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Fifth Sunday in Lent, Year B

Jeremiah 31:31-34 - link to NRSV text
John 12:20-33 - link to NRSV text

"Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out."

That's what Jesus says in this Sunday's gospel. It's quite a statement. I wonder how we might live, what choices we'd make, if we were going to live into this more deeply. What would it mean to say that the "one day" of the prophets was NOW? What would it mean if the "ruler of this world" will be driven out NOW?

For one thing, I think it would mean that it's time to stop kissing up to all prior candidates and all wannabees for the title of "ruler of this world." It's astonishing how often we get sucked into some path we didn't exactly choose, but seemed like the thing to do -- the respectable thing, the thing that successful people do, the thing that responsible people do -- and then structure every other choice around this one unchosen and unfulfilling fact. Or maybe our master has been some idea of self-sufficiency, of somehow accruing enough money or status to be "free" to do what we want, get what we want, be who we want to be, but it never seems to be quite enough -- we discover new ways in which we are vulnerable, and try to get more money or status to make it go away, but then discover we're still vulnerable, and we start the cycle over again. As U2 puts it, "you can never get enough/of what you don't really need" ("Stuck In a Moment," All That You Can't Leave Behind).

Well if the time is now, there's no reason to remain stuck in all that. The old boss -- all the old bosses -- are GONE. Their power was illusory, and now even the illusion is passing away. That's what we mean when we say "Jesus is Lord." That's why all of this talk about "the judgment of this world" is GOOD news -- because, as I've preached about before, the judge is Jesus, the one who loved us enough to give his very life for us. "The judgment of this world" is not a gorefest like the Left Behind books; it's the culmination of Jesus' work on earth, the end of everything that separates us from one another and from God. We expect nothing less than that, the answer to our prayer that God's kingdom would come and God's will be done -- on earth as it is in heaven.

And nothing else has hold on us.

Are you waiting to use your voice, your power, your life for justice until you've got the education, the money, the institutional clearance, the world's permission to be heard? Well there's no line, no waiting, if the time is now. If there's something you're passionate about, some possibility that has ignited your imagination to make some corner of the world a little more like the visible sign of God's love, God's peace, God's justice, and God's blessing, you need no permission from the rulers of this world. Those who use the power they have to maintain their privilege would like nothing better than for you to sit back and wait for their authorization, but you don't need it:

Now is the judgment of this world.

In these last days of Lent, we start looking ahead to Holy Week, toward Jesus' journey to the Cross. We're invited to read texts that have Jesus talking about what's going to happen, what he's going to accomplish in Jerusalem. This is clearly a solemn time. Jesus' disciples in this Sunday's gospel picked up on that. They knew something big was coming, but they didn't know what, and they were anxious and afraid. And these are days of great anxiety for many in our world. There are wars and rumors of wars, elected and unelected men of power being cast down. There are changes afoot, and there are plenty of self-appointed prophets of doom ready to tell us that we SHOULD be afraid, that we need to stay the course, toe the line, do what they tell us lest something even more terrible fall upon us.

But what if Jesus is right?

If Jesus is right, then we don't need to fear. We need to follow. When Jesus is lifted up, he draws ALL people to him -- the Greeks who just now are telling Philip they want to see Jesus and the Pharisees who fear he's stirring up the people, the prophets of doom and the peasants just trying to get by. The God Jesus proclaimed, the God who created the universe, is still drawing the universe toward the justice for which it aches. That God is calling.

The days are surely coming. God wants to inscribe God's just and liberating word on our hearts, and all, from the least to the greatest, will know it, experience it, celebrate it.

What if the time is now?

Thanks be to God!

March 30, 2006 in Current Events, Eschatology, Jeremiah, John, Justice, Lent, Year B | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Fourth Sunday in Lent, Year B

As many of you know, I work part-time as editor of The Witness -- "an Anglican voice for justice since 1917," as the masthead reads. This week, I've posted my lectionary reflection there -- please do check it out, and check out the rest of the magazine while you're there!

It's titled "Freedom in God's Family."

March 21, 2006 in Conversion, John, Kinship/Family, Lent, Year B | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Third Sunday in Lent, Year B

Exodus 20:1-7 - link to NRSV text
Romans 7:13-25
- link to NRSV text
John 2:13-22 - link to NRSV text

"I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do."

When St. Paul wrote this in Romans 7, it wasn't about a lack of willpower, and it wasn't saying that obeying the Law's commandments was impossible. After all, we're talking about the guy who said in Philippians 3:6 that he was "as to the Law, blameless."

St. Paul believes that he did obey the Law's commandments; he also believes that while he was doing that, he accomplished "not ... the good I want, but the evil I do not want," as he says in Romans. Paul's problem, as he came to understand it, was that while obeying the commandments -- from the "big ten" to the last ordinance -- he became "as to zeal, a persecutor of the church" (Philippians 3:6). Acts 8:1 reports that when the blood of Stephen, the first Christian martyr, was spilled, Paul was there, looking with approval.

Paul's very zeal to do God's will led him to participate, by a  consistent pattern of "things done and left undone," in the death of people like Stephen. That bloodshed haunted him throughout his life. Those deaths placed Paul in a "body of death" (Romans 7:24) from which no amount of zeal could rescue him -- until he met the risen Jesus, who rescued him from a body of death and made him a member of the Body of Christ. At least two things happened at once in Paul (and by the way, his name didn't change when he encountered Jesus. If you read Acts carefully, you'll see that continues to carry the name Saul after his Damascus road experience; most likely, as Roman citizens had three names, his first two names were "Saulus Paulus," and then his third name would be the family name by which citizenship came to his family) in that encounter:

He realized that Jesus was in fact God's anointed, raised by the God of Israel from the dead. It followed from that was that Paul had been horribly, tragically wrong in persecuting Jesus' followers.

He realized also as he was received by Ananias and the very church he had been rushing to persecute just how profound was the height and depth and breadth of the love of Christ -- and by extension, Christ's Body on earth. The Christians Paul met after he was blinded on the road didn't demand Paul's blood in retaliation for the blood Paul shed; they received him (however hard they had to gulp while doing so) as a brother.

Why would they do something like that? Why not just pick up a rock to hurl at Paul with regret only that Paul had just one life they could take in payment for the lives Paul had taken?

Because they understood that Jesus' death -- indeed, Jesus' whole life -- was putting an end to bloodshed. I preached about that last week (shout-out to the good folks of Trinity Cathedral in Cleveland -- what a wonderful congregation, and what great hosts!),
but this Sunday's gospel is another good entry point to that message.

This week, we hear the story of Jesus' actions in the Temple, actions often referred to as Jesus' "cleansing the Temple." I wish they weren't. "Cleansing the Temple" makes it sound like Jesus was just trying to straighten it up, purify it by removing things that shouldn't be there. The idea that Jesus' actions in this Sunday's gospel are "cleansing the Temple" is predicated on the assumption that moneychangers and dovesellers didn't belong in those courtyards, when there's no way that the Temple could function without them.

God's law, after all -- "God's will revealed in scripture," to use a phrase popular with a lot of preachers today -- demanded sacrifice. The sacrifices had to be unblemished: the Law required it, and so did common sense. Hey, you wouldn't give a chipped coffee mug to your kid's teacher -- why would you think it's cool to bring "factory seconds" to Yahweh? And it's not like no provision was made for the poor. The Law allowed the poor to offer a dove rather than a lamb in sacrifice. It just had to be an unblemished dove, and how much of a bummer would it be if you schlepped all the way to Jerusalem from your village in Galilee hauling a dove, only to find out once you got there that it wasn't going to make the grade? Selling animals suitable for sacrifice was a service.

And surely you remember the commandment not to make any graven image, right? It's one of the "big ten," after all -- the first one, to be precise (depending on how you number them, and Jews, Roman Catholics, and Protestants number them differently -- which is one more reason that we can't post a list of the Ten Commandments anywhere without it being a sectarian act). It's bad enough to have to deal at all with money bearing Caesar's image; it's beyond the pale to bear that image into the areas of the Temple where sacrifice is offered to the God who said (right up front in the "big ten") not to have any lord besides the Creator. Incidentally, this is another way in which Jesus is extraordinarily clever in Mark 12:13-17 and parallels, when Jesus is asked whether it's lawful to pay taxes to Caesar. When Jesus says, "hey, who's got a denarius with them" and one of his oh-so-scrupulous about the Law questioners produces one to show him, you can almost hear the "D'OH!" from them all when they realize that there they are in the Temple, and they've just been shown up for everyone to see as not having changed their money over in the courtyard to coinage that didn't bear Caesar's image. You bear Caesar's image into the Temple's inner courts, and you're making clear where your true loyalties are -- Caesar, not God. Money-changers in the outer courts are providing a service that, like the dove-sellers, is necessary for the Temple system to continue.

And Jesus will have none of it.

Jesus drives out the dove-sellers and the money-changers, without which people -- poor people, even (the dove-sellers are mentioned specifically) -- won't be able to offer their sacrifices. He's not "cleansing" the Temple -- he's ending it. That's why all four gospels report in connection with their report of Jesus' messing with the money-changers and sacrifice-sellers that Jesus prophesied the Temple's destruction.

Now why would Jesus do something like that? After all, isn't scripture clear that God wanted the Temple built and maintained, along with everything that was supposed to take place inside it?

This is an excellent case in point for how difficult it is to teach "what the bible says" about nearly anything: scripture is not by any means unanimous that Israel should have a temple (or, for that matter, a king). Writers from the priestly upper classes -- people who owed their livelihood to kings who claimed descent from Solomon and kings like Herod the Great, who wanted to be seen as ruling with Solomon's mantle, rather unsurprisingly are quite clear that God wanted the Temple built and commanded that sacrifices happen there. Prophetic writers like Isaiah never bought that agenda, though. Prophets like Isaiah say things like this:

Thus says the LORD:
Heaven is my throne
and the earth is my footstool;
wheat is the house that you would build for me,
and what is my resting place?
All these things my hand has made,
and so all these things are mine,
says the LORD.
(Isaiah 66:1)

Isaiah wasn't keen on animal or grain sacrifices either. He goes on to say:

Whoever slaughters an ox is like one who kills a human being;
whoever sacrifices a lamb, like one who breaks a dog's neck;
whoever presents a grain offering, like one who offers swine's blood;
whever makes a memorial offering of frankincense,
like one who blesses an idol.
These have chosen their own ways,
and in their abominations they take delight.
(Isaiah 66:3)

Prophets like Isaiah clearly were NOT charter members of the Society for the Preservation of the Temple. Nor did they think what God really wanted was more personal piety -- more fasts, more "devotional time," more bible study. Not that there's anything wrong with those things as such. But here's what they thought of as the kind of worship God really wants:

Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not hide yourself from your own kin?
(Isaiah 58:6-7)

Ever notice how often Jesus quotes Isaiah, especially relative to other biblical writers? It isn't hard to tell where Jesus falls on this question about what kind of worship God wants -- and just how little interest God has in a building. Actually, that's an understatement. Jesus didn't just think that God had little interest in the Temple; he thought that God was opposed to the Temple -- hence Jesus' running around the courtyards screaming things, and waving a whip, which was definitely not is usual style.

Solomon had built his temple on the backs of the poor, as kings tend to do. When kings launch some major project, they rarely pay for it themselves; it's the poor, the blind, the lame -- those who have the least to offer a monarch, and therefore get the least attention from the world's rulers -- who pay most dearly. They paid dearly under Solomon's reign. When Herod decided to demonstrate just how much he deserved the title of king and the nickname "the Great," he remodeled and vastly expanded the Temple, and -- as with all his building projects -- the poor under his rule paid most dearly. Herod got his massive and impressive building so God got a bigger and better place for bloodshed.

But God doesn't want blood.

God wants justice.

God wants the hungry fed, the sick cured, the prisoners set free. There will always be someone claiming that God wants another crusade, another war, another dose (or river) of blood to set things right, even the score. And when that happens, when the rulers and "men of vision" of this world launch their grand crusades, it's still the case that the poor pay most dearly. That's certainly the case in the country of my birth. We're embroiled in a war financed by cuts to programs serving those most in need -- well, that and an unprecedented level of debt that will impede our ability to feed the hungry for years to come, if not generations.

Could Jesus have been any clearer? I don't think that God ever wanted blood; I think Micah was right, and what God wanted from us from the start was for us to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God. God sent prophet after prophet to tell us that, and we contracted the world's most profound and persistent case of spiritual ear wax. So God in the unfathomable height and depth and breadth of God's mercy sent Jesus the Christ, and if we believe that his blood shed on the Cross was a perfect, full, and sufficient sacrifice, then the time has come for us to hear God's word and do it:

No more blood. No more death. Not another soul needs to die for anyone's sins. We've got far too much to do to devote a single penny or a single calorie to vengeance or war.
It's true that we've built up an astonishingly elaborate global system that widens the already vast gap between rich and poor, that plunders the earth's resources in ways that lower quality of life for all of us and (no surprise here) most of all for the poor, that pulls us harder and harder apart from one another and from God, and we can't by our own power extricate ourselves to participate in God's mission of healing and reconciliation.

But when we're ready to cry, "who will deliever me from this body of death?" we have have an answer: "Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!" No, I don't think that good progressive intentions coupled with sheer willpower are sufficient to save the world. Indeed, we saw in the early 20th century that those things can have a dark side -- it was good American progressives in what we call the Progressive Era who looked at the science of heredity and decided that forced sterilizations (or worse) of the "feeble-minded" and deviant (not coincidentally, that would mostly be poor people, and no eugenic scientist ever thought s/he was anything but the best of breeding stock) were a crucial part of a strategy to eliminate poverty. Zeal is not enough -- it's what got St. Paul in the pit he was in before he met Jesus. But zeal isn't all we've got:

We've got Jesus. We've got the Body of Christ, this astonishingly diverse worldwide family of sisters and brothers upon whom God has breathed God's Spirit. Listening deeply to one another -- and especially to the poorest and most marginalized among us -- is the best way to cure and prevent recurrence of spiritual ear wax. I'm not saying it's easy, and I'm not saying it isn't painful. It's hard and it hurts sometimes -- that's why Jesus said his followers had to take up the Cross. But we have to trust Jesus, who put his own life on the line, that this is the way to abundant life. And we need to stay in touch with the living, breathing, growing Body of Christ.

We can't free ourselves by sheer willpower, but Christ has freed us and set us in communities of fellow travelers to heal, to serve, and to love with all the power of the Spirit.

Thanks be to God!

March 17, 2006 in Current Events, John, Justice, Lent, Romans, Year B | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Second Sunday in Lent, Year B

Mark 8:31-38 - link to NRSV text

I once heard a sermon suggesting that Jesus' command to deny self, take up the cross, and follow him could involve something as simple as picking up a beer can on the beach and throwing it away.

I don't agree.

I don't think such a thing could even be said in Jesus' time or Mark's. In their time, a cross wasn't a pattern for jewelry, but an instrument of terror as well as torture and death. Here's what I said about it last time I preached on Good Friday:

... the Cross is a dark place, a monument to how we, “blessed with reason and skill,” in the words of one of our Eucharistic prayers, make use of God’s gifts to engineer darker and narrower prisons for ourselves. The Roman culture that invented the cross was known for its ingenuity in making use of simple and natural forms for engineering. Shape stones a certain way, and they form an arch that will support tremendous structures, held together by gravity and friction in a way that makes mortar a mere formality. Chart the right pathway for it, and water can be propelled over a tremendous distance solely by natural gravity in aqueducts.

And perhaps the height of Roman engineering, ingenious in its simplicity, was the cross. Take heavy posts, and set them along the busy roads into the city. Set brackets in them to receive a horizontal beam. Nail or even tie a man’s hands to a beam, set that beam across the pole in brackets, and you have an excruciating form of torture and slow death that takes little time or effort to start but days to finish. Rulers like Pontius Pilate didn't hesitate to use it. It was diabolically simple, cost-effective and highly visible as a public deterrent to those who would oppose the might of Rome. During the Passover season, as Jerusalem became clogged with pilgrims remembering how their God liberates slaves from their oppressors, Pilate lined the roads with hundreds of crosses, each filled with a living tableau of how narrow and dark a prison we can make of our imagination when we set it upon wounding others.

In short, crucifixion was state-sponsored terror meant to keep the populace in line. It made one person suffer unspeakably, obscenely, excruciatingly, and made that suffering a sign for all to see that Rome was the ultimate power, able to bring hell on earth or peace and order.

Is that what the Cross signifies for us, then?

As St. Paul would say, by no means!

We can't realize (a word I'm using intentionally) the meaning of the Cross without taking a moment at least to look at what it meant to the empire that occupied Palestine in Jesus' day. If our heart skips a beat, if there's a sharp intake of breath, that's a good sign. The crosses along the roads of the Roman Empire weren't bits of litter that could be picked up and put away by anyone who “gives a hoot.” They formed a long, terrible gash, an open wound in human freedom, in the human imagination, in God's dream for humanity.

And yet it has become a sign of our freedom, our healing, the reconciliation of all Creation with one another and with God.

How is this? How can it be?

It can -- it is -- in Christ Jesus.

Across the Roman world, the cross was a symbol of power -- the power of empire, the power of armies, the power to dominate. As Christians, it still is the case that realizing the Cross' meaning has to involve us looking hard and talking honestly about power.

That's because the Cross isn't just about how Christ died. If the only thing we knew about Jesus was that he died on a cross, we would have no clue that Jesus was special. The Passover season was a time when the people of Israel were called to celebrate their liberation from oppression, and thousands upon thousands of people made their way to Jerusalem each way to do precisely that. Imagine for a moment those crowds on every street corner, and imagine the mood among those gathered to celebrate liberation. The combination made Roman authorities in Judea very nervous, and when Roman authorities got nervous, they tended to crucify first and ask questions later, or never. So in all likelihood, when Jesus died on a cross just outside Jerusalem's walls during the Passover season, he was surrounded not just by two men, but by dozens. In that sense, Jesus' death was nothing special. Even Jesus' resurrection would just be an item for “news of the weird” or grist for an episode of The X-Files or Smallville if all we knew about Jesus was that he died and then was alive again. If I told you that some guy named Jim Gundersen in MInnesota had been executed by the state, certified as dead, but was alive again three days later, Imost of us would be saying, “Huh, That's really weird,” not “Where is he? Tell me, so I can go worship him!”

The Cross isn't just about how Jesus died, nor is it simply a precursor to Jesus' resurrection. Jesus' death and resurrection have meaning for us because of the manner in which Jesus LIVED.

This, by the way, is why one of the most overused Christmas sermon titles is also one of the worst: “Born to Die.” Jesus was born to die, I suppose, in the sense that all of us are. St. Benedict teaches us to remember our mortality daily, much as we remind one another of our mortality on Ash Wednesday. But even that isn't really about death so much as it is about LIFE -- abundant life, a life of wholeness.

Jesus' manner of life, the way around which he gathered women and men and children to journey, infused his death with profound meaning. The Cross is about how Jesus LIVED. It's what St. Paul had in mind when he wrote this in his letter to the Christians gathered in Philippi:

If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,

who, though he was in the form of God,
 did not regard equality with God
 as something to be exploited, 
but emptied himself,
 taking the form of a slave,
 being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form, 
he humbled himself
 and became obedient to the point of death—
 even death on a cross.

Therefore God also highly exalted him
 and gave him the name
 that is above every name, 
so that at the name of Jesus
 every knee should bend,
 in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 
and every tongue should confess
 that Jesus Christ is Lord,
 to the glory of God the Father.

(Philippians 2:1-11)

Doing my lectionary weblog this year, I've noticed anew something about the Gospel According to Mark that I find significant as I think about Jesus' cross and what it might mean for me to take it up.

It has to do with the title “son of God,” which is not Mark's favorite way of talking about Jesus. He doesn't use the phrase much, but he uses it at three crucial points as he tells “the beginning of the Good News of Jesus the Christ, the Son of God,” and all of which we visit over the course of Lent and Holy Week.

We hear the phrase at Jesus' Baptism, when he has a vision of the Spirit descending upon him, and Jesus hears God call him as a beloved son. And empowered by that experience, Jesus enters the desert.

We hear the phrase at Jesus' transfiguration on the mountaintop, as Jesus is called as a prophet alongside Moses and Elijah, and once more hears God saying, “this is my beloved child.” Empowered by that experience, Jesus journeys toward his Passover in Jerusalem.

You may have noticed my saying “empowered.” These are stories about Jesus claiming his power. Is that hard to hear? We need to hear it, though. We need to hear it to understand Philippians 2, to realize the vision of the Cross. Because it's at the foot of the Cross that someone -- a Roman soldier no less, a man whose humanity has been so wounded, so eroded, so subverted that he could put another man on a cross -- finally gets what Peter doesn't get in this Sunday's gospel, and this Roman soldier looks at the broken man above him and says -- knows -- “truly this man was God's son.”

He gets it. He perceives Jesus' power in its fullness -- power made perfect in weakness, power poured out for the powerless.

That's the way of the Cross, of Jesus' cross. Jesus claims his power, God's power, and he gets it -- that real power, God's power, is not a limited thing to be grasped, but a inexhaustible stream flowing freely to refresh and empower the weary and the marginalized.

What, then, might it mean for us to take up our Cross and follow Jesus? It's not a call to martyrdom -- if nothing else, the teaching that Jesus' blood shed on the Cross was a perfect, full, and sufficient sacrifice for sin, it ought to tell us that Jesus' blood was the LAST blood to be shed because of sin. God does not need or want bloodshed. Not another drop. God does not call us to be a herd of lemmings. God calls us to be the Body of Christ, praying as Jesus taught us that God's kingdom would come and God's will done on earth as it is in heaven. Jesus taught us to seek God's kingdom and to seek it first -- to look for and journey toward God's dream given flesh in the world, in communities of justice and peace and hope and abundant, vibrant life.

This is a powerful congregation. We have power by virtue of our education, our relative wealth in the world, our privilege in society, our voice. It can be very tempting -- all too tempting -- to seek nothing more than charity. Charity is a start, but it can take us to a dangerous place in which we release some portion of our resources in order to get more power. We maintain a death grip on the unjust privilege that makes us wealthy, that gives us the illusion of control, and then we give away just enough to feel generous without seriously compromising our privilege.

The way of the Cross -- Jesus' way of life -- calls us to let go of that. Jesus' way calls us to be honest about the power we have -- both the worldly power we've got because of our skin color, our gender, our social class, our education, our birth in the most powerful nation in the world, and the spiritual power we have as a community upon which God has breathed the Spirit -- and then to let all of that pour out -- “let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5:24) -- to empower the poor.

We are called not only to make sure that the most marginalized have a place at the table, but also to recognize whose table it is. The table around which we gather belongs to Jesus the Christ, who saw, as Peter in this Sunday's gospel did not, that true power is made perfect in self-giving love, that the way of abundant life leads to the Cross. And the symbol of humanity's brokenness, of power corrupted to become domination, becomes a sign of peace, and freedom, and life.

Thanks be to God!

March 9, 2006 in Genesis, Jesus' Hard Sayings, Lent, Mark, Romans, The Cross, Year B | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

I zapped the pop-ups

Update 4 March 2006: I understand that pop-ups are still appearing. I've deleted some more code -- in this case, my site meter, because it includes javascript -- and I'm hoping this takes care of the problem, though I'll be sorry to lose the site meter. Please let me know in the comments if you're still getting pop-ups or if this has finally solved the problem.

Dear All,

Many thanks to those of you who let me know that folks using Windows computers were getting nasty pop-up ads for poker and ringtones and whatnot from visiting SarahLaughed.net. (I hadn't any idea that was going on -- as a Mac user, I was unaffected by the problem.) These ads were never invited or sanctioned by me, but snuck in via a sneaky little bit of code embedded in something else. I've identified the culprit and expunged it, and borrowed a Windows machine to check that the pop-ups weren't happening any more -- they don't seem to be. Please let me know if anything like that ever comes up again. I provide links to Amazon.com for books and movies and such that I personally use, I link to Toddy Coffee because their cold-process brewers make the best darn coffee I've ever tasted (those of you who went through the ordination process with me were treated to some -- you know what I'm talking about!), and after buying about twenty of them as gifts for friends, I decided I may as well put up a link to give people a discount to buy one (and yes, I do get a commission). The good folks at Luther Seminary's D.Min. program in biblical preaching are site sponsors, as is Deacon Sil's lectionary resources page; I looked into both of them before signing them on, and think they've got integrity and provide useful helps.

But I will never, ever take money from people selling online poker gaming, ringtones, or other things completely unrelated to my life and work.

In other news related to my life and work, there was some serious technical wackiness this week with the server for The Witness magazine, my regularly-paying gig (and one I'm really proud of -- it's been an important voice for justice since it started in 1917 as a print publication), which claimed a heap of time I was planning to devote this week to SarahLaughed. My post for this week is up, though, and my Lenten disciplines include moving my lectionary posts earlier in the week and planning ahead when I'm traveling and Internet access is uncertain. Thanks for hanging in there with me, all.



March 3, 2006 in Administrivia | Permalink | Comments (12) | TrackBack

First Sunday in Lent, Year B

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Genesis 9:8-17
- link to NRSV text
1 Peter 3:18-22 - link to NRSV text
Mark 1:9-13
- link to NRSV text

“In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan.”

It sounds fairly dry and matter-of-fact, doesn't it? But there's a lot going on between the lines. Jesus' home and family are in Nazareth of Galilee, and Jesus isn't. This isn't 21st-century white and middle-class America, when adults are expected to leave home to go to college, travel if they can afford it, and find their way in the world alone. It's first-century Palestine, and the decent thing for Jesus to do, by conventional standards would be for him to stay in Nazareth and look after his mother (and his father, if he's alive -- the gospels' silence about Joseph after Jesus' childhood suggests to some that he may have died) until they died, and to make sure they got an honorable burial. That would be the decent thing for a son to do.

The normal thing for a man to do in Jesus' culture, especially for a spiritual leader, would be to stay in Nazareth, marry, and have children -- preferably including at least one son to carry on the family name. That's true even more within most branches of first-century Judaism, in which “be fruitful and multiply” was seen as a binding command from God, not a vague expression of good wishes.

But Jesus didn't do either of those things. Had he married and had children (as the FICTIONAL book The Da Vinci Code suggests), his disciples would have been shouting that from the rooftops, not trying to conceal it -- “Our guy WAS a real man and a good Jew!” But his followers didn't say that, and the best historical explanation for that is that, embarrassing as it was to say that Jesus died having never married or had children, there was just no escaping the fact.

Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. Jesus left his home -- abandoned his family, they would say in the village -- on a spiritual quest.

We have now entered the desert of Lent on a spiritual quest of our own. Lent often gets turned into a very domesticated kind of pious self-improvement; I give up something that most respectable people think is a good thing to give up, at least for a time -- chocolate, beer, swearing, or somesuch -- drop a few pounds and maybe look a little more like what our culture thinks of as 'good,' and other than the purple on the altar Sunday mornings, hardly notice the difference. But if I want to experience this quest fully, I need to note for myself the ways in which the quest we're on for these forty days is NOT tame or respectable. Jesus left his family and entered a desert with wild beasts and angels (and I don't know about you, but I suspect that the reason that the first thing out of an angel's mouth is “don't be afraid!” is that angels are often at least as terrifying as wild beasts), and we are striving to follow him.

That sounds lonely as well as terrifying. How on earth could we do it? Why on earth would we do it?

I think that this Sunday's gospel provides a clue. Jesus enters that desert as a man who is discovering his Baptismal identity, taking it in fully and acting on what he hears from God in Baptism. Jesus has no family where he is -- but in Baptism, God calls Jesus his beloved son, and Jesus hears God say, “with you I am well pleased.”

That means that Jesus has a family. His family by blood is going to come after him to drag him home as a crazy man who's bringing shaming the family name (Mark 2:21), but in Baptism, Jesus has mother and sisters and brothers in whoever does God's will (Mark 3:32-35). Jesus is leaving house and tools, but he will find shelter with others seeking God and God's reign. Jesus is not alone on his journey, and neither are we.

We have one another, and we also have something else on our journey: the opportunity to encounter God as Jesus did, to take in deeply God's word to us that we are God's beloved children, to claim that identity as the central one or maybe even the only one we have.

I don't think that Jesus spent his life after his Baptism trying to figure out what a good person, a good teacher, a good friend, a good leader would say or do and then trying to say or do that. I believe that Jesus sought the living God, claimed his identity as God's child, and let his life, his words, his relationships, and his love, even to giving of himself on the cross, flow from that identity as God's beloved.

Perhaps that's what God is calling me to do this Lenten season: to follow Jesus into that desert to listen deeply for what God has to say to me through my Baptism. And if that's God's call, those wild beasts won't destroy anything worth keeping. Mr. Beaver said of Aslan, “he isn't tame, but he's good,” and I believe that's true of God as well. I want to be alive in the spirit, as Jesus was, and that's a good enough reason to follow Jesus. If God is there, I won't be alone.

And besides, you're coming too, aren't you?

Thanks be to God!

March 3, 2006 in 1 Peter, Baptism, Genesis, Honor/Shame, Kinship/Family, Lent, Mark, Year B | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack