Proper 16, Year C
Such a powerful word. Spoken alone, such a powerful sentence, a powerful plea.
And so often we find so many other words, so many other calls, more compelling -- or at least loud enough to drown out calls for mercy.
On vacation in our little cabin, my partner was reading a book that offered a quiz on religious literacy, one of the questions being, "Name the Ten Commandments." (And hurrah for the book for recognizing that Jews, Roman Catholics, and Protestants actually don't have identical lists; we divide the passage that contains them differently, so any courtroom or classroom that posts one list of them will be choosing one tradition's version.) I'm a little embarrassed to say that off the top of my head, I only named nine. I forgot to include honoring the sabbath. In a way, it's not surprising; very few of us keep any day at all as sabbath, let alone THE sabbath (and it's not Sunday -- that's the day of Jesus' resurrection, and worth honoring, but it's not the sabbath day).
Many of our cultures in the West don't place much value on observing sabbath, and so I often hear passages such as this Sunday's gospel as a story of Jesus saying, "Look at all of these stupid rules you have. Just GET OVER IT!" But that's not the point at all. Jesus doesn't talk about exercising mercy on the sabbath because keeping sabbath is such a silly, arbitrary, or unnecessary thing. He picks it up because it's an ancient commandment. It's a central commandment -- one that God Herself honored in creation. The prophetic book of Isaiah speaks of honoring the sabbath in the same breath as honoring our sisters and brothers with our words, with offering our own food to the hungry and serving those in need.
Jesus doesn't talk about the sabbath in this Sunday's gospel because he thinks it's to be lightly tossed aside, let alone to suggest (in the way too many do, tinged with antisemitism) that those who keep it are foolish or universally hypocritical.
He talks about it in this particular context because it IS important. The weight of what Jesus is saying DEPENDS upon the importance of keeping sabbath. That's where the impact comes from when he says that as important as that is, exercising mercy is just as important and often more urgent -- indeed, that extending mercy -- God's mercy -- can be a way of keeping sabbath.
I thought about that a bit today, on my way to a doctor's appointment and walking past four men begging on the five blocks between the office and my home. I know a bit about what it's like in their shoes, so as I walked by, even though I wasn't going to give money, I offered eye contact and conversation. Not much -- just the sort that neighbors have on the corner on a warm day, not ending with "No," or "Sorry, no change," but continuing with "Sure is hot this morning," "Stay cool," "God bless."
I thought about it earlier this week, when I read a Salon.com advice columnist's response when a reader asked him about whether the church group serving breakfast to the homeless might better sit down to eat with those they served than go out to a hotel brunch afterward. I'm going to quote him (Cary Tennis) at length here, because I think he says it well, though not in the words I'd choose:
... as humans we seek integration of the vast, many-faceted pattern that is our being. And the parts of us that we don't fully understand, or that are buried or undeveloped, signal us in primitive ways, through signs and encounters, through instinct, through happenstance and mishap and magic. In the struggle for integration of the self we proceed by signs. Sometimes it's moving too fast to work out on paper. A highly intuitive person, for instance, may see in a flash that his place is alongside the poor, not in the hotel with the mimosas. He may see it all in a flash and have to go with it. There's no time to explain! Just stay here! Really, though. There's no time to explain! Really ...
The thing is, what you may not have considered is that while you think you're the one who holds all the cards, the topsy-turvy truth is that these people at the homeless shelter have a lot to offer you. You already know how to drink mimosas. But do you know how to stay dry in the rain? Have you ever known hunger? It is a good thing to know, what hunger feels like. It is good to know the terror of finding yourself alone on the street with no food and no money and no idea where you are, knowing no one, having no phone numbers to call, having no sister or brother to drive and pick you up, having no parents to call upon, no children to call upon, no friends, no employers, no agencies. That's a good thing to know. It is a good thing to know what it feels like to wait and wait on a corner until you finally just fall asleep there on the cold, hard sidewalk. It's good to know when was the first time you realized you didn't have an address. These are things you might talk about as you eat [with those at the soup kitchen]. ... I think it is a revolutionary consciousness that can be expressed in a quiet, humble, Christian way, just by sitting down and sharing food with people.
It's a plea worth hearing, I think: There's no time to explain! Just stay here! It's a striking combination of phrases, and I think an apt one. There are so many concerns, so many headlines, so many self-help and parenting and retirement financing and other gurus who scream for attention, who want us to believe that we must do one thing or another urgently or we're in dreadful danger -- and the urgent thing in question is rarely if ever, among the central concerns that provide the tension in the gospel story we tell this Sunday.
I live in a culture in which a fitness chain advertises exercise clubs with the slogan, "You can rest when you're dead." Who ever says, "There's no time to explain! Just stay here!"? Who says, "Don't just do something -- stand there!"? Who -- other than the Spirit whose fruit includes peace -- says, "If you're that stressed about all you have to do, can you afford NOT to breathe?" And who -- other than God's love whispering to our hearts -- says, "Times are tough -- we can't afford to skimp on compassion"?
I've listened to countless people over the past decade or so wonder aloud how it is that they work more and more and are increasingly exhausted, and yet the harder they work, the more they feel behind. The last thing most of us need to hear is that keeping sabbath is a triviality and we should pack more charitable exertion into any spare hour, and that's not what Jesus is saying either. It's that keeping sabbath is important, AND that reaching out to participate in God's bringing healing, freedom, joy, and peace to those in need is an appropriate, rejuvenating path to experiencing those things more fully in our own lives.
Folks who have read this blog for a while know that one of hunches about how our minds work is that we often avoid looking at length and with open hearts in the eye of those who are very old or very young without others to care for them, the homeless and those ill or in pain, those who are lonely, angry, or grieving, because their vulnerability reminds us of our own. "Compassion fatigue" and just plain fatigue sometimes spring from a common root: we will not feel peace or be at rest when we are frantically running away from something.
So this week as we're reflecting on the gospel, it might do us some good to linger where Jesus lingers, to begin in a moment of sabbath, to start from a quiet place within, and meet with God's compassion the gaze of someone who is suffering -- someone in the news, someone on the street, someone in our memory -- and to remind ourselves ('reminding' involving a state of mindfulness!) of the dignity, the freedom, the blessing that is God's desire for this person as God's child.
We may be moved to act. I often am, and it can be tempting in that moment to act in a way designed more to put this person and the vulnerability s/he represents out of mind. But listen! There's no time to explain -- just stay here! And if we can stay with the pain we see and reach out from that quiet place within, it's my experience that God's compassion will flow in ways that will transform us as well as our world.
Thanks be to God!
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)
Great Vigil of Easter and Easter Day principal service, Year C
There's a Franciscan fourfold blessing that I have long loved, the fourth blessing of which is this:
May God bless you with enough foolishness to believe that you really can make a difference in this world, so that you are able, with God's grace, to do what others claim cannot be done.
I think often of that blessing when I'm preaching, especially on texts like the Beatitudes and other difficult passages in the "Sermon on the Mount." Who really lives that way? Who honors the poor more than the rich? Who honors those who are reviled in society above the respectable people who judge them? Which of our parishes or other communities have shared our resources one another freely so that no one is "anxious about tomorrow"? Whom among us really cares for others' children as we do our own, as we would if we took seriously Jesus' saying that his family consists of not of those related by blood or marriage, but of those who "hear the word of God and do it"?
I remember one man in particular at one parish where I preached regularly who particularly enjoyed my sermons, but who almost always had a bit of a wry grin as he shook my hand to say so. When I asked him about the grin, he usually grinned a little wider, shook his head gently, and said with some affection something like, "What you say is very inspiring. But you're talking about how things are going to be in heaven, and we've got to be realistic here on earth." When pressed for more, he'd talk about how one can't really have a policy of turning the other cheek or forgiving others as God forgives us as long as there are criminals and terrorists around. He'd say that there wasn't much point in trying to address extreme poverty in Africa until all governments there were free of corruption. There was always a long list of things that would have to happen first on earth before we could live as Jesus lived and taught his followers to live -- a list that added up to, "Sure, we'll do all of that -- in God's kingdom. Until we're there, living this way would be foolish in the extreme."
I imagine that there were some folks inclined toward a similar kind of 'realism' among Jesus' earliest followers. I imagine that among the crowds at Jesus' sermons, there were many who heard what he said with great joy, but who almost without thinking laid assumptions around the message:
"Yes, that's how it will be -- once we rid the land of Roman oppressors."
"Absolutely -- when a son of David rules again from David's throne in Jerusalem, he'll make sure the poor are fed."
"I long for that day -- our enemies will be defeated once and for all, and then we can live in peace."
"I believe that all nations will know and worship God, once the evildoers are gone and the rest have embraced the whole Torah."
And what a glorious day, the Day of the Lord, when all of God's promises to God's people can be fulfilled, when God answers the prayer that Jesus taught us: "your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven"!
The Great Vigil of Easter is my favorite service of the liturgical year, I think, in part because of the way its journey through salvation history, through God's creating, loving, and redeeming God's people, renews my hope and anticipation of God's answering fully and finally that prayer. What a vision!
Ho, everyone who thirsts,
come to the waters;
and you that have no money, come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price.
Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy?
Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food.
Incline your ear, and come to me; listen, so that you may live.
I will make with you an everlasting covenant, my steadfast, sure love for David.
See, I made him a witness to the peoples, a leader and commander for the peoples.
See, you shall call nations that you do not know, and nations that do not know you shall run to you,
because of the LORD your God, the Holy One of Israel, for he has glorified you.
That's one of my favorite passages in scripture, expressing longings that I think we experience in the twenty-first century with as much intensity as God's people did in the sixth century BCE.
Everyone has the basic necessities of bread and milk and even the wine for celebration; none need be anxious, and all are satisfied.
There are no enemies to fear among the nations. I don't know if you sometimes have the feeling I do just before I pick up a newspaper -- that distant feeling of "what now?" dread -- but that feeling has become a distant memory, as people of all nations rush to embrace, not to attack.
I love the opportunity the Great Vigil gives us to spend time rolling texts like this over our tongues to take in their richness, to close our eyes for a moment to enter into the prophets' vision of the world's redemption. There is no better preparation to receive the Good News of Easter that God has raised Christ Jesus from the dead.
Especially in cultures as individualistic as mine, I think it's often too easy to miss the ways in which this Easter message is Good News for the whole world. The Good News of Easter is not just "Jesus rose from the dead, so we too can live after we die," as numerous mystery religions of the Roman world promised through their gods. And it's worth remembering that Jesus' resurrection isn't the first resurrection in the gospels; God's power raised others, such as Lazarus, before.
But Jesus' resurrection is different. It's not different only because Jesus won't die again, as Lazarus will. The way St. Paul put it in 1 Corinthians 15 is that Jesus' resurrection is "the first fruits" of Creation's end, or telos. "End" can mean quite different things in English, as telos can in Greek. It can mean a final stopping. It can mean death. And when we use the phrase "the end of the world," that's usually the kind of "end" we have in mind -- we're talking about destruction and death. But that's not what Paul is talking about when he talks about Christ's resurrection as the "first fruits" of a harvest that includes "the end." Paul is talking about the fulfillment of our hope in Christ, as Christ fully and finally delivers the kingdom, putting an end to every oppressive power and principality, everything that held the world back from its telos of joy, love, peace, and freedom.
Jesus' ministry up to his death on the Cross -- his healing, forgiving, teaching, breaking bread with any who would eat with him, and gathering a community who would continue these practices in remembrance of him -- was a series of early installments of the telos of the world that God promises -- God's kingdom, where Isaiah's vision is fulfilled, come and God's will done on earth as it is in heaven. When Jesus was crucified, dying a death considered shameful, nearly all who heard of it would have thought of it as putting an end to Jesus, to his movement, to hope in him as the Christ. Nearly all would have seen it as proof positive that Jesus was wrong about what God wanted from humanity, wrong in saying that his gathering and blessing the impure and outcast was God's action, wrong about all of those outrageous teachings that preachers today try to explain away.
But then the God of Israel raised Jesus from the dead. The resurrection of the righteous that some expected at the end has started NOW, and everything that Jesus said about and did to bring about God's kingdom has been affirmed by the righteous judgment of the God who raised him.
As R.E.M. would say, it's the end of the world as we know it -- and I feel fine. Creation's telos -- the love, joy, peace, and freedom for which the world was made -- starts NOW. Perhaps my friend is right that Jesus' way of life can only be lived by the rest of us in God's kingdom, but in Jesus' ministry -- now the ministry of the Risen Christ -- God's kingdom starts NOW. It starts among us. It starts wherever two or three gather in Jesus' name to live into the reality of Jesus' work in the world.
Of course, I'm not saying that everything that's going to happen to bring Creation to its telos has already happened. A person could figure that much out with a newspaper, if Paul's letters weren't at hand. But the Good News of Easter is reason enough to toss our list of things that have to happen before we can experience God's kingdom among us -- before we can live into the way of Jesus -- and invest the energy we formerly devoted to making such lists to look for the Risen Christ and his work in the world. As Paul wrote:
Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin. For whoever has died is freed from sin. But if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. The death he died, he died to sin, once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.
God has raised Jesus from the dead, and NOW -- not in some distant future or in some other world -- those of us Baptized into Christ's Body have been freed from slavery to sin, and are free to live with Christ in the way of Christ. The first fruits have been gathered in, and a more plentiful harvest is ripening. Tell everyone the Good News -- as St. Francis would say, using words if necessary. We have the opportunity to participate in the spread of God's kingdom in ways more powerful than words -- in doing justice, in proclaiming peace, in embracing the outcast, in treating the most vulnerable among God's children with the care we'd give our own flesh and blood. God has in Easter given us all the proof we need that the time has come:
Christ is risen!
Alleluia! And thanks be to God!
April 6, 2007 in 1 Corinthians, Easter, Eschatology, Inclusion, Isaiah, John, Justice, Kinship/Family, Luke, ONE campaign/Millennium Development Goals, Resurrection, Romans, Year C | Permalink | Comments (1)
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)
Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany, Year C
I hope you'll pardon me if I start with a shameless plug, as the gospel passage for this Sunday and my reading of it play a substantial role in the Connect course I wrote with John de Beer, one of the founders of the Education for Ministry (EFM) program.
Connect is a six-week exploration of what it can mean to connect to a Eucharistic community. It takes place in small groups that invite participants to gather over a dinner to reflect on and share their own stories, and to explore what it might mean to see those stories in context of the larger story of God's love and redemption of the world. The experience of gathering, breaking bread, inviting, experiencing, and acknowledging God's presence among the gathered community, and exploring what God's call might be to each of us is in itself a sacramental experience that helps unchurched participants, should they decide to join the congregation for worship, understand and have made personal connection with the liturgy of the Eucharist.
One of the most interesting things about Connect for me is that we have released it on an "open source" basis. You don't have to pay anything at all to download it or use it; you do, however, commit to sharing any adaptations or modifications you make to it on the same basis as Connect itself is distributed. The practical advantages of "open source" development and distribution are clear from what they've done for programs like the Firefox web browser, which can offer extensive support from others who use the product and innumerable "plug-ins" and translations that make it more stable and more useful to more people. That's my hope for distributing Connect on an "open source" basis -- and I hope it will inspire others developing resources to do the same.
I also have a theological reason for this approach to Connect's "open source" way. The dinners in Connect are designed to give people an experience of what they're hearing about in Jesus' ministry. They are welcomed to a community that understands that they have gifts to offer the community, including their story, and that encourages them to offer their gifts. They experience a small taste of what it's like to be in a community that lives as one Body and shares with one another as freely and graciously as God is with us. And I think those messages are also underscored by Connect being "open source." As developers of the course, we're sharing what wisdom we've got, but we assume that you all have gifts that could make it much better, and appropriate for use in far more communities. Because Connect is "open source," those who have expressed interest in versions for university campuses, Native American communities, Australian cultural settings, and numerous other communities have been free -- applauded, even -- for taking the Connect materials, modifying them appropriately, and letting us know what you've done and how it worked.
In short, rather than seeing evangelism and Christian formation as a "pie" of a market with all of us competing for slices, we've started, continued in, and pray to finish faithful to a central point in Jesus' teaching and ministry:
God's love and grace are so abundant as to be inexhaustible, and the more we enter into that, the more we joyfully seek to extend that kind of grace to others, and with all of God's good gifts. I'm not talking about feeling 'guilted' into generosity toward others, about being generous so God will notice and finally give us love and approval we've found to be too rare in our lives, or about trying to earn some kind of generosity medal that will help us get some other limited and valuable commodity, like others' respect.
I'm talking about a personal transformation that can transform the world: I'm talking about LIVING with a deep sense that there is more than enough of "the good stuff" -- the things our truest selves, the people we were made to be in Christ, want, need, and enjoy. I'm talking about an end to the constant, creeping anxiety I've seen so much pastorally in communities -- especially the wealthiest and most powerful communities (so many of which are filled with wealthy people so overextended financially to afford those grand homes in the neighborhoods with the good schools that they are a single paycheck from bankruptcy) -- as we worry about whether we have or can accumulate enough to shield ourselves and our loved ones from illness, danger, and deprivation. I'm talking about the kind of emotional freedom and deep peace that comes when we no longer feel the need to worry about whether we can get enough love, peace, or approval. I'm not talking about what Bonhoeffer called "cheap grace"; I know the cost of discipleship can be steep in worldly terms. It's more than worth it, though -- not only because the shallow "peace" and "freedom" we get from accumulating resources and respectability for ourselves isn't nearly what it's cracked up to be, but also and more importantly because the abundance of real joy, peace, and love we can find following Jesus really can give us the true, eternal, and abundant life for which we thirst, and can let us start living into it now.
What I'm talking about it illustrated very well in this Sunday's gospel.
As Jesus comes across the fishers on the lake of Gennesaret, it's not hard to see how they could have concerns weighing profoundly on them. These are poor fishers. Every day as they go to their boats, they have to be wondering to themselves, "Will I catch enough fish today?" They have families to feed, and on top of that they have to get access to and repair the boats, get and maintain the nets. Fishing rights on the lake could cost them nearly half of a catch, and they were often paid far less than their catch was worth besides. Life was precarious at best, and it wasn't always at its best. One storm, one rotten stroke of luck could spell disaster.
So every day, a nagging worry: "Will we catch enough fish today to survive?"
And then Jesus calls them. They respond, and let down their nets once more. And in an instant, the central question in their life changes.
They have caught such abundance that they can't spare a moment to ask the now-ridiculous question of "Will we catch enough fish for my family to survive?" -- the far more urgent question is "Can we gather enough people to take in this abundance such that it doesn't swamp the boat?" Their lives are forever changed; as Jesus says, "from now on, you will be catching people."
What would it mean for us to hear Jesus' call to a similar transformation? I'd like to dream aloud about that a bit.
What would my life look like if I always looked with joy upon others' accomplishments, and without the slightest niggling doubt of whether they mean that others will grab limited slots for (you name it -- ordination, employment, perception of "hipness")?
What would my household budget look like if it was guided more by a concern for others' immediate needs to sustain life than by a worry of what would happen to me if my car broke down, I got sick with something that would leave me with bills I couldn't pay, or I didn't have money for tuition?
What would church politics look like if the basis for our every plan was the certain knowledge that God is providing what we need for our participation in God's mission, and therefore there is no need to grasp at what others have? If we believed and lived the conviction that God's grace and love are such that we don't have to choose any population to shut out or shout down, and can afford to "strive to outdo one another in showing honor," as St. Paul writes in Romans 12:10? What if we took energy spent on competing for shares of budgets and used it to foster generosity to increase them?
What would the world look like if those of us who seek to follow Jesus let him transform our lives around the central question, "How will we gather enough people to share God's abundance?"
Among other things, I suspect that the Millennium Development Goals would then seem less like an audacious vision we hope to achieve IF (and only if) everything goes smoothly and no other needs arise, and more like a helpful, albeit modest, first step. Fully funding them would be a given -- we NEED all of these people, all of these children of God, to take in the abundance God gives! We can't afford to lose a single one to what U2's singer Bono calls "stupid poverty" -- this poverty that we can eliminate with resources we've got. And there is no one too conservative or too progressive or too anything else to justify ignoring or slighting their gifts. I have faith that God has given each and every one of us something else in immeasurable, overflowing abundance, and that's compassion.
That might sound hard to believe at first. Steve Cook has done an outstanding job in his post this week on Isaiah 6 sketching some of the ways in which we can choose a path that desensitizes us to both the pain and the gifts of those around us in a way that can become a vicious circle (as U2 puts it, "You become a monster / so the monster will not break you"). Each one of us has the capacity to experience God's compassion for us, and when we do, we will find it an urgent need every day to find others to help take it in and extend it to others in turn.
Thanks be to God!
[And if you're curious about Connect, you can get more information on it and on the other two parts of the Klesis (from the Greek word for "call") program to which it belongs and can download Connect for free here.]
Third Sunday after the Epiphany, Year C
1 Corinthians 12:12-31a - link to NRSV text
Luke 4:14-21 - link to NRSV text
[If you haven't seen my previous entry on the gospel reading for this Sunday, please do. It's brief, and says some important things about the passage that I wouldn't want a preacher to miss, though having written on that passage a number of times before, I'm emphasizing different things this week.]
What does it mean to be a member of the Body of Christ?
That's been a question of crucial importance ever since St. Paul took a metaphor previously used to tell striking dock workers to accept their poor treatment and get back to work (the argument went along the lines of "a body has many parts that must all work together for the health of the body, on which the health of the members depend; y'all are the feet, so you belong in the muck, while others belong in more honored places higher up") and used it instead in a wonderfully subversive manner to argue the reverse -- that the health and honor of all of us hinges upon honoring and caring for the weakest.
Well, I kinda just answered the question, or started to. The thrust of the metaphor for Paul includes a number of points central to what it means to be God's church. It means that we are linked with one another in a relationship that we can't dissolve any more than we could have launched it on our own. How could an organ choose to become my liver? Does it have to fill out an application? Go on some Liver Idol television competition? Prove itself as a particularly good and loyal liver to rise through the ranks of mammals judged less worthy? It's a rather silly question. My body, being relatively healthy, had a liver develop as part of my body in the womb. It was there when I was born; it's part of God's creating me. And what could my liver do to become not a part of my body? Nothing whatsoever. If it could and did issue some kind of declaration of independence from my pancreas, that would do nothing to change the status of either as part of my body; it would just make a little meaningless noise (like the noise of a clanging gong, even).
I want to emphasize something else that Paul uses that metaphor for, though -- something that's something of a hot word in Anglican circles these days. I'm talking about interdependence. Paul is saying that we need one another. He is NOT saying merely that the poor need the rich, the sick need the healthy, and the weak need the strong to protect or rescue them; he's saying that we ALL need one another. There is no one to whom the Spirit has not given gifts that needed by all of us.
These are gifts that are needed for our health as a body and as members of it, to be sure, but they are needed for more besides. They are needed because, in Paul's terms, we're not just parts of *a* body; we're members of the Body of Christ. That implies something similar to what I was saying last week about the theology of Third Isaiah: that who we are as God's people is connected inextricably with our call to engage in God's mission. God has made us one Body of Christ, a sign -- a living sacrament -- for the world of what God in God's grace is doing in the world. St. Teresa of Avila puts it something like this:
Christ has no body on earth but ours, no hands but ours, no feet but ours. Ours are the eyes through which the compassion of Christ looks out upon the world. Ours are the feet with which he goes about doing good. Ours are the hands with which he blesses his people now.
We experience what it means to be Christ's Body as we engage in Christ's mission in the world. And if we want to know more about what that means, we have an excellent starting point in our gospel reading for this Sunday. In it, Luke portrays Jesus at the start of his public ministry claiming a combination of passages as his mission; and in claiming this as his mission, Jesus offers himself and his life as a prophetic sign that "today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing."
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor.
These are inspiring words, well chosen by our Presiding Bishop as a theme for her ministry and its highlighting the Millennium Development Goals to eliminate extreme poverty by the year 2015. But they're not just words -- not by a long shot.
What would it mean if we really believed that in Jesus, the words are being fulfilled today? How would we respond?
For once, I find that the epistle reading is perfectly paired with the gospel. Our gospel reading shows Luke's version of Jesus, the Christ, saying clearly what his program, his mission is. If we who seek to follow Jesus are the Body of Christ, it's the mission we're called to engage.
If I could, this Sunday I'd take the opportunity provided by these readings to invite the congregation to take that in, deeply and repeatedly.
I might invite the congregation during the Peace (which was never meant to be a kind of mini-coffee-hour for socializing) to commission one another. Each one there is a member of the Body of Christ. I might invite them to use the Peace to say to one or two people near them, prayerfully and with eye contact, "The Spirit of the Lord is upon you, because God has anointed you to bring good news to the poor."
Were I privileged to bless or dismiss a congregation this week, I'd want to include in that an invitation to the congregation to own their role in the world as Christ's feet, eyes, and hands personally as well as understanding it corporately: "The Spirit of the Lord is upon you, because God has anointed you to bring good news to the poor. He has sent you to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor."
I think sometimes that, as a member of the Body of Christ, I'd like to put that kind of invitation on my bathroom mirror, to see at the beginning of my day as I make decisions throughout my day: The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because God has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor."
Because that's one set of things I think we should draw from this passage. I'm not Jesus, and I can't save the world. But we are the Body of Christ -- here and now, not contingent on us winning some kind of pageant or getting our act wholly together, but by God's action, with Jesus having done all of the groundwork necessary. We are called to live into that identity, and to engage the mission that comes with it -- not later, when we've got our act together, or when it's more convenient, or once the kids are in college, or after some kind of cosmic sign. We have our cosmic sign. We have the life, the teaching and healing, the confronting and defeating of worldly powers, the death on a cross and the resurrection by God's action of Jesus, the Christ.
The Spirit of God was upon him, because God anointed him to bring good news to the poor, release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, and the year of the Lord's favor. And here and now, we are the Body of the Christ, the Anointed. I wish I could look into the eyes of people in your congregation, put a hand on their shoulder, and tell them that. Because it's true. It's powerful. And this scripture is fulfilled in our hearing -- and in our doing.
Thanks be to God!
Second Sunday after the Epiphany, Year C
Our Hebrew bible reading for this Sunday just might win some kind of prize for "most tenuous connection to the gospel reading in a Christian lectionary" -- at least, if the intended connection is that bit at the end: "For as a young man married a young woman, / so shall your builder marry you, / and as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride, / so shall your God rejoice over you." If that's the intended connection, than this Sunday our lectionary implies that John's story of Jesus at the wedding in Cana is somehow about marriage -- much as our current Book of Common Prayer liturgies for marriage imply, and equally unhelpfully. What a ridiculous line of reasoning, to say that because Jesus went to a wedding once, he meant to proclaim marriage as a particularly preferable or blessed state! There's a great deal in scripture to suggest that, as Genesis puts it, "it is not good for the human being to be alone," and that marriage is a vocation for many that is a blessing not just to the couple, but to the world, as their relationship energizes them for ministry. But the focus of this bit of John 2 we're reading this Sunday isn't about commending marriage any more than it is about commending drunkenness (which also happened at that gathering in Cana, and -- unlike the marriage, was actually facilitated by Jesus' actions).
I'd like to think, though, that our lectionary editors had more than a superficial word association around weddings in mind when selecting this portion of Isaiah 62 for this Sunday, and I think a connection is there that can be made with a great deal more integrity.
This Sunday's reading from Isaiah comes from a section ("Third Isaiah") that's difficult to locate precisely in time or circumstance; especially as someone whose speciality is in New Testament, I'm loathe to depend too much on any of its proposed locations when reading the text. But some things about its concerns are clear enough from internal evidence. Third Isaiah speaks to people seeking to honor the God of Israel, but the world of the text is populated also by foreigners. Enemies who threaten are present in cultural memory if not in immediate time and space, but we also see an audacious vision of God, "coming to gather all nations and tongues" (Isaiah 66:18). We see hope.
I'm not talking about the kind of hope we often mean when we use the word; I'm not talking about an idle kind of wishing for something that we dare not invest too much in emotionally, let alone order our lives around. I'm talking about a vision focused on God's intention with such intensity that it reads all human history in the context of God's action. That sounds a little abstract, but I'm talking about something that speaks so powerfully to godly imagination that it's got truly compelling consequences in the tangible world. When I talk about hope this week, I'm talking about the choice -- and in my experience, it's a conscious choice -- to embrace God's vision for the world with conviction that reorders our priorities on every level, making choices that would otherwise seem difficult or nonsensical not merely intelligible, but powerful to the point of being contagious in community. I'm talking about choosing expectation that orders action.
I'm talking about it this week after ruminating a great deal about the connections Isaiah (and not just Third Isaiah) makes between expectation and action. Those of us who spend time in churches over Advent and Christmas hear a fair amount of prophetic expectation. The longing of God's people for redemption is a major theme in many an Advent sermon. But I'm often left thinking that we underplay how God's people were called to respond to that expectation, despite how strong that is as a theme in the prophetic writings we're reading. Isaiah doesn't present hope as something that prompts sighs of powerlessness, but as something that inspires powerful action. When we enter into prophetic hope, our choice to look for God's coming redemption prompts us in the present to live more deeply into what we proclaim as the future God intends and is bringing about among us. In other words, Isaiah's hope for peace is strongly connected to embrace of God's sabbath now. The prophetic vision we share of God gathering all nations and all tongues calls upon God's people in the present to remove vengeance from the realm of human responsibility, to go amongst the nations only to invite and gather. That's hardly what the kings of the world consider sensible foreign policy, but prophetic vision doesn't place trust in or order lives around worldly kings; it calls upon us to stake our very lives on God's rule.
New Testament texts pick up this prophetic vision, often picking up a theme that will pop up a lot in the weeks to come: that NOW, in Jesus' work among us, that rule of God has come upon and is seeping through this world. I think John's story of the wedding at Cana belongs in that tradition. Normally, wedding guests would have not only provided the wine for the celebration, but also would have sent it ahead of time. The family that lacked the resources, in terms of extended family and friends at least as much as any other kind, to provide for the feasting would be left to their shame. But Mary has a thought that's crazy by conventional reckoning: what if the authority Jesus is already starting to exercise in calling followers is a sign that the feasting we anticipated at the redemption of God's people -- the redemption Isaiah metaphorically compares to the joy and freely shared plenty of a wedding feast -- is something that starts NOW?
And so Mary has a word with her son. It's a risk; this is not a private setting by any stretch, Jesus could be left in a compromised position, and as Jesus' mother, Mary's own standing is tied to her son's. She speaks up, and we get our first "sign" in the Gospel According to John. It's not just a sign of Jesus' identity; it's a sign of the times, a sign that God's redemption is happening here and now in Jesus' work.
It's a prophetic sign that, like Isaiah's prophetic vision, calls for action. It calls followers of Jesus in Corinth divided along lines that few could cross -- of ethnicity, wealth, social status, and gender, for starters -- to break bread together and work to support and empower one another as members of one body, united in one Holy Spirit to engage in one mission, God's mission. The challenge of living together in this way is no small task, with challenges not only from within, of uniting such different people, but from without, as such free association across traditional divisions inspired Christians' neighbors and sometimes even family members to see these gatherings as subversive of social order, or even of God's intent. That kind of living brought persecution as well as deep joy.
But if, as prophets like Isaiah proclaimed, the future God intends will gather people of all nations, and if, as Christian prophets were saying, Jesus' eating and drinking as well as his teaching and healing, his death and his resurrection, were signs of God's future breaking into our present, then what other way of life could make sense? And if we know and are seeking to follow Jesus, if we have tasted the wine that God's anointed brings to the feast and have seen his glory, how else would we live? We pray, and we seek to live into what we pray: that we and all God's people may be so illumined, so set afire to live as God's people in our sharing of God's word and sacraments, that our life together may be a proclamation of the Word and a sacrament of God's redemption to the very ends of the earth. Let our lifting of Jesus' cup in our worship remind us that our whole lives are to celebrate our Lord's work in the present until the day of its full realization.
Thanks be to God!
First Sunday after the Epiphany, Year C
I often, and especially on Sundays like this coming one, find myself musing about the practice of Baptizing infants and small children. I'm supportive of families who do choose to Baptize their children; I believe that God often works through the intentions of families and congregations expressed in their preparation for and participation in Baptizing a child. I also think it's remarkable and quite sad that the decision to Baptize a child is so often made at least initially with more thoughts about pretty gowns and celebration with relatives than about the sign of the Cross that will be made on the child's forehead as the child is told, "you are sealed and marked as Christ's own forever."
Baptism is serious stuff.
Take Jesus' baptism, for example. We read about it during worship this week in a manner that mostly isolates that event from the context in which it takes place in the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Mark's wording is particularly striking, as "immediately" after Jesus is baptized by John, Mark says, "the Spirit drove [Jesus] out into the wilderness." The verb Mark uses is ekballo -- the same word used of what happens to demons in exorcism.
Matthew and Luke tone that verb down, but still make clear that Jesus' baptism gives him not only a vision of God declaring him to be a beloved son, but also a vocation -- one that places him in conflict with spiritual adversaries, the powers that seek to enslave us, dividing us from one another and from God, and with very human adversaries, rulers and others who benefit from that oppressive order and fragmentation. And if the gospels present Jesus as in some ways being like the Baptizer but greater, John's execution at Herod's orders indicate the kind of dangers Jesus faces as he steps forward into public ministry empowered by his baptism.
It's not just about Jesus' baptism either. The book of Acts links Baptism in the Holy Spirit with great spiritual power, and also makes clear that the Spirit's power comes with conflicts with worldly authorities and worldly values. And yet we choose to Baptize our children, marking them with the otherness that marked Jesus, placing them on the path of the Cross. Indeed, we do it joyfully -- all the more joyfully, I'd argue, when we do it with eyes wide open to the challenges ahead of those who, like the Baptized child, have been set on the way of the Cross. Why?
I believe that joy in a Baptism chosen with eyes and heart wide open comes from being in touch with the audacious vision of God's dream for humanity, in which we participate as Baptized members of the Body of Christ. When we are immersed in and excited about what God is doing in the world, the challenges that arise from those who prefer the world order in which the poor, the sick, and those marked as 'other' stay on the margins can be seen for what they are -- the last gasps of an oppressive order that is passing away.
That's one reason I love the ways in which people of faith have embraced the vision of the Millennium Development Goals. It's a vision that's audacious and ambitious, yet meant to be realized in our hearing, in this generation -- and one I'll definitely be touching on in great depth, as Luke 4 is coming up soon in the lectionary. I hope it will suffice for now to note that when we talk about what it is we take on as our vocation when we are sealed with the weighty sign of Baptism into Christ, it includes taking on participation in Jesus' mission, that when we acknowledge Jesus as Lord (which is the most central confession of Baptism), we are investing our very lives -- body, psyche, and spirit, as well as any resources and gifts we have or will gain to offer -- in the mission of ordering the world God made such that it looks like what we say is true: that Jesus is Lord.
In other words, in Baptism we pledge our whole selves to ordering not only our lives, but to the best of our ability, the world in which we live in harmony with the reign or kingdom of God -- that is, what the world looks like when Jesus' lordship is fully consummated. And what does that look like? This Sunday prompts us to look at Jesus' baptism as a frame through which we might see what that moment might look like through the lens of Christian Baptism.
Jesus' baptism provided him with clarity about his purpose and his message. In Luke's terms, that message is about the realization of Isaiah's prophetic vision -- not in some distant future, not as something to be wished for idly or prayed for in pious passivity, but as present reality. The Good News of the present vindication of the poor, of release to prisoners, sight to the blind, freedom for the oppressed, and the jubilee year of God's favor is more and more for here and now as "this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing" (Luke 4:21). As the apostles live into the ministry of their Baptism, Luke characterizes their ministry similarly. Their testimony to Jesus is validated by their making real among one another what Jesus proclaimed:
With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all, for there was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles' feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need. (Acts 4:33-35)
I ache to know what the world would look like if all of Christ's apostles today saw this as the economy -- which, not incidentally, is our adoption of the Greek work oikonomia, or household management -- of the household of God's people. And "apostles" is NOT (especially not in Luke's writings) a word designating twelve guys who lived in Palestine over two thousand years ago; "apostle" means "one sent," and every person Baptized into Christ is sent forth in Christ's name. If you're waiting for the church's permission to function as an apostle and the Baptismal Covenant doesn't seem to be enough, just wait until the end of the service, and a deacon (or someone functioning as one) will commission you as an apostle:
Go in peace, to love and serve the Lord.
That's said, and you're sent. You and I, the Baptized, are sent forth, designated as apostles of Jesus Christ, sent to proclaim the new life of Christ Jesus not just with empty words, but with power -- with deeds that change lives, with the offering of all that we have and all that we are. That's appropriate enough for the Baptized. When we were Baptized, what part of us was left untouched? None. When we seek to follow Jesus, what part of us is reserved for someone else's cause? None. And when we are following Jesus with all we are, what part of us -- indeed, what part of our world -- will be left untouched and not transformed fully by grace? None.
That, I believe with all my heart, is why it's worth everything that we pledge when we are Baptized, when we Baptize our children, when we reaffirm our Baptismal vows. It's worth it all because it is more than the "all" we humanly thought possible; it is embracing the telos or "end" for which the Word was breathed and all things made in the beginning. It is the imagining that will stretch our imaginations for as long as eternal life lives.
I admit that hear often from a few people that most members of their congregations have no interest in stretching their imaginations in this way, that most are perfectly satisfied with their lives and the world exactly as they are. I have to say that this does not at all match my pastoral experience in the wealthiest, most privileged, most "secure," and most "successful" of congregations any more than it matches my experience in ministry with the homeless. There are a great many people in our culture who are by most measures wealthy, but who are tremendously economically insecure -- in a house that cost far more than they could comfortably afford, but that seemed necessary to buy given how good the schools in that neighborhood were in contrast to the terrible state of public schools in poorer neighborhoods not so far away. They are one paycheck away from disaster, and they know it; if one person in the family gets sick, if there's some unforeseen disaster in a single industry, if the wrong person gets elected or promoted or one rotten stroke of luck, it feels like everything will be ruined. The adults and children feel it almost equally, even if neither ever names or talks about it. And then there are the other kinds of disasters that our culture threatens us with seemingly at every turn. Perhaps it's more a function of child and adolescent literacy than of anything else, but I'm not convinced that's it -- I have never seen more cultural artefacts of anxiety from the young of any culture I've studied than I have when listening to the voices of young people in affluent communities today.
On some level, I think that we all know that the world as our worldly powers have ordered it is not working, is not giving the human family abundant life as we were created and still ache for.
And I believe this is part of the Good News of our Baptism. If some part of you believes that the world as it is on the front page of the newspaper is not the world as it was meant to be, you're not crazy and you're not just a starry-eyed idealist; you are feeling God's call in Baptism. If some part of you wants something more than the chance to achieve enough to feel pressured to achieve more or to defend what you thought you won, you're not just greedy or lazy or odd; you're feeling God's call in Baptism. And if you feel at times that the world and the life you're aching for is more than you could bring into being by your own achievement, even if you wanted it only for yourself and those you care about (and who can restrict caring to just a few?), you haven't run into the thing that makes the dream impossible; you just might be hearing the call of Baptism.
Baptism, after all, is not just about you. Not by a long shot. Luke, after telling us about Jesus' baptism, immediately gives us that most genre of lectionary readings most dreaded by lectors: the geneology. He tells us how Jesus is connected, via saints and sinners (and aren't they all some of both?), via the famous and obscure, to all humanity. And like Mark and Matthew, Luke tells us of the vision Jesus had in Baptism that empowered him to face what he faced in the desert and in the crowds, whether enthusiastic or angry: he heard God's call to intimacy as God's beloved child. There were many things about Jesus that were unique, but Jesus' intimate relationship with God as we hear in this story of his baptism was not one of them; it's something that God has offered to all of God's beloved children from the beginning. It's the call and the promise that Isaiah sang of along with those audacious visions of what the world could be, that in the midst of the world as it is, we could hear God say:
Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
I have called you by name; you are mine.
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you;
when you walk through fire you shall not be burned,
and the flame shall not consume you.
For I am the Lord your God,
the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.
I pray that this Sunday and every day, all those gathered to hear God's word can hear that word, can receive the truth of God's presence to empower us as ones sent to live into the truth of God's reign.
Thanks be to God!
Proper 19, Year B
Having taught New Testament and early Christian history in a number of places, I can't tell you how many times I've read the word "Christ" used as little more than a surname -- as if Jesus' parents were "Joseph and Mary Christ." I can even recall one time when a student wrote of "Mr. Christ." In Christianity's first century a lot of Romans were equally confused by what they heard of this person whom some called "Christ"; for example, when the Roman historian Suetonius wrote of Christians, he seems to have misheard the Greek word christos ("Christ") as the common slave name Chrestos, and so he reports that the troublesome "tribe" of Chrestianoi began at the instigation of this slave named Chrestos, who was crucified at Pontius Pilate's orders.
It's not hard to understand his confusion. Christos is simply the Greek translation of the Hebrew messiah, or "anointed," and "anointed" doesn't mean much beyond someone having a damp head unless you make clear by whom this person was anointed and for what. In Greek and Roman cultures, the term didn't have any particular traditional resonance, and so saying that someone or another was "anointed" was unlikely in itself to excite anyone.
The term did mean something -- a great deal in some cases -- to many Jews. However, the picture painted from many pulpits of all Judea and the entire Jewish diaspora longing and waiting with baited breath for THE Anointed One who would fulfill a checklist of qualifications drawn from various psalms and prophetic writings doesn't hold up under scrutiny of Jewish sources from the Second Temple period in which Christianity was born. A significant number of teachers noted that God's promise to King David was that his line would endure forever, couldn't help but notice that Caesar's agents and not any Davidic king were ruling Jerusalem, and spoke of a hope that God would anoint a king to reclaim David's throne and rule as David was remembered at his best. High Priests were also anointed for office, and some teachers hoped that God would anoint a priest who would reform the Temple hierarchy. Prophets were also sometimes literally anointed as well as anointed figuratively by God, and some who anticipated that God would anoint a particular someone or group of someones in a special way to a prophetic vocation spoke of one or more coming 'anointed ones.'
All that's to say that when Peter says that Jesus is "the Christ" in Mark 8:29, we don't really know what he means. It's possible that Peter didn't exactly know what he meant either. When Jesus asks his followers who they say he is, he isn't a game show host holding a card with a "correct" answer of "Christ" on it. At this point in Jesus' story, "Christ" means such a wide variety of combinations of things Jesus was NOT called to do (e.g., achieve military victory over the Romans or serve as high priest in the Temple) with lots of nothing (e.g., Suetonius' thinking "Christ" must be somebody's name) that even if everyone thought that Jesus was a or even the "Christ," that "knowledge" wouldn't be worth much for Jesus' mission -- indeed, it might even get in the way.
That's probably why Jesus' response to Peter's confession -- a confession that Christians centuries later have labeled "the right answer," and that we even celebrate in the Episcopal Church's calendar as a feast day -- is so shocking. The ONLY thing that Jesus says or does in the Gospel According to Mark in response to Peter's declaration that Jesus is "the Christ" is that "he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him" and he starts talking about suffering, rejection, and death before vindication from God in resurrection. The tone is unmistakable. In effect, Jesus said, "Shut the f*** up!" It's a response to Peter that Christians found so puzzling that Matthew's gospel (16:16-20) adds a long apology for it in which Jesus in effect says "you're right, of course, and I think it's fabulous that you know the truth about me" before saying, "just don't tell anyone -- I mean it."
A lot of sermons I've heard do that too, essentially telling Matthew's story even when preaching on Mark, and in any case leaping to the rightness of the "right answer" to Jesus' question without entering into the awkwardness that all canonical tellings of the story communicate. But what would it look like if we were willing to enter into the drama of this moment?
To start with, we might want to appreciate the cultural considerations that make Jesus' question one that really is wide open, rather than a catechetical drill with one "right answer." People of cultures around the Mediterranean in the first century (and in many of them now!) had what anthropologists call a 'dyadic personality,' in which a person's sense of identity is NOT the kind of individualistic and internalized product we Westerners experience, but is essentially the sum of others' perceptions fed back to them. The closest analogue I can think of in Western societies is the identity of "leader" in the saying, "if nobody's following you, you're not a leader -- you're just taking a walk." In first-century Palestine, when Jesus asks, "Who do people say that I am?" and "Who do you say that I am?" he's not contrasting the answers with his own internalized card with the "right answer" inscribed indelibly on it; he's gathering the information that tells him who he is in this world. (If you'd like to know more about this, I highly recommend the short, readable paperback The New Testament World.) What is at stake when the disciples answer isn't their rightness or wrongness so much as it is Jesus' mission.
I think that's true to a certain extent even if you don't buy what anthropologists tell us about personality in cultures like Jesus'. If I may leap from anthropological to more theological terms, I'll put it this way: as Jesus' followers we are the Body of Christ in the world. Who Jesus is, at least in effect, in this world is going to be the sum of what we say with our whole lives about who Jesus is. And the question is one about behavior as much or more as it is about words now, as it was then.
In other words, Peter's confession is somewhere between incomplete and misleading because he's using words that don't yet carry the meaning they will for him. People say that Jesus is a prophet, and he is -- but what is his message? Peter says that Jesus is the anointed one -- but anointed to do what? Until we're really clear about that -- and I'll argue that no vocabulary speaks as loudly as actions on this point -- the "right" words will carry no meaning or a misleading one.
It's a problem we've still got as much or more in our world. I can say that Jesus is "God from God, light from light, true God from true God," and if what I mean -- and what my life testifies I mean -- when I say "God" is "that very powerful being in the sky who's itching to punish everyone I dislike or find threatening," my supposedly orthodox confession of Jesus becomes empty at best and oppressive at worst. I can say that Jesus is "my Lord and Savior," and if my life testifies that Jesus saves me from responsibility to care for my neighbors in Cambridge or in the Sudan and that Jesus' lordship is a kind of lording it over those perceived as weak or dirty, my confession is a distraction at best -- something to which Jesus himself would say, "get out of here, accuser!" I can say that Jesus is God's anointed, and that leaves entirely open the question of what kind of God anointed Jesus and for what mission.
I think that's Peter's problem in this Sunday's gospel. Peter has heard Jesus' words, but he not going to get who Jesus is until he sees what Christians see as its fullest expression -- the one condemned to the Cross who forgives his killers vindicated in resurrection by the God who called him there and empowered him to love with God's limitless love. The most compact version of the gospel message, I think, might be St. Paul's summary, "we preach Christ crucified" (1 Cor. 1:23) -- that seeming oxymoron pairing "anointed" -- called and honored -- with "crucified" -- suffering and despised by the "right-thinking" people who called with their words and silence, with their deeds and their passivity, for his death. But I can only say that about St. Paul's words because his life gives those words meaning: the man who was so sure he was right that he was willing to participate in the death of those he believed wrong spends the rest of his life pouring himself out -- heart and soul, ink and sweat and blood -- for the people he'd though were too filthy and immoral to be included in God's people, and even for the haughty and self-righteous people within and outside the church who condemned his apostolic mission as the work of the Evil One that undermines the righteous and threatens the very survival of God's people and God's message. I hear St. Paul's proclamation of "Christ crucified" most clearly through Paul's own self-giving love, his testimony to the limitless height and breadth and depth of God's love because of the ways in which Paul himself seemed to find himself stretched by it, rejoicing in one letter at the return of someone he might well have said to "hand over to Satan" in a previous one.
"The Lord GOD has given me the tongue of a teacher," Isaiah says, "that I may know how to sustain the weary with a word." But Isaiah goes on to say what infuses that word with the power to sustain those suffering:
Morning by morning he wakens--
wakens my ear
to listen as those who are taught.
The Lord GOD has opened my ear,
and I was not rebellious,
I did not turn backward.
I gave my back to those who struck me,
and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard;
I did not hide my face
from insult and spitting.
Isaiah doesn't call this teacher "Christ" -- that association of "God's Anointed" with Isaiah's "suffering servant" was made only in hindsight by Jesus' followers as they reflected on the meaning of Jesus' life, death, and resurrection. "Christ" as a word couldn't say fully who Jesus was and is. When we encounter Jesus as "Christ crucified" -- fully present and limitlessly compassionate in suffering -- we find our lives transformed, the Word made flesh giving flesh to words.
Thanks be to God!
Easter Day, Year B
Have you ever had a moment when watching a movie when you really, really wanted to shout out to one of the characters, because: a) you just KNEW what was going to happen, given the genre conventions and other information at your disposal, though not necessarily at the characters'; and b) you also just KNEW that what the character was about to do was not going to fit well with what you knew about how the universe of that story worked?
It happens in romantic comedies: you just KNOW about two-thirds of the the way through the movie that if only the hero would come clean to his beloved (or maybe the genders are the other way around in the particular story you're watching) about that silly lie/stupid game/what-have you s/he'd been playing when they met, the beloved could handle it. You know that's what's going to have to happen to get to that happy ending you anticipate; the hero (or heroine) doesn't.
It happens in horror films. I wish I had $5 for every movie in which some character who would be perfectly sensible in real life I'm sure responded to some other character's disappearance/mysterious rending and slurping noise outside/etc. by traipsing outside (usually in some really flimsy clothing) to investigate, when we ALL know that this is precisely what you are NOT supposed to do in the genre.
I'm convinced that genre is important in terms of how we see our life stories as well. What I've been talking about -- that business of you as audience knowing something that the characters don't know and SHOULD know to make things right as you both understand it -- is called dramatic irony, and I think that in a lot of ways Easter is the biggest injector of it into the stories of our lives.
We all have heard and in many cases have internalized stories of how the world works, of what our lives are about. I once knew a woman who told her life story -- and more importantly, lived it out -- as if it were a tragedy. She started with so much potential, but every moment thwarted her. Now she was in a position where she might actually graduate from college, and she was dating someone she was convinced was her true love ... and that made her all the more convinced that something was about to go horribly, horribly wrong. She or her beloved would die in a car crash, or something equally tragic was going to happen. The possibility drove her to distraction -- literally, with respect to her studies, and soon her extensions in courses were lapsing to 'Incomplete' marks which lapsed to F's. But what if she saw her life as a comedy -- starting the story with challenges, and finishing it with love and wholeness? Might that help her make decisions and find courage to live her story out that way?
At 3:00 a.m. on Easter Sunday, Jesus' followers faced a story they knew all too well. Poor people meet someone who says that they working together can make a real difference in the world, see that much more of God's kingdom come and God's will done on earth as it is in heaven. These stories are dangerous to people in power, and it's amazing how quickly people in power -- people who are quick to dismiss such stories in their earliest stages as the musings or wishful thinking of religious crackpots and ne'er-do-wells -- will crack down on the storytellers and the chief actors.
Judas the Galilean, Theudas in Egypt -- these were just a couple of the people whose stories were familiar to various factions of the hopeful in Roman-occupied Palestine, and the end of such stories was all-too-familiar too. The empire strikes back, but with no grand episode to follow: the would-be hero, "our only hope," dies in some particularly shameful way, and the crowds following scatter. The empire continues, and sensible people give up any idea that the story of the world is an epic or a romantic comedy, and start thinking more like Macbeth did in his worst moments: it's a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury (why can't they at least let us sleep, if we're not going to hope?), signifying nothing. It's like Waiting for Godot without the humor, and maybe with some annoyingly obvious super-title as a kind of Cliff Note on the play in progress: HE'S NOT GOING TO COME, YOU IDIOT, AND IF HE DID, IT WOULD MAKE NO DIFFERENCE.
And all the landlords and factory owners chime in:
So get back to work, you louts. Just get back to work.
I suspect that Good Friday and Holy Saturday were as hard as they were for Jesus' closest followers at least as much because of the ways it fit so very, very well into stories they'd internalized as The Way Things Are as they were filled with any kind of shock. Perhaps they'd entertained hope that things would really be different with Jesus. That "perhaps" became a "what if?" so very, very strong that women and men left their homes, their families, every kind of security and respectability they knew to gamble it on the possibility they imagined when they looked at Jesus:
That maybe -- just maybe -- the world is headed for the destiny for which God made it. Maybe the world was made by a good God, who cares -- not as an inventor who hopes that his machine runs as planned, though he long ago moved his attention on to other projects, but as a lover or a parent lives with the one s/he loves, intimately involved and constantly encouraging and empowering the beloved on to something more beautiful and joyous and faithful and whole. Maybe the universe really does arc toward the justice for which it aches.
And what if that's so? Why buy stock in a dying empire? Why pour heart and soul and precious hours and energy into relationships that are all about capital and its uses, about master and servant, about the countless iternations of being around one another without being WITH anyone? Why spend another instant on anything other than that for which you and I and the whole world was born?
That's a dreamer's talk. We know that; I'm sure any one of us could remember parents or teachers or friends or lovers or bosses or co-workers saying as much. If the dream is just dreaming from which responsible people eventually wake up, then trying to stay in the dream is just a recipe for stasis or loss in terms of the world's measures of achievement and heartbreak in terms of what happens when a dream meets disappointment.
Judas the Galilean died. Theudas the Egyptian died. Martin Luther King's words may live forever, but his body died from a bullet before I was born. And so what?
So what? Here's a what if:
What if the universe really does arc toward justice, toward wholeness and reconciliation and life?
Jesus died. That much is true, and no Christian should say otherwise. (This, by the way, is why the Gospel of Judas is a big deal to historians, but not to Christians; to Christians it's just another attempt for people who don't want to believe there is such a thing as death for anyone good to believe that a figure as powerful in the imagination as Jesus taught them as much. He didn't.) Jesus died, and it wasn't pretty. Jesus got the worst of what the world and all its empires and armies -- plus all its pettiness and personal betrayals -- have to dish out. If we've entered fully into Holy Week, we've entered into that experience, and of God's full, involved, passionate presence with all who suffer.
Jesus died. As far as Pontius Pilate was concerned, that was the end of the story -- a story as familiar as it was unimportant, of one peasant among countless dying in the way that it's an uppity peasant's lot to die. Not even a tragedy -- that would give the story too much dignity. Just a very short story that even then wasn't over quickly enough.
And the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, or Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah, the very Creator of the universe and inspirer of every true prophet, raised this Jesus from the dead.
This was not the happy ending, and I love, love, love how the writer of the Gospel According to Mark gets it across to us, because Jesus' resurrection is SO not the end of the story, of the Good News that we have for the world.
Because Jesus' resurrection is not just about Jesus.
It's about God. Jesus didn't raise himself, you know -- at least, that's not what the scriptures in our canon say. God raised Jesus. Jesus had the nerve not only to hang out, break bread with, and bless and forgive the dregs of society, but to say that GOD did the same. Lots of good fathers and mothers taught their children what kind of end would find someone who tried that kind of stunt, someone who tried to insinuate that the God of the universe was the same kind of indiscriminate deadbeat he was, and respectable society breathed a huge sigh of relief when Jesus met the death they all said he was headed for. Work hard, pay your taxes, and don't cause trouble, and you could take over the family business; follow someone like Jesus, and you'll end up just where he did. The cross. Game over, and it wasn't all that fun for anyone.
But that is nothing like the story we have to tell. The story we have to tell is that the very Creator of the universe raised Jesus as a righteous Son of God from the dead, and that means that God is every bit as ridiculously, incomprehensibly loving and merciful as Jesus made God out to be. So the story of Jesus' resurrection is a story about God.
It's also a story about the world.
The Creator of the world raised Jesus, vindicated what he said -- and, more importantly, how he lived. So if Jesus was right about God, then maybe God wasn't joshing when, looking at the world and at humanity in it, God said, "It is very good." Maybe God means to make good on God's word.
Actually, no maybe about it. Jesus' resurrection confirms for us that those wild-eyed prophets -- all the way down to Jesus, and on to Jesus' followers -- are right when they say that the world really is good, and the God who made is really and truly and absolutely tirelessly is about redeeming it from anything that tries to say or make it otherwise. The might of the world's mightiest empire couldn't stop Jesus or his followers; not death or Satan or any kind of power can't either.
The Creator of the universe, the Lord of all that was, is, or ever will be, is redeeming all that there is, and as a witness to Jesus' resurrection, I would not dare to bet against this God.
So what if the world really is headed for justice, for freedom, for peace, for love, for wholeness?
I'll close with an image from my youth in southern California, where I loved to surf. It's a common misconception that surfing is about paddling hard enough to propel yourself along the surface of the wave. Not so. Surfing is really more like well-planned falling. The wave rises up, and if you're at the top of it and pointed downward on a surfboard that floats on the surface, the board will be propelled down by gravity, while being held up by the water beneath. The trick of surfing isn't to paddle hard enough to get to where you want to be -- it's to align yourself with the wave and the shore such that the simple force of falling down with gravity's power and the simple fact that on a smooth and buoyant surfboard pointed in alignment with the wave and the short, the path of least resistance downward will be parallel to the shore. That's how you get a long, exhilarating ride.
So what if God raised Jesus from the dead? What does that say about the world, about our place in it?
Mark does a wonderful thing with this. Mark 16:8, the last verse of the book, is pretty much a half-sentence in an obviously interrupted train of thought. Later Christian writers tried to finish it in centuries to come with things that made sense to them -- appearances of the risen Jesus who gives detailed instructions on what to do until the end of the world itself. But Mark did something different, and brilliant.
Mark ends the movie where it's obvious the story isn't over. He says that a mysterious young man greeted the women at the tomb, told them to tell Jesus' other followers that Jesus isn't in the tomb, that he has gone ahead of them. The women leave.
And it is SO not the end of the story. Coming centuries later, there are things we figure happened next: the women told the men. The men probably didn't believe them at first, but eventually (hopefully not as slowly as men came to believe women's witness about things like ordination) came around. Jesus' followers and Jesus' liberating word did go to Galilee, and Samaria, and Rome, and Egypt, and Spain, and even unto Los Angeles and El Paso and the Falklands and Auckland -- you get the idea.
Well, you get the idea if you use your imagination.
That's what the non-ending "ending" of Mark's gospel compels us to do. Use our imagination.
And that's a very good thing to do, because there are still messengers who can tell us reliably that Jesus has gone, is going, will go ahead of us, to places and contexts we haven't dreamed about yet.
In other words, I doubt this movie is even two-thirds over. Jesus is risen! What if that's so? What if God is really redeeming the universe? What if Jesus isn't just here, but has gone ahead of us, is waiting to meet us? For Pete's sake -- the original St. Pete, whose nickname when his friends wanted to rib him must have been Peter "Surely Not" Cephas, for all the times he couldn't believe what was in front of him until he got his board aligned with it and let it carry him along.
Jesus' resurrection tells us that, contrary to what those who fancy themselves the Powers That Be in this world might say, Jesus' way is worth betting your life, your world, the whole world on, because the Maker and Lover of the whole world is behind the movement. Jesus' resurrection tells us that God's way isn't the undertow that will leave us cold and alone, but is THE wave -- the most exhilarating ride there is, if we're willing to align ourselves with it.
Jesus' resurrection tells us that the Creator of the universe is bring the universe to LIFE, and you can bet your life on it -- with God, with Jesus, with us.
Surf's up! The Lord is risen!
And thanks be to God.