Proper 23, Year C
Dear SarahLaughed.net community,
You all may have noticed that I've been posting very late in the week recently. This semester is pretty crazy; I'm a full-time student in seminary, who's trying at the same time to finish my Ph.D. dissertation, find a new diocesan home, and work at two jobs. But I've resolved to get back to posting earlier in the week, when new posts are most helpful to preachers, and I appreciate your hanging in there with me in the meantime. Please don't forget that, although I just switched to the Revised Common Lectionary this past Advent, I did blog the entire cycle of readings in the lectionary of The Episcopal Church in the Book of Common Prayer, and there's a great deal of overlap. If I haven't posted yet on a text for which you're looking for inspiration, you may find the 'search this site' box in the left-hand sidebar helpful. The easiest way to find comment on a particular passage is often to enter the full name of the biblical book and the number of the chapter for which you want comment in quotation marks -- e.g., "Luke 17" for this week.
But here's this week's post:
Luke 17:11-19 - link to NRSV text
In this week's gospel, Jesus heals ten lepers. Jesus instructs them to go to the Temple in Jerusalem, as the Law requires. Nine of them obey Jesus, and head off for Jerusalem. But one of the cleansed lepers disobeys Jesus, and instead returns to thank him.
As I pointed out the last time I blogged on this passage, coming back to thank Jesus would not have been seen as the most polite course of action the lepers could take, even if Jesus hadn't instructed them to go to the Temple. If that seems puzzling, it might help to imagine how you'd feel if you'd been out to dinner with a friend, and when the check came, you'd paid it, saying to your friend as he reached for his wallet, "Oh, don't worry about that -- you can get the next one if you'd like." The next day, your friend rings your doorbell with an envelope in his hand containing in cash half the amount of the previous night's dinner and a note saying thanks.
That would be slightly strange behavior, unless your friend thought you were very short on cash. Your "Oh, you can get the next one" comment is a way of declaring an ongoing friendship in which you share resources and cover for one another, but the cash in the envelope, as if it were necessary immediately to even the score, seems to carry a message from the other person saying "we don't have that kind of relationship" -- perhaps also saying something like "I don't really trust you not to hold this over my head" or "I don't expect to have dinner with you again, so I'd better settle any debts now."
The healed leper coming back to thank Jesus is a bit like that. The nine who did what Jesus told them to do were not only honoring the expressed wishes of their benefactor; they were also behaving as people would when they wanted and expected to continue the relationship while looking for opportunity to repay Jesus. The tenth leper, though, cannot obey Jesus' instructions. He is a Samaritan. Samaritans, weren't welcome in the Temple in Jerusalem, and had good reason to expect ill treatment from those who saw the Temple in Jerusalem as being the only true one (you can find some background on why that was so here).
What courage it must have taken for this man to call out to Jesus! The text points out that as they cried out, the whole group kept their distance, as they would have been expected to do as lepers. Even so, their trust in Jesus is clear from their crying out to him. Imagine the joy this group must have felt when they realized that they were cleansed, that their status as outsiders had ended!
Well, all but one of them. As the other nine headed off toward Jerusalem, the tenth realizes that even if he isn't a leper, he's still a Samaritan, set apart even from the nine people he was with when they were all lepers. As the others head off for the Temple, wondering what they can offer Jesus in return, the tenth returns, "praising God with a loud voice." And Jesus in turn praises the Samaritan -- not for giving thanks to him, but for giving praise to God.
As Samaritan and leper, the tenth person healed knew doubly well what it's like to be an outsider. And this is the person who saw and acknowledged God's hand in his healing, in Jesus' ministry.
Longtime readers of this bog may have gathered that one of the trends I've observed that grieves me most is the way in which those of us who are privileged seem increasingly to use our privilege to isolate ourselves from others we fear as not being "people like us." Crime and poverty go together, so we object when housing that's affordable to the poor (or even to less wealthy professionals such as teachers and police officers!) is proposed for our neighborhood. We build gated communities. We fuel "white flight" to the suburbs, even when that gives us long, miserable commutes. Even our churches are often structured to divide rich from poor; the wealthy are "members" who are welcomed warmly to participate fully in worship and leadership, while the poor are targets of "outreach ministry" that assumes those served have no spiritual gifts to offer the community except the chance to make us feel generous and to stay out of sight and preferably somewhere else the rest of the time.
We're missing out in a big way, though, when, by "things done and left undone," we exclude outsiders, when we don't listen deeply and look them in they eye. We're missing out on their spiritual gifts, their vision; we head off for a temple humming happily and we miss the chance to see God in human flesh before us.
But we have another choice. We can turn to face "outsiders" as neighbors, beloved children of God, sisters and brothers in Christ. We can turn to face Jesus, and when we do, we just might find ourselves crying out with Samaritans and outsiders everywhere, giving praise to God who in Christ is healing and reconciling the whole world.
Thanks be to God!
Proper 22, Year C
There's a one-liner that I think of when I read this Sunday's gospel:
"That person lives for others. You can tell who 'the others' are by the hunted look on their faces."
Have you ever met someone like that -- someone who is always doing "favors" for people and "helping" them, with a hefty price tag attached in each case? Sometimes it's that the person "helped" must then display gratitude -- lots of it, delivered early and often and expressed in exactly the right way. Sometimes it's the "mobster" model, in which every "favor" granted must be repaid with a like "favor" at some future point. Sometimes it's what I call the "ticker-tape" model, in which every act of "generosity" must result in a showering of honor and adulation upon the giver.
The one-liner about the person who "lives for others" is funny because it says something that is too often true about warped versions of generosity on social as well as interpersonal levels: we deliver what Valerie Batts calls "dysfunctional rescuing," or "help that doesn't help," and then we blame the person whom we just didn't really help for not being suitably grateful. It's a pattern of behavior that indicates that we weren't wanting to help the other person so much as we wanted to use the other person to prop up our egos.
When have you seen this happen?
I think about the parish that offered a Spanish-language service because they assumed that Spanish speakers in the area keenly felt a hole in their spiritual lives that could be filled only by the theology of rich white liberals. The parish clergy therefore assumed Spanish-speakers would walk past several other congregations with native Spanish speakers on staff to flock to a church where the priest stumbles haltingly through the liturgy and can't offer any kind of pastoral counseling or support in Spanish, and all of the parish's formation and incorporation programs are conducted in English. The Spanish-language service went ahead nonetheless, though, and if the population so "served" doesn't respond with wild adulation or profound gratitude to the congregation for finally giving them this superior theology, the congregation will be able to say, "Oh, we tried that and it didn't work" to every future proposal to change with the neighborhood.
I think also about how the U.S. too often treats immigrants. We have laws that don't make it particularly easy for people who aren't rich to come here, and when they come, with or without documentation, however they've been treated, and whether or not we've heard their stories, we expect them to gratefully take jobs we wouldn't take or allow our children to take AND we want to see them joyfully and tearfully waving the U.S. flag and singing the national anthem (in ENGLISH ONLY, of course).
I think about the experiences my partner and I have had at various points trying to find a parish home after we'd moved. One congregation in particular seemed incensed that we could be so ungrateful as to leave for another parish when they were trying SO hard not to let us see how disgusted many of them were by us. We were yelled at a bit in the parking lot, but at least not from the pulpit, for example. We were allowed to receive the Eucharist, and we were even allowed to contribute volunteer labor to church ministries! How dare we move on, and doesn't this just go to show that our sort isn't satisfied just being regular folks in the congregation, but insist on taking it over?
I think these are attitudes for which this Sunday's gospel can provide something of a remedy.
I admit it's hard, especially in our cultural context, to hear the message when its terms are about a slave knowing his or her place. It's rhetoric that strikes my ear as dehumanizing. It lessens the sting a bit to know that the word the NRSV translates as "worthless" (the Greek is achreios) might better be translated as "unprofitable" or "unfit (for the purpose needed)." It lessens the sting a bit more to note that Greco-Roman slavery was different in many ways from the chattel slavery practiced in the 18th and 19th centuries, that becoming the slave of a high-status person in the ancient world placed you in an exalted household and therefore could raise the social status of a freeborn person -- indeed, that if you read St. Paul's letters carefully, you'll notice that he reserves the title "slave of God" very carefully as a particular badge of honor. But it still stings to hear Jesus talk this way.
And yet there's something liberating about serving without expectation of applause or thanks. When we serve the poor and marginalized, if we do it out of some expectation of gratitude or ticker-tape parade, we'll always be looking breathlessly over our shoulder for what we expect, and always be occupied with calculating whether others are behaving as we think appropriate. With all of that looking over our shoulders and all of that mental, emotional, and spiritual effort occupied in the calculus of deserving, we're all too likely to look in the eye of the real human being, made in the image of God, before us. We're all too likely to miss the opportunity to see God in that moment.
There's something liberating about humility. Hubris requires a great deal of energy to maintain, after all; if we are desperate to be seen as more important than we are, we'll constantly have to project a particular image and monitor those around us to assess our effectiveness at maintaining it and to punish those whom we see as failing to respond appropriately to our false projected self. The sad thing is that whether we succeed or fail in the process of getting others to buy into our hubris, we'll be miserable either way -- at least as miserable, if not more so, than we make anyone else by prideful conduct.
Think of what kind of energy we'd have, not only for genuine service meeting people's genuine needs, but also for laughter and love and the enjoyment of a quiet moment, if we were to stop spending all of the energy it takes to calculate what everyone around us does and doesn't deserve relative to what we are trying to make ourselves believe we deserve. That's what true humility is -- it's not about trying to make yourself or others believe that you are less than you are any more than it is about trying to make all believe that you're more. It's about letting go of that whole process of assessing and projecting and punishing or rewarding and then assessing again. It's about freeing ourselves to look at another and really see her or him. It's about freeing ourselves up for what's really important.
The word 'faith' (pistis, in the Greek) is often spoken about as if it meant trying to talk ourselves into intellectual assent to something, with "increasing our faith" meaning that we are successfully persuading ourselves that we have adopted an idea we think is ridiculous. That's not faith; it's self-deception, and usually a pretty unsuccessful kind of self-deception that results in our feeling a little guilty and hypocritical, as we know that we don't actually believe what we say.
But faith is not about intellectual projection and assessment; it is not an intellectual analogue to that process we go through to build and maintain hubris. Faith is relationship -- a relationship of trust, of allegiance. When Jesus talks about "faith," he's not talking about what you do in your head; he's talking about what you do with your hands and your feet, your wallet and your privilege, your power and your time. Faith in Jesus is not shown by saying or thinking things about him, but by following him.
Matthew says that if we have faith in Jesus -- allegiance to Jesus, trust in Jesus such that we're willing to step outside of our comfort zones to follow him -- the size of a mustard seed, we could tell mountains to plunge themselves in the sea, and we'd see it happen. Luke uses an image that initially seems more modest; he says "mulberry bush" where Matthew says "mountain."
Use whichever image works for you; they're both about doing what conventional wisdom says is impossible. It's a moving target, in my experience, as every time I take an additional step to follow Jesus in ways that stretch my capacity to love, to receive, to trust, to serve, look those whom I serve in the eye and listen to them with my heart, I discover a little more about what truly is possible in the power of the Holy Spirit Jesus sent. When I reflect on the wonders of Creation, the liberation of God's people from slavery in Egypt and by every force that oppresses, and most of all when I think of the power I've witnessed in Jesus' ministry, the Millennium Development Goals start sounding overly modest, if anything. What on earth can hold back the power of God's Spirit? What gates could prevail against the Spirit-filled Body of Christ?
So yes, I've seen some amazing things God has done. I've been privileged to participate in some of them. But that's par for the course, isn't it, when we're participating in God's powerful work. And I don't want to spend so much time saying, "wow, that wave was really amazing -- did you see how I rode it?" that I miss the next set. There is more joy, more love, more wonder ahead, and I want to be fully present for it.
Thanks be to God!
Proper 14, Year C
[Confession time: This is my sermon from August 8, 2004 on the same texts. I am heading off for the first vacation I've taken, I think, since October, and I am WAY behind on tasks that need doing before I go!]
Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16
"Follow your heart." In pop culture -- especially in romantic comedies -- it's presented as the ultimate wisdom, the ultimate goal. And then the words "my heart's just not in it" are the ultimate conversation-ender, the big 'STOP' sign for any course of action. There's a certain kind of wisdom to that line of thinking, too. As Paul writes in Galatians 5, the fruit of the Spirit includes love, joy, and peace, as well as patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control, and if those things aren't present over time in a course of action that we've chosen, that's a pretty good indication that the Spirit may be calling us in a different direction. That's why Frederick Buechner defines vocation -- the direction God calls us -- as the place where our deep joys and the world's deep needs meet.
But sometimes when we say things like "my heart's not in it," what we're saying is something like "my heart's torn" between multiple and conflicting desires. I want to be a good provider for my family, so I work hard and long at my job -- but I also want my family to have quality time together. I want to invest more time and energy in deepening my relationship with God, but at the end of a long day, I just want to turn on the television and order out for pizza. I want to feel closer to other people, but I want not to risk being hurt. So I have a hard time deciding to pass up on that assignment that would help me dazzle my boss. I have a hard time deciding to cut back on other activities and look for some support around church to take up some in-depth Bible study, or to deepen my prayer life. I have a hard time disrupting a routine that feels safe to try something new, like signing up for <i>Connect?</i>. I have a hard time deciding to do those things because with these conflicting desires, I can't do them wholeheartedly.
So that's pretty much it, right? If my heart's not in it to begin with, I'll probably just be miserable if I try to do it. Better just to do what I'm comfortable with now. After all, there's nothing I can do about it if that's how I feel … right?
Today's gospel tells us that there IS something we can do about that, and in the process it points to one of the best and least-discussed reasons for us to exercise stewardship of our money, our time, and our energy the way Jesus does -- with generosity that goes far beyond the bounds of what American culture would tend to see as sensible.
Jesus answers the question, "what can I do if my heart's just not in it?" with his saying, "where your treasure is, there your heart will be." That saying is often misquoted as or misinterpreted to mean the same thing as, "where your heart is, there your treasure will be," but that's not what Jesus says. Let me put it this way: Jesus says that our hearts follow after our treasure like a dog runs after a stick. How we spend our money determines where our heart will be -- what kind of a person we'll be.
In other words, our stewardship is a means of our formation. We have (and should have) a strong self-interest in treating possessions as Jesus teaches us here -- holding them loosely, selling them to take care of the needs of the poor, being generous toward others as God is generous -- because doing so is the best way, if not the only way, to experience that it is God's good pleasure to give the kingdom.
That kind of generosity isn't what most people would call "wise financial planning," it's true. Conventional wisdom holds that a wise person with resources builds up "nest eggs" and "rainy day funds" and works to save as much as possible as a bulwark against the unexpected. Build up those resources, the story goes, and we can prevent most problems from arising, and take care of the few that do come up. Build up those resources, the story goes, and we'll have the freedom to choose a path for ourselves and our families away from crime, disease, disaster, and physical and psychological pain. As Jesus reveals
repeatedly through Luke's gospel, though, that strategy isn't wise, at least according to God's wisdom.
It's not wise, and those of us who are most anxious to get that one more thing -- the "slush fund," the bigger house in the better neighborhood, the promotion, the right number of zeroes in the retirement account -- so we can finally be secure and at peace are the ones who have the most to gain from giving our "nest eggs" and our "rainy day funds" to the poor. One reason is we already know in our heart of hearts, and some here know from experience: there is no slush fund large enough to send away or compensate for some things that can and do happen in this world. As long as we rely on our own diligence and what we've accumulated for security, we will never be free from fear; we know too well in our heart of hearts that there are
innumerable things in the world that we can't control, no matter how much money we've got. If we wait to be generous until we feel we can afford it, we might wait forever in fear.
The flip side of that, though, is that when we can let go of these things that we've worked so hard for because we thought they could give us security, we'll discover what really IS secure in this life, what is rock solid through all the changes and chances life has to offer: that it is the pleasure of the King of the Universe to give his kingdom away -- and specifically to give it to you. You are God's beloved child, co-heir with Christ, and while there's nothing in this life that can take that away, there are all kinds of things we can grab for to insulate us from really experiencing it. It is God's good pleasure to give us the kingdom, the fruit of the Spirit in abundance. Everything in this life we grab for as a way to try to do what God already has done and is doing for us is going to put us that much further from experiencing that fundamental truth, the one thing that matters. Let go, and we'll finally be able to receive Jesus' word at the opening of this passage: "Do not be afraid."
Don't be afraid??? Easy to say, but hard to do when your heart's not in it, when it's torn between trusting God -- trusting that these crazy things Jesus says really will yield the fruit of the Spirit -- and trusting what our culture says about who is really secure and how they get that way. The solution Jesus advocates is stepping forward in faith, giving our treasure to the poor and knowing our heart will follow.
This is not a "prosperity gospel" that says if you invest your treasure where God's heart is -- in extending God's justice and mercy among the poor -- you'll get that promotion you wanted, and have more money than before. This is an identity gospel -- we choose to behave as children of our Father, whose role model is Jesus, because of who we are, and our hearts follow. We take that step that the world says is foolishness, and we experience, as a result of that trust, not only deeper intimacy with God, but also real love in community. When we're all living into God's generosity, we find that when we do have needs, we're part of a family of sisters and brothers in Christ who KNOW who they are, and will express their ties with you as children of one Father by taking care of one another as family do. Trust begets trust; generosity births generosity.
That's why the gospel for this morning is read alongside the story of Abraham and the words of the Letter to the Hebrews on Abraham's faith. "Faith," or pistis in Greek, doesn't mean intellectual assent to a proposition; it means something more like "trust" or "allegiance." It's not about what we usually call "belief" so much as it's about relationship. Having faith is not about trying to convince yourself that you are convinced of something. You don't know you have enough faith when the needle stays steady on a lie-detector test as you say, "My journey will birth a people, and we will have a home." You know
you've got faith when, however your heart pounds as you do it and whatever fears you have, you take the next step forward into the desert. Your heart will follow your feet, and you will become more fully the person God sees as your true identity.
Today's gospel challenges us to let our heart follow our feet -- transforming us into people wholeheartedly following ALL of Jesus' message and experiencing ALL of the freedom that is ours in Christ -- in every way that God has given us something of value. Do your check register and your credit card records tell the truth of who you are in Christ and what's most important to you as a Christian? Today's gospel invites us to sit down as a family or with a trusted friend to see where our spending over the last month shows we're telling our heart to go. And how about something that's even more and valuable than money for many of us -- how about our time? What does our appointment book from the last month show about where we're telling our heart to go? Today's gospel invites us to sit down as a family or with a trusted friend to take a hard look at that too.
And I mean a HARD look. If someone had complete access to your financial records, what would they say about who you are, or about who Jesus is? If someone had complete access to records of how you spend your time, what would those records say about who you are, and who your Lord is?
All of those messages we grew up with and are bombarded with every day create such a din that it takes a lot of intentional seeking to hear beyond them. Breathe, and listen to what your heart of hearts -- the part of you longing wholeheartedly for peace, and love, and joy, the fruit of the Spirit -- says. Our televisions say that our children want toys and snack foods. Social pressure says they must go to the right college, get the right degree and the right job. What do our lives, our checkbooks and our appointment books, say that children of God want and need? Our children are listening. Our hearts are listening -- and will run in whatever direction we put our treasure.
It's Jesus' word to the spiritually wise.
Thanks be to God!
Trinity Sunday, Year C
Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31
Some years ago, I found myself struggling with the doctrine of the Trinity. A lot of people do, I know. I responded to it in typical academic fashion: I applied for a summer research grant, and spent much of the summer studying what theologians from the ancient world to the present have to say about the Trinity. Now, when Trinity Sunday rolls around, a number of theologians rush to my memory: Jurgen Moltmann, Desmond Tutu, Athanasius, Tertullian ... and The Simpsons.
It's true that The Simpsons never explicitly discuss the Trinity, to my knowledge, but there is one episode that often leaps to mind when I think about any of what can rightly be called the 'mysteries' of faith, and the Trinity is certainly one of them. The episode "Dead Putting Society" from Season 2 has Bart participating in a mini-golf tournament, and Lisa coaching him in Eastern philosophies and martial arts to help.
"What is the sound of one hand clapping?" Lisa asks Bart. "Piece of cake," he says, bending his fingers down to hit his palm. "No, Bart, it's a 3000-year-old riddle with no answer. it's supposed to clear your mind of conscious thought," she replies. "No answer? Lisa, listen up!" Bart fires back, still bending his fingers toward his palm.
Bart is clearly missing the point. He's after a snappy answer that makes it all make sense, that resolves the question in a way that requires no further wrestling with it. I've heard a lot of people try to do similar things with the doctrine of the Trinity. In high school (and several times since -- the latest of them being last week), I listened to someone explain the Trinity as being like H2O, which can be found as ice, water, or steam; God is one substance, like H2O, but can be found as Father, Son, or Holy Spirit. Great explanation -- makes sense, easily understood -- and an excellent example of the ancient heresy of Modalism. Orthodox Trinitarianism doesn't say that God is one person found in three forms, but that God is one Being and three distinct 'persons.'
Every illustration I've heard that makes the doctrine of the Trinity easy to understand ends up falling similarly into some ancient heresy. I actually think that most of those ancient ideas of Trinity rejected by church councils spring from the same impulse that makes preachers want to use the ice/water/steam analogy: They want to make it possible, and preferably easy, to understand the Trinity. After all, every Sunday we stand up and say "we believe" with respect to it, and it's very natural to feel uncomfortable saying, "we believe" if we don't comprehend what we're talking about.
I'm using the word "comprehend" intentionally; it's got that 'hend' root that's about grasping, about having something 'in hand,' literally or metaphorically. And like Bart opening and closing his hand rapidly to try to "solve" the 3000-year-old riddle, I think when we try to 'comprehend' the Trinity, we're missing the point. It's a mystery. It doesn't make logical sense. When we try to chase it and pin it down, we end up running around in logical circles like a dog chasing its tail. That's a process that can be fun (if dizzying) for a while, but is more frustrating than not if it's kept up for very long.
That's not what I think we're called to do with faith's mysteries. They're not something that can be grasped in one's hand or encapsulated in one brilliant analogy that leaves us comfortable or even smug in our confidence that we "get it" and therefore don't have to struggle with it any more. If we are part of God's people, we have been grafted into Israel -- the name Jacob received after his encounter with the angel as one who "wrestles with God." Any intellectual fancy footwork designed to eliminate wrestling, puzzling, and pondering and to settle all questions forever is bound to be unhelpful to a people called to "wrestle with God."
Or let me put it this way:
Most explanations of the Trinity are made to resolve questions and, in effect, end conversation. But the mysteries of our faith are, in my thinking, meant to do almost the opposite. Because they cannot be "solved," they invite conversation. Because they cannot be encapsulated and apprehended by human intellect, they inspire humility. And because they are an integral part of the faith we confess as a Body, we cannot simply say, "oh, I don't get that," and lay them aside; we are rather called together as a people to wrestle with one another as well as with God, to listen deeply to one another as well as to the saints who preceded us and to remain in that creative but sometimes uncomfortable tension that challenges us to love God with our mind as well as our heart, soul, and strength.
Our readings for this week, then, are not explanations so much as invitations. Proverbs 8 doesn't encapsulate a doctrine of the Trinity. It paints a picture of Creation taking place through a personified Wisdom that philosophers and theologians writing in Greek (such as Philo of Alexandria in the first century) called the logos. Much as John 1 poetically describes a logos through whom all things were made before declaring that this logos became flesh and dwelt among us, Proverbs shows Wisdom as God's agent in creating the world and sharing in God's joy in its goodness. Proverbs differs from John, however, in saying quite clearly that Wisdom was created by God, not "begotten," as John says; Proverbs' Wisdom is "with God," but Proverbs wouldn't say that Wisdom "was God."
Neither do our New Testament texts hand us a neatly wrapped doctrine of the Trinity. Our text from Romans presents Jesus as one through whom we have peace with God and the Holy Spirit given to us as means through which God's love is among us. John 16 shows free and full interplay between what we will eventually call persons of the Trinity: Jesus, who is the Truth, sends the Spirit who guides us into all truth, declaring to Jesus' disciples all that belongs to Jesus, which is all that belongs to the Father. But neither of these texts -- indeed, no text in the New Testament -- gives us anything quite like the "one God, three persons" articulation we see in the Nicene Creed. That formulation came after hundreds of years of searching the scriptures and wrestling with them in community, and whatever intent the emperor Constantine had for the council that produced the Nicene Creed, it certainly didn't end conversation or conflict. The wrestling went on, some of it shaming the Spirit as bishops marched against one another in war with troops of armed monks; some of it building up the Body of Christ with theological riches that still speak to the church today.
I'd say we're not done wrestling either -- not for as long as we are grafted onto 'Israel.' There are still people around trying to come up with some single formulation in a creed or a "covenant" that will resolve the questions, ending discussion that includes difference. When we say "we believe" in the creeds, we're not saying, "we've got it." This is not "Constantine (or even Athanasius) said it; I believe it; that settles it." I sometimes wish that the Greek word pistis that often gets translated as "belief" were translated (more accurately, in my opinion) as "trust." We're not saying that we've solved the mystery of the Trinity like Nancy Drew or Scooby Doo, in which all has been explained and all loose ends neatly tied up. We're saying "we trust." We trust God: the Father who created us (and I think that Mother language of God birthing the world is equally appropriate), the Wisdom made flesh to dwell among us and redeem the world, and the Spirit who, as we gather in reconciling communities, is always guiding us more deeply into truth. We trust one another as a result; if we trust the Spirit whose gives gifts to all seeking to follow Jesus, then we must trust the community of disciples in all its diversity enough to stay in relationship and keep wrestling.
God didn't give us hands, after all, so we could try to clap with one of them and show someone that we've got the answer, "piece of cake." God gave us hands so we could use them as Jesus did -- offering them to one another, healing, engaging God's mission together. God didn't give us words to end conversation, but rather sent the Word made flesh to dwell among us -- a living paradox of particularity and transcendence, of strength in weakness, of power in self-offering to empower others, of death on a cross and resurrection life for the world. And so the life of the Trinity is not a problem to be solved, but love we are called to live into, filled increasingly with God's joy and peace.
Thanks be to God!
Third Sunday in Lent, Year C
The General Ordination Exams (GOEs) one generally has to take to be ordained to the clergy in The Episcopal Church often cause seminarians preparing for them a great deal of anxiety, and sometimes they deal with this by rehearsing with their friends some previous years' questions or questions they think they might be asked. One genre of GOE (or at least GOEs of the past) is the "coffee hour question," which asks the person being examined to imagine him or herself as a priest approached by a parishioner during the coffee hour between services and asked a pastoral question of some kind. This was one of the "coffee hour" questions some friends of mine were tossing around over margaritas some years back:
A seven-year old girl is a member of your parish. Her mother has recently and very suddenly died. She approaches you during coffee hour and asks, "will I see my mommy in heaven?"
The table sprang into conversation about a variety of things -- 1 Corinthians 15, the resurrection, different ideas of the immortality of the soul -- and how they could be explained to a seven-year-old girl. It was an interesting conversation. But when I was asked how I would answer the question, this is what I told my friends I'd say to the girl:
"It sounds like you really miss your mommy."
That's what I'd say. That's the first thing I'd say, anyway. Other things are important, in my view -- especially 1 Corinthians 15 and the varieties of Christian hope of the resurrection -- but I can't imagine having a conversation with that girl that meant anything at all without starting from where she is, and where I think she'd be would be is desperately wanting to see and touch and be held by her mother, and being in great pain for the lack of that touch.
I feel similarly, and I tend to respond in similar ways, most times people ask questions that start with "Why did this happen?" or especially, "How could God allow this to happen?" In my experience, this is not the time for a learned or wise discussion about consequences of the Fall, how human mortality underscores the preciousness of the present moment, or even -- as much as I love to discuss Paul at just about any possible opportunity -- the meaning of 1 Corinthians 15. So far, every time anyone has asked me how God could allow suffering, evil, and death, I've found in further conversation that we ask someone else about those categories because of something very specific.
In other words, "Why did this happen?" often boils down to at least one or two other things that need to be named, both statements, both statements, not questions:
"I'm in unspeakable pain." This is almost certain.
"I want God to take away the cause of this pain, and I'm confused, frightened, and angry that God doesn't seem to be here, or good, or to care." Sometimes we say things like this because we're actually thinking and feeling about God. Usually we say this because we're in unspeakable pain, meaning (quite literally) we don't feel able to speak about our pain.
This Sunday's Hebrew bible and gospel readings suggest that the pastoral response starts with recognizing and honoring that pain.
In Exodus, God says, "I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings," and that is the beginning of deliverance for God's people.
And in Luke, when some of God's people come to Jesus with a news report -- that the Roman governor Pontius Pilate, had murdered Galilean pilgrims to Jerusalem -- that boils down to a statement -- that this is too painful to bear, and perhaps even to name -- and therefore comes out also as something like a question: "How could God allow this?"
There are at least a thousand clichéd answers to a question like that. God needed some more angels for the heavenly choir. These clearly were pilgrims who forgot to pray (or behave in the prescribed way -- usually meaning the way that the speaker wants people to behave). Or the last resort of someone desperate for an explanation: "everything happens for a reason, and God allowed this to happen because something better will come of it."
That last answer is less awful that the first ones I listed, but it isn't the one that Jesus gave. To the smug who are convinced that God arranges all suffering as well as all joy, and delegates each according to the human values of the smug, Jesus offers a word of warning; he says, in effect, "you are no better than these people, you're no less mortal than they, and if anyone figuring in this conversation is courting disaster from God, it's you."
If it were only the smug who had brought the report, the question, and the pain Jesus heard, it would have been understandable for Jesus to stop there. But he doesn't. He affirms that those who died were not sinful in a way that others weren't, and he tells a parable about a fig tree. As Malina and Rorhbaugh point out, a pious Israelite who planted a fig tree would let it grow for three years to get it to a point where it was capable of bearing fruit, then would allow it to go unharvested for three years before coming back for three more years to harvest fruit and to assess its potential fruitfulness. In other words, the wealthy absentee landlord of the parable (not a particularly sympathetic figure in Jesus' parables, and especially not in Luke) is actually being more than reasonable in saying, "this tree had its chance for nine years, and it's fruitless." Heck, nine years is just shy of a quarter of the life span of a man (women died sooner when childbirth was so dangerous) who by some miracle survived childhood (when most perish in the world's climates of scarcity).
But the gardener, who doesn't own the land and isn't the one who benefits most from its profit -- seems to care more about the tree than the fruit, and seems more than happy to devote extra care -- a year of it -- when no law or custom requires it and he has nothing to gain personally form it.
Sometimes, I speak primarily as a scholar of these texts. Sometimes, I like to indulge in a little pastoral imagination, which I hope you find responsible, and here's some of it:
I think to think that this was a crazy gardener who actually cared about the life of the tree, and who saw a fruitless tree more as a wounded life worth healing than a wasted opportunity for profit in need of clearing. Is that a responsible reading of the text? Perhaps. I've said before that, as a rule of thumb, Jesus' parables are defined by their shocking reversals, and that if we read one of his parables and find no unexpected behavior, we need to re-read with our eyes, our mind, and our imagination more deeply engaged. It would be crazy for a gardener to care about a tree in that way.
But isn't that just the kind of crazy way God cares for us? Isn't that the crazy kind of love Jesus showed for us, and particularly for those of us with few or no qualities traditionally seen as giving a person the kind of respectability and status to expect any need or pain to be noticed and responded to?
And if the conversation with the person who says, "will I see her again in heaven?" or "why did this happen?" or "where is God in something like this?" continues, it will turn in that direction. I'll be honest that I don't have a constant and unshakable emotional sense of the way God cares for us beyond reason. I'm also being honest when I say that this is one of the reasons I spend so much time and energy reading the bible, and why I thank God for communities of people who will carry me in prayer when my own prayers, and even my own scripture reading, seem fruitless. Because I choose to believe, even when I don't feel it, that God knows and shares the sufferings of God's people, and God's immeasurable love for us and inexorable power to redeem is at work even when I don't perceive it.
I don't believe in perfection, that everything happens as it should or is orchestrated in a way that is personally beneficial to God's people or to me by conventional reckonings. I believe in redemption, that even or especially amidst great suffering and real evil, God is bringing the universe toward the justice and love, the peace and wholeness, for which it was made and for which it aches.
Thanks be to God!
Third Sunday of Advent, Year B
I once drove up to a venue where I was supposed to speak. I was running a little late, so I pulled into a parking space, dashed up to the front door, and was met by a man who said in nearly a single breath something like, “Are you Dr. Breuer's assistant? I have to stay out here to meet him, but do you know your way around the kitchen? Nobody's made the coffee yet,” and then he returned to expectantly scanning the parking lot. I was in a rather mischievous mood, so I just said, “well, I don't know this kitchen, but I've spent a lot of time in parish kitchens ... I'm sure I can find my way around this one,” and I went in to make the coffee. Once it was brewing away, I went up to the podium to start the talk.
The man who met me at the front door had made some assumptions about the person he was expecting. He assumed I was a “Dr.” (I'm a Ph.D. candidate; I expect to file next academic year). I think he also was expecting Dylan Breuer to be a distinguished-looking gentleman in a coat and tie, not a relatively young woman with a goofy grin at least as conspicuous as her Greek New Testament. Whatever he was expecting, it's true both that I was the person he was expecting and that I didn't look much like what he'd envisioned. In this case, everyone laughed at the mistake.
Advent is a time when we are particularly intentional about waiting expectantly and preparing — not just for Christmas, but for the culmination of Jesus' work on earth. And it is appropriate that at Advent we read more than one story about John the Baptizer, who saw his own ministry as one of waiting and preparing. We have expectations for John. That's reasonable, isn't it? He's a hero of the faith and a prophet who prepared the way for the Christ, so we need him to meet certain standards. He should be respectable; he should inspire the kind of civic and familial virtues we can all rally around. But most importantly, he should be right, and especially about anything having to do with the one he's expecting.
So, how well does John the Baptizer fit our bill?
To start with, John the Baptizer is not the guy who declares that all the trains the institution predicts are, always have been, and always will be on time. He's not the guy who's going to tell our kids to eat their vegetables and do their homework, to work hard and play by the rules to get ahead. He's the homeless guy who eats locusts (bugs, kids. they're bugs.) and wild honey, and he tells the people of Israel that the one of the fundamental rules they grew up knowing — a rule people thought of as being cast in scripture-flavored concrete — is moot. That would be the rule that says that you're in God's eschatological (eschatological = having to do with “the end”) in-crowd if you're in the people of Israel, and membership in that people is defined by blood: if your mom is Jewish, you're Jewish; and if you want to convert and if you're not born Jewish, your membership will be established by the shedding of blood (a blood sacrifice of an animal in the Temple regardless of your sex, and additional blood shed through circumcision if you're male). John the Baptizer says that rule is moot, regardless of who says otherwise. That's what's at stake when John says, “God is able from these stones to raise up children of Abraham” (Matthew 3:9; Luke 3:7).
John the Baptizer believed that something else — something besides blood, besides that scriptural set of criteria — determined who was in God's in-crowd. He believed that anyone who was willing to “take the plunge” (John thought that was a literal one, namely, baptism at his hands) would be welcomed by God, and that nobody who had not experienced conversion would. In a way, John the Baptizer was the world's first evangelical: he believed that anyone, regardless of bloodline, had to CHOOSE to be in God's people.
He also had some beliefs about someone who was going to follow him: a person whose might was beyond description in any but apocalyptic terms. John baptized with water, and this Coming One was going to baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire — presumably those in God's in-crowd, those who had chosen to be baptized, with the Holy Spirit, and the rest, those in God's out-group, with the fire that would destroy them.
And as our readings for this week, the third Sunday of Advent, in Year A (we're in Year B) show us, John the Baptizer was sorely disappointed. Kudos to those who crafted our lectionary for including this once every three years for including it at all, as it really blows minds when we read it closely: John the Baptizer expected someone who was going to DO something in particular, and Jesus didn't do it. John expected someone who was going to get rid of all of those who weren't really and personally committed to the program, all those whom he felt were holding back the coming of God's kingdom, and then Jesus came, healing and proclaiming liberation, and there was no fire that John could see. He died in prison with an ambiguous answer to the question he'd sent messengers to Jesus to ask: “Are you the Coming One, or are we to wait for another?”
Was John the Baptizer disappointed? Perhaps the more important question for us to ask today is whether we are disappointed. Are we disappointed in a herald for the Christ who disagreed publicly with the one that the Gospel According to John portrays as being the fulfillment of all his hopes? Are we disappointed in a canon of Scripture that refuses to dissolve all ambiguities, to make our ancestors in the faith the kind of people we want our children to grow up to be, a canon that won't answer every question, or even all the questions we think are important?
And what about our Christ? We are called to risk everything that John the Baptizer risked, and that includes the risk that this person we are waiting for to do God's will may reveal that God's will is not identical to ours, that God's aspirations for the world may not be the same as ours. It's not safe. It's better than safe. It's not comfortable, and it's better than comfortable. Because if we're willing, in this Advent season, to offer our very dreams to God, and to trust that God's dreams will do better than fulfill our own, we might discover for ourselves that our God “is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine” (Ephesians 3:20).
Don't get me wrong: we need to dream. We need to dream the most audacious dreams we can. And then let us offer our dreams to the God whose creativity and love surpasses the best of our own. Let's be ready for more than what we expect.
Thanks be to God!
Proper 16, Year A
It's a little ironic, isn't it? Two Sundays ago, we read the story St. Peter walking on the water -- a story often used as an occasion to criticize Peter for doubting when in the story, Jesus is pointing out at least as much that Peter DID have a little faith as he is inviting Peter to deepen it. And this Sunday, we've got a gospel that's often used as an example of faith, Peter's great shining moment, when the story is an example (and perhaps the best one, shy of Peter's later denials that he knew Jesus) of Peter being seriously off the mark.
That becomes clear in next Sunday's gospel (Matthew 16:21-27), when Jesus looks at Peter and says, "Get behind me, Satan!" -- and I wish very much that our lectionary kept intact this single pericope that begins this week and ends next week. Read as a whole, Matthew 16:13-28 shows us that Christian faith is a lot more than assigning the right titles to Jesus. Indeed, the story shows us that sometimes these titles can get in the way of understanding who Jesus is at least as much as they help.
I'm thinking of the emperor Constantine, who underwrote the Council of Nicea, giving him opportunity to decide which bishops got invited and the final say on any statements that came out of that gathering. Legend has it that the statement that the Son is of "one substance" or "one Being" with the Father was his suggestion.
People argue over whether Constantine had truly converted to Christianity -- he wasn't baptized until he was on his deathbed, but that practice wasn't uncommon among Christians of his time; he was a patron of Christian churches, but he also continued to build and worship in temples to Sol Invictus, the conquering sun-god his ancestors worshipped. I have no trouble believing, though, that he really believed that Jesus was the only-begotten Son of God.
Constantine was right on the question of Jesus' titles. Unfortunately, he was wrong on the far more important question of Jesus' character, and the character of the god who is Jesus' Father. Constantine grew up worshipping a god who was all about power, and specifically the power that would help him become powerful, victorious in battle, supreme over his enemies. And he never stopped worshipping that god. He never stopped worshipping power. And so Constantine could confess that Jesus is the only-begotten Son of God, and could put an empty throne next to his so he could claim to rule as Jesus' agent, and still murder his children if they posed a threat to his power. He turned Jesus' name, Jesus' God, and even Jesus' cross, into symbols by which he hoped to conquer and rule.
Peter made a similar mistake -- for a moment -- in today's gospel. It's much lesser in degree than the category confusion Constantine made, but it's still there. Peter gets an important point right in this Sunday's gospel: that Jesus is the Messiah, God's anointed. Peter has a huge head-start on Constantine in deciding what this means too, as Peter knows that the God who has anointed Jesus is the God of Israel -- the god who liberated the slaves from Egypt, and who in the desert made them a people, a community centered around God's justice and mercy. In other words, Peter knows by whom Jesus has been anointed, and that tells him something of who Jesus is.
The open question, though, is what Jesus has been anointed to do -- and the biggest problem that Peter has is that he thinks that part goes without saying. Jesus is God's messiah, God's anointed. He's going to be victorious, which (in Peter's view) pretty much precludes his being tortured and executed as a shameful criminal. Peter rightly says that Jesus is God's son, and he is blessed to have that much revealed to him. But only after Jesus has died on a Roman cross and been raised by the God of Israel can Peter bring together that God's blessing and anointing doesn't preclude dying. Peter's attachment to victory and what he believes is and is not associated with it is threatening to override his trust in Jesus. Once he lets go of being victorious in the world's terms, though, he'll be open to God's victory, which defeats even death.
There's a timely lesson for us in Constantine's confession and Peter's, in what they get right and where they fall short, and it goes back to the discussion we were having two weeks ago about faith. Faith isn't about assenting to a proposition; it's a relationship of trust with a person. Faith in Jesus isn't primarily about saying or thinking correct things about him. Faith in Jesus is following him, serving those the world despises; it's not a guarantee of earthly glory and success, but willingness to share the scorn that the proud heap upon the humble. Faith doesn't found empires, but frees us to live as sisters and brothers of all nations. Faith in Jesus doesn't tell us that we will defeat our enemies; it moves us to love, forgive, and be gracious toward them as Jesus was toward his.
The height and depth and richness of that grace is beyond description, and almost beyond comprehension. Small wonder that Peter didn't perceive it at this point as he would come to perceive it later. The moment described in the gospel passages for this Sunday and next were a turning point, though -- not because of what Peter did understand, but because of Jesus' graciousness when Peter didn't understand.
At this moment, Peter is stuck in all-or-nothing thinking: if Jesus is messiah, it's got to be the whole glorious picture, and the cross doesn't fit in with that. Our lectionary, in dividing Peter's confession and Jesus' praise of it from Peter's "surely not!" to the cross and Jesus' stinging rebuke, unfortuantely plays into the same kind of thinking: in a lot of minds, Peter gets to be pure hero this week and pure cluelessness next week. But Jesus doesn't treat Peter like that. Peter's confession, especially if his current understanding of it becomes the substance of what he proclaims about Jesus to the world, has some deeply problematic dimensions. But Jesus receives what Peter has to offer that came as a gift from God. Most importantly, Jesus receives Peter himself, with all his flaws, as sharing in the victory he will win on the cross -- even as Peter tries to set a path for Jesus that would preclude that victory.
I opened with pointing to this moment as the second best example of Peter going seriously off the mark. The best example is probably Peter's denials that he knew Jesus in the hours following Jesus' arrest. And I suspect that as Peter looked back on these disappointing moments in the full light of Jesus' love for him, they became deeply powerful experiences of grace, inspiring a life of self-giving love that testified more profoundly to what Jesus was anointed FOR than any words could.
Thanks be to God!
Proper 14, Year A
I remember when I was an undergrad, this story bothered me. It seemed to me that Peter was getting chewed out for not having enough faith, and I didn't see why he deserved that. My college chaplain proposed that Peter was getting chewed out because, despite Jesus' directing them to go to the other side, none of them should have been afraid that anything ill would befall them on the way. After all, Jesus didn't say, "go on ahead ... there's an evil ghost who's going to attack you, and I don't want to be around for the carnage," right?
At the time (before I'd taken any New Testament courses, among other things), this seemed like a perfectly good reading to me -- so much so that I repeated it to many others, with the moral of "if you get a word from Jesus to do something, you can anticipate success."
Let me start this week's blog entry by apologizing to everyone to whom I said that, or anything like it. That's the sort of thing that only very young (or young in the faith, anyway) people and people in frenetic denial can say with a straight face. Or maybe I'm just talking about myself when I say that just about every week between then and now I've had plentiful opportunities to fail, and many times to fail in spectacular fashion ... and I'm not one to squander opportunities.
So I can identify with Peter, and especially with that sinking feeling (literally!) he must have had just before he cried out to Jesus to save him. But I don't think that my natural sympathies for Peter form the only reason to think that he's been given rather a bad rap by many interpreters of this passage (e.g., my college chaplain). After all, what does "faith" mean anyway, and how much of it does one need?
The first thing I think it's important to clear up is that "faith" or "belief," at least in the biblical sense of those terms, doesn't connote belief in a particular outcome or intellectual assent to a proposition so much as it suggests trust in and allegiance to a person. Believing in Jesus does not mean believing that we'll be "successful" (however we define that!) in a particular enterprise if it was Jesus calling us to do it, and having faith IN Jesus doesn't imply signing off on a list of statements ABOUT Jesus. Having faith in Jesus means, in my view, a willingness to follow Jesus -- not because we believe that we've already got the rest of the story plotted out once we've made that decision, but because we take seriously that Jesus is Lord, and the ultimate in good ones. As I've preached on before, having faith doesn't mean convincing ourselves that we're convinced of something. Faith isn't an activity of the brain so much as of the heart, and then I mean it not in the sense of drumming up some kind of feeling, but of pumping blood to ones feet and hands.
In other words, faith is about doing. A faithful person eventually gets to the point at which s/he can say to God, "I don't know where you're going, but I know that wherever it is, I'd rather be drowning with you than be crowned by somebody else." That kind of trust in Jesus, in my experience, comes from experience with the person of Jesus. The kind of trust I have in Jesus has come as I've experienced Jesus' generosity and mercy, so much that I'm pretty sure that if Jesus is involved, then following Jesus is where I'm going to experience the most of the goodness and mercy God has to offer. That process of building confidence, of getting to know Jesus such that I'm understanding more deeply just how much I can trust Jesus is a major ingredient in what I call the journey of faith.
But when I say that faith is like that function of the heart that gets blood to hands and feet, what I mean is that faith starts with action, with taking a step, with taking a risk. The best intentions in the world don't do much without action, but taking that step, even with the worst of intentions, just might give you the experience of meeting God on the road, on (or in) the sea.
There's no better evidence for that than the story of Jonah. Jonah just might go down as the whiniest prophet in history. He had no intention of saving anyone. He didn't even intend to follow God's direction, but when the seas got rough, he knew that it was time to step out of the boat. Just about everything that Jonah has said up to this point indicates no faith, no trust that God's will could mean anything good for him, but when his life is at stake, he calls out to the very god he's been running from. That suggests to me that despite all his protestations of how much God's will means only ill fortune to him, underneath all that is both a trust that God will take care of his fellow travellers (as Jonah 1:11-12 indicates) and that God will deliver him (as Jonah's poem in this Sunday's readings indicate). By the end of the story, we understand that every step he took, even Jonah's whiny rebellion, came in some sense from a deep sense (and sometimes an unwelcome sense!) that God will extend mercy, that God's mercy will be the final word.
That trust, that willingness to risk stepping outside the boat, is how I think of faith. And Peter has that. So why does Jesus address him as "you of little faith"? Not because of the faith he lacks, but because of the faith he has. Peter has a little faith. Jesus addresses his followers as people of "little faith" repeatedly in Matthew's gospel (e.g., Matthew 6:30, 8:26, 14:31, 16:8, and 17:20), but following the last of those, he says, "if you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, 'Move from here to there,' and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you" (Matthew 17:20).
So how much faith do you need to make a difference in your life, or even to change the world? Not much, by some ways of reckoning. You don't have to talk yourself into absolute confidence that anything in particular will happen. That's a good thing, since none of us -- not even, or perhaps ESPECIALLY not those who shout most loudly about knowing exactly what God's specific plans for everyone are -- really knows the future, or even the heart of another person. Faith isn't about knowing, though.
Faith is willingness to risk. It's willingness to take that step out of the boat, whether you think you'll sink or skate. It proceeds from the kind of love that, despite all of the butterflies in one's stomach, makes a person willing to be the first to say "I love you" in a relationship -- not because of a certain expectation of a particular reply, but because of the possibilities that saying "I love you" opens. Reading a biblical expression of that kind of faith makes me think of a passage (one I've used in preaching before) from Sara Maitland's short story "Dragon Dreams" (found in her collection Angel Maker):
When [you] died I knew that there was no safety, anywhere, and I will not sacrifice to false gods. There is no safety, but there is wildness and joy, there is love and life within the danger. I love you. I want to be with you. ... I refuse to believe that we only get one chance. This letter is just a start. I am going to hunt you down now in all the lovely desolate places of the world. ... there I will be waiting for you. Please come. Please come soon.
And that's why I take hope and not condemnation away from reading the stories of Jonah, and Peter, and the rest of God's reluctant prophets and Jesus' wavering disciples. They didn't have it all together, and they didn't fully understand or consistently appreciate what they eventually would proclaim. But the steps they took, however cluelessly or clumsily, made space in which they and others could encounter God's mercy, giving rise to generations of risk-taking and faith arising -- the kind of faith, shared across the Body fo Christ, that could not only move mountains, but turn mountains and valleys to plains.
Thanks be to God!
Proper 22, Year C
Sorry this is a little late, folks; I was traveling yesterday, and didn't get a chance to post.
Luke 17:5-10 - link to NRSV text
There's a lot that I appreciate a great deal about using a lectionary. It means that over the course of three years, congregations get at least some exposure to scripture from across the canon, and encourages preachers to deal with a variety of themes over time, rather than simply dwelling on one favorite topic.
Sometimes, though, I find the lectionary editing to be a little awkward, giving us small chunks of texts that, presented without context from the larger document, are difficult to appreciate fully. At times, I think that trying from the lectionary to instill appreciation for scripture is a little like trying to get someone hooked on Will and Grace by having them watch one 30-second segment from a different episode each week. It'd be hard to get to know the characters or find any kind of arc in the story. Heck, it'd be hard sometimes even to catch the jokes. And Luke is a lot more subtle than Will and Grace.
This Sunday's gospel is one of those slightly awkward points in the lectionary for me. Luke tends to group sayings thematically, but this is a pretty loose grouping -- I'd say that the section is roughly from Luke 17:1-21, and the theme is the broad one of "community relationships." Here's the progression I see:
The section starts with encouragement to forgive one another (vs. 1-4), continues with the saying on faith (vs. 5-6), moves on to address honor-seeking behavior with the saying about slaves (vs. 7-10), uses the healing of the lepers to look at what kinds of relationships and community Jesus creates (vs. 11-19 -- more on that next week), and climaxes with the saying that the community Jesus calls together IS God's kingdom (vs. 20-21), which becomes the jumping-off point for considering eschatology, what the climax of history will be like (17:22-18:9).
This week, we've got two units of tradition from that "community relationships" thematic cluster: the saying on faith and the saying about the slave. One of the challenges posed for preachers here, I think, is that the looseness of the thematic grouping makes it hard to craft a cohesive sermon that addressed the whole text for this week.
On one hand, I'd be tempted to preach on the saying about the slave, and mostly because it strikes me as a difficult text. Read in isolation from its cultural context and without considering similar sayings, the exhortation not to come to the table and to think of oneself as "worthless" sounds like a recipe for neurosis. But the saying needs to be read in the context of Luke's theme of the great reversal -- the casting down of the mighty and raising up of the lowly. In keeping with Lucan eschatology, this reversal is both "now" and "not yet"; it is a guide for how Christians should behave in the community that is the inbreaking of God's kingdom now, and it is done now in anticipation that this great reversal will be consummated and made universal at the climax of history. I'd suggest reading Luke 14:7-11 alongside this Sunday's gospel to provide a little more context, as what's made clear repeatedly in Luke's gospel, from the Magnificat to Jesus' resurrection, but isn't explicit in this text is Luke's expectation that those who follow Jesus' exhortation to concentrate on serving and honoring others will be vindicated as Jesus, the Lord, honors them; the one who chooses the lowest seat (or no seat) will be brought to the highest one.
That'll preach, I'd say. But it's theme that's raised so frequently in Luke that I think I'd be inclined instead to concentrate on verses 5-6, the saying about faith, and specifically, I'd want to read it in the context of this thematic clump Luke places it in. It's a helpful corrective to our Western tendency to think of "faith" as an individual matter, and Christian faith as something that can be practiced apart from community.
That sort of view doesn't fit well with the meaning of pistis ("faith," in most translations into English). Ask for definitions of "faith" on the street, and I suspect most of us would hear things that boiled down to something like being willing to assent to some proposition -- to say that you believe a particular statement is true. Some people would add that it's willingness to say something is true even when there doesn't seem to be much evidence to support it, or even when the evidence seems to suggest that the opposite is true. Sometimes, I call this definition of faith "trying to talk yourself into thinking that you think it."
But that's not what Christian faith is. It's not about what goes on in your head. It's not even necessarily about "believing in your heart that it's true." It's not about what you feel.
Side note: lots of people say things to this effect, and base it on the Latin credo, "I believe," coming from the root cardia, or "heart." They say then that saying "I believe" is about what you feel and not what you think. Unfortunately for this argument, people had different views in the ancient world about which organ did what, and pretty much nobody thought that thinking went on in the brain. They thought that thinking went on in -- you guessed it -- the heart. The heart wasn't seen as the seat of emotions any more than the brain was seen as the seat of rational thought.
So if Christian faith isn't summed up by "I feel in my heart that this is true" any more than it is by "I think in my brain that this is true," what's it about?
I'd say it's about a different dimension to our word "true." It's about the kind of "true" we mean when we say, "he's true blue," or "she's true to her friends." It's about relationship. It's about relationship with integrity -- our willingness to put our resources and our very selves behind what we say is important -- or more accurately, WHOM we say is important to us. It's about fidelity, trust, allegiance.
And that's what Jesus asks of us as our Lord and gifts to us from his grace. Jesus calls us into a community in which we are each freed to give freely of everything we have to give, because we're ALL sharing with one another as if all of our resources -- money, power, time, and love -- were unlimited. It's the sort of vision that some shake their heads at and call impossible. But nothing is impossible, Jesus says, with faith. Nothing is impossible when we realign our relationships as Jesus calls us to do; we find the power we need from the community -- the communion -- we find with Jesus and the Body of Christ once we take the leap of faith to risk deeper relationship.
It's a truth that we don't necessarily think, or even feel; it's a truth we live into. So perhaps the connection between the saying about faith and the saying about the slave is stronger than it might first seem. It might seem impossible that we find what we need -- honor and esteem as well as our material needs -- as we learn to give what we've got freely and to the benefit of others. And maybe it's helpful sometimes to let ourselves enter into humble service without Luke's certainty that Jesus will raise us up, because I don't think that most of us can muster up a sense of certainty for ourselves before we take that next tiny step forward, much as it feels like a huge leap of faith, to serve without thought of reward. But for each step forward we take on the journey into that truth, that integrity, that freedom, we find more to strengthen us for the journey. In the community to which Christ calls us, we've got what we need -- a mustard seed of faith, and companions who will lend us theirs when we can't find our own.
I hope that mulberry trees don't have a negative impact on the ecosystem of the ocean!
Thanks be to God.
Proper 14, Year C
If you're looking for a comment on the readings for Sunday, August 1st (Proper 13), scroll down! This one's for Sunday, August 8th; I'm publishing it early because I'm about to leave for vacation, and probably won't be on the Internet again until I get back on the night of the 7th (and finish up my sermon for the 8th!).
How many times do we hear or say the words "I know I should ... but my heart's just not in it"?
The gospel reading for August 8th tells us that there's something we can do about that, and it points to one of the best and least-discussed reasons for us to exercise stewardship the way Jesus does -- with generosity that goes far beyond the bounds of what American culture would tend to see as sensible.
It comes in Jesus' saying, "where your treasure is, there your heart will be." It's often misquoted as or misinterpreted to mean the same thing as, "where your heart is, there your treasure will be," but that's not what Jesus says. Jesus says that our hearts follow after our treasure like a dog runs after a stick. How we spend our money determines where our heart will be -- what kind of a person we'll be.
In other words, our stewardship is a means of our formation. We have (and should have) a strong self-interest in treating possessions as Jesus teaches us here -- holding them loosely, selling them to give alms, being generous toward others as God is generous -- because doing so is the best way, if not the only way, to experience that it is God's good pleasure to give the kingdom. Those of us who are most anxious to accumulate enough to shield us from misfortune and pain (as if that were possible!) have the most to gain from giving our "nest eggs" and "rainy day funds" away; when we do, we will finally be able to receive Jesus' word at the opening of this passage: "Do not be afraid."
As long as we rely on our own diligence and what we've accumulated for security, we will never be free from fear; we know too well in our heart of hearts that there are innumerable things in the world that we can't control, no matter how much money we've got. If we wait to be generous until we feel we can afford it, we might wait forever in fear. The solution Jesus advocates is stepping forward in faith, giving our treasure to the poor and knowing our heart will follow.
This is not a "prosperity gospel" that says if you invest your treasure where God's heart is -- in extending God's justice and mercy among the poor -- you'll get that promotion you wanted, and have more money than before. This is an identity gospel -- we choose behave as children of our Father because of who we are, and our hearts follow -- experiencing, as a result of that trust, not only deeper intimacy with God, but also real love in community. When we're all living into God's generosity, we find that when we do have needs, we're part of a family of sisters and brothers in Christ who KNOW who they are, and will express their ties with you as children of one Father by taking care of one another as family do.
That's why I'm glad the gospel for August 8th is read alongside the story of Abraham and the words of the Letter to the Hebrews on Abraham's faith. "Faith," or pistis in Greek, doesn't mean intellectual assent to a proposition; it means something more like "trust" or "allegiance." It's not about what we usually call "belief" so much as it is about relationship. Having faith is not about trying to convince yourself that you are convinced of something. You don't know you have enough faith when the needle doesn't leap on a lie-detector test as you say, "My journey will birth a people, and we will have a home." You know you've got faith when, however your heart pounds as you do it and whatever fears you have, you take the next step forward into the desert. Your heart will follow your feet, and you will become more fully the person God sees as your true identity.
So let's be generous with all of our treasure -- certainly with money, but also with time (I think an even rarer treasure in the communities in which I live and worship!), and energy, and love. Let's do it as if this were our last chance to try it. Where our treasure is says far more about who we think we are, what we think is of eternal importance, and who we want to trust, than anything we say with our lips. Let's speak with our treasure who we are in Christ, and we may find the miracle of Creation repeated, as speech bring worlds into being.
Thanks be to God!