Christmas Day (Year A, Year B, Year C)
I want to apologize to you for three things.
One is my not posting before now. I've been working seven days a week of late, and often double shifts (e.g., yesterday I worked from 8:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m.). Some folks here have been very generous, and several have ordered Guitar Center gear through me, and that's a huge help for which I'm deeply grateful. But it's clear that it's going to take a lot of hours to get me to the General Convention of my denomination (The Episcopal Church) this July -- a hugely (for me) expensive proposition, with plane fare, a hotel room for nearly , and meals (I plan to borrow a toaster or microwave oven and mini-fridge so I don't have to eat out as often, but a lot of work gets done over meals out as well). This season is the busiest of the year for Guitar Center, so this is my best chance to try to get a little ahead of things fiscally before the inevitable slowdown after Christmas.
Another is that I want to apologize if this post seems rushed. It is! This has been my first chance to sit down to write, even though I've had the ideas formed for some time. I've only got about an hour to write, but it's now or never if I want to be helpful to Christmas preachers -- which I very much want to be!
And a third is that I want to apologize if there's anything goofy-looking with fonts and whatnot in the post. TypePad, the system I use for SarahLaughed.net, has made some improvements and added features. This has changed the interface I use to compose entries, and I haven't had the time to read up on the changes.
I appreciate your patience, support, and encouragement.
P.S. -- Now I've spent forty minutes of that hour I had to write on the phone with six different people about such fun matters as a recent car accident I had (a fender-bender, so I'm not seriously injured, and the accident was entirely not my fault, as I was sitting in my parked car at the time) and various medical matters. Geez. I'll do the best I can with an entry now, and will add to it if I have a chance.
Most of the congregations I've served have consisted mostly of people for whom the system -- the way our world is ordered -- has worked, or seemed superficially to work, quite well. They had lovely homes in good school districts, lucrative jobs, and a strong sense that if they worked hard enough, they and their children would have be securely successful.
Christianity was known early on as a religion of women and slaves though, and it was a stereotype not entirely inaccurate: Christianity appealed deeply to those who felt the way the world was ordered shut them out of power, honor, and success as the world defined it. Jesus and his earliest followers proclaimed a message that the order of this world is passing away, and a new one that was already breaking through the old in spots would eventually or even soon become reality for all the world. The poor would be honored above the rich. No one would have need, as those who had resources would share them with those who had fewer, or none. The sharing represented in the Eucharistic meal, small gatherings in which people from nations traditionally in enmity and from classes of people normally shut out from the banquets of the privileged would soon be sitting down together -- rich and poor, female and male, slave and free -- to share meals as sisters and brothers with one another, would become a way of life throughout all of life for all people. Everything -- the whole world -- was already changing, and would change completely.
This was and is profoundly Good News. It's not surprising that those who most easily saw just how good this news was were the poor, outcast, and powerless. Who wants change when things are working as they are? And so came the difficult task of the prophet, to "comfort the afflicted, and afflict the comfortable."
But a lot fewer people are comfortable this Christmas. For some reason, people I come across in daily life -- on buses, trains, and plains, in line at the grocery store, and so on -- often start telling me their stories, or even asking for prayer, even when I'm not wearing or carrying any kind of religious symbol or book.
This year, working in retail at Guitar Center during the Christmas season, I've heard a lot of heartbreaking stories. I've heard families huddling in the store for conversation about what each of them might give up and what groceries they could do without to still get a guitar to bring joy to one musician in the family who'd sacrificed a great deal to help the family get through when one or more members lost their jobs, or the investments upon which they'd depended on for retirement dropped within weeks to a third or less of their former value.
A great many others are anxious about their future. Companies are laying off workers in great numbers, and it's not just unskilled or low-level workers. Store owners, real estate agents, travel agents, and all kinds of people who formerly thought of their living as secure and the poor as Those Other People who aren't like "us" and who are problems to solve, not people we need, are realizing how intimately and inextricably our lives are connected. A retail sales worker whose customers can't afford to buy will have to tighten her belt too. Perhaps she'll put off car repairs that aren't immediately needed. The repair shop owner may have to lay off a mechanic, reduce hours, or close shop rather than expanding her business. The banks making business loans have fewer customers as a result, and so do those who depend on bank officials' wanting new cars, a finished basement, or a more efficient home heating/insulation system (might save money in the long run, but if you don't have the cash now ...) will be hurting more as well. We're realizing increasingly as well how intimately our lives are connected with those continents away. Food prices rise not only with fuel prices, but also when arable farmland for staples shrinks due to climate change, or when a generation of those who would otherwise grow to work on farms instead die of malnutrition, of cholera, disasters, AIDS, malaria, or even diarrhea, or in civil and international wars (all of which perpetuate the poverty that causes or contributes to their rise).
So more and more of us are realizing that change -- profound change, change in the whole way we order our lives on this planet -- is Good News for all of us, that only profound change can give us the freedom to live into Jesus' exhortation to "be not anxious."
Christmas is Good News in so many ways. The ways I hear most often preached about are that a distant God actually visited humanity in the Incarnation and became knowable and accessible to humans. It's sadly and antisemitically mistaken to suggest that Judaism has ever suggested that God is distant, unforgiving, or unresponsive to humanity -- as anyone who reads the psalms, prophetic literature, or even the Pentateuch can see. Heck, check out the texts from the Hebrew bible in the lectionary for the Feast of the Incarnation. They weren't written by Christians -- indeed, Christians (and most of the earliest ones were Jews) got from from Judaism their most of their ideas about how God ordered the world at Creation and how God's redemption is reordering it. The Good News of Christianity and of the Incarnation isn't entirely new.
But here's some Good News.
Just think of how much the word 'hope' has been used of late in popular discourse, in the media, in conversation. Whatever you think about the U.S.'s most recent presidential election, I think most of us would agree that a central issue was who could provide us with hope, who could inaugurate real, profound, effective change. I know many people who feel a great deal more hope knowing that in January a U.S. president is taking office whom they believe will bring change and renew hope.
The Good News we proclaim in the Feast of the Incarnation is that something far more profound than that, than what any elected official can do, has already taken place. Luke says it by portraying Jesus as David's anointed successor from birth -- but a king whose courtiers aren't sycophants in fine robes, but outcast shepherds (and search for 'shepherds' on this site for more info about how shepherds were seen). John says it by saying the Word, the logos -- the word that philosophers such as Philo of Alexandria used for the organizing principle or force of Creation rightly ordered -- has become flesh and lives among us.
In other words, whatever your political party or expectations of government, we announce in the Feast of the Incarnation that THE leader, THE king, THE person who understands how things ought to be and what we must do for the world to experience the joy, peace, and love that characterizes God's order, has already come, and will never be deposed. The light of hope, the power to change the world, shines in the darkness, and to this day the darkness has not put it out. The darkness will never put it out.
We all know that real change can be hard, and requires real sacrifices. But in our heart of hearts, we know we need it. And that change has come among us.
The agenda of this powerful, wise, and compassionate leader is, as one might expect, too extensive to set forth entirely in a single sermon. But just knowing that this person has come and that such profound changes are coming, isn't it worth taking some time to find out what this person, these changes, and what they mean for our way of life might mean?
So if we want to know what the Incarnation we celebrate in this joyful feast -- if we want to experience more fully the joy we announce today -- we'll have to come back together again. Next week would be a good time. Perhaps as time goes on we'll want to gather more frequently for it. I hope we will. Because here is real hope, real change for our whole lives and for our whole world.
Thanks be to God!
Proper 23, Year C
Dear SarahLaughed.net community,
You all may have noticed that I've been posting very late in the week recently. This semester is pretty crazy; I'm a full-time student in seminary, who's trying at the same time to finish my Ph.D. dissertation, find a new diocesan home, and work at two jobs. But I've resolved to get back to posting earlier in the week, when new posts are most helpful to preachers, and I appreciate your hanging in there with me in the meantime. Please don't forget that, although I just switched to the Revised Common Lectionary this past Advent, I did blog the entire cycle of readings in the lectionary of The Episcopal Church in the Book of Common Prayer, and there's a great deal of overlap. If I haven't posted yet on a text for which you're looking for inspiration, you may find the 'search this site' box in the left-hand sidebar helpful. The easiest way to find comment on a particular passage is often to enter the full name of the biblical book and the number of the chapter for which you want comment in quotation marks -- e.g., "Luke 17" for this week.
But here's this week's post:
Luke 17:11-19 - link to NRSV text
In this week's gospel, Jesus heals ten lepers. Jesus instructs them to go to the Temple in Jerusalem, as the Law requires. Nine of them obey Jesus, and head off for Jerusalem. But one of the cleansed lepers disobeys Jesus, and instead returns to thank him.
As I pointed out the last time I blogged on this passage, coming back to thank Jesus would not have been seen as the most polite course of action the lepers could take, even if Jesus hadn't instructed them to go to the Temple. If that seems puzzling, it might help to imagine how you'd feel if you'd been out to dinner with a friend, and when the check came, you'd paid it, saying to your friend as he reached for his wallet, "Oh, don't worry about that -- you can get the next one if you'd like." The next day, your friend rings your doorbell with an envelope in his hand containing in cash half the amount of the previous night's dinner and a note saying thanks.
That would be slightly strange behavior, unless your friend thought you were very short on cash. Your "Oh, you can get the next one" comment is a way of declaring an ongoing friendship in which you share resources and cover for one another, but the cash in the envelope, as if it were necessary immediately to even the score, seems to carry a message from the other person saying "we don't have that kind of relationship" -- perhaps also saying something like "I don't really trust you not to hold this over my head" or "I don't expect to have dinner with you again, so I'd better settle any debts now."
The healed leper coming back to thank Jesus is a bit like that. The nine who did what Jesus told them to do were not only honoring the expressed wishes of their benefactor; they were also behaving as people would when they wanted and expected to continue the relationship while looking for opportunity to repay Jesus. The tenth leper, though, cannot obey Jesus' instructions. He is a Samaritan. Samaritans, weren't welcome in the Temple in Jerusalem, and had good reason to expect ill treatment from those who saw the Temple in Jerusalem as being the only true one (you can find some background on why that was so here).
What courage it must have taken for this man to call out to Jesus! The text points out that as they cried out, the whole group kept their distance, as they would have been expected to do as lepers. Even so, their trust in Jesus is clear from their crying out to him. Imagine the joy this group must have felt when they realized that they were cleansed, that their status as outsiders had ended!
Well, all but one of them. As the other nine headed off toward Jerusalem, the tenth realizes that even if he isn't a leper, he's still a Samaritan, set apart even from the nine people he was with when they were all lepers. As the others head off for the Temple, wondering what they can offer Jesus in return, the tenth returns, "praising God with a loud voice." And Jesus in turn praises the Samaritan -- not for giving thanks to him, but for giving praise to God.
As Samaritan and leper, the tenth person healed knew doubly well what it's like to be an outsider. And this is the person who saw and acknowledged God's hand in his healing, in Jesus' ministry.
Longtime readers of this bog may have gathered that one of the trends I've observed that grieves me most is the way in which those of us who are privileged seem increasingly to use our privilege to isolate ourselves from others we fear as not being "people like us." Crime and poverty go together, so we object when housing that's affordable to the poor (or even to less wealthy professionals such as teachers and police officers!) is proposed for our neighborhood. We build gated communities. We fuel "white flight" to the suburbs, even when that gives us long, miserable commutes. Even our churches are often structured to divide rich from poor; the wealthy are "members" who are welcomed warmly to participate fully in worship and leadership, while the poor are targets of "outreach ministry" that assumes those served have no spiritual gifts to offer the community except the chance to make us feel generous and to stay out of sight and preferably somewhere else the rest of the time.
We're missing out in a big way, though, when, by "things done and left undone," we exclude outsiders, when we don't listen deeply and look them in they eye. We're missing out on their spiritual gifts, their vision; we head off for a temple humming happily and we miss the chance to see God in human flesh before us.
But we have another choice. We can turn to face "outsiders" as neighbors, beloved children of God, sisters and brothers in Christ. We can turn to face Jesus, and when we do, we just might find ourselves crying out with Samaritans and outsiders everywhere, giving praise to God who in Christ is healing and reconciling the whole world.
Thanks be to God!
Proper 22, Year C
There's a one-liner that I think of when I read this Sunday's gospel:
"That person lives for others. You can tell who 'the others' are by the hunted look on their faces."
Have you ever met someone like that -- someone who is always doing "favors" for people and "helping" them, with a hefty price tag attached in each case? Sometimes it's that the person "helped" must then display gratitude -- lots of it, delivered early and often and expressed in exactly the right way. Sometimes it's the "mobster" model, in which every "favor" granted must be repaid with a like "favor" at some future point. Sometimes it's what I call the "ticker-tape" model, in which every act of "generosity" must result in a showering of honor and adulation upon the giver.
The one-liner about the person who "lives for others" is funny because it says something that is too often true about warped versions of generosity on social as well as interpersonal levels: we deliver what Valerie Batts calls "dysfunctional rescuing," or "help that doesn't help," and then we blame the person whom we just didn't really help for not being suitably grateful. It's a pattern of behavior that indicates that we weren't wanting to help the other person so much as we wanted to use the other person to prop up our egos.
When have you seen this happen?
I think about the parish that offered a Spanish-language service because they assumed that Spanish speakers in the area keenly felt a hole in their spiritual lives that could be filled only by the theology of rich white liberals. The parish clergy therefore assumed Spanish-speakers would walk past several other congregations with native Spanish speakers on staff to flock to a church where the priest stumbles haltingly through the liturgy and can't offer any kind of pastoral counseling or support in Spanish, and all of the parish's formation and incorporation programs are conducted in English. The Spanish-language service went ahead nonetheless, though, and if the population so "served" doesn't respond with wild adulation or profound gratitude to the congregation for finally giving them this superior theology, the congregation will be able to say, "Oh, we tried that and it didn't work" to every future proposal to change with the neighborhood.
I think also about how the U.S. too often treats immigrants. We have laws that don't make it particularly easy for people who aren't rich to come here, and when they come, with or without documentation, however they've been treated, and whether or not we've heard their stories, we expect them to gratefully take jobs we wouldn't take or allow our children to take AND we want to see them joyfully and tearfully waving the U.S. flag and singing the national anthem (in ENGLISH ONLY, of course).
I think about the experiences my partner and I have had at various points trying to find a parish home after we'd moved. One congregation in particular seemed incensed that we could be so ungrateful as to leave for another parish when they were trying SO hard not to let us see how disgusted many of them were by us. We were yelled at a bit in the parking lot, but at least not from the pulpit, for example. We were allowed to receive the Eucharist, and we were even allowed to contribute volunteer labor to church ministries! How dare we move on, and doesn't this just go to show that our sort isn't satisfied just being regular folks in the congregation, but insist on taking it over?
I think these are attitudes for which this Sunday's gospel can provide something of a remedy.
I admit it's hard, especially in our cultural context, to hear the message when its terms are about a slave knowing his or her place. It's rhetoric that strikes my ear as dehumanizing. It lessens the sting a bit to know that the word the NRSV translates as "worthless" (the Greek is achreios) might better be translated as "unprofitable" or "unfit (for the purpose needed)." It lessens the sting a bit more to note that Greco-Roman slavery was different in many ways from the chattel slavery practiced in the 18th and 19th centuries, that becoming the slave of a high-status person in the ancient world placed you in an exalted household and therefore could raise the social status of a freeborn person -- indeed, that if you read St. Paul's letters carefully, you'll notice that he reserves the title "slave of God" very carefully as a particular badge of honor. But it still stings to hear Jesus talk this way.
And yet there's something liberating about serving without expectation of applause or thanks. When we serve the poor and marginalized, if we do it out of some expectation of gratitude or ticker-tape parade, we'll always be looking breathlessly over our shoulder for what we expect, and always be occupied with calculating whether others are behaving as we think appropriate. With all of that looking over our shoulders and all of that mental, emotional, and spiritual effort occupied in the calculus of deserving, we're all too likely to look in the eye of the real human being, made in the image of God, before us. We're all too likely to miss the opportunity to see God in that moment.
There's something liberating about humility. Hubris requires a great deal of energy to maintain, after all; if we are desperate to be seen as more important than we are, we'll constantly have to project a particular image and monitor those around us to assess our effectiveness at maintaining it and to punish those whom we see as failing to respond appropriately to our false projected self. The sad thing is that whether we succeed or fail in the process of getting others to buy into our hubris, we'll be miserable either way -- at least as miserable, if not more so, than we make anyone else by prideful conduct.
Think of what kind of energy we'd have, not only for genuine service meeting people's genuine needs, but also for laughter and love and the enjoyment of a quiet moment, if we were to stop spending all of the energy it takes to calculate what everyone around us does and doesn't deserve relative to what we are trying to make ourselves believe we deserve. That's what true humility is -- it's not about trying to make yourself or others believe that you are less than you are any more than it is about trying to make all believe that you're more. It's about letting go of that whole process of assessing and projecting and punishing or rewarding and then assessing again. It's about freeing ourselves to look at another and really see her or him. It's about freeing ourselves up for what's really important.
The word 'faith' (pistis, in the Greek) is often spoken about as if it meant trying to talk ourselves into intellectual assent to something, with "increasing our faith" meaning that we are successfully persuading ourselves that we have adopted an idea we think is ridiculous. That's not faith; it's self-deception, and usually a pretty unsuccessful kind of self-deception that results in our feeling a little guilty and hypocritical, as we know that we don't actually believe what we say.
But faith is not about intellectual projection and assessment; it is not an intellectual analogue to that process we go through to build and maintain hubris. Faith is relationship -- a relationship of trust, of allegiance. When Jesus talks about "faith," he's not talking about what you do in your head; he's talking about what you do with your hands and your feet, your wallet and your privilege, your power and your time. Faith in Jesus is not shown by saying or thinking things about him, but by following him.
Matthew says that if we have faith in Jesus -- allegiance to Jesus, trust in Jesus such that we're willing to step outside of our comfort zones to follow him -- the size of a mustard seed, we could tell mountains to plunge themselves in the sea, and we'd see it happen. Luke uses an image that initially seems more modest; he says "mulberry bush" where Matthew says "mountain."
Use whichever image works for you; they're both about doing what conventional wisdom says is impossible. It's a moving target, in my experience, as every time I take an additional step to follow Jesus in ways that stretch my capacity to love, to receive, to trust, to serve, look those whom I serve in the eye and listen to them with my heart, I discover a little more about what truly is possible in the power of the Holy Spirit Jesus sent. When I reflect on the wonders of Creation, the liberation of God's people from slavery in Egypt and by every force that oppresses, and most of all when I think of the power I've witnessed in Jesus' ministry, the Millennium Development Goals start sounding overly modest, if anything. What on earth can hold back the power of God's Spirit? What gates could prevail against the Spirit-filled Body of Christ?
So yes, I've seen some amazing things God has done. I've been privileged to participate in some of them. But that's par for the course, isn't it, when we're participating in God's powerful work. And I don't want to spend so much time saying, "wow, that wave was really amazing -- did you see how I rode it?" that I miss the next set. There is more joy, more love, more wonder ahead, and I want to be fully present for it.
Thanks be to God!
Proper 21, Year C
I have two confessions to make:
The first is that this week is kicking my proverbial butt. New semester at seminary, an unusual (especially for this time of year) concentration of freelance work, the launch of a new physical fitness regimen, and a great deal of pastoral care following the House of Bishops meeting, about which so many were so anxious, has brought me to Thursday night with little extra time to write.
But I have had time to think, and even thinking long and hard about this Sunday's gospel, I think that if I were preaching this Sunday, I would say much the same thing I said last time it came up in the lectionary:
The hard, hard thing in this passage is that the rich man is not described as being ungenerous. For all we know, he was very generous indeed; in any case, the Gospel of Luke treats the rich man's generosity or lack thereof, as well as the rich man's attitude toward money, toward dependence on God, and everything else going on in the rich man's head and heart as being immaterial to the story. So the moral of the story is NOT that as long as I'm generous, or I know I'm really dependent on God, or I'm sufficiently grateful, or I feel sufficiently sad or guilty about my having so much and others having so little, it's totally fine that I am rich and others are poor -- at least a billion so poor that they have no access to clean drinking water, nourishing food, or any chance of changing their situation unless there is profound systemic change in our world. Luke does not give us room to think that.
The hard word in this Sunday's gospel is that we have, in our fallen way of doing things, responded to poverty, sickness, age, vulnerability, and just plain difference by running away from those who remind us of what we fear. Since we can't run far or fast enough, we dig chasms between us. The poor live on one side of the tracks or the river or the freeway, and the rich on another. The poor go to one church, and the rich go to another. The poor are objects of church "outreach programs"; the rich are church members and leaders. You could add to this catalogue of chasms, I know. We build them around all kinds of categories: race or ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, respectability ... the list could go on and on.
And the truth is that whenever we dig such chasms, and especially when we seek to make them unbridgeable, we can be very, very sure that we're on the wrong side of it.
This behavior is hurtful all the way around. Isolating ourselves from our sisters and brothers in the human family doesn't make us less vulnerable; it just denies us the opportunity to see and experience that much more of the image of God. It makes us miserable. It does violence to our souls to live this way as it inflicts violence on the bodies and families of the "have-nots."
We were not made for this. And we have a name for behaving in a way that isolates us from one another and from God. We religious types call it "sin."
It's Good News, though, that we were not made for this. The Good News is that even as we look at our lives, our world, and all the ways we can feel trapped in them the way they are, a part of us knows we were not made for this. The Good News is that just as we're ready to cry with St. Paul in Romans, "Who will rescue me from this body of death?," we can still hear God's call:
Thanks be to God -- when we separated ourselves from one another and from God, God sent the prophets to plead, to shout, to remind us that God made us for justice and peace in community.
Thanks be to God -- in the fullness of time, God sent Jesus, whose life, death, and resurrection shows us that no human power can dig a chasm too broad or deep to be bridged in God's grace.
There is a hard word in the story of Lazarus and the rich man, but there is also an invitation to engage God's mission of healing, justice, and reconciliation in the world. And the marvelous thing -- well, one of the wonders I keep discovering as I seek to follow Jesus -- is that the cool water for which the rich man longs, the peace and freedom and joy that Lazarus enjoys as God's gift, is available to us now -- partially and sometimes fleetingly, but REALLY, a taste of grace that nourishes hope -- whenever we seek justice for the poor, whenever we strive to live in reconciled and reconciling community.
Thanks be to God!
Proper 20, Year C
When I was interviewing for my last parish position, I was asked to give the homily at a children's chapel service. I was allowed to pick any texts I wanted for the service, and believe it or not, I elected to do a children's homily on the gospel for this Sunday, commonly known as "The Parable of the Unjust Steward." You can see the homily here, actually.
Was I crazy? Maybe. But I wanted to show that it's possible to get across insights from biblical scholarship that can illuminate difficult texts for people of all ages and backgrounds. And I think that this Sunday's gospel contains a timely and important word that's more than comprehensible when we read the text closely and are willing to set aside some of the presuppositions we tend to bring to the text.
The first presupposition that many people need to set aside is that Jesus' parables are all allegories in which every character represents someone or something -- God, the Christian, Jesus, Satan, or abstract qualities such as virtues. In my opinion, many if not most of Jesus' parables are NOT allegories, and this Sunday's gospel is best read NOT as an allegory.
For example, in what was is the God of Israel, the God whom Jesus proclaimed, like the landowner in the parable? The landowner in the parable is an absentee landlord, living in luxury in the city off the sweat of tenant farmers' brows. The landowner doesn't really know or care about what goes on at the farm as long as the rents come in. Such a view reminds me of the satirical one in the Michelle Shocked song:
God is a real estate developer
with offices 'round the nation
They say one day he'll liquidate his holdings up on high
I say it's all speculation
Is that what we think God is really like -- a distant, uncaring profiteer? Judging from the exorbitant amounts owed by the poor farmers, the landowner is charging obscene amounts for rent, such that the farmers on his land each owe between three and seven YEARS' wages.
Furthermore, the landowner of the parable is not at all like God whom Jesus proclaimed as Father because the landowner has no desire at all to forgive, but is tricked into it by his steward. I'm sorry to say that I've heard a great many sermons over the years in which the preacher suggested that God the Creator wanted not to forgive us but to punish us until Jesus intervened, but that's not an orthodox view. The barest Christian confession has to include that Jesus shares the character of the God of Israel, and if Jesus has to trick God into mercy, then Jesus is not God's servant, let alone God's Son; he is a rebel against God, as Jesus' enemies suggested.
I've also heard lately some other intriguing readings of the parable as allegory, the most intriguing of which had the landowner representing the Roman Empire and the steward the Christian, with the moral of the story being that Christians should live out values of justice and generosity even if the Empire labels those values as deviant. I have to admit I haven't found any of those other allegorical readings persuasive either. For example, if the landowner is the Roman Empire and the steward is a stand-in for any Christian, why do we get the detail at the beginning of the parable that the steward has been fired before he embarks on the emending of bills that results in the peasants' debts being reduced? In what sense are all Christians empowered to pronounce on behalf of the empire as a steward is empowered to pronounce on behalf of the landowner who employs him? And what sense in any case do these allegorical readings make of the sayings Luke places at the parable's close, that people are called to make friends with the poor by means of "mammon of unrighteousness" so that they may be welcomed into eternal homes?
I hope I'm not merely being stubborn in still finding most persuasive the reading of the parable for which I argued in my master's thesis over fifteen years ago (I was only nineteen then, so I'm not as old as that makes me sound):
The landowner is clearly depicted in the parable as someone who cares only about his own privilege and honor.
The steward is clearly depicted in the parable as someone who is concerned primarily with saving his own skin and with not having to do manual labor, such as the ordinary peons (e.g., the tenant farmers) do.
And yet, in this extraordinary story Jesus tells, the steward -- a man who has until this point gained a life of privilege and relative leisure by siding with the wealthy and uncaring absentee landlord -- realizes that in the end his own welfare depends on doing justice for the poor as a matter of urgency, regardless of how it gets done. The landowner, who cares only for his own honor and privilege, discovers that his desires are satisfied more fully and rather surprisingly by going along, however unwillingly, with the current of justice for and generosity toward the poor that his steward set in motion for his own selfish reasons.
The moral of the story stands in stark contrast to something I heard at a recent conference at which folks were discussing relief for the poor. One man said something that many others echoed with slightly different phrasing. He said something like this:
"It doesn't really matter what you do. Make sandwiches and give them to the first people you see. It doesn't have to be a huge thing; it's where your heart is that counts, and if you're trying to help the poor, that's what matters."
I said -- after gulping hard, because I knew saying it wouldn't make me popular in that gathering -- that I think that there are things other than what's in your heart that matter a very great deal.
If I were a mother afraid I would soon be burying my child because of hunger or preventable or curable disease, what was in your heart would bring me little solace -- or little solace compared to the joy I'd have if my child could live.
It matters what you DO.
It matters to those mothers. It matters to those children. What's in your heart as you embark on a well-meaning gesture that won't necessarily change the way the world is matters a great deal to you, and that's only natural. But if I am a mother whose child is in danger, I want you to use not just your heart, but also your brain and your voice and your ears.
I want you to find the very best counsel you can about what will change the world for my child, what will give my child access to good food and clean water, to basic medical care and an elementary education, so that my child has at least half the chance your children have to live to adulthood -- and so our world has a chance to receive the gifts my child has to offer for the building up of the Body of Christ and the fulfillment of God's mission.
And so Jesus, in this Sunday's gospel, sides with the mother so concerned for her child, and for the world in which that child will live or die. Jesus tells a story in which "the master" -- whether the landowner who's going along with justice for the poor because it generates cheering crowds, or the Lord of Life who was present at the moment of Creation, and who wants every child created to have a chance to live and love and engage God's mission in the world -- praises the forgiveness of debts, justice for the poor, however it happens and with whatever motives are involved.
It matters. What's in my heart and yours matters, to be sure. It matters to God. Our hearts are a gift from God, after all.
And it's also true that they weren't God's only gift to us. God gave us brains and voices as well as arms and legs. We privileged people have used them with tremendous effect for generations to place us in our positions of privilege and to consolidate the privilege we have.
And if we are at all uncomfortable with the idea that a politically shrewd and not particularly honest steward should be commended in a story from Jesus for doing more than what we're doing to bring real, tangible relief to the poorest among us, then let us be made uncomfortable. Let's recognize that even this not at all commendable steward can recognize that, interdependent as we are, saving the most vulnerable in this world is saving our own skin, our own heart, our own soul, our own life and what makes it precious, as well.
Please feel free to revisit what I've said before on these texts.
My blog entry on these texts from 2004 is here.
I've also posted sermon I preached on these texts on Proper 20 three years ago.
God, help me to be more effective in work empowered by passion for justice than the steward was in maneuvering to preserve his privilege. I've benefited so much from the unjust order in which I live; help me to undermine it, that all may live.
Thanks be to God!
Proper 19, Year C
If you haven't seen it before, please take a look at my entry from three years ago, "The Parable of the Ninety-Nine, Or Why It's Probably a Good Thing That Sheep Don't Talk." This week, I want to take as a launching point the three questions with which I closed that parable:
- At the end of the story, where is the shepherd?
- At the end of the story, where are the ninety-nine sheep?
- If one sheep is with the shepherd and ninety-nine aren't, who's really the stray?
My "Parable of the Ninety-Nine" reflects a number of dynamics in the church, but the questions at the end draw attention to one in particular, I think -- one I'd like to concentrate on this week.
Too often, we think of "ministry" as what happens in church buildings. And it might sound goofy at first, but I think many of us far too often go to church when we want to look for Jesus.
I'm not saying that we won't find Jesus in church. I certainly have, countless times and in powerful and wonderful experiences of Christian community. After all, church buildings frequently host gatherings of Christians, and the assembly of those called in Christ to join God's people is the very Body of Christ in this world. When two or three members of that Body gather, Jesus shows up. Jesus shows up every Sunday morning, and at lots of other times as well, in church buildings.
But Christian discipleship isn't just "having a relationship with Jesus Christ," or at the very least, it's a particular kind of relationship with Jesus:
We are called to follow Jesus, to follow the shepherd.
So why do we slip so often, then, into thinking that deepening Christian discipleship -- following Jesus -- is primarily or even in large part about coming again and again to the same place to meet with the same people? When did Jesus' "Great Commission" of making disciples -- followers of Jesus -- turn into a commitment to go to church and convince others to do the same?
Clearly, I believe the answer is that it didn't, and this Sunday's gospel is an invitation to rethink such an approach.
Jesus is, after all, a shepherd. By most ways of reckoning, he's got a pretty bizarre approach to shepherding -- one not unlike the approach of the farmer in the "Parable of the Sower," who tosses seed in parking lots and pigeon hangouts as well as on good soil, behaving as if seed were in unlimited supply and all soil were good. In this Sunday's gospel, Jesus is portrayed as a shepherd who will leave ninety-nine sheep to care for one. We should probably refer to our stained-glass windows showing Jesus carrying a single lamb on his shoulders as portraits of "The Loopy Shepherd." And yet Jesus suggests that this brand of foolishness is characteristic of the God who created the universe as well as of God's Son.
It's quite a radical statement, and not nearly the sweet and comforting, if somewhat sterile, scene in a lot of art about "The Good Shepherd." Those of us who have no experience of herding livestock might be tempted to think of scenes with shepherds as ones described by the genre of English poetry we call "the pastoral" -- rolling green hills, fresh air and sun, birds twittering peacefully.
The life of a shepherd wasn't like that much of the time, though. It was hard, as shepherds had to sleep out in the cold, exposed to the elements as well as to the predators from which the sheep were to be protected. It was lonely, spending day after day and night after night away from one's family. And it was not viewed as a respectable one. Shepherds' duties in the field left their aging parents, their wives, and their children unprotected at home, and therefore shepherds were widely viewed not only quite literally as perennial outsiders, but also as dishonorable men.
And yet it's the figure of a shepherd -- and one who leaves the ninety-nine sheep at that -- to which Jesus turns in this Sunday's gospel to help us understand what God is like and how God acts in the world.
So this Sunday, let's reflect on the invitation offered in the gospel: an invitation to look for God especially among the outsiders, the poor, the disgraced, those whom our world shelters least. If God is like the shepherd Jesus describes, and if Jesus is truly God's Son, doing what God does, then following Jesus requires venturing out to the margins.
That's one reason I speak so often and so highly of the movement to make extreme poverty history -- of those of us who style ourselves as being at the center of things and whose wealth and privilege put us at the center of worldly power working with others around the world to put our treasure -- and with it our hearts -- out to the margins, to the "bottom billion" trying to live without clean drinking water, access to basic education or medical services, and on less than a dollar a day. I'm enthusiastic about it because I see Jesus as I pursue it.
And while we don't have that kind of extreme poverty in the U.S., every community has its margins -- and therefore a horizon we can pursue to look for Jesus' action in the world. Whom do shopkeepers in your town monitor nervously or chase out of their stores? Who is "the wrong sort of person"? Who makes churchgoers jumpy? Who are the outsiders?
Some of them may be in church. And certainly a good, spiritually growing congregation will provide encouragement and support we may need to find, listen deeply to, serve, and learn from those who aren't in our churches and are probably outside our comfort zones as well.
But this Sunday's gospel invites us to think of church not as the destination for those seeking to follow Jesus and engage God's mission, but as a way station providing strength for the journey.
Thanks be to God!
Proper 18, Year C
I sprained my wrist (a mild sprain, thankfully) this week and am trying to take a break from the keyboard, but I think this 2003 entry from the BCP lectionary for Proper 18, Year C should be helpful. What I'd add to it is that much of what I said this year about the gospel for Proper 15 applies equally well to this Sunday's gospel. The invitation in this Sunday's gospel is to end old patterns of relationship, thereby becoming free to enter into new patterns of relationship. There's no way of forcing that on someone else, though -- and to those who don't choose to follow Jesus as their sister or brother, spouse, parent, or son or daughter did would experience their abandonment as an act of hate. On the other hand, family members who joined the Jesus movement would find themselves part of a much larger family of sisters and brothers committed to care for one another. Choosing to follow Jesus can involve stark and difficult choices, and with any set of choices that could change the world, following Jesus presents others with choices they may not find welcome.
"None of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions" (Luke 14:33).
Is there anything Jesus could have said which would be harder for us to hear?
"Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple" (Luke 14:26).
Both come from this Sunday's gospel reading, of course.
There is no trick of Greek translation or historical context that will make these sayings anything other than difficult, if not offensive. I can't recommend an angle of preaching or reading that could be summarized as "here's why Jesus/Luke didn't really mean this." Friends don't let friends do this to texts.
Let's take the Greek question head-on, as it's often said in sermons on this passage that the Greek word translated here as "hate" really means something more like "love less." There's no evidence to support this assertion. I suspect that it comes from confusing Luke 14:26 with Matthew 10:37, which says, "whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me." But misein, the Greek word translated as "hate" in Luke 14:26, really does mean "hate," as in the opposite of love. Here are some other New Testament passages that use the same word:
- Matthew 5:43 (in which "hate" is clearly presented as the antithesis of "love" (agape)
- Luke 21:17 (in which hatred is what persecutors have for those whom they put to death)
- Hebrews 1:9 (in which it is said of the Son that he "loved righteousness and hated lawlessness")
You get the idea. This is a strong word, and not at all a pretty one -- especially for one's stance toward parents, spouse, children, and siblings. It's an offensive statement that has lost little of its offensive power in its travel from a first-century Mediterranean context to 21st-century America.
And I'm glad it's in the gospel, and in the context in which it appears, because the next sentence is supposed to be offensive too, though it's lost much of its power in our context. In 21st-century America, we see what we think of as a cross mostly as pieces of jewelry, and then as decorations for churches, and then maybe as part of the logo of an organization. It's become in many ways a symbol of respectability and privilege, held up by political candidates to rally the base.
But that's not what the cross represented in the first-century Roman empire. There, the cross was a work of perverse genius -- a cheap and non-labor-intensive way to inflict indescribable pain and shame, while providing a gory public reminder of just what happened to those who undermined the good order of the Empire. It was a reminder of what happened to Christians who encouraged women and men to decide for themselves whom they would call "lord," and then to follow no one else. As I've said in my comment for Proper 15, Year C and the previous entries linked from there, such teaching could and did divide families. It undermined the authority of every man who called himself "father," from the head of the family you grew up in all the way up to Caesar Augustus, who called himself the father of his empire, and his successors.
And it challenges us too. Jesus' words here aren't asking us to feel differently about our family or about the Cross; "hate," like "love," in a first-century context is not about emotions, but about actions. We are being asked to behave toward family in a way that our culture will almost certainly see as hateful. It is still offensive to say that we do not feel any more obligated to blood relatives than we do to others, and I think that's at the core of this week's gospel. We are being asked to abandon, or even despise, the cultural value placed on family, a value that reaches almost to the point of idolatry in many quarters.
But the choice we are faced with is not between swallowing whole "family values" as defined by our culture or rejecting all family members altogether. Jesus' teaching did tear his followers out of the families they grew up in, the families that not only provided for them materially, but gave them their identity in the world and any honor they experienced. But Jesus defined the community of his followers as a different kind of family. He expected them to care for one another materially (hence the emphasis on common rather than private possessions), honor one another in a world that despised them, and to treat one another with all of the intimacy and loyalty one would expect of brother and sister.
One's father and mother, spouse and children, were welcome to join the community, becoming brothers and sisters with all its members -- but the new relationship in Christ was then to be the definitive one. That was particularly challenging for fathers, accustomed to a kind of authority that Jesus taught belonged rightfully only to God.
That's the sort of challenged that Paul poses to Philemon in the epistle for this week too -- to receive Onesimus, who had been his slave, and to relate to him not as Onesimus' master, but as his brother. Doing so would include and go beyond freeing Onesimus from literal slavery. Normally, if Philemon freed Onesimus, Onesimus would still be defined as Philemon's freedman, obligated to him in a lopsided relationship in which Philemon could choose to care for him or ignore his needs. But brothers cannot do that to one another; they are obligated to one another indissolubly, absolutely, and mutually. As brothers, Onesimus and Philemon would be bound eternally in a relationship that freed both: Onesimus from the obligations of being Philemon's slave or freedman, and Philemon from participating in a system that dehumanized masters while oppressing slaves.
That's the Good News in Jesus' very hard words. Follow Jesus, and we are abandoning a lot of what gave us honor, security, and even identity in our culture. In short, we will be abandoning what gave us life. But what kind of life? Follow Jesus, become family with his brothers and sisters, and while we will share in his cross, we will share also in his risen life -- joyful, eternal, loving, and free.
Thanks be to God!
Proper 17, Year C
Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16
Luke 14:1, 7-14
I was once in a congregation that took two-week turns with other area churches hosting a winter shelter for the homeless. One wintry Sunday morning, a parishioner came up to me in deep distress following the service. "There's a homeless man in the church," she said, "and we're not hosting the shelter this week. Could you do something about it?"
"Of course," I said, and I left my post on the greeting line, walked over to the man, introduced myself, and invited him to coffee hour.
I remember similar raised eyebrows in another congregation that had both a ministry of making bag lunches for homeless people and a group for people in their twenties and thirties when, after talking with a man who sometimes made use of the bag-lunch ministry that he was both Christian in his twenties, I invited him to the young adults' group. Sadly, several members of the group asked him to leave, telling him to come back when the bag lunches were out.
Let mutual love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels unawares. Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you were being tortured. (Hebrews 13:1-3)
I don't know of a single parish that doesn't have what are usually called "Outreach" ministries -- programs such as bag lunches or soup kitchens for the homeless, or raising money to send to a charity overseas. It's good that we know to do at least that much. Sometimes, though, I think the "Outreach" label is a bit of a misnomer, and "Charities" might be more accurate.
Is it really reaching out, after all, if the "outreach ministry" doesn't cultivate a sense that Christians -- rich or poor, black or red or brown or yellow or white -- are members of a single Body of Christ, and all people are children of God and members of one human family? Is what we celebrate on Sunday really a Eucharist in remembrance of Jesus if we, by things done and left undone, cultivate and perpetuate congregational cultures that have a strong and nearly impermeable boundary between those who are recipients of "Outreach," who should take what they're given, be grateful, and leave before the service starts, and those who are members, and therefore invited to worship and fellowship throughout the parish's life?
Jesus tells us in this Sunday's gospel that when we have a dinner party, we shouldn't invite our friends, relatives, or rich neighbors; we should invite the poor, the diseased, the marginalized. Lest we think that we're fulfilling that command solely by sending food or money to other people, Luke pairs this command with another: that we are called not to seek places of honor for ourselves, but to seek to honor others more.
"Honor" is a word that doesn't mean much to a lot of us, so it's worth drawing out a bit of just what that might mean in a cultural context that doesn't give the word the kind of resonance it had in Jesus' culture and Luke's. In the first-century Mediterranean world, "honor" wasn't a rather quaint and abstract value of elites or soldiers. Honor was community esteem in a world in which that esteem was not just immeasurably valuable, but necessary under many circumstances for survival. If your family was seen as without honor (and honor was held collectively by families -- one person's dishonorable behavior blew it for all), people wouldn't do business with you. Members of your family would be poorly placed to enter into a decent marriage -- and in a culture in which having honorable children who could and would care for you when you were old or sick was the only form of social security or retirement, that damage to your family's marriage prospects could put or keep you in utter poverty.
And what kinds of behavior were seen as honorable?
There's a game I've used with people of all ages (and intergenerational groups, where I think it can be particularly fun and poignant) to illustrate this. The game goes like this: There are cards on which a label is written -- "Monarch," "Noble," "Servant," or "Beggar." Each person gets one card taped to her or his back. Your job in the game is to circulate as if you were all at a party (sometimes I'll actually put food and drink out for the purpose), to look at the cards on the back of those with whom you interact, and try to behave as you think a person with your status -- whatever you think the card on your back says -- would treat a person of their status, as indicated by the card on their back. As you talk with other people, you find out more about what your status might be. And you find out very quickly what the card on your back says according to how those of various rank treat you.
Most people find it very easy very quickly to guess what's on their card. I find that the game almost always within five minutes results in four groups of people standing closely together and mostly or entirely ignoring all others -- each group consisting of people with the same label on their back, and the only cross-group interaction being "Monarchs" and "Nobles" trying to get "Servants" to bring them food and to throw out the "Beggars." The "Beggars" find out their status most quickly, since at first nobody at all wants to talk with them; there's no point in begging from one another, after all, and members of all other groups treat them as an unwelcome intrusion at best and less than human at worst.
The game works well to illustrate some of what honor meant because central to "honor" in the first-century Mediterranean world was treating people in a manner appropriate to their status. People honored their betters by treating them as their betters, thereby showing themselves as honorable people -- people who knew their station. They kept their family's honor by treating family as family and outsiders as outsiders. By their behavior in public -- and in Jesus' culture and Luke's, banquets themselves as well as who was invited and how were publicly observed and assessed -- higher-status people declared their honor by treating those below them appropriately, that is, according to their lower status. In other words, honor was about knowing your place and everyone else's and making sure that you behaved according to that hierarchy.
And so when Jesus tells his followers that they should humble themselves by choosing the lowest seat, he's advocating behavior that for all but the lowest at the banquet would be DIShonorable -- not at all how respectable people should behave. Jesus was seriously messing up the game. How can anyone know their place in any society, large or small, if people start treating that society's "Beggars" as if they were "Monarchs"?
The answer, of course, is that they might not. Treat those whom our the group culture -- whether our the group in question in a parish, a neighborhood, a nation, or a world -- says are of no account as if they were not only human beings, but our sisters and brothers or even our betters, and this group's "Beggars" will start getting uppity ideas about their status. They'll start acting as if they belonged.
And before we start congratulating ourselves as to how egalitarian our culture is compared to those wacky people of the ancient world, it's worth noting, for example, that a recent study of a quarter of a million U.S. households (hat tip: A Guy in the Pew) suggests not only that we prefer to do the kinds of things people do in my little "Monarchs and Beggars at Banquet" game, but that we're willing to pony up one of the most ready indicators of value in our culture -- that is, money -- to do it. Furthermore, I've observed anecdotally and studies following "white flight" and commuting patterns suggest that we privileged people are also often willing to spend a lot more time commuting -- away from our families and stuck in traffic or on trains -- to live in communities that are more homogenous in income, education, and ethnicity.
Jesus has a word for us that could really mess up that game.
Jesus says that we who are privileged should seek to place others in positions of privilege. He says that we should treat the poor, the sick, and the marginalized as our friends and family as well as our honored dinner guests.
This is no game. It's radical behavior that, if done consistently will instill some radical ideas: outcasts will come to see themselves as God's insiders, and that kind of thinking will inspire movements that give them access to the center of our groups and our society. Things will change -- a great deal -- when we take the next step beyond charity to treat the lowest as the most honored.
Extreme poverty could be a memory by the year 2015 -- not only eliminating a great deal of senseless suffering and death, but giving this world the voices of millions of people and their dreams who in previous generations would have been denied an education if they survived at all.
Neighborhoods segregated not only by access to income and education, but also by access to hope and power, could become a distant memory too. Our children's lives could be enriched by learning and playing alongside friends from all cultures in a society in which every child has a chance. We could spend less time and energy running from problems belonging to "those people" and use it in fellowship in which we see God in the faces of our diverse communities as well as our families.
Big changes in our world brought about by one big change in our behavior we have seen modeled in Jesus' life, ministry, and death on a cross. Jesus, whom our faith holds as the human being most worthy of honor, the King of Kings, treated the most marginalized people he met as if they were monarchs. If he saw a card on their backs, it didn't say that they were beggars who don't belong; it had titles such as "Child of God," "Beloved," "God's Image," only a little lower than the angels, in Shakespeare's phrase.
It's a radical way of life that respectable people thought dishonorable.
It's the way of life that the God who created the universe vindicated by raising Jesus from the dead.
And that tells us that Jesus' way is the Way of Life, the very heartbeat of the universe God made and loves.
Thanks be to God!
August 30, 2007 in Community, Eucharist, Evangelism, Hebrews, Honor/Shame, Justice, Kinship/Family, Luke, ONE campaign/Millennium Development Goals, Ordinary Time, Power/Empowerment, Year C | Permalink | Comments (1)
Proper 16, Year C
Such a powerful word. Spoken alone, such a powerful sentence, a powerful plea.
And so often we find so many other words, so many other calls, more compelling -- or at least loud enough to drown out calls for mercy.
On vacation in our little cabin, my partner was reading a book that offered a quiz on religious literacy, one of the questions being, "Name the Ten Commandments." (And hurrah for the book for recognizing that Jews, Roman Catholics, and Protestants actually don't have identical lists; we divide the passage that contains them differently, so any courtroom or classroom that posts one list of them will be choosing one tradition's version.) I'm a little embarrassed to say that off the top of my head, I only named nine. I forgot to include honoring the sabbath. In a way, it's not surprising; very few of us keep any day at all as sabbath, let alone THE sabbath (and it's not Sunday -- that's the day of Jesus' resurrection, and worth honoring, but it's not the sabbath day).
Many of our cultures in the West don't place much value on observing sabbath, and so I often hear passages such as this Sunday's gospel as a story of Jesus saying, "Look at all of these stupid rules you have. Just GET OVER IT!" But that's not the point at all. Jesus doesn't talk about exercising mercy on the sabbath because keeping sabbath is such a silly, arbitrary, or unnecessary thing. He picks it up because it's an ancient commandment. It's a central commandment -- one that God Herself honored in creation. The prophetic book of Isaiah speaks of honoring the sabbath in the same breath as honoring our sisters and brothers with our words, with offering our own food to the hungry and serving those in need.
Jesus doesn't talk about the sabbath in this Sunday's gospel because he thinks it's to be lightly tossed aside, let alone to suggest (in the way too many do, tinged with antisemitism) that those who keep it are foolish or universally hypocritical.
He talks about it in this particular context because it IS important. The weight of what Jesus is saying DEPENDS upon the importance of keeping sabbath. That's where the impact comes from when he says that as important as that is, exercising mercy is just as important and often more urgent -- indeed, that extending mercy -- God's mercy -- can be a way of keeping sabbath.
I thought about that a bit today, on my way to a doctor's appointment and walking past four men begging on the five blocks between the office and my home. I know a bit about what it's like in their shoes, so as I walked by, even though I wasn't going to give money, I offered eye contact and conversation. Not much -- just the sort that neighbors have on the corner on a warm day, not ending with "No," or "Sorry, no change," but continuing with "Sure is hot this morning," "Stay cool," "God bless."
I thought about it earlier this week, when I read a Salon.com advice columnist's response when a reader asked him about whether the church group serving breakfast to the homeless might better sit down to eat with those they served than go out to a hotel brunch afterward. I'm going to quote him (Cary Tennis) at length here, because I think he says it well, though not in the words I'd choose:
... as humans we seek integration of the vast, many-faceted pattern that is our being. And the parts of us that we don't fully understand, or that are buried or undeveloped, signal us in primitive ways, through signs and encounters, through instinct, through happenstance and mishap and magic. In the struggle for integration of the self we proceed by signs. Sometimes it's moving too fast to work out on paper. A highly intuitive person, for instance, may see in a flash that his place is alongside the poor, not in the hotel with the mimosas. He may see it all in a flash and have to go with it. There's no time to explain! Just stay here! Really, though. There's no time to explain! Really ...
The thing is, what you may not have considered is that while you think you're the one who holds all the cards, the topsy-turvy truth is that these people at the homeless shelter have a lot to offer you. You already know how to drink mimosas. But do you know how to stay dry in the rain? Have you ever known hunger? It is a good thing to know, what hunger feels like. It is good to know the terror of finding yourself alone on the street with no food and no money and no idea where you are, knowing no one, having no phone numbers to call, having no sister or brother to drive and pick you up, having no parents to call upon, no children to call upon, no friends, no employers, no agencies. That's a good thing to know. It is a good thing to know what it feels like to wait and wait on a corner until you finally just fall asleep there on the cold, hard sidewalk. It's good to know when was the first time you realized you didn't have an address. These are things you might talk about as you eat [with those at the soup kitchen]. ... I think it is a revolutionary consciousness that can be expressed in a quiet, humble, Christian way, just by sitting down and sharing food with people.
It's a plea worth hearing, I think: There's no time to explain! Just stay here! It's a striking combination of phrases, and I think an apt one. There are so many concerns, so many headlines, so many self-help and parenting and retirement financing and other gurus who scream for attention, who want us to believe that we must do one thing or another urgently or we're in dreadful danger -- and the urgent thing in question is rarely if ever, among the central concerns that provide the tension in the gospel story we tell this Sunday.
I live in a culture in which a fitness chain advertises exercise clubs with the slogan, "You can rest when you're dead." Who ever says, "There's no time to explain! Just stay here!"? Who says, "Don't just do something -- stand there!"? Who -- other than the Spirit whose fruit includes peace -- says, "If you're that stressed about all you have to do, can you afford NOT to breathe?" And who -- other than God's love whispering to our hearts -- says, "Times are tough -- we can't afford to skimp on compassion"?
I've listened to countless people over the past decade or so wonder aloud how it is that they work more and more and are increasingly exhausted, and yet the harder they work, the more they feel behind. The last thing most of us need to hear is that keeping sabbath is a triviality and we should pack more charitable exertion into any spare hour, and that's not what Jesus is saying either. It's that keeping sabbath is important, AND that reaching out to participate in God's bringing healing, freedom, joy, and peace to those in need is an appropriate, rejuvenating path to experiencing those things more fully in our own lives.
Folks who have read this blog for a while know that one of hunches about how our minds work is that we often avoid looking at length and with open hearts in the eye of those who are very old or very young without others to care for them, the homeless and those ill or in pain, those who are lonely, angry, or grieving, because their vulnerability reminds us of our own. "Compassion fatigue" and just plain fatigue sometimes spring from a common root: we will not feel peace or be at rest when we are frantically running away from something.
So this week as we're reflecting on the gospel, it might do us some good to linger where Jesus lingers, to begin in a moment of sabbath, to start from a quiet place within, and meet with God's compassion the gaze of someone who is suffering -- someone in the news, someone on the street, someone in our memory -- and to remind ourselves ('reminding' involving a state of mindfulness!) of the dignity, the freedom, the blessing that is God's desire for this person as God's child.
We may be moved to act. I often am, and it can be tempting in that moment to act in a way designed more to put this person and the vulnerability s/he represents out of mind. But listen! There's no time to explain -- just stay here! And if we can stay with the pain we see and reach out from that quiet place within, it's my experience that God's compassion will flow in ways that will transform us as well as our world.
Thanks be to God!
Proper 15, Year C
Isaiah 5:1-7 OR
Hebrews 11:29 - 12:2
Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; they will be divided
father against son
and son against father
mother against daughter
and daughter against mother.
mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law
and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.
This is one of those Sundays when parishioners are likely to hear either a sermon on the collect or a sermon of the genre to which I refer as "why Jesus didn't actually mean this," perhaps from the sub-genre of "exegesis according to fictitious quirks of ancient languages." Let's give this approach an acronym for convenience's sake: EAFQuAL.
An EAFQuaL approach to this Sunday's gospel would go something like this: "Yes, these words from Jesus sound really harsh to our ears -- not at all what you'd expect from someone whose message is in practically every way consonant with upper-middle-class respectability and good ol' 'family values.' But if you knew the original language of the gospels/that Jesus spoke -- as I do, having been to seminary and all [most preachers neglect to mention that they only took the language in question for a semester or two, if at all, and that they're depending on a dim recollection of someone or another saying something like they're about to say] -- you'd know that the word translated as 'hate' here really means something more like 'to love just slightly less than you love God, but still definitely to respect deeply, telephone frequently, and send flowers at least annually."
Some preachers taking an EAFQuAL approach to a difficult passage of the gospels will use Greek as their ancient language of recourse -- a sensible choice, since that's the language in which ALL of our earliest manuscripts of the canonical gospels are written. Some will go for Hebrew or even Aramaic instead, on the grounds that Jesus was originally speaking one or the other. This is a more creative and gutsy option in some ways, and even more likely to be a bluff: since all of our earliest texts of the canonical gospels are in Greek, any hypothesized Hebrew or Aramaic "original version" is likely to be either someone's guess based entirely on the Greek but assuming (without any particular reason aside from finding the text as it is difficult) that whoever translated the 'original version' into Greek was doing a very, very bad job of it, or someone's citing a MUCH later text that's also much further from the best-attested streams of the manuscript tradition. On the whole, this kind of EAFQuaL is like a game you can play in which you go to an 'automatic translator' web page such as Babelfish, enter the first few lines of the Gettysburg Address in English, have the site translate it a few times into other languages, and then have Babelfish translate that repeatedly mangled text back into English. The results are sometimes hilarious, but they hardly reflect a more reliable 'original text' of the Gettysburg Address than a decent history textbook will give.
As you can gather, I'm not a fan of EAFQuAL, and one of the many reasons I'm grateful to have had opportunity to study Greek and Hebrew is that it helped me realize something that grates on an awful lot of Christians' sensibilities, particularly among the privileged and the prosperous:
Some of Jesus' sayings -- and some behaviors called for in Christian discipleship, in following Jesus -- really ARE difficult. Jesus was not a twenty-first-century, university-educated, landowning husband and father; small wonder, then, that he frequently doesn't talk or act like a twenty-first century, university-educated, landowning husband and father. It goes further than that, though -- I'm NOT saying that one just has to "translate" what was customary among first-century peasants in Palestine to what's customary for us, and that the result will be that Jesus' way of life won't ever prove particularly challenging.
I can't say that because it's not true. Jesus wasn't a very "good" son to Mary his mother, and wasn't even a "good man" in the reckoning of respectable people around him. A "good son" would have stayed home and worked at the family's trade to care for his mother until her death; he wouldn't have gone off galavanting around the countryside. A "good man" would defend the family name and honor if challenged or attacked; he wouldn't be talking about loving enemies, and he wouldn't be disclaiming his family name by saying "those who hear the word of God and do it are my mother and my sister and my brothers" (Mark 3:35 -- and this is how he responds when someone tries to compliment his mother, and him by extension!). And as if all of the above isn't bad enough in conventional terms, Jesus actually encourages other people to leave their homes and families, to allow their family name and honor to be dismantled by others rather than upheld by retaliation, to follow him and to follow his example.
Much as character in C.S. Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia say that Aslan, the Christ-figure in the series, is "not a tame lion," Jesus is NOT a "good guy" by conventional reckoning. Following Jesus won't make you a "good guy" or "good girl" by most conventional reckonings either. And thus we read a lot in the gospels about forgiving and praying for persecutors -- something you don't need to do if everyone thinks you're a "great guy" or "great gal" and therefore has no desire to oppose your manner of life. How it came to be that so many people would think of Christianity as a ticket to respectability and an affirmation of the "core values" of a society with an vast and growing gap between rich and poor, insiders and outsiders, powerful and marginal, is one of history's most astonishing tricks to me; as with watching an illusionist making the Statue of Liberty 'disappear,' I've got to gasp and say, "I'm watching it, but I don't believe it. This is not the way the universe works, and no matter how much it seems that way, I can't believe it."
All of this may seem like a lengthy digression, and perhaps it is, but I hope at least that it's a useful one to undergo before directly tackling this Sunday's gospel, about which my advice to preachers is:
- Don't try to explain away, apologize for, or do some fancy rhetorical footwork to distract people from just how counter-cultural and difficult this text is. Don't engage in EAFQuAL. Don't say something that boils down to "Jesus didn't really mean this" (or its homiletical cousin, "Jesus didn't really say this, so we can safely ignore it and claim to be better Christians for it" -- a rhetorical strategy that ignores the important but inconvenient point that all historically plausible reconstructions of what Jesus did or didn't say or do depend in the end on the very gospels we're dismissing as less reliable than a historian's paperback). A preacher's job is not to distract the congregation from a biblical text long or skillfully enough for everyone to get away without asking hard questions, and it's not necessarily to make people feel better about their choices (though sometimes a good sermon may have that effect for some or many). If I had to sum up the preacher's job in a sentence, it's to model engagement with biblical texts and current questions in a way that better informs people what discipleship might involve and inspire people to take another step or set of steps to follow Jesus. In my experience, sermons that boil down to "my gut says that Jesus didn't say or mean this; discipleship is pretty much doing what any sensible and decent person would, and not worrying too much about the rest" just don't accomplish much worth doing.
- Do point toward and stay with what's difficult about the texts and about following Jesus long enough for people to really feel it. Remember the maxim -- it often works for teachers, psychotherapists, and preachers alike, I've found -- that "the work starts where the resistance starts." Pointing out how the biblical texts can be difficult to interpret and how discipleship involves facing very real and great challenges both functions as a "reality test" affirming the sanity of observations that intelligent and sensitive people know to be true, such as "there's a lot of beauty, joy, and love in this world, but I have to say that the world doesn't seem to be working as it should." Pausing regularly on Sunday mornings (ideally also in frequent study of scripture and times of prayer during the week, but at the very least starting with the Sunday sermon) to feel how challenging discipleship can be in many situations is a pastoral act that can build some emotional and spiritual muscles that will be very useful when (and it's 'when,' not 'if') the congregation encounters real, undeniable, and painful challenges.
- And though your work isn't done with most texts until you've taken in what can be challenging about them, it also isn't done until you've done your level best to address the question of where the Good News of God's healing and redeeming the world comes in. Personally -- and contrary to what sources such as Left Behind might suggest -- I find eschatology (literally, 'study of the end') to be a great boon in this task. As those who have taken the Connect course (which, by the way, is distributed in an 'open source' manner over the Internet, and is therefore FREE to congregations who want to use it, much as we appreciate contributions of money and effort to improve it) have heard and thought about, our stories -- our pains and joys, our mistakes and what we've learned from them, our dreams and disappointments -- often look different when we see, tell, and listen to them in the context of the larger story of God's making a good world that God loves and is working constantly to heal of the wounds and free it the enslavement that results from our damaging choices in life and relationships. I find that most passages in the lectionary have something to say about how God has redeemed, is redeeming, and will eventually complete the redemption of God's children. When I'm looking for Good News to proclaim, the first questions I ask myself are usually along the lines of how the biblical texts I'm working with fit that pattern. You can see how it would be impossible to see how this step requires a good job with the previous one: you can't see redemption and healing if you don't acknowledge slavery and wounds. I hope that anyone who's heard me preach more than a couple of times would recognize in my work another way I might summarize the preacher's aim: tell a chapter from the story of God's healing the wounded world God loves, and don't stop until you've foreshadowed the end -- the telos for which Creation was intended -- in terms vivd enough to dream.
So that's the pattern I've found most often useful when preaching on particularly difficult texts. How would that pattern look with this Sunday's texts?
In this Sunday's gospel, Jesus tells his friends that following him will cause conflict and division -- even division between families. That's a descriptive statement, and shocking as it is, it's not hard to see the truth of it if you're familiar with what Jesus says and does in the gospels. Imagine for a moment the scene when Peter goes back to his mother-in-law and says, "Hey, mom ... I've got some important news. I'm not going fishing tomorrow morning. I don't know if I'll ever step in a boat or lift a net again. I'm glad that you were healed of that fever, and I hope you don't catch one again, because I have to tell you that I probably won't be around to take care of you or to bury you when you die. See, that man who healed you asked me to follow him as he travels around teaching and healing, and I'm going to do it. I really think that God's kingdom is breaking through in this guy's work, and that's just too important for me to stay here, even to take care of you."
How would you feel if it were your son who said that to you? There's no social security to fall back on if you're Peter's mother-in-law; Peter is the closest thing you've got to that, and he's leaving. I have some idea of what I'd probably feel if I were Peter's mother-in-law: Betrayed. Abandoned. Despised. Shamed. Perhaps even hopeless. I have some idea of the kinds of things I'd say if I were in her shoes too, and a lot of the language I'd be using wouldn't appear in any children's bible. When I found out that Peter AND Andrew were both going, my language would reflect even more anger, grief, fear, and straight-up, no-chaser, and very bitter pain. I think the same would be true of my language if Peter and Andrew had other brothers and I were one of them. I'd want to ask Peter and Andrew how they could do this to all of us, how they think we'll survive without their help with the fishing, and whose prophet would ask a man to walk out on his family. I'd ask Peter and Andrew if this is how they were going to follow God's command in holy writ to honor parents and care for widows (as Peter's mother-in-law most likely was, in my estimation).
Peter's family isn't the only one that would be asking pointed questions or even shouting curses after departing disciples in the wake of Jesus' ministry. It's not at all hard, upon a few close readings of the gospels, to come up with a lot of other people who would be feeling just as hurt, just as angry, and who might attack disciples, even or especially their kin who were following Jesus, with words or more than words. Peace? It's not hard to see how what Jesus brings to such families might be described as well or much better by saying that Jesus brings division and drawn sword. There is a world of hurt behind Jesus' words in this Sunday's gospel.
And yet that's not all that can or should be said about this Sunday's gospel. It's true that Jesus' ministry did and still does dislocate those who follow him from the ways of life and from the relationships they were in. It's true that being extricated from those patterns and those relationships can be painful to all concerned.
It's also true that sometimes, if not often, the only way to find freedom to live in new ways and to form new and healthier relationships is to be extricated or dislocated from the old ones. It's true that Jesus challenges fathers and mothers, and sisters and daughters, husbands and wives to allow Jesus' call to pull them out of those relationships, at least or especially as those relationships are defined by our less-than-healthy world. It's true that Jesus' call in a sense denies those relationships altogether: our mother and our sister and our brothers are NOT those who offer or share a womb or a bloodline, but those who hear the word of God and do it.
That is a circle that can, depending on the choices we make, exclude those who by blood or law are our kin. But that's not the only possible outcome of Jesus' call. It's not the only possible outcome because Peter and Andrew aren't the only ones who have choices. You and I aren't the only ones who have choices. And Peter and Andrew and you and I aren't the only ones whom God calls.
Here's another possible outcome: Peter and Andrew tell Jesus that no prophet of the God of Israel would ask people to ignore the Ten Commandments, and they tell Jesus that on that basis they know precisely what sort of a man Jesus is, and there is no way they'd follow him. They go home and tell their families about what kind of dangerous nutcase the wandering healer turned out to be, and how glad they are that they figured it out. The next morning, they go fishing.
That's not a story that inspires me as a follower of Jesus. Thank God it's not the only other possibility either. Here's another one:
Peter and Andrew tell their families more about Jesus, what he's saying, what he's doing, and what they think that means about what God is accomplishing right now for the world. They talk about the community of people following Jesus and how they care for one another, how their life together is a sign to all of how relationships could be in the world and what might come of it if we believed the kingdom of God was breaking through this world and therefore we could live as though God were king here and now. Peter's mother-in-law, his sisters and all his brothers, and the rest of the family face and go through the break that Jesus talks about in our former relationships. It's only natural for them to grieve sometimes at the passing of old ways of being and to chafe at or stumble in the new relationships that are forming, but they have a new joy, a new peace, a new freedom from anxiety in the living reality that if they have lost a mother-in-law, a son-in-law, a daughter, or a father, they have gained more sisters and brothers than they ever imagined they could have, and had joined a people who would come to fulfill the promise to Abraham of numbering more than the stars of the clear desert sky -- more to care for them and be supported by them, more to love and be loved by than any earthly family could offer. They follow Jesus together, sisters and brothers in Christ.
That's a story that inspires me. It makes me think that perhaps the wounds we suffer following Jesus can, in the context of God's redeeming work, be like the break of a badly healed bone that allows it to become whole again.
Breaking and being made whole. It's core to the story of God's people. We see it in Jeremiah's description of the faithful prophet of God, whose word may be a hammer that breaks but whose witness calls God's people to wholeness. We see it in Isaiah's vision of God's people as a vineyard made desolate by unrighteousness, in failing to recognize God's image in humanity by caring for the poor and in worshipping as gods images of our own wealth and skill. We may not see it by conventional reckonings, with worldly eyes, but we see it through faith, which reminds us of God's faithfulness in the past and of God's redeeming work, ongoing in the present and to be completed in God's time.
It's a story to read and tell over and over until we and our children and parents, sisters and brothers and friends know it by heart, a story that will strengthen us when we're grieving and feel weak, and that will guide us when we're feeling strong. It's a story of pain and tears and brokenness, but it's a story of love, joy, and hope that ends in wholeness, in the world coming to know just how high and broad and deep God's love and blessings for Creation are.
Thanks be to God!
August 14, 2007 in Apocalyptic, Community, Eschatology, Hebrews, Honor/Shame, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Jesus' Hard Sayings, Kinship/Family, Luke, ONE campaign/Millennium Development Goals, Ordinary Time, Pastoral Concerns, Reconciliation, Righteousness, Scripture, Year C | Permalink | Comments (6)