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.
Proper 11, Year C
Regular readers of this blog know that I highly recommend The Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels as a supplement to other kinds of commentaries. The Social Science Commentary chooses a particularly intriguing (for some) and/or provocative (for some) heading for the verses from Luke that form our gospel reading for this Sunday:
"Legitimation of a Woman Taking a Male Role Among Jesus' Followers"
This is a wonderful gospel passage to have for services the day before we celebrate the feast day of Mary Magdalene, whom I've preached about before as a woman who found freedom as a "loose woman" without conventional attachments to conventional men, as honored patron of Jesus' followers even before there was such a thing as a "church" or such a word as "Christian," and as apostle to the apostles, chosen among the first witnesses' to Jesus' resurrection.
This Sunday, we get to see a bit of why Mary Magdalene was not an oddity among Jesus' earliest followers for being a woman, or for taking on many roles of service to Jesus and his mission that would normally in her culture belong to men. Indeed, Christianity was mocked by many as a religion of women and slaves because Mary Magdalene was NOT an oddity in the church, because although she may have been exceptionally gifted, she had many female colleagues in Christian leadership.
I have heard many sermons on this Sunday's gospel, and nearly all of them could have borne a title along the lines of, "Why Martha Is Very, Very Wrong." That's hardly fair to Martha. Martha in this story is being a good woman. Somebody has to see that dinner is made and all of the myriad other domestic needs -- and this is way before electric ovens and dishwashers -- are taken care of. It's not as though all of the male disciples would instantly leap to their feet and rush to the kitchen to help.
And it's not as though their help would necessarily be welcomed if they did so. As the Social-Science Commentary helpfully points out, even though women were traditionally confined to the domestic sphere, they still could have some serious influence with culturally prescribed roles. And as lots of us have observed in lots of contexts, wherever there's power -- especially when it's perceived as being in limited supply within a particular segment of a community -- there's a great deal of competition for that power.
Women in the first-century Mediterranean world were largely segregated from the public competition for honor that took place among men in the public sphere -- but that in no way kept them from competition within their own sphere, and that competition could be fierce. Furthermore, the honor of a household depended significantly upon the management of that household. Martha is being a good woman in trying to see that everyone on the "domestic sphere" team works together.
In short, let's not rag on Martha this Sunday. She is doing her best to fulfill what most of the men present no doubt expected of her.
And if I can have a little excursis here, I'd like to indulge in one to explain what I mean when I say that I think this story, as so many stories from Jesus' ministry, can be read fruitfully as one should read a parable. As I've talked about before in this blog, parables aren't cute little allegories that provide a little narrative color to some good ol' fashioned and entirely conventional wisdom. The message of the "Parable of the Sower," for example, is NOT that smart farmers distribute seed in good soil rather than in pigeon-packed parking lots. When we read Jesus' parables, we haven't read them well if we haven't seen the most important characteristic of those parables: how they confound expectations in surprising and often shocking ways. The "Parable of the Sower" is not about a farmer learning not to throw seed in "bad soil"; it's about God surprisingly (and in many minds, inexplicably) blessing a farmer of very limited means who DOES toss valuable grain about as if he had all the grain in the world.
Similarly, the story of Martha and Mary that we read today is NOT the story of a Bad Disciple or a grumpy housewife who doesn't have a clue about what's important in life. It is a shocking story -- shocking like those electrified paddles that can give life to people whose hearts have stopped beating. The Social-Science Commentary points toward that shocking, life-giving truth in this Sunday's gospel in their heading: "Legitimation of a Woman Taking a Male Role Among Jesus' Followers."
Perhaps the social-science-ness of the first word puts you to sleep. That is an odd power of certain kinds of academic language. But I think even that doesn't completely dull the point: Jesus praises a woman for acting as though she were a man.
There's a lot in there to grate on sensibilities.
If you think that God on the day of humanity's creation ordained certain roles for women and other certain roles for men, and that we can't be good women or good men without defining clearly those changeless roles and living strictly within those boundaries, then this Sunday's gospel is going to blow your mind if you pay too much attention.
But it doesn't stop there -- or at least, it doesn't have to. We can take a lot more from this passage, because while I believe the passage speaks strongly against a view of roles for men and women as static, divinely ordained, and not overlapping, I think it points toward a much larger and more mind-blowing possibility:
God didn't make you to fill a role. God made you for love -- to be loved by God, and to express with your life how you see God loving the world.
For example, I would say to people who share my citizenship that God didn't make you an American, and God doesn't expect you to be a good American.
We could try out some different versions of this, and some of them might be fruitful for some of us. For me, it's sometimes fruitful to wonder what it might mean to say that God didn't make me a priest, and God doesn't expect me to be a good priest. I don't mean by that to say that I don't feel called to priestly ministry (I do), or that I don't take the vows involved in that seriously (I do!). What I mean is that there may be some challenging, liberating, refocusing, life-giving fruit in thinking of my identity and my ministry first and foremost as a child of God loved by God, as a human being made in God's image, as a follower of Jesus with a Baptismal identity that ideally, any other identity I take seriously will express, and frequently, that other identities will be eclipsed by.
I am a woman. I love being a woman. The good things I experience as a woman are God's gift. But God is not calling me to be a "good woman"; God calls me to be a faithful disciple.
I am an Anglican and an Episcopalian. I experience rich blessings through the tradition of which I'm privileged to be a part, and I don't expect to be called to a different tradition. But God is not calling me to be a good Anglican; God is calling me to be a faithful Christian.
I am a progressive. I feel strongly about the progressive convictions I hold, and I am blessed by the advocacy work I do. But God is not calling me to be a good progressive; God is calling me to follow Jesus.
You get the idea. I chose a few particular roles, a few identities, to cite as examples not because I'm "dissing" those roles, but because I value them -- and because the most seductive of temptations is the temptation to hold on to something good even if it means foregoing something better. And we who are richly blessed are most vulnerable to that temptation.
It's fully possible that Mary, Martha's sister, chose to sit at Jesus' feet on that day because she was embarrassed at her terrible cooking skills, because she was lazy or tired, because she was filled with hubris about her own status or jealous of the male disciples who took sitting at Jesus' feet for granted. We don't know what was going on in her head any more than Martha did. What we do know -- what Jesus tells us -- is that Mary's choice to be a bad woman and a bad sister on this day is praised as the conduct of a good disciple.
What happened next? I like to think that Mary's choice to be a "bad woman" inspired a few other disciples to be "bad men," to behave in ways their culture would say were absolutely shameful for men and to go into the kitchen and offer to serve the women as woman had so often served them.
Because that could be the behavior of "bad men" and good disciples. It's maleness as Jesus lived his, after all; just look at the exalted language used of him in our epistle for this Sunday and compare it to his behavior as he washed his followers' feet, as he forgave from the cross, as he took on the role of a slave, as Philippians 2 points out.
God knows (and I mean that; it's not just an expression) how powerful the roles we play, the names we take, can be in seeming to make an endless series of choices for us. God knows how many people will tell us with how much honest passion just what grief will befall us and those we love if we don't do what our society says we ought to do within those roles. For example, I know many sisters in Christ who are "helicopter moms (or dads)" hovering over their children or "workaholic dads (or moms)" spending more and more time away from those they love at least as much for fear of what will happen if they deviate from that role as from any kind of joy or peace they derive from it. But what if the hope that "we may present everyone mature in Christ" means that at least at points we have to relinquish those roles -- even when they give us respectability, admiration from people who want to know how we do it all, and any number of other seductive rewards -- so that we can make room for someone else to stretch into new areas of service, other ways of discipleship?
The message of this Sunday's gospel is not that study with a rabbi or minister always trumps housework. It's not that women's work is inferior to men's. And you'd have to be smoking something very potent and probably illegal to think that it's that gender roles were established by God and are blurred at our spiritual peril. The message, I think, is that we all may be and often are called to relinquish roles, identities, patterns of behavior that feel "tried and true" or even immutable not only for the sake of growing in our own discipleship, but to invite others -- even or especially others who may seem perfectly happy with a privileged role they've got -- to become more fully who they are in Christ, and to live more fully into the ministry to which Christ calls them.
And the wonderful, shocking, life-giving truth is that relinquishing for Christ's sake often yields more blessings than we know how to gather -- blessings so rich they must be shared.
Thanks be to God!
Proper 6, Year C
1 Kings 21:1-10, (11-14), 15-21a
I once heard a story -- and was told it actually happened -- about a very rich man who was both Christian and deeply religious. He was deeply troubled by the thought of his wealth, as he remembered Jesus' saying that it's harder for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God than for a camel to get through the eye of a needle (and he also knew, presumably, that there's no such thing as a gate called "The Eye of the Needle," through which a camel get through on its knees if its pack is removed -- that's an invention born of wishful thinking). He decided to do something about it. He redid his will, leaving all of his vast wealth to a single person, the richest person he knew. He didn't want to doom the soul of a poor person by bestowing all of this wealth that could keep him or her from God's kingdom.
This was a very, very silly man.
He wasn't silly to worry about the state of his soul when he was living with such riches in a society in which many don't have enough to eat. That much is a natural and potentially healthy response to reading what Jesus had to say to and about the rich. He was silly in what he thought he was called to do about it. What he did exacerbated rather than diminished the chasm between the rich and the poor, and as I've blogged about before, whenever we're widening such chasms, we can be sure that we're on the wrong side of them.
The Gospel According to Luke emphasizes this particularly, and Luke-Acts strongly and repeatedly condemns behavior widening the divide between the "haves" and the "have nots" in language that should make those of us who live in the wealthiest nations in the world think and pray long and hard about how we might respond. The Christ presented by Luke is no "Buddy Jesus" who just wants you to have the right attitude toward your wealth; he has very strong words about the proper use of it.
Luke-Acts also presents numerous positive examples of Christians who use their resources -- their their power, and their voice as well as their money -- to narrow or bridge those chasms and to further Christ's mission on earth. We get several of them in a single story this Sunday.
And as a bonus, we get several clear affirmations of women's status as disciples of Jesus whose gifts are vital in the life of the community. Let me start at the end of this Sunday's gospel reading with a passage often overlooked by those who think we need noncanonical sources to see women portrayed as leaders in early Christianity. In Luke 8:1-3, we find out quite a few important things in a little bit of text:
One is that it's not appropriate to say "the twelve disciples," as if Jesus only had twelve disciples, all of them male. The opening verses of Luke 8 clearly indicate that Jesus traveled not only with "the twelve" (who don't have any particular function in Luke or Acts other than existing as a group of twelve, thereby symbolizing the twelve tribes of Israel and Jesus' authority to reconstitute Israel; other than that, the twelve function as do the other disciples in Jesus' inner circle), but also with other disciples, and a number of those disciples were women. Luke names three -- Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and Susanna -- and says there were also "many others."
Another thing we see in this little bit of text is that Jesus' disciples, both men and women, were freed by following Jesus from behaving according to gender roles their culture prescribed for them. Men did not have to act conventionally as males by competing with one another for honor, retaliating when attacked, working in their fathers' trade, or proving their masculinity by sexual conquests or even begetting children. All of that is shocking in Jesus' culture. It may have been even more scandalous, though, for the gospels to commend how Jesus' female disciples behave. It's weird enough in the first-century Mediterranean world for men to adopt an itinerant lifestyle; Greek, Roman, and Jewish cultures alike would have held that the family honor demands men staying with their extended family to care for their parents and give them an honorable burial, to protect the honor of the women of the family, and to have sons to carry on the family name. But it's even more weird in the cultures in which Christianity was born for women to travel as Luke depicts. Women traveling without their male kin would be seen as unattached or "loose women"; these women are behaving in a still more shocking manner by traveling with men who are not their kin -- or at least, not by blood or marriage. Furthermore, they are women of means who are deciding for themselves how to spend their money; Jesus' followers have set up a society among themselves in which there are no patriarchs to make such decisions, as all act as sisters and brothers to one another.
That leads to a third thing we observe in this Sunday's gospel: that, especially in light of Jesus' ministry forming all God's people as a single family of sisters and brothers, we are called to make use of our resources in particular ways. We are called to use our resources to care for the poor among us in the human family as for our own flesh and blood, exercising a radical hospitality and generosity with one another. Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and Susanna are portrayed by Luke as honored patrons of the community of Jesus' followers because they do that, providing for the whole community out of their means. And the woman who anoints Jesus in Luke 7 similarly is commended for providing hospitality for Jesus, in contrast to Jesus' supposed host, who is too busy testing Jesus to see whether he is truly an equal to care for him as an honored guest.
Is the radical impact of this passage dulled by Luke's referring to the woman who anoints Jesus as "a sinner" and noting that Jesus' female patrons had been healed by Jesus? I don't think so. Jesus not only announces that the anointing woman has been forgiven (and therefore she is fit for polite society, although she clearly prefers Jesus' company), but he also commends her faith. Similarly, noting that the women who traveled with Jesus and served as patrons to their fellow disciples establishes clearly that they were not traveling with Jesus because some infirmity or impurity forced them out of their homes, but rather they followed Jesus as a matter of choice, a freely given response of to grace. And so their patronage of the community is also a freely given expression of who they are in Christ -- free to follow Jesus, and set in a new family of sisters and brothers who travel with them. In some ways, Queen Jezebel in the book of 1 Kings gets a bad rap; she is only behaving, after all, according to the conventions of this world, in which the rich get richer and the powerful use their power to consolidate their privilege. What's the point of being king if it doesn't mean you get what you want in the kingdom? But the women in this Sunday's gospel know better. They know grace, and so they extend grace to others, a radical expression of their radical freedom as Jesus' followers.
Thanks be to God!
Fifth Sunday in Lent, Year C
I hope you'll indulge me -- I'm going to start with something of an aside this week, as there's something in the epistle reading from Philippians 3 that I very much want to underscore. Its very first sentence points out two things about St. Paul that are often ignored or misunderstood.
First, it's that Paul, like a significant number of early Christians (such as the Pharisaic Christian contingent at the "council of Jerusalem" in Acts 15), identifies as a Pharisee as well as a follower of Jesus; the only point in his catalog of identities in Philippians 3:4 that no longer applies is "persecutor of the church." In other words, Luke's portrayal in Acts 23:6 of Paul, long after his experience on the road to Damascus, saying in the present tense, "I am a Pharisee, a son of Pharisees" is realistic. Regular readers know (as the archives of this blog on the subject demonstrate) that I feel strongly that Christians should avoid presenting the Pharisees as stock villains and using the word "Pharisee" as a synonym for "hypocrite" or "sanctimonious jerk." It's language that comes across as antisemitic, and furthermore, it's language that distorts the historical record and even the sometimes complicated ways Pharisees and Pharisaism are portrayed in the New Testament. As far as we can tell, Paul identified as a Pharisee to his dying day, so at least in his view, there's nothing about being a Pharisee that's in necessary conflict with following Jesus.
Second, it's worth noting that Paul specifically says that "as to righteousness under the Law" he was "blameless." In other words, Paul does NOT think that humankind needs Jesus because human beings can't manage to observe the Law and therefore can't have righteousness without having Jesus' righteousness imputed to them. Paul says right here in Philippians that he was righteous under the Law; clearly he thought that people COULD observe it. I have little doubt that Paul could assess his Torah observance in this way in part because he, like any other Pharisee, knew that the Law made provision for impurities to be cleansed, transgressions forgiven, and therefore righteousness under the Law restored. As myriad texts (e.g., Psalm 103) in the Hebrew bible demonstrate, the God of Israel has always offered people forgiveness. This whole stereotype of Judaism as proclaiming a God who, prior to the Incarnation, was impossible to please and whose presence could not be experienced by human beings is, to borrow Paul's word in Philippians 3:8, skubalon -- which, by the way, the Liddell-Scott Greek lexicon translates as "dung" or "excrement," though the NRSV renders it more in a more genteel fashion as "rubbish."
Thanks for letting me get that off my chest. I'd like to say more about Paul's view of the Law and why he thinks we need Jesus, and you can find more of my thoughts about that elsewhere in the lectionary blog, but I've already stretched the definition of "aside"; it's time to get to what I actually plan to preach on this week.
This Sunday's gospel story seems to be based on an earlier story -- one of my favorites in the New Testament -- that appears first in written form in the Gospel According to Mark, 14:1-11. Two days before the Passover, in the last week of Jesus' life, Jesus' followers are sharing a meal. The men among the Twelve, and especially Peter, have been fairly consistently portrayed as misunderstanding who Jesus is and potentially even standing in the way of what Jesus came to do. But two days before the Passover at dinner, a woman -- a prophet -- shows that she understands Jesus as the male disciples haven't. She anoints Jesus' head, dramatically proclaiming Jesus to be the one anointed by God (in other words, the christ or messiah), and in a context that makes clear that she has anointed Jesus also for the way of the Cross he has proclaimed. And Jesus commends her prophetic action in glowing terms, saying that wherever the Good News is proclaimed, this woman's story will be told in memory of her.
Ironically, while we know the names of others -- even the name of the host of this dinner party in Mark 14 -- the name of the woman is lost to us. So much for Jesus' disciples keeping her memory. Luke (in chapter 7) makes the woman an anonymous "sinner." John 12 gives her a name, at least -- Mary, sister to Martha and Lazarus -- but like Luke, John has her anointing Jesus' feet, not his head, turning an act of prophesy into an act solely of personal and emotional devotion -- even an act that could be seen as competing with and undermining ministry to the poor.
But is that really what's going on? I have my doubts.
I think it's worth remembering that, as Malina and Rohrbaugh point out, hands and feet were seen in the ancient Mediterranean world as representing action -- action with intentionality. While Mark has the woman anointing Jesus' person, and by extension his actions, in John's story the woman is declaring Jesus' actions, Jesus' mission in the world, as anointed by God, and by extension his person.
These differences give the stories different emphases. And if you'll indulge me in another aside (this one brief, I promise), it reminds me of why it's so important not to try to harmonize the differences we hear in the the gospels -- or to try to impose uniformity in Christian community. We need those different voices, those different emphases, even or especially when they seem to be in tension with one another.
We need them if we're going to do what Mary does in this Sunday's gospel: identify and bless Jesus' intentional action, what God is doing in the world -- also known as God's mission.
I'll put it this way, with a confession: I suspect that nine times out of ten, when God is saying to me, "I am about to do a new thing; / now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?" my response is something like this:
"You have reached the internal answering machine of Sarah Dylan Breuer. I'm out doing all of the things I think are God's will, the things I think I need to do to make a living, and the things I just plain want to do, but have managed to rationalize as being totally necessary. Please leave your name at the tone, so I know whether you're among those from whom I expect spiritual counsel, and assuming you're on the list, I'll get back to you when ... well, I might get back to you."
What would it look like if I lived more deeply into the kind of prophetic witness we see in this week's texts? How might our lives be different in our households, our worshipping communities, our world if, instead of asking God to bless our activity, we, like Mary, were looking for the ways in which God is acting in the world and looking for ways we could bless and support God's action?
I feel blessed to have joined one of the most mission-minded parishes I've ever seen. There are so many people here giving so much of themselves and using so many of their spiritual gifts to advance God's mission. And one thing that could enhance our ability to identify God's activity in the world and bless it would be more opportunity for us to listen to one another, to hear one another's stories. I'm not just talking about stories of how we serve in and through the church. We should indeed be celebrating, thanking, supporting, and blessing one another in our ministries in church, but it's worth remembering that most of us spend the vast majority of our time in other places, and that time in other places can be ministry in the service of God's mission just as surely -- perhaps even more surely -- than time spent in this building.
If we believe that God is at work in the world, after all -- if we want to anoint Jesus' feet, his action out there -- then we need to be looking for evidence of Jesus' work in the world; we need to see the world and people's work in it through the lens of Jesus' ministry, in the context of salvation history, the story of God's creating the world and drawing it to God's self.
That means we need to be in touch both with that story of God's making and loving the world and with the stories of human beings in the world experiencing God's redemption and the historical and personal wounds in need of God's healing.
Those who know me well will not be surprised to hear me say that I think one of the very best ways to be in touch with the world's very reason for being -- with the love of God that created the world and is bringing it toward the peace, justice, and love for which it aches -- is to spend some serious calories in close reading of the scriptures. It's very hard to discern what Jesus is up to in the world today if one doesn't know, and very well, what Jesus was up to in Galilee and Judea, and in the lives and communities of early saints such as Paul and the writers of the gospels. It's hard to understand what Jesus was up to in the past if one doesn't immerse oneself in the Torah and the prophets that formed Jesus' own view of who God is and what engaging God's mission would look like.
And of course, one can't know what Jesus is up to in the world today if one doesn't know what's going on in the world today. I thank God for some of the tools I use, such as the Global Voices website, which compiles and translates web logs from all over the world that allow you and me to hear from ordinary people -- anonymous Gay Christians in Uganda, teenagers in Iraq, and countless others. But even these technological marvels are nothing compared to the resource we have in one another, in our congregations and in the larger Body of Christ. Tell me what your wildest dreams for the world are and the moments in which you catch glimpses of it at work, on the bus, with your children (or even your parents!), and I'll know that much more about where Jesus' feet fall around the world. When we share our stories -- and particularly when we come together as God's people to enter into the biblical story and ponder how our own stories might be told in the context of that great, wonderful tale -- we can see the paths that Jesus is wending through our world to bring redemption, and we have opportunity in encouraging and supporting one another's growth and ministry to bless and anoint the very feet of the Son of God.
It's hard to say what might be inspired by that process of being in touch with the world's wounds, with God's work of bringing the world to wholeness, and with the great and small wonders present in the gifts and vocations of each one of us. I wonder what might happen if those of us living in families not only ate dinner together, but asked one another questions that go beyond "How was your day?" to "What makes you angry about what's going on in the world? What inspires you? What's God doing, in the world and in you?" Parents, if you're lacking in inspiration to ask those questions, I encourage you to ask your kids, who know and care about a great deal of God's mission, and can often talk about it far more articulately than you or I can. Kids and students, try asking your parents about things like this. It might seem weird at first, but you might find conversations like this bringing out amazing ways in which God is calling you, and surprising support in living into that call -- not just in some distant year when you've got your degrees and have checked off all of the right boxes, but now.
And what, I wonder, would it do to coffee hour if we were asking one another, "So, what do you see going on in the world? What's God up to?," or even, "How has God been working in your life lately?" Among other things, we might find that we had far more to talk about that coffee hour would allow.
That's the danger of this sort of enterprise: Enter into scripture's stories of God's loving and redeeming the world, and you just might find yourself hungry for more. Enter into the stories of your neighbors and their experience of God's love and redemption, and you might catch a glimpse of something that will change your life. Look for and bless what Jesus is doing in the world, and as surely as Jesus is Lord of history, you will see the world healing, growing, and changing.
Thanks be to God!
March 24, 2007 in Discernment, Forgiveness, Isaiah, John, Justice, Lent, ONE campaign/Millennium Development Goals, Pharisees, Philippians, Prophets, Righteousness, Women, Year C | Permalink | Comments (1)
Fourth Sunday of Advent, Year C
A Christmas entry is coming tomorrow.
Luke 1:39-45(46-55) - link to NRSV text
I have to admit that I'm a little sad that Advent is almost over. It just might be my favorite liturgical season. It isn't just the Christmas pre-show that points toward and helps us prepare for the Big Event on December 25. Indeed, what Advent readings -- especially the gospel readings -- urge us to long for expectantly isn't so much the birth of the Christ child as it is the full realization of God's redemption of the world in Christ.
That's why I love it -- and why I need it. I need regularly to get in touch with that big-picture view. There is so much going on in the world that, taken in isolation from the big picture we see in Advent, might make me think that the world's story is like this Del Amitri song I used to cover in clubs:
Bill hoardings advertise products that nobody needs
While angry from Manchester writes to complain about
All the repeats on T.V.
And computer terminals report some gains
On the values of copper and tin
While American businessmen snap up Van Goghs
For the price of a hospital wing
Nothing ever happens, nothing happens at all
The needle returns to the start of the song
And we all sing along like before
Nothing ever happens, nothing happens at all
They'll burn down the synagogues at six o'clock
And we'll all go along like before
And we'll all be lonely tonight and lonely tomorrow
The title of the song? "Nothing Ever Happens." When my dissertation supervisor came to hear me play one night, as I recall, he referred to it as the "let's just drink a bottle of Lysol song." It can be depressing as hell -- a word I use advisedly here -- to think that way, to see all of what's gone horribly wrong in the world around us and to enter into that state of impoverished imagination that says that this is how the world was, and is, and will be. It's a step toward hope to say I'll work for change, but when I think it's all about your and my working, it can still be overwhelming. I know many good people who have picked up the newspaper and finally said to themselves something like this:
"It's time to grow up. It's time to give up all of that youthful idealism stuff that says we can change the world. The world is just plain messed up, and I owe it to myself and my family to face facts and concentrate on making my world -- my family's home, and schools, and neighborhood -- a haven from the world and the even worse place it's headed."
But Advent reminds us that this way of looking at the world is missing a crucial piece -- actually, several crucial pieces -- of the picture:
God made this world. God loves this world. And God is redeeming this world. The universe arcs toward the peace, joy, love, and wholeness in and for which it was made.
All of that scary stuff we've been reading about fire and disaster and fear over the last few weeks isn't there to suggest that this is how the world ends; it is there to let us know even when we are surrounded by fire and disaster and fear that God is there with us -- suffering with us, yes, and also working among us to bring an end to suffering:
See, the home of God is among mortals.
He will dwell with them as their God;
they will be his peoples,
and God himself will be with them;
he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away.
And the one who was seated on the throne said, "See, I am making all things new." Also he said, "Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true."
What does it look like when we have taken in this vision of where the world -- God's world -- is headed? What happens in our history when we write and live it in the context of God's history? It looks like this:
A young girl -- no more than fourteen, it's almost certain -- is making her way alone on a journey. Everyone knows that there is much to fear on these lonely roads even when traveling in a well-prepared group. These are desperate times. The rulers of Judea and Israel are desperate to consolidate their positions of power -- always tenuous, and completely dependent on the good will of Caesar, who rules the world, and that takes tributes, and building projects, and armies, and good order maintained by armies -- all of which must be paid for by someone. Taxes are high. People are desperate. Brigands seem to be everywhere.
Not that the world was ever a safe place to be for a young girl on her own.
Far from it, and especially for a pregnant girl, who ought to be at home guarding what, if anything, is left of her shame.
But not this girl. Not today. She makes her way through the hill country alone and yet unafraid. Her haste is not the haste of one running for cover; it's the rush of someone who can't wait to share the good news she knows.
She finds her cousin, who has good news of her own, and that moment of joy and hope and faith is so powerful, so far from anyone's containing it, that the children in their wombs leap for joy with the women. And they are filled with the Holy Spirit, filled with the fullness of what God is doing, wonderful beyond comprehension or description.
If there weren't so much competition for the title among so many suffering, it would have been difficult to find two people so unlikely to be hopeful to the point of being ecstatic -- the single pregnant girl traveling alone and the elderly wife of a poor country priest considered cursed by his neighbors.
And yet there it is. Hope is born -- in Advent, not in Christmas. And more than hope: power is born, power for a girl to pass joyfully and peacefully through wilderness and bands of thieves like her son would one day pass through crowds seeking to stone him (Luke 4:4-30).
As a singer, I particularly love it that Mary's passage, like Jesus' a few chapters later, is centered on a song.
Christmas is coming. It's hours away at the point when those who go to church at all for the fourth Sunday of Advent as it falls on December 24 will be hearing a sermon on these texts. Christmas is coming, and I know it's a Big Deal in its own right. But in my estimation, anyone who misses observing the fourth Sunday of Advent misses out in a big way -- misses out on the moment in Luke's gospel in which we truly see hope born as two poor women dance and sing.
It isn't Christmas, but this is Advent, and in this very moment, we see born among us the hope for which the whole world hasn't dared hope.
My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he had filled the hungry with good things,
and sent away the rich empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants forever.
What a moment it was when that poor girl who traveled alone burst into song! In that moment, she saw as present and lasting reality not just the miracle of her being received in her village rather than stoned (and surely this is the first miracle of Jesus' birth we celebrate), not just the miracle of a healthy child born healthy and honored even when no one -- no family, and not even an inn -- would take the family in (which is miracle enough to dance), and even beyond the miracles her son would work before his death (which were wonders that set many free).
In this moment -- THIS moment, with none gathered to celebrate and no liturgy beyond a young girl and an old woman leaping for joy with their children to be -- we hear, in the song of the prophet and leader, the single and pregnant teenager, Mary of Nazareth, the end for which the world was made.
It may seem sometimes that "Nothing Ever Happens," but we can be sure that Something is happening -- something beyond speech and remotely hinted at in prophetic song.
It is here! Hope is here. and what a life-changing, world-changing miracle that is: we hope that the mighty who dominate by force will fall to the meek whom they dismissed, the poor know plenty while the rich finally understand what it is to want and need, and the world -- broken, mixed-up, violent, world that sets up gulfs between us and between us and God so vast that it's hard to imagine even angels could cross them -- is made whole at last.
I will celebrate the wonders of Christmas when it comes. But God, please help me to take in the wonder of Mary's vision and Elizabeth's so I can sing and dance with them in what they see and know. Let me do that now, in this moment, and in every moment.
My soul rejoices in anticipation I can feel in my body.
Thanks be to God!
Proper 27, Year B
I try to live with all in Christian charity. Really, I do, with varying (mostly miniscule) levels of success. But the editors of our lectionary are really making it difficult for me this week with where they end the gospel reading. Fortunately they give us impetus in the other readings for this week to think about the gospel differently, but they've given us a selection of verses from Mark to create the perfect collection of readings for "stewardship Sundays," all neatly packaged for sermons suggesting that we should all emulate the widow of this Sunday's gospel, whom Jesus praises so for her generosity. More sermons than not this Sunday, I suspect, will move from that point and use a rather uncritical equation of Temple=church to say that Jesus wants us to give more money to the church, trusting that God will take care of us if only we have the courage to pledge more.
There's one problem with this reading.
Actually, I have to amend that. There are MYRIAD problems with this reading, but let's start with the biggest one:
Where do you see any suggestion at all in the text that Jesus thinks it's a wonderful thing that this poor widow put her last two coppers -- all she had to live on -- in the Temple treasury, going away destitute?
It just isn't there. If anything, the text suggests the opposite. The passage starts with Jesus warning his followers to beware of those who like to walk around in long robes, receive the seats of honor, put on a good show of prayers, and DEVOUR WIDOWS' HOUSES. That last bit is particularly important because of what follows:
Jesus watches a bunch of guys in long robes take a widow's last two coins -- all she has to live on.
Then Jesus says something. What he says boils down to "and just in case you thought I was making stuff up on that point, check out this woman -- she just put literally her last cent, all she had to live on, in the treasury to maintain this lovely building."
But he doesn't stop there, even though our lectionary editors would leave people whose primary exposure to scripture is in Sunday services thinking as much. The conversation continues. Jesus' disciples have the nerve to say, "Yeah, but look at the building! This is glorious!" and Jesus responds with a prediction that it will all be destroyed -- an act that elsewhere in the gospels Jesus attributes to no less of an actor than God.
Note that Jesus did NOT say, "Not one stone will be left on another ... unless you all are as generous as this widow. Now dig deep, people -- this building must be maintained at any cost!" Jesus doesn't criticize or blame the widow for the dynamic here; he places the blame squarely on the shoulders of the robed guys collecting the widow's money. That's something to think about when we're all vesting on Sunday morning!
But Jesus doesn't come anywhere close to praising the dynamic of poor people being left with nothing by people claiming to be God's people. Preachers, I beg you not to come anywhere close to suggesting otherwise this Sunday.
Jesus' point here is not to suggest that God's people must never have buildings in which to meet. The earliest Christian communities in Jerusalem met in the Temple courts, after all, and Christians' houses around the first-century Mediterranean provided not only places to meet, but places to house those whose choice to follow Jesus meant that their families tossed them out on the street.
That sharing of resources in which none have too much and all have enough -- sharing celebrated in our reading for this week from 1 Kings -- and not any number of impressive vestments, eloquent prayers, or gorgeous examples of architecture -- is what makes a place holy to the Lord who cares for the stranger and sustains the orphan and the widow (Psalm 146:8). When the Letter to the Hebrews speaks dismissively of "a sanctuary made by human hands," in contrast to the true one, it does so in that venerable and blessed prophetic critique of religious and political establishments naively assuming or cynically cultivating a belief that the defense of any piece of ground, the maintenance of any building or institution, or the observance of any ceremony could ever justify making more widows and orphans or failing to care for those already among us.
I believe that is the message God is calling us to proclaim on "stewardship Sunday" -- and on stewardship Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday too. I believe that every day is stewardship day, a day to remember "who made heaven and earth, the seas, and all that is in them" (Psalm 146:5), and to whom therefore all those things and all they produce belong. It is a day to remember that freely offering back to God all God's gifts to give justice to those who are oppressed and food to those who hunger, freedom to the prisoners and sight to the blind. It is a day to remember, and to act in remembrance of God's grace to us, most especially in sending us Jesus, that those bent down by the world's troubles may be empowered to walk tall.
That, more than any building or any ceremony, is what glorifies God. And when we participate in that process, that mission of God in the world, we come closest to seeing God's glory on earth. There is nothing more exciting, exhilarating, and joyous than that -- nothing on earth more likely to inspire us to cry out:
Praise the LORD, O my soul!
I will praise the LORD as long as I live;
I will sing praises to my God while I have my being.
And thanks be to God!
Proper 22, Year B
I want to say this up front about this Sunday's gospel:
A lot of conservatives point to this as containing the heart of what Jesus had to say about God's creative intent for human sexuality. I agree with them completely on that point -- but Jesus' word to us, I believe, challenges idolatry of American "traditional family values" as much as it undermines our culture's worship of every romantic impulse. In other words, this Sunday a lot of us are going to find ourselves pushed to think beyond cultural myths of marriage to ask ourselves what God really wants for us in relationship with one another.
It's a question posed in this Sunday's gospel, some Pharisees come to Jesus as a fellow teacher to ask his opinion on a subject that was in many ways just as "hot" of a topic in first-century Jewish communities as it is in many twenty-first century cultures -- namely marriage.
They ask Jesus a question that a lot of teachers were asked: Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife? They didn't see need to ask whether a woman could divorce her husband -- there weren't all that many women who would want to do such a thing. In the first-century Mediterranean world, a woman's honor is embedded in that of her father until she's married, and her husband when she is married. A woman who for whatever reason needed to leave her husband had better hope that her father would take her back. Otherwise, without a male attachment, she would be perceived as a "loose woman" on more than one dimension. Most women in such a situation had few options for making a living, and as "damaged goods," little prospect of remarriage. If their fathers would not take them back, many would have no option to survive aside from prostitution. Still, a lot of debate about marriage and divorce didn't treat it so much as a question about what would happen to the women as a question of contract law related to the agreement between the fathers who arranged the marriage.
Many teachers saw the question in more explicitly theological terms, though, insisting that the central question to ask is what it means to be the people of the God of Israel. Among other things, that meant thinking of he survival of Israel, of ensuring that there would be future generations to honor God. With Jewish people being a tiny minority in the Roman Empire, under threat as a distinct people not only by oppression from without, but also, in the eyes of many, by slow attrition, as Greek culture continued to deepen its influence. Especially under such circumstances, it's not hard to understand how many rabbis would respond to a question about God's purpose for human sexuality by pointing to Genesis 1, and in particular to God's command -- it wasn't just an idle suggestion! -- to "be fruitful and multiply."
Men wanted heirs to pass along the family name and honor, and that certainly played a role in thinking about marriage and divorce, but it was also an issue of God's imperative. God commanded us to "be fruitful and multiply." If a marriage wasn't going to be "fruitful" with children, that was more than rotten luck; it was taken by some as a sign that the relationship wasn't blessed by God. And (how unusual!) it was often assumed that the fault for a "barren" marriage was with the woman.
For all of these reasons, the most common reason for men wanting a divorce in the ancient world was that the marriage wasn't "fruitful" -- wasn't producing children, and to all indications, wasn't going to later either. And if, as many thought, God's purpose for marriage was to "be fruitful and multiply," building up future generations who would carry on not only the family name, but the name of the God of Israel, why should anyone stay in a "fruitless" marriage? Why not divorce?
All that's to say that few would be surprised to hear that when Jesus was asked about divorce, he quoted from the book of Genesis to ask what is God's purpose of marriage and what kinds of behavior best uphold that.
But then Jesus quoted from the wrong chapter.
Jesus starts with an affirmation from Genesis 1: that all people, women and men, are made in God's image. That deep truth of who we are as God's children must be upheld in whatever else we say about human relationships. But when Jesus wants to say more about God's intention for marriage, he doesn't go to Genesis 1; he goes to Genesis 2. As Orthodox rabbi Steven Greenberg points out, Genesis 1 is a story in which humans aren't at all distinct from animals in terms of what God says to them about sexuality; humans and animals are told to "be fruitful and multiply" in precisely the same terms. It's in Genesis 2 that God's creative intent for <i>human</i> sexuality as something potentially distinct from animals' is hinted at. As Greenberg argues, we see it in the first mention of Genesis, after God's repeatedly looking at Creation and proclaiming its goodness, that something is "not good":
"It is not good that the human should be alone" (Genesis 2:18).
God creates us for community. To become more fully who we are, who God made us to be, we need to walk alongside another who will be with us for the long haul, who sees us at our best and our worst and will tell us the truth about both, who knows us deeply and loves us unconditionally. Theologians (who always love coming up with impressive-sounding words) like to call this dimension of marriage the "unitive dimension." I prefer over that technical phrase the description from the rock band U2: "We're one/but we're not the same/we get to carry each other" ("One"). But perhaps the best description -- certainly one of the oldest, and also the one to which Jesus pointed -- is the one of Genesis 2: the two become one flesh, and are naked, and not ashamed. With people made in God's image and created for self-giving love, that's an amazing experience of God's glory, God's creativity, and God's goodness.
So in Jesus' eyes, what we say about marriage must be guided by two points. First, it's got to recognize that God created humankind, both male and female, in God's image (and if I may digress, I have to underscore that the point here is that all humankind is made in God's image, rather than that a man without a woman or a woman without a man does NOT reflect God's image; the phrasing makes that clear enough, but the sheer ridiculousness of suggesting, for example, that single people -- such as Jesus of Nazareth, or St. Paul, for example! -- don't reflect God's image as well as any given heterosexual couple makes the suggestion unfathomable beyond its apparent usefulness for grinding contemporary theopolitical axes). Second, it's got to uphold that "unitive" dimension of relationship -- the "it is not good for a human to be alone" of Genesis 2.
As to the third point that people often bring up when discussing God's intention for marriage -- namely the command to "be fruitful and multiply" -- I have to say not just that Jesus was completely silent with respect to it, but that he seems to have rejected it.
His teaching regarding remarriage after divorce makes that clear. The most common reason a man in Jesus' culture would have wanted a divorce was if the marriage wasn't going to do what many men and women thought all marriages were for -- namely to produce children who could serve as heirs. Jesus' word on marriage pulls the rug out from under that. Jesus says, in effect, that a man who leaves his wife in hope of finding another marriage "fruitful" with children shouldn't have children at all. Women and men, Jesus teaches, aren't for use as baby factories or tickets to respectability, and a relationship isn't to be taken up or put aside with those things in mind.
Put positively, Jesus is saying that a marriage, like any other relationship, shouldn't be evaluated based on its perceived "fruitfulness" in terms of children, but based what St. Paul would call its fruitfulness in the Spirit. A relationship between two people that helps both live more fully in the world their identity and vocation as human beings made in God's image is blessed by God. Other considerations are peripheral.
In the first-century Mediterranean world, this word from Jesus was a profoundly liberating word. It may be that some of what Jesus had to say about divorce is less directly applicable to our culture, in which many women can and do make a living -- and one in accordance with their vocation as a daughter of God -- without having to rely on a father's whim or a husband's name, a woman's chances for remarriage are often not lower than a man's, and childlessness is far from the top reason for divorce. Conservatives are right, I think, in underscoring most the points that Jesus took from the beginning, from Genesis.
These points still constitute a profoundly challenging word to us, to be sure. Upholding marriage as the journey of two who have become "one flesh" challenges our culture's idolatry of romance, in which any powerful current of emotion or sexual attraction is interpreted as an entitlement to take up or set aside another human being like a toy or a prop. Understanding that we were created from the beginning for community, for deep communion, means that Christian communities must help to meet that need, recognizing that "it is not good for a human being to be alone" and committing to journey with one another intentionally, not leaving fulfillment of that basic and universal human need to romantic accident. Recognizing that all humankind -- all women and men -- are made in God's image and blessed by their Creator challenges us to overcome our culture's insistence that pairing up and parenthood are a universal call or at the very least a necessary component of "success" as a human being; it calls us to affirm the vocations and wholeness of those who are called, in Jesus' shocking terms, "eunuchs for God's kingdom" -- wholly available to a vocation as a "single" person in terms of marriage and children, but not at all alone when Christian community is "fruitful" in the Spirit. Those challenges can be daunting, but taking them up has the potential to set us free for authentic right relationship with one another -- each loved uniquely as God's child, each challenged and supported to grow in community.
Thanks be to God!
Proper 18, Year B
Mark 7:31-37 - link to NRSV text
(See also the RCL reading of Mark 7:24-37)
This Sunday's gospel in the RCL poses difficulties from a variety of angles. Jesus encounters a Gentile woman who wants him to heal her daughter. He says no, essentially calls her and all Gentiles dogs, and states firmly that his mission is only to Israel. She argues with him. He then agrees to heal her daughter. What happened?
One thing that has happened in this encounter is that when Jesus answers the woman, regardless of what specifically he says he is recognizing the woman's right to speak with him. Just by making the request, she is implying -- albeit perhaps solely out of desperation -- that she has a right to claim his time and power. By arguing, she implies that she is worthy of challenging him. And by answering, Jesus affirms that she has that status in his eyes. This is a profoundly counter-cultural recognition of her dignity. But then Jesus insults her by calling her and her people dogs (and no, there's no trick of Greek translation that makes it about cute little puppies -- Jesus is calling her people scavengers of the lowest sort).
But then, to all appearances, Jesus changed his mind -- not only about healing one girl, but about his mission. This bothers a lot of people; most sermons I've heard that have taken up this aspect of the story have suggested that Jesus really knew all along that his mission was to Gentiles as well as Jews, and that he was only pretending to think otherwise to help the woman increase her faith, or to further demonstrate his power, or some other reason.
Personally, I find this reading offensive as well as unconvincing. If Jesus changed his mind, then Jesus can't be the kind of eternally changeless "unmoved mover," to use Plato's phrase, that a lot of people present God as being. But if Jesus didn't change his mind and was just saying things he didn't believe so that he could accomplish some other end, then Jesus is a liar -- and a pretty cruel one at that, since the poor woman is clearly worried about her child.
And besides, who -- besides Plato -- says that Jesus isn't allowed to change his mind, to learn something he didn't know before? Learning is part of what it means to be human, I'd say. Try to turn Jesus into someone who knew everything and could do anything from day one and you'll quickly get drawn into fairly silly speculation about how Jesus could have spouted the full Sermon on the Mount (and in any language to boot!) on the day he was born, but faked being able to talk only like the baby he was -- perhaps so he wouldn't give away his secret identity, a la Clark Kent's having to hold back from running at full speed on Smallville. That kind of speculation is evident in some of the later gospels outside the Christian canon, but it's not in any of our canonical gospels, which consistently portray Jesus as a real, honest-to-gosh human being who as a baby needed his diapers changed and who, like the rest of us, learned to walk and talk and function by playing and otherwise interacting with his mother and other people.
In other words, Jesus had to learn words and speech when he was a child. As Luke puts it, "the child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom" (Luke 2:40). Jesus changed, not only getting taller and physically stronger, but learning things he didn't know before. If that idea is offensive, it's the offensiveness of the Incarnation, of the idea that God could dwell among us in the flesh. Human beings aren't born knowing and doing everything they will ever be able to know and do. They learn and grow, and in particular, they learn and grow in relationship. Jesus did too -- all his life, as human beings do. Indeed, I might even go so far as to say that part of being made in God's image means that we become more fully ourselves in relationship. Knowing others and loving others changes us, teaching things we didn't know before and helping us to grow into the fullness of our identity and vocation, and our capacity to grow in relationship comes from a God who experiences that too.
I know that doesn't fit in very well with that picture of God as an "unmoved mover," never experiencing a change of mind. But that picture is Plato's far more than it is our bible's. Our scriptures are full of stories of human beings trying to change God's mind. We call it intercessory prayer, and scripture shows it as working at least sometimes -- God is moved to show mercy, to act in deliverance because someone asked. Observing that raises a great many problems of theodicy, among other things, but there it is, scattered throughout our canonical writings anyway. And gosh, I'm glad it's there.
I'm glad because it is a wonderful corrective to our human tendencies toward arrogance and hardness of heart. Why should we listen to someone else's view on a matter of importance when we already know what the scriptures say, what those words mean, and therefore what the truth of the matter is? If any had the right to that kind of posture, it would be God. But if we take our scriptures seriously, we have to allow the possibility that God too is changed in relationship. That may sound radical, but I find that radical message in our scriptures, as God is moved after observing the destruction wreaked by the great flood to say "never again," and hangs God's bow -- God's weapon -- in the sky as a sign of God's permanent swearing off of such moves. God -- the one Plato presents as "unmoved mover"-- is MOVED to mercy, and makes a covenant of mercy with all of humanity.
Is it so radical, then, to think that Jesus, God's agent, might also be moved by his encounter with a Gentile woman seeking healing for her daughter? I don't think so -- and if I were preaching this Sunday on the RCL, I'd probably be preaching something along the lines of this: Thank God for people who aren't willing to take "no" for an answer -- even or especially "no" plus Godtalk, a particularly potent combination -- from powerful men, but who will push for compassion and mercy. They prove to us that even God isn't the sort to say, "God said it; I believe it; that settles it." They teach us something that we would have gathered anyway had we been paying attention when Jesus says, "be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect" and makes clear that the "perfect" he means isn't about stasis in a "right" position, but compassion toward righteous and unrighteous alike (Matthew 5:43-48). They teach us that no one should be so certain s/he's right that s/he cannot make room to listen, and to listen in a way that allows us to be changed by what we hear. They teach us that God is love, and it's a very poor lover who is eternally unmoved by her or his beloved.
So when Jesus encounters a man who is deaf and therefore mute -- someone who is unable to listen and therefore was unable to learn to speak -- Jesus is very well prepared.
"Be opened," he says. He says it not only with compassion for someone who has suffered, but also with the authority of one who has experienced that of what s/he speaks. That is, after all, what the persistence of the Gentile woman said to him when he was deaf to her cries and therefore unprepared to speak of God's love for all peoples. "Be opened" -- and Jesus was.
Thanks be to God!
Proper 16, Year B
Do you have to be a loser to be a Christian? The answer from this week's gospel might be "no, but it helps."
It really does, and it always has. Christianity was successful in its earliest days among women, slaves, and outcasts, and it's not hard to see why from our epistle reading for this Sunday. This passage often gets quoted starting with chapter 5, verse 22: "wives, be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord." Often, this verse even gets set apart from what precedes it by means of a subject heading. For example, my old NIV study bible has "Living as Children of Light" as a subject heading for a section ending at the end of verse 21, and then "Wives and Husbands" as a subject heading for a section starting with verse 22. This is a place where the huge, looming agendas of today's Christians have really messed our English bibles, starting with this:
There is no verb in verse 22. Here's a literal translation of Ephesians 5:22: "wives to your husbands as to the Lord." That's it. The "be subject" isn't in the verse at all, because verse 22 is just the second part of the sentence that starts in verse 21: "Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ," and then we get a sketch of what MUTUAL submission might look like in the context of Christian marriage -- i.e., wives love their husbands as they love Christ, and husbands love their wives as Christ does the church.
The terms used in that example might sound lopsided at first. I think they are, and I think that's intentional: the terms in which husbands are invited to love their wives if anything demand that the husbands are MORE intentional in exercising humility. Ephesians tells husbands that they are to love their wives as Christ loved the church, and since Ephesians is a letter written very intentionally in pauline tradition, it's worth looking at the central description of just what Christ's love for the church looks like in Philippians 2. Christ's love of the church isn't even remotely domineering; indeed, Christ humbled himself and became subject as a slave to all -- even to the point of death on a cross.
All that's to say that Ephesians puts forward MUTUAL submission as the standard for all Christian relationships, including the relationships between sisters and brothers in Christ who happen to be married to one another. So why the lopsided terminology with respect to marriage, in which women are invited to think of their care for their husbands as service to Christ, while husbands are invited to think of themselves behaving as slaves? It reminds me of a quip I've heard about why there are so many commandments in the Torah that apply to men but not to women, and why St. Paul spends so much more ink yelling at misbehaving men:
It's not that God loves them any less; it's just that they require more supervision.
That's a flip way of describing Ephesians 5's relatively brief comment that women are to be subject to their husbands, followed by much more ink devoted to how husbands are to be subject to their wives. First-century women -- and a lot of twenty-first-century women -- know all too well what submission looks like, but more of the men need a remedial instruction in the concept. That's not because men are particularly dim, but many of them have to overcome far more cultural baggage to be able to emulate Christ's humility -- much as many women have to overcome far more cultural baggage than men do before they can emulate Christ's boldness in proclaiming Good News and prophetically challenging those in power.
So there was a lot about the Christian message that was easier for women to see as Good News. Jesus called women, as he did men, to make an individual and very costly decision to follow him. That gave them a measure of responsibility and a burden to carry that was in many sense far greater and heavier than what their society would give them, but it wasn't hard for women to give up claims to patriarchal authority since nobody thought they could make them legitimately anyway.
But as Scott Bartchy (my supervisor, and author of a forthcoming book called Call No Man Father: The Apostle Paul's Vision of a Society of Siblings) likes to say, patriarchy isn't about the rule of all men over all women; it's about the domination of a few men over everyone else, men and women. In other words, there were a lot of men to whom Jesus' call -- the responsibility of the costly decision to follow him, but also the promise expressed in the Beatitudes that the poor, the meek, the peacemakers, and those despised and persecuted would be honored -- came as equally Good News of freedom from patriarchal domination.
We see that throughout the canonical gospels, as a motley band of misfit women and men are formed into prophets and pastors who will change the world. The path on which we follow Jesus is not easy. Jesus' values are not the world's values, and people who place Jesus' values at the center of their decisions about how they want to spend their money, use their power, and treat other people will find that the more closely the follow Jesus, the more friends, relatives, bosses, co-workers, and onlookers who aren't following Jesus will shake their heads and cluck their tongues.
Treat poor people with MORE honor than rich people, even rich people who donate very generously to the church? That's nonsense, by worldly terms -- but it's biblical Christianity, according to the letter of James. Prioritize a stranger in need as you would your own mother or brother, even if that means placing strangers above your own flesh and blood? That's crazy talk according to the world's "family values" -- but it's biblical Christianity, according to Jesus. Looking for ways to exercise charity instead of to win lawsuits over someone trying to exploit you? That's just stupid according to the world -- but it's biblical Christianity, according to Paul. Respond with aid instead of violence when you and your family or nation is attacked? That's insanity in the world's reckoning, but that's the witness of the New Testament from Matthew to Revelation, the witness of Christ crucified and then raised and exalted by God.
That's a hard message to preach -- no easier now than it was in Jesus' or Paul's day. It's a hard message for many to receive. Who, then, can accept it?
People like Peter. Jesus knew that what he had to say was nonsense at best and destructive subversion of everything godly or good at worst in the world's eyes. He heard even his closest friends and followers muttering, "This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?" And when he said, "do you also wish to go away?" Peter said, "Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life."
I hear two things in Peter's response that have come to be central in how I preach Jesus' hard words. First, Peter knew the cost of his old way of life. I love the way Luke portrays the calling of the first disciples, when Peter decides to follow Jesus. Peter set out that day as a fisher with one question on his mind: Will I catch enough fish today to feed my family? There was rent to pay for the boat, the cost of materials for the nets, taxes imposed by occupying armies and local officials, and it required luck as well as backbreaking labor to have anything left to eat after the rich and powerful had all taken their share. Peter wasn't a recreational angler; he was a poor man trying to get enough to get by, and that can be a very anxious existence. So every day, the question on his mind was "will I catch enough fish today to survive?" More than once, he might have muttered to himself, "this is no way to live!" -- but what choice did he have?
Jesus offered him a choice. It was a hard choice, but Peter was willing to consider it because he knew the cost of NOT following Jesus, of staying where he was and doing what he did, of staying within the network of relationships and obligations he knew.
But that's not all. Choosing to follow Jesus wasn't just about choosing the unknown over "the devil you know." Luke says that on that fateful day by the lake of Gennesaret, the miraculous catch of fish Peter drew was so large that it threatened to swamp the boats. In other words, in one moment the big question on Peter's mind changed from "will I catch enough fish today to survive?" to "can I gather enough people to take in all of this abundance?" That's what made Peter a fisher of people: in Christ, he came to believe that the world in which he grew up -- the world in which we need to be anxious about all of the causes for worry the world gives us -- is passing away, and he had a chance NOW to experience the abundant life of the world to come.
In short, Peter not only knew the cost of staying in his old life, but also had caught a glimpse of the possibilities, however costly they come, of Jesus' new life. So Peter said, "Lord, where else would we go?" -- since the possibilities the world presents have their own cost, and it's far steeper for a far less fulfilling reward -- and "you have the words of eternal life" -- since he saw that the longings for abundant and eternal life instilled in him by God as a human being made in God's image would find their truest fulfillment in Jesus' way, the way of the cross.
People say that every preacher really has just one sermon that gets preached in a slightly different way each time s/he steps in the pulpit. I think I've got about three or four, but this is the sermon I preach on Jesus' hard words. You can see an example here, in a sermon on the Beatitudes I did for a wealthy congregation I knew well. I ask these central questions:
- What is the cost, the difficulty of the point with which God is challenging us? We can't really move forward in discipleship if we're not intentionally walking the path of the cross; if we decide we want to follow Jesus because it's the respectable or easy thing to do, we'll drop everything but the name the second the path proves counter-cultural or difficult.
- What is the cost of staying where we are, of swallowing worldly values of achievement and power-over, of getting as much as we can to call our own and then guarding it jealously?
- How will be more able to take in Jesus' abundant and eternal life if we do choose to follow Jesus, however much that challenges and stretches us? What is that life in Christ like?
The bottom line, I think, is that like Peter, we follow Jesus as Lord because we've seen the toll that following worldly authorities takes, and because we've glimpsed the joy, peace, and freedom that following Jesus can bring. There is much that is challenging and costly moving forward on that road, but it is what we were created to do, and it is the way to full, eternal, and abundant life.
Thanks be to God!
Fifth Sunday of Easter, Year B
The Ethiopian eunuch asks Philip a very brave question: "What is there to prevent me from being Baptized?" It seems a reasonable question in many ways. He was in his chariot studying Isaiah (as one does -- don't you?) when he happened upon Philip. Philip tells him that the redemption Isaiah anticipates has come in Jesus. And then they happen upon a convenient water source! What is to prevent him from being Baptized?
I still say it's a brave question. Anyone who asks that question today of a leader just might be greeted with a list: Well, do you REALLY understand what's going on in the Eucharist? What's your attitude on the authority of scripture, or on human sexuality? Do you still plan to work in that den of vice they call a court in Ethiopia? And then there's that delicate matter of your operation. You understand that it renders you unfit to enter the Temple, right? It's so important for people to know their place, and yours is, well ... not the same as ours. We need to have a few decades of dialogue about your place -- you can wait over there.
It reminds me of the very funny and very, very effective ad the UCC has created called "Ejector Pew." (Watch it if you haven't seen it -- brilliant!) But that's not the response the eunuch got from Philip. Philip baptized him, and he went on his way rejoicing.
A lot of sermons pretty much end there. It's the happy ending -- God loves you. You're in! Rejoice and skip into the sunset. But let's not end there. Ending there leaves us all wondering what's next. When we don't explore that question together, we often end up filling in the blanks with whatever our culture says is good. Rejoice and go on your way -- oh, and work hard and play by the rules, go to church every Sunday, be generous, don't do drugs, and make sure to send flowers on Mother's Day. Amen.
But have you ever noticed that in the "Great Commission" in Matthew, the passage most often pointed to as warrant for evangelism, that Jesus does NOT say "go and make converts," let alone "go and make churchgoers." The "Great Commission" is to make disciples, Baptizing them AND teaching them to obey Jesus' commands. This Sunday's gospel has a similar exhortation from Jesus: "If you love me, you will keep my commandments."
"Commandments" has a serious ring to it -- it gives the sentence a kind of James Earl Jones-gravitas. It's a favorite word of the Morals Police who want to add some teeth to those "work hard and play by the rules" commandments of our culture. "This," they say, rubbing their hands, is where we get down to business." They're often disappointed when they take a closer look at just what Jesus says is his commandment in John 15:12: "This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you."
"Oh good!" some folks would say, "I was afraid he was going to say something heavy. I just LOVE love, though. All you need is love! Love lifts up where we belong! Who could be against that? We're pretty much back to the skipping into the sunset rejoicing plan."
We're going to hear more about this next week, when our gospel passage includes John 15:12 -- and the next verse, which has quite a kicker that the romantic love of Moulin Rouge wouldn't touch with a ten-foot pole. But we've got a good introduction to the concept in this week's reading from 1 John (and it's short enough -- why on earth would anyone go with the shorter version of it?):
We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us -- and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. How does God's love abide in anyone who has the world's goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help? Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.
Jesus loved us such that he gave his life, his very self, for us, holding nothing back. As I've said before, that doesn't indicate that Jesus was a creature like the lemmings of Disney myth, flinging himself off a cliff for no reason other than to encourage others to do the same. Jesus is at work in the family business, and so Jesus' love functions as does his Father's: calling out a motley assortment of slaves judged of no account by the powerful, and gathering them as a community to become a people. I think that's worth keeping in mind when thinking about this week's reading from Deuteronomy.
Would it be Good News, would it be the family business of God and God's people if the Israelites were called out of Egypt just to become another kingdom with another Pharoah and another set of people condemned to slavery by rulers' military might? As St. Paul would say, by no means! God calls us -- especially those of us judged to be losers of no account in the world's scheme of things -- to freedom from this world's Pharoahs not so we can form our own domineering hierarchy with the "right" people on top, but so we can do things differently. We don't replace one Pharoah with another; God is our king, and any other applicants for the job can forget it.
That's radical -- so radical, in fact, that it remained controversial within Israel for centuries. How are we supposed to hold our own against hostile powers around us if we're not prepared to kick butt on their terms -- with armies, led by a kickass king? But what Jesus proposes might be even more radical -- and I'd give, well, a LOT to see if anyone picks this up for preaching this Mother's Day. Jesus' calling out of motley individuals to form God's people doesn't just say that having God as our king defines the nation, and therefore we don't need any human monarchs; it says that with God as our Father we are truly one family as beloved children of God, and that is to be the sole claim on family allegiance.
As far as our culture is concerned, that is CRAZY. That's bad. Does this story report the behavior of a good son, by conventional reckonings?
A crowd was sitting around him: and they said to him, "Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you." And he replied, "Who are my mother and my brothers?" And looking at those who sat around him, he said, "Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother"
It reminds me of the game improvisational comedy troupes play (yup, I was in one once) called "World's Worst," in which comics are given a category of "the world's worst ..." and have to supply entries for it. I'd enter this one in the category of "World's Worst Message for a Mother's Day Card."
It's just not our culture's way of reckoning things. We appreciate our mothers, and I do think that we tend not to appreciate them anywhere near enough. But every Mother's Day, I think also of all my friends, acquaintances, and fellow or former parishioners who feel judged as a failure by everyone around them because they don't have our culture's ideal: a lawfully married spouse (or at least a life partner) and kids, preferably living in a well-kept house the adults own. The floral-industrial complex -- and far too many Mother's Day sermons -- leave them out entirely.
And then I think about some other mothers who won't be getting flowers, breakfast in bed, or ice cream cakes this Sunday. I think about mothers in Darfur facing agonizing decisions about which of their children to feed. I think about a mother in Zimbabwe I read about recently in the newspaper who wonders who will care for her children once the menengitis she's suffering from -- a treatable condition, but she can't afford the treatment -- takes her from them. And as much as I want to love and appreciate and honor the women in my community who give of themselves to love and nurture the children I see playing in the aisles of the church during the Eucharist on Sunday morning, I want to pose the question that seems unthinkable in our culture, and especially on this Sunday:
What if we saw every mama as our own mother or sister? What if we welcomed and nourished and stood up for every child as if each one was our very own flesh? Jesus' love -- the love we have received, and therefore are equipped to live out and pass along to our world -- is such that he said, "I will not leave you orphaned"; instead, he gave us an Advocate, the Holy Spirit of truth. And this week particularly, my heart breaks for all of those children who will be orphaned today, and tomorrow, and the next day, and Sunday.
This is a situation that is within our power to change. Clean water, a mosquito net, a phone call made or a vote cast to stop subsidizing violence -- a critical mass of small, simple things like that could give life to so many mothers and their children. So this Sunday, by all means give flowers, and ice cream cakes, and breakfasts in bed. Give all the love you've got to give to the women in your life. And because love -- especially God's love, Jesus' love -- is not a limited good, a finite pie we have less to give when we give some away, give a moment of your time, a second of your imagination, to other children's mothers, and to orphaned children. Pray for the capacity to receive God's love the way Jesus did, the way that overflows for the world. And please take a moment after ordering the flowers and signing the cards to send to stop by someplace like the ONE Campaign to find out what one person, one family, one moment can do to help create a world in which every mother can see each of her children get clean water, good food, an education, a chance.
Thanks be to God!