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!
Second Sunday of Easter, Year C
Alleluia! Christ is risen!
This post is just a reminder that I have fresh reflections on the texts for the Second and Third Sundays of Easter published in the April 3 issue of the Christian Century. Their lectionary reflections for the current year do not appear in their online edition, so the only place to get them is in the print edition of the magazine. The Christian Century is an excellent magazine well worth supporting, so please do pick up a copy and consider subscribing.
Links to some of my posts from previous years for the texts we'll be reading for the next couple of weeks are in this post.
A joyous Easter to y'all, and many, many thanks for your readership, your support, your encouraging words, and your prayers.
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!
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!
supplemental note for Proper 18, Year A -- Hurricane Katrina
I've been getting a lot of email from folks asking how the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina might shape sermons for this Sunday. If I were preaching, I would probably choose to contentrate on this part of the gospel text:
Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.
A natural disaster like Hurricane Katrina is frightening in so many ways, and I'm finding with the folks I'm talking with that one of the biggest is in underscoring how much is beyond our control. That's an important lesson for us to learn, to be sure, but that lesson can be twisted to a kind of learned helplessness that's not what God wants for us.
So what's the difference between a healthy humility about what we can and can't control and a destructive kind of learned helplessness? I'd say that learned helpless is paralyzing, while appropriate humility is liberating and empowering. Humility leads us to acknowledge that we can't control the wind, and it leads us into a deeper appreciation of just how fragile and precious human life is. A healthy sense of connectedness to humanity gives us compassion to grieve with the suffering, and share the righteous anger of those who found their poverty trapped them in unspeakably awful conditions, as well as rejoicing with those gratefully reunited with the families and finding opportunities to serve others even in the midst of their loss.
And then we are to ask what power we have and how we are called to use it to further Jesus' compassion and justice in the world. Many of us have resources that we've offered indidually, opening homes and schools and wallets to help. We have another resource, though of inestimable worth to offer:
We have power. Community is power. Gathering others who will make common cause amplifies our voice. How, then, do we want to use it? We can work for the preservation and the healing of the wetlands that not only are home to wildlife, but also help to slow and absorb winds and waves. We can make our governments accountable for how they spend resources: does it really make sense to prioritize tax cuts when so much is needed for relief, rebuilding, and redevelopment? What can we do to see that when a disaster like this strikes, it's not the poorest and most vulnerable among us who are hardest hit? And the real, heartbreaking suffering brought on by Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath should make that much more vivid to us that there are thousands of people around the world who every day try to survive without clean water, electricity, communications, basic medical care, sufficient nourishing food, without safety or shelter. Such extreme poverty is an unnatural disaster, a human catastrophe we can't blame on wind or waves.
When we come together, we can do something about it. Some of the world's brightest economists (like Jeffrey Sachs, for example) are saying that if we came together, we could actually eliminate extreme poverty by the year 2025. And we are coming together in Jesus' name; when we work together, we've got Jesus' power behind us as we work with and, as need be, confront earthly authorities to challenge them to do justice, and as we battle the powers and principalities of cycles of poverty and violence.
The image that keeps coming to my mind is of the waters receeding from the Great Flood, when God said "Never again!" to that kind of devastation, and made God's bow -- a weapon, conceived by warlike people who thought the universe itself was set toward war -- into a sign in the heavens of the peace and justice toward which the earth arcs.
As the waters receed from this flood, we've got an opportunity. We can claim the power we have as we gather and commit to following Jesus together. We can offer ourselves, our souls and bodies and our VOICE, to Jesus' mission. We have the chance, the resources and the power, to build and rebuild communities as signs of compassion and hope for the world.
It starts as two or three gather, and Jesus comes among us. It begins to take root as we listen together for Christ's voice, to discern what we're called to do together with the power we've got as Christ's Body. We know how it all ends:
See, the home of God is among mortals.
God will dwell with them;
they will be God's peoples,
and God himself will be with them;
he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more;
for the first things have passed away.
And the one who was seated on the throne said,
"See, I am making all things new."
-- Revelation 21:3-5
That's very hard to see now, I know, when we're overwhelmed with images of devastation. That's why we come together, to pray and sing and invite Jesus among us so that we can catch a glimpse of God's dream for the world, and discern together what would be one step, what next step, we can take toward Creation's destination. Jesus is among us; we have what we need for Jesus' mission.
Thanks be to God!
Second Sunday after the Epiphany, Year A
Thanks for your patience, folks. Phew -- what a week! At long last, here's this week's blog entry:
John 1:29-41 - link to NRSV text
John the Baptizer proclaims that Jesus is the "Lamb of God," and immediately two of John's disciples go to follow Jesus -- and not just to follow, but to remain with him (a very important word for the author of the Gospel According to John).
When we think about "lamb," we tend to think of kebabs. OK, maybe that's me, and the lesson learned here is that I shouldn't blog on an empty stomach. But seriously, if I asked you to complete the phrase "like a lamb ... ," I bet you'd be pretty likely to say, "to the slaughter." We think of lambs as meek and mild little creatures who go with docility to their fate (i.e., to become kebabs), mostly because they're a little dim.
That's how a lot of folks would have us read the "Lamb of God" language in this Sunday's gospel, as if people in John's time would say to themselves, "gosh, that fellow looks like someone who will trot happily off to get slaughtered ... hey, let's become his disciples!" Not so. I've talked quite a lot before about honor/shame cultures (Jesus' culture was one) and what they saw as masculine virtues, and being a doormat was most decidedly not seen as a virtue for men.
Furthermore, I've blogged before (here) about the nature of John the Baptizer's hopes for and the source of his disappointment in Jesus. We ought to be very careful before using Matthew's and Luke's presentations of John the Baptizer to interpret what we see in the Gospel According to John (among other things, that would be a clear violation of biblical scholarship's "Rule of Thumb #11," as presented in the totally wonderful book, What They Don't Tell You: A Survivor's Guide to Biblical Studies). It's possible for the gospels of Matthew and John to have entirely distinct ideas about John the Baptizer and his relationship to Jesus. But even if the Gospel of Matthew and the Gospel of John don't share all their ideas about John the Baptizer, they do share the values of honor/shame cultures. Given that, it's safe to say that when John presents Jesus as the "Lamb of God" in this Sunday's gospel, John couldn't have meant it as a compliment if he was saying essentially that Jesus was someone who was going to go meekly to be slaughtered.
But then what does the phrase "Lamb of God" refer to? How did John the Baptizer understand it, and what was so appealing about it that, according to this Sunday's gospel, men like Andrew and his anonymous companion would immediately want to follow Jesus when they heard it?
What I have to say about this relies heavily on Bruce Malina's and Richard Rohrbaugh's Social-Science Commentary on the Gospel of John, which I highly recommend as a supplement to any other commentaries on John you may use.
Bruce Malina is fond of pointing out that in the ancient world, watching the night sky was the closest equivalent to what watching television is to a lot of us. It was entertainment, and it was also news, as the stars were seen as having profound and divine influence over human affairs. And if we want to understand the significance of the term "Lamb of God," we too need to look to the night sky.
Specifically, we look to the constellation we (following the Romans) call Aries, which Jews of the Second Temple period (i.e., of Jesus' time) as well as Greeks saw as a male lamb. And across numerous traditions in the ancient world, it was a pretty kickass (can I say "kickass" in a biblical blog?) lamb at that. Ancient descriptions of Aries mirror that of the first-century astronomer Nigidius Figulus, who called Aries "the leader and prince of the constellations" (Malina and Rohrbaugh, pg. 51). Aries the divine Lamb was the ruler of the other constellations, and the starting point from which all other constellations were mapped.
But isn't this whole astronomy thing foreign to a biblical worldview? Not in the least -- depending, of course, on what you mean by "a biblical worldview." If you mean a worldview that we ought to hold in our own time and culture if we take the bible seriously, then no, astrology isn't part of a "biblical worldview." But a close and culturally sensitive reading of the bible, Old and New Testaments, shows at the very least that imagery drawn from astrology was of profound importance to a number of biblical writers. As we seek to understand the context in which the Gospel of John used the phrase, "Lamb of God," it's important to note how prominently it is tied to astrological imagery in the Revelation of Jesus to John, another work in the family of Johannine writings in which scholars place both Revelation and John. Can you imagine what the book of Revelation would look like if you blacked out every reference in your copy of it to the heavens and their stars?
And then there is the connection to Passover, the feast that observed in the first month of the year, when Aries the lamb rules the sky. It's the Israelite New Year's celebration, when the coming of spring reminds us of how God is at work to make all things new. That kind of imagery came into play as Jesus' followers imagined what the climax of God's redemptive work through Jesus would be like. Much as pagan and Israelite stories alike portrayed Aries, the Lamb, as ascendant at the moment of Creation, Hellenistic Christians used that imagery to talk about what the moment is like in which it can be truly said, "as it was in the beginning, it is now and ever shall be, world without end."
So when John the Baptizer says, "Look -- the Lamb of God," he is articulating a hope that spanned multiple cultures in the ancient world. He was saying that in Jesus there was power, power that would rise above the other powers in the sky, power present in the beginning, power to make all things new. When Andrew and his companion are drawn to Jesus in John's gospel by that vision of Jesus as the "Lamb of God," they are drawn by an understanding that here is power.
But John's gospel is also the one in which Jesus says, "I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself" (John 12:32). The author of the Gospel According to John understands something that his namesake the Baptizer does not; that the power of the "Lamb of God" is shown most fully not in his displaying power over others, but in his humble service to others, and in his willing submission for the sake of others to death on a cross. To understand the Baptizer's hope in proclaiming Jesus as "the Lamb of God," we must look to the night sky; to understand how Jesus redefined that hope in fulfilling it, we must seek Jesus' presence with the lowly, the suffering, the prisoners, those our culture pushes to the margins -- those whose lives are seen of being as of little account as Pontius Pilate saw Jesus'. Recognize the power of Jesus' kenosis (Philippians 2), and we will see the signs: all Creation is being made new.
Thanks be to God!