Sixth Sunday of Easter, Year C

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

John 14:23-29

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks be to God!

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

Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany, Year C

Jeremiah 1:4-10 - link to NRSV text
1 Corinthians 13:1-13 - link to NRSV text
Luke 4:21-30 - link to NRSV text

I want to start this week with a shout-out to the Rev. (congratulations on your ordination!) Gabri Ferrer of All Saints' parish in Beverly Hills, who gave me some of the best advice I've ever received as a leader.

Gabri says that at any given point in time, there are twelve people in the world who hate you, who think that you're what's wrong with the church, with the nation, with the world, and you just might be some kind of incarnation of Satan. So when you meet someone who thinks everything you do is awful, there's no need to panic; just say to yourself, "Oh, s/he must be one of the twelve." And by the time you meet a thirteenth person who has such an unrealistically negative view of you, you can assume that another of the twelve has changed her/his mind about you and now has a less negative view.

Over time, I decided that there's an important corollary to that piece of advice. At any given point in time, there are twelve people who have an unrealistically HIGH view of you -- who think of you as something like Jesus, Gandhi, and Bono all in one wise, all-caring, charismatic package. So when you meet someone who seems to think that about you, there's no need to panic; you can just say to yourself, "Ah -- one of the twelve." And by the time you meet a thirteenth person who seems to feel that way, you can be sure that one of the twelve has changed her/his mind about you, either adopting a more realistic view of your strengths and foibles or -- more likely, in my experience -- becoming one of the twelve who think you're absolute evil.

Any advice for leaders that includes the words, "don't panic" can't be all bad, but I've found the usefulness of this advice to extend far beyond that, especially when exercising leadership in Christian congregations.

Too often, people think of Christianity as a kind of self-improvement program that makes people nicer and more respectable, in particular by encouraging them to follow rules according to a kind of "don't rock the boat if you want smooth sailing" philosophy. And too often, leaders in Christian communities tend to function as if this philosophy were discipleship and institutional smooth sailing were their charge to keep.

But take a look at the extreme reactions that Jesus' ministry provokes in this Sunday's gospel reading. He's just read the selections (and yes, he was very selective in choosing them!) from Isaiah that he's claiming as his mission and the focus of his ministry, and the crowd's immediate response is just the sort of thing ever preacher loves: "All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth." Jesus is, well, bigger than Jesus. Success!

And then look at what's happening just a few lines of text further:

"All in the synagogue were filled with rage. They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff." Disaster!

Or is it? Does the crowd's acclaim mean that Jesus was saying and doing "the right thing"? Does the crowd's rage mean that Jesus had said or done "the wrong thing"?

I don't think so on either count. Jesus' selections from Isaiah and his claim that "today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing" delivered a prophetic and deeply challenging message. If anything, it may have been the case that the crowd's apparent pleasure at his message suggested that they hadn't grasped its implications. But Jesus spells out an important one as he revisits other points in Israel's history when God sent a prophet: prophets of Israel minister to, heal, and empower outsiders -- Gentiles as well as Jews. It would be an understatement to say that this message doesn't go over well with the crowd in Jesus' hometown, but it would be foolishness to suggest that this means Jesus ought not to have delivered it.

What can we say? Jesus' manner of life -- his teaching, his healing, his prophetic ministry -- posed a profound challenge to his community. Nor do I think we ought to take this Sunday's gospel as a lesson that he should have restricted those activities to places where or people to whom they'd prove less upsetting. Perhaps one good lesson would be that it can be dangerous to choose a pulpit too close to a cliff, but even that is a trivial and not particularly helpful insight.

And whatever we say about this Sunday's gospel, please let's not say that it is in any way about the small-mindedness of Jews in Jesus' day or any other. It's antisemitic and obnoxious as well as grossly misleading. There was and, I dare say, is a great deal that can be hard about carrying on a prophetic ministry in one's hometown. In Jesus' culture, honor, like all things of value, was seen as being in limited supply; if one person had more, of necessity they must have taken it from someone else. So if Jesus is winning honor and acclaim in his hometown, people are going to be asking from which of his neighbors he was taking it. We may not live in an honor-shame culture, but similar dynamics happen all the time; we behave in community as though honor, appreciation, gratitude, admiration, and love were limited quantities to be guarded jealously, not renewable resources to be offered freely to strangers as well as neighbors and family members -- as freely and graciously as God gives.

That's one of many reasons it can be hard to stay and be a change agent. In some ways, it's a great deal of fun to be a guest preacher: I show up and people buy me dinner, treat me with respect, say kind things about my blog and my sermon, and as a guest I can say a great deal that's challenging without fear of being rushed off any nearby precipices. But I sure miss exercising and growing into ministry in contexts in which our journeys with one another -- our living with one another with our foibles and failing as well as our strengths and triumphs -- make clear just how little of Jesus' ministry among us is about glamor and dazzle and getting the show on.

That's one reason I find Benedictine practice helpful, though by temperament I'm far more Franciscan. I'm attracted to the grand gesture. I think my favorite hymn stanza is from "When I Survey the Wondrous Cross":

Were the whole realm of nature mine
That were an off'ring far too small
Love so amazing, so divine
Demands my soul, my life, my all.

When I was in college in particular, I had romantic imaginings of being a missionary, living in cultures radically different from my own, radically sharing the poverty of those with whom I journeyed, and in general doing lots of things to which the word "radical" could be attached. A call to long-term overseas missionary work has eluded me to this point, though, and I must say that I've grown a great deal in the challenges of what the Benedictines call "stability."

Stability suggests that we maintain practices of discernment to stay open to a new call, but we minister where we are until such a call is discerned. Sometimes I think there's no discipline harder for a Tigger-like ENFP Franciscan like me. Often I thank God for all I've learned in my inept attempts to exercise and grow in it, though. I've learned that it is in some ways all too easy for many of us to mistake glib showmanship for prophetic ministry unless we are surrounded by people who know one another well and who tell one another the truth, more (or less -- others are allowed flaws too in these communities!) gently and lovingly, to the best of their ability. Neither the embarrassment of undeserved praise nor the pain of being on the receiving end of someone's anger will tell us whether we are where we are called to be or doing what we are called to do. Nor can we draw up a job description for prophetic ministry and run our lives according to it -- had Jeremiah done that (or Moses, or Isaiah, or ...), God's people would have been deprived the voice of the prophet God was calling.

But if we can't measure our ministry by others' reactions, if we're not going to take our cues from either the twelve who think we're Mahatma Bono McJesus or the twelve who want to rush us over the cliff edge, by what do we measure ministry?

St. Paul gives us a helpful suggestion in 1 Corinthians 13 -- a passage written to address how we engage in discernment around the exercise of spiritual gifts in community, not as a guide to romance or marriage. Paul tells us that the measure of all things is love.

If I preach eloquent sermons but don't engage in the hard and rewarding work of 1 Corinthians 13-style love, I'm just making noise. If I inspire my community to increasing stretches of centering prayer and bible study but not to engage with one another and with the world in 1 Corinthians 13-style love, I'm a failure. And if my companions on the journey of faith don't lovingly hold me to love's measure, they have failed me too.

Church growth and psychological fads and charismatic leaders will come and go, as will every sort of real, imagined, or manufactured crisis, and though we do catch glimpses of who we are and what we are called to be in Christ, they are imperfect and passing. But now, amidst whatever else is going on, faith, hope, and love abide. May we abide in increasing fulness in love, the greatest of these.

Thanks be to God!

January 27, 2007 in 1 Corinthians, Discernment, Epiphany, Jeremiah, Leadership, Love, Luke, Year C | Permalink | Comments (0)

Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany, Year C

Jeremiah 1:4-10 - link to NRSV text
1 Corinthians 13:1-13 - link to NRSV text
Luke 4:21-30 - link to NRSV text

I want to start this week with a shout-out to the Rev. (congratulations on your ordination!) Gabri Ferrer of All Saints' parish in Beverly Hills, who gave me some of the best advice I've ever received as a leader.

Gabri says that at any given point in time, there are twelve people in the world who hate you, who think that you're what's wrong with the church, with the nation, with the world, and you just might be some kind of incarnation of Satan. So when you meet someone who thinks everything you do is awful, there's no need to panic; just say to yourself, "Oh, s/he must be one of the twelve." And by the time you meet a thirteenth person who has such an unrealistically negative view of you, you can assume that another of the twelve has changed her/his mind about you and now has a less negative view.

Over time, I decided that there's an important corollary to that piece of advice. At any given point in time, there are twelve people who have an unrealistically HIGH view of you -- who think of you as something like Jesus, Gandhi, and Bono all in one wise, all-caring, charismatic package. So when you meet someone who seems to think that about you, there's no need to panic; you can just say to yourself, "Ah -- one of the twelve." And by the time you meet a thirteenth person who seems to feel that way, you can be sure that one of the twelve has changed her/his mind about you, either adopting a more realistic view of your strengths and foibles or -- more likely, in my experience -- becoming one of the twelve who think you're absolute evil.

Any advice for leaders that includes the words, "don't panic" can't be all bad, but I've found the usefulness of this advice to extend far beyond that, especially when exercising leadership in Christian congregations.

Too often, people think of Christianity as a kind of self-improvement program that makes people nicer and more respectable, in particular by encouraging them to follow rules according to a kind of "don't rock the boat if you want smooth sailing" philosophy. And too often, leaders in Christian communities tend to function as if this philosophy were discipleship and institutional smooth sailing were their charge to keep.

But take a look at the extreme reactions that Jesus' ministry provokes in this Sunday's gospel reading. He's just read the selections (and yes, he was very selective in choosing them!) from Isaiah that he's claiming as his mission and the focus of his ministry, and the crowd's immediate response is just the sort of thing ever preacher loves: "All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth." Jesus is, well, bigger than Jesus. Success!

And then look at what's happening just a few lines of text further:

"All in the synagogue were filled with rage. They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff." Disaster!

Or is it? Does the crowd's acclaim mean that Jesus was saying and doing "the right thing"? Does the crowd's rage mean that Jesus had said or done "the wrong thing"?

I don't think so on either count. Jesus' selections from Isaiah and his claim that "today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing" delivered a prophetic and deeply challenging message. If anything, it may have been the case that the crowd's apparent pleasure at his message suggested that they hadn't grasped its implications. But Jesus spells out an important one as he revisits other points in Israel's history when God sent a prophet: prophets of Israel minister to, heal, and empower outsiders -- Gentiles as well as Jews. It would be an understatement to say that this message doesn't go over well with the crowd in Jesus' hometown, but it would be foolishness to suggest that this means Jesus ought not to have delivered it.

What can we say? Jesus' manner of life -- his teaching, his healing, his prophetic ministry -- posed a profound challenge to his community. Nor do I think we ought to take this Sunday's gospel as a lesson that he should have restricted those activities to places where or people to whom they'd prove less upsetting. Perhaps one good lesson would be that it can be dangerous to choose a pulpit too close to a cliff, but even that is a trivial and not particularly helpful insight.

And whatever we say about this Sunday's gospel, please let's not say that it is in any way about the small-mindedness of Jews in Jesus' day or any other. It's antisemitic and obnoxious as well as grossly misleading. There was and, I dare say, is a great deal that can be hard about carrying on a prophetic ministry in one's hometown. In Jesus' culture, honor, like all things of value, was seen as being in limited supply; if one person had more, of necessity they must have taken it from someone else. So if Jesus is winning honor and acclaim in his hometown, people are going to be asking from which of his neighbors he was taking it. We may not live in an honor-shame culture, but similar dynamics happen all the time; we behave in community as though honor, appreciation, gratitude, admiration, and love were limited quantities to be guarded jealously, not renewable resources to be offered freely to strangers as well as neighbors and family members -- as freely and graciously as God gives.

That's one of many reasons it can be hard to stay and be a change agent. In some ways, it's a great deal of fun to be a guest preacher: I show up and people buy me dinner, treat me with respect, say kind things about my blog and my sermon, and as a guest I can say a great deal that's challenging without fear of being rushed off any nearby precipices. But I sure miss exercising and growing into ministry in contexts in which our journeys with one another -- our living with one another with our foibles and failing as well as our strengths and triumphs -- make clear just how little of Jesus' ministry among us is about glamor and dazzle and getting the show on.

That's one reason I find Benedictine practice helpful, though by temperament I'm far more Franciscan. I'm attracted to the grand gesture. I think my favorite hymn stanza is from "When I Survey the Wondrous Cross":

Were the whole realm of nature mine
That were an off'ring far too small
Love so amazing, so divine
Demands my soul, my life, my all.

When I was in college in particular, I had romantic imaginings of being a missionary, living in cultures radically different from my own, radically sharing the poverty of those with whom I journeyed, and in general doing lots of things to which the word "radical" could be attached. A call to long-term overseas missionary work has eluded me to this point, though, and I must say that I've grown a great deal in the challenges of what the Benedictines call "stability."

Stability suggests that we maintain practices of discernment to stay open to a new call, but we minister where we are until such a call is discerned. Sometimes I think there's no discipline harder for a Tigger-like ENFP Franciscan like me. Often I thank God for all I've learned in my inept attempts to exercise and grow in it, though. I've learned that it is in some ways all too easy for many of us to mistake glib showmanship for prophetic ministry unless we are surrounded by people who know one another well and who tell one another the truth, more (or less -- others are allowed flaws too in these communities!) gently and lovingly, to the best of their ability. Neither the embarrassment of undeserved praise nor the pain of being on the receiving end of someone's anger will tell us whether we are where we are called to be or doing what we are called to do. Nor can we draw up a job description for prophetic ministry and run our lives according to it -- had Jeremiah done that (or Moses, or Isaiah, or ...), God's people would have been deprived the voice of the prophet God was calling.

But if we can't measure our ministry by others' reactions, if we're not going to take our cues from either the twelve who think we're Mahatma Bono McJesus or the twelve who want to rush us over the cliff edge, by what do we measure ministry?

St. Paul gives us a helpful suggestion in 1 Corinthians 13 -- a passage written to address how we engage in discernment around the exercise of spiritual gifts in community, not as a guide to romance or marriage. Paul tells us that the measure of all things is love.

If I preach eloquent sermons but don't engage in the hard and rewarding work of 1 Corinthians 13-style love, I'm just making noise. If I inspire my community to increasing stretches of centering prayer and bible study but not to engage with one another and with the world in 1 Corinthians 13-style love, I'm a failure. And if my companions on the journey of faith don't lovingly hold me to love's measure, they have failed me too.

Church growth and psychological fads and charismatic leaders will come and go, as will every sort of real, imagined, or manufactured crisis, and though we do catch glimpses of who we are and what we are called to be in Christ, they are imperfect and passing. But now, amidst whatever else is going on, faith, hope, and love abide. May we abide in increasing fulness in love, the greatest of these.

Thanks be to God!

January 27, 2007 in 1 Corinthians, Discernment, Epiphany, Jeremiah, Leadership, Love, Luke, Year C | Permalink | Comments (4)

Sixth Sunday of Easter, Year B

Sorry about the delay posting this week -- I had more technological misadventures, but the VERY, very good news of the day is that my beloved PowerBook is at long last back in my hands! I'm no longer reliant on borrowed computers, which should make many things go MUCH more smoothly in the weeks to come.

Acts 11:19-30 - link to NRSV text
1 John 4:7-21 - link to NRSV text
John 15:9-17 - link to NRSV text

Remember the "Friends & Family" plan for long-distance telephone service? It was a pretty smart marketing idea -- so smart, in fact, that it's now standard in a variety of other kinds of services, like my cell phone's "In-Network" plan. When I use my cell phone, minutes get counted with most calls; I've bought a certain number of minutes, and that's what I get. But if someone is calling me or I'm calling someone "in-network" -- someone whose service comes from the same company as mine -- the minutes don't get counted, and I don't have to pay for them.

Our readings for this Sunday just might be the earliest recorded "Friends & Family" plan, though it covers far more than cell phone minutes. Some of the most shallow Christian theology makes God sound like the ultimate bean-counter. In this view, God sits in heaven tallying accounts obsessively to make sure that every petty offense is bought and paid for, and when the bill is due, he (God the Heavenly Bean-Counter is invariably presented as male by adherents) will collect the last penny -- even if he has to take it from his own son, and even if doing that will cost his son's life in the worst of ways to lose it. The important thing -- the only thing, really -- in Heavenly Bean-Counter theology is that those books kept with perfect meticulousness balance in the end.

At best, Bean-Counter theology can have an almost paradoxical effect: by dwelling on just how much we'd be shown to owe God if it were measured, we might gain an appreciation of how beyond measure is the grace we experience in Christ, and that in turn might inspire us to cut our neighbors some slack when we're tempted to tally their balance of sins and righteous acts.

Sadly, though, Bean-Counter theology almost never seems to have this effect on its adherents -- in more cases than not, people I've met who most strongly emphasize that each of us have done things that, were there no such thing as redemption, would bring death upon us have not been inspired to say "... and if God can give me the gifts of God's love, of the Spirit, of eternal and joyous life that I don't deserve, surely God's grace will extend to whatever my neighbor does or fails to do," or even "God's the one keeping accounts here, and doesn't need or want me to presume to keep them"; they have rather been inspired to keep more careful accounts than ever of what they perceive as their neighbors' transgressions.

I'll never forget a conversation I had in the office elevator with a co-worker at a tech company. He was a devout Christian who was outraged that Disney would offer health insurance to same-sex domestic partners of employees, and he'd been boycotting Disney because of it. I didn't try to argue with him about the morality of same-sex unions, but I did want to challenge him regarding his assumption that he was doing God's will by trying to force companies to allocate benefits at least in part according to perceived righteousness. "I wish that everyone had health care," I said, "and I don't see how anything Jesus said or did could suggest that we ought to take health care away from someone because we think they're sinning. If anything, it sounds to me like Disney is, however inadvertently or incompletely, serving Jesus, who said that those who care for the sick are caring for him."

I think also of a conversation I imagined the evening of September 11, 2001. I imagined President Bush stepping to the podium to make a statement to the press: "During my campaign for this office, a lot of people chuckled when I said that my favorite political philosopher was Jesus Christ. I was serious about that, though. As an evangelical Christian, I believe that Jesus' death paid the price for all sin -- for all people, and for all time. And so I believe that Jesus' blood paid the price for the blood shed today, and for that reason I cannot say that today's attacks, as terrible and evil as they were, call for  more bloodshed. God bless our enemies as well as our friends, and God bless America."

The conversation with my co-worker happened and changed his mind about punishing Disney; that imaginary press conference didn't happen, and would have provoked outrage if it had. But I still think about it -- how can someone hold that Jesus loves us so much as to pay the price for our sin, and yet still say that evildoers must pay -- especially with blood -- for what they've done?

It happens a lot, though. I know that orthodox Christian belief would see Jesus as sharing the character of God the Father, and I know that there are views of 'substitutionary atonement' that aren't shallow as this 'Bean-Counter' version, but we're talking about a particular and particularly shallow branch of popular theology here that presents God the Father as literally out for blood, while God the Son is happy to give blood but doesn't need it himself. And when we see God the Father as being driven mostly or entirely by the need to "balance the books," it seems almost psychologically inevitable that we would try to imitate our bean-counting deity on that point. I suspect that's one reason we have televangelists on the airwaves after every natural disaster trying to pinpoint just whose and which sins made God decide to play Godzilla (a metaphor I find particularly apt in light of the ways in which Godzilla often appears in films as the way that nuclear weapons or messing up the environment come back to bite us in the proverbial butt).

But that's not the kind of God Jesus proclaims. "As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love," Jesus says. Jesus' relationship with God the Creator was not one that included score-keeping. There are no tit-for-tat deals between the First and Second Persons of the Trinity, no bills sent or payments made. One of my favorite theological words is perichoresis -- a word describing relationships of Persons of the Trinity that means 'enveloping,' a whole, completely free and completely full interchange. When Jesus says "as the Father has loved me," that's the kind of relationship he's talking about.

The rest of the sentence -- "I have loved you; abide in my love" -- is an invitation to us to share that very quality of relationship in our relationship with him. And that's on reason that Jesus command to "love one another as I have loved you" is so astonishing. We are called and empowered to share with one another the very kind of love that envelops the life of the Trinity.

"Love" is a word that's so often overused and misused in our culture. "I love a good margarita" is, for example, a perfectly fine thing to say. And then there are the ways the word "love" is misused with reference to God. "God loves you" is said all too often in conjunction with the image of the Heavenly Bean-Counter to say that God's "love" looks something like a stalker's -- God really loathes us enough to want to kill us, but has deluded himself into seeing only his son when he looks at us, and therefore has decided to watch us constantly and nag us frequently so we do what he wants. Those who believe that God is like this just might resort to the same mixture of nagging and force on their neighbors that they think God uses on them.

But God's love isn't like that at all. God's love is free, full, powerful, and gentle. Jesus invites us to experience that kind of love through him -- and then we are invited to see all of our relationships transformed in the image of that love -- a love in which no one is anonymous or dispensable, no one is cast aside as irredeemable, and everyone exercises the kind of relaxed and joyful generosity that happens when nobody is keeping score in any arena. That's why the believers in Acts share with fellow Christians on the other side of the world as freely as they'd share with their own mother or daughter. Knowledge of that love demonstrated in caring for one another in this way is the test proposed in 1 John for whether we know God. And Jesus' lengthy "farewell discourse" in the Gospel According to John urges Jesus' followers to abide in that love repeatedly.

It's a love that changed Jesus' followers forever. It's a love that changes us day by day. And it's a love that could change the world, making real Isaiah's vision of peace and plenty. That's Jesus' gift -- and like all true gifts, it's given freely.

Thanks be to God!

May 19, 2006 in 1 John, Acts, Easter, Inclusion, John, Justice, Love, ONE campaign/Millennium Development Goals, Year B | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Fifth Sunday of Easter, Year B

Deuternomy 4:32-40 - link to NRSV text
Acts 8:26-40 - link to NRSV text
1 John 3:(14-17)18-24 - link to NRSV text
John 14:15-21 - link to NRSV text

The Ethiopian eunuch asks Philip a very brave question: "What is there to prevent me from being Baptized?" It seems a reasonable question in many ways. He was in his chariot studying Isaiah (as one does -- don't you?) when he happened upon Philip. Philip tells him that the redemption Isaiah anticipates has come in Jesus. And then they happen upon a convenient water source! What is to prevent him from being Baptized?

I still say it's a brave question. Anyone who asks that question today of a leader just might be greeted with a list: Well, do you REALLY understand what's going on in the Eucharist? What's your attitude on the authority of scripture, or on human sexuality? Do you still plan to work in that den of vice they call a court in Ethiopia? And then there's that delicate matter of your operation. You understand that it renders you unfit to enter the Temple, right? It's so important for people to know their place, and yours is, well ... not the same as ours. We need to have a few decades of dialogue about your place -- you can wait over there.

It reminds me of the very funny and very, very effective ad the UCC has created called "Ejector Pew." (Watch it if you haven't seen it -- brilliant!) But that's not the response the eunuch got from Philip. Philip baptized him, and he went on his way rejoicing.

A lot of sermons pretty much end there. It's the happy ending -- God loves you. You're in! Rejoice and skip into the sunset. But let's not end there. Ending there leaves us all wondering what's next. When we don't explore that question together, we often end up filling in the blanks with whatever our culture says is good. Rejoice and go on your way -- oh, and work hard and play by the rules, go to church every Sunday, be generous, don't do drugs, and make sure to send flowers on Mother's Day. Amen.

But have you ever noticed that in the "Great Commission" in Matthew, the passage most often pointed to as warrant for evangelism, that Jesus does NOT say "go and make converts," let alone "go and make churchgoers." The "Great Commission" is to make disciples, Baptizing them AND teaching them to obey Jesus' commands. This Sunday's gospel has a similar exhortation from Jesus: "If you love me, you will keep my commandments."

"Commandments" has a serious ring to it -- it gives the sentence a kind of James Earl Jones-gravitas. It's a favorite word of the Morals Police who want to add some teeth to those "work hard and play by the rules" commandments of our culture. "This," they say, rubbing their hands, is where we get down to business." They're often disappointed when they take a closer look at just what Jesus says is his commandment in John 15:12: "This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you."

"Oh good!" some folks would say, "I was afraid he was going to say something heavy. I just LOVE love, though. All you need is love! Love lifts up where we belong! Who could be against that? We're pretty much back to the skipping into the sunset rejoicing plan."

We're going to hear more about this next week, when our gospel passage includes John 15:12 -- and the next verse, which has quite a kicker that the romantic love of Moulin Rouge wouldn't touch with a ten-foot pole. But we've got a good introduction to the concept in this week's reading from 1 John (and it's short enough -- why on earth would anyone go with the shorter version of it?):

We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us -- and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. How does God's love abide in anyone who has the world's goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help? Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.

Jesus loved us such that he gave his life, his very self, for us, holding nothing back. As I've said before, that doesn't indicate that Jesus was a creature like the lemmings of Disney myth, flinging himself off a cliff for no reason other than to encourage others to do the same. Jesus is at work in the family business, and so Jesus' love functions as does his Father's: calling out a motley assortment of slaves judged of no account by the powerful, and gathering them as a community to become a people. I think that's worth keeping in mind when thinking about this week's reading from Deuteronomy.

Would it be Good News, would it be the family business of God and God's people if the Israelites were called out of Egypt just to become another kingdom with another Pharoah and another set of people condemned to slavery by rulers' military might? As St. Paul would say, by no means! God calls us -- especially those of us judged to be losers of no account in the world's scheme of things -- to freedom from this world's Pharoahs not so we can form our own domineering hierarchy with the "right" people on top, but so we can do things differently. We don't replace one Pharoah with another; God is our king, and any other applicants for the job can forget it.

That's radical -- so radical, in fact, that it remained controversial within Israel for centuries. How are we supposed to hold our own against hostile powers around us if we're not prepared to kick butt on their terms -- with armies, led by a kickass king? But what Jesus proposes might be even more radical -- and I'd give, well, a LOT to see if anyone picks this up for preaching this Mother's Day. Jesus' calling out of motley individuals to form God's people doesn't just say that having God as our king defines the nation, and therefore we don't need any human monarchs; it says that with God as our Father we are truly one family as beloved children of God, and that is to be the sole claim on family allegiance.

As far as our culture is concerned, that is CRAZY. That's bad. Does this story report the behavior of a good son, by conventional reckonings?

A crowd was sitting around him: and they said to him, "Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you." And he replied, "Who are my mother and my brothers?" And looking at those who sat around him, he said, "Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother"
(Mark 3:32-35)

It reminds me of the game improvisational comedy troupes play (yup, I was in one once) called "World's Worst," in which comics are given a category of "the world's worst ..." and have to supply entries for it. I'd enter this one in the category of "World's Worst Message for a Mother's Day Card."

It's just not our culture's way of reckoning things. We appreciate our mothers, and I do think that we tend not to appreciate them anywhere near enough. But every Mother's Day, I think also of all my friends, acquaintances, and fellow or former parishioners who feel judged as a failure by everyone around them because they don't have our culture's ideal: a lawfully married spouse (or at least a life partner) and kids, preferably living in a well-kept house the adults own. The floral-industrial complex -- and far too many Mother's Day sermons -- leave them out entirely.

And then I think about some other mothers who won't be getting flowers, breakfast in bed, or ice cream cakes this Sunday. I think about mothers in Darfur facing agonizing decisions about which of their children to feed. I think about a mother in Zimbabwe I read about recently in the newspaper who wonders who will care for her children once the menengitis she's suffering from -- a treatable condition, but she can't afford the treatment -- takes her from them. And as much as I want to love and appreciate and honor the women in my community who give of themselves to love and nurture the children I see playing in the aisles of the church during the Eucharist on Sunday morning, I want to pose the question that seems unthinkable in our culture, and especially on this Sunday:

What if we saw every mama as our own mother or sister? What if we welcomed and nourished and stood up for every child as if each one was our very own flesh? Jesus' love -- the love we have received, and therefore are equipped to live out and pass along to our world -- is such that he said, "I will not leave you orphaned"; instead, he gave us an Advocate, the Holy Spirit of truth. And this week particularly, my heart breaks for all of those children who will be orphaned today, and tomorrow, and the next day, and Sunday.

This is a situation that is within our power to change. Clean water, a mosquito net, a phone call made or a vote cast to stop subsidizing violence -- a critical mass of small, simple things like that could give life to so many mothers and their children. So this Sunday, by all means give flowers, and ice cream cakes, and breakfasts in bed. Give all the love you've got to give to the women in your life. And because love -- especially God's love, Jesus' love -- is not a limited good, a finite pie we have less to give when we give some away, give a moment of your time, a second of your imagination, to other children's mothers, and to orphaned children. Pray for the capacity to receive God's love the way Jesus did, the way that overflows for the world. And please take a moment after ordering the flowers and signing the cards to send to stop by someplace like the ONE Campaign to find out what one person, one family, one moment can do to help create a world in which every mother can see each of her children get clean water, good food, an education, a chance.

Thanks be to God!

May 11, 2006 in 1 John, Easter, John, Justice, Kinship/Family, Leadership, Love, Mark, ONE campaign/Millennium Development Goals, Women, Year B | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Christmas Day: The Feast of the Nativity

Printer-friendly version

You can find links to all of the potential readings here. There are three sets, to be used according to the time of the service, but at any service, I don't think I'm presumptuous in thinking that the sermon is going to be about Christmas, the Incarnation, and what it means for us.

Many times in my youth, I heard that Christmas is the time when God bridged the gap between heaven and earth, or between spirit and flesh. But that's not what the Incarnation did for us. Creation did that for us. The Gospel of John makes that very clear: for its author, “the beginning of the Good News” of the Son of God, to borrow Mark's phrase, is in Creation. The Good News begins for John in that moment in the very beginning when “all things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being” (John 1:3). The Gospel of John might have more rhetoric of “us vs. them” than any other canonical gospel (it comes of the intensity of persecution the community felt), but it makes very, very clear from its very beginning of its story that the beginning, middle, and end of the story of the world is one of love -- intimate and unwavering love.

[CORRECTION 12-22-05: I removed the paragraph about the word for “love” in John 3:16. It is NOT eros; I was working from memory, and my memory failed me! Many thanks for those who caught the error. But if you look at how the four Greek terms for “love” in Hellenistic literature, I think you'll still find that the terms blur together far more than we often let on. And my main point -- that God has been intimately involved with physical bodies, which he declared to be “very good” in Genesis 1:31, from Creation.]

So let me tell you what Christmas is NOT about: It is not about a God who can barely stand smelly fleshy people until becoming one. It is not about healing a rift between the spiritual and the physical. Here's what it is about, or the start of it: In the very beginning, John tells us -- before there were any people to need redeeming -- God was present with and active in the world, loving every human being intensely, passionately, faithfully.

As you can guess, my top choice of classic Christmas carol lines to rewrite would be, “Lo, he abhors not the virgin's womb,” which seems to me to say more about how many people think that bodies -- and women's bodies in particular -- are icky than it does about solid biblical theology. That story often told about the physical world being hopeless and at least a little disgusting to God until God hold's God's nose and plunges into humanity is NOT the story of Christmas.

If anything, the story of Christmas has the opposite message. If I had to sum up the Incarnation in a nutshell, I'd say that it means that as Christians, we hold the fullest revelation of God's purposes on earth and of God's very character to be in the flesh-and-blood person of Jesus of Nazareth, whose birth we celebrate in the Feast of the Nativity. Among many, many other things, that means that there is NOTHING intrinsic to human life that God shrinks from.

But is that the meaning of Christmas? I'd say it isn't. It's part of it, but Christmas is much richer than “God loves you, and doesn't think you or your body is icky.” Christmas isn't about bridging the gap between God and humanity, because God has never left us, even when we've naively tried to leave God, and even when our behavior is far from what God is doing on earth. But it is about closing another gap, another kind of transcendence.

I hesitate to use the word “transcendence,” as it's awfully abstract, but I can't think of a better one. It's an awkward use not least because it's often used so crudely, as if God “transcending,” being beyond what's right here, meant that God is hanging out on some distant moon. Some biblical writers use imagery that sounded a little like that, imagery of God sitting on a throne in the heavens and using the earth as a footstool and so on, but it's a poet's image. The prophets in particular (and props to Scott Bartchy, my Ph.D. supervisor, for turning me on to this) also talked in a way that suggests God's transcendence, God's going beyond as well as being in the world we experience, is about time. God is with us right here and right now, but God is also ahead of us, beckoning us toward a future in which the world is all about love -- as obviously as it is truly.

That probably still sounds a little abstract. Let me put it this way: the Gospel According to Luke, the source of our gospel reading in two of our three sets of readings for Christmas, tells us how Jesus taught his followers to pray: that God's kingdom would come and God's will be done on earth as it is in heaven. That was no dry recitation, and it was no wild, speculative hope of someone in darkness saying, “I hope someone out there has a match.” It was the passionate declaration of someone who SAW it, who KNEW it, whose very life penetrated the barrier between the now that we live in and the future we and our world were made for: God's kingdom come, God's will done in every way on earth. The life we celebrate at Christmas is God's future breaking into the present, and it's like a circuit made complete; God's justice, God's powerful love, courses through.

Advent, when we fully enter into it, is a season in which we reflect on God's dream for the world and for us. We study it, we long for it, we sing about it prayerfully, wholeheartedly. And when we can make the time and the space in our busy lives to have these experiences -- and sometimes when we can't or don't, because God is, after all and always, gracious -- we can almost see it and smell it and taste it. And the dream is that vivid, we have a sense of just how close we are to being THERE. If you haven't had that experience, or even if you have, it's worth taking a moment on Christmas Day to close your eyes or open them -- whatever is most conducive to this kind of dreaming for you -- and pause to imagine what the world would look like with every longing of the prophets fulfilled: People living in harmony with one another, with God, and with the world we live in -- no enmity or envy or greed or hunger. You have what you need, and are made content by others having what they need. Dream the prophets' dream, and take a look around at a world in which nothing separates us from one another or from God. Smell it and taste it; drink it in.

That getting in touch with the prophets' vision, with the future God intends for us and for the whole Creation God loves passionately, is Advent.

And now comes Christmas.

The hope of the prophets, that longed-for “someday,” is born in flesh among us NOW. The Word of God whose love gave birth to the world is here among us! It's no pie in the sky; it's a child, revealed to the hosts of heaven and the shepherds shivering in the cold outside the village. The life that has come among us is none other than the light of the world. No darkness can overcome it; all the ends of the earth will see God's salvation, deliverance from everything that separates us from one another and from God.

That's why they say this is Good News. And here's something that just might be the best part of it: when we proclaim that God's Word was made flesh to live among us, we're not just talking about an event in the first-century Roman province of Palestine. Every time we gather together to live into the way of Jesus, we are the Body of Christ, and the life-giving Word that powers the universe finds flesh among us. If it's hard for you to drink in the hope of the prophets by imagining -- if there what comes to mind for you is broken relationships, worries, or fears, and if you can't imagine a light that could reach the whole world -- then the invitation that comes to us this Christmas season is as much or more for you. Stay with us, with these little candle-lit groups clustered around the world. For all our flaws and foibles, God's grace breaks through among us, and the angels' song echoes as our learning to forgive and bless one another points to the full realization of the love for which and in which the world was born.

Glory to God in the highest heaven, and peace for the world God loves!

Thanks be to God!

December 18, 2005 in Christmas, Isaiah, John, Justice, Love, Luke, Prophets, Year B | Permalink | Comments (8) | TrackBack

Proper 25, Year A

Exodus 22:21-27 - link to NRSV text
Matthew 22:34-46 - link to NRSV text

White American middle-class churches are particularly prone, it seems, to an assumption that spirituality, and Christianity in particular or by extension, is primarily about interiority -- about feeling a certain way about God, about other people, and about one's self. This Sunday's texts put the lie to that. In the first-century Mediterranean world, "love" was not a vague warm feeling toward someone, but a pattern of action -- attachment to a person backed up with behavior. When Jesus, citing Deuteronomy 6:5, says, "love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind," he's spelling out what is implied in calling God "Lord," and what is stated in Deuteronomy 6:4: when God is Lord, that position is filled; no others need apply, as all our faculties are fully devoted to God's service.

And when Jesus cites Leviticus 19:18 saying, "you shall love your neighbor as yourself" -- a commandment which Jesus says is of equal importance with the first -- I'm with Daniel Harrington (with whom I often disagree on other points) that "there is no hint in the Bible of the modern psychological emphasis on the need for self-esteem and the idea that one must love oneself before loving others" (from p. 315 of his commentary on Matthew). Self-esteem is a fine thing, to be sure, and people have benefited a great deal from the insights of modern psychology, but these interior emotional states just weren't a focus in first-century Mediterranean cultures.

So what does this command mean, then? The earliest Christian commentary on this text after the gospels, namely James 2:1-17, will be a major help in figuring that out. When Jesus said "love your neighbor as yourself," he was essentially saying, "treat all those around you as you would your own flesh and blood" -- that is, as sisters and brothers in one family, deserving of equal honor and special care. You may notice that this passage in James treats "faith" and "love" almost as synonyms; while American churches tend to read both as interior mental or emotional states, in first-century Mediterranean cultures true faith and true love are both matters of affiliation backed up with consistent action, of treating people with respect and enacting rather than merely professing compassion.

In other words, the kinds of facts we see laid out here show just how far we have to go in loving our neighbors as as our own family. Bread for the World is right: we have, by our action and our inaction, built a world in which the deck is stacked against the poor, and serving God with our heart, soul, and mind means that we are called to bring everything we've got -- our voice and our political power as well as our financial resources -- to bear in living out God's mission of reconciliation and redemption for all the world. It's true that our sins, things done and left undone, have built a world in which coming from a family or a region trapped in extreme poverty means a death sentence issued before birth, a world built around the kind of favoritism that the Letter of James condemns writ large.

But it's also true that Christ came to save the world from sin, and Christ is both calling and empowering us to do what it takes to eliminate extreme poverty in this generation. That means not only sending direct aid to feed people in places like Haiti, but also working to end U.S. policies that dump highly subsidized rice on the Haitian market, creating the hunger we're supposedly dedicated to ending. That means making trade fair, creating economic opportunities for children around the world that we want for our own children. That means working for educational opportunities around the world so that every child has the kind of chance to succeed that we want for our own children.

For that reason, our text for this Sunday from the Hebrew bible seems especially well-chosen:

God said, “You shall not wrong or oppress a resident alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt. You shall not abuse any widow or orphan. If you do abuse them, when they cry out to me, I will surely heed their cry; my wrath will burn, and I will kill you with the sword, and your wives shall become widows and your children orphans. If you lend money to my people, to the poor among you, you shall not deal with them as a creditor; you shall not exact interest from them. If you take your neighbor’s cloak in pawn, you shall restore it before the sun goes down; for it may be your neighbor’s only clothing to use as cover; in what else shall that person sleep? And if your neighbor cries out to me, I will listen, for I am compassionate.”
    -- Exodus 22:21-27

These days especially, the temptation seems especially strong to churches and their members to reduce the Gospel to one point, and for some it's the more specific the better -- the better for use as a very specific litmus test, I suppose. In this Sunday's gospel, Jesus is given a wide-open invitation to do the same, and he declines. Asked what one commandment is most important, he gives two -- and not just any two. The two commandments he gives demand nothing less than heart, soul, and mind -- in other words, every part of a person capable of valuing something -- and that those capacities be devoted to God and to every neighbor (and for who would be exempt from the category of "neighbor" in Jesus' mind, I can think of no better place in Jesus' teaching to turn than the "Parable of the Good Samaritan"). There's a point of Jesus' morality that I derive from this that I think is a timely one in our current climate of polarization:

Despite the frequency with which people turn to Jesus to find out to whom they're NOT obligated, which people under which circumstances are out of the reach of God's love and therefore are beyond the call of God's people to ministry, Jesus' call will compel each one of his followers to take the fullest extent of God's love to the furthest reach of that love, to every person whom God made. In other words, we may as well take the energy we devote to coming up with a clever question to exempt us and give it to the call of love that is before us. The book of Exodus is spot-on in presenting this as a matter of national security; there is no better way to undermine the agenda of terrorist groups who would drum up hate against us and make widows and orphans of our families than to love our enemies, overcoming evil with good. And in citing the two greatest commandments, Jesus has shown us also that this is a matter of spiritual fidelity as well, that in serving our neighbors around the world as we would our own flesh and blood, our lives stand as testimony to the lordship of the one God who made us all. There is no call more consuming, and none more fulfilling.

Thanks be to God!

October 19, 2005 in Exodus, James, Kinship/Family, Love, Matthew, ONE campaign/Millennium Development Goals, Ordinary Time, Year A | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack