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Proper 22, Year A

Thanks for your patience, y'all. I've now located a very nice Internet café where I can post from the road, so I expect no delays next week.

Isaiah 5:1-7
- link to NRSV text
Matthew 21:33-43 - link to NRSV text

It’s sometimes said that Jesus’ parables are ways to make truth more accessible, taking complicated theological ideas and putting them in terms that anyone can understand. But in Matthew 13:1-9 (and Mark 4:1-9, and Luke 8:9-10), Jesus said that he told his parables for the opposite reason, so that the crowds might not understand. It’s a very puzzling statement, to be sure. But it’s a statement that fits the reality of how puzzling the parables can be when we enter fully into them as stories.

When confronted with these puzzling parables, we are sometimes tempted to resolve the ambiguities by leaping immediately to interpret them allegorically. In an allegorical reading, we start with our expectations – with what we think we know is true.  Then we look at the parts of the story – the characters, the objects, the actions – we decide which character or object in a parable is God, which one is Jesus, and what the other things in the parable represent, and we work toward a truth that is in harmony with our expectations.

But that’s not what the parables are for. Jesus’ parables aren't there to make complicated truths simple, but to complicate what seems to us to be simply true.

The parable in today's gospel is an excellent case in point.  If we leap immediately and not very carefully to allegory, it’s a simple story.  The landowner is God. God sends messengers to people (in particular, to Israel). The people reject the messengers. God sends his son. The people kill the son. So God is going to reject Israel and choose another people. But how well does the parable really fit that interpretation? How well does that interpretation fit the weight of the canon regarding the role of Israel?

As a point of comparison, it might be useful to look at the theology of Israel that appears in another New Testament work in which this parable appears, namely the Gospel According to Luke and its companion volume, the Acts of the Apostles. One author wrote Luke and the book of Acts as a single two-volume work that scholars refer to as “Luke-Acts,” and one of the noteworthy features of Luke-Acts is how it shows a continuing and central role for Israel. Indeed, Luke-Acts tells us that the invitation extended in to Gentiles through Jesus is to join Israel, God’s people. Those of you who are familiar with the book of Acts may recall the “apostolic council” in Acts 15, where Luke specifically tells us that among the Christian leaders gathered to make important decisions there are PHARISEES.  Not former Pharisees, but Pharisees.  In Acts (23:6), Paul continues to identify himself as a Pharisee (not a former Pharisee) long after he became an apostle of Jesus. In Luke’s theology, the vineyard of Israel has not been taken away to be given to others; rather it has been opened up by Jesus to new workers called to gather in God’s abundant harvest.

More importantly, is the landowner of the parable really like the God of Israel revealed in scripture and proclaimed by Jesus? Let’s start with the literal details we see in the parable, and examine them in light of what we know about the culture that gave the story to us. The setting of the parable is the estate of a very wealthy landowner. The landowner does not live on the land, and doesn’t do the work of planting and harvesting. Those who do that hard work are hired laborers and sharecroppers, who have to turn over most of what they grow to the landowner, who like the landowner in a similar parable in Luke 19, is a hard man, reaping what he did not sow (Luke 19:20). This absentee landlord does not send messengers out of any great love for the people or the land, but to get the goods that sustain his life of ease in the more cosmopolitan environment of the city.

And in this morning’s parable, the farmers have had enough. The next time the landowner sends one of his lackeys to collect the rent, the farmers send him packing. I can almost hear the cheer that erupted from the audience as Jesus told this parable. Then the landowner sends another henchman to collect the rent, and the farmers again work together to send him away empty-handed. Another cheer goes up from the crowd hearing the story! And then one more person comes riding in on the dusty road from the city – the son of the landowner. The listening crowd’s anticipation grows. Why would the son – the “beloved son,” probably an only child – come, instead of a messenger? Such a thing would usually indicate that the landowner had died, and his son was coming to survey the estate he had inherited. And here comes an opportunity for the farmers. If the son dies and he does not have an heir, the land goes to those who live on it, and the farmers will be free. The farmers do what real men would be expected to do in response to years of exploitation; they rise up and kill the son.

And then comes the twist ... the landowner is not dead, and he does precisely what he would be expected to do under such circumstances: he wreaks terrible revenge, slaughtering the farmers and replacing them with others, so he can return once more to the ease of the city while others earn his bread. I think it’s safe to say that no cheers erupted from the parable’s hearers at that point. The chief priests and the scribes in the audience, who came from the social class of the rich landowner and his hirelings, weren’t cheering; Jesus has just issued a scathing critique of their dealings with their fellow Israelites. The peasant farmers in the audience aren’t cheering; they have just heard a graphic reminder of how escalating the spiral of violence will result in more violence visited upon them and their children. For the landowner’s family and for the peasants alike, standing up for themselves, as their culture expected honorable families to do, brought everyone down.

This is a sobering and challenging word to us today. In what ways are we like the absentee landlord, dependent on others’ exploitation to support our lives of relative ease? How much do we consume without knowing or caring about where our clothes, our coffee, our electronics come from, or at what cost to poor people and the environments in which they live? In what ways are we like the sharecroppers, willing to do wrong to achieve what we think is right, to escalate interpersonal and international conflict in ways that will be visited upon generations to come?

And in what ways are we living into the parable of Jesus’ life, the model Jesus shows us of care for those the world disregards and disregard of the world’s standards of strength and honor? Jesus challenges us to do the unthinkable, to turn the other cheek and let others think us weak, to care as much for God’s children who make our clothes and shoes, who mine the ore for our electronics and dispose of the toxic computer monitors we toss out when we’re ready for bigger and better ones, as we do for our own children. Jesus challenges us to bless and honor the peacemakers rather than the mighty, to strive for justice and peace and the dignity of every human being above our own comfort.

We vow to do that in our Baptismal Covenant, and it’s the way of the Cross. When we say to someone who is being baptized, “you are sealed and marked as Christ’s own forever,” that’s the way to which we are committing the baptized, and the commit we make anew for ourselves. But this way is also the truth and the life. It is the way to truly abundant life.  For while exercise of might can bring us to the depths, it is the promise of an absolutely faithful and loving God that the lowly will be raised up; the stone deemed useless has become the keystone on which God’s kingdom is being built. That is the paradox of the Good News we celebrate today.

Thanks be to God!

September 29, 2005 in Isaiah, Justice, Matthew, Nonviolence, Ordinary Time, Parables, Year A | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

coming soon!

I'm traveling this week and next, and although my hotel's website said they had Internet access, they don't, so I'm having to grab it where I can get it. I apologize for the delay in posting as a result, but I think I should have things ironed out with a day. Many thanks for reading, and for your patience!



September 28, 2005 in Administrivia | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Proper 21, Year A

Philippians 2:1-13 - link to NRSV text
Matthew 21:28-32 - link to NRSV text

The context of this Sunday's gospel is "the chief priests and the elders of the people" -- leaders in the Temple hierarchy -- questioning Jesus about what gives him authority. In particular, the Temple hierarchy wants to know what gives him the authority to behave as he does, and especially the authority to claim that he is acting in God's name when he's behaving that way.

It's a question that Jesus might have expected, under the circumstances. Matthew 21:23 and following has the exchange we're looking at in this Sunday's gospel as taking place "when he entered the Temple." He hadn't been away from the Temple long, though -- he was there just the day before. It was an eventful day, to say the least -- Jesus entered Jerusalem surrounded by crowds who proclaimed him as king. Matthew next says that Jesus went into the Temple courts, overturned the tables and seats of those who exchanged money (a necessary service, unless you wanted people carrying the emperor's image into the temple on coins, which was clearly inappropriate) and sold doves (again, a service necessary to continuing the Temple's sacrificial system as the priestly writings in scripture command) while quoting from, among other things Jeremiah, who prophesied the destruction of the Temple.

That was what happened on Jesus' last visit to the Temple. So on this his next visit, the question the Temple authorities ask him was a natural one: just who do you think you are? What gives you the right to come barreling in to cause something that looks an awful lot like a civil disturbance -- and at Passovertide, when the Roman authorities are jumpiest as they watch pilgrims streaming into Jerusalem to celebrate God's liberation of Israel from foreign oppressors. By what authority do you prophesy against the very things -- money changers and dove sellers -- that allow poor people to offer sacrifices in the Temple?

Matthew presents Jesus as giving a two-part answer. The first part isn't in our readings for this Sunday. It's where Jesus turns the tables on his questioners by asking them a difficult question: who do you think gave John the Baptizer the authority to do what he did (which, after all, included promising forgiveness of sins to those who were baptized -- in other words, John claimed that his own ministry apart from the Temple could do for people what Temple sacrifices were supposed to do). The chief priests and the elders can't say that John's authority came from God without undermining the Temple system they serve, and they can't say that John's ministry wasn't of God without losing the support of the people, so they shut up.

This Sunday's gospel has Jesus following up that argument with a story. It's a parable of two sons and a father. The father asks the sons to go work in the family vineyard. One says "I won't." Remember, this is a village culture, in which there's not really any such thing as privacy, and the son's mouthing off to his father will shame the father publicly, making him the object of gossip and derision in the village square. The other son says, "I go sir," as a good son should. The surprising thing, though, is that the son who mouths off actually goes to work in the vineyard, while the son who at first seems to be the good and dutiful one turns out to be disobedient, as Jesus' questioners are forced to admit. To say that they were probably not very happy with Jesus at this point would be a major understatement.

Jesus then tells the chief priests and the elders of the people that the prostitutes and tax collectors would enter God's before they would.

At this point I envisage clouds of steam pouring forth from their ears.

It's easy to paint these folks as one-dimensional villains, but I'm somewhat sympathetic to their difficulty receiving what Jesus has to say here -- not least because it's Jesus who's saying it. Jesus has acquired quite a reputation as a troublemaker, and not just because of his behavior over the twenty-four hours previous. He's been known for breaking bread -- accepting food prepared by God-knows-who in a kitchen that looks like God-knows-what, and eating it passed from hands that were God-knows-where just hours before. This is not how a respectable person behaves; just think about what getting caught having dinner with a crowd of prostitutes would do to the nomination of a potential Supreme Court justice and you'll have some idea of how the gossip went about Jesus. And that's not even taking into account that men and women who weren't in the same family did NOT sit at the same table in Jesus' culture, or people would assume that their social intercourse was just one dimension of the various kinds of intercourse they were having.

It would be one thing if Jesus were just saying, "hey, I'm a guy who loves to party -- why don't you leave me alone and go back to your holy huddle?" He's not saying that, though -- he's saying that it was the God of Israel who authorized his behavior. He's saying that the God of Israel behaves this way, and that, folks, is the basis for a charge of blasphemy.

But where does John come into all of this? Why does Jesus bring up John's ministry here? I think it's because of a similarity between their ministries, especially as Matthew portrays them, and why those thought of as most righteous and respectable found it hardest to accept them. John's ministry centered around baptism, traditionally something that Gentiles did to convert to Judaism. John said that God can raise up children of Abraham from stones -- that anyone who's baptized can be a child of Abraham. If you don't currently think of yourself as an heir of Abraham, that will come as good news. If you already thought of yourself as a child of Abraham, you might find yourself looking across that vast crowd gathered from regions all around the Jordan and asking yourself whether it was really all that great to be part of a club that will accept these kinds of people on such easy terms. And furthermore, saying that God will accept as Abraham's heir anyone who will be baptized implies, in the eyes of those who reject John, that generations of faithful obedience to God's commands -- circumcision and sacrifice as well as purity -- don't count for anything.

I know a great many people who have a hard time with that today, whose first questions when we talk about offering any kind of blessing, service, or support are about whether the people to whom they're offered will be deserving. Often, the second set of questions are about what others will think if they see what we're doing. The third set of questions all too often are about whether there's some way we can serve people while still making sure they know how unacceptable they are, and that others know how unacceptable we find them to be.

But like John's invitation to baptism, Jesus' invitation to experience God's forgiveness at table doesn't give anyone the opportunity to separate themselves from others who have RSVP'd with a 'yes.' All have sinned, and all are in exodus from the power of sin to enjoy the freedom to be God's people, one people. That's one of the sticking-points these chief priests and elders have with Jesus. They want God to play by the rules, and they insist that God's prophets must make the distinctions they make. But like John, Jesus thinks that God's freedom includes the freedom to forgive people who are not children by blood of the Covenant, who haven't offered sacrifice, even the poor person's sacrifice of a dove, in the Temple, who haven't done anything to deserve forgiveness. In that truth there's an invitation: to enjoy the freedom that Christ experienced and offers. Yes, God is calling us to give up our judge's seats. Our edicts never saved anyone anyway (nor did they doom anyone either, though we may have told ourselves and others otherwise). Instead, God invites us to enjoy the freedom for which his people were made -- freedom to take all of that energy the world devotes to issuing and trying to enforce edicts that divide us from one another and devote it instead to celebration of the indiscriminate, boundless mercy that gives us life and makes us one family, God's children.

Thanks be to God!

September 22, 2005 in Matthew, Ordinary Time, Parables, Philemon, Year A | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Proper 20, Year A

Thanks for being patient with me this week. I got back on Tuesday from a job interview with a parish VERY far away. I'd naively thought I could write my lectionary blog entry on the plane coming back and post it immediately when I got home, but I was just too tired to get it done until today. By the way, I had a WONDERFUL time on the interview, thanks to my hosts -- it's a really wonderful congregation!

Jonah 3:10 - 4:11
- link to NRSV text
Psalm 145 - link to BCP text
Matthew 20:1-16 - link to NRSV text

They shall publish the remembrance of your great goodness; *
         they shall sing of your righteous deeds.
The Lord is gracious and full of compassion, *
         slow to anger and of great kindness.
The Lord is loving to everyone *
         and his compassion is over all his works.
-- Psalm 145:7-9

As I was growing up, I often heard a message preached that went something like this:

"God is a perfectly righteous judge. Humanity sinned. Because God is perfectly righteous, God can't stand to be with sinful people, and because God is a righteous judge, God MUST impose the death penalty for any instances of sin -- no other choice could preserve God's righteousness. So God became flesh and was killed so that the penalty could be paid. Now, when God looks at those who have accepted the sacrifice of Jesus, God sees only Jesus and Jesus' righteousness, so God can be with us and still be righteous."

There's a lot that's troubling in this message, and it doesn't make much sense to me any more. First off, one of the presuppositions of the message seems to be that any law decreed by God is eternally binding, even upon God's self. Jesus doesn't seem to have gotten that memo, though. Even if you want to argue that Jesus followed all of the dietary and sabbath laws, there really isn't any way to harmonize "Honor your father and mother" with Jesus' command to "call no one father on earth, for you have one father -- the father in heaven" (Matthew 23:9). That's just for starters, too -- if you'd like to see other examples, please check out my archives on kinship and family.

Another thing that troubles me about the message I described above is its assumption that righteousness -- especially God's righteousness -- would be compromised or even erased either by contact with unrighteous people or by exercising mercy, choosing not to impose a deserved penalty. I'd say that there's more in scripture to contradict that view than to support it, and this Sunday's readings form an excellent case in point, arguing that God's "righteous deeds," as the psalmist puts it, are evidenced not in invariably punishing wrongdoers, but in being "gracious and full of compassion" and "loving to everyone" (Psalm 145:7-9) -- deserving or no.

Matthew joins in that tradition in potraying Jesus' message and way of life both as proclaiming that God's righteousness is most evident in God's indiscriminate (by conventional reckoning) mercy. Yes, in Matthew 5:17-20, Jesus says, "unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and the Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven," and that he has come to fulfill the law and the prophets, but take a look at what follows if you want to know what Jesus thinks fulfilling the law and the prophets and living righteously involves: it's reconciling with one another, treating women and men as human beings and not objects to exploit for pleasure and put aside when it suits us, to turn the other cheek, give to those who beg or ask to borrow, and love our enemies.

The clincher to that argument comes in Matthew 5:43-48, when Jesus says by what precedent he can argue all of this. Jesus can claim that he's fulfilling the law and the prophets, because he's siding with traditions like the one in Psalm 145 that says that God's righteousness deeds are those of "compassion over all his works," or the strand running through second Isaiah that "the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together" (Isaiah 40:5). Still, Jesus' strongest point isn't so much about the words of scripture, but about the character of God as revealed in scripture, God's behavior toward humankind since the first rainbow was hung in the sky. Here it is:

God sends sun and rain, "blessing rain" (thanks to Liz Zivanov of St. Clement's Honolulu for that image) upon the righteous and the unrighteous alike. When Jesus says, "be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly father is perfect" (Matthew 5:48), that's what he's talking about: God loves loyal servants of God, and enemies of God, and everyone in between. So, folks, if anyone is waiting for God, or Jesus, to undergo some kind of personality transplant and suddenly start with gleeful smiting instead of loving, that person's going to have an eternal wait (sorry, Left Behind fans, but Jesus' glorious appearing won't be much like it is in those books, if the gospels have it right).

So if that's what I think, am I simply buying wholesale into the old liberal humanist paradigm that says that everything's going to be great because every day in every way, things -- and people -- just get better and better? Nope. That's not what I'm saying.

What I'm saying is that all of that trying to reckon whether people are good or bad and getting better or worse, has become passé in light of the coming of God's kingdom proclaimed in Jesus' teaching and inaugurated in Jesus' ministry. So, all of us Jonahs don't have to worry about the outcome of prophesy one way or another; we can just concentrate on being faithful to the call, and living more deeply into abundant life in community, and there's a heck of a lot more fun -- or, to use more accurate language, more enjoyment of the joy and peace and all the rest that's the fruit of the Spirit -- in embracing that path.

I know that there are some short-term psychological rewards in being more like Jonah. If you don't feel you're in a position to be joyful yourself, it can be maddening to see others experiencing joy, and it might seem like some small consolation at least to feel twice as righteous for it, and/or to long for and expect some cosmic payback for the person judged as less deserving. But there's a huge price for living that way. One dimension of that price is constant vigilance. As long as we place ourselves in the judge's seat, we'll always find massive caseloads, as long as we try to place ourselves above others we'll suspect others of being as grasping as we are, and as long as we view the world as being full of people in need of judgment and punishment we will find it very hard to accept and internalize the Good News of this Sunday's gospel:

God is infinitely generous, and God showers us with blessings far without the slightest regard for our deserving.

I mean that "infinite" part too. God's blessing and God's love is not a pie with less of it left for me every time God gives something to someone else. It's more like a really good joke, or a truly amazing concert -- all the more living and life-giving for every person who shares it.

We all forget that sometimes, of course. Sometimes we end up as angry at God for being merciful and generous toward those we reckon as the wrong sort of person as are the workers in the vineyard who cast the evil eye, a curse seen as potentially deadly, on the generous landowner (that's what Matthew 20:15 says -- literally, it's "Is your eye evil because I am generous?"). Those grumbling workers are right in their assessment that the landowner is not treating everyone in the vineyard as a "fair" (by the world's standards) employer treats employees, paying each according to what each deserves, but they're so busy with their attempt to see that all are treated as employees deserve that they're missing the invitation implicit in the landowner's conduct: to receive not wages earned but blessings shared, to be treated more like family than like employees.

That's why Matthew 5 links being "children of your father in heaven" with loving and blessing neighbor and enemy alike. We are invited to see ourselves and all those around us not as worthy or unworthy servants or lazy or diligent day-laborers, but as children of God and co-heirs with Christ. Forgiving those whom the world reckons as unworthy of forgiveness, honoring those the world deems as shameful, and blessing without bothering about who deserves what is participating in our family business. It's what Jesus was and is about among us, and as the way of the Lord, the path upon which God's family is set, it's the way we'll experience most fully who God is and what life, abundant life, is like.

Thanks be to God!

September 15, 2005 in Forgiveness, Jonah, Matthew, Ordinary Time, Psalms, Righteousness, Year A | Permalink | Comments (6) | TrackBack

Proper 19, Year A

[If you haven't seen it already, you might want to take a look at my supplemental entry from last week, which also addressed the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.]

Ecclesiasticus 27:30 - 28:7 - link to NRSV text
Psalm 103 - link to BCP text
Romans 14:5-12 - link to NRSV text
Matthew 18:21-35 - link to NRSV text

This Sunday is September 11, 2005, four years to the day after September 11, 2001, and the end of a week in which news has been dominated once again with images that are equally hard to believe in one sense and hard to turn away from in another, images of death and suffering in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Both events are very much in the foreground of my mind this week as I reflect on the passages we'll be preaching on this Sunday.

I blogged in Grace Notes, my personal blog, a few months ago about a short film I'd come across online, and which I found to be very effective in its simplicity. You can find that entry, and a link to the film (which I encourage you to watch, if you haven't already -- it's only about thirty seconds long) here. What the film says is this:

Terrorism is bred in

The recent attacks on America have instilled
in otherwise peaceful people.

Vengeful retaliation will also instill
in innocent people who suffer from such attacks.

Terrorism is bred in

Violence breeds violence.
Our mission now is to break the cycle.

This short film with its powerful message is about forgiveness, what it's about, and why it's crucial for our survival -- by which I mean not just our continuing to draw breath, but our continuing to be ALIVE, living in the abundant way that is Christ's gift.

Jesus spoke these words about forgiveness -- unilateral, unconditional, and (to many of his hearers) nonsensical forgiveness -- in an honor/shame culture, a culture in which retaliating against someone who'd attacked your family or your family honor was seen not only as the only wise course of action, but the only GOOD course of action. You don't want people to feel that they've got a license to walk all over your family, do you? And if God is on your side, is there any way to prove it besides striking back so you can show that your god is stronger than theirs? You've got a duty to strike back -- not only to protect your own honor, but also to protect your wife, your children, those who are vulnerable and who can't strike back themselves. The Law limits retaliation -- an eye for an eye, one life and one life only for a life -- but doesn't prohibit it.

But it was the Mahatma Gandhi, I think who put it in these vivid terms: "an eye for an eye" leaves the whole world blind. That's the sad tragedy of so many conflicts we see. In the Middle East, one side claims that their bomb came in retaliation for the other side's rocket. It really doesn't matter who started it; continuing by principles of violence for violence, there is nothing that will finish it.

What will finish it? Who will deliver us from this body of death, these spirals of violence?

Jesus delivers us, because Jesus taught us a better way: forgive, not once, or twice, but seventy or seventy times seven -- in other words, always, as many times as we're attacked.

It sounds crazy, but it's the only way out. We've seen it in less graphic ways in seemingly intractable church conflict. When we talk only of how we've been wronged and what others need to do (or be forced to do!) to make up for it, then we just get caught up in escalating spirals of the conflict. Not only does this continue conflict indefinitely (which, to be sure, is neither fun nor spiritually profitable, though it seems to work well for some people for short-term fundraising), but it also makes it awfully hard to really hear anyone else through the din.

What would happen if we took Paul's counsel seriously to "strive to outdo one another in SHOWING honor" (Romans 12:10)? We'd have a lot more energy to put into action the rest of Paul's train of thought, namely "Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers" (Romans 12:11-13).

That last sentence hits me particularly hard in light of the devastation we've seen along the Gulf Coast, the images and stories and footage of people with no or not enough clean water to drink, food to eat, no home to light at night or power to light it, and in many cases convulsed with grief and worry about family members lost.

Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.

We would have so much more to give as a nation if we weren't so caught up in so many battles. How many evacuees could be housed and fed and given a new start if we could devote to it the combined annual budgets of every political group working to make sure that some other group doesn't gain ground? And then there's the war in Iraq. I know that many consider it to be a righteous cause, and I respect that there are many who are willingly putting their lives on the line to serve, but I have to wonder just how many lives we could save and how many enemies we could win over if we put even half as much of the money and the ingenuity and the energy into saving lives -- any and all lives, as trying to figure out who deserves life most just takes more energy we could put into saving more -- as we do into trying to punish those we reckon are "evildoers"?

Jesus' answer to that is forgiveness. Forgive those who attack and love enemies, and you can devote all the resources and energy that would go into judging and punishing others to the cause of loving, serving, and honoring others. Seventy times seven -- as often as it happens.

I've heard talk in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina about forgiveness meaning that we shouldn't talk about who's responsible for some of the decisions that left so many, especially so many of the poor, the elderly, and the disabled, to suffering and death. That's not what forgiveness is.

Forgiveness doesn't say, "it's like it never happened" -- that's amnesia.

Forgiveness doesn't say, "well, nobody could have expected you to do any better" -- that's condescension.

Forgiveness accepts both that the other person is capable of moral action and that the actions for which you are extending forgiveness were immoral. Both of those things are crucial, as forgiveness is meant to call both parties to reconciliation -- that renewed relationship between persons who accept moral responsibility and who have dedicated themselves to uphold the other person as a moral agent, a person who is both capable of and called to give and receive love.

In other words, forgiveness puts demonizing the other person out of bounds. Forgiveness is grounded in acknowleding shared humanity (or personhood, which would be a more appropriate term with respect to how God the Father forgives us), shared moral agency, and demonizing another person denies that person's moral agency, denying not only their fitness for being loved, but also their potential to love others, and behave in a moral manner toward others. Demonizing others usually happens, I've observed, in attempts to "hold their feet to the fire," but it has the opposite effect; in suggesting that the others are incapable of moral action, it lets them off the hook. I often think that's something like what St. Paul had in mind when he said that by loving, forgiving, and serving our enemies, we "heap burning coals upon their heads" (Romans 12:30). And if wanting to heap burning coals on someone else is the only motivation we can come up with for forgiving them -- and in so doing, inviting them to live as reconciled and reconciling people alongside us -- then that'll do.

So by all means, let us contribute to the needs of those in need. Let us extend hospitality to strangers, and generosity to those displaced by flooding as befits those who are aware of how vulnerable we all are, and how gracious God is toward all of us, without regard for who is deserving. And let us also embrace the prophetic call to speak to those in power about how they could use it to benefit most those who are most vulnerable. Both ministries are given to us for the mission of the church: to serve as minister's of Christ's reconciliation of all the world to one another and to God. That ministry is so powerful that none can stand outside the reach of God's love, and God's gifts to each one of us are so precious that all are invited to the freedom and the responsibility to to extend God's grace to others.

Thanks be to God!


September 7, 2005 in Current Events, Forgiveness, Honor/Shame, Justice, Matthew, Nonviolence, Ordinary Time, Pastoral Concerns, Reconciliation, Romans, Year A | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

supplemental note for Proper 18, Year A -- Hurricane Katrina

I've been getting a lot of email from folks asking how the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina might shape sermons for this Sunday. If I were preaching, I would probably choose to contentrate on this part of the gospel text:

Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.

A natural disaster like Hurricane Katrina is frightening in so many ways, and I'm finding with the folks I'm talking with that one of the biggest is in underscoring how much is beyond our control. That's an important lesson for us to learn, to be sure, but that lesson can be twisted to a kind of learned helplessness that's not what God wants for us.

So what's the difference between a healthy humility about what we can and can't control and a destructive kind of learned helplessness? I'd say that learned helpless is paralyzing, while appropriate humility is liberating and empowering. Humility leads us to acknowledge that we can't control the wind, and it leads us into a deeper appreciation of just how fragile and precious human life is. A healthy sense of connectedness to humanity gives us compassion to grieve with the suffering, and share the righteous anger of those who found their poverty trapped them in unspeakably awful conditions, as well as rejoicing with those gratefully reunited with the families and finding opportunities to serve others even in the midst of their loss.

And then we are to ask what power we have and how we are called to use it to further Jesus' compassion and justice in the world. Many of us have resources that we've offered indidually, opening homes and schools and wallets to help. We have another resource, though of inestimable worth to offer:

We have power. Community is power. Gathering others who will make common cause amplifies our voice. How, then, do we want to use it? We can work for the preservation and the healing of the wetlands that not only are home to wildlife, but also help to slow and absorb winds and waves. We can make our governments accountable for how they spend resources: does it really make sense to prioritize tax cuts when so much is needed for relief, rebuilding, and redevelopment? What can we do to see that when a disaster like this strikes, it's not the poorest and most vulnerable among us who are hardest hit? And the real, heartbreaking suffering brought on by Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath should make that much more vivid to us that there are thousands of people around the world who every day try to survive without clean water, electricity, communications, basic medical care, sufficient nourishing food, without safety or shelter. Such extreme poverty is an unnatural disaster, a human catastrophe we can't blame on wind or waves.

When we come together, we can do something about it. Some of the world's brightest economists (like Jeffrey Sachs, for example) are saying that if we came together, we could actually eliminate extreme poverty by the year 2025. And we are coming together in Jesus' name; when we work together, we've got Jesus' power behind us as we work with and, as need be, confront earthly authorities to challenge them to do justice, and as we battle the powers and principalities of cycles of poverty and violence.

The image that keeps coming to my mind is of the waters receeding from the Great Flood, when God said "Never again!" to that kind of devastation, and made God's bow -- a weapon, conceived by warlike people who thought the universe itself was set toward war -- into a sign in the heavens of the peace and justice toward which the earth arcs.

As the waters receed from this flood, we've got an opportunity. We can claim the power we have as we gather and commit to following Jesus together. We can offer ourselves, our souls and bodies and our VOICE, to Jesus' mission. We have the chance, the resources and the power, to build and rebuild communities as signs of compassion and hope for the world.

It starts as two or three gather, and Jesus comes among us. It begins to take root as we listen together for Christ's voice, to discern what we're called to do together with the power we've got as Christ's Body. We know how it all ends:

See, the home of God is among mortals.
God will dwell with them;
they will be God's peoples,
and God himself will be with them;
he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more;
for the first things have passed away.
And the one who was seated on the throne said,
"See, I am making all things new."
-- Revelation 21:3-5

That's very hard to see now, I know, when we're overwhelmed with images of devastation. That's why we come together, to pray and sing and invite Jesus among us so that we can catch a glimpse of God's dream for the world, and discern together what would be one step, what next step, we can take toward Creation's destination. Jesus is among us; we have what we need for Jesus' mission.

Thanks be to God!

September 3, 2005 in Community, Current Events, Matthew, ONE campaign/Millennium Development Goals, Pastoral Concerns, Revelation, Year A | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack