First Sunday after the Epiphany, Year C
I often, and especially on Sundays like this coming one, find myself musing about the practice of Baptizing infants and small children. I'm supportive of families who do choose to Baptize their children; I believe that God often works through the intentions of families and congregations expressed in their preparation for and participation in Baptizing a child. I also think it's remarkable and quite sad that the decision to Baptize a child is so often made at least initially with more thoughts about pretty gowns and celebration with relatives than about the sign of the Cross that will be made on the child's forehead as the child is told, "you are sealed and marked as Christ's own forever."
Baptism is serious stuff.
Take Jesus' baptism, for example. We read about it during worship this week in a manner that mostly isolates that event from the context in which it takes place in the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Mark's wording is particularly striking, as "immediately" after Jesus is baptized by John, Mark says, "the Spirit drove [Jesus] out into the wilderness." The verb Mark uses is ekballo -- the same word used of what happens to demons in exorcism.
Matthew and Luke tone that verb down, but still make clear that Jesus' baptism gives him not only a vision of God declaring him to be a beloved son, but also a vocation -- one that places him in conflict with spiritual adversaries, the powers that seek to enslave us, dividing us from one another and from God, and with very human adversaries, rulers and others who benefit from that oppressive order and fragmentation. And if the gospels present Jesus as in some ways being like the Baptizer but greater, John's execution at Herod's orders indicate the kind of dangers Jesus faces as he steps forward into public ministry empowered by his baptism.
It's not just about Jesus' baptism either. The book of Acts links Baptism in the Holy Spirit with great spiritual power, and also makes clear that the Spirit's power comes with conflicts with worldly authorities and worldly values. And yet we choose to Baptize our children, marking them with the otherness that marked Jesus, placing them on the path of the Cross. Indeed, we do it joyfully -- all the more joyfully, I'd argue, when we do it with eyes wide open to the challenges ahead of those who, like the Baptized child, have been set on the way of the Cross. Why?
I believe that joy in a Baptism chosen with eyes and heart wide open comes from being in touch with the audacious vision of God's dream for humanity, in which we participate as Baptized members of the Body of Christ. When we are immersed in and excited about what God is doing in the world, the challenges that arise from those who prefer the world order in which the poor, the sick, and those marked as 'other' stay on the margins can be seen for what they are -- the last gasps of an oppressive order that is passing away.
That's one reason I love the ways in which people of faith have embraced the vision of the Millennium Development Goals. It's a vision that's audacious and ambitious, yet meant to be realized in our hearing, in this generation -- and one I'll definitely be touching on in great depth, as Luke 4 is coming up soon in the lectionary. I hope it will suffice for now to note that when we talk about what it is we take on as our vocation when we are sealed with the weighty sign of Baptism into Christ, it includes taking on participation in Jesus' mission, that when we acknowledge Jesus as Lord (which is the most central confession of Baptism), we are investing our very lives -- body, psyche, and spirit, as well as any resources and gifts we have or will gain to offer -- in the mission of ordering the world God made such that it looks like what we say is true: that Jesus is Lord.
In other words, in Baptism we pledge our whole selves to ordering not only our lives, but to the best of our ability, the world in which we live in harmony with the reign or kingdom of God -- that is, what the world looks like when Jesus' lordship is fully consummated. And what does that look like? This Sunday prompts us to look at Jesus' baptism as a frame through which we might see what that moment might look like through the lens of Christian Baptism.
Jesus' baptism provided him with clarity about his purpose and his message. In Luke's terms, that message is about the realization of Isaiah's prophetic vision -- not in some distant future, not as something to be wished for idly or prayed for in pious passivity, but as present reality. The Good News of the present vindication of the poor, of release to prisoners, sight to the blind, freedom for the oppressed, and the jubilee year of God's favor is more and more for here and now as "this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing" (Luke 4:21). As the apostles live into the ministry of their Baptism, Luke characterizes their ministry similarly. Their testimony to Jesus is validated by their making real among one another what Jesus proclaimed:
With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all, for there was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles' feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need. (Acts 4:33-35)
I ache to know what the world would look like if all of Christ's apostles today saw this as the economy -- which, not incidentally, is our adoption of the Greek work oikonomia, or household management -- of the household of God's people. And "apostles" is NOT (especially not in Luke's writings) a word designating twelve guys who lived in Palestine over two thousand years ago; "apostle" means "one sent," and every person Baptized into Christ is sent forth in Christ's name. If you're waiting for the church's permission to function as an apostle and the Baptismal Covenant doesn't seem to be enough, just wait until the end of the service, and a deacon (or someone functioning as one) will commission you as an apostle:
Go in peace, to love and serve the Lord.
That's said, and you're sent. You and I, the Baptized, are sent forth, designated as apostles of Jesus Christ, sent to proclaim the new life of Christ Jesus not just with empty words, but with power -- with deeds that change lives, with the offering of all that we have and all that we are. That's appropriate enough for the Baptized. When we were Baptized, what part of us was left untouched? None. When we seek to follow Jesus, what part of us is reserved for someone else's cause? None. And when we are following Jesus with all we are, what part of us -- indeed, what part of our world -- will be left untouched and not transformed fully by grace? None.
That, I believe with all my heart, is why it's worth everything that we pledge when we are Baptized, when we Baptize our children, when we reaffirm our Baptismal vows. It's worth it all because it is more than the "all" we humanly thought possible; it is embracing the telos or "end" for which the Word was breathed and all things made in the beginning. It is the imagining that will stretch our imaginations for as long as eternal life lives.
I admit that hear often from a few people that most members of their congregations have no interest in stretching their imaginations in this way, that most are perfectly satisfied with their lives and the world exactly as they are. I have to say that this does not at all match my pastoral experience in the wealthiest, most privileged, most "secure," and most "successful" of congregations any more than it matches my experience in ministry with the homeless. There are a great many people in our culture who are by most measures wealthy, but who are tremendously economically insecure -- in a house that cost far more than they could comfortably afford, but that seemed necessary to buy given how good the schools in that neighborhood were in contrast to the terrible state of public schools in poorer neighborhoods not so far away. They are one paycheck away from disaster, and they know it; if one person in the family gets sick, if there's some unforeseen disaster in a single industry, if the wrong person gets elected or promoted or one rotten stroke of luck, it feels like everything will be ruined. The adults and children feel it almost equally, even if neither ever names or talks about it. And then there are the other kinds of disasters that our culture threatens us with seemingly at every turn. Perhaps it's more a function of child and adolescent literacy than of anything else, but I'm not convinced that's it -- I have never seen more cultural artefacts of anxiety from the young of any culture I've studied than I have when listening to the voices of young people in affluent communities today.
On some level, I think that we all know that the world as our worldly powers have ordered it is not working, is not giving the human family abundant life as we were created and still ache for.
And I believe this is part of the Good News of our Baptism. If some part of you believes that the world as it is on the front page of the newspaper is not the world as it was meant to be, you're not crazy and you're not just a starry-eyed idealist; you are feeling God's call in Baptism. If some part of you wants something more than the chance to achieve enough to feel pressured to achieve more or to defend what you thought you won, you're not just greedy or lazy or odd; you're feeling God's call in Baptism. And if you feel at times that the world and the life you're aching for is more than you could bring into being by your own achievement, even if you wanted it only for yourself and those you care about (and who can restrict caring to just a few?), you haven't run into the thing that makes the dream impossible; you just might be hearing the call of Baptism.
Baptism, after all, is not just about you. Not by a long shot. Luke, after telling us about Jesus' baptism, immediately gives us that most genre of lectionary readings most dreaded by lectors: the geneology. He tells us how Jesus is connected, via saints and sinners (and aren't they all some of both?), via the famous and obscure, to all humanity. And like Mark and Matthew, Luke tells us of the vision Jesus had in Baptism that empowered him to face what he faced in the desert and in the crowds, whether enthusiastic or angry: he heard God's call to intimacy as God's beloved child. There were many things about Jesus that were unique, but Jesus' intimate relationship with God as we hear in this story of his baptism was not one of them; it's something that God has offered to all of God's beloved children from the beginning. It's the call and the promise that Isaiah sang of along with those audacious visions of what the world could be, that in the midst of the world as it is, we could hear God say:
Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
I have called you by name; you are mine.
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you;
when you walk through fire you shall not be burned,
and the flame shall not consume you.
For I am the Lord your God,
the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.
I pray that this Sunday and every day, all those gathered to hear God's word can hear that word, can receive the truth of God's presence to empower us as ones sent to live into the truth of God's reign.
Thanks be to God!
First Sunday after Christmas Day, Year C
John 1:1-18 - link to NRSV text
If you haven't seen it already, I encourage you to check out my reflection for Christmas Day this year, which deals with John 1:1-14 as well as the two passages in Luke for earlier Christmas services.
That earlier entry was in part on the theme that the Incarnation is NOT how a distant god became close to humanity. The prologue to John's gospel, which we read again this Sunday, makes that much clear in saying that the logos or "Word" Jesus incarnated was with God in the beginning and that all things were made through the logos. Indeed, Hebrew scripture -- like the Christian "New Testament" -- has plentiful representations of God as present among and intimate with God's people. Psalm 139 is just one example among a great many.
This week, I want to talk about another misconception I've heard in many a sermon, and that the prologue to John's gospel ought to put to rest. The misconception goes something like this:
God is righteous. Righteousness means not only avoiding all wrongdoing, but avoiding all wrongdoers. Therefore, God fundamentally can't stand humanity -- at least as long as humanity is sinful. Indeed, God wants and needs to punish wrongdoers with something worse than the death penalty: death plus eternal suffering. Only blood can satisfy God's sense of justice. The Incarnation solves this problem as God the Son, who wants to have compassion for humanity but knows that only the shedding of human blood will satisfy the Father, becomes human to suffer and die for humanity's sins, after which God can stand to be around humans who accept this blood sacrifice on their behalf.
The above is a particularly crude version of what some call "substitutionary atonement." There are versions out there that are not so crude, and at the very least, any view that Jesus' blood was shed as a full and perfect sacrifice for sin ought to have at least one implication that would be very helpful were we to live into it: namely, that human beings cannot demand blood or even suffering from another as punishment for wrongdoing, since Jesus paid the full price for all human sin, and further suffering from others is neither necessary nor efficacious. Can you imagine a world in which everyone who claimed to be a Christian refused absolutely to participate in any kind of vengeance, punishment, or shedding of human blood? That would be a radical shift.
But our gospel passage for this Sunday asks us to contemplate something far more radical:
"No one has ever seen God. It is God the Son, who is close to the Father's heart, who has made him known."
In other words, as my dissertation supervisor puts it, God is like Jesus.
That might not sound so radical at first. In many circles in the U.S., we're accustomed to or even fairly jaded with respect to theological language about Jesus. But what I've observed over the years is that our thinking about the Incarnation and what it means tends to run in the opposite direction from what John 1:18 suggests. We start with our ideas about what God is like (those far too often being simply our cultural values writ large), and then assume or project into the New Testament that Jesus is like that.
We believe that family (defined in our usual cultural manner of those closely related to us by blood or marriage) should be a person's chief priority (other than God, perhaps), so we believe that God commanded as much, and therefore Jesus did too. We scratch our heads a little if we come across most of what Jesus said about family in the biological or legal sense, but figure the text couldn't possibly mean what it says and quickly move on.
We inherit a "Protestant work ethic" from our culture; we project that onto God; and then we find ourselves saying things like, "well, didn't Jesus say, 'the Lord helps those who help themselves'?" (That was Ben Franklin, by the way.)
We embrace a kind of individualistic faith that says that God is concerned primarily with the state of our hearts rather than what we do with our money and power, and then invent all kinds of interpretive contortions with texts about the "rich" and the "poor" in the New Testament so we don't have to think that Jesus has any problem with the poor remaining poor and the rich remaining rich.
In a particularly subtle way that's therefore particularly difficult to become aware of, we believe that God is basically a nice guy who made a nice world and then got out of the way, sending Jesus as one of many occasional reminders to humanity that we should also be nice and not do anything really bad to one another -- in other words, that following Jesus will not require anything more than church attendance from someone who's basically a good and respectable guy or gal.
Or we start with a firm idea of what God likes and doesn't like (usually pretty similar to what we like and don't like), and that God wants and needs to punish those who do the latter, and then we assume that Jesus is like that too. But what does John's prologue do to this way of doing theology?
If Jesus is God the Son, close to the Father's heart, who has made our Creator known to us, then we don't start with ideas about what God is doing in the world and project them onto Jesus; we start with what Jesus does in the world and know that this is what God is doing.
That's yet another reason that we can't chart the significance of the Incarnation without talking about what happened between the lines of the creeds -- after "he was made man" and before "he died and was buried." If it is Jesus, the Word made flesh, who makes God our Creator known, then we know what God is like by looking at what Jesus in his life "in the flesh" was like.
Jesus taught and healed. He confronted the powers and the power dynamics that kept some people shut out of the villages as feared demoniacs. When people were hungry, he fed them. Indeed, he broke bread with them, without checking first, second, or later about whether they were the "right sort of person." He broke bread with the person he knew was betraying him to suffering and death. He spoke words of invitation and forgiveness even from the cross on which he died. Those last invitations -- to the thief on the cross in Luke's gospel, for example -- came without precondition; there was no "as long as you don't mess up again," or "as long as you're sincerely sorry for what you've done," or "assuming you don't have any major nasties in your history that I don't know about." He also challenged people -- not just the "sinners," but the respectable people -- to grow into the fullness of discipleship, receiving and caring for all who came to Jesus' table as their own flesh and blood.
Had he just behaved that way, he wouldn't have been particularly threatening to anyone. Some people are completely indiscriminate about the company they keep. Some people treat their enemies in pretty much the same way they treat their friends and family. They won't be elected president any time soon; they're weirdos whose hanging out with those on the margins of society renders them marginal as well. Jesus would have been similarly unimportant if that's all he did.
But he did more. He said that God -- the Creator of the universe -- behaved toward humanity just as he did. He acted with God's power to bring those at the margins in to the center as empowered and beloved children of God. And so John's gospel very aptly says that his glory is "full of grace and truth" -- properties not at all in contradiction in Jesus' ministry, or in the kingdom of God.
All of those who take the Left Behind books as gospel and are therefore expecting Jesus, or the God whom Jesus proclaimed, to undergo some kind of eschatological personality shift to gleefully kick his enemies' butts are going to be disappointed if John is right. Those who worship a god who poses no threat to the empires of this world will be surprised by the God revealed in the life of Jesus, who gathered people to live in a way that threatened Roman rule enough to get him executed for treason against the emperor.
But for those who are attracted to the ways in which Jesus challenges the rulers and embraces the marginalized -- those who glimpse abundant life in Jesus' way of life -- the news that Jesus is the Word of God made flesh who makes the Creator known is Good News indeed -- the best news there is.
Thanks be to God!
Proper 28, Year B
It's nice to have a little light reading, isn't it?
"There shall be a time of anguish, such as has never occurred since nations first came into existence" (Daniel 12:1).
"Woe to those who are pregnant and to those who are nursing infants in those days!" (Mark 13:17).
I can almost hear preachers around the country sighing and pondering whether it would be better to just preach on the collect. Of course, this is the collect for this Sunday:
Blessed Lord, who caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which you have given us in our Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
Guess we can't really pray that one and then just hope that nobody will really care if we ignore the scripture readings in the sermon.
It probably won't surprise you to know that I think that's for the best. It's one thing to decide to preach on the collect or on a text other than what's in the lectionary for an urgent pastoral reason; it's another thing entirely to do so because the biblical text is particularly challenging. We need to deal with those challenging texts for all kinds of reasons, here's a good pastoral one: they're challenging because they deal with challenging subjects, and when a challenging situation arises in our lives, we're a lot more likely to be able to see God at work in it if we haven't fled from passages in scripture where communities of God's people were dealing with major challenges in their own life together.
That's what apocalyptic literature -- writings like the book of Daniel and this passage from Mark -- is about. It's not written in good times about some anticipated catastrophe in the future, but about challenges -- serious, "where is God amidst this suffering?" challenges -- in the life of a community. "Apocalyptic" is a term that means literally "taking the cover from"; it takes present events and lifts the veil so we can see what's really going on and where it fits in the story of God's redeeming the world.
I'll say it one more time, since all that Left Behind stuff has penetrated so much of popular culture: Neither Daniel nor Mark were talking about something they thought was going to happen hundreds or thousands of years later. They were talking about what was happening as they were writing.
Daniel (or much of it, anyway) was most likely writing about the persecution of Jews under the Seleucid king Antiochus IV, who forbade the practice of key elements of Jewish religion, slaughtered Jewish people, and desecrated the Temple in Jerusalem by sacrificing a sow on the altar.
Mark was most likely written either as war clouds were on the horizon or during the Jewish revolt against Roman rule that began in 66 C.E. It was in the year 70 that the Roman legions under Titus not only captured and sacked Jerusalem, but marched into the Temple itself and the Holy of Holies at its center, carrying off its treasures.
In other words, YES, these are scary texts -- darn near perfect for scary times. Any of us who are lucky or blessed to live long enough are bound to live into such times. I'm talking about times in which it seems that the more wrong one does to other people the more one prospers.
When I was a child there was a children's magazine called Highlights in dentist's offices that had a regular "what's wrong with this picture?" feature in which you were supposed to circle what was "wrong." The challenge, in some ways, was how you could circle EVERYTHING that was wrong in the world that was presented in an illustration in which it often seemed that the few thing were right were just there to underscore how much made no sense at all in the world that we were used to seeing: the tricycle had one square wheel, the tree had at least five kinds of fruit on it, the trout were in the sky and the bluebirds were under the surface of the pond.
This Sunday's texts are an indispensable resource for any one of us who ever finds her or himself in such a position.
I can't help as I think about these texts to late summer of 2003. I was the first openly gay person hired (though FAR from the first gay person on staff) of a moderate-to-conservative parish. I went away with the co-rectors for a continuing education function immediately after General Convention, and I drew the first Sunday after that to preach to the congregation.
Anxiety was high. There were a significant number of people in the congregation who were still struggling with the idea that someone like me -- well, GAY me; they were happy enough with bible-loving me, and most of the rest of me that they could define, as far as I could tell -- could be on staff at a church. They hadn't heard that there were lots and lots of openly gay and partnered priests in the church. They didn't know about ++George Carey's commending openly the ministry of the openly gay priests he'd met in the U.S. and elsewhere. What they knew is that the world in spring of 2003 made sense, and something had happened at General Convention over the summer that made the world they live in seem like the Highlights drawings of a world gone completely awry.
That's a very, very difficult place to be in. I know it firsthand. It never seemed so much like Highlights shows a trout riding a bicycle in the clouds" to see openly gay people being happy in stable relationships and having a fruitful ministry in the church, but I have known many times over what it's like to wake up in a world that doesn't seem to make any sense at all -- in which the innocent die and the wicked prosper, in which no word goes better with "tragedy" than "senseless" and I have nothing better to say to someone who says as much than, "Yes -- and that really makes me angry."
The world was not made for those moments, I know. I've read Genesis 1 and 2. God made the world, and it was very, very good. I've experienced that goodness, and I count that a blessings.
And the world is also a place that's made me ask, whisper, wonder, and occasionally scream "WHY?!"
Sometimes that loss is personal: why did my brother or my friend die?
For the compassionate, that loss is often corporate: why is it that being born in one zip code in the U.S. practically guarantees living at least to see kindergarten, and in somewhere else in the world practically guarantees infant mortality, or dying in childhood from some disease totally preventable via access to clean water, or barring that, access to antibiotics?
For anyone with an ounce of compassion, it can feel devastating. For anyone but the very luckiest of the wealthiest, it is practically inevitable. At some point, each one of us blessed with long life and a full emotional life is going to end up asking:
Where on earth, where amidst this suffering, are you, God?
And that's why I hope and pray that we'll deal with these texts, however clumsily we do it, this Sunday.
Preachers, leaders, teachers, friends: we can't always see it or feel it, but if these texts are our sacred texts, our story of God's redeeming the world, we have something to say:
There shall be a time of anguish. That is real. And those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the sky, and those who lead may to right relationship, like the stars for ever and ever.
This is our story if we read it, if we claim it, if we enter into it.
There will be suffering; there is suffering. There will be people who are false, who promise ease and plenty or at least safety if we'll just do what they say. There are others with a more seductive sales pitch who will admit that it can be or will be hard, and who will say that the reward for throwing gain after loss and all to follow what they say is right won't necessarily be ease, but will be a certain and absolutely blessed outcome. That's close enough to the truth to be tempting for a lot of good people.
There are days of suffering, when nothing seems to make sense, when it seems that the things we took for granted as most blessed -- the birth of a child, the hope of birth -- seem like a curse.
In those days, if we have been willing to engage the whole story of God's people -- not just the rich people, the people privileged enough to be able to talk themselves on most days into thinking that their wealth, their cleverness, their privilege will be able to keep them and those they lost from all suffering -- we will remember that suffering, those events that make us feel like we're in the Highlights picture of "What's wrong here?" and everything is wrong here have been foreseen.
We will remember that the story of the world that we celebrate in the Eucharist, and in every time we gather in the name of Jesus the Christ -- is not a story of invulnerability, but of redemption.
And if we gloss over those moments of real, uncomfortable pain in the life of God's people as reflected in biblical texts, we offer nothing to sustain our sisters and brothers when that moment arrives in which pain is unavoidable.
I have said it before, and if God gives me grace, I'll say it a great many more times:
God's creation was good, but God's goodness doesn't offer us static perfection. It offers us redemption.
That's pretty much what I had to say when I preached to a confused and divided congregation just after General Convention in 2003. Many of the decisions that seemed to members of the congregation to come directly out of a Highlights "what's wrong with this picture?" illustration were words of freedom and peace to me, but I'd listened firsthand to what people had said about feeling confused, grieved, disappointed to the point of wondering which way was up and whether any rules still held, and I knew I'd been there before, with other precipitating events.
When I preached, I spoke of some of the losses I'd felt that made me feel like I was in that Highlights picture. I talked about wondering where God was, and about taking that beyond wondering to yelling -- to praying with all of my anger to the God I was angry with, to asking God just what God was thinking, and asking it with all the frustration of not knowing or not thinking I'd ever know, wondering whether I'd ever want to know.
I will never forget conversations I had with one parishioner after that sermon. He was about as far from me as one can get on most of the spectrums that people draw in church politics. He'd planned on leaving the church, but decided after than Sunday he could stay, for now. It clearly wasn't a comfortable place for him. I felt blessed that he wanted to stay there with me in that uncomfortable place as we both sought God's presence and will.
I haven't worshipped with or worked in that congregation in a little over a year, I guess. In that short period of time, my brother in Christ from there with whom I had those conversations went from the picture of health to a diagnosis of cancer to the end of his journey on earth. I've been seeing his face a lot in my mind this month, and I've prayed for him a great deal. My heart ached for how much and for whom he'd leave behind, for the sense of purpose I know he felt, for all of the gifts he had to give to this world that the world won't receive.
It's painful. I don't want to move too quickly from that pain, since it's a pain I share with sisters and brothers I can't see or hug from another city. And since my brother in Christ in that congregation who died did eventually leave that congregation and The Episcopal Church, I'm sorry that I don't know the faces or names of those who walked with him and his family on that last leg of his journey, and I am grieved.
I hope that he did have companions to walk with him who were willing to say "there is pain," "I don't understand," and yet to say, "I hope ..."
But there's one particular moment -- the moment in June of 2003 after I preached a sermon on walking with God in grief, in pain, in loss, in anger, and I connected with a brother there who was feeling that kind of pain. I hope he wasn't alone on that last leg of his journey; knowing his family at least, I hope I know he wasn't alone. I might be feeling alone in grieving his passing, but I feel less alone in knowing that we connected at least sometimes, at least around the kind of moment that he was facing and would face again, and I'm glad he knew that I wanted to face those moments with him.
Preachers, I know that you can find some very good texts to help you enter into what there "apocalyptic" texts in the New Testament meant to the earliest Christians. Elizabeth Schüssler Fiorenza and Bruce Malina have written wonderful and helpful commentaries on Revelation, for example, and there are a lot of exegetical resources that will help you walk through texts like Daniel 12 or Mark 13 verse by verse.
I'm writing this week mostly to encourage you to take that journey, to walk that walk through these difficult texts, because they are going through territory that all of us blessed with true hope -- with a sense of the goodness of the world as God made it and of the end for which God created, with compassion to meet those parts of life in which the world has been remade for pain and loss and less than, and with irrational longing and vision for and drive to participate in God's healing of this world -- must walk.
I know these are difficult texts. They are given to us as God's people because we still live in a difficult world -- gorgeous and gashed, good and made to be more than good, broken and with the potential of being a whole and wholly beautiful mosaic of brokenness brought into relationship with other brokenness to make far more than the sum of its pieces. Our wrestling together with these difficult times and difficult texts, our seeking God even to rail at God on the journey, is stretching our sensibility in a truly apocalyptic sense, that we might catch glimpses of God's redemption of those difficult moment, of us difficult people, of our complicated world.
Dodge the difficulties and we miss chances to see God doing that which God most fully is in Jesus, what we're all about as Christians. Stay with us and our pain as God's people in these moments and we can walk together as God's people through them.
It adds up to a chance in each moment -- each irreplaceable moment -- to remove the cover or lift the veil from what's happening now to catch glimpse of God's wondrous and redeeming eternity. Please go there with me, with Daniel, with Mark, with Jesus.
It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God. But recall those earlier days when, after you had been enlightened, you endured a hard struggle with sufferings, sometimes being publicly exposed to abuse and persecution, and sometimes being partners with those so treated. For you had compassion for those who were in prison, and you cheerfully accepted the plundering of your possessions, knowing that you yourselves possessed something better and more lasting. Do not, therefore, abandon that confidence of yours; it brings a great reward. For you need endurance, so that when you have done the will of God, you may receive what was promised.
For yet "in a very little while, the one who is coming will come and will not delay; but my righteous one will live by faith. My soul takes no pleasure in anyone who shrinks back."
But we are not among those who shrink back and so are lost, but among those who have faith and so are saved. (Hebrews 10:31-39)
Slow down our beating hearts, oh Lord, that we might journey with your Son and your people in this moment. May we read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest it as our own story, as the story of your redemption of all you have created.
Thanks be to God!
Proper 27, Year B
I try to live with all in Christian charity. Really, I do, with varying (mostly miniscule) levels of success. But the editors of our lectionary are really making it difficult for me this week with where they end the gospel reading. Fortunately they give us impetus in the other readings for this week to think about the gospel differently, but they've given us a selection of verses from Mark to create the perfect collection of readings for "stewardship Sundays," all neatly packaged for sermons suggesting that we should all emulate the widow of this Sunday's gospel, whom Jesus praises so for her generosity. More sermons than not this Sunday, I suspect, will move from that point and use a rather uncritical equation of Temple=church to say that Jesus wants us to give more money to the church, trusting that God will take care of us if only we have the courage to pledge more.
There's one problem with this reading.
Actually, I have to amend that. There are MYRIAD problems with this reading, but let's start with the biggest one:
Where do you see any suggestion at all in the text that Jesus thinks it's a wonderful thing that this poor widow put her last two coppers -- all she had to live on -- in the Temple treasury, going away destitute?
It just isn't there. If anything, the text suggests the opposite. The passage starts with Jesus warning his followers to beware of those who like to walk around in long robes, receive the seats of honor, put on a good show of prayers, and DEVOUR WIDOWS' HOUSES. That last bit is particularly important because of what follows:
Jesus watches a bunch of guys in long robes take a widow's last two coins -- all she has to live on.
Then Jesus says something. What he says boils down to "and just in case you thought I was making stuff up on that point, check out this woman -- she just put literally her last cent, all she had to live on, in the treasury to maintain this lovely building."
But he doesn't stop there, even though our lectionary editors would leave people whose primary exposure to scripture is in Sunday services thinking as much. The conversation continues. Jesus' disciples have the nerve to say, "Yeah, but look at the building! This is glorious!" and Jesus responds with a prediction that it will all be destroyed -- an act that elsewhere in the gospels Jesus attributes to no less of an actor than God.
Note that Jesus did NOT say, "Not one stone will be left on another ... unless you all are as generous as this widow. Now dig deep, people -- this building must be maintained at any cost!" Jesus doesn't criticize or blame the widow for the dynamic here; he places the blame squarely on the shoulders of the robed guys collecting the widow's money. That's something to think about when we're all vesting on Sunday morning!
But Jesus doesn't come anywhere close to praising the dynamic of poor people being left with nothing by people claiming to be God's people. Preachers, I beg you not to come anywhere close to suggesting otherwise this Sunday.
Jesus' point here is not to suggest that God's people must never have buildings in which to meet. The earliest Christian communities in Jerusalem met in the Temple courts, after all, and Christians' houses around the first-century Mediterranean provided not only places to meet, but places to house those whose choice to follow Jesus meant that their families tossed them out on the street.
That sharing of resources in which none have too much and all have enough -- sharing celebrated in our reading for this week from 1 Kings -- and not any number of impressive vestments, eloquent prayers, or gorgeous examples of architecture -- is what makes a place holy to the Lord who cares for the stranger and sustains the orphan and the widow (Psalm 146:8). When the Letter to the Hebrews speaks dismissively of "a sanctuary made by human hands," in contrast to the true one, it does so in that venerable and blessed prophetic critique of religious and political establishments naively assuming or cynically cultivating a belief that the defense of any piece of ground, the maintenance of any building or institution, or the observance of any ceremony could ever justify making more widows and orphans or failing to care for those already among us.
I believe that is the message God is calling us to proclaim on "stewardship Sunday" -- and on stewardship Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday too. I believe that every day is stewardship day, a day to remember "who made heaven and earth, the seas, and all that is in them" (Psalm 146:5), and to whom therefore all those things and all they produce belong. It is a day to remember that freely offering back to God all God's gifts to give justice to those who are oppressed and food to those who hunger, freedom to the prisoners and sight to the blind. It is a day to remember, and to act in remembrance of God's grace to us, most especially in sending us Jesus, that those bent down by the world's troubles may be empowered to walk tall.
That, more than any building or any ceremony, is what glorifies God. And when we participate in that process, that mission of God in the world, we come closest to seeing God's glory on earth. There is nothing more exciting, exhilarating, and joyous than that -- nothing on earth more likely to inspire us to cry out:
Praise the LORD, O my soul!
I will praise the LORD as long as I live;
I will sing praises to my God while I have my being.
And thanks be to God!
Proper 25, Year B
People often ask me how they should pray. I'm happy to answer, but I think the way the question is most often put shows some assumptions about prayer that are worth considering before buying into them. I particularly have in mind the "should" part of the question, which seems to me to imply that there are right and wrong ways to pray, a kind of prayer etiquette that's important to follow.
That's not something I see in scripture, though. This Sunday's gospel is an excellent case in point. Jesus and his followers are traveling when they encounter Bartimaeus, who shouts, "Son of David, have mercy on me!" It's not a demure, "if you're not too busy" request. There's no "if you want to do this," or "if you think it's best."
Bartimaeus shouts out a demand -- "have mercy on me!" -- that presumes a relationship between the two of them: Jesus as "Son of David" and therefore king of Israel is obligated to Bartimaeus, an Israelite and therefore his subject. Jesus heals him. He doesn't heal him because Bartimaeus has used the "right" title for Jesus. In Mark, Jesus' preferred title isn't "Son of David," but "the Son of Man." In calling Jesus "Son of David" and therefore king of Israel, Bartimaeus is treading in effect into territory that brought a stern "shut up" (the "charge" there is not the wording of a warm "you're right and I'm glad you said so, but please be discreet") from Jesus just two chapters before, when Peter called Jesus God's anointed (Mark 8:29-30).
In other words, far from being healed as reward for saying the right thing in the right way, Bartimaeus is healed despite his addressing Jesus loudly, repeatedly, and presumptuously before a great crowd in a way Jesus would rather not be addressed in public, if at all.
And Jesus not only answers him, but also heals him. Jesus is not one to hang back waiting for us to get it "right" before responding with compassion. And in any case, who said that the "right" way to ask for what we need would be demurely? There are other ways to read the parable Jesus tells of a persistent widow who gets justice from an unjust judge who "fears neither God nor humankind," but Luke clearly reads it as a model of how we should pray, with the widow's relentless tenacity as a model rather than a cautionary tale (Luke 18:1-8).
But really, should we be surprised by this, if we've read the ancient books that Jesus and St. Paul called the scriptures? The Hebrew bible is full of godly people arguing with God. When God tells Abraham that God is judging Sodom, Abraham bargains with God like a haggler at a flea market or boot sale. When God calls Moses, Moses whines and explains just why God is mistaken. When God calls Jeremiah, Jeremiah protests that he's WAY too young.
And have you read the Psalms lately? I've been spending some quality time with them of late, in part because I think that too many of us have taken in a rather silly idea that God is a very, very delicate being who can only stand us when we're feeling Holy and Meek in a cheerful if rather passive way, and I'm writing music to express some other things we often feel and are invited to bring to God. Psalm 10 is a good one for grief and anger. I just wrote a musical setting for it, though it doesn't appear in our Eucharistic lectionary. What would it feel like to pray that on a Sunday? How will it feel this Sunday to pray Psalm 13, which clearly (especially clearly for those who've read books like this one on cultures of the ancient Near East) is trying to SHAME God into acting ("everyone's calling you chicken, God!")? Can we really enter into that space of being angry with God as we all stand their in our Sunday best?
However we dress, though, when we do it, I think it's wise to practice coming to God with our anger, our grief, and our frustration. God doesn't care whether we're "justified" in having those feelings when we do -- as if feelings were something that needed "justifying." God gave us those feelings -- not to control, but to experience -- and we don't have to experience them alone. There is no more appropriate place to bring our anger and our grief -- not only our questions, but our frustrations when our questions aren't answered, or are unanswerable -- than to God; and when we gather as Christian community, we gather together not just as people who rejoice in our experience of God's blessings, but to bring before God the wounds of the world, including our wounds.
As I've preached about before, most of us will one day experience a grief that seems to turn the whole world upside-down, and when (not if) that happens amongst our families, our circle of friends, our communities, and our communities of faith, as people of faith we bring those to God. When we are angry, we rail at God. When we are sad, we weep before God. When we can't hear God or feel God's presence, there is nothing, in my experience, more potentially healing to do than to bring who we really are and what we are really experiencing in that moment to God.
That will sometimes mean railing at God for being absent -- and sometimes, that will be the most powerful way we could experience God's presence. The past is memory, an imagining of what was but isn't. The future is not here; it's our imagining what may be. The present is here, and when we need to experience God's presence, we do it in the present, with our present hopes and fears, our present longings and frustrations, our present feelings and thoughts. Whether we judge them to be acceptable or not, we can have confidence that God is not threatened by them as we are, and can accept them even when we can't. However we come, with whatever words and whatever wounds, in blindness and recognition, in peace or in anger, and whatever else God wants of us, God wants us to COME.
Thanks be to God!
Proper 24, Year B
This isn't a great month for taboos, is it? Last week, we talked about money, which is hard enough for a lot of us to discuss without flinching. This week, we're going to talk about something that's even harder for many of us to talk about.
We're going to talk about power.
That's a scary thing to talk about for a lot of people. Some of us find it scary because they think of power as something only bad people would want. If we want power (and who doesn't?), we feel guilty even thinking about it, so we prefer not to think about it. Can we talk about something less difficult, please? Not as long as we're entering into God's word, living and active, able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.
But power is what allows someone to see her or his values enacted in the world. Without power, my values are just ideas, daydreams I can shake off or indulge just to pass the time as other people -- the ones with power -- have their way with the world. If I care about the world -- if I want to see an end to extreme poverty or I want broader opportunities for children to get a decent education and good health care, for example -- that means I want power as well.
That might sound harsh in a context of sentimentalized and introspective Christianity, and that's OK with me; I want to challenge that kind of Christianity. We've made Christianity all about feelings -- warm, fuzzy feelings of "love" for others, emotional rushes of feeling "close to God" in worship, guilty feelings that do nothing to repair relationships torn by our behavior. And what God really wants from us, we too often think, is generous FEELINGS. "It's what's in your heart that counts," people say, and when it comes to something like poverty, many would say something that I heard at a Christian conference not long ago and blogged about here, namely, "It doesn't really matter what you do. Just round up the kids on a Saturday morning, make sandwiches, and go out to hand them to homeless people in your town. Results don't matter, as long as you do it with a heart to serve."
Here's the problem that leaps out at me from that statement, though: Results DO matter -- particularly to the person in need. If what I need is medical treatment for an infection and what you give me is a peanut butter sandwich, you haven't helped me at all. What you've done is use me to get your own charge of self-satisfaction ("Gosh, I'm generous!") before you go back to your nice, warm house and comfortable life. Here's what I said about that in February:
... I remain suspicious of our intentions as long as our supposedly generous intentions perpetuate a world order that lines our pockets, increases our privilege, and kills other people's children. We can give sandwiches to the homeless or send grain to another nation, and that's something. But it seems to me that we guard most jealously something that we value more:
We hand out sandwiches, but we maintain a death grip on power. And I mean that “death grip” phrase: this puts us in a position of very serious spiritual danger. We hand out sandwiches while retaining the power to decide whose child eats and whose child dies. We get a twofold payoff from that: we feel generous, and since we're still in power, we can get off on our generosity whenever we want. We give and we take away, and either way, we get a fix of power over others, a power to which we are addicted and which rightly belongs only to God. That's idolatry of the worst sort as well as murder.
This Sunday, when together we read that "even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many" (Mark 10:45), let's not indulge that same sentimentality and speak of Jesus' ministry among us as some kind of emotional posture of false humility, by which I mean drumming up supposedly "humble" emotions and then behaving in the same way we've been behaving for years, behavior that screams things like this:
- "This is MY planet, and I can use it up in any way I like."
- "I work hard for what I've got; I deserve it." (Honestly, can I really say with a straight face that I work harder and am therefore more deserving than all of the people who don't have what I've got? Go to the Global Rich List to see just how many people you'd have to be better than to make that claim.)
What does real humility look like? I doubt anyone will be surprised to hear me say that it looks like Jesus. Let's take this Sunday's gospel as a case study in what real humility, Jesus' humility, is.
For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.
My pals Bruce Malina and Richard Rohrbaugh point out something implicit that's worth drawing out in this "ransom for many" phrase as we reflect on humility. One person can only serve as a ransom for multiple others if that person is worth a LOT materially and socially; otherwise, the captors wouldn't accept the trade. A lot of folks see Jesus' reference to "the Son of Man" here as both a self-reference and a reference to Daniel 7, in which "one like a son of man" is appointed by God as judge of the nations. If that's so, Jesus is in this verse making the astonishingly bolshy claim that he is God's appointed judge.
But even a reader who doesn't see a reference to Daniel 7 in the "Son of Man" phrase has to recognize the bolshiness of Jesus suggesting that his own life is a suitable "ransom for many." When I re-read Mark 10 this week, the phrase that popped into my mind was "a king's ransom." That's essentially what Jesus is saying the gift of his life is. And that brings me to point #1 about what true humility -- Jesus' humility, the kind that can transform and is transforming the world -- is:
True humility isn't about pretending you're worth less than you are; true humility requires recognizing who and how valuable you are. If Jesus had responded to his sense of vocation the way a lot of us think of as "humble," he would have heard God's call, shrugged, and hung around the back of his synagogue every now and then to see whether there was a rabbi who would take as a student someone who was the wrong age to be asking and whose background was "colorful" at best; he wouldn't have felt authorized or empowered to abandon conventional obligations (e.g., his mother, sisters, and brothers!) to become an itinerant teacher. And if you're thinking, "well, that's Jesus -- his followers shouldn't be thinking that way," it might be worth thinking about what Jesus said last week on that subject. It is not hubris to think that you have a role to play in changing the world! It's a sensible conclusion to draw from our being created in God's image, members of the Body of Christ, empowered by God's Spirit as a member of the Church that saw Pentecost. Of course we are invited to participate in God's mission of healing and reconciling the world; it's what we were born for! Scaling back that expectation serves no one and nothing but the status quo, and especially if the status quo serves you as well as it serves me, that's an incredibly selfish, prideful way to think and be.
And in the service of that end, true humility doesn't shirk power; true humility requires claiming power. You are about something larger than yourself. That's how God made you. Thinking that the world and its needs take second fiddle to your leading tune of "ME!" is, whether it's a "the world will just have to wait for some more worthy soul to speak up against the injustices I see" or a "I'm just too busy advancing my own interests," a form of pride. And if you think the only important thing in the world is what's going on in your "heart" or emotions, that's also a form of pride. Your personal wholeness is important to God, and you'll find it most fully when you're most fully engaged in God's mission. That's where you'll see Jesus in the face of a neighbor or enemy from next door or the next continent, and in my experience, that's where you'll see and know who you are -- in relation to others in communities seeking reconciliation. And if you're truly seeking something larger than yourself, some real change in the world, you're talking about claiming power to see something you value made real, given flesh in the world. "Creativity" is a good word for that, in my opinion, and that kind of creativity is part of what it means to be made in the image of God the Creator. Whenever you're blessed to sense that kind of personal power -- the power of creativity in the image of God's creativity, the power of claiming your identity and vocation as a child of God -- I beg y'all to go with it.
And then the second part, no less important than the first since it can't happen without it: true humility uses that power to empower others. Not claiming your power is a very powerful way to serve the status quo, and that's not God's call to any of us. But those of us who have internalized the powerful and empowering Word of Creation and Incarnation are called also to the word of Christ crucified, resurrected, and ascended with respect to power. Even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many. The word for "life" here has a resonance that includes something like our phrase "heart and soul"; to "give your life" isn't necessarily or solely to die, but to pour out your very life's breath, your heart and soul, for something. And the testimony of scripture is not that Jesus poured out his life like a libation of wine into the ground in front of the grave of someone once held dear, just giving something up to someone who can't taste life; scripture testifies that Jesus poured out his life for the life of others: as a "ransom for many," for the life of the world. In other words, it most certainly DOES matter for what God's precious gift of life is poured out. Jesus the Christ, as our image of what authentic humanity made and lived in God's image, pours out self not as a worthless gift easily discarded, but FOR OTHERS, for God's mission of reconciling all others to one another and to God's self. In Creation, in Incarnation, on the Cross and in the Resurrection, and in every Pentecost event from the upper room of Acts 2 to gatherings of Christians empowered for mission tonight, God pours out creative power to enable all of us created in God's image to live into who we are as children of that Creator.
God loves you. God loves you just as you are, and receives any gift you offer as a gift, though all our gift to God return to our Creator what God created. But the fullness of God's call to us as individuals are to live into God's call to humanity, to Creation: to live into God's mission. None of us serves God's mission by false modesty, calling a liar the God who gave us gifts to serve that mission; we serve it rather by praying for the courage to see as fully as we can the powerful agent for God's mission that God calls us to be, and by living into that courage, that vision, that mission, as we can best discern (and God pours out gifts of the Spirit for discernment!) in each moment.
That process comes full circle, as eventually true humility calls us to recognize the worth of every other person. If my power is God's creative power, and if I have it by virtue of my having been created in God's image, recognizing that truth will inevitably lead to my recognizing that image of God, that identity as God's child, that power to change the world in the service of God's mission in every other human being. That's how we can do what some people say is an evolutionary impossibility: we can recognize EVERY child -- not just those who are in some literal (and, in God's kingdom, utterly meaningless) sense "flesh of my flesh, and bone of my bone" -- as God's child, precious beyond counting, powerful with the power of God's Holy Spirit, and called to participate as fully as I in God's mission of healing and reconciliation, in the enjoyment of God's good gifts.
This is God's Good News for us and for all God made and loves, this week and in every moment in which we draw the gift of God's breath of life. And for God's sake, I pray we will receive that gift as fully as Jesus received it, and use it as fully and as fully to God's ends.
Thanks be to God!
Proper 23, Year B
Mark 10:17-27(28-31) - link to NRSV text
Those who have heard me talk about my process when I write a sermon know that I have a few questions that are central as I think about what to say:
- What is difficult, puzzling, and/or shocking in the passage? What would be challenging about trying to live out the message of the passage?
- What comes across as Good News in the passage? Why would someone want to take on the challenges of living this way? What invitations are in the passage to experience more fully the life God offers?
This Sunday's gospel can rightly be called a doozy, though. If you include the optional portion of the gospel, it's got at least three points that the vast majority of nice, churchgoing people I know will find literally incredible; they wouldn't believe that Jesus really said this stuff, and if he did, they wouldn't believe that he meant it. In one Sunday's reading, we get:
- It's harder for a rich person to enter God's kingdom than it is for a camel to go through the eye of a needle.
- Jesus says that God will reward people who LEAVE THEIR FAMILIES, including children and parents they're caring for, for his sake and for the sake of the Good News. It's right there in verses 29 and 30.
- If you compare the list Jesus gives of things that people will (and should -- God will reward them for it) leave for Jesus' sake and for the Good News with the list of things God with which God will reward them, there's one category of person conspicuously absent: fathers. Fathers seem to be absent from God's kingdom.
Careful readers will see even more points in this Sunday's reading likely to stick in our throats, but those three are more than enough to take on here and now. I'm betting that a lot of sermons this Sunday will fall into the genre of "he didn't really mean it," a point supported by a slew of fictititious technicalities.
For example, I'm sure that many have heard that there was a gate in ancient Jerusalem (or, in some versions, Jericho) called "The Eye of the Needle," which was so narrow that a camel couldn't get through it unless the packs it was carrying were removed, at which point it could get through laboriously on its knees. Sermons citing this story usually go on to say that Jesus' point is that rich people can enter God's kingdom as long as they aren't overly attached to their possessions and have a humble and/or prayerful attitude. Depending on how stewardship campaigns are progressing, the preacher might add something to the effect (though hopefully with more tactful phrasing) that if you're concerned about this, upping your pledge couldn't hurt. Preachers who are particularly enthusiastic about the Millennium Development Goals (about which there is much good cause to be genuinely enthusiastic) might add that all it really takes to get that camel ready to get through the gate is giving 0.7% of income to intelligently targeted international aid. The congregation sighs with relief, and we all get on with business as usual, secure in the knowledge that following Jesus doesn't really require that we do anything radical, for heaven's sake.
I'm sorry to say, though, that there is no evidence whatsoever that there was ever any such "Eye of the Needle" gate. It's a kind of ecclesial version of an urban legend -- invented, I would guess, as a metaphor that, as generations repeated the story, turned into a solid "archeologists have discovered" report. But it's fiction. Careful readers could tell as much just from Mark 10 itself. If Jesus had been talking about such a gate, his hearers wouldn't have been astonished and said, "Then who can be saved?!"; they would have said something more like, "what a bummer to have to carry those packs yourself for 50 feet." And Jesus would not have replied that it's impossible for mortals but nothing is impossible for God; he would have said something more like, "gosh you all are dim sometimes -- just take off the camel's packs and you're fine!"
There is no such easy out for us, though. There is no "Eye of the Needle" gate that camels can crawl through. There is no technical point of Greek to tell us that Jesus really didn't mean what he seems to be saying here. Those things belong to the Gospel of Supply-Side Jesus, not to the canonical gospels. As absolutely hilarious as Eddie Izzard's comedy routine in Dress to Kill is about how you really just need a very, very powerful blender and a lot of patience to get the camel through the needle's eye, that clearly is not Jesus' point either.
Nor can most of us say, "oh, but I'm not rich." Try entering your income in the Global Rich List and see where you end up. I'm back to full-time seminary/dissertating now, but the $36,000 salary I earned in my last full-time job would have put me in the top 4% of wage earners worldwide.
As with Jesus' saying in Luke (which I've blogged about before) that "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), preachers often invent or conveniently misremember some technical point that would make "hate" mean "love less," "rich" mean "ungenerous," and "follow me" mean "do pretty much what your parents taught you will make you respectable and successful."
But that isn't so.
Please, preachers, take your congregations there for a moment and pause. Work this Sunday to bring your congregation to the place Jesus' disciples were when they said, in effect, "WTF are you saying?" We haven't done our jobs if we don't get there. The job of a sermon, in my opinion, is not to resolve difficulties. The job of a sermon is to inspire deeper discipleship, and discipleship is not easy. Jesus offers us abundant and eternal life -- real joy, real love, real peace. Worldly success and respectability can't give those to us; worldly ordering of our relationships can't give those to us. The opportunity we are being offered this Sunday and every day is to let the shock of Jesus' word jolt us out of those old, unfulfilling, enslaving ways of seeing, living, and relating to others so that we're freed to experience more of what God wants for us, as individuals, as members of the Body of Christ, and as members of our communities, our society, our world. That's profound transformation, and we do a profound disservice to one another when we pretend otherwise. I beg you, preachers, not to imply that this Sunday's gospel does anything other than call on each and every one of us to be transformed, to think and pray long and hard about what we're called to do in this world with respect to wealth and poverty.
I hope that many will also use the optional extended reading from Mark, because I think it helps to clarify what comes before. Wealth isn't just "stuff," shiny metals, stacked bills, and numbers on a page or in a computer. Wealth is a -- perhaps the -- worldly value. It orders our relationships -- with one another, with our neighbors, with people across town and on other continents -- in subtle and powerful ways too numerous to count. And therefore the obscene, unjust patterns along which we distribute wealth in our world are symptoms of our disordered, broken relationships that also exacerbate that disordered, unhealthy brokenness.
Jesus wasn't kidding when he said what he did about wealth any more than he was kidding when he said what he did about relationships. God's kingdom, God's rule, God's way of using power are entirely incompatible with our way of using power to maintain our wealth and shut the rest of the world out of it. "Charity" -- the practice of doling out money from our considerable wealth to those who are poor in a way that in no way changes the recipient's lack of access to wealth and power -- is a seductive trap that consolidates our power, adding to it even the power of doling out life and death around our choices of how much to give and to whom, and yet lets us feel particularly generous and self-righteous in the process. Jesus is not calling us to make some minor tweaks in our relationship to wealth. He's calling us to something far more radical and far more transforming; he's calling us to reconciliation, with one another and with God.
That's no small thing. It's huge. Nothing will be the same, and yet that's what we need to be more fully ourselves, more fully human in God's image, more fully alive in the eternal life God offers. That's why Jesus talks about it as he does in the full passage allotted for this Sunday, putting nothing in parentheses for "optional discipleship." Jesus is not just talking about a few minor tweaks to financial planning; he's talking about a new world. And yes, that means new ways of relating to one another. Jesus' words about what the world means when it says "family" were at least as shocking in his own culture as they are in ours. As I've blogged about before, he was born in the reign of Caesar Augustus, the original "family values" politician, who wanted to rebuild the empire from civil war by exalting the family as the basic unit of the empire and the best guarantee of good social order. He grew up hearing that God commanded every Israelite to honor father and mother and to "be fruitful and multiply." He must have known just how appalling, how immoral, it would sound to say that anything that could inspire someone to leave parents and children alike might be God's Good News.
And yet there it is. He said it. He meant it. There's no hermeneutical trick that will get us with any integrity from what Jesus taught and how Jesus lived and died to "God wants you to be respectable, but MORE so." Following Jesus leads to radical change -- in us, in our families, in our communities, in our world. Jesus' words in this Sunday's gospel would be grossly unfair if they didn't invite every parent and every child to follow him too. In any case, that kind of radical change is particularly hard on people who, like fathers in a patriarchal society, find that the world as it is is working well for them. "Fathers" don't appear in Jesus' list of relationships in God's reign because there are patriarchal "top dogs" in God's kingdom; God's reign means of necessity that nobody else is reigning. Those who happen to be fathers are called to follow Jesus, but their relationships, like all of ours, will be transformed in the process.
That sounds like a lot to take on, and it is. But the Good News is that, as Jesus said, nothing is impossible with God. It might take some deep shocks to jolt us out of our old perspectives. If we find ourselves sometimes looking at the magnitude of transformation to which Jesus' Way calls us and our world and saying, "How is this possible? Who on earth can be saved?" that's probably a good sign. It can mean that we're ready to make some different choices with potentially radical consequences, to throw ourselves -- all we have and all we are -- on God's mercy. And the Good News is that God's mercy is beyond human reckoning, deeper and taller and broader than even the brokenness of the world that God is healing and reconciling.
Thanks be to God!
Proper 22, Year B
I want to say this up front about this Sunday's gospel:
A lot of conservatives point to this as containing the heart of what Jesus had to say about God's creative intent for human sexuality. I agree with them completely on that point -- but Jesus' word to us, I believe, challenges idolatry of American "traditional family values" as much as it undermines our culture's worship of every romantic impulse. In other words, this Sunday a lot of us are going to find ourselves pushed to think beyond cultural myths of marriage to ask ourselves what God really wants for us in relationship with one another.
It's a question posed in this Sunday's gospel, some Pharisees come to Jesus as a fellow teacher to ask his opinion on a subject that was in many ways just as "hot" of a topic in first-century Jewish communities as it is in many twenty-first century cultures -- namely marriage.
They ask Jesus a question that a lot of teachers were asked: Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife? They didn't see need to ask whether a woman could divorce her husband -- there weren't all that many women who would want to do such a thing. In the first-century Mediterranean world, a woman's honor is embedded in that of her father until she's married, and her husband when she is married. A woman who for whatever reason needed to leave her husband had better hope that her father would take her back. Otherwise, without a male attachment, she would be perceived as a "loose woman" on more than one dimension. Most women in such a situation had few options for making a living, and as "damaged goods," little prospect of remarriage. If their fathers would not take them back, many would have no option to survive aside from prostitution. Still, a lot of debate about marriage and divorce didn't treat it so much as a question about what would happen to the women as a question of contract law related to the agreement between the fathers who arranged the marriage.
Many teachers saw the question in more explicitly theological terms, though, insisting that the central question to ask is what it means to be the people of the God of Israel. Among other things, that meant thinking of he survival of Israel, of ensuring that there would be future generations to honor God. With Jewish people being a tiny minority in the Roman Empire, under threat as a distinct people not only by oppression from without, but also, in the eyes of many, by slow attrition, as Greek culture continued to deepen its influence. Especially under such circumstances, it's not hard to understand how many rabbis would respond to a question about God's purpose for human sexuality by pointing to Genesis 1, and in particular to God's command -- it wasn't just an idle suggestion! -- to "be fruitful and multiply."
Men wanted heirs to pass along the family name and honor, and that certainly played a role in thinking about marriage and divorce, but it was also an issue of God's imperative. God commanded us to "be fruitful and multiply." If a marriage wasn't going to be "fruitful" with children, that was more than rotten luck; it was taken by some as a sign that the relationship wasn't blessed by God. And (how unusual!) it was often assumed that the fault for a "barren" marriage was with the woman.
For all of these reasons, the most common reason for men wanting a divorce in the ancient world was that the marriage wasn't "fruitful" -- wasn't producing children, and to all indications, wasn't going to later either. And if, as many thought, God's purpose for marriage was to "be fruitful and multiply," building up future generations who would carry on not only the family name, but the name of the God of Israel, why should anyone stay in a "fruitless" marriage? Why not divorce?
All that's to say that few would be surprised to hear that when Jesus was asked about divorce, he quoted from the book of Genesis to ask what is God's purpose of marriage and what kinds of behavior best uphold that.
But then Jesus quoted from the wrong chapter.
Jesus starts with an affirmation from Genesis 1: that all people, women and men, are made in God's image. That deep truth of who we are as God's children must be upheld in whatever else we say about human relationships. But when Jesus wants to say more about God's intention for marriage, he doesn't go to Genesis 1; he goes to Genesis 2. As Orthodox rabbi Steven Greenberg points out, Genesis 1 is a story in which humans aren't at all distinct from animals in terms of what God says to them about sexuality; humans and animals are told to "be fruitful and multiply" in precisely the same terms. It's in Genesis 2 that God's creative intent for <i>human</i> sexuality as something potentially distinct from animals' is hinted at. As Greenberg argues, we see it in the first mention of Genesis, after God's repeatedly looking at Creation and proclaiming its goodness, that something is "not good":
"It is not good that the human should be alone" (Genesis 2:18).
God creates us for community. To become more fully who we are, who God made us to be, we need to walk alongside another who will be with us for the long haul, who sees us at our best and our worst and will tell us the truth about both, who knows us deeply and loves us unconditionally. Theologians (who always love coming up with impressive-sounding words) like to call this dimension of marriage the "unitive dimension." I prefer over that technical phrase the description from the rock band U2: "We're one/but we're not the same/we get to carry each other" ("One"). But perhaps the best description -- certainly one of the oldest, and also the one to which Jesus pointed -- is the one of Genesis 2: the two become one flesh, and are naked, and not ashamed. With people made in God's image and created for self-giving love, that's an amazing experience of God's glory, God's creativity, and God's goodness.
So in Jesus' eyes, what we say about marriage must be guided by two points. First, it's got to recognize that God created humankind, both male and female, in God's image (and if I may digress, I have to underscore that the point here is that all humankind is made in God's image, rather than that a man without a woman or a woman without a man does NOT reflect God's image; the phrasing makes that clear enough, but the sheer ridiculousness of suggesting, for example, that single people -- such as Jesus of Nazareth, or St. Paul, for example! -- don't reflect God's image as well as any given heterosexual couple makes the suggestion unfathomable beyond its apparent usefulness for grinding contemporary theopolitical axes). Second, it's got to uphold that "unitive" dimension of relationship -- the "it is not good for a human to be alone" of Genesis 2.
As to the third point that people often bring up when discussing God's intention for marriage -- namely the command to "be fruitful and multiply" -- I have to say not just that Jesus was completely silent with respect to it, but that he seems to have rejected it.
His teaching regarding remarriage after divorce makes that clear. The most common reason a man in Jesus' culture would have wanted a divorce was if the marriage wasn't going to do what many men and women thought all marriages were for -- namely to produce children who could serve as heirs. Jesus' word on marriage pulls the rug out from under that. Jesus says, in effect, that a man who leaves his wife in hope of finding another marriage "fruitful" with children shouldn't have children at all. Women and men, Jesus teaches, aren't for use as baby factories or tickets to respectability, and a relationship isn't to be taken up or put aside with those things in mind.
Put positively, Jesus is saying that a marriage, like any other relationship, shouldn't be evaluated based on its perceived "fruitfulness" in terms of children, but based what St. Paul would call its fruitfulness in the Spirit. A relationship between two people that helps both live more fully in the world their identity and vocation as human beings made in God's image is blessed by God. Other considerations are peripheral.
In the first-century Mediterranean world, this word from Jesus was a profoundly liberating word. It may be that some of what Jesus had to say about divorce is less directly applicable to our culture, in which many women can and do make a living -- and one in accordance with their vocation as a daughter of God -- without having to rely on a father's whim or a husband's name, a woman's chances for remarriage are often not lower than a man's, and childlessness is far from the top reason for divorce. Conservatives are right, I think, in underscoring most the points that Jesus took from the beginning, from Genesis.
These points still constitute a profoundly challenging word to us, to be sure. Upholding marriage as the journey of two who have become "one flesh" challenges our culture's idolatry of romance, in which any powerful current of emotion or sexual attraction is interpreted as an entitlement to take up or set aside another human being like a toy or a prop. Understanding that we were created from the beginning for community, for deep communion, means that Christian communities must help to meet that need, recognizing that "it is not good for a human being to be alone" and committing to journey with one another intentionally, not leaving fulfillment of that basic and universal human need to romantic accident. Recognizing that all humankind -- all women and men -- are made in God's image and blessed by their Creator challenges us to overcome our culture's insistence that pairing up and parenthood are a universal call or at the very least a necessary component of "success" as a human being; it calls us to affirm the vocations and wholeness of those who are called, in Jesus' shocking terms, "eunuchs for God's kingdom" -- wholly available to a vocation as a "single" person in terms of marriage and children, but not at all alone when Christian community is "fruitful" in the Spirit. Those challenges can be daunting, but taking them up has the potential to set us free for authentic right relationship with one another -- each loved uniquely as God's child, each challenged and supported to grow in community.
Thanks be to God!
Proper 21, Year B
O God, you declare your almighty power chiefly in showing mercy and pity: Grant us the fullness of your grace, that we, running to obtain your promises, may become partakers of your heavenly treasure; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
-- Book of Common Prayer, Collect for Proper 21
I blogged a little last week about how our romantic views of childhood can sometimes distort our reading of biblical texts involving children. I don't feel the need to repeat any of that this week, though, for a fairly simple reason:
There is no mention of children in this Sunday's gospel.
The word used here for the people whom we are called to serve such that we provide no cause for their stumbling is mikros, as in our prefix "micro-." It means "small" or "short" with respect to quantities and distances. When it's used of people in Greek literature of the period that produced the New Testament, my quick survey suggests that it's used far more often to name adults of lowly status -- widows and orphans, those in poverty and those whose status in other ways shuts them out from what they need to get by and from the communities that might otherwise receive them -- than it is for children. It is true now as it was then that children are often among the very least of "the least of these"; when food, clean water, and medicine are in short supply, they're usually the first to die, and when abandoned or orphaned, they have little hope of surviving. But the "little ones" in this Sunday's gospel are not so much like the well-scrubbed cherubs in the Sunday School classrooms of middle-class parishes as they are like the mentally ill homeless woman we drive past on the way to brunch afterward.
So why, then, do we read the passage as if it were about children (as I have to admit I did until I took a closer look at it today)? Indeed, since the National Association of Episcopal Schools has designated the first Sunday in October as "Episcopal Schools Sunday," I wouldn't be at all surprised if there weren't even more sermons than usual this Sunday suggesting that the "little ones" here are students in private Episcopal schools -- some of which are quite diverse and do offer scholarships to poor and at-risk students, but many of which include few or none of the "lowly ones" of whom Jesus speaks.
I wonder whether some of it might have to do with fear. In my experience, few adults experience children of any perceived race or status as threatening, while that same adorable child might a few years later be treated with suspicion in the same crowd ("He dresses like a gang member! Is he from around here?"). Photographs of children in need of food or medicine elicit pity, while photographs of adults in similar circumstances sometimes strike a little too close to home, reminding us adults that, contrary to what our consumerist culture tells us, no amount of money or goods, education or status can shield us entirely from danger and disease, and in my pastoral experience, those who have most often suffer most from the creeping anxiety that it won't be enough to protect them from suffering.
Some of us respond by trying to accumulate increasing wealth, power, and status in hopes that it will insulate us from what we fear. Personally, I think that approach doesn't work, and that's part of why so many adults are so uncomfortable an adult who is very sick or very poor. I think envy and rivalry -- the kinds of behaviors against which Jesus speaks in the gospel as he refuses to condemn those who heal and restore people to community without seeking authorization from authorities first; and for which Moses chides Joshua in this week's reading from Numbers -- come from a similar place in our hearts. Too many of us spend too much time and energy in a constant state of anxiety because we imagine "the good life" to be a very narrow band of experiences -- the good job, the good house, the good school, the good retirement plan, the good doctors, and the good lifestyle that will guarantee that we'll live a good, long time, free of pain and worry, secure that we've finally accumulated enough -- and that we deserve it all.
Anyone who's tried this long enough and who's honest enough will, I think, admit that this approach doesn't work at all. No amount of power over others we can seize will make as invulnerable as we like to pretend we are. We are creatures, after all, not the Creator, and I suspect on some level we always know this; otherwise we wouldn't find it so painful to be reminded of the fact by our encounters with "lowly ones" at the margins.
Personally, I think St. Benedict's prescription, odd as it sounds at first in today's culture, is an effective one for our condition: "remember that you will die." In essence, that's a distillation of what our extended reading from James for this Sunday is trying to do. James reminds us of how futile and joyless it is to try to convince ourselves we'll live forever by accumulating possessions and resources that are just as transitory. The letter reminds us that no amount of scrambling for status will make us as powerful as part of us wants to be -- powerful enough to be invulnerable -- and no amount of condemning our neighbors' faults will really convince us of how God loves us, because that isn't how God loves us.
God loves us in our vulnerability. Indeed, God made us vulnerable. After all, we are made in God's image, and if we want to know what God's image revealed as fully as we can receive it in the life of a human being looks like -- if we want to see what full, authentic humanity in God's image looks like -- we can look to Jesus. We look to Jesus, whose suffering with the "lowly ones" who suffer started long before his being sentenced to a slave's death on a Roman cross. Jesus journeyed with the "lowly ones" throughout his ministry. By this point in the gospel, his face is set toward Jerusalem, and he knows what he faces there. Having accepted that, he doesn't need to look away from others' pain; indeed, he identifies with all in need of the most basic, immediate necessities -- a cup of water, a day's bread, a moment of compassion.
Jesus knows something that our culture finds it extremely hard to understand: God's power -- the power that speaks light from darkness and life from dust, the power that sustains the universe -- is not shown in shutting out those who are less powerful. The richness of God's blessing -- the only riches that can truly bring joy or peace -- is not enhanced by hoarding God's gifts. And Jesus' gift of what John calls "eternal life" -- the kind of lasting joy, peace, and love for which we were made and the universe aches -- doesn't come from vain and futile chasing after immortality. Instead, Jesus' words and example teach us, God's power is experienced in empowering the "lowly ones"; God's rich blessings are found in seeking justice for the poor. And the life of the world comes through Christ crucified; we will see God not by averting our eyes from the suffering "lowly ones" with whom he identified, but by looking with compassion in their eyes until we, like Jesus, can see the world through their eyes -- until we, like Jesus, identify with all who share our humanity, the image of God in us.
Thanks be to God!
Proper 20, Year B
Sorry this week's entry is so late; I was encountering technical difficulties that now (thankfully!) are resolved.
What was Jesus talking about when he said, "Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me"? I've heard many a sermon linking this to Mark 10:13-16, in which Jesus says, "it is to such [children] that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it," and speculating about what qualities children have that Jesus is saying should appear among his followers: a child's innocence? playfulness? openness?
The problem with most of these readings is that they depend on a romantic view of childhood that's key in most movies by Stephen Spielberg but foreign to the cultures that produced the New Testament. Such readings overlook something that would occur immediately in the minds of adults in the first-century Mediterranean world, especially parents:
Fewer than half of children born would make it to adulthood.
In other words, the most salient characteristic of children for most first-century readers of this text would be that children are extraordinarily vulnerable -- perhaps the most most vulnerable in their society. First-century parents loved their children as all parents do, and children were also celebrated as the closest thing to social security in the ancient world -- if you were lucky enough to make it to old age, your children would most likely be your only means of support once you could no longer work. But children were generally the first to fall when disease or famine struck, or if the family for whatever reason became refugees, and a great many did. Children were vulnerable not only physically, but due to their low status in family and society. Even slaves could own property, for example, but children could not; they weren't considered people for the purpose of inheritance.
In other words, Jesus said that God's kingdom belongs to those to whom the world said nothing belonged.
What does this say to us? How might we live differently if we believed this to be true?
For a start, we might come to the conclusion toward which our reading for this Sunday from the book of Wisdom points (especially the part our lectionary rather unhelpfully brackets as optional). The world contends that the good things of the world are OURS to enjoy, that we can and should take what we can get for ourselves and our families, as "what is weak proves itself to be useless." The world contends that those whose "manner of life is unlike that of others" (Wisdom 2:15) can and should be tested with insult and torture -- especially if that manner of life is a challenge to us respectable and deserving people.
The world presents all of this as wisdom. Our scriptures present it as "unsound reason," spiritual blindness, a disaster. And the letter of James comes down even harder on Christians who act out worldly scrambling to grasp at resources, power, and status and to honor most those who have most within the church.
We get caught up in all of those zero-sum games, forgetting that, to paraphrase Lilly Tomlin, winning the rat race just makes me a prizewinning rat. I want to be more than that. More importantly, God made me for more than that. And so God offers you and me -- all of us -- a chance to be more than that, to opt out of the rat race, to respond to the world's contention that we are what we can say is OURS by instead looking at the world at every opportunity with the eyes of someone who, in the world's way of doing things, has been disqualified from owning and having.
We stop saying, "they're taking MY church away from me," and we recognize that it's God's church, and God has made room for those God has invited.
We ask God to deliver us from the presumption that it is in any way up to us to decide who deserves what we all want for ourselves and our children, and to give us the vision and courage to receive every child -- not just those we know or like, and not just those with whom we share a culture, a language, a social class, or a legal or genetic family link -- as a full, beloved member of God's family, as deserving as we are to share the good things that are God's gifts, not our property.
And we evaluate every system, every power, every choice based on what it will do for the most vulnerable, not those closest to us. In God's economy, that's the key index.
Thanks be to God!