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Proper 9, Year A

Zechariah 9:9-12 - link to NRSV text
Romans 7:21-8:6 - link to NRSV text
Matthew 11:25-30 - link to NRSV text

"My yoke is easy and my burden is light" (Matthew 11:30).

Say what?

Wasn't it just last week that we were hearing about how followers of Jesus must take up the cross? Cross-bearing is certainly NOT a picnic. Wasn't it just the week before last that we were hearing about how friends, neighbors, and family of Jesus' followers will hand them over for flogging and even death? How on earth could Jesus say that his burden is light?

But he does, in this Sunday's gospel. And it's true, for at least two reasons I can think of.

One is that the Cross is light, compared to some of the burdens that people and powers want to lay on us. I think about this all the time in the parish where I work now [but only weeks longer, due to staff cutbacks -- please feel free to download my C.V. if you need a consultant or staff person with expertise in congregational transition and development, formation, ministry with GenXers and the Millennial Generation, and biblical studies!]. As I've preached on before, our culture can lay some very heavy burdens on us if we don't examine very carefully and prayerfully the presuppositions we grow up with. The congregation I work in now is one of the most succesful groups of people I've ever been in. Incomes are far higher than average, houses are bigger and more expensive (great schools, right on waterfronts for sailing), careers are more prestigious, and cultural ideals of married two-parent families and white picket fences are disproportionately high.

And many, many people in this community are severely and almost constantly stressed. The high school youth group picked "Under Pressure" as the theme for their last retreat, and spoke, wrote, painted, sculpted, and prayed movingly about the pressure they feel to take all of the right classes, get the right S.A.T. score, participate and win prizes in innumerable extracurricular activities, get into the right university, and choose the right major so they can get afford to buy a house in a similar community and have kids who are achievers as they are. And that pressure starts earlier and earlier, felt even by kids in elementary school.

For the most part, they inherit that kind of pressure from their parents, who feel it just as keenly. The expensive houses that get kids into the right schools require very high mortgages. If just one thing goes wrong -- someone loses a job, a family member has a health crisis, the housing bubble bursts -- there's a LOT to lose. So it's all the more important to really shine at that 60-plus-hour-per-week job with the two-hour (or more, depending on traffic) commute. Those who don't move up often get moved out.

All of this comes at a very high price, and it can take a very heavy toll. And here's one of the saddest ironies of the whole thing:

Yes, part of what perpetuates this cycle is the way that parenting itself has become another arena for achievement (and for feeling guilty as well as shamed if we don't achieve highly enough), my experience suggests that the main fuel under this pressure cooker is an outgrowth of love, the desire to pass on the very best to our children and to give them every chance to be happy and fulfilled.

St. Paul could relate to those of us caught in this kind of viscious cycle, as he was at one point caught in one of his own. He loved God. Loving God means, among other things, loving God's word in scripture and striving to do God's will on earth. Paul's love was so visceral and so passionate that he felt personally charged with confronting those who got it wrong, and whose lives, however much guided by misguided ideals, were bringing disaster to themselves and to Israel. Paul's love was so deep, and so deep was his desire to see all nations streaming into a restored Zion under the leadership of the Christ, God's anointed, that it even drove him to persecute Christians. The irony, as Paul came to realize with Jesus' intervention on the road to Damascus, is that when he was persecuting Christians, he was persecuting the very  Body of the Christ he sought.

But Jesus intervened. Jesus showed Paul not only that he was wrong about who in this situation was the vanguard of God's work (not Paul, but the Christians), but also that Paul was wrong about the solution (blessing, not persecution). So when Paul cries out in Romans 7, "who will rescue me from this body of death?" he knows the answer: Christ, and specifically, living in unity and engaging in ministry with the full Body of Christ. The zeal of Paul the persecutor was pure (by the way, in Acts, Paul is called "Saul" after his Damascus Road experience; he didn't change his name, but simply used the more Hebraic name among Hebrews and the more Greco-Roman name among gentiles), and was all the more destructive for its purity when it was even slightly misdirected. And when we get confused and start thinking that achievement is what will give us and our children abundant life, we get caught up in a cycle at least as seductive for us as Paul's cycle was for him ...

... until, that is, Jesus intervened. And that's the source of our hope too. One reason it's true that Jesus' burden is light is that it's light in comparison to the other burdens that fall on the shoulders of people who think they're going to be unencumbered. If we're not intentional about seeking the God of Israel as incarnated in Jesus, then our culture is only to happy to slip its own burdens on our shoulders -- all the pressure and anxiety of a life based around achievement and conformity to cultural ideals, an inheritance for our children that they start experiencing as their own as soon as they learn to read the worry on our faces. If that's the best someone is offering me, I think I'll go with whatever's behind door number two.

But more importantly, and most compellingly, we can say that Jesus' burden is easy and his yoke is light because it is. That I can opt out of the burdens my culture wants to place on me raises my hope that I might be able to opt in to something better, and the Good News is that the best option -- abundant, joyful life, freedom from anxiety, and real, deep, big-enough-for-the-world love is available to us in Christ Jesus. We bear the Cross not as one person alone, but with the whole Body of Christ, and Christ's presence with us brings strength, courage, and peace. When we confess Jesus as Lord, we are not only joining the triumphant and true king (or, as Desmond Tutu puts it, "the winning side," as God calls the poor and marginalized); we are becoming citizens of God's peaceable and just kingdom, "prisoners of hope" (Zechariah 9:12) even as we bear the Cross, restored and freed for eternal and abundant life in service and community with all whom God loves.

Thanks be to God!

June 28, 2005 in Matthew, Pastoral Concerns, Romans, Year A, Zechariah | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Proper 8, Year A (BCP lectionary)

[If you use the Revised Common Lectionary rather than the lectionary from the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer, or if you'd prefer to concentrate on the last three verses of this Sunday's gospel in the BCP lectionary, please see this article, which is a reflection I wrote for The Witness on the RCL readings for this coming Sunday. If you're using the BCP lectionary, my prior entries on text raising themes of kinship and family may be fruitful ground for reflection also.]

Isaiah 2:10-17
- link to NRSV text
Matthew 10:34-42 - link to NRSV text

The bulk of this Sunday's gospel is hard to hear for us all across what I call the theopolitical spectrum. Those who (like me) emphasize that Jesus' work among us is as reconciler and Jesus consistently condemned violence are disturbed by Jesus' saying "I have not come to bring peace, but a sword" (Matthew 10:34).

Perhaps even harder for many of us to hear is Jesus' saying that he has come to set parents against children and children against parents. If that makes you feel uncomfortable, you're in good company. The language that passed Jesus' lips about this was almost certainly more like Luke's, which has Jesus saying, "Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters ... cannot be my disciple" (Luke 14:26). No, there's no trick of Greek vocabulary or ancient Aramaic translation that blunts the meaning of the word "hate" there. It's the same word (misein) used in places like:

  • Matthew 5:43 (in which "hate" is clearly presented as the antithesis of "love" (agape)
  • Luke 21:17 (in which hatred is what persecutors have for those whom they put to death)
  • Hebrews 1:9 (in which it is said of the Son that he "loved righteousness and hated lawlessness")

That's hard to take, and it's most likely that Matthew's community (which in all likelihood used some of the same written sources as were used for the Gospel According to Luke) backpedaled from that "hate" to say instead that it's about loving parents or children more than Jesus.

"Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me" (Matthew 10:37) is still a radical and potentially offensive statement, though. I think about a bio submitted for a lay leadership position in an Episcopal congregation which said something very like "family is, and will be forever, the absolute foundation of my life, the church, and society" (I kept the quote in my files, but am paraphrasing it to protect the person's identity). What does Jesus' claim that he came to set parents against children and children against parents do to that? Those who loudly proclaim a Jesus whose "family values" exalt heterosexual marriage and parenthood above all other relationships and priorities can't be biblical literalists about passages like this Sunday's gospel, so they're often forced to gloss over them (I'd love to hear about any congregation out there not working from a lectionary in which the preacher chooses to take up texts like this!) or resort to interpretive contortions like misused or even invented etymologies to try to dull the force of Jesus' proclamation.

Why is this so hard for us to hear?

Anthropologists use the term 'redemptive media' to refer to the set of things people do in a given culture that allow them to be seen as good, as blessed and worthy of blessing. In the United States during my lifetime, the dominant culture's redemptive media have included graduating from high school and university, owning one's home, and being financially successful (or at least managing wisely the money one has), and (in some circles, and of decreasing importance over time as a redemptive medium in the technical sense) being a member of a religious congregation. But above all of these things as the chief 'redemptive media' in the dominant American culture have been two things: marriage and parenthood.

Think about it this way: there's a fifty-two-year-old politician thinking of a run for the U.S. presidency. He dated in high school and his first two years of university, but once he decided to dedicate his life to public service, he decided that he would have more time and energy to serve the public good without neglecting a family if he were celibate, though as someone who's neither a monk nor a Roman Catholic priest he's under no formal obligation to celibacy. Heck, let's even say for the sake of argument that everyone is satisfied that he's heterosexual. Would his chosen singleness (which St. Paul would commend, though not command) be a political help or liability with American "family values" voters?

I suspect it would prove a serious political liability -- perhaps even more of one if the candidate were a woman. Especially in contrast to another candidate who in his television ads was surrounded by smiling, handsome children and grandchildren (and probably the family Golden Retriever as well), an American man or woman who chooses to remain single and/or childless -- even if it's a choice made to provide more opportunities to serve humankind and leave a better world for other people's children -- would be seen as selfish ("Clearly, this jerk has placed career over family!") or just plain weird, even if it isn't seen as an indication of closeted homosexuality. Even in gay communities, pairing off and raising children boost respectability and a person's perceived level of success. Gay or straight, a church member who's never been partnered is very likely to be met with pity, well-intentioned attempts at matchmaking, and/or reassurances (however unwelcome) that "I'm sure God has someone in mind for you." Marriage (or at least a stable partnership) and parenthood, as our cultural redemptive media, are as American as apple pie -- and we all know that the full phrase ought to be "Mom and apple pie."

So what the heck is Jesus talking about when he says that he's come to set Mom against her daughter, Dad against son, children against their parents?

One side of it is that Jesus is talking about a fact. In a culture that values marriage and family above all else (superficially, in name and cultural iconography -- don't get me started about how hard many of our government's policies make it to get medical care for all of our children, to parent without both parents having to work outside the home, for African American women to form those nuclear families that politicians praise ...), sometimes justice, integrity, and wholeness -- qualities characteristic of Jesus' work among us -- can divide parents from children.

I'm thinking about Zach, a young man of sixteen who lives in Bartlett, Tennesse. Zach loves the Harry Potter movies and The Lord of the Rings and rock bands like Good Charlotte and No Doubt, but he'd usually rather read a book than watch T.V. He has an online journal -- a blog -- that describes a good amount of typical teenage drama in sentences that sometimes run on or lack a few capital letters.

Zach hasn't posted anything new to his blog in nearly a month, though. He's been sent away to a place where he's searched bodily every day, he isn't allowed to have keys to his house or a phone to call a friend, or even a photograph or memento to remind him that he has friends with whom he can hang out or play video games, friends who care about him. He was sent against his will to a place where even Bach and Beethoven are banned as secular music and a possible influence to sin.

Zach was sent there by his parents when he finally worked up the nerve to tell them that he's gay. His parents found this place -- a place run by a group called "Love In Action" -- where they hoped that Zach would, with their treatment, become heterosexual. They told Zach that they were sending him there. Zach ran away, but when he came back to try to reconcile with his parents, they did send him there, very much against his will. There are some who might say that Zach or his "disordered" orientation is to blame, and that the repressive and potentially abusive treatment he gets from "Love In Action" is simply the last and best hope to "cure" him of a disease, to which I'd say that this certainly isn't the first time a superficial scientific sheen has been applied to call God's children claiming their full humanity a disease and their personal integrity a disorder. In 1851, Dr. Samuel Cartwright, who was widely viewed as an expert on health care for Black people, "discovered" the supposed diseases of  "dropetomania" (literally, "flee-from-home-mania") and (here's a mouthful!) "Dysaethesia Aethiopica" (a disease with symptoms of sullenness and refusal to obey orders) Dr. Cartwright claimed that these supposed diseases to which Black people were uniquely vulnerable were best treated by whipping as soon as possible when symptoms showed, and since these diseases were "the natural offspring of Negro liberty," slavery itself was the best hope to tide the epidemic. [If you're interested in hearing more about this, please see the footnote at the end of this post.]

I imagine that Dr. Cartwright thought of himself all the more as a good Christian for his work. It would be perfectly in keeping with a theological disorder that has long plagued this country and others -- namely, a tendency to project onto God whatever our culture's redemptive media are. In 1851, a "good" slave was an obedient slave. And in Zach's family, a "good" son is a heterosexual son.

And so Jesus comes -- to heal, and to love, and however long it takes to grow, to nurture the peace that comes with the fruit of the Spirit -- but also, in some cases, to separate a son from his father. I don't know Zach or his parents personally, but just from reading Zach's blog, I wonder whether the best thing I can pray for Zach is that he'll find a way to break away from his parents while staying safe. Zach needs to be among people who, though they're not related to him by blood, will receive him as a beloved brother, a child of God whose every capacity for self-giving and life-affirming love is a gift from God.

And my hope -- my vision, as someone who believes with all her heart that the God of Israel, the God who became Incarnate in Jesus, is present and active and powerful to heal and redeem -- is that the story wouldn't end there, but that Zach could, with the support of his new sisters and brothers and an unshakable sense of just how much God loves him, find the strength and the courage to forgive his parents, and that they would be moved to reconcile with him, receiving him as an adult with his own integrity, not  only son, but a beloved brother in Christ.

That's the Good News in this hard word of Jesus about the gospel inspiring sons and daughters breaking from their parents. It's that there is no brokenness, nothing so disordered as to be completely beyond the reach of God's power to redeem. That truth gave St. Paul the boldness in his letter to Philemon the slave-owner to insist that Philemon not only free his slave Onesimus -- a slave for whom Dr. Cartwright would have prescribed whipping -- but receive him joyfully as a brother in Christ, a child of God, his equal with God-given rights and a God-breathed vocation.

The day of our redemption is near.

The haughtiness of people shall be humbled,
   and the pride of everyone shall be brought low;
   and the LORD alone will be exalted on that day.

-- Isaiah 2:11

When God alone is Lord, no other person, no cultural imperative, no unjust law, no earthly power can claim that title or keep us from our identity in Christ. Our freedom in Christ divides us from all that would oppress us and restores us to one another as members of one Body of Christ, called to ministry and maturity in Christ, co-heirs with the one who sets us free.

Thanks be to God!

If I can indulge in a lengthy footnote, turning difference coupled with a refusal to accept the "less than" status accorded to one by one's culture has a long history in American medicine. In 1851, slaves who repeatedly tried to flee to freedom were diagnosed with "drapetomania"  -- literally, "flight-from-home-mania" -- a disorder "discovered" by Dr. Samuel Cartwright, who was seen as an expert in the medical care of Black people. Dr. Cartwright taught that "drapetomania" -- that is, wanting freedom -- was  "a disease of the mind as in any other species of alienation, and much more curable, as a general rule," if "treatments" of whipping were applied at the first signs of this supposed disease. Dr. Cartwright also prescribed whipping as the cure for "Dysaethesia Aethiopica." In Cartwright's words, this "disease peculiar to Negroes" was characterized by "hebetude of the mind and obtuse sensibility of the body" -- in other words, by sullenness and resistance to obeying one's master. Dr. Cartwright chided abolitionist colleagues for noticing "the symptoms, but not the disease from which they spring," this disease being "the natural offspring of Negro liberty," making slavery -- with whipping, of course -- the only humane solution to this supposed epidemic. (Props to Elizabeth Kaeton for bringing this to my attention; you can read about it here, among other places.)

Our country also has a history of forced sterilization and/or imprisonment in extremely oppressive and unhealthy mental "hospitals" to cure perceived social ills via eugenics, with American scientists sparking the German eugenics movement that justified the Holocaust -- a subject with which Dr. Karen Keely first acquainted me.

June 23, 2005 in Healing, Isaiah, Jesus' Hard Sayings, Justice, Kinship/Family, Matthew, Ordinary Time, Philemon, Reconciliation, Redemption, Year A | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Proper 8, Year A (RCL)

[Update June 22, 2005, 4:47 p.m. -- I've had trouble with my Internet connection for the last few hours, and now have to rush off to a meeting. I apologize for the resulting delay in posting the BCP reflection, but a link to the RCL reflection is below.]

[Update June 22, 2005, 11:23 a.m. -- you can find the RCL reflection from me -- which touches on the themes listed in the footer of this post -- here, but all of
The Witness is a thought-provoking read, well worth checking out!]

This week is a "twofer" for me -- I'm preaching this Sunday at the 10:30 service at Memorial Episcopal Church in Baltimore, which uses the lectionary from the Episcopal Church's Book of Common Prayer (BCP), and I'm publishing a reflection on the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings (which don't overlap much this week with the BCP lectionary) in The Witness. I'll post a link to the RCL reflection once I see that it's been posted at The Witness' site (which will hopefully happen any minute now!), and the BCP reflection will be up tomorrow (since I've suddenly got an elsewhere I need to be for the rest of the day and evening today). I've got Live 8 (it's time to Make Poverty History, and for the U.S., to act as ONE!) on the brain today, and with the two sets of sermon material, I feel a little like Phil Collins with his sets in London and Philadelphia for the original Live Aid concerts.

June 21, 2005 in Inclusion, John, Matthew, Ordinary Time, Personal Notes, Prophets, Purity, Reconciliation, Righteousness, Romans, Year A | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Proper 7, Year A

Matthew 10:(16-23)24-33 - link to NRSV text

I have a workshop that I do from time to time called "Speaking the Truth in Love: Practical Skills for Reconcilers." People often come to it expecting (especially if the conference booklet didn't have room for a longer description) lots of material on rhetorical strategies, on things you can say to try to get people to listen to one another.

I don't cover much of that in the workshop because I think there are two related skills that are more foundational, if not more important, than having ideas about what kinds of words you can use. If you can't do these things, it will undermine the effectivenes of what you say; if you can do these things, you'll find it easier to figure out what to say, and you'll be better able to mean it as well.

The first skill is to be as fully present as possible in the moment, in one's skin.

The second skill is to be in touch as fully as possible with God's love. You want to be really knowing and experiencing that God loves you extravagantly and unconditionally.

I know ... it sounds very Southern California-ish of me to say that. But I don't think I say that just because I grew up in L.A., and where I'm going with that is most definitely not the kind of "pursuit of the perfect mellow" that leads one to be complacent rather than confronting the world's woundedness and injustices. I actually got the idea from passages like this Sunday's gospel.

As I blogged about last week, Matthew's community was experiencing serious persecution. It would be decades before Christians would be persecuted solely "for the name," that is, because they identified as Christian, but Christians in Matthew's time were getting in trouble for the same kinds of reasons that Jesus and Paul got in trouble.

They believed that only God could claim the kind of power over others that so many others -- the Emperor and his agents, the pater familias or family patriarch whose word was law in the family, the man who believed that purchasing a slave gave him the title of "master" -- and so they proclaimed Jesus' teaching, "Call no one father on earth, for you have one father -- the one in heaven" (Matthew 23:9). Their belief that God was calling every person -- male and female, slave and free, of every nation -- led them the build a community in which women and slaves were received as human beings with agency to make their own decisions and gifts to offer the community -- and they didn't ask anyone's husband, father, or owner for permission to do so. They built pockets of community living into a radical new order that looked more like chaos to many onlookers, and that threatened to undermine the order of the Empire.

And so their neighbors, their friends, and sometimes their own family turned them in, hauling them before governors as agitators, to be flogged, or worse. I can imagine that being betrayed by those so close would wound as deeply as any physical punishment.

So what's Matthew's word to his community, the one thing he wants them to remember when something like that happens? It isn't something they're supposed to say, some particularly compelling case they should make to their accusers or to the authorities. Matthew specifically says they shouldn't worry about that.

What they need to hold on to, more tightly than anything else, is how very much God loves them.

This is good advice for anyone living into Christ's reconciling ministry.

Sooner or later, if you're a part of that ministry, you'll find yourself making contact with very deep wounds, and wounded people, like all wounded creatures, are liable to respond to any overture out of pain, confusion, and anger. A person who comes back at them with more of the same is only going to speed up the spiral of violence, with disastrous results.

What we want to do in a situation like that is to be present and loving; that's the only way to disrupt that spiral of violence. That's very hard to do, though, when someone is right in front of you either threatening violence or saying something that would normally provoke a "fight or flight" response -- something that's sure to happen eventually if you're trying to be an agent of healing where the world's wounds are. In a situation like that, we're understandably tempted to withdraw -- to "check out" mentally if not remove ourselves physically -- or to strike back, or both. I think part of what makes those temptations particularly strong is that contact with another person's deep wounds often reminds us of our own wounds and vulnerabilities that we've tried to forget.

That's why reconcilers must remind themselves moment to moment to stay grounded in God's love. Remember just how much and how unconditionally God loves and values you, and you won't be thrown off-center by anyone's attempts to make you feel as worthless as they do. Remember just how powerful God's love is to heal, and you won't have to flee from things that remind you of your own vulnerabilities and wounds. Remember what God's love looks like in the flesh, in the person of Jesus, and you'll know how to respond. Keep in touch with that love in the core of your being, and you'll be able to respond with authenticity and with love no matter what you're faced with.

Don't worry about what to say. Don't worry -- full stop. There's a reason that Martin Luther King called the result of nonviolent resistance "beloved community." It is the community of those who know, who proclaim, and who embody the Good News that love is the fundamental, powerful, and inevitable Word through which the universe was made and lives, and for which it is destined. We have seen that Word made flesh in Jesus, and we see it embodied among us. That can't be stopped by violence; bringing violence to bear against God's love only creates more opportunities for God's love to disrupt the spiral of violence and build beloved community.

Thanks be to God!

June 16, 2005 in Matthew, Nonviolence, Ordinary Time, Reconciliation, Year A | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

feelin' queasy

Sorry this week's entry is so late ... I'm just not feeling well. The ideas are all developed, though, so I'll try to get it up today.


Dylan "but I didn't have the salmon mousse" Breuer

[Update: I'm still not up for working, but I have high hopes for tomorrow morning.]

June 15, 2005 in Personal Notes | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Proper 6, Year A

Romans 5:6-11 - link to NRSV text
Matthew 9:35 - 10:8(9-15) - link to NRSV text

Some passages are easier than others for me to preach on. There are parts of the Gospel According to John that I really have to wrestle with every time they come up. It was a gospel written to a community that was undergoing persecution of a sort I've never personally seen, and I hope never to experience it. And as a result, they did something that an Afrikaner friend of mine spoke of as "circling the wagons," pulling tightly in toward one another in a defensive posture that draws a firm (and hopefully impenetrable -- that's the point of using it as a defensive posture, after all) line between insiders and outsiders. It's a gospel that shows some concern for those outside the group; after all, this is where we hear that "God so loved THE WORLD that God gave the only-begotten Son," even if "the world" is spoken of in largely negative terms elsewhere. But the Gospel According to John is where believers are commanded to love one another, and are not commanded to love their enemies.

The book of John is, of course, canon, and that means I'm obligated to continue to wrestle with it. But as rich a voice as it is, I'm glad it's not the only voice in the canon. We've also got Mark, Luke, and Matthew, and Matthew is the source of our gospel reading for this Sunday.

At first glance, this Sunday's reading from Matthew might seem to illustrate the same dynamic I wrestle with in John. Like John, it has early on a clear expression of an evangelistic impulse, a sense that the Good News is for all. The harvest is plentiful, far more plentiful than the current number of workers could gather. It's a dynamic like that I see in the calling of the first disciples in Luke 5:1-11, in which a miraculously large catch of fish instantly changes the fundamental question in Peter's life from "will there be enough to feed my family?" to "can I gather enough people to take in God's bounty?" Pray that God would send workers to gather the harvest: it's too great for us to handle alone!

That's core theology for me. I believe that God's love and blessings are so rich that the whole world can't entirely contain them. The great urgency I feel (and believe me, I feel it!) as an evangelist (by which I mean a person called to enflesh Good News in the world such that people experience Good News in the world -- it's a shame that the word 'evangelist' has come in the popular usage to refer to someone who yells at everyone within earshot about Bad News) is to build communities of mercy, love, and justice broad enough to take in the fullest extent possible of God's passion for Creation.

But then there's this pair of verses in Matthew (10:5-6) that I struggled with for years every time it came up in the lectionary:

Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of Israel.

For years, whenever that came up in the lectionary, I shuddered. It sounded like the opposite of that core theology I valued; it sounded like Jesus was telling his followers to limit the Good News to a chosen few, the "good" people who deserve it.

I don't think that's a good reading of the text any more, though, and I think that the lectionary does us one big favor and two disfavors is helping us to read the text helpfully.

One disfavor, I think, is in pairing this Sunday's gospel with Exodus 19:2-8a. I imagine that this reading from the Hebrew scriptures was chosen because of its portrayal of God saying, "Indeed, the whole earth is mine, but you [Israel] shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation" (Exodus 19:5-6). But I don't think that Israel's role as a priestly people is what Matthew has in mind in its exhortation to go "to the lost sheep of Israel."

What I think it's about has to do with the second disservice that the lectionary does for us this Sunday: cutting the reading off at verse 8 or verse 15, when I don't think we can understand the passage well without reading further, through verse 23 at least. That's where we find out that Matthew's community, like John's, is experiencing persecution. And I don't mean the "someone's taken my parking space" kind. This is the kind where "they will hand you over to councils and flog you ... and you will be dragged before governors and kings" -- who aren't handing out parking tickets, but death -- as Matthew 10:21 makes abundantly clear.

And who's bringing about this persecution? Take a look at that passage about persections in Matthew 10:16-23. Where are people initially flogged? In synagogues (Matthew 10:17). And the Matthean disciples are dragged before kings and governors "as a testimony to them [i.e., to the persecutors] and to the Gentiles," implying again that the persecutors doing the dragging aren't Gentiles.

No, this isn't evidence that the New Testament is antisemitic. Check out verse 21:

Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death

This isn't about Jews betraying Gentile Christians. It's not about strangers betraying strangers. It's "all in the family," in a very literal way. It's about family not only disowning family -- as also seems to be a common experience for Christians in Matthew's community -- but sons sending fathers and fathers sending sons to be imprisoned, tortured, and killed.

Maybe that's at least partly why the gospels don't present biological family in a very flattering light. But here's the kicker:

This Sunday's gospel has Jesus commissioning his followers to go to the very people who are persecuting them.

That's what I think is the import of Jesus' saying to go "to the lost sheep of Israel." It's not saying that the Good News is only for the good people. It's saying ... well, let me let St. Paul do the talking:

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 5:10-11

That's the huge favor the lectionary does for us this Sunday, though I don't know how intentional it was. It pairs Romans 5 with this Sunday's passage from Matthew in a way that underscores what I think is the most radical edge of Jesus' commission there. When Jesus talked about the abundance of the harvest, he wasn't saying that everyone will receive the Good News with cheers and applause. This harvest is about just how much reconciliation the Body of Christ can effect in the world, and that means that we are sent not just to those who will support and encourage us, but also to those who seek to wound us, or worse.

The hard truth of our call to reconciliation is that reconciliation happens in the context of wounds and division. As Christians, our icon of the ministry of reconciliation is the Cross. But our willingness to be present with the world's wounds, to return blessings for accusation, to love without regard for who is appreciative or deserving, will be a means through which the whole world -- friends and persecutors, and even ourselves -- will experience the Good News of healing, reconciliation, and abundant life in Christ, the boundless harvest of which Jesus' resurrection was just the first fruits.

June 7, 2005 in Evangelism, Jesus' Hard Sayings, Matthew, Ordinary Time, Reconciliation, Romans, Year A | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack