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Proper 12, Year B

2 Kings 2:1-15 - link to NRSV text
Ephesians 4:1-7, 11-16 - link to NRSV text
Mark 6:45-52 - link to NRSV text

"They were utterly astounded, for they did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened" (Mark 6:52).

But what was it that they didn't understand? I've heard a lot of sermons over the years that suggest that the line of thinking that would have indicated Jesus' followers did understand would be something like this:

"Hey, this guy managed to make a few loaves and fishes feed thousands of people. He must be powerful. Heck, only God has that kind of power. I know ... he must be God!"

But that's not really the issue, and that's not how Jesus' followers would have thought or ought to have thought. Jesus' followers knew something that I think we also know intuitively -- and if not intuitively, by cold hard experience in the world:

Not all power in this world is used benevolently.

A lot of it isn't. Indeed, we tend not to think of power when we have it, or when it's used to our benefit; we think about it a lot when it's being used against us. That's also when we tend to think about justice as a category; power is used to an end with which we don't agree, and nine times out of ten we'll call it unjust, or at least unfair. Ask any teenager, and you'll probably hear a lot about it: the powers of this world can be capricious or malevolent ("out to get you") as well as just and good. This, by the way, is one of the reasons I so much enjoy ministry alongside teens. They're willing to speak up when they think they see power used capriciously or destructively; they understand that the powerful aren't necessarily good, and often they haven't bought in to the idea that the distribution of power in the world is pretty much as it ought to be.

Jesus' followers certainly knew that. You'd have to be living under a rock since infancy not to see it. The Roman Empire occupied not just Palestine, but the whole world as they knew it, and they cared mostly if not entirely about whether taxes were paid, commerce uninterrupted (see the "taxes paid" point), trouble minimized, and their power acknowledged as supreme on earth (sounds familiar, actually -- the same could be said of most empires). The same goals applied when it came to appointing local authorities -- building a city dedicated to the glory of Caesar (and paid for with taxes on the poor, not from compromising the lifestyles of the rich -- another phenomenon that sounds familiar to us) earned you a lot more points in the competition for Rome's favor than sweating about the welfare of peasants. And spiritual powers came in the same range as worldly ones -- some good, many capricious or malevolent. When a wonder-worker came to town, people would be asking not whether maybe he did it with wires or mirrors, but whether it was done with good or evil power. Miracles proved power, not goodness or godliness, and levitating around the town square would inspire more fear than worship or trust.

That's a theme we see in Mark from the beginning of Jesus' ministry. It comes up explicitly in Mark 3:20-27, when the scribes from Jerusalem question whether Jesus is casting out demons with the power of other evil spirits, and comes into play in many explanations of the so-called "messianic secret" in Mark -- Jesus' telling those healed by him not to tell others. But I've been thinking lately that the "Beelzebub controversy" in Mark 3 is a part of a broader theme prominent in Mark: the theme of power and its proper and godly use. It's a theme that comes up repeatedly, and on the day before our moving van arrives, I don't have time to treat it with anywhere near the attention it deserves, except to point to the discussion that sets the context for Jesus' journey to Jerusalem and the Cross, namely Mark 10:32-45, in which Jesus talks about death at the hands of Gentiles and new life to follow, and answers the request of James and John to sit at his right and left with what I believe is the centerpiece of Jesus' teaching in the gospel of Mark:

You know that among the nations those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.

So what does all this have to do with this Sunday's gospel? Our lectionary editors' wise choice of Hebrew bible readings for this week is a clue: the way in which Jesus uses his power over waters and the deep evokes, as does Elijah's parting the Jordan, the story of the Exodus, of a tiny and enslaved people being led out of slavery to a worldly power and into the desert where they are free to become a people who use power differently -- to feed the poor and care for the widow and orphan, or, as the prophet Micah sums up what Israel was formed as a people to do, to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God. What Jesus' followers didn't understand about the loaves wasn't that they showed that Jesus had access to power -- Jesus' enemies said that much.

What they didn't understand was what their response ought to be. They didn't understand what it meant that God was, through Jesus, feeding all the people such that each had enough and no one accumulated too much -- much as God fed the Israelites in the desert with manna. They didn't understand that God's power over winds and waters in Jesus was like the parting of the Red Sea. They didn't understand that in Jesus, God was fulfilling the promise of Deuteronomy 18:15-19 to raise up a prophet like Moses to do what Moses did. They didn't understand that what God was and is doing through Jesus is no less than forming a motley and marginalized crowd into a people, one people, God's people -- a people called to do with power what Jesus does with his: healing, empowering, self-giving even to the Cross, to knit together a whole Body joined in love and building up its weakest members.

That's who we are -- what we have been freed through Jesus to become.

Thanks be to God!

July 27, 2006 in 2 Kings, Christology, Ephesians, Mark, Miracle stories, Ordinary Time, Prophets, Redemption, Year B | Permalink | Comments (4)

Proper 11, Year B

Ack -- I'm swimming in boxes for my impending move!

For those preaching this Sunday, you may find this lectionary blog entry on the "Feeding of the Five Thousand" in Luke to be helpful. More to come!

And if you're anywhere around Ann Arbor, I'd love to see you at the University of Michigan chaplaincy's jazz mass for the Feast of St. Mary Magdalene on Saturday night (I'm preaching). Details are here.

July 20, 2006 | Permalink | Comments (2)

Proper 10, Year B

Mark 6:7-13 - link to NRSV text

If any place will not welcome you and they refuse to hear you, as you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them.

I think the most memorable time I've heard those words was in a sermon by the Rt. Rev. Doug Theuner, then Bishop of New Hampshire, at the consecration of his successor, the Rt. Rev. Gene Robinson. Those words (which Theuner quoted from the parallel passage in Matthew) were part of Theuner's charge to Robinson. If any place will not welcome you, he said, and they refuse to hear you, as you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them.

That's harsh. That's saying not only that you won't touch them, but that you won't touch anything they've touched -- not even the dust.

And I don't think that +Gene has taken that advice.

Instead, at the Integrity Eucharist at General Convention this year, the refrain in his sermon was "Love them anyway." Even if you'd been under a rock for several years and had no idea what he'd been through -- the death threats against him and (inexplicably) his daughters, the sneering, the hate mail, the protesters, the constant scrutiny, and on top of it all the burden of receiving countless letters from hurting people who didn't know anyone they could talk to about being gay -- you could tell from +Gene's voice that he was not saying it lightly. He knew just how difficult and painful it could be to take seriously the oneness of the Body of Christ and the imperative to seek and serve Christ in all people. His voice broke several times as he said it.

Love them anyway.

That doesn't erase the hard word about shaking off the dust, and to be completely honest, I'm not totally sure what to do with it. I really, really dislike sermons that take a hard word from Jesus and say something that boils down to "he didn't really mean it." I hope that what I have to say about this hard word doesn't fall into that category.

The first thing that I want to point out about it is the context. Jesus' followers were a tiny, obscure minority in the Roman Empire. The vast majority of people had never heard of Jesus. How much sense would it make for his followers to keep preaching in a town where everyone had heard and no one would listen? I was tempted to say, "and where staying would only get them beaten up or worse," but when you look at the breadth of Jesus' teaching, what his disciples actually did and how many were martyred -- and most importantly, what Jesus himself did in "setting his face toward Jerusalem," being received as a king, and preaching liberation to packed crowds there to celebrate the liberation of God's people from slavery -- I don't think that the danger of sticking around was a consideration. Martin Luther King and Malcolm X predicted that they would be assassinated -- Jesus and his followers didn't need any special revelation to know the risks they took.

They took them repeatedly. They loved them anyway.

And not just that. Jesus not only ruled out retaliation against those who chased his followers out of town; he also sent his followers out with no bread, no bag, no money, no outer tunic. No tunic meant that sleeping outdoors was not an option; no bag meant that they wouldn't be able to collect enough in one place to survive on their own in another. In other words, Jesus lived out and passed on to his disciples not just engagement, but vulnerability. They were to go to people they didn't know and rely on them day by day for food and shelter from the elements.

That's radical dependence on God. I don't mean by that that Jesus or his followers were sure that everything was going to be OK by conventional reckonings. Jesus didn't promise safety -- especially not in the sense of static self-preservation. That's not God's job. God wants something better for us. God calls us out of safe stasis. As the Rt. Rev. Dr. David Zac Niringiye said in a recent interview in Christianity Today:

One of the gravest threats to the North American church is the deception of power—the deception of being at the center. Those at the center tend to think, "The future belongs to us. We are the shapers of tomorrow. The process of gospel transmission, the process of mission—all of it is on our terms, because we are powerful, because we are established. We have a track record of success, after all. ... Those at the center decide that anyone not with us is—not against us—[but] just irrelevant.

God very often is working most powerfully far from the center. Jesus is crucified outside Jerusalem—outside—with the very cynical sign over his head, "The King of the Jews." Surprise —- he is the King of the Jews. "We had hoped ... " say the disappointed disciples on the road to Emmaus, but he did not fulfill our criteria. In Acts, we read that the cross-cultural missionary thrust did not begin in Jerusalem. It began in Antioch, on the periphery, the margins. But Jerusalem is not ready for Antioch! In fact, even when they go to Antioch, it's just to check on what's happening.

... I have come to the conclusion that the powerful, those at the center, must begin to realize that the future shape of things does not belong to them. The future shape of things is on the periphery. The future shape of things is not in Jerusalem, but outside. It is Nazareth. It is Antioch.

Can we begin to read those passages that trouble us, that don't reinforce our cultural centeredness? Let's go back to Matthew 25 and read it in the church in America, over and over. Who are Jesus' brothers? The weak, the hungry, the immigrant workers, the economic outcasts. Let's read the passage of this woman who pours ointment over Jesus. Let's ask, who is mostly in the company of Jesus? Not bishops and pastors! The bishops and pastors are the ones who suggest he's a lunatic! Who enjoys his company? The ordinary folk, so ordinary that their characterization is simply this: "sinners." Can we begin to point to those passages?

Yet this ability to read different passages, to read the Bible differently, won't happen until people are displaced from their comfort zones. I thank the Lord for deep friendships he has given to me beyond my comfort zone, beyond my culture, beyond my language. Until that happens, we will all be tribal, all of us.

... Whether in Africa or America, the Cross is not an easy place to be—it is the symbol of our faith, but we do not love the Cross. "Come down from the Cross" is the cry not just of the Jewish leaders; it's the cry even of us Christians. We want Christ to come down from the Cross. We don't like the Cross.

And the Cross is where God calls us -- out of tribalism, out of nationalism, out of the safety of our comfort zones. I think that shaking the dust from our feet is not ultimately about refusing to be in contact with those who reject us, but refusing to remain in familiar territory with the "devil we know" rather than risk moving out further to the margins and the unknown. As one of my favorite passages from one of my favorite short stories says, "there is no safety," out there or anywhere, but there is, as one of my favorite passages from one of my favorite stories puts it, "wildness and joy, there is love and life within the danger." The way of the Cross, of Jesus' radical vulnerability, is also the way of Life.

Thanks be to God!

July 14, 2006 in Inclusion, Jesus' Hard Sayings, Justice, Mark, Matthew, Nonviolence, The Cross, Year B | Permalink | Comments (1)

Proper 9, Year B

Once more, I've written the lectionary reflection for The Witness, and you can find it here:

"From 'Limited Good' to Unlimited Love"

July 5, 2006 in Honor/Shame, Inclusion, Mark, Miracle stories, Ordinary Time, Year B | Permalink | Comments (1)

Proper 8, Year B

Deuteronomy 15:7-11 - link to NRSV text
Psalm 112 - link to BCP text
2 Corinthians 8:1-9, 13-15 - link to NRSV text
Mark 5:22-24, 35b-43 - link to NRSV text

Anyone who's read this blog closely or long knows that I'm profoundly influenced by scholars who read the bible in light of what we know about the cultures that produced it in the ancient Mediterranean world, and that I highly recommend the one-volume paperback Social-Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels as a handy reference for preachers who want information at their fingertips about how things like honor and shame and ancient views of the body come into play in texts from Matthew, Mark, and Luke. As many years as I've spent with these texts and with much thicker tomes, I still refer to that one-volume Social-Science Commentary often because of the ways it jogs my memory. There was a passage on traditional folk healers and ancient doctors that particularly stood out to me today:

"Professional healers, physicians, preferred to talk about illnesses rather than treat them. Failed treatment could mean death for the physician ... Folk healers willing to use their hands and risk a failed treatment were more commonly available to peasants" (p. 211).

There's no question in my mind as to why that stood out for me today. I'm a good white liberal who's great at talking. Talking is pretty much how I make my living. I talk about war, about extreme poverty, about inequities in opportunity for education, health care, and employment, and even to basic necessities like clean water. I talk about racism and sexism and homophobia, and I try also to talk about harmful stereotypes of my conservative sisters and brothers. At my best, I talk eloquently and movingly. And at my worst, I act as though the job were done when I've spoken movingly and those listening have been moved.

It isn't. Not by a long shot. And I've been thinking a lot lately about discernment -- the spiritual discipline of trying to figure out what God's will for us might be for the moment and circumstances we're in -- in relationship to what biblical scholar Krister Stendahl aptly calls "the introspective conscience of the West."

We Westerners tend to spend a lot of time in our heads. This is not necessarily a bad thing. We are, after all, much more likely to act wisely if we can reflect thoughtfully on how what's going on inside us -- on how our family situations, other stresses we're under, and similar factors are influencing our sense of what's going on and what we want to do in response. But if we don't balance our thinking and our talking about what we're thinking with some honest-to-goodness action, we end up saying things like this:

"It really doesn't matter what you do about poverty, as long as you're doing something. It might be making sandwiches and giving them to people on the street. It might be inviting one person to dinner. The important thing is that your heart is in the right place."

I heard something very much like that at a workshop a few months ago on how Christians might respond to global poverty, and I found myself swallowing very hard and saying something like this:

I think it would matter a great deal if I were a mother whose child dying without clean water, decent food, and good medical care.

Furthermore, if God cares about that mother and that child -- and everything I read in scripture about who the god of Abraham and Sarah and the god Jesus proclaimed shouts to me that God most certainly does care about them -- then God also thinks it matters a great deal what specifically I do and don't do, wherever my heart is.

I think it matters to God whether we use the brain God has given us and the brains of everyone in the communities in which God has placed us to try to act wisely. If my interior disposition of generosity leads me to make sandwiches on Saturday morning to give to people who don't want or need them, then I have in effect just spent my Saturday morning using "my" wealth to make ME feel better. I have been acting as a physician unwilling to fail, and not as a healer willing to touch and try.

Perhaps a good test of discernment would be for us to ask ourselves less how the particular combination of action and inaction we're proposing (after all, we've only got one life and we can't do everything, so what we do is also going to involve NOT doing other things) does what Jesus did. Is it going to help one girl to get up and live a full, long life? How many hungry people will be fed, prisoners freed, debts remitted? Does it bring to life in the world Jesus' word that "the first will be last, and the last will be first"?

And so I have to say that the folks who designed our lectionary did a smashing job this week of choosing texts that illuminate the gospel.

Our reading from Deuteronomy couldn't be clearer. When Jesus said, "you will always have the poor with you," that the shrugging "so why bother trying to eliminate poverty?" that rich Christians often make it out to be; it was a reference to this passage. There will always be a mother and a child out there who will not live to see my generosity if I don't offer it in a way that will make a difference, so God says, "I command you therefore to open your hand to the poor and needy." Our Psalm takes it for granted that "righteousness" -- right relationship to others in the world -- will mean giving freely to the poor. And what St. Paul has to say to the churches in Corinth -- churches that definitely had more than their share of scandals around sexuality -- is worth quoting in full:

We want you to know, brothers and sisters, about the grace of God that has been granted to the churches of Macedonia; for during a severe ordeal of affliction, their abundant joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part. For, as I can testify, they voluntarily gave according to their means, and even beyond their means, begging us earnestly for the privilege of sharing in this ministry to the saints-- and this, not merely as we expected; they gave themselves first to the Lord and, by the will of God, to us, so that we might urge Titus that, as he had already made a beginning, so he should also complete this generous undertaking among you. Now as you excel in everything-- in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in utmost eagerness, and in our love for you-- so we want you to excel also in this generous undertaking.

I do not say this as a command, but I am testing the genuineness of your love against the earnestness of others. For you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich. I do not mean that there should be relief for others and pressure on you, but it is a question of a fair balance between your present abundance and their need, so that their abundance may be for your need, in order that there may be a fair balance. As it is written, "The one who had much did not have too much, and the one who had little did not have too little."

Whatever else is going on in the church, we must hold on to this, for our testimony to Jesus the healer has power only insofar as we use our power to do what he did, to live in a way that brings life to the world. It matters. It means the world to a world aching for that kind of life.

Thanks be to God!

July 1, 2006 | Permalink | Comments (2)


For what I think is the first time since I started this blog at the beginning of Advent in 2003, I completely forgot to post a lectionary blog entry this week. It's the daze I'm in following General Convention, I'm sure. I'm working on an entry for this week, and I apologize for the delay. In the meantime, my good friend Rick Morley has a reflection at the The Witness that might help.

July 1, 2006 in Administrivia | Permalink | Comments (0)