Proper 20, Year C
When I was interviewing for my last parish position, I was asked to give the homily at a children's chapel service. I was allowed to pick any texts I wanted for the service, and believe it or not, I elected to do a children's homily on the gospel for this Sunday, commonly known as "The Parable of the Unjust Steward." You can see the homily here, actually.
Was I crazy? Maybe. But I wanted to show that it's possible to get across insights from biblical scholarship that can illuminate difficult texts for people of all ages and backgrounds. And I think that this Sunday's gospel contains a timely and important word that's more than comprehensible when we read the text closely and are willing to set aside some of the presuppositions we tend to bring to the text.
The first presupposition that many people need to set aside is that Jesus' parables are all allegories in which every character represents someone or something -- God, the Christian, Jesus, Satan, or abstract qualities such as virtues. In my opinion, many if not most of Jesus' parables are NOT allegories, and this Sunday's gospel is best read NOT as an allegory.
For example, in what was is the God of Israel, the God whom Jesus proclaimed, like the landowner in the parable? The landowner in the parable is an absentee landlord, living in luxury in the city off the sweat of tenant farmers' brows. The landowner doesn't really know or care about what goes on at the farm as long as the rents come in. Such a view reminds me of the satirical one in the Michelle Shocked song:
God is a real estate developer
with offices 'round the nation
They say one day he'll liquidate his holdings up on high
I say it's all speculation
Is that what we think God is really like -- a distant, uncaring profiteer? Judging from the exorbitant amounts owed by the poor farmers, the landowner is charging obscene amounts for rent, such that the farmers on his land each owe between three and seven YEARS' wages.
Furthermore, the landowner of the parable is not at all like God whom Jesus proclaimed as Father because the landowner has no desire at all to forgive, but is tricked into it by his steward. I'm sorry to say that I've heard a great many sermons over the years in which the preacher suggested that God the Creator wanted not to forgive us but to punish us until Jesus intervened, but that's not an orthodox view. The barest Christian confession has to include that Jesus shares the character of the God of Israel, and if Jesus has to trick God into mercy, then Jesus is not God's servant, let alone God's Son; he is a rebel against God, as Jesus' enemies suggested.
I've also heard lately some other intriguing readings of the parable as allegory, the most intriguing of which had the landowner representing the Roman Empire and the steward the Christian, with the moral of the story being that Christians should live out values of justice and generosity even if the Empire labels those values as deviant. I have to admit I haven't found any of those other allegorical readings persuasive either. For example, if the landowner is the Roman Empire and the steward is a stand-in for any Christian, why do we get the detail at the beginning of the parable that the steward has been fired before he embarks on the emending of bills that results in the peasants' debts being reduced? In what sense are all Christians empowered to pronounce on behalf of the empire as a steward is empowered to pronounce on behalf of the landowner who employs him? And what sense in any case do these allegorical readings make of the sayings Luke places at the parable's close, that people are called to make friends with the poor by means of "mammon of unrighteousness" so that they may be welcomed into eternal homes?
I hope I'm not merely being stubborn in still finding most persuasive the reading of the parable for which I argued in my master's thesis over fifteen years ago (I was only nineteen then, so I'm not as old as that makes me sound):
The landowner is clearly depicted in the parable as someone who cares only about his own privilege and honor.
The steward is clearly depicted in the parable as someone who is concerned primarily with saving his own skin and with not having to do manual labor, such as the ordinary peons (e.g., the tenant farmers) do.
And yet, in this extraordinary story Jesus tells, the steward -- a man who has until this point gained a life of privilege and relative leisure by siding with the wealthy and uncaring absentee landlord -- realizes that in the end his own welfare depends on doing justice for the poor as a matter of urgency, regardless of how it gets done. The landowner, who cares only for his own honor and privilege, discovers that his desires are satisfied more fully and rather surprisingly by going along, however unwillingly, with the current of justice for and generosity toward the poor that his steward set in motion for his own selfish reasons.
The moral of the story stands in stark contrast to something I heard at a recent conference at which folks were discussing relief for the poor. One man said something that many others echoed with slightly different phrasing. He said something like this:
"It doesn't really matter what you do. Make sandwiches and give them to the first people you see. It doesn't have to be a huge thing; it's where your heart is that counts, and if you're trying to help the poor, that's what matters."
I said -- after gulping hard, because I knew saying it wouldn't make me popular in that gathering -- that I think that there are things other than what's in your heart that matter a very great deal.
If I were a mother afraid I would soon be burying my child because of hunger or preventable or curable disease, what was in your heart would bring me little solace -- or little solace compared to the joy I'd have if my child could live.
It matters what you DO.
It matters to those mothers. It matters to those children. What's in your heart as you embark on a well-meaning gesture that won't necessarily change the way the world is matters a great deal to you, and that's only natural. But if I am a mother whose child is in danger, I want you to use not just your heart, but also your brain and your voice and your ears.
I want you to find the very best counsel you can about what will change the world for my child, what will give my child access to good food and clean water, to basic medical care and an elementary education, so that my child has at least half the chance your children have to live to adulthood -- and so our world has a chance to receive the gifts my child has to offer for the building up of the Body of Christ and the fulfillment of God's mission.
And so Jesus, in this Sunday's gospel, sides with the mother so concerned for her child, and for the world in which that child will live or die. Jesus tells a story in which "the master" -- whether the landowner who's going along with justice for the poor because it generates cheering crowds, or the Lord of Life who was present at the moment of Creation, and who wants every child created to have a chance to live and love and engage God's mission in the world -- praises the forgiveness of debts, justice for the poor, however it happens and with whatever motives are involved.
It matters. What's in my heart and yours matters, to be sure. It matters to God. Our hearts are a gift from God, after all.
And it's also true that they weren't God's only gift to us. God gave us brains and voices as well as arms and legs. We privileged people have used them with tremendous effect for generations to place us in our positions of privilege and to consolidate the privilege we have.
And if we are at all uncomfortable with the idea that a politically shrewd and not particularly honest steward should be commended in a story from Jesus for doing more than what we're doing to bring real, tangible relief to the poorest among us, then let us be made uncomfortable. Let's recognize that even this not at all commendable steward can recognize that, interdependent as we are, saving the most vulnerable in this world is saving our own skin, our own heart, our own soul, our own life and what makes it precious, as well.
Please feel free to revisit what I've said before on these texts.
My blog entry on these texts from 2004 is here.
I've also posted sermon I preached on these texts on Proper 20 three years ago.
God, help me to be more effective in work empowered by passion for justice than the steward was in maneuvering to preserve his privilege. I've benefited so much from the unjust order in which I live; help me to undermine it, that all may live.
Thanks be to God!
Proper 19, Year C
If you haven't seen it before, please take a look at my entry from three years ago, "The Parable of the Ninety-Nine, Or Why It's Probably a Good Thing That Sheep Don't Talk." This week, I want to take as a launching point the three questions with which I closed that parable:
- At the end of the story, where is the shepherd?
- At the end of the story, where are the ninety-nine sheep?
- If one sheep is with the shepherd and ninety-nine aren't, who's really the stray?
My "Parable of the Ninety-Nine" reflects a number of dynamics in the church, but the questions at the end draw attention to one in particular, I think -- one I'd like to concentrate on this week.
Too often, we think of "ministry" as what happens in church buildings. And it might sound goofy at first, but I think many of us far too often go to church when we want to look for Jesus.
I'm not saying that we won't find Jesus in church. I certainly have, countless times and in powerful and wonderful experiences of Christian community. After all, church buildings frequently host gatherings of Christians, and the assembly of those called in Christ to join God's people is the very Body of Christ in this world. When two or three members of that Body gather, Jesus shows up. Jesus shows up every Sunday morning, and at lots of other times as well, in church buildings.
But Christian discipleship isn't just "having a relationship with Jesus Christ," or at the very least, it's a particular kind of relationship with Jesus:
We are called to follow Jesus, to follow the shepherd.
So why do we slip so often, then, into thinking that deepening Christian discipleship -- following Jesus -- is primarily or even in large part about coming again and again to the same place to meet with the same people? When did Jesus' "Great Commission" of making disciples -- followers of Jesus -- turn into a commitment to go to church and convince others to do the same?
Clearly, I believe the answer is that it didn't, and this Sunday's gospel is an invitation to rethink such an approach.
Jesus is, after all, a shepherd. By most ways of reckoning, he's got a pretty bizarre approach to shepherding -- one not unlike the approach of the farmer in the "Parable of the Sower," who tosses seed in parking lots and pigeon hangouts as well as on good soil, behaving as if seed were in unlimited supply and all soil were good. In this Sunday's gospel, Jesus is portrayed as a shepherd who will leave ninety-nine sheep to care for one. We should probably refer to our stained-glass windows showing Jesus carrying a single lamb on his shoulders as portraits of "The Loopy Shepherd." And yet Jesus suggests that this brand of foolishness is characteristic of the God who created the universe as well as of God's Son.
It's quite a radical statement, and not nearly the sweet and comforting, if somewhat sterile, scene in a lot of art about "The Good Shepherd." Those of us who have no experience of herding livestock might be tempted to think of scenes with shepherds as ones described by the genre of English poetry we call "the pastoral" -- rolling green hills, fresh air and sun, birds twittering peacefully.
The life of a shepherd wasn't like that much of the time, though. It was hard, as shepherds had to sleep out in the cold, exposed to the elements as well as to the predators from which the sheep were to be protected. It was lonely, spending day after day and night after night away from one's family. And it was not viewed as a respectable one. Shepherds' duties in the field left their aging parents, their wives, and their children unprotected at home, and therefore shepherds were widely viewed not only quite literally as perennial outsiders, but also as dishonorable men.
And yet it's the figure of a shepherd -- and one who leaves the ninety-nine sheep at that -- to which Jesus turns in this Sunday's gospel to help us understand what God is like and how God acts in the world.
So this Sunday, let's reflect on the invitation offered in the gospel: an invitation to look for God especially among the outsiders, the poor, the disgraced, those whom our world shelters least. If God is like the shepherd Jesus describes, and if Jesus is truly God's Son, doing what God does, then following Jesus requires venturing out to the margins.
That's one reason I speak so often and so highly of the movement to make extreme poverty history -- of those of us who style ourselves as being at the center of things and whose wealth and privilege put us at the center of worldly power working with others around the world to put our treasure -- and with it our hearts -- out to the margins, to the "bottom billion" trying to live without clean drinking water, access to basic education or medical services, and on less than a dollar a day. I'm enthusiastic about it because I see Jesus as I pursue it.
And while we don't have that kind of extreme poverty in the U.S., every community has its margins -- and therefore a horizon we can pursue to look for Jesus' action in the world. Whom do shopkeepers in your town monitor nervously or chase out of their stores? Who is "the wrong sort of person"? Who makes churchgoers jumpy? Who are the outsiders?
Some of them may be in church. And certainly a good, spiritually growing congregation will provide encouragement and support we may need to find, listen deeply to, serve, and learn from those who aren't in our churches and are probably outside our comfort zones as well.
But this Sunday's gospel invites us to think of church not as the destination for those seeking to follow Jesus and engage God's mission, but as a way station providing strength for the journey.
Thanks be to God!
Proper 11, Year C
Regular readers of this blog know that I highly recommend The Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels as a supplement to other kinds of commentaries. The Social Science Commentary chooses a particularly intriguing (for some) and/or provocative (for some) heading for the verses from Luke that form our gospel reading for this Sunday:
"Legitimation of a Woman Taking a Male Role Among Jesus' Followers"
This is a wonderful gospel passage to have for services the day before we celebrate the feast day of Mary Magdalene, whom I've preached about before as a woman who found freedom as a "loose woman" without conventional attachments to conventional men, as honored patron of Jesus' followers even before there was such a thing as a "church" or such a word as "Christian," and as apostle to the apostles, chosen among the first witnesses' to Jesus' resurrection.
This Sunday, we get to see a bit of why Mary Magdalene was not an oddity among Jesus' earliest followers for being a woman, or for taking on many roles of service to Jesus and his mission that would normally in her culture belong to men. Indeed, Christianity was mocked by many as a religion of women and slaves because Mary Magdalene was NOT an oddity in the church, because although she may have been exceptionally gifted, she had many female colleagues in Christian leadership.
I have heard many sermons on this Sunday's gospel, and nearly all of them could have borne a title along the lines of, "Why Martha Is Very, Very Wrong." That's hardly fair to Martha. Martha in this story is being a good woman. Somebody has to see that dinner is made and all of the myriad other domestic needs -- and this is way before electric ovens and dishwashers -- are taken care of. It's not as though all of the male disciples would instantly leap to their feet and rush to the kitchen to help.
And it's not as though their help would necessarily be welcomed if they did so. As the Social-Science Commentary helpfully points out, even though women were traditionally confined to the domestic sphere, they still could have some serious influence with culturally prescribed roles. And as lots of us have observed in lots of contexts, wherever there's power -- especially when it's perceived as being in limited supply within a particular segment of a community -- there's a great deal of competition for that power.
Women in the first-century Mediterranean world were largely segregated from the public competition for honor that took place among men in the public sphere -- but that in no way kept them from competition within their own sphere, and that competition could be fierce. Furthermore, the honor of a household depended significantly upon the management of that household. Martha is being a good woman in trying to see that everyone on the "domestic sphere" team works together.
In short, let's not rag on Martha this Sunday. She is doing her best to fulfill what most of the men present no doubt expected of her.
And if I can have a little excursis here, I'd like to indulge in one to explain what I mean when I say that I think this story, as so many stories from Jesus' ministry, can be read fruitfully as one should read a parable. As I've talked about before in this blog, parables aren't cute little allegories that provide a little narrative color to some good ol' fashioned and entirely conventional wisdom. The message of the "Parable of the Sower," for example, is NOT that smart farmers distribute seed in good soil rather than in pigeon-packed parking lots. When we read Jesus' parables, we haven't read them well if we haven't seen the most important characteristic of those parables: how they confound expectations in surprising and often shocking ways. The "Parable of the Sower" is not about a farmer learning not to throw seed in "bad soil"; it's about God surprisingly (and in many minds, inexplicably) blessing a farmer of very limited means who DOES toss valuable grain about as if he had all the grain in the world.
Similarly, the story of Martha and Mary that we read today is NOT the story of a Bad Disciple or a grumpy housewife who doesn't have a clue about what's important in life. It is a shocking story -- shocking like those electrified paddles that can give life to people whose hearts have stopped beating. The Social-Science Commentary points toward that shocking, life-giving truth in this Sunday's gospel in their heading: "Legitimation of a Woman Taking a Male Role Among Jesus' Followers."
Perhaps the social-science-ness of the first word puts you to sleep. That is an odd power of certain kinds of academic language. But I think even that doesn't completely dull the point: Jesus praises a woman for acting as though she were a man.
There's a lot in there to grate on sensibilities.
If you think that God on the day of humanity's creation ordained certain roles for women and other certain roles for men, and that we can't be good women or good men without defining clearly those changeless roles and living strictly within those boundaries, then this Sunday's gospel is going to blow your mind if you pay too much attention.
But it doesn't stop there -- or at least, it doesn't have to. We can take a lot more from this passage, because while I believe the passage speaks strongly against a view of roles for men and women as static, divinely ordained, and not overlapping, I think it points toward a much larger and more mind-blowing possibility:
God didn't make you to fill a role. God made you for love -- to be loved by God, and to express with your life how you see God loving the world.
For example, I would say to people who share my citizenship that God didn't make you an American, and God doesn't expect you to be a good American.
We could try out some different versions of this, and some of them might be fruitful for some of us. For me, it's sometimes fruitful to wonder what it might mean to say that God didn't make me a priest, and God doesn't expect me to be a good priest. I don't mean by that to say that I don't feel called to priestly ministry (I do), or that I don't take the vows involved in that seriously (I do!). What I mean is that there may be some challenging, liberating, refocusing, life-giving fruit in thinking of my identity and my ministry first and foremost as a child of God loved by God, as a human being made in God's image, as a follower of Jesus with a Baptismal identity that ideally, any other identity I take seriously will express, and frequently, that other identities will be eclipsed by.
I am a woman. I love being a woman. The good things I experience as a woman are God's gift. But God is not calling me to be a "good woman"; God calls me to be a faithful disciple.
I am an Anglican and an Episcopalian. I experience rich blessings through the tradition of which I'm privileged to be a part, and I don't expect to be called to a different tradition. But God is not calling me to be a good Anglican; God is calling me to be a faithful Christian.
I am a progressive. I feel strongly about the progressive convictions I hold, and I am blessed by the advocacy work I do. But God is not calling me to be a good progressive; God is calling me to follow Jesus.
You get the idea. I chose a few particular roles, a few identities, to cite as examples not because I'm "dissing" those roles, but because I value them -- and because the most seductive of temptations is the temptation to hold on to something good even if it means foregoing something better. And we who are richly blessed are most vulnerable to that temptation.
It's fully possible that Mary, Martha's sister, chose to sit at Jesus' feet on that day because she was embarrassed at her terrible cooking skills, because she was lazy or tired, because she was filled with hubris about her own status or jealous of the male disciples who took sitting at Jesus' feet for granted. We don't know what was going on in her head any more than Martha did. What we do know -- what Jesus tells us -- is that Mary's choice to be a bad woman and a bad sister on this day is praised as the conduct of a good disciple.
What happened next? I like to think that Mary's choice to be a "bad woman" inspired a few other disciples to be "bad men," to behave in ways their culture would say were absolutely shameful for men and to go into the kitchen and offer to serve the women as woman had so often served them.
Because that could be the behavior of "bad men" and good disciples. It's maleness as Jesus lived his, after all; just look at the exalted language used of him in our epistle for this Sunday and compare it to his behavior as he washed his followers' feet, as he forgave from the cross, as he took on the role of a slave, as Philippians 2 points out.
God knows (and I mean that; it's not just an expression) how powerful the roles we play, the names we take, can be in seeming to make an endless series of choices for us. God knows how many people will tell us with how much honest passion just what grief will befall us and those we love if we don't do what our society says we ought to do within those roles. For example, I know many sisters in Christ who are "helicopter moms (or dads)" hovering over their children or "workaholic dads (or moms)" spending more and more time away from those they love at least as much for fear of what will happen if they deviate from that role as from any kind of joy or peace they derive from it. But what if the hope that "we may present everyone mature in Christ" means that at least at points we have to relinquish those roles -- even when they give us respectability, admiration from people who want to know how we do it all, and any number of other seductive rewards -- so that we can make room for someone else to stretch into new areas of service, other ways of discipleship?
The message of this Sunday's gospel is not that study with a rabbi or minister always trumps housework. It's not that women's work is inferior to men's. And you'd have to be smoking something very potent and probably illegal to think that it's that gender roles were established by God and are blurred at our spiritual peril. The message, I think, is that we all may be and often are called to relinquish roles, identities, patterns of behavior that feel "tried and true" or even immutable not only for the sake of growing in our own discipleship, but to invite others -- even or especially others who may seem perfectly happy with a privileged role they've got -- to become more fully who they are in Christ, and to live more fully into the ministry to which Christ calls them.
And the wonderful, shocking, life-giving truth is that relinquishing for Christ's sake often yields more blessings than we know how to gather -- blessings so rich they must be shared.
Thanks be to God!
Proper 10, Year C
Luke 10:25-37 - link to NRSV text
I'm going to build this week on what I said three years ago about "The Parable of the Good Samaritan."
The people who pass by the injured man are NOT portrayed by Jesus as the heartless jerks a lot of people today make them out to be. The priest and the Levite were on their way to serve in the Temple. It was service commanded by God, and touching a corpse (which, for all they knew, is what the injured man was) would have rendered them unclean and therefore unable to serve. And since being a priest or Levite was a function of bloodline, not of choice, it's not like they could have just had some random person fill in for them.
Before we point to them as nasty hypocrites, we ought to think long and hard about the roles we embrace (voluntarily, even) that obligate us to particular sets of people in ways that leave us less flexible to respond to the needs of others. If a mother with two-year-old twins in the car pulled over and got out of the car to see whether a man lying at the side of the road needed help was a robber (or worse) faking it, would we say that she was a "Good Samaritan," or a foolish person? If a father of young children decided that he couldn't give any more than a tenth, say, of his gross income to feed poor children elsewhere lest he not have enough to save for his family's "rainy day," would we say that he was refusing to be a "Good Samaritan," or that he was refusing to be a bad parent?
The point of our gospel for this Sunday is not that Samaritans can be nice and priests and Levites can be jerks. The point comes as Jesus turns the lawyer's query ("Who is my neighbor?" -- i.e., "To whom am I obligated?") on its head. Jesus asks, "Who was a neighbor to the injured person?" -- a question that they lawyer can't answer without putting himself in the place of the penniless, naked, and half-dead guy in the ditch. The question as the lawyer asks it is one that seeks the limits of compassion: "Whom am I obligated to help?" The question that Jesus invites him to ask himself is one that seeks actively to expand or erase those limits. If I or someone I loved needed CPR, who would be "good enough" for me to want them to administer it? Absolutely anyone who knew how to give it. Absolutely anyone I'd want to give CPR if s/he were able and came upon me or someone I loved in need of it is my neighbor, the person God invites me to love as I love myself.
"Invites"? Is that the word I mean? I think so. The lawyer's question is about obligations, and it's perfectly legitimate to say that our gospel for this Sunday teaches that we are obligated to love as we love ourselves anyone whose CPR would be good enough if s/he could give it and we needed it. But I really do view it as an invitation, and an exciting one.
People who know me well or have been reading this blog a while know that I love the Gospel According to Luke, and I particularly love what Luke does with the story of the calling of the first disciples. Jesus meets some people fishing. They're not fishing for recreation; they're doing backbreaking daily labor hoping beyond hope that somehow they'll catch enough fish to be able to pay all of the fees required, mend the nets, have a boat to go out in the next day, and still have enough to feed themselves and their families for the day. It's a precarious existence, asking yourself every dawn, "Will I catch enough fish today to feed my family?" It's a cruel world to live in.
Jesus introduces those who hear his call to another world. When fishers meet Jesus, they encounter such abundance that it literally threatens to swamp the boat. In that moment, the fishers' most urgent need becomes the need to find partners -- anyone with a boat who will respond. In that moment, the crucial and constant question of "Will I catch enough fish today to get by?" becomes, "Can I gather enough people to take in this day's abundance?" In that moment, they become fishers of people.
I live in the wealthiest nation on the planet, and still I know a great many people who are exhausted and anxious almost constantly. They spend countless hours working, commuting to work, and worrying about work so they can provide everything our culture defines as a material need -- including a house and/or tuition that are far more than they can afford, but that will allow their kids to go to the "right" schools. They spend hours shuttling their kids around to the zillions of activities our culture says kids need to be healthy and successful. They feel constantly overextended, and with all of their hard work, they toss and turn at night with waking nightmares about being one paycheck, one illness, one layoff, one rotten stroke of luck away from disaster. And perhaps the saddest thing is that as they take on all of these other obligations so they can meet what they feel are their obligations to their children, they pass along to their children all of that anxiety, all of that feeling overextended, put upon, and trapped.
What a cruel world to live in! What an awful world in which to raise a child! No wonder that few people living in a world like that sigh when some preacher stands up to tell them that their obligations go even further.
The Good News is that we don't have to live in a world like that. We can live in the rein of God that broke through into this world in Jesus' ministry.
That's the invitation God issues to us, this Sunday and every hour of every day. That's the world we experience when we accept God's invitation. We can embrace the mission of a God who is not exhausted, put upon, and looking for reasons to cut back on the number of people to bless and love, but is fully alive, moving, and active, blessing in limitless abundance, and loving with more power in the world for every person in the world with whom God's love is shared. When we align our way of living with God's love and God's mission, that's what we experience. When we live in an active search for opportunities to extend mercy and compassion, we experience more fully the reality that this world and every one of us was created by the God of mercy and compassion. Parents, isn't that the world you want your children to grow up in? Isn't that the world we all want to live in?
So this Sunday, as we read a parable of great need being met with surprising compassion, let's think of at least one way we can try out that way of life, that we can look actively for opportunities to extend mercy when and where it's needed.
Commuters, see what it feels like to spend one week of commutes looking actively for opportunities to let in someone who needs to switch lanes -- even or especially if it's someone driving on the shoulder to try to get ahead. It's really very stressful to try to shave every fraction of a second possible from commute time, and to try to stay safe while making sure that nobody driving "unrighteously" prospers by it -- and in my experience, it's actually kind of fun as well as much more relaxing if while stuck in traffic you drop the taxing tasks of monitoring everyone else's driving for infractions and devote that energy to looking actively for opportunities to exercise compassion. A similar dynamic comes into play when we stop calculating how much we have to give to avoid feeling guilty and start thinking and praying about how we can express with our time, our compassionate listening, our energy, and our material resources just how abundantly and recklessly God blesses the world God made and loves.
That works in part because, as Robert Maurer writes in One Small Step Can Change Your Life: The Kaizen Way, of how our brains work, how we're made. When we ask ourselves a particular question repeatedly every day, our mind becomes accustomed to gathering that information all the time so it's there when we call for it. When we repeatedly remind ourselves of scarcity and ask ourselves how we can get more, our mind becomes conditioned for anxiety, gathering constantly as a "background process" (to use a metaphor drawn from computers) any information that could suggest scarcity, danger, ways in which we are or could be wronged. The more we worry, the more we see cause to worry. I often think that's why so many people think that the state of the world gets worse and worse -- not because the gross or net evil done or challenges faced are that much greater, but because we carefully tune our attention with years of effort toward the information most likely to make us feel miserable.
Does that describe you? Then change it! Decide that you're going to use something that occurs every day -- stepping in the shower, eating a meal, stopping at a red light -- as a prompt to ask yourself what you're grateful for, how God has blessed you. I particularly like using the red light or pressing the car brakes as a cue for a blessings inventory; over time, it changes the habitual question in that moment from "how late am I running?" to things more like "is it a nice day out?" and "how lucky am I to be loved by this person?" What if we took balancing the checkbook as an opportunity to inventory not what disasters could happen and how little we have to shield ourselves, but how much we have and ask ourselves whether we can share more? What if we took every time we pull out our wallet as that kind of opportunity -- a chance to say (as I often do in sermons like this), "Wow -- I've got enough to get gourmet coffee -- do I have more than I think to hasten the end of poverty? How cool would that be?"
The more intentionally and deeply we look for opportunities to express gratitude for God's blessing by extending that to others, the more deeply we experience that blessing. The Good News is that the Creator of the universe set it up so that every good gift shared is "the gift that keeps on giving." The world God made isn't a vicious circle but an arc toward justice and wholeness. Forward my mail there, because I'm moving in!
Thanks be to God!
Fourth Sunday in Lent, Year C
[Sorry about the delays this week, folks -- my computer's overworked power supply wore out, but Apple came to the rescue -- and I hope in time to be of some help to y'all! --Dylan]
1 Corinthians 5:16-21 - link to NRSV text
Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32 - link to NRSV text
Jesus' parables nearly always hinge on a surprising reversal of some kind, and a good rule of thumb when reading them is that if you haven't found anything that's very surprising and challenging, read it again.
Jesus' parable of "The Lost Son" starts with several, and then keeps going. The younger of two sons asks his father to divide the family's property and give him now the share of it that would be his inheritance when the father died.
This is one of those scenes that remind me of a regular feature in the Highlights children's magazines that were ubiquitous in dentist's offices when I was growing up. The feature was "What's Wrong With This Picture?," and it consisted of a line drawing of a cheerful scene, inviting the reader to circle everything wrong or odd in the picture. "What's Wrong With This Picture?" The birds are flying upside-down, the tricycle has one wheel that's square and another that's triangular, the spider has twelve legs, the fishing pole has no line, and the fish are happily playing cards on a tree branch! The feature might have been more challenging if the object were to circle what was right with the picture, because it always seemed that practically nothing was.
There's so much that's wrong at the beginning of the story of the Lost Son that it's hard to point to anything that's right, expected, or normal:
The son asks the father to divide the family farm. Such a division would diminish the family's fortunes. Although this family seems to be doing reasonably well at the moment, anyone whose livelihood depends on agriculture can find their fortunes changing dramatically with the weather or other factors, and this family doesn't seem to be among the most prosperous, who lived in luxury in the cities while stewards managed tenant farmers and slaves who did the work. Doing what the younger son asks is a substantial and entirely unwarranted risk for the whole family.
Perhaps even more importantly, the younger son's request diminishes the whole family's honor. There's hardly any such thing as a secret in village life, and a dishonorable son shames not only himself, but his father, and by extension the entire family name. And by asking for his inheritance now, the younger son has, in effect and in full view of the village, said to his father, "I wish you were dead, so please make it as much as possible like what it would be if I'd buried you."
Stories about two sons, one good and one treacherous, aren't uncommon. The beginning of our gospel story makes it clear as day that the younger one could never be the good one. And in view of how shocking the son's behavior is, his father's behavior in granting the request might be even more surprising.
So the younger son goes off to a distant land, lives in shameful ways among Gentile foreigners and their pigs, and loses everything he has -- which is, we should remember, a substantial portion of the family's resources. And then he decides to go home.
This is also a surprising decision on the young man's part. After the way he has treated his father and family, he has no ground on which he might expect a gracious reception. Heck, he'd be lucky if he made if he made it back to his father's house, since the moment he was within sight of the village, he'd be very likely to be attacked by any who saw him. He has not only shamed his family, but the whole village, where every father must have wondered anxiously whether his behavior would give their sons rebellious, shameful, and disruptive ideas. Even if his own father isn't rushing to pick up the first stone, this young man is in real danger from the whole village. But surprisingly, he decides to go back anyway.
And surprisingly, his father must have been looking for him, for he catches glimpse of his son on the horizon. And then the father, shamed so profoundly by his younger son's behavior, does yet another surprising thing: he gathers up the last shreds of precarious dignity he's got to lift his robes and run to meet the son who'd betrayed him. Picking up robes like that is not something a self-respecting father would do, and running even less so -- the combination is undignified in a way entirely unbefitting an elder in the culture in which the story takes place. But this is not a move just of joy at a son's return; it's a rescue mission of the most urgent nature.
The father has to reach the son before the villagers do, or his son is doomed to the mob. Once more, the father sacrifices his dignity and this time even risks his life for the Bad Seed. But once the father's arms are around that younger son, and especially when he launched the celebration, it's clear that the prodigal is now fully under his father's protection. And everyone would have known as much, since everyone would have been invited to the celebration. A fatted calf is most assuredly not a Quarter-Pounder, and once killed, would need to be consumed by a lot of people in one big party, perhaps lasting for days.
So let's total up costs the father has incurred thus far for the sake of the younger son, the Bad Seed. The father as surely as the younger son squandered the family's resources by giving them to a son who so clearly was Bad News, with no loyalty at all to father or family. He squandered his dignity as he lifted up his impressive robes to dash like a madman toward the young man upon his return, and given the mood of the village, may have been risking his welfare too -- who knows who in the village would blame the father's indulgence for the shame on the village and the danger to the social order in every family there? He killed the fatted calf, which might have gone on to produce far more cattle and recover some of what the younger son had squandered, to throw a party to secure his younger son's status as a full and fully protected member of the family. But the biggest cost is yet to come -- and here comes what might be the biggest shock of the story.
It's the elder son. Supposedly the Good Son. The son who, if you take a look at the story from verse 25 on, refuses even to call his father "father." The son who doesn't just shame his father by rejecting his will in the closest thing to private that village life has, though the village will hear. The elder son, as the whole village is gathered "and they began to celebrate," takes the opportunity to show his true colors to his father. He chews out his father in the totally immediate and full view of all gathered to celebrate. In other words, the elder son shows himself to be a disobedient son, a dishonoring son, a son who shames his father. The whole "Good Son/Bad Son" structure becomes, like so many things in Jesus' ministry, a stunning reversal.
And then there's one more surprise.
The father once more responds graciously, saying even in front of the whole village that the kind of father he is must celebrate and rejoice when the lost are found. The father of the parable celebrates every measure of resurrection, of life from death, without pausing to judge whether the one given life deserved it, or what the consequences are for village or cosmic justice, or even how the loyal will respond. He just hopes that those who profess loyalty to him will follow his example.
And when will we follow his example?
It's far, far too easy for progressives to preach this parable as saying nothing more than "God loves you as you are. Come home." It says that, of course, and that's worth saying. But it says more than that. It invites us, as does all that Jesus says and does, to consider giving -- honor, forgiveness, and joy of our very selves -- sacrificially and without regard to worthiness to our sisters and brothers. It challenges us to consider what kind of party we'd throw and whose looks askance we'd take on gladly when the opportunity presented itself for renewed fellowship with people that every kind of common sense our culture has to offer would say are not worth our time, whether because of their past misdeeds or their peripheral status in our circles of friends or circles of power.
When will we embrace the example of the father in this story? That is, after all, the example God gave us in sending the prophets and sending Jesus. That is, after all, the example Jesus gave at the beginning of Luke chapter 15, as he invited sinners and the righteous alike -- indeed, anyone who was willing -- to table with him.
Fortunately, the example and the invitation are always there, no matter how many times we ignore of fumble it. And in the moment when we're thinking of ourselves as crazy as we gather up our robes and run to embrace the despised and envelop them in protection even from our neighbors, we'll understand that much more deeply and truly just how God loves and sustains us.
Thanks be to God!
Proper 6, Year B
2 Corinthians 5:1-10
Psalm 92 OR Psalm 92:1-4, 11-14
Keep, O Lord, your household the Church in your steadfast faith and love, that through your grace we may proclaim your truth with boldness, and minister your justice with compassion; for the sake of our Savior Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.
-- BCP Collect for Proper 6
It's an apt prayer for the church during this General Convention. While we can only know provisionally, we want to proclaim the truth as we understand it boldly; especially because our perception of God's justice is never complete, we wish to minister it with compassion. And if we look at the world through the lens of Jesus' ministry and God's mission, we see endless opportunities to do both, innumerable places where Good News and compassionate justice are desperately needed.
That's never more apparent to me than at convention. The exhibit hall hosts hundreds of organizations seeking to inform the church about and bring healing and transformation to various needs of the world. Just reading all of the resolutions inviting participation in God's mission of justice and reconciliation in some corner of the world takes hours; serious advocacy for more than a handful at any given time is beyond any one mortal's capacity. Listening to the stories, looking at the figures, and taking in testimony could keep me in meetings from 7:00 a.m. until 11:30 p.m. or later every day of the week. And I can't help but think for everything I can't do whether that one extra bit of effort might have made a difference. How would I feel if this initiative failed because I was in bed, out to lunch, hanging out with a friend instead of alerting people to some development, using my voice, at least praying for the situation?
And then I have to chuckle at my hubris. Jesus offers an excellent corrective for people like me -- people who at times mistake the invitation to participate in God's mission for an invitation to play God, who alone is the world's Creator -- in the two parables of this Sunday's gospel.
The first parable is my second favorite in the gospels. (What can I say? I'll always have a soft spot for the so-called "Parable of the Unjust Steward" in Luke 16.) Commentators call it the "Parable of the Seed Growing Secretly," and it's the shortest parable in the canon. A farmer scatters seed, and it grows, "he knows not how. The earth produces of itself." No farmer, no matter how clever, can MAKE seeds grow. She can participate in the process by influencing conditions to make them more conducive to growth -- watering, composting, and so on -- but the gifts of life and growth come from God, and only from God, who graciously created a fruitful earth and gives without calculation of deserving the gifts of sun and rain.
This picture is a wonderful corrective not only to activists teetering on the edge of exhaustion, but also for those who talk of the world God made as if the most basic truth about it is that it is fraught with dangerous evils. The world isn't perfect by any stretch, but it was made and is being redeemed by a God whose grace exceeds our wildest imaginings. The most basic truth about the world is that it arcs irresistibly toward the justice for which it aches, and each day is bursting with opportunities to experience God's grace, joy, peace, and love. Like St. Paul, we can be confident that even if an earthly tent can be destroyed, the home and identity we have as new creations in Christ are eternally rooted and eternally lasting, and the smallest of mustard seeds will produce great and fruitful trees.
With that confidence comes a lightness of spirit, a sense of abundant life and even, dare I say, fun -- even or especially in situations the world sees as heavy and hopeless. We need that lightness. A life of activism and of mission that is fueled mostly or solely by a sense of desperation or thirst for martyrdom is bound to be a short career, and probably a less effective one. God calls us to participate in God's mission, but God provides opportunities along the way for sabbath, for quiet, for laughter, and each of us was made to enjoy those good gifts even as we strive to further their availability to every child, woman, and man. Being faithful is not just about working in mission; it is also about knowing when to rest and play, giving thanks for all of God's abundant and good gifts.
It is a good thing to give thanks to the LORD,
and to sing praises to your Name, O Most High;
To tell of your loing-kindness early in the morning
and of your faithfulness in the night season.
-- Psalm 92:1-2
Thanks be to God!
Christ the King: Proper 29, Year A
First off, I want to offer a personal note encouraging y'all to read this fine reflection on the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings for this coming Sunday. I commend it to you first on its own merits — its author knows American history far better than I do, and draws on a passage from the autobiography of 19th-century freed slave and abolitionist Frederick Douglas in a way that I think will be very helpful and informative for preachers. The reflection is this week's entry in a regular column commenting on the RCL readings in The Witness magazine, which is my new employer. I'm working part-time (i.e., if you've got a potential additional gig for me, please do give me a shout!) for them as the magazine's editor. I've long admired The Witness and its work as an Anglican voice for justice since 1917, and I'm particularly excited about working with them at this particular moment in history. And one other point about this week's RCL reflection at The Witness: its author is none other than my partner. Bravo, Karen!
Now, to my own reflections:
I had an interesting email exchange this week with a regular reader of the lectionary blog about an issue that a lot of us struggle with: the tension between the openness of Jesus' unconditional invitation on one hand and on the other hand, the language of judgment, of insiders and outsiders, in passages like this Sunday's gospel. I've wrestled with it a great deal myself, and while I doubt I'll solve every difficulty we've got with it, I think there's a point that's very important for us to understand as we continue to explore this tension.
Yes, Jesus invites absolutely anyone who will eat with him to come to his table. The invitation to the messianic banquet is open to all -- “the good and the bad,” in the words of Matthew 22:14. In that sense, all are invited to experience “salvation” without precondition.
But what is “salvation”? Both Jesus and Paul saw it not as merely a promise of a blessed afterlife: salvation is something that starts today, and it's about a certain kind of life — specifically, a life in community. And in both Jesus' view and Paul's, that's not just any community: it's a family. Jesus said that anyone who hears God's word and does it is his sister or brother or mother (Mark 3:35). And the metaphor Paul most often uses for what we are as the Church, for who we are in Christ, is that we are sisters and brothers (a point that the NRSV unfortunately obscures frequently by rendering adelphoi, “brothers and sisters,” as “believers” or some other ungendered term). In other words, the invitation Jesus gives us is the invitation to relationship — with one another as much as with him and with the God who created us. Jesus' invitation to us, his ragtag band of disciples from all nations, is to join God's people.
Here's one way I often put it: the invitation to join the community is issued to anyone with any manner of life. But the quality of life in the community — the extent to our life together is an experience of members of one Body of Christ and a foretaste of the kingdom of heaven come to earth now — has a direct relationship to how we choose to live together once we accept Jesus' invitation to join.
Last Sunday, we read a passage of the gospels showing how we treat one another when we're at our worst as the human race. How you'll be treated under this system is a function of two things only: how powerful you are, and how useful you are to those more powerful than you. Are you a wealthy landowner? Then act like it. Call yourself “lord,” demand what you like of those in your power, and feel free to discard people once you've used them up. Behave as though the central question governing our relationships with one another were “what have you done for me lately?”
But the coming of God's kingdom is like this: people will be going about their business in precisely the way described above ... and then the final coming of the Son of Man will reveal to everyone's eyes just how empty that way of life is, just how much pain and how little reward comes of living that way.
And that coming will reveal something else as well: just how rewarding, just how abundant and joyful life is when you live in a different way, the way of those the Son of Man designates as “sheep” in this Sunday's gospel.
I've blogged before about a game I like to play to illustrate the dynamic we see in last Sunday's gospel and this Sunday's. To play it, you set the room up for a party — punchbowls, finger foods on trays for serving, and so on. Every person in the room gets a sign taped to his or her back, reading “monarch,” “courtier,” “servant,” or “beggar.” Once everyone has a sign on his or her back, you start the party. The game is to try to guess what sign is on your back, and try to help others guess what's on theirs by treating them as you think someone whose status was what you think your sign says would treat someone whose status matched what the sign on her/his back says. If your sign says “monarch,” the vast majority of guests are going to flatter you and offer you treats; if the sign on your back says “beggar,” you're going to be treated like trash — especially if you have the nerve to act as if you were equal to others with higher status. To debrief, I invite people to share how it felt to be treated as they were, and how they felt having to treat others according to the sign on their backs. And then I pose the question:
What would it be like to live in a community, in a world, in which everyone, especially those smarting from how they're treated by others, were treated as if the sign on their back said “monarch”? What would it be like to live amongst people who treated everyone as if the sign on their back, the “secret identity” of everyone they met, said “Christ the King,” and every Christian saw their life's calling as treating people in such a way that they could guess this?
That's the invitation issued to us this Sunday. That's the vision we're called to claim as ours until it is realized for the world. Could we really allow the Christ child, the boy born as king and the one appointed by God to judge the nations, to die of malaria in infancy in Africa, knowing who this child is and just how little it would take to see him grow up and realize all he was created to be? Could we let a young girl toil away her days fetching water rather than going to school, and her family suffer when that water carries disease, if we loved Jesus as much as we say we do, if we knew what we did and didn't do for this family was what we did and didn't do for the Christ? Or do we want to experience fellowship with Christ by serving and empowering the poor, outcast, and prisoners of our world?
This invitation is not for after we die — the chance to act is gone then. It's an invitation for this moment, this day, this generation. And it's not just about avoiding punishment. What we do, the extent to which we respond to Jesus' invitation not just to come into the House of God's chosen people, but to live as one of the family, in relationship with and caring for the rest of the family as for our own flesh and as for the Body of our Lord, is the extent to which we experience eternal life, God's just and peaceful kingdom, right here and now. In Paul's words, Christ's risen life is the “first fruits,” and we are called to enjoy the full harvest of that abundant life. In Ezekiel's words, the destiny of God's people since the founding of the world is to be fed with God's justice. Do you want a taste of that? It's there for you now, as abundant as are the opportunities to exercise compassion toward the least of Jesus' sisters and brothers.
Thanks be to God!
November 16, 2005 in 1 Corinthians, Christ the King, Eschatology, Ezekiel, Inclusion, Jesus' Hard Sayings, Justice, Matthew, ONE campaign/Millennium Development Goals, Ordinary Time, Parables, Personal Notes, Prophets, Year A | Permalink | Comments (12) | TrackBack
Proper 28, Year A
Added 11-14-05: By popular demand, my first podcast. It's pretty much this blog entry read aloud, and it's something of an experiment. Let me know what you think!
By the way, if you haven't yet visited and put a pin down on the SarahLaughed.net online map, please consider doing so. You won't be giving any information that will generate spam, and I am REALLY enjoying seeing where y'all are and hearing your shout-outs!
Oh, and I preached on this text last year; that sermon is here.
Matthew 25:14-15,19-29 - link to NRSV text
This Sunday's gospel is yet another reason to get out of the habit of seeing all of Jesus' parables as allegories in which one character represents God or Jesus. That isn't what's happening here. Take a hard look at the behavior of the master: he's an absentee landlord who doesn't do any work himself, but lives off of the labor of his slaves. Take a look at the behavior this master wants of his slaves: the profit-making that the master demands would be seen in Jesus' culture would of necessity come at the expense of other more honest people; it would be seen as greedy and grasping rather than smart or virtuous. The master tells the slave whom he treats most harshly that the punishment is specifically for refusing to break God's commandment against usury (Matthew 25:27), a practice consistently condemned in both the Hebrew bible and the New Testament. And the Greek word for "talent" very specifically means a unit of money; it has no relationship whatsoever to the word for an ability, so this is NOT a parable about us being the best we can be, no matter how much our culture of achievement wants to twist it into that. There are versions of that message that can be helpful, but it just isn't what the parable is about.
So what's the message of the story, if it isn't about us using the abilities God gave us? Jesus gives it to us explicitly in verse 29: "to all who have, more will be given, but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away." In other words, "the rich get richer, and the destitute lose everything."
Is the behavior of the master in the parable something that God would commend, let alone imitate? Is this kind of behavior what Jesus expects of God's people? Heck no! If you've got any doubts of that, read what comes immediately after this story: read the prophesy (it isn't a parable) of the sheep and the goats, which tells us that when the Son of Man comes, judgment will not be on the basis of how much money we made, or for that matter on how religious we were or whether we said a "sinner's prayer," but rather on whether we saw that the least of our sisters and brothers in the human family, whether in or out of prison, had food, clothing, and health care. We serve Jesus himself to the extent that we do these things, and we neglect Jesus himself to the extent that we don't.
In short, PLEASE don't tell people that the message of this Sunday's gospel is anything along the lines of "make the most of the talents you've got," as its message is much closer to "care for those whom the world would leave destitute." Reading the parable in the context in which it appears in Matthew tells us how Jesus finishes that thought: We shouldn't be like the master in the parable because the world in which people like that come out on top is passing away. Jesus will bring his work in the world to completion; God's kingdom will come and God's will be done on earth as it is in heaven, as Jesus taught us to pray. You know that wave I talked about last week? Jesus' parable in this Sunday's gospel is telling us that we should line ourselves up to ride it. It's coming -- bank on that, not on what our culture says is most profitable!
The live question for us, I think, about this Sunday's gospel is whether we can really believe that, if we really can trust in that enough to risk living as Jesus taught us rather than according to the demands of those who try to set themselves up in Jesus' place as our lord, who try to enslave us to wordly standards by telling us that our security is in acquiring resources for ourselves and striking out at our enemies.
I believe we can. We can because it's Jesus who told us this, and Jesus is absolutely trustworthy. And as we inch toward Advent, I want to encourage y'all to look for the signs that Jesus was right, the signs happening in the world right now that the Spirit Jesus sent is living and moving and active in the world to accomplish Jesus' work among us.
They're out there: large and small signs. Here's a large one: over two million Americans have signed the ONE campaign's pledge to use their vote and their voice to eliminate extreme poverty in this generation. By 2008, it's expected that over five million will have signed, making this campaign bigger than the National Rifle Association, speaking good news to the poor not only with the moral authority of the cause, but with the power in numbers to make it happen.
I remember when the Berlin Wall came down. That was big. People were dancing in the street; students at the seminary I was at were leaving in droves to dance on the Wall itself as it came down, bringing graffiti-covered chips home to remember the moment. It was big -- the moment of a lifetime, some people would say. But I believe that a moment bigger than that is on its way. It's not a pipe dream; many of our world's top economists think it's attainable in our lifetime. Imagine with me for a moment what the party is going to be like in streets around the world when we're celebrating the end of poverty. Imagine telling your children or grandchildren about that.
That's a vision that made me want to dance, much as it made Mary want to sing:
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants for ever.’
That's what Jesus came to do among us. It's what we pray for when we pray as Jesus taught us. And it's the future we can bank on.
Thanks be to God!
Proper 27, Year A
Those of you preaching this Sunday on the readings for All Saints' instead of those for Proper 27 might find this sermon on Matthew's beatitudes and/or this sermon on Luke's beatitudes and woes helpful. I'll be blogging on the Proper 27 readings:
Here's the scene behind our parable for this Sunday:
It's a wedding. In Jesus' culture, village weddings tended to look something like this: The groom and his family gather at their household (married couples tended to remain living with the groom's parents for as long as the parents survived). The bride and her family and guests gather at her household. The groom and his family make their way to the bride's house to collect the bride. When the groom arrives, he takes the bride indoors, and they do what we might call "consummating the marriage," but in their culture was what would make them married in the eyes of their families and the village: namely, they had sexual intercourse. After that, the blood on the sheets (seen as proof that the bride's hymen had been intact) would be shown to the crowd outside as proof that the couple were married, and partying would ensue.
In the parable we read this Sunday, there are ten young women who are guests of the bride. Five of them don't have enough oil, so they rush out to buy some before the groom arrives. The groom arrives while they're still out, so the party starts without them.
If I were preaching this Sunday, the sermon would probably be titled "People Get Ready" -- and not just because I've wanted since 1987 (when U2 started pulling fans on stage for this purpose) to get pulled on stage to play that song with the band. "People Get Ready" is pretty much the point of this Sunday's gospel reading. The party we've waited for is starting, and if we want to be in on the action, we need to prepare ourselves for what's coming.
That's a pretty popular theme in our culture, if sales of the Left Behind books (and movies, and board games, and who knows what else) are any indication. The message of Left Behind is that Jesus is coming back soon, so we should be ready. So far, so good. Unfortunately, the series' idea of just what that means and how we should prepare departs radically and in very unhelpful ways from what the vast majority of texts in our scriptures have to say.
First off, works like Left Behind have a fascination (perhaps even an obsession) with trying to line up current events with biblical prophesies (which they read as predictions about the future, though in the vast majority of cases it seems clear that the biblical writers took them as comments on events current FOR THEM, centuries ago -- witness Matthew 24:34, for example) to establish when and how what New Testament texts call the parousia (which might best be defined as "Jesus' coming to complete finally and fully his purposes on earth") will happen. Jesus puts the kibosh on that kind of speculation just paragraphs before this Sunday's gospel, in Matthew 24:36: "No one knows of that day and hour -- not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only."
Second, and more seriously, the Left Behind genre seems to be fundamentally confused and WHOSE coming it is that we expect. They get the name right, but they seem to think for some reason that by the time Jesus' parousia happens, he will have undergone a complete personality transplant. They (and especially the horrible and horribly mistitled book Glorious Appearing) seem to have Jesus confused with a creature I call "the Christ-inator," after the robot assasin Arnold Schwarzeneggar played in the first Terminator movie -- an unstoppable force, absolutely determined to kill-kill-kill, and empty of any human feeling, let alone compassion, for its victims.
For those who are eagerly expecting "the Christ-inator," this might sound like bad news, but for the rest of us, who (after hearing too many Left Behind-ish readings of these texts) are tempted to hear readings about Jesus' parousia -- such as we hear in Advent, the season in which we train our hearts particularly on that event -- it's very Good News indeed:
The person we are expecting is none other than Jesus of Nazareth. If we've read the gospels, we should know his character. He taught, healed, and broke bread with anyone who would join him, and he was known particularly for his compassion toward the poor and outcast. While his disciples often seemed to expect him to duck into a phone booth and emerge as Messiah Man to kick the butts of evildoers (props to Scott Bartchy for that image), he consistently denied that was his calling, going even to the cross rather than strike back against violent people.
That's what Jesus was like in his first coming, the Incarnation.
Will he be different at the Second Coming? That's an easy question to answer, because Jesus did come back a second time: we call that "Easter." And when Jesus came among us a second time, he opened the scriptures to his disciples, walked beside them on the road, and cooked them breakfast -- not exactly the behavior of a "Christ-inator."
And don't forget that Jesus said that where two or three are gathered in his name, he is there among them. How many times do you think that's happened over the last two millennia? I'm no statitician, but I figure we're probably somewhere in the neighborhood of the trillionth coming of Jesus, and his character remains the same. The Left Behinders have got it wrong: the realization of Jesus' purposes on earth -- what we pray for every time we say, "thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven" -- is GOOD News for the world.
That all leads back to the point of this Sunday's gospel. If we're mistaken about who exactly it is that we're expecting in the parousia, we're that much more likely to be mistaken about what that person would have us to do to prepare. I've already talked about the mistake of trying to prepare by trying to calculate when it will happen. The other thing that the Left Behinders seem to think we should be doing to prepare is to talk endlessly about how "the Christ-inator" is coming soon, and if people don't want his army of angels to come around to bust their kneecaps or worse, they'd better pray a prayer to get on his good side.
Is that what Jesus said we should be doing? Personally, I haven't found a single reference anywhere in scripture to "accepting Jesus as personal Lord and Savior." That's a phrase I've actually found helpful from time to time in my life, and I've been "born again" (probably a dozen times or more in the evangelical sense even). But I don't mistake a phrase that makes sense in one late-20th century context for Holy Writ, and of all of the things that scripture teaches us we should do to be ready for Jesus' parousia, the vast majority involve a lot greater expenditure of calories, marshalling of compassion, and putting what we value most on the line than mouthing a "sinner's prayer" or handing out tracts with the "Four Spiritual Laws."
So what is that, then? How do we prepare for Jesus' parousia? Our reading from Amos might give us a clue:
Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.
We prepare for the fulfillment of Christ's purposes on earth by doing what he did. We prepare for God's kingdom by seeking it, and God's justice first, as Matthew 6:33 suggests ("justice" is a fine translation of what's often translated as "righteousness," namely dikaiosune -- sorry if I get the transliteration wrong; I really need to learn how to do that properly in ASCII one of these days).
All of those fine-sounding words like "justice" can seem awfully abstract, but it isn't. I'm saying that we prepare for God's kingdom by seeking it in the here and now, gaining strength from a life of prayer to engage in a lifetime of pursuing what God pursues. And what is that? As we move toward Advent especially, we might look to Mary's song of expectation for some pointers -- how about scattering the proud and removing the powerful from their thrones, lifting up the lowly and filling the hungry with good things? If we wanted to seek that, if we expected that God's purposes on earth, the fulfilment of Jesus' work in the world, were really going to happen and we wanted in on the action, wouldn't we be doing things like these?
- Eradicating extreme poverty and hunger
- Achieving universal primary education
- Promoting gender equality and empower women
- Reducing child mortality
- Improving maternal health
- Combatting HIV/AIDS, malaria, and other diseases
- Caring for God's Creation
- Bringing people together around the world to do justice
This isn't some pie-in-the-sky, wide-eyed dreaming. It's what development experts think we could actually accomplish: that, if we seek this justice first, "this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place" (Matthew 24:34). Call it "the Millennium Development Goals" or just call it justice for the poor, but don't just talk about it.
People, get ready -- it's coming! It's like a huge wave, and did you know that surfing is basically strategic falling? You align yourself on the board to align the board with the wave such that gravity -- not your own effort propelling you -- takes you down the wave's surface at the right angle for you to just keep falling, sliding down with gravity but zooming at an angle as close as you can get to parallel with the beach. A big wave like that is good news to those of us called to ride it; align yourself with the wave now, and you're in for the ride of a lifetime.
Surf's up! Get ready!
Thanks be to God!
Proper 23, Year A
It's fun to be writing this week's entry from the Cornerstone Café in Edinburgh, where I worked while I was in seminary and which was an important part of my formation and my vision of what the messianic banquet might look like on earth. Especially being here so near St. Francis' day, Brother Basil (SSF when I knew him, though I understand he's now a Roman Catholic priest), who founded the café, is very much on my mind. If you happen to know him, please pass along my greetings!
This Sunday's gospel passage is a challenging one. Like last week's gospel, it tells a story of violence that should disturb us. Like last week's gospel, it portrays the devastating consequences of perpetuating or escalating the spiral of violence rather than choosing Jesus' way of resisting evil with love rather than arms and blows. Like last week's gospel, it seems to invite an allegorical reading, with the king as God, the king's son as Jesus, and the unworthy subjects who kill the king's messengers as those who persecuted and killed prophets, and especially those who persecuted and killed Jesus and his apostles.
Once again, though, I'm mostly resisting that ready temptation to allegorize. Jesus' condemnation of violent retaliation is so clear and so consistent, not only in his teaching throughout his career but also and perhaps even more importantly by his own example of becoming subject to death on a cross rather than striking out at his persecutors, that I think one would need a great deal of evidence to support a suggestion that the God whom Jesus proclaimed is one who will retaliate violently when God's messengers are attacked. Whatever else we might want to say about this passage, let us remain always grounded in the central confession of Christian faith that we believe that Jesus is God Incarnate, and if we believe that, we must say that the eternal character of God is the character displayed in Jesus, who is nothing like the vengeful king of this story.
I know that many do and will continue to read this Sunday's gospel as an allegory in which the king is God, so I will say one thing about how I would preach on this text if I were going to allegorize it in this way:
*If* we are going to say that God is the king in this parable (a stretch I don't care to make myself), then at the very least, we must say that the parable reserves as God's role alone a task which too many people try to claim for themselves: God is the one who will settle any scores that need settling. No matter what evil others do or are accused of doing, no matter what murder or terror is committed by human beings, taking human lives is the sole prerogative of the God who is the source of life. If God is the king in this parable, then we are NOT the king, and we've got no business pretending otherwise. Those who proclaim that Jesus' blood shed on the cross was sufficient to cover the sins of the world in particular are bound to proclaim it with their lives, by being absolutely clear that no human being may ever say again that blood must be shed because of sin.
Furthermore, if we allegorize the wedding feast dimension of this Sunday's parable as a picture of the messianic banquet, we have to acknowledge at least that the guest list for the party and the task of modifying it if that should for any reason be necessary along the way belong fully and exclusively to the king -- a part which no allegorical reading says is ours. The job of the servants is to gather all -- “both good and bad,” as our text for this Sunday says. Some may show up without proper wedding garments -- no small slight, as wedding garments were often designed in such a way as to thwart casting of the evil eye, a curse to which people were particularly prone at joyous events like weddings, which might arouse a person's envy. But even if we see someone doing something that, like going to a wedding without the proper garment, is believed to cause actual and potentially deadly harm, it's still not our place to decide they should be tossed out. If that call belongs to anyone, it would be to the king.
But this Sunday's gospel isn't just a loud “thou shalt not” to those who would claim God's prerogative of judgment; it's an invitation to enjoy the freedom and peace that comes with leaving all of that to God. As long as we feel personally charged with deciding who should pay for their sins and how, there will be no rest for us -- not only because there is always some crime which we might feel charged to avenge, but also (and perhaps more importantly) because when we're caught up in the vengeance cycle, those dark places we see and lash out at in others are bound to be projections of unacknowledged and therefore unhealed dark places in ourselves. In other words, people caught in the vengeance cycle are “treating” something that isn't the wound, leaving the real wound to fester.
Jesus offers us freedom from all that. Is vengeance needed at all, ever? Will the climax of history include a meting out of justice that includes punishment of unrepentant evildoers? That's an open question within the Christian canon -- some texts seem to suggest that there will be such a thing, and others seem to preclude it. But our Lord is clear on one thing: if that's needed, then God will take care of it at the end of the age. We can rest in that.
Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
Thanks be to God!