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Proper 26, Year C

Isaiah 1:10-20 - link to NRSV text
Luke 19:1-10 - link to NRSV text

There's a game called "Angels and Devils" that I made up for youth groups as a way to start conversations about discernment and what it means. Here's how it goes: A barefoot and blindfolded volunteer tries to navigate an obstacle course, with the obstacles being things that are rather unpleasant to step in (e.g., piles of ice cubes, sopping wet bread). Helping the volunteer through the course is an "angel" or two, whose job it is to provide reliable guidance ("step about a foot to your left") so the volunteer doesn't step in the icky stuff. Not so helpful is the "devil" or two, whose job it is to say whatever it takes to get the volunteer to step in as much of the icky stuff as possible. "Angels" and "devils" are chosen in silence after the volunteer is blindfolded, so s/he has to sort out as s/he goes which person is playing which role. After the course has been run a few times, we then wash the feet of the volunteers and sit down together to find out what it was like to play various roles -- the blindfolded person, the "angels," the "devils," and those who can watch but not intervene -- and how the experience does and does not match what discernment is like for us.

In one memorable experience of "Angels and Devils," Ryan, a particularly insightful young man played a "devil" in one round and an "angel" in the next. During the discussion, he observed that it was really frustrating to try to be an "angel" under those circumstances. The person whom he was trying to guide as an "angel" had in the previous round been a helpless bystander, wincing in sympathy each time Ryan (very effectively) "deviled" another volunteer into stepping into obstacles, so no matter how much good advice he gave as an "angel," the new volunteer did the opposite of anything he said.

It was a vivid dramatization of some of the least helpful behaviors we're prone to in Christian community. I think most, if not all, of us have some category deep down in our psyches for "sinners." When pressed, we'll say, "we're all sinners," or "Christians aren't perfect, just forgiven," but on some level, we're still tempted to put some people in a special category -- THOSE people. "Those people" are the ones who commit the REALLY bad sins, by which we usually mean the sins that we like to think we're not particularly tempted to do. (In most cases, I suspect that we're really just projecting our own shadow onto others -- but I digress.) "Those people" are so far beyond the pale that they just don't belong in fellowship with the rest of us, or at least not until they demonstrate repentance -- and we mean, though we don't say, that they need to do it to our satisfaction.

It's a tragedy. Our preconceptions about "those people" prevent us from seeing them for who they really are, and from hearing their stories of redemption. Two cases in point present themselves in the Hebrew bible and gospel readings for this coming Sunday.

Our reading from Isaiah is God's word to the rulers and people of Sodom and Gomorrah, two of our favorite examples of those who are beyond the pale. The Isaiah text speaks against a prejudiced reading of their story. Far from being stereotypes of pagan hedonism, they observe the sabbath and offer sacrifices and prayers. The evil that they do, according to Isaiah, is failing to "seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow." And perhaps most importantly, while they remain free to turn down the invitation, they are invited into the presence of the God who says even now, "Come now, let us argue it out" (who says that contentious relationships can't be loving!) "... though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be like snow." Sin has consequences, to be sure, but it does not and cannot override God's character. God's mercy is as relentless as it is gentle. We move through it, but not away from it; we can no more cut ourselves off from God's mercy than a diver immersed in the middle of the ocean get get dry by swimming.

That's very hard for us to take in, though. Perhaps that's why we so often try to turn God's love and fellowship into some kind of a prize won in competition with others. If we don't feel worthy ourselves, at least we can feel more worthy than someone else. The real tragedy, though, is that taking this approach increases rather than alleviates our anxiety that there won't be enough of God's love for us. As long as we treat God's love as a limited good, a commodity that can be exhausted, we'll always worry on some level about coming up short, because as long as we project our sense of unworthiness onto other people, we'll never be able to hear God's invitation:

Come now, let us argue it out,
     says the LORD;
though your sins are like scarlet,
     they shall be like snow.

That's what's going on in the story of Zaccheas too -- in the narrative itself, and in a lot of interpretations of it. Our translation of verse 8 and 9 doesn't help. That's where the NRSV has Zaccheas saying, "half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much." It's an OK translation in every way but this: the verbs Zaccheas using are not in the future tense, but are in the present. The crowd presumes that Zaccheas hoards his possessions and not only cheats the people, but fails to pay the penalty, and so when Jesus invites himself to Zaccheas' house, Jesus joins their set of THOSE people, the sinners. But Zaccheas is not a cheat, nor does he hoard his wealth; as he says, "I give half of my wealth to the poor, and if I find I have defrauded anyone, I pay back four times as much." These are things he is already doing, even before meeting Jesus. This chief tax collector, who receives only disdain from his neighbors, is actually far more generous and intentional about doing justice than is the respectable ruler of Luke 18:18-25.

The funny thing is that in our retelling of Zaccheas' story, we often commit the very sin that the story condemns. We present Zaccheas not as a righteous and generous man who is wrongly scorned by his prejudiced neighbors, but as the story of a penitent sinner. Worse yet, I've heard retellings that ignore the chronology of the story (Jesus insists on dining in Zaccheas' house even before he hears of Zaccheas' generosity and scrupulousness) to suggest that Zaccheas' fellowship with Jesus depended upon his repentance, that he was another example of those told to "go, and sin no more" (which, interestingly enough, doesn't appear in any gospel at all in our earliest and most reliable manuscripts -- it comes from the story of the woman caught in adultery in John 7:53-8:11, which most likely was an addition to the gospel by a later scribe!). We say, "Look, if Jesus could forgive this penitent sinner Zaccheas, he might even be able to forgive you -- assuming, of course, that you toe the line from here on out." What an unfair reading -- to Zaccheas, to Jesus, and to God's justice and mercy!

Fortunately, even when we do this, we aren't beyond God's mercy. God listens patiently to our disbelief in God's mercy before pointing out, like the beautician in the Palmolive ad ("it softens hands while you do the dishes") of the 70's, "you're soaking in it!" (Real Audio clip here).

That's something to think about next time we're tempted to point to someone as one of THOSE people, a sinner -- someone who makes a better sermon example than a dinner guest. Like the crowd murmuring about Zaccheas, we may be blinded by prejudice, and find ourselves accusing someone we should be emulating. And like the people of Sodom and Gomorrah, we will still be invited to join the feast, alongside Zaccheas and all the children of Abraham.

Thanks be to God!

October 25, 2004 in Luke, Ordinary Time, Year C | Permalink | Comments (3)

Proper 25, Year C

Luke 18:9-14 - link to NRSV text

Back in August, I blogged (and preached) on spiritual pride, a subject that today's gospel addresses directly.

Spiritual pride is among the most insidious of sins. Fight it successfully for a moment, and it's tempting to start saying, "Hey -- I'm being really humble! I'm WAY more humble than Bill over there. Maybe I should teach a class on humility at church." Or have you ever found yourself thinking along these lines?

"I can't stand those conservatives/liberals. They think they're so much holier/better informed than everyone else. Well that's PRIDE! If only they'd be like me, the world would be a much better place."

Frederick Buechner defines humility as thinking of yourself as neither better nor worse than you are, and I like that definition. I think, though, that it may be even closer to the mark to say that the humble person is the one whose energy is so occupied with serving others, with exercising the kind of spiritual leadership that calls all into deeper maturity, with seeking God's will and enjoying God's fellowship, and with enjoying all of God's good gifts that s/he just doesn't have all that much left over to devote to assessing whether s/he is more or less virtuous than others.

One of the difficulties I find in preaching on a passage like this Sunday's gospel is that while it's easy to say that we should be more like the humble and penitent tax-collector and less like the Pharisee, the reaction I observe to saying so often doesn't seem very humble. That game of competitive virtue is just too seductive. Point to the Pharisee and the tax collector in the Temple, and people often do two things: identify with the tax collector, and start talking about how much they hate those proud and hypocritical Pharisees -- whom they usually identify with whoever is on the Other Side of whatever issue is hottest.

Here's one test of whether we're reading one of Jesus' parables correctly: if it doesn't surprise, shock, and challenge us, then we should probably go back to the drawing board. If our reading of this parable mostly says to us, "I thank God that I'm not like that awful Pharisee," we're in trouble.

So, what to do?

It might be helpful to start with trying to understand where the Pharisee is coming from. We're so accustomed to Pharisees being used as stock villains without any redeeming qualities that the shock of the parable is lost to us. Of course Pharisees are awful people who are zealous about superficial rituals but don't love God, and certainly don't love their neighbors.

This reputation has got to go -- not only because it's insulting to today's Jews, who trace their spiritual heritage to the Pharisees (there's a reason that Jewish campus ministries are called "Hillel"!), but also because it's inaccurate.

For starters, the Pharisees were not the fundamentalists of their time. They did not read scripture literally. They understood that the laws given to Moses while the people were nomadic herders needed to be interpreted to suit changing circumstances. And the Pharisees were remarkably INCLUSIVE. They were well known for their enthusiasm for evangelism (as Matthew 23:15 reflects, albeit with a negative comment added), and they received Gentile converts (i.e., those who joined the people of Israel by being baptized, offering sacrifice in the Temple, promising to follow the Law, and for men, being circumcized) with great joy. As for justice issues, we pretty much owe it to the Pharisees that the prophetic works like Isaiah, Micah, and Amos are in the canon; the Sadducees saw these works as newfangled innovations and not canon, and other groups (like the community at Qumran on the Dead Sea that produced those famous scrolls) that accepted them were too isolated to have much influence. The Pharisees longed for what Christians long for: God's will done on earth as it is in heaven, and all nations streaming into Zion to enjoy God's just and compassionate rule.

The Pharisees weren't perfect, to be sure; like Christians, they didn't do everything they professed was God's will.  That's why Jesus, in Matthew 23:1-3, tells Christians to do what they say, but not what they do. I think this particular Pharisee in today's gospel is being presented as one of the good guys. Fasting was a sign of penitence; tithing ensured that those in Israel who did have land provided for those who didn't. However, the Pharisee's prayer betrays something that may characterize his fasting and tithing as well.

This guy (let's give him a name, to make clear that we're not talking about a category, but a person. Let's call him Eli.) is busting his butt to further God's kingdom, and he's succumbed to something that a lot of us struggle with. Eli knows that the world could be powerfully transformed in his lifetime, if only everyone would just GET WITH THE PROGRAM. He does his best to persuade them to sign on -- a move that would introduce them to experiences of God's presence in community as powerful as what he's experienced dining at a pure table with his family or studying Torah with his fellow-travelers in the Pharisaic movement.

It's a generous impulse, but when someone doesn't sign on to such a program, it becomes tempting to start seeing people on the other side as the problem, and it's practically impossible to proclaim something that will sound like Good News to your audience if you're doing it from a position of resentment. So his passion for God's prophetic word degrades into distaste for a fellow Israelite, as Eli finds himself focused more and more on others' perceived shortcomings and less and less on their commonalities -- both Israelites, both seeking, both sinners. Eli might have found himself more concerned with understanding the man praying next to him than he was in persuading God that they he was different from his neighbor.

The report of the Lambeth Commission on Communion is out. I'm reading and rereading it carefully. The diversity of those on the commission coupled with the unanimity of the report says to me that it ought to be taken very seriously and considered very prayerfully. There is much in the report that is challenging, but I am particularly encouraged by the report's call for the world's Anglicans to finally address the most-neglected mandate of the 1998 Lambeth resolution on sexuality, to "commit ourselves to listen to the experience of homosexual persons and ... assure them that they are loved by God and that all baptised, believing and faithful persons, regardless of sexual orientation, are full members of the Body of Christ." I favor proposals that will invite deep listening on all sides.

In the end, the best test of the report's success is this: does it move us beyond pointing to others' perceived sins and shortcomings, and allow all of us sinners -- all of us who know what it means to be rendered invisible, shut out, and discriminated against -- to work together to proclaim God's love and extend God's justice to all?

The Spirit is speaking; may God grant us the inner quiet to hear, and the courage to follow.

Thanks be to God!

October 20, 2004 in Luke, Ordinary Time, Pharisees, Year C | Permalink | Comments (2)

today I am a postulant

It's official ... Bishop Ihloff has informed me that I am a postulant in the Diocese of Maryland. Many thanks for all of your prayers and encouraging comments and emails -- they really did make a difference in helping me to stay centered and keep breathing through it all.

An entry on this Sunday's gospel will go up tomorrow.



October 19, 2004 in Personal Notes | Permalink | Comments (0)

Proper 24, Year C

Sorry this is late, folks; Blogger has been refusing my connection.

On a personal note, I'd like to ask for your prayers this Friday and Saturday, when I'll be interviewed for postulancy, the biggest hurdle in the ordination process in the Episcopal Church (if you're not familiar with what that process looks like, you can read a summary of the process in the Diocese of New York. I'm in the Diocese of Maryland, not New York, but there are a lot of similarities in how they do things). By mid-week next week, I should know whether the bishop wants to make me a postulant right away, perhaps later, or never.

Now, to this Sunday's readings ...

Genesis 32:3-8, 22-30 - link to NRSV text
2 Timothy 3:14-4:5 - link to NRSV text
Luke 18:1-8a - link to NRSV text

It's the custom at the parish where I work to do only two readings, either the Hebrew Bible or the epistle (but not both) and the gospel, in Sunday services. This week, since I'm preaching, I've asked that we do all three.

The 2 Timothy passage we've got this week has always been and is still is an important one for me personally. When as a teenager, I had a conversion experience -- in evangelical parlance, I accepted Jesus as my personal Lord and Savior -- it was largely in response to what I heard from God in my extensive and enthusiastic reading of the Bible, both on my own and in small groups. Scripture has been integral as well to my other conversion experiences since then -- for example, when I first felt confronted with my own racism and sought to repent from it and be intentional about my ongoing formation in a way that would further my ongoing conversion.

Scripture is also central in my sense of vocation. I feel called to a ministry that is sacramental and pastoral, but I don't know how I'd understand what either of those things mean in the context of Christian community were it not for my many years and ongoing practice of studying Scripture regularly, intensively, and enthusiastically.

And of course, one of the elements of my vocation that I'm particularly passionate about is teaching, empowering people to interpret Scripture in a way that will further their own ongoing conversion, formation, discernment, and ministry. On the live album Rattle and Hum by the rock band U2, lead singer Bono introduces the song "Helter Skelter" with the words, "This is a song that Charles Manson stole from the Beatles. We're stealing it back!" Sometimes that's how I feel about the Bible. Plantation owners may have given slaves the Bible to try to inspire obedience, but in the process, slaves learned the story of Moses. Some people try to steal the Bible so they can conceal their claims to power in it, as some do with the flag. But we're stealing it back.

"All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work" (2 Timothy 3:16-17). This is a true saying, and worth repeating, even as we confess one (and only one) Word of God, no book, but a person: Jesus, the Christ of God, the Word made flesh in Nazareth and dwelling among us still. Our study of Scripture informs our sense of who Jesus is and how we are called to respond to his invitation to follow him, but Jesus, not Scripture, is our end. Scripture is inspired and useful, but Jesus is the Truth, and the Way, and the Life.

And furthermore, much as I give thanks for the printing press and the Internet, these media are a mixed blessing in creating the illusion that we can read the Bible in our "prayer closets," in isolation from community. In the ancient world, writing materials were very expensive, so copies of scriptural works were difficult for individuals to obtain, and most Christians would have been unable to read anyway. As a result, the early Christians studied Scripture in community, pooling resources to obtain copies of books and reading them aloud together, in community.

In a context like that, it's easier to follow 2 Timothy's counsel, which I'd say doesn't start with verse 14 (where our lectionary picks it up), but in verse 10. 2 Timothy counsels us to learn not solely from Paul's letters, but from his life -- his conduct, his aim, his faith, his patience, his love, and his steadfastly holding to a response of love even when persecuted. When I think about those moments of conversion in my own life in which Scripture was key, it becomes clear that the presence of the Spirit that made conversion possible was mediated not solely by my reading Scripture on my own, but also (and in some ways, perhaps more importantly) by the example of others in community. I love studying Scripture, and if I may paraphrase St. Paul, I thank God that I have opportunity to do it more than most people. I commend intensive study of the scriptures at every opportunity to all; there's nothing more useful for those of us with the hubris to serve as teachers.

It's useful. I'd say it's necessary, if we're to be proficient, equipping God's people for every good work. But it's not sufficient. There's something else we need, something that 2 Timothy 3:10-11 hints at, and that I draw from our Hebrew Bible and our gospel reading for this Sunday. We need contact. We need community.

Not that community is all hearts and flowers and happiness. All communities go through conflict, and conflict isn't fun. But conflict in community isn't a distraction from the spiritual; it is a place in which we can encounter God, find blessing, and experience conversion. In Genesis 32:3-30, Jacob is in the midst of a feud with his brother that's serious stuff -- he believes that his brother may be coming to kill him and his entire family, "the mothers with the children," as verse 11 (omitted in the lectionary) says. And that's where God shows up. Even Jacob's encounter with God isn't exactly lovey-dovey; it's an all-night smackdown that ends with Jacob dislocating his hip. But Jacob holds on to his opponent, saying, "I will not let you go, unless you bless me" (verse 26), and Jacob leaves blessed by God, empowered to reconcile with his brother Esau.

As in our Hebrew Bible reading, the parable from this Sunday's gospel starts with seemingly irreconcilable differences, as a widow seeks justice from a judge whom the text explicitly says neither fears God nor respects anyone. But she won't let go; no matter how many times the judge dismisses her, she keeps coming back. She won't let the matter drop until she sees justice. At the end of the story, we might be tempted to say that the widow wins and the judge loses, but I think that's a misleading statement. The widow won her case, but the judge got a gift even more valuable; he received the gift of conversion.

When the widow wrung the verdict she sought from the judge, her efforts turned the judge from a man of injustice to a man who does justice. The man who at the story's beginning is identified only as an unjust judge who respects no one, having done justice and listened to the widow, will need a new name, just as Jacob received a new name. The widow reminds me of Desmond Tutu, calling in the darkest days of apartheid to the soldiers who threatened him, saying "It's not too late! You can still join the winning side!" Like Tutu, the widow refuses to demonize her oppressor, to treat him as if he were the evil man everyone -- including the narrative voice in the text -- says he is. So the widow wins, and the judge joins the winning side.

So when I preach this Sunday, I will have something to say about Scripture and its usefulness for correction, but I won't stop there. The meat of the message this Sunday, I think, will be about the wrestling we do in community. I'm preaching the day before the Lambeth Commission chaired by Archbishop Robin Eames issues its recommendations -- recommendations which some are saying, or even hoping, will be the end of communion, a definitive break in fellowship. It won't be. That's true not only because of the facts of our polity, because any recommendations issued by the commission will have to go to the primates' meeting, and then to the Anglican Consultative Counsel, and even then instruments for implementing decisions are limited. That's also true because there are too many of us who will not let go. On the commission and off it, from cathedral thrones to parish pews and in the streets, there are too many of us who will refuse to go away until justice is done -- for African children in danger of dying of malaria for want of a $2.50 net, for LGBT martyrs who put their life on the line for justice, for those tortured in Abu Ghraib or in Cook County Jail in Chicago. We won't let go until our wrestling partners and angels -- we refuse to respond to them as enemies or demons -- become sources of blessing and justice.

With God's help, we're holding on. And all of God's children will receive the new name and the blessing God promises.

Thanks be to God!

October 12, 2004 in 2 Timothy, Genesis, Luke, Ordinary Time, Year C | Permalink | Comments (0)

Proper 23, Year C

Luke 17:11-19 - link to NRSV text

Turbulence isn't necessarily a bad thing.

Think, for example, about a washing machine. Without turbulence, there could be no transformation for the laundry. But in a washing machine, there's always motion; what's at the margins is drawn in to the center, and what's at the center is pushed out to the margins, and in the midst of all those currents and all that friction brought about by the agitator, the clothes are cleansed.

That kind of motion is characteristic of Jesus' ministry, and I think this Sunday's gospel is an excellent example.

Lepers literally live on the margins. They are unclean, and so must stay apart from the center of village or city life. At night, they are literally shut out from the community and its protection. But their condition forces them to depend on the community for their sustenance, as they begged at the community's borders.

As Jesus walks the borders -- between Samaria and Galilee, his face set toward Jerusalem but not yet arrived there -- he encounters ten lepers at the margins. All show remarkable faith: they call out to Jesus to heal them, and when Jesus tells them to go to show themselves to the priests, as they would need to do as with a series of washings over a seven-day period to prove themselves clean, they go, and are healed and cleansed immediately.

Nine lepers continue on their way to the Temple. It's what Scripture tells them to do, after all, and it's what Jesus said to do, to show themselves to the priests. Continuing on to the Temple is a good thing to do. It's what's necessary for those who were cleansed to go back to the center of village life and stay there; once nine lepers have proved that they are clean, they can once more offer sacrifices in the Temple, and be welcomed once more into the center the community's life.

But one does not do that. One turns back to Jesus. Surprisingly, although Jesus told the whole group to show themselves to the priests, Jesus praises the leper who turns back.

It's not coincidental, of course, that the leper who comes back to Jesus is a Samaritan. Samaritans weren't welcome in the Temple in Jerusalem, as perhaps the tenth leper remembers as he sets out. Even after being cleansed of his leprosy, the tenth person will still be an outcast to Judeans. There's nothing he can do and nothing that Jesus can say that would integrate him fully into Judean society.

And so he comes back to Jesus. He offers praise to the God who healed him, and he offers thanks eucharistein) to Jesus. It's worth noting, as Malina and Rohrbaugh do, that thanking Jesus is NOT what would normally be expected; in Jesus' culture, thanking a superior would indicate that you no longer had need of them, and would end the relationship. Jesus does not criticize the nine lepers who continue on to the Temple for failing to thank him; what he says is "was none of them found to return and give praise to God," not "was none of them found to return and give thanks." The nine's continuing on to Jerusalem leaves open that they will continue in relationship to Jesus, trying to repay him for what he did for them.

But the tenth one, the Samaritan, has realized that he will still be among the outcasts, and so he offers his sacrifice of praise to God on the spot rather than at the Temple, and he gives thanks to Jesus, believing that he has nothing else to offer him.

Jesus' praise for the Samaritan underscores something for us. Jesus heals us, cleanses us, and brings us into community. But the journey doesn't end there, if we intend to follow Jesus. Jesus declares us worthy to stand at the center, but then Jesus always calls us back to the margins. It's where he is, after all. What good are we to Samaritans if we stay in Jerusalem?

I don't believe that all references to thanksgiving (eucharistein) in the New Testament are necessarily references to the Eucharist as such. Luke may not have intended the leper's giving thanks to Jesus in verse 16 to refer to the Eucharist as we celebrate it, but our celebration of the Eucharist must, if it is to be truly the Lord's meal, be celebrated in remembrance of the one who calls us out to the margins, to declare to the outcasts the Good News of God's welcome. Our making Eucharist is not just a celebration of our status as insiders; it is strength for our journey to meet the outsiders. Jesus is still at the margins, and he heals us that we may follow him.

Thanks be to God!

October 4, 2004 in Justice, Luke, Ordinary Time, Year C | Permalink | Comments (1)