Proper 18, Year C
I sprained my wrist (a mild sprain, thankfully) this week and am trying to take a break from the keyboard, but I think this 2003 entry from the BCP lectionary for Proper 18, Year C should be helpful. What I'd add to it is that much of what I said this year about the gospel for Proper 15 applies equally well to this Sunday's gospel. The invitation in this Sunday's gospel is to end old patterns of relationship, thereby becoming free to enter into new patterns of relationship. There's no way of forcing that on someone else, though -- and to those who don't choose to follow Jesus as their sister or brother, spouse, parent, or son or daughter did would experience their abandonment as an act of hate. On the other hand, family members who joined the Jesus movement would find themselves part of a much larger family of sisters and brothers committed to care for one another. Choosing to follow Jesus can involve stark and difficult choices, and with any set of choices that could change the world, following Jesus presents others with choices they may not find welcome.
"None of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions" (Luke 14:33).
Is there anything Jesus could have said which would be harder for us to hear?
"Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple" (Luke 14:26).
Both come from this Sunday's gospel reading, of course.
There is no trick of Greek translation or historical context that will make these sayings anything other than difficult, if not offensive. I can't recommend an angle of preaching or reading that could be summarized as "here's why Jesus/Luke didn't really mean this." Friends don't let friends do this to texts.
Let's take the Greek question head-on, as it's often said in sermons on this passage that the Greek word translated here as "hate" really means something more like "love less." There's no evidence to support this assertion. I suspect that it comes from confusing Luke 14:26 with Matthew 10:37, which says, "whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me." But misein, the Greek word translated as "hate" in Luke 14:26, really does mean "hate," as in the opposite of love. Here are some other New Testament passages that use the same word:
- Matthew 5:43 (in which "hate" is clearly presented as the antithesis of "love" (agape)
- Luke 21:17 (in which hatred is what persecutors have for those whom they put to death)
- Hebrews 1:9 (in which it is said of the Son that he "loved righteousness and hated lawlessness")
You get the idea. This is a strong word, and not at all a pretty one -- especially for one's stance toward parents, spouse, children, and siblings. It's an offensive statement that has lost little of its offensive power in its travel from a first-century Mediterranean context to 21st-century America.
And I'm glad it's in the gospel, and in the context in which it appears, because the next sentence is supposed to be offensive too, though it's lost much of its power in our context. In 21st-century America, we see what we think of as a cross mostly as pieces of jewelry, and then as decorations for churches, and then maybe as part of the logo of an organization. It's become in many ways a symbol of respectability and privilege, held up by political candidates to rally the base.
But that's not what the cross represented in the first-century Roman empire. There, the cross was a work of perverse genius -- a cheap and non-labor-intensive way to inflict indescribable pain and shame, while providing a gory public reminder of just what happened to those who undermined the good order of the Empire. It was a reminder of what happened to Christians who encouraged women and men to decide for themselves whom they would call "lord," and then to follow no one else. As I've said in my comment for Proper 15, Year C and the previous entries linked from there, such teaching could and did divide families. It undermined the authority of every man who called himself "father," from the head of the family you grew up in all the way up to Caesar Augustus, who called himself the father of his empire, and his successors.
And it challenges us too. Jesus' words here aren't asking us to feel differently about our family or about the Cross; "hate," like "love," in a first-century context is not about emotions, but about actions. We are being asked to behave toward family in a way that our culture will almost certainly see as hateful. It is still offensive to say that we do not feel any more obligated to blood relatives than we do to others, and I think that's at the core of this week's gospel. We are being asked to abandon, or even despise, the cultural value placed on family, a value that reaches almost to the point of idolatry in many quarters.
But the choice we are faced with is not between swallowing whole "family values" as defined by our culture or rejecting all family members altogether. Jesus' teaching did tear his followers out of the families they grew up in, the families that not only provided for them materially, but gave them their identity in the world and any honor they experienced. But Jesus defined the community of his followers as a different kind of family. He expected them to care for one another materially (hence the emphasis on common rather than private possessions), honor one another in a world that despised them, and to treat one another with all of the intimacy and loyalty one would expect of brother and sister.
One's father and mother, spouse and children, were welcome to join the community, becoming brothers and sisters with all its members -- but the new relationship in Christ was then to be the definitive one. That was particularly challenging for fathers, accustomed to a kind of authority that Jesus taught belonged rightfully only to God.
That's the sort of challenged that Paul poses to Philemon in the epistle for this week too -- to receive Onesimus, who had been his slave, and to relate to him not as Onesimus' master, but as his brother. Doing so would include and go beyond freeing Onesimus from literal slavery. Normally, if Philemon freed Onesimus, Onesimus would still be defined as Philemon's freedman, obligated to him in a lopsided relationship in which Philemon could choose to care for him or ignore his needs. But brothers cannot do that to one another; they are obligated to one another indissolubly, absolutely, and mutually. As brothers, Onesimus and Philemon would be bound eternally in a relationship that freed both: Onesimus from the obligations of being Philemon's slave or freedman, and Philemon from participating in a system that dehumanized masters while oppressing slaves.
That's the Good News in Jesus' very hard words. Follow Jesus, and we are abandoning a lot of what gave us honor, security, and even identity in our culture. In short, we will be abandoning what gave us life. But what kind of life? Follow Jesus, become family with his brothers and sisters, and while we will share in his cross, we will share also in his risen life -- joyful, eternal, loving, and free.
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)
Proper 8, Year C
Galatians 5:1, 13-25
I'm back from an unexpected and quite exhausting out-of-state trip. I apologize for not posting on this week's gospel -- a particularly challenging one -- earlier. This Sunday's gospel shows a man telling Jesus that he wants to stay to "bury" his father before leaving to follow Jesus. The man does NOT mean that his father has died already and that he needs a day or two to make funeral arrangements. He is saying that he has a duty as a son to care for his father in old age, to see that he has what he needs while he's alive and that he gets an honorable burial once he does die. And Jesus tells this man to "follow me, and let the dead bury the dead." Jesus instructs a man to abandon his family. This is serious stuff, and it deserves to be taken up from the pulpit in parishes -- most especially in this age in which being a "Christian" is supposedly synonymous with "family values" that are identical with those held by respectable people in our culture.
Please see my brief entry specifically on Luke 9:51-62 here, the theme of our cultural "family values" being in tension with discipleship that I treat at greater length here and here. I think that will help preachers for this Sunday. The bottom line is that we've got a profound "teaching moment" in this combination of gospel and epistle. Our passage for this Sunday from Luke underlines that our family is all our sisters and brothers in the Body of Christ, and as human beings our family is all in the human family, as we're all God's children. As counter-cultural as it was and is, Jesus taught (and lived) that we are called to care about and for EVERY mother or father and EVERY child as we would care for our own mother or father or son or daughter. ALL of our relationships are to generate the fruit of the Spirit; there is no one who because of a lack of ties of blood or marriage or our assessment of "deserving" toward whom we are licensed to behave with "enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy," to quote a particularly challenging part of Paul's catalog of behaviors uncharacteristic of those who "live by the Spirit."
And please also know some good news for the lectionary blog; after a long time in which my schedule was heaviest in the earlier part of the week and trips like the one this week were all too frequent, I'm entering into a summer that's largely unstructured, and even after that my schedule will be quite different from what it was over the last academic year. In short, I intend to return to my tradition of blogging the lectionary on Monday or very close to it. I appreciate your patience as it's drifted later in more recent times, and hope you find the blog all the more helpful when I post earlier.
Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany, Year C
Luke 6:17-26 - link to NRSV text
If you haven't seen this sermon of mine on Matthew's version of the Beatitudes, please do. (This sermon of mine on Luke's version is far weaker, I'm sorry to say, but may still be helpful -- especially when supplemented by this lectionary blog entry on Luke's "Parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man," which I connect directly to Luke's Beatitudes and woes.)
I'm not going to soft-pedal: these are hard readings we've got this Sunday -- at least for people like me.
By "people like me," I mean the comfortable, the privileged, those who are among the richest people in the world.
And I am among the richest people in the world. I doubt that I'll be appearing on any television profiles to that effect, but it's true. If you make an annual income of $47,500, you are in the top 1% of wage earners worldwide. I'm not in that number, but even though I'm employed only part-time as a consultant while being a seminary student (with all the expenses that entails), I'm comfortably within the top 10% of the wealthiest in the world. If you're curious about where you fall, go to the Global Rich List to find out.
So yes, I'm among the world's richest people, and for that reason, when I read, "Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God ... But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation," that's enough to give me pause. I want to experience God's blessings. I've known enough of what that's like to know that God's blessings are far richer and bring far more joy, peace, love, and other qualities I value than any amount of wealth can. And like just about any churchgoer of the wealthy West who hasn't been anesthetized completely against the power of these words, I bristle when I hear Jesus saying them. So what news in this passage is Good News for me?
For starters, God's Good News for the poor is good news for me if I am aligned with the poor. And who are the poor? Let's not fall into that common trap of allegorizing biblical texts into easily swallowed but flavorless mush and say that "the poor" are people with a certain attitude -- say, people who acknowledge (at the very least in church on Sunday) that they need God, or that all good things on earth are God's gifts. That's not what the word means.
The word is ptochoi -- not just "people who are poor," or "those who are poorer than average," but "people who are destitute" -- those who don't have a home, basic shelter, clean water, basic nourishment. As I've preached about before, a lot of those who chose to follow Jesus in the first century ended up in that position specifically because of their decision to be Jesus' disciple. What Jesus taught -- about who your family is (hint: it's not "people whom I marry or are related to genetically and/or legally"; Jesus is not big on those kinds of "family values"), about responsibility (i.e., he called upon women and men alike to make decisions not only about whether to follow him, but about a whole complex of related decisions -- and he never suggested that they needed anyone's permission, let alone the family patriarch's, to decide or act), about most of the things that order-loving and family-oriented Romans and most of the other cultures the Romans dominated around the Mediterranean basin had in common. Parents, husbands, even adult children were sometimes disgusted and publicly shamed by the decisions of their Christ-following relations, who were now associating freely with women and men, slaves and free persons, rich and poor, clean and unclean, respectable and shameless. And in many cases, these humiliated relatives would throw the Christian out, leaving her or him with no livelihood, no family, no way to survive apart from Christian community or the charity of passers-by.
And yet, Jesus and Jesus' followers are bold or crazy enough to proclaim Jesus' counter-cultural invitation as Good News. That made little sense to most people in the first century -- and I dare say that Jesus' invitation may be just as counter-intuitive and is certainly as counter-cultural now.
If I'm on the Global Rich List -- and especially if I'm someone, well, like me, who's among the wealthiest on a global scale but hardly what the most successful in the U.S. would call financially secure -- why would I want to broaden the scope of my concern beyond me and my family, or, if I'm particularly generous, my community?
Please do look at what I've said before on this, because I believe more than ever that it's true:
The short answer to the question of why I should want to align myself with God's poor, even if it costs me personally, is because God, having made us human beings, really knows what we need -- what will give us joy, peace, love, and all of those things that politicians tell us we'll get if we support them, marketers tell us we can have if we buy the right products, magazines tell us we could experience if only we knew the Ten Secrets To Pleasing Her/Him or that one dieting tip that will give us a body that someone could want and love. God knows that we need more than a plasma television, a sizable nest egg, a set of six-pack abs, some icon of success or respectability.
God knows that we need a new Creation, and we need to be a part of it.
And the Good News -- the news so astonishingly good that we're often more likely to believe the politicians than the Savior who proclaimed the Good News -- is that what we need, the wholeness we ache for for ourselves and the wholeness we find in a world working actively and experiencing with increasing fullness the reconciliation that is God's mission in the world -- is being realized now.
Hebrew and Christian prophets have said as much in holy writ, but for those of us more inclined to believe what today's experts say, there's some real and hard evidence for it.
The ptochoi -- those who are destitute, without shelter, good water and good food, a means to make a living -- could have enough to get by as soon as the year 2015. It won't take a miracle; it will take enough of us with power and resources, enough of us from the Global Rich List partnering with and listening to wise activists among the poor, managing to get just 0.7% of the wealthiest nations' GNP targeted to aid those whom Jesus called "blessed" or "honored."
Have you ever tasted, seen, and felt what it's like to be among those whom Jesus honors? Honestly, I think I've only got the faintest of it, and even that is enough to convince me that following Jesus, being part of a community and a movement treating one another as God treats us, is more rewarding than any other path.
Think you're winning the rat race? If so, you've probably experienced what comedian Lily Tomlin so aptly observed: that winning the rat race just means you're a fast rat. We weren't made to be rats. We weren't made to compete for a single or rare prize of real love or "the good life," and I say so for at least two reasons: we're not rats, and there's not a limited prize. As I wrote about last week, those whose lives have shifted from being centered around the question of "can I get enough of the good stuff?" to "how can I gather enough people to take in all this good stuff God is providing," may pay a price in worldly terms for that shift, but they will gain something far better:
Freedom from anxiety.
Freedom from human lords.
Freedom to take in God's love.
Freedom to love others in community.
And the opportunity to participate as God's Good News is made real in the world.
Thanks be to God!
Proper 23, Year B
Mark 10:17-27(28-31) - link to NRSV text
Those who have heard me talk about my process when I write a sermon know that I have a few questions that are central as I think about what to say:
- What is difficult, puzzling, and/or shocking in the passage? What would be challenging about trying to live out the message of the passage?
- What comes across as Good News in the passage? Why would someone want to take on the challenges of living this way? What invitations are in the passage to experience more fully the life God offers?
This Sunday's gospel can rightly be called a doozy, though. If you include the optional portion of the gospel, it's got at least three points that the vast majority of nice, churchgoing people I know will find literally incredible; they wouldn't believe that Jesus really said this stuff, and if he did, they wouldn't believe that he meant it. In one Sunday's reading, we get:
- It's harder for a rich person to enter God's kingdom than it is for a camel to go through the eye of a needle.
- Jesus says that God will reward people who LEAVE THEIR FAMILIES, including children and parents they're caring for, for his sake and for the sake of the Good News. It's right there in verses 29 and 30.
- If you compare the list Jesus gives of things that people will (and should -- God will reward them for it) leave for Jesus' sake and for the Good News with the list of things God with which God will reward them, there's one category of person conspicuously absent: fathers. Fathers seem to be absent from God's kingdom.
Careful readers will see even more points in this Sunday's reading likely to stick in our throats, but those three are more than enough to take on here and now. I'm betting that a lot of sermons this Sunday will fall into the genre of "he didn't really mean it," a point supported by a slew of fictititious technicalities.
For example, I'm sure that many have heard that there was a gate in ancient Jerusalem (or, in some versions, Jericho) called "The Eye of the Needle," which was so narrow that a camel couldn't get through it unless the packs it was carrying were removed, at which point it could get through laboriously on its knees. Sermons citing this story usually go on to say that Jesus' point is that rich people can enter God's kingdom as long as they aren't overly attached to their possessions and have a humble and/or prayerful attitude. Depending on how stewardship campaigns are progressing, the preacher might add something to the effect (though hopefully with more tactful phrasing) that if you're concerned about this, upping your pledge couldn't hurt. Preachers who are particularly enthusiastic about the Millennium Development Goals (about which there is much good cause to be genuinely enthusiastic) might add that all it really takes to get that camel ready to get through the gate is giving 0.7% of income to intelligently targeted international aid. The congregation sighs with relief, and we all get on with business as usual, secure in the knowledge that following Jesus doesn't really require that we do anything radical, for heaven's sake.
I'm sorry to say, though, that there is no evidence whatsoever that there was ever any such "Eye of the Needle" gate. It's a kind of ecclesial version of an urban legend -- invented, I would guess, as a metaphor that, as generations repeated the story, turned into a solid "archeologists have discovered" report. But it's fiction. Careful readers could tell as much just from Mark 10 itself. If Jesus had been talking about such a gate, his hearers wouldn't have been astonished and said, "Then who can be saved?!"; they would have said something more like, "what a bummer to have to carry those packs yourself for 50 feet." And Jesus would not have replied that it's impossible for mortals but nothing is impossible for God; he would have said something more like, "gosh you all are dim sometimes -- just take off the camel's packs and you're fine!"
There is no such easy out for us, though. There is no "Eye of the Needle" gate that camels can crawl through. There is no technical point of Greek to tell us that Jesus really didn't mean what he seems to be saying here. Those things belong to the Gospel of Supply-Side Jesus, not to the canonical gospels. As absolutely hilarious as Eddie Izzard's comedy routine in Dress to Kill is about how you really just need a very, very powerful blender and a lot of patience to get the camel through the needle's eye, that clearly is not Jesus' point either.
Nor can most of us say, "oh, but I'm not rich." Try entering your income in the Global Rich List and see where you end up. I'm back to full-time seminary/dissertating now, but the $36,000 salary I earned in my last full-time job would have put me in the top 4% of wage earners worldwide.
As with Jesus' saying in Luke (which I've blogged about before) that "whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple" (Luke 14:26), preachers often invent or conveniently misremember some technical point that would make "hate" mean "love less," "rich" mean "ungenerous," and "follow me" mean "do pretty much what your parents taught you will make you respectable and successful."
But that isn't so.
Please, preachers, take your congregations there for a moment and pause. Work this Sunday to bring your congregation to the place Jesus' disciples were when they said, in effect, "WTF are you saying?" We haven't done our jobs if we don't get there. The job of a sermon, in my opinion, is not to resolve difficulties. The job of a sermon is to inspire deeper discipleship, and discipleship is not easy. Jesus offers us abundant and eternal life -- real joy, real love, real peace. Worldly success and respectability can't give those to us; worldly ordering of our relationships can't give those to us. The opportunity we are being offered this Sunday and every day is to let the shock of Jesus' word jolt us out of those old, unfulfilling, enslaving ways of seeing, living, and relating to others so that we're freed to experience more of what God wants for us, as individuals, as members of the Body of Christ, and as members of our communities, our society, our world. That's profound transformation, and we do a profound disservice to one another when we pretend otherwise. I beg you, preachers, not to imply that this Sunday's gospel does anything other than call on each and every one of us to be transformed, to think and pray long and hard about what we're called to do in this world with respect to wealth and poverty.
I hope that many will also use the optional extended reading from Mark, because I think it helps to clarify what comes before. Wealth isn't just "stuff," shiny metals, stacked bills, and numbers on a page or in a computer. Wealth is a -- perhaps the -- worldly value. It orders our relationships -- with one another, with our neighbors, with people across town and on other continents -- in subtle and powerful ways too numerous to count. And therefore the obscene, unjust patterns along which we distribute wealth in our world are symptoms of our disordered, broken relationships that also exacerbate that disordered, unhealthy brokenness.
Jesus wasn't kidding when he said what he did about wealth any more than he was kidding when he said what he did about relationships. God's kingdom, God's rule, God's way of using power are entirely incompatible with our way of using power to maintain our wealth and shut the rest of the world out of it. "Charity" -- the practice of doling out money from our considerable wealth to those who are poor in a way that in no way changes the recipient's lack of access to wealth and power -- is a seductive trap that consolidates our power, adding to it even the power of doling out life and death around our choices of how much to give and to whom, and yet lets us feel particularly generous and self-righteous in the process. Jesus is not calling us to make some minor tweaks in our relationship to wealth. He's calling us to something far more radical and far more transforming; he's calling us to reconciliation, with one another and with God.
That's no small thing. It's huge. Nothing will be the same, and yet that's what we need to be more fully ourselves, more fully human in God's image, more fully alive in the eternal life God offers. That's why Jesus talks about it as he does in the full passage allotted for this Sunday, putting nothing in parentheses for "optional discipleship." Jesus is not just talking about a few minor tweaks to financial planning; he's talking about a new world. And yes, that means new ways of relating to one another. Jesus' words about what the world means when it says "family" were at least as shocking in his own culture as they are in ours. As I've blogged about before, he was born in the reign of Caesar Augustus, the original "family values" politician, who wanted to rebuild the empire from civil war by exalting the family as the basic unit of the empire and the best guarantee of good social order. He grew up hearing that God commanded every Israelite to honor father and mother and to "be fruitful and multiply." He must have known just how appalling, how immoral, it would sound to say that anything that could inspire someone to leave parents and children alike might be God's Good News.
And yet there it is. He said it. He meant it. There's no hermeneutical trick that will get us with any integrity from what Jesus taught and how Jesus lived and died to "God wants you to be respectable, but MORE so." Following Jesus leads to radical change -- in us, in our families, in our communities, in our world. Jesus' words in this Sunday's gospel would be grossly unfair if they didn't invite every parent and every child to follow him too. In any case, that kind of radical change is particularly hard on people who, like fathers in a patriarchal society, find that the world as it is is working well for them. "Fathers" don't appear in Jesus' list of relationships in God's reign because there are patriarchal "top dogs" in God's kingdom; God's reign means of necessity that nobody else is reigning. Those who happen to be fathers are called to follow Jesus, but their relationships, like all of ours, will be transformed in the process.
That sounds like a lot to take on, and it is. But the Good News is that, as Jesus said, nothing is impossible with God. It might take some deep shocks to jolt us out of our old perspectives. If we find ourselves sometimes looking at the magnitude of transformation to which Jesus' Way calls us and our world and saying, "How is this possible? Who on earth can be saved?" that's probably a good sign. It can mean that we're ready to make some different choices with potentially radical consequences, to throw ourselves -- all we have and all we are -- on God's mercy. And the Good News is that God's mercy is beyond human reckoning, deeper and taller and broader than even the brokenness of the world that God is healing and reconciling.
Thanks be to God!
Proper 16, Year B
Do you have to be a loser to be a Christian? The answer from this week's gospel might be "no, but it helps."
It really does, and it always has. Christianity was successful in its earliest days among women, slaves, and outcasts, and it's not hard to see why from our epistle reading for this Sunday. This passage often gets quoted starting with chapter 5, verse 22: "wives, be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord." Often, this verse even gets set apart from what precedes it by means of a subject heading. For example, my old NIV study bible has "Living as Children of Light" as a subject heading for a section ending at the end of verse 21, and then "Wives and Husbands" as a subject heading for a section starting with verse 22. This is a place where the huge, looming agendas of today's Christians have really messed our English bibles, starting with this:
There is no verb in verse 22. Here's a literal translation of Ephesians 5:22: "wives to your husbands as to the Lord." That's it. The "be subject" isn't in the verse at all, because verse 22 is just the second part of the sentence that starts in verse 21: "Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ," and then we get a sketch of what MUTUAL submission might look like in the context of Christian marriage -- i.e., wives love their husbands as they love Christ, and husbands love their wives as Christ does the church.
The terms used in that example might sound lopsided at first. I think they are, and I think that's intentional: the terms in which husbands are invited to love their wives if anything demand that the husbands are MORE intentional in exercising humility. Ephesians tells husbands that they are to love their wives as Christ loved the church, and since Ephesians is a letter written very intentionally in pauline tradition, it's worth looking at the central description of just what Christ's love for the church looks like in Philippians 2. Christ's love of the church isn't even remotely domineering; indeed, Christ humbled himself and became subject as a slave to all -- even to the point of death on a cross.
All that's to say that Ephesians puts forward MUTUAL submission as the standard for all Christian relationships, including the relationships between sisters and brothers in Christ who happen to be married to one another. So why the lopsided terminology with respect to marriage, in which women are invited to think of their care for their husbands as service to Christ, while husbands are invited to think of themselves behaving as slaves? It reminds me of a quip I've heard about why there are so many commandments in the Torah that apply to men but not to women, and why St. Paul spends so much more ink yelling at misbehaving men:
It's not that God loves them any less; it's just that they require more supervision.
That's a flip way of describing Ephesians 5's relatively brief comment that women are to be subject to their husbands, followed by much more ink devoted to how husbands are to be subject to their wives. First-century women -- and a lot of twenty-first-century women -- know all too well what submission looks like, but more of the men need a remedial instruction in the concept. That's not because men are particularly dim, but many of them have to overcome far more cultural baggage to be able to emulate Christ's humility -- much as many women have to overcome far more cultural baggage than men do before they can emulate Christ's boldness in proclaiming Good News and prophetically challenging those in power.
So there was a lot about the Christian message that was easier for women to see as Good News. Jesus called women, as he did men, to make an individual and very costly decision to follow him. That gave them a measure of responsibility and a burden to carry that was in many sense far greater and heavier than what their society would give them, but it wasn't hard for women to give up claims to patriarchal authority since nobody thought they could make them legitimately anyway.
But as Scott Bartchy (my supervisor, and author of a forthcoming book called Call No Man Father: The Apostle Paul's Vision of a Society of Siblings) likes to say, patriarchy isn't about the rule of all men over all women; it's about the domination of a few men over everyone else, men and women. In other words, there were a lot of men to whom Jesus' call -- the responsibility of the costly decision to follow him, but also the promise expressed in the Beatitudes that the poor, the meek, the peacemakers, and those despised and persecuted would be honored -- came as equally Good News of freedom from patriarchal domination.
We see that throughout the canonical gospels, as a motley band of misfit women and men are formed into prophets and pastors who will change the world. The path on which we follow Jesus is not easy. Jesus' values are not the world's values, and people who place Jesus' values at the center of their decisions about how they want to spend their money, use their power, and treat other people will find that the more closely the follow Jesus, the more friends, relatives, bosses, co-workers, and onlookers who aren't following Jesus will shake their heads and cluck their tongues.
Treat poor people with MORE honor than rich people, even rich people who donate very generously to the church? That's nonsense, by worldly terms -- but it's biblical Christianity, according to the letter of James. Prioritize a stranger in need as you would your own mother or brother, even if that means placing strangers above your own flesh and blood? That's crazy talk according to the world's "family values" -- but it's biblical Christianity, according to Jesus. Looking for ways to exercise charity instead of to win lawsuits over someone trying to exploit you? That's just stupid according to the world -- but it's biblical Christianity, according to Paul. Respond with aid instead of violence when you and your family or nation is attacked? That's insanity in the world's reckoning, but that's the witness of the New Testament from Matthew to Revelation, the witness of Christ crucified and then raised and exalted by God.
That's a hard message to preach -- no easier now than it was in Jesus' or Paul's day. It's a hard message for many to receive. Who, then, can accept it?
People like Peter. Jesus knew that what he had to say was nonsense at best and destructive subversion of everything godly or good at worst in the world's eyes. He heard even his closest friends and followers muttering, "This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?" And when he said, "do you also wish to go away?" Peter said, "Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life."
I hear two things in Peter's response that have come to be central in how I preach Jesus' hard words. First, Peter knew the cost of his old way of life. I love the way Luke portrays the calling of the first disciples, when Peter decides to follow Jesus. Peter set out that day as a fisher with one question on his mind: Will I catch enough fish today to feed my family? There was rent to pay for the boat, the cost of materials for the nets, taxes imposed by occupying armies and local officials, and it required luck as well as backbreaking labor to have anything left to eat after the rich and powerful had all taken their share. Peter wasn't a recreational angler; he was a poor man trying to get enough to get by, and that can be a very anxious existence. So every day, the question on his mind was "will I catch enough fish today to survive?" More than once, he might have muttered to himself, "this is no way to live!" -- but what choice did he have?
Jesus offered him a choice. It was a hard choice, but Peter was willing to consider it because he knew the cost of NOT following Jesus, of staying where he was and doing what he did, of staying within the network of relationships and obligations he knew.
But that's not all. Choosing to follow Jesus wasn't just about choosing the unknown over "the devil you know." Luke says that on that fateful day by the lake of Gennesaret, the miraculous catch of fish Peter drew was so large that it threatened to swamp the boats. In other words, in one moment the big question on Peter's mind changed from "will I catch enough fish today to survive?" to "can I gather enough people to take in all of this abundance?" That's what made Peter a fisher of people: in Christ, he came to believe that the world in which he grew up -- the world in which we need to be anxious about all of the causes for worry the world gives us -- is passing away, and he had a chance NOW to experience the abundant life of the world to come.
In short, Peter not only knew the cost of staying in his old life, but also had caught a glimpse of the possibilities, however costly they come, of Jesus' new life. So Peter said, "Lord, where else would we go?" -- since the possibilities the world presents have their own cost, and it's far steeper for a far less fulfilling reward -- and "you have the words of eternal life" -- since he saw that the longings for abundant and eternal life instilled in him by God as a human being made in God's image would find their truest fulfillment in Jesus' way, the way of the cross.
People say that every preacher really has just one sermon that gets preached in a slightly different way each time s/he steps in the pulpit. I think I've got about three or four, but this is the sermon I preach on Jesus' hard words. You can see an example here, in a sermon on the Beatitudes I did for a wealthy congregation I knew well. I ask these central questions:
- What is the cost, the difficulty of the point with which God is challenging us? We can't really move forward in discipleship if we're not intentionally walking the path of the cross; if we decide we want to follow Jesus because it's the respectable or easy thing to do, we'll drop everything but the name the second the path proves counter-cultural or difficult.
- What is the cost of staying where we are, of swallowing worldly values of achievement and power-over, of getting as much as we can to call our own and then guarding it jealously?
- How will be more able to take in Jesus' abundant and eternal life if we do choose to follow Jesus, however much that challenges and stretches us? What is that life in Christ like?
The bottom line, I think, is that like Peter, we follow Jesus as Lord because we've seen the toll that following worldly authorities takes, and because we've glimpsed the joy, peace, and freedom that following Jesus can bring. There is much that is challenging and costly moving forward on that road, but it is what we were created to do, and it is the way to full, eternal, and abundant life.
Thanks be to God!
Proper 10, Year B
Mark 6:7-13 - link to NRSV text
If any place will not welcome you and they refuse to hear you, as you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them.
I think the most memorable time I've heard those words was in a sermon by the Rt. Rev. Doug Theuner, then Bishop of New Hampshire, at the consecration of his successor, the Rt. Rev. Gene Robinson. Those words (which Theuner quoted from the parallel passage in Matthew) were part of Theuner's charge to Robinson. If any place will not welcome you, he said, and they refuse to hear you, as you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them.
That's harsh. That's saying not only that you won't touch them, but that you won't touch anything they've touched -- not even the dust.
And I don't think that +Gene has taken that advice.
Instead, at the Integrity Eucharist at General Convention this year, the refrain in his sermon was "Love them anyway." Even if you'd been under a rock for several years and had no idea what he'd been through -- the death threats against him and (inexplicably) his daughters, the sneering, the hate mail, the protesters, the constant scrutiny, and on top of it all the burden of receiving countless letters from hurting people who didn't know anyone they could talk to about being gay -- you could tell from +Gene's voice that he was not saying it lightly. He knew just how difficult and painful it could be to take seriously the oneness of the Body of Christ and the imperative to seek and serve Christ in all people. His voice broke several times as he said it.
Love them anyway.
That doesn't erase the hard word about shaking off the dust, and to be completely honest, I'm not totally sure what to do with it. I really, really dislike sermons that take a hard word from Jesus and say something that boils down to "he didn't really mean it." I hope that what I have to say about this hard word doesn't fall into that category.
The first thing that I want to point out about it is the context. Jesus' followers were a tiny, obscure minority in the Roman Empire. The vast majority of people had never heard of Jesus. How much sense would it make for his followers to keep preaching in a town where everyone had heard and no one would listen? I was tempted to say, "and where staying would only get them beaten up or worse," but when you look at the breadth of Jesus' teaching, what his disciples actually did and how many were martyred -- and most importantly, what Jesus himself did in "setting his face toward Jerusalem," being received as a king, and preaching liberation to packed crowds there to celebrate the liberation of God's people from slavery -- I don't think that the danger of sticking around was a consideration. Martin Luther King and Malcolm X predicted that they would be assassinated -- Jesus and his followers didn't need any special revelation to know the risks they took.
They took them repeatedly. They loved them anyway.
And not just that. Jesus not only ruled out retaliation against those who chased his followers out of town; he also sent his followers out with no bread, no bag, no money, no outer tunic. No tunic meant that sleeping outdoors was not an option; no bag meant that they wouldn't be able to collect enough in one place to survive on their own in another. In other words, Jesus lived out and passed on to his disciples not just engagement, but vulnerability. They were to go to people they didn't know and rely on them day by day for food and shelter from the elements.
That's radical dependence on God. I don't mean by that that Jesus or his followers were sure that everything was going to be OK by conventional reckonings. Jesus didn't promise safety -- especially not in the sense of static self-preservation. That's not God's job. God wants something better for us. God calls us out of safe stasis. As the Rt. Rev. Dr. David Zac Niringiye said in a recent interview in Christianity Today:
One of the gravest threats to the North American church is the deception of power—the deception of being at the center. Those at the center tend to think, "The future belongs to us. We are the shapers of tomorrow. The process of gospel transmission, the process of mission—all of it is on our terms, because we are powerful, because we are established. We have a track record of success, after all. ... Those at the center decide that anyone not with us is—not against us—[but] just irrelevant.
God very often is working most powerfully far from the center. Jesus is crucified outside Jerusalem—outside—with the very cynical sign over his head, "The King of the Jews." Surprise —- he is the King of the Jews. "We had hoped ... " say the disappointed disciples on the road to Emmaus, but he did not fulfill our criteria. In Acts, we read that the cross-cultural missionary thrust did not begin in Jerusalem. It began in Antioch, on the periphery, the margins. But Jerusalem is not ready for Antioch! In fact, even when they go to Antioch, it's just to check on what's happening.
... I have come to the conclusion that the powerful, those at the center, must begin to realize that the future shape of things does not belong to them. The future shape of things is on the periphery. The future shape of things is not in Jerusalem, but outside. It is Nazareth. It is Antioch.
Can we begin to read those passages that trouble us, that don't reinforce our cultural centeredness? Let's go back to Matthew 25 and read it in the church in America, over and over. Who are Jesus' brothers? The weak, the hungry, the immigrant workers, the economic outcasts. Let's read the passage of this woman who pours ointment over Jesus. Let's ask, who is mostly in the company of Jesus? Not bishops and pastors! The bishops and pastors are the ones who suggest he's a lunatic! Who enjoys his company? The ordinary folk, so ordinary that their characterization is simply this: "sinners." Can we begin to point to those passages?
Yet this ability to read different passages, to read the Bible differently, won't happen until people are displaced from their comfort zones. I thank the Lord for deep friendships he has given to me beyond my comfort zone, beyond my culture, beyond my language. Until that happens, we will all be tribal, all of us.
... Whether in Africa or America, the Cross is not an easy place to be—it is the symbol of our faith, but we do not love the Cross. "Come down from the Cross" is the cry not just of the Jewish leaders; it's the cry even of us Christians. We want Christ to come down from the Cross. We don't like the Cross.
And the Cross is where God calls us -- out of tribalism, out of nationalism, out of the safety of our comfort zones. I think that shaking the dust from our feet is not ultimately about refusing to be in contact with those who reject us, but refusing to remain in familiar territory with the "devil we know" rather than risk moving out further to the margins and the unknown. As one of my favorite passages from one of my favorite short stories says, "there is no safety," out there or anywhere, but there is, as one of my favorite passages from one of my favorite stories puts it, "wildness and joy, there is love and life within the danger." The way of the Cross, of Jesus' radical vulnerability, is also the way of Life.
Thanks be to God!
Second Sunday in Lent, Year B
Mark 8:31-38 - link to NRSV text
I once heard a sermon suggesting that Jesus' command to deny self, take up the cross, and follow him could involve something as simple as picking up a beer can on the beach and throwing it away.
I don't agree.
I don't think such a thing could even be said in Jesus' time or Mark's. In their time, a cross wasn't a pattern for jewelry, but an instrument of terror as well as torture and death. Here's what I said about it last time I preached on Good Friday:
... the Cross is a dark place, a monument to how we, “blessed with reason and skill,” in the words of one of our Eucharistic prayers, make use of God’s gifts to engineer darker and narrower prisons for ourselves. The Roman culture that invented the cross was known for its ingenuity in making use of simple and natural forms for engineering. Shape stones a certain way, and they form an arch that will support tremendous structures, held together by gravity and friction in a way that makes mortar a mere formality. Chart the right pathway for it, and water can be propelled over a tremendous distance solely by natural gravity in aqueducts.
And perhaps the height of Roman engineering, ingenious in its simplicity, was the cross. Take heavy posts, and set them along the busy roads into the city. Set brackets in them to receive a horizontal beam. Nail or even tie a man’s hands to a beam, set that beam across the pole in brackets, and you have an excruciating form of torture and slow death that takes little time or effort to start but days to finish. Rulers like Pontius Pilate didn't hesitate to use it. It was diabolically simple, cost-effective and highly visible as a public deterrent to those who would oppose the might of Rome. During the Passover season, as Jerusalem became clogged with pilgrims remembering how their God liberates slaves from their oppressors, Pilate lined the roads with hundreds of crosses, each filled with a living tableau of how narrow and dark a prison we can make of our imagination when we set it upon wounding others.
In short, crucifixion was state-sponsored terror meant to keep the populace in line. It made one person suffer unspeakably, obscenely, excruciatingly, and made that suffering a sign for all to see that Rome was the ultimate power, able to bring hell on earth or peace and order.
Is that what the Cross signifies for us, then?
As St. Paul would say, by no means!
We can't realize (a word I'm using intentionally) the meaning of the Cross without taking a moment at least to look at what it meant to the empire that occupied Palestine in Jesus' day. If our heart skips a beat, if there's a sharp intake of breath, that's a good sign. The crosses along the roads of the Roman Empire weren't bits of litter that could be picked up and put away by anyone who “gives a hoot.” They formed a long, terrible gash, an open wound in human freedom, in the human imagination, in God's dream for humanity.
And yet it has become a sign of our freedom, our healing, the reconciliation of all Creation with one another and with God.
How is this? How can it be?
It can -- it is -- in Christ Jesus.
Across the Roman world, the cross was a symbol of power -- the power of empire, the power of armies, the power to dominate. As Christians, it still is the case that realizing the Cross' meaning has to involve us looking hard and talking honestly about power.
That's because the Cross isn't just about how Christ died. If the only thing we knew about Jesus was that he died on a cross, we would have no clue that Jesus was special. The Passover season was a time when the people of Israel were called to celebrate their liberation from oppression, and thousands upon thousands of people made their way to Jerusalem each way to do precisely that. Imagine for a moment those crowds on every street corner, and imagine the mood among those gathered to celebrate liberation. The combination made Roman authorities in Judea very nervous, and when Roman authorities got nervous, they tended to crucify first and ask questions later, or never. So in all likelihood, when Jesus died on a cross just outside Jerusalem's walls during the Passover season, he was surrounded not just by two men, but by dozens. In that sense, Jesus' death was nothing special. Even Jesus' resurrection would just be an item for “news of the weird” or grist for an episode of The X-Files or Smallville if all we knew about Jesus was that he died and then was alive again. If I told you that some guy named Jim Gundersen in MInnesota had been executed by the state, certified as dead, but was alive again three days later, Imost of us would be saying, “Huh, That's really weird,” not “Where is he? Tell me, so I can go worship him!”
The Cross isn't just about how Jesus died, nor is it simply a precursor to Jesus' resurrection. Jesus' death and resurrection have meaning for us because of the manner in which Jesus LIVED.
This, by the way, is why one of the most overused Christmas sermon titles is also one of the worst: “Born to Die.” Jesus was born to die, I suppose, in the sense that all of us are. St. Benedict teaches us to remember our mortality daily, much as we remind one another of our mortality on Ash Wednesday. But even that isn't really about death so much as it is about LIFE -- abundant life, a life of wholeness.
Jesus' manner of life, the way around which he gathered women and men and children to journey, infused his death with profound meaning. The Cross is about how Jesus LIVED. It's what St. Paul had in mind when he wrote this in his letter to the Christians gathered in Philippi:
If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross.
Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
Doing my lectionary weblog this year, I've noticed anew something about the Gospel According to Mark that I find significant as I think about Jesus' cross and what it might mean for me to take it up.
It has to do with the title “son of God,” which is not Mark's favorite way of talking about Jesus. He doesn't use the phrase much, but he uses it at three crucial points as he tells “the beginning of the Good News of Jesus the Christ, the Son of God,” and all of which we visit over the course of Lent and Holy Week.
We hear the phrase at Jesus' Baptism, when he has a vision of the Spirit descending upon him, and Jesus hears God call him as a beloved son. And empowered by that experience, Jesus enters the desert.
We hear the phrase at Jesus' transfiguration on the mountaintop, as Jesus is called as a prophet alongside Moses and Elijah, and once more hears God saying, “this is my beloved child.” Empowered by that experience, Jesus journeys toward his Passover in Jerusalem.
You may have noticed my saying “empowered.” These are stories about Jesus claiming his power. Is that hard to hear? We need to hear it, though. We need to hear it to understand Philippians 2, to realize the vision of the Cross. Because it's at the foot of the Cross that someone -- a Roman soldier no less, a man whose humanity has been so wounded, so eroded, so subverted that he could put another man on a cross -- finally gets what Peter doesn't get in this Sunday's gospel, and this Roman soldier looks at the broken man above him and says -- knows -- “truly this man was God's son.”
He gets it. He perceives Jesus' power in its fullness -- power made perfect in weakness, power poured out for the powerless.
That's the way of the Cross, of Jesus' cross. Jesus claims his power, God's power, and he gets it -- that real power, God's power, is not a limited thing to be grasped, but a inexhaustible stream flowing freely to refresh and empower the weary and the marginalized.
What, then, might it mean for us to take up our Cross and follow Jesus? It's not a call to martyrdom -- if nothing else, the teaching that Jesus' blood shed on the Cross was a perfect, full, and sufficient sacrifice for sin, it ought to tell us that Jesus' blood was the LAST blood to be shed because of sin. God does not need or want bloodshed. Not another drop. God does not call us to be a herd of lemmings. God calls us to be the Body of Christ, praying as Jesus taught us that God's kingdom would come and God's will done on earth as it is in heaven. Jesus taught us to seek God's kingdom and to seek it first -- to look for and journey toward God's dream given flesh in the world, in communities of justice and peace and hope and abundant, vibrant life.
This is a powerful congregation. We have power by virtue of our education, our relative wealth in the world, our privilege in society, our voice. It can be very tempting -- all too tempting -- to seek nothing more than charity. Charity is a start, but it can take us to a dangerous place in which we release some portion of our resources in order to get more power. We maintain a death grip on the unjust privilege that makes us wealthy, that gives us the illusion of control, and then we give away just enough to feel generous without seriously compromising our privilege.
The way of the Cross -- Jesus' way of life -- calls us to let go of that. Jesus' way calls us to be honest about the power we have -- both the worldly power we've got because of our skin color, our gender, our social class, our education, our birth in the most powerful nation in the world, and the spiritual power we have as a community upon which God has breathed the Spirit -- and then to let all of that pour out -- “let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5:24) -- to empower the poor.
We are called not only to make sure that the most marginalized have a place at the table, but also to recognize whose table it is. The table around which we gather belongs to Jesus the Christ, who saw, as Peter in this Sunday's gospel did not, that true power is made perfect in self-giving love, that the way of abundant life leads to the Cross. And the symbol of humanity's brokenness, of power corrupted to become domination, becomes a sign of peace, and freedom, and life.
Thanks be to God!
Christ the King: Proper 29, Year A
First off, I want to offer a personal note encouraging y'all to read this fine reflection on the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings for this coming Sunday. I commend it to you first on its own merits — its author knows American history far better than I do, and draws on a passage from the autobiography of 19th-century freed slave and abolitionist Frederick Douglas in a way that I think will be very helpful and informative for preachers. The reflection is this week's entry in a regular column commenting on the RCL readings in The Witness magazine, which is my new employer. I'm working part-time (i.e., if you've got a potential additional gig for me, please do give me a shout!) for them as the magazine's editor. I've long admired The Witness and its work as an Anglican voice for justice since 1917, and I'm particularly excited about working with them at this particular moment in history. And one other point about this week's RCL reflection at The Witness: its author is none other than my partner. Bravo, Karen!
Now, to my own reflections:
I had an interesting email exchange this week with a regular reader of the lectionary blog about an issue that a lot of us struggle with: the tension between the openness of Jesus' unconditional invitation on one hand and on the other hand, the language of judgment, of insiders and outsiders, in passages like this Sunday's gospel. I've wrestled with it a great deal myself, and while I doubt I'll solve every difficulty we've got with it, I think there's a point that's very important for us to understand as we continue to explore this tension.
Yes, Jesus invites absolutely anyone who will eat with him to come to his table. The invitation to the messianic banquet is open to all -- “the good and the bad,” in the words of Matthew 22:14. In that sense, all are invited to experience “salvation” without precondition.
But what is “salvation”? Both Jesus and Paul saw it not as merely a promise of a blessed afterlife: salvation is something that starts today, and it's about a certain kind of life — specifically, a life in community. And in both Jesus' view and Paul's, that's not just any community: it's a family. Jesus said that anyone who hears God's word and does it is his sister or brother or mother (Mark 3:35). And the metaphor Paul most often uses for what we are as the Church, for who we are in Christ, is that we are sisters and brothers (a point that the NRSV unfortunately obscures frequently by rendering adelphoi, “brothers and sisters,” as “believers” or some other ungendered term). In other words, the invitation Jesus gives us is the invitation to relationship — with one another as much as with him and with the God who created us. Jesus' invitation to us, his ragtag band of disciples from all nations, is to join God's people.
Here's one way I often put it: the invitation to join the community is issued to anyone with any manner of life. But the quality of life in the community — the extent to our life together is an experience of members of one Body of Christ and a foretaste of the kingdom of heaven come to earth now — has a direct relationship to how we choose to live together once we accept Jesus' invitation to join.
Last Sunday, we read a passage of the gospels showing how we treat one another when we're at our worst as the human race. How you'll be treated under this system is a function of two things only: how powerful you are, and how useful you are to those more powerful than you. Are you a wealthy landowner? Then act like it. Call yourself “lord,” demand what you like of those in your power, and feel free to discard people once you've used them up. Behave as though the central question governing our relationships with one another were “what have you done for me lately?”
But the coming of God's kingdom is like this: people will be going about their business in precisely the way described above ... and then the final coming of the Son of Man will reveal to everyone's eyes just how empty that way of life is, just how much pain and how little reward comes of living that way.
And that coming will reveal something else as well: just how rewarding, just how abundant and joyful life is when you live in a different way, the way of those the Son of Man designates as “sheep” in this Sunday's gospel.
I've blogged before about a game I like to play to illustrate the dynamic we see in last Sunday's gospel and this Sunday's. To play it, you set the room up for a party — punchbowls, finger foods on trays for serving, and so on. Every person in the room gets a sign taped to his or her back, reading “monarch,” “courtier,” “servant,” or “beggar.” Once everyone has a sign on his or her back, you start the party. The game is to try to guess what sign is on your back, and try to help others guess what's on theirs by treating them as you think someone whose status was what you think your sign says would treat someone whose status matched what the sign on her/his back says. If your sign says “monarch,” the vast majority of guests are going to flatter you and offer you treats; if the sign on your back says “beggar,” you're going to be treated like trash — especially if you have the nerve to act as if you were equal to others with higher status. To debrief, I invite people to share how it felt to be treated as they were, and how they felt having to treat others according to the sign on their backs. And then I pose the question:
What would it be like to live in a community, in a world, in which everyone, especially those smarting from how they're treated by others, were treated as if the sign on their back said “monarch”? What would it be like to live amongst people who treated everyone as if the sign on their back, the “secret identity” of everyone they met, said “Christ the King,” and every Christian saw their life's calling as treating people in such a way that they could guess this?
That's the invitation issued to us this Sunday. That's the vision we're called to claim as ours until it is realized for the world. Could we really allow the Christ child, the boy born as king and the one appointed by God to judge the nations, to die of malaria in infancy in Africa, knowing who this child is and just how little it would take to see him grow up and realize all he was created to be? Could we let a young girl toil away her days fetching water rather than going to school, and her family suffer when that water carries disease, if we loved Jesus as much as we say we do, if we knew what we did and didn't do for this family was what we did and didn't do for the Christ? Or do we want to experience fellowship with Christ by serving and empowering the poor, outcast, and prisoners of our world?
This invitation is not for after we die — the chance to act is gone then. It's an invitation for this moment, this day, this generation. And it's not just about avoiding punishment. What we do, the extent to which we respond to Jesus' invitation not just to come into the House of God's chosen people, but to live as one of the family, in relationship with and caring for the rest of the family as for our own flesh and as for the Body of our Lord, is the extent to which we experience eternal life, God's just and peaceful kingdom, right here and now. In Paul's words, Christ's risen life is the “first fruits,” and we are called to enjoy the full harvest of that abundant life. In Ezekiel's words, the destiny of God's people since the founding of the world is to be fed with God's justice. Do you want a taste of that? It's there for you now, as abundant as are the opportunities to exercise compassion toward the least of Jesus' sisters and brothers.
Thanks be to God!
November 16, 2005 in 1 Corinthians, Christ the King, Eschatology, Ezekiel, Inclusion, Jesus' Hard Sayings, Justice, Matthew, ONE campaign/Millennium Development Goals, Ordinary Time, Parables, Personal Notes, Prophets, Year A | Permalink | Comments (12) | TrackBack
Proper 26, Year A
You may find this entry on Luke 12:49-56 and this one on Luke 9:51-62 helpful for this week's gospel passage as well. Those passages from Luke and this Sunday's gospel all address something that most preachers these days gloss over: the conflict between "family values" as exalted in our culture and the demands of Jesus' call upon his followers.
In our culture, it's hard to imagine a circumstance in which "s/he puts family first" could be anything other than a compliment, and the more one gives in to other pressures, the more one is expected to pay lip service to ideals exalting the nuclear family, and especially the relationship between children and parents.
I'm not saying that we actually DO put family first as a society. Our government pursues policies that make it harder for families – especially poorer families – to spend quality time together. Whatever advantages we imagine welfare-to-work policies might offer, the ones we've got mean that our most vulnerable children are least likely to have an adult at home after school who could listen to them, help them with their homework, and make sure they're safe. Wealthier families suffer too; because we've abandoned public schools in so many areas, upper-middle-class parents work harder and commute farther in great anxiety that just one thing going wrong might mean they can't make the mortgage payments on the ridiculously expensive home that entitles their children to go to a decent school.
But the more we make choices that put stress on families, the more we rationalize it with rhetoric about "family values," as if our problem was that we don't TALK highly or often enough about the nuclear family.
Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach. They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them."
– Matthew 23:1-4
One problem with our talk about "family values" is that it's just that: TALK. Pontificating about the standards to which all families ought to rise makes us like the Pharisees and scribes Jesus condemns unless we act to lighten the burden for others rather than merely condemning those who don't rise to our ideal. Got a problem with out-of-wedlock births? Want to reduce abortions? There's a direct correlation between rising levels of education and reduced rates of both. Wagging fingers and punishing women or their doctors won't lighten the burden, but making sure that every neighborhood school is safe and provides quality education – and that every neighborhood in the world has a school that will receive all its children – will.
In other words, the message of this Sunday's gospel takes us back to last week's. Loving our neighbors – in poor rural counties, in our cities, and around the world – as we love our selves and our own families is not an interesting hobby to fill our spare time while we wait for a "second coming" in which most of them will be destroyed. Loving our neighbors, advocating and caring for children around the world as we would for our own children, is equal in importance to loving God; our love, lived out in action to ease others' burdens, is what determines whether our lofty speech condemns us as hypocrites or challenges us as disciples.
Here's another way of looking at it: All of that lofty rhetoric about what God intends for marriages means less than nothing if our marriages don't focus us on and empower us for what God intends for the world. If our marriages and our families make us focus solely or even first on the welfare of our own household, if our "family values" mean that we will value what helps our own family get ahead and neglect what will further God's justice in the world, we are no better than the false prophets Micah condemns, who "cry 'Peace' when they have something to eat, but declare war against those who put nothing into their mouths" (Micah 3:5). God does not value our families based on what ceremonies we did or didn't have or whether we have children, how many, and when. God values our families as God values all communities: on the extent to which they seek first God's kingdom, the extending of God's justice in the world (Matthew 6:33). It's the extent to which we do that without regard to our perception of who is friend or enemy, righteous or unrighteous (Matthew 5:43-48). And it's the extent to which we do that without regard to blood ties, who is our child, our mother, our brother.
That last point is a particular focus of this Sunday's gospel in its command – one of Jesus' most-often ignored – to "call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father — the one in heaven" (Matthew 23:9). It's one of Jesus' most radical statements. In it, Jesus releases his followers from one of the commandments that self-identified Christians have agitated to have posted in U.S. courtrooms and classrooms, namely, "honor your father and mother" (Exodus 20:12).
That's shocking, I know – so shocking that I'd wager that more time and energy has been spent arguing that Jesus didn't really mean it than teaching how upholding it can actually come as Good News for all of us.
I've heard a great many of these attempts at interpretive yoga, and I haven't seen one that works; Jesus' teaching on this point is just too clear and consistent across his career as reported in the canonical gospels. Paul understood this, and that's why in all of his advice to women and men about whether they should marry and whom – advice given in cultures in which marriages were arranged by fathers, not chosen by bride and groom – he never once suggested that they ought to get their fathers' permission, or even ask his opinion. Why would a Christian need a father's permission, if Jesus taught that Christians are not to recognize any father on earth, but only God?
The bottom line for Paul, as for Jesus, is that none of us should be treated a certain way in Christian community because of blood ties. ALL of our relationships are defined first, last, and always by our relationship as children of one God. In other words, all of us – parents and children of every nation and economic status – are sisters and brothers.
We do not honor one another on the basis of who was born to whom and in what order. We honor the poor, the mourners, the meek, the merciful, the pure in heart, the persecuted; we honor those who hunger and thirst for God's justice and who make peace in the world. Every elder who works for peace, the smallest child who longs for justice, is to be respected and lauded as the most dutiful child respects and lauds a parent. As counter-cultural as that is – as counter-intuitive as that is when we fail to sift cultural presuppositions through Jesus' teaching and example – it will come more naturally to us as we receive deeply the truth that we all are God's children, and as we seek and serve the image of Christ our mother (to use an image from Julian of Norwich) and our brother (to use St. Paul's image) in each of our sisters and brothers. As we live into that call, may God grant us the vision to recognize in every girl and boy, every woman and man, "bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh," bound together by God's grace in relationships ordered completely and solely by God's love.
Thanks be to God!