Third Sunday in Lent, Year A
If you haven't seen it before, I encourage you to check out this SarahLaughed.net reflection on the texts for this coming Sunday, the themes of which strike me as being as relevant as they were in 2005. I'm continuing to reflect on the texts, of course, and will see whether something new emerges that's worth sharing.
Trinity Sunday, Year C
Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31
Some years ago, I found myself struggling with the doctrine of the Trinity. A lot of people do, I know. I responded to it in typical academic fashion: I applied for a summer research grant, and spent much of the summer studying what theologians from the ancient world to the present have to say about the Trinity. Now, when Trinity Sunday rolls around, a number of theologians rush to my memory: Jurgen Moltmann, Desmond Tutu, Athanasius, Tertullian ... and The Simpsons.
It's true that The Simpsons never explicitly discuss the Trinity, to my knowledge, but there is one episode that often leaps to mind when I think about any of what can rightly be called the 'mysteries' of faith, and the Trinity is certainly one of them. The episode "Dead Putting Society" from Season 2 has Bart participating in a mini-golf tournament, and Lisa coaching him in Eastern philosophies and martial arts to help.
"What is the sound of one hand clapping?" Lisa asks Bart. "Piece of cake," he says, bending his fingers down to hit his palm. "No, Bart, it's a 3000-year-old riddle with no answer. it's supposed to clear your mind of conscious thought," she replies. "No answer? Lisa, listen up!" Bart fires back, still bending his fingers toward his palm.
Bart is clearly missing the point. He's after a snappy answer that makes it all make sense, that resolves the question in a way that requires no further wrestling with it. I've heard a lot of people try to do similar things with the doctrine of the Trinity. In high school (and several times since -- the latest of them being last week), I listened to someone explain the Trinity as being like H2O, which can be found as ice, water, or steam; God is one substance, like H2O, but can be found as Father, Son, or Holy Spirit. Great explanation -- makes sense, easily understood -- and an excellent example of the ancient heresy of Modalism. Orthodox Trinitarianism doesn't say that God is one person found in three forms, but that God is one Being and three distinct 'persons.'
Every illustration I've heard that makes the doctrine of the Trinity easy to understand ends up falling similarly into some ancient heresy. I actually think that most of those ancient ideas of Trinity rejected by church councils spring from the same impulse that makes preachers want to use the ice/water/steam analogy: They want to make it possible, and preferably easy, to understand the Trinity. After all, every Sunday we stand up and say "we believe" with respect to it, and it's very natural to feel uncomfortable saying, "we believe" if we don't comprehend what we're talking about.
I'm using the word "comprehend" intentionally; it's got that 'hend' root that's about grasping, about having something 'in hand,' literally or metaphorically. And like Bart opening and closing his hand rapidly to try to "solve" the 3000-year-old riddle, I think when we try to 'comprehend' the Trinity, we're missing the point. It's a mystery. It doesn't make logical sense. When we try to chase it and pin it down, we end up running around in logical circles like a dog chasing its tail. That's a process that can be fun (if dizzying) for a while, but is more frustrating than not if it's kept up for very long.
That's not what I think we're called to do with faith's mysteries. They're not something that can be grasped in one's hand or encapsulated in one brilliant analogy that leaves us comfortable or even smug in our confidence that we "get it" and therefore don't have to struggle with it any more. If we are part of God's people, we have been grafted into Israel -- the name Jacob received after his encounter with the angel as one who "wrestles with God." Any intellectual fancy footwork designed to eliminate wrestling, puzzling, and pondering and to settle all questions forever is bound to be unhelpful to a people called to "wrestle with God."
Or let me put it this way:
Most explanations of the Trinity are made to resolve questions and, in effect, end conversation. But the mysteries of our faith are, in my thinking, meant to do almost the opposite. Because they cannot be "solved," they invite conversation. Because they cannot be encapsulated and apprehended by human intellect, they inspire humility. And because they are an integral part of the faith we confess as a Body, we cannot simply say, "oh, I don't get that," and lay them aside; we are rather called together as a people to wrestle with one another as well as with God, to listen deeply to one another as well as to the saints who preceded us and to remain in that creative but sometimes uncomfortable tension that challenges us to love God with our mind as well as our heart, soul, and strength.
Our readings for this week, then, are not explanations so much as invitations. Proverbs 8 doesn't encapsulate a doctrine of the Trinity. It paints a picture of Creation taking place through a personified Wisdom that philosophers and theologians writing in Greek (such as Philo of Alexandria in the first century) called the logos. Much as John 1 poetically describes a logos through whom all things were made before declaring that this logos became flesh and dwelt among us, Proverbs shows Wisdom as God's agent in creating the world and sharing in God's joy in its goodness. Proverbs differs from John, however, in saying quite clearly that Wisdom was created by God, not "begotten," as John says; Proverbs' Wisdom is "with God," but Proverbs wouldn't say that Wisdom "was God."
Neither do our New Testament texts hand us a neatly wrapped doctrine of the Trinity. Our text from Romans presents Jesus as one through whom we have peace with God and the Holy Spirit given to us as means through which God's love is among us. John 16 shows free and full interplay between what we will eventually call persons of the Trinity: Jesus, who is the Truth, sends the Spirit who guides us into all truth, declaring to Jesus' disciples all that belongs to Jesus, which is all that belongs to the Father. But neither of these texts -- indeed, no text in the New Testament -- gives us anything quite like the "one God, three persons" articulation we see in the Nicene Creed. That formulation came after hundreds of years of searching the scriptures and wrestling with them in community, and whatever intent the emperor Constantine had for the council that produced the Nicene Creed, it certainly didn't end conversation or conflict. The wrestling went on, some of it shaming the Spirit as bishops marched against one another in war with troops of armed monks; some of it building up the Body of Christ with theological riches that still speak to the church today.
I'd say we're not done wrestling either -- not for as long as we are grafted onto 'Israel.' There are still people around trying to come up with some single formulation in a creed or a "covenant" that will resolve the questions, ending discussion that includes difference. When we say "we believe" in the creeds, we're not saying, "we've got it." This is not "Constantine (or even Athanasius) said it; I believe it; that settles it." I sometimes wish that the Greek word pistis that often gets translated as "belief" were translated (more accurately, in my opinion) as "trust." We're not saying that we've solved the mystery of the Trinity like Nancy Drew or Scooby Doo, in which all has been explained and all loose ends neatly tied up. We're saying "we trust." We trust God: the Father who created us (and I think that Mother language of God birthing the world is equally appropriate), the Wisdom made flesh to dwell among us and redeem the world, and the Spirit who, as we gather in reconciling communities, is always guiding us more deeply into truth. We trust one another as a result; if we trust the Spirit whose gives gifts to all seeking to follow Jesus, then we must trust the community of disciples in all its diversity enough to stay in relationship and keep wrestling.
God didn't give us hands, after all, so we could try to clap with one of them and show someone that we've got the answer, "piece of cake." God gave us hands so we could use them as Jesus did -- offering them to one another, healing, engaging God's mission together. God didn't give us words to end conversation, but rather sent the Word made flesh to dwell among us -- a living paradox of particularity and transcendence, of strength in weakness, of power in self-offering to empower others, of death on a cross and resurrection life for the world. And so the life of the Trinity is not a problem to be solved, but love we are called to live into, filled increasingly with God's joy and peace.
Thanks be to God!
Great Vigil of Easter and Easter Day principal service, Year C
There's a Franciscan fourfold blessing that I have long loved, the fourth blessing of which is this:
May God bless you with enough foolishness to believe that you really can make a difference in this world, so that you are able, with God's grace, to do what others claim cannot be done.
I think often of that blessing when I'm preaching, especially on texts like the Beatitudes and other difficult passages in the "Sermon on the Mount." Who really lives that way? Who honors the poor more than the rich? Who honors those who are reviled in society above the respectable people who judge them? Which of our parishes or other communities have shared our resources one another freely so that no one is "anxious about tomorrow"? Whom among us really cares for others' children as we do our own, as we would if we took seriously Jesus' saying that his family consists of not of those related by blood or marriage, but of those who "hear the word of God and do it"?
I remember one man in particular at one parish where I preached regularly who particularly enjoyed my sermons, but who almost always had a bit of a wry grin as he shook my hand to say so. When I asked him about the grin, he usually grinned a little wider, shook his head gently, and said with some affection something like, "What you say is very inspiring. But you're talking about how things are going to be in heaven, and we've got to be realistic here on earth." When pressed for more, he'd talk about how one can't really have a policy of turning the other cheek or forgiving others as God forgives us as long as there are criminals and terrorists around. He'd say that there wasn't much point in trying to address extreme poverty in Africa until all governments there were free of corruption. There was always a long list of things that would have to happen first on earth before we could live as Jesus lived and taught his followers to live -- a list that added up to, "Sure, we'll do all of that -- in God's kingdom. Until we're there, living this way would be foolish in the extreme."
I imagine that there were some folks inclined toward a similar kind of 'realism' among Jesus' earliest followers. I imagine that among the crowds at Jesus' sermons, there were many who heard what he said with great joy, but who almost without thinking laid assumptions around the message:
"Yes, that's how it will be -- once we rid the land of Roman oppressors."
"Absolutely -- when a son of David rules again from David's throne in Jerusalem, he'll make sure the poor are fed."
"I long for that day -- our enemies will be defeated once and for all, and then we can live in peace."
"I believe that all nations will know and worship God, once the evildoers are gone and the rest have embraced the whole Torah."
And what a glorious day, the Day of the Lord, when all of God's promises to God's people can be fulfilled, when God answers the prayer that Jesus taught us: "your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven"!
The Great Vigil of Easter is my favorite service of the liturgical year, I think, in part because of the way its journey through salvation history, through God's creating, loving, and redeeming God's people, renews my hope and anticipation of God's answering fully and finally that prayer. What a vision!
Ho, everyone who thirsts,
come to the waters;
and you that have no money, come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price.
Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy?
Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food.
Incline your ear, and come to me; listen, so that you may live.
I will make with you an everlasting covenant, my steadfast, sure love for David.
See, I made him a witness to the peoples, a leader and commander for the peoples.
See, you shall call nations that you do not know, and nations that do not know you shall run to you,
because of the LORD your God, the Holy One of Israel, for he has glorified you.
That's one of my favorite passages in scripture, expressing longings that I think we experience in the twenty-first century with as much intensity as God's people did in the sixth century BCE.
Everyone has the basic necessities of bread and milk and even the wine for celebration; none need be anxious, and all are satisfied.
There are no enemies to fear among the nations. I don't know if you sometimes have the feeling I do just before I pick up a newspaper -- that distant feeling of "what now?" dread -- but that feeling has become a distant memory, as people of all nations rush to embrace, not to attack.
I love the opportunity the Great Vigil gives us to spend time rolling texts like this over our tongues to take in their richness, to close our eyes for a moment to enter into the prophets' vision of the world's redemption. There is no better preparation to receive the Good News of Easter that God has raised Christ Jesus from the dead.
Especially in cultures as individualistic as mine, I think it's often too easy to miss the ways in which this Easter message is Good News for the whole world. The Good News of Easter is not just "Jesus rose from the dead, so we too can live after we die," as numerous mystery religions of the Roman world promised through their gods. And it's worth remembering that Jesus' resurrection isn't the first resurrection in the gospels; God's power raised others, such as Lazarus, before.
But Jesus' resurrection is different. It's not different only because Jesus won't die again, as Lazarus will. The way St. Paul put it in 1 Corinthians 15 is that Jesus' resurrection is "the first fruits" of Creation's end, or telos. "End" can mean quite different things in English, as telos can in Greek. It can mean a final stopping. It can mean death. And when we use the phrase "the end of the world," that's usually the kind of "end" we have in mind -- we're talking about destruction and death. But that's not what Paul is talking about when he talks about Christ's resurrection as the "first fruits" of a harvest that includes "the end." Paul is talking about the fulfillment of our hope in Christ, as Christ fully and finally delivers the kingdom, putting an end to every oppressive power and principality, everything that held the world back from its telos of joy, love, peace, and freedom.
Jesus' ministry up to his death on the Cross -- his healing, forgiving, teaching, breaking bread with any who would eat with him, and gathering a community who would continue these practices in remembrance of him -- was a series of early installments of the telos of the world that God promises -- God's kingdom, where Isaiah's vision is fulfilled, come and God's will done on earth as it is in heaven. When Jesus was crucified, dying a death considered shameful, nearly all who heard of it would have thought of it as putting an end to Jesus, to his movement, to hope in him as the Christ. Nearly all would have seen it as proof positive that Jesus was wrong about what God wanted from humanity, wrong in saying that his gathering and blessing the impure and outcast was God's action, wrong about all of those outrageous teachings that preachers today try to explain away.
But then the God of Israel raised Jesus from the dead. The resurrection of the righteous that some expected at the end has started NOW, and everything that Jesus said about and did to bring about God's kingdom has been affirmed by the righteous judgment of the God who raised him.
As R.E.M. would say, it's the end of the world as we know it -- and I feel fine. Creation's telos -- the love, joy, peace, and freedom for which the world was made -- starts NOW. Perhaps my friend is right that Jesus' way of life can only be lived by the rest of us in God's kingdom, but in Jesus' ministry -- now the ministry of the Risen Christ -- God's kingdom starts NOW. It starts among us. It starts wherever two or three gather in Jesus' name to live into the reality of Jesus' work in the world.
Of course, I'm not saying that everything that's going to happen to bring Creation to its telos has already happened. A person could figure that much out with a newspaper, if Paul's letters weren't at hand. But the Good News of Easter is reason enough to toss our list of things that have to happen before we can experience God's kingdom among us -- before we can live into the way of Jesus -- and invest the energy we formerly devoted to making such lists to look for the Risen Christ and his work in the world. As Paul wrote:
Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin. For whoever has died is freed from sin. But if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. The death he died, he died to sin, once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.
God has raised Jesus from the dead, and NOW -- not in some distant future or in some other world -- those of us Baptized into Christ's Body have been freed from slavery to sin, and are free to live with Christ in the way of Christ. The first fruits have been gathered in, and a more plentiful harvest is ripening. Tell everyone the Good News -- as St. Francis would say, using words if necessary. We have the opportunity to participate in the spread of God's kingdom in ways more powerful than words -- in doing justice, in proclaiming peace, in embracing the outcast, in treating the most vulnerable among God's children with the care we'd give our own flesh and blood. God has in Easter given us all the proof we need that the time has come:
Christ is risen!
Alleluia! And thanks be to God!
April 6, 2007 in 1 Corinthians, Easter, Eschatology, Inclusion, Isaiah, John, Justice, Kinship/Family, Luke, ONE campaign/Millennium Development Goals, Resurrection, Romans, Year C | Permalink | Comments (1)
First Sunday in Lent, Year C
Deuteronomy 26:1-11 - link to NRSV text
Psalm 91:1-2, 9-16 - link to BCP text
Romans 10:8b-13 - link to NRSV text
Luke 4:1-13 - link to NRSV text
Over Advent and Christmas in 2004/2005, I was working in a parish where I was on the regular rota of preachers. On this particular year, I preached on December 19 -- the last Sunday of Advent -- and then again on January 2, in the season of Christmas. Had you asked me a month ahead of time what the thematic shift between those two sermons were going to be like, I probably would have talked about Advent as a time of tension between experiencing the world's brokenness and injustice and the hope we stake our lives on as Christians, that Jesus is coming to make all things new, and will complete what he has begun. When the Christmas sermon came around, I imagined would have been talking about Incarnation and celebration. When the time came, I was, in a manner of speaking, but in the meantime something had happened.
There was a tsunami in Southeast Asia, a devastating one, on December 26. 230,000 or more people swept away. Family members were torn from another before their eyes as they desperately tried to hold on to one another. It was a dark twist on some familiar texts:
For as the days of Noah were ... before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage ... and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away ... Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left (Matthew 24:37-41).
Dark texts about dark days. Advent texts.
What had I said in Advent? I'd tried to communicate a healthy awareness of the darkness in our world, the darkness that texts like Matthew 24 spoke from and to.
I talked about how the world's darkness sometimes seems relentless and inexorable if not impenetrable. And I talked about Advent hope. The sermon was called "Dancing at the World's End"; its central image was of the Berlin Wall -- a symbol when I was growing up of the Cold War that we all thought would end in nuclear war and winter, the end of the world. I talked about the day people started tearing that wall down -- when I lived in Scotland, close enough to join my fellow students who were streaming to Berlin in droves to dance on the wall's ruins. I didn't go -- I had classes, after all, a job waiting on tables, no time off and little money. And I talked about how little all of those seemingly important obstacles were in light of the change that was happening, the history I could have witnessed firsthand, the joy I could have shared with all those who were there. I asked myself and those in the church on that day what we might do if we were going to live in Advent hope -- seeing in the darkness the signs that the world -- the whole world of big and banal evils, of suffering and despair and death -- was crumbling before our eyes. If the Berlin Wall coming down was a change worth my skipping class and letting the waitressing take care of itself (and I believe with all my heart it was), what is it worth, what would we leave behind and what would we take up, to be present to dance on the ruins of sin and death itself?
Advent hope. That Advent, I spoke of it primarily as an antidote to what we wealthy Westerners sometimes call "the grind," which can feel oppressive enough. Hope can feel bold in the midst of that.
And then, the second day of Christmas, the waters came. The images and the stories of the tsunami itself were devastating; the reminder of just how many quieter but more devastating floods hit the most vulnerable:
About every six months, a tsunami's worth of women dying in entirely preventable ways while giving birth, and another tsunami's worth of people dying of HIV/AIDS.
Every week, just short of a tsunami's worth of children under five dying of preventable or treatable diseases like malaria.
The list goes on. We've heard about these things before, and most of us have wept about them before. And of course, I'm talking about things I've talked about before. The best thing I could think of to do in the pulpit in that dark Christmas season was to reclaim a familiar carol as a protest song:
No more let sin and sorrow grow
or thorns infest the ground
he comes to make his mercies flow
far as the curse is found.
"Far as the Curse Is Found." That's what I called the sermon.
I'm sorry to spend so much time rehearsing the past, but it's present in my mind once more this week. Our world is still troubled by much of what troubled us as I sang from the pulpit a little over two years ago. And I have many, many friends whose hearts are breaking this week. There are all the things I read about in the papers, of course, and more. Mothers worried about their sons and daughters at war, or wounded by war. Friends worried about friends who are addicts hurting themselves and others. People of all sorts and conditions who held out hopes for the meeting of our Anglican Primates (archbishops and other heads of churches) that were dashed in ways that felt deeply personal.
A world of grief. A world of anger. A world of hurt.
Where's our happy ending? Didn't God promise a land, an inheritance, freedom from slavery and from fear that would be celebrated with feasting? What of the psalmist's song?
There shall no evil happen to you,
neither shall any plague come near your dwelling.
For God shall give his angels charge over you
to keep you in all your ways.
What of the scriptures St. Paul quoted to the churches in Rome, that "No one who believes in him shall be put to shame" and "Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved?" How can someone in real grief and real hurt open the bible and find anything helpful when real suffering comes on like a flood?
She can, I can, you can because the bible isn't that book that a lot of us heard about in Sunday School -- the one that says that we should be quiet, good, and cheerful in a world of smiling white guys who look a little like hippies patting the heads of fresh-faced children and snow-white cartoon sheep. It isn't a book that says that we should all be nice because everything is really OK. Read a book like Luke-Acts closely and you'll see a group of people grappling hard with hard questions, real oppression, serious pain.
Something stood out to me right away when I revisited the portion of Luke we'll be reading this Sunday, the first Sunday in Lent:
Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil.
Full of the Holy Spirit -- led by the Spirit -- tempted by the devil. These aren't phrases linked naturally for a lot of us, I think. For a lot of us, when we're in a desolate place, we're likely to ask what we did wrong. How could we be led by the Holy Spirit and be in a place like this?
The people who wrote and read Luke-Acts asked questions like this too, I think. Some had left not only their homes, but their spouse, sisters and brothers, parents, and children for the sake of God's kingdom, and they were often met with persecution for it. Journey with these people and you've got company in your pain. They know what's wrong with the world -- enough to say even that the glory and authority of the world's kingdoms have been given to the devil. They know that sometimes -- too often -- the kingdoms of this world reward what Jesus called evil (and by the way, I'm not talking about homosexuality).
All of that is very, very real to the Christians we walk alongside as we read Luke-Acts. When we follow Jesus, we walk with and behind sisters and brothers who have known pain and oppression.
And let's not gloss over that, because without seeing that, we can't take in the full impact of the Good News they share with us:
That Jesus the Christ, full of the Holy Spirit, came to confront all the powers of sin and death, everything that separates us from one another, from God, and from the joyful, peaceful, loving life for which God made us -- and Jesus won.
Jesus won on the Cross, and we're going to talk a lot about that in the days to come, but let's not skip ahead. We don't need to. On this first Sunday in Lent, Luke shares with us the Good News that Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, confronted the devil directly AND WON.
As Sue Garrett points out, the story of Jesus in the wilderness that we read this week is an early installment of the outcome her book's title points toward as a major theme in Luke's gospel: The Demise of the Devil. This isn't just the story of Jesus being tempted in the wilderness, in which Jesus doesn't give in and a stalemate is declared. It belongs in an extensive tradition of stories in which Satan's or the devil's retreat in the face of the godly hero's strength isn't a coffee break, but a defeat, as in The Testament of Job (27:2-6):
And as he [Satan] stood, he wept, saying, "Look, Job, I am weary and I withdraw from you, even though you are flesh and I a spirit. You suffer a plague, but I am in deep distress. I became like one athlete wrestling another, and one pinned the other. The upper one silenced the lower one ... because he showed endurance and did not grow weary, at the end the upper one cried out in defeat. So you also, Job ... conquered my wrestling tactics which I brought on you. Then Satan, ashamed, left me for three years.
(Garrett, p. 42)
The language of Luke's gospel this Sunday echoes that of such stories -- this isn't a stalemate, but a victory.
And yet it's not the final victory. We (well, maybe I should speak for myself alone, but this does seem at least to be an American "prosperity gospel" tendency at least) accustomed to thinking of victory of evil as preventing pain, or at least ending it. In this Sunday's gospel, victory over evil involves a willingness to endure pain in confronting the powers that oppress and divide us. It's the devil, not God, who promises safety and success. But it's God, working in Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, who wins. This is, in the end, God's world -- as it was in the beginning. God's light has shone in the darkness, and the darkness has never extinguished it.
We see and taste God's goodness and the wholeness for which God made Creation in countless small and breathtaking ways -- in sunrises and laughter, in an embrace or a shared tear, and even in chocolate (which I'm convinced is the single most underutilized argument for the existence of a gracious Creator). But chiefly we see it in the life and ministry among us of Jesus the Christ, who knew pain and desolation and betrayal as well as laughter and peace and love. Luke in particular promises glimpses of Jesus' final victory over the very real destructive forces at work in the world -- not just fleetingly and rare, but as regular nourishment for the journey.
If we are to start this journey with Jesus, or to enter more deeply and intentionally into it, or to better notice, know, and learn from our companions on that journey, I can think of no better time than this Lent. If your heart is breaking, so is mine; walk with me, and our stories and prayers will sustain us. If you're laughing, so do I; let's share it, and lighten the way. Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, was led into desolation and victory, and is company for us both in the full complexity of the winding path we're on together toward healing and reconciliation.
Thanks be to God!
February 23, 2007 in Advent, Apocalyptic, Current Events, Deuteronomy, Eschatology, Luke, ONE campaign/Millennium Development Goals, Pastoral Concerns, Psalms, Romans, Scripture, Temptation, Year C | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack
Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany, Year C
I hope you'll pardon me if I start with a shameless plug, as the gospel passage for this Sunday and my reading of it play a substantial role in the Connect course I wrote with John de Beer, one of the founders of the Education for Ministry (EFM) program.
Connect is a six-week exploration of what it can mean to connect to a Eucharistic community. It takes place in small groups that invite participants to gather over a dinner to reflect on and share their own stories, and to explore what it might mean to see those stories in context of the larger story of God's love and redemption of the world. The experience of gathering, breaking bread, inviting, experiencing, and acknowledging God's presence among the gathered community, and exploring what God's call might be to each of us is in itself a sacramental experience that helps unchurched participants, should they decide to join the congregation for worship, understand and have made personal connection with the liturgy of the Eucharist.
One of the most interesting things about Connect for me is that we have released it on an "open source" basis. You don't have to pay anything at all to download it or use it; you do, however, commit to sharing any adaptations or modifications you make to it on the same basis as Connect itself is distributed. The practical advantages of "open source" development and distribution are clear from what they've done for programs like the Firefox web browser, which can offer extensive support from others who use the product and innumerable "plug-ins" and translations that make it more stable and more useful to more people. That's my hope for distributing Connect on an "open source" basis -- and I hope it will inspire others developing resources to do the same.
I also have a theological reason for this approach to Connect's "open source" way. The dinners in Connect are designed to give people an experience of what they're hearing about in Jesus' ministry. They are welcomed to a community that understands that they have gifts to offer the community, including their story, and that encourages them to offer their gifts. They experience a small taste of what it's like to be in a community that lives as one Body and shares with one another as freely and graciously as God is with us. And I think those messages are also underscored by Connect being "open source." As developers of the course, we're sharing what wisdom we've got, but we assume that you all have gifts that could make it much better, and appropriate for use in far more communities. Because Connect is "open source," those who have expressed interest in versions for university campuses, Native American communities, Australian cultural settings, and numerous other communities have been free -- applauded, even -- for taking the Connect materials, modifying them appropriately, and letting us know what you've done and how it worked.
In short, rather than seeing evangelism and Christian formation as a "pie" of a market with all of us competing for slices, we've started, continued in, and pray to finish faithful to a central point in Jesus' teaching and ministry:
God's love and grace are so abundant as to be inexhaustible, and the more we enter into that, the more we joyfully seek to extend that kind of grace to others, and with all of God's good gifts. I'm not talking about feeling 'guilted' into generosity toward others, about being generous so God will notice and finally give us love and approval we've found to be too rare in our lives, or about trying to earn some kind of generosity medal that will help us get some other limited and valuable commodity, like others' respect.
I'm talking about a personal transformation that can transform the world: I'm talking about LIVING with a deep sense that there is more than enough of "the good stuff" -- the things our truest selves, the people we were made to be in Christ, want, need, and enjoy. I'm talking about an end to the constant, creeping anxiety I've seen so much pastorally in communities -- especially the wealthiest and most powerful communities (so many of which are filled with wealthy people so overextended financially to afford those grand homes in the neighborhoods with the good schools that they are a single paycheck from bankruptcy) -- as we worry about whether we have or can accumulate enough to shield ourselves and our loved ones from illness, danger, and deprivation. I'm talking about the kind of emotional freedom and deep peace that comes when we no longer feel the need to worry about whether we can get enough love, peace, or approval. I'm not talking about what Bonhoeffer called "cheap grace"; I know the cost of discipleship can be steep in worldly terms. It's more than worth it, though -- not only because the shallow "peace" and "freedom" we get from accumulating resources and respectability for ourselves isn't nearly what it's cracked up to be, but also and more importantly because the abundance of real joy, peace, and love we can find following Jesus really can give us the true, eternal, and abundant life for which we thirst, and can let us start living into it now.
What I'm talking about it illustrated very well in this Sunday's gospel.
As Jesus comes across the fishers on the lake of Gennesaret, it's not hard to see how they could have concerns weighing profoundly on them. These are poor fishers. Every day as they go to their boats, they have to be wondering to themselves, "Will I catch enough fish today?" They have families to feed, and on top of that they have to get access to and repair the boats, get and maintain the nets. Fishing rights on the lake could cost them nearly half of a catch, and they were often paid far less than their catch was worth besides. Life was precarious at best, and it wasn't always at its best. One storm, one rotten stroke of luck could spell disaster.
So every day, a nagging worry: "Will we catch enough fish today to survive?"
And then Jesus calls them. They respond, and let down their nets once more. And in an instant, the central question in their life changes.
They have caught such abundance that they can't spare a moment to ask the now-ridiculous question of "Will we catch enough fish for my family to survive?" -- the far more urgent question is "Can we gather enough people to take in this abundance such that it doesn't swamp the boat?" Their lives are forever changed; as Jesus says, "from now on, you will be catching people."
What would it mean for us to hear Jesus' call to a similar transformation? I'd like to dream aloud about that a bit.
What would my life look like if I always looked with joy upon others' accomplishments, and without the slightest niggling doubt of whether they mean that others will grab limited slots for (you name it -- ordination, employment, perception of "hipness")?
What would my household budget look like if it was guided more by a concern for others' immediate needs to sustain life than by a worry of what would happen to me if my car broke down, I got sick with something that would leave me with bills I couldn't pay, or I didn't have money for tuition?
What would church politics look like if the basis for our every plan was the certain knowledge that God is providing what we need for our participation in God's mission, and therefore there is no need to grasp at what others have? If we believed and lived the conviction that God's grace and love are such that we don't have to choose any population to shut out or shout down, and can afford to "strive to outdo one another in showing honor," as St. Paul writes in Romans 12:10? What if we took energy spent on competing for shares of budgets and used it to foster generosity to increase them?
What would the world look like if those of us who seek to follow Jesus let him transform our lives around the central question, "How will we gather enough people to share God's abundance?"
Among other things, I suspect that the Millennium Development Goals would then seem less like an audacious vision we hope to achieve IF (and only if) everything goes smoothly and no other needs arise, and more like a helpful, albeit modest, first step. Fully funding them would be a given -- we NEED all of these people, all of these children of God, to take in the abundance God gives! We can't afford to lose a single one to what U2's singer Bono calls "stupid poverty" -- this poverty that we can eliminate with resources we've got. And there is no one too conservative or too progressive or too anything else to justify ignoring or slighting their gifts. I have faith that God has given each and every one of us something else in immeasurable, overflowing abundance, and that's compassion.
That might sound hard to believe at first. Steve Cook has done an outstanding job in his post this week on Isaiah 6 sketching some of the ways in which we can choose a path that desensitizes us to both the pain and the gifts of those around us in a way that can become a vicious circle (as U2 puts it, "You become a monster / so the monster will not break you"). Each one of us has the capacity to experience God's compassion for us, and when we do, we will find it an urgent need every day to find others to help take it in and extend it to others in turn.
Thanks be to God!
[And if you're curious about Connect, you can get more information on it and on the other two parts of the Klesis (from the Greek word for "call") program to which it belongs and can download Connect for free here.]
Trinity Sunday, Year B
Those of you who plan to tackle the doctrine of the Trinity this Sunday might want to check out my sermon from Trinity Sunday in 2003, and I've blogged about this Sunday's gospel here and penned a lectionary reflection on it for The Witness here. I'm grateful for this Sunday's selection of readings, though, as the reading from Romans works particularly well with John 3. The point of being "born from above" or "born again" in John's gospel is not what those of us from individualistic cultures tend to emphasize when we talk about it, namely the chance for an individual to have a new beginning.
To be sure, Christ does offer new beginnings, new life, the possibility of real and important change for the individual. I wouldn't want to lose that; it can be a healing and liberating word in cultures like mine. If I had doubts before, the teenager who commented on the "Finger-paining and Forgiveness" post on Grace Notes, my personal blog, would have dispelled them. I'd posted about an activity I did with the high school youth group at the last parish I worked in. That activity was in part my answer to another activity that's often done in youth groups, usually in a "True Love Waits" context to encourage teenagers not to have sex. What happens is that the group is broken up into teams, with each team getting a tube of toothpaste, a paper plate, and some toothpicks. The teams are then told to race to see who can get all the toothpaste out of the tube first. Once that's done, the teams are told they must race to see who can get the toothpaste back in the tube using the toothpicks. It's a hopeless task, of course, and once the teams give up, the youth group leader shouts, "Aha! And neither can you get your sexual purity back once you've given it away!" It's my opinion that this activity -- especially if the application is about sex -- is awful. I don't think that leaders build trust when even in a game they ask people to do something they don't really want or expect to be done. More importantly, I think the message of the activity slights God's power to redeem. Instead, my youth group did an activity where we each wrote (symbols and such were fine, as it was only for the writer's eyes) one or more arenas in which we'd like to see God's transformation and healing. We offered those with the general confession, and burned them. That much wasn't new to the group. But then we took that ash, and stirred it into some tubs of white finger paint, and the group was invited to use that and all of the other colors to make a mural. At first, the group was reluctant ("yuck -- we have to use the ashy gloppy stuff too?"), but they plunged in with vigor. And what they found is that the "icky gloppy stuff," when incorporated into a larger picture with other colors, other textures, other ideas from a larger supportive community, wasn't icky any more. And we talked about redemption and what it means to us.
I believe that God is working that kind of redemption in us individually as we journey with a community seeking God. And yes, I believe the "born again/born from above" talk in John 3 does bring in some of that kind of redemption. But like the "Finger-painting and Forgiveness" activity, John's language of rebirth has its greatest power, I think, because it's about incorporation into something larger than ourselves. Because although God loves us with as much intensity as God would if each one of us were the only person in the world to love, God in God's love sets us in community. When we are "born from above," we are born into a family of faith, with God as our father and mother, Christ as our eldest brother, and with countless others beloved by God as our sisters and brothers.
This transformation isn't without cost: being "born from above" into the family of faith renders all other ties of blood or nationality irrelevant, and in a culture that says "God, mom, and apple pie" in the same breath, taking Jesus' word seriously can make a person seem eccentric at best and dangerously antisocial at worst. Being "born from above" dislocates us from the network of relationships we were born into in flesh and blood. But God doesn't just dislocate; God relocates us in a new network of relationships -- sometimes even with the same people. We can see our families not just as a set of cultural obligations or a path to respectability, and we don't have to relate to one another in the rigidly constructed ways our culture might dictate. We are invited to relate to others, whether related to us by blood or not, as sisters and brothers, beloved children of the same loving God.
Take that deeply in, and you'll find much more transformed than just your inward disposition. Take in that every child of God is your sister or brother, and you'll feel personally swept up in wanting each one fed, given clean water, an education, decent health care, a real chance in life. Take in that every child of God is your sister or brother in a family of faith following Jesus, and you'll find yourself with genuine desire and taking pleasure in coming closer to the kind of free and full interchange of every gift to which you have access that characterizes the communion of the Trinity.
That's bound to transform your life, your outlook, your heart, your mind. But that's not all. The global fellowship of those living more deeply into that network of relationships characteristic of those "born from above" will transform the world, as questions of what is most loving for others become central even with respect to our sisters and brothers we've never met, those in generations to come and across the globe. That's revolutionary -- and that's Christ's gift to us in an eternal life that starts NOW.
Thanks be to God!
Day of Pentecost, Year B
Sometimes, in my more cynical moments, I think that the phrase "Holy Spirit" for us tends to be something we stitch into sentences to lend them more authority. "Spirit" is for many people a nebulous kind of word denoting a vague feeling of enthusiasm. We "get in the spirit of things" and have "spirit squads" at football games. It's interesting to me also how frequently the word is used in everyday situations in which the speaker is trying to get those listening to conform to an expectation: "where's your team spirit?" for example.
It's often not all that different in the church. The Holy Spirit doesn't get all that much airtime in a lot of pulpits aside from the Day of Pentecost, and when she does, this talk often functions primarily to lend a spiritual authority to a proposed course of action in a way that people find it difficult to contest. Say "I think that this candidate for youth minister is the best fit for the congregation" and people can talk about whether or not that's so; say "as I prayed about this, I sensed that the Spirit is calling this candidate" -- especially if you're wearing a collar -- and a lot of folks will find it difficult to refute, or even to find more evidence to affirm except for similarly vague testimony: "oh yeah ... as soon as I hard you say that, it just resonated with me." I'm sure you can think of examples you've heard in which "this is what the Spirit is doing" translates roughly to "I feel pretty good about this course of action."
I don't believe it's quite as nebulous as that, and this Sunday's readings are an excellent starting place (to which I'll add a couple more as we go on) from which to think about discernment of the Holy Spirit's activity, the question of what the Holy Spirit is doing among us and how we can participate in it -- something that I think has some important things to say especially to those of us in the Episcopal Church who are looking toward General Convention this month.
Most of what I have to say boils down to this:
The Holy Spirit is the person who empowers those called by God to participate in God's mission.
That mission is reconciling all the world with one another and with God in Christ. That's the grand arc of what the Spirit is doing -- empowering participation in that mission.
We see it in Isaiah 44 and Acts 2. Isaiah says:
For I will pour water on the thirsty land,
and streams on the dry ground;
I will pour my spirit upon your descendants,
and my blessing on your offspring.
They shall spring up like a green tamarisk,
like willows by flowing streams.
This one will say, "I am the LORD's,"
another will be called by the name of Jacob,
yet another will write on the hand, "The LORD's,"
and adopt the name of Israel.
Acts 2 describes a community gathered from all nations -- people divided by language and culture brought together on pilgrimage and sent forth in mission. Prior to Acts 2, this assortment of pilgrims were not a people. They gathered in Jerusalem to celebrate the feast of Pentecost, the feast of the giving of the Law in the desert, where wandering tribes were formed as one people of Israel. And as we follow the story of these pilgrims of Acts 2 who were gathered, empowered, and scattered to see others of every nation similarly empowered, we see more of what God's mission is.
As I've written about before, we see in Acts 4 in particular that the reconciliation in which these people were to participate was no pious abstraction; it had and has dramatic material consequences for how we live together in the world. Acts 4:34 says directly (in the Greek -- most English bibles are missing a crucial conjunction here) that the apostles' testimony had power, FOR those who had houses and lands sold them to make sure that there was not a needy person left. And lest we think that's just about a local congregation and we have no obligation to others whose faces we haven't seen, the collection for famine-stricken Jerusalem (portrayed in Acts 11:27-30 as well as in St. Paul's writings) shows that all who are Baptized into Christ's Body, all who share Christ's Body in the Eucharist, are bound to care for others around the world as for their own family, their own flesh. As surprising as it was to see that kind of care between people from across the known world in Acts, perhaps it shouldn't have been so very surprising given how prophets such as Isaiah portray the Spirit's activity: in drought that brings famine, the Spirit brings the waters that give life to the land and those who live by it; and among those judged to be no people, beyond the bounds of those for whom one need care, the Spirit testifies to adoption as God's beloved children and our family.
That's what the Spirit does. The Spirit makes us one -- not like people bound to one another and tossed into a sea where their ties to one another paralyze and drown, but brought into relationship with one another that is as free as it is close, that is life-giving air and light. It's a unity that is not, as Paul makes clear, uniformity. Sisters and brothers in Christ have distinct gifts for ministry and mission. Like Peter and Paul in the conflict Paul describes in Galatians 2, they may hold radically different or even mutually exclusive opinions on vitally important issues -- issues all sides hold to be about the very truth of the Gospel and the call of God's people. What Christians may NOT do, however, is treat one another as expendable; they may not leave sisters and brothers hungry, thirsty, bereft of family and of honor.
That's not a "thou shalt not" in a finger-wagging way, or in a "do this or get kicked off Christian island" code; it's a function rather of our very identity. Those immersed in the life of the Spirit are caught up in what the Spirit is doing. And the Spirit is fueling the reconciliation of the whole world with one another and with God in Christ. We can choose to fight it or we can choose to ride it (and those who have done both know very well which option is exhilarating work and which is solely exhausting!), but that's the wave swelling in the world God made and loves.
What does recognizing that mean -- and what does it mean especially for discernment? St. Augustine put it very concisely when he said, "Love God and do what you will." At first glance, that sounds like a recipe for libertine excess. Do WHATEVER I will? But that ignores the first part of the statement: "Love God." Loving God isn't a warm fuzzy feeling, though we may have those feelings at times; it's a choice to be in relationship with God, to align oneself with what God is doing in the world. That's not the same as trying to accomplish on our own steam what we think God wants to happen. I've blogged before about the common misconception that surfing is about paddling hard enough to propel oneself down the wave, when really it's about finding a spot on the wave and pointing oneself in a direction such that the gravity which pulls you down its face is also moving you parallel to the beach, always to that next section where the wave hasn't yet broken. In that sense, surfing isn't so much about paddling as it is about falling; gravity is the chief force at work, and the wave arranges things such that gravity can take you where you need to go if you point yourself in the right direction. The Spirit is moving; the wave is swelling. Love God: point yourself in the direction the wave is going. The rest is graceful falling.
That's why Jesus could summarize the Law as loving God and loving neighbor -- a statement that Paul echoes in Romans. Paul spent most of his ink trying to help communities figure out what all that implied in practical terms, of course, and communities from before his time to our own time and beyond have disagreed passionately about the specifics. Paul's list of specific was pretty short, if Galatians 5 is any indication: exploiting one another, treating people as objects and objects as God, is out; love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control are in. There is no law against this fruit of the Spirit. One may as well try to outlaw the tide, for all the luck you'll have enforcing it and all the fun you'll (NOT) have in the attempt.
So how do we experience the Spirit? We look for places in ourselves, in our communities, and in our world in need of reconciliation and we plunge into the healing and wholeness that God in God's grace is bringing into being. We participate in racial reconciliation, in sharing resources and passing laws that narrow the gulf between rich and poor, in looking for signs of that reconciliation happening and fruit of the Spirit growing in those around us and those seemingly unlike us -- because we're not so different in the one thing that matters, in whose children we are and in our call to live more deeply into that reality.
That's be to God!
Third Sunday in Lent, Year B
"I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do."
When St. Paul wrote this in Romans 7, it wasn't about a lack of willpower, and it wasn't saying that obeying the Law's commandments was impossible. After all, we're talking about the guy who said in Philippians 3:6 that he was "as to the Law, blameless."
St. Paul believes that he did obey the Law's commandments; he also believes that while he was doing that, he accomplished "not ... the good I want, but the evil I do not want," as he says in Romans. Paul's problem, as he came to understand it, was that while obeying the commandments -- from the "big ten" to the last ordinance -- he became "as to zeal, a persecutor of the church" (Philippians 3:6). Acts 8:1 reports that when the blood of Stephen, the first Christian martyr, was spilled, Paul was there, looking with approval.
Paul's very zeal to do God's will led him to participate, by a consistent pattern of "things done and left undone," in the death of people like Stephen. That bloodshed haunted him throughout his life. Those deaths placed Paul in a "body of death" (Romans 7:24) from which no amount of zeal could rescue him -- until he met the risen Jesus, who rescued him from a body of death and made him a member of the Body of Christ. At least two things happened at once in Paul (and by the way, his name didn't change when he encountered Jesus. If you read Acts carefully, you'll see that continues to carry the name Saul after his Damascus road experience; most likely, as Roman citizens had three names, his first two names were "Saulus Paulus," and then his third name would be the family name by which citizenship came to his family) in that encounter:
He realized that Jesus was in fact God's anointed, raised by the God of Israel from the dead. It followed from that was that Paul had been horribly, tragically wrong in persecuting Jesus' followers.
He realized also as he was received by Ananias and the very church he had been rushing to persecute just how profound was the height and depth and breadth of the love of Christ -- and by extension, Christ's Body on earth. The Christians Paul met after he was blinded on the road didn't demand Paul's blood in retaliation for the blood Paul shed; they received him (however hard they had to gulp while doing so) as a brother.
Why would they do something like that? Why not just pick up a rock to hurl at Paul with regret only that Paul had just one life they could take in payment for the lives Paul had taken?
Because they understood that Jesus' death -- indeed, Jesus' whole life -- was putting an end to bloodshed. I preached about that last week (shout-out to the good folks of Trinity Cathedral in Cleveland -- what a wonderful congregation, and what great hosts!),
but this Sunday's gospel is another good entry point to that message.
This week, we hear the story of Jesus' actions in the Temple, actions often referred to as Jesus' "cleansing the Temple." I wish they weren't. "Cleansing the Temple" makes it sound like Jesus was just trying to straighten it up, purify it by removing things that shouldn't be there. The idea that Jesus' actions in this Sunday's gospel are "cleansing the Temple" is predicated on the assumption that moneychangers and dovesellers didn't belong in those courtyards, when there's no way that the Temple could function without them.
God's law, after all -- "God's will revealed in scripture," to use a phrase popular with a lot of preachers today -- demanded sacrifice. The sacrifices had to be unblemished: the Law required it, and so did common sense. Hey, you wouldn't give a chipped coffee mug to your kid's teacher -- why would you think it's cool to bring "factory seconds" to Yahweh? And it's not like no provision was made for the poor. The Law allowed the poor to offer a dove rather than a lamb in sacrifice. It just had to be an unblemished dove, and how much of a bummer would it be if you schlepped all the way to Jerusalem from your village in Galilee hauling a dove, only to find out once you got there that it wasn't going to make the grade? Selling animals suitable for sacrifice was a service.
And surely you remember the commandment not to make any graven image, right? It's one of the "big ten," after all -- the first one, to be precise (depending on how you number them, and Jews, Roman Catholics, and Protestants number them differently -- which is one more reason that we can't post a list of the Ten Commandments anywhere without it being a sectarian act). It's bad enough to have to deal at all with money bearing Caesar's image; it's beyond the pale to bear that image into the areas of the Temple where sacrifice is offered to the God who said (right up front in the "big ten") not to have any lord besides the Creator. Incidentally, this is another way in which Jesus is extraordinarily clever in Mark 12:13-17 and parallels, when Jesus is asked whether it's lawful to pay taxes to Caesar. When Jesus says, "hey, who's got a denarius with them" and one of his oh-so-scrupulous about the Law questioners produces one to show him, you can almost hear the "D'OH!" from them all when they realize that there they are in the Temple, and they've just been shown up for everyone to see as not having changed their money over in the courtyard to coinage that didn't bear Caesar's image. You bear Caesar's image into the Temple's inner courts, and you're making clear where your true loyalties are -- Caesar, not God. Money-changers in the outer courts are providing a service that, like the dove-sellers, is necessary for the Temple system to continue.
And Jesus will have none of it.
Jesus drives out the dove-sellers and the money-changers, without which people -- poor people, even (the dove-sellers are mentioned specifically) -- won't be able to offer their sacrifices. He's not "cleansing" the Temple -- he's ending it. That's why all four gospels report in connection with their report of Jesus' messing with the money-changers and sacrifice-sellers that Jesus prophesied the Temple's destruction.
Now why would Jesus do something like that? After all, isn't scripture clear that God wanted the Temple built and maintained, along with everything that was supposed to take place inside it?
This is an excellent case in point for how difficult it is to teach "what the bible says" about nearly anything: scripture is not by any means unanimous that Israel should have a temple (or, for that matter, a king). Writers from the priestly upper classes -- people who owed their livelihood to kings who claimed descent from Solomon and kings like Herod the Great, who wanted to be seen as ruling with Solomon's mantle, rather unsurprisingly are quite clear that God wanted the Temple built and commanded that sacrifices happen there. Prophetic writers like Isaiah never bought that agenda, though. Prophets like Isaiah say things like this:
Thus says the LORD:
Heaven is my throne
and the earth is my footstool;
wheat is the house that you would build for me,
and what is my resting place?
All these things my hand has made,
and so all these things are mine,
says the LORD.
Isaiah wasn't keen on animal or grain sacrifices either. He goes on to say:
Whoever slaughters an ox is like one who kills a human being;
whoever sacrifices a lamb, like one who breaks a dog's neck;
whoever presents a grain offering, like one who offers swine's blood;
whever makes a memorial offering of frankincense,
like one who blesses an idol.
These have chosen their own ways,
and in their abominations they take delight.
Prophets like Isaiah clearly were NOT charter members of the Society for the Preservation of the Temple. Nor did they think what God really wanted was more personal piety -- more fasts, more "devotional time," more bible study. Not that there's anything wrong with those things as such. But here's what they thought of as the kind of worship God really wants:
Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not hide yourself from your own kin?
Ever notice how often Jesus quotes Isaiah, especially relative to other biblical writers? It isn't hard to tell where Jesus falls on this question about what kind of worship God wants -- and just how little interest God has in a building. Actually, that's an understatement. Jesus didn't just think that God had little interest in the Temple; he thought that God was opposed to the Temple -- hence Jesus' running around the courtyards screaming things, and waving a whip, which was definitely not is usual style.
Solomon had built his temple on the backs of the poor, as kings tend to do. When kings launch some major project, they rarely pay for it themselves; it's the poor, the blind, the lame -- those who have the least to offer a monarch, and therefore get the least attention from the world's rulers -- who pay most dearly. They paid dearly under Solomon's reign. When Herod decided to demonstrate just how much he deserved the title of king and the nickname "the Great," he remodeled and vastly expanded the Temple, and -- as with all his building projects -- the poor under his rule paid most dearly. Herod got his massive and impressive building so God got a bigger and better place for bloodshed.
But God doesn't want blood.
God wants justice.
God wants the hungry fed, the sick cured, the prisoners set free. There will always be someone claiming that God wants another crusade, another war, another dose (or river) of blood to set things right, even the score. And when that happens, when the rulers and "men of vision" of this world launch their grand crusades, it's still the case that the poor pay most dearly. That's certainly the case in the country of my birth. We're embroiled in a war financed by cuts to programs serving those most in need -- well, that and an unprecedented level of debt that will impede our ability to feed the hungry for years to come, if not generations.
Could Jesus have been any clearer? I don't think that God ever wanted blood; I think Micah was right, and what God wanted from us from the start was for us to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God. God sent prophet after prophet to tell us that, and we contracted the world's most profound and persistent case of spiritual ear wax. So God in the unfathomable height and depth and breadth of God's mercy sent Jesus the Christ, and if we believe that his blood shed on the Cross was a perfect, full, and sufficient sacrifice, then the time has come for us to hear God's word and do it:
No more blood. No more death. Not another soul needs to die for anyone's sins. We've got far too much to do to devote a single penny or a single calorie to vengeance or war.
It's true that we've built up an astonishingly elaborate global system that widens the already vast gap between rich and poor, that plunders the earth's resources in ways that lower quality of life for all of us and (no surprise here) most of all for the poor, that pulls us harder and harder apart from one another and from God, and we can't by our own power extricate ourselves to participate in God's mission of healing and reconciliation.
But when we're ready to cry, "who will deliever me from this body of death?" we have have an answer: "Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!" No, I don't think that good progressive intentions coupled with sheer willpower are sufficient to save the world. Indeed, we saw in the early 20th century that those things can have a dark side -- it was good American progressives in what we call the Progressive Era who looked at the science of heredity and decided that forced sterilizations (or worse) of the "feeble-minded" and deviant (not coincidentally, that would mostly be poor people, and no eugenic scientist ever thought s/he was anything but the best of breeding stock) were a crucial part of a strategy to eliminate poverty. Zeal is not enough -- it's what got St. Paul in the pit he was in before he met Jesus. But zeal isn't all we've got:
We've got Jesus. We've got the Body of Christ, this astonishingly diverse worldwide family of sisters and brothers upon whom God has breathed God's Spirit. Listening deeply to one another -- and especially to the poorest and most marginalized among us -- is the best way to cure and prevent recurrence of spiritual ear wax. I'm not saying it's easy, and I'm not saying it isn't painful. It's hard and it hurts sometimes -- that's why Jesus said his followers had to take up the Cross. But we have to trust Jesus, who put his own life on the line, that this is the way to abundant life. And we need to stay in touch with the living, breathing, growing Body of Christ.
We can't free ourselves by sheer willpower, but Christ has freed us and set us in communities of fellow travelers to heal, to serve, and to love with all the power of the Spirit.
Thanks be to God!
Second Sunday in Lent, Year B
Mark 8:31-38 - link to NRSV text
I once heard a sermon suggesting that Jesus' command to deny self, take up the cross, and follow him could involve something as simple as picking up a beer can on the beach and throwing it away.
I don't agree.
I don't think such a thing could even be said in Jesus' time or Mark's. In their time, a cross wasn't a pattern for jewelry, but an instrument of terror as well as torture and death. Here's what I said about it last time I preached on Good Friday:
... the Cross is a dark place, a monument to how we, “blessed with reason and skill,” in the words of one of our Eucharistic prayers, make use of God’s gifts to engineer darker and narrower prisons for ourselves. The Roman culture that invented the cross was known for its ingenuity in making use of simple and natural forms for engineering. Shape stones a certain way, and they form an arch that will support tremendous structures, held together by gravity and friction in a way that makes mortar a mere formality. Chart the right pathway for it, and water can be propelled over a tremendous distance solely by natural gravity in aqueducts.
And perhaps the height of Roman engineering, ingenious in its simplicity, was the cross. Take heavy posts, and set them along the busy roads into the city. Set brackets in them to receive a horizontal beam. Nail or even tie a man’s hands to a beam, set that beam across the pole in brackets, and you have an excruciating form of torture and slow death that takes little time or effort to start but days to finish. Rulers like Pontius Pilate didn't hesitate to use it. It was diabolically simple, cost-effective and highly visible as a public deterrent to those who would oppose the might of Rome. During the Passover season, as Jerusalem became clogged with pilgrims remembering how their God liberates slaves from their oppressors, Pilate lined the roads with hundreds of crosses, each filled with a living tableau of how narrow and dark a prison we can make of our imagination when we set it upon wounding others.
In short, crucifixion was state-sponsored terror meant to keep the populace in line. It made one person suffer unspeakably, obscenely, excruciatingly, and made that suffering a sign for all to see that Rome was the ultimate power, able to bring hell on earth or peace and order.
Is that what the Cross signifies for us, then?
As St. Paul would say, by no means!
We can't realize (a word I'm using intentionally) the meaning of the Cross without taking a moment at least to look at what it meant to the empire that occupied Palestine in Jesus' day. If our heart skips a beat, if there's a sharp intake of breath, that's a good sign. The crosses along the roads of the Roman Empire weren't bits of litter that could be picked up and put away by anyone who “gives a hoot.” They formed a long, terrible gash, an open wound in human freedom, in the human imagination, in God's dream for humanity.
And yet it has become a sign of our freedom, our healing, the reconciliation of all Creation with one another and with God.
How is this? How can it be?
It can -- it is -- in Christ Jesus.
Across the Roman world, the cross was a symbol of power -- the power of empire, the power of armies, the power to dominate. As Christians, it still is the case that realizing the Cross' meaning has to involve us looking hard and talking honestly about power.
That's because the Cross isn't just about how Christ died. If the only thing we knew about Jesus was that he died on a cross, we would have no clue that Jesus was special. The Passover season was a time when the people of Israel were called to celebrate their liberation from oppression, and thousands upon thousands of people made their way to Jerusalem each way to do precisely that. Imagine for a moment those crowds on every street corner, and imagine the mood among those gathered to celebrate liberation. The combination made Roman authorities in Judea very nervous, and when Roman authorities got nervous, they tended to crucify first and ask questions later, or never. So in all likelihood, when Jesus died on a cross just outside Jerusalem's walls during the Passover season, he was surrounded not just by two men, but by dozens. In that sense, Jesus' death was nothing special. Even Jesus' resurrection would just be an item for “news of the weird” or grist for an episode of The X-Files or Smallville if all we knew about Jesus was that he died and then was alive again. If I told you that some guy named Jim Gundersen in MInnesota had been executed by the state, certified as dead, but was alive again three days later, Imost of us would be saying, “Huh, That's really weird,” not “Where is he? Tell me, so I can go worship him!”
The Cross isn't just about how Jesus died, nor is it simply a precursor to Jesus' resurrection. Jesus' death and resurrection have meaning for us because of the manner in which Jesus LIVED.
This, by the way, is why one of the most overused Christmas sermon titles is also one of the worst: “Born to Die.” Jesus was born to die, I suppose, in the sense that all of us are. St. Benedict teaches us to remember our mortality daily, much as we remind one another of our mortality on Ash Wednesday. But even that isn't really about death so much as it is about LIFE -- abundant life, a life of wholeness.
Jesus' manner of life, the way around which he gathered women and men and children to journey, infused his death with profound meaning. The Cross is about how Jesus LIVED. It's what St. Paul had in mind when he wrote this in his letter to the Christians gathered in Philippi:
If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross.
Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
Doing my lectionary weblog this year, I've noticed anew something about the Gospel According to Mark that I find significant as I think about Jesus' cross and what it might mean for me to take it up.
It has to do with the title “son of God,” which is not Mark's favorite way of talking about Jesus. He doesn't use the phrase much, but he uses it at three crucial points as he tells “the beginning of the Good News of Jesus the Christ, the Son of God,” and all of which we visit over the course of Lent and Holy Week.
We hear the phrase at Jesus' Baptism, when he has a vision of the Spirit descending upon him, and Jesus hears God call him as a beloved son. And empowered by that experience, Jesus enters the desert.
We hear the phrase at Jesus' transfiguration on the mountaintop, as Jesus is called as a prophet alongside Moses and Elijah, and once more hears God saying, “this is my beloved child.” Empowered by that experience, Jesus journeys toward his Passover in Jerusalem.
You may have noticed my saying “empowered.” These are stories about Jesus claiming his power. Is that hard to hear? We need to hear it, though. We need to hear it to understand Philippians 2, to realize the vision of the Cross. Because it's at the foot of the Cross that someone -- a Roman soldier no less, a man whose humanity has been so wounded, so eroded, so subverted that he could put another man on a cross -- finally gets what Peter doesn't get in this Sunday's gospel, and this Roman soldier looks at the broken man above him and says -- knows -- “truly this man was God's son.”
He gets it. He perceives Jesus' power in its fullness -- power made perfect in weakness, power poured out for the powerless.
That's the way of the Cross, of Jesus' cross. Jesus claims his power, God's power, and he gets it -- that real power, God's power, is not a limited thing to be grasped, but a inexhaustible stream flowing freely to refresh and empower the weary and the marginalized.
What, then, might it mean for us to take up our Cross and follow Jesus? It's not a call to martyrdom -- if nothing else, the teaching that Jesus' blood shed on the Cross was a perfect, full, and sufficient sacrifice for sin, it ought to tell us that Jesus' blood was the LAST blood to be shed because of sin. God does not need or want bloodshed. Not another drop. God does not call us to be a herd of lemmings. God calls us to be the Body of Christ, praying as Jesus taught us that God's kingdom would come and God's will done on earth as it is in heaven. Jesus taught us to seek God's kingdom and to seek it first -- to look for and journey toward God's dream given flesh in the world, in communities of justice and peace and hope and abundant, vibrant life.
This is a powerful congregation. We have power by virtue of our education, our relative wealth in the world, our privilege in society, our voice. It can be very tempting -- all too tempting -- to seek nothing more than charity. Charity is a start, but it can take us to a dangerous place in which we release some portion of our resources in order to get more power. We maintain a death grip on the unjust privilege that makes us wealthy, that gives us the illusion of control, and then we give away just enough to feel generous without seriously compromising our privilege.
The way of the Cross -- Jesus' way of life -- calls us to let go of that. Jesus' way calls us to be honest about the power we have -- both the worldly power we've got because of our skin color, our gender, our social class, our education, our birth in the most powerful nation in the world, and the spiritual power we have as a community upon which God has breathed the Spirit -- and then to let all of that pour out -- “let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5:24) -- to empower the poor.
We are called not only to make sure that the most marginalized have a place at the table, but also to recognize whose table it is. The table around which we gather belongs to Jesus the Christ, who saw, as Peter in this Sunday's gospel did not, that true power is made perfect in self-giving love, that the way of abundant life leads to the Cross. And the symbol of humanity's brokenness, of power corrupted to become domination, becomes a sign of peace, and freedom, and life.
Thanks be to God!
Fourth Sunday of Advent, Year B
When Mary heard the angel Gabriel address her as “favored one” and tell her, “The Lord is with you,” “she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.” “Perplexed” would be an understatement by the time the angel had left her. She was to bear a child, who would be called a son of God, and would receive the throne of David. “How can this be?” Mary asked.
Good question. It sounds impossible, and that business about Mary not “knowing” a man is just the beginning of the obstacles. As I preached about last year on the Fourth Sunday of Advent, Mary had to be wondering about how she'd survive until the baby's birth, once the village heard of her pregnancy. As in many cultures today, “honor killings” weren't infrequent in Mary's culture. If a woman had been sexually violated by a man -- even if it was against her will -- she could be killed, usually by her own father or brother, so the woman and her illegitimate child could no longer bring shame to the family. Joseph knew he wasn't the father of Mary's baby. If a man and a woman betrothed to each other had sex with each other and the village knew it, they were considered to be married; it was the “consummation” of the union that married the couple, not a religious ceremony. If Joseph intended to stay with Mary, he would have no reason not to acknowledge the child as his, so it's most historically plausible that our stories about Joseph not being Jesus' father stem from historical fact. And that fact had some nasty implications: if Mary's pregnancy became known and her father or brother didn't kill her, the scripture commanded the death penalty both for her and, if his identity were known, the man who had stolen Joseph's betrothed and gotten her pregnant.
So the odds are against Mary's surviving until the child's birth. And then, should others come to the conclusion Gabriel has about the child's identity, odds are against the child surviving. Herod the Great, who ruled as “king” with Rome's support, wouldn't have been very keen on another trying to claim David's throne and title. And the designation “son of god” was claimed by Roman emperors; anyone else acclaimed as a “son of god” by the populace was very likely to end up on a cross instead of a throne. And the paradox of this is that Jesus of Nazareth gets both, forever linking the two. God's kingdom, the fulfillment of Mary's song that God “has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts,” bringing down the powerful from their thrones and raising the lowly (Luke 1:52-53) will come not with the might of armies, but with Jesus' consistent and nonviolent ministry of reconciliation.
The story of God's angel proclaiming the Lord's favor on a young single mother gives us all a great deal to ponder this Advent. We live in a world in which one more child dies every three seconds from extreme poverty -- three hundred during an average Sunday sermon in an Episcopal Church, and sixteen hundred during each celebration of the Eucharist (thanks to Mike Russell for that powerful way of putting it), and yet God's promise is that through Jesus' work among us, the hungry will be filled with good things. We might ask, with Mary, “How can this be?”
But we're called to do more than ponder. We're called to bring the Good News of liberation to the prisoners, of food for the hungry, of the dignity of those considered lowly by the powers of this world. We're called to do that not just in words or song, but like Mary, giving flesh to God's hope, God's peace, God's justice, and God's love for the world.
How can this be? Through the faithfulness of the God who promises David that his house will be established forever, and whose promise is fulfilled, we believe, in Jesus. Through the power that gave Mary the courage to face her family, her betrothed, her village, and clothed her with dignity and grace throughout the village's pointing and whispering. Through the compassion that led Jesus to heal and empower the outcasts he encountered. And through the peace that comes of catching even a glimpse of just how deeply, passionately, and unconditionally God loves each of God's children.
Thanks be to God!