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Fourth Sunday in Lent, Year A

John 9:1-13(14-27)28-38 - link to NRSV text

It's sensible enough: start with the idea that God is just, compassionate, and in control. Then take a look around you. There's a lot of suffering there. Think about why people suffer. There's got to be a reason for all that darkness, right?

In Jesus' culture, people thought of light as a STUFF, a substance that radiated out from itself, a kind of fire that, when present in the human body, could flow out of a person's eyes and allow them to see (props to the Social Science Commentary on John for that). Someone who couldn't see just didn't have the stuff in them; their body had darkness in it instead of light. Makes a certain kind of sense.

And how did they get that way? Surely God didn't make them like that. Had to be sin.

What if the person in question was born that way, born full of darkness? What do we do with that? Do we blame the parents? Do we blame the blind person (some people in Jesus' culture, and probably in our own, thought that in some way it was possible for a fetus to sin in the womb)?

Jesus answers that very important question of what we should do when we see human suffering that challenges the conventional ways we talk about God's goodness and the goodness of the world that God made. I think in some ways that Jesus' answer could be summarized as this:

Get back to work.

Really, I'm as intellectually curious as the next person, but that's what I hear coming across as I read this passage. It speaks to me as a person who's frequently tempted to devote energy to talking about Jesus' compassion that might be better spent extending it.

That temptation seems pretty close to the one faced by the particular Pharisees in this passage: they've spent so much energy figuring out how God's justice and God's compassion operate in the world, and through whom they operate, that they've got very little left to receive the reality when it's in front of them.

I definitely do NOT mean to condemn all Pharisees by this. When Christians use "Pharisee" as a synonym for "hypocrite" or "villain," it invariably comes across as antisemitic -- and besides, it's grossly unfair. The Pharisees were not moral bean-counters who didn't care about justice. Indeed, the prophetic books that most thoroughly informed Jesus', Paul's, and early Christians' vision of what God's justice looks like -- books like Isaiah, and Jeremiah, and Micah, and Amos -- are in our bibles largely because Pharisees saw them as inspired works that deserved to be in the canon. The Pharisees were the primary movers for placing in the canon the passages that, according to Luke 4, were central in Jesus' own sense of mission.

Luke gets that across by having Jesus quote some of the passages in question, such as Isaiah 42:1-7:

Here is my servant, whom I uphold,
   my chosen, in whom my soul delights;
I have put my spirit upon him;
   he will bring forth justice to the nations.
He will not cry or lift up his voice,
   or make it heard in the street;
a bruised reed he will not break,
   and a dimly burning wick he will not quench;
   he will faithfully bring forth justice.
He will not grow faint or be crushed
   until he has established justice in the earth;
   and the coastlands wait for his teaching.
Thus says God, the LORD,
   who created the heavens and stretched them out,
   who spread out the earth and what comes from it,
who gives breath to the people upon it
   and spirit to those who walk in it:
I am the LORD, I have called you in righteousness,
   I have taken you by the hand and kept you;
I have given you as a covenant to the people,
   a light to the nations,
    to open the eyes that are blind,
to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon,
   from the prison those who sit in darkness.

This was not a passage about some singular figure who was going to come to save Israel. Isaiah's "servant of the Lord" was ALL of Israel. And in this Sunday's gospel, Jesus does far more than read or explain these words: he puts them into action. All of Israel, not just an anointed one or few, was to serve as a light to the nations, opening the eyes of those who are blind.

And so it may be that the most damning point this Sunday's gospel has against Jesus' accusers is one that we easily miss: they did not know the blind man who was healed.

He sat and begged there daily, and every day they walked by him, but when the time came, they couldn't be sure of who he was -- others had to fetch his parents before they could be sure of the identification (again, props to the Social Science Commentary on John). Or maybe they'd identified him solely by the darkness they thought was inside him, as a social problem indicative of how far society had sunk. For whatever reason, they'd never looked him in the eye or really noticed his face.

I think that globalization and the previously unimaginable -- and potentially, in some ways, very helpful -- capabilities it brings come with an equally impressive set of responsibilities: that, having been grafted into God's people, we are called to find some way to, in some sense, look people of all nations in the eye before we take their money or as we give ours, to find a face and a name where others see only columns and figures representing social problems or potential profits, symbols to use for political or financial gain, or to prop up a worldview.

Questions about how things got this way and theological questions about what God's revelation to us looks like in our community and our world have their place, but never at the expense of our call as God's servants and Jesus' followers: to bring peaceable justice -- justice that doesn't so much as bend a reed or blow out a candle, let alone issue force in explosions, but which nonetheless brings liberty not just to those most able to seize opportunity, but to the blind and the captive -- to every nation, every block, every city, every neighbor.

We cannot be light to the world until we can see that light in the eyes of beggars in our town and in our global village, welcoming that light as Christ's presence among us and receiving each bearer as a neighbor, a brother or sister with a face and a name. Jesus shows us the way, and his presence with us gives us courage to live more deeply into it.

Thanks be to God!

February 28, 2005 in Healing, Isaiah, John, Justice, Lent, Year A | Permalink | Comments (11)

Third Sunday in Lent, Year A

Romans 5:1-11 - link to NRSV text
John 4:5-26(27-38)39-42 - link to NRSV text

On the Sunday before last, John de Beer, with whom I work at St. Martin's-in-the-Field, delivered a sermon that (verily, verily, say I unto you) kicked proverbial butt. John talked about how violence so often proceeds from a sense of shame, with perpetuators of violence lashing out at whatever or whoever they've projected their shame onto. He also talked about how this leads to a spiral of violence, as those ashamed of being bullied become bullies, the abused become abusers, and the cycle continues, or even escalates.

That cycle of shame and violence doesn't have to continue, though; Jesus showed us a way out of it. This Sunday's gospel is an excellent case in point.

Jesus is traveling through Samaria, a land populated by Samaritans, whom Judeans despised. It wasn't always that way. But in 586 BCE, King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon dealt the Israelites a humiliating military victory, destroying the Temple that Solomon had built and bringing the leadership of Judea to Babylon in chains.

The sting of that defeat didn't lessen in the years to come. People were looking for someone to blame long after the Exile ended. Knowing that Israel's safety lay not in superior arms, but in God's protection, people tried to explain how it was that God allowed this to happen. People like Ezra and Nehemiah blamed those men of Israel who had married foreign women, and they demanded that all such men immediately divorce their wives, passing along the experiences of humilation, abandonment, and exile. Many of the men, especially in Samaria, refused, and so they got this kind of treatment, reported as the words of Nehemiah:

I contended with them and cursed them and beat some of them and pulled out their hair; and I made them take an oath in the name of God ... Thus I cleansed them from everything foreign ...
- Nehemiah 13:25-30

And so began the enmity between Judeans and Samaritans that was centuries old by the time Jesus sat by Jacob's well, and was approached by a woman of Samaria.

It was noon, in the heat of the day, and the last time that most women would have wanted to do the heavy lifting and hard walk back to the village involved in getting water from the well. The other women went early in the morning or in the cool of the evening, when the work wouldn't be quite as hard, and the drudgery of hauling water would be broken by the fellowship shared by the women around the well.

A woman who chose instead to go to the well at noon must have been seeking specifically to avoid that company; she was an outcast even among Samaritans. She was used to the whispering in the village wherever she went, having been used and discarded by so many men of the village, and in a culture in which there was little if any privacy, and gossip spread news quickly. As oppressive as the noonday sun is, it doesn't burn like the stares of the others in the village. So she goes to the well at noon, when she can be sure to be alone.

But she isn't. Jesus is there, and he speaks to her. Men spoke to women directly and in public like that if they were related by blood, or as a proposition, so it's no wonder that there's an edge in the woman's replies to Jesus. But Jesus addresses her in the same terms as he addressed his mother (John 2:4). He meets a woman who couldn't be more of an outsider, and he receives her as an insider, an intimate who has no cause for shame. He brings up her past, and her present, not to shame her, but to take away their power in showing how little they affect how Jesus and the God he proclaims receive her.

I meet a lot of people who could rightly be called "church-damaged," people who have had some of their most painful experiences of shame and humilation in churches, often in God's name. And I've met a lot of Christians whose ability to function as evangelists, as people who proclaim Good News so that others can experience it, is seriously impaired by their concern to make sure that sinners know just how shameful their behavior is, and that they be kept from the center of Christian community. For me, the question about how we evangelize isn't a question of "What would Jesus do?"; it's a question of "What DID Jesus do?"

Jesus received the Samaritan woman with such love and such grace that she was profoundly transformed. She had once accepted the village's verdict that she was so unfit for their company that she could draw water only at noon. After meeting Jesus, she's bold enough to demand (using the imperative!) living water from him. By the end of the conversation, she's left her water jar behind and is rushing into the very center of the village, demanding to be heard by those who were once her tormentors. And she IS heard; many believe in Jesus because of the woman's bold testimony.

What transformed this woman could transform our world. The woman at the well was despised by her village, which was despised by Judeans, whose ancestors had been humilated by Babylonians. From generation to generation, humilation, resentment, and violence were passed down by people keeping the score so that they could seek to even it. Jesus sets aside all score-keeping, and by treating all as if all were forgiven, he makes forgiveness possible -- even for self-righteous sinners like us.

For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person-- though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us. Much more surely then, now that we have been justified by his blood, will we be saved through him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more surely, having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life. But more than that, we even boast in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.
-Romans 5:6-11

Thanks be to God!

February 22, 2005 in Evangelism, Forgiveness, John, Nonviolence, Romans, Year A | Permalink | Comments (30)

sorry about the outage!

Dear All,

Sorry about the outages over the last 24 hours; there was a DNS problem, but I think that's now resolved.  It was affecting email to me at the sarahlaughed.net domain as well. Email seems to be working now in all of my various domains, but if you find that email to me at sarahlaughed.net is bouncing, feel free to email me (dylan) at twodames.net . There may be some issues with permalinks (which would come into play with things like links to a specific post from other sites) and you may occasionally encounter a "You are being redirected" page over the next 24-48 hours, but then things should run smoothly. The only bookmark I would advise changing is that if you ordinarily come to this page via http://www.sarahlaughed.net/lectionary-blog.html , I would recommend changing your bookmark to http://www.sarahlaughed.net/lectionary/ . If you've emailed me anything at sarahlaughed.net over the last 24 hours and haven't gotten a reply from me, please feel free to send your message again.

Phew! Now back to writing my sermon for Sunday!


February 17, 2005 in Administrivia | Permalink | Comments (11)

new host, expanded site

Dear All,

You may have noticed that the lectionary blog looks a little different ... I've finally migrated from Blogger to TypePad, and I've also expanded the offerings on the site. Don't worry about changing your bookmarks; I've set things up so that http://www.sarahlaughed.net will take you to the site's homepage, so within 48 hours or so, things should be working normally, without redirects. You'll find a navigation bar in the left-hand sidebar that will take you to the rest of the site:

about dylan -- where you can see my bio and download my C.V. (I'm a postulant, I've already got my seminary master's, and yes, I'm looking for a job!);

lectionary blog -- you're here, so you already know about that;

sermons -- what a difference a few days make! Stop by to see what I actually preached when Sunday came around; the archives should be complete within a week. And finally ...

resources -- home to FAQs, annotated bibliographies (with click-to-buy links that support the site), and other resources as I create or discover them. This is currently the least developed area of the site. I've got tons of materials compiled over the years, but it will take time to adapt them for the web and post them. Please pardon the minimalist design for some of what's posted, and please come by frerquently to see what's been added!

I'm hoping to be in a position soon where I can dramatically expand what these pages have to offer, and possibly also create one or more email lists where people can ask questions and receive feedback on particular situations (e.g., "Ack! Youth Sunday falls on a day when the lectionary calls for the "little apocalypse" from the Gospel of Mark! How can I bring these things together?"), or whatever else they need. I'm hoping also to be able to reintroduce email notification to the site -- like Bloglet, only something that actually works every time. Stay tuned!

Thank you, all, for your readership, your feedback, and your encouragement.



February 15, 2005 in Administrivia | Permalink | Comments (4)

Second Sunday in Lent, Year A

Genesis 12:1-8 - link to NRSV text
Romans 4:1-5(6-12)13-17 - link to NRSV text
John 3:1-17 - link to NRSV text

There wasn't a whole lot of social mobility in the ancient world. A lot of that was because a person's honor was the family honor. If you're born the child of someone important, you're important. If you're born the child of an outcast, you're an outcast. Your birth pretty much set your destiny, since what's possible for you was a function of who your family was.

There were some ways, though, in which you could become affiliated with a higher-status family; the best chances for social mobility (not that there were many such chances) came from these. If you were able to become enslaved to an important family, you would be considered part of the slaveowner's household; while you might be among the lower-ranking members of the household, the importance of the household might make you outrank the highest members of less important families. The closest analogy I can think of in our culture is this: who do you think would get the better table at a posh Hollywood restaurant -- the personal assistant to a studio boss, or the vacationing rector of a small, rural parish? A man enslaved to the emperor is, as a member of the imperial household, an important person, and once freed, this person is important as the emperor's freedman. The connection is permanent.

There were other ways too of joining a family. Adoption happened sometimes, even between adults. And then there were things like circumcision. Interestingly enough, there were cultures other than Jewish ones that practiced circumcision in the ancient world, and when a man from one of these other cultures (and hence who was already circumcised) converted to Judaism, the rule was that a cut would have to be made specifically so that blood was shed. Circumcision in these cases functions a little like the making of "blood brothers" among children; by the shedding of blood in the way that Abraham shed his own blood when he was circumcised, a man who was not literally a blood descendent of Abraham becomes nevertheless a son of Abraham, a child of God, part of the people of Israel. Now THAT's mobility โ€“ becoming part of God's chosen people.

In many ways, saying that anyone could join God's people by establishing a blood tie to Abraham, who was called out of Ur by God, was pretty radical. But Jesus offered something even more radical than that.

Jesus offered people the chance to become family โ€“ not the fraught, dysfunctional version of family that many of us are familiar with, but family that loves as God loves, family in which each person gives of herself or himself with abandon and never loses out, because each other member is giving in the same way โ€“ without blood shared or further blood shed. The Gospel According to Mark gets this across when Jesus, leaving his mother and brothers by blood waiting outside, says, "whoever hears the word of God and does it is my sister and my brother and my mother" (Mark 3:31-34).  The Gospel According to John gets that across in this Sunday's gospel, by saying that absolutely anyone can be born from above, from the Spirit (interestingly enough, the expression "born again" doesn't appear here!), becoming sister and brother and mother to the one who has been "lifted up," and now occupies the highest place.

The blood that Jesus shed plays a very important role in this gospel, though not in the gruesome way described by some, but because it was the last blood that would ever need to be shed for us to become one human family, children of one God, loving one another as our elder brother Jesus loved and loves us. That's why in Paul's thought, to insist on circumcision is to deny the Good News of the Cross. To all division, to all denial of our connection to and obligation to care for one another, to all striving to get in God's good grace or to keep others out, Jesus says as he says of all bloodshed: IT IS FINISHED. All that is needed for new life, new hope, a new world, has been accomplished, for God so loved the world that God gave us Jesus, sent to save the world from all that divides and dehumanizes.

Thanks be to God!

February 15, 2005 in John, Kinship/Family, Lent, Year A | Permalink | Comments (7)

Is it too early to think about aids for preaching in Christmas 2005?

Richard Horsley's The Liberation of Christmas, which was, as luck would have it, out of print around the time I suggested it for help preaching through the season, is back in print, and can once more be purchased cheaply from Amazon.com. I do recommend it highly to provoke fresh looks at the infancy narratives we preach on every year.  It might be worth ordering it now, while it's sure to be available!

February 11, 2005 in Books, Christmas, Special Feature | Permalink | Comments (0)

First Sunday in Lent, Year A

By the way, if this blog entry had a title, it would be "Scripture and Discernment between the Now and the Not Yet." If you're interested in having a small group book study or a class for a congregation on the subject, I highly recommend Luke Timothy Johnson's Scripture & Discernment: Decision Making in the Church as a way in to the topic.

Matthew 4:1-11 - link to NRSV text

"For it is written ..." the devil says in today's gospel. This passage, along with its parallel in Luke, is what prompted Shakespeare to point out that "the devil can cite scripture for his purpose" (The Merchant of Venice, Act I, scene iii), and seeing scripture used as a means of temptation here speaks strongly against the ways we are sometimes tempted to use scripture as we engage in discernment.

One of those ways is what I call the "Magic 8-Ball" method. It's quite a popular method -- so much so that I actually keep a Magic 8 Ball in my office to illustrate what I mean when I talk about the method (which I do pretty frequently). The 8-Ball resides in its original box, which says, "The Magic 8-Ball Has All the Answers! ... Ask a question ... Turn over for the answer!" In the 8-Ball method of interpreting scripture,  we come to the bible with a question. We then pick up the bible and open it to some fairly random portion of it as we might shake the Magic 8-Ball, reading whatever biblical passage comes up as being somehow related to the question about which we're in discernment. Or, as we see in this Sunday's gospel, it can be tempting to selectively cull words, phrases, and sentences from what we know of scripture -- often from entirely different documents, written at different times and in different contexts -- and to read the resulting combination as a kind of secret message to us.

Neither of these methods of using scripture in discernment is particularly helpful; they tell us more about our own psychology and interpretive prejudices in a given moment than they do about God's will. I believe 2 Timothy's statement that "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). It's worth noting for us 21st-century readers that when this passage of 2 Timothy says "scripture," it refers to the Hebrew bible, what we call the Old Testament, and doesn't include the New Testament, which didn't exist as a compilation at that point -- but the statement still holds true. All scripture is inspired, and is useful for instruction. But scripture's inspiration and usefulness does not make it a magic book, an oracle that has the answer to any question we might want to ask and will yield wisdom without work to interpret it. It's not even a matter of saying that anything a passage of scripture says on a topic will be helpful in a given situation if the passage is interpreted "correctly." Even true statements that would be very helpful in one context could be destructive to the health of the Body of Christ if applied elsewhere without sustained and prayerful attention to the new context and how well a particular insight gleaned from scripture applies in it. Just think for a moment what the consequences might have been if, hypothetically, St. Paul's messengers had gotten confused and mixed up the letters intended for the Galatians and Corinthians. If each of these Christian communities had received the other's letter and assumed that the instructions were written to and for them, then these quite different communities might actually have been led astray by Paul's advice, corrections, and encouragements that were intended for people facing very different challenges in their Christian walk.

That's a little like what's happening with these devilish quotations of scripture in this Sunday's gospel. On the face of it, the devil in the desert is telling Jesus the truth. The devil tells Jesus that as God's Son, he can find bread in the desert. That was true in the past: God miraculously provided bread in the desert for the children of Israel after their exodus from Egypt. It's going to be true in the future: in stories to come, Jesus will, through God's power, provide a miraculous abundance of food for five thousand and seven thousand people.

The devil also says that the kingdoms of the earth would bow before Jesus. That's true. Jesus does indeed bear the name before which "every knee should bend, and every tongue confess" his lordship (Philippians 2:11) -- and we believe they will. We pray for the full realization of that truth every time we say, "thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven."

The devil says that God will care for those God loves, and particular for Jesus, God's beloved Son. That's true. God's care for each one of God's children is trustworthy, and Jesus is God's beloved Son. Every point that the devil makes is, in a sense, "biblical." Every point the devil makes is, in a sense, "true."

But though the devil's words are true, they're not the whole truth. Though the devil's words are from scripture, God's word, they are not God's word to Jesus at that moment in his vocation. While all of the devil's points are, in a sense, "true," or are at least based on partial truth, they are not helpful here.

So I thank God that Jesus is not the "God said it. I believe it. That settles it!" type. I thank God that Jesus does not believe that every word of scripture is equally applicable to his circumstances. Jesus will not accept just any word from scripture as God's word to him at that moment. For Jesus, it's not just about God's truth; it's also about God's time, God's call, and most of all about God's love.

Although God will, through Jesus, bring vast crowds together for an abundant feast, this moment is not God's time for Jesus to use God's power to provide. Although we believe that the end of history is in a vast and abundant messianic banquet, this is not the time and these are not the circumstances for the feast.

Although God will reveal the full extent of Jesus' authority, although Jesus' glory will be fully shown, this is not the time and these are not the circumstances for that revelation.

Although Jesus will be lifted up, and although God will in Jesus fulfill the promise made to David that "you will not abandon my soul to Hades, or let your Holy One experience corruption" (Psalm 16:8-11), now is not the time -- or in the words of the passage in Luke that parallels this Sunday's gospel, now is not the "opportune time."

And so here, on this first Sunday of Lent, God's word to us is one of the hardest words for us to hear: "WAIT." But there is no better word for us to start a holy Lent. WAIT. We are called to wait, and watch, and listen deeply, so that we can enter as fully as we can into the story before us in these forty days, and in the dramatic week coming after that.

We know the story is headed toward the Cross, though the Cross is literally veiled from our sight just now. It's headed toward the full revelation of Jesus' call, and the fullest revelation of God's love. But that can't happen here in the desert, where there is no one to forgive. It can't happen now, before Jesus' life -- his teaching and healing and freeing people from the powers that bound them -- has testified to the meaning of his death.

Jesus is Lord, beloved of God, but the kind of authority Jesus exercises, the character of the God who calls Jesus God's Son, and the means through which the world will be gathered for the messianic feast are revealed most fully through Jesus' self-giving love and forgiveness. Having resisted the temptation to use God's power and God's gifts to further his own privilege, Jesus is prepared to proclaim with his whole life the kind of self-giving love, radical openness, and unconditional forgiveness that is the character of the God of Israel.

But wait. Let's enter in to the tension of Lent, the tension between the now and the not yet which we still live. There are still temptations to quote scripture to consolidate power, to read the bible for indications that we deserve the privilege we have and are justified in keeping others down to further it. But Jesus showed us a different way. Come in from the desert, and be nourished by the Body of Christ. Join with sisters and brothers to wrestle together with what we find in scripture, and to help one another listen for the voice of the Spirit, who leads us into the truth of God's call to us here and now. Be suspicious of any voice that suggests that God's power should be used to further our own privilege, but trust Jesus' self-giving love, which is good news to the poor, release to the captives, sight to the blind, and freedom for the oppressed (Luke 4:18-19). Trust the call to extend that love to others.

Thanks be to God!

February 7, 2005 in Discernment, Lent, Matthew, Year A | Permalink | Comments (2)