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Second Sunday after Christmas, Year C

Luke 2:41 - 52 - link to NRSV text

There's a lot of evidence that the author of the Gospel According to Luke modeled the gospel after Greco-Roman biographies of philosophers that were popular at the time. Folks in the first century Mediterranean world looked for different things in biographies than people in my culture do. In my culture, we love biographies (and urban legends) with surprising twists: the future physics genius who flunked math all the way through school, the party boy who suddenly discovers a sense of purpose and becomes U.S. president, the art-school dropout who becomes the renowned master, the ugly duckling who becomes a supermodel. First-century biographies weren't like that; they generally showed how the subject was born under a configuration of stars that determined s/he was going to be a certain way, and then that s/he was that way ever since birth.

So here, in Luke's gospel, we have an early indication of Jesus' character. And according to the values of Jesus' culture, Jesus is big trouble from the first time we see him able to form a sentence. Jesus is no poster child for what is popularly called "family values" here, any more than he is through the rest of the gospel. In Jesus' culture, sons were expected to stay with their parents, to care for them until they died, and then to make sure they had a proper and honorable burial. The ties between blood kin were of paramount importance, and Romans and Jews alike took a son's responsibility to his parents with utmost seriousness.

But here, Jesus acts as if Mary and Joseph weren't his parents at all, and he's not showing any more respect for Mary here than he is toward Joseph. Jesus takes off without so much as a word to do what he thinks is important, and when his exasperated parents finally find him, he doesn't apologize. He makes clear where he thinks his allegiance lies -- not toward his blood family, but toward God. His leaving his family at age twelve foreshadows how he will leave his family to proclaim the urgent Good News he has to share after his baptism.

As the story continues, Jesus will have some harsh things to say about family ties. In Luke 8:19-21, Jesus says that his mother and brothers are not those related to him by blood, but are "those who hear the word of God and do it." In Luke 12:49-53, Jesus says that he came to divide father from son and mother from daughter. In Luke 9:59-62, Jesus criticizes those who would take care of their parents until they died, or even those who would say goodbye to their families before leaving to travel with Jesus, as unfit for the Kingdom of God. In Luke 14:26, Jesus says that "if anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, that person cannot be my disciple." The list could go on ... it's not the stuff of Mother's Day sermons.

Where's the good news in that? It isn't that there's some strange definition of Greek words in which "hate" really means "to love less than," or "you're not my mother" becomes an expression of deep respect. In Jesus' teaching, blood ties don't get much respect. But one way to put the Good News is that "water is thicker than blood." Our ties to one another in our shared Baptism are deeper and stronger than ties of shared genes or shared addresses. The hard news is that following Jesus may well call us to behave in ways that don't gel well with our cultural values, any more than following Jesus went well with cultural values in the first-century Mediterranean world. It's gonna cost. But the Good News is that as Jesus' followers, we have not only God our Father (and, to use Julian of Norwich's wonderful image, Christ our Mother) in heaven to whom we can turn, but we are a part of a vast family of sisters and brothers on earth, people who are under the same holy obligation we are to nurture and support and challenge one another to grow. We have a friend in Jesus, and a tribe in our fellow-seekers. And even we seekers who are related to one another by blood have the opportunity and the freedom to relate to one another in new ways.

We may even find, as the teachers of the Law in those Temple courts found in today's gospel, that our children have something to teach us. Sometimes, it takes the kind of dislocation Jesus prescribes from old ways of relating to one another to open our ears and our hearts to receive what others have to teach us, to receive the blessings and the deep joy that comes with following Jesus.

December 29, 2003 in Christmas, Kinship/Family, Luke, Year C | Permalink | Comments (0)

grid blog :: Christmas :: Union

This is my final entry for the Advent grid blog, though this one comes in the Christmas season. The theme is Union.

The catechism in the Episcopal Church's Book of Common Prayer describes the mission of the church as "to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ" (BCP, p. 855). Union is our mission.  Our time of preparation in Advent has called on us to look forward to the time when God answers our prayer that "your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven," to the time when that union with one another and with God in Christ is fully realized. We are called in Advent to experience the tension between our broken and divided world in the present and full consummation of the redemption for which we long.

And now it is Christmas. The world is still wounded, as any cursory glance at this morning's newspaper would tell us. But the mystery that we celebrate is that the tide of history turned with the birth of a peasant child. The Christ has come, and from his first sending forth of his followers to do his work of healing the sick, bringing the outcast back into community, and confronting the powers of injustice, evil fell. It won't get back up, though it'll be thrashing around and doing some damage in these prolonged last gasps. Like Jesus' birth, the defeat of evil isn't the kind of special effects moment we've become accustomed to in this age of Jerry Bruckheimer. It's a seed growing secretly, as inevitable as it is mysterious. But in Advent, we've seen how big this tree is going to grow. This Christmas, my prayer is that I might know the awe of seeing the small things, the mustard seeds, the early shoots, in the knowledge of what mighty work God is accomplishing in our world.

I wish you all a Christmas season of joy, wonder, and nourished seeds of peace.

December 29, 2003 in Christmas, Special Feature | Permalink | Comments (0)

grid blog :: Advent 3 :: Source

This is my third entry for the Advent grid blog; the theme is 'Source.'

You are God's viceroy, God's representative.
You are God's stand-in, a God carrier.
You are precious; God depends on you.
God believes in you and has no one but you
to do the things that only you can do for God.

Become what you are.
— Archbishop Desmond Tutu

I've been fortunate to know and count as mentors a number of people who have been deeply involved in civil rights movements since the late sixties.  A few of them are among the most cynical and world-weary people I know; decades of confronting hate have left them exhausted, with little faith in humanity.  But these are the exceptions.  For the most part, these are the most joyful, serene, and hopeful people I know.  Rather than seeking the places where their lives would be easiest, they've gone to the hardest places to look into the eyes of those who hate them and to return love for the hatred.  The more they've been hated, the more deeply they love; the more they've been rejected and excluded, the more open they've become; the more they've been told, “this is the way it's always been, and it's the way it's always going to be,” the more hopeful they've been as they've planted mustard seeds.

What's the difference between the disillusioned cynic and the hopeful and loving among them?  I think it's about the source of their strength and their direction, and about how deeply and consistently they are in touch with it.  If you've ever seem Desmond Tutu in person, you know that he radiates joy; his laughter is as infectious as his hope.  I think it's because for him, his work for justice is part of becoming in the world who he truly is, and his call to others to stop oppressing God's beloved is a call for them to become who they truly are.  He doesn't see his work as swimming upstream so much as catching the wave.  His source, to which and to Whom he keeps returning, is Love.  He's not fighting other people, but inviting them to go back to the same Source, to their Source.

It's a lesson to me.  I want my life to confess what I believe; that the universe arcs toward justice, and justice is where the joy is.  That's what I know most deeply when I'm listening most deeply to God.  That's who I am when I'm finding my identity in who I am in Christ, rather than being distracted into letting someone else define who I'm going to be in that relationship.  I've got U2 on the brain lately, with the recent release of Get Up Off Your Knees, so lyrics from the U2 song “God Part II” keep running through my head.  I don't believe in lies, or violence, or quick fixes, or injustice, or that it's always going to be the case that “the rich stay healthy, and the sick stay poor.”  I believe in Love.

I feel like I'm falling
Like I'm spinning on a wheel
It always stops beside a name
A presence I can feel
I believe in Love

Love is the Source that sustains.

December 24, 2003 in Advent, Special Feature | Permalink | Comments (0)

First Sunday After Christmas, Year C and grid blog :: Advent 2 :: Stretch

John 1:1-18 - link to NRSV text

This is the second post for the Advent grid blog, four "bonus posts" of reflections for Advent that go beyond my usual commenting on the lectionary to tie in with a network of bloggers across the web who are writing on the same four Advent themes.  The theme for this post across the network of bloggers participating is "Stretch," so I'm weaving in some reflections on the gospel for this coming Sunday in with a grid blog post.

One of these days, I think I'd like to try to talk the youth group at St. Martin's into doing Las Posadas.  That's when participants reenact Mary and Joseph's experience on arriving in Bethlehem by lighting candles and making their way from house to house to ask whether there is room.  At each place, they are met by someone who tells them that there is no room for them, until they come to the last house, where someone lets them in to celebrate.  I think it's healthy and helpful to reflect from time to time on what it feels like to be told there is no room for you, and what it feels like to be invited in.

I've been thinking a lot lately about those people around me who are feeling that there's no room for them.  I've been thinking about my own experience of feeling that there's no room for me.  I've also been thinking a lot lately about how people I've met over the course of my life have called me to stretch, to <I>make</i> room in my heart and in my worldview.

We've all got models that we use to understand the world and our place in it.  For the most part, they're subconscious and deeply ingrained, but they're there.  When we encounter a person or some information that doesn't fit at all within these models, there are a variety of ways we can respond.

We can lop off anything that doesn't fit into the cookie-cutter; we can keep our models exactly as they were, and just not take in anything that doesn't fit.  If we assume that all people in category X are deeply unhappy and we meet someone who belongs to category X who seems perfectly happy, we assume that the person is really unhappy and is just good at hiding it, or we assume that the person does not really belong to category X, despite appearances or despite what the person says.

We can stay in a state of complete aporia, like the former rigid fundamentalist who decides that if not everything in the Bible can be read as literal scientific and historical truth, the whole thing must be a crock.  By the way, the most common reason people I've encountered have for thinking that the Bible is at least ridiculous and at worst oppressive is that sincere religious people convinced them that all Christians must read it literally.  One of the most common reasons people I've encountered have for not wanting to become a Christian is because sincere Christians trying to "evangelize" them (true evangelism is not something one person does TO another, IMO; it's a journeying WITH another) have convinced them that being a Christian means adopting all of the theological and political positions held by the would-be evangelist.

Or we can hold things in tension &#151 what I would call <I>compassionate tension</i> &#151 and pray that the tension would be creative.  Maybe our model will change, stretching to accommodate the new information.  Maybe the world will change, and these seeming opposites will be reconciled.

The philosopher Richard Rorty talks about it this way:

Once upon a time, rivers did not have mouths.  They flowed into the ocean, to be sure, but they didn't have "mouths," as people and animals did.  Then somebody said that they did.  It was a metaphor; it was literally untrue.  It was not <I>possible</i> for a river to have a mouth.  But the metaphor caught on.  More and more people used it until it became, possible, literally and even universally true that "rivers have mouths."

Don't dismiss it as "just" a matter of words.  Words are important; the world, the <I>kosmos</i>, is made by them.  In the beginning was the Word, and through the Word, God spoke the world into being.  From chaos sprang comprehensibility.  But we are tempted to speak other words that attempt to unmake what God has made, that order our world such that there is no room for some of God's good gifts.

But the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. We believe that the whole world changed in that moment.  The universe stretched, and the impossible became possible.  A word could be flesh; purity could be expressed by embracing lepers; a shameful death on a cross could become "lifting up"; Jew and Gentile, male and female, slave and free, could be one in Christ the Word.

We need words to understand as well as to transmit what we perceive.  But Advent is a time to pray that God would send people into our lives who will challenge us to stretch our categories, our models, and most importantly, our capacity for compassion, to prepare us to take in the Word who renders the wisdom of the world as nonsense.

December 20, 2003 in Christmas, John, Special Feature | Permalink | Comments (1)

grid blog :: Advent 1 :: Seek

I'm a latecomer to an Advent grid blog, in which each person in a network of bloggers offers a meditation for Advent on four themes.&nbsp; As a latecomer, I'll be trying to hit all four themes in a compressed time frame; others have posted on one theme per week. These meditations are a bit of a departure from my weekly reflections on the lectionary, but I think it's such a cool concept that I'm offering them for the grid.

The first Advent theme for the grid blog is Seek.

I was born in 1970, and I vividly remember those 1970's days (soon to be repeated, if we keep up this “bigger is better” SUV trend) of gas rationing. I spent a lot of hours sitting in the family wood-paneled station wagon with my mother in long lines of cars leading up to the gas station. I've always been a reader, and I read a lot of bumper stickers in those days. One of the popular ones I remember, which was plastered on car after car in 1970's gas lines, read in bold black type on a yellow background, “I found it!”. The unspecified “it” was meant, I suppose, to be a conversation-starter (although in the insular world of commuting by car, there's rarely opportunity to talk with other drivers about anything that anyone sees), but I think it was meant to imply that the driver had found a number of things. Jesus. The Answer. Eternal Life.

Personally, I always thought — even when I was a kid looking at those bumper stickers (I was a precocious and obnoxious kid) — that a claim like “I found Jesus!” makes it sound like Jesus had been lost behind a sofa cushion until somebody heard his muffled cries or did some long-overdue vacuuming and came across him. It's not an image of seeking God that works well for me.

The cluster of images that I do come back to almost every time I think about my own spiritual journey, or about our journey together as God's people, surrounded by all the saints as a great cloud of witnesses, is images of Exodus. We have been called out of Egypt, away from its grandeur and its markets, out of its power structures and its stability. We call where we are a 'desert' because it is bereft of old comforts. The desert has life, though, in every crevice of its unfamiliar landscape. It sharpens our senses, makes us rely on one another to find nourishment and refreshment. And God is calling us forward; the watchers among us see the pillar of cloud or fire on the horizon, and shout for us to follow. It's tempting for some to mutter that our way should not be so circuitous, and the way is certainly long. In Egypt, though, we were a kind of 'desert,' defined as slaves and outsiders, by being no people. In the desert, we are being made a people, God's people. Israel is not, or is not solely our destination; it is our identity, and it is here, though we continue to discover it more deeply in one another.

Seek God, and travel lightly. Keep your eyes on the horizon, but see the horizon reflected in the eyes of fellow sojourners. This may look like a moonscape, but the desert is in bloom, and the world will be filled with its fragrance.

December 19, 2003 in Advent, Special Feature | Permalink | Comments (0)

Fourth Sunday of Advent, Year C

Micah 5:2-4

But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah, who are one of the little clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to rule in Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient days. Therefore he shall give them up until the time when she who is in labor has brought forth; then the rest of his kindred shall return to the people of Israel. And he shall stand and feed his flock in the strength of the LORD, in the majesty of the name of the LORD his God. And they shall live secure, for now he shall be great to the ends of the earth.

I'm preaching this Sunday, so as much as I love the Magnificat, which is part of this Sunday's gospel, I thought I'd comment here on something I'm not preaching about.  After all, you can always check out the sermons page next Monday to see what I had to say about the Magnificat!  So this week's blog will look at something else — specifically, at Micah.

Some years ago, I was persuaded to go to a Christmas production at a immesnsely wealthy and absolutely huge mega-church.  It was quite a spectacle — there were live camels carrying the magi down the center aisle of the church, angels suspended by a state-of-the-art rigging system zooming over the heads of the audience, and glittering costumes.  It was very professional, very colorful, and very spectacular — unmistakably grand. The Glory of Christmas, it was called.

And then I look at this coming Sunday's reading from Micah.  The expectation that the one coming to rule Israel will be "great to the ends of the earth" is certainly grand, but the primary images in the passage are not what I'd call Hollywood special-effect moments.  A woman in labor.  A shepherd feeding a flock.  It's rather mundane, really.  But the inbreaking of the kingdom we anticipate is like that.  It's not a special effects moment, any more than the planting of a mustard seed is a special effects moment.  But Micah presents this moment of childbearing and shepherding as the downfall of the mighty kingdom of Assyria.

That kind of thing — the inbreaking of the kingdom amongst and through the mundane — is the real glory of Christmas, I think.  If God's kingdom arrived with fireworks, we wouldn't need to look or listen for it; we could just wander outside once we heard the booming.  But it isn't like that.  Being present in the darkness of Advent sharpens our sight and trains our ears to look and listen for a single star and the cry of a child.  Turn up the stereo or point your telescope ten more degrees to the right and you could miss it.  But that moment, that quiet and not particularly spectacular moment, is the advent of a world of possibility.  Keep watch!  Listen up!  And pay attention to every moment.  The Christ is coming!

December 15, 2003 in Advent, Micah, Prophets, Year C | Permalink | Comments (0)

Third Sunday of Advent, Year C

Luke 3:7-18 - link to NRSV text

"Do not begin to say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham as our ancestor'; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham."

John was willing to baptize on the spot anyone who came to him. The righteous and the wicked, soldiers and Pharisees, scribes and tax collectors — all were offered the chance for a new beginning. No training or waiting period was required, nobody had to recommend you, and you didn't have to offer a sacrifice. It all sounds pretty easy, in a way.

It's hard to make a new start, though, if you see yourself as already being pretty far along the path. The good news John proclaimed was that everyone could start over right now; the bad news, in the eyes of some, was John's teaching that everyone needed one. Baptism was something required of new converts to Judaism, new members of the people of God, not something for those who were already in the people of Israel. So those who saw themselves as outsiders needing a new start found a way to begin again, while many of those who thought they'd arrived refused to set out on the way forward to which John was pointing.

I think that's one reason I love Advent. Advent calls us to enter into and really experience longing for Christ to come, to complete his work of reconciling all Creation to one another and to God. In that longing, as we experience ourselves as incomplete and in need, we are prepared to receive Christ anew; we find the "beginner's mind" we need to experience the invitation to begin again as the Good News it is.

December 8, 2003 in Advent, Luke, Year C | Permalink | Comments (0)

Second Sunday of Advent, Year C

Luke 3:1-6 - link to NRSV text

I'm an incurable technodork in many ways, but I remain old-fashioned in refusing to go with the online trend of eliminating capital letters and punctuation from emails. I think capitals and punctuation are Good Things that help writers communicate more clearly. The gospel for this coming Sunday is a good case in point. Biblical manuscripts didn't use punctuation, the combination of small and capital letters that we're used to, or even breaks between words.They were written in all caps without breaks, like this:


With effort, you can probably figure out what that says (it's the start of the gospel passage for this coming Sunday), but punctuation, capitalization, and word breaks make it a lot easier. Sometimes, though, there's an ambiguity in the original manuscript, and translators have to choose an interpretation to know how to punctuate the text. That happened in the first century too, as people tried to interpret texts in the Hebrew Bible.Today's gospel quotes from Isaiah 40, a passage with one of those no-punctuation ambiguities. There are at least two ways the text could be read: "A voice cries out in the wilderness: 'Prepare the way ...'" OR "A voice cries out: 'In the wilderness prepare the way ...'" What's the diff? It was actually a matter of some controversy in the first century, as a number of people thought this was a very important text. Supporters of John the Baptizer (I can't bring myself to call him "the Baptist," which sounds like he was part of the Baptist denomination) read the text the first way, and said that it referred to John, who was crying out in the wilderness, but who said the way should be prepared in the cities and villages — wherever people lived — by how people treated one another. The folks who produced the Dead Sea Scrolls read the text the second way, and saw the text as referring to their community's founder telling them to go into the wilderness and prepare the way there, removing themselves from the cities and villages, which they saw as full of impurity. Christians decided to go with the first way of reading the text, to honor John as the voice who cried out in the wilderness and to honor Jesus' teaching that what makes someone pure or impure is how they treat others in relationship (Mark 7:18-23). It's simply not possible to live the Christian life by going off into the desert to be "pure," whether alone or with like-minded people. We can't really experience who Jesus is unless we're willing to go where Jesus goes -- into the cities and towns, into the homes and around the dinner tables of people we might be tempted to see as impure or sinful.

December 1, 2003 in Advent, Luke, Year C | Permalink | Comments (0)