Proper 8, Year C
Galatians 5:1, 13-25
I'm back from an unexpected and quite exhausting out-of-state trip. I apologize for not posting on this week's gospel -- a particularly challenging one -- earlier. This Sunday's gospel shows a man telling Jesus that he wants to stay to "bury" his father before leaving to follow Jesus. The man does NOT mean that his father has died already and that he needs a day or two to make funeral arrangements. He is saying that he has a duty as a son to care for his father in old age, to see that he has what he needs while he's alive and that he gets an honorable burial once he does die. And Jesus tells this man to "follow me, and let the dead bury the dead." Jesus instructs a man to abandon his family. This is serious stuff, and it deserves to be taken up from the pulpit in parishes -- most especially in this age in which being a "Christian" is supposedly synonymous with "family values" that are identical with those held by respectable people in our culture.
Please see my brief entry specifically on Luke 9:51-62 here, the theme of our cultural "family values" being in tension with discipleship that I treat at greater length here and here. I think that will help preachers for this Sunday. The bottom line is that we've got a profound "teaching moment" in this combination of gospel and epistle. Our passage for this Sunday from Luke underlines that our family is all our sisters and brothers in the Body of Christ, and as human beings our family is all in the human family, as we're all God's children. As counter-cultural as it was and is, Jesus taught (and lived) that we are called to care about and for EVERY mother or father and EVERY child as we would care for our own mother or father or son or daughter. ALL of our relationships are to generate the fruit of the Spirit; there is no one who because of a lack of ties of blood or marriage or our assessment of "deserving" toward whom we are licensed to behave with "enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy," to quote a particularly challenging part of Paul's catalog of behaviors uncharacteristic of those who "live by the Spirit."
And please also know some good news for the lectionary blog; after a long time in which my schedule was heaviest in the earlier part of the week and trips like the one this week were all too frequent, I'm entering into a summer that's largely unstructured, and even after that my schedule will be quite different from what it was over the last academic year. In short, I intend to return to my tradition of blogging the lectionary on Monday or very close to it. I appreciate your patience as it's drifted later in more recent times, and hope you find the blog all the more helpful when I post earlier.
Proper 7, Year C
But those who had seen it told them how the demoniac had been saved.
That's what Luke 8:36 says. The NRSV says "healed" rather than "saved"; I don't know why. "Healed" is true, of course, but in my view, it doesn't tell the story nearly as well.
"Saved." When Jesus found him, the man had been "for a long time" not in a house in the city with family, with friends, but among the tombs, with the dead, shut out from among the living. He was vulnerable to all kinds of dangers -- to the elements, from which he lacked clothes as well as a house to protect him, and also to all of the predators the city gates shut out at night. Apparently someone, probably family, tried to help him, but they couldn't help. They gave up. And for a long time he'd been dead to the world, living among the dead.
It's natural to want to shut out someone like this man. He's as frightening as he is frightened, I think, and not just because of the yelling, the antisocial behavior, the unnatural strength. It's his vulnerability. He is vulnerable to the elements of sun and cold, wind and rain that we mostly understand, but more frightening still is his vulnerability to countless other forces much harder to understand and beyond our ability to control. The Legion that speaks from him reminds his former neighbors of the other legions out there, forces that can tear someone from family, from safety, from community, from everything that makes the world make any sense or have any warmth.
Of course, shutting out the person who reminds us of what we fear doesn't work. If anything it exacerbates fear as it exacerbates division. The Legion that attacked the man among the tombs doesn't pay much attention to city gates, and neither do the other legions.
Jesus paid attention, though. He paid particular attention to those shut out, literally and metaphorically -- those who had nothing and so sat outside the gates to beg, the lepers and others considered 'unclean,' women called "loose" after they were rejected by their husbands and not received by their fathers. Jesus healed people. When Jesus healed a leper, he wasn't merely restoring someone with a physical diseases to physical health. He wasn't just healing a leper. He was healing a community, restoring to community someone who had been shut out from it. Jesus confronts every power that tears us from wholeness, from one another, from knowing the love of God in loving community.
Those powers are legion. In the ancient Mediterranean world, people believed that knowing and using a spirit's name could give you power over it. The Legion oppressing the Gerasene demoniac tries, in effect, to gain power over Jesus by naming him, shouting out to "Jesus, Son of the Most High God." Jesus retaliates by demanding to know the spirit's name. Belief in demons has fallen out of favor in the circles I spend most of my time in these days, but naming remains a powerful step in confronting the powers that oppress and divide us.
In our epistle for this Sunday, St. Paul names the deep divisions of his society -- between Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female -- and names the truth, that in Christ these divisions are to be overcome. Poverty. Racism. Sexism. Religious Bigotry. There are many such powers in this world, a thousand varieties of hardness of heart that shut out some people, and shut us in just as surely. But in Christ we are all children of God through faith -- none less worthy of good food and clean water, shelter, medicine, or education, of love and hope.
In Christ we are empowered to name that truth and called to name and confront the powers that obscure it. And as we follow Jesus, as we participate in his ministry of healing and reconciliation in the world, we find that the outcast restored is not the only one saved. We were made for the unity with one another and with God that was and is Christ's mission, and the healing of a breach with a sister or brother is restoration for the whole Body.
Have you experienced that? Have you caught a glimpse of what it might be like for each one of us when all of us live as God's children? Declare how much God has done for you. Declare what Jesus is doing for the poor and outcast. If you find yourself feared as they were -- as Jesus was in the city after he healed the Geresene demoniac -- name that too, as you pray and work for reconciliation. You are of the Body of Christ, sharing in Christ's power to heal, Christ's mission, and Christ's wholeness. Faith has come, and with it the hope and love that sees every child as a child of promise.
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!
Day of Pentecost, Year B
Sometimes, in my more cynical moments, I think that the phrase "Holy Spirit" for us tends to be something we stitch into sentences to lend them more authority. "Spirit" is for many people a nebulous kind of word denoting a vague feeling of enthusiasm. We "get in the spirit of things" and have "spirit squads" at football games. It's interesting to me also how frequently the word is used in everyday situations in which the speaker is trying to get those listening to conform to an expectation: "where's your team spirit?" for example.
It's often not all that different in the church. The Holy Spirit doesn't get all that much airtime in a lot of pulpits aside from the Day of Pentecost, and when she does, this talk often functions primarily to lend a spiritual authority to a proposed course of action in a way that people find it difficult to contest. Say "I think that this candidate for youth minister is the best fit for the congregation" and people can talk about whether or not that's so; say "as I prayed about this, I sensed that the Spirit is calling this candidate" -- especially if you're wearing a collar -- and a lot of folks will find it difficult to refute, or even to find more evidence to affirm except for similarly vague testimony: "oh yeah ... as soon as I hard you say that, it just resonated with me." I'm sure you can think of examples you've heard in which "this is what the Spirit is doing" translates roughly to "I feel pretty good about this course of action."
I don't believe it's quite as nebulous as that, and this Sunday's readings are an excellent starting place (to which I'll add a couple more as we go on) from which to think about discernment of the Holy Spirit's activity, the question of what the Holy Spirit is doing among us and how we can participate in it -- something that I think has some important things to say especially to those of us in the Episcopal Church who are looking toward General Convention this month.
Most of what I have to say boils down to this:
The Holy Spirit is the person who empowers those called by God to participate in God's mission.
That mission is reconciling all the world with one another and with God in Christ. That's the grand arc of what the Spirit is doing -- empowering participation in that mission.
We see it in Isaiah 44 and Acts 2. Isaiah says:
For I will pour water on the thirsty land,
and streams on the dry ground;
I will pour my spirit upon your descendants,
and my blessing on your offspring.
They shall spring up like a green tamarisk,
like willows by flowing streams.
This one will say, "I am the LORD's,"
another will be called by the name of Jacob,
yet another will write on the hand, "The LORD's,"
and adopt the name of Israel.
Acts 2 describes a community gathered from all nations -- people divided by language and culture brought together on pilgrimage and sent forth in mission. Prior to Acts 2, this assortment of pilgrims were not a people. They gathered in Jerusalem to celebrate the feast of Pentecost, the feast of the giving of the Law in the desert, where wandering tribes were formed as one people of Israel. And as we follow the story of these pilgrims of Acts 2 who were gathered, empowered, and scattered to see others of every nation similarly empowered, we see more of what God's mission is.
As I've written about before, we see in Acts 4 in particular that the reconciliation in which these people were to participate was no pious abstraction; it had and has dramatic material consequences for how we live together in the world. Acts 4:34 says directly (in the Greek -- most English bibles are missing a crucial conjunction here) that the apostles' testimony had power, FOR those who had houses and lands sold them to make sure that there was not a needy person left. And lest we think that's just about a local congregation and we have no obligation to others whose faces we haven't seen, the collection for famine-stricken Jerusalem (portrayed in Acts 11:27-30 as well as in St. Paul's writings) shows that all who are Baptized into Christ's Body, all who share Christ's Body in the Eucharist, are bound to care for others around the world as for their own family, their own flesh. As surprising as it was to see that kind of care between people from across the known world in Acts, perhaps it shouldn't have been so very surprising given how prophets such as Isaiah portray the Spirit's activity: in drought that brings famine, the Spirit brings the waters that give life to the land and those who live by it; and among those judged to be no people, beyond the bounds of those for whom one need care, the Spirit testifies to adoption as God's beloved children and our family.
That's what the Spirit does. The Spirit makes us one -- not like people bound to one another and tossed into a sea where their ties to one another paralyze and drown, but brought into relationship with one another that is as free as it is close, that is life-giving air and light. It's a unity that is not, as Paul makes clear, uniformity. Sisters and brothers in Christ have distinct gifts for ministry and mission. Like Peter and Paul in the conflict Paul describes in Galatians 2, they may hold radically different or even mutually exclusive opinions on vitally important issues -- issues all sides hold to be about the very truth of the Gospel and the call of God's people. What Christians may NOT do, however, is treat one another as expendable; they may not leave sisters and brothers hungry, thirsty, bereft of family and of honor.
That's not a "thou shalt not" in a finger-wagging way, or in a "do this or get kicked off Christian island" code; it's a function rather of our very identity. Those immersed in the life of the Spirit are caught up in what the Spirit is doing. And the Spirit is fueling the reconciliation of the whole world with one another and with God in Christ. We can choose to fight it or we can choose to ride it (and those who have done both know very well which option is exhilarating work and which is solely exhausting!), but that's the wave swelling in the world God made and loves.
What does recognizing that mean -- and what does it mean especially for discernment? St. Augustine put it very concisely when he said, "Love God and do what you will." At first glance, that sounds like a recipe for libertine excess. Do WHATEVER I will? But that ignores the first part of the statement: "Love God." Loving God isn't a warm fuzzy feeling, though we may have those feelings at times; it's a choice to be in relationship with God, to align oneself with what God is doing in the world. That's not the same as trying to accomplish on our own steam what we think God wants to happen. I've blogged before about the common misconception that surfing is about paddling hard enough to propel oneself down the wave, when really it's about finding a spot on the wave and pointing oneself in a direction such that the gravity which pulls you down its face is also moving you parallel to the beach, always to that next section where the wave hasn't yet broken. In that sense, surfing isn't so much about paddling as it is about falling; gravity is the chief force at work, and the wave arranges things such that gravity can take you where you need to go if you point yourself in the right direction. The Spirit is moving; the wave is swelling. Love God: point yourself in the direction the wave is going. The rest is graceful falling.
That's why Jesus could summarize the Law as loving God and loving neighbor -- a statement that Paul echoes in Romans. Paul spent most of his ink trying to help communities figure out what all that implied in practical terms, of course, and communities from before his time to our own time and beyond have disagreed passionately about the specifics. Paul's list of specific was pretty short, if Galatians 5 is any indication: exploiting one another, treating people as objects and objects as God, is out; love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control are in. There is no law against this fruit of the Spirit. One may as well try to outlaw the tide, for all the luck you'll have enforcing it and all the fun you'll (NOT) have in the attempt.
So how do we experience the Spirit? We look for places in ourselves, in our communities, and in our world in need of reconciliation and we plunge into the healing and wholeness that God in God's grace is bringing into being. We participate in racial reconciliation, in sharing resources and passing laws that narrow the gulf between rich and poor, in looking for signs of that reconciliation happening and fruit of the Spirit growing in those around us and those seemingly unlike us -- because we're not so different in the one thing that matters, in whose children we are and in our call to live more deeply into that reality.
That's be to God!