus; the only point in his catalog of identities in Philippians 3:4 that no longer applies is "persecutor of the church." In other words, Luke's portrayal in Acts 23:6 of Paul, long after his experience on the road to Damascus, saying in the present tense, "I am a Pharisee, a son of Pharisees" is realistic. Regular readers know (as the archives of this blog on the subject demonstrate) that I feel strongly that Christians should avoid presenting the Pharisees as stock villains and using the word "Pharisee" as a synonym for "hypocrite" or "sanctimonious jerk." It's language that comes across as antisemitic, and furthermore, it's language that distorts the historical record and even the sometimes complicated ways Pharisees and Pharisaism are portrayed in the New Testament. As far as we can tell, Paul identified as a Pharisee to his dying day, so at least in his view, there's nothing about being a Pharisee that's in necessary conflict with following Jesus.

Second, it's worth noting that Paul specifically says that "as to righteousness under the Law" he was "blameless." In other words, Paul does NOT think that humankind needs Jesus because human beings can't manage to observe the Law and therefore can't have righteousness without having Jesus' righteousness imputed to them. Paul says right here in Philippians that he was righteous under the Law; clearly he thought that people COULD observe it. I have little doubt that Paul could assess his Torah observance in this way in part because he, like any other Pharisee, knew that the Law made provision for impurities to be cleansed, transgressions forgiven, and therefore righteousness under the Law restored. As myriad texts (e.g., Psalm 103) in the Hebrew bible demonstrate, the God of Israel has always offered people forgiveness. This whole stereotype of Judaism as proclaiming a God who, prior to the Incarnation, was impossible to please and whose presence could not be experienced by human beings is, to borrow Paul's word in Philippians 3:8, skubalon -- which, by the way, the Liddell-Scott Greek lexicon translates as "dung" or "excrement," though the NRSV renders it more in a more genteel fashion as "rubbish."

Thanks for letting me get that off my chest. I'd like to say more about Paul's view of the Law and why he thinks we need Jesus, and you can find more of my thoughts about that elsewhere in the lectionary blog, but I've already stretched the definition of "aside"; it's time to get to what I actually plan to preach on this week.

This Sunday's gospel story seems to be based on an earlier story -- one of my favorites in the New Testament -- that appears first in written form in the Gospel According to Mark, 14:1-11. Two days before the Passover, in the last week of Jesus' life, Jesus' followers are sharing a meal. The men among the Twelve, and especially Peter, have been fairly consistently portrayed as misunderstanding who Jesus is and potentially even standing in the way of what Jesus came to do. But two days before the Passover at dinner, a woman -- a prophet -- shows that she understands Jesus as the male disciples haven't. She anoints Jesus' head, dramatically proclaiming Jesus to be the one anointed by God (in other words, the christ or messiah), and in a context that makes clear that she has anointed Jesus also for the way of the Cross he has proclaimed. And Jesus commends her prophetic action in glowing terms, saying that wherever the Good News is proclaimed, this woman's story will be told in memory of her.

Ironically, while we know the names of others -- even the name of the host of this dinner party in Mark 14 -- the name of the woman is lost to us. So much for Jesus' disciples keeping her memory. Luke (in chapter 7) makes the woman an anonymous "sinner." John 12 gives her a name, at least -- Mary, sister to Martha and Lazarus -- but like Luke, John has her anointing Jesus' feet, not his head, turning an act of prophesy into an act solely of personal and emotional devotion -- even an act that could be seen as competing with and undermining ministry to the poor.

But is that really what's going on? I have my doubts.

I think it's worth remembering that, as Malina and Rohrbaugh point out, hands and feet were seen in the ancient Mediterranean world as representing action -- action with intentionality. While Mark has the woman anointing Jesus' person, and by extension his actions, in John's story the woman is declaring Jesus' actions, Jesus' mission in the world, as anointed by God, and by extension his person.

These differences give the stories different emphases. And if you'll indulge me in another aside (this one brief, I promise), it reminds me of why it's so important not to try to harmonize the differences we hear in the the gospels -- or to try to impose uniformity in Christian community. We need those different voices, those different emphases, even or especially when they seem to be in tension with one another.

We need them if we're going to do what Mary does in this Sunday's gospel: identify and bless Jesus' intentional action, what God is doing in the world -- also known as God's mission.

I'll put it this way, with a confession: I suspect that nine times out of ten, when God is saying to me, "I am about to do a new thing; / now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?" my response is something like this:

"You have reached the internal answering machine of Sarah Dylan Breuer. I'm out doing all of the things I think are God's will, the things I think I need to do to make a living, and the things I just plain want to do, but have managed to rationalize as being totally necessary. Please leave your name at the tone, so I know whether you're among those from whom I expect spiritual counsel, and assuming you're on the list, I'll get back to you when ... well, I might get back to you."

What would it look like if I lived more deeply into the kind of prophetic witness we see in this week's texts? How might our lives be different in our households, our worshipping communities, our world if, instead of asking God to bless our activity, we, like Mary, were looking for the ways in which God is acting in the world and looking for ways we could bless and support God's action?

I feel blessed to have joined one of the most mission-minded parishes I've ever seen. There are so many people here giving so much of themselves and using so many of their spiritual gifts to advance God's mission. And one thing that could enhance our ability to identify God's activity in the world and bless it would be more opportunity for us to listen to one another, to hear one another's stories. I'm not just talking about stories of how we serve in and through the church. We should indeed be celebrating, thanking, supporting, and blessing one another in our ministries in church, but it's worth remembering that most of us spend the vast majority of our time in other places, and that time in other places can be ministry in the service of God's mission just as surely -- perhaps even more surely -- than time spent in this building.

If we believe that God is at work in the world, after all -- if we want to anoint Jesus' feet, his action out there -- then we need to be looking for evidence of Jesus' work in the world; we need to see the world and people's work in it through the lens of Jesus' ministry, in the context of salvation history, the story of God's creating the world and drawing it to God's self.

That means we need to be in touch both with that story of God's making and loving the world and with the stories of human beings in the world experiencing God's redemption and the historical and personal wounds in need of God's healing.

Those who know me well will not be surprised to hear me say that I think one of the very best ways to be in touch with the world's very reason for being -- with the love of God that created the world and is bringing it toward the peace, justice, and love for which it aches -- is to spend some serious calories in close reading of the scriptures. It's very hard to discern what Jesus is up to in the world today if one doesn't know, and very well, what Jesus was up to in Galilee and Judea, and in the lives and communities of early saints such as Paul and the writers of the gospels. It's hard to understand what Jesus was up to in the past if one doesn't immerse oneself in the Torah and the prophets that formed Jesus' own view of who God is and what engaging God's mission would look like.

And of course, one can't know what Jesus is up to in the world today if one doesn't know what's going on in the world today. I thank God for some of the tools I use, such as the Global Voices website, which compiles and translates web logs from all over the world that allow you and me to hear from ordinary people -- anonymous Gay Christians in Uganda, teenagers in Iraq, and countless others. But even these technological marvels are nothing compared to the resource we have in one another, in our congregations and in the larger Body of Christ. Tell me what your wildest dreams for the world are and the moments in which you catch glimpses of it at work, on the bus, with your children (or even your parents!), and I'll know that much more about where Jesus' feet fall around the world. When we share our stories -- and particularly when we come together as God's people to enter into the biblical story and ponder how our own stories might be told in the context of that great, wonderful tale -- we can see the paths that Jesus is wending through our world to bring redemption, and we have opportunity in encouraging and supporting one another's growth and ministry to bless and anoint the very feet of the Son of God.

It's hard to say what might be inspired by that process of being in touch with the world's wounds, with God's work of bringing the world to wholeness, and with the great and small wonders present in the gifts and vocations of each one of us. I wonder what might happen if those of us living in families not only ate dinner together, but asked one another questions that go beyond "How was your day?" to "What makes you angry about what's going on in the world? What inspires you? What's God doing, in the world and in you?" Parents, if you're lacking in inspiration to ask those questions, I encourage you to ask your kids, who know and care about a great deal of God's mission, and can often talk about it far more articulately than you or I can. Kids and students, try asking your parents about things like this. It might seem weird at first, but you might find conversations like this bringing out amazing ways in which God is calling you, and surprising support in living into that call -- not just in some distant year when you've got your degrees and have checked off all of the right boxes, but now.

And what, I wonder, would it do to coffee hour if we were asking one another, "So, what do you see going on in the world? What's God up to?," or even, "How has God been working in your life lately?" Among other things, we might find that we had far more to talk about that coffee hour would allow.

That's the danger of this sort of enterprise: Enter into scripture's stories of God's loving and redeeming the world, and you just might find yourself hungry for more. Enter into the stories of your neighbors and their experience of God's love and redemption, and you might catch a glimpse of something that will change your life. Look for and bless what Jesus is doing in the world, and as surely as Jesus is Lord of history, you will see the world healing, growing, and changing.

Thanks be to God!

March 24, 2007 in Discernment, Forgiveness, Isaiah, John, Justice, Lent, ONE campaign/Millennium Development Goals, Pharisees, Philippians, Prophets, Righteousness, Women, Year C | Permalink | Comments (1)

Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany, Year C

Jeremiah 1:4-10 - link to NRSV text
1 Corinthians 13:1-13 - link to NRSV text
Luke 4:21-30 - link to NRSV text

I want to start this week with a shout-out to the Rev. (congratulations on your ordination!) Gabri Ferrer of All Saints' parish in Beverly Hills, who gave me some of the best advice I've ever received as a leader.

Gabri says that at any given point in time, there are twelve people in the world who hate you, who think that you're what's wrong with the church, with the nation, with the world, and you just might be some kind of incarnation of Satan. So when you meet someone who thinks everything you do is awful, there's no need to panic; just say to yourself, "Oh, s/he must be one of the twelve." And by the time you meet a thirteenth person who has such an unrealistically negative view of you, you can assume that another of the twelve has changed her/his mind about you and now has a less negative view.

Over time, I decided that there's an important corollary to that piece of advice. At any given point in time, there are twelve people who have an unrealistically HIGH view of you -- who think of you as something like Jesus, Gandhi, and Bono all in one wise, all-caring, charismatic package. So when you meet someone who seems to think that about you, there's no need to panic; you can just say to yourself, "Ah -- one of the twelve." And by the time you meet a thirteenth person who seems to feel that way, you can be sure that one of the twelve has changed her/his mind about you, either adopting a more realistic view of your strengths and foibles or -- more likely, in my experience -- becoming one of the twelve who think you're absolute evil.

Any advice for leaders that includes the words, "don't panic" can't be all bad, but I've found the usefulness of this advice to extend far beyond that, especially when exercising leadership in Christian congregations.

Too often, people think of Christianity as a kind of self-improvement program that makes people nicer and more respectable, in particular by encouraging them to follow rules according to a kind of "don't rock the boat if you want smooth sailing" philosophy. And too often, leaders in Christian communities tend to function as if this philosophy were discipleship and institutional smooth sailing were their charge to keep.

But take a look at the extreme reactions that Jesus' ministry provokes in this Sunday's gospel reading. He's just read the selections (and yes, he was very selective in choosing them!) from Isaiah that he's claiming as his mission and the focus of his ministry, and the crowd's immediate response is just the sort of thing ever preacher loves: "All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth." Jesus is, well, bigger than Jesus. Success!

And then look at what's happening just a few lines of text further:

"All in the synagogue were filled with rage. They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff." Disaster!

Or is it? Does the crowd's acclaim mean that Jesus was saying and doing "the right thing"? Does the crowd's rage mean that Jesus had said or done "the wrong thing"?

I don't think so on either count. Jesus' selections from Isaiah and his claim that "today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing" delivered a prophetic and deeply challenging message. If anything, it may have been the case that the crowd's apparent pleasure at his message suggested that they hadn't grasped its implications. But Jesus spells out an important one as he revisits other points in Israel's history when God sent a prophet: prophets of Israel minister to, heal, and empower outsiders -- Gentiles as well as Jews. It would be an understatement to say that this message doesn't go over well with the crowd in Jesus' hometown, but it would be foolishness to suggest that this means Jesus ought not to have delivered it.

What can we say? Jesus' manner of life -- his teaching, his healing, his prophetic ministry -- posed a profound challenge to his community. Nor do I think we ought to take this Sunday's gospel as a lesson that he should have restricted those activities to places where or people to whom they'd prove less upsetting. Perhaps one good lesson would be that it can be dangerous to choose a pulpit too close to a cliff, but even that is a trivial and not particularly helpful insight.

And whatever we say about this Sunday's gospel, please let's not say that it is in any way about the small-mindedness of Jews in Jesus' day or any other. It's antisemitic and obnoxious as well as grossly misleading. There was and, I dare say, is a great deal that can be hard about carrying on a prophetic ministry in one's hometown. In Jesus' culture, honor, like all things of value, was seen as being in limited supply; if one person had more, of necessity they must have taken it from someone else. So if Jesus is winning honor and acclaim in his hometown, people are going to be asking from which of his neighbors he was taking it. We may not live in an honor-shame culture, but similar dynamics happen all the time; we behave in community as though honor, appreciation, gratitude, admiration, and love were limited quantities to be guarded jealously, not renewable resources to be offered freely to strangers as well as neighbors and family members -- as freely and graciously as God gives.

That's one of many reasons it can be hard to stay and be a change agent. In some ways, it's a great deal of fun to be a guest preacher: I show up and people buy me dinner, treat me with respect, say kind things about my blog and my sermon, and as a guest I can say a great deal that's challenging without fear of being rushed off any nearby precipices. But I sure miss exercising and growing into ministry in contexts in which our journeys with one another -- our living with one another with our foibles and failing as well as our strengths and triumphs -- make clear just how little of Jesus' ministry among us is about glamor and dazzle and getting the show on.

That's one reason I find Benedictine practice helpful, though by temperament I'm far more Franciscan. I'm attracted to the grand gesture. I think my favorite hymn stanza is from "When I Survey the Wondrous Cross":

Were the whole realm of nature mine
That were an off'ring far too small
Love so amazing, so divine
Demands my soul, my life, my all.

When I was in college in particular, I had romantic imaginings of being a missionary, living in cultures radically different from my own, radically sharing the poverty of those with whom I journeyed, and in general doing lots of things to which the word "radical" could be attached. A call to long-term overseas missionary work has eluded me to this point, though, and I must say that I've grown a great deal in the challenges of what the Benedictines call "stability."

Stability suggests that we maintain practices of discernment to stay open to a new call, but we minister where we are until such a call is discerned. Sometimes I think there's no discipline harder for a Tigger-like ENFP Franciscan like me. Often I thank God for all I've learned in my inept attempts to exercise and grow in it, though. I've learned that it is in some ways all too easy for many of us to mistake glib showmanship for prophetic ministry unless we are surrounded by people who know one another well and who tell one another the truth, more (or less -- others are allowed flaws too in these communities!) gently and lovingly, to the best of their ability. Neither the embarrassment of undeserved praise nor the pain of being on the receiving end of someone's anger will tell us whether we are where we are called to be or doing what we are called to do. Nor can we draw up a job description for prophetic ministry and run our lives according to it -- had Jeremiah done that (or Moses, or Isaiah, or ...), God's people would have been deprived the voice of the prophet God was calling.

But if we can't measure our ministry by others' reactions, if we're not going to take our cues from either the twelve who think we're Mahatma Bono McJesus or the twelve who want to rush us over the cliff edge, by what do we measure ministry?

St. Paul gives us a helpful suggestion in 1 Corinthians 13 -- a passage written to address how we engage in discernment around the exercise of spiritual gifts in community, not as a guide to romance or marriage. Paul tells us that the measure of all things is love.

If I preach eloquent sermons but don't engage in the hard and rewarding work of 1 Corinthians 13-style love, I'm just making noise. If I inspire my community to increasing stretches of centering prayer and bible study but not to engage with one another and with the world in 1 Corinthians 13-style love, I'm a failure. And if my companions on the journey of faith don't lovingly hold me to love's measure, they have failed me too.

Church growth and psychological fads and charismatic leaders will come and go, as will every sort of real, imagined, or manufactured crisis, and though we do catch glimpses of who we are and what we are called to be in Christ, they are imperfect and passing. But now, amidst whatever else is going on, faith, hope, and love abide. May we abide in increasing fulness in love, the greatest of these.

Thanks be to God!

January 27, 2007 in 1 Corinthians, Discernment, Epiphany, Jeremiah, Leadership, Love, Luke, Year C | Permalink | Comments (0)

Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany, Year C

Jeremiah 1:4-10 - link to NRSV text
1 Corinthians 13:1-13 - link to NRSV text
Luke 4:21-30 - link to NRSV text

I want to start this week with a shout-out to the Rev. (congratulations on your ordination!) Gabri Ferrer of All Saints' parish in Beverly Hills, who gave me some of the best advice I've ever received as a leader.

Gabri says that at any given point in time, there are twelve people in the world who hate you, who think that you're what's wrong with the church, with the nation, with the world, and you just might be some kind of incarnation of Satan. So when you meet someone who thinks everything you do is awful, there's no need to panic; just say to yourself, "Oh, s/he must be one of the twelve." And by the time you meet a thirteenth person who has such an unrealistically negative view of you, you can assume that another of the twelve has changed her/his mind about you and now has a less negative view.

Over time, I decided that there's an important corollary to that piece of advice. At any given point in time, there are twelve people who have an unrealistically HIGH view of you -- who think of you as something like Jesus, Gandhi, and Bono all in one wise, all-caring, charismatic package. So when you meet someone who seems to think that about you, there's no need to panic; you can just say to yourself, "Ah -- one of the twelve." And by the time you meet a thirteenth person who seems to feel that way, you can be sure that one of the twelve has changed her/his mind about you, either adopting a more realistic view of your strengths and foibles or -- more likely, in my experience -- becoming one of the twelve who think you're absolute evil.

Any advice for leaders that includes the words, "don't panic" can't be all bad, but I've found the usefulness of this advice to extend far beyond that, especially when exercising leadership in Christian congregations.

Too often, people think of Christianity as a kind of self-improvement program that makes people nicer and more respectable, in particular by encouraging them to follow rules according to a kind of "don't rock the boat if you want smooth sailing" philosophy. And too often, leaders in Christian communities tend to function as if this philosophy were discipleship and institutional smooth sailing were their charge to keep.

But take a look at the extreme reactions that Jesus' ministry provokes in this Sunday's gospel reading. He's just read the selections (and yes, he was very selective in choosing them!) from Isaiah that he's claiming as his mission and the focus of his ministry, and the crowd's immediate response is just the sort of thing ever preacher loves: "All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth." Jesus is, well, bigger than Jesus. Success!

And then look at what's happening just a few lines of text further:

"All in the synagogue were filled with rage. They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff." Disaster!

Or is it? Does the crowd's acclaim mean that Jesus was saying and doing "the right thing"? Does the crowd's rage mean that Jesus had said or done "the wrong thing"?

I don't think so on either count. Jesus' selections from Isaiah and his claim that "today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing" delivered a prophetic and deeply challenging message. If anything, it may have been the case that the crowd's apparent pleasure at his message suggested that they hadn't grasped its implications. But Jesus spells out an important one as he revisits other points in Israel's history when God sent a prophet: prophets of Israel minister to, heal, and empower outsiders -- Gentiles as well as Jews. It would be an understatement to say that this message doesn't go over well with the crowd in Jesus' hometown, but it would be foolishness to suggest that this means Jesus ought not to have delivered it.

What can we say? Jesus' manner of life -- his teaching, his healing, his prophetic ministry -- posed a profound challenge to his community. Nor do I think we ought to take this Sunday's gospel as a lesson that he should have restricted those activities to places where or people to whom they'd prove less upsetting. Perhaps one good lesson would be that it can be dangerous to choose a pulpit too close to a cliff, but even that is a trivial and not particularly helpful insight.

And whatever we say about this Sunday's gospel, please let's not say that it is in any way about the small-mindedness of Jews in Jesus' day or any other. It's antisemitic and obnoxious as well as grossly misleading. There was and, I dare say, is a great deal that can be hard about carrying on a prophetic ministry in one's hometown. In Jesus' culture, honor, like all things of value, was seen as being in limited supply; if one person had more, of necessity they must have taken it from someone else. So if Jesus is winning honor and acclaim in his hometown, people are going to be asking from which of his neighbors he was taking it. We may not live in an honor-shame culture, but similar dynamics happen all the time; we behave in community as though honor, appreciation, gratitude, admiration, and love were limited quantities to be guarded jealously, not renewable resources to be offered freely to strangers as well as neighbors and family members -- as freely and graciously as God gives.

That's one of many reasons it can be hard to stay and be a change agent. In some ways, it's a great deal of fun to be a guest preacher: I show up and people buy me dinner, treat me with respect, say kind things about my blog and my sermon, and as a guest I can say a great deal that's challenging without fear of being rushed off any nearby precipices. But I sure miss exercising and growing into ministry in contexts in which our journeys with one another -- our living with one another with our foibles and failing as well as our strengths and triumphs -- make clear just how little of Jesus' ministry among us is about glamor and dazzle and getting the show on.

That's one reason I find Benedictine practice helpful, though by temperament I'm far more Franciscan. I'm attracted to the grand gesture. I think my favorite hymn stanza is from "When I Survey the Wondrous Cross":

Were the whole realm of nature mine
That were an off'ring far too small
Love so amazing, so divine
Demands my soul, my life, my all.

When I was in college in particular, I had romantic imaginings of being a missionary, living in cultures radically different from my own, radically sharing the poverty of those with whom I journeyed, and in general doing lots of things to which the word "radical" could be attached. A call to long-term overseas missionary work has eluded me to this point, though, and I must say that I've grown a great deal in the challenges of what the Benedictines call "stability."

Stability suggests that we maintain practices of discernment to stay open to a new call, but we minister where we are until such a call is discerned. Sometimes I think there's no discipline harder for a Tigger-like ENFP Franciscan like me. Often I thank God for all I've learned in my inept attempts to exercise and grow in it, though. I've learned that it is in some ways all too easy for many of us to mistake glib showmanship for prophetic ministry unless we are surrounded by people who know one another well and who tell one another the truth, more (or less -- others are allowed flaws too in these communities!) gently and lovingly, to the best of their ability. Neither the embarrassment of undeserved praise nor the pain of being on the receiving end of someone's anger will tell us whether we are where we are called to be or doing what we are called to do. Nor can we draw up a job description for prophetic ministry and run our lives according to it -- had Jeremiah done that (or Moses, or Isaiah, or ...), God's people would have been deprived the voice of the prophet God was calling.

But if we can't measure our ministry by others' reactions, if we're not going to take our cues from either the twelve who think we're Mahatma Bono McJesus or the twelve who want to rush us over the cliff edge, by what do we measure ministry?

St. Paul gives us a helpful suggestion in 1 Corinthians 13 -- a passage written to address how we engage in discernment around the exercise of spiritual gifts in community, not as a guide to romance or marriage. Paul tells us that the measure of all things is love.

If I preach eloquent sermons but don't engage in the hard and rewarding work of 1 Corinthians 13-style love, I'm just making noise. If I inspire my community to increasing stretches of centering prayer and bible study but not to engage with one another and with the world in 1 Corinthians 13-style love, I'm a failure. And if my companions on the journey of faith don't lovingly hold me to love's measure, they have failed me too.

Church growth and psychological fads and charismatic leaders will come and go, as will every sort of real, imagined, or manufactured crisis, and though we do catch glimpses of who we are and what we are called to be in Christ, they are imperfect and passing. But now, amidst whatever else is going on, faith, hope, and love abide. May we abide in increasing fulness in love, the greatest of these.

Thanks be to God!

January 27, 2007 in 1 Corinthians, Discernment, Epiphany, Jeremiah, Leadership, Love, Luke, Year C | Permalink | Comments (4)

Proper 16, Year B

Ephesians 5:21-33 - link to NRSV text
John 6:60-69 - link to NRSV text

Do you have to be a loser to be a Christian? The answer from this week's gospel might be "no, but it helps."

It really does, and it always has. Christianity was successful in its earliest days among women, slaves, and outcasts, and it's not hard to see why from our epistle reading for this Sunday. This passage often gets quoted starting with chapter 5, verse 22: "wives, be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord." Often, this verse even gets set apart from what precedes it by means of a subject heading. For example, my old NIV study bible has "Living as Children of Light" as a subject heading for a section ending at the end of verse 21, and then "Wives and Husbands" as a subject heading for a section starting with verse 22. This is a place where the huge, looming agendas of today's Christians have really messed our English bibles, starting with this:

There is no verb in verse 22. Here's a literal translation of Ephesians 5:22: "wives to your husbands as to the Lord." That's it. The "be subject" isn't in the verse at all, because verse 22 is just the second part of the sentence that starts in verse 21: "Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ," and then we get a sketch of what MUTUAL submission might look like in the context of Christian marriage -- i.e., wives love their husbands as they love Christ, and husbands love their wives as Christ does the church.

The terms used in that example might sound lopsided at first. I think they are, and I think that's intentional: the terms in which husbands are invited to love their wives if anything demand that the husbands are MORE intentional in exercising humility. Ephesians tells husbands that they are to love their wives as Christ loved the church, and since Ephesians is a letter written very intentionally in pauline tradition, it's worth looking at the central description of just what Christ's love for the church looks like in Philippians 2. Christ's love of the church isn't even remotely domineering; indeed, Christ humbled himself and became subject as a slave to all -- even to the point of death on a cross.

All that's to say that Ephesians puts forward MUTUAL submission as the standard for all Christian relationships, including the relationships between sisters and brothers in Christ who happen to be married to one another. So why the lopsided terminology with respect to marriage, in which women are invited to think of their care for their husbands as service to Christ, while husbands are invited to think of themselves behaving as slaves? It reminds me of a quip I've heard about why there are so many commandments in the Torah that apply to men but not to women, and why St. Paul spends so much more ink yelling at misbehaving men:

It's not that God loves them any less; it's just that they require more supervision.

That's a flip way of describing Ephesians 5's relatively brief comment that women are to be subject to their husbands, followed by much more ink devoted to how husbands are to be subject to their wives. First-century women -- and a lot of twenty-first-century women -- know all too well what submission looks like, but more of the men need a remedial instruction in the concept. That's not because men are particularly dim, but many of them have to overcome far more cultural baggage to be able to emulate Christ's humility -- much as many women have to overcome far more cultural baggage than men do before they can emulate Christ's boldness in proclaiming Good News and prophetically challenging those in power.

So there was a lot about the Christian message that was easier for women to see as Good News. Jesus called women, as he did men, to make an individual and very costly decision to follow him. That gave them a measure of responsibility and a burden to carry that was in many sense far greater and heavier than what their society would give them, but it wasn't hard for women to give up claims to patriarchal authority since nobody thought they could make them legitimately anyway.

But as Scott Bartchy (my supervisor, and author of a forthcoming book called Call No Man Father: The Apostle Paul's Vision of a Society of Siblings) likes to say, patriarchy isn't about the rule of all men over all women; it's about the domination of a few men over everyone else, men and women. In other words, there were a lot of men to whom Jesus' call -- the responsibility of the costly decision to follow him, but also the promise expressed in the Beatitudes that the poor, the meek, the peacemakers, and those despised and persecuted would be honored -- came as equally Good News of freedom from patriarchal domination.

We see that throughout the canonical gospels, as a motley band of misfit women and men are formed into prophets and pastors who will change the world. The path on which we follow Jesus is not easy. Jesus' values are not the world's values, and people who place Jesus' values at the center of their decisions about how they want to spend their money, use their power, and treat other people will find that the more closely the follow Jesus, the more friends, relatives, bosses, co-workers, and onlookers who aren't following Jesus will shake their heads and cluck their tongues.

Treat poor people with MORE honor than rich people, even rich people who donate very generously to the church? That's nonsense, by worldly terms -- but it's biblical Christianity, according to the letter of James. Prioritize a stranger in need as you would your own mother or brother, even if that means placing strangers above your own flesh and blood? That's crazy talk according to the world's "family values" -- but it's biblical Christianity, according to Jesus. Looking for ways to exercise charity instead of to win lawsuits over someone trying to exploit you? That's just stupid according to the world -- but it's biblical Christianity, according to Paul. Respond with aid instead of violence when you and your family or nation is attacked? That's insanity in the world's reckoning, but that's the witness of the New Testament from Matthew to Revelation, the witness of Christ crucified and then raised and exalted by God.

That's a hard message to preach -- no easier now than it was in Jesus' or Paul's day. It's a hard message for many to receive. Who, then, can accept it?

People like Peter. Jesus knew that what he had to say was nonsense at best and destructive subversion of everything godly or good at worst in the world's eyes. He heard even his closest friends and followers muttering, "This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?" And when he said, "do you also wish to go away?" Peter said, "Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life."

I hear two things in Peter's response that have come to be central in how I preach Jesus' hard words. First, Peter knew the cost of his old way of life. I love the way Luke portrays the calling of the first disciples, when Peter decides to follow Jesus. Peter set out that day as a fisher with one question on his mind: Will I catch enough fish today to feed my family? There was rent to pay for the boat, the cost of materials for the nets, taxes imposed by occupying armies and local officials, and it required luck as well as backbreaking labor to have anything left to eat after the rich and powerful had all taken their share. Peter wasn't a recreational angler; he was a poor man trying to get enough to get by, and that can be a very anxious existence. So every day, the question on his mind was "will I catch enough fish today to survive?" More than once, he might have muttered to himself, "this is no way to live!" -- but what choice did he have?

Jesus offered him a choice. It was a hard choice, but Peter was willing to consider it because he knew the cost of NOT following Jesus, of staying where he was and doing what he did, of staying within the network of relationships and obligations he knew.

But that's not all. Choosing to follow Jesus wasn't just about choosing the unknown over "the devil you know." Luke says that on that fateful day by the lake of Gennesaret, the miraculous catch of fish Peter drew was so large that it threatened to swamp the boats. In other words, in one moment the big question on Peter's mind changed from "will I catch enough fish today to survive?" to "can I gather enough people to take in all of this abundance?" That's what made Peter a fisher of people: in Christ, he came to believe that the world in which he grew up -- the world in which we need to be anxious about all of the causes for worry the world gives us -- is passing away, and he had a chance NOW to experience the abundant life of the world to come.

In short, Peter not only knew the cost of staying in his old life, but also had caught a glimpse of the possibilities, however costly they come, of Jesus' new life. So Peter said, "Lord, where else would we go?" -- since the possibilities the world presents have their own cost, and it's far steeper for a far less fulfilling reward -- and "you have the words of eternal life" -- since he saw that the longings for abundant and eternal life instilled in him by God as a human being made in God's image would find their truest fulfillment in Jesus' way, the way of the cross.

People say that every preacher really has just one sermon that gets preached in a slightly different way each time s/he steps in the pulpit. I think I've got about three or four, but this is the sermon I preach on Jesus' hard words. You can see an example here, in a sermon on the Beatitudes I did for a wealthy congregation I knew well. I ask these central questions:

  • What is the cost, the difficulty of the point with which God is challenging us? We can't really move forward in discipleship if we're not intentionally walking the path of the cross; if we decide we want to follow Jesus because it's the respectable or easy thing to do, we'll drop everything but the name the second the path proves counter-cultural or difficult.
  • What is the cost of staying where we are, of swallowing worldly values of achievement and power-over, of getting as much as we can to call our own and then guarding it jealously?
  • How will be more able to take in Jesus' abundant and eternal life if we do choose to follow Jesus, however much that challenges and stretches us? What is that life in Christ like?

The bottom line, I think, is that like Peter, we follow Jesus as Lord because we've seen the toll that following worldly authorities takes, and because we've glimpsed the joy, peace, and freedom that following Jesus can bring. There is much that is challenging and costly moving forward on that road, but it is what we were created to do, and it is the way to full, eternal, and abundant life.

Thanks be to God!

August 24, 2006 in 1 Corinthians, Discernment, Ephesians, Jesus' Hard Sayings, John, Justice, Kinship/Family, Luke, Mark, Ordinary Time, The Cross, Women, Year B | Permalink | Comments (2)

Proper 15, Year A

Isaiah 56:1-7 - link to NRSV text
Psalm 67 - link to BCP text
Romans 11:13-15,29-32 - link to NRSV text
Matthew 15:21-28 - link to NRSV text

In my experience, three forces running counter to discernment tend to pop up a lot -- especially where theology and politics (by which I mean power systems, not just party politics or civics) intersect (and isn't all theology really about politics too, if you think that God is the source of all legitimate power and authority?).

The first force is the conviction that you're already fully aware of what God wants. Give in to that, and you won't even start a process of discernment -- why bother, if you already have full access to everything God has to say on the subject?

The second force is the conviction that there's a person or group you don't need to listen to, as s/he or they couldn't possibly have anything valuable to contribute. Just think about what that would have done for the early church if, say, Ananias had decided that Jesus would never appear to someone who was an avowed, practicing, and notorious persecutor of the church, let alone call such a man as apostle to the Gentiles.

The third force is the conviction that if you knew what God was up to before, no further discernment is necessary. I think this last one just might be the most insidious for Christian leaders. After all, Jesus is Alpha and Omega, incarnation of the god who is the same yesterday, today, and forever -- right? And furthermore, changing course implies that the first course was a mistake. God doesn't make mistakes, and if you want to be seen as a trustworthy Christian leader, you won't let anyone think that you've made a mistake either.

These temptations are particularly strong for leaders who, in their heart of hearts, feel both that authority is about knowing a great deal more than others in the community and that they don't really know enough to justify being in a position of leadership. Parents and priests are prone to it; while neither giving birth nor being ordained confers miraculous infusions of knowledge or maturity, congregations and families often have vastly inflated expectations for what three years of seminary or three decades of living will do for you, and we're often afraid that any course corrections will cause us to lose face, and will confirm what they probably already expect: we're not Jesus.

But how well does that picture we have of the ideal, unwavering Christian leader, the one who doesn't need to grow because s/he's already a spiritual giant, the one who treats engaging with other points of view as a sign of undesirable weakness, match the canonical picture of Jesus? Not well, if this Sunday's gospel is any indication.

In it, Jesus is confronted by a woman who calls out to him demanding his help. It's not at all surprising that Jesus doesn't answer her. I've blogged many a time about Jesus' culture being an honor/shame culture. In such a culture, answering someone who confronted you like that would register for all onlookers -- and for anyone who heard the gossip from the onlookers, which would spread like wildfire especially if anything unconventional happened -- as an admission from the person who responded that the challenger was at least an equal. Once Jesus responds to the woman, that's what everyone watching things thinks -- that Jesus is no better than she is.

Unless, that is, she's appealing to him in the proper way, as a subject to a king. Her address to him as "Son of David," and by extension king of Israel, might suggest that -- if, that is, she were an Israelite. Perhaps -- and I'm speculating wildly here -- that was on her mind when she cried out, and she'd hoped to pass as such -- anything to bring mercy to her daughter. But Jesus' reply to her makes clear that even if he's king, she's not his subject. In other words, Jesus took away his one face-saving excuse for what's about to happen.

What's about to happen is that Jesus is going to give in to her. She challenged him, and by answering, Jesus made her his equal in the eyes of the crowd. But then, after acknowledging that she is not an Israelite, Jesus engages her in more argument ...

... and Jesus gives in. He loses the argument. He changes course at a woman's word, and commends her for challenging him. I've heard people say that Jesus didn't really mean what he said in this story, that he knew precisely what he was doing, and he was testing the woman's faith to see whether she was worthy of the miraculous healing she requested for her daughter. And I don't buy it, for the simple reason that this isn't how the crowd who witnessed the historical evidence would have interpreted it and more than Matthew's readers would have, and I don't believe that Jesus would play mind games with a woman desperately seeking a cure for her daughter to score a point so obscure that nobody in his culture could have gotten it.

I think we're on more solid ground in thinking that what was going on was this:

Jesus was changed in that encounter. He chose to listen to someone whom others would have ignored, and he chose to act in compassion in a situation in which no one would have faulted him for moving on. His choosing to listen and to heal, to change his mind when doing so would cost him honor in the sight of others, demonstrated for us how a true leader discerns mission.

The kind of discernment we're called to exercise is not about certainty -- especially not when certainty threatens to trump compassion. As Rabbi Sheila Peltz said of her visit to Auschwitz, "As I stood before the gates I realized that I never want to be as certain about anything as were the people who built this place."

Discernment isn't about knowing who not to listen to either. Conventional wisdom would hold that someone who took counsel from a strange woman, a Canaanite woman, a woman who shouted out in the marketplace when she should have been home caring for her daughter, was not a good person from whom to take advice. And yet, Jesus, who compares himself to Wisdom herself in Matthew 11:18-19, is still open to hearing wisdom from the Canaanite woman.

And once we've discerned a genuine call, that doesn't mean it's what we're called to do at all times and under all circumstances, let alone that it's a call for all humanity. As I've blogged about before, I don't think that Jesus was blowing smoke when he talked in Matthew's gospel about a call to go to the House of Israel, even when there's persecution coming from Israelites. I don't think he was blowing smoke or playing mind games in this passage when he says that he was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel either. But I think that Jesus had a deeper sense of call, a deeper sense of what it would mean for him to be faithful, and that it included entering into relationship -- real relationship -- with others. That's what love means. And real relationship, loving relationship, changes everyone involved. Christian leaders are called to "keep the main thing the main thing," as they say, and the main thing in Christian community is that quality of relationship.

Thank God for that! Thank God that, as our scriptures testify, God is Love, and God is changed in loving relationship. God saw that humankind was inclined toward evil, and resolved to blot out evil people from the earth (Genesis 6:5-7). After the great flood, God sees the inclination of the human heart toward evil (Genesis 8:21), but God resolves nevertheless to hang up God's bow, God's weapon, forever (Genesis 9:12-17) -- never again to try to destroy evil by destroying evildoers. Jesus sent his disciples to the House of Israel, where he said he was called to gather lost sheep -- and then a pushy Canaanite woman unveils something more -- something that leads the risen Jesus to commission an apostle to the Gentiles. Just when we thought we'd seen the limits of God's love, that love grows.

Thus says the Lord: "Maintain justice, and do what is right, for soon my salvation will come, and my deliverance be revealed." Happy is the mortal who does this, the one who holds it fast, who keeps the sabbath, not profaning it, and refrains from doing any evil. Do not let the foreigner joined to the Lord say, "The Lord will surely separate me from his people"; and do not let the eunuch say, "I am just a dry tree." For thus says the Lord: To the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths, who choose the things that please me and hold fast my covenant, I will give, in my house and within my walls, a monument and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off. And the foreigners who join themselves to the Lord, to minister to him, to love the name of the Lord, and to be his servants, all who keep the sabbath, and do not profane it, and hold fast my covenant -- these I will bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer; their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.
-- Isaiah 56:1-7

Let your ways, oh God, be known upon earth, and your saving health among ALL nations. Let ALL the peoples, upon whom you have poured out your mercy and your blessing, praise you, and honor you by extending that mercy to all.

Thanks be to God!

August 10, 2005 in Discernment, Genesis, Honor/Shame, Inclusion, Isaiah, Leadership, Matthew, Ordinary Time, Women, Year A | Permalink | Comments (12) | TrackBack

First Sunday in Lent, Year A

By the way, if this blog entry had a title, it would be "Scripture and Discernment between the Now and the Not Yet." If you're interested in having a small group book study or a class for a congregation on the subject, I highly recommend Luke Timothy Johnson's Scripture & Discernment: Decision Making in the Church as a way in to the topic.

Matthew 4:1-11 - link to NRSV text

"For it is written ..." the devil says in today's gospel. This passage, along with its parallel in Luke, is what prompted Shakespeare to point out that "the devil can cite scripture for his purpose" (The Merchant of Venice, Act I, scene iii), and seeing scripture used as a means of temptation here speaks strongly against the ways we are sometimes tempted to use scripture as we engage in discernment.

One of those ways is what I call the "Magic 8-Ball" method. It's quite a popular method -- so much so that I actually keep a Magic 8 Ball in my office to illustrate what I mean when I talk about the method (which I do pretty frequently). The 8-Ball resides in its original box, which says, "The Magic 8-Ball Has All the Answers! ... Ask a question ... Turn over for the answer!" In the 8-Ball method of interpreting scripture,  we come to the bible with a question. We then pick up the bible and open it to some fairly random portion of it as we might shake the Magic 8-Ball, reading whatever biblical passage comes up as being somehow related to the question about which we're in discernment. Or, as we see in this Sunday's gospel, it can be tempting to selectively cull words, phrases, and sentences from what we know of scripture -- often from entirely different documents, written at different times and in different contexts -- and to read the resulting combination as a kind of secret message to us.

Neither of these methods of using scripture in discernment is particularly helpful; they tell us more about our own psychology and interpretive prejudices in a given moment than they do about God's will. I believe 2 Timothy's statement that "all scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work" (2 Timothy 3:16-17). It's worth noting for us 21st-century readers that when this passage of 2 Timothy says "scripture," it refers to the Hebrew bible, what we call the Old Testament, and doesn't include the New Testament, which didn't exist as a compilation at that point -- but the statement still holds true. All scripture is inspired, and is useful for instruction. But scripture's inspiration and usefulness does not make it a magic book, an oracle that has the answer to any question we might want to ask and will yield wisdom without work to interpret it. It's not even a matter of saying that anything a passage of scripture says on a topic will be helpful in a given situation if the passage is interpreted "correctly." Even true statements that would be very helpful in one context could be destructive to the health of the Body of Christ if applied elsewhere without sustained and prayerful attention to the new context and how well a particular insight gleaned from scripture applies in it. Just think for a moment what the consequences might have been if, hypothetically, St. Paul's messengers had gotten confused and mixed up the letters intended for the Galatians and Corinthians. If each of these Christian communities had received the other's letter and assumed that the instructions were written to and for them, then these quite different communities might actually have been led astray by Paul's advice, corrections, and encouragements that were intended for people facing very different challenges in their Christian walk.

That's a little like what's happening with these devilish quotations of scripture in this Sunday's gospel. On the face of it, the devil in the desert is telling Jesus the truth. The devil tells Jesus that as God's Son, he can find bread in the desert. That was true in the past: God miraculously provided bread in the desert for the children of Israel after their exodus from Egypt. It's going to be true in the future: in stories to come, Jesus will, through God's power, provide a miraculous abundance of food for five thousand and seven thousand people.

The devil also says that the kingdoms of the earth would bow before Jesus. That's true. Jesus does indeed bear the name before which "every knee should bend, and every tongue confess" his lordship (Philippians 2:11) -- and we believe they will. We pray for the full realization of that truth every time we say, "thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven."

The devil says that God will care for those God loves, and particular for Jesus, God's beloved Son. That's true. God's care for each one of God's children is trustworthy, and Jesus is God's beloved Son. Every point that the devil makes is, in a sense, "biblical." Every point the devil makes is, in a sense, "true."

But though the devil's words are true, they're not the whole truth. Though the devil's words are from scripture, God's word, they are not God's word to Jesus at that moment in his vocation. While all of the devil's points are, in a sense, "true," or are at least based on partial truth, they are not helpful here.

So I thank God that Jesus is not the "God said it. I believe it. That settles it!" type. I thank God that Jesus does not believe that every word of scripture is equally applicable to his circumstances. Jesus will not accept just any word from scripture as God's word to him at that moment. For Jesus, it's not just about God's truth; it's also about God's time, God's call, and most of all about God's love.

Although God will, through Jesus, bring vast crowds together for an abundant feast, this moment is not God's time for Jesus to use God's power to provide. Although we believe that the end of history is in a vast and abundant messianic banquet, this is not the time and these are not the circumstances for the feast.

Although God will reveal the full extent of Jesus' authority, although Jesus' glory will be fully shown, this is not the time and these are not the circumstances for that revelation.

Although Jesus will be lifted up, and although God will in Jesus fulfill the promise made to David that "you will not abandon my soul to Hades, or let your Holy One experience corruption" (Psalm 16:8-11), now is not the time -- or in the words of the passage in Luke that parallels this Sunday's gospel, now is not the "opportune time."

And so here, on this first Sunday of Lent, God's word to us is one of the hardest words for us to hear: "WAIT." But there is no better word for us to start a holy Lent. WAIT. We are called to wait, and watch, and listen deeply, so that we can enter as fully as we can into the story before us in these forty days, and in the dramatic week coming after that.

We know the story is headed toward the Cross, though the Cross is literally veiled from our sight just now. It's headed toward the full revelation of Jesus' call, and the fullest revelation of God's love. But that can't happen here in the desert, where there is no one to forgive. It can't happen now, before Jesus' life -- his teaching and healing and freeing people from the powers that bound them -- has testified to the meaning of his death.

Jesus is Lord, beloved of God, but the kind of authority Jesus exercises, the character of the God who calls Jesus God's Son, and the means through which the world will be gathered for the messianic feast are revealed most fully through Jesus' self-giving love and forgiveness. Having resisted the temptation to use God's power and God's gifts to further his own privilege, Jesus is prepared to proclaim with his whole life the kind of self-giving love, radical openness, and unconditional forgiveness that is the character of the God of Israel.

But wait. Let's enter in to the tension of Lent, the tension between the now and the not yet which we still live. There are still temptations to quote scripture to consolidate power, to read the bible for indications that we deserve the privilege we have and are justified in keeping others down to further it. But Jesus showed us a different way. Come in from the desert, and be nourished by the Body of Christ. Join with sisters and brothers to wrestle together with what we find in scripture, and to help one another listen for the voice of the Spirit, who leads us into the truth of God's call to us here and now. Be suspicious of any voice that suggests that God's power should be used to further our own privilege, but trust Jesus' self-giving love, which is good news to the poor, release to the captives, sight to the blind, and freedom for the oppressed (Luke 4:18-19). Trust the call to extend that love to others.

Thanks be to God!

February 7, 2005 in Discernment, Lent, Matthew, Year A | Permalink | Comments (2)

First Sunday in Lent, Year C

Luke 4:1-13 - link to NRSV text

This passage, along with its parallel in Matthew, is what prompted Shakespeare to point out that “the devil can cite scripture for his purpose” (The Merchant of Venice, Act I, scene iii), and seeing scripture used as a means of temptation here speaks strongly against some ways we are sometimes tempted to use scripture as we engage in discernment.

One of those ways is what I call the “Magic 8-Ball” method, in which we pick up a Bible, choose some fairly random portion of it as we might shake the Magic 8-Ball, and then try to read whatever comes up as being somehow related to the question about which we're in discernment. Another is what I call the “Beautiful Mind” method, in which we selectively cull words, phrases, and sentences from what we know of scripture -- often from entirely different documents -- to read the combination of things that stand out as a kind of secret message to us.

Neither of these methods of using scripture in discernment is particularly helpful; they tell us more about our own psychology and interpretive prejudices in a given moment than they do about God's will.  I believe 2 Timothy's statement that “all scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16-17 -- although it's also worth noting for us 21st-century readers that when this passage says “scripture,” that doesn't include the New Testament, which didn't exist as a compilation at that point).  But scripture's inspiration and usefulness does not make it a magic book, an infallible oracle that has the answer to any question we might want to ask and will yield wisdom without work to interpret it.  It's not even a matter of saying that anything a passage of scripture says on a topic will be helpful in a given situation if the passage is interpreted “correctly.”  Even true statements that would be very helpful in one context could be destructive to the health of the Body of Christ if applied elsewhere without sustained and prayerful attention to the new context and how well a particular insight gleaned from scripture applies in it.  Just think for a moment what the consequences might have been if, hypothetically, St. Paul's messengers had gotten confused and taken his letter to the Galatians to Corinth, and the Corinthian Christians had received Paul's instruction as something written to and for them -- or, for that matter, if the Galatians had received Paul's letters to the Corinthians and received it as if it had been written to and for them.

That's one reason the Alpha Course, for all the positive experiences people and congregations have had with it, grates on me; Alpha counsels us to read scripture, no matter which scriptural document we're looking at, as a “love letter” written by God to us today.  It's just not that easy.  The devil can quote scripture for his purpose, and I have a hunch that each one of us has seen examples of scriptural interpretation in our communities that were about as helpful to the community as the devil's scripture-quoting is in Luke 4.

In a single blog entry, I can't deal anywhere fully with the subject of how scripture can be used helpfully in discernment; for much of what I'd want to say on the topic, I'll have to substitute a recommendation of Luke Timothy Johnson's excellent and readable book, Scripture and Discernment.

What I can and would like to do here is to offer a few observations about the nature of devilish uses of scripture and how Jesus' vocation draws him in a different direction; I hope these will spark some fruitful further thought about how we might avoid being misled as we seek insights from scripture to help us discern God's call.

On the face of it, there's nothing wrong with what the devil is telling Jesus in the desert:  The power of God to which Jesus has access can provide food for the hungry, and it will.  Jesus does indeed bear the name before which “every knee should bend, and every tongue confess” his lordship (Philippians 2:11) -- and they will.  God's care for each one of God's children is trustworthy.  Every point that the devil makes is, in a sense, “biblical.”  Every point the devil makes is, in a sense, “true.”

Thank God that Jesus is not the “God said it. I believe it. That settles it!” type!  Thank God that Jesus does not believe that every word of scripture is equally applicable to his circumstances!  Because while all of the devil's points are, in a sense, “true,” they are not helpful here.  Although God will, through Jesus, bring vast crowds (over 5,000, in one famous story) together for an abundant feast, and we believe that the end of history is in a vast and abundant messianic banquet, now is not the time and these are not the circumstances for Jesus to use God's power to provide.  Similarly, now is not the time and these are not the circumstances for the full extent of Jesus' authority and status before God to be revealed.

Jesus is Lord, beloved of God, but the kind of authority Jesus exercises, the character of the God who calls Jesus God's Son, and the means through which the world will be gathered for the messianic feast is revealed most fully through Jesus' self-giving love and forgiveness.  Having resisted the temptation to use God's power and God's gifts to further his own privilege, Jesus is prepared to proclaim with his whole life the kind of self-giving love, radical openness, and unconditional forgiveness that is the character of the God of Israel. 

Pick up a newspaper any day this week, and it will probably be clear that there are still opportunities to make a killing from Jesus' death, to quote scripture to consolidate power, to read the Bible for indications that we deserve the privilege we have and are justified in keeping others down to further it.  But Jesus showed us a different way.  Come in from the desert, and be nourished by the Body of Christ.  Join with sisters and brothers to wrestle together with what we find in scripture, and to help one another listen for the voice of the Spirit, who leads us into the truth of God's call to us here and now.  Be suspicious of any voice that suggests that God's power should be used to further our own privilege, but trust Jesus' self-giving love, which is good news to the poor, release to the captives, sight to the blind, and freedom for the oppressed (Luke 4:18-19).  Trust the call to extend that love to others.

Thanks be to God!

February 24, 2004 in Discernment, Lent, Luke, Scripture, Transfiguration, Year C | Permalink | Comments (0)