Third Sunday in Lent, Year A
If you haven't seen it before, I encourage you to check out this SarahLaughed.net reflection on the texts for this coming Sunday, the themes of which strike me as being as relevant as they were in 2005. I'm continuing to reflect on the texts, of course, and will see whether something new emerges that's worth sharing.
Proper 19, Year C
If you haven't seen it before, please take a look at my entry from three years ago, "The Parable of the Ninety-Nine, Or Why It's Probably a Good Thing That Sheep Don't Talk." This week, I want to take as a launching point the three questions with which I closed that parable:
- At the end of the story, where is the shepherd?
- At the end of the story, where are the ninety-nine sheep?
- If one sheep is with the shepherd and ninety-nine aren't, who's really the stray?
My "Parable of the Ninety-Nine" reflects a number of dynamics in the church, but the questions at the end draw attention to one in particular, I think -- one I'd like to concentrate on this week.
Too often, we think of "ministry" as what happens in church buildings. And it might sound goofy at first, but I think many of us far too often go to church when we want to look for Jesus.
I'm not saying that we won't find Jesus in church. I certainly have, countless times and in powerful and wonderful experiences of Christian community. After all, church buildings frequently host gatherings of Christians, and the assembly of those called in Christ to join God's people is the very Body of Christ in this world. When two or three members of that Body gather, Jesus shows up. Jesus shows up every Sunday morning, and at lots of other times as well, in church buildings.
But Christian discipleship isn't just "having a relationship with Jesus Christ," or at the very least, it's a particular kind of relationship with Jesus:
We are called to follow Jesus, to follow the shepherd.
So why do we slip so often, then, into thinking that deepening Christian discipleship -- following Jesus -- is primarily or even in large part about coming again and again to the same place to meet with the same people? When did Jesus' "Great Commission" of making disciples -- followers of Jesus -- turn into a commitment to go to church and convince others to do the same?
Clearly, I believe the answer is that it didn't, and this Sunday's gospel is an invitation to rethink such an approach.
Jesus is, after all, a shepherd. By most ways of reckoning, he's got a pretty bizarre approach to shepherding -- one not unlike the approach of the farmer in the "Parable of the Sower," who tosses seed in parking lots and pigeon hangouts as well as on good soil, behaving as if seed were in unlimited supply and all soil were good. In this Sunday's gospel, Jesus is portrayed as a shepherd who will leave ninety-nine sheep to care for one. We should probably refer to our stained-glass windows showing Jesus carrying a single lamb on his shoulders as portraits of "The Loopy Shepherd." And yet Jesus suggests that this brand of foolishness is characteristic of the God who created the universe as well as of God's Son.
It's quite a radical statement, and not nearly the sweet and comforting, if somewhat sterile, scene in a lot of art about "The Good Shepherd." Those of us who have no experience of herding livestock might be tempted to think of scenes with shepherds as ones described by the genre of English poetry we call "the pastoral" -- rolling green hills, fresh air and sun, birds twittering peacefully.
The life of a shepherd wasn't like that much of the time, though. It was hard, as shepherds had to sleep out in the cold, exposed to the elements as well as to the predators from which the sheep were to be protected. It was lonely, spending day after day and night after night away from one's family. And it was not viewed as a respectable one. Shepherds' duties in the field left their aging parents, their wives, and their children unprotected at home, and therefore shepherds were widely viewed not only quite literally as perennial outsiders, but also as dishonorable men.
And yet it's the figure of a shepherd -- and one who leaves the ninety-nine sheep at that -- to which Jesus turns in this Sunday's gospel to help us understand what God is like and how God acts in the world.
So this Sunday, let's reflect on the invitation offered in the gospel: an invitation to look for God especially among the outsiders, the poor, the disgraced, those whom our world shelters least. If God is like the shepherd Jesus describes, and if Jesus is truly God's Son, doing what God does, then following Jesus requires venturing out to the margins.
That's one reason I speak so often and so highly of the movement to make extreme poverty history -- of those of us who style ourselves as being at the center of things and whose wealth and privilege put us at the center of worldly power working with others around the world to put our treasure -- and with it our hearts -- out to the margins, to the "bottom billion" trying to live without clean drinking water, access to basic education or medical services, and on less than a dollar a day. I'm enthusiastic about it because I see Jesus as I pursue it.
And while we don't have that kind of extreme poverty in the U.S., every community has its margins -- and therefore a horizon we can pursue to look for Jesus' action in the world. Whom do shopkeepers in your town monitor nervously or chase out of their stores? Who is "the wrong sort of person"? Who makes churchgoers jumpy? Who are the outsiders?
Some of them may be in church. And certainly a good, spiritually growing congregation will provide encouragement and support we may need to find, listen deeply to, serve, and learn from those who aren't in our churches and are probably outside our comfort zones as well.
But this Sunday's gospel invites us to think of church not as the destination for those seeking to follow Jesus and engage God's mission, but as a way station providing strength for the journey.
Thanks be to God!
Proper 17, Year C
Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16
Luke 14:1, 7-14
I was once in a congregation that took two-week turns with other area churches hosting a winter shelter for the homeless. One wintry Sunday morning, a parishioner came up to me in deep distress following the service. "There's a homeless man in the church," she said, "and we're not hosting the shelter this week. Could you do something about it?"
"Of course," I said, and I left my post on the greeting line, walked over to the man, introduced myself, and invited him to coffee hour.
I remember similar raised eyebrows in another congregation that had both a ministry of making bag lunches for homeless people and a group for people in their twenties and thirties when, after talking with a man who sometimes made use of the bag-lunch ministry that he was both Christian in his twenties, I invited him to the young adults' group. Sadly, several members of the group asked him to leave, telling him to come back when the bag lunches were out.
Let mutual love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels unawares. Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you were being tortured. (Hebrews 13:1-3)
I don't know of a single parish that doesn't have what are usually called "Outreach" ministries -- programs such as bag lunches or soup kitchens for the homeless, or raising money to send to a charity overseas. It's good that we know to do at least that much. Sometimes, though, I think the "Outreach" label is a bit of a misnomer, and "Charities" might be more accurate.
Is it really reaching out, after all, if the "outreach ministry" doesn't cultivate a sense that Christians -- rich or poor, black or red or brown or yellow or white -- are members of a single Body of Christ, and all people are children of God and members of one human family? Is what we celebrate on Sunday really a Eucharist in remembrance of Jesus if we, by things done and left undone, cultivate and perpetuate congregational cultures that have a strong and nearly impermeable boundary between those who are recipients of "Outreach," who should take what they're given, be grateful, and leave before the service starts, and those who are members, and therefore invited to worship and fellowship throughout the parish's life?
Jesus tells us in this Sunday's gospel that when we have a dinner party, we shouldn't invite our friends, relatives, or rich neighbors; we should invite the poor, the diseased, the marginalized. Lest we think that we're fulfilling that command solely by sending food or money to other people, Luke pairs this command with another: that we are called not to seek places of honor for ourselves, but to seek to honor others more.
"Honor" is a word that doesn't mean much to a lot of us, so it's worth drawing out a bit of just what that might mean in a cultural context that doesn't give the word the kind of resonance it had in Jesus' culture and Luke's. In the first-century Mediterranean world, "honor" wasn't a rather quaint and abstract value of elites or soldiers. Honor was community esteem in a world in which that esteem was not just immeasurably valuable, but necessary under many circumstances for survival. If your family was seen as without honor (and honor was held collectively by families -- one person's dishonorable behavior blew it for all), people wouldn't do business with you. Members of your family would be poorly placed to enter into a decent marriage -- and in a culture in which having honorable children who could and would care for you when you were old or sick was the only form of social security or retirement, that damage to your family's marriage prospects could put or keep you in utter poverty.
And what kinds of behavior were seen as honorable?
There's a game I've used with people of all ages (and intergenerational groups, where I think it can be particularly fun and poignant) to illustrate this. The game goes like this: There are cards on which a label is written -- "Monarch," "Noble," "Servant," or "Beggar." Each person gets one card taped to her or his back. Your job in the game is to circulate as if you were all at a party (sometimes I'll actually put food and drink out for the purpose), to look at the cards on the back of those with whom you interact, and try to behave as you think a person with your status -- whatever you think the card on your back says -- would treat a person of their status, as indicated by the card on their back. As you talk with other people, you find out more about what your status might be. And you find out very quickly what the card on your back says according to how those of various rank treat you.
Most people find it very easy very quickly to guess what's on their card. I find that the game almost always within five minutes results in four groups of people standing closely together and mostly or entirely ignoring all others -- each group consisting of people with the same label on their back, and the only cross-group interaction being "Monarchs" and "Nobles" trying to get "Servants" to bring them food and to throw out the "Beggars." The "Beggars" find out their status most quickly, since at first nobody at all wants to talk with them; there's no point in begging from one another, after all, and members of all other groups treat them as an unwelcome intrusion at best and less than human at worst.
The game works well to illustrate some of what honor meant because central to "honor" in the first-century Mediterranean world was treating people in a manner appropriate to their status. People honored their betters by treating them as their betters, thereby showing themselves as honorable people -- people who knew their station. They kept their family's honor by treating family as family and outsiders as outsiders. By their behavior in public -- and in Jesus' culture and Luke's, banquets themselves as well as who was invited and how were publicly observed and assessed -- higher-status people declared their honor by treating those below them appropriately, that is, according to their lower status. In other words, honor was about knowing your place and everyone else's and making sure that you behaved according to that hierarchy.
And so when Jesus tells his followers that they should humble themselves by choosing the lowest seat, he's advocating behavior that for all but the lowest at the banquet would be DIShonorable -- not at all how respectable people should behave. Jesus was seriously messing up the game. How can anyone know their place in any society, large or small, if people start treating that society's "Beggars" as if they were "Monarchs"?
The answer, of course, is that they might not. Treat those whom our the group culture -- whether our the group in question in a parish, a neighborhood, a nation, or a world -- says are of no account as if they were not only human beings, but our sisters and brothers or even our betters, and this group's "Beggars" will start getting uppity ideas about their status. They'll start acting as if they belonged.
And before we start congratulating ourselves as to how egalitarian our culture is compared to those wacky people of the ancient world, it's worth noting, for example, that a recent study of a quarter of a million U.S. households (hat tip: A Guy in the Pew) suggests not only that we prefer to do the kinds of things people do in my little "Monarchs and Beggars at Banquet" game, but that we're willing to pony up one of the most ready indicators of value in our culture -- that is, money -- to do it. Furthermore, I've observed anecdotally and studies following "white flight" and commuting patterns suggest that we privileged people are also often willing to spend a lot more time commuting -- away from our families and stuck in traffic or on trains -- to live in communities that are more homogenous in income, education, and ethnicity.
Jesus has a word for us that could really mess up that game.
Jesus says that we who are privileged should seek to place others in positions of privilege. He says that we should treat the poor, the sick, and the marginalized as our friends and family as well as our honored dinner guests.
This is no game. It's radical behavior that, if done consistently will instill some radical ideas: outcasts will come to see themselves as God's insiders, and that kind of thinking will inspire movements that give them access to the center of our groups and our society. Things will change -- a great deal -- when we take the next step beyond charity to treat the lowest as the most honored.
Extreme poverty could be a memory by the year 2015 -- not only eliminating a great deal of senseless suffering and death, but giving this world the voices of millions of people and their dreams who in previous generations would have been denied an education if they survived at all.
Neighborhoods segregated not only by access to income and education, but also by access to hope and power, could become a distant memory too. Our children's lives could be enriched by learning and playing alongside friends from all cultures in a society in which every child has a chance. We could spend less time and energy running from problems belonging to "those people" and use it in fellowship in which we see God in the faces of our diverse communities as well as our families.
Big changes in our world brought about by one big change in our behavior we have seen modeled in Jesus' life, ministry, and death on a cross. Jesus, whom our faith holds as the human being most worthy of honor, the King of Kings, treated the most marginalized people he met as if they were monarchs. If he saw a card on their backs, it didn't say that they were beggars who don't belong; it had titles such as "Child of God," "Beloved," "God's Image," only a little lower than the angels, in Shakespeare's phrase.
It's a radical way of life that respectable people thought dishonorable.
It's the way of life that the God who created the universe vindicated by raising Jesus from the dead.
And that tells us that Jesus' way is the Way of Life, the very heartbeat of the universe God made and loves.
Thanks be to God!
August 30, 2007 in Community, Eucharist, Evangelism, Hebrews, Honor/Shame, Justice, Kinship/Family, Luke, ONE campaign/Millennium Development Goals, Ordinary Time, Power/Empowerment, Year C | Permalink | Comments (1)
Proper 12, Year C
Luke 11:1-13 - link to NRSV text
I was having a conversation the other day with a friend about something I've observed in American Christianity in particular: the tendency to think of following Jesus and Christian faith primarily if not solely as a matter of interior disposition -- of trying to have more kindly attitudes toward some people and perhaps to feel righteously angry toward others, to feel sad about people living in poverty or without "knowing the Lord," to feel warm devotion toward God, to feel humble and grateful, for example -- and that if you've got that interior disposition down, if your "heart's in the right place," and if in addition to that you stay out of trouble, you're pretty much doing what Jesus taught his followers to do.
Our gospel for this Sunday is a healthy antidote for that. It's by no means an isolated case -- you can't read the prophetic books of the Hebrew scriptures, the gospels, or Paul's letters in particular without coming across plenty of such antidotes -- but I hope this Sunday that many preachers will point out that the "Lord's Prayer" as we read it this Sunday includes a petition that very bold indeed for many of us to pray.
Luke presents Jesus teaching disciples to pray that God would forgive our sins "as we forgive everyone indebted to us." This is not the parallelism we use in most liturgical versions of the "Lord's Prayer"; it is in the Greek quite clearly a request to God to treat our sins as we treat monetary debts. The "forgiveness" we are invited to extend to others is not a personal well-wishing; it is changing the material circumstances of the poor such that they and their families no longer teeter on the brink of disaster, but can earn their living by their work. And we as Jesus' followers are taught to ask God to extend mercy toward us in our sin precisely to the degree that we extend mercy toward others with our wealth and our power.
I wonder what would happen if wealthy Christians (and if, for example, you make $25,000 annually, that puts you in the richest 10% of the world's population -- check out where you fall on the "Global Rich List") really made that our prayer.
Our congregations' "success" wouldn't be measured by how many people show up for worship on a Sunday so much as by how much our efforts to educate and encourage one another in discipleship were making a difference for the world's poor.
We wouldn't see getting people to come to church as the fullest expression of "evangelism"; it isn't "evangelism," after all, if it is in no way good news for the poor.
I think that we would find it easier to come together across theological or theopoliticial difference to engage fully and joyfully in mission to end extreme poverty. And I think we would do it with deep and unreserved joy.
We have, after all, been richly blessed by God, and I think our gospel for this Sunday underscores that in a number of ways.
Jesus' disciples ask him to teach them to pray. The "Lord's Prayer" is only the beginning of his response to that request in Luke's gospel. After the prayer, Jesus tells a story of a most ungenerous so-called "friend." The man is blessed with the means to fulfill his community's obligation (a shared obligation) to feed a traveler in need.
How does such a blessed man called pray? With words, certainly, but also with action. How could he ask God to "give us each day our daily bread," and then fail to give that bread to one of those for whom he has asked God to provide?
The man tells his friend no. How is the man's friend called to pray? If he has prayed for the coming of God's kingdom and the messianic banquet, how can he leave one friend without bread when another has it? The friend keeps banging on the door. Luke calls it "shamelessness" in verse 8 (the NRSV inexplicably renders it as "persistence," although that's not a meaning of anadeia in ancient Greek). The shouting friend is in effect conducting a public protest threatening to expose the richer man's lack of hospitality, and it works. The shameless protest is a prayer as well as an answer to prayer; through it each has daily bread.
I find it quite scary to pray that God would treat my sins as I treat debt and other burdens that keep the poorest in poverty. Is that a prayer that I want God to answer? And when I pray that God's kingdom would come, and that we each would have daily bread, I can't help but be a bit nervous wondering whether my prayer will be answered as the rich man's was -- with a friend who, if need be, will expose how shallow my prayers often are if I will not participate in God's mission to answer them.
And I pray nonetheless.
I pray, and I look for opportunities to participate in God's answering that prayer, in God's reconciling the divide between rich and poor and everyone of us breaking bread together at the messianic banquet. I ask and I seek knowing that it feels risky to do so, and as I do that, I find not only friends -- and I am grateful for such friends -- who will hold me accountable to my prayers, but also a God who is generous beyond my asking.
I may pray that God would be generous toward me in the way that I'm generous toward others, and one of the most helpful things I've found in praying this way is that it reminds me again and again just how freely God showers blessings. I acknowledge the poverty of my own expectations, and God astonishes me with mercy -- giving me not only the daily bread I need, but a renewed vision of a world in which bless one another as freely with all we have to offer as God blesses us.
As Jesus teaches us to pray, with our lives as well as our lips, we are invited to see the world as Jesus sees -- the world's wounds as opportunity for healing and reconciliation, the world's needs as opportunity to experience God's generosity afresh by participating in its expression toward the poor, a account of deserving as a measure of just how much God's love exceeds such reckoning.
Thanks be to God!
Proper 10, Year C
Luke 10:25-37 - link to NRSV text
I'm going to build this week on what I said three years ago about "The Parable of the Good Samaritan."
The people who pass by the injured man are NOT portrayed by Jesus as the heartless jerks a lot of people today make them out to be. The priest and the Levite were on their way to serve in the Temple. It was service commanded by God, and touching a corpse (which, for all they knew, is what the injured man was) would have rendered them unclean and therefore unable to serve. And since being a priest or Levite was a function of bloodline, not of choice, it's not like they could have just had some random person fill in for them.
Before we point to them as nasty hypocrites, we ought to think long and hard about the roles we embrace (voluntarily, even) that obligate us to particular sets of people in ways that leave us less flexible to respond to the needs of others. If a mother with two-year-old twins in the car pulled over and got out of the car to see whether a man lying at the side of the road needed help was a robber (or worse) faking it, would we say that she was a "Good Samaritan," or a foolish person? If a father of young children decided that he couldn't give any more than a tenth, say, of his gross income to feed poor children elsewhere lest he not have enough to save for his family's "rainy day," would we say that he was refusing to be a "Good Samaritan," or that he was refusing to be a bad parent?
The point of our gospel for this Sunday is not that Samaritans can be nice and priests and Levites can be jerks. The point comes as Jesus turns the lawyer's query ("Who is my neighbor?" -- i.e., "To whom am I obligated?") on its head. Jesus asks, "Who was a neighbor to the injured person?" -- a question that they lawyer can't answer without putting himself in the place of the penniless, naked, and half-dead guy in the ditch. The question as the lawyer asks it is one that seeks the limits of compassion: "Whom am I obligated to help?" The question that Jesus invites him to ask himself is one that seeks actively to expand or erase those limits. If I or someone I loved needed CPR, who would be "good enough" for me to want them to administer it? Absolutely anyone who knew how to give it. Absolutely anyone I'd want to give CPR if s/he were able and came upon me or someone I loved in need of it is my neighbor, the person God invites me to love as I love myself.
"Invites"? Is that the word I mean? I think so. The lawyer's question is about obligations, and it's perfectly legitimate to say that our gospel for this Sunday teaches that we are obligated to love as we love ourselves anyone whose CPR would be good enough if s/he could give it and we needed it. But I really do view it as an invitation, and an exciting one.
People who know me well or have been reading this blog a while know that I love the Gospel According to Luke, and I particularly love what Luke does with the story of the calling of the first disciples. Jesus meets some people fishing. They're not fishing for recreation; they're doing backbreaking daily labor hoping beyond hope that somehow they'll catch enough fish to be able to pay all of the fees required, mend the nets, have a boat to go out in the next day, and still have enough to feed themselves and their families for the day. It's a precarious existence, asking yourself every dawn, "Will I catch enough fish today to feed my family?" It's a cruel world to live in.
Jesus introduces those who hear his call to another world. When fishers meet Jesus, they encounter such abundance that it literally threatens to swamp the boat. In that moment, the fishers' most urgent need becomes the need to find partners -- anyone with a boat who will respond. In that moment, the crucial and constant question of "Will I catch enough fish today to get by?" becomes, "Can I gather enough people to take in this day's abundance?" In that moment, they become fishers of people.
I live in the wealthiest nation on the planet, and still I know a great many people who are exhausted and anxious almost constantly. They spend countless hours working, commuting to work, and worrying about work so they can provide everything our culture defines as a material need -- including a house and/or tuition that are far more than they can afford, but that will allow their kids to go to the "right" schools. They spend hours shuttling their kids around to the zillions of activities our culture says kids need to be healthy and successful. They feel constantly overextended, and with all of their hard work, they toss and turn at night with waking nightmares about being one paycheck, one illness, one layoff, one rotten stroke of luck away from disaster. And perhaps the saddest thing is that as they take on all of these other obligations so they can meet what they feel are their obligations to their children, they pass along to their children all of that anxiety, all of that feeling overextended, put upon, and trapped.
What a cruel world to live in! What an awful world in which to raise a child! No wonder that few people living in a world like that sigh when some preacher stands up to tell them that their obligations go even further.
The Good News is that we don't have to live in a world like that. We can live in the rein of God that broke through into this world in Jesus' ministry.
That's the invitation God issues to us, this Sunday and every hour of every day. That's the world we experience when we accept God's invitation. We can embrace the mission of a God who is not exhausted, put upon, and looking for reasons to cut back on the number of people to bless and love, but is fully alive, moving, and active, blessing in limitless abundance, and loving with more power in the world for every person in the world with whom God's love is shared. When we align our way of living with God's love and God's mission, that's what we experience. When we live in an active search for opportunities to extend mercy and compassion, we experience more fully the reality that this world and every one of us was created by the God of mercy and compassion. Parents, isn't that the world you want your children to grow up in? Isn't that the world we all want to live in?
So this Sunday, as we read a parable of great need being met with surprising compassion, let's think of at least one way we can try out that way of life, that we can look actively for opportunities to extend mercy when and where it's needed.
Commuters, see what it feels like to spend one week of commutes looking actively for opportunities to let in someone who needs to switch lanes -- even or especially if it's someone driving on the shoulder to try to get ahead. It's really very stressful to try to shave every fraction of a second possible from commute time, and to try to stay safe while making sure that nobody driving "unrighteously" prospers by it -- and in my experience, it's actually kind of fun as well as much more relaxing if while stuck in traffic you drop the taxing tasks of monitoring everyone else's driving for infractions and devote that energy to looking actively for opportunities to exercise compassion. A similar dynamic comes into play when we stop calculating how much we have to give to avoid feeling guilty and start thinking and praying about how we can express with our time, our compassionate listening, our energy, and our material resources just how abundantly and recklessly God blesses the world God made and loves.
That works in part because, as Robert Maurer writes in One Small Step Can Change Your Life: The Kaizen Way, of how our brains work, how we're made. When we ask ourselves a particular question repeatedly every day, our mind becomes accustomed to gathering that information all the time so it's there when we call for it. When we repeatedly remind ourselves of scarcity and ask ourselves how we can get more, our mind becomes conditioned for anxiety, gathering constantly as a "background process" (to use a metaphor drawn from computers) any information that could suggest scarcity, danger, ways in which we are or could be wronged. The more we worry, the more we see cause to worry. I often think that's why so many people think that the state of the world gets worse and worse -- not because the gross or net evil done or challenges faced are that much greater, but because we carefully tune our attention with years of effort toward the information most likely to make us feel miserable.
Does that describe you? Then change it! Decide that you're going to use something that occurs every day -- stepping in the shower, eating a meal, stopping at a red light -- as a prompt to ask yourself what you're grateful for, how God has blessed you. I particularly like using the red light or pressing the car brakes as a cue for a blessings inventory; over time, it changes the habitual question in that moment from "how late am I running?" to things more like "is it a nice day out?" and "how lucky am I to be loved by this person?" What if we took balancing the checkbook as an opportunity to inventory not what disasters could happen and how little we have to shield ourselves, but how much we have and ask ourselves whether we can share more? What if we took every time we pull out our wallet as that kind of opportunity -- a chance to say (as I often do in sermons like this), "Wow -- I've got enough to get gourmet coffee -- do I have more than I think to hasten the end of poverty? How cool would that be?"
The more intentionally and deeply we look for opportunities to express gratitude for God's blessing by extending that to others, the more deeply we experience that blessing. The Good News is that the Creator of the universe set it up so that every good gift shared is "the gift that keeps on giving." The world God made isn't a vicious circle but an arc toward justice and wholeness. Forward my mail there, because I'm moving in!
Thanks be to God!
Proper 9, Year C
Luke 10:1-11, 16-20
This week, I'm going to build on my entry from three years ago -- Proper 9, Year C in 2004. There's a great deal more that can be said about this passage, but one of the points I emphasized three years ago has struck me afresh in a slightly different way, and it stems from the question of why the number of apostles sent in this Sunday's gospel is significant.
And I'd like to start, as I did in 2004, by noting that this passage is one of many excellent reasons we shouldn't talk about "the twelve disciples," as if there were only twelve of them, or "the twelve apostles," as if the Twelve were the only ones Jesus sent out (which is what "apostle" means -- "one sent" by another as messenger, ambassador, or agent). The group of Jesus' followers and the group of those sent out by Jesus in his ministry prior to his death and resurrection included women as well as men; Luke 8:1, among other texts, goes out of its way to point out that Jesus' followers depended upon women among them as patrons and leaders. Luke and Acts make clear that the Twelve did not serve any function of governance for the church. Indeed, most of the Twelve aren't portrayed as prominent leaders among the disciples or the early church. The gospels don't even agree on their names -- just on there being twelve of them -- much as there are twelve baskets of leftovers from the "feeding of the five thousand," as Luke is careful to show in tandem with Jesus' sending the Twelve out on a mission in chapter 9 of his gospel.
Twelve, as in the twelve tribes of Israel. It's a number representing all of Israel. Jesus' choosing twelve men to represent the twelve patriarchs of Israel shows his authority to reconstitute and restore the people of Israel. Jesus' feeding five (the number of books in the Pentateuch, the five books of Moses that all Israel accepted as scripture) thousand and there being enough fragments of bread to fill twelve baskets brings to mind the sojourn of God's people in the desert as the Hebrews were freed from the "narrow place" (as I blogged three years ago, that's what Mitzrayim, the Hebrew name for Egypt, means) of slavery and formed as a people, God's people. And much as the blessing of God's manna in the wilderness was of such abundance that none had need to hoard and all of God's people were fed, Jesus proclaims God's blessing on Creation such that all are fed with enough leftovers to feed all Israel all over again. Twelve baskets, twelve sent out.
This week, there are seventy sent out. Seventy, like the number of books in the Septuagint -- the translation of the wider collection of books the Pharisees, our spiritual ancestors as Christians, accepted as scripture, including the prophetic books such as Isaiah, into Greek so that the whole known world around the Mediterranean could hear the word of the God of Israel. Seventy, like the number of elders chosen to share Moses' spirit of prophesy and burden of leadership (Numbers 11:16-17). Seventy, like the number of times time seven that Jesus' followers are to forgive. Seventy, a number of completion, of wholeness.
Sisters and brothers, Jesus sends out seventy as workers for the harvest, to proclaim that God's rein has arrived, that the accuser of humanity has fallen. Jesus sends out seventy -- a number of fullness and wholeness -- to exercise authority over every spirit and every condition that oppresses God's children. I wish we included the whole passage through verse 24 in our lectionaries, so we could hear in worship the words that "I tell you, many prophets and kings desired to see the things you are seeing, and they did not see, and to hear the things you are hearing, but did not hear it."
I wish that we read those words because, as folks who were at the U2charist in Michigan a couple of weeks ago know, it has been pressed on my heart that we who are alive now are privileged with a particular opportunity, a particular resonance to Jesus words that "today the scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing." We have an opportunity to see the end of extreme poverty, of people living on less than a dollar of day, of a child dying every three seconds of easily preventable diseases. We have an opportunity by 2015, in our lifetime, to see an end to suffering we're used to thinking of as infinite if we can bear to think of it at all. The Millennium Development Goals (or MDGs), people call it, the campaign to Make Poverty History, the ONE campaign. They don't entirely encompass the scope of God's mission, of the reach of God's limitless love for the world, but they're an excellent milestone on God's way of offering Good News for the poor. God's mission includes even more than the Millennium Development Goals -- so pay attention, anyone who (unlike many of the world's leading economists) thinks those are too ambitious! -- but they're a timely, if modest, expression of Good News for the poor, and Jesus' sending of the Seventy should give heart to those of us who want to hear what prophets and kings have desired to hear, those of us who want to experience firsthand a taste of the banquet on offer when "the scripture is fulfilled in your hearing."
Because as much as we might be tempted to say that it would have been sufficient (I can't help but echo the Passover dayenu when I think of Jesus, Luke's "prophet like Moses," leading exodus from every "narrow place") for Christ to empower the Twelve, the tribes of Israel, to do what God is doing in the world, Christ empowers the Seventy. Those who read to the end of Luke's gospel and through part II of it, also known as the Acts of the Apostles, know that even more is to come, because God is granting Moses' wish, "would it were that all God's people were prophets," Joel's vision of the Spirit poured out upon all flesh.
And all God's people should pay attention, because this concerns us all. Those sent out aren't a tiny group of guys in bathrobes. It's all God's people. It's you and me, sisters and brothers, and everyone who will hear the call, as the workers are few indeed compared to the abundance of the harvest. Luke begins the story of Jesus' public ministry with Jesus' version of a 'mission statement,' delivered to his hometown synagogue in Nazareth:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor.
An ambitious mission statement, Christ's mission on earth. And we are the Body of Christ. Christ's mission is the mission we are called to engage in, as we are in Christ. So I'd like to say to y'all what I said to folks in Michigan a couple of weeks ago, one of the things I say to anyone who will listen whenever I have opportunity to say it when I'm awake in a context in which I think it could bear fruit:
Put this on your bathroom mirror to see when you brush your teeth at night and in the morning. Stick it on a post-it on your car's dashboard. Put it in your wallet to see whenever you pull out a credit card or some cash. Because you are a member of the Body of Christ, and Christ's mission statement is for you.
The Spirit of the Lord is upon you, because God has anointed you to bring Good News to the poor.
Impossible? Under ordinary reckonings of human capacity, I guess so. But for the Body of Christ, the mission for which Christ was anointed cannot be impossible. In Baptism, you were made part of Christ's very Body on earth. The Spirit with which Christ was anointed has been poured out -- not just on the Twelve, not just on seventy, but on the whole of God's people.
The Spirit of the Lord is upon you, because God has anointed YOU to bring Good News to the poor. And nothing is impossible with God's Spirit.
Thanks be to God!
Day of Pentecost, Year C
Acts 2:1-21 or Genesis 11:1-9
Romans 8:14-17 or Acts 2:1-21
John 14:8-17, (25-27)
If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be among you.
This is Jesus' promise in the gospel for this Sunday, the Day of Pentecost. Some translations render the last clause as "in you," but "among" is grammatically at least as good a translation, and it's one that I think makes much better sense theologically.
After all, what are Jesus' "commandments" in the Gospel According to John? The word "commandment" is used ten times in the Gospel According to John. Once (in John 11:57), it is a "commandment" (or "order") from certain Pharisees to report Jesus' whereabouts that he might be arrested. In John 10:18, 12:49-50, and once of the two times the word appears in John 15:10, the word refers to a command from the Father, in each of these cases a command from the Father to Jesus. So if we want to know what Jesus means in the Gospel According to John when, in John 14, he talks about "my commandments" to be kept by disciples, we should look at the remaining times the word "commandment" appears in John, in the same extended discourse:
John 13:34-35 -- "I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another."
John 15:9-12 -- "As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love ... This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you."
I have thought often of these words and others like them over the past few years, as painful conflict has led many people in my life and in communities I've worked in to question whether we (and everyone thinks of "we" in different ways, including and excluding different groups) might really be better off making a stand with like-minded others and forgetting about the rest. I'm not talking about blithe disregard for others, but of a position born of some combination of pain and principle -- a position a lot of us find ourselves in, or sometimes think we're in, in which we're struggling honestly with how we can live with integrity and also live with these others.
There are a plethora of reasons we need one another. When I think about God's mission in the world -- the audacious vision of a world transformed by God's love in Christ, a world in which poverty and war are unknown and every child has the chance to live and grow and make use of her or his gifts from God, and world in which God's love finds flesh in every relationship in God's Creation -- I can't imagine saying that anyone's gifts are dispensable for realizing such an encompassing vision.
But this Sunday's gospel makes clear something even more basic than that. It's simply not possible to follow Jesus on our own; we need one another -- ALL of us. It's not possible to keep Jesus' command to love others if we're living in some metaphorical cave, isolated from those we are commanded to love.
Somehow, though, I can't imagine anyone being really inspired to love -- especially to stay in loving relationship with others even when that's difficult or painful* -- by a finger-wagging admonition to OBEY THE COMMANDMENT.
That's not all we've got by a long stretch, though. We've got the Spirit, the person of the Trinity we focus on particularly on the Day of Pentecost.
The Spirit is closely tied not only in John, but also in the Luke/Acts and Paul's writings, with love for one another in Christian community. When I say "love," I'm not talking about warm and fuzzy feelings for people. Take a look at Acts 2, when the Spirit comes upon those gathered in Jerusalem for Pentecost. These people didn't even speak the same language; they hardly could have imposed a test of doctrinal or political orthodoxy on one another. But they gathered anyway. We tend all too often to think of the order of things as "we come to agreement, and then the Spirit comes," or at least "we know the Spirit has come among us when we have come to agreement," but that's not how it happens in Acts 2. The Spirit is not hanging out in the heavens saying, "oh, now THAT looks like an amazingly well-organized and harmonious gathering, with everyone looking at things in the same way; I think I'll go there." The room in which the believers are gathered when the Spirit comes upon the gathering probably sounded at least superficially rather like Babel -- and THAT is where the divided tongues of the Spirit unite those gathered in an astonishing reversal of Babel.
Is that so surprising? There were, after all, some important differences between the Christians gathered at Pentecost and the builders at Babel. It may sound odd at first that Babel, where everyone speaks the same language and all are united in a common enterprise, is where humanity is divided, while Pentecost, where people don't speak the same language, let alone think in the same ways, is where the Spirit unites the people. And it certainly sounds odd to many -- especially to some of us Anglicans who value all done 'decently and in order' -- that the effect of the Spirit could lead to such turmoil -- women and slaves and young men speaking up alongside the elders who could take their voice for granted in a patriarchal culture -- that onlookers would think that all were drunk.
And that isn't the half of it. This isn't just a particularly raucous worship service from which everyone goes home scratching their heads and everything resumes as it was in the morning. People are baptized, and as we remember in our Baptismal Covenant, "they devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of the bread and the prayers," and "all who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need" (Acts 2:42-45). Acts 4 makes the tie between the Spirit's work even clearer. I've written both in The Witness and here (among other places) on SarahLaughed.net about the conjunction missing in most English bibles' translation of Acts 4:32-35, which I'm putting in boldface below:
Now the whole group of those who trusted were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possession, but everything they owned was held in common. With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all, for there was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles' feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.
And that's just the kind of turmoil -- that radical change in behavior that makes a radical change in the world -- that characterizes the Spirit's work. That's how people divided at Babel become one in the Spirit. In other words, we experience the power of Jesus' resurrection and great grace when we love one another -- not just by holding hands and singing "Cumbaya," but with deeds showing real love. We all love our children, and none of us would choose to allow our own children to grow up in extreme poverty -- without clean water, sufficient and good food, decent medical care, or the basic education to be able to make their way in the world -- just so we could hold on to an extra one percent of our income. Who could do that to their children and call themselves a loving parent? So I have to ask the question: can we say that we "love one another" as Christians in an increasingly small world when we do that to someone else's child, whether on the next block or another continent? Can we say that if we hold on to our money OR fail to lift our voice when just ONE percent more of the wealthiest countries' wealth would more than eliminate extreme poverty by the year 2015? Or let me put it this way:
Personally, I am energized by the vision of a world without extreme poverty; nothing that could happen at Lambeth 2008 excites me as much as thinking about the celebration that could happen at Lambeth 2016 -- the celebrations that could happen all over the world -- in a world in which extreme poverty is history. Think of the power to which we could testify to Jesus' resurrection, the stories we could tell of new life, having engaged in God's compassionate mission and seen such a wonder. Do we want to know Jesus? Do we want to experience the joy and the peace, the freedom from fear and worry, the power of the Spirit that gives us new life and new life to the world? Then we know what to do: we follow Jesus, and love one another as he loves us. I'm just one person, but I am one person who is part of the one Body of Christ. I am one with children in extreme poverty, and I am one with many even more privileged and powerful than I am. And the Spirit who makes us one is calling us to gather -- in all of our diversity of language and culture and thought and experience, in our riches and our poverty -- to love as Jesus loves.
* I want to be absolutely clear: I am NOT talking about someone continuing to live in a setting of domestic physical, sexual, or emotional abuse. If you're being abused, please GET OUT and get help as soon as you possibly can; any healing or reconciliation that could happen needs to start with your safety. I'm talking about staying in community when there's serious and painful conflict.
(Click here to return to the reflection.)
May 25, 2007 in Acts, Community, Current Events, Evangelism, Genesis, Holy Spirit, John, Justice, ONE campaign/Millennium Development Goals, Pentecost, Power/Empowerment, Year C | Permalink | Comments (0)
Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany, Year C
I hope you'll pardon me if I start with a shameless plug, as the gospel passage for this Sunday and my reading of it play a substantial role in the Connect course I wrote with John de Beer, one of the founders of the Education for Ministry (EFM) program.
Connect is a six-week exploration of what it can mean to connect to a Eucharistic community. It takes place in small groups that invite participants to gather over a dinner to reflect on and share their own stories, and to explore what it might mean to see those stories in context of the larger story of God's love and redemption of the world. The experience of gathering, breaking bread, inviting, experiencing, and acknowledging God's presence among the gathered community, and exploring what God's call might be to each of us is in itself a sacramental experience that helps unchurched participants, should they decide to join the congregation for worship, understand and have made personal connection with the liturgy of the Eucharist.
One of the most interesting things about Connect for me is that we have released it on an "open source" basis. You don't have to pay anything at all to download it or use it; you do, however, commit to sharing any adaptations or modifications you make to it on the same basis as Connect itself is distributed. The practical advantages of "open source" development and distribution are clear from what they've done for programs like the Firefox web browser, which can offer extensive support from others who use the product and innumerable "plug-ins" and translations that make it more stable and more useful to more people. That's my hope for distributing Connect on an "open source" basis -- and I hope it will inspire others developing resources to do the same.
I also have a theological reason for this approach to Connect's "open source" way. The dinners in Connect are designed to give people an experience of what they're hearing about in Jesus' ministry. They are welcomed to a community that understands that they have gifts to offer the community, including their story, and that encourages them to offer their gifts. They experience a small taste of what it's like to be in a community that lives as one Body and shares with one another as freely and graciously as God is with us. And I think those messages are also underscored by Connect being "open source." As developers of the course, we're sharing what wisdom we've got, but we assume that you all have gifts that could make it much better, and appropriate for use in far more communities. Because Connect is "open source," those who have expressed interest in versions for university campuses, Native American communities, Australian cultural settings, and numerous other communities have been free -- applauded, even -- for taking the Connect materials, modifying them appropriately, and letting us know what you've done and how it worked.
In short, rather than seeing evangelism and Christian formation as a "pie" of a market with all of us competing for slices, we've started, continued in, and pray to finish faithful to a central point in Jesus' teaching and ministry:
God's love and grace are so abundant as to be inexhaustible, and the more we enter into that, the more we joyfully seek to extend that kind of grace to others, and with all of God's good gifts. I'm not talking about feeling 'guilted' into generosity toward others, about being generous so God will notice and finally give us love and approval we've found to be too rare in our lives, or about trying to earn some kind of generosity medal that will help us get some other limited and valuable commodity, like others' respect.
I'm talking about a personal transformation that can transform the world: I'm talking about LIVING with a deep sense that there is more than enough of "the good stuff" -- the things our truest selves, the people we were made to be in Christ, want, need, and enjoy. I'm talking about an end to the constant, creeping anxiety I've seen so much pastorally in communities -- especially the wealthiest and most powerful communities (so many of which are filled with wealthy people so overextended financially to afford those grand homes in the neighborhoods with the good schools that they are a single paycheck from bankruptcy) -- as we worry about whether we have or can accumulate enough to shield ourselves and our loved ones from illness, danger, and deprivation. I'm talking about the kind of emotional freedom and deep peace that comes when we no longer feel the need to worry about whether we can get enough love, peace, or approval. I'm not talking about what Bonhoeffer called "cheap grace"; I know the cost of discipleship can be steep in worldly terms. It's more than worth it, though -- not only because the shallow "peace" and "freedom" we get from accumulating resources and respectability for ourselves isn't nearly what it's cracked up to be, but also and more importantly because the abundance of real joy, peace, and love we can find following Jesus really can give us the true, eternal, and abundant life for which we thirst, and can let us start living into it now.
What I'm talking about it illustrated very well in this Sunday's gospel.
As Jesus comes across the fishers on the lake of Gennesaret, it's not hard to see how they could have concerns weighing profoundly on them. These are poor fishers. Every day as they go to their boats, they have to be wondering to themselves, "Will I catch enough fish today?" They have families to feed, and on top of that they have to get access to and repair the boats, get and maintain the nets. Fishing rights on the lake could cost them nearly half of a catch, and they were often paid far less than their catch was worth besides. Life was precarious at best, and it wasn't always at its best. One storm, one rotten stroke of luck could spell disaster.
So every day, a nagging worry: "Will we catch enough fish today to survive?"
And then Jesus calls them. They respond, and let down their nets once more. And in an instant, the central question in their life changes.
They have caught such abundance that they can't spare a moment to ask the now-ridiculous question of "Will we catch enough fish for my family to survive?" -- the far more urgent question is "Can we gather enough people to take in this abundance such that it doesn't swamp the boat?" Their lives are forever changed; as Jesus says, "from now on, you will be catching people."
What would it mean for us to hear Jesus' call to a similar transformation? I'd like to dream aloud about that a bit.
What would my life look like if I always looked with joy upon others' accomplishments, and without the slightest niggling doubt of whether they mean that others will grab limited slots for (you name it -- ordination, employment, perception of "hipness")?
What would my household budget look like if it was guided more by a concern for others' immediate needs to sustain life than by a worry of what would happen to me if my car broke down, I got sick with something that would leave me with bills I couldn't pay, or I didn't have money for tuition?
What would church politics look like if the basis for our every plan was the certain knowledge that God is providing what we need for our participation in God's mission, and therefore there is no need to grasp at what others have? If we believed and lived the conviction that God's grace and love are such that we don't have to choose any population to shut out or shout down, and can afford to "strive to outdo one another in showing honor," as St. Paul writes in Romans 12:10? What if we took energy spent on competing for shares of budgets and used it to foster generosity to increase them?
What would the world look like if those of us who seek to follow Jesus let him transform our lives around the central question, "How will we gather enough people to share God's abundance?"
Among other things, I suspect that the Millennium Development Goals would then seem less like an audacious vision we hope to achieve IF (and only if) everything goes smoothly and no other needs arise, and more like a helpful, albeit modest, first step. Fully funding them would be a given -- we NEED all of these people, all of these children of God, to take in the abundance God gives! We can't afford to lose a single one to what U2's singer Bono calls "stupid poverty" -- this poverty that we can eliminate with resources we've got. And there is no one too conservative or too progressive or too anything else to justify ignoring or slighting their gifts. I have faith that God has given each and every one of us something else in immeasurable, overflowing abundance, and that's compassion.
That might sound hard to believe at first. Steve Cook has done an outstanding job in his post this week on Isaiah 6 sketching some of the ways in which we can choose a path that desensitizes us to both the pain and the gifts of those around us in a way that can become a vicious circle (as U2 puts it, "You become a monster / so the monster will not break you"). Each one of us has the capacity to experience God's compassion for us, and when we do, we will find it an urgent need every day to find others to help take it in and extend it to others in turn.
Thanks be to God!
[And if you're curious about Connect, you can get more information on it and on the other two parts of the Klesis (from the Greek word for "call") program to which it belongs and can download Connect for free here.]
Christmas Day, Year C
I owe a lot in my reading of the infancy narratives in Luke and Matthew to Richard Horsley's outstanding (and, unfortunately, out of print) The Liberation of Christmas. I heartily recommend checking it out from the library to read it during Advent next year. It's short (176 pages), readable, and the best cure I've ever come across for a vision of the birth of Jesus that's all about adorable pastoral scenes and children with tea-towels on their heads and sweetness and light, with very little connection to the radical, life-changing, WORLD-changing person and message proclaimed through the rest of the canonical gospels.
I'd like to issue a challenge for Christmas sermons -- not just this year, but every year:
Let's preach sermons at Christmas that suggest something of why the LIFE of this person whose birth we're celebrating is important.
Or here's another way to think about it: I don't think we've given a good characterization of Jesus unless we communicate a sense of why powerful people found him a threat. I think our Christmas sermons should get some of that across.
I can hear two objections to this idea right away. The first: "Christmas is one of two times a year when a LOT of people who don't go to church often will come to worship. Anything challenging will just turn them off church for good." I don't buy that.
For one thing, I'm not talking about yelling at people or telling them they're going to have to sell everything they have; I'm just talking about a little truth in advertising. Following Jesus can change your life. Following Jesus can change the world. This is profoundly Good News for anyone who's ever encountered darkness, anyone who's ever struggled, anyone who's ever looked at a newspaper headline and sighed, anyone who knows anyone living a broken life -- anyone who knows s/he is living a broken life. It's Good News for anyone who knows there is brokenness in the world and who wants wholeness.
I suspect that this category includes an awful lot of people who don't go to church. I suspect that a lot of them aren't going to church specifically because nobody has ever suggested to them that being part of the life of a church will do anything more than boost their perceived respectability, maybe clean up their act a little, maybe feel a little more loved as they meet a few more friends. But really, what is it that our communities of faith have to offer that doesn't happen at least as often in the Sierra Club, the local P.T.A. or Neighborhood Watch, eHarmony?
One potential one-word answer to that question might be "Jesus." But personally, I can't say that's quite it.
I've seen Jesus show up on mountain hikes -- as I'd expect from the prelude of the Gospel According to John. If Jesus is the logos through whom all things came into being, then of course I'd see Jesus in his creation.
I've seen Jesus show up in diverse groups gathered around a shared vision for schools and communities in which every child has a chance. I remember in particular one woman who had thought of herself as a nobody, someone no one would or should listen to, and about how one day, she was walking by a vacant building in her neighborhood that had been used a number of times by men who dragged a young girl on her way to school inside to assault her. This time, she got MAD. She got so mad that she brought all of who she was to bear to bring that building down -- she gathered the neighbors and wrote letters and stood up at meetings and refused to sit down just because the man with a jacket and tie sitting behind the microphone told her she should. The building came down like Jericho, and at the same time something of even greater long-term consequence happened: a prophet in and for the city was raised up. I've read about Jesus and the money-changers in the Temple, and I can tell you that I have seen this Jesus in that woman's eyes.
And I've been blessed to see Jesus in my own life and in others' in their self-giving, committed love. I've seen it in couples whose passionate union stokes their passion for the world; I've seen it in my single brothers and sisters whose powerful, faithful love for friend and stranger, and for other people's kids who desperately need the love and support they don't find at home, is a beacon for the world of the true love and real community for which it was made.
So yes, people can find Jesus in the Sierra Club and in the P.T.A., via eHarmony or in the house shared by activists in the 'hood.
And, by the way, people found God on mountaintops and the words of the prophets, in births and marriages and friendships, before Jesus was born. The Incarnation doesn't make a cold, distant God finally accessible to humanity. God was never cold, distant, or inaccessible. God has always loved Creation and humankind, each of whom God knew before they were born. God walked with us in the garden, freed us from slavery, gave us the Torah that teaches that the ultimate power in all the universe cares passionately and unwaveringly about our relationships with one another, and whether those relationships enact justice for the poor, for whom God has particular and passionate care.
I know that from Hebrew scripture. Heck, we can't say that scripture supports this commonly taught idea that Jesus' birth is exciting because it makes that cold and distant God accessible even if all we've read is the prologue of the Gospel According to John, which makes it as clear as day, and it's a potentially revolutionary vision:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. ... And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father's only son, full of grace and truth.
The radical vision that makes the rulers so very uncomfortable is not that Jesus is so much better than the God we knew before. It is that what we see in Jesus' life -- in Jesus' creativity and love, in Jesus' gathering of prophets and prostitutes, soldiers and lovers and lawyers and losers and any who would break bread with him, in Jesus' healing and teaching, in Jesus' forgiving and reconciling enemies -- is what the whole world has been the very heartbeat of the world from its very beginning. And in Jesus' life -- in what he said and did throughout his life -- we can see what this God whom Jesus proclaimed, this God whom Jesus incarnated, is about in the world.
That's why I don't think we can proclaim the Good News of Christmas, of the Feast of the Incarnation, without saying something about Jesus' ministry to come. If Jesus had been born as God made flesh and then lived to a ripe old (for his time) age of fifty as he worked hard, played by the rules, invested wisely in olive oil, paid his taxes, avoided the morally suspect and the poor (i.e., those we get to call impure because privileged folk can make them deal with those filthy things the privileged would rather avoid), raised his kids to do the same, and died as an example of just how much more peaceful things are when you just go with the flow within the world's empires, the Incarnation wouldn't necessarily be particularly good news at all. If t would just say that God was ever bit as banal as some people make God out to be. With that as the world's source and end, we may as well just hunker down and do the best we can for ourselves and those closest to us. That kind of incarnation would make out the power and love and wholeness of God we witness on mountaintops and the shoulders of the prophets among us and in loving relationships to be a kind of joke, or at best a fleeting distraction from the world as it was, and is, and always will be -- a very depressing one.
But that's NOT how it was at all. Remember a moment when you took in a view of Creation, of a human being, of loving community and you said, "THIS is living!"? Remember how you almost dared to think that it really was, that the world was made like this and the whole would could be like this? Well Jesus' life in its wholeness showed us that it really is and the whole world really could be, because God is. Everything really could be made whole. God is whole. And Jesus, who was broken by the worst our brokenness could dish out, is whole.
The person who does that is truly our Savior. That person is a serious threat to the worldly powers who think their might gives them that title. It may come as a surprise, given how often Christians these days use the title "Savior," that Luke 2:11 is the only place in the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) in which Jesus is called "Savior." And it's not coincidental that it occurs here. The passage starts with a reference to someone else who claimed the title "Savior": Caesar Augustus, whose conquering might was such, that, Luke points out, his decrees were said to bind "all the world" (Luke 2:1). And yet, in the city of David there was proclaimed another Savior: Jesus of Nazareth, proclaimed by angels in heaven and poor shepherds shut out from Caesar's shining cities as the anointed king, Christ the Lord.
In other words, it's not coincidental that the Greek word euagelion, which gave us the word "evangelism" and which we usually translate as "gospel" or "good news," is a word used in Greek literature for, among other things, the herald's announcement of a new emperor. In other words, the Caesars of this world can turn in their costumes; the role has been cast. We see the real power in this world, what it was made for and where it is bound, in Jesus' work among us.
That means that the healing and justice that is Jesus' mission will be the final word. Such Good News empowered Desmond Tutu to look at apartheid's security forces at the peak of their strength and say to them with confidence spilling into exuberant joy: "You can still join the winning side!" Such Good News of Jesus the Lord has given many I've known power to overcome all kinds of anxieties and addictions that enslave. Such Good News tells me that if I want to be on the side of the angels, I'll want to seek out those in this world who, like the shepherds, are left to live as best they can quite literally on the margins, vulnerable to weather, drought, and predator, in Caesar's order -- and I'll want to stand with them. They, and not the rich men in their palaces, are the first to bear witness to the Good News that is freeing and reconciling all. Rise up and follow the star!
A blessed, joyous Feast of the Incarnation to you all! And thanks be to God for such Good News.
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!