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First Sunday in Lent, Year C

Deuteronomy 26:1-11 - link to NRSV text
Psalm 91:1-2, 9-16 - link to BCP text
Romans 10:8b-13 - link to NRSV text
Luke 4:1-13 - link to NRSV text

Over Advent and Christmas in 2004/2005, I was working in a parish where I was on the regular rota of preachers. On this particular year, I preached on December 19 -- the last Sunday of Advent -- and then again on January 2, in the season of Christmas. Had you asked me a month ahead of time what the thematic shift between those two sermons were going to be like, I probably would have talked about Advent as a time of tension between experiencing the world's brokenness and injustice and the hope we stake our lives on as Christians, that Jesus is coming to make all things new, and will complete what he has begun. When the Christmas sermon came around, I imagined would have been talking about Incarnation and celebration. When the time came, I was, in a manner of speaking, but in the meantime something had happened.

There was a tsunami in Southeast Asia, a devastating one, on December 26. 230,000 or more people swept away. Family members were torn from another before their eyes as they desperately tried to hold on to one another. It was a dark twist on some familiar texts:

For as the days of Noah were ... before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage ... and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away ... Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left (Matthew 24:37-41).

Dark texts about dark days. Advent texts.

What had I said in Advent? I'd tried to communicate a healthy awareness of the darkness in our world, the darkness that texts like Matthew 24 spoke from and to.

I talked about how the world's darkness sometimes seems relentless and inexorable if not impenetrable. And I talked about Advent hope. The sermon was called "Dancing at the World's End"; its central image was of the Berlin Wall -- a symbol when I was growing up of the Cold War that we all thought would end in nuclear war and winter, the end of the world. I talked about the day people started tearing that wall down -- when I lived in Scotland, close enough to join my fellow students who were streaming to Berlin in droves to dance on the wall's ruins. I didn't go -- I had classes, after all, a job waiting on tables, no time off and little money. And I talked about how little all of those seemingly important obstacles were in light of the change that was happening, the history I could have witnessed firsthand, the joy I could have shared with all those who were there. I asked myself and those in the church on that day what we might do if we were going to live in Advent hope -- seeing in the darkness the signs that the world -- the whole world of big and banal evils, of suffering and despair and death -- was crumbling before our eyes. If the Berlin Wall coming down was a change worth my skipping class and letting the waitressing take care of itself (and I believe with all my heart it was), what is it worth, what would we leave behind and what would we take up, to be present to dance on the ruins of sin and death itself?

Advent hope. That Advent, I spoke of it primarily as an antidote to what we wealthy Westerners sometimes call "the grind," which can feel oppressive enough. Hope can feel bold in the midst of that.

And then, the second day of Christmas, the waters came. The images and the stories of the tsunami itself were devastating; the reminder of just how many quieter but more devastating floods hit the most vulnerable:

About every six months, a tsunami's worth of women dying in entirely preventable ways while giving birth, and another tsunami's worth of people dying of HIV/AIDS.

Every week, just short of a tsunami's worth of children under five dying of preventable or treatable diseases like malaria.

The list goes on. We've heard about these things before, and most of us have wept about them before. And of course, I'm talking about things I've talked about before. The best thing I could think of to do in the pulpit in that dark Christmas season was to reclaim a familiar carol as a protest song:

No more let sin and sorrow grow
or thorns infest the ground
he comes to make his mercies flow
far as the curse is found.

"Far as the Curse Is Found." That's what I called the sermon.

I'm sorry to spend so much time rehearsing the past, but it's present in my mind once more this week. Our world is still troubled by much of what troubled us as I sang from the pulpit a little over two years ago. And I have many, many friends whose hearts are breaking this week. There are all the things I read about in the papers, of course, and more. Mothers worried about their sons and daughters at war, or wounded by war. Friends worried about friends who are addicts hurting themselves and others. People of all sorts and conditions who held out hopes for the meeting of our Anglican Primates (archbishops and other heads of churches) that were dashed in ways that felt deeply personal.

A world of grief. A world of anger. A world of hurt.

Where's our happy ending? Didn't God promise a land, an inheritance, freedom from slavery and from fear that would be celebrated with feasting? What of the psalmist's song?

There shall no evil happen to you,
neither shall any plague come near your dwelling.
For God shall give his angels charge over you
to keep you in all your ways.

What of the scriptures St. Paul quoted to the churches in Rome, that "No one who believes in him shall be put to shame" and "Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved?" How can someone in real grief and real hurt open the bible and find anything helpful when real suffering comes on like a flood?

She can, I can, you can because the bible isn't that book that a lot of us heard about in Sunday School -- the one that says that we should be quiet, good, and cheerful in a world of smiling white guys who look a little like hippies patting the heads of fresh-faced children and snow-white cartoon sheep. It isn't a book that says that we should all be nice because everything is really OK. Read a book like Luke-Acts closely and you'll see a group of people grappling hard with hard questions, real oppression, serious pain.

Something stood out to me right away when I revisited the portion of Luke we'll be reading this Sunday, the first Sunday in Lent:

Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil.

Full of the Holy Spirit -- led by the Spirit -- tempted by the devil. These aren't phrases linked naturally for a lot of us, I think. For a lot of us, when we're in a desolate place, we're likely to ask what we did wrong. How could we be led by the Holy Spirit and be in a place like this?

The people who wrote and read Luke-Acts asked questions like this too, I think. Some had left not only their homes, but their spouse, sisters and brothers, parents, and children for the sake of God's kingdom, and they were often met with persecution for it. Journey with these people and you've got company in your pain. They know what's wrong with the world -- enough to say even that the glory and authority of the world's kingdoms have been given to the devil. They know that sometimes -- too often -- the kingdoms of this world reward what Jesus called evil (and by the way, I'm not talking about homosexuality).

All of that is very, very real to the Christians we walk alongside as we read Luke-Acts. When we follow Jesus, we walk with and behind sisters and brothers who have known pain and oppression.

And let's not gloss over that, because without seeing that, we can't take in the full impact of the Good News they share with us:

That Jesus the Christ, full of the Holy Spirit, came to confront all the powers of sin and death, everything that separates us from one another, from God, and from the joyful, peaceful, loving life for which God made us -- and Jesus won.

Jesus won on the Cross, and we're going to talk a lot about that in the days to come, but let's not skip ahead. We don't need to. On this first Sunday in Lent, Luke shares with us the Good News that Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, confronted the devil directly AND WON.

As Sue Garrett points out, the story of Jesus in the wilderness that we read this week is an early installment of the outcome her book's title points toward as a major theme in Luke's gospel: The Demise of the Devil. This isn't just the story of Jesus being tempted in the wilderness, in which Jesus doesn't give in and a stalemate is declared. It belongs in an extensive tradition of stories in which Satan's or the devil's retreat in the face of the godly hero's strength isn't a coffee break, but a defeat, as in The Testament of Job (27:2-6):

And as he [Satan] stood, he wept, saying, "Look, Job, I am weary and I withdraw from you, even though you are flesh and I a spirit. You suffer a plague, but I am in deep distress. I became like one athlete wrestling another, and one pinned the other. The upper one silenced the lower one ... because he showed endurance and did not grow weary, at the end the upper one cried out in defeat. So you also, Job ... conquered my wrestling tactics which I brought on you. Then Satan, ashamed, left me for three years.
(Garrett, p. 42)

The language of Luke's gospel this Sunday echoes that of such stories -- this isn't a stalemate, but a victory.

And yet it's not the final victory. We (well, maybe I should speak for myself alone, but this does seem at least to be an American "prosperity gospel" tendency at least) accustomed to thinking of victory of evil as preventing pain, or at least ending it. In this Sunday's gospel, victory over evil involves a willingness to endure pain in confronting the powers that oppress and divide us. It's the devil, not God, who promises safety and success. But it's God, working in Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, who wins. This is, in the end, God's world -- as it was in the beginning. God's light has shone in the darkness, and the darkness has never extinguished it.

We see and taste God's goodness and the wholeness for which God made Creation in countless small and breathtaking ways -- in sunrises and laughter, in an embrace or a shared tear, and even in chocolate (which I'm convinced is the single most underutilized argument for the existence of a gracious Creator). But chiefly we see it in the life and ministry among us of Jesus the Christ, who knew pain and desolation and betrayal as well as laughter and peace and love. Luke in particular promises glimpses of Jesus' final victory over the very real destructive forces at work in the world -- not just fleetingly and rare, but as regular nourishment for the journey.

If we are to start this journey with Jesus, or to enter more deeply and intentionally into it, or to better notice, know, and learn from our companions on that journey, I can think of no better time than this Lent. If your heart is breaking, so is mine; walk with me, and our stories and prayers will sustain us. If you're laughing, so do I; let's share it, and lighten the way. Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, was led into desolation and victory, and is company for us both in the full complexity of the winding path we're on together toward healing and reconciliation.

Thanks be to God!

February 23, 2007 in Advent, Apocalyptic, Current Events, Deuteronomy, Eschatology, Luke, ONE campaign/Millennium Development Goals, Pastoral Concerns, Psalms, Romans, Scripture, Temptation, Year C | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Last Sunday after the Epiphany, Year C

Dear All,

While you're waiting for something new for me on the readings for this Sunday (I have to apologize, but immediate practical concerns have gotten in the way of my posting thus far), I hope these previous entries on gospel stories of Jesus' transfiguration (and I always end up saying more about Luke -- it's my favorite gospel, after all) will prove helpful.

Thanks for your patience, folks.



[Update 02-17-07: I apologize -- life got in the way, and I just didn't have it in me to come up with an entirely new creation this week, despite that Luke's version is my favorite of the stories of Jesus' transfiguration. I hope that my prior reflections on it were helpful, and I promise I'll be back with renewed energy next week. Thanks for your patience.]

February 15, 2007 in Administrivia, Luke, Transfiguration | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany, Year C

Luke 6:17-26 - link to NRSV text

If you haven't seen this sermon of mine on Matthew's version of the Beatitudes, please do. (This sermon of mine on Luke's version is far weaker, I'm sorry to say, but may still be helpful -- especially when supplemented by this lectionary blog entry on Luke's "Parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man," which I connect directly to Luke's Beatitudes and woes.)

I'm not going to soft-pedal: these are hard readings we've got this Sunday -- at least for people like me.

By "people like me," I mean the comfortable, the privileged, those who are among the richest people in the world.

And I am among the richest people in the world. I doubt that I'll be appearing on any television profiles to that effect, but it's true. If you make an annual income of $47,500, you are in the top 1% of wage earners worldwide. I'm not in that number, but even though I'm employed only part-time as a consultant while being a seminary student (with all the expenses that entails), I'm comfortably within the top 10% of the wealthiest in the world. If you're curious about where you fall, go to the Global Rich List to find out.

So yes, I'm among the world's richest people, and for that reason, when I read, "Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God ... But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation," that's enough to give me pause. I want to experience God's blessings. I've known enough of what that's like to know that God's blessings are far richer and bring far more joy, peace, love, and other qualities I value than any amount of wealth can. And like just about any churchgoer of the wealthy West who hasn't been anesthetized completely against the power of these words, I bristle when I hear Jesus saying them. So what news in this passage is Good News for me?

For starters, God's Good News for the poor is good news for me if I am aligned with the poor. And who are the poor? Let's not fall into that common trap of allegorizing biblical texts into easily swallowed but flavorless mush and say that "the poor" are people with a certain attitude -- say, people who acknowledge (at the very least in church on Sunday) that they need God, or that all good things on earth are God's gifts. That's not what the word means.

The word is ptochoi -- not just "people who are poor," or "those who are poorer than average," but "people who are destitute" -- those who don't have a home, basic shelter, clean water, basic nourishment. As I've preached about before, a lot of those who chose to follow Jesus in the first century ended up in that position specifically because of their decision to be Jesus' disciple. What Jesus taught -- about who your family is (hint: it's not "people whom I marry or are related to genetically and/or legally"; Jesus is not big on those kinds of "family values"), about responsibility (i.e., he called upon women and men alike to make decisions not only about whether to follow him, but about a whole complex of related decisions -- and he never suggested that they needed anyone's permission, let alone the family patriarch's, to decide or act), about most of the things that order-loving and family-oriented Romans and most of the other cultures the Romans dominated around the Mediterranean basin had in common. Parents, husbands, even adult children were sometimes disgusted and publicly shamed by the decisions of their Christ-following relations, who were now associating freely with women and men, slaves and free persons, rich and poor, clean and unclean, respectable and shameless. And in many cases, these humiliated relatives would throw the Christian out, leaving her or him with no livelihood, no family, no way to survive apart from Christian community or the charity of passers-by.

And yet, Jesus and Jesus' followers are bold or crazy enough to proclaim Jesus' counter-cultural invitation as Good News. That made little sense to most people in the first century -- and I dare say that Jesus' invitation may be just as counter-intuitive and is certainly as counter-cultural now.

If I'm on the Global Rich List -- and especially if I'm someone, well, like me, who's among the wealthiest on a global scale but hardly what the most successful in the U.S. would call financially secure -- why would I want to broaden the scope of my concern beyond me and my family, or, if I'm particularly generous, my community?

Please do look at what I've said before on this, because I believe more than ever that it's true:

The short answer to the question of why I should want to align myself with God's poor, even if it costs me personally, is because God, having made us human beings, really knows what we need -- what will give us joy, peace, love, and all of those things that politicians tell us we'll get if we support them, marketers tell us we can have if we buy the right products, magazines tell us we could experience if only we knew the Ten Secrets To Pleasing Her/Him or that one dieting tip that will give us a body that someone could want and love. God knows that we need more than a plasma television, a sizable nest egg, a set of six-pack abs, some icon of success or respectability.

God knows that we need a new Creation, and we need to be a part of it.

And the Good News -- the news so astonishingly good that we're often more likely to believe the politicians than the Savior who proclaimed the Good News -- is that what we need, the wholeness we ache for for ourselves and the wholeness we find in a world working actively and experiencing with increasing fullness the reconciliation that is God's mission in the world -- is being realized now.

Hebrew and Christian prophets have said as much in holy writ, but for those of us more inclined to believe what today's experts say, there's some real and hard evidence for it.

The ptochoi -- those who are destitute, without shelter, good water and good food, a means to make a living -- could have enough to get by as soon as the year 2015. It won't take a miracle; it will take enough of us with power and resources, enough of us from the Global Rich List partnering with and listening to wise activists among the poor, managing to get just 0.7% of the wealthiest nations' GNP targeted to aid those whom Jesus called "blessed" or "honored."

Have you ever tasted, seen, and felt what it's like to be among those whom Jesus honors? Honestly, I think I've only got the faintest of it, and even that is enough to convince me that following Jesus, being part of a community and a movement treating one another as God treats us, is more rewarding than any other path.

Think you're winning the rat race? If so, you've probably experienced what comedian Lily Tomlin so aptly observed: that winning the rat race just means you're a fast rat. We weren't made to be rats. We weren't made to compete for a single or rare prize of real love or "the good life," and I say so for at least two reasons: we're not rats, and there's not a limited prize. As I wrote about last week, those whose lives have shifted from being centered around the question of "can I get enough of the good stuff?" to "how can I gather enough people to take in all this good stuff God is providing," may pay a price in worldly terms for that shift, but they will gain something far better:

Freedom from anxiety.
Freedom from human lords.
Freedom to take in God's love.
Freedom to love others in community.
And the opportunity to participate as God's Good News is made real in the world.

Thanks be to God!

February 9, 2007 in Epiphany, Eschatology, Jesus' Hard Sayings, Justice, Luke, ONE campaign/Millennium Development Goals, Year C | Permalink | Comments (1)

email administrivia

Dear All,

Email frustrations in our household reached a peak last week. We just plan weren't getting some emails (with the omissions according to no discernible pattern), I was having a huge problem with spam-generated backscatter emails because of my former work with The Witness magazine, and we were sick of having to go through all kinds of contortions when we needed to send email while traveling or on a network other than our one at home. Gmail was a help, but not enough of one for us.

So we've finally upgraded our email to a provider who does nothing but email. $50/year for two email boxes to collect email from an unlimited number of addresses we specify, so the service works for all of the Internet domains we're juggling in this household. And as of this moment, it all seems to be working seamlessly.

All that's to say that if you have sent me email recently that you suspect may have dropped into whatever Mariana Trench in cyberspace into which some of our email was falling, please feel free to send it again, and please be patient with me if any kinks do pop up in the new system over the next couple of days.

Thanks -- and blessings!


February 6, 2007 in Administrivia | Permalink | Comments (0)

Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany, Year C

Isaiah 6:1-8, [9-13] - link to NRSV text
Luke 5:1-11 - link to NRSV text

I hope you'll pardon me if I start with a shameless plug, as the gospel passage for this Sunday and my reading of it play a substantial role in the Connect course I wrote with John de Beer, one of the founders of the Education for Ministry (EFM) program.

Connect is a six-week exploration of what it can mean to connect to a Eucharistic community. It takes place in small groups that invite participants to gather over a dinner to reflect on and share their own stories, and to explore what it might mean to see those stories in context of the larger story of God's love and redemption of the world. The experience of gathering, breaking bread, inviting, experiencing, and acknowledging God's presence among the gathered community, and exploring what God's call might be to each of us is in itself a sacramental experience that helps unchurched participants, should they decide to join the congregation for worship, understand and have made personal connection with the liturgy of the Eucharist.

One of the most interesting things about Connect for me is that we have released it on an "open source" basis. You don't have to pay anything at all to download it or use it; you do, however, commit to sharing any adaptations or modifications you make to it on the same basis as Connect itself is distributed. The practical advantages of "open source" development and distribution are clear from what they've done for programs like the Firefox web browser, which can offer extensive support from others who use the product and innumerable "plug-ins" and translations that make it more stable and more useful to more people. That's my hope for distributing Connect on an "open source" basis -- and I hope it will inspire others developing resources to do the same.

I also have a theological reason for this approach to Connect's "open source" way. The dinners in Connect are designed to give people an experience of what they're hearing about in Jesus' ministry. They are welcomed to a community that understands that they have gifts to offer the community, including their story, and that encourages them to offer their gifts. They experience a small taste of what it's like to be in a community that lives as one Body and shares with one another as freely and graciously as God is with us. And I think those messages are also underscored by Connect being "open source." As developers of the course, we're sharing what wisdom we've got, but we assume that you all have gifts that could make it much better, and appropriate for use in far more communities. Because Connect is "open source," those who have expressed interest in versions for university campuses, Native American communities, Australian cultural settings, and numerous other communities have been free -- applauded, even -- for taking the Connect materials, modifying them appropriately, and letting us know what you've done and how it worked.

In short, rather than seeing evangelism and Christian formation as a "pie" of a market with all of us competing for slices, we've started, continued in, and pray to finish faithful to a central point in Jesus' teaching and ministry:

God's love and grace are so abundant as to be inexhaustible, and the more we enter into that, the more we joyfully seek to extend that kind of grace to others, and with all of God's good gifts. I'm not talking about feeling 'guilted' into generosity toward others, about being generous so God will notice and finally give us love and approval we've found to be too rare in our lives, or about trying to earn some kind of generosity medal that will help us get some other limited and valuable commodity, like others' respect.

I'm talking about a personal transformation that can transform the world: I'm talking about LIVING with a deep sense that there is more than enough of "the good stuff" -- the things our truest selves, the people we were made to be in Christ, want, need, and enjoy. I'm talking about an end to the constant, creeping anxiety I've seen so much pastorally in communities -- especially the wealthiest and most powerful communities (so many of which are filled with wealthy people so overextended financially to afford those grand homes in the neighborhoods with the good schools that they are a single paycheck from bankruptcy) -- as we worry about whether we have or can accumulate enough to shield ourselves and our loved ones from illness, danger, and deprivation. I'm talking about the kind of emotional freedom and deep peace that comes when we no longer feel the need to worry about whether we can get enough love, peace, or approval. I'm not talking about what Bonhoeffer called "cheap grace"; I know the cost of discipleship can be steep in worldly terms. It's more than worth it, though -- not only because the shallow "peace" and "freedom" we get from accumulating resources and respectability for ourselves isn't nearly what it's cracked up to be, but also and more importantly because the abundance of real joy, peace, and love we can find following Jesus really can give us the true, eternal, and abundant life for which we thirst, and can let us start living into it now.

What I'm talking about it illustrated very well in this Sunday's gospel.

As Jesus comes across the fishers on the lake of Gennesaret, it's not hard to see how they could have concerns weighing profoundly on them. These are poor fishers. Every day as they go to their boats, they have to be wondering to themselves, "Will I catch enough fish today?" They have families to feed, and on top of that they have to get access to and repair the boats, get and maintain the nets. Fishing rights on the lake could cost them nearly half of a catch, and they were often paid far less than their catch was worth besides. Life was precarious at best, and it wasn't always at its best. One storm, one rotten stroke of luck could spell disaster.

So every day, a nagging worry: "Will we catch enough fish today to survive?"

And then Jesus calls them. They respond, and let down their nets once more. And in an instant, the central question in their life changes.

They have caught such abundance that they can't spare a moment to ask the now-ridiculous question of "Will we catch enough fish for my family to survive?" -- the far more urgent question is "Can we gather enough people to take in this abundance such that it doesn't swamp the boat?" Their lives are forever changed; as Jesus says, "from now on, you will be catching people."

What would it mean for us to hear Jesus' call to a similar transformation? I'd like to dream aloud about that a bit.

What would my life look like if I always looked with joy upon others' accomplishments, and without the slightest niggling doubt of whether they mean that others will grab limited slots for (you name it -- ordination, employment, perception of "hipness")?

What would my household budget look like if it was guided more by a concern for others' immediate needs to sustain life than by a worry of what would happen to me if my car broke down, I got sick with something that would leave me with bills I couldn't pay, or I didn't have money for tuition?

What would church politics look like if the basis for our every plan was the certain knowledge that God is providing what we need for our participation in God's mission, and therefore there is no need to grasp at what others have? If we believed and lived the conviction that God's grace and love are such that we don't have to choose any population to shut out or shout down, and can afford to "strive to outdo one another in showing honor," as St. Paul writes in Romans 12:10? What if we took energy spent on competing for shares of budgets and used it to foster generosity to increase them?

What would the world look like if those of us who seek to follow Jesus let him transform our lives around the central question, "How will we gather enough people to share God's abundance?"

Among other things, I suspect that the Millennium Development Goals would then seem less like an audacious vision we hope to achieve IF (and only if) everything goes smoothly and no other needs arise, and more like a helpful, albeit modest, first step. Fully funding them would be a given -- we NEED all of these people, all of these children of God, to take in the abundance God gives! We can't afford to lose a single one to what U2's singer Bono calls "stupid poverty" -- this poverty that we can eliminate with resources we've got. And there is no one too conservative or too progressive or too anything else to justify ignoring or slighting their gifts. I have faith that God has given each and every one of us something else in immeasurable, overflowing abundance, and that's compassion.

That might sound hard to believe at first. Steve Cook has done an outstanding job in his post this week on Isaiah 6 sketching some of the ways in which we can choose a path that desensitizes us to both the pain and the gifts of those around us in a way that can become a vicious circle (as U2 puts it, "You become a monster / so the monster will not break you"). Each one of us has the capacity to experience God's compassion for us, and when we do, we will find it an urgent need every day to find others to help take it in and extend it to others in turn.

Thanks be to God!

[And if you're curious about Connect, you can get more information on it and on the other two parts of the Klesis (from the Greek word for "call") program to which it belongs and can download Connect for free here.]

February 2, 2007 in Call Narratives, Conversion, Discipleship, Evangelism, Isaiah, Luke, Miracle stories, ONE campaign/Millennium Development Goals, Romans, Year C | Permalink | Comments (5)