Third Sunday in Lent, Year A
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.
Fifth Sunday in Lent, Year C
I hope you'll indulge me -- I'm going to start with something of an aside this week, as there's something in the epistle reading from Philippians 3 that I very much want to underscore. Its very first sentence points out two things about St. Paul that are often ignored or misunderstood.
First, it's that Paul, like a significant number of early Christians (such as the Pharisaic Christian contingent at the "council of Jerusalem" in Acts 15), identifies as a Pharisee as well as a follower of Jesus; the only point in his catalog of identities in Philippians 3:4 that no longer applies is "persecutor of the church." In other words, Luke's portrayal in Acts 23:6 of Paul, long after his experience on the road to Damascus, saying in the present tense, "I am a Pharisee, a son of Pharisees" is realistic. Regular readers know (as the archives of this blog on the subject demonstrate) that I feel strongly that Christians should avoid presenting the Pharisees as stock villains and using the word "Pharisee" as a synonym for "hypocrite" or "sanctimonious jerk." It's language that comes across as antisemitic, and furthermore, it's language that distorts the historical record and even the sometimes complicated ways Pharisees and Pharisaism are portrayed in the New Testament. As far as we can tell, Paul identified as a Pharisee to his dying day, so at least in his view, there's nothing about being a Pharisee that's in necessary conflict with following Jesus.
Second, it's worth noting that Paul specifically says that "as to righteousness under the Law" he was "blameless." In other words, Paul does NOT think that humankind needs Jesus because human beings can't manage to observe the Law and therefore can't have righteousness without having Jesus' righteousness imputed to them. Paul says right here in Philippians that he was righteous under the Law; clearly he thought that people COULD observe it. I have little doubt that Paul could assess his Torah observance in this way in part because he, like any other Pharisee, knew that the Law made provision for impurities to be cleansed, transgressions forgiven, and therefore righteousness under the Law restored. As myriad texts (e.g., Psalm 103) in the Hebrew bible demonstrate, the God of Israel has always offered people forgiveness. This whole stereotype of Judaism as proclaiming a God who, prior to the Incarnation, was impossible to please and whose presence could not be experienced by human beings is, to borrow Paul's word in Philippians 3:8, skubalon -- which, by the way, the Liddell-Scott Greek lexicon translates as "dung" or "excrement," though the NRSV renders it more in a more genteel fashion as "rubbish."
Thanks for letting me get that off my chest. I'd like to say more about Paul's view of the Law and why he thinks we need Jesus, and you can find more of my thoughts about that elsewhere in the lectionary blog, but I've already stretched the definition of "aside"; it's time to get to what I actually plan to preach on this week.
This Sunday's gospel story seems to be based on an earlier story -- one of my favorites in the New Testament -- that appears first in written form in the Gospel According to Mark, 14:1-11. Two days before the Passover, in the last week of Jesus' life, Jesus' followers are sharing a meal. The men among the Twelve, and especially Peter, have been fairly consistently portrayed as misunderstanding who Jesus is and potentially even standing in the way of what Jesus came to do. But two days before the Passover at dinner, a woman -- a prophet -- shows that she understands Jesus as the male disciples haven't. She anoints Jesus' head, dramatically proclaiming Jesus to be the one anointed by God (in other words, the christ or messiah), and in a context that makes clear that she has anointed Jesus also for the way of the Cross he has proclaimed. And Jesus commends her prophetic action in glowing terms, saying that wherever the Good News is proclaimed, this woman's story will be told in memory of her.
Ironically, while we know the names of others -- even the name of the host of this dinner party in Mark 14 -- the name of the woman is lost to us. So much for Jesus' disciples keeping her memory. Luke (in chapter 7) makes the woman an anonymous "sinner." John 12 gives her a name, at least -- Mary, sister to Martha and Lazarus -- but like Luke, John has her anointing Jesus' feet, not his head, turning an act of prophesy into an act solely of personal and emotional devotion -- even an act that could be seen as competing with and undermining ministry to the poor.
But is that really what's going on? I have my doubts.
I think it's worth remembering that, as Malina and Rohrbaugh point out, hands and feet were seen in the ancient Mediterranean world as representing action -- action with intentionality. While Mark has the woman anointing Jesus' person, and by extension his actions, in John's story the woman is declaring Jesus' actions, Jesus' mission in the world, as anointed by God, and by extension his person.
These differences give the stories different emphases. And if you'll indulge me in another aside (this one brief, I promise), it reminds me of why it's so important not to try to harmonize the differences we hear in the the gospels -- or to try to impose uniformity in Christian community. We need those different voices, those different emphases, even or especially when they seem to be in tension with one another.
We need them if we're going to do what Mary does in this Sunday's gospel: identify and bless Jesus' intentional action, what God is doing in the world -- also known as God's mission.
I'll put it this way, with a confession: I suspect that nine times out of ten, when God is saying to me, "I am about to do a new thing; / now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?" my response is something like this:
"You have reached the internal answering machine of Sarah Dylan Breuer. I'm out doing all of the things I think are God's will, the things I think I need to do to make a living, and the things I just plain want to do, but have managed to rationalize as being totally necessary. Please leave your name at the tone, so I know whether you're among those from whom I expect spiritual counsel, and assuming you're on the list, I'll get back to you when ... well, I might get back to you."
What would it look like if I lived more deeply into the kind of prophetic witness we see in this week's texts? How might our lives be different in our households, our worshipping communities, our world if, instead of asking God to bless our activity, we, like Mary, were looking for the ways in which God is acting in the world and looking for ways we could bless and support God's action?
I feel blessed to have joined one of the most mission-minded parishes I've ever seen. There are so many people here giving so much of themselves and using so many of their spiritual gifts to advance God's mission. And one thing that could enhance our ability to identify God's activity in the world and bless it would be more opportunity for us to listen to one another, to hear one another's stories. I'm not just talking about stories of how we serve in and through the church. We should indeed be celebrating, thanking, supporting, and blessing one another in our ministries in church, but it's worth remembering that most of us spend the vast majority of our time in other places, and that time in other places can be ministry in the service of God's mission just as surely -- perhaps even more surely -- than time spent in this building.
If we believe that God is at work in the world, after all -- if we want to anoint Jesus' feet, his action out there -- then we need to be looking for evidence of Jesus' work in the world; we need to see the world and people's work in it through the lens of Jesus' ministry, in the context of salvation history, the story of God's creating the world and drawing it to God's self.
That means we need to be in touch both with that story of God's making and loving the world and with the stories of human beings in the world experiencing God's redemption and the historical and personal wounds in need of God's healing.
Those who know me well will not be surprised to hear me say that I think one of the very best ways to be in touch with the world's very reason for being -- with the love of God that created the world and is bringing it toward the peace, justice, and love for which it aches -- is to spend some serious calories in close reading of the scriptures. It's very hard to discern what Jesus is up to in the world today if one doesn't know, and very well, what Jesus was up to in Galilee and Judea, and in the lives and communities of early saints such as Paul and the writers of the gospels. It's hard to understand what Jesus was up to in the past if one doesn't immerse oneself in the Torah and the prophets that formed Jesus' own view of who God is and what engaging God's mission would look like.
And of course, one can't know what Jesus is up to in the world today if one doesn't know what's going on in the world today. I thank God for some of the tools I use, such as the Global Voices website, which compiles and translates web logs from all over the world that allow you and me to hear from ordinary people -- anonymous Gay Christians in Uganda, teenagers in Iraq, and countless others. But even these technological marvels are nothing compared to the resource we have in one another, in our congregations and in the larger Body of Christ. Tell me what your wildest dreams for the world are and the moments in which you catch glimpses of it at work, on the bus, with your children (or even your parents!), and I'll know that much more about where Jesus' feet fall around the world. When we share our stories -- and particularly when we come together as God's people to enter into the biblical story and ponder how our own stories might be told in the context of that great, wonderful tale -- we can see the paths that Jesus is wending through our world to bring redemption, and we have opportunity in encouraging and supporting one another's growth and ministry to bless and anoint the very feet of the Son of God.
It's hard to say what might be inspired by that process of being in touch with the world's wounds, with God's work of bringing the world to wholeness, and with the great and small wonders present in the gifts and vocations of each one of us. I wonder what might happen if those of us living in families not only ate dinner together, but asked one another questions that go beyond "How was your day?" to "What makes you angry about what's going on in the world? What inspires you? What's God doing, in the world and in you?" Parents, if you're lacking in inspiration to ask those questions, I encourage you to ask your kids, who know and care about a great deal of God's mission, and can often talk about it far more articulately than you or I can. Kids and students, try asking your parents about things like this. It might seem weird at first, but you might find conversations like this bringing out amazing ways in which God is calling you, and surprising support in living into that call -- not just in some distant year when you've got your degrees and have checked off all of the right boxes, but now.
And what, I wonder, would it do to coffee hour if we were asking one another, "So, what do you see going on in the world? What's God up to?," or even, "How has God been working in your life lately?" Among other things, we might find that we had far more to talk about that coffee hour would allow.
That's the danger of this sort of enterprise: Enter into scripture's stories of God's loving and redeeming the world, and you just might find yourself hungry for more. Enter into the stories of your neighbors and their experience of God's love and redemption, and you might catch a glimpse of something that will change your life. Look for and bless what Jesus is doing in the world, and as surely as Jesus is Lord of history, you will see the world healing, growing, and changing.
Thanks be to God!
March 24, 2007 in Discernment, Forgiveness, Isaiah, John, Justice, Lent, ONE campaign/Millennium Development Goals, Pharisees, Philippians, Prophets, Righteousness, Women, Year C | Permalink | Comments (1)
Fourth Sunday in Lent, Year C
[Sorry about the delays this week, folks -- my computer's overworked power supply wore out, but Apple came to the rescue -- and I hope in time to be of some help to y'all! --Dylan]
1 Corinthians 5:16-21 - link to NRSV text
Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32 - link to NRSV text
Jesus' parables nearly always hinge on a surprising reversal of some kind, and a good rule of thumb when reading them is that if you haven't found anything that's very surprising and challenging, read it again.
Jesus' parable of "The Lost Son" starts with several, and then keeps going. The younger of two sons asks his father to divide the family's property and give him now the share of it that would be his inheritance when the father died.
This is one of those scenes that remind me of a regular feature in the Highlights children's magazines that were ubiquitous in dentist's offices when I was growing up. The feature was "What's Wrong With This Picture?," and it consisted of a line drawing of a cheerful scene, inviting the reader to circle everything wrong or odd in the picture. "What's Wrong With This Picture?" The birds are flying upside-down, the tricycle has one wheel that's square and another that's triangular, the spider has twelve legs, the fishing pole has no line, and the fish are happily playing cards on a tree branch! The feature might have been more challenging if the object were to circle what was right with the picture, because it always seemed that practically nothing was.
There's so much that's wrong at the beginning of the story of the Lost Son that it's hard to point to anything that's right, expected, or normal:
The son asks the father to divide the family farm. Such a division would diminish the family's fortunes. Although this family seems to be doing reasonably well at the moment, anyone whose livelihood depends on agriculture can find their fortunes changing dramatically with the weather or other factors, and this family doesn't seem to be among the most prosperous, who lived in luxury in the cities while stewards managed tenant farmers and slaves who did the work. Doing what the younger son asks is a substantial and entirely unwarranted risk for the whole family.
Perhaps even more importantly, the younger son's request diminishes the whole family's honor. There's hardly any such thing as a secret in village life, and a dishonorable son shames not only himself, but his father, and by extension the entire family name. And by asking for his inheritance now, the younger son has, in effect and in full view of the village, said to his father, "I wish you were dead, so please make it as much as possible like what it would be if I'd buried you."
Stories about two sons, one good and one treacherous, aren't uncommon. The beginning of our gospel story makes it clear as day that the younger one could never be the good one. And in view of how shocking the son's behavior is, his father's behavior in granting the request might be even more surprising.
So the younger son goes off to a distant land, lives in shameful ways among Gentile foreigners and their pigs, and loses everything he has -- which is, we should remember, a substantial portion of the family's resources. And then he decides to go home.
This is also a surprising decision on the young man's part. After the way he has treated his father and family, he has no ground on which he might expect a gracious reception. Heck, he'd be lucky if he made if he made it back to his father's house, since the moment he was within sight of the village, he'd be very likely to be attacked by any who saw him. He has not only shamed his family, but the whole village, where every father must have wondered anxiously whether his behavior would give their sons rebellious, shameful, and disruptive ideas. Even if his own father isn't rushing to pick up the first stone, this young man is in real danger from the whole village. But surprisingly, he decides to go back anyway.
And surprisingly, his father must have been looking for him, for he catches glimpse of his son on the horizon. And then the father, shamed so profoundly by his younger son's behavior, does yet another surprising thing: he gathers up the last shreds of precarious dignity he's got to lift his robes and run to meet the son who'd betrayed him. Picking up robes like that is not something a self-respecting father would do, and running even less so -- the combination is undignified in a way entirely unbefitting an elder in the culture in which the story takes place. But this is not a move just of joy at a son's return; it's a rescue mission of the most urgent nature.
The father has to reach the son before the villagers do, or his son is doomed to the mob. Once more, the father sacrifices his dignity and this time even risks his life for the Bad Seed. But once the father's arms are around that younger son, and especially when he launched the celebration, it's clear that the prodigal is now fully under his father's protection. And everyone would have known as much, since everyone would have been invited to the celebration. A fatted calf is most assuredly not a Quarter-Pounder, and once killed, would need to be consumed by a lot of people in one big party, perhaps lasting for days.
So let's total up costs the father has incurred thus far for the sake of the younger son, the Bad Seed. The father as surely as the younger son squandered the family's resources by giving them to a son who so clearly was Bad News, with no loyalty at all to father or family. He squandered his dignity as he lifted up his impressive robes to dash like a madman toward the young man upon his return, and given the mood of the village, may have been risking his welfare too -- who knows who in the village would blame the father's indulgence for the shame on the village and the danger to the social order in every family there? He killed the fatted calf, which might have gone on to produce far more cattle and recover some of what the younger son had squandered, to throw a party to secure his younger son's status as a full and fully protected member of the family. But the biggest cost is yet to come -- and here comes what might be the biggest shock of the story.
It's the elder son. Supposedly the Good Son. The son who, if you take a look at the story from verse 25 on, refuses even to call his father "father." The son who doesn't just shame his father by rejecting his will in the closest thing to private that village life has, though the village will hear. The elder son, as the whole village is gathered "and they began to celebrate," takes the opportunity to show his true colors to his father. He chews out his father in the totally immediate and full view of all gathered to celebrate. In other words, the elder son shows himself to be a disobedient son, a dishonoring son, a son who shames his father. The whole "Good Son/Bad Son" structure becomes, like so many things in Jesus' ministry, a stunning reversal.
And then there's one more surprise.
The father once more responds graciously, saying even in front of the whole village that the kind of father he is must celebrate and rejoice when the lost are found. The father of the parable celebrates every measure of resurrection, of life from death, without pausing to judge whether the one given life deserved it, or what the consequences are for village or cosmic justice, or even how the loyal will respond. He just hopes that those who profess loyalty to him will follow his example.
And when will we follow his example?
It's far, far too easy for progressives to preach this parable as saying nothing more than "God loves you as you are. Come home." It says that, of course, and that's worth saying. But it says more than that. It invites us, as does all that Jesus says and does, to consider giving -- honor, forgiveness, and joy of our very selves -- sacrificially and without regard to worthiness to our sisters and brothers. It challenges us to consider what kind of party we'd throw and whose looks askance we'd take on gladly when the opportunity presented itself for renewed fellowship with people that every kind of common sense our culture has to offer would say are not worth our time, whether because of their past misdeeds or their peripheral status in our circles of friends or circles of power.
When will we embrace the example of the father in this story? That is, after all, the example God gave us in sending the prophets and sending Jesus. That is, after all, the example Jesus gave at the beginning of Luke chapter 15, as he invited sinners and the righteous alike -- indeed, anyone who was willing -- to table with him.
Fortunately, the example and the invitation are always there, no matter how many times we ignore of fumble it. And in the moment when we're thinking of ourselves as crazy as we gather up our robes and run to embrace the despised and envelop them in protection even from our neighbors, we'll understand that much more deeply and truly just how God loves and sustains us.
Thanks be to God!
Third Sunday in Lent, Year C
The General Ordination Exams (GOEs) one generally has to take to be ordained to the clergy in The Episcopal Church often cause seminarians preparing for them a great deal of anxiety, and sometimes they deal with this by rehearsing with their friends some previous years' questions or questions they think they might be asked. One genre of GOE (or at least GOEs of the past) is the "coffee hour question," which asks the person being examined to imagine him or herself as a priest approached by a parishioner during the coffee hour between services and asked a pastoral question of some kind. This was one of the "coffee hour" questions some friends of mine were tossing around over margaritas some years back:
A seven-year old girl is a member of your parish. Her mother has recently and very suddenly died. She approaches you during coffee hour and asks, "will I see my mommy in heaven?"
The table sprang into conversation about a variety of things -- 1 Corinthians 15, the resurrection, different ideas of the immortality of the soul -- and how they could be explained to a seven-year-old girl. It was an interesting conversation. But when I was asked how I would answer the question, this is what I told my friends I'd say to the girl:
"It sounds like you really miss your mommy."
That's what I'd say. That's the first thing I'd say, anyway. Other things are important, in my view -- especially 1 Corinthians 15 and the varieties of Christian hope of the resurrection -- but I can't imagine having a conversation with that girl that meant anything at all without starting from where she is, and where I think she'd be would be is desperately wanting to see and touch and be held by her mother, and being in great pain for the lack of that touch.
I feel similarly, and I tend to respond in similar ways, most times people ask questions that start with "Why did this happen?" or especially, "How could God allow this to happen?" In my experience, this is not the time for a learned or wise discussion about consequences of the Fall, how human mortality underscores the preciousness of the present moment, or even -- as much as I love to discuss Paul at just about any possible opportunity -- the meaning of 1 Corinthians 15. So far, every time anyone has asked me how God could allow suffering, evil, and death, I've found in further conversation that we ask someone else about those categories because of something very specific.
In other words, "Why did this happen?" often boils down to at least one or two other things that need to be named, both statements, both statements, not questions:
"I'm in unspeakable pain." This is almost certain.
"I want God to take away the cause of this pain, and I'm confused, frightened, and angry that God doesn't seem to be here, or good, or to care." Sometimes we say things like this because we're actually thinking and feeling about God. Usually we say this because we're in unspeakable pain, meaning (quite literally) we don't feel able to speak about our pain.
This Sunday's Hebrew bible and gospel readings suggest that the pastoral response starts with recognizing and honoring that pain.
In Exodus, God says, "I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings," and that is the beginning of deliverance for God's people.
And in Luke, when some of God's people come to Jesus with a news report -- that the Roman governor Pontius Pilate, had murdered Galilean pilgrims to Jerusalem -- that boils down to a statement -- that this is too painful to bear, and perhaps even to name -- and therefore comes out also as something like a question: "How could God allow this?"
There are at least a thousand clichéd answers to a question like that. God needed some more angels for the heavenly choir. These clearly were pilgrims who forgot to pray (or behave in the prescribed way -- usually meaning the way that the speaker wants people to behave). Or the last resort of someone desperate for an explanation: "everything happens for a reason, and God allowed this to happen because something better will come of it."
That last answer is less awful that the first ones I listed, but it isn't the one that Jesus gave. To the smug who are convinced that God arranges all suffering as well as all joy, and delegates each according to the human values of the smug, Jesus offers a word of warning; he says, in effect, "you are no better than these people, you're no less mortal than they, and if anyone figuring in this conversation is courting disaster from God, it's you."
If it were only the smug who had brought the report, the question, and the pain Jesus heard, it would have been understandable for Jesus to stop there. But he doesn't. He affirms that those who died were not sinful in a way that others weren't, and he tells a parable about a fig tree. As Malina and Rorhbaugh point out, a pious Israelite who planted a fig tree would let it grow for three years to get it to a point where it was capable of bearing fruit, then would allow it to go unharvested for three years before coming back for three more years to harvest fruit and to assess its potential fruitfulness. In other words, the wealthy absentee landlord of the parable (not a particularly sympathetic figure in Jesus' parables, and especially not in Luke) is actually being more than reasonable in saying, "this tree had its chance for nine years, and it's fruitless." Heck, nine years is just shy of a quarter of the life span of a man (women died sooner when childbirth was so dangerous) who by some miracle survived childhood (when most perish in the world's climates of scarcity).
But the gardener, who doesn't own the land and isn't the one who benefits most from its profit -- seems to care more about the tree than the fruit, and seems more than happy to devote extra care -- a year of it -- when no law or custom requires it and he has nothing to gain personally form it.
Sometimes, I speak primarily as a scholar of these texts. Sometimes, I like to indulge in a little pastoral imagination, which I hope you find responsible, and here's some of it:
I think to think that this was a crazy gardener who actually cared about the life of the tree, and who saw a fruitless tree more as a wounded life worth healing than a wasted opportunity for profit in need of clearing. Is that a responsible reading of the text? Perhaps. I've said before that, as a rule of thumb, Jesus' parables are defined by their shocking reversals, and that if we read one of his parables and find no unexpected behavior, we need to re-read with our eyes, our mind, and our imagination more deeply engaged. It would be crazy for a gardener to care about a tree in that way.
But isn't that just the kind of crazy way God cares for us? Isn't that the crazy kind of love Jesus showed for us, and particularly for those of us with few or no qualities traditionally seen as giving a person the kind of respectability and status to expect any need or pain to be noticed and responded to?
And if the conversation with the person who says, "will I see her again in heaven?" or "why did this happen?" or "where is God in something like this?" continues, it will turn in that direction. I'll be honest that I don't have a constant and unshakable emotional sense of the way God cares for us beyond reason. I'm also being honest when I say that this is one of the reasons I spend so much time and energy reading the bible, and why I thank God for communities of people who will carry me in prayer when my own prayers, and even my own scripture reading, seem fruitless. Because I choose to believe, even when I don't feel it, that God knows and shares the sufferings of God's people, and God's immeasurable love for us and inexorable power to redeem is at work even when I don't perceive it.
I don't believe in perfection, that everything happens as it should or is orchestrated in a way that is personally beneficial to God's people or to me by conventional reckonings. I believe in redemption, that even or especially amidst great suffering and real evil, God is bringing the universe toward the justice and love, the peace and wholeness, for which it was made and for which it aches.
Thanks be to God!
Second Sunday in Lent, Year C
Luke 13:31-35 - link to NRSV text
I have a feeling that a lot of people will react to this Sunday's gospel by remarking that politics make strange bedfellows. Commentators' chief concern in the passage is often to puzzle over Luke's portrayal of the Pharisees. In Luke 12:1, Jesus warns, "Beware of the yeast of the Pharisees, that is, their hypocrisy." But Jesus also dines with Pharisees at their invitation. Luke in his narrator's voice says, as if none of his readers would think of contesting him, that the Pharisees "were lovers of money" (Luke 16:14). But in this Sunday's gospel, Pharisees come to warn Jesus that Herod wants to kill him.
I think the first thing worth noting is our impulse to try to decide whether "the Pharisees" were "good guys" or "bad guys." It's an impulse to fight. It's better than the all-too-common impulse many Christians have to use the word "Pharisee" as a synonym for "rule-bound hypocrite," "jerk," or "villain," I'd say. And I'll say this in bold type (anyone who's read this blog for a while knows how rare this is, so please take is as a signal to, as Mark would say, "let the reader understand" how important I believe it to be):
Christian use the word "Pharisee" as I've described above will often, and I think rightly, be heard as antisemitic (i.e., reflecting hatred of Jews) by our Jewish neighbors.
Folks, please remember that Jewish campus ministries around the country are called "Hillel House," after Hillel, the great teacher and prominent Pharisee. All major branches of Judaism surviving today are in some sense descended from the Pharisees; others were mostly wiped out in the devastating wars with Rome in the first and second century. Our rhetoric about Pharisees is unfortunately and mostly unthinkingly conditioned by Reformation rhetoric that used "the Pharisees" as stand-ins to criticize the Roman Catholic Church, a tradition that, much to my frustration, continues today amongst many of my fellow Christian progressives who, when they want to insult their fellow Christians, compare them to Pharisees -- that, is, to Jews. Well, I've said it before (and you may find some more information on why I'm saying it in the archive of posts on Pharisees), but it's worth saying again:
It's well past time for the antisemitic tradition of Christians insulting other Christians by comparing them to Jews to end. Please. You can do it: just walk away from the metaphor. It's misleading, its roots are in hatred, and it does no good to interfaith relations, to justice, or to our souls.
The bottom line, I'd say, is that we see Pharisees so often in conflict with Jesus in the canonical gospels NOT because the Pharisees' ideas and way of life were antithetical to Jesus', but because they had so very much in common. They (unlike most other Jews in the first century) read prophetic texts like Isaiah as scripture. They (unlike the Sadducees) thought that scripture and its injunctions must be interpreted using our reason in light of changing circumstances. Both the Pharisees and Jesus believed that the sacrifices of prayer and holy living where people were day by day were at least as important as anything that went on in the Temple. Both the Pharisees' movement and Jesus' were known for reaching out to others, and both were known for their enthusiastic welcome to Gentiles who wanted to join up. Really. There's more info on all of this in the archive.
It's worth remembering as we read texts about Pharisees that the Pharisees are not like the Borg in Star Trek: The Next Generation, linked telepathically with one another and acting in unison. Indeed, one of the best things to remember about Pharisees is that they actually VALUED difference and debate. The Talmud is a long record of debates, of Pharisaic teachers disagreeing with one another, coming together to share their best arguments before the assembly, of voting on a decision, and then recording the minority opinion along with the majority. Should we be surprised that Luke shows some Pharisees as hypocrites, some as lovers of money, some as attracted to Jesus' ideas and movement (and some in the book of Acts as being Christians!), and some as wanting to help Jesus? Why is it so hard for us to understand that the Pharisees were a diverse movement of people with a shared commitment to seeking the God who created the universe in every moment of daily life as well as in their wrestling with scripture, but who differed from one another in important points -- sometimes very important points indeed -- as well?
Perhaps it's because too many of us in the church have forgotten something the Pharisees, like Jesus and his band of squabbling disciples remembered -- that the history of God's people is of God calling together disparate peoples with different gifts and weaknesses, and forming them into one people, still distinct in gifting and in perspective, still wrestling with scripture and with one another with the vigor that characterized Jacob/Israel's wrestling with God's angel, and still called to a common destiny, to do justice and mercy and worship God.
The Pharisees, with all of their differences from one another as well as from Jesus, have a great deal to teach us at this moment in our life together:
We are not made a people, God's people, by our thinking alike or even our behaving alike; we are made a people by God's action, and our response to God's graciousness must include graciousness toward one another, preserving the minority opinion alongside the majority, and coming together over and over again to argue (with tears as well as with texts) and, from time to time, to vote, and then to resume arguing. We are sisters and brothers, after all, and what sisters and brothers in a healthy family are not arguing or playing most of the time when they're not eating (and much of the time when they are)?
Had Jesus' followers written off all Pharisees as enemies and hypocrites, their numbers would have been diminished by the number of Pharisees who became Christ-followers. More importantly, though, the Body of Christ would have been diminished in God's gifting. I don't doubt that Pharisees who were Christians lost the vote at the council in Jerusalem in Acts 15, but the Body won in other ways for their presence. Pharisaic Christians were there as a crucial voice in the church connecting the prophets Isaiah and Amos, Micah and Jeremiah, and others to what God was continuing to do through the Holy Spirit among Christians and in the world. They were there to remind Gentile believers, many of whom were too quick to equate emotional spiritual epiphanies and the promise of a blessed afterlife with the whole of the Christian message; they were there to teach Gentiles that Jesus affirmed and even expanded the teaching of the Law and the Prophets that we worship God with justice for the poor.
So this Sunday, I encourage you to thank God for the Pharisees, and to learn from them about what it means to be God's people. When there are foxes about who, like Herod, want to consolidate their power by eliminating troublesome voices, the Pharisees' willingness to continue in ongoing discernment about what God wants from us, ongoing dialogue with one another about scripture and what it means in light of the circumstances we're in serves as an excellent example. In light of those godly values, we shouldn't be all that surprised that some Pharisees were concerned about Herod's plots against Jesus.
Indeed, we shouldn't be surprised when Jesus tells his followers that their righteousness should exceed that of the Pharisees. Jesus, after all, defines God's perfection, God's righteousness as imitating God's graciousness in giving rain and other good gifts to the righteous and unrighteous alike (Matthew 5:43-48). In saying that our graciousness should be even more extravagant than the Pharisees, Jesus is setting a high bar -- but God's grace is such that God sends God's Spirit upon us to empower us to do that as the Body of Christ.
Is that a gift you and I are ready to receive? Are our churches in the Anglican Communion and our leaders?
I don't know. I do know what Jesus did. He received what his allies among the Pharisees offered graciously, and he one-upped it, not fleeing from Herod, but setting his face toward Jerusalem, where he would confront the arguably greater might of Pontius Pilate and the members of the religious establishment who (unlike most Pharisees in Galilee) owed their position to the favor of Rome.
I would like to be as gracious as Jesus, but I hope I am at least as gracious as those Pharisees who stayed with him and argued with him, and especially those who broke bread with him. God was at work within and among them, after all, and many became prophets to God's church as well as to the world, preserving the priceless vision of the prophets of all nations streaming into Zion at God's invitation.
Thanks be to God!
Fifth Sunday in Lent, Year B
"Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out."
That's what Jesus says in this Sunday's gospel. It's quite a statement. I wonder how we might live, what choices we'd make, if we were going to live into this more deeply. What would it mean to say that the "one day" of the prophets was NOW? What would it mean if the "ruler of this world" will be driven out NOW?
For one thing, I think it would mean that it's time to stop kissing up to all prior candidates and all wannabees for the title of "ruler of this world." It's astonishing how often we get sucked into some path we didn't exactly choose, but seemed like the thing to do -- the respectable thing, the thing that successful people do, the thing that responsible people do -- and then structure every other choice around this one unchosen and unfulfilling fact. Or maybe our master has been some idea of self-sufficiency, of somehow accruing enough money or status to be "free" to do what we want, get what we want, be who we want to be, but it never seems to be quite enough -- we discover new ways in which we are vulnerable, and try to get more money or status to make it go away, but then discover we're still vulnerable, and we start the cycle over again. As U2 puts it, "you can never get enough/of what you don't really need" ("Stuck In a Moment," All That You Can't Leave Behind).
Well if the time is now, there's no reason to remain stuck in all that. The old boss -- all the old bosses -- are GONE. Their power was illusory, and now even the illusion is passing away. That's what we mean when we say "Jesus is Lord." That's why all of this talk about "the judgment of this world" is GOOD news -- because, as I've preached about before, the judge is Jesus, the one who loved us enough to give his very life for us. "The judgment of this world" is not a gorefest like the Left Behind books; it's the culmination of Jesus' work on earth, the end of everything that separates us from one another and from God. We expect nothing less than that, the answer to our prayer that God's kingdom would come and God's will be done -- on earth as it is in heaven.
And nothing else has hold on us.
Are you waiting to use your voice, your power, your life for justice until you've got the education, the money, the institutional clearance, the world's permission to be heard? Well there's no line, no waiting, if the time is now. If there's something you're passionate about, some possibility that has ignited your imagination to make some corner of the world a little more like the visible sign of God's love, God's peace, God's justice, and God's blessing, you need no permission from the rulers of this world. Those who use the power they have to maintain their privilege would like nothing better than for you to sit back and wait for their authorization, but you don't need it:
Now is the judgment of this world.
In these last days of Lent, we start looking ahead to Holy Week, toward Jesus' journey to the Cross. We're invited to read texts that have Jesus talking about what's going to happen, what he's going to accomplish in Jerusalem. This is clearly a solemn time. Jesus' disciples in this Sunday's gospel picked up on that. They knew something big was coming, but they didn't know what, and they were anxious and afraid. And these are days of great anxiety for many in our world. There are wars and rumors of wars, elected and unelected men of power being cast down. There are changes afoot, and there are plenty of self-appointed prophets of doom ready to tell us that we SHOULD be afraid, that we need to stay the course, toe the line, do what they tell us lest something even more terrible fall upon us.
But what if Jesus is right?
If Jesus is right, then we don't need to fear. We need to follow. When Jesus is lifted up, he draws ALL people to him -- the Greeks who just now are telling Philip they want to see Jesus and the Pharisees who fear he's stirring up the people, the prophets of doom and the peasants just trying to get by. The God Jesus proclaimed, the God who created the universe, is still drawing the universe toward the justice for which it aches. That God is calling.
The days are surely coming. God wants to inscribe God's just and liberating word on our hearts, and all, from the least to the greatest, will know it, experience it, celebrate it.
What if the time is now?
Thanks be to God!
Fourth Sunday in Lent, Year B
As many of you know, I work part-time as editor of The Witness -- "an Anglican voice for justice since 1917," as the masthead reads. This week, I've posted my lectionary reflection there -- please do check it out, and check out the rest of the magazine while you're there!
It's titled "Freedom in God's Family."
Third Sunday in Lent, Year B
"I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do."
When St. Paul wrote this in Romans 7, it wasn't about a lack of willpower, and it wasn't saying that obeying the Law's commandments was impossible. After all, we're talking about the guy who said in Philippians 3:6 that he was "as to the Law, blameless."
St. Paul believes that he did obey the Law's commandments; he also believes that while he was doing that, he accomplished "not ... the good I want, but the evil I do not want," as he says in Romans. Paul's problem, as he came to understand it, was that while obeying the commandments -- from the "big ten" to the last ordinance -- he became "as to zeal, a persecutor of the church" (Philippians 3:6). Acts 8:1 reports that when the blood of Stephen, the first Christian martyr, was spilled, Paul was there, looking with approval.
Paul's very zeal to do God's will led him to participate, by a consistent pattern of "things done and left undone," in the death of people like Stephen. That bloodshed haunted him throughout his life. Those deaths placed Paul in a "body of death" (Romans 7:24) from which no amount of zeal could rescue him -- until he met the risen Jesus, who rescued him from a body of death and made him a member of the Body of Christ. At least two things happened at once in Paul (and by the way, his name didn't change when he encountered Jesus. If you read Acts carefully, you'll see that continues to carry the name Saul after his Damascus road experience; most likely, as Roman citizens had three names, his first two names were "Saulus Paulus," and then his third name would be the family name by which citizenship came to his family) in that encounter:
He realized that Jesus was in fact God's anointed, raised by the God of Israel from the dead. It followed from that was that Paul had been horribly, tragically wrong in persecuting Jesus' followers.
He realized also as he was received by Ananias and the very church he had been rushing to persecute just how profound was the height and depth and breadth of the love of Christ -- and by extension, Christ's Body on earth. The Christians Paul met after he was blinded on the road didn't demand Paul's blood in retaliation for the blood Paul shed; they received him (however hard they had to gulp while doing so) as a brother.
Why would they do something like that? Why not just pick up a rock to hurl at Paul with regret only that Paul had just one life they could take in payment for the lives Paul had taken?
Because they understood that Jesus' death -- indeed, Jesus' whole life -- was putting an end to bloodshed. I preached about that last week (shout-out to the good folks of Trinity Cathedral in Cleveland -- what a wonderful congregation, and what great hosts!),
but this Sunday's gospel is another good entry point to that message.
This week, we hear the story of Jesus' actions in the Temple, actions often referred to as Jesus' "cleansing the Temple." I wish they weren't. "Cleansing the Temple" makes it sound like Jesus was just trying to straighten it up, purify it by removing things that shouldn't be there. The idea that Jesus' actions in this Sunday's gospel are "cleansing the Temple" is predicated on the assumption that moneychangers and dovesellers didn't belong in those courtyards, when there's no way that the Temple could function without them.
God's law, after all -- "God's will revealed in scripture," to use a phrase popular with a lot of preachers today -- demanded sacrifice. The sacrifices had to be unblemished: the Law required it, and so did common sense. Hey, you wouldn't give a chipped coffee mug to your kid's teacher -- why would you think it's cool to bring "factory seconds" to Yahweh? And it's not like no provision was made for the poor. The Law allowed the poor to offer a dove rather than a lamb in sacrifice. It just had to be an unblemished dove, and how much of a bummer would it be if you schlepped all the way to Jerusalem from your village in Galilee hauling a dove, only to find out once you got there that it wasn't going to make the grade? Selling animals suitable for sacrifice was a service.
And surely you remember the commandment not to make any graven image, right? It's one of the "big ten," after all -- the first one, to be precise (depending on how you number them, and Jews, Roman Catholics, and Protestants number them differently -- which is one more reason that we can't post a list of the Ten Commandments anywhere without it being a sectarian act). It's bad enough to have to deal at all with money bearing Caesar's image; it's beyond the pale to bear that image into the areas of the Temple where sacrifice is offered to the God who said (right up front in the "big ten") not to have any lord besides the Creator. Incidentally, this is another way in which Jesus is extraordinarily clever in Mark 12:13-17 and parallels, when Jesus is asked whether it's lawful to pay taxes to Caesar. When Jesus says, "hey, who's got a denarius with them" and one of his oh-so-scrupulous about the Law questioners produces one to show him, you can almost hear the "D'OH!" from them all when they realize that there they are in the Temple, and they've just been shown up for everyone to see as not having changed their money over in the courtyard to coinage that didn't bear Caesar's image. You bear Caesar's image into the Temple's inner courts, and you're making clear where your true loyalties are -- Caesar, not God. Money-changers in the outer courts are providing a service that, like the dove-sellers, is necessary for the Temple system to continue.
And Jesus will have none of it.
Jesus drives out the dove-sellers and the money-changers, without which people -- poor people, even (the dove-sellers are mentioned specifically) -- won't be able to offer their sacrifices. He's not "cleansing" the Temple -- he's ending it. That's why all four gospels report in connection with their report of Jesus' messing with the money-changers and sacrifice-sellers that Jesus prophesied the Temple's destruction.
Now why would Jesus do something like that? After all, isn't scripture clear that God wanted the Temple built and maintained, along with everything that was supposed to take place inside it?
This is an excellent case in point for how difficult it is to teach "what the bible says" about nearly anything: scripture is not by any means unanimous that Israel should have a temple (or, for that matter, a king). Writers from the priestly upper classes -- people who owed their livelihood to kings who claimed descent from Solomon and kings like Herod the Great, who wanted to be seen as ruling with Solomon's mantle, rather unsurprisingly are quite clear that God wanted the Temple built and commanded that sacrifices happen there. Prophetic writers like Isaiah never bought that agenda, though. Prophets like Isaiah say things like this:
Thus says the LORD:
Heaven is my throne
and the earth is my footstool;
wheat is the house that you would build for me,
and what is my resting place?
All these things my hand has made,
and so all these things are mine,
says the LORD.
Isaiah wasn't keen on animal or grain sacrifices either. He goes on to say:
Whoever slaughters an ox is like one who kills a human being;
whoever sacrifices a lamb, like one who breaks a dog's neck;
whoever presents a grain offering, like one who offers swine's blood;
whever makes a memorial offering of frankincense,
like one who blesses an idol.
These have chosen their own ways,
and in their abominations they take delight.
Prophets like Isaiah clearly were NOT charter members of the Society for the Preservation of the Temple. Nor did they think what God really wanted was more personal piety -- more fasts, more "devotional time," more bible study. Not that there's anything wrong with those things as such. But here's what they thought of as the kind of worship God really wants:
Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not hide yourself from your own kin?
Ever notice how often Jesus quotes Isaiah, especially relative to other biblical writers? It isn't hard to tell where Jesus falls on this question about what kind of worship God wants -- and just how little interest God has in a building. Actually, that's an understatement. Jesus didn't just think that God had little interest in the Temple; he thought that God was opposed to the Temple -- hence Jesus' running around the courtyards screaming things, and waving a whip, which was definitely not is usual style.
Solomon had built his temple on the backs of the poor, as kings tend to do. When kings launch some major project, they rarely pay for it themselves; it's the poor, the blind, the lame -- those who have the least to offer a monarch, and therefore get the least attention from the world's rulers -- who pay most dearly. They paid dearly under Solomon's reign. When Herod decided to demonstrate just how much he deserved the title of king and the nickname "the Great," he remodeled and vastly expanded the Temple, and -- as with all his building projects -- the poor under his rule paid most dearly. Herod got his massive and impressive building so God got a bigger and better place for bloodshed.
But God doesn't want blood.
God wants justice.
God wants the hungry fed, the sick cured, the prisoners set free. There will always be someone claiming that God wants another crusade, another war, another dose (or river) of blood to set things right, even the score. And when that happens, when the rulers and "men of vision" of this world launch their grand crusades, it's still the case that the poor pay most dearly. That's certainly the case in the country of my birth. We're embroiled in a war financed by cuts to programs serving those most in need -- well, that and an unprecedented level of debt that will impede our ability to feed the hungry for years to come, if not generations.
Could Jesus have been any clearer? I don't think that God ever wanted blood; I think Micah was right, and what God wanted from us from the start was for us to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God. God sent prophet after prophet to tell us that, and we contracted the world's most profound and persistent case of spiritual ear wax. So God in the unfathomable height and depth and breadth of God's mercy sent Jesus the Christ, and if we believe that his blood shed on the Cross was a perfect, full, and sufficient sacrifice, then the time has come for us to hear God's word and do it:
No more blood. No more death. Not another soul needs to die for anyone's sins. We've got far too much to do to devote a single penny or a single calorie to vengeance or war.
It's true that we've built up an astonishingly elaborate global system that widens the already vast gap between rich and poor, that plunders the earth's resources in ways that lower quality of life for all of us and (no surprise here) most of all for the poor, that pulls us harder and harder apart from one another and from God, and we can't by our own power extricate ourselves to participate in God's mission of healing and reconciliation.
But when we're ready to cry, "who will deliever me from this body of death?" we have have an answer: "Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!" No, I don't think that good progressive intentions coupled with sheer willpower are sufficient to save the world. Indeed, we saw in the early 20th century that those things can have a dark side -- it was good American progressives in what we call the Progressive Era who looked at the science of heredity and decided that forced sterilizations (or worse) of the "feeble-minded" and deviant (not coincidentally, that would mostly be poor people, and no eugenic scientist ever thought s/he was anything but the best of breeding stock) were a crucial part of a strategy to eliminate poverty. Zeal is not enough -- it's what got St. Paul in the pit he was in before he met Jesus. But zeal isn't all we've got:
We've got Jesus. We've got the Body of Christ, this astonishingly diverse worldwide family of sisters and brothers upon whom God has breathed God's Spirit. Listening deeply to one another -- and especially to the poorest and most marginalized among us -- is the best way to cure and prevent recurrence of spiritual ear wax. I'm not saying it's easy, and I'm not saying it isn't painful. It's hard and it hurts sometimes -- that's why Jesus said his followers had to take up the Cross. But we have to trust Jesus, who put his own life on the line, that this is the way to abundant life. And we need to stay in touch with the living, breathing, growing Body of Christ.
We can't free ourselves by sheer willpower, but Christ has freed us and set us in communities of fellow travelers to heal, to serve, and to love with all the power of the Spirit.
Thanks be to God!
Second Sunday in Lent, Year B
Mark 8:31-38 - link to NRSV text
I once heard a sermon suggesting that Jesus' command to deny self, take up the cross, and follow him could involve something as simple as picking up a beer can on the beach and throwing it away.
I don't agree.
I don't think such a thing could even be said in Jesus' time or Mark's. In their time, a cross wasn't a pattern for jewelry, but an instrument of terror as well as torture and death. Here's what I said about it last time I preached on Good Friday:
... the Cross is a dark place, a monument to how we, “blessed with reason and skill,” in the words of one of our Eucharistic prayers, make use of God’s gifts to engineer darker and narrower prisons for ourselves. The Roman culture that invented the cross was known for its ingenuity in making use of simple and natural forms for engineering. Shape stones a certain way, and they form an arch that will support tremendous structures, held together by gravity and friction in a way that makes mortar a mere formality. Chart the right pathway for it, and water can be propelled over a tremendous distance solely by natural gravity in aqueducts.
And perhaps the height of Roman engineering, ingenious in its simplicity, was the cross. Take heavy posts, and set them along the busy roads into the city. Set brackets in them to receive a horizontal beam. Nail or even tie a man’s hands to a beam, set that beam across the pole in brackets, and you have an excruciating form of torture and slow death that takes little time or effort to start but days to finish. Rulers like Pontius Pilate didn't hesitate to use it. It was diabolically simple, cost-effective and highly visible as a public deterrent to those who would oppose the might of Rome. During the Passover season, as Jerusalem became clogged with pilgrims remembering how their God liberates slaves from their oppressors, Pilate lined the roads with hundreds of crosses, each filled with a living tableau of how narrow and dark a prison we can make of our imagination when we set it upon wounding others.
In short, crucifixion was state-sponsored terror meant to keep the populace in line. It made one person suffer unspeakably, obscenely, excruciatingly, and made that suffering a sign for all to see that Rome was the ultimate power, able to bring hell on earth or peace and order.
Is that what the Cross signifies for us, then?
As St. Paul would say, by no means!
We can't realize (a word I'm using intentionally) the meaning of the Cross without taking a moment at least to look at what it meant to the empire that occupied Palestine in Jesus' day. If our heart skips a beat, if there's a sharp intake of breath, that's a good sign. The crosses along the roads of the Roman Empire weren't bits of litter that could be picked up and put away by anyone who “gives a hoot.” They formed a long, terrible gash, an open wound in human freedom, in the human imagination, in God's dream for humanity.
And yet it has become a sign of our freedom, our healing, the reconciliation of all Creation with one another and with God.
How is this? How can it be?
It can -- it is -- in Christ Jesus.
Across the Roman world, the cross was a symbol of power -- the power of empire, the power of armies, the power to dominate. As Christians, it still is the case that realizing the Cross' meaning has to involve us looking hard and talking honestly about power.
That's because the Cross isn't just about how Christ died. If the only thing we knew about Jesus was that he died on a cross, we would have no clue that Jesus was special. The Passover season was a time when the people of Israel were called to celebrate their liberation from oppression, and thousands upon thousands of people made their way to Jerusalem each way to do precisely that. Imagine for a moment those crowds on every street corner, and imagine the mood among those gathered to celebrate liberation. The combination made Roman authorities in Judea very nervous, and when Roman authorities got nervous, they tended to crucify first and ask questions later, or never. So in all likelihood, when Jesus died on a cross just outside Jerusalem's walls during the Passover season, he was surrounded not just by two men, but by dozens. In that sense, Jesus' death was nothing special. Even Jesus' resurrection would just be an item for “news of the weird” or grist for an episode of The X-Files or Smallville if all we knew about Jesus was that he died and then was alive again. If I told you that some guy named Jim Gundersen in MInnesota had been executed by the state, certified as dead, but was alive again three days later, Imost of us would be saying, “Huh, That's really weird,” not “Where is he? Tell me, so I can go worship him!”
The Cross isn't just about how Jesus died, nor is it simply a precursor to Jesus' resurrection. Jesus' death and resurrection have meaning for us because of the manner in which Jesus LIVED.
This, by the way, is why one of the most overused Christmas sermon titles is also one of the worst: “Born to Die.” Jesus was born to die, I suppose, in the sense that all of us are. St. Benedict teaches us to remember our mortality daily, much as we remind one another of our mortality on Ash Wednesday. But even that isn't really about death so much as it is about LIFE -- abundant life, a life of wholeness.
Jesus' manner of life, the way around which he gathered women and men and children to journey, infused his death with profound meaning. The Cross is about how Jesus LIVED. It's what St. Paul had in mind when he wrote this in his letter to the Christians gathered in Philippi:
If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross.
Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
Doing my lectionary weblog this year, I've noticed anew something about the Gospel According to Mark that I find significant as I think about Jesus' cross and what it might mean for me to take it up.
It has to do with the title “son of God,” which is not Mark's favorite way of talking about Jesus. He doesn't use the phrase much, but he uses it at three crucial points as he tells “the beginning of the Good News of Jesus the Christ, the Son of God,” and all of which we visit over the course of Lent and Holy Week.
We hear the phrase at Jesus' Baptism, when he has a vision of the Spirit descending upon him, and Jesus hears God call him as a beloved son. And empowered by that experience, Jesus enters the desert.
We hear the phrase at Jesus' transfiguration on the mountaintop, as Jesus is called as a prophet alongside Moses and Elijah, and once more hears God saying, “this is my beloved child.” Empowered by that experience, Jesus journeys toward his Passover in Jerusalem.
You may have noticed my saying “empowered.” These are stories about Jesus claiming his power. Is that hard to hear? We need to hear it, though. We need to hear it to understand Philippians 2, to realize the vision of the Cross. Because it's at the foot of the Cross that someone -- a Roman soldier no less, a man whose humanity has been so wounded, so eroded, so subverted that he could put another man on a cross -- finally gets what Peter doesn't get in this Sunday's gospel, and this Roman soldier looks at the broken man above him and says -- knows -- “truly this man was God's son.”
He gets it. He perceives Jesus' power in its fullness -- power made perfect in weakness, power poured out for the powerless.
That's the way of the Cross, of Jesus' cross. Jesus claims his power, God's power, and he gets it -- that real power, God's power, is not a limited thing to be grasped, but a inexhaustible stream flowing freely to refresh and empower the weary and the marginalized.
What, then, might it mean for us to take up our Cross and follow Jesus? It's not a call to martyrdom -- if nothing else, the teaching that Jesus' blood shed on the Cross was a perfect, full, and sufficient sacrifice for sin, it ought to tell us that Jesus' blood was the LAST blood to be shed because of sin. God does not need or want bloodshed. Not another drop. God does not call us to be a herd of lemmings. God calls us to be the Body of Christ, praying as Jesus taught us that God's kingdom would come and God's will done on earth as it is in heaven. Jesus taught us to seek God's kingdom and to seek it first -- to look for and journey toward God's dream given flesh in the world, in communities of justice and peace and hope and abundant, vibrant life.
This is a powerful congregation. We have power by virtue of our education, our relative wealth in the world, our privilege in society, our voice. It can be very tempting -- all too tempting -- to seek nothing more than charity. Charity is a start, but it can take us to a dangerous place in which we release some portion of our resources in order to get more power. We maintain a death grip on the unjust privilege that makes us wealthy, that gives us the illusion of control, and then we give away just enough to feel generous without seriously compromising our privilege.
The way of the Cross -- Jesus' way of life -- calls us to let go of that. Jesus' way calls us to be honest about the power we have -- both the worldly power we've got because of our skin color, our gender, our social class, our education, our birth in the most powerful nation in the world, and the spiritual power we have as a community upon which God has breathed the Spirit -- and then to let all of that pour out -- “let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5:24) -- to empower the poor.
We are called not only to make sure that the most marginalized have a place at the table, but also to recognize whose table it is. The table around which we gather belongs to Jesus the Christ, who saw, as Peter in this Sunday's gospel did not, that true power is made perfect in self-giving love, that the way of abundant life leads to the Cross. And the symbol of humanity's brokenness, of power corrupted to become domination, becomes a sign of peace, and freedom, and life.
Thanks be to God!
First Sunday in Lent, Year B
“In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan.”
It sounds fairly dry and matter-of-fact, doesn't it? But there's a lot going on between the lines. Jesus' home and family are in Nazareth of Galilee, and Jesus isn't. This isn't 21st-century white and middle-class America, when adults are expected to leave home to go to college, travel if they can afford it, and find their way in the world alone. It's first-century Palestine, and the decent thing for Jesus to do, by conventional standards would be for him to stay in Nazareth and look after his mother (and his father, if he's alive -- the gospels' silence about Joseph after Jesus' childhood suggests to some that he may have died) until they died, and to make sure they got an honorable burial. That would be the decent thing for a son to do.
The normal thing for a man to do in Jesus' culture, especially for a spiritual leader, would be to stay in Nazareth, marry, and have children -- preferably including at least one son to carry on the family name. That's true even more within most branches of first-century Judaism, in which “be fruitful and multiply” was seen as a binding command from God, not a vague expression of good wishes.
But Jesus didn't do either of those things. Had he married and had children (as the FICTIONAL book The Da Vinci Code suggests), his disciples would have been shouting that from the rooftops, not trying to conceal it -- “Our guy WAS a real man and a good Jew!” But his followers didn't say that, and the best historical explanation for that is that, embarrassing as it was to say that Jesus died having never married or had children, there was just no escaping the fact.
Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. Jesus left his home -- abandoned his family, they would say in the village -- on a spiritual quest.
We have now entered the desert of Lent on a spiritual quest of our own. Lent often gets turned into a very domesticated kind of pious self-improvement; I give up something that most respectable people think is a good thing to give up, at least for a time -- chocolate, beer, swearing, or somesuch -- drop a few pounds and maybe look a little more like what our culture thinks of as 'good,' and other than the purple on the altar Sunday mornings, hardly notice the difference. But if I want to experience this quest fully, I need to note for myself the ways in which the quest we're on for these forty days is NOT tame or respectable. Jesus left his family and entered a desert with wild beasts and angels (and I don't know about you, but I suspect that the reason that the first thing out of an angel's mouth is “don't be afraid!” is that angels are often at least as terrifying as wild beasts), and we are striving to follow him.
That sounds lonely as well as terrifying. How on earth could we do it? Why on earth would we do it?
I think that this Sunday's gospel provides a clue. Jesus enters that desert as a man who is discovering his Baptismal identity, taking it in fully and acting on what he hears from God in Baptism. Jesus has no family where he is -- but in Baptism, God calls Jesus his beloved son, and Jesus hears God say, “with you I am well pleased.”
That means that Jesus has a family. His family by blood is going to come after him to drag him home as a crazy man who's bringing shaming the family name (Mark 2:21), but in Baptism, Jesus has mother and sisters and brothers in whoever does God's will (Mark 3:32-35). Jesus is leaving house and tools, but he will find shelter with others seeking God and God's reign. Jesus is not alone on his journey, and neither are we.
We have one another, and we also have something else on our journey: the opportunity to encounter God as Jesus did, to take in deeply God's word to us that we are God's beloved children, to claim that identity as the central one or maybe even the only one we have.
I don't think that Jesus spent his life after his Baptism trying to figure out what a good person, a good teacher, a good friend, a good leader would say or do and then trying to say or do that. I believe that Jesus sought the living God, claimed his identity as God's child, and let his life, his words, his relationships, and his love, even to giving of himself on the cross, flow from that identity as God's beloved.
Perhaps that's what God is calling me to do this Lenten season: to follow Jesus into that desert to listen deeply for what God has to say to me through my Baptism. And if that's God's call, those wild beasts won't destroy anything worth keeping. Mr. Beaver said of Aslan, “he isn't tame, but he's good,” and I believe that's true of God as well. I want to be alive in the spirit, as Jesus was, and that's a good enough reason to follow Jesus. If God is there, I won't be alone.
And besides, you're coming too, aren't you?
Thanks be to God!