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Proper 26, Year A

Micah 3:5-12 - link to NRSV text
Matthew 23:1-12 - link to NRSV text

You may find this entry on Luke 12:49-56 and this one on Luke 9:51-62 helpful for this week's gospel passage as well. Those passages from Luke and this Sunday's gospel all address something that most preachers these days gloss over: the conflict between "family values" as exalted in our culture and the demands of Jesus' call upon his followers.

In our culture, it's hard to imagine a circumstance in which "s/he puts family first" could be anything other than a compliment, and the more one gives in to other pressures, the more one is expected to pay lip service to ideals exalting the nuclear family, and especially the relationship between children and parents.

I'm not saying that we actually DO put family first as a society. Our government pursues policies that make it harder for families – especially poorer families – to spend quality time together. Whatever advantages we imagine welfare-to-work policies might offer, the ones we've got mean that our most vulnerable children are least likely to have an adult at home after school who could listen to them, help them with their homework, and make sure they're safe. Wealthier families suffer too; because we've abandoned public schools in so many areas, upper-middle-class parents work harder and commute farther in great anxiety that just one thing going wrong might mean they can't make the mortgage payments on the ridiculously expensive home that entitles their children to go to a decent school.

But the more we make choices that put stress on families, the more we rationalize it with rhetoric about "family values," as if our problem was that we don't TALK highly or often enough about the nuclear family.

Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach. They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them."
    – Matthew 23:1-4

One problem with our talk about "family values" is that it's just that: TALK. Pontificating about the standards to which all families ought to rise makes us like the Pharisees and scribes Jesus condemns unless we act to lighten the burden for others rather than merely condemning those who don't rise to our ideal. Got a problem with out-of-wedlock births? Want to reduce abortions? There's a direct correlation between rising levels of education and reduced rates of both. Wagging fingers and punishing women or their doctors won't lighten the burden, but making sure that every neighborhood school is safe and provides quality education – and that every neighborhood in the world has a school that will receive all its children – will.

In other words, the message of this Sunday's gospel takes us back to last week's. Loving our neighbors – in poor rural counties, in our cities, and around the world – as we love our selves and our own families is not an interesting hobby to fill our spare time while we wait for a "second coming" in which most of them will be destroyed. Loving our neighbors, advocating and caring for children around the world as we would for our own children, is equal in importance to loving God; our love, lived out in action to ease others' burdens, is what determines whether our lofty speech condemns us as hypocrites or challenges us as disciples.

Here's another way of looking at it: All of that lofty rhetoric about what God intends for marriages means less than nothing if our marriages don't focus us on and empower us for what God intends for the world. If our marriages and our families make us focus solely or even first on the welfare of our own household, if our "family values" mean that we will value what helps our own family get ahead and neglect what will further God's justice in the world, we are no better than the false prophets Micah condemns, who "cry 'Peace' when they have something to eat, but declare war against those who put nothing into their mouths" (Micah 3:5). God does not value our families based on what ceremonies we did or didn't have or whether we have children, how many, and when. God values our families as God values all communities: on the extent to which they seek first God's kingdom, the extending of God's justice in the world (Matthew 6:33). It's the extent to which we do that without regard to our perception of who is friend or enemy, righteous or unrighteous (Matthew 5:43-48). And it's the extent to which we do that without regard to blood ties, who is our child, our mother, our brother.

That last point is a particular focus of this Sunday's gospel in its command – one of Jesus' most-often ignored – to "call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father — the one in heaven" (Matthew 23:9). It's one of Jesus' most radical statements. In it, Jesus releases his followers from one of the commandments that self-identified Christians have agitated to have posted in U.S. courtrooms and classrooms, namely, "honor your father and mother" (Exodus 20:12).

That's shocking, I know – so shocking that I'd wager that more time and energy has been spent arguing that Jesus didn't really mean it than teaching how upholding it can actually come as Good News for all of us.

I've heard a great many of these attempts at interpretive yoga, and I haven't seen one that works; Jesus' teaching on this point is just too clear and consistent across his career as reported in the canonical gospels. Paul understood this, and that's why in all of his advice to women and men about whether they should marry and whom – advice given in cultures in which marriages were arranged by fathers, not chosen by bride and groom – he never once suggested that they ought to get their fathers' permission, or even ask his opinion. Why would a Christian need a father's permission, if Jesus taught that Christians are not to recognize any father on earth, but only God?

The bottom line for Paul, as for Jesus, is that none of us should be treated a certain way in Christian community because of blood ties. ALL of our relationships are defined first, last, and always by our relationship as children of one God. In other words, all of us – parents and children of every nation and economic status – are sisters and brothers.

We do not honor one another on the basis of who was born to whom and in what order. We honor the poor, the mourners, the meek, the merciful, the pure in heart, the persecuted; we honor those who hunger and thirst for God's justice and who make peace in the world. Every elder who works for peace, the smallest child who longs for justice, is to be respected and lauded as the most dutiful child respects and lauds a parent. As counter-cultural as that is – as counter-intuitive as that is when we fail to sift cultural presuppositions through Jesus' teaching and example – it will come more naturally to us as we receive deeply the truth that we all are God's children, and as we seek and serve the image of Christ our mother (to use an image from Julian of Norwich) and our brother (to use St. Paul's image) in each of our sisters and brothers. As we live into that call, may God grant us the vision to recognize in every girl and boy, every woman and man, "bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh," bound together by God's grace in relationships ordered completely and solely by God's love.

Thanks be to God!

October 26, 2005 in Jesus' Hard Sayings, Justice, Kinship/Family, Matthew, Micah, Year A | Permalink | Comments (8) | TrackBack

Proper 25, Year A

Exodus 22:21-27 - link to NRSV text
Matthew 22:34-46 - link to NRSV text

White American middle-class churches are particularly prone, it seems, to an assumption that spirituality, and Christianity in particular or by extension, is primarily about interiority -- about feeling a certain way about God, about other people, and about one's self. This Sunday's texts put the lie to that. In the first-century Mediterranean world, "love" was not a vague warm feeling toward someone, but a pattern of action -- attachment to a person backed up with behavior. When Jesus, citing Deuteronomy 6:5, says, "love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind," he's spelling out what is implied in calling God "Lord," and what is stated in Deuteronomy 6:4: when God is Lord, that position is filled; no others need apply, as all our faculties are fully devoted to God's service.

And when Jesus cites Leviticus 19:18 saying, "you shall love your neighbor as yourself" -- a commandment which Jesus says is of equal importance with the first -- I'm with Daniel Harrington (with whom I often disagree on other points) that "there is no hint in the Bible of the modern psychological emphasis on the need for self-esteem and the idea that one must love oneself before loving others" (from p. 315 of his commentary on Matthew). Self-esteem is a fine thing, to be sure, and people have benefited a great deal from the insights of modern psychology, but these interior emotional states just weren't a focus in first-century Mediterranean cultures.

So what does this command mean, then? The earliest Christian commentary on this text after the gospels, namely James 2:1-17, will be a major help in figuring that out. When Jesus said "love your neighbor as yourself," he was essentially saying, "treat all those around you as you would your own flesh and blood" -- that is, as sisters and brothers in one family, deserving of equal honor and special care. You may notice that this passage in James treats "faith" and "love" almost as synonyms; while American churches tend to read both as interior mental or emotional states, in first-century Mediterranean cultures true faith and true love are both matters of affiliation backed up with consistent action, of treating people with respect and enacting rather than merely professing compassion.

In other words, the kinds of facts we see laid out here show just how far we have to go in loving our neighbors as as our own family. Bread for the World is right: we have, by our action and our inaction, built a world in which the deck is stacked against the poor, and serving God with our heart, soul, and mind means that we are called to bring everything we've got -- our voice and our political power as well as our financial resources -- to bear in living out God's mission of reconciliation and redemption for all the world. It's true that our sins, things done and left undone, have built a world in which coming from a family or a region trapped in extreme poverty means a death sentence issued before birth, a world built around the kind of favoritism that the Letter of James condemns writ large.

But it's also true that Christ came to save the world from sin, and Christ is both calling and empowering us to do what it takes to eliminate extreme poverty in this generation. That means not only sending direct aid to feed people in places like Haiti, but also working to end U.S. policies that dump highly subsidized rice on the Haitian market, creating the hunger we're supposedly dedicated to ending. That means making trade fair, creating economic opportunities for children around the world that we want for our own children. That means working for educational opportunities around the world so that every child has the kind of chance to succeed that we want for our own children.

For that reason, our text for this Sunday from the Hebrew bible seems especially well-chosen:

God said, “You shall not wrong or oppress a resident alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt. You shall not abuse any widow or orphan. If you do abuse them, when they cry out to me, I will surely heed their cry; my wrath will burn, and I will kill you with the sword, and your wives shall become widows and your children orphans. If you lend money to my people, to the poor among you, you shall not deal with them as a creditor; you shall not exact interest from them. If you take your neighbor’s cloak in pawn, you shall restore it before the sun goes down; for it may be your neighbor’s only clothing to use as cover; in what else shall that person sleep? And if your neighbor cries out to me, I will listen, for I am compassionate.”
    -- Exodus 22:21-27

These days especially, the temptation seems especially strong to churches and their members to reduce the Gospel to one point, and for some it's the more specific the better -- the better for use as a very specific litmus test, I suppose. In this Sunday's gospel, Jesus is given a wide-open invitation to do the same, and he declines. Asked what one commandment is most important, he gives two -- and not just any two. The two commandments he gives demand nothing less than heart, soul, and mind -- in other words, every part of a person capable of valuing something -- and that those capacities be devoted to God and to every neighbor (and for who would be exempt from the category of "neighbor" in Jesus' mind, I can think of no better place in Jesus' teaching to turn than the "Parable of the Good Samaritan"). There's a point of Jesus' morality that I derive from this that I think is a timely one in our current climate of polarization:

Despite the frequency with which people turn to Jesus to find out to whom they're NOT obligated, which people under which circumstances are out of the reach of God's love and therefore are beyond the call of God's people to ministry, Jesus' call will compel each one of his followers to take the fullest extent of God's love to the furthest reach of that love, to every person whom God made. In other words, we may as well take the energy we devote to coming up with a clever question to exempt us and give it to the call of love that is before us. The book of Exodus is spot-on in presenting this as a matter of national security; there is no better way to undermine the agenda of terrorist groups who would drum up hate against us and make widows and orphans of our families than to love our enemies, overcoming evil with good. And in citing the two greatest commandments, Jesus has shown us also that this is a matter of spiritual fidelity as well, that in serving our neighbors around the world as we would our own flesh and blood, our lives stand as testimony to the lordship of the one God who made us all. There is no call more consuming, and none more fulfilling.

Thanks be to God!

October 19, 2005 in Exodus, James, Kinship/Family, Love, Matthew, ONE campaign/Millennium Development Goals, Ordinary Time, Year A | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Proper 24, Year A

Isaiah 45:1-7 - link to NRSV text
Psalm 96 - link to BCP text
1 Thessalonians 1:1-10 - link to NRSV text
Matthew 22:15-22 - link to NRSV text

For we know, brothers and sisters beloved by God, that he has chosen you, because our message of the gospel came to you not in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction ... in every place your faith in God has become known, so that we have no need to speak about it. For the people of those regions report about us what kind of welcome we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols, to serve a living and true God.
1 Thessalonians 1:4-9

The Thessalonians' faith was known such that there was no need to speak about it because they lived it out with consistency and integrity. In other words, they didn't shout about having turned from idols; they LIVED in a way that proclaimed God's lordship (and please see this post if you want to know why I want to reclaim that fraught language of "lordship") in their lives.

It's a lesson that the Pharisees and Herodians questioning Jesus in this Sunday's gospel could benefit from, as indicated by a combination of two things often overlooked in the story. The first thing is the setting of the story in the courtyards of the Temple, as indicated in Matthew 21:23. There's something very significant about that for how we read this Sunday's gospel story, and it has to do with why the moneychangers' tables that Jesus overturned in Matthew 21:12 were there in the first place. They were there because coinage of the Roman Empire included images -- such as the image of Caesar, that man who called himself "lord" when that title truly belonged only to God -- that ought not be carried into the temple of the God of Israel, who forbids such images (that's commandment number one in Christian ways of numbering the "big ten"). We need to note that this Sunday's gospel takes place in the Temple because that's what makes the next point such a kicker.

The second point we need to notice in the story is that when Jesus asks the Pharisees and Herodians who are questioning him to produce a denarius in that setting, they do so immediately. In other words, THESE GUYS CARRIED AN IMAGE OF CAESAR INTO GOD'S TEMPLE! And these are the people who were going to teach Jesus a lesson about devotion to God rather than selling out to Caesar if Jesus failed to condemn paying taxes to Rome?

Until that moment when the coin is handed to Jesus, Jesus was between the horns of a dilemma. Had he said in so many words that paying taxes to Caesar was wrong -- especially during the Passover season, in which countless pilgrims streamed into Jerusalem to remember God's liberation of Israel from slavery under foreigners -- Jesus would be provoking Rome to immediate action against him. Had Jesus said that paying taxes to Rome was right, his questioners were ready to accuse Jesus of disloyalty to Israel.

And then Jesus tripped them up beyond any hope of recovery by showing that they were bearing proclamations of Caesar's lordship into the very Temple of the God they claimed to be serving with such single-mindedness. Anyone who was there to listen probably would have heard in dozens of voices whatever was the first-century Jerusalemite's equivalent of "D'OH!!!!!!!" On the spot, Jesus has  won the argument; he could now go home in peace, having avoided that difficult question entirely while still carrying the day against his critics.

But he doesn't. Jesus, having already won the argument, answers the question anyway.

What he says might have confused anyone around (if indeed there was anyone meeting this description) who didn't know their Torah from their Plato, but it wouldn't have confused any self-respecting Pharisee. Jesus says, "Give to the emperor what is the emperor's, and give to God what is God's." So what in this world is God's?

Our reading for this Sunday from Isaiah provides some clues. It has God addressing Cyrus, King of Persia, a gentile, as one who is nonetheless called by the God of Israel. In other words, it's not solely the people of Israel who are God's, but everyone to whom God gives life and breath. And God tells this gentile king, that he is providing help "though you do not know me, so that they may know, from the rising of the sun and from the west, that there is no one besides me; I am the Lord, and there is no other. I form light and create darkness, I make weal and create woe; I the Lord do all these things" (Isaiah 45:4-7). East or west, light or dark, in all circumstances, God is God, and there is none other. Our psalm for this Sunday describes God similarly as Lord of all peoples, of all the earth.

As Psalm 24:1 puts it:

The earth is the LORD’s and all that is in it,
   the world, and those who live in it.

It's a claim even more sweeping than some people would have wanted to make as they said that the land of Israel and everything in it belonged to the God of Israel. But as far as it relates to the question Jesus was asked -- the question of whether Israelites should pay taxes to Caesar -- it boils down to essentially the same thing:

What belongs to God is everything.

And if we really take seriously the claim that God is rightful Lord of the earth and all that is in it, the world and all people in it, over what is Caesar a rightful lord?

Nothing. Squat. Nada.

That is the radical edge and the liberating cry of the claim that "Jesus is Lord"; as I've argued before, it's that when we make that the central fact of our lives, nobody and nothing else gets to make the same claim. So when it comes to all wordly powers who would be our lord, whether it's the flag of a nation, a cause that we hold dearer than the Spirit's guidance and the fruit of following it, those amorphous but ubiquitous would-be lords of respectability and achievement, or a person who wants to take God's place as Lord of our lives, get up off your knees. They have no rightful claim on you at all. And when somebody else wants to condemn you for the freedom Christ won for you, then remember how often people lash out at their own shadow sides, and ask them to produce a coin. You might be surprised -- and get a much-neededm life-affirming, and despot-disarming laugh in the process -- at what you discover.

Thanks be to God!

October 11, 2005 in Christ the King, Isaiah, Matthew, Ordinary Time, Psalms, Year A | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Proper 23, Year A

It's fun to be writing this week's entry from the Cornerstone Café in Edinburgh, where I worked while I was in seminary and which was an important part of my formation and my vision of what the messianic banquet might look like on earth. Especially being here so near St. Francis' day, Brother Basil (SSF when I knew him, though I understand he's now a Roman Catholic priest), who founded the café, is very much on my mind. If you happen to know him, please pass along my greetings!

Philippians 4:4-13 - link to NRSV text
Matthew 22:1-14 - link to NRSV text

This Sunday's gospel passage is a challenging one. Like last week's gospel, it tells a story of violence that should disturb us. Like last week's gospel, it portrays the devastating consequences of perpetuating or escalating the spiral of violence rather than choosing Jesus' way of resisting evil with love rather than arms and blows. Like last week's gospel, it seems to invite an allegorical reading, with the king as God, the king's son as Jesus, and the unworthy subjects who kill the king's messengers as those who persecuted and killed prophets, and especially those who persecuted and killed Jesus and his apostles.

Once again, though, I'm mostly resisting that ready temptation to allegorize. Jesus' condemnation of violent retaliation is so clear and so consistent, not only in his teaching throughout his career but also and perhaps even more importantly by his own example of becoming subject to death on a cross rather than striking out at his persecutors, that I think one would need a great deal of evidence to support a suggestion that the God whom Jesus proclaimed is one who will retaliate violently when God's messengers are attacked. Whatever else we might want to say about this passage, let us remain always grounded in the central confession of Christian faith that we believe that Jesus is God Incarnate, and if we believe that, we must say that the eternal character of God is the character displayed in Jesus, who is nothing like the vengeful king of this story.

I know that many do and will continue to read this Sunday's gospel as an allegory in which the king is God, so I will say one thing about how I would preach on this text if I were going to allegorize it in this way:

*If* we are going to say that God is the king in this parable (a stretch I don't care to make myself), then at the very least, we must say that the parable reserves as God's role alone a task which too many people try to claim for themselves: God is the one who will settle any scores that need settling. No matter what evil others do or are accused of doing, no matter what murder or terror is committed by human beings, taking human lives is the sole prerogative of the God who is the source of life. If God is the king in this parable, then we are NOT the king, and we've got no business pretending otherwise. Those who proclaim that Jesus' blood shed on the cross was sufficient to cover the sins of the world in particular are bound to proclaim it with their lives, by being absolutely clear that no human being may ever say again that blood must be shed because of sin.

Furthermore, if we allegorize the wedding feast dimension of this Sunday's parable as a picture of the messianic banquet, we have to acknowledge at least that the guest list for the party and the task of modifying it if that should for any reason be necessary along the way belong fully and exclusively to the king  -- a part which no allegorical reading says is ours. The job of the servants is to gather all -- “both good and bad,” as our text for this Sunday says. Some may show up without proper wedding garments -- no small slight, as wedding garments were often designed in such a way as to thwart casting of the evil eye, a curse to which people were particularly prone at joyous events like weddings, which might arouse a person's envy. But even if we see someone doing something that, like going to a wedding without the proper garment, is believed to cause actual and potentially deadly harm, it's still not our place to decide they should be tossed out. If that call belongs to anyone, it would be to the king.

But this Sunday's gospel isn't just a loud “thou shalt not” to those who would claim God's prerogative of judgment; it's an invitation to enjoy the freedom and peace that comes with leaving all of that to God. As long as we feel personally charged with deciding who should pay for their sins and how, there will be no rest for us -- not only because there is always some crime which we might feel charged to avenge, but also (and perhaps more importantly) because when we're caught up in the vengeance cycle, those dark places we see and lash out at in others are bound to be projections of unacknowledged and therefore unhealed dark places in ourselves. In other words, people caught in the vengeance cycle are “treating” something that isn't the wound, leaving the real wound to fester.

Jesus offers us freedom from all that. Is vengeance needed at all, ever? Will the climax of history include a meting out of justice that includes punishment of unrepentant evildoers? That's an open question within the Christian canon -- some texts seem to suggest that there will be such a thing, and others seem to preclude it. But our Lord is clear on one thing: if that's needed, then God will take care of it at the end of the age. We can rest in that.

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

Thanks be to God!

October 5, 2005 in Eschatology, Matthew, Nonviolence, Ordinary Time, Parables, Philippians, Year A | Permalink | Comments (8) | TrackBack