Proper 15, Year C
Isaiah 5:1-7 OR
Hebrews 11:29 - 12:2
Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; they will be divided
father against son
and son against father
mother against daughter
and daughter against mother.
mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law
and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.
This is one of those Sundays when parishioners are likely to hear either a sermon on the collect or a sermon of the genre to which I refer as "why Jesus didn't actually mean this," perhaps from the sub-genre of "exegesis according to fictitious quirks of ancient languages." Let's give this approach an acronym for convenience's sake: EAFQuAL.
An EAFQuaL approach to this Sunday's gospel would go something like this: "Yes, these words from Jesus sound really harsh to our ears -- not at all what you'd expect from someone whose message is in practically every way consonant with upper-middle-class respectability and good ol' 'family values.' But if you knew the original language of the gospels/that Jesus spoke -- as I do, having been to seminary and all [most preachers neglect to mention that they only took the language in question for a semester or two, if at all, and that they're depending on a dim recollection of someone or another saying something like they're about to say] -- you'd know that the word translated as 'hate' here really means something more like 'to love just slightly less than you love God, but still definitely to respect deeply, telephone frequently, and send flowers at least annually."
Some preachers taking an EAFQuAL approach to a difficult passage of the gospels will use Greek as their ancient language of recourse -- a sensible choice, since that's the language in which ALL of our earliest manuscripts of the canonical gospels are written. Some will go for Hebrew or even Aramaic instead, on the grounds that Jesus was originally speaking one or the other. This is a more creative and gutsy option in some ways, and even more likely to be a bluff: since all of our earliest texts of the canonical gospels are in Greek, any hypothesized Hebrew or Aramaic "original version" is likely to be either someone's guess based entirely on the Greek but assuming (without any particular reason aside from finding the text as it is difficult) that whoever translated the 'original version' into Greek was doing a very, very bad job of it, or someone's citing a MUCH later text that's also much further from the best-attested streams of the manuscript tradition. On the whole, this kind of EAFQuaL is like a game you can play in which you go to an 'automatic translator' web page such as Babelfish, enter the first few lines of the Gettysburg Address in English, have the site translate it a few times into other languages, and then have Babelfish translate that repeatedly mangled text back into English. The results are sometimes hilarious, but they hardly reflect a more reliable 'original text' of the Gettysburg Address than a decent history textbook will give.
As you can gather, I'm not a fan of EAFQuAL, and one of the many reasons I'm grateful to have had opportunity to study Greek and Hebrew is that it helped me realize something that grates on an awful lot of Christians' sensibilities, particularly among the privileged and the prosperous:
Some of Jesus' sayings -- and some behaviors called for in Christian discipleship, in following Jesus -- really ARE difficult. Jesus was not a twenty-first-century, university-educated, landowning husband and father; small wonder, then, that he frequently doesn't talk or act like a twenty-first century, university-educated, landowning husband and father. It goes further than that, though -- I'm NOT saying that one just has to "translate" what was customary among first-century peasants in Palestine to what's customary for us, and that the result will be that Jesus' way of life won't ever prove particularly challenging.
I can't say that because it's not true. Jesus wasn't a very "good" son to Mary his mother, and wasn't even a "good man" in the reckoning of respectable people around him. A "good son" would have stayed home and worked at the family's trade to care for his mother until her death; he wouldn't have gone off galavanting around the countryside. A "good man" would defend the family name and honor if challenged or attacked; he wouldn't be talking about loving enemies, and he wouldn't be disclaiming his family name by saying "those who hear the word of God and do it are my mother and my sister and my brothers" (Mark 3:35 -- and this is how he responds when someone tries to compliment his mother, and him by extension!). And as if all of the above isn't bad enough in conventional terms, Jesus actually encourages other people to leave their homes and families, to allow their family name and honor to be dismantled by others rather than upheld by retaliation, to follow him and to follow his example.
Much as character in C.S. Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia say that Aslan, the Christ-figure in the series, is "not a tame lion," Jesus is NOT a "good guy" by conventional reckoning. Following Jesus won't make you a "good guy" or "good girl" by most conventional reckonings either. And thus we read a lot in the gospels about forgiving and praying for persecutors -- something you don't need to do if everyone thinks you're a "great guy" or "great gal" and therefore has no desire to oppose your manner of life. How it came to be that so many people would think of Christianity as a ticket to respectability and an affirmation of the "core values" of a society with an vast and growing gap between rich and poor, insiders and outsiders, powerful and marginal, is one of history's most astonishing tricks to me; as with watching an illusionist making the Statue of Liberty 'disappear,' I've got to gasp and say, "I'm watching it, but I don't believe it. This is not the way the universe works, and no matter how much it seems that way, I can't believe it."
All of this may seem like a lengthy digression, and perhaps it is, but I hope at least that it's a useful one to undergo before directly tackling this Sunday's gospel, about which my advice to preachers is:
- Don't try to explain away, apologize for, or do some fancy rhetorical footwork to distract people from just how counter-cultural and difficult this text is. Don't engage in EAFQuAL. Don't say something that boils down to "Jesus didn't really mean this" (or its homiletical cousin, "Jesus didn't really say this, so we can safely ignore it and claim to be better Christians for it" -- a rhetorical strategy that ignores the important but inconvenient point that all historically plausible reconstructions of what Jesus did or didn't say or do depend in the end on the very gospels we're dismissing as less reliable than a historian's paperback). A preacher's job is not to distract the congregation from a biblical text long or skillfully enough for everyone to get away without asking hard questions, and it's not necessarily to make people feel better about their choices (though sometimes a good sermon may have that effect for some or many). If I had to sum up the preacher's job in a sentence, it's to model engagement with biblical texts and current questions in a way that better informs people what discipleship might involve and inspire people to take another step or set of steps to follow Jesus. In my experience, sermons that boil down to "my gut says that Jesus didn't say or mean this; discipleship is pretty much doing what any sensible and decent person would, and not worrying too much about the rest" just don't accomplish much worth doing.
- Do point toward and stay with what's difficult about the texts and about following Jesus long enough for people to really feel it. Remember the maxim -- it often works for teachers, psychotherapists, and preachers alike, I've found -- that "the work starts where the resistance starts." Pointing out how the biblical texts can be difficult to interpret and how discipleship involves facing very real and great challenges both functions as a "reality test" affirming the sanity of observations that intelligent and sensitive people know to be true, such as "there's a lot of beauty, joy, and love in this world, but I have to say that the world doesn't seem to be working as it should." Pausing regularly on Sunday mornings (ideally also in frequent study of scripture and times of prayer during the week, but at the very least starting with the Sunday sermon) to feel how challenging discipleship can be in many situations is a pastoral act that can build some emotional and spiritual muscles that will be very useful when (and it's 'when,' not 'if') the congregation encounters real, undeniable, and painful challenges.
- And though your work isn't done with most texts until you've taken in what can be challenging about them, it also isn't done until you've done your level best to address the question of where the Good News of God's healing and redeeming the world comes in. Personally -- and contrary to what sources such as Left Behind might suggest -- I find eschatology (literally, 'study of the end') to be a great boon in this task. As those who have taken the Connect course (which, by the way, is distributed in an 'open source' manner over the Internet, and is therefore FREE to congregations who want to use it, much as we appreciate contributions of money and effort to improve it) have heard and thought about, our stories -- our pains and joys, our mistakes and what we've learned from them, our dreams and disappointments -- often look different when we see, tell, and listen to them in the context of the larger story of God's making a good world that God loves and is working constantly to heal of the wounds and free it the enslavement that results from our damaging choices in life and relationships. I find that most passages in the lectionary have something to say about how God has redeemed, is redeeming, and will eventually complete the redemption of God's children. When I'm looking for Good News to proclaim, the first questions I ask myself are usually along the lines of how the biblical texts I'm working with fit that pattern. You can see how it would be impossible to see how this step requires a good job with the previous one: you can't see redemption and healing if you don't acknowledge slavery and wounds. I hope that anyone who's heard me preach more than a couple of times would recognize in my work another way I might summarize the preacher's aim: tell a chapter from the story of God's healing the wounded world God loves, and don't stop until you've foreshadowed the end -- the telos for which Creation was intended -- in terms vivd enough to dream.
So that's the pattern I've found most often useful when preaching on particularly difficult texts. How would that pattern look with this Sunday's texts?
In this Sunday's gospel, Jesus tells his friends that following him will cause conflict and division -- even division between families. That's a descriptive statement, and shocking as it is, it's not hard to see the truth of it if you're familiar with what Jesus says and does in the gospels. Imagine for a moment the scene when Peter goes back to his mother-in-law and says, "Hey, mom ... I've got some important news. I'm not going fishing tomorrow morning. I don't know if I'll ever step in a boat or lift a net again. I'm glad that you were healed of that fever, and I hope you don't catch one again, because I have to tell you that I probably won't be around to take care of you or to bury you when you die. See, that man who healed you asked me to follow him as he travels around teaching and healing, and I'm going to do it. I really think that God's kingdom is breaking through in this guy's work, and that's just too important for me to stay here, even to take care of you."
How would you feel if it were your son who said that to you? There's no social security to fall back on if you're Peter's mother-in-law; Peter is the closest thing you've got to that, and he's leaving. I have some idea of what I'd probably feel if I were Peter's mother-in-law: Betrayed. Abandoned. Despised. Shamed. Perhaps even hopeless. I have some idea of the kinds of things I'd say if I were in her shoes too, and a lot of the language I'd be using wouldn't appear in any children's bible. When I found out that Peter AND Andrew were both going, my language would reflect even more anger, grief, fear, and straight-up, no-chaser, and very bitter pain. I think the same would be true of my language if Peter and Andrew had other brothers and I were one of them. I'd want to ask Peter and Andrew how they could do this to all of us, how they think we'll survive without their help with the fishing, and whose prophet would ask a man to walk out on his family. I'd ask Peter and Andrew if this is how they were going to follow God's command in holy writ to honor parents and care for widows (as Peter's mother-in-law most likely was, in my estimation).
Peter's family isn't the only one that would be asking pointed questions or even shouting curses after departing disciples in the wake of Jesus' ministry. It's not at all hard, upon a few close readings of the gospels, to come up with a lot of other people who would be feeling just as hurt, just as angry, and who might attack disciples, even or especially their kin who were following Jesus, with words or more than words. Peace? It's not hard to see how what Jesus brings to such families might be described as well or much better by saying that Jesus brings division and drawn sword. There is a world of hurt behind Jesus' words in this Sunday's gospel.
And yet that's not all that can or should be said about this Sunday's gospel. It's true that Jesus' ministry did and still does dislocate those who follow him from the ways of life and from the relationships they were in. It's true that being extricated from those patterns and those relationships can be painful to all concerned.
It's also true that sometimes, if not often, the only way to find freedom to live in new ways and to form new and healthier relationships is to be extricated or dislocated from the old ones. It's true that Jesus challenges fathers and mothers, and sisters and daughters, husbands and wives to allow Jesus' call to pull them out of those relationships, at least or especially as those relationships are defined by our less-than-healthy world. It's true that Jesus' call in a sense denies those relationships altogether: our mother and our sister and our brothers are NOT those who offer or share a womb or a bloodline, but those who hear the word of God and do it.
That is a circle that can, depending on the choices we make, exclude those who by blood or law are our kin. But that's not the only possible outcome of Jesus' call. It's not the only possible outcome because Peter and Andrew aren't the only ones who have choices. You and I aren't the only ones who have choices. And Peter and Andrew and you and I aren't the only ones whom God calls.
Here's another possible outcome: Peter and Andrew tell Jesus that no prophet of the God of Israel would ask people to ignore the Ten Commandments, and they tell Jesus that on that basis they know precisely what sort of a man Jesus is, and there is no way they'd follow him. They go home and tell their families about what kind of dangerous nutcase the wandering healer turned out to be, and how glad they are that they figured it out. The next morning, they go fishing.
That's not a story that inspires me as a follower of Jesus. Thank God it's not the only other possibility either. Here's another one:
Peter and Andrew tell their families more about Jesus, what he's saying, what he's doing, and what they think that means about what God is accomplishing right now for the world. They talk about the community of people following Jesus and how they care for one another, how their life together is a sign to all of how relationships could be in the world and what might come of it if we believed the kingdom of God was breaking through this world and therefore we could live as though God were king here and now. Peter's mother-in-law, his sisters and all his brothers, and the rest of the family face and go through the break that Jesus talks about in our former relationships. It's only natural for them to grieve sometimes at the passing of old ways of being and to chafe at or stumble in the new relationships that are forming, but they have a new joy, a new peace, a new freedom from anxiety in the living reality that if they have lost a mother-in-law, a son-in-law, a daughter, or a father, they have gained more sisters and brothers than they ever imagined they could have, and had joined a people who would come to fulfill the promise to Abraham of numbering more than the stars of the clear desert sky -- more to care for them and be supported by them, more to love and be loved by than any earthly family could offer. They follow Jesus together, sisters and brothers in Christ.
That's a story that inspires me. It makes me think that perhaps the wounds we suffer following Jesus can, in the context of God's redeeming work, be like the break of a badly healed bone that allows it to become whole again.
Breaking and being made whole. It's core to the story of God's people. We see it in Jeremiah's description of the faithful prophet of God, whose word may be a hammer that breaks but whose witness calls God's people to wholeness. We see it in Isaiah's vision of God's people as a vineyard made desolate by unrighteousness, in failing to recognize God's image in humanity by caring for the poor and in worshipping as gods images of our own wealth and skill. We may not see it by conventional reckonings, with worldly eyes, but we see it through faith, which reminds us of God's faithfulness in the past and of God's redeeming work, ongoing in the present and to be completed in God's time.
It's a story to read and tell over and over until we and our children and parents, sisters and brothers and friends know it by heart, a story that will strengthen us when we're grieving and feel weak, and that will guide us when we're feeling strong. It's a story of pain and tears and brokenness, but it's a story of love, joy, and hope that ends in wholeness, in the world coming to know just how high and broad and deep God's love and blessings for Creation are.
Thanks be to God!
August 14, 2007 in Apocalyptic, Community, Eschatology, Hebrews, Honor/Shame, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Jesus' Hard Sayings, Kinship/Family, Luke, ONE campaign/Millennium Development Goals, Ordinary Time, Pastoral Concerns, Reconciliation, Righteousness, Scripture, Year C | Permalink | Comments (6)
Great Vigil of Easter and Easter Day principal service, Year C
There's a Franciscan fourfold blessing that I have long loved, the fourth blessing of which is this:
May God bless you with enough foolishness to believe that you really can make a difference in this world, so that you are able, with God's grace, to do what others claim cannot be done.
I think often of that blessing when I'm preaching, especially on texts like the Beatitudes and other difficult passages in the "Sermon on the Mount." Who really lives that way? Who honors the poor more than the rich? Who honors those who are reviled in society above the respectable people who judge them? Which of our parishes or other communities have shared our resources one another freely so that no one is "anxious about tomorrow"? Whom among us really cares for others' children as we do our own, as we would if we took seriously Jesus' saying that his family consists of not of those related by blood or marriage, but of those who "hear the word of God and do it"?
I remember one man in particular at one parish where I preached regularly who particularly enjoyed my sermons, but who almost always had a bit of a wry grin as he shook my hand to say so. When I asked him about the grin, he usually grinned a little wider, shook his head gently, and said with some affection something like, "What you say is very inspiring. But you're talking about how things are going to be in heaven, and we've got to be realistic here on earth." When pressed for more, he'd talk about how one can't really have a policy of turning the other cheek or forgiving others as God forgives us as long as there are criminals and terrorists around. He'd say that there wasn't much point in trying to address extreme poverty in Africa until all governments there were free of corruption. There was always a long list of things that would have to happen first on earth before we could live as Jesus lived and taught his followers to live -- a list that added up to, "Sure, we'll do all of that -- in God's kingdom. Until we're there, living this way would be foolish in the extreme."
I imagine that there were some folks inclined toward a similar kind of 'realism' among Jesus' earliest followers. I imagine that among the crowds at Jesus' sermons, there were many who heard what he said with great joy, but who almost without thinking laid assumptions around the message:
"Yes, that's how it will be -- once we rid the land of Roman oppressors."
"Absolutely -- when a son of David rules again from David's throne in Jerusalem, he'll make sure the poor are fed."
"I long for that day -- our enemies will be defeated once and for all, and then we can live in peace."
"I believe that all nations will know and worship God, once the evildoers are gone and the rest have embraced the whole Torah."
And what a glorious day, the Day of the Lord, when all of God's promises to God's people can be fulfilled, when God answers the prayer that Jesus taught us: "your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven"!
The Great Vigil of Easter is my favorite service of the liturgical year, I think, in part because of the way its journey through salvation history, through God's creating, loving, and redeeming God's people, renews my hope and anticipation of God's answering fully and finally that prayer. What a vision!
Ho, everyone who thirsts,
come to the waters;
and you that have no money, come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price.
Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy?
Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food.
Incline your ear, and come to me; listen, so that you may live.
I will make with you an everlasting covenant, my steadfast, sure love for David.
See, I made him a witness to the peoples, a leader and commander for the peoples.
See, you shall call nations that you do not know, and nations that do not know you shall run to you,
because of the LORD your God, the Holy One of Israel, for he has glorified you.
That's one of my favorite passages in scripture, expressing longings that I think we experience in the twenty-first century with as much intensity as God's people did in the sixth century BCE.
Everyone has the basic necessities of bread and milk and even the wine for celebration; none need be anxious, and all are satisfied.
There are no enemies to fear among the nations. I don't know if you sometimes have the feeling I do just before I pick up a newspaper -- that distant feeling of "what now?" dread -- but that feeling has become a distant memory, as people of all nations rush to embrace, not to attack.
I love the opportunity the Great Vigil gives us to spend time rolling texts like this over our tongues to take in their richness, to close our eyes for a moment to enter into the prophets' vision of the world's redemption. There is no better preparation to receive the Good News of Easter that God has raised Christ Jesus from the dead.
Especially in cultures as individualistic as mine, I think it's often too easy to miss the ways in which this Easter message is Good News for the whole world. The Good News of Easter is not just "Jesus rose from the dead, so we too can live after we die," as numerous mystery religions of the Roman world promised through their gods. And it's worth remembering that Jesus' resurrection isn't the first resurrection in the gospels; God's power raised others, such as Lazarus, before.
But Jesus' resurrection is different. It's not different only because Jesus won't die again, as Lazarus will. The way St. Paul put it in 1 Corinthians 15 is that Jesus' resurrection is "the first fruits" of Creation's end, or telos. "End" can mean quite different things in English, as telos can in Greek. It can mean a final stopping. It can mean death. And when we use the phrase "the end of the world," that's usually the kind of "end" we have in mind -- we're talking about destruction and death. But that's not what Paul is talking about when he talks about Christ's resurrection as the "first fruits" of a harvest that includes "the end." Paul is talking about the fulfillment of our hope in Christ, as Christ fully and finally delivers the kingdom, putting an end to every oppressive power and principality, everything that held the world back from its telos of joy, love, peace, and freedom.
Jesus' ministry up to his death on the Cross -- his healing, forgiving, teaching, breaking bread with any who would eat with him, and gathering a community who would continue these practices in remembrance of him -- was a series of early installments of the telos of the world that God promises -- God's kingdom, where Isaiah's vision is fulfilled, come and God's will done on earth as it is in heaven. When Jesus was crucified, dying a death considered shameful, nearly all who heard of it would have thought of it as putting an end to Jesus, to his movement, to hope in him as the Christ. Nearly all would have seen it as proof positive that Jesus was wrong about what God wanted from humanity, wrong in saying that his gathering and blessing the impure and outcast was God's action, wrong about all of those outrageous teachings that preachers today try to explain away.
But then the God of Israel raised Jesus from the dead. The resurrection of the righteous that some expected at the end has started NOW, and everything that Jesus said about and did to bring about God's kingdom has been affirmed by the righteous judgment of the God who raised him.
As R.E.M. would say, it's the end of the world as we know it -- and I feel fine. Creation's telos -- the love, joy, peace, and freedom for which the world was made -- starts NOW. Perhaps my friend is right that Jesus' way of life can only be lived by the rest of us in God's kingdom, but in Jesus' ministry -- now the ministry of the Risen Christ -- God's kingdom starts NOW. It starts among us. It starts wherever two or three gather in Jesus' name to live into the reality of Jesus' work in the world.
Of course, I'm not saying that everything that's going to happen to bring Creation to its telos has already happened. A person could figure that much out with a newspaper, if Paul's letters weren't at hand. But the Good News of Easter is reason enough to toss our list of things that have to happen before we can experience God's kingdom among us -- before we can live into the way of Jesus -- and invest the energy we formerly devoted to making such lists to look for the Risen Christ and his work in the world. As Paul wrote:
Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin. For whoever has died is freed from sin. But if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. The death he died, he died to sin, once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.
God has raised Jesus from the dead, and NOW -- not in some distant future or in some other world -- those of us Baptized into Christ's Body have been freed from slavery to sin, and are free to live with Christ in the way of Christ. The first fruits have been gathered in, and a more plentiful harvest is ripening. Tell everyone the Good News -- as St. Francis would say, using words if necessary. We have the opportunity to participate in the spread of God's kingdom in ways more powerful than words -- in doing justice, in proclaiming peace, in embracing the outcast, in treating the most vulnerable among God's children with the care we'd give our own flesh and blood. God has in Easter given us all the proof we need that the time has come:
Christ is risen!
Alleluia! And thanks be to God!
April 6, 2007 in 1 Corinthians, Easter, Eschatology, Inclusion, Isaiah, John, Justice, Kinship/Family, Luke, ONE campaign/Millennium Development Goals, Resurrection, Romans, Year C | Permalink | Comments (1)
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
Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany, Year C
Luke 6:17-26 - link to NRSV text
If you haven't seen this sermon of mine on Matthew's version of the Beatitudes, please do. (This sermon of mine on Luke's version is far weaker, I'm sorry to say, but may still be helpful -- especially when supplemented by this lectionary blog entry on Luke's "Parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man," which I connect directly to Luke's Beatitudes and woes.)
I'm not going to soft-pedal: these are hard readings we've got this Sunday -- at least for people like me.
By "people like me," I mean the comfortable, the privileged, those who are among the richest people in the world.
And I am among the richest people in the world. I doubt that I'll be appearing on any television profiles to that effect, but it's true. If you make an annual income of $47,500, you are in the top 1% of wage earners worldwide. I'm not in that number, but even though I'm employed only part-time as a consultant while being a seminary student (with all the expenses that entails), I'm comfortably within the top 10% of the wealthiest in the world. If you're curious about where you fall, go to the Global Rich List to find out.
So yes, I'm among the world's richest people, and for that reason, when I read, "Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God ... But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation," that's enough to give me pause. I want to experience God's blessings. I've known enough of what that's like to know that God's blessings are far richer and bring far more joy, peace, love, and other qualities I value than any amount of wealth can. And like just about any churchgoer of the wealthy West who hasn't been anesthetized completely against the power of these words, I bristle when I hear Jesus saying them. So what news in this passage is Good News for me?
For starters, God's Good News for the poor is good news for me if I am aligned with the poor. And who are the poor? Let's not fall into that common trap of allegorizing biblical texts into easily swallowed but flavorless mush and say that "the poor" are people with a certain attitude -- say, people who acknowledge (at the very least in church on Sunday) that they need God, or that all good things on earth are God's gifts. That's not what the word means.
The word is ptochoi -- not just "people who are poor," or "those who are poorer than average," but "people who are destitute" -- those who don't have a home, basic shelter, clean water, basic nourishment. As I've preached about before, a lot of those who chose to follow Jesus in the first century ended up in that position specifically because of their decision to be Jesus' disciple. What Jesus taught -- about who your family is (hint: it's not "people whom I marry or are related to genetically and/or legally"; Jesus is not big on those kinds of "family values"), about responsibility (i.e., he called upon women and men alike to make decisions not only about whether to follow him, but about a whole complex of related decisions -- and he never suggested that they needed anyone's permission, let alone the family patriarch's, to decide or act), about most of the things that order-loving and family-oriented Romans and most of the other cultures the Romans dominated around the Mediterranean basin had in common. Parents, husbands, even adult children were sometimes disgusted and publicly shamed by the decisions of their Christ-following relations, who were now associating freely with women and men, slaves and free persons, rich and poor, clean and unclean, respectable and shameless. And in many cases, these humiliated relatives would throw the Christian out, leaving her or him with no livelihood, no family, no way to survive apart from Christian community or the charity of passers-by.
And yet, Jesus and Jesus' followers are bold or crazy enough to proclaim Jesus' counter-cultural invitation as Good News. That made little sense to most people in the first century -- and I dare say that Jesus' invitation may be just as counter-intuitive and is certainly as counter-cultural now.
If I'm on the Global Rich List -- and especially if I'm someone, well, like me, who's among the wealthiest on a global scale but hardly what the most successful in the U.S. would call financially secure -- why would I want to broaden the scope of my concern beyond me and my family, or, if I'm particularly generous, my community?
Please do look at what I've said before on this, because I believe more than ever that it's true:
The short answer to the question of why I should want to align myself with God's poor, even if it costs me personally, is because God, having made us human beings, really knows what we need -- what will give us joy, peace, love, and all of those things that politicians tell us we'll get if we support them, marketers tell us we can have if we buy the right products, magazines tell us we could experience if only we knew the Ten Secrets To Pleasing Her/Him or that one dieting tip that will give us a body that someone could want and love. God knows that we need more than a plasma television, a sizable nest egg, a set of six-pack abs, some icon of success or respectability.
God knows that we need a new Creation, and we need to be a part of it.
And the Good News -- the news so astonishingly good that we're often more likely to believe the politicians than the Savior who proclaimed the Good News -- is that what we need, the wholeness we ache for for ourselves and the wholeness we find in a world working actively and experiencing with increasing fullness the reconciliation that is God's mission in the world -- is being realized now.
Hebrew and Christian prophets have said as much in holy writ, but for those of us more inclined to believe what today's experts say, there's some real and hard evidence for it.
The ptochoi -- those who are destitute, without shelter, good water and good food, a means to make a living -- could have enough to get by as soon as the year 2015. It won't take a miracle; it will take enough of us with power and resources, enough of us from the Global Rich List partnering with and listening to wise activists among the poor, managing to get just 0.7% of the wealthiest nations' GNP targeted to aid those whom Jesus called "blessed" or "honored."
Have you ever tasted, seen, and felt what it's like to be among those whom Jesus honors? Honestly, I think I've only got the faintest of it, and even that is enough to convince me that following Jesus, being part of a community and a movement treating one another as God treats us, is more rewarding than any other path.
Think you're winning the rat race? If so, you've probably experienced what comedian Lily Tomlin so aptly observed: that winning the rat race just means you're a fast rat. We weren't made to be rats. We weren't made to compete for a single or rare prize of real love or "the good life," and I say so for at least two reasons: we're not rats, and there's not a limited prize. As I wrote about last week, those whose lives have shifted from being centered around the question of "can I get enough of the good stuff?" to "how can I gather enough people to take in all this good stuff God is providing," may pay a price in worldly terms for that shift, but they will gain something far better:
Freedom from anxiety.
Freedom from human lords.
Freedom to take in God's love.
Freedom to love others in community.
And the opportunity to participate as God's Good News is made real in the world.
Thanks be to God!
Second Sunday after the Epiphany, Year C
Our Hebrew bible reading for this Sunday just might win some kind of prize for "most tenuous connection to the gospel reading in a Christian lectionary" -- at least, if the intended connection is that bit at the end: "For as a young man married a young woman, / so shall your builder marry you, / and as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride, / so shall your God rejoice over you." If that's the intended connection, than this Sunday our lectionary implies that John's story of Jesus at the wedding in Cana is somehow about marriage -- much as our current Book of Common Prayer liturgies for marriage imply, and equally unhelpfully. What a ridiculous line of reasoning, to say that because Jesus went to a wedding once, he meant to proclaim marriage as a particularly preferable or blessed state! There's a great deal in scripture to suggest that, as Genesis puts it, "it is not good for the human being to be alone," and that marriage is a vocation for many that is a blessing not just to the couple, but to the world, as their relationship energizes them for ministry. But the focus of this bit of John 2 we're reading this Sunday isn't about commending marriage any more than it is about commending drunkenness (which also happened at that gathering in Cana, and -- unlike the marriage, was actually facilitated by Jesus' actions).
I'd like to think, though, that our lectionary editors had more than a superficial word association around weddings in mind when selecting this portion of Isaiah 62 for this Sunday, and I think a connection is there that can be made with a great deal more integrity.
This Sunday's reading from Isaiah comes from a section ("Third Isaiah") that's difficult to locate precisely in time or circumstance; especially as someone whose speciality is in New Testament, I'm loathe to depend too much on any of its proposed locations when reading the text. But some things about its concerns are clear enough from internal evidence. Third Isaiah speaks to people seeking to honor the God of Israel, but the world of the text is populated also by foreigners. Enemies who threaten are present in cultural memory if not in immediate time and space, but we also see an audacious vision of God, "coming to gather all nations and tongues" (Isaiah 66:18). We see hope.
I'm not talking about the kind of hope we often mean when we use the word; I'm not talking about an idle kind of wishing for something that we dare not invest too much in emotionally, let alone order our lives around. I'm talking about a vision focused on God's intention with such intensity that it reads all human history in the context of God's action. That sounds a little abstract, but I'm talking about something that speaks so powerfully to godly imagination that it's got truly compelling consequences in the tangible world. When I talk about hope this week, I'm talking about the choice -- and in my experience, it's a conscious choice -- to embrace God's vision for the world with conviction that reorders our priorities on every level, making choices that would otherwise seem difficult or nonsensical not merely intelligible, but powerful to the point of being contagious in community. I'm talking about choosing expectation that orders action.
I'm talking about it this week after ruminating a great deal about the connections Isaiah (and not just Third Isaiah) makes between expectation and action. Those of us who spend time in churches over Advent and Christmas hear a fair amount of prophetic expectation. The longing of God's people for redemption is a major theme in many an Advent sermon. But I'm often left thinking that we underplay how God's people were called to respond to that expectation, despite how strong that is as a theme in the prophetic writings we're reading. Isaiah doesn't present hope as something that prompts sighs of powerlessness, but as something that inspires powerful action. When we enter into prophetic hope, our choice to look for God's coming redemption prompts us in the present to live more deeply into what we proclaim as the future God intends and is bringing about among us. In other words, Isaiah's hope for peace is strongly connected to embrace of God's sabbath now. The prophetic vision we share of God gathering all nations and all tongues calls upon God's people in the present to remove vengeance from the realm of human responsibility, to go amongst the nations only to invite and gather. That's hardly what the kings of the world consider sensible foreign policy, but prophetic vision doesn't place trust in or order lives around worldly kings; it calls upon us to stake our very lives on God's rule.
New Testament texts pick up this prophetic vision, often picking up a theme that will pop up a lot in the weeks to come: that NOW, in Jesus' work among us, that rule of God has come upon and is seeping through this world. I think John's story of the wedding at Cana belongs in that tradition. Normally, wedding guests would have not only provided the wine for the celebration, but also would have sent it ahead of time. The family that lacked the resources, in terms of extended family and friends at least as much as any other kind, to provide for the feasting would be left to their shame. But Mary has a thought that's crazy by conventional reckoning: what if the authority Jesus is already starting to exercise in calling followers is a sign that the feasting we anticipated at the redemption of God's people -- the redemption Isaiah metaphorically compares to the joy and freely shared plenty of a wedding feast -- is something that starts NOW?
And so Mary has a word with her son. It's a risk; this is not a private setting by any stretch, Jesus could be left in a compromised position, and as Jesus' mother, Mary's own standing is tied to her son's. She speaks up, and we get our first "sign" in the Gospel According to John. It's not just a sign of Jesus' identity; it's a sign of the times, a sign that God's redemption is happening here and now in Jesus' work.
It's a prophetic sign that, like Isaiah's prophetic vision, calls for action. It calls followers of Jesus in Corinth divided along lines that few could cross -- of ethnicity, wealth, social status, and gender, for starters -- to break bread together and work to support and empower one another as members of one body, united in one Holy Spirit to engage in one mission, God's mission. The challenge of living together in this way is no small task, with challenges not only from within, of uniting such different people, but from without, as such free association across traditional divisions inspired Christians' neighbors and sometimes even family members to see these gatherings as subversive of social order, or even of God's intent. That kind of living brought persecution as well as deep joy.
But if, as prophets like Isaiah proclaimed, the future God intends will gather people of all nations, and if, as Christian prophets were saying, Jesus' eating and drinking as well as his teaching and healing, his death and his resurrection, were signs of God's future breaking into our present, then what other way of life could make sense? And if we know and are seeking to follow Jesus, if we have tasted the wine that God's anointed brings to the feast and have seen his glory, how else would we live? We pray, and we seek to live into what we pray: that we and all God's people may be so illumined, so set afire to live as God's people in our sharing of God's word and sacraments, that our life together may be a proclamation of the Word and a sacrament of God's redemption to the very ends of the earth. Let our lifting of Jesus' cup in our worship remind us that our whole lives are to celebrate our Lord's work in the present until the day of its full realization.
Thanks be to God!
First Sunday after Christmas Day, Year C
John 1:1-18 - link to NRSV text
If you haven't seen it already, I encourage you to check out my reflection for Christmas Day this year, which deals with John 1:1-14 as well as the two passages in Luke for earlier Christmas services.
That earlier entry was in part on the theme that the Incarnation is NOT how a distant god became close to humanity. The prologue to John's gospel, which we read again this Sunday, makes that much clear in saying that the logos or "Word" Jesus incarnated was with God in the beginning and that all things were made through the logos. Indeed, Hebrew scripture -- like the Christian "New Testament" -- has plentiful representations of God as present among and intimate with God's people. Psalm 139 is just one example among a great many.
This week, I want to talk about another misconception I've heard in many a sermon, and that the prologue to John's gospel ought to put to rest. The misconception goes something like this:
God is righteous. Righteousness means not only avoiding all wrongdoing, but avoiding all wrongdoers. Therefore, God fundamentally can't stand humanity -- at least as long as humanity is sinful. Indeed, God wants and needs to punish wrongdoers with something worse than the death penalty: death plus eternal suffering. Only blood can satisfy God's sense of justice. The Incarnation solves this problem as God the Son, who wants to have compassion for humanity but knows that only the shedding of human blood will satisfy the Father, becomes human to suffer and die for humanity's sins, after which God can stand to be around humans who accept this blood sacrifice on their behalf.
The above is a particularly crude version of what some call "substitutionary atonement." There are versions out there that are not so crude, and at the very least, any view that Jesus' blood was shed as a full and perfect sacrifice for sin ought to have at least one implication that would be very helpful were we to live into it: namely, that human beings cannot demand blood or even suffering from another as punishment for wrongdoing, since Jesus paid the full price for all human sin, and further suffering from others is neither necessary nor efficacious. Can you imagine a world in which everyone who claimed to be a Christian refused absolutely to participate in any kind of vengeance, punishment, or shedding of human blood? That would be a radical shift.
But our gospel passage for this Sunday asks us to contemplate something far more radical:
"No one has ever seen God. It is God the Son, who is close to the Father's heart, who has made him known."
In other words, as my dissertation supervisor puts it, God is like Jesus.
That might not sound so radical at first. In many circles in the U.S., we're accustomed to or even fairly jaded with respect to theological language about Jesus. But what I've observed over the years is that our thinking about the Incarnation and what it means tends to run in the opposite direction from what John 1:18 suggests. We start with our ideas about what God is like (those far too often being simply our cultural values writ large), and then assume or project into the New Testament that Jesus is like that.
We believe that family (defined in our usual cultural manner of those closely related to us by blood or marriage) should be a person's chief priority (other than God, perhaps), so we believe that God commanded as much, and therefore Jesus did too. We scratch our heads a little if we come across most of what Jesus said about family in the biological or legal sense, but figure the text couldn't possibly mean what it says and quickly move on.
We inherit a "Protestant work ethic" from our culture; we project that onto God; and then we find ourselves saying things like, "well, didn't Jesus say, 'the Lord helps those who help themselves'?" (That was Ben Franklin, by the way.)
We embrace a kind of individualistic faith that says that God is concerned primarily with the state of our hearts rather than what we do with our money and power, and then invent all kinds of interpretive contortions with texts about the "rich" and the "poor" in the New Testament so we don't have to think that Jesus has any problem with the poor remaining poor and the rich remaining rich.
In a particularly subtle way that's therefore particularly difficult to become aware of, we believe that God is basically a nice guy who made a nice world and then got out of the way, sending Jesus as one of many occasional reminders to humanity that we should also be nice and not do anything really bad to one another -- in other words, that following Jesus will not require anything more than church attendance from someone who's basically a good and respectable guy or gal.
Or we start with a firm idea of what God likes and doesn't like (usually pretty similar to what we like and don't like), and that God wants and needs to punish those who do the latter, and then we assume that Jesus is like that too. But what does John's prologue do to this way of doing theology?
If Jesus is God the Son, close to the Father's heart, who has made our Creator known to us, then we don't start with ideas about what God is doing in the world and project them onto Jesus; we start with what Jesus does in the world and know that this is what God is doing.
That's yet another reason that we can't chart the significance of the Incarnation without talking about what happened between the lines of the creeds -- after "he was made man" and before "he died and was buried." If it is Jesus, the Word made flesh, who makes God our Creator known, then we know what God is like by looking at what Jesus in his life "in the flesh" was like.
Jesus taught and healed. He confronted the powers and the power dynamics that kept some people shut out of the villages as feared demoniacs. When people were hungry, he fed them. Indeed, he broke bread with them, without checking first, second, or later about whether they were the "right sort of person." He broke bread with the person he knew was betraying him to suffering and death. He spoke words of invitation and forgiveness even from the cross on which he died. Those last invitations -- to the thief on the cross in Luke's gospel, for example -- came without precondition; there was no "as long as you don't mess up again," or "as long as you're sincerely sorry for what you've done," or "assuming you don't have any major nasties in your history that I don't know about." He also challenged people -- not just the "sinners," but the respectable people -- to grow into the fullness of discipleship, receiving and caring for all who came to Jesus' table as their own flesh and blood.
Had he just behaved that way, he wouldn't have been particularly threatening to anyone. Some people are completely indiscriminate about the company they keep. Some people treat their enemies in pretty much the same way they treat their friends and family. They won't be elected president any time soon; they're weirdos whose hanging out with those on the margins of society renders them marginal as well. Jesus would have been similarly unimportant if that's all he did.
But he did more. He said that God -- the Creator of the universe -- behaved toward humanity just as he did. He acted with God's power to bring those at the margins in to the center as empowered and beloved children of God. And so John's gospel very aptly says that his glory is "full of grace and truth" -- properties not at all in contradiction in Jesus' ministry, or in the kingdom of God.
All of those who take the Left Behind books as gospel and are therefore expecting Jesus, or the God whom Jesus proclaimed, to undergo some kind of eschatological personality shift to gleefully kick his enemies' butts are going to be disappointed if John is right. Those who worship a god who poses no threat to the empires of this world will be surprised by the God revealed in the life of Jesus, who gathered people to live in a way that threatened Roman rule enough to get him executed for treason against the emperor.
But for those who are attracted to the ways in which Jesus challenges the rulers and embraces the marginalized -- those who glimpse abundant life in Jesus' way of life -- the news that Jesus is the Word of God made flesh who makes the Creator known is Good News indeed -- the best news there is.
Thanks be to God!
Fourth Sunday of Advent, Year C
A Christmas entry is coming tomorrow.
Luke 1:39-45(46-55) - link to NRSV text
I have to admit that I'm a little sad that Advent is almost over. It just might be my favorite liturgical season. It isn't just the Christmas pre-show that points toward and helps us prepare for the Big Event on December 25. Indeed, what Advent readings -- especially the gospel readings -- urge us to long for expectantly isn't so much the birth of the Christ child as it is the full realization of God's redemption of the world in Christ.
That's why I love it -- and why I need it. I need regularly to get in touch with that big-picture view. There is so much going on in the world that, taken in isolation from the big picture we see in Advent, might make me think that the world's story is like this Del Amitri song I used to cover in clubs:
Bill hoardings advertise products that nobody needs
While angry from Manchester writes to complain about
All the repeats on T.V.
And computer terminals report some gains
On the values of copper and tin
While American businessmen snap up Van Goghs
For the price of a hospital wing
Nothing ever happens, nothing happens at all
The needle returns to the start of the song
And we all sing along like before
Nothing ever happens, nothing happens at all
They'll burn down the synagogues at six o'clock
And we'll all go along like before
And we'll all be lonely tonight and lonely tomorrow
The title of the song? "Nothing Ever Happens." When my dissertation supervisor came to hear me play one night, as I recall, he referred to it as the "let's just drink a bottle of Lysol song." It can be depressing as hell -- a word I use advisedly here -- to think that way, to see all of what's gone horribly wrong in the world around us and to enter into that state of impoverished imagination that says that this is how the world was, and is, and will be. It's a step toward hope to say I'll work for change, but when I think it's all about your and my working, it can still be overwhelming. I know many good people who have picked up the newspaper and finally said to themselves something like this:
"It's time to grow up. It's time to give up all of that youthful idealism stuff that says we can change the world. The world is just plain messed up, and I owe it to myself and my family to face facts and concentrate on making my world -- my family's home, and schools, and neighborhood -- a haven from the world and the even worse place it's headed."
But Advent reminds us that this way of looking at the world is missing a crucial piece -- actually, several crucial pieces -- of the picture:
God made this world. God loves this world. And God is redeeming this world. The universe arcs toward the peace, joy, love, and wholeness in and for which it was made.
All of that scary stuff we've been reading about fire and disaster and fear over the last few weeks isn't there to suggest that this is how the world ends; it is there to let us know even when we are surrounded by fire and disaster and fear that God is there with us -- suffering with us, yes, and also working among us to bring an end to suffering:
See, the home of God is among mortals.
He will dwell with them as their God;
they will be his peoples,
and God himself will be with them;
he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away.
And the one who was seated on the throne said, "See, I am making all things new." Also he said, "Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true."
What does it look like when we have taken in this vision of where the world -- God's world -- is headed? What happens in our history when we write and live it in the context of God's history? It looks like this:
A young girl -- no more than fourteen, it's almost certain -- is making her way alone on a journey. Everyone knows that there is much to fear on these lonely roads even when traveling in a well-prepared group. These are desperate times. The rulers of Judea and Israel are desperate to consolidate their positions of power -- always tenuous, and completely dependent on the good will of Caesar, who rules the world, and that takes tributes, and building projects, and armies, and good order maintained by armies -- all of which must be paid for by someone. Taxes are high. People are desperate. Brigands seem to be everywhere.
Not that the world was ever a safe place to be for a young girl on her own.
Far from it, and especially for a pregnant girl, who ought to be at home guarding what, if anything, is left of her shame.
But not this girl. Not today. She makes her way through the hill country alone and yet unafraid. Her haste is not the haste of one running for cover; it's the rush of someone who can't wait to share the good news she knows.
She finds her cousin, who has good news of her own, and that moment of joy and hope and faith is so powerful, so far from anyone's containing it, that the children in their wombs leap for joy with the women. And they are filled with the Holy Spirit, filled with the fullness of what God is doing, wonderful beyond comprehension or description.
If there weren't so much competition for the title among so many suffering, it would have been difficult to find two people so unlikely to be hopeful to the point of being ecstatic -- the single pregnant girl traveling alone and the elderly wife of a poor country priest considered cursed by his neighbors.
And yet there it is. Hope is born -- in Advent, not in Christmas. And more than hope: power is born, power for a girl to pass joyfully and peacefully through wilderness and bands of thieves like her son would one day pass through crowds seeking to stone him (Luke 4:4-30).
As a singer, I particularly love it that Mary's passage, like Jesus' a few chapters later, is centered on a song.
Christmas is coming. It's hours away at the point when those who go to church at all for the fourth Sunday of Advent as it falls on December 24 will be hearing a sermon on these texts. Christmas is coming, and I know it's a Big Deal in its own right. But in my estimation, anyone who misses observing the fourth Sunday of Advent misses out in a big way -- misses out on the moment in Luke's gospel in which we truly see hope born as two poor women dance and sing.
It isn't Christmas, but this is Advent, and in this very moment, we see born among us the hope for which the whole world hasn't dared hope.
My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he had filled the hungry with good things,
and sent away the rich empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants forever.
What a moment it was when that poor girl who traveled alone burst into song! In that moment, she saw as present and lasting reality not just the miracle of her being received in her village rather than stoned (and surely this is the first miracle of Jesus' birth we celebrate), not just the miracle of a healthy child born healthy and honored even when no one -- no family, and not even an inn -- would take the family in (which is miracle enough to dance), and even beyond the miracles her son would work before his death (which were wonders that set many free).
In this moment -- THIS moment, with none gathered to celebrate and no liturgy beyond a young girl and an old woman leaping for joy with their children to be -- we hear, in the song of the prophet and leader, the single and pregnant teenager, Mary of Nazareth, the end for which the world was made.
It may seem sometimes that "Nothing Ever Happens," but we can be sure that Something is happening -- something beyond speech and remotely hinted at in prophetic song.
It is here! Hope is here. and what a life-changing, world-changing miracle that is: we hope that the mighty who dominate by force will fall to the meek whom they dismissed, the poor know plenty while the rich finally understand what it is to want and need, and the world -- broken, mixed-up, violent, world that sets up gulfs between us and between us and God so vast that it's hard to imagine even angels could cross them -- is made whole at last.
I will celebrate the wonders of Christmas when it comes. But God, please help me to take in the wonder of Mary's vision and Elizabeth's so I can sing and dance with them in what they see and know. Let me do that now, in this moment, and in every moment.
My soul rejoices in anticipation I can feel in my body.
Thanks be to God!
Third Sunday of Advent, Year C
Luke 3:7-18 - link to NRSV text
This Sunday's gospel is in many respects about conversion -- who needs it, what it looks like, and why do it -- and what it meant to John the Baptizer. It's what John was best known for. His nickname of "the Baptizer" came from a remarkable idea he had: namely, that everyone needs to be baptized.
It wasn't at all remarkable that he baptized people; most Jewish movements did. Baptism was one of the things that a person had to undergo to convert to Judaism. What was wild in John's ministry was that he said that Jews were just as much in need of his baptism as anyone else would be. That's what he was teaching when he said, "Do not begin to say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham as our ancestor'; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham," and it's got a number of potentially radical implications.
The first is that bloodlines have absolutely no relevance in God's mission. God is not going to be confined by our boundaries between one family and another or one nation and another, however important we might think they are. This is not the order of the world as we've run it when we've managed to talk ourselves into thinking we're in charge, and it challenges us to re-imagine what the world looks like as God's work among us is realized.
Take a look, for example, at this report from Oxfam on how corporations from the world's wealthiest nations are leveraging their power in their home countries to negotiate international trade agreements that are even more to their advantage, putting farmers, fishers, and others in poorer countries out of business. Consider for a moment how the wealth of the three richest FAMILIES in the world exceeds the gross domestic product of the poorest 48 COUNTRIES in the world. We have ordered the world such that accidents of birth -- in which country or which family a child is born -- often determine whether that child will live to see adulthood. Do we think that our country, our family is so much more highly esteemed in God's eyes than others' are? Or are we willing to "bear fruits worthy of repentance"? God doesn't want our liberal guilt or our good intentions; God wants us to love the world's children as we love our own children.
That will require us to make a choice, and that's the second point I take from John's teaching on conversion. I believe that Christian Baptism does indeed seal and mark a person as Christ's own forever. That doesn't lessen the truth that we are called to a kind of conversion, to a metanoia or repentance, that is a personal choice. We can choose whether to identify Jesus as Lord of our lives, and how we choose to live testifies to what choice we have made on that point. You can choose to Baptize your children, but you can't make the choice for them to follow Christ.
Up to this last point, what I've said about the implications of John's teaching lines of well with what Jesus taught. But Jesus and John didn't agree on everything, or we wouldn't see what we do in Luke 7:18-35, in which messengers from John the Baptizer go to Jesus to ask, "Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?" Jesus is doing enough of what John expected from the coming "mighty one" for John not to have completely abandoned hope in him, but his behavior is raising enough questions that John feels the need to send messengers to ask them.
This Sunday's gospel tells us what John is expecting that Jesus isn't doing. John says that the coming mighty one will baptize "with the Holy Spirit and fire," a phrase that we often gloss over, but is worth paying closer attention to. In the Baptizer's usage, "the Holy Spirit and fire" are not two ways of saying the same thing or an extended reference to what will happen at Pentecost.
We can tell that from the rest of what the Baptizer says about the coming one: his "winnowing shovel is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire." Your translation probably says (as the NRSV does) that it's a "winnowing fork," but this is not supportable; as Robert L. Webb points out, the Greek word is ptuon, which always refers to the winnowing shovel, not the fork.
This actually makes a significant difference in how we read the Baptizer's expectations. A winnowing fork is used to separate the wheat from the chaff. A winnowing shovel is what you use after someone else has done their work with the fork and the wheat and chaff are already separated to do what John says the coming one will do: "gather the wheat into his granary," while "the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire." Jesus is only fulfilling half of what John says the mighty one coming would do: he's baptizing with the Holy Spirit and gathering people for healing, good news, and blessing, but the fire to destroy the wicked is nowhere to be seen.
John the Baptizer calls everyone to conversion so they may avoid destruction when the name-taking and butt-kicking starts. Jesus' response of "Blessed is the one who takes no offense at me" (Luke 7:23) to the Baptizer's pleas to bring on the fire of judgment against the wicked challenges John himself to a kind of conversion. In Jesus' ministry, John is invited to rejoice at what God is doing in the world, and to let go of what God is not doing, to release his preconceptions and take in the reality of God's presence and work.
How the Baptizer responded to that invitation isn't recorded. At least some of his followers remained disappointed in Jesus and attached to the Baptizer's idea that God's mighty one wasn't going to issue any more invitations to conversion, but would simply pour out God's blessings on the righteous and rain destruction on the wicked. Movements following the Baptizer and proclaiming such immanent judgment continued for centuries after his death, suggesting that John received Jesus' reply with sadness not unlike that of the rich ruler who asked Jesus what he needed to do to inherit eternal life. The more we have, the harder it is to give it up, and John the Baptizer had a vast store of hope poured into his expectations of the coming one. He'd sacrificed so much already -- the comforts of home and family, his freedom, and soon his life -- it may be that sacrificing his expectations was one last sacrifice he couldn't make.
Jesus seemed to anticipate that as he said that while "among those born of women no one is greater than John; yet the least in the kingdom of God" -- including a prostitutes or tax collector who had received John's Baptism -- is greater than he" (Luke 7:28). And even in saying that, Jesus' ministry issues an invitation in profound continuity with the one John issued to all those who would hear -- an invitation to repentance and conversion.
We need to hear that invitation. It isn't about getting in to God's good graces or avoiding God's judgment -- in Jesus' ministry, God is already extending grace and suspending judgment before we ask. It's about living into the fullness of that grace. We are invited to make our decision to follow Jesus, and that invitation comes not just once for a lifetime but in every moment we live. Jesus is born anew among us whenever two or three gather in his name. Jesus is at work among us wherever the poor, the sick, and the marginalized are received and find healing and power for new life. And when we keep our eyes, ears, mind, and heart open to receive God's good news, we see it finding flesh in our world in places and in ways as surprising and challenging as they are joyous.
Let's not begin to talk to ourselves about our impressive spiritual pedigree when the very one for whom our ancestors longed and hoped is coming again among us. Let's not presume to draw limits around what God can accomplish and with whom. Let's not measure God's good news of peace according to our own preconceptions when the most certain word we have of it is that it "surpasses all understanding" (Philippians 4:7). Our conversion didn't end with Baptism; that's just where it began, and it ends only where God's love for us does. In other words, it doesn't end. Expect God's coming; expect the unexpected!
And thanks be to God!
December 14, 2006 in Advent, Apocalyptic, Baptism, Christian Formation, Conversion, Discipleship, Eschatology, Luke, ONE campaign/Millennium Development Goals, Philippians, Prophets, Repentance, Year C | Permalink | Comments (1)
Second Sunday of Advent, Year C
How powerful do you think God is, really? Most Christians on some level think the correct answer is "God is omnipotent," and will tell you so if you ask. But a lot of our behavior suggests that we believe something far from that.
I'm thinking of when my brother died, and my family was warned sternly by a number of well-meaning people that if his body were cremated (as he'd wanted), God wouldn't be able to raise him when the eschaton arrived. In my view, if we're talking about raising people from the dead, we're already talking about the realm of impossible by human standards and activity, but all things being possible with God, and I find it hard to imagine that God is wringing hands and saying, "Shoot -- I really wanted to raise that person, but what can I do? The body's been cremated. I'm only God, after all ..."
Or how often do we behave as though the God who made the world can be chased out of a place or situation entirely by the simplest human action -- one unkind thought or impure act, one misstep from a human being, and God suddenly loses power to speak and to redeem?
I've seen people in anguish because they were praying for someone's healing and they believe that only if they can get it right -- if only they could really believe God would heal, if only they hadn't secretly harbored resentment toward the person for whom they were praying, if only they could find the right words, make the right sacrifice, and live in the right way -- then, and only then, can God act. Some go so far as to say that as long as there's anyone who isn't "getting it right," God can't redeem, and therefore that God will at some point have to get rid of those who are "getting it wrong." Views of how much God can redeem and how we should then respond to God's redeeming work on earth varies even within the bible, and views in first-century Palestine ranged even more widely.
The community that produced the Dead Sea Scrolls, for example, certainly saw God as gracious. At the same time, there were plenty of reasons in their cultural memory to be pessimistic. The community most likely came into being in the aftermath of the Maccabean Revolt, in which Jewish fighters were able to triumph over foreign oppressors and cleanse the Temple in Jerusalem that the Seleucid King Antiochus IV had defiled by sacrificing a sow on the altar. The presence of a tiny amount of oil left in the Temple that nonetheless gave light for eight days (long enough to prepare new consecrated oil) is celebrated in the holiday of Hanukkah. Hurrah! Too bad the victors (the Hasmoneans) then went on to crucify by the hundreds fellow Jews they saw as their enemies. Furthermore, the Dead Sea community was none too pleased that the Hasmoneans placed themselves as both king and high priest of Israel -- despite that kings were supposed to be of the line of David and high priests of the line of Zadok, while the Hasmoneans were of neither line. That was just the start of their catalog of disappointments -- a catalog that would make something like Episcopal Bishop John-David Schofield's recent catalog of grievances against the church from which his episcopal orders come look like a song of joy. So this community crafted an identity for itself as a voice preparing a way for God in the wilderness (a la Isaiah 40, which can just as reasonably be interpreted as meaning that the way of the Lord being prepared is in the wilderness as that the wilderness is where the voice is crying; there's no punctuation in the biblical text), keeping pure and living apart from the corruption around them while they waited for God to destroy it.
I'd call that a pretty pessimistic view: the vast majority of people in the world, even people who worship the God of Israel, are "sons of darkness" who should be avoided if at all possible, and who will be destroyed when God brings an end to this chapter of history.
John the Baptizer, whom we meet in Luke 3, is not as pessimistic as that. There's no grammatical clue in the Greek about the Baptizer's interpretation of Isaiah 40, and whether it's about a voice crying in the wilderness to prepare the way of the Lord somewhere (possibly somewhere else) or about a voice crying that the way of the Lord is being prepared in the wilderness, but his behavior (if the reports of the canonical gospels are any indication, and I see no reason to doubt them on this point) says enough about it. John goes to the wilderness and cries out, but he bases himself within a day hike of Jerusalem, and he seems to invite all comers to be baptized. Especially if Luke's testimony about him in the rest of chapter 3 is a good summary of things he taught (a point which is disputed, to be fair), he did not on the whole suggest that people ought to leave Jerusalem and set up camp in the wilderness to stay. John baptized them with a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sin, treating Jew and Gentile alike as being in need of conversion, and sending them back to their homes and their work. But he talked of a mighty one to come, using language often used of God rather than any human agent, who would destroy the wicked with fire and baptize those who had received John's baptism with a new baptism of the Holy Spirit (Luke 3:16 -- more on this next week).
So when God's messenger comes to prepare God's way in the world, where do you think that happens? Who do you think can be part of it? When we say that God is "like a refiner's fire and like fuller's soap," as our reading for this week from Malachi says, do we see that as as meaning that God will destroy the people who don't "get it right"? When we say God is coming to redeem, what do we mean? Does anything God made have to be destroyed to complete God's redemption?
Jesus takes an approach that differs markedly from that of John the Baptizer, and even more so from what we see in the Dead Sea Scrolls. Matthew and Luke put Jesus in the desert for a period toward the beginning of his ministry, where he meets and is baptized by John, but Jesus doesn't stay there. His primary way of ministering doesn't remove himself from the population he's trying to reach and invite them to come to him; rather, it seems more often to go to the villages and towns where the people are, and more often than not, it includes a call to follow him.
What has to change before you meet Jesus? Nothing. He even seems to be completely indiscriminate regarding with whom he'll break bread. God's redeeming work through Jesus can start exactly where you are, and there's no need to try to get it all together and make sure that you're "getting it right" before meeting him. That's a very good thing indeed from my perspective, since I suspect I wouldn't have gotten very far in such an enterprise had I tried to accomplish it without God. And why on earth would I want to? After meeting Jesus, I chose to journey with Jesus, and I can say that for me life is far more joyful, peaceful, and abundant that way. And that was also a huge change. Nothing has to change for us to meet Jesus, for us to start experiencing God's redeeming work. As we experience and engage that work, everything changes: us, our relationships, our priorities, and our world.
Why is that important? In my view, saying that any human action is a necessary precondition of God's redemption puts God in a very small box. Of course we make decisions all the time that hurt or help ourselves and others. Of course our actions are important, and we're all called to a mature walk with Christ in which we're seeking to participate as fully as possible in God's mission. But is God really so powerless as to be finally frustrated in God's purposes because of my mistakes? I doubt it. let me put it this way, in a sentence that y'all have heard from me before:
I don't believe in perfection; I believe in redemption.
God is not sitting around somewhere waiting breathless for us to get everything right so redemption can be made possible. God cannot be shut out of a place by human action. That picture suggests that it's human beings who are really in charge and human sin has the final word that can bind even God. I don't believe that for an instant. I'm with the psalmist:
Where can I go then from your Spirit?
where can I flee from your presence?
If I climb up to heaven you are there;
if I make the grave me bed, you are there also.
If I take the wings of the morning
and swell in the uttermost parts of the sea,
Even there your hand will lead me
and your right hand hold me fast.
If I say, "Surely the darkness will cover me,
and the light around me turn to night,"
Darkness is not dark to you;
the night is as bright as the day;
darkness and light to you are both alike.
(Psalm 139:6-11, BCP)
I believe that God's power to redeem is such that no human misstep or even deliberate human wickedness can have the final word. And like John the Baptizer, Jesus of Nazareth showed what he thought about God's redemption of the world and what needs to happen for us to engage it by how he lived. He showed us just how much he was willing to stake on that, and how much human hatred and destructiveness he could forgive in the way he died. And the God who created and loves the world showed just how powerful God's redemption is, and how far from the final word human destructiveness is: God raised Jesus to life. Even now Jesus is at work among us. And when we confess that Jesus, whom the power of Rome crucified and the power of God raised to unending life, has been appointed by God as the one through whom "every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth," we are confessing also the end for which we were made and which Jesus invites us in each moment, however out of reach we may feel we are:
And all flesh shall see the salvation of God.
Thanks be to God!
First Sunday of Advent, Year C
It's a strange accident of history that the apocalyptic texts in our scriptures were written to encourage tiny minorities at their society's margins to greet the tribulations they witnessed not with panic, but with confidence that God was working out God's purposes for peace, joy, and justice -- and that these same texts seem now (e.g., in the Left Behind series) to be read even more often among prosperous and powerful majorities as if they were written for people like them, and they are used mostly to point to current events with the loud message that people should panic, that God intends to bring chaos, agony, and unprecedented bloodshed to the world. And what these pseudo-apocalyptic visions want us to do in response isn't to change the world, but to retreat to an interior experience that will help us to leave it behind before God leaves us behind. That isn't the God I know.
I think one of the fundamental exegetical mistakes leading to this bizarre and not at all helpful trends in reading apocalyptic texts is along the lines of one advocated by the "Alpha" curriculum: namely, the profoundly unhelpful suggestion that all scriptural passages should be read as if they were a love letter written to us personally. Texts like our readings for this Sunday are an excellent case study as to why this is an approach that can go beyond fruitful to the point of being dangerous.
If I read a text like Jeremiah 33:14-16 as if it were a love letter from God to me, I might be tempted to say that the promise God made and is fulfilling is for me, and people like me. I might be tempted to define "people like me" in whatever way popped most naturally into my head, which would be very likely to be the ways in which my culture most often segregates people. I might be tempted to think of "justice" and "righteousness" as being whatever MY culture says is just and right relationship. And if all of this is God's love letter to me, I might be inclined to think of this promise as being a promise to vindicate my way of life, whatever that is, or whatever the dominant culture says it should be. I might be tempted to think that God sent and is sending Jesus so to vindicate the Americans, the industrious, the educated, the respectable. Uncritical reading of these texts -- a phenomenon that seems to be pretty common in my culture, as people at the very center of power appropriate them to claim that their approach, no matter how destructive it is, will be vindicated by God, and too many of my peers don't talk about them at all, lest we all be made uncomfortable in the process -- has turned the message of the prophets upside-down.
Let's turn it up again.
If you haven't done this, or haven't done it in a while, it would make a marvelous Advent discipline to take a look at the sermons of Martin Luther King, Jr. to see what he did with these texts, with eschatology -- the study of what kind of climax God intends and is bringing about for human history. If you want to work in the long term as an agent of what God is doing in the world, you need a solid eschatology. You need -- we need -- to hold on as much as possible to the "big picture" view of God's work among us.
Otherwise, it's just too darn easy to do what a great many people are trying to get us to do: namely, to monitor the news breathlessly for every twist and turn, every hint of disaster. This gives us the privilege of being the first to panic every time some new development bodes the disaster that so many tell us is impending. I don't think many of us fool ourselves into thinking we can stop the disaster, but this constant vigilance promises us the illusion (not really a very convincing one even at its strongest, I think) of control -- at least that we can be the first to know we were right, and things really did go exactly where we said that handbasket was headed, albeit perhaps even more quickly than we said they'd get there.
But really, where is the joy in that? Where are the characteristics of the Spirit's fruit among us -- not only joy, but peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, generosity, faithfulness, and self-control? Competing to drop the flags declaring that somebody finished the race to the lowest we can go sounds a lot more like the conceited, envious, competitiveness St. Paul characterizes in Galatians 5:13-26 as the very opposite of what the Spirit brings.
Read MLK's sermons, and you'll see a very different use of eschatology -- one a lot closer to Jeremiah's, the Psalms', and Luke's. Eschatology -- the "big picture" of what God is up to in the world -- is what lets the poor and those suffering at the margins know that their struggle is far from over when the powers that be say it is.
These texts are say that however many people point to disasters as evidence that Creation itself is destined for disaster, God made the world for a different purpose, and God is faithful in bringing God's purposes about. Apocalyptic texts take a serious, Technicolor look at everything going on in the world -- all the suffering and fear, all the fireworks the powers that be have to offer -- and envision what Creation's true end is, what God made this world for, the redemption for which the world groans and that God lovingly poured and is pouring out God's Self to bring about.
When I think about these apocalyptic scenes, I remember Mike. Mike was in a small group bible study I was a part of some years back. The group was a very healing place for me to be, particularly at that point in my life -- I was full of questions and turmoil, and the group lovingly received all of that. I struggled some with Mike, though. He always had a smile and a hug and an encouraging word, and it struck me sometimes as a naïve, sugar-coated kind of way to be in the world. It was great for him that he could think that everything was about love, I thought, but I imagined that he couldn't possibly be that way if he'd seen real suffering, if he really understood what kinds of things were going on in the world that would make any sane person (I thought) bitter. And then one day Mark told a story he hadn't told before. He talked of his service in World War II, and in particular of the day when he and his company came upon and went into an airplane hangar, and came upon some of the first evidence Americans would see of the Holocaust.
I never looked at Mike the same way again. When I looked in his eyes, that night and every time I saw him after then, I saw something I hadn't bothered to look for. He'd seen the very worst that the world and humanity at their worst could produce, and he made a choice. He could have accepted what he saw there as the final word in the world's story. It certainly fit the picture the world paints of an apocalypse -- what the world looks like when the cover is taken off -- complete with smoke and stink and flames. But Mike was a person of deep faith -- of the kind of faith I want to grow into. He looked at all of that destruction, that gash at the heart of humanity itself, and said to himself, "... and God so loved this world that God gave the only-begotten Son." It underscored just how much God was redeeming, how immeasurable the height and breadth and depth of that redeeming love was and is.
Mike was no preacher, but his ability to see that "big picture" -- that it is the immeasurable height and breadth and depth of God's love for which the world was made and which is the world's telos or end -- is what I see when I read or hear the sermons of Martin Luther King, or Desmond Tutu, or of others who know what Creation's end is, and who are preaching apocalyptically, removing the cover of these times to show where they fit in God's time. Apocalyptic is that prophetic keeping "eyes on the prize," so we can not just hold on, but keep pressing toward the goal with deep, unshakable joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, generosity, faithfulness, and self-control. It's what enables us to look upon ugliness in this world and see how much room there is for God's grace to rush in, God's power to work. It enables us to say with open eyes and open hearts, "All the paths of the LORD are love and faithfulness / to those who keep his covenant and his testimonies" (Psalm 25:9). It's what gives us hope and power to pray as Paul did in 1 Thessalonians, seeing joy, connection, love, and wholeness in the midst of persecution and threats of more.
Luke wrote of Jesus telling of sun, moon, stars, and the earth in distress, and he knew of what he wrote. He was writing after Roman armies had marched into and devastatingly seized Jerusalem, destroyed the Temple, defiled the Holy of Holies, crushed the hopes of many who had thought that this uprising with the sword was God's own doing, and God's vindication of those who took up the sword to defend Jerusalem was at hand. Luke wrote to Christians at a time when their refusal to take up arms to defend Jerusalem was bringing rejection and persecution from kin and neighbors as well as the ongoing ire of Roman authorities who saw Christians as troublemakers who stirred up slaves and fractured families. That's the setting in which Luke writes of Jesus telling his followers to look to the fig tree.
My friends Bruce Malina and Richard Rohrbaugh point out the fig tree is among the last to bloom in Palestine. Jesus says that it is amidst all of these disasters -- all of these frightening events the world says make panic and scrambling to protect oneself and one's family is the only appropriate response -- that should prompt us to think of the fig tree. It blooms, and we know that the end that is near is the end of winter, of violence, of suffering, of shame. Luke wrote to people who were very much and in the present tense wondering how they might "have the strength to escape all these things that will take place," and his answer is this:
They take place before the coming of the Son of Man, before Jesus' coming to complete his work among us, and that coming is beyond the powers of this world to prevent. It is more wondrous than the words of this world to describe. It is the vision that gives us the strength, the hope, the courage to carry on, and to do so experiencing the abundant life even now that is breaking into the world in Jesus' word. Luke's community saw their world crumbling, and in the midst of that, with hearts "not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life," caught a glimpse of God's kingdom come near. When we are willing to confront the suffering around us truthfully and serve as agents of God's hope in the midst of that, God gives us grace to glimpse it too -- and the height and depth and breadth of what God is bringing about that we can glimpse together will keep us grounded when everything else starts to shake. These times in God's timeline are the hour of redemption, an opportunity to experience participate in what God is doing in bringing peace, freedom, and wholeness to the world God made and loves.
Thanks be to God!