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Proper 14, Year C

If you're looking for a comment on the readings for Sunday, August 1st (Proper 13), scroll down!  This one's for Sunday, August 8th; I'm publishing it early because I'm about to leave for vacation, and probably won't be on the Internet again until I get back on the night of the 7th (and finish up my sermon for the 8th!).

Genesis 15:1-6 - link to NRSV text
Hebrews 11:1-3, (4-7), 8-16 - link to NRSV text
Luke 12:32-40 - link to NRSV text

How many times do we hear or say the words "I know I should ... but my heart's just not in it"?

The gospel reading for August 8th tells us that there's something we can do about that, and it points to one of the best and least-discussed reasons for us to exercise stewardship the way Jesus does -- with generosity that goes far beyond the bounds of what American culture would tend to see as sensible.

It comes in Jesus' saying, "where your treasure is, there your heart will be." It's often misquoted as or misinterpreted to mean the same thing as, "where your heart is, there your treasure will be," but that's not what Jesus says. Jesus says that our hearts follow after our treasure like a dog runs after a stick. How we spend our money determines where our heart will be -- what kind of a person we'll be.

In other words, our stewardship is a means of our formation. We have (and should have) a strong self-interest in treating possessions as Jesus teaches us here -- holding them loosely, selling them to give alms, being generous toward others as God is generous -- because doing so is the best way, if not the only way, to experience that it is God's good pleasure to give the kingdom. Those of us who are most anxious to accumulate enough to shield us from misfortune and pain (as if that were possible!) have the most to gain from giving our "nest eggs" and "rainy day funds" away; when we do, we will finally be able to receive Jesus' word at the opening of this passage: "Do not be afraid."

As long as we rely on our own diligence and what we've accumulated for security, we will never be free from fear; we know too well in our heart of hearts that there are innumerable things in the world that we can't control, no matter how much money we've got. If we wait to be generous until we feel we can afford it, we might wait forever in fear. The solution Jesus advocates is stepping forward in faith, giving our treasure to the poor and knowing our heart will follow.

This is not a "prosperity gospel" that says if you invest your treasure where God's heart is -- in extending God's justice and mercy among the poor -- you'll get that promotion you wanted, and have more money than before. This is an identity gospel -- we choose behave as children of our Father because of who we are, and our hearts follow -- experiencing, as a result of that trust, not only deeper intimacy with God, but also real love in community. When we're all living into God's generosity, we find that when we do have needs, we're part of a family of sisters and brothers in Christ who KNOW who they are, and will express their ties with you as children of one Father by taking care of one another as family do.

That's why I'm glad the gospel for August 8th is read alongside the story of Abraham and the words of the Letter to the Hebrews on Abraham's faith. "Faith," or pistis in Greek, doesn't mean intellectual assent to a proposition; it means something more like "trust" or "allegiance." It's not about what we usually call "belief" so much as it is about relationship. Having faith is not about trying to convince yourself that you are convinced of something. You don't know you have enough faith when the needle doesn't leap on a lie-detector test as you say, "My journey will birth a people, and we will have a home." You know you've got faith when, however your heart pounds as you do it and whatever fears you have, you take the next step forward into the desert. Your heart will follow your feet, and you will become more fully the person God sees as your true identity.

So let's be generous with all of our treasure -- certainly with money, but also with time (I think an even rarer treasure in the communities in which I live and worship!), and energy, and love. Let's do it as if this were our last chance to try it. Where our treasure is says far more about who we think we are, what we think is of eternal importance, and who we want to trust, than anything we say with our lips. Let's speak with our treasure who we are in Christ, and we may find the miracle of Creation repeated, as speech bring worlds into being.

Thanks be to God!

July 31, 2004 in Faith, Genesis, Hebrews, Luke, Ordinary Time, Stewardship, Year C | Permalink | Comments (0)

Proper 13, Year C

Ecclesiastes 1:12-14;2:(1-7,11)18-23 - link to NRSV text
Psalm 49 - link to BCP psalter
Luke 12:13-21 - link to NRSV text

We can never ransom ourselves
nor deliver the price of our life.

And that's the folly of the American Dream as I've heard it expressed so many times. We dream of accumulating -- by our own merit, of course, because we're more clever and more industrious than others -- enough to take care of any need, any crisis, in our lives and in the lives of those we care about.

It's a lot more common than we'd like to admit that something arises for which no amount of money or insurance or planning or work can do what we think these things are supposed to do -- keep us handsome and happy and healthy and successful. We can be purpose-driven and prayer-minded too, and we still can't deliver the price of our life, let alone the price of eternal life.

The Good News is that somebody else already did that. Somebody else already did all that was necessary to give you love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Somebody else already did everything necessary to give you what you -- the person you really are, the person you are in Christ -- what you truly need and desire.

What would your life look like if you stopped trying to store up enough money, enough duties fulfilled, enough respect, enough approval, to stave off disaster?

What would your life look like if you really believed that "it is for freedom that Christ has set us free" (Galatians 5:1)?

Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us. We are free now to live as God's people are called to live -- in the wideness and the wildness of God's mercy.

Thanks be to God!

July 26, 2004 in Ecclesiastes, Luke, Ordinary Time, Psalms, Wisdom Literature, Year C | Permalink | Comments (0)

Proper 12, Year C

Genesis 18:20-33 - link to NRSV text
Luke 11:1-13 - link to NRSV text

Our collect in the Episcopal Church (USA) for this Sunday:

O God, the protector of all who trust in you, without whom nothing is strong, nothing is holy: Increase and multiply upon us your mercy; that, with you as our ruler and guide, we may so pass through things temporal, that we lose not the things eternal; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Let us so pass through things temporal, that we lose not the things eternal.

I wish the collect said something more like, "Let us make use of things temporal, that we lose not the things eternal." That seems to be the point of one of the most interesting things in Luke's version of the "Lord's prayer," the prayer that we are all taught to pray as followers of Jesus.

"Forgive our sins, as we forgive our debtors."

Luke is a very careful writer -- probably the most careful writer of those whose work is preserved in the gospels. But his structure here isn't parallel structure. He says, in vocabulary that makes his meaning clear, "forgive our sins as we forgive the (monetary) debts of those who owe us money." The Greek word, for those interested, is opheilonti. It's a totally clear money thing...as opposed to the totally clear (it's even the word that Aristotle used in his discourse on tragedy) word for "sin."

Luke is too careful to let me think that this deviation from parallel structure -- a deviation that Matthew doesn't have -- is a mistake. Luke is suggesting here that we should ask God to forgive our sins the way we forgive monetary debts. I wonder if that's what those who crafted our lectionary had in mind when they paired this passage with a passage from the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, whose sin, according to Ezekiel, was about despising the poor and needy, not anything about sex as such.

In the days of Jesus, and in the days of Luke, debt was the leading cause of slavery. I suspect that the same could be said of our own day. In Luke, Jesus calls upon his followers to ask God to forgive their sins as we (that's in the plural, the "we") forgive our DEBTORS, those who owe us money.

Where would we American Christians be if God answered that prayer?

Where would we be if God forgave our sins the way we (collectively, as a nation) forgive debtor nations?

Maybe we as a church ought to live, ought to exercise our citizenship and whatever collective power we have as people who talk and pray weekly about what it means to live as Jesus' disciples, as if we really wanted that to happen -- as if we wanted God to forgive our sins as we have forgiven the world's debtors.

Maybe there should be more organizations like this one. Maybe we ought to live as though "Christian values," particularly as they affect how we vote in elections, had something to do with our relationship with God. Maybe we ought to be as generous with our own resources -- ALL of them -- as God is generous with God's love and the resources of God's Creation.

Much is required of those to whom much has been given. What a solemn expression of God's profligate generosity!

Thanks be to God.

July 19, 2004 in Genesis, Justice, Luke, Ordinary Time, Year C | Permalink | Comments (0)

Proper 11, Year C

Thanks for your patience with the delays in getting this posted.

Genesis 18:1-10a (10b-14) - link to NRSV text
Luke 10:38-42 - link to NRSV text

This week's expanded Hebrew scripture reading provided the domain name (sarahlaughed.net) for this site, and it means a great deal to me personally. It's the source of the reminder in the Book of Occasional Service's liturgy for a house blessing, "Do not neglect to show hospitality, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares" (BOS, p. 150), and the source of the imagery for Rublev's icon of the Trinity, used in the banner for this site.

As a 21st-century feminist, though, there's something that rubs me the wrong way about the passage's treatment of Sarah, and it's epitomized by verse 13, in which God addresses Abraham, not Sarah, to ask why Sarah laughed. I suppose that, since the address seems to come through the three messengers, it could be viewed as unseemly for strange men to address Sarah directly rather than through her husband. The result is that in this passage the only voice Sarah has is through her provision of hospitality for the visitors, which is received graciously, and through her laughter, which seems to be portrayed as indicating a lack of faith.

The scene brings to my mind the book Like Water for Chocolate, in which Tita, a youngest daughter whose place in life and lack of voice is dictated by her gender and her position, pours her emotions so powerfully into her cooking that all who taste it share her feelings. The power that Sarah exercises is not insignificant, but I think one of the reasons the image of her laughter so grabs me is because of my sense that it is breaking through great suffering and subverting the conventions that would give her no voice.

So I'm glad that the story of Sarah laughing by the oaks of Mamre is paired with the story of Mary and Martha in Luke 10. I think the passage is too often used to criticize Martha, as if she should have known better than to hurry about the kitchen while Jesus was in her home. But I think the strength of Jesus' statement, with its "Martha, Martha" opening and declaration that Mary "has chosen the better part," doesn't serve to criticize Martha so much as it serves to defend Mary against the criticism she would have received for her inhospitable (sitting around rather than seeing to the comfort of her guests) and unseemly (behaving as only male disciples should behave by sitting at Jesus' feet) behavior.

In this sense, this Sunday's gospel is a continuation of a theme from Luke 9:59-62, which we read a few weeks ago. When Jesus said, "Let the dead bury the dead," he was releasing a man from the constraints of being a dutiful son. When Jesus said, "There is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her," he was releasing women from the constraints of their role in the household.

In the household of God, there is only one who can claim the title "Father," only one who can claim a father's authority for men and women alike, and that's God. That word would have been received as profoundly shocking to most and profoundly liberating to some, both men and women. Both men and women in Jesus' culture were enmeshed in a network of relationships and obligations that -- so long as they were committed to being respectable -- would hold them back from following Jesus and living as he did. After all, a man is obligated to care for his wife and children and his aging parents -- how can he do that if he follows Jesus' command to "give to all who ask, without expectation of repayment" (Luke 6:33)? And a woman's honor lies in her care for her husband and children and home; good girls don't roam the countryside with men who aren't their husbands or fathers, as that awful Magdalene and Joanna and Susanna (Luke 8:1-2) do. So, Jesus, surely you don't mean this whole "follow me" thing literally, do you?

Call me a biblical literalist -- I think Jesus does mean it, and I think he meant it literally in the texts in which he says it. And I think he still does mean it. Jesus is now present wherever two or three are gathered, rather than in one specific place, so we may not need to start roaming around the countryside to follow him. We do, however, need to place the demands of the Good News ahead of the constraints of respectability. Some will call us loose women and irresponsible men because we are bound to our family in Christ and are responsible to our Lord. That's the radical freedom and the solemn and joyful obligation to which we are called, and that's the Good News of Jesus' word to Martha.

What have we held back from doing in following Jesus, in striving for justice, in providing for all of God's children, in proclaiming the Good News, because we felt obligated to someone or something else? What have we been doing not because we felt called by God to do it, but because we felt it was the best we could do within constraints? What would we do if Jesus said to us, "There is need of only one thing," and we took responsibility for that? What would our lives look like if we took to heart Paul's words in Galatians 5:

For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.

I'm not preaching this Sunday, so I'll ask as a favor to those who are: please hit the "we're too busy with many things" point quickly, if at all, and leave room for the main point of the gospel. Our identity in Christ is the "one thing"; other identities are valuable only insofar as they deepen our maturity in Christ and empower us for Christ's mission in the world. The only constraints, the only obligations, are those of love. In Christ, Phoebe is free to journey from Cenchreae with Paul's letter, boldly preaching the Good News in all of the churches in Rome (Romans 16:1-2). In Christ, any daughter, sister, or mother can claim her voice, no longer straining to listen from outside the tent, but seated alongside the others at the table, feasting with any who will join such a company of loose women and prodigal sons. Sarah's laughter must be ringing throughout the heavens to see that.

Thanks be to God!

July 14, 2004 in About this site's name, Genesis, Luke, Ordinary Time, Year C | Permalink | Comments (1)

coming soon!

Dear All,

I've got to get myself to Los Angeles (from Maryland, where I live), as my grandmother in L.A. is in poor health.  This week's blog entry will go up tomorrow (Tuesday).  You can tell me whether the climate of sunny SoCal comes across in the blog -- and feel free to pray for my grandmother, Madeline, if you feel so moved.

Blessings, and see you tomorrow!


July 12, 2004 in Administrivia | Permalink | Comments (0)

Proper 10. Year C

By the way, I'm redesigning my sermons site, so new sermons haven't been going up for a while (I'm a biblical scholar, not a web designer, so it takes a while for me to do something web-ish with a quality worth doing). My sermon from July 4 (delivered at my home parish, Memorial, in Baltimore) took a tack that you might appreciate if you liked the blog entry. Please look for it once the new sermons site is up!

Luke 10:25-37 - link to NRSV text

This is going to be a short one, with a longer couple of footnotes.

"Who is my neighbor?"

It's a question most asked, in my experience, by people in a position of privilege and relative safety who are seeking to be selective about with whom they share their privilege, for whom the question boils down to, "on what grounds can I avoid responsibility for someone else's welfare?"

In the end of the gospel passage for this Sunday, Jesus does one thing that completely turns that dynamic on its head. His closing question is what does it:

"Who is the neighbor to the man in the ditch?"

Right then, Jesus asks the questioner to identify with the person in the ditch, who is in need of help from the first willing person -- not with the others on the road, who can elect whether or not to help based on a cluster of totally passable reasons.

This is a twist, and a pretty healthy one. Think about it: how much of our discourse about choices people SHOULD make is conducted among a small set of very privileged people who, because of their privilege, actually HAVE a choice?

So in the "who's my neighbor" question, Jesus asks us to place ourselves in the shoes (or the ditch) of the most desperate person we can imagine before we answer. I'd like to see what would happen to our discourse as Christians and/or Americans if we did this on a regular basis before determining policy with respect to any question.

The woman or man in the ditch would want any person passing by to think of her/himself as neighbor.

Here come the historical footnotes:

1) The non-Samaritans passing by probably had perfectly good (by reasonable standards) reasons for not wanting to help.  They were en route from the provinces to Jerusalem. A priest or a Levite passing along that route would likely be on the way to service in the Temple -- service commanded by God. Touching a corpse (and how could you know whether the person in the ditch was a corpse or someone in need of CPR without touching the body?) or bodily fluids (as were certainly in evidence) would render the priest or Levite unclean, and therefore incapable of serving God in the manner commanded by scripture. Before we blame the passing priest and Levite for a lack of compassion, we need to think long and hard about the ways in which our views of what we are obligated to do by virtue of our status -- as fathers or mothers, as spouses, as priests or executives or teachers, as dutiful sons or daughters, as vestry members or clergy or aspirants or anything else -- has presented us with obligations we thought at some point took precedence over what our heart of hearts knew was what compassion demanded.

2) The person in the ditch had a substantial set of reasons to decline help from the Samaritan. There was Scripture (or what a substantial number of folks accepted as scripture, anyway -- and we as Christians are among those folks) to suggest that Samaritans were defined by their defiance of God's will and their flaunting of God's guidance that led to the captivity of Israel's elite in Babylon. People like Ezra and Nehemiah thought that men [sic] of God were called to abandon their foreign wives, to avoid cultural influence from "the nations." They thought that it was Israel's acceptance of Gentile influence (via romantic partnerships with the wrong people) that led to the Captivity. Jesus seems to think that, when it comes to human need, historical wrongs -- even historical wrongs backed up by scriptural prohibition -- take a very, very distant back seat at best.

If you were bleeding and near death in a ditch, from whom would you refuse help?

Jesus begs us to think of everyone whose CPR would be good enough if we were unconscious as our neighbor when it comes to advocating for their full humanity, citizenship, and membership in the people of God.

I think I finally fit in.

Thanks be to God!

July 5, 2004 in Luke, Ordinary Time, Parables | Permalink | Comments (0)