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Palm Sunday, Year C

The Liturgy of the Palms
Luke 19:28-40

Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29

The Liturgy of the Word
Isaiah 50:4-9a

Psalm 31:9-16

Philippians 2:5-11

Luke 22:14-23:56 or Luke 23:1-49

Anyone who's played enough with children of a certain age knows that human beings are deeply inculcated with a sense of how "it's supposed (usually pronounced 'spozed') to be." Fair is fair. Actions have consequences. We figure out how it's 'spozed to be' and, I think, mostly try to run our lives by it -- sometimes even when it's to our disadvantage to do so. We try to get what we feel we deserve (and feeling remarkable liberty to bend rules or disregard others' feelings or welfare when these things are in the way); we also engage in self-sabotage when we don't feel deserving of something that might otherwise come our way. The latter in particular is a puzzling phenomenon, but my hunch is that what's often responsible for it is fear of the unknown. If things are the way they're 'spozed to be,' at least they're predictable. When things and manners in which we are different -- even if they're better in some pretty clear ways -- they often provoke vehement resistance. We may not like the way things are, but in any case we don't like being disoriented.

This Sunday, we enter Holy Week, which I think could rightly be called the most disorienting time of the year. We start with at least several sets of strongly held belief as to how things are 'spozed to be.'

Crowds of pilgrims celebrating the Passover -- the feast of God's liberating God's people from foreign masters -- are convinced that God is supposed to liberate Israel from the oppressive rule of Rome. By conventional reckonings, Rome would be difficult to overthrow, but God's people have always found their victory in their god's might, not in the might of armies.

The Roman rulers have their own ideas of how it's supposed to be. If they rule, then their gods must be mightier than the gods of the conquered -- or perhaps the gods of the conquered have actually switched their allegiance to Rome (no doubt part of the emperor's agenda in having a bull sacrificed daily on his behalf at the Temple in Jerusalem to the God of Israel). And once it's been established who's in charge, how it's supposed to be is that the conquered render taxes and tribute and support the social order as it is -- the peace of Rome made sure by the rule of Rome.

Some of Jesus' disciples were developing ideas of how it was supposed to be too. Jesus spoke often enough of God bringing a decisive change, of God's kingdom breaking through the way things are. Jesus' actions said the same thing, perhaps even more insistently -- "if by the finger of God that I cast out demons," Jesus said, "then the kingdom of God is among you" (Luke 11:20). Jesus' words and behavior also must have suggested to his followers that he anticipated a decisive moment in Jerusalem. Would this be when Jesus would finally stop the ambiguous parables, the invitations to dinner, and the talk about cheek-turning and praying for persecutors, and would he finally take charge in the way some expected from a person as powerful as he? Would this be when Jesus stepped up to lead Israel such that the nation would no longer be the suffering servant described in Isaiah 50, hoping for vindication but subjected to humiliation, and would instead confront and humiliate Israel's adversaries?

Jesus does act decisively on what we call Palm Sunday, but not in the way expected. Indeed, if anything, Jesus' behavior satirizes expectations for a conquering general or lord. He rides into Jerusalem not on an impressively outfitted white charger, but on a hastily borrowed colt. He wears no gleaming armor -- just traveling robes. He leads no great army, no defeated captives, no chests with spoils of war; he leads only his motley assortment of followers -- women and beggars and slaves as well as Pharisees and respected citizens. It's a grand send-up of an imperial parade, and despite the warnings of some Pharisees who know that Pontius Pilate is not known for his enjoyment of political humor at his expense, the crowd joins in.

He'll be breaking more rules as this decisive week progresses. Luke has Jesus' send-up of a Roman triumphal procession go directly to the Temple, where he engages in an all-too-serious demonstration against the elite Temple hierarchy, calling them "robbers." Small wonder that Jesus loses a lot of supporters from the crowd after that; most have come to Jerusalem to participate in the very sacrifices that Jesus would prevent by driving the money-changers and the dove-sellers out of the Temple (and if you haven't read any of my prior explanations of this, please see this one -- it is NOT true that these merchants were doing business in an inappropriate part of the Temple where they would disrupt anyone's worship, and there is no evidence at all in the text of any of the canonical gospels' telling of this story to suggest that the rates charged were exorbitant or even unreasonable).

But if we know Jesus at all, we know that he did not come to reassure people for whom the status quo worked perfectly well that they had nothing to fear as long as they continued to follow the rules.

Jesus' way involves something that religious people looking on an individual level call 'conversion,' and that rulers looking at their subjects call 'revolution.' Jesus' way calls on women and slaves and sons -- people whose will would normally, according to the rules, be subject to that of the family patriarch -- to make decisions for themselves: Should I marry, and if so, whom should I marry? No mention is made in any New Testament text that women or men need consider binding -- or consider at all -- the arranged betrothals that would have already been made customarily by family patriarchs. Should I remain to care for my parents and see that they get an honorable burial, or should I leave the village to follow Jesus? Just asking the question would be shocking in the first-century Mediterranean world (not to mention much of the world today!), and remembering that Jesus called upon people to ask it offers a ready explanation as to how Jesus might receive the opposition, persecution, and death he got.

That is especially true because Jesus' way asks even harder things of those in power, the family patriarchs and the social elite. It asks not just to be wiling to laugh at our society's ways of displaying wealth, status, and power, as Jesus did in his spoof of a triumphal parade; it asks them -- it asks us who are among the privileged -- to emulate his example as laid out in the early Christian hymn Paul quoted in Philippians 2. It exhorts us to use power not just to our own advantage or to their own family's, but to empower others. If all of us who call ourselves Jesus followers took this seriously, the Millennium Development Goals would be a warm-up act -- much as Jesus' overturning expectations as he entered Jerusalem and literally turning the tables on the Temple elites was a foretaste of an even more decisive display of God's power later in the week. Stay alert. What happens this week changes the world, and the most surprising reversal of all is on its way.

Thanks be to God!

March 28, 2007 in Holy Week, Luke, ONE campaign/Millennium Development Goals, Year C | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

heads-up: Palm Sunday, Easter 2, and Easter 3

Dear All,

I plan to post my Palm Sunday blog tomorrow (Wednesday) and my Maundy Thursday blog the day after tomorrow (Thursday).

I'd like to give y'all an early heads-up for the second and third Sundays of Easter, though (April 15 and 22). I've written reflections for those Sundays, and they're published in the April 3 print issue of the Christian Century -- a magazine I've long been a fan of, and am honored to contribute to. Not all of the content from their print magazine is published on their website; while you can see previous years' lectionary reflections online, the current year's can be found only in print. So please do subscribe or pick up a newsstand copy of the Christian Century, and if you want to see something from me online on the Easter 2 and Easter 3 texts, don't forget about my previous blog entries and sermons dealing with them:

"Touching the Wounded Body of Christ in the World" (a Year A sermon on the same gospel passage)
Second Sunday of Easter, Year C (a lectionary blog entry from 2004)
Day of Pentecost, Year B (a lectionary blog entry dealing in part with John 20:19-23)
Christ the King, Year B (a lectionary blog entry dealing in part with Revelation 1:1-8)

I hope these are helpful -- and that you find the Christian Century pieces helpful as well.

March 27, 2007 in Administrivia, Easter | Permalink | Comments (1)

what do y'all need for Holy Week?

Dear All,

At this point, for Holy Week I plan to blog for Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Sunday, as I have in previous years. What do y'all need? Will that do? Based on what you've seen from me in Holy Week of previous years, do you have any requests, or anything you want to say?



March 25, 2007 in Administrivia | Permalink | Comments (2)

Fifth Sunday in Lent, Year C

Isaiah 43:16-21 - link to NRSV text

Philippians 3:4b-14 - link to NRSV text

John 12:1-8 - link to NRSV text

I hope you'll indulge me -- I'm going to start with something of an aside this week, as there's something in the epistle reading from Philippians 3 that I very much want to underscore. Its very first sentence points out two things about St. Paul that are often ignored or misunderstood.

First, it's that Paul, like a significant number of early Christians (such as the Pharisaic Christian contingent at the "council of Jerusalem" in Acts 15), identifies as a Pharisee as well as a follower of Jesus; the only point in his catalog of identities in Philippians 3:4 that no longer applies is "persecutor of the church." In other words, Luke's portrayal in Acts 23:6 of Paul, long after his experience on the road to Damascus, saying in the present tense, "I am a Pharisee, a son of Pharisees" is realistic. Regular readers know (as the archives of this blog on the subject demonstrate) that I feel strongly that Christians should avoid presenting the Pharisees as stock villains and using the word "Pharisee" as a synonym for "hypocrite" or "sanctimonious jerk." It's language that comes across as antisemitic, and furthermore, it's language that distorts the historical record and even the sometimes complicated ways Pharisees and Pharisaism are portrayed in the New Testament. As far as we can tell, Paul identified as a Pharisee to his dying day, so at least in his view, there's nothing about being a Pharisee that's in necessary conflict with following Jesus.

Second, it's worth noting that Paul specifically says that "as to righteousness under the Law" he was "blameless." In other words, Paul does NOT think that humankind needs Jesus because human beings can't manage to observe the Law and therefore can't have righteousness without having Jesus' righteousness imputed to them. Paul says right here in Philippians that he was righteous under the Law; clearly he thought that people COULD observe it. I have little doubt that Paul could assess his Torah observance in this way in part because he, like any other Pharisee, knew that the Law made provision for impurities to be cleansed, transgressions forgiven, and therefore righteousness under the Law restored. As myriad texts (e.g., Psalm 103) in the Hebrew bible demonstrate, the God of Israel has always offered people forgiveness. This whole stereotype of Judaism as proclaiming a God who, prior to the Incarnation, was impossible to please and whose presence could not be experienced by human beings is, to borrow Paul's word in Philippians 3:8, skubalon -- which, by the way, the Liddell-Scott Greek lexicon translates as "dung" or "excrement," though the NRSV renders it more in a more genteel fashion as "rubbish."

Thanks for letting me get that off my chest. I'd like to say more about Paul's view of the Law and why he thinks we need Jesus, and you can find more of my thoughts about that elsewhere in the lectionary blog, but I've already stretched the definition of "aside"; it's time to get to what I actually plan to preach on this week.

This Sunday's gospel story seems to be based on an earlier story -- one of my favorites in the New Testament -- that appears first in written form in the Gospel According to Mark, 14:1-11. Two days before the Passover, in the last week of Jesus' life, Jesus' followers are sharing a meal. The men among the Twelve, and especially Peter, have been fairly consistently portrayed as misunderstanding who Jesus is and potentially even standing in the way of what Jesus came to do. But two days before the Passover at dinner, a woman -- a prophet -- shows that she understands Jesus as the male disciples haven't. She anoints Jesus' head, dramatically proclaiming Jesus to be the one anointed by God (in other words, the christ or messiah), and in a context that makes clear that she has anointed Jesus also for the way of the Cross he has proclaimed. And Jesus commends her prophetic action in glowing terms, saying that wherever the Good News is proclaimed, this woman's story will be told in memory of her.

Ironically, while we know the names of others -- even the name of the host of this dinner party in Mark 14 -- the name of the woman is lost to us. So much for Jesus' disciples keeping her memory. Luke (in chapter 7) makes the woman an anonymous "sinner." John 12 gives her a name, at least -- Mary, sister to Martha and Lazarus -- but like Luke, John has her anointing Jesus' feet, not his head, turning an act of prophesy into an act solely of personal and emotional devotion -- even an act that could be seen as competing with and undermining ministry to the poor.

But is that really what's going on? I have my doubts.

I think it's worth remembering that, as Malina and Rohrbaugh point out, hands and feet were seen in the ancient Mediterranean world as representing action -- action with intentionality. While Mark has the woman anointing Jesus' person, and by extension his actions, in John's story the woman is declaring Jesus' actions, Jesus' mission in the world, as anointed by God, and by extension his person.

These differences give the stories different emphases. And if you'll indulge me in another aside (this one brief, I promise), it reminds me of why it's so important not to try to harmonize the differences we hear in the the gospels -- or to try to impose uniformity in Christian community. We need those different voices, those different emphases, even or especially when they seem to be in tension with one another.

We need them if we're going to do what Mary does in this Sunday's gospel: identify and bless Jesus' intentional action, what God is doing in the world -- also known as God's mission.

I'll put it this way, with a confession: I suspect that nine times out of ten, when God is saying to me, "I am about to do a new thing; / now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?" my response is something like this:

"You have reached the internal answering machine of Sarah Dylan Breuer. I'm out doing all of the things I think are God's will, the things I think I need to do to make a living, and the things I just plain want to do, but have managed to rationalize as being totally necessary. Please leave your name at the tone, so I know whether you're among those from whom I expect spiritual counsel, and assuming you're on the list, I'll get back to you when ... well, I might get back to you."

What would it look like if I lived more deeply into the kind of prophetic witness we see in this week's texts? How might our lives be different in our households, our worshipping communities, our world if, instead of asking God to bless our activity, we, like Mary, were looking for the ways in which God is acting in the world and looking for ways we could bless and support God's action?

I feel blessed to have joined one of the most mission-minded parishes I've ever seen. There are so many people here giving so much of themselves and using so many of their spiritual gifts to advance God's mission. And one thing that could enhance our ability to identify God's activity in the world and bless it would be more opportunity for us to listen to one another, to hear one another's stories. I'm not just talking about stories of how we serve in and through the church. We should indeed be celebrating, thanking, supporting, and blessing one another in our ministries in church, but it's worth remembering that most of us spend the vast majority of our time in other places, and that time in other places can be ministry in the service of God's mission just as surely -- perhaps even more surely -- than time spent in this building.

If we believe that God is at work in the world, after all -- if we want to anoint Jesus' feet, his action out there -- then we need to be looking for evidence of Jesus' work in the world; we need to see the world and people's work in it through the lens of Jesus' ministry, in the context of salvation history, the story of God's creating the world and drawing it to God's self.

That means we need to be in touch both with that story of God's making and loving the world and with the stories of human beings in the world experiencing God's redemption and the historical and personal wounds in need of God's healing.

Those who know me well will not be surprised to hear me say that I think one of the very best ways to be in touch with the world's very reason for being -- with the love of God that created the world and is bringing it toward the peace, justice, and love for which it aches -- is to spend some serious calories in close reading of the scriptures. It's very hard to discern what Jesus is up to in the world today if one doesn't know, and very well, what Jesus was up to in Galilee and Judea, and in the lives and communities of early saints such as Paul and the writers of the gospels. It's hard to understand what Jesus was up to in the past if one doesn't immerse oneself in the Torah and the prophets that formed Jesus' own view of who God is and what engaging God's mission would look like.

And of course, one can't know what Jesus is up to in the world today if one doesn't know what's going on in the world today. I thank God for some of the tools I use, such as the Global Voices website, which compiles and translates web logs from all over the world that allow you and me to hear from ordinary people -- anonymous Gay Christians in Uganda, teenagers in Iraq, and countless others. But even these technological marvels are nothing compared to the resource we have in one another, in our congregations and in the larger Body of Christ. Tell me what your wildest dreams for the world are and the moments in which you catch glimpses of it at work, on the bus, with your children (or even your parents!), and I'll know that much more about where Jesus' feet fall around the world. When we share our stories -- and particularly when we come together as God's people to enter into the biblical story and ponder how our own stories might be told in the context of that great, wonderful tale -- we can see the paths that Jesus is wending through our world to bring redemption, and we have opportunity in encouraging and supporting one another's growth and ministry to bless and anoint the very feet of the Son of God.

It's hard to say what might be inspired by that process of being in touch with the world's wounds, with God's work of bringing the world to wholeness, and with the great and small wonders present in the gifts and vocations of each one of us. I wonder what might happen if those of us living in families not only ate dinner together, but asked one another questions that go beyond "How was your day?" to "What makes you angry about what's going on in the world? What inspires you? What's God doing, in the world and in you?" Parents, if you're lacking in inspiration to ask those questions, I encourage you to ask your kids, who know and care about a great deal of God's mission, and can often talk about it far more articulately than you or I can. Kids and students, try asking your parents about things like this. It might seem weird at first, but you might find conversations like this bringing out amazing ways in which God is calling you, and surprising support in living into that call -- not just in some distant year when you've got your degrees and have checked off all of the right boxes, but now.

And what, I wonder, would it do to coffee hour if we were asking one another, "So, what do you see going on in the world? What's God up to?," or even, "How has God been working in your life lately?" Among other things, we might find that we had far more to talk about that coffee hour would allow.

That's the danger of this sort of enterprise: Enter into scripture's stories of God's loving and redeeming the world, and you just might find yourself hungry for more. Enter into the stories of your neighbors and their experience of God's love and redemption, and you might catch a glimpse of something that will change your life. Look for and bless what Jesus is doing in the world, and as surely as Jesus is Lord of history, you will see the world healing, growing, and changing.

Thanks be to God!

March 24, 2007 in Discernment, Forgiveness, Isaiah, John, Justice, Lent, ONE campaign/Millennium Development Goals, Pharisees, Philippians, Prophets, Righteousness, Women, Year C | Permalink | Comments (1)

Fourth Sunday in Lent, Year C

[Sorry about the delays this week, folks -- my computer's overworked power supply wore out, but Apple came to the rescue -- and I hope in time to be of some help to y'all! --Dylan]

1 Corinthians 5:16-21 - link to NRSV text
Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32 - link to NRSV text

Jesus' parables nearly always hinge on a surprising reversal of some kind, and a good rule of thumb when reading them is that if you haven't found anything that's very surprising and challenging, read it again.

Jesus' parable of "The Lost Son" starts with several, and then keeps going. The younger of two sons asks his father to divide the family's property and give him now the share of it that would be his inheritance when the father died.

This is one of those scenes that remind me of a regular feature in the Highlights children's magazines that were ubiquitous in dentist's offices when I was growing up. The feature was "What's Wrong With This Picture?," and it consisted of a line drawing of a cheerful scene, inviting the reader to circle everything wrong or odd in the picture. "What's Wrong With This Picture?" The birds are flying upside-down, the tricycle has one wheel that's square and another that's triangular, the spider has twelve legs, the fishing pole has no line, and the fish are happily playing cards on a tree branch! The feature might have been more challenging if the object were to circle what was right with the picture, because it always seemed that practically nothing was.

There's so much that's wrong at the beginning of the story of the Lost Son that it's hard to point to anything that's right, expected, or normal:

The son asks the father to divide the family farm. Such a division would diminish the family's fortunes. Although this family seems to be doing reasonably well at the moment, anyone whose livelihood depends on agriculture can find their fortunes changing dramatically with the weather or other factors, and this family doesn't seem to be among the most prosperous, who lived in luxury in the cities while stewards managed tenant farmers and slaves who did the work. Doing what the younger son asks is a substantial and entirely unwarranted risk for the whole family.

Perhaps even more importantly, the younger son's request diminishes the whole family's honor. There's hardly any such thing as a secret in village life, and a dishonorable son shames not only himself, but his father, and by extension the entire family name. And by asking for his inheritance now, the younger son has, in effect and in full view of the village, said to his father, "I wish you were dead, so please make it as much as possible like what it would be if I'd buried you."

Stories about two sons, one good and one treacherous, aren't uncommon. The beginning of our gospel story makes it clear as day that the younger one could never be the good one. And in view of how shocking the son's behavior is, his father's behavior in granting the request might be even more surprising.

So the younger son goes off to a distant land, lives in shameful ways among Gentile foreigners and their pigs, and loses everything he has -- which is, we should remember, a substantial portion of the family's resources. And then he decides to go home.

This is also a surprising decision on the young man's part. After the way he has treated his father and family, he has no ground on which he might expect a gracious reception. Heck, he'd be lucky if he made if he made it back to his father's house, since the moment he was within sight of the village, he'd be very likely to be attacked by any who saw him. He has not only shamed his family, but the whole village, where every father must have wondered anxiously whether his behavior would give their sons rebellious, shameful, and disruptive ideas. Even if his own father isn't rushing to pick up the first stone, this young man is in real danger from the whole village. But surprisingly, he decides to go back anyway.

And surprisingly, his father must have been looking for him, for he catches glimpse of his son on the horizon. And then the father, shamed so profoundly by his younger son's behavior, does yet another surprising thing: he gathers up the last shreds of precarious dignity he's got to lift his robes and run to meet the son who'd betrayed him. Picking up robes like that is not something a self-respecting father would do, and running even less so -- the combination is undignified in a way entirely unbefitting an elder in the culture in which the story takes place. But this is not a move just of joy at a son's return; it's a rescue mission of the most urgent nature.

The father has to reach the son before the villagers do, or his son is doomed to the mob. Once more, the father sacrifices his dignity and this time even risks his life for the Bad Seed. But once the father's arms are around that younger son, and especially when he launched the celebration, it's clear that the prodigal is now fully under his father's protection. And everyone would have known as much, since everyone would have been invited to the celebration. A fatted calf is most assuredly not a Quarter-Pounder, and once killed, would need to be consumed by a lot of people in one big party, perhaps lasting for days.

So let's total up costs the father has incurred thus far for the sake of the younger son, the Bad Seed. The father as surely as the younger son squandered the family's resources by giving them to a son who so clearly was Bad News, with no loyalty at all to father or family. He squandered his dignity as he lifted up his impressive robes to dash like a madman toward the young man upon his return, and given the mood of the village, may have been risking his welfare too -- who knows who in the village would blame the father's indulgence for the shame on the village and the danger to the social order in every family there? He killed the fatted calf, which might have gone on to produce far more cattle and recover some of what the younger son had squandered, to throw a party to secure his younger son's status as a full and fully protected member of the family. But the biggest cost is yet to come -- and here comes what might be the biggest shock of the story.

It's the elder son. Supposedly the Good Son. The son who, if you take a look at the story from verse 25 on, refuses even to call his father "father." The son who doesn't just shame his father by rejecting his will in the closest thing to private that village life has, though the village will hear. The elder son, as the whole village is gathered "and they began to celebrate," takes the opportunity to show his true colors to his father. He chews out his father in the totally immediate and full view of all gathered to celebrate. In other words, the elder son shows himself to be a disobedient son, a dishonoring son, a son who shames his father. The whole "Good Son/Bad Son" structure becomes, like so many things in Jesus' ministry, a stunning reversal.

And then there's one more surprise.

The father once more responds graciously, saying even in front of the whole village that the kind of father he is must celebrate and rejoice when the lost are found. The father of the parable celebrates every measure of resurrection, of life from death, without pausing to judge whether the one given life deserved it, or what the consequences are for village or cosmic justice, or even how the loyal will respond. He just hopes that those who profess loyalty to him will follow his example.

And when will we follow his example?

It's far, far too easy for progressives to preach this parable as saying nothing more than "God loves you as you are. Come home." It says that, of course, and that's worth saying. But it says more than that. It invites us, as does all that Jesus says and does, to consider giving -- honor, forgiveness, and joy of our very selves -- sacrificially and without regard to worthiness to our sisters and brothers. It challenges us to consider what kind of party we'd throw and whose looks askance we'd take on gladly when the opportunity presented itself for renewed fellowship with people that every kind of common sense our culture has to offer would say are not worth our time, whether because of their past misdeeds or their peripheral status in our circles of friends or circles of power.

When will we embrace the example of the father in this story? That is, after all, the example God gave us in sending the prophets and sending Jesus. That is, after all, the example Jesus gave at the beginning of Luke chapter 15, as he invited sinners and the righteous alike -- indeed, anyone who was willing -- to table with him.

Fortunately, the example and the invitation are always there, no matter how many times we ignore of fumble it. And in the moment when we're thinking of ourselves as crazy as we gather up our robes and run to embrace the despised and envelop them in protection even from our neighbors, we'll understand that much more deeply and truly just how God loves and sustains us.

Thanks be to God!

March 17, 2007 in 2 Corinthians, Forgiveness, Honor/Shame, Inclusion, Kinship/Family, Lent, Luke, Parables, Reconciliation, Year C | Permalink | Comments (0)

Third Sunday in Lent, Year C

Exodus 3:1-15 - link to NRSV text
Luke 13:1-9 - link to NRSV text

The General Ordination Exams (GOEs) one generally has to take to be ordained to the clergy in The Episcopal Church often cause seminarians preparing for them a great deal of anxiety, and sometimes they deal with this by rehearsing with their friends some previous years' questions or questions they think they might be asked. One genre of GOE (or at least GOEs of the past) is the "coffee hour question," which asks the person being examined to imagine him or herself as a priest approached by a parishioner during the coffee hour between services and asked a pastoral question of some kind. This was one of the "coffee hour" questions some friends of mine were tossing around over margaritas some years back:

A seven-year old girl is a member of your parish. Her mother has recently and very suddenly died. She approaches you during coffee hour and asks, "will I see my mommy in heaven?"

The table sprang into conversation about a variety of things -- 1 Corinthians 15, the resurrection, different ideas of the immortality of the soul -- and how they could be explained to a seven-year-old girl. It was an interesting conversation. But when I was asked how I would answer the question, this is what I told my friends I'd say to the girl:

"It sounds like you really miss your mommy."

That's what I'd say. That's the first thing I'd say, anyway. Other things are important, in my view -- especially 1 Corinthians 15 and the varieties of Christian hope of the resurrection -- but I can't imagine having a conversation with that girl that meant anything at all without starting from where she is, and where I think she'd be would be is desperately wanting to see and touch and be held by her mother, and being in great pain for the lack of that touch.

I feel similarly, and I tend to respond in similar ways, most times people ask questions that start with "Why did this happen?" or especially, "How could God allow this to happen?" In my experience, this is not the time for a learned or wise discussion about consequences of the Fall, how human mortality underscores the preciousness of the present moment, or even -- as much as I love to discuss Paul at just about any possible opportunity -- the meaning of 1 Corinthians 15. So far, every time anyone has asked me how God could allow suffering, evil, and death, I've found in further conversation that we ask someone else about those categories because of something very specific.

In other words, "Why did this happen?" often boils down to at least one or two other things that need to be named, both statements, both statements, not questions:

"I'm in unspeakable pain." This is almost certain.

"I want God to take away the cause of this pain, and I'm confused, frightened, and angry that God doesn't seem to be here, or good, or to care." Sometimes we say things like this because we're actually thinking and feeling about God. Usually we say this because we're in unspeakable pain, meaning (quite literally) we don't feel able to speak about our pain.

This Sunday's Hebrew bible and gospel readings suggest that the pastoral response starts with recognizing and honoring that pain.

In Exodus, God says, "I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings," and that is the beginning of deliverance for God's people.

And in Luke, when some of God's people come to Jesus with a news report -- that the Roman governor Pontius Pilate, had murdered Galilean pilgrims to Jerusalem -- that boils down to a statement -- that this is too painful to bear, and perhaps even to name -- and therefore comes out also as something like a question: "How could God allow this?"

There are at least a thousand clichéd answers to a question like that. God needed some more angels for the heavenly choir. These clearly were pilgrims who forgot to pray (or behave in the prescribed way -- usually meaning the way that the speaker wants people to behave). Or the last resort of someone desperate for an explanation: "everything happens for a reason, and God allowed this to happen because something better will come of it."

That last answer is less awful that the first ones I listed, but it isn't the one that Jesus gave. To the smug who are convinced that God arranges all suffering as well as all joy, and delegates each according to the human values of the smug, Jesus offers a word of warning; he says, in effect, "you are no better than these people, you're no less mortal than they, and if anyone figuring in this conversation is courting disaster from God, it's you."

If it were only the smug who had brought the report, the question, and the pain Jesus heard, it would have been understandable for Jesus to stop there. But he doesn't. He affirms that those who died were not sinful in a way that others weren't, and he tells a parable about a fig tree. As Malina and Rorhbaugh point out, a pious Israelite who planted a fig tree would let it grow for three years to get it to a point where it was capable of bearing fruit, then would allow it to go unharvested for three years before coming back for three more years to harvest fruit and to assess its potential fruitfulness. In other words, the wealthy absentee landlord of the parable (not a particularly sympathetic figure in Jesus' parables, and especially not in Luke) is actually being more than reasonable in saying, "this tree had its chance for nine years, and it's fruitless." Heck, nine years is just shy of a quarter of the life span of a man (women died sooner when childbirth was so dangerous) who by some miracle survived childhood (when most perish in the world's climates of scarcity).

But the gardener, who doesn't own the land and isn't the one who benefits most from its profit -- seems to care more about the tree than the fruit, and seems more than happy to devote extra care -- a year of it -- when no law or custom requires it and he has nothing to gain personally form it.

Sometimes, I speak primarily as a scholar of these texts. Sometimes, I like to indulge in a little pastoral imagination, which I hope you find responsible, and here's some of it:

I think to think that this was a crazy gardener who actually cared about the life of the tree, and who saw a fruitless tree more as a wounded life worth healing than a wasted opportunity for profit in need of clearing. Is that a responsible reading of the text? Perhaps. I've said before that, as a rule of thumb, Jesus' parables are defined by their shocking reversals, and that if we read one of his parables and find no unexpected behavior, we need to re-read with our eyes, our mind, and our imagination more deeply engaged. It would be crazy for a gardener to care about a tree in that way.

But isn't that just the kind of crazy way God cares for us? Isn't that the crazy kind of love Jesus showed for us, and particularly for those of us with few or no qualities traditionally seen as giving a person the kind of respectability and status to expect any need or pain to be noticed and responded to?

And if the conversation with the person who says, "will I see her again in heaven?" or "why did this happen?" or "where is God in something like this?" continues, it will turn in that direction. I'll be honest that I don't have a constant and unshakable emotional sense of the way God cares for us beyond reason. I'm also being honest when I say that this is one of the reasons I spend so much time and energy reading the bible, and why I thank God for communities of people who will carry me in prayer when my own prayers, and even my own scripture reading, seem fruitless. Because I choose to believe, even when I don't feel it, that God knows and shares the sufferings of God's people, and God's immeasurable love for us and inexorable power to redeem is at work even when I don't perceive it.

I don't believe in perfection, that everything happens as it should or is orchestrated in a way that is personally beneficial to God's people or to me by conventional reckonings. I believe in redemption, that even or especially amidst great suffering and real evil, God is bringing the universe toward the justice and love, the peace and wholeness, for which it was made and for which it aches.

Thanks be to God!

March 8, 2007 in Exodus, Faith, Lent, Luke, Pastoral Concerns, Redemption, Resurrection, Year C | Permalink | Comments (3)

Second Sunday in Lent, Year C

Luke 13:31-35 - link to NRSV text

I have a feeling that a lot of people will react to this Sunday's gospel by remarking that politics make strange bedfellows. Commentators' chief concern in the passage is often to puzzle over Luke's portrayal of the Pharisees. In Luke 12:1, Jesus warns, "Beware of the yeast of the Pharisees, that is, their hypocrisy." But Jesus also dines with Pharisees at their invitation. Luke in his narrator's voice says, as if none of his readers would think of contesting him, that the Pharisees "were lovers of money" (Luke 16:14). But in this Sunday's gospel, Pharisees come to warn Jesus that Herod wants to kill him.

I think the first thing worth noting is our impulse to try to decide whether "the Pharisees" were "good guys" or "bad guys." It's an impulse to fight. It's better than the all-too-common impulse many Christians have to use the word "Pharisee" as a synonym for "rule-bound hypocrite," "jerk," or "villain," I'd say. And I'll say this in bold type (anyone who's read this blog for a while knows how rare this is, so please take is as a signal to, as Mark would say, "let the reader understand" how important I believe it to be):

Christian use the word "Pharisee" as I've described above will often, and I think rightly, be heard as antisemitic (i.e., reflecting hatred of Jews) by our Jewish neighbors.

Folks, please remember that Jewish campus ministries around the country are called "Hillel House," after Hillel, the great teacher and prominent Pharisee. All major branches of Judaism surviving today are in some sense descended from the Pharisees; others were mostly wiped out in the devastating wars with Rome in the first and second century. Our rhetoric about Pharisees is unfortunately and mostly unthinkingly conditioned by Reformation rhetoric that used "the Pharisees" as stand-ins to criticize the Roman Catholic Church, a tradition that, much to my frustration, continues today amongst many of my fellow Christian progressives who, when they want to insult their fellow Christians, compare them to Pharisees -- that, is, to Jews. Well, I've said it before (and you may find some more information on why I'm saying it in the archive of posts on Pharisees), but it's worth saying again:

It's well past time for the antisemitic tradition of Christians insulting other Christians by comparing them to Jews to end. Please. You can do it: just walk away from the metaphor. It's misleading, its roots are in hatred, and it does no good to interfaith relations, to justice, or to our souls.

The bottom line, I'd say, is that we see Pharisees so often in conflict with Jesus in the canonical gospels NOT because the Pharisees' ideas and way of life were antithetical to Jesus', but because they had so very much in common. They (unlike most other Jews in the first century) read prophetic texts like Isaiah as scripture. They (unlike the Sadducees) thought that scripture and its injunctions must be interpreted using our reason in light of changing circumstances. Both the Pharisees and Jesus believed that the sacrifices of prayer and holy living where people were day by day were at least as important as anything that went on in the Temple. Both the Pharisees' movement and Jesus' were known for reaching out to others, and both were known for their enthusiastic welcome to Gentiles who wanted to join up. Really. There's more info on all of this in the archive.

It's worth remembering as we read texts about Pharisees that the Pharisees are not like the Borg in Star Trek: The Next Generation, linked telepathically with one another and acting in unison. Indeed, one of the best things to remember about Pharisees is that they actually VALUED difference and debate. The Talmud is a long record of debates, of Pharisaic teachers disagreeing with one another, coming together to share their best arguments before the assembly, of voting on a decision, and then recording the minority opinion along with the majority. Should we be surprised that Luke shows some Pharisees as hypocrites, some as lovers of money, some as attracted to Jesus' ideas and movement (and some in the book of Acts as being Christians!), and some as wanting to help Jesus? Why is it so hard for us to understand that the Pharisees were a diverse movement of people with a shared commitment to seeking the God who created the universe in every moment of daily life as well as in their wrestling with scripture, but who differed from one another in important points -- sometimes very important points indeed -- as well?

Perhaps it's because too many of us in the church have forgotten something the Pharisees, like Jesus and his band of squabbling disciples remembered -- that the history of God's people is of God calling together disparate peoples with different gifts and weaknesses, and forming them into one people, still distinct in gifting and in perspective, still wrestling with scripture and with one another with the vigor that characterized Jacob/Israel's wrestling with God's angel, and still called to a common destiny, to do justice and mercy and worship God.

The Pharisees, with all of their differences from one another as well as from Jesus, have a great deal to teach us at this moment in our life together:

We are not made a people, God's people, by our thinking alike or even our behaving alike; we are made a people by God's action, and our response to God's graciousness must include graciousness toward one another, preserving the minority opinion alongside the majority, and coming together over and over again to argue (with tears as well as with texts) and, from time to time, to vote, and then to resume arguing. We are sisters and brothers, after all, and what sisters and brothers in a healthy family are not arguing or playing most of the time when they're not eating (and much of the time when they are)?

Had Jesus' followers written off all Pharisees as enemies and hypocrites, their numbers would have been diminished by the number of Pharisees who became Christ-followers. More importantly, though, the Body of Christ would have been diminished in God's gifting. I don't doubt that Pharisees who were Christians lost the vote at the council in Jerusalem in Acts 15, but the Body won in other ways for their presence. Pharisaic Christians were there as a crucial voice in the church connecting the prophets Isaiah and Amos, Micah and Jeremiah, and others to what God was continuing to do through the Holy Spirit among Christians and in the world. They were there to remind Gentile believers, many of whom were too quick to equate emotional spiritual epiphanies and the promise of a blessed afterlife with the whole of the Christian message; they were there to teach Gentiles that Jesus affirmed and even expanded the teaching of the Law and the Prophets that we worship God with justice for the poor.

So this Sunday, I encourage you to thank God for the Pharisees, and to learn from them about what it means to be God's people. When there are foxes about who, like Herod, want to consolidate their power by eliminating troublesome voices, the Pharisees' willingness to continue in ongoing discernment about what God wants from us, ongoing dialogue with one another about scripture and what it means in light of the circumstances we're in serves as an excellent example. In light of those godly values, we shouldn't be all that surprised that some Pharisees were concerned about Herod's plots against Jesus.

Indeed, we shouldn't be surprised when Jesus tells his followers that their righteousness should exceed that of the Pharisees. Jesus, after all, defines God's perfection, God's righteousness as imitating God's graciousness in giving rain and other good gifts to the righteous and unrighteous alike (Matthew 5:43-48). In saying that our graciousness should be even more extravagant than the Pharisees, Jesus is setting a high bar -- but God's grace is such that God sends God's Spirit upon us to empower us to do that as the Body of Christ.

Is that a gift you and I are ready to receive? Are our churches in the Anglican Communion and our leaders?

I don't know. I do know what Jesus did. He received what his allies among the Pharisees offered graciously, and he one-upped it, not fleeing from Herod, but setting his face toward Jerusalem, where he would confront the arguably greater might of Pontius Pilate and the members of the religious establishment who (unlike most Pharisees in Galilee) owed their position to the favor of Rome.

I would like to be as gracious as Jesus, but I hope I am at least as gracious as those Pharisees who stayed with him and argued with him, and especially those who broke bread with him. God was at work within and among them, after all, and many became prophets to God's church as well as to the world, preserving the priceless vision of the prophets of all nations streaming into Zion at God's invitation.

Thanks be to God!

March 2, 2007 in Lent, Luke, Pharisees, Prophets, Year C | Permalink | Comments (6)