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Seventh Sunday after Easter, Year B

Acts 1:15-26 - link to NRSV text
    OR Exodus 28:1-4, 9-10, 29-30 - link to NRSV text
1 John 5:19-15 - link to NRSV text
    OR Acts 1:15-26
John 17:11b-19 - link to NRSV text

"If we receive human tesitmony, the testimony of God is greater; for this is the testimony of God that he has testified to his Son." That's what the selection from 1 John for this Sunday says. And thanks be to God that the testimony of God is greater -- we have some pretty odd ways of discerning and trying to testify God's will.

Our passages from the Hebrew bible and the book of Acts make an excellent case in point. The role of the Twelve is on one hand so very, very important that it just can't be left to eleven or thirteen, and on the other hand, the person to fill the seat left vacant by Judas Iscariot is chosen by lot. The judgment of Israel is left to a couple of rocks. Sometimes, reading things like this, one has to say to oneself what just might be the ultimate question in life:

"Just what is God thinking??!"

It's a question I've asked myself more than once in my life, and I'm glad to say that it's a question that God fears just about as much as I have the capacity to answer it for myself. I believe that God is calling us to abundant life in a world that welcomes, facilitates, and spreads abundant life, and yet I pick up a newspaper that tells me about deaths in battle, in traffic accidents, in inexplicable illnesses. It's all well and good for John Lennon to encourage us to imagine a world of peace, compassion, and responsibility to further both of those qualities, but imagining it will only get us so far, "so" being a synonim for "not." Imagine all the dreamers, yes -- but imagine what would have happened to their movement had they stuck with what seemed realistic. And if we're really going to take all this stuff Jesus seriously, we might ask what's realistic anyway.

Church unity is a highly desirable goal. Actually, it's more than a goal; it's a description, a word we say when we see people living as God intends, as sisters and brothers with any who will break bread and share resources with them. It's an appealing goal, and so a lot of people get on board with it without pausing to think about how they want to actually build a world, a network of people and resources, to help the Church move toward being truly what God intends for it to be.

And this might sound like something of a "get back to work" speech, but it isn't. The reason lies in Jesus' prayer: that we all might be one as he is one with God. The unity of the church isn't a goal toward which we strive; it is a reality that we live into more deeply as we explore with others in community just what it might mean that we are children of God.

That's not just a fancy theological way of saying "Get back to work" either. What might it mean to us -- to you and me -- if we really took Jesus' prayer in, really believed that God's children are one because God is one, that the unity of Christ's Body is a consequence of Christ, rather than the end goal toward which we strive, but most often fail?

One of the chief consequences of taking that leap of faith, I think, would be that it would demolish a lot of our excuses. Without it, we might full well think that we can treat those around us as we like until such a time as they toe the line and thereby effect the unity for which Jesus prays in this Sunday's gospel. I'll treat that person as a brother or sister the moment s/he behaves!

That way lies madness, as they say. As long as we're waiting for everyone but us to meet some standard before we'll declare ourselves to be of the same Body as they, we're choosing the thankless and joyless task of monitoring those around us, and perhaps the world itself, for signs of dysfunction and misery.

It's a destructive way to live.  I've written before about how our mind's "background processes" work. We are constantly on the lookout, making judgments and reevaluating them. The "search requests" we make on our brain most frequently become 'wired' into the brain and the life of our psyche. If we call upon our brains several times a week or a day to figure out what's wrong with those around us and the world in which they work, it's natural for our minds to start performing these tasts in the "background," constantly creating categories and placing people in them. A theology based on that is going to dwell on what's wrong with the world in ways that occupy energy we could devote to participating in God's work of making things -- all things -- right.

In other words, we don't have to struggle to become a member of the Body of Christ; it is a free gift Christ offers, and what we do in response to that gift is up to us. The hard part of that oftentimes is that it places us in the company of people who aren't much like us, and the more differences arise, the more we stress about whether the relationship(s) will fracture. And the more we stress about whether the relationship will fracture, the more likely we are to avoid a sense of loss both of relationship and of control by coming up with reasons that fracture and decay are inevitable. It gets in the way of becoming close with one another and with God.

So what if we took as our starting point that we are members of the Body of Christ, not because we achieved a goal but because of who Christ is and what Christ has done?

It just might give us courage to be honest about our differences, since our connectedness with others is based not on what we think or what we do, but on who and whose we are.

It just might challenge us to search for avenues of compassion toward others; if we are by action of the Creator of the universe one with our sisters and brothers around us, we ought to get used to it, since our fellow members of the Body of Christ will depart from us only when Christ departs (i.e., sometime between "never" and "later than never"), and our central task shifts from trying to find ways to figure out who should matter to us to one of learning to live as joyfully and lovingly with those with whom we are, one way or another, journeying.

And it just might give us what we need to change the world, bring healing to the sick, sufficiency to the destitute, freedom to the captives, because as members of one Body we are called to witness to Christ's presence everywhere it is, and that's throughout a world being made new by grace, and called to respond in extending grace.

Thanks be to God!

May 25, 2006 in 1 John, Acts, Community, John, Year B | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Sixth Sunday of Easter, Year B

Sorry about the delay posting this week -- I had more technological misadventures, but the VERY, very good news of the day is that my beloved PowerBook is at long last back in my hands! I'm no longer reliant on borrowed computers, which should make many things go MUCH more smoothly in the weeks to come.

Acts 11:19-30 - link to NRSV text
1 John 4:7-21 - link to NRSV text
John 15:9-17 - link to NRSV text

Remember the "Friends & Family" plan for long-distance telephone service? It was a pretty smart marketing idea -- so smart, in fact, that it's now standard in a variety of other kinds of services, like my cell phone's "In-Network" plan. When I use my cell phone, minutes get counted with most calls; I've bought a certain number of minutes, and that's what I get. But if someone is calling me or I'm calling someone "in-network" -- someone whose service comes from the same company as mine -- the minutes don't get counted, and I don't have to pay for them.

Our readings for this Sunday just might be the earliest recorded "Friends & Family" plan, though it covers far more than cell phone minutes. Some of the most shallow Christian theology makes God sound like the ultimate bean-counter. In this view, God sits in heaven tallying accounts obsessively to make sure that every petty offense is bought and paid for, and when the bill is due, he (God the Heavenly Bean-Counter is invariably presented as male by adherents) will collect the last penny -- even if he has to take it from his own son, and even if doing that will cost his son's life in the worst of ways to lose it. The important thing -- the only thing, really -- in Heavenly Bean-Counter theology is that those books kept with perfect meticulousness balance in the end.

At best, Bean-Counter theology can have an almost paradoxical effect: by dwelling on just how much we'd be shown to owe God if it were measured, we might gain an appreciation of how beyond measure is the grace we experience in Christ, and that in turn might inspire us to cut our neighbors some slack when we're tempted to tally their balance of sins and righteous acts.

Sadly, though, Bean-Counter theology almost never seems to have this effect on its adherents -- in more cases than not, people I've met who most strongly emphasize that each of us have done things that, were there no such thing as redemption, would bring death upon us have not been inspired to say "... and if God can give me the gifts of God's love, of the Spirit, of eternal and joyous life that I don't deserve, surely God's grace will extend to whatever my neighbor does or fails to do," or even "God's the one keeping accounts here, and doesn't need or want me to presume to keep them"; they have rather been inspired to keep more careful accounts than ever of what they perceive as their neighbors' transgressions.

I'll never forget a conversation I had in the office elevator with a co-worker at a tech company. He was a devout Christian who was outraged that Disney would offer health insurance to same-sex domestic partners of employees, and he'd been boycotting Disney because of it. I didn't try to argue with him about the morality of same-sex unions, but I did want to challenge him regarding his assumption that he was doing God's will by trying to force companies to allocate benefits at least in part according to perceived righteousness. "I wish that everyone had health care," I said, "and I don't see how anything Jesus said or did could suggest that we ought to take health care away from someone because we think they're sinning. If anything, it sounds to me like Disney is, however inadvertently or incompletely, serving Jesus, who said that those who care for the sick are caring for him."

I think also of a conversation I imagined the evening of September 11, 2001. I imagined President Bush stepping to the podium to make a statement to the press: "During my campaign for this office, a lot of people chuckled when I said that my favorite political philosopher was Jesus Christ. I was serious about that, though. As an evangelical Christian, I believe that Jesus' death paid the price for all sin -- for all people, and for all time. And so I believe that Jesus' blood paid the price for the blood shed today, and for that reason I cannot say that today's attacks, as terrible and evil as they were, call for  more bloodshed. God bless our enemies as well as our friends, and God bless America."

The conversation with my co-worker happened and changed his mind about punishing Disney; that imaginary press conference didn't happen, and would have provoked outrage if it had. But I still think about it -- how can someone hold that Jesus loves us so much as to pay the price for our sin, and yet still say that evildoers must pay -- especially with blood -- for what they've done?

It happens a lot, though. I know that orthodox Christian belief would see Jesus as sharing the character of God the Father, and I know that there are views of 'substitutionary atonement' that aren't shallow as this 'Bean-Counter' version, but we're talking about a particular and particularly shallow branch of popular theology here that presents God the Father as literally out for blood, while God the Son is happy to give blood but doesn't need it himself. And when we see God the Father as being driven mostly or entirely by the need to "balance the books," it seems almost psychologically inevitable that we would try to imitate our bean-counting deity on that point. I suspect that's one reason we have televangelists on the airwaves after every natural disaster trying to pinpoint just whose and which sins made God decide to play Godzilla (a metaphor I find particularly apt in light of the ways in which Godzilla often appears in films as the way that nuclear weapons or messing up the environment come back to bite us in the proverbial butt).

But that's not the kind of God Jesus proclaims. "As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love," Jesus says. Jesus' relationship with God the Creator was not one that included score-keeping. There are no tit-for-tat deals between the First and Second Persons of the Trinity, no bills sent or payments made. One of my favorite theological words is perichoresis -- a word describing relationships of Persons of the Trinity that means 'enveloping,' a whole, completely free and completely full interchange. When Jesus says "as the Father has loved me," that's the kind of relationship he's talking about.

The rest of the sentence -- "I have loved you; abide in my love" -- is an invitation to us to share that very quality of relationship in our relationship with him. And that's on reason that Jesus command to "love one another as I have loved you" is so astonishing. We are called and empowered to share with one another the very kind of love that envelops the life of the Trinity.

"Love" is a word that's so often overused and misused in our culture. "I love a good margarita" is, for example, a perfectly fine thing to say. And then there are the ways the word "love" is misused with reference to God. "God loves you" is said all too often in conjunction with the image of the Heavenly Bean-Counter to say that God's "love" looks something like a stalker's -- God really loathes us enough to want to kill us, but has deluded himself into seeing only his son when he looks at us, and therefore has decided to watch us constantly and nag us frequently so we do what he wants. Those who believe that God is like this just might resort to the same mixture of nagging and force on their neighbors that they think God uses on them.

But God's love isn't like that at all. God's love is free, full, powerful, and gentle. Jesus invites us to experience that kind of love through him -- and then we are invited to see all of our relationships transformed in the image of that love -- a love in which no one is anonymous or dispensable, no one is cast aside as irredeemable, and everyone exercises the kind of relaxed and joyful generosity that happens when nobody is keeping score in any arena. That's why the believers in Acts share with fellow Christians on the other side of the world as freely as they'd share with their own mother or daughter. Knowledge of that love demonstrated in caring for one another in this way is the test proposed in 1 John for whether we know God. And Jesus' lengthy "farewell discourse" in the Gospel According to John urges Jesus' followers to abide in that love repeatedly.

It's a love that changed Jesus' followers forever. It's a love that changes us day by day. And it's a love that could change the world, making real Isaiah's vision of peace and plenty. That's Jesus' gift -- and like all true gifts, it's given freely.

Thanks be to God!

May 19, 2006 in 1 John, Acts, Easter, Inclusion, John, Justice, Love, ONE campaign/Millennium Development Goals, Year B | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Fifth Sunday of Easter, Year B

Deuternomy 4:32-40 - link to NRSV text
Acts 8:26-40 - link to NRSV text
1 John 3:(14-17)18-24 - link to NRSV text
John 14:15-21 - link to NRSV text

The Ethiopian eunuch asks Philip a very brave question: "What is there to prevent me from being Baptized?" It seems a reasonable question in many ways. He was in his chariot studying Isaiah (as one does -- don't you?) when he happened upon Philip. Philip tells him that the redemption Isaiah anticipates has come in Jesus. And then they happen upon a convenient water source! What is to prevent him from being Baptized?

I still say it's a brave question. Anyone who asks that question today of a leader just might be greeted with a list: Well, do you REALLY understand what's going on in the Eucharist? What's your attitude on the authority of scripture, or on human sexuality? Do you still plan to work in that den of vice they call a court in Ethiopia? And then there's that delicate matter of your operation. You understand that it renders you unfit to enter the Temple, right? It's so important for people to know their place, and yours is, well ... not the same as ours. We need to have a few decades of dialogue about your place -- you can wait over there.

It reminds me of the very funny and very, very effective ad the UCC has created called "Ejector Pew." (Watch it if you haven't seen it -- brilliant!) But that's not the response the eunuch got from Philip. Philip baptized him, and he went on his way rejoicing.

A lot of sermons pretty much end there. It's the happy ending -- God loves you. You're in! Rejoice and skip into the sunset. But let's not end there. Ending there leaves us all wondering what's next. When we don't explore that question together, we often end up filling in the blanks with whatever our culture says is good. Rejoice and go on your way -- oh, and work hard and play by the rules, go to church every Sunday, be generous, don't do drugs, and make sure to send flowers on Mother's Day. Amen.

But have you ever noticed that in the "Great Commission" in Matthew, the passage most often pointed to as warrant for evangelism, that Jesus does NOT say "go and make converts," let alone "go and make churchgoers." The "Great Commission" is to make disciples, Baptizing them AND teaching them to obey Jesus' commands. This Sunday's gospel has a similar exhortation from Jesus: "If you love me, you will keep my commandments."

"Commandments" has a serious ring to it -- it gives the sentence a kind of James Earl Jones-gravitas. It's a favorite word of the Morals Police who want to add some teeth to those "work hard and play by the rules" commandments of our culture. "This," they say, rubbing their hands, is where we get down to business." They're often disappointed when they take a closer look at just what Jesus says is his commandment in John 15:12: "This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you."

"Oh good!" some folks would say, "I was afraid he was going to say something heavy. I just LOVE love, though. All you need is love! Love lifts up where we belong! Who could be against that? We're pretty much back to the skipping into the sunset rejoicing plan."

We're going to hear more about this next week, when our gospel passage includes John 15:12 -- and the next verse, which has quite a kicker that the romantic love of Moulin Rouge wouldn't touch with a ten-foot pole. But we've got a good introduction to the concept in this week's reading from 1 John (and it's short enough -- why on earth would anyone go with the shorter version of it?):

We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us -- and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. How does God's love abide in anyone who has the world's goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help? Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.

Jesus loved us such that he gave his life, his very self, for us, holding nothing back. As I've said before, that doesn't indicate that Jesus was a creature like the lemmings of Disney myth, flinging himself off a cliff for no reason other than to encourage others to do the same. Jesus is at work in the family business, and so Jesus' love functions as does his Father's: calling out a motley assortment of slaves judged of no account by the powerful, and gathering them as a community to become a people. I think that's worth keeping in mind when thinking about this week's reading from Deuteronomy.

Would it be Good News, would it be the family business of God and God's people if the Israelites were called out of Egypt just to become another kingdom with another Pharoah and another set of people condemned to slavery by rulers' military might? As St. Paul would say, by no means! God calls us -- especially those of us judged to be losers of no account in the world's scheme of things -- to freedom from this world's Pharoahs not so we can form our own domineering hierarchy with the "right" people on top, but so we can do things differently. We don't replace one Pharoah with another; God is our king, and any other applicants for the job can forget it.

That's radical -- so radical, in fact, that it remained controversial within Israel for centuries. How are we supposed to hold our own against hostile powers around us if we're not prepared to kick butt on their terms -- with armies, led by a kickass king? But what Jesus proposes might be even more radical -- and I'd give, well, a LOT to see if anyone picks this up for preaching this Mother's Day. Jesus' calling out of motley individuals to form God's people doesn't just say that having God as our king defines the nation, and therefore we don't need any human monarchs; it says that with God as our Father we are truly one family as beloved children of God, and that is to be the sole claim on family allegiance.

As far as our culture is concerned, that is CRAZY. That's bad. Does this story report the behavior of a good son, by conventional reckonings?

A crowd was sitting around him: and they said to him, "Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you." And he replied, "Who are my mother and my brothers?" And looking at those who sat around him, he said, "Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother"
(Mark 3:32-35)

It reminds me of the game improvisational comedy troupes play (yup, I was in one once) called "World's Worst," in which comics are given a category of "the world's worst ..." and have to supply entries for it. I'd enter this one in the category of "World's Worst Message for a Mother's Day Card."

It's just not our culture's way of reckoning things. We appreciate our mothers, and I do think that we tend not to appreciate them anywhere near enough. But every Mother's Day, I think also of all my friends, acquaintances, and fellow or former parishioners who feel judged as a failure by everyone around them because they don't have our culture's ideal: a lawfully married spouse (or at least a life partner) and kids, preferably living in a well-kept house the adults own. The floral-industrial complex -- and far too many Mother's Day sermons -- leave them out entirely.

And then I think about some other mothers who won't be getting flowers, breakfast in bed, or ice cream cakes this Sunday. I think about mothers in Darfur facing agonizing decisions about which of their children to feed. I think about a mother in Zimbabwe I read about recently in the newspaper who wonders who will care for her children once the menengitis she's suffering from -- a treatable condition, but she can't afford the treatment -- takes her from them. And as much as I want to love and appreciate and honor the women in my community who give of themselves to love and nurture the children I see playing in the aisles of the church during the Eucharist on Sunday morning, I want to pose the question that seems unthinkable in our culture, and especially on this Sunday:

What if we saw every mama as our own mother or sister? What if we welcomed and nourished and stood up for every child as if each one was our very own flesh? Jesus' love -- the love we have received, and therefore are equipped to live out and pass along to our world -- is such that he said, "I will not leave you orphaned"; instead, he gave us an Advocate, the Holy Spirit of truth. And this week particularly, my heart breaks for all of those children who will be orphaned today, and tomorrow, and the next day, and Sunday.

This is a situation that is within our power to change. Clean water, a mosquito net, a phone call made or a vote cast to stop subsidizing violence -- a critical mass of small, simple things like that could give life to so many mothers and their children. So this Sunday, by all means give flowers, and ice cream cakes, and breakfasts in bed. Give all the love you've got to give to the women in your life. And because love -- especially God's love, Jesus' love -- is not a limited good, a finite pie we have less to give when we give some away, give a moment of your time, a second of your imagination, to other children's mothers, and to orphaned children. Pray for the capacity to receive God's love the way Jesus did, the way that overflows for the world. And please take a moment after ordering the flowers and signing the cards to send to stop by someplace like the ONE Campaign to find out what one person, one family, one moment can do to help create a world in which every mother can see each of her children get clean water, good food, an education, a chance.

Thanks be to God!

May 11, 2006 in 1 John, Easter, John, Justice, Kinship/Family, Leadership, Love, Mark, ONE campaign/Millennium Development Goals, Women, Year B | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Fourth Sunday of Easter, Year B

Acts 4:(23-31)32-37 - link to NRSV text
OR Ezekiel 34:1-10 - link to NRSV text
Psalm 23 - link to BCP text
John 10:11-16 - link to NRSV text

On Acts 4, please see my article in The Witness, "The Missing FOR and the Risen Life." There's a fun and illuminating exegetical issue in that passage that the article dicusses: The passage says, "With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all, FOR there was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold." The NRSV, like most English translations, leaves out that "for," obscuring what for Luke-Acts is a point made repeatedly: that there is a direct causal connection between making sure that no one is needy and the other characteristics of Christ-centered community the passage raises.

In other words, we experience the presence and the power of God's Spirit most fully and we testify to Jesus' resurrection most powerfully when we are caring for the poor such that no one is left in need. That connection isn't intuitive for many of us, especially in the individualistic and introspective West, where we're inclined to see "spiritual" as a word describing an interior and emotional experience rather than as a way of being in the world. But that connection is absolutely core to Jesus' message and God's mission.

Jesus makes that clear as he presents his own "mission statement" in Luke 4, quoting Isaiah:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
   because he has anointed me
     to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
   and recovery of sight to the blind,
     to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.

And there's another FOR, a "because" we shouldn't miss. Luke reveals that Jesus himself saw his experience of the Spirit as a product of the mission -- God's mission -- for which he was anointed, and it is a mission which leaves no one out. The poor shunted to the margins by their poverty, the prisoners shut out of our communities, the blind left to beg at literal and figurative city gates, are all to be brought safely in to the center of our life together, fully incorporated in community and empowered for ministry and mission.

That mission -- God's mission, for which Jesus was anointed -- is about nothing less than changing the world. So whatever you else you might do with Jesus' message, I beg you not to take it as pious words of comfort for you and your family, a message about working hard and playing by the rules to sleep secure in the knowledge that God loves you as long as you work hard and play by the rules. God wants so much more for us than that!

I've blogged and preached a number of times before about an image that's central to my sense of vocation, one that came up in my parish discernment committee for the ordination process in Los Angeles: namely that of a washing machine. Washing machines don't work if the load is stagnant; without motion, there's no transformation. So the washing machines that I grew up with had something at their center that bounced around to push what's at the center out to the margins and bring what's at the margins in to the center such that the whole load could be transformed.

We call that thing at the center of the washing machine an 'agitator,' and I can think of no better word for what the Spirit does for us. The call of God's Spirit pushes those of us at the center of our world's all-too-concentrated power and wealth out to the margins to welcome the marginalized to the center. If we stay where we are and let the rest of the world stay as it is, we're not fully experiencing the presence and work of the Spirit, and we won't benefit as fully from the transformation that the Spirit is bringing.

That's why Jesus says in Luke, "the Spirit of the Lord is upon me BECAUSE God has anointed me to bring good news to the poor." But that's Luke. John's gospel is often preached as if its whole message could be boiled down to this: Jesus said that he is God's Son. Everyone who doesn't acknowledge that is going to hell. You need to do two things in response: a) tell God that you understand Jesus to be God's Son and that you want Jesus to save you from hell; and b) tell everyone else that Jesus is God's Son, and if they don't tell God that they accept that proposition, they're going to hell.

That's a serious misreading of John for more reasons than I can sketch in a single lectionary blog entry. What I want to emphasize this week is that John doesn't present Jesus' message and mission as being just about what goes on inside one's head or heart any more than the other canonical gospels do (now the Gospel of Thomas is another story, presenting Jesus' message as being almost entirely about his own spiritual status and the importance of realizing it for one's own spiritual status -- but I digress). This Sunday's gospel is an excellent case in point.

Jesus' saying "I am the good shepherd" tends to evoke for 21st-century urban and suburban folk an idealized, bucolic scene of rolling green hills and lush meadows, over which the fluffy (and remarkably clean) sheep roam with their serene (if slightly bored) shepherd. It would have evoked a different scene and mood in the first-century Mediterranean world.

For starters, the scene evoked among Jesus' hearers or John's by a reference to shepherding would be less about serenity than about survival. Shepherds had a hard life. To make sure that their sheep had enough food and water, they had to roam far from home, and they paid a heavy price for it. They were exposed to the elements, and suffered from heat during the day and cold during long, sleepless nights guarding the flock from human and animal predators. Their mothers, wives, and daughters were in turn more vulnerable to predators, and that's a major reason that shepherds were generally thought of as dishonorable characters, leaving their families so exposed. If after all that a shepherd lost too many sheep to illness, injury, starvation, or dehydration, the whole family would perish -- the flock's welfare really was the shepherd's own.

And so it might be said that Jesus' metaphor of "the good shepherd" differs from the "washing machine" metaphor primarily in underscoring three things:

  1. What was at stake: Laundry isn't a matter of life and death, but the shepherd's whole family and community depends on the shepherd's journey to pastures and back home.
  2. How far that motion from the center to the margins should go: In a washing machine, we're talking about a radius of a couple of feet; for the shepherd, the family's survival depends on journeying as far as it takes to feed the sheep and get home with resources to feed the family.
  3. What that journey might cost: I suppose I could trip on the basement stairs headed down to the washing machine and sprain my ankle, but a shepherd might literally lay down his life for the sheep when threatened by a thief or a wolf.

I wish that congregations were going to read both Acts 4 and Ezekiel 34 this Sunday. Acts 4 makes the causal connection between caring for the poor and experiencing the Spirit's presence and power that we need to hear, but Ezekiel 34 is a scathing indictment of the extent to which we who claim to follow "the good shepherd" have been doing the opposite of what a good shepherd does:

Ah, you shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fatlings; but you do not feed the sheep. You have not strengthened the weak, you have not healed the sick, you have not bound up the injured, you have not brought back the strayed, you have not sought the lost, but with force and harshness you have ruled them. So they were scattered, because there was no shepherd; and scattered, they became food for all the wild animals.

We live in a world that discourages real contact between the rich (by which I mean people like me -- my annual pre-tax income of $28,200 makes me among the top 10% of wage earners worldwide, according to the Global Rich List) and the poor, and so it becomes tempting for me to sit at home -- my home with solid walls and roof, running water, and electricity -- and actually think I'm poor because I don't have every luxury I want. The cities I live and work in divide rich from poor by neighborhood and school such that the vast majority of people I speak with on any given day have similar levels of education as I do and are from a similar social class. And for the most part, the churches in which I worship and work are far less diverse economically, socially, and racially than the zip codes in which they get mail.

Jesus, the good shepherd, calls me out of that comfortable home, away from living off of the fat available to me right here and out to the margins, so all might eat good food, drink clean water, and enjoy the privileges I have that give me access to markets and schools and the power that comes with them. He doesn't promise that it will be easy, but he promises that the journey is the way to abundant life. And I know that I will hear the good shepherd's voice and see his face most clearly when I'm living world that lives out the connection all of God's prophets proclaim, and all of God's beloved children can sing with the psalmist, not in hopeful expectation but in celebration of a present reality:

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not be in want.

Thanks be to God!

May 4, 2006 in Acts, Easter, Ezekiel, John, Justice, Luke, ONE campaign/Millennium Development Goals, Psalms, Year B | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack