Proper 20, Year C

Luke 16:1-13

When I was interviewing for my last parish position, I was asked to give the homily at a children's chapel service. I was allowed to pick any texts I wanted for the service, and believe it or not, I elected to do a children's homily on the gospel for this Sunday, commonly known as "The Parable of the Unjust Steward." You can see the homily here, actually.

Was I crazy? Maybe. But I wanted to show that it's possible to get across insights from biblical scholarship that can illuminate difficult texts for people of all ages and backgrounds. And I think that this Sunday's gospel contains a timely and important word that's more than comprehensible when we read the text closely and are willing to set aside some of the presuppositions we tend to bring to the text.

The first presupposition that many people need to set aside is that Jesus' parables are all allegories in which every character represents someone or something -- God, the Christian, Jesus, Satan, or abstract qualities such as virtues. In my opinion, many if not most of Jesus' parables are NOT allegories, and this Sunday's gospel is best read NOT as an allegory.

For example, in what was is the God of Israel, the God whom Jesus proclaimed, like the landowner in the parable? The landowner in the parable is an absentee landlord, living in luxury in the city off the sweat of tenant farmers' brows. The landowner doesn't really know or care about what goes on at the farm as long as the rents come in. Such a view reminds me of the satirical one in the Michelle Shocked song:

God is a real estate developer
with offices 'round the nation
They say one day he'll liquidate his holdings up on high
I say it's all speculation

Is that what we think God is really like -- a distant, uncaring profiteer? Judging from the exorbitant amounts owed by the poor farmers, the landowner is charging obscene amounts for rent, such that the farmers on his land each owe between three and seven YEARS' wages.

Furthermore, the landowner of the parable is not at all like God whom Jesus proclaimed as Father because the landowner has no desire at all to forgive, but is tricked into it by his steward. I'm sorry to say that I've heard a great many sermons over the years in which the preacher suggested that God the Creator wanted not to forgive us but to punish us until Jesus intervened, but that's not an orthodox view. The barest Christian confession has to include that Jesus shares the character of the God of Israel, and if Jesus has to trick God into mercy, then Jesus is not God's servant, let alone God's Son; he is a rebel against God, as Jesus' enemies suggested.

I've also heard lately some other intriguing readings of the parable as allegory, the most intriguing of which had the landowner representing the Roman Empire and the steward the Christian, with the moral of the story being that Christians should live out values of justice and generosity even if the Empire labels those values as deviant. I have to admit I haven't found any of those other allegorical readings persuasive either. For example, if the landowner is the Roman Empire and the steward is a stand-in for any Christian, why do we get the detail at the beginning of the parable that the steward has been fired before he embarks on the emending of bills that results in the peasants' debts being reduced? In what sense are all Christians empowered to pronounce on behalf of the empire as a steward is empowered to pronounce on behalf of the landowner who employs him? And what sense in any case do these allegorical readings make of the sayings Luke places at the parable's close, that people are called to make friends with the poor by means of "mammon of unrighteousness" so that they may be welcomed into eternal homes?

I hope I'm not merely being stubborn in still finding most persuasive the reading of the parable for which I argued in my master's thesis over fifteen years ago (I was only nineteen then, so I'm not as old as that makes me sound):

The landowner is clearly depicted in the parable as someone who cares only about his own privilege and honor.

The steward is clearly depicted in the parable as someone who is concerned primarily with saving his own skin and with not having to do manual labor, such as the ordinary peons (e.g., the tenant farmers) do.

And yet, in this extraordinary story Jesus tells, the steward -- a man who has until this point gained a life of privilege and relative leisure by siding with the wealthy and uncaring absentee landlord -- realizes that in the end his own welfare depends on doing justice for the poor as a matter of urgency, regardless of how it gets done. The landowner, who cares only for his own honor and privilege, discovers that his desires are satisfied more fully and rather surprisingly by going along, however unwillingly, with the current of justice for and generosity toward the poor that his steward set in motion for his own selfish reasons.

The moral of the story stands in stark contrast to something I heard at a recent conference at which folks were discussing relief for the poor. One man said something that many others echoed with slightly different phrasing. He said something like this:

"It doesn't really matter what you do. Make sandwiches and give them to the first people you see. It doesn't have to be a huge thing; it's where your heart is that counts, and if you're trying to help the poor, that's what matters."

I said -- after gulping hard, because I knew saying it wouldn't make me popular in that gathering -- that I think that there are things other than what's in your heart that matter a very great deal.

If I were a mother afraid I would soon be burying my child because of hunger or preventable or curable disease, what was in your heart would bring me little solace -- or little solace compared to the joy I'd have if my child could live.

It matters what you DO.

It matters to those mothers. It matters to those children. What's in your heart as you embark on a well-meaning gesture that won't necessarily change the way the world is matters a great deal to you, and that's only natural. But if I am a mother whose child is in danger, I want you to use not just your heart, but also your brain and your voice and your ears.

I want you to find the very best counsel you can about what will change the world for my child, what will give my child access to good food and clean water, to basic medical care and an elementary education, so that my child has at least half the chance your children have to live to adulthood -- and so our world has a chance to receive the gifts my child has to offer for the building up of the Body of Christ and the fulfillment of God's mission.

And so Jesus, in this Sunday's gospel, sides with the mother so concerned for her child, and for the world in which that child will live or die. Jesus tells a story in which "the master" -- whether the landowner who's going along with justice for the poor because it generates cheering crowds, or the Lord of Life who was present at the moment of Creation, and who wants every child created to have a chance to live and love and engage God's mission in the world -- praises the forgiveness of debts, justice for the poor, however it happens and with whatever motives are involved.

It matters. What's in my heart and yours matters, to be sure. It matters to God. Our hearts are a gift from God, after all.

And it's also true that they weren't God's only gift to us. God gave us brains and voices as well as arms and legs. We privileged people have used them with tremendous effect for generations to place us in our positions of privilege and to consolidate the privilege we have.

And if we are at all uncomfortable with the idea that a politically shrewd and not particularly honest steward should be commended in a story from Jesus for doing more than what we're doing to bring real, tangible relief to the poorest among us, then let us be made uncomfortable. Let's recognize that even this not at all commendable steward can recognize that, interdependent as we are, saving the most vulnerable in this world is saving our own skin, our own heart, our own soul, our own life and what makes it precious, as well.

Please feel free to revisit what I've said before on these texts.

My blog entry on these texts from 2004 is here.

I've also posted sermon I preached on these texts on Proper 20 three years ago.

God, help me to be more effective in work empowered by passion for justice than the steward was in maneuvering to preserve his privilege. I've benefited so much from the unjust order in which I live; help me to undermine it, that all may live.

Thanks be to God!

September 21, 2007 in Children's Homilies, Discipleship, Justice, Luke, ONE campaign/Millennium Development Goals, Ordinary Time, Parables, Year C | Permalink | Comments (5)

Proper 17, Year C

Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16
Luke 14:1, 7-14

I was once in a congregation that took two-week turns with other area churches hosting a winter shelter for the homeless. One wintry Sunday morning, a parishioner came up to me in deep distress following the service. "There's a homeless man in the church," she said, "and we're not hosting the shelter this week. Could you do something about it?"

"Of course," I said, and I left my post on the greeting line, walked over to the man, introduced myself, and invited him to coffee hour.

I remember similar raised eyebrows in another congregation that had both a ministry of making bag lunches for homeless people and a group for people in their twenties and thirties when, after talking with a man who sometimes made use of the bag-lunch ministry that he was both Christian in his twenties, I invited him to the young adults' group. Sadly, several members of the group asked him to leave, telling him to come back when the bag lunches were out.

Let mutual love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels unawares. Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you were being tortured. (Hebrews 13:1-3)

I don't know of a single parish that doesn't have what are usually called "Outreach" ministries -- programs such as bag lunches or soup kitchens for the homeless, or raising money to send to a charity overseas. It's good that we know to do at least that much. Sometimes, though, I think the "Outreach" label is a bit of a misnomer, and "Charities" might be more accurate.

Is it really reaching out, after all, if the "outreach ministry" doesn't cultivate a sense that Christians -- rich or poor, black or red or brown or yellow or white -- are members of a single Body of Christ, and all people are children of God and members of one human family? Is what we celebrate on Sunday really a Eucharist in remembrance of Jesus if we, by things done and left undone, cultivate and perpetuate congregational cultures that have a strong and nearly impermeable boundary between those who are recipients of "Outreach," who should take what they're given, be grateful, and leave before the service starts, and those who are members, and therefore invited to worship and fellowship throughout the parish's life?

Jesus tells us in this Sunday's gospel that when we have a dinner party, we shouldn't invite our friends, relatives, or rich neighbors; we should invite the poor, the diseased, the marginalized. Lest we think that we're fulfilling that command solely by sending food or money to other people, Luke pairs this command with another: that we are called not to seek places of honor for ourselves, but to seek to honor others more.

"Honor" is a word that doesn't mean much to a lot of us, so it's worth drawing out a bit of just what that might mean in a cultural context that doesn't give the word the kind of resonance it had in Jesus' culture and Luke's. In the first-century Mediterranean world, "honor" wasn't a rather quaint and abstract value of elites or soldiers. Honor was community esteem in a world in which that esteem was not just immeasurably valuable, but necessary under many circumstances for survival. If your family was seen as without honor (and honor was held collectively by families -- one person's dishonorable behavior blew it for all), people wouldn't do business with you. Members of your family would be poorly placed to enter into a decent marriage -- and in a culture in which having honorable children who could and would care for you when you were old or sick was the only form of social security or retirement, that damage to your family's marriage prospects could put or keep you in utter poverty.

And what kinds of behavior were seen as honorable?

There's a game I've used with people of all ages (and intergenerational groups, where I think it can be particularly fun and poignant) to illustrate this. The game goes like this: There are cards on which a label is written -- "Monarch," "Noble," "Servant," or "Beggar." Each person gets one card taped to her or his back. Your job in the game is to circulate as if you were all at a party (sometimes I'll actually put food and drink out for the purpose), to look at the cards on the back of those with whom you interact, and try to behave as you think a person with your status -- whatever you think the card on your back says -- would treat a person of their status, as indicated by the card on their back. As you talk with other people, you find out more about what your status might be. And you find out very quickly what the card on your back says according to how those of various rank treat you.

Most people find it very easy very quickly to guess what's on their card. I find that the game almost always within five minutes results in four groups of people standing closely together and mostly or entirely ignoring all others -- each group consisting of people with the same label on their back, and the only cross-group interaction being "Monarchs" and "Nobles" trying to get "Servants" to bring them food and to throw out the "Beggars." The "Beggars" find out their status most quickly, since at first nobody at all wants to talk with them; there's no point in begging from one another, after all, and members of all other groups treat them as an unwelcome intrusion at best and less than human at worst.

The game works well to illustrate some of what honor meant because central to "honor" in the first-century Mediterranean world was treating people in a manner appropriate to their status. People honored their betters by treating them as their betters, thereby showing themselves as honorable people -- people who knew their station. They kept their family's honor by treating family as family and outsiders as outsiders. By their behavior in public -- and in Jesus' culture and Luke's, banquets themselves as well as who was invited and how were publicly observed and assessed -- higher-status people declared their honor by treating those below them appropriately, that is, according to their lower status. In other words, honor was about knowing your place and everyone else's and making sure that you behaved according to that hierarchy.

And so when Jesus tells his followers that they should humble themselves by choosing the lowest seat, he's advocating behavior that for all but the lowest at the banquet would be DIShonorable -- not at all how respectable people should behave. Jesus was seriously messing up the game. How can anyone know their place in any society, large or small, if people start treating that society's "Beggars" as if they were "Monarchs"?

The answer, of course, is that they might not. Treat those whom our the group culture -- whether our the group in question in a parish, a neighborhood, a nation, or a world -- says are of no account as if they were not only human beings, but our sisters and brothers or even our betters, and this group's "Beggars" will start getting uppity ideas about their status. They'll start acting as if they belonged.

And before we start congratulating ourselves as to how egalitarian our culture is compared to those wacky people of the ancient world, it's worth noting, for example, that a recent study of a quarter of a million U.S. households (hat tip: A Guy in the Pew) suggests not only that we prefer to do the kinds of things people do in my little "Monarchs and Beggars at Banquet" game, but that we're willing to pony up one of the most ready indicators of value in our culture -- that is, money -- to do it. Furthermore, I've observed anecdotally and studies following "white flight" and commuting patterns suggest that we privileged people are also often willing to spend a lot more time commuting -- away from our families and stuck in traffic or on trains -- to live in communities that are more homogenous in income, education, and ethnicity.

Jesus has a word for us that could really mess up that game.

Jesus says that we who are privileged should seek to place others in positions of privilege. He says that we should treat the poor, the sick, and the marginalized as our friends and family as well as our honored dinner guests.

This is no game. It's radical behavior that, if done consistently will instill some radical ideas: outcasts will come to see themselves as God's insiders, and that kind of thinking will inspire movements that give them access to the center of our groups and our society. Things will change -- a great deal -- when we take the next step beyond charity to treat the lowest as the most honored.

Extreme poverty could be a memory by the year 2015 -- not only eliminating a great deal of senseless suffering and death, but giving this world the voices of millions of people and their dreams who in previous generations would have been denied an education if they survived at all.

Neighborhoods segregated not only by access to income and education, but also by access to hope and power, could become a distant memory too. Our children's lives could be enriched by learning and playing alongside friends from all cultures in a society in which every child has a chance. We could spend less time and energy running from problems belonging to "those people" and use it in fellowship in which we see God in the faces of our diverse communities as well as our families.

Big changes in our world brought about by one big change in our behavior we have seen modeled in Jesus' life, ministry, and death on a cross. Jesus, whom our faith holds as the human being most worthy of honor, the King of Kings, treated the most marginalized people he met as if they were monarchs. If he saw a card on their backs, it didn't say that they were beggars who don't belong; it had titles such as "Child of God," "Beloved," "God's Image," only a little lower than the angels, in Shakespeare's phrase.

It's a radical way of life that respectable people thought dishonorable.

It's the way of life that the God who created the universe vindicated by raising Jesus from the dead.

And that tells us that Jesus' way is the Way of Life, the very heartbeat of the universe God made and loves.

Thanks be to God!

August 30, 2007 in Community, Eucharist, Evangelism, Hebrews, Honor/Shame, Justice, Kinship/Family, Luke, ONE campaign/Millennium Development Goals, Ordinary Time, Power/Empowerment, Year C | Permalink | Comments (1)

Proper 14, Year C

[Confession time: This is my sermon from August 8, 2004 on the same texts. I am heading off for the first vacation I've taken, I think, since October, and I am WAY behind on tasks that need doing before I go!]

Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16
Luke 12:32-40

"Follow your heart." In pop culture -- especially in romantic comedies -- it's presented as the ultimate wisdom, the ultimate goal. And then the words "my heart's just not in it" are the ultimate conversation-ender, the big 'STOP' sign for any course of action. There's a certain kind of wisdom to that line of thinking, too. As Paul writes in Galatians 5, the fruit of the Spirit includes love, joy, and peace, as well as patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control, and if those things aren't present over time in a course of action that we've chosen, that's a pretty good indication that the Spirit may be calling us in a different direction. That's why Frederick Buechner defines vocation -- the direction God calls us -- as the place where our deep joys and the world's deep needs meet.

But sometimes when we say things like "my heart's not in it," what we're saying is something like "my heart's torn" between multiple and conflicting desires. I want to be a good provider for my family, so I work hard and long at my job -- but I also want my family to have quality time together. I want to invest more time and energy in deepening my relationship with God, but at the end of a long day, I just want to turn on the television and order out for pizza. I want to feel closer to other people, but I want not to risk being hurt. So I have a hard time deciding to pass up on that assignment that would help me dazzle my boss. I have a hard time deciding to cut back on other activities and look for some support around church to take up some in-depth Bible study, or to deepen my prayer life. I have a hard time disrupting a routine that feels safe to try something new, like signing up for <i>Connect?</i>. I have a hard time deciding to do those things because with these conflicting desires, I can't do them wholeheartedly.

So that's pretty much it, right? If my heart's not in it to begin with, I'll probably just be miserable if I try to do it. Better just to do what I'm comfortable with now. After all, there's nothing I can do about it if that's how I feel … right?

Today's gospel tells us that there IS something we can do about that, and in the process it points to one of the best and least-discussed reasons for us to exercise stewardship of our money, our time, and our energy the way Jesus does -- with generosity that goes far beyond the bounds of what American culture would tend to see as sensible.

Jesus answers the question, "what can I do if my heart's just not in it?" with his saying, "where your treasure is, there your heart will be." That saying is often misquoted as or misinterpreted to mean the same thing as, "where your heart is, there your treasure will be," but that's not what Jesus says. Let me put it this way: Jesus says that our hearts follow after our treasure like a dog runs after a stick. How we spend our money determines where our heart will be -- what kind of a person we'll be.

In other words, our stewardship is a means of our formation. We have (and should have) a strong self-interest in treating possessions as Jesus teaches us here -- holding them loosely, selling them to take care of the needs of the poor, being generous toward others as God is generous -- because doing so is the best way, if not the only way, to experience that it is God's good pleasure to give the kingdom.

That kind of generosity isn't what most people would call "wise financial planning," it's true. Conventional wisdom holds that a wise person with resources builds up "nest eggs" and "rainy day funds" and works to save as much as possible as a bulwark against the unexpected. Build up those resources, the story goes, and we can prevent most problems from arising, and take care of the few that do come up. Build up those resources, the story goes, and we'll have the freedom to choose a path for ourselves and our families away from crime, disease, disaster, and physical and psychological pain. As Jesus reveals
repeatedly through Luke's gospel, though, that strategy isn't wise, at least according to God's wisdom.

It's not wise, and those of us who are most anxious to get that one more thing -- the "slush fund," the bigger house in the better neighborhood, the promotion, the right number of zeroes in the retirement account -- so we can finally be secure and at peace are the ones who have the most to gain from giving our "nest eggs" and our "rainy day funds" to the poor. One reason is we already know in our heart of hearts, and some here know from experience: there is no slush fund large enough to send away or compensate for some things that can and do happen in this world. As long as we rely on our own diligence and what we've accumulated for security, we will never be free from fear; we know too well in our heart of hearts that there are
innumerable things in the world that we can't control, no matter how much money we've got. If we wait to be generous until we feel we can afford it, we might wait forever in fear.

The flip side of that, though, is that when we can let go of these things that we've worked so hard for because we thought they could give us security, we'll discover what really IS secure in this life, what is rock solid through all the changes and chances life has to offer: that it is the pleasure of the King of the Universe to give his kingdom away -- and specifically to give it to you. You are God's beloved child, co-heir with Christ, and while there's nothing in this life that can take that away, there are all kinds of things we can grab for to insulate us from really experiencing it. It is God's good pleasure to give us the kingdom, the fruit of the Spirit in abundance. Everything in this life we grab for as a way to try to do what God already has done and is doing for us is going to put us that much further from experiencing that fundamental truth, the one thing that matters. Let go, and we'll finally be able to receive Jesus' word at the opening of this passage: "Do not be afraid."

Don't be afraid??? Easy to say, but hard to do when your heart's not in it, when it's torn between trusting God -- trusting that these crazy things Jesus says really will yield the fruit of the Spirit -- and trusting what our culture says about who is really secure and how they get that way. The solution Jesus advocates is stepping forward in faith, giving our treasure to the poor and knowing our heart will follow.

This is not a "prosperity gospel" that says if you invest your treasure where God's heart is -- in extending God's justice and mercy among the poor -- you'll get that promotion you wanted, and have more money than before. This is an identity gospel -- we choose to behave as children of our Father, whose role model is Jesus, because of who we are, and our hearts follow. We take that step that the world says is foolishness, and we experience, as a result of that trust, not only deeper intimacy with God, but also real love in community. When we're all living into God's generosity, we find that when we do have needs, we're part of a family of sisters and brothers in Christ who KNOW who they are, and will express their ties with you as children of one Father by taking care of one another as family do. Trust begets trust; generosity births generosity.

That's why the gospel for this morning is read alongside the story of Abraham and the words of the Letter to the Hebrews on Abraham's faith. "Faith," or pistis in Greek, doesn't mean intellectual assent to a proposition; it means something more like "trust" or "allegiance." It's not about what we usually call "belief" so much as it's about relationship. Having faith is not about trying to convince yourself that you are convinced of something. You don't know you have enough faith when the needle stays steady on a lie-detector test as you say, "My journey will birth a people, and we will have a home." You know
you've got faith when, however your heart pounds as you do it and whatever fears you have, you take the next step forward into the desert. Your heart will follow your feet, and you will become more fully the person God sees as your true identity.

Today's gospel challenges us to let our heart follow our feet -- transforming us into people wholeheartedly following ALL of Jesus' message and experiencing ALL of the freedom that is ours in Christ -- in every way that God has given us something of value. Do your check register and your credit card records tell the truth of who you are in Christ and what's most important to you as a Christian? Today's gospel invites us to sit down as a family or with a trusted friend to see where our spending over the last month shows we're telling our heart to go. And how about something that's even more and valuable than money for many of us -- how about our time?&nbsp; What does our appointment book from the last month show about where we're telling our heart to go? Today's gospel invites us to sit down as a family or with a trusted friend to take a hard look at that too.

And I mean a HARD look. If someone had complete access to your financial records, what would they say about who you are, or about who Jesus is? If someone had complete access to records of how you spend your time, what would those records say about who you are, and who your Lord is?

All of those messages we grew up with and are bombarded with every day create such a din that it takes a lot of intentional seeking to hear beyond them. Breathe, and listen to what your heart of hearts -- the part of you longing wholeheartedly for peace, and love, and joy, the fruit of the Spirit -- says. Our televisions say that our children want toys and snack foods. Social pressure says they must go to the right college, get the right degree and the right job. What do our lives, our checkbooks and our appointment books, say that children of God want and need? Our children are listening. Our hearts are listening -- and will run in whatever direction we put our treasure.

It's Jesus' word to the spiritually wise.

Thanks be to God!

August 8, 2007 in Faith, Hebrews, Justice, Luke, Ordinary Time, Year C | Permalink | Comments (2)

Proper 12, Year C

Luke 11:1-13 - link to NRSV text

I was having a conversation the other day with a friend about something I've observed in American Christianity in particular: the tendency to think of following Jesus and Christian faith primarily if not solely as a matter of interior disposition -- of trying to have more kindly attitudes toward some people and perhaps to feel righteously angry toward others, to feel sad about people living in poverty or without "knowing the Lord," to feel warm devotion toward God, to feel humble and grateful, for example -- and that if you've got that interior disposition down, if your "heart's in the right place," and if in addition to that you stay out of trouble, you're pretty much doing what Jesus taught his followers to do.

Our gospel for this Sunday is a healthy antidote for that. It's by no means an isolated case -- you can't read the prophetic books of the Hebrew scriptures, the gospels, or Paul's letters in particular without coming across plenty of such antidotes -- but I hope this Sunday that many preachers will point out that the "Lord's Prayer" as we read it this Sunday includes a petition that very bold indeed for many of us to pray.

Luke presents Jesus teaching disciples to pray that God would forgive our sins "as we forgive everyone indebted to us." This is not the parallelism we use in most liturgical versions of the "Lord's Prayer"; it is in the Greek quite clearly a request to God to treat our sins as we treat monetary debts. The "forgiveness" we are invited to extend to others is not a personal well-wishing; it is changing the material circumstances of the poor such that they and their families no longer teeter on the brink of disaster, but can earn their living by their work. And we as Jesus' followers are taught to ask God to extend mercy toward us in our sin precisely to the degree that we extend mercy toward others with our wealth and our power.

I wonder what would happen if wealthy Christians (and if, for example, you make $25,000 annually, that puts you in the richest 10% of the world's population -- check out where you fall on the "Global Rich List") really made that our prayer.

Our congregations' "success" wouldn't be measured by how many people show up for worship on a Sunday so much as by how much our efforts to educate and encourage one another in discipleship were making a difference for the world's poor.

We wouldn't see getting people to come to church as the fullest expression of "evangelism"; it isn't "evangelism," after all, if it is in no way good news for the poor.

I think that we would find it easier to come together across theological or theopoliticial difference to engage fully and joyfully in mission to end extreme poverty. And I think we would do it with deep and unreserved joy.

We have, after all, been richly blessed by God, and I think our gospel for this Sunday underscores that in a number of ways.

Jesus' disciples ask him to teach them to pray. The "Lord's Prayer" is only the beginning of his response to that request in Luke's gospel. After the prayer, Jesus tells a story of a most ungenerous so-called "friend." The man is blessed with the means to fulfill his community's obligation (a shared obligation) to feed a traveler in need.

How does such a blessed man called pray? With words, certainly, but also with action. How could he ask God to "give us each day our daily bread," and then fail to give that bread to one of those for whom he has asked God to provide?

The man tells his friend no. How is the man's friend called to pray? If he has prayed for the coming of God's kingdom and the messianic banquet, how can he leave one friend without bread when another has it? The friend keeps banging on the door. Luke calls it "shamelessness" in verse 8 (the NRSV inexplicably renders it as "persistence," although that's not a meaning of anadeia in ancient Greek). The shouting friend is in effect conducting a public protest threatening to expose the richer man's lack of hospitality, and it works. The shameless protest is a prayer as well as an answer to prayer; through it each has daily bread.

I find it quite scary to pray that God would treat my sins as I treat debt and other burdens that keep the poorest in poverty. Is that a prayer that I want God to answer? And when I pray that God's kingdom would come, and that we each would have daily bread, I can't help but be a bit nervous wondering whether my prayer will be answered as the rich man's was -- with a friend who, if need be, will expose how shallow my prayers often are if I will not participate in God's mission to answer them.

And I pray nonetheless.

I pray, and I look for opportunities to participate in God's answering that prayer, in God's reconciling the divide between rich and poor and everyone of us breaking bread together at the messianic banquet. I ask and I seek knowing that it feels risky to do so, and as I do that, I find not only friends -- and I am grateful for such friends -- who will hold me accountable to my prayers, but also a God who is generous beyond my asking.

I may pray that God would be generous toward me in the way that I'm generous toward others, and one of the most helpful things I've found in praying this way is that it reminds me again and again just how freely God showers blessings. I acknowledge the poverty of my own expectations, and God astonishes me with mercy -- giving me not only the daily bread I need, but a renewed vision of a world in which bless one another as freely with all we have to offer as God blesses us.

As Jesus teaches us to pray, with our lives as well as our lips, we are invited to see the world as Jesus sees -- the world's wounds as opportunity for healing and reconciliation, the world's needs as opportunity to experience God's generosity afresh by participating in its expression toward the poor, a account of deserving as a measure of just how much God's love exceeds such reckoning.

Thanks be to God!

July 27, 2007 in Discipleship, Evangelism, Forgiveness, Honor/Shame, Justice, Luke, ONE campaign/Millennium Development Goals, Ordinary Time, Prayer, Year C | Permalink | Comments (2)

Proper 7, Year C

Galatians 3:23-39
Luke 8:26-39

But those who had seen it told them how the demoniac had been saved.

That's what Luke 8:36 says. The NRSV says "healed" rather than "saved"; I don't know why. "Healed" is true, of course, but in my view, it doesn't tell the story nearly as well.

"Saved." When Jesus found him, the man had been "for a long time" not in a house in the city with family, with friends, but among the tombs, with the dead, shut out from among the living. He was vulnerable to all kinds of dangers -- to the elements, from which he lacked clothes as well as a house to protect him, and also to all of the predators the city gates shut out at night. Apparently someone, probably family, tried to help him, but they couldn't help. They gave up. And for a long time he'd been dead to the world, living among the dead.

It's natural to want to shut out someone like this man. He's as frightening as he is frightened, I think, and not just because of the yelling, the antisocial behavior, the unnatural strength. It's his vulnerability. He is vulnerable to the elements of sun and cold, wind and rain that we mostly understand, but more frightening still is his vulnerability to countless other forces much harder to understand and beyond our ability to control. The Legion that speaks from him reminds his former neighbors of the other legions out there, forces that can tear someone from family, from safety, from community, from everything that makes the world make any sense or have any warmth.

Of course, shutting out the person who reminds us of what we fear doesn't work. If anything it exacerbates fear as it exacerbates division. The Legion that attacked the man among the tombs doesn't pay much attention to city gates, and neither do the other legions.

Jesus paid attention, though. He paid particular attention to those shut out, literally and metaphorically -- those who had nothing and so sat outside the gates to beg, the lepers and others considered 'unclean,' women called "loose" after they were rejected by their husbands and not received by their fathers. Jesus healed people. When Jesus healed a leper, he wasn't merely restoring someone with a physical diseases to physical health. He wasn't just healing a leper. He was healing a community, restoring to community someone who had been shut out from it. Jesus confronts every power that tears us from wholeness, from one another, from knowing the love of God in loving community.

Those powers are legion. In the ancient Mediterranean world, people believed that knowing and using a spirit's name could give you power over it. The Legion oppressing the Gerasene demoniac tries, in effect, to gain power over Jesus by naming him, shouting out to "Jesus, Son of the Most High God." Jesus retaliates by demanding to know the spirit's name. Belief in demons has fallen out of favor in the circles I spend most of my time in these days, but naming remains a powerful step in confronting the powers that oppress and divide us.

In our epistle for this Sunday, St. Paul names the deep divisions of his society -- between Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female -- and names the truth, that in Christ these divisions are to be overcome. Poverty. Racism. Sexism. Religious Bigotry. There are many such powers in this world, a thousand varieties of hardness of heart that shut out some people, and shut us in just as surely. But in Christ we are all children of God through faith -- none less worthy of good food and clean water, shelter, medicine, or education, of love and hope.

In Christ we are empowered to name that truth and called to name and confront the powers that obscure it. And as we follow Jesus, as we participate in his ministry of healing and reconciliation in the world, we find that the outcast restored is not the only one saved. We were made for the unity with one another and with God that was and is Christ's mission, and the healing of a breach with a sister or brother is restoration for the whole Body.

Have you experienced that? Have you caught a glimpse of what it might be like for each one of us when all of us live as God's children? Declare how much God has done for you. Declare what Jesus is doing for the poor and outcast. If you find yourself feared as they were -- as Jesus was in the city after he healed the Geresene demoniac -- name that too, as you pray and work for reconciliation. You are of the Body of Christ, sharing in Christ's power to heal, Christ's mission, and Christ's wholeness. Faith has come, and with it the hope and love that sees every child as a child of promise.

Thanks be to God!

June 21, 2007 in Community, Galatians, Justice, Luke, ONE campaign/Millennium Development Goals, Ordinary Time, Reconciliation, Year C | Permalink | Comments (0)

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)

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)

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)

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!

February 9, 2007 in Epiphany, Eschatology, Jesus' Hard Sayings, Justice, Luke, ONE campaign/Millennium Development Goals, Year C | Permalink | Comments (1)

Third Sunday after the Epiphany, Year C

1 Corinthians 12:12-31a - link to NRSV text
Luke 4:14-21 - link to NRSV text

[If you haven't seen my previous entry on the gospel reading for this Sunday, please do. It's brief, and says some important things about the passage that I wouldn't want a preacher to miss, though having written on that passage a number of times before, I'm emphasizing different things this week.]

What does it mean to be a member of the Body of Christ?

That's been a question of crucial importance ever since St. Paul took a metaphor previously used to tell striking dock workers to accept their poor treatment and get back to work (the argument went along the lines of "a body has many parts that must all work together for the health of the body, on which the health of the members depend; y'all are the feet, so you belong in the muck, while others belong in more honored places higher up") and used it instead in a wonderfully subversive manner to argue the reverse -- that the health and honor of all of us hinges upon honoring and caring for the weakest.

Well, I kinda just answered the question, or started to. The thrust of the metaphor for Paul includes a number of points central to what it means to be God's church. It means that we are linked with one another in a relationship that we can't dissolve any more than we could have launched it on our own. How could an organ choose to become my liver? Does it have to fill out an application? Go on some Liver Idol television competition? Prove itself as a particularly good and loyal liver to rise through the ranks of mammals judged less worthy? It's a rather silly question. My body, being relatively healthy, had a liver develop as part of my body in the womb. It was there when I was born; it's part of God's creating me. And what could my liver do to become not a part of my body? Nothing whatsoever. If it could and did issue some kind of declaration of independence from my pancreas, that would do nothing to change the status of either as part of my body; it would just make a little meaningless noise (like the noise of a clanging gong, even).

I want to emphasize something else that Paul uses that metaphor for, though -- something that's something of a hot word in Anglican circles these days. I'm talking about interdependence. Paul is saying that we need one another. He is NOT saying merely that the poor need the rich, the sick need the healthy, and the weak need the strong to protect or rescue them; he's saying that we ALL need one another. There is no one to whom the Spirit has not given gifts that needed by all of us.

These are gifts that are needed for our health as a body and as members of it, to be sure, but they are needed for more besides. They are needed because, in Paul's terms, we're not just parts of *a* body; we're members of the Body of Christ. That implies something similar to what I was saying last week about the theology of Third Isaiah: that who we are as God's people is connected inextricably with our call to engage in God's mission. God has made us one Body of Christ, a sign -- a living sacrament -- for the world of what God in God's grace is doing in the world. St. Teresa of Avila puts it something like this:

Christ has no body on earth but ours, no hands but ours, no feet but ours. Ours are the eyes through which the compassion of Christ looks out upon the world. Ours are the feet with which he goes about doing good. Ours are the hands with which he blesses his people now.

We experience what it means to be Christ's Body as we engage in Christ's mission in the world. And if we want to know more about what that means, we have an excellent starting point in our gospel reading for this Sunday. In it, Luke portrays Jesus at the start of his public ministry claiming a combination of passages as his mission; and in claiming this as his mission, Jesus offers himself and his life as a prophetic sign that "today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing."

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor.

These are inspiring words, well chosen by our Presiding Bishop as a theme for her ministry and its highlighting the Millennium Development Goals to eliminate extreme poverty by the year 2015. But they're not just words -- not by a long shot.

What would it mean if we really believed that in Jesus, the words are being fulfilled today? How would we respond?

For once, I find that the epistle reading is perfectly paired with the gospel. Our gospel reading shows Luke's version of Jesus, the Christ, saying clearly what his program, his mission is. If we who seek to follow Jesus are the Body of Christ, it's the mission we're called to engage.

If I could, this Sunday I'd take the opportunity provided by these readings to invite the congregation to take that in, deeply and repeatedly.

I might invite the congregation during the Peace (which was never meant to be a kind of mini-coffee-hour for socializing) to commission one another. Each one there is a member of the Body of Christ. I might invite them to use the Peace to say to one or two people near them, prayerfully and with eye contact, "The Spirit of the Lord is upon you, because God has anointed you to bring good news to the poor."

Were I privileged to bless or dismiss a congregation this week, I'd want to include in that an invitation to the congregation to own their role in the world as Christ's feet, eyes, and hands personally as well as understanding it corporately: "The Spirit of the Lord is upon you, because God has anointed you to bring good news to the poor. He has sent you to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor."

I think sometimes that, as a member of the Body of Christ, I'd like to put that kind of invitation on my bathroom mirror, to see at the beginning of my day as I make decisions throughout my day: The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because God has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor."

Because that's one set of things I think we should draw from this passage. I'm not Jesus, and I can't save the world. But we are the Body of Christ -- here and now, not contingent on us winning some kind of pageant or getting our act wholly together, but by God's action, with Jesus having done all of the groundwork necessary. We are called to live into that identity, and to engage the mission that comes with it -- not later, when we've got our act together, or when it's more convenient, or once the kids are in college, or after some kind of cosmic sign. We have our cosmic sign. We have the life, the teaching and healing, the confronting and defeating of worldly powers, the death on a cross and the resurrection by God's action of Jesus, the Christ.

The Spirit of God was upon him, because God anointed him to bring good news to the poor, release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, and the year of the Lord's favor. And here and now, we are the Body of the Christ, the Anointed. I wish I could look into the eyes of people in your congregation, put a hand on their shoulder, and tell them that. Because it's true. It's powerful. And this scripture is fulfilled in our hearing -- and in our doing.

Thanks be to God!

January 19, 2007 in 1 Corinthians, Discipleship, Isaiah, Justice, Luke, ONE campaign/Millennium Development Goals, Power/Empowerment, Prophets, Year C | Permalink | Comments (4)