Proper 15, Year C

Isaiah 5:1-7 OR
Jeremiah 23:23-29
Hebrews 11:29 - 12:2
Luke 12:49-56

Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; they will be divided

father against son
and son against father
mother against daughter
and daughter against mother.
mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law
and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.

(Luke 12:51-53)

This is one of those Sundays when parishioners are likely to hear either a sermon on the collect or a sermon of the genre to which I refer as "why Jesus didn't actually mean this," perhaps from the sub-genre of "exegesis according to fictitious quirks of ancient languages." Let's give this approach an acronym for convenience's sake: EAFQuAL.

An EAFQuaL approach to this Sunday's gospel would go something like this: "Yes, these words from Jesus sound really harsh to our ears -- not at all what you'd expect from someone whose message is in practically every way consonant with upper-middle-class respectability and good ol' 'family values.' But if you knew the original language of the gospels/that Jesus spoke -- as I do, having been to seminary and all [most preachers neglect to mention that they only took the language in question for a semester or two, if at all, and that they're depending on a dim recollection of someone or another saying something like they're about to say] -- you'd know that the word translated as 'hate' here really means something more like 'to love just slightly less than you love God, but still definitely to respect deeply, telephone frequently, and send flowers at least annually."

Some preachers taking an EAFQuAL approach to a difficult passage of the gospels will use Greek as their ancient language of recourse -- a sensible choice, since that's the language in which ALL of our earliest manuscripts of the canonical gospels are written. Some will go for Hebrew or even Aramaic instead, on the grounds that Jesus was originally speaking one or the other. This is a more creative and gutsy option in some ways, and even more likely to be a bluff: since all of our earliest texts of the canonical gospels are in Greek, any hypothesized Hebrew or Aramaic "original version" is likely to be either someone's guess based entirely on the Greek but assuming (without any particular reason aside from finding the text as it is difficult) that whoever translated the 'original version' into Greek was doing a very, very bad job of it, or someone's citing a MUCH later text that's also much further from the best-attested streams of the manuscript tradition. On the whole, this kind of EAFQuaL is like a game you can play in which you go to an 'automatic translator' web page such as Babelfish, enter the first few lines of the Gettysburg Address in English, have the site translate it a few times into other languages, and then have Babelfish translate that repeatedly mangled text back into English. The results are sometimes hilarious, but they hardly reflect a more reliable 'original text' of the Gettysburg Address than a decent history textbook will give.

As you can gather, I'm not a fan of EAFQuAL, and one of the many reasons I'm grateful to have had opportunity to study Greek and Hebrew is that it helped me realize something that grates on an awful lot of Christians' sensibilities, particularly among the privileged and the prosperous:

Some of Jesus' sayings -- and some behaviors called for in Christian discipleship, in following Jesus -- really ARE difficult. Jesus was not a twenty-first-century, university-educated, landowning husband and father; small wonder, then, that he frequently doesn't talk or act like a twenty-first century, university-educated, landowning husband and father. It goes further than that, though -- I'm NOT saying that one just has to "translate" what was customary among first-century peasants in Palestine to what's customary for us, and that the result will be that Jesus' way of life won't ever prove particularly challenging.

I can't say that because it's not true. Jesus wasn't a very "good" son to Mary his mother, and wasn't even a "good man" in the reckoning of respectable people around him. A "good son" would have stayed home and worked at the family's trade to care for his mother until her death; he wouldn't have gone off galavanting around the countryside. A "good man" would defend the family name and honor if challenged or attacked; he wouldn't be talking about loving enemies, and he wouldn't be disclaiming his family name by saying "those who hear the word of God and do it are my mother and my sister and my brothers" (Mark 3:35 -- and this is how he responds when someone tries to compliment his mother, and him by extension!). And as if all of the above isn't bad enough in conventional terms, Jesus actually encourages other people to leave their homes and families, to allow their family name and honor to be dismantled by others rather than upheld by retaliation, to follow him and to follow his example.

Much as character in C.S. Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia say that Aslan, the Christ-figure in the series, is "not a tame lion," Jesus is NOT a "good guy" by conventional reckoning. Following Jesus won't make you a "good guy" or "good girl" by most conventional reckonings either. And thus we read a lot in the gospels about forgiving and praying for persecutors -- something you don't need to do if everyone thinks you're a "great guy" or "great gal" and therefore has no desire to oppose your manner of life. How it came to be that so many people would think of Christianity as a ticket to respectability and an affirmation of the "core values" of a society with an vast and growing gap between rich and poor, insiders and outsiders, powerful and marginal, is one of history's most astonishing tricks to me; as with watching an illusionist making the Statue of Liberty 'disappear,' I've got to gasp and say, "I'm watching it, but I don't believe it. This is not the way the universe works, and no matter how much it seems that way, I can't believe it."

All of this may seem like a lengthy digression, and perhaps it is, but I hope at least that it's a useful one to undergo before directly tackling this Sunday's gospel, about which my advice to preachers is:

  • Don't try to explain away, apologize for, or do some fancy rhetorical footwork to distract people from just how counter-cultural and difficult this text is. Don't engage in EAFQuAL. Don't say something that boils down to "Jesus didn't really mean this" (or its homiletical cousin, "Jesus didn't really say this, so we can safely ignore it and claim to be better Christians for it" -- a rhetorical strategy that ignores the important but inconvenient point that all historically plausible reconstructions of what Jesus did or didn't say or do depend in the end on the very gospels we're dismissing as less reliable than a historian's paperback). A preacher's job is not to distract the congregation from a biblical text long or skillfully enough for everyone to get away without asking hard questions, and it's not necessarily to make people feel better about their choices (though sometimes a good sermon may have that effect for some or many). If I had to sum up the preacher's job in a sentence, it's to model engagement with biblical texts and current questions in a way that better informs people what discipleship might involve and inspire people to take another step or set of steps to follow Jesus. In my experience, sermons that boil down to "my gut says that Jesus didn't say or mean this; discipleship is pretty much doing what any sensible and decent person would, and not worrying too much about the rest" just don't accomplish much worth doing.
  • Do point toward and stay with what's difficult about the texts and about following Jesus long enough for people to really feel it. Remember the maxim -- it often works for teachers, psychotherapists, and preachers alike, I've found -- that "the work starts where the resistance starts." Pointing out how the biblical texts can be difficult to interpret and how discipleship involves facing very real and great challenges both functions as a "reality test" affirming the sanity of observations that intelligent and sensitive people know to be true, such as "there's a lot of beauty, joy, and love in this world, but I have to say that the world doesn't seem to be working as it should." Pausing regularly on Sunday mornings (ideally also in frequent study of scripture and times of prayer during the week, but at the very least starting with the Sunday sermon) to feel how challenging discipleship can be in many situations is a pastoral act that can build some emotional and spiritual muscles that will be very useful when (and it's 'when,' not 'if') the congregation encounters real, undeniable, and painful challenges.
  • And though your work isn't done with most texts until you've taken in what can be challenging about them, it also isn't done until you've done your level best to address the question of where the Good News of God's healing and redeeming the world comes in. Personally -- and contrary to what sources such as Left Behind might suggest -- I find eschatology (literally, 'study of the end') to be a great boon in this task. As those who have taken the Connect course (which, by the way, is distributed in an 'open source' manner over the Internet, and is therefore FREE to congregations who want to use it, much as we appreciate contributions of money and effort to improve it) have heard and thought about, our stories -- our pains and joys, our mistakes and what we've learned from them, our dreams and disappointments -- often look different when we see, tell, and listen to them in the context of the larger story of God's making a good world that God loves and is working constantly to heal of the wounds and free it the enslavement that results from our damaging choices in life and relationships. I find that most passages in the lectionary have something to say about how God has redeemed, is redeeming, and will eventually complete the redemption of God's children. When I'm looking for Good News to proclaim, the first questions I ask myself are usually along the lines of how the biblical texts I'm working with fit that pattern. You can see how it would be impossible to see how this step requires a good job with the previous one: you can't see redemption and healing if you don't acknowledge slavery and wounds. I hope that anyone who's heard me preach more than a couple of times would recognize in my work another way I might summarize the preacher's aim: tell a chapter from the story of God's healing the wounded world God loves, and don't stop until you've foreshadowed the end -- the telos for which Creation was intended -- in terms vivd enough to dream.

So that's the pattern I've found most often useful when preaching on particularly difficult texts. How would that pattern look with this Sunday's texts?

In this Sunday's gospel, Jesus tells his friends that following him will cause conflict and division -- even division between families. That's a descriptive statement, and shocking as it is, it's not hard to see the truth of it if you're familiar with what Jesus says and does in the gospels. Imagine for a moment the scene when Peter goes back to his mother-in-law and says, "Hey, mom ... I've got some important news. I'm not going fishing tomorrow morning. I don't know if I'll ever step in a boat or lift a net again. I'm glad that you were healed of that fever, and I hope you don't catch one again, because I have to tell you that I probably won't be around to take care of you or to bury you when you die. See, that man who healed you asked me to follow him as he travels around teaching and healing, and I'm going to do it. I really think that God's kingdom is breaking through in this guy's work, and that's just too important for me to stay here, even to take care of you."

How would you feel if it were your son who said that to you? There's no social security to fall back on if you're Peter's mother-in-law; Peter is the closest thing you've got to that, and he's leaving. I have some idea of what I'd probably feel if I were Peter's mother-in-law: Betrayed. Abandoned. Despised. Shamed. Perhaps even hopeless. I have some idea of the kinds of things I'd say if I were in her shoes too, and a lot of the language I'd be using wouldn't appear in any children's bible. When I found out that Peter AND Andrew were both going, my language would reflect even more anger, grief, fear, and straight-up, no-chaser, and very bitter pain. I think the same would be true of my language if Peter and Andrew had other brothers and I were one of them. I'd want to ask Peter and Andrew how they could do this to all of us, how they think we'll survive without their help with the fishing, and whose prophet would ask a man to walk out on his family. I'd ask Peter and Andrew if this is how they were going to follow God's command in holy writ to honor parents and care for widows (as Peter's mother-in-law most likely was, in my estimation).

Peter's family isn't the only one that would be asking pointed questions or even shouting curses after departing disciples in the wake of Jesus' ministry. It's not at all hard, upon a few close readings of the gospels, to come up with a lot of other people who would be feeling just as hurt, just as angry, and who might attack disciples, even or especially their kin who were following Jesus, with words or more than words. Peace? It's not hard to see how what Jesus brings to such families might be described as well or much better by saying that Jesus brings division and drawn sword. There is a world of hurt behind Jesus' words in this Sunday's gospel.

And yet that's not all that can or should be said about this Sunday's gospel. It's true that Jesus' ministry did and still does dislocate those who follow him from the ways of life and from the relationships they were in. It's true that being extricated from those patterns and those relationships can be painful to all concerned.

It's also true that sometimes, if not often, the only way to find freedom to live in new ways and to form new and healthier relationships is to be extricated or dislocated from the old ones. It's true that Jesus challenges fathers and mothers, and sisters and daughters, husbands and wives to allow Jesus' call to pull them out of those relationships, at least or especially as those relationships are defined by our less-than-healthy world. It's true that Jesus' call in a sense denies those relationships altogether: our mother and our sister and our brothers are NOT those who offer or share a womb or a bloodline, but those who hear the word of God and do it.

That is a circle that can, depending on the choices we make, exclude those who by blood or law are our kin. But that's not the only possible outcome of Jesus' call. It's not the only possible outcome because Peter and Andrew aren't the only ones who have choices. You and I aren't the only ones who have choices. And Peter and Andrew and you and I aren't the only ones whom God calls.

Here's another possible outcome: Peter and Andrew tell Jesus that no prophet of the God of Israel would ask people to ignore the Ten Commandments, and they tell Jesus that on that basis they know precisely what sort of a man Jesus is, and there is no way they'd follow him. They go home and tell their families about what kind of dangerous nutcase the wandering healer turned out to be, and how glad they are that they figured it out. The next morning, they go fishing.

That's not a story that inspires me as a follower of Jesus. Thank God it's not the only other possibility either. Here's another one:

Peter and Andrew tell their families more about Jesus, what he's saying, what he's doing, and what they think that means about what God is accomplishing right now for the world. They talk about the community of people following Jesus and how they care for one another, how their life together is a sign to all of how relationships could be in the world and what might come of it if we believed the kingdom of God was breaking through this world and therefore we could live as though God were king here and now. Peter's mother-in-law, his sisters and all his brothers, and the rest of the family face and go through the break that Jesus talks about in our former relationships. It's only natural for them to grieve sometimes at the passing of old ways of being and to chafe at or stumble in the new relationships that are forming, but they have a new joy, a new peace, a new freedom from anxiety in the living reality that if they have lost a mother-in-law, a son-in-law, a daughter, or a father, they have gained more sisters and brothers than they ever imagined they could have, and had joined a people who would come to fulfill the promise to Abraham of numbering more than the stars of the clear desert sky -- more to care for them and be supported by them, more to love and be loved by than any earthly family could offer. They follow Jesus together, sisters and brothers in Christ.

That's a story that inspires me. It makes me think that perhaps the wounds we suffer following Jesus can, in the context of God's redeeming work, be like the break of a badly healed bone that allows it to become whole again.

Breaking and being made whole. It's core to the story of God's people. We see it in Jeremiah's description of the faithful prophet of God, whose word may be a hammer that breaks but whose witness calls God's people to wholeness. We see it in Isaiah's vision of God's people as a vineyard made desolate by unrighteousness, in failing to recognize God's image in humanity by caring for the poor and in worshipping as gods images of our own wealth and skill. We may not see it by conventional reckonings, with worldly eyes, but we see it through faith, which reminds us of God's faithfulness in the past and of God's redeeming work, ongoing in the present and to be completed in God's time.

It's a story to read and tell over and over until we and our children and parents, sisters and brothers and friends know it by heart, a story that will strengthen us when we're grieving and feel weak, and that will guide us when we're feeling strong. It's a story of pain and tears and brokenness, but it's a story of love, joy, and hope that ends in wholeness, in the world coming to know just how high and broad and deep God's love and blessings for Creation are.

Thanks be to God!

August 14, 2007 in Apocalyptic, Community, Eschatology, Hebrews, Honor/Shame, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Jesus' Hard Sayings, Kinship/Family, Luke, ONE campaign/Millennium Development Goals, Ordinary Time, Pastoral Concerns, Reconciliation, Righteousness, Scripture, Year C | Permalink | Comments (6)

Fifth Sunday in Lent, Year C

Isaiah 43:16-21 - link to NRSV text

Philippians 3:4b-14 - link to NRSV text

John 12:1-8 - link to NRSV text

I hope you'll indulge me -- I'm going to start with something of an aside this week, as there's something in the epistle reading from Philippians 3 that I very much want to underscore. Its very first sentence points out two things about St. Paul that are often ignored or misunderstood.

First, it's that Paul, like a significant number of early Christians (such as the Pharisaic Christian contingent at the "council of Jerusalem" in Acts 15), identifies as a Pharisee as well as a follower of Jesus; the only point in his catalog of identities in Philippians 3:4 that no longer applies is "persecutor of the church." In other words, Luke's portrayal in Acts 23:6 of Paul, long after his experience on the road to Damascus, saying in the present tense, "I am a Pharisee, a son of Pharisees" is realistic. Regular readers know (as the archives of this blog on the subject demonstrate) that I feel strongly that Christians should avoid presenting the Pharisees as stock villains and using the word "Pharisee" as a synonym for "hypocrite" or "sanctimonious jerk." It's language that comes across as antisemitic, and furthermore, it's language that distorts the historical record and even the sometimes complicated ways Pharisees and Pharisaism are portrayed in the New Testament. As far as we can tell, Paul identified as a Pharisee to his dying day, so at least in his view, there's nothing about being a Pharisee that's in necessary conflict with following Jesus.

Second, it's worth noting that Paul specifically says that "as to righteousness under the Law" he was "blameless." In other words, Paul does NOT think that humankind needs Jesus because human beings can't manage to observe the Law and therefore can't have righteousness without having Jesus' righteousness imputed to them. Paul says right here in Philippians that he was righteous under the Law; clearly he thought that people COULD observe it. I have little doubt that Paul could assess his Torah observance in this way in part because he, like any other Pharisee, knew that the Law made provision for impurities to be cleansed, transgressions forgiven, and therefore righteousness under the Law restored. As myriad texts (e.g., Psalm 103) in the Hebrew bible demonstrate, the God of Israel has always offered people forgiveness. This whole stereotype of Judaism as proclaiming a God who, prior to the Incarnation, was impossible to please and whose presence could not be experienced by human beings is, to borrow Paul's word in Philippians 3:8, skubalon -- which, by the way, the Liddell-Scott Greek lexicon translates as "dung" or "excrement," though the NRSV renders it more in a more genteel fashion as "rubbish."

Thanks for letting me get that off my chest. I'd like to say more about Paul's view of the Law and why he thinks we need Jesus, and you can find more of my thoughts about that elsewhere in the lectionary blog, but I've already stretched the definition of "aside"; it's time to get to what I actually plan to preach on this week.

This Sunday's gospel story seems to be based on an earlier story -- one of my favorites in the New Testament -- that appears first in written form in the Gospel According to Mark, 14:1-11. Two days before the Passover, in the last week of Jesus' life, Jesus' followers are sharing a meal. The men among the Twelve, and especially Peter, have been fairly consistently portrayed as misunderstanding who Jesus is and potentially even standing in the way of what Jesus came to do. But two days before the Passover at dinner, a woman -- a prophet -- shows that she understands Jesus as the male disciples haven't. She anoints Jesus' head, dramatically proclaiming Jesus to be the one anointed by God (in other words, the christ or messiah), and in a context that makes clear that she has anointed Jesus also for the way of the Cross he has proclaimed. And Jesus commends her prophetic action in glowing terms, saying that wherever the Good News is proclaimed, this woman's story will be told in memory of her.

Ironically, while we know the names of others -- even the name of the host of this dinner party in Mark 14 -- the name of the woman is lost to us. So much for Jesus' disciples keeping her memory. Luke (in chapter 7) makes the woman an anonymous "sinner." John 12 gives her a name, at least -- Mary, sister to Martha and Lazarus -- but like Luke, John has her anointing Jesus' feet, not his head, turning an act of prophesy into an act solely of personal and emotional devotion -- even an act that could be seen as competing with and undermining ministry to the poor.

But is that really what's going on? I have my doubts.

I think it's worth remembering that, as Malina and Rohrbaugh point out, hands and feet were seen in the ancient Mediterranean world as representing action -- action with intentionality. While Mark has the woman anointing Jesus' person, and by extension his actions, in John's story the woman is declaring Jesus' actions, Jesus' mission in the world, as anointed by God, and by extension his person.

These differences give the stories different emphases. And if you'll indulge me in another aside (this one brief, I promise), it reminds me of why it's so important not to try to harmonize the differences we hear in the the gospels -- or to try to impose uniformity in Christian community. We need those different voices, those different emphases, even or especially when they seem to be in tension with one another.

We need them if we're going to do what Mary does in this Sunday's gospel: identify and bless Jesus' intentional action, what God is doing in the world -- also known as God's mission.

I'll put it this way, with a confession: I suspect that nine times out of ten, when God is saying to me, "I am about to do a new thing; / now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?" my response is something like this:

"You have reached the internal answering machine of Sarah Dylan Breuer. I'm out doing all of the things I think are God's will, the things I think I need to do to make a living, and the things I just plain want to do, but have managed to rationalize as being totally necessary. Please leave your name at the tone, so I know whether you're among those from whom I expect spiritual counsel, and assuming you're on the list, I'll get back to you when ... well, I might get back to you."

What would it look like if I lived more deeply into the kind of prophetic witness we see in this week's texts? How might our lives be different in our households, our worshipping communities, our world if, instead of asking God to bless our activity, we, like Mary, were looking for the ways in which God is acting in the world and looking for ways we could bless and support God's action?

I feel blessed to have joined one of the most mission-minded parishes I've ever seen. There are so many people here giving so much of themselves and using so many of their spiritual gifts to advance God's mission. And one thing that could enhance our ability to identify God's activity in the world and bless it would be more opportunity for us to listen to one another, to hear one another's stories. I'm not just talking about stories of how we serve in and through the church. We should indeed be celebrating, thanking, supporting, and blessing one another in our ministries in church, but it's worth remembering that most of us spend the vast majority of our time in other places, and that time in other places can be ministry in the service of God's mission just as surely -- perhaps even more surely -- than time spent in this building.

If we believe that God is at work in the world, after all -- if we want to anoint Jesus' feet, his action out there -- then we need to be looking for evidence of Jesus' work in the world; we need to see the world and people's work in it through the lens of Jesus' ministry, in the context of salvation history, the story of God's creating the world and drawing it to God's self.

That means we need to be in touch both with that story of God's making and loving the world and with the stories of human beings in the world experiencing God's redemption and the historical and personal wounds in need of God's healing.

Those who know me well will not be surprised to hear me say that I think one of the very best ways to be in touch with the world's very reason for being -- with the love of God that created the world and is bringing it toward the peace, justice, and love for which it aches -- is to spend some serious calories in close reading of the scriptures. It's very hard to discern what Jesus is up to in the world today if one doesn't know, and very well, what Jesus was up to in Galilee and Judea, and in the lives and communities of early saints such as Paul and the writers of the gospels. It's hard to understand what Jesus was up to in the past if one doesn't immerse oneself in the Torah and the prophets that formed Jesus' own view of who God is and what engaging God's mission would look like.

And of course, one can't know what Jesus is up to in the world today if one doesn't know what's going on in the world today. I thank God for some of the tools I use, such as the Global Voices website, which compiles and translates web logs from all over the world that allow you and me to hear from ordinary people -- anonymous Gay Christians in Uganda, teenagers in Iraq, and countless others. But even these technological marvels are nothing compared to the resource we have in one another, in our congregations and in the larger Body of Christ. Tell me what your wildest dreams for the world are and the moments in which you catch glimpses of it at work, on the bus, with your children (or even your parents!), and I'll know that much more about where Jesus' feet fall around the world. When we share our stories -- and particularly when we come together as God's people to enter into the biblical story and ponder how our own stories might be told in the context of that great, wonderful tale -- we can see the paths that Jesus is wending through our world to bring redemption, and we have opportunity in encouraging and supporting one another's growth and ministry to bless and anoint the very feet of the Son of God.

It's hard to say what might be inspired by that process of being in touch with the world's wounds, with God's work of bringing the world to wholeness, and with the great and small wonders present in the gifts and vocations of each one of us. I wonder what might happen if those of us living in families not only ate dinner together, but asked one another questions that go beyond "How was your day?" to "What makes you angry about what's going on in the world? What inspires you? What's God doing, in the world and in you?" Parents, if you're lacking in inspiration to ask those questions, I encourage you to ask your kids, who know and care about a great deal of God's mission, and can often talk about it far more articulately than you or I can. Kids and students, try asking your parents about things like this. It might seem weird at first, but you might find conversations like this bringing out amazing ways in which God is calling you, and surprising support in living into that call -- not just in some distant year when you've got your degrees and have checked off all of the right boxes, but now.

And what, I wonder, would it do to coffee hour if we were asking one another, "So, what do you see going on in the world? What's God up to?," or even, "How has God been working in your life lately?" Among other things, we might find that we had far more to talk about that coffee hour would allow.

That's the danger of this sort of enterprise: Enter into scripture's stories of God's loving and redeeming the world, and you just might find yourself hungry for more. Enter into the stories of your neighbors and their experience of God's love and redemption, and you might catch a glimpse of something that will change your life. Look for and bless what Jesus is doing in the world, and as surely as Jesus is Lord of history, you will see the world healing, growing, and changing.

Thanks be to God!

March 24, 2007 in Discernment, Forgiveness, Isaiah, John, Justice, Lent, ONE campaign/Millennium Development Goals, Pharisees, Philippians, Prophets, Righteousness, Women, Year C | Permalink | Comments (1)

First Sunday after Christmas Day, Year C

John 1:1-18 - link to NRSV text

If you haven't seen it already, I encourage you to check out my reflection for Christmas Day this year, which deals with John 1:1-14 as well as the two passages in Luke for earlier Christmas services.

That earlier entry was in part on the theme that the Incarnation is NOT how a distant god became close to humanity. The prologue to John's gospel, which we read again this Sunday, makes that much clear in saying that the logos or "Word" Jesus incarnated was with God in the beginning and that all things were made through the logos. Indeed, Hebrew scripture -- like the Christian "New Testament" -- has plentiful representations of God as present among and intimate with God's people. Psalm 139 is just one example among a great many.

This week, I want to talk about another misconception I've heard in many a sermon, and that the prologue to John's gospel ought to put to rest. The misconception goes something like this:

God is righteous. Righteousness means not only avoiding all wrongdoing, but avoiding all wrongdoers. Therefore, God fundamentally can't stand humanity -- at least as long as humanity is sinful. Indeed, God wants and needs to punish wrongdoers with something worse than the death penalty: death plus eternal suffering. Only blood can satisfy God's sense of justice. The Incarnation solves this problem as God the Son, who wants to have compassion for humanity but knows that only the shedding of human blood will satisfy the Father, becomes human to suffer and die for humanity's sins, after which God can stand to be around humans who accept this blood sacrifice on their behalf.

The above is a particularly crude version of what some call "substitutionary atonement." There are versions out there that are not so crude, and at the very least, any view that Jesus' blood was shed as a full and perfect sacrifice for sin ought to have at least one implication that would be very helpful were we to live into it: namely, that human beings cannot demand blood or even suffering from another as punishment for wrongdoing, since Jesus paid the full price for all human sin, and further suffering from others is neither necessary nor efficacious. Can you imagine a world in which everyone who claimed to be a Christian refused absolutely to participate in any kind of vengeance, punishment, or shedding of human blood? That would be a radical shift.

But our gospel passage for this Sunday asks us to contemplate something far more radical:

"No one has ever seen God. It is God the Son, who is close to the Father's heart, who has made him known."

In other words, as my dissertation supervisor puts it, God is like Jesus.

That might not sound so radical at first. In many circles in the U.S., we're accustomed to or even fairly jaded with respect to theological language about Jesus. But what I've observed over the years is that our thinking about the Incarnation and what it means tends to run in the opposite direction from what John 1:18 suggests. We start with our ideas about what God is like (those far too often being simply our cultural values writ large), and then assume or project into the New Testament that Jesus is like that.

We believe that family (defined in our usual cultural manner of those closely related to us by blood or marriage) should be a person's chief priority (other than God, perhaps), so we believe that God commanded as much, and therefore Jesus did too. We scratch our heads a little if we come across most of what Jesus said about family in the biological or legal sense, but figure the text couldn't possibly mean what it says and quickly move on.

We inherit a "Protestant work ethic" from our culture; we project that onto God; and then we find ourselves saying things like, "well, didn't Jesus say, 'the Lord helps those who help themselves'?" (That was Ben Franklin, by the way.)

We embrace a kind of individualistic faith that says that God is concerned primarily with the state of our hearts rather than what we do with our money and power, and then invent all kinds of interpretive contortions with texts about the "rich" and the "poor" in the New Testament so we don't have to think that Jesus has any problem with the poor remaining poor and the rich remaining rich.

In a particularly subtle way that's therefore particularly difficult to become aware of, we believe that God is basically a nice guy who made a nice world and then got out of the way, sending Jesus as one of many occasional reminders to humanity that we should also be nice and not do anything really bad to one another -- in other words, that following Jesus will not require anything more than church attendance from someone who's basically a good and respectable guy or gal.

Or we start with a firm idea of what God likes and doesn't like (usually pretty similar to what we like and don't like), and that God wants and needs to punish those who do the latter, and then we assume that Jesus is like that too. But what does John's prologue do to this way of doing theology?

If Jesus is God the Son, close to the Father's heart, who has made our Creator known to us, then we don't start with ideas about what God is doing in the world and project them onto Jesus; we start with what Jesus does in the world and know that this is what God is doing.

That's yet another reason that we can't chart the significance of the Incarnation without talking about what happened between the lines of the creeds -- after "he was made man" and before "he died and was buried." If it is Jesus, the Word made flesh, who makes God our Creator known, then we know what God is like by looking at what Jesus in his life "in the flesh" was like.

Jesus taught and healed. He confronted the powers and the power dynamics that kept some people shut out of the villages as feared demoniacs. When people were hungry, he fed them. Indeed, he broke bread with them, without checking first, second, or later about whether they were the "right sort of person." He broke bread with the person he knew was betraying him to suffering and death. He spoke words of invitation and forgiveness even from the cross on which he died. Those last invitations -- to the thief on the cross in Luke's gospel, for example -- came without precondition; there was no "as long as you don't mess up again," or "as long as you're sincerely sorry for what you've done," or "assuming you don't have any major nasties in your history that I don't know about." He also challenged people -- not just the "sinners," but the respectable people -- to grow into the fullness of discipleship, receiving and caring for all who came to Jesus' table as their own flesh and blood.

Had he just behaved that way, he wouldn't have been particularly threatening to anyone. Some people are completely indiscriminate about the company they keep. Some people treat their enemies in pretty much the same way they treat their friends and family. They won't be elected president any time soon; they're weirdos whose hanging out with those on the margins of society renders them marginal as well. Jesus would have been similarly unimportant if that's all he did.

But he did more. He said that God -- the Creator of the universe -- behaved toward humanity just as he did. He acted with God's power to bring those at the margins in to the center as empowered and beloved children of God. And so John's gospel very aptly says that his glory is "full of grace and truth" -- properties not at all in contradiction in Jesus' ministry, or in the kingdom of God.

All of those who take the Left Behind books as gospel and are therefore expecting Jesus, or the God whom Jesus proclaimed, to undergo some kind of eschatological personality shift to gleefully kick his enemies' butts are going to be disappointed if John is right. Those who worship a god who poses no threat to the empires of this world will be surprised by the God revealed in the life of Jesus, who gathered people to live in a way that threatened Roman rule enough to get him executed for treason against the emperor.

But for those who are attracted to the ways in which Jesus challenges the rulers and embraces the marginalized -- those who glimpse abundant life in Jesus' way of life -- the news that Jesus is the Word of God made flesh who makes the Creator known is Good News indeed -- the best news there is.

Thanks be to God!

December 29, 2006 in Christmas, Christology, Discipleship, Eschatology, John, Luke, Mark, Righteousness, Year C | Permalink | Comments (3)

Proper 20, Year A

Thanks for being patient with me this week. I got back on Tuesday from a job interview with a parish VERY far away. I'd naively thought I could write my lectionary blog entry on the plane coming back and post it immediately when I got home, but I was just too tired to get it done until today. By the way, I had a WONDERFUL time on the interview, thanks to my hosts -- it's a really wonderful congregation!

Jonah 3:10 - 4:11
- link to NRSV text
Psalm 145 - link to BCP text
Matthew 20:1-16 - link to NRSV text

They shall publish the remembrance of your great goodness; *
         they shall sing of your righteous deeds.
The Lord is gracious and full of compassion, *
         slow to anger and of great kindness.
The Lord is loving to everyone *
         and his compassion is over all his works.
-- Psalm 145:7-9

As I was growing up, I often heard a message preached that went something like this:

"God is a perfectly righteous judge. Humanity sinned. Because God is perfectly righteous, God can't stand to be with sinful people, and because God is a righteous judge, God MUST impose the death penalty for any instances of sin -- no other choice could preserve God's righteousness. So God became flesh and was killed so that the penalty could be paid. Now, when God looks at those who have accepted the sacrifice of Jesus, God sees only Jesus and Jesus' righteousness, so God can be with us and still be righteous."

There's a lot that's troubling in this message, and it doesn't make much sense to me any more. First off, one of the presuppositions of the message seems to be that any law decreed by God is eternally binding, even upon God's self. Jesus doesn't seem to have gotten that memo, though. Even if you want to argue that Jesus followed all of the dietary and sabbath laws, there really isn't any way to harmonize "Honor your father and mother" with Jesus' command to "call no one father on earth, for you have one father -- the father in heaven" (Matthew 23:9). That's just for starters, too -- if you'd like to see other examples, please check out my archives on kinship and family.

Another thing that troubles me about the message I described above is its assumption that righteousness -- especially God's righteousness -- would be compromised or even erased either by contact with unrighteous people or by exercising mercy, choosing not to impose a deserved penalty. I'd say that there's more in scripture to contradict that view than to support it, and this Sunday's readings form an excellent case in point, arguing that God's "righteous deeds," as the psalmist puts it, are evidenced not in invariably punishing wrongdoers, but in being "gracious and full of compassion" and "loving to everyone" (Psalm 145:7-9) -- deserving or no.

Matthew joins in that tradition in potraying Jesus' message and way of life both as proclaiming that God's righteousness is most evident in God's indiscriminate (by conventional reckoning) mercy. Yes, in Matthew 5:17-20, Jesus says, "unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and the Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven," and that he has come to fulfill the law and the prophets, but take a look at what follows if you want to know what Jesus thinks fulfilling the law and the prophets and living righteously involves: it's reconciling with one another, treating women and men as human beings and not objects to exploit for pleasure and put aside when it suits us, to turn the other cheek, give to those who beg or ask to borrow, and love our enemies.

The clincher to that argument comes in Matthew 5:43-48, when Jesus says by what precedent he can argue all of this. Jesus can claim that he's fulfilling the law and the prophets, because he's siding with traditions like the one in Psalm 145 that says that God's righteousness deeds are those of "compassion over all his works," or the strand running through second Isaiah that "the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together" (Isaiah 40:5). Still, Jesus' strongest point isn't so much about the words of scripture, but about the character of God as revealed in scripture, God's behavior toward humankind since the first rainbow was hung in the sky. Here it is:

God sends sun and rain, "blessing rain" (thanks to Liz Zivanov of St. Clement's Honolulu for that image) upon the righteous and the unrighteous alike. When Jesus says, "be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly father is perfect" (Matthew 5:48), that's what he's talking about: God loves loyal servants of God, and enemies of God, and everyone in between. So, folks, if anyone is waiting for God, or Jesus, to undergo some kind of personality transplant and suddenly start with gleeful smiting instead of loving, that person's going to have an eternal wait (sorry, Left Behind fans, but Jesus' glorious appearing won't be much like it is in those books, if the gospels have it right).

So if that's what I think, am I simply buying wholesale into the old liberal humanist paradigm that says that everything's going to be great because every day in every way, things -- and people -- just get better and better? Nope. That's not what I'm saying.

What I'm saying is that all of that trying to reckon whether people are good or bad and getting better or worse, has become passé in light of the coming of God's kingdom proclaimed in Jesus' teaching and inaugurated in Jesus' ministry. So, all of us Jonahs don't have to worry about the outcome of prophesy one way or another; we can just concentrate on being faithful to the call, and living more deeply into abundant life in community, and there's a heck of a lot more fun -- or, to use more accurate language, more enjoyment of the joy and peace and all the rest that's the fruit of the Spirit -- in embracing that path.

I know that there are some short-term psychological rewards in being more like Jonah. If you don't feel you're in a position to be joyful yourself, it can be maddening to see others experiencing joy, and it might seem like some small consolation at least to feel twice as righteous for it, and/or to long for and expect some cosmic payback for the person judged as less deserving. But there's a huge price for living that way. One dimension of that price is constant vigilance. As long as we place ourselves in the judge's seat, we'll always find massive caseloads, as long as we try to place ourselves above others we'll suspect others of being as grasping as we are, and as long as we view the world as being full of people in need of judgment and punishment we will find it very hard to accept and internalize the Good News of this Sunday's gospel:

God is infinitely generous, and God showers us with blessings far without the slightest regard for our deserving.

I mean that "infinite" part too. God's blessing and God's love is not a pie with less of it left for me every time God gives something to someone else. It's more like a really good joke, or a truly amazing concert -- all the more living and life-giving for every person who shares it.

We all forget that sometimes, of course. Sometimes we end up as angry at God for being merciful and generous toward those we reckon as the wrong sort of person as are the workers in the vineyard who cast the evil eye, a curse seen as potentially deadly, on the generous landowner (that's what Matthew 20:15 says -- literally, it's "Is your eye evil because I am generous?"). Those grumbling workers are right in their assessment that the landowner is not treating everyone in the vineyard as a "fair" (by the world's standards) employer treats employees, paying each according to what each deserves, but they're so busy with their attempt to see that all are treated as employees deserve that they're missing the invitation implicit in the landowner's conduct: to receive not wages earned but blessings shared, to be treated more like family than like employees.

That's why Matthew 5 links being "children of your father in heaven" with loving and blessing neighbor and enemy alike. We are invited to see ourselves and all those around us not as worthy or unworthy servants or lazy or diligent day-laborers, but as children of God and co-heirs with Christ. Forgiving those whom the world reckons as unworthy of forgiveness, honoring those the world deems as shameful, and blessing without bothering about who deserves what is participating in our family business. It's what Jesus was and is about among us, and as the way of the Lord, the path upon which God's family is set, it's the way we'll experience most fully who God is and what life, abundant life, is like.

Thanks be to God!

September 15, 2005 in Forgiveness, Jonah, Matthew, Ordinary Time, Psalms, Righteousness, Year A | Permalink | Comments (6) | TrackBack

Proper 11, Year A

Wisdom 12:13, 16-19 - link to NRSV text
Romans 8:18-25 - link to NRSV text
Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43 - link to NRSV text

Those of you who have been reading this blog for a while have seen me blog about what anthropologists mean when they talk about an "honor/shame culture," and that Jesus' culture was one of them. Among other things, it means that in the culture in which Jesus told his parables, a "good" man was a "real" man, someone who would retaliate when someone attacked him or his family (and hence his honor).

However, Jesus consistently taught that retaliation is never appropriate, even when one is attacked and no matter how brutal or unwarranted the attack is. In many ways, that went even harder against the grain of Jesus' culture than it does against ours -- but it still goes against the grain of our culture in at least some ways.

I'm thinking right now about September 11, 2001. I was volunteering at a polling center during a political primary, so I was standing outside an elementary school with other volunteers when the first plane hit the World Trade Center. With the other volunteers, I got news as drivers slowed down when they saw us, rolled down their windows, and shouted news or their personal response to it. Bits of information and misinformation came to us this way: "Another plane hit the World Trade Center!" "A bomb went off outside the State Department!" Bits of prayers did too. And many drivers shouted resolutions, most of which were like that shouted by one young man as he drove past:

"I'm going out right now to kick the first Arab @ss I can find!"

When I heard that shouted with such conviction and urgency, I found myself thinking back to the 2000 presidential election campaign, and specifically to George Bush's much-maligned comment that his favorite political philosopher was Jesus of Nazareth. And an image came to my mind of a press conference, in which now-President Bush would say something like this:

"You all remember during the campaign, when I said that my favorite political philosopher is Jesus. You remember how I said that I do my best to think about what Jesus would do when I think about decisions I need to make. I've also made clear that I'm an evangelical Christian, and this guides my decisions in office. And I'm a man who means what he says, so I hope you'll understand when I tell you about a very hard decision I've had to make. The attacks against our country, against innocent people of all faiths in Washington and in New York were inexcusable and ruthless -- evil, even. But I follow Jesus, and when Jesus was attacked by evildoers, he responded by going to the cross they prepared for him, and by forgiving those who drove in the nails. There are those who say that the blood of the victims of these terrorist attacks cries out for blood, that those who took lives must pay with their own. But as an evangelical Christian, I believe that Jesus' blood shed was and is the sacrifice for all the sins of the world. And so my response, my only response, will be to pray for those who perpetrated this evil. May God bless our those who make war against us as God blesses the peacemakers. I am not America's sovereign; God is, as God is sovereign of the whole world, and will one day sort the sheep from the goats, the healers from the evildoers. And to evildoers, I urge you to accept the mercy of this God while God offers it, and to thank God for it. Were it not for the mercy I've seen, I would be vowing to hunt you down wherever you are. Were it not for this mercy, I would dismiss the deaths of any who stood between you and me as 'collateral damage' and the necessary cost of justice. But because God has shown me mercy, I will bless you through my tears and my anger. May God have mercy on your souls."

That's where my imagination went on September 11, 2001. I guess that means I have a pretty wild imagination, because a president who said such a thing would not have been reelected. Too many of us were too frightened that if were were seen as being anything but resolute, if we showed any hesitation before striking back, we would be attacked again. We were afraid of that because, I think, we knew in our heart of hearts that we WOULD be attacked again, no matter how we responded. We were even more afraid of that than we were of breeding even more terrorists in the terror of war. (Please see this short Flash movie on the subject, if you haven't already.) And so we tried to identify the evildoers so we could punish them, so we could kill them.

Please don't misunderstand me; it's totally understandable to want to do that. We want to protect ourselves and our children. It's only fair that those who want to kill innocent people might end up dying violently themselves.

That's exactly my point. In this Sunday's gospel, Matthew speaks to a community of people who KNOW what terror is. At any moment, they believe that someone -- anyone, even a brother or a father -- might haul them before a governor to be tortured, or worse. I've blogged about that before. The following week, I blogged about Jesus' advice and Matthew's to those terrified of that possibility, that likelihood. It's the traditional word of the angels, in scripture and even in many pop-culture angelophanies: Don't be afraid. God loves you. The words sound cheesy and lame. But the EXPERIENCE of that has a power that's unmatched.

That's the power of Jesus' name, of Jesus' character, of Jesus' ministry.

And that's our power. I've seen the pop-culture pictures of power as a warrior who blasts away in his anger, shouting "Kill 'em all -- let God sort 'em out!" That's not power. That's fear. That's terror. The truth that Jesus has for us is that there's something far more powerful than that: the Son of Man, the judge of the nations with all the power of the angelic hosts behind him, saying "Have mercy on them all. Love them all. Let them all grow, and their fruits sort them out."

Inept gardeners may think they know the weeds from the wheat. Wise farmers know that these tares (weeds) can't be pulled out from the wheat; only when they all reach maturity can they be distinguished. The more we think we know about who can safely be called an evildoer beyond redemption, the more we prove ourselves to be not only inept gardeners, but immature weeds. But those who are mature know who they are, and they know who they're not.

The mature know that they are not the judge of the nations because they know the judge personally. It's Jesus. And we're not Jesus, as we know when we're following him. So Matthew's word to us, even when we're under attack, even -- or especially -- when the attacks are brutal, is that we're not to usurp the role of judge. That's a role God has given only to the Son of Man, to Jesus. And when we fail to remember that and start trying to sort out the evildoers from the righteous, God's people from dispensible people, we are to remember at least what the approach is of God's appointed judge to the nations.

For neither is there any god besides you, whose care is for all people,
to whom you should prove that you have not judged unjustly;
For your strength is the source of righteousness,
and your sovereignty over all causes you to spare all.
-- Wisdom 12:13, 16

God's judgment, God's righteousness, God's perfection is perfect love and mercy: blessings of sun and rain upon the righteous and the unrighteous alike. Like Father, like Son, as they say. This Sunday's gospel tells us that when we're wronged, we're to look to Jesus' teachings and, most importantly, how Jesus behaves when he's is treated with contempt as pointless as that of the enemy sows weeds among his neighbor's wheat (wouldn't the enemy really have the best revenge if he had spent that energy sowing crops in his own field and left his neighbor envying his harvest?). We're to look to Jesus' behavior in going to the cross and forgiving his tormentors from it. And we're to remind ourselves and one another:

Don't be afraid; don't give in to fear. Give in to love. We're not called to serve as judge, so judging will only make us more anxious as we try to maintain constant vigilance, always eyeing our neighbors to try to pick out the enemies. Our vocation, our destiny, is better than that.

... the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. ... For in hope we were saved.
-- Romans 8:18, 24

Jesus is the judge, so we don't have to worry about how to do his job. Jesus is the judge, and so we have access to an unshakable hope, the blessed assurance that we will be judged with the same infinite mercy as will our enemies.

God is still in charge. God and Jesus are still and always of the same character, the same love. And we are the charges, the children, of the same God Jesus proclaimed. Let all who have ears hear this blessed assurance, this Good News!

Thanks be to God!

July 13, 2005 in Atonement, Eschatology, Forgiveness, Honor/Shame, Matthew, Nonviolence, Parables, Righteousness, Wisdom (the aprocryphal book), Year A | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

Proper 8, Year A (RCL)

[Update June 22, 2005, 4:47 p.m. -- I've had trouble with my Internet connection for the last few hours, and now have to rush off to a meeting. I apologize for the resulting delay in posting the BCP reflection, but a link to the RCL reflection is below.]

[Update June 22, 2005, 11:23 a.m. -- you can find the RCL reflection from me -- which touches on the themes listed in the footer of this post -- here, but all of
The Witness is a thought-provoking read, well worth checking out!]

This week is a "twofer" for me -- I'm preaching this Sunday at the 10:30 service at Memorial Episcopal Church in Baltimore, which uses the lectionary from the Episcopal Church's Book of Common Prayer (BCP), and I'm publishing a reflection on the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings (which don't overlap much this week with the BCP lectionary) in The Witness. I'll post a link to the RCL reflection once I see that it's been posted at The Witness' site (which will hopefully happen any minute now!), and the BCP reflection will be up tomorrow (since I've suddenly got an elsewhere I need to be for the rest of the day and evening today). I've got Live 8 (it's time to Make Poverty History, and for the U.S., to act as ONE!) on the brain today, and with the two sets of sermon material, I feel a little like Phil Collins with his sets in London and Philadelphia for the original Live Aid concerts.

June 21, 2005 in Inclusion, John, Matthew, Ordinary Time, Personal Notes, Prophets, Purity, Reconciliation, Righteousness, Romans, Year A | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack