Fourth Sunday of Easter, Year C
"I give (my sheep) eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand. What my Father has given me is greater than all else, and no one can ever snatch it out of the Father's hand. The Father and I are one."
-- John 10:28-30
John 10:30 -- "The Father and I are one" -- gets quoted in isolation from its context a great deal -- and not just by Sunday Schoolers looking for another short verse to memorize after "Jesus wept" (John 11:5). Ripped out of its context in John, "the Father and I are one" gets used in lots of contexts that make it sound like a dogmatic formula on something like a pre-flight checklist for those who want to go to heaven. But really, it's Good News.
Think of it this way, as I'd wager John's earliest readers did: Jesus' saying "the Father and I are one" is saying that if you want to know what God is doing in the world, look at what Jesus does. If you want to know how God treats sinners and outcasts, look at how Jesus treats them.
There is one more dimension to what John is saying in John 10:30, and it's a rather difficult one. I often find reading John uncomfortable. It was written by a community that was experiencing serious and sometimes life-threatening persecution, and it seeks to comfort those who were cast out by their communities, with the cost not only of feeling of alienation, but with the loss of honor and of community itself that left many members of the Johannine community destitute -- if not fearing for their lives from those who would turn them in to to Roman authorities as disturbing the peace. Such circumstances make for a "circle the wagons" mentality -- which makes indications in the Gospel According to John of concern for "the world" all the more remarkable for their rarity.
In other words, something that I think needs to be kept in mind in reading nearly any chapter of the Gospel According to John is that this is the testimony of a community under the pressure of persecution. And under these circumstances in particular, "the Father and I are one" is crucial testimony to the community under persecution -- persecution for behaving as Jesus did -- that they are received by God with grace, love, and rich blessing, even as "the world" tells them that they are abominations behaving abominably.
In other words, we cannot read John 10 without the context of John 9 and John 11.
James Allison has written eloquently about the ways in which John 9's healing of the man born blind shows the Johannine community's revelation of Jesus as one who redefines what it means to be sinful, to be born in sin, or to be marginalized as one assumed to be particularly tainted with sin. What the priestly tradition in scripture condemned as being unworthy to be received in God's presence, the prophetic tradition in scripture affirmed by Jesus proclaims as the beloved recipient of an uncontainable God's grace.
John 11 is about to give us an even stronger image of just how strong, how unyielding God's gift of life in Christ Jesus is -- how it radiates even into the grace. It's an image worth citing now, as the memory of the tragedy of blood shed at Virginia Tech is still fresh in our minds, as we're still asking ourselves where God is in the midst of the loss of innocent life.
Please remember that this question, the question on the hearts of so many after this loss as after so many and so great losses, was live on the minds of those early Christians who wrote what we read today.
Their friends were carted away. Their sons and daughters and sisters and brothers and mothers and fathers lost their lives. And still, as our rites of burial call on us to join, they sing even from the grave:
Alleluia. For the Lord is present and the God who created the universe is at work then, and now, and in countless moments to come, as one woman or man or one community of women and men does what Jesus did and declares what Jesus declared.
And while there are religious people in religious attire who will religiously declare that this person, this place, or this situation is beyond God's redemption, God's people will yet sing:
Alleluia -- God is bringing life to every desolate place.
Alleluia -- God calls as prophets even those who would seek to flee over the seas from God's call.
Alleluia -- in the midst of senseless death, on the road to the grave before which Jesus wept, Jesus tells us a truth that should give those of us who hope in him inexhaustible hope, courage, and life:
Jesus and the Father are one.
In other words, the Father -- the God who created the universe, the ultimate patriarch of those who value patriarchal authority as well as the ultimate love of the ultimately loving, motherly presence, is as Jesus is, is doing as Jesus is doing, is bound as Jesus is bound, and liberates as Jesus liberates.
Oh God, may your Church realize the destiny to which that faithful declaration leads!
The Father, the creator of the universe, and Jesus of Nazareth are one. Those who would measure humanity by the measure of God now must now wonder in the utter vulnerability of the Christ who exhorts us all to measure God by the life of God's Christ, God's anointed -- Jesus of Nazareth, who spat in the mud, wept for his friend, forgave the adulteress and pointed to the absence yet did not demand punishment for the adulterer. Jesus of Nazareth, who, to all canonical reports, never in his life refused to break bread with anyone -- prostitute or Pharisee, doubter or stumbling disciple, inquirer or persecutor.
Jesus, who brings new life to those who are dead as well as those who are dying.
Jesus, who will gather multitudes and cleanse them at the last day.
Jesus, from whom no evil force can snatch those who are beloved.
And please, if you are listening and are in any doubt, listen to this:
Jesus and the Father, the God who created the universe, are one.
Jesus, who is one with that God, is calling you and loves you.
There may be people who say that the world isn't made for people like you and is stacked against you. Those people are full of what the King James translators rendered as "manure."
If Jesus and God are one, than God is every bit as indiscriminately loving as Jesus was. Fundamentalists might wave bibles at you all the time. Fine. Read it! Jesus broke bread with, healed, and loved people who were at least as much on the 'outs' in their culture as you are in ours.
If Jesus and God are one, than God doesn't give any more of a rodent's posterior than Jesus did who you parents were, how pure you are, are how well you're esteemed in any number of other measures of a person's worth that our culture might offer.
Jesus cares about something else. God cares about something else.
God, like Jesus, cares about YOU. God, through Christ, has given you gifts through which you can participate in the ultimate destiny of the world -- the saving of the world through the love of God in God's anointed.
God, like Jesus, through Jesus, in Jesus, invites you, anoints you, offers you a life that is part and parcel of the new life of a risen world in the Risen Christ.
Dorcas, God's servant, received it. John, God's visionary, foresaw it. You, God's beloved, can experience it.
Thanks be to God!
Third Sunday in Lent, Year C
The General Ordination Exams (GOEs) one generally has to take to be ordained to the clergy in The Episcopal Church often cause seminarians preparing for them a great deal of anxiety, and sometimes they deal with this by rehearsing with their friends some previous years' questions or questions they think they might be asked. One genre of GOE (or at least GOEs of the past) is the "coffee hour question," which asks the person being examined to imagine him or herself as a priest approached by a parishioner during the coffee hour between services and asked a pastoral question of some kind. This was one of the "coffee hour" questions some friends of mine were tossing around over margaritas some years back:
A seven-year old girl is a member of your parish. Her mother has recently and very suddenly died. She approaches you during coffee hour and asks, "will I see my mommy in heaven?"
The table sprang into conversation about a variety of things -- 1 Corinthians 15, the resurrection, different ideas of the immortality of the soul -- and how they could be explained to a seven-year-old girl. It was an interesting conversation. But when I was asked how I would answer the question, this is what I told my friends I'd say to the girl:
"It sounds like you really miss your mommy."
That's what I'd say. That's the first thing I'd say, anyway. Other things are important, in my view -- especially 1 Corinthians 15 and the varieties of Christian hope of the resurrection -- but I can't imagine having a conversation with that girl that meant anything at all without starting from where she is, and where I think she'd be would be is desperately wanting to see and touch and be held by her mother, and being in great pain for the lack of that touch.
I feel similarly, and I tend to respond in similar ways, most times people ask questions that start with "Why did this happen?" or especially, "How could God allow this to happen?" In my experience, this is not the time for a learned or wise discussion about consequences of the Fall, how human mortality underscores the preciousness of the present moment, or even -- as much as I love to discuss Paul at just about any possible opportunity -- the meaning of 1 Corinthians 15. So far, every time anyone has asked me how God could allow suffering, evil, and death, I've found in further conversation that we ask someone else about those categories because of something very specific.
In other words, "Why did this happen?" often boils down to at least one or two other things that need to be named, both statements, both statements, not questions:
"I'm in unspeakable pain." This is almost certain.
"I want God to take away the cause of this pain, and I'm confused, frightened, and angry that God doesn't seem to be here, or good, or to care." Sometimes we say things like this because we're actually thinking and feeling about God. Usually we say this because we're in unspeakable pain, meaning (quite literally) we don't feel able to speak about our pain.
This Sunday's Hebrew bible and gospel readings suggest that the pastoral response starts with recognizing and honoring that pain.
In Exodus, God says, "I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings," and that is the beginning of deliverance for God's people.
And in Luke, when some of God's people come to Jesus with a news report -- that the Roman governor Pontius Pilate, had murdered Galilean pilgrims to Jerusalem -- that boils down to a statement -- that this is too painful to bear, and perhaps even to name -- and therefore comes out also as something like a question: "How could God allow this?"
There are at least a thousand clichéd answers to a question like that. God needed some more angels for the heavenly choir. These clearly were pilgrims who forgot to pray (or behave in the prescribed way -- usually meaning the way that the speaker wants people to behave). Or the last resort of someone desperate for an explanation: "everything happens for a reason, and God allowed this to happen because something better will come of it."
That last answer is less awful that the first ones I listed, but it isn't the one that Jesus gave. To the smug who are convinced that God arranges all suffering as well as all joy, and delegates each according to the human values of the smug, Jesus offers a word of warning; he says, in effect, "you are no better than these people, you're no less mortal than they, and if anyone figuring in this conversation is courting disaster from God, it's you."
If it were only the smug who had brought the report, the question, and the pain Jesus heard, it would have been understandable for Jesus to stop there. But he doesn't. He affirms that those who died were not sinful in a way that others weren't, and he tells a parable about a fig tree. As Malina and Rorhbaugh point out, a pious Israelite who planted a fig tree would let it grow for three years to get it to a point where it was capable of bearing fruit, then would allow it to go unharvested for three years before coming back for three more years to harvest fruit and to assess its potential fruitfulness. In other words, the wealthy absentee landlord of the parable (not a particularly sympathetic figure in Jesus' parables, and especially not in Luke) is actually being more than reasonable in saying, "this tree had its chance for nine years, and it's fruitless." Heck, nine years is just shy of a quarter of the life span of a man (women died sooner when childbirth was so dangerous) who by some miracle survived childhood (when most perish in the world's climates of scarcity).
But the gardener, who doesn't own the land and isn't the one who benefits most from its profit -- seems to care more about the tree than the fruit, and seems more than happy to devote extra care -- a year of it -- when no law or custom requires it and he has nothing to gain personally form it.
Sometimes, I speak primarily as a scholar of these texts. Sometimes, I like to indulge in a little pastoral imagination, which I hope you find responsible, and here's some of it:
I think to think that this was a crazy gardener who actually cared about the life of the tree, and who saw a fruitless tree more as a wounded life worth healing than a wasted opportunity for profit in need of clearing. Is that a responsible reading of the text? Perhaps. I've said before that, as a rule of thumb, Jesus' parables are defined by their shocking reversals, and that if we read one of his parables and find no unexpected behavior, we need to re-read with our eyes, our mind, and our imagination more deeply engaged. It would be crazy for a gardener to care about a tree in that way.
But isn't that just the kind of crazy way God cares for us? Isn't that the crazy kind of love Jesus showed for us, and particularly for those of us with few or no qualities traditionally seen as giving a person the kind of respectability and status to expect any need or pain to be noticed and responded to?
And if the conversation with the person who says, "will I see her again in heaven?" or "why did this happen?" or "where is God in something like this?" continues, it will turn in that direction. I'll be honest that I don't have a constant and unshakable emotional sense of the way God cares for us beyond reason. I'm also being honest when I say that this is one of the reasons I spend so much time and energy reading the bible, and why I thank God for communities of people who will carry me in prayer when my own prayers, and even my own scripture reading, seem fruitless. Because I choose to believe, even when I don't feel it, that God knows and shares the sufferings of God's people, and God's immeasurable love for us and inexorable power to redeem is at work even when I don't perceive it.
I don't believe in perfection, that everything happens as it should or is orchestrated in a way that is personally beneficial to God's people or to me by conventional reckonings. I believe in redemption, that even or especially amidst great suffering and real evil, God is bringing the universe toward the justice and love, the peace and wholeness, for which it was made and for which it aches.
Thanks be to God!
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!
Second Sunday of Advent, Year C
How powerful do you think God is, really? Most Christians on some level think the correct answer is "God is omnipotent," and will tell you so if you ask. But a lot of our behavior suggests that we believe something far from that.
I'm thinking of when my brother died, and my family was warned sternly by a number of well-meaning people that if his body were cremated (as he'd wanted), God wouldn't be able to raise him when the eschaton arrived. In my view, if we're talking about raising people from the dead, we're already talking about the realm of impossible by human standards and activity, but all things being possible with God, and I find it hard to imagine that God is wringing hands and saying, "Shoot -- I really wanted to raise that person, but what can I do? The body's been cremated. I'm only God, after all ..."
Or how often do we behave as though the God who made the world can be chased out of a place or situation entirely by the simplest human action -- one unkind thought or impure act, one misstep from a human being, and God suddenly loses power to speak and to redeem?
I've seen people in anguish because they were praying for someone's healing and they believe that only if they can get it right -- if only they could really believe God would heal, if only they hadn't secretly harbored resentment toward the person for whom they were praying, if only they could find the right words, make the right sacrifice, and live in the right way -- then, and only then, can God act. Some go so far as to say that as long as there's anyone who isn't "getting it right," God can't redeem, and therefore that God will at some point have to get rid of those who are "getting it wrong." Views of how much God can redeem and how we should then respond to God's redeeming work on earth varies even within the bible, and views in first-century Palestine ranged even more widely.
The community that produced the Dead Sea Scrolls, for example, certainly saw God as gracious. At the same time, there were plenty of reasons in their cultural memory to be pessimistic. The community most likely came into being in the aftermath of the Maccabean Revolt, in which Jewish fighters were able to triumph over foreign oppressors and cleanse the Temple in Jerusalem that the Seleucid King Antiochus IV had defiled by sacrificing a sow on the altar. The presence of a tiny amount of oil left in the Temple that nonetheless gave light for eight days (long enough to prepare new consecrated oil) is celebrated in the holiday of Hanukkah. Hurrah! Too bad the victors (the Hasmoneans) then went on to crucify by the hundreds fellow Jews they saw as their enemies. Furthermore, the Dead Sea community was none too pleased that the Hasmoneans placed themselves as both king and high priest of Israel -- despite that kings were supposed to be of the line of David and high priests of the line of Zadok, while the Hasmoneans were of neither line. That was just the start of their catalog of disappointments -- a catalog that would make something like Episcopal Bishop John-David Schofield's recent catalog of grievances against the church from which his episcopal orders come look like a song of joy. So this community crafted an identity for itself as a voice preparing a way for God in the wilderness (a la Isaiah 40, which can just as reasonably be interpreted as meaning that the way of the Lord being prepared is in the wilderness as that the wilderness is where the voice is crying; there's no punctuation in the biblical text), keeping pure and living apart from the corruption around them while they waited for God to destroy it.
I'd call that a pretty pessimistic view: the vast majority of people in the world, even people who worship the God of Israel, are "sons of darkness" who should be avoided if at all possible, and who will be destroyed when God brings an end to this chapter of history.
John the Baptizer, whom we meet in Luke 3, is not as pessimistic as that. There's no grammatical clue in the Greek about the Baptizer's interpretation of Isaiah 40, and whether it's about a voice crying in the wilderness to prepare the way of the Lord somewhere (possibly somewhere else) or about a voice crying that the way of the Lord is being prepared in the wilderness, but his behavior (if the reports of the canonical gospels are any indication, and I see no reason to doubt them on this point) says enough about it. John goes to the wilderness and cries out, but he bases himself within a day hike of Jerusalem, and he seems to invite all comers to be baptized. Especially if Luke's testimony about him in the rest of chapter 3 is a good summary of things he taught (a point which is disputed, to be fair), he did not on the whole suggest that people ought to leave Jerusalem and set up camp in the wilderness to stay. John baptized them with a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sin, treating Jew and Gentile alike as being in need of conversion, and sending them back to their homes and their work. But he talked of a mighty one to come, using language often used of God rather than any human agent, who would destroy the wicked with fire and baptize those who had received John's baptism with a new baptism of the Holy Spirit (Luke 3:16 -- more on this next week).
So when God's messenger comes to prepare God's way in the world, where do you think that happens? Who do you think can be part of it? When we say that God is "like a refiner's fire and like fuller's soap," as our reading for this week from Malachi says, do we see that as as meaning that God will destroy the people who don't "get it right"? When we say God is coming to redeem, what do we mean? Does anything God made have to be destroyed to complete God's redemption?
Jesus takes an approach that differs markedly from that of John the Baptizer, and even more so from what we see in the Dead Sea Scrolls. Matthew and Luke put Jesus in the desert for a period toward the beginning of his ministry, where he meets and is baptized by John, but Jesus doesn't stay there. His primary way of ministering doesn't remove himself from the population he's trying to reach and invite them to come to him; rather, it seems more often to go to the villages and towns where the people are, and more often than not, it includes a call to follow him.
What has to change before you meet Jesus? Nothing. He even seems to be completely indiscriminate regarding with whom he'll break bread. God's redeeming work through Jesus can start exactly where you are, and there's no need to try to get it all together and make sure that you're "getting it right" before meeting him. That's a very good thing indeed from my perspective, since I suspect I wouldn't have gotten very far in such an enterprise had I tried to accomplish it without God. And why on earth would I want to? After meeting Jesus, I chose to journey with Jesus, and I can say that for me life is far more joyful, peaceful, and abundant that way. And that was also a huge change. Nothing has to change for us to meet Jesus, for us to start experiencing God's redeeming work. As we experience and engage that work, everything changes: us, our relationships, our priorities, and our world.
Why is that important? In my view, saying that any human action is a necessary precondition of God's redemption puts God in a very small box. Of course we make decisions all the time that hurt or help ourselves and others. Of course our actions are important, and we're all called to a mature walk with Christ in which we're seeking to participate as fully as possible in God's mission. But is God really so powerless as to be finally frustrated in God's purposes because of my mistakes? I doubt it. let me put it this way, in a sentence that y'all have heard from me before:
I don't believe in perfection; I believe in redemption.
God is not sitting around somewhere waiting breathless for us to get everything right so redemption can be made possible. God cannot be shut out of a place by human action. That picture suggests that it's human beings who are really in charge and human sin has the final word that can bind even God. I don't believe that for an instant. I'm with the psalmist:
Where can I go then from your Spirit?
where can I flee from your presence?
If I climb up to heaven you are there;
if I make the grave me bed, you are there also.
If I take the wings of the morning
and swell in the uttermost parts of the sea,
Even there your hand will lead me
and your right hand hold me fast.
If I say, "Surely the darkness will cover me,
and the light around me turn to night,"
Darkness is not dark to you;
the night is as bright as the day;
darkness and light to you are both alike.
(Psalm 139:6-11, BCP)
I believe that God's power to redeem is such that no human misstep or even deliberate human wickedness can have the final word. And like John the Baptizer, Jesus of Nazareth showed what he thought about God's redemption of the world and what needs to happen for us to engage it by how he lived. He showed us just how much he was willing to stake on that, and how much human hatred and destructiveness he could forgive in the way he died. And the God who created and loves the world showed just how powerful God's redemption is, and how far from the final word human destructiveness is: God raised Jesus to life. Even now Jesus is at work among us. And when we confess that Jesus, whom the power of Rome crucified and the power of God raised to unending life, has been appointed by God as the one through whom "every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth," we are confessing also the end for which we were made and which Jesus invites us in each moment, however out of reach we may feel we are:
And all flesh shall see the salvation of God.
Thanks be to God!
First Sunday of Advent, Year C
It's a strange accident of history that the apocalyptic texts in our scriptures were written to encourage tiny minorities at their society's margins to greet the tribulations they witnessed not with panic, but with confidence that God was working out God's purposes for peace, joy, and justice -- and that these same texts seem now (e.g., in the Left Behind series) to be read even more often among prosperous and powerful majorities as if they were written for people like them, and they are used mostly to point to current events with the loud message that people should panic, that God intends to bring chaos, agony, and unprecedented bloodshed to the world. And what these pseudo-apocalyptic visions want us to do in response isn't to change the world, but to retreat to an interior experience that will help us to leave it behind before God leaves us behind. That isn't the God I know.
I think one of the fundamental exegetical mistakes leading to this bizarre and not at all helpful trends in reading apocalyptic texts is along the lines of one advocated by the "Alpha" curriculum: namely, the profoundly unhelpful suggestion that all scriptural passages should be read as if they were a love letter written to us personally. Texts like our readings for this Sunday are an excellent case study as to why this is an approach that can go beyond fruitful to the point of being dangerous.
If I read a text like Jeremiah 33:14-16 as if it were a love letter from God to me, I might be tempted to say that the promise God made and is fulfilling is for me, and people like me. I might be tempted to define "people like me" in whatever way popped most naturally into my head, which would be very likely to be the ways in which my culture most often segregates people. I might be tempted to think of "justice" and "righteousness" as being whatever MY culture says is just and right relationship. And if all of this is God's love letter to me, I might be inclined to think of this promise as being a promise to vindicate my way of life, whatever that is, or whatever the dominant culture says it should be. I might be tempted to think that God sent and is sending Jesus so to vindicate the Americans, the industrious, the educated, the respectable. Uncritical reading of these texts -- a phenomenon that seems to be pretty common in my culture, as people at the very center of power appropriate them to claim that their approach, no matter how destructive it is, will be vindicated by God, and too many of my peers don't talk about them at all, lest we all be made uncomfortable in the process -- has turned the message of the prophets upside-down.
Let's turn it up again.
If you haven't done this, or haven't done it in a while, it would make a marvelous Advent discipline to take a look at the sermons of Martin Luther King, Jr. to see what he did with these texts, with eschatology -- the study of what kind of climax God intends and is bringing about for human history. If you want to work in the long term as an agent of what God is doing in the world, you need a solid eschatology. You need -- we need -- to hold on as much as possible to the "big picture" view of God's work among us.
Otherwise, it's just too darn easy to do what a great many people are trying to get us to do: namely, to monitor the news breathlessly for every twist and turn, every hint of disaster. This gives us the privilege of being the first to panic every time some new development bodes the disaster that so many tell us is impending. I don't think many of us fool ourselves into thinking we can stop the disaster, but this constant vigilance promises us the illusion (not really a very convincing one even at its strongest, I think) of control -- at least that we can be the first to know we were right, and things really did go exactly where we said that handbasket was headed, albeit perhaps even more quickly than we said they'd get there.
But really, where is the joy in that? Where are the characteristics of the Spirit's fruit among us -- not only joy, but peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, generosity, faithfulness, and self-control? Competing to drop the flags declaring that somebody finished the race to the lowest we can go sounds a lot more like the conceited, envious, competitiveness St. Paul characterizes in Galatians 5:13-26 as the very opposite of what the Spirit brings.
Read MLK's sermons, and you'll see a very different use of eschatology -- one a lot closer to Jeremiah's, the Psalms', and Luke's. Eschatology -- the "big picture" of what God is up to in the world -- is what lets the poor and those suffering at the margins know that their struggle is far from over when the powers that be say it is.
These texts are say that however many people point to disasters as evidence that Creation itself is destined for disaster, God made the world for a different purpose, and God is faithful in bringing God's purposes about. Apocalyptic texts take a serious, Technicolor look at everything going on in the world -- all the suffering and fear, all the fireworks the powers that be have to offer -- and envision what Creation's true end is, what God made this world for, the redemption for which the world groans and that God lovingly poured and is pouring out God's Self to bring about.
When I think about these apocalyptic scenes, I remember Mike. Mike was in a small group bible study I was a part of some years back. The group was a very healing place for me to be, particularly at that point in my life -- I was full of questions and turmoil, and the group lovingly received all of that. I struggled some with Mike, though. He always had a smile and a hug and an encouraging word, and it struck me sometimes as a naïve, sugar-coated kind of way to be in the world. It was great for him that he could think that everything was about love, I thought, but I imagined that he couldn't possibly be that way if he'd seen real suffering, if he really understood what kinds of things were going on in the world that would make any sane person (I thought) bitter. And then one day Mark told a story he hadn't told before. He talked of his service in World War II, and in particular of the day when he and his company came upon and went into an airplane hangar, and came upon some of the first evidence Americans would see of the Holocaust.
I never looked at Mike the same way again. When I looked in his eyes, that night and every time I saw him after then, I saw something I hadn't bothered to look for. He'd seen the very worst that the world and humanity at their worst could produce, and he made a choice. He could have accepted what he saw there as the final word in the world's story. It certainly fit the picture the world paints of an apocalypse -- what the world looks like when the cover is taken off -- complete with smoke and stink and flames. But Mike was a person of deep faith -- of the kind of faith I want to grow into. He looked at all of that destruction, that gash at the heart of humanity itself, and said to himself, "... and God so loved this world that God gave the only-begotten Son." It underscored just how much God was redeeming, how immeasurable the height and breadth and depth of that redeeming love was and is.
Mike was no preacher, but his ability to see that "big picture" -- that it is the immeasurable height and breadth and depth of God's love for which the world was made and which is the world's telos or end -- is what I see when I read or hear the sermons of Martin Luther King, or Desmond Tutu, or of others who know what Creation's end is, and who are preaching apocalyptically, removing the cover of these times to show where they fit in God's time. Apocalyptic is that prophetic keeping "eyes on the prize," so we can not just hold on, but keep pressing toward the goal with deep, unshakable joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, generosity, faithfulness, and self-control. It's what enables us to look upon ugliness in this world and see how much room there is for God's grace to rush in, God's power to work. It enables us to say with open eyes and open hearts, "All the paths of the LORD are love and faithfulness / to those who keep his covenant and his testimonies" (Psalm 25:9). It's what gives us hope and power to pray as Paul did in 1 Thessalonians, seeing joy, connection, love, and wholeness in the midst of persecution and threats of more.
Luke wrote of Jesus telling of sun, moon, stars, and the earth in distress, and he knew of what he wrote. He was writing after Roman armies had marched into and devastatingly seized Jerusalem, destroyed the Temple, defiled the Holy of Holies, crushed the hopes of many who had thought that this uprising with the sword was God's own doing, and God's vindication of those who took up the sword to defend Jerusalem was at hand. Luke wrote to Christians at a time when their refusal to take up arms to defend Jerusalem was bringing rejection and persecution from kin and neighbors as well as the ongoing ire of Roman authorities who saw Christians as troublemakers who stirred up slaves and fractured families. That's the setting in which Luke writes of Jesus telling his followers to look to the fig tree.
My friends Bruce Malina and Richard Rohrbaugh point out the fig tree is among the last to bloom in Palestine. Jesus says that it is amidst all of these disasters -- all of these frightening events the world says make panic and scrambling to protect oneself and one's family is the only appropriate response -- that should prompt us to think of the fig tree. It blooms, and we know that the end that is near is the end of winter, of violence, of suffering, of shame. Luke wrote to people who were very much and in the present tense wondering how they might "have the strength to escape all these things that will take place," and his answer is this:
They take place before the coming of the Son of Man, before Jesus' coming to complete his work among us, and that coming is beyond the powers of this world to prevent. It is more wondrous than the words of this world to describe. It is the vision that gives us the strength, the hope, the courage to carry on, and to do so experiencing the abundant life even now that is breaking into the world in Jesus' word. Luke's community saw their world crumbling, and in the midst of that, with hearts "not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life," caught a glimpse of God's kingdom come near. When we are willing to confront the suffering around us truthfully and serve as agents of God's hope in the midst of that, God gives us grace to glimpse it too -- and the height and depth and breadth of what God is bringing about that we can glimpse together will keep us grounded when everything else starts to shake. These times in God's timeline are the hour of redemption, an opportunity to experience participate in what God is doing in bringing peace, freedom, and wholeness to the world God made and loves.
Thanks be to God!
Proper 28, Year B
It's nice to have a little light reading, isn't it?
"There shall be a time of anguish, such as has never occurred since nations first came into existence" (Daniel 12:1).
"Woe to those who are pregnant and to those who are nursing infants in those days!" (Mark 13:17).
I can almost hear preachers around the country sighing and pondering whether it would be better to just preach on the collect. Of course, this is the collect for this Sunday:
Blessed Lord, who caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which you have given us in our Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
Guess we can't really pray that one and then just hope that nobody will really care if we ignore the scripture readings in the sermon.
It probably won't surprise you to know that I think that's for the best. It's one thing to decide to preach on the collect or on a text other than what's in the lectionary for an urgent pastoral reason; it's another thing entirely to do so because the biblical text is particularly challenging. We need to deal with those challenging texts for all kinds of reasons, here's a good pastoral one: they're challenging because they deal with challenging subjects, and when a challenging situation arises in our lives, we're a lot more likely to be able to see God at work in it if we haven't fled from passages in scripture where communities of God's people were dealing with major challenges in their own life together.
That's what apocalyptic literature -- writings like the book of Daniel and this passage from Mark -- is about. It's not written in good times about some anticipated catastrophe in the future, but about challenges -- serious, "where is God amidst this suffering?" challenges -- in the life of a community. "Apocalyptic" is a term that means literally "taking the cover from"; it takes present events and lifts the veil so we can see what's really going on and where it fits in the story of God's redeeming the world.
I'll say it one more time, since all that Left Behind stuff has penetrated so much of popular culture: Neither Daniel nor Mark were talking about something they thought was going to happen hundreds or thousands of years later. They were talking about what was happening as they were writing.
Daniel (or much of it, anyway) was most likely writing about the persecution of Jews under the Seleucid king Antiochus IV, who forbade the practice of key elements of Jewish religion, slaughtered Jewish people, and desecrated the Temple in Jerusalem by sacrificing a sow on the altar.
Mark was most likely written either as war clouds were on the horizon or during the Jewish revolt against Roman rule that began in 66 C.E. It was in the year 70 that the Roman legions under Titus not only captured and sacked Jerusalem, but marched into the Temple itself and the Holy of Holies at its center, carrying off its treasures.
In other words, YES, these are scary texts -- darn near perfect for scary times. Any of us who are lucky or blessed to live long enough are bound to live into such times. I'm talking about times in which it seems that the more wrong one does to other people the more one prospers.
When I was a child there was a children's magazine called Highlights in dentist's offices that had a regular "what's wrong with this picture?" feature in which you were supposed to circle what was "wrong." The challenge, in some ways, was how you could circle EVERYTHING that was wrong in the world that was presented in an illustration in which it often seemed that the few thing were right were just there to underscore how much made no sense at all in the world that we were used to seeing: the tricycle had one square wheel, the tree had at least five kinds of fruit on it, the trout were in the sky and the bluebirds were under the surface of the pond.
This Sunday's texts are an indispensable resource for any one of us who ever finds her or himself in such a position.
I can't help as I think about these texts to late summer of 2003. I was the first openly gay person hired (though FAR from the first gay person on staff) of a moderate-to-conservative parish. I went away with the co-rectors for a continuing education function immediately after General Convention, and I drew the first Sunday after that to preach to the congregation.
Anxiety was high. There were a significant number of people in the congregation who were still struggling with the idea that someone like me -- well, GAY me; they were happy enough with bible-loving me, and most of the rest of me that they could define, as far as I could tell -- could be on staff at a church. They hadn't heard that there were lots and lots of openly gay and partnered priests in the church. They didn't know about ++George Carey's commending openly the ministry of the openly gay priests he'd met in the U.S. and elsewhere. What they knew is that the world in spring of 2003 made sense, and something had happened at General Convention over the summer that made the world they live in seem like the Highlights drawings of a world gone completely awry.
That's a very, very difficult place to be in. I know it firsthand. It never seemed so much like Highlights shows a trout riding a bicycle in the clouds" to see openly gay people being happy in stable relationships and having a fruitful ministry in the church, but I have known many times over what it's like to wake up in a world that doesn't seem to make any sense at all -- in which the innocent die and the wicked prosper, in which no word goes better with "tragedy" than "senseless" and I have nothing better to say to someone who says as much than, "Yes -- and that really makes me angry."
The world was not made for those moments, I know. I've read Genesis 1 and 2. God made the world, and it was very, very good. I've experienced that goodness, and I count that a blessings.
And the world is also a place that's made me ask, whisper, wonder, and occasionally scream "WHY?!"
Sometimes that loss is personal: why did my brother or my friend die?
For the compassionate, that loss is often corporate: why is it that being born in one zip code in the U.S. practically guarantees living at least to see kindergarten, and in somewhere else in the world practically guarantees infant mortality, or dying in childhood from some disease totally preventable via access to clean water, or barring that, access to antibiotics?
For anyone with an ounce of compassion, it can feel devastating. For anyone but the very luckiest of the wealthiest, it is practically inevitable. At some point, each one of us blessed with long life and a full emotional life is going to end up asking:
Where on earth, where amidst this suffering, are you, God?
And that's why I hope and pray that we'll deal with these texts, however clumsily we do it, this Sunday.
Preachers, leaders, teachers, friends: we can't always see it or feel it, but if these texts are our sacred texts, our story of God's redeeming the world, we have something to say:
There shall be a time of anguish. That is real. And those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the sky, and those who lead may to right relationship, like the stars for ever and ever.
This is our story if we read it, if we claim it, if we enter into it.
There will be suffering; there is suffering. There will be people who are false, who promise ease and plenty or at least safety if we'll just do what they say. There are others with a more seductive sales pitch who will admit that it can be or will be hard, and who will say that the reward for throwing gain after loss and all to follow what they say is right won't necessarily be ease, but will be a certain and absolutely blessed outcome. That's close enough to the truth to be tempting for a lot of good people.
There are days of suffering, when nothing seems to make sense, when it seems that the things we took for granted as most blessed -- the birth of a child, the hope of birth -- seem like a curse.
In those days, if we have been willing to engage the whole story of God's people -- not just the rich people, the people privileged enough to be able to talk themselves on most days into thinking that their wealth, their cleverness, their privilege will be able to keep them and those they lost from all suffering -- we will remember that suffering, those events that make us feel like we're in the Highlights picture of "What's wrong here?" and everything is wrong here have been foreseen.
We will remember that the story of the world that we celebrate in the Eucharist, and in every time we gather in the name of Jesus the Christ -- is not a story of invulnerability, but of redemption.
And if we gloss over those moments of real, uncomfortable pain in the life of God's people as reflected in biblical texts, we offer nothing to sustain our sisters and brothers when that moment arrives in which pain is unavoidable.
I have said it before, and if God gives me grace, I'll say it a great many more times:
God's creation was good, but God's goodness doesn't offer us static perfection. It offers us redemption.
That's pretty much what I had to say when I preached to a confused and divided congregation just after General Convention in 2003. Many of the decisions that seemed to members of the congregation to come directly out of a Highlights "what's wrong with this picture?" illustration were words of freedom and peace to me, but I'd listened firsthand to what people had said about feeling confused, grieved, disappointed to the point of wondering which way was up and whether any rules still held, and I knew I'd been there before, with other precipitating events.
When I preached, I spoke of some of the losses I'd felt that made me feel like I was in that Highlights picture. I talked about wondering where God was, and about taking that beyond wondering to yelling -- to praying with all of my anger to the God I was angry with, to asking God just what God was thinking, and asking it with all the frustration of not knowing or not thinking I'd ever know, wondering whether I'd ever want to know.
I will never forget conversations I had with one parishioner after that sermon. He was about as far from me as one can get on most of the spectrums that people draw in church politics. He'd planned on leaving the church, but decided after than Sunday he could stay, for now. It clearly wasn't a comfortable place for him. I felt blessed that he wanted to stay there with me in that uncomfortable place as we both sought God's presence and will.
I haven't worshipped with or worked in that congregation in a little over a year, I guess. In that short period of time, my brother in Christ from there with whom I had those conversations went from the picture of health to a diagnosis of cancer to the end of his journey on earth. I've been seeing his face a lot in my mind this month, and I've prayed for him a great deal. My heart ached for how much and for whom he'd leave behind, for the sense of purpose I know he felt, for all of the gifts he had to give to this world that the world won't receive.
It's painful. I don't want to move too quickly from that pain, since it's a pain I share with sisters and brothers I can't see or hug from another city. And since my brother in Christ in that congregation who died did eventually leave that congregation and The Episcopal Church, I'm sorry that I don't know the faces or names of those who walked with him and his family on that last leg of his journey, and I am grieved.
I hope that he did have companions to walk with him who were willing to say "there is pain," "I don't understand," and yet to say, "I hope ..."
But there's one particular moment -- the moment in June of 2003 after I preached a sermon on walking with God in grief, in pain, in loss, in anger, and I connected with a brother there who was feeling that kind of pain. I hope he wasn't alone on that last leg of his journey; knowing his family at least, I hope I know he wasn't alone. I might be feeling alone in grieving his passing, but I feel less alone in knowing that we connected at least sometimes, at least around the kind of moment that he was facing and would face again, and I'm glad he knew that I wanted to face those moments with him.
Preachers, I know that you can find some very good texts to help you enter into what there "apocalyptic" texts in the New Testament meant to the earliest Christians. Elizabeth Schüssler Fiorenza and Bruce Malina have written wonderful and helpful commentaries on Revelation, for example, and there are a lot of exegetical resources that will help you walk through texts like Daniel 12 or Mark 13 verse by verse.
I'm writing this week mostly to encourage you to take that journey, to walk that walk through these difficult texts, because they are going through territory that all of us blessed with true hope -- with a sense of the goodness of the world as God made it and of the end for which God created, with compassion to meet those parts of life in which the world has been remade for pain and loss and less than, and with irrational longing and vision for and drive to participate in God's healing of this world -- must walk.
I know these are difficult texts. They are given to us as God's people because we still live in a difficult world -- gorgeous and gashed, good and made to be more than good, broken and with the potential of being a whole and wholly beautiful mosaic of brokenness brought into relationship with other brokenness to make far more than the sum of its pieces. Our wrestling together with these difficult times and difficult texts, our seeking God even to rail at God on the journey, is stretching our sensibility in a truly apocalyptic sense, that we might catch glimpses of God's redemption of those difficult moment, of us difficult people, of our complicated world.
Dodge the difficulties and we miss chances to see God doing that which God most fully is in Jesus, what we're all about as Christians. Stay with us and our pain as God's people in these moments and we can walk together as God's people through them.
It adds up to a chance in each moment -- each irreplaceable moment -- to remove the cover or lift the veil from what's happening now to catch glimpse of God's wondrous and redeeming eternity. Please go there with me, with Daniel, with Mark, with Jesus.
It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God. But recall those earlier days when, after you had been enlightened, you endured a hard struggle with sufferings, sometimes being publicly exposed to abuse and persecution, and sometimes being partners with those so treated. For you had compassion for those who were in prison, and you cheerfully accepted the plundering of your possessions, knowing that you yourselves possessed something better and more lasting. Do not, therefore, abandon that confidence of yours; it brings a great reward. For you need endurance, so that when you have done the will of God, you may receive what was promised.
For yet "in a very little while, the one who is coming will come and will not delay; but my righteous one will live by faith. My soul takes no pleasure in anyone who shrinks back."
But we are not among those who shrink back and so are lost, but among those who have faith and so are saved. (Hebrews 10:31-39)
Slow down our beating hearts, oh Lord, that we might journey with your Son and your people in this moment. May we read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest it as our own story, as the story of your redemption of all you have created.
Thanks be to God!
Proper 14, Year B
I often say that I don't believe in perfection, but in redemption.
I want to talk about redemption this week.
There are several reasons for having that topic on my mind at this moment.
The first is that the texts suggest it to me. The gospel passage for this Sunday is part of a lengthy monologue in which Jesus relates Exodus 16's account of "bread from heaven" to his own ministry, and to God's ministry among God's people. The writer of the Gospel According to John is inviting his Christian community specifically and repeatedly to think of their journey in tandem with that of the Hebrews from Egypt -- the journey from slavery to freedom to serve God, from being dominated to being agents of God's liberating work, from being no people to being one people, God's people.
There's an intriguing detail in the biblical story of the Exodus that doesn't often get much attention, but that also invites drawing parallels between the exodus of the Hebrews from Egypt to the journey of the Johannine community (i.e., the community that produced and read the Gospel According to John, the biblical letters attributed to John, and the book of Revelation). With most of my books still in boxes from my move, I can't check my books, so I hope a sharp-eyed reader will catch me if I'm misremembering when I say that the Septuagint (i.e., the Greek version of the Old Testament, which was what the earliest Christians were talking about when they said 'scripture') is pretty clear on this point, which also comes across in the NRSV, though less strongly:
What God told Moses to ask for, and what the Pharoah did in the end, was not to 'release' the Hebrews, but to send, almost drive them out. My recollection, which I hope an astute reader might confirm or correct, is that in the Septuagint, the word used is exapostello (and if someone knows how to transcribe a long vowel in Internet-friendly text, please tell me -- that last 'o' is an omega). That's the verb to "send out," but it's often not the kind of "sending" you'd want. It's the word the Septuagint uses to dismiss a wife in a divorce. It's a word used to dismiss a servant empty-handed, or a prisoner to her doom. What we remember and retell explicitly in every Passover haggadah starts with something translated more accurately as God saying "send my people out, that they may serve me" than "let my people go." And the Egyptian people don't line the streets to heap floral leis and good wishes upon the Hebrews after resisting the command to send them away; they drive out their former servants with a fear that, given the horrible things the Hebrew god has visited upon them, is as understandable as it is great.
Small wonder that in the Passover celebration, God's people are urged to recall tears and bitterness. It's not just about remembering the bitterness of slavery; it's also about remembering the tears and anguish of the families who lost husbands when the Sea of Reeds closed over the Egyptian army, or lost an elder brother or firstborn son in the plague of death.
So amidst such tears, is the story we tell of Exodus as liberation to celebrate a lie?
This is the kind of question that makes me say that I believe in redemption, not perfection. And it's a question burned freshly in my mind this week.
Some friends -- my former bosses when I worked at St. Martin's parish in Maryland -- lost their eldest son this week. I can think of few people who seemed as full of life and purpose as well as gentle good humor as their son Mike was. He was 33 years old and very active when, while on a weekend camping trip, he died of a massive heart attack. Nothing can prepare a parent for such a shock and loss, and in any case there was no prior indication that anything like this might be coming. Having lost a 26-year-old elder brother almost as suddenly almost exactly ten years ago, I can barely -- but only just barely -- imagine how my friends, Mike's parents, are feeling.
If we lived in a perfect world, we might say, as many well-meaning people said when my brother died, something like, "God took him for a reason," and we might even try to supply a reason, like "God called him as an angel" (as a number of people said of my brother), much as we could say of the Egyptians' tears (or the tears of the Israelites who lost loved ones to the plague of poisonous quail later in the desert) something like, "this happened so that God's glory could be shown in mighty works." Maybe that works for you. It doesn't work at all for me, and to be honest, I've never met anyone for whom it really did work, for whom it really rang true over time and at a level of deep self-awareness.
So is the story of life and hope, of freedom and celebration, a lie?
I don't think so.
I think that something happens within and among us, something that's happening all the time around our messed-up world, amidst all the pain and bitter tears, as our stories take shape in our journey with God.
That something is called redemption.
Redemption doesn't say (as Stoic philosophers said) that there's no such thing as slavery to someone whose mind or heart is in the right place; it is a word, a story, a narrated act in community that frees someone enslaved to a new set of relationships, a new identity in community in which that person can live much more fully into her or his God-given identity and God-issued call. When we say "God is redeeming the world in Christ," we are not saying that there is no pain, no loss, no wrong, no brokenness in the world to grieve; we are saying that God's power is such that all of that pain, loss, sin (that's a word that needs to be said sometimes), and brokenness in the world -- all that it is meet and right as well as just plain HONEST for us to grieve -- is being incorporated into a larger story, a deeper and broader context in which our lives and the life of the world are about redemption -- about making whole -- and resurrection, bringing new life.
This is not some Monty Python-eque "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life" song to be sung mindlessly amidst and in denial of pain. Anyone who spends enough time with enough children, artists, visionaries, or prophets knows that stories -- especially ones told truthfully and well -- knows that stories are incredibly powerful. Stories are, or can be, acts of the word in the world that bring very real and powerful life and light into the world. In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God, and God spoke, and there was life, and light -- a whole world come into being. The story of God's people -- of Exodus and John, among other stories -- being inspired by God, is more powerful than bean-counting so-called "pragmatists" might imagine.
As I write, I keep thinking of an experience I had on a youth group retreat -- one I blogged about on Grace Notes, my personal blog, in an entry called "Fingerpainting and Forgiveness." Please take the time to read it if you can -- and don't skip the comments. The last comment there as I write this shows something how an evening in which I told a story in a community, and we told more stories in childish art, became a larger story in which someone none of us on that retreat had met found freedom and new life. When I say that I believe not in perfection but in redemption, I'm saying that I believe that when your sin and my sin, your brokenness and grief and mine, are offered to God and into the story of God's stumbling, broken, grieving and gifted people journeying with all Creation toward healing, wholeness, and reconciliation with one another and with God in Christ, the ashes and dirt become in their own way a part of God's art, an expression through God's grace of the love in and through and for which God made all in Creation that was, is, or will be.
So I write this week in pain, and with tears -- for my friends' eldest son, and for my friends; for a world in which too many sons and daughters and mothers and fathers are torn from us far, far too soon; for hunger and war; for fear and darkness and oppression. And I write in hope in Jesus the Christ, who in the Gospel According to John spoke to a community driven out of their homes, their synagogues -- a community in which many had been "sent forth" as prisoners condemned by the testimony of those they had called neighbor -- and said, "I am the Bread of Life." Jesus said to them that in the midst of their alienation, their grief, their tears, he was with them, sustaining them, incorporating their story into the Great Story of reconciliation that is the story of the world God made and loves --
A story of redemption. The Johannine community saw its end like this:
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,
See, the home of God is among mortals.
He will dwell with them as their God;
they will be his peoples,
and God himself will be with them;
he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away.
And the one who was seated on the throne said, "See, I am coming to make all things news." Also he said, "Write this, for these worlds are trustworthy and true."
-- Revelation 21:1-5
I say through tears: See, God is coming soon! Blessed are those who keep the vision of God's prophets, who tell the story of God's past, present, and coming redemption of the world.
Pray for those who mourn. There are too damn many of them, though it is God's blessing and glory that their comfort is even now at hand.
I feel it is too bold to say, but in faith I'll say it: Thanks be to God.
Proper 12, Year B
2 Kings 2:1-15 - link to NRSV text
Ephesians 4:1-7, 11-16 - link to NRSV text
Mark 6:45-52 - link to NRSV text
"They were utterly astounded, for they did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened" (Mark 6:52).
But what was it that they didn't understand? I've heard a lot of sermons over the years that suggest that the line of thinking that would have indicated Jesus' followers did understand would be something like this:
"Hey, this guy managed to make a few loaves and fishes feed thousands of people. He must be powerful. Heck, only God has that kind of power. I know ... he must be God!"
But that's not really the issue, and that's not how Jesus' followers would have thought or ought to have thought. Jesus' followers knew something that I think we also know intuitively -- and if not intuitively, by cold hard experience in the world:
Not all power in this world is used benevolently.
A lot of it isn't. Indeed, we tend not to think of power when we have it, or when it's used to our benefit; we think about it a lot when it's being used against us. That's also when we tend to think about justice as a category; power is used to an end with which we don't agree, and nine times out of ten we'll call it unjust, or at least unfair. Ask any teenager, and you'll probably hear a lot about it: the powers of this world can be capricious or malevolent ("out to get you") as well as just and good. This, by the way, is one of the reasons I so much enjoy ministry alongside teens. They're willing to speak up when they think they see power used capriciously or destructively; they understand that the powerful aren't necessarily good, and often they haven't bought in to the idea that the distribution of power in the world is pretty much as it ought to be.
Jesus' followers certainly knew that. You'd have to be living under a rock since infancy not to see it. The Roman Empire occupied not just Palestine, but the whole world as they knew it, and they cared mostly if not entirely about whether taxes were paid, commerce uninterrupted (see the "taxes paid" point), trouble minimized, and their power acknowledged as supreme on earth (sounds familiar, actually -- the same could be said of most empires). The same goals applied when it came to appointing local authorities -- building a city dedicated to the glory of Caesar (and paid for with taxes on the poor, not from compromising the lifestyles of the rich -- another phenomenon that sounds familiar to us) earned you a lot more points in the competition for Rome's favor than sweating about the welfare of peasants. And spiritual powers came in the same range as worldly ones -- some good, many capricious or malevolent. When a wonder-worker came to town, people would be asking not whether maybe he did it with wires or mirrors, but whether it was done with good or evil power. Miracles proved power, not goodness or godliness, and levitating around the town square would inspire more fear than worship or trust.
That's a theme we see in Mark from the beginning of Jesus' ministry. It comes up explicitly in Mark 3:20-27, when the scribes from Jerusalem question whether Jesus is casting out demons with the power of other evil spirits, and comes into play in many explanations of the so-called "messianic secret" in Mark -- Jesus' telling those healed by him not to tell others. But I've been thinking lately that the "Beelzebub controversy" in Mark 3 is a part of a broader theme prominent in Mark: the theme of power and its proper and godly use. It's a theme that comes up repeatedly, and on the day before our moving van arrives, I don't have time to treat it with anywhere near the attention it deserves, except to point to the discussion that sets the context for Jesus' journey to Jerusalem and the Cross, namely Mark 10:32-45, in which Jesus talks about death at the hands of Gentiles and new life to follow, and answers the request of James and John to sit at his right and left with what I believe is the centerpiece of Jesus' teaching in the gospel of Mark:
You know that among the nations those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.
So what does all this have to do with this Sunday's gospel? Our lectionary editors' wise choice of Hebrew bible readings for this week is a clue: the way in which Jesus uses his power over waters and the deep evokes, as does Elijah's parting the Jordan, the story of the Exodus, of a tiny and enslaved people being led out of slavery to a worldly power and into the desert where they are free to become a people who use power differently -- to feed the poor and care for the widow and orphan, or, as the prophet Micah sums up what Israel was formed as a people to do, to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God. What Jesus' followers didn't understand about the loaves wasn't that they showed that Jesus had access to power -- Jesus' enemies said that much.
What they didn't understand was what their response ought to be. They didn't understand what it meant that God was, through Jesus, feeding all the people such that each had enough and no one accumulated too much -- much as God fed the Israelites in the desert with manna. They didn't understand that God's power over winds and waters in Jesus was like the parting of the Red Sea. They didn't understand that in Jesus, God was fulfilling the promise of Deuteronomy 18:15-19 to raise up a prophet like Moses to do what Moses did. They didn't understand that what God was and is doing through Jesus is no less than forming a motley and marginalized crowd into a people, one people, God's people -- a people called to do with power what Jesus does with his: healing, empowering, self-giving even to the Cross, to knit together a whole Body joined in love and building up its weakest members.
That's who we are -- what we have been freed through Jesus to become.
Thanks be to God!
Proper 6, Year B
2 Corinthians 5:1-10
Psalm 92 OR Psalm 92:1-4, 11-14
Keep, O Lord, your household the Church in your steadfast faith and love, that through your grace we may proclaim your truth with boldness, and minister your justice with compassion; for the sake of our Savior Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.
-- BCP Collect for Proper 6
It's an apt prayer for the church during this General Convention. While we can only know provisionally, we want to proclaim the truth as we understand it boldly; especially because our perception of God's justice is never complete, we wish to minister it with compassion. And if we look at the world through the lens of Jesus' ministry and God's mission, we see endless opportunities to do both, innumerable places where Good News and compassionate justice are desperately needed.
That's never more apparent to me than at convention. The exhibit hall hosts hundreds of organizations seeking to inform the church about and bring healing and transformation to various needs of the world. Just reading all of the resolutions inviting participation in God's mission of justice and reconciliation in some corner of the world takes hours; serious advocacy for more than a handful at any given time is beyond any one mortal's capacity. Listening to the stories, looking at the figures, and taking in testimony could keep me in meetings from 7:00 a.m. until 11:30 p.m. or later every day of the week. And I can't help but think for everything I can't do whether that one extra bit of effort might have made a difference. How would I feel if this initiative failed because I was in bed, out to lunch, hanging out with a friend instead of alerting people to some development, using my voice, at least praying for the situation?
And then I have to chuckle at my hubris. Jesus offers an excellent corrective for people like me -- people who at times mistake the invitation to participate in God's mission for an invitation to play God, who alone is the world's Creator -- in the two parables of this Sunday's gospel.
The first parable is my second favorite in the gospels. (What can I say? I'll always have a soft spot for the so-called "Parable of the Unjust Steward" in Luke 16.) Commentators call it the "Parable of the Seed Growing Secretly," and it's the shortest parable in the canon. A farmer scatters seed, and it grows, "he knows not how. The earth produces of itself." No farmer, no matter how clever, can MAKE seeds grow. She can participate in the process by influencing conditions to make them more conducive to growth -- watering, composting, and so on -- but the gifts of life and growth come from God, and only from God, who graciously created a fruitful earth and gives without calculation of deserving the gifts of sun and rain.
This picture is a wonderful corrective not only to activists teetering on the edge of exhaustion, but also for those who talk of the world God made as if the most basic truth about it is that it is fraught with dangerous evils. The world isn't perfect by any stretch, but it was made and is being redeemed by a God whose grace exceeds our wildest imaginings. The most basic truth about the world is that it arcs irresistibly toward the justice for which it aches, and each day is bursting with opportunities to experience God's grace, joy, peace, and love. Like St. Paul, we can be confident that even if an earthly tent can be destroyed, the home and identity we have as new creations in Christ are eternally rooted and eternally lasting, and the smallest of mustard seeds will produce great and fruitful trees.
With that confidence comes a lightness of spirit, a sense of abundant life and even, dare I say, fun -- even or especially in situations the world sees as heavy and hopeless. We need that lightness. A life of activism and of mission that is fueled mostly or solely by a sense of desperation or thirst for martyrdom is bound to be a short career, and probably a less effective one. God calls us to participate in God's mission, but God provides opportunities along the way for sabbath, for quiet, for laughter, and each of us was made to enjoy those good gifts even as we strive to further their availability to every child, woman, and man. Being faithful is not just about working in mission; it is also about knowing when to rest and play, giving thanks for all of God's abundant and good gifts.
It is a good thing to give thanks to the LORD,
and to sing praises to your Name, O Most High;
To tell of your loing-kindness early in the morning
and of your faithfulness in the night season.
-- Psalm 92:1-2
Thanks be to God!
Trinity Sunday, Year B
Those of you who plan to tackle the doctrine of the Trinity this Sunday might want to check out my sermon from Trinity Sunday in 2003, and I've blogged about this Sunday's gospel here and penned a lectionary reflection on it for The Witness here. I'm grateful for this Sunday's selection of readings, though, as the reading from Romans works particularly well with John 3. The point of being "born from above" or "born again" in John's gospel is not what those of us from individualistic cultures tend to emphasize when we talk about it, namely the chance for an individual to have a new beginning.
To be sure, Christ does offer new beginnings, new life, the possibility of real and important change for the individual. I wouldn't want to lose that; it can be a healing and liberating word in cultures like mine. If I had doubts before, the teenager who commented on the "Finger-paining and Forgiveness" post on Grace Notes, my personal blog, would have dispelled them. I'd posted about an activity I did with the high school youth group at the last parish I worked in. That activity was in part my answer to another activity that's often done in youth groups, usually in a "True Love Waits" context to encourage teenagers not to have sex. What happens is that the group is broken up into teams, with each team getting a tube of toothpaste, a paper plate, and some toothpicks. The teams are then told to race to see who can get all the toothpaste out of the tube first. Once that's done, the teams are told they must race to see who can get the toothpaste back in the tube using the toothpicks. It's a hopeless task, of course, and once the teams give up, the youth group leader shouts, "Aha! And neither can you get your sexual purity back once you've given it away!" It's my opinion that this activity -- especially if the application is about sex -- is awful. I don't think that leaders build trust when even in a game they ask people to do something they don't really want or expect to be done. More importantly, I think the message of the activity slights God's power to redeem. Instead, my youth group did an activity where we each wrote (symbols and such were fine, as it was only for the writer's eyes) one or more arenas in which we'd like to see God's transformation and healing. We offered those with the general confession, and burned them. That much wasn't new to the group. But then we took that ash, and stirred it into some tubs of white finger paint, and the group was invited to use that and all of the other colors to make a mural. At first, the group was reluctant ("yuck -- we have to use the ashy gloppy stuff too?"), but they plunged in with vigor. And what they found is that the "icky gloppy stuff," when incorporated into a larger picture with other colors, other textures, other ideas from a larger supportive community, wasn't icky any more. And we talked about redemption and what it means to us.
I believe that God is working that kind of redemption in us individually as we journey with a community seeking God. And yes, I believe the "born again/born from above" talk in John 3 does bring in some of that kind of redemption. But like the "Finger-painting and Forgiveness" activity, John's language of rebirth has its greatest power, I think, because it's about incorporation into something larger than ourselves. Because although God loves us with as much intensity as God would if each one of us were the only person in the world to love, God in God's love sets us in community. When we are "born from above," we are born into a family of faith, with God as our father and mother, Christ as our eldest brother, and with countless others beloved by God as our sisters and brothers.
This transformation isn't without cost: being "born from above" into the family of faith renders all other ties of blood or nationality irrelevant, and in a culture that says "God, mom, and apple pie" in the same breath, taking Jesus' word seriously can make a person seem eccentric at best and dangerously antisocial at worst. Being "born from above" dislocates us from the network of relationships we were born into in flesh and blood. But God doesn't just dislocate; God relocates us in a new network of relationships -- sometimes even with the same people. We can see our families not just as a set of cultural obligations or a path to respectability, and we don't have to relate to one another in the rigidly constructed ways our culture might dictate. We are invited to relate to others, whether related to us by blood or not, as sisters and brothers, beloved children of the same loving God.
Take that deeply in, and you'll find much more transformed than just your inward disposition. Take in that every child of God is your sister or brother, and you'll feel personally swept up in wanting each one fed, given clean water, an education, decent health care, a real chance in life. Take in that every child of God is your sister or brother in a family of faith following Jesus, and you'll find yourself with genuine desire and taking pleasure in coming closer to the kind of free and full interchange of every gift to which you have access that characterizes the communion of the Trinity.
That's bound to transform your life, your outlook, your heart, your mind. But that's not all. The global fellowship of those living more deeply into that network of relationships characteristic of those "born from above" will transform the world, as questions of what is most loving for others become central even with respect to our sisters and brothers we've never met, those in generations to come and across the globe. That's revolutionary -- and that's Christ's gift to us in an eternal life that starts NOW.
Thanks be to God!