Proper 20, Year B
Sorry this week's entry is so late; I was encountering technical difficulties that now (thankfully!) are resolved.
What was Jesus talking about when he said, "Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me"? I've heard many a sermon linking this to Mark 10:13-16, in which Jesus says, "it is to such [children] that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it," and speculating about what qualities children have that Jesus is saying should appear among his followers: a child's innocence? playfulness? openness?
The problem with most of these readings is that they depend on a romantic view of childhood that's key in most movies by Stephen Spielberg but foreign to the cultures that produced the New Testament. Such readings overlook something that would occur immediately in the minds of adults in the first-century Mediterranean world, especially parents:
Fewer than half of children born would make it to adulthood.
In other words, the most salient characteristic of children for most first-century readers of this text would be that children are extraordinarily vulnerable -- perhaps the most most vulnerable in their society. First-century parents loved their children as all parents do, and children were also celebrated as the closest thing to social security in the ancient world -- if you were lucky enough to make it to old age, your children would most likely be your only means of support once you could no longer work. But children were generally the first to fall when disease or famine struck, or if the family for whatever reason became refugees, and a great many did. Children were vulnerable not only physically, but due to their low status in family and society. Even slaves could own property, for example, but children could not; they weren't considered people for the purpose of inheritance.
In other words, Jesus said that God's kingdom belongs to those to whom the world said nothing belonged.
What does this say to us? How might we live differently if we believed this to be true?
For a start, we might come to the conclusion toward which our reading for this Sunday from the book of Wisdom points (especially the part our lectionary rather unhelpfully brackets as optional). The world contends that the good things of the world are OURS to enjoy, that we can and should take what we can get for ourselves and our families, as "what is weak proves itself to be useless." The world contends that those whose "manner of life is unlike that of others" (Wisdom 2:15) can and should be tested with insult and torture -- especially if that manner of life is a challenge to us respectable and deserving people.
The world presents all of this as wisdom. Our scriptures present it as "unsound reason," spiritual blindness, a disaster. And the letter of James comes down even harder on Christians who act out worldly scrambling to grasp at resources, power, and status and to honor most those who have most within the church.
We get caught up in all of those zero-sum games, forgetting that, to paraphrase Lilly Tomlin, winning the rat race just makes me a prizewinning rat. I want to be more than that. More importantly, God made me for more than that. And so God offers you and me -- all of us -- a chance to be more than that, to opt out of the rat race, to respond to the world's contention that we are what we can say is OURS by instead looking at the world at every opportunity with the eyes of someone who, in the world's way of doing things, has been disqualified from owning and having.
We stop saying, "they're taking MY church away from me," and we recognize that it's God's church, and God has made room for those God has invited.
We ask God to deliver us from the presumption that it is in any way up to us to decide who deserves what we all want for ourselves and our children, and to give us the vision and courage to receive every child -- not just those we know or like, and not just those with whom we share a culture, a language, a social class, or a legal or genetic family link -- as a full, beloved member of God's family, as deserving as we are to share the good things that are God's gifts, not our property.
And we evaluate every system, every power, every choice based on what it will do for the most vulnerable, not those closest to us. In God's economy, that's the key index.
Thanks be to God!
Proper 15, Year B
I must confess that I find the Gospel According to John to be the most difficult of the canonical gospels, and I have to scratch my head sometimes when I hear people say things like, "If always tell people who've never read anything in the bible before to start with John -- it's the clearest of the gospels." The community that produced the Gospel According to John is the same community that produced the biblical book of Revelation, and the imagery that resonated with them as they sought to discern who Jesus is and how they're called to respond to his call in the midst of their profoundly difficult circumstances is at times strange, to say the least, if not not disturbing. This Sunday's gospel reading is an excellent case in point:
"Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink."
No wonder early Christians faced accusations of cannibalism! This is gross. And yet we recall this kind of imagery every time we participate in the Eucharist. As I receive the bread, I hear the words, "the Body of Christ," and then another phrase, usually, "the bread of heaven." As I receive the wine, I hear the words, "the Blood of Christ," and then usually "the cup of salvation." These four phrases have at least one thing in common:
Their meaning is obscure -- unless, minimally, you've spent a fair amount of time hanging out with and hearing from Christians. "The bread of heaven"? How would those words be understood by us were it not for their association with Christian liturgy and tradition? Another way to think about it is to ask how a hypothetical tourist from Mars who'd memorized a decent English dictionary but had little other exposure to Earth cultures might hear those words. "Bread from heaven," our Martian visitor might muse, "it surely can't be about its origin, as that woman over there bought it from a store called a 'church supply house,' and its ingredients -- none claimed to be extraterrestrial in origin -- are listed on the box. Perhaps they mean 'heavenly,' as in very good or pleasant -- but this stuff tastes like cardboard!" The phrase "cup of salvation" isn't much clearer to those without either significant association with religious people who use this language or at least significant study of them.
And that's half the point, I'd say. Bruce Malina and Richard Rohrbaugh point out a great deal of John's "antilanguage" -- language used by members of a marginalized in-group that only they understand fully, and that both expresses and furthers their sense of close relationship with one another -- in their Social-Science Commentary on the Gospel on John. Both "flesh" in this context and "blood" evoke imagery of sacrifice, and Christians in John's community understand Jesus' sacrifice on the cross to be THE sacrifice, like those commanded in the Mosaic revelation that made the Hebrews a people of the living God, a revelation accomplishing something even greater, broader, and more lasting than what Moses revealed.
When I say that I don't mean to participate personally in any "my tribe's miracles are better than your tribe's," but as difficult as it may be for us to accept in our scriptures, it is quite understandably present. Remember, the community that produced John was experiencing direct, severe, and life-threatening persecution from some of their neighbors and perhaps even family members in their synagogues. While it's very easy for me typing in my comfy chair in Cambridge to cluck about supercessionism, it's well worth remembering how different the impact of such language is in a society like John's, in which Christians were the smallest of minorities, and their 'alternative lifestyle,' which many Romans and Jews, also perfectly understandably, saw as anti-family and dangerously disruptive to the social order. In a society like mine, in which those who self-identify as Christian are a large and very powerful majority -- witness our country's very, very evangelical president and the religious leaders he invites to confer with him on matters of "faith-based" policy -- a powerful majority adopting "antilanguage" like that of the Johannine community, which was written to give comfort to a tiny, powerless, and persecuted minority, can wreak great destruction in God's name. Let the reader of the Left Behind series understand! But I digress.
My digression isn't entirely purposeless, though. I think the point is important to raise not only because of the prominence in American political discourse of powerful people making much of their identification as Christian and purporting that they are being marginalized and even persecuted because of it (leading Jon Stewart to muse on The Daily Show, "I dream of a world in which people -- even the president, or a Supreme Court justice -- may openly practice Christian faith, perhaps even openly wearing symbols of their faith in jewelry in public ..."). Jesus' shocking image of his flesh and blood as food and drink is significant not only for what it says about the closeness of its "antilanguage" community at the margins, but also because of what it says about the quality of relationships members of this community are called to live into.
Malina and Rohrbaugh hint at it when they rightly say that the language of "flesh" and "blood" evokes language of sacrifice, the fat and blood which is perceived as the "seat of life" -- life bestowed by God, and therefore belonging rightly only to God, not to be claimed by any other. But I don't think their discussion goes quite as far as I would on that point.
Yes, the Gospel According to John, as all the canonical gospels do to a greater or lesser extent, point to the cross as Jesus' sacrifice. But I find it particularly moving when the Johannine community -- a community keenly feeling fear, isolation, and betrayal in light of the persecution they are experiencing -- speaks of Jesus' sacrifice. John's gospel is one with a lot of bitter words for "the world" from which the community feels so alienated and threatened, but they are painfully, consistently clear in affirming nonetheless that "the world" that hates them is still "the world" which God so loves that he sent his only begotten son (John 3:16).
Flesh and blood are the seat of life -- life belonging only to God, life that can be claimed rightly only by God. And yet in Jesus, God has willingly poured out that life for the sake of the world -- not just the good people, the people who try hard to do the right thing, the people who praise and encourage the saints, but as much or more for the people who hate, and who act on their hatred, even to the point of killing a righteous woman or man, an innocent child. The biblical book of Revelation from this same community imagines what total and final vindication of a victorious judge of the nations and his followers might look like, and it pictures Jesus as anything but a cuddly and approachable pal (even the "Lamb of God" imagery isn't about a cute little sheep, as I've blogged about before), but even in the context of the final judgment, the Johannine Christians are given a "call for the endurance and the faith of the saints" in the strongest of terms that regardless of the violence their enemies inflict, they are not to resist with the sword (Revelation 13:9-10).
In other words, the community that produced the Gospel According to John produced testimonies to Jesus that underscore the community's tough circumstances, but that call for a response that, especially in their cultural context, would look anything but "tough" in the traditional, macho sense. And I'm grateful to those who crafted our lectionary for drawing attention to a point that J. Massynbaerde Ford writes about eloquently in her book Redeemer, Friend, and Mother: Salvation in Antiquity and in the Gospel of John: that there is potentially some strong feminine imagery in John's language about Jesus that we'll read together this Sunday.
Our lectionary's editors make their point in their choice for our first reading. It comes from Proverbs, which like other books in the genre of "Wisdom literature," personifies Wisdom as a woman. This Sunday, we receive in both our first reading and our gospel reading an invitation to see God acting toward humanity in ways associated specifically with the feminine. It's an apt pairing, Wisdom literature with the Gospel According to John; from the prologue to John's gospel (1:1-18) in its association of Jesus with the logos through which all Creation came into being to the gospel's conclusion, we find a great deal of language echoing Wisdom literature like Proverbs, portraying God in traditionally feminine roles of preparing dinner and laying the table, as in our first reading for this Sunday, or nursing children, providing nourishment for them from her own life, her own substance, her own breasts.
That's milk, of course, not blood. But Ford points out that in rabbinic writings and some ancient medical texts, the idea was expressed that breast milk WAS the mother's blood, transformed into milk for the child's benefit, with what was left becoming menstrual blood -- in either case, an expression (literally!) of a mother's pouring out of her own life in her love for her child.
In other words, when our next Presiding Bishop preached at General Convention of "mother Jesus," she was using imagery which is scriptural in John and other canonical portrayals of Jesus as Wisdom, as well as traditional in writings like those of Julian of Norwich. But there's no need to get hung up on the gendering of imagery if that's going to obscure the point -- the point of John's gospel, the point of the book of Revelation, the example of our crucified and risen Christ:
God so loves the world that God poured and pours out God's very life, very self, for our sake -- not because we were so good, but because we were hungry and thirsty and dying, and God made us to share God's wholeness, love, and eternal life. That pouring out of God's self for us is revealed most clearly in our tradition in Jesus the Christ crucified, but our scripture and tradition hold that it is far from a one-time event in the distant past of a distant land. It is a continual and eternal expression of who God is by God's very nature. God poured out God's self in birthing Creation, which teems with the life God gave. And God continues to pour out God's self for us in the call of Wisdom, the love we experience in the Body of Christ as we receive Christ together, in countless daily miracles as lives are transformed in the image of a loving God.
If that's "insider" language, then let it always be coupled with the invitation to come inside, to taste and see this limitless, self-giving love of God.
Thanks be to God!
Proper 11, Year A
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!