Third Sunday in Lent, Year A

Romans 5:1-11 - link to NRSV text
John 4:5-26(27-38)39-42 - link to NRSV text

If you haven't seen it before, I encourage you to check out this SarahLaughed.net reflection on the texts for this coming Sunday, the themes of which strike me as being as relevant as they were in 2005. I'm continuing to reflect on the texts, of course, and will see whether something new emerges that's worth sharing.

February 18, 2008 in Evangelism, John, Lent, Romans, Women, Year A | Permalink | Comments (2)

Trinity Sunday, Year C

If you'd like to see a previous sermon I preached on Trinity Sunday, you can find one here, and here are all my previous Trinity Sunday lectionary blog entries.

Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31
Romans 5:1-5
John 16:12-15

Some years ago, I found myself struggling with the doctrine of the Trinity. A lot of people do, I know. I responded to it in typical academic fashion: I applied for a summer research grant, and spent much of the summer studying what theologians from the ancient world to the present have to say about the Trinity. Now, when Trinity Sunday rolls around, a number of theologians rush to my memory: Jurgen Moltmann, Desmond Tutu,  Athanasius, Tertullian ... and The Simpsons.

It's true that The Simpsons never explicitly discuss the Trinity, to my knowledge, but there is one episode that often leaps to mind when I think about any of what can rightly be called the 'mysteries' of faith, and the Trinity is certainly one of them. The episode "Dead Putting Society" from Season 2 has Bart participating in a mini-golf tournament, and Lisa coaching him in Eastern philosophies and martial arts to help.

"What is the sound of one hand clapping?" Lisa asks Bart. "Piece of cake," he says, bending his fingers down to hit his palm. "No, Bart, it's a 3000-year-old riddle with no answer. it's supposed to clear your mind of conscious thought," she replies. "No answer? Lisa, listen up!" Bart fires back, still bending his fingers toward his palm.

Bart is clearly missing the point. He's after a snappy answer that makes it all make sense, that resolves the question in a way that requires no further wrestling with it. I've heard a lot of people try to do similar things with the doctrine of the Trinity. In high school (and several times since -- the latest of them being last week), I listened to someone explain the Trinity as being like H2O, which can be found as ice, water, or steam; God is one substance, like H2O, but can be found as Father, Son, or Holy Spirit. Great explanation -- makes sense, easily understood -- and an excellent example of the ancient heresy of Modalism. Orthodox Trinitarianism doesn't say that God is one person found in three forms, but that God is one Being and three distinct 'persons.'

Every illustration I've heard that makes the doctrine of the Trinity easy to understand ends up falling similarly into some ancient heresy. I actually think that most of those ancient ideas of Trinity rejected by church councils spring from the same impulse that makes preachers want to use the ice/water/steam analogy: They want to make it possible, and preferably easy, to understand the Trinity. After all, every Sunday we stand up and say "we believe" with respect to it, and it's very natural to feel uncomfortable saying, "we believe" if we don't comprehend what we're talking about.

I'm using the word "comprehend" intentionally; it's got that 'hend' root that's about grasping, about having something 'in hand,' literally or metaphorically. And like Bart opening and closing his hand rapidly to try to "solve" the 3000-year-old riddle, I think when we try to 'comprehend' the Trinity, we're missing the point. It's a mystery. It doesn't make logical sense. When we try to chase it and pin it down, we end up running around in logical circles like a dog chasing its tail. That's a process that can be fun (if dizzying) for a while, but is more frustrating than not if it's kept up for very long.

That's not what I think we're called to do with faith's mysteries. They're not something that can be grasped in one's hand or encapsulated in one brilliant analogy that leaves us comfortable or even smug in our confidence that we "get it" and therefore don't have to struggle with it any more. If we are part of God's people, we have been grafted into Israel -- the name Jacob received after his encounter with the angel as one who "wrestles with God." Any intellectual fancy footwork designed to eliminate wrestling, puzzling, and pondering and to settle all questions forever is bound to be unhelpful to a people called to "wrestle with God."

Or let me put it this way:

Most explanations of the Trinity are made to resolve questions and, in effect, end conversation. But the mysteries of our faith are, in my thinking, meant to do almost the opposite. Because they cannot be "solved," they invite conversation. Because they cannot be encapsulated and apprehended by human intellect, they inspire humility. And because they are an integral part of the faith we confess as a Body, we cannot simply say, "oh, I don't get that," and lay them aside; we are rather called together as a people to wrestle with one another as well as with God, to listen deeply to one another as well as to the saints who preceded us and to remain in that creative but sometimes uncomfortable tension that challenges us to love God with our mind as well as our heart, soul, and strength.

Our readings for this week, then, are not explanations so much as invitations. Proverbs 8 doesn't encapsulate a doctrine of the Trinity. It paints a picture of Creation taking place through a personified Wisdom that philosophers and theologians writing in Greek (such as Philo of Alexandria in the first century) called the logos. Much as John 1 poetically describes a logos through whom all things were made before declaring that this logos became flesh and dwelt among us, Proverbs shows Wisdom as God's agent in creating the world and sharing in God's joy in its goodness. Proverbs differs from John, however, in saying quite clearly that Wisdom was created by God, not "begotten," as John says; Proverbs' Wisdom is "with God," but Proverbs wouldn't say that Wisdom "was God."

Neither do our New Testament texts hand us a neatly wrapped doctrine of the Trinity. Our text from Romans presents Jesus as one through whom we have peace with God and the Holy Spirit given to us as means through which God's love is among us. John 16 shows free and full interplay between what we will eventually call persons of the Trinity: Jesus, who is the Truth, sends the Spirit who guides us into all truth, declaring to Jesus' disciples all that belongs to Jesus, which is all that belongs to the Father. But neither of these texts -- indeed, no text in the New Testament -- gives us anything quite like the "one God, three persons" articulation we see in the Nicene Creed. That formulation came after hundreds of years of searching the scriptures and wrestling with them in community, and whatever intent the emperor Constantine had for the council that produced the Nicene Creed, it certainly didn't end conversation or conflict. The wrestling went on, some of it shaming the Spirit as bishops marched against one another in war with troops of armed monks; some of it building up the Body of Christ with theological riches that still speak to the church today.

I'd say we're not done wrestling either -- not for as long as we are grafted onto 'Israel.' There are still people around trying to come up with some single formulation in a creed or a "covenant" that will resolve the questions, ending discussion that includes difference. When we say "we believe" in the creeds, we're not saying, "we've got it." This is not "Constantine (or even Athanasius) said it; I believe it; that settles it." I sometimes wish that the Greek word pistis that often gets translated as "belief" were translated (more accurately, in my opinion) as "trust." We're not saying that we've solved the mystery of the Trinity like Nancy Drew or Scooby Doo, in which all has been explained and all loose ends neatly tied up. We're saying "we trust." We trust God: the Father who created us (and I think that Mother language of God birthing the world is equally appropriate), the Wisdom made flesh to dwell among us and redeem the world, and the Spirit who, as we gather in reconciling communities, is always guiding us more deeply into truth. We trust one another as a result; if we trust the Spirit whose gives gifts to all seeking to follow Jesus, then we must trust the community of disciples in all its diversity enough to stay in relationship and keep wrestling.

God didn't give us hands, after all, so we could try to clap with one of them and show someone that we've got the answer, "piece of cake." God gave us hands so we could use them as Jesus did -- offering them to one another, healing, engaging God's mission together. God didn't give us words to end conversation, but rather sent the Word made flesh to dwell among us -- a living paradox of particularity and transcendence, of strength in weakness, of power in self-offering to empower others, of death on a cross and resurrection life for the world. And so the life of the Trinity is not a problem to be solved, but love we are called to live into, filled increasingly with God's joy and peace.

Thanks be to God!

May 30, 2007 in Christology, Community, Faith, John, Proverbs, Romans, Trinity, Wisdom Literature, Year C | Permalink | Comments (3)

Day of Pentecost, Year C

Acts 2:1-21 or Genesis 11:1-9
Romans 8:14-17 or Acts 2:1-21
John 14:8-17, (25-27)

If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be among you.

This is Jesus' promise in the gospel for this Sunday, the Day of Pentecost. Some translations render the last clause as "in you," but "among" is grammatically at least as good a translation, and it's one that I think makes much better sense theologically.

After all, what are Jesus' "commandments" in the Gospel According to John? The word "commandment" is used ten times in the Gospel According to John. Once (in John 11:57), it is a "commandment" (or "order") from certain Pharisees to report Jesus' whereabouts that he might be arrested. In John 10:18, 12:49-50, and once of the two times the word appears in John 15:10, the word refers to a command from the Father, in each of these cases a command from the Father to Jesus. So if we want to know what Jesus means in the Gospel According to John when, in John 14, he talks about "my commandments" to be kept by disciples, we should look at the remaining times the word "commandment" appears in John, in the same extended discourse:

John 13:34-35 -- "I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another."

John 15:9-12 -- "As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love ... This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you."

I have thought often of these words and others like them over the past few years, as painful conflict has led many people in my life and in communities I've worked in to question whether we (and everyone thinks of "we" in different ways, including and excluding different groups) might really be better off making a stand with like-minded others and forgetting about the rest. I'm not talking about blithe disregard for others, but of a position born of some combination of pain and principle -- a position a lot of us find ourselves in, or sometimes think we're in, in which we're struggling honestly with how we can live with integrity and also live with these others.

There are a plethora of reasons we need one another. When I think about God's mission in the world -- the audacious vision of a world transformed by God's love in Christ, a world in which poverty and war are unknown and every child has the chance to live and grow and make use of her or his gifts from God, and world in which God's love finds flesh in every relationship in God's Creation -- I can't imagine saying that anyone's gifts are dispensable for realizing such an encompassing vision.

But this Sunday's gospel makes clear something even more basic than that. It's simply not possible to follow Jesus on our own; we need one another -- ALL of us. It's not possible to keep Jesus' command to love others if we're living in some metaphorical cave, isolated from those we are commanded to love.

Somehow, though, I can't imagine anyone being really inspired to love -- especially to stay in loving relationship with others even when that's difficult or painful* -- by a finger-wagging admonition to OBEY THE COMMANDMENT.

That's not all we've got by a long stretch, though. We've got the Spirit, the person of the Trinity we focus on particularly on the Day of Pentecost.

The Spirit is closely tied not only in John, but also in the Luke/Acts and Paul's writings, with love for one another in Christian community. When I say "love," I'm not talking about warm and fuzzy feelings for people. Take a look at Acts 2, when the Spirit comes upon those gathered in Jerusalem for Pentecost. These people didn't even speak the same language; they hardly could have imposed a test of doctrinal or political orthodoxy on one another. But they gathered anyway. We tend all too often to think of the order of things as "we come to agreement, and then the Spirit comes," or at least "we know the Spirit has come among us when we have come to agreement," but that's not how it happens in Acts 2. The Spirit is not hanging out in the heavens saying, "oh, now THAT looks like an amazingly well-organized and harmonious gathering, with everyone looking at things in the same way; I think I'll go there." The room in which the believers are gathered when the Spirit comes upon the gathering probably sounded at least superficially rather like Babel -- and THAT is where the divided tongues of the Spirit unite those gathered in an astonishing reversal of Babel.

Is that so surprising? There were, after all, some important differences between the Christians gathered at Pentecost and the builders at Babel. It may sound odd at first that Babel, where everyone speaks the same language and all are united in a common enterprise, is where humanity is divided, while Pentecost, where people don't speak the same language, let alone think in the same ways, is where the Spirit unites the people. And it certainly sounds odd to many -- especially to some of us Anglicans who value all done 'decently and in order' -- that the effect of the Spirit could lead to such turmoil -- women and slaves and young men speaking up alongside the elders who could take their voice for granted in a patriarchal culture -- that onlookers would think that all were drunk.

And that isn't the half of it. This isn't just a particularly raucous worship service from which everyone goes home scratching their heads and everything resumes as it was in the morning. People are baptized, and as we remember in our Baptismal Covenant, "they devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of the bread and the prayers," and "all who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need" (Acts 2:42-45). Acts 4 makes the tie between the Spirit's work even clearer. I've written both in The Witness and here (among other places) on SarahLaughed.net about the conjunction missing in most English bibles' translation of Acts 4:32-35, which I'm putting in boldface below:

Now the whole group of those who trusted were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possession, but everything they owned was held in common. With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all, for there was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles' feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.

And that's just the kind of turmoil -- that radical change in behavior that makes a radical change in the world -- that characterizes the Spirit's work. That's how people divided at Babel become one in the Spirit. In other words, we experience the power of Jesus' resurrection and great grace when we love one another -- not just by holding hands and singing "Cumbaya," but with deeds showing real love. We all love our children, and none of us would choose to allow our own children to grow up in extreme poverty -- without clean water, sufficient and good food, decent medical care, or the basic education to be able to make their way in the world -- just so we could hold on to an extra one percent of our income. Who could do that to their children and call themselves a loving parent? So I have to ask the question: can we say that we "love one another" as Christians in an increasingly small world when we do that to someone else's child, whether on the next block or another continent? Can we say that if we hold on to our money OR fail to lift our voice when just ONE percent more of the wealthiest countries' wealth would more than eliminate extreme poverty by the year 2015? Or let me put it this way:

Personally, I am energized by the vision of a world without extreme poverty; nothing that could happen at Lambeth 2008 excites me as much as thinking about the celebration that could happen at Lambeth 2016 -- the celebrations that could happen all over the world -- in a world in which extreme poverty is history. Think of the power to which we could testify to Jesus' resurrection, the stories we could tell of new life, having engaged in God's compassionate mission and seen such a wonder. Do we want to know Jesus? Do we want to experience the joy and the peace, the freedom from fear and worry, the power of the Spirit that gives us new life and new life to the world? Then we know what to do: we follow Jesus, and love one another as he loves us. I'm just one person, but I am one person who is part of the one Body of Christ. I am one with children in extreme poverty, and I am one with many even more privileged and powerful than I am. And the Spirit who makes us one is calling us to gather -- in all of our diversity of language and culture and thought and experience, in our riches and our poverty -- to love as Jesus loves.

Thanks be to God!


* I want to be absolutely clear: I am NOT talking about someone continuing to live in a setting of domestic physical, sexual, or emotional abuse. If you're being abused, please GET OUT and get help as soon as you possibly can; any healing or reconciliation that could happen needs to start with your safety. I'm talking about staying in community when there's serious and painful conflict.

(Click here to return to the reflection.)

May 25, 2007 in Acts, Community, Current Events, Evangelism, Genesis, Holy Spirit, John, Justice, ONE campaign/Millennium Development Goals, Pentecost, Power/Empowerment, Year C | Permalink | Comments (0)

Seventh Sunday of Easter, Year C

Acts 16:16-34
Psalm 97
Revelation 22:12-14, 16-17, 20-21
John 17:20-26

In this Sunday's gospel, Jesus asks that "those will believe in me through (the disciples') word" "may all be one." He asks that we may also "be in us" (Jesus and the Father) as the Father is in Jesus and Jesus in the Father, "so that the world may believe" that the Father sent Jesus.

That seems like a very tall order indeed, doesn't it? It may seem especially so in these days of headlines about schism and ecclesial invasions and traded accusations of heresy. Some use Jesus' words from this Sunday's gospel as a finger-wagging warning -- "Jesus said we were to be 'completely one,' so who are you to step out of line?" I know that when this passage is read, some will sigh. How could Jesus' motley and feuding followers around the world not sigh when thinking about the distance between Jesus' words here and what we see around us?

We forget amidst those sighs that the words of this Sunday's gospel come not as marching orders delivered by Jesus to disciples, but as a prayer of Jesus to the Father. In other words, the unity -- the communion -- that we share is God's gift. Jesus asks God to grant it, not us to create it. If we doubt our own abilities to achieve unity with one another in Christ -- and well we should -- we can be confident that God will answer Jesus' prayer. Unity in Christ is not a medal to be won, nor is it a negotiated settlement achieved by some at the expense of others. It is a gift flowing freely to and through us out of God's grace.

In other words, this is GOOD news, word at which our hearts can leap all the more with wonder when we recognize how deep the brokenness is that God is healing and reconciling in Christ. It's a word that is Good News not just for "my side" or my tribe, but for everyone.

Not that it initially appears that way to everyone. We were born into a complicated network of relationships in a broken world, and by action and inaction we continue on as if anything of importance was a zero-sum game: The rich get richer and the poor get poorer. Good survives and thrives only when evildoers are punished or killed. The news that the oppressed will be liberated can only be bad news for the oppressors; the actors switch roles, but the script stays the same.

In that world, a slave girl's freedom from the powers that enslaved her is bad news for those who benefitted from her enslavement. They demand that Paul and Silas be jailed for "disturbing our city" -- as indeed the two missionaries were doing. What God did through Paul and Silas upended the relationships of slave and master, socially as well as spiritually. But what if the slaveowners had received this change as a gift? What Good News might they have experienced had they received this disruption of the old relationship of slave and master as an opportunity and an invitation to experience a new kind of relationship -- indeed, a new kind of freedom? Paul's and Silas' jailer did, and the night of an earthquake and a prison break became the night that he and his family became sisters and brothers with the former prisoners, breaking bread and rejoicing.

It's a powerful set of stories from Acts we read this Sunday, in which injustice and imprisonment give way to healing, reconciliation, and joy. These came as God's gifts, given freely, as all God's gifts are. Paul and Silas responded to grace by extending grace, freeing the slave girl, singing in their cell, and, when their jailer appeared to be ready to respond to grace as well, receiving him as a brother. Along the way, we witness powerful signs: miraculous liberation from spiritual and literal imprisonment, Baptism, the breaking of bread.

It's a pattern that repeats itself around the world as the Spirit moves among communities: God's grace in healing and reconciling moves a grateful receiver of God's gift to extend that grace to others in turn. We celebrate that grace, remembering God's work among God's people and embracing the identity that is ours in Baptism: one Body of Christ, called to Christ's ministry. God's mission of reconciliation, of making visible and tangible the unity God has given Christ's Body and is giving the world God created, is not something we engage as reluctant employees who grimaced when we got the memo; it is the natural response of those already made sisters and brothers by God's work in Christ.

The Spirit and the bride say, "Come."
And let everyone who hears say, "Come."
And let everyone who is thirsty come.
Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift.
The one who testifies to these things says, "Surely I am coming soon."
Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!
The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all the saints. Amen.

And thanks be to God!

May 17, 2007 in Acts, Easter, John, Reconciliation, Revelation, Year C | Permalink | Comments (2)

Sixth Sunday of Easter, Year C

Acts 16:9-15
Revelation 21:10, 22-22:5

John 14:23-29

O God, you have prepared for those who love you such good things as surpass our understanding: Pour into our hearts such love towards you, that we, loving you in all things and above all things, may obtain your promises, which exceed all that we can desire; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

That's the collect we pray this Sunday. We ask God to "pour into our hearts such love towards you, that we, loving you in all things and above all things, may obtain your promises, which exceed all that we can desire." It's language of abundance -- such abundance that it can't help but overflow, and powerfully.

It reminds me of the story of the calling of the first disciples in Luke 5:1-11. Poor fishers who were haunted each day by a single question -- Will I catch enough fish today to feed my family and myself? -- meet Jesus, and catch such an abundance of fish that it actually threatens to swamp the boat. In a moment, the guiding question in these fishers' lives has changed from "Will I catch enough fish to survive?" to "Can I gather enough people to help take in this abundance?" That's what it means that in becoming disciples, they became "fishers of people." There is such abundance in God's love for us and God's blessings in our lives that once we see it and begin to understand its limitlessness, our priorities shift quite naturally. If we know Jesus, we know that there is enough of everything we really need -- enough love, enough blessing, enough courage and joy and peace -- that we can't actually take it in if we're stuck in a model of competing with others for the goods; we understand that these overwhelming blessings can only be taken in if we call in everyone whom God calls -- and who isn't in that number?

Luke has this story at the start of Jesus' public ministry; it explains what Jesus' earliest followers experienced that made them not just willing, but eager to leave everything to follow him. John places his version of this story after Jesus' resurrection (John 21:1-19), and this Easter season, it strikes me as an appropriate place to tell it. In Jesus' ministry in Galilee, powerful things were accomplished; the blind saw, those oppressed by powers were freed, the poor received Good News, and the rich were challenged to join in solidarity with these outcasts to experience God's healing, reconciliation, and liberation.

And at this point, I'm reminded of the Passover song: Dayenu, "It would have been sufficient." Jesus' ministry prior to his crucifixion was powerful, astonishing, liberating. When I pause to take in all that meant, I want to say, "It would have been enough." But it was more. Everything sinful about humankind put Jesus on a Roman cross, and even as he suffered that, he was speaking words of forgiveness and blessing. It would have been enough.

But the glory of the Easter season is that this wasn't the end, or anywhere near it. The God of Israel raised Jesus from the dead and set him at God's right hand; we know now that the Jesus who showed us such immeasurable love and forgiveness is the one who will judge us -- and if that isn't a liberating word, I don't know what is. It would have been enough.

And yet there's more, another astonishing, miraculous, immeasurable abundance of blessing to come. Jesus is sending the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, as an ongoing presence to teach us all things. No human being could be such a tutor, but God's Spirit walking with us is, teaching us both to recognize how Jesus gives -- not "as the world," but with limitless generosity, limitless love, and with limitless blessings to impart -- and to empower us to give more and more as Jesus does.

You may have heard the old joke: "She lives for others. You can tell who the others are by the hunted expression on their faces." I've seen something like that a great deal in churches especially -- people who are in pain that they take as a call to martyrdom. They minister out of their pain in ways that spread it; they take the misery they feel as confirmation that they're on the right path, and the misery that others experience as a result (and often send back in the form of anger) as the inevitable persecution of the righteous. But look at the kind of dynamic in our readings for this Sunday.

Lydia, a dealer in purple cloth -- the imperial color, rare and very expensive -- may have thought she was rich before she knew Jesus. God opens her heart, and she knows how rich she really is and what it's for; she "prevails upon" her brothers and sisters in Christ to enjoy her hospitality.

Jesus' Revelation to John gives a vision of the holy city of God's redemption. By conventional reckonings, it would be the poorest of cities -- no temple, no gates keeping invaders out, no aqueducts, no lamps. It is the poorest of cities by conventional measures because those measures are utterly irrelevant in the economy of God's kingdom. God's presence and God's light are everywhere; people bring in not weapons but glory and honor; the very water of life flows from God's throne and from the Lamb through the city.

That's the dynamic of abundance we are called to take in this Sunday, and every day in the life God gives us. When Jesus says, "those who love me will keep my word," it's not a whiny attempt to guilt people into doing something that they ought to do because there's no joy in the task to motivate them. He is expressing that dynamic of God's abundance: not, "those who love me ought to keep my word, or I'll be really cross and you'll feel even worse," but a declarative statement of how it is to live in Christ: when we love Jesus, we DO keep his word -- and it's worth underscoring that his word, especially in John, is to love one another.

It is, of course more than that -- much more. But the "more" isn't the 'catch' of what otherwise would be an appealing offer; it's the "more" of God's abundance. The journey we're on to learn about that, to take it increasingly in and live it increasingly out, will stretch us. We need to be stretched, as finite creatures learning to live into God's infinite love. I'm not saying that it's all fun and games; such a process of stretching can be painful. But in the light of God's abundant love, that pain is transformed; it becomes the ache one feels after waking up in darkness, barely knowing where you are, and opening the curtains to see that you're in the most gorgeous surroundings and witnessing in a moment the most indescribably gorgeous of sunrises -- something so exquisite that you gasp. Do you know what I mean?

The aches of the world in the context of God's love -- and please believe me, I've felt them -- can become something of astonishing beauty in the context of God's love. That aching moment is a moment of glimpsing redemption -- all the more beautiful for knowing that it is a moment of transformation, not eternal, but showing something of the Eternal nonetheless.

That's the feeling I have when I gasp at a sunrise. It's a feeling I get when I see a moment of transformation in a human life -- of someone who was told by too many for too long that she is worthless finding her voice, her power, and a sense that she is of more worth than human beings can measure; of someone who was told that having made this mistake, he would forever be outside community and beyond grace find his feet and seeking in honest humility to be a part of what God is doing in the world. It's the feeling I have when I look at another human being -- even when I use the imagination and compassion God gave me to put faces and names to statistics in the newspaper -- and am willing to see their suffering and to care about it with God's love, which goes far beyond my ability or even my comprehension.

In those moments, I understand a little more what an Advocate is; I know a little more of the one who walks with me as I seek to follow Jesus. It's such a gift that I can't help but feel grateful, and I can't help but pray to be an instrument of that grace I experience. It's love. It's peace. It's freedom. It's power. And it comes in such abundance that I wonder even now who I could invite that I'm missing, how I could gather community to take in even the smallest fraction of that limitless grace, love, and peace. It seems too much -- but I have an Advocate to help me on the journey.

Thanks be to God!

May 10, 2007 in Acts, Call Narratives, Discipleship, Easter, Holy Spirit, John, Love, Luke, Power/Empowerment, Year C | Permalink | Comments (0)

Fourth Sunday of Easter, Year C

Acts 9:36-43 - link to NRSV text
Revelation 7:9-17
- link to NRSV text
John 10:22-30
- link to NRSV test

"I give (my sheep) eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand. What my Father has given me is greater than all else, and no one can ever snatch it out of the Father's hand. The Father and I are one."
    -- John 10:28-30

John 10:30 -- "The Father and I are one" -- gets quoted in isolation from its context a great deal -- and not just by Sunday Schoolers looking for another short verse to memorize after "Jesus wept" (John 11:5). Ripped out of its context in John, "the Father and I are one" gets used in lots of contexts that make it sound like a dogmatic formula on something like a pre-flight checklist for those who want to go to heaven. But really, it's Good News.

Think of it this way, as I'd wager John's earliest readers did: Jesus' saying "the Father and I are one" is saying that if you want to know what God is doing in the world, look at what Jesus does. If you want to know how God treats sinners and outcasts, look at how Jesus treats them.

There is one more dimension to what John is saying in John 10:30, and it's a rather difficult one. I often find reading John uncomfortable. It was written by a community that was experiencing serious and sometimes life-threatening persecution, and it seeks to comfort those who were cast out by their communities, with the cost not only of feeling of alienation, but with the loss of honor and of community itself that left many members of the Johannine community destitute -- if not fearing for their lives from those who would turn them in to to Roman authorities as disturbing the peace. Such circumstances make for a "circle the wagons" mentality -- which makes indications in the Gospel According to John of concern for "the world" all the more remarkable for their rarity.

In other words, something that I think needs to be kept in mind in reading nearly any chapter of the Gospel According to John is that this is the testimony of a community under the pressure of persecution. And under these circumstances in particular, "the Father and I are one" is crucial testimony to the community under persecution -- persecution for behaving as Jesus did -- that they are received by God with grace, love, and rich blessing, even as "the world" tells them that they are abominations behaving abominably.

In other words, we cannot read John 10 without the context of John 9 and John 11.

James Allison has written eloquently about the ways in which John 9's healing of the man born blind shows the Johannine community's revelation of Jesus as one who redefines what it means to be sinful, to be born in sin, or to be marginalized as one assumed to be particularly tainted with sin. What the priestly tradition in scripture condemned as being unworthy to be received in God's presence, the prophetic tradition in scripture affirmed by Jesus proclaims as the beloved recipient of an uncontainable God's grace.

John 11 is about to give us an even stronger image of just how strong, how unyielding God's gift of life in Christ Jesus is -- how it radiates even into the grace. It's an image worth citing now, as the memory of the tragedy of blood shed at Virginia Tech is still fresh in our minds, as we're still asking ourselves where God is in the midst of the loss of innocent life.

Please remember that this question, the question on the hearts of so many after this loss as after so many and so great losses, was live on the minds of those early Christians who wrote what we read today.

Their friends were carted away. Their sons and daughters and sisters and brothers and mothers and fathers lost their lives. And still, as our rites of burial call on us to join, they sing even from the grave:

Alleluia!

Alleluia. For the Lord is present and the God who created the universe is at work then, and now, and in countless moments to come, as one woman or man or one community of women and men does what Jesus did and declares what Jesus declared.

And while there are religious people in religious attire who will religiously declare that this person, this place, or this situation is beyond God's redemption, God's people will yet sing:

Alleluia!

Alleluia -- God is bringing life to every desolate place.

Alleluia -- God calls as prophets even those who would seek to flee over the seas from God's call.

Alleluia -- in the midst of senseless death, on the road to the grave before which Jesus wept, Jesus tells us a truth that should give those of us who hope in him inexhaustible hope, courage, and life:

Jesus and the Father are one.

In other words, the Father -- the God who created the universe, the ultimate patriarch of those who value patriarchal authority as well as the ultimate love of the ultimately loving, motherly presence, is as Jesus is, is doing as Jesus is doing, is bound as Jesus is bound, and liberates as Jesus liberates.

Oh God, may your Church realize the destiny to which that faithful declaration leads!

The Father, the creator of the universe, and Jesus of Nazareth are one. Those who would measure humanity by the measure of God now must now wonder in the utter vulnerability of the Christ who exhorts us all to measure God by the life of God's Christ, God's anointed -- Jesus of Nazareth, who spat in the mud, wept for his friend, forgave the adulteress and pointed to the absence yet did not demand punishment for the adulterer. Jesus of Nazareth, who, to all canonical reports, never in his life refused to break bread with anyone -- prostitute or Pharisee, doubter or stumbling disciple, inquirer or persecutor.

Jesus, who brings new life to those who are dead as well as those who are dying.

Jesus, who will gather multitudes and cleanse them at the last day.

Jesus, from whom no evil force can snatch those who are beloved.

And please, if you are listening and are in any doubt, listen to this:

Jesus and the Father, the God who created the universe, are one.

Jesus, who is one with that God, is calling you and loves you.

There may be people who say that the world isn't made for people like you and is stacked against you. Those people are full of what the King James translators rendered as "manure."

If Jesus and God are one, than God is every bit as indiscriminately loving as Jesus was. Fundamentalists might wave bibles at you all the time. Fine. Read it! Jesus broke bread with, healed, and loved people who were at least as much on the 'outs' in their culture as you are in ours.

If Jesus and God are one, than God doesn't give any more of a rodent's posterior than Jesus did who you parents were, how pure you are, are how well you're esteemed in any number of other measures of a person's worth that our culture might offer.

Jesus cares about something else. God cares about something else.

God, like Jesus, cares about YOU. God, through Christ, has given you gifts through which you can participate in the ultimate destiny of the world -- the saving of the world through the love of God in God's anointed.

God, like Jesus, through Jesus, in Jesus, invites you, anoints you, offers you a life that is part and parcel of the new life of a risen world in the Risen Christ.

Dorcas, God's servant, received it. John, God's visionary, foresaw it. You, God's beloved, can experience it.

Thanks be to God!

April 28, 2007 in Acts, Conversion, Current Events, Easter, John, Redemption, Year C | Permalink | Comments (1)

Great Vigil of Easter and Easter Day principal service, Year C

There's a Franciscan fourfold blessing that I have long loved, the fourth blessing of which is this:

May God bless you with enough foolishness to believe that you really can make a difference in this world, so that you are able, with God's grace, to do what others claim cannot be done.

I think often of that blessing when I'm preaching, especially on texts like the Beatitudes and other difficult passages in the "Sermon on the Mount." Who really lives that way? Who honors the poor more than the rich? Who honors those who are reviled in society above the respectable people who judge them? Which of our parishes or other communities have shared our resources one another freely so that no one is "anxious about tomorrow"? Whom among us really cares for others' children as we do our own, as we would if we took seriously Jesus' saying that his family consists of not of those related by blood or marriage, but of those who "hear the word of God and do it"?

I remember one man in particular at one parish where I preached regularly who particularly enjoyed my sermons, but who almost always had a bit of a wry grin as he shook my hand to say so. When I asked him about the grin, he usually grinned a little wider, shook his head gently, and said with some affection something like, "What you say is very inspiring. But you're talking about how things are going to be in heaven, and we've got to be realistic here on earth." When pressed for more, he'd talk about how one can't really have a policy of turning the other cheek or forgiving others as God forgives us as long as there are criminals and terrorists around. He'd say that there wasn't much point in trying to address extreme poverty in Africa until all governments there were free of corruption. There was always a long list of things that would have to happen first on earth before we could live as Jesus lived and taught his followers to live -- a list that added up to, "Sure, we'll do all of that -- in God's kingdom. Until we're there, living this way would be foolish in the extreme."

I imagine that there were some folks inclined toward a similar kind of 'realism' among Jesus' earliest followers. I imagine that among the crowds at Jesus' sermons, there were many who heard what he said with great joy, but who almost without thinking laid assumptions around the message:

"Yes, that's how it will be -- once we rid the land of Roman oppressors."

"Absolutely -- when a son of David rules again from David's throne in Jerusalem, he'll make sure the poor are fed."

"I long for that day -- our enemies will be defeated once and for all, and then we can live in peace."

"I believe that all nations will know and worship God, once the evildoers are gone and the rest have embraced the whole Torah."

And what a glorious day, the Day of the Lord, when all of God's promises to God's people can be fulfilled, when God answers the prayer that Jesus taught us: "your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven"!

The Great Vigil of Easter is my favorite service of the liturgical year, I think, in part because of the way its journey through salvation history, through God's creating, loving, and redeeming God's people, renews my hope and anticipation of God's answering fully and finally that prayer. What a vision!

Ho, everyone who thirsts,
come to the waters;
and you that have no money,
come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
without money and without price.
Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread,
and your labor for that which does not satisfy?
Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good,
and delight yourselves in rich food.
Incline your ear, and come to me;
listen, so that you may live.
I will make with you an everlasting covenant,
my steadfast, sure love for David.
See, I made him a witness to the peoples,
a leader and commander for the peoples.
See, you shall call nations that you do not know,
and nations that do not know you shall run to you,
because of the LORD your God, the Holy One of Israel,
for he has glorified you.
(Isaiah 55:1-11)

That's one of my favorite passages in scripture, expressing longings that I think we experience in the twenty-first century with as much intensity as God's people did in the sixth century BCE.

Everyone has the basic necessities of bread and milk and even the wine for celebration; none need be anxious, and all are satisfied.

There are no enemies to fear among the nations. I don't know if you sometimes have the feeling I do just before I pick up a newspaper -- that distant feeling of "what now?" dread -- but that feeling has become a distant memory, as people of all nations rush to embrace, not to attack.

I love the opportunity the Great Vigil gives us to spend time rolling texts like this over our tongues to take in their richness, to close our eyes for a moment to enter into the prophets' vision of the world's redemption. There is no better preparation to receive the Good News of Easter that God has raised Christ Jesus from the dead.

Especially in cultures as individualistic as mine, I think it's often too easy to miss the ways in which this Easter message is Good News for the whole world. The Good News of Easter is not just "Jesus rose from the dead, so we too can live after we die," as numerous mystery religions of the Roman world promised through their gods. And it's worth remembering that Jesus' resurrection isn't the first resurrection in the gospels; God's power raised others, such as Lazarus, before.

But Jesus' resurrection is different. It's not different only because Jesus won't die again, as Lazarus will. The way St. Paul put it in 1 Corinthians 15 is that Jesus' resurrection is "the first fruits" of Creation's end, or telos. "End" can mean quite different things in English, as telos can in Greek. It can mean a final stopping. It can mean death. And when we use the phrase "the end of the world," that's usually the kind of "end" we have in mind -- we're talking about destruction and death. But that's not what Paul is talking about when he talks about Christ's resurrection as the "first fruits" of a harvest that includes "the end." Paul is talking about the fulfillment of our hope in Christ, as Christ fully and finally delivers the kingdom, putting an end to every oppressive power and principality, everything that held the world back from its telos of joy, love, peace, and freedom.

Jesus' ministry up to his death on the Cross -- his healing, forgiving, teaching, breaking bread with any who would eat with him, and gathering a community who would continue these practices in remembrance of him -- was a series of early installments of the telos of the world that God promises -- God's kingdom, where Isaiah's vision is fulfilled, come and God's will done on earth as it is in heaven. When Jesus was crucified, dying a death considered shameful, nearly all who heard of it would have thought of it as putting an end to Jesus, to his movement, to hope in him as the Christ. Nearly all would have seen it as proof positive that Jesus was wrong about what God wanted from humanity, wrong in saying that his gathering and blessing the impure and outcast was God's action, wrong about all of those outrageous teachings that preachers today try to explain away.

But then the God of Israel raised Jesus from the dead. The resurrection of the righteous that some expected at the end has started NOW, and everything that Jesus said about and did to bring about God's kingdom has been affirmed by the righteous judgment of the God who raised him.

As R.E.M. would say, it's the end of the world as we know it -- and I feel fine. Creation's telos -- the love, joy, peace, and freedom for which the world was made -- starts NOW. Perhaps my friend is right that Jesus' way of life can only be lived by the rest of us in God's kingdom, but in Jesus' ministry -- now the ministry of the Risen Christ -- God's kingdom starts NOW. It starts among us. It starts wherever two or three gather in Jesus' name to live into the reality of Jesus' work in the world.

Of course, I'm not saying that everything that's going to happen to bring Creation to its telos has already happened. A person could figure that much out with a newspaper, if Paul's letters weren't at hand. But the Good News of Easter is reason enough to toss our list of things that have to happen before we can experience God's kingdom among us -- before we can live into the way of Jesus -- and invest the energy we formerly devoted to making such lists to look for the Risen Christ and his work in the world. As Paul wrote:

Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin. For whoever has died is freed from sin. But if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. The death he died, he died to sin, once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.
(Romans 6:3-11)

God has raised Jesus from the dead, and NOW -- not in some distant future or in some other world -- those of us Baptized into Christ's Body have been freed from slavery to sin, and are free to live with Christ in the way of Christ. The first fruits have been gathered in, and a more plentiful harvest is ripening. Tell everyone the Good News -- as St. Francis would say, using words if necessary. We have the opportunity to participate in the spread of God's kingdom in ways more powerful than words -- in doing justice, in proclaiming peace, in embracing the outcast, in treating the most vulnerable among God's children with the care we'd give our own flesh and blood. God has in Easter given us all the proof we need that the time has come:

Christ is risen!

Alleluia! And thanks be to God!

April 6, 2007 in 1 Corinthians, Easter, Eschatology, Inclusion, Isaiah, John, Justice, Kinship/Family, Luke, ONE campaign/Millennium Development Goals, Resurrection, Romans, Year C | Permalink | Comments (1)

Maundy Thursday, Year C

Exodus 12:1-4, (5-10), 11-14 - link to NRSV text
1 Corinthians 11:23-26 - link to NRSV text
John 13:1-17, 31b-35 - link to NRSV text

I've often heard people say that it's through Jesus' death that we find new life through forgiveness for sin. I believe that's true, but it's only part of the truth; too often, we neglect to consider how Jesus' LIFE helps us to find forgiveness and life. Our readings for Maundy Thursday are a helpful corrective.

They are, of course, more than that. I'd call them solemn and even frightening. Passover is my favorite holiday in any tradition. Like many holidays, it is a feast with friends and family, but I particularly appreciate the intentionality of Passover as an occasion for storytelling, for remembrance, and particularly for remembrance of God's liberation of God's people. But one can't go through the stories of Passover without encountering a great deal of blood. Waters turned to blood. The loss of life in plagues of flood and famine. Worst yet, the story of every firstborn son of Egypt dying. A household anointing doorposts with lamb's blood on that night would do so with an awe tinged with dread at God's power to protect and the horror of what would befall others.

I have no glib, feel-good explanation to take away that horror. I feel the same temptation to come up with one that many people I know feel, but I pray to resist it. Celebration of Passover calls on God's people not just to celebrate liberation from slavery, but the horrors of slavery, of the desire to enslave, and to remember not only God's graciousness in delivering the Hebrews, in giving the Torah, in forming a people to be a light to all nations, but also the terrible losses, the grief of those who loved a son touched by death's angel or swallowed in the Sea of Reeds. Indeed, some Passover haggadot present the bitter herbs dipped in salt water as a call to grieve on behalf of the Egyptians lost, a call to pray for oppressors and enemies.

And so it is no coincidence that on Maundy Thursday we remember the Passover in Egypt as well as Jesus' last night before he died. Christian tradition invests Jesus with prophetic insight, but it wouldn't have taken a miracle for Jesus to know that he would die soon. He had participated in a very public demonstration mocking the triumphal processions of Rome. He had caused a public disturbance in the midst of massive crowds of pilgrims at the Temple, and in full view of Roman troops stationed in nearby buildings in positions above the Temple's walls. Roman governors didn't tolerate that kind of rabble-rousing, and certainly not during the Passover, when the thronged pilgrims -- a crowd made all the more volatile as they celebrated deliverance from oppressors -- posed a constant threat to public order. Do what Jesus did the rest of the week, and unless you've got some serious guerilla forces to take you to the hills, you're likely to end up where Jesus most likely knew he was headed.

Because he wasn't heading for the hills. Nor was he assembling an army. On this night, the night of his betrayal, the last night before he was to die, he was heading only to supper, assembling those with whom he had traveled -- friends, followers, and one who was to hand him over, and none of whom (especially in John's portrayal) save perhaps for the 'beloved disciple' and Mary, who anointed his feet (to whom we shall return soon).

As someone well schooled in how different Jesus' culture, and hence, his outlook, was from mine, I try not to psychologize, but I sometimes think that his were in some ways the loneliest hours of Jesus' life. On what we call Good Friday, he hangs on the cross in great suffering -- public suffering. Deserted by nearly all who called themselves friends or followers, he was seen and known by a few, who also saw his suffering and grieved and suffered with him, as he grieves and suffers with the suffering among us now. But on Maundy Thursday, Jesus "knew his hour had come" when no one else on earth could quite understand. Did the chatter and laughter of his friends comfort or anger him, I wonder? And even if some of it comforted him, John tells us that Jesus knew one of his companions present would betray him.

What Jesus does, then, is astonishing. He takes off his robe, wraps himself as a towel like a slave, and washes the feet of his companions. A student sits at the teacher's feet, not the teacher at the student's. That's not the half of it, though. If you've watched Monty Python's Quest for the Holy Grail or Life of Brian lately, you've gotten a pretty decent and graphic picture of what ancient streets were like. Most people dumped their garbage -- any and all kinds of waste people generate -- in the streets. People walked through it. When they arrived for dinner, and especially with the custom of reclining to dine, rather than our sitting on chairs at covered tables -- all of that skubalon, to use Paul's word from Philippians 3, which we read a couple of weeks ago -- would be washed off by the lowliest person in the household. I'm going to put it crudely: Jesus isn't too good for our crap; he puts up with it and cleanses the lowliest, shittiest stuff that clings to us.

And more. I wrote a couple of weeks ago about how, in Jesus' culture, hands and feet represented intentional action, how Mary's anointing Jesus' feet anointed Jesus' deeds. When Jesus washes his disciples' feet, he is also cleansing their actions in a very graphic, memorable, tactile demonstration of forgiveness. He even washes the feet of his betrayer, whom, we are told, he already know will betray him, and with whom he breaks bread in the bit of text the Revised Common Lectionary cuts out between verse 17 and verse 35. Washing feet and breaking bread: this is Jesus' behavior toward his betrayer, his clueless friends, and his stumbling followers on the last night before he died.

Do this in remembrance of him.

That's what we do.

Every time we celebrate the Eucharist, that's what we do. We gather in front of Jesus' table, and before our supper, we forgive and are forgiven; we exchange the peace (in a wonderful echo of Matthew 5:23-24 as well as the passage from John we read for Maundy Thursday). In other words, we meet Jesus. CEO or homeless beggar are the same to him, as he meets us where we are, and goes straight to where we've picked up the most shit from our journey there. We let him do that; we let it go. He cleanses us, and when we greet one another -- CEO or beggar, zealot or traitor, and all of us in between -- we recognize one another as human beings whom Jesus has cleansed. We go with clean feet, hands, and hearts to his table, to break bread with him and with one another.

As I was exploring the last time I was honored to proclaim Good News in a church on Maundy Thursday, when most of us think about what we'd do if we knew this was the last night before our death, we think about what is core to who we are -- the intersection of what gives us the deepest joy and what we think is most important. On the last night before he died, I think Jesus did that too. And what he did was what I've described above. It wasn't all that different from what he did throughout his ministry; that's one of the many reasons we say that Jesus was the perfect human being, Incarnating God and living his full humanity in God's image. Jesus lived out who he was fully. He lived this full and eternal life on every night -- including and especially this night we remember on Maundy Thursday. Was he angry? Was he terrified? Was he lonely? I have no way of knowing, of course; I've just got the same texts you've got, and the gospels are anything but modern biography concerned with interior states. What I do know is that when Jesus had every reason to feel all of those things, he stayed with the community -- including his betrayer -- and cleansed, and cared, and forgave, and broke bread.

What would our lives, our churches, our denominations, our nations, our world be like if we were to embrace and express our humanity in God's image as Jesus did? What would our lives in all of these dimensions be like if every time we broke bread, or every time we met someone and their shit from the journey, we lived as Jesus lived?

Do this. Do this and remember.

Thanks be to God!

April 3, 2007 in 1 Corinthians, Exodus, Forgiveness, Healing, Holy Week, Humility, John, Matthew, Passover, Purity, Reconciliation, Year C | Permalink | Comments (1)

Fifth Sunday in Lent, Year C

Isaiah 43:16-21 - link to NRSV text

Philippians 3:4b-14 - link to NRSV text

John 12:1-8 - link to NRSV text

I hope you'll indulge me -- I'm going to start with something of an aside this week, as there's something in the epistle reading from Philippians 3 that I very much want to underscore. Its very first sentence points out two things about St. Paul that are often ignored or misunderstood.

First, it's that Paul, like a significant number of early Christians (such as the Pharisaic Christian contingent at the "council of Jerusalem" in Acts 15), identifies as a Pharisee as well as a follower of Jesus; the only point in his catalog of identities in Philippians 3:4 that no longer applies is "persecutor of the church." In other words, Luke's portrayal in Acts 23:6 of Paul, long after his experience on the road to Damascus, saying in the present tense, "I am a Pharisee, a son of Pharisees" is realistic. Regular readers know (as the archives of this blog on the subject demonstrate) that I feel strongly that Christians should avoid presenting the Pharisees as stock villains and using the word "Pharisee" as a synonym for "hypocrite" or "sanctimonious jerk." It's language that comes across as antisemitic, and furthermore, it's language that distorts the historical record and even the sometimes complicated ways Pharisees and Pharisaism are portrayed in the New Testament. As far as we can tell, Paul identified as a Pharisee to his dying day, so at least in his view, there's nothing about being a Pharisee that's in necessary conflict with following Jesus.

Second, it's worth noting that Paul specifically says that "as to righteousness under the Law" he was "blameless." In other words, Paul does NOT think that humankind needs Jesus because human beings can't manage to observe the Law and therefore can't have righteousness without having Jesus' righteousness imputed to them. Paul says right here in Philippians that he was righteous under the Law; clearly he thought that people COULD observe it. I have little doubt that Paul could assess his Torah observance in this way in part because he, like any other Pharisee, knew that the Law made provision for impurities to be cleansed, transgressions forgiven, and therefore righteousness under the Law restored. As myriad texts (e.g., Psalm 103) in the Hebrew bible demonstrate, the God of Israel has always offered people forgiveness. This whole stereotype of Judaism as proclaiming a God who, prior to the Incarnation, was impossible to please and whose presence could not be experienced by human beings is, to borrow Paul's word in Philippians 3:8, skubalon -- which, by the way, the Liddell-Scott Greek lexicon translates as "dung" or "excrement," though the NRSV renders it more in a more genteel fashion as "rubbish."

Thanks for letting me get that off my chest. I'd like to say more about Paul's view of the Law and why he thinks we need Jesus, and you can find more of my thoughts about that elsewhere in the lectionary blog, but I've already stretched the definition of "aside"; it's time to get to what I actually plan to preach on this week.

This Sunday's gospel story seems to be based on an earlier story -- one of my favorites in the New Testament -- that appears first in written form in the Gospel According to Mark, 14:1-11. Two days before the Passover, in the last week of Jesus' life, Jesus' followers are sharing a meal. The men among the Twelve, and especially Peter, have been fairly consistently portrayed as misunderstanding who Jesus is and potentially even standing in the way of what Jesus came to do. But two days before the Passover at dinner, a woman -- a prophet -- shows that she understands Jesus as the male disciples haven't. She anoints Jesus' head, dramatically proclaiming Jesus to be the one anointed by God (in other words, the christ or messiah), and in a context that makes clear that she has anointed Jesus also for the way of the Cross he has proclaimed. And Jesus commends her prophetic action in glowing terms, saying that wherever the Good News is proclaimed, this woman's story will be told in memory of her.

Ironically, while we know the names of others -- even the name of the host of this dinner party in Mark 14 -- the name of the woman is lost to us. So much for Jesus' disciples keeping her memory. Luke (in chapter 7) makes the woman an anonymous "sinner." John 12 gives her a name, at least -- Mary, sister to Martha and Lazarus -- but like Luke, John has her anointing Jesus' feet, not his head, turning an act of prophesy into an act solely of personal and emotional devotion -- even an act that could be seen as competing with and undermining ministry to the poor.

But is that really what's going on? I have my doubts.

I think it's worth remembering that, as Malina and Rohrbaugh point out, hands and feet were seen in the ancient Mediterranean world as representing action -- action with intentionality. While Mark has the woman anointing Jesus' person, and by extension his actions, in John's story the woman is declaring Jesus' actions, Jesus' mission in the world, as anointed by God, and by extension his person.

These differences give the stories different emphases. And if you'll indulge me in another aside (this one brief, I promise), it reminds me of why it's so important not to try to harmonize the differences we hear in the the gospels -- or to try to impose uniformity in Christian community. We need those different voices, those different emphases, even or especially when they seem to be in tension with one another.

We need them if we're going to do what Mary does in this Sunday's gospel: identify and bless Jesus' intentional action, what God is doing in the world -- also known as God's mission.

I'll put it this way, with a confession: I suspect that nine times out of ten, when God is saying to me, "I am about to do a new thing; / now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?" my response is something like this:

"You have reached the internal answering machine of Sarah Dylan Breuer. I'm out doing all of the things I think are God's will, the things I think I need to do to make a living, and the things I just plain want to do, but have managed to rationalize as being totally necessary. Please leave your name at the tone, so I know whether you're among those from whom I expect spiritual counsel, and assuming you're on the list, I'll get back to you when ... well, I might get back to you."

What would it look like if I lived more deeply into the kind of prophetic witness we see in this week's texts? How might our lives be different in our households, our worshipping communities, our world if, instead of asking God to bless our activity, we, like Mary, were looking for the ways in which God is acting in the world and looking for ways we could bless and support God's action?

I feel blessed to have joined one of the most mission-minded parishes I've ever seen. There are so many people here giving so much of themselves and using so many of their spiritual gifts to advance God's mission. And one thing that could enhance our ability to identify God's activity in the world and bless it would be more opportunity for us to listen to one another, to hear one another's stories. I'm not just talking about stories of how we serve in and through the church. We should indeed be celebrating, thanking, supporting, and blessing one another in our ministries in church, but it's worth remembering that most of us spend the vast majority of our time in other places, and that time in other places can be ministry in the service of God's mission just as surely -- perhaps even more surely -- than time spent in this building.

If we believe that God is at work in the world, after all -- if we want to anoint Jesus' feet, his action out there -- then we need to be looking for evidence of Jesus' work in the world; we need to see the world and people's work in it through the lens of Jesus' ministry, in the context of salvation history, the story of God's creating the world and drawing it to God's self.

That means we need to be in touch both with that story of God's making and loving the world and with the stories of human beings in the world experiencing God's redemption and the historical and personal wounds in need of God's healing.

Those who know me well will not be surprised to hear me say that I think one of the very best ways to be in touch with the world's very reason for being -- with the love of God that created the world and is bringing it toward the peace, justice, and love for which it aches -- is to spend some serious calories in close reading of the scriptures. It's very hard to discern what Jesus is up to in the world today if one doesn't know, and very well, what Jesus was up to in Galilee and Judea, and in the lives and communities of early saints such as Paul and the writers of the gospels. It's hard to understand what Jesus was up to in the past if one doesn't immerse oneself in the Torah and the prophets that formed Jesus' own view of who God is and what engaging God's mission would look like.

And of course, one can't know what Jesus is up to in the world today if one doesn't know what's going on in the world today. I thank God for some of the tools I use, such as the Global Voices website, which compiles and translates web logs from all over the world that allow you and me to hear from ordinary people -- anonymous Gay Christians in Uganda, teenagers in Iraq, and countless others. But even these technological marvels are nothing compared to the resource we have in one another, in our congregations and in the larger Body of Christ. Tell me what your wildest dreams for the world are and the moments in which you catch glimpses of it at work, on the bus, with your children (or even your parents!), and I'll know that much more about where Jesus' feet fall around the world. When we share our stories -- and particularly when we come together as God's people to enter into the biblical story and ponder how our own stories might be told in the context of that great, wonderful tale -- we can see the paths that Jesus is wending through our world to bring redemption, and we have opportunity in encouraging and supporting one another's growth and ministry to bless and anoint the very feet of the Son of God.

It's hard to say what might be inspired by that process of being in touch with the world's wounds, with God's work of bringing the world to wholeness, and with the great and small wonders present in the gifts and vocations of each one of us. I wonder what might happen if those of us living in families not only ate dinner together, but asked one another questions that go beyond "How was your day?" to "What makes you angry about what's going on in the world? What inspires you? What's God doing, in the world and in you?" Parents, if you're lacking in inspiration to ask those questions, I encourage you to ask your kids, who know and care about a great deal of God's mission, and can often talk about it far more articulately than you or I can. Kids and students, try asking your parents about things like this. It might seem weird at first, but you might find conversations like this bringing out amazing ways in which God is calling you, and surprising support in living into that call -- not just in some distant year when you've got your degrees and have checked off all of the right boxes, but now.

And what, I wonder, would it do to coffee hour if we were asking one another, "So, what do you see going on in the world? What's God up to?," or even, "How has God been working in your life lately?" Among other things, we might find that we had far more to talk about that coffee hour would allow.

That's the danger of this sort of enterprise: Enter into scripture's stories of God's loving and redeeming the world, and you just might find yourself hungry for more. Enter into the stories of your neighbors and their experience of God's love and redemption, and you might catch a glimpse of something that will change your life. Look for and bless what Jesus is doing in the world, and as surely as Jesus is Lord of history, you will see the world healing, growing, and changing.

Thanks be to God!

March 24, 2007 in Discernment, Forgiveness, Isaiah, John, Justice, Lent, ONE campaign/Millennium Development Goals, Pharisees, Philippians, Prophets, Righteousness, Women, Year C | Permalink | Comments (1)

Second Sunday after the Epiphany, Year C

Isaiah 62:1-5 - link to NRSV text
1 Corinthians 12:1-11 - link to NRSV text
John 2:1-11 - link to NRSV text

Our Hebrew bible reading for this Sunday just might win some kind of prize for "most tenuous connection to the gospel reading in a Christian lectionary" -- at least, if the intended connection is that bit at the end: "For as a young man married a young woman, / so shall your builder marry you, / and as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride, / so shall your God rejoice over you." If that's the intended connection, than this Sunday our lectionary implies that John's story of Jesus at the wedding in Cana is somehow about marriage -- much as our current Book of Common Prayer liturgies for marriage imply, and equally unhelpfully. What a ridiculous line of reasoning, to say that because Jesus went to a wedding once, he meant to proclaim marriage as a particularly preferable or blessed state! There's a great deal in scripture to suggest that, as Genesis puts it, "it is not good for the human being to be alone," and that marriage is a vocation for many that is a blessing not just to the couple, but to the world, as their relationship energizes them for ministry. But the focus of this bit of John 2 we're reading this Sunday isn't about commending marriage any more than it is about commending drunkenness (which also happened at that gathering in Cana, and -- unlike the marriage, was actually facilitated by Jesus' actions).

I'd like to think, though, that our lectionary editors had more than a superficial word association around weddings in mind when selecting this portion of Isaiah 62 for this Sunday, and I think a connection is there that can be made with a great deal more integrity.

This Sunday's reading from Isaiah comes from a section ("Third Isaiah") that's difficult to locate precisely in time or circumstance; especially as someone whose speciality is in New Testament, I'm loathe to depend too much on any of its proposed locations when reading the text. But some things about its concerns are clear enough from internal evidence. Third Isaiah speaks to people seeking to honor the God of Israel, but the world of the text is populated also by foreigners. Enemies who threaten are present in cultural memory if not in immediate time and space, but we also see an audacious vision of God, "coming to gather all nations and tongues" (Isaiah 66:18). We see hope.

I'm not talking about the kind of hope we often mean when we use the word; I'm not talking about an idle kind of wishing for something that we dare not invest too much in emotionally, let alone order our lives around. I'm talking about a vision focused on God's intention with such intensity that it reads all human history in the context of God's action. That sounds a little abstract, but I'm talking about something that speaks so powerfully to godly imagination that it's got truly compelling consequences in the tangible world. When I talk about hope this week, I'm talking about the choice -- and in my experience, it's a conscious choice -- to embrace God's vision for the world with conviction that reorders our priorities on every level, making choices that would otherwise seem difficult or nonsensical not merely intelligible, but powerful to the point of being contagious in community. I'm talking about choosing expectation that orders action.

I'm talking about it this week after ruminating a great deal about the connections Isaiah (and not just Third Isaiah) makes between expectation and action. Those of us who spend time in churches over Advent and Christmas hear a fair amount of prophetic expectation. The longing of God's people for redemption is a major theme in many an Advent sermon. But I'm often left thinking that we underplay how God's people were called to respond to that expectation, despite how strong that is as a theme in the prophetic writings we're reading. Isaiah doesn't present hope as something that prompts sighs of powerlessness, but as something that inspires powerful action. When we enter into prophetic hope, our choice to look for God's coming redemption prompts us in the present to live more deeply into what we proclaim as the future God intends and is bringing about among us. In other words, Isaiah's hope for peace is strongly connected to embrace of God's sabbath now. The prophetic vision we share of God gathering all nations and all tongues calls upon God's people in the present to remove vengeance from the realm of human responsibility, to go amongst the nations only to invite and gather. That's hardly what the kings of the world consider sensible foreign policy, but prophetic vision doesn't place trust in or order lives around worldly kings; it calls upon us to stake our very lives on God's rule.

New Testament texts pick up this prophetic vision, often picking up a theme that will pop up a lot in the weeks to come: that NOW, in Jesus' work among us, that rule of God has come upon and is seeping through this world. I think John's story of the wedding at Cana belongs in that tradition. Normally, wedding guests would have not only provided the wine for the celebration, but also would have sent it ahead of time. The family that lacked the resources, in terms of extended family and friends at least as much as any other kind, to provide for the feasting would be left to their shame. But Mary has a thought that's crazy by conventional reckoning: what if the authority Jesus is already starting to exercise in calling followers is a sign that the feasting we anticipated at the redemption of God's people -- the redemption Isaiah metaphorically compares to the joy and freely shared plenty of a wedding feast -- is something that starts NOW?

And so Mary has a word with her son. It's a risk; this is not a private setting by any stretch, Jesus could be left in a compromised position, and as Jesus' mother, Mary's own standing is tied to her son's. She speaks up, and we get our first "sign" in the Gospel According to John. It's not just a sign of Jesus' identity; it's a sign of the times, a sign that God's redemption is happening here and now in Jesus' work.

It's a prophetic sign that, like Isaiah's prophetic vision, calls for action. It calls followers of Jesus in Corinth divided along lines that few could cross -- of ethnicity, wealth, social status, and gender, for starters -- to break bread together and work to support and empower one another as members of one body, united in one Holy Spirit to engage in one mission, God's mission. The challenge of living together in this way is no small task, with challenges not only from within, of uniting such different people, but from without, as such free association across traditional divisions inspired Christians' neighbors and sometimes even family members to see these gatherings as subversive of social order, or even of God's intent. That kind of living brought persecution as well as deep joy.

But if, as prophets like Isaiah proclaimed, the future God intends will gather people of all nations, and if, as Christian prophets were saying, Jesus' eating and drinking as well as his teaching and healing, his death and his resurrection, were signs of God's future breaking into our present, then what other way of life could make sense? And if we know and are seeking to follow Jesus, if we have tasted the wine that God's anointed brings to the feast and have seen his glory, how else would we live? We pray, and we seek to live into what we pray: that we and all God's people may be so illumined, so set afire to live as God's people in our sharing of God's word and sacraments, that our life together may be a proclamation of the Word and a sacrament of God's redemption to the very ends of the earth. Let our lifting of Jesus' cup in our worship remind us that our whole lives are to celebrate our Lord's work in the present until the day of its full realization.

Thanks be to God!

January 12, 2007 in 1 Corinthians, Apocalyptic, Community, Epiphany, Eschatology, Eucharist, Inclusion, Isaiah, John, Justice, Miracle stories, Year C | Permalink | Comments (3)