Proper 15, Year C
Isaiah 5:1-7 OR
Hebrews 11:29 - 12:2
Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; they will be divided
father against son
and son against father
mother against daughter
and daughter against mother.
mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law
and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.
This is one of those Sundays when parishioners are likely to hear either a sermon on the collect or a sermon of the genre to which I refer as "why Jesus didn't actually mean this," perhaps from the sub-genre of "exegesis according to fictitious quirks of ancient languages." Let's give this approach an acronym for convenience's sake: EAFQuAL.
An EAFQuaL approach to this Sunday's gospel would go something like this: "Yes, these words from Jesus sound really harsh to our ears -- not at all what you'd expect from someone whose message is in practically every way consonant with upper-middle-class respectability and good ol' 'family values.' But if you knew the original language of the gospels/that Jesus spoke -- as I do, having been to seminary and all [most preachers neglect to mention that they only took the language in question for a semester or two, if at all, and that they're depending on a dim recollection of someone or another saying something like they're about to say] -- you'd know that the word translated as 'hate' here really means something more like 'to love just slightly less than you love God, but still definitely to respect deeply, telephone frequently, and send flowers at least annually."
Some preachers taking an EAFQuAL approach to a difficult passage of the gospels will use Greek as their ancient language of recourse -- a sensible choice, since that's the language in which ALL of our earliest manuscripts of the canonical gospels are written. Some will go for Hebrew or even Aramaic instead, on the grounds that Jesus was originally speaking one or the other. This is a more creative and gutsy option in some ways, and even more likely to be a bluff: since all of our earliest texts of the canonical gospels are in Greek, any hypothesized Hebrew or Aramaic "original version" is likely to be either someone's guess based entirely on the Greek but assuming (without any particular reason aside from finding the text as it is difficult) that whoever translated the 'original version' into Greek was doing a very, very bad job of it, or someone's citing a MUCH later text that's also much further from the best-attested streams of the manuscript tradition. On the whole, this kind of EAFQuaL is like a game you can play in which you go to an 'automatic translator' web page such as Babelfish, enter the first few lines of the Gettysburg Address in English, have the site translate it a few times into other languages, and then have Babelfish translate that repeatedly mangled text back into English. The results are sometimes hilarious, but they hardly reflect a more reliable 'original text' of the Gettysburg Address than a decent history textbook will give.
As you can gather, I'm not a fan of EAFQuAL, and one of the many reasons I'm grateful to have had opportunity to study Greek and Hebrew is that it helped me realize something that grates on an awful lot of Christians' sensibilities, particularly among the privileged and the prosperous:
Some of Jesus' sayings -- and some behaviors called for in Christian discipleship, in following Jesus -- really ARE difficult. Jesus was not a twenty-first-century, university-educated, landowning husband and father; small wonder, then, that he frequently doesn't talk or act like a twenty-first century, university-educated, landowning husband and father. It goes further than that, though -- I'm NOT saying that one just has to "translate" what was customary among first-century peasants in Palestine to what's customary for us, and that the result will be that Jesus' way of life won't ever prove particularly challenging.
I can't say that because it's not true. Jesus wasn't a very "good" son to Mary his mother, and wasn't even a "good man" in the reckoning of respectable people around him. A "good son" would have stayed home and worked at the family's trade to care for his mother until her death; he wouldn't have gone off galavanting around the countryside. A "good man" would defend the family name and honor if challenged or attacked; he wouldn't be talking about loving enemies, and he wouldn't be disclaiming his family name by saying "those who hear the word of God and do it are my mother and my sister and my brothers" (Mark 3:35 -- and this is how he responds when someone tries to compliment his mother, and him by extension!). And as if all of the above isn't bad enough in conventional terms, Jesus actually encourages other people to leave their homes and families, to allow their family name and honor to be dismantled by others rather than upheld by retaliation, to follow him and to follow his example.
Much as character in C.S. Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia say that Aslan, the Christ-figure in the series, is "not a tame lion," Jesus is NOT a "good guy" by conventional reckoning. Following Jesus won't make you a "good guy" or "good girl" by most conventional reckonings either. And thus we read a lot in the gospels about forgiving and praying for persecutors -- something you don't need to do if everyone thinks you're a "great guy" or "great gal" and therefore has no desire to oppose your manner of life. How it came to be that so many people would think of Christianity as a ticket to respectability and an affirmation of the "core values" of a society with an vast and growing gap between rich and poor, insiders and outsiders, powerful and marginal, is one of history's most astonishing tricks to me; as with watching an illusionist making the Statue of Liberty 'disappear,' I've got to gasp and say, "I'm watching it, but I don't believe it. This is not the way the universe works, and no matter how much it seems that way, I can't believe it."
All of this may seem like a lengthy digression, and perhaps it is, but I hope at least that it's a useful one to undergo before directly tackling this Sunday's gospel, about which my advice to preachers is:
- Don't try to explain away, apologize for, or do some fancy rhetorical footwork to distract people from just how counter-cultural and difficult this text is. Don't engage in EAFQuAL. Don't say something that boils down to "Jesus didn't really mean this" (or its homiletical cousin, "Jesus didn't really say this, so we can safely ignore it and claim to be better Christians for it" -- a rhetorical strategy that ignores the important but inconvenient point that all historically plausible reconstructions of what Jesus did or didn't say or do depend in the end on the very gospels we're dismissing as less reliable than a historian's paperback). A preacher's job is not to distract the congregation from a biblical text long or skillfully enough for everyone to get away without asking hard questions, and it's not necessarily to make people feel better about their choices (though sometimes a good sermon may have that effect for some or many). If I had to sum up the preacher's job in a sentence, it's to model engagement with biblical texts and current questions in a way that better informs people what discipleship might involve and inspire people to take another step or set of steps to follow Jesus. In my experience, sermons that boil down to "my gut says that Jesus didn't say or mean this; discipleship is pretty much doing what any sensible and decent person would, and not worrying too much about the rest" just don't accomplish much worth doing.
- Do point toward and stay with what's difficult about the texts and about following Jesus long enough for people to really feel it. Remember the maxim -- it often works for teachers, psychotherapists, and preachers alike, I've found -- that "the work starts where the resistance starts." Pointing out how the biblical texts can be difficult to interpret and how discipleship involves facing very real and great challenges both functions as a "reality test" affirming the sanity of observations that intelligent and sensitive people know to be true, such as "there's a lot of beauty, joy, and love in this world, but I have to say that the world doesn't seem to be working as it should." Pausing regularly on Sunday mornings (ideally also in frequent study of scripture and times of prayer during the week, but at the very least starting with the Sunday sermon) to feel how challenging discipleship can be in many situations is a pastoral act that can build some emotional and spiritual muscles that will be very useful when (and it's 'when,' not 'if') the congregation encounters real, undeniable, and painful challenges.
- And though your work isn't done with most texts until you've taken in what can be challenging about them, it also isn't done until you've done your level best to address the question of where the Good News of God's healing and redeeming the world comes in. Personally -- and contrary to what sources such as Left Behind might suggest -- I find eschatology (literally, 'study of the end') to be a great boon in this task. As those who have taken the Connect course (which, by the way, is distributed in an 'open source' manner over the Internet, and is therefore FREE to congregations who want to use it, much as we appreciate contributions of money and effort to improve it) have heard and thought about, our stories -- our pains and joys, our mistakes and what we've learned from them, our dreams and disappointments -- often look different when we see, tell, and listen to them in the context of the larger story of God's making a good world that God loves and is working constantly to heal of the wounds and free it the enslavement that results from our damaging choices in life and relationships. I find that most passages in the lectionary have something to say about how God has redeemed, is redeeming, and will eventually complete the redemption of God's children. When I'm looking for Good News to proclaim, the first questions I ask myself are usually along the lines of how the biblical texts I'm working with fit that pattern. You can see how it would be impossible to see how this step requires a good job with the previous one: you can't see redemption and healing if you don't acknowledge slavery and wounds. I hope that anyone who's heard me preach more than a couple of times would recognize in my work another way I might summarize the preacher's aim: tell a chapter from the story of God's healing the wounded world God loves, and don't stop until you've foreshadowed the end -- the telos for which Creation was intended -- in terms vivd enough to dream.
So that's the pattern I've found most often useful when preaching on particularly difficult texts. How would that pattern look with this Sunday's texts?
In this Sunday's gospel, Jesus tells his friends that following him will cause conflict and division -- even division between families. That's a descriptive statement, and shocking as it is, it's not hard to see the truth of it if you're familiar with what Jesus says and does in the gospels. Imagine for a moment the scene when Peter goes back to his mother-in-law and says, "Hey, mom ... I've got some important news. I'm not going fishing tomorrow morning. I don't know if I'll ever step in a boat or lift a net again. I'm glad that you were healed of that fever, and I hope you don't catch one again, because I have to tell you that I probably won't be around to take care of you or to bury you when you die. See, that man who healed you asked me to follow him as he travels around teaching and healing, and I'm going to do it. I really think that God's kingdom is breaking through in this guy's work, and that's just too important for me to stay here, even to take care of you."
How would you feel if it were your son who said that to you? There's no social security to fall back on if you're Peter's mother-in-law; Peter is the closest thing you've got to that, and he's leaving. I have some idea of what I'd probably feel if I were Peter's mother-in-law: Betrayed. Abandoned. Despised. Shamed. Perhaps even hopeless. I have some idea of the kinds of things I'd say if I were in her shoes too, and a lot of the language I'd be using wouldn't appear in any children's bible. When I found out that Peter AND Andrew were both going, my language would reflect even more anger, grief, fear, and straight-up, no-chaser, and very bitter pain. I think the same would be true of my language if Peter and Andrew had other brothers and I were one of them. I'd want to ask Peter and Andrew how they could do this to all of us, how they think we'll survive without their help with the fishing, and whose prophet would ask a man to walk out on his family. I'd ask Peter and Andrew if this is how they were going to follow God's command in holy writ to honor parents and care for widows (as Peter's mother-in-law most likely was, in my estimation).
Peter's family isn't the only one that would be asking pointed questions or even shouting curses after departing disciples in the wake of Jesus' ministry. It's not at all hard, upon a few close readings of the gospels, to come up with a lot of other people who would be feeling just as hurt, just as angry, and who might attack disciples, even or especially their kin who were following Jesus, with words or more than words. Peace? It's not hard to see how what Jesus brings to such families might be described as well or much better by saying that Jesus brings division and drawn sword. There is a world of hurt behind Jesus' words in this Sunday's gospel.
And yet that's not all that can or should be said about this Sunday's gospel. It's true that Jesus' ministry did and still does dislocate those who follow him from the ways of life and from the relationships they were in. It's true that being extricated from those patterns and those relationships can be painful to all concerned.
It's also true that sometimes, if not often, the only way to find freedom to live in new ways and to form new and healthier relationships is to be extricated or dislocated from the old ones. It's true that Jesus challenges fathers and mothers, and sisters and daughters, husbands and wives to allow Jesus' call to pull them out of those relationships, at least or especially as those relationships are defined by our less-than-healthy world. It's true that Jesus' call in a sense denies those relationships altogether: our mother and our sister and our brothers are NOT those who offer or share a womb or a bloodline, but those who hear the word of God and do it.
That is a circle that can, depending on the choices we make, exclude those who by blood or law are our kin. But that's not the only possible outcome of Jesus' call. It's not the only possible outcome because Peter and Andrew aren't the only ones who have choices. You and I aren't the only ones who have choices. And Peter and Andrew and you and I aren't the only ones whom God calls.
Here's another possible outcome: Peter and Andrew tell Jesus that no prophet of the God of Israel would ask people to ignore the Ten Commandments, and they tell Jesus that on that basis they know precisely what sort of a man Jesus is, and there is no way they'd follow him. They go home and tell their families about what kind of dangerous nutcase the wandering healer turned out to be, and how glad they are that they figured it out. The next morning, they go fishing.
That's not a story that inspires me as a follower of Jesus. Thank God it's not the only other possibility either. Here's another one:
Peter and Andrew tell their families more about Jesus, what he's saying, what he's doing, and what they think that means about what God is accomplishing right now for the world. They talk about the community of people following Jesus and how they care for one another, how their life together is a sign to all of how relationships could be in the world and what might come of it if we believed the kingdom of God was breaking through this world and therefore we could live as though God were king here and now. Peter's mother-in-law, his sisters and all his brothers, and the rest of the family face and go through the break that Jesus talks about in our former relationships. It's only natural for them to grieve sometimes at the passing of old ways of being and to chafe at or stumble in the new relationships that are forming, but they have a new joy, a new peace, a new freedom from anxiety in the living reality that if they have lost a mother-in-law, a son-in-law, a daughter, or a father, they have gained more sisters and brothers than they ever imagined they could have, and had joined a people who would come to fulfill the promise to Abraham of numbering more than the stars of the clear desert sky -- more to care for them and be supported by them, more to love and be loved by than any earthly family could offer. They follow Jesus together, sisters and brothers in Christ.
That's a story that inspires me. It makes me think that perhaps the wounds we suffer following Jesus can, in the context of God's redeeming work, be like the break of a badly healed bone that allows it to become whole again.
Breaking and being made whole. It's core to the story of God's people. We see it in Jeremiah's description of the faithful prophet of God, whose word may be a hammer that breaks but whose witness calls God's people to wholeness. We see it in Isaiah's vision of God's people as a vineyard made desolate by unrighteousness, in failing to recognize God's image in humanity by caring for the poor and in worshipping as gods images of our own wealth and skill. We may not see it by conventional reckonings, with worldly eyes, but we see it through faith, which reminds us of God's faithfulness in the past and of God's redeeming work, ongoing in the present and to be completed in God's time.
It's a story to read and tell over and over until we and our children and parents, sisters and brothers and friends know it by heart, a story that will strengthen us when we're grieving and feel weak, and that will guide us when we're feeling strong. It's a story of pain and tears and brokenness, but it's a story of love, joy, and hope that ends in wholeness, in the world coming to know just how high and broad and deep God's love and blessings for Creation are.
Thanks be to God!
August 14, 2007 in Apocalyptic, Community, Eschatology, Hebrews, Honor/Shame, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Jesus' Hard Sayings, Kinship/Family, Luke, ONE campaign/Millennium Development Goals, Ordinary Time, Pastoral Concerns, Reconciliation, Righteousness, Scripture, Year C | Permalink | Comments (6)
Third Sunday in Lent, Year C
The General Ordination Exams (GOEs) one generally has to take to be ordained to the clergy in The Episcopal Church often cause seminarians preparing for them a great deal of anxiety, and sometimes they deal with this by rehearsing with their friends some previous years' questions or questions they think they might be asked. One genre of GOE (or at least GOEs of the past) is the "coffee hour question," which asks the person being examined to imagine him or herself as a priest approached by a parishioner during the coffee hour between services and asked a pastoral question of some kind. This was one of the "coffee hour" questions some friends of mine were tossing around over margaritas some years back:
A seven-year old girl is a member of your parish. Her mother has recently and very suddenly died. She approaches you during coffee hour and asks, "will I see my mommy in heaven?"
The table sprang into conversation about a variety of things -- 1 Corinthians 15, the resurrection, different ideas of the immortality of the soul -- and how they could be explained to a seven-year-old girl. It was an interesting conversation. But when I was asked how I would answer the question, this is what I told my friends I'd say to the girl:
"It sounds like you really miss your mommy."
That's what I'd say. That's the first thing I'd say, anyway. Other things are important, in my view -- especially 1 Corinthians 15 and the varieties of Christian hope of the resurrection -- but I can't imagine having a conversation with that girl that meant anything at all without starting from where she is, and where I think she'd be would be is desperately wanting to see and touch and be held by her mother, and being in great pain for the lack of that touch.
I feel similarly, and I tend to respond in similar ways, most times people ask questions that start with "Why did this happen?" or especially, "How could God allow this to happen?" In my experience, this is not the time for a learned or wise discussion about consequences of the Fall, how human mortality underscores the preciousness of the present moment, or even -- as much as I love to discuss Paul at just about any possible opportunity -- the meaning of 1 Corinthians 15. So far, every time anyone has asked me how God could allow suffering, evil, and death, I've found in further conversation that we ask someone else about those categories because of something very specific.
In other words, "Why did this happen?" often boils down to at least one or two other things that need to be named, both statements, both statements, not questions:
"I'm in unspeakable pain." This is almost certain.
"I want God to take away the cause of this pain, and I'm confused, frightened, and angry that God doesn't seem to be here, or good, or to care." Sometimes we say things like this because we're actually thinking and feeling about God. Usually we say this because we're in unspeakable pain, meaning (quite literally) we don't feel able to speak about our pain.
This Sunday's Hebrew bible and gospel readings suggest that the pastoral response starts with recognizing and honoring that pain.
In Exodus, God says, "I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings," and that is the beginning of deliverance for God's people.
And in Luke, when some of God's people come to Jesus with a news report -- that the Roman governor Pontius Pilate, had murdered Galilean pilgrims to Jerusalem -- that boils down to a statement -- that this is too painful to bear, and perhaps even to name -- and therefore comes out also as something like a question: "How could God allow this?"
There are at least a thousand clichéd answers to a question like that. God needed some more angels for the heavenly choir. These clearly were pilgrims who forgot to pray (or behave in the prescribed way -- usually meaning the way that the speaker wants people to behave). Or the last resort of someone desperate for an explanation: "everything happens for a reason, and God allowed this to happen because something better will come of it."
That last answer is less awful that the first ones I listed, but it isn't the one that Jesus gave. To the smug who are convinced that God arranges all suffering as well as all joy, and delegates each according to the human values of the smug, Jesus offers a word of warning; he says, in effect, "you are no better than these people, you're no less mortal than they, and if anyone figuring in this conversation is courting disaster from God, it's you."
If it were only the smug who had brought the report, the question, and the pain Jesus heard, it would have been understandable for Jesus to stop there. But he doesn't. He affirms that those who died were not sinful in a way that others weren't, and he tells a parable about a fig tree. As Malina and Rorhbaugh point out, a pious Israelite who planted a fig tree would let it grow for three years to get it to a point where it was capable of bearing fruit, then would allow it to go unharvested for three years before coming back for three more years to harvest fruit and to assess its potential fruitfulness. In other words, the wealthy absentee landlord of the parable (not a particularly sympathetic figure in Jesus' parables, and especially not in Luke) is actually being more than reasonable in saying, "this tree had its chance for nine years, and it's fruitless." Heck, nine years is just shy of a quarter of the life span of a man (women died sooner when childbirth was so dangerous) who by some miracle survived childhood (when most perish in the world's climates of scarcity).
But the gardener, who doesn't own the land and isn't the one who benefits most from its profit -- seems to care more about the tree than the fruit, and seems more than happy to devote extra care -- a year of it -- when no law or custom requires it and he has nothing to gain personally form it.
Sometimes, I speak primarily as a scholar of these texts. Sometimes, I like to indulge in a little pastoral imagination, which I hope you find responsible, and here's some of it:
I think to think that this was a crazy gardener who actually cared about the life of the tree, and who saw a fruitless tree more as a wounded life worth healing than a wasted opportunity for profit in need of clearing. Is that a responsible reading of the text? Perhaps. I've said before that, as a rule of thumb, Jesus' parables are defined by their shocking reversals, and that if we read one of his parables and find no unexpected behavior, we need to re-read with our eyes, our mind, and our imagination more deeply engaged. It would be crazy for a gardener to care about a tree in that way.
But isn't that just the kind of crazy way God cares for us? Isn't that the crazy kind of love Jesus showed for us, and particularly for those of us with few or no qualities traditionally seen as giving a person the kind of respectability and status to expect any need or pain to be noticed and responded to?
And if the conversation with the person who says, "will I see her again in heaven?" or "why did this happen?" or "where is God in something like this?" continues, it will turn in that direction. I'll be honest that I don't have a constant and unshakable emotional sense of the way God cares for us beyond reason. I'm also being honest when I say that this is one of the reasons I spend so much time and energy reading the bible, and why I thank God for communities of people who will carry me in prayer when my own prayers, and even my own scripture reading, seem fruitless. Because I choose to believe, even when I don't feel it, that God knows and shares the sufferings of God's people, and God's immeasurable love for us and inexorable power to redeem is at work even when I don't perceive it.
I don't believe in perfection, that everything happens as it should or is orchestrated in a way that is personally beneficial to God's people or to me by conventional reckonings. I believe in redemption, that even or especially amidst great suffering and real evil, God is bringing the universe toward the justice and love, the peace and wholeness, for which it was made and for which it aches.
Thanks be to God!
First Sunday in Lent, Year C
Deuteronomy 26:1-11 - link to NRSV text
Psalm 91:1-2, 9-16 - link to BCP text
Romans 10:8b-13 - link to NRSV text
Luke 4:1-13 - link to NRSV text
Over Advent and Christmas in 2004/2005, I was working in a parish where I was on the regular rota of preachers. On this particular year, I preached on December 19 -- the last Sunday of Advent -- and then again on January 2, in the season of Christmas. Had you asked me a month ahead of time what the thematic shift between those two sermons were going to be like, I probably would have talked about Advent as a time of tension between experiencing the world's brokenness and injustice and the hope we stake our lives on as Christians, that Jesus is coming to make all things new, and will complete what he has begun. When the Christmas sermon came around, I imagined would have been talking about Incarnation and celebration. When the time came, I was, in a manner of speaking, but in the meantime something had happened.
There was a tsunami in Southeast Asia, a devastating one, on December 26. 230,000 or more people swept away. Family members were torn from another before their eyes as they desperately tried to hold on to one another. It was a dark twist on some familiar texts:
For as the days of Noah were ... before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage ... and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away ... Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left (Matthew 24:37-41).
Dark texts about dark days. Advent texts.
What had I said in Advent? I'd tried to communicate a healthy awareness of the darkness in our world, the darkness that texts like Matthew 24 spoke from and to.
I talked about how the world's darkness sometimes seems relentless and inexorable if not impenetrable. And I talked about Advent hope. The sermon was called "Dancing at the World's End"; its central image was of the Berlin Wall -- a symbol when I was growing up of the Cold War that we all thought would end in nuclear war and winter, the end of the world. I talked about the day people started tearing that wall down -- when I lived in Scotland, close enough to join my fellow students who were streaming to Berlin in droves to dance on the wall's ruins. I didn't go -- I had classes, after all, a job waiting on tables, no time off and little money. And I talked about how little all of those seemingly important obstacles were in light of the change that was happening, the history I could have witnessed firsthand, the joy I could have shared with all those who were there. I asked myself and those in the church on that day what we might do if we were going to live in Advent hope -- seeing in the darkness the signs that the world -- the whole world of big and banal evils, of suffering and despair and death -- was crumbling before our eyes. If the Berlin Wall coming down was a change worth my skipping class and letting the waitressing take care of itself (and I believe with all my heart it was), what is it worth, what would we leave behind and what would we take up, to be present to dance on the ruins of sin and death itself?
Advent hope. That Advent, I spoke of it primarily as an antidote to what we wealthy Westerners sometimes call "the grind," which can feel oppressive enough. Hope can feel bold in the midst of that.
And then, the second day of Christmas, the waters came. The images and the stories of the tsunami itself were devastating; the reminder of just how many quieter but more devastating floods hit the most vulnerable:
About every six months, a tsunami's worth of women dying in entirely preventable ways while giving birth, and another tsunami's worth of people dying of HIV/AIDS.
Every week, just short of a tsunami's worth of children under five dying of preventable or treatable diseases like malaria.
The list goes on. We've heard about these things before, and most of us have wept about them before. And of course, I'm talking about things I've talked about before. The best thing I could think of to do in the pulpit in that dark Christmas season was to reclaim a familiar carol as a protest song:
No more let sin and sorrow grow
or thorns infest the ground
he comes to make his mercies flow
far as the curse is found.
"Far as the Curse Is Found." That's what I called the sermon.
I'm sorry to spend so much time rehearsing the past, but it's present in my mind once more this week. Our world is still troubled by much of what troubled us as I sang from the pulpit a little over two years ago. And I have many, many friends whose hearts are breaking this week. There are all the things I read about in the papers, of course, and more. Mothers worried about their sons and daughters at war, or wounded by war. Friends worried about friends who are addicts hurting themselves and others. People of all sorts and conditions who held out hopes for the meeting of our Anglican Primates (archbishops and other heads of churches) that were dashed in ways that felt deeply personal.
A world of grief. A world of anger. A world of hurt.
Where's our happy ending? Didn't God promise a land, an inheritance, freedom from slavery and from fear that would be celebrated with feasting? What of the psalmist's song?
There shall no evil happen to you,
neither shall any plague come near your dwelling.
For God shall give his angels charge over you
to keep you in all your ways.
What of the scriptures St. Paul quoted to the churches in Rome, that "No one who believes in him shall be put to shame" and "Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved?" How can someone in real grief and real hurt open the bible and find anything helpful when real suffering comes on like a flood?
She can, I can, you can because the bible isn't that book that a lot of us heard about in Sunday School -- the one that says that we should be quiet, good, and cheerful in a world of smiling white guys who look a little like hippies patting the heads of fresh-faced children and snow-white cartoon sheep. It isn't a book that says that we should all be nice because everything is really OK. Read a book like Luke-Acts closely and you'll see a group of people grappling hard with hard questions, real oppression, serious pain.
Something stood out to me right away when I revisited the portion of Luke we'll be reading this Sunday, the first Sunday in Lent:
Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil.
Full of the Holy Spirit -- led by the Spirit -- tempted by the devil. These aren't phrases linked naturally for a lot of us, I think. For a lot of us, when we're in a desolate place, we're likely to ask what we did wrong. How could we be led by the Holy Spirit and be in a place like this?
The people who wrote and read Luke-Acts asked questions like this too, I think. Some had left not only their homes, but their spouse, sisters and brothers, parents, and children for the sake of God's kingdom, and they were often met with persecution for it. Journey with these people and you've got company in your pain. They know what's wrong with the world -- enough to say even that the glory and authority of the world's kingdoms have been given to the devil. They know that sometimes -- too often -- the kingdoms of this world reward what Jesus called evil (and by the way, I'm not talking about homosexuality).
All of that is very, very real to the Christians we walk alongside as we read Luke-Acts. When we follow Jesus, we walk with and behind sisters and brothers who have known pain and oppression.
And let's not gloss over that, because without seeing that, we can't take in the full impact of the Good News they share with us:
That Jesus the Christ, full of the Holy Spirit, came to confront all the powers of sin and death, everything that separates us from one another, from God, and from the joyful, peaceful, loving life for which God made us -- and Jesus won.
Jesus won on the Cross, and we're going to talk a lot about that in the days to come, but let's not skip ahead. We don't need to. On this first Sunday in Lent, Luke shares with us the Good News that Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, confronted the devil directly AND WON.
As Sue Garrett points out, the story of Jesus in the wilderness that we read this week is an early installment of the outcome her book's title points toward as a major theme in Luke's gospel: The Demise of the Devil. This isn't just the story of Jesus being tempted in the wilderness, in which Jesus doesn't give in and a stalemate is declared. It belongs in an extensive tradition of stories in which Satan's or the devil's retreat in the face of the godly hero's strength isn't a coffee break, but a defeat, as in The Testament of Job (27:2-6):
And as he [Satan] stood, he wept, saying, "Look, Job, I am weary and I withdraw from you, even though you are flesh and I a spirit. You suffer a plague, but I am in deep distress. I became like one athlete wrestling another, and one pinned the other. The upper one silenced the lower one ... because he showed endurance and did not grow weary, at the end the upper one cried out in defeat. So you also, Job ... conquered my wrestling tactics which I brought on you. Then Satan, ashamed, left me for three years.
(Garrett, p. 42)
The language of Luke's gospel this Sunday echoes that of such stories -- this isn't a stalemate, but a victory.
And yet it's not the final victory. We (well, maybe I should speak for myself alone, but this does seem at least to be an American "prosperity gospel" tendency at least) accustomed to thinking of victory of evil as preventing pain, or at least ending it. In this Sunday's gospel, victory over evil involves a willingness to endure pain in confronting the powers that oppress and divide us. It's the devil, not God, who promises safety and success. But it's God, working in Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, who wins. This is, in the end, God's world -- as it was in the beginning. God's light has shone in the darkness, and the darkness has never extinguished it.
We see and taste God's goodness and the wholeness for which God made Creation in countless small and breathtaking ways -- in sunrises and laughter, in an embrace or a shared tear, and even in chocolate (which I'm convinced is the single most underutilized argument for the existence of a gracious Creator). But chiefly we see it in the life and ministry among us of Jesus the Christ, who knew pain and desolation and betrayal as well as laughter and peace and love. Luke in particular promises glimpses of Jesus' final victory over the very real destructive forces at work in the world -- not just fleetingly and rare, but as regular nourishment for the journey.
If we are to start this journey with Jesus, or to enter more deeply and intentionally into it, or to better notice, know, and learn from our companions on that journey, I can think of no better time than this Lent. If your heart is breaking, so is mine; walk with me, and our stories and prayers will sustain us. If you're laughing, so do I; let's share it, and lighten the way. Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, was led into desolation and victory, and is company for us both in the full complexity of the winding path we're on together toward healing and reconciliation.
Thanks be to God!
February 23, 2007 in Advent, Apocalyptic, Current Events, Deuteronomy, Eschatology, Luke, ONE campaign/Millennium Development Goals, Pastoral Concerns, Psalms, Romans, Scripture, Temptation, Year C | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack
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 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 14, Year B
I often say that I don't believe in perfection, but in redemption.
I want to talk about redemption this week.
There are several reasons for having that topic on my mind at this moment.
The first is that the texts suggest it to me. The gospel passage for this Sunday is part of a lengthy monologue in which Jesus relates Exodus 16's account of "bread from heaven" to his own ministry, and to God's ministry among God's people. The writer of the Gospel According to John is inviting his Christian community specifically and repeatedly to think of their journey in tandem with that of the Hebrews from Egypt -- the journey from slavery to freedom to serve God, from being dominated to being agents of God's liberating work, from being no people to being one people, God's people.
There's an intriguing detail in the biblical story of the Exodus that doesn't often get much attention, but that also invites drawing parallels between the exodus of the Hebrews from Egypt to the journey of the Johannine community (i.e., the community that produced and read the Gospel According to John, the biblical letters attributed to John, and the book of Revelation). With most of my books still in boxes from my move, I can't check my books, so I hope a sharp-eyed reader will catch me if I'm misremembering when I say that the Septuagint (i.e., the Greek version of the Old Testament, which was what the earliest Christians were talking about when they said 'scripture') is pretty clear on this point, which also comes across in the NRSV, though less strongly:
What God told Moses to ask for, and what the Pharoah did in the end, was not to 'release' the Hebrews, but to send, almost drive them out. My recollection, which I hope an astute reader might confirm or correct, is that in the Septuagint, the word used is exapostello (and if someone knows how to transcribe a long vowel in Internet-friendly text, please tell me -- that last 'o' is an omega). That's the verb to "send out," but it's often not the kind of "sending" you'd want. It's the word the Septuagint uses to dismiss a wife in a divorce. It's a word used to dismiss a servant empty-handed, or a prisoner to her doom. What we remember and retell explicitly in every Passover haggadah starts with something translated more accurately as God saying "send my people out, that they may serve me" than "let my people go." And the Egyptian people don't line the streets to heap floral leis and good wishes upon the Hebrews after resisting the command to send them away; they drive out their former servants with a fear that, given the horrible things the Hebrew god has visited upon them, is as understandable as it is great.
Small wonder that in the Passover celebration, God's people are urged to recall tears and bitterness. It's not just about remembering the bitterness of slavery; it's also about remembering the tears and anguish of the families who lost husbands when the Sea of Reeds closed over the Egyptian army, or lost an elder brother or firstborn son in the plague of death.
So amidst such tears, is the story we tell of Exodus as liberation to celebrate a lie?
This is the kind of question that makes me say that I believe in redemption, not perfection. And it's a question burned freshly in my mind this week.
Some friends -- my former bosses when I worked at St. Martin's parish in Maryland -- lost their eldest son this week. I can think of few people who seemed as full of life and purpose as well as gentle good humor as their son Mike was. He was 33 years old and very active when, while on a weekend camping trip, he died of a massive heart attack. Nothing can prepare a parent for such a shock and loss, and in any case there was no prior indication that anything like this might be coming. Having lost a 26-year-old elder brother almost as suddenly almost exactly ten years ago, I can barely -- but only just barely -- imagine how my friends, Mike's parents, are feeling.
If we lived in a perfect world, we might say, as many well-meaning people said when my brother died, something like, "God took him for a reason," and we might even try to supply a reason, like "God called him as an angel" (as a number of people said of my brother), much as we could say of the Egyptians' tears (or the tears of the Israelites who lost loved ones to the plague of poisonous quail later in the desert) something like, "this happened so that God's glory could be shown in mighty works." Maybe that works for you. It doesn't work at all for me, and to be honest, I've never met anyone for whom it really did work, for whom it really rang true over time and at a level of deep self-awareness.
So is the story of life and hope, of freedom and celebration, a lie?
I don't think so.
I think that something happens within and among us, something that's happening all the time around our messed-up world, amidst all the pain and bitter tears, as our stories take shape in our journey with God.
That something is called redemption.
Redemption doesn't say (as Stoic philosophers said) that there's no such thing as slavery to someone whose mind or heart is in the right place; it is a word, a story, a narrated act in community that frees someone enslaved to a new set of relationships, a new identity in community in which that person can live much more fully into her or his God-given identity and God-issued call. When we say "God is redeeming the world in Christ," we are not saying that there is no pain, no loss, no wrong, no brokenness in the world to grieve; we are saying that God's power is such that all of that pain, loss, sin (that's a word that needs to be said sometimes), and brokenness in the world -- all that it is meet and right as well as just plain HONEST for us to grieve -- is being incorporated into a larger story, a deeper and broader context in which our lives and the life of the world are about redemption -- about making whole -- and resurrection, bringing new life.
This is not some Monty Python-eque "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life" song to be sung mindlessly amidst and in denial of pain. Anyone who spends enough time with enough children, artists, visionaries, or prophets knows that stories -- especially ones told truthfully and well -- knows that stories are incredibly powerful. Stories are, or can be, acts of the word in the world that bring very real and powerful life and light into the world. In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God, and God spoke, and there was life, and light -- a whole world come into being. The story of God's people -- of Exodus and John, among other stories -- being inspired by God, is more powerful than bean-counting so-called "pragmatists" might imagine.
As I write, I keep thinking of an experience I had on a youth group retreat -- one I blogged about on Grace Notes, my personal blog, in an entry called "Fingerpainting and Forgiveness." Please take the time to read it if you can -- and don't skip the comments. The last comment there as I write this shows something how an evening in which I told a story in a community, and we told more stories in childish art, became a larger story in which someone none of us on that retreat had met found freedom and new life. When I say that I believe not in perfection but in redemption, I'm saying that I believe that when your sin and my sin, your brokenness and grief and mine, are offered to God and into the story of God's stumbling, broken, grieving and gifted people journeying with all Creation toward healing, wholeness, and reconciliation with one another and with God in Christ, the ashes and dirt become in their own way a part of God's art, an expression through God's grace of the love in and through and for which God made all in Creation that was, is, or will be.
So I write this week in pain, and with tears -- for my friends' eldest son, and for my friends; for a world in which too many sons and daughters and mothers and fathers are torn from us far, far too soon; for hunger and war; for fear and darkness and oppression. And I write in hope in Jesus the Christ, who in the Gospel According to John spoke to a community driven out of their homes, their synagogues -- a community in which many had been "sent forth" as prisoners condemned by the testimony of those they had called neighbor -- and said, "I am the Bread of Life." Jesus said to them that in the midst of their alienation, their grief, their tears, he was with them, sustaining them, incorporating their story into the Great Story of reconciliation that is the story of the world God made and loves --
A story of redemption. The Johannine community saw its end like this:
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,
See, the home of God is among mortals.
He will dwell with them as their God;
they will be his peoples,
and God himself will be with them;
he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away.
And the one who was seated on the throne said, "See, I am coming to make all things news." Also he said, "Write this, for these worlds are trustworthy and true."
-- Revelation 21:1-5
I say through tears: See, God is coming soon! Blessed are those who keep the vision of God's prophets, who tell the story of God's past, present, and coming redemption of the world.
Pray for those who mourn. There are too damn many of them, though it is God's blessing and glory that their comfort is even now at hand.
I feel it is too bold to say, but in faith I'll say it: Thanks be to God.
Proper 19, Year A
[If you haven't seen it already, you might want to take a look at my supplemental entry from last week, which also addressed the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.]
This Sunday is September 11, 2005, four years to the day after September 11, 2001, and the end of a week in which news has been dominated once again with images that are equally hard to believe in one sense and hard to turn away from in another, images of death and suffering in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Both events are very much in the foreground of my mind this week as I reflect on the passages we'll be preaching on this Sunday.
I blogged in Grace Notes, my personal blog, a few months ago about a short film I'd come across online, and which I found to be very effective in its simplicity. You can find that entry, and a link to the film (which I encourage you to watch, if you haven't already -- it's only about thirty seconds long) here. What the film says is this:
Terrorism is bred in
The recent attacks on America have instilled
in otherwise peaceful people.
Vengeful retaliation will also instill
in innocent people who suffer from such attacks.
Terrorism is bred in
Violence breeds violence.
Our mission now is to break the cycle.
This short film with its powerful message is about forgiveness, what it's about, and why it's crucial for our survival -- by which I mean not just our continuing to draw breath, but our continuing to be ALIVE, living in the abundant way that is Christ's gift.
Jesus spoke these words about forgiveness -- unilateral, unconditional, and (to many of his hearers) nonsensical forgiveness -- in an honor/shame culture, a culture in which retaliating against someone who'd attacked your family or your family honor was seen not only as the only wise course of action, but the only GOOD course of action. You don't want people to feel that they've got a license to walk all over your family, do you? And if God is on your side, is there any way to prove it besides striking back so you can show that your god is stronger than theirs? You've got a duty to strike back -- not only to protect your own honor, but also to protect your wife, your children, those who are vulnerable and who can't strike back themselves. The Law limits retaliation -- an eye for an eye, one life and one life only for a life -- but doesn't prohibit it.
But it was the Mahatma Gandhi, I think who put it in these vivid terms: "an eye for an eye" leaves the whole world blind. That's the sad tragedy of so many conflicts we see. In the Middle East, one side claims that their bomb came in retaliation for the other side's rocket. It really doesn't matter who started it; continuing by principles of violence for violence, there is nothing that will finish it.
What will finish it? Who will deliver us from this body of death, these spirals of violence?
Jesus delivers us, because Jesus taught us a better way: forgive, not once, or twice, but seventy or seventy times seven -- in other words, always, as many times as we're attacked.
It sounds crazy, but it's the only way out. We've seen it in less graphic ways in seemingly intractable church conflict. When we talk only of how we've been wronged and what others need to do (or be forced to do!) to make up for it, then we just get caught up in escalating spirals of the conflict. Not only does this continue conflict indefinitely (which, to be sure, is neither fun nor spiritually profitable, though it seems to work well for some people for short-term fundraising), but it also makes it awfully hard to really hear anyone else through the din.
What would happen if we took Paul's counsel seriously to "strive to outdo one another in SHOWING honor" (Romans 12:10)? We'd have a lot more energy to put into action the rest of Paul's train of thought, namely "Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers" (Romans 12:11-13).
That last sentence hits me particularly hard in light of the devastation we've seen along the Gulf Coast, the images and stories and footage of people with no or not enough clean water to drink, food to eat, no home to light at night or power to light it, and in many cases convulsed with grief and worry about family members lost.
Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.
We would have so much more to give as a nation if we weren't so caught up in so many battles. How many evacuees could be housed and fed and given a new start if we could devote to it the combined annual budgets of every political group working to make sure that some other group doesn't gain ground? And then there's the war in Iraq. I know that many consider it to be a righteous cause, and I respect that there are many who are willingly putting their lives on the line to serve, but I have to wonder just how many lives we could save and how many enemies we could win over if we put even half as much of the money and the ingenuity and the energy into saving lives -- any and all lives, as trying to figure out who deserves life most just takes more energy we could put into saving more -- as we do into trying to punish those we reckon are "evildoers"?
Jesus' answer to that is forgiveness. Forgive those who attack and love enemies, and you can devote all the resources and energy that would go into judging and punishing others to the cause of loving, serving, and honoring others. Seventy times seven -- as often as it happens.
I've heard talk in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina about forgiveness meaning that we shouldn't talk about who's responsible for some of the decisions that left so many, especially so many of the poor, the elderly, and the disabled, to suffering and death. That's not what forgiveness is.
Forgiveness doesn't say, "it's like it never happened" -- that's amnesia.
Forgiveness doesn't say, "well, nobody could have expected you to do any better" -- that's condescension.
Forgiveness accepts both that the other person is capable of moral action and that the actions for which you are extending forgiveness were immoral. Both of those things are crucial, as forgiveness is meant to call both parties to reconciliation -- that renewed relationship between persons who accept moral responsibility and who have dedicated themselves to uphold the other person as a moral agent, a person who is both capable of and called to give and receive love.
In other words, forgiveness puts demonizing the other person out of bounds. Forgiveness is grounded in acknowleding shared humanity (or personhood, which would be a more appropriate term with respect to how God the Father forgives us), shared moral agency, and demonizing another person denies that person's moral agency, denying not only their fitness for being loved, but also their potential to love others, and behave in a moral manner toward others. Demonizing others usually happens, I've observed, in attempts to "hold their feet to the fire," but it has the opposite effect; in suggesting that the others are incapable of moral action, it lets them off the hook. I often think that's something like what St. Paul had in mind when he said that by loving, forgiving, and serving our enemies, we "heap burning coals upon their heads" (Romans 12:30). And if wanting to heap burning coals on someone else is the only motivation we can come up with for forgiving them -- and in so doing, inviting them to live as reconciled and reconciling people alongside us -- then that'll do.
So by all means, let us contribute to the needs of those in need. Let us extend hospitality to strangers, and generosity to those displaced by flooding as befits those who are aware of how vulnerable we all are, and how gracious God is toward all of us, without regard for who is deserving. And let us also embrace the prophetic call to speak to those in power about how they could use it to benefit most those who are most vulnerable. Both ministries are given to us for the mission of the church: to serve as minister's of Christ's reconciliation of all the world to one another and to God. That ministry is so powerful that none can stand outside the reach of God's love, and God's gifts to each one of us are so precious that all are invited to the freedom and the responsibility to to extend God's grace to others.
Thanks be to God!
supplemental note for Proper 18, Year A -- Hurricane Katrina
I've been getting a lot of email from folks asking how the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina might shape sermons for this Sunday. If I were preaching, I would probably choose to contentrate on this part of the gospel text:
Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.
A natural disaster like Hurricane Katrina is frightening in so many ways, and I'm finding with the folks I'm talking with that one of the biggest is in underscoring how much is beyond our control. That's an important lesson for us to learn, to be sure, but that lesson can be twisted to a kind of learned helplessness that's not what God wants for us.
So what's the difference between a healthy humility about what we can and can't control and a destructive kind of learned helplessness? I'd say that learned helpless is paralyzing, while appropriate humility is liberating and empowering. Humility leads us to acknowledge that we can't control the wind, and it leads us into a deeper appreciation of just how fragile and precious human life is. A healthy sense of connectedness to humanity gives us compassion to grieve with the suffering, and share the righteous anger of those who found their poverty trapped them in unspeakably awful conditions, as well as rejoicing with those gratefully reunited with the families and finding opportunities to serve others even in the midst of their loss.
And then we are to ask what power we have and how we are called to use it to further Jesus' compassion and justice in the world. Many of us have resources that we've offered indidually, opening homes and schools and wallets to help. We have another resource, though of inestimable worth to offer:
We have power. Community is power. Gathering others who will make common cause amplifies our voice. How, then, do we want to use it? We can work for the preservation and the healing of the wetlands that not only are home to wildlife, but also help to slow and absorb winds and waves. We can make our governments accountable for how they spend resources: does it really make sense to prioritize tax cuts when so much is needed for relief, rebuilding, and redevelopment? What can we do to see that when a disaster like this strikes, it's not the poorest and most vulnerable among us who are hardest hit? And the real, heartbreaking suffering brought on by Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath should make that much more vivid to us that there are thousands of people around the world who every day try to survive without clean water, electricity, communications, basic medical care, sufficient nourishing food, without safety or shelter. Such extreme poverty is an unnatural disaster, a human catastrophe we can't blame on wind or waves.
When we come together, we can do something about it. Some of the world's brightest economists (like Jeffrey Sachs, for example) are saying that if we came together, we could actually eliminate extreme poverty by the year 2025. And we are coming together in Jesus' name; when we work together, we've got Jesus' power behind us as we work with and, as need be, confront earthly authorities to challenge them to do justice, and as we battle the powers and principalities of cycles of poverty and violence.
The image that keeps coming to my mind is of the waters receeding from the Great Flood, when God said "Never again!" to that kind of devastation, and made God's bow -- a weapon, conceived by warlike people who thought the universe itself was set toward war -- into a sign in the heavens of the peace and justice toward which the earth arcs.
As the waters receed from this flood, we've got an opportunity. We can claim the power we have as we gather and commit to following Jesus together. We can offer ourselves, our souls and bodies and our VOICE, to Jesus' mission. We have the chance, the resources and the power, to build and rebuild communities as signs of compassion and hope for the world.
It starts as two or three gather, and Jesus comes among us. It begins to take root as we listen together for Christ's voice, to discern what we're called to do together with the power we've got as Christ's Body. We know how it all ends:
See, the home of God is among mortals.
God will dwell with them;
they will be God's peoples,
and God himself will be with them;
he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more;
for the first things have passed away.
And the one who was seated on the throne said,
"See, I am making all things new."
-- Revelation 21:3-5
That's very hard to see now, I know, when we're overwhelmed with images of devastation. That's why we come together, to pray and sing and invite Jesus among us so that we can catch a glimpse of God's dream for the world, and discern together what would be one step, what next step, we can take toward Creation's destination. Jesus is among us; we have what we need for Jesus' mission.
Thanks be to God!
Proper 10, Year A
Those of you who also read my sermons page may have noticed that, while I've preached in other congregations, I haven't preached in St. Martin's, the congregation where I work, since early April. When the rectors (senior pastors) left the parish on April 17, I was removed from the preaching and liturgical rotas to give the congregation to hear less familiar voices in the pulpit until the parish's interim rector arrived. That won't be happening until September, so it's clear that I won't be in St. Martin's pulpit again. St. Martin's has been so important to my developing my voice as a preacher, though, and I've so valued each chance to preach there as an opportunity with what's Good News for this particular community, that as a goodbye present, I wanted to offer one last sermon, though I won't be able to preach it outside of this corner of cyberspace. Since a cyberspace sermon doesn't make anyone's Sunday morning service longer, and since it's my last sermon for St. Martin's, I hope you'll indulge me in one that's longer than usual.
Thank you, St. Martin's, for letting me walk with you on this leg of your journey. I'll miss you!
God is a Foolish Farmer: A Farewell Sermon for St. Martin's
"Listen!" It's a word from this Sunday's gospel that stood out to me the moment I scanned the passage. It's a word meant to prick up your ears, a word meant to jolt us out of whatever else we're doing, whatever else we're thinking about or worrying about, and get us to pay attention.
Listen! In this parable, Jesus has a word for us today that feels particularly important, particularly urgent to get across. It's a word that's central to the gospel Jesus preached and lived out among us, and it's a word that I'm glad to leave as one last charge, one last encouragement, and one last blessing to you.
I'm glad that the text for this Sunday contains a parable, because Jesus' parables illustrate three things that I think are true about the Bible in general.
First, it's that the bible isn't always easy to interpret. Often, it's pretty hard. We're talking about texts written thousands of years ago by people who didn't speak our language and are from a completely different culture. Sometimes people say that Jesus' parables are simple truths put in simple language that anyone can easily understand, to which I say, have you read Jesus' parables lately, and closely? They say things like "therefore, make friends for yourselves by means of the wealth of unrighteousness, so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal tents" (Luke 16:9). I don't think that anyone's doing me a favor in telling me that this is easy to understand. If I believe them, when I come across something that I don't understand easily, I'm likely to feel like a particular dolt when it comes to the bible, and that's likely to make me want to avoid picking up the bible, like I want to avoid a gym when I feel like I'm the only person there who hasn't stepped right out of a fitness video.
So if you sometimes find the bible to interpret, take comfort: it IS hard to interpret sometimes. Often, actually.
Here’s a rule of thumb that I use for reading Jesus’ parables: if I interpret it in such a way that there is nothing surprising or even shocking about it, it’s time to go back and read it again. Jesus’ parables serve a purpose a little like that of a Zen koan – those ‘riddles’ like “what is the sound of one hand clapping?”
The point of a koan isn't that there's a correct answer that springs instantly into mind. A koan isn't supposed to inform you; it isn't supposed to give you information that will increase your feeling of mastery. If anything, it's the opposite of that. It pulls our minds in to confound them, and that kind of dislocation from our usual ways of thinking helps us to open up and let go of our usual ways of thinking. A koan doesn't inform; it transforms you as you wrestle with it.
Jesus’ parables work kind of like that; each one ends in a shocking reversal of his listeners’ expectations. With that reversal, the story pulls us out of entrenched patterns of relationship and ways of being in the world; it dislocates us from what’s comfortable to free us to establish new kinds of relationship, new ways of being. If the first thing I want you to remember about the bible is that it's often not easy to interpret, then the second thing I want you to take away about it is that the hard work of wrestling with scripture is more than worthwhile. It's not a product of our culture, so I find there's nothing like it to challenge our cultural assumptions about who God is, what God wants, and what things like love and success and freedom really are. Anne Lamott likes to say that if what you get out of the bible is that God hates all the same people you do, you're in trouble. I'd put it more positively, in saying this: God calls each and every one of us to conversion, to amendment of life so that our life looks more like the wholeness of the life God offers. If I come away from the bible feeling that the problem with the world is that there aren't enough people like me in it, this is a good cue to keep reading, and to keep asking how God is calling me to conversion. And no, saying that God wants me to stand up more loudly and firmly against everybody else's sin doesn't count.
I am NOT saying that the point of reading the bible is so that you can feel bad. If your previous exposure to the bible and to how people use the bible makes you think of it as a book that's boring at best and oppressive at worst, then believe me -- I know exactly what you mean. I've seen people try to use the bible as a weapon more times than I can count, as I think many of you can imagine. I hope that knowing that lends even more power to what I have to say when I say that the bible is Good News for God's people -- news of justice, peace, of true freedom and abundant, joyful life. When I say that each one of us is called to conversion, what I'm saying is Good News: there is room in your life and in my life for God to work more deeply. There is room in your heart and in mine for more compassion, more peace, more freedom than we'd thought. I get that Good News in large part from all of the time and energy I put into studying, praying with, and reflecting on scripture, and I hope that in the midst of all my flaws and flubs, some of that Good News has come across. The Good News we experience as we wrestle with scripture in community is well worth the hard work we put into it. That's the second thing I want you to take away from this sermon about the bible.
And if you'll indulge me, I want to say a little about why. Wrestling with scripture intently, prayerfully, and together regularly throughout our lives is worthwhile because, while scripture isn't the only medium through which we find the transformation to which God calls us, I will say that it's one of the most important. When I read scripture, and especially when I come to the bible again and again alongside other people who want to read it carefully and prayerfully, I find myself called to decision. God calls to each one of us, and each one of us makes a decision about whether to respond and how. The choice that Jesus prescribes for us, the choice that Jesus promises will bring true freedom, real love, real peace, lasting justice, is a decision to follow Jesus, to make Jesus' version of "family" -- God as our father, and the only one who gets that title, and God's children as our sisters and brothers -- the source of our identity and our only permanent loyalty. Some people call that choice being "born again," and I want to take the liberty in this last sermon for St. Martin's to go on record as saying I'm entirely in favor of it. You and I need to be born again -- not once, but for every time that someone tries to tell us with words or actions that we're not God's child, for every time that we're tempted to substitute our culture's vision of respectability for God's dream of the mighty being brought low and the lowly raised up, for every time we forget that God's blessings, love, and justice are for ALL of God's children.
In other words, we need to be born again, and again, and again. In my case, several times a day. Maybe you're quicker on the uptake than I am. But for as many years I've spent intently studying the scriptures, and for as many times as God has, in communities like this and in my travels around the world, given me a glimpse of God's kingdom, I find all of the time that the richness of God's dreams for the world and for each one of us in it is so great and so profound that every further glimpse of it takes my breath away as it takes me by surprise.
A case in point: this Sunday's parable of a farmer who goes out to sow seed. What's so surprising about that? Farmers sow seed all the time. And anyone who knows anything at all about what a plant needs to grow won’t be surprised to hear that seed cast in the middle of a road, or on the rocks, or among thorns doesn’t grow. But this parable contains not one, but two surprises to jolt us into openness to the work of God’s Spirit among us and in our world.
It’s not at all surprising that most of the seed didn’t grow. What’s surprising is that the farmer chose to sow it there. This isn’t a rich man we’re talking about here: this is a poor farmer, a tenant farmer who can only eke out a living for himself and his family if he not only makes wise choices about where to sow, but also is blessed with good weather and a great deal of luck. Good seed is hard to come by; the wise farmer makes sure to entrust the precious grain he has to the best of soil. But this one tosses seed about while standing in the closest thing he can find to the parking lot at Wal-Mart, where the pigeons will eat it if thousands of feet and truck tires don’t grind it into the pavement first. In short, this farmer behaves as though that which were most precious was available in unlimited supply. What on earth is he thinking?
But here’s the real corker: God blesses a farmer like this beyond anyone’s wildest dreams. Normally, the farmer who reaps a twofold harvest would be considered fortunate. A fivefold harvest would be a cause for celebration throughout the village, a bounty attributable only to God’s particular and rich blessing. But this foolish farmer who, in a world of scarcity, casts his seed on soil everyone knows is worthless is blessed by God in shocking abundance: a harvest of thirty, sixty, and a hundred times what he sowed.
There's been a lot of talk at St. Martin's about scarcity, about guarding closely what's precious because it seems to be rare. Money is tight; time is hard to spare. Even when we're looking at less tangible and measurable qualities we value, like love and blessing, there's sometimes a sense that the good things God has for us are in such limited supply that the only kind of good and responsible stewardship is to guard it very carefully, give it only to those we're sure are worthy, protect it like the last egg of the rarest endangered bird. Predictions of peril and doom provoke a great deal of anxiety, and living on a knife edge like that not only causes constant unrest, but also tends to shut down the kind of creative and life-giving vision that energizes us to live more deeply into God's dreams for us as individuals, in community, and for the world. That's not the Good News God has for us:
For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption When we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ—if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.
-- Romans 8:15-17
Listen! What does this morning's gospel say to us, in a story that suggests that God is like a farmer who tosses seed into parking lots for the pigeons to eat, and in the surprising harvest that grows? It says that Isaiah's prophetic word is coming true:
Ho [in other words, Listen!], everyone who thirsts,
come to the waters;
and you that have no money,
come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
without money and without price.
Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread,
and your labour for that which does not satisfy? ...
For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven,
and do not return there until they have watered the earth,
making it bring forth and sprout,
giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater,
so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth;
it shall not return to me empty,
but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,
and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.
For you shall go out in joy,
and be led back in peace ...
and it shall be to the LORD for a memorial,
for an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off.
-- Isaiah 55:1-2, 10-13
The kingdom of God has come among us. God has blessed us richly, and God’s people have been entrusted with that which is most precious in the world. But ironically, these priceless commodities only gain value – the seed of God’s word only bears fruit – when God’s people scatter it absolutely heedless of who is worthy to receive it.
Listen! We are called to treat God’s love, God’s justice, and God’s blessing, precious as these are, as if they were absolutely limitless in supply for one simple reason:
They are. They really are. I believe that with all my heart, and I want to leave you with that as something to hold on to. Thank you for listening.
And thanks be to God!
Proper 9, Year A
"My yoke is easy and my burden is light" (Matthew 11:30).
Wasn't it just last week that we were hearing about how followers of Jesus must take up the cross? Cross-bearing is certainly NOT a picnic. Wasn't it just the week before last that we were hearing about how friends, neighbors, and family of Jesus' followers will hand them over for flogging and even death? How on earth could Jesus say that his burden is light?
But he does, in this Sunday's gospel. And it's true, for at least two reasons I can think of.
One is that the Cross is light, compared to some of the burdens that people and powers want to lay on us. I think about this all the time in the parish where I work now [but only weeks longer, due to staff cutbacks -- please feel free to download my C.V. if you need a consultant or staff person with expertise in congregational transition and development, formation, ministry with GenXers and the Millennial Generation, and biblical studies!]. As I've preached on before, our culture can lay some very heavy burdens on us if we don't examine very carefully and prayerfully the presuppositions we grow up with. The congregation I work in now is one of the most succesful groups of people I've ever been in. Incomes are far higher than average, houses are bigger and more expensive (great schools, right on waterfronts for sailing), careers are more prestigious, and cultural ideals of married two-parent families and white picket fences are disproportionately high.
And many, many people in this community are severely and almost constantly stressed. The high school youth group picked "Under Pressure" as the theme for their last retreat, and spoke, wrote, painted, sculpted, and prayed movingly about the pressure they feel to take all of the right classes, get the right S.A.T. score, participate and win prizes in innumerable extracurricular activities, get into the right university, and choose the right major so they can get afford to buy a house in a similar community and have kids who are achievers as they are. And that pressure starts earlier and earlier, felt even by kids in elementary school.
For the most part, they inherit that kind of pressure from their parents, who feel it just as keenly. The expensive houses that get kids into the right schools require very high mortgages. If just one thing goes wrong -- someone loses a job, a family member has a health crisis, the housing bubble bursts -- there's a LOT to lose. So it's all the more important to really shine at that 60-plus-hour-per-week job with the two-hour (or more, depending on traffic) commute. Those who don't move up often get moved out.
All of this comes at a very high price, and it can take a very heavy toll. And here's one of the saddest ironies of the whole thing:
Yes, part of what perpetuates this cycle is the way that parenting itself has become another arena for achievement (and for feeling guilty as well as shamed if we don't achieve highly enough), my experience suggests that the main fuel under this pressure cooker is an outgrowth of love, the desire to pass on the very best to our children and to give them every chance to be happy and fulfilled.
St. Paul could relate to those of us caught in this kind of viscious cycle, as he was at one point caught in one of his own. He loved God. Loving God means, among other things, loving God's word in scripture and striving to do God's will on earth. Paul's love was so visceral and so passionate that he felt personally charged with confronting those who got it wrong, and whose lives, however much guided by misguided ideals, were bringing disaster to themselves and to Israel. Paul's love was so deep, and so deep was his desire to see all nations streaming into a restored Zion under the leadership of the Christ, God's anointed, that it even drove him to persecute Christians. The irony, as Paul came to realize with Jesus' intervention on the road to Damascus, is that when he was persecuting Christians, he was persecuting the very Body of the Christ he sought.
But Jesus intervened. Jesus showed Paul not only that he was wrong about who in this situation was the vanguard of God's work (not Paul, but the Christians), but also that Paul was wrong about the solution (blessing, not persecution). So when Paul cries out in Romans 7, "who will rescue me from this body of death?" he knows the answer: Christ, and specifically, living in unity and engaging in ministry with the full Body of Christ. The zeal of Paul the persecutor was pure (by the way, in Acts, Paul is called "Saul" after his Damascus Road experience; he didn't change his name, but simply used the more Hebraic name among Hebrews and the more Greco-Roman name among gentiles), and was all the more destructive for its purity when it was even slightly misdirected. And when we get confused and start thinking that achievement is what will give us and our children abundant life, we get caught up in a cycle at least as seductive for us as Paul's cycle was for him ...
... until, that is, Jesus intervened. And that's the source of our hope too. One reason it's true that Jesus' burden is light is that it's light in comparison to the other burdens that fall on the shoulders of people who think they're going to be unencumbered. If we're not intentional about seeking the God of Israel as incarnated in Jesus, then our culture is only to happy to slip its own burdens on our shoulders -- all the pressure and anxiety of a life based around achievement and conformity to cultural ideals, an inheritance for our children that they start experiencing as their own as soon as they learn to read the worry on our faces. If that's the best someone is offering me, I think I'll go with whatever's behind door number two.
But more importantly, and most compellingly, we can say that Jesus' burden is easy and his yoke is light because it is. That I can opt out of the burdens my culture wants to place on me raises my hope that I might be able to opt in to something better, and the Good News is that the best option -- abundant, joyful life, freedom from anxiety, and real, deep, big-enough-for-the-world love is available to us in Christ Jesus. We bear the Cross not as one person alone, but with the whole Body of Christ, and Christ's presence with us brings strength, courage, and peace. When we confess Jesus as Lord, we are not only joining the triumphant and true king (or, as Desmond Tutu puts it, "the winning side," as God calls the poor and marginalized); we are becoming citizens of God's peaceable and just kingdom, "prisoners of hope" (Zechariah 9:12) even as we bear the Cross, restored and freed for eternal and abundant life in service and community with all whom God loves.
Thanks be to God!