Proper 22, Year C
There's a one-liner that I think of when I read this Sunday's gospel:
"That person lives for others. You can tell who 'the others' are by the hunted look on their faces."
Have you ever met someone like that -- someone who is always doing "favors" for people and "helping" them, with a hefty price tag attached in each case? Sometimes it's that the person "helped" must then display gratitude -- lots of it, delivered early and often and expressed in exactly the right way. Sometimes it's the "mobster" model, in which every "favor" granted must be repaid with a like "favor" at some future point. Sometimes it's what I call the "ticker-tape" model, in which every act of "generosity" must result in a showering of honor and adulation upon the giver.
The one-liner about the person who "lives for others" is funny because it says something that is too often true about warped versions of generosity on social as well as interpersonal levels: we deliver what Valerie Batts calls "dysfunctional rescuing," or "help that doesn't help," and then we blame the person whom we just didn't really help for not being suitably grateful. It's a pattern of behavior that indicates that we weren't wanting to help the other person so much as we wanted to use the other person to prop up our egos.
When have you seen this happen?
I think about the parish that offered a Spanish-language service because they assumed that Spanish speakers in the area keenly felt a hole in their spiritual lives that could be filled only by the theology of rich white liberals. The parish clergy therefore assumed Spanish-speakers would walk past several other congregations with native Spanish speakers on staff to flock to a church where the priest stumbles haltingly through the liturgy and can't offer any kind of pastoral counseling or support in Spanish, and all of the parish's formation and incorporation programs are conducted in English. The Spanish-language service went ahead nonetheless, though, and if the population so "served" doesn't respond with wild adulation or profound gratitude to the congregation for finally giving them this superior theology, the congregation will be able to say, "Oh, we tried that and it didn't work" to every future proposal to change with the neighborhood.
I think also about how the U.S. too often treats immigrants. We have laws that don't make it particularly easy for people who aren't rich to come here, and when they come, with or without documentation, however they've been treated, and whether or not we've heard their stories, we expect them to gratefully take jobs we wouldn't take or allow our children to take AND we want to see them joyfully and tearfully waving the U.S. flag and singing the national anthem (in ENGLISH ONLY, of course).
I think about the experiences my partner and I have had at various points trying to find a parish home after we'd moved. One congregation in particular seemed incensed that we could be so ungrateful as to leave for another parish when they were trying SO hard not to let us see how disgusted many of them were by us. We were yelled at a bit in the parking lot, but at least not from the pulpit, for example. We were allowed to receive the Eucharist, and we were even allowed to contribute volunteer labor to church ministries! How dare we move on, and doesn't this just go to show that our sort isn't satisfied just being regular folks in the congregation, but insist on taking it over?
I think these are attitudes for which this Sunday's gospel can provide something of a remedy.
I admit it's hard, especially in our cultural context, to hear the message when its terms are about a slave knowing his or her place. It's rhetoric that strikes my ear as dehumanizing. It lessens the sting a bit to know that the word the NRSV translates as "worthless" (the Greek is achreios) might better be translated as "unprofitable" or "unfit (for the purpose needed)." It lessens the sting a bit more to note that Greco-Roman slavery was different in many ways from the chattel slavery practiced in the 18th and 19th centuries, that becoming the slave of a high-status person in the ancient world placed you in an exalted household and therefore could raise the social status of a freeborn person -- indeed, that if you read St. Paul's letters carefully, you'll notice that he reserves the title "slave of God" very carefully as a particular badge of honor. But it still stings to hear Jesus talk this way.
And yet there's something liberating about serving without expectation of applause or thanks. When we serve the poor and marginalized, if we do it out of some expectation of gratitude or ticker-tape parade, we'll always be looking breathlessly over our shoulder for what we expect, and always be occupied with calculating whether others are behaving as we think appropriate. With all of that looking over our shoulders and all of that mental, emotional, and spiritual effort occupied in the calculus of deserving, we're all too likely to look in the eye of the real human being, made in the image of God, before us. We're all too likely to miss the opportunity to see God in that moment.
There's something liberating about humility. Hubris requires a great deal of energy to maintain, after all; if we are desperate to be seen as more important than we are, we'll constantly have to project a particular image and monitor those around us to assess our effectiveness at maintaining it and to punish those whom we see as failing to respond appropriately to our false projected self. The sad thing is that whether we succeed or fail in the process of getting others to buy into our hubris, we'll be miserable either way -- at least as miserable, if not more so, than we make anyone else by prideful conduct.
Think of what kind of energy we'd have, not only for genuine service meeting people's genuine needs, but also for laughter and love and the enjoyment of a quiet moment, if we were to stop spending all of the energy it takes to calculate what everyone around us does and doesn't deserve relative to what we are trying to make ourselves believe we deserve. That's what true humility is -- it's not about trying to make yourself or others believe that you are less than you are any more than it is about trying to make all believe that you're more. It's about letting go of that whole process of assessing and projecting and punishing or rewarding and then assessing again. It's about freeing ourselves to look at another and really see her or him. It's about freeing ourselves up for what's really important.
The word 'faith' (pistis, in the Greek) is often spoken about as if it meant trying to talk ourselves into intellectual assent to something, with "increasing our faith" meaning that we are successfully persuading ourselves that we have adopted an idea we think is ridiculous. That's not faith; it's self-deception, and usually a pretty unsuccessful kind of self-deception that results in our feeling a little guilty and hypocritical, as we know that we don't actually believe what we say.
But faith is not about intellectual projection and assessment; it is not an intellectual analogue to that process we go through to build and maintain hubris. Faith is relationship -- a relationship of trust, of allegiance. When Jesus talks about "faith," he's not talking about what you do in your head; he's talking about what you do with your hands and your feet, your wallet and your privilege, your power and your time. Faith in Jesus is not shown by saying or thinking things about him, but by following him.
Matthew says that if we have faith in Jesus -- allegiance to Jesus, trust in Jesus such that we're willing to step outside of our comfort zones to follow him -- the size of a mustard seed, we could tell mountains to plunge themselves in the sea, and we'd see it happen. Luke uses an image that initially seems more modest; he says "mulberry bush" where Matthew says "mountain."
Use whichever image works for you; they're both about doing what conventional wisdom says is impossible. It's a moving target, in my experience, as every time I take an additional step to follow Jesus in ways that stretch my capacity to love, to receive, to trust, to serve, look those whom I serve in the eye and listen to them with my heart, I discover a little more about what truly is possible in the power of the Holy Spirit Jesus sent. When I reflect on the wonders of Creation, the liberation of God's people from slavery in Egypt and by every force that oppresses, and most of all when I think of the power I've witnessed in Jesus' ministry, the Millennium Development Goals start sounding overly modest, if anything. What on earth can hold back the power of God's Spirit? What gates could prevail against the Spirit-filled Body of Christ?
So yes, I've seen some amazing things God has done. I've been privileged to participate in some of them. But that's par for the course, isn't it, when we're participating in God's powerful work. And I don't want to spend so much time saying, "wow, that wave was really amazing -- did you see how I rode it?" that I miss the next set. There is more joy, more love, more wonder ahead, and I want to be fully present for it.
Thanks be to God!
Proper 17, Year C
Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16
Luke 14:1, 7-14
I was once in a congregation that took two-week turns with other area churches hosting a winter shelter for the homeless. One wintry Sunday morning, a parishioner came up to me in deep distress following the service. "There's a homeless man in the church," she said, "and we're not hosting the shelter this week. Could you do something about it?"
"Of course," I said, and I left my post on the greeting line, walked over to the man, introduced myself, and invited him to coffee hour.
I remember similar raised eyebrows in another congregation that had both a ministry of making bag lunches for homeless people and a group for people in their twenties and thirties when, after talking with a man who sometimes made use of the bag-lunch ministry that he was both Christian in his twenties, I invited him to the young adults' group. Sadly, several members of the group asked him to leave, telling him to come back when the bag lunches were out.
Let mutual love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels unawares. Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you were being tortured. (Hebrews 13:1-3)
I don't know of a single parish that doesn't have what are usually called "Outreach" ministries -- programs such as bag lunches or soup kitchens for the homeless, or raising money to send to a charity overseas. It's good that we know to do at least that much. Sometimes, though, I think the "Outreach" label is a bit of a misnomer, and "Charities" might be more accurate.
Is it really reaching out, after all, if the "outreach ministry" doesn't cultivate a sense that Christians -- rich or poor, black or red or brown or yellow or white -- are members of a single Body of Christ, and all people are children of God and members of one human family? Is what we celebrate on Sunday really a Eucharist in remembrance of Jesus if we, by things done and left undone, cultivate and perpetuate congregational cultures that have a strong and nearly impermeable boundary between those who are recipients of "Outreach," who should take what they're given, be grateful, and leave before the service starts, and those who are members, and therefore invited to worship and fellowship throughout the parish's life?
Jesus tells us in this Sunday's gospel that when we have a dinner party, we shouldn't invite our friends, relatives, or rich neighbors; we should invite the poor, the diseased, the marginalized. Lest we think that we're fulfilling that command solely by sending food or money to other people, Luke pairs this command with another: that we are called not to seek places of honor for ourselves, but to seek to honor others more.
"Honor" is a word that doesn't mean much to a lot of us, so it's worth drawing out a bit of just what that might mean in a cultural context that doesn't give the word the kind of resonance it had in Jesus' culture and Luke's. In the first-century Mediterranean world, "honor" wasn't a rather quaint and abstract value of elites or soldiers. Honor was community esteem in a world in which that esteem was not just immeasurably valuable, but necessary under many circumstances for survival. If your family was seen as without honor (and honor was held collectively by families -- one person's dishonorable behavior blew it for all), people wouldn't do business with you. Members of your family would be poorly placed to enter into a decent marriage -- and in a culture in which having honorable children who could and would care for you when you were old or sick was the only form of social security or retirement, that damage to your family's marriage prospects could put or keep you in utter poverty.
And what kinds of behavior were seen as honorable?
There's a game I've used with people of all ages (and intergenerational groups, where I think it can be particularly fun and poignant) to illustrate this. The game goes like this: There are cards on which a label is written -- "Monarch," "Noble," "Servant," or "Beggar." Each person gets one card taped to her or his back. Your job in the game is to circulate as if you were all at a party (sometimes I'll actually put food and drink out for the purpose), to look at the cards on the back of those with whom you interact, and try to behave as you think a person with your status -- whatever you think the card on your back says -- would treat a person of their status, as indicated by the card on their back. As you talk with other people, you find out more about what your status might be. And you find out very quickly what the card on your back says according to how those of various rank treat you.
Most people find it very easy very quickly to guess what's on their card. I find that the game almost always within five minutes results in four groups of people standing closely together and mostly or entirely ignoring all others -- each group consisting of people with the same label on their back, and the only cross-group interaction being "Monarchs" and "Nobles" trying to get "Servants" to bring them food and to throw out the "Beggars." The "Beggars" find out their status most quickly, since at first nobody at all wants to talk with them; there's no point in begging from one another, after all, and members of all other groups treat them as an unwelcome intrusion at best and less than human at worst.
The game works well to illustrate some of what honor meant because central to "honor" in the first-century Mediterranean world was treating people in a manner appropriate to their status. People honored their betters by treating them as their betters, thereby showing themselves as honorable people -- people who knew their station. They kept their family's honor by treating family as family and outsiders as outsiders. By their behavior in public -- and in Jesus' culture and Luke's, banquets themselves as well as who was invited and how were publicly observed and assessed -- higher-status people declared their honor by treating those below them appropriately, that is, according to their lower status. In other words, honor was about knowing your place and everyone else's and making sure that you behaved according to that hierarchy.
And so when Jesus tells his followers that they should humble themselves by choosing the lowest seat, he's advocating behavior that for all but the lowest at the banquet would be DIShonorable -- not at all how respectable people should behave. Jesus was seriously messing up the game. How can anyone know their place in any society, large or small, if people start treating that society's "Beggars" as if they were "Monarchs"?
The answer, of course, is that they might not. Treat those whom our the group culture -- whether our the group in question in a parish, a neighborhood, a nation, or a world -- says are of no account as if they were not only human beings, but our sisters and brothers or even our betters, and this group's "Beggars" will start getting uppity ideas about their status. They'll start acting as if they belonged.
And before we start congratulating ourselves as to how egalitarian our culture is compared to those wacky people of the ancient world, it's worth noting, for example, that a recent study of a quarter of a million U.S. households (hat tip: A Guy in the Pew) suggests not only that we prefer to do the kinds of things people do in my little "Monarchs and Beggars at Banquet" game, but that we're willing to pony up one of the most ready indicators of value in our culture -- that is, money -- to do it. Furthermore, I've observed anecdotally and studies following "white flight" and commuting patterns suggest that we privileged people are also often willing to spend a lot more time commuting -- away from our families and stuck in traffic or on trains -- to live in communities that are more homogenous in income, education, and ethnicity.
Jesus has a word for us that could really mess up that game.
Jesus says that we who are privileged should seek to place others in positions of privilege. He says that we should treat the poor, the sick, and the marginalized as our friends and family as well as our honored dinner guests.
This is no game. It's radical behavior that, if done consistently will instill some radical ideas: outcasts will come to see themselves as God's insiders, and that kind of thinking will inspire movements that give them access to the center of our groups and our society. Things will change -- a great deal -- when we take the next step beyond charity to treat the lowest as the most honored.
Extreme poverty could be a memory by the year 2015 -- not only eliminating a great deal of senseless suffering and death, but giving this world the voices of millions of people and their dreams who in previous generations would have been denied an education if they survived at all.
Neighborhoods segregated not only by access to income and education, but also by access to hope and power, could become a distant memory too. Our children's lives could be enriched by learning and playing alongside friends from all cultures in a society in which every child has a chance. We could spend less time and energy running from problems belonging to "those people" and use it in fellowship in which we see God in the faces of our diverse communities as well as our families.
Big changes in our world brought about by one big change in our behavior we have seen modeled in Jesus' life, ministry, and death on a cross. Jesus, whom our faith holds as the human being most worthy of honor, the King of Kings, treated the most marginalized people he met as if they were monarchs. If he saw a card on their backs, it didn't say that they were beggars who don't belong; it had titles such as "Child of God," "Beloved," "God's Image," only a little lower than the angels, in Shakespeare's phrase.
It's a radical way of life that respectable people thought dishonorable.
It's the way of life that the God who created the universe vindicated by raising Jesus from the dead.
And that tells us that Jesus' way is the Way of Life, the very heartbeat of the universe God made and loves.
Thanks be to God!
August 30, 2007 in Community, Eucharist, Evangelism, Hebrews, Honor/Shame, Justice, Kinship/Family, Luke, ONE campaign/Millennium Development Goals, Ordinary Time, Power/Empowerment, Year C | Permalink | Comments (1)
Proper 11, Year C
Regular readers of this blog know that I highly recommend The Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels as a supplement to other kinds of commentaries. The Social Science Commentary chooses a particularly intriguing (for some) and/or provocative (for some) heading for the verses from Luke that form our gospel reading for this Sunday:
"Legitimation of a Woman Taking a Male Role Among Jesus' Followers"
This is a wonderful gospel passage to have for services the day before we celebrate the feast day of Mary Magdalene, whom I've preached about before as a woman who found freedom as a "loose woman" without conventional attachments to conventional men, as honored patron of Jesus' followers even before there was such a thing as a "church" or such a word as "Christian," and as apostle to the apostles, chosen among the first witnesses' to Jesus' resurrection.
This Sunday, we get to see a bit of why Mary Magdalene was not an oddity among Jesus' earliest followers for being a woman, or for taking on many roles of service to Jesus and his mission that would normally in her culture belong to men. Indeed, Christianity was mocked by many as a religion of women and slaves because Mary Magdalene was NOT an oddity in the church, because although she may have been exceptionally gifted, she had many female colleagues in Christian leadership.
I have heard many sermons on this Sunday's gospel, and nearly all of them could have borne a title along the lines of, "Why Martha Is Very, Very Wrong." That's hardly fair to Martha. Martha in this story is being a good woman. Somebody has to see that dinner is made and all of the myriad other domestic needs -- and this is way before electric ovens and dishwashers -- are taken care of. It's not as though all of the male disciples would instantly leap to their feet and rush to the kitchen to help.
And it's not as though their help would necessarily be welcomed if they did so. As the Social-Science Commentary helpfully points out, even though women were traditionally confined to the domestic sphere, they still could have some serious influence with culturally prescribed roles. And as lots of us have observed in lots of contexts, wherever there's power -- especially when it's perceived as being in limited supply within a particular segment of a community -- there's a great deal of competition for that power.
Women in the first-century Mediterranean world were largely segregated from the public competition for honor that took place among men in the public sphere -- but that in no way kept them from competition within their own sphere, and that competition could be fierce. Furthermore, the honor of a household depended significantly upon the management of that household. Martha is being a good woman in trying to see that everyone on the "domestic sphere" team works together.
In short, let's not rag on Martha this Sunday. She is doing her best to fulfill what most of the men present no doubt expected of her.
And if I can have a little excursis here, I'd like to indulge in one to explain what I mean when I say that I think this story, as so many stories from Jesus' ministry, can be read fruitfully as one should read a parable. As I've talked about before in this blog, parables aren't cute little allegories that provide a little narrative color to some good ol' fashioned and entirely conventional wisdom. The message of the "Parable of the Sower," for example, is NOT that smart farmers distribute seed in good soil rather than in pigeon-packed parking lots. When we read Jesus' parables, we haven't read them well if we haven't seen the most important characteristic of those parables: how they confound expectations in surprising and often shocking ways. The "Parable of the Sower" is not about a farmer learning not to throw seed in "bad soil"; it's about God surprisingly (and in many minds, inexplicably) blessing a farmer of very limited means who DOES toss valuable grain about as if he had all the grain in the world.
Similarly, the story of Martha and Mary that we read today is NOT the story of a Bad Disciple or a grumpy housewife who doesn't have a clue about what's important in life. It is a shocking story -- shocking like those electrified paddles that can give life to people whose hearts have stopped beating. The Social-Science Commentary points toward that shocking, life-giving truth in this Sunday's gospel in their heading: "Legitimation of a Woman Taking a Male Role Among Jesus' Followers."
Perhaps the social-science-ness of the first word puts you to sleep. That is an odd power of certain kinds of academic language. But I think even that doesn't completely dull the point: Jesus praises a woman for acting as though she were a man.
There's a lot in there to grate on sensibilities.
If you think that God on the day of humanity's creation ordained certain roles for women and other certain roles for men, and that we can't be good women or good men without defining clearly those changeless roles and living strictly within those boundaries, then this Sunday's gospel is going to blow your mind if you pay too much attention.
But it doesn't stop there -- or at least, it doesn't have to. We can take a lot more from this passage, because while I believe the passage speaks strongly against a view of roles for men and women as static, divinely ordained, and not overlapping, I think it points toward a much larger and more mind-blowing possibility:
God didn't make you to fill a role. God made you for love -- to be loved by God, and to express with your life how you see God loving the world.
For example, I would say to people who share my citizenship that God didn't make you an American, and God doesn't expect you to be a good American.
We could try out some different versions of this, and some of them might be fruitful for some of us. For me, it's sometimes fruitful to wonder what it might mean to say that God didn't make me a priest, and God doesn't expect me to be a good priest. I don't mean by that to say that I don't feel called to priestly ministry (I do), or that I don't take the vows involved in that seriously (I do!). What I mean is that there may be some challenging, liberating, refocusing, life-giving fruit in thinking of my identity and my ministry first and foremost as a child of God loved by God, as a human being made in God's image, as a follower of Jesus with a Baptismal identity that ideally, any other identity I take seriously will express, and frequently, that other identities will be eclipsed by.
I am a woman. I love being a woman. The good things I experience as a woman are God's gift. But God is not calling me to be a "good woman"; God calls me to be a faithful disciple.
I am an Anglican and an Episcopalian. I experience rich blessings through the tradition of which I'm privileged to be a part, and I don't expect to be called to a different tradition. But God is not calling me to be a good Anglican; God is calling me to be a faithful Christian.
I am a progressive. I feel strongly about the progressive convictions I hold, and I am blessed by the advocacy work I do. But God is not calling me to be a good progressive; God is calling me to follow Jesus.
You get the idea. I chose a few particular roles, a few identities, to cite as examples not because I'm "dissing" those roles, but because I value them -- and because the most seductive of temptations is the temptation to hold on to something good even if it means foregoing something better. And we who are richly blessed are most vulnerable to that temptation.
It's fully possible that Mary, Martha's sister, chose to sit at Jesus' feet on that day because she was embarrassed at her terrible cooking skills, because she was lazy or tired, because she was filled with hubris about her own status or jealous of the male disciples who took sitting at Jesus' feet for granted. We don't know what was going on in her head any more than Martha did. What we do know -- what Jesus tells us -- is that Mary's choice to be a bad woman and a bad sister on this day is praised as the conduct of a good disciple.
What happened next? I like to think that Mary's choice to be a "bad woman" inspired a few other disciples to be "bad men," to behave in ways their culture would say were absolutely shameful for men and to go into the kitchen and offer to serve the women as woman had so often served them.
Because that could be the behavior of "bad men" and good disciples. It's maleness as Jesus lived his, after all; just look at the exalted language used of him in our epistle for this Sunday and compare it to his behavior as he washed his followers' feet, as he forgave from the cross, as he took on the role of a slave, as Philippians 2 points out.
God knows (and I mean that; it's not just an expression) how powerful the roles we play, the names we take, can be in seeming to make an endless series of choices for us. God knows how many people will tell us with how much honest passion just what grief will befall us and those we love if we don't do what our society says we ought to do within those roles. For example, I know many sisters in Christ who are "helicopter moms (or dads)" hovering over their children or "workaholic dads (or moms)" spending more and more time away from those they love at least as much for fear of what will happen if they deviate from that role as from any kind of joy or peace they derive from it. But what if the hope that "we may present everyone mature in Christ" means that at least at points we have to relinquish those roles -- even when they give us respectability, admiration from people who want to know how we do it all, and any number of other seductive rewards -- so that we can make room for someone else to stretch into new areas of service, other ways of discipleship?
The message of this Sunday's gospel is not that study with a rabbi or minister always trumps housework. It's not that women's work is inferior to men's. And you'd have to be smoking something very potent and probably illegal to think that it's that gender roles were established by God and are blurred at our spiritual peril. The message, I think, is that we all may be and often are called to relinquish roles, identities, patterns of behavior that feel "tried and true" or even immutable not only for the sake of growing in our own discipleship, but to invite others -- even or especially others who may seem perfectly happy with a privileged role they've got -- to become more fully who they are in Christ, and to live more fully into the ministry to which Christ calls them.
And the wonderful, shocking, life-giving truth is that relinquishing for Christ's sake often yields more blessings than we know how to gather -- blessings so rich they must be shared.
Thanks be to God!
Proper 9, Year C
Luke 10:1-11, 16-20
This week, I'm going to build on my entry from three years ago -- Proper 9, Year C in 2004. There's a great deal more that can be said about this passage, but one of the points I emphasized three years ago has struck me afresh in a slightly different way, and it stems from the question of why the number of apostles sent in this Sunday's gospel is significant.
And I'd like to start, as I did in 2004, by noting that this passage is one of many excellent reasons we shouldn't talk about "the twelve disciples," as if there were only twelve of them, or "the twelve apostles," as if the Twelve were the only ones Jesus sent out (which is what "apostle" means -- "one sent" by another as messenger, ambassador, or agent). The group of Jesus' followers and the group of those sent out by Jesus in his ministry prior to his death and resurrection included women as well as men; Luke 8:1, among other texts, goes out of its way to point out that Jesus' followers depended upon women among them as patrons and leaders. Luke and Acts make clear that the Twelve did not serve any function of governance for the church. Indeed, most of the Twelve aren't portrayed as prominent leaders among the disciples or the early church. The gospels don't even agree on their names -- just on there being twelve of them -- much as there are twelve baskets of leftovers from the "feeding of the five thousand," as Luke is careful to show in tandem with Jesus' sending the Twelve out on a mission in chapter 9 of his gospel.
Twelve, as in the twelve tribes of Israel. It's a number representing all of Israel. Jesus' choosing twelve men to represent the twelve patriarchs of Israel shows his authority to reconstitute and restore the people of Israel. Jesus' feeding five (the number of books in the Pentateuch, the five books of Moses that all Israel accepted as scripture) thousand and there being enough fragments of bread to fill twelve baskets brings to mind the sojourn of God's people in the desert as the Hebrews were freed from the "narrow place" (as I blogged three years ago, that's what Mitzrayim, the Hebrew name for Egypt, means) of slavery and formed as a people, God's people. And much as the blessing of God's manna in the wilderness was of such abundance that none had need to hoard and all of God's people were fed, Jesus proclaims God's blessing on Creation such that all are fed with enough leftovers to feed all Israel all over again. Twelve baskets, twelve sent out.
This week, there are seventy sent out. Seventy, like the number of books in the Septuagint -- the translation of the wider collection of books the Pharisees, our spiritual ancestors as Christians, accepted as scripture, including the prophetic books such as Isaiah, into Greek so that the whole known world around the Mediterranean could hear the word of the God of Israel. Seventy, like the number of elders chosen to share Moses' spirit of prophesy and burden of leadership (Numbers 11:16-17). Seventy, like the number of times time seven that Jesus' followers are to forgive. Seventy, a number of completion, of wholeness.
Sisters and brothers, Jesus sends out seventy as workers for the harvest, to proclaim that God's rein has arrived, that the accuser of humanity has fallen. Jesus sends out seventy -- a number of fullness and wholeness -- to exercise authority over every spirit and every condition that oppresses God's children. I wish we included the whole passage through verse 24 in our lectionaries, so we could hear in worship the words that "I tell you, many prophets and kings desired to see the things you are seeing, and they did not see, and to hear the things you are hearing, but did not hear it."
I wish that we read those words because, as folks who were at the U2charist in Michigan a couple of weeks ago know, it has been pressed on my heart that we who are alive now are privileged with a particular opportunity, a particular resonance to Jesus words that "today the scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing." We have an opportunity to see the end of extreme poverty, of people living on less than a dollar of day, of a child dying every three seconds of easily preventable diseases. We have an opportunity by 2015, in our lifetime, to see an end to suffering we're used to thinking of as infinite if we can bear to think of it at all. The Millennium Development Goals (or MDGs), people call it, the campaign to Make Poverty History, the ONE campaign. They don't entirely encompass the scope of God's mission, of the reach of God's limitless love for the world, but they're an excellent milestone on God's way of offering Good News for the poor. God's mission includes even more than the Millennium Development Goals -- so pay attention, anyone who (unlike many of the world's leading economists) thinks those are too ambitious! -- but they're a timely, if modest, expression of Good News for the poor, and Jesus' sending of the Seventy should give heart to those of us who want to hear what prophets and kings have desired to hear, those of us who want to experience firsthand a taste of the banquet on offer when "the scripture is fulfilled in your hearing."
Because as much as we might be tempted to say that it would have been sufficient (I can't help but echo the Passover dayenu when I think of Jesus, Luke's "prophet like Moses," leading exodus from every "narrow place") for Christ to empower the Twelve, the tribes of Israel, to do what God is doing in the world, Christ empowers the Seventy. Those who read to the end of Luke's gospel and through part II of it, also known as the Acts of the Apostles, know that even more is to come, because God is granting Moses' wish, "would it were that all God's people were prophets," Joel's vision of the Spirit poured out upon all flesh.
And all God's people should pay attention, because this concerns us all. Those sent out aren't a tiny group of guys in bathrobes. It's all God's people. It's you and me, sisters and brothers, and everyone who will hear the call, as the workers are few indeed compared to the abundance of the harvest. Luke begins the story of Jesus' public ministry with Jesus' version of a 'mission statement,' delivered to his hometown synagogue in Nazareth:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor.
An ambitious mission statement, Christ's mission on earth. And we are the Body of Christ. Christ's mission is the mission we are called to engage in, as we are in Christ. So I'd like to say to y'all what I said to folks in Michigan a couple of weeks ago, one of the things I say to anyone who will listen whenever I have opportunity to say it when I'm awake in a context in which I think it could bear fruit:
Put this on your bathroom mirror to see when you brush your teeth at night and in the morning. Stick it on a post-it on your car's dashboard. Put it in your wallet to see whenever you pull out a credit card or some cash. Because you are a member of the Body of Christ, and Christ's mission statement is for you.
The Spirit of the Lord is upon you, because God has anointed you to bring Good News to the poor.
Impossible? Under ordinary reckonings of human capacity, I guess so. But for the Body of Christ, the mission for which Christ was anointed cannot be impossible. In Baptism, you were made part of Christ's very Body on earth. The Spirit with which Christ was anointed has been poured out -- not just on the Twelve, not just on seventy, but on the whole of God's people.
The Spirit of the Lord is upon you, because God has anointed YOU to bring Good News to the poor. And nothing is impossible with God's Spirit.
Thanks be to God!
Day of Pentecost, Year C
Acts 2:1-21 or Genesis 11:1-9
Romans 8:14-17 or Acts 2:1-21
John 14:8-17, (25-27)
If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be among you.
This is Jesus' promise in the gospel for this Sunday, the Day of Pentecost. Some translations render the last clause as "in you," but "among" is grammatically at least as good a translation, and it's one that I think makes much better sense theologically.
After all, what are Jesus' "commandments" in the Gospel According to John? The word "commandment" is used ten times in the Gospel According to John. Once (in John 11:57), it is a "commandment" (or "order") from certain Pharisees to report Jesus' whereabouts that he might be arrested. In John 10:18, 12:49-50, and once of the two times the word appears in John 15:10, the word refers to a command from the Father, in each of these cases a command from the Father to Jesus. So if we want to know what Jesus means in the Gospel According to John when, in John 14, he talks about "my commandments" to be kept by disciples, we should look at the remaining times the word "commandment" appears in John, in the same extended discourse:
John 13:34-35 -- "I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another."
John 15:9-12 -- "As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love ... This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you."
I have thought often of these words and others like them over the past few years, as painful conflict has led many people in my life and in communities I've worked in to question whether we (and everyone thinks of "we" in different ways, including and excluding different groups) might really be better off making a stand with like-minded others and forgetting about the rest. I'm not talking about blithe disregard for others, but of a position born of some combination of pain and principle -- a position a lot of us find ourselves in, or sometimes think we're in, in which we're struggling honestly with how we can live with integrity and also live with these others.
There are a plethora of reasons we need one another. When I think about God's mission in the world -- the audacious vision of a world transformed by God's love in Christ, a world in which poverty and war are unknown and every child has the chance to live and grow and make use of her or his gifts from God, and world in which God's love finds flesh in every relationship in God's Creation -- I can't imagine saying that anyone's gifts are dispensable for realizing such an encompassing vision.
But this Sunday's gospel makes clear something even more basic than that. It's simply not possible to follow Jesus on our own; we need one another -- ALL of us. It's not possible to keep Jesus' command to love others if we're living in some metaphorical cave, isolated from those we are commanded to love.
Somehow, though, I can't imagine anyone being really inspired to love -- especially to stay in loving relationship with others even when that's difficult or painful* -- by a finger-wagging admonition to OBEY THE COMMANDMENT.
That's not all we've got by a long stretch, though. We've got the Spirit, the person of the Trinity we focus on particularly on the Day of Pentecost.
The Spirit is closely tied not only in John, but also in the Luke/Acts and Paul's writings, with love for one another in Christian community. When I say "love," I'm not talking about warm and fuzzy feelings for people. Take a look at Acts 2, when the Spirit comes upon those gathered in Jerusalem for Pentecost. These people didn't even speak the same language; they hardly could have imposed a test of doctrinal or political orthodoxy on one another. But they gathered anyway. We tend all too often to think of the order of things as "we come to agreement, and then the Spirit comes," or at least "we know the Spirit has come among us when we have come to agreement," but that's not how it happens in Acts 2. The Spirit is not hanging out in the heavens saying, "oh, now THAT looks like an amazingly well-organized and harmonious gathering, with everyone looking at things in the same way; I think I'll go there." The room in which the believers are gathered when the Spirit comes upon the gathering probably sounded at least superficially rather like Babel -- and THAT is where the divided tongues of the Spirit unite those gathered in an astonishing reversal of Babel.
Is that so surprising? There were, after all, some important differences between the Christians gathered at Pentecost and the builders at Babel. It may sound odd at first that Babel, where everyone speaks the same language and all are united in a common enterprise, is where humanity is divided, while Pentecost, where people don't speak the same language, let alone think in the same ways, is where the Spirit unites the people. And it certainly sounds odd to many -- especially to some of us Anglicans who value all done 'decently and in order' -- that the effect of the Spirit could lead to such turmoil -- women and slaves and young men speaking up alongside the elders who could take their voice for granted in a patriarchal culture -- that onlookers would think that all were drunk.
And that isn't the half of it. This isn't just a particularly raucous worship service from which everyone goes home scratching their heads and everything resumes as it was in the morning. People are baptized, and as we remember in our Baptismal Covenant, "they devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of the bread and the prayers," and "all who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need" (Acts 2:42-45). Acts 4 makes the tie between the Spirit's work even clearer. I've written both in The Witness and here (among other places) on SarahLaughed.net about the conjunction missing in most English bibles' translation of Acts 4:32-35, which I'm putting in boldface below:
Now the whole group of those who trusted were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possession, but everything they owned was held in common. With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all, for there was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles' feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.
And that's just the kind of turmoil -- that radical change in behavior that makes a radical change in the world -- that characterizes the Spirit's work. That's how people divided at Babel become one in the Spirit. In other words, we experience the power of Jesus' resurrection and great grace when we love one another -- not just by holding hands and singing "Cumbaya," but with deeds showing real love. We all love our children, and none of us would choose to allow our own children to grow up in extreme poverty -- without clean water, sufficient and good food, decent medical care, or the basic education to be able to make their way in the world -- just so we could hold on to an extra one percent of our income. Who could do that to their children and call themselves a loving parent? So I have to ask the question: can we say that we "love one another" as Christians in an increasingly small world when we do that to someone else's child, whether on the next block or another continent? Can we say that if we hold on to our money OR fail to lift our voice when just ONE percent more of the wealthiest countries' wealth would more than eliminate extreme poverty by the year 2015? Or let me put it this way:
Personally, I am energized by the vision of a world without extreme poverty; nothing that could happen at Lambeth 2008 excites me as much as thinking about the celebration that could happen at Lambeth 2016 -- the celebrations that could happen all over the world -- in a world in which extreme poverty is history. Think of the power to which we could testify to Jesus' resurrection, the stories we could tell of new life, having engaged in God's compassionate mission and seen such a wonder. Do we want to know Jesus? Do we want to experience the joy and the peace, the freedom from fear and worry, the power of the Spirit that gives us new life and new life to the world? Then we know what to do: we follow Jesus, and love one another as he loves us. I'm just one person, but I am one person who is part of the one Body of Christ. I am one with children in extreme poverty, and I am one with many even more privileged and powerful than I am. And the Spirit who makes us one is calling us to gather -- in all of our diversity of language and culture and thought and experience, in our riches and our poverty -- to love as Jesus loves.
* I want to be absolutely clear: I am NOT talking about someone continuing to live in a setting of domestic physical, sexual, or emotional abuse. If you're being abused, please GET OUT and get help as soon as you possibly can; any healing or reconciliation that could happen needs to start with your safety. I'm talking about staying in community when there's serious and painful conflict.
(Click here to return to the reflection.)
May 25, 2007 in Acts, Community, Current Events, Evangelism, Genesis, Holy Spirit, John, Justice, ONE campaign/Millennium Development Goals, Pentecost, Power/Empowerment, Year C | Permalink | Comments (0)
Sixth Sunday of Easter, Year C
Revelation 21:10, 22-22:5
O God, you have prepared for those who love you such good things as surpass our understanding: Pour into our hearts such love towards you, that we, loving you in all things and above all things, may obtain your promises, which exceed all that we can desire; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
That's the collect we pray this Sunday. We ask God to "pour into our hearts such love towards you, that we, loving you in all things and above all things, may obtain your promises, which exceed all that we can desire." It's language of abundance -- such abundance that it can't help but overflow, and powerfully.
It reminds me of the story of the calling of the first disciples in Luke 5:1-11. Poor fishers who were haunted each day by a single question -- Will I catch enough fish today to feed my family and myself? -- meet Jesus, and catch such an abundance of fish that it actually threatens to swamp the boat. In a moment, the guiding question in these fishers' lives has changed from "Will I catch enough fish to survive?" to "Can I gather enough people to help take in this abundance?" That's what it means that in becoming disciples, they became "fishers of people." There is such abundance in God's love for us and God's blessings in our lives that once we see it and begin to understand its limitlessness, our priorities shift quite naturally. If we know Jesus, we know that there is enough of everything we really need -- enough love, enough blessing, enough courage and joy and peace -- that we can't actually take it in if we're stuck in a model of competing with others for the goods; we understand that these overwhelming blessings can only be taken in if we call in everyone whom God calls -- and who isn't in that number?
Luke has this story at the start of Jesus' public ministry; it explains what Jesus' earliest followers experienced that made them not just willing, but eager to leave everything to follow him. John places his version of this story after Jesus' resurrection (John 21:1-19), and this Easter season, it strikes me as an appropriate place to tell it. In Jesus' ministry in Galilee, powerful things were accomplished; the blind saw, those oppressed by powers were freed, the poor received Good News, and the rich were challenged to join in solidarity with these outcasts to experience God's healing, reconciliation, and liberation.
And at this point, I'm reminded of the Passover song: Dayenu, "It would have been sufficient." Jesus' ministry prior to his crucifixion was powerful, astonishing, liberating. When I pause to take in all that meant, I want to say, "It would have been enough." But it was more. Everything sinful about humankind put Jesus on a Roman cross, and even as he suffered that, he was speaking words of forgiveness and blessing. It would have been enough.
But the glory of the Easter season is that this wasn't the end, or anywhere near it. The God of Israel raised Jesus from the dead and set him at God's right hand; we know now that the Jesus who showed us such immeasurable love and forgiveness is the one who will judge us -- and if that isn't a liberating word, I don't know what is. It would have been enough.
And yet there's more, another astonishing, miraculous, immeasurable abundance of blessing to come. Jesus is sending the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, as an ongoing presence to teach us all things. No human being could be such a tutor, but God's Spirit walking with us is, teaching us both to recognize how Jesus gives -- not "as the world," but with limitless generosity, limitless love, and with limitless blessings to impart -- and to empower us to give more and more as Jesus does.
You may have heard the old joke: "She lives for others. You can tell who the others are by the hunted expression on their faces." I've seen something like that a great deal in churches especially -- people who are in pain that they take as a call to martyrdom. They minister out of their pain in ways that spread it; they take the misery they feel as confirmation that they're on the right path, and the misery that others experience as a result (and often send back in the form of anger) as the inevitable persecution of the righteous. But look at the kind of dynamic in our readings for this Sunday.
Lydia, a dealer in purple cloth -- the imperial color, rare and very expensive -- may have thought she was rich before she knew Jesus. God opens her heart, and she knows how rich she really is and what it's for; she "prevails upon" her brothers and sisters in Christ to enjoy her hospitality.
Jesus' Revelation to John gives a vision of the holy city of God's redemption. By conventional reckonings, it would be the poorest of cities -- no temple, no gates keeping invaders out, no aqueducts, no lamps. It is the poorest of cities by conventional measures because those measures are utterly irrelevant in the economy of God's kingdom. God's presence and God's light are everywhere; people bring in not weapons but glory and honor; the very water of life flows from God's throne and from the Lamb through the city.
That's the dynamic of abundance we are called to take in this Sunday, and every day in the life God gives us. When Jesus says, "those who love me will keep my word," it's not a whiny attempt to guilt people into doing something that they ought to do because there's no joy in the task to motivate them. He is expressing that dynamic of God's abundance: not, "those who love me ought to keep my word, or I'll be really cross and you'll feel even worse," but a declarative statement of how it is to live in Christ: when we love Jesus, we DO keep his word -- and it's worth underscoring that his word, especially in John, is to love one another.
It is, of course more than that -- much more. But the "more" isn't the 'catch' of what otherwise would be an appealing offer; it's the "more" of God's abundance. The journey we're on to learn about that, to take it increasingly in and live it increasingly out, will stretch us. We need to be stretched, as finite creatures learning to live into God's infinite love. I'm not saying that it's all fun and games; such a process of stretching can be painful. But in the light of God's abundant love, that pain is transformed; it becomes the ache one feels after waking up in darkness, barely knowing where you are, and opening the curtains to see that you're in the most gorgeous surroundings and witnessing in a moment the most indescribably gorgeous of sunrises -- something so exquisite that you gasp. Do you know what I mean?
The aches of the world in the context of God's love -- and please believe me, I've felt them -- can become something of astonishing beauty in the context of God's love. That aching moment is a moment of glimpsing redemption -- all the more beautiful for knowing that it is a moment of transformation, not eternal, but showing something of the Eternal nonetheless.
That's the feeling I have when I gasp at a sunrise. It's a feeling I get when I see a moment of transformation in a human life -- of someone who was told by too many for too long that she is worthless finding her voice, her power, and a sense that she is of more worth than human beings can measure; of someone who was told that having made this mistake, he would forever be outside community and beyond grace find his feet and seeking in honest humility to be a part of what God is doing in the world. It's the feeling I have when I look at another human being -- even when I use the imagination and compassion God gave me to put faces and names to statistics in the newspaper -- and am willing to see their suffering and to care about it with God's love, which goes far beyond my ability or even my comprehension.
In those moments, I understand a little more what an Advocate is; I know a little more of the one who walks with me as I seek to follow Jesus. It's such a gift that I can't help but feel grateful, and I can't help but pray to be an instrument of that grace I experience. It's love. It's peace. It's freedom. It's power. And it comes in such abundance that I wonder even now who I could invite that I'm missing, how I could gather community to take in even the smallest fraction of that limitless grace, love, and peace. It seems too much -- but I have an Advocate to help me on the journey.
Thanks be to God!
Third Sunday after the Epiphany, Year C
1 Corinthians 12:12-31a - link to NRSV text
Luke 4:14-21 - link to NRSV text
[If you haven't seen my previous entry on the gospel reading for this Sunday, please do. It's brief, and says some important things about the passage that I wouldn't want a preacher to miss, though having written on that passage a number of times before, I'm emphasizing different things this week.]
What does it mean to be a member of the Body of Christ?
That's been a question of crucial importance ever since St. Paul took a metaphor previously used to tell striking dock workers to accept their poor treatment and get back to work (the argument went along the lines of "a body has many parts that must all work together for the health of the body, on which the health of the members depend; y'all are the feet, so you belong in the muck, while others belong in more honored places higher up") and used it instead in a wonderfully subversive manner to argue the reverse -- that the health and honor of all of us hinges upon honoring and caring for the weakest.
Well, I kinda just answered the question, or started to. The thrust of the metaphor for Paul includes a number of points central to what it means to be God's church. It means that we are linked with one another in a relationship that we can't dissolve any more than we could have launched it on our own. How could an organ choose to become my liver? Does it have to fill out an application? Go on some Liver Idol television competition? Prove itself as a particularly good and loyal liver to rise through the ranks of mammals judged less worthy? It's a rather silly question. My body, being relatively healthy, had a liver develop as part of my body in the womb. It was there when I was born; it's part of God's creating me. And what could my liver do to become not a part of my body? Nothing whatsoever. If it could and did issue some kind of declaration of independence from my pancreas, that would do nothing to change the status of either as part of my body; it would just make a little meaningless noise (like the noise of a clanging gong, even).
I want to emphasize something else that Paul uses that metaphor for, though -- something that's something of a hot word in Anglican circles these days. I'm talking about interdependence. Paul is saying that we need one another. He is NOT saying merely that the poor need the rich, the sick need the healthy, and the weak need the strong to protect or rescue them; he's saying that we ALL need one another. There is no one to whom the Spirit has not given gifts that needed by all of us.
These are gifts that are needed for our health as a body and as members of it, to be sure, but they are needed for more besides. They are needed because, in Paul's terms, we're not just parts of *a* body; we're members of the Body of Christ. That implies something similar to what I was saying last week about the theology of Third Isaiah: that who we are as God's people is connected inextricably with our call to engage in God's mission. God has made us one Body of Christ, a sign -- a living sacrament -- for the world of what God in God's grace is doing in the world. St. Teresa of Avila puts it something like this:
Christ has no body on earth but ours, no hands but ours, no feet but ours. Ours are the eyes through which the compassion of Christ looks out upon the world. Ours are the feet with which he goes about doing good. Ours are the hands with which he blesses his people now.
We experience what it means to be Christ's Body as we engage in Christ's mission in the world. And if we want to know more about what that means, we have an excellent starting point in our gospel reading for this Sunday. In it, Luke portrays Jesus at the start of his public ministry claiming a combination of passages as his mission; and in claiming this as his mission, Jesus offers himself and his life as a prophetic sign that "today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing."
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor.
These are inspiring words, well chosen by our Presiding Bishop as a theme for her ministry and its highlighting the Millennium Development Goals to eliminate extreme poverty by the year 2015. But they're not just words -- not by a long shot.
What would it mean if we really believed that in Jesus, the words are being fulfilled today? How would we respond?
For once, I find that the epistle reading is perfectly paired with the gospel. Our gospel reading shows Luke's version of Jesus, the Christ, saying clearly what his program, his mission is. If we who seek to follow Jesus are the Body of Christ, it's the mission we're called to engage.
If I could, this Sunday I'd take the opportunity provided by these readings to invite the congregation to take that in, deeply and repeatedly.
I might invite the congregation during the Peace (which was never meant to be a kind of mini-coffee-hour for socializing) to commission one another. Each one there is a member of the Body of Christ. I might invite them to use the Peace to say to one or two people near them, prayerfully and with eye contact, "The Spirit of the Lord is upon you, because God has anointed you to bring good news to the poor."
Were I privileged to bless or dismiss a congregation this week, I'd want to include in that an invitation to the congregation to own their role in the world as Christ's feet, eyes, and hands personally as well as understanding it corporately: "The Spirit of the Lord is upon you, because God has anointed you to bring good news to the poor. He has sent you to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor."
I think sometimes that, as a member of the Body of Christ, I'd like to put that kind of invitation on my bathroom mirror, to see at the beginning of my day as I make decisions throughout my day: The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because God has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor."
Because that's one set of things I think we should draw from this passage. I'm not Jesus, and I can't save the world. But we are the Body of Christ -- here and now, not contingent on us winning some kind of pageant or getting our act wholly together, but by God's action, with Jesus having done all of the groundwork necessary. We are called to live into that identity, and to engage the mission that comes with it -- not later, when we've got our act together, or when it's more convenient, or once the kids are in college, or after some kind of cosmic sign. We have our cosmic sign. We have the life, the teaching and healing, the confronting and defeating of worldly powers, the death on a cross and the resurrection by God's action of Jesus, the Christ.
The Spirit of God was upon him, because God anointed him to bring good news to the poor, release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, and the year of the Lord's favor. And here and now, we are the Body of the Christ, the Anointed. I wish I could look into the eyes of people in your congregation, put a hand on their shoulder, and tell them that. Because it's true. It's powerful. And this scripture is fulfilled in our hearing -- and in our doing.
Thanks be to God!
Fourth Sunday of Advent, Year C
A Christmas entry is coming tomorrow.
Luke 1:39-45(46-55) - link to NRSV text
I have to admit that I'm a little sad that Advent is almost over. It just might be my favorite liturgical season. It isn't just the Christmas pre-show that points toward and helps us prepare for the Big Event on December 25. Indeed, what Advent readings -- especially the gospel readings -- urge us to long for expectantly isn't so much the birth of the Christ child as it is the full realization of God's redemption of the world in Christ.
That's why I love it -- and why I need it. I need regularly to get in touch with that big-picture view. There is so much going on in the world that, taken in isolation from the big picture we see in Advent, might make me think that the world's story is like this Del Amitri song I used to cover in clubs:
Bill hoardings advertise products that nobody needs
While angry from Manchester writes to complain about
All the repeats on T.V.
And computer terminals report some gains
On the values of copper and tin
While American businessmen snap up Van Goghs
For the price of a hospital wing
Nothing ever happens, nothing happens at all
The needle returns to the start of the song
And we all sing along like before
Nothing ever happens, nothing happens at all
They'll burn down the synagogues at six o'clock
And we'll all go along like before
And we'll all be lonely tonight and lonely tomorrow
The title of the song? "Nothing Ever Happens." When my dissertation supervisor came to hear me play one night, as I recall, he referred to it as the "let's just drink a bottle of Lysol song." It can be depressing as hell -- a word I use advisedly here -- to think that way, to see all of what's gone horribly wrong in the world around us and to enter into that state of impoverished imagination that says that this is how the world was, and is, and will be. It's a step toward hope to say I'll work for change, but when I think it's all about your and my working, it can still be overwhelming. I know many good people who have picked up the newspaper and finally said to themselves something like this:
"It's time to grow up. It's time to give up all of that youthful idealism stuff that says we can change the world. The world is just plain messed up, and I owe it to myself and my family to face facts and concentrate on making my world -- my family's home, and schools, and neighborhood -- a haven from the world and the even worse place it's headed."
But Advent reminds us that this way of looking at the world is missing a crucial piece -- actually, several crucial pieces -- of the picture:
God made this world. God loves this world. And God is redeeming this world. The universe arcs toward the peace, joy, love, and wholeness in and for which it was made.
All of that scary stuff we've been reading about fire and disaster and fear over the last few weeks isn't there to suggest that this is how the world ends; it is there to let us know even when we are surrounded by fire and disaster and fear that God is there with us -- suffering with us, yes, and also working among us to bring an end to suffering:
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 making all things new." Also he said, "Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true."
What does it look like when we have taken in this vision of where the world -- God's world -- is headed? What happens in our history when we write and live it in the context of God's history? It looks like this:
A young girl -- no more than fourteen, it's almost certain -- is making her way alone on a journey. Everyone knows that there is much to fear on these lonely roads even when traveling in a well-prepared group. These are desperate times. The rulers of Judea and Israel are desperate to consolidate their positions of power -- always tenuous, and completely dependent on the good will of Caesar, who rules the world, and that takes tributes, and building projects, and armies, and good order maintained by armies -- all of which must be paid for by someone. Taxes are high. People are desperate. Brigands seem to be everywhere.
Not that the world was ever a safe place to be for a young girl on her own.
Far from it, and especially for a pregnant girl, who ought to be at home guarding what, if anything, is left of her shame.
But not this girl. Not today. She makes her way through the hill country alone and yet unafraid. Her haste is not the haste of one running for cover; it's the rush of someone who can't wait to share the good news she knows.
She finds her cousin, who has good news of her own, and that moment of joy and hope and faith is so powerful, so far from anyone's containing it, that the children in their wombs leap for joy with the women. And they are filled with the Holy Spirit, filled with the fullness of what God is doing, wonderful beyond comprehension or description.
If there weren't so much competition for the title among so many suffering, it would have been difficult to find two people so unlikely to be hopeful to the point of being ecstatic -- the single pregnant girl traveling alone and the elderly wife of a poor country priest considered cursed by his neighbors.
And yet there it is. Hope is born -- in Advent, not in Christmas. And more than hope: power is born, power for a girl to pass joyfully and peacefully through wilderness and bands of thieves like her son would one day pass through crowds seeking to stone him (Luke 4:4-30).
As a singer, I particularly love it that Mary's passage, like Jesus' a few chapters later, is centered on a song.
Christmas is coming. It's hours away at the point when those who go to church at all for the fourth Sunday of Advent as it falls on December 24 will be hearing a sermon on these texts. Christmas is coming, and I know it's a Big Deal in its own right. But in my estimation, anyone who misses observing the fourth Sunday of Advent misses out in a big way -- misses out on the moment in Luke's gospel in which we truly see hope born as two poor women dance and sing.
It isn't Christmas, but this is Advent, and in this very moment, we see born among us the hope for which the whole world hasn't dared hope.
My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he had filled the hungry with good things,
and sent away the rich empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants forever.
What a moment it was when that poor girl who traveled alone burst into song! In that moment, she saw as present and lasting reality not just the miracle of her being received in her village rather than stoned (and surely this is the first miracle of Jesus' birth we celebrate), not just the miracle of a healthy child born healthy and honored even when no one -- no family, and not even an inn -- would take the family in (which is miracle enough to dance), and even beyond the miracles her son would work before his death (which were wonders that set many free).
In this moment -- THIS moment, with none gathered to celebrate and no liturgy beyond a young girl and an old woman leaping for joy with their children to be -- we hear, in the song of the prophet and leader, the single and pregnant teenager, Mary of Nazareth, the end for which the world was made.
It may seem sometimes that "Nothing Ever Happens," but we can be sure that Something is happening -- something beyond speech and remotely hinted at in prophetic song.
It is here! Hope is here. and what a life-changing, world-changing miracle that is: we hope that the mighty who dominate by force will fall to the meek whom they dismissed, the poor know plenty while the rich finally understand what it is to want and need, and the world -- broken, mixed-up, violent, world that sets up gulfs between us and between us and God so vast that it's hard to imagine even angels could cross them -- is made whole at last.
I will celebrate the wonders of Christmas when it comes. But God, please help me to take in the wonder of Mary's vision and Elizabeth's so I can sing and dance with them in what they see and know. Let me do that now, in this moment, and in every moment.
My soul rejoices in anticipation I can feel in my body.
Thanks be to God!
Proper 24, Year B
This isn't a great month for taboos, is it? Last week, we talked about money, which is hard enough for a lot of us to discuss without flinching. This week, we're going to talk about something that's even harder for many of us to talk about.
We're going to talk about power.
That's a scary thing to talk about for a lot of people. Some of us find it scary because they think of power as something only bad people would want. If we want power (and who doesn't?), we feel guilty even thinking about it, so we prefer not to think about it. Can we talk about something less difficult, please? Not as long as we're entering into God's word, living and active, able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.
But power is what allows someone to see her or his values enacted in the world. Without power, my values are just ideas, daydreams I can shake off or indulge just to pass the time as other people -- the ones with power -- have their way with the world. If I care about the world -- if I want to see an end to extreme poverty or I want broader opportunities for children to get a decent education and good health care, for example -- that means I want power as well.
That might sound harsh in a context of sentimentalized and introspective Christianity, and that's OK with me; I want to challenge that kind of Christianity. We've made Christianity all about feelings -- warm, fuzzy feelings of "love" for others, emotional rushes of feeling "close to God" in worship, guilty feelings that do nothing to repair relationships torn by our behavior. And what God really wants from us, we too often think, is generous FEELINGS. "It's what's in your heart that counts," people say, and when it comes to something like poverty, many would say something that I heard at a Christian conference not long ago and blogged about here, namely, "It doesn't really matter what you do. Just round up the kids on a Saturday morning, make sandwiches, and go out to hand them to homeless people in your town. Results don't matter, as long as you do it with a heart to serve."
Here's the problem that leaps out at me from that statement, though: Results DO matter -- particularly to the person in need. If what I need is medical treatment for an infection and what you give me is a peanut butter sandwich, you haven't helped me at all. What you've done is use me to get your own charge of self-satisfaction ("Gosh, I'm generous!") before you go back to your nice, warm house and comfortable life. Here's what I said about that in February:
... I remain suspicious of our intentions as long as our supposedly generous intentions perpetuate a world order that lines our pockets, increases our privilege, and kills other people's children. We can give sandwiches to the homeless or send grain to another nation, and that's something. But it seems to me that we guard most jealously something that we value more:
We hand out sandwiches, but we maintain a death grip on power. And I mean that “death grip” phrase: this puts us in a position of very serious spiritual danger. We hand out sandwiches while retaining the power to decide whose child eats and whose child dies. We get a twofold payoff from that: we feel generous, and since we're still in power, we can get off on our generosity whenever we want. We give and we take away, and either way, we get a fix of power over others, a power to which we are addicted and which rightly belongs only to God. That's idolatry of the worst sort as well as murder.
This Sunday, when together we read that "even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many" (Mark 10:45), let's not indulge that same sentimentality and speak of Jesus' ministry among us as some kind of emotional posture of false humility, by which I mean drumming up supposedly "humble" emotions and then behaving in the same way we've been behaving for years, behavior that screams things like this:
- "This is MY planet, and I can use it up in any way I like."
- "I work hard for what I've got; I deserve it." (Honestly, can I really say with a straight face that I work harder and am therefore more deserving than all of the people who don't have what I've got? Go to the Global Rich List to see just how many people you'd have to be better than to make that claim.)
What does real humility look like? I doubt anyone will be surprised to hear me say that it looks like Jesus. Let's take this Sunday's gospel as a case study in what real humility, Jesus' humility, is.
For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.
My pals Bruce Malina and Richard Rohrbaugh point out something implicit that's worth drawing out in this "ransom for many" phrase as we reflect on humility. One person can only serve as a ransom for multiple others if that person is worth a LOT materially and socially; otherwise, the captors wouldn't accept the trade. A lot of folks see Jesus' reference to "the Son of Man" here as both a self-reference and a reference to Daniel 7, in which "one like a son of man" is appointed by God as judge of the nations. If that's so, Jesus is in this verse making the astonishingly bolshy claim that he is God's appointed judge.
But even a reader who doesn't see a reference to Daniel 7 in the "Son of Man" phrase has to recognize the bolshiness of Jesus suggesting that his own life is a suitable "ransom for many." When I re-read Mark 10 this week, the phrase that popped into my mind was "a king's ransom." That's essentially what Jesus is saying the gift of his life is. And that brings me to point #1 about what true humility -- Jesus' humility, the kind that can transform and is transforming the world -- is:
True humility isn't about pretending you're worth less than you are; true humility requires recognizing who and how valuable you are. If Jesus had responded to his sense of vocation the way a lot of us think of as "humble," he would have heard God's call, shrugged, and hung around the back of his synagogue every now and then to see whether there was a rabbi who would take as a student someone who was the wrong age to be asking and whose background was "colorful" at best; he wouldn't have felt authorized or empowered to abandon conventional obligations (e.g., his mother, sisters, and brothers!) to become an itinerant teacher. And if you're thinking, "well, that's Jesus -- his followers shouldn't be thinking that way," it might be worth thinking about what Jesus said last week on that subject. It is not hubris to think that you have a role to play in changing the world! It's a sensible conclusion to draw from our being created in God's image, members of the Body of Christ, empowered by God's Spirit as a member of the Church that saw Pentecost. Of course we are invited to participate in God's mission of healing and reconciling the world; it's what we were born for! Scaling back that expectation serves no one and nothing but the status quo, and especially if the status quo serves you as well as it serves me, that's an incredibly selfish, prideful way to think and be.
And in the service of that end, true humility doesn't shirk power; true humility requires claiming power. You are about something larger than yourself. That's how God made you. Thinking that the world and its needs take second fiddle to your leading tune of "ME!" is, whether it's a "the world will just have to wait for some more worthy soul to speak up against the injustices I see" or a "I'm just too busy advancing my own interests," a form of pride. And if you think the only important thing in the world is what's going on in your "heart" or emotions, that's also a form of pride. Your personal wholeness is important to God, and you'll find it most fully when you're most fully engaged in God's mission. That's where you'll see Jesus in the face of a neighbor or enemy from next door or the next continent, and in my experience, that's where you'll see and know who you are -- in relation to others in communities seeking reconciliation. And if you're truly seeking something larger than yourself, some real change in the world, you're talking about claiming power to see something you value made real, given flesh in the world. "Creativity" is a good word for that, in my opinion, and that kind of creativity is part of what it means to be made in the image of God the Creator. Whenever you're blessed to sense that kind of personal power -- the power of creativity in the image of God's creativity, the power of claiming your identity and vocation as a child of God -- I beg y'all to go with it.
And then the second part, no less important than the first since it can't happen without it: true humility uses that power to empower others. Not claiming your power is a very powerful way to serve the status quo, and that's not God's call to any of us. But those of us who have internalized the powerful and empowering Word of Creation and Incarnation are called also to the word of Christ crucified, resurrected, and ascended with respect to power. Even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many. The word for "life" here has a resonance that includes something like our phrase "heart and soul"; to "give your life" isn't necessarily or solely to die, but to pour out your very life's breath, your heart and soul, for something. And the testimony of scripture is not that Jesus poured out his life like a libation of wine into the ground in front of the grave of someone once held dear, just giving something up to someone who can't taste life; scripture testifies that Jesus poured out his life for the life of others: as a "ransom for many," for the life of the world. In other words, it most certainly DOES matter for what God's precious gift of life is poured out. Jesus the Christ, as our image of what authentic humanity made and lived in God's image, pours out self not as a worthless gift easily discarded, but FOR OTHERS, for God's mission of reconciling all others to one another and to God's self. In Creation, in Incarnation, on the Cross and in the Resurrection, and in every Pentecost event from the upper room of Acts 2 to gatherings of Christians empowered for mission tonight, God pours out creative power to enable all of us created in God's image to live into who we are as children of that Creator.
God loves you. God loves you just as you are, and receives any gift you offer as a gift, though all our gift to God return to our Creator what God created. But the fullness of God's call to us as individuals are to live into God's call to humanity, to Creation: to live into God's mission. None of us serves God's mission by false modesty, calling a liar the God who gave us gifts to serve that mission; we serve it rather by praying for the courage to see as fully as we can the powerful agent for God's mission that God calls us to be, and by living into that courage, that vision, that mission, as we can best discern (and God pours out gifts of the Spirit for discernment!) in each moment.
That process comes full circle, as eventually true humility calls us to recognize the worth of every other person. If my power is God's creative power, and if I have it by virtue of my having been created in God's image, recognizing that truth will inevitably lead to my recognizing that image of God, that identity as God's child, that power to change the world in the service of God's mission in every other human being. That's how we can do what some people say is an evolutionary impossibility: we can recognize EVERY child -- not just those who are in some literal (and, in God's kingdom, utterly meaningless) sense "flesh of my flesh, and bone of my bone" -- as God's child, precious beyond counting, powerful with the power of God's Holy Spirit, and called to participate as fully as I in God's mission of healing and reconciliation, in the enjoyment of God's good gifts.
This is God's Good News for us and for all God made and loves, this week and in every moment in which we draw the gift of God's breath of life. And for God's sake, I pray we will receive that gift as fully as Jesus received it, and use it as fully and as fully to God's ends.
Thanks be to God!