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Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany, Year B

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Psalm 111
- link to BCP text
1 Corinthians 8:1b-13 - link to NRSV text
Mark 1:21-28 - link to NRSV text

The works of his hands are faithfulness and justice.

That's what how our Psalm for this Sunday puts it. The gospel demonstrates it dramatically. Jesus is teaching in the synagogue, and is faced with a man “with an unclean spirit.” This was a man cut off from community because of his outbursts and antisocial behavior, but I often wonder whether there wasn't something else operating too in the ostracism of those “with an unclean spirit.” Such a person was at the mercy of a power beyond an ordinary person's ability to control, a power that no more cared about the individual it subjugated than about the community upon which it placed such stresses. That situation had to feel all too familiar to villagers in occupied Palestine, subject to Roman rule; perhaps communities that cast out the demoniac could be reminded less frequently of how many ways they too were subject to oppressive powers.

Jesus, however, isn't threatened by power plays, though he's confronted with them often. In the synagogue, the unclean spirit tries in effect to cast out Jesus, claiming power over him by naming the source of Jesus' power -- a potent maneuver in the playbooks of many magicians. Jesus doesn't play that game, though; he silences the spirit and defeats it.

One might think that the scribes would be pleased. If Jesus can defeat the power that had enslaved this man, then perhaps the time has come for God's people to be delivered from all the powers that oppress! There's a problem, though:

The system is working reasonably well for them as it is.

These scribes aren't low-status secretaries; they're literate men in a society in which very few are literate, and that puts them in a position of relative privilege. Those who could read and write well might have the chance to use those skills not only for Torah study, but for record-keeping and letter-writing for the wealthy, with power and comfort linked to their powerful employers'. We see this clearly in Mark 12 and 13, when Jesus is teaching at the Temple in Jerusalen, and says in verses 38-40 of chapter 12:

Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! They devour widow's houses ...

And just then, in verses 42-44, we see it happen before our eyes.

He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. ... A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. Then he said to them: “ ... she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”

But wait ... isn't this the story about how wonderful it is that the widow puts her last cent in the treasury upon which the scribes depend for their long robes? As often as it's told that way in “stewardship season” to inspire church members to pledge more, that's clearly not the point of the story in Mark, as the next verses make clear. When the disciples marvel in the opening verses of Mark 13 at what an impressive building one gets with such contributions, Jesus says, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”

And there goes the scribes' privilege. No wonder Jesus made them nervous. No wonder they saw Jesus' power as a threat, something dark. It's hard to work with all your heart for change when things are working out reasonably well for you in the world as it is, and the threat of losing privilege often works best with those who have just a little of it -- little enough to feel how precarious it is, and just enough to feel the potential loss as a serious one.

That's why “divide and conquer” often works so well keeping minorities in line. In the movement for women's suffrage, many activists abandoned black women for fear that continuing to advocate for them would result in none of them gaining the vote: racism trumped feminism. We could all think of more current examples. As long as we hold on to hope of coming out on top, it's all too tempting to think of our goal as getting a few steps further up the ladder, and that inevitably means ending up on top of a new set of people.

Or does it? The “way of the Lord” isn't shuffling rungs on a ladder; it's bringing the high places down and the valleys up. It's a whole new geography, and it's only the poverty of our imaginations that keeps us from seeing it. But Jesus had enough imagination to break through that, a vision so contagious that even Paul couldn't hold out against it on the Damascus Road, and he ended up spending the rest of his life trying, against all worldly odds and every worldly power and principality, to build communities living into Jesus' vision.

That vision is at the heart of our epistle passage for this Sunday. If the strong are constantly using their power to strengthen the weak, then the weak won't be weak long, and will be there to lift up their sisters and brothers when they're in need as well. I've said it before -- the kingdom of God is like a washing machine, sending what's at the center out to the margins and bringing what's at the margins in toward the center, transforming all in its motion.

The works of his hands are faithfulness and justice: none will be abandoned, and all will be transformed. Jesus was and is an agitator. Get ready for movement, and friction, and new life!

Thanks be to God!

January 25, 2006 in 1 Corinthians, Epiphany, Justice, Mark, Year B | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Third Sunday after the Epiphany, Year B

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1 Corinthians 7:17-23 - link to NRSV text
Mark 1:14-20 - link to NRSV text

A lot of people talk about St. Paul as having domesticated Jesus' message, taking the edge off of all of those radical things that Jesus said and did and rendering the Christian message palatable to an audience in the Roman Empire who didn't want much about the current social order to change. People who talk like that would love to use our gospel and epistle passages this week as a case in point. Jesus calls people to leave what they're doing -- their occupations, villages, families, and their lives as they knew it -- to follow him. Paul says “remain in the condition in which you're called” -- advice that, if Simon and Andrew took it, would have them still toiling away at their nets and fully immersed in their former lives as village fishers.

That's a bad reading of Paul, though, which depends on a bad translation of 1 Corinthians 7 (and props to Scott Bartchy for my reading of this passage).

First off, Paul doesn't say “remain in the condition in which you were called.” What Paul says is “remain in the klesis in which you eklethe.  As you might be able to tell from the transliteration, those two Greek words are related. Besides in 1 Corinthians 7:20, the word klesis occurs eight other times (Romans 11:29; 1 Corinthians 1:26; Ephesians 1:18, 4:1, and 4:4; Philippians 3:14; 2 Thessalonians 1:11; and 2 Timothy 1:9) in the New Testament, and each time the NRSV renders it as ”call“ or ”calling.“ That makes perfect sense, since it's derived from the verb kaleö, ”I call.“ What Paul says in 1 Corinthians 7:20 is ”remain in the calling in which you were called.“

Another and more thorny translation issue arises in 1 Corinthians 7:21, which the NRSV renders as ”Were you a slave when called? Do not be concerned about it. Even if you can gain your freedom, make use of your present condition more than ever.“ But there's nothing in the Greek that says ”present condition.“ That phrase is added by our translators to clarify for readers what they're convinced the verse means: namely, that those who are slaves should try to remain slaves even if they are offered freedom. This is a highly problematic reading for at least two reasons, though.

First, nobody polled slaves for their wishes with respect to whether they would be freed. Owners could free slaves if they wished, and they generally did so when it was advantageous to them to do so. For example, a slave who had been injured or had become elderly and was unable to work would often be freed by her or his owner -- at which point, the slave would find, in the immortal words of Kris Kristofferson, "freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose."

Cast out from the owner's household, possibly separated from family by her or his slavery, a slave in this situation might well want to beg the owner to remain in slavery -- but as I've said, nobody asked them, and when they did ask not to be cast out like a broken appliance, their cries generally fell on deaf ears. Slaves in the first-century Roman Empire couldn't choose to remain slaves any more than they could choose to be freed; their owners held all the cards in this situation. Obeygravityclose Paul wasn't saying, "if your owner wants to free you, try to remain a slave instead" any more than he was saying, "if you're a slave, try to get your owner to release you." If I can be a little anachronistic with the science, Paul might as well have told them to obey or protest the law of gravity; it would have had as much effect.

So what WAS Paul saying that slaves should do, then, in 1 Corinthians 7:21? The Greek is ambiguous: it's mallon chresai, literally, "rather, make use," and doesn't specify what slaves should make use of. It doesn't make much sense for the object of the phrase to be either "the opportunity to become free" or "the 'opportunity' to remain a slave," since the slave would have no control either way. There is a third possibility, though: that Paul was telling slaves to make use of their klesis, their calling in Christ, regardless of their status as slaves or freedpersons.

This not only works better than the other two readings in the context of what choices were and weren't available to first-century slaves; it also makes the most sense in the context of Paul's thought. Paul was, after all, the person who wrote that "there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for all are one in Christ Jesus" (Galatians 3:28); and in 1 Corinthians 7, Paul wants slaves who, after all, can't do anything about their status not to feel that it in any way undermines their worth in God's eyes or their ability to live into Jesus' call.

Indeed, Paul holds that Jesus himself was a slave in the world's eyes and died a slave's death, but was honored by God with the name above all names, and Paul instructs all Christians regardless of status to have the "mind of Christ" in this respect (Philippians 2:5-11). Every Christian receives this klesis, this calling, from God. That call from God is hardly a call to stasis, or to passive complicity in propping up an unjust world order. It is rather a call to full humanity in God's image, to full maturity in Christ, and to make full use of the gifts God gives us to live into what we pray: God's just rule come and God's will done, on earth as it is in heaven.

That's the klesis to which we were and are called -- slave or free, male or female, and whatever our nationality. (And, by the way, that's why the FREE, open-source, comprehensive adult formation curriculum I designed with John de Beer is called Klesis.) That's the call that led Andrew and Simon to leave their nets, their homes, their families, and everything that gave them a good name in their culture to follow Jesus, who is always on the move in the world as Christ's Body, anointed with God's Spirit to call the whole world to the wholeness and justice for which it was made.

Thanks be to God!

January 18, 2006 in 1 Corinthians, Call Narratives, Epiphany, Mark, Vocation, Year A | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Second Sunday after Epiphany, Year B

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John 1:43-51
- link to NRSV text

Have you ever taken one of the Implicit Association Tests (IATs)? These tests have been used for psychological research on people's implicit assumptions about others in terms of a variety of categories -- age, race, sexual orientation, skin tone, religion, and others, and there's evidence that they can be very effective in testing what attitudes and prejudices people have, and there's often a marked contrast between that and what people are willing to report or even what they're aware of about themselves. An Implicit Association Test takes 10 minutes of less to complete, and the results are striking -- I encourage you to check them out.

The results are often rather jarring, though. Most of us want to think of ourselves as open-minded and unprejudiced, but when we're put to the test in a way that gets beyond what we think we ought to think, nearly all of us are prejudiced in ways that reinforce and perpetuate injustice -- even kinds of injustice that we spend a lot of energy consciously trying to rectify. I've done a lot of work on my own racism, and the test on attitudes toward White and African Americans still shows that I affiliate good qualities far more strongly with white faces than with black faces. I'm a woman, a professional, and a feminist, but I still have at least a moderate association of maleness with career and femaleness with family compared to the other way around. The list goes on. I'm prejudiced, and mostly privileging those whom our society privileges -- even in terms of categories where I belong to the less privileged class.

That can be hard to admit. In the circles in which I generally move, “open-minded” is considered a compliment and “prejudiced” an insult, and on the whole, I think this is as it should be. There are some things, though, about how our minds work that make complete open-mindedness impossible and not entirely desirable. If you place a wax bowl on a pedestal in your microwave and zap it for a while, it'll become so open that it won't hold anything. Our minds work in part by organizing information into categories, by keeping things distinct in ways that are artificial but at least occasionally helpful.

People in Jesus' culture weren't so embarrassed about some of the things we consider “prejudice,” though, and this week's gospel story is an excellent case in point. Nathaniel is convinced that if he knows which village Jesus came from, he'll know as much about Jesus as he needs to know -- much as he would if he knew who Jesus' father was. Furthermore, Nathan is fine with that cutting both ways. He asks Jesus literally, “from where do you know me (to be)?” -- NOT meaning, as the NRSV misleadingly suggests “where did you have a chance to get to know me?” or “where have we interacted before?” but rather something more like “what do you believe to be my hometown?” Jesus says, “I saw you under the fig tree,” in words reminiscent of Old Testament passages in which this image stands for one's home (props to Malina and Rohrbaugh on this). In other words, Jesus saw Nathaniel at home, and therefore knows everything he needs to know about him. His culture wasn't individualistic or introspective as ours is, so people would have perceived this manner of thinking about who's trustworthy as being perfectly reasonable. Indeed, the Gospel of John itself takes up this style of assessing people; the first thing it tells us about Philip is that he is from Bethesda, the city of Andrew and Peter, and I think it's fair to say that the writer seems to think that this will tell readers what they need to know about Philip. This is a particularly reasonable assumption to make since Philip behaves as Andrew and Peter do.

It's still very fortunate (a blessing, even) that the people in this story did not stick to what was reasonable.

Nathaniel notes that Jesus comes from Nazareth, which indicates that he's got no messianic credentials (and the Gospel According to John says nothing to suggest that the author sees Jesus as coming from anywhere other than Nazareth) -- but when invited to “come and see,” Nathaniel goes anyway, and sees that Jesus is a teacher, the Son of God, and the King of Israel.

That underscores for me what the crucial question is about prejudice: not “should we have prejudices?” (because we do and we can't help it even if it was going to be to our advantage to do so), but “what do we do when confronted with something or someone not matching our prior expectations?”

When Nathaniel is confronted with the phenomenon that Philip believes a person from Nazareth to be the one about whom Moses and the prophets wrote, he is willing to come and see. His trust for Philip overcomes his prejudice at least enough for him to go to Jesus to investigate, to question him, and to listen to the answers. That's important.

And then what Nathaniel hears doesn't fit with his prior assumption that nothing good can come from Nazareth, and Nathaniel makes another important decision: He revises his assumption. He's willing to tweak or even discard his categories to accommodate new information, a truth that doesn't fit prejudice, so he can confess the truth he now knows about Jesus.

That just might be even more important, because as crucial as this turning-point is for Nathaniel, he's going to be asked to do some even more radical revision in the days to come. He's confessed that Jesus is a blessed teacher, the Son of God, and the King of Israel, but Jesus is not going to behave as those categories would suggest. Jesus associates with those whom the authorities deem outsiders rejected by God and right-thinking Israelites. He's going to confront the power of Rome, but not to seek his own crown; he will die the death of a slave rather than take a place at the head of an army. If Nathaniel is going to continue to confess that Jesus is the Son of God, eventually that will mean more than revising his expectations about Jesus ...

It will mean revising his expectations for God.

Nathaniel will have to let go of the idea that God's blessing of Israel hinges on Israel's remaining distinct from the nations to follow a mission that invites all nations to join the people of Israel in God's kingdom. He will have to let go of the idea that God's justice is about punishing the unrighteous to follow the Son of God who blesses and forgives his persecutors. And he'll have to let go of more than ideas: he'll be leaving behind his village, his family, everything upon which he formerly found honor to follow one whom the world shamed but God exalted. He'll lose his life as he knew it, and find abundant life beyond all expectation.

Thanks be to God!

January 11, 2006 in Call Narratives, Epiphany, John, Year B | Permalink | Comments (6) | TrackBack

First Sunday after Epiphany: Baptism of Our Lord, Year B

First off, I apologize for the delay in getting this up -- I was without a computer this week until today. Sure is good to be online again!

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Isaiah 42:1-9 - link to NRSV text
Acts 10:34-38 - link to NRSV text
Mark 1:7-11 - link to NRSV text

The delay before I got my own trusty PowerBook back was such that I got a chance to do something unusual for me. Before I wrote my own lectionary reflection, I edited another -- Jeff Krantz's wonderful “The God Who Is For Us” in The Witness. Jeff drew my attention once more to something that commentators often note about Mark 1 -- namely the tie between Jesus' Baptism and his Passion, made by Mark's use of schizomai in just two places -- Mark 1:10's “the heavens torn apart” and Mark 15:38's “the curtain of the temple was torn in two.”

I think it's healthy and helpful to have Baptism connected so clearly with the cross on a Sunday when so many will be baptized. After all, the way to which we are committed in Baptism is Jesus' way -- the way of the cross as well as the way of Jesus' resurrected life. I find reflecting on that particularly poignant when infants and young children are baptized. What parent among us would at our child's birth commit him or her to a lifetime in the military? But the Baptismal covenant is in many respects an even more profound and potentially costly commitment. It takes a lot of something -- guts, faith, or both -- to commit our children to that path, and to commit ourselves to equip and encourage them on it.

It's a counter-cultural path, as is clear from Isaiah's description:

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

As Christians, we hold that Jesus is God's servant, in whom God delights, and our collection of readings for this Sunday invite us to make that connection with the vision at Jesus' Baptism in which it is revealed that he is God's own child in whom God is well pleased. But Isaiah saw all of God's people as “the servant of the Lord” -- as followers of the way of Jesus, we are called to walk Jesus' walk. We are called as agents of justice to the nations -- not just to our own nation, and certainly not just for our own family and friends. God's servants don't break the bruised reed; we are called to lives of nonviolence. God's servants don't quench a dimly burning wick; our manner of living in the world should empower those the powers of this world -- the powers that keep people poor, sick, uneducated, marginalized -- would extinguish.

And something I really want to concentrate on this week: We are called to release prisoners -- and I write that in country with one of the highest proportions of its citizens behind bars. In the U.S., while crime rates have been falling, rates of incarceration have been rising dramatically.  One of 138 U.S. citizens is behind bars. Those statistics are much higher for racial and ethnic minorities, and while they're rising dramatically across the board, they're rising for women twice as fast as they are for men (and these statistics are based on those from the government's Bureau of Justice Statistics -- hardly a bunch of wild-eyed leftists). In other words, the way of God's servants -- the way of Jesus, and the way to which we commit those we baptize -- runs counter to the way of our world, of our rulers, and sometimes of our friends and neighbors.

That's a hard thing. And I think about that every time I see a child baptized. We want our children to be successful, but we are called to the way of Jesus, who found his greatest victories confronting the powers that oppressed demoniacs -- that is, people cast out of society because of their antisocial behavior -- dining with prostitutes and tax collectors, and hanging on a Roman cross as a slave condemned for treason. How can we help them swim against the cultural tide that wants to turn “Jesus” into a code name for abiding by that Protestant work ethic and following the rules, for country as much as for God, for respectability, for privilege, for cultural hegemony?

We don't have a prayer helping our children with this unless we've made a practice of prayer in our own lives, unless we're intentional about making our homes as well as our churches communities of spiritual formation. Perhaps it's needless to say, but I'll say it anyway: our children are observant. They can tell when we're trotting out Jesus' name or claims about “biblical values” solely when it seems to be convenient to keep them in line. A lot of people want to talk about Jesus' and Christianity's uniqueness when it lets them diss other religions, and I'll be the first person to say that anyone who thinks that all religions are basically the same probably haven't studied any of them very closely. But think of it this way -- no parent I've met of any religion wants their children to be smoking, drinking heavily and/or doing illegal drugs, and be having sex outside of wedlock by the time they're twelve. Our kids -- if they're blessed with that much sense, and in my experience, most are -- know darn well that Jesus' way is not primarily about refraining from those things, any more than it's about saying a little prayer to get into heaven. Especially by the time they're teenagers, they've developed excellent b.s. detectors, and the needles on those well-tuned instruments will be jumping all over the place if we try to tell them on one hand that following Jesus is an important commitment around which they should center their lives and on the other hand that following Jesus doesn't include doing anything that wouldn't be a political asset in almost or more than half the country. If our kids have read the bible at all, or even if they've paid minimal attention when the story was read in church, they're going to know at least one fact about Jesus' life and the way to which his followers commit:

They're going to know that Jesus' way leads to the cross. Jesus was born in the reign of Caesar Augustus, the original “family values” politician, whose domestic policies sought to strengthen the nuclear family as the foundation of the empire because all of those families could produce more little soldiers to replace all those who died in bloody wars before. At Jesus' birth he was proclaimed a different kind of king: a Prince of Peace, who was for ALL nations. The degree to which that was acceptable and respectable shows in where Jesus died: on a cross, vulnerable, exposed, and -- to those whose values were of the empire and the world order which produced it -- shamed.

That's not where the story ends, though. As Christians, as followers on the way of Jesus, we believe that the God who created the universe vindicated Jesus, raising him from the dead and appointing him as the judge of nations whose powers derided his refusal to retaliate when struck. When we baptize our children, that vindication is also on their way -- being baptized into Christ's Body, they experience not only the ways in which Jesus was marginalized and persecuted, but also God's presence with them and God's vindication of Jesus' way.

That's something to rejoice in above all -- above the adorable little dresses and suits, and even above the gathering of family and friends at such an important moment. But the deep joy of God's vindication of the Christ and his Body comes into focus much more fully in light of Jesus' cross -- the cross he exhorts his followers to take up. So when I witness a Baptism, I always take a moment to take in the solemnity as well as the brightness of what's happening before me. This is a moment of tearing apart as well as bringing together -- a small sign today of the immense sweep of God's grace through the universe. God shares in the brokenness of the world, and in Christ, so do we. God is healing and reconciling the whole of Creation -- and in Christ, as we walk in Jesus' way -- so are we.

Thanks be to God!

January 5, 2006 in Acts, Baptism, Christian Formation, Isaiah, Mark, Year B | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack