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coming soon to a lectionary blog, well, right here

Dear All,

I write from a hotel in Seattle where the Episcopal Urban Caucus is meeting (and it has been really wonderful -- I highly recommend going to the next one if you can), to which I came directly from another meeting, and which I'll be leaving insanely early tomorrow morning to get to still another church meeting on the road. I've got a lectionary blog entry in progress, but I haven't been able to grab the time in airport lounges to post this week that I'd anticipated, and I think I probably ought to hit the proverbial sack rather than stay up late to finish. I do anticipate posting the entry by tomorrow night, though -- the location of the next meeting has a nice, consistent wireless network. I thought that since I'm so late, though, I should point to some reflections already online that I think could be helpful for those preaching this Sunday.

The Witness, the magazine I edit, carries reflections on the Revised Common Lectionary readings each week, and this week's reflection, penned by Grant Gallup in Managua, is, I think, wonderful (and the gospel passage is the same as in the BCP lectionary).

And while Mark's story of Jesus' transfiguration has particular emphases worth highlighting (for example, my reflection on it will include the observation that while “Son of God” isn't the most central title for Jesus in Mark's gospel, it does appear in three key places: the beginning, at Jesus' baptism; the middle, at the Transfiguration; and the end, in the centurion's confession at the foot of Jesus' cross), my previous blog entries on passages in Matthew and Luke parallel to this Sunday's gospel in Mark can all be found here.

I've learned a valuable lesson this week about what I can and cannot accomplish in airport and late night/early morning writing, and will work to get ahead of the curve before future weeks like this one!

Thanks for your patience, folks -- and, for Episcopal Urban Caucus folks who might be popping by, thanks for being such an amazing and inspiring community!



February 24, 2006 in Administrivia | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Seventh Sunday after the Epiphany, Year B

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Isaiah 43:18-25
- link to NRSV text
Psalm 32 - link to BCP text
2 Corinthians 1:18-22 - link to NRSV text
Mark 2:1-12 - link to NRSV text

“Your sins are forgiven.”

What was so shocking about those words? Far too much is made far too often about a supposed contrast between the reluctance of an “Old Testament God” or “God of Judaism” to forgive and the readiness of Jesus or a “Christian God” of grace, of letting sinners get a new start.

It's a false contrast. Read Psalm 32 -- heck, do any substantial reading at all in the Old Testament with an open mind -- and it's clear that, as Psalm 103 puts it, “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.” The prophet Micah tells us that what God requires of us includes doing justice and loving mercy, and those things aren't in tension for God any more than they are in what God's people are called to do. Those who worshipped the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob understood deeply that God in God's mercy “has not dealt with us according to our sins, / nor rewarded us according to our wickedness. / For as the heavens are high above the earth, / so is his mercy great upon those who fear him. / As far as the east is from the west, / so far has he removed our sins from us” (Psalm 103).

Indeed, God's mercy was great enough to provide for forgiveness of sins for as often as a member of God's people failed to do God's will. Christians (especially Protestant ones) often say that the problem for which Jesus was the solution was that no human being could keep the Law, and that God couldn't forgive us for such shortcomings, and so was distant from humanity until Jesus came to make forgiveness possible. That's a misreading of St. Paul, though, following on a non-reading of Hebrew scripture. Not only did Paul believe that he could (and did!) keep the Law -- in Philippians 3:6 he notes that he was “as to righteous under the Law, blameless” -- but Hebrew scripture is clear that when people sin, God is gracious to forgive -- so gracious as to provide for a system of sacrifice and prayer culminating in the yearly Day of Atonement to provide for forgiveness of all Israel's sin -- and I've seen no indication that anyone thought that these measures were less than totally efficacious for forgiveness of sin and restoring a person to intimate relationship with God.

So why, then, were Jesus' words to the paralytic anything other than old news to all his hearers?

I think the answer is now as it ever was:

Because we still don't get it.

We still don't get that the God who created us not only can stand the sight of ourselves as we are, but really, really loves us. This is pretty much the root of the classic sermon that I hope (perhaps beyond hope) is a relic of the distant past -- the one that says, “God pretty much can't stand the sight of you, except insofar as God can hallucinate that you are God's Own Son.”

Let's get it straight, so to speak: God loves you. God really, really loves you -- even more than anyone ever loved Sally Field (whose Oscar acceptance speech still lives vividly in my memory, and whom I'll always love irrationally for her smiling endurance of The Flying Nun and the Gidget television series). God didn't have to send Jesus to make it possible for God to love you:

God sent Jesus because God loved you. Already.

And God was overflowing with forgiveness toward you. Already.

But do you get it? “Do you not perceive it,” as Isaiah asks?

On the whole, we don't. We do maybe sometimes, but usually in a manner that's a bit askew. We think that God loves us and forgives us because we said a prayer to convert, or because we really, really tried to be good, or because at least we're better than those awful, awful other homosexuals/bigots/terrorists/jerks/what-have-you.

But that's not it. God made a world that's good, and created people who were pretty amazing as creations go (I'm a pretty creative person, and I've yet to make a sentient being of any kind, let alone one capable of art and poetry and prayer and real, live, love), and then set us in communities in which we had what we needed to become the Body of Christ on earth, and we're still pfaffing around with apologies.

Your sins are forgiven, and now it's time to walk.

Walk in love, as Christ loved us, and gave himself for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God.

Is this a new thing? It's as new as God's love is for us -- new every morning, every moment. Is it enough for us to stop waiting for others to do something to deserve our forgiveness? If Jesus came to speak God's forgiveness to someone on the basis of nothing more than that this person was there and had need, I don't see why not. What excuse do we have to play Twenty Questions about whether someone deserves what God is gracious enough to give, now that we have been privileged with place to see just how boundless is God's grace?

It's not new, but I have to admit that it's new to me -- new every moment in which I'm given grace to see and to wonder.

Thanks be to God!

February 17, 2006 in 2 Corinthians, Epiphany, Forgiveness, Mark, Psalms, Year B | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Sixth Sunday after Epiphany, Year B

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2 Kings 5:1-15ab - link to NRSV text
Mark 1:40-45 - link to NRSV text

I was away this week at the Emergent Theological Conversation with Miroslav Volf, author of Exclusion and Embrace and Free of Charge. I'll probably blog about it in Grace Notes soon, but there was one thread in the conversation that keeps coming back to my mind, especially as I reflect on the gospel for this Sunday.

It started in a breakout group on global poverty, where the discussion generated a lot of energy and at least a little heat, particularly around the question of how much our intentions matter. Some people said things along the lines of “the important thing is that you do SOMETHING. It really doesn't matter what, as long as you do it with a heart to serve. Results don't matter; our attitude matters.” But there was something about that position I found disturbing. Let me put it this way:

If I were the mother in sub-Saharan Africa whose child might die of malaria for want of a $2 mosquito net, I would definitely feel that results mattered a great deal. If I needed a mosquito net to save my child's life and what North American Christians gave was a ham sandwich, the extent to which these people meant well wouldn't be much comfort to me as I mourned my daughter.

I thought of that conversation again in a later session with Volf as he was asked what he saw as the greatest problem in North American Christianity. The questioner noted that Hauerwas had, when asked the same question, named our biggest problem as sentimentality. Volf agreed with Hauerwas' answer, adding that our sentimentality was particularly dangerous spiritually when combined with the rigid judgmentalism that characterizes so much of the church here, and I agree. I'm not normally one to use this kind of language, but I often think that the best evidence I see around me for the existence and activity of what St. Paul called “powers and principalities” is the way that so much of the church here squanders so much of its resources on sexuality issues that seem like so much tithing of mint and dill and cumin in comparison to the immeasurably more weighty issues of justice and mercy and faith in our world. It's a distraction that might rightly be described as diabolical or demonic. At the very least, it's profoundly tragic, and all the more so for all of the good intentions involved.

And I do believe that most people's intentions are mostly good. But we Americans have far too often reduced Christianity to being about internal states. “Love” is a set of warm fuzzy feelings, and if you can drum those feelings up, that's enough. I think that's what Hauerwas and Volf were talking about when they named sentimentality as a profound danger to North American Christianity, because that's not what Jesus taught.

Indeed, Jesus taught in Matthew 25:31-46 that when he's faced with one group of people who intended to serve Jesus but did not provide for the real physical needs of those who were poor, sick, or imprisoned, and another group of people who do NOT intend to serve Jesus but who do provide for these needs, it's those with no intentionality to serve God but who do provide for the real needs of the poor who are honored by God and welcomed into Jesus' kingdom.

And besides, I remain suspicious of our intentions as long as our supposedly generous intentions perpetuate a world order that lines our pockets, increases our privilege, and kills other people's children. We can give sandwiches to the homeless or send grain to another nation, and that's something. But it seems to me that we guard most jealously something that we value more:

We hand out sandwiches, but we maintain a death grip on power. And I mean that “death grip” phrase: this puts us in a position of very serious spiritual danger. We hand out sandwiches while retaining the power to decide whose child eats and whose child dies. We get a twofold payoff from that: we feel generous, and since we're still in power, we can get off on our generosity whenever we want. We give and we take away, and either way, we get a fix of power over others, a power to which we are addicted and which rightly belongs only to God. That's idolatry of the worst sort as well as murder.

And that, at long last, brings me to the gospel for this Sunday, to a question that fascinated my first graduate-level New Testament class at St. Andrews in Scotland. In Mark 1:41, our text says that Jesus was moved with pity or compassion, but there's a fairly common variant in our manuscripts that says that Jesus was moved with “anger” to heal the leper. We found that pretty disturbing. But now, some seventeen years and many, many courses and books later, this is what I would have to say from the pulpit about the question of Jesus was moved with “pity” or “anger” to heal the leper:

It just doesn't matter. What matters is what he did. He gave everything he had to give, not to enhance his own power -- he understood that true power comes from God, and he had no interest in gaining worldly power -- but to empower the powerless. The leper that he met was an outcast with no voice at all in the community, and the man that went on his way after his encounter with Jesus was whole: brought back in to community, free to act in community to Jesus' advantage or not. Jesus didn't just give him a cure; Jesus gave him his voice.

And that's what we are called to do. Redistributing food and money is a something -- something important at that. But God is doing something even more profound in the world, and we are called to participate in it by using our power as Jesus used his: to empower the powerless. Send grain; work also for policies that share technology and make trade fair, giving people the power to feed their families. Hand out sandwiches to the homeless, but work also for policies to bring affordable housing to every community.

Does that sound overwhelming? It really wouldn't take that much. How many hours and how much effort do we spend trying to find out what would be the best computer or cell phone? Can we really not spare at least that many calories to learn what our elected officials are doing either to line our pockets or do justice toward the poor?

I'm reminded of a line from our Old Testament reading for this Sunday: “if the prophet had commanded you to do something difficult, would you not have done it?” We have no excuse to sit around complaining about how overwhelming our world's problems are as long as we're using our power, our voice, and our privilege in ways that further all of those things at the continued expense of the powerless. And we have even less excuse now that many of the world's leading economists have identified Millennium Development Goals that could end extreme poverty in this generation. Less than one percent (.7% is a figure often given) of the income (GDP) of wealthy nations would do it, and if the U.S. did no more than President Bush has already promised (but not yet delivered), we would be doing our share.

If you haven't joined the ONE Campaign yet to realize these goals, please do it today. Read websites like Oxfam's if you want more information on current events and how our participation in the world is furthering or hindering justice for the poor. We need not just to act now, but to act wisely. God has given us as a community gifts of wisdom and imagination to come up with solutions that could allow thousands upon thousands of children to live to see adulthood, and I believe that we are accountable for our use of time and imagination, our power and our voice, to further or hinder that agenda.

We can do it for Jesus' sake or for national security, we can be inspired by love or anger or both or neither. If I were preaching this Sunday, I think that would be my focus, and I'd be tempted to title the sermon “Inspired by Love and Anger,” from one of my favorite Iona Community songs:

Inspired by love and anger, disturbed by need and pain,
Informed of God's own bias we ask him once again:
“How long must some folk suffer? How long can few folk mind?
How long dare vain self interest turn prayer and pity blind?”

From those forever victims of heartless human greed,
Their cruel plight composes a litany of need:
“Where are the fruits of justice? Where are the signs of peace?
When is the day when prisoners and dreams find their release?”

From those forever shackled to what their wealth can buy,
The fear of lost advantage provokes the bitter cry,
“Don't query our position! Don't criticise our wealth!
Don't mention those exploited by politics and stealth!”

To God, who through the prophets proclaimed a different age,
We offer earth's indifference, its agony and rage:
“When will the wronged be righted? When will the kingdom come?
When will the world be generous to all instead of some?”

God asks, “Who will go for me? Who will extend my reach?
And who, when few will listen, will prophecy and preach?
And who, when few bid welcome, will offer all they know?
And who, when few dare follow, will walk the road I show?”

Amused in someone's kitchen, asleep in someone's boat,
Attuned to what the ancients exposed, proclaimed and wrote,
A saviour without safety, a tradesman without tools
Has come to tip the balance with fishermen and fools.

Thanks be to God!

February 10, 2006 in 2 Kings, Epiphany, Justice, Mark, ONE campaign/Millennium Development Goals, Year B | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany, Year B

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1 Corinthians 9:16-23 - link to NRSV text
Mark 1:29-39 - link to NRSV text

“Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.”

That's what Jesus says in this Sunday's gospel. And Mark makes very clear that when Jesus proclaims the message, it's not just sharing words; it's healing and freeing people so that they can form communities that heal and free people.

That's what Jesus does with Simon Peter's mother-in-law. If she had a husband of her own, she would have been living with him rather than with her daughter's husband; she must have been a widow. And when her husband died, she would have been living with her son if she'd had one, or with her extended family. But she's living with her daughter's husband, and thus probably has no living family of her own to care for her. Perhaps even her daughter, Peter's wife, has died.

This, by the way, underscores for me just how costly and complicated Jesus' call often is. When Peter leaves to follow Jesus, what will become of his mother-in-law, who has no other family besides her daughter? What will become of Peter's wife, if she is alive? Did Peter have children? If so, he left them.

Don't be shocked. Well ... do be shocked. It's pretty shocking, especially for those of us (the majority in America, I think) who have swallowed wholesale the idea that “Christianity” is practically synonymous with mainstream respectability. But reading this Sunday's gospel carefully brings a whole new layer to our reading of Mark 10: 28-31, in which Peter says to Jesus, “Look, we have left everything and followed you,” and Jesus says this:

Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age -- houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields -- with persecutions -- and in the age to come eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.

Peter wasn't exaggerating: he really had left everything, including the mother-in-law Jesus heals in this Sunday's gospel, and his children as well, if he had any -- and in a culture in which children, like women, often weren't seen as people worth mentioning, there's no reason to assume that there were none in the household just because this passage doesn't mention them.

Peter left his family to follow Jesus. Abandoned them.

I'm not going to try to make that sound easy on either side of that equation, because it isn't. Peter's a bumbling disciple, but he's not an unfeeling monster, and he walked away from this woman who depended upon him absolutely for protection, for her very life, and she had no one else. And there may well have been children too, who depended upon their father as much or more. Please don't gloss over this or move on before letting the full impact of that sink in. Discipleship -- real, cross-bearing discipleship -- means hard choices and real cost -- sometimes even for others who know us and will be puzzled or angry at choices made genuinely for the sake of Christ's gospel, choices which could cost them as well as us.

Ouch. I can't help but wonder whether the story in this Sunday's gospel in which Peter's mother-in-law is healed by Jesus is meant in part to assuage readers' profound discomfort with what they would have assumed in the first-century Mediterranean world, namely that Jesus' followers abandoned family who depended on them just as surely as Jesus abandoned his own mother (who may well have been a widow, given that Joseph appears nowhere as a living character in the gospels after Jesus' youth). At least when Peter leaves his family for Jesus' sake, there's one person who has experienced Jesus as a healer in her family rather than solely as the man who tore it apart. And at least she can do household work. That wouldn't mean that she could hang out a shingle as a cook -- her culture still would hold her as a “loose woman” if she didn't have a husband or brother or son with honor to which she was attached -- but maybe that was something.

In other words, this is not exactly a feel-good story, about which we just cry, “Hurrah! She's healed!” before starting to chuckle about how much it bites to be a woman who has to spring up from her very deathbed if necessary to get dinner on the table for men.

She was healed. But where's the hope for Peter's nameless and friendless mother-in-law when Peter leaves? And what kind of a jerk is Jesus to extend this woman's life only to ruin it by calling her sole source of support away? And it's not like Peter's life is going to be a picnic either. Everyone he meets will assume that he had a family and he abandoned them, so he's bound to be seen as a disreputable character everywhere he goes. In his new life he has no fields to farm, no boat to fish, no money to rent either, and no blood kin to care for him (you think they'd take him in again after how he treated them?). Tradition tells us that Peter died the same painful and shameful (in the world's reckoning) death that his Lord did in the end, but surely he wasn't hoping for death when he left to follow Jesus. He was seeking life, but what life would there be for him if he made it to old age?

In short, Peter's new path makes him almost as vulnerable as his mother-in-law, and his hope is the same as hers:

That Jesus' gospel takes root.

Jesus' Good News is very good news indeed for those without conventional honor, those without family, those without friends or means, because Jesus taught that anyone who hears the Word of God and does it is his brother and sister and mother -- his family, his kin. That means that we are kin with one another, bound to one another by our relationship with God in Jesus more surely than we could be bound to anyone by blood or marriage.

We are set free from every structure that bound us otherwise, but we are bound absolutely to care for one another.

This is pretty much the point of my Ph.D. dissertation, which is titled Freed To Serve, and examines Paul's language of “freedom” in his letters. Did you know that when Moses proclaims to Pharoah what God is saying, the full message isn't “let my people go,” but “send my people forth, that they may serve me”? That's what God does. God frees the Hebrews from Pharoah's power, not so they can do what they wish, but so they can do God's will, which is to become a people -- and a people who live a certain way. It wouldn't surprise me if some echo of Moses' message weren't intended in this Sunday's gospel, as Peter's mother-in-law is set free from the illness that bound her so that she can serve some tired travelers whose path will lead to the cross.

And that woman's hope is all our hope -- that Jesus' message takes root such that there are communities of people everywhere who will seek out widows like her, derelicts and demoniacs and orphans and foundlings and anyone else whom the world would exploit and ignore, and will care for them as Jesus cares for them, as the God whom Jesus calls “father” -- and the only father, the only authority, the only Lord -- cares for them.

So yes, Jesus does tear families apart, and this Sunday's gospel is a perfect opportunity to share that with people who think there's nothing in the bible that should make them uncomfortable or cause their neighbors to look askance at them. But Jesus sets us in a family that runs on a different set of rules -- one that privileges those who have nobody else rather than encourages us to serve only or primarily those of our own blood or surname.

We must read this Sunday's gospel remembering that Peter is about to leave his mother-in-law to follow Jesus. She, and her fellow widows and orphans, have one hope in this world:

That we follow Jesus too, caring for the outcast as for our own flesh, or better. I'm not going to harp in this entry on the Millennium Development Goals, but you know that I believe that they're where this Sunday's gospel is headed when applied to our world. Jesus wasn't going to stick around to enjoy the hospitality of one household when neighboring towns hadn't yet experienced the Good News, the new Beloved Community of sisters and brothers, God has to offer. And Jesus' Good News, Jesus' message, God's Beloved Community, wasn't meant for just our family, our town, or our country; it demands a new economy and a new way of reckoning family for the whole world. If you are a follower of Jesus, your mother and your sister and your brother is in sub-Sarahan Africa and Southeast Asia and in every place where war or disease or circumstance is out to make widows and orphans.

Did you pause long enough to feel the pain of Peter's mother-in-law, both before and after the fever left her? That's Jesus' call. Please follow.

Thanks be to God!

February 2, 2006 in 1 Corinthians, Call Narratives, Epiphany, Healing, Justice, Kinship/Family, Mark, ONE campaign/Millennium Development Goals, Year B | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack