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 5, Year C
If I were preaching this Sunday, I think I'd do something that's rather unusual for me:
I'd be preaching on the epistle. I'd be preaching about something that springs to my mind every time I read Galatians, and especially the first half of the letter. It's something that is also prominent in my mind these days when my electronic deliveries of Anglican news arrive:
You can't read Galatians with anything approaching care without noticing that there were serious disagreements about serious matters in the earliest churches. Heck, you can't read any of Paul's letters with anything approaching care without noticing that much, but usually people think of most of those other conflicts as ones between Paul, who was clearly right (what with his being a saint and his letters getting in the canon and all), and anonymous nasty heretics, who were clearly wrong, and probably should not be thought of as being Christian at all.
Well, we can't quite do that with Galatians. In Galatians, Paul describes a very bitter fight he's had (and is having, I'd say; I see no indication in the letter that the disagreement has yet been resolved) with none other than Peter. I've occasionally heard people try to say something along the lines of, "well, they weren't fighting about anything important. It was just about dietary laws; of course Paul was right, but Peter came around to Paul's point of view in the end anyway, so it wasn't a huge deal." I personally wouldn't bet my life that Peter did end up agreeing with Paul, since the only indication that might be the case is the book of Acts, and Paul's practices of table fellowship as described in his letters don't follow the guidelines they supposedly agreed on in Acts 15 (e.g., there's no indication at all in Paul's letters that he thought Christians needed to avoid meat with blood in it). And in any case, at the point Paul writes Galatians, he thinks that Peter is completely wrong -- "self-condemned" and acting in "hypocrisy" in a manner such that others were "led astray" -- and on a matter that is, in Paul's view at least, about the very "truth of the gospel" (Galatians 2:11-14).
So who was the nasty heretic who should have been kicked out of the church, or at least out of all positions of leadership: Peter or Paul? Who is it who's not a real Christian: Peter or Paul?
The answer, I think most people would say, is neither. Most Christians I know today would say that Peter was mistaken on this matter. I wonder occasionally whether Peter ever regretted not being a more prolific letter-writer or being more intentional about cultivating a fan base, as Christians don't have any documents from Peter's pen to give his point of view directly. I'd be willing to bet that if we did have Peter's version of the conflict, there'd be some harsh words about Paul's point of view. And all of this makes me wonder:
If Peter and Paul can disagree passionately about something that Paul and perhaps even both of them thought was about the very "truth of the gospel," and if we can celebrate them both as apostles of Christ and heroes of the faith, why does it seem to happen so often in our churches today that any serious disagreement about an important matter of faith becomes an occasion to condemn one party as not only completely wrong, but outside the bounds of Christianity itself? And don't say that the difference is that money and property weren't at stake then; when famine befalls the Christians in Jerusalem, at least some of whom seem to have been on Peter's side of this conflict, Paul spends no small amount of political capital to get churches he founded to take up a collection for their sisters and brothers in Christ in Jerusalem. Who should have been expelled from the first-century communion of churches: Peter or Paul? Whose witness to Christ was superfluous? Whose ministry was not needed? And if these are silly questions to ask about Peter and Paul, what makes them any less silly to ask about any of our sisters or brothers today?
I think Paul was right about something in Galatians that we often gloss over. I think he was right about the dietary laws; he was right that while Jesus himself seems to have kept those laws, it's a logical extension of his practices of table fellowship (e.g., his feeding of the five thousand, as I talk about in more depth here) to say that "the truth of the gospel" Jesus proclaimed with his words, his life, and his death, and which the God of Israel affirmed in raising Jesus from the dead, is that all of us, having been made one Body, not only can but must live out that truth in the breaking of the bread. We are Christ's Body, called to give of ourselves to and for the world as Christ gave himself; as the Body of Christ, we are to be the presence of the Bread of Life in the world. Breaking bread with one another is an excellent warm-up exercise in that vocation, and if we won't do that with one another, our vocation in the world is in serious trouble.
Someone in a Sunday morning adult formation class once said to me that she missed the altar calls of her youth, and thought that Episcopal congregations were remiss in not offering them at least a couple of times a year. My answer was that we have an altar call every single week, and many congregations multiple times per week. We are called to the altar every time we celebrate the Eucharist. We come together, we confess our sins and ask God's forgiveness, we hear the Good News that we're forgiven and we proclaim words of peace to one another, and then we approach the altar and, as sign and symbol of our conversion and the reconciliation that Christ has effected and is effecting with and among us, we receive Christ. We literally take Christ in as we receive the bread and wine. We have an altar call every time we break bread together because we're called to conversion, to reconciliation with God and one another in Christ, and to live more deeply and fully into that conversion in everything we do. We have an altar call at least once a week because we need that kind of conversion, that sign of reconciliation, not once in a lifetime but countless times. I think of it as a good day if I experience conversion several times before noon. I don't think I'm speaking only for myself when I talk about needing that.
So this Sunday, this altar call, let's be intentional about what we're doing. When we speak words of peace to one another, I pray we're particularly mindful of what it is we're saying -- not "peace be with you, as long as we agree on the important stuff," but "peace be with you." Let's be mindful that as we do this, we're enacting among one another what we believe God is doing in the world. Reconciliation of the whole of Creation in Christ is God's mission, God's program, and as we receive the bread this Sunday, let's be mindful of the call to us as Christ's Body, the very "truth of the gospel" we have received from the apostles, to get with the program.
Thanks be to God!
Maundy Thursday, Year C
I've often heard people say that it's through Jesus' death that we find new life through forgiveness for sin. I believe that's true, but it's only part of the truth; too often, we neglect to consider how Jesus' LIFE helps us to find forgiveness and life. Our readings for Maundy Thursday are a helpful corrective.
They are, of course, more than that. I'd call them solemn and even frightening. Passover is my favorite holiday in any tradition. Like many holidays, it is a feast with friends and family, but I particularly appreciate the intentionality of Passover as an occasion for storytelling, for remembrance, and particularly for remembrance of God's liberation of God's people. But one can't go through the stories of Passover without encountering a great deal of blood. Waters turned to blood. The loss of life in plagues of flood and famine. Worst yet, the story of every firstborn son of Egypt dying. A household anointing doorposts with lamb's blood on that night would do so with an awe tinged with dread at God's power to protect and the horror of what would befall others.
I have no glib, feel-good explanation to take away that horror. I feel the same temptation to come up with one that many people I know feel, but I pray to resist it. Celebration of Passover calls on God's people not just to celebrate liberation from slavery, but the horrors of slavery, of the desire to enslave, and to remember not only God's graciousness in delivering the Hebrews, in giving the Torah, in forming a people to be a light to all nations, but also the terrible losses, the grief of those who loved a son touched by death's angel or swallowed in the Sea of Reeds. Indeed, some Passover haggadot present the bitter herbs dipped in salt water as a call to grieve on behalf of the Egyptians lost, a call to pray for oppressors and enemies.
And so it is no coincidence that on Maundy Thursday we remember the Passover in Egypt as well as Jesus' last night before he died. Christian tradition invests Jesus with prophetic insight, but it wouldn't have taken a miracle for Jesus to know that he would die soon. He had participated in a very public demonstration mocking the triumphal processions of Rome. He had caused a public disturbance in the midst of massive crowds of pilgrims at the Temple, and in full view of Roman troops stationed in nearby buildings in positions above the Temple's walls. Roman governors didn't tolerate that kind of rabble-rousing, and certainly not during the Passover, when the thronged pilgrims -- a crowd made all the more volatile as they celebrated deliverance from oppressors -- posed a constant threat to public order. Do what Jesus did the rest of the week, and unless you've got some serious guerilla forces to take you to the hills, you're likely to end up where Jesus most likely knew he was headed.
Because he wasn't heading for the hills. Nor was he assembling an army. On this night, the night of his betrayal, the last night before he was to die, he was heading only to supper, assembling those with whom he had traveled -- friends, followers, and one who was to hand him over, and none of whom (especially in John's portrayal) save perhaps for the 'beloved disciple' and Mary, who anointed his feet (to whom we shall return soon).
As someone well schooled in how different Jesus' culture, and hence, his outlook, was from mine, I try not to psychologize, but I sometimes think that his were in some ways the loneliest hours of Jesus' life. On what we call Good Friday, he hangs on the cross in great suffering -- public suffering. Deserted by nearly all who called themselves friends or followers, he was seen and known by a few, who also saw his suffering and grieved and suffered with him, as he grieves and suffers with the suffering among us now. But on Maundy Thursday, Jesus "knew his hour had come" when no one else on earth could quite understand. Did the chatter and laughter of his friends comfort or anger him, I wonder? And even if some of it comforted him, John tells us that Jesus knew one of his companions present would betray him.
What Jesus does, then, is astonishing. He takes off his robe, wraps himself as a towel like a slave, and washes the feet of his companions. A student sits at the teacher's feet, not the teacher at the student's. That's not the half of it, though. If you've watched Monty Python's Quest for the Holy Grail or Life of Brian lately, you've gotten a pretty decent and graphic picture of what ancient streets were like. Most people dumped their garbage -- any and all kinds of waste people generate -- in the streets. People walked through it. When they arrived for dinner, and especially with the custom of reclining to dine, rather than our sitting on chairs at covered tables -- all of that skubalon, to use Paul's word from Philippians 3, which we read a couple of weeks ago -- would be washed off by the lowliest person in the household. I'm going to put it crudely: Jesus isn't too good for our crap; he puts up with it and cleanses the lowliest, shittiest stuff that clings to us.
And more. I wrote a couple of weeks ago about how, in Jesus' culture, hands and feet represented intentional action, how Mary's anointing Jesus' feet anointed Jesus' deeds. When Jesus washes his disciples' feet, he is also cleansing their actions in a very graphic, memorable, tactile demonstration of forgiveness. He even washes the feet of his betrayer, whom, we are told, he already know will betray him, and with whom he breaks bread in the bit of text the Revised Common Lectionary cuts out between verse 17 and verse 35. Washing feet and breaking bread: this is Jesus' behavior toward his betrayer, his clueless friends, and his stumbling followers on the last night before he died.
Do this in remembrance of him.
That's what we do.
Every time we celebrate the Eucharist, that's what we do. We gather in front of Jesus' table, and before our supper, we forgive and are forgiven; we exchange the peace (in a wonderful echo of Matthew 5:23-24 as well as the passage from John we read for Maundy Thursday). In other words, we meet Jesus. CEO or homeless beggar are the same to him, as he meets us where we are, and goes straight to where we've picked up the most shit from our journey there. We let him do that; we let it go. He cleanses us, and when we greet one another -- CEO or beggar, zealot or traitor, and all of us in between -- we recognize one another as human beings whom Jesus has cleansed. We go with clean feet, hands, and hearts to his table, to break bread with him and with one another.
As I was exploring the last time I was honored to proclaim Good News in a church on Maundy Thursday, when most of us think about what we'd do if we knew this was the last night before our death, we think about what is core to who we are -- the intersection of what gives us the deepest joy and what we think is most important. On the last night before he died, I think Jesus did that too. And what he did was what I've described above. It wasn't all that different from what he did throughout his ministry; that's one of the many reasons we say that Jesus was the perfect human being, Incarnating God and living his full humanity in God's image. Jesus lived out who he was fully. He lived this full and eternal life on every night -- including and especially this night we remember on Maundy Thursday. Was he angry? Was he terrified? Was he lonely? I have no way of knowing, of course; I've just got the same texts you've got, and the gospels are anything but modern biography concerned with interior states. What I do know is that when Jesus had every reason to feel all of those things, he stayed with the community -- including his betrayer -- and cleansed, and cared, and forgave, and broke bread.
What would our lives, our churches, our denominations, our nations, our world be like if we were to embrace and express our humanity in God's image as Jesus did? What would our lives in all of these dimensions be like if every time we broke bread, or every time we met someone and their shit from the journey, we lived as Jesus lived?
Do this. Do this and remember.
Thanks be to God!
Fifth Sunday in Lent, Year C
I hope you'll indulge me -- I'm going to start with something of an aside this week, as there's something in the epistle reading from Philippians 3 that I very much want to underscore. Its very first sentence points out two things about St. Paul that are often ignored or misunderstood.
First, it's that Paul, like a significant number of early Christians (such as the Pharisaic Christian contingent at the "council of Jerusalem" in Acts 15), identifies as a Pharisee as well as a follower of Jesus; the only point in his catalog of identities in Philippians 3:4 that no longer applies is "persecutor of the church." In other words, Luke's portrayal in Acts 23:6 of Paul, long after his experience on the road to Damascus, saying in the present tense, "I am a Pharisee, a son of Pharisees" is realistic. Regular readers know (as the archives of this blog on the subject demonstrate) that I feel strongly that Christians should avoid presenting the Pharisees as stock villains and using the word "Pharisee" as a synonym for "hypocrite" or "sanctimonious jerk." It's language that comes across as antisemitic, and furthermore, it's language that distorts the historical record and even the sometimes complicated ways Pharisees and Pharisaism are portrayed in the New Testament. As far as we can tell, Paul identified as a Pharisee to his dying day, so at least in his view, there's nothing about being a Pharisee that's in necessary conflict with following Jesus.
Second, it's worth noting that Paul specifically says that "as to righteousness under the Law" he was "blameless." In other words, Paul does NOT think that humankind needs Jesus because human beings can't manage to observe the Law and therefore can't have righteousness without having Jesus' righteousness imputed to them. Paul says right here in Philippians that he was righteous under the Law; clearly he thought that people COULD observe it. I have little doubt that Paul could assess his Torah observance in this way in part because he, like any other Pharisee, knew that the Law made provision for impurities to be cleansed, transgressions forgiven, and therefore righteousness under the Law restored. As myriad texts (e.g., Psalm 103) in the Hebrew bible demonstrate, the God of Israel has always offered people forgiveness. This whole stereotype of Judaism as proclaiming a God who, prior to the Incarnation, was impossible to please and whose presence could not be experienced by human beings is, to borrow Paul's word in Philippians 3:8, skubalon -- which, by the way, the Liddell-Scott Greek lexicon translates as "dung" or "excrement," though the NRSV renders it more in a more genteel fashion as "rubbish."
Thanks for letting me get that off my chest. I'd like to say more about Paul's view of the Law and why he thinks we need Jesus, and you can find more of my thoughts about that elsewhere in the lectionary blog, but I've already stretched the definition of "aside"; it's time to get to what I actually plan to preach on this week.
This Sunday's gospel story seems to be based on an earlier story -- one of my favorites in the New Testament -- that appears first in written form in the Gospel According to Mark, 14:1-11. Two days before the Passover, in the last week of Jesus' life, Jesus' followers are sharing a meal. The men among the Twelve, and especially Peter, have been fairly consistently portrayed as misunderstanding who Jesus is and potentially even standing in the way of what Jesus came to do. But two days before the Passover at dinner, a woman -- a prophet -- shows that she understands Jesus as the male disciples haven't. She anoints Jesus' head, dramatically proclaiming Jesus to be the one anointed by God (in other words, the christ or messiah), and in a context that makes clear that she has anointed Jesus also for the way of the Cross he has proclaimed. And Jesus commends her prophetic action in glowing terms, saying that wherever the Good News is proclaimed, this woman's story will be told in memory of her.
Ironically, while we know the names of others -- even the name of the host of this dinner party in Mark 14 -- the name of the woman is lost to us. So much for Jesus' disciples keeping her memory. Luke (in chapter 7) makes the woman an anonymous "sinner." John 12 gives her a name, at least -- Mary, sister to Martha and Lazarus -- but like Luke, John has her anointing Jesus' feet, not his head, turning an act of prophesy into an act solely of personal and emotional devotion -- even an act that could be seen as competing with and undermining ministry to the poor.
But is that really what's going on? I have my doubts.
I think it's worth remembering that, as Malina and Rohrbaugh point out, hands and feet were seen in the ancient Mediterranean world as representing action -- action with intentionality. While Mark has the woman anointing Jesus' person, and by extension his actions, in John's story the woman is declaring Jesus' actions, Jesus' mission in the world, as anointed by God, and by extension his person.
These differences give the stories different emphases. And if you'll indulge me in another aside (this one brief, I promise), it reminds me of why it's so important not to try to harmonize the differences we hear in the the gospels -- or to try to impose uniformity in Christian community. We need those different voices, those different emphases, even or especially when they seem to be in tension with one another.
We need them if we're going to do what Mary does in this Sunday's gospel: identify and bless Jesus' intentional action, what God is doing in the world -- also known as God's mission.
I'll put it this way, with a confession: I suspect that nine times out of ten, when God is saying to me, "I am about to do a new thing; / now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?" my response is something like this:
"You have reached the internal answering machine of Sarah Dylan Breuer. I'm out doing all of the things I think are God's will, the things I think I need to do to make a living, and the things I just plain want to do, but have managed to rationalize as being totally necessary. Please leave your name at the tone, so I know whether you're among those from whom I expect spiritual counsel, and assuming you're on the list, I'll get back to you when ... well, I might get back to you."
What would it look like if I lived more deeply into the kind of prophetic witness we see in this week's texts? How might our lives be different in our households, our worshipping communities, our world if, instead of asking God to bless our activity, we, like Mary, were looking for the ways in which God is acting in the world and looking for ways we could bless and support God's action?
I feel blessed to have joined one of the most mission-minded parishes I've ever seen. There are so many people here giving so much of themselves and using so many of their spiritual gifts to advance God's mission. And one thing that could enhance our ability to identify God's activity in the world and bless it would be more opportunity for us to listen to one another, to hear one another's stories. I'm not just talking about stories of how we serve in and through the church. We should indeed be celebrating, thanking, supporting, and blessing one another in our ministries in church, but it's worth remembering that most of us spend the vast majority of our time in other places, and that time in other places can be ministry in the service of God's mission just as surely -- perhaps even more surely -- than time spent in this building.
If we believe that God is at work in the world, after all -- if we want to anoint Jesus' feet, his action out there -- then we need to be looking for evidence of Jesus' work in the world; we need to see the world and people's work in it through the lens of Jesus' ministry, in the context of salvation history, the story of God's creating the world and drawing it to God's self.
That means we need to be in touch both with that story of God's making and loving the world and with the stories of human beings in the world experiencing God's redemption and the historical and personal wounds in need of God's healing.
Those who know me well will not be surprised to hear me say that I think one of the very best ways to be in touch with the world's very reason for being -- with the love of God that created the world and is bringing it toward the peace, justice, and love for which it aches -- is to spend some serious calories in close reading of the scriptures. It's very hard to discern what Jesus is up to in the world today if one doesn't know, and very well, what Jesus was up to in Galilee and Judea, and in the lives and communities of early saints such as Paul and the writers of the gospels. It's hard to understand what Jesus was up to in the past if one doesn't immerse oneself in the Torah and the prophets that formed Jesus' own view of who God is and what engaging God's mission would look like.
And of course, one can't know what Jesus is up to in the world today if one doesn't know what's going on in the world today. I thank God for some of the tools I use, such as the Global Voices website, which compiles and translates web logs from all over the world that allow you and me to hear from ordinary people -- anonymous Gay Christians in Uganda, teenagers in Iraq, and countless others. But even these technological marvels are nothing compared to the resource we have in one another, in our congregations and in the larger Body of Christ. Tell me what your wildest dreams for the world are and the moments in which you catch glimpses of it at work, on the bus, with your children (or even your parents!), and I'll know that much more about where Jesus' feet fall around the world. When we share our stories -- and particularly when we come together as God's people to enter into the biblical story and ponder how our own stories might be told in the context of that great, wonderful tale -- we can see the paths that Jesus is wending through our world to bring redemption, and we have opportunity in encouraging and supporting one another's growth and ministry to bless and anoint the very feet of the Son of God.
It's hard to say what might be inspired by that process of being in touch with the world's wounds, with God's work of bringing the world to wholeness, and with the great and small wonders present in the gifts and vocations of each one of us. I wonder what might happen if those of us living in families not only ate dinner together, but asked one another questions that go beyond "How was your day?" to "What makes you angry about what's going on in the world? What inspires you? What's God doing, in the world and in you?" Parents, if you're lacking in inspiration to ask those questions, I encourage you to ask your kids, who know and care about a great deal of God's mission, and can often talk about it far more articulately than you or I can. Kids and students, try asking your parents about things like this. It might seem weird at first, but you might find conversations like this bringing out amazing ways in which God is calling you, and surprising support in living into that call -- not just in some distant year when you've got your degrees and have checked off all of the right boxes, but now.
And what, I wonder, would it do to coffee hour if we were asking one another, "So, what do you see going on in the world? What's God up to?," or even, "How has God been working in your life lately?" Among other things, we might find that we had far more to talk about that coffee hour would allow.
That's the danger of this sort of enterprise: Enter into scripture's stories of God's loving and redeeming the world, and you just might find yourself hungry for more. Enter into the stories of your neighbors and their experience of God's love and redemption, and you might catch a glimpse of something that will change your life. Look for and bless what Jesus is doing in the world, and as surely as Jesus is Lord of history, you will see the world healing, growing, and changing.
Thanks be to God!
March 24, 2007 in Discernment, Forgiveness, Isaiah, John, Justice, Lent, ONE campaign/Millennium Development Goals, Pharisees, Philippians, Prophets, Righteousness, Women, Year C | Permalink | Comments (1)
Fourth Sunday in Lent, Year C
[Sorry about the delays this week, folks -- my computer's overworked power supply wore out, but Apple came to the rescue -- and I hope in time to be of some help to y'all! --Dylan]
1 Corinthians 5:16-21 - link to NRSV text
Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32 - link to NRSV text
Jesus' parables nearly always hinge on a surprising reversal of some kind, and a good rule of thumb when reading them is that if you haven't found anything that's very surprising and challenging, read it again.
Jesus' parable of "The Lost Son" starts with several, and then keeps going. The younger of two sons asks his father to divide the family's property and give him now the share of it that would be his inheritance when the father died.
This is one of those scenes that remind me of a regular feature in the Highlights children's magazines that were ubiquitous in dentist's offices when I was growing up. The feature was "What's Wrong With This Picture?," and it consisted of a line drawing of a cheerful scene, inviting the reader to circle everything wrong or odd in the picture. "What's Wrong With This Picture?" The birds are flying upside-down, the tricycle has one wheel that's square and another that's triangular, the spider has twelve legs, the fishing pole has no line, and the fish are happily playing cards on a tree branch! The feature might have been more challenging if the object were to circle what was right with the picture, because it always seemed that practically nothing was.
There's so much that's wrong at the beginning of the story of the Lost Son that it's hard to point to anything that's right, expected, or normal:
The son asks the father to divide the family farm. Such a division would diminish the family's fortunes. Although this family seems to be doing reasonably well at the moment, anyone whose livelihood depends on agriculture can find their fortunes changing dramatically with the weather or other factors, and this family doesn't seem to be among the most prosperous, who lived in luxury in the cities while stewards managed tenant farmers and slaves who did the work. Doing what the younger son asks is a substantial and entirely unwarranted risk for the whole family.
Perhaps even more importantly, the younger son's request diminishes the whole family's honor. There's hardly any such thing as a secret in village life, and a dishonorable son shames not only himself, but his father, and by extension the entire family name. And by asking for his inheritance now, the younger son has, in effect and in full view of the village, said to his father, "I wish you were dead, so please make it as much as possible like what it would be if I'd buried you."
Stories about two sons, one good and one treacherous, aren't uncommon. The beginning of our gospel story makes it clear as day that the younger one could never be the good one. And in view of how shocking the son's behavior is, his father's behavior in granting the request might be even more surprising.
So the younger son goes off to a distant land, lives in shameful ways among Gentile foreigners and their pigs, and loses everything he has -- which is, we should remember, a substantial portion of the family's resources. And then he decides to go home.
This is also a surprising decision on the young man's part. After the way he has treated his father and family, he has no ground on which he might expect a gracious reception. Heck, he'd be lucky if he made if he made it back to his father's house, since the moment he was within sight of the village, he'd be very likely to be attacked by any who saw him. He has not only shamed his family, but the whole village, where every father must have wondered anxiously whether his behavior would give their sons rebellious, shameful, and disruptive ideas. Even if his own father isn't rushing to pick up the first stone, this young man is in real danger from the whole village. But surprisingly, he decides to go back anyway.
And surprisingly, his father must have been looking for him, for he catches glimpse of his son on the horizon. And then the father, shamed so profoundly by his younger son's behavior, does yet another surprising thing: he gathers up the last shreds of precarious dignity he's got to lift his robes and run to meet the son who'd betrayed him. Picking up robes like that is not something a self-respecting father would do, and running even less so -- the combination is undignified in a way entirely unbefitting an elder in the culture in which the story takes place. But this is not a move just of joy at a son's return; it's a rescue mission of the most urgent nature.
The father has to reach the son before the villagers do, or his son is doomed to the mob. Once more, the father sacrifices his dignity and this time even risks his life for the Bad Seed. But once the father's arms are around that younger son, and especially when he launched the celebration, it's clear that the prodigal is now fully under his father's protection. And everyone would have known as much, since everyone would have been invited to the celebration. A fatted calf is most assuredly not a Quarter-Pounder, and once killed, would need to be consumed by a lot of people in one big party, perhaps lasting for days.
So let's total up costs the father has incurred thus far for the sake of the younger son, the Bad Seed. The father as surely as the younger son squandered the family's resources by giving them to a son who so clearly was Bad News, with no loyalty at all to father or family. He squandered his dignity as he lifted up his impressive robes to dash like a madman toward the young man upon his return, and given the mood of the village, may have been risking his welfare too -- who knows who in the village would blame the father's indulgence for the shame on the village and the danger to the social order in every family there? He killed the fatted calf, which might have gone on to produce far more cattle and recover some of what the younger son had squandered, to throw a party to secure his younger son's status as a full and fully protected member of the family. But the biggest cost is yet to come -- and here comes what might be the biggest shock of the story.
It's the elder son. Supposedly the Good Son. The son who, if you take a look at the story from verse 25 on, refuses even to call his father "father." The son who doesn't just shame his father by rejecting his will in the closest thing to private that village life has, though the village will hear. The elder son, as the whole village is gathered "and they began to celebrate," takes the opportunity to show his true colors to his father. He chews out his father in the totally immediate and full view of all gathered to celebrate. In other words, the elder son shows himself to be a disobedient son, a dishonoring son, a son who shames his father. The whole "Good Son/Bad Son" structure becomes, like so many things in Jesus' ministry, a stunning reversal.
And then there's one more surprise.
The father once more responds graciously, saying even in front of the whole village that the kind of father he is must celebrate and rejoice when the lost are found. The father of the parable celebrates every measure of resurrection, of life from death, without pausing to judge whether the one given life deserved it, or what the consequences are for village or cosmic justice, or even how the loyal will respond. He just hopes that those who profess loyalty to him will follow his example.
And when will we follow his example?
It's far, far too easy for progressives to preach this parable as saying nothing more than "God loves you as you are. Come home." It says that, of course, and that's worth saying. But it says more than that. It invites us, as does all that Jesus says and does, to consider giving -- honor, forgiveness, and joy of our very selves -- sacrificially and without regard to worthiness to our sisters and brothers. It challenges us to consider what kind of party we'd throw and whose looks askance we'd take on gladly when the opportunity presented itself for renewed fellowship with people that every kind of common sense our culture has to offer would say are not worth our time, whether because of their past misdeeds or their peripheral status in our circles of friends or circles of power.
When will we embrace the example of the father in this story? That is, after all, the example God gave us in sending the prophets and sending Jesus. That is, after all, the example Jesus gave at the beginning of Luke chapter 15, as he invited sinners and the righteous alike -- indeed, anyone who was willing -- to table with him.
Fortunately, the example and the invitation are always there, no matter how many times we ignore of fumble it. And in the moment when we're thinking of ourselves as crazy as we gather up our robes and run to embrace the despised and envelop them in protection even from our neighbors, we'll understand that much more deeply and truly just how God loves and sustains us.
Thanks be to God!
Seventh Sunday after the Epiphany, Year B
“Your sins are forgiven.”
What was so shocking about those words? Far too much is made far too often about a supposed contrast between the reluctance of an “Old Testament God” or “God of Judaism” to forgive and the readiness of Jesus or a “Christian God” of grace, of letting sinners get a new start.
It's a false contrast. Read Psalm 32 -- heck, do any substantial reading at all in the Old Testament with an open mind -- and it's clear that, as Psalm 103 puts it, “The LORD is gracious and full of compassion, / slow to anger and of great kindness. / The LORD is loving to everyone / and his compassion is over all his works.” The prophet Micah tells us that what God requires of us includes doing justice and loving mercy, and those things aren't in tension for God any more than they are in what God's people are called to do. Those who worshipped the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob understood deeply that God in God's mercy “has not dealt with us according to our sins, / nor rewarded us according to our wickedness. / For as the heavens are high above the earth, / so is his mercy great upon those who fear him. / As far as the east is from the west, / so far has he removed our sins from us” (Psalm 103).
Indeed, God's mercy was great enough to provide for forgiveness of sins for as often as a member of God's people failed to do God's will. Christians (especially Protestant ones) often say that the problem for which Jesus was the solution was that no human being could keep the Law, and that God couldn't forgive us for such shortcomings, and so was distant from humanity until Jesus came to make forgiveness possible. That's a misreading of St. Paul, though, following on a non-reading of Hebrew scripture. Not only did Paul believe that he could (and did!) keep the Law -- in Philippians 3:6 he notes that he was “as to righteous under the Law, blameless” -- but Hebrew scripture is clear that when people sin, God is gracious to forgive -- so gracious as to provide for a system of sacrifice and prayer culminating in the yearly Day of Atonement to provide for forgiveness of all Israel's sin -- and I've seen no indication that anyone thought that these measures were less than totally efficacious for forgiveness of sin and restoring a person to intimate relationship with God.
So why, then, were Jesus' words to the paralytic anything other than old news to all his hearers?
I think the answer is now as it ever was:
Because we still don't get it.
We still don't get that the God who created us not only can stand the sight of ourselves as we are, but really, really loves us. This is pretty much the root of the classic sermon that I hope (perhaps beyond hope) is a relic of the distant past -- the one that says, “God pretty much can't stand the sight of you, except insofar as God can hallucinate that you are God's Own Son.”
Let's get it straight, so to speak: God loves you. God really, really loves you -- even more than anyone ever loved Sally Field (whose Oscar acceptance speech still lives vividly in my memory, and whom I'll always love irrationally for her smiling endurance of The Flying Nun and the Gidget television series). God didn't have to send Jesus to make it possible for God to love you:
God sent Jesus because God loved you. Already.
And God was overflowing with forgiveness toward you. Already.
But do you get it? “Do you not perceive it,” as Isaiah asks?
On the whole, we don't. We do maybe sometimes, but usually in a manner that's a bit askew. We think that God loves us and forgives us because we said a prayer to convert, or because we really, really tried to be good, or because at least we're better than those awful, awful other homosexuals/bigots/terrorists/jerks/what-have-you.
But that's not it. God made a world that's good, and created people who were pretty amazing as creations go (I'm a pretty creative person, and I've yet to make a sentient being of any kind, let alone one capable of art and poetry and prayer and real, live, love), and then set us in communities in which we had what we needed to become the Body of Christ on earth, and we're still pfaffing around with apologies.
Your sins are forgiven, and now it's time to walk.
Walk in love, as Christ loved us, and gave himself for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God.
Is this a new thing? It's as new as God's love is for us -- new every morning, every moment. Is it enough for us to stop waiting for others to do something to deserve our forgiveness? If Jesus came to speak God's forgiveness to someone on the basis of nothing more than that this person was there and had need, I don't see why not. What excuse do we have to play Twenty Questions about whether someone deserves what God is gracious enough to give, now that we have been privileged with place to see just how boundless is God's grace?
It's not new, but I have to admit that it's new to me -- new every moment in which I'm given grace to see and to wonder.
Thanks be to God!
Second Sunday of Advent, Year B
Sorry this took so long, all. It's been one heck of a week. Phew!
This is the beginning of the Good News of Jesus, God's Anointed:
John the Baptizer proclaimed in the wilderness a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.
This was a radical thing to do. It wasn't radical or even unusual to proclaim that people could find forgiveness for sins. The Temple hierarchy had been saying for hundreds of years that God was merciful and eager to forgive: the sacrifices in the Temple brought forgiveness to God's people. Prophets like Isaiah proved to be a thorn in the side of the Temple hierarchy, proclaiming that God isn't impressed by burnt sacrifices, doesn't live in a house built by human hands, is not confined to one holy land. The prophets proclaimed that God's reach extends across every land, God dwells wherever justice and peace are lived out in community, and that justice and peace is the only sacrifice God wants.
John the Baptizer made his ministry a living parable of that message. Isaiah 40 speaks of a voice in the wilderness crying out that the Lord is coming, and we are to prepare the way (depending on your comma placement, that is -- there was no punctuation in the Hebrew Bible or the Septuagint, so readers were free to play in their communities with the many possible variations of meaning from which modern editors choose. Many, like the community in Qumran that produced the Dead Sea Scrolls, read the text as meaning something more like, “A voice cries out: prepare in the wilderness the way of the LORD.”). John the Baptizer based himself in the wilderness along the Jordan River outside Jerusalem, and proclaimed to all who would hear that forgiveness was available to any who would be baptized — no Temple sacrifice necessary. According to Matthew and Luke, John the Baptizer taught that blood ties to Abraham were of no account in God's eyes — the high priest needed the baptism of repentance just as much as a Gentile convert to Judaism, and Abraham's inheritance would go to any who would receive it through that baptism.
This is the beginning of the Good News of Jesus, God's Anointed.
The world did not need Jesus merely to hear a message that forgiveness of sins and a relationship — a close, personal relationship — with the God who created the world was available to all. That message of grace was proclaimed in the Temple by Sadducees who believed that the blood spilled in the Temple was sufficient to cover sins, and by Pharisees who said that God welcomes converts from any nation who want to join God's people and walk in accordance with God's Torah.
And if I may bring a bit of Passover into Advent, I'll take up a refrain from the Passover liturgy: dayenu, “it would have been sufficient.”
The world did not need Jesus merely to hear that we can find forgiveness and join God's people without a Temple, without preconditions apart from conversion through repentance and baptism. John the Baptizer taught that much, and it would have been sufficient for that much. If all we expect from Jesus' coming and Jesus' work among us is that we will find forgiveness for sin, find relationship with God, and join God's people if we're willing to repent and experience conversion, we're due for a surprise.
This is the beginning of the Good News of Jesus, God's Anointed. And the grace of this message is astonishing. But it is only the beginning.
We expect more. Especially during this Advent season, we expect Jesus, and the full realization of Jesus' reconciling work on earth. As 2 Peter tells us, we wait for new heavens and a new earth, where God's justice is at home. And we will not be disappointed. Jesus is coming! Jesus is coming, inviting us to experience conversion, to be given a heart full of God's deep compassion, to be forgiven for our sins — and much, much more. Jesus is reconciling the whole world, each of us with one another and with God. Jesus gives us a vision of a world in which all of the barriers that separate us — the poor from the rich, the West from the South, nation from nation — will be no more. And that would have been sufficient for us to sing God's praises forever.
But it's just the beginning. Jesus has given us not only the vision, but the Spirit — the power to prepare the way of the LORD, casting down the mighty and raising up the lowly in the ultimate leveling of the proverbial playing field. As the Psalm says, “justice (a better translation, I think, than ”righteousness,“ as it makes clear what the prophets proclaimed is the right sort of relationship that defines God's righteousness) shall go before him, and peace shall be a pathway for his feet”; we prepare the way of the LORD whenever we do justice and make peace.
This is the grace we experience and the calling God gives us. And it's just the beginning. I'm inclined to that that the opening of Mark 1, the phrase, “the beginning of the Good News of Jesus the Christ,” refers not only to the ministry of John the Baptizer we remember today, but the whole of Mark's gospel, the whole story of Jesus' work among us, his death on the Cross, the empty tomb and God's messenger's proclaiming his resurrection and sending his followers forth. As you probably know, the last words of Mark's gospel have long been a puzzle to scholars. The very last word in our earliest texts of Mark 16:8 is gar, Greek for “for.” It seems almost like the “Castle of Aaaaaaaaaaaa ....” in Monty Python and the Quest for the Holy Grail -- a trailing off rather than a proper ending.
It isn't a proper ending.
It's a proper beginning. All of this — the whole story we'll be reading in this Year B of the lectionary as we journey through Mark's gospel — is the beginning of the Good News. That beginning ends with God's messenger saying something that's always true on our journey with Jesus — “he has gone ahead of you” — and the call to follow. We have become characters in that story, that Great Story of Good News, and we are to expect great things. The end of extreme poverty in this generation isn't overreaching: it's just the beginning of the Good News of the Lord whose way we are called to prepare. Have you or your parish been giving money to help our impoverished sisters and brothers in Haiti or Africa? That's good. But on December 13th, we have the opportunity to let the nations of the world know that we will no longer support trade practices that flood markets with subsidized American and European rice that robs Haitian and African farmers of their livelihood and Haitian and African children of life. We have the opportunity to Make Trade Fair, upholding the dignity of work and of workers and coming closer to giving every child the chance we want for our own children.
Now THAT would be a beginning. I say that not because we haven't had real, honest, and significant beginnings before; we have. But as we deepen our sense of what the end, the telos of Jesus' ministry is — and that's what all of these apocalyptic texts we read in Advent are meant to instill in us — we find the need and the power for a new beginning.
This is the day. This is the beginning of the Good News of Jesus?
Are you ready? Let's begin.
Thanks be to God!
December 1, 2005 in 2 Peter, Advent, Conversion, Eschatology, Forgiveness, Isaiah, Justice, Mark, ONE campaign/Millennium Development Goals, Prophets, Repentance, Year B | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack
Proper 20, Year A
Thanks for being patient with me this week. I got back on Tuesday from a job interview with a parish VERY far away. I'd naively thought I could write my lectionary blog entry on the plane coming back and post it immediately when I got home, but I was just too tired to get it done until today. By the way, I had a WONDERFUL time on the interview, thanks to my hosts -- it's a really wonderful congregation!
Jonah 3:10 - 4:11 - link to NRSV text
Psalm 145 - link to BCP text
Matthew 20:1-16 - link to NRSV text
They shall publish the remembrance of your great goodness; *
they shall sing of your righteous deeds.
The Lord is gracious and full of compassion, *
slow to anger and of great kindness.
The Lord is loving to everyone *
and his compassion is over all his works.
-- Psalm 145:7-9
As I was growing up, I often heard a message preached that went something like this:
"God is a perfectly righteous judge. Humanity sinned. Because God is perfectly righteous, God can't stand to be with sinful people, and because God is a righteous judge, God MUST impose the death penalty for any instances of sin -- no other choice could preserve God's righteousness. So God became flesh and was killed so that the penalty could be paid. Now, when God looks at those who have accepted the sacrifice of Jesus, God sees only Jesus and Jesus' righteousness, so God can be with us and still be righteous."
There's a lot that's troubling in this message, and it doesn't make much sense to me any more. First off, one of the presuppositions of the message seems to be that any law decreed by God is eternally binding, even upon God's self. Jesus doesn't seem to have gotten that memo, though. Even if you want to argue that Jesus followed all of the dietary and sabbath laws, there really isn't any way to harmonize "Honor your father and mother" with Jesus' command to "call no one father on earth, for you have one father -- the father in heaven" (Matthew 23:9). That's just for starters, too -- if you'd like to see other examples, please check out my archives on kinship and family.
Another thing that troubles me about the message I described above is its assumption that righteousness -- especially God's righteousness -- would be compromised or even erased either by contact with unrighteous people or by exercising mercy, choosing not to impose a deserved penalty. I'd say that there's more in scripture to contradict that view than to support it, and this Sunday's readings form an excellent case in point, arguing that God's "righteous deeds," as the psalmist puts it, are evidenced not in invariably punishing wrongdoers, but in being "gracious and full of compassion" and "loving to everyone" (Psalm 145:7-9) -- deserving or no.
Matthew joins in that tradition in potraying Jesus' message and way of life both as proclaiming that God's righteousness is most evident in God's indiscriminate (by conventional reckoning) mercy. Yes, in Matthew 5:17-20, Jesus says, "unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and the Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven," and that he has come to fulfill the law and the prophets, but take a look at what follows if you want to know what Jesus thinks fulfilling the law and the prophets and living righteously involves: it's reconciling with one another, treating women and men as human beings and not objects to exploit for pleasure and put aside when it suits us, to turn the other cheek, give to those who beg or ask to borrow, and love our enemies.
The clincher to that argument comes in Matthew 5:43-48, when Jesus says by what precedent he can argue all of this. Jesus can claim that he's fulfilling the law and the prophets, because he's siding with traditions like the one in Psalm 145 that says that God's righteousness deeds are those of "compassion over all his works," or the strand running through second Isaiah that "the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together" (Isaiah 40:5). Still, Jesus' strongest point isn't so much about the words of scripture, but about the character of God as revealed in scripture, God's behavior toward humankind since the first rainbow was hung in the sky. Here it is:
God sends sun and rain, "blessing rain" (thanks to Liz Zivanov of St. Clement's Honolulu for that image) upon the righteous and the unrighteous alike. When Jesus says, "be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly father is perfect" (Matthew 5:48), that's what he's talking about: God loves loyal servants of God, and enemies of God, and everyone in between. So, folks, if anyone is waiting for God, or Jesus, to undergo some kind of personality transplant and suddenly start with gleeful smiting instead of loving, that person's going to have an eternal wait (sorry, Left Behind fans, but Jesus' glorious appearing won't be much like it is in those books, if the gospels have it right).
So if that's what I think, am I simply buying wholesale into the old liberal humanist paradigm that says that everything's going to be great because every day in every way, things -- and people -- just get better and better? Nope. That's not what I'm saying.
What I'm saying is that all of that trying to reckon whether people are good or bad and getting better or worse, has become passé in light of the coming of God's kingdom proclaimed in Jesus' teaching and inaugurated in Jesus' ministry. So, all of us Jonahs don't have to worry about the outcome of prophesy one way or another; we can just concentrate on being faithful to the call, and living more deeply into abundant life in community, and there's a heck of a lot more fun -- or, to use more accurate language, more enjoyment of the joy and peace and all the rest that's the fruit of the Spirit -- in embracing that path.
I know that there are some short-term psychological rewards in being more like Jonah. If you don't feel you're in a position to be joyful yourself, it can be maddening to see others experiencing joy, and it might seem like some small consolation at least to feel twice as righteous for it, and/or to long for and expect some cosmic payback for the person judged as less deserving. But there's a huge price for living that way. One dimension of that price is constant vigilance. As long as we place ourselves in the judge's seat, we'll always find massive caseloads, as long as we try to place ourselves above others we'll suspect others of being as grasping as we are, and as long as we view the world as being full of people in need of judgment and punishment we will find it very hard to accept and internalize the Good News of this Sunday's gospel:
God is infinitely generous, and God showers us with blessings far without the slightest regard for our deserving.
I mean that "infinite" part too. God's blessing and God's love is not a pie with less of it left for me every time God gives something to someone else. It's more like a really good joke, or a truly amazing concert -- all the more living and life-giving for every person who shares it.
We all forget that sometimes, of course. Sometimes we end up as angry at God for being merciful and generous toward those we reckon as the wrong sort of person as are the workers in the vineyard who cast the evil eye, a curse seen as potentially deadly, on the generous landowner (that's what Matthew 20:15 says -- literally, it's "Is your eye evil because I am generous?"). Those grumbling workers are right in their assessment that the landowner is not treating everyone in the vineyard as a "fair" (by the world's standards) employer treats employees, paying each according to what each deserves, but they're so busy with their attempt to see that all are treated as employees deserve that they're missing the invitation implicit in the landowner's conduct: to receive not wages earned but blessings shared, to be treated more like family than like employees.
That's why Matthew 5 links being "children of your father in heaven" with loving and blessing neighbor and enemy alike. We are invited to see ourselves and all those around us not as worthy or unworthy servants or lazy or diligent day-laborers, but as children of God and co-heirs with Christ. Forgiving those whom the world reckons as unworthy of forgiveness, honoring those the world deems as shameful, and blessing without bothering about who deserves what is participating in our family business. It's what Jesus was and is about among us, and as the way of the Lord, the path upon which God's family is set, it's the way we'll experience most fully who God is and what life, abundant life, is like.
Thanks be to God!
Proper 19, Year A
[If you haven't seen it already, you might want to take a look at my supplemental entry from last week, which also addressed the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.]
This Sunday is September 11, 2005, four years to the day after September 11, 2001, and the end of a week in which news has been dominated once again with images that are equally hard to believe in one sense and hard to turn away from in another, images of death and suffering in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Both events are very much in the foreground of my mind this week as I reflect on the passages we'll be preaching on this Sunday.
I blogged in Grace Notes, my personal blog, a few months ago about a short film I'd come across online, and which I found to be very effective in its simplicity. You can find that entry, and a link to the film (which I encourage you to watch, if you haven't already -- it's only about thirty seconds long) here. What the film says is this:
Terrorism is bred in
The recent attacks on America have instilled
in otherwise peaceful people.
Vengeful retaliation will also instill
in innocent people who suffer from such attacks.
Terrorism is bred in
Violence breeds violence.
Our mission now is to break the cycle.
This short film with its powerful message is about forgiveness, what it's about, and why it's crucial for our survival -- by which I mean not just our continuing to draw breath, but our continuing to be ALIVE, living in the abundant way that is Christ's gift.
Jesus spoke these words about forgiveness -- unilateral, unconditional, and (to many of his hearers) nonsensical forgiveness -- in an honor/shame culture, a culture in which retaliating against someone who'd attacked your family or your family honor was seen not only as the only wise course of action, but the only GOOD course of action. You don't want people to feel that they've got a license to walk all over your family, do you? And if God is on your side, is there any way to prove it besides striking back so you can show that your god is stronger than theirs? You've got a duty to strike back -- not only to protect your own honor, but also to protect your wife, your children, those who are vulnerable and who can't strike back themselves. The Law limits retaliation -- an eye for an eye, one life and one life only for a life -- but doesn't prohibit it.
But it was the Mahatma Gandhi, I think who put it in these vivid terms: "an eye for an eye" leaves the whole world blind. That's the sad tragedy of so many conflicts we see. In the Middle East, one side claims that their bomb came in retaliation for the other side's rocket. It really doesn't matter who started it; continuing by principles of violence for violence, there is nothing that will finish it.
What will finish it? Who will deliver us from this body of death, these spirals of violence?
Jesus delivers us, because Jesus taught us a better way: forgive, not once, or twice, but seventy or seventy times seven -- in other words, always, as many times as we're attacked.
It sounds crazy, but it's the only way out. We've seen it in less graphic ways in seemingly intractable church conflict. When we talk only of how we've been wronged and what others need to do (or be forced to do!) to make up for it, then we just get caught up in escalating spirals of the conflict. Not only does this continue conflict indefinitely (which, to be sure, is neither fun nor spiritually profitable, though it seems to work well for some people for short-term fundraising), but it also makes it awfully hard to really hear anyone else through the din.
What would happen if we took Paul's counsel seriously to "strive to outdo one another in SHOWING honor" (Romans 12:10)? We'd have a lot more energy to put into action the rest of Paul's train of thought, namely "Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers" (Romans 12:11-13).
That last sentence hits me particularly hard in light of the devastation we've seen along the Gulf Coast, the images and stories and footage of people with no or not enough clean water to drink, food to eat, no home to light at night or power to light it, and in many cases convulsed with grief and worry about family members lost.
Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.
We would have so much more to give as a nation if we weren't so caught up in so many battles. How many evacuees could be housed and fed and given a new start if we could devote to it the combined annual budgets of every political group working to make sure that some other group doesn't gain ground? And then there's the war in Iraq. I know that many consider it to be a righteous cause, and I respect that there are many who are willingly putting their lives on the line to serve, but I have to wonder just how many lives we could save and how many enemies we could win over if we put even half as much of the money and the ingenuity and the energy into saving lives -- any and all lives, as trying to figure out who deserves life most just takes more energy we could put into saving more -- as we do into trying to punish those we reckon are "evildoers"?
Jesus' answer to that is forgiveness. Forgive those who attack and love enemies, and you can devote all the resources and energy that would go into judging and punishing others to the cause of loving, serving, and honoring others. Seventy times seven -- as often as it happens.
I've heard talk in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina about forgiveness meaning that we shouldn't talk about who's responsible for some of the decisions that left so many, especially so many of the poor, the elderly, and the disabled, to suffering and death. That's not what forgiveness is.
Forgiveness doesn't say, "it's like it never happened" -- that's amnesia.
Forgiveness doesn't say, "well, nobody could have expected you to do any better" -- that's condescension.
Forgiveness accepts both that the other person is capable of moral action and that the actions for which you are extending forgiveness were immoral. Both of those things are crucial, as forgiveness is meant to call both parties to reconciliation -- that renewed relationship between persons who accept moral responsibility and who have dedicated themselves to uphold the other person as a moral agent, a person who is both capable of and called to give and receive love.
In other words, forgiveness puts demonizing the other person out of bounds. Forgiveness is grounded in acknowleding shared humanity (or personhood, which would be a more appropriate term with respect to how God the Father forgives us), shared moral agency, and demonizing another person denies that person's moral agency, denying not only their fitness for being loved, but also their potential to love others, and behave in a moral manner toward others. Demonizing others usually happens, I've observed, in attempts to "hold their feet to the fire," but it has the opposite effect; in suggesting that the others are incapable of moral action, it lets them off the hook. I often think that's something like what St. Paul had in mind when he said that by loving, forgiving, and serving our enemies, we "heap burning coals upon their heads" (Romans 12:30). And if wanting to heap burning coals on someone else is the only motivation we can come up with for forgiving them -- and in so doing, inviting them to live as reconciled and reconciling people alongside us -- then that'll do.
So by all means, let us contribute to the needs of those in need. Let us extend hospitality to strangers, and generosity to those displaced by flooding as befits those who are aware of how vulnerable we all are, and how gracious God is toward all of us, without regard for who is deserving. And let us also embrace the prophetic call to speak to those in power about how they could use it to benefit most those who are most vulnerable. Both ministries are given to us for the mission of the church: to serve as minister's of Christ's reconciliation of all the world to one another and to God. That ministry is so powerful that none can stand outside the reach of God's love, and God's gifts to each one of us are so precious that all are invited to the freedom and the responsibility to to extend God's grace to others.
Thanks be to God!
Proper 18, Year A
The Good News that you heard included an invitation: right now, as you are, you can be a part of something -- specifically, a member of the Body of Christ.
The tricky part is that the Body of Christ includes an awful lot of people who are every bit as difficult as we are.
Welcome to the church, folks. We only just encountered the concept a couple of chapters ago (in Matthew 16:18, the only other time in the gospels in which the Greek word ekklesia occurs), and now in Matthew 18, we're being introduced to church conflict.
In this Sunday's gospel, we get some very practical advice on how to handle it when someone in the church sins against us (yeah, I know that the "against you" part isn't in all of the manuscripts, but it does seem like a very helpful addition). The first thing we learn is that we're to approach the person whose behavior hurt us directly, and if at all possible, privately. Without others around, the person you're speaking with has room to reconsider without losing face -- and you have room to reconsider if the other person can point to ways in which your behavior has contributed negatively to the situation.
That's crucial, as at each stage of this process, the goal is reconciliation. The quiet conversation isn't just a necessary preliminary to a wonderfully juicy public drama, nor is it solely an opportunity to try to get one's way. Indeed, any more public confrontations that follow are about getting the parties directly involved to return to the table, where real conversation and real reconciliation can take place.
In other words, church conflict, if we're seeking to follow Christ in the midst of it, doesn't have to be a distraction from the mission of the Church; it can be a training ground for mission. It can even BE mission.
Let me unpack that. As Christians, we believe that Christ is reconciling the whole world and each of us in it to God and to one another. So when two Christians take their conflict as an opportunity to practice reconciliation, what they do in the Church can stand as a visible sign for the whole world of what we believe Christ is doing in the world. An outward and visible sign of a grace that we believe is happening in a broader and more mysterious way in the world ...
I'm saying that church conflict, as an opportunity to practice reconciliation, can actually be sacramental.
And at this point, I can understand it if you're saying to yourself, "well I could do with a lot less sacrament then." I know what you mean. If you take a peek ahead to next Sunday's gospel, you'll know that Peter knows what you mean too.
The bottom line is that Christian community -- all community, really -- is, as St. Benedict said, a "school for souls," in which we learn not just how to live, but also how to experience abundant life. Jesus knew something that experience has affirmed for me (after long enough -- I'm a pretty slow learner): we understand best and deepest how God loves and forgives when we are, in our limited but growing way, extending that kind of love and forgiveness to others.
So when you meet someone who's really difficult, someone who pushes your ability to stay present with them, stay in touch, and stay focused on God's love, rejoice and be glad in that day: you get to love them, in the process you get a sense of how God loves you, and folks looking on get to see how much you mean what you say about the church being entrusted with the ministry of reconciliation.
Trust me on this one: as long as you need everybody to be happy and agreeable, you'll always be anxious, but once you find and keep hold of the joy and peace the Spirit brings in the midst of working for reconciliation in a tense situation, you'll know a bubbling fountain of energy and freedom that can only further your ministry and the ministry of reconciliation to which your congregation is called.
... love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. ... Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. ... Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” No, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
-- Romans 12:9-21
Thanks be to God!