Fourth Sunday of Easter, Year B

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks be to God!

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

Christ the King: Proper 29, Year A

First off, I want to offer a personal note encouraging y'all to read this fine reflection on the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings for this coming Sunday. I commend it to you first on its own merits — its author knows American history far better than I do, and draws on a passage from the autobiography of 19th-century freed slave and abolitionist Frederick Douglas in a way that I think will be very helpful and informative for preachers. The reflection is this week's entry in a regular column commenting on the RCL readings in The Witness magazine, which is my new employer. I'm working part-time (i.e., if you've got a potential additional gig for me, please do give me a shout!) for them as the magazine's editor. I've long admired The Witness and its work as an Anglican voice for justice since 1917, and I'm particularly excited about working with them at this particular moment in history. And one other point about this week's RCL reflection at The Witness: its author is none other than my partner. Bravo, Karen!

Now, to my own reflections:

Ezekiel 34:11-17 - link to NRSV text
1 Corinthians 15:20-28 - link to NRSV text
Matthew 25:31-46 - link to NRSV text

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I had an interesting email exchange this week with a regular reader of the lectionary blog about an issue that a lot of us struggle with: the tension between the openness of Jesus' unconditional invitation on one hand and on the other hand, the language of judgment, of insiders and outsiders, in passages like this Sunday's gospel. I've wrestled with it a great deal myself, and while I doubt I'll solve every difficulty we've got with it, I think there's a point that's very important for us to understand as we continue to explore this tension.

Yes, Jesus invites absolutely anyone who will eat with him to come to his table. The invitation to the messianic banquet is open to all -- “the good and the bad,” in the words of Matthew 22:14. In that sense, all are invited to experience “salvation” without precondition.

But what is “salvation”? Both Jesus and Paul saw it not as merely a promise of a blessed afterlife: salvation is something that starts today, and it's about a certain kind of life — specifically, a life in community. And in both Jesus' view and Paul's, that's not just any community: it's a family. Jesus said that anyone who hears God's word and does it is his sister or brother or mother (Mark 3:35). And the metaphor Paul most often uses for what we are as the Church, for who we are in Christ, is that we are sisters and brothers (a point that the NRSV unfortunately obscures frequently by rendering adelphoi, “brothers and sisters,” as “believers” or some other ungendered term). In other words, the invitation Jesus gives us is the invitation to relationship — with one another as much as with him and with the God who created us. Jesus' invitation to us, his ragtag band of disciples from all nations, is to join God's people.

Here's one way I often put it: the invitation to join the community is issued to anyone with any manner of life. But the quality of life in the community — the extent to our life together is an experience of members of one Body of Christ and a foretaste of the kingdom of heaven come to earth now — has a direct relationship to how we choose to live together once we accept Jesus' invitation to join.

Last Sunday, we read a passage of the gospels showing how we treat one another when we're at our worst as the human race. How you'll be treated under this system is a function of two things only: how powerful you are, and how useful you are to those more powerful than you. Are you a wealthy landowner? Then act like it. Call yourself “lord,” demand what you like of those in your power, and feel free to discard people once you've used them up. Behave as though the central question governing our relationships with one another were “what have you done for me lately?”

But the coming of God's kingdom is like this: people will be going about their business in precisely the way described above ... and then the final coming of the Son of Man will reveal to everyone's eyes just how empty that way of life is, just how much pain and how little reward comes of living that way.

And that coming will reveal something else as well: just how rewarding, just how abundant and joyful life is when you live in a different way, the way of those the Son of Man designates as “sheep” in this Sunday's gospel.

I've blogged before about a game I like to play to illustrate the dynamic we see in last Sunday's gospel and this Sunday's. To play it, you set the room up for a party — punchbowls, finger foods on trays for serving, and so on. Every person in the room gets a sign taped to his or her back, reading “monarch,” “courtier,” “servant,” or “beggar.” Once everyone has a sign on his or her back, you start the party. The game is to try to guess what sign is on your back, and try to help others guess what's on theirs by treating them as you think someone whose status was what you think your sign says would treat someone whose status matched what the sign on her/his back says. If your sign says “monarch,” the vast majority of guests are going to flatter you and offer you treats; if the sign on your back says “beggar,” you're going to be treated like trash — especially if you have the nerve to act as if you were equal to others with higher status. To debrief, I invite people to share how it felt to be treated as they were, and how they felt having to treat others according to the sign on their backs. And then I pose the question:

What would it be like to live in a community, in a world, in which everyone, especially those smarting from how they're treated by others, were treated as if the sign on their back said “monarch”? What would it be like to live amongst people who treated everyone as if the sign on their back, the “secret identity” of everyone they met, said “Christ the King,” and every Christian saw their life's calling as treating people in such a way that they could guess this?

That's the invitation issued to us this Sunday. That's the vision we're called to claim as ours until it is realized for the world. Could we really allow the Christ child, the boy born as king and the one appointed by God to judge the nations, to die of malaria in infancy in Africa, knowing who this child is and just how little it would take to see him grow up and realize all he was created to be? Could we let a young girl toil away her days fetching water rather than going to school, and her family suffer when that water carries disease, if we loved Jesus as much as we say we do, if we knew what we did and didn't do for this family was what we did and didn't do for the Christ? Or do we want to experience fellowship with Christ by serving and empowering the poor, outcast, and prisoners of our world?

This invitation is not for after we die — the chance to act is gone then. It's an invitation for this moment, this day, this generation. And it's not just about avoiding punishment. What we do, the extent to which we respond to Jesus' invitation not just to come into the House of God's chosen people, but to live as one of the family, in relationship with and caring for the rest of the family as for our own flesh and as for the Body of our Lord, is the extent to which we experience eternal life, God's just and peaceful kingdom, right here and now. In Paul's words, Christ's risen life is the “first fruits,” and we are called to enjoy the full harvest of that abundant life. In Ezekiel's words, the destiny of God's people since the founding of the world is to be fed with God's justice. Do you want a taste of that? It's there for you now, as abundant as are the opportunities to exercise compassion toward the least of Jesus' sisters and brothers.

Thanks be to God!

November 16, 2005 in 1 Corinthians, Christ the King, Eschatology, Ezekiel, Inclusion, Jesus' Hard Sayings, Justice, Matthew, ONE campaign/Millennium Development Goals, Ordinary Time, Parables, Personal Notes, Prophets, Year A | Permalink | Comments (12) | TrackBack