Proper 21, Year C
I have two confessions to make:
The first is that this week is kicking my proverbial butt. New semester at seminary, an unusual (especially for this time of year) concentration of freelance work, the launch of a new physical fitness regimen, and a great deal of pastoral care following the House of Bishops meeting, about which so many were so anxious, has brought me to Thursday night with little extra time to write.
But I have had time to think, and even thinking long and hard about this Sunday's gospel, I think that if I were preaching this Sunday, I would say much the same thing I said last time it came up in the lectionary:
The hard, hard thing in this passage is that the rich man is not described as being ungenerous. For all we know, he was very generous indeed; in any case, the Gospel of Luke treats the rich man's generosity or lack thereof, as well as the rich man's attitude toward money, toward dependence on God, and everything else going on in the rich man's head and heart as being immaterial to the story. So the moral of the story is NOT that as long as I'm generous, or I know I'm really dependent on God, or I'm sufficiently grateful, or I feel sufficiently sad or guilty about my having so much and others having so little, it's totally fine that I am rich and others are poor -- at least a billion so poor that they have no access to clean drinking water, nourishing food, or any chance of changing their situation unless there is profound systemic change in our world. Luke does not give us room to think that.
The hard word in this Sunday's gospel is that we have, in our fallen way of doing things, responded to poverty, sickness, age, vulnerability, and just plain difference by running away from those who remind us of what we fear. Since we can't run far or fast enough, we dig chasms between us. The poor live on one side of the tracks or the river or the freeway, and the rich on another. The poor go to one church, and the rich go to another. The poor are objects of church "outreach programs"; the rich are church members and leaders. You could add to this catalogue of chasms, I know. We build them around all kinds of categories: race or ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, respectability ... the list could go on and on.
And the truth is that whenever we dig such chasms, and especially when we seek to make them unbridgeable, we can be very, very sure that we're on the wrong side of it.
This behavior is hurtful all the way around. Isolating ourselves from our sisters and brothers in the human family doesn't make us less vulnerable; it just denies us the opportunity to see and experience that much more of the image of God. It makes us miserable. It does violence to our souls to live this way as it inflicts violence on the bodies and families of the "have-nots."
We were not made for this. And we have a name for behaving in a way that isolates us from one another and from God. We religious types call it "sin."
It's Good News, though, that we were not made for this. The Good News is that even as we look at our lives, our world, and all the ways we can feel trapped in them the way they are, a part of us knows we were not made for this. The Good News is that just as we're ready to cry with St. Paul in Romans, "Who will rescue me from this body of death?," we can still hear God's call:
Thanks be to God -- when we separated ourselves from one another and from God, God sent the prophets to plead, to shout, to remind us that God made us for justice and peace in community.
Thanks be to God -- in the fullness of time, God sent Jesus, whose life, death, and resurrection shows us that no human power can dig a chasm too broad or deep to be bridged in God's grace.
There is a hard word in the story of Lazarus and the rich man, but there is also an invitation to engage God's mission of healing, justice, and reconciliation in the world. And the marvelous thing -- well, one of the wonders I keep discovering as I seek to follow Jesus -- is that the cool water for which the rich man longs, the peace and freedom and joy that Lazarus enjoys as God's gift, is available to us now -- partially and sometimes fleetingly, but REALLY, a taste of grace that nourishes hope -- whenever we seek justice for the poor, whenever we strive to live in reconciled and reconciling community.
Thanks be to God!
Proper 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)
Proper 7, Year C
But those who had seen it told them how the demoniac had been saved.
That's what Luke 8:36 says. The NRSV says "healed" rather than "saved"; I don't know why. "Healed" is true, of course, but in my view, it doesn't tell the story nearly as well.
"Saved." When Jesus found him, the man had been "for a long time" not in a house in the city with family, with friends, but among the tombs, with the dead, shut out from among the living. He was vulnerable to all kinds of dangers -- to the elements, from which he lacked clothes as well as a house to protect him, and also to all of the predators the city gates shut out at night. Apparently someone, probably family, tried to help him, but they couldn't help. They gave up. And for a long time he'd been dead to the world, living among the dead.
It's natural to want to shut out someone like this man. He's as frightening as he is frightened, I think, and not just because of the yelling, the antisocial behavior, the unnatural strength. It's his vulnerability. He is vulnerable to the elements of sun and cold, wind and rain that we mostly understand, but more frightening still is his vulnerability to countless other forces much harder to understand and beyond our ability to control. The Legion that speaks from him reminds his former neighbors of the other legions out there, forces that can tear someone from family, from safety, from community, from everything that makes the world make any sense or have any warmth.
Of course, shutting out the person who reminds us of what we fear doesn't work. If anything it exacerbates fear as it exacerbates division. The Legion that attacked the man among the tombs doesn't pay much attention to city gates, and neither do the other legions.
Jesus paid attention, though. He paid particular attention to those shut out, literally and metaphorically -- those who had nothing and so sat outside the gates to beg, the lepers and others considered 'unclean,' women called "loose" after they were rejected by their husbands and not received by their fathers. Jesus healed people. When Jesus healed a leper, he wasn't merely restoring someone with a physical diseases to physical health. He wasn't just healing a leper. He was healing a community, restoring to community someone who had been shut out from it. Jesus confronts every power that tears us from wholeness, from one another, from knowing the love of God in loving community.
Those powers are legion. In the ancient Mediterranean world, people believed that knowing and using a spirit's name could give you power over it. The Legion oppressing the Gerasene demoniac tries, in effect, to gain power over Jesus by naming him, shouting out to "Jesus, Son of the Most High God." Jesus retaliates by demanding to know the spirit's name. Belief in demons has fallen out of favor in the circles I spend most of my time in these days, but naming remains a powerful step in confronting the powers that oppress and divide us.
In our epistle for this Sunday, St. Paul names the deep divisions of his society -- between Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female -- and names the truth, that in Christ these divisions are to be overcome. Poverty. Racism. Sexism. Religious Bigotry. There are many such powers in this world, a thousand varieties of hardness of heart that shut out some people, and shut us in just as surely. But in Christ we are all children of God through faith -- none less worthy of good food and clean water, shelter, medicine, or education, of love and hope.
In Christ we are empowered to name that truth and called to name and confront the powers that obscure it. And as we follow Jesus, as we participate in his ministry of healing and reconciliation in the world, we find that the outcast restored is not the only one saved. We were made for the unity with one another and with God that was and is Christ's mission, and the healing of a breach with a sister or brother is restoration for the whole Body.
Have you experienced that? Have you caught a glimpse of what it might be like for each one of us when all of us live as God's children? Declare how much God has done for you. Declare what Jesus is doing for the poor and outcast. If you find yourself feared as they were -- as Jesus was in the city after he healed the Geresene demoniac -- name that too, as you pray and work for reconciliation. You are of the Body of Christ, sharing in Christ's power to heal, Christ's mission, and Christ's wholeness. Faith has come, and with it the hope and love that sees every child as a child of promise.
Thanks be to God!
Proper 5, Year C
If I were preaching this Sunday, I think I'd do something that's rather unusual for me:
I'd be preaching on the epistle. I'd be preaching about something that springs to my mind every time I read Galatians, and especially the first half of the letter. It's something that is also prominent in my mind these days when my electronic deliveries of Anglican news arrive:
You can't read Galatians with anything approaching care without noticing that there were serious disagreements about serious matters in the earliest churches. Heck, you can't read any of Paul's letters with anything approaching care without noticing that much, but usually people think of most of those other conflicts as ones between Paul, who was clearly right (what with his being a saint and his letters getting in the canon and all), and anonymous nasty heretics, who were clearly wrong, and probably should not be thought of as being Christian at all.
Well, we can't quite do that with Galatians. In Galatians, Paul describes a very bitter fight he's had (and is having, I'd say; I see no indication in the letter that the disagreement has yet been resolved) with none other than Peter. I've occasionally heard people try to say something along the lines of, "well, they weren't fighting about anything important. It was just about dietary laws; of course Paul was right, but Peter came around to Paul's point of view in the end anyway, so it wasn't a huge deal." I personally wouldn't bet my life that Peter did end up agreeing with Paul, since the only indication that might be the case is the book of Acts, and Paul's practices of table fellowship as described in his letters don't follow the guidelines they supposedly agreed on in Acts 15 (e.g., there's no indication at all in Paul's letters that he thought Christians needed to avoid meat with blood in it). And in any case, at the point Paul writes Galatians, he thinks that Peter is completely wrong -- "self-condemned" and acting in "hypocrisy" in a manner such that others were "led astray" -- and on a matter that is, in Paul's view at least, about the very "truth of the gospel" (Galatians 2:11-14).
So who was the nasty heretic who should have been kicked out of the church, or at least out of all positions of leadership: Peter or Paul? Who is it who's not a real Christian: Peter or Paul?
The answer, I think most people would say, is neither. Most Christians I know today would say that Peter was mistaken on this matter. I wonder occasionally whether Peter ever regretted not being a more prolific letter-writer or being more intentional about cultivating a fan base, as Christians don't have any documents from Peter's pen to give his point of view directly. I'd be willing to bet that if we did have Peter's version of the conflict, there'd be some harsh words about Paul's point of view. And all of this makes me wonder:
If Peter and Paul can disagree passionately about something that Paul and perhaps even both of them thought was about the very "truth of the gospel," and if we can celebrate them both as apostles of Christ and heroes of the faith, why does it seem to happen so often in our churches today that any serious disagreement about an important matter of faith becomes an occasion to condemn one party as not only completely wrong, but outside the bounds of Christianity itself? And don't say that the difference is that money and property weren't at stake then; when famine befalls the Christians in Jerusalem, at least some of whom seem to have been on Peter's side of this conflict, Paul spends no small amount of political capital to get churches he founded to take up a collection for their sisters and brothers in Christ in Jerusalem. Who should have been expelled from the first-century communion of churches: Peter or Paul? Whose witness to Christ was superfluous? Whose ministry was not needed? And if these are silly questions to ask about Peter and Paul, what makes them any less silly to ask about any of our sisters or brothers today?
I think Paul was right about something in Galatians that we often gloss over. I think he was right about the dietary laws; he was right that while Jesus himself seems to have kept those laws, it's a logical extension of his practices of table fellowship (e.g., his feeding of the five thousand, as I talk about in more depth here) to say that "the truth of the gospel" Jesus proclaimed with his words, his life, and his death, and which the God of Israel affirmed in raising Jesus from the dead, is that all of us, having been made one Body, not only can but must live out that truth in the breaking of the bread. We are Christ's Body, called to give of ourselves to and for the world as Christ gave himself; as the Body of Christ, we are to be the presence of the Bread of Life in the world. Breaking bread with one another is an excellent warm-up exercise in that vocation, and if we won't do that with one another, our vocation in the world is in serious trouble.
Someone in a Sunday morning adult formation class once said to me that she missed the altar calls of her youth, and thought that Episcopal congregations were remiss in not offering them at least a couple of times a year. My answer was that we have an altar call every single week, and many congregations multiple times per week. We are called to the altar every time we celebrate the Eucharist. We come together, we confess our sins and ask God's forgiveness, we hear the Good News that we're forgiven and we proclaim words of peace to one another, and then we approach the altar and, as sign and symbol of our conversion and the reconciliation that Christ has effected and is effecting with and among us, we receive Christ. We literally take Christ in as we receive the bread and wine. We have an altar call every time we break bread together because we're called to conversion, to reconciliation with God and one another in Christ, and to live more deeply and fully into that conversion in everything we do. We have an altar call at least once a week because we need that kind of conversion, that sign of reconciliation, not once in a lifetime but countless times. I think of it as a good day if I experience conversion several times before noon. I don't think I'm speaking only for myself when I talk about needing that.
So this Sunday, this altar call, let's be intentional about what we're doing. When we speak words of peace to one another, I pray we're particularly mindful of what it is we're saying -- not "peace be with you, as long as we agree on the important stuff," but "peace be with you." Let's be mindful that as we do this, we're enacting among one another what we believe God is doing in the world. Reconciliation of the whole of Creation in Christ is God's mission, God's program, and as we receive the bread this Sunday, let's be mindful of the call to us as Christ's Body, the very "truth of the gospel" we have received from the apostles, to get with the program.
Thanks be to God!
Seventh Sunday of Easter, Year C
Acts 16:16-34 Psalm 97 Revelation 22:12-14, 16-17, 20-21 John 17:20-26
In this Sunday's gospel, Jesus asks that "those will believe in me through (the disciples') word" "may all be one." He asks that we may also "be in us" (Jesus and the Father) as the Father is in Jesus and Jesus in the Father, "so that the world may believe" that the Father sent Jesus.
That seems like a very tall order indeed, doesn't it? It may seem especially so in these days of headlines about schism and ecclesial invasions and traded accusations of heresy. Some use Jesus' words from this Sunday's gospel as a finger-wagging warning -- "Jesus said we were to be 'completely one,' so who are you to step out of line?" I know that when this passage is read, some will sigh. How could Jesus' motley and feuding followers around the world not sigh when thinking about the distance between Jesus' words here and what we see around us?
We forget amidst those sighs that the words of this Sunday's gospel come not as marching orders delivered by Jesus to disciples, but as a prayer of Jesus to the Father. In other words, the unity -- the communion -- that we share is God's gift. Jesus asks God to grant it, not us to create it. If we doubt our own abilities to achieve unity with one another in Christ -- and well we should -- we can be confident that God will answer Jesus' prayer. Unity in Christ is not a medal to be won, nor is it a negotiated settlement achieved by some at the expense of others. It is a gift flowing freely to and through us out of God's grace.
In other words, this is GOOD news, word at which our hearts can leap all the more with wonder when we recognize how deep the brokenness is that God is healing and reconciling in Christ. It's a word that is Good News not just for "my side" or my tribe, but for everyone.
Not that it initially appears that way to everyone. We were born into a complicated network of relationships in a broken world, and by action and inaction we continue on as if anything of importance was a zero-sum game: The rich get richer and the poor get poorer. Good survives and thrives only when evildoers are punished or killed. The news that the oppressed will be liberated can only be bad news for the oppressors; the actors switch roles, but the script stays the same.
In that world, a slave girl's freedom from the powers that enslaved her is bad news for those who benefitted from her enslavement. They demand that Paul and Silas be jailed for "disturbing our city" -- as indeed the two missionaries were doing. What God did through Paul and Silas upended the relationships of slave and master, socially as well as spiritually. But what if the slaveowners had received this change as a gift? What Good News might they have experienced had they received this disruption of the old relationship of slave and master as an opportunity and an invitation to experience a new kind of relationship -- indeed, a new kind of freedom? Paul's and Silas' jailer did, and the night of an earthquake and a prison break became the night that he and his family became sisters and brothers with the former prisoners, breaking bread and rejoicing.
It's a powerful set of stories from Acts we read this Sunday, in which injustice and imprisonment give way to healing, reconciliation, and joy. These came as God's gifts, given freely, as all God's gifts are. Paul and Silas responded to grace by extending grace, freeing the slave girl, singing in their cell, and, when their jailer appeared to be ready to respond to grace as well, receiving him as a brother. Along the way, we witness powerful signs: miraculous liberation from spiritual and literal imprisonment, Baptism, the breaking of bread.
It's a pattern that repeats itself around the world as the Spirit moves among communities: God's grace in healing and reconciling moves a grateful receiver of God's gift to extend that grace to others in turn. We celebrate that grace, remembering God's work among God's people and embracing the identity that is ours in Baptism: one Body of Christ, called to Christ's ministry. God's mission of reconciliation, of making visible and tangible the unity God has given Christ's Body and is giving the world God created, is not something we engage as reluctant employees who grimaced when we got the memo; it is the natural response of those already made sisters and brothers by God's work in Christ.
The Spirit and the bride say, "Come."
And let everyone who hears say, "Come."
And let everyone who is thirsty come.
Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift.
The one who testifies to these things says, "Surely I am coming soon."
Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!
The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all the saints. Amen.
And thanks be to God!
Maundy Thursday, Year C
I've often heard people say that it's through Jesus' death that we find new life through forgiveness for sin. I believe that's true, but it's only part of the truth; too often, we neglect to consider how Jesus' LIFE helps us to find forgiveness and life. Our readings for Maundy Thursday are a helpful corrective.
They are, of course, more than that. I'd call them solemn and even frightening. Passover is my favorite holiday in any tradition. Like many holidays, it is a feast with friends and family, but I particularly appreciate the intentionality of Passover as an occasion for storytelling, for remembrance, and particularly for remembrance of God's liberation of God's people. But one can't go through the stories of Passover without encountering a great deal of blood. Waters turned to blood. The loss of life in plagues of flood and famine. Worst yet, the story of every firstborn son of Egypt dying. A household anointing doorposts with lamb's blood on that night would do so with an awe tinged with dread at God's power to protect and the horror of what would befall others.
I have no glib, feel-good explanation to take away that horror. I feel the same temptation to come up with one that many people I know feel, but I pray to resist it. Celebration of Passover calls on God's people not just to celebrate liberation from slavery, but the horrors of slavery, of the desire to enslave, and to remember not only God's graciousness in delivering the Hebrews, in giving the Torah, in forming a people to be a light to all nations, but also the terrible losses, the grief of those who loved a son touched by death's angel or swallowed in the Sea of Reeds. Indeed, some Passover haggadot present the bitter herbs dipped in salt water as a call to grieve on behalf of the Egyptians lost, a call to pray for oppressors and enemies.
And so it is no coincidence that on Maundy Thursday we remember the Passover in Egypt as well as Jesus' last night before he died. Christian tradition invests Jesus with prophetic insight, but it wouldn't have taken a miracle for Jesus to know that he would die soon. He had participated in a very public demonstration mocking the triumphal processions of Rome. He had caused a public disturbance in the midst of massive crowds of pilgrims at the Temple, and in full view of Roman troops stationed in nearby buildings in positions above the Temple's walls. Roman governors didn't tolerate that kind of rabble-rousing, and certainly not during the Passover, when the thronged pilgrims -- a crowd made all the more volatile as they celebrated deliverance from oppressors -- posed a constant threat to public order. Do what Jesus did the rest of the week, and unless you've got some serious guerilla forces to take you to the hills, you're likely to end up where Jesus most likely knew he was headed.
Because he wasn't heading for the hills. Nor was he assembling an army. On this night, the night of his betrayal, the last night before he was to die, he was heading only to supper, assembling those with whom he had traveled -- friends, followers, and one who was to hand him over, and none of whom (especially in John's portrayal) save perhaps for the 'beloved disciple' and Mary, who anointed his feet (to whom we shall return soon).
As someone well schooled in how different Jesus' culture, and hence, his outlook, was from mine, I try not to psychologize, but I sometimes think that his were in some ways the loneliest hours of Jesus' life. On what we call Good Friday, he hangs on the cross in great suffering -- public suffering. Deserted by nearly all who called themselves friends or followers, he was seen and known by a few, who also saw his suffering and grieved and suffered with him, as he grieves and suffers with the suffering among us now. But on Maundy Thursday, Jesus "knew his hour had come" when no one else on earth could quite understand. Did the chatter and laughter of his friends comfort or anger him, I wonder? And even if some of it comforted him, John tells us that Jesus knew one of his companions present would betray him.
What Jesus does, then, is astonishing. He takes off his robe, wraps himself as a towel like a slave, and washes the feet of his companions. A student sits at the teacher's feet, not the teacher at the student's. That's not the half of it, though. If you've watched Monty Python's Quest for the Holy Grail or Life of Brian lately, you've gotten a pretty decent and graphic picture of what ancient streets were like. Most people dumped their garbage -- any and all kinds of waste people generate -- in the streets. People walked through it. When they arrived for dinner, and especially with the custom of reclining to dine, rather than our sitting on chairs at covered tables -- all of that skubalon, to use Paul's word from Philippians 3, which we read a couple of weeks ago -- would be washed off by the lowliest person in the household. I'm going to put it crudely: Jesus isn't too good for our crap; he puts up with it and cleanses the lowliest, shittiest stuff that clings to us.
And more. I wrote a couple of weeks ago about how, in Jesus' culture, hands and feet represented intentional action, how Mary's anointing Jesus' feet anointed Jesus' deeds. When Jesus washes his disciples' feet, he is also cleansing their actions in a very graphic, memorable, tactile demonstration of forgiveness. He even washes the feet of his betrayer, whom, we are told, he already know will betray him, and with whom he breaks bread in the bit of text the Revised Common Lectionary cuts out between verse 17 and verse 35. Washing feet and breaking bread: this is Jesus' behavior toward his betrayer, his clueless friends, and his stumbling followers on the last night before he died.
Do this in remembrance of him.
That's what we do.
Every time we celebrate the Eucharist, that's what we do. We gather in front of Jesus' table, and before our supper, we forgive and are forgiven; we exchange the peace (in a wonderful echo of Matthew 5:23-24 as well as the passage from John we read for Maundy Thursday). In other words, we meet Jesus. CEO or homeless beggar are the same to him, as he meets us where we are, and goes straight to where we've picked up the most shit from our journey there. We let him do that; we let it go. He cleanses us, and when we greet one another -- CEO or beggar, zealot or traitor, and all of us in between -- we recognize one another as human beings whom Jesus has cleansed. We go with clean feet, hands, and hearts to his table, to break bread with him and with one another.
As I was exploring the last time I was honored to proclaim Good News in a church on Maundy Thursday, when most of us think about what we'd do if we knew this was the last night before our death, we think about what is core to who we are -- the intersection of what gives us the deepest joy and what we think is most important. On the last night before he died, I think Jesus did that too. And what he did was what I've described above. It wasn't all that different from what he did throughout his ministry; that's one of the many reasons we say that Jesus was the perfect human being, Incarnating God and living his full humanity in God's image. Jesus lived out who he was fully. He lived this full and eternal life on every night -- including and especially this night we remember on Maundy Thursday. Was he angry? Was he terrified? Was he lonely? I have no way of knowing, of course; I've just got the same texts you've got, and the gospels are anything but modern biography concerned with interior states. What I do know is that when Jesus had every reason to feel all of those things, he stayed with the community -- including his betrayer -- and cleansed, and cared, and forgave, and broke bread.
What would our lives, our churches, our denominations, our nations, our world be like if we were to embrace and express our humanity in God's image as Jesus did? What would our lives in all of these dimensions be like if every time we broke bread, or every time we met someone and their shit from the journey, we lived as Jesus lived?
Do this. Do this and remember.
Thanks be to God!
Fourth Sunday in Lent, Year C
[Sorry about the delays this week, folks -- my computer's overworked power supply wore out, but Apple came to the rescue -- and I hope in time to be of some help to y'all! --Dylan]
1 Corinthians 5:16-21 - link to NRSV text
Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32 - link to NRSV text
Jesus' parables nearly always hinge on a surprising reversal of some kind, and a good rule of thumb when reading them is that if you haven't found anything that's very surprising and challenging, read it again.
Jesus' parable of "The Lost Son" starts with several, and then keeps going. The younger of two sons asks his father to divide the family's property and give him now the share of it that would be his inheritance when the father died.
This is one of those scenes that remind me of a regular feature in the Highlights children's magazines that were ubiquitous in dentist's offices when I was growing up. The feature was "What's Wrong With This Picture?," and it consisted of a line drawing of a cheerful scene, inviting the reader to circle everything wrong or odd in the picture. "What's Wrong With This Picture?" The birds are flying upside-down, the tricycle has one wheel that's square and another that's triangular, the spider has twelve legs, the fishing pole has no line, and the fish are happily playing cards on a tree branch! The feature might have been more challenging if the object were to circle what was right with the picture, because it always seemed that practically nothing was.
There's so much that's wrong at the beginning of the story of the Lost Son that it's hard to point to anything that's right, expected, or normal:
The son asks the father to divide the family farm. Such a division would diminish the family's fortunes. Although this family seems to be doing reasonably well at the moment, anyone whose livelihood depends on agriculture can find their fortunes changing dramatically with the weather or other factors, and this family doesn't seem to be among the most prosperous, who lived in luxury in the cities while stewards managed tenant farmers and slaves who did the work. Doing what the younger son asks is a substantial and entirely unwarranted risk for the whole family.
Perhaps even more importantly, the younger son's request diminishes the whole family's honor. There's hardly any such thing as a secret in village life, and a dishonorable son shames not only himself, but his father, and by extension the entire family name. And by asking for his inheritance now, the younger son has, in effect and in full view of the village, said to his father, "I wish you were dead, so please make it as much as possible like what it would be if I'd buried you."
Stories about two sons, one good and one treacherous, aren't uncommon. The beginning of our gospel story makes it clear as day that the younger one could never be the good one. And in view of how shocking the son's behavior is, his father's behavior in granting the request might be even more surprising.
So the younger son goes off to a distant land, lives in shameful ways among Gentile foreigners and their pigs, and loses everything he has -- which is, we should remember, a substantial portion of the family's resources. And then he decides to go home.
This is also a surprising decision on the young man's part. After the way he has treated his father and family, he has no ground on which he might expect a gracious reception. Heck, he'd be lucky if he made if he made it back to his father's house, since the moment he was within sight of the village, he'd be very likely to be attacked by any who saw him. He has not only shamed his family, but the whole village, where every father must have wondered anxiously whether his behavior would give their sons rebellious, shameful, and disruptive ideas. Even if his own father isn't rushing to pick up the first stone, this young man is in real danger from the whole village. But surprisingly, he decides to go back anyway.
And surprisingly, his father must have been looking for him, for he catches glimpse of his son on the horizon. And then the father, shamed so profoundly by his younger son's behavior, does yet another surprising thing: he gathers up the last shreds of precarious dignity he's got to lift his robes and run to meet the son who'd betrayed him. Picking up robes like that is not something a self-respecting father would do, and running even less so -- the combination is undignified in a way entirely unbefitting an elder in the culture in which the story takes place. But this is not a move just of joy at a son's return; it's a rescue mission of the most urgent nature.
The father has to reach the son before the villagers do, or his son is doomed to the mob. Once more, the father sacrifices his dignity and this time even risks his life for the Bad Seed. But once the father's arms are around that younger son, and especially when he launched the celebration, it's clear that the prodigal is now fully under his father's protection. And everyone would have known as much, since everyone would have been invited to the celebration. A fatted calf is most assuredly not a Quarter-Pounder, and once killed, would need to be consumed by a lot of people in one big party, perhaps lasting for days.
So let's total up costs the father has incurred thus far for the sake of the younger son, the Bad Seed. The father as surely as the younger son squandered the family's resources by giving them to a son who so clearly was Bad News, with no loyalty at all to father or family. He squandered his dignity as he lifted up his impressive robes to dash like a madman toward the young man upon his return, and given the mood of the village, may have been risking his welfare too -- who knows who in the village would blame the father's indulgence for the shame on the village and the danger to the social order in every family there? He killed the fatted calf, which might have gone on to produce far more cattle and recover some of what the younger son had squandered, to throw a party to secure his younger son's status as a full and fully protected member of the family. But the biggest cost is yet to come -- and here comes what might be the biggest shock of the story.
It's the elder son. Supposedly the Good Son. The son who, if you take a look at the story from verse 25 on, refuses even to call his father "father." The son who doesn't just shame his father by rejecting his will in the closest thing to private that village life has, though the village will hear. The elder son, as the whole village is gathered "and they began to celebrate," takes the opportunity to show his true colors to his father. He chews out his father in the totally immediate and full view of all gathered to celebrate. In other words, the elder son shows himself to be a disobedient son, a dishonoring son, a son who shames his father. The whole "Good Son/Bad Son" structure becomes, like so many things in Jesus' ministry, a stunning reversal.
And then there's one more surprise.
The father once more responds graciously, saying even in front of the whole village that the kind of father he is must celebrate and rejoice when the lost are found. The father of the parable celebrates every measure of resurrection, of life from death, without pausing to judge whether the one given life deserved it, or what the consequences are for village or cosmic justice, or even how the loyal will respond. He just hopes that those who profess loyalty to him will follow his example.
And when will we follow his example?
It's far, far too easy for progressives to preach this parable as saying nothing more than "God loves you as you are. Come home." It says that, of course, and that's worth saying. But it says more than that. It invites us, as does all that Jesus says and does, to consider giving -- honor, forgiveness, and joy of our very selves -- sacrificially and without regard to worthiness to our sisters and brothers. It challenges us to consider what kind of party we'd throw and whose looks askance we'd take on gladly when the opportunity presented itself for renewed fellowship with people that every kind of common sense our culture has to offer would say are not worth our time, whether because of their past misdeeds or their peripheral status in our circles of friends or circles of power.
When will we embrace the example of the father in this story? That is, after all, the example God gave us in sending the prophets and sending Jesus. That is, after all, the example Jesus gave at the beginning of Luke chapter 15, as he invited sinners and the righteous alike -- indeed, anyone who was willing -- to table with him.
Fortunately, the example and the invitation are always there, no matter how many times we ignore of fumble it. And in the moment when we're thinking of ourselves as crazy as we gather up our robes and run to embrace the despised and envelop them in protection even from our neighbors, we'll understand that much more deeply and truly just how God loves and sustains us.
Thanks be to God!
Proper 24, Year B
This isn't a great month for taboos, is it? Last week, we talked about money, which is hard enough for a lot of us to discuss without flinching. This week, we're going to talk about something that's even harder for many of us to talk about.
We're going to talk about power.
That's a scary thing to talk about for a lot of people. Some of us find it scary because they think of power as something only bad people would want. If we want power (and who doesn't?), we feel guilty even thinking about it, so we prefer not to think about it. Can we talk about something less difficult, please? Not as long as we're entering into God's word, living and active, able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.
But power is what allows someone to see her or his values enacted in the world. Without power, my values are just ideas, daydreams I can shake off or indulge just to pass the time as other people -- the ones with power -- have their way with the world. If I care about the world -- if I want to see an end to extreme poverty or I want broader opportunities for children to get a decent education and good health care, for example -- that means I want power as well.
That might sound harsh in a context of sentimentalized and introspective Christianity, and that's OK with me; I want to challenge that kind of Christianity. We've made Christianity all about feelings -- warm, fuzzy feelings of "love" for others, emotional rushes of feeling "close to God" in worship, guilty feelings that do nothing to repair relationships torn by our behavior. And what God really wants from us, we too often think, is generous FEELINGS. "It's what's in your heart that counts," people say, and when it comes to something like poverty, many would say something that I heard at a Christian conference not long ago and blogged about here, namely, "It doesn't really matter what you do. Just round up the kids on a Saturday morning, make sandwiches, and go out to hand them to homeless people in your town. Results don't matter, as long as you do it with a heart to serve."
Here's the problem that leaps out at me from that statement, though: Results DO matter -- particularly to the person in need. If what I need is medical treatment for an infection and what you give me is a peanut butter sandwich, you haven't helped me at all. What you've done is use me to get your own charge of self-satisfaction ("Gosh, I'm generous!") before you go back to your nice, warm house and comfortable life. Here's what I said about that in February:
... I remain suspicious of our intentions as long as our supposedly generous intentions perpetuate a world order that lines our pockets, increases our privilege, and kills other people's children. We can give sandwiches to the homeless or send grain to another nation, and that's something. But it seems to me that we guard most jealously something that we value more:
We hand out sandwiches, but we maintain a death grip on power. And I mean that “death grip” phrase: this puts us in a position of very serious spiritual danger. We hand out sandwiches while retaining the power to decide whose child eats and whose child dies. We get a twofold payoff from that: we feel generous, and since we're still in power, we can get off on our generosity whenever we want. We give and we take away, and either way, we get a fix of power over others, a power to which we are addicted and which rightly belongs only to God. That's idolatry of the worst sort as well as murder.
This Sunday, when together we read that "even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many" (Mark 10:45), let's not indulge that same sentimentality and speak of Jesus' ministry among us as some kind of emotional posture of false humility, by which I mean drumming up supposedly "humble" emotions and then behaving in the same way we've been behaving for years, behavior that screams things like this:
- "This is MY planet, and I can use it up in any way I like."
- "I work hard for what I've got; I deserve it." (Honestly, can I really say with a straight face that I work harder and am therefore more deserving than all of the people who don't have what I've got? Go to the Global Rich List to see just how many people you'd have to be better than to make that claim.)
What does real humility look like? I doubt anyone will be surprised to hear me say that it looks like Jesus. Let's take this Sunday's gospel as a case study in what real humility, Jesus' humility, is.
For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.
My pals Bruce Malina and Richard Rohrbaugh point out something implicit that's worth drawing out in this "ransom for many" phrase as we reflect on humility. One person can only serve as a ransom for multiple others if that person is worth a LOT materially and socially; otherwise, the captors wouldn't accept the trade. A lot of folks see Jesus' reference to "the Son of Man" here as both a self-reference and a reference to Daniel 7, in which "one like a son of man" is appointed by God as judge of the nations. If that's so, Jesus is in this verse making the astonishingly bolshy claim that he is God's appointed judge.
But even a reader who doesn't see a reference to Daniel 7 in the "Son of Man" phrase has to recognize the bolshiness of Jesus suggesting that his own life is a suitable "ransom for many." When I re-read Mark 10 this week, the phrase that popped into my mind was "a king's ransom." That's essentially what Jesus is saying the gift of his life is. And that brings me to point #1 about what true humility -- Jesus' humility, the kind that can transform and is transforming the world -- is:
True humility isn't about pretending you're worth less than you are; true humility requires recognizing who and how valuable you are. If Jesus had responded to his sense of vocation the way a lot of us think of as "humble," he would have heard God's call, shrugged, and hung around the back of his synagogue every now and then to see whether there was a rabbi who would take as a student someone who was the wrong age to be asking and whose background was "colorful" at best; he wouldn't have felt authorized or empowered to abandon conventional obligations (e.g., his mother, sisters, and brothers!) to become an itinerant teacher. And if you're thinking, "well, that's Jesus -- his followers shouldn't be thinking that way," it might be worth thinking about what Jesus said last week on that subject. It is not hubris to think that you have a role to play in changing the world! It's a sensible conclusion to draw from our being created in God's image, members of the Body of Christ, empowered by God's Spirit as a member of the Church that saw Pentecost. Of course we are invited to participate in God's mission of healing and reconciling the world; it's what we were born for! Scaling back that expectation serves no one and nothing but the status quo, and especially if the status quo serves you as well as it serves me, that's an incredibly selfish, prideful way to think and be.
And in the service of that end, true humility doesn't shirk power; true humility requires claiming power. You are about something larger than yourself. That's how God made you. Thinking that the world and its needs take second fiddle to your leading tune of "ME!" is, whether it's a "the world will just have to wait for some more worthy soul to speak up against the injustices I see" or a "I'm just too busy advancing my own interests," a form of pride. And if you think the only important thing in the world is what's going on in your "heart" or emotions, that's also a form of pride. Your personal wholeness is important to God, and you'll find it most fully when you're most fully engaged in God's mission. That's where you'll see Jesus in the face of a neighbor or enemy from next door or the next continent, and in my experience, that's where you'll see and know who you are -- in relation to others in communities seeking reconciliation. And if you're truly seeking something larger than yourself, some real change in the world, you're talking about claiming power to see something you value made real, given flesh in the world. "Creativity" is a good word for that, in my opinion, and that kind of creativity is part of what it means to be made in the image of God the Creator. Whenever you're blessed to sense that kind of personal power -- the power of creativity in the image of God's creativity, the power of claiming your identity and vocation as a child of God -- I beg y'all to go with it.
And then the second part, no less important than the first since it can't happen without it: true humility uses that power to empower others. Not claiming your power is a very powerful way to serve the status quo, and that's not God's call to any of us. But those of us who have internalized the powerful and empowering Word of Creation and Incarnation are called also to the word of Christ crucified, resurrected, and ascended with respect to power. Even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many. The word for "life" here has a resonance that includes something like our phrase "heart and soul"; to "give your life" isn't necessarily or solely to die, but to pour out your very life's breath, your heart and soul, for something. And the testimony of scripture is not that Jesus poured out his life like a libation of wine into the ground in front of the grave of someone once held dear, just giving something up to someone who can't taste life; scripture testifies that Jesus poured out his life for the life of others: as a "ransom for many," for the life of the world. In other words, it most certainly DOES matter for what God's precious gift of life is poured out. Jesus the Christ, as our image of what authentic humanity made and lived in God's image, pours out self not as a worthless gift easily discarded, but FOR OTHERS, for God's mission of reconciling all others to one another and to God's self. In Creation, in Incarnation, on the Cross and in the Resurrection, and in every Pentecost event from the upper room of Acts 2 to gatherings of Christians empowered for mission tonight, God pours out creative power to enable all of us created in God's image to live into who we are as children of that Creator.
God loves you. God loves you just as you are, and receives any gift you offer as a gift, though all our gift to God return to our Creator what God created. But the fullness of God's call to us as individuals are to live into God's call to humanity, to Creation: to live into God's mission. None of us serves God's mission by false modesty, calling a liar the God who gave us gifts to serve that mission; we serve it rather by praying for the courage to see as fully as we can the powerful agent for God's mission that God calls us to be, and by living into that courage, that vision, that mission, as we can best discern (and God pours out gifts of the Spirit for discernment!) in each moment.
That process comes full circle, as eventually true humility calls us to recognize the worth of every other person. If my power is God's creative power, and if I have it by virtue of my having been created in God's image, recognizing that truth will inevitably lead to my recognizing that image of God, that identity as God's child, that power to change the world in the service of God's mission in every other human being. That's how we can do what some people say is an evolutionary impossibility: we can recognize EVERY child -- not just those who are in some literal (and, in God's kingdom, utterly meaningless) sense "flesh of my flesh, and bone of my bone" -- as God's child, precious beyond counting, powerful with the power of God's Holy Spirit, and called to participate as fully as I in God's mission of healing and reconciliation, in the enjoyment of God's good gifts.
This is God's Good News for us and for all God made and loves, this week and in every moment in which we draw the gift of God's breath of life. And for God's sake, I pray we will receive that gift as fully as Jesus received it, and use it as fully and as fully to God's ends.
Thanks be to God!
Proper 23, Year B
Mark 10:17-27(28-31) - link to NRSV text
Those who have heard me talk about my process when I write a sermon know that I have a few questions that are central as I think about what to say:
- What is difficult, puzzling, and/or shocking in the passage? What would be challenging about trying to live out the message of the passage?
- What comes across as Good News in the passage? Why would someone want to take on the challenges of living this way? What invitations are in the passage to experience more fully the life God offers?
This Sunday's gospel can rightly be called a doozy, though. If you include the optional portion of the gospel, it's got at least three points that the vast majority of nice, churchgoing people I know will find literally incredible; they wouldn't believe that Jesus really said this stuff, and if he did, they wouldn't believe that he meant it. In one Sunday's reading, we get:
- It's harder for a rich person to enter God's kingdom than it is for a camel to go through the eye of a needle.
- Jesus says that God will reward people who LEAVE THEIR FAMILIES, including children and parents they're caring for, for his sake and for the sake of the Good News. It's right there in verses 29 and 30.
- If you compare the list Jesus gives of things that people will (and should -- God will reward them for it) leave for Jesus' sake and for the Good News with the list of things God with which God will reward them, there's one category of person conspicuously absent: fathers. Fathers seem to be absent from God's kingdom.
Careful readers will see even more points in this Sunday's reading likely to stick in our throats, but those three are more than enough to take on here and now. I'm betting that a lot of sermons this Sunday will fall into the genre of "he didn't really mean it," a point supported by a slew of fictititious technicalities.
For example, I'm sure that many have heard that there was a gate in ancient Jerusalem (or, in some versions, Jericho) called "The Eye of the Needle," which was so narrow that a camel couldn't get through it unless the packs it was carrying were removed, at which point it could get through laboriously on its knees. Sermons citing this story usually go on to say that Jesus' point is that rich people can enter God's kingdom as long as they aren't overly attached to their possessions and have a humble and/or prayerful attitude. Depending on how stewardship campaigns are progressing, the preacher might add something to the effect (though hopefully with more tactful phrasing) that if you're concerned about this, upping your pledge couldn't hurt. Preachers who are particularly enthusiastic about the Millennium Development Goals (about which there is much good cause to be genuinely enthusiastic) might add that all it really takes to get that camel ready to get through the gate is giving 0.7% of income to intelligently targeted international aid. The congregation sighs with relief, and we all get on with business as usual, secure in the knowledge that following Jesus doesn't really require that we do anything radical, for heaven's sake.
I'm sorry to say, though, that there is no evidence whatsoever that there was ever any such "Eye of the Needle" gate. It's a kind of ecclesial version of an urban legend -- invented, I would guess, as a metaphor that, as generations repeated the story, turned into a solid "archeologists have discovered" report. But it's fiction. Careful readers could tell as much just from Mark 10 itself. If Jesus had been talking about such a gate, his hearers wouldn't have been astonished and said, "Then who can be saved?!"; they would have said something more like, "what a bummer to have to carry those packs yourself for 50 feet." And Jesus would not have replied that it's impossible for mortals but nothing is impossible for God; he would have said something more like, "gosh you all are dim sometimes -- just take off the camel's packs and you're fine!"
There is no such easy out for us, though. There is no "Eye of the Needle" gate that camels can crawl through. There is no technical point of Greek to tell us that Jesus really didn't mean what he seems to be saying here. Those things belong to the Gospel of Supply-Side Jesus, not to the canonical gospels. As absolutely hilarious as Eddie Izzard's comedy routine in Dress to Kill is about how you really just need a very, very powerful blender and a lot of patience to get the camel through the needle's eye, that clearly is not Jesus' point either.
Nor can most of us say, "oh, but I'm not rich." Try entering your income in the Global Rich List and see where you end up. I'm back to full-time seminary/dissertating now, but the $36,000 salary I earned in my last full-time job would have put me in the top 4% of wage earners worldwide.
As with Jesus' saying in Luke (which I've blogged about before) that "whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple" (Luke 14:26), preachers often invent or conveniently misremember some technical point that would make "hate" mean "love less," "rich" mean "ungenerous," and "follow me" mean "do pretty much what your parents taught you will make you respectable and successful."
But that isn't so.
Please, preachers, take your congregations there for a moment and pause. Work this Sunday to bring your congregation to the place Jesus' disciples were when they said, in effect, "WTF are you saying?" We haven't done our jobs if we don't get there. The job of a sermon, in my opinion, is not to resolve difficulties. The job of a sermon is to inspire deeper discipleship, and discipleship is not easy. Jesus offers us abundant and eternal life -- real joy, real love, real peace. Worldly success and respectability can't give those to us; worldly ordering of our relationships can't give those to us. The opportunity we are being offered this Sunday and every day is to let the shock of Jesus' word jolt us out of those old, unfulfilling, enslaving ways of seeing, living, and relating to others so that we're freed to experience more of what God wants for us, as individuals, as members of the Body of Christ, and as members of our communities, our society, our world. That's profound transformation, and we do a profound disservice to one another when we pretend otherwise. I beg you, preachers, not to imply that this Sunday's gospel does anything other than call on each and every one of us to be transformed, to think and pray long and hard about what we're called to do in this world with respect to wealth and poverty.
I hope that many will also use the optional extended reading from Mark, because I think it helps to clarify what comes before. Wealth isn't just "stuff," shiny metals, stacked bills, and numbers on a page or in a computer. Wealth is a -- perhaps the -- worldly value. It orders our relationships -- with one another, with our neighbors, with people across town and on other continents -- in subtle and powerful ways too numerous to count. And therefore the obscene, unjust patterns along which we distribute wealth in our world are symptoms of our disordered, broken relationships that also exacerbate that disordered, unhealthy brokenness.
Jesus wasn't kidding when he said what he did about wealth any more than he was kidding when he said what he did about relationships. God's kingdom, God's rule, God's way of using power are entirely incompatible with our way of using power to maintain our wealth and shut the rest of the world out of it. "Charity" -- the practice of doling out money from our considerable wealth to those who are poor in a way that in no way changes the recipient's lack of access to wealth and power -- is a seductive trap that consolidates our power, adding to it even the power of doling out life and death around our choices of how much to give and to whom, and yet lets us feel particularly generous and self-righteous in the process. Jesus is not calling us to make some minor tweaks in our relationship to wealth. He's calling us to something far more radical and far more transforming; he's calling us to reconciliation, with one another and with God.
That's no small thing. It's huge. Nothing will be the same, and yet that's what we need to be more fully ourselves, more fully human in God's image, more fully alive in the eternal life God offers. That's why Jesus talks about it as he does in the full passage allotted for this Sunday, putting nothing in parentheses for "optional discipleship." Jesus is not just talking about a few minor tweaks to financial planning; he's talking about a new world. And yes, that means new ways of relating to one another. Jesus' words about what the world means when it says "family" were at least as shocking in his own culture as they are in ours. As I've blogged about before, he was born in the reign of Caesar Augustus, the original "family values" politician, who wanted to rebuild the empire from civil war by exalting the family as the basic unit of the empire and the best guarantee of good social order. He grew up hearing that God commanded every Israelite to honor father and mother and to "be fruitful and multiply." He must have known just how appalling, how immoral, it would sound to say that anything that could inspire someone to leave parents and children alike might be God's Good News.
And yet there it is. He said it. He meant it. There's no hermeneutical trick that will get us with any integrity from what Jesus taught and how Jesus lived and died to "God wants you to be respectable, but MORE so." Following Jesus leads to radical change -- in us, in our families, in our communities, in our world. Jesus' words in this Sunday's gospel would be grossly unfair if they didn't invite every parent and every child to follow him too. In any case, that kind of radical change is particularly hard on people who, like fathers in a patriarchal society, find that the world as it is is working well for them. "Fathers" don't appear in Jesus' list of relationships in God's reign because there are patriarchal "top dogs" in God's kingdom; God's reign means of necessity that nobody else is reigning. Those who happen to be fathers are called to follow Jesus, but their relationships, like all of ours, will be transformed in the process.
That sounds like a lot to take on, and it is. But the Good News is that, as Jesus said, nothing is impossible with God. It might take some deep shocks to jolt us out of our old perspectives. If we find ourselves sometimes looking at the magnitude of transformation to which Jesus' Way calls us and our world and saying, "How is this possible? Who on earth can be saved?" that's probably a good sign. It can mean that we're ready to make some different choices with potentially radical consequences, to throw ourselves -- all we have and all we are -- on God's mercy. And the Good News is that God's mercy is beyond human reckoning, deeper and taller and broader than even the brokenness of the world that God is healing and reconciling.
Thanks be to God!
Day of Pentecost, Year B
Sometimes, in my more cynical moments, I think that the phrase "Holy Spirit" for us tends to be something we stitch into sentences to lend them more authority. "Spirit" is for many people a nebulous kind of word denoting a vague feeling of enthusiasm. We "get in the spirit of things" and have "spirit squads" at football games. It's interesting to me also how frequently the word is used in everyday situations in which the speaker is trying to get those listening to conform to an expectation: "where's your team spirit?" for example.
It's often not all that different in the church. The Holy Spirit doesn't get all that much airtime in a lot of pulpits aside from the Day of Pentecost, and when she does, this talk often functions primarily to lend a spiritual authority to a proposed course of action in a way that people find it difficult to contest. Say "I think that this candidate for youth minister is the best fit for the congregation" and people can talk about whether or not that's so; say "as I prayed about this, I sensed that the Spirit is calling this candidate" -- especially if you're wearing a collar -- and a lot of folks will find it difficult to refute, or even to find more evidence to affirm except for similarly vague testimony: "oh yeah ... as soon as I hard you say that, it just resonated with me." I'm sure you can think of examples you've heard in which "this is what the Spirit is doing" translates roughly to "I feel pretty good about this course of action."
I don't believe it's quite as nebulous as that, and this Sunday's readings are an excellent starting place (to which I'll add a couple more as we go on) from which to think about discernment of the Holy Spirit's activity, the question of what the Holy Spirit is doing among us and how we can participate in it -- something that I think has some important things to say especially to those of us in the Episcopal Church who are looking toward General Convention this month.
Most of what I have to say boils down to this:
The Holy Spirit is the person who empowers those called by God to participate in God's mission.
That mission is reconciling all the world with one another and with God in Christ. That's the grand arc of what the Spirit is doing -- empowering participation in that mission.
We see it in Isaiah 44 and Acts 2. Isaiah says:
For I will pour water on the thirsty land,
and streams on the dry ground;
I will pour my spirit upon your descendants,
and my blessing on your offspring.
They shall spring up like a green tamarisk,
like willows by flowing streams.
This one will say, "I am the LORD's,"
another will be called by the name of Jacob,
yet another will write on the hand, "The LORD's,"
and adopt the name of Israel.
Acts 2 describes a community gathered from all nations -- people divided by language and culture brought together on pilgrimage and sent forth in mission. Prior to Acts 2, this assortment of pilgrims were not a people. They gathered in Jerusalem to celebrate the feast of Pentecost, the feast of the giving of the Law in the desert, where wandering tribes were formed as one people of Israel. And as we follow the story of these pilgrims of Acts 2 who were gathered, empowered, and scattered to see others of every nation similarly empowered, we see more of what God's mission is.
As I've written about before, we see in Acts 4 in particular that the reconciliation in which these people were to participate was no pious abstraction; it had and has dramatic material consequences for how we live together in the world. Acts 4:34 says directly (in the Greek -- most English bibles are missing a crucial conjunction here) that the apostles' testimony had power, FOR those who had houses and lands sold them to make sure that there was not a needy person left. And lest we think that's just about a local congregation and we have no obligation to others whose faces we haven't seen, the collection for famine-stricken Jerusalem (portrayed in Acts 11:27-30 as well as in St. Paul's writings) shows that all who are Baptized into Christ's Body, all who share Christ's Body in the Eucharist, are bound to care for others around the world as for their own family, their own flesh. As surprising as it was to see that kind of care between people from across the known world in Acts, perhaps it shouldn't have been so very surprising given how prophets such as Isaiah portray the Spirit's activity: in drought that brings famine, the Spirit brings the waters that give life to the land and those who live by it; and among those judged to be no people, beyond the bounds of those for whom one need care, the Spirit testifies to adoption as God's beloved children and our family.
That's what the Spirit does. The Spirit makes us one -- not like people bound to one another and tossed into a sea where their ties to one another paralyze and drown, but brought into relationship with one another that is as free as it is close, that is life-giving air and light. It's a unity that is not, as Paul makes clear, uniformity. Sisters and brothers in Christ have distinct gifts for ministry and mission. Like Peter and Paul in the conflict Paul describes in Galatians 2, they may hold radically different or even mutually exclusive opinions on vitally important issues -- issues all sides hold to be about the very truth of the Gospel and the call of God's people. What Christians may NOT do, however, is treat one another as expendable; they may not leave sisters and brothers hungry, thirsty, bereft of family and of honor.
That's not a "thou shalt not" in a finger-wagging way, or in a "do this or get kicked off Christian island" code; it's a function rather of our very identity. Those immersed in the life of the Spirit are caught up in what the Spirit is doing. And the Spirit is fueling the reconciliation of the whole world with one another and with God in Christ. We can choose to fight it or we can choose to ride it (and those who have done both know very well which option is exhilarating work and which is solely exhausting!), but that's the wave swelling in the world God made and loves.
What does recognizing that mean -- and what does it mean especially for discernment? St. Augustine put it very concisely when he said, "Love God and do what you will." At first glance, that sounds like a recipe for libertine excess. Do WHATEVER I will? But that ignores the first part of the statement: "Love God." Loving God isn't a warm fuzzy feeling, though we may have those feelings at times; it's a choice to be in relationship with God, to align oneself with what God is doing in the world. That's not the same as trying to accomplish on our own steam what we think God wants to happen. I've blogged before about the common misconception that surfing is about paddling hard enough to propel oneself down the wave, when really it's about finding a spot on the wave and pointing oneself in a direction such that the gravity which pulls you down its face is also moving you parallel to the beach, always to that next section where the wave hasn't yet broken. In that sense, surfing isn't so much about paddling as it is about falling; gravity is the chief force at work, and the wave arranges things such that gravity can take you where you need to go if you point yourself in the right direction. The Spirit is moving; the wave is swelling. Love God: point yourself in the direction the wave is going. The rest is graceful falling.
That's why Jesus could summarize the Law as loving God and loving neighbor -- a statement that Paul echoes in Romans. Paul spent most of his ink trying to help communities figure out what all that implied in practical terms, of course, and communities from before his time to our own time and beyond have disagreed passionately about the specifics. Paul's list of specific was pretty short, if Galatians 5 is any indication: exploiting one another, treating people as objects and objects as God, is out; love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control are in. There is no law against this fruit of the Spirit. One may as well try to outlaw the tide, for all the luck you'll have enforcing it and all the fun you'll (NOT) have in the attempt.
So how do we experience the Spirit? We look for places in ourselves, in our communities, and in our world in need of reconciliation and we plunge into the healing and wholeness that God in God's grace is bringing into being. We participate in racial reconciliation, in sharing resources and passing laws that narrow the gulf between rich and poor, in looking for signs of that reconciliation happening and fruit of the Spirit growing in those around us and those seemingly unlike us -- because we're not so different in the one thing that matters, in whose children we are and in our call to live more deeply into that reality.
That's be to God!