Proper 17, Year C
Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16
Luke 14:1, 7-14
I was once in a congregation that took two-week turns with other area churches hosting a winter shelter for the homeless. One wintry Sunday morning, a parishioner came up to me in deep distress following the service. "There's a homeless man in the church," she said, "and we're not hosting the shelter this week. Could you do something about it?"
"Of course," I said, and I left my post on the greeting line, walked over to the man, introduced myself, and invited him to coffee hour.
I remember similar raised eyebrows in another congregation that had both a ministry of making bag lunches for homeless people and a group for people in their twenties and thirties when, after talking with a man who sometimes made use of the bag-lunch ministry that he was both Christian in his twenties, I invited him to the young adults' group. Sadly, several members of the group asked him to leave, telling him to come back when the bag lunches were out.
Let mutual love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels unawares. Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you were being tortured. (Hebrews 13:1-3)
I don't know of a single parish that doesn't have what are usually called "Outreach" ministries -- programs such as bag lunches or soup kitchens for the homeless, or raising money to send to a charity overseas. It's good that we know to do at least that much. Sometimes, though, I think the "Outreach" label is a bit of a misnomer, and "Charities" might be more accurate.
Is it really reaching out, after all, if the "outreach ministry" doesn't cultivate a sense that Christians -- rich or poor, black or red or brown or yellow or white -- are members of a single Body of Christ, and all people are children of God and members of one human family? Is what we celebrate on Sunday really a Eucharist in remembrance of Jesus if we, by things done and left undone, cultivate and perpetuate congregational cultures that have a strong and nearly impermeable boundary between those who are recipients of "Outreach," who should take what they're given, be grateful, and leave before the service starts, and those who are members, and therefore invited to worship and fellowship throughout the parish's life?
Jesus tells us in this Sunday's gospel that when we have a dinner party, we shouldn't invite our friends, relatives, or rich neighbors; we should invite the poor, the diseased, the marginalized. Lest we think that we're fulfilling that command solely by sending food or money to other people, Luke pairs this command with another: that we are called not to seek places of honor for ourselves, but to seek to honor others more.
"Honor" is a word that doesn't mean much to a lot of us, so it's worth drawing out a bit of just what that might mean in a cultural context that doesn't give the word the kind of resonance it had in Jesus' culture and Luke's. In the first-century Mediterranean world, "honor" wasn't a rather quaint and abstract value of elites or soldiers. Honor was community esteem in a world in which that esteem was not just immeasurably valuable, but necessary under many circumstances for survival. If your family was seen as without honor (and honor was held collectively by families -- one person's dishonorable behavior blew it for all), people wouldn't do business with you. Members of your family would be poorly placed to enter into a decent marriage -- and in a culture in which having honorable children who could and would care for you when you were old or sick was the only form of social security or retirement, that damage to your family's marriage prospects could put or keep you in utter poverty.
And what kinds of behavior were seen as honorable?
There's a game I've used with people of all ages (and intergenerational groups, where I think it can be particularly fun and poignant) to illustrate this. The game goes like this: There are cards on which a label is written -- "Monarch," "Noble," "Servant," or "Beggar." Each person gets one card taped to her or his back. Your job in the game is to circulate as if you were all at a party (sometimes I'll actually put food and drink out for the purpose), to look at the cards on the back of those with whom you interact, and try to behave as you think a person with your status -- whatever you think the card on your back says -- would treat a person of their status, as indicated by the card on their back. As you talk with other people, you find out more about what your status might be. And you find out very quickly what the card on your back says according to how those of various rank treat you.
Most people find it very easy very quickly to guess what's on their card. I find that the game almost always within five minutes results in four groups of people standing closely together and mostly or entirely ignoring all others -- each group consisting of people with the same label on their back, and the only cross-group interaction being "Monarchs" and "Nobles" trying to get "Servants" to bring them food and to throw out the "Beggars." The "Beggars" find out their status most quickly, since at first nobody at all wants to talk with them; there's no point in begging from one another, after all, and members of all other groups treat them as an unwelcome intrusion at best and less than human at worst.
The game works well to illustrate some of what honor meant because central to "honor" in the first-century Mediterranean world was treating people in a manner appropriate to their status. People honored their betters by treating them as their betters, thereby showing themselves as honorable people -- people who knew their station. They kept their family's honor by treating family as family and outsiders as outsiders. By their behavior in public -- and in Jesus' culture and Luke's, banquets themselves as well as who was invited and how were publicly observed and assessed -- higher-status people declared their honor by treating those below them appropriately, that is, according to their lower status. In other words, honor was about knowing your place and everyone else's and making sure that you behaved according to that hierarchy.
And so when Jesus tells his followers that they should humble themselves by choosing the lowest seat, he's advocating behavior that for all but the lowest at the banquet would be DIShonorable -- not at all how respectable people should behave. Jesus was seriously messing up the game. How can anyone know their place in any society, large or small, if people start treating that society's "Beggars" as if they were "Monarchs"?
The answer, of course, is that they might not. Treat those whom our the group culture -- whether our the group in question in a parish, a neighborhood, a nation, or a world -- says are of no account as if they were not only human beings, but our sisters and brothers or even our betters, and this group's "Beggars" will start getting uppity ideas about their status. They'll start acting as if they belonged.
And before we start congratulating ourselves as to how egalitarian our culture is compared to those wacky people of the ancient world, it's worth noting, for example, that a recent study of a quarter of a million U.S. households (hat tip: A Guy in the Pew) suggests not only that we prefer to do the kinds of things people do in my little "Monarchs and Beggars at Banquet" game, but that we're willing to pony up one of the most ready indicators of value in our culture -- that is, money -- to do it. Furthermore, I've observed anecdotally and studies following "white flight" and commuting patterns suggest that we privileged people are also often willing to spend a lot more time commuting -- away from our families and stuck in traffic or on trains -- to live in communities that are more homogenous in income, education, and ethnicity.
Jesus has a word for us that could really mess up that game.
Jesus says that we who are privileged should seek to place others in positions of privilege. He says that we should treat the poor, the sick, and the marginalized as our friends and family as well as our honored dinner guests.
This is no game. It's radical behavior that, if done consistently will instill some radical ideas: outcasts will come to see themselves as God's insiders, and that kind of thinking will inspire movements that give them access to the center of our groups and our society. Things will change -- a great deal -- when we take the next step beyond charity to treat the lowest as the most honored.
Extreme poverty could be a memory by the year 2015 -- not only eliminating a great deal of senseless suffering and death, but giving this world the voices of millions of people and their dreams who in previous generations would have been denied an education if they survived at all.
Neighborhoods segregated not only by access to income and education, but also by access to hope and power, could become a distant memory too. Our children's lives could be enriched by learning and playing alongside friends from all cultures in a society in which every child has a chance. We could spend less time and energy running from problems belonging to "those people" and use it in fellowship in which we see God in the faces of our diverse communities as well as our families.
Big changes in our world brought about by one big change in our behavior we have seen modeled in Jesus' life, ministry, and death on a cross. Jesus, whom our faith holds as the human being most worthy of honor, the King of Kings, treated the most marginalized people he met as if they were monarchs. If he saw a card on their backs, it didn't say that they were beggars who don't belong; it had titles such as "Child of God," "Beloved," "God's Image," only a little lower than the angels, in Shakespeare's phrase.
It's a radical way of life that respectable people thought dishonorable.
It's the way of life that the God who created the universe vindicated by raising Jesus from the dead.
And that tells us that Jesus' way is the Way of Life, the very heartbeat of the universe God made and loves.
Thanks be to God!
August 30, 2007 in Community, Eucharist, Evangelism, Hebrews, Honor/Shame, Justice, Kinship/Family, Luke, ONE campaign/Millennium Development Goals, Ordinary Time, Power/Empowerment, Year C | Permalink | Comments (1)
Proper 15, Year C
Isaiah 5:1-7 OR
Hebrews 11:29 - 12:2
Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; they will be divided
father against son
and son against father
mother against daughter
and daughter against mother.
mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law
and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.
This is one of those Sundays when parishioners are likely to hear either a sermon on the collect or a sermon of the genre to which I refer as "why Jesus didn't actually mean this," perhaps from the sub-genre of "exegesis according to fictitious quirks of ancient languages." Let's give this approach an acronym for convenience's sake: EAFQuAL.
An EAFQuaL approach to this Sunday's gospel would go something like this: "Yes, these words from Jesus sound really harsh to our ears -- not at all what you'd expect from someone whose message is in practically every way consonant with upper-middle-class respectability and good ol' 'family values.' But if you knew the original language of the gospels/that Jesus spoke -- as I do, having been to seminary and all [most preachers neglect to mention that they only took the language in question for a semester or two, if at all, and that they're depending on a dim recollection of someone or another saying something like they're about to say] -- you'd know that the word translated as 'hate' here really means something more like 'to love just slightly less than you love God, but still definitely to respect deeply, telephone frequently, and send flowers at least annually."
Some preachers taking an EAFQuAL approach to a difficult passage of the gospels will use Greek as their ancient language of recourse -- a sensible choice, since that's the language in which ALL of our earliest manuscripts of the canonical gospels are written. Some will go for Hebrew or even Aramaic instead, on the grounds that Jesus was originally speaking one or the other. This is a more creative and gutsy option in some ways, and even more likely to be a bluff: since all of our earliest texts of the canonical gospels are in Greek, any hypothesized Hebrew or Aramaic "original version" is likely to be either someone's guess based entirely on the Greek but assuming (without any particular reason aside from finding the text as it is difficult) that whoever translated the 'original version' into Greek was doing a very, very bad job of it, or someone's citing a MUCH later text that's also much further from the best-attested streams of the manuscript tradition. On the whole, this kind of EAFQuaL is like a game you can play in which you go to an 'automatic translator' web page such as Babelfish, enter the first few lines of the Gettysburg Address in English, have the site translate it a few times into other languages, and then have Babelfish translate that repeatedly mangled text back into English. The results are sometimes hilarious, but they hardly reflect a more reliable 'original text' of the Gettysburg Address than a decent history textbook will give.
As you can gather, I'm not a fan of EAFQuAL, and one of the many reasons I'm grateful to have had opportunity to study Greek and Hebrew is that it helped me realize something that grates on an awful lot of Christians' sensibilities, particularly among the privileged and the prosperous:
Some of Jesus' sayings -- and some behaviors called for in Christian discipleship, in following Jesus -- really ARE difficult. Jesus was not a twenty-first-century, university-educated, landowning husband and father; small wonder, then, that he frequently doesn't talk or act like a twenty-first century, university-educated, landowning husband and father. It goes further than that, though -- I'm NOT saying that one just has to "translate" what was customary among first-century peasants in Palestine to what's customary for us, and that the result will be that Jesus' way of life won't ever prove particularly challenging.
I can't say that because it's not true. Jesus wasn't a very "good" son to Mary his mother, and wasn't even a "good man" in the reckoning of respectable people around him. A "good son" would have stayed home and worked at the family's trade to care for his mother until her death; he wouldn't have gone off galavanting around the countryside. A "good man" would defend the family name and honor if challenged or attacked; he wouldn't be talking about loving enemies, and he wouldn't be disclaiming his family name by saying "those who hear the word of God and do it are my mother and my sister and my brothers" (Mark 3:35 -- and this is how he responds when someone tries to compliment his mother, and him by extension!). And as if all of the above isn't bad enough in conventional terms, Jesus actually encourages other people to leave their homes and families, to allow their family name and honor to be dismantled by others rather than upheld by retaliation, to follow him and to follow his example.
Much as character in C.S. Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia say that Aslan, the Christ-figure in the series, is "not a tame lion," Jesus is NOT a "good guy" by conventional reckoning. Following Jesus won't make you a "good guy" or "good girl" by most conventional reckonings either. And thus we read a lot in the gospels about forgiving and praying for persecutors -- something you don't need to do if everyone thinks you're a "great guy" or "great gal" and therefore has no desire to oppose your manner of life. How it came to be that so many people would think of Christianity as a ticket to respectability and an affirmation of the "core values" of a society with an vast and growing gap between rich and poor, insiders and outsiders, powerful and marginal, is one of history's most astonishing tricks to me; as with watching an illusionist making the Statue of Liberty 'disappear,' I've got to gasp and say, "I'm watching it, but I don't believe it. This is not the way the universe works, and no matter how much it seems that way, I can't believe it."
All of this may seem like a lengthy digression, and perhaps it is, but I hope at least that it's a useful one to undergo before directly tackling this Sunday's gospel, about which my advice to preachers is:
- Don't try to explain away, apologize for, or do some fancy rhetorical footwork to distract people from just how counter-cultural and difficult this text is. Don't engage in EAFQuAL. Don't say something that boils down to "Jesus didn't really mean this" (or its homiletical cousin, "Jesus didn't really say this, so we can safely ignore it and claim to be better Christians for it" -- a rhetorical strategy that ignores the important but inconvenient point that all historically plausible reconstructions of what Jesus did or didn't say or do depend in the end on the very gospels we're dismissing as less reliable than a historian's paperback). A preacher's job is not to distract the congregation from a biblical text long or skillfully enough for everyone to get away without asking hard questions, and it's not necessarily to make people feel better about their choices (though sometimes a good sermon may have that effect for some or many). If I had to sum up the preacher's job in a sentence, it's to model engagement with biblical texts and current questions in a way that better informs people what discipleship might involve and inspire people to take another step or set of steps to follow Jesus. In my experience, sermons that boil down to "my gut says that Jesus didn't say or mean this; discipleship is pretty much doing what any sensible and decent person would, and not worrying too much about the rest" just don't accomplish much worth doing.
- Do point toward and stay with what's difficult about the texts and about following Jesus long enough for people to really feel it. Remember the maxim -- it often works for teachers, psychotherapists, and preachers alike, I've found -- that "the work starts where the resistance starts." Pointing out how the biblical texts can be difficult to interpret and how discipleship involves facing very real and great challenges both functions as a "reality test" affirming the sanity of observations that intelligent and sensitive people know to be true, such as "there's a lot of beauty, joy, and love in this world, but I have to say that the world doesn't seem to be working as it should." Pausing regularly on Sunday mornings (ideally also in frequent study of scripture and times of prayer during the week, but at the very least starting with the Sunday sermon) to feel how challenging discipleship can be in many situations is a pastoral act that can build some emotional and spiritual muscles that will be very useful when (and it's 'when,' not 'if') the congregation encounters real, undeniable, and painful challenges.
- And though your work isn't done with most texts until you've taken in what can be challenging about them, it also isn't done until you've done your level best to address the question of where the Good News of God's healing and redeeming the world comes in. Personally -- and contrary to what sources such as Left Behind might suggest -- I find eschatology (literally, 'study of the end') to be a great boon in this task. As those who have taken the Connect course (which, by the way, is distributed in an 'open source' manner over the Internet, and is therefore FREE to congregations who want to use it, much as we appreciate contributions of money and effort to improve it) have heard and thought about, our stories -- our pains and joys, our mistakes and what we've learned from them, our dreams and disappointments -- often look different when we see, tell, and listen to them in the context of the larger story of God's making a good world that God loves and is working constantly to heal of the wounds and free it the enslavement that results from our damaging choices in life and relationships. I find that most passages in the lectionary have something to say about how God has redeemed, is redeeming, and will eventually complete the redemption of God's children. When I'm looking for Good News to proclaim, the first questions I ask myself are usually along the lines of how the biblical texts I'm working with fit that pattern. You can see how it would be impossible to see how this step requires a good job with the previous one: you can't see redemption and healing if you don't acknowledge slavery and wounds. I hope that anyone who's heard me preach more than a couple of times would recognize in my work another way I might summarize the preacher's aim: tell a chapter from the story of God's healing the wounded world God loves, and don't stop until you've foreshadowed the end -- the telos for which Creation was intended -- in terms vivd enough to dream.
So that's the pattern I've found most often useful when preaching on particularly difficult texts. How would that pattern look with this Sunday's texts?
In this Sunday's gospel, Jesus tells his friends that following him will cause conflict and division -- even division between families. That's a descriptive statement, and shocking as it is, it's not hard to see the truth of it if you're familiar with what Jesus says and does in the gospels. Imagine for a moment the scene when Peter goes back to his mother-in-law and says, "Hey, mom ... I've got some important news. I'm not going fishing tomorrow morning. I don't know if I'll ever step in a boat or lift a net again. I'm glad that you were healed of that fever, and I hope you don't catch one again, because I have to tell you that I probably won't be around to take care of you or to bury you when you die. See, that man who healed you asked me to follow him as he travels around teaching and healing, and I'm going to do it. I really think that God's kingdom is breaking through in this guy's work, and that's just too important for me to stay here, even to take care of you."
How would you feel if it were your son who said that to you? There's no social security to fall back on if you're Peter's mother-in-law; Peter is the closest thing you've got to that, and he's leaving. I have some idea of what I'd probably feel if I were Peter's mother-in-law: Betrayed. Abandoned. Despised. Shamed. Perhaps even hopeless. I have some idea of the kinds of things I'd say if I were in her shoes too, and a lot of the language I'd be using wouldn't appear in any children's bible. When I found out that Peter AND Andrew were both going, my language would reflect even more anger, grief, fear, and straight-up, no-chaser, and very bitter pain. I think the same would be true of my language if Peter and Andrew had other brothers and I were one of them. I'd want to ask Peter and Andrew how they could do this to all of us, how they think we'll survive without their help with the fishing, and whose prophet would ask a man to walk out on his family. I'd ask Peter and Andrew if this is how they were going to follow God's command in holy writ to honor parents and care for widows (as Peter's mother-in-law most likely was, in my estimation).
Peter's family isn't the only one that would be asking pointed questions or even shouting curses after departing disciples in the wake of Jesus' ministry. It's not at all hard, upon a few close readings of the gospels, to come up with a lot of other people who would be feeling just as hurt, just as angry, and who might attack disciples, even or especially their kin who were following Jesus, with words or more than words. Peace? It's not hard to see how what Jesus brings to such families might be described as well or much better by saying that Jesus brings division and drawn sword. There is a world of hurt behind Jesus' words in this Sunday's gospel.
And yet that's not all that can or should be said about this Sunday's gospel. It's true that Jesus' ministry did and still does dislocate those who follow him from the ways of life and from the relationships they were in. It's true that being extricated from those patterns and those relationships can be painful to all concerned.
It's also true that sometimes, if not often, the only way to find freedom to live in new ways and to form new and healthier relationships is to be extricated or dislocated from the old ones. It's true that Jesus challenges fathers and mothers, and sisters and daughters, husbands and wives to allow Jesus' call to pull them out of those relationships, at least or especially as those relationships are defined by our less-than-healthy world. It's true that Jesus' call in a sense denies those relationships altogether: our mother and our sister and our brothers are NOT those who offer or share a womb or a bloodline, but those who hear the word of God and do it.
That is a circle that can, depending on the choices we make, exclude those who by blood or law are our kin. But that's not the only possible outcome of Jesus' call. It's not the only possible outcome because Peter and Andrew aren't the only ones who have choices. You and I aren't the only ones who have choices. And Peter and Andrew and you and I aren't the only ones whom God calls.
Here's another possible outcome: Peter and Andrew tell Jesus that no prophet of the God of Israel would ask people to ignore the Ten Commandments, and they tell Jesus that on that basis they know precisely what sort of a man Jesus is, and there is no way they'd follow him. They go home and tell their families about what kind of dangerous nutcase the wandering healer turned out to be, and how glad they are that they figured it out. The next morning, they go fishing.
That's not a story that inspires me as a follower of Jesus. Thank God it's not the only other possibility either. Here's another one:
Peter and Andrew tell their families more about Jesus, what he's saying, what he's doing, and what they think that means about what God is accomplishing right now for the world. They talk about the community of people following Jesus and how they care for one another, how their life together is a sign to all of how relationships could be in the world and what might come of it if we believed the kingdom of God was breaking through this world and therefore we could live as though God were king here and now. Peter's mother-in-law, his sisters and all his brothers, and the rest of the family face and go through the break that Jesus talks about in our former relationships. It's only natural for them to grieve sometimes at the passing of old ways of being and to chafe at or stumble in the new relationships that are forming, but they have a new joy, a new peace, a new freedom from anxiety in the living reality that if they have lost a mother-in-law, a son-in-law, a daughter, or a father, they have gained more sisters and brothers than they ever imagined they could have, and had joined a people who would come to fulfill the promise to Abraham of numbering more than the stars of the clear desert sky -- more to care for them and be supported by them, more to love and be loved by than any earthly family could offer. They follow Jesus together, sisters and brothers in Christ.
That's a story that inspires me. It makes me think that perhaps the wounds we suffer following Jesus can, in the context of God's redeeming work, be like the break of a badly healed bone that allows it to become whole again.
Breaking and being made whole. It's core to the story of God's people. We see it in Jeremiah's description of the faithful prophet of God, whose word may be a hammer that breaks but whose witness calls God's people to wholeness. We see it in Isaiah's vision of God's people as a vineyard made desolate by unrighteousness, in failing to recognize God's image in humanity by caring for the poor and in worshipping as gods images of our own wealth and skill. We may not see it by conventional reckonings, with worldly eyes, but we see it through faith, which reminds us of God's faithfulness in the past and of God's redeeming work, ongoing in the present and to be completed in God's time.
It's a story to read and tell over and over until we and our children and parents, sisters and brothers and friends know it by heart, a story that will strengthen us when we're grieving and feel weak, and that will guide us when we're feeling strong. It's a story of pain and tears and brokenness, but it's a story of love, joy, and hope that ends in wholeness, in the world coming to know just how high and broad and deep God's love and blessings for Creation are.
Thanks be to God!
August 14, 2007 in Apocalyptic, Community, Eschatology, Hebrews, Honor/Shame, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Jesus' Hard Sayings, Kinship/Family, Luke, ONE campaign/Millennium Development Goals, Ordinary Time, Pastoral Concerns, Reconciliation, Righteousness, Scripture, Year C | Permalink | Comments (6)
Proper 14, Year C
[Confession time: This is my sermon from August 8, 2004 on the same texts. I am heading off for the first vacation I've taken, I think, since October, and I am WAY behind on tasks that need doing before I go!]
Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16
"Follow your heart." In pop culture -- especially in romantic comedies -- it's presented as the ultimate wisdom, the ultimate goal. And then the words "my heart's just not in it" are the ultimate conversation-ender, the big 'STOP' sign for any course of action. There's a certain kind of wisdom to that line of thinking, too. As Paul writes in Galatians 5, the fruit of the Spirit includes love, joy, and peace, as well as patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control, and if those things aren't present over time in a course of action that we've chosen, that's a pretty good indication that the Spirit may be calling us in a different direction. That's why Frederick Buechner defines vocation -- the direction God calls us -- as the place where our deep joys and the world's deep needs meet.
But sometimes when we say things like "my heart's not in it," what we're saying is something like "my heart's torn" between multiple and conflicting desires. I want to be a good provider for my family, so I work hard and long at my job -- but I also want my family to have quality time together. I want to invest more time and energy in deepening my relationship with God, but at the end of a long day, I just want to turn on the television and order out for pizza. I want to feel closer to other people, but I want not to risk being hurt. So I have a hard time deciding to pass up on that assignment that would help me dazzle my boss. I have a hard time deciding to cut back on other activities and look for some support around church to take up some in-depth Bible study, or to deepen my prayer life. I have a hard time disrupting a routine that feels safe to try something new, like signing up for <i>Connect?</i>. I have a hard time deciding to do those things because with these conflicting desires, I can't do them wholeheartedly.
So that's pretty much it, right? If my heart's not in it to begin with, I'll probably just be miserable if I try to do it. Better just to do what I'm comfortable with now. After all, there's nothing I can do about it if that's how I feel … right?
Today's gospel tells us that there IS something we can do about that, and in the process it points to one of the best and least-discussed reasons for us to exercise stewardship of our money, our time, and our energy the way Jesus does -- with generosity that goes far beyond the bounds of what American culture would tend to see as sensible.
Jesus answers the question, "what can I do if my heart's just not in it?" with his saying, "where your treasure is, there your heart will be." That saying is often misquoted as or misinterpreted to mean the same thing as, "where your heart is, there your treasure will be," but that's not what Jesus says. Let me put it this way: Jesus says that our hearts follow after our treasure like a dog runs after a stick. How we spend our money determines where our heart will be -- what kind of a person we'll be.
In other words, our stewardship is a means of our formation. We have (and should have) a strong self-interest in treating possessions as Jesus teaches us here -- holding them loosely, selling them to take care of the needs of the poor, being generous toward others as God is generous -- because doing so is the best way, if not the only way, to experience that it is God's good pleasure to give the kingdom.
That kind of generosity isn't what most people would call "wise financial planning," it's true. Conventional wisdom holds that a wise person with resources builds up "nest eggs" and "rainy day funds" and works to save as much as possible as a bulwark against the unexpected. Build up those resources, the story goes, and we can prevent most problems from arising, and take care of the few that do come up. Build up those resources, the story goes, and we'll have the freedom to choose a path for ourselves and our families away from crime, disease, disaster, and physical and psychological pain. As Jesus reveals
repeatedly through Luke's gospel, though, that strategy isn't wise, at least according to God's wisdom.
It's not wise, and those of us who are most anxious to get that one more thing -- the "slush fund," the bigger house in the better neighborhood, the promotion, the right number of zeroes in the retirement account -- so we can finally be secure and at peace are the ones who have the most to gain from giving our "nest eggs" and our "rainy day funds" to the poor. One reason is we already know in our heart of hearts, and some here know from experience: there is no slush fund large enough to send away or compensate for some things that can and do happen in this world. As long as we rely on our own diligence and what we've accumulated for security, we will never be free from fear; we know too well in our heart of hearts that there are
innumerable things in the world that we can't control, no matter how much money we've got. If we wait to be generous until we feel we can afford it, we might wait forever in fear.
The flip side of that, though, is that when we can let go of these things that we've worked so hard for because we thought they could give us security, we'll discover what really IS secure in this life, what is rock solid through all the changes and chances life has to offer: that it is the pleasure of the King of the Universe to give his kingdom away -- and specifically to give it to you. You are God's beloved child, co-heir with Christ, and while there's nothing in this life that can take that away, there are all kinds of things we can grab for to insulate us from really experiencing it. It is God's good pleasure to give us the kingdom, the fruit of the Spirit in abundance. Everything in this life we grab for as a way to try to do what God already has done and is doing for us is going to put us that much further from experiencing that fundamental truth, the one thing that matters. Let go, and we'll finally be able to receive Jesus' word at the opening of this passage: "Do not be afraid."
Don't be afraid??? Easy to say, but hard to do when your heart's not in it, when it's torn between trusting God -- trusting that these crazy things Jesus says really will yield the fruit of the Spirit -- and trusting what our culture says about who is really secure and how they get that way. The solution Jesus advocates is stepping forward in faith, giving our treasure to the poor and knowing our heart will follow.
This is not a "prosperity gospel" that says if you invest your treasure where God's heart is -- in extending God's justice and mercy among the poor -- you'll get that promotion you wanted, and have more money than before. This is an identity gospel -- we choose to behave as children of our Father, whose role model is Jesus, because of who we are, and our hearts follow. We take that step that the world says is foolishness, and we experience, as a result of that trust, not only deeper intimacy with God, but also real love in community. When we're all living into God's generosity, we find that when we do have needs, we're part of a family of sisters and brothers in Christ who KNOW who they are, and will express their ties with you as children of one Father by taking care of one another as family do. Trust begets trust; generosity births generosity.
That's why the gospel for this morning is read alongside the story of Abraham and the words of the Letter to the Hebrews on Abraham's faith. "Faith," or pistis in Greek, doesn't mean intellectual assent to a proposition; it means something more like "trust" or "allegiance." It's not about what we usually call "belief" so much as it's about relationship. Having faith is not about trying to convince yourself that you are convinced of something. You don't know you have enough faith when the needle stays steady on a lie-detector test as you say, "My journey will birth a people, and we will have a home." You know
you've got faith when, however your heart pounds as you do it and whatever fears you have, you take the next step forward into the desert. Your heart will follow your feet, and you will become more fully the person God sees as your true identity.
Today's gospel challenges us to let our heart follow our feet -- transforming us into people wholeheartedly following ALL of Jesus' message and experiencing ALL of the freedom that is ours in Christ -- in every way that God has given us something of value. Do your check register and your credit card records tell the truth of who you are in Christ and what's most important to you as a Christian? Today's gospel invites us to sit down as a family or with a trusted friend to see where our spending over the last month shows we're telling our heart to go. And how about something that's even more and valuable than money for many of us -- how about our time? What does our appointment book from the last month show about where we're telling our heart to go? Today's gospel invites us to sit down as a family or with a trusted friend to take a hard look at that too.
And I mean a HARD look. If someone had complete access to your financial records, what would they say about who you are, or about who Jesus is? If someone had complete access to records of how you spend your time, what would those records say about who you are, and who your Lord is?
All of those messages we grew up with and are bombarded with every day create such a din that it takes a lot of intentional seeking to hear beyond them. Breathe, and listen to what your heart of hearts -- the part of you longing wholeheartedly for peace, and love, and joy, the fruit of the Spirit -- says. Our televisions say that our children want toys and snack foods. Social pressure says they must go to the right college, get the right degree and the right job. What do our lives, our checkbooks and our appointment books, say that children of God want and need? Our children are listening. Our hearts are listening -- and will run in whatever direction we put our treasure.
It's Jesus' word to the spiritually wise.
Thanks be to God!
Proper 24, Year B
This isn't a great month for taboos, is it? Last week, we talked about money, which is hard enough for a lot of us to discuss without flinching. This week, we're going to talk about something that's even harder for many of us to talk about.
We're going to talk about power.
That's a scary thing to talk about for a lot of people. Some of us find it scary because they think of power as something only bad people would want. If we want power (and who doesn't?), we feel guilty even thinking about it, so we prefer not to think about it. Can we talk about something less difficult, please? Not as long as we're entering into God's word, living and active, able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.
But power is what allows someone to see her or his values enacted in the world. Without power, my values are just ideas, daydreams I can shake off or indulge just to pass the time as other people -- the ones with power -- have their way with the world. If I care about the world -- if I want to see an end to extreme poverty or I want broader opportunities for children to get a decent education and good health care, for example -- that means I want power as well.
That might sound harsh in a context of sentimentalized and introspective Christianity, and that's OK with me; I want to challenge that kind of Christianity. We've made Christianity all about feelings -- warm, fuzzy feelings of "love" for others, emotional rushes of feeling "close to God" in worship, guilty feelings that do nothing to repair relationships torn by our behavior. And what God really wants from us, we too often think, is generous FEELINGS. "It's what's in your heart that counts," people say, and when it comes to something like poverty, many would say something that I heard at a Christian conference not long ago and blogged about here, namely, "It doesn't really matter what you do. Just round up the kids on a Saturday morning, make sandwiches, and go out to hand them to homeless people in your town. Results don't matter, as long as you do it with a heart to serve."
Here's the problem that leaps out at me from that statement, though: Results DO matter -- particularly to the person in need. If what I need is medical treatment for an infection and what you give me is a peanut butter sandwich, you haven't helped me at all. What you've done is use me to get your own charge of self-satisfaction ("Gosh, I'm generous!") before you go back to your nice, warm house and comfortable life. Here's what I said about that in February:
... I remain suspicious of our intentions as long as our supposedly generous intentions perpetuate a world order that lines our pockets, increases our privilege, and kills other people's children. We can give sandwiches to the homeless or send grain to another nation, and that's something. But it seems to me that we guard most jealously something that we value more:
We hand out sandwiches, but we maintain a death grip on power. And I mean that “death grip” phrase: this puts us in a position of very serious spiritual danger. We hand out sandwiches while retaining the power to decide whose child eats and whose child dies. We get a twofold payoff from that: we feel generous, and since we're still in power, we can get off on our generosity whenever we want. We give and we take away, and either way, we get a fix of power over others, a power to which we are addicted and which rightly belongs only to God. That's idolatry of the worst sort as well as murder.
This Sunday, when together we read that "even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many" (Mark 10:45), let's not indulge that same sentimentality and speak of Jesus' ministry among us as some kind of emotional posture of false humility, by which I mean drumming up supposedly "humble" emotions and then behaving in the same way we've been behaving for years, behavior that screams things like this:
- "This is MY planet, and I can use it up in any way I like."
- "I work hard for what I've got; I deserve it." (Honestly, can I really say with a straight face that I work harder and am therefore more deserving than all of the people who don't have what I've got? Go to the Global Rich List to see just how many people you'd have to be better than to make that claim.)
What does real humility look like? I doubt anyone will be surprised to hear me say that it looks like Jesus. Let's take this Sunday's gospel as a case study in what real humility, Jesus' humility, is.
For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.
My pals Bruce Malina and Richard Rohrbaugh point out something implicit that's worth drawing out in this "ransom for many" phrase as we reflect on humility. One person can only serve as a ransom for multiple others if that person is worth a LOT materially and socially; otherwise, the captors wouldn't accept the trade. A lot of folks see Jesus' reference to "the Son of Man" here as both a self-reference and a reference to Daniel 7, in which "one like a son of man" is appointed by God as judge of the nations. If that's so, Jesus is in this verse making the astonishingly bolshy claim that he is God's appointed judge.
But even a reader who doesn't see a reference to Daniel 7 in the "Son of Man" phrase has to recognize the bolshiness of Jesus suggesting that his own life is a suitable "ransom for many." When I re-read Mark 10 this week, the phrase that popped into my mind was "a king's ransom." That's essentially what Jesus is saying the gift of his life is. And that brings me to point #1 about what true humility -- Jesus' humility, the kind that can transform and is transforming the world -- is:
True humility isn't about pretending you're worth less than you are; true humility requires recognizing who and how valuable you are. If Jesus had responded to his sense of vocation the way a lot of us think of as "humble," he would have heard God's call, shrugged, and hung around the back of his synagogue every now and then to see whether there was a rabbi who would take as a student someone who was the wrong age to be asking and whose background was "colorful" at best; he wouldn't have felt authorized or empowered to abandon conventional obligations (e.g., his mother, sisters, and brothers!) to become an itinerant teacher. And if you're thinking, "well, that's Jesus -- his followers shouldn't be thinking that way," it might be worth thinking about what Jesus said last week on that subject. It is not hubris to think that you have a role to play in changing the world! It's a sensible conclusion to draw from our being created in God's image, members of the Body of Christ, empowered by God's Spirit as a member of the Church that saw Pentecost. Of course we are invited to participate in God's mission of healing and reconciling the world; it's what we were born for! Scaling back that expectation serves no one and nothing but the status quo, and especially if the status quo serves you as well as it serves me, that's an incredibly selfish, prideful way to think and be.
And in the service of that end, true humility doesn't shirk power; true humility requires claiming power. You are about something larger than yourself. That's how God made you. Thinking that the world and its needs take second fiddle to your leading tune of "ME!" is, whether it's a "the world will just have to wait for some more worthy soul to speak up against the injustices I see" or a "I'm just too busy advancing my own interests," a form of pride. And if you think the only important thing in the world is what's going on in your "heart" or emotions, that's also a form of pride. Your personal wholeness is important to God, and you'll find it most fully when you're most fully engaged in God's mission. That's where you'll see Jesus in the face of a neighbor or enemy from next door or the next continent, and in my experience, that's where you'll see and know who you are -- in relation to others in communities seeking reconciliation. And if you're truly seeking something larger than yourself, some real change in the world, you're talking about claiming power to see something you value made real, given flesh in the world. "Creativity" is a good word for that, in my opinion, and that kind of creativity is part of what it means to be made in the image of God the Creator. Whenever you're blessed to sense that kind of personal power -- the power of creativity in the image of God's creativity, the power of claiming your identity and vocation as a child of God -- I beg y'all to go with it.
And then the second part, no less important than the first since it can't happen without it: true humility uses that power to empower others. Not claiming your power is a very powerful way to serve the status quo, and that's not God's call to any of us. But those of us who have internalized the powerful and empowering Word of Creation and Incarnation are called also to the word of Christ crucified, resurrected, and ascended with respect to power. Even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many. The word for "life" here has a resonance that includes something like our phrase "heart and soul"; to "give your life" isn't necessarily or solely to die, but to pour out your very life's breath, your heart and soul, for something. And the testimony of scripture is not that Jesus poured out his life like a libation of wine into the ground in front of the grave of someone once held dear, just giving something up to someone who can't taste life; scripture testifies that Jesus poured out his life for the life of others: as a "ransom for many," for the life of the world. In other words, it most certainly DOES matter for what God's precious gift of life is poured out. Jesus the Christ, as our image of what authentic humanity made and lived in God's image, pours out self not as a worthless gift easily discarded, but FOR OTHERS, for God's mission of reconciling all others to one another and to God's self. In Creation, in Incarnation, on the Cross and in the Resurrection, and in every Pentecost event from the upper room of Acts 2 to gatherings of Christians empowered for mission tonight, God pours out creative power to enable all of us created in God's image to live into who we are as children of that Creator.
God loves you. God loves you just as you are, and receives any gift you offer as a gift, though all our gift to God return to our Creator what God created. But the fullness of God's call to us as individuals are to live into God's call to humanity, to Creation: to live into God's mission. None of us serves God's mission by false modesty, calling a liar the God who gave us gifts to serve that mission; we serve it rather by praying for the courage to see as fully as we can the powerful agent for God's mission that God calls us to be, and by living into that courage, that vision, that mission, as we can best discern (and God pours out gifts of the Spirit for discernment!) in each moment.
That process comes full circle, as eventually true humility calls us to recognize the worth of every other person. If my power is God's creative power, and if I have it by virtue of my having been created in God's image, recognizing that truth will inevitably lead to my recognizing that image of God, that identity as God's child, that power to change the world in the service of God's mission in every other human being. That's how we can do what some people say is an evolutionary impossibility: we can recognize EVERY child -- not just those who are in some literal (and, in God's kingdom, utterly meaningless) sense "flesh of my flesh, and bone of my bone" -- as God's child, precious beyond counting, powerful with the power of God's Holy Spirit, and called to participate as fully as I in God's mission of healing and reconciliation, in the enjoyment of God's good gifts.
This is God's Good News for us and for all God made and loves, this week and in every moment in which we draw the gift of God's breath of life. And for God's sake, I pray we will receive that gift as fully as Jesus received it, and use it as fully and as fully to God's ends.
Thanks be to God!
Good Friday, Year B
You may find helpful one of my previous sermons for Good Friday: "Christ Our Passover: Our Exodus from the Narrow Place." The Witness also has a wonderful piece for Good Friday from Reid Hamilton, "Loving Provocateurs," and for those of you looking ahead to Easter Sunday, a powerful piece from the Rt. Rev. Gene Robinson entitled "The Missing Stone and the Empty Cross." I hope they're helpful to you.
And here's my reflection for Good Friday this year:
Isaiah 52:13 - 53:12 - link to NRSV text
Psalm 69:1-23 - link to BCP text
Hebrews 10:1-25 - link to NRSV text
John 18:1 - 19:37 - link to NRSV text
Good Friday is a hard day for a lot of us. It's often hard to think of what's "good" about it. Are you against capital punishment? Good Friday is a day when we remember it. Do you think of Jesus as someone who was clearly and absolutely innocent of any crime, whether against humankind or God? Good Friday is when we remember that Jesus was executed as a traitor in a manner many would have said demonstrated that it was God and not just the Roman Empire who had judged him disgraced. Are you of the general opinion that people who are good will also be successful and left at peace? Good Friday would seem to speak against that.
It's a hard day, and many of us only contemplate it in the context of a line Tony Campolo (whose work I deeply respect, don't get me wrong) uses -- "It's Friday ... but Sunday's a-comin!" We want to rush ahead to Easter, because Good Friday is about pain and humiliation and desertion, and at least in upper-middle-class American culture, we're all about denial of suffering, and above all denial of death. But Good Friday just isn't pretty. It doesn't fit in well with the Flash-animated slideshows on our church websites that show an endless parade of mostly young and always smiling faces. For us, Good Friday is an image problem, a downer that makes us comfortable.
But in my travels, I have met many, many people for whom Good Friday and the image of Jesus suffering on the cross is a time and an image of profound consolation. And when I've thought about what was different between those people and communities consoled by Good Friday and those distressed by it, my thinking keeps coming back to this:
Good Friday is a day when those who are suffering what Jesus suffered enter into the mystery:
God's suffering with them.
God knows the suffering of those who could read with all integrity and from their own experience the "suffering servant" passages of Isaiah as THEIR story, the Psalms of lament as THEIR songs. God knows the suffering of the poor, of the refugees and the displaced, of those who live in fear in occupied territories, of those who feel constantly vulnerable to economic, political, and military forces beyond their control, or even of their whole family or village or perhaps even nation. God knows the suffering of the hungry and the outcast, of those taken advantage of because the world sees them as meek. God knows the grief of the grieving, the pain of seeing betrayal at the hands of those from whom you expected solidarity. God knows the anguish that just might be the hardest of all to bear -- the terrible loneliness of one who is suffering all of these things, and who feels torn from or abandoned by everyone who might provide consolation -- even God.
God knows all of the pain, personally and profoundly, because God suffered it all in the person of Jesus.
Our Lord naked on the cross, vulnerable to insects and birds, to sun and wind, and to the most predatory animal of all -- human beings whose humanity has been twisted by violence -- is an icon to the poor, suffering, and vulnerable that says:
You are not abandoned.
This is not just the well-intentioned "I feel your pain" spoken by someone in a position of comfort to someone suffering; it's not some more pious version of "I've been there, and I remember just how much it sucked" that expresses at least as much relief on the speaker's part that it's over.
The broken body of the Christ is not some garment that God tried on, didn't like, and tossed aside to put on some more festive Easter duds; it is an icon of who God is in God's eternal nature. God was and is and always will be -- until the day when every tear is wiped from our eyes and sorrow and sighing shall be no more -- present with, one with, suffering with the suffering, the outcast, the poor. When we say "God identifies with the poor," we're not just talking about actor's empathy; we're talking about the core of who God is, how we best understand God's identity.
I'm reminded of a scene from The Quarrel, one of the best and most profound movies I've ever seen. The film follows two friends over the course of one afternoon -- the day of Rosh Hoshana. Both are Holocaust survivors: one has become a rabbi and founder of a Torah school; the other has abandoned his faith because of his experiences. The question that drives both of them is "Where was God?" Hersh, the rabbi in The Quarrel, is like Eli Wiesel's fellow-prisoner in Night, who can cry out when asked where God is amidst the suffering in the concentration camp, "God is in the muck with us!" Because Hersh finds God in the muck, he can say with all integrity that as he lay in the mud of the concentration camp as the guards kicked him, he could say whole-heartedly that he would not have traded places with the guard for all the treasure and comfort in the world.
That's the strength and power that comes from seeing God in the midst of suffering. If God is with us in the muck, in the most painful and painfully lonely moments of those abandoned and tortured by the empires of this world, then even in those moments, we can respond with compassion as deep as integrity, for we have seen in the suffering of the poor the very face of God.
Jesus taught this with words and deeds in the weeks before he set his face on Jerusalem, toward the cross. He said that the poor, the meek, the merciful, the peacemakers, and those who are hated and reviled and persecuted were blessed, honored by God; he spoke woes to the rich and the comfortable and to the elites of Jerusalem at whose mercy he was, and found none. But he spoke even the woes with true and deep compassion, because he knew God's face, and would seek it even to death on a cross.
It's hard sometimes in our culture to live out Jesus' compassion. Many of us have been taught from before we could speak to fear anything and anyone who reminded us of our vulnerabilities -- to illness, to age, to misfortune, to grief, to loneliness, to death. We are tempted to surround ourselves with icons of perfect wholeness, of the cleanliness that Ben Franklin (NOT any biblical writer) claimed was next to godliness.
But God gave us Good Friday. We have the opportunity, however hard we gulp before taking it and however uncomfortable it makes us, to seek God's face in the suffering of someone this world -- our economies, our religious authorities, our empires and our fears -- took away everything: dignity, health, friends, family, and even life itself -- and we are invited to look in the muck to see God's face.
It isn't easy. There are reasons the writer of the spiritual said, "sometimes it causes me to tremble." But there is peace and forgiveness, the wounds that declared an end to anyone's right to wound, the death that declared an end to anyone's need to kill, the strength and courage and compassion to be naked before the powers of this world and to see in that the power of our suffering, dying, and living God.
Proper 14, Year C
If you're looking for a comment on the readings for Sunday, August 1st (Proper 13), scroll down! This one's for Sunday, August 8th; I'm publishing it early because I'm about to leave for vacation, and probably won't be on the Internet again until I get back on the night of the 7th (and finish up my sermon for the 8th!).
How many times do we hear or say the words "I know I should ... but my heart's just not in it"?
The gospel reading for August 8th tells us that there's something we can do about that, and it points to one of the best and least-discussed reasons for us to exercise stewardship the way Jesus does -- with generosity that goes far beyond the bounds of what American culture would tend to see as sensible.
It comes in Jesus' saying, "where your treasure is, there your heart will be." It's often misquoted as or misinterpreted to mean the same thing as, "where your heart is, there your treasure will be," but that's not what Jesus says. Jesus says that our hearts follow after our treasure like a dog runs after a stick. How we spend our money determines where our heart will be -- what kind of a person we'll be.
In other words, our stewardship is a means of our formation. We have (and should have) a strong self-interest in treating possessions as Jesus teaches us here -- holding them loosely, selling them to give alms, being generous toward others as God is generous -- because doing so is the best way, if not the only way, to experience that it is God's good pleasure to give the kingdom. Those of us who are most anxious to accumulate enough to shield us from misfortune and pain (as if that were possible!) have the most to gain from giving our "nest eggs" and "rainy day funds" away; when we do, we will finally be able to receive Jesus' word at the opening of this passage: "Do not be afraid."
As long as we rely on our own diligence and what we've accumulated for security, we will never be free from fear; we know too well in our heart of hearts that there are innumerable things in the world that we can't control, no matter how much money we've got. If we wait to be generous until we feel we can afford it, we might wait forever in fear. The solution Jesus advocates is stepping forward in faith, giving our treasure to the poor and knowing our heart will follow.
This is not a "prosperity gospel" that says if you invest your treasure where God's heart is -- in extending God's justice and mercy among the poor -- you'll get that promotion you wanted, and have more money than before. This is an identity gospel -- we choose behave as children of our Father because of who we are, and our hearts follow -- experiencing, as a result of that trust, not only deeper intimacy with God, but also real love in community. When we're all living into God's generosity, we find that when we do have needs, we're part of a family of sisters and brothers in Christ who KNOW who they are, and will express their ties with you as children of one Father by taking care of one another as family do.
That's why I'm glad the gospel for August 8th is read alongside the story of Abraham and the words of the Letter to the Hebrews on Abraham's faith. "Faith," or pistis in Greek, doesn't mean intellectual assent to a proposition; it means something more like "trust" or "allegiance." It's not about what we usually call "belief" so much as it is about relationship. Having faith is not about trying to convince yourself that you are convinced of something. You don't know you have enough faith when the needle doesn't leap on a lie-detector test as you say, "My journey will birth a people, and we will have a home." You know you've got faith when, however your heart pounds as you do it and whatever fears you have, you take the next step forward into the desert. Your heart will follow your feet, and you will become more fully the person God sees as your true identity.
So let's be generous with all of our treasure -- certainly with money, but also with time (I think an even rarer treasure in the communities in which I live and worship!), and energy, and love. Let's do it as if this were our last chance to try it. Where our treasure is says far more about who we think we are, what we think is of eternal importance, and who we want to trust, than anything we say with our lips. Let's speak with our treasure who we are in Christ, and we may find the miracle of Creation repeated, as speech bring worlds into being.
Thanks be to God!